Monday, June 25, 2007

Evan Almighty

Comedies are frequently stupid. We all know and accept this. Frequently, comedies are funny enough to overcome their stupidity, and some comedies are clever enough to use their stupidity to their advantage.

Evan Almighty, however, just misses.

There were several reasons to be optimistic about Evan Almighty. First and foremost: Steve Carell. Carell has gone from third fiddle on The Daily Show to star of NBC's The Office to--following his turn in The 40 Year Old Virgin--a bankable and likable movie star in his own right. And he's backed by a relatively solid supporting cast, including Morgan Freeman, Gilmore Girls' Lauren Graham, John Michael Higgins, and John Goodman. Also, Evan Almighty follows in the footsteps of the moderately successful (if not amazing) Bruce Almighty.

There were also warning signs. Among them: mediocre director Tom Shaydac, and a disgusting $175 million price tag (which insures that studio suits will water the comedy down to the lowest common denominator.)

And then, there's the really, really stupid premise. Bruce Almighty had a pretty solid premise; namely, what if an ordinary man were given divine powers (and responsibilities)? In contrast, Evan Almighty has a really stupid premise; namely, what if God asked an ordinary guy to grow a long white beard and build an ark? (God's been around awhile, so it's understandable that he'd run out of fresh ideas.)

I suppose it's possible that a skilled writer or director could turn that craptastic premise into a serviceable plot, but that does not happen at all here. There are gads of unanswered questions, among them: Why must Steve Carell wear a robe and grow a beard in order to build an ark? And why doesn't he just tell his wife why he's building an ark, rather than committing the cardinal movie sin of needlessly withholding information to artificially increase drama?

There are more examples, but they require a SPOILER ALERT.

Why does God create a full-blown local flood in order to achieve only the terribly modest goal of blocking some anti-environmental legislation? And since the flood is terribly local--affecting only a small Washington D.C. neighborhood--why the hell do animals indigenous to Africa (lions, elephants, etc.) need to be on the ark? Did they just want to enjoy a nifty water ride? If that's the case, why don't they just go to Splash Mountain?

****End of SPOILER ALERT****

You can live with these abject stupidities if the movie is either particularly funny or particularly insightful, but Evan Almighty is neither.

It does have its funny moments, but it relies too much on sight gags and physical comedy, most notoriously a tiresome minute-long montage consisting of nothing but Steve Carell injuring himself in various ways whilst building the ark.

And in the insight category, it fails miserably. It trots out the same tired message of a workaholic father learning to spend time with his family, and even does this half-heartedly. And its view of God is positively inane, portraying the Ground of All Being as little more than an uncreative, needlessly specific, poorly planning trickster. He's kind of like the Greek god Pan, but a version Pan that sucks.

I also need to point out the shoddy character development, especially with Carell's three kids. Wicked Little Critta watched the movie with me, and as we were discussing it afterwards were were trying to remember his children's names. We failed, but we decided it didn't matter: They were just generic kids.

Aside from its moderate humor, this movie has two saving graces. The first is Steve Carell, who even in a thankless role such as this manages to be kind of fun to watch. And the second is the fact that the movie doesn't take itself too seriously.

Mixed all together, it amounts to a -1. It's perhaps the most unambitious $175 million movie ever made, but the laid-back attitude that damns it also manages to save it just a bit.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Man on Fire

I think I'm getting old. There have been a bunch of signs: I can reflect on how similar to my mother I'm becoming, I used the phrase "you're getting so big!" to a younger person yesterday, and I'm actually willing to discuss politics on occasion. These are things that three years ago I would have rolled my eyes at in any context. But now I feel like an old person is taking over, I've been possessed by the spirit of the aged. The film Man on Fire seemed to me to be another sign of the times, because I realized after I watched it that it is a movie I would have enjoyed in days past, but now have outgrown.

I didn't have very high hopes for this movie in the first place. It was recommended to me by a friend who tends to have very different movie taste than me, and I've never really loved Denzel Washington or Dakota Fanning. Plus, the title is just audacious enough to annoy me.

Anyway, the movie was long and intense. The opening scenes are aggressively done and immediately pull for an emotional response: we see snatches of innocent people being kidnapped in Mexico while upsetting statistics flash before our eyes. From then on, it doesn't let up. Dakota Fanning plays Pita, the daughter of a Mexican industrialist Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) and American Lisa Ramos (Radha Mitchell). Because kidnapping is so prevalent there, (we're told 24 occurrences within a six day period) it is important for certain people, mainly rich and/or white, to have bodyguards to protect themselves. Unfortunately, the Ramos family can't afford a good one because of debt, but Samuel Ramos is willing to hire anyone to keep up appearances.

