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Sunday
Jan242010

The Book of Eli (2010)

The Blessed and the Furious

After having waded through two previous apocalypse movies, The Road and Legion, I went into The Book of Eli with a heavy heart. How many more washed-out, burned-out landscapes, cannibalistic biker cannibals and messages about keeping the fire burning could I stand? It turns out the answer is, “a lot”. This is a really good movie, and I’m glad I caught it in the theatre.

Denzel Washington plays Eli, a wanderer in an America ravaged by a thirty-year-old nuclear holocaust. He’s been charged with delivering the last known copy of the King James Bible to an unspecified destination “out West”, and his journey is fraught with starvation and blood-thirsty marauders; the latter is not that big a deal, since Eli is quite handy with all manner of firearms and his trusty sword, which he uses to hack to pieces anyone who dares not leave him alone. He’s a post-Matrix-era warrior monk, who can quote scripture and lop off hands with equal ease.

The last leg of his quest brings him through a town run by a man called Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Carnegie, as luck would have it, is on a mission to find the Bible so that he can revitalize religion in America—that is to say, using the words to manipulate hope-starved suckers (his words, not mine); once he discovers that Eli has the book, he sets all of his goons after it, and the rest of the movie plays out as a series of chases and showdowns between Carnegie and Eli—and Eli’s step-daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis), who wants to believe in the words Eli has read to her. The Book of Eli takes plenty of cues from the classic Western and infuses the genre with modern warfare and sticky philosophical quandaries.

Is Eli crazy? Or has he really felt the touch of God? The movie gives clues but, in the end, remains fairly agnostic on the issue (that is to say, if you’re pro-religion, you can definitely read into some of the things that happen; if you’re not, some of the explanations—though far-fetched—kind of hold up to scrutiny). The screenplay breaks from the ultra-cool, violent fight scenes to deliver ruminations on faith and human nature from many of the main characters; but this isn’t a platform picture: I never got the feeling that I was being preached to. Some may disagree, but those are likely the same people who bristle at the mention of the word “God” in any context. The ultimate fate of Eli’s book, specifically, the actual place it ends up, is both a chilling and a hopeful image, bringing to mind man’s noble intentions and his ability to royally fuck things up.

The story would probably only be so-so were it not for the wonderful cast. Washington and Oldman are great actors and it’s nice to see them not phone in their performances on what could have been a dusty, talky action picture. Washington in particular really sells Eli’s fatigue and reluctance; he’s a murdering Christ figure, and we get to see the turmoil of that paradox every second he’s on screen. Mila Kunis is serviceable as Solara; I always felt like she was acting—which, to be fair, is inevitable when sharing the screen with seasoned pros. And I’ve got to mention Jennifer Beals as Solara’s mother and Carnegie’s long-suffering blind wife; her performance is remarkable, the stand-out of the film because it was so unexpectedly affecting.

The Book of Eli has received a lot of criticism for the ludicrousness of its premise, its heavy-handed religiosity, and the hypocrisy of its central character. I call foul on all points (my only gripe is that the whole film looks like it was dipped in bleach). This is a thoughtful and exciting film that reminded me a great deal of my go-to apocalypse drama, Children of Men. While there’s a considerable difference in gravitas between the two, they share a refusal to hand the audience all the answers and demand patience and consciousness. In return, both films provide entertainment that one can take home and reflect on, in the presence of or in the absence of faith.

Sunday
Jan242010

Never Cry Werewolf (2008)

Some People Weren't Lycan It!

Now, this is how it’s done! If you’re a filmmaker looking to shamelessly steal from classic movies (I’m wagging an authoritative finger at you, James Cameron and Scott Stewart), the key is to make the movie wholly ridiculous and un-self-aware. Director Brenton Spencer and writer John Sheppard have done just that with their trash-terpiece, Never Cry Werewolf. This movie is, literally, Fright Night with werewolves.

