Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Good Morning Sunshine, The Earth Says Hello...

It's quite often that I miss films in the theater. I may be looking forward to a movie and it may simply pass without my knowledge or ability to get a chance to see it, or it may simply be too far down my list of titles to see that by the time I get around to it, it's out of theaters. This happens often, and usually the only way to rectify that situation is to nab a rental copy and hope your home setup is good enough to watch movies on. This happened three years ago for me with Sunshine, the 2007 sci-fi film directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland about a group of astronauts and scientists sent on a mission to save the planet.

The problem is the sun, which by the year 2057 has diminished in it's brightness, leading to the Earth undergoing a new Ice Age. Icarus II is the second ship to attempt this dangerous mission, to deliver a "stellar bomb" to attempt to reignite the sun and return it to full brightness. The first Icarus failed it's mission seven years ago after losing contact with Earth, and if Icarus II fails there will be no further Icarus missions, as Icarus II has used up the Earth's supply of fusion materials. The team of eight includes physicist Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), who is the only crew member who can properly operate the bomb; Kaneda (Hiroyuki Saneda), the ship's captain; hotheaded engineer Mace (Chris Evans); Harvey (Troy Garity), the ship's communications officer and second in command; biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), who maintains the ship's oxygen garden; Cassie (Rose Byrne), the pilot; Searle (Cliff Curtis), the doctor and psychological officer; and Trey (Benedict Wong), the navigator. They've been living together en route to their destination for about fifteen months, and are on the last leg of their journey. Nerves are starting to fray due to the insularity of the mission and solar radiation cutting off communication from home. However, the estimates of oxygen supply and food look good, and the people aboard are fairly confident that they have enough resources to return home once their mission is complete.

Then things begin to go horribly wrong.

And to think, in three years he's on Lost
One of the reasons I wanted to see this film was all the good names attached to it. Danny Boyle made one of my favorite zombie films 28 Days Later, and it would be just one more year until his triumphant Slumdog Millionaire made him a superstar. Alex Garland may have also penned the screenplay for The Beach, which is almost unforgivable, but he is a talented writer with interesting ideas, and I loved his books The Beach (for which the movie was based) and The Tesseract, and he also wrote the screenplay for 28 Days Later. Chris Evans, though I'd seen nothing by him at the time, was an up-and-coming star. Michelle Yeoh was a superstar both here and at home in Hong Kong. All you needed at this point was a believable (or at least theoretically possible) premise and scenarios to make the whole thing salable, and thankfully, that's what Boyle does in telling this story.

No, in this film she doesn't rounhouse kick anyone
The ensemble acting cast does a fantastic job of portraying the everyday lives of deep space astronauts, each with varied quirks and breaking points. Murphy, as the brainy scientist, plays up his relative social inexperience well, as he speaks on a more blunt and scientific level than most on the ship. Evans plays the more typical military type, and though that type of character has little imagination in fiction, Evans does good work with it. Yeoh and Saneda make good mentors, Saneda's captain willing to risk anything for the mission to succeed, and Yeoh cultivates a believable relationship with her work, the oxygen garden she builds almost like her own baby. Byrne and Wong are both good, though neither is given too terribly much to do. Wong's character does go through a believable mental breakdown (as do most of the characters, to some degree) but neither really steals the spotlight from the others. Garity makes a great transformation from strong second in command to mewling child when adversity hits, and Curtis is possibly the best performer of them, a psychologist who seems to have an unhealthy fascination with the brightness of the sun. With this well balanced cast, we really get attached to most of them and are upset when the bad things that eventually happen come to be.

Wow, just... wow.
The special effects here are also larger than life, as they would have to be in most outer space filmography. The design of Icarus II is intricately designed, and looks amazing against the setting of deep space. Sunlight and solar flares twinkle realistically, and explosions, decompression and scorching do a great job of showing the dangers inherent in space travel. That said, some of the best effects of the film are appreciably better on a small scale, as most of the scenes are set in the almost claustrophobic halls of the ship. Boyle was inspired by Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot in this way, and also has noted inspiration from other famous works, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, and the original Solaris.

Unfortunately, that's where the good in Sunshine ends. The final act is an unbelievable and oddly mediocre change of pace for the film, like something out of Event Horizon instead of the film I thought Sunshine was. To say anything more would spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen the film, but it seems lie the change might have been made to reach out to a wider audience. Also, so much derivative material means there's precious little that Doyle or Garland thought up on their own, making this film somewhat less special than it could have been. There are parts you will see coming a mile away, people you will know to be killed long before it happens, and only sterling acting and amazing effects prevent these parts from being such trite rubbish as they threaten to be.

Murphy literally plans to touch the sky here
Ultimately, I liked Sunshine. I do wish I'd seen the film in theaters, especially since it was a bomb and didn't make back it's $40 million price tag due mostly to nearly nonexistent marketing here in the States. Seeing it finally three years later however let me appreciate it for what it is, however, not what it was supposed to be then. In the end it's an interesting take on the "saving the world" tale, with a great ensemble cast and enough gritty storytelling to make the shoddy ending bearable. If you haven't seen it yet, I definitely recommend it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Do the Machete Mambo

Three years ago, at the beginning of the evening showing of Grindhouse, the twin-bill homage to exploitation films of yesteryear by bro-mancers and directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, there was a trailer - a fake, mind you - of an ultraviolent film featuring a Mexican vigilante aiming to take out opponents of illegal immigration. At the end of the carnage-filled trailer, my immediate thought - like, I imagine, so many who watched that evening - was, God help me, I'd watch that if it was real. Apparently Robert Rodriguez thought so, too. And so, Machete has come to a theater near you.

