Friday, August 30, 2013

Day 237: Gymkata


**Note: This was written as a part of my Forgotten Films column over at**

"You gotta remember, they will skin you if you're not real good. You gotta outsmart 'em! You gotta out-quick 'em! Now push it!"

When I set out to create the Forgotten Films column, I had three criteria for which I would consider spotlighting a particular film: It was more than ten years old, it was by and large not really talked about anymore, and it was well worth your time to seek it out. I must unfortunately bend two of those rules to bring you today's film, 1985's gymnastics/martial arts hybrid action epic Gymkata. First off, it's in the ether lately as Earwolf's podcast "How Did This Get Made" featured the film on their most recent episode, and Red Letter Media also spotlighted the film on their latest edition of "Best of the Worst."

The more important rule I'm bending, however, is the one about whether or not a film is worth your time. I must say this: If you are a lover of bad movies, there is no film more worth your time than Gymkata (and even better, it's streaming for free on youtube). If you're not a bad movie lover though, I would encourage you to read on and find out more about this masterpiece of miscalculation, and discover for yourself if it's truly worth your time...


The most interesting thing about Gymkata, and the one you should keep in the back of your mind while watching the film, is that it is directed by Robert Clouse, the man behind arguably the two greatest Bruce Lee films, Enter the Dragon & Game of Death. This film effectively ended his career, consigning him to a life of directing straight to video films starring Cynthia Rothrock before his death in 1997. It's also worth noting that the film is actually based on a book titled "The Terrible Game" by Dan Tyler Moore, which, as far as I could tell, featured no gymnastics.

So what is Gymkata, you ask? It's the story of a US gymnast named Jonathan Cabot (real life gymnast Kurt Thomas) who is recruited by the US government to travel to the small Eastern European nation of Parmistan. The US wants to install part of its Star Wars missile defense system in the mountains of Parmistan, but the current leader's regime is under siege, threatening to unravel the entire plan. Since Cabot is told that "direct military action is out of style," and that if one man were to go to Parmistan, enter a competition called "The Game," and survive, he is allowed "his life and one request." 

Time is of the essence since "a lot of other people want that one request," so Cabot must train and train hard to survive the game. The Princess of Parmistan (Tetchie Agbayani) is in charge of Cabot's training, and I don't need to tell you it won't be long before these two are falling in love, least of all because the plot dictates it. After a laughable training montage, Cabot heads to Parmistan to compete in "The Game," and his life is saved several times by the fortuitous appearance of various pieces of gymnastic equipment such as a horizontal bar or pommel horse. 


The leader of Parmistan looks, as wisely observed by both Jay Bauman of RLM & Jason Mantzoukas of HDTGM, exactly like Mel Brooks. How does this account, then, for his obviously Asian looking daughter? A line of dialogue attempts to explain this away, but it's yet another example of either careless or rushed production decisions in a film teeming with them.  Take for example the sudden appearance of a horizontal bar in an alleyway leads to a gymnastics display/kicking the bad guys in the face sequence (complete with conveniently chalked hands for our hero). Is this tongue in cheek or were the filmmakers attempting to place a gymnast in a "realistic" action scenario? It hurts my brain trying to even rationalize the latter. 

One can only assume that this film was fast tracked into production due to the gymnastics craze presumably brought on by the1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, but like all things, that flame was extinguished by the time the film hit theaters the following May. I would have to suspend my disbelief to the breaking point to think that these filmmakers were trying to ignite a new dimension in martial arts films, so I can only guess that they were hoping to cling to the Olympics' coattails for a scosh longer. It's the only plausible explanation for this film's existence.


One of the things that I'm surprised no one talks about in regard to this film is just how awful the score is, composed by Alfi Kabiljo. It sounds like a parody of the scores of Lalo Schifrin (Planet of the Apes, Mission: Impossible) or even Gerald Fried's legendary score to the Star Trek Original Series episode "Amok Time." It's so woefully derivative that it can't help but make you laugh every single time it begins blaring over the action. 

Other ludicrous things that happen in the film include Cabot's telling his government liaison that he's headed to "Karabal, on the Caspian Sea," only to have that appear, verbatim, as a title card over the next sequence. I can't tell if they knew how ridiculous this all was because of subtle things like that, but somehow I surmise it's just wishful thinking.


Bad movie connoisseurs, such as myself, love to think that certain filmmakers were forward thinking enough to understand how ridiculous certain film premises were, but as many many failed attempts in recent years have shown, it's virtually impossible to set out to create a bad movie. The Tommy Wiseaus & James Nguyens of this world can only succeed in creating such legendarily bad films as The Room & Birdemic because they set out to create just the opposite. The truly enjoyable bad movies of this world were attempts by people to make something good, or at the very least, entertaining. 