I should preface this by saying that I saw the movie under unusual conditions. Typically, I like to be alone on first viewings, or at least in the company of people who will allow me to focus on the movie so as to be fair in my judgments. In the case of Never Cry Werewolf, I saw it fresh during a recent movie night at my friend Chad’s house (for the record, a double bill of NCW and Tod Browning’s Freaks is booze-and-pizza-party heaven). The laughter of the crowd and constant shouting of puns and mockery—coupled with the fact that one of the partygoers resembled an actor in the film—only enhanced the experience

The film is about a mysterious man named Jared Martin (Peter Stebbings) who moves in next door to a too-curious-for-their-own-good teen siblings Loren and Kyle (Nina Dobrev and Spencer Van Wyck). Jared takes an unhealthy interest in Loren, and she’s kind of hot for his chiseled features and oh-so-hot motorcycle; things start to go south, however, when hookers begin disappearing into Jared’s house. It turns out he’s a werewolf, and the only person who can help Loren defeat his plot to munch on the entire town is a washed-up television personality named Redd Tucker (Kevin Sorbo, continuing his legendary journeys in cheesy acting). Reluctantly, the two team up and head to Jared’s house, where he’s taken young Kyle hostage; thus begins an epic showdown where the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

If reading that gave you flashbacks to Tom Holland’s 1985 vampire classic Fright Night, congratulations on having seen a far superior film. There is so much wrong with Never Cry Werewolf that I could talk for at least an hour about its problems. But for everyone’s sake, I’ll just say that Kevin Sorbo is no Roddy McDowell and Peter Stebbings is no Chris Sarandon. The only one of the cast who remotely outshines their template actor is Nina Dobrev; I’m probably biased because I watch her new show, The Vampire Diaries, in which she acts a hundred times better than she did in this two-year-old movie. Seriously, it’s a wonder she got an acting job after NCW, let alone one as a series headliner.

Allow me to digress and talk about the perfect storm of shitty acting and writing that is Sean O’Neill as Steven. He’s Loren’s alleged love interest, and this movie’s version of Fright Night’s Evil Ed character. As written, he’s the shy punk kid who wants to get with the hot nice girl. As performed, it’s obvious that Steven would be more interested in bedding hunky werewolf Jared. It’s impossible to ignore the gay-best-friend vibe that O’Neill exudes; I’m not implying anything about the actor’s lifestyle, but if he wasn’t going for at least bi-curious, he needs to seriously re-think his professional calling. Of course, by the time Steven mutates into a werewolf/club-kid hybrid, I stopped considering his sexual preference and focused only on the laugh-out-loud glue-and-Play-Doh makeup he was buried under.

This movie also features the best worst CG effects I’ve seen in years, and that includes Sci-Fi (sorry, “Syfy”) original programming. The scene in the sporting goods store where a skinless dog attacks the customers is pure genius, simply because the beast looks like a glistening plastic toy. The practical effects fare even worse, as much of the wolf-head and wolf-hand puppets look like, well, puppets. Dobrev’s expression when confronted up-close by the werewolf is a testament to her ability to sell fear in the face of the absurd.

Never Cry Werewolf is cheap, derivative, and unapologetically Canadian. The filmmakers learned the first lesson in ripping off great art: get in, have fun, and get out in under ninety minutes. Had the movie dropped any of its key components—shitty dialogue, confused camerawork, creepy, amateur acting, or Kevin Sorbo—it would not have been nearly as thrilling. You can tell everyone tried really hard to make a kick-ass, original horror movie, but it just wasn’t in the cards for any of them. That’s bad news for fans of the werewolf sub-genre, but great news for lovers of hilarious, unwatchable garbage. You must see this movie!

Note: The movie contains an unforgettable line of dialogue that I am hoping to insert into the vernacular. If you could please help me spread the word and begin incorporating the expression, “Get on the planet!” into everyday conversation, you will be helping Kicking the Seat make the world a better place.

Saturday
Jan232010

Legion, 2010

Good Lord

It seems that not even God has escaped the recession: in Scott Stewart’s new movie, Legion, the Almighty performs the ultimate act of insourcing by sending armored, weapons-wielding angels to wipe out humanity. I know the Bible says that He would never end the world (again) with another Great Flood, but this movie proves that cutting corners only leads to shabby results. Indeed, by the time Legion was over, I felt like I’d drowned in clichés and spent an eternity repenting my decision to buy a matinee ticket.

