Monthly Archives: July 2010

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Rather unremarkable and rather dingy, a big-budget remake of Clash of the Titans removes all the fun from the campy 1981 original. Stop-motion is replaced with the sheen of super CGI, but the whole souped-up production feels hollow and overly serious for a movie involving fantastical creatures and Liam Neeson as Zeus. The original film was by no means a classic but it had an enjoyable retro spirit thanks to effects by Ray Harryhausen. The gods are trivialized and hardly in the movie, which is a shame. Danny Huston, as Poseidon, gets one single line in the film. Worse, Perseus (Sam Worthington) is given the motivation of revenge, instead of love, seeking to stand up to the gods who have left man to stew in despair. He blames the treacherous Hades (Ralph Fiennes) for the death of his father. And so the epic adventure is for vengeance, which gives everything a somewhat nasty pall. Who wants to watch a story about Greek mythology where the main character wants to rid the world of the gods? Why would Zeus go along with this? For a fairly straight forward plot, the movie frantically rushes from scene to scene. The action sequences are a particular letdown for director Louis Leterrier (Transporter). The CGI effects, mostly efficient, are like quick blurs and whooshes. You can?t tell what’s happening or you just don’t care. The movie has no character development and I’m not even certain I liked Perseus. Worthington?s scowling and howling is starting to get old after three high-profile action roles in an 18-month window. Would you believe that there isn’t even a titan to be clashed?

Nate’s Grade: C

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Salt (2010)

Congrats to the Columbia marketing team for what is by far the most imaginative advertising campaign ever. Weeks before Salt was going to open nationwide, the most bizarre story broke this summer. A dozen American citizens were revealed to be deep cover Russian agents. Apparently, their purpose, as given in the mid-to-late 1980s, was to infiltrate American society and get cozy with policy makers (and yet not one became a lobbyist). Instead they mostly raised families and lived in the suburbs of New Jersey. It’s unclear exactly what they accomplished. This hearkens back to a simpler age where we had clearly identifiable “enemies” that existed as nation states. Things are just too complicated in the post-9/11 age of the War on Terrorism. The dozen Russian spies were deported to Russian in an exchange for three American spies. I feel somewhat sad for these dozen Russian spies, especially Anna Chapman, the red-haired femme fatale that became the face of the scandal. These people grew up in the United States and for many that’s all that they know, and now they have to live in picturesque Russia. I wonder how long before they themselves defect back to the States.

Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a CIA agent who?s just about to go home after a long night of CIA stuff. An old Russian agent has defected, and Salt is the best interrogator they have to separate the real from the nutso. As she?s about to leave, the Russian talks about a plot to assassinate the Russian president, and the killer will be a Russian spy posing as an American, Evelyn Salt. Her superior (Liev Schreiber) wants to clear things up with nervous government officials, but Salt bails. She’s concerned that her German national husband (August Diehl from Inglorious Basterds) has been abducted. She races to find her husband, outrun U.S. agencies on her trail, and maybe assassinate the Russian president as foretold.

Believability is a fluid reality. When it comes to action thrillers, if they’re hitting the right numbers hen you give them a bit of a pass. What might normally kill a mortal can merely incur a flesh wound. Salt is packed with thriller absurdities, especially toward the end, but I posit that this movie is no less believable than most of what we see in the Bourne trilogy. The trick with Salt is that the pacing doesn’t ever let up; as soon as she?s slotted as a potential Ruskie spy, she goes on the run and the movie doesn’t slow down. It hops from action sequence to chase sequence to real-life Frogger sequence on a busy highway, all the while Evelyn performs miraculous feats of derring-do, impervious to normal rigors that would severely injure the rest of humanity. But you see, she’s a trained spy, and therefore can handle it all with aplomb. She can create her own missile thanks to an office desk and a fire extinguisher and some ordinary household chemicals (don’t try this at home, kids). In the opening seconds of the movie, Evelyn is being harshly tortured and interrogated in a North Korean prison (in her bra and panties for extra exploitation value). If she can survive that, surely this Superwoman Spy could survive escaping a batch of really lousy guards and National Security agents who seem bewildered by such art of deception like the masterful Putting on a Hat, or the more dangerous Dying One’s Hair a Darker Color (that can stain, you know).

Let?s briefly talk about the entire premise of Salt. Before this summer, naturally, this Cold War holdover plot device would seem ludicrous. Such deep cover Manchurian Candidate-like operations that take decades upon decades of time seem like a crapshoot. As proven by this summer’s most bizarre story, people who go deep under cover for extended periods of time are rarely able to snake their way into the corridors of power. It’s not like these people are planted to marry ambassadors or up-and-coming politicians. It’s essentially like a horse race, except you have to bet on which pony 25 years down the line will be the winner or spawn the winner. The odds of success seem remote at best and a waste of resources. This Cold War program also stipulates that these sleeper agents would still hold allegiance to Mother Russia nearly 20 years after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. It’s this same mistaken idea of delayed national allegiance that surfaces when Chinese politicians try and justify how they will solve the guy/girl population disparity in their country. The Chinese politicians feel that the men of their country will come to America and find all those Chinese orphans that were adopted by American parents. Somehow these former Chinese orphans who have grown up in a different culture, in a different family, and with different gender rights and freedoms, will suddenly say, “Of course I will go back to the country that gave me up as valueless!” It’s this same basis at work for the Russian sleeper agent plan. But yet these super sleeper agents have miraculously found their ways in high positions of power. Maybe that’s the secret to educational reform. Students are more likely to be self-starters when they’re determined to bring down the infrastructure of another country.

