Movie Review: Iron Man 2 – The Ironing

...yeah, right

Nothing Lazy About This Movie!

There was a lot of potential for Iron Man 2 to deliver what all the best sequels hope to offer, a darker take on familiar themes with unexpected escalations that send established characters reeling in whole new directions.  Instead, Iron Man 2 is a moronic and haphazard attempt at summer blockbusting that shares more in common with the uninspired sequel to Transformers than its own predecessor.  Iron Man 2 systematically disrobes and molests all fragments of credibility left over from the first film by choosing tongue-in-cheek “ain’t I cute” mugging over believable conflicts or interesting characters.  Rather than painting Tony Stark as the arrogant but charismatic hero we’ve come to expect, the Stark of the sequel is a buffoon, an egomaniacal preening nincompoop hellbent on destroying his legacy without a second thought.  The evolution of Stark’s character from self-obsessed warmonger to national hero was the backbone of the first film, but here Stark is so overconfident in his effortless charm that the whole thing reeks of hubris.  It takes “textbook narcissism” to expect even the most dull-witted observer to overlook the gaping narrative flaws, listless plot progression and lack of palpable drama in this picture. The difference here is that the original Iron Man was palpably entertaining in spite of its flaws, and if the talent involved could be trusted as any indication, a sequel should have deepened and revised upon the universe in a way that could course-correct the missteps already in progress, similar to The Dark Knight‘s affect on Batman Begins.  No such luck for Iron Man 2. The movie nosedives toward tripe so suddenly and irrevocably that you’ll be lucky to notice before you’re knee-deep in dreck.

There’s no way to approach a film this disappointing without dissecting it scene-by-scene, thereby ensuring that the reader absolves to avoid contact with it at all costs, preventing further such monstrosities from happening.  From moment one, Iron Man 2 is an awkward mess of muddled tone.  Amongst all too dour re-broadcasts of the final press conference from the first movie we’re introduced to Mickey Rourke’s villain Whiplash, a Russian who hates Tony Stark for inexplicably poisoning his father with a hereditary disease that causes melodramatic overacting.  Once Rourke finishes belching out some Oscar-worthy melancholy, assumedly reacting to his own appearance in an off-camera mirror, we are greeted with the opening title.  What does this too somber villain have to do with our hapless protagonist?  Your guess is as good as mine.  Even after several mumbly interrogations by Stark, it’s patently unclear why Whiplash hates Iron Man so much, enough to make you question the screenwriter’s decision to include the character at all.  If you’re going to bring up the history and troubled past of two antagonistic characters, maybe it would help if the two characters had ever met or interacted before. Once it becomes clear that Mickey Rourke’s hideous dental work is a character choice and not the result of a bad tinfoil make-out, we shoot over to the Stark Expo for a brief exercise in torture.

I’m not sure how many times screenwriter Justin Theroux has set foot inside an Expo center, but based on the sheer number of dialog references to Expos, scenes that take place at Expo centers, and flashback footage featuring father-figures relating their personal thoughts on Expo development, it seems like the guy really digs Expos.  There’s nothing wrong with Expos per se, and Theroux would have you believe that they are in fact the greatest setting imaginable for expositional dialog and needless dance numbers to take place, nearly out-edging Spider-Man 3 in terms of sheer masturbation.  They’re also a great locale for an action movie to lose all narrative momentum, get lost in its own ego, splatter some patter, and move on like nothing happened.  This would be well and good if there weren’t so damn many Expos to contend with, or if anything remotely interesting happened at any of them.  The first Expo is the one you’ve seen in the trailer, with an abbreviated version of the likable yet cut “kiss the helmet for luck” sequence.  Stark lands in the center of his own ego, delivers a wank-fest monologue and wanders off to his next booze-cruise in search of tail and easy choices.  Downey Jr’s reprehensible portrayal of Tony Stark is bookended by abject refusal to change or evolve, plus pointed ignorance toward the character’s previous arc.  Would it have been interesting for Downey to portray the thrill-seeking death-defying boozehound from the comics, whose personal problems wreaked havoc on his life in legitimate and dramatic ways?  Perhaps, but that opportunity is undermined at every turn by the half-assed, jokey dialog that permeates this picture.  Rather than dealing with problems in a realistic way, Stark is shuffled from set-piece to set-piece with an alarming disregard for pacing or consistency, often resulting in multiple scenes of asinine dialog justifying the previous terrible sequence.  At one point, Gweneth Paltrow’s character explicitly comments on what a huge waste of time the Stark Expo was, out loud, to both Stark and the audience.  You would think this dialog would have served as a clue to the filmmakers that maybe the sequence is unnecessary, and that this kind of ex-post-facto dialog is only beating a dead horse.  Somehow this foolproof logic fails to prevent the 30-to-50 tech Expos that barrage the audience with pointless spectacle over the next two hours.

