Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, June 30, 2016

NO ENCORES: Whip It (2009)

1. Whip It (2009)
Director: Drew Barrymore

The year was 2009 and I had a huge movie star crush on Ellen Page. No, the rumors that she was gay – and the eventual confirmation of those rumors – did not dissuade me. I was going through kind of a weird time myself, having a miserable experience in college. I had few friends and my girlfriend had just dumped me. When I saw “Whip It,” at a weekday evening show during its first week of release, I was the only person in the theater. In the lobby, the theater was giving away various freebies, including smaller versions of the film’s poster. That poster hung in my dorm room for a long time, more so because of my fascination with Miss Page and less because of the movie’s quality. Which isn’t to say “Whip It” is bad. It’s actually quite good. It’s also, as of this writing, the only directorial credit of actress Drew Barrymore.

Bliss Cavender is a seventeen year old living in the small town of Bodine, Texas. Despite her obvious disinterest, Bliss’ mom forces her to participate in beauty pageants. Bliss has few friends, aside from her co-workers at her waitress job. On a whim, she travels to a roller derby match in near-by Austin. Bliss is immediately smitten with the sport and soon tries out. After making the team, the Hurl Scouts, Bliss becomes the rookie of the year. All the while, she keeps her enthusiasm for the game a secret from her parents, who are no wiser. Eventually, that secret – and the boyfriend she gains at the same time – are going to have to come out.

Plot wise, there’s very little that’s special about “Whip It.” The film is a hybrid of the inspirational sports story and coming-of-age drama. The screenplay does not defy the clichés of either genre. There’s the underdog team, which rises to the championship with the help of the plucky new recruit. There’s the bitter, mean-spirited rivals and the eccentric teammates. There’s also the protagonist struggling against her parents, searching for herself, falling in love, making mistakes, and eventually realizing mom and dad aren’t so bad. Despite sticking to a routine outline, “Whip It” is still a very entertaining film.

That’s mostly because the movie maintains a freewheeling sense of fun throughout its entire run time. “Whip It” is not entirely glib but something fun or charming is usually happening on-screen. The dialogue is fast-paced and funny. When trying to get a drunk friend to throw up, Ellen tells her to imagine her parents having sex. Scenes of the characters just hanging out, chatting and joking around, are enormously amusing. The characters are extremely memorable. Even the smaller parts are filled out with individualizing quarks and gestures. Though nearly two hours long, “Whip It” moves at a steady pace, staying light-hearted and fun.

The phenomenally talented cast is another reason why “Whip It” is so charming. Ellen Page does not play typical teen heroines and Bliss Cavender is no different. The character is introduced dying her hair neon blue before a pageant, much to her mother’s consternation. Bliss’ style is described as “alternative,” which isn’t wrong. She wears thick glasses, ironic metal shirts, loves punk rock, and has an off-beat sense of humor. In comedies, Page has the ability to harness a natural awkward energy to generate lots of laughs. It would’ve been easy to play Bliss as a typical indie comedy protagonist, all quirks and no soul. Page, however, has an incredible humanity, putting so much thought into every move and decision. Ellen’s girl-next-door charm also goes a long way towards making Bliss seem like a real person.

In coming-of-age stories, it’s not uncommon for parents to be portrayed as totally clueless, even hateful, before finally coming around to their child’s way of thinking by the end. “Whip It” looks like its going in this direction. Marcia Gay Harden’s Brooke seemingly has little interest in understanding her daughter. A thoughtful parent probably would’ve realized that her daughter had no interest in beauty pageants long before Brooke did. Yet “Whip It” resists making Mom a bad guy. When Bliss reconciles with mom, it’s earned, the mother being portrayed as right about some things, wrong about others. It’s also nice that Harden isn’t immediately won over by her daughter’s sports performance. Even at the end, she’s a bit uncertain. I also really like Daniel Stern as the slightly goofy, sports-obsessed dad. Mom and dad clearly still have a passionate, physical relationship, which is a nice touch when so many movies portray parents as practically asexual.

Bliss’ best friend is Pash, played by Alia Shawkat. Shawkat and Page are friends in real life and that chemistry obviously carries over to their characters. The two often giggle like the mischievous teen girls they are. By the same accord, this isn’t played in a reductive manner. Instead, the two seem to be amusing themselves with genuine in-jokes. Much like Page, Shawkat has a unique screen presence of her own. Just the way she scowls or crinkles her forehead can produce a laugh. I also like Carlo Alban as Birdman, Ellen and Alia’s coworker and friend, who harbors a crush on Shawkat. When he finds out the romantic interest isn’t quite unrequited, his response is quite amusing.

Of course, Bliss’ kinship with her roller derby team is maybe the most important relationship in the film. Drew Barrymore assembles an excellent gathering of actors for this ensemble. Among them is herself. Barrymore plays Smashley Simpson, the primary muscle of the team, who has no problem smashing opposing players in the face. For that matter, it seems to be her primary strategy. This high-energy, rough-and-tumble part is extremely well suited to Barrymore’s talents. While Zoe Bell and Eve’s parts are fairly undefined, both actresses bring their considerable talents to the roles, making small roles memorable. As team couch Razor, Andrew Wilson amusingly vacillates between frustrated, with his team’s seeming incompetence, and pride, over their actual abilities. Kristen Wigg plays Maggie, the player who bonds most closely with Bliss. Wigg is parental, providing life advice to Page, but still funny, maintaining a personable edge even during the film’s slowest moments.

Befitting the sports setting, the Hurl Scouts are naturally opposed by a rival roller derby team. The Holy Rollers are led by Iron Maven, played by Juliette Lewis. Most of the film characterizes Maven as a bitter, typical sports movie bad guy. She tosses Bliss into a hot tub at an after-party and starts a food fight in a coffee shop. Naturally, her behavior in the rink is brutal, slamming and elbowing the other players. Yet “Whip It” still takes the time to add a little more depth to Lewis’ character. During a one-on-one with Bliss, Maven reveals that she spent most of her life aimless, not developing a passion for roller derby until recently. In a sports cliché at least as old as “Rocky,” the heroes go the distance without winning the championship. Displaying its continued commitment to humanity, Maven and Bliss share a grounding moment after the rival team wins.

Despite being a first time director, Barrymore has no problem capturing a fast-paced sense of action throughout the derby sequences in “Whip It.” The rules of roller derby are clearly displayed and understood, without bogging the film down in too much exposition. The audience grasps how the game works after the first sequence. The derby games are fun to watch, the camera keeping up with the speedy movements of the players. The blows against the guardrail or with fists hit with the appropriate level of force. It’s surprising that roller derby hasn’t made it into more films. The movement of the sport, the weaving in and out of crowds of players, is inherently cinematic. “Whip It” captures this well.

If there’s anything about the film that doesn’t immediately charm me, it’s the required love story. Bliss quite literally bumps into her love interest, rock singer Oliver. Oliver is played by Landon Pigg, a ridiculously named real singer of some note. From the moment we meet Oliver, we know he’s going to break Bliss’ heart somehow. Pigg’s not bad in the part and he shares some decent chemistry with Page. The scenes devoting to the two’s relationship, which include loosing keys in a corn field or playing pinball, are amiable. The inevitable love scene between the two, meanwhile, is rather overwrought. The two teens mingle underwater in a pool, which seems like an awfully inconvenient way to loose your virginity. Yes, Oliver does screw around on Bliss, confirming the audience’s natural instinct not to like him.

