Sunday, August 30, 2009
Friday, August 28, 2009
Friday, August 21, 2009
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
FIFTY DEAD MEN WALKING
Sunday, August 16, 2009
August 16. 2009
** SPOILERS **Former Mean Girl meets former green guy and time is their oyster. Well, not really. Rachel McAdams is The Time Traveler's Wife. The time traveler is Eric Bana, who's had this peculiar affliction since he was six years old. With no rhyme or reason, he'll just fade away and travel to a different point in his life, always arriving in a new time naked and scrambling for clothes. He got really, really good at breaking and entering to find clothes. He's had plenty of time to practice.
The time travel in The Time Traveler's Wife is a crock and the movie makes no bones about it in the very first scene when six year old Bana watches his beautiful songbird mother die in a car accident that he time travels out of, and then meets...himself at about age 35. Older Bana tells younger Bana there was nothing he could do. This shouldn't have happened at all. The classic rules of time travel passed down from sci-fi nerds throughout the generations (I myself mostly learned from Star Trek) dictate that you're not supposed to meet yourself if you travel back through time. Something about the same mass not being able to exist at the same point in time.
Audrey Niffenegger, the author of the novel the movie is based on, has apparently never heard of that rule or just plum ignored it because Bana keeps constantly meeting or seeing past/future versions of himself in his time travels. Niffenegger, however, has apparently watched at least one Terminator movie, because she knew enough that a time traveler has to be naked to move through time. (Director Robert Schwentke doesn't pass up a single opportunity to show us Eric Bana's bare ass. To his credit, he gets McAdams' in there as well.) Niffenegger proves herself to be to time travel what Stephanie Meyer is to vampires, ignoring the basic tenets of her subject's mythology in order to tell her gooey girly love story.
The gooey girly love story, however, is actually pretty good, powered by the movie star wattage of McAdams, who possesses the most winning smile since Julia Roberts was a Pretty Woman. McAdams plays an artist who comes from a rich family, but the attention to detail is so good that like most artists, her hands are usually smudged or dirty. McAdams is worth traveling through time for. Bana, the former Hulk, rankles a little as a romantic lead. He's absurdly not curious about the limits of his abilities and expends shockingly little effort to control or understand them. Beyond realizing he seems to travel to the same points in his life, that his trajectory continually crosses with McAdams', and asking her to leave clothes for him, he's mainly clueless as to his ability. He cannot alter the past, nor does he seem to have a range outside of his life in Chicago. So Bana can't, for example, travel back in time to kill Hitler. Nor can he travel back in time to have dinner with Hitler. Aw, what a gyp.
The movie gets muddled in perspectives of how the characters remember the past. From McAdams' point of view, she first met Bana and fell in love with him when she was six years old. But the movie introduces Bana's first meeting with her while she is in college, at which point she knew all sorts of things about him, but he hadn't yet traveled back in time to meet her when she was six. It gets even more confusing from there, especially when the Time Traveler's Daughter enters the picture. Just how the time traveler came to have a daughter is a wonky affair involving McAdams sleeping with a past(?) version of Bana because the present(?) version of Bana had a vasectomy. The movie plays fast and loose with the ethics, morality, and sheer logic of the time travel that the only sane thing to do if one hopes to enjoy the picture is not think about it. Occasionally, there are moments involving the time travel that do work well, like the scene when Bana meets his mother on a subway train and manages to tell her how much he loves her while concurrently creeping her out. I also liked the meeting at the zoo between Bana and his 10 year old daughter.
The Time Traveler's Wife really derails logic-wise when the prospect of the time traveler's death is introduced. At some point, Bana is shot and dies. His ten year old time traveling daughter tells him so (when she isn't hanging out with her five year old self - we won't even go into how weird that is). Bana's eventual death is supposed to be a heartbreaking moment, but it isn't really because the movie cheats. Apparently, since Bana can meet himself when he time travels, there are countless versions of himself hopping around time. So, even though he "dies", he's not really dead since there's no telling how many Banas of various ages are out there. One meets McAdams and his daughter at the end for the happy finish. The subject of Bana and his daughter's ability being genetic anomalies is introduced, including his being studied by a genetic scientist, but it's hoo-hah that amounts to nothing. Realistically, Bana would be imprisoned in a lab somewhere, dissected, and studied. The movie introduces science in an unwelcome manner and then shoves it aside immediately, treating the time travel like it's magic.
