Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

If you were to look up "cliché" in the dictionary, there would be a picture of a review that uses "if you were to look up _____ in the dictionary." But if you were to look up "anticlimax" in the dictionary, there might just be a picture of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.

First off, I'm a ravenous junkie for hostage thrillers. Die Hard is the über-example, a genuinely perfect action thriller and one the best movies ever made, but I also really enjoy Speed, Air Force One, The Negotiator, the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and pretty much anything else with armed gunmen holding innocent bystanders for ransom. If it's got hostages, I'm there, devouring it like so much candy.

Ergo I was pretty entertained by the first ninety minutes or so of this remake, despite director Tony Scott's typically nonsensical orgy of flash cuts and shaking picture and warped images and freeze frames. Carried over from the original film is the dark, claustrophobic setting of New York City's subway tunnels and the relentless ticking clock of one hour until hostages start dying, and the first two acts have a lightning pace and couple bloody deaths that never allow any impatience or boredom to creep in.

In contrast to the cold, collected, and unflappable Robert Shaw as the bad guy in the original, John Travolta plays the hostage taker with borderline-bizarre explosive energy, screaming and swearing and waving his gun around like he knows perfectly well he's an action movie villain and he wants to have a blast with it. Denzel Washington is that rare actor who's engaging as monster or shlub or anything in between, and while he's good as the hero I admit I prefer him in Training Day badass mode and think he might have been better as the villain. Not to mention that all of his scenes with his wife are hopelessly overwrought; if you can make it through her seven-second appearance in the trailer (1:53 - 2:00) without rolling your eyes I'll give you a dollar.

But the movie's real problem is a final act that has no idea where to go. I'm gonna go ahead and spoil some of the so-called "climax," so don't read ahead if you still have a burning desire to see the movie: after John Travolta and the surviving hijackers leave the tunnels with the money, they split up, and upon exiting to the street the other hijackers are immediately, and I mean immediately surrounded by cops. We spend ninety minutes watching these guys hijack a subway under the assumption that their genius plan has an equally genius escape route, but no. They leave the tunnel, cops get them in five seconds, and your balls are left extremely blue.

Then Travolta and the good guys have a car chase through the streets of the city that isn't just exactly like a hundred identical scenes in film, it's like a hundred identical scenes in film this year. So I don't know - the movie certainly has its entertaining bits and if you like thrillers as much as me you might get something out of it, but it just doesn't end very satisfyingly at all. I wouldn't really recommend sleeping with a marginally attractive girl if her one rule is that you aren't allowed to nut, and this is basically the cinematic equivalent of that.

2 Stars out of 5

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Shitty Movie Posters, Vol. 2

I like the Harry Potter franchise. I'm not a lunatic for it and I hate all the Quidditch scenes, but compared to other young adult series like Eragon and Twilight which are grounds for zombie J.R.R. Tolkein and Bram Stoker to rise from the dead, go back in time, and kill their younger selves to make sure they never create their genres, it's clearly the nugget of copper in a sea of feces. I have no problem acknowledging that I've read all seven books and seen all five movies at least once each.

That said, something is afoul in the Potterverse. Yes, horde the food, lock up your valuables, bar your doors, execute your kids if need be (to protect them from true horror), for American multiplexes have again been invaded by shitty movie posters. Look at this debauchery through a pinhole only:

Sure, it's nowhere near as awful as the Star Trek poster, which was less a movie advertisement and more grounds to end this universe and try again, but it's horrible in a more subtle, insidious way. You only have to glimpse the Trek poster out the corner of your eye to know that it's something that should not exist in a nation of laws, but the Half-Blood Prince poster, if skimmed by quickly, could actually trick the layman into thinking it acceptable. Then you examine it more closely and you projectile vomit down the halls of theater.

It's doused in the same drowning-victim-blue as every frame of Twilight, no doubt to convince tween girls that it's okay to stop lusting upon Robert Pattinson for one night and go see the Harry's latest adventure. Who knows, with luck, maybe there'll even be a Cedric Diggory flashback and they can masturbate to Pattinson right there in the theater.

