A Perfect Getaway

A Perfect Getaway (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. David Twohy
viewed: 12/30/09

Just a forwarning, it’s going to be impossible for me to talk about this movie without discussing major plot points and “spoilers” so if you think I’m going to ruin it for you, well, let’s just say I told you so.

Written and directed by David Twohy, one of the smaller names in consistent semi-quality films in Hollywood, A Perfect Getaway is a film that seems at points that it could have been almost Hitchcockian (it’s not, it just could have been).  The film follows a couple of newlyweds on their trip to Kauai, the “perfect getaway”, until they hear that there are supposedly some newlywed killers afoot in Hawaii who are also trying to make “a perfect getaway”.  See, the double entendre in the title?

The film stars Milla Jovovich (one of Earth’s worst actresses) and Steve Zahn (one of Earth’s most limited character actors) as “the couple”.  And part of the drama is that as they move into more and more isolated spaces, every couple that they meet seems potentially to be the killers.  This has potential, the paranoia, the “is it them? or is it them?” because there are a handful of possibilities in the first segment.

But at a certain point it becomes clear that it’s either the couple that they wind up semi-trapped with who are “very tough to kill” or it’s really Jovovich and Zahn.  And then of course, it has to be Jovovich and Zahn because the drama becomes very limited when there is only one couple and you need a major plot twist to work this out.  And that is the movie’s huge flaw.  Because not only is Zahn not remotely scary or believable, the whole thing seems predicated on lies.  It just doesn’t make sense.  When a plot point like this works, it’s great.  When it fails, it fails big time.

And to worsen things, the film, once it reveals that Jovovich and Zahn are the killers, it goes through an elongated “flashback” in black-and-white basically laying out the whole story for you: “See?  This is how that worked?  See?  This is what Zahn was doing.”  And if there is nothing worse than a failed plot point, maybe having your face rubbed in the details for 10 minutes can take you there.

Twohy came on the scene with The Arrival (1996), a surprisingly decent Charlie Sheen sci fi flick (I know, it’s hard for me to believe I just wrote those words too, and then Pitch Black (2000), a quite good sci fi flick which he followed up with the rather rancid The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), a sequel to Pitch Black, which had been kind of a hit.  He also did the kind of interesting haunted submarine movie, Below (2002).  He’s also got a number of screenplays to his credit as well.

But this one pretty much sucks.

Overnight

Overnight (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Tony Montana, Mark Brian Smith
viewed: 12/30/09

Overnight is the part two of my The Boondock Saints (1999)-themed double feature.  And I recommend the opportunity to watch them together in that order.  The film The Boondock Saints is a good indie film about two Irish brothers who go on a killing spree in Boston, taking down primarilly the Russian mafia, but most importantly only “bad guys”.  And this film, Overnight is sort of a “making of” film, though it’s much more than that, as the story is really the rise and fall of Troy Duffy, the “rags to riches” writer/director of The Boondock Saints and the “inner circle” of his life.

Duffy came to Los Angeles to make it big somehow, but like so many people, he had a day job, as a bartender in a working class Irish bar, off the Hollywood insider beat.  And his first passion was his band, The Brood, who he treated like family (especially since his brother was a primary member too).  In fact, the directors of this documentary were supposedly the band’s co-managers, part of a group that Duffy called “The Syndicate” who would collaborate on music and films and make lots and lots of money.

So, between shifts, Duffy wrote the screenplay for The Boondock Saints and Harvey Weinstein “discovered” him and made a huge to-do about it, buying his script, giving him a final cut and directorial powers, a $15 million budget, and buys the bar to co-own it with Duffy.  The story makes big fodder, even getting Duffy on the cover of US Magazine and in Variety and sudden fame, rubbing shoulders with numerous celebrities.  And then the band gets (or seems to get) a record deal with Madonna’s record label.  The world is Duffy’s oyster and he knows it.

Actually, for Troy Duffy, he believes it and it goes directly to his head.  What ensues is bravado and bragging, putting his tough guy, blue collar attitude into the Hollywood boardroom world, while at first an interesting contrast, eventually ends up alienating Miramax and they put the film into turnaround (shelve it, basically, disowned it).  Duffy evolves into a monster, bossing around his brother and his friends, his bandmates, and entire inner circle.  The band loses their record deal, eventually gets another one.