What saves Salt is that the action sequences are good. Director Phillip Noyce has extensive experience in Hollywood and working with large stars. Noyce directed the stellar Jack Ryan thrillers Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger; he even has experience with Jolie, having helmed 1999?s boring Bone Collector. Noyce has a great presence of mind and knows how to fill the frame up to please the senses. He knows how to compose a nice action sequence and, here?s the shocker given modern action cinema, allows the audience to fully understand what is going on. The chases have genuine excitement and the escapes come across as organic instead of contrived, which is something of a compliment for a spy film. Evelyn Salt hopping from car to car across a highway is cut together into one smooth sequence to rattle the nerves. There are some spectacular car crash images in the film, particularly when Salt escapes from police custody by driving off an overpass. Noyce finds a way to make the screen both frenetic and oddly pretty, without being self-conscious about its popcorn purposes.

Jolie has proven herself to be more than capable when it comes to handling action. She doesn’t look as spookily thin as she did in 2008’s Wanted, which is good when you want to believe that she can be a world-class brawler. She’s tough as nails and plenty easy on the eyes. The role doesn’t require much of Jolie’s exceptional sex appeal. In fact, she’s rather maternal and her driving motivation is to rescue her husband. There are all sorts of needless flashbacks to her wedding day, little snippets to remind you that she loves her husband, in case you forgot. Jolie’s character is a bit of an enigma by design. Obviously given the star power and the fact that it?s a summer movie, you expect Jolie and her character to be in the right by the time the end credits roll. And yet the movie and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (Thomas Crown Affair, Equilibrium) spends about half of its running time letting you fully believe that Evelyn is a turncoat (though if she was originally Russian, would she be a turncoat?). The most interesting aspect for me regarding Salt’s character was when we flashed back to the 11-year-old version (Cassidy Hinkle) of her after a car accident. Her head is bandaged, and because the girl is the younger version of Jolie, her lips look like those wax novelty lips to match Jolie’s signature pillowy pout.

Salt is a rather nuts-and-bolts thriller that balances absurdities with efficient action. With pacing so swift, you don?t have time to start nit-picking the small things, and the big things you just swallow as part of the overall package. Salt needs you to be caught up in the moment, in the chase, and not second-guessing all the plot fallacies. The film pretty much follows Jolie’s lead and is straight-faced nerve. It provides the thrills you’d want in a summer popcorn blockbuster without getting too serious. As a spy thriller it goes down like a shamelessly entertaining beach read. After all, what are the odds that your friends and neighbors of twenty years could actually be decades-in-the-making Russian sleeper agents? Well, do they look like Anna Chapman?

Nate’s Grade: B

Inception (2010)

Without a doubt, no movie has piqued curiosity like Christopher Nolan’s Inception. After breaking all sorts of box-office records with The Dark Knight, Nolan earned some capital. He wanted to make an expensive, intellectually demanding, high-concept movie that takes place mostly in the realm of dreams. The studio said yes, anything to keep their golden goose happy before a third Batman can roll out. Nolan has been tinkering with the script for Inception for almost ten years, trying to scale it down but never being content. This is a story that called for the biggest stage, which required a heavy price tag, and could only be fulfilled once Nolan was an established hit-maker. Early images of shifting gravity and folding cityscapes got people buzzing but then the concern was whether Inception would be too smart for audiences to embrace. You know, the same public that made two Alvin and the Chipmunks films blockbusters. Two weeks running, Inception has made a sizeable portion of money and become the “must-see” movie of the summer. Score one for the public.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert extractor. He can sneak into your dreams and discover whatever secret you’re hiding from your self, your wife, even your shrink. All for a tidy sum, of course. He’s on the run from U.S. authorities because they believe he killed his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). A rich businessman, Seito (Ken Watanabe), promises to clear away the pending charges if Cobb can perform one important job. Instead of stealing an idea, Cobb will have to plant an idea, known as inception. A young upstart (Cillian Murphy) will inherit his dying father?s empire, and Seito wants the guy to break up that empire and sell it off. Cobb enlists the help of a skilled team to pull off what is believed to be impossible; Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as the point man, Ariadne (Ellen Page), as the architect of the dream world, Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger who can convince the mark he?s other identities, and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist that creates a compound to put the team under a deep sleep. They’ll need it because Cobb plans to go three levels deep, a dream within a dream within a dream in order for inception to take root. The only way out is a “kick,” the sensation of falling that will awaken the dreamer. The team is under great risk not just from the dream world, but also from Cobb. He?s been secretly keeping memories of his dead wife alive and she keeps intruding into shared dreaming, causing havoc, relying on the same info that Cobb knows. The deeper they go into the dream the deeper they also go into Cobb’s memories.