But the chill color isn't where the real problem begins, nor even Ron's face hilariously Photoshopped onto someone else's body. Look lower. What douchebag thought it was a good idea to tilt the credits at a 30° angle? The last thing I need is to be cocking my head to the side like an asshole right there in the multiplex while trying to figure out who the cinematographer is. With my luck my destined soul mate will walk into the theater hallway at that exact moment, assume quite reasonably that I'm suffering from severe Down's, and go on her way without another word.

And then look at the top, where the words "Harry Potter" should be but aren't quite. What nerve, to assume they're so badass they don't even need to put the name of their franchise in full, instead stretching the words out at 500% magnification as if seeing the faintest hint of that beloved logo will send our hearts aflutter. Yes, I'm really excited to see the new "y Po" movie, you fucking assholes.

But of course even a dull poster can be salvaged by a memorable tagline. Let's look down at the bottom and see that, yes, some schmuck out there actually paid his rent for three months by coming up with "DARK SECRETS REVEALED." Someone out there wrote this on a piece of paper after weeks of careful consideration. He read it back to himself, a smug, assured smile filled his face, and he said, "Yeah. That's it. That's the one" in a voice of self-flagellating awe.

That's not a "tagline," that's a description of what happens in the movie!

Look, I'm a reasonable man. I understand that not every tagline can be a "In space no one can hear you scream," or a "Whoever wins... we lose," or a "Houston, we have a problem." But I am glad that the genius who came up with "DARK SECRETS REVEALED" didn't lend his magic touch to those films, or else we'd have "THERE'S AN ALIEN," "FREDDY AND JASON FIGHT," and "THE SPACE SHIP DOESN'T WORK."

Hell, even Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban had the catchy "Something wicked this way comes," although we now know that someone out there is filled with regret that their beloved suggestion of "THE TEACHER IS A WEREWOLF" didn't quite make it all the way.

Everything is wrong in this poster. This is the Bush administration of movie posters. Why is London in the background. Yes, when I think of Harry Potter, the first thing I think of isn't the enchanted Scottish castle of Hogwarts, but fucking London, smeared in so much blue paint, bound on either side by "y Po" and "DARK SECRETS REVEALED." Douse me in kerosine, light the flame; I can't fucking believe it.

Christ, what a shitty poster.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Drag Me to Hell

Despite commercials branding it a "return to true horror," Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell is actually cheesy, schlocky horror-comedy in the same thematic and tonal vein as Evil Dead II. And I say good, because - personal confession time - straight horror is my least favorite genre. I like zombie movies alright, but "torture porn," creepy little kid movies, and generic ghost stories bore me to tears, and don't even get me started on slashers, the most rote and predictable genre in all of cinema. I guess slasher fans could throw my love of 80s action and generic fantasy back in my face in regards to that claim, but it won't change my mind in the slightest.

Horror-comedy, on the other hand, I enjoy (Scream is probably the only slasher I like), and Raimi is a full natural at the genre. It's what he began and built his career on and although I loved his first two Spider-Man films I have no doubt that kitsch horror is what he likes making best.

In Drag Me to Hell, Alison Lohman plays an ambitious loan officer with low self-esteem who denies an old gypsy woman a home loan extension. Shamed, the gypsy curses Lohman to be besieged by a Lamia (the most feared of all demons) for three days before being dragged to hell for all eternity, and Lohman has to team up with the occult and chant in tongues and sacrifice animals to try to find a way out of her damnation. It's Raimi's first PG-13 horror movie, but where he opts out of extensive blood and gore he fills in the gaps with shocks and stingers and most notably a ton of hilarious gross-out moments.

There's a fascinating oral fixation going on here; the main character's mouth is against her will filled with flies, old lady spit, a ghost-possessed rag, bile from the stomach of a corpse and more throughout the picture. The brazen grossness of it made me laugh pretty hard and judging from the horrified reactions these moments got from the audience - more horrified than at the disemboweled corpses and spurting blood in most horror films, in fact - it was clear that Raimi successfully tapped into and appalled a certain cultural sensitivity.

Altogether I would say I liked but didn't love the movie. Alison Lohman makes a likable and entertaining scream queen but the film certainly doesn't have as many iconic moments or quotable lines as the Evil Dead trilogy. But I am glad that Sam Raimi did a pet project between Spider-Man 3 and Spider-Man 4; I feel like Spider-Man 3's relative mediocrity was because of Raimi feeling trapped in the franchise and letting him cut loose before Spider-Man 4 will probably help a lot. After all, Christopher Nolan did The Prestige in between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and I think we're all happy with how that last one turned out.

