Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Overdue for Confession

Last year, in Hello Mr. Anderson's (at the time still called The Latest Issue) first annual Worst Films competition, the ultimate winner was a small sci-fi horror film many won't remember since it was overshadowed by juggernaut Avatar. Legion came in second at the box office on its opening weekend in January, but was nowhere close to the quality of the film it failed to out-gross. Marred by a flimsy plot, lousy storytelling, poor camerawork and a complete mismanagement of a legitimate big-name cast, the film was a disaster in the making, and hardly a strong start to the directorial career of Scott Charles Stewart, a jack of all film trades who specialized in visual effects before creating this particular trash. Normally, when a film is this bad, no studio is clamoring for a director with this particular lack of talent to rush to make more movies, let along give him a little more rope with which to perhaps hang himself. But with a positive audience draw (who actually paid money to see this in the theater?), the film made enough money to confuse someone into paying him to adapt the relatively unknown Korean graphic novel Priest into a full-blown film. Endowed with an even bigger budget, Stewart proceeded to make a film that sure looked pretty in the trailers (and in ho-hum 3D, no less), but with the lingering taste of Legion on my tongue, I could hardly state that I was excited in the least when it came out this past weekend.

Bettany got tired of those "pull my finger" vampire jokes quickly
For untold centuries, there has been war between normal humans and the animalistic vampires, who are ruthless killing machines but thankfully are kept in check by the sun. That is, there WAS a war, until the human side somehow developed Priests, holy warriors, out of seemingly nowhere. Gifted with supernatural strength and skills, Priests turned the tide of the war and ended the vampire threat, supposedly once and for all. Years later, the vampires seem to have returned, and one unnamed Priest (Paul Bettany) has a personal vendetta when they attack his brother's farm and kidnap his niece Lucy (Lily Collins). Despite the ruling of the Church (who govern the few human cities left) that there is no real vampire menace, Priest gathers what few allies he has and gives chase to stop a new human/vampire war before it can begin anew.

That's a big gun; compensating for something, are we?
Of course, we see precious little of the actual war. What we do see, besides an early half-remembered dream of one Priest vs. Vamp mash-up, is displayed using terrible animation as a precursor history to the film's story. I can't help but wish they had come up with a better way, as the imagery is brutish and ugly; while that might have been what Stewart was going for, it doesn't paint a good first impression for those who paid for their tickets. Actually, none of the special effects are particularly effective; while some of the visuals are undeniably pretty, very little else looks remotely realistic. The supposedly-dangerous vampires LOOK like CGI entities instead of flesh-and-blood monsters, and many of the slow-motion camerawork meant to make the fight scenes more comprehensible instead draw the eyes to the film's faults. These are even more exacerbated by the producers' apparent insistence on converting the film to 3D, technology which had already become stale by the end of 2010. The worst thing about the 3D that I can think to say is that you don't even NOTICE it by the halfway mark, and there doesn't seem to be anything so special that it ever benefits from the "enhancement."

Attack of the one-legged she-wolves, anyone?
Of course, that half-assed approach to the visuals permeates into the rest of the filmmaking process as well. You'd never think Stewart knew what he was doing with all the storytelling foibles that are packed into a film that runs only an hour and a half. Scenes feel half-finished and don't blend into the next; it's almost as if the entire film was chopped down from an unbelievably longer cut; nothing seems to gel, and too much is in fact too little, with silly little things like "character development" and "plot" swept under a rug, never to be seen again. What results is film that instead of transporting us to a new universe does us the disservice of stranding us in the desert with only a broken compass and a thumbtack to survive.

The newest Disney ride has a few kinks to work out...
Paul Bettany returns as Stewart's leading man (he also headlined Legion), and while it's good to see him treated as the star he should be, I wish he could be cast as such in a good film. Rightfully praised for his support work in films like A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander, Bettany definitely has the talent to be a star. But, Paul, I'm begging you: step away from the edge, man! It's fine if you want to do more action-oriented sci-fi films; I'm actually of the opinion that there aren't nearly enough of that genre made these days. But Stewart is simply mishandling Bettany's talents, wasting horrid dialogue on Bettany's voice, who had a deeper role as the artificial intelligence J.A.R.V.I.S. in the Iron Man films. The supporting cast is maligned as well, mostly talented performers delivering rote lines and grim humorless expressions. Probably the best is Collins, whose small role as Priest's niece has the broadest range of all the characters involved. Karl Urban is another underloved talent, like so many from the Earth's Oceanic region. It's a shame when your best-known role was made famous by another actor, and Urban's Dr. Bones McCoy will probably be long overshadowed by DeForest Kelley, even if his performance was well and truly spot-on. As the film's vampiric villain Urban does his best but is hamstrung by his character being one-dimensional and uninteresting. Cam Gigandet is okay as a small-town sheriff who joins Priest, but like everybody else plays a cliched role. I don't even know if I'm supposed to be impressed by Maggie Q; the closest thing the US has to a modern action starlet outside of Angelina Jolie does action okay but is again struck by a complete inability to show emotion. Stephen Moyer, Christopher Plummer and Brad Dourif are similarly unmotivated, playing typical roles meant for unknowns in need of a paycheck, not established actors. That's the problem with Priest, however, as one can't imagine what was presented to the actors to make them take these roles in the first place. You never get the impression that anyone is having FUN on the set, and that's a sobering experience.

Cheery fellow, isn't he?
And that's really what Priest is; a film that didn't need to be made. While Dylan Dog suffered through a lousy opening weekend, at least that could be blamed on lack of a push from the studios, as the similarly-supernatural title failed to make an impact because nobody heard about it. Priest got all kinds of attention, not to mention a shiny 3D conversion to drive up ticket sales, and will probably be remembered as a bust when it finally exits theaters. So why is this? The easy answer is that it's simply a bad movie, but to be fair, the sci-fi genre doesn't often get a big show of support from even die-hard fans, and the big hits are often descended from popular comics or books that developed followings from decades past. That still doesn't excuse Stewart from making yet another contender for the year's Worst Film list, and one has to wonder why he's being given another chance, adapting Cassandra Clare's popular Mortal Instruments book series into a scheduled 2012 release. He's already shown that he doesn't have what it takes, and if he continues to eek a career out of this level of shoddiness, I'm sure I can expect to hate his upcoming work for years to come.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

my confession: I am unapolligetic in my stance that the movie was a lot of fun & I liked it alot...