Danny Trejo: The ugliest lead action star ever
Starring Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo in his first starring role as the titular Machete Cortez (yes, folks, that's apparently his real name), the film doesn't deviate much from it's original trailer, as Machete, an immigrant to the state of Texas after being driven out of his home Mexico by evil drug cartels, is hired off the street to assassinate a Senator with a hard-nosed stance against illegal immigration (Robert Deniro) by an unscrupulous businessman (Jeff Fahey). However, Machete is double-crossed, and soon finds himself surrounded on all sides by enemies, from the Senator and the businessman to a suspiciously-funded group of border vigilantes led by a man named Von (Don Johnson), and the rapidly-expanding drug cartel led by the man who drove Machete out of Mexico, Torrez (Steven Seagal). Machete's allies? The Network, a group of immigrants led by the mysterious She (Michelle Rodriguez), who work tirelessly to help people over the border and find work, and possibly an INS agent by the name of Sartana (Jessica Alba), who is the first to learn of Machete's former Federale status.

The shots are more lovely than Trejo... okay, that's not saying much
The first thing you notice about this film is the mostly-Latin cast. Of course you have Trejo, who is of Mexican descent, and so are Alba and another Rodriguez regular, Cheech Marin. Rodriguez' family is from Puerto Rico, and most of the "good guy" characters, and almost all the supporting and minor characters, are played by Latin American actors. In fact, the only non-Latin actors in the movie portray the bad guys, with Fahey, Deniro, Johnson, Tom Savini, Shea Wigham and Seagal being Machete's opposition, though Seagal does portray a Mexican character. It seems an odd choice, but Rodriguez was probably attempting to not have any Latin actor be the bad guy and instead led them be the universally good characters this time around. The only possible exception to the bad-white-guy rule would be Lindsay Lohan's portrayal of Fahey's character's daughter, but that's a whole can of beans I'll open up later.

Trejo looks for a bear to wrestle
The acting here is mostly poor and cliched, but let's face it: Acting was never to be the main draw of Machete. Trejo is out of his element and league as an actor in the leading role. Usually good as a backup character or supporting role, his muscled frame matches what's needed for a physically-demanding role like this, but the character doesn't have much personality to express in the movie. He's a Mexican ex-Federale with a penchant for blades, that's pretty much it. Trejo doesn't so much act as grimace his way throughout the film, not helped at all by the cliched dialogue. It wouldn't be so bad if I didn't know that he could do better, but he comes off as a poor-man's Mexican Seagal instead of a potential future leading actor. Speaking of Seagal, his performance as the drug lord Torrez is laughably bad, speaking as to why he hasn't had a theatrically-released film since 2001.

Rodriguez actually displays some emotion in Machete... but not THAT much
Better are some of the supporting cast, including Michelle Rodriguez, who actually puts hints of emotion into her performance, as opposed to her usual tough-girl act. Alba is solid as well, though her character gets a little off-the-wall towards the end. I can only attribute this to the material given her rather than her talent, which is pretty good. Fahey, who I loved as pilot Frank Lapidus in Lost, also grimaces his way through this film, though he shows a little more charisma than Trejo. Deniro, the only legitimate big name on the cast, is actually surprisingly good as good-old-boy Senator McLaughlin, as he actually seems to act his way through scenes, as opposed to simply showing up. This is a credit to Deniro - who certainly did not have a serious, award-winning role on his hands - to be the consummate professional and give his all to the performance. Johnson is mediocre but with a small enough role that his performance can be overlooked, and Cheech Marin is okay as Machete's priest brother who is also good at handling firearms. At least their characters are important to the movie's plot. Lohan's character doesn't do THAT much, as her drug-addicted Internet whore turned gun-wielding nun is about as necessary as it sounds. I feel bad that Lohan's potential talent has gone to waste in recent years due to personal issues and drug problems, but the director did her no favors with this casting as the role was completely unnecessary. It wasn't even as if the film needed another strong female character, as Alba and Rodriguez had that covered.

There's no excuse for putting Steven Seagal in a theatrical release
The film starts off with a bang, with Machete and his... um... machete cutting a bloody swath through a number of Mexican drug-runners in an amazing opening sequence that features blood, dismemberment, and nudity, each in vast quantities. From this opening sequence, you imagine that the film will be full of amazing sequences, but it's something of a sham. The opener is the best, most exciting part of the film, even with Seagal as part of it. From there, however, the action tones down considerably and we're part of a completely different film, though the action sequences do make sporadic appearances. These scenes fail to match the intensity of the opener, but there are a few imaginative scenes that make up for it (such as Machete using one man's intestines as a rappelling line) and they never fail to pick up the viewer's interest if it's wandered. The sexuality of the film also tones down, with Rodriguez and Alba, while both could be defined as sex symbols, rarely over-provocative in their dress. They did keep in the nude pool scene from the original trailer, but that's the most stimulating the movie gets in that aspect. When the final battle comes, it's disappointing in it's execution, as what could have been more of a big show is muddled into a weak fight, lousy climax, and uninspired ending.

The "Grindhouse Twins" reappear in grand fashion
You have to give credit where credit is due. Robert Rodriguez came out to make HIS movie, a Mex-ploitation with a name-brand cast, a memorable title character, and good tongue-in-cheek humor. But that's also the problem, as Rodriguez, while obviously compelled to recreate the exploitation and blackspoitation films of yesteryear, adds little more than his heritage to a genre that went out of mainstream fashion decades ago. The film is good enough to get by, but it's neither the best action film of the year nor even the best with Rodriguez' name attached to it (that would be the Rodriguez-produced Predators). My friend Ed asked me recently if whether I thought Machete or The Expendables was the better action film this year. My answer? Machete might have had the better humor and a story debating the illegal immigration issue, but it just doesn't compare to The Expendables, as the latter was the better overall film. In the end, Machete might distract you with it's laughs, violence and multicultural cast, but that doesn't make it as good a movie as you might think. It's okay, but not much more than that.
Raise your Machete if need to use the head!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Green With Envy

It's hard to believe that it's been thirteen years since Matt Damon, along with running buddy Ben Affleck, won an Academy Award for the screenplay they wrote for the Harvard-based drama Good Will Hunting, way back in 1997. Since that time, while Affleck was originally thought to be the film's breakout star, moving quickly from role to role, especially action flicks like Daredevil, Damon at first had the more subdued career. but has churned out a superior career including Saving Private Ryan, The Departed, the Oceans series, and the extremely popular Bourne series, the films of which are not only some of the best action movies of the new millennium and are inspire most new films of the genre, but also cemented Damon's star status and made any movie in which he starred one that instantly garnered major public interest. So when Damon stars in Green Zone, a film that promises the love child of the Bourne movies and last year's Oscar darling, The Hurt Locker, it begs to be seen.

