Friday, December 26, 2008

Defending The Spirit

All right, that's it. I've had enough. The bashing of The Spirit needs to stop.

Roger Ebert had this to say about the movie: "There is not a trace of human emotion in it. To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material." As admittedly funny and sarcastic as that comment may be, those kinds of remarks should be reserved only for the likes of unwatchable sludge like You Don't Mess With The Zohan, Strange Wilderness, and The Love Guru. Let me say this: The Spirit is nowhere near the best movie I've seen this year, nor good enough for me to even highly recommend to anyone other than fans of the original comic series. But is it worthy of the harsh online criticism that it is receiving, with The Movie Blog even going so far as to boycott the film because of its marketing? I don't think so.

The Spirit
Writer/Director: Frank Miller
Starring: Gabriel Macht, Eva Mendes, Samuel L. Jackson

I think people give this movie a bad wrap because they are misinformed before they enter the theater. The general movie-going audience (or GMGA) automatically sees the visual style in the trailer and connects the film to Sin City, a reasonable conclusion due to Miller's involvement in both projects and the same studios working on them. People make the assumption that because the two films look the same, they will share similar themes and tones. This is a problem because while both films are cop/noir/dramas, The Spirit is unquestionably a more goofy and cartoonish take on similar subject matter that was tackled through heavy violence, sharp dialogue, and an overall more "badass" approach in its 2005 predecessor.

Honestly, I believe I'm being slightly more generous to audiences than they probably deserve: in reality, most people probably won't know who Frank Miller is or that he was involved in a film released three years ago that many have already forgotten. The online film/comics community, on the other hand, is definitely tapped into the memory of the well-received Sin City and knows full well the effect that Miller has had on comics over the past quarter century. This, I think, adds a level of pressure to Miller as a first time director; he has earned the respect of many through his comic works and those fans expect work of equal or greater value to his previous adaptations (300 included). But as far as GMGAs are concerned, they are clueless as to Miller's achievements and don't enter the theater with that same expectation.

I'm not going to pretend I'm a master of all things Spirit-related, but here's a brief history behind the project: Will Eisner, one of the most important developers of comic books in the history of the medium, created the character of The Spirit in the early 1940's in comic strip form for newspapers. Years later, Eisner (who was by then well-recognized within the industry for his influence) became a mentor to Frank Miller. After Eisner passed away, producers asked Miller if he wanted to take on the challenge of directing a live-action adapation of The Spirit, and he refused because he didn't think he was up to the task. Almost immediately after, Miller realized they would give the project to somebody else, so he manned up and took the job. He knew he would be the only person able to capture the essence of what Eisner would have truly wanted in the movie because he worked so closely with the man himself. (I'd guess they talked about a live-action Spirit movie back in the old days, just tossing ideas around and not truly expecting it to happen.)

Here lies what I believe is the main problem with The Spirit - the marketing team didn't successfully transfer all of that information to GMGA's, so people can't look at the movie as more than just the images on the screen and appreciate the history behind it. Even the online film blogging community doesn't seem to know that the movie is supposed to be far more lighthearted and cheesy than the visually similar Sin City. The problem is only confounded by this trailer:

In defense of the company contracted for making trailers for this movie, there are only so many cool lines they could use to promote it and they put a small amount of effort into trying to convey the essence of it by concentrating on ridiculous one-liners like "I'm going to kill you all kinds of dead," and "I'm going to get El Spirito dead while I still can." But using those quotes from "critics" as the centerpiece of their marketing is a pretty shady move, especially since the guy they quoted is not a respected critic.

