Friday, September 09, 2005

Big & Loud: Mr. & Mrs. Smith, The Island, Brothers Grimm, A Sound of Thunder, Transporter 2

This hasn't been a really great summer for action movies, has it? Certainly, you won't find much better than Revenge of the Sith, and War of the Worlds was pretty sweet, but after that, it was kind of thin. The comic book movies were OK, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith has its charms, but that July/August time period was pretty barren. If we hadn't gotten Godzilla: Final Wars in Cambridge, it would have been even more dire.

I find it interesting that producer Luc Besson and director Louis Leterrier wound up bookending the season - Danny the Dog (aka Unleashed) back in May, and Transporter 2 Labor Day weekend. I wish more folks made action movies like Besson and company - straightforward good and evil with just enough detail to keep it interesting, and slick, exciting action. These movies are pure fun, and as such can get away with things that a Michael Bay, perhaps, can't.

And A Sound of Thunder? Still sucks and sucks hard.

Speaking of sucking and sucking hard, the next few updates will include dispatches from the Boston Film Festival. Man, has the IFFB rendered that festival moot.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 June 2005 at AMC Fenway #11 (first-run)

Slick. There's no other word for this movie. Most of its pleasures are thoroughly superficial ones, and nothing that happens would likely hold up to much scrutiny. But it's tough to slice up; director Doug Liman applies a coat of teflon to everything, so complaints just sort of slide off, and one is left looking at how pretty the movie and its stars are, and at least enjoying it on that level.

The premise is ridiculous, of course - John and Jane Smith (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) have been married five or six years, all the while unaware that the other is an assassin. Their marriage is having conventional difficulties as the movie starts, and things get much worse when they're both assigned the same target. They get in each other's way, the target escapes, and when each figures out that the other is responsible, the only way to stay in good with their mysterious employers is to take out their spouses. Gunplay and black comedy ensues.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Island

* * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2005 at AMC Fenway #9 (first-run)

I'm peculiarly loath to blame Michael Bay for The Island not being as good or successful a movie as it could and, perhaps, should have been. I've got no particular fondness for the man, as anyone who ever asked me my opinion of Armageddon will attest. But when you get right down to it, even though a great deal of this films many shortcomings can be reduced to "the director didn't do the job he should have"... I mean, come on, shouldn't the producers know better by now?

I mean, they've seen his films. Anyone who pays attention to the director's name should know Bay's strengths and weaknesses by now. The man does a damn good hero shot and has a real talent for composing the individual frames of a motion picture. He trusts his actors, sometimes too much (so Bruce Willis could sleepwalk through Armageddon), but he'll stay out of the way when he's getting a relatively solid performance. But he is absolutely, totally, completely inept at fast action. The Island is structured as a chase movie, and it is being steered by a director who simply does not have the necessary skills to direct a good chase scene. He shakes the camera too much, he jumps too fast, he doesn't let the audience follow the action. He's so bad at it - and always has been - that one wonders why, somewhere along the line, the money people didn't try to steer it toward a different director, or have a specialist brought in for the case scenes. After all, movies with martial arts action bring Yuen Woo-ping or Sammo Hung in to choreograph and shoot those scenes; why shouldn't Bay have a "chase specialist"?

Read the rest at HBS.

The Brothers Grimm

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 August 2005 at Circle Cinema #1 (first-run)

You look at The Brothers Grimm, and you know what the producers were thinking. They've got this Ehren Kruger script, and it's set in pre-industrial times and kind of off-kilter. "Let's get Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam on this", they think. "They've got experience and their fans love this sort of thing. Guaranteed ticket sales!" So they hire Gilliam, and then freak out when he starts acting like Terry Gilliam - making things up as he goes along, making changes during shooting, and the like. It's as though they wanted Terry Gilliam's name and visual style, but not the sometimes torturous process that goes with it.

So there's a whole mess that happens - it becomes a "troubled" production, is rescued by a new studio whose heads decide to give a few more notes to a director who was hired for his quirky, individual track record. By the time everything is said and done, Terry Gilliam has made a decent enough film, a passable couple hours of late-summer entertainment. It's identifiable as his work, both on the surface and underneath. But even though it's not a completely hollow piece of studio product, it's also not his best work; it's not touched by the sheer mad genius that distinguishes 12 Monkeys or Brazil. It's a professional Terry Gilliam rather than a passionate one; despite the occasional bits of dark whimsy, one gets the sense that he's trying to repair any damage the collapse of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote did to his reputation, even as he'd really rather be making Tideland.

Read the rest at HBS.

A Sound of Thunder

* (out of four)
Seen 31 August 2005 at Loews Boston Common #14 (preview)

A Sound of Thunder is a deeply stupid movie. It is the kind of stupid where an educated man holds a spherical object in his hand and calls it a "disc". It's also cheap-looking - I swear the computer model the special effects used for the allosaurus was Toy Story's Rex - but I might be able to forgive that, if not for the stupidity. The people who wrote the screenplay seemed to have learned everything they know about causality, biology, and physics from watching Star Trek (the bad years). It's the kind of movie where particle accelerators have chairs inside. It's the type of movie that forces anyone talking about it to make up words like "gorillasaur".

Right now, a certain portion of the people reading this review are thinking something along the lines of "gorillasaur... I am so there!" I can't stop the people whoo have that sort of instinctive reaction; I admit, I might have a hard time resisting it myself. I can only remind you that Ray Bradbury's original story didn't include such beasts, and a group of writers that includes a man whose credits include a fair amount of porn written under the name "Hugh Jorgan" is unlikely to have improved upon the work of one of the twentieth century's most celebrated writers. Not that it takes such an obvious group of hacks to butcher a classic story; Robert Silverberg, a respected author in his own right, took much the same route when expanding three classic stories by Isaac Asimov to novel length.

Read the rest at HBS.

Transporter 2

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 September 2005 at AMC Fenway #13 (first-run)

"The Transporter" is the kind of concept that is really ideal for a movie franchise: Frank Martin (Jason Statham) is a mercenary driver who is in a new city each film, where his job of taking things from point A to point B no questions asked is interrupted by pesky moral qualms, requiring him to chase people in cars and beat them up hand to hand to keep his conscience clear. A few years ago, he was in the South of France rescuing a pretty Chinese girl; now, he's in Miami protecting a ten-year-old boy. The important thing is that there is plentiful high-quality vehicular mayhem and martial arts, with Statham serving as an appealing center for the action.

This would, perhaps, get old as a weekly TV show; it's one thing to trot out the same formula for an hour and a half every couple years, but today, the audience expects some sort of supporting cast and continuing storylines and complexity from their action/adventure TV shows, and the budget probably wouldn't be there for the big action set pieces. Animation might work, but mainstream America doesn't yet go for teen/adult-oriented action in that medium; besides, the "how'd they do that?" on a car chase is the same as the "how'd they do that?" on two people talking when you're dealing with ink and paint or RenderMan files.

Read the rest at HBS.

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