Originally written November 27, 2004
I was standing in a theater weeks ago and saw a large banner for Oliver Stone’s epic about Alexander the Great. I listed the names; Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Rosario Dawson, Jared Leto. This had to be perhaps the greatest assembly of pretty actors ever in a motion picture. There’s a whole lot of sex appeal there, and Anthony Hopkins, as the film’s reflective narrator, isn’t too shabby looking himself for a man his age. After having seen Alexander, it’s safe to say the actors sure are pretty but the movie is far from it.
Alexander (Farrell) is one of the greatest historical figures. He rose to become a Macedonian king, dominated much of the known world before he was 30, and then died mysteriously at a young age. In flashes to his youth, we see Olympias (Jolie) coaching young Alexander on his future glory. Standing in her way is one-eyed King Phillip (Kilmer), Olympias’ husband though not the father to Alexander. She frets that he will sire a direct heir to the throne, and upon Phillip’s assassination, Alexander reaches new heights. He travels to Babylon with the purpose of avenging his father’s death, rumored to be paid for by Persian gold.
Alexander keeps traveling east conquering new lands but returning kings to their rule and assimilating “barbarians” into his armies. His generals begin to question Alexander’s actions, especially his surprise marriage to an Asian peasant woman (Dawson). He is unable to sire a male heir with her. Hephaistion (Leto), Alexander’s childhood friend and lifelong lover, worries that Alexander has become power hungry and distrustful of those around him. Many of his men only want to see home after seven years of battle. After defeat in India, Alexander decides to turn back but he never sees home again.
For such a lavish biopic, Alexander seems fairly remote. We don’t really get to know much about the psychology of Alexander. He’s a historical figure with equal parts good and bad ready for debate, but whenever Alexander does hit some of its star’s less-than-stellar moments, it seems to gloss right over them. Hopkins will narrate about some town that resisted, then we’ll see a quick image of it burning, and then we move on. Or we’ll see a slew of dead army officials and Hopkins will say, “He slaughtered all he felt were responsible for mutiny, but I’d expect any general to do the same.” There are several moments where we’ll hear Alexander massacred a town, or sold people into slavery, and then we get the next scene. It’s quite comical, almost as if Hopkins is a tour guide at a museum saying things like, “And then Alexander ate all of the first born babies. Moving on now…”
There are just so many awful laugh-out-loud, loopy moments in Alexander. It’s not enough that Jolie speaks in some bizarre accent; to make sure the audience understands that she’s duplicitous she has a snake wrapped around her in every scene. I’m not kidding; every scene that Jolie is in she has snakes coiled around her.
There’s a moment late in the film that is so hilariously dreadful, it’s hard to believe what you’re seeing. Hephaistion has caught ill and is on his death bed. Alexander is wrought with emotion but then strolls over to a window and begins another huge speech that ends up being all about his glory. What makes the scene go from bad to I-cannot-believe-they’re-doing-this bad is that Hephaistion, in the background, is convulsing and dying. You see his body tense up, twitch, leap into the air, and practically do some kind of triple axle, all while Alexander speechifies blithely unaware. I challenge anyone not to laugh.
Stone needlessly complicates his film with flashbacks, giant leaps forward in chronology skipping Alexander’s rise to respected leader, and skittish hallucinations. Stone is accustomed to breaking up the chronology of his films, but Alexander is too long and too campy to play around with for effect.
The acting of Alexander is set to overkill. Farrell seems miscast and doesn’t have the weight to carry such a historically meaty role. He looks pretty, and he can snarl like a pro, but the only thing worse than his overblown performance is his terrible blonde hair. This just wasn’t the right role for this talented actor. Jolie is so naturally seductive that she could have played her role mute and been effective, maybe more so. Kilmer seems to be working some kind of Irish accent but he comes off the best of the three. Leto gets overshadowed by his bangs.
Alexander also seems to speed over its star’s bisexuality. It wasn’t uncommon for men to bed both sexes, but the movie seems terrified of portraying anything beyond longing glances. Alexander and Hephaistion are reduced to some whispers here and there, but the limit of their physical affection stops at hugs. It actually is kind of funny the amount of times they hug, which I think is over five. You can tell the filmmakers wanted more but then were like, “Eh, let them hug again.” In some weird turn, it seems the film shows more depth with Alexander’s relationship with his horse than with his lifelong lover.
For a three hour movie about a military man who conquered much of the known world, there’s a shocking lack of action. Alexander has two action set-pieces and then that’s it. The first set-piece is a battle between Alexander and the vastly numbered forces of the King of Persia. The battle lasts twenty minutes and is disjointed, bloody, and perfectly indicative of the confusion of war. Stone cuts back and forth between majestic aerial shots showing the progress of battle and hand-to-hand combat amid the sand and dust clouds. Stone also labels certain sections of the armies, which gives a greater understanding of the battle. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this battle is the highlight of Alexander.
The only other action set-piece comes very late in the movie. Alexander’s forces have marched all the way into India. Warriors on the backs of monstrous elephants stampede onward to intercept Alexander’s armies. This battle is also chaotic, and Stone utilizes a lot of quick point-of-view shots like people getting squashed by pachyderms. The action is satisfying if a bit over the top (a warrior gets impaled on a slow-moving elephant’s tusks), that is until Stone goes off the deep end. Alexander gets wounded in battle and suddenly the film switches tints, bathing everything in reddish and bright neon hues. Everything has a tin outline. It’s rather ridiculous and unfortunately reminds me of Ralph Bakshi’s misguided animated Lord of the Rings.
That’s all you get for action, so I hope you like speeches rich with superfluous historical name-drops, because that’s what Alexander is all about. I’d bet money that nearly an hour of this three-hour opus involves people delivering speeches. Alexander rallies his men, Phillip talks about the Greek tragedies, Olympias strokes Alexander’s greatness and need for kingship, his generals talk about his decisions, and then we get endless moments of Alexander talking about a new world, bringing people together, and respecting other cultures. Alexander seems to go dead as soon as some character pulls out a soapbox. Worst of all, many speeches involve lots of historical references that an audience cannot be expected to keep up with. The overall effect is like listening to an unwanted party guest drone on. Alexander may be trying to talk to death his enemy.
What makes all of this worse is that the dialogue and the drama are so melodramatic. The center of Alexander’s creaky psychology is a domineering mother and a scornful father who scream at each other a lot. Whenever someone has a disagreement in Alexander they resort to over emotive screaming. You may start tuning the actors out after awhile. Much of the dialogue is terrible, but there is the occasional howler line like, “It is said that the only defeat Alexander suffered was Hephaistion’s thighs.” You may concur with Alexander’s men and want to return to your family as soon as possible after watching this.
I was trying to think how something like this, so misguided and off the rails, could chug along without a peep from someone saying, “Hey, maybe this isn’t working.” Then I got it. You see, Alexander is Oliver Stone. Both men are revered for previous victories, both men are generals that take full control of their armies, and both men are fiercely stubborn. If someone questioned Alexander’s decisions, chances are they could be killed. Now I’m fairly certain Stone wouldn’t go that far (there may be many graves dug over the grumblings over U-Turn), but I can see how difficult voicing dissension might have been.
Stone’s long in the waiting Alexander epic is bloody, ponderous, exaggerated, talky, sumptuous and off-the-charts loony. This is a giant mess only a visionary director could amass. Only historical junkies might be entertained by Alexander, and the rest of us will just be glazed over. We never get to really know Alexander, nor do we even get our money’s worth for action, so unless you click your heels to the thought of hours of speeches, skip Alexander. Trust me, it’s far from great.
Nate’s Grade: C-
American Teen (2008)
Originally written February 9, 2009
Filmmaker Nanette Burstein (On the Ropes) wanted to document the lives of actual American teenagers. After a national search, she settled on the town of Warsaw, Indiana, which we’re told in the opening narration is “mostly white, mostly Christian, and red state all the way.” American Teen is the feature-length documentary that chronicles the lives of four Warsaw teens during their senior year. The class of 2006 includes Colin, a basketball star worried about securing a scholarship. His father, an Elvis impersonator, supports his son but reminds the kid that dad has no money for school, so it’s either a scholarship or the Army. This, naturally, places tremendous pressure on a 17-year-old and his play diminishes as he tries to up his stats. There’s Megan, the queen bee at the school who feels pressured by her family to get into Notre Dame. This makes her act like a cretin, apparently. Jake is a kid who feels uncomfortable in his own acne-scarred skin. He plays video games a lot and desperately wants to find a girlfriend. Then there’s Hannah, the artsy girl prone to spontaneous dancing who feels trapped by her town.
I found American Teen to be largely unbelievable for two major reasons. First, teenagers today are way too media savvy after having grown up on a bevy of reality TV programming, the ultimate genre of manipulation. Remember way back in 1991 when MTV first started The Real World, the pioneering reality TV show? The people selected to live together as a social experiment were interesting, unguarded, a nice cross-section of the country; you felt like you could run into these people on the street some time. Then about half way into its run, the likely turning point being the Las Vegas season, The Real World participants became self-aware. They knew to exaggerate behavior for manufactured drama, to play up romantic crushes, and to work from the realm of playing a well-defined cliché character; no longer did these people feel real, instead they felt like drunken auditions for a really lousy soap opera. And all of the people started looking inordinately beautiful, chiseled hunks and leggy, waif-thin models. When was the last time they ever had an overweight person on that show? Anyway, the point of this anecdote is that thanks to the machinations of reality TV, teenagers today have grown up with the concept of cameras and they know how to manipulate reality. One could argue that you will never capture the true essence of a person by pointing a camera at them, because the instant a camera is placed to document reality it changes reality; people talk differently, either more reserved or confessional. A camera changes reality, but this discussion point is a little beyond the realm of American Teen. So I doubt the legitimacy of watching the “real lives” of “real students,” especially when these kids come from a more affluent area and probably digest other MTV semi-reality dramas like the unquestionably fake The Hills.
So how would you behave if you knew a film crew was making a documentary in your school? I fully believe that many of the actions caught on camera are done so because the students wanted to ensure that they would be in a movie. I cannot blame them. I mean, if I was close to being involved in a film I would probably check every possibility to ensure my lovely presence eventually fills up the big screen. What do you want from kids who have grown up as a generation of self-reflective narcissists thanks to reality TV and uninvolved parents (sorry, soapbox moment)? This is why the nature of documenting reality in a high school setting is questionable. Burstein’s cameras follow Jake around and he’s able to walk up to girls and ask them out, point blank. Would he normally be so bold? I don’t know. What I know for certainty is that there would be fewer girls interested in the acne-scarred self-proclaimed geek if he didn’t have the adjoining camera crew. I’m sure girls looked at Jake and thought, “Here’s my ticket to being in a movie.” I’m not trying to be mean here because Jake is a rather nice, typically uncomfortable and socially awkward teenager who will find his niche once he leaves the confines of high school. I’ve known several Jakes in my life. But I don’t believe that a socially awkward kid like this naturally dates three different girls, all of them pretty, without the promised presence of cameras.
