Monday, May 31, 2010

"The Karate Kid, Part II" (1986)

"The Karate Kid, Part II"
Starring Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita and Tamlyn Tomita
Written by Robert Mark Kamen
Directed by John G. Avildsen

Ah, is there anything so self-glorifying as a sequel?  So often they end up a a shameless money-grab rather than a genuine continuation of a story.  With the second in the now long-running "Karate Kid" franchise, it's a little hard to classify which one this is.  While the story it tells is mostly worthy, it's also mostly unnecessary.  The premise is so dedicated to exploring the life and world of Miyagi that the presence of Daniel LaRusso seems forced throughout the entire picture, and writer Robert Mark Kamen struggles to find things for him to do.

Not long after winning the big karate tournament in the first film, Daniel continues to become a surrogate son for Miyagi.  When Miyagi receives word from Okinawa that his father has become ill, Miyagi returns to the fishing village he ran away from decades earlier.  It seems that he'd fallen in love with a woman,Yuki, who was promised to another: Miyagi's best friend, Sato.  His honor scorned, Sato challenged Miyagi to a fight... to the death.  Instead of fighting, Miyagi escaped to America.

Daniel insists on coming along to Japan with Miyagi, apparently spending the money he'd been saving for college in order to do so.  Just so Daniel has something to do in Japan, his girlfriend has conveniently broken up with him (and he's therefore free to pursue a new, Japanese love interest, Kumiko).  When Daniel and Miyagi arrive, they soon learn the lay of the land: Sato has become a powerful, corrupt businessman who runs roughshod over the whole area.  His nephew, Toguchi, is basically a karate-trained thug, cheating the locals at the market and beating up anyone who gets in his way. 

Miyagi's dying wish is for Sato and Miyagi to make up, but Sato won't have it, and gives Miyagi three days to grieve and prepare for their battle.  Meanwhile, Daniel continues to run afoul of Toguchi, no matter how hard he tries not to (or doesn't try not to... try figuring out all those negatives).  He also spends a lot of time awkwardly flirting with Kumiko. 

Finally, after Miyagi saves Sato's life during a dangerous thunderstorm, the two old friends mend fences.  But, oh, this is a Karate Kid movie, so there's got to be a big fight for Daniel at the end, right?  So what do we do?  Well, the script awkwardly manufactures a reason for Toguchi to go flat-out insane and take Kumiko hostage during a big village celebration and challenge Daniel to a fight to the death. 

So the Karate Kid, the character who belongs in this movie the least, gets the snot beat out of him for a few minutes until he magically figures out the secret move Miyagi tried to teach him once earlier in the movie and turns the tide of the fight.

"Karate Kid, Part II" is a mostly enjoyable sequel, but I have a hard time justifying its existence.  Daniel feels entirely out of place, and not just because he's a dorky American kid spending time in a tiny Japanese fishing village.  The script has to shoe-horn him into every situation that happens, and the fight at the end feels tacked on.  It is all very well made, however.  Director John Avildsen (who also directed the first film, and "Rocky") does a lot of solid work, and there's some great photography, too.  But there are also a few missteps.  The secret move Daniel uses to pound the tar out of Toguchi at the end is shot in so close you can't really tell what he's doing, so it really looks like he's just delivering alternating cross punches... So one has to wonder what the fuck was so secret about basic punching techniques.  (One also has to wonder why the supposedly unbeatable crane-kick move from the first movie actually has a simplistic blocking defense.)

The movie goes on a bit too long, too; a number of scenes could easily be shortened or even omitted entirely.  Shave ten minutes off this thing, and it'd flow by much quicker.

Probably the highlight of the whole enterprise is the interactions between Daniel and Miyagi; the two actors have clear chemistry with each other, and the characters bounce off each other with great energy.  On the opposite end of that coin, Macchio and Tomita have a pretty flaccid romance.  Tomita spends the entire movie looking shyly uncomfortable and whispering her lines.  The villains of the piece are pretty cartoonish, with every line greatly overexaggerated for the chest-beating, "grr, I'm EVIL" effect. 

So I'm not really sure where to put this one.  It's not like "Karate Kid, Part II" isn't any fun to watch; it is.  But there are just enough problems with it (including some that are conceptual) to keep it from being really good.  It can't match the original, and considering where the franchise would end up going after this one, they probably shouldn't have even tried.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

"Observe and Report" (2009)

"Observe and Report" (2009)
Starring Seth Rogen, Ray Liotta and Anna Farris
Written and Directed by Jody Hill

I'm a little unsure how to feel about "Observe and Report."  That may have something to do with its odd promotional campaign which attempted to paint it as the next 'Superbad'-style comedy from Seth Rogen.  Instead, "Observe and Report" is actually a rather dark comedy, full of uncomfortably dysfunctional characters and situations.  Now, I knew going in that it wasn't going to be what the advertisements said; I'd read enough about the movie to know that it was a bit more serious than that.  So the problem isn't so much with expectations as it is with... I'm just not sure what to make of the movie itself.

Rogen stars as Ronnie, head of security at a shopping mall.  He fancies himself a big fish, getting free coffee in the food court, ruling his security staff with an iron fist, and so forth.  He also has a crush on Brandi (Anna Farris), the ditsy makeup girl at the department store.  One day, a man in a trench coat flashes a number of women in the parking lot, and Ronnie sees his chance to prove to the world that he's not just some random mall security guard.

This description might read like a rough draft of "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" but it ends up going somewhere else - the rush of being involved in a real police investigation, being interviewed on the news, gives Ronnie the energy to attempt to become a real police officer.  He trains hard and aces his tests, much to the chagrin of Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), the man in charge of the mall flasher case.  Harrison can't stand Ronnie, and does his best to sabotage Ronnie's entrance into the police academy.

It seems like the parts of Ronnie's life are coming together.  He builds a warm, friendly relationship with an injured girl working at the coffee shop in the food court, eventually gets to date (and screw) Brandi, and seems to have a good shot at becoming a real police officer.

That's when "Observe and Report" throws its curveball - Ronnie is mentally unstable.  Desperate to impress Brandi, he gives her his bi-polar meds, and kicks the habit completely.  Unfortunately, this leads him to fail his psych evaluation to get into the police academy and his life crumbles around him.  His best friend on his team turns out to be a serial robber that Ronnie had been unable to catch for months.  The flasher is still evading him.  He's become the laughing stock of the police force... and Brandi, it turns out, has been screwing Harrison behind Ronnie's back.

For a dark comedy, there's a lot more darkness in "Observe and Report" than there is comedy.  Ronnie's deterioration is nearly as creepy to watch as Vincent D'Onofrio's Private Pyle in "Full Metal Jacket."  You feel bad for him at first, but eventually when Ronnie begins to lash out at people who have always been nice to him, it gets incredibly uncomfortable.  By the time the film's climax rolls around, and Ronnie has a final confrontation with the flasher, it's hard not to be outright disturbed by Ronnie's actions.

