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Column Fri Nov 13 2009
Be honest. When you first saw the trailer for or clips from 2012, you got a little sexually excited, didn't you? It's OK, I won't tell anyone. At Comic-Con in July, when director and co-writer Roland Emmerich showed an extended clip of California essentially dying from the earthquake to end all earthquakes (literally), I voided my bowls, ran to the men's room, changed my adult Huggies, and voided them a second time. And as much as Emmerich has made some colossal missteps over the years (Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow and the worst of all, 10,000 B.C.), the man also knows how to make some interesting if not entirely engaging works, such as Universal Soldier, Stargate, Independence Day and The Patriot. The guy also knows how to blow stuff up on a spectacular scale; what he has failed to do time and time again is draw even somewhat believable characters that seem like anything more than gameboard pieces to be moved around, screaming, running, looking terrified, and occasionally die.
Emmerich has gone from destroyed buildings to leveling cities to, in 2012, ending life on Earth by making the planet's crust essentially crumble under our feet. So what do you think 2012 is about? Is it about trying to stop the geothermal forces of the universe that are causing the earth to die? Of course not, that would be silly. So what we are left with is finding out how the leaders of the world would deal with about three years' warning about the end of the planet. What would they save, who would they save, what would they build that could sustain the coming apocalypse and house everything and everyone they wanted to keep alive? To say these are weighty questions would be an understatement, but they are ones that are legitimately posed in this film.
But 2012 isn't a movie about philosophy and morals (OK, it is a little); it's a film about destroying the planet city by city, nation by nation. You think the destruction of California sequence looks impressive, wait until you see Yellowstone Park turn into the world's largest volcano, or the massive tidal wave that wipes out the Eastern Seaboard. As an act of kindness to his audience, Emmerich has even built into his 2-hour 40-minute movie scenes of such lameness and inaction that they might as well be scrawling the words "Pee Break!" across the bottom of the screen while they play. This might be the most well-paced Roland Emmerich film ever made.
He's even cast a slightly more interesting group of actors to use as his game pieces. John Cusack provides the requisite Everyman quality to his character as a failed writer/limo driver who just happens to be at all the right places at the right times to survive wave after wave of intense destruction. Amanda Peet plays his ex-wife and mother of their two kids (giving Cusack something to protect), while Tom McCarthy plays her new husband, a decent guy who the kids actually love, which makes Cusack all the more jealous. In the scientific/government community, we have Chiwetel Ejiofor as the geologist who first realizes the true extent of the threat as far back as 2009 (hey, wait a minute... ). Oliver Platt is on hand as his superior and link to the President (Danny Glover... I'll give you a second to let that one sink in), whose daughter (Thandie Newton) is also deeply involved in his work. Woody Harrelson is tossed in as a kook living in Yellowstone, broadcasting a Pirate Radio signal predicting the impending destruction. One character makes the very interesting point, "Isn't it funny how all those guys with cardboard signs were right?" Indeed.
So how does it all hold together? Pretty well, to tell the truth, for about the first two hours. I won't reveal where all of this evacuating and running around leads to, but there actually is a plan to save hundreds of thousands of carefully selected citizens of the world. It's a little underwhelming. More than that, it's silly and illogical. Yes, I'm calling only a small portion of a movie about the end of the world silly and illogical. And what's worse, the film drags and hinges on some pretty stupid stuff at the end as well. It isn't an impending wall of water that threatens the survivors; it's a stuck door. And there's a speech that Ejiofor delivers just before all hell brakes loose for the few remaining humans that is so stupid and ill-timed as to be laughable from beginning to end. If someone had shot him at that moment and said, "Let's get the hell out of here!" at that moment, I would have applauded. There are also characters like a Russian businessman and his two chubby twin boys who are incredibly annoying and clearly aimed at giving us unnecessary villains in a movie where the world is the only villain we need, thank you very much.
