Sunday, September 27, 2009

Review: Surrogates

There's a certain kind of excitement that washes over me whenever I read about a sci-fi movie which deals in a particularly heady subject.  For me, good, well thought out sci-fi is one of the best things in the world.  The worlds they present, the questions they pose, the conversations they spark; well-made science fiction can get my friends and I to argue and discuss and think about life's smallest issues as well as its grandest controversies.  At the same time, there's a certain kind of disappointment when a film with such promise squanders all of its potential.  Jonathan Mostow's Surrogates is just such a film.

The film presents a near-future in which 99 percent of the world's population (think on THAT one for a few minutes) operate robotic avatars from the safety of their own homes.  The robots look like flawless humans; physically superior versions of our fragile, ugly selves.  When the son of the surrogates' inventor is murdered through his surrogate, detective Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) is called on to find the killer.  Have I killed your interest yet?  Because this is precisely where I started tuning out.  Such a fantastic concept is given a backseat to a standard, run-of-the-mill murder mystery.

This wouldn't be such a big problem if the murder mystery weren't so completely labyrinthine.  In any other movie, it would be fairly straightforward.  With the presence of surrogates that anyone can swap out at any time, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep track which person is controlling which robot.  And then when you throw in red herrings and other typical murder mystery cliches, it all makes Surrogates more complicated than it needs to be, and less interesting than it ought to be.  Add to this the fact that the because movie isn't even 90 minutes long, there's little time for the movie to settle into any kind of rhythm, let alone explain itself clearly.

For what it's worth, the practical and CG effects for the actual surrogates is pretty top-notch.  In his robot form, Bruce Willis looks younger than he has in decades, which admittedly was the point, but it's offset by a hairpiece that's pretty laughable.  Other actors and their robo-selves come off better though (Rosamund Pike in particular), and on a purely basic level, the concept works.

Surrogates probably would've played better during the summer months where audiences might have been more willing to shut their brains off and enjoy the ride.    As it stands, the movie washes over you and seems to dare you to try and analyze it.  Instead, it squanders its massive potential in favor of exploring territory that was already effectively mined in I, Robot.  It's not really a bad film, but it could have been so much more.  In some ways, I think that makes Surrogates even worse.

2 ( sadsad ) stars out of five.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Review: G.I. JOE - The Rise of Cobra

Simply for reference, I'm going to link you to my review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, because these are essentially the same movie.

Almost every complaint that I leveled at Transformers 2 can reasonably be applied to G.I. JOE - The Rise of Cobra.  It's loud, it's flashy, it's grade-A stupidity, and there are too many plot threads going on at once.  However, these two films differ on two key elements: Stephen Sommers' G.I. JOE at least attempts to make something resembling sense, and it never forgets to include that most crucial of summer blockbuster elements.  Fun.

The Rise of Cobra is a simple enough story.  US soldiers Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) are attached to a unit transporting a case of biomechanical warheads.  The unit is attacked by super-armed terrorists Anna (Sienna Miller) and Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee), who are then thwarted by G.I JOE, an international super squad.  Duke and Ripcord tag along back to the G.I. JOE base, where they're integrated into the team.  From there, it becomes a long episode of the cartoon, complete with the Cobra terrorists stealing the warheads, attacking Paris, and G.I. JOE striking back.

In between the obligatory plot points, we're shown a lot of cool gadgets, no end of villainous posturing (by Christopher Eccleston and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, of all people), and several good gags along the way.  It should be noted that G.I. JOE is by no means a good film.  There's no question that it's exactly the same kind of lowest-common-denominator filmmaking that made Transformers 2 such a ridiculously huge hit a month ago.  As the lead actor, Channing Tatum sucks all the energy out of any scene he's in which, as it turns out, is most of them.  To balance him out, though, is a mostly well-chosen cast of Joes and Cobras to keep the film moving.  In fact, the amazing thing about the movie is how Tatum is the only one underplaying his role, when all around him are actors hamming it up.  It's almost as though Stephen Sommers forgot to tell him he was starring in a live-action cartoon.

Walking in, I had a pretty solid idea of what I was in for.  I knew I was sort of in for a repeat of Transformers 2.  For the first five minutes or so, that's what I got.  There was even a certain point early on where I completely zoned out and started thinking about something else entirely.  Thankfully, once the action started, I was surprised at how easy most of it was to follow.  While still chaotic and generally silly, there was never any confusion about what was going on.  Then I got to know the characters, and I was pleased to see that the film isn't nearly as far removed from the 1980s cartoon as I was expecting. 

Of course, for every interesting turn, there are a couple that are completely unnecessary.  The car chase through Paris is fun, but drags on for far too long.  Just about every major character has a character-building flashback (Storm Shadow has at least three), which give us details that were alluded to more fluently in previous scenes.  These scenes seem engineered to keep the less astute viewers up to speed, but to the keen eye they just feel tedious.

