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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (**)


Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is not worse than the original Fantastic Four movie. The bar was set so low that it would have been a supervillainous feat for Rise of the Silver Surfer to have sucked more than its predecessor, which incidentally I'm watching on Starz HD as I write this. To Rise's credit, it lacks the truly profound stupidity that Fantastic Four had, which I wrote about in detail in my review. But to be definitively clear: Rise may not be quite the stinky turd the original is but it still really blows. 

Rise does have a better story than the original, which ain't hard since the original had no story. The Silver Surfer has come to Earth to prepare it for consumption by Galactus. Reed Richards and Sue Storm plan to marry and the sudden global threat inconveniently disrupts their nuptials. Meanwhile, the Surfer's presence inadvertantly resurrects Dr. Doom. The Fantastic Four fail to capture or glean any answers about the Surfer and reluctantly team up with Doom, who has his own agenda. The Fantastic Four are able to capture the Surfer, who forms a friendship with Sue Storm. Doom betrays everyone and takes the Surfer's power source, his surfboard, for himself as Galactus arrives to destroy the planet. The Fantastic Four help the Surfer regain his surfboard so he can confront Galactus and save the Earth. That story sounds like it could be pretty good, but of course, they managed to louse it all up. 

Rise of the Silver Surfer is an 89 minute(!) a slapdash rushjob of a superhero movie. It's in a hurry for a reason; if the audience has questions it wants answered about anything they're seeing, the movie has no answers, it just wants to get you out of there as quickly as possible. (However, one very pertinent question actually is brought up by the Human Torch to the Thing: How do he and his blind girlfriend... you know... get fantastic? The Thing's answer: "None of your business!" Typical.)

The comic book pseudo-science is again laughable. Mr. Fantastic actually boasts that he is "one of the greatest minds of the 21st century" but he's again written like a dumbass. Concepts like "tachyon pulse", "rearranging molecules" and "converting matter into energy" are bandied about and not for one minute is it believable that any of the characters, much less the filmmakers, have any idea what they're talking about.

The movie is maddeningly unwilling to linger on even its most intriguing elements, like Galactus. The coming of Galactus had such potential. No, Galactus is not a fifty foot man wearing a big purple helmet. Frankly, I wish we saw that version of Galactus on the big screen. Sure, it would be kind of stupid but these movies are already stupid so what would they have had to lose? Instead Galactus is presented as a cosmic tornado, the kind of space menace the Starship Enterprise has tackled more than once. Galactus turned out to be nice visual, but that's all.

The concept for the movie's Galactus is basically brainless. Galactus has no personality, there is no reason stated for its existence. Nothing is ever explained: Why does Galactus want to consume Earth? Why not a different planet? Galactus is shown blowing right by Saturn on its way to Earth; why didn't it eat Saturn? Neither Reed Richards, the "greatest mind of the 21st century", nor Dr. Doom, scientists both, exhibit any curiosity about such a creature.

The entire plot hinges on the Silver Surfer deciding to turn on Galactus and save Earth from destruction. The Surfer comes to this fateful decision because Sue Storm was really nice to him, compared to all the other humans who shot missiles at him, drugged him up, and stole his surfboard. How the Surfer decides to fight Galactus was incredibly lame. The Surfer somehow not only beating but completely destroying Galactus in seconds was shitty. And that's it, everything's cool again. Earth is fine, all smiles, no worries.

The superhero action is substantially stepped up from the first movie but still fails to impress, especially when compared to the action bar being raised by Spider-Man 3 last month. The vaunted chase sequence between the Surfer and the Human Torch is the best action the movie has to offer but even that ends up rushed and dumbed down. For example, the Surfer defeats the Torch, takes him into orbit and throws him back towards Earth. How the Torch managed to breathe or even survive once he left the atmosphere is never dealt with. When the Torch falls, instead of showing us an epic plummet, which would have made the audience feel for the Torch possibly dying, the movie jump cuts to him suddenly flaming on and then bouncing onto the ground, fine and dandy. His survival is played for a joke.

Late in the movie, the Torch absorbs all of his teammates' powers to take on Dr. Doom, who stole the Surfer's board. What could have been an epic fight is over in a few moments. Two immensely powerful creatures are unleashing staggering amounts of power at each other and none of it has any impact on them or the audience. It doesn't mean anything. Doom is defeated and plummets into the sea. The FF and the movie totally forget about him.