Gymkata is as entertaining as bad movies get. It's a time capsule film to be sure (Kurt Thomas' mullet all but ensures that), but it will be adored by generations of bad movie lovers to come. It's sad that the martial arts/gymnastics hybrid action film was both birthed and died here, but watching this film, one can dream of a world where that was the dominant sub-genre of the waning years of the Reagan administration. And who knows, maybe some wizened (or Wiseau'd) filmmaker will take another crack at it... It's got myriad possibilities. 

[Photos via Cracked]

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Day 236: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

"Yes! Genesis! How can you be deaf with ears like that?"

There is a wisdom as old as time that says "There is no such thing as a good odd-numbered Star Trek movie." While we could get bogged down in arguing minutiae, I would rectify that statement and say that there is no great odd-numbered Trek film, but there are at least two good ones, and the best of the odd-numbered Treks is arguably Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Forming the middle portion of a trilogy with Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home, Search for Spock picks up immediately after the events of Khan, with the Enterprise crew still mourning the loss of their former Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Upon returning to space dock, the crew is given a commendation and extended shore leave (except poor Scotty, who has to report to the new Excelsior engine room to help with their transwarp drive). The crew is resigned to the fact that the Enterprise, being over twenty years old, is going to be decommissioned, but a visit from Spock's father Sarek (Mark Lenard) leads Kirk (William Shatner) to believe that while Spock's body may be dead, his consciousness is alive in someone else... Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley).

Kirk and a skeleton crew (Scotty, Sulu, Chekov & Bones) set out in the Enterprise to return to the Genesis planet and retrieve Spock's body, in hopes of returning it to Vulcan. What they have yet to find out, however, is that Lt. Saavik (Robin Curtis) & Kirk's son David Marcus (the unfortunately named Merritt Butrick) have discovered, on Genesis, that Spock has been reborn as a child. Further complications arise when a Klingon ship, commanded by Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) gets wind of the failed Genesis project and travels there in hopes of stealing the technology for the Klingons.

Okay, we need to get this out of the way immediately; The Search for Spock is not a very good film, even by Star Trek standards. It suffers from horrendous budget restrictions which first time director Nimoy couldn't shoot around as well as his predecessor, Nicholas Meyer. A lot of the recycled sets & costumes look terrible, and really distract on the 2009 blu-ray high def transfer. It's likewise hindered by being sandwiched between arguably the two best Star Trek films ever made, and can't help but feel like a trifle compared to the other two. It's got more substance than I remember it having, but the stakes are relatively low from beginning to end, and the sense of danger imposed by Khan in the previous film is just not met by the Klingons in this film.

All that being said, the film is actually much better than I remember it being, if for no other reason than the script is actually surprisingly well written. The dialogue and interplay, particularly between the Enterprise crew is as good as it's been in any of the films, and the humor throughout (much of it by, or at the expense of, Bones) is pretty reliably funny. The two truly emotional moments in the film (Kirk learning of the death of David & Spock's recognition of Kirk at the end) still land incredibly well and make up for some of the more ridiculous acting choices made by the other actors throughout the entire film.

William Shatner, the actor, was never better than he was in these three films. His moment I mentioned a moment ago, learning of the death of his only son, is very powerful and as good as he's ever been on screen. He also appears to be having a good deal of fun in this film, which is odd considering he was unhappy at having to be directed by his co-star (all of which led to Shatner taking the helm of arguably the worst Star Trek film not directed by JJ Abrams, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier). The rest of the crew is good as well, of course all resigned to one or two bits (one of the few lessons Abrams & his writers wrongly incorporated from the original films). 

Lloyd is also nowhere near as bad as I remember him to be. His casting is ridiculous, to be sure, but he's not quite as bad in actuality as I seemed to have thought he was. Curtis, taking over the role of Saavik from Kirstie Alley, though, doesn't fare as well. Granted she's not given much to do, but her line readings are spotty at best and she's not terribly convincing as a Vulcan. Beyond some ridiculous stunt work in the final fight between Kruge & Kirk on the dying Genesis planet, there's really not much else bad I can say about the film. 

Star Trek III is a fairly lightweight effort in the Trek canon, but it still manages to have far more good moments than bad, and is ultimately a genuinely enjoyable entry in the series. It has its flaws, to be sure, and they are numerous, but it still manages to be solidly entertaining and never insulting in the way some of the other odd numbered Trek films were. It can't help but pale in comparison to the two films bookending it, but I wholeheartedly recommend checking it out, particularly if it's been a while since you've seen it. It holds up much better than you might remember. 

[Photos via TrekCore]

Top 5: Most Woefully Miscast Actors


Throughout the history of film, there have been so many perfectly cast actors in films, it's hard to forget that sometimes, directors just plain get it wrong. Many directors pride themselves in taking risks while casting, and while some of those risks pay off huge dividends (Heath Ledger as the Joker), some just fall flat. Today I'll be looking at the five most egregious examples of miscasting in a film. There were a few I omitted, such as Hayden Christensen in the Star Wars prequels, because I find it hard to imagine that anyone would've been good in that role the way it was written, but these are the five biggest casting oversights in film, and as a bonus, I've included suitable replacements for all five...

