Monthly Archives: June 2009

Tell No One (2008)

Now this is a thriller made with surgical precision. This French film traces a doctor trying to uncover the mysterious murder of his wife, who may be alive after all. The doc needs to stay one step ahead of the police, who still think he’s responsible for his wife’s murder, and he has to also watch out for other shady figures who may be responsible for his wife’s disappearance. This engrossing thriller is character-based and while the twists and turns could induce whiplash, nothing feels totally out of place or unbelievable. This is a movie that holds up upon reflection. All the pieces fit together. Tell No One is exciting, intellectually stimulating, and it keeps you guessing, and yet the movie has a deep emotional core and resonates with palpable feeling. This is a terrific movie that should appeal to just about everybody with a pulse.

Nate’s Grade: A

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Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (2009)

It’s not every day that Jean Claude Van Damme gets some marginal level of redemption. The original 1994 Street Fighter film took the classic arcade fighting game and took it as seriously as possible, which meant it was incredibly silly. Van Damme was Colonel Guile and entrusted to rescue hostages from the evil dictator, Bison (Raul Julia). The big screen adaptation rewrote entire characters but managed to keep the stuff fans really care about, like catchphrases, costumes, and super moves. God forbid that audiences see Cammy (Kylie Minogue, yes that Kylie Minogue) make the wrong victory pose. It’s always the unimportant things that somehow matter the most to execs. Street Fighter is a campy blast. How could you despise a movie that has its villain say, “For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me… it was Tuesday.” Though the movie does have the depressing distinction of being Julia’s last film before he died. Let this be a lesson to all actors looking to take a paycheck role. Years later, in the wake of a writer’s strike, the execs at Fox thought they could pump new blood into a Street Fighter franchise. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li purports to tell the back-story of one of its most popular fighters, the diminutive fireball-tossing lass with Princess Leia’s haircut. This movie proves that you don’t need a Van Damme to make a boring and mediocre action movie.

Chun-Li (Kristin Kreuk) is trained to be a master pianist and also a master martial arts warrior. You don’t realize the kinds of dangers classical pianists constantly run into. Her father is kidnapped by the crime lord Bison (Neal McDonough) for some reason or other. Three years later, a mysterious scroll falls into her possession. She travels to Bangkok to find her father. Bison has the ingenious plan of buying waterfront property, introduce high levels of crime, and then making money on lowered property values, which is simultaneously confusing and stupid. Bison has a few evil henchmen, notably the giant boxer Balrog (Michael Clarke Duncan) and the masked warrior Vega (Taboo from the Black Eye Peas), who help wipe out his criminal competition. In Bangkok, Chun-Li is mentored by Gen (Robin Shou, who played Liu Kang in two Mortal Kombat movies) and together they attempt to thwart Bison and his dastardly real estate scheme.

For a movie about streets and fighting, well there’s a clear shortage of the latter. Much of the movie is structured around Chun-Li conducting her own private investigation and achieving some level of inner peace. She decides to try and make it on the streets of Bangkok. There are forgettable training exercises with forgettable platitudes disguised as wisdom (“You’re hurting me,” “No, you’re hurting yourself”). There are a handful of lackluster fights and chases, some of them through streets even, but the movie has a scarce amount of action until it revs up for a climactic showdown. The action is also poorly shot and poorly edited, distracting the senses and making it downright impossible to understand. The choreography is nothing special. When the movie suddenly introduces a supernatural element the other characters don’t even bat an eye. Screenwriting neophyte Justin Marks has too much revenge-seeking father drama and real estate scheming and not enough brawling. The Legend of Chun-Li has zero respect for the intelligence of its audience. It has flashbacks to flashbacks that just aired minutes earlier. How hard would it have been to just actually base a Street Fighter movie on a fighting tournament?

Director Andrzej Bartkowiak (Doom, Romeo Must Die) shoots the movie in such a dull manner that the fight sequences fail to even elicit any interest. There’s one scene in the middle of the film that serves as a testament to the lack of care put into this movie. Chun-Li has battled a Bison henchwoman in a women’s bathroom. The bathroom set design includes partition walls with portholes. Chun-Li is on one side and the henchwoman tries to punch her through the porthole. Chun-Li grabs the woman’s arm and squeezes. The camera angle is from the side of the actresses, so it would make the most sense to have the henchwoman’s right arm caught, that way her expression could be seen. Nope. Chun-Li is gripping the woman’s left arm, meaning that her raised arm and shoulder block any view of the woman’s face, and yet she talks through this scene. How difficult would it have been to just switch arms? Why purposely obscure an actor’s face, especially in a scene that doesn’t require a stunt double?

