Friday, July 29, 2005

The New Yorker Goes Remote...

As the summer starts to come to a close, the New Yorker has decided to exploit her parents, and tag along on a "family vacation." She hopes that she will not live to regret this, as it is Hurricane season, and as luck would have it, she is headed to an isolated desert island in the Carribean. And no --this posting is not a crazy homage to LOST, though I am counting the days till it returns.

This island has no internet though, nor movie theatres or TV, so I will not be posting for about the next week. Don't worry though, I'll be back with reviews on Stealth, Sky High, the new Harry Potter book and more.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Tagline of the Week: Courtesy of V for Vendetta

Hard to believe there’s yet another Alan Moore adaptation racing down the pipeline, faster than you can say “don’t ruin another comi---“.

(On a brief aside, I sat down the other night and watched From Hell, and BOY, is it AWFUL!)

V for Vendetta will be released this fall in early November, and the trailer just hit the Apple Trailers site the other day.

Can’t say I’ve read this particular Moore comic, but I’m definitely intrigued by the concept of a sort of alternate reality where the Nazis won World War II, and Britain is a facist state. Seems similar to the Phillip Roth book that came out earlier this year, The Plot Against America, which also deals with what might have been if Hitler had succeeded in his chilling final solution.

If you can bare squinting your eyes for the unbearably tiny window that Apple provides, you can make out there’s more than a modicum of visual style from first time director James McTeigue. McTeigue has an impressive resume as an assistant director, having worked on all three Matrix films, and Star Wars Episodes II and III. Not too shabby to say the least.

Of course we all know, that just cause something looks pretty, doesn’t mean that it’s fun to sit through. Natalie Portman being the notoriously consummate actress she is, I’m sure will bring her borderline annoying vulnerability to the lead role of Evey Hammond, a young woman who becomes embroiled in political intrigue, and joins a group of facist fighters. I just hope she plays the character older than a fifteen year old, which is how she plays most things If you ask me Portman still lives off the fat of her “amazing” performance in The Professional, despite the fact that that was eleven years ago. I do feel like Portman generally puts in a good effort though, regardless of the end result, so I must take my hat off to her for that. I must give her “props” for shaving her head for the filming of V for Vendetta, an artistic choice that I feel like many young, pretty actresses in this day and age would shun.

As far as the trailer itself goes, its pretty confusing as to what the hell is going on the film. If it weren’t for Yahoo! Movies , handy dandy little summary of the film, I don’t know if I’d have a clue as to what is going on. I did not get a clear sense of the Nazi success plot at all, and while the English accents that everyone has cues us a bit to the location, it isn’t clear what the setting of the film is. This is actually one of the few trailers that comes to mind that I think could benefit from either the “In a World” narration guy, or some more title cards to establish what’s going on. Right now, all we can make out is that Portman’s character kidnapped and then they want her to track someone down, who I’m assuming is the masked crusader with the funny joker like mask. The climate of the film is fairly well established – a crazy totalitarian state, but the specifics of the plot are fairly vague and unclear. Fine by me really, I think they reveal far to much in the trailers these days.

Now the boys over at Aint It Cool posted someone’s review of the script for V for Vendetta, and to quote AICN, it “wasn’t too pretty”. Subsequent commentary from the nerd patrol over there revealed that everyone who had come into some sort of contact with the script didn’t have very good things to say about it. I only skimmed it because of the many spoilers it contained, but among their gripes was the fact that (surprise, surprise) it wasn’t very faithful to the original comic, and that generally the characters and plot were developed poorly. Now the Wachowski brothers wrote this script, and I think that bodes well, because no matter what anyone says, I think everything they’ve put out has ranged from amazing(Matrix) to decent (Matrix Revolutions). Still, there’s a first time for everything. There’s a part of me that wonders why they didn’t go ahead and direct it…

I have to say, after looking at the one sheet for the film, I am quite intrigued by the image of the mask for codename: V. It kind of looks a bit like Timothy Dalton, don’t you think? (Timothy Dalton, only way, way creepier.)

Oh yeah, and the tagline for this one reads:

“Remember, Remember, the fifth of November.”

While I knew it sounded familiar, it wasn’t until I looked up the phrase on trusty google, that I realized where it is from. The phrase was taken out of a British sermon that was written to commemorate a heinous crime of treason in 1605, where a man was caught in the basement of Parliament with barrels of gunpowder trying to blow it up.

I like the fact that the Wachowskis got a little historical.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Island is everything the New Yorker feared it would be...

I have a confession to make.

I saw Armageddon twice in the theatre.

I was one hundred percent completely sucked into that movie when I saw it, and I was totally crying at the end when Bruce Willis says goodbye to Liv Tyler.

I know you’re waiting for the punch line here, where I write in all caps,


But actually it’s all true, and for all my bagging on Michael Bay I can’t deny it.

Armageddon of course is a ridiculous, cheesy, foolish movie, obnoxious and unctuous in its style, questionable in its acting and nonsensical in its plotting. Still, of the two “asteroid” movies that came out that summer, I thought Armageddon was far better than Deep Impact, because at the very least, Armageddon doesn’t take itself too seriously. You know that you’re watching an emotionally manipulative, action-packed, popcorn fest, and even though it may leave a lot to be desired in the artistic area, it is what it is. It is a movie about a bunch of colorful characters going up into space to blow up an asteroid and save the earth from being incinerated. It’s straightforward, and lacks any real subtext or depth. It’s not a drama about the end of the world; it’s an action film about blowing stuff up and preventing the earth itself from being blown up.

I haven’t sat through Armageddon since it was released in theatres, and I feel embarrassed by how entertaining I found it. I realize it is poor in many ways, HOWEVER, if there is a movie that Michael Bay should direct,…a movie that includes crazy heroes and explosions is right up his alley. Armageddon and Michael Bay were a good match.

The Island was not. The reason The Island was not, is because, as I’ve mentioned many times before in previous blog posts, the original script and conceit for this story was very clever, and explored a series of issues about the morale implications of cloning. Cloning has in fact become a very real part of our scientific reality in the past few years, and I think there are any number of directions this film and story could have been taken in, that could have explored the reality that may not be that far off where cloning humans is commonplace.

Of course, with Michael Bay at the helm, I should have immediately erased any hopes I had had to see the insight and subtlety that a director like Kubrick (may he rest in peace) or Spielberg could have brought to the film. I will say this for Michael Bay. He does have a style. The one thing you can’t say about Bay is that he brings nothing to the table. Oh he brings plenty to the table, I don’t like any of it, but the characteristics of his films are as obvious in The Island, as they are in all of his other movies. The lighting is very bright and blown out, the tones of certain sequences are hyper-colorized, with a lot of very fast edits so that you can’t really see what the hell is going on. Many of his exteriors are shot like a travel commercial for exotic locales, with swooping camera motions that will make your head spin more than a monkey cage at an amusement park.

Every choice that Bay made as a director for this film drove me insane. For a movie that cost as much as it did, everything felt incredibly cheap and fake looking. The compound where the clones lived looked like a set. I understand that Bay was probably going for a claustrophobic, prison like feel for the clone colony, but it didn’t work for me. It felt like it was an unfinished piece of set, due to the laziness of the production designer. There were some neat technological gadgets here and there, but overall a lot of the props and set decorating, felt either too much like they were taken out of the present day, or were trying too hard to look retro. The sporty white track suits and white pumas that the clones wore, looked like gifts the production scored from over eager advertisers as opposed to carefully designed costumes. Bay might have been trying to tip his hat to a Logan’s Run kind of look, but the overall effect was to make the movie feel like a commercial more than a film. Call me stupidly biased, but somehow the product placement in Minority Report felt a lot classier than the slew that was included in this movie. To me, all the inclusions of modern day brands added to the sense of cheapness I though the film had.

What was once a much more complex and artfully developed story had been turned into a slapdash premise. I understand that screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci were trying to adjust the script to Bay’s action film sensibilities, but the initial concept of the film did not lend itself well to that.

Again I will make a comparison to Armageddon here. On the surface, the concept of Armageddon seems dark and depressing; an asteroid barreling through space to blow up earth and end all life. However, when you look at the take that Michael Bay had on the whole concept that

a) The Apocalypse was never going to happen, because there was never even a minute in the movie where we actually thought that the earth was going to explode.

b) The end of the world gave license for people (the U.S. government – gotta love Billy Bob as the president) to be really reckless and stupid and blow a lot of things up.