Inception can be many things to many people, as is the nature of dreams. I found the movie to be a master class mousetrap. Watching Nolan and his origami-like script fold and bend and connect is a true pleasure. However, the movie is not a great character piece. Cobb is the only person on the entire team allowed any sort of back-story or inner lives or even personality traits. What do we know about Arthur, Ariadne, Eames? Nothing. They are all members of the team, but it is Cobb who is the only one allowed to have supporting details. Despite Cobb’s tragic past with his wife, emotionally the movie can best be described as a bit distant (not cold, distant). Nor does Inception deal with the psychology of dreams or the interpretation of the subconscious and its links to our own reality; this movie does not have Freudian psychoanalysis in mind. What Inception does deliver is a brilliantly staged heist that takes place in the realm of dreams, and if that doesn’t sound like a fun concept then I don?t know what does. To get to that heist, the audience must slosh through about 90 minutes of solid set-up and exposition (Pages character is essentially an exposition device). There are a lot of rules to digest in order for the final hour to have the impact that it does. If you nod off for a portion of that time, like my father, you will be lost as to why anything is exactly happening. Having seen the film a second time, I can say that once the hyperactive “Oh my gosh, this is awesome!” haze of newness wears off you do realize that the pre-heist portion of the movie can be a bit slow. I think that for future DVD-viewings I will skip to the start of the heist and sit back and relax (much like skipping the first hour of King Kong).

After talking about what Inception is not, let’s focus on what Inception is. It is a massively entertaining, brain-tickling thriller with eye-popping visuals that verge toward the iconic. Nolan isn’t the greatest orchestrator of action (a foot chase in Mombassa is pretty lackluster short of a narrow alleyway) but the man knows how to put together tremendously memorable set pieces. From Paris folding upon itself to a fistfight in a revolving hallway, Inception is packed with stimuli to ignite the senses. It’s the first movie in years that I walked out and thought, “How did they do that?” It renewed my sense of mystery and wonder with the movies. And the last hour is ridiculously fraught with tension as the movie descends level after level of subconscious, juggling four separate action set pieces with mounting climaxes. The revolving hallway fight is perhaps my favorite action scene in years. I still got goose bumps the second time. Gordon-Levitt hops from ceiling to floor like he’s Spiderman, or Gene Kelly, all while the camera remains fixed. Gordon-Levitt gets a lot of zero gravity experience in this movie. He might have qualified for a free ride on the space shuttle.

Like the alternate reality of The Matrix, people can manipulate the world of dreams, which allows for some imaginative visuals. Aside from the dreams-within-dreams impacting one another, there aren’t really playful distortions of reality. There?s a few M. C. Escher-inspired staircases but nothing too out of bounds. Nolan devises a reason for this since the dreamers do not want to call attention to altering the dream. They want to hide among the subconscious projections; get in and get out without being noticed. You do wish that Nolan played to the potential of his flexible reality, but on the other hand, it’s still fairly mind-bending to reach inside a magician?s hat into another magician?s hat and so on. I wonder if there was another story that could have succeeded in this setting, namely competing thieves that have to race against time within the world of dreams. Think about it next time, Nolan. That one?s on me.

But the most exciting aspect of the movie is how intellectually stimulating it is. The movie is jam-packed with ideas like Nolan’s other works, so much that it’s hard to fully process everything the film offers in one sitting. The pieces do fit together and the movie follows its own internal logic, so if you didn’t skip out on any bathroom breaks, you should be able to follow along reasonably. On first viewing, Inception is bristling with intelligence and narrative complexity, and it rarely stops to pander to an audience. It expects you to keep up for the rewards that will follow, and they are indeed rewarding. The movie isn’t as complicated to follow but it can definitely get complicated when you try and explain action beyond a literal level. Nolan laces all sorts of narrative stops and peculiarities that can be targeted for an alternative thesis statement on the ending. The very ending shot is ambiguous perfection. It keeps the mystery of what constitutes reality while providing an out for people that want to formulate a happy ending. There’s plenty of room for interpretation and analysis but it doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story. Hollywood is pretty risk averse when it comes to anything that makes people think, let along anything expensive that requires active synapses. Nolan has long been a filmmaker of intellectual heft and non-linear narratives. His narratives are complex puzzles that snap together with airtight precision. The joy of a Nolan film is surrendering yourself to his narrative origami and waiting to see the Big Picture. There are new insights to discover with every viewing. Nolan may not be the second-coming of God, as those frothing at the mouth on Internet message boards proclaim, but I can think of no other director working today who harnesses Big Ideas on such a big stage.

Inception is a $160-million dollar studio film with substance, but it also looks like money well spent. The film looks amazing. The cinematography by Wall Pfister (Dark Knight) is gorgeous without being self-consciously arty, pleasing the senses without drawing too much attention away from the story. But with a screenplay that makes all kinds of leaps, you need the help of a good editor to guide the proceedings. Lee Smith (Truman Show, Master and Commander) is that man. While the repeated cutbacks to the van falling in slow motion can be giggle-inducing, Smith gamely holds everything together thanks to his skill in juggling all the parallel storylines/dreamscapes. Finally, the score by Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, Gladiator) is full of ominous, blaring horns that send shivers and get your blood pumping. Johnny Marr (The Smiths, Modest Mouse) even added an assist by strumming the guitar licks on the score. Apparently Zimmer’s key score themes are actually the tune “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” the Edith Piaf signature song used to signal “kicks,” played at a slowed speed. At the risk of sounding like one of those frothing from the mouth on the Internet, that’s insanely cool.

