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Bai she chuan shuo (2011)
A horrible, godawful experience.
I have seen this film being called a love story, wonderful, and so on. I do not turn off films after eighty minutes because of these elements, but when I can no longer stand to watch because my cup has runneth over with hate for the antagonist, then the eject button gets hit like a drunk at a boxing club. Put simply, although the Jet Li character is set up as the protagonist during the early stages of the film, the scenes with the two snakes also set them up as heroic, caring, wonderful creatures. The fact that they are sensuous in an overt fashion and the film is unafraid to use this in order to keep interest makes a welcome relief from the chastity in art of the English speaking world. But then when the monk continually goes out of his way to make life difficult for the White Snake simply because she is a different kind of living thing to him, it is just too much.
Jet Li will be happy to know that until he publicly states that he is sorry for this film or that he regrets having played this character, I will never watch another film with him in it again. Why it did not occur to him to hand the script back to the studio and say "I will look like what mentalcritic spits the words 'child abuser' at, I am not doing this" or similar is something I cannot begin to fathom.
Shengyi Huang and Charlene Choi look and seem like wonderful women. They deserved better than this. There are basically two stories at war here. One is of two women falling in love with men that are separated from them by major barriers and fight to overcome that. The other is of a bigot telling everyone how right he is and not realising his entire audience wants to castrate him in front of everyone who thinks like him. Sadly, the second story ends up winning out, and for anyone who has problems with things like love for whatever reason (such as in my case having been abused), the film ends up torturous as a result. Avoid this one like I avoid family.
Rosario to Vampire (2008)
Well, nobody has reviewed it yet...
To be honest, reviewing things on the IMDb has become a very unattractive pursuit in the last few years, for reasons I shall not go into here. But to see an entry finally added for Rosario + Vampire and not see any attempt, leave alone a good one, to make readers aware of what to expect... well, what can I do? Rosario + Vampire can basically be discussed in a couple of parallel threads. There is the manga, and there is this anime. Comparing one to the other is important, because it is important to understand why fans of the manga still cry out for a visual media adaptation. Another good point of comparison would be the enormously successful HBO series True Blood.
Manga and anime alike start through the eyes of a boy in his mid-teens who goes by the name of Tsukune. Tsukune is a profoundly average boy, and has failed the entrance exams to pretty much every school in Japan. But this is not meant to be a commentary about the intellectual caste system of Japan. Rather, it is a setup to explain how Tsukune is enrolled by his parents in the Youkai Academy after his father happens across a flier dropped by a suspect-looking person. Of course, anyone who knows the meaning of Youkai in Japanese knows where this is going. Tsukune, upon learning that he is enrolled in a school for mythical creatures, begins to write his withdrawal notice and make his way toward the exit. But what stops him is the young woman he met earlier in the day, a Vampire who goes by the name of Moka. Where Tsukune is the most average, unremarkable Human, Moka is one of the most elite and powerful Youkai of the lot, extraordinary even by Vampire standards. And she finds the taste of Tsukune's blood very much to her liking.
It is more or less after this introduction that the manga and anime go on very different paths. Whereas the characters of the manga face some extreme challenges that go straight to the root of their psyches, the anime is mostly farcical and only superficially explores any of the feelings the characters have about anything. We get told that Moka is very frightened of Humans because of her experiences of trying to attend school in the Human world, but aside from flashbacks, we get very little to concrete it. Mizore, easily my favourite character from the manga, is basically reduced to running jokes about popping up in the weirdest places and taking her desire of Tsukune a little too far. In the manga, the arc that introduces her shows her dealing with trust and abandonment issues as one of the sensei tries to take advantage of her. The kindness that Tsukune shows her as she fights off that sensei once and for all makes it patently obvious why she loves him. In the anime, we are just expected to accept it as a given.
Where the anime partially saves itself is in the relationship between Tsukune and Moka. Seeing them grow together as people as they learn to deal with each others' differences is a major component of the early manga that has been sadly lacking in recent volumes. One almost wishes the series had been around for George Lucas to watch when he was writing scenes for a pair of characters earlier in this decade. Since the anime is also very brief and to the point, there is a lot less gnashing of teeth about why Tsukune has to be so indecisive about which of the women chasing him he wants. But the biggest selling point of the anime by far is Nana Mizuki's voicework as both Inner and Outer Moka. As the more demure, gentle Outer Moka, she sounds sweet and childlike in a way that manages to not sicken this jaded old viewer (quite a feat in itself that Harry Potty et al could never achieve). Then when the Inner Moka comes out, she gently, calmly sounds like she could tear the viewer's head off just to see the rest of them twitch. It is no coincidence that all of the theme songs also feature Mizuki's voice prominently.
So if you are curious as to whether to introduce yourself to Rosario + Vampire through this series, I feel a comparison says it best. The manga is like Tim Burton's Batman. The anime is a somewhat more grown-up version of the Adam West abomination. But who knows? Maybe one day we might get that Takashi Miike R+V adaptation I hold my breath for.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Did Brian Lowry and Kirk Honeycutt watch the same Iron Man films I did?