One virtue of Rise of the Silver Surfer is that the scope of the story is truly global, with the Fantastic Four chasing the Silver Surfer and later Dr. Doom all around the world. But of course there is a lot of retarded shit in there as well, like how the U.S. Army seems to have jurisdiction in every country on Earth. When the Surfer attacks England, the U.S. Army and the Fantastic Four are on the scene but apparently, they couldn't be bothered to check in with the British government or military.

Late in the movie, the Fantastic Four free the Silver Surfer from captivity in a secret U.S. base in Siberia of all places. Doom had already stolen the Surfer's board and disappeared, so Mr. Fantastic summons the Fantasticar.** The Fantasticar is shown taking off from the Baxter Building in New York. Minutes later, the Fantasticar arrives in Siberia. How fucking fast is that thing to have traveled from New York to Siberia so quickly? Then the FF hops in the Fantasticar and zooms off after Doom high in the sky. Reed Richards is some genius to invent an open air supersonic flying vehicle that has no roof. How were Thing, Reed Richards and Sue Storm even breathing up in the rarified air? Hell, what good is the Fantasticar if it rains?

One of the most deplorable aspects of these Fantastic Four movies are that the filmmakers are under the misguided idea that these movies are comedies. Not good comedies either, but bottom feeding sitcoms. The opening scenes with the FF involve them hanging around an airport and being forced to fly coach on a commercial airliner. What a goldmine for "comedy": The Thing can't fit into a coach seat, Mr. Fantastic stretches to put his suitcase away in the overhead bin before another passenger can. Why were the FF flying commercial anyway? Where were they coming from? The movie doesn't know.

Later, exposure to the Surfer gives the Human Torch the ability to switch powers with his teammates. This becomes the jumping off point for a lot of really shitty comedy: Sue Storm accidentally flames on and burns all her clothes off, since it's now a runner of the Fantastic Four movies that the audience has to be teased with a naked Jessica Alba, which they will not deliver, especially since Rise is rated PG. The Torch and the Thing switch powers so Johnny Storm becomes an orange rock man and bitches about it. The Torch decides to throw Mr. Fantastic a bachelor party, and Mr. Fantastic uses his stretching powers hilariously to dance with some bimbos. (Just what we need in another Marvel movie - more dancing.) And wouldn't you know it, he gets busted by Sue. It's hilarious, I tells ya. The rest of the comedy comes from the endless bickering between the Fantastic Four, which grates on the nerves as the movie careens forward. The old Batman TV show in the 60's was famous for sound effects like "POW!" and "ZAP!" but for Rise of the Silver Surfer, all we hear is "THUD!", which is the sound all the "comedy" lands with.

Character development is again simplistic. The Fantastic Four were annoyingly incompetent superheroes throughout the entire movie. Reed Richards still doesn't come off as either the leader of the team or the "greatest mind of the 21st century." The high point of his team leadership is when he yells at the Torch and the Thing to shut up.

Johnny Storm is still an arrogant dolt but this time he's more aware of his screwups. His girlfriend is Vanessa Minillo in one scene and she's never mentioned again. He spends the rest of the movie hitting on sexy army lieutenant Beau Garrett, who shuts him down each time. Then in the very last scene of the movie, she's suddenly his girlfriend. Still, the Human Torch was given a whole lot to do compared to the Thing, who's really just a background player with no character arc to speak of.

Sue Storm starts off the movie wanting to marry Reed and live a normal life but she learns to embrace their lives as superhero world saviors. Something unexpected actually happens to her at the end that was a bit of a bold move, but the movie quickly reverses the outcome so that it ended up not mattering.

Meanwhile, Dr. Doom is back, and he still wants power, but once he has it, he has no new ideas or ambitions. He's as dumb as ever. The movie Dr. Doom is no mastermind. He's never one step ahead, just two steps to the side.

The Silver Surfer turns out to be a monosyllabic disappointment. The Surfer has minimal screen time, plodding bits of dialogue and doesn't make much of an impact. The Surfer did not come off as interesting enough to deserve his own spinoff movie. It was a truly difficult challenge to create a computer generated character that has to undergo a complex philosophical, empathic change and the effects team wasn't up to it. What really sucks is that the Fantastic Four end up on the sidelines as the Surfer takes on Galactus, reduced to gaping up at the sky wondering what the hell was going on. Some heroes the FF are. They rely entirely on the guest star to save the world for them. That's good writing, geniuses.

