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Favorite actors: Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Jimmy Stewart, Tom Hardy, Hugh Laurie, David Tennant, Robert Downey Jr. and Ah-nold (from my childhood).
Favorite actresses: Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Scarlett Johansson, Audrey Hepburn.
Favorite Directors: Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, Peter Jackson, Jonathan Demme, Danny Boyle.
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Lacks the "muchness" that could have made it great
When Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, I doubt he could have imagined that, over a hundred years after their publication, there would be countless attempts to create a definitive version of his tales in other media, efforts which have ranged from modestly successful to downright awful. Ironically, the strengths of Carroll's novels became the biggest challenges directors have faced when trying to adapt Carroll's work; literary nonsense just doesn't translate well into anything beyond the confines of its own pages, and this fact has more often than not been the doom of most of these attempts at adaptation.
Knowing full well that this is the case, director Tim Burton has taken on the Herculean task of trying to give Carroll's novels a more traditional sense of plot structure and cohesion while at the same time maintaining some semblance of the whimsical spirit of the source material. What has resulted is a version of Alice in Wonderland which isn't an adaptation of Carroll's work, but a re-envisioning, and one that is, like so many versions of Alice before it, only modestly successful at best.
Indeed, under Burton's direction, Alice is no longer a supremely nonsensical story about a bored girl who falls down a rabbit hole and subsequently spends her time wandering in a trippy dimension from bizarre event to bizarre event for no rhyme or reason. It's now a coming of age tale mixed with a bit of female empowerment; not a shock, considering the previous screen writing work of Linda Woolverton (which includes Disney's Mulan and Beauty and the Beast), the scribe of this version of Alice.
Burton's Alice trades Carroll's scatterbrained storytelling for a comparatively straightforward plot in which 19-year-old Alice Kingsley (Mia Wasikowska), a rather unconventional young woman living in Victorian-era England, returns to Underland, a place she once stumbled into when she was six but cannot remember anything about. As it turns out, the inhabitants of Underland have been actively seeking her out for some time in order to fulfill a prophecy in which Alice will save Underland from the tyranny of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).
What bothered me most about the story was not the conventionality of the plot, but how uneven and under-developed many of the characters were. Had this version of Alice featured characters which were a little more fleshed out in terms of motives, personality and their relationships with other characters, then I feel the more unimaginative aspects of the plot line could have been more easily forgiven. For example, the story would have had a bit more dramatic punch had the filmmakers spent more time delineating Alice's past relationships with the inhabitants of Underland. It's made perfectly clear that many of these creatures and people are Alice's friends, even if she initially cannot remember who they are, but why? Why should she care so much about being the savior of these bizarre people? The lack of true inter-personality between Alice and the denizens of Underland only serves to undermine the gravitas of the story. Similarly, one of the more interesting side aspects of the movie was the deep-rooted animosity between the Red Queen and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), which is alluded to briefly at points throughout the movie but never expanded upon enough to give the climax of the movie the weight it should have had.
It seems at times as if Burton was hoping the mere presence and big-screen acumen of cast members such as Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, etc. would make up for the deficiencies of their respective character's scripting. Instead, it only served to allow much of the cast (both live-action and CGI) to drown the movie in scenery-chewing ham, which at times is fun, but does get a bit tiresome after awhile.
Regardless, the film is well-cast, and it is indeed mainly the actors that make this movie watchable. Relative newcomer Mia Wasikowska is probably the best of the live-action characters; she brings a very believable sense of earnestness and determination to Alice. As the swishy Mad Hatter, Johnny Depp is both effectively effervescent and melancholy but seems at times to be channeling Captain Jack Sparrow a little more than he should be. Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen and Crispin Glover's slimy Knave of Hearts are both pretty one-dimensional but, for what it's worth, are still fun to hate. Anne Hathaway is woefully underused as a head-in-the-clouds White Queen; she has some of the best comedic and dramatic moments of the movie in her limited amount of screen time. The voice cast of the CGI characters is top-notch, with Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas, Michael Sheen, and Alan Rickman the standouts.
Burton's vision of Underland, though not as creative as I'd have liked, is still interesting; unlike the lush, vibrant scenery found in much of Pandora in James Cameron's Avatar, there always seems to be a permeating sense of decay in Underland, as if Underland under the Red Queen is a paradise that is slowly but surely sliding into desolation. The 3-D effects are solid and do make the movie more fun to watch, especially when the Cheshire Cat (my favorite character in the movie overall) is on screen.
The movie has many strengths; it's funny at times, it's well-cast, the characters are enjoyable when they're not being excessively overbearing, and it's apparent that a lot of time and effort was put into the production values of the film. But the strengths just barely outweigh the weaknesses, which are a lack of character development, a stubborn reliance on conventionality and style over substance, and a final climatic battle that is both unexciting and painfully uncreative and not to mention ends with one of the stupidest and most pointless moments I've ever seen in a movie.