5. John Cusack as Richard Nixon in Lee Daniels' The Butler (dir. Lee Daniels, 2013)


2013 has been a year full of terribly miscast actors, from James Franco & Mila Kunis in Oz The Great & Powerful to Tobey Maguire in The Great Gatsby, but one small role in Lee Daniels' The Butler almost single handedly derailed the entire film: John Cusack as Richard Nixon. Cusack just worked with director Daniels on his last film, The Paperboy, in which he was equally miscast as a feral, illiterate, murderous sex maniac, but casting him as one of the least popular Presidents in American history, and one to whom he bears no resemblance (even with a ludicrous fake nose) makes zero sense. Nixon is all shifty eyed paranoia and horrible interpersonal skills, and from Cusack's first appearance on screen (back when he was VP to Eisenhower) one can tell that the stunt casting didn't pay off. It doesn't help that Frank Langella gave us the definitive on screen Nixon just four years ago in Frost/Nixon, but casting a magnetic and lovable actor with zero edge like Cusack was just dumb.

Suitable Replacement: Joaquin Phoenix
He probably wouldn't have done the film, but Phoenix has all the edge and borderline craziness required for the role, and would've looked a whole lot more like Tricky Dick than Lloyd Dobler.

4. Sofia Coppola as Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part III (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1990)


A last minute replacement for an ailing Winona Ryder, Sofia Coppola's "performance" as Mary, the only daughter of mafia boss Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III, is easily the weakest part of an already flawed film. She had no acting experience prior to her role in the film, and needless to say none after (though she did cameo, as a child, in the first two Godfather films). Her final scene when spoilers she is killed on the steps of  the Palermo Opera House instead of her father, has little to no dramatic impact because she has failed to make any impression on the audience up until that point. Thankfully Coppola has gone on to much more success as a writer/director, even winning an Oscar for the screenplay to her second film, Lost in Translation. Otherwise she'd likely be a footnote in film history as the woman who ruined The Godfather trilogy (that's a bit harsh, maybe not ruined but certainly tarnished).

Suitable Replacement: Juliette Lewis
Having just played Audrey Griswold in Christmas Vacation the year before, Lewis would have been a much better fit for the role. She proved her acting prowess just a year later with an Oscar nomination for Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear remake.

3. Harvey Keitel as Judas in The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1988)


It should come as no surprise that one of the most controversial movies of all time would have one of the most controversial casting decisions ever. And no, I'm not talking about casting Willem Dafoe as Jesus. Dafoe actually managed to create a very human, incredibly relatable Christ on film. It was Harvey Keitel as his counterpart Judas, that was horrendously miscast. Put aside the orange man perm for a minute and just listen to Keitel "Brooklyn" his way through Judea. Scorsese was attempting to put the language of the street in the mouths of the commoners, and while this works for some of the actors in the film, such as Vic Argo as Simon Peter, the sheer size of Keitel's role makes the choice disastrous. While Keitel is an excellent actor (given the right role and provided he keep his pants on), he just flounders in this film.

Suitable Replacement: John Turturro
Having just worked with Scorsese two years earlier on Color of Money, John Turturro is the kind of actor a role like this was made for. Full of equal parts ego and doubt, Turturro would have gotten to the humanity of Judas without distracting the audience with a ridiculous accent.

2. Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker's Dracula (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)


It doesn't help matters when the bulk of your scenes are played opposite one of the greatest actors alive (Gary Oldman), but Keanu Reeves was truly pitiful in Bram Stoker's Dracula. An obvious attempt by director Francis Ford Coppola to add some sex appeal to his overtly sexual adaptation of the seminal horror novel, Reeves is about as bad as it gets in the realm of poor casting choices. I may lose some credibility here, but I happen to think that Reeves is a good actor when he's cast correctly. In films like My Own Private IdahoThe Matrix, Bill & Ted and especially Point Break, Reeves showed that he is well suited to a particular kind of character (usually one of enormous ego and little brains), but to cast him as a 19th century British banker who falls under the seductive spell of Count Dracula (Oldman) was just mind numbingly misguided. Did I mention he's supposed to be British?

Suitable Replacement: Ben Chaplin
Six years younger than Reeves, Chaplin was starring in British television series before he got his big break in 1993's The Remains of the Day, so he likely wasn't on Coppola's radar in 92, but Chaplin has a similar look, is infinitely more talented, and is actually British.

1. Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's (dir. Blake Edwards, 1961)


The absolute pinnacle of woefully misguided casting has got to be Mickey Rooney as Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn)'s upstairs neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi. Examples of racially insensitive casting abound in the early days of cinema (John Wayne as Genghis Khan, Chuck Conners as Geronimo) but casting former child actor Rooney as a "comic relief" stereotypical Asian man is about as low as it got in that period. When charges of "yellowface" were leveled against last year's Cloud Atlas, I wanted to show all of those people Breakfast at Tiffany's to show them what a truly awful piece of stunt casting could do to a film. The more immediate problem is that Rooney's performance ruins what is otherwise a masterpiece of early 60s comedy and one that turned Hepburn into a fashion icon for the ages. Thankfully he's often glossed over in conversations about the film, but his performance is impossible to ignore and turns even the most ardent supporter of the film into an apologist in an instant.

Suitable Replacement: Mako

Admittedly, the character would have been offensively stereotypical, even with a Japanese actor in the role, but at the very least, Edwards should have tried to cast an Asian actor. With a career dating back to the mid-50s, character actor Mako would have been a great choice, perhaps because he had an innate ability to infuse his characters with a wonderful humanity. At the very least, he wouldn't have been so terribly offensive to an entire culture.

[Photos via 1234567891011]

Day 235: Elysium

"They will hunt you to the edge of the earth for this..."

Coming off of one of the most auspicious debut films of all time, District 9, director Neill Blomkamp proved that he was a director worth believing all of the hype that surrounded him. His name was first floated by Peter Jackson to direct the film version of the video game Halo, but when that project failed to take off, Blomkamp seemed to take all of his pre-production designs & ideas and pour them into his latest film Elysium. The big question now seemed to be, could Elysium stand on its own, free from the hype caused by District 9? Read on to find out...

Sometime in the late 21st century, the upper class citizens of Earth decided to abandon the planet to live on an advanced space station called Elysium. There they could live their lavish lifestyles free from the worries that come with being surrounded by the poor and criminal elements of Earth-bound society. Meanwhile on Earth, two orphaned children, Max & Frey, dream of one day traveling to Elysium, where, rumor has it, all disease has been eradicated, and people can live in utopia. Fast forward to 2154 where adult Max (Matt Damon) has become a criminal struggling to survive in an unfair world. He's reunited with Frey (Alice Braga) after an encounter with police bots leaves him with a broken arm, and she is disappointed to see him not living up to his potential. 

After an accident at the plant where Max works leaves him with radiation poisoning that will kill him in five days, Max decides to make one last ditch attempt to get to Elysium and get healed. He turns to his old criminal boss Spider (Wagner Moura) to help him, and Spider gets Max to agree to what amounts to a suicide mission. When word of the plot reaches Delacourt (Jodie Foster), the woman in charge of security on Elysium, she awakens a ruthless sleeper agent on Earth named Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to put an end to the plot and restore order.

The biggest and most immediate problem I had with Elysium is that it tries to do entirely too much for one film. Virtually every scene feels rushed to get to the next one so that they can cram the entire plot into 109 minutes. As a result, the film can't help but feel half baked and under-realized. Don't get me wrong, I would rather have a film that is smart and has something to say but falls short over a film that tries to achieve nothing and succeeds, but I wish they had jettisoned some of the side stories in this film and just focused things more on Max and his goal to get to Elysium.

The main side plot that ultimately served no purpose was the one involving Jodie Foster's character and her attempt to overthrow the government on Elysium. Early in the third act, this plot becomes wholly irrelevant and makes me wonder why they included it in the first place. Was it to give Foster something to do in the early scenes? Her character proved to be completely unnecessary and ultimately bogged down the whole film.

I was also bothered, to a lesser extent, by the heavy-handedness of the message behind the film. I understand the need for social commentary in a science fiction film, but this one felt a bit obvious in its messaging. It's not hard to sympathize with the sick & infirm, particularly when they are living in third class squalor, so many of the slow motion shots of crippled children felt gratuitous. I also felt almost no emotional connection to Max. Since his character is so late to the party on wanting to do the right thing, his "redemption" ended up feeling a bit hollow. I wanted the final moments of the film to be resonant and emotional, and they just weren't, ultimately leaving me a bit blah about the whole film.

If it sounds like I'm being too harsh on the film, believe me when I say there was a lot to admire here. First and foremost, this is some of the best cgi I've seen in a film. The effects work was top notch and Blomkamp's aesthetic as a director works well to mask some of the more dodgy cgi moments. There was a bit too much "shaky cam" nonsense, but it never felt unjustified and I was always able follow what was happening, there just seems to be an impulse in directors that when they focus their cameras on Matt Damon in an action sequence, they need to shake the camera as well. I also loved the lived-in feel of the world. Everything felt old and broken down, and it all worked extremely well for the story they were telling.

The parts of the story that worked best for me involved the character of Kruger. He was as cold-blooded and heartless a villain as I've ever seen in a film, and Copley's performance elevates every scene he's in. He is one of the most fascinating actors working today and I hope he continues to strive for this sort of excellence. The rest of the cast is fair to middling. Damon always manages to acquit himself of even the most mediocre material, and he can't help but infuse this character with his trademark charm. I also liked the choice that Foster made to sort of homogenize her accent and have it just be a blend of several upper class accents that fit whomever she was talking to or manipulating at a given moment, but my issues with her character extended far beyond her accent.  

