Friday, October 29, 2010

Oh, No Joe!

So it was a slow movie week for The Latest Issue. Tired, lazy, and with mediocre weather waiting outside for me, I decided to spend the day in the apartment, where I slowly went stir crazy for want of things to keep my interest. It was with this mindset that i decided that watching GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra on Netflix streaming was in fact a good idea, especially since the hype for last year's blockbuster hit did draw me in somewhat, if not enough to see it in the theaters.

Baroness is as deadly as she is seductive
Let me say first that I'm no GI Joe fan. I never had the toys as a kid, never followed the shows or comics, don't know much about the characters. I simply didn't grow up with them in my life, although I did know several kids who did and you could say I know what little I know about the toy line from them. I was more of a fan of other big 80's toy franchises: TMNT, Ghostbusters and Transformers were more up my alley. While Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow and the Baroness may be iconic characters to many, that simply is not the case for me. Perhaps that's why I thought I'd like Joe, since the expectations of the franchise's fans would not necessarily affect me in the same way it would others. Contented that I could not be disappointed in the film because my expectations were not high, I laid down on the couch for what I knew to be a mindless film but determined to see it through.

I should have set my expectations lower.

Oh, you two are fighting again SNORE
GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra is a jumbled mish-mash of character interactions wrapped around a terribly cliched plot involving experimental warheads created by James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston), a weapons dealer whose family historically tended to sell to both sides in armed conflicts. Naturally, of course, when this charismatic weapons dealer makes some warheads for the US that use nanotechnology to strip molecule by molecule whatever it comes in contact with, the military wants it and these weapons become the central plot point of the story, as soon they're stolen from us by the terrorist group COBRA, who intend world domination. The only ones who can stand in their way? A covert, multinational military force known only as GI Joe.

Rachel Nichol's direction: "Look attractive!"
I won't go on too much about the story since just thinking about Joe's simplistic plot starves my brain, but after being rescued by Joe after their convoy carrying the warheads is attacked by a COBRA unit, Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) are recruited into the Joe program by General Hawk (Dennis Quaid) since Duke recognized and could supply information on the leader of the assault, the Baroness (Sienna Miller). The rest of the film has the two opponents fighting one another while decked out in form-fitting leather outfits while Ripcord puts out the occasional one-liner. Heavy Duty, indeed. The plot is a retread of better action films, but the filmmakers are hoping you're too entranced by the classic Joe characters that you'll hardly notice how an elite unit like Joe could be staffed for the most part by nameless cannon fodder easily taken out by a small COBRA strike team. It's plot holes like that that cause wrecks to form.

Poor Breaker, nobody loves you!
While acting is hardly the main focus on films such as this, you still want talented performers doing their jobs well. Tatum was one of the considerations to play the hero in 2011's Captain America film, and I can now see why - despite having the right look for the part - he wasn't offered the job. While perhaps not as wooden as some reviewers might think him, he certainly doesn't show the charm and talent required in your leading man. His Duke is supposed to be the ultimate hero of the tale, but we just keep wishing it had been someone else. If Miller did nothing more than look amazing with black hair, a leather catsuit and dual-wielding pistols, I frankly would have been just fine. Thankfully she does more than that, weaving a cruel and vindictive character that is unfortunately ruined by the script's story. Still, she correctly portrays the type of villain the Baroness was meant to be, when she is allowed to do so. Eccleston is both charismatic and sinister as the man who would be Destro. The actor, who's biggest role to this date is that of The Doctor in the first season of Syfy's Doctor Who, doesn't seem to be stretched too much in his performance. It's almost as if the role was written with him in mind, rather than him necessarily earning the part. Wayans can be a talented actor, don't get me wrong. His role in Requiem for a Dream opened a lot of people's eyes to his potential as a performer. He always picks the same parts in the same type of films, however: silly sidekick who can back up his talk. Typical Wayans role. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje left Lost because he didn't like the material but ended up making Joe instead as Heavy Duty. He basically plays the character most dismissive of the new blood, Duke and Ripcord. Yeah, that ain't a step up. Better is Rachel Nichols as Scarlet, though she does little more than play up her looks than display anything worthwhile character-wise. Storm Shadow (Byung-Hun Lee) and Snake-Eyes (Ray Park) are explored far too much as the director decided that they needed an epic flashback backstory to explain to the audience why they hate each other so much. Park is the kind of performer Hollywood calls on when they need a physical actor who says little to nothing in dialogue and must express himself in his actions, and Park does more of that here. Lee talks more, but for all the interest we invest in his character it doesn't come out to much, and by the end we're sick to death of their feud. Quaid actually has a pretty small role as General Hawk, he just appears every few minutes, for a few minutes, until the end of the movie.Anyone else is either passable or not worth mentioning.

A few other Joes make appearances: This is Cover Girl... COVER GIRL???
All of this might have been forgivable if the film had at least top-notch special effects, but it seems like even that was out of reach for a $150 million film. Though six special effects studios worked on the film, none were especially good, with the worst resulting in obvious CGI outdoor scenes involving futuristic airships or other paraphernalia. Though the scene of the missile attack on the Eiffel Tower is gorgeously-rendered, this example is the exception, not the rule. Fight scenes are also sub-par, with only an early Scarlet-Baroness fight resembling anything remotely entertaining, and anything involving Storm Shadow and Snake-Eyes droning on more of the same. Far too much of the action is shot so close that you can't tell what's happening on the screen. And when you add all this on to the fact that the film has very little in the realm of original thought (inventive character origins don't count), there just simply isn't anything to recommend this film to anyone besides die hard Joe fans, and even many of THEM would be upset by the fact that many of their favorite heroes didn't make the shortlist for the team's roster.