That heartbreak leads to the most routine part of “Whip It.” It’s the standard end of the second act shenanigans. Mom and Dad find out that Bliss has been deceiving them, forcing a schism between the characters. The Hurl Scouts discover Bliss is only 17, making her technically too young to play. Pash gets pissed at Bliss, forcing a separation between the close friends. The reveal that Oliver is a cheating piece of shit is the last blow for Bliss, which makes her realize she needs to get her life back together. “Whip It” is too laid back to ever lurched towards contrived melodrama. But it comes dangerously close during these scenes. The film defuses these tensions in a smart way. Bliss refuses to play Oliver’s shitty games. Pash, Dad, and the Scouts happily accept her back.

“Whip It” also has an awesome soundtrack, featuring some driving rock music from Peaches, MGMT, the Breeders, and the Ravonettes. The film’s effervescent charm was recognized by many critics, who admitted to liking it in spirit of the predictable screenplay. That, however, didn’t translate to box office and the film just barely broke even worldwide. Maybe that’s why Barrymore has yet to direct another film. Or maybe it’s an example of an actor directing a film and finding it isn’t for them, a pattern we’ll see in future No Encores reviews. “Whip It” isn’t a classic but the work of Page and the rest of the cast, along with a healthy amount of heart, makes the film highly agreeable nevertheless. Now I need to see if I still have that poster somewhere… [7/10]

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

MEMORIES: Sega Genesis

Video games are huge business these days and I do not care. The most recent game system I own is an X-Box 360, which I bought exclusively to play “Marvel vs. Capcom III.” I haven’t turned on the system in probably over a year, to the point I unplugged it from my TV, wrapped it up in its cords, and hid it away somewhere. But it wasn’t always that way. As a kid in the early nineties, I saw video game systems as the ultimate status symbol. When I was very young, there was an NES in the house. However, it was designated as belonging to the family and was mostly played by my older sister. (That is until a pet cat chew through one of the cords, rendering the system unplayable.) A friend of mine owned a Super Nintendo, which I coveted greatly. However, there was one game system which I desired more then any other: The Sega Genesis, known overseas as the Megadrive.

The reasons why I lusted after the Genesis so much are easy to determine. Sega’s advertisements positioned the Genesis as a hipper, edgier console over its competition. In truth, the Super Nintendo had a stronger graphics card, more memory, better sound, and a library of games filled with genuine classics. That didn’t matter to five year old Zack Clopton back in 1993. I totally bought every line about Blast Processing, every promise that Sega does what Nintendon’t. The goal of these commercials was to make the Genesis seem like the badass of the home console world. Nintendo, meanwhile, was for babies. It worked, at least on me.

Yet even that wasn’t the real reason why I desired a Genesis. Last week, the internet celebrated the 25th anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog. As a kid, I was obsessed with Sega’s blue mascot with ‘tube. The comic book and cartoon shows fostered such a love for the character and his world, one that shamefully continues to this day, that I had to start a whole other blog to figure out why. I happily consumed the comics and loved the Saturday morning series but knew Sonic began his life as a video game character. For years, I only played the games at a friend's home or in store display room. Finally, in 1995 at the age of seven, I received a Genesis for Christmas. Afterwards, I spent hours playing many of the “Sonic” games, with the second one quickly emerging as my favorite.

You’ll notice that this blog isn’t called “Video Game Thoughts.” Back in the mid-nineties, I didn’t read reviews. Magazines and probably even some early websites existed devoted to parsing out which video games were good and which were crap. Nowadays, I know that video games based off of movies or television shows are not traditionally well regarded. When I was a kid, I was drawn to games inspired by film. What young cinema fan wouldn’t be? Who wouldn’t love a chance to play through their favorite movies or shows?  Naturally, I wound up with quite a few digital adaptations of cinematic creations. Some of these games, I would later realize, weren’t very good. Back then, I would play them over and over again, mining hours of entertainment from products of sometimes questionable quality.

Such as, for example, the video game based off “The Pagemaster.” The film, which I’m a fan of, was a box office flop in its day. I don’t think the video game was much more widely seen. As a kid, I liked the opening level, which took place in a spooky castle, featuring lots of ghosts and skulls. Playing the game as an adult, I realize the controls are slippery, the game mechanics are sometimes confusing, and the level designs are non-intuitive. Not everything you enjoyed as a kid will stand up to scrutiny as an adult. This is the sort of lesson you have to learn when you’re a nostalgia addict.

Some of those Sega games, on the other hand, hold up alright. The Disney Animated Features of the day were often accompanied by video game adaptations. While these rarely stand as crowning achievements for the art form, a few of them weren’t too bad. “Aladdin” is actually one of the best selling games for the Genesis. The game play is often repetitive but the artwork is vibrant and the action is exciting enough. Mostly, I just loved revisiting the film’s world and being able to see more of it. The same could be said of “The Lion King” game, also developed by Virgin Interactive. By switching between Simba as a cab and an adult, the game provided some variety. The stages, which included the elephant graveyard and the wildebeest stampede, could become very intense. Even the weaker levels did their best to recreate the film’s gorgeous artwork.

Of course, not all of the Sega games with the Disney brand were that good. “The Jungle Book” is a solid enough platformer. It’s also has colorful, faithful graphics. However, the difficulty level was a bit too steep for me as a kid. There are so many enemies that your health meter is quickly drained. At least Mogwli’s 16 bit adventure was more memorable then “The Little Mermaid” game. I mostly recall the confusingly laid out stage and lack of weapons in that game. “The Beauty and the Beast” game, meanwhile, only sticks with me because I could never make it pass the first level. I’ve never had especially admirable gaming skills but I don’t feel the need to revisit these cartridges too often.

When “Toy Story” came out in 1995, it naturally was accompanied by a video game adaptation. The Sega port did an okay job of copying the film’s computer graphics, to the best of the Genesis’ ability. The game often changed format, including a first person perspective on one level and a driving level with terrible controls. Despite that, I still wanted the “Toy Story” video game so much. That December, it was on all the Christmas wish lists sent out to each family member. On the 25th, my dear grandmother happily handed me a wrapped gift shaped like a Genesis box. I unwrapped the package to find… The Sega Genesis game “Toys,” based off the Robin Williams’ movie of the same name. As debatable as the film’s merits are, the game is far worst. That Christmas represents one of the earliest times I can recall being forced to swallow my disappointment and smile at a gift I didn't want.

I frequently played two Sega Genesis games that were based off at-the-time popular cartoon shows that were, nevertheless, built around film references. This made perfect sense for “Animaniacs,” as the show usually parodied both new and classic movies. That video game, by the way, is alright. Being able to switch between the three Warner siblings, each one with a different ability, is mildly innovative. The artwork, meanwhile, is colorful and memorable. I especially loved the horror movie inspired stage. “Garfield: Caught in the Act” also featured a horror stage. The graphics weren’t as bold but they still featured a handful of amusing sights. That game wasn’t nearly as interesting, being a far more standard platformer. I was never able to beat it due to a glitch in the third stage, where the boss just leaves the game.

As I’ve mentioned before, sometimes just browsing the video game section at a video rental place was an experience unto itself. I usually stuck to titles I was familiar with. My local video store had a fairly small Sega Genesis selection and rarely got in new games. This meant I would often rent the same titles over and over again. This was how I was able to master “Dynamite Headdy” before I even owned a couple. Occasionally, my hand would hover over a movie-related game repeatedly without ever renting it. “Moonwalker” intrigued me but I wasn’t a big enough Michael Jackson fan to ever take that plunge. “Toxic Crusaders,” meanwhile, mildly interested me. Even as a kid though, I kind of suspected that video game sucked. When I played the game years later, that assumption was proven correct. “Moonwalker,” meanwhile, is a mildly entertaining game, worth playing if only for its bizarre novelty value.