Here’s a curious item. Chun-Li has always been a full-blooded Chinese woman in the history of the video game. When we see her as a child, baby Chun-Li and child Chun-Li are very obviously Chinese in features. Flash forward a few years and she’s transformed into looking like Kreuk, who is half-Chinese. Apparently, one of the less common side effects of trauma is becoming less Chinese looking as you age. Along these same strange ethnic lines, we’re told that Bison was the child of Irish missionaries and was left behind in Bangkok. And yet, the child grown up completely in Southeast Asia manages to sport an Irish accent. Anybody want to explain that particular linguistic loophole?

Kreuk (TV’s Smallville) is one of the film’s biggest handicaps. The script saddles her with great amounts of pointless voice over, to the point that half of her performance is listlessly explaining what is literally happening on screen. Kreuk is a dead-eyed robot in this movie; she displays some glimpses of human emotion, like sadness and rage, but they never feel remotely credible, like someone who only knows the definitions of emotions and not proper application. Her lesbian seduction dance is a small moment of absurdity. She thrashes on the dance floor and her “dancing” reminded me more of a bird’s mating dance without the excessive plumage displaying. Kreuk can run and flex well enough, which is also a nice benefit for a martial arts action flick.

The acting is terrible but there is one bright spot in a most unexpected location. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the best worst performance of the year, brought to you by Chris Klein (American Pie). Klein plays Interpol agent Charlie Nash who is conducting a parallel investigation into Bison’s Bangkok activities. He’s partnered up with a local gangland homicide detective (Moon Bloodgood) who takes extra care to showcase her cleavage thanks to work outfits with plunging necklines. Klein is awful to a powerful degree but here’s the thing — I’m fairly certain it’s one hundred percent intentional. Being a conosoire of trashy cinema, I feel that I’ve adopted the skill of being able to deduce when an actor is hopelessly serious or just goofing off. Klein comes across like a self-aware man; he knows this is a crummy movie with crummy dialogue, so he’s going to have as much fun as possible. His performance is all forced swagger, from the way he constantly swivels his head to the way he cannot purposely walk in a straight line. He overemphasizes lines, chewing over the faux hard boiled detective talk and spitting it out in a singsong delivery. He grimaces and furrows his brow, widens his eyes to comical levels, and when he crouches in a gunfight the man spreads his legs as far apart so that he looks like he could have effectively doubled as a backup dancer in an MC Hammer music video. It’s obvious that Klein has given a staggering performance, but the observant will note that this is not an inept performance. This man knows exactly the kind of movie he’s in. I always tabbed Klein as a wooden actor that came across like Diet Keanu Reeves, but I must credit him for making a bold acting choice to knowingly dig deeper when it comes to being bad.

Hero of this movie, Chris Klein.

Readers know that I am skeptical and dismissive about the prospect of a good movie ever being born from a video game adaptation. Games call for interactivity and movies passivity. But if you’re going to make a movie called Street Fighter than stick to the script. This borefest wants to be a gangland drama with a tacked-on buddy cop side plot. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is an awful work partially redeemed from the sheer amount of unintentional hilarity. Kreuk is extremely miscast as a warrior woman. The acting is bad, the direction is bad, the writing is bad, and Chris Klein tries to outdo them all in badness, and I admire the chap for trying something different in an admittedly abysmal movie. To be fair, I was never a big fan of the original video game. The special moves always seemed much more tricky to pull off. How many different incarnations of Street Fighter II were there before they eventually mastered basic math and released Street Fighter III? These are the things I was thinking about wistfully whenever Klein or Bloodgood wasn’t on screen.

Grade: D

The Brothers Bloom (2009)

Con movies work thanks to P.T. Barnum’s belief that the audience wants to be fooled. We all enjoy being conned to some degree. The excitement of con movies is being outsmarted and figuring out how it was accomplished. The Brothers Bloom, by writer/director Rian Johnson, one of the more exciting new filmmakers in Hollywood, is a con artist caper that understands the rules of the game and then aspires to transcend the game. Whether or not it succeeds depends on how much whimsy you can stomach in a two-hour duration.

Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) are a pair of con artist brothers. Stephen has been drawing up elaborate schemes ever since childhood, and he always uses his brother as the face of the operations. The brothers have a third member to their team, the mysterious and mute Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), who, we’re told, just appeared out of thin air one day and they expect she’ll leave in the same style. Bloom is tired of playing characters and roles and wants out, but his big bro comes back with one last con in the works. Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz) is rich, peculiar, and lonely, ripe for the taking. Bloom snares her with the exciting prospect of being apart of an adventure. There’s a globetrotting plot to profit from selling a book to some shady characters (Robbie Coltrane, Maximilian Schell), and it’s just what Penelope needs to feel alive and leave the confines of her large cage-like home. Naturally, Bloom falls for the “mark” and feels conflicted, but was this part of Stephen’s plan all along? Is he setting up some form of a happy ending for his little brother? Is Penelope in on the con? Who’s conning whom?

The Brothers Bloom is steeped in whimsy and at times runs dangerously close to falling into the inescapable gravitational pull of “cutsey.” Some have compared the film’s quirky, precocious style to Wes Anderson, but the movie reminds me more of the style of Barry Sonnenfeld, a filmmaker who made outsized whimsy seem like everyday reality; Anderson’s movies seem to exist in their own impeccably handcrafted worlds. I loved the opening 10-minute prologue which explores the childhood history of Stephen and Bloom, examining their first con on local rich kids. It’s quick-witted, snappy, and even has Ricky Jay provide narration, reminiscent of Magnolia or the David Mamet con movies. The Brothers Bloom has a sunny disposition that doesn’t come across as smug. Stylistically, the movie never crosses the line into feeling overly mannered. The Brothers Bloom exists in some unknown time period. The cars are modern, the clothes are from the 1930s (everyone wears a bowler hat with such flourish), and the sets look like they’re from the 1960s. There is no dependence on technology, just good old-fashioned brains and charm.

And yet this is more than an exercise in style. Just as he did with the adroit, neo-noir movie Brick, Johnson takes a genre and subverts its expectations. The Brothers Bloom treats cons more as storytelling, and it positions the film and its characters in an interesting new light. Bloom yearns for an “unwritten life” because all he’s known have been roles in his older brother’s games and cons, and the poor sap doesn’t even know if he has an identity beyond fabrication. Stephen has also begun to blur the lines between reality and his cons, and his life’s ambition is to stage the perfect con where “everybody gets what they want.” Get that? The Brothers Bloom aims for deception that gives everyone, including the deceived, a happy ending. It almost sounds like a charitable goal. Johnson has injected the con artist genre with some pathos and self-reflection. Too many con artist movies are only good for one viewing; once you know the particulars of the con, do you feel invested in watching it play out again? Johnson puts some melancholy into the mix and it gives the film more weight than being the sum of its many quirky parts.

The acting across the board is superb. Ruffalo is his typically low-key yet engaging self, and he seems sincere even when you know he isn’t. His love and concern for his little brother is touching. His schemes are all for his brother to get out of his shell and experience some level of happiness. Brody embraces the weariness of his character. He is confused and tired and feels like he cannot trust human connections; he’s paranoid that all roads lead back to some machination from his brother. His affection for Penelope is like an awakening for his character, and yet he cannot fully give into it because is it genuine? This incredible level of uncertainty with every aspect of life casts a heavy toll, and Brody convinces you of that toll. Kikuchi (Babel) makes great use of physical comedy and has a lot of fun with her mysterious character. She’s mute for practically the entire film yet manages to communicate plenty. But it is Weisz (The Fountain) that steals the movie and steals your heart. Her screwy eccentric is deeply lonely but radiates a ditzy glow. She fully embraces the prospects of adventure and bounces in glee. This woman is powerfully adorable.

There are a handful of missteps in the narrative. The movie likely lasts twenty minutes longer than it needs to, with false endings and even a false third act. Audiences are used to con movies revealing the larger scope by the end after a bevy of last-minute twists. This is not the case with Bloom. The movie gets more muddled and introduces new conflict that isn’t ever really resolved. Audiences expect clarity by the end of the third act, not confusion. I feel like I’m missing something with the duplicitous Diamond Dog character (Schell), and maybe that’s the point; perhaps I’m supposed to be in the dark about his connection to the brothers Bloom. I won’t get into spoilers, but I was expecting more reveals at the end of the movie, perhaps Stephen showing one last final box, and the movie gives you nothing. I suppose the purpose is to play against con movie conventions and the surprise is that there is no real surprise by the end, no “I was in on it” or “It was all part of the plan” a-ha moments of ironic revelation. That’s nice but it doesn’t always make a movie more satisfying. The ending would be more moving if the audience didn’t already feel spent by the time they have to process something more emotional.