Storm Shadow or the Baroness: Who will get voted off the island?
Okay, I made a mistake. GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra is fun for about as long as it takes you to realize that the film has bad special effects, bad directing (Stephen Sommers' previous projects included The Mummy and Van Helsing, hsssssss), poor acting and lousy character development, with mediocre special effects and an ending that both tidys up things too much AND leaves too much leeway for a sequel (explain THAT one), one expected in the next year or so. I won't see that one in the theater either, though the fact that the screenwriters from Zombieland (which I loved) have been brought in to pen the next chapter makes me at least slightly hopeful. I may not be a GI Joe fan, but I am a movie fan, and when movies this bad are made it hurts, especially when I feel I could have spent that time watching something infinitely more worthwhile.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Got Some Red on Me

So last week I took the opportunity to catch Red in the theater. Loosely based on the three-issue comic series by DC comics, the action/comedy proved to have an entertaining trailer, and with such a cast as Willis, Freeman, Mirren and Malkovich it seemed to be one of the "can't-miss" films of the year. But would seeing Red make you see red?

The story apparently has little to do with that of the original comic series (which is fine, since I never read it) but centers around a group of retired former wetworks operatives codenamed RED (Retired, Extremely Dangerous) who are temporarily brought out of their relatively listless lives due to C.I.A. hit squads suddenly try to take out retired operative Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), and not in the date sense. In questing to find out why he's being targeted for death, Willis is joined by his former mentor Joe (Morgan Freeman), madman Marvin (John Malkovich), successfully retired S.A.S. agent Victoria (Helen Mirren), and Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), a benefits worker who Frank has taken a liking to and is therefore also being targeted. The mission takes them to locales around the United States and proves that these folks can still perform like spring chickens when they need to.

Season's greetings!
The story here is a slightly unrealistic one involving conspiracy theories, government cover-ups, unlikely coincidences and unlikely romances. So it has to be held together by a band of characters and actors who can center the attention of the audience on themselves and make the story more palatable than it is. To that effort, it's commendable that this is in fact an amazing cast who work well together, from the big name stars to the lower tiered yet no less talented performers. Willis is usually not known for his pleasant demeanor on-screen. In fact, he does get his "yippie-ki-yay" game face on for much of the film. I don't know if it stems from working with older actors, however, but Willis somehow in Red gains something I've not seen from him in many of his performances: an almost boy-like wonder, especially when he's in scenes with his character's crush, Sarah. For once, he's not the top dog, at least not in all things, and it makes his character and his acting all the better. Malkovich is a hoot as a partially-psychotic former agent first seen hiding out in the Louisiana bayou. The part of Marvin was originally to be played by John C. Reilly, and while I've liked Reilly and can see him being successful in this type of role, he's simply outclassed by Malkovich in all aspects. Playing Marvin as defiant, schizophrenic, and, of course, paranoid of any number of possible conspiracies, Malkovich puts on one of his more memorable performances, certainly a step up from his last major role in the seriously underperforming Changeling. Of course, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean people aren't out to get you, and so his character turns out to at times be more insightful than he would be otherwise. I simply can't imagine anyone but Malkovich in that role. Mirren is fantastic, with looks that could kill (sorry, I couldn't resist) and the demeanor you would expect from a true secret agent. She really takes to the somewhat humorous role with the same professionalism as she has in her multiple-nominated roles in the films The Queen and The Last Station, not to mention dozens of other similarly-lauded roles over the course of her career. Both the irony of seeing such a serious actress wielding high-caliber machine guns and the perfection of seeing the same thing lend a lot of credence to her ability as an actress. Of the main four, only Morgan Freeman disappoints, as there's simply not enough for him to do with his role, with all the best bits belonging to Willis, Malkovich and Mirren.

Not sure what to make of this scene
I was prepared to dislike Parker in this. Obviously most people know the actress as Nancy Botwin on Showtime's Weeds, but it's easy to forget that she has a long career in film and television preceding this, as I did. Frankly, the only film I've seen her in was Red Dragon, and her role was so small that I had completely forgotten about her not long after the fact. However, she shines here as an initially reluctant sidekick to Frank who gradually gets more and more excited as the terror and thrill of sneaking around and blowing stuff up puts a heavy emphasis on how dull and boring her regular life is. Parker is funny both physically and in her verbal delivery, a dual trait not many can claim to master. Also good though underutilized is Karl Urban as a C.I.A. agent tasked with taking out Frank. Urban has long been under-appreciated by Hollywood, with last year's Star Trek being his biggest and best opportunity to showcase his talents, and damned if he didn't make the best Doc McCoy since Deforest Kelly. Hopefully his role in Red is simply a gateway to bigger things and not a return to more of the same because he's far too talented to keep perpetually on the shelf. Brian Cox makes a surprise appearance as a former Russian agent who Frank goes to for help. I didn't even recognize Cox at first, his transformation so complete that it took me nearly half the film before it struck me who was uttering his lines, and his ability to meld into his part - as well as his charismatic interaction with the other characters, especially Mirren - makes for a great performance. Ernest Borgnine is simply wonderful as a records-keeper at the Agency, and Richard Dreyfus does a good if hammy job in a small but important role as a weapons' dealer and smuggler who is somehow involved with the conspiracy. These supporting performances, in conjunction with the larger star-held roles, mean that there are no weak moments with less-interesting characters pitted throughout the film, and the enjoyment level never dips because of that.

"He's dead, Jim. I killed him."
But great characters can't entirely keep together a plot secured by duct tape and staples. While interesting, the story is barely able to keep momentum throughout the film, and truly falters in the final act, when humor alone seems to be sustaining the plot threads, not suspense or drama, or even suspension of disbelief. We're never under the assumption that Frank and his team won't achieve their objective (though they never really GET an objective until near the end of the film) and that, unfortunately, makes the final payoff much less than it could have been. Also, the humor involving young upstarts calling members of the team "old man" or "grandpa" get old after a few turns, though the heroes' humorous (and often quite violent) responses make up for a lackluster effort by the screenwriters to get a cheap laugh at an older character's expense. It's a shame, but when your director's previous work was the same one who made The Time Traveler's Wife (Robert Schwentke), you have to expect that things won't be as good as you want them to be.