Duffy is convinced that he is the only one who knows what’s what, that he is a Wunderkind, that he is the most amazing human being and everybody else is a complete idiot.  He weasels his way out of sharing the wealth and falls out with his brother and his band.  Really, it’s pretty amazing that he got The Boondock Saints made at all, much less that it’s a pretty good film.

It’s kind of like a rock-n-roll documentary, not entirely unlike DiG! (2004), following an amazingly self-destructive egomaniac, who while talented, is a moral monster.

Now, clearly, directors Tony Montana, and Mark Brian Smith had an axe to grind.  They were promised to share the wealth as they worked for the band and other Troy Duffy projects without pay and Troy sells them out.  They even admit in some extras that they only stuck through with it, taking his abuse, because they knew that had a good documentary on their hands, which had started following the rise of a friend and wound up following the trajectory of a bastard.  So, how discolored or colored is this documentary?  Duffy almost refutes it, but the directors swear that they had a lot of worse material to add in if they wanted to totally “damn” him.

They put a quote up at the end of the film that says that success doesn’t “change” people but rather gives them the avenue to become more of who they really are.  This is in contrast to the concept that “money” “fame” “success” changes everything.  Well, for Duffy, it did.

But somehow, many years later, he finally got another chance to direct, the sequel to his popular cult film.  So, though I’ve heard that it’s not supposed to be very good, I am now interested in seeing it.

This is a fascinating double feature if you ever get the chance.  It’s quite a study to see the film and then a “making of” that isn’t just some coddling “extra” on a DVD, but rather a glimpse into the pit of the ego and the horrid effect that “success” can have.

The Boondock Saints

The Boondock Saints (1999) movie poster

(1999) dir. Troy Duffy
viewed: 12/30/09

The Boondock Saints is a cult film, gained popularity via DVD/video, and somehow I never managed to see it.  It was part of the “Indie” movie craze in the 1990’s, following Quentin Tarantino’s Resevoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) (and others).  And I’d heard about it, that it was supposed to be pretty good, or kind of fun or what-have-you.

But for some reason, it took perhaps the release of The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day (2009) and some of the media around that to bring it to my attention.  Apparently, beyond the film’s own popularity and celebrity, a documentary was made about the rise and fall of Troy Duffy and the making of this film.  And there you go.  I got a double feature on my hands and unfortunately the sequel is not out on DVD yet so I have no way of reaching the triumverate.

The film itself, which I watched first, I actually kind of liked.  It has a lot of weirdnesses and quirks, but a lot of them work or simply add to the fact that it doesn’t make absolute sense.  Two Irish brothers living in Boston get into a fight with some low-level Russian gangsters and end up killing them.  Empowered by the event, they decide to start killing more mobsters, taking the money and the guns and doing the work of “the righteous”.  Kill only the bad guys.  Vigilantes.

They team up with an Italian friend of theirs who is a lowest level gofer in one of the crime families, who joins their cause after he gets set up to die by the head of his clan.  And then there is Willem Dafoe, playing a supersmart gay FBI agent who is on the trail of the bloodshed that the brothers are bringing about.  But he respects their work and ultimately ends up endorsing their violence.

So the film has this dodgy take on vigilanteism, which it attempts to debunk a bit with some person-on-the-street “interviews” over the trailers, showing how people differ on the issue.  Ultimately though, given the heavy Catholocism that the brothers espouse, they are deemed “saints” by the public and are austensably the heroes.  So, make of that what you will.

Dafoe puts on quite a show, hamming up his character and chewing up the lines, spitting the out, even going into drag pretending to be a hooker.  Duffy definitely got his money’s worth out of him.

Overall, I actually thought there was a lot of funny stuff, entertainingly put together, and only occasionally unprofessional seeming.  It’s all very over-the-top, though not quite intentionally campy.  You can see how it gained its popularity.

