Friday, February 18, 2011

'I Am Number Four' Movie Review

Teen angst, this is my friend, aliens. Aliens, meet my old pal, teen angst. That’s how I imagine the introductions going were, you know, teen angst and aliens actual people. There are all manner of films about angsty teen vampires, angsty teen werewolves, angsty teen wizards, and, hopefully soon, angsty teen necromancers. It was only a matter of time before someone paired the story of an angsty teen with the drama of an alien invasion. Thinking about it, it seems inevitable, and a little shocking that it hasn’t happen sooner. But happen it does in D.J. Caruso’s new film “I Am Number Four”.

Literary lightning rod James Frey, who famously pissed off Oprah by fabricating most of his memoir (I’m surprised she hasn’t had him ‘disappeared’ yet), decided to dip his fingers into the ever-expanding young adult literary market. Written with Jobie Hughes, under the pen name Pittacus Lore, “I Am Number Four” is the first book in a proposed six book series. Frey has also set up what is being called a “literary assembly line”. You can read the New York Magazine article here. It’s vaguely horrifying.

While I haven’t read the book, the film is a blatant attempt to cash in on a lucrative market. “I Am Number Four”, the movie, is a paint-by-numbers supernatural teen story, this time juxtaposed against a science fiction background. Number Four (Alex Pettyfer), aka John Smith, is one of nine children of a dead alien world called Lorien. The people who destroyed his planet, the Mogadorians, are hunting down Four and his ilk (for some reason they have to be killed in numerical order, but why is never explained). Each alien teen is given a protector and forced to hide. Four and his guardian, Henri (Timothy Olyphant, who begins the film with an unfortunate hairstyle) move from town to town, trying to remain anonymous. It’s hard. Four is always the new kid, he never has any friends, and he’s sad and just wants to party and have friends and be normal. But he’s not normal; he’s different and special. You’ve seen it before. He’s dreamy (he can do back flips on a jet ski), but troubled (his home life with Henri is far from perfect), and also full of, you guessed it, teenage angst.

After a debacle in Florida, Four and Henri flee to the small town of Paradise, Ohio. Who would think that a movie town named Paradise might not actually be a paradise? Four encounters all sorts of obstacles, but along the way he develops some sweet mutant powers, like flashlight hands and some newly minted parkour skills; gets a geeky sidekick named Sam (Callan McAuliffe), who’s father was abducted by a UFO; and lands a girlfriend, Sarah (Dianna Agron). She’s an outsider, too. You can tell she’s deep because she takes photographs, writes in a journal, and says things like that she sees better through her camera. Of course there’s a bully and his goons, and of course they’re on the football team. If teen movies have taught us nothing it is that something about the act of playing football, more than any other sport, makes you evil. Remember that.

Despite Henri’s advice, Four falls in love with Sarah (which leads to the most groan inducing line in a movie full of groan inducing lines: “we don’t love like humans, it’s forever”, delivered by Timothy Olyphant in a faux gritty man voice). It’s hard to keep a low profile in a small town where you’re dating the weird girl, friends with the sci-fi nerd, feuding with the captain of the football team/son of the sheriff, and you have light bulbs built into the palms of your hands. Try to stay under the radar in similar circumstances, I dare you. Eventually the bad guys show up, which only compounds the problems caused by teen angst, raging hormones, and a hidden secret alien identity.

Every step of the way you feel “I Am Number Four” trying to set things up as a series of films. The result is that it never feels like a movie on it’s own, it feels like a pilot for a TV show, or a chapter in a book (which it is in its own way). That’s all well and good, but the movie always feels like a fragment, there is no complete internal story. Take a series like “Harry Potter”, where there is a larger, overarching narrative to the series, but each individual installment tells a complete story. “I Am Number Four” never achieves that. Sure there is rising action, and a climactic battle scene, but the ending feels arbitrary, like they just decided it was time to stop because it was time.