So THAT'S what John Malkovich looks like!
For it's sake, I wish Red had been released earlier this year. If it had, I would have grouped it with several action or comedic films I'd seen this year that rated favorably on my 2010 Top 10 List such as Alice in Wonderland, The Losers, and Date Night, all of which at one point dotted the list. However, all those titles were eventually knocked off the list by better films, and so Red, though it compares favorably with all those films, is denied a it's chance in the sun. It has great characters, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Malkovich get a Golden Globe nom for his performance (though I'd never expect him to win it), but the plot is simply too jumpy and the story poorly told and filled with extremely silly bits. Is it funny? Yes. Did I enjoy it? Indeed. Can I recommend it to people who want a cheap and silly film to see? Sure. Is it one of the best films of the year? A "can't miss"?

Sorry, machine-gun Mirren, no.

Monday, October 25, 2010

End of the Line

If you've seen one of the Final Destination films, you've pretty much seen them all. Recap: while enjoying a group activity, one character has a vision of a future to come in which all the characters of the story suffer a grisly mass death due to a major calamity (airplane explosion, highway pile-up, roller coaster malfunction). When that person snaps back to reality, they freak out, causing many members of the group to leave or be ejected from the scenario in question before disaster strikes. Later, each survivor dies one-by-one in gory fashion in the order they were supposed to die in the "accident". Remaining survivors try to stop death from claiming what it believe rightfully belongs to it. When this idea was first introduced back in 2000, it was a unique idea executed with the maniacal glee of a mad scientist. It was also a great tweak on the genre of horror Roger Ebert would refer to as "dead teenager" films. But after two okay-if-not-good sequels, was there really any necessity to releasing a fourth film when the individualistic aspects of the film were all gone? And in 3D, no less? Maybe not, but with Redbox lacking in any other titles that I wanted to watch (How to Train Your Dragon and Robin Hood were both out), I bit the bullet and popped this flick in for a spin, figuring it couldn't be worse than some other films I've seen this year.

Get used to that confused look, you'll see it often
The Final Destination takes us to a new location for bystander homicide, this time a NASCAR speedway. Okay, it's actually called McKinley Speedway, and NASCAR's name is nowhere to be seen, but the writing is on the wall that far too many people seem to think they're perfectly safe at a race, when it's actually been proven that the "safety" fences and precautions that are in place to protect the viewing customer have little impact were disaster choosing to strike. Nick (Bobby Campo) is at the event with his girlfriend Lori (Shantel VanSanten) and his friends Janet (Haley Webb) and Hunt (Nick Zano) when he has a vision of a car crash spilling into the stands, killing him, his friends and most of the people in their section. When the vision ends, Nick panics and causes many people to leave the stadium right before the accident actually happens, sparing several lives. But as anyone who has seen these films before, death won't be cheated out of his prize.

Not quite the wet t-shirt reference I was going for, but okay
No reason has ever been given for why these people get these visions, and even through four films no clue to why this phenomena would exist to alter death's plan has been sought out. What IS shown, however, is how vengeful death can be, as often we're shown things like secure screws unfastening themselves or water moving seemingly independently of logical methods in order to make death seem like a malevolent force to be combated. In this way the Final Destination series has staked its territory, as death scenes are unique, unpredictable, and while not unexpected, often pace things out and change direction at a moment's notice to keep the audience on their toes. Who, if they've seen them, can forget, Kristen Cloke's death scene in the original film, involving burning alcohol, an exploding computer, and a chopping knife? Or Final Destination 3's "death by tanning bed"? Rarely are these executions short and sweet, as they're often brutal, bloody and unmerciful to the recipient, with few exceptions. The only real problem with the series as a whole is it's uselessness. In sequels, often mention is made of survivors at the end of previous incarnations having died in "accidents" despite thinking they had foiled death's plans.

Add a little seasoning, and he's ALMOST ready!
If only that was the only problem with this film. despite some intriguing death scenes, The Final Destination brings us the most uninteresting group of people targeted by death in a film from this series yet. With the exception of the main foursome, only a security guard (Mykelti Williamson) with a history of drinking and a dead family is explored in any capacity by the film's script. The other survivors are either unlikable, uninteresting, or unexplored at all until it's their time to die. The film follows the now-predictable format of each character dying in the order they were supposed to perish in the original plan. This leads to several futile chases as Nick and Lori try to intercept the next person on the list before death can take them. While, as I've said, the death scenes are mostly interesting, they as a whole are not as good as those in previous films. In fact, one death is actually repeated late in the film, making one wonder if the writers simply gave up from lack of imagination. Also, the filmmakers tried to really work the 3D angle, making gore and explosions really pop out to the audience, which is noticeable even in a 2D situation, as was my experience. These effects might have been more impressive in 3D, however, as on DVD they are simply more obvious than anything else.

3D makes you feel like you really WERE impaled by a steel beam!
The acting is about what you'd expect from the third sequel to a film that didn't have any great acting to begin with (though the original was a launching pad for Ali Larter and Sean William Scott). Campos gets better as the film goes along, but his character is neurotic, nerdy and not very confident in front of the camera. It hearkens back to Devon Sawa's character in the original, but doesn't make for an interesting lead role. VanSanten, who plays his girlfriend, is not very independent. She generally goes along with whatever Campos' character says should be done, and VanSanten is simply not interesting enough an actress to make that work. Webb, who plays a bitchy friend, and Zano, who plays a douche-y friend, don't inspire the audience to want them to live throughout the film. Mykelti Williamson is the best of the bunch as a recovering alcoholic who mourns the accidental deaths of his wife and child due to his drinking. But acting-wise, it seems like Williamson doesn't care much for the story here and simply follows the script like a yellow brick road until the end. The only other character worth mentioning is former Baywatch star Krista Allen as a MILF (their word, not mine) who survives the initial disaster. Her one scene to shine is done well, but there's a reason she's not known for much more than her pretty face.