While I don't think that The Spirit necessarily lived up to the fan pressure put on Frank Miller, it was better than a lot of movies out there and I was entertained to the point of getting my money's worth. I know that "getting your money's worth" isn't the most lofty goal to set for a movie-watching experience, but it's a lot better than coming out of a theater disappointed. Stylistically, The Spirit treads where few others have - and the style hasn't bored me yet. I for one still really enjoy the harsh contrasts and stark colors, especially set against a noir background. The film allowed Samuel L. Jackson to really let himself go in an over-the-top role that added to his steady-growing collection of eccentric characters he's played. A refreshing thing is that the movie deviates from the standard "origin story" formula that so many comic book films fall victim to in their first installments and picks up with The Spirit already in action. I think The Spirit fell victim to The Happening syndrome: the movie was trying to be campy and the dialogue was pretty iffy, but because the GMGA's didn't know this was how the film was supposed to be, the movie's reputation suffers. Another high point in the film (for me personally) was the inclusion of mythological artifacts and references to ancient Greece. As long as you don't care about how the characters came across these items or the tangibility of the whole situation, I think most people will enjoy the plot device as well. I also liked how the whole concept revolved around The Spirit being a complete rouge and a total womanizer; even women news reporters were smitten with him, and he had chances to pick up dames left and right throughout the movie.

The purpose of this post is not to try to convince you to go see The Spirit, but rather just to give the movie a little breathing room after the online community has been choking it so badly over the past couple weeks. The acting is pretty bad, the characterizations are not up to standard, and the movie is almost too over-the-top for its own good. But that doesn't mean it's the worst thing out in theaters right now, or even the worst thing out in the past couple of months. So if you're feeling up to it and you don't want to see Oscar bait like Benjamin Button, go check out The Spirit. If you're not, that's fine - I'm just saying that there are worse things out there. Oh, and did I mention it has Eva Mendes and Scarlett Johansson in it? Until next time...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Spotlight: J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams has been on a remarkable rise to stardom since his start in 1991. The dude has become one of Hollywood's top writer/producer/composer/directors*, and he has already left his mark in both television and film. Starting out composing music for low budget horror flick Nightbeast, Abrams soon wrote his first film treatment with his college roommate and sold it to Touchstone Pictures for a svelte $2 million dollars. Since then, he has become one of the most influential members of the entertainment industry. Let's take a look at some of the content that Abrams has brought to us in some capacity or another.

Armageddon (1998) - Co-Writer
Yes, people hate on this because it's a Michael Bay movie. But whenever the topic of "crying in movies" comes up, I'll be the first to admit that I cried when I saw Armageddon. Yeah, that's right. I'm telling you straight up, that scene at the end where Bruce Willis is talking to Liv Tyler, his daughter, through the monitors got me, and it got me good. I can't confirm that J.J. wrote this scene since he was a co-writer of this movie, but hey - he was involved, and it was solid.

Joy Ride (1999) - Writer/Producer
This movie gave my friends and I multiple hours of entertainment in our early high school years through the magic of creating a "Rusty Nail" counterpart in the instant messaging realm. If you were a friend of ours back then, chances are you were suddenly challenged to a battle of wits with characters like "OxidatedScrew" and "SuperSaturatedWalkingStick." The film follows Paul Walker and Steve Zahn as they mess with the wrong trucker (known as Rusty Nail) and promise him a night with a fake girl they made up, named Candy Cane. Too bad Rusty doesn't take a joke very well. Nice concept, and well written by Abrams.

"Alias" (2001-2006) - Creator/Writer/Executive Producer
One of the best shows on TV at the time, Alias was a spy drama that was a step above the rest because of its characters and their relationships, notably Sydney Bristow and her handler Michael Vaughn with supporting roles by Victor Garber and Lena Olin. The show's quality was highlighted through tense storylines, action-packed scenes in every episode, and the mystery of the unknown - a recurring theme in Abrams' work.

"Lost" (2004-Present) - Creator/Writer/Executive Producer
I've never seen anything like Lost before, and I don't expect to ever see anything like it again. It has transcended "TV show" status and become something else entirely. It's the best written thing I think I've ever experienced, and the connections and seeds planted in early episodes only to be revealed seasons later are mind-blowing. The best parts about it are the characters, and with so many of them on the island you would think this would cause some confusion or dissatisfaction with the amount of "playing time" devoted to each one. But this is not the case at all, thanks to the utter dedication to character development by the writers; all of this is helped by the fantastic cast that deserves every accolade they've received for their work. Suspense and the unknown play heavily into the show, leaving Abrams' signature for all to see.

