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by Bill Gibron

29 Dec 2009

We’ve said it over and over again - making ‘worst-of’ lists is a heck of a lot harder than making ‘best-of’ determinations. The explanation for why may seem specious at first, but follow along anyway. You see, something good stands out for numerous reasons – brilliant direction, monumental acting, a quick and brainy script, an approach to a subject that is fresh and dynamic. Even when that story seems similar and the elements reek of the routine, energy and mood, tone and treatment can all aid in a film’s final aesthetic determination. But with the bad, the facets are sadly familiar – boring execution, non-existing cinematics, lame, ludicrous writing and performances that range from problematic to pathetic. These aggravating aspects never change, they never alter their underachieving patchiness. A crappy effort is a crappy effort, each one feeling similarly unworthy and unacceptable.

by Bill Gibron

27 Dec 2009

There is nothing wrong with flaunting convention, especially when the subject (or in this case, cinematic genre) definitely deserves the revisionist tweaking. For decades now, the thriller has gone through several seemingly important permutations - erotic, political, domestic, international, personal, psychological, horrific, humorous - while maintaining the same basic bland motion picture formulas. Thanks to fright film configurations like the slice and dice slasher category, or the overworked (and thoroughly predictable) police procedural, edge of your seat entertainment definitely needs a reimagining boost. About the closest it’s come to an overhaul is Paul Greengrass’s hand-held hedonism of the Bourne Franchise.

So when David Twohy of Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick fame announced that he was taking on the type in a completely unconventional manner, audiences had a right to be excited. If anyone could instill some new life in the old cat and mouse, it had to be the man who made Vin Diesel palatable. Sadly, what the filmmaker delivered was less of A Perfect Getaway and more of a soulless slog through whodunit boredom. The overly simple story centers on a couple - Cliff (Steve Zahn) and Cydney (Milla Jovovich) - who travel to Hawaii on their honeymoon. There, they run into another couple - Nick (Timothy Olyphant) and Gina (Kiele Sanchez) - and the news that there is a pair of serial killers on the island. Of course, everyone suspects everyone else, and it’s not long before tempers flare…and truths are finally revealed.

As you can tell by the set-up, A Perfect Getaway (new to DVD and Blu-ray) is not a complicated movie. In fact, it’s so simplistic it’s fetal. This is a film that believes it is pushing the boundaries of the creative category, and yet accomplishes said reinvention in the most mindless way possible. For instance, Twohy clearly decides that the best way to handle the concept of suspense is to have none at all. That’s right - for the first hour and ten minutes of the overlong film, nothing remotely dreadful or fearful happens. There is a lot of innuendo and a great deal of mindless chatter, but with the audience lacking any information that would inspire horror, A Perfect Getaway takes the notion of being lifeless literarily.

The twist - the lifeblood of any attempted crackerjack chiller - is also telegraphed far in advance. Once we learn who the killers are, we then wait for the deadly denouement to play out. Again, Twohy holds back. Instead, we are treated to a wacked out flashback/hallucination where motives are drawn like stick figures in a child’s kindergarten class and psychological complexities are tackled with dialogue so mannered that even Shakespeare would consider it convoluted. In fact, there’s a moment when Twohy stops the action dead, trying to illustrate the cockeyed perspective of his murderer. Instead, we laugh at the directorial flourish, convinced that nothing good can come out of the otherwise hilarious attempt at middle school mind games.

It doesn’t help that there are only six characters in the story - and two have to be the killers. By the time we get to the 80 minute mark, two of the sextet are MIA. That means we are left with a dumbfounding 50/50 shot at who indeed are the nutjobs. And since Twohy hasn’t take much time to develop the characters beyond a superficial sketchbook snapshot, the psychological clues are almost non-existent. Again, this could all be part of the filmmaker’s attempt to flummox expectations. While we don’t necessarily like having a second act suspect show up and draw suspicion away from the mains, it would have helped. Without a commentary track or other way of understanding what Twohy was up to, A Perfect Getaway plays like a screenwriting manual’s example of how NOT to create a nailbiter.

And then there is the ending. Without giving much away, our couples come under the judgmental jurisdiction of the police, warned (per standard screenwriting convention) by a cellphone that now somehow works. As the stand-off between victim and villainy transpires, as Twohy tries to make us guess where the SWAT team’s bullet will find its mark, the plot punks out. It offers up a lame “gotcha” that doesn’t even deliver the sense of satisfaction that one should get when getting rid of the bad guy. Instead, there’s a head wound, a kiss off last line, and a lot of unfulfilled promises. A Perfect Getaway, by trying to be different, simply ends up being tiresome. Instead of reinventing the genre wheel, Twohy flattens it without a spare in sight.

