Thursday, March 31, 2011

The 30 Day Film Challenge - Day 2: My least favorite film

The way things are goin, they gonna crucify me

Yesterday I talked about how it was hard to choose my favorite film. Today I have to choose my least favorite film. And that's not hard at all. Bad Boys II doesn't just scrape bottom. It crashes through the bottom and finds a new pit in which to fester.

This requires some context. Most of Michael Bay's movies are merely bad, like say, Armageddon. It was a trial to sit through, but I made it to the end with only a sneer on my face.

Bad Boys II, on the hand, is not merely incompetent but offensive. I trudged out of that theater mad enough to strangle Mickey Mouse. And Disney didn't even release the movie.

At the time, I was having fun writing reviews as what I called "Memos to Jerry Bruckheimer," who sometimes gives us good bang for the buck with movies like Crimson Tide. With Bad Boys II, there was less than no sale. For at least a week afterward I felt like I had been forced to bathe in raw sewage and take a couple of swallows to boot.

I was so furious, I banged out what has to be the most scathing critique I've ever spat out. What follows may not be appropriate for children under 17, which pretty well describes Bay's mental age. But I wrote him and Jerry this anyway.

Bad Boys II

Review by Eric Robinette

Grade: F-

Starring Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Gabrielle Union, Joe Pantoliano, Jordi Molla and Peter Stormare, who should be having interesting discussions with their agents now

Shoddily written (if you can call it that) by Ron Shelton and  Jerry Stahl, from a “story” (term used loosely) by Shelton and Cormac Wibberley & Marianne Wibberley

Offensively Overdirected by Michael Bay

Memo to Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay

From a truly disgusted film critic

Good God, Jerry and Mike. Where do I start in writing about “Bad Boys II?” I’ve always known you guys are the premier purveyors of cinematic wretched excess, but until this movie I didn’t know that you’re also a couple of sick fucks.

I know that’s harsh, guys, but what else am I supposed to think about a movie that wallows in being as repulsive as possible? What am I to make of the chase scene in which dead bodies spill out the back of a van, and a pursuing car beheads one body?

And what the hell was the deal with the shot that shows two rats fucking, Mike? Has it been your secret ambition to be a documenatarian for National Geographic, and this is the best you could come up with? Or is that how you learned about the deed and you wanted to share? Between this and the lovemaking among the parachutes in “Pearl Harbor,” you guys sure must have had some interesting experiences in your youth, I’ll tell you that.

If the audience at my screening is any indication, I guess the point of these two lovely scenes is humor; the lemmings laughed loud and long at both of them. I weep for humanity. I guess this is what becomes of audiences after years of the desensitizing your movies have caused. You really do reap what you sow.

I know I sound like a tightwad, but you know what? I don’t care. I’ve fallen for your brainless action romps before (I actually liked “The Rock”) but until now, you’ve never gone to such lengths to be offensive. It’s like you guys sat together and said, “Let’s take a big chunk of our money and see just how much shit we can get away with.”

But what’s the point of spending all that money if you get nothing from it? Mike, you have a reputation for being one of the more, um…aggressive action directors we have, and I’ll actually admit, you’re not without talent. But you have an uncanny ability to sabotage your own good ideas.

For instance, in one of the highway chases, the villains are driving a car carrier, and they detach the cars one by one, so bingo—instant obstacle course. Good idea, Mike. Too bad you totally fucked up the execution. There are so many edits in the scene---cutcutcutcutcutcutcutcutcutcutcutcut---that I couldn’t tell where anyone or anything was.

Then there’s the shootout in the druggies’ house in which the camera whips around in a circle from one room to another, ducking through bullet holes and the like. Yeah, you ripped it off from “Panic Room” and “Swordfish,” (which, ironically, ripped off you), but it’s still a good idea. SO WHY DO YOU KEEP CUTTING AWAY FROM IT AND INTERRUPTING THE FLOW??

And the word flow reminds me---why in God’s name is this movie two and a half hours long? So you could include the scene in which Will Smith and Martin Lawrence discuss a bullet wound in the butt and a crowd of department store shoppers think they’re gay lovers? The shot of the little kid asking, “Daddy, what’s an erection” was an especially charming (cough) touch.