Unnecessary is the key word with regards to Iron Man 2, and Justin Theroux’s arrogance and over-indulgence eradicates even the slim slivers of poetic language he manages to string together.  Rourke has a particularly stirring line about attacking Stark to “make God bleed,” but in a microcosm of his unique idiocy, Theroux decides to take the metaphor one step further and explain that once God’s blood is in the water, the sharks will come, as if we should have been praying to sharks, the silent God-killers, all along.  Must have missed the aquatic chapter of the Bible.  It reminds me of the priest at my high school. He used to mix metaphors and say things like, “Looks like the little boy scout’s got his tail caught in the screen door.”  Even that phrasing suffers from a sort of retarded brilliance absent in Iron Man 2, where subtlety and beauty are fleeting or beaten by the brunt of the movie’s ravenous marauding dialog.  My friend JP even scoffed out loud when Stark’s father posthumously commented on the technological limitations of “his time,” anachronistically implying a preternatural knowledge of things to come.  As if the fact that Stark’s dad is played by Roger Sterling isn’t distracting enough, now I’m expected to believe that the man was so smart he predicted the future but failed to prevent Tony Stark from being an utter fuck-up.  Any father with the psychic knowledge that his son would be involved in Iron Man 2 would inevitably abort the pregnancy.

Gweneth Paltrow and Sam Rockwell serve as this movie’s most likable characters in that they both seem to hate Tony Stark as much as the audience.  Rockwell loses some credibility at the three-quarter mark when he launches his own Expo and starts dancing across the stage, in order to meet the retardedly childish expectations set by the movie’s first act.  If you’re wondering what happens between the first and third acts, again your guess is as good as mine.  Claiming this movie tells a story is an affront to stories everywhere.  Three concurrent and unrelated plotlines collide in the last scene like revisions from earlier drafts, stumbling to the same boring set pieces you’ve seen advertised in the trailers.  There are so many stupid and ancillary scenes in Iron Man 2 that I would be remiss not to mention a few of the more glaringly bone-headed narrative decisions.  When Tony Stark meets Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson in all his eye-patched glory, the last vestige of hope for comic book fans looking to see an Avengers or Captain America cross-over movie in a relatively stable and realistic universe, Stark is sitting hung over in a giant plaster donut on top of the roof of a donut store, eating donuts.  Sam Jackson appears in this movie as a wake-up call to both Stark and the screenwriter, who forgot until this point that he had obligations to more interesting franchises.  While it’s funny to see Tony Stark flip the bird to the other Marvel characters, you can’t help but wonder if the “fuck you” quality of the joke is lost on the filmmakers. When so many problems abound, these potshots read like last ditch-efforts to make Iron Man 2 seem superior to something, anything.  If you think that’s ridiculous, let’s not forget the Ninja Turtles-esque scene where Tony drunkenly dj’s his own birthday party in full Iron Man attire, eventually reverting to exploding watermelons and dated Gallagher jokes to keep both his fictional and theatrical audience’s attention.  If the original Iron Man had any shreds of dignity, they’re long dead now.