The topic of The Island, on first glance may not seem nearly as serious as the end of the world. But when you dig deeper in the idea of cloning in society, and how clones can also stand as a metaphor for ourselves within a world of commercialization and modernization, there are a lot of dark and resonant themes there.

Ultimately one of my biggest problems with the film is that the re-writers and director were unable to mold this subject matter to fit the genre they were going for. The first act of the film felt too jam packed with information. It tried to establish how the clones were created, what they were created for, and their living conditions. It also tried to set up the two main characters Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson) as well as their relationship with one another. That is a lot of information to squeeze into roughly thirty minutes and it showed. Normally things like character development and plot reveals are woven into the rest of the story, but this movie felt really top heavy. Once Lincoln and Jordan escape the clone facility much of the movie becomes chase scene after chase scene, and there is not a great deal of new information on either the story or the characters.

Also I found myself annoyed, not only by Scarlett Johansson’s performance, but also by the path her character Jordan Two-Delta took. Johansson is the kind of young beautiful actress that I would like to disregard as just another pretty face. Still, I must confess to the fact that she has demonstrated a great deal of talent in her performances in movies like The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and In Good Company. (I actually thought she was mediocre in Lost in Translation) However her performance as Jordan Two-Delta was perhaps the weakest performance I’ve seen from her. I blame a lot of this on the way her character had been minimized in the film version of the script and also Bay’s direction. He’s never exactly been known for eliciting strong or meaningful performances from the female characters in his film. As his quote in the E-Weekly article suggested, Bay was clearly more concerned with her looks for the role than anything else. Johansson did indeed look quite striking in the film, but that’s about it. She came fairly flat, and blank faced for most of the movie. Also whereas the original script really followed the journey of Jordan’s story as much as Lincoln’s in regards to coming to terms with the fact that they were clones, the film really primarily focused on Lincoln, with Jordan as an attractive sidekick. In the original script Jordan was pregnant, and meets her sponsor in the outside world. In the film she is not, and it is Lincoln who meets his sponsor and experiences the oddity of encountering a “copy” of himself. I am so over the Hollywood minimized female roles, where these characters serve as little more than eye candy and the romantic interest. OVER IT.

I’ve always like Ewan McGregor, and think he is a versatile actor who really throws himself into every role he plays. However, for what the film was going for, I did think he was a bit miscast. For all the moaning and groaning the studio will be doing today about how little money The Island made, I don’t know what they were expecting. Broad demographics don’t want to see a wry, sensitive, smart, sort of slight guy from the UK, they want an un-intellectual, aloof, tough guy hero, like Bruce Willis, or Ben Affleck. I thought Ewan did a fine job in this film, I just also felt like he looked a tad bit out of place with explosions going off around him every two seconds.

Not only did the production design of the clone colony feel cheap and derivative to me, but the production design of the outside felt tremendously inconsistent. Once Lincoln and Jordan escape to the outside world, they find themselves in the middle of the desert. Lincoln decides they should track down Steve Buscemi’s character, McCord, a man that he has secretly befriended, who works on the outskirts of the colony. For about the first ten to fifteen minutes that they are in the “outside world” there is absolutely no indication that this future is any different than our present day. Clothing looks the same, dive bars looked the same, McCord’s house lack any sort of modern technology. Then all of a sudden we cut to a train station where Lincoln and Jordan are waiting for a train that will take them to Los Angeles, and the Amtraks are mag-lev trains. Huh? The train station didn’t look any different, in fact Bay seemed to be going for a very sepia toned “western look” to all the scenes of the “outside world” up until this point, and then suddenly – he throws in a technological advance. My friend and I argued about this after the film, because he felt that it was the production design was genius, in that a lot of the things were still the same, but here and there were these futuristic elements. While I could see his point, and find this concept interesting, I still think there could have been more cohesiveness to the design, and thrown in a thing or two into sets that showed absolutely no change what so ever. I will confess that I thought downtown LA in the movie looked pretty great. Bay shot scenes and footage in the existing Downtown, and then did an overlay in post-production adding some CG elements to the sky scrapers and putting in levitating trolleys and trains and the like. The cars that the cops drove around in those scenes were these neat Chrysler concept cars, that looked very similar to the Chrysler 300’s that are out on the street now.

Oh, and on a brief little aside rant, when Jordan and Lincoln are walking around LA, she catches a glimpse of her sponsor who is apparently a successful model and actress. She is walking by a department store, and on a TV monitor that is on display, sees the Calvin Klein Eternity commercial, that she herself, Scarlett Johansson was in last year. I wanted to throw my popcorn bucket at the screen when I saw this. Either the film makers decided last minute, that they wanted to insert some sort of moment with Jordan where she sees her sponsor, but didn’t have time to shoot anything and so they used that spot for the perfume. Or they thought they were being cute and tongue and cheeky when they did it. Either way I hated it, it took me out of the story of the film and I thought it came across smug and cheap.

As Lincoln and Jordan make their way in the outside world, we are also introduced to Albert Laurent (Djimon Housou) – a bounty hunter, who works under the radar of law enforcement, and is hired by Merrick (Sean Bean), to track down his “product” (the corporate terminology for clones) and return them safely to the clone enclave.

Poor Hounsou’s character, Albert Laurent, becomes a virtual throwaway,(he did not exist in the original screenplay) with no real time taken to establish what he is about other than a cold hearted mercenary who wrecks havoc on anything that stands in between himself and Jordan and Lincoln. At the end of the film, he is the one who returns Jordan to the clone colony. When he learns that she will be killed even though it is too late for her organs to make a difference in saving the life of her sponsor. In a bizarre scene between Laurent and Merrick (Sean Bean), he reveals a mark that had been branded on his palm, and gives a very brief fairly garbled back-story about how he and his family were part of the such and such rebellion, and they were made to feel “less than human.” Then he offs Merrick, and decides to join the side of the clones. While I appreciated the fact that they were trying to give some sort of explanation as to why Laurent suddenly switches sides, this comment almost made me angrier. It is an example of a story element that could have been a great opportunity to draw parallels between Laurent and the prey he is chasing for most of the film, Lincoln and Jordan. His transition from being a “bad guy” to being a “good guy” feels incredibly abrupt, and could have really used a bit more of a build up to this point.

There is a sort of interesting scene where Laurent and his men ambush Lincoln while he is in the car with his sponsor. Laurent has his gun pointed ready to kill the clone, but there is a moment of confusion, where both Lincoln and his sponsor insist that they are the “real” Tom Lincoln. Laurent is thrown off and ends up shooting the “wrong” one (the real Tom Lincon), leaving Lincon Six-Echo to assume the identity of his sponsor, as a legitimate human. I actually think it would have been interesting for the audience to see Laurent registering that he was going to shoot the “real” Tom Lincoln, and doing it anyway. Perhaps he could have revealed this to Lincoln Six-Echo at the end of the film.

In the end, with the help of Laurent and Jordan, Lincoln saves the day, rescuing hundreds of cloned individuals from suffering an untimely death at the hands of their sponsors and the corporation owners. Cut to swooping camera work and soaring music as the hero and heroine make out in a sepia toned desert landscape.

I knew why I was going to be disappointed with The Island, before I actually saw it and was disappointed. It’s because in my mind this was a movie which could have been so much more than it actually was. One of my friends has a theory, that the worst movies are not those that have the worst actors, or production design or story, but the movies that have the best ideas and best potential, but fail to deliver at many of the levels it could have. I’m not sure if I fully buy into this theory, but I do feel some of that frustration with The Island. I wanted it to be smarter. It was riddled with so many little inconsistencies within the world it created, such as the fact that there were 70 year old clones there, despite the fact that their organs would not be as strong as those belonging to a thirty year old. Or the fact that considering no real contact with the opposite sex was allowed, how was it explained to the women who were pregnant, how and why they came to be this way?

I think The Island is sort of indicative of what would have happened if Michael Bay had directed Minority Report. The sophistication would have been drained out of it, and replaced with cheesy over the top action sequences. (There were actually some undeniable cool action sequences in The Island, one in particular where Lincoln and Jordan are on a tractor trailer and Lincoln unleashes stack after stack of these metal objects that look like giant barbells. The barbells then bounce around the freeway crushing anything in their path.)