Of course, the new Blu-ray release offers a “director’s cut” that does little to expand its theatrical likeability. In fact, unless you are the kind of celluloid detective who uses their photographic memory to recall every intricate narrative detail, you’ll be hard pressed to see the differences between the two versions. And since the disc doesn’t offer any interviews or cast and crew discussions, intent and effect are impossible to infer. No that the actors would have much to add, one assumes. Of the four main players, Olyphant seems to be having the most fun, taking lines without much meat on them and fleshing them out to the best of his muscled suntanned ability. Zahn is zoned out most of the time, while Jovovich gives what could best be described as a tarted-up zombie performance. That just leaves Kiele Sanchez to bring something compelling to the mix. She can’t.

Indeed, instead of trying to do something different with the Cineplex warhorse, Twohy should have taken his skill at action and adventure and turned A Perfect Getaway into the best illustration of the genre mandates ever. After all, Hitchcock constantly relied on filmmaking stereotypes and shortcuts to get his otherwise masterful suspense efforts across, and he remains a certifiable genius. Unless you really have something new, novel, inventive, or unprecedented to bring to the motion picture mix, leave your desire to “shake things up” for the occasional writer’s block daydream. If you ever need a reminder of why, just take a look at A Perfect Getaway. After a major box office bomb, David Twohy clearly was looking to defy expectations. What he ended up defying was logic, entertainment - and a prosperous career in the industry.

by Bill Gibron

27 Dec 2009

Love hurts. Love stinks. It’s all you need and often the answer. So a love story should be complicated, not pat and perfunctory. A romance should run the gamut from happiness to heartbreak, the thrill of initial lust to the hard times of settling in for the long haul. Unfortunately, Hollywood only sees the Meet-Cute, the obvious actor/actress age difference, and the notion that with plot contrivances and clichés come true emotional epiphanies. To them, love is less like oxygen and more like syrupy sweet penny candy. That’s why the recent indie offering (500) Days of Summer stands as something so original and refreshing. While a tad too twee for most stick in the mud cinephiles, it remains a stellar example of a daring genre tweak that works, and works marvelously.

Taking the unusual approach of realizing its title figuratively (we don’t literally see all 500 days of this relationship, but we do cover quite a few), music video auteur turned first time director Marc Webb casts Zooey Deschanel as the bubbly and quirky “It” girl without the necessary defining qualities that make her a classic beauty or a smart-alecky snark artist. Instead, Summer is the girl next door as elusive albatross, a symbol of everything love has to be for failed architect turned greeting card writer Tom (a terrific Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Using a quick cut vignette-oriented style, and bouncing back and forth between the good times and the painful tribulations, the awkward beginnings and the agonizing incongruities, screenwriters Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter take their own experiences and redefine the RomCom. The movie even admits it is not a love story. Instead, it is a story about love - literally.

As the commentary track on the new Blu-ray release of (500) Days of Summer confirms, this is a tale born out of truth. There is a real life ‘Summer’ running around out there, a gal who adored the Smiths, zoned in on one man’s veiled vulnerability and then dropped the “F” bomb - ‘friends’ - when things went from satiric dates at Ikea to declarations of devotion. The movie is meant to be a combination of conflicted sentiments - part kiss-off and part celebration, part personal comedy with some stingy human tragedy folded in for good measure. Sure, Webb has never met a music montage he couldn’t restage several times (though the Hall and Oates bit is brilliant) and we do grow a wee bit irritated by the obvious indie irony, but that doesn’t really distract us. (500) Days of Summer is so engaging and so honest that we are instantly swept up in the story and experience the psychological and social rollercoaster of both of our leads.

In fact, Weber and Neustadter make it very clear that they wanted no villains here - no heartless “bitches” or worthless macho “losers” that the audience could hiss at or easily dismiss. Indeed, (500) Days of Summer is one of those rare experiences where we see truly three dimensional people - warts, wants, needs, desires, misconceptions, and misguided beliefs and all. Summer may seem like the natural baddie - she does have the film’s biggest plot twist turn of events - but she’s also struggling to find herself in a world that wants to merely pigeonhole her for prettiness’ sake. Tom is also incomplete - a man more talented than he lets on with aspirations that may never match his options. Think back on all the couples you’ve seen in lame Tinseltown takes on this material and you’ll be hard pressed to find a pair as deep and varied as these two.