The acting is uniformly good with a few bumps. DiCaprio (Shutter Island) might need to do something light after continuous roles where he inhabits mean weighed down by guilt and dead wives (three in a row for those counting). He’s a good emotional anchor. Watching the star of 500 Days of Summer and Brick as a suave, cool-as-can-be action star is improbably awesome. Hardy (Bronson) is a scene-stealer mostly because he?s the only member of the team that has a sense of humor. Cotillard (Nine, Public Enemies) who won an Oscar playing Edith Piaf in 2007’s La vie en Rose, gets her best part since then. She gets to do many things as Mal, a projection of a character. This means that she must be limited in how she fills out the character because she is defined by Cobb’s fading memory. Yet she can be malicious, playful, spiteful, loving, vulnerable, and more. Cotillard and her big, glassy eyes do a great service in selling a romance we only see after the fact. Page (Juno) just feels out of place. She seems like the kid among a group of adults. And while the elfin actress will always look youthful until she applies for an AARP card, Page just seems in over her head. Her performance is fine if a bit mealy-mouthed but she still feels miscast.

Inception. Expect it to become a fanboy religion in a matter of weeks. It wears its influences on its sleeve, from The Matrix to Abre Los Ojos (or the American remake, Vanilla Sky). Thrilling, stimulating on different levels, and supremely engrossing, Inception is just about everything you could wish for in a summer blockbuster, except when it can also feel mechanical, distant, and free of emotion and character development save DiCaprio (perhaps this is further evidence that it was all a dream?). Regardless, Inception is easily the brainiest movie of the year, and usually those don?t get packaged as big-budget Hollywood spectacle. Just make sure to bring your totem the second time you watch the movie.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Bounty Hunter (2010)

When a woman runs out of a trunk and is chased down by a man who then tackles her and drags her back to said trunk, how would you react? Horror, right? This scenario is the opening minute of The Bounty Hunter, an abhorrent romantic comedy that fails in every regard. The opening scene is supposed to be funny because it’s two stars and we learn, via onscreen text, that the guy and gal are formerly married. Somehow this knowledge makes the scene… funny? Because in real life no spurned ex-spouses inflict punishment on their former halves. This disastrous and bizarre opening clued me in that The Bounty Hunter was going to be one hell of a slog to sit through. It made me want to put a bounty on the filmmakers who made this mess possible.

Milo (Gerard Butler) is an ex-cop who currently pays the bills as a bounty hunter. Nicole (Jennifer Aniston) is an investigative reporter looking into a series of suicides that might not be what they seem. She’s also due in court for hitting a police horse with her car (the reveal of her actual crime is intended to be a payoff; you?re welcome for having it spoiled). Nicole gets too close to a crime conspiracy that has connections inside the New York City police force, so goons chase her down to kill her. Naturally, she misses her court date and becomes a wanted fugitive, which brings her ex back into the picture. Milo is elated that he gets to drag his ex-wife to jail and get paid for doing so. Along the way, the couple improbably rekindles their old romance while being chased by hordes of goons with guns.

First off, The Bounty Hunter is one of the more unpleasant, tone-deaf comedies I’ve seen in years. It assumes if two people, with obviously zero chemistry, will bicker long enough in shrill voices, eventually comedy will emerge. This is the comedic equivalent of the faulty scientific theory of Spontaneous Generation. The comedy just isn’t coming. I never laughed once during the entire painful 115 minutes. I failed to crack even a smile. I sat dumbfounded, looking back and forth between the screen and my wife’s reaction, to gauge if I was truly missing something, mainly the “comedy” part. These people are unlikable and not once do you ever believe that they are capable of even expressing a realistic human emotion. These are people that shouldn’t even exist in a crummy romantic comedy. These are the background players in a crummy romantic comedy, given starring roles and proving with every exhalation why they should have remained Angry Dinner Couple #2. Milo is a jackass who’s full of himself and Nicole is whiny and annoying and they both have massive egos. Butler and Aniston have various acting abilities, though both seem to be in rapid decline, but their hammy acting is trying to overcompensate for the film’s numerous shortcomings. They’re playing broadly, but now they’re just broad, unlikable idiots rather than unlikable idiots. The only way anybody could like these characters is imagining that they’re completely different people.

The premise itself routinely destroys any plausible sense of believability. Milo chases down his ex-wife in scene after scene, taunting her, spitefully laughing at her misfortune, harassing and threatening her. At NO POINT WHATSOEVER in the entire movie does a single person look at this ongoing relationship and cry foul. Nobody calls the police, nobody intervenes, nobody notices what explicitly looks like a woman being stalked and kidnapped by a creep. At no point does Milo flash a badge to at least provide some context or explain his actions, so scene after scene looks like a blatant kidnapping with the female captive kicking and screaming. There is nothing wacky or amusing in watching a world of apathetic rom-com extras ignoring what is obviously somebody in trouble. The fact that Milo can get away with this behavior in a gala of public venues only makes the movie, and every living being within it, infinitely dumber.