But I wanted more than just a couple cool action sequences. I wanted themes, I wanted motifs, and I wanted emotional depth and complex characters. I wanted an exploration of a social dilemma envisioned through the veil of a science fiction story. The Island was a mismatch of director and story.


Saturday, July 23, 2005

New Yorker thinks forecast for Box Office this weekend looks interesting.

Hello all,

This weekend a bunch of new movies enter the mix. We have two big releases, The Island and Bad News Bears, and two mid-size releases, The Devil’s Rejects and Hustle and Flow.

Not to mention the fact that we have two pics that are going to have some major holdover I think, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Wedding Crashers.

Wow, what a box office splash! As much as I’m sure the studio execs for each and every one of these movies are foaming at the mouth to see what sort of monetary response their beloved flicks will get, I am going to make my own predictions.

Now this is a toughie, because while I’ve narrowed down the selection to kid movie takes all, with two in the mix, I’m not sure which one will knab the first place prize.

My guess is to go with Charlie and the Chocolate factory for the winner of the weekend, two weeks in a row. I think it will gross about $37/38, about a 20 million drop from last weekend.

I think Wedding Crashers will come in second with about $25 mill. I think it’s one of these comedies that has legs, and will continue to bring in a draw through word of mouth.

My prediction is Bad News Bears will trek in at a close third at around $23 mill. It has the nostalgia factor, and the kids factor, and will also skew older than Charlie and the Choco factory, which could be a positive thing.

Next I think we’re looking at The Island. Despite the fact that it’s been tracking very poorly I think the fact that it has the Michael Bay Brand on it, and it’s the only real action offering that’s been out in weeks, it should do about $17 million. (not to say I’d be crushed if it did less….)

Hustle and Flow will do about $13 million, in the number five place slot, and not too far down will be The Devil’s Rejects at $11 Million.

It should be a hearty weekend for the box office overall, but I think it’s an inevitability that their will be at least a couple losers. I think my dollar amounts may be a little high, but I feel fairly confident with my overall ranking.

The flood of summer movies continues next week when Stealth (at last!), Must Love Dogs, and Sky High come out. It saddens me to think after next week there will only be one month left of summer fun! And let’s be honest, they always stick in the real stinkers at the end of the season….*sigh*

We’ll see how up to date my crystal ball is on Monday, and stay tuned for my review on The Island.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

BAY-O, BAAAAY-O, You say such things that me wan go home

Since the start of this blog, only a few months ago, I have always reveled in the amount of material that Michael Bay has given me to remark upon. It’s no secret there is no love lost between me and Mikey B, nor that I care very little for his “style” of film making.

In fact the second post on this blog, was a rant on Bay’s latest shannanigans. Once upon a time, there was an intelligent innovative spec sci-fi screenplay, called The Island. Then the dark Lord of shallow, poorly written action films swallowed it up, twisted its insides out and made it his own.

At last judgement day is arriving: The Island will have a wide release in theatres this Friday. In honor of this momentous event, Entertainment Weekly put The Island’s two stars on the cover (Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson), and did a big feature article on Michael Bay. E-Weekly has given me no shortage of pricelessly obnoxious and idiotic quotes from the director, from various interviews (remember when he protested that The Island was’nt geeky? ). Well this particular article is no exception.

E-Weekly writer Daniel Fireman takes a sort of salty tone with the article, portraying Bay as a Hollywood badass who brings in the money, and infuriates the critic. While this is no mindboggling insight, it is unclear on what side of the line Fierman stands on when it comes to the Bay boy.

Bay rants about how he doesn’t care what anyone thinks about him because his efforts have been so lucrative that he has apparently personally proclaimed himself, “(the) youngest director to gross a billion dollars worldwide.” (Ok, we get it, your movies make money, but you’ll still never win an OSCAR!).

I think my hands down favorite quote, that he gave in the interview, was his reponse to Fierman asking him about how he paired McGregor and Johansson together. Bay revealed he cast McGregor first, and then went on to say:

“Well you gotta find chemistry. Someone that looks the right, you know, age. Ewan looks like he’s 32, so you gotta find a 20 year old for him.”

There are a lot of things that instinctively want to fly out of my mouth when I read that sentence, but then I take a step back and realize, that like any of Michael Bay’s sound bites, the meaning of it disintegrates at the slightest exposure to dissection. Chemistry is very important, but it doesn’t really have to do with age OR looks. Two actors can have chemistry, if one is 12 and the other is 70. Chemistry exists in all sorts of relationships painted on screen, parents and children, siblings, best friends, lovers, etc. And yes, clearly capturing a look for a certain part is also important. But this arbitrary matching of a 32 year old with a 20 year old? Don’t get me started, don’t even get me started.

But you know what? It’s ok. Because as much as I wanted this amazing script and story to morph into a fantastic film, I now wish everyone who put their money on Michael Bay to witness how it will crumble before their very eyes. Poor Caspian Tredwell-Owen, who wrote the original script was fired off the film after about three months by Michael Bay who declares in the article with hindsight “It didn’t work.” A couple of hacks joined the old party train to replace him, as well as much of what made the script unique.

To my surprise, E-Weekly actually reveals that as of literally two weeks ago, everyone was still working on the film. Reshoots were being edited, really last minute reshoots, the kind where each actor is in a different place when they film them. Now you know THOSE are going to be emotionally believable considering what they had to work with! There were still new lines of dialogue being banged out, and the actors were still doing ADR to dub over themselves with newer material. The ending is still being tweaked, as “test audiences” hated it (read as Steven Spielberg). All of that sounds like a recipe of disaster to me. If the little crystal ball in the back of my brain is good for anything, then I predict this one is gonna blow.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The New Yorker thinks Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is yummy.

From about the ages of seven to eleven, Road Dahl was undoubtedly my favorite author. I read and reread his books over and over again. I think the thing I loved about them most was their sense of whimsy. Dahl’s characters existed in a world where anything could and probably would happen, and all the rules you had learned about the way that the world worked, gave way to fantastic occurrences.

I did not actually see Mel Stuart ’71 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory until I was a bit older, and past the height of my Dahl craze (heaven knows why my parents didn’t show it to me before). When I finally saw the movie in my mid to late teenage years, I thought Gene Wilder was brilliant, and went nuts over the oompa loompas and sets. It was a story I enjoyed revisiting through the film, and I could see why it had become a beloved children’s classic.

So when I heard that Tim Burton, a director who I had once idolized, was doing a remake of a film that desperately did not need a remake, I was perplexed and annoyed. Sure the source material was terrific, but the same was true for Planet of the Apes, and look what happened there. The last Burton movie I enjoyed was Mars Attacks!, and even that film lacked some of the creative ingenuity that he had displayed in his earlier work. (And lets not forget Mars Attacks! was almost ten years ago!) After three big disappointments in a row, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, and Big Fish, I was not expecting much at all.

And so on Friday night, it was with a heavy heart and much trepidation that I walked into Grauman’s Chinese theatre to see Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate factory.

Boy was I in for a lovely surprise!

From the second the film's title appeared on screen and spun around into swirls of melted chocolate, my eyes were glued to the screen. The opening credit sequence was done in CG and depicted Wonka Bars being made, packaged, and shipped off into trucks. Every little detail of the chocolate production process in the shadowy mysterious factory peeked my interest. Burton’s influence was clear even here, as I watched the chocolate bars get wrapped individually by spindly mechanized arachnid legs.

The lopsided shack where the protagonist Charlie Bucket lived was a geometrically impossible construction would have made M.C. Esher proud. By placing this surreal looking house in the middle of an old fashioned looking British city, Burton set just the right fairy tale tone for the film.

The arguable protagonist of the film is Charlie Bucket, an only child who lives with his parents and four grandparents. Mr. Bucket has a factory job with measly pay, and the family lives under fairly impoverished conditions. I thought all of the scenes with the Bucket family were really terrific and struck just the right tone without being overly sentimental or gooey. They were quite faithful to the original scenes that were written in Dahl’s book, and they set up Charlie’s character and situation quite well without the feeling of forced exposition. I thought family Bucket was very well cast, and even Helena Bonham Carter, who I feared might stick out a bit, was a kindly and understated Mrs. Bucket. Grandpa Joe, played by David Kelley, did a marvelous job of playing the sweet old grandparent who never stopped spouting stories or advice. I also loved that Burton kept the detail of having all four grandparents in one bed in the center of the living room.