The story, based on the popular book Imperial Life in the Emerald City by journalist Ravij Chandrasekaran, revolves around a familiar news item to anyone over the age of twenty, the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the military's failure to locate these weapons. Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, played by Damon, is the leader of a squad of soldiers who are constantly being sent to suspected WMD sites, with orders to capture and secure this mythical ordinance. Every time they reach and secure a site, many of which still harbor enemy combatants, they discover that the location in fact holds no such bounty. The sources pointing to these sites come through the office of Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), a Pentagon Special Intelligence officer who claims the locations are from an anonymous source, codenamed "Magellan". Miller decides to go "off reservation" to find out not only why he and his team are sent into empty sites, but also to capture the "Jack of Clubs", General Mohammed Al-Rawi (Yigal Naor), and bring him to justice.

"Wait... was that my credibility?"
The acting here is pretty good, though not nearly as good as it could have been. While Damon is the meat and gristle of the film, there's not an enormous amount of depth to his character. A competent leader, Miller has no trouble questioning authority when it leads him to location after empty location. While others around him don't care about the fact that they haven't found anything yet, Miller is the only one to question why. Damon plays all this well, but lack of a background makes him fairly anonymous compared to other, more famous military-based characters. Kinnear is fine as a slimy suit, but it's not much of a stretch for him. At least this movie with Matt Damon isn't Stuck on You. Another fantastic actor, Amy Ryan, is sorely underused here. As a Wall Street Journal reporter who writes the stories based on what Poundstone supplies her, Ryan should have been better. She's been one of the best undervalued actresses in this century, from HBO's The Wire to her stint on The Office to her Oscar-nominated role in Gone Baby Gone, and this stock character is the best she can be provided with. It's a real shame. Another underutilized actor is Jason Isaacs, who can be a brilliant performer when given half a chance. Here, as a Special Forces Major who clashes with Miller, he's dry and vaguely uninteresting, his take on American bravado here almost looking as false as his ridiculous fu manchu. Speaking of talent, Brendan Gleeson is yet another actor who doesn't get enough to really make his character interesting, though he comes out better than most of the others, Damon included. As the CIA's bureau cheif in Baghdad, he briefly recruits Miller to find out what's going on with the WMD hunt.

"Yeah, I've got another Bourne movie coming out next year."
Actually, the best actors are those portrayed as living in the country our forces are occupying. As one of the film's main antagonists, Naor (who played the country's former ruler two years ago in BBC and HBO's House of Saddam), is elegant and strong in his portrayal of an exiled Iraqi General who plots to unite Iraq's scattered and hidden military to drive out the Americans. But the real star of the film may be Khalid Abdalla, who plays an informant by the name of Freddie. Freddie doesn't love the Americans invading his homeland, but he hates more the villains and traitors who ignored and harmed the people of their own country. Abdalla puts forth a brilliant performance as one who can't quite bring himself to trust Miller or the Americans, but has put himself in somewhat of a tricky situation, with the alternative being the rule by his evil-minded kinfolk. He's by far the reason to watch this film.

Wow, this must be a good movie if they're in it... not.
The film could be used as a cynic's guide to why the War on Terror was a sham, especially as many of the events pictured, at least early on in the film, are based on true events, especially big, familiar events such as the first Shock and Awe bombings of Baghdad, and the adaptation of real locations (such as the safe, secured "Green Zone" for which the movie is named) and people (despite the usual disclaimers that the characters are fictional and not based on anyone, many have pointed out the obvious real-life people the characters are based on). It's probably Hollywood's first and last attempt to accurately depict the War on Terror, as the film did quite poorly, especially for it's big budget. It's not surprising, since the film is inaccurately portrayed as an action film, while anyone actually watching it would be entertained by the constant view of the Americans fucking everything up. It's probably a little too picky for it's own good, as it garnered many an anti-American and Anti-military label, a death-knell for the box office.

Isaacs and Damon search for a better film to make
My above statement of the Bourne movies and The Hurt Locker making sweet, sweet procreation seems to bear fruit. While the film seems to paint a true picture of life and combat during the War on Terror, it contains much more action than last year's Best Picture winner, culminating in a huge, over-the-top end battle where all the main protagonists and antagonists duke it out. This is about the point where the film jumps the shark, as while it's not out of the realm of possibility to have action sequences in a war movie, the scene is so overblown that it feels like a complete other movie, with only the related characters being any bridge between the two.

Woot, action scene!
By the time the whole thing is over, you're reminded that 90% of the reason you went to see this movie was the ten minutes spent on the action sequences, the studios obviously not putting much faith in the film's cynical view of the US Military and fearing perhaps a backlash from those in power. It's a shame for director Paul Greenglass, who's previous work on The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, and United 93 were far superior that this film performs poorly and did so well at the box office. However, someone has to be put on the spot for casting so many brilliant actors and letting them fall flat on their faces with bland drivel that would make Gregory Peck look like a rank amateur. As far as Green Zone goes, you can safely skip it and just pick up last year's deserving Oscar winner instead.