Overall, I can't fully recommend Elysium, except for maybe die hard science fiction fans. While it's incredible to look at and the effects work is top notch, I can't help but feel that its reach exceeded its grasp, and it tried to do entirely too much for one film. It's better than most of the summer action nonsense that pervades movie theaters at this time of year, but in a way, it almost feels like more of a cheat since its message ended up being so heavy handed and muddled that it couldn't help but feel manipulative. I really wanted to love this film, and I still look forward whatever Blomkamp does next, I just hope he moves away from poverty porn and explores new territory.   

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, August 23, 2013

Day 234: The World's End


"I still think nothing suggested in the past ten minutes beats smashy, smashy egg people."

Like many Americans, I was late to the party on the comedic trio of director Edgar Wright & actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. When their 2004 film Shaun of the Dead opened here in the late summer of that year, I wrote it off as just another mindless genre spoof, but when I finally caught up to the film later that year, I saw just how wrong I had been. I devoured their first collaboration together, the Channel 4 series Spaced and absolutely adored their 2007 film Hot Fuzz, and the six year wait since that film has seen them all move off in disparate directions, but their reunion was one I was beyond eager for, The World's End. So is it a worthy successor to their previous comedic masterpieces? Read on to find out...


Opening with a flashback to 1990, The World's End tells the story of five friends from high school who have now moved off in different directions, but their de facto leader Gary King (Pegg) is determined to reunite the gang and complete a legendary pub crawl, the golden mile, in their hometown. Gary is in a state of suspended adolescence, but won't flag in his determination to get his much more mature friends Steve (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Peter (Eddie Marsan) & Andy (Frost) to complete this conquest with him. The other four reluctantly agree and head back home, more to placate their old friend than to look for any sense of accomplishment.

The golden mile consists of drinking a pint in each of twelve pubs, culminating in the last pub in town, The World's End. Things are somewhat complicated by the return of Oliver's sister Sam (Rosamund Pike), whom both Gary & Steve had unrequited feelings for in high school, but something more sinister is afoot in their hometown. The first signs of it are in the "Starbucking" of all the pubs, and how everything in town appears to have homogenized, but as the night goes along, the friends uncover a plot that may or may not spell the end of humanity as they know it.


Just as anyone who may have expected Hot Fuzz to be another Shaun of the Dead, so too will audiences be surprised to see that these three have changed gears once again and gone off in another new and surprising direction. As anyone who's seen a commercial or read an article about the film will know, this film is actually a subversion of the science fiction film, just as Shaun was to horror and Hot Fuzz to action. I'll be avoiding major spoilers in my review, but I don't know that this is a film where your enjoyment of  it would be hindered by knowing what is going on in town. I had no clue, but the plot developments are not the real surprise here. That would be the way that the script manages to be a lively and constantly hilarious dig at the conformity of society, in particular British society. That should come as no surprise to any fans of their work as their other films have essentially the same theme, but here their commentary is as blistering as it has ever been.

What makes the film truly great, however, is that it never stops being a brilliantly constructed comedy. There are running gags, payoffs for every setup, and hilarious jokes all the way through. The action set pieces are fantastic as well, which should come as no surprise to fans of Wright as a director. Ever since the unspeakably clever fight scene in The Winchester in Shaun set to Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now," his immeasurable talent behind the camera has been evident, but it's not a stretch for me to say that he has grown into one of the most reliably distinguished directors working today. The way he uses repetition and momentum in his camera work sets him apart from virtually everyone else working in comedy.


Both Pegg & Frost truly shine when working with Wright, and it's no surprise that both of their performances here are superb. Gary is wholly different from Pegg's other roles in Wright's films, and that makes him a joy to watch on screen. His character is thoroughly unlikable, but you can't help but root for him to achieve his dream of finishing the crawl, and his late film argument with Andy beautifully explains why we root for him. Frost is equally outstanding, playing his most buttoned-down role yet, and when he unleashes his rage in the film's second half, he's a wonder to behold.

The other three members of the "Five Musketeers" are also great, with Freeman having a corner on the "fussy and overly cautious" gent routine and Consadine is also very good, landing lots of great moments with Pegg. Marsan was another stand-out for me, playing a meek pushover, something I rather enjoyed seeing him do since he normally plays the heavy. Harry Potter fans should delight at seeing David Bradley, who played Filch in the Potter films, in a small role, and a bizarre extended cameo (that imdb has somehow not spoiled) was also funny, if a little strange.


All in all, The World's End works so well because these are men who understand genre filmmaking and how to truly spoof the conventions of a given style. They never lose sight of the fact that they have, first and foremost, set out to entertain an audience, and everything in their films is in service of that ideal. While I'd be hard pressed to say that this will usurp Hot Fuzz as my favorite film of theirs, it is a fantastically well-made film, full of great jokes and a bizarre third act that will lose some people, but seems designed to only work well for true believers in what they are doing in the first place.