To paraphrase the Hatter, Burton's Alice in Wonderland is lacking the "much-ness" that could have made it a bit "mucher" that it wound up being.
Public Enemies (2009)
Low-key, but engaging...mostly
Considering the track record of director Michael Mann when it comes to making crime dramas (Collateral, The Insider, Heat), I found myself surprised by the direction he took with Public Enemies. Instead of a nail-biting suspense movie set in the 1930s, I found myself watching a fairly low-key drama about the fall of one of America's most notorious criminals.
Audiences who come to watch Public Enemies expecting it to be a swashbuckling crime film will likely leave the theater disappointed. Some critics and film fans have faulted Mann for not putting enough adrenaline into this movie, and truth be told, at times his insistence on keeping this movie low-key as a whole does get a bit tiresome. Because of the film's overall lack of suspense, it finds itself relying heavily on the performances of its actors to keep audiences engaged. And for a crime drama without much suspense, that is asking a lot. Fortunately, the cast of the film is generally up to the task.
In terms of the performances in the movie, Johnny Depp is the standout, hands down. Film fans who know Depp only as Captain Jack Sparrow likely will be shocked by his understated and effective performance in this movie, which is a refreshing change-up for him, given his recent track record of films. Depp's best scene in this film, in which his John Dillinger tries to woo Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) at her job with a smörgåsbord of tough talk, is a perfect testament to why practically every girl alive is currently infatuated with him. Similarly, Christian Bale plays a role against type, portraying FBI agent Melvin Purvis, a promising agent who finds himself somewhat in over his head after he is assigned by the fledgling Bureau to track Dillinger down. His performance is not quite as effective as Depp's, but nevertheless is a welcome change of pace for him after he mailed it in as John Connor in his last film (Terminator Salvation). Cotillard does a solid if unspectacular job as Frechette, while Billy Crudup's J. Edgar Hoover is entertaining but slightly more cartoony than it should have been.
Mann's depiction of the 1930s Midwest, oddly enough, lacks much visual evidence of the Great Depression, and the film as a whole would have been better (especially considering the film's overall lack of suspense throughout) had he sacrificed some of the film's more melodramatic moments in order to give the audience a clearer idea of just how important the Dillinger case was in modernizing the way crime is fought in America, as well as how much Dillinger himself captured the imagination of Americans as a then-modern-day Jesse James. Nevertheless, Mann was clearly valuing substance over style while making this movie. For example, the violence in this film is played out in a fashion that stresses realism over showiness, even when the intensity of it is dialed up a bit, which is a nice change of pace from the stylized insanity of the violence found in many other crime flicks.
Though far from being a dramatic masterpiece, I found Public Enemies to be a welcome breather from much of what has been passing as entertainment in movie theaters these days.
An ambitious, over-indulgent attempt at making the ultimate brainless summer film
When discussing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, one must disregard discussing issues typically inherent to most quality films, such as plot development, character development, and acting ability, because these aspects of film-making are clearly irrelevant to director Michael Bay, especially after considering that this movie is his latest entry in a lengthy resume of largely brainless blockbuster films. Rather, one must discuss what this movie is, and it is Bay's attempt at making the brainless summer movie to end all brainless summer movies.
Looking back on classic summer popcorn movies such as Independence Day, Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc., one will notice that most of these films tend to have one of a number of common denominators that draw the masses to them; loud and expensive special effects, a healthy dollop of action-adventure, an escapist premise, and at least one source of T & A. Some are critically acclaimed, most are critically panned for whatever predictable reasons that pompous critics who write for alleged high-brow publications typically come up with. But the bottom line is, these common denominators compose a formula for box-office success, one that moviegoers eagerly turn to time and time again. Based on his directing credits and based on how successful his movies have been, it's clear that Bay knows how to work this formula backward and forward.
With Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Bay is not merely trying to top his first effort in the series from two years ago: he's trying to top every mindless popcorn flick ever made. This might initially sound like I'm overstating his ambition, but if one thinks about the movie for more than the five seconds that Bay expects your attention span to be, one realizes that this is the case.
Bay's ambition must be commended. He knows that people don't go to see a movie about giant killer robots, or even a summer blockbuster period, for the interesting characters, or even a plot line that makes sense. So with this movie, he has masterfully attempted to eliminate all pretensions to the above, because his knows that those things are mostly irrelevant to bolstering a popcorn movie's bottom line. Indeed, after seeing this movie, all I could recall about the story was something about the bad robots needing to blow up the sun for some reason, and all I could remember about the characters was Shia LeBeouf's character running around screaming, John Tuturro's character making unfunny wisecrack after unfunny wisecrack, and Megan Fox's character looking unbelievably hot even while dirty and running for her life in the desert.