"I'm %&#^$ Matt Damon"
A final note, thanks again to my readers: Yesterday, The Latest Issue put together it's 2000'th official hit, and I owe it all to your dedicated readership! I hope you continue to enjoy my reviews, as I love writing them for you! Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

3-D For a New Generation

If you've been reading The Latest Issue in the past few months (and thanks to those who have; since Blogspot started tracking pageviews in July we're almost at 2000 hits from all over the planet!), you've probably seen comments from my good friend Brian over at Moving Picture Trash, insisting that Piranha 3D
is in fact the number one film this year. Since I had intended to see this anyway, why not take Brian up on his challenge, and see if this film qualifies?

Piranha 3D is something of a throwback, an old-school monster movie with new-school special effects. It's the second remake the original Piranha, which was released back in 1978, and the first in the franchise to use 3D technology, though the 3D had to be done in post-production due to the inability to film 3D underwater. It manages to hearken back to the heyday of classic B-style films, replete with humor, gore, and humorous gore. It all begins when a rare earthquake hits the town of Lake Victoria, and the resulting shock opens up a hidden underwater cavern which had been hidden for centuries beneath the earth's crust. When this underwater lake blends with the existing above-ground lake of Lake Victoria (for whom the town was named), it brings with it thousands of meat-eating, flesh-ripping denizens that immediately cause problems for the local town, especially since they're unlikely to get the lake, which has been overrun by college students on spring break, evacuated.

The film actually boasts an impressive ensemble cast, with Elizabeth Shue, Ving Rhames, Christopher Lloyd and Richard Dreyfus (in a nod to Jaws, the movie Piranha originally parodied) as an unexpected cast of big-name stars who have large roles in the film. Other roles go to Steve McQueen's grandson Steven R. McQueen, Gossip Girl's Jessica Szohr, Kelly Brook, Desperate Housewives' Ricardo Chiavara, Eli Roth, Adam Scott, Dina Meyer and Jerry O'Connell. For the most part, these actors get the job done and the film is actually well-acted (odd for a b-caliber film like this to have decent acting), even if the roles are mostly cliched or one-noted. For instance, Christopher Lloyd plays a marine biologist who acts pretty much like Doc Brown from over  twenty years ago. Shue is a classic determined sheriff, albeit one who cares for her kids. McQueen is the normal teenager, aching to be out from under the responsibilities of his family and crushing on Szohr. Scott is a seismologist who investigates the earthquake and discovers the deadly piranhas. Rhames is a bad-ass deputy (I'm almost certain there's a clause in every contract Ving Rhames signs that he must be a bad-ass). And O'Connell is an eccentric pornographic director with Brook as one of his actresses. This ensemble is well-cast and good to play these one-note characters. Okay, the husky Chiavara might be a stretch to play a scuba diver, as he doesn't seem to have the body type, but I'll give him credit for getting off the set of Housewives long enough to play his role.

The special effects are actually quite good, with the post-production 3D doing a really good job of pulling you into the scenes. Surprisingly, the best effects are the underwater scenes, where the cloudiness of the water actually makes the 3D pop better than I think even the filmmakers anticipated.The 3D above water was still impressive, but the more I watched the film I can't help but wonder whether 3D was simply a tool used to draw audiences into the theaters, as there seems to be little point to actually having 3D in this film.Except for a few scare moments, there's few points where the 3D is used very effectively, as most of them are just lame attempts to make the audience feel like something is coming right at them. It's old-school 3D tech use, and while it's a nod to the original 3D scare films, it can't help but feel lame here.

If there's one thing most people came to see, it's the blatantly over-the-top gore that happens when these fish go ape-$#!^ crazy, and when that happens in the final act of the film,.it's a crescendo of shredded wounds, flailing body parts, and exposed bone. Sometimes the violence is almost cartoonish and hilarious in it's implementation, other times it's difficult to watch, especially certain appendages chewed up and spit out (in 3D no less). While much of the death is meted out as standard fare, we're occasionally treated to truly imaginative scenarios, one involving parasailing, another involving a boat propeller. The producers didn't skimp on the fake blood for this one, and it definitely pays off in the end.

Okay, if there was one MORE thing that people came to see, it's the copious amounts of T&A that the film brings in to populate this Spring Break destination town. If there's one thing that might outnumber the piranha population of Lake Victoria, it's the nubile female bodies and litter the beach and swim in the lake. It's almost too bad they can't weaponize sexuality as a weapon against these particular fish (note to potential screenwriters, if you use this idea I want a writing credit) but it was never meant to be more than a one-sided battle. There are various shots of cleavage (in 3D no less) and that doesn't stop even when the blood starts flowing. Heck, O'Connell as the horndog director he is seems like merely an angle to have British actress Kelly Brook and real-life porn star Riley Steele engage in a nude underwater dance scene.It's blatant, but just like the classic use of 3D it's also a throwback, though one that's weathered the test of time better than hackneyed 3D use.

The one thing I disliked about this film was a problem I've had with horror films in the past, children in danger. Am I the only one who didn't care for Elizabeth Shue's two children who end up stranded on a small island after being bribed by their brother (played by McQueen) to stay in the house since he's supposed to be babysitting. I'll give it to this movie for actually making me believe for an instant that these kids were actually in danger of being piranha food, but I should have known better. More cheap gimmickry seems to be the case here, no surprise.

Piranha 3D is a classic monster flick which thankfully doesn't need 3D as it's defining characteristic, as the film would have been just as enjoyable without it. This is true for most of the 3D films being released this year, as the importance of this technology seems to have become grossly overstated, more so than the hype of Avatar, the film that re-spawned the gimmick. Though some parts were only watchable through a shade of my fingers, I couldn't help but enjoy myself at this screening. It will mostly appeal to guys (if anyone out there got their girlfriends to see it with them, I guarantee that 1. They owed you a favor, 2. They didn't speak to you a week or more afterward, or 3. You have the best girlfriend ever) due to all the blood and sex, and while I feel bad about knocking The Crazies off the list, I have to give it up to Piranha 3D for being the best monster movie this summer, and the #9 spot on my Top 10 List. Brian will almost certainly disagree, but while it's not the best movie of the year, I enjoyed it, and I think most like-minded people would too.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Should've Been Recalled

Sometimes an interesting idea alone isn't enough. When author Eric Garcia began co-writing a screenplay based on his in-progress novel Reposession Mambo, he must have thought it was pretty cool. When the film was released a scant year after his book, he must have thought, "wow". After the movie got mostly negative reviews and made back only a fraction of the money it cost to make it, his response was probably something like "oops".