Whereas most disaster movies of the past have been two hours of build up followed by 20 minutes or so of awesome destruction, 2012 keeps it coming and only lets up long enough to let us know exactly who died and give us time to hit the bathroom. Even if you loathe the movie to its very fiber as a storytelling endeavor, there's no denying the spectacular nature of the special effects. And no, special effects are never a sole excuse to see any movie, but I think there's more here than just that. I also believe that if 2012 had come out during the summer, it would have given Transformers 2 a run for its money as the most successful film of the year. This is a summer movie event film that you don't have to completely turn your brain off to enjoy, and that's a rarity that I can get behind. The take-no-prisoners 2012 finally sees Emmerich pulling tools off his belt that work together rather than just clanging into each other at the job site. Most of this film is highly watchable, and some of it approaches greatness.
Pirate Radio (which was released everywhere else in the world as The Boat That Rocked) is writer-director Richard Curtis' American Graffiti. The difference being that Curtis is showing us his musical history and birth as a lifelong fan of rock n' roll from the perspective of the men who spun the platters and introduced a style of radio broadcast that UK radio had never seen before the late 1960s. Unlike George Lucas, Curtis didn't experience this music on the streets of his hometown where suped-up cars patrol the streets like animals on the hunt. No, Curtis heard The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, pretty much every American R&B performer or group and, of course, The Beatles through a small transistor radio curled up in his room trying ever so desperately to find exactly the right frequency so that Jimi Hendrix's guitar could splash colors on his brain, or the Beach Boys would pump warm sunshine into his heart, or The Hollies would make him feel alive.
Pirate Radio certainly does have a bare-bones plot about member of the British government (represented by a minister played for broad laughs by Kenneth Branagh) attempting to shut down these kind of broadcaster by essentially passing new laws making it illegal for them to beam radio signals into the UK. But those scenes don't hold a candle to the sex, booze and general bad behavior of a group of DJs playing the best music in the world with all of Britain listening. At its core, the film is a series of vignettes of moments aboard Radio Rock, a crumbling tanker anchored in the North Sea. As the film begins, we meet Carl (newcomer Tom Sturridge), whose mother has sent him to work for the radio station's owner and Carl's godfather Quentin (the unstoppable Bill Nighy) as some sort of punishment for bad behavior in school.
As Carl gets to know the broadcasters and behind-the-scenes folks over the course of the many weeks he's on board, we see event after event played out, each one funnier than the last. The cast is jam packed with some truly talented and funny actors, including Chris O'Dowd, the mysteriously quiet Tom Wisdom, Tom Brooke, Ike Hamilton, newsman Will Adamsdale, Rhys Darby, the lesbian cook Katherine Parkinson, and the man who becomes Carl's sexual mentor, Dave, played to hairy, seductive perfection by Nick Frost. Topping off the splendidly chosen cast is Rhys Ifans' Gavin, who left Radio Rock for work in the States but is returning to reclaim his title as ratings champion on the station; and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the vessel's sole American, The Count, the elder statesman and voice of rock purity.
Curtis is smart enough to know when to just let his cast fly and be free, so there are several sequences that are clearly the result of improvisation and just as funny and poignant as the fully scripted scenes. There's a free-floating quality to the entire film — things just sort of glide effortlessly from one moment to the next. I know some people get hung up on the idea that unless a film has a forward-driven plot guiding it, it's not something worth seeing, and that's just ridiculous (and if Robert Altman were alive, he's slap you repeatedly). The moments I loved most in Pirate Radio (both in the film proper and the copious deleted scenes on the UK DVD) are the ones that don't forward the plot one iota. I could have watched these DJs and their antics for an eternity, if only because their behavior would have been accompanied by the greatest 24/7 soundtrack the world has ever known.
I want to spend a minute talking about a couple of performances, beginning with Hoffman, who is in many ways drawing from the same well he did playing Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. He is the authority; he's not quite God, but he'll do in a pinch; he is passion personified; and he is the one who understands that the main reason all of these men have gone to such lengths to play this music is that they are fans above all else — not just of the music they are playing but of the music that 10, 20, 30 years down the road, music they may never get a chance to play. Hoffman delivers a magnificent speech about just that at the end of the film, and it made me realize that there is music today that people feel just as strongly about and connect to as emotionally as folks did in the 1960s.