Logically, this movie should be the best summer popcorn movie ever made. It's 2 1/2 hours of pulse-pounding relentless escapist fantasy. The special effects are amazing. The action is intense. There are enough shots of Megan Fox looking sexy to fill a few issues of Maxim magazine. It has everything a film fan should supposedly want from a summer popcorn movie, and it's all cranked up to 11.
So why ISN'T it the best summer popcorn movie ever made?
The answer to this question is a painful, age-old cliché. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is unabashed cinematic junk food in its purest form. Cinematic junk food can be tasty, but as the cliché goes, too much of it can be tiring, and will eventually give movie-goers a bellyache from over-indulging. But this isn't even merely cinematic junk food: it's the cinematic equivalent of drinking five extra-large energy drinks in one sitting: it'll get you going initially, and you'll be excited and maybe even a little entertained for awhile. But after the rush is over, you'll realize just how unhealthy for you it is to gorge yourself on something so shamelessly devoid of substance...or you'll become addicted to it and crave it even more.
Considering just how much money this movie is likely going to make, it's safe to say that Michael Bay has addicted enough people to this franchise that he could likely get away with Transformers 3 being nothing but a slide-show of giant robots, explosions and sexy shots of Megan Fox. Don't tell me people wouldn't pay money to watch it, because people are basically paying money to watch it now.
Terminator Salvation (2009)
Lacks imagination and could have played to its strengths more
In Terminator Salvation, director McG creates a stark vision of a future in which a devastated world is filled with killer robots and humans who will do anything to survive. It's visually sublime, at times exciting, and introduces an interesting new character to the series. But while it's a decent part-reboot/part-continuation of the Terminator franchise, not to mention a marked improvement over Jonathan Mostow's forgettable Terminator 3, what keeps it from reaching the upper echelon of quality summer popcorn movies is a lack of fun and a story and characters that could have been beefed up a bit.
The first Terminator film was an old-fashioned low-budget monster movie that nonetheless contained some frighteningly visceral imagery. The second film remains to this day one of the greatest action flicks of all time; groundbreaking film-making on a number of levels. Despite the first two films in the series being worlds apart in some respects, the things they had in common, besides some entertaining action, were interesting characters as well as a sense of fun and innovation. Terminator Salvation, in contrast, is generally lacking in all three of these areas.
The movie opens in the year 2003 with a death-row inmate, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) agreeing to release his body to the custody of Cyberdyne Industries for research after his execution. Despite a bit of awkward scripting in this scene, Worthington and Helena Bonham Carter (cameoing as a Cyberdyne researcher dying of cancer) make it work; a demonstration of how talented actors can at times overcome a weak script.
That said, Worthington's Wright is by far the most interesting character in the movie, and the movie fares its best when it makes him the focus, in part due to his character being the closest thing the movie offers to a new wrinkle in the franchise mythology. His interactions with a teenage Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), whom he meets while wandering the ruined streets of Los Angeles, periodically inject the movie with some desperately-needed humor. Worthington's low-key, understated performance is pitch-perfect; he is believable as a badass whose mere existence makes him vulnerable, and movie-goers will likely wish that the film would have firmly focused on Wright's struggle to both deal with the reality of the world he awakened to as well as solving the mystery of what exactly happened to him after his "execution." In contrast, the activities of the human resistance, led in part by an adult John Connor (Christian Bale), seem strangely tacked-on, fairly aimless up until the point in the film in which Connor and Wright finally cross paths. This is not the fault of the performers; all the actors do as good a job as can be expected for a movie such as this. Bale's Connor is thankfully (for the most part) not the clone of his Batman persona that the trailers at times had suggested it might be. As was the case in Star Trek, Yelchin succeeds in playing the plucky, resourceful teenager. Carter's cameo is fantastic despite it being a bit under-written, and her presence alone makes you wish the writers had done more with the role she was given. But the clear standout is Worthington, in part because his role is the one that is scripted the strongest.
McG's version of the future is fittingly bleak and colorless, and his periodic allusions and homages to the previous Terminator movies are a nice touch. Despite some impressive visuals, however, the viewer will easily detect a lack of imagination in McG's directing job. For example, much of the early action comes off as little more than a hybrid of Mad Max and Transformers (the "Transforminator" ridicule many of you have likely heard of by this point is well-deserved), while the climatic battle at the end of the film is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the one at the end of Terminator 2. It's not that the action is never exciting or fun to watch (which it is at times); it's simply not anything you haven't seen before. His pacing during the film's quieter moments is a bit hit-and-miss as well; it will become clear to the viewer that McG can direct action much better than he can drama after seeing how awkward some of the conversations between the characters are.