If you’ve seen the trailer for this picture, then you’ve literally seen everything in the movie, save for the long stretches of only occasionally decent dialogue. A group of strangers converge in a diner called Paradise Falls (GET IT?), where they must confront the horrors of Armageddon together. They are aided by an angel named Michael (Paul Bettany), who didn’t so much fall as quit after finding out that God had finally had enough of his ungrateful experiments (us), and ordered him to head the extermination. His new mission is to prevent the army of angels from killing a pregnant waitress (Adrianne Palicki) whose unborn son is mankind’s only hope in defeating...God.

I’d meant to work up a whole synopsis, but I’m going to pull over now and talk about how relentlessly stupid this movie is. Don’t let the all-star cast or renowned effects-artist-turned-director fool you: Legion is not a smart or entertaining film, though it does its best to fool the audience with lots of CG violence and spent shells tinkling in Surround Sound. The movie has two major problems:

1. The structure of the screenplay is a blatant rip-off of The Terminator. From Michael’s sudden appearance in an urban alley—where he scrounges for clothes and weapons—to the idea of the pregnant waitress/reluctant heroine whose child will lead humanity against a seemingly unstoppable, inhuman threat, to the climax where the big, bad villain (here, the archangel Gabriel, played by Kevin Durand) kills the holy mother’s protector with, ahem, machine-like precision, Legion is one long spot-the-reference drinking game. I thought Avatar was derivative, but this movie is shameless; Stewart and his co-screenwriter Peter Schink are damned lucky that the continents of cash from James Cameron’s latest film are keeping him distracted enough to not sue them for every nickel their great-grandkids will ever make.

2. The reason The Terminator worked so well was that the antagonist—as invincible as it may have seemed—could still be blown up or unplugged. My limited understanding of God is that He is all-knowing and all-powerful, meaning that He a) could have simply made the Michael, the diner, and the mother and baby disappear (or, understanding that this is a popcorn flick, disintegrated it with lots of lightning and explosions), and b) should not be afraid of a baby in the first place. It is never made clear what the child is supposed to be. He’s not the Anti-Christ—in fact, there is no sign of the devil or any demons in Legion, only angels who have possessed people in order to kill other people. The point is, the movie makes the mistake of creating a foe who is omnipotent until he isn’t, and never bothers to explain whatever rules govern this significant shift.

Had the writers worked out these major story kinks, Legion may have carried on the fine tradition of Night of the Living Dead and The Mist. Those were character-driven action films (of varying degree) set at the end of the world, and they placed an emphasis on character and dialogue rather than gross spectacle. The first half-hour of Legion is promising, mostly because of the actors (though Dennis Quaid has spent the last year slumming it in projects like this and G.I. Joe, he’s always a welcome, interesting presence) and also because of the promise of answers that the story never delivers (i.e. the ultimate role of the baby). As the film progresses, the faults become more noticeable (for every Charles S. Dutton, there’s a Lucas Black—the Paul Walker stand-in from The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift), and the soundtrack keeps rising, ostensibly to keep audience members’ thinking to a minimum.

In the end, Legion is just another “bad-ass” movie; the kind of film teenagers will talk about for maybe a week—and only in terms of the special effects and fight scenes (“His angel wings, like, deflected bullets, yo!”). Adults looking for genuine end-of-the-world thrills might be better off renting The Rapture, or even The Terminator; these are cheaper options, both financially and psychically.

Saturday
Jan232010

Choke, 2008 (Home Video Review)

The Gag's on Us

Choke is the perfect first-R-rated-movie for twelve-year-old boys. It features a damaged anti-hero named Victor Mancini, who has lots of interesting sex with random hot women, and who comes to believe he’s the son of God (actually, the half-clone of the son of God). Victor swears a lot and rails against his sickly mother, and has no interest in girls outside of their sexual organs. Were Choke to feature at least one car chase or explosion, it may have been this generation’s underground tween-boy sensation.

Sadly, Choke, which is based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, is nothing more than 89 minutes of supposedly shocking behavior, punctuated by the occasionally interesting half-scene or genuine moment. I had to watch the film in two parts because the boredom caused my mind to wander and eventually put me to sleep—at 8:30 on a Friday night. The weird thing is, Choke is not boring due to an excessive amount of talking or meandering camerawork; no, it simply thinks it’s way edgier than it actually is, and that’s the death knell of both stand-up comedy (props, again, to Patton Oswalt) and cinema. I didn’t think it was possible to yawn at a film about a sex addict who was abducted by a crazy woman as an infant, only to grow up to become a colonial re-enactor and learn that he may or may not have been immaculately conceived during a ritual involving the foreskin of Christ—but writer/director Clark Gregg made this awesome feat possible.