3 Stars out of 5

Friday, June 5, 2009

Angels & Demons

Here's the good news: Angels & Demons is better than The Da Vinci Code. Here's the bad news: After I take a shit, if I fish one of my turds out of the toilet, smear it across a blank reel of film, and project it onto a screen, that movie is also better than The Da Vinci Code.

Okay, to be a little more constructive, the sequel has more visually interesting Roman settings, tighter suspense and higher stakes, a fine supporting performance by Ewan McGregor (absurdity of the material taken into account), and no scene where Tom Hanks has a stunning realization that Audrey Tautou is the great-granddaughter of Jesus Christ, causing me to shoot Dr. Pepper out of my nose as I roar with disbelieving laughter.

The plot involves four candidates for the vacant Papacy being kidnapped and the Vatican threatened with an antimatter bomb that will destroy the entire city. Of course, all the clues are buried in ancient artwork and texts and architecture, so only Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon can crack the case. Langdon is still a smug ass, but at least he got a haircut. In one scene he harshly criticizes members of the Catholic Church for their history of censorship, and while I'm no fan of the Catholics, I couldn't help but laugh at the ironic absurdity of an American lashing out at the Church for things that happened hundreds of years ago, as if the United States' history is squeaky-clean just as far back.

Here's why the mysteries in the Robert Langdon series (and for that matter the National Treasure movies) don't work: They rely entirely on the esoteric knowledge of the protagonist and are literally indecipherable for any viewer. If you look at the great cinematic mysteries - Chinatown, Memento, The Third Man, L.A. Confidential, etc. - the viewer may not figure out the solution before the hero, but as we watch the clues being uncovered it all builds to something. We see the puzzle being put together. In The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons we're just fed Trivial Pursuit factoids about ancient European culture, watch Tom Hanks look confused for six seconds, and then he correctly tells us the answer to the inscrutable riddle. What fun.

Shitty mysteries aside, the movie actually does have a mildly amusing first hundred minutes or so. Stripped to its core it's a chase movie with a whole lot of high-speed pursuit across Vatican City, exotic deaths, passable action scenes, and the very blunt threat of an explosion killing everyone. When what I thought was the big twist came, followed by climax and denouement, I was willing to give the film a quasi-positive review.

Then the movie starts up again and has yet another twist revealing that another character was the villain all along, throwing the entire movie before it askew with a dozen plot holes and causing me to damn near slap my forehead in disbelief and frustration. Why? The music could have faded up and the credits rolled before the tacked-on final twenty minutes and it would have been fine, but no, they couldn't leave well enough alone. Anyone who thought the ending to Return of the King was stretched needs to watch this movie to see how good we had it circa 2003. Jesus Christ, no pun intended.

There was one thing I appreciated about the film. Near the beginning we learn that Robert Langdon is an atheist. In most movies where the protagonist is an atheist, such as The Count of Monte Cristo or Signs, it's depicted as a character flaw that the hero triumphantly overcomes at the end of the film. Now I know no one gives a shit about my religious beliefs and that's why I never talk about them, but I find this trend insulting and condescending and I was dreading Langdon's inevitable conversion to the Lord, which... never happens! In fact, it's specifically stated at the end that his experiences did not alter his worldview. So, if nothing else, that was a nice surprise. I just wish it could have happened in a better film.

2 Stars out of 5

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Terminator Salvation

I freely admit to being an easy-to-please slut when it comes to action sci-fi. I tend to take what the genre offers with nary a word of protest - it doesn't even need to buy me a drink first - and while you'll never hear me say, "Æon Flux?! Sounds great!!", I am willing to forgive a brainless flick like Terminator Salvation on account of it being an orgy of bullets and robots and explosions. Despite acknowledging where a lot of the negative reviews are coming from I found plenty to enjoy amidst the plot holes and flat characters.

First, I do have to clarify that in my heart, the real, complete, and only Terminator story is James Cameron's, i.e. The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Both are ingenious science fiction masterpieces, among the best movies of the last quarter-century with two of the greatest villains of all time, and they tell a complete story where everyone has a full and rich character arc and it comes to a satisfying ending. Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation are an alternate universe what-if (and let's not even get into Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which is literally an alternate universe what-if even within the show).