Enough was entertaining in this film to give me hope that the inevitable fifth Terminator film will be willing to return to the core ideals that made the series a marquee franchise; interesting characters, innovative action, and a sense of fun. For now, we're stuck with just another hunk of over-buttered, seen-it-before summer popcorn that takes itself way too seriously.
Bride Wars (2009)
Not over-the-top enough
After reading the reviews for this film, most of which were, to put it nicely, largely negative, I came under the impression that this movie was going to be the cinematic equivalent of being forced to watch someone kill your dog right after they were done eating your firstborn child. But after looking at the cover of the DVD package and seeing the films two leading ladies (one of whom is one of my favorite actresses) smiling and looking heart-breakingly radiant, I thought to myself, could the film really be THAT bad?
The answer to that question: Yes...and no.
Make no mistake about it: Bride Wars is a complete and utter piece of celluloid trash. It's both a poorly-scripted attempt at satirizing the Bridezilla phenomenon and a poorly-scripted fable about the unbreakable bonds of true friendship. It's told with one-dimensional characters and enough clichés to fill the Grand Canyon.
So, why don't I find myself hating this film as much as I should be? The sad truth is, there is just enough good about this film to make me realize that there is a truly hilarious comedy buried somewhere in this mess of a film.
The biggest problem I have with this film is its insistence on trying to come off at times as being a semi-serious film about friendship and the perils of romance. The fact is, the writing and performances in this film are simply not strong enough for anyone to take the film's periodic attempts at being earnest seriously, especially after considering how over-the-top the actions of the two main characters are.
Which segues into the other major problem I have with this movie. The screenwriters were pulling their punches far too often with the comedy; as if they were too afraid of being so over-the-top that nobody would take their film seriously. The fact is, no one was rightly going to watch a film titled "Bride Wars" expecting it to be sincere, heartwarming social commentary. While some critics have, understandably, harshly condemned this movie for making its main characters seem like shallow caricatures who are disturbingly obsessed with the superficial aspects of their respective weddings, I believe that these criticisms are overblown and assume too much about the apparent progressiveness of our society. The fact is, humans can be absurdly obsessed with the superficial at times, and just because this movie overblows this concept a bit does not automatically make the film wrong just because the main characters happen to be women.
That said, this movie was at its best when it was at its most over-the-top. For example, seeing Anne Hathaway's character walk around the busy streets of New York with a beyond-gaudy pumpkin-orange tan as a result of a prank pulled by Kate Hudson's character was goofy and fun, and I think that the writers could have done more with that circumstance than what they conjured up. The same could be said about a number of other parts in the film where the main characters were acting spiteful towards each other, such as Hudson and Hathaway's showdown at the bachelorette party and the climactic cat-fight between the two during the wedding ceremony. Both scenes were well-conceived but ultimately came up short in terms of just how fun they wound up being, especially after considering the comedic talents of both Hudson and Hathaway.
I can only wonder just how crazy these scenes and others in the movie could have been had the writers had enough guts to admit to themselves that the insanity in the film was its best aspect, gone for broke, and made the feud between the two ladies truly rambunctious and demented. This unwillingness to be truly zany extends to the characters themselves, as the writers are either unable or unwilling to let the characters embrace their inner caricature to a point in which the film's comedy might have taken flight.
For what it's worth, Hudson and Hathaway (both of whom are shot by the cinematographer in a manner that makes them glow a bit) do the best they can with what they have to work with, with Hathaway's performance a bit more well-rounded due to her character actually being given a chance to develop somewhat. The chemistry between the two is a bit hit-and-miss, but generally they play off each other pretty well. Her annoying voice-over narration of the film aside, Candice Bergen does a decent job with her control-freak wedding planner character, while Kristen Johnston's performance as Hathaway's lousy co-worker is memorable mainly for being irritating and unfunny. The rest of the performances in the movie are thankless and forgettable.
When all is said and done, the film's insistence on not embracing its inner cartoon winds up costing it dearly in the fun department. What results is a bland, inoffensive chick flick that, at best, might make a decent rental for a young bride or bride-to-be willing to stomach its saccharine sentimentality and its half-baked characters and attempts at humor.
Angels & Demons (2009)
Monotonous, overlong, and not as exciting as it should have been
While watching Ron Howard's adaptation of Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, I find myself inevitably comparing the film to the TV series 24. Similar to the plot of a typical season of 24, Angels and Demons finds its protagonist (portrayed in this film by Tom Hanks) attempting to solve an improbably convoluted mystery in an extremely limited amount of time, a mystery riddled with betrayals, narrow escapes, and explosions. However, while 24 for the most part succeeds in its efforts to convey a sense of suspense and entertainment as its plot-line gradually unfolds, Angels and Demons ultimately fails to convey any sort of real suspense and mystery behind its ostensibly high-octane whodunit that unravels in the streets of Rome.
Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks) is called upon by a wary Vatican College of Cardinals to help them solve the symbology-fueled mystery behind the abduction of four leading Catholic Cardinals in lieu of the election of a new pope. Joining Landgon in his mission is CERN physicist Vittoria Vetra (Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer; think an older, blander physical clone of Anne Hathaway), who for her part is investigating both the theft of a canister of antimatter from the CERN laboratory in Switzerland as well as investigating the death of a colleague at CERN, who just happens to be a priest that the recently-deceased pope held in high regard due to his efforts to prove the existence of God using science. Aiding them in their endeavor is head of the Vatican Swiss Guard Richter (Stellan Skarsgård) and the deceased pope's Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor).
The prospect of a fast-paced race against time to uncover the plot behind the abduction of the Cardinals as well as a plot to destroy the Vatican is certainly a promising premise. Oddly enough, this movie, in which the science vs. religion, faith vs. fact debate is largely center stage, lacks a real heart and soul.
The script of the movie subtracts most of the character development found in the book in order to cram as much tedious description of the symbology and obvious exposition of the clues in the mystery as possible. Because of the film's insistence of spoon-feeding every last detail of the mystery to its audience, as well as the film's insistence of removing all sense of subtext in the film by exhaustively delineating the science vs. religion debate every chance it gets, the pacing of the film is unnecessarily slowed down, which contributes largely to the lack of any real suspense in the movie.
In movies that are as fast-paced as this film aspires to be, character development is often regarded as an afterthought by the screenwriters and understandably so. However, as was the case in The Da Vinci Code, it is such an afterthought in this movie that the actors seem more like props than characters, there merely to advance the supposed mystery from one scene to the next, with any sense of motivation or personality in the characters almost feeling completely irrelevant to the screenwriters. As a result, every character in the movie was painfully one-dimensional. Though not quite as wooden as his first bout as Robert Langdon, the considerable talents of Tom Hanks largely go to waste once again in this film; the hints of personality he attempts to inject into the role are refreshingly welcome but unfortunately few and far in between. Zurer's character does little more than follow Hanks around from scene to scene. Skarsgård's police captain grumbles a lot. McGregor's Camerlengo mopes and paces a lot.
The lack of three-dimensional characters would be forgivable if the action of the film was actually exciting and fun to watch. But it's simply not the case in this film. The film stubbornly sticks to the formula of Hanks and co. running around Rome looking at statues and monuments, talking about hidden symbols, watching someone die, then running to another part of Rome to repeat the process, interrupted periodically by McGregor making heavy-handed conversation with members of the College of Cardinals. This monotony lasts up until the film's final act, which as absurd and far-out as it is, is welcome relief from the monotony of watching Hanks run around Rome and McGregor wringing his hands inside St. Peter's Basilica.
The film runs an exhausting two-and-a-half hours, about two-thirds of that time devoted to long-winded speeches by the characters about symbolism and science vs. religion. With all due respect to Mr. Hanks (one of my favorite actors) and co., my idea of a fun summer movie is not two-plus hours of college freshman-level pseudo-philosophy and pseudo-history with the occasional car chase and murder thrown in for good measure.
Star Trek (2009)
Letter-perfect casting saves a hit-and-miss plot line
Prior to his death, Gene Roddenberry said that he hoped that someday someone would come along and redo Star Trek, making it bigger and better. Almost two decades after his death, Roddenberry's hopes have mostly been fulfilled by director J.J. Abrams (T.V.'s Alias & Lost, Mission Impossible III), who has laid a mostly solid foundation for a more modern take on the swashbuckling space opera.
By far the best thing Abrams' update has going for it is its virtually flawless casting choices. Each actor does his or her part in making their respective roles their own while paying a considerable amount of homage to the original cast. While most critics have reserved the majority of their praise (and rightfully so) for Chris Pine's rebel-with-a-heart-of-gold Kirk and Zachary Quinto's slow-simmering yet cerebral Spock, Anton Yelchin's Chekov and Simon Pegg's Scotty deserve an equal amount of praise. Both are equal parts hilarious and effective; Yelchin as a plucky recruit whom people can hardly understand thanks to his hammed-up Russian accent, and Pegg as a slightly-off-his-rocker Scotty. Zoe Saldana's Uhura is sassy and fun, and Karl Urban brings a quirky, ticking-time-bomb-of-insanity touch to Dr. McCoy. John Cho's Sulu is the only true weak link of the updated cast, but that is mainly due to his character being given little to do other than get in a sword fight and screw up a warp jump. As for the supporting cast, everyone performs admirably, with Leonard Nimoy's return as an elderly Spock carrying some unexpected, and effective, dramatic punch.