What’s most frustrating is that there is a decent movie buried way under the anal beads and the rape fantasies. You don’t get much more compelling than Sam Rockwell as the lead and Angelica Houston as his illegitimate mom, but they both suffocate under the weight of numerous zero-context flashbacks and a screenplay that kind of cares about them, but that really just wants to get back to talking about Victor’s other day-job, wherein he pretends to choke on food at restaurants so that he can be rescued by well-to-do patrons. The scenes between these two actors are touching and strange—Victor has committed his mother to a hospital because of early-onset Alzheimer’s—and they should have comprised the A story in this movie; instead, they must compete with a sub-plot involving Victor’s masturbation-addicted best friend falling in love with a stripper who helps him build a monument made out of rocks.

I haven’t read the book on which Choke is based, but as a fan of some of Palahniuk’s other work, I can only assume that Clark Gregg missed the point entirely in adapting the material for the screen. Palahniuk trades in the unacceptable behavior of society’s fringe, and threads themes of parental abandonment, modern masculinity, and Messiah complexes through his books; but this is the first of his stories that I’ve seen that puts all of his quirky, disgusting anecdotes and character asides on full display with equal importance. The author’s most popular book (and film adaptation), Fight Club, was full of unconventional characters, sex, violence, and big ideas; but they all gelled. I never felt like I was taking in art that was trying too hard to impress the unshockable. With Choke, the freak show overpowers the melodrama, and by the time the Big Twist rolls around (which involves Kelly Macdonald as a woman who insists on having sex with Victor in the hospital’s chapel so that they can use the stem cells from their union to cure Alzheimer’s), I’d completely tuned out.

Had Gregg and company taken another pass or two at the script, Choke may have been worth watching. As it stands, the movie plays out as if it had a dyslexic editor. The charm of Chuck Palahniuk’s novels lies in not just the subject matter, but also in their prose and narrative clarity. The man knows how to fashion a solid through-line, and he keeps the detours colorful and focused. The film version of Choke is nothing but detours; and as colorful as they may be, my adult mind couldn’t help but be frustrated by all the tits and rock sculpture.

Monday
Jan182010

The Hurt Locker (2009)

A Dull Roar

Watching The Hurt Locker was, for me, a roller coaster of an experience—but not in the way I thought it would be. Instead of being mesmerized by this highly acclaimed film, I was put through the emotional wringer of loving large stretches of it and hating the nearly half-dozen fatal story mistakes, a series of innocuous splinters that eventually became a giant stake through the heart. By the end of The Hurt Locker, I’d found a new, lowered threshold for the amount of awkwardness that I will let slide before I officially dislike a movie that I’d initially enjoyed.

The movie centers on a three-man American bomb-disposal unit patrolling Baghdad in 2004. In the opening scene, the head of the unit is blown up by a roadside bomb; he is quickly replaced by Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a hotshot with a record of disarming more than 870 bombs. James goes out of his way to frustrate the other members of his unit by not responding to them during tense situations and frequently darting off on his own without notice. Much of the first two-thirds of The Hurt Locker centers on the dynamic between James and his men as they head from one informant’s tip to another, deactivating explosives and avoiding gunfire.

These scenes are very effective and quite stylish. Director Katherine Bigelow, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, and editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski team up to create some wonderfully tense moments. A typical call for the unit involves James walking slowly towards a pile of rubble while the other two cover him, watching rooftops and ridges for any signs of insurgents or detonators; through whirling shaky-cam and intense close-ups of the soldiers, the gathering crowds and, inevitably, the bomb wires, we feel the paranoia and panic of a desperate situation—one that plays out day after day for these men.

Sadly, it isn’t enough for The Hurt Locker to rely on this visceral drama. Someone, be it the studio head, the director, or screenwriter Mark Boal, felt that the movie needed a plot; this in itself is not a bad thing, unless that plot is less interesting than simply watching bombs get defused—and unless the way in which the plot unfolds is a sloppy, clichéd mess. Boal has a certain amount of credibility on the film’s subject, having been an embedded journalist in the Iraq war. But his screenplay is just a grim ‘n gritty version of Top Gun loaded down with some half-baked ideas about war being a drug.