Whoop, she's defiant. That means she's about to die
With a lousy script, cast, and 3D conversion, The Final Destination is trite, hollow, and only exciting at all when someone is about to be killed off. These moments are few and far between however, and the lack of interesting characters means that even those deaths mean little compared to the other films in the series. This should have been the final entry into the Final Destination memoirs, but the film's unexpected success (it's the most financially successful film in the franchise to date) means that despite the horrible reviews that accompanied it to the ball, it didn't dance it's final dance. So thank you, Warner Brothers, for taking something that should be dead now and reviving it once again for cheap gain. I can only imagine the horrible acting and vague differences in plot you conjure up for the next entry. It's a shame, since I liked the first three films in the series, but it's time to put this one to sleep, and live up to the full meaning of the film's title.
Don't play on escalators, kids!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Facebook Film

I don't go a day without checking my Facebook page. Several times. In fact, it's safe to say I'm pretty addicted to checking up on the status and info of others. Heck, I'm on Facebook RIGHT NOW, and a good chunk of people who read this blog are those of my friends who click on the links I put on Facebook whenever I put up a new post. To be sure, it's a huge part of my life, and for that matter for millions of people around the globe as well. Isn't it hard to think of a time before Facebook, with the impact it has on society today? And another film I recently posted about, Catfish, was about how Facebook and social networking had influenced affected communication between distant parties. So it was only a matter of time before a movie dedicated to Facebook's impact was released for general consumption.

Would you distrust these faces?
Director David Fincher doesn't want you to call The Social Network "the Facebook movie", and there's actually a good reason for that. Though the film does in fact chronicle Facebook's birth and rise to maturity from "humble" beginnings as an exclusive networking site for Harvard students to the worldwide phenomena we now know it as, it's far from the movie's main focus. That focus is squarely on Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, whose genius birthed this creation and whose relationships between both friends and enemies set the drama for the story. Starting with Zuckerberg's girlfriend breaking up with him due to his ability to be an insensitive asshole (a theme throughout the film), Harvard undergrad Zuckerberg, played by Zombieland's Jesse Eisenberg, goes home, rants about how his ex is a bitch (on LiveJournal; Is that still around?), and on the spot decides to create a program that allows participants to vote between photos of two female Harvard students (hacked from Harvard's multiple limited social networking sites), for the purpose of deciding who was hotter. Shortly after crashing Harvard's limited computer network due to so many people using the program (Harvard, by the way, is portrayed by several school campuses that are NOT Harvard), Zuckerberg is approached by members of one of Harvard's elite cliques with the idea of creating a Harvard-exclusive social networking site that would essentially be an elite dating site for the men of Harvard. The site would eventually be known as ConnectU. Initially taking them up on the offer, Zuckerberg instead uses the idea of an exclusive site to create Thefacebook with best friend and fellow Harvard student Eduardo Saverin (your new Spiderman, Andrew Garfield) providing the financial backing. The film is told in flashbacks, with the current time showing Zuckerberg being sued not only by the ConnectU men who allege that Zuckerberg stole their idea, but also his former best friend Saverin who has been forced out of the management group at what has now become Facebook.

That's the future Lisbeth Salander on the left
The film is helped by the fact that the story is charming to a fault. While one can (and should) question a ton of the "facts" presented here, the story itself is compelling and interesting. It's a shame that it doesn't get into the nitty gritty of the actual program itself, as the scenes that do are some of the best scenes in the film. But the human interaction is the meat and gristle of the story, and thankfully that aspect of the film is masterfully manipulated. The use of the flashbacks from two legal battles to Facebook's founding and rise is excellently done, and sets the pace of the film well. While the product may in fact be less than entirely honest, if those sacrifices were made to create a more interesting film, I'm okay with it.

The mathematical code to attending Harvard? Maybe...
The acting is also exceptional here. Though it's unlikely any of the actors included will be up for major awards when the season arrives, it seems a shame that none would be recognized for their portrayals of these modern-day giants. Eisenberg was at danger of Zuckerberg being like most of his former nervous and antisocial persona, but while those elements are still in play here there's an aura of insensitivity here and also a tiny bit of humanity, which actually does a great job of rounding out the character. Zuckerberg is never fully vilified in The Social Network, but while he is not put in a generally good light Eisenberg does somehow maintain a bit of in-over-his-head confusion that manages to make the character at least somewhat sympathetic. Garfield is probably the only actor in this troupe who has a shot at some supporting actor nominations come this winter, and that's because he plays the most human character in the cast. As the spurned Facebook co-founder, Garfield has to run the gamut of good friend to reluctant financier to screwed-over former friend in one two-hour film. Garfield is also the one we're supposed to feel most sympathetic for, but there's a problem there that I'll get to later. Garfield certainly earned no demerits, however, and his performance is a revelation for those out there who didn't know he existed before now. And Justin Timberlake is charming as former Napster-founder Sean Parker, who becomes an advisor to Facebook and later it's president. Timberlake is someone who (in my opinion) has made his career in music and acting on the firm basis of his considerable charm and personality, rather than on actual talent. Parker is portrayed as a fast-talking, slick-thinking genius always on the lookout for the next big thing, and one whose extravagance and inflexibility led to being kicked out of two former companies that he founded. The character was practically written for someone of Timberlake's talent set, and Parker also creates the most turmoil in the friendship of Zuckerberg and Saverin that leads to their split as friends and partners through his seemingly-phony charm and obvious personality clash with Saverin.