You can stay after the credits to see a teaser for another Marvel picture, but the absolutely dreadful treatment of the Iron Man property makes this brief advertisement even more questionable.  Scarlett Johanssen looks hot yet bored throughout the movie, and Don Cheadle serves passably as replacement for his equally boring Traffic co-star.  There is absolutely nothing here that you couldn’t assume from the previews, and aside from the opening flight sequence there is relatively little special effects-wise to admire.  For a movie called Iron Man, there is a surprising dearth of Iron Man.  The movie generally follows Tony Stark’s smug expression as it meanders around town corroding paint and stripping wallpaper from local businesses. In spite of the few laughs he provides early on, Garry Schandling fails to escape the curse of the crud, returning at the end of the movie to present Iron Man with a needless medal of bravery.  No one considers that the only attack on American soil that Iron Man prevents in this movie was caused by a contract employee of the U.S. Government, or that the whole debacle was Stark’s fault from the get-go. And outside of Rourke’s psychotic mumbling there doesn’t seem to be a villain in the universe who can fight Iron Man for longer than thirty seconds without folding like a house of cards.  If your superhero is so overpowered that it’s not even interesting to watch him fight, I suggest you reconsider where you spend your hundreds of million dollars, let alone your ticket price.  There is absolutely nothing positive or memorable about this slapdash recreation of comic book spectacle, and the whole thing stinks like the literary equivalent of Marmaduke.  Not only are you bored, you don’t even realize how bored you are until it’s finally over, and by the time it’s over, it’s already too late. You’ve just wasted two hours on a movie whose greatest aspiration is to build a few rooms onto Robert Downey Jr.’s summerhouse.


Movie Review: Hot Tub Time Machine

Okay, I'll do it, but it better not be just some retarded fart-joke movie

Corddry airbrushes every night before he goes to bed

After a week of thought, digestion, and calculated consideration, I still hated Hot Tub Time Machine.  As the title might suggest to you, this isn’t a movie that deserves any of the aforementioned effort on your part to enjoy it- or hate it, for that matter.  The quality of premise, plot and depth of character are all evident based on the haphazard smooshing of compound syllables found in the title.  But as a comedy guy (meaning a fan, but also a writer and performer of comedy) I sought a sort of retarded genius in the simplicity of the movie’s pitch, based on the pre-knowledge that often the most skilled of comedians can polish a turd to the point where it shines like a glistening turd sandwich, festering gloriously in the sun.  The writers of Hot Tub Time Machine must have run out of Turd Polish (®®©™) or never had much comedic wit to begin with, because their lack of ability to push the boundaries of time-travel comedy or even basic fart jokes shows a decided unwillingness to elevate their screenplay above the level of a couple of agency twats who just read Save the Cat for the first time while they were writing it.

The entire cast of Hot Tub Time Machine is talented, and Rob Corddry especially proves his ability to captivate a big-screen audience in a non-Harold and Kumar setting.  But being the best part of a piece of shit is hardly an accomplishment.  It’s almost as if Corddry is the one student over-compensating in a decomposing act of high school theater, knowing that the walls are collapsing around him, but still taking the time to comfort the audience as they’re smothered Medea­-style.  Craig Robinson continues to be a source of laughter, albeit once again relegated to the “OUR BLACK FRIEND” role that almost completely undermines his character’s dialog from minute one of its terrible writing.  John Cusack survives by wandering around from sequence to sequence, occasionally foraging for scenery while the audience’s back is turned (possibly scratching their own asses in cling-on based discomfort).  Clark Duke is exceptional as the person whose success I am most likely to question for the next decade and a half (until his untimely death- fingers crossed).  Chevy Chase is more misused than that old guy on Community, caged and prodded while being forced to spout odd cryptic dialog in another of the movie’s “hilarious running gags.”  Crispin Glover survives mostly un(h)armed, and combined with his relative success here may be this summer’s most bankable star thanks to his brave performance as some tall guy in Alice in Wonderland.

If you are female, I want to apologize on behalf of men everywhere for the vapid, pointless and beyond shallow portrayal of your gender in this movie.  It’s gotten to the point in male comedies where even talented female comedians are getting shoehorned into variations on the theme “slut”.  When the female romantic lead of your movie is less memorable than the main character’s trashed, whore-ish sister, something is very wrong.  The sexism wouldn’t bother me so much if I could imagine that the screenwriters were being tongue-in-cheek, but the chauvinism is such a given that no one- not even Clark Duke’s petulant fun-sponge- complains about it or gives it second notice.  There’s a great opportunity for Duke’s character to try to play Mr. Fix-It with his mom’s hedonistic youth, trying to subtly or not-so-subtly lead her on a path of moral virtue rather than her drug-abusing self-destructive ways, but it- like all opportunities for time travel fun in this half-baked premise- never rears its head, and instead we’re left with four guys trying to land tail at a 1980’s ski resort, a concept that reminds me of this much funnier movie called Better Off Dead, starring some actor whose career recently tanked.