Duffy was not a film student and had never written nor directed before this film, discovered in a bar as he was, and though I’ll write more about him in my entry on Overnight (2003), I have to say he had something going on here, crazy as all the production was, the film is full of character, and despite the dodgy moral message, is actually a pretty decent flick.

Mutant Chronicles

Mutant Chronicles (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Simon Hunter
viewed: 12/30/09

Bad science fiction.  Gotta love it.

Actually, Mutant Chronicles doesn’t really entertain quite to the level of badness that it could.  It’s still bad.  Very bad.  Yet somehow they got John Malkovich to show up in it.  Outside of that the cast is made up of Ron Perlman, Devon Aoki, Thomas Jane and a squadron of stock characters mostly chosen for nationality variance.

Apparently, this evolved from a role playing game from long ago.

The sad thing about modern bad movies is because of CGI, they can reach a lot further than they could in the old days when you had to build real sets.  This film has an aesthetic palette akin to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), which I apparently watched while not updating this site.  Its muted color palette and WWI meets the future design aesthetic allows for all kinds of nonsensical idiosynchrases.  And blood splatter that is a bright digital red against the dark tones of the rest of the images.

How I managed to select this out to rent or to manage to have remembered…I’m not totally sure.  I have a penchant for bad science fiction.

The whole backstory to this film is that 10,000 years ago or something a “machine” came to earth and started turning people into “mutants” with one sword-like arm, ugly bald heads, and a fervor to kill humans or turn them into “mutants”.  Somehow, some ancient order sealed them deep in the Earth.  Okay, now flash forward to some time in the future when the world has been divied up into four “corporations” that span the continents and probably boil down the racial typing.  In fact, the names of these groups are things like “Mishima” for the East, “Bauhaus” for Eastern Europe… it’s very silly.

Actually it’s the worst film of its kind since Neil Marshall’s Doomsday (2008) or probably any Uwe Boll film ever made.  How does this crap get made?  Oh yeah, there are people like me who like to watch bad science fiction.  Maybe I better shut up.

The Brothers Bloom

The Brothers Bloom (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Rian Johnson
viewed: 12/28/09

The Brothers Bloom is the most recent film from director Rian Johnson, whose prior effort Brick (2005) was an interesting surprise.  This film, however, kind of came and went from theaters without much hoopla, though I’d recalled that it hadn’t gotten bad reviews.

It stars Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo as the titular brothers, ranging con men since their orphaned youth, full of clever moments, quirks and asides (the one-legged cat was perhaps the funniest thing I’ve seen in a while, rowing on a roller skate like device with a crutch-like thing on its forepaw.)  The world they inhabit is by no means intended to be reality.  It’s a frivolous, fun, goof-ball universe replete with oddities and kookiness.

And in a perfect film, all this is just plain laugh-out-loud hilarious or as downright charming as possible.  And I don’t doubt that there will be people out there for whom this film will work that way, because it does have charm and quirks and fun.  But mostly, to me, it was one of those cases where the intent is so obvious: “Isn’t this fun?  Isn’t this hilarious?  Don’t you just love these guys?” that it’s inorganic and doesn’t flow.

Brody is the younger brother, who pines for love and normality, or “an unscripted life”, since his brother is always cooking up their scams and roles therein, and Brody is just an actor.  But Ruffalo cons him into one final big score, bilking a rich beautiful heiress, played by the always enjoyable Rachel Weisz (probably one of my personal favorite actresses out there), who is quirkier than quirk itself.  In a brief sequence she is demonstrated having mastered the violin, the piano, the accordian, ping pong, the unicycle, many languages.

I really wish this film had worked a little better because it has a lot going for it.  And it’s certainly not hateful, but it’s twee.  After a while I was feeling more annoyed by the quriks and whims and how in love with its own cleverness that it was.  There was almost a good film in there and as a result, it’s mostly a decent film, nothing embarrassing, just a little too much for its own good.

But I love Rachel Weisz.