Also, there’s this popular guy Mitch completely thrown in at the middle of the film. All of a sudden he sees Hannah onstage rocking out at a school battle of the bands function, and the movie slows down, Hannah literally starts glowing, and Mitch says, “Wow, I have a crush on Hannah Bailey.” Allow me to doubt the sincerity of this sudden cross-clique crush. We never witness the beginning of this relationship, each side feeling the other out, the nervousness and delightful possibilities. We just get a voice over of Mitch saying he likes her and then the film cuts to like weeks into their supposed relationship when they’re goofing off at a gas station. When Hannah is invited to a party with Mitch’s friends, naturally she’s going to feel a bit out of place amongst the cool, popular crowd. He hangs out with his friends instead of his girlfriend. He makes sure to say hey to everyone else even while Hannah is sitting next to him. The next day Mitch breaks up with Hannah via the modern marvel of text messaging (ouch). You never see Mitch again until the end credits reveal that he feels he has matured. Essentially, Mitch is only seen and introduced to the movie because of his attachment to Hannah. Clearly, Mitch knew that if he buddied up next to the pixie girl he would ensure some place in the movie’s running time. It worked, because Mitch is featured in the trailer, the poster, and even tagged along on the national press tour. To paraphrase the title of Burstein’s superior documentary, the kid found a way to stay in the picture.
My second point of contention is that Burstein has taken scissors to 1200+ hours of footage to make her documentary about high school stereotypes, not people. Burstein has selected five figures to spotlight and she has whittled them down to one-word stereotypes: jock (Colin), geek (Jake), princess (Megan), rebel (Hannah), and heartthrob (Mitch). She isn’t destroying these lazy classifications but reinforcing them willfully. The marketing campaign around American Teen recreated the poster from The Breakfast Club. I swear, I think that art imitated life and now high schoolers are just imitating what they have seen propagated time and again as stone-cold reality in their schools: the rigid social caste system. There are so many missed opportunities by painting in such broad strokes. Colin is a jock because he plays on the basketball squad, but why can’t he also be a geek? Why can’t a rebel be a princess? I feel tacky talking in such degrading, baby-fied terms. Burstein doesn’t help her case by giving the main figures their own animated fantasy segments. Hannah is obviously the star of the film, and Burstein has seen to it that she narrates the tale as well. I suspect some canniness on Burstein’s part. Either the filmmaker felt that Hannah would most reflect the spirits of the crowds that attend indie documentaries, thus ensuring a bigger gross, or Burstein saw much of herself in Hannah and naturally wanted to make the “different girl” the star, possibly working through some of her own high school demons.
There’s also the issue of how staged some of this comes across. Am I to believe that Burstein’s camera crew managed to capture those perfect moments where the students stare out into space, thoughtfully? Am I to believe that the camera crew managed to capture everyone’s dirty little text messages then and there in the moment? Am I to believe that scenes of Hannah dramatically walking down the hallway weren’t planned? I’m forgiving when it comes to re-enactments but when a movie feels overburdened with re-enactments or posed figures, then it feels too manufactured. Just like The Hills.
Perhaps I’m coming down too hard on American Teen. After all, most documentaries distort some facet of reality and generally are edited to present a series of points. But the reason American Teen doesn’t work is because it offers zero insights into the American high school setting and little to no insights with its “characters.” Hannah is a cute girl with an independent streak but I fail to get a sense of her as a person. She gets dumped twice over the course of American Teen, suffers from crippling anxiety to the point that she misses almost a month of class, and she longs to leave the reach of her conservative town for the holy destination of California, so why then does the film not present her as a person instead of a classification? I also get the feeling that we don’t see any of would-be filmmaker Hannah’s own work because Burstein may be shielding her subject from the harsh realities or critical response.
Obviously Megan is the villain of the piece and Burstein takes advantage of the girl’s self-absorbed sense of entitlement. Megan could be an interesting subject as far as casual cruelty. Megan vandalizes a student council member’s home because the guy had the gall to devise a different prom theme. We watch Megan literally spray paint a penis on a window followed by the word “FAG,” and then she whines that everyone is being mean to her even when the punishment she gets for a borderline hate crime is a slap on the wrists. Megan’s friend Erica makes the unfortunate decision to send a topless picture of herself in an e-mail to the guy she likes, who happens to be Megan’s friend and object of territory. So Megan briskly sends the picture to scads and scads of students with e-mail subject lines like “silver dollars” and “pepperonis.” Megan then leaves mean-spirited voice mail messages saying that Erica is destined “to live the rest of her life as a slut.” This is her friend! Burstein has the good sense of mind to interview a teary-eyed Erica after the topless photo fallout, and it probably is the emotional highpoint of the film because it’s so honest and wounded. Why not follow Erica after this? Surely her story, recovering from humiliation, is more intriguing then watching Megan scoot along her privileged life or whether or not Colin can be a better teammate. Speaking of the tall kid with the Jay Leno-sized chin, why does his dad insist that Colin needs a basketball scholarship or else “it’s the Army”? Has he not heard of student loans? Does Colin’s father believe sending his son into a war zone is preferable to amassing debt?
American Teen is a pseudo-documentary that has little intention to dig deeper under the surface of the realities of high school life. If your high school experience exactly mirrors this film, then perhaps you watched too many movies. Or the filmmakers did and tried to feed into the film idea of what goes on in a high school. Or both.
Nate’s Grade: C
Breaking Dawn: Part One (2011)
Originally written November 21, 2011
Taking a cue from the blockbuster film franchise of our age, the Harry Potter series, the producers and studio heads decided to split the final Twilight film into two separate movies. Yes, for you cheerless, unfortunate males dragged along to author Stefenie Meyer’s estrogen-drenched soap opera, hoping to be done with Bella Swan and her sparkly vampire boyfriend, well your pain soldiers onward another year. If Breaking Dawn: Part One is any indication, we’re all in for a world of hurt come November 2012.
Wedding bells are ringing for Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her undead boyfriend, noble vampire/undead heartthrob, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Bella’s persistent demand to be turned into a vampire is finely about to come true. She wants to stay human a bit longer, to savor her last days on Earth before sipping blood through a bendy straw. Her always-in-second best bud, Jacob (Taylor Lautner), is worried for Bella’s well being. The wedding is like a fairy tale and Edward sweeps his new bride away to a tiny island off of Rio de Janeiro, where the housekeepers illogically speak Spanish. The couple makes the most of their time alone, and by this I mean they have sex (I refuse to believe this couple would play chess in their newlywed downtime). Edward withholds any second rounds of sex, fearing he’ll seriously harm his bride (he destroyed the bed in mid-copulation). No matter because Bella gets pregnant right out of the gate. We’re told this is impossible, yet her half-human/half-vampire fetus is rapidly growing inside momma’s belly. The baby is also destroying its host, eating away Bella’s body. Edward demands to kill the baby but Bella will have none of it. She’s going to deliver this baby even if it kills her. If it does kill her, then the truce between the werewolves and vampires will be broken, and Jacob’s feistier tribe mates will be knocking down the Cullen doors looking for some tasty vampires to chomp.
Director Bill Condon, he of Dreamgirls fame and an Oscar-winner for 1998’s Gods and Monsters, goes hog-wild with the emotions, fittingly reminiscent of the life-and-death swings of emotional polarity that orient a teenager’s life. Condon plays all of the ridiculous melodrama straight. It successfully channels the feelings of teenage angst and obsession, much like the first Twilight film. This Teutonic exhibit of buzzy hormones is like catnip to the Twilight faithful. Finally, they get what they’ve been waiting for, and Condon and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg delay that gratification even longer. This is the longest wedding I’ve seen on screen since The Godfather. It takes up about 45 minutes of the movie. The protracted walk down the aisle literally takes longer than the rest of the ceremony combined. I can already envision thousands of young girls asking for the “Bella dress” when their time down the aisle comes. At no point does the movie address the fact that the “groom’s side” probably are all absent a heartbeat (“Hmm, extreme paleness? Are you with the bride or the groom? I’m at a loss.”). That’s a missed comedic opportunity. What’s with the wedding guests played by name actors like Maggie Grace (TV’s Lost, Taken)? Did they hire recognizable actors for one-line bit parts? They better have larger roles in the second feature. Under Condon’s direction, the film looks marvelous, and even the long-awaited love scene has some discernible heat to it that will give teen girls “funny” dreams for the next few months. Condon’s also helming the next and final film, so I can at least say it’ll look swell.
This last film was broken into two parts due to the mountains of money the studio would make. It surely wasn’t for some sort of artistic necessity. The plot of BD: Part One is stretched mighty thin. It’s no joke that the wedding and honeymoon takes up half the running time. The baby drama is handled so amateurishly, and the plot ramps up the incubation time so that everything happens too fast for the audience to adjust to how stupid everything truly is. The first half of the movie is free of meaningful conflict. It’s just concerned with payoffs. From everything I’ve read online, and from female friends who have partaken of the series, BD: Part One pretty much covers most of the plot of the 400-page book. What’s left? I would totally give the series a pass if the second movie started with Bella, hair a knotted mess, holding a shrieking baby. Edward sits at the table, drinking. “When are you gonna get a job?” she yells. “When are you gonna stop being a bitch?” he retorts, then gulps down a swig of booze. This domestic downer of an ending would almost make the whole series worth sitting through. Truthfully, as the teaser during the end credits advertises, if Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) has a larger part in BD: Part Two, it automatically becomes, sight unseen, the best movie of the series. Thus is the awe-inspiring power of Michael Sheen.
This has long been a silly franchise filled with poorly veiled messages that seem less empowering to teenage girls than reassuring to their parents. Long a heavy-handed message about abstinence, the characters finally get to have sex, after they’re properly married of course (does God really object more to vampire-human relations or when it occurs?). And you better believe the moment Edward and Bella eventually do the deed is a moment that teen girls, and their mothers, around the nation have been anticipating for three long, hard years. The buildup to the carnal climax is a rapturous release for the audience of Twi-hards; my theater felt like it exploded in pubescent hormones and giggling as soon as the proverbial train entered the station. Speaking of euphemisms, I find it telling that not a single character ever refers to sex as, well, “sex.” They keep dancing around the term, referring to it as indistinct pronouns like “this” or “that” or the slightly more specific “honeymoon activities.” It’s like the characters can’t talk about a mature topic without a case of the giggles. There’s even a scene where Jacob talks about Bella’s forthcoming tangle between the sheets, openly, and with alarm: “You’ll kill her,” he tells Edward. He doesn’t kill her but he does leave bruises all over her body. Bella assures her new husband that he’s not to blame, arguing, “You just couldn’t control yourself.” What kind of irresponsible message is that sending to teenage girls? But after enduring three movies of “save it until marriage,” the message is made even clearer when Bella, after one bout of sex, gets pregnant. Boom. Bella breaks the news by saying, “The wedding was 14 days ago, and my period’s late.” Edward stares dumbfounded and replies, “What does that mean?” Apparently, after graduating from high school 200 times just for kicks, Edward must have been absent every damn time for sexual education (“Condoms go OVER? Oh! This whole time I thought they went UNDER, you know, to hold everything in.”).
