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Predators (2010)

For a solid 45 minutes, Predators is a fairly good genre movie. No, it’s a very good genre movie. We snap awake in freefall with a ripped Adrien Brody. A group of deadly warriors from all cultures find themselves stranded in some strange jungle. For that 45-minutes of goodness, the assembled killers (and Topher Grace as a doctor?) try and piece together their circumstances while exploring the foreign terrain. It’s a setup straight out of the Twilight Zone catalogue. And then, at minute 46, they find out they’re on a game preserve planet for the notorious alien bounty hunters, the Predators. The characters get picked off one-by-one and the patient buildup unwinds in a familiar and depressing bloodbath. Predators will work as a quick fix of junk food, but it teased a promising alternative that never came to fruition. The action is bloody but listless. The plot twists are seen from miles away (Topher Grace as a doctor?) and after all that badass macho posturing, the end credits blast the song… “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard? It’s the most bizarre element in a movie with killer space monsters in dreadlocks.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Valentine’s Day (2010)

Imagine every romantic comedy cliché and sappy platitude about love stirred together into one giant gelatinous conglomeration of hollow sentiment. That’s Valentine’s Day. Regardless of your thoughts on the holiday, this movie, which aims to celebrate our national day of love, might have the opposite effect. This movie makes He’s Just Not That Into You look like When Harry Met Sally. It?s a fairly large ensemble with plenty of mega-watt stars, but it’s too bad that nobody knows what to do. Jessica Alba’s character literally runs her course an hour into the film and yet she still makes meaningless appearances. This overstuffed Hallmark card has ridiculously safe, candy-coated storylines sanded so that there is no hint of edge or wit (Anne Hathaway is the most ludicrous PG-13 phone sex operator you will ever find). The resolutions of most of these storylines will be predictable to anybody who has ever read a greeting card. Jamie Foxx is supposed to be a bitter TV reporter popping up everywhere reporting about the ills of V-Day. Think he’ll have a change of heart by the film’s end? The cast does offer their small pleasures (there are SIX Oscar nominees/winners in this movie!), except for the kid who has a crush on his teacher (Jennifer Garner). He was insufferably annoying. So was his movie.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Who the hell are you Spider-Man 3 and what have you done with the franchise I loved? After the massive financial and commercial success of first two Spider-Man chapters, my expectations had been raised fairly high. The more time that passes the more I reflect on how disappointing Spider-Man 3 sadly is. Part of my dashed hopes are because the 2004 Spider-Man sequel was a wonderful follow-up to a pretty swell introduction, and I placed that movie in my Top Ten list for the year and consider it one of the best comic book movies of all time. There’s some great popcorn entertainment to be had with Spider-Man 3, but man is this film just beside itself in wasted potential, a lack of focus, and some really poor choices.

Things are going pretty well for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). He plans on asking Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) to marry him and New York City is planning a parade out of appreciation for Spider-Man. But the good times can’t last long. Harry Osborn (James Franco) has accepted his fate and become a second generation Green Goblin villain, out to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Spider-Man. But Peter also has to be on the lookout for his job at the newspaper. Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) is an unscrupulous photographer out to replace Parker and nab a picture of Spider-Man caught in a bad light. An alien substance has also hitched a ride to Earth via meteorite and sought out Peter Parker. The black goo attaches itself to Peter and forms a black Spidey suit, one that gives him intoxicating power and a slimy menace. The new Peter cavalierly flirts with bouncy lab partner Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), hurts his friends, and loses his do-gooder ways.

Meanwhile Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) has escaped from prison. It seems the police got it wrong and now inform Peter that Marko confessed to being the one who killed Peter’s uncle. While on the run Marko happens to tumble into an open pit that is a science experiment and becomes fused at a molecular level with sand. He uses this new power to rob banks in order to save his sick daughter at home. Peter, with the power of the alien suit, hunts the Sandman to get his own slice of sticky vengeance.