I still have my original Sega Genesis, by the way. It’s a model two that still functions perfectly. Today, you can take a brand new video game system out of the box and it’ll die immediately. Back in the nineties, you could throw one down the stairs and you’d still be able to plug it in and play it. Occasionally, I even acquire a game I never had as a kid. “Splatterhouse 2” was probably too explicitly gory and creepy for my childhood eyes. As an adult, I love the way it mashes up different eighties horror flicks, essentially creating a video game where Jason Voorhees fights the Evil Dead. “RoboCop vs. Terminator,” meanwhile, I didn’t even knew existed back then. That game is fun too, though far from perfect. Again, there’s something to be said about getting to see RoboCop blast away legions of T-800s. It’s certainly something you’ll never see in a movie.

I know this wasn’t the most insightful Memories essay. Much like playing them, writing about video games is a tricky art form. The truth is, outside of the titles I mentioned here, I didn’t play that many other Genesis games. I didn’t play classics of the system like “Gunstar Heroes” or “Castlevania: Bloodlines” until I was much older. (Sorry, I couldn’t find a way to connect childhood favorites like “Battletoads & Double Dragon” or “Eternal Champions” to this blog’s theme.) The quality of the games wasn’t always sterling but the Genesis and its many titles remain a source of nostalgia for me. While many people love “Dark Souls” or “Overwatch,” I wouldn’t even know what to do with those. A bit of the ol’ Blast Processing and that simple black box were always enough for me.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Supergirl (1984)

Next summer, Wonder Woman is finally getting her own movie, something that’s long overdue. While it’s easily the most high-profile female-led superhero movie, it’s far from the first. “Elektra,” “Catwoman,” “Barb Wire,” “Tank Girl,” “Red Sonja” and “Sheena” all proceeded it. You’ll notice all those movies were box office bombs and most of them are varying degrees of terrible. Sadly, there was precedence for this too. The very first superhero movie of the modern age to star a woman was 1984’s “Supergirl.” Like the ones that came afterwards, “Supergirl” was a financial flop and a critical failure. Considering its dubious position in comic book movie history, why do I own it?

Following the destruction of Krypton, a remnant civilization of Kryptonians survive in a pocket dimension called Argo City, created by the artist Zaltar. Kara Zor-El, the cousin of Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman, lives there with her family. After Zaltar steals the Omegahedron – Argo City’s power source – something goes screwy, the power source sucked into space. Kara follows the Omegahedron to Earth. There, the device falls into the hands of Selena, an amateur witch with dreams of ultimate power. Kara, meanwhile, becomes the hero Supergirl. While attempting to recover the power source, she also has to navigate high school, dating, and her own powers.

“Supergirl” is a deeply flawed film that does increasingly more things wrong as it progresses. However, the movie gets one important detail right. Helen Slatter plays Supergirl. Just as Christopher Reeves was perfectly cast as Superman, Slatter is pitch perfect as Supergirl. She’s beautiful, sincere, naïve, but curious, determined, empathetic, and willing to risk her own life to save others. Lacking the experience of her cousin, Supergirl makes more mistakes, doubts her own abilities more, which is totally in keeping with the character. While Slatter is great, the film could’ve handled the character better. When Superman first appeared in Richard Donner’s “Superman,” he’s helping people. When Supergirl first appears, she gets hit on by some truckers before beating them up.

The right actress was cast as the titular hero. That’s not what’s embarrassing about “Supergirl.” Instead, it’s the film’s villain that produces many eye rolls. Faye Dunaway plays Selena, the witch who accidentally receives the superpower granting MacGuffin. Selena is the most facile of female supervillain. She uses her newly gained ability to try and seduce hunky guys or throw awesome parties. It’s not until the half-way point where she starts to do truly evil things. Even then, her actions – enslaving the town, endangering Supergirl’s friend – come off as every superficial. Dunaway acts ridiculously, seeming less like a supervillain and more like a sitcom arch-enemy. Worst yet, Selena has two comic relief sidekicks. The incredible annoying Bianca, played by Brenda Vaccaro, makes constant quibs about the film’s events. Selena’s ex-boyfriend Nigel, played by Peter Cook, is a very broad, stuffy British stereotype. The character of Selena has no basis in the comic book either, making me wonder where the hell the screenwriter got these terrible ideas.

I think one of the reasons why so many female-led comic book movie fail is because directors, producers, and screenwriters feel the need to add condescending, stereotypical “girly” story developments. In other words, the creative crew do not take the characters seriously, solely because of their gender. This is very clear in “Supergirl.” A large portion of the film is focused on Kara’s adventures in high school. Some of this stuff is okay, like Kara befriending Lucy Lane, Lois’ little sister. Other parts are hopelessly dopey. Such as Supergirl’s abilities being used during a polo game or to prevent a locker room prank.

Worst yet is the bizarre romance forced into the movie. Selena attempts to cast a love spell on a hunky gardener. Through a convoluted series of events, he ends up falling in love with Supergirl. Enchantment is not a good basis for any honest relationship but “Supergirl” runs with this. The love interest, named Ethan and played by a flat Hart Bochner, essentially stalks the girl, appearing with candy and flowers. That Supergirl ends up reciprocating these feelings seems highly unlikely. Having said that, Slater’s incredibly sincere performance almost sells her feelings for this random guy.

The special effects in “Supergirl” range from okay to fairly bad. The flying shots are generally fine. However, the action scenes cooked up to challenge Supergirl are incredibly underwhelming. Selena’s plot causes a crane to go ballistic, threatening Kara’s friends and the Popeye’s Chicken they’re having lunch at. That it takes Supergirl more then a minute to diffuse this situation is disappointing. Later, Selena summons an invisible monster to fight Supergirl. How this one is defeated, which involves an electrified lamp post, seems especially random. Afterwards, the witch interrupts the heroine’s romantic date at a carnival. Causing bumper cars to go crazy is not a very threatening villainous action. The climax of the film has Supergirl fighting against a giant demon Selena summons, which is when the special effects are downgraded from “inconsistent” to “shitty.” It’s a fairly weak climax.

Why Do I Own This?: “Supergirl” has been in-and-out of print for years now. I own neither the original Anchor Bay release nor the Warner Bros’ DVD that came out in 2006. Instead, I grabbed a grey-market DVD at a convention a few years back. I was always curious about the film and, considering the dirt cheap asking price, decided to take a chance on it.

Why I continue to own it is out of a generalized desire that the movie was better. Whatever wishes I might have, “Supergirl” sadly isn’t very good. Helen Slater is great as the titular character but a ridiculous villain and mediocre script deeply hurts the film. It’s not even up to the quality of “Superman III,” though it’s slightly less embarrassing. I have no doubt that “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel” will fare better and, hopefully, finally break the stigma surrounding female superhero movies. [5/10]

Monday, June 27, 2016

Recent Watches: The Omen (2006)

The remake of “The Omen” may be the only movie that was greenlit because of a release date. The remake was rushed into production so that it would be released on June 6, 2006. (That was a Tuesday, by the way.) To be even cuter about it, the film was officially rolled out at 6:06 in the morning. Ha ha. While I love the original “Omen,” I don’t consider it an untouchable classic of the genre. The 1976 film’s themes were based in an older religious context. How would a new version of “The Omen” update these concepts for our more cynical, areligious times? What would an agnostic version of “The Omen” looks like? We’ll never find out because John Moore’s remake was content to more-or-less repeat the original, just with a flashier visual style.

