“Movie” Review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Calling Prince of Persia a movie is probably the highest compliment it will ever receive.  A failure on every level, from cinematography to casting to performance to writing, this travesty is almost likable for containing a Mystery Science Theater 3000 level of hap-hazard behavior that allows it to stumble from set-piece to set-piece as if any of them actually mattered.  Based on the totally badass video game of the same name, PoP:SoT is the story of a wise-cracking Parkour enthusiast with a magic time-traveling dagger that allows him to reset the last few things that just happened, thereby eradicating the need for “extra lives.”  As a movie, this device is notably moronic, and if you’ve read any other reviews you’ll find many of the writers complaining that the time-travel robs the movie of tension by providing an easy quick-fix for any problems that the Prince might encounter.  In reality, the dagger is used so infrequently that it might as well relinquish its credit as the movie’s McGuffin.  Once the dagger is activated, you’ll see the only passable special effects in the entire film, but for some reason the screenwriters seemed more concerned with the Prince’s intense familial drama than the magic fucking dagger that supposedly everybody in the movie wants. If even your characters don’t care about the McGuffin, why should we?

Horribly miscast from moment one, Jake Gyllenhaal’s tenuous acting abilities fare no better here than anywhere else. You can hear his vocal chords cracking under the weight of his faulty British accent.  Love interest Gemma Arterton is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and charismatic young actresses we have available these days, but for some reason she made the hideous choice to speak like Newt from Castle Anthrax for the entire movie.  So distractingly bad are the vocal affectations in this film that you almost forgive Ben Kingsley for chewing the scenery, in the same way you forgive a lab rat for gnawing the sides of his cage.  Bad decisions are made in succession in Prince of Persia, so the fault must lay with the director, Mike Newell.  Previously responsible for the massively more watchable action-fest Harry Potter and the Goblet of Spooky Dragons, there is really no excuse for this movie’s failure.  It almost seems like Newell wanted to undermine his own credibility by producing a mindless Michael Bay-style action flick.  It’s endearing that a kindly old Brit would want to expand his horizons from emotional drama to utter crap, and to a certain extent he achieved the unthinkable.  He actually produced a movie somehow dumber and more incompetent than Clash of the Titans.  I had a shocking amount of fun in Titans compared to this piece of crap.  And yes, there is ostrich racing in Prince of Persia, but beyond that, I cannot honestly tell you a damn thing that happened.  Mostly Jake and Gemma spit petty meaningless banter as they wander around boring, endless deserts.

There’s probably a story in here somewhere, but after playing the original video game in which there were maybe three important characters, it seemed like a waste of time to start memorizing the Prince’s long family tree, especially when most of them end up dead, albeit not soon enough. Toby Kebbell, playing one of the prince’s brothers, might be the worst actor in a big-budget feature ever.  He is the human equivalent of that terrible CGI in The Mummy where Billy Zane’s jaw stretches and locusts fly out.  Again, calling him human is a huge compliment.  I didn’t even recognize that the annoying ostrich racing organizer (yes, this is an integral character; no, the game contained no ostrich racing) was played by notorious hammy sell-out Alfred Molina.  I can’t wait until Sorcerer’s Apprentice so I can watch him belch out more self-absorbed villain dialog like he’s masturbating all the way to the bank.  Way to go, Alfred.  You’ve effectively developed duel-personality disorder.  One personality is a talented theatrical actor who cares deeply about his characters, and the other is the one we’ve been seeing on the big screen since Spider-Man 2.  You know, the one that hates audiences?  Stop hamming it up, and give your film characters the same attention that you give to your theatrical ones.  I’m sick of paying eleven dollars to see you take a shit on screen, Molina.  Kingsley is forgettable, but you’re so bad you’re memorable.

What else is there to say?  You’re not going to watch this movie.  I’m never going to watch it again.  I might actually play the video game again, because it was the one thing related to this movie that didn’t suck.  I hope the guys at Rifftrax take this down (if they haven’t already…I can’t imagine it’ll be a long wait until the DVD comes out) because there are so many opportunities for humor and foul comments amongst this dreck.  The thing I regret most about seeing this movie were the other members of the audience.  Two old ladies were sitting in the front row with their caretaker, whom they needed to walk them back and forth in front of the theater before the movie started, assumedly so their legs would not atrophy and die during the proceedings.  It struck me that these women were potentially not far off from death, and the shocking realization crept into my brain that this, Prince of Persia, this incredible piece of crap, could be the last movie these women ever see in theaters.  After a lifetime that’s spanned The Maltese Falcon to The Dark Knight, these women get to experience their death rattle along with the lousiest piece of garbage released by a studio yet this summer.  Then again, maybe I’m being a little too speculative and hyperbolic.  They might stick around for a while more, see The Last Airbender and finally croak.