The film has way too much on its plate. There are too many characters, too many undeveloped storylines, too many coincidences, too many contrivances (Amnesia? Really? Really?), and too many aborted moments of drama. Spider-Man 3 is an undisciplined mess. The film practically stumbles from one scene to the next and lacks the coherency and intelligence of the earlier entries in the series. The third film tries to do too much and please too many interests, and as a result it may end up pleasing few fans. I had some trepidation when I learned that there was going to be upwards of three villains for this movie, but I swore that it could work since Batman Begins confidently worked around a trio of big bads. Three villains do not work in Spider-Man 3. Let me dissect this rogue’s gallery and where they fall short.

1) The Sandman is kind of a lame idea from the start. His power seems to limit his available locations, and I’m surprised that he wouldn’t stick to beach areas as a means of playing to his sandy strengths. Regardless, the character plays no part in almost anything that happens, and the Sandman is given one note to play. He’s got a sick daughter and he robs to try and pay for her medicine. That’s great on paper but it never really seems to give the character any sense of urgency or frustration. If he got special sand powers why not sneak into banks through cracks in walls instead of forming as a giant sand monster? Church attempts to imbue the character with a sad soul but he just comes across as being wooden. If he was really on the hunt for money to save his daughter then why does he just slouch around all the time? Wouldn’t it be easier to rob a city not patrolled by a web slinging super hero? How can he say he’s a misunderstood victim of luck just minutes after he tried killing Peter? He seems like a dull lunkhead. The Sandman is given a tiny wisp of character detail (sick kid!) and that’s it. He doesn’t get any other characterization and is kept on the run and pops up whenever the film needs him. He becomes a token character until the very end where Church is given 2 minutes to pour his heart out to Peter. Two minutes of character at the start, two minutes at the end, and a gaping center. The Sandman isn’t so much a character as the ideal of some issue that the filmmakers want to have Peter work through.

And what is that issue? Why vengeance and forgiveness. You see, Spider-Man 3 foolishly rewrites its own history and now it was the Sandman hat killed Peter’s Uncle Ben. This revision does not work at all and actually legitimately damages Spider-Man. Just like Bruce Wayne is tackling crime to alleviate his guilt, so too is Spider-Man, who can never shake the fact that he could have prevented his uncle’s death had he done the right thing moments before. By introducing a new killer it means that Peter has no responsibility for his uncle’s death. This completely strips away the character’s guilt and rationale for what compels him to swing from building to building to fight crime.

2) Eddie Brock/Venom is wasted as well. Director Sam Raimi has said before he’s not a fan of Venom and doesn’t get the character, and I feel that his contempt carried over into the film. Venom and the black alien goo are given about the same abysmal care as other half-baked plot points. Eddie Brock has about three total scenes before he gets to transform into Venom thanks to the alien substance, and none of these scenes fully flesh out who the character is or justify his relationship with Peter Parker. When we do see Venom in the finale its all too rushed and hokey. The effects make him look less like alien and more like a wax figurine (I suppose there could be intelligent wax life amongst the stars). For whatever dumb reason the alien suit has to retreat so we can see Grace’s face while he taunts and mocks with bad vampire teeth that are meant to inspire what exactly? The character is rushed and underdeveloped and should have been saved for the next sequel instead of being given lip service in this one. Venom is supposed to be the evil doppelganger to Spider-Man, not some smart-alleck with frosted hair that gets about 15 minutes of screen time. I like Grace, I really like him a lot and envision him as his generation’s Tom Hanks, but he does not work in this movie. He could, but I get the sneaking suspicion that Raimi sabotaged the Venom role on purpose or at least subconsciously. The villain goes out with a whimper and it feels like a giant, foolish wasted opportunity that becomes more maddening the more I discuss it. The presence of Venom feels like a shallow attempt to placate a younger generation of comic fans and to sell more action figures.

The alien goo suit is supposed to tempt Peter and bring out his wicked wild side. So what does he do? He acts like he’s auditioning for the lead in The Mask. This embarrassing sequence is painfully goofy and will make you cringe and shield your eyes. Peter flirts with girls and dances at a jazz club, and this is supposed to be the dark side of Spider-Man? What the hell? I acknowledge that Peter has always been an unpopular dork and would be a dork even if he ventured to the dark side, but how does this square with the more serious and edgier tone the film is grasping for? Evil Peter seems more like a broody emo kid, with shocks of black hair in his eyes and traces of eyeliner. The dark side of Spider-Man, much like the rest of the film, is given little time or thought. Peter’s trials with the symbiotic suit last about a reel or two and then it’s abruptly finished.