The very nature of the comedy oddly results in plenty of cruel slapstick. Nicole has an officemate, Stewart (Jason Sudeikis), who is smitten with her after a drunken bout of making out. He follows her to Atlantic City and eventually gets hijacked by the goons after Milo. There are several astonishing scenes that just involve the goons torturing Stewart. They hit him in the leg with a golf club, they inject a horse tranquilizer into his neck, and all of this is somehow supposed to be funny. It’s really just mean and rather distasteful. The fact that The Bounty Hunter thinks that this situation is a comedy goldmine speaks volumes to me. Watching a dweeby character repeatedly get injured is not funny on its face, and it’s even less funny when the film just lets it keep happening without comment. Stewart doesn’t deserve his pain and neither does the unfortunate audience watching this garbage.

Director Andy Tennant (Hitch, Fool’s Gold) and screenwriter Sarah Thorp (Twisted) wouldn’t know comedy if it chained them to a car door. Tennant’s idea of comedy is to stretch the comedy, play things as big and as long as possible. There are plenty of moments that have a rather slipshod comedic setup (oh look, they’re chasing a guy on a golf course in a golf cart! This has to end well right?), and then the movie just keeps going and going, long after what was designed to be funny crashed, burned, and had its ashes scattered at sea. His visual style also leans on bright pastel colors that heighten the cartoonish atmosphere. The comic set-ups are along the lines of? Milo chains Nicole to bed. She crawls over him to reach for gun. Sexual dialogue about a “gun.” Milo chases a guy on stilts. Stilts! How could you resist that? And then at one point Nicole tries to make a break for it in a rickshaw. I’m already not laughing. And then the movie wants to be an action caper and lo does it fail miserably at this as well. Nicole is being chased by a bevy of goons because she knows too much. Milo is also being chased by his own bevy of goons that want to collect on his gambling debts. Then there’s a mutual friend/cop who may be dirty or might not be, but it’s just way too many extraneous characters chasing after the likes of Milo and Nicole.

Thorp lacks an ear for dialogue. She seems to have some basic grasp on the ingredients of funny, but she can’t make them come together and work. Every line alternates between being clumsy, obvious, or clumsily obvious. We’re supposed to be amused by Milo and Nicole’s banter. It’s grating, like you’re stuck in someone else’s miserable family vacation. There’s a moment in the end where Milo has distracted the bad guys and come to save his ex-wife, and then instead of bolting they sit and glumly talk about the failed state of their relationship. Could that not have waited until you were safe? The tone is decidedly uneven and the second half of the film feels like an eternity. The comedy completely gets smothered in the last half because now the movie wants to be taken seriously and we’re supposed to care about the characters getting back together, as if their reconciliation was ever in doubt. Thorp’s screenplay feels like a pastiche of 1000 different movies. There isn’t an original thought anywhere inside this movie. Even worse, there isn’t anything funny. This is the kind of movie that you say, “Well, it had its moments,” except The Bounty Hunter doesn’t even have those “moments.”

The Bounty Hunter is a colossal miscalculation on the part of everyone involved. It is neither funny nor romantic in any sense, it’s weirdly cruel and very casual about it, and the entire movie exists in some contrived, sketchy realm of reality that only exists in the furthest reaches of the rom-com universe. I find it funny (much funnier than anything in this movie) that Butler and Aniston were rumored to be dating after filming this movie. They have no screen chemistry whatsoever, though they can argue in annoying tones effectively. As the film neared its merciful end, I thought about calling somebody to round up those responsible for such an egregious waste of time and money. It’s not just that The Bounty Hunter is a bad movie; it’s a woefully clumsy and excruciating movie even considering the depths of romantic comedies. And if anybody sat through The Ugly Truth, or Over Her Dead Body, or anything with Freddie Prinze Jr. in it, then you know exactly how alarming that statement is.

Nate’s Grade: D

She’s Out of My League (2010)

This is a fairly lackluster, flaccid, infantile comedy that aims to follow the same Judd Apatow formula of equal parts heart and raunch. Where this movie utterly fails is its choice of lead. Jay Baruchel (Tropic Thunder) is not a good leading man (his voice is very nasally and hard to listen to at times), but worse, his character, Kirk, is a callow, simpering, snot-nosed dolt. He has a dearth of a personality; he’s constantly berating himself or groveling for support by his oblivious family and mean ex-girlfriend. You simply don’t care. Kirk is not a guy worth watching. There’s empathy and then there’s pity. The movie wants to be a “nice guy gets the girl” story, but instead She’s Out of My League is a “guy with zero self-esteem and charisma gets the magazine cover model” story. At least in Apatow productions, the schlubby leads had personalities and redeeming qualities. I started enjoying the respites away from Kirk, time spent with his callous family members or his annoyingly juvenile friends. Anything to escape. The jokes have a pretty low ratio of hits to misses (an early ejaculation actually almost becomes an act break that keeps the couple apart), becoming subservient to a clich├ęd romantic comedy that wants to teach us that looks don’t matter. It’s what’s on the inside that counts. Have you heard that one before this week? If what’s on the inside is what matters, then She’s Out of My League has little to offer.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2010)

So in the few short months since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opened in the spring, the book series has catapulted to even new reaches of fame. It even appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly under the headline, “The hottest books on the planet.” I’ll take their word on that one. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third book in late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s series was finally released stateside, and depending upon when you read this, is probably still on the best-seller list. Larsson’s trilogy of novels is a global publishing phenomenon. The first film in the series made over $10 million dollars in the United States and was the top-grossing film in Europe last year. That says something about a 150-minute Swedish thriller with no-names attached. The Girl Who Played with Fire is the second film in the series and naturally couldn’t live up to expectations after the first smash movie. The second film is good, not great, but really whets the appetite for the concluding movie to come.