To add insult to injury the basic tenets of the time travel device are as hackneyed as possible, resulting in a last-minute race to secure the magic Russian energy drink that provided the McGuffin for their space-time tango.  Rather than ever giving our protagonists (does that word make sense here?) an opportunity to hop back and forth through time and mess with the universe in fun and inventive ways, we’re stuck in the same boring 1980s setting for a majority of the movie, and it seems like the screenwriters were either too fetal or riddled with Down Syndrome to competently remember what the 1980s were like outside of Poison and leg-warmers.  There’s nothing wrong with stealing the principals of Back to the Future– one of the greatest movies of all time and the literal bible when it comes to movie time-travel- but you could at least try to get the basic elements right.  When our four heroes (still seems weird) travel back in time they inhabit the bodies of their past selves, so there’s never a chance that they’ll run into an old version of themselves and collapse the universe or anything.  This never seems to explain Clark Duke’s character’s physical existence within the premise, since it’s clear that he wasn’t even conceived yet in the 1980s.  He’s just hanging out for most of the movie in his own skin, which really begs the question of what happens to the dudes’ former past selves that existed in the 1980s before they came back to visit.  When they return to the future at the movie’s conclusion, they inhabit their own bodies again and still have no chance of running into a parallel timeline’s version of themselves, but the whole thing creates this logical gap in the narrative momentum, especially since the main plot of this movie surrounds our characters boringly attempting to recreate all the crazy things that happened to them one crazy weekend in crazily dull detail.  By traveling back in time to inherit the bodies of their younger selves, they’ve already damaged the past irreparably, so the fact that Chevy Chase’s pseudo-time-guru repairman urges them to replicate everything perfectly as they remember it doesn’t really matter or make sense.  Wouldn’t it have been a more fun movie from the beginning if the four characters agreed that their lives in the present sucked, and since they have nothing to lose, why not purposefully change the future for their own benefit?  Of course this idea eventually takes hold in Corddry by the film’s third act, but by then the choice is so belated and pointedly obvious that it barely matters when the movie finally stumbles to the conclusion.

It’s not that Hot Tub Time Machine is simply bad- and believe me, it’s bad- it’s that the script is an example of the sheer laziness capable of major Hollywood players and executives on a daily basis, the same sort of sliding a half-finished project across the teacher’s desk that you might expect from grade-schoolers, but here the stakes are a lot higher considering that $40+ million dollars are being flung around the screen like feces at the ape cages.  (And if you’re angry that I’m being so crass in my review, you’re one or two jizz jokes short of being in the target demographic for this picture.)  It’s almost a surprise that no one thought to slap post-production 3D on this bad boy just to drive up the ticket sales and help justify the budget.  If anyone can watch this ugly-looking stinker and tell me where that $40 mil went, I’d love to know.  Hot Tub Time Machine is a decidedly freshman attempt at filmmaking that makes the term ‘sophomoric’ a far-away and unachievable ideal.  Perhaps its most grievous offense is the fact that it’s just not that funny, and while that opinion is purely subjective, I would argue there’s more “so dumb it’s hilarious” content in Weekend at Bernies 2 than here, where playing it safe between sprays of gross liquid makes Mind of Mencia look like an art form.  Don’t see Hot Tub Time Machine, even if you’re in the target demographic.  I promise I’ve seen people fart on more interesting snare drums than this movie.  And by next year, there’ll be some other forgettable comedic crapfest to entertain you.  Might as well stay in for the night, crack a few beers and watch Hangover on DVD, or better yet, something funnier.

Grade:  D-

Review: Shutter Island

Shh, don't tell anyone how much this movie stinks...