GRADE:  D-

DVD Review: Mystery Team

Mystery Team is the result of a lot of hard work and monetary investment from a little group called Derrick Comedy.  Featuring familiar faces like The Office‘s Ellie Kemper (a.k.a. the internet’s Blowjob Girl) and the endearingly morose Aubrey Plaza (Parks & Recreation) this movie is the product of a bunch of good friends getting together and collaborating on an exceedingly fun and goofily eccentric concept.  Based off their favorite junior detective mystery novels growing up, Mystery Team asks the question, what if Encyclopedia Brown never really grew up? Take one part Hardy Boys, one part Scooby Doo and mix it with the stark reality of gritty street crime, and you’ll have the basic tenets of Mystery Team.

The real star here is Community‘s Donald Glover.  Though the titular Mystery Team consists of three equally dorky members, Glover’s performance as Jason is the only one that struck me as memorable.  The other two characters each have a gimmick; Duncan is an all-grown-up boy genius (a comedy trope utilized to better success in popular animated masterpiece The Venture Bros.) and Charlie is “the strongest kid in town,” although he isn’t very strong.  It’s a fairly conventional comedic device to set up a statement and then ironically deny it to produce laughs, but when two of your three main characters begin to blend into the wallpaper, it raises some concerns.  It’s not just that their schtick is noticeably less funny than Glover’s, whose delightfully hammy over-acting as a “master of disguise” is a perfect blend of nerdy and charming- it’s also the fact that his teammates’ acting chops aren’t up to par.  Glover acts circles around his compatriots, making it less of a Mystery Team and more of a solo detective story with two relatively annoying sidekicks.  The sidekicks occasionally get a good bit or two, but it really depends on how much you enjoy bloody noses and pee-drinking jokes (and if I know my audience, that’s plenty!).

Ellie Kemper is remarkably underused considering her talent, and Aubrey Plaza is lovably awkward as usual.  The truth is that Glover’s charm is so charismatic, all of the movie’s low-budget flaws melt away.  There’s a great cameo by SNL‘s Bobby Moynihan as a likeable yet semi-creepy store clerk, but beyond that, this is Glover’s show.  The plot unravels in typical children’s mystery format, i.e. the characters can reason out the mystery based on internal clues, but there is no chance for the audience to figure it out at home.  Which is fine, seeing as this movie is primarily gunning for laughs, but again, if your movie is about a Team, you might want to include more interesting team dynamics from the beginning.  Since the other two members are so inept, the movie basically wanders from set piece to set piece waiting for Glover to do something insane to liven it up a little.  The end result is a surprisingly funny comedy that is definitely worth a rental.  As the stakes escalate, our former boy detectives find themselves fearing for their lives, pitted against real-world criminals in a battle of wits.  Fans of the now-defunct Party Down will excuse the metaphor, but Mystery Team is like a crock-pot.  It’s a slow burn, and by the end you’ll have fallen in love without even realizing it.

GRADE:  B+

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.

GRADE:  D-

DATE NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET

Last week I took a daring trip into the unknown, facing two potentially unbearable pieces of cinematic dreck, films jettisoned by their studios into the faces of filmgoers everywhere, too mainstream and seemingly formulaic to earn the respect of the intellectual elite, with perhaps too broad a focus to attract the eye of even the dumbest redneck searching for the next popcorn-muncher to bide the time between giant robot splatterfests.  I’m talking about the two movies you failed to see this past weekend, Date Night and A Nightmare On Elm Street.  In a single sitting, I stomached both of these cinematic monstrosities, wrapped my brain (and palpable ego) around them, and have returned with the knowledge of their respective quality.  Why is this such a big deal?  Because I found both films to be so surprising that their reviewership could only be handled by one massive double-review double-feature entitled:

DATE NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET

(The FIRST, and preferably last, INSTALLMENT)

And away we go.