...Because the Iron Man that I saw had me checking my watch constantly throughout its running length. It was basically a lot of talking with a few paltry action sequences that ended too soon and had no real oomph. Had it not been for Jeff Bridges and Robert Downey junior, Iron Man would have been another Hulk. And by Hulk, I do not mean The Incredile. The improvement shown in Iron Man 2, by comparison, is like the improvement between X-Men and X2, only five times over. The difference being that X-Men had been 98 percent awesome to begin with. Maybe if this trajectory of improvement continues with the inevitable third Iron Man film (which in itself would be an awesome feat), it will be in the same ballpark as X2, or maybe even as awe-inspiringly brilliant as RoboCop, the exercise in suffering for the most wonderful art that the comic book Iron Man helped inspire. But I digress. The point I am trying to make here is that anyone who uses words like "less fun" as a put-down in context of reviewing a story like Iron Man 2 should be shot in order to lessen the pollution of our gene pool. I happen to find stories that deal with serious concepts like revenge and hatred far more fun than catchphrase fluff, Brian and Kirk.
You cannot have a superhero film without a good actor to play the titular superhero. Whereas Christian Bale is hampered by his director's ego and an inability to be intelligible, and Hugh Jackman is currently chained down by some of the worst superhero film scripts since Batman & Robin, Robert Downey junior and his script are at the top of their game here. Originally when I heard that the story in this film would show Stark descending into alcoholism, I thought they at least picked the right man for the job. But the script provides something more in giving Stark a very credible motive for it. Downey is very convincing when pretending that he is dying and deciding to destroy himself as a result, but the arc of how an archival message from Howard Stark causes Tony Stark to lift himself out of the hole and fix the problem that is killing him is touching in multiple senses. And I speak as someone who has dealt with multiple addictions and compensatory life destructions here.
But the real star of the show is Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko, the real villain of the piece. Ivan is to Tony what Khan was to Kirk, only more so. Whereas Khan had the eventually-fatal flaw of not having as much experience in where he engaged his enemy, Ivan if anything knows quite a bit more about the world he is taking on than Tony. The desperate poverty we see him in at the beginning lends itself to that. When he goes out onto that racetrack and starts to chop up cars, he knows to expect no quarter, and thus tries to not give any. Lengthy speeches are also a tricky thing to pull off in any kind of film, lending themselves to ridicule or contradiction. But in a ten-second speech, Mickey Rourke gives the audience every reason to believe that his character has a right to feel hard done by. There is a reason why Rourke is experiencing a minor new surge of interest, and it is on display in every frame that features him. It is a credit to Robert Downey junior that he can stay credible whilst sharing the screen with Rourke.
One of the most controversial aspects of Iron Man 2 was Marvel's choice to replace Terence Howard with Don Cheadle, their original choice to play Rhodes. Howard made much noise about it, but Marvel made the right decision here. Cheadle is far more credible as the Colonel despite being noticeably physically smaller. During one scene in which Cheadle dons the suit and acts in a fight with Downey, his delivery of the dialogue ("you are not fit to wear this suit!") is much more credible to boot. Also holding up their end of the platform are Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, and Scarlett Johansson in some of the best support roles thus far seen in a superhero film. Paltrow in particular scores top points for performing as a responsible woman trying to hold up a boss she cares for like a husband but is psychologically disintegrating into a mess before her very eyes. Jackson, for his part, plays the same Jackson he plays in every other film he is in, but it works well with the role of Nick Fury, so why not.
The story itself is fairly simple and linear, without any extra layers or references for the viewer to take something out of. But instead of seemingly endless dialogue that has very little linguistic verve interspersed with the aforementioned so restrained it feels like a dog collar action sequences, Iron Man 2 has mostly very riveting dialogue and action sequences that, although nowhere near the standard set by the likes of Verhoeven, are at least entertaining to watch and contribute something to the plot. In fact the only aspect of the original that I prefer over this film is the score music. Whereas the Iron Man score had powerful themes that lifted certain shots well above the drudgery of the rest of the film, Iron Man 2's score is almost non-existent and remarkably tame. And while we are on the subject of music, whilst the Iron Man of the Black Sabbath song and Iron Man would not recognise each other if they met, can we please get something better than AC/DC? They have not released a single good record since I was born.
Iron Man 2 is a ten out of ten film. To paraphrase a line from an early sequence: **** you, Brian and Kirk, **** you.
