Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sucker Punch

"So what's the BAD news?"
Immediately upon the lights coming up in the theater, Watcher X turned me and announced- with a sort of breathless excitement that tells of a long wait: "That. Was. Terrible!" I chuckled but gave no other response. I have a personal rule that I don't discuss movies until I'm out of the building. Usually this rule serves two purposes: The first is to protect me from realizing my mortal fear of spoiling the movie for someone who's heading in to see it. The second, is because I'm always curious about people's gut reactions to films. Excited utterances that can only be witnessed in the minutes directly following a screening. This time, however, I must admit there was more to my silence.

I like to think that by the time the big day came, anyone who was paying attention knew not to expect greatness from Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder's newest, biggest, boldest, and in the end worst film. It had all the warning signs: Trailers that couldn't seem to tell us anything about the story, critic screenings delayed until the very last minute, interviews with cast and crew seemingly defending the project before it even released- the list goes on. But when the rock music started and the credits rolled, I still found myself surprised. Not by it being bad, but why it was bad. I certainly did not foresee this movies biggest flaw being the it's plot had too much going on, and yet there we were.

Played by Emily Browning, Baby Doll is a twenty year-old woman who still wears her hair in pig-tails (that's a main plot point right there,write that down). Her mother, upon her death, leaves all of her assets to Baby Doll and her younger sister- much to the horror of their wicked step-father. In a drunken rage he makes clear his intentions to collect what he feels he's owed from the girls personally, and when Baby Doll fights his advances he turns to her younger sister. Baby Doll comes to defend her and in the ensuing struggle sister is killed, step-father is shot, and Baby Doll is sent on her way to the insane asylum. All of this is told via an opening montage that serves as a perfect example of everything Snyder is known and loved for. His choice of music maybe a bit overt, but still wonderfully wielded as he weaves an incredible amount of information into the few opening minutes of his film.

It's when we arrive at the insane asylum however, that things begin to to take a turn for the worst. We watch as Baby Doll's step-father pays off corrupt orderly to make sure she's lobotomized and there for unable to point the finger at him, within earshot of the her no less. But as horrible as we may feel for her, after two additional realities laid over the original you'll find yourself shifting uncomfortably in your seat and starting to loose sympathy due to sheer distraction. The inherent story Snyder (who also co-wrote with Steve Shibuya) is trying to tell is one of young women wielding the the very thing their captors want to exploit as a weapon to enact their escape. This is a story I find incredibly interesting, and it's potential as a spectacular movie is what made it so hard for me to let this film go on it's merry way to a thumbs down as I left the theater. But this kernel of greatness is buried too far beneath the rubble of this over written, over thought film that it can't be salvaged, let alone appreciated.

This is the essence of Sucker Punch: a handful of ideas that really truly intrigue, hopelessly out numbered by the legions of ideas that don't. They subdue their interesting brethren, drowning them in a quagmire of poorly explored plot points and pushy, faux inspirational monologues. And on top of it all, Snyder serves us his trademark brand of visually arresting action sequences. But, where 300's action is a three course meal served to you in generous but digestible portions, Sucker Punch is John Doe tying your hands and ankles with barbed wire and force feeding you until you vomit, plead for you life, and eventually burst.

The performances are enough to carry the "story", but none among the characters that actually matter bring anything amazing to table. Scott Glenn very quickly goes from forgettable to down right annoying as the shoehorned Wise Man, who not only seems to serve a purpose that could have been realized with infinitely more relevance to the story, but may well have been written completely from fortune cookie quotes. The Wise Man is not the only thing that seems out of place in Baby Doll's fantasy world (within a fantasy world). While a great deal of the imagery is pulled from sources in her true reality, still more seems completely unexplained- which strikes me as just lazy.

There will be a lot of talk about how this is Zack Snyder's first project based off an original script and I'm well aware of the implications. However, let's not forget that this is the same man who ,with 300, made what may very well be the only movie based off a graphic novel to completely outshine it's source material. This is the director who managed to adapt Watchmen and not only avoid massacring it, but hand in a damn good final project. Most impressively, this is the man who, in a world of remakes gone wild and horribly wrong, gave us proof that they aren't always a thing to be feared with Dawn of the Dead.

