transformers 2

As you’ll note below, I’ve given Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the latest prestige picture from visionary auteur Michael Bay, a generous grade. Yes, this movie is fucking stupid. If movies had IQs, Revenge of the Fallen would rate somewhere in what experts have called the “I Am Sam range.”

You see, Revenge of the Fallen is not as much an entertainment product as it is a bludgeoning, with big blunt instruments that go by the name of Autobots and Decepticons. Bay’s movie is stupid, but (being that he’s a genius at being stupid) he knows that. It works in his movie’s favor.

I won’t even really get into any particulars because there are no particulars to speak of. Basically, earth is the victim of another uprising by the Decepticon army, seeking to reanimate (or something) an old fallen leader of theirs, whose name, appropriately, is Fallen. Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox, along with the Autobots, the American military (because really, what other military is there?), and a completely out of place John Turturro, band together to fight the fuckers. At some point Optimus Prime “dies” (this despite being a robot, and thus completely capable of repair), and is brought back to life by some kind of fucking pixie dust that LeBeouf found in an old robot gravesite. Great pyramids are destroyed, big metal things clang together, and Fox wanders for days in the desert without a shower, yet remains remarkably well made-up.

I’ve been joking that when I left my screening of Revenge of the Fallen, I lost 20 percent of my long-term memory and had been rendered illiterate. This is beyond hyperbolic, of course, but if any director could make that happen, it’s Bay. I think this is part of his mission statement.

Which is, perversely, why I feel the need to defend his movie to a certain degree. There’s a certain art in this kind of stupidity. I think of a movie like The Proposal (which, along with Wolverine and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, is part of a trifecta of unparalleled awfulness I’ve been privy to this summer). While I concede that this is kind of like comparing arsenic and cyanide, The Proposal is as awful as it is due to lack of ambition, and a willingness to slip right in to an existing paradigm without making any effort to advance the form. Bay’s film has no sense of comfort; it’s ambitious to a fault. Not intellectually, certainly, or aesthetically. But when Bay challenged fellow shitty auteur McG to a dick measuring contest, he’d given us the most appropriate metaphor for his filmmaking I can think of. Bay wants you to see everything that he’s packing, and he lets it all hang out; sometimes, though, its in the form of a pair of wrecking balls that hang off of a giant robot like Truck Nuts. The sheer BIG-ness of Revenge of the Fallen is its lone saving grace. It’s quite appropriate that it’s the most popular movie of the year.

Of course, it is important to remember that Bay’s film is fucking putrid. There is absolutely no depth of plot or character. There is no motivation for any action. It features two robots who are borderline racist characters (and “borderline” is being generous). Sometimes the perspective spins 360 degrees for an uncomfortable period of time. Shia LeBeouf is in it.

But is it the worst movie of the year, or even, the worst movie ever? Not even close. It’s the sequel to a movie based on a cartoon based on a line of action figures. What else would you expect?

Film: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Director: Michael Bay
Stars: Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox, John Turturro, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, small crowd (the showing was delayed due to a break in at the theater the night before; though, to make it up to us, only one trailer screened before it: the preview for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen); digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 2
Rotten Tomatoes average: 19%

Next up: Whatever Works

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here.


the taking of pelham 1 2 3

I don’t think it gets any more baseline than this. I was all ready to give Tony Scott’s remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 a middling five-point review on my completely infallible ten-point scale. So when I checked to see the critical consensus, I was pleased to see it reviewed positively by exactly 50% of critics. Metacritic rates the film right near the middle as well, with a 55. Clearly I’m in agreement with the world that Pelham is the most average movie of ever.

You see it’s not all bad, and considering what Tony Scott is capable of (Man on Fire, Days of Thunder, blech), it’s a minor triumph in line with Crimson Tide, his most straightforward and best film to date. Pelham keeps it simple, with a pretty standard hostage situation, that develops into a nice battle of wits between Denzel Washington’s good guy MTA dispatcher and John Travolta’s business savvy domestic terrorist ringleader.