So that's what happened to the "Where's the Beef" Lady.

I really wanted to like this movie more than I did.  Truly.  You have a lot of great components working together- Martin Scorcese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sir Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo- but at the end of the day Shutter Island is a two-hour boat ride toward a disappointing twist that fails to justify the movie’s existence in any way.  The audience is led around confusing curves in typical b-movie fashion, where cryptic nonsense masquerades itself as clues and “intrigue” abounds, only to later undercut itself when the riddles are finally solved.  There’s some beautiful cinematography going on here, and some great casting, a particularly skilled performance by Leonardo DiCaprio- which we’ve come to expect at this point- but nothing amounts to anything, and aside from a strikingly dark final sequence, there’s absolutely nothing to write home about.  And that’s a damn shame.  There could have been something special here, but there just isn’t.

Everything about the physical landscape and geography of Shutter Island is compelling, and all the costuming and make-up crew really did their job.  The dream sequences in the movie are vaguely psychedelic and a reminder that Scorcese still has a few tricks up his sleeves in his autumn years.  The real problem is that the story is so bland and listless that it ends up undermining all the polish on the exterior.  Leo’s character wanders from situation to situation aimlessly, sharing more in common with Tim Burton’s incarnation of Wonderland’s Alice than a hard-boiled detective.  One of the major necessities in a movie with a twist is to lead the audience down a red herring path so that the twist blind-sides everybody.  There’s literally no red herring in this movie, aside from the fact that the previews suggest some supernatural element in the film’s proceedings that never comes to be.  I felt a little misled, hoping that there would be something thrilling at some point, but beyond the second-to-last-scene, a flashback sequence that further extrapolates the nature of the movie’s so-called mystery, there isn’t really anything surprising to be found.

Some of my friends have claimed that they saw the twist coming.  I, for one, did not see it coming, but still found it equally dissatisfying.  As you can probably tell, it is very difficult to discuss this movie without revealing the nature of the climactic turn in the final act, but really, if you knew the truth it would be damned hard to get you into the seats.  It’s not that the twist is ridiculous or inappropriate- it’s that it’s incredibly boring and doesn’t serve to elevate the movie in any way.  Instead you’re left with disappointment and the sense that every single character you’ve met along the way is probably somebody else, and a less interesting version of the character you thought you knew.  It’s incredibly frustrating, in the same way as reading a story where the ending is “all a dream” or a bad improv scene where someone announces at the very end that the characters have secretly been on a submarine the entire time.

There’s a beautiful subtlety in the final scene of the movie, where it seems like Leo’s character makes a serious decision toward the redemption of his soul, but I have a feeling it’ll be lost under the blaring badness of the “surprise” moment one scene earlier.  And frankly, it still feels like it’s too little-too late in a situation where subtlety and grace would have aided a much better screenplay to begin with.  Again, I really wanted to enjoy this movie, but the conclusion makes the whole thing stink worse than the rat at the end of The Departed.  (And if you loved that rat, there’s about fifty million more in this movie, Willard-style.)  Brief moments of color and flair can’t distract from the fact that the story is dull as a sack of bricks, and the good will that permeates the first act is endlessly squandered by the third.  And speaking of squandered, if you’re going to put Jackie Earle Haley in your movie, at least give him something to do.  The same goes for Ben Kingsley, Mark Ruffalo and everybody else that this movie pointedly misuses for the sake of narrative ambiguity.  Kudos to Scorcese for barely making a watchable picture in the same washed-out color scheme as Peter Jackson’s deplorable King Kong, but at least having the decency to make his movie less than sixteen hours long.

The further I get from Shutter Island, the less inclined I am to ever visit it again.  It’s the narrative equivalent of the Sixth Sense, if the twist at the end of that movie was that Bruce Willis was secretly a fisherman the whole time.  A twist, to be sure, but honestly, what’s the point?  Once the movie blindsides you with its ham-handed moral about psychiatric care, the somniferous effects have already taken hold, and you’ll be sentenced to your own psychotropic dream sequence, complete with more interesting plot developments than anything you saw onscreen.