Better yet, there’s no third party or meddling conspiracy of acquaintances to taint the conversational constructs. Most RomComs use the supporting players as a voice of reason/ridiculousness/raunch, a glorified Greek chorus that does little except explain the already obvious. If not then, then the flagrant ‘fifth wheel’ is the already in place paramour, the boyfriend/fiancé/husband/ex that just can’t seem to take the hint (or the hike the goes along with it). In their place, (500) Days of Summer offers understanding younger sisters, equally unfocused friends, cagey co-workers and a standard assembly of amiable authenticities. Certainly there are times when the movie presses the boundaries of believability, but all fictions do. By staying away from the stereotypical, Webb and company create a near-classic.

You can sense the desire to remain original all throughout the Blu-ray bonus features. From the wonderful viral video riff on Sid and Nancy (inspired by dialogue from the film) to the telling conversations with Zooey and Joseph, (500) Days of Summer is consistently seen as an opportunity, a chance to voice another part of the love dynamic rarely discussed. The aforementioned commentary offers equal insights, struggling to explain why typical Hollywood hokum does relationships a massive disservice. Indeed, what we get out of most of this material is a dedication to truth. Webb and his cast aren’t out to wander the stereotypical boy/girl path. Instead, (500) Days of Summer is meant as an antidote to all those hyper-unrealistic insults to one’s intelligence.

That’s why this movie is destined to become a generational giant, a work that speaks to a certain contemporary if ill-defined demographic that’s too cynical to believe in magic but not completely incapable of embracing something significant. For them, (500) Days of Summer will sink in like The Graduate did in the ‘60s, American Graffiti did in the ‘70s, and the films of John Hughes did in the ‘80s. In a world where people are often angrier and more depressed than ditzy and daydreamy, where personal connections seem based on sex, sleaze, and social mandates, a movie like (500) Days of Summer soars. It strides to its own unique beat. It’s one of the rare efforts that truly tells us what love is - its pluses and minuses, ups and downs, valuables and wasteful excesses. Thanks to Marc Webb, Michael Weber, Scott Neustadter, Zooey Deschanel, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the RomCom finally gets a heady dose of reality - and it’s an entertaining and moving sight to behold.

by Bill Gibron

27 Dec 2009

It’s good to know that George Lucas has a sense of humor…and no, we don’t mean the inclusion of flamboyantly gay Hutt Zero in the recent Clone Wars animated series. Where once it was verboten to take the piss out of the Dark Lord’s Skywalker saga, shows like Robot Chicken and Family Guy have actually had licensed cooperation to do so. While the former has done consistently clever things with its more vignette and sketch comedy approach to satire, Seth MacFarlane’s first attempted Star Wars spoof - the two part “Blue Harvest” episode - was borderline awful. So reverent it forgot to be funny, you could sense a show uncertain about how far to push the Luke and Leia laughs.

Now comes the necessary sequel - Something, Something, Something, Dark Side - and it’s safe to say it’s a solid improvement over the erratic Episode IV flub. New to DVD and Blu-ray, it’s a recognizable return to form. Again, the Family Guy brain trust decides to more or less regurgitate the plot of Empire Strikes Back beat for beat. We get the ice planet Hoth, the Tauntaun as sleeping bag, the Imperial Walkers battle, the trip to the Dagoba system, Yoda fu, and the Cloud City confrontation between Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, bounty hunter Boba Fett and interstellar cowboy Han Solo. Even though it clocks in at less than a hour, Guy manages to get almost all of it in. And thanks to a clever use of cast members as sci-ficons, the lampoon is mostly spot-on…mostly.

Like before, oldest son Chris Griffin is Luke, while youngest child Stewie is a pitch perfect Darth Vader (reminiscent of Rick Moranis’ turn in Spaceballs with a hefty dose of the clipped Christopher Lee from the nauseating Wars prequels). Peter is Han, dog Brian is Chewbacca, while wife Lois is Leia. Sex fiend Quagmire is a rather subdued C-3PO while black neighbor Cleveland is R2D2. Sadly, daughter Meg is relegated to little more than a cameo, her only Wars-oriented line actually commenting on said fact.