At the same time, John Creasy (Denzel Washington) meets up with friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken) in Mexico City. He's pretty washed up, doesn't have anything or anyone, and drinks. A lot. We're informed that he used to be a very dangerous person in his prime, and would have made an exceptional bodyguard, but he's out of practice and can't put down the bottle. When people need money, though, they'll sign up for anything. He's desperate for employment, and the Ramos family is desperate for protection.

Creasy is determined to stay detached from the family, and shoots down Pita's attempts at beginning a friendship. It doesn't take long, however, for Pita's sweetness, care for Creasy, and genuine likability to break through, and soon a strong bond forms. The large, drunken assasin befriends the mature-yet-friendly schoolgirl. Since he is more emotionally involved, he now starts to take his job more seriously. But as the back of the DVD case will tell you, they're still in for some trouble.

Regardless of their relationship and Creasy's protection, Pita is kidnapped and Creasy is seriously injured in the process. He also gets blamed for involvement by the local authorities. Once he regains his health, he rediscovers his inner too-cool-for-school assassin to get revenge on the local kidnapping ring, and here is the bulk of the movie.

This is my problem with Man on Fire. We hear about a tragic situation in Mexico where innocent people are being taken and killed, putting them and their loved ones through unimaginable suffering. We are introduced to a character who can help, but needs some redemption. And how does he get his redemption? By doing what he does best: killing and torturing. Rayburn, when describing Creasy's talent, equates it with the talent of artist Leonardo da Vinci, saying that Creasy is about to paint his "masterpiece." This analogy made me ill. The film molds our expectations so that the only way any good can come of the situation is if there is bloodshed and pain. The fact that Creasy is once again embracing his assassin lifestyle is totally glorified. The way that he avenges his loss is to kill and hurt people in creative ways meant to make the audience pleased and even make us laugh. I was disgusted. This is the main thing that bothered me about Man on Fire, because I'm getting old, and I can't handle all this violence anymore.

There were other sticking points, however. At almost 2 1/2 hours it's not a short film, and from beginning to end there's no break for the audience. Even in the beginning of the film when the characters are being introduced, the camera work and music gave me a sense of "something's going to happen..." The cinematography was made up of a lot of very fast, short camera shots, filled with flashes of light and some occasional bullet-time work thrown in for good measure. It was well done and interesting, but lasted the entire time. It ran me ragged, and came too close to triggering a seizure for me to enjoy.

I'll go back to my comments about Washington and Fanning. Denzel was very, very good. I haven't seen him in a lot of movies, but I liked him in this one. I understood his character, even his character's contradictions, and it's hard not to get swept up in whatever he's doing. Even if it is dismembering people. Fanning was also very good. My main problem with her is that she always seems way too old--like she always plays the 40-year-old child. There was nothing new here in Man on Fire, but it worked pretty well and wasn't overdone.

Rating: -2

Regardless of the good performances, I didn't really like the movie. Too fast and furious, too violent, and the message it sent about redemption made me feel nauseous. There were definite positives, such as the aforementioned acting, the compelling plot and the caring relationship between Pita and Creasy that changed his life, but the negatives (for me, anyway) far outweighed them. And while I'm thinking about it, the names "Pita" and "Creasy" are a strike against the film as well. That tips the scale in at slightly below zero at a -2.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Spider Man 3

Dear Sam Raimi-
6 years ago, you made the first Spider-Man film. Despite being a dreaded origin story film, it was pretty good, and made boatloads of money. Several years after that, you followed that up with Spider Man 2, one of the definitive films of the superhero/comic book genre. SM2 perfectly captured the pain in Peter Parker's life that he refuses to take the easy way out of, that which makes Spider-Man arguably the greatest comic hero ever. So what the hell happened with Spider-Man 3?
I've gotta say, I didn't think you would screw this one up as badly as you did. The trailers looked good, and the casting was good.....except you, Kirsten Dunst and Tobey Maguire. But more on that later. The premise wasn't too bad: Peter Parker, riding high and ready to pop the question to Mary Jane, takes one blow after the other. First, Harry Osborn (James Franco, who OWNS this movie) assumes the Goblin mantle, and attacks Peter. Then, painful wounds are reopened when Captain Stacy (a completely wasted James Cromwell) tells Peter and his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris, rising way above the material) that his Uncle Ben wasn't killed by a nameless burglar, but by career loser Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church), who just happens to gain.....sandy powers through a comic-book BS science nuclear accident. Also adding pressure to poor Peter's life are rival Daily Bugle photog Eddie Brock (a surprisingly impressive Topher Grace), and Mary Jane's career problems, which cause her to act like something that rhymes with "briny switch." Oh, and there's this outer space goo that responds to aggression, and wackiness ensues. Lots of it.
Whew. That's a whole lotta plot. Too much, actually. The two (two? three? three and a half?) villains could have EASILY been split into two separate movies, and benefited from more deeper character depth ala Doctor Octopus in SM2, instead of being given the barest characterization screen-time allowed here. Which is a shame, because both Topher Grace and Thomas Haden Church acquitted themselves nicely here. They look like their characters, clearly understood them, and turned in very good performances. There are also some very, very, very poor choices regarding Peter and Mary Jane's characters, namely that they're selfish pricks for all but 5 minutes of the movie. And regarding Tobey? He can't act. When he cries (which is a LOT in this movie, people laugh, and that ain't good. I almost think the movie should have been called Cried-er Man 3. Face it, Sam: You only have the barest understanding of Spider-Man. I can count the number of smart remarks he makes on one hand in three movies, and I'm not convinced after this last outing that Tobey can hack it anymore. I have two words for you: Jake Gyllenhall. Think about it, if they don't fire your sorry ass after this installation. That goes double for Kirsten Dunst, who doesn't look or act like Mary Jane.
There are entertaining bits to SM3, to be sure. The action is kickass, the villains are all great. There is that awesome super-secret hero team-up at the end. But.......