The Mogadorians are regrettable villains. Apparently they’re bad simply because they’re bad. They don’t colonize, they don’t enslave, they’re not after resources, nothing. They destroy worlds, that’s what they do; there isn’t any deeper motivation than that. With their weird nose-gills, neo-tribal head tattoos, and flowing black trench coats, and it’s difficult not to laugh every time you see one onscreen. The leader spends most of his time channeling the coked out spirit of Gary Busey, which is kind of rad, and there is one moment where the Mogadorians pull out something that looks like a new jack “Phantasm” ball, but that’s about it.

Watching “I Am Number Four” you get the distinct feeling that they’re not even trying. Every step of the way it feels like things happen because that’s how things are supposed to happen in a supernatural teen story (from reading about the book, this seems to be the general conceit). As a film, it’s better than “Twilight”, but that’s not saying much. Some of the action sequences aren’t pretty good, and “I Am Number Four” will probably make a crap ton of money at the box office (though if the reaction by the audience at the screening, made up primarily of the teenage target audience, is any indication, maybe not—they laughed harder than anyone at the cheesy moments that were supposed to be serious).

It’ll be curious to see how “I Am Number Four” plays out as a series, in book form as well as onscreen. Usually the books have all been published before they start cranking out movies, or at least multiple books in a series have been published. In this case, however, the book didn’t come out until there was already a movie deal in place, and with the apparent feud between Hughes and Frey, who knows when the next book, and consequently the next film, will appear. It is entirely possible that the most interesting part of this saga may not unfold anywhere near a movie screen or the pages of a book.

'Unknown' Movie Review

Comparisons to “Taken” and “The Bourne Identity” appear to be inevitable when talking about Jaume Collet-Serra’s new action thriller “Unknown”, starring Liam Neeson, but I’ll try to keep that talk to a minimum. The “Taken” reference feels lazy, or at least too easy, and the only real connection between the two films is that both prominently feature Liam Neeson kicking the crap out of people. The “Bourne” comparison is a little more appropriate as both revolve around memory loss, a shadowy past, and a helpful, not to mention beautiful, stranger, as well kicking the crap out of people. “Unknown” isn’t a great movie, nor is it terribly original, and it wants to be much more important and deep than it is. What it is, is a decent suspense film that morphs into an action vehicle along the way.

Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson), a renowned botanist, and his wife Liz (January Jones), are on their way to a biotech conference in Berlin. When they get to the hotel, Martin realizes he forgot his briefcase, and hops a cab back to the airport. En route, the taxi, driven by Gina (Diane Kruger sporting a weird little Jedi dread), careens off a bridge, plummeting into an icy river. Martin is knocked unconscious in the crash, and Gina saves him from drowning before skulking off because she’s an illegal immigrant and is driving the cab on the sly. Martin wakes up after four days in a coma, his memory still fractured and in pieces, wondering why hasn’t his wife been looking for him. When he tracks her down at a black-tie party for the conference, she doesn’t recognize him, and another man (Aiden Quinn) claims that he is Dr. Martin Harris, and he has the ID, family photos, and even a faculty page on a university website to prove it.

Martin attempts to retrace his steps and put the puzzle of his life together. He’s pretty sure he knows who he is, but how can he prove it? He’s also fairly certain that he’s being followed through the streets and subways of Berlin. But are these feelings of persecution simply the lingering effects of massive head trauma and he is just being paranoid? “Unknown” takes great pains to let you know that dealing with brain injuries is an inexact science, so you, like Martin, are left wondering if he is simply going insane, or if something more sinister is going on. You don’t care all that much, but it’s enough to keep you interested for the time being.

Just when Martin (and by extension you) is almost convinced that he is crazy, someone tries to kill him. After this moment in “Unknown” the story veers dangerously close to “Bourne” territory for a while as Martin tries to figure out why people want to kill him? Why the hell would someone want to steal the identity of botanist anyway? Is Liz being held captive, or is she in on the whole thing? And while Martin scrounges for answers, with the help of Gina and Jurgen (Bruno Ganz), a former member of the East German secret police who openly longs for the “good old days” of the Cold War, mysterious strangers are all up in his business, and the film shifts from suspense into a more action centered state. More than the sudden, un-prefaced twists many films like this rely on, “Unknown” has two main distinct shifts in the narrative, and this is the first. These changes in direction work (to a degree) where an abrupt “a ha” moment wouldn’t succeed. Not only are they built up to, but the story continues after they occur, giving you time to digest and accept them. “Unknown” relies on the story rather than shocking revelations that come out of nowhere.