The film is funny, sure, but it probably needs to be a little bit funnier.  It's just funny enough that you know its a comedy, but the disturbing parts overwhelm.   It's a question of balance, really, and something feels very wrong about "Observe and Report" because of this.  Rogen gives a fine performance, and it's a nice turn for him after playing so many loveable goofball roles in the last few years.  Liotta, of course, does his thing as a douchey detective.  Farris is hilarious, as usual, but by the end of the movie, even her character is utterly unlikeable... not that she was all that great to begin with.

So I'm mixed on "Observe and Report."  There's a lot of great stuff here, but the uneven tone makes the movie seem inconsistent, like it's quite sure what it wants to be.  As a depressing character study of a mall security guard, it's fairly fascinating, and the performances are winners.  As a comedy, it's hard to recommend, though there are plenty of bits of pure gold in here.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths" (2010)

"Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths" (2010)
Starring Mark Harmon, William Baldwin and James Woods
Written by Dwayne McDuffiee
Directed by Lauren Montgomery

Oh, if only you were voiced by Kevin Conroy...
So by now, everyone knows I love superheroes.  When it comes to escapist fantasy, there are fewer things more rewarding than ultimate battles between heroic do-gooders and dastardly villains.  Two of my favorite superheroes are also the comic world's oldest and most iconic - Batman and Superman.  Over the years, I've enjoyed a number of different interpretations of these characters, with two clear favorites: the 1978 Christopher Reeve/Richard Donner "Superman" and the 1990s Bruce Timm/Kevin Conroy "Batman: The Animated Series."

These are invariably the two incarnations to which I will compare all others.  Bruce Timm in particular has left an indelible mark on the DC Universe, as under his hand the DC Animated Universe became so popular that aspects of it were incorporated into the parent comics. 

After Timm's universe finally came to a close after the second season of "Justice League Unlimited," Warner Bros. began to produce a series of direct-to-DVD movies adapting popular comics storylines into PG-13 rated animated features.  The results have been mixed, at best.  While "Superman: Doomsday" and "Justice League: New Frontier" were solid, "Green Lantern: First Flight" and "Superman/Batman: Public Enemies" were failures.

And so we come to "Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths," a story originally written for the "Justice League" TV show, here adapted to be a standalone feature.  In this film, the Lex Luthor from an alternate universe arrives and requests help from the Justice League (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, J'onn J'onzz and the Flash) to save his world from the Crime Syndicate - essentially, evil versions of the League.  It seems that the Syndicate has built a quantum bomb capable of destroying the entire world, and no one on that world is powerful enough to stop them.

Reluctantly, Superman and the others agree to travel to Luthor's world and clean up the place.  But when the evil Owl Man discovers Luthor's ability to travel between universes, his plans to destroy one world balloon maniacally into a scheme to destroy all reality, everywhere.  If Owl Man can locate "Earth Prime," the original universe from which all others branch, and destroy it, then all other universes would cease to exist.

"Crisis on Two Earths" follows a couple of story beats from an earlier JL episode, "A Better World" - In that, the League travels to an alternate universe and fights evil versions of themselves to free the world from tyranny.  And in that, the whole thing essentially hinges on a confrontation between Batman and his alternate self.  There, the Justice Lords were misguided into believing their their harsh ways were the best to protect the citizens of Earth, here the Crime Syndicate is merely a super-powered mafia. 

The whole exercise is interestingly written, save for some caveats.  Firstly, Batman doesn't kill - but he does so twice in this movie.  This is not to say he puts a gun to someone's head and pulls the trigger, but the effect is the same.  It's a moral issue I had with the otherwise excellent "Batman Begins" as well.  In fact, what he does to Johnny Quick is downright heartless and cruel - essentially tricking Quick into sacrificing himself in order to save his own friend's life instead.  That's a level of selfishness I simply can't accept from Batman.  One might be able to argue a level of pragmatism in Batman's choice - that it's the "right" thing for Quick to do to sacrifice himself for his own world, instead of Flash for another's, but the whole premise of the film is based around the League making the choice to help a world beyond their own because that's the right thing to do.

Also an issue is the quality of the cast.  As Batman, William Baldwin is okay... but no one beats Kevin Conroy.  No one.  Mark Harmon is a blank slate Superman.  Frankly the standout here is James Woods' Owl Man, whose cold delivery is chilling.  There are a few other familiar players like Bruce Davison as the President and Gina Torres as Superwoman, the Wonder Woman analogue.  Unfortunately, this movie is a case where the supporting cast is better than the primary one. 

The animation is peculiarly low-rent in places as well, though certainly a step up from the chunky, stuttering nonsense from "Public Enemies."  The producers probably could have fixed the problems with this one by spending less money on their admittedly excellent title sequences and more on animation frames.  Still, the action sequences are all reasonably good, with less of the faux-shaky cam than was used in previous features (though it is still present).  This technique was used with good effect in the "Justice League" TV show, but in the movies has been hit or miss, and in "Public Enemies" entirely over-utilized in order to try and hide the deficiencies in the animation.

So "Crisis on Two Earths"... Hmm, where to put it.  It's a solid entry, certainly better than "Green Lantern" and "Public Enemies."  But it's still too inconsistent, with a problematic cast and a few iffy writing choices.  Warners has yet to knock one out of the park on these DVD movies, and each time I hope that they do and I'm always disappointed. 

Monday, May 24, 2010

"The Glimmer Man" (1996)

"The Glimmer Man" (1996)
Starring Steven Seagal, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Bob Gunton and Brian Cox
Written by Kevin Brodbin
Directed by John Gray

Oh, look, it's Steven Seagal.  There was a point in time where a movie starring Steven Seagal was kinda the coolest thing ever.  The man was FAST, no doubt about it, and the martial arts on display quite impressive.  Then somewhere around the mid-90s, the dude started to lose it.  "The Glimmer Man" is one of those flicks, where Seagal is starting to pack on the pounds and seems utterly disinterested in what's going on around him.  At least before he might've been a terrible actor but you could tell he was at least trying.

Seagal "stars" here as Cole, a Los Angeles detective with a shady past.  He's partnered with Campbell (Wayans) and the two attempt to track down a serial killer called 'The Family Man' who targets couples and crucifies his victims with lots of Christian imagery.  But when one of the crimes turns out to be the work of a copycat, Cole and Campbell find that they've stumbled into a larger conspiracy involving... um... chemical weapons smuggling... and... the Russian mafia... and... a Catholic school.