Johnson’s follow-up to his immensely entertaining debut is a solid winner, though it leaves you hanging and wanting at the end. The movie is quirky and heavy on the whimsy, and yet it also squeezes in some pathos. Yet the movie falls short of its ambitions and the talent of Johnson. The Brothers Bloom will seem enchanting to some and insufferable to others; it defies expectations and genre conventions, and sometimes would be better off adhering to them. It’s an amusing caper comedy but it could have been something even more special. It just needed a little less narrative sleight-of-hand.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Every Little Step (2009)

Being that A Chorus Line is a famous Broadway musical all about auditioning for a Broadway musical, Every Little Step, an agile documentary following every heel-toe-kick, takes place almost entirely in the world of high-stress auditions. The documentary traces the origins of the meta-theatrical show all the way to a taped conversation director Michael Bennet had with a handful of New York City dancers in 1974. That night they opened up about their lives and then it became character backstories. I would have liked more of an exploration about the nature of art transposing someone’s life story, but this is not that movie. Every Little Step examines the elation, disappointment, and sheer exhaustion of getting a part in a show. We watch scores of actors try out for the 2006 revival and we also listen to interviews from key participants in the original 1975 production. The movie does have some issues and one of them is that it doesn’t become personally involving to a Broadway naïf until after an hour in. I understand that the casting crew was weeding out hundreds of talent, but the movie doesn’t give enough time to specific hopefuls to follow, build a connection with, and eventually root for. Every Little Step only begins to flesh out its finalists at the final round of callbacks, which makes the stakes less emotionally involving. Still, it’s hard not to feel the rush of joy when some dancers achieve their dreams.

Nate’s Grade: B

Land of the Lost (2009)

Does money make something funnier? I have always been hesitant about Hollywood comedies that overspend like crazy, running up staggering budgets. In 2007, Evan Almighty became the most expensive comedy of all time, toppling a $200 million budget thanks to costly special effects and animal wrangling (and those assorted Steve Carell beards couldn’t have been cheap either). Did all that spending make the movie any funnier? Comedy is a cost-friendly enterprise because it all truly starts at conception: the setup, the payoff, the buildup, the delivery. If an idea isn’t funny at its core conception, it’s usually not going to be funny no matter how expensive the window dressing. Here comes a big budget Land of the Lost movie with Will Ferrell in the lead, and I ask again, does more money make something funnier?

Dr. Rick Marshall (Ferrell) has devoted his life, and taxpayer dollars, to researching time portals that open dimensions that combine the past, present, and future. After an interview on the Today Show with a hostile Matt Lauer, Marshall becomes a laughingstock in the scientific community. Holly (Anna Friel) is a science grad student who believes in his crackpot theories. The two of them use Marshall’s tachyon device to find a cosmic hotpot. It just so happens to be in the middle of a low-rent attraction, “The Devil’s Canyon” run by hick opportunist, Will (Danny McBride). He takes Marshall and Holly along on a tour of the cheap attraction but then suddenly the earth shakes and the people fall off a waterfall into a time portal. They awake in a strange land filled with dinosaurs, primate people like the hairy sidekick Chaka (Jorma Taccone), hissing lizard creatures known as Sleestaks, and all sorts of prehistoric danger. The only way home is to find the tachyon device to open another portal. Too bad the device, too, is lost.

The original Land of the Lost TV show was a dopey sci-fi show for kids that had silly plots, terrible special effects, and the unmistakable feeling that the creators and writers often indulged in psychotropic substances. But let’s face it folks, the Land of the Lost TV show was squarely aimed at kids and does not hold up well. You could seek the zippers on the back of the Sleestaks. I don’t intend to trample anyone’s good time nostalgic feelings, but this show was just not very good. However, the movie almost plays like a loving parody of the material. It doesn’t point out the flaws of the original TV show in a meta-critical manner like the Brady Bunch movies; Land of the Lost channels a childish, goofball tone and brazenly heads along at full-steam. This movie was marketed as a “family” film based on a children’s TV series. Warning to parents considering taking young children: this is not a family movie. This is a raunchy PG-13 comedy with plenty of kid-friendly gross out humor and parent-spooking sexual humor. There are masturbation gags, an F-bomb, an out-of-the-blue Jesus-on-the-cross comparison that could raise eyebrows, and all sorts of crude behavior, including two instances of self-imposed dinosaur golden showers.

