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Saturday
Jun112011

Super 8 (2011)

Coke II

You may recall that last summer I ran a highly controversial, top-secret transcript of an Iron Man 2 meeting. The whole thing turned out to be bullshit, but I have it on good authority that the packet I received in the mail yesterday is the real deal. Once again, my source is anonymous, and the details are pretty juicy.  Having returned from a screening of Super 8 just a few hours ago, I have no reason to believe that the following is fake.

2/18/11 Transcript of “Make Super 8 Super Great” meeting, Paramount Pictures, Los Angeles, CA.

Meeting Host:

 Beth Bishop, Senior Story Consultant, Paramount I.M.P.O.R.T.A.N.C.E. Committee

Attendees:

 Steven Spielberg, Executive Producer, Super 8
J.J. Abrams, Director/Writer, Super 8

Transcriber:

 Kat Seussen, Templeton-Young Professional Errands

Beth Bishop: Thanks for coming, guys.  Sorry for the short notice, but the Executive Committee felt we should talk about this sooner rather than later.

Steven Spielberg: Talk about what?

J.J. Abrams:  Didn't you read the meeting invite, Steve? They hate the movie. They wanna bury it!

BB: No, J.J. No one hates the movie. But there are some very big concerns here that we'd like to discuss going into the twelfth edit.

JJA: It's the lens flares, right? Well, you can tell Marty and Jack to go fuck themselves, and to stay off Internet chat rooms while they're at it!

BB:  The lens flares were brought up as a potential problem, but I don't want to get off on a bad foot here. Let's back up and talk story. Everyone appreciates how big a fan you are of Steven's, and we think it's really cool that you wanted to pay homage to those films of his that made you want to be a director. But some people feel you've gone too far.

JJA:  What does that even mean? How do you go too far in bringing the magic and delight of nostalgia to all of America?

BB: Nostalgia is okay, as long as it's not the only thing a movie has going for it. We all think you did an amazing job bringing 1979 small-town Ohio to life. But how hard is that to do, really, when you've got Paramount bank-rolling your picture? No, it comes back to the story you're trying to tell, and we're frankly disappointed in your weak material.

JJA: Weak material? Steve, can you believe this shit?

SS: Hmm?

JJA: Lady, I spent six days writing this screenplay--half of which I was crying in my attic, rifling through comic books, old movies, and quarter-built monster models. Super 8 is about that. It's about growing up a freak, a free-spirited artistic soul whose only expressive outlet is the magic of cinema.

BB: Yes, we've established the fact that everything in the movie is authentically period. But I'm talking about the plot. I'm going to tread lightly here, because I've read about your sensitivity to this subject, but is it possible--possible--that you were so wounded from the critical failure of Lost's final season that you decided to play your next project completely safe?

JJA: Fuck you.

BB: I'm being serious here. Super 8 is the most conventional sci-fi movie any of us have seen in at least a decade. There is literally nothing surprising in it, except for the moment when the main character's dad sneaks out of military custody by disarming his machine-gun-wielding escort and stealing his clothes. But if the audience laughs at that part the way the suits did, our opening weekend is sunk.

JJA: Oh, come on! That part's just supposed to be fun!

BB: One board member called it, "a cheap gag in lieu of creativity". Another said it was, "the moment I checked out of the movie entirely."

JJA: Steven, that bit was good, right?

SS: You betcha.

BB: We feel it betrays a lot of the honesty of the movie's first third. I mean, there's a lot of strong stuff in the beginning, with the family ripped apart by the mom's death, and the dad having to come to grips with a son he doesn't really know. Even that's really derivative Disney nonsense on some level, but the actors really make the moments believable. It's the alien storyline that sinks the film.

JJA: What do you mean?

BB: Honestly, we expected more out of you than Cloverfield Meets E.T. Think about it, an alien crash-lands on Earth; is pursued by unscrupulous government agents; bonds with a group of lovable kids; and then flies home. Sure, you trick the audience into thinking there's something more around each corner, but at the end of the day, this is a decades-old story with so-so special effects.