3) Harry should have been the main focus of this sequel and it?s a shame the filmmakers had to cram so much crap into a story already heavy with plot leftovers. Harry has the most obvious arc through the three movies and deserves better than to be knocked out of commission by amnesia. The conflict between Peter and Harry is where the film finds its emotional core and it would have been wise to expand this section and eliminate one of the other underutilized villains (my vote: both Venom and Sandman). Harry’s vow to avenge his father is far more interesting than what the other two villains have as motivation, and plus Harry requires no extra time-consuming setup to slow the pacing down. I’m glad the final battle encouraged Harry to come out and play; the film finally gives Franco the screen time he deserves, but it should have been more. The worst plot device in the film involves Harry’s all-knowing butler who has some vital information he most certainly should have shared years ago. So much time is spent on storylines that go absolutely nowhere, and the musical chairs of villains, that the film resorts to having a freakin’ butler tap someone on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me sir,” just to tie things up in the most awkwardly shrift way possible. And even if what the man says is true, how does his perspective add any clarity to the situation? Think about it. I have.

The romance between Peter and Mary Jane feels awfully trite and meandering. Spider-Man 3 lacks the tight focus of the second film. It throws contrivances to place a wedge in their relationship, like the fact that Mary Jane is fired from her Broadway gig but doesn’t tell Peter, or the fact that they never seem to answer the phone on time when the other person is apologetic. Gwen Stacy is less a character than simply a dimwitted blond tool to make Mary Jane jealous and sulk. The ups and downs in this relationship feel pretty forced and some moments defy all human understanding. At one point Mary Jane is forced by Harry to break up with Peter to spare both their lives. So she breaks the news in a park, and Peter is devastated, but why in the world does she never say anything again? Why would she not clear things up after time had passed to explain her actions? Spider-Man 2 ended with Peter finally getting the girl but also on a hint of doubt, and it was marvelous. Spider-Man 3 just sort of ends with everyone presumably in the same place they started.

Spider-Man 2 really succeeded on how focused it was and how it related its action with character. Spider-Man 3 has to resort to cheap and lazy devices to cover its storytelling pitfalls. Don’t even get me started on the fact that the film has to resort to a newscaster narrating our final battle where he actually asks, “Is this the end of Spider-Man?” This might be the end of the quality associated with Spider-Man.

After having spent a whole slew of words detailing in length where the film goes wrong, allow me to illustrate some of what the film does right. Whenever it sticks to action, that’s when Spider-Man 3 works, and Raimi has cooked up some wonderful whiplash-inducing action sequences. The first battle between Peter and Harry is intense and sets the film on the right path, but the action as a whole isn’t as closely tied to Peter’s domestic life and emotional troubles as it was in the other films. A high-rise rescue from a crumbling office building will stir some 9/11 memories but it is awesome to behold. The effects have improved and the swinging shots through New York look the best they ever have. The greatest moment in the film is perhaps the birth of the Sandman as he rises grain by grain from a pile of sand and attempts to reform himself. Aided by some lovely music, the moment takes on a beautiful and unexpected poignancy. This is where Raimi and the CGI wizards hit it out of the park. Nothing rivals the train sequence in Spider-Man 2, though.