It’s here where the movie awkwardly shifts into a relentlessly pro-life message on legs. I’m not against movies presenting messages, but when a movie is as narratively empty and transparently padded as BD: Part 1, then the movie just gets swallowed up by the clumsy message. It doesn’t matter that Bella’s unborn hell spawn is literally killing her, sucking her dry from the inside out, she’s going to have this baby no matter what, even if she dies in the process. Okay, Meyer, we get it. Here’s a question for the world: can anyone really tell that much difference between emaciated Kristen Stewart and her normal self? She always appears a little sickly and hollow-eyed, but maybe that’s just me. The baby is basically the only conflict the movie presents and it happens so late in the film. Thanks to a fast gestation period, the demon fetus is determined not to wait until Part Two to make its grand entrance. Now that Bella is preggers, she’s become instant buddies with Rosalie (Nikki Reed, a long way from Thirteen), and the two of them begin a war against non-gender pronouns (its vs. he/her). The baby conflict would be more interesting if it was a tad more ambiguous, but the fact that it literally is killing Bella, not to mention its monstrous possibilities, and yet she persists to give birth is less characterization and more stubbornness. If Bella’s worried she’ll never have another chance to have a flesh-and-blood daughter, then explore this. Otherwise it makes Bella look blithely cavalier with her own life.
It’s here where Meyer and the Twilight franchise, already deliriously high on teen angst, goes off the charts into weirdo territory (some spoilers will follow). Never mind where the werewolf boys (and a girl) manage to find new clothes after they destroy them after each beastly transformation, we’ve got far weirder moments to process. There’s a vampire C-section via biting. There are giant wolves communicating via growling telepathy and bad CGI. There are Bella’s completely batshit names for her child; if it’s a boy she wants to combine Edward and Jacob’s names because that’s not awkward (“See, son, you’re named after the other guy I could have slept with but decided to just string along instead.”). And if it’s a girl she wants to combine her mother’s name and Edward’s mother’s name forming the atrocious “Reneesmee.” Excuse me? That makes “Apple” seem as traditional as apple pie. No one tells Bella these names are horrific because she’s pregnant, naturally. I imagine all the characters broke out into laughter as soon as Bella left the room to go puke into a bucket. Easily the weirdest and dumbest thing in the history of the Twilight franchise occurs as a contrived deus ex machina and a tidy solution to Jacob’s eternal, annoying pining. Jacob is determined to slay the monster he believes responsible for killing his unrequited love, Bella, but then he looks into those cute little baby eyes and… swears devotion to this newborn babe. He “imprints” on her, which means that they are meant to be together, and thus the werewolf/vampire truce holds. “Of course,” Edward intones, “Imprinting is their number one law. They cannot break it.” Of course! This reminded me of the scene at the end of the second Harry Potter movie where a phoenix comes from nowhere and cries into a wound (“Of course, phoenix tears can heal anything,” Harry informs while I was physically smacking myself in the head). Doesn’t anyone else find this whole plot development creepy? Jacob can’t have the mother, so he’s going to have the baby? And he’s got to wait 18 years if he wants their coupling to be legal on top of that. I think a messed up name is the least of this kid’s worries.
It all comes down to the heroine of the franchise, Miss Bella Swan (sorry, Bella Cullen now). I just don’t get what all the fuss is about. To me, Bella isn’t worth the effort. She’s never really been anything close to a fully formed character. Bella Swan has always defined herself by having a boyfriend, and when he was gone it was about pushing her friends away and moping until she finally found a new guy. She has zero self-identity, no center, she is an empty shell, there is no there there. She’s a cipher, meant for the teenage readership to plug themselves into her place. I won’t restate my theory that the Twilight series is glossed-up pre-teen wish fulfillment, but there you have it. Yet there are sneaking moments where Bella seems almost shockingly… human. Her anxious montage of preparation before her first night of sex is relatable and sympathetic (what outfit to wear? Shave the legs? What kinds of makeup?). Too bad this relatable side of her character vanishes all too quickly. Before Bella defined herself by her boyfriend and now she defines herself by her baby. She’s still the same whiny, selfish, morose, and cruelly manipulative Bella, though. She can’t let Jacob alone; she has to continue stringing him along, bringing him into inappropriate personal matters. Jacob’s always been a bit of a control freak who seems to spout quasi-rapist dialogue (the classic “You love me, you just don’t know it yet.”), but the guy’s always gotten a raw deal as far as I’m concerned. Betrothed to a baby is not a worthwhile parting gift. I worry that young, impressionable girls are going to look at Bella as an influential figure. If these same gals want a literary heroine they could truly look up to, they should feast their eyes on Katniss Everdeen, proactive and laudable star of the Hunger Games and forthcoming movie of the same name.
The three actors have been playing the same character notes for so long that they could all just go on autopilot and collect their paychecks. Stewart (Adventureland) is less annoying than she has been in previous films. I’m trying not to take out my disdain of her character on the actress, who I’ve genuinely liked in pre-Twilight projects (even her Joan Jett performance was pretty decent). Pattinson (Water for Elephants) seems to shrink into the background for this movie. There are a lot of long, ponderous, somehow meaningful stares between the two, with the soundtrack trying to communicate emotions that the screenplay has failed to do (a little more variety on the soundtrack next time, fellas? I think I tuned out after the twelfth melancholy piano ballad). Luckily, Pattinson does have something of a screen presence to go with those abs. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Lautner (Abduction). The young buck, formerly of Shardkboy fame, just cannot act. He has a nostril-heavy manner of expressing emotion that makes you wonder if he’s about to blow your house down. It’s telling that within mere seconds of the film beginning, the guy rips off his shirt, the peak of his acting abilities. I suspect it will not be long before Lautner and his six-pack and sitting at home, unemployed, and indulging in a different six-pack.
Breaking Dawn: Part One is certainly not intended for critics of the book and film series or really any audience member lacking ovaries. But I think that even the most ardent Twi-hards will walk away giggling at the silliness of the overripe melodrama. I try not to be out rightly dismissive of the whole series, but the bad characters, bad plotting, and questionable messages make it hard to continue bending over backwards to find slivers of quality to support. I get the appeal of the series, the fact that Bella Swan is a cipher to exercise frothing teenage wish fulfillment, but that doesn’t excuse the movies from being so bad. This isn’t the painful abomination that was 2009’s New Moon, but it’s come the closest. Only the promise of more Michael Sheen makes me hopeful that BD: Part Two will be better than its predecessors. When you’re talking about an obscenely popular moneymaker, quality becomes secondary to delivering a product that is recognizable to the demands of the screaming fans. BD: Part One is less a payoff than a warning. There is more to come, and if you thought Bella was intolerable before just wait until her vampire growing pains.
Nate’s Grade: C-
I Know Who Killed Me (2007)
Originally written August 5, 2007
We interrupt the nonstop barrage of Lindsay Lohan media coverage and speculation to bring you her movie, or, more accurately, further proof that Lohan is in desperate need of a career makeover. The tabloid target has a pretty shoddy track record of late when it comes to picking acting projects, so it’s no wonder that her splashy private life has overshadowed her cinematic duds. Thanks to a second summer DUI, Lohan was unable to promote her new movie, I Know Who Killed Me. This may be a blessing in disguise because if I were her I would want to draw the least amount of attention possible to what is destined to contend for the worst film of 2007.
We open to Aubrey (Lohan) reading her story in her high school class. The story revolves around a stripper named Dakota and the amorous attention she earns from creepy older gentlemen. One night Aubrey goes missing and the police believe she may be the next victim of the local blue-gloved serial killer that hacks off the limbs of his victims. The last girl, currently residing in the morgue, is missing her right forearm and her right leg. Her parents (Neal McDonough, Julia Ormond) fear the worst. Then a motorist finds Aubrey’s mutilated body on the side of the road. She wakes up in the hospital and will survive, except the problem is that she has no idea who any Aubrey is; her name is Dakota and she worked as a stripper. She vows to find the “real” Aubrey.
This films is sleazy and tries to energize a lame straight-to-video thriller with some tawdry turns. Without Lohan’s name, I Know Who Killed Me would never have gotten a theatrical release. The torture sequences are drawn out to the soundtrack of Lohan’s muffled screams. The violence fails to excite or horrify, but instead it just seems like a sorry attempt to ape the success of recent torture-heavy horror flicks.
The sex is even less believable. Aubrey/Dakota, fresh from the hospital, beds the quarterback in one of the least convincing, most unintentionally hilarious sex scenes of recent memory. She throws the jock onto her bed and pins him down for a good pumping. In the ensuing two minutes, the pair engage in exaggerated and noisy PG-13 sex where the woman stays on top and keeps her bra on the whole time (does any woman do that?). The whole time the movie cuts back and forth to Aubrey/Dakota’s mother listening and furiously cleaning the kitchen sink. I think the juxtaposition is intended to be funny, and it is, just not in the manner the filmmakers were probably hoping for.
The movie would be more revolting if it weren’t so incomprehensible. I Know Who Killed Me begins to disassemble at a fantastic rate of idiocy once it attempts to explain its central Aubrey/Dakota conflict. But the movie only presents two options: 1) Aubrey and Dakota are the same person and she just created a fictional persona as a means of post-traumatic stress (yawn), or 2) somehow there are TWO Lohans on this planet (what?). The first scenario is pretty dull and obvious and way too feeble for such a dank exploitation thriller. The second scenario requires a scheme so convoluted and ridiculous that it cannot be taken seriously. In the end, the movie becomes Saw meets The Parent Trap, and it’s every bit as terrible as you would concur from such a description.
For the sake of the morbidly curious, I will be discussing some heavy-duty spoilers to fully shine the spotlight on how ludicrous the movie gets. Don’t say you were not warned. Aubrey/Dakota keeps swearing she is indeed her own woman but no one seems to believe her. She researches the un-explainable via the Internet and it is here that she gathers the theory of stigmatic twins. The idea is that whatever happens to one twin will magically happen to the other, no matter the distance and no matter the situation. In the online example, a man with gambling debts is shot in the throat, and thousands of miles away his twin brother bleeds to death thanks to a perfectly placed and ill-timed hole in his own throat. I Know Who Killed Me tries to wrap up its questions with answers that would seem preposterous even in a soap opera. Not only does the film give us the old long-lost twin chestnut but it also goes the extra inane inning to say that one twin endures whatever happens to the other. So when Aubrey is losing limbs during her capture, Dakota is mysteriously waking up some considerable weight loss. If my limbs were disappearing I might consult a doctor. Essentially, if there’s any merit to this theory, the best way to get revenge on your twin (long-lost or not) is through extreme masochism.