In between we get bits from favorite characters like wheelchair bound cop Joe, Herbert the Pervert, fey Bruce, and the incredibly Jewish Mort Goldman. Toss in a bunch of mindless asides, black-outs, one-off in-jokes, and antiquated homages and you’ve got the makings for a decent deconstruction. However, one can’t help feeling that this should be funnier - sharper, fresher, more outrageous and in-your-face. It’s Family Guy, after all.

Indeed, the biggest problem that Something, Something, Something, Dark Side suffers from is this desire to retell the Star Wars saga. Instead of using the material as a jumping off point - which is what Robot Chicken does - MacFarlane et. al. are like geekiest geeks in all of geekdom. Sure, they turn everyone’s favorite gun for hire into the famed Giant Chicken, but then they make the formidable fowl do little except repeat the infamous Fett’s lines nearly word-for-word. Instead of exploring the possibilities of convenience store manager Carl as Yoda, we get a couple of pop culture riffs (Van Wilder and Teen Wolf) followed by more of Lucas’ own borrowed mythology. As with Blue Harvest, the Guy gang just can’t break away and make the material their own. Instead, they simply substitute their “cast” for the classic names we all know and hope that will be enough.

Sometimes, it is. Stewie is terrific as Vader, the most fully realized ridiculing in all the Stars’ send-up. From his expert line readings to oddball tangents, one hopes the show gets around to doing Episodes I through III, if only to see the wicked little rugrat take the horrid Hayden Christensen down a few delicious notches. Equally entertaining are several of the minor performers, pieces of a comic puzzle that don’t always come together, put definitely capable of bringing a smile as they try. While Chris is acceptable as Luke, Peter is far too passive as Han to make a decent mockery. It would be nice to see more of original star Harrison Ford’s hambone bravado. Heck, we don’t even see a lot of Papa Griffin’s patented scatology.

The reason for all this safeguarding seems to come from the bonus features. MacFarlane and company are present for a jovial commentary track which illustrates some of the source material hurdles they had to over come, as well as insufferable studio mandates that had to be dealt with. In addition, the Blu-ray has a trivia track which highlights some of the same “back to the drawing board” decisions. In essence, because they were working with the blessing of Lucas (within limits) and the bottom line wary gaze of Fox, there wasn’t a great deal of farce freedom. One good thing - the home theater version keeps the foul mouthed swears intact. If you ever wanted to hear Han Solo tell Princess Leia to “F” herself, this is the title for you.

With a look at the next Wars workout (a take on Return of the Jedi) and a decent collection of behind the scenes elements (including an animatic with director discussion), Something, Something, Something, Dark Side is a first rate digital package. Where it falls down a little is on the non-theatrical tech specs. Sure, Family Guy is a TV series, and as such, stuck in a 1.33:1 full screen presentation (for now), but did this Blu-ray version have to stay within such strictures. The image is amazing, the 1080p image delivering lots of detail. So why not go the extra mile and “open up” the digital package to a more cinematic 16x9 experience. The 5.1 Master Audio option tries to. Some of the gorgeous CG animation just begs for a widescreen viewing.

For many, such format flaws won’t matter. Something, Something, Something Dark Side will remind them of why they fell in love with Family Guy in the first place, while giving them split sides over their favorite heroes and villain space opera. They will giggle at the extended Darth fart joke and love every “F” and “S” bomb dropped. Yet it’s ironic that Seth Green, creator and oddball wizard behind Robot Chicken is also a member of the Guy cast. When he takes on the most hailed and harangued movie saga of all time, he’s not afraid to take risks, push buttons, and slaughter a few sacred cows along the way. It’s a lesson MacFarlane and his faithful could learn from. While better than Blue Harvest, Something, Something etc. needed to be edgier. Instead, it’s a genial, if genuine, romp. 

by Bill Gibron

26 Dec 2009

There are very few visionaries left in Hollywood, with even fewer arriving every day - and with good reason. It’s not easy pitching your quirky, esoteric product to a group of suits solely interested in the bottom line. Today’s business model is about money, not the mind’s eye. Not matter how artistically pleasing or aesthetically sound, you just can’t stay completely true to your muse and not face some strong commercial (and career) backlash. That’s why Shane Acker’s story is so intriguing. After an Oscar nomination highlighted his beautiful, baroque animation approach, filmmakers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov championed his jump to feature films. The result is 9 (now available on DVD and Blu-ray), a stunning, if narratively stunted exercise in optical bliss and plotting hit or miss that could have been better if it wasn’t so basic. 