The only conclusion to draw here is that, like many first time writers, Snyder let his excitement and love for his project override his good sense. Of course, no resume or excuses can rescue Sucker Punch from it's fate as a (well earned) flop- nor should they. But one misfire does not an M. Night make, and you better believe that when Snyder's next original hits theaters I'll be there, waiting to decide my opinion when the light's come up. Potential should not condone failure, but it should earn second chances.

Real Deal Recommends:
The Uninvited: Browning in an under appreciated thriller.
Dawn of the Dead: The very definition of what a remake should be.
Hunt for Red October: Glenn in spectacular Clancy adaptation.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Quickie: Battle: Los Angeles

Have you ever watched someone try to be "cool"? It's excruciating. Especially when it's a good friend. The wide smile that you know is really a grimace, the bead of sweat the belies how much effort is really going into trying to make all the right jokes or references. And because your on the outside looking in, you know that no one is buying it- but the horror show continues.

Battle: Los Angeles tries so hard. But where our sad friend above tried so hard to be cool, B:LA attempts desperately to be emotional. It's like Director Jonathon Liebesmen and writer Chris Bertolini knew that everyone would peg their project as an empty headed action movie- and so they force fed it all the heart-related tropes they could fit (and a few they couldn't) in hopes of proving the would be detractors wrong.

If you've ever seen a war film you already know everything you need to know about these "characters". They are a hodge podge of wartime personailties that monologue and sacrifice themselves in all the same ways as their predecessors. Each has a back-story established in one minute or less, meant only to make you miss them when they're gone, which you won't. Most of the performances are well done if not a bit bare bones, especially Aaron Eckhart who seems unwilling to let his one shade character lay still.

Going into B:LA I told Watcher X that it couldn't possibly be worse the Skyline, which was literally made up of set pieces and story lines cut and pasted from every alien invasion movie ever made. I wouldn't say that I was wrong, B:LA is certainly not worse then the broken Skyline, but it suffers from the same basic issues. Where Skyline assembled itself from used sci-fi action parts, B:LA relies on (overly) tried and true emotional parts -with a few very recognizable action moments to boot. But both are so crammed full of recycled material that the stretch marks start to show before the halfway mark.

It's a common enough story- well advertised in no way means well made. Like anyone who tries hard to be something their not, this movie over shoots it's target and lands far on the other side- in new territory but still nowhere near where it wanted so desperately to end up. While certainly enjoyable, Battle: Los Angeles is far from a must have, or even a must see. If your looking to pad your personal sci-fi portfolio then it may serve you well- but innovation seekers need not apply.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Theme Song Thursday!

Night Court. So many nights awake with only Judge Stone, Bull and the rest of the gang to keep me company. This is a theme song I can still recall on command (with sound effects).


And for the education of all of you who may not be familiar with Night Court (and for the enjoyment of all who are) I've posted an episode clip below. I chose this clip for a few reasons- the first being that picking a clip gave me an excuse to spend half the night watching old episodes. But this clip not only showcases the shows often dark humor, it also features Star Trek: The Next Generation's Brent Spiner. Which brings us to another show I used to watch well into the wee hours of the night... But that's for another day.

Long live John Larroquette!

Thanks to Spudtv, and Alacritous

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer

"The greater good? I am the greatest good your ever gonna get!"

At first glance there is little to set The Lincoln Lawyer aside from it's many peers. At second glance you'll realize that you had it right at first glance. The movie just has too many shortfalls to make it into long-term memory. But who says it has to? How many times have we accepted entries in other genres (action is a shining example) singing that old song: "It was a good time." Say what you want about The Lincoln Lawyer- but it at least delivers a good time.

Mathew McConaughey stars as Mick Haller, a cut throat defense lawyer who operates solely out of the back of his Lincoln town car. As sure as I will never spell his name correctly on the first try, you can go into any Mathew McConaughey movie and know that no matter what else he may or may not be (clothed being a decent example) he will most assuredly be charming. They say you should always play to your strengths, and I am man enough to admit that this is one of his. It seems now he's attempting to step away from his position as professional charmer with The Lincoln Lawyer, his first attempt at drama since 2000's U-571. Granted, Lincoln Lawyer is tilted in his favor, as the role calls mainly for charm, sprinkled lightly with drama here and there for flavor.