I Know Who Killed Me is littered with stupid behavior and stupid plot points that stick in your brain. A doctor fixes Aubrey/Dakota with a pair of prosthetics – a fake leg and a robot arm. He slides the robot hand onto her stump and it reacts to her nerve impulses. As soon as I saw this scene I blurted out, “Oh my God, Lindsay Lohan becomes the Terminator!” Where the scene earns its stupid wings is that the doctor says she’ll have to charge her prosthetic when not in use or else the battery will go dead. Naturally, I’m thinking he’s referring to the robot arm of doom, but no, he’s talking about her freaking leg. Aubrey/Dakota’s leg amputation is below her knee; therefore this fake leg is little more than a pole. There’s nothing mechanical to it. Why does it need to be plugged in? Will it hop away? It doesn’t matter because the leg and arm never pose any trouble or danger for Aubrey/Dakota. It’s a strange setup without any payoff.
The bloody ending to I Know Who Killed Me is such a mess that it takes special attention just to pick apart its awfulness for further clarity. Aubrey/Dakota figures out the whole complicated rigmarole and declares in titular fashion, “I know who killed me.” Given the silly stigmatic twin theory, even this statement is incorrect from a tense standpoint (if it was true she wouldn’t be able to utter the words). Aubrey/Dakota and her dad head off to the dismembering serial killer’s home without bothering to contact the authorities. She says they don’t have time because, apparently, cell phones do not exist in this universe. I don’t know how it’s possible for Aubrey/Dakota to dig up a grave with one arm. When she goes running into the woods she’s looking for an owl from a vision. That’s good. It’s not like the woods are big or have more than one owl. For that matter, how did Aubrey even get kidnapped in the first place when she was among a large crowd on a busy sidewalk? Would no one have noticed and done something? Even the identity of the serial killer cannot give the movie a sense of finality that it wants. This is your standard serial killer movie where the killer has no working motivation and their identity is relatively meaningless. The limb-slicing maniac might as well have been the janitor seen in the background of one scene for a fleeting moment.
Lohan gives a performance that suits the material – dreadful. Her idea of a bad girl seems more like a perturbed and insolent child. Lohan gets to hurl her share of F-bombs but never seems adult in whatever she’s doing onscreen. I Know Who Killed Me is a depressing low point for such a once-promising young actress who had the world on a string.
Director Chris Sivertson seems to know he’s the captain of a doomed vessel. He overwhelms the movie with irritating lighting excesses. Sivertson takes a cue from Shyamalan and ramps up the color symbolism; there’s blue roses, blue gloves, blue killer tools, blue stained glass of blue roses. You may start to wonder if the Blue Man Group suddenly became a symphonic serial killing side project.
I Know Who Killed Me is a disaster in every sense of the word. The ineptness on display is staggering. The movie tries to cover its numerous plot holes with images of Lohan canoodling with a stripper pole. I Know Who Killed Me is a ludicrous, incomprehensible, and rather sundry thriller that won’t help Lohan’s troubled life. I have a lot of good will for Lohan after her performances in Freaky Friday and Mean Girls. I want her to succeed, but truthfully, if she needs to know who’s killing her career, the answer is in a mirror.
Nate’s Grade: D
The New World (2005)
Originally written January 18, 2006
I’m not a Terrence Malick fan. There, I’ve said it. I think he’s got a great eye for visuals, however, I’ve never been impressed by any of his films. I hated 1998’s The Thin Red Line and its exhausting supply of narrators so much that I wanted to walk out of the theater. The only other movie I felt the same impulse, at the time, was Lost in Space. As you can see, not good company. It’s been a long time since that nightmare so I figured it would only be kind to give Malick another chance. His new film, The New World, looks to deconstruct the mythic relationship between settler John Smith and Native American princess, Pocahontas (perhaps best known for painting with the colors of the wind, or so Disney would have me believe). To my non-surprise, The New World is everything I thought it would be, namely ponderous, pretentious, and quite bad.
It’s 1606, and the world is about to change forever. A cadre of ships bound from England ground ashore on the Virginia coast in search of a settlement and, hopefully, a vibrant colony. The Captain (Christopher Plummer) warns that his men must treat the “naturals” with care; after all, this is their homeland. The Native American inhabitants treat the new settlers with curiosity, poking them, smelling them, and then tolerating their existence … for now. John Smith (Colin Farrell) comes to America in chains, the result of an ill-fated mutiny, but the Captain gives him new life. He commissions Smith to send an envoy deep into the Native American village to seek trading partners. Along the way he is captured and about to be executed when he’s saved by a young girl (Q’Orianka Kilcher), a.k.a. Pocahontas though the name is never spoken once. Smith is allowed to stay with the tribe and he deeply grows fond of Pocahontas. The two are blocked by culture and language, but their feelings persist. Smith is ordered to go back to his people. If they do not leave the land there will be war. The two civilizations are set to butt heads, and the love between Smith and Pocahontas is precariously trapped between.
Oh yeah, and after Smith leaves to go on an exploratory mission for the king, John Rolfe (Christian Bale) comes to the Jamestown settlement to woo Pocahontas himself.
Let’s get this bit of semantics out of the way. Terrence Malick doesn’t make movies, he makes nature documentaries. He doesn’t so much involve a plot as he does a large open space for his characters to pontificate about the world around them, mostly through whispery voice over. Malick fans will take in his artistic capture of sight and sound, but the rest of us out there will be scratching our heads, that is, when we’re not falling asleep. Seriously, how do you edit something like this? How does Malick know that THIS shot of a tree blowing in the wind needs to be slotted here, while this OTHER shot of a tree blowing in the wind needs to definitely come later? Malick is a stubborn mystery. He’s less interested in crafting a good movie than he is breaking the rules of what film can be. That’s all well and dandy when you put out an entertaining product. The only way I think The New World could be entertaining is if: 1) you adore long, poetic scenes of nature, or 2) you hate yourself.
It seems needless to talk about the acting. Farrell (Daredevil, Minority Report) seems like a good choice for a hardluck man overwhelmed by his new environment. Kilcher could be a fine actress, she certainly is rather beautiful, but the jury’s still out on her emoting. Plummer is so good that you’ll miss him dearly when he’s gone. Most of the acting revolves around silence and reactions, which is not the most captivating material.
The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (Sleepy Hollow, Lemony Snicket) is obviously beautiful, taking great pains to showcase Virginia in a near mythic quality. But a film built around pretty pictures and idling characters can only go so far. Your attention span is so strained you may start doing your checkbook in your head. Oh ye God is The New World’s score terrible. It’s like James Horner collapsed on his keyboard, they recorded it, looped it, and just made it get louder and louder.
It seems like Malick wrote his story on the back of his hand. So very little happens. I’m not as distraught about the immense lack of dialogue, because venturing into a foreign land with foreign people likely doesn’t produce a lot of conversation when no one can understand you. However, the only things we have to push the story forward are some repetitive, junior high-esque poetry disguised as introspective voice over. Pocahontas keeps waving her arms about like she’s directing airplanes, and then she ponders, “Mother, are you there? Are you in the wind?” She even hugs a tree at one point, perhaps thinking it’s her mother. What do you want; she’s the baby of like 100 kids. Malick is so frustrating and pretentious that he will bludgeon to death an audience rather than invite them into his artistic world. He definitely doesn’t make it easy or rewarding.
As far as romance is concerned, the relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas is curiously platonic. Both fall hard for the other but nothing ever dares to rock the PG-13 rating. The furthest these crazy kids get in expressing their love is hugging. I realize that Kilcher was only 14 years old when this was shot, but that doesn’t stop Malick from turning her into pseudo-artistic jailbait. When he’s not filming nature he spends an awful long time on Kilcher prancing around; the camera is practically fawning over her. I get it; we’re supposed to feel the spirit of this girl and her connection with the world around her. That’s why John Smith falls for her. But then nothing seems to happen in their puppy love courtship. It’s all too chaste to be epic or even slightly memorable. Then at the start of the third act Farrell leaves and in pops Bale, and the audience is going, “Oh, c’mon, we have to go through all that again?!” Sure enough, The New World starts all over and another man goes through the same courtship steps with Pocahontas. They touch the grass. They share looks. They talk to the wind. They murder my patience. The New World is a love story suffocated by hesitation and Malick’s own disinterest.
The New World is emblematic of why I’ll never be a Terrence Malick fan: it’s long, drifting, unfocused, ponderous over entertaining, and just plain friggin’ boring! If you’re a scenery buff you’ll garner some enjoyment from Malick’s images, but people looking for story, character, and any sort of movement will be lost with this 135-minute rumination on man, nature, and man touching nature …. very…. slowly. If this is all you are going to do then stop making movies and just make nature specials, Malick. The New World is pretentious, dull, and stubborn down to its very last second. It once took Malick 20 years in between movies. I wouldn’t mind if he took another 20-year hiatus.
Nate’s Grade: C
Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
Originally written October 29, 2010
The real draw for the first Paranormal Activity was that it was a word-of-mouth secret that became a sensation. You just had to see what all the fuss was about. It was the super cheap little indie that could and took the nation by storm. Of course, with any product that makes money a sequel must come. But it’s hard to repeat a phenomenon, just ask the makers behind Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (an odd, fascinating failure). Paranormal Activity 2 is a decent slow burn horror movie but it can’t escape the long shadow of its predecessor. There isn’t enough new or interesting to justify this redundant exercise in standard low-wattage terror.
The first film involved the haunted bedroom of a couple, Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Strout). They filmed their nightly haunted shenanigans and it all didn’t end so well. Now we have Katie’s sister and her husband. They’re welcoming home a brand-new baby boy, Hunter, when they find their home has been trashed. Rooms have been upended but no valuables are missing. The family gets a home security system installed with multiple surveillance videos to spy for intruders. Of course these cameras also begin catching strange occurrences in the house. It seems a sinister presence is after the baby. Apparently demons love children, did you know this? Hell has a really fantastic T-ball team.
