The Movie Buffer

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Scanner Darkly


I can spoil it for you wholesale!


Robert Linklater takes Philip K. Dick’s eerily possible police state, paranoia stricken psychological thriller, “A Scanner Darkly” and brings it to the big screen. Dick wrote this novel, while on a drug binge, many of the characters were friends of his during this time and he had first hand experience with the ravages of drug abuse. This is just another in a long line of Dick’s classics to be brought to the big screen. The film is presented in “interpolated rotoscoping”, a technique that the director first used in one of his other films, “Waking life”.

The story revolves around Robert “Bob” Arctor/Agent Fred/Bruce, played by Keanu Reeves, and his drug addicted friends: Barris (Robert DowneyJjr.), Freck (Rory Cochrane), Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and Donna (Winona Ryder). Agent Fred is an undercover cop, who is assigned to spy on Bob and his friends in order to find out the origins of a particularly addictive drug called Substance D. Agent Fred and his superior, Officer Hank, and many of the agents of law enforcement, wear scramble suits, which project false identities, to protect their cover, but they complicate knowing who is working whom. Through a series of drug induced conversations, Fred/Bob realizes that his grasp on reality might be slipping after being undercover for such a long period of time. As his undercover life comes undone, cracks appear in his regular life and Bob finds that his “normal” life may be just as screwed up as his fake life.

The director effectively uses an animated format to show the mind altering effects of Substance D and the shifting realities that come crashing down around Fred/Bob. In general, I’m not a big fan of rotoscoping but done in this fashion and with this material it really looks pretty good. Though there are going to be people that just can’t stand the shakey shots and the cell-shaded look of the actors.

The movie flows from one scene to another with relative ease and does not get hung up on any one plot point for too long. The idea of spying on yourself in a heavily authoritarian state is pretty interesting. Two things bothered me about this film: The first thing was the way they patronized the viewer so much with the key plot points. We didn’t need to be hand-held throughout the film. The second thing is that the paranoia and the madness that the characters should be feeling and battling against is pretty much non-existent. Much like in “Do androids dream of electric sheep?”, “A Scanner Darkly” deals with what is real and what is not and the movie doesn’t make an effort to show us a world gone crazy.

The acting is this movie is pretty bad. The actors lazily get through their lines, not investing too much of themselves into the story. Reeves is unconvincing as an undercover cop and as a drug addict, though he plays the brain damaged, nearly comatose Bruce, well. The rest of the cast coast along on the verbose dialogues and wacky facial expressions, which were probably put in during post production.

This limited release film was definitely targeting a small demographic and doesn’t deserve much more that a 5 out of 10 or two out of five stars. The story had a lot of potential but the director didn’t find a way of bring it to life. Fans of Dick and rotoscoping may find this movie worthwhile but everyone else will feel ripped off by the ineffective acting and lackluster storytelling.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Clerks 2


I assure you, no spoilers inside!


Kevin Smith was the king of independent film and pop culture when his film debut, Clerks, hit the screens. Armed with fast paced dialogue, skewed visions of the world of retail and utterly unknown, perfectly average actors, Smith showed us that just because they serve us, they don’t have to like us. Actually, it’s far more probable that they hate us.

Now, more than a decade later, Randall (Jeff Anderson) and Dante (Brian O’Hallaran) are still working minimum wage jobs striving to recapture the good times. This is the logical progression for these characters, who, by the end of the first movie had made no progress in changing their lives though they had decided that they had to do so.

The first was like a hungry, young Rocky Balboa, prepped to make a big splash in Hollywood. It was ambitious, unrefined and trimmed of all fat. This installment was the rich, decadent Rocky, resting on giant pile of money. Whether it was Smith’s intention or not, the movie does feel like it in it’s thirties and is starting to lose some of it’s edge.

Smith has grown up and has had more training in shot structure and pacing, features that needed work in his early films, so the movie looks great. The dialogue, Smith’s forte, fits well in the film but lacks cleverness that made him famous. Though he addressed the fact that sequels lack in all kinds of areas compared to the originals, it didn’t keep him from bringing back some of the classics such as “The Wrangle”, “I Eat Cock” and “Milkmaids”. The jokes and the situational comedy in the film are great so the crowd let out some huge laughs. The vulgar humour and the crass language remains true to the original and thus helps the weaker story keep it’s head above the water. As for the use of colour, picture the wizard of Oz and how quickly that film switched from black and white to colour. The same mechanism is used in this film and it flows rather well. The overall story takes the same form as the first Clerks movie, but it has a cleaner finish and a better balance of character development and resolution.