The U.S. Ambassador to Britain gets some bad news. His wife Katherine has given birth to a stillborn son. In hopes of saving his wife’s feelings, Robert Thorn discreetly switches the dead child with a new adoptee. Named Damien, and raised in luxury, the boy appears to be mostly normal. Until his fifth birthday, when a nanny hangs herself in front of the whole party. From there, strange events begin to haunt Robert, his wife, and their son. More unusual deaths follow, all of them unlikely and violent in nature. A clearly unhinged priest gives Robert an eerie warning. Katherine begins to feel strangely about Damien. Soon, Thorn is forced to confront the truth: Damien is Antichristo, the offspring of the Devil, conceived to fulfill the end times prophecies.

One assumes that, if a filmmaker chooses to remake a movie, they have something new or interesting to bring to the material. You’d think that anyway. Yet “The Omen” happily follows the original beat for beat. Thorn’s son dies, the switch is made, the nanny kills herself. A priest warns Robert before being impaled by a lightning rod. A Rottweiler appears, along with a new nanny, and the mom gets worried. The mom’s pregnancy is terminated by an accident Damien perpetrates. Thorn teams up with a photographer, they consult a scarred monk, and explore a cemetery. After the photographer dies, Thorn confirms what Damien truly is. The remake even maintains minor scenes, like Katherine loosing Damien during a day out or the dead priest covering his apartment with Bible pages. The changes that are made are totally trivial. A razor scooter replaces a tricycle. An unconvincing gorilla suit stands in for crazed baboons. “The Omen” isn’t a shot-for-shot remake but it’s practically scene-for-scene. What’s the point?

Only a handful of new elements are added. Vatican scientists take note of Damien’s birth, presenting the Pope with an apocalyptic slideshow. (Tastelessly, real footage of the September 11th attacks and Hurricane Katrina are included.) The final scene coincides with the Pope’s death. These sequences serve no purpose other then adding more ominous qualities to the story. Naturally, the deaths are gorier. The priest is impaled by both a lightning rod and shattered glass. The photographer is decapitated by a spinning sign, his stump spurting blood. Instead of just stabbing Ms. Baylock, Mr. Thorn runs her over with his car, her body spinning into the air. The most senseless addition is arty nightmare scenes, each climaxing with cheap jump scares. The Thorn parents have nightmares that feature dead fetuses, hooded occultists, and pristine white rooms. Maybe the director thought the audiences wouldn’t understand how worried the characters were otherwise? Because we’re, you know, stupid.

As much as I hate the entirely unnecessary nightmare sequences, that’s not what annoys me the most about the 2006 “Omen.” Richard Donner made sure to ground the original “Omen” in reality, making even the most outrageous moments seem possible. The remake goes far in the other direction. Each shot is calibrated for maximum flashiness. Actors are often centered in the middle of the frame. All the colors are muted but exaggerated. Color tinting and CGI are employed to make individual shots pop as much as possible. If this was used sparingly, it might have added some impact to singular moments. Shooting the entire film this way makes it look as bland as a car commercial. Considering John Moore would later direct the visually flat “A Good Day to Die Hard,” I blaming cinematographer Jonathan Sela for this overindulgence of style.

The cast doesn’t brings anything to 2006’s “Omen” either. Julia Stiles is hopelessly miscast as Katherine. I loved Stiles as a snarky teenager in “10 Things I Hate About You” but she’s overly mannered and unconvincing as the traumatized, concerned mother. Liev Schriver takes the material seriously but there’s a notable lack of emotion in his delivery. David Thewlis flat-out impersonates David Warner, which is a further indication of how beholden the remake is to the original. The worst miscasting befalls little Damien. Harvey Stephens – who cameos here, by the way – seemed like a normal child, which made his creepy attributes more startling. Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, glares ominously with a set of bags under his eyes worthy of a goth teenager, being as obviously creepy as possible. Not even Pete Postlethwaite, usually reliable to give a memorable performance, is allowed to do much as the paranoid priest.

All right, Mia Farrow is pretty good as Ms. Baylock. She’s seemingly the only person in the film who understands subtly. She acts like a perfectly charming, sweet old woman until cutting loose at the very end. I wish that was a memo everyone else who worked on the remake got. 2006’s “The Omen” slavishly follows the original while totally missing the point of the original’s presentation. It lacks scares, a delicate touch, and a reason for existing. And that’s what you get when you make a movie just to take advantage of a release date. [3/10]

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (2006)

22. 16 Blocks

It’s surprising that Richard Donner and Bruce Willis didn’t work together sooner. For a time, Donner was one of the biggest action director in Hollywood while Willis was, quite similarly, one of the biggest action stars. By the time the two did collaborated, neither was at the peak of their careers. While Bruce wasn’t box office poison then – still isn’t, somehow – he was far from a huge star. Donner, meanwhile, had suffered a major flop with “Timeline.” “16 Blocks” did about as well as you’d expect a mid-tier action flick to do at the box office, breaking even but not breaking records. Bruce continues to be a reliable draw, if a far over-the-hill one. Donner, meanwhile, hasn’t directed another film since.

Jack Mosley is an alcoholic cop, tired and old. He’s exhausted after pulling an all-nighter. That’s when his boss asked him to do a simple task: Escort a witness from police custody to court. That man is a petty thief named Eddie Bunker. While parked on a busy street, a man attempts to kill Bunker. Soon, a group of cops corner Eddie and Jack in a bar. Turns out, Eddie is about to testify against a group of dirty cops, who are intent on making sure that doesn't happen. Despite having no connection with the man, Jack decides to protect Bunker. The two men are pursued across the city by the crooked cops, each searching for redemption in their own way.

Small scale, nitty-gritty thrillers like “16 Blocks” live and die on how eye-catching their premises are. “16 Blocks,” luckily, has a pretty good one. The title is in reference to the relatively short distance between Bunker’s jail cell and the court house. In other words, it’s the area the two main characters will be traveling throughout the story. Aside from a brief prologue and epilogue, “16 Blocks” also plays out in real time. This is a good move, emphasizing Jack’s exhaustion and how precarious his situation is. While hardly ground-breaking, “16 Blocks” does have a good idea to build upon.

Yet a catchy premise probably wouldn’t have been enough even for a modest movie like “16 Blocks.” What elevates the material just high enough is the heart behind the story. Jack and Eddie are both in need of redemption. Mosley is a bitter, burnt-out, old booze hound. As the story progresses, we learn that Jack is one of the dirty cops Eddie is testifying against. His change of heart represents the last chance he has to make a decent decision, to do something good. Bunker, meanwhile, dreams of getting out of jail, traveling across the country, and opening a bakery. He’s a petty criminal who has lived his whole life in and out of prison. Near the story’s beginning, Eddie tries to convince Jack that everyone deserves a second chance. He doesn’t believe him. By the story’s end, he’s change his mind. It’s nothing mind-blowing but these hopeful, simplistic themes makes “16 Blocks” a little more then just a mildly effective thriller.

As Jack Mosley, Bruce Willis plays an alcoholic cop who has spent too many years on the force and burned most every bridge he has. It’s a part not dissimilar to where John McClane was circa “Die Hard with a Vengeance.” It’s a part well suited to the general ambivalence Willis brought to most everything he’s done in the last decade. There’s little of the humor that characterizes Willis’ best performances. However, Willis soon brings an empathetic humanity to the part. Jack is injured throughout the film, getting shot in the hand and hurting his leg. There’s something admirable about the character’s refusal to compromise in this situation. “16 Blocks” might seem like a boring Bruce Willis performance at first but, eventually, it reveals better acting then expected, utilizing some of Willis’ better attributes as a performer.