JJA: "So-so special effects"? Give me one example of something that's unconvincing in this movie!

BB:  The opening train wreck.

JJA: You're kidding me, right? We spent a quarter of our budget on that scene, and brought in thirty of the brightest effects whizzes on the planet to pull it off!

BB: Okay, but when you spend five minutes blowing up a train and filming fiery debris rocketing out at six characters who are running for their lives, it helps if everyone and everything look like they're occupying the same physical space. I counted at least four instances where flying hunks of metal would have decapitated or maimed the actors had this scene been filmed live. But not only do all of the characters survive the crash, none of them are seriously injured.  On top of that, they hop into a "borrowed" car that--by virtue of its proximity to the train station--should have been pulverized.

JJA: Didn't realize you were a physicist.

BB: I'm not, J.J. But I grew up in the late 70s. One of the reasons we remember the incredible stunts in movies from our youth is because they were done by real people putting themselves in real danger. The only recorded Super 8 injury is a carpal tunnel complaint filed by the Lead Compositor.

JJA: Sorry to break it to you, Beth, but this is the digital age.  Kids don't wanna see models and makeup anymore. They're too savvy for that now. They wanna see shit that only a computer can give them.

BB: I suppose that goes double for your alien creature, too?

JJA: Of course! What, we're gonna have nine guys in a rubber suit chasing Elle Fanning down the street?

BB: No, but the alien is just another example of computer-graphics laziness run amok. This isn't just my sentiment; others at the screening expressed concern that your monster looks like someone grafted the head of the Cloverfield alien onto the body of General Grievous from the Star Wars prequels and dipped it in liquid shit. Pardon my French.

There's also the issue of practicality. The alien has massive claws for hands and yet is able to string up the people it captures in a cave underneath a power plant, and rig a series of small-to-medium-sized electrical appliances that it stole from all over town?

JJA: Well, I--

BB: And what about the scene at the end, where every piece of metal in town is sucked up in a giant magnetic field that wraps around the water tower? You make a big deal out of cars, guns and jewelry being drawn skyward. But in the crucial scene where Joe has to let go of his mother's necklace, you can clearly see a bicycle lying on the ground next to him, and a necklace resting firmly on another character's neck.

JJA:  Ooooo! Look at the nit picker! It must be great to sit up here and critique art all day, instead of having to go out there and actually, y'know, make it.

BB: A truly committed artist makes sure their work is worthy of both their name and their audience's time. Wouldn't you say so, Steven?

SS:  I guess.

JJA: You're saying Super 8 is a waste of peoples' time?

BB:  In its current state, yes.  But I think if you take out all the alien stuff and re-focus your efforts on telling a coming-of-age story about kids making a horror movie, then maybe you've got a shot.  Heck, you could even keep the title.

As it stands, you've got a terrific young cast, a handful of pretty emotional scenes, and a sci-fi storyline that--if presented in a modern-day setting, without any of the nostalgic trappings--would be laughed out of theatres before the midnight screenings' first reel change.

Oh, and getting back to the lens flare thing.  J.J. is there an eye condition we should know about? Seriously, there are so many light spots and streaks that I thought half the movie was melting.

JJA: It's called "realism", baby! You'd actually see those things if you were occupying the reality of the film.

BB: Sure, if I were filming that reality with a camera, but light doesn't bounce of the eyes like that. Marketing is considering providing free sunglasses to audience members just so they can kind of tell what's going on in some of the more egregious scenes.

JJA:  I don't have to listen to this. Steven, let's go.

BB: Excuse me, we're not done here.

JJA: Yes.  We are. Do you have any idea how little any of your studio notes matters? I'm J.J. Fucking Abrams. This is Steven Fucking Spielberg. We shit blockbusters. We'll make the studio's money back in the first week of release and turn a half-billion-dollar profit before the movie hits blu-ray.