About halfway through the movie, everything switches gears and goes off the rails.  "The Glimmer Man" thinks that it has a script full of shocking plot twists, but really it's all just kind of stupid.  Cole is a character who preaches lots of calming Eastern philosophy, but will then suddenly turn around and slit three dude's necks with a blade hidden in his credit card.  Later, he blithely disregards his own advice (and chastises himself while doing so) by running headlong into a vicious gunfight for no reason.  The fight sequences aren't particularly well choreographed or directed.  At one point, the villain actually throws the same kick at Seagal three or four times in a row, and Seagal just stands there blocking it; that's some amateur-hour shit right there.

Oh and he also tortures his old boss, Smith.  Smith is a wholly worthless character, made a cliche when asked why he's betrayed his country with the reply "To get rich, why else?"  Still, Brian Cox manages to class things up a little, even though his dialogue is pretty weak and his character is pretty worthless.

Wayans is okay, but also seems pretty worthless to the proceedings.  He provides some comic relief (he is, after all, a Wayans) but doesn't seem particularly useful when it comes to any of the action sequences or even solving the 'mystery'.

So I'm gonna have to go ahead and give "The Glimmer Man" a big "meh".  If you need your Seagal fix, find some of his earlier stuff from when he was still in shape and seemed to give a damn.  If you need to watch something with a Wayans... well... Um... Ok.  I don't know how to help you on that one.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

"Land of the Lost" (2009)

"Land of the Lost" (2009)
Starring Will Ferrell, Anna Friel, Danny McBride
Written by Chris Henchy and Dennis McNicolas
Directed by Brad Silberling

It's too bad that "Land of the Lost," with such a great cast, didn't turn out as well as 2009's other big TV show movie adaptation, "Star Trek."  Will Ferrell stars as Dr. Rick Marshall, whose crackpot theories regarding tachyons and time warps get him laughed out of the scientific community after he has a meltdown on the Today show.  Three years later, scraping a living as a public school science teacher, he's approached by young doctoral student Holly Cantrell (Anna Friel) who believes his theories to be true.  Together, the two of them construct a device to seek out these tachyons, and are accidentally sucked into some kind of time portal along with skeevy tour guide Will Stanton (Danny McBride).

Deposited in a strange world where "past, present and future collide" they meet Chaka (Jorma Taccone), the exiled prince of some kind of primate society.  The four of them must run from an intelligent T-Rex, and deal with the army of Sleestaks, humanoid lizard people... or something.  At one point, they're met by Enik (John Boylan) who tells them that they must help him defeat an evil Sleestak overlord who plans on invading other alternate dimensions... or something.

I'm not gonna lie, "Land of the Lost" doesn't make a terrific amount of sense.  Or, really at all.  There's never any real explanation for exactly WHAT that land of the lost actually is.  Is it the past, the future, an alternate dimension... I'm pretty sure the movie threw out each of those explanations at one point.  Holly convinces Rick to work with her after producing a 250 million year old fossil of a cigarette lighter... and then later in the movie, we see where the lighter gets trampled into the ground.  But this doesn't make sense since in the present day there's no sign of fossilized remains of the Golden Gate bridge and... ice cream trucks...

Alright, so plot-wise, this movie really doesn't make any sense.  Good thing the jokes are reasonably funny, because otherwise this movie would be a total disaster.  Ferrell and McBride are, as usual, a riot.  These two know how to turn a mediocre script into something really funny, playing with absurdity like they invented it.  A sequence towards the end of the film where they go on a completely unrelated to anything drug binge set to Jimi Hendrix is bizarre, and hilarious.

Ultimately, though, "Land of the Lost" really isn't anything all that special.  The special effects are alright, though cartoonish.  The plot doesn't make much sense at all, but the jokes are reasonably funny and the cast is game.  The movie is fairly short, too, so it doesn't outstay its welcome. It also bears almost no resemblance to the TV show it was based on.  Holly and Will have been reimagined from Marshall's children into his love interest and loser sidekick.  Still, it feels like a missed opportunity.  The movie really isn't all it could be, which is too bad.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"Archer" Season One (2009) [FX]

"Archer" Season One (2009) [FX]
Starring H. Jon Benjamin, Chris Parnell and Aisha Tyler
Created by Adam Reed and Matt Thompson

Oh, my.  "Archer" is an animated spy comedy that focuses far, far more on the comedy aspect.  The character types are about as bland as they come, but the characters themselves are absolutely absurd.  H. Jon Benjamin stars as the voice of Sterling Archer, an agent with international spy agency ISIS.  His mother Malory (Jessica Walter) runs the agency with a drunken iron fist.  His ex, Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) is the agency's best agent, and dating milquetoast analyst Cyril (Chris Parnell).  Along with office drones like sexual deviant Carol (Judy Greer), and frustrated gossip Pam (Amber Nash) and all kinds of ludicrous other side characters, the show careens along at a breakneck pace.

There isn't a lot of action in the show; the comedy comes mostly from the cast's excellent, energetic delivery of all the absurd dialogue.  I don't know what this show's writers are smoking when they break these stories, but it must be good and cost a lot of money.  Every conversation in this show is offensively ridiculous. 

It's hard to describe, or even to review, because of this fact.  But the situations on "Archer" are just absolutely freaking hilarious.  In one episode, Archer boards a helium-filled zeppelin and immediately begins to flip out at people who smoke, or mis-speaks the names of nearly every room as the "Led Zeppelin suite."  In another, the KGB implants a microchip in his brain to force him to assassinate his mother, but it's unfortunately susceptible to interference from cell phones.  Of course, this means that because his mother calls him 80 times a day, Archer is thrown into a near constant state of raving, painful lunacy.  In that same episode, displaying his usual infantile tendencies, he demands his mother make him a grilled cheese, and then throws it away because "THIS IS SWISS!" 

Even with the low-rent vector animation, "Archer" is a fine show.  The comedy is fast, furious and utterly hilarious.  The absurd characters, storylines and dialogue are as inventive as they are offensive.  There are only ten episodes in this first season, which aired on the FX cable network.  I can't wait for a second season.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Yojimbo" (1961)

"Yojimbo" (1961)
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Daisuke Kato, and Tikashi Shimura
Written and directed by Akira Kurosawa

If there's one name synonymous with Japanese cinema, it's Akira Kurosawa.  Here, he presents his 1961 classic, "Yojimbo" about a nameless, masterless Samurai who comes across a town torn apart by gangs.  With each gang struggling to recruit every thug and drifter to their side, the townsfolk live in fear and their businesses suffer.

Surveying the situation after taking refuge in a small, rundown restaurant, the Samurai decides on a plan: he'll play both sides, decimating the gangs and allowing the town a chance to break free and start over.  After proving his worth in a fight, he is courted by both sides, and eventually begins to play them against each other.  He'll lie, and set one gang's men against the others, then sit back and watch the fireworks, all the while asking for money in advance for his unique services. 

Eventually, though, his plan begins to backfire.  When he's eventually found out, events are set in motion leading to a final showdown in the streets that will finally decide the fate of this small country town.