The cast is so outstanding as a whole, it is easy to overlook the movie's flaws, which can mainly be found in its storyline. Despite Eric Bana's performance as the villainous Nero being solid, it is hard for the viewer to totally accept his motives behind his quest for vengeance against the Federation because the premise behind his hatred is rather silly, coming off almost as an afterthought when his motives are finally revealed. The tension between Quinto's Spock and Pine's Kirk is also a bit hit-and-miss, ranging from believable to poorly thought-out (to avoid posting spoilers for those who haven't seen it, I won't delineate what happens in this review).
Despite the movie's flaws, it does lay out some impressive groundwork for a new generation of Star Trek fans. Fans familiar with Abrams' work know that the man knows how to film action sequences, and the amped-up outer-space action in the film is gloriously realized and a joy to watch. Most of the interactions between the cast are terrific, with some hilarious humor that almost never detracts from the movie. Thanks to by far the biggest budget of any Star Trek movie, the effects and sets are, as expected, properly grandiose and stunning.
While not the near-flawless hunk of summer popcorn that 2008's The Dark Knight was, this film is nevertheless a promising start to what I hope will become a successful reboot of a classic science fiction saga.
Memo to George Lucas: THIS is how you update an old sci-fi franchise.
Mechanical and only occasionally sublime
If Zach Snyder's intent was to make the cinematic equivalent of reading a comic book when he made this movie, then he succeeded, for better or for worse.
This was one of the most mechanical movies I've seen in a long time. Every inch of this movie seemed to be crafted with the precision of a surgeon and an unbelievable amount of respect for the source material, excluding the ending, which is radically different from the novel. Because of the precision and carefulness of the crafting, however, the movie often feels lifeless and inorganic. In Watchmen, New York City is transformed from the City That Never Sleeps to the City That Just Is. It's flat, soulless, and mind-numbingly dull. This drabness carries on into the storyline itself, which drags on for an exhausting three hours, and only occasionally does it become the vibrant, sublime work of art that the graphic novel is. Even the movie's grisly action sequences seem to be more rote than riot.
Jackie Earle Haley, for the most part, makes this movie. He is completely believable as Rorschach, and despite his performance being mostly one-note and monotone, he seems to be the most three-dimensional character of the bunch, thanks largely to the enigmatic nature of his persona combined with how much of a sheer bad-ass he is. The rest of the performances range from solid to awful. Patrick Wilson is enjoyably goofy as Nite Owl II, and Billy Crudup captures the aloofness and disenchantment of Dr. Manhattan fairly well. Matthew Goode tries his best but ultimately his performance as Ozymandias lacks the punch it should have had. Malin Akerman winds up delivering the weakest performance in the movie. The casting director that decided to give her the role of Silk Spectre II needs to lose their job. The only thing that Akerman did well in this movie was look good both in and out of her jumpsuit, while completely failing to capture the essence of the character she was portraying.
At times, the movie is brilliant. The scenes with Rorschach in prison are executed well. Several of the flashback scenes carry some unexpected dramatic punch. The new ending is fairly well done.
I just have this feeling that the producers and the director were a little too obsessed with keeping the movie as true to the novel as possible, and wound up sucking most of the life and the humanity out of the project as a result. What resulted was a draining film experience that felt more like turning the pages of a book than the organic experience a movie should be. And after considering that reality, I'll stick with the comic, as should you.
A completely derivative premise that wastes a talented cast
Why such a talented cast, which includes rising stars Anne Hathaway and Patrick Wilson, would waste their time with such an obviously terrible film is a better mystery than the one this movie tried to conjure up.
By far the biggest problem with this movie is the premise. If you've seen Peter Weir's Fearless, M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, and James Wong's Final Destination (or even merely know what all of those movies are about), then you already know 95% of the plot of Passengers, including how it ends. However, the completely derivative premise is only one of an endless amount of problems with this movie. The script itself was barely passable at its best and absolutely atrocious at its worst. In other words, you have likely already seen most of what this movie has to offer, and you've seen it done far better.
In terms of how well the actors performed, Patrick Wilson did the best job. He does the best he can with what he had to work with, but he can only do so much with such a rotten script. I expected more out of Anne Hathaway, who in the past has made weak characters in weak movies at least a little compelling (Havoc, Get Smart). Here she's wooden throughout most of the movie and seems to be going through the motions, almost like she's bored. Most of the film's excellent supporting cast (including Dianne Wiest, David Morse and William B. Davis) is given little to do and is all but completely wasted.
