Do or Do Not.

Archive for February, 2005

Review: The Day After Tomorrow

without comments

As long as you can shut off that part of your brain that might actually try to think about what you’re watching at all, The Day After Tomorrow can be reasonably enjoyable at times. At other times it borders on financial-report dull. It’s hard to take any movie directed by Roland Emmerich too seriously–he’s in it for the property damage and the great visuals and that’s really about it. This movie’s certainly got both of those qualities several times over, but I could’ve just watched the trailer three or four times and saved myself two hours.

One of the most disappointing parts of The Day After Tomorrow was that all of the disaster sequences–the sequences we see so much of in the trailers–are over and done with fairly early in the flick. I’d assumed as much would be true, of course; modern trailers aren’t designed to tell the audience what the movie’s about but instead to give us enough visual foreplay to make us hand over ten bucks in hopes we get a happy ending. But all The Day After Tomorrow had going for it, honestly, was given away by those trailers. I wanted to see more of the “world landmark gets decimated” footage, but what I’d already seen was most of what we got. After around the halfway point, we’re pretty much just looking at lots and lots and lots of snow and ice.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Grade: C
Directed By: Roland Emmerich
Written By: Roland Emmerich and Jeffery Nachmanoff
Starring: Dennis Quaid Jake Gyllenhaal Emmy Rossum
Studio: 20th Century Fox

The concept of the movie actually could have driven a decent science fiction movie: because of the horrors mankind has inflicted on our environment over the last couple hundred years, the earth’s climate decides it’s time for a little payback and drops a new ice age on everything north of Virginia or so. (We don’t see much about the southern hemisphere; I guess Emmerich didn’t think they had as many recognizable landmarks to destroy.) In the hands of a director more interested in teasing our brains rather than our guts, the basic premise could have spawned any number of interesting stories. What we get instead is Standard Hollywood Disaster Lite. Goes down easy and doesn’t leave much aftertaste.

What can I say about the acting? About the quality of the writing? Not much. I suppose I could, but really, do you even care? If you’re watching this movie it’s not because you’re looking for life lessons or realistic, nuanced interactions between well-drawn characters. You’re watching it because you want to see shit go boom. (One notable exception here, notable for the stench it gives off: Emmerich busts out a little kid with cancer and practically breaks our collective arms trying to twist it and make us care. Sorry, Roland, didn’t work.)

Written by Allen

February 27th, 2005 at 11:43 pm

Review: Garden State

without comments

I’m not one who’s usually big on surprises. I tend to like to know what’s going to happen so I can be prepared when it does–I guess that’s why I have a bad habit of seeking out spoilers for the TV shows and movies and comics I enjoy. (OK, “seeking out” might not be quite right–”purposefully don’t do a good enough job of avoiding” might be better.) But I do like being surprised by people. When someone does something you didn’t know they could do or shows you a side of themselves you hadn’t seen before, that experience can be wonderful.

Garden State (2004)
Grade: A
Written and Directed By: Zach Braff
Starring: Zach Braff Natalie Portman Peter Sarsgaard Ian Holm
Studio: Fox Searchlight

Such is the case with Garden State, a movie written by, directed by and starring Zach Braff, most well-known as the genially goofy J.D. Dorian on the excellent sitcom Scrubs. Honestly, there’s no reason why it should be a surprise that Braff could write and direct a movie this funny, honest and touching. Just because we’ve only seen him as an actor isn’t reason to assume that’s the only thing he can do. But we like to pigeonhole our celebrities (assuming he fits into that category) into whatever label is most convenient: Braff’s just a funny sitcom actor, right?

As it turns out…nope. Not true at all.

Braff plays Andrew Largeman (a name that likely deserves more scrutiny), an actor who’s come back home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. Andrew has spent his most of his life in a state of perpetual numbness, but that starts to change when he meets Sam (a luminous Natalie Portman), a sweet pathological liar who seems to feel everything a little too deeply. Both Braff and Portman portray their characters with warmth and subtle depth–these are both characters and actors who are easy to like, a vitally important ingredient in the romantic comedy recipe, and we’re rooting for them to make it in the end.

Braff’s hilarous and emotionally honest screenplay treats the audience with respect and assumes they’re smart enough to follow the details of what’s going on without needing to hand-hold them. The characters in Garden State feel like real people–fractured, idiosyncratic, full, alive people. And the story doesn’t hit all the expected notes–things that you’d normally expect to happen in a movie like this don’t happen, and instead pleasantly suprising things in their place. The story loses some focus late in the second act (a journey with Andrew’s buddy Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) to fetch a mysterious object), but the characters never lose our interest.

Braff has some solid chops as a director, too, especially for a rookie. He admits in the “Making Of” documentary included on the DVD that he’s an amateur photographer, and he shows a great eye for composition here. Braff also lets his actors carry the weight of their performances, letting the camera linger on their faces, sometimes a touch too long, but even then to good effect.