Death Race (2008)
A film so bad it motivated me to come out of retirement
Typically, when I contemplate offering my commentary on a film, the one question that always comes to mind is what difference I will make by making my voice heard. Sometimes, with dehumanising propaganda like Mozart And The Whale or Rain Man, it is not so much important to convince anyone to stop watching as it is to simply voice objections. Sometimes, with masterpieces like RoboCop or Night Of The Living Dead, convincing a skeptic who might have otherwise not seen the film to do so is its own reward. And then there's films like Death Race, where commenting seems like something you do out of obligation, kind of like when you file a report after being raped or robbed. The irony here is that some commentators seem to think Roger Corman's approval of this remake somehow indicates quality. What they do not know is that Corman wanted the original to be approached as seriously as this bloated turd, and it was only Paul Bartel's knack for making the most of an opportunity that saved Death Race 2000 from being the complete disaster that Death Race is.
Death Race 2000 was made on a budget that likely amounted to a few hundred grand at the most. And more than likely half of that budget went up the filmmakers' nostrils. So when I tell you that Paul W.S. Anderson's remake is not only rightly compared to the original, but is on the losing end of such a comparison, that should tell you all you need to know about what went wrong here. Themes and ideas fly by the screen in an almost manic fashion. In one shot, they are trying to satirise the concept of reality television. In the next, they are trying to give a shout-out to the original. In another, they attempt poor jokes based on a character's sexual orientation. And they get every single thing they attempt utterly wrong. Where Bartel's original shone in particular is also where this Death Race is an epic failure. Anderson attempts to sell the idea that authorities will allow a gladiatorial racing sport in the prison system due to the collapse of the economy. Which could have worked if the person running said sport was not made out by the script to be functionally retarded.
Not helping matters any is that the structure of the race itself makes absolutely no sense. Cars run over lit markers in order to activate their weapons, but absolutely no concern is given to how their activation works for the story. Guards switch the markers on and off like crack-addled children in the hopes of giving favoured contestants an advantage. Racers detach armour plates that are helping to prevent their fuel tank from exploding. Racers leap out of cars that are moving at speeds in excess of a hundred miles an hour without suffering so much as a broken collarbone. Any competent director would have sent this shooting script back to the studio and told them to shoot its author in the head twice. But possibly the worst aspect of this film is Machine Gun Joe, an inferior rip-off of the Machine Gun Joe Viterbo character Sylvester Stallone made his best ever performance. Not only is the new Machine Gun Joe a urination upon blacks and homosexuals the world over, but how often do you see actors compared to Sylvester Stallone and finding themselves on the losing end for aspects other than action-heroism?
My father was a semi-professional photographer once (he mostly did weddings and the like). I photograph things both as a hobby and as a vociferous protest in favour of my own civil rights. I shoot my video footage with an interlaced HD video camera and painstakingly edit it on a computer that is not even the top of the line for home consumer use. And I can heartily attest that if you made me drink enough vodka to kill a bodybuilder then held a gun to my head as I cut together footage of races, I could easily slap together something both more cogent and exciting to watch than the drivel that passes for race footage in this mess. If I could go back in time with two bullets and the exact locations where Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini will be at certain points, I would take a detour and shoot the monkey who invented shaky-cam twice before bashing his head in with a brick. Considering that Paul W.S. Anderson used to shoot films so that the audience could actually see what the hell was going on, my disgust with him is getting ever more severe.
Joan Allen looks completely lost trying to follow the direction of a director who clearly no longer knows which end of the camera to point at her. If I were to spit on Tyrese Gibson for his performance in this film, I do not doubt for a second he would cry racism. In fact, I would like to film him doing just that for the benefit of the homosexual community. Natalie Martinez is quite apparently frustrated by a role so underwritten it makes the sacrificial lamb in Death Race 2000 look like Scarlett O'Hara. But the biggest disappointment of the lot would have to be Jason Statham as the central hero. Where David Carradine was so deadpan and smooth that he made the most absurd material work, Statham plainly cannot give a stuff about what he is part of. It literally seems all he can do to not ask where his paycheque is. Everyone in the film save for Gibson has that patented "I am in a bad film and I know it" look.
Death Race is the embodiment of a two out of ten film. If Roger Corman had the slightest bit of sense, he would disown it. Defenders of this puke be advised: your opinion regarding the colour of the sky is of no interest to me.
Resident Evil: Extinction (2007)
Humanity has reached a new low...
There are statements people can make that instantly tell you everything you need to know about them. When Albert Einstein stated that the simple version of relativity was akin to how quickly time moved in different situations, for example, it told the world they were dealing with an intelligence too great to be easily understood. So when a person tells you that Resident Evil: Extinction is a good film, you instantly know that they are a grade A moron who is best swiftly removed from the gene pool. And it is not like the filmmakers failed to try this time. After the exercise in failure to deliver that the previous sequel turned into, this installment simply had to get better by comparison. The unfortunate downside to this being that a lot of mouth-breathers who have obviously never seen a Romero or Fulci film have the unfortunate habit of confusing "better" with "good". Websites dedicated to the savoring of bad films will tell you that a film is in trouble when it starts to remind you of better ones. RE:E takes less than four minutes to remind viewers of the substantially better original.