Like most other gimmick movies, duplicating the same effect leads to diminishing returns. Part of what made the first film work was its relative freshness and creative ingenuity. For a measly $11,000, director Oren Peli was able to fashion and sustain a mood of mounting dread that also stayed within the confines of the “found footage” concept. He built up suspense gradually and lead to some terrific “boo” moments. I’m still amazed how Peli was able to pull off some of his tricks sight unseen with such a minuscule budget. Part of the appreciation of Paranormal Activity was the level of skill for the craft. Now along comes a sequel with a $3 million budget, which is still chump change by Hollywood’s standards. However, it’s a large enough figure that I never once questioned how they were ale to pull anything off. I expected more from the sequel given the budget and the general nature of sequels to inevitably up the ante. You’ll still be scanning the frame of those surveillance camera angles, looking for any sign of something amiss or strange. The whole process can be maddening in both a good and bad way. Much of whatever tension does build is in these moments of uncertainty waiting with baited breath. It can seem like an interactive group game of Where’s Waldo. You’re sort of relieved when something actually does happen to break the nothingness.
As a whole, Paranormal Activity 2 doesn’t work as well when it comes to the construction of their scares. The first film primarily took place in one location, the bedroom, the sanctity of the modern man’s domicile. Whenever we got to beddy time we knew what waited. A visual vocabulary had been built to get the audience sweating as soon as the characters sleep. And isn’t disrupting our sleep the ultimate home invasion? With the sequel, there are multiple cameras to work through, always opening with the same shot of the pool cleaner busy at work. We start with pool cam, then after a while we add one more, kitchen came, then stair cam, etc., but we always cycle back to the original before moving forward. It can become an especially tiring pattern, especially when early camera angles prove to have nothing going on within. The pool-cleaning robot emerges as the breakout star of the film (evidently the first sign of a haunting is a dirty pool). There are some effective scares but it’s all in the jump scare/gotcha variety. The film toys with the possibility of a night vision mode for the ever-present camcorder tossed around the home. This possibility is woefully underutilized and only saved for a mad dash through the house at the conclusion.
Repeating the same haunting elements may work in a narrative sense but it also mitigates the impact. You know what to expect. Hearing loud noises or watching doors slam shut does not offer the same jolt the second time around, especially on a larger budget. It’s unavoidable that Paranormal Activity 2 will become a victim of the first film’s success. Unless it raises the stakes, the movie is just going through the same paces with different faces. This time there’s a baby that’s being sought after by a malicious spirit. If all you’re doing is raising the “innocent quotient” of the victims then the film might as well be set in a impoverished Bangladesh orphanage where the kids all have terminal diseases as well. Paranormal Activity 2 tries to repeat the same tricks to mixed results. The scares are too few and far between and none have the same power as in the first film. The climax is lazily similar as well.
Unlike the first film, much of the movie feels like it’s just filling time to space out its scares. You won’t feel any true sense of attachment to these people nor will you get excited when they parcel out morsels of back-story (the first mom died and… what?). Instead of a young couple we now have a young couple… with a baby! And a teen daughter too but really it’s all about the baby. The family members sit and talk at length rationalizing the weird phenomenon. They even perform research on the Internet and make sure to record themselves with a camera they set down. Who does that? Who records simple conversations? The family’s main dilemma is that dad is unreasonably skeptical despite strong video evidence. Why do these people still let the baby sleep alone? Why haven’t they brought the baby’s crib into their own bedroom? The family pet, a trusted German shepherd, is good protection. The dog growls and barks because animals, just like Hispanic housekeepers the film asserts, innately know when evil spirits are afoot. Why do Hispanic women all have fine-tuned demon radar in the movies? Is this a feature that a Caucasian male can upgrade to? Apparently, the best protection you can afford your home is multiple dogs and multiple Hispanic housekeepers to stand guard.
Paranormal Activity 2 attempts to deepen the mythology of the franchise. It takes place both before and after the events of the first movie, providing some explanation as to what the demon is really after and how it came to terrorize Katie. It’s nice to watch how the two movies fold on top of each other and guess what areas will next connect. Katie makes numerous appearances and ironically offers the sage advice to her sister to just ignore those bumps in the night. When Micah makes an appearance he is accompanied by onscreen text that informs us that this is 3 weeks before his dead body is found. Why? We already know thanks to Katie’s early presence that the film is a prequel, so we already know the doomed fate of Katie and Micah. What does spelling it out have to offer the audience?
Paranormal Activity 2 runs into problems when it imitates what worked previously but doesn’t add any new flavor, escalation, or variety. The freshness of the concept is quickly turning stale. What was new and exciting is now being written into rote rules for the franchise. I can only surmise that the Paranormal Activity franchise will follow the same downward slide as befell the Final Destination franchise once the audience became hip to all the rules. Surprise goes out the window when films are made to meet genre expectations. You’re still relying overall on your imagination for much of the scares in Paranormal Activity 2, which will vary depending upon the individual. I just think it’s harder to trick you the second time around. My brain kept saying, “I’ve already seen this movie. Been there, done that.” I had no actual rebuttal for my brain, so I ate some popcorn and scanned the screen looking for more weird stuff.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Originally written February 26, 2004
The Passion of the Christ is a retelling of the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ’s life (perhaps you’ve heard of him?). In these final hours we witness his betrayal at the hands of Judas, his trial by Jewish leaders, his sentencing by Pontius Pilate, his subsequent whippings and torture and finally his crucifixion. Throughout the film Jesus is tempted by Satan, who is pictured as a pasty figure in a black hood (kind of resembling Jeremy Irons from The Time Machine if anyone can remember). The Passion spares no expense to stage the most authentic portrayal of what Jesus of Nazareth endured in his final 12 hours of life.
For all the hullabaloo about being the most controversial film in years (and forgive me for even using the term “hullabaloo”), I can’t help but feel a smidgen of disappointment about the final product. The Passion is aptly passionate and full of striking images, beautiful photography and production values, and stirring performances all set to a rousing score. But what makes The Passion disappointing to me is the characters. You see, Mel Gibson’s epic does not devote any time to fleshing out the central characters. They are merely ciphers and the audience is expected to plug their feelings and opinions into these walking, bleeding symbols to give them life. Now, you could argue this is what religion is all about, but as far as a movie’s story goes it is weak. The Passion turns into a well-meaning and slick spectacle where character is not an issue. And as a spectacle The Passion is first-rate; the production is amazing and the violence is graphic and gasp-inducing. Do I think the majority of people will leave the theater moved and satisfied? Yes I do. But I can’t stop this nagging concern that The Passion was devoid of character and tried covering it up with enough violence to possibly twist its message into a Sunday school snuff film.
For my money, the best Biblical film is Martin Scorsese’s 1987 The Last Temptation of Christ (also a film mired in controversy). Last Temptation, unlike Gibson’s spectacle, was all about Jesus as a character and not simply as a physical martyr. Scorsese’s film dealt with a Christ consumed by doubt and fear and the frailties of being human. But the best part is the final 20 minutes when Jesus is tempted, by Satan, to step down from the cross and live out a normal life. Jesus walks away from the cross, marries Mary Magdalene, fathers children (this is where the controversy stemmed from but they were married) and dies at an old age. Jesus is then confronted by his aging apostles who chastise him for not living up to what he was supposed to do to save mankind. Jesus wakes up from the illusion and fulfills his mission and dies on the cross. Now, with the story of Last Temptation an audience has a greater appreciation for the sacrifice of Jesus because they witness his fears and they witness the normal life he forgoes to die for man’s sins. There is a sense of gravity about what Jesus is sacrificing.
With The Passion Gibson figures if he can build a sense of grand sacrifice by gruesomely portraying the tortures Jesus endured. Even if it is Jesus, and this may sound blasphemous, torturing a character to create sympathy and likeability is the weakest writing trick you can do. Yes Jesus suffered a lot, yes we should all be horrified and grateful, and yes people will likely be moved at the unrelenting violence he endured, but in regards to telling a story, I cannot feel as much for characters whose only characterization is their suffering. Sure, The Passion flashes back to some happier moments of Jesus’ life, which I like to call the Jesus Greatest Hits collection, but the movie does not show us who Jesus was, what he felt (beyond agonizing pain) or the turmoil he went through in finally deciding to give up his own life for people that despised him. The Passion is not about character but about spectacle.
So let’s talk about the violence now, shall we? Gibson’s camera lovingly lingers on the gut-churning, harrowing, merciless level of violence. But this is his only message. It’s like Gibson is standing behind the camera and saying to the audience, “You see what Jesus suffered? Do you feel bad now? FLAY HIM MORE! How about now?” What was only three sentences of description in the Gospels takes up ten minutes of flogging screen time. Mad Mel has the urge to scourge. After an insane amount of time spent watching Jesus get flayed and beaten the violence starts to not just kill whatever spiritual message Gibson may have had in mind, but the violence becomes the message. The Passion does give an audience a fair understanding of the physical torture Jesus was subjected to, but the movie does not display Christ as fully human, enjoying life and love, or fully divine. The only thing The Passion shows us about Jesus is that the son of God sure knew how to take a whuppin’. For Gibson, the violence is the message and the point is to witness what Jesus endured. Some would call that sadistic.
The actors all do a fine job and it’s impressive that everyones’ lines is in two dead languages (Latin and Aramaic, though for the life of me I can’t tell them apart). But the acting is limited because of the nature of the film. Had there been more moments of character the acting would come across better. As it stands, the acting in The Passion is relegated to looks of aguish or looks of horror, interspersed with weeping. Monica Bellucci (The Matrix sequels) really has nothing to do as Mary Magdalene but run around in the background a lot. Jim Caviezel (Frequency, Angel Eyes) gives everything he has in the mighty big shoes he tries to fill. It’s too bad that his Jesus spends most of the screen time being beaten, which kind of hampers his acting range.
Now let’s address the anti-Semitic concerns. Let’s face facts; you are not going to have a film about the crucifixion of Jesus and have some Jews coming off in a good light. Just as you would not have a film about the Holocaust and have some Germans coming off in a good light. It is unavoidable. The Passion does portray a handful of Jewish religious leaders as instigators for Jesus’ eventual crucifixion, but there are also Jewish leaders who denounce their actions and just as many people bemoaning the torture of Jesus as there are calling for it. Who really comes off looking bad are the Romans. Excluding the efforts to make Pilate look apprehensive, the Roman soldiers are always seen kicking, punching, whipping, spitting on Jesus and laughing manically with their yellow teeth. How anyone could watch The Passion and come away anti-Semitic and not anti-Italian is beyond me.
And like I said before, most people will be extremely satisfied with the film because it’s hard to find a person who doesn’t have an opinion on Jesus. Gibson is counting on audiences to walk in and fill in the holes of the character so that The Passion is more affecting. Gibson’s film is worthy spectacle, and despite the vacuum of character I did get choked up four separate times, mostly involving Jesus and his mother. The Passion is a well-made and well-intentioned film that will hit the right notes for many. I just wish there were more to it than spectacle. I really do.
Nate’s Grade: C
Project X (2012)
Originally written August 20, 2012
We’ve all had the fantasy of throwing an awesome party, a revelry of youthful exuberance, and cutting loose. The house party is a teenaged rite of passage. Project X is produced by Todd Phillips, the director behind The Hangover as the advertising would like to burn into your associative memory. You’d expect some wacky comedy and boorish behavior from boys living out their wildest fantasies. I felt a deep sadness watching the events of Project X. I won’t bemoan it as evidence of the decline of Western civilization but it’s certainly not helping matters.