"Yojimbo" is a fairly interesting construct - it's modeled after the Western genre, only set in Japan and starring a Samurai, and yet it proved infinitely influential on all the Westerns that came after it.  It was remade by Sergio Leone as "A Fistful of Dollars" starring Clint Eastwood.  That film became the first of Leone and Eastwood's "Man With No Name" trilogy, which stand today as classics of the Western genre, the standards by which other Westerns are judged.

Despite the seriousness of the premise, the tone of the film is somewhat comical, though darkly so.  The jokes are often at the expense of downtrodden characters.  Several of the characters are outright caricatures, like the town Constable who greets the Samurai by offering to sell his services and informing him about the local brothel.   

Mifune plays the Man With No Name here, and having seen Eastwood's version first, it's interesting for me to watch Mifune.  He doesn't speak much, probably even less than Eastwood does.  But when he does, his delivery is gold.  His scene in which he reveals his plan to the old man at the restaurant is hilarious.  Mifune's character often seems heartless, playing with peoples' lives for money, but eventually shows an honorable side.

Kurosawa's direction is as excellent as his script.  The fights are quick and brutal, and the movie moves at a good clip.   The acting is top-notch, the comedic bits are hilarious, and the whole thing looks utterly gorgeous in black and white.  The presentation on the blu-ray is pretty great, too.  Even with a movie this old, the film shows remarkable detail especially in costume textures and hair.  It's  even better looking than Kurosawa's "Ran," which is kind of unfortunate considering how much newer and more colorful that film is. 

The film spawned a sequel, "Sanjuro" in addition to being the template for any number of Westerns and other Samurai films to follow.  Kurosawa is a legend in Japanese cinema, and "Yojimbo" is a fine, fine example of this ultra-talent at work.

Friday, May 14, 2010

"Superman Returns" (2006)

"Superman Returns" (2006)
Starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey
Written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris
Directed by Bryan Singer

(Thankfully) ignoring the events of "Superman III" and "Superman IV: The Quest For Peace," "Superman Returns" presents a hybrid sequel/update/reboot of the Christopher Reeve / Richard Donner films from the late 70s and 1980s.

It has been five years since the world has seen or heard from Superman.  He disappeared without warning, and the world began to move on without him.  Lois Lane, bitter over the disappearance, pens a story titled "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman" and has won a Pulitzer Prize for it.  Lex Luthor manages to make it out of jail on appeal after Superman doesn't appear to testify in court, spending the next five years swindling a kindly old widow out of her millions in an attempt to rebuild his lost criminal empire.  He also goes north, returning to Superman's Fortress of Solitude and stealing the Kryptonian data crystals he finds there.

Lois is assigned to cover an experimental space flight, and boards a jet.  When the launch goes awry, the spacecraft bolted to the top of the jet threatens to destroy both... Superman reappears to the world.  He saves the jet and everyone on it, of course, and goes back to his usual business of fighting crime and disasters and saving lives all over the globe.

But Lex Luthor's plan is unfolding all the while.  What he'll do with those crystals will reshape the world, killing countless millions (even billions, perhaps) and only Superman can stop him. 

"Superman Returns" is a messy picture.  This is not to say that it's riddled with plot holes or that the direction is sloppy or any of the usual reasons a film might have to be called "messy."  It's finely crafted in a number of areas, a slick production with excellent special effects and great action sequences. 

The problems with "Superman Returns" are twofold: It borrows too many lines and story beats from the 1978 original, and makes a couple of disastrous casting mistakes that keep it from being excellent. 

The first problem is Kate Bosworth, who simply doesn't work as Lois Lane.  She just doesn't have it, with her delivery often flat.  Miscasting one of the key characters of the Superman mythos already puts your film at a huge disadvantage, since Superman's feelings for Lois are key to the emotional throughline of any story you're going to tell. 

Brandon Routh does a great job picking up where Christopher Reeve left off with Clark Kent... unfortunately his scenes as Superman aren't quite as good.  He doesn't have the sparkle in his eye that Reeve had, especially in his scenes with Lois.  There are a couple of moments where it works, but for the most part, Routh seems uncomfortable as the Man of Steel.  But again, his work as Clark is excellent, so it's strange to see such a disparity. 

The third casting issue is Parker Posey, who I think is just a spectacularly bad actress.  Bosworth might be flat and uninteresting, but Posey is downright grating.  Her voice is annoying and her delivery is outrageous.  Nothing about her character works here, not even as an homage to Valerie Perrine's ditzy Miss Tessmacher from the original two films. 

As for the unoriginality issue, well, it's true.  Lex Luthor is once again going on and on about land, Superman tells some folks that flying is still the safest way to travel, "statistically speaking," that Lois shouldn't smoke and so on and so forth.  He even feigns not knowing who Clark Kent is once again.  Luthor's new plan is rather reminiscent of his old one, and his girlfriend once again has a change of heart late in the game.  There are a number of opportunities in "Superman Returns" that the film doesn't take, though it does take a few.

Bryan Singer's direction is mostly solid, but wavers in a few places.  The film can feel overly long at times, and snippy at others.  The action sequences are directed well, and the whole thing looks very nice.  But a scene late in the film where a weakened Superman is beaten and stabbed by Luthor's goons and left for dead is oddly limp.  Minutes later, the near silent scene of Superman falling back to Earth, possibly dead, is haunting and moving.  John Ottman's score incorporates and expands upon the main themes of John Williams' classic original music, and is a lot of fun to listen to outside of the film.  

So what works in "Superman Returns"?  Treating Superman and Lois like exes is a great way to turn that relationship on its head and explore new ground, especially with the addition of Lois' son, Jason and her fiance Richard.  James Marsden does well with Richard, who slowly realizes over the course of the movie that despite her protestations, Lois was (and likely still is) in love with Superman, and that's something he can't quite compete with. 

Superman's search for his "home" is an intriguing theme as well - he leaves Earth to find Krypton, and ends up alienating the people he cares for.  Ultimately, at the end, it's Krypton and its technology that threatens Earth, and he must protect his adopted home from it - nearly sacrificing himself in the process.  It seems that even though he was born of Krypton, Earth is his true home. 

One of the defining themes of this series is that of a man growing up, being given the tools to become a man by his father, and then moving away to do his own thing.  This is no more apparent anywhere else than in "Superman Returns," which resurrects some of that old Marlon Brando footage from the original films to continue guiding Superman's development as a character and now, as a father himself. 

Then, of course, there's the continuing biblical analogies of Jor-El as god and Superman as Jesus.  Superman bears his cross in this film (almost literally), sacrificing himself for humanity.  Singer even stages a shot with Superman posed as though crucified to hammer home this concept. 

It's unfortunate then, with these intriguing ideas, that the certain failings of "Superman Returns" make it an okay movie, but not a great one.  I certainly enjoy it, and I have and will defend it to others.  But it's hard not to notice the avoidable problems that keep it from being a great superhero film. 