Garden State deals with some pretty heady subjects for a romantic comedy–and I toss that term out knowing full well this doesn’t fit the standard of a “romantic comedy.” Yes, it’s very romantic, and yes, it’s very funny, but Two Weeks Notice this ain’t.

Written by Allen

February 23rd, 2005 at 8:01 am

Review: The Ultimates Vol. 1 (Hardcover)

with one comment

Writer: Mark Millar Pencils: Bryan Hitch Inks: Andrew Currie and Paul Neary

The Ultimates takes everything we thought we knew our superhero comics and the precepts of the genre and looks at it through the lens of September 11. What Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch have created isn’t an ironic Authority-esque deconstruction of superheroes but rather a humanistic look both at the heroes themselves and at the price of living in a world where these “persons of mass destruction” operate. Human life isn’t tossed aside carelessly, property damage isn’t just a nifty visual with no real consequence. The Ultimates isn’t the first book that tried to present what “real life plus superheroes” would be like but it very well might be the best to date. The Ultimates Vol. 1

The members of the Ultimates are, for the most part, presented as real people who choose to thrust themselves into the role of superhero–for most of these characters, this life is one that they chose rather than one that has befallen them because of circumstance. These modernized updates of the classic Avengers stay true to the core of the original characters but with the mircoscope trained a little more closely on the human foibles. The costumes are less important than the people inside them (for the main cast, anyway–some of the B-level Ultimates get no real fleshing at all yet, though I’m sure that will come later in Volume 2).

In this context, for instance, Giant Man’s not a trained superhero; instead, he’s simply a scientist who’s developed the ability to grow his body to a height of sixty feet. But having that power and knowing how to wield it effectively aren’t the same–he’s not a fighter, as is demonstrated repeatedly. Hank Pym in The Ultimates takes credit for the work that’s not his, suffers violent mood swings, and has a tremendously ironic case of Little Man Syndrome–all of which make him a very compelling, very human character.  I’d like to note here that none of this is new to the character–this isn’t Millar sullying a long-standing character just for the sake of casting him in a more modern (read: “scandalous”) light. All of the characteristics Millar ascribes to Pym have long been there in the “standard” Marvel Universe, though they’ve seldom been given this level of importance. (The same can’t be said of Iron Man’s alcoholism–that’s been fodder for several stories over the years.)

Not all of the characters stay rooted to the original interpretations, though the best of the “remixes” has to be casting Thor as an environmental activist who might be the Norse God of Thunder and might be a complete nutjob. Don’t let all of this talk about characterization fool you into thinking that The Ultimates is a dialogue-heavy human interest piece, though, because it really, really isn’t. All of the action sequences–from the flashbacks to Captain America in World War II to the Hulk’s rampage through Manhattan to the Black Widow’s Matrix-style assault on an office tower to the massive alien invasion in act three–are big, loud set pieces that would make Roland Emmerich shudder with delight. Millar and Hitch nail the immense “widescreen” action sequences, producing several truly “oh, shit” moments of wonder.

And there’s no way for me to heap praise on The Ultimates without dumping a large helping of it on the artwork of Bryan Hitch. This book was notoriously late and irregular coming out, but hot damn was it worth it. If Hitch needed extra time to be able to produce work of this quality then that’s fine by me. His art is just fantastic, and I mean that in more ways than one. As beautiful as the artwork was in the monthlies, it’s even moreso in the oversized hardcover–several of the full-page spreads in this book could easily be turned into posters (and some probably have). Breathtaking stuff.

(I’d also like to mention that The Ultimates also features the single best Captain America line ever. Not gonna tell you which one–you’ll just have to read it for yourself.)

[UPDATE: More discussion of The Ultimates from something of a more scholarly perspective. Go look!]

Written by Allen

February 14th, 2005 at 10:11 pm

Posted in Comic Books

Review: Elf

without comments

My opinion of Elf essentially boils down to the same one I had of Anchorman: if you like Will Ferrell, you’ll probably like this movie, and if you don’t, then why exactly are you watching it in the first place? The big difference in my opinion of the two movies?

Elf (2003)
Grade: B-
Directed By: Jon Favreau
Written By: David Berenbaum
Starring: Will Ferrell James Caan Mary Steenburgen Bob Newhart Zooey Deschanel
Studio: New Line Cinema

Elf really just isn’t anywhere near as funny.

You know what you’re getting with Elf. You’re going to get a whole lot of Ferrell doing and saying very silly things. What you’re not going to get is much complexity or depth. Admittedly, complexity and depth are probably not why you picked this movie to watch in the first place. It’s a movie about a man raised by Santa’s elves, for chrissakes.

Elf falls into that tradition of feel-good Christmas movies that are most concerned with leaving the audience in the jolly spirit of the season. I don’t know that it fully succeeds in that respect, but since I saw it in early February, maybe I just wasn’t in the right place for Elf to really be able to make that connection for me. I’m much more in a “fuck winter” kind of place right now, probably not the ideal frame of mind for watching a Christmas movie. Don’t blame me for the timing, blame the vagaries of my Netflix queue.