We'll be a critical darling based solely on the feelings--the magic--our movie will evoke in people who pine for the good old days. So what if everyone's seen more exciting and original versions of this exact same story? Super 8 will be What's Playing between the X-Men prequel and fucking Green Lantern!

BB:  So, you're not at all interested in making Super 8 the best possible movie it could be? You're okay with our releasing boring, derivative fluff that's only passable to middle-aged men-children, instead of trying to make a new, original classic?

JJA:  Our release date is May tenth, honey. Originality happens in the fall.

BB:  Well, I'm sorry you feel that way, J.J. I'm afraid the Executive Committee have decided to shelve the project until you're more agreeable to tightening it up.

JJA:  Don't feel sorry for me, Beth. You see, I happen to have it on good authority that the eleventh and final edit of Super 8 will hit theatres right on time--thanks to a couple of late-night phone calls from my friend and mentor here. Now, if you'll excuse us, I've gotta sink my teeth into some rewrites on Ehren Kruger's 3-D Jaws remake.

Friday
Jun102011

The Road Warrior (1981)

Expect Delays

I absolutely hate the question that people often pose to movie critics:

"Did we see the same movie?"

The answer is always "yes", but perception is a funny thing. You might come away from an overly stimulative summer blockbuster completely jazzed; while I might find nothing but tedium in the wall-to-wall action of that same two hours. But I rarely dispute people's reaction to a film I've seen to the degree that I would accuse them of having literally enjoyed something different. My latest exception, sadly, is The Road Warrior.

After posting my review of the first film in George Miller's Mad Max trilogy, I've been inundated with demands that I watch the sequel--a film that everyone agrees surpasses the original by a country mile. And here, ladies and gentlemen, is where I lose all of my geek cred and half my readership:

The Road Warrior is an awful movie.

Before backing that up, I'd like to say that there are a lot of things that I like about the film. Graham Walker's art direction and Norma Moriceau's costume work are absolutely fantastic. The desolate desert future of Max's Australia feels lived-in and burnt-out. From the elaborate yet realistic outfits worn by the marauding highway pirates to the artificially aged sets and vehicles, The Road Warrior placed me so thoroughly in its world of grimy societal apathy that I felt dehydrated.

But pretty pictures will only get a movie so far with me. Ninety percent of the journey is comprised of story and characters, and I couldn't find either. The first problem is that the opening black-and-white recap is inconsistent with the first film's narrative. At the beginning of Mad Max, we're told that the story takes place sometime in a near and somewhat lawless future in which everyday citizens feel safe enough to take idyllic countryside vacations and make cross-country road trips. The jacked-up police force do their best to keep roving gangs of maniacs in check, but there's nothing intrinsically post-apocalyptic about that reality.

According to The Road Warrior, all of that took place after the world blew itself up. We see stock footage of feuding governments and war-time devastation, followed by clips of a by-the-numbers cop being driven insane by the murder of his family. An ominous narrator informs us that after taking revenge, Max disappeared into the desert, becoming a hermit and a myth. The Road Warrior certainly looks like it takes place after a few hundred bombs dropped, but, again, this supposedly happened before the first movie, not in between parts one and two.

The revisionist history doesn't end there. I thought the point of Mad Max is that he's, you know, mad--as in, "crazy". We got a hint of that at the end of Mad Max in the thousand-yard stare on Mel Gibson's face as he drove away from having just handcuffed a scumbag to a car that was rigged to explode (and offering him a way out by sawing off his own foot). Though I had problems with Max's uneven characterization in that movie, I could at least see a progression from milquetoast to madman by the time it was over.

The Max of The Road Warrior might as well have been played by Sylvester Stallone--or a lamp post. He's a brooding, driven survivor who rarely says anything and never smiles; not that I'd expect him to be Hannibal Lecter, but the word "mad", particularly in movies, implies some degree of mania or unpredictability.  But I guess "Pouty Max" isn't hard-core enough a name for a bad-ass drifter.