Grade:  C-

Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland

With its $116 million dollar opening and two weekends of box office domination, Alice in Wonderland is already Tim Burton’s most successful cinematic debut and easily stands to be one of his most profitable films of all time.  But is it one of his best?  That question almost seems unnecessary in age of cinema obsessed with 3d goggles and mind-boggling effects.  The standard by which the success of a motion picture can be determined has been rewritten by Avatar, just as The Matrix rewrote it a decade prior.  It seems that Hollywood and audiences across America are reveling in the benefits of an extra dimension of filmmaking, resulting in higher ticket prices and higher ticket sales correspondingly.  But are we paying for an added dimension of storytelling, or just a few extra moments of flash and pizzazz?

Alice in Wonderland intimately represents the tightrope walk between innovation and redundancy so omnipresent in Hollywood.  It starts innocently enough, with a bit of flashback storytelling establishing the all-too-familiar tropes of stuffy British aristocracy and that maddeningly young woman cavalier enough to upset them all.  This is all well done and as charming as the thousands of other dips into Brit-Lit that have borrowed the cliché, but it’s the careful preparation and calculated delivery of the exchanges between characters, the set design and costuming that make Alice’s pre-Wonderland experiences so likable.  It’s almost a shame that Burton spends so little time here, as his uncharacteristically direct approach to satire and duality is a welcome treat in this instance, as opposed to his Big Fish, which almost reeked of bland banality.  Could it be that in his later years, Burton has discovered an insight into the human condition that makes his treatment of the inhumane less interesting?  It could be, because as soon as Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole, all sense of satire and merriment is lost on the story, and we are instead “treated” to a dark and half-formed bastardization of Wonderland that shares more in common with Coraline‘s twisted alternate dimension or a bad trope of light-world/dark-world video game storytelling than it does the deeply satiric and mesmerizing writing of Lewis Carroll.

The thing that made the books special was Carroll’s ability to interweave then-modern social and political satire into a comical and otherworldly experience.  Children could amuse themselves with the rich and beautiful storytelling, while adults could marvel at the inside jokes and chuckle at the digs that make the novels memorable.  The whole nature of Wonderland acting as an alternate universe to the real world speaks to a basic duality, and the “fun-for-children, clever-for-adults” nature of the original Wonderland stories served to underscore that.  Burton’s vision of the stories presents a half-baked Wonderland swimming on the outskirts of a painfully more interesting real world, where the almost absurdly convoluted rules of Wonderland undercut the fun to be had by both Alice and the audience, to the point where the almost Pirates of the Carribean-y vibe of Alice’s real world seems a welcome alternative.

Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of screenwriter Linda Woolverton, who meaninglessly strives to construct an action movie out of a British political farce.  Certainly there is something to be said about Alice coming into womanhood through her larger-than-life adventures in Wonderland, but never has that notion been trivialized so severely as when Alice is forced to don a suit of armor and decapitate a literal Jabberwocky.  The Jabberwocky, a mythic and terrible creature from one of Carroll’s best moments of poetry, is nothing more than a Lord of the Rings-ian analogy in this picture, serving no purpose other than to give the heroine something to slaughter in the third act so we can all go home thinking we saw a big movie.  It’s almost too difficult to fault individual moments of the story for being unnecessary since all of Wonderland is a series of meaningless contrivances designed to comically poke fun at a real world analog.  Rather than giving the audience any time to wonder about anything, Alice is shuffled off into another series of vaguely grotesque events that feature a handful of memorable fairytale characters being imprisoned, attacked or CGI’d beyond recognition.  As much fun as it is to see them live on camera, it would have been more fun if any of the sights in Wonderland had contained a snippet of significance that Alice could carry back with her to the real world.  The Alice of this universe enters Wonderland with as much preposterous rebellion as she leaves it with, leaving her little room as a character to change or grow.  How does killing a mythical beast correlate to Alice’s ability to plot trade routes in the Far East for her father’s company?  This movie would like to make the claim that it does directly, and that any dream one has can give them the courage to learn nothing from it and continue behaving exactly as you did before you ever fell asleep.