Tom Sturridge has the great fortune or misfortune of being our eyes into this transitional world. He's often such a silent observer that you don't even notice he's in the room unless someone is addressing him directly, but when you do spot him reacting to some bit of insanity, his reaction often mirrors exactly what we're feeling — shock, amazement, fear, disgust, lust and affection (and those are just the emotions he feels while trapped in a bathroom with a naked Nick Frost). He's a terrific stand-in for us, the viewer. A few choice beauties make their way onto the boat for some extended cameos, including January Jones, Gemma Arterton, Talulah Riley, and a surprisingly loose turn from Emma Thompson. As much as I love the constant site of sexy men crammed onto a small boat, seeing these stunning women made for a nice change of pace.
I guess in the UK, a fuss has been made about the historical accuracy of some of the events that occur in this movie, and frankly I couldn't give a shite. Pirate Radio isn't meant to be a documentary. As strange as it might sound, it's a fantasy film that peeks into Richard Curtis' mind and shows us an idealized (and yes, fictionalized at times) version of the events as he remembers them as a young man with a radio to his ear and a wild imagination about what was going on at the other end of that signal. Curtis has spent much of his career in TV and movies, creating such characters as "Black Adder" and "Mr. Bean" in his early years, and penning some remarkable British comedies that somehow often resulted in tears (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, the Bridget Jones movies, The Girl in the Café and his previous directing effort, Love Actually). I love that he's done something very different from what people consider a "Richard Curtis" production.
But more than that, I love that he's made a film about a love that very often lasts longer than most relationships. The impact of the music of our youth stays with us and influences us until the day we die. Other than maybe our parents, we can't say that about too many people. You can't break up with music, at least not easily. I came out of watching Pirate Radio with a rekindled romance with the music I grew up listening to, much of which I still sample quite frequently. It's one thing to be thinking about a movie for days after seeing it; it's quite another when that movie inspires you to take stock in a certain corner of your life and bring memories flooding back about what was happening to you when certain songs were at the peek of their popularity or what the first song you heard was when your first girlfriend broke up with you ("Against All Odds" by Phil Collins; just kill me now). My reaction to Pirate Radio was something more than just as a movie lover; it got me on a primal level I wasn't expecting and I loved it all the more for it.
Visit Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Pirate Radio writer-director Richard Curtis.
Somewhere out there is a small segment of the population that is going to truly love the new film from Jared Hess, the writer-director of Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre. Now, I'm not talking about the random sampling of every bad movie's audience that has no taste and simply enjoys a crappy film like All About Steve (first film that popped into my mind). But Gentlemen Broncos has the potential to be a favorite among the small segment of the population that is intimately familiar with the world of bad science-fiction literature. I'm talking about the type of novels where a modicum of success with an author's first book guarantees a 10-part series will follow.
To be clear, Gentlemen Broncos would be a failure from beginning to end without two very key factors. The first is Sam Rockwell performance as Bronco, the hero in the sci-fi novel Yeast Wars, written by young Benjamin (Michael Angarano). Any time the unpublished work gets read by someone, the extremely funny and game Rockwell is shown in Bronco's otherworldly universe (which looks a lot like the Utah desert). But the finest character to arise from this film is Dr. Chevalier, played by Jemaine Clement of "Flight of the Conchords." Everything about this man is off, yet it's very clear that he is the single most pompous, self-congratulatory ass on the face of this or any other planet. His theories on naming characters are legendary (if you've seen the trailer for Broncos, you've only gotten a sampling of this lecture), but his career is fading fast as his publisher has flat out rejected his latest work.