Co-starring in “16 Blocks” is the performer formally known as Mos Def. A rapper by trade, Mr. Def has shown some decent acting chops the handful of times he’s stepped in front of the camera. As Bunker, Mos Def applies a strange dialect to his voice. He mumbles, almost unintelligible throughout most of the film. The audience has to listen very closely to understand anything he’s saying. As the film progresses, the audience either gets use to it or Def’s delivery becomes more clear. Once you get passed that, you can see that the actor gives an interesting performance. Mos Def affects a slightly jittery body language, displaying the character’s nerves in his appearance. His unassailable upbeat streak wins over the audience around the same time it wins over Jack. He’s made mistakes but he’s ready to repent and start over. It’s a good bit of acting from Mos Def.

Most of “16 Blocks” is focused on Willis and Def. However, the film occasionally makes room for another character. The last Richard Donner movie David Morse appeared in was “Inside Moves,” sixteen years prior. This film’s Detective Nugent doesn’t have much in common with “Inside Moves’” Jerry. Nugent is the villain of “16 Blocks,” the leader of the corrupt cops pursing Mosley and Bunker. Morse brings a gravelly intensity to Nugent. He’s someone with no ethical opposition to what he’s doing. Instead, he approaches the murder of an innocent man as if it was any other job. Morse is intimidating but humanistic, giving the bad guy easily understood and all too earthly motives. Jenna Stern also has a likable bit part as Jack’s sister, showing a lot of charm in the few scenes she’s given.

“16 Blocks” is, for most of its run time, a chase movie. The pace rarely slows down, the movie always barreling ahead to its next set pieces. This relentless tone produces a few memorable action set pieces. Such as the shoot-out in the bar, near the beginning, when the characters are diving around gunfire. The first burst of violence happens partially off-screen, the blood and accompanying dead body smashing through a window before the viewer is clear on what’s happening. There’s a nice pause midway through a chase where the two protagonists step into an old Asian man’s apartment. An effectively directed moment has a bus, with a busted tire, taking off, crashing into a row of cars. A clever trick “16 Blocks” utilizes repeatedly has one team of characters busting in on a location, unaware that the heroes have already left. It’s a bit of misdirection at least as old as “Silence of the Lambs” but “16 Blocks” uses it well.

As exciting and well executed as “16 Blocks” can be, it’s a shame the movie’s visual design is so dour. The film is characterized by a grey color palette. Whether it’s the grey concrete of the city streets or the overcast clouds above, “16 Blocks” isn’t a very colorful movie. While mildly annoying this is less of a problem then the movie’s sometimes shaky action direction. Considering Richard Donner built his career upon clearly orchestrated, old school action, it’s disappointing to see his name on a movie with a jittery camera. While not enough to ruin the film, there are several scenes where the picture is shaking back and forth for no damn reason at all. If a gritty verisimilitude was the goal, the decision is more distracting then anything else.

While most of “16 Blocks” is constantly moving, the film takes an unexpected turn during the middle. Jack and Eddie run onto a crowded bus. Realizing they're cornered, Mosley takes all the passengers hostage. The tense stand-off that follows is actually part of the plan. It’s essentially a method to distract the bad guys, so Eddie can sneak away to safety in the crowd. While a sudden change in direction like this would derail most movies, “16 Blocks” manages to make it work. The tension doesn’t deflate. Instead, it merely changes direction. The thrills are internalized, the audience uncertain of Jack’s goals or what will happen next. Little, humanizing moments – such as Eddie bonding with a little girl on the bus – help keep the sequence grounded too.

While its thrills are of the low key variety, “16 Blocks” is ultimately an action movie. There are vehicle chases, car crashes, shoot-outs, bloody squibs, heroes and villains. However, the film’s conclusion is more preoccupied with characters then big explosions. It’s a tense stand-off between Mosley and the other dirty cops. He makes a stand against his enemies in a public place, making himself vulnerable to harm. Ultimately, it’s the pay-off of Jack’s character arc. Formally, he was a man who believed in nothing. Now, he’s standing up for something. Once again, it’s a moment that probably shouldn’t have worked but “16 Blocks” approaches the ending with patience and focus, wringing something out of nothing.

As a Richard Donner movie, “16 Blocks” features a few of the director’s trademarks. It’s pretty easy to draw a parallel between Mosley and Bunker’s love/hate relationship and the similar one between Riggs and Murtaugh. For that matter, “16 Blocks” was written by Richard Wenk, who previously wrote an unused screenplay for “Lethal Weapon 4.” Aside from their contrasting skin colors, the leads of “16 Blocks” seem to mix and match the “Lethal Weapon” partnership. Mosley is outwardly professional but inwardly crumbling. Bunker appears to be a rogue but secretly has it together. Donner also sneaks a “No Fur” poster into a background shot, naturally.

“16 Blocks” underperforming at the box office and receiving middling reviews has actually helped the film in the long run. Approached with any expectations and the film would derided as clichéd. If the audience goes in knowing as little as possible, “16 Blocks” proves to be a surprisingly entertaining, thoughtfully written, and expertly constructed little action/thriller. Though far from the classics that Richard Donner directed in the past, as the likely conclusion to his directorial career, it’s not a bad note to go out on. [Grade: B]

The franchises Richard Donner started will continue. In addition to that "Lethal Weapon" TV show, a new "Omen" movie was recently announced. (And Superman, of course, will never die.) While he's continued to work as a producer from time to time, the 86 year old filmmaker is more or less retired now. He seems to be enjoying his current status as the elder statesman of the superhero genre. His career had wildly divergent ups and downs but this was certainly an interesting retrospective. I don't think I've ever crossed this many genres before over one report card.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (2003)

21. Timeline

There was a four year period between “Lethal Weapon 4” and Richard Donner’s next movie. That may not seem like very long but Donner had been cranking out movies on a very consistent schedule since the mid-seventies. The truth is “Timeline” had a troubled post-production. The movie was shot in 2001 for a 2002 release date. However, the studio was dissatisfied with the initial cut. It took two separate edits before “Timeline” satisfied the studio. All this tinkering was for naught. Dropped into theaters in late November, “Timeline” was seen by nobody. It wasn’t a high-profile flop so much as it was totally ignored by the public. There might be a reason for that. “Timeline” is exactly as memorable as that reception implies.

A group of archaeologists are excavating a location in the French countryside called Castlegard. Over six hundred years ago, a deciding battle of the Hundred Years War took place in the same place. Scottish professor Edward Johnston leads the dig. His son, Chris, isn’t especially interested in ancient history but he is interested in Kate, one of the professor’s students. Soon, Professor Johnston mysteriously vanished. Afterwards, a pair of his glasses is found inside one of the ancient castle’s sealed rooms. The eye-wear is dated to the 1300s. The corporation funding the archaeological dig soon reveals that they’ve invented a machine that can access a worm hole. Anyone sent through the device is flung back to 1357. Hoping to rescue his father, Chris and his friends willingly travel back through time. However, the past is full of danger.

Time travel is one of those sci-fi premises that writers and filmmakers can't help but return to. The idea of visiting an older time, hundreds of years before you were even born, is irresistible to just about anybody. Wikipedia refers to “Timeline” as a “techno-thriller,” which I suppose it is. The story intentionally places limitations on the heroes, creating the structure of a thriller. However, the sci-fi elements exist just to get the characters back to the twelfth century. “Timeline” is ultimately the awkward fusion of a medieval adventure movie and a science fiction story.