Revel in your popularity while it lasts, Eisenberg
The film has a few issues, though they are big ones, mainly stemming from the ego of the director. Finch is usually known for his stylistically-shot films like Seven, Fight Club and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but when he directs a biopic like this you would expect that he shouldn't even need CGI to tell this particular tale. Well, he didn't get the memo. In an early scene featuring two characters outside in what's supposed to be twenty-degree weather, it's plainly obvious that the steam coming out when they breath is computer generated, and plainly takes you out of the scene. But the big dereliction of director duties is staggering. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss are twin brothers and Olympic rowers who are the main part of the ConnectU brain trust who sue Zuckerberg for stealing their idea, and are played by Armie Hammer. No, that's not a typo. Using a body stand-in and digital recreation, Fincher had Hammer play two parts while seamlessly inserting him into the scenes to play both parts (and neither twin is seen apart from the other). Hammer does a commendable job (and has the funniest line in the whole film), but Fincher could have saved a ton of trouble by, you know, hiring twins to play the parts. Though Hammer was good, it's not like he wasn't expendable, and it has to be chalked up to Fincher to make the job more difficult than it had to be. Yes, the job was seamless but he did it not because he had to, but because he could. Taking in this film means also taking Fincher's ego trip, sadly not a surprising development.

Sticking it to the Corporate man
The film's biggest problem, however, lies in the audience's inability to really sympathise with the characters. This is no fault of the actors, who all put on award-worthy performances, but instead in the characters they are asked to convey. We're supposed to feel most sorry for Garfield's character, but we're specifically told that Saverin had made $300 thousand dollars the previous summer in oil ventures. Though he's screwed out of major Facebook ownership over the course of the film, it's really hard to feel sorry for him because you know he's smart enough and knows the right people, so he'll be okay. Same with the Winklevoss twins, whose idea is obviously at least partially stolen by Zuckerberg, but who came from a rich background to begin with. In fact, let's face it: most of the characters in this film are in attendance at Harvard, which means that they either come from rich families or their families know influential people (or both). I've never really lacked, and have been both fortunate and lucky to have the support of loving parents and have never gone hungry or without necessities. I firmly believe myself to me middle-to-upper middle class, and have only been to one year at college and acknowledge my shortcomings from not finishing. However, I've also been accused of being or growing up "rich" from those who grew up with less than I did, and so if I can't find much sympathetic with these rich people who fight over stock options and millions of dollars, I can only imagine how true blue-collar audiences would feel about these same people.

The asshole at work... or is he at play?
Which still is not enough to derail what is a VERY good film. Fincher's hits outpace his misses in The Social Network, and while the ego trip and unsympathetic characters drag down the film a bit, it still manages to place #9 on my Top 10 Films list. In closing, I'm reminded of the Tina Fey bit when she showed up on Saturday Night Live in support of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic primary in the 2008 Presidential election. Admitting that Clinton was "a bitch", Fey went on to utter one of the more memorable TV lines of that year: "Bitches get stuff done." For Zuckerberg and others of his ilk, like id Software's John Carmack (creator of legendary games Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein 3D), the same principle applies. Facebook was created by Zuckerberg because he was the right type of person to create it and he turned to Sean Parker to help expand it because Parker was the same type of person. If assholes get stuff done, I can at least respect them for having the audacity to do it.

It doesn't mean I have to like them, however.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Movie is in the Details

So, yeah, I watched Devil. Sure, it's based on a story by resident twist-er M. Night Shyamalan, and that alone should have sent me screaming into the hills, as there's a reason I haven't watched a film of his since The Village. His tales to that point had become so much about the oh-so-clever twist that it was actually hurting the stories he was trying to tell. I had two reasons to think that Devil would be better than his latest fare, however. First, while the story is based on his story and he in fact produced the film, he neither wrote the screenplay nor directed the film. The screenplay was instead written by Brian Nelson, whose 30 Days of Night I absolutely loved, and the film was directed by John Dowdle, whose biggest film to date had been 2008's Quarantine. Second, what can I say? I guess I'm a sucker for a locked-door mystery.

Sure, throw your weight around. That'll get you friends
Taking place in modern-day Philadelphia, the story revolved around five strangers who suddenly find themselves trapped in an office building elevator. Simultaneously, Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), a recovering alcoholic who took up the habit after a hit-and-run driver caused the deaths of the members of his family, is investigating a suicide that apparently happened by someone leaping from the same building earlier that morning. That suicide has apparently allowed the Devil to come to Earth, and as people in the elevator start dying in violent and mysterious ways, time is running out and one of these strangers seems to be the Devil taking human form.

Okay, now you're just showing off
Okay, yes, it seems a bit silly, and the film is lacking in some areas. The basis of the story, because it wouldn't be obvious to someone who didn't already know what was happening, is told in an annoying voice over by a security guard (Jacob Vargas) who is the first to suspect the Devil is at work. This is doubly annoying because it's obvious (OBVIOUS) that this is Shyamalan's voice at work, telling us what we need to know to understand what's happening. But I can look past that. I can also overlook the lack of big name talent. Messina is something of an up-and-comer with roles in Julie and Julia and Away We Go leading up to this, his first big-budget starring role (Geoffrey Arend, on the the other hand, shall from now on be referred to as "Mr. Christina Hendricks"). The acting also has no small talent, though I'll get to that later. These quibbles are completely understandable when you place the film into the context of B-grade, which is where the film seemingly WANTS to be.