Mission: Impossible III (2006) - Co-Writer/Director
Scoring a cool $150 million for a budget makes MI:3 the most expensive movie ever made by a first time director. While it wasn't quite as good as MI:2 (I'm biased in favor of John Woo), this sequel still has tremendous rewatchability and features some great set pieces and memorable scenes. It sure doesn't feel like it's coming from a first-time director, and that's due to Abrams having a lot of practice with his television shows (which all feel very cinematic). Trivia - he also directed an episode of "The Office" in 2007.

"Fringe" (2008-Present) - Creator/Writer/Executive Producer
While not reaching the brilliance of Lost, Fringe is a decent show with a few great characters and one big mystery (what is The Pattern?). This show suffers mostly from a boring lead actress, but conspiracy theories and unexplained phenomena abound to keep things interesting. Performances by Joshua Jackson and John Noble are the high points, and the show succeeds because it makes the audience feel as if we are only one slight step behind, making us just interested enough to keep us coming back the next week. It's not the best thing on TV, but it's quality entertainment on a Tuesday night.

Cloverfield (2008) - Producer
Matt Reeves (an old friend of Abrams) directed this Americanized version of a monster movie, but the Abrams touch is evident in the characterizations and overall feel of the project. My thoughts on the movie can be read in full here, but suffice it to say that J.J. had a lot to do with this being as great a film as it turned out to be.

Star Trek (2009) - Director/Producer
While we don't yet know how good this project is going to be, it's clear that Abrams has ignited the internet and breathed life back into a franchise that was on its cinematic death bed. Could he be the next Christopher Nolan and reshape Star Trek into something that's socially acceptable again? Or will this turn into a disappointment for fans and newcomers alike? We shall see, but I'm siding with Abrams on this one. The guy has rarely let me down before, and I'm willing to see what he has in store for the most famous crew of the Enterprise.

There are some other things that J.J. has been a part of, but these are the only ones that I really care about. He seems like a guy who doesn't get enough respect, so I thought I'd show him a little love here on the site and hopefully give you some insight to some projects that you might not have known he was involved with. Until next time...

*The only other people I can think of that do all of these things are Robert Rodriguez and Clint Eastwood.

Slumdog Millionaire

Much like 2003's City of God, Slumdog Millionaire plunges the audience into unfamiliar territory and provides a cultural contemplation that leaves you wanting more after it ends. Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) hurls his camera into interesting areas and extracts moving performances from his lead characters; at the same time, the film almost has a documentary feel to it because it is so genuine.

Slumdog Millionaire
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor

Set and shot in India, the story revolves around an 18-year-old uneducated "slumdog" named Jamal Malik, who is on the Hindi version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" If you're doubting the quality of the movie based on that plot description, you aren't the only one: I thought the same thing before I saw the movie. Seriously, "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" But trust me - the structure of this movie is so awesome that it isn't even an issue. It actually becomes one of the coolest aspects of the film, because every time Jamal is asked a question on the show, there is a flashback to personal experiences that reveals how he knows the answer.

I really can't recommend this highly enough. It reminds me of Wristcutters: A Love Story from last year, a little-known independent film that I ranked as my favorite movie of the year. The story for Slumdog Millionaire is, in its most basic form, a love story between Jamal and a girl he meets as a child named Latika. He gets on the show because he knows she will be watching (the whole country becomes enamored with the program when they find out that this uneducated kid is rocking it so hard) and uses it as an opportunity to reconnect with her after years of tumultuous times.

The cinematography is incredible. The filmmakers used lightweight digital prototype cameras to have the maneuverability necessary to move around in some of those tight spaces in the slums of India, and the results are definitely worth checking out. The editing is great, lending well to Boyle's intense style. But the soundtrack is what really has people talking, featuring a fantastic pulsating mix of songs by composer A.R. Rahman and even features "Paper Planes" by MIA.