“Timeline” is based on a novel by Michael Crichton, that blockbuster novelist whose books were often turned into blockbuster movies. Like all of his books, Crichton meticulously researched “Timeline.” In the film adaptation, that research manifest in the mechanics of time travel. There isn’t a proper time machine in the film. Instead, “Timeline” builds upon the slightly more plausible premise of a worm hole. The scientists in the film explain time travel working in a way similar to a fax machine. Except with people, instead of letters. I’m not sure that makes sense either but at least it’s a different approach then what you usually get in time travel movies.

Despite all the details that was put into “Timeline’s” science, there’s aspect of it that annoy the audience. Where the worm hole comes from, why it’s attached to this specific date, or how people access it aren’t elaborated on. Which is fine, I guess, because we’re probably not expected to think about it that hard. The script makes constant references to characters speaking the right language. The French soldiers speak French and, once the translator gets run through with a sword, the English characters have to figure it out for themselves. Yet for all the focus that is given, the movie seems to forget that the French and English languages of the 1300s sound nothing like their modern versions. By half-assing these details, “Timeline” only draws more attention to its own plot holes.

A major theme in “Timeline” seems to be xenophobia. As soon as the English soldiers in the past meet the French translator, they murder him. Every time an Englishmen wanders into the French camps, they are threatened with death. Once again, “Timeline” pays a concept lip service without actually saying anything about it. After everyone gets to know each other, the movie goes back to ignoring the differences between countries. A different phobia ends up defining “Timeline’s” back half. Michael Crichton was an author both fascinated by and frightened by scientific advances. This conflict often manifested itself in his books and films, where breakthroughs like genetics, robotics, nanotechnology, and dinosaurs are presented as wonders that inevitably turn on humanity. Time travel is treated much the same way here. The technology has wondrous potential but is ultimately too dangerous to use. When the scientists in present are fighting over what to do with the technology, “Timeline” hammers this point too hard.

One of the biggest problem with “Timeline” is its void of a leading man. The late Paul Walker stars as Chris. Whatever talents Walker might have had, an innate cinematic charisma wasn’t one of them. Walker is a handsome blank, running through most of the movie without making an impression on the viewer. Francess O’Conner plays Kate, Chris’ love interest. O’Conner initially makes an impression on viewers, as the actress is attractive and shows some decent energy. Once everyone gets to the past though, O’Conner is reduced to a shrieking damsel in distress. The character practically disappears not long after that point, running around with the other character without making an impression.

Another one of “Timeline’s” main characters was destined for bigger stardom. Gerard Butler plays Andre, Chris’ close friend who also winds up tossed backwards in time. Butler gets to keep his Scottish accent. While Walker is ambivalent towards archaeology, Butler is enthusiastic about it. Once in 1357, Andre is forced to fight back against the attacking soldier. Andre angsts about killing a man, which is kind of funny considering Gerard Butler’s future career as a star of body count heavy action flicks. The script soon forgets this hesitation though, as Butler is striking out at opponents minutes later. While Butler has some verbose energy, the character is so thinly scripted. Anna Friel plays Claire, Butler’s love interest. The two are immediately smitten with each other, which pushes believably. Friel is charming but, like O’Conner’s character, “Timeline” is too unfocused to actually develop her personality any.

While “Timeline” casts its lead roles with hunk-of-wood would-be leading men, its supporting cast is filled with established character actors. Billy Connolly plays Chris’ dad. His voice immediately recognizable from his first scene, Connolly provides the audience with some mild amusement, even if his character ends up getting swept away by the script. David Thewlis appears as the cautious scientist in the present. Thewlis brings a nervous quality to the part which makes it slightly memorable. Neal McDonough shows up as the soldier sent back in time to protect the kids. McDonough is playing another overly competent authority figure, who gets dispatched early on, which doesn’t allow the actor much of a chance to distinguish the part. Michael Sheen appears as the primary villain, smirking evilly and hamming it up. These performances are about the only thing in “Timeline” that sticks with the audience at all.

As a latter day Richard Donner movie, “Timeline” features its fair share of action. After arriving in the past, the main characters are immediately beset by attacking archers. There’s quite a lot of horseback riding and sword slashing in these early scenes. Gerard Butler gets some action beat of his own, busting down a door with an axe or running a bad guy through with a sword. The finale of “Timeline’ involves an entire castle going up in flames. While the action sequences are clearly directed, they’re still awfully chaotic. The combination of sword fights and blazing fire causes the entire last act to disappear in a blur.

Truthfully, so much of “Timeline” looks the same. The movie has a bland visual design, composed of sterile greys contrasted against bright orange flames. For those on the look out for Richard Donner’s trademarks, at least one is present. Once again, he emphasizes action scene with some slow motion. in “Timeline,” this technique comes off as especially goofy. When the core cast screams in slow-mo before being blast to the past, the audience can’t help but laugh. Sadly, Donner doesn’t sneak any anti-NRA or anti-fur bumper stickers into the twelfth century. I was hoping he’d pull that one off.

Another side effect of “Timeline’s” strangled post-production was a shifting score. Originally, Jerry Goldsmith was going to provide the music. However, with each new recut, a newly reconfigured score was required. Goldsmith’s quickly deteriorating health made it impossible for him to continue work on the film. Thus, Bryan Taylor was brought into compose a new soundtrack for “Timeline.” Tyler’s work is fairly one-note and forgettable. He even slips in a horror movie style jump-scare stings, which are grossly inappropriate for the film. Goldsmith, which was released, is not his best effort but features some strong, brass-driven musical themes. At the very least, it’s more memorable then the music used in the final film.

“Timeline” is not a full blown fiasco. It’s not that memorable. Instead, “Timeline” is an instantly forgettable movie. The story isn’t that interesting, wasting a potentially note-worthy concept. The characters are incredibly bland, often played by actors lacking in presence. “Timeline” isn’t even able to satisfy non-demanding action fans, as the action scenes are also highly forgettable. Michael Crichton even hated the movie. It’s a shame that Richard Donner spent so much time trying to improve “Timeline.” I suspect his skills might’ve been better utilized somewhere else. [Grade: C-]

Friday, June 24, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1998)

20. Lethal Weapon 4

It’s hard to believe that by 1998, they we’re still making “Lethal Weapon” movies. It had been six years since the last entry in the series. Richard Donner and Mel Gibson seemed to have moved on with their other collaborations. Danny Glover was hardly a box office superstar by this point. R-rated action tentpoles were not entirely extinct yet but we’re certainly less common. Not only were audience’s taste changing but so were the movies. But if something makes money, Hollywood will follow it anywhere. And the “Lethal Weapon” movies made money. So in 1998, despite no one demanding it, “Lethal Weapon 4” went before audiences.

In the middle of an active crime scene, Riggs is told that he’s going to be a father. He then turns around and tells Murtaugh that he’s going to be a grandfather. Knowing that their lives are about to change effects their perspectives on things. After stumbling upon a boat full of kidnapped Chinese people, the cops are involved in a new plot. Triad crime bosses are importing slaves into this country. Murtaugh takes it personally and takes some of them into his home. The path to track down those responsible uncovers a counterfeiting plot, the major Chinese crime bosses, and a super pissed off martial arts hitman.

By the time most series reach part four, they’re long in the tooth. The previous year, the original “Lethal Weapon” had celebrated its tenth anniversary. Danny Glover was saying he was too old for this shit for a decade. To its credit, “Lethal Weapon 4” acknowledges the passing of time. Both characters take the beatings they receive a little harder. They aren’t as pliable as they once were. One of the best scenes in the movie involves the two giving one another a mutual pep talk about their advancing age that concludes with an excited, dual shouting of “We’re not too old for this shit!” Despite their words to the contrary, both guys aren’t as young as they used to be.