I do not mean to imply that there is nothing to be admired about Burton’s Wonderland.  There is plenty to be visually compelled by, and the three-dimensional glasses actively behave as your colleague on this maddening adventure, vying harder than the screenwriter ever could to make this experience less dreadful.  Certainly, there is nothing to be enjoyed about Alice in Wonderland without the aid of the 3d glasses, and the thought of wearing regular reading glasses during the proceedings would devolve the experience into a worse-than-Chronicles-of-Narnia level torture-fest.  There are beautiful moments, though they are few and far between, and unless the thought of seeing a dormouse pluck an eyeball out of a bandersnatch’s head is delightful to you, you’ll have a very difficult time justifying why the physical landscape of Wonderland seems so burned-out and sparsely populated, a visual bastard son of even Planet of the Apes‘ set design.  It is a sad state of affairs when I long for Alice to wander the terrifying forests of Sleepy Hollow, for at least there she could be surrounded by atmospheric tension as opposed to the un-artful approximation of Dali-esque fantasy in Wonderland.

Johnny Depp’s performance is confusing, but clearly more a fault of the screenwriting than his own design.  As a performer he is charming and effortless in movement and expression, but the parameters of his Mad Hatter are hard to follow and beyond the feeling of, “Oh, isn’t that whimsical,” there isn’t much depth to consider.  The real steal-the-show moments come from Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen, whose petulant humanity shines through in spite of the gaudy computer-generated madness applied to her forehead.  Crispin Glover performs adequately as a character who vaguely resembles a human being, and unfortunately for Anne Hathaway, she does the same.  As for Alice, it is hard to get a read on the performance of an actor shamelessly wandering from situation to situation and only occasionally coerced into action.  She does a good job of looking a combination of stern and forgetful, which is fair, because Alice suffers from a needlessly crushing bout of amnesia for nine-tenths of this movie, only to remember that she is Alice at the last minute, has done this all before, and it was just as boring and meaningless the first time. Yes, you do get to see Alice drinking to shrink and eating to grow, but you also have characters commenting on the fact that she’s done it all before, even though she doesn’t know it.  Then you get to hear Alice complaining that she doesn’t remember doing it before.  Then they say they are confused because she should remember.  Then she remembers.  And it changes nothing.  Not one bit.  She says, “Oh, now I remember,” we see a brief montage of scenes from a much more interesting movie featuring a much more age appropriate Alice, and we cut back to the grown-up Alice, she slays the monster, and yadda, yadda, yadda.

I hope I haven’t spoiled too much of the story for you, as Linda Woolverton has strived tirelessly to provide that service for you herself, robbing all subtlety and grace from Wonderland, all inquisitive nature from Alice, and almost all humor from this picture.  There are a few laughs, and a few majestic moments of CGI perfection that will make you say, “Wow! That extra seventeen dollars I paid at the door really did come through!” but did it really?  Afterwards your pocket is still empty and you’ll have a decidedly shallow feeling of dissatisfaction, as if the Milk Duds and Junior Whoppers you consumed during the movie weren’t as satisfying as a balanced meal, complete with character and heart.  The problem with Woolverton’s Wonderland is that it lacks any parallel to the real world, and provides no insight into its own proceedings or the correlating lives of real people.  Things that were pointless for the sake of fun in the original are pointless for the sake of inclusion in this picture, and nothing about the original stories are explored in further detail.  Instead Burton’s Alice provides a shallow mixtape of Wonderland memories, for some reason double-packaged with amnesia.

But it’s damned pretty to look at sometimes.  And it’s all thanks to the 3d.  Three-dimensional motion pictures are the latest in a string of tricks used by Hollywood to convince people to overlook the flaws of an already broken picture. The only difference between this trick and Hollywood’s regular schemes is that with Alice, the tricks are actually working.  It’s kind of fun to get caught up in the stupid madness while it’s happening thanks to your magic goggles, and I can even see people buying this film on Blu-Ray or DVD only to be disappointed that the small screen experience can never live up to the cookie-cutter big screen comparison.  But by then it’ll already be too late.  Most big pictures in the next two years are already slated for 3d release.  What does that mean for you as a filmgoer?  Possibly nothing.  Maybe a bunch of bad movies will be made glaringly less bad thanks to the visual leg-up program provided by 3d.  But for me, I’ll be wallowing in my own liminal state between spectacle and meaning, praying that filmmakers don’t lose all sense of storytelling in the jump to approximate weird computer-generated lizard things spiraling pointlessly toward the audience.