Of course Scott can’t stay completely out of his own way, and this is kind of Pelham’s Achilles heel. Not content with a story that essentially tells itself, Scott raises the volume. At times he can’t resist beating the audience into submission with bizarre visual trickery, and one of those action movie scores with the pounding beat and bassy strings that make sure you know something exciting is supposed to be happening. Scott also makes halfhearted attempts at commentaries on media sensationalism and the dangers of post 9/11 government bureaucracy, but both ideas predictably fall shallow, sacrificed before the god of blowing more shit up.

All of that’s a shame too, because Scott gets nice performances out of both Travolta and Washington, far from career bests, but exactly what you would expect out of two seasoned pros counting on a decent paycheck. Luis Guzman and James Gandolfini also provide welcome turns, Guzman as Travolta’s inside man, and Gandolfini as New York’s ineffectual mayor.

Pelham is the kind of movie that destined to be a staple on, like, USA Network in a few years. And that’s not all bad.

Film: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Director: Tony Scott
Stars: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, John Turturro, Luis Guzman, James Gandolfini

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, small crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 5
Rotten Tomatoes average: 50%

Next up: The Proposal

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here. 

terminator salvation

 Even by dumb action movie standards, Terminator Salvation is an extraordinarily stupid film. Maybe not as dumb or unnecessary as Wolverine, but not far behind on that scale. In fact, Wolverine provides a nice parallel to this fourth installment in the Terminator franchise. Both focus on their main character in a far different context than they’ve ever been seen before. Both follow in the wake of unnecessary adaptations that have diminished the value of their franchises. Both are mind numbingly stupid.

Salvation introduces Christian Bale (who had his infamous meltdown during filming) as a grown up John Connor, an officer in the resistance against the machines who are seeking to eradicate humanity. For a film series that has had its share of complicated timeline issues, Salvation doesn’t help in clearing up any discrepancies, instead focusing on a standalone story about an assault to be mounted against the machines’ Skynet headquarters. Connor’s young father (played by Star Trek’s Anton Yelchin) and a heretofore cryogenically frozen executed murderer (Sam Worthington) gather to join in the fight.

Still with me?

The problem with Salvation is that, through McG’s commitment to robot bombast (which is steadfast), the franchise loses the meta-commentary on human interaction with technology that was present in the original, and in the brilliant first sequel. This version’s machines are big and dumb, just like the humans. So who’s the good guy?

Film: Terminator Salvation
Director: McG
Stars: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Bryce Dallas Howard, Anton Yelchin, Moon Bloodgood, Common, Helena Bonham Carter

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, medium crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 3
Rotten Tomatoes average: 33%

Next up: Land of the Lost

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09.

angels and demons

There are people who love Dan Brown, and there are people who violently hate the little bastard and his entire semi-literate fanbase. There appears to be very little in between. Except me of course, since I don’t know enough about Brown to hate him. Though after finally watching Ron Howard’s adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, I realized that if I ever cared enough to pick up one of Brown’s middlebrow time wasters, I’d certainly fall into the latter camp.

Howard follows up Da Vinci with Angels and Demons, casting Brown’s earlier novel as a sequel, since most readers read Angels after the breakout success of The Da Vinci Code. Also because Howard knows his viewers are too stupid to understand a prequel. This is also why he explains every turn in the action like it’s a fucking Scooby Doo mystery.

That being said, Howard handles Brown’s franchise far better the second time around. The tone is far less pandering, and the plot (mostly centralized in terms of location and theme) is far less convoluted, this time focusing on a longtime Catholic Church enemy (the spooky sounding “Illuminati”) and their threat to bomb the Vatican while the College of Cardinals gathers to select a new Pope.

Angels has a beginning, middle, and end that at least make some degree of sense, which is more than can be said for its predecessor. This is really all Howard needed to worry about, and he mostly stays out of the way, letting Tom Hanks (reprising his role as symbologist Robert Langdon) and the rest of his troupe hop around Rome and do whatever it is that they do.