"Superman II" (Richard Donner cut) (1980/2006)

"Superman II" (Richard Donner cut) (1980/2006)
Starring Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando and Terence Stamp
Written by Tom Mankiewicz
Directed by Richard Donner

"General, would you care to step outside?"
My, my, my... Where to start on this one?  I guess a bit of background would help, right?  In the late 1970s, when production began on the biggest, most expensive adaptation of "Superman" to date, it was decided to film both that film and its sequel back to back, ending the first film on a cliffhanger.  When production ran long over schedule and over budget, the decision was made to focus on finishing the first film, which meant ditching the cliffhanger ending (since there was no guarantee that the film would be a success).  Director Richard Donner's relationship with the producers had utterly disintegrated, with Donner fighting for a more serious, respectful take on the material and the Salkinds demanding more camp and silliness.  When it came down to it, the Salkinds let Donner finish "Superman" and then unceremoniously dumped him, hiring Richard Lester to finish "Superman II."

The version of "Superman II" that made it to theatres was a mixture of material shot by Lester and Donner.  Lester, in order to be credited as director, needed to have shot more than 51% of the film, but since so much of it had already been done by Donner, he needed to go back and reshoot parts.  With their yes-man in place, the Salkinds got (mostly) the silly, campy superhero movie they were hoping for (though they wouldn't perfect the formula until the next film). 

Twenty-five years later, letter writing campaigns, fan petitions managed to finally convince Warner Bros. to attempt to reconstruct the original vision of "Superman II."  Producer/editor Michael Thau, working with Richard Donner, sorted through tons of old, unused footage that had sat in a vault somewhere for the last two and a half decades.  The result is this "Richard Donner cut" of "Superman II."

The film exists with a rather strange conceit - it supposes that the first "Superman" film ended with the cliffhanger that, well, it didn't.  At the end of that first film, Superman turns back time to prevent the death of Lois Lane.  This version of "Superman II" proposes that it didn't happen, that Superman threw one of the rockets into space, saved Lois and Jimmy from the earthquake and took Lex Luthor to jail.

"Superman II" begins with the discarded missile from the first film exploding in space, breaking General Zod and his minions free of their Phantom Zone prison.  In the theatrical version of the film, this occurs after Superman thwarts a terrorist bombing in Paris, launching the bomb into space and saving Lois from falling off the Eiffel Tower.  Zod and his minions discover their new powers and head to Earth, determined to rule it with an iron fist now that Krypton has been destroyed.

Meanwhile, Lois becomes convinced that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same, but can't seem to prove it well enough to get him to admit the truth.  She gets her chance when Perry White assigns the two to pose as newlyweds and uncover a fraud racket at Niagara Falls.  Lois finally tricks Clark into revealing the truth, and the two head off north for a romantic interlude.  Clark admits to his father that he's in love with Lois, and that he intends to give up being Superman in order to be with her.  Jor-El pleads with him to not make this choice, that giving in to his selfish desires would lead to terrible consequences.  Clark ignores him, not knowing that while all this is happening, Zod is staging his takeover of the entire world. 

The Richard Donner cut is a completely different movie from the theatrical version of "Superman II."  The tone is entirely different, far less jokey, and even a bit more  violent.  Zod's rampage through the midwest and eventually the White House is far more serious and brutal now, including one bit where Zod guns down soldiers and Secret Service agents with an M-16, just for the kicks.    Marlon Brando's scenes as Jor-El are gold, and they weren't even in the original film (Lester's reshoots included replacing Jor-El with his wife, Lara).  The film's climactic battle in Metropolis is more serious, with lots of the silliness Lester added removed.  The effect is dramatic, making Zod, Ursa and Non seem much more threatening, and making the film feel much more like a direct continuation of the first.

It's not without it's problems, however.  Because of all the intercutting of footage shot at different times over a two year period, consistency can be an issue.  Hair styles and makeup may change shot to shot within a scene.  Continuity issues crop up a couple of times in the film, as well.  Voices aren't consistent either, with dialogue occasionally dropping any heft, with the effect sounding like everyone just huffed helium before delivering their lines.  Some of the newly-composited special effects don't work out all that well, either, some looking downright cheap.  John Williams was offered the chance to come in and re-score the film, but had to refuse due to scheduling issues.  Instead, Thau and Donner repurpose his score from "Superman," which is a great idea except that the music was never intended to be used in this manner.  As a result, some of the edits are rather poor and several cues are used multiple times. 

Oh, and one of my favorite lines has been removed!  When Superman finally confronts Zod after the villains wreck the Daily Planet, he hovers outside and taunts Zod: "General, would you care to step outside?"  It's so badass!  But here, limply, he says, "Haven't you ever heard of freedom of the press?"  Man, talk about lame one-liner.  

And then there's that conceit - at the end of the film, instead of making Lois forget with a 'magic kiss', Superman flies around the world so fast he turns back time, undoing all the damage of Zod's rampage and his relationship with Lois.  When time returns to normal, everyone just sort of suffers from a bit of deja vu.  The idea, again, is that the first film ended differently.  But it's hard to get yourself into that mindset, frankly, and it just feels like the two movies have the same ending. 

Still, despite all of its issues, I feel like this version of "Superman II" is the better one.  It's tone is better, the action more intense.  And it's great to see all these new scenes with this cast, especially Reeve and Brando, who share a number of heartfelt, excellent exchanges.  It's a miracle that this movie even exists, let alone ends up (mostly) coherent and quite entertaining. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"Superman" (1978)

"Superman" (1978)
Starring Christopher Reeve, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando
Written by Mari Puzo and Tom Mankiewicz
Directed by Richard Donner

"Stand back, folks, I'm about to do something freakin' awesome...
Everyone has that one movie, right?  That one movie they grew up watching, that they've bought over and over in successive formats or that they'll sit down and watch every single time they flip past it on TV.  For some, it might be "Gone With The Wind" or "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" or who knows what else.

For me, it's "Superman."

I can watch this movie until the end of time.  It's literally impossible for me to review it objectively, it's so ingrained into my life at this point.  I probably watch it three or four times a year, and I've owned it on pretty much every video format to date (don't have it on Blu-Ray... yet).  Whenever I see it on TV, I immediately turn to it, even if only for a few minutes.

For the longest time, "Superman" was pretty much the gold standard of superhero movies, reaching heights not even Tim Burton's bizarre adaptation of "Batman" could climb.  While it could be argued that, rather recently, the surge of good to excellent comic book flicks have toppled this king from its mountain with entries like 2008's "The Dark Knight," "Superman" will forever be THE comic book movie for me.