Thomas (Thomas Mann) is a gawky, awkward, nice kid who’s celebrating his 17th birthday. His upper middle-class parents are going away for the weekend and trusting their only child with care of the home. Naturally, Thomas’ best friends, Costa (Oliver Cooper) and JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown), take this opportunity to stage a party. They invite all the popular girls at school, spread word via radio and Craigslist, and hundreds descend on Thomas’s family grounds with the intent of partying harder than Andrew W.K. Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton), long a friend of Thomas, is crushing on the guy and he doesn’t realize it. His attentions are on Alexis (Alexis Knapp), the school’s unattainable Hot Girl. As Costa clarifies, this party is meant to be a game-changer for their social lives. They’re supposed to reach for the stars tonight, which means groping strangers and puking in the bushes. Aim high, boys.
This did not have to be a found footage movie, and Project X would have been better if stripped of this tedious gimmick. By making this a found footage movie, it roots the quickly escalating madness in a reality that cannot sustain it. The film’s credibility goes out the window without a thought. A wild party that rages out of control is a believable setup, but when you toss in so many out-of-nowhere outlandish elements, including an angry midget, a crazed drug dealer armed with a flame thrower, a high-story zipline (who put that there?), and the groundswell of a consequences-free riot, you strain all sense of believability. I also found it unrealistic how blasé people reacted to the presence of a camera in certain situations. I think people at a school might not want to be recorded for who knows what purpose. But easily the scene that stands out is a locker room with a bunch of guys in various states of undress. Seriously, not one character, not even a minor character, raises any issue with someone casually recording a place where men are undressing. I’ll grant the exhibitionist antics of the party (the courts of our land have ruled that flashing is not considered an “invasion of privacy”). Then there are also the lighting changes at Thomas’ house. All of a sudden certain rooms have very distinct, stylish blues and greens for lighting. Where did that come from? Did someone find a colorful bulb? These are the dumb questions that arise under the belabored pretenses of a found footage movie. There’s no reason this movie shouldn’t have ditched the found footage gimmick and simply played it straight.
Congratulations Project X, for it was you who cemented the death knell of my youth. I don’t have anything against party movies (Superbad is great, Can’t Hardly Wait ain’t bad either) and I don’t shrink from the presence of ribald, juvenile, inappropriate and/or illegal underage activity. Dazed and Confused is one of my favorite films of all time and that movie is nothing but kids getting drunk and stoned. But lo, Project X was the first party movie I’ve watched where my sympathies lay not with the party animals but with the annoyed neighbors and parents. Maybe it’s a sign of getting older; maybe it’s just the culmination of my upstairs neighbors playing heavy-bass electronica music at all hours of the night when I have to work in the morning. Or maybe it’s just a clear indication that this movie fails on any level to make me care about these moronic, annoying, unbearable characters. So when these twits are off celebrating the wanton hedonism unleashed in their backyard, I thought of the neighbor with a baby who just wants his kid to sleep. Is that an unreasonable request? The man isn’t presented as some incensed, dangerous madman, and what does he get for daring to question the noise level of this party? The man gets tazed. That’s what you get for expecting anyone to possibly be moderately considerate about their actions affecting others (I sense a God Bless America-style rant approaching). I just found this whole thoughtless, empty exercise to be exploitative, mean-spirited, and exhausting. Am I that old or is this movie simply that bad?
You want to know how flimsy the plot is for this monstrosity? You could have written the entire thing on a napkin. Why bother with characters or story? This movie is seriously like someone took the Smashing Pumpkins’ music video for “1979” (possibly the best cruising song) and expanded it to feature length. Even at barely 80 minutes, this is one creaky movie that struggles to pad out its running time. The party mostly consists of two-second shots of people jumping around, girls shaking their asses, people smashing things, people vomiting, and the occasional boob flash to remind you how similar in tone the film is to the sleazy Girls Gone Wild series. That’s at least half the movie, if I’m being generous. What did I just describe? A music video! A music video is composed of, often, nonsensical images that serve little purpose other than to stimulate. There are plenty of segments that are nothing but pounding music and people dancing. If you buy the soundtrack (and why wouldn’t you since it’ll be ringing in your ears for days) and do some pseudo-inebriated dance movies, you’ve basically recreated the plot in your own living room. Project X is a music video writ large, not just in its style but in its single-minded execution to do nothing but string a series of rapid imagery. Good Lord, if this stuff made the final film what was left on the cutting room floor?
Project X also has the ignoble distinction of making me loathe a character not just in his very introduction but also in the very opening SECOND of the film. The first second I got of Costa told me everything I needed to know. His smarmy, irritating, faux “gangsta” machismo persona was enough. I knew this guy was going to be a douchebag. One second in, Project X, and you’ve already dug yourself a pretty significant hole. The Costa character is unfunny from beginning to end. There is not a single joke, a single one-liner, a single reaction of his that made me laugh. He is an insufferable character and a transparent combination of Superbad’s McLovin’ and Jonah Hill’s character. I hated every wretched second his face was onscreen. The other two friends didn’t make me want to punch my TV, which was the only positive thing I could say about either of them. Thomas is your typical mild-mannered, awkward teen (read: the Michael Cera role) who gets to cut loose and grow a spine of sorts. He has no personality and I couldn’t work up the effort to root for him. I can’t really say anything about JB because he adds absolutely nothing to the movie. He has no personality as well, other than his girth and desire to bed some ladies. It’s like the movie forgets he even exists. I know I did.
I know that making a feminist diatribe against this movie is a waste of time but indulge me for a moment, dear reader. I understand that this entire enterprise is untamed male fantasy and wish fulfillment. I don’t have a problem with this notion, on the surface. But why do all the women of this fantasy have to be reduced to, in Costa’s words, “drunk bitches” and “hos”? The women of this universe, which is supposed to be our own remember, are merely walking toys ready to be exploited for male entertainment. We don’t get characters; we get attractive women in great states of inebriation and exhibitionism. It’s ridiculous the amount of older, attractive women who would be enticed by… a high school party? Don’t these people have college parties they’d rather be attending? At one point JB identifies one of the girls at the party as a woman who posed for Playboy, because that’s all women are good for in this movie. Why would Alexis agree to bed Thomas just because it’s his birthday? We see no connection, and he’s certainly not a wealth of charisma. It doesn’t matter. Women are to be ogled. They are decorative furnishings.
Then there’s the aggravating romance between Thomas and his best girl friend, Kirby. First off, if this is the quality you get with girl-next-door types then I am moving to that neighborhood. This woman is a bonafide hottie, so when the guys make dismissive comments that Kiby is just one of the guys, I question what criteria these men have for female beauty. Any of these guys would be lucky to ever interest a woman of this stature. And then there’s the fact that she so easily forgives Thomas after he makes an ass of himself and tries to hook up with another girl hours after sleeping with Kirby. It’s like the movie advertising that you, American teenage males, can have it all and with a minimum of humility and empathy.
I guess the real question is whether any of this gratuitous debauchery is fun. The whole movie runs on the caffeinated, fist-pumping highs of unchecked male ego and fantasy, but it’s trying so hard to be the most epic party ever, and that’s the only ambition the film has. This is one sleazy and off-putting movie. Even some of its egregious faults could be partially forgiven if the movie was any funny. It just isn’t. It’s loud and profane and anarchic but without interesting, relatable, or even defined characters, and the plot is so feeble I could sum it up thusly: Nerds throw party. Shit happens. They get to be cool. In between those momentous plot points is a lot of incoherent imagery of people dancing, women being objectified (by the camera, the filmmakers, the audience), and pounding music. The plot is so simplistic, so plainly an afterthought, that the entire hedonistic festivity reeks of lazy exploitation. Congratulations, Project X, you’ve turned me into my parents. Now get the hell off my lawn and get a job and make better movies!
Nate’s Grade: D
The Room (2003)
Originally written January 27, 2009
I consider myself to be a connoisseur of crappy cinema, thanks in large part to growing up on the fabulous TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000. To me, truly bad movies can be just as enjoyable to witness as great, competent works of filmic art. So imagine my surprise when it I had never heard of a little flick called The Room until a month ago. I was reading an Entertainment Weekly article about this tiny 2003 movie that has developed a rabid cult following. I felt betrayed. How did I go five years without ever hearing about this movie? The Room is writer/director/star Tommy Wiseau’s magnum opus. It must be seen to be fully believed.
To watch The Room is truly a life-altering experience. This movie goes beyond bad. It’s so bad that it almost seems like Wiseau is a mad genius. This movie is bad on multiple levels and hooks you from the beginning, instantly daring the audience to stick around to see if it gets worse. And it does in the most wonderful ways. If I was stranded on a deserted island and could only bring five movies, right now The Room would be one of them (I may even be tempted to just bring five copies of this movie). Wiseau’s film cannot displace Manos: The Hands of Fate as the worst film of all time, but The Room easily belongs in the upper echelon of craptacular cinema among the likes of The Land of Faraway and Lady Terminator and Bulletproof Monk. I am simultaneously appalled, bewildered, fascinated, delighted, and comforted by this movie, comforted by the fact that something this singularly inept could still sneak through the system. But this film is so perfectly inept on a multitude of levels that it feels like it could never be recreated again, like the human race benefited from this chance artistic encounter. The only way I can fully describe my unhealthy appreciation for this cinematic slice of the absurd is to simply list off my list of loves.
1) The film’s plot involves a love triangle with the three least personable people imaginable. Johnny (Wiseau) is a broad shouldered, marble-mouth Austrian who supposedly works at a bank, we’re told. Lisa (Juliette Danielle) stays in their apartment doing very little, though she says that she shouldn’t have gotten into the computer business because it’s “too competitive.” Lisa declares in damn near every scene that after five years together (though the characters say seven at the end of the film) she no longer loves Johnny. She now loves Mark (Greg Sestero), Johnny’s best friend. And if you forget that key point then Mark will assist you because one third of his dialogue is declarations of “Johnny’s my best friend.” Another third of his dialogue might as well be, “What are you doing?” Mark is one of the thickest dolts in history. Even after Lisa has sex with him twice, calls him repeatedly, and leads him to places where they can be alone and intimate, he looks at her dumbfounded and says, “What are you doing?” like a kid who will never comprehend that 2 + 2 = 4. This is the basis of the plot and yet so much of the movie is gloriously repetitive and involves characters sitting around, saying the same things over, without ever really advancing the plot.