By now, we know better than to go to a Resident Evil film expecting anything like good acting or a well-told story. But what separates the first film from its sequels is a little quality called atmosphere. Simply put, the look, the feel, the music, and even some of the performances, were "right". Resident Evil took the time to suspend the viewer's disbelief and draw them into its world. The sequels absolutely fail at this deceptively simple step because they take it for granted that the viewer has been drawn in. This becomes painfully obvious when voiceovers describe how the T-virus has somehow dried up the oceans or other such rot. No matter how lethal and easily transmissible a virus can be, one that destroys the environment that it is meant to thrive in is not well-equipped for long-term survival. But since we are meant to accept this virus as being able to instantly adapt to whatever needs the plot requires, we also accept that making sense is not high on the list of priorities the filmmakers have.
If only the film having a voice of its own was a higher priority to these filmmakers. As said previously, RE:E wastes no time in reminding the viewers of better films. Aside from the original in the series, RE:E also attempts to steal from not one, not two, but three George Romero films, all from the same series. Say what you will about Day Of The Dead especially, but Day Of The Dead's subplot about attempts to domesticate the zombies made an interesting metaphor for the intolerance human society was and is developing for natural behaviour that does not meet the expected norm. In RE:E, this subplot is handled with such clumsy focus on attempting to move the plot forward by any means necessary that any social commentary is lost in the disbelief at how inept the storytellers seem. The concept of parties raiding old towns for supplies is also about as original as a third-generation fax, but it is done so badly here that it truly makes one appreciate how Land Of The Dead negated questions about what the heroes are going to do when the leftovers run out.
And even if RE:E fails to remind one of much better films, the philosophy that less is more completely and utterly backfires. One reason the Resident Evil sequels remind this viewer a lot of Romero's Dead series is because Romero's Dead series allocated sufficient time to explore enough of the characters that their plight and struggles seemed real and compelling. The manner in which the shopping mall environment slowly evolves from a safe paradise to a prison is very palpable due to the acting in Dawn Of The Dead. The real Dawn Of The Dead, I mean. When you see Omar Epps return for another performance in RE:E, all the toning down of the bling bling act in the world cannot help but bring back memories of his performance in the previous film. Which in turn leaves audiences who can read and speak at an adult level wishing to see his character die a gruesome and horrid death. While RE:E is not quite as softcore as its immediate predecessor, its seemingly unending ability to leave the viewer wanting more is a stark contrast to how Dead films can make even the most hardcore viewer wonder if they are perhaps going too far.
All this leaves one wondering exactly what Capcom think of how these second-tier studio gatherings have used their property. The first film in the series at least had a freaky sense of atmosphere and some replications of game conventions to tie it to its source material. If you changed the titles of the two sequels and removed all references to the Umbrella corporation, they would be unrecognisable as connected to Capcom's games. Simply put, the Resident Evil title is nothing more than a transparent ploy to fanboys and video game addicts to pay for films that are increasingly poorly-written. If truth in advertising laws were more stringent, they would be required to be titled something along the lines of We Have No Respect For You At All, Videogamers: Just Give Us Your Money. The saddest part of it is that this kind of corporate shill film designed to whip consumers into a money-shedding frenzy is exactly what previous, far superior works such as (the real) Dawn Of The Dead were trying to warn us about.
Resident Evil: Extinction is a film so bad that it makes misfires like Day Of The Dead seem like Zwartboek by comparison. It is a two out of ten film in every sense: too bad to be worthwhile, not bad enough to be entertaining. Avoid.
Quite a lot less than meets the eye, actually...
It seems Transformers splits viewers firmly down the middle, with people either denouncing it as a lot of crap or saying they loved it. I do not denounce people because they have an opinion, not unless they want to tell me I am diseased and incapable because I was born different to the expected norm anyway, but this... film... goes beyond the limit of bad writing. Hence, when a defender of this film tells me that the sky is blue, I will ask someone else for their opinion. You see, I was a hyperlexic child in 1986 (that means I had a wider vocabulary when I was in elementary school than most people have when they enter tertiary education). Hence, I not only enjoyed The Transformers, the real Transformers, I could have explained to you in very lucid terms why the physics of their abilities are not only impossible but, in light of feasibility on a planet that is not blessed with a literally infinite power source, completely ridiculous. Why do I say all that? It is very simple. This film does not just insult my intelligence, it assumes that I am like my onetime elementary school teachers and have none.
Like all the truly bad films, there are moments when you start to just care about some of the characters. The soldiers who first meet one of the titular robots are likable, genuinely interesting guys. The teenagers that the film spends the majority of its time following, on the other hand, are the most insipid and annoying pieces of human filth it has been my displeasure to watch. In contrast to the Spike, Chip, or Sparkplug that gave the audience an element to relate to in the real Transformers, the Sam, Mikaela, and Maggie that pollute this abortion of an adaptation slow down the interest factor to a halt. It is one thing to make a film about a war between disparate factions of intelligent robots uninteresting. It is another altogether to make the human factor so monotonous and cliché that even the moments of interaction between people are boring. The "oh my god I do not know how to talk to another human being because it is feminine" act is so 1950s, guys.