Even though you know inevitably that Charlie will end up winning a golden ticket, one of the brilliant elements of the story, is that all appears lost before he actually finds it. The Buckets are so poor that Charlie can only afford to buy one Wonka bar a year, on his birthday. There is a suspenseful and tender moment, when Mr. and Mrs. Bucket rush into the house excitedly, announcing that Charlie will get his birthday gift (a Wonka bar) a bit early so that he might have a chance to find a golden ticket. He opens the chocolate bar ever so painstakingly, and all his family, as well as the entire audience is holding their breath to see if he’s got the golden ticket. But Charlie only finds the chocolate, and a touching moment follows where even though it’s the only single bar he gets in a year, he breaks it into little squares, and shares it with his other seven family members, leaving for himself, only a small portion. The second bar that Charlie opens in hope of finding the ticket, is bought with Grandpa Joe’s long term savings. The two share an anticipatory moment as Charlie opens the bar together with his grandfather, only to find they have lost again. These two failed ventures make it all the more exuberant when Charlie does find the ticket, in a bar that he impulsively buys when he finds some money laying in the street. Burton combines just the right blend of humor and emotion in these moments without being too sappy. The four bucket Grandparents all add comic relief with their stories, sayings and at times cantankerous proclivities.

As the movie unfolded, I remember remarking to myself how pitch perfect the pacing felt. The montage of all the Wonka bars going on sale in cities all over the world. The way they introduced each of the other four children who found the tickets; showing the press conferences with Veruca, Augustus, Violet and Mike and their respective parents. All of this was woven together as Grandpa Joe recollected what he knew about that factory from when he was a younger man and used to work there.

The make-up in this film was fantastic. You could particularly notice it, on the faces of the children, who looked like they had walked right out of the poster. It looked like a lot of their make-up was air brushed onto their faces, and allowed for the light to play very nicely on their features creating alternating shadows and sheens.

I like that this film kept a lot of the darker and sinister elements of the book, which were also in the ’71 version. The fact that all of these kids are basically brutish, spoiled, out of control, tyrants is a refreshing change to many movies these days involving children. Often times children are made out to be sweet, innocent, helpless characters, with the occasional bully and/or mean kid. But in this film, Charlie the sweet and innocent child, is the exception. The film posits, not only that kids can often be greedy, pushy, obnoxious, and gluttonous, but they might get what’s coming to them, and what both Dahl’s story and Burton’s film imply, - they should get what they deserve. So much for redemption.

It’s no surprise that the production design of this film was nearly flawless, as all of Burton’s films are, even if they fall short in other criteria. The town where Charlie lived was a cold, small British city, that remained blanketed in white fluffy snow for the duration of the film. One of the triumphs of this film, and I think its a knack that Burton has always had, is to make a film set in modern times while expressing an antique feeling and tone. Somehow the shot of the kids in uber urban Tokyo running into the stark white candy shop, fit in perfectly with the shot of the New York Candy shop that was art deco and marble and ladies with fancy hats. While we are never told exactly in what year the film takes place, it is implied that it does indeed take place in the present, yet it has this wonderful old fashioned feel to it. Similar to how Burton’s Edward Scissorhands felt like it was set in the 50’s, but they all have VCR’s. I love that he can pull that stuff off.

Things really got going in the visual department once the film moved into the factory. The outside of the factory was a bleak grey industrial castle of sorts, but the inside was an impossibility of marvels. When I first saw the shots of the main candy garden with the chocolate waterfall in the trailer for this film, I was unsure how I felt that it was so similar to the garden in the Mel Stuart version. However, once I was watching the film, I felt that it came across as a nice homage to the Stuart film, and definitely had just enough twinges of Burton, to feel like both a replica, and an interpretation.

When Augustus is sucked up into the chocolate collector, and the Oompa Loompa’s run open for their first musical number my jaw dropped. Only one actor, Deep Roy, played all of the Oompa Loompas’. He was digitally regenerated multiple times for all the scenes in the movie, and the visual result was striking. It was hilarious to see hundreds of this one man dancing and running all over the place. Not only did Danny Elfman compose the original motion picture score, but he also wrote the music for all the songs, and sang them himself. As a long time fan of Danny Elfman, and particularly the Elfman/Burton combo, I’d say this was one of his best scores in a very long time. The man has done over one hundred and twenty productions, but I think his best comes out when he works with Burton. He’s pumped out a couple derivative bland scores in the past few years, like Spiderman and Big Fish, but when watching this film I was brought back to the days when the two artists achieved perfect creative synergy as with the Batman movies, Beetlejuice, and Scissorhands. One of the great things about the musical numbers as well, was that each song was written in a different style. Augustus’ song was a brassy rockus dancehall 60’s number, Violet's a disco flared tune, while Veruca’s was a dreamy rock ballad, and Mike Teavee’s was heavy metal. The boisterous music combined with Dahl’s original quippy lyrics and backflipping Oompa Loompa’s made for more than a couple show stopping moments.

A slightly problematic element of the film, which I suppose is endemic to the book, is the episodic quality of the story. There is a large chunk of the film, when the story follows the characters in the factory, and we watch child after child be naughty and then get their just desserts. I found that after watching Augustus, Violet, and Veruca bite the dust so to speak, I was feeling a little wary about watching an inevitable scenario play out with Mike Teavee. I think this also had to do with the fact that his character was the least fleshed out of all the children, and his characteristics were more ambiguous personality traits, than concrete qualities. Augustus was gluttonous and loved all edibles, Violet was overly competitive and loved gum, and Veruca greedy and loved pets, but Mike was cynical and smart alecky, and it was unclear what it was exactly that his ultimate motives were. The “2001” room looked cool with its bright white light, and futuristic looking gadgets, but once Mike is shrunk by the Wonka TV device, the sequence that followed lost me a little bit. They show Mike in a montage of TV and movie clips as the channel is changed and the Oompa Loompa’s sing his song. A) This was my least favorite Oompa Loompa song, because while funny, I do not care for Heavy Metal and B) they kept showing Mike as being stuck in the Psycho shower scene which I didn’t think made sense or have particular relevance. I think from here through the rest of the film, I lost a little bit of the awe that I had watched it with from the first two acts.

One of the things that was different about this film, was the backstory that they gave Wonka with his father, which was revealed through flashbacks. I felt somewhat mixed about Wonka’s flashback sequences. I thought the idea that Wonka’s father had been a dentist was very clever. I also liked that some of the scenes where Wonka’s father was critiquing candy and warning him about cavities felt tongue in cheek, like send ups of these sorts of parental flashbacks from other movies. They were supposed to be bittersweet, and were successfully funny in their irony, and sad in how pathetic they made Willy Wonka out to be, with his hideous headgear. However, at the end of the film, Charlie and Wonka go to see Wonka’s father, and this resolution felt a bit forced and pat for me. In fact I’d say the ending of the film felt a little heavy handed in terms of how hard they were pushing the “family is good” theme of the story. It wasn’t necessary for Burton, and screenwriter John August to spell it out as much as they did, though something tells me a lot of this emerged at the behest of the notes-happy studio.

I also would have liked to see a bit more of what happened at the factory from the point of view of Charlie and Grandpa Joe. For the first twenty or thirty minutes of the film, we are seeing everything through the eyes of Charlie and Grandpa Joe. The Buckets are the epicenter of the narrative thread. But once they get into the factory, the point of view seems to switch to Wonka’s, and I felt a little bit as if Charlie and Joe got lost in the shuffle. All the other kids who are touring along are loud and obnoxious and talkative, constantly being nosy. While it makes sense that Charlie would just be quietly and obediently just along for the ride, I wish I got a better sense of what he was thinking and feeling throughout the journey, other than few reaction shots of him looking wide eyed here and there. The film then returns to Charlie’s perspective at the end of the family when they return to the Bucket household, but this too felt a little bit abrupt since the transfer of POV seemed to take place so suddenly.