This is one of those rare films that pulls you in from the moment it begins and doesn't allow you to even consider stepping away from it. I was utterly captivated the entire time and completely invested emotionally. When Jamal is asked the final question on "WWTBAM," I was on the edge of my seat. The relationship between Jamal and Latika is essentially a modern-day fairy tale: would these series of coincidences actually happen in real life? Probably not, but we don't care - the movie captures a sense of joy and translates it directly to the audience in a way that makes me remember why I love movies so much in the first place. Truly a triumphant celebration of life and destiny, Slumdog Millionaire succeeds for all the right reasons and proves once again the versatility of its director. This is a must-see. Until next time...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

2008 In Film

So here's the deal - I'm going to list out every movie that was released in 2008 that I saw during this calendar year, whether it was in the theater or rented at home. A brief account of my thoughts will accompany each film. This way, when I do my obligatory Top 10 of 2008 list, I don't have to tell you what I thought about each one - you'll already know from having read this post. Enjoy.

Cloverfield - Blew me away at the beginning of the year, and I definitely haven't forgotten about it. It's one of my favorites of the past few years, actually.

Cassandra's Dream
- This Woody Allen movie with Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor was really enjoyable and different from most Woody Allen films I've seen. Much more Match Point/Scoop than Annie Hall. Great acting, solid script, good movie.

Rambo - The most violent movie I've ever seen in a theater. Depending on your movie preference (and probably your sex), that will most likely determine if you enjoyed this one as much as I did. Oh yeah - the dialogue was terrible, but no one cared. Freakin' Rambo is back.

Strange Wilderness - Horrifyingly dreadful. That part with the shark laugh was the only truly funny part, and that's simply because we laughed about it from the trailer so much. If you've never seen this, keep it that way.

In Bruges - Colin Farrell's best performance. This movie was funny, violent, crude, and touching. A great film that was very purely written, if I may use that as an adjective in that context.

Definitely, Maybe - Cute chick flick. One of the few that I really enjoy from that genre; my appreciation springs from the inclusion of Ryan Reynolds, Elizabeth Banks, Isla Fisher, and Rachel Weisz being in the same movie.

Be Kind Rewind - Let down. Not nearly as funny/cool/inventive as it could have been.

Charlie Bartlett
- Another solid performance from Robert Downey, Jr. Charlie Bartlett is underrated, I think. It wasn't marketed that well, but I think most people will like it if they see it.

Vantage Point - I liked it a lot while watching it, but instantly forgot it afterwards. It was the movie equivalent of a chicken sandwich at Burger King.

The Counterfeiters
- Kind of a drag due to its serious subject matter, but it does me good to see a foreign flick every once in a while.

The Bank Job - Not one of Statham's best. Entertaining, but certainly no Italian Job.

21 - Overrated. Decent, but overrated. My feelings could stem from the fact that I've heard the true story recounted so many times by family members and The History Channel, so keep that in mind.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall
- One of the more enjoyable comedies of the year. Russell Brand was really funny in this one.

Pathology - It tried to be "edgy" and "crazy," but ended up being another standard in line with Flatliners and other medical based suspense movies like it.

Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay
- Like the first one, but more obscene. Pretty funny, although I would have appreciated a little more NPH.

Iron Man - Awesome. Surprise hit of the summer, and cemented RDJ as a comeback kid.

Redbelt - Chiwetel Ejiofor couldn't save this one on his own. The script was all right, but the ending just left you with that "what just happened?" feeling.

Speed Racer - I don't care what anyone says, I really dug this one. My experience playing Mario Kart Double Dash has a lot to do with it.

Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian - I liked it more than the first one. Better action, better character development.

Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
- I am angry just remembering this movie at all. That South Park episode hit it right on the head.

The Strangers - Not quite scary enough, but a good horror movie. I appreciate that movies like this are still being made, and I hope more of them appear soonl

The Promotion - Not as funny as reported, but still worthy of a viewing. Stifler and John C. Reilly go face to face for the same job.