Though I could poke holes in the The Time Traveler's Wife until my own time runs out, the movie is enjoyable as romantic drama despite the many temporal logic boners. Bana and McAdams share some nice chemistry, there are some poignant and romantic moments, Ron Livingston has a few fun scenes as Bana's best friend and the incredulous surrogate for the audience's confusion, and Bana's disappearances are sort of superhero-like in a way. Bana's here-then-gone behavior reminded me of Spider-Man 2, where Peter bails on Mary Jane at the very end to answer a call for help, leaving MJ behind to suffer longingly in his absence. Unfortunately, there is no greater destiny for Bana in The Time Traveler's Wife. His time traveling has no grand purpose or design. He just does, or else there's no story.
Turns out The Time Traveler's Wife is executive produced by Brad Pitt, Benjamin Button himself. At the very least, McAdams and Bana share a romantic time-tossed life together and don't just meet in the middle.
Friday, August 14, 2009
** SPOILERS **
** SPOILERS **
"Christopher Johnson" is a great guy. He's a loving father, a brilliant scientist, and probably the best person in District 9. Except he's not so much a person as a slimy, disgusting alien, but I choose not to hold that against him. Sure, Christopher is a gross, humanoid insect monster, but judge him by his actions and his intentions and it turns out he's a pretty swell dude. Everyone else in District 9 is a bottom feeding parasite.
District 9 is a harsh, grimy, unique piece of science fiction moviemaking, almost entirely devoid of Hollywood trappings. There isn't a single American in the picture and the absence of American sensibilities, though jarring at first, serves District 9 well. There's even self-referential dialogue noting that for once, the aliens did not land in the United States. Boy, did America luck out here. For the most part, District 9 is unpredictable, gory, and bleak. There are no heroes, just deeply flawed, greedy, selfish, desperate characters out to serve their own interests. The most sympathetic character by default turns out to be the Prawn they call Christopher Johnson, and even then, for all we know Christopher will murder us all if there's a sequel.
Early in the 21st century an alien starship appears above Johannesburg, South Africa. For 20 years since first contact the insectoid aliens, referred to disparagingly as "Prawns", have been quarantined in a slum outside of Johannesburg called District 9. Crime, corruption, and even inter-species prostitution (bleecch!) run rampant, with the Nigerian underworld infesting the slums trading catfood (Alf would never eat that, just cats) for Prawn weapons - which humans can't operate because the guns only respond to alien DNA. Meanwhile, Prawns are kidnapped by the government and multinational corporations and are dissected so humans can gain the ability to operate their advanced alien weaponry. Everyone wants the weapons and the secret of how a human might wield them. The Nigerians eschew genetic experiments and go right into cannibalism, believing if they eat enough Prawn they could gain "their power." Gross.
By popular demand of the South African people, District 9 is to be demolished, with the 1.8 million (and counting) Prawns set to be relocated, violently if need be, to the even more severe District 10 two hundred miles away from the city. Placed in charge of the Prawn relocation is Wikus Van Der Mewre (Sharlto Copley), who resembles a South African Christian Bale crossed with a bit of the late Billy Mays. Wikus seems to be a bumbling but well-meaning guy initially, but the way he heads the door-to-door eviction of the Prawns belies a cheerful sadism that grows even more disturbing when he gets accidentally sprayed in the face with an alien fluid while raiding Christopher Johnson's shack. At first, it seemed like Wikus was infected with some disgusting form of alien leprosy, but no, it's even more repulsive than that - the fluid is turning him into a Prawn. And now the government wants his half-breed, increasingly insectine body captured and dissected. The end goal is to find a way for humans to be able to fire those fookin' alien guns. It's all about the fookin' guns!
What follows is a cat and mouse game where the rapidly transforming Wikus, running around with his brand new green tentacled left hand, escapes captivity, hides in District 9, and discovers Christopher Johnson's plan - 20 years in the making - to launch an alien craft that fell off the mothership and was buried under his shack. Christopher wants to dock back into the mothership and leave Earth with his innocent young Prawn son. Trouble is, the alien fluid that infected Wikus was confiscated by the government.