Repo Men takes place in 2025, where a corporation called The Union has made quite a fortune for itself by selling replacement organs, joints and other body parts to those that need or want them. The dark side of this is that if the recipient can't make their regular (and expensive) payments, the organs are default and The Union sends one of it's "Repo Men" to reclaim the part by breaking into your home, incapacitating you, and cutting you open to remove the part, presumably leaving you to die on the floor of your abode. It's in this act where we meet Remy, a Repo Man played by Jude Law. He's worked as a Repo Man for years alongside his best friend Jake, played by Forest Whitaker. He has a good life, makes good money, and is slowly being pulled in two directions. His wife Carol (Carice Van Houten) wants him to step away from the repo aspect of his job, and instead transfer to a job in sales, while Jake wants him to remain in Repo, to remain his best friend, which he doesn't see happening if he goes to sales. Deciding to honor the wishes of his family, Remy goes on one last job...

Law (L), and Whitaker
This futuristic setting is at first rendered in a fashion that I think was meant to be like Blade Runner, but that analogy quickly falls apart as we see less and less city as the movie progresses, taking place many times either in the unchanged suburbs or the decrepit and seedy junktown on the outskirts of the city where people are fleeing repossession. It's this mishmash of settings that is the most distracting aspect of the film, as the moviemakers don't seem to know exactly what kind of future they want to create, or even more criminally, how to use setting to emphasize the mood of a film. Night and day are used intermittantly, and while there is the obvious difference between the stark, uniform city of The Union and the pleasant, innocent aspect of the suburbs, there's little to no connection between the two, no reason to think these places would exist simultaneously in the same universe, let alone the same city.

The acting here is good, though not great. I've always thought that Jude Law was an overrated actor, with over-hyped performances in films like The Talented Mister Ripley and Cold Mountain the result more of Hollywood's search for a new Clark Gable rather than any actual talent on his part. He redeemed himself in my eyes more recently in films like My Blueberry Nights and Sherlock Holmes, and even in this piteously bad film he is in fact excellent, conveying mood in his eyes and visually believing the dialogue coming from his lips. He easily outpaces Whitaker, who seems to be once again playing a variation of himself, with little range between goofy happiness and psychotic anger. Whitaker, who teased audiences with his charismatic performance in The Last King of Scotland, seems to be constantly proving that his performance in the fictional story of Uganda's Idi Amin was a fluke rather than a process of growing talent. In smaller roles are Liev Schreiber and Alice Braga, but both were in better films this year (Salt and Predators, respectively), while cameo roles by John Leguizamo and hip-hop artist and producer RZA are surprisingly good, though Leguizamo's role appears only when the audience has lost all interest in what's happening. Van Houten hasn't exactly lit up the sky with her American film appearances since 2006's Black Book, as Valkyrie and this film hardly do her justice after being nominated for so many awards based on her role as a Jewish spy in WWII. She's underused and overqualified, and surprisingly has not gotten the same respect that has been bestowed upon a different international actress that had her big break only one year later, Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose.

The film starts off strong before dawdling and dwindling in interest about half an hour in, and abhorred pacing means that we're never sure what part of the narrative we're actually in. At least half a dozen times I found myself muttering to myself, asking why the movie was not yet over, why it was still going on. At that point I didn't need a real conclusion, I would have settled for a half-assed setup to an inevitable sequel just to see the film end. There was so much exposition, thinly-veiled plot-points and clues to how the movie would actually end, and frankly it was simply bogging down my viewing experience, a movie that played like a no-think action/thriller attempting to make me think about it's stupid ideas more than I need to. The film does finally ramp up in a final, bloody, sequence that actually brought my interest back to the film, even if it was highly predictable.

The idea of a big corporation being the blank-faced bad-guy is nothing new. I can think of at least a half-dozen titles off the top of my head that use that same theme (including one of my favorite all-time films, Alien), and seeing it here again only fills me with a ho-hum feeling, even if we actually see into the evil machinations of this particular corporation. What bothers me the most is the public aspect of it's evil. The movie states that The Union actually makes most of it's money from re-selling reposessed organs, so they sell an organ, the customer fails to make payments, they repossess the organ, repeat. That makes sense. It even makes sense that there would be people running from repossession who couldn't pay, an underground. The problem I have is that the public seems to know about these Repo Men, and they are easily recognizable by The Union tattoos printed on their necks. So that raises the question: why would people buy organs from The Union if they know there's a chance they might be repossessed? Even if they were desperate, there couldn't be THAT many desperate people out there to keep such a company afloat, let alone with a choke-hold on the government to overlook such things. Perhaps I'm simply being naive, but it simply doesn't seem feasable to me.

If there's one thing redeeming the film (besides it's ending), it's the soundtrack. Though track from the likes of RZA and Beck are not stellar, it's when the music takes a step into the far past that we get a real feeling for the film, as songs by Nina Simone and Rosemary Clooney take center stage. It's flashback music more than makes up for the more contemporary duds, and like Simone we are "Feeling Good" when they're playing in the background.