Adding to the misery are the action sequences. Yes, the parts of the film that are meant to give relief from the monotony of the dialogue or the who-cares tepidness of the human characters actually bring the most pain. This is because director Michael Bay, like all directors who do not know how to make an action film interesting when all else has failed, resorts to the tried and tired method of making sure the audience cannot see what the hell is going on. Michael Bay, if you are out there and can read this, I promise you that if we ever meet, I am going to make you feel as dazed and nauseous as your piece of crap film has made me. I will sign a contract to do so in blood if you want commitment. Bay should really have trusted his original instinct, as he has made nothing more than a stupid toy film. Put simply, I did not just hate this film. I turned it off feeling like Bay had just shaken his ding-dong at me for two hours.
And what of the characters we were bracing ourselves to see on film? Well, Bumblebee is the one we get to see first, so let us deal with him. Put simply, Bumblebee's function in the real Transformers was to demonstrate that size alone does not make a person worthy. In spite of being not much bigger than your average Human, he often steered his fellow Autobots out of danger when it was really needed. Or rescued the human element. Take your pick. But in Michael Bay's conception of the world, everyone who is worth anything is at least 6'7" and weighs 250 pounds, minimum. Do not try telling him Albert Einstein was a mere 5'9", it will fall on deaf ears. And it gets worse from there. The real Optimus Prime was a leader because of several things. One, he was as intelligent as he was large (that's right, Michael, intelligence counts for A LOT in battle). Two, he was unafraid to serve the greater good, even if it came at the cost of his own life. Three, he led by example. Four, he led by example. Five, he led by example. Six, well, you get the idea.
When you add all these things together, you find they contradict the very nature of the robots Michael Bay presents to us and asks us to believe are the Transformers. Optimus Prime in this film cannot even take one of his human wards to retrieve a vital element of their mission without crushing major backyard ornaments and, along with his fellow Autobots, making enough noise to alert an entire city block to their presence. Oh, and by the way, Jazz had class. He was not a twenty foot tall expression of bling-bling culture. Ugh, being that I could read Tolkien when Darius McCrary was probably failing elementary school English, his presence in this film is an insult to everything the original series was about. It is one thing to have characters who are, to quote George Clooney, dumber than a bag of hammers. This film goes a lot further This film assumes that its audience is made up entirely of four year olds who have never read a cereal packet. In so doing, it takes everything that such writers as Dennis O'Neil and Bob Budiansky created and perverts it.
Transformers as directed by Michael Bay is a two out of ten film in every sense. Avoid.
4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
More like the Barely Adequate Four...
Thirty years ago, when Star Wars was just being released to theatres and Superman was in production, this film might have been impressive. Twenty years ago, a little before Tim Burton slapped a lot of expectations upside the head and redefined the way comic book adaptations are filmed forever, ROTSS as I will call it henceforth might have been mildly impressive. But the thing about storytelling is that once your audience has seen or heard a good story told in an impressive fashion, the bar is instantly raised. Ten years ago, in the wake of the stink that was Batman Forever, this half-baked offal might have seemed passable. But after the incredible statements on how far we have not come since 1945 that the real X-Men films turned out to be, ROTSS is woefully inadequate. As I stated in my comments about the previous Fantastic Four film, ROTSS is more a case of X-Men Dumbed Down For Infants, and the fact that director Tim Story was not fired after his appalling effort on the first film demonstrates that not everyone at Fox has their act together.
One of the most commonly-cited complaints about the original Fantastic Four film was that the characters seem largely indifferent to their newfound powers and their situations. This was because, with the sole exception of Michael Chiklis, the actors are never given any time to explore their characters, their characters' emotions, or their characters' situations. We ended up knowing less about the Four than we do most characters in a soap opera, and as a result, they seem less real. Even in Dark Angel, arguably a top ten contender for the worst-written dialogue ever heard on television, we had more reason to care about the support characters there than we do the titular heroes in ROTSS. And that is the one big problem which ROTSS just cannot recover from. Because these so-called heroes live like celebrities and are treated like rock stars, we end up with no reason to care what happens to them. In one memorable (for all the wrong reasons) scene, as Reed is using his flexibility to impress women in a nightclub, we cannot help being reminded of Rogue's abject fear of even touching someone.
In the original Fantastic Four, this effect was bad enough on its own. Its poor time economy and seeming inability to properly develop the characters left this sequel with little or no foundation to balance itself upon. Where X-Men 2 had the inevitable attack of the Normalness Patrol upon its heroes and its anticipation, the biggest event in ROTSS when going in is the wedding of two characters. Since the two characters have about as much character as the leads in an episode of Neighbours, we are not just indifferent to this event. We literally just flat out do not give a crap. And considering that ROTSS has to make do with a mere ninety-two minutes of running time, you cannot count on any story development to give you an investment in what happens to the characters, either. When Victor Von Doom steals the silver surfboard for his own purposes, one ends up being too aware of how little time remains in the film's running length to really get worked up about the possibility of anything exciting.