On a very, very surface level, “Unknown” toys with the question of what makes a person, of what makes you you? Are you what you think you are, what people tell you that you are, or are you truly defined by your actions and the decisions you make? Is what you do more important than everything else in defining who you are? When I say “Unknown” deals with these topics in a “very surface” way, I mean that just these few sentences are more in depth than the film deals with them. “Unknown” broaches these subjects like a bored kitten idly batting around a ball of yarn on a lazy summer afternoon, and quickly loses interest.

There is an issue surrounding “Unknown” that has come up a couple of times lately, and that is trailers and TV spots for movies that give away key plot points and things that are integral to the story. This comes up every few years (remember when the ads for “Castaway” showed Tom Hanks coming home after escaping from the island? Ruined the whole movie because you never wondered if he would get home). It happened recently with “The Eagle”, and rears it’s ugly head again with “Unknown”. In case you haven’t paid much attention to the marketing material, I won’t say specifically what the commercials give away, but they betray the final shift, the thing that the entire movie builds towards. You’d have probably guessed what’s coming anyway, “Unknown” doesn’t win any points for originality or surprise, but it would’ve been nice to not have it ruined before you even sat down in the theater. That’s my tirade for the day. Sorry for the interruption.

“Unknown” is far from perfect, and ultimately pretty empty, but if you’re in the mood to for a moderately suspenseful spy thriller, coupled with a couple of decent car chases, fight scenes, and one of the most unnecessary of unnecessary explosions in recent memory (along with “The Mechanic” it’s one of the best uses of an unnecessary explosion that I’ve seen lately), then give it a chance. Imagine “Taken” or “The Bourne Identity” lite. Don’t think about it too hard and “Unknown” is an enjoyable enough movie.

'Barney's Version' Movie Review

Paul Giamatti is good, always. He’s even good in movies that I hate, like “Sideways”. In nearly every role he delivers a bravura performance (see, I can sound hoity toity and smart), which are frequently showered with adoring exaltations like “role of a lifetime”, and words like “bravura”. His turn as Barney Panofsky in “Barney’s Version” is no different. Giamatti is great; witty and charming, combative and affected, and conveys a wide range of emotion and depth with subtle, almost miniscule changes in facial expression, posture, and something ineffable in his eyes that occasionally slaps you across the face. You like Barney, and root for him despite the fact that most of the time, he’s a miserable prick. The only problem with the performance is that it’s become standard. Giamatti is good exactly as you expect him to be, in the exact same way that he is always good. His another-day-on-the-job is most actors Oscar moment. What should seem special winds up feeling normal.

That’s really the story of “Barney’s Version”. Across the board, the performances are top of the line, but the rest is mired in predictability. Minnie Driver takes a stereotypical, haranguing Jewish wife and owns it. You want horrible things to happen to her. Rosamund Pike as Miriam, another one of Barney’s wives, and there are a bunch, gives a warm performance as Barney’s dream girl, a woman he meets at his own wedding reception by the way, and whom he subsequently pursues for years. Even Scott Speedman, yes, Scott Speedman from “Underworld” and “Felicity”, turns in a solid performance as Barney’s junkie bff, a brilliant but flighty writer who squanders all of his potential. However it is Dustin Hoffman (thank god he’s doing something other than another damn “Meet the Parents” sequel) who steals the show as Barney’s gruff, retired-cop father, Izzy Panofsky. This is a man who’s not above telling the story of busting a prostitute, in graphic detail, to a rabbi, at a wedding. The scenes between Giamatti and Hoffman, full of funny, biting, and ultimately sweet back and forth, are the highpoints of “Barney’s Version”. Izzy is full of useful wisdom, like that successful marriages have been built on much less than a large bank account and a nice rack. He is a wise man indeed.