The acting was good, though it’s not complicated to act out a Smith script, you just need to be able to deliver the lines rapidly. O’Hallaran and Anderson have aged a lot since their last appearance together but it seems like they never stepped out of their clerk uniforms. Their witty repartee is not as tightly written but they deliver a human performance. Rosario Dawson (Becky) and Trevor Fehrman (Elias) provide a great cast of secondary characters. Smith (Silent Bob) and Jason Mewes (Jay) provide some slap stick comic relief but feel a little out of place. Jay and Silent Bob are funny when they take whatever idiotic idea they have seriously. They try too hard for laughs and it got annoying by the end of the film. Another newcomer to the cast is Jennifer Schwalbach Smith (Becky), Kevin Smith’s wife - who is not an actor, is there to bring some of that rawness to the picture like everyone did in Clerks. There were many, many cameos in this flick, Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, Ethan Suplee, to name a few of the bigger named stars. Of course, there were cameos of other characters from Smith’s previous movies: the Gum Salesman, the milkmaid, and the pot smoking kid Jay and Silent Bob strike back.

I give this movie a 7.5 out of ten or three and a half stars out of five because the characters continue to be likeable, though the venue and the humour is different, it’s still great. Where the movie came up soft in several areas: The clerking parts of were minimal, these were the hilarious parts, the story was more based around coming of age rather than menial labour. Becky’s character was poorly portrayed and flip-flopped from an alpha-personality type to an incompetent dolt. The movie was about a bunch of 30-somethings who hadn’t done much with their lives so some of the conversation wasn’t as aggressive or as sharp as a 20-something’s who were angry at everything.

I really liked this film and I think that if Smith stopped making films today, Clerks and Clerks II would make excellent bookends to his career.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest


Fifteen spoilers on a dead man’s chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!


To start this review, I need to reveal that there is a big plot twist in this movie and I’m going to try my damnedest to skirt the issue as it arises.

A pirate-y adventure on the high seas that include a mysterious voodoo lady, a legendary sea captain and a monkey - it all sounds very much like a video game or at least a tourist attraction, doesn’t it? But in this case, it’s the newest installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Dead Man’s Chest. All the actors from the first one come back for the, contractually obliged, sequel, so we get another dose of the merry band of pirates, misanthropes and scallywags.

The story for this part of the series revolves around a debt that Jack Sparrow (Depp) needs to repay to Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), infamous, fishy pirate-captain of the Flying Dutchman. In order to pay back his debt he tricks, deceives and lies to his ‘friends’, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), in the way only Jack can. Apparently, the key to resolving all their problems lies within the Dead Man’s Chest, a treasure that Davy has buried and protects (I was hoping that they would have taken the Maltese Falcon “the stuff dreams are made of” explanation of what the chest held, but they lay it out for the kids, it’s a PG-13 flick). With mayhem at their boot heels and certain death staring them in the face our brave heroes have to choose, a life on the lamb or a fate worse than death, becoming a crewman under Davy Jones. There’s a love story under that muck and it pokes it head through it all, once in a while, only to disappear from whence it came (Macguffin’d!).

This movie is really half a movie, it doesn’t really explain anything in an coherent way. People just pop out of nowhere to save the day, things fortuitously fall into our heroes laps and those red herring we were following, they weren’t red herring at all. Maybe that was the goal, I can’t say for certain. The movie feels and looks exactly like The Curse Black Pearl but with more everything, including plot holes.

Gore Verbinski, also returns to navigate this movie through all it’s twists and turns. On the whole the directing is average and there are a few telling scenes that not only clue the viewer into the twist, but bludgeon them with knowledge, that should have been shed. The film was definitely fat, at two and a half hours for an underdeveloped story, it’s a good thing that the action and the comedy fills the gaps nicely. Personally, I really liked the interplay between the stout, cockney pirate, Pintel, and his tall and skinny friend, Ragetti, as they wax philosophical about things like rowing technique and “salvaging” treasures. They had some solid “Ha-Ha”s. This movie really needed an editor to trim off about 45 minutes of film and then it would have been an acceptable length for the project.

The acting from the stars of the flick was a par for the course, no one really shined in their roles because it was exactly the same as the first. One of the new comers to the series, Naomie Harris, is an excellent Jamaican Voodoo lady, with the accent, the chicken bones and the like. Stellan Skarsgard’s character, Bootstrap Bill, shows a more human side to himself now as one of the damned on the Flying Dutchman. Depp, Bloom and Knightley are at the center stage but are often over shadowed by the brilliant special effects of the movie.

The best part of this roller-coaster ride is the graphic department at Disney. They do an excellent job at making all the non-existent characters look real and act real, from Davy Jones’ appearance to the crew of the damned who have all taken on icthyoid features to the villainous Kraken that torments wayward ships. It was a great looking film and it’s too bad they didn’t d much with it.