Beautiful Losers

Beautiful Losers (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Aaron Rose
viewed: 12/18/09

This documentary covers the art and aesthetics of a group of non-professional DIY-inspired artists who evolved their work from shared influences of graffiti, punk, skateboarding, and other stuff and developed through into commercial success and influential status.  This group doesn’t seem to have had such a “name” but centered around a New York storefront/studio/party pad in the 1990’s, but has been termed retroactively after a final show together titled “Beautiful Losers”.

Included in this group are Shepard Fairey, Mark Gonzales, Margaret Kilgallen, Mike Mills, Barry McGee, Phil Frost, Chris Johanson, Harmony Korine, and Ed Templeton, among others.  Frankly, I was familiar with Barry McGee from local work that he had done, and I’m familiar with filmmaker Harmony Korine.  Many of us are familiar with Shepard Fairey, if not by name, then with his Andre the Giant “OBEY” posters and most pervassively, his Obama “HOPE” icon.

The story of these artists is that they very much evolved from nothing, not all of them attended art school it seems, but developed their work initially through graffiti and none of them seemed to aspire to or believe in being able to support themselves as artists.  But as their work became recognized, commercial contracts and bigger art shows have taken them into the mainstream.  And some of them are more comfortable with it than others.

The discussion is both historical and aesthetic.  And some of the folks are more intelligent-sounding and less egocentric.  It’s an interesting phenomenon that I’ve come to learn about hipster artists (maybe just hipsters) but that they all think that they are representative of idealism and rebellion, which masks their egotism, even in self-deprecation.  And some of these guys seem like total assholes.  Harmony Korine, unsurprisingly, seems the biggest pretentious quack of them all.

And I don’t mean to judge their art by saying this.  I think of it akin to idiot-savantism or something.  Just because you have a skill or a vision or an ability to do something interesting, beautiful, or even profound, it doesn’t necessarily make you a well-rounded individual.

But I’m going off a bit on my own personal thing here.  Others of these artists are relatively interesting and the movement itself, I guess, hasn’t yet achieved its historical perspective to know whether any of these people will be considered “significant” in the future, through the lens of history and influence.

Their work is interesting, the way that they play off of Pop Art and postering, propaganda and cartoons.  The aesthetics grow throughout their duration, and they all become more polished and more professional.

While I found this documentary somewhat informative and interesting, I didn’t find it to be particularly profound.  It’s nicely constructed, but the subject matter, like I’ve suggested, is questionable in its significance.  I mean, who is to say that other artists not directly associated with this group were not as important or interesting or innovative or influential?  I suppose if I was more vested in the “art world” I might know, and I know that I have some friends who probably have keener insights.  Still, it is what it is.

Avatar

Avatar (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. James Cameron
viewed: 12/28/09 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

James Cameron (Titanic (1997), among others) has finally unleashed his Avatar on the public.  Long in incubation, expensively technological (nearly 70% Computer Graphics, including much motion-capture), and promoted as the greatest thing (this week or last) since whatever the last greatest thing was, this movie took a lot to make and is dragging in viewers and money.

And it looks pretty slick.  Mostly.

The first 5-10 minutes of a movie can be really telling for me.  Usually, I’m not so into the narrative and I am thinking to myself that it’s going to be a long two hours.  Or conversely, as in the case with Avatar, I was kinda getting psyched up.  It looked good, it was moving, and I was ready to be entertained.  And it’s entertaining.  And it’s 3-D in most cases.  In my case.

But the movie, for all its visual flair, is also somewhat compromised by its own art design.  The alien race (the good guys in this case) are the Na’vi, giant blue people who vaguely resemble tigers, too.  Which is hard enough in and of itself.  All acted and performed via motion-capture, the movements have a vague realism, and facial expressions can recall the actual faces of the actors for whom are represented by the digital blue figures.  You see, the irony is, that all of the Na’vi are “avatars”, or beings representative of real other beings, who act them out like puppets.

Only, in the story, the humans have to construct “avatar” bodies to compete and make friends with the Na’vi (though this doesn’t ultimately make a lot of sense).  And the humans are mostly evil, representatives of corporate greed and military might and rightness.  And they are after the destruction of the homeland of the blue folks in order to harvest “unobtainium”.  That is the kind of science fiction nomenclature that I might make up.