If you're a fan of their work, I don't need to convince you to go see The World's End, but if you're on the fence about it, I wholeheartedly recommend it. It's funny, clever and insane, and what more could you want from a summer comedy?

GO Rating: 4/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Day 233: Killing Season


"My country has beauty but there is an invisible layer of blood caked over everything. Most people cannot see it, but I have special eyes. Everywhere I look, I see red."

When trailers began popping up earlier this summer for Killing Season, I foolishly thought the film would get some manner of theatrical release. After all this was a film that featured respected actors Robert DeNiro & John Travolta in some sort of cat & mouse thriller. DeNiro's coming off an Oscar nomination for Silver Linings Playbook, & Travolta was arguably the best thing about last summer's Savages, so the newly rejuvinated actors seemed poised to headline a late summer thriller. Instead the film was scuttled onto home video this week, which can't possibly mean anything other than the film is a world class stinker, right? Read on to find out...


Opening with a ridiculously low-budget sequence that depicts the horrors of the Bosnian War of the mid-90s, Killing Season quickly jumps into the thick of its plot, wasting very little time. Kovac (Travolta) is a Serbian former solider who survived the conflict only to seek revenge against the Americans who intervened in the conflict and killed his men. One of these men is Benjamin Ford (DeNiro) who has exiled himself in the woods of the Appalachian Mountains.

When Ford's car breaks down on his way into town, Kovac appears out of nowhere and offers to help him fix the car. The two men hit it off and become fast friends, or so Ford thinks... The next morning when the men go out for what Ford thinks is some deer hunting, Kovac reveals his true intentions.


The film apparently first took shape as Shrapnel, and was supposed to be directed by John McTiernan and star Nicolas Cage instead of DeNiro; But rather than a Face/Off reunion from the director of Die Hard, we get the watered down version, from Mark Steven Johnson, the director of Ghost Rider. For the record, I don't think there's any way to make a good film from this material, but at least with Cage, the film would have been knowingly bad, even a guilty pleasure kind of thing that DeNiro can't quite pull off. It's borderline ridiculous to say something like this, but DeNiro is actually too serious an actor to realize he's playing scenes with obviously unintentional comedy. His early scenes with his co-star are ultimately disappointing because Travolta's ridiculous accent and spray-on hair makes it impossible for me to believe the filmmakers were ever trying to take this film seriously.

The entire film is pure cinematic nonsense, meaning that having Kovac attempting to hunt Ford with a bow and arrow was done only to prolong his revenge plot to feature film length. Ford even challenges him by saying "why don't you just shoot me," and Kovac's reasons for not doing so are absurd even by film standards. Antagonists like Kovac exist only in the movies because their convoluted revenge plots seem designed to give the default protagonist a chance to gain an upper hand on their enemy.

By the time Ford is waterboarding Kovac with homemade lemonade, you'd be forgiven for throwing your hands up in despair and just abandoning the film altogether. This is the kind of film that's not above having close-ups of acclaimed actors with arrows being shot through their calves or cheeks. And please, don't even get me started on the most ridiculous metaphorical deer appearances this side of The Queen.


Both Travolta & DeNiro are magnetic screen actors when given proper material, but it almost goes without saying that they weren't given much to work with here. I can't help but marvel at how they even ended up in drivel like this in the first place. Travolta at least was on board when this seemed to be going for something that bordered on farce, and his performance, fortunately, still contains trace elements of that film. DeNiro on the other hand has almost no reason to appear in a film like this, especially coming off his best work in decades. This sort of thing is right in Nic Cage's paycheck cashing wheelhouse, but DeNiro, while never above appearing in a film for an easy payday, doesn't really seem to even be enjoying himself on screen.

It certainly doesn't help that the film's script by Snow White & The Huntsman writer Evan Daugherty, is riddled with plot contrivances and ham fisted dialogue. Ford is mocking Kovac's tendency to talk too much one minute, and then monologuing up a storm himself the next. Things just literally make no sense, such as the constant use of Johnny Cash's "Don't Take Your Guns To Town," which tells me that they either couldn't afford to pay for more than one Cash tune or wanted to get their money's worth after having paid for the rights to that one.


I wish I could tell you that Killing Season is worth your time to see these two cinematic heavyweights go toe-to-toe in grade-A schlock, but it can't settle on a tone long enough to make any of it worthwhile. Much like other abandoned Nic Cage projects, we can only lament at the camp classic that could have been, but as it stands now, Killing Season isn't even worth sitting through for fans of DeNiro or Travolta. After about the fifth power reversal, you might begin to think the film will never end, but mercifully it does, just not soon enough. Give this film a wide berth, it's not even worth the dollar and change you could get it for at a Redbox.