The film is divided into three major sections: Firstly, the story of Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and the final days of the planet Krypton.  When Krypton is destroyed, Jor-El sends his infant son Kal-El by spaceship to the distant planet of Earth, where the boy is found and adopted by Kansas farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent.  Named Clark, the boy discovers he has a variety of amazing powers no other person on Earth possesses.  He struggles to maintain his secret, suppressing his natural urges to show off to bullies and jocks he could easily overpower.  After the death of Pa Kent, Clark feels a strange calling and heads north, where he creates his Fortress of Solitude and finds the truth about his origins and his real father.  From here, the film moves into its third section, as grown-up Clark moves to Metropolis and takes on the identity of Superman, hero and savior of mankind.

Each part of the film has it's own sort of distinct look and style.  The parts on Krypton are very much like an old-school science fiction movie, with lots of alien technology and costuming.  The Smallville sections are brightly colored nostalgic Americana, seemingly trying to evoke a kind of Norman Rockwell feeling.  The first time the film seems to enter normal reality is when it moves to Metropolis, but this is also where most of the film's comedy is centered.

This structure can make the movie seem loose and episodic in nature, since there's no real "plot" to speak of until we're introduced to evil mastermind Lex Luthor in the third section and his plans to sink California into the ocean, creating a new west coast in his image.  The film is, basically, a character study of Superman.  Much like "Batman Begins" deconstructs Bruce Wayne and takes us through his life to tell us exactly why it is that this rich, intelligent and attractive young man would put on a bat costume and beat up thugs in his spare time, "Superman" spends its entire run time exploring why Superman is such a good person, and why a dark and violent world will never destroy his sense of good and justice.

Superman is, of course, the ultimate superhero.  I don't mean that in the sense of that he's unbeatable in a fight (he's not - the popular "Death of Superman" storyline from the 90s showed that pretty clearly; he's also lost to Batman on several occasions).  What I mean is that he has an absolutely incorruptible sense of right and wrong, a man raised to use all of his extraordinary abilities only for the benefit of others.  There's something very basic, very iconic and incredibly uplifting about that concept.  I've heard many people complain that Superman is hard to relate to because he's so powerful, but I see it differently.  Superman is a character who feels, deeply, about everyone around him, about the potential for good in humanity.  The truth is that at the end of the day, it's his emotions, his love and goodness that give him the strength to continue doing what he does.  Indeed, his love for Lois leads him to literally turn back time to save her life, breaking one of his father's cardinal rules.

Christopher Reeve absolutely IS Superman.  No other actor has managed to create such a relatable, entertaining and lasting performance as the character.  Reeve sells every aspect of the character, from his goofy Clark Kent reporter persona to the heroic Man of Steel.  At the time an unknown actor with only a little soap opera experience, Reeve proved himself the ultimate choice to play Superman, and no one's managed to come close since.  It's sort of unfortunate that such a middling actor as Tom Welling gets to muck up a character for ten years and Reeve only got four movies (two of which suck) out of the deal.  Reeve's comic bits as the stuttering, shy Clark Kent are absolutely hilarious.  In a staff meeting at the Daily Planet, Perry White rhetorically asks him, "What's Superman's favorite ball team?" and Reeve's response is just perfect.  His chemistry with the rest of the cast, from his flirtations with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) to his clashes with Luthor, the man simply crackles with energy.

Superman is counterbalanced by Lex Luthor.  Superman uses his incredible strengths for good, while Luthor uses his genius for evil.  Here, Gene Hackman plays the criminal mastermind with a gleeful menace.  His plot to sink California into the ocean might be as silly as his simpleton cohorts Otis and Ms. Tessmacher, but Hackman is capable of making Luthor into a hilarious maniacal genius.  His interactions with the cast are spot on, as well.  His witty belittling of Otis and Tessmacher is downright hilarious, and he plays his frustration with their idiocy perfectly.  Any problem with the character is mostly conceptual - one wonders why Luthor would surround himself with such bumbling morons and live in a bizarre underground lair filled with traps like machine guns and flame throwers in the walls.  But it all fits with the style of the film, which has a great comedic streak running through it.

I can forgive each and every single minor failing of this film because it has so much else going for it that's just absolutely gold.  Donner's direction is zippy and energetic, with fun interactions between the characters and gripping action sequences.  The film's special effects are dated, but impressive.  For the 2001 director's edition, some of them have been cleaned up a bit.  In the original version, because the production used blue screens, the color of Superman's costume veered toward green, but this has been fixed.  The sound mix has also been redone from the ground up, with lots of new effects mixed in with the old.  The benefit here is that "Superman" has a far better 5.1 surround mix than it has any right to have for a film from 1978.  Several new scenes have been inserted as well, including one that reveals the little girl Clark waves to when running faster than a speeding locomotive as a young Lois Lane, and a short sequence where Superman must face several traps on his way into Luthor's underground lair.

John Williams' score for "Superman" is classic, nominated for an Oscar and rightly so (it lost to "Midnight Express").  It's one of my favorite scores of all time, too.  Its themes are gorgeous, fun to listen to and highly recognizable.  It came during the height of the career of the master composer, a decade-long stretch that would see him compose a number of the most highly recognized scores in history such as "Jaws," "Star Wars," "ET," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and more.  The man is absolutely legendary, and his work here was incredible.  The score became so inseparable from the franchise that it was reused in the Christopher Reeve sequels, an animated TV series, the "Smallville" TV show and even  2006's "Superman Returns."

This is my film.  I love it dearly.  Watching it reduces me to a grinning five year old every time.  I would kill to see this film projected up on the big screen.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"Vanishing Point" (1971)

"Vanishing Point" (1971)
Starring Barry Newman and Cleavon Little
Written by Malcolm Hart (story) and Guillermo Cabrera Infante (screenplay)
Directed by Richard Sarafian

I love a good car chase; I mean, what guy doesn't?  There's something infinitely appealing about watching metal screeching around a corner, hearing the roar of powerful engines, the squealing tires leaving rubber on asphalt... And a good car chase is extremely difficult to pull off, a supreme mix of pre-production, production and post-production.  You've got to plan it to the letter, shoot it on the edge of recklessness (or at least employ camera trickery that can be risky for a picky audience), and then you've got to edit it just right and mix the sound just so to get the audience's hearts thumping.  A bad car chase can make your movie limp and dull; but a good one can elevate even middling films to classic status (yeah, "Bullitt" really isn't all that great, save for that famous chase sequence).

So last night I watched "Vanishing Point," an intriguing early 70s thriller pretty much starring a Dodge Challenger.  Sure, it has a driver, Kowalski (Barry Newman) and there's an eccentric blind DJ named Super Soul (Cleavon Little) blasting out commentary and the film's soundtrack over the airwaves.  But really the star of the show is that Challenger.  The story, such as it is, has Kowalski, a car delivery driver, attempting to drive the Challenger from Denver, Colorado to San Francisco in under 15 hours.  What follow is a loose collection of encounters with police and various colorful characters, interspersed with short flashbacks of Kowalski's past.  The storytelling isn't particularly complex in terms of plot, but the vague flashbacks are intriguing, offering mostly out-of-context snippets that let the viewer piece together the life of Kowalski leading up till now.  Of course, this ends up ruined later on when there's a scene where a police officer merely reads off Kowalski's history from a file folder.  Boo.