This is Major Tom to Ground Control...
The acting, as I said before, is surprisingly talented. Of the elevator patrons, only Bokeen Woodbine is probably recognizable to the majority of the movie-going audience. He plays a temp building security guard with acute claustrophobia. It makes him highly agitated and uncivilized. He also has a violent past. Logan Marshall-Green plays a former military mechanic who doesn't like to talk about his military experiences. The least is known about him and he skillfully portrays a mysterious, moderate temper. Bojana Novakovic is a gold-digger who likes to burn through money and pit people against each other. She plays the scared one for most of her scenes, and does it well enough for a relative newcomer. Jenny O'Hara does a good job as a kleptomaniac who is portrayed as a rough-around-the-edges hard-nosed woman who isn't afraid to call anyone out for bull. Mr. Christina Hendricks is a creepy, nervous salesman who also moonlights as a conman. As you can see, none of the people trapped in the elevator are sweethearts. That's why it's a shame that none of them hold a candle of interest to the only important character OUTSIDE the elevator. Messina plays the somber detective on several levels, not only as a detective who wants to get the people out of the elevator safely, but as the mourning husband and father who lost everything important to him one day. There are a few other characters of note, but none that you'll lose sleep over, as it's these six who rightfully garner the most attention.

Yeah, you ain't coming home for supper.
Despite the fact that the film is a PG-13 film, it doesn't feel like it sacrifices anything to get the scares out of the audiences. There is some blood, some bodily trauma, some sudden crashes and burns and other acts of violence, but the film does a great job of limiting what is seen. There's nothing gratuitous about this film's portrayal of death and violence, and does a good job of showing how to scare the audience without gobs of gore like so many recent horror films. In fact, like the very good Crazies, it's the controlled and precise violence we as the audience are allowed to see that makes it so effective.

The film also makes great use of it's confined spaces. The elevator cab, especially, is small and shot as such, and the viewer feels as confined as those poor souls stuck in it. Outside, the world is dark and overcast, no sun shining down on the world. It almost creates the same effect, as though the storm clouds are the closed elevator doors, refusing to part so that we can get or even see out.

"Don't worry, I bet they won't even ask you to be in the sequels"
If there's one final thing wrong with Devil, it's the ending. One unnecessary flashback, one revelation, one slight twist (it wouldn't be a Shyamalan film without one), and we're at the end of a film that in truth plays out like an old episode of Tales from the Crypt, complete with Crypt Keeper to tell us the moral of the tale. That this is supposed to be the first of Shyamalan's Night Chronicles trilogy isn't a saving grace, as the film hardly inspires faith in future incarnations. It's a B-film and seems happy to be that way, and to tell the truth I enjoyed it because it WAS no a film that was no big deal. If there's one thing to say for it, it's that the trailer for Devil doesn't give away the big secret, which one of these passengers on the road to hell is in fact the driver of the vehicle. It was surprisingly good, though not nearly good enough to topple any of the much stronger films that have been released this year. It may be simple. It may boast a c-grade cast. It may have one of the sinking stars of Hollywood's names dragging it down. Despite all these things I find myself recommending it as a cheap flick if you've seen everything else available. Keep your expectations low and you won't be disappointed.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The OTHER Vampire Diaries

Sometimes when it comes to the finished product you have to wonder what could have been. For video games this is doubly true, more than probably any other entertainment medium, with several titles literally forced out the door and onto store shelves before they can be polished into something worth playing. Such an occurrence can turn a game destined for great things into a buggy, error-prone program that fails to live up to it's potential. Such was the fate of Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines when it was released back in 2004 by Troika Games.

Welcome to the World of Darkness, you bad thing!
Troika was first formed in 1998 by Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky and Jason Anderson, three of the main game designers behind one of the most popular video games in history, the post-apocalyptic role playing game Fallout, produced by Interplay Entertainment. Splitting from Interplay in 1997 due to creative differences, the three founded Troika for the expressed purpose of creating an environment more like Interplay had been in it's early years. Troika came from a Russian word meaning "three of any kind" meant to symbolize the three co-founders. Troika's first game was 2001's Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, an RPG in the same top-down isometric variation as the popular Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale series that was unique in it's implementation of steampunk and early industrial technology on top of a classic fantasy setting (Come to think of it, there's another game I own I could go back and play...). Though reviewers had some complaints about it's clunky combat system and unpolished final state, the game was highly lauded and a financial success, making over $8 million in sales. The game released two more games in the following years, with the second game coming out in 2003. The Temple of Elemental Evil was a remake of the pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons module of the same name, which got mixed reviews. Hampered by new engine technology, the company's third game wouldn't be released until the next year.

Smiling Jack is your tour guide to the afterlife
Finally, in 2004, the company released Vampire, an RPG that could be played using either first or third-person vantage points, and was built using Valve Software's new Source Engine, the same one used to build the excellent Half Life 2. The player is thrust into the role of a newly-turned vampire in 2004 Los Angeles. Because your sire didn't get permission to introduce you to the World of Darkness, he/she is made an example of and you are taken under the wing of the Prince of Los Angeles, and leader of the local Kindred ("their" word for vampire) authority known as the Camarilla. The story of the game has you carrying out quests by "everybody with a week seniority over you" as you struggle to find a place for yourself in this new, well, "life" is the wrong word. "Unlife" might be a better one. You are also sped towards making a choice between sticking with the law-giving Camarilla, joining the anti-Camarilla movement known as the Anarchs, or a few other options. All the while you must uphold the Masquerade, the rules that hide the existence of Kindred from the knowledge of humans. As one character puts it, "We're living in the age of cell phone cameras; #&@%-ups ain't tolerated." Finally, you must keep the primal beast that now exists in your blood at bay, and keep as much of your humanity intact as possible.

Fire is NOT a vamp's best friend
If any of the above made you crinkle your brow in confusion, you're not alone. Until the game had been released, I really knew nothing about the universe of this game. The World of Darkness was created by White Wolf Inc. as pen-and paper RPG not unlike Dungeons and Dragons, but set in the modern world and with supernatural elements taking the forefront. In the game, you can become a member of any of seven vampire clans, most of which are based on classic vampire myths. The Nosferatu are disfigured monsters who must hide their appearance from the public and make for excellent spies and information gatherers. Toreadors are spinsters who can solve most anything with words and cam make people dance like puppets on a string with their persuasive abilities. The Tremere are blood mages, a secretive and powerful order who hide their magical secrets from all outsiders. Every clan has it's own strengths and weaknesses, making any playthrough with one character markedly different than with any other. You also encounter the many denizens of this new world, both Kindred and regular humans alike. Most are at least interesting, with very few bordering the "barely interesting" line. In fact, many are eccentric to say the least, and provide for interesting conversations, to say the least.