Even Max's villains are distressingly bland this time out. The Road Warrior's "plot" sees Max stumbling on a desert oil refinery run by a group of hippie engineers. They've erected a fortress of large trucks and flamethrowers around their site in order to ward off the evil Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) and his deranged toady, Wez (Vernon Wells). Humungus looks like Jason Voorhees at an S&M ball and sounds like Colonel Klink as he barks orders into a microphone. He's been trying to get at the oil for a long time, and despite the best efforts of the monosyllabic, mohawked Wez and his Eurotrash henchmen, the hippies have managed to hold their ground. I dare say that Toecutter from the first movie would have dozed right over the compound and taken what they wanted; but such brazenness would have kept Max from playing Han Solo.

Yes, the sum total of Max's participation in The Road Warrior is to act as the in-it-for-himself rogue who reluctantly agrees to help the peace-loving rebels defeat their garrulous enemies and restore order to the galaxy (er, Outback). Seriously, the Star Wars influence is all over this movie, from the grunting, growling sidekick Max adopts in the form of a feral little boy (Emil Minty) to the whiny, blonde optimist with the Skywalker haircut who tries to convince Max that he should stick around to fight for a cause greater than himself, I couldn't stave off the flashbacks.

Three-fourths of the film is like the Hoth raid in a different climate. I kept waiting for Max to move on from this boring storyline and get on, um, the road--but at the hour mark I realized that this was, in fact, it.

My heart sank.

This problem casts many of the movie's other details in a harsh light, too. For example, Max kidnaps a pilot called The Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) and uses him throughout the story--first as a source of information; then as an aerial bomber during the climactic highway fight. He enters the picture as a weird, dangerous obstacle, and finishes it as the leader of the resistance. He's an interesting temporary fixture, but Miller and co-writers Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant mistakenly turn him into the wacky, lovable second-sidekick; a staple of bad action movies that feels wholly out of step with what Miller was going for in Mad Max.

Speaking of which, I was surprised by how little action there is in the sequel. Mad Max started with a bang and peppered great little bursts of action throughout--each action scene was unique, kinetic, and purposeful. The first hour of The Road Warrior is relentlessly dull, featuring a lame opening chase and a lot of staking out rival camps. I'm all for a leisurely pace as long as it's in service of a good story, but The Road Warrior feels like an over-long episode of a short-lived television series. Max is like The A-Team or The Incredible Hulk, detouring from his journey to nowhere to reluctantly help people in distress--which would be fine, I guess, if there was more than one event in the movie; Miller and company pad for time like nobody's business.  It's not like they're exploring great characters or social themes, as in the first movie. No, they're on-set, filming a sequel that will stretch to ninety minutes, come hell or high water.

But at least there's that great twenty-minute chase scene at the end, right?

Yep, it's about twenty minutes, but I defy anyone to tell me it's a tenth as exciting as any of the road scenes in Mad Max. I'm not just talking about content or context, I'm referring specifically to the pedestrian manner in which it was shot. This scene was likely revolutionary for action films at the time, but judging not only by today's standards but also by the film's predecessor, the climax is a dud. It might have to do with the fact that Max is driving a giant tanker truck instead of a police car, but I'd like to think a director as imaginitive as Miller could have come up with something more energetic.

Gone are the dizzying road-POV shots and cartoonish, bug-eyed looks of horror from the first film; they've been replaced by too many cuts to too many characters driving too many vehicles doing not nearly enough interesting things. Cars crash. The bad guys die. The hippies escape. The allegedly menacing Humungus and Wez are disposed of so quickly and nonspectacularly that they might as well have never figured into the plot in the first place.

Sure, technically, The Road Warrior has a more coherent storyline than Mad Max. But it has none of the original's life, personality or thrills. I haven't been this let down by a sequel since Quantum of Solace, another franchise picture that learned all the wrong lessons from its previous installment. All the production values and name recognition in the world don't give a creator license to slack off in the story department; and it doesn't excuse fans' lack of attention to the subtle ways in which they're being sold a bill of goods. This film looks gorgeous, but someone swapped its engine for a moldy block of cheese.