Despite all the crapocity, I actually have two favorite moments in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The runner up is when the Fantastic Four are traveling in an Army helicopter to London to try to stop the Surfer. The Four bicker endlessly like a bunch of six year olds until the general played by Andre Braugher finally has enough and yells at them to shut up! Thank you, general.

My favorite moment comes when Andre Braugher, who's sick of the Fantastic Four's incompetence, brings in a ringer, the resurrected Victor Von Doom. As the Fantastic Four gawk at the enemy they assumed was dead who they now have to work with once more, Doom stared them all down and said:

Dr. Doom: "Let's get one thing straight. I hate you. All of you."

Couldn't have said it better myself.

** Sean writes: "Stupid question: If the Fantastic Four have a supersonic jet of their own, why would they be flying anywhere coach?  Was the Fantasticar useless that day because it was raining?"

At the beginning of the movie, they didn't have the Fantasticar.  It was because of their frustrating experience with the airline that Reed decides they need a flying vehicle of their own.  The very next scene , the Fantasticar is nearly complete even though only hours or at most a day had passed since the airline scene.  Conceivably, the Fantasticar had been under construction prior to that, but it's purposely kept under wraps until the pivotal moment of its reveal, which was to bail the FF out of a jam in Siberia. I should point out that Sue, Ben and Johnny had never seen the Fantasticar as Reed kept it as a surprise from them.  But when the Fantasticar is split into separate components, Ben and Sue magically know not only how to pilot them, but to pilot them in battle against Dr. Doom. (Johnny was flamed on and flying on his own.) They're the quickest studies when it comes to wonderful toys since Alicia Silverstone's Batgirl.

There are no stupid questions, just stupid movies.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Paris Je T'aime (**1/2)


June 12, 2007
Paris, je t'aime ("Paris, I love you") is a series of five minute short films about love in Paris, each one set in and representing a different arrondissement of the city. There were 18 shorts in all, each directed by a different director, including Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron, Gus Van Sant, Joel and Ethan Coen, and Alexander Payne and featuring an international cast that included Nick Nolte, Natalie Portman, Elijah Wood, Rufus Sewell, Emily Mortimer, Juliette Binoche, Gerard Depardieu, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ludivigne Sagnier, Bob Hoskins, Willem Dafoe, and Steve Buschemi. I guess there were supposed to be 20 shorts for the 20 addrondissements of Paris but two fell through. Frankly, they could have cut maybe 14-15 of the ones that did get made and been better off for it.

The best one by far was the final short film directed by Alexander Payne, 14e arrondissement, about a single, middle aged letter carrier from Denver (Margo Martindale) who was visting Paris alone. She narrated her tale in French as a letter to home as she explored the sights of Paris. It was the best written, acted, directed, and conceived short of the entire collection. In five minutes you got to know and feel genuine empathy for this average American woman who is lonely in a foreign land. The ending was simple, evocative, and wonderful. They really saved the best for last. It's a shame we had to endure so much crap to get to it.

Another one of my favorites was one that took place in a cemetary directed by Wes Craven, Père-Lachaise. Emily Mortimer is engaged to Rufus Sewell and questions whether she can marry a man who cannot make her laugh. The ghost of Oscar Wilde makes a pivotal cameo, a gimmick that muddied the waters a bit. But sometimes you just just see a couple of actors on screen who you like so much that their mere presence can lift material that isn't so great into something very watchable. Sewell and Mortimer are two such actors for me. I really enjoy both of them. I'd even enjoy watching them play Battleship against each other for a couple of hours.

Same goes for Ben Garazza in Quartier Latin, Bob Hoskins in Pigalle, and Nick Nolte in Parc Monceau. None of the shorts they were in were very good (the Nolte one was directed by Alfonso Cuaron in a single unbroken shot but was a disappointment, especially in how Ludivigne Sagnier didn't get naked for some reason. Sure they were on a public street but when did that stop her before?). Garazza and Hoskins were especially charismatic in their roles. Those old fogeys sure know how to act.

The Coen Brothers' short, Tuileries, didn't work for me but Steve Buchemi was really good in it. Then there was Faubourg Saint-Denis starring Natalie Portman as an aspiring actress who falls in love with a blind French musician. It wasn't very good but might have been more interesting were they able to develop the characters for more than five minutes (Portman's boyfriend was blind but could run around Paris like Daredevil). But at least having Natalie Portman to look at for five minutes was a welcome distraction from all the other lousy shorts.