The Happening - Awful. I love Night, but he's testing my patience. This was almost unwatchable.

The Incredible Hulk - Too many stupid CGI scenes. They should have utlized Ed Norton more; when you have a solid lead actor, take advantage!

Get Smart - Stupid, but amusing. Really childish humor, cheesy jokes, etc. If you're in that kind of mood, go for it.

WALL*E - One of the year's best. Heartwarming, topical, and amazing to look at.

Wanted - Shoot 'Em Up meets The Matrix. I liked it in the theaters, but I don't know if it has a lot of rewatchability.

Hancock - The little twist they have was worth it for me. The rest of the movie, not so much.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army - Sorry Jared, this one kind of sucked. I paid $2.50 to see this in a theater and was kind of disappointed it cost that much after I walked out.

The Dark Knight - Yep, it's as good as everyone says. This movie dominates.

Transsiberian - Good cast, decent script, mild suspense. Not quite what I was hoping for, but passable.

Step Brothers - One of the funnier flicks this year. Catalina Wine Mixer.

The Midnight Meat Train
- Surprisingly, a good horror movie. Far better than I thought it would be.

Pineapple Express - Overrated and pretty stupid. Rogen and Franco were all right. Maybe I just don't get it because I'm not a pothead, I don't know.

Tropic Thunder - Nicely done, Ben Stiller. This one was hilarious.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - Definitely a kids' movie, but it didn't have the same magic as any of the original trilogy.

Death Race - Awesomely bad. This was one you could write in your sleep, but Statham made it awesome.

Burn After Reading - A "comedy" that I didn't think was that funny. Sometimes the Coen Brothers just don't do it for me.

Appaloosa - Keeping the western trend of last year alive, this was a solid addition to the genre and a great team-up of Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen.

Eagle Eye - I liked it. More than I should have. Say what you will, but the kid's got talent.

Quarantine - Scarier than I thought, but full of "jump" moments instead of truly scary things.

RockNRolla - I liked Guy Ritchie's latest a great deal. I hope they go through with the sequels.

Sex Drive - Another one that flew under everyone's radar. This was the Superbad of 2008, and I think it might be better than Superbad.

Pride and Glory - You've seen this storyline 5o times before, but it's watching Norton, Farrell, and Jon Voight do their thing that makes this one worth it.

Saw V - Not as good as the predecessors. I hope they go to into space soon.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno - Like a Judd Apatow movie, but slightly funnier. I like Kevin Smith's older stuff better; hopefully he returns to that before making another one of these.

Quantum of Solace - A good Bond movie, but not as good as Casino Royale.

Transporter 3 - By far the worst of the series. I wish it was more like the second one.

Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show - A documentary following some protoges of one of the funniest guys around.

August - Josh Hartnett does a great job in this, and if you're a Hartnett fan you should see this. If not, skip it.

Zombie Strippers - Literally one of the worst movies I've ever seen.

Meet Bill - Aaron Eckhart, Jessica Alba, Elizabeth Banks; charming and funny, if not slightly forgettable.

Nobel Son - The mixing was disastrous and the music (by Paul Oakenfold) was unneccesarily pulsating, but aside from that it was a solid heist movie.

Anaconda 3: The Offspring
- Terrible. Hasselhoff should know better. Wait, what am I saying?

Role Models - A lot of live action fantasy role playing, but funny stuff nonetheless.