Thursday
Jun092011

Thankskilling (2009)

Cold Turkey

Thankskilling is an awful movie. You might think that's a given, since it's about a five-hundred-and-five-year-old psychopathic turkey who stalks and kills teenagers. But there's a huge difference between entertainingly bad films and ones that make you feel every second of their excruciating run-times. I've been working on a theory about what separates the two, and Thankskilling helped me codify it.

It all boils down to intent. My brother recommended this movie to me, proclaiming it better than The Room--which is, as far as I'm concerned, the high-bar of low quality. Writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau's epic drama about betrayal was meant to be an emotional masterpiece for the ages; but because the auteur had no idea what he was doing, it became a midnight-movie laughingstock. Of course, I can't prove that Wiseau's claims that he'd meant to make a comedy all along are false, but the proof is in the film itself: The Room is ninety hilarious minutes of happy accidents stemming from a complete lack of self-awareness.

On the flip side of that coin, you have Jordan Downey, a twenty-one-year-old kid who raised $3500 to shoot a horror/comedy. Horror/comedy is an extremely difficult genre to get right; most creators fuck up one of the two key elements, meaning the end result is neither funny nor scary. Downey takes the "Intentionally Bad" route here. He and co-writers Kevin Stewart, Brad Schulz, Anthony Wilson and Grant Yaffee cast bad actors, employ cheesy special effects, and rely on kitschy synth music to recall 80s slasher movies. The result is supposed to be funny just because it's ridiculous, but the filmmakers' lack of focus--indeed, their apparent refusal to try to write anything that's actually amusing--makes the whole movie pointless from frame one.

To show you what I mean, let's break down the opening scene, which takes place "a few minutes after the first Thanksgiving dinner":

We open on a full-screen naked breast and pull back to reveal a busty pilgrim (porn star Wanda Lust) running through the woods. She's in the traditional black dress, but for some reason, her boobs spill out of the top. After a few minutes of frantic looking around, she's assaulted by the killer turkey--a shoddily crafted hand puppet who sounds alternately like Dane Cook doing Ghetto Voice and a nobody doing Movie Trailer Voice into a $3 microphone. Before he chops her to death, he yells, "Nice tits, bitch!"

Roll credits.

The scene is devoid of style and suspense, and forces the viewer to ask way too many questions during the action. Whatever we're meant to get out of the movie's first three minutes, laughs and scares aren't on the list.

We fast forward to present day and meet our protagonists.  They're a Saved By the Bell sampling of stupid American kids, a group so generic that the credits actually list an archetype next to the characters' names (for example, Lance Predmore plays Johnny "The Jock" and Lindsey Anderson plays Kristen "The Good Girl"--rounding out the group are a nerd, a hick, and a slut). This partying body-count takes a road trip and gets sidetracked when Johnny's jeep overheats. They set up camp in some nearby woods and encounter the resurrected turkey, who sprung up from the earth after being peed on by a dog.

The rest of the movie sees the kids stalked and eviscerated by the bird, who acts as a cross between Freddy Krueger and the Leprechaun--minus the originality or humor. He bursts out of the hick's considerable stomach with a "Gobble, gobble, motherfucker!" and sodomizes the easy girl before snapping her neck ("You just got stuffed!"). By the end of the film, he's taken the skin of Lindsey's sheriff dad (Chuck Lamb) as a mask and been made super-strong by a dip in a vat of radioactive goo. All of this happens over the course of the longest sixty minutes I've spent watching any movie.

Before you accuse me of being humorless, let me say that I think Thankskilling could have actually worked. The key would have been making a straight horror movie with comedic touches (like the later Nightmare on Elm Street films), instead of peppering the story with stale Bugs-Bunny nonsense; like none of the characters recognizing the turkey because he's wearing the sheriff's skin; or the turkey's mythical teepee that pops up out of nowhere. There's nothing that says a killer-turkey movie has to be ridiculous on its face, given horror's rich history of murderous animals; but pulling that off requires a good deal of talent and drive--none of which is evident here.