The odd couple team up of Wikus and Christopher comprises the most Hollywood-esque action movie aspect of the story, and it's the least convincing element of District 9. There are some rather big plot holes, specifically as to how Wikus and Christopher are able to get in and out of District 9 and into Johannesburg undetected. There's also the matter of Wikus' cell phone, which he foolishly answers every time his adoring wife calls. His government masters, with their battalion of gun crazy South African roughnecks, can listen into Wikus' calls but don't seem to track him with their satellites.
Anyone who still thinks that the robots in the two Transformers movies didn't look real enough will thrill to the third act battle. The Prawns have a giant battle armor reminiscent of ED-209 from Robocop that they can wear. With his rapidly Prawning DNA, Wikus is able to operate the battle armor and take on his attackers in a brutal smash-em-up that's as ultra-violent as anything I've ever seen in a movie. The alien weaponry includes the ability to emit a magnetic field that can capture bullets in midair and redirect them back like shrapnel. They have sonic cannons that can blow human limbs clean off. The armor can even catch an RPG in mid-air. The end result is gory, bloody deaths all over the screen. The visual effects are astoundingly photo-real, as are the Prawns themselves. Human characters interact with Prawns and everything on screen appears to be flesh and blood.
Unable to make their intended Halo movie, director Neil Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson instead employ a shaky cam mockumentary style to create a more immediate, less fanciful, likely more memorable science fiction film not for the weak of heart or stomach. The Prawns' design borrows from the look of the Covenant aliens in Halo, with a little bit of Dr. Zoidberg's mouth tendrils (and garbage eating grossness) thrown in. But without the humor of Futurama, or any humor for that matter. With District 9, Blomkamp and Jackson imagine a terrible future of the worst aspects of humanity meeting aliens living among us. At the very least, it'll be a while before eating prawns will be appetizing.
Monday, August 10, 2009
FAST AND FURIOUS
Friday, August 7, 2009
August 7, 2009
He never gives up! He'll stay 'til the fight's won! GI Joe will dare!
The savviest move of the production was to hire Marvel comic book writer Larry Hama, who masterminded the GI Joe and Cobra conflict in the 80's and designed the backstories for all of the major characters. Under Hama's supervision, The Rise of Cobra maintains Destro's origins from the comics and cartoon and admirably does the same for virtually its entire cast of characters. Any child of the 80's who memorized the duty cards on the backs of their GI Joe action figure packs will be pleased to hear that General Hawk is still "General Clayton Abernathy", Destro is "James McCullen" descended from the arms dealer Clan McCullen, and the Baronness is "Baronness Anna De Cobray". Snake Eyes (still mute, thankfully) and his villainous counterpart Storm Shadow are still members of the same ninja clan who were rivals as children.
One of the giddy delights of The Rise of Cobra is that, like in the cartoon, the two ninjas have their own private war going on and manage to find the time in the middle of each fracas to engage in chop socky swordfights with each other. And that both the Joes and Cobra felt the need to have ninjas on their team. You gotta have ninjas. What's a war fought without ninjas?
GI Joe has always been about paramilitary war games between two entities, the GI Joe Team and Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world. The Rise of Cobra is a prequel of sorts to their famous conflict, introducing all the major players and breezily establishing all the big ideas that (will) drive the saga. As the subtitle indicates, Cobra is in its infancy. The primary antagonist is MARS, the villainous arms conglomerate run by Destro which supplies 70% of the world's weapons to every major country and government. By the end, Cobra does indeed rise, with the Cobra Commander and his infamous hierarchy ready to dessstroy and rule.
GI Joe is also about the arms race between the two factions, each attempting to one-up the other with the latest in high tech gear on the battlefield. In the movie, MARS/Cobra weaponize nanobots contained within four warheads, each with the capability to destroy anything metallic without limits. The nanobots also form the basis of Cobra's mind control and super soldier experiments, creating the Neo-Vipers, who feel no pain. Not to be outdone, the Joes counter with "accelerator suits", armor costing "millions of dollars" that make the Joes stronger, faster, and able to leap tall things in a single bound.
The accelerator suits get their big field test in a balls-to-the-wall chase sequence in Paris where the Joes attempt to capture Storm Shadow and the Baronness before they can launch the nanobot warhead at the Eiffel Tower. A hardcore CGI showcase, the sequence where half of Paris is destroyed is a lot of fun. The Paris sequence even tops a fantastic seige on GI Joe headquarters, where the Baronness, Zartan, and Storm Shadow, with Neo Vipers in tow, inilftrate the Pit to steal the nanobot warheads, which the Joes initially stopped Cobra from stealing (just like in the cartoon when both armies would fight all around the world for pieces of the MASS Device or the Weather Dominator).