I suppose that I enjoyed G.I. JOE at all stems from the fact that my expectation was very, very low.  Of course, my expectation for Transformers 2 was equally low, if not lower, and I ended up hating that film.  So where's the disconnect?  Perhaps it's the fact that this film isn't nearly as in-your-face obnoxious.  Perhaps it's because there are no mind-bogglingly stupid gaps in logic (not that it's air-tight or anything). 

For whatever reason, I actually had a good time with G.I. JOE - The Rise of Cobra.  Granted, this isn't the kind of film I'll be revisiting any time soon, but for what it is, it's exactly the kind of fun that this summer has been sorely missing.  If you don't expect too much out of the film, it's surprisingly fun.  I realize that's faint praise, but that's exactly the kind of film this is.  Light, fun, and not too awful.

I'm giving this one 3  stars ( unsureunsureunsure ) out of five.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

In Defense of Exorcist II: The Heretic

I’m not here to claim that John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic is a great movie that should be canonized, but I am here to try and help out a movie that undeservedly gets thrown on lists of “the worst films ever!” The movie definitely has its problems, but the biggest problem with it isn’t even intrinsic to this film itself: John Boorman created a sequel to The Exorcist that isn’t really a horror movie. It’s more like science-fantasy cum suspense, which I will get into later. Boorman had not been a fan of the first film; he turned down an offer to direct it on the grounds that he was raising two daughters and didn’t want to do a film focused around the sadistic torture of a young girl. As such, when he saw a script treatment for a proposed sequel that was more about internal spiritual conflict, Boorman was eager to make a film that was decidedly more positive. The end result was far from what audiences wanted, and Boorman himself became more of a heretic than any of the characters in his film.

So what, then, is it about this movie that makes it so different? The first film was essentially about a spiritual conflict as well. However, it is the approach of William Friedkin and William Peter Blatty as compared to that of Boorman in which the key is found. Friedkin and Blatty relish in making the spiritual conflict as physical as possible with the demon and priest relentlessly duking it out through the body of Regan MacNeil. On the other hand, Boorman moves the spiritual conflict primarily inside the character of Father Philip Lamont.

Granted, the demon is found still to be lurking inside of Regan, waiting to wreak more havoc, but the conflict is never really racked upon her body. Instead, it is done telepathically and mentally amongst Father Lamont, Regan, and the demon. There is also an additional manner of spiritual conflict in this film, as Regan has been seeing a therapist who uses cutting edge technology to try and help her after what she dealt with all those years before (she’s in high school in this film). Whereas the priest is willing to incorporate a device that allows telepathic communication into his spiritual world, the therapist is highly reluctant to allow any spirituality into her science. Overall, I would say the greatest difference between the first and second Exorcist films is the maturity of the directors. Friedkin wanted to make his film as grotesque as he could (not that I have anything against gore in films whatsoever), whereas Boorman wanted to make his film more of a meditation on metaphysical spirituality. This huge gap in tone inevitably created the audience backlash that has it ranked as one of the worst films ever.

Of course, other problems in the film didn’t help its case at all. For one, the aforementioned device that allows telepathy between its two users is never really explained. Granted, in horror and fantasy films it is commonplace for weird things to work a particular way on the simple grounds that they are fantastic, but this device is introduced with a name that screams “science!” but is given no explanation whatsoever as to its scientific basis. Heck, it didn’t need to be good science in any way explaining how it works, but any explanation would have made it seem more like a device that was the result of research rather than magic. On top of this is Linda Blair’s acting, which isn’t particularly bad, but I would have to say she is the weakest among the main characters. I understand the desire to cast her again as Regan MacNeil, but the film could have been just that much better if a casting call had been put out to find someone of the same caliber as the other leads in the film, which includes Richard Burton (Lamont) and James Earl Jones. The other big sticking point for me in this film was why Sharon, Regan’s caretaker, lit herself on fire near the end of the film. I got it that she must be giving up on hope and this was meant to foil Lamont’s tenacity against the demon, but I still didn’t really understand why she was giving up. If there had been more set up towards her despair at possibly losing Regan again, I would have understood, but she seemed stable up until that scene.

That all said, I still stand by the fact that this is a good film, just not a great one, and if you can get past its weaker parts and the fact that it is incredibly unlike the first film, you should be able to find an interesting study of man’s spiritual relationship with good, evil, mankind, and science. I can understand why the film made fans of the first film so incredibly angry, as it is more of an anti-sequel due to Boorman’s reservations about the first. But when it comes to the worst films ever made, I find it impossible to include a film such as this, in which a talented director set out with specific, intelligent intentions of discourse. Such a list I could understand including, say, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, which is nothing but a self-aggrandizing schlockfest and poor attempt by a self-righteous hack to make his own version of James Cameron’s seminal Titanic. But in no way is Exorcist II offensive to the cinematic palate as truly terrible films are, and as such people should perhaps reevaluate on what conditions they judge a film terrible, other than it not meeting expectations of a franchise or genre.