It wasn't long into Paris, je t'aime before I started to wish Paris didn't have so many neighborhoods. At its lowest points it felt like being stuck in an amateur foreign short film festival that just wouldn't end. The shorts generally ranged from decent to passable to terrible. Many of them had only faint slivers of story and some didn't even have endings.

The worst for me included one about Elijah Wood running into and falling in love with a vampire, which was an ill-conceived homage to Sin City that was jarringly out of place with the rest of the short stories. The one with Maggie Gyllenhaal as an actress who wanted to hook up with her pot dealer but was stood up seemed like a waste of time and talent.

There were many others that were lame or pointless, but le bottom of le barrel for me was Tour Eiffel, which was about a couple of mimes falling in love. God, I hate mimes. All mimes should be executed. 

Paris, je t'aime also ended with an unnecessary coda where it's revealed that some of the characters know each other. It would have been much better if Alexander Payne's short's ending also served as an ending to the entire movie.

If you're interested, there's an even better movie set in Paris with "I love you" in the title. Traci, I Love You, has Traci Lords as an American lured into Paris by a shadowy narrator. Everyone she encounters has all kinds of sex with her until she gets kidnapped and brought to the narrator's underground lair. After Traci is all cleaned up and then endures a lengthy gangbang, the narrator has the funniest line in the movie -- maybe in any movie. When he decides to reveal himself to Traci and finally have sex with her, he declares: "There will be no foreplay!" Christ, I should hope not, after what he'd already put her through.

Ah, Paris.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen (***)


Boys' Night Out

I love Las Vegas. The high class visage, the lowbrow edge, the casinos, the towering hotels, the beautiful people, the seediness underneath it all, the elegance and the chintz, the excitement, the desperation, the reverence for Sinatra, I just love it there. Ocean's Twelve didn't work for me for a few reasons, one of them being that Danny Ocean and his crew belong in Vegas, not in Europe. Ocean's Thirteen also loves Vegas and reveres Sinatra.

The filmmakers did a phenomenal job with digital effects to intergate Al Pacino's fictional casino into the Las Vegas strip. I was just in Vegas three months ago and I know that there is no red glass spiral tower next to the Aladdin/Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino, but watching the movie and looking at the numerous shots of Pacino's casino from multiple angles, they could have fooled me.

With Al Pacino as the villain, I enjoyed the obvious odes to The Godfather movies. Elliot Gould has a line where he homages Vito Corleone asking Tom Hagen to tell him Sonny was killed. When Andy Garcia enters the picture to finance Ocean's scheme to take Pacino down, it was fun to see Vincent Mancini Corleone plot against Michael Corleone 17 years after The Godfather III. I also liked the quickie riff on The Bourne Supremacy. There's about 20 seconds of Matt Damon in London where Steven Soderbergh turns on the blue filters and shakes his camera like he's having a seizure, poking fun at Paul Greengrass' shooting style. When Damon wears his prosthetic nose, he's dressed like Dr. No or Dr. Evil, take your pick. There are references to other movies but those are the ones I liked. 

Ocean's Thirteen isn't quite the movie Eleven was but it's better than Twelve. I'd have an easier time explaining the plot of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End than I would for Ocean's Thirteen. Just about everything in the movie is preposterous. The whole thing with the two giant drills that dug the Chunnel Ocean buys to cause an earthquake under Pacino's casino is beyond ridiculous. Like in the previous films, there's no real tension. Is there ever any doubt George Clooney and company will win at the end? Thirteen also tries to do a little too much; Vincent Cassel shows up and you hardly care. It doesn't really matter either way if he's there or not and if you missed Twelve, you wonder why he's there at all. I did see Twelve and I wondered the same thing. The movie is froth; bright lights, pretty colors, all flash and show with not much underneath. But it's all very entertaining as it's happening.

Just the boys were on board for lucky Thirteen; Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones were written out with some quick banter at the beginning. They weren't missed. Without the women, Ocean's Thirteen is less personal. There's no love affair between Danny and Tess or Rusty and Isabelle. Ellen Barkin is the only woman in the movie not counting a few floozies here and there. Normally, I'd complain about the void of women (could have used a few more floozies at least) but that's all right. Sometimes it's more fun to leave the women behind and let the boys be boys.