The big battle of the third act, where the GI Joe team storms Destro's undersea city in the North Pole in a crazy-ass submarine battle, is even a bit of an in joke as once again GI Joe and Cobra have a showdown (but not a hockey game) at the "roof of the world." A huge shock is the level of violence and the body count, which goes far beyond how no one ever seemed to get shot by the colored lasers in the cartoon. (Cobra lasers are still blue as in the cartoon.) General Hawk nearly becomes a casualty, but sadly, Cover Girl will never drive a tank again. Scarlett's favorite move is launching laser guided arrows from her super crossbow into Neo-Vipers' eyes and exploding their heads. Did I mention Scarlett is my favorite Joe? She wasn't before but she is now.
In between all of the violence and techno-chicanery, there is a welcome amount of humor and some entertaining character development. The cartoon managed to give a lot of the Joes distinct personalities and the movie pleasantly follows suit. Rachel Nichols is cool and brainy as Scarlett, constantly being hit on by Marlon Wayans as Ripcord. Wayans was one of the lightning rods of fanboy complaints when he was cast but he plays just the right tone of comic relief while heroically saving the day when his number is called.
Tons of injokes abound for the older folks in the audience, including cracks about Heavy Duty's "lifelike hair" and "kung fu grip". Duke is referred to as "a real American hero" and the GI Joe team still lives by the mantra that "knowing is half the battle." So much attention is paid to the little quirks and traits of who the Joes are that there is an in joke about Hubba Bubba bubble gum laborously inserted just so communications expert Breaker, who was always depicted blowing bubbles in the comics, has gum to chew in the Paris chase.
The cast, including Dennis Quaid as General Hawk, Christopher Eccelston as Destro, Sienna Miller as the Baronness, and Channing Tatum as Duke, hit just the right notes. Miller was famously quoted that GI Joe "isn't the best acting" she's ever done, but everyone is spot-on for the tone of the movie. Duke is an appropriately heroic all-American jarhead, Miller plays a number of different dimensions as the Baronness, and Eccleston is properly snarling and clever as Destro. And then there is Jason Gordon-Levitt, having a ball as "The Doctor" (not Dr. Mindbender, who gets a shout out). Gordon-Levitt, still romancing audiences in (500) Days of Summer, is The Rise of Cobra's sssecret weapon, as he ssshould be.
The biggest change The Rise of Cobra makes to GI Joe's mythology is to raise the stakes of the personal relationships. In the cartoon, the most famous inter-Joe/Cobra romance was between Lifeline, the pacifist doctor and Zarana, Dreadnok sister of the master of disguise Zartan. The Rise of Cobra takes the Romeo and Juliet idea and promotes it to the leads, creating an all-new romance and backstory for Duke and the Baronness that works remarkably well. Destro still loves the Baronness, as he must, but the way Duke and the Baronness' love story is directly related to the events that give birth to the Cobra Commander is a damned clever rejiggering of the GI Joe vs. Cobra story. This change elevates the conflict between the two factions into a deeply personal, family matter.
The real (American) hero here is director Stephen Sommers. For my money, The Rise of Cobra is Sommers' best movie. (If anyone misses Brendan Fraser from The Mummy, he even pops up in a cameo as Flint.) Sommers truly understands the GI Joe property. His alteration to the mythology where GI Joe is now a NATO-sponsored international battle unit made up of the "alphas" of every nation's military, maintains the crux of what GI Joe is while cleverly widening its scope. He once again relies heavily on computer generated imagery but the CGI is not distracting and adds to the gee-whiz glee of the action.
Sommers helms GI Joe, with its complicated interpersonal backstories and copious techno-absurdity (and let's be honest, the story doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense), like a diehard fanboy coupled with the confidence of a seasoned event movie filmmaker who knows exactly what kind of fun GI Joe is supposed to be. The Rise of Cobra comes to an end just begging for a sequel. Sommers better make another. And next time, I want to hear the battlecries "YO JOE!!" and "COOOBRAAA!!" They were missed.
So now you know. And knowing is half the battle.
Saturday, August 1, 2009