Let's be honest here, Repo Men is a bad movie. It starts quick, gets bogged down by clutter and mess in the middle, before finishing off in an exciting but highly predictable ending. The film is only 111 minutes but feels twice as long, and I wouldn't be surprised if anyone started watching this movie stood up, turned off the TV, and went into the other room to do something else. The film does have an interesting premise, but it's not nearly enough to keep the audience watching. It doesn't come close to being one of this year's Top 10 Films, as the only movie worse than Repo Men this year would have to be Legion, and that's saying something profound. Certainly more profound than anything Repo Men had to tell us.

Friday, September 17, 2010

It's Not Walky!

Even those closest to me may not know this, but every day I check the daily comics. No, I'm not talking about the ones in the newspaper; There hasn't been a funny comic to be found in the national press since the 80's. That's not the medium to which I'm referring. In fact, the medium I mean rarely if ever gets printed ON paper, unless it's popular enough to get collected. I'm speaking of webcomics, and if you don't read them you may not know what you're missing.

There have been webcomics since at least the 1980's, when they were introduced by Internet providers such as CompuServe as content for subscribers, but the era of the webcomic hit it's true stride in the mid to late 1990's. At that time, many comics that still run regularly today began their epic runs, such as Scott Kurtz's PVP and Jerry Holkins's and Mike Krahulik's Penny Arcade, the latter of which gets two million pageviews DAILY. These are just two of the hundreds to webcomics out there right now, and because they're online, they're not subject to the content regulations that are regularly put upon print comics by newspaper and book publishers, ensuring as independent a setup as the creators wish for their projects. Granted, the quality of some of these comics wouldn't fit in with your daily strips, and the topics of some would be considered controversial in and of themselves, but all these years later webcomics have come into their own, being recognized for the prestigious Harvey and Eisner Awards, which once upon a time didn't recognize them as a true comic format. With the slow decline of newspapers in society and many people already getting their news from the web, it's only natural that the comic strip would follow suit.

The cartoonist, David Willis
But I'm not here to talk about all webcomics. I'm here to mention my all-time favorite, one I discovered recently, and only after the comic had technically come to an end years prior. It's Walky was a webcomic that ran from December 1999 to October 2004 and was the creation of the very busy webcartoonist David Willis. Willis, considered one of the pioneers of the webcomic era, began creating comics as a child, using his friends as his subjects. He continued doing so when he launched Roomies! back in 1997, in the Indiana Daily Student, the school newspaper for Indiana University. Roomies! followed college roommates Danny and Joe as they get ready for the rest of their lives while meeting new friends including Danny-crazy Joyce, nerdy Howard and Howard's older, wise sister Ruth. The comic was a mix of daily humor and some continuity, drifting towards more serious topics as the comic progressed, including alcoholism, death, and sex. It became a webcomic in 1999, debuting on Keenspot with it's entire archive not long before the series itself ended. The comic also briefly introduced the readers to little purple aliens that abducted some of the characters briefly but did not at the time seem very dangerous.

Darker themes abound in It's Walky!
When Roomies! ended, Willis took up his magnum opus, It's Walky! Existing in the same universe as his previous work, Willis included several characters from Roomies! in this new title, with Joyce, Joe and Danny's high-school girlfriend Sal (who was introduced in Roomies!) as major characters, and by the end included all the original comic's characters in some capacity. The story focused on a super-secret paramilitary group called SEMME who's job was to combat the evil forces of the aliens, who are much more dangerous than they had been portrayed in the previous comic. The comic also introduced a new character, David "Walky" Walkerton, a young SEMME lab assistant who turns out to be vital to the fight against the aliens. Walky (who is the personification of the comic's creator) seems somewhat dim when we're first introduced to him, but over the course of the series his true power emerges and he's a character we really learn to love.

It's difficult to place a specific genre on It's Walky. While part of the main story did focus on imminent alien abductions, plots and invasions, the real meat of the storylines is the character driven drama, most notably the love story between Walky and Joyce, both of whom go through several character growth spurts over the course of the series. The best part is the relationship between them feels real, based on true emotions and sometimes surprisingly moving prose:

It's the rain.
It's the storm we all have to endure.
We hate it, but it's every drop that
runs down your face that traces
out who you are. Your shape.
The storm shows me so much.
I accept all I see.

We are beautiful.

When Willis would break out something like that, I'm not afraid to admit that I've shed many a tear over the pure emotion that sometimes runs through the story. That isn't to say that Willis's trademark humor doesn't make an appearance. In fact, the comic would sometimes vacillate between toilet humor and theology in a very short period of time. The best moments were when the comic was at it's most emotionally-charged, though, and the comic had many tragic characters that helped it get to that point, characters such as good-guy Anthony McHale Jr. and Walky's one-time girlfriend Dina Sarazu. (Spoiler: Dina's final living words, "I'm sorry, this was the best I could do" still haunt me) Without giving away too much, It's Walky was a sweet, fun, exciting and funny emotional ride, and I would recommend it to any who wanted to partake in it. But that's not the end of what's been called the Walkyverse.

After It's Walky! ended, Willis changed gears, focusing on a humor-first comic that takes place in a toy store. Shortpacked!, which still runs today, takes place in the same world of It's Walky! but has only faint connections to it's predecessor, mainly in the characters of Robin DeSanto, Mike Warner and Ultracar, who were major players in Walky who decide to work at this toy store after the previous comic's excitement. Besides creating insane scenarios and characters that work well together, Willis also uses this new comic with many a one-shot about his love for Transformers, Batman, and other toys or the movies based upon them. Though it sometimes takes on serious topics such as infidelity and addiction, the comic comes nowhere close in seriousness to it's previous incarnations.

Willis proposed to his future wife on Shortpacked!
But that's not all Willis has been up to. He's one of the founders of Blank Label Comics, which was created by several creators leaving Keenspot. He also hosted a series called Joyce and Walky!, which acted as both an epilogue and sequel to It's Walky! and was different from Willis's other creations in that it was the only title you had to pay to read most of the content (Roomies!, It's Walky! and Shortpacked! are all free to read) which included paid-for content being available on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with a free comic coming out every Saturday.