Benjamin and Chevalier meet at a writers' camp at which Benjamin submits Yeast Wars for a writing competition. Chevalier reads the novel, loves what he sees, and decides to steal the material (changing all the names, of course; the manly Bronco become the tranny Brutus, still played by Rockwell) for his next work. While all of this is happening, Benjamin returns home to his depressive fashion designer mother (Jennifer Coolidge), her weird boyfriend Dusty (Mike White), and Benjamin's two new friends from the camp, Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) and Lonnie (Hector Jimenez from Nacho Libre). With these new companions, Benjamin makes ultra-low-budget film version of his story. When the film actually manages to get a premiere screening, the publishers of Chevalier's book catch wind of it, you can probably guess where things go from there.
But is the film funny? Well, if you believe most critics (as many people are prone to do), then the answer is no. But I recall laughing consistently as was the audience with whom I first saw it. But that particular crowd was made up largely by folks I believe would be in the small sliver of the population I mentioned at the beginning of this review — sci-fi lovers who would get where a lot of this humor was coming from. That doesn't make the film better or more palatable for the general population, but there is a specified audience that I believe will dig this movie. There's no getting around the fact that Angarano, Coolidge and many of the other characters are too quirky to be considered believable or interesting enough to be the focal point of a 90-minute movie. This is a mixed review to be sure, but I do want to encourage those of you who perhaps fit the description of the ideal viewer for this movie to give it a shot. I thought most of Gentlemen Broncos was funny, but I wouldn't pick a fight with someone who hated it either. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
In what might be one of the more unusual but still modestly effective films in recent memory about the rise and fall of South Africa's apartheid practices, the based-on-a-true-story Skin tells the story of Sandra Laing (played as a young woman and adult by Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda, The Secret Life of Bees), whose unique "affliction" was that she was very clearly a light-skinned black woman whose parents were about as white as you can get. Sam Neill and Alice Krige play Sandra's parents, one of whom clearly has black ancestry they are unaware of (it is quite clear later in the film when Krige gives birth to another black child that she is not cheating on Neill). Although she is initially legally classified as white, Sandra's color still makes life very difficult for her when she attends an all-white school or even uses facilities designated for white South Africans only. When the government has her reclassified as black, the Laings take their case to court, the result of which was a landmark decision that parentage, and not physical appearance, would be the primary determination of race. Yay for us.
But this part of the story is on a slice of what made Sandra's life so interesting and beyond complicated. She fell in love with a black man (technically she was sleeping with a man of another race, which was a crime in her country), and then she got pregnant by him. Her parents (in particular, her stubborn and clearly racist father) were furious at her for jeopardizing all their hard work at getting her declared white, and effectively cast her out when the affair and pregnancy is discovered. In order not to get put in jail, Sandra must again have herself reclassified back to black. Talk about an identity crisis. And at its core, that's really what this film is about — a 30-year question of self. The fact that Okonedo is 40 years old and playing the same character from ages 18 to upper 40s or late 50s is kind of incredible, but she absolutely pulls it off. There are some really tough scenes in Skin, including a succession of dates with white boys who all have various and ugly ulterior motives for wanting to date Sandra. Life with the father of her two children turns awful on top of everything, leaving Sandra no choice but to leave home with the kids with no clear destination in mind.
Sam Neill's father character might have been too one-dimensional in the hands of a lesser actor, but Neill pulls it off (barely) and manages to make us understand this emotionally torn man even as we hate him for what he has done to his daughter. Since the film begins in the 1950s, watching Krige's dutiful wife character follow her husband's lead shouldn't be judged too harshly. That's the unique thing about Skin — beyond the apartheid system itself, there are no true villains on display. This is a story chronicling inner turmoil about outward appearance. I'm not entirely sure that every aspect to first-time director Anthony Fabian's film works the way it should, but when everything clicks, Skin can be a quite powerful and tragic drama. And I have to applaud the filmmakers (particularly writer Helen Crawley) for finding a story this specialized that would seem not to have universal appeal on the surface but actually taps into some nice themes of self-awareness and identity. Overall, I'd say the film succeeds in telling this bizarre story in the best way it can, and I'd recommend you check it out if it ever makes its way to a theater near you. Skin opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
Ong Bak 2
In some parts of the world, this film was released under the title Ong Bak: The Beginning, which should give you some sense that we're not picking things up where they left off in the already legendary Tony Jaa vehicle Ong Bak. Far from a prequel, this Ong Bak story is a period film set in ancient times and is the story of Tien (Jaa, who also co-directed the film), who as a boy of noble birth saw his parents killed in front of him. Tien ends up being raised by criminals and slave traders who live on the streets and teach him how to fight and rob people blind. After rising through the criminals ranks, Tien has a chance to avenge his parents' murder and use all his skills as a master martial artist to seek vengeance. Other than the presence of more majestic elephants, there's really nothing connecting this tale and the first Ong Bak.