McConaughey pours on his trademark brand of smooth, but cannot seem to come up with a matching offering in the second department. His dramatic scenes definitely earn a pass on the pass/fail scale, but his effort is obvious and at times even distracting. The same can be said for Ryan Phillippe as the resident bad guy. He excels as the impeccably groomed, unspeakably spoiled rich kid, and shines the brightest when his character is feigning innocence and begging for mercy. But he falls hurtfully short as the remorseless predator, and when he can't seem to tie them all together the character is irrevocably stunted. While the rest of the cast feels a bit wasted for all their talent, I must mention that Michael Pena turns in two distinct and enjoyable performances. Every time I see him I'm left wanting more.

Where story fails to impress, Lincoln lawyer compensates with energy- the one thing it seems to have in spades. We are moved between scenes with a speed just this side of urgent, which in other films might be a complaint, but here serves the overall production well. There are certainly no moments of reflection waiting for you in The Lincoln Lawyer, but they would only slow down a movie that seems to thrive on speed. From the moment the lights go down (or rather twenty minutes after that moment since the abundance of commercials and trailers is a foregone conclusion) your in for an enjoyable but very rocky ride. From the highs of McConaughey's swagger to the lows of ridiculous subplot resolution, one thing is for sure: you won't be checking your watch.

Reel Deal Recommends:
A Time To Kill: Proof that a bad ending doesn't have to kill a great movie.
Breach: Philippe in a spectacular ensemble.
Lions for Lambs: An underrated movie starring Michael Pena

Friday, March 11, 2011

Role Call: Aaron Eckhart

Role Call is not a post about a persons strongest work or best work. Just their work that- for whatever reason- is on my mind, and why.

No, not that guy from Deep Blue Sea. Aaron Eckhart strikes me as one of those talented actors that, for whatever reason, everyone knows the face of but people rarely know the name of. Still, whether you know his name or not, his resume is undeniable. He's given us drama with the over-nominated under-awarded Rabbit Hole. He befriended Hero genre fans with his spectacular turn in The Dark Knight. He blew me away (pun intended) with Thank You for Smoking, effectively a one man show with him at the epicenter. And if you have romance on your mind, try Possession on for size. Starting today you can see him fight to save humanity inBattle: Los Angeles, but the title I'm recommending features him in a fight to save the entire planet. That's right ladies and gentlemen, I'm talking about the 2003 disaster film The Core.

It's easy to dismiss as a Roland Emmerich knock off, and it's certainly not based on the strongest science in cinema history. But to all of you willing to completely discount this title, i ask that you take a look at the cast, even beyond the aforementioned Mr.Eckhart: two time Oscar winner Hillary Swank, Oscar nominee Stanely Tucci, Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins, Delroy Lindo, Bruce Greenwood, Tcheky Karyo- the writers may be in doubt but the casting directors were on their game. Academy nobility and hollywood C-listers, you can't lose.

So I suggest you grab some friends, pop in this rental, and watch the world end. Then you can hit the theater and watch it end, again.

Thanks to

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

"I know that's what it looks like, but it's not. I can't explain to you why..."

In my review of Splice I said: "The trailers are telling you that Splice is just waiting to be the next Alien, a horror thriller that will keep you up at night with fear of what's crawling through your air ducts. The trailers are lying to you." It's not all that uncommon, trailers that pitch what they feel is the most widely appealing vision of a film instead of an honest representation. With Splice, it was obvious that they pitched the movie as a horror-thriller for fear that no one would come out to see the intense morality tale that the ended up being. But what about the movies where the trailer isn't meant to mislead. Where the story contained is really just that hard to explain? Enter The Adjustment Bureau.