So why am I telling you all this? Why is a geek who usually reviews using one of his three posts this week to tell you about a webcomic that he loves if it's already ended? Well, Willis just wrapped up the Joyce and Walky comic and has just debuted his brand new comic Dumbing of Age which is a complete reboot of the Walky universe in which there are no aliens, no superpowers. Instead it's a re-imagining of the Joyce/Walky relationship and whether they would still be soul mates if they met under different circumstances, like at college. So far, many Walkyverse characters have already been introduced either directly or in the background, and what parts they'll play has yet to be seen. I'm letting you know that I will be partaking in this new title with eyes open and mouth in a perpetual grin. It's Walky! was a shock I never saw coming, and I'm pretty much committed to whatever Willis puts out now and in the future, until decides to hang up the job for good.

The resemblance is uncanny
Walky, I salute you.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Out on Bail

It was bound to happen.

It seems that every time you turn around, some form of entertainment has romanticized the few things that didn't need to be romanticized, especially employments that aren't, shall we say, deemed very stylish. Sure, A&E's Dog the Bounty Hunter has brought the necessary trade of bounty hunting to the eyes of the public, and there are fewer more memorable characters in pop culture than Star Wars's Bobba Fett. However we've never seen bounty hunters in a very romantic light, so distracted are we by the pursuit of their quarry. We've never had a "Bounty Hunter's Wife", if you will.

Until now.

I'll admit I wasn't in any hurry to see The Bounty Hunter when it was released this past March, so unimpressed I was with the theatrical trailer that I let it drop below my radar. Even when I was hunting down movies to watch recently, seeing it available for rent did not stop me from watching other, more interesting films instead. Despite generally liking Gerard Butler and (to a lesser extent) Jennifer Aniston, there just didn't seem to be enough to the film to keep my interest, at least until I saw another trailer when I rented Youth in Revolt. Maybe I was just in a good mood, but the trailer seemed funnier than I'd remembered, and so, since I like the occasional comedy with all the more action-y and angst-y films I tend to watch, I picked it up on my next go-around at Redbox.

The movie presents us with Butler as Milo, a bounty hunter who has gotten the job of a lifetime: His ex-wife Nicole, played by Aniston, didn't show up for court on an unnamed arrest and now her bail has been revoked, meaning Milo will make $5,000 to take his wife back to jail. Milo, who's run up an impressive gambling debt, and would love an excuse to stick it to the woman who made his life miserable, thinks this will the best, easiest money he ever made. Meanwhile Nicole, a reporter, skipped out on bail to meet with a contact who claimed to have important information for her about the story she's working on, an apparent suicide that doesn't add up and won't let a little thing like a bounty on her head stop her from pursuing the story.
The first thing to note about The Bounty Hunter is how formulaic it is. It's a romantic comedy first, with a few poorly-executed action and suspense scenes thrown in to appease the male audience. The idea of fate drawing Milo and Nicole together under these circumstances is not a little ridiculous and definitely trite, as it's obvious to us, the audience, that the whole premise is to create an argument for these two seemingly-mismatched characters to get back together. However, some of the best scenes in the film are those that prove that fact, such as a few where Milo impresses Nicole with his knowledge of her, and showing a sensitivity she didn't know he had.

The acting is by far the best thing about the film, and that credit belongs by far the most to Butler and Aniston. There's something to be said for having fun on the set, and both actors seem to be having a blast with both the comedic and serious material they're handed, and the natural charisma between the two suggest this won't be the last time they connect on the big screen. They both seem to feed off the other when they're onscreen together, and the scenes where they are together are the best scenes of the film. Butler is roguishly beguiling as Milo, a man who greatly loves his job and always gets his man, but also has a sensitive side and an addictive personality, exacerbated by his gambling debt. Yes, I realize I described Butler as "roguishly beguiling", do you have a problem with that? Aniston is also wonderful if not quite as good as Butler. She's never been a great actress but she plays the same archetype so well, and that's pretty much Nicole to a T. Shamelessly devoted to her job, getting the big story is most important on her list of objectives, all other things falling behind. It's been described to me that Aniston does angry well, and that's certainly true here, where she has plenty of opportunity to express that particular emotion. Their chemistry together really makes the film move forward, and it's by far the only thing I can recommend to people wanting to see this movie.

It's too bad the supporting cast couldn't live up to the talent of it's top-billers. Probably the most disappointing is the lack of a charismatic villain to hound the two heroes. Though there are two antagonists hunting both Nicole and Milo (Peter Greene and Cathy Moriarty, respectively), Moriarty doesn't have much impact as a secondary adversary. She plays a crooked casino owner who wants to collect on Milo's debt. Greene is the primary antagonist, hunting down Nicole so she can't uncover the truth about the story she's investigating, but he's not very interesting and doesn't play a large role in the film, as the crime/action aspect of the story constantly takes a backseat to the romantic angles. Jason Sudekis might be the worst part of the film, a completely superfluous character who has a crush on Nicole and stalks her some ways into the movie after she jumps bail. Between his character's creepiness and Sudekis' pornstache, there's nothing to like about the character, and the movie would have been better off without him. Dorian Messick and Jeff Garlin are fine in small roles, but the best of the supporting cast is by far Christine Baranski as Nicole's mother, a lounge singer in Atlantic City. She's the type of character that never fails to elicit at least a chuckle from me as a slightly perverted, say-anything maternal figure with a cosmo perpetually in their hand, like Jessica Walter's characters in Arrested Development and 90210. It's a shame she's not in more of the movie, but I think too much might have been overkill, so perhaps it's good they didn't over-saturate the film with Baranski's role.