As one of nine living burlap puppets in a desolate, post-War environment, our title hero hooks up with the rest of his reanimated brethren: ‘1’, a despotic leader; ‘2’, a kindly sage, ‘3’ and ‘4’, twins who work in an information archive; ‘5’ whose one eyed façade hints at the horrors in this frightening new domain; ‘6’, who sees prophecy in the images he draws; ‘7’, a female fighter with more nerve than other of her kind, and ‘8’, a lumbering bodyguard to 1’s stern leadership. Together, they must figure out what happened to the human population while stopping a massive factory-sized machine from creating destructive devices bent on bringing about their own demise. Eventually, ‘9’ uncovers a secret about why he’s alive, and the power that such a status holds in bringing humanity back from the brink of utter extinction.

9 is the kind of movie that breaks your heart. It shows so much promise, but then wastes it on the same old fuddy duddy future shock storyline. After all, how many times do we have to sit through a “man vs. machines” parable where our arrogance and technological drive leads to our eventual undoing. Sure, director Shane Acker dresses it all up in World War I/II paraphernalia, the Nazi/Fascist overtones carried throughout with sledgehammer like subtlety. True, the tone is not child friendly, but geared more toward the Goth guy/gal and geek mentality. And yes, the voice work is absolutely amazing, everyone from Elijah Wood (as 9) to Crispin Glover (6), John C. Reilly (5), and Jennifer Connelly (7) spot-on in their delivery and demeanor.

But that doesn’t make the mechanical monster mash any newer or more novel. 9 constantly reminds the audience of The Matrix (especially in the look of its villains), The Terminator (in its ‘A.I. gone gonzo’ themes), and numerous other examples of the speculative type. Of course, all of this was planned purposefully. On the commentary track that accompanies the home video release Acker and his collaborators spend an inordinate amount of time on the plot, believing quite incorrectly that they have somehow stumbled upon an original storyline. Along with an equally schizophrenic spiritual message - more on that in a moment - we are stuck following formulas that would barely work at all if not for Ackers amazing artistry.

Indeed, the one thing that saves this proposed CG epic is the jaw-dropping production and character design. Whenever the story starts to lag, whenever the references become too recognizable or obvious, Acker delivers a robot or wide reaction shot that will absolutely floor you. He crafts vistas that take your breath away while populating them with particulars of equal optical excellence. Like the best kind of magician, 9 misdirects you from the misguided man behind the curtain to visual splendor that steals the show. One of the best elements of the Blu-ray release is the in-depth look at how the characters were created, along with illustrations of the themes, art design details, and voice over challenges involved.

Still, we are stuck with narrative facets that don’t feel right. The whole “soul” situation makes little or no sense, the ability to trap such an enigmatic ideal in a tiny doll appearing counterproductive to the rest of the story’s set-up. In fact, it feels like a cheat, a way of showing audiences that, in the end, the human race will somehow be saved. It doesn’t help that each of our nine leads are locked into caricaturist confines - champion, coward, iron fisted ruler, deliberate dreamer - making their path to the planet’s repopulation sketchy at best. And Acker never really explains his sci-fi rules here, something that is imperative in making this material work. Clearly, he was busier with the nuts and bolts of the film’s look than in trying to make everything in his wistful wasteland work in a literarily sound way.

And yet 9 defies you not to be moved by its visual acumen. Acker is clearly a genius in combining ideas, using a clever combination of the Victorian and the high tech, the junkyard and the completely foreign to forge a unique and memorable ideal. Sure, his puppets are nothing more than your standard sell-through figurines, but the rest of this rotting world has a perverse polish all its own. The villains here are undeniably evil in their cobbled together terror tenets. While the story never knocks us out, the action sequences and attention to detail certainly do. By the end, when we’ve wandered over from battles to matters of belief, the contrasts become more obvious. We need the bad to shore up the good. Without it, the treacle takes over, and the result is something that never quite feels new, even with all the up-to-date aspects of its approach up on the screen for all to see.

With an inferred demographic who will find this frequently flying way over their grumbling gradeschooler heads, it’s hard to see 9 becoming anything other than an obvious cult classic. Those who adore it will excuse the lack of narrative nuance, while others in the cinematic sect will worship individual elements like they are sure signs from God himself. One thing is for certain - Shane Acker has a seemingly boundless imagination that can salvage even the most simplistic, standardized sci-fi plot. 9 could have been a true animation masterpiece, the kind that rarely come along outside of a place called Pixar. Instead, it wastes a lot of creative energy on a concept that’s been before - and frankly, outside of the CG eye candy involved, better. 

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