And what’s with the scene in which a young kid taking Lawrence’s daughter on a date is terrorized by Lawrence and Smith, who waves a gun in his face and asks him, “You ever have sex with a man? Want to?”

If you had to have a cheap joke like that, a writer with half a brain would have at least included a scene of the boy slapping the daughter around or something. But nooooo. You use the scene for a cheap laugh and make your stars and yourselves look like homophobes in the process. It’s especially dispiriting to see Will Smith stoop so low. Did you kick him an extra million to get him to say those lines?

There’s so much more I could talk about, like the scene in which the camera ogles a dead woman’s breast implants, but even you should have the smarts to get my point by now: You went too far this time. It’s enough to make me want to retreat to the relative comfort of “Charlie’s Angles: Full Throttle.” At least McG and his gals aren’t into necrophilia.

I know Mike was the one calling the shots on this, Jerry, but since you’re his boss, you share responsibility for Bay’s misdeeds.  It’s a shame because I had liked most of your movies lately. With “Remember the Titans,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” under your belt you actually seemed to have acquired taste, “Bad Company” and “Kangaroo Jack” notwithstanding. But you’ll have to make something as classy as “Vertigo” to get back in my good graces. And, no, making me sick with one of Bay’s chase scenes does NOT count.

Yes, there should be room for dumb action movies where every other shot is an explosion---but for every kind of movie, there is a line of taste to be drawn, and “Bad Boys II” crosses it by a country mile. It’s the worst movie of this year, and of your careers.

Now I’m sure you and the less discriminating members of your audience would respond to me by saying, “Man, it’s only a movie.” Or as somebody on the Rolling Stone message boards so delicately put it, “ya its sick humor but it didnt stop the whole theature from rumbling with laughter.this is what i want some critqes to do for a change. Grow a spine and pair of peanuts. then untighten their azcrack so they can stop breaking wind out of their ears and crapng out of their mouth”

You must be so proud to have such articulate defenders, guys. I’ll tell you and your defenders what, though. I’ll actually take that advice. I’ll grow a “spine and a pair of peanuts” when you grow a brain and a sense of decency. But I don’t think I’ll hold my breath.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The 30 Day Film Challenge - Day 1: My favorite film

Facebook has a fun new game going on called the 30-Day Film Challenge. Being a film buff, I can scarcely resist  a Film Challenge. And since I can't keep my mouth shut when the subject turns to movies, I'm going to expand and expound upon each choice in this blog.

For the first day, you are asked to name your favorite movie. And that's not such an easy thing for a film buff. Presented with that ubiquitous query, we are bound to rattle off title after title. When I get asked this question I always name three movies (more on the other two below).

Forced to name one, however, I always choose one by the greatest director of all time. And that choice is Vertigo. And among Hitch's films, that's actually an easy choice.

Why? Well, consider the fact that I first saw it on the USA Network, via a crummy, faded print that was edited for time, and not very cleanly to boot. Even with all that, the movie still entranced and devastated me.

As Martin Scorsese has pointed out, it was remarkable that directors like Hitchcock could work within the studio system making films that were commercial and simultaneously very personal statements. And yet, at the time, it was perhaps a little too personal for some people. Commercially, it did OK but wasn't one of Hitch's bigger hits. Critics tended to be dismissive, with one cracking that Vertigo was another "Hitchcock and bull story."

Time has been generous to the film, however, which is slightly ironic because of the way the movie plays with time. Vertigo, better than any other movie, captures the timeless state of a dream - how a dream feels at times like you're lost in a fog - and how at other times it amplifies your most intense emotions - especially when the dream turns into a nightmare.

The story revolves around Jimmy Stewart trying to remake a lost love - and since I've been through some heartache recently, Vertigo would probably resonate all the more if I watched it now.

No matter when I see it, though, Vertigo washes over me and envelops me.  And like all the greatest movies do, it feels different every time I see it - not unlike a dream.

Other titles consideredCitizen Kane, A Hard Day's Night

Sunday, March 27, 2011

REVIEW: Sucker Punch

Wow. I didn't know that Zack Snyder was actually Benjamin Button.