Which leads me to question why Downey and company bothered making this movie in the first place. I saw a video in which the director begs fans to help fund a Thankskilling sequel; he wants to raise $100,000 in order to do it right. This says, essentially, that the original was thrown together on a lark, to cash in on the "so-bad-it's-good" craze. It's Downey's admission that anyone who paid to see his movie is a sucker.  It'd be like me charging $10 for this review and sending you a two-word critique after getting the cash.

So for all you aspiring filmmakers out there, let me offer this piece of advice: If you want to make a horror movie, make a horror movie; if you're into comedy, make a comedy; if you want to make a horror/comedy, research your ass off. Don't watch other horror/comedies (especially not this one) because there are only two people on the planet who understand the tricky hybrid-genre well enough to pull it off--and, I'm sorry, but you're neither Peter Jackson nor Sam Raimi (not yet, anyway).

Hire the most talented actors you can find. Casting bad actors or friends who think they can perform will only piss your audience off after the first five minutes. The same goes for your special effects crew: horror fans won't stand for shoddy kills in their movies unless they're way over-the-top; and you can't substitute cheap camp for over-the-top in every scene. If you don't know what I'm talking about, please return your video equipment to Best Buy and consider accounting.

Lastly, just be honest with yourself. If you can say that your script (assuming there is one) is the smartest, funniest/scariest piece of writing you could ever hope to shoot, then by all means, go ahead and make your masterpiece. But if you're taking the "Let's get a couple more shots in on the way to the party" approach, you're wasting a lot of peoples' time and money. Making a movie for $3500 is only something to brag about if the audience doesn't walk away thinking, "Yeah, that sounds about right."

Tuesday
Jun072011

Mad Max (1979)

Outback Stakeout

You could describe me as a thoroughly depressed dude.  For some reason, I'm unable to appreciate my great life for more than a twentieth of a percent of any given day.  I indulge in self-sabotaging behavior and revel in the silly dark side I should have left behind in high school.

This leads to unwise decisions, like watching Spice World at four o'clock in the morning.

Fortunately, even my sadness has a bottom, and I was savvy enough to recognize it in Elton John's cameo following the opening number (which, sue me, I thought was quite good).  I'll finish Spice World soon, per a clause in my "Never Walk Out" policy; but for my own safety and the continuation of this site, I had to step away from the pop tarts.

So who does one turn to in such a situation?  Why, to everybody's favorite misogynist/anti-Semite, Mel Gibson, of course! Granted, Mad Max came out way before he was any of those things (ahem), so you won't find any cheeky inferences in this review. But the fact is, I'd never seen this film and figured virtual road rage might be a solid outlet for whatever demons are keeping me from resting at night and tensing up my legs so much that I can barely walk during the day.

I've seen bits of the sequels, The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but the original has always escaped me.  It's a weird little film, full of fantastic camerawork and stunts as well as some of the worst scene transitions I've ever seen.  I was two years old when it opened, so I can't judge whether or not the crap that tarnishes George Miller's almost-masterpiece was acceptable back then; but I will say that Mad Max could use a bit of the old George Lucas treatment.

Set in a near-future Australia, the movie centers on a small unit of highway patrol cops who have become as crazy as the sun-baked lunatics they try to keep off the roads.  Miller and co-writers Byron Kennedy and James McCausland do something unique here: relegate their main character to sidekick status for about half the picture; like so many elements in the story, they handle this unevenly, but I appreciated the novelty.  When the movie begins, Max is the cool, shadowy enforcer who swoops in to clean up a nasty bit of trash named Nightrider (Vincent Gil) after four other officers fail to nab him. Later on, he pops up as second banana to a super-cop named Jim Goose.