While the acting is wonderful and all of that, “Barney’s Version” is woefully predictable. The story is broken into chunks of Barney’s life, as he flashes back, wondering where things went wrong. Each segment is roughly defined by the beginning and end of a marriage. There is the story of Barney’s swinging, bohemian stint in Rome in the 1970s, where as soon as you meet his grating, soon-to-be wife (Rachelle Lefevre), who Barney only agrees to marry because he knocked her up, you know exactly what is going to happen. And so goes the rest of the movie. Everything is something you’ve seen before, and the attempts that subtly hint at the ultimate twist aren’t subtle at all, which is a running issue with the film. Delicacy is not the strong suit here. Barney hangs out at a bar called Grumpy’s, they might as well have called it Curmudgeon’s, and the production company where he produces filler Canadian soap operas is named Totally Useless Productions.

“Barney’s Version” feels like multiple movies stitched together where the seams don’t match up. It is by turns a romance, a comedy, a romantic comedy, a murder mystery (though oddly enough without an actual murder), and finally, a domestic drama. The focus changes with each shift in Barney’s life. I get it, the story is an episodic exploration of a single life, and there are a lot of distinct, individual stories that go into any given life. That is very true, and Barney is a jackass who wears his heart on his sleeve, so his stories are going to be more memorable than most. And it is a set up that probably works very well in the novel by Mordecai Richler, but the novel is a form with endless room in which to play and explore and follow flights of fancy. Film doesn’t have that luxury. There is a finite amount of space. “Barney’s Version” is 132 minutes long, and feels every second of it, and because director Richard J. Lewis and writer Michael Konyves try to fit so much into the film, you never connect to it like you need to. For example, the suicide of Barney’s first wife in Rome is supposed to carry a great deal of weight and echo throughout the rest of Barney’s life, but the way it is presented and handled, it never does. If it never happened, you wouldn’t miss it. The death supposedly carries more weight than it actually does, and instead of knowing and feeling this, “Barney’s Version” simply tells you and you’re expected to accept it.

All of this isn’t to say that “Barney’s Version” is without merit. Barney may be enough of an ass to call his ex-wife’s new husband at three in the morning just to screw with him (which may or may not lead to a mild heart attack), but for all his bluster and audacity, he’s flawed in a real, human way that makes him very relatable, and that alone carries you through much of the film. Add to that there are some hilarious moments. Barney’s bitter, nebbish humor is crude and inappropriate in most social situations, but it fits him. He is crude, self-amused, and egotistical, but sometimes laughing and cracking a joke is all you can do because it’s better than crying. Just wait until you see how Izzy goes out (you knew it had to happen), and then you’ll pick up what I’m laying down.

So there are a lot of admirable qualities in “Barney’s Version”, there are also a lot of problems, and in a general sense, there is just a lot of “Barney’s Version”. The film never coalesces, and despite the positive bits, the story is simply too long, too rambling, and too obvious to be completely successful.

But you should keep an eye out for a cameo from David Cronenberg as a director on Barney’s Mountie-based soap “O’Malley of the North”. There are some other cameos, but his is the only one that really matters.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

'The Eagle' Movie Review

I frequently rant about how studios ruin otherwise promising action films by suppressing violence in order to garner a PG-13 rating and thus achieve a wider audience. A truly kickass movie will kickass despite a noticeable lack of blood and swearing, just look at “Live Free or Die Hard” (though we all know that would have been ever better with a little splatter and if John McLane’s signature “Yippie-ki-yay, mother fucker” hadn’t been concealed by background noise), but a movie like “The Eagle”, suffers irreparable damage in its quest for PG-13. This is the kind of movie that needs the freedom and wiggle room provided by an R rating. “The Eagle” would never have been a great movie, that’s a fact, but if the action had been handled appropriately, it could at least have been fun to watch. Instead, the action and violence are toothless. You can feel where the filmmakers reigned themselves in and pulled back, and the result is that “The Eagle” feels castrated. In trying to make a movie for everyone, they made a movie for no one.