Well, what else am I to think after seeing the confounding visual confetti that is Sucker Punch? Clearly, the man is aging backwards. How else to explain the observation that has first feature film, the Dawn of the Dead remake, is his most mature work, while each subsequent movie has become increasingly juvenile? Were it not for the fact that his next film is the Superman reboot, I'd say Snyder's good and ready to film Dora the Explorer: The Geographic Epic! 

I imagine if I were to stumble across the creation of the Sucker Punch screenplay, by Snyder and Steve Shibuya, it would be like a text message exchange between two teenagers hopped up on Red Bull and aerosol huffing. Like so:

Zack300: So Steve, I've got this AWESUM idea for a movie!!!

Steve ShiBOO-YA: Yeah? Well it be as cool as that 72-hour X-box marathon we had last weekend??

Zack300: Better! Ya see, it'll have this big battle that's in, like, World War I, only it'll have planes and those big blimps, and things will be blowing up everywhere!!! 

Steve ShiBOO-YA: SWEET!! Hey, I got an idea! Let's write this together! We'll also have the German soldiers be, like, steampunk robots!

Zack300: Oh, I know what would be cool! We could have this big, like, hero robot that the good guys can ride, and then it flies and they shoot stuff down from the air!

Steve ShiBOO-YA: Nice! And then we can have the main guy shoot down the warplanes with a pistol!

Zack300: Yeah! And then in the next scene, they'll fight these dragons n' stuff! We can have one be a baby dragon, and then the mama dragon gets mad and breathes FIRE on em!!!


Zack300: Hey, how bout this: Let's have the heroes be girls with guns n' swords!

Steve ShiBOO-YA: Babes! Can we make em so we see their boobs??

Zack300: Aw, I'd like to but my folks would kill me. Their no fun. We can put em in tight outfits and push-up bras, tho!

Steve ShiBOO-YA: Wow! Your a genius!
Or something like that.

Now don't get me wrong. I don't think there's anything wrong with a movie that's an adolescent fantasy per se. And it's not like the action is your typical blizzard of editing with a paper shredder. Unlike Michael Bay, Snyder knows how to stage an action scene competently and with panache. Visually, Sucker Punch looks fabulous. All of Snyder's movies do.  Sure, the slo-mo has gotten a bit old, but he doesn't OD on it here. But the visual design is imaginative. I'm not sure why one of the sets has movie posters from golden-age Warner Bros. musicals like My Dream is Yours and Gold Diggers of 1933, but it's a nice touch for movie buffs.

While Sucker Punch is consistently ridiculous, I was rarely bored watching it. Snyder paces it well, and I found it more entertaining than the leaden, self-important Watchmen.  Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish and especially Jena Malone give committed performances, as if the whole thing actually meant something.

The problems are failures of tone and nerve. The divisions between fantasy and reality are never clearly explained. The action scenes, snazzy as they are, feel so unreal that I never believed the characters were actually in jeopardy. Only once does Snyder cross-cut between the action scenes and the "real world," such as it is, so when he does, it throws the movie off-center.

To make matters worse, Snyder tries to throw in a third-act twist that makes zero sense. And as if that weren't bad enough, he seems to want to take the whole thing seriously, after treating the previous two-thirds like they were so much visual Pop Rocks. No sale.

Snyder recently said that his Superman reboot would be his most "real" movie since Dawn of the Dead. God, I sure as hell hope so. As it stands, his movies remind me of another DC Comics hero, via the 60s Batman series, which would have the SOCK! POW! and ZAP! titles. Sucker Punch, however, is more of an OOF!


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011

After Elizabeth Taylor died on Wednesday, I came to regret The Flinstones even more than I already did. That movie, of all movies,  represented the only chance I ever got to see Liz on the big screen in a movie in first release.  That's only too telling about the state of movies today.

I'm not going to get all sentimental and claim that her cameo was a bright, shining light that made the movie good for about five minutes. Not even Taylor could pull that off. Still, Liz Taylor was Liz Taylor, and I was grateful for any reason to experience her star power, however displaced it might have been.