Goose is the hard-partying single swinger to Max's settled family man.  He's also a bit of a celebrity, known for busting heads and keeping the sparse populace safe.  But Nightrider's death draws the ire of biker-gang leader Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who puts a hit out on our heroes.  Before long, Goose gets cooked and Max announces he's quitting the force.  His captain orders him to take a vacation to clear his head and reconsider.

On a trip to the countryside, Max's wife, Jessie (Joanne Samuel), runs afoul of Toecutter's gang and, through a tense series of events I wouldn't dare spoil, winds up dead--along with their infant son.  Max goes crazy (er, mad) and seeks to destroy anything on two wheels.

I know it's sacrilege to nitpick a cult classic, but goddamnit, someone needs to. All of the action in Mad Max is superb.  Miller and cinematographer David Eggby placed me square in the path of banged-up vehicles moving at a hundred-and-fifty miles per hour, and there are entire stretches of this movie where my whole body locked up.  The duo are masters of both anticipation and collision, and aside from Duel and the original The Hitcher, I haven't seen a movie that so faithfully captures the dread of being in the middle of nowhere at the mercy of strangers.

On the other hand, you have the goofy shit, like Max and Jessie's disappearing/reappearing son.  At the outset of the vacation montage, I thought, "Oh, they must have left their baby with some relatives that were neither introduced nor mentioned"; until the kid pops up in the car at a gas station.  Later, at a summer home--whose owners might be relatives--Jessie goes off to the beach for a swim and leaves the baby playing in some tall grass several yards from the house, unsupervised.  Later, she's shocked to learn that the bikers have kidnapped her little latchkey angel.

One more note about Jessie: She plays a mean saxophone.  Early in the movie, we see Max sitting at home in the dark as a sexy sax groove plays on the soundtrack; I figured we were being clued into the steamy, contemplative places his mind was going, but when Miller cuts to Jessie in the corner, practicing her instrument, I felt like I was watching Airplane!.

Let's talk about those transitions, shall we?  I don't know if Miller is to blame, or if this is strictly the fault of editors Cliff Hayes and Tony Paterson, but Mad Max has some of the most awkward cuts and unofficial wipes I've ever seen. From abrupt fades-to-black to downright strange closeups of birds that are, I guess, supposed to fly into the camera to prevent us from witnessing the bikers' heinous crimes, there's not a single instance of natural progression here; which is unfortunate considering how terrific the chase scenes are. I dont' know this for sure, and it'll sound rather obvious, but it seems like Mad Max was thrown together purely as an action showcase.  That's a tough call, given the sort of art-house nature of the meandering story lines and character development, but these details took me straight out of the picture; I have to assume they're either deliberate, bad choices, or simply afterthoughts.

I can't even say for sure that Mel Gibson is the star of the movie. As I mentioned earlier, Max is a non-presence until Goose leaves the story. By then, he comes off as a milquetoast dad who gets pushed too far. Had Miller and company fleshed him out a bit more--had they actually decided what he was supposed to be--maybe his blood-quest during the film's closing ten minutes would have resonated. Instead, I was left to assume he'd become a real character in the sequel.

I'm glad I chose to watch Mad Max today. It's an uneven movie, but it falls short in really interesting ways and manages to surpass much of the excitement level of today's mega-million-dollar blockbusters. It's silly, violent, and uplifting, and has restored enough of whatever's missing in me today to make Spice World a possibility for tomorrow.

Monday
Jun062011

Titanic 2 (2010)

The Boat So Nice They Sank it Twice

Before you freak out, know that Titanic 2 is not a sequel to James Cameron's world-dominating 1997 blockbuster. That would be pretty cool though, wouldn't it? Imagine an expedition to the sunken ship in which scientists discover the zombified crew of the Titanic; a half-eaten-away Jack Dawson could fall in what passes for love among the undead with the sexy but vulnerable head diver--who would, of course, be Rose Dewitt Bukater's great-great-great-granddaughter. Zack Snyder could direct, with KNB working their Walking Dead magic on the practical makeup effects.