The few suspense and action scenes thrown into the mix don't make the movie much better. In one scene towards the end, especially, it's ridiculous to see Milo searching throughout a warehouse trying his best to look like a real former-cop. The scenes may be the only semblance of a plot in the whole movie, as the romantic angle would be nothing without them, but one wonders if director Andy Tennant could not have done more to make those scenes as important as the rest of the film. On top of that, I can't get over the feeling that if Nicole had simply gone into court that day, there would be no movie. I need my stories to be a little more complex than ones hinging on one precarious plot thread.

In end end, I enjoyed The Bounty Hunter. That is to say, I enjoyed the performances of Gerard Butler and Jennifer Aniston, and the rest of the film could have been performed my monkeys on trampolines and it wouldn't have made a difference. The Bounty Hunter had a lot of things against it, including a nebulous plot, poor action and suspense bits and a mediocre and uninvolved supporting cast. Only the acting of Butler and Aniston and their interactions with one another prevent this movie from being totally unwatchable, though I still don't recommend you rent it unless you've got a hankering for romantic comedies and you've already seen the rest. Date Night, a far superior film, has already been knocked off my Top 10 list, so don't expect this one to hit that list anytime soon. It's better than it has any right being, but not by much.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Youth, Revolted

It's about time Michael Cera did something different.

Let's recap; Ever since Arrested Development first aired way back in 2003, Michael Cera has arguably been the most successful of his fellow cast, which boasts impressive names such as Will Arnett, Portia de Rossi, David Cross and Golden Globe winner Jason Bateman. The young Canadian actor has headlined many films and been praised highly for his roles in Superbad and Juno. And he was in one of this year's best films, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, even if I was somewhat disappointed by his performance.

But that's the problem with Cera. Perhaps because of his look (He's 22 but still looks like he's 12) he tends to play the same type of character, the mousy, quiet teen underdog. His characters are used to being pushed around, never rebelling or speaking up until he finds a cause or confidence to do so. It's true in every performance I've seen him in, as if the director doesn't really want him to change, since his work has done so well in the past. In Youth in Revolt, directed by Miguel Arteta, this at first seems to be the case. Cera plays social outcast Nick Twisp, a Sinatra-loving, classic movie-watching, dorky teenager living with his mother Estelle (Jean Smart), who has the worst taste in the men she has in her life and a dependence on the child supports she gets from Nick's dad (Steve Buschemi). When Jerry, the deadbeat Estelle is currently dating (Zach Galifinakis), manages to piss off some Navy sailors enough that they threaten Jerry's life, Nick finds himself traveling with Jerry and Estelle to a not-too-far trailer park, where he meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), the love of his life. The movie is about Nick overcoming the obstacles in his path to be with Sheeni, both emotional and physical, in a quest to win Sheeni's heart.

So for all intents and purposes, this seems to similar Cera vehicles, right? Well, yes and no. The big difference is that here Cera actually plays two distinct characters, as to be with Sheeni, Nick creates a fictional mustachioed persona named Francois Dillinger. Francois is meant to be the "bad boy" Nick thinks will win Sheeni's heart, and while Nick as a character is no different than Cera's other roles, Francois is a delightful change of pace from an actor I wasn't sure had anything else in the bag. Nick's bad side is hilariously unsubtle, saying the things Nick wishes he could but can't bring himself to speak out loud. It's a brand new side of Cera and it's easily the movie's greatest triumph.

The other acting in the film is quite good, though nowhere near as impressive as Cera. Doubleday is the best of the rest, playing the unique and interesting love interest with such talent and precision that it's easy to forget that she's a relative newcomer onto the scene. The rest of the roles, however, are largely uninteresting. While all the actors in the roles are brilliantly talented actors and do their best within the roles, but the roles themselves are largely uninteresting, culled of any deeper feelings than what exists on the surface. Smart, Galifinakis, Buschemi, Justin Long, Ray Liotta, Mary Kay Place and M. Emmet Walsh all deserve kudos for the sheer talent they have to put forward to try and make their roles something more than bland, but overall this is Cera and Doubleday's movie. There are maybe two exceptions, with "If Chins Could Kill" Jonathan Bradford Wright playing Sheeni's ex-boyfriend who wants to get her back, and Fred Willard as the type of character Fred Willard has been playing since pretty much forever. It's the same, but still performed with a playfulness that makes it fun to watch. Also, while not a large or very important role, I bring to your attention Rooney Mara, who plays a roommate of Sheeni's at school, who was recently cast to play the now-legendary literary character Lisbeth Salander in the upcoming American remake of the Stieg Larsson Millennium Series of books and movies. This role is too small to judge whether she's right for that possibly career-making role, but at least I can say "I saw her when..."

Though the movie is mostly live-action, there are occasional scenes and sequences, mostly traveling ones, where animation is used, most notably claymation in the opening credits. These are interesting for a bit but thankfully don't exist as a large percentage of the film. They're a distraction, sometimes from how slow the pace of the film has become, or as a device to draw two points of reference closer together than they might have been in a different film. Still, the style undeniably marks Youth in Revolt as an indie film, and this probably would not have worked with a more prominent film.

The film has an interesting and entertaining soundtrack, with such varied artists as folk rockers the Fruit Bats, indie rockers Beulah, and hip hop artist FatLip. The soundtrack even features 40's-era pop standards vocalist Jo Stafford for one of the animated sequences. The music, selected and compiled by John Swihart, fits the film perfectly, composing a love story that flows quite impressively from beginning to end.

Youth in Revolt is a film that has it's share of problems. While the lead are engaging, most of the periphery characters are largely uninteresting and some excessively inconsequential. The film is a little slow to start, but picks up the pace the more you watch, and so charming by the end that you wish it had gone on a little bit longer. In short, it's an under-the-radar upstart, better than the sum of it's parts. Classy, artistic, funny, and featuring the best and most unique performance from star Michael Cera I've seen in a long time, Youth in Revolt may not be the best Cera film this year, but if you missed this one, I definitely recommend you do yourself a favor and make a little time for my new #9 film.