Review the First: Date Night

It should be assumed that the comedic coupling of Tina Fey and Steve Carrell will produce laughs, but based on the cinematic offerings of either thusfar, the pickings for genuine humor are slim.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a Mean Girls or Anchorman fan as anyone, but by the same token, you wouldn’t expect me to grab my Baby Mama or Evan Almighty blu-rays when company arrives for movie night.  Both Fey and Carrell have proven in their television careers that they are capable actors and writers with an innate sense of comedic improvisation.  Oftentimes their performances are so subtle and character-based that their laughs get handed off to bigger, broader performers, the Tracy Jordans and Dwight Schrutes of the world.  As a comedic improviser, writer and performer myself, I cannot help but applaud their commitment to character in the face of  cheesier choices towards easier laughs.  It’s the sort of comedic determination that separates the Carlos Mencias from the Sacha Baron Cohens, the difference between a placating purveyor of fart-jokes and a comedian committed to performing in the skin of a different human being, choosing the reality of the character’s universe over the potential for easy one-liners.  That is not to say that Ali G was free of fart-jokes or that Dwight K. Schrute is anything less than the finest partially-improvised character currently on television.  In order to be the primary or focal character in a comedy series of the modern era, a Leslie Knope or a Michael Bluth, the parameters and regulations of the character’s personal philosophy dictate his potentiality for obtaining laughs, and not the other way around.  Sound overly scientific?  It’s my opinion- and the opinion of this Board of Study- that comedy is equally as scientific, if not moreso than drama.  The building of tension in drama is more of an art form than most methods of expression, but the precision necessary to sustain laughter and accentuate the humorous in a comedic situation is much akin to the construction and deconstruction of chemical compounds.  And I say this not just as a humble blogger of thoughts, but also as a big fan of technical jargon that Walt might use to analogize on Breaking Bad.

All that psychobabble notwithstanding, Date Night is a shockingly likable comedic effort from a cast of characters who probably should be granted free reign to work together and improvise with each other in front of cameras for the next few decades.  Like it’s buddy cop movie roots (yes, that’s right, I did not say rom-com) Date Night works best when its central characters are playing with each other to the point where you can see the authentic smiles of the actors underneath, like those moments in Midnight Run when through sheer irritation it seems like Charles Grodin has actually gotten through Robert DeNiro’s shell to his core on a human-to-human level.  There are brief glimpses of actual attraction and romantic chemistry onboard in Date Night, but they are usually too far-flung or fleeting to underscore the movie with any real heart.  Those looking for a movie packed with equal parts comedy and romance will be surely disappointed, but those looking to be surprised by a scene in which two cars fuse together in a wholly illogical but mostly enjoyable display of movie-physics are in for a delightful ride.  I happen to like the sensible yet mainstream tone of this picture, and I think the person(s) in charge of casting this movie should be commended for their efforts.  All of the bit players in Date Night get moments to shine (some far too often in Marky Mark’s case) but the whole thing does revolve around a simple mistaken identity premise, so don’t expect much in way of story beyond “we’ve gotta get to the next set piece!”

There’s an authentic charm to Date Night that stems from the warmth of the lighting and the genial way in which director Shawn Levy portrays New York City and family life in general.  It’s certainly a step in the right direction from his portrayal of D.C. in Night at the Museum 2, wherein he accurately recreated the city’s economic turmoil by taking a shit on a pile of studio money.  In spite of its broad and ridiculous situations, the likeability factor really outweighs a lot of the silliness at play here, and it’s often just fun to hear Fey and Carrell comment to one another as they run from one misadventure to the next, like the endless patter between the stars of It’s Always Sunny.  I would say that had this movie actively made an effort to be more of a romantic comedy than a buddy cop / action movie, it might have had the potential to affect more people’s emotions or stick with them longer than the next comedy movie.  In a way, Date Night is the straight-edge equivalent of Pineapple Express, another movie where bumbling buddies are thrown headfirst into the world of professional criminals.  You can’t count on Date Night for the same kind of broad but offensive laughs as Pineapple Express, but you can be sure that it will go toe-to-toe with that movie in the charm department any day.  Date Night has so much good will that it’s hard for me to fault its meager middle-of-the-road aspirations.  This might be as close as we can get to an intelligent American comedy these days, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Grade:  B

Surprised, no?  I was too.  Let’s move on to the next review, a midnight opening night viewing of the new horror remake…

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Let me get this out of the way right off the bat:  I was never a fan of the original movie in this series, never saw it when I was young enough to be scared by it or drunk enough to appreciate it for its camp value.  The only movie I really liked in the original series was Dream Warriors, just because it stars a young orderly by the name of “Larry” Fishburne, a.k.a Morpheus, and features teens traveling into Freddy’s hellish dreamscape so they can conquer him with “dream powers.”  That’s right, twisted bizarro dream-land superheroes.  You heard it here last.  I was always more of a Friday the 13th guy, not much fandom beyond the first one, but for the original movie’s genre-defining story structure, gratuitous Kevin Bacon sex-murder, and Tom & Jerry style dispatching of its (surprising) final villain, it will always hold a place in my heart.  When I saw last year’s Friday the 13th remake I thought it was hilarious that they decided to take a huge risk and blatantly sequelize the original film they were “remaking,” starting their new movie immediately where the original left off, creating one of those weird Superman Returns-style narrative parallel dimensions where the series can be watched in multiple terrible ways and will inevitably lead to mass message board continuity hysteria and Kool-Aid based cult suicide.