I thought all the kids in the movie were terrific. Freddie Highmore was absolutely precious as Charlie, and all the other kids were spot on for their characters. Missy Pyle turned in a great comedic performance as Violet’s mother. And then there was Johnny Depp as Wonka. I think it would be impossible for anyone to truly eclipse Gene Wilder’s spot on portrayal of Willy Wonka, but I think Depp did a terrific job of reinterpreting the role and making it his own. Depp made Wonka a loopy, silly, eccentric, who lacked any real tact, and always had a trick up his sleeve. Depp was able to be both funny and dark, as Wilder was, while also making a completely different set of choices with the role. It was definitely an original performance, and his transformation was helped along by his outlandish hair, make-up and costume, which made him look almost pre-pubescent, which makes perfect for a man who is the king of candy.

I had a blast watching this movie. It encapsulates in many ways what a great summer movie should be, because of how fun and silly it is. You can’t help but grin at the fantastical and exaggerated sets, and tap your foot at the wild musical numbers. Even though I did feel like it lost steam towards the end, the overall effect and impression of the movie was not lessened that much for me. For me Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was more than just an entertaining summer movie. It transported me back to my childhood, when hope and wonder flowed and mixed together like a chocolate waterfall, and getting and enjoying a piece of candy without worrying or thinking about anything else but the sweet taste in your mouth was just enough to make your day. I think Burton captured the uniqueness of Dahl’s story in this film, and it seemed like he had some sort of regenerative creative episode that’s pulled him back to the days of his greater works. Dark, funny, sad, hopeful, gorgeous for the eyes and thrilling to the ears, a boundary-less flight into imagination, Burton still shows he is a visionary.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Long Overdue: The Dark Water Review

From the moment it began, each frame of Dark Water channeled, dark, cold, wet dreariness. There was something about the way it was shot that made you feel as isolated as the main character, Dahlia.

When Dark Water begins, Dahlia, (played masterfully by Jennifer Connelly) is in the middle of a bitter divorce, and for the time being, has been given primary custody of her eight year old daughter, Ceci. But her custody of Ceci is contingent upon her finding a suitable place where they can both live. After a lot of fruitless searching, Dahlia ends up taking a dumpy apartment in a beat up building on Roosevelt Island.

Director Walter Salles, (who also directed The Motorcycle Diaries), captures his interpretation of a soggy bleak New York City on screen with near perfection. In an early scene of the film, Dahlia and Ceci are riding on the tram over to Roosevelt Island from Manhattan; the high angle shots of New York shrouded in a grayish white mist are as melancholy as they are atmospheric. I have never been on Roosevelt Island, and to be honest I don’t know if I ever will after seeing this movie. Against the backdrop of the chilly clouds, the brown brick compound like buildings looked more like factories than residences. There was a foul industrialism that seeped out of every structure on the island, especially the building that Dahlia moved into. The visual environment that Salles created was an ugly, lonely deserted landscape, a place where it seemed impossible to find happiness.

But Dark Water held much more resonance with me that its cinematic artistry. I thought the way that the themes and characters were woven together, was quite astute and effective. The film definitely had a strong cohesion, and for the most part, I never felt like there was any real piece of it that felt out of place. My friends and I used to joke when we’d see a film that had a bizarre performance or sequence, and yell out “Meanwhile, in a completely different movie…” But Dark Water didn’t have any of those moments. All thematic estuaries let out into the same body of water, and mixed together seamlessly.

This movie achieves a unique balance by which we see a lot of the story through the eyes of Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) as we follow journey. But we also see just enough of what she doesn’t see to create a sense of suspense and tension. As the movie unfolds, we learn through quick flashbacks, that Dahlia’s mother had been an alcoholic who was prone to fits of rage and verbal abusiveness. Though we never see it actually happen, we also learn that Dahlia’s mother also essentially abandoned her at a young age. As we glean bits and pieces from Connelly’s past, including the fact that she might have some sort of psychological disorders (she pops pills often throughout the course of the film), there is also a mystery unraveling in the building. Strange things are happening; there is an ominous dark colored water stain that keeps reappearing on the ceiling of the Dahlia and Ceci’s bedroom. Dahlia learns that the apartment above them keeps flooding and dripping murky water onto them despite the fact that supposedly nobody lives up stairs. Dahlia’s daughter Ceci, begins to develop strange behavior, claiming that she has a new “imaginary friend”, another little girl just her age by the name of Natasha.

The reveal of this film is far from astonishing. Even if I hadn’t seen the trailer about 50 times before seeing the movie (they ran it incessantly out here), I feel confident that I still would have guessed that the building was haunted, and as is the tradition in many Japanese horror films (yes Dark Water was yet another remake) the ghost would be someone who had been wronged in life. As it turns out, the ghost in this case was a little girl, just about Ceci’s age, (and the same age that Dahlia was when her mother abandoned her). The ghost, Natasha, who had befriended Ceci (as her imaginary friend) with ulterior motives, was the product of a broken home and divorce parents. Each parent assumed the other was watching over her, and while alone one day, she had climbed up the side of the water tower on the roof and fallen in. Just like Dahlia, she had been abandoned, and was seeking a maternal figure among the living to coddle her.

I think it was unfortunate that this movie came out so soon after the Ring 2 was released. The Ring 2, which I though was a fairly terrible movie /a>, was all about Samara, another ghostly little girl searching for a maternal figure. Samara had been abandoned by her own mother, and latched onto the idea of making Rachel (Naomi Watt’s character) her new mother. By taking possession of Aidan, Rachel’s son, she hoped to take his place in her life, as she found the mother she had been searching for, for years. At the end of the film, Rachel rids herself of Samara’s spirit, and saves both Aidan and herself.

Clearly, Dark Water explored a very similar theme, but I thought it was a much more interesting take. Dark Water had that sort of 70’s – esque atmospheric psychological thriller vibe to it. It reminded me a bit of some of Roman Polanski’s earlier work, like Rosemary’s Baby, and in particular, Repulsion. This movie was in many ways the story of Dahlia going mad, as she was unable to escape her past and hold onto her future. All she wanted more than anything in the world was to take care of her daughter, and to be the best mother that she could possibly be. There were a lot of really tender moments in the film between Dahlia and Ceci, (the two actresses had great chemistry) that encapsulated the maternal love between a mother and daughter. One in particular stuck in mind where Dahlia is preparing Ceci for her first day at her new school. They are rehearsing how Ceci will greet her classmates in front of the mirror as Dahlia braids her hair. Dahlia is trying to become the things that her mother never was for her. The film opens with a flashback of Dahlia waiting on a rainy day for her mother to come and pick her up from school, she waits and waits, but her mother doesn’t arrive for hours, and when she does she’s drunk and belligerent. But no matter how hard she tried, it always seemed like something was trying to get inbetween her and her daughter. Whether it was her husband trying to gain more active custody, or this imaginary friend who put a wall up between them, there always seemed to be something there. The black water stain that seeped out onto the plaster even after repairs were done, was symbolic of Dahlia’s past. A past that she wanted to run away from, and hide from her daughter but she could not.

Dark Water wasn’t really a film with the jumps and scares that we’ve come to expect from Horror films. It was more of a slow build to a psychological inferno. There were several shots in the film when Dahlia reached into her medicine cabinet to grab her pills. She would shut the door and look into the mirror. Each time this happened, I expected her to see some horrible image, or some monstrous thing standing behind her. But there wasn’t. There was only her own face looking back at her. And this was the most horrible thing of all. Dahlia couldn’t change who she was, she couldn’t escape the memories and the hurt that she had from her childhood with her mother. There is another very disturbing scene where she goes upstairs to the apartment above hers which is flooded. There is water everywhere, and she is wading in it up to her ankles. In the bathroom is a woman getting sick into the toilet. When she sees the woman lift her head, she sees that it is her mother, and she remembers her mother being drunk and sick and telling her that she hated her. This was such a terrifying yet poignant moment. The pouring water all around her created a dreamscape in which her most inner films were being realized before her very eyes. She was reliving the horror of her childhood. Beyond that, Natasha, the young ghost who is haunting her and her daughter, is really just a manifestation of Dahlia’s young self. The abandoned young child who is lonely, and is seeking love and acceptance and attention. It is yet another symbol, like the dark water stain, of the fact that her memories and pain follow her everywhere she goes.