Think Resident Evil with bubbles.

That'll never happen. But at least we have this spectacularly ambitious, amazingly awful SyFy movie to cherish.  Shane Van Dyke plays millionaire playboy Hayden Walsh, a blonde airhead whose greatest triumph is to be the successful launch of Titanic 2. Unlike the original doomed vessel, his ship is equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and plenty of lifeboats.  It's slick and unsinkable--never mind the clearly visible rust stains on the outside of the hull.

Hayden boards Titanic 2 minutes before departure with an entourage of FHM models. He runs into ex-girlfriend Amy (Marie Westbrook), who works as one of two (!) nurses on the ship, and their terse, awkward exchanges are so convincing that I was shocked to see them get back together when disaster strikes.

Sorry, should I have tagged those last items as spoilers? Yes, it's not long before Titanic 2 finds itself at the mercy of not one iceberg but a field of icebergs propelled by an 840-miles-per-hour mega-tsunami. Monitoring the storm from a helicopter are Coast Guard captain James Maine (Bruce Davison)--who happens to be Amy's father--and NOAA scientist Kim Patterson (Brooke Burns). They race against time to reach the doomed ship and keep Hayden and the sweaty captain (D.C. Douglas) from doing anything stupid.

It's a testament to Davison's fine acting abilities that Titanic 2 is intermittently gripping.  None of the ship stuff works, but the scenes aboard the helicopter are quite good--mostly because Davison is great at playing the Concerned Father while coaching his daughter and her idiot ex over the radio. His face is sufficiently scrunched and sad, and I wonder how much of that is a combination of sense-memory and Method acting versus a day-by-day realization that he's starring in Titanic 2.

But, hey, no one's coming to this movie for the acting, right?  It's all about the cool special effects and awesome body count!  Let me iterate that this movie debuted on the SyFy Channel, the same bastion of quality CG effects that brought us Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus and Mansquito. There aren't any poorly compisited mutants in Titanic 2, but there are plenty of grade-school-project shots of the ship speeding through the ocean like cut-paper animation; not to mention the cracks forming on the face of the arctic ice shelves--which hilariously look like someone took a Sharpie marker and an animation camera to a still picture of an iceberg.

There are also a handful of scenes that are so dark that I couldn't tell what the hell was going on.  I watched this movie on both a laptop and a high-resolution monitor, and no amount of tilting the screen and squinting could help define most of the underwater and trapped-in-the-bowels-of-the-ship shots. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice on Van Dyke's part (did I mention he also directed and wrote this gem?), because the ship's interiors don't stand up to a lot of visual scrutiny.  Take, for example, the control panels on the high-tech escape vessels, which are clearly made of PVC pipe and papier-mâché.

I could spend hours picking apart all the wonderful little details that make Titanic 2 such a joy to watch. But I'm not one to deprive my readers of magic.  So here are a few teaser-ific highlights:

  • Amy's friend and fellow nurse, Kelly (Michelle Glavan) reads a book called The Original Titanic
  • After the first iceberg assault, the crew herd the passengers onto elevators to get them to safety
  • One passenger is a Mick Foley look alike who randomly beats up people during the panic
  • Van Dyke gets a lot of mileage out of victims-tripping-on-stairs shots
  • Amy uses a credit card and some tape to apply pressure to Kelly's gaping chest wound
  • A submarine captain--parts of whose face disappear into the green-screen background--utters the catch-phrase-worthy, "Let's get this cigar smokin'!"

I get the feeling that Van Dyke and his entire cast and crew honestly believed they were making a solid motion picture.  Similar to The Haunting of Winchester House, this film plays as if everyone involved (except for Davison) was making their first movie; the enthusiasm and incompetence overwhelm every frame like the most treasured Ed Wood classic. Titanic 2 fails on almost every measurable level, but the sincerity of the people behind it helps to make the movie a wholly satisfying entertainment experience. It's the best piece of shit I've seen in quite awhile.