The character you encounter may be seductively attractive...
One of the best parts of the game is the story structure. Slowly, the players is given insight into the story and mechanics involved in this unfamiliar world you find yourself in. Characters tell you not only about themselves, but also about the world around them. Quests are interesting and rarely a grind, many asking to use different aspects of your character's arsenal, whether using sneaking to gather intelligence, convincing an enemy to become an ally, hacking a computer or lock-picking a door to gain entry, or just going in with guns blazing. One of my favorite missions in fact involved helping a Santa Monican Kindred leader expel a phantasm from a haunted hotel she had acquired by searching the building for a personal item of the spirit, and bringing it back. There are no enemies in the building, only the occasional howls and groans and magically-thrown furniture in an attempt to dissuade you from saving the trapped spirit. And after everything, you can still lose the mission if you give the special item to the wrong person when you get back to Santa Monica. And that's just one example of the varied quest structure. There's a lot to accomplish and limitless time to accomplish most of the missions and side-quests you'll find yourself carrying out to get more cash and experience to outfit your character into an elite specialist or a solid jack of all trades, ready to take on the undead world ahead of you.

...or disgustingly repulsive
Character interaction is pretty amazing. Everyone has something interesting to say, whether it's an optional side mission for you to take or tidbits you can save for later, but what gets your interest at first is how detailed everyone is. Every character you speak with has unique characteristics and, with the exception of blocky, poorly animated hair, flawless animation that manifests itself best in the mood of the characters. You can instantly gauge a character's temperament during a discussion with ease, and it can help put you on the right conversational track for success. Whether ugly or strangely pretty, none of the characters in this game can be accused of being visually dull.

Shootouts with local gangs are not unheard of, but often you can avoid such violent altercations
It's a shame the same thing can't be said about the environmental visuals. The game takes place in four main "hub" areas, with some travel between these hubs and several smaller areas possible based on your current mission. But these areas, despite being produced by a game engine that is STILL hailed as being technologically superior six years later, is largely drab, dull, and blocky, meaning traveling by foot from one end of a hub to another can be filled with nothing visually interesting, leading to spots of dull as you go from A to B.

Feeding in public is an option... if you WANT to get put down
Other problems with the game have nothing to do with the graphics. Combat is horribly buggy, neither wielding a gun nor a sword nor going in with just fists is easy to handle, as combat is non-intuitive and too dependant on your character's stats to be very immersive. And bad game artificial intelligence makes for frustrating moments of uncertainty when you're trying to do something painfully simple. It's also possible to get "stuck" on interactive objects, forcing you to load to an older save game (thankfully, the game automatically saves, though not at the beginning of each map). Other bugs that cause game crashes and other unfortunate situations were also rampant at the game's launch, mostly due to the game's early release in unfinished and unpolished condition. The game universe is so large that the designers literally didn't have time to go over most aspects of the game before it was due to launch.

Gargoyles are the LEAST of your problems... most of the time. He doesn't look happy
One problem not related to technical problems is the game's lack of time aspect. For your character, the world exists as an endless night, leading to believe that the events of the game take place in one night, whereas the story itself actually states that the story is taking place over several days if not weeks. We're told early on that among other things, the rays of the sun are deadly, but never are we threatened by the idea of sunrise. Strangely, this was overlooked (perhaps because of the difficulty in setting it up technically or perhaps due to suspected unpopularity in the idea of dropping what you are doing to go home and "rest" until the sun goes down again) but while it's an interesting omission, not one that hurts the pace of the gameplay overall and so can be safely ignored.

Yeah, if I was descending into a literal bloodbath, I'd want that gun too
Vampire's music fits the mood the game is trying to convey, with much of it coming from groups that typify the gothic and dark atmosphere that goes for the jugular. Bands like Darling Violetta, the Genitorturers, and Die My Darling got a lot of exposure when their music was featured on the game's soundtrack, and I first heard one of my more favored bands, Lacuna Coil, when their single Swamped made it's appearance on the closing credits. The music does a fantastic job drawing you into the type of emotion you should be feeling in a certain scene, and the crew who put the soundtrack together did a wonderful job getting that right.

You don't want to mess with werewolves
Despite all it's problems, the game garnered a lot of positive reviews. Despite that, however, it had poor initial sales, and Troika's failure to garner financial support after Vampire dropped meant that they had to close shop in early 2005, meaning Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines would be their final product. After working to release a final patch to fix some of the more egregious bugs, the game was left as is for a few years before it became available for digital distribution on the Steam network. The game started to garner a "cult" status, and several amateur programmers began to release unofficial patches to fix more bugs and restore lost content. I just finished my first playthrough on the unofficial 7.1 patch, and I have to say it was a completely different experience than I remember the last time I played (it helps I was playing a type of character, the loner Gangrel, that I was unused to) in a positive way. Many things that were unfinished or unimpressive back when the final official patch had been released were fresh and made much more sense this time around. I'm already into a new game with a newly fledged Kindred and still enjoying it. I'd say it's definitely worth the twenty dollars it would cost to purchase and load this onto your home PC. If it was built in the past five years, chances are it'll probably play, and when it's patched enough, you should have a good time immersing yourself in the World of Darkness.
The City of Angels is yours to explore

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hometown Team

Ben Affleck might have finally discovered his calling. In recent years, Boston has become a haven for crime movies, from 2003's Mystic River to 2006's The Departed to little-seen 2008's What Doesn't Kill You, Hollywood seems to have become entranced by Boston's criminal history and the kinds of stories that affords. Affleck even got in on the act, making his directorial debut with Gone Baby Gone, overseeing a stellar cast including Amy Ryan, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, and little brother Casey Affleck. As director, Affleck drew on his experiences growing up in Boston to tell the story to the best of his ability, using the same instincts that made him such a star in the first place. Just the latest part of his Hollywood reboot after failing for so many years to be taken seriously by movie audiences, it's almost as though retreating to his roots is what finally saved his career.