I do want to say this about Ferrell (and this is coming from someone who never really watched Saturday Night Live when he was a cast member, so for many this might be an incredible statment of the obvioius): his ability to completely inhabit such incredibly different comedic characters as Buddy the Elf and Anchorman‘s Ron Burgundy is pretty impressive. Those two characters share very few traits in common other than Ferrell’s physicality and he seems to put all of himself into each one. Voices, facial expression, mannerisms, all quite different.

And I can just hear you saying: “But Allen…isn’t that what an actor is supposed to do?” Certainly it is, but we don’t often expect it from our comedic actors quite so much as we do our dramatic ones. Take Adam Sandler, for instance: in most of his movies, his characters are just variations on the same theme (and a fairly simple theme, at that). Is his Happy Gilmore really all that different from 50 First Dates‘ Henry Roth? They’re both just versions of The Typical Adam Sandler Part. That’s not entirely Sandler’s fault: his fan base wants him to play the same character in each of his movies. When he does something different (Punch-Drunk Love, Spanglish), he alienates both his fans and people who might want to see the movie but don’t want to see an Adam Sandler flick.

So given that…yeah, I’m at least a little impressed with Ferrell’s changing it up a bit.

Elf‘s supporting cast is just chock full of old people we don’t see too often in movies anymore: James Caan, Bob Newhart and Ed Asner are all onboard and trying hard not to look too uncomfortable (only Caan really succeeds), plus we get Mary Steenburgen for some extra still-kinda-hot-for-a-skinny-older-gal goodness. But it’s Zooey Deschanel as the obligatory love interest, who proves most watchable. Deschanel, as is usually the case with her, exudes an oddness that’s both off-putting and endearing at the same time–we’re pretty sure we want to get to know her better, but we’re not quite positive. Bonus points for getting to hear Deschanel’s throaty Ella-Fitzgerald-inspired singing voice. Yep, that is her singing in the movie.

Watch Elf if you feel you need to, if you don’t want to miss any part of the Will Ferrell Canon, but at least wait until Christmas.

Written by Allen

February 5th, 2005 at 11:02 pm

Review: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

without comments

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
Grade: C
Written and Directed By: Kerry Conran
Starring: Jude Law Gwyneth Paltrow Angelina Jolie Giovanni Ribisi
Studio: Paramount

Most of the time, technical innovation comes at a price. Most of the time, the movies that show us things we’ve never seen before (or show us old things in new ways) become so concerned with the “hows” of what they’re trying to accomplish that they lose track of the “whats” or, even more frequently, the “whos.” Sadly, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is no exception, a movie that looks absolutely fantastic but ultimately doesn’t succeed in making us care about the fantastic things we’re looking at.

Much has been made about the fact that director Kerry Conran shot Sky Captain entirely against green screens, that all of the sets were entirely virtual, constructed on computers and composited with the actors later. That kind of process surely made the movie far less expensive to produce and must allow the moviemakers an enormous amount of latitude to tell as large a story as they want, knowing they’re unfettered by location costs. And the movie is undeniably gorgeous–the production design, by Conran’s brother Kevin Conran, maintains the feel of moveis of the 1930s while modernizing the look at the same time. But this movie goes so much for big that it doesn’t pay very much attention to the small and the end product suffers for it.

All of the characters in the movie are 30′s-era Hollywood cliches, which makes sense given that Sky Captain is an update of 30′s-era adventure films. But even so, modern audiences still demand at least a little more complexity to our heroes and villains. Neither of the two lead characters, ace aviator Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Jude Law) or reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), does a single thing that’s not exactly what you would expect characters of those types to do in those types of situations. And we don’t get any real sense of any of the supporting characters, wasting the talents of actors like Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Gambon.

Law fits the role of Sky Captain perfectly: he has the swagger and old-school matinee-idol good looks to be able to slip into Sullivan’s bomber jacker easily. But Law is capable of much more than this movie allows him to be. At least he looks like he’s having fun, however; Paltrow looks terminally uncomfortable, as if she’d rather be making any movie other than the one she’s in. You can practically see her eyes crying out “Dammit, I’m a real actress! What am I doing in front of this green screen? Where’s my corset?” Jolie and Ribisi both seem game enough but neither is really given anything to do–neither has more than fifteen minutes of screen time.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is just the latest entry in the long line of movies for which the technology and the look of the end product takes precedence over the story itself. There’s no emotional center here, nothing in the characters to latch onto–we only have those incredible visuals. And while it’s really not fair for me to compare everything to The Incredibles, I have to point out that that movie balanced some truly astounding technological wizardy with an astoudingly human story and characters. In the end, Sky Captain is not truly a bad movie; more than anything else, it just feels like a missed opportunity.

Written by Allen

February 4th, 2005 at 3:55 pm