I think the thematic concepts behind this film were both moving and intriguing, the acting was solid all around. There were some great moments with the supporting cast of John C. Reilly, Pete Postlethwaite, and Tim Roth. However, as has happened before, I feel that the movie suffered from some conflicting forces from the director, and the studio. It seemed that Salles was going for very somber, slow moving character piece with a lot of psychological elements, and Disney wanted a summer horror blockbuster. There were definitely a couple moments that felt like forced “scares” and interrupted the measured deliberated pacing and framing of the movie, such as when hair starts coming out of Dahlia’s faucet. Also, there was some clunky exposition in the film when it came to exposition – using secondary characters to “explain” much of the history of what had happened in the apartment above Dahlia’s. Polanksi’s movies never had that sort of thing…it was possible for things to just happen in his films, and he had a great knack for showing instead of telling. But then again that was the 70’s.

Unlike the Ring 2 (which I actually didn’t even think was scary) and The Grudge, two other Japanese Horror flick remakes before this, Dark Water was not about the gore or the cheap scare. It really was about the story of one woman who is driven to the brink of insanity because she cannot escape herself. I think one of the pieces of the movie that suffered most from what I am presuming to be the studio’s push for a traditionally structure horror film, is the end. In many horror movies, there is what as known as the come back. The hero or heroine appears to save the day, and then just as the audience and main characters have breathed a sigh of relief, the final horror is unveiled. Towards the end of the film there is a moment where Dahlia enters the consciousness of Natasha, and experiences what she experienced when she died. As she re-enacts the last moments of Natasha’s life, she ends up at the water tower, which is where Natasha’s remains are. Not only was this too similar to The Ring, I thought, (Rachel finding Samara in the well), but then the movie follows the traditional formula, where it seems like everything is fine now that Natasha’s body has been found. But then Natasha comes back (just like Samara did). If you ask me, I think they should have cut the scene where Dahlia finds Natasha and cut right to the scene where Natasha finally makes herself visible and tries to claim Ceci’s life, so she can replace her, and become Dahlia’s daughter. Dahlia, of course makes this ultimate sacrifice, and tells Natasha to take her instead, promising her she will be her mother for ever and ever. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about this ending, but after ruminating over it for a couple days, I realize it makes perfect sense. Dahlia was at last making peace with herself, because she could not continue to run away from her painful past. She was reconciling with her former child self. Despite the fact that she did this to “save” Ceci, she was also acknowledging not only her daughter’s needs, but her own need for a mother, because she in essence was also Natasha. What makes the ending so bittersweet, however, is that she could only do this in death.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

A bold statement from the New Yorker: Fantastic Four JUST MIGHT be the worst movie of the summer.

Often times when I sit down in front of my trusty laptop to write these reviews I feel a bit overwhelmed, my head swimming with various ideas. Where to I begin? How do I sum up the film and try to find some valid points without just writing tepid summaries, or bland approval.

As I sit here concocting my review for Fantastic Four, I find myself not knowing where to begin….

Because this movie may rival Van Helsing for one of the worst summer movies, ever, EVER made.

Not since League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has a perfectly good comic book story concept been throttled into studio cookie cutter oblivion and turned into such boring nonsense.

There are times when one is sucked into a movie for maybe the first two thirds of the movie, and then the ending stinks. Other times when the first half hour may be somewhat engaging before the whole thing falls off a damn cliff (i.e. Dreamcatcher). But I don’t think I’ve ever known a movie was going to be painfully bad, sooner than I did with Fantastic Four. It was almost instantaneous. Even the opening credit sequence felt awkward, with some computer graphic hoo ha that started to ramp up but was then cut off abruptly to reveal the logo of the Fan four. The first scene of the film opens on two of its’ main characters. Ben Grimm played by Michael Chiklis and Reed Richards by Ioan Gruffudd. They are about to meet Victor Von Doom, in an attempt to seek funding and collaboration on a scientific study. It only took a couple moments of clunky dialogue and wooden acting to see that things were not going well.

But hey, who wants to spend time setting up the characters anyways? Let’s get down to business with the exposition of the “high-concept” plot.

Sure it’s a comic book movie, and crazy fantastical things happen. But you’d think it’d be possible for the plot elements to have a little more logic and intelligence than the story arc of an episode of Barney.

Seriously though. You know that kind of pseudo science fiction mumbo jumbo that just makes you automatically zone out because of how ridiculous and boring it sounds? There’s a lot of that in this movie. Call me a nerd here, but at least you gotta give Star Trek some credit for creating sci-fi tech talk that was consistent and arguably interesting. I found my eyes glazing over as Reed Richards pitches his idea to Dr. Von Doom. Basically Reed needs money and the use of Doom’s space station in order to conduct some experiment, which will ultimately result in the betterment of mankind. I wish it had been stated that simply but instead the film forced multiple minutes of faux sci-tech warbling on us.

All seems to be going smoothly when Von Doom agrees to Reed’s request,… but uh, oh… in walks Jessica Alba, who plays Sue Storm. Not only does she look too young for the role of an established scientist, but she scares me because her hair and her skin are almost exactly the same color – blonde. (I’ll refrain from a whole diatribe about how I think its kinda lame that she masks her Latinaness.) Director Tim Story makes it painfully obvious with reaction shots, that are as subtle as canons on the fourth of July, that Sue and Reed have some sort of a history, from years ago. Forget the fact that the two are supposed to be peers in the scientific world having been at MIT at the same time, but Gruffudd is eight years her senior… (Alba is 24, Gruffod 32)

Once the Fan 4 and Von Doom arrive at the space station which is apparently run by invisible robots, maylay ensues. Whatever event it is that Dr. Reed Richards is preparing for in order to conduct his study, without explanation suddenly happens within minutes of their arrival. BAM! This huge wave of …(insert inane pseudo science here) hits, and after a really cheaply rendered 80’s-esque FX sequence that shows the Fan Four’s physical structure being reformatted we fade to black.

From the outset Fantastic Four didn’t want to “waste” time developing its characters, lest it be diverted from diving right into the setup and plot. What is astounding about the movie however, is that the running time is just over two hours, and truly, almost nothing happens the entire time.

The setup is taken care of in the first ten minutes. A group of scientists goes on a mission and is hit up by some undefinable, inexplicable force that alters their DNA and gives them superhuman powers. Each of those who were on board, was effected in a different way, and therefore has different powers.

After they black out on the ship, we cut to this bizarre hospital/recreation center owned by Doom, where the four of them are being held under observation as they re-cooperate. Johnny, Sue, Reed and Ben begin to realize that they are not quite the same as when they left earth.

Johnny is now the “human torch”; he can light any part of his body on fire and will eventually learn that he is also capable of flying. His character up to this point has basically been established as a young whippersnapper who enjoys thrilling stunts and charming women. Played by a relatively unknown actor, Chris Evans, I would say he probably delivers the least offensive performance in the film. He plays the cocky, young jerk pretty well, and while I found him foolish and annoying at times it was more a product of the script and his lines then his actual acting. After months of watching snippets in the trailer, where he said said things like, “I need names, and shots!” and responding to a nurse when she tells him he’s hot with “Why thank you so are you”, he didn’t bug me nearly as much as I thought he would.
Poor Michael Chiklis. Or maybe I should be saying lucky Michael Chiklis. It is unclear to me if he was both Ben Grimm AND The Thing. I couldn’t tell if he was actually under that ridiculous rock costume. When Ben got hit by “the wave” he turned into an enormous rock monster with superhuman strength. Called, The Thing, he is big, and talks with a gravelly (yes pun intended) voice. Here’s the thing about The Thing. He looks absolutely, positively ridiculous!

The design of this character is terrible. He looks like he’s right out of Dick Tracy, - and don’t get me wrong, I loved Dick Tracy, but that was a very stylized, specific thing they were going for, and nothing else in the production design of this movie fits with the interpretation of this character. I like Chiklis and have enjoyed his work in the past in everything from The Commish to the Shield. But this is not one of his better performances. I think if he wasn’t the one under that costume, then he lucked out because he probably spent a minimal amount of time on set. This might also explain a bit why it felt like he was phoning in the whole thing. I have a vision of him in an ADR booth, in a woozy sugar high enduced state, punching himself for agreeing to do the film.