Don't look don't look don't look, aw crap
When I first saw the trailer for The Town I was spellbound, my mind still processing what it had seen through my eyes. Not only was the film based in my home city, but in areas I was actually familiar with, as filming had taken place mere minutes from my apartment. On top of that, the film looked AMAZING, with another all-star cast and crew stepping up and putting together one of the more anticipated films this year.

Ben's about to put a beat-down on ya
Based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Massachusetts native Chuck Hogan, The Town introduces us to former pro-hockey prospect and lifetime criminal Doug MacRay, played by Ben Affleck, right as he and his crew of ne'erdowells begin their robbery of a bank in the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts (in an area, Harvard Square, that I often frequent). After completely catching everyone by surprise, the gang is methodical in their execution of this endeavor; They almost routinely secure the bank employees, destroy the security footage, and calmly disable the guards while getting the bank's manager (Rebecca Hall) to open the safe so they can loot the contents. Afterwards, in a move not normally carried out by their crew, Jem (Jeremy Renner) decides to take the manager hostage to guarantee their escape, and the crew eventually drops her off when they are sure they've gotten away safely. The crew, despite being upset with Jem for taking such an unnecessary risk, believes they've gotten off scot free. The FBI has no leads, the manager didn't see anything to identify them, and they're already getting ready for the next job. But when the crew discovers that Claire, the manager, lives mere blocks away from their native Charlestown homes, Doug volunteers to get close to her to find out whether she knows enough to finger them for the crime.

Let's talk about Lucky Strikes...
What the film probably does best is in the use of it's rich characters. Doug is a lifetime petty criminal who once had a chance to get out of this town of malcontents when he was drafted to the NHL, but frittered away that opportunity. Now he's pretty much stuck in a perpetual rut, looking for a way out of this criminal career before he ends up like his father (Chris Cooper), a permanent resident of federal prison. After his mother left when Doug was a child, he's really had no choice but to follow the example of the few authority figures in his life: his father, lifelong friend Jem (whose family took him in when Doug's father was pinched), and local mobster Fergie the Florist (Pete Postlethwaite) who's at least partially based on real-life Boston mobster Whitey Bulger. Jem is also a great character, a sociopathic thug with little to no morals outside of his closest friends who will shoot anyone who gives him or his family (blood or otherwise) a hard time. And many of the others are well thought out deep characters, no mere cliches of personalities.

Stop it! Your name is NOT Serena!
As the two friends, Affleck and Renner have amazing chemistry. Though Affleck would probably be run out of town if he couldn't pull off a local accent, but he's also charming and disarming as Doug, who falls head over heels for his target and wants more than ever to get out of this livelihood. Renner is the real prize, however, a local with no ambitions to leave his current situation, a thug of the highest order who seems to get a rush out of a successful heist. What's best about the character is his obvious concern for Doug, who he practically considers a brother. It allows you to connect and feel sympathetic with this character, who otherwise might be a simple bad guy. Speaking of bad guys, the obvious villains in this drama are the FBI investigating the string of bank and armored car heists carried out by this crew. Out in front is Special Agent Adam Frawley (John Hamm), who acts as the main antagonist to Doug's potential freedom. Hamm is quite engaging here, and here manages to maintain a relative sloppiness in comparison to his Mad Men character. There's not so much grace to Frawley, with a perpetual five-o'clock shadow and a hangdog look to his eyes that suggests years of futility and frustration. He's one surprise in the cast based on his limited work elsewhere, the other is Blake Lively as Jem's sister, an oxy-addicted single mother stuck in Charlestown and also with romantic aspirations with Doug. This is no Gossip Girl variation, she plays a character different from any she's played before, and does it WELL, which is probably more than anyone expected of her. Cooper is good, though his role is limited to a couple of small scenes. His character is based on the no-snitch people you read about, the ones who refuse to rat out their buddies to avoid jail time. Hall is good but it's sad to think that her role is almost nonessential come the second act of the film. She does play a part, but the story becomes more a three-way Doug-Jem-Frawley battle for supremacy and while Hall's character is supposed to be in the middle, it doesn't always feel that way. She does do a good job conveying the psychological side of someone who's survived mental trauma, and she's so many light years ahead of her performance in the largely overrated Vicky Christina Barcelona that the London actress finally seems to be making a name for herself as a legitimate actress.

Is another Oscar nomination far in this man's future?
The story is rife with thrills and suspense. There's no real MYSTERY to this tale, only to how Doug will finally escape Charlestown and the same fate as his father. It is very compelling, though, as you find yourself rooting for Doug to not get caught, to be with Claire, to escape Frawley and Jem and Fergie and the whole mess that comes with the territory. On top of that, as a Boston resident I was thrilled with every scene where I recognized the locale from my own strolls down these streets. Any local must feel something different when a film is shot and based in Boston, as sometimes based in Boston means shot in Toronto. But the Boston location means so much more to me, and means I'm even more into what's happening perhaps than people who don't live here, or haven't grown up here. It's simply a thrill and privilege to think my city contributed in some way to this story being told.

"Yeah, I've been knocking over banks for years."
The Town, despite being poorly-named, is an amazing film with great characters holding the story together. Perfectly captured by one of Boston's own, it's one of the best Boston-based films. More down to earth than The Departed and with better characters than Gone Baby Gone, The Town is subtle, nuanced, smart, edgy, and thrilling, and totally deserving to be my new #3 for the 2010. After all these years, Affleck has learned how to do good, and he came home to do it. He makes this town proud.
Yeah, you don't want to be on their bad side