It’s been one year since the events of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The titular tattooed-girl, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), has been living abroad. Her ally and one-time lover, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), has been trying to get in contact with her but to no avail. Blomvist is about to publish a damning report about sex trafficking with some pretty high-profile names attached as members. The authors of the article are then executed and Lisbeth’s fingerprints are found on the gun left at the crime scene. Salander’s court-appointed guardian, the one who viciously raped her in the previous film, is also found murdered. Blomkvist is certain his companion is innocent and goes about investigating who is truly responsible. Salander comes out of hiding and back to Sweden where she tries to clear her name the best way she knows how. All roads seem to lead to a figure known as “Zala,” a Soviet spy who defected to Sweden ages ago but who has been carrying on in the shadows ever since.

The focus with Fire in on Lisbeth Salander, which is exactly the character the audience wants to spend the most time with. Salander split duty with Blomkvist in the first film. They were equals, but a crusading journalist just isn’t as interesting as a five-foot Gothic ass-kicking computer hacker. As I wrote: “Mikael isn’t a blah character by any means but he seems to serve as an expository device, the guy who uncovers the secrets and gets to be the helpless foil to Lisbeth. I suppose for maximum narrative effect a straight man would be required to be paired with Lisbeth.” She is the star of the series so it’s a great pleasure to watch her receive oodles of screen time. The second film is significantly devoted to the history of Salander, her back-story, her father, what she did to get locked away in a mental ward (which was hinted at before). The sex trafficking murders are merely a narrative smokescreen. Being framed for the murders puts Lisbeth on defense, but the sex trafficking stuff and the high-profile johns quickly dissolve in the wake of a standard investigation into the mysterious “Zala.” The mystery of this film is really the mystery of Salander’s back-story and family tree. However, being focused primarily on Lisbeth Salander also means that everybody else gets sidelined. She’s on the run and trying to clear her name, but that doesn’t give much room for other people to contribute to the narrative. Blomkvist gets to pensively look at his computer screen a lot and always show up one step behind our heroine. The two are kept apart for nearly the entire movie.

Rapace is still the best reason to see the series. She inhabits the character with tremendous intensity and skill. If you stripped away all the aesthetics, the Goth trinkets, you would still have a vital character. As I wrote before: “There’s much more to this girl than a dragon tattoo and a spiked collar. Rapace doesn’t let the outfits overwhelm her. There’s a certain joyful recklessness to her character hidden beneath a veneer of steely coolness.” Because of her mysterious nature and painful past, Rapace must play all emotions through a prism of emotional reserve. Even though we get a lot more of Salander’s past explained, I felt like we got to know her as a character better in the first flick where she could breathe and behave “normally.” Thanks to being on the run for murder, it’s hard to argue that Lisbeth ever gets a chance to simply be her complicated self, which robs the audience of an appealing character. We project the interest we felt for her from the first film to the Salander stand-in represented in the second film. She’s still a resourceful, loyal, and cavalier presence, but the plot corners her into being a creature of action. She becomes the fantasy bisexual ass-kicking protagonist that was merely hinted at previously. That sounds like a good thing, but trust me, it does the audience a disservice to box in such a fascinating character.

Girl Who Played with Fire is nowhere near the complete film experience that the first film offered. This movie feels like one half and the continuing half, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, won’t be out until later in the fall. As such, it’s hard to fully analyze certain storylines at play. I imagine that the sex trafficking storyline will carry on with the third film because of the tease that high-profile figures in government and police offices were involved. It already establishes a conflict and a set of antagonists ready for the third film. Then again, I may be too hopeful and the storylines of interest in Part Two may be completely dropped or mishandled by Part Three (see: Matrix sequels, Pirates of the Caribbean sequels). Girl Who Played with Fire does a decent job of setting up a narrative base and establishing a one-shot villain, somebody to be dispatched by episode’s end. But the movie feels far from complete, and sadly I won’t know until later whether that incomplete feeling is from breaking up a continuing storyline or from deficits of filmmaking. There are too many loose ends with Girl Who Played with Fire for it to feel complete, and thus it cannot help but suffer in comparison to its predecessor.

Where the movie goes haywire is in its adoption of action tropes. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was more of a slow-burning thriller with some nasty flashes of violence. The second in the trilogy seems to take place more in the realm of action cinema, which means that things get a little preposterous. There are a lot more car chases, henchmen, fistfights, shootouts, and it almost unravels at the end. Slanader seems to transform into the Bride, sharing two key abilities from Uma Thurman?s character in the Kill Bill series (that’s about as spoilery as I want to get). Salander just becomes like a pint-sized Terminator; she’s indestructible and capable of amazing feats. It’s like the Swedes took the Hollywood edict that every sequel had to be bigger and better than the original. There’s even a lesbian love scene before the 20-minute mark, in case the audience was already getting bored (presented like something out of Cinemax late-night TV). I appreciated that the original film respected the intelligence of the audience, giving a deluge of information and characters to sort and trusting that in time we could follow along. The Girl Who Played with Fire is far less complicated in scope. In fact, it’s a fairly rote detective story that only dishes out clues when the characters need to progress. The first film actually utilized good detective work; the second film just has everything fall into people’s laps at predetermined points of need. The tension doesn’t manifest as ferociously as it did in Dragon Tattoo. For goodness sake, the chief antagonist has a hired goon that is actually a rip-off of a James Bond villain from The World is Not Enough, which was an awful Bond movie! The end focuses too much on the bloody confrontation between Lisbeth and a chief antagonist and an axe that apparently fails to mortally wound people when swung at their craniums.