That film only made me wish all the more I could have experienced her charisma at full force in a movie theater. Even on the diminished contours of the TV screen, she was absolutely entrancing. One of my favorite glamor shots of all time was the moment in Father of the Bride where she is revealed in her wedding dress via multiple mirrors. This shot made me forget to breathe for a few dazzling seconds.

It wasn't just that her beauty was otherworldly, it was that she actually seemed open, engaging, approachable. She wasn't an ice queen, she was passionate, and that passion was magnetic.

Sometimes that passion was taken for granted. While scrolling through the abundance of tributes for Elizabeth Taylor Monday, I came across this interesting quote from UK film critic Barry Norman, who said:

"She was actually not at all a bad actress. In films like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? she was extremely good."

Perhaps Mr. Norman meant well, but that struck me as condescending. Too often, when someone is a beauty, we as a society tend to act surprised when they actually have talent. And that's galling when it should have been obvious with Liz.

Her most notorious role was no doubt Cleopatra - but she and Richard Burton made two much better films - Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? (for which Liz won an Oscar) and Franco Zefereilli's The Taming of the Shrew, in which both of them aced Shakespeare. No small thing, that.

In my book, her best performance may be in Suddenly Last Summer. Yes, it's an overheated drama - it's Tennessee Williams, after all - but Liz more than held her own with no less than the great Kate Hepburn. Author A. Scott Berg quoted Hepburn herself as saying that Taylor "preferred being a movie star to being an actress. But don't be fooled, because I think she is a brilliant actress, truly brilliant. Especially with the Williams stuff."

But Kate boiled down Liz's essential dilemma when she said that Liz preferred stardom to actual acting. Stardom seemed to fuel her. But by the same token, she was a magnet for trouble and tragedy, not always of her own making. As at least one tribute  pointed out, "She was a star at age 12, married at 18 and a divorcee the same year. She became a bombshell goddess at 19 and a widow at 26."  For even other famous people, that range of experience takes an entire lifetime.

Even her scandals affect me personally now. I've been going through some struggles in recent weeks. I won't bore you with the details, but it's been tough - sometimes tougher than I think I can handle.

And yet, Taylor survived one of her most brutal scandals. When she took up with Eddie Fisher, who left Debbie Reynolds for Taylor, Reynolds and Taylor were not exactly on the best of terms for quite some time. And yet on Wednesday, there was Fisher and Reynolds' daughter Carrie saying, "If my father had to divorce my mother for anyone, I’m so grateful that it was Elizabeth. This was a remarkable woman who led her life to the fullest rather than complacently following one around." Reynolds herself paid lovely tribute to Taylor.

If that sort of thing can be forgiven, that gives me hope for my relatively meager troubles.

Still, no one summed up Taylor's legacy better than her son, Michael Wilding, who said "Her remarkable body of work in film, her ongoing success as a businesswoman, and her brave and relentless advocacy in the fight against HIV/AIDS, all make us all incredibly proud of what she accomplished.

"We know, quite simply, that the world is a better place for Mom having lived in it. Her legacy will never fade, her spirit will always be with us, and her love will live forever in our hearts."


PS - Costar Paul Newman paid her fine tribute some years ago on TCM. Watch and listen.

Monday, March 21, 2011


I have a thing for Pauls. Paul is my favorite Beatle. And Paul is my favorite movie thus far of 2011.

Yeah, I know, that's a bit of a goofy lead, but it's more than a bit of a goofy movie, which makes it all the more delightful. It continues the adventures of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who made their names in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the ingenious spoofs of zombie movies and action flicks, respectively. They also co-wrote the script for Paul.

This time, however, director Edgar Wright is not at the helm. Taking his place is Greg Mottola, who made Superbad and the shamefully undervalued Adventureland. Although Mottola isn't a visual stylist like Wright. all of Mottola's movies have an excellent feel for character, which is what makes Paul more than just a goof on E.T. This may look like an alien stoner movie, and Paul does smoke weed, but it's not Dazed and Confused Close Encounters. There's an underlying sweetness and affection running through the movie.