The movie finally picks up steam in its final 20 or so minutes, but the fact is, even the most casual moviegoer will be able to see the "twist" at the end of the movie coming from a mile away. Plus, the "twist," when thought about, is completely absurd and makes no sense.
Among the few bright spots of the film are the soundtrack (which does capture the mood the movie tries to present rather well) and the cinematography, which recalls the slow-simmering, ever-present gloominess of Gore Verbinski's The Ring.
Overall though, this movie has all the makings of a direct-to-video stinker that likely only received the perfunctory theatrical release that it did due to the fact that it came from the same studio that had released the critically-acclaimed Rachel Getting Married merely weeks earlier, which, like this film, starred Anne Hathaway.
Get Smart (2008)
Lacks an identity, but flashes potential
Is Get Smart a comedic spy caper or an action-packed buddy flick ala Rush Hour? The filmmakers clearly could not decide, and instead attempted to make the movie both. The result is a film that lacks an identity and feels a bit half-baked and in need of a few more re-writes.
Steve Carell essentially turns his Michael Scott character from TV's The Office into a comedic secret agent for this movie, and though he really isn't breaking any new comedic ground, he's still the best thing about this movie. Anne Hathaway is surprisingly adept as both an action heroine and a sexy comedic straight woman, and she may have gained the most out of anyone appearing in this film due to this role successfully expanding her repertoire. Her character, however, could have been utilized for laughs a bit more. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Alan Arkin, Masi Oka and Terry Crews all have comparatively limited screen time but generally make the most of it.
The film's biggest handicap is its hit-or-miss script, which quite often drags down its actors with jokes that are often eye-rollingly corny and/or unnecessarily lewd. The movie's funniest moments seem to come when the filmmakers take the cuffs off of Carell and Hathaway and allow them to improvise their way through scenes; the two have great spontaneous comedic chemistry together. Unfortunately, those moments are few and far in between.
The action scenes are well-shot and fairly entertaining (especially the film's climax), but regardless, this is a perfect example of the film's lack of focus: Get Smart should be more about comedy than action. It almost seems as if the filmmakers spent too much time perfecting the action scenes and not enough time perfecting the comedy and trimming the fat of the script. Maybe this is the biggest reason why the movie felt like it was 10 to 15 minutes too long. Had the writers edited out or retooled just a few more of the really bad jokes in the script, the movie would have been shorter and likely better off for it.
Still, there was enough good in this movie to give me hope that the filmmakers learned from their mistakes. When the inevitable sequel comes out in a few years, hopefully the filmmakers will give the script a bit more focus and a definitive tone while limiting the corny jokes, let Carell and Hathaway do more of what they do best, and remember to keep the movie more in tune with the spirit of its source material.
The Wrestler (2008)
A Standard Story with Amazing Performances
It's hard to tell whether this movie is either an expose of the fickle, flash-in-the-pan realities of professional wrestling or purely a character study. One this is for certain though: Mickey Rourke will never be better cast. His performance as Randy The Ram seems almost too real...as if Rourke is aware of the quasi-autobiographical nature of the character he's playing. His performance is low-key, understated, and startlingly effective as a gentle has-been wrestler who is a good man mired with serious problems. Marisa Tomei, who plays an aging stripper who serves as something of a female counterpart to Rourke's aging wrestler, also does a great job.
This movie teaches the well-told but valuable lesson that good looks, fame and fortune are all fleeting, and if you're fortunate enough to hit it big, you'd do well to make the most out of your time in the sun. Wrestling gave Randy everything he had...and it took everything away from him as well because he wasn't smart about his life, leaving him a broken-down shell of what he was with no family, no money and no real future. Yet Rourke performance makes you root for him, despite his character's miscues.
Rourke and Tomei's performances carry this movie, which as stated above, is a standard fame-is-fleeting story. Overall though, this movie is a solid lesson about the harsh realities of glory.
A promising premise and a solid performance wasted
Despite the fact that this movie is like the umpteenth variation of Rebel Without A Cause, anybody who has gone to a high school in an affluent area in the last decade and seen the amount of pampered young 'wiggers' there are knows that the premise of this flick is relevant to today's youth and is worth exploring. Unfortunately, the movie fails to deliver on this promising premise and only succeeds in wasting a fine performance from Anne Hathaway.
The movie WANTS to make a powerful statement about spoiled, naive, pseudo-disillusioned youths searching for identity in the superficial only to receive a colossal reality check when they realize the life they've been imitating isn't as glamorous as they had thought. Unfortunately, this noble message is lost in a weak script and characters that are either one-dimensional, unbelievable or both. Although one must consider the fact that the screenplay was for the most part written by a 16-year-old girl before judging it, it is disappointing that an Academy Award-winning co-writer with some experience with this genre of film (Stephen Gaghan) could not give the screenplay and characters a more authentic feel.