The film echoes significantly of Cameron’s Aliens (1986), featuring Sigourney Weaver again coming out of cryogenic sleep, and whereas the African-American captain popped a cigar instantly in his mouth after coming out of his sleep, Weaver demands a cigarette.  But it’s also the other archetypes: the space marines, even with a butch female pilot (Michelle Rodriguez) and a sleazeball corporate money-grubber, this time Giovanni Ribisi and not Paul Reiser.

It may just be that there are only so many character types in James Cameron’s playbook.  Because these “aliens” (in Avatar) are the hyper-idealized humanoids, none of whom have an ounce of body fat between them.  They are also idealized as a race more in touch with the planet (the land), though the planet is also more in touch with them.  But their treatment at the hands of the corporate militia is as “monkeys” or some other epithet meant to consider them “below human”.  Which justifies their destruction.

So, we got genocide.

And as lushly as the planet is depicted (Pandora is its name), it also sort of reckons of black-light design, Spencer’s Gifts circa 1984, and the magical music that accompanies this display tells us, “See, isn’t it wonderous? Isn’t it beautiful?”  It’s day-glo in the dark.

Certainly, if the film is to be seen, it should be seen on the big screen, probably with the 3-D glasses since that is how they intend to show it.  The IMAX showings keep selling out ahead of time.  But if it isn’t seen now, how will it be seen in the future?  The movie with the blue giants.  With a New Age-y bent.  And any “wow factor” that the visuals play on today, well, they might not age so well.  Especially on the small screen.

Time will tell.  It usually does.

Dracula

Dracula (1931) movie poster

(1931) dir. Tod Browning
viewed: 12/27/09

This is “the Dracula” in cinema.  Heaven knows that there are many more, but this is the Dracula by which all others, if not measured, are at least compared.  Directed by Tod Browning (Freaks (1932), The Unholy Three (1925), among others) and starring in his definitive and defining role, Bela Lugosi, who it is still so hard to see here in this film and not think of thousands of short-hand caricatures that he inspired with this performance.  Really, it’s the tragedy and success of his career, typecast to death, and turned into cartoon.

Still, for 1931 and Universal Pictures, the monster’s of the Victorian novels were getting their defining visual representations: Dracula, Frankenstein (1931), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931).  Of course there are many other icons, but these figures are all almost as recognizable to the average American who may still have never seen any of these films (Mr. Hyde perhaps less so).

And frankly, it had been so long since I’d seen Dracula that in many ways I too was seeing it afresh.  I’d read a book by David Skal titled Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen back in 1991 when it was initially published.  Skal has gone on to write other books about the horror genre, including a biography of Tod Browning, which I have also always meant to read.  Since that time, I’d also been craving to see the Spanish version of Dracula that was filmed at the same time as this 1931 “original” (which I have at home on DVD).

But all this time, with new-gained knowledge, I never managed to see these films.  Well, I have been going through my “classic Hollywood” or “Universal Monsters” theme since prior to Halloween this year and like any dedicated aficianado, I still am running through the catalog.

Cinematographer Karl Freund, whose brilliant work in The Last Laugh (1924) among others, adds his stalking camera movement into some of the most stunning and iconic images and moments from this film.  Lugosi is relatively comical to a modern audience, under the influence of his much copied and lampooned Hungarian accent.  Yet, his face is dramatic and strikingly handsome.  One truly wishes that he’d had a chance to do some other more dramatic work before so quickly being turned into a cartoon.

The film is based on the play, Dracula, slimmed from Bram Stoker’s novel, and has several moments of gothic spectres.  Dracula’s brides, the ghostly vampire women in white, are evocative.  Helen Chandler as Mina is spritely and lovely.  Edward Van Sloan is almost as iconic as Van Helsing as Lugosi is as the Count.  And Dwight Frye gets his money’s worth out of the deranged Renfield.

But the film lags a little, the bats are pretty silly, flopping around on the ends of wire.  And even the most dramatic moment, Dracula’s spearing on the end of a wooden stake, happens off-screen in less dramatic fashion (not even a reaction shot of Lugosi, for instance.)