In essence this is a children’s movie, though that doesn’t mean it can be crap without reprimand. Because of it’s stellar special effects, it’s humor and it’s decent pirate-y theme, this movie gets a 6/10 or a 2.5 out of 5 stars. The movie lacks in the story telling: the resolution, if you can call it that, of this movie is shockingly bad. Also, it really doesn’t add to much new content into the Pirates of the Caribbean mythology. After sitting in the theatre for that long you want to be saying, “Wow, so that’s why…” rather than persistent question asking that I heard after the screening.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Superman Returns


Small Spoilers Aren't Kryptonite


Being a big Superman fan, I was really looking forward to seeing this movie and I hoped that Bryan Singer could bring his X-men magic to Superman. This film is a spectacle – plenty of pretty special effects and a decent amount of action. Singer has made a name for himself in the action genre so he tried to flex the heart muscle this time. Does it capture fun and excitement as Superman I and Superman II did? No, not really. Did it really disappoint like Superman III and Superman IV? No, it’s fairly entertaining. According to Singer, this movie is a sequel to the Superman II so you can forget about the events of those two bombs.

Superman/Clark Kent returns from hiatus/soul-searching to find that Metropolis is a much different place. Intrepid reporter Lois Lane has a child, Lex Luthor who was incarcerated in the original movie has been released, Jimmy Olsen is all grown up and everyone seems not to need a hero. But as the viewer soon learns, the world needs a hero more now than ever. With knowledge stolen from Jor-El’s, Superman’s biological father, library in the Fortress of Solitude, Superman’s arctic hideout, Luthor sets in motion a plan to conquer the world. And there’s only one guy that can stop him.

A Superman story is a no brainer, all he needs to do is wear the suit and fly around and you’ve covered all your bases. But Singer really wants to make this movie more emotionally involved than any other superman film so the love triangle between Superman, Kent and Lois is really played up. This is an interesting angle of the story but is ultimately futile because the viewer learns the outcome very early on.

The main problems with this film come from the pacing and the script. As the movie grinds along, suddenly a sequence of quick cutting scenes appears and shocks the movie back up to speed. At 2 and ½ hours, the movie is just too long for the content.

The script had two distinct parts to it, the first half, the re-introduction of Superman, and the second half, the love story climax/resolution and the villain appears. The first half was everything I wanted this movie to be, Superman stops a bank robbery thanks to his bulletproof skin, he stops a plane from crashing with his super strength and he sees through walls with his updated X-ray vision, which works like an MRI rather than an X-ray. The second half of the movie is where all the problems occur. Singer is well known for his accuracy when it comes to the details and knowledge of the mythology of the characters but in this case he seems unprepared to tackle Superman.

Superman is supposed to have super strength but the only example of it is his lifting ability: he lifts a plane, he lifts a boat, he lifts another plane, he catches a huge globe and he lifts a giant rock. Sure, lifting is important but it’s visually uninteresting after a few times. Have Superman punch something really hard or throw something into the Sun or bend a gun or something that isn’t lifting. Since this is a sequel to the first two Superman films, do they expect us to believe that Superman doesn’t remember what Kryptonite is and what it can do to him? Our hero seems so perplexed that there is a substance that will rob him of his powers.

The Kryptonite effects are also random in this movie, the sight of it takes may take with powers away from him but a chunk of it lodged in his side does not and when he stands on an island made entirely of the stuff he doesn’t realize he’s powerless until he’s told, “you’re standing on Kryptonite”. Bryan, what went wrong?

The acting is fairly good, Brandon Routh as Superman was a great choice. One detail that was out of place was whenever there was an accident Clark would strike an almost heroic pose before he leapt into his suit to save the day as Superman. Though his Clark Kent isn’t as strong, it still has many great Clark Kent moments of nerdy naïveté and country boy charm. Routh also plays the “at home” Clark pretty well, he wrestles with his double life and wishes things could be easier. Kate Bosworth played Lois Lane with some pizzazz. The actor that stood above the crowd in this picture by far was Kevin Spacey. Very much like Gene Hackman did in his role as the ruthless business tyrant, Spacey took the character and made it his own, not quite a cartoon supervillain but a very crafty and cunning villain. The humour in the flick is derived from Jimmy Olsen, played by Sam Huntington, Kitty Kowalski played by Parker Posey, and Lois’ new boyfriend Richard played by Cyclops himself, James Marsden. Some well timed one liners and some dead-pan reactions break up the heavier material of the movie.

On the visual effects and the sound front, the movie is average. The visual effects are impressive at times and dreadful at others. People who don’t particularly like the Superman theme song will not like this movie because it pops up all the time. There actually doesn’t seem to be much music in the movie other than the Superman theme. I like the song but some variety helps a lot. Marlon Brando’s voice makes a brief appearance in the movie, as the disembodied head of Jor-El. This touch really reached back to bring the spirit of the old movies alive.

Overall, this movie gets a 6.5/10 or 3 out of 5 stars. Superman saves the day like he should but his action sequences become a bore after he lifts the second large object. Though he is a big blue boy scout, this movie delves into his morality but doesn’t quite get there.

p.s. For famous newspaper reporters, no one seems to know how to pronounce Pulitzer. Say it with me, it’s “PULL”-itzer, not “PEW”-litzer.