Based (very loosely) on a short story by Philip K. Dick, The Adjustment Bureau makes up for what it lacks as an adaptation by taking Dick's basic idea and developing it into a full length feature film that tells one of the best romance stories I've watched in a long long time. As I sat in the theater I was reminded of one of my favorite romance films, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Not because the movies are alike or follow the same paths- but because they both use science fiction mechanics to propel an incredibly human and authentic look at how relationships rise and fall, and the way they affect the course of our lives.

At the center of the story are Matt Damon as David Norris, a politician running for state senate, and Emily Blunt as Elise Sellas, a talented ballet dancer; a chance meeting between the two that sets the story rolling. It's simple fact that any story of romance lives and dies by the heat of it's leads, and the onscreen chemistry between Damon and Blunt burns bright enough viewers might leave with the theater with a tan. Rooting for them comes naturally within moments of their first exchange, and that's all you need to be completely committed for the rest of the run time. The film also brings us another great performance from Anthony Mackie, a rising star I've been very vocal about wanting more from.

While the tone and the details of the journey your going to be taken may be hard to nail down in a trailer, once you understand the kind of story being told you will have no doubt how it ends. This is more a simple observation than a complaint. An endings predictability does not automatically disqualify it outright. The Adjustment Bureau's ending works as a conclusion, whether you'll be talking about it three weeks from now or not. if not, the movie will still leave you with more than enough to chew over with a fellow movie goer down the line.

It's very easy for me to add Adjustment Bureau to a list of recommendable films. As well as my list of "romance movies that are still romantic without being formulaic", and "movies that prove science fiction is more than aliens and spaceships". It may not be the taught "Big Brother" thriller the trailers would have believe it is, the film is almost better off for it. What a movie like this needs is word of mouth, though I'm sure a large part of that will be the inevitable (and in my opinion pointless) religious debates that will ensue. So see the movie, and then tell other people to see the movie. The Adjustment Bureau deserves an audience.

The Reel Deal Recommends:
Sunshine Cleaning: Blunt in a sub-plot that outshone the main.
The Good Shepherd: One of Damon's most complicated performances.
The Hurt Locker: Mackie boils in a film that won Best Picture for a reason.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

I Am Number Four

"But it's an easy fix. One line of dialogue. 'Thank God we invented the'- you know- 'whatever device."

I'm not going to pretend I don't know how the world works. I understand that most people go to the movies to watch beautiful people do extraordinary things. It's the same reason why even characters labeled as "ugly" by the totality of a films population are still played by the gorgeous and fit. So it doesn't bother me seeing yet another Abercrombie and Fitch model play a lonely outcast. Nor does it bother me to see another gorgeous twenty-something play a high school student. What bothers me is that I Am Number Four stars both Alex Pettyfer and Timothy Olyphant as two of the last remaining members of an alien species hiding out on earth, and apparently we're just supposed to take their word for it.

It's a long standing pet peeve of mine- call it creative laziness: movies that silently assert the ridiculous idea that a species of being that develops in a complete different atmosphere with completely different environmental and zoological stimuli would end up looking physically identical to humans. Most creative teams have the decency to take the two minutes it requires to insert some sort of explanation; advanced camouflage technology or abilities, some sort of DNA splicing- these are the most popular. A bit lazy themselves maybe, but better than nothing.

By comparison, Roddenberry, while the better part of his aliens tend to walk upright with two arms and two legs, took the time to at least do some make-up work. Changes in skin color, prosthetic bone formations on the face and body, even fake antennae on the tops of heads. To ice the cake they inserted a storyline that explained all the similarities as part of the cannon. Lucas (grumble grumble) may not have ever explained why humans a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away were exactly the same as humans here and now, but he certainly made sure they looked different than the rest of the races there.

You may be reading this thinking: 'Okay we're three paragraphs into this review and we're still talking about what isn't in the movie as opposed to what is.' And your thinking right. Normally, this "detail" would be something I would simply notice or call attention to briefly, but then I would move on to the rest of the movie. Unfortunately, whether or not you've seen I Am Number Four, you already know everything else about it.