It might be dangerous to say, but I feel jilted from this film and either new blood needs to be brought in or the filmmakers need more time and control to make a Spider-Man sequel worthy of its name. This is the gold standard for super hero movies and its been tarnished and sullied. Spider-Man 3 has moments to dazzle and excite but it also feels battle fatigued from carrying the dead weight of extraneous characters and half-baked storylines. There are too many balls in the air for Raimi to juggle. This Spidey chapter squeezes too many ideas in too short a space. After obliterating box-office records, Sony has stated that they plan on three more Spider-Man sequels. If this film is the tipping point, then I’m afraid of what will be swinging down the pipe in years to come.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Ocean’s 12 (2004)

In 2001, Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s Eleven was a giant surprise. It was a blast of fun with an impressive collection of Hollywood royalty. It had clever dialogue, fun characters, and a gala of amusing plot twists. It was one of the breeziest, most entertaining movies in years. Now, come late 2004, Ocean’s Twelve is released with the entire cast returning, including the lovely Catherine Zeta-Jones in tow. Expectations are high for another glitzy romp, but what you’re left with in Ocean’s Twelve is all glitz and no romp.

It’s been three years after the gang robbed ruthless casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) of 160 million dollars. Benedict tracks down each member of Ocean’s Eleven and gives them the same ultimatum: either pay back what they stole, with interest, in two weeks or they’ll be killed. Danny Ocean (George Clooney) leaves his attempts at normal home life with Tess (Julia Roberts) and reassembles the team, many of whom have burned through their shares of the millions. Danny and his right-hand man Rusty (Brad Pitt) figure they’re too hot stateside so they’ll need to travel overseas if they’re to steal their fortunes. Linus (Matt Damon) also wants to have a greater role in the heist this time around.

In Europe, Ocean is challenged by a French playboy (Vincent Cassel) who moonlights as the notorious thief, the Night Fox. The challenge is to see who can steal a priceless Faberge egg, and if bested the Night Fox promises to pay all of Ocean’s debts to Benedict. Hot on the heels of both thieves is Isabel (Zeta-Jones), an expert police officer that also happens to be the former girlfriend to Rusty.

Ocean’s Twelve does not work as a heist picture. For starters, the audience has no idea what’s going on for most of it. A general heist movie bylaw is to explain what the heist will entail, and then we watch the team hit it step by step. Forget that. In Ocean’s Twelve we’re never told how they are going to do their heist, and as they commence with their plan it’s not surprising to an audience, only confusing. I had to wait until the very end for some character to go into a monologue to explain how they accomplished their heist, and let me say, it was not worth two hours of waiting and scratching my head. The result seems to push away an audience instead of involving them in the fun of the scheme.

The story doesn’t utilize the talents of the assembled members. There’s a reason you hire a demolitions expert or a pick pocket, and that’s to let them work their skill. Well in Ocean’s Twelve we get none of that. Most of the cast’s skills are not ever put to use, which further gunks up a heist movie. The movie really errs by putting many of its eleven on ice for long stretches of the film. Around the second act almost everyone gets arrested. Pity poor Bernie Mac, who is in jail for near the whole movie. It seems that Soderbergh doesn’t know what to do with all his characters, and the new additions, so he stashes them away for long stages of time hoping an audience won’t notice.

Soderbergh is in danger of becoming a parody of himself. His usual narrative flourishes are present, including jumps in time and perspective; however, they don’t add up to much except unnecessary showmanship. The nonlinear leaps and shell game of information do not add to the film. Soderbergh keeps his audience in the dark for too long and then cheats us with the ending. Ocean’s Twelve is a good looking film (the vistas look beautiful), but it’s a good looking movie with nowhere to go. What’s even more frustrating is the ending to Ocean’s Twelve. You see, in the end we find out that the last hour plus of the movie was unnecessary. Yes, the movie actually makes a reveal that nullifies over half of the film. It’s cheap and unappreciated. Ocean’s Twelve, there’s a difference between tricking an audience and conning them. Maybe some day you’ll realize this.

The new storylines never really develop. Zeta-Jones doesn’t add much besides another authority figure to chase after Ocean and the boys. Her subplot involving finding her master thief father is abrupt and easy. The best new addition to Ocean’s Twelve was the prospect of a rival, but again nothing really happens with our French thief. He’s more of a catalyst for the plot than anything else, and it’s a shame, because he could have opened the door for a great film pitting two competitive teams of thieves against each other.