Let’s back up a second and look at the three specific problems I have with The Hurt Locker. These are the main issues that tried my patience and ultimately soured me on the film. If you noticed them, they may not have had the same effect on your perception of the overall movie, but for me they represent an unforgivable undermining of the hard work that went into the rest of the project.

1. The Cast: The three leads in this picture are relative unknowns, and they’re surrounded by famous supporting actors. I found this to be distracting and weird. Why have Ralph Fiennes show up in a picture if he’s going to be killed literally five minutes after he’s introduced? Why give a bit part (and that’s being generous) to Evangeline Lilly if she’s going to spend half her performance in silhouette and the other half chopping carrots (with a close-up on the carrots)? When David Morse shows up early on as another unit leader who kills a captured bomber, I figured, “Oh, cool, this guy’s going to be an interesting villain.” But, no, he enters and leaves the picture as if he’d just shown up to earn his SAG card.

The only cameo that worked was Guy Pearce’s as SSgt. James’ predecessor. If Psycho, Scream, and Executive Decision taught us anything, it’s that you can have a famous person open a picture and then get killed off right away—allowing the cast of unknowns to shine. But having random stars show up and not be involved in the main story just creates confusion and frustration—especially when one of your three leads (Brian Geraghty, as the lowest-ranking member of the bomb unit) isn’t a particularly interesting actor.

2. The “Plot”: The Hurt Locker suffers from a similar problem as District 9. It wears the skin of credibility of a documentary, but also wants to inject a story into “real-life” situations. Like I said before, following a Baghdad bomb squad is exciting enough. We don’t need a lame sub-plot about James avenging the death of a local kid, especially when that sub-plot becomes a parody of 24; James sneaks off base in a hoodie and cammo-pants, breaks into an apartment waiving his gun around, and is finally kicked out by a woman brandishing a hot tea set. What’s worse, we get a tense scene of James making his way through a shady neighborhood where people begin to notice that he’s an American. But instead of this leading to anything, the scene just cuts to James calmly walking onto the base some time later.

There’s also an earlier vignette in which James’s two subordinates contemplate killing him with a detonator while he’s out retrieving his gloves from a blast test site. This was two weeks after James’ arrival in the unit, and while I understand how annoying it might be to have to put up with a cowboy commander who’s like a cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Maverick from Top Gun, I would think the first two or ten steps in dealing with the problem might involve reporting his behavior to high command (that’s another nagging issue with this movie; the bomb unit is shown as being completely autonomous; there are absolutely no consequences for any of the three lead characters when they leave the green zone to go on their own search-and-destroy mission in a neighborhood—during which one of them is kidnapped and shot in the leg—or allow one of the base psychiatrists to be blown up during a ridealong).

3. The “Message”: The thrust of The Hurt Locker’s story is that, to some soldiers, war is a drug they just can’t kick. That’s a fascinating idea and a great premise for a movie; but this is not that movie. The theme isn’t clearly stated with an effective through-line; rather it just kind of pops up from time to time, and is occasionally left to interpretation (as evidenced by James’s obsession with finding the Iraqi kid’s killers—does he really care, or is he just hoping to find more danger? I’m inclined toward the latter theory, only because he doesn’t seem to give much of a shit about his own infant son back home—who he addresses in one of the most unintentionally funny moments I’ve seen in quite awhile). The message might have worked had James not operated in such a vaccuum. By the end of the film, his nutty behavior has damaged his teammates—just like in any other drug movie—but we still don’t have a handle on what turned James on to war or why he’s obsessed with danger—which is the hallmark of any good drug movie.

Much like the old joke about Hollywood pitch meetings (“It’s like Die Hard...on a boat!”), I found The Hurt Locker to be nothing more than a very stylized gimmick picture, with the War on Terror standing in for crack or heroin. I think the only way this movie could have worked would have been if Bigelow and company had A) stuck with a straightforward faux-documentary that revealed its characters’ motivations through their reactions to their job or B) written a complete script—that’s beginning, middle and end, kids—with fully formed ideas, plot points that connected with one another, and characters who transcended their genre stereotypes.

There’s a lot that works in The Hurt Locker, but not enough to recommend.