Even if it was the screenwriter's intention to make the script's dialogue horrible for the sake of legitimizing just how inane the gang of rich white teens are acting, the horrid screen writing comes off so cartoonish that the viewer will have an extremely difficult time accepting the dialogue, and consequently the behavior, of these characters as being legitimate. As a result, the gang of rich white wannabe thugs come off, for the most part, as being overwrought caricatures saddled with some of the most laughably horrible dialogue ever heard in a motion picture. As for the gang of cholo thugs in the movie, they come off as being far too nice and too stereotypical to Latinos, and thus seem only marginally less cartoony that the gang of rich white kids.
The movie's lone saving grace is Anne Hathaway. Playing a role that shares some parallels with and could be considered a natural extension of her smart-girl-with-a-rebellious-streak Meghan Green character from the short-lived TV series Get Real, hers was the only character in the movie that had any sort of depth and believability. The script, despite its many shortcomings, succeeds in making it clear just how self-aware, intelligent, and capable of good Hathaway's character is, in spite of her actions as a member of the gang of rich white teens, giving the film its lone three-dimensional character. Because of Hathaway's talent as an actress, as well as her successful exploitation of the public's predominant perception of her as a wholesome girl next door for this film, it is easy for the audience to believe that Hathaway's character is the rebel-without-a-clue fish out of water that the script is trying to portray her as. Hathaway's acting is superb, head and shoulders above anyone else in the film, which adds to her character's legitimacy. However, the people who see this movie will likely be too busy snickering at the inane lines of dialogue she's repeatedly forced to drop or, more likely, be gaping at their TV thinking "O...M...G! The chick from The Princess Diaries is actually TOPLESS!" to notice her solid performance.
Which leads to a discussion of arguably the biggest reason most people even know this film exists. Hathaway has claimed in interviews that she only does nudity in films if she deems it necessary to the story. While a case can be made that most of the nudity in the film was appropriate when considering the context of the scenes in which it was featured, I find myself questioning just how "necessary" it is, for example, to show Hathaway's character popping her top while making out with her boyfriend (or for that matter, to see Bijou Phillips' character in the film topless while taking a bubble bath). That's not to say this movie should be mistaken for a late-night film on Skinemax; it most certainly isn't. But Hathaway is topless just enough in this film to make this obvious attempt to expand her acting repertoire beyond the roles in family films she had previously been limited to seem heavy-handed and maybe even a little desperate. Anne, take it from me, you're a wonderful actress. That alone will do more to land you mature roles than taking off your top for sex scenes in a poorly-scripted indie movie ever will.
When all is said and done, the amount of nudity in this movie only made it worse; when you factor the amount of it in along with in how disappointing the movie is, it only adds evidence to the argument that the only reason this movie exists was for Hathaway to prove to us just how far she was willing to go to avoid being typecast as Princess Mia Thermopolis for the rest of her acting career...which is a shame, considering her legitimately solid acting job in this movie.
Rent "Kids" or "Thirteen" instead; both films are about topics similar to this movie and both are far better.
Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Absorbing and engaging...and a flawless performance by Anne Hathaway.
It is rare that a movie sucks me into its world as well as this one did. I think the way Johnathan Demme shot the movie (handheld cameras, home-movie style) really contributed to that. Some people might complain about the camera work, but I think it added more than it subtracted to the movie.
Anne Hathaway's performance as recovering drug addict Kym was, in a word, brilliant...it might be a once-in-a-lifetime performance for her. How she managed to make her character so believable and human is astounding. Her role transcends that of the traditional protagonist/antagonist. At times you want to slap her character silly because she's so self-centered and thoughtless and she seems like she doesn't care if she single-handedly ruins her sister's wedding, but at the same time she makes you believe that she's genuinely trying to get well and she's doing the best she can and the only reason she's acting this way is because she doesn't know any better. Just about everyone else in the movie seemed natural and fluid; the acting was that superb. Hathaway, though, is the standout, and the movie would not have been nearly as good as it was had her performance not been so close to being flawless.
At times, the movie does drag; the wedding rehearsal dinner could have been a little shorter (despite the fact that it has one of the movie's best moments), and the wedding reception seemed overlong and a bit self-indulgent. The sex scene also seemed odd and unnecessary. But for the most part, I found it completely absorbing; celluloid family dysfunction at its most sublime and believable.
I can only hope that in the future Hathaway continues to choose roles like this that show just how talented an actress she is.