Jessica Alba as Sue Storm discovers that she is able to become invisible. She also has some other power, which is never really explained properly in the movie, which allows her to use “forcefields” to either separate people, or isolate other force-fields, and even throw people against the wall. It was all pretty unclear and sort of lame. Female superheroes never seem to luck out on the really cool powers the way the men do. While I want to rant and rave about how terrible Alba was as Sue Storm, I feel unfair doing so, because the script really gave her nothing to work with. Her role and character were just written and fleshed out so awfully, it was easy to dislike her. She was written as this figure of responsible humorless level headed middle management. By nature of the fact that she’s attractive, she tries to add a little sultriness to the role, but I don’t think it really worked. She came off flat, and without much screen presence or charisma. But to her benefit her character was awful. She was always mad at someone, kind of cold, and boooring.

Ioan Gruffudd, who plays Reed Richards, AKA Mr. Fantastic is well….wow. I really felt bad for the guy; there were times in the movie where I got the impression that maybe he was giving it his all. This made me sad, because he was not very good. At all. I don’t know what it was, the makeup, the hair, the directing, but this was not the same handsome burly young man who played Lancelot in last summer’s King Arthur. He looked tired, and old for his age. While Gruffudd was probably just trying to convey this as part of his character’s M.O., he himself as an actor, did not seem comfortable in his own skin. I realize the character of Reed Richards in the film is supposed to be dorky, and overly analytical, unable to properly deal with his emotions, but….

Let’s just say, I wasn’t buying it.

A lot of my problems with this movie had to do with the screenplay. I don’t understand what happened. One of the guys who wrote this, Mark Frost, was a staff writer on Twin Peaks back in the day. The other, Michael France, wrote The Hulk and Goldeneye, both of which are far better than this. (I know, I know everyone hated The Hulk except for me…)

Here’s the thing. Once the Fan 4 realize they have these powers going on, there’s a really big action set piece on the Brooklyn bridge which makes little to no sense.
The Thing is perched on the edge wallowing in sorrow because the night before his fiancé did not take the news that he had turned into a giant rock, very well. As he sits there, another man appears, ready to take his life. The Thing tries to dissuade him, and like any decent law abiding American would do if a giant rock man started speaking to them, freaked out. The man dashes onto the highway, and as The Thing tries to save him, he just keeps making more and more of a mess. Cars swerve to avoid him and crash, and when a big Mac truck comes barreling his way, he stops it but causes further collisions. Tons of cars are all crashed into each other, with people injured, etc. In what turns out to be a complete “coincidence”, the rest of the Fan 4 happen to be in a cab on the bridge just as all of this is happening. When an FDNY truck comes along to try and help, it swerves and ends up hanging off the side of the bridge about to fall into the east river. The Thing and Mr. Fantastic come to the rescue saving the fireman. Suddenly the “Fantastic Four” are the toast of New York.


One minute the cops have guns pointed at The Thing, as they see him ripping doors off trucks. The next minute crowds are swarming them with signs saying that they love the Fantastic Four. Forget the fact that everyone is cheering for the Fan 4 because they diverted a disaster that they essentially (albeit inadvertently) created. And if it wasn’t bad enough, as the New Yorkers crowd around the Fan Four in shock and awe at their “magical powers” Ben Grimm/The Thing’s fiancé, appears out of nowhere on the scene. How she happened to be on the bridge at the same time, who knows. With an angry look on her face as if she’s been betrayed, she tosses down her engagement ring onto the pavement.

In what I presume was meant to be an emotional scene, Reed/Mr. Fantastic comes up to Ben/Thing and promises him he won’t rest until he has helped them all turn back “to normal”.

For the rest of the movie, Reed works on finding a “cure” for the 4, while Von Doom realizes that his DNA has been altered as well and takes his thirst for all consuming power to the next level.

I thought Von Doom AKA Dr. Doom was a pretty weak character and villain. Even in Spiderman 1, the Green Goblin (who I thought was kind of goofy, mostly due to his mask) had some characterization. As a man, Norman Osborn was not a blindly evil; he was perhaps a bit too arrogant and wreckless, which led to his ultimate downfall. But his emotional capacity was demonstrated by his relationship with both his own son and Peter Parker. Before he became Doc Ock, Dr. Otto Octavius was a man with feelings and dreams, who loved his wife and work equally. Victor Von Doom, however, is a complete caricature, and Julian McMahon doesn’t even try to make it interesting by taking advantage of the one sided role and hamming it up a bit. It wasn’t like Cillian Murphey playing Scarecrow in Batman Begins, who took his villain persona and ran with it – I really felt like he was enjoying himself the whole time, and that made me enjoy watching him. McMahon plays it as sort of apathetic lackadaisical jerk, who has no real emotion or personal stakes throughout the entire course of the film. Supposedly he was romantically embroiled with Sue Storm for two years before the movie begins, but his behavior and attitude does not indicate this with even a modicum of sincerity. The only thing he seems to be concerned with is eliminating the Fantastic Four, because they are the only ones on earth who could stop him from assuming absolute power. And it is absolute power in the most abstract sense of the phrase. We learn that because of the debacle at his space station Doom’s financial backers are pulling out. Sure he’s angry about that and enacts revenge on one of his financiers, but he doesn’t seem particularly interested in destroying New York City, or hurting people, or taking over the world, the way most comic book villains are prone to do. Which is part of what makes the film’s insistent pushing of the Fantastic Four’s popularity completely inane and ridiculous. Nobody knows who Dr. Doom is, until the very end where there is a huge final confrontation between the Fan 4 and himself. And even then Doom’s devices are very specifically targeted at the Fan 4 themselves, he’s not the bloodthirsty type who murders loads of civilians along the way.

After a bombastic first act and a boring second, the third act picks right up with more insane gobbledygook. Doom decides the way to eliminate Reed/Mr. Fantastic is to get Ben/The Thing out of the way first. Doom convinces Ben into getting into the unfinished prototype of the machine that Reed has created in order to return the Fan 4’s molecular structure back to normal. With his newly honed electro-magnetic powers, Doom surges the power of the machine to successfully turn The Thing back into good old Ben. Doom then kidnaps Mr. Fantastic. When Ben realizes what Doom’s plan is, he gets back into the machine and CHANGES BACK into The Thing. Now there may very well be a well known issue of the comic where this occurs, I don’t know because I never read Fan 4 rampantly. The bottom line is, even if it is faithful to some original work, the film doesn’t not justify or sell Ben’s choice to change back. Yes, we get that he is concerned for his friend Reed, but surely there must have been another way for him to attempt to save him. Also they made him out to be so utterly miserable as The Thing, for him to go back to that form was a huge sacrifice of self. Now maybe I could have believed this if I thought Ben was undoubtedly loyal to Reed. But only a few scenes earlier, we saw Doom talking to Ben/Thing convincing him that Reed didn’t really care about finding him a cure – and was more concerned about romancing Sue. This was how he convinced Ben to get into the prototype. If Ben/Thing could be so easily swayed about Reed’s intentions, by Doom, a man who was a known ahole, and whom he wasn’t that close with, how can I believe he would make the ultimate sacrifice for him?

A couple other things. The movie ends with a party that New York has thrown in the Fan 4’s honor, that has a huge banner saying “Thank You Fantastic Four!” ----but thank you for what?!!? All they did was protect themselves, the city was never really endanger from any master plot that Dr. Doom was creating. With the exception of JStorm’s bizarre stunts at a motor bike show, the Fan 4 really only made two public appearances during the ENTIRE film. At the beginning on the Brooklyn Bridge where they created havoc, and then at the end, when they destroyed Doom to protect themselves. What kind of beloved heroes are these? Also, while at the party, Ben as The Thing, appears to have a new main squeeze. A young attractive blind woman, who he ran into very briefly at a bar earlier in the film. Am I to believe that he is really going to be romantically involved with a woman? Despite the fact he can not even hold a glass without crushing it in his hands? If the film had any guts it would play up on the fact that he had made such a strong sacrifice for Reed, and part of that was his ability to ever be with a woman again.

I could really go on and on about this movie. There are so many little inconsistencies, and lack of attention to detail that got on my nerves. I know a lot of people might turn to me and just say, “Relax, it was a summer movie – just enjoy it for what it is.” But I can’t. I’m plenty forgiving to a movie, if I felt like there was a really great premise behind it, or a passionate director; great acting, or a general sense of joyous fun. The problem with this movie, is that I didn’t feel like anyone who made it or was in it, with maybe the exception of Chris Evans as Jstorm, was having any fun, or really gave a damn about it. The actors came across as if they were doing another generic job just for the paycheck, and I got the impression that’s how a lot of the people behind the scenes felt about it too. It was a sloppy, uninspired, unoriginal, incoherent, and slapdash production that was painful to watch. It wasn’t even something fun like The Day After Tomorrow, which I enjoyed because it was cheesy, but at least had some neat FX, and just felt like there was more effort behind it. Fan 4 was just irredeemably unwatchable.