Howard has made a perfectly average movie, which, sadly enough, is a giant step up for the franchise.

Film: Angels and Demons
Director: Ron Howard
Stars: Tom Hanks, Ayelet Zurer, Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, medium crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 5
Rotten Tomatoes average: 37%

Next up: Terminator: Salvation

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09.

the brothers bloom

While Up is a visually stunning film, and pretty much technically flawless, The Brothers Bloom is my favorite film of the year so far. I say this in the interest of not burying the lede.

Bloom adds a healthy dose of Wes Anderson quirk to the decades-old caper genre. So the fact that I loved Rian Johnson’s latest film isn’t entirely unexpected. I am, however, shocked by how Bloom has managed to sail underneath the critical and commercial radar.

For while Bloom borrows a bit of Wes Anderson’s flair, it’s a far more accessible (and far better) picture than either Anderson’s The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited. There’s a fair bit of slapstick, and a plot that doesn’t tip its hand until the very end. Maybe I’m deluded, but I see The Brothers Bloom as a sure-fire adventure comedy hit, and had it been marketed differently, it could have been.

As it stands, it was a bit of a shock that Bloom showed up at my local cineplex at all, and it did so about three weeks later than other markets, part of a scattershot release schedule that’s typical for films that a studio doesn’t quite know what to do with.

As for the film itself, the shining star is unquestionably Rachel Weisz as a hermitic heiress who plays the mark for the titular confidence tricksters (Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo). When Ruffalo convinces his timid brother to target Weisz for one last score, the plan goes along swimmingly until Brody commits the cardinal sin of falling for the mark.

Weisz’s character Penelope is earnest for adventure and Brody unwittingly lures her out of her shell. Weisz nails the role, casting Penelope as an unflinchingly wide-eyed optimist willing to roll with any obstacles. There is an unexpected amount of versatility here from Weisz, and I can’t think of a role of hers that I’ve enjoyed even a tenth as much.

Ruffalo and Brody bring some nice chemistry as brothers, Ruffalo as the mastermind (and his tricks as scripted by Johnson are truly works of art), and Brody as the loyal but self-loathing partner, always seeking escape, but unwilling to leave his brother alone.

Johnson takes full advantage of his actors’ talents, and revels in photographing the settings his globetrotting characters bring him to, hiding all kinds of detail (and, often, subtle jokes) deep within the shot. He also makes great use of Robbie Coltrane and Oscar nominee Rinko Kikucki (Babel) in limited roles.

Bloom would be the perfect hit summer comedy for a country that didn’t love Sandra Bullock so fucking much.

Film: The Brothers Bloom
Director: Rian Johnson
Stars: Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi, Maximillian Schell, Robbie Coltrane

Viewing situation: Weekend evening, small crowd; standard projection
My grade (out of 10): 10
Rotten Tomatoes average: 63%

Next up: Angels and Demons

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09.

star trek

For any director, a reboot of the original 1960s Star Trek storyline would be a tall order. I’ve seen both Trekkies and Trekkies 2, and have attended a Trek convention, so, while I’m more of a casual enthusiast (meaning I’m familiar with the franchise’s mythology, while having actually consumed only a miniscule amount of its output), I can understand the way the obsessives operate. J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek could have easily had backlash written all over it.

Abrams, a director with only one prior feature to his credit (Cloverfield), would seem as a pretty dicey choice to reboot Trek. Until, of course, you consider that Abrams is responsible for Lost, a series whose fanbase is not altogether unlike Trek’s in terms of dedication, and the obsessive nitpicking that comes along with it.

Star Trek has a director with an understanding of his audience, a good sense of fun, and a knack for covering his bases in service of the franchise’s master plot. To borrow Leonard Maltin (or some such milquetoast asshole), Abrams’s Trek is a winner!