GO Rating: 1/5

[Photos via RottenTomatoes]

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Day 232: Lee Daniels' The Butler


"Everything you are, and everything you have is because of that butler."

As we learned earlier this summer with The Lone Ranger, it's hard for a film to divorce itself completely from negative pre-release publicity (though I think blaming film critics is hardly a tactic that makes any sense, considering film critics haven't been able to stop anyone from seeing Adam Sandler or Michael Bay films). The days of any press is good press are long gone, and films are often forced to fight an uphill battle just to have their film seen free from distractions caused by any negative press leading up to the film's release. Sometimes, however, such press is completely avoidable, and is often ridiculously drummed up by the head of a studio just to get his film in the headlines.

Such is the case with the absurdly titled Lee Daniels' The Butler, which came to have that title due to a nonsensical and completely avoidable legal battle between aforementioned studio head Harvey Weinstein & Warner Brothers. So did the film have any hope of standing on its own two legs, free from the distractions caused by this frivolous lawsuit? More importantly, could it overcome its own director (and namesake)'s tendency to turn virtually any film into maudlin, overwrought, melodramatic dreck? Read on to find out...


Lee Daniels' The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) a man who witnessed the rape of his mother and murder of his father while being raised on a cotton plantation in the early 1920s. He's taken in by the matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave) and taught to be a servant in the house. As a teenager, he leaves the plantation and is given further instruction by Maynard (Clarence Williams III) which leads to a job at an upscale supper club in Washington DC. From there, he is given the opportunity to become a butler at The White House, during the administration of Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams), where he stays on as a butler for over twenty years.

His job serving the uppermost of the upper crust is juxtaposed with his home life, in particular his sometimes rocky marriage to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and his contentious relationship with his oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo). Louis attends Fisk college in Tennessee and joins the Freedom Riders, trying to affect change in the pre-Civil Rights America, a country he views his father as a sellout to the ideals of. The film spans virtually every major event in the Civil Rights movement and then some, packing a walloping nine decades into 132 minutes.


And that is where the film's biggest weakness lies. It can't help but feel reductive, trying to sum up so much in one film. It suffers from wanting to give equal time to every major milestone from sit-ins to freedom bus trips to marches, riots and even the beginnings of the Black Panther movement, and it all goes by in a blur. One thing that no one can accuse the film of is not being ambitious. It's too ambitious, if such a thing is possible, trying to not just cover all of these incidents and issues, but look at them from both sides. It ends up being the Cliff Notes version of history, feeling both overstuffed and underdeveloped as a result.

One thing I am happy to report is that Lee Daniels has managed to put his more melodramatic sensibilities to rest for 132 minutes. While the earliest scenes from Cecil's childhood feel like they're going to end up in the melodramatic territory of the worst parts of Precious, he very quickly skirts them and settles in to tell the story in a very straightforward way. He doesn't totally succeed, managing to land some totally tone deaf moments such as Cecil and Gloria getting terrible news while dressed in absurd, matching disco outfits, or virtually every scene with John Cusack playing Richard Nixon with a preposterous fake nose, but for the most part, he manages to make his most wholly satisfying film yet.

The script by Danny Strong is good, if a bit lethargic. It suffers from entirely too much bloat, which is odd since he scripted the HBO political films Recount & Game Change which were both lean and engaging all the way through. This film felt, right around the ninety minute mark, as if it might never end. I was never disengaged from the story, but  it really began to feel as if he and Daniels just didn't want to jettison any of their multiple subplots, and the overall film is weaker as a result.


Whitaker is one of the most reliable actors working today, and scores here with an even-handed and strong lead performance. Much has been made of Winfrey's return to the big screen, and she does an admirable job playing an almost entirely one-note character. Oyelowo gives probably the strongest among the three leads, however, likely because his character is by far the most developed, with the strongest arc. He is excellent in the film, and his story line was much more involving than Cecil's despite being obviously relegated to the b-plot.

The actors playing the former Presidents are a bit all over the map. Williams is unusually restrained as Eisenhower, but then Liev Schreiber chews every bit of scenery in sight as LBJ. James Marsden looks nothing like JFK, but has his voice and mannerisms down to a t, and Alan Rickman looks exactly like Ronald Reagan, but makes almost no attempt to sound like him. And the less said about Cusack's Nixon, the better. The rest of the supporting cast is good as well, with Lenny Kravitz & Cuba Gooding Jr being the two standouts for me.


Lee Daniels' The Butler isn't a bad film; As I said earlier it's probably the best film Daniels has made. It mainly suffers from too much bloat and from being far too ambitious. That's not always a bad thing, but here I can't help but think of Shakespeare's Macbeth, who said: 'I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself and falls on the other." I would much rather watch a movie that tries to do too much and fails than one that tries to do nothing and succeeds, it's just not a film that I would watch again anytime soon, nor one that I would recommend running out to see in a theater. Better to catch it at home and watch it at your own pace, since Daniels & Strong gave the film no pace of its own.