I’m going to see Dark Water tonight, please God let it be better….

Thursday, July 07, 2005

In light of the Terrorist attacks on London, I don’t feel proper going about my usual foolish rants and raves. While I don’t use this site for political means, and don’t intend to start now, I would like to express my horror at the events that occurred today in London.

I know what it is like to have your city hurt and it is a terrible feeling.

My thoughts are with the victims and the victims’ family today.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A Lifetime of Lucas

Now that George Lucas has finally completed his illustrious Star Wars saga, the guy has probably earned a vacation or two. He can rest a bit on his laurels as he picks up awards hither and thither.

A couple of weeks ago, the AFI honored George Lucas with a lifetime achievement award for his legacy in cinema. They keep rerunning the damn thing on USA and Bravo, and I can’t help but get completely sucked in by all of it. This whole lifetime achievement award thing got me thinking about, not only Lucas, but filmmakers and creative types at large. Nobody is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, and there is no one that comes to mind, even within the great masters of film who haven’t made a misstep every now and then. When great filmmakers have their weaker moments, their works may be head and shoulders above most of the other stuff churned out in a given year. But that does not prevent both critics and fans alike from storming the ramparts when they feel like their favorite director or writer has fallen off the wagon, and “sold out” or “gotten lazy”.

While I have some sizeable beef with Lucas about certain creative choices he’s made over the years, it was really interesting to watch this award show, because it highlights what an inspired, creative and impassioned life Lucas has led. Whether or not he may have alienated part of his fan base along the way, he is truly a man who has devoted almost his entire life to his art, and it is his dedication and stamina that seems to be honored here as much as the actual works he has put out.

They started off the show with a montage showcasing all of Geroge Lucas’ works – everything from THX 1138 to Willow, to Howard the Duck, and of course all six installments of the Star Wars saga. And as if that montage wasn’t enough to draw me in, everyone, and I mean EVERYONE is there: Steven Speilberg, John Williams, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamil, Richard Dreyfuss, William Shatner, Billy Dee Williams, -you get the picture.

Sure there’s something corny about these award ceremonies – the fact that there’s someone dressed up as Chewbacca, groaning and running up to hug Lucas. The requisite reaction shots of old Hollywood laughing or rolling their eyes (i.e. Warren Beatty, who attends every single award show in the history of the universe regardless of his actual affiliation or involvement).

To everyone’s surprise and near horror, it was William Shatner who came out on stage to open the show. It was hilarious to watch everyone get caught on camera, mouthing things to each other like “What the hell is he doing here?” and “Why?!”. Shatner’s opening gag was that he thought he was opening an event for Star Trek, not Star Wars. It felt a bit forced, but he redeemed himself with a spoken word rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” – a song which I’ve always greatly appreciated, and one which I think is a perfect choice for Lucas. Lucas always has done it his way, and I liked the teasing undertone that Shatner gave the song, because he is at once remarking on his stalwartness as well as his stubbornness which may have hurt him as much as it helped him throughout the years. Still for better or for worse, it is the constantly propelling propensity for Lucas to do it “his way” that has made him the artist and film maker that he is today.

After the opening song (which had a grande finale involving dancing storm troopers), there was a neat biographical section about Lucas’ childhood. Some of the home video footage and photo stills that were shown were incredibly prescient. Snippets of him as a child, maybe four or five years old, on one of those circular swing rides, sitting in a pod that looks like a rocket ship, and cutting a birthday cake with astronauts on it. There’s a still of him, when he’s maybe 15, in his first car, a fiat, with a helmet that makes him look like a rebel fighter.

There was something so exciting about listening to Spielberg talk about the first time that he met Lucas in the 60’s, at a film festival of students from both USC and UCLA. I wonder if anyone around them had an inkling of just how significant that movie was, or that they were in the presence of what were to become two of the greatest American film makers of all time.

Watching Lucas talk about THX 1138 was pretty fascinating. As they showed a montage of various scenes and shots of the film, I was reminded of the visuals and themes of that movie. Looking back at the fact that Lucas was only 26, 27 when he worked on the film, his precociousness as a film maker seems so apparent. This was a man who was headed towards genius.

Of the films that Lucas has made, American Grafitti is not the one that I personally connect with the most (perhaps because of my age). But I will say that it is truly remarkable, not only in the way it showcases that era and music, but in the way it demonstrates the creative versatility that he possessed as a film maker. For anyone who’s ever said that Lucas is only capable of detached impersonal epics that take place in the future, here is perfect proof that he is not. It illustrates he could handle more subtle nuanced moments between actors, and create a story as real and grounded as he wanted it to be. Not just aliens running around with blasters.

The show continued on with speeches from each of main stars of the original Star Wars trilogy, Mark Hamil, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford.

While all three of them made their own little jibes, but Ford might have had some of the best, saying things like “But the thing about Star Wars, at least the earlier, funnier, part of the saga…” and recalling an instance when he was frustrated with some dialogue in the script and said to Lucas, “George you can type this sh*t, but you can’t say it.”

Surprisingly Lucas was able to maintain good humor through it all, despite the giggling crowd. Everyone in that room seem to recognize that Lucas has weaknesses like anyone else. No one was trying to make him out to be a master of the written world. But what is undeniable is what a visionary he was, and how irregardless of blunders, it still doesn’t minimize the impact that he’s had on film and pop culture at large.

Harrison was really on a roll that night. Later in the evening he came back up on stage to introduce the portion of the show remembering Indiana Jones. At the end of that segment he said:

“But I do love Indiana Jones. And if you guys can dream up more ways to torture me I’ll be there for Indy 4. But George, George, George, listen. Get on with it man! If you wait too much longer, Sean is going to be much too old to play my father.”

This was an obvious little jab at the fact that Lucas has reputedly been the one to turn down script after script for Indy 4, including those handed in by the likes of M. Night Shymalan and Frank Darabont. The clause for proceeding with the next movie being that Ford, Spielberg, and Lucas must all give the script their approval. Ah, it’s funny because it’s true….

The award show then goes on to a segment on how Lucas has really changed the world of special FX. In an interview Ron Howard talks about how revolutionary the morphing animal sequence in Willow was, and I can still remember being amazed by it. The impact that Lucas’ work through Industrial, Light and Magic has had seems immeasurable. James Cameron says in an interview that George Lucas has really raised the bar in every aspect of film making, and I do believe its true. His effect on the technological aspects of cinema are truly tremendous and will never be forgotten.

Not surprisingly, the award show doesn’t spend a lot of time on the new Star Wars trilogy. It seems more of a footnote to Lucas’ love and devotion to the digital world. While there is some talk of the new three episodes as backstory, and Spielberg compliments the climax of Revenge of the Sith, no one is pretending here. They are politely glossing over movies that may be remarkable in certain senses, are not the founding pieces of what Lucas will be remembered for.

It is Steven Spielberg, who won the award himself in 1995, that presents the AFI honor to Lucas. It is touching and amazing at the same time to hear Spielberg thanking Lucas for thirty seven years of friendship, in that their relationship has seemed to stand the test of time as much as each of their works have.

Lucas stumbles a little with an odd joke when he gets up there (he lifted his arms and said, as Palpatine would say ‘Freedom for all!’ I guess he was saying everyone could sit down and stop the standing ovation, but it still came out awkwardly) but he never looses his sense of humor throughout his acceptance speech. When he thanks Francis Ford Coppola for being his mentor, he says:

“He took me from not being able to write a word to being the king of wooden dialogue”

It is this acceptance of his own flaws and faults, and the fact that Lucas is far from perfect part of what makes watching this award show so tremendous. George Lucas has continued on, despite all nay sayers to create art in the way he best sees fit. Because no one is perfect, but it is those who realize that they never will be, but still persevere in their art and work, that may brush up against greatness.

{The AFI’s award show honoring George Lucas’ receiving the Lifetime achievement award will be rebroadcast on July 8th on Bravo}

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