For starters, Abrams keeps the essence of the Star Trek spirit, while giving it the kind of high gloss 21st century sheen (complete with superfuturistic lens flares!) that the franchise deserves. He also sets a quick pace, full of bombastic action set pieces that would have been economically unfeasible in any previous Trek incarnation, but provide welcome entertainment that doesn’t detract from a cleverly plotted origin story.

That story diverts enough from the original series’s storyline to create a fresh start, while casually explaining away the differences with a “parallel universe” plotline that, while a bit hackneyed, is understandable, and provides a nice excuse to use Leonard Nimoy as “future Spock.”

The rest of the cast, led by young Spock Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine (whose take on Captain Kirk as a smarmy young military prodigy is revelatory), provide a new spin on these familiar characters, creating new quirks and nuances while remaining faithful to the original cast. Only Karl Urban’s McCoy and Anton Yelchin’s Chekhov verge on parody, but if pop cultural history has taught me nothing else, Star Trek and parody go hand in hand.

Which is one of the main reasons while the new film works as well as it does. For Abrams, making the film was more about balance than anything. He had to manage the expectations of a strong core audience, while playing up the fun and whimsy for the rest of us. While I can’t speak for the core (maybe the Onion was right after all), it looks to me that he pulled off the trick.

Film: Star Trek
Director: J.J. Abrams
Stars: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Eric Bana, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Leonard Nimoy, Karl Urban, Winona Ryder

Viewing situation: Weekday late evening, small crowd; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 8
Rotten Tomatoes average: 95%

Next up: Up

>> Trekkies Bash New ‘Star Trek’ Film as Fun, Watchable [Onion News Network via YouTube]

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09.


Wolverine’s problems start (but don’t end) with its cast. There’s, of course, 2009 Oscar host and amateur pants pisser Hugh Jackman, who provides a merely serviceable lead while fighting through his boredom with a character who he’s played three times prior. Then there’s Liev Schreiber, whose acting has two speeds: I’ll call them “intense” and “superintense.” The intense Schreiber broods his way through a film, but hides a sly sense of humor that can make a character’s more sinister motives forgivable, even endearing. The superintense Schreiber, the one that shows up as Wolverine’s half brother Victor, latches on exclusively to the violent tendencies of the character, removing all subtleties and rendering it a one-dimensional villain, the kind that you know is pure evil, you know will fail, but who has no resonance, no emotional peg. As Victor (Sabretooth for all you comic book fans), Schreiber is the closest character to Jackman’s Wolverine, the one who should be the film’s villain and its soul, but in the finished product feels like little more than a plot device.

It almost doesn’t even bear noting that the terrible miscasting of Ryan Reynolds, and the casting of as any character in any movie ever, were huge missteps.

Putting aside the acting issues, Wolverine might well have really died on the page. While I can’t speak to any faithfulness to the original comic books, an origin story like this one is difficult to tackle for the screen, and, since comic mythologies are so detailed and often contradictory, any screen adaptation is almost necessarily convoluted. This is true to some extent even in the greatest origin stories, like Batman Begins or Spider-Man. For any audience that isn’t already intimately familiar with the character from other media, you almost have to expect that you’re missing something, and just catch the details that you can. Writers David Benioff and Skip Woods (who together must only have combined for about 2 ½ semesters in screenplay college) are insensitive to the demands of the genre, and take the laziest way out, relying on hackneyed dialogue and exposition that was alternately clumsy and nonexistent.

While the script may have been a dud, director Gavin Hood (A Reasonable Man, Rendition) didn’t do a whole lot to breathe any life into it. Watching Wolverine, I was amazed at how little $150 million will get you these days. It’s no surprise that, when the finished version of the film leaked out online, 20th Century Fox, in an effort to curb illegal downloading, insisted the special effects in the leaked version were incomplete. It seems, though, that Hood and the studio never went to the trouble to complete them, even in the theatrical cut. Hood now finds himself helming one of the lousiest summer “tentpole” films in recent memory, though despite his incompetence (undercooked effects, unnecessary closeups, failing to reel in Schreiber’s performance, the two dozen or so shots of characters peering off into the distance, deeply considering things; I could go on), he appears to have a hit on his hands. As of this writing, two days after the film’s release, the estimated weekend take is an almost preposterous $87 million, this considering the fact that a completed cut of the movie was available for free weeks before its release. Also, the reviews have been terrible. Also, so is the movie.