Not helping anything is the mostly-droll acting. Jessica Alba looks more comfortable here whining about the inevitable challenges of her nuptials than she does convincing us that she regards the safety of our world as her responsibility. Ioan Gruffudd and Chris Evans are just there, and just basically adequate. Even Michael Chiklis is ultimately reduced in this sequel due to his character being given all of the perks of fame without a single drawback being given the slightest exploration. Julian McMahon could not play Victor Von Doom on the most maudlin day of his life, and in this film his credibility as a genuine threat is almost as sorely missed as that of the Silver Surfer. Speaking of the Silver Surfer, the film attempts at one point to flip gears and make him into an unwilling servant of a much greater menace, but one ends up caring a lot more about those millions of civilians who were presumably killed when he dug one of his little holes in the Earth's crust. This is not helped by the fact that when the Silver Surfer attempts to explain why he does what he does, it amounts to a lot of tell and no show.
Not helping matters any is the parameters of the softcore PG rating. Exactly what convinced the MPAA this film was even nearly as adult in tone as either of the real X-Men films is going to be one of the great unsolved mysteries years from now. The action is about as intense as the effort with which I blow my nose, and only a delusional crackhead could find any suggestive content here. You could probably shave another five minutes off this film and get it a G rating in Australia. And when you consider that this film is dealing with the possibility that every life on Earth might be extinguished, such beating around the bush is simply not on. I am not saying that the film needs to be another RoboCop, but when you present the audience with a situation in which people will inevitably be killed, reminding the audiences that there are consequences to detaching a chunk of a building from its foundations is actually a good thing. And no, the impalement at the end does not count, because like one of those ghastly Narnia films, the director cannot resist the temptation to invoke the magic reset button.
Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer is the epitome of what I call a two out of ten film. Even twenty-five years ago, I would have told the nearest adult to turn this kiddie trash off.
The Lawnmower Man (1992)
So bad it becomes good then becomes bad again, all within half an hour...
It perplexes me, seeing people give this film ten out of ten ratings. I generally trust the opinions of people who do so to the extent that if they told me the sky was blue, I would look out the window and see for myself. Because no matter how you look at it, The Lawnmower Man was a film with a terrible script, based on some terrible ideas, trying to trade off the name of an author who was at the peak of his commercial success. Said author, one tall American by the name of Stephen King, liked the idea of his short story being used to bolster the bleak commercial prospects of this film so much that he took the producers to court and demanded they stopped using his name. Having read Stephen King's The Lawnmower Man for myself, I completely understand why. Stephen King's The Lawnmower Man is a surreal terror story that twists suburban convention in a manner that only Stephen King can. Brett Leonard's The Lawnmower Man has not an original or well thought out idea anywhere in its little head.
Part of the problem stems from the basic story of the film. The central story involves a scientist attempting to use virtual reality to train simpler minds such as those of monkeys to perform tasks that any normal human being would regard as complex. When our bold scientist meets a man who is, to put it bluntly, quite retarded, a light goes on in his head. What if the virtual reality simulator could be used to accelerate the functioning of this gardener's brain to the point where at least nominal calculations are no longer beyond him? And therein lies one of the problems most critics never pick up on. The human brain is demonstrably more complex than an electronic board or an engine, and accelerating it or repairing it is a much more complex process than this film gives credit for. When you add to that the fact that if Albert Einstein had been born around the same time as I was, he would have been diagnosed with High-Functioning Autism, this film's conception of the difference between simple and god-like becomes very shaky indeed.
Not helping matters any is the apparent lack of research or planning that permeates the screenplay. In one memorable scene, we are told by the supposedly brilliant Doctor Lawrence that Jobe has mastered the Latin alphabet in a matter of hours, whereas it took him a year. This prompts the question of who is really retarded in this scenario, given that the Latin alphabet is something every child in the English-speaking world learns between their fifth and sixth birthday. At other times, the script seems to have been written by a twelve year old who has been listening to Black Sabbath songs like Iron Man a little too closely. Jobe's proclamation about how he will take over every computer system in the world being the best example. But the worst parts come when the script paints the characters into corners that they have no possibility of escaping, so the writers shoehorn in a convenient device. The writers here clearly had no idea of what a security backdoor is or how it works in the real computing world.
Fortunately, Hollywood productions tend to have at least one strength they can fall back on when all else fails. Since the Hollywood system attracts some of the best actors money can buy, it stands to reason that The Lawnmower Man would have some commendable performances in spite of the terrible screenplay. Jeff Fahey's performance as Jobe easily rings the truest in this entire film. Pretending to be retarded is enough of a challenge for an actor. Pretending to be retarded, then suddenly gifted with mental faculties that would make Newton or Tesla envious, then given over the megalomania, is quite an acrobatic act. That Fahey pulls it off so well in spite of the script he is working from is a credit to him. Pierce Brosnan is no slouch, either, even though his performance as a scientist has little to discern itself from his performance as a secret agent. Somehow, this matter-of-fact, questioning portrayal really suits the scientist a lot better. Brosnan's performance as the man wondering where he went wrong is the only real anchor this film has.