2) The Room hooks you from the start, and it’s all thanks to the weird neighbor kid/surrogate son Denny (Philip Haldiman). This supposed student is an orphan that Johnny has taken a shine to; Denny has his rent and tuition generously paid for by Johnny. In the very opening scene Johnny gives Lisa a slinky red dress as a gift. She tries it on and both Denny and Johnny make favorable remarks. Johnny says he’s a bit tired and leads Lisa by the hand up the stairs. The camera stays on Denny, who, instead of taking the hint and leaving, remains standing, grabs an apple, takes a bite out of it, then slowly walks up the stairs after the amorous couple. He then hops on their bed and joins in on their pillow fight foreplay. The characters have to literally spell it out to the guy that they want some privacy for sex. “I know, I just like to watch you guys,” Denny responds. What? Denny confesses to Johnny about experiencing weird feelings for Lisa. This kid is supposed to be in college but he acts like he’s developmentally challenged. My wife has a theory that Denny has a confusing gay crush on Johnny, but I believe that would be way more deep and subtle than the movie seems capable of.
3) The movie is littered with subplots that come out of nowhere and never resurface again. All of a sudden Lisa’s materialistic mother (Carolyn Minnott) announces she has breast cancer. This is never commented upon again. All of a sudden Denny is confronted by an angry drug dealer who wants his money, which means he’s also the world’s worst drug dealer if he’s willing to give out drugs on credit. The characters all collect on the roof and yell. This is never commented upon again. Lisa makes up a story that Johnny hit her. He publicly denies it. This is never dealt with again in any capacity. Lisa lies to Johnny that she’s pregnant, just to “make things interesting.” Her rationale is that they’ll eventually start trying to have a baby anyway, which conflicts with her frequent statements that she doesn’t love Johnny and wants to leave. This fake baby is never commented upon again. About thirty minutes into the movie, another couple sneaks into Johnny’s apartment to have sex. Why I cannot fathom. When Lisa and her mother intrude upon this scene, the mother asks astutely, “Who are these characters?” Exactly madam. The movie keeps going over the same material because nothing new ever sticks.
4) The line readings are astoundingly inauthentic. Half of the film seems to be dubbed, especially Johnny’s lines. Much of the dubbed dialogue fails to match up with the actor’s mouth movements. There is one sequence in a flower shop that is nothing but dubbed dialogue and it happens so quick. The scene itself lasts like 10 seconds but it still manages to squeeze in this entire conversation: “Oh hey Johnny, I didn’t see you there.” “Yep, it’s me.” “Here are the flowers you wanted.” “How much?” “18 dollars.” “Here ya go. Keep the change. Hi doggy.” “You’re my favorite customer, Johnny.” “Byeee.” It happens so rapidly with so little breath in between. Wiseau’s quick changes in temperament with consecutive lines will amaze you. He goes directly from, “I did not hit her! I did not! I did naaaaaaaut,” to a very casual, “Oh hey, Mark,” in a nano-second flat. The speech patterns rarely approach realistic human cadences.
5) Lisa is routinely told by the several male characters that she is exceptionally beautiful and lovely, but this woman’s personality is like a dead plant. Danielle is a fine enough looking woman, though the hair and makeup people do her no help with those thick eyebrows, but as a beauty that could manipulate multiple men? I don’t think so. Danielle has a bit of a tummy to her, which is fine by my standards of beauty, but from a Hollywood perspective a woman that lacks a concave stomach is considered “fat.” Lisa’s friend Michelle (Robyn Paris) is in fact a more attractive female and might have served as a better Lisa. I think perhaps Danielle was willing to do nudity and Paris was not, but really, if you’re a struggling L.A. actor and you’re willing to agree to be apart of something like The Room, surely you’ve already ignored any internal misgivings. What possible hang-ups could there be left?
6) The film is structured like the soft-core porn that dot the late hours of premium cable channels. There are four lengthy sex scenes in the first hour, though one of them is composed almost entirely with recycled footage from the first bout of lovemaking between Lisa and Johnny. The sex scenes are deeply un-erotic and consist of several camera angles that make it impossible to see what is actually happening. There is nothing sexy about watching Wiseau’s pasty posterior humping the hips of Danielle (seriously, the body alignments are way off here). When Lisa and Mark have sex on top of a spiral staircase, Wisuea can barely frame the action coherently. Why would anyone want to have sex on a spiral staircase? That’s just asking for chronic back pain. Mark fails to even take his pants off. For such lengthy sex scenes, Wiseau does so little with the talent on display. What makes all the sex scenes even better is that they each get a wretched pop song as a soundtrack. It’s all mid 1990s R&B with some growling sex guitar, and it’s all awful. There’s one song that repeats the phrase “you are my rose” like nine times in a row. If you fail to cringe and howl from the sex scenes then the songs ought to do it.
7) Wiseau makes the most mysterious decisions as an artist. He sticks to a minimum of locations and one of them happens to be the roof of Johnny’s apartment complex. The sensible thing would be to film on an actual roof. Wiseau decided to film on a roof set and use an ineffective green screen backdrop that makes San Francisco look like it inherited Los Angeles’ smog. The film keeps cutting back to exterior stock footage of the city that signifies the passage of hours, a day, or no time whatsoever. When Denny is confronted on the same rooftop about his sudden drug disclosure, Lisa berates him. As she cries and shrieks and overacts, you cannot see it because Wiseau’s camera has cut her facial reactions out of frame. The scene cuts back and forth between Denny facing the camera and the left side of Lisa’s head. At another point Lisa is talking about her cheating ways with her pal Michelle, who seems way too giggly to be disapproving. During this scene Lisa has angled her body in such a manner that when she speaks it appears like a subcutaneous alien is about to burst forth from beneath her neck. Wiseau did not catch this unnerving and distracting sight. The film’s lone idea of male bonding involves tossing a football together. So Mark and Johnny will go out running in a park and toss a football back and forth, all the while having a faint conversation that gets drowned out by an overly anxious score. There will be swaths of the film where the score just competes with the onscreen dialogue.
8) There’s like a whole other level of offhand dialogue throughout, where characters will stand around and Johnny or someone else will mumble to no one in particular. The actual dialogue is full of other memorable head-scratchers, such as:
Random disapproving guy to Mark: “Keep your stupid comments in your pockets!”
Same disapproving man: “It feels like I’m sitting on an atom bomb that is going to explode!”
Michelle using chocolate candies as a means of foreplay: “Chocolate is a sign of love.”
Lisa’s mother: “Nobody ever listens to me.”
Lisa: “You’re probably right about that, mom.”
Johnny’s profound wisdom: “You know, if more people love each other the world would be a better place.”
Johnny refers to someone as a chicken and then proceeds to make this accompanying sound: “Cheep, cheep, cheep, cheeeaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiip.” This bizarre chicken impression will be repeated no less than three times.
This brief exchange at a coffee shop between Mark and Johnny:
Mark: How was work today?
Johnny: Oh pretty good. We got a new client… at the bank. We make a lot of money.
Mark: What client?
Johnny: I cannot tell you. It’s confidential.
Mark: Oh come on. Why not?
Johnny: No I can’t. Anyway, how is your sex life?
And finally, the signature line, where Johnny has had enough of Lisa’s mental games and he roars, “You are tearing me apart, Lisa!”
I could keep citing further evidence of The Room‘s cinematic shortcomings, but listing the faults of one of the worst films ever made can be pointless after a while. The staggering amount of faults in Wiseau’s film is also its combined strength. Most bad movies have a finite level of badness, like a poor plot or some troublesome acting. The Room is a movie composed of nothing but 99 complete minutes of badness at every facet of filmmaking. I am a more complete person having seen this remarkable film. I highly recommend gathering a group of friends around and holding a viewing party; the movie plays to even higher levels of enjoyment with a group atmosphere. The Room is Tommy Wiseau’s accidental masterpiece and, to me, proof that a loving God exists.
Artistic Merit: F
Entertainment Value: A+
Sucker Punch (2011)
Originally written March 28, 2011
Director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) has been drubbed in many circles for being an empty visual stylist, someone in the Michael Bay camp that worships at the altar of style. Snyder is a nearly unparalleled visual stylist. If only he would use his considerable talents for the purposes of good. I’m not a Snyder basher by trade, and have enjoyed all three of his previous films to some extent, but it’s obvious that Snyder spends much of his time scribbling down imagery he thinks will be cool, and then figuring out how to connect it all at the last minute. So Sucker Punch gives us a bevy of highly stylized, anime-influenced imagery complete with a posse of full-lipped ladies with heavy fake eyelashes operating heavy weaponry in fetish-style clothing. If you were expecting much else, then you’re the one who’s been suckered.
Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is a 20-year-old sent to live the rest of her days locked away inside a dilapidated mental ward thanks to her wicked stepfather. He even makes arrangements with a dastardly orderly (Oscar Isaac) to lobotomize Baby Doll to shut her up for good. Then stepdad can swindle the family estate for all its worth. While in this asylum, Baby Doll imagines she’s inside a different world to survive. Her fantasies offer her a world to escape to. Inside, she plots with a group of other patients, including Rocket (Jena Malone), her feisty take-charge sister, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). Together, along with the sage advice from a mysterious mentor (Scott Glenn) in her visions, they will collect four items to secure their escape. But time is of the essence. The lobotomy doctor, known as the “High Roller” in the fantasy (played in a major surprise by Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm), is scheduled to come do his needle-through-the-brain trick in a matter of days. It’s up to Baby Doll to utilize the therapeutic techniques of Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) and retreat into her mind to find the key to save herself.
You can tell Snyder was trying to crowbar in a meek message about female empowerment, but I ask you: is it female empowerment when the women have to be reduced to pretty play things that still operate in the realm of male fantasy? Just because women fight back does not mean that you are presenting a feminist message. Baby Doll’s mode of power is erotic dancing? And her main outfit looks like a grown replica of Sailor Moon’s, which should be a dream come true for just about every male fan of the animated series. You think having characters in short skirts and names like “Baby Doll,” “Sweet Pea” is empowerment? Sucker Punch is no more about female empowerment than some ridiculous women’s prison movie where they all fall into long lesbian-tinged shower sequences. That’s female empowerment, right? It’s got women loving women, so what could be more empowering to women?