GO Rating: 3/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]

Friday, August 16, 2013

Day 231: Jobs


"No, it's just Steve."

Whenever two similarly themed films are announced, one is almost always rushed into production to be the first one in the marketplace. When it came to the dueling biopics about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, one film was always going to be at a disadvantage merely due to the fact that Oscar-winning writer Aaron Sorkin was working on the other. So what choice did producer/director Joshua Michael Stern have but to get his film, Jobs, into theaters first?  And more importantly, is there any chance the film was any good, so as to give Sorkin's future film a run for its money?


Opening at the 2001 Apple Town Hall meeting in which Steve Jobs (Ashton Kutcher) unveiled the iPod, Jobs asserts from minute one that it has no intention of pursuing the art of telling a good story, but is rather interested in compiling a highlights reel of the life of Steve Jobs. Jumping back to his early life as a college drop-out who scrapes by on his ingenuity, the film hits all his major life events from his contentious job at Atari, to his reliance on close friend Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) to be the creator of all the ingenious ideas Jobs himself wasn't able to actualize. Jobs & Wozniak set out to sell people on the idea of a home computer, something unthinkable in the halcyon days of the late 1970s, and thanks to the investment of Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney) and the hard work of an assortment of their friends, they succeed in creating the Apple II, a revolution in home computing.

Things begin to go south for Jobs in a hurry though, as his demanding nature causes him to rack up just as many enemies as he does allies. When Apple's board, headed by Arthur Rock (JK Simmons) insists that they bring in a CEO that has tons of real world business experience, Jobs hones in on John Sculley (Matthew Modine) the former Pepsi CEO & advertising genius, to help get the company back on track. A coup from Rock, Markkula & Sculley, however, ends up forcing Jobs out of his own company after the failure of 1984's Macintosh computer, and Steve is powerless and directionless for the first time in his life.


The thing that makes Jobs such a legitimately terrible film is the fact that it is solely interested in following the standard biopic format that was so derided for so many years that most filmmakers wisely chose to abandon it. The film, while it doesn't shy away from the more unsavory aspects of Jobs' personality, is grade-A hero worship at best. The filmmakers treat every revelatory moment in his life (and there are a bunch) with the fanfare of an explorer discovering a new world. The film is full of this nonsense, and the frequency with which it swells the music and slowly zooms in on characters is such that you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a parody of self-important biopics.

You know you're in trouble almost immediately when Jobs and some friends take acid, and Steve goes from mourning his birth parents' decision to give him up for adoption to spinning around and conducting an unseen orchestra in a wheat field. I legitimately thought it was a joke, but the film has no levity or aesthetic distance with which to see how absurd many of its choices are. Every character speaks in platitudes or quippy dialogue that no one in real life spouts off without thinking long and hard about first, and the movie is never worse than in the early scenes when it treats every little thing with the awe of a child discovering a shiny object for the first time.

The film never recovers however, and later in the film busts out such obvious cliches as Jobs getting so frustrated with his "garbage" walkman that he throws it in the trash. It's the kind of thing that might have happened in real life, but to put it front and center in a film is just nonsensical. What truly makes the film awful is its score by John Debney. It is full of the most egregious musical cues this side of Amistad. You'll never have to wonder what emotion you're supposed to be feeling because the directorial and musical choices will make it painfully clear how you're supposed to react.


As for the 800 lb gorilla in the room, Kutcher's performance is just fine. He's not going to surprise you, but he's also not awful. He can't help but be dragged down to the film's level by a terrible script and awful directorial choices, but he's not bad. You're always aware that you're watching Ashton Kutcher, though. He never totally loses himself in the role, and he's almost more concerned with using his hands the way Jobs did or emoting in a similar fashion to the man himself than he is in giving a portrayal of a realistic human being, but he's not terrible.

Josh Gad, on the other hand, is the standout in the cast. His performance is great, and even though his role late in the film is reduced to dropping by to deliver sentimental nuggets of wisdom to Jobs, his Steve Wozniak shows that the guy behind the guy is often the true genius in the room. Many of the supporting actors similarly acquit themselves of the awful material they were given, in particular Simmons, Mulroney, Modine & Lukas Haas as Jobs' childhood friend Daniel Kottke.


Jobs is world class dross; the kind of film that one might joke about making if they wanted to make a film so obvious and over-sentimental it wouldn't even be shown as a movie of the week on network television in the late 70s or early 80s. The film just doesn't pass muster. For a film that's about one of the true pioneers of the twentieth century, it plays out as a paint-by-numbers film so childish in its obviousness that it can't even be enjoyed as a guilty pleasure. Stern is a filmmaker better suited to working in parody because he knows exactly what all the tropes of the genre are, he just can't help falling into them and drowning. Do yourself a favor and skip this film entirely.

GO Rating: 1/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]