“The Eagle” is a story about Roman conquest, and as you can imagine, there are some prominent battle sequences. Overall these scenes look like leftovers from the opening battle from “Gladiator”, except with all of the violence missing. You see swords swinging, but the film cuts away before the blades actually slice through anything, and then you’re on to the next Centurion about to hack into someone, and the same thing happens. There are no causal connections at all. It’s as if, in every moment, a handful of frames have been lost. You could watch these fights and say that with all of these armed attacks, you never see anyone get injured. Not only are there no consequences, but this approach also gives the film a jagged, uneven feel, that makes it jarring to watch. Action is the only thing that could have saved “The Eagle”, but for a movie marketed on the epic action movie platform (you can see direct lifts from “Gladiator”, “Braveheart”, and “Lord of the Rings”, among others), there is woefully little of it. The weakest parts of the film are the acting and the story, and those take up the vast majority of the nearly two-hour run time.

20 years ago, the Ninth Legion, along with their beloved standard (a golden eagle), marched into the Highlands of Scotland, never to be heard from again. The disappearance and the loss is a point of shame for Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum), son of the leader of the Ninth. When he comes of age and earns his first command, he requests a posting in Britain, hoping to restore honor to his family name. In a battle with what can only be described as an overacting hippie warlock, Marcus is wounded, though he displayed great bravery in leading his men. His feats earn him accolades from Rome, but his injuries lead to an honorable discharge from the military. A career soldier, he quickly grows tired of lounging about in his uncle’s (Donald Sutherland) posh villa, and when a rumor about the Eagle surfaces, Marcus, with his Scottish slave Esca (Jamie Bell), who hates all things Roman but owes a blood debt to Marcus for saving his life, in tow, heads north past Hadrian’s Wall, a barrier that was erected after the disappearance of the Ninth and now serves as the de facto boundary of the known world. What follows is a little bit like “Apocalypse Now” lite. The unlikely friends journey into a hostile, nightmarish land, battle rogue warriors, encounter uncooperative villagers, and get taken in by the Seal People, who think that Esca is the master and Marcus the slave.

Channing Tatum was the best part of “The Dilemma”, in fact he’s the only good part of that movie, but he shouldn’t be allowed to carry an entire film. He’s pretty to look at, and his character is supposed to be young, but his delivery is leaden, his attempts to evoke emotion are laughable, his heavy-handed moralizing lacks any passion or fire, and he is so baby-faced that it is impossible to take him seriously as a battle hardened head of a Roman garrison. There are roles Tatum can handle, but a charismatic leader of men is simply not one of them at this stage of his career. Bell is decent as Esca, though his part mainly consists of scowling and hating Rome, but also being conflicted because he owes Marcus his life. When they become bros it only complicates things further. You’re supposed to wonder where Esca’s alliances lie, with the people he was taken from or with his promise to Marcus, and question which bond is stronger, but if you watched any of the trailers or TV spots, they all give that away, and with it goes any hope of tension. Things happen too easily in “The Eagle”. Marcus and Esca go from slave and master to pals over the span of a brief “becoming friends” montage, and then they go from trust to distrust back to trust with a snap of your fingers.

The interactions with the Seal People are something to behold. You get the feeling that you’re watching a classic Hollywood portrayal of Native American culture, like the filmmakers are trying to show something that they don’t really understand, so they simplify it and dumb it down to the point of insulting caricature. The Seal People are uni-dimensional, drunken, child murdering savages, who have giant bonfire dances that are eerily reminiscent of that primal rave scene from the “Matrix” sequel. According to “The Eagle” that’s all there is to their culture. You know that somewhere, someone is trying to make a point about imperialism, occupation, and resistance that is supposed to resonate given the current state of the world, but nothing of the sort happens, and you’re left feeling almost offended at the pointlessness.

“The Eagle” isn’t as brutal as it needs to be to succeed, or even make the story believable, which is saying something for a movie where there are headless corpses hanging upside down from trees, and a child gets his throat slit. The film wants to be violent, and on the surface it is, but it is watered down to the point that even the sound of flesh being sliced is edited out, as if a knife tearing through skin makes no sound at all. More than any film in recent memory, “The Eagle” suffers from the attempts to tone down the violence for a desired rating. This action constrains the entire film, forcing it to rely on other elements, only nothing else is strong enough to prop up the entire movie, and “The Eagle” fails as a result.