Much has been made of the virtual reality environments around which some of the plot is based. In 1992, simulating a self-contained environment within a computer was a frontier, and someone in the studio obviously thought this would be a good trend to cash in on. What they did not anticipate was that computing was becoming a very monolithic market, and a lot of the fantastic dreams we had about the future of computing were about to fall by the wayside. At the same time, the ability of computers to splice funky effects into films was growing at an exponential rate. A year prior, a little film called Terminator 2 had dazzled audiences with a combination of very simple computer-generated effects and practical effects that made the villain of the piece seem almost invincible. By comparison, the attempts to convince an audience that our characters had found their way inside a computer system were so half-hearted that it left audiences wondering if this were some kind of joke. Sadly, the end result has that Ed Wood touch of broadcasting a failure to think things through.
As a result, this production of The Lawnmower Man ends up being a classical one out of ten film. Film school students can look at it for examples of when an ambitious effect or series of effects are not done well.
School for Scoundrels (2006)
My new definition of irony...
As I was about to do a search on this film, I actually began to type in the words "school of missed opportunity", because that is what constantly comes to mind when trying to summarise this ill-conceived attempt to capitalise on Billy Bob Thornton's sudden notoriety as a master of flagrantly abusive interaction. And it is not like School For Scoundrels did not have a lot going for it, because the actors are rock-solid at all times. It is only when the screenplay lets them down that things really go awry. Jon Heder is a dopey foil for Billy Bob Thornton's merging of his Bad Santa character with the softer side of R. Lee Ermey's schtick. However, a problem emerges when we want to explore exactly why Heder's character so desperately yearns to be more assertive than his initial configuration allows. The screenplay errs in overpopulating the cast with too many characters and a lot of lopsided development. With the tuition fee that Thornton demands early in the piece, the initial class size looks like it could almost buy him a house in New York State.
This, unfortunately, is where the act begins to fall apart. In addition to a large classroom full of individuals that wind up unnamed, we also have to contend with the ins and outs of love interest Jacinda Barrett's social circle. The trick to a comedy like this is that one has to make the characters either pathetic in an endearing way or abusive in an endearing way. Bad Santa aced this trick. School For Scoundrels falls flat on its butt thanks to some performances from Sarah Silverman and David Cross that leave the more Powell-Aspie types in the audience like myself wanting to punch them. A film like this one needs as few main characters as possible, and these miserable sacks, along with half of the class, would have been the first to get deleted from my script. Aside from adding nothing to the story, they leave a bad taste in the mouth and distract from what actually works. Adding to the woes is that Thornton's presence leaves one constantly comparing SFS to Bad Santa, and SFS keeps coming off second best.
Thornton is capable of playing this role in his sleep, and the manner in which he delegates to Michael Clarke Duncan would have provided an interesting dynamic had the film been willing to go all of the way and turn into the sort of boot camp for Bad Santas that the audience might expect. Unfortunately, the cast overcrowding leaves Thornton and Duncan battling each other for space. Fortunately, they are more able to effectively manage the problem than the rest of the cast. If the focus had been more upon them, the film would have been a nonstop laugh-riot. Unfortunately, the film instead chooses to cast them as villains or antagonists. If Dr. P had been a genuinely altruistic man who merely wanted to help his fellow man reach his fellow man's full potential or something where a bit more thought is a requisite, for example, that might have made for more comedy. Still, Thornton and Duncan take a script that often seems to have added them as an afterthought and squeeze it for all it is worth.
No, the real problem is that their students are the kind of people that real drill sergeants of Thornton's or Duncan's apparent inclinations would look at and declare beyond helping. Heder is required to portray a gormless wimp at the beginning of the film, and a powerful man of action at the end. The problem is that he is quite a long way more convincing at one than he is at the other. People who have seen Bad Santa or The Ice Harvest will know which I mean already. I can already think of a thousand actors beside John Cusack who would have been a million times better in Heder's role than Heder. Hell, even Ben Stiller, who makes a cameo appearance in the final act, would have been a better choice. Nowhere is this more apparent than in scenes where Heder is in the same frame with Thornton. One of them is a charismatic man who one would take seriously if he told you he was going to punch you senseless. You do not have to have seen either actor's previous films in order to work out which I am describing there. Someone in casting should have seen that problem well in advance of production.