Kowalski encounters a few bizarre characters, including an elderly snake wrangler, a couple of gay hitchhikers/bandits, and, um, a naked woman riding a motorcycle.  It's all very strange and out there, but, hey, it was the 70s, right?

Cleavon Little has a significant part as Super Soul, a local radio DJ who picks up on Kowalski's story and champions him over the airwaves.  They never actually interact, but they have a couple of surreal conversations where they talk to each other over the airwaves that are fairly well-played by both actors.  Little actually gets far more dialogue than Newman does as Kowalski.  Kowalski speaks very little, and long stretches of the movie are filled only with music and sound effects.

But let's finally get down to it: The chases in "Vanishing Point" are pretty cool.  There's excellent sense of speed going on.  Budgetary and filming technique limitations of the time mean this is never going to look like "The Matrix Reloaded", but the practical effects and stunt-driving are pretty damn impressive.  According to Wikipedia, the chase sequences were filmed with the cars traveling 50-60 mph with undercranked cameras, and the effect is pretty good, making the film feel much faster.  Coupled with a great soundtrack of rock and energetic soul, the chase sequences are damned entertaining all around.  There's not quite as much vehicular carnage or destruction as, say, HB Halicki's "Gone in Sixty Seconds", since the chases here occur out in the wide open desert instead of dense urban areas, but they're no less thrilling.

"Vanishing Point" is actually quite cool.  Whether you want to see it as high-octane political commentary with anti-establishment themes, an existential exploration of a man in control of his soul, or just a bunch of weird shit that happens between car chases, you'll probably find yourself rather entertained.

Monday, May 10, 2010

"Iron Man 2" (2010)

"Iron Man 2" (2010)
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell
Written by Justin Theroux
Directed by Jon Favreau

The Iron Avenger returns to continue building another layer onto Marvel's new film universe.  Tony Stark (Downey) has become a hero to the whole world, acting outside of international law to quell conflicts all over.  As a result, the world feels safer and more peaceful.  To celebrate, Stark builds the Stark Expo, a sort of world's fair of technology that his father had pioneered decades earlier but that had fallen by the wayside, to foster the ideas of technology and progress toward the ideal of world peace.  At the same time, the United States government is attempting to gain control of the Iron Man technology, believing that such power in the hands of a private individual to be dangerous.

But that technology is coming at a price: the element that powers Stark's artificial heart (and thus, Iron Man) is actually killing him by slowly poisoning his body.  As Stark grows more desperate to find a replacement power source and a cure, his behavior grows more dangerous.

Meanwhile, an embittered Russian physicist named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, oozing menace) builds himself a version of Iron Man's armor that includes two powerful whips, and sets out for revenge.  You see, Vanko's father worked for Stark's father, but he was let go and Stark took all the credit for Vanko's work on the reactor project.  After a violent confrontation on a race track in Monaco, Vanko is recruited by Stark's business rival Justin Hammer, who has been struggling to replicate the Iron Man technology for the government.

There's a lot going on in "Iron Man 2".  It sounds very complex, what I just wrote, and I even left out a couple subplots.  The movie's 2 hour runtime is positively jam-packed with characters and goings-on, a tornado that revolves around Stark and his many, many issues.  There are women, there's business problems, problems with his friend James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Don Cheadle, taking over for Terrence Howard), problems with the government, problems with Nick Fury (Sam Jackson, not really trying very hard)... The list goes on.

And yet, somehow it all fits together and it all works.  Government intrigue, hot women, fast cars, drunken superhero fights, everything factors in here.  It's kind of astonishing, really.  A film with this much going on should feel like an overcrowded mess, but "Iron Man 2" rarely feels that way.  It's packed, but it's entertaining.  With so many characters, a lot of them aren't given a lot of time or development; the focus here is purely on Stark.

Probably the other most fully-realized character is that of Justin Hammer, a business rival who obviously, desperately wishes that he was Tony Stark.  Not only is Stark smarter, but he's more charismatic, more successful, more cool... Hammer's jealousy of stark is palpable, and the brief scenes they share together are brilliantly played by both actors.  Sam Rockwell really nails it with Hammer; he has to work hard to be the way Tony Stark is naturally.

Robert Downey Jr is Tony Stark, once again imbuing the character with both an incredible sense of fun, and pathos.  Though Stark's arc here is less about his sense of personal responsibility than it is about confronting his personal demons and his sense of his own mortality, Downey is no less able to make Stark a sympathetic character despite the asshole-ish things he does.

Don Cheadle is serviceable as Rhodes, who definitely gets to suit up this time as War Machine.  Also fine but unremarkable is Gwyneth Paltrow, whose character Pepper Potts doesn't get nearly as much screentime or development as she did in the previosus film.  Potts simply feels like she's just there, not quite the amazing companion and caretaker she was in the first film, and barely registers as Stark's love interest at all.  This is probably the film's greatest failing, and the only thing about it that I'd change.  

The most surprising thing about "Iron Man 2" has to be Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, aka "The Black Widow."  Strikingly sexy and decidedly deadly, she owns every scene she's in.  And when she's let loose to do her thing in the climax, it's one of the more fun sequences in the entire movie.  Maybe it's just because I'm a hot-blooded male, but it's nearly impossible to take your eyes off her once she gets going. 

So what's wrong with "Iron Man 2"?  I think it's an issue of expectations, personally.  Let's face it: few people thought the first film was going to be as awesome (or as successful) as it was.  Personally, I thought to myself, "The guy who made 'Elf' is gonna do 'Iron Man'?"  Downey at the time was an unknown quantity, considering the state his career had been in for so long.  So once it came to be that it was actually a well built and entertaining film, expectations for a sequel begin to swell.  When the sequel merely meets those expectations instead of exceeding them like the first movie, it can feel slightly disappointing in a certain way.  "Iron Man 2" is a fine, fun summer blockbuster, just like the first one.  But maybe that's what's wrong with it - it's just like the first one.  It's good, but unsurprisingly so.  It's a strange complaint to make, I think. 

But in the end, it's a fine superhero film, a fine sequel.  It's entertaining, and well worth your admission price.  What more are you gonna ask from a summer blockbuster that isn't "The Dark Knight"?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"Robocop" (1987)

"Robocop" (1987)
Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen and Kurtwood Smith
Written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

And now, "For Reelz" comes to one of my favorite movies of all time: "Robocop."