I think the switch in directors, from Niels Arden Oplev to Daniel Alfredson, has something to do with the slip in quality. To American audiences, this might not ever register, but the films have completely different tones. The turnover feels less abrupt thanks to the cast reappearing. The direction feels less focused, more casual and pedestrian, relying on that grimy green/orange cinematography that Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds) always favored so much. Here’s another thing I learned. When it’s not a snowy winter, Sweden looks pretty much like Canada. Seriously, the landscapes do nothing in this movie to distinguish it.

Now that sounds like a lot of quibbles, like I’m quibbling Girl Who Played with Fire to death. In short, it’s not as good as the first one, and the final 20 minutes proves it, but it is still a finely entertaining movie. Even with a less complicated plot, the movie manages to be smarter than most of its Hollywood brethren. It’s more an action movie than a dark, lurid thriller like its predecessor, which means there will be certain limitations on the use of your brain. But the movie plays off our residual good will from the last one, it’s interesting enough, and Lisbeth Salander is rightly the star, so it’s enough to forgive. We’ll see in the fall whether The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest can provide a satisfying close to the popular series. As proven, never count Salander out.

Nate’s Grade: B

After Last Season (2009)

After Last Season is a little movie that most people wrongly mistook for a joke. Writer/director Mark Region pulled off something rarely witnessed in modern movies: he put together a low budget movie all on his own and got it released nationally. The movie even has a Quicktime trailer on Apple’s website. It was released last summer in only four cities for a limited trial run, which explains why nobody has every heard of Region’s creative opus. It also might have to do with the fact that After Last Season is so appallingly terrible that the distributor reportedly called the theaters to advise burning the film prints rather than returning them. Naturally, given my cinematic tastes for the finest trash and my keen knowledge of the baddest of bads, I instantly had to see this film for myself. The website After Last Season boasts an Amazon.com customer review (nary a good sign of accomplishment) saying that the movie is unlike any you have ever seen. There’s a good reason for that. After Last Season approaches a near Manos level of ineptitude. That should speak volumes.

The plot, as can best be described, involves a university conducting scientific experiments. Sarah (Peggy McClellen) and Matthew (Jason Kulas) are interns conducting their own investigation into a recent string of murders. They have access to a device that allows the connection of minds, and so Sarah and Matthew link brains and get caught in the wavelengths of the campus killer, who now begins to target them. This plot synopsis is actually too kind and might mislead some into thinking the movie has drama or action or suspense. What really happens are characters who you don’t know doing things that aren’t fully explained followed by unexplained location changes where the whole process repeats itself. You haven’t lived until you’ve listened to Sarah’s roommates engage in senseless conversations about going to the North Market.

When I say that this movie is awful, I really mean it with all sincerity. This movie is so awful, so off-the-charts painful to watch that there is not an ounce of derisive fun to be had. After Last Season does not fall into that coveted category of “so bad it’s good,” no, this movie is simply disastrously, regrettably, incomprehensibly bad. I would not recommend it to my friends or enemies. From a plot standpoint, there’s about 15 minutes of stuff stretched out to a short but far too long length of 93 minutes. The opening 10 minutes concern characters explaining how an MRI machine operates. It’s like Region once wrote a paper on an MRI machine and wanted everybody to know the work put into it. The characters just keep rehashing the ins and outs of this machine, and the machine is clearly made of cardboard and in the middle of somebody’s living room (is it unusual for a metallic ceiling fan to be placed directly above a Magnetic Resonating Imaging machine?). Then there’s a 30-minute stretch in the middle that is nothing more than two people sitting across a table and dreaming about geometric shapes. 30 minutes! I doubt that I even have the ability to adequately explain the amount of mind-numbing torture that this sequence was. My friend Eric and I just kept looking at one another with hopeful expressions, silently pleading, “Will our pain and suffering soon be over?” 30 freaking minutes! One third of the entire movie is like watching somebody’s annoying screensaver from 1987. I can’t wait for the sequel where it looks like a bunch of windows are flying.

The rest of the script isn’t filled with intriguing character dynamics or challenging drama. It’s almost completely built from non-related scenes with non-identified characters having frivolous conversations about nothing. Most of the dialogue is driven by linked non-sequitors, which prompted me to repeatedly yell at the screen, “Why the hell was that important?” Characters will drone on in useless babble, never once circling a subject that seems to be related to the plot at hand. The small group of actors (you will be amazed that the end credits lists over 15 characters) feels like people awaiting an execution. True, the pitiful direction leaves them unmoored, fighting to find meaning in anything they say, but these people just suck at acting. The general range of acting goes from impassive monotone to somewhat less impassive monotone. It’s the acting equivalent of rounding up random people at the bus station and hoping for a miracle.