Grade:  C

Movie Reviews: Paranormal Activity

This movie is equal parts scary and boobs

It’s taken me a long time to write about this movie, mostly because it’s hard to think of what to say. If you’re a fan of horror films and enjoy the enterprise of being scared you’ll most likely enjoy yourself for a majority of Paranormal Activity. If you’re skeptical about the premise (and believe me, I don’t blame you) then the movie probably won’t work for you on a fundamental level. There are barely any special effects to speak of, so you’re not going to be wowed by the technical brilliance of this film at any point. The acting ranges from passable improvisation to occasional charm. But is the movie genuinely scary? That’s for the audience to decide.

I’m a big advocate for seeing horror films in the theater. While Paranormal could work equally well on DVD in the comfort of your own home (possibly better, as the movie definitely plays up the fear of being home alone) I think there’s something to be said for the communal aspect of being scared. There’s something deeply human and communal about a good fright, in the same way that it’s oddly reassuring to hear the screams of the people ahead of you in a haunted house. Even if the worst is around the corner, you know you’re not the only one experiencing it. Call it Schadenfreude or safety in numbers, but it’s fun to know you’re not alone in feeling scared.

I lucked out because my theater was ready to be frightened. Even though there were relatively few people in the audience, that didn’t stop a nervous energy from creeping over all of us. My favorite moment of the movie was when a teenage girl shouted, “Oh damn!” at a particularly nerve-wracking moment. Everyone in the theater erupted in laughter, not at the inarticulate nature of the comment, but because we were all sitting there thinking the same thing. And it felt good to laugh, to be bonding with the other people in the audience on some human level. We paid to see a work of fiction. We sat in the theater like we’ve done countless times before. But rather than whispering quietly to the person next to us, we were unanimously joined in the gasps, shrieks, and yes, even the yawns of this picture. And regardless of the narrative quality of the film as a whole, the ability to elicit an emotional response from a group of people and unite them is something that should be greatly credited to this film, no matter what you think of it.

As for the story itself, it’s pretty straight-forward Amityville­-style stuff. An unmarried couple moves in together. They hear creepy noises. They get a camera to document it. Spooky stuff happens. Then spookier stuff happens, and so on. I would call this the haunted house soul-sister to 2003’s Open Water, as both movies focus on a couple experiencing unpleasant things as captured on handicam. Unlike that movie, the characters in Paranormal are actually likable, which is a plus, but that doesn’t stop Paranormal from feeling painfully long and pointlessly dull at points even at a brisk 86 minutes.

I’ll admit that when I got back from the theater, I was relatively spooked by every normal house noise I heard, under the assumption that some post-movie ghost had followed me home Haunted Mansion-style. Like most ghosts, the feeling quickly evaporated. As far as lasting scares go I’d still place Orphan higher on the mantle than Paranormal. Sure, that movie was cheesy but it was three times more disturbing than Paranormal Activity ever even attempts to be. For most, this movie has the lasting value of a Communion wafer. You forget about it as soon as you leave the building. After the sixteenth time the couple went to bed and set up the camera to spot anything weird, the nuance of the trope was gone. By the time visibly horrifying things actually do happen in the movie (note: three minutes from the end) the result is less satisfying than it should be. It’s the equivalent of seeing the alien at the end of Signs. Sure, it’s nice to know what the creature looks like, but when we see it in broad daylight it kind of robs it of its natural power, like seeing a sleeping lion at the zoo. The ending of Paranormal is one of the biggest problems with the picture because there is no pay-off. Nothing that happens in those final moments is half as scary as the tension that preceded it, so you’re left wondering if any of it mattered at all. (Hint: It didn’t.) As you walk out of the theater, I challenge you to have a thought other than “that was kind of scary” or “that was kind of boring.” Much like the spirits in the movie, Paranormal Activity is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Apologies to both Shakespeare and Faulkner on this one.)

Grade: C+