I’m beginning to be less and less surprised every time I see a lousy and unnecessary action sequel have wild box office success. But in the case of Wolverine, I’m still a little shocked. Not that I didn’t expect the film to make money, I just didn’t expect it to pack theaters on a weekday afternoon. Undeservedly, it’s Wolverine’s summer until somebody beats him. So who wants to be Weapon XI?

Film: X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Director: Gavin Hood
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Lynn Collins,, Danny Huston, Ryan Reynolds

Viewing situation: Opening day matinee, near full house; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 2
Rotten Tomatoes average: 37%

Next up: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09.

In which one man attempts to view every summer blockbuster for the entire season, regardless of taste, genre, or brand freakin’ new Huey Lewis and the News songs.

Pineapple Express, the latest film from co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad) and the newest chapter in producer Judd Apatow’s master plan to take over the movie universe, is not a stoner movie. It’s more Hot Fuzz than Half Baked. Which is to say, it’s far more derivative of the former than the latter. Even Rogen has sort of copped to this. To wit:

It’s funny, I was just talking to Edgar [Wright, director of Hot Fuzz] at Comic-Con over the weekend, and he had just seen the movie, and I told him—there’s a lot of shots in the movie of people loading guns and cocking guns and stuff like that, and that’s all because of Edgar. I asked him, “What’s your advice?” He’s like, “You know, the one thing we went back and shot was a lot of shots of people loading guns and stuff, because we knew we could just put them anywhere, and they were good cutting pieces.” So I told Edgar, “You’ve officially been referenced. These shots are directly referencing your movie, and it only came out a year ago.”

I’m pleased to see that Rogen and co-star James Franco didn’t reach for a modern day Cheech and Chong (who aren’t that funny to begin with), but I’m a little disconcerted that Rogen, Goldberg, and director David Gordon Green (George Washington) opted to walk such a similar line to a film that, as Rogen notes, is only a year old. Granted, the script for Pineapple Express is several years old, but the style is totally borrowed from Wright and collaborator Simon Pegg. It seems like Rogen had a last minute revelation that his film could be more than an action farce, and tried to turn it into a commentary on the action genre. The problem is, the film he so idolizes played that game better than any movie that preceded it. Pineapple Express, by its very design (and its timing), is going to feel a little thin by comparison. 

I really hate to nitpick on that, because Pineapple is, by all measures, a fine comedy. It’s refreshing to see Franco, who, like Rogen, cut his teeth in Freaks and Geeks, make a return to comedy. He has such wonderful timing, and really needs more roles like this, to balance out his typical casting as a “James Dean type.” Danny P. McBride plays third-wheel Red (who’s like the McLovin of this film; every one of Rogen and Goldberg’s scripts needs to have a McLovin, and also copious amounts of heterosexual man love), coming out of nowhere to get some of the biggest laugh lines in this movie. Bad guys Craig Robinson (The Office), Kevin Corrigan (The Departed, Grounded for Life), Gary Cole (Office Space) and Rosie Perez (pretty much every movie of the mid-90s, but nothing recently) spend the entire film hunting down Rogen and Franco, and all (save for Cole, who’s underutilized) have their fair share of gags along the way. This is a well cast film, where Rogen, the ostensible star, could well be the weak link, as he’s pretty much played the same character in every one of his films.