Friday, February 4, 2011

'Sanctum' Movie Review

“Sanctum”, the newest 3D extravaganza produced by James Cameron, will make you never go into a cave ever again. Not that “The Descent” didn’t already do that, but this time the only monsters lurking in the darkness are the human kind, not to mention one seriously pissed off Mother Nature. During the exploration of a series of unexplored, mostly underwater caves in Papua New Guinea, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. A diver drowns, a typhoon overtakes the camp before the team can escape the catacombs, and the torrential rains begin to fill caves with a handful of survivors trapped inside.

Where “Sanctum” works best is as a claustrophobic, man versus nature story. Conflict comes naturally from the situation. The team’s only avenue of escape is cut off, and the only possible way they can reach the surface is to delve deeper and deeper into the Earth’s crust. The script takes every opportunity to crank up the tension—the water level keeps rising, they’re running out of batteries, one of the company is an inexperienced diver, and no matter how hard they try, panic sets in. This is a situation with no hope of rescue, where one wrong step can and will kill you, and there are certain harsh realities that some people can accept, while others still cling to the values of their cushy, surface lives. Make no mistake, life stuck deep into the buttcrack of the world is bleak and inhospitable.

During these moments, where the crew threads their way through the bowels of the planet, searching desperately for any crack or seam that may lead to freedom, or at least to another crack or seam to scuttle through, and so on and so forth, “Sanctum” performs admirably as a taut action thriller. Unfortunately, there isn’t much in the way of character development or plot to support this scenario, which are the major issues with the film. What characters there are in “Sanctum” are hackneyed clich├ęs, and thoroughly unlikeable to boot. The leader of the pack, Frank (Richard Roxburgh), is a world-class caver, one of the last great explorers left. He’s a gruff Lance Armstrong lookalike who spouts Coleridge as he dives into the unknown. Beyond that, he’s kind of a prick, and is not above drowning an old friend who has become severely injured and can’t continue. Like no one else, Frank accepts the harsh realities of their situation. His son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) is a spoiled brat who doesn’t appreciate what he has. The financier, Carl (Ioan Gruffud), is a billionaire jock who wants all of the glory without putting in any of the grunt work. He’s the kind of guy who brings his girlfriend, Victoria (Alice Parkinson), who has never been diving before, into a water filled cave just to impress her. Carl’s a cartoon, and snaps exactly in the way you know he is going to snap the first time you see him step out of a plane with his mirrored shades.

Fortunately for you, you don’t have to give a damn about the characters for the set up to work. They may be sacks of crap, but they’re flat and empty enough that when things start to go south you can still put yourself in their position and feel the breath squeeze out of your lungs as the walls close in on you. Sure, it would help to have someone to root for, but it’s not entirely necessary. The attempts at story beyond the you’re-about-to-drown-two-kilometers-underground-you-have-to-get-the-hell-out-now aspects are nothing but heavy-handed family melodrama that would be more at home on the Lifetime Network than in an action movie.

The story may be trite and contrived, but “Sanctum” director Alister Grierson puts the overused 3D technology to good use. The film looks the best during the dive sequences, when the characters float through a dark, surreal world that no human has ever laid eyes on. These moments are truly impressive. When the story climbs out of the water and onto dry land, the 3D is largely unnecessary, even uncomfortable and jarring at times, like the vast majority of 3D these days, though the underwater scenes make up for the lesser moments.

If you can get past your immediate distaste for the characters, the staunch overacting, and the movie-of-the-week approach to storytelling, which are the indeed major stumbling blocks, “Sanctum” is an entertaining, survival-at-all-costs story. At the high moments, it is an edge of your seat kind of thriller where the tension constantly creeps upwards, and the characters are in real, immediate danger. That’s something that’s all too rare in movies, and something that is woefully underappreciated by Hollywood, the feeling that these characters, like them or not, may not make it out of this alive.

One other impressive thing about “Sanctum” is that even two kilometers below the surface of the earth, trapped in a labyrinth of unexplored caves, they still find a way to show a woman in nothing but her underwear. Way to go guys, way to go.