-Peter Parker with Fall Out Boy hair? THAT'S how you demonstrate his dark side coming out? That, and making disco hands at girls? Are you off your (*&%^(*ing rocker?

-The jazz club sequence? You were supposed to be directing Spider-Man, not Plastic Man..........

-5 minutes of screen time for Venom???

This film is worth seeing in the theaters, but.....only just for the spectacle. It's time for you to move on and give this project to somebody who knows what the hell they're doing. Your incredible botch-job on this movie, in my eyes, has taken away any indie cred the Evil Dead movies gave you. Spider-Man 3 gets a 10.......but that score is artifically inflated by the comic-bookiness. Had this been something else, it could have been a 3.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Half Nelson

Half Nelson was critically beloved. It received a 91% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 85% on Metacritic. It inspired critics to describe it with phrases like: "genuinely inspirational," "dramatically absorbing," and "tight direction." It even got a bit of love from the Academy, in the form of a best actor nomination for Ryan Gosling.

Yet, I was underwhelmed.

Half Nelson tells the story of Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), an inner-city junior high school history teacher who just happens to be addicted to crack. He's an excellent teacher by all accounts--beloved by his students--he just has that one unfortunate habit. As fate would have it, one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps), catches him in the act (in the girls' locker room). Before you know it, the two have molded a chocolate and vanilla friendship around the nougat core of their shared secret.

The friendship leads Dunne to act in some questionable ways. Some are good-hearted, if a bit hypocritical, like pleading with Drey to stay away from an older drug dealer friend of hers. Others are weird and inappropriate, like getting a bit jiggy with her during a school dance. The tenuous relationship continues until the climactic moment when Drey, doing some drug runs for her dealer friend, comes upon Dunne in the midst of a crazy party.

And at the end--spoiler alert?--Dunne seems to have cleaned up his act.

The movie is shot in a very, very understated style. The kind where none of the dialogue is highlighted; it just feels like you're watching the whole movie through security camera footage. This kinda works and kinda doesn't. It gives the movie a "this is an everyday happening" feel, but it also makes it a tad boring.

My bigger beef was with the totally ad hoc redemption at the end. One of the strengths of the movie is that it doesn't fall into the typical arc of someone's drug abuse falling further and further out of control until said person hits rock bottom and cleans up. With Dunne, it's clearly more just a hard-to-break habit. But that makes the final scene utterly bewildering. Let me set it up for you... (SPOILER ALERT)

With no real lead-in, we see Drey and Dunne in Dunne's apartment. The apartment is cleaned up and Dunne has shaved. No words are spoken. Roll credits.

Clearly, the movie wanted to suggest that he had decided to get his life in order at the end. But the last scene felt like it came totally out of left field. The filmmakers knew it had to be there, so they just decided to lump it on at the end.

And, as you might imagine, that sort of ending leaves you, the audience member, with a very distinct feeling of "WTF?"

Which is a bit of a shame, because the movie isn't really that bad. It's not great, but it's not bad. It's a compelling enough story, even if told in a deliberately uncompelling way. And Ryan Gosling did well in his role, though not nearly as well as everyone else seems to think. Shareeka Epps was just as good.

So, where does Half Nelson fall, numerically? The story is a 10, the direction is a -2, and the WTF? ending is a -7. I'll throw one point back on for the solid performances, and the end result is a two.

Also, as a bit of a p.s., the English subtitles on this DVD were absolute crap. Not only were letters capitalized randomly, but certain lines would flash on the screen for about a tenth of a second, allowing you to read almost one full word. All in all, a very frustrating experience.