Typical high school hero fare, complete with quarter backs telling gorgeous loners to stay away from their girl, powers being discovered for the first time on campus, and a character whose last words are encouragement to go face one's destiny. Hero stepping in to protect the "nerd" from football playing antagonists? Check. Scene where students eat lunch on the grassy expanse of the high school's grounds? Aye-Aye. Awkward attempt to make the hero showing his powers to the love interest romantic? Done and done. I can't imagine any of this would come as an insult to the three writers billed for this screen play, since it seems rather obvious that originality was never their goal. "Let's get this thing banged out by noon, I have a lunch meeting with Kristen Stewart's agent about the next Nicholas Sparks movie" I can hear one of them saying.

I Am Number Four is a paint by numbers venture built atop an interesting but poorly executed back story. Though admittedly fun, the movie is just as forgettable. I've never read the the book (of the same name) that it's based on, but I can only hope for the authors' sake that this movie is a poor representation. Given that I Am Number Four is already generating profit though it hasn't even been in theaters a full month, the open ending of the movie, and the existence of additional books in the series to milk adapt, I would say this humdrum title won't be the last we here of John Doe... yes they really did name him that. If a sequel does come, one thing is for sure, it certainly won't have been awarded on merit.

The Reel Deal Recommends:
Dreamcatcher: Olyphant in a great cast; based on a novel by Stephen King.

Friday, March 4, 2011


"But what I do have are a very particular set of skills..."

Liam Neeson is one of the actors on my A-list. Unlike the mainstream A-list, mine has little to do with how famous you are, or how much money you make. Mine is reserved for actors, actresses, directors, etc. who- despite how good or bad the movie as a whole may be- never (or extremely rarely) fail to deliver. Anyone can end up in a bad production, but if you bring your A game no matter what, than that's the list you'll be on.

Let me be clear- Unknown, is not a bad production. All in all it's a very entertaining film, but it falls short of the next level where movies go from watchable to recommendable. The reason it falls short is it's lack of clear direction. The story of Unknown is a thriller; unfortunately Unknown doesn't seem to know that (that joke is just to obvious so I'm going hold my tongue). And so, identity thrown to the wind, Unknown starts to grope blindly through a treasure trove of intrigue movies, trying desperately to find a mantle that fits. A dark psychological mystery? A gritty who-done-it? A race against time, assassin romp? Unknown tries, but can't seem to make any one fit with or over the others.

There are rather blatant attempts to force Bourne-style action, but they must indeed be forced because on their own they just don't fit. This is an unfortunate truth about Unknown; that it will inevitably be compared to The Bourne series. That the movies have certain themes in common there is no doubt, that should have been all the more reason to take Unknown deeper into the thriller/intrigue realm, instead of trying to emulate the "trade mark" action of a movie that's just barely it's narrative peer. Especially when, in the course of attempting said emulation, one is forced to sacrifice screen time for the more interesting parts of the story you have.

Without question, the brightest sub-plot to suffer for these extended action sequences is that of Bruno Ganz as ex-Stasi agent Ernst Jurgen. Through his cool and calm portrayal of the retired spy, Ganz steals each and every scene he appears in. While the mystique surrounding his character is a large part of the appeal, it seems an extraordinary waste that he comes and goes as fast as he does. In a screenplay that seems to lurch and jerk as it tries to fit into so many different skins, Jurgen is smooth and confident, with a yoda-like slow gate that oozes wisdom and power. Despite all the big reveals and action set pieces, it's this character's final scene that stands out as the must see moment of this film.

Beside Bourne, the other inevitable, and unfortunate, comparison that will be made with Unknown is Taken. Unfortunate because what made Taken such a succulent, enjoyable movie was it's purity. It knew exactly what it was, and so wasted little time on filler or side dishes. Because of this, the little time it does waste is forgivable. This is a trait Unknown could never match. It doesn't know what it is- and so it tries to be too many things. I wouldn't call it a waste of ticket money (If you appreciate Mr. Neeson like I do, you won't be disappointed), but I'd have a hard time pointing to it over some other titles above the box office. Unknown is a perfect example of the old figure of speech: Jack of all trades, master of none.

Reel Deal Recommends:
Taken: Neeson commands the screen; the action is apt and delicious.
Downfall: Ganz' spectacular turn as the most infamous man in history.