Ocean’s Twelve is too satisfied with itself to be that entertaining. It’s now actually reminiscent of the 1960 original film (my grandmother swears it’s wonderful, take that for what you will), starring the Rat Pack. Plot and logic are secondary to a bunch of cool characters having fun. I really enjoyed Ocean’s Eleven (the 2001 film, not my grandmother’s preferred version), but this new sequel lacks any charm and verve. I can’t even say there were many good scenes, just some good ideas that they didn’t fully actualize, like stowing Yen in baggage and then losing their luggage (nothing comes of this). There’s a fun scene involving Topher Grace spoofing his own micro-celebrity, but beyond that many of the scenes and ideas don’t seem developed. The best moment of Ocean’s Twelve, for me, was when I saw Eddie Izzard, the funniest man on the face of the Earth and then some, chat with Hollywood’s A-list on screen. God bless you Eddie Izzard.

Ocean’s Twelve wilts in comparison to its witty, effervescent predecessor. Ocean’s Eleven was fun and hip but didn’t need to coast on star appeal. It had a believable heist, engaging personalities, and it was fun because we knew what was going on and it mattered! I’m sure the cast of Ocean’s Twelve had a blast making the movie together, and their friendly camaraderie shows, but when I left the theater I felt like I had been stuck with the bill for someone else?s good time.

Nate’s Grade: C

Traffic (2000)

The war on drugs may be one worth fighting but it’s a battle that every day seems more and more impossible. Traffic is a mirror that communicates the fruition of our current procedures to stop the illegal flow of drugs.

Traffic is told through three distinct and different narratives. One involves an Ohio Supreme Court justice (Michael Douglas) newly appointed as the nation’s next Drug Czar. While he accepts his position and promises to fight for our nation’s children, back at home, unbeknownst to him, his daughter is free-basing with her bad influence boyfriend. Another story involves a wealthy bourgeois wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) awakened to her husband’s arrest. Her shock continues when family lawyer Dennis Quaid informs her of her husband’s true source of income. He’s to be prosecuted by two DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) unless she can do something. The final and most compelling narrative involves Benicio Del Toro as an honest cop in Tijuana battling frustration with the mass corruption surrounding the city. Each story weaves in and out at various points in the film.

Traffic was photographed and directed by the man with the hottest hand in Hollywood, Steven Soderbergh. He uses a documentary feel to his filming that adds to the realism. Different color tones are assigned toward the three narratives as reflections of the emotional background. Soderbergh expertly handles the many facets of the drug industry and pulls out his typical “career best” performances from his onslaught of actors.

Benicio Del Toro is the emotional center of Traffic. His solemn demeanor and hound dog exterior reflect a good man trying to fight the good fight in a corrupt environment. He effortlessly encompasses determination, courage, and compassion that you’ll easily forget the majority of his lines are in Espanol. Benicio is an incredibly talented actor and one with such vibrant energy whenever he flashes on screen. It’ll be wonderful watching him collect all his awards.

Catherine Zeta-Jones also shows strong signs there may well indeed be an actress under her features. Her role is one of almost terror as you watch her so easily slip into her imprisoned hubby’s shoes. The ease of transformation is startling, but in an “evil begets evil” kind of fashion. The fact that she’s pregnant through the entire movie only makes the shift from loving house wife to drug smuggler more chilling.

The entire cast does credible acting performances with particular attention paid toward the younger actors deservingly. Don Cheadle throws in another terrific performance showing he’s sublimely one of the best actors around today.

Traffic oversteps its ambitions and aims for a scope far too large. It is based on a 6 hour BBC mini-series, so trying to cram that material into a two hour plus format is taxing. As a result we get an assembly of characters, but too many with too little time in between to do any justice. Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Rules of Engagement) condenses the towering impact and influence drugs have well enough, but he intercuts the stories too sporadically that attachment never builds for either of the three narratives. He does balance the Douglas Drug Czar one carefully as not to fall into the cliched vigilante metamorphosis. But the mini-series had more characterization and depth to its tale.

Traffic is a good film but it has edges of greatness never fully visioned. Soderbergh shines bright yet again and all accolades will be deserved. Traffic is undeniably a good film, but it’s one you may not want to watch a second time.

Nate’s Grade: B

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