Similarly, Green is an inspired choice of director. He’s not typically known for comedy, but he handles the action scenes, including a great chase in a stolen police car, and a hysterically over-the-top fight scene in the home of Red, the middle man who tries to sell Rogen out. He does a great job of playing the action for laughs, and it’s certainly not his fault that somebody had already made Hot Fuzz. He does the best with what he’s given.

Ultimately, though, you have to judge a comedy on how funny it is, and Pineapple Express does pretty well by that count. It just lives in a huge shadow, and at least as far as I’m concerned, falls prey to some pretty huge expectations. The trailer (which was excellent) was modeled after 1970s and 80s action television series, and promised a send-up of that genre. The final product was a little bit slicker than that, and made action movies a much more pointed target than they needed to be. Not only does it fall short of Hot Fuzz, it falls short of Superbad, too. It’s not quite the action movie satire it thinks it is, and it’s not quite the laugh factory it could have been.

It’s good that Pineapple Express isn’t a stoner movie, which is really a hollow genre. However, there was no reason it couldn’t have been a little sillier. It would be a stretch to claim this movie takes itself seriously. But if all of its characters are going to light up, It would be nice if the filmmakers would lighten up.

Film: Pineapple Express
Director: David Gordon Green
Stars: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Gary Cole, Rosie Perez, Craig Robinson, Kevin Corrigan, Danny P. McBride

Viewing Situation: Weekday matinee, half full; digital projection
Rotten Tomatoes Average: 68%
My Grade (Out of 10): 7

Next Up: Swing Vote

>> Interview: Seth Rogen [The A.V. Club]

In which one man attempts to view every summer blockbuster for the entire season, regardless of taste, genre, or getting chased by a Mack truck-driving nutcase in clown makeup.

With all the hype surrounding The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to the excellent Batman Begins, I couldn’t help but be a little underwhelmed. It’s hard not to be; every word I’ve read about the film has been so laudatory that I came to expect nothing short of perfection.

The Dark Knight is not a perfect film. It dismisses what could be a major plotline for a sequel in the last fifteen minutes, and Christian Bale’s put on Batman voice is more than a little distracting. But those problems are so insignificant in the grand scheme of things that they can’t really diminish the overall work, which handles the superhero genre with a complexity that Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk only dabbled with by comparison. And I loved both of those films mostly for the complexity with which they handled their superhero characterizations. The Dark Knight is, simply, a cut above. It’s not a perfect film, certainly. But it’s damn close.

Nolan directed Memento, which is the kind of bizarre character study that a lesser filmmaker would ruin, and Nolan handled it deftly and subtly (Guy Pearce’s standout performance didn’t hurt). Following up with Batman Begins, Nolan again did excellent work, but was hampered a bit by the necessity of an origin story that went on a little too long. The Dark Knight has no such necessity. Bale’s Batman is already developed, and the film can focus on a single episodic adventure, as complex and far reaching as this one happens to be.

The standout performance is, of course, Heath Ledger’s Joker, a role he plays with the kind of sociopathic bravado that Jack Nicholson, great as he was, could never aspire to. Even as the Joker, Jack was still just being Jack. Ledger puts on the clown makeup, but never once feels like a cartoon. He’s more Hannibal Lecter than Cesar Romero.

Aaron Eckhart, as new District Attorney Harvey Dent, delivers a similarly good turn, and like Ledger, outshines Bale on screen. Bale does a fine job as the Bruce Wayne/Batman dyad, but The Dark Knight is not really his movie. It’s more of an ensemble piece, the kind of great crime thriller that transcends the superhero genre into something more eventful, more grounded, just, more.

It’s also a great city showcase film, with Chicago subbing for the fictional Gotham (Even the license plates look like Illinois’). It’s the first Batman film that makes Gotham feel like a real place; Tim Burton’s adaptations gave painted Gotham only in shades of black and gray, while Joel Schumacher’s versions were strange technicolor abominations. 

The hype machine is a strange beast. It can bring in a massive audience, but it can leave people disappointed. In The Dark Knight‘s case, it certainly has done the former, but it mostly delivers on its promise.