That's it so far. There are still a few that I'd like to see before the year is over, so hopefully I'll get around to them before it gets too far in January to do a Top 10 list for 2008. More reviews are coming soon, along with the rest of our Countdown From Judgment Day series, so stay tuned. Until next time...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

Countdown From Judgment Day - Part 2

Continuing our series of Terminator-themed posts, Ben's Movie Reviews has once again teamed up with The Solar Sentinel to bring you everything you could possibly want to know about the Terminator franchise.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Starring: Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, Kristanna Loken

STORY: The third installment of this film series picks up in 2004 where we are reintroduced with John Connor (Stahl), who has been living off the grid since the events of T2. Even though the date of Judgment Day has come and gone and the war never started, John still doesn't believe that he is safe. He was right - Judgment Day has not been prevented, only delayed. From the future, machines have sent a new model back to destroy Connor's future soldiers in the rebellion - the TX (Loken), an advanced killing machine the likes of which no one has ever seen. So the rebels send the T-101 (Schwarzeneggar) back to protect Connor and Kate Brewster (Danes), an old friend he is reacquainted with while repairing his injuries. Skynet, the computer system that runs the machines and fuels their takeover, has moved from Cyberdyne Systems to the Air Force's new defense program. When a super-virus threatens the nation, Kate's father (a general) decides to activate Skynet, unaware of the impending apocalypse. T3 is a race against time, a race against fate, and a race to stop the unthinkable from actually happening.

While not as high quality as the second film, this one is still pretty solid. John Connor is one of the most complex characters I can think of in film - how does one live with the knowledge of what's to come, but not tell anybody because they'll think you're insane? Better still, how does he live knowing that he is humanity's only hope for survival of an event that hasn't even happened yet? He's such a well-written character. I thought Nick Stahl (the yellow guy from Sin City) was a good Connor; he played the role with equal parts distance and urgency. Edward Furlong (Connor from T2) was going to reprise his role, but he was having some drug problems so the casting people went with Stahl. Claire Danes was also a good fit for her part. She is the audience-relatable character in the movie: new to the situation, thrown into chaos, and has to be strong enough to take it all in and come out the other side. (Perhaps she was a bit TOO strong - her finacee was murdered and she barely shed a tear.)

Schwarzeneggar returned for his last starring role since he became The Governator. The writers (who are also writing Terminator Salvation) laid on the cheese factor with some of his lines and actions ("I'm back," "She'll be back." The gay bar scene, etc.) but overall it wasn't the worst performance I've ever seen Arnold give. He IS playing a robot, after all. How hard can it be? (Trivia: Arnie received a $30 million dollar paycheck for this film, which was the highest amount paid to a single actor upon the film's release in 2003.) Kristanna Loken plays the T-X, the upgraded model that can reshape her appendages into flame throwers and energy ball launchers. I could spend the next paragraph talking about women's roles in film and the meaning of having a female Terminator, but I'll save that for some feminist blog somewhere else. Suffice it to say that Loken succeeded as a creepy, emotionless, efficient killing machine. Her battles with Arnold were a little unbelievable only because his character is the one who explains how much more advanced she is. So why didn't she just launch an energy ball into his face and be done with it? Because the movie wouldn't have been as entertaining, that's why.

As far as the directing and style of the film, Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown, U-571) did as best he could when coming off the heels of the prolific James Cameron. It seems when Cameron split from wife Linda Hamilton (who plays Sarah Connor in the first two films), she received the rights to the series and sold them immediately. Schwarzeneggar called JC to convince him to direct or produce, but he refused. Cameron didn't take it personally, though, later callling T3, "in one word? Great." This entry is not as heavy on the swearing or violence as the earlier films are, and it has a much more spotless look than the dirty grime of LA in the first one and the blue haze that appeared in much of the second one. The action scenes are decent, but nothing like the awesomeness of T2. The crane chase sequence in T3 stands out, but that's about it. But if the whole movie garners the blessing of the series creator, then I guess it's good enough for this writer as well.

Branz's Comments:

T3 had its high points, especially with the car chase scenes and the appearance of Schwarzenegger one last time. However, it wasn’t as dark as the two predecessors. I mean T1 was pretty scary while T2 had the suspense and darkness of the first film with a light-hearted touch of a child and learning 850 series model 101 terminator. I guess I really can’t be scared of a killing hottie like the T-X, even though Arnold is still at his most destructive. The crane through the building scene was really sweet. I guess my thought is that T3 was good, but not as sinister and enthralling as T2 and T1. Hopefully T4 can live up to its history.