With that focus on age comes a new focus on parenthood. Riggs is going to be a dad for the first time. Murtaugh is going to be a grandparent for the first time. He’s been a dad for all three movies but, since both are experiencing this now, the movie is really focusing on what’s at stake. Suddenly, Riggs is more conscious about the danger he’s putting himself in, about how this will the lives of his loved ones. How’s that for character development? In the first movie, Riggs wanted to die. Now, he emphatically wants to stay alive. The movie references that change, with Riggs talking more about his dead wife then in either previous sequel.

Also over the last two sequels, the “Lethal Weapon” franchise became the series that weaved serious real world issues into its silly action movie universe. With the fourth entry, Richard Donner and his crew turn their eyes on human trafficking. The bad guys are importing people from China in order to use them as personal slaves. This effects Murtaugh specifically, as he sees parallels between this modern form of slavery and the type of slavery that effected his ancestors. Human trafficking remains a serious problem in the world today. Honestly, out of all the topics the series took on, this one feels a little too heavy for a silly, light-hearted buddy cop flick.

This plot element allows the movie to introduce something else though. In the mid-nineties, Hong Kong kung-fu movies experienced a revival in popularity. Suddenly, giant explosions and lots of guns were not enough for modern action audiences. High risk stunts and creative acrobatics were required. For the first time in its history, the “Lethal Weapon” series decided to chase a popular trend. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover weren’t doing back flips or using a ladder to defend themselves, so Jet Li was brought in as the main villain, to provide a new flavor to this aging franchise. The producers originally wanted Jackie Chan. He turned it down due to his “no bad guys” rules. Chan would instead appear in the same year’s “Rush Hour,” a different buddy cop movie that would more directly fuse Hong Kong elements and American action attitudes.

So how does Jet Li, the second biggest name in Hong Kong action at the time, do as the bad guy? Li plays Wah Sing Ku, a brutal Triad enforcer determined to do things his way. The character doesn’t speak English, all his dialogue being subtitled. A result of this is that Li is silent throughout most of the movie. This is actually a good choice, as it makes Wah Sing Ku a straight-ahead killing machine. A nice gimmick has him executing his targets with a garrote hidden inside a string of beads. Li is an intimating presence and easily the best “Lethal Weapon” villain since Gary Busey in part one. For extra bonus points, the movie also throws in Conan Lee, a minor martial artist actor, as Ku’s brother and experience Asian-American character actor Kim Chan as Uncle Benny, the amusing Triad crime boss.

By this point in the “Lethal Weapon” universe, Leo Getz is an essential element that has to appear in each movie. I don’t know when or why it became this way but it did. By now, Getz has evolved into a full-blown Joe Pesci character. He repeatedly goes on rants about cell phones and traffic cops, using his now catchphrase about things fucking him. Pesci barely contributes to the plot, making his continued inclusion baffling. Another addition to the series is Rene Russo as Lorna Cole. Cole was just as tough as her male co-stars in the last movie. This time, however, she’s pregnant with Riggs’ kid, meaning Russo spends most of the film on the sideline. Even as someone who wasn’t the biggest fan of her in part three, I think it’s kind of unfair how they sideline the character here. She gets one brief moment of action, wrestling a knife from an attacker.

Another weird rule that has developed over the franchise is that each film must add to the “Lethal Weapon” family. Part four adds Chris Rock as Lee Butters, an enthusiastic young detective who is secretly the father of Murtaugh’s grandchild. In 1998, Rock was probably the biggest stand-up comic in the world and at the peak of his popularity. The movie bends backwards to accommodate Rock’s abilities. At least twice it stops the movie cold so that Butters can go on a Rock-ian rant, first about race and the second about cell phones. This is a bit at odds with Butters as a character, who is trying to impress his future father-in-law. The stand-up style rants are mildly amusing but slightly disappointing since Rock is better then the parts when allowed to act.

Humor remains an issue in “Lethal Weapon 4.” Some of the jokes are in keeping with the series’ style. Riggs intimidates a crime boss by smashing his two-way mirror and setting off the fire sprinklers, which is in-character and mildly funny. A decent, reoccurring gag as everyone mispronouncing Butters’ name, which he doesn’t comment on. A less funny reoccurring gag has Murtaugh misinterpreting Butters’ attempts to impress him as Butters hitting on him, a gay panic joke that really hasn’t aged well. Some of the other, broader gags don’t hit as well. An early appearance by a shark feels very over-the-top. A way-too-long gag has the entire team huffing a dentist’s laughing gas, sending them all into giggling, incoherent fits. It’s amusing at first but the film stretches it out too far. In general, the movie should have more laughs.

In another attempt to perhaps stay up-to-date, “Lethal Weapon 4” inflates the action too. The opening scene has Riggs and Murtaugh fighting a madman in home-made armor, wielding a flamethrower and a machine gun. When shot, the flamethrower’s tank explodes, sending him flying into a fuel truck which then also explodes, in an even bigger fireball. Not long afterwards, a shoot-out on a boat also results in some bigger-then-average blasts. The overdone pyrotechnics don’t work as well but the other attempts to up the action do. A fight across a freeway, which involves a tussle inside a moving vehicle and Riggs sliding across the asphalt by a trail of plastic, works fantastically. It’s probably the best action scene in a “Lethal Weapon” flick in a while. The climatic scene ups the visceral violence. Jet Li beats Mel and Danny to a bloody pulp. In response, Glover impales Li with a giant drill bit. The fight ends with an especially graphic machine gun wound. The movie toys with killing off either Riggs or Murtaugh but wimps out at the last minute. The power of male bonding brings them both back from the edge of death.

“Lethal Weapon 4” is the only film in the series to run longer then two hours. The last seventeen minutes tacks an extended coda on. Riggs consults his death wife about his future. There’s an actually pretty good monologue from Joe Pesci about a dead pet frog. There’s a hospital visit, a rabbi, two babies, and a reaffirmation of the themes of family. Oh what, you didn’t realize family was the prevailing theme of the “Lethal Weapon” series? Okay, maybe that’s one way to look at this. Yet shoving all of this into the literal last few minutes of the movie makes it feel shoveled in and sudden.

”Lethal Weapon 4” made money but was not as monstrous a hit as the previous entries in the series. Despite the public seemingly having all they wanted from Riggs and the gang, the possibility of a “Lethal Weapon 5” was still thrown around for years afterwards. A lack of interest from Mel Gibson and Richard Donner sunk that. A reboot, possibly starring Riggs’ son, was considered at one point. Now, a television adaption is moving forward. It’s probably for the best. The fourth “Lethal Weapon” is better then the third but still ranks distantly behind one or two. The franchise was fun while it lasted and successfully ran its course before it was over. This time, they were right. They were too old for this shit. [Grade: B-]

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Director Report Card: Richard Donner (1997)

19. Conspiracy Theory

I was into conspiracy theories once. To clarify, I was never truly a believer. Maybe there was something to the more grounded theories – JFK, the shadow government – but I never took them seriously. Mostly, it was the conspiracy theorist culture that fascinated me. They’re little pockets of people united by bizarre, often conflicting beliefs, building this chaotic world into something orderly with their mutual paranoias. I listened to Coast to Coast AM, lurked the occasional message board, watched a documentary about Alex Jones. Eventually, the pure toxicity of that world view pushed me away, even as just an observer. Yet that fascination with how beliefs in fringe theories form stayed with me. “Conspiracy Theory,” the fifth collaboration between Richard Donner and Mel Gibson, doesn’t explore the motivation or psychology of the conspiracy theorist very much. Instead, it’s a fairly standard thriller set around the fringes of the fringe.