And as Terminator 3 cleanly excised the "no fate but what we make for ourselves" theme as if it had never existed, Salvation has nowhere to go except balls-out brainless sci-fi war movie, humans and robots killing each other for two hours. It makes halfhearted Blade Runner-esque hints towards exploring the nature of humanity versus that of machinery, but make no mistake, this is glossy and brainless summer fare, not a movie of ideas even by the pop-philosophy standards of the first two films.

So, begs the filmmaker, don't bother asking yourself those nagging little plot hole questions like, "why is Skynet's base not a hundred times more well-guarded?" I mean, I've never been a robot superconsciousness ruling over the remains of the human race in a desolate nuclear wasteland, but if I were, I would position goddamn thousands of T-600 sentries all over my base. Under no circumstances would I arrange my security so that a human can reach my core after sneaking by literally one guard.

It's also, unlike Terminator 2, not a movie of rich characters who develop throughout the film. John Connor in particular is a frightfully flat character given the faintest smattering of gruff military personality and basically nothing to do except growl, shout, and shoot robots through the film's entirety. A lot of critics attacked Christian Bale, which I believe is called classic internet backlash, but I honestly don't know what anyone expected him to do with his part as written in the script. He might as well have been a walking mannequin with "GOOD GUY" written on his face.

So what, pray tell, did I like? Well, I offer exhibit A:

Pretty. Look how nice this movie looks. Ridiculous name aside, McG seems to know his shit behind the camera, and the whole movie pleases the eye from the lighting to the robots (in skeletal form I honestly couldn't discern when they were animatronics and when they were CGI) to the general design of post-apocalyptic earth. Apparently the silver was enhanced by 300% in every frame and I really like the exotic, monochromatic sheen it gives the film. The first view of Skynet's base very nearly made me let out one of those descending whistles of "damn!" that only assholes let out.

And this movie has plenty of cool action: one-on-one fights, car chases, motorcycles, flamethrowers, hoverships, mine fields, crashing helicopters, small explosions, medium explosions, nuclear explosions, and perhaps most importantly, no shakeycam! This pleases the retard that dwells within me (or is me, you decide). It wasn't nearly as funny as Star Trek and it lacked that film's round characters and dramatic tension, but from a pure action standpoint I found Terminator Salvation nearly as enjoyable.

Speaking of Star Trek, while I found Anton Yelchin's Chekov in that film fairly unremarkable, I really liked his Kyle Reese in Terminator. I almost believed him as a young Michael Biehn. But it's unquestionably Sam Worthington who dominates as new character Marcus Wright. Yeah, his accent slips a little bit here and there, but he has great screen presence and an actual character arc (despite being second billed I really consider him more the protagonist than John Connor), making him certainly the most engaging character in this film.

Neither Bryce Dallas Howard's Kate Brewster or Moon Bloodgood's, uh, Blair Williams (I love how the actress's name sounds much more fictional than the character she plays) have much to do but they're both pretty. Moon Bloodgood's topless scene was famously cut to obtain a PG-13, which like the forced PG-13 on Live Free or Die Hard is admittedly sort of lame. I'm not saying it would have enhanced the movie artistically, but as long as a movie is already brainless action, extra gore, extra f-words, and extra tits really only help.

In the end the movie's biggest problem isn't its lack of heady themes or its lack of breasts, but its lack of a central villain. The entire plot of the first two movies, especially The Terminator, literally is the villain; the T-800 hunting down Sarah Connor. And the T-1000 in Terminator 2 is miraculously even cooler than Arnold. Terminator Salvation only has a faceless army of evil robots without any single true badass for you to love to hate, which is so important in an action movie. I think that I and a lot of critics would have been a lot more willing to forgive the film's intellectual shortcomings if it featured a killer antagonist.

But despite playing the negative nancy, like I said I enjoyed the movie overall. You won't have to fire a single brain cell and it's not a pockmark on the ass of The Terminator or Terminator 2, but as far as cheesy, dumb, enjoyable action goes, it got my adrenaline pumping and I had at least something resembling a grin on my face when the end credits rolled. I'll put it this way: it's better than Terminator 3. Take that as you will.

3 Stars out of 5