By now, I am sure that it sounds like I am condemning the film outright. However, with the element of surprise, SFS is a decent and watchable little comedy. The problem is that in the hands of a director or writer with more moxie, it could have been so much more. This gulf between what the film is and what the film could have been is on display from the second Thornton announces his presence in that indescribable manner one comes to expect of him. The A.V. Club is right on the money when they inform us that SFS is too flabby to be funny, as if it needed a drill instructor of its own in order to whip it into shape. Speaking as someone who unfortunately finds himself in need of a bit more than just Dr. P, I felt somewhat cheated once the credits had begun to roll. When I rented School For Scoundrels, I thought I had ordered a veal schnitzel with some fries and gravy. What I got instead was a steak that was comprised of fifty percent fat and ten percent bone. Sure, you can cull a decent sandwich out of this film, but that is the limit of it.
School For Scoundrels is a five out of ten film. It is worth a rental, maybe watching once, but the results you get from watching it all the way through will be inverse to your expectations.
Dead Mary (2007)
A word of advice to those trying to emulate The Evil Dead...
When you are trying to tread the same ground as a well-made classic that has all of its best elements in place, there are really only two possible outcomes. You can either do a good job and be compared to the original in somewhat flattering terms, or you can do a bad job and end up the joke of the industry. The latter is what happened to director Robert Wilson and his writers when Dead Mary rolled out onto home video. A big part of the problem is their inability to provide a proper undercurrent for the story, with no credible explanation for the film's events in sight. It does not matter how preposterous your story is on the surface. If you do not provide it with at least a small anchor in reality, you will lose your audience. For a good example of a preposterous story going to glory because its makers took the time to anchor it in some turf of reality, one need only look at such pieces as RoboCop, Ghostbusters, or Desperado. Dead Mary proposes a preposterous idea and does nothing to anchor its audience in its reality.
That would have been forgiven, or even mended, if the film had taken just a little bit of time to introduce the cast of characters and give them a hint of a personality. For a good example of this done right, one can simply go back to The Evil Dead again. Within the first half-hour, we are given subtle yet strong hints of who each character is and what they are like as people. Dead Mary's writers attempted to cheat this by grafting soap opera archetypes into the characters, and it unfortunately backfires. By the time the film goes into the gory payoff, all we know about these characters is who is married to whom, who is cheating on whom, who is upset with whom, and who failed to arrive. Outside of the parameters of this semi-outdoor trip that was done far better in The Evil Dead, we know so little about the cast of characters that caring about them is next to impossible. Half of the time, we do not even know their names. The other half of the time, their names have so little weight it would have been more effective to simply call them 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.
Making it even worse is that the central premise is so vague and ill-defined that it ends up making less sense as time goes on. In The Evil Dead, our heroes wind up fighting one another because they have stumbled upon the results of an archaeological expedition that turned up secrets they could barely grasp the implications of. In Dead Mary, the heroes play a stupid game that was quite obviously culled from Candyman and given no mechanism of actuation. Quite literally, one moment our characters are having a dispute on what was meant to be an idyllic vacation, then the next they are regenerating destroyed flesh and doing bad David Vincent impersonations. It becomes such a non-sequitor that all of the impact is lost. Another comparison to The Evil Dead that Dead Mary cannot stand up to is the moment when we learn that Cheryl has been taken by something the group resurrected by accident. The dramatic buildup and payoff of The Evil Dead was arresting. Dead Mary is by comparison poorly-written and shot even worse.
Does this make the entire project a waste? Well, no, there are moments when the film does look like breaking out of its amateurish writing and becoming something more substantial. Dominique Swain and Maggie Castle do the best they can with a screenplay that gives them absolutely nothing to work with. One can see the frustration crossing Dominique's face as she struggles with staggeringly inept screen writing. When the film gets confused as to what it is trying to emulate and even attempts to borrow from The Thing, Dominique and Maggie slot into the important roles of that particular story nicely. Marie-Josée Colburn also does well trying to give her character a haunting or threatening vibe, but is undone by the fact that the screenplay tips its hand way too early, and makes the revelations to the rest of the cast so perfunctory that the audience is a solid hour ahead of the heroes. People despair of the constant-rewrite culture that pervades Hollywood, but films like Dead Mary demonstrate why most screenplays should be revised at least five times.
Another problem Dead Mary falls into is that it constantly needs to fade to black in order to jump from one character to another. For a film that supposedly takes place over the course of a night, this is not only unnecessary but serves to deflate the dramatic tension. Another area where The Evil Dead excelled was that with the exception of some very seamless cutaways, the entire thing achieves the feeling of taking place in real-time. The result is that by the time the hero emerges into a dismal morning sunrise, the viewer feels gobsmacked that all this mayhem and death took place over the course of one night. The final death scenes of the possessed characters left the audience in awe. In Dead Mary, the perfunctory execution of the one character we know to be possessed is edited so poorly and executed in such a who-cares fashion that it ultimately robs the film of any memory of dramatic tension. There is a reason why I keep comparing Dead Mary to other, better films. Namely, Dead Mary is so obsessed with what not to do that it ends up not doing anything at all, and the result feels more like a collection of unused footage than an actual film.
Dead Mary is very much a two out of ten film. It is so pedestrian in style that it ends up being neither good nor bad. It is simply boring.