After Sndyer’s kitchen sink approach to storytelling, the one thing that Sucker Punch lacks, in abundance, is sense. There is no real connective tissue to anything happening onscreen. Snyder employs two different framing devices before slipping into the metaphorical delusions of a third. I felt like I was tumbling through the Inception dream levels without a roadmap or a competent guide. Considering that the first framing device, Baby Doll being locked away in a mental ward, is only featured onscreen for ten minutes, Snyder could have exercised the bit completely. The second framing device, that Baby Doll has imagined her institutionalized imprisonment into a vaguely 1920s-esque burlesque theater/brothel seems just as unnecessary, but whatever. But it’s the third metaphorical level that gave me a headache (more on that later). The premise alone, girls use fantastic imagination to escape from a cruel prison, is good enough to tell a compelling tale but there desperately needs to be a connection to those images, a relationship between the fantasy and the movie’s reality. In Sucker Punch, there is no substantial relationship to anything. It is a barrage of images meant to arouse and entertain but do little more. The different metaphorical levels are only metaphors for, well, hot girls kicking ass, which isn’t so much a metaphor as it is a literal translation. And when the girls are at play in those fantasy sequences, the movie drops all pretenses of any purpose. It’s not just reality defying, which is what movies were meant for, but it defies its own narrative. If I can just cram whatever cool junk I want then what purpose do I even need to set up characters or develop a plot? When the ladies are off on their fantasy tours, they’re invincible and no law of physics, or man, applies to them. It zaps all danger from the screen, and with that, all tension. They all become superheroes who just run around doing super heroic things. I might have cared if I felt there was any real purpose for what I was watching other than Snyder wanting to scratch a few cinematic itches.
The girls’ quest to attain their needed items for escape is laid out in the most shockingly lazy manner. Snyder uses the power of dance, yes dance; you see, when Baby Doll starts movin’ them hips of hers, she plunges into a fantasy world of her own doing. And then we witness all sorts of crazy things, and she returns back from the fantasy and the mission is complete. The girls have stolen whatever item they were after. I was expecting the fantasy binges to have some direct correlation with the makeup of their world, so that, say, if they have to cross a massive bridge to gain their item, in the brothel they have to cross some massive barrier. It’s the height of indolence for Snyder to simply type “character dances” and then we get an indulgent fantasy sequence and the job is done. We don’t see the steps the girls had to do to win their freedom, the relationships between fantasy and reality, or any clever plotting along the way. There’s no cleverness at all to be had. The fantasy is not just an escape for the characters; it’s an escape from having to do any thinking when it came to storytelling. Imagine what would happen to other works of cinema if they followed this same approach. Why watch the back-and-forth arguments of a courtroom thriller when we could just have “prosecutor dances” and cut to the case being over? Or why bother watching the complicated struggles of a relationship drama when we can have “guy dances” and just cut right to the shot of the camera spinning around the couple kissing? It’s like a fast forward button that eliminates all plot development. Isn’t that much more satisfying? What, you mean it isn’t because it’s a self-indulgent diversion that has no connection to the main storyline and fails to add anything?
I think ultimately Snyder just really wanted to make the most expensive music video of all time. The dialogue is clipped and kept to a minimum, mostly of the expository “you need to do this now” variety. There are long stretches of full-length musical interludes by Tyler Bates (300) and Marius De Vries (Moulin Rouge). The duo orchestrates some uninspiring fuzzy alt covers of alt songs, so familiar tunes like Bjork’s “Army of Me” and the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?” get a polish they didn’t need (how many times is that Pixies song going to be covered?). Worst of all is a bizarre mash up of Queen’s “I Want It All” and “We Will Rock You” with a rap track. And of course no film that aimed to ape the tropes of Alice in Wonderland would be complete without some version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” this time covered by talented Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini. The entire musical oeuvre is a bunch of distorted, loud, blaring guitars meant to amplify the visual noise.
Sucker Punch is not so hot in the acting department. Browning doesn’t particularly act well in the movie, but then again nobody does, especially Gugino’s awful accent. But this isn’t a film about acting so much as it’s looking the part. And Browning is a geek fantasy come to life, samurai swords, pigtails and all. She makes for a great moving poster.
Expect nothing more from Sucker Punch than top-of-the-line eye candy. Expect nothing to make sense. Expect nothing to really matter. In fact, go in expecting nothing but a two-hour ogling session, because that’s the aim of the film. Look at all those shiny things and pretty ladies, gentlemen. This is the perfect film for a 13-year-old kid fed on anime, comic books, and horror films and who don’t give a lick about things like plot, character, or substance. It’s like somebody combined One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with every single damn video game cut scene in the history of time. I was waiting for the next dance/trance sequence where Baby Doll was going to start jumping on turtles and collecting coins. It’s a series of vignettes that have no connection whatsoever. Sucker Punch is really a live-action Heavy Metal, except with even less plot. This isn’t a fairy tale. This is a meth-fueled explosion of a Hot Topic store, captured in Snyder’s signature slow motion. Everyone is entitled to their own fantasies but not everyone gets a $100 million dollar check to throw them all together on screen.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Ugly Truth (2009)
Originally written July 29, 2009
Can’t a woman ever catch a break in romantic comedies? The genre occasionally just comes across as contemptible against women. On screen, female figures will fight against misogyny, but then how often do they usually just give in? How often do the female characters change to suit the male characters? Usually, the male romantic lead has some kind of boneheaded secret, but it’s really the women that do all the changing and the man is left off the hook. It’s somewhat appalling and amazing that the unappealing romantic comedy The Ugly Truth was written by three women and produced by Katherine Heigl. I guess they wanted to prove that women could be just as capable of self-sabotage.
Abby (Heigl) is a career-driven TV news producer who’s a bit unlucky when it comes to love. She has a steep checklist of qualifications for a prospective mate. She is aghast when her boss hires Mike (Gerard Butler), a rude public access host of the dating advice show “The Ugly Truth,” to shore up ratings. Mike is an uncivilized shock-jock who dispels pearls of wisdom like, “No man wants to date a fattie.” Abby and Mike bicker from an ideological divide. But when an attractive doctor (Eric Winter) movies in next door to Abby, she agrees to follow Mike’s dating advice. He coaches her on how to win over the doctor, and it generally seems to be working. Of course now Mike thinks he may have fallen in love with Abby as well. Oh what complications await.
The humor of The Ugly Truth doesn’t even aspire to be sophomoric; it’s questionable whether the comedy even reaches juvenile levels. It’s tasteless and piggish, but the weird part is that it comes across as knowledgeable on the subject of sex as a ten-year-old kid who just discovered his dad’s secret stash of Playboys. It talks about the right stuff but does so in a clueless manner. It’s like an exaggerated randy cartoon that chiefly plays to a male fantasy. The movie feels that the height of comedy is when Abby wears a pair of vibrating panties to a business dinner, and oh no, some little kid is playing with the remote. So Abby is writhing and convulsing while trying to deliver a business speech. It’s the female orgasm turned into a cartoon. I won’t even get into the icky implications that Abby does not even get to control her orgasm, that she is held hostage by the whim of a child (a boy, no less). It just comes across as morally queasy if you think more about it, which may be why Heigl is practically rolling around on the table and chirping like a dolphin. Meg Ryan has nothing to worry about in the world of public displays of an O-face. At least in that movie, the joke was on the audience, and the man, and the woman was in a position of control. I even saw this routine already with a vibrating egg in the 2006 hard-core sex drama, Shortbus.
It doesn’t get much better. There’s a moment at the ballpark where Abby spills her drink onto her date’s lap, so she furiously tries to rub it out, which in crazy movie world means the man instantly attains pleasure. If that wasn’t enough, the movie then takes another step and displays this ordeal on the ballpark’s Jumbotron. And if even that isn’t enough, the movie takes yet another step to obscure what Abby is really doing, so all you see is her bobbing head by the crotch of her date. It’s not really funny because it’s so forceful to the point of being unpleasant. Abby is the butt of most jokes and after awhile it just seems cruel. The jokes recycle the same lousy observations about the differences between men and women. Men want sex. Women want relationships. Men are cretins. Women are crazy. Men like boobies. Blah, blah, blah. This time there’s just more bad language. There’s nothing truly adult here, either in wisdom or comedy. Just because you imply oral sex and throw out a few F-bombs doesn’t mean that your romantic comedy is any more sophisticated and relevant. The Ugly Truth just reeks of desperation.
The central characters don’t even come across as believable for a romantic comedy. Abby is an intelligent professional woman who will stand up to rampant misogyny in the workplace. She resents Mike’s attitude that the only value women serve is to please men. So then it would only be natural that she follows Mike’s coaching to win the heart of the hunky doctor living next door. She clearly believes that she must become a sexed-up twit to win over a doctor. What? Excuse me, come again? The characters are at the mercy of whatever contrivances the plot requires. Predictably, this is yet another movie where two characters hate each other for two acts only to finally realize in the last act that, surprise, they’re really in love. Because we know the inevitable coupling, an audience likes to pick up on moments that might help explain how we got to our final romantic destination. Will the crude dude really have a mushy heart deep down? Will our icy businesswoman be able to let her hair down and enjoy the messiness of life? Have you ever seen a romantic comedy before and therefore know the answers to these questions? In The Ugly Truth, I could not explain why either of these people would fall in love with the other. I’m sure there are plenty of great backstories where people realized their true love in the basket of a hot air balloon. Seriously, the climax takes place in a hot air balloon and Abby asks, “Why do you love me?” to Mike. “Beats the shit out of me,” he replies. This is intended as a moment of romantic clarity. I view it as the screenwriters giving up, having failed to establish even a remotely credible relationship in a genre replete with easy choices.
I’m actually a fan of Heigl (27 Dresses) and think that she seems like a natural fit within the romantic comedy universe. She’s expressively comedic, has good timing, and she knows how to hit her jokes hard. She can wait until she’s older to do a family drama because right now there’s gold in them thar genre pictures (practice the finer points of singing into a hairbrush and dancing around a coffee table). But The Ugly Truth is a waste of her ability. Abby is a tightly wound control freak and Heigl plays her without an ounce of warmth. Butler (300) can still come across as likeable even if his character is cheerily boorish. He doesn’t hide his natural Scottish brogue too well, though. He’s got more comic firepower and he openly mocks himself, which makes him more appealing as a character. However, there isn’t much in the way of chemistry between Heigl and Butler, only combativeness. Their fighting is the only emotion that seems real.
So what is the ugly truth of The Ugly Truth? I suppose if you’re a woman, you better not be successful, talented, smart, or slightly overweight. And your dating failures are completely your own fault. And you better be willing to put out or at least dress a little provocatively. And don’t expect your man to change any of his ways, simply lower your standards. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the concluding wisdom from our trio of female screenwriters. Heigl and Butler squander their talents in such a charmless battle of the sexes cartoon. There’s little in the way of wit or insight or even properly executed comedic payoffs. The Ugly Truth needs to be atoned for. It’s rarely funny and it’s insulting and unflattering to both sexes. It exists squarely in the world of exaggerated male fantasy, peculiar for a genre defined by female wish fulfillment. At my screening, there was a family who brought their adolescent kids with them. I could hear pre-teen giggling at the more slapstick-heavy jokes and heard lots of questions whenever something sexual was discussed. At one point, Heigl covers the eyes of a child and says, “This is not for kids,” and I guess that family finally got the message because they left shortly after. Except this movie isn’t intended for anybody. Everyone in the theater should have followed suit.
Nate’s Grade: D+
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