The movie is completely juvenile, crude, surprisingly raunchy for a PG-13 movie, and yet it has an absurdist bemusement to be had. If you can catch on to its wonky wavelength that manages to satirize the original series, there are subversive, guilty pleasures to be had. There is a campy and irreverent spirit that I was able to latch onto and enjoy. I’m not saying Ferrell dousing himself in dinosaur urine is witty in any regard, but I laughed. When he does it a second time I laughed some more. This is like a gonzo update of a Saturday morning children’s series, like what would happen if Terry Gilliam took a crack at writing an adaptation (not to sully Gilliam’s creative integrity, the poop and pee jokes will be added by a screenwriting hack in a re-write). The jokes seem aimed at kids, like the bodily function stuff, but then there are jokes that will certainly go over the kids’ heads, like a drawn out sequence where the boys partake in a drug trip thanks to a local narcotic fruit. The TV series has been adapted into a big budget Will Ferrell comedy, a mixture of juvenile gags and goofball hijinks with a wink, which will alienate fans of the original series. It’s not sophisticated high comedy for adults but then the jokes can also be too wordy for small kids to understand why it should be funny. The opening scuffle between Marshall and Lauer is a good setup and also provides a satisfying payoff by the movie’s conclusion. Not all of the jokes work and there are too many scenes that drag on, long after the joke has already been given a burial ceremony. Many jokes are one-sceners and don’t build into something stronger and more satisfying than an in-the-moment chuckle. Land of the Lost is a somewhat muddled, somewhat confusing, somewhat chintzy, somewhat bizarre movie, which makes it an oddly fitting adaptation of its odd source.

The plot is a thin strand to tie the comedic setup together, but the movie also has dashes of adventure and action. Marshall insults a T-rex by ridiculing its brain size, and the T-rex becomes an ongoing antagonist, chasing the trio all around this so-called land of the lost. Usually every action beat is tied into some form of a comic setting, like when Marshall has to rescue his special tachyon machine by singing and dancing to “I Hope I Get It” from the Broadway show, A Chorus Line. Director Brad Siberling (Lemony Snicket, City of Angels) and production designer Bo Welch (Batman) make this movie look downright gorgeous. The trippy production design is Oscar-worthy. I enjoyed the visual landscape of this cosmic dumping ground, where a desert could be strewn with odd fixtures like a Viking ship or a gas station sign or a motel pool. The special effects are fairly good as well, especially adding detail and personality to the T-rex. This is a high-gloss comedy that might appeal to Salvador Dali if Dali had a secret love for defecation humor and boobs (maybe not as much with the latter).

The actors make the material better; thanks to Ferrell and McBride I was able to laugh at churlish humor that I might otherwise have scoffed at. This movie had me laughing at the basest humor, jokes chronicling the assured comedic assets of the female mammary and, well, dino pee. But you know what, context and an appealing actor with good comedic command can make anything funny. Ferrell and McBride have great comedic chemistry and the two of them know how to take a semi-lame joke and give it life with just the right delivery. Granted, Ferrell is playing the same character he has been for years, the sweet-hearted idiot man-child, and McBride (Pineapple Express, TV’s Eastbound and Down) is playing a toned down version of his blustery insincere jerk, and Friel (TV’s Pushing Daisies) is there essentially to be a love interest/straight man/source for boob groping. At one point, Holly rips away her pant legs for no good reason other than it allows the camera to get some high-grade butt shots of Friel in her short shorts.

I had fun with Land of the Lost and I’m not too ashamed to admit it. I enjoyed most of this psychedelic adaptation and grooved to its absurd, antisocial, irreverent spirit. It’s loosely based on the 1970s TV show by Sid and Marty Krofft, but this is a positive given that the original series was dumb. Not that this movie is intellectually riveting. This isn’t a daring movie or a cleverly diverting comedy, and it has unnecessary moments where they cram six pages of scientific nonsense into a one-minute exposition dump, but Ferrell and his time-traveling companions kept me smiling more often than not thanks to their camaraderie, improvisation skills, and ability to transcend the sophomoric material. It’s a silly mess but Land of the Lost is an entertaining time as long as you lower expectations and know what you’re getting into, dino urine and boob groping and everything.

Nate’s Grade: B

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