Still, it’s a fine film, a plum example of early American horror at its best, as Hollywood appropriated the Victorian monsters for their own stable of scary icons.  And even now, as near cartoons, the film has moments of drama a dread.

Carriers

Carriers (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Àlex Pastor, David Pastor
viewed: 12/26/09

A serious B-movie, this PG-13 rated contagion-based horror film strives for a slightly more significant meaning.  Directed by brother team Àlex and David Pastor, it’s another end of the world via disease movie.  This case, though, it only makes people sick, doesn’t make them homicidal zombies.  And while there is a modicum of nobility in this film that focuses on the relationship between to surviving brothers in a world of post-apocalypse, it’s still pretty lame.

I’ve got mixed feelings about the rating system the way that it currently works, meaning that violence and gore makes for a more shocking and unrepressed vision of horror.  And yet truly frightening stuff isn’t based purely on gore, but rather on drama and mood.  And yet, when it comes down to it, when you know how dangerous the film might be, how likely it is to shock and horrify, it sort of denudes it.  To an extent.

How much does one find the possibility of genre and the spectrum interesting?  I don’t know.  The bottom line is that this film is a PG-13 rated version of post-apocalyptic disease-ridden horror, a strangely limp-wristed Zombieland (2009).  And while the film attempts to be one of the more emotional and meaningful approaches to horror over shock value, it’s kind of sad when comedic semi-satire is still a lot more entertaining.

Not really terrible, just not really worth mentioning either.

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Guy Ritchie
viewed: 12/26/09 at CineArts @ the Empire, SF, CA

Though I’d been liking the trailers since I’d first seen them in theaters some months ago, some early negative reviews of this film highlighting the “Guy Ritchie” factor led me to lower my expectations and even consider skipping this film.  While that wouldn’t have been disasterous, I’m glad I went to see it.

It’s “Sherlock Holmes” for the 21st Century and I don’t think that the film tries to have any doubts as to otherwise, so anyone with a purist’s heart regarding the subject matter, would definitely be wise to forget about it.

It’s a film about quality star power, namely that of Robert Downey, Jr., whose career has been perhaps reaching its highest point ever, much less just a “comeback” that started a couple of years ago with Iron Man (2008) and Tropic Thunder (2008).  And he commands that exaxt type of star power that makes a film fun.  It’s not so much that he’s “in character” but rather that he reeks of charm and cleverness and verve, delivers the best lines, holds up the action part of the film (and looks like he has a great physical trainer), and his face draws the eye.  He’s a hell of a lot of fun.  And Jude Law makes an a propos Watson to his Sherlock.

It’s been a bit fascinating to me to see the old London described in designs in modern films, not just street scenes or characters (which has probably been done better anyways) but these vivid cityscapes, showing the building of the London Bridge or the mucky skies and visuals around the river Thames.  But that is certainly the window dressing.

The story has just enough cleverness to hang onto, perhaps the film’s largest weakness.  I mean it’s Sherlock Holmes, it ought to be clever.  Quirky it’s got.  Elan it’s got.  True inventiveness, well, it’s got barely enough.  And I don’t think that is some purist thing seeping out of me, but rather that the story, the villain, the plot, it’s just enough with the occasionally slick action sequences and the charm of Downey, Jr. to make this film work.

It’s the kind of entertainment that you do go looking for from a Hollywood film, snappy and action-y, but still somewhat intelligent-feeling.  It’s interesting, because it was so easy to believe that Ritchie’s work behind the camera could have so believably fumbled what he had to work with here.  His career has been on steady decline and perhaps simply reached its nadir.  But instead, he manages to get the clips and sequences, and while occasionally annoying using the camera to show in snappy flashes glimpses into Holmes’ thought process, he hangs in there too.

Still, it’s largely about Robert Downey, Jr.  And in case it was too hard to figure that out, there was a pretty good trailer for Iron Man 2, which is due out in May of 2010, bringing back the film that helped put him back on top.  He’s always had talent, though I perhaps appreciate the modern, current Downey, Jr. myself.  And I am clearly not alone in that.