Yeah, that's right, I said "Robocop" is one of my favorite movies of all time.  And no, I'm not joking.  No, I'm not drunk (though I'm halfway through my first beer, so I might be the time I'm done).  There's something incredibly special about this movie, which despite its 80s production values barely feels dated at all.  Nowadays, sure, Robocop would move faster and there'd be lots of nifty futuristic junk cluttering up the frames, but this movie was made in 1987, and it's fantastic.

Detroit's failing economy has allowed a massive corporation, Omni Consumer Products (OCP) to contract with the city to run its underfunded, overstressed police force.  Why?  Because OCP is planning on razing the city of old Detroit to construct a futuristic paradise known as Delta City.  Slimy executive Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), in charge of Security Concepts at OCP, has designed a robotic police officer called ED-209, but when 209 proves a failure, OCP greenlights the "Robocop" project, the brainchild of Jones' rival, Robert Morton (Miguel Ferrer).  Family man beat-cop Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is transferred to one of the worst sections of the city as Morton reorganizes the police force to put "prime candidates" into position.  And when Murphy is brutally slaughtered at the hands of lifelong criminal Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), Morton seizes the opportunity and Murphy is transformed into Robocop, a cyborg police officer.

Stripped of his humanity, but haunted by memories of his life and family, Robocop hits the streets and immediately begins dismantling crime in Detroit.  The program is deemed a massive success, even as the police force threatens to go on strike when OCP slashes their pay and benefits.  Robocop, along with his former partner Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen), begins to unravel the conspiracy within OCP - the dark truth about the shiny new Delta City about to begin construction.  What does it have to do with Boddicker, and what is his connection to Dick Jones? 

Mix in some blistering satire, fun characters, some iconic lines, a few great action sequences and Basil Pouledoris' awesome score, and you've got yourself a recipe for a freakin' awesome movie that defies a lot of genre descriptions.  How do I peg "Robocop"?  An action-scifi-black comedy?  I guess, it's all of those things, with no one part overpowering the others.  One of the best parts of "Robocop" is the satire, the skewering of a corporate media culture that can laugh and put a good spin on just about any ridiculous tragedy.  The straight-faced news reports about nuclear plant meltdowns in the amazon or orbiting space lasers "accidentally" annihilating part of California are a downright riot. 

Hilarious also are Boddicker and his cronies.  Kurtwood Smith, a little more than midway through the film, delivers what I consider to be one of the all-time classic great lines in cinema: "Bitches, leave."  Smith delivers an excellent performance as a man completely without morals, one who not only breaks the law, but enjoys doing so.  The glee with which he goes about his crimes is infectious.  Ronny Cox is also excellent as slimy Dick Jones, but that's no surprise.  Cox has made a career out of playing self-righteous douchebag characters like Jones, or Captain Jellicho on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" or his recurring role as Senator Robert Kinsey on "Stargate: SG-1".  He's a fantastic actor, one that I always love to hate. 

Director Paul Verhoeven may have made his best movie with "Robocop."  Sure, I enjoyed "Basic Instinct" for all its trashy pulpiness, and the effects work on "Starship Troopers" is still stellar to this day, but it's "Robocop" that I return to over and over again.  Verhoeven is a filmmaker who likes to push buttons; whether it's the intense, explicit sexuality of "Basic Instinct" or gratuitous violence, the Dutch filmmaker has made it his life goal to push the limits of the Hollywood R-rating.  I think "Robocop" is where he does that best.  Case in point, a scene early on in the film where Jones introduces ED-209 to the board at OCP.  The robot opens fire on an executive, pumping dozens of rounds into the man until his body is nearly liquified - as soon as the gunfire stops, someone shouts "Oh god, someone call a paramedic!" even though the man is clearly far, far beyond any hope of medical help.  This is hilarious for how positively absurd it is.  This scene was cut down for the R-rated theatrical release, but restored for a number of DVD home releases (and, I believe, the blu-ray release; but word is that release suffers from terrible video quality, so I've thus far avoided it).

Ok so now I've had a beer, Southern Comfort with iced tea and now I'm on a gin and tonic, and frankly, "Robocop" fuckin' rocks.  If you can't see that, watch it again with this review in mind.  Maybe you'll change your thoughts on it.  This is a smart, hilarious action sci-fi flick that deserves your attention.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

"The Big Bang Theory" Season 2 [dvd]

"The Big Bang Theory" Season 2 [dvd]
Starring Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons and Kaley Cuoco
Created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady

A quote from 'Entertainment Weekly' on the back of the box proclaims "The Big Bang Theory" is "TV's funniest traditional sitcom."  If that's true, then traditional sitcoms are in more trouble than I thought.  As middling as the first season was, this second collection of episodes of "The Big Bang Theory," the story of a group of nerds and their hot blond neighbor, is even more so.  While the first season finale managed to move the show forward a step by having Leonard (Galecki) and Penny (Cuoco) finally go out on a date, season two does what all terrible sitcoms do: sacrifice story progression in favor of a frustrating status quo. 

We're immediately back to where we were in season one, with Leonard and Penny not dating each other (despite clearly being interested in doing so) for reasons that are thinly manufactured and obnoxious.  By the time the second season finale rolls around, you think maybe the writers might attempt to regrow the little balls they'd had at the end of season one and attempt to move forward again... but they don't.  The season finale is limp, substandard even by the low bar set by the rest of this collection.  Nearly every episode features dull, lazy plots that often aren't even resolved.  When the next episode starts, we're reset back to normal with no mention of anything that happened in the previous episode, regardless of whatever weight or revelation it might have entailed. 

Hell, I'll throw out spoilers here, because I'm just so damned frustrated - In one episode, Penny goes out on a disastrous date with a comic book store employee named Stuart.  Whilst making out with Stuart, she calls him "Leonard", and Stuart reveals this to Leonard, who rejoices.  And then what does Leonard do with this information?

Absolutely nothing.

The second season of "The Big Bang Theory" essentially amounts to absolutely nothing.  The characters are static, spewing nerdy pop culture references and opaque scientific technobabble without regard for things that make a TV show truly funny.  When they visit the comic book store, the audience laughs riotously when Penny innocently asks Sheldon (Parsons), "What's a multi-verse?"  Why is that funny?  Because she doesn't know what a multi-verse is?  Is it funny because of Sheldon's condescendingly dismissive reaction?  That joke was okay the first few million times this show used it, but the pattern has become entirely forced by now.  I have to give the show credit for even attempting a joke about the DC Multi-verse, but sometimes even get the pop culture references are off.  In one scene, Sheldon argues that the first "Star Trek" movie fails on every level, naming music and special effects... except that Jerry Goldsmith's score for "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" and ILM's effects work on that movie were both nominated for Oscars in 1979.  So where is Sheldon's derision coming from?  

The show works best when it leaves behind all those references and jargon and simply presents its characters in a plot that makes sense and has some progression.  When it takes those awkward fish out of the water and has them react to the world and the other people in it.  Sheldon's presentation to a group of graduate students is a riot; endless repetition of him belittling Penny is not.