Jerry is a New York cab drivers and a believer in a myriad of bizarre, detailed conspiracy theories. He happily regales his usually disinterested passengers with these theories and even published a news letter. Jerry’s sole friend in the world is Alice Sutton, a lawyer whose father died under mysterious circumstances. Alice usually humors Jerry, who harbors a crush on her. However, after Jerry successfully identifies several undercover CIA agents, people really start to come after him. There really is a conspiracy, with Jerry and Alice’s father at the center. Soon, the two go on the run, pursued by black helicopters and ominous men in suits.

As established above, the world of conspiracy theories is a diverse one. They range from the eerily plausible –  the government does hide stuff  – to the utterly batshit insane – shape-shifting lizard people control the world – to everything in-between. Disappointingly, “Conspiracy Theory” doesn’t choose one of these totally nuts beliefs as its jumping off point. Instead, the film is inspired by MK-ULTRA, a once real program surrounded by a heaping load of misconceptions. When you could have had Mel Gibson punching reptoids or fighting the New World Order, simply being wrapped up in a mind control plot isn’t as exciting. But “Conspiracy Theory” isn’t a kooky exploration of fringe beliefs. Instead, it’s of the same level as Gibson’s other nineties output. That is a mildly entertaining action/thriller.

I’ve been pointing out that Richard Donner tended to alternate between big action flicks and smaller scope dramas or comedies. “Conspiracy Theory” seems to stray from this pattern. Except the film is, in some ways, a comedy. When first introduced, Mel Gibson’s Jerry is rambling wildly about his bizarre theories. His monologues are obviously farcical, as he makes fun of militia movements or talks about the shiftiness of the Catholic church to a pair of nuns. There are repeated jokes in the movie, about Mel refrigerating his coffee or his belief that NASA will murder the president. Even after the film shifts to something more serious, there continues to be jokes. Like a genuinely amusing observation about how lone gunmen are always referred to by all three names.

“Conspiracy Theory” definitely plays Jerry’s paranoia for laughs. Until it doesn’t. After an especially bracing episode, he enters Alice’s law office with a gun. Alice manages to talk him down, the man collapsing in her arms, weeping. Later, while in Jerry’s home/secret bunker, she points out his bookshelf full of copies of “Catcher in the Rye,” a book notoriously linked to assassins. Jerry admits he’s never read it but that, whenever he sees a copy, he feels compelled to buy it. Suddenly, “Conspiracy Theory” becomes a compelling, realistic study of obsessive behavior. It’s a brief moment but a powerful one. The film needed a few more shocks like that.

“Conspiracy Theory” is probably most successful as a Mel Gibson vehicle. Casting Gibson as a nut-job back in 1997 seemed like an excuse to utilize his quirky sense of humor. Or allowing his leading man good looks to center a potentially off-putting character. Now, casting Mel Gibson as a nut-job makes a movie a documentary. Yet Gibson’s charm does make “Conspiracy Theory” a better film. Reportedly, Donner allowed Mel to ramble during Jerry’s various monologue scenes. He’s clearly having fun in those moments. When Jerry’s more pathetic attributes come to the surface, Mel is compelling in those scenes too. Joke all you want but Gibson’s sense of humor and humanity takes “Conspiracy Theory” further then you’d expect.

Of course, Mel is just one of two major box office stars in “Conspiracy Theory.” Julia Roberts co-stars as Alice. Roberts is good, alternating between incredulous at the crazy things around her to approaching the strange events with determination and toughness. However, the romance between Jerry and Alice makes the audience somewhat uneasy. Jerry is essentially Alice’s stalker. He waits outside her apartment, watching her exercise from the window. A secret room in his home is pasted with her photographs. He’s obsessed. This behavior is presented as creepy only up to a certain point. After a while, Jerry’s devotion begins to win Alice over. Man, I don’t think it works that. Gibson and Roberts’ chemistry helps paste over some of these uncomfortable qualities. Yet it can only go so far.

Because “Conspiracy Theory’s” ambitions are fairly limited, it’s faceless conspiracy with an infinite reach is controlled by one man. Patrick Stewart plays Dr. Jonas. Stewart’s authoritative voice combines with a blank suit and a pair of wire-frame glasses to become a face of abusive authority. His most chilling scene is when he calmly, nonchalantly explains how Jerry was programmed to become a killer. However, as the script progresses, Dr. Jonas becomes more of a traditional movie villains. He’s making quibs at the heroes and casually assassinating people. The script may not serve Patrick Stewart the best way but Sir Stewart is a professional and still manages to give an effective performance.

“Conspiracy Theory” is most accurately described as a thriller. However, I’m sure people going to a Mel Gibson movie in 1997 had certain expectations. Eventually, the film leaps into action movie theatrics. These shifts are often sudden. Jerry and Alice are discussing the plot in his apartment when black-clad soldiers repel from a helicopter. They fire a rocket propelled gas grenade into the building, leading to a large explosion. Gunfire breaks soon afterwards. There are other fight scenes and shoot outs in the picture, all of them on a similar level just outside the film’s previously established believably. Sometimes, these action scenes feel out of place. Other times, they don’t even make sense. Yes, the black helicopters are said to be silent. That doesn’t prevent people from looking directly overhead and seeing them.

This being a conspiracy centric film, there’s obviously going to be some twists and reveals. Yes, the movie hints that Jerry murdered Alice’s dad, a turn the audience can see coming as soon as his death is mentioned. Equally inevitable is how the story steps back that reveal, which it does somewhat awkwardly. That’s not too much of a problem because it’s expected. More disappointing is the reveal that the apparently on-the-level officer helping Jerry and Alice is a secret agent. And he’s a good guy. In a paranoid thriller, all the government agents would be assumed to be evil. The ending essentially has Jerry saved from one conspiracy by another one, an unlikely ending considering the story’s setting.

Watching Richard Donner’s films so close together has allowed me to see some of his trademarks. Despite often being considered a no-frills filmmaker, Donner does have some stylistic quirks of his on. He likes to emphasize dramatic moments with slow motion. That habit definitely appears in “Conspiracy Theory,” like during the attack on Jerry’s apartment or a cab chase scene. However, “Conspiracy Theory” features maybe the biggest stylistic flourishes of Donner’s career, since at least “Twinky.” Early on, Dr. Jonas ties Jerry to a wheelchair, tapes his eyelids open, and injects him with a psychotropic drug. The trip scene that follows features swirling colors, flashing lights, and inserts from Bugs Bunny cartoons. Some more moments like that would’ve made “Conspiracy Theory” more memorable and shown Donner’s often understated abilities as a director more.

“Conspiracy Theory” does have a pretty good score. Carter Burwell provides the music. The opening theme is surprisingly jazzy, with some soft trilling piano keys, a tapping cymbal rhythm, and a sweeping string melody tying it all together. Eventually, a brassy trumpet crescendo emerges. As the story develops, Burwell’s soundtrack becomes a more typical action movie score, focusing less on melodies and more on driving percussion. Even then, he still sneaks an occasional piano melody in. The soundtrack also makes good use of “You’re Too Good to Be True,” though I’m not much of a fan of Lauryn Hill’s cover, which accompanies the end credits.

"Conspiracy Theory" is not the most memorable of Richard Donner and Mel Gibson’s films together. The film definitely has its moments, including an entertainingly sincere Mel Gibson performance, a creepy villain in the form of Patrick Stewart, and a decent sense of humor about itself. Pairing genuine movie stars like Mel and Julia Roberts naturally led to good box office. As mildly diverting as “Conspiracy Theory” can be, a viewer can’t help but wonder about the better, more ambitious, interesting film that could’ve been made with the same premise. [Grade: C+]