At first, I was a bit afraid that, as is too often the case, the trailer gave away most of the best gags and told the whole story in two minutes: two British uber-geeks on a UFO trek stumble across the world's most laid-back alien,voiced by Seth Rogen. Problem is, he's in the run from agents played by Jason Bateman, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio.

As the film unspools, however, it keeps surprising and playing off the strengths of its cast and crew. Mottola has an especially good feel for working with comic actors, given that Hader has appeared in all three of Mottola's films, and Wiig has starred in the last two. Both of them are fun to watch, with Wiig hilariously playing up the satire of her character being a wacky Creationist. When we first meet her, she's wearing a T-shirt that says "Evolve this!" with a cartoon showing Jesus blasting a hole through Charles Darwin's head. Love thy neighbor, indeed.

In addition to the sharp satire, Pegg and Frost's screenplay crams in a plethora of references to the works of George Lucas and especially Steven Spielberg. I can't help but love a film that takes a playful shot at Mac and Me, the awful 1988 E.T. ripoff that overflowed with McDonald's product placement.

The movie does falter a bit in the home stretch when it shoehorns in an over-the-top action sequence that feels out of place because action isn't Mottola's forte, and because it throws off Paul's genial tone. Regardless, I was smiling too widely and laughing too much to care. As that other Paul once sang, Venus and Mars are all right tonight - and so is Paul.


Monday, March 07, 2011

The Oscars weren't THAT bad - but ...

Forgive me for being a bit late to the party on this one, but I spent the past week in Florida for some much-needed R&R - and besides all that, my smartphone's keyboard is just too teeny to write more than a micropost. 

The vitriol that followed this year's Oscar telecast really surprised me. I rather enjoyed the show. Last week's show  was certainly better than last year's mess of a telecast, hosted by Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin (though the problems were not their fault). My friend Scott Copeland, also an ace Oscar watcher, agrees with me. So did EW's Ken Tucker. So we're not alone. And we're not crazy. 

Contrary to popular opinion, the hosts were NOT the problem with this year's show. Or at least not half of them. I will grant you that James Franco was out of his element, in more ways than one. Anne Hathaway, however, was a delight, and I'd be happy to see her host the Oscars or another show with a better-matched co-host. Hathaway was bright and charming and would probably have been better off hosting on her own.

However, even Franco himself wasn't the problem. The problem was the writing, which was off point this year. Most of the gags weren't funny. The fake song montage was cringe-worthy. And the writers missed an OBVIOUS gag by NOT having Hathaway pull Hugh Jackman onstage, echoing their duet the year Jackman hosted. Come on, guys. That's the same syndrome that afflicted Muppets from Space, when it missed the Pigs in Space reference. Sometimes the obvious gag is the right one. 

(Side note: I hope whoever did the sound mix was fired. The distant, echo-y vocals made a crop of already forgettable songs sound that much worse.) 

However, I did like how how most of the awards were presented. The screenplay presentations were clever, and the new tradition of having the presenter laud each individual nominee came off much better than it did last year. Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock handled their duties with great aplomb. And even though I don't much care for Celine Dion, I will give credit where it is due. Her "Smile" during the In Memoriam segment was nicely understated. And bravo to whomever asked the audience to hold their applause until the end, averting the unseemly clap-o-meter.

All that said, the Oscars could stand to make a few changes. Foremost among those is to stop trying so hard to cater to the young crowd. Most of them are not that interested and are never going to be, no matter what you do. This is the same mistake my industry, the newspapers, made. They tried so hard to court teens and 20-somethings, they ended up alienating their most loyal audience. Same with the Academy.

Part of the allure of the Oscars is its sense of history and old Hollywood glamor. So why not capitalize on that more? Many of the great classic stars are gone, yes -- but a number of them are still with us. Olivia de Havilland is still around. So are Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney. Seeing them would be a total  gas. Get 'em while they're still here. Look at how much fun Kirk Douglas was this year!  You don't even have to go back to the golden age. Try to lure some people out of retirement, like Gene Hackman or Sean Connery. They'd brighten any telecast. 

In the meantime, I'm content with mostly good memories of this year's show. I'm only sorry that more people didn't see it. Sucks to be them.