I have seen low budget productions before but this movie looks like it was made for the cost of a lottery ticket. For whatever reason, the current info has the budget at five million but there’s no way in hell that can be true (some producer must have ran off with like the whole sum minus twenty bucks). Reportedly the movie cost $40,000, which I can believe barely, and the special effects cost 4.95 million dollars, which I find baffling. The sets are all overly lit basements disguised by the clever decorative abilities of pegboards and sheets of paper. There are scenes where actual paper is taped to the walls like it was shingles, just like what a child might devise as a means of decoration. There’s even a supposed college class that takes place in this same low-rent location, which means that this particular university is really struggling for endowment funds. This utilitarian approach to locations is what I’d expect from a public access show or a student’s video project. These locations make it seem like every person is one moment away from being gutted by a serial killer just off screen. Did Region have only one abandoned office basement to work with? The visitations by the ghost/mind spirit/whatever are just as bad. We have the embarrassment of watching plastic tubs being pulled across the floor with fishing line. Having a low budget should force Region to be more creative with his use of resources, to work around his limitations. Instead, he just continually shines a bright light illuminating every possible limitation in the movie.

From a technical standpoint, After Last Season is an abysmal entry. It fails not just because of its lack of funds but it fails because Region lacks any filmmaking ability whatsoever. Sure, apparently the man was able to pose actors, have them recite lines, and keep the cameras running, but I expect more from my movies than the same criteria I have for family vacation videos. Region’s directorial style is, ostensibly, to have no discernible visual sensibility at all. Actors will routinely be cut out from the camera frame or the spatial relations will be completely out of whack, allowing for tremendous space above heads or showing the actor’s complete body except the upper half of the face. Characters will be bunched in one tiny section of the screen, or Region will suddenly cut back and forth between two different shots that conflict from a geographic standpoint; they don’t visually match up. There isn’t a single shot anywhere in After Last Season that couldn’t have been credited to a tripod for complete creative inspiration.

Here’s a terrific example of how creatively bankrupt this movie is, and no, I will restrain from making reference to the sheets of paper as decoration. The website for After Last Season actually touts its use of special effects. What special effects, you may very reasonably be asking yourself. Evidently, several scenes had less background coverage, so the special effects gurus took a sample background object and copied it to cover the space (like taking one sheet and making a wall out of them). Okay, fine, except that this special effects wizardry doesn’t always work. The website itself even showcases a scene where Sarah goes in for her job interview and on the right hand side we can see the special effect trick of covering up the empty space. However, the left side is completely untouched, leaving exposed all the set shortcomings and extension cords. Why cover one side but not the other? Too expensive? Here’s the best question of all. Why spend any money whatsoever on lame special effects when you could have simply zoomed in so that the two characters filled the screen? That’s a much more cost-effective option and wouldn’t break the perilous illusion of the movie. It is examples like this that condemn Region as an artist with zero creative ingenuity.

Now it’s at this point where I have to call into question the integrity of After Last Season. Was this entire project created on purpose to be terrible, and if so, does it even make a difference? Is a bad movie more acceptable if it’s intentional or unintentional? From my perspective, you cannot intentionally make a campy movie. The derisive pleasure must come from the fact that the filmmakers thought they were making compelling cinema at some point. If After Last Season is fake (I hesitate to use that word given its connotation) then it’s an even bigger waste of time (Update: I just read online interviews with Region, and the movie is for real). As it stands, the movie is technically inept on every level of filmmaking with a bad script, bad actors, bad pacing, bad direction, bad sets, bad sound coverage, bad “special effects,” and really bad editing. If Region was dreaming of creating a midnight-movie sensation like The Room then he missed the mark. This movie isn’t any fun whatsoever to watch because there’s not enough going on to make laugh at. With The Room, every scene had like eight things wrong with it; that film was a 1000 brushstrokes of bad. With After Last Season, it’s the same forehead-smacking flaws repeated ad nauseam. There’s no derisive joy to be had here, folks.

I’m not shocked that something as unrepentantly bad as After Last Season exists. There is plenty of crap on the Internet and in this modern age of user media, there’s no shortage of poorly executed ideas finding a wider audience. It’s the same with the infamous 1979 blotch on cinema, Caligula. I’m not surprised that something so debased and wildly salacious exists, what shocks me is that a movie with incest, bestiality, necrophilia, hard-core sex scenes, and gallons of blood would star such a celebrated cast of thespians like John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, Malcolm McDowell, and Helen Mirren (though if you’ve seen Zardoz you know that Mirren wasn’t too picky in those days). What shocks me is not that Caligula exists but the level of involvement and exposure. What truly shocks me is that After Last Season got a theatrical release over the likes of thousands of other movies fighting for a release. Yes, this only played on four screens in four different cities, but how does anybody justify After Last Season even being in the same consideration of cinematic art? I am faint to even refer to this as a movie. It almost seems like a social experiment with disturbing psychological implications. After Last Season isn’t a movie so much as an endurance test of how much pointless garbage a person can consume before they relentlessly cry, “Enough! You have officially destroyed my soul!” I never thought I’d say these words, but After Last Season makes The Room look competent. Your apology letter is in the mail, Tommy Wiseau.

Nate’s Grade: F

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