But I digress.  A Nightmare On Elm Street is back and I would argue better than ever.  There’s nothing beyond the shallow exterior of Freddie’s dream-based quips and subsequent murders, but there’s something unmistakably cinematic about the choices of movement, framing and mis-en-scene in this remake, making each shot or sequence of Nightmare deeply unsettling, jarring and occasionally nausea-inducing.  Director Samuel Bayer’s experience in music videos definitely allowed him to transport his characters easily from their narrative reality to Freddie’s hellish dream landscapes, making a smooth transition from calm to eerie on a regular basis.  He also has a great capacity for sustaining tension over the course of numerous scenes, making it unclear whether the audience should prepare for another scare or finally relax.  In most circumstances the moments that should make people jump actually deliver, and I think the real quality of this picture will come down to how many people are willing to invest emotionally in the semi-corny premise that has been around for three decades already.  Freddie’s a not-so-trustworthy children’s caretaker who returns from the dead to torment his former daycare kiddies with dream-like murder scenarios, all with brutal effects in the real world.  The movie does little to reinvent Freddie as a character or justify his supernatural existence in any legitimate way.  It simply presents the scenario (within three minutes of the movie’s opening) and let’s the claws fly.  If you’re not onboard with the premise from a Nightmare On Elm Street sold-on-name-alone kind of way, there will be little to win you over to the franchise.

For fans of the franchise and fans of camp-horror alike, there is much to be enjoyed.  The scares delivered consistently for me, and I was pleasantly surprised by the inventiveness (or referential nature) of the kills, especially the one they saved for last.  There’s a really strange narrative structure at work here that adds to the general unsettling feeling.  You’re never quite sure who your main characters really are until the third act, a would-be moronic decision for any genre other than this one, in which the chapter-to-chapter jumps in focus from one character to another serve to underscore its already unsettling tone.  Without certainty as to whose fate is secure, it becomes easy to take each scene as a possibility for terror, and while I understand that the lack of traditional narrative might produce boredom in others, it worked for me in an experimental way rather than a flawed one.  The Friday the 13th remake was so lazily formulaic in plot structure that it actually resorted to weed-humor to liven up its proceedings.  I liked this remake’s sense of self-importance and I dug its visual style.  I think Jackie Earle Haley’s Freddie is better than the original.  I also think this is a real easy sequel, assuming people give it enough of a chance to actually enjoy it.  There are some people who prefer utter darkness and brutality in their horror, those fans of the Saw franchise and others, but I personally prefer a little bit of comedy in mine, whether tongue-in-cheek or not.  Freddie’s one-liners are enjoyable, and the ridiculous brutality of some of the kills raises Mortal Kombat-level questionability as to how serious the movie takes itself.  Are the kills hilarious punctuation to all-too-melodramatic scenes of dialog?  Is Samuel Bayer in on the joke?  These questions are too cerebral to be answered within the haphazard constraints of the screenplay, but the director’s own talent level and personal ability shine through when the acting and dialog do not.

On opening night at midnight, plenty of young geeky gentlemen were adorned in creepy Freddy sweaters, and it seemed like the film school crowd was really excited to welcome back the franchise.  There was this weird girl sitting next to me who kept trying to rub her leg against mine during the scary parts, but other than that, it was a pretty fun experience.  I felt really bad when this big guy who works at The Farm restaurant next door fell down on his knees while he was walking up the stairs, but the same sense of schadenfreude that allowed me to chuckle under my breath at his misfortune also allowed me to enjoy the frightening situations the characters faced in Nightmare.  So maybe my sadism is a good thing. If you have any sick side of your personality that loves quips, gore and blood galore, this flick might be for you.  It was clear that I was seated in an audience destined to enjoy the movie, but I can easily envision a not-so-scary 4 pm Saturday matinee in a mostly dead house, forced to endure the loud but justified sighs of a not-unlike-Al-Gore gentleman sitting midway to the back of the theater.  If you want it to work, it will work, in a way similar to Paranormal Activity but unlike Orphan.  It’ll terrify you triumphantly if it’s taken with a pinch of salt.

Grade:  B-

And that concludes our brief foray into the unknown.  Not too scary right?  Well, some parts were pretty scary, like when that guy almost fell down the stairs and died.  But anywho, I hope you enjoyed the reviews.  If you did, please leave a comment so I can obsess over it or respond immediately and try to out-quip you.  Whoever leaves the best #hashtag wins!  Go!

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