Film: The Dark Knight
Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman

Viewing Situation: Weekday evening, full house; standard projection
Rotten Tomatoes Average: 94%
My Grade (Out of 10): 9

Next Up: Space Chimps

In which one man attempts to view every summer blockbuster for the entire season, regardless of taste, genre, or curvy bullet action.

In some kind of alternate, Matrix-free universe, Wanted would be seen as some kind of impressive technical achievement: the stunts are well choreographed, the plot deals with a richly developed hidden community, and the CGI can make bullets do some crazy stuff. Instead, Wanted comes off cold, trying to piggyback off of a superior sci-tech franchise about seven years too late.

Wanted‘s signature move is its use of the “curved bullet,” a lame ripoff of BulletTime where the extreme slow motion is used to get a better look at the implement flying through the air. In the Matrix, it was a fresh technology, and it fit the impossibly high-tech motif of that film. In Wanted, the filmmakers try to build a plot around the effect, and just seem to come up small.

Still, that’s not nearly the biggest problem with Wanted. Even at their best, special effects can never make a movie. As a public, we’ve seen pretty much everything there is to see; every “new” effects style is really just a variation on what’s come before. Similarly, bad effects can’t break a film that has a rewarding narrative. This is filmmaking 101, and Wanted fails.

For starters, the plot is ridiculously convoluted. James McAvoy (who seemed to worry more about perfecting his American accent than bother with actually acting) starts out the film as average Joe schlub, working a dead end job, with a cheating girlfriend and a crippling anxiety disorder. Soon he’s recruited by Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman into The Fraternity (creative name!), a centuries-old team of assassins, under the pretense that his father (a world class killer who McAvoy had never known) has just been killed. And the same rogue who killed the father is now after McAvoy.

This turns out to be a lie, and the whole Fraternity concept turns out to be kind of bullshit itself. The lies upon lies make even the ostensible good guys unlikeable, and the filmmakers intended for McAvoy to come out as the lone wolf hero in this equation. But the film is anchored by occasional narration by the McAvoy character, where he unwittingly reveals himself to be a first class asshole, even going so far, in the film’s final moments, to insult the audience directly, essentially calling us out for not having freaky mind powers and taking delight in indiscriminately killing people. Thanks, James.

The rest of the cast in pretty plain and unremarkable. Jolie delivers a performance so one note that the biggest stretch of her acting talents comes when she devours a cheeseburger, and act which, judging by the width of her biceps alone, she would never accomplish in real life. Freeman, similarly, just shows up and does that thing he does in every movie. A kind appraisal of Freeman’s acting would call him a throwback to the golden age of cinema before method acting, when you just had to have a familiar face and a voice that echoed god’s. Me, I just get bored by seeing the same performance all the time. Though in this film, Freeman does say “fuck” a lot. It’s the little nuances that count.

In a big year for superheroes, Wanted plays a little bit with that genre, even if that’s not its main intention. The Fraternity members definitely have talents that are superhuman, but the film can’t decide if it wants to go down that road, or just make all its characters into little James Bonds, human but invincible, and with lots of cool gadgets. The whole endeavor seems incredibly schizophrenic, trying to develop audience loyalty in its characters, while not even really knowing what those characters are supposed to be. It may have been better served to play the superpower aspect up. In a hyper violent, high action mess like this, the audience might react better if it wasn’t expected to care about the characters on a human level. Especially in the case of McAvoy, who, by the end of the film, undermines all the goodwill he started with.

I realize it’s a bit like splitting hairs to worry about plot and characterization in a film that doesn’t really care about either. If Wanted wasn’t so derivative in the “stuff go boom” category, that other stuff might be forgivable.

Film: Wanted
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Stars: James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Terence Stamp, Common

Viewing Situation: Weekend matinee, half full; digital projection
Rotten Tomatoes Average: 72%
My Grade (Out of 10): 3

Next Up: Meet Dave