I was fortunate enough to have seen the Thai cut of Ong Bak a couple years back, long before the better-paced international cut by Luc Besson. From what I've been told, this version of Ong Bak 2 is the original cut, even though I believe a shorter version has played in certain places around the world. I kind of wish that had been the version that was circulating in the States as well, because this movie has far too much distance between what are still breath-taking fight sequences. And I wouldn't mind this at all if the story made a lick of sense and didn't toy so much in surreal filmmaking and abstract storytelling. I saw this film for the first time back in March at the SXSW Film Festival, and I had a tough time remembering the plot the day after I saw the film, let alone all these months later. What I do remember are some blazing action sequences well worth the price of admission for any fan of Jaa's or his Muay Thai abilities.
Perhaps the best way to really enjoy Ong Bak 2 is to tune out a little during the exposition, because following this story really isn't worth the effort. I feel guilty as hell recommending this movie under those circumstances, but I know from experience that trying to make sense or keep track of events in this work is a frustrating exercise. The fight scenes are top notch, so don't let your enjoyment of those moment be dampened by confusing (or worse, boring) plot. Serious reservations aside, I survived this thanks to a healthy series of ass kicking moments courtesy of Tony Jaa. The film opens today at the Music Box Theater.
The Boondock Saints II: All Saint's Day
I fully acknowledge that the original 1999 Boondock Saints had a certain garish, loud charm and just enough hammy acting to make us laugh a great deal while being mildly entertained. But to be perfectly honest, I don't remember much about the story about two Boston-based mafia killing twin brothers (Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus) who turned into folk heroes even as the FBI (led by the fantastic Willem Dafoe) was tracking them down for multiple murders. But apparently the boys fled with their father (Billy Connolly) to Ireland to live the life of peasant farmers. The sequel to original cult favorite from writer-director Troy Duffy has the brothers finding out that a priest friend of their has been savagely murdered by mob forces, they return to Boston to avenge the killing and basically pick up where they left off in terms of killing off mobsters in the loudest and most outrageous ways imaginable.
A lot of familiar faces pop back up, including the three detectives from the first film, but I was more intrigued by some of the fresh faces Duffy recruited for this installment, in particular the always-impressive Clifton Collins, Jr. as the Hispanic addition Romeo, who joins the prayer-speaking brothers in their killing spree. Since Dafoe's character is apparently dead, the new FBI agent in charge of tracking down the Saints is played by "Dexter's" Julie Benz, who gives Special Agent Eunice Bloom an overdrawn Southern accent and apparently owns a wardrobe filled with nothing but tight-fitting clothes and 6-inch heels. Also on hand is Judd Nelson as the mobster in charge (whose volume knob is permanently stuck on 11) and Peter Fonda as a mysterious figure named The Roman.
Again, admitting freely that I don't remember the original film very well, my general impression was that it was somewhat more cohesive than this sequel, which seems to be all over the place with a story that barely holds together and far too much emphasis on making each character quirkier than the last. The biggest problem is the overwritten screenplay, which Duffy has injected with speech after cliché-ridden speech. The more disturbing issue I had with the film is Flanery's face, which seems puffy and off somehow. I remember him being a good-looking kid, so I'm not sure how he went from that to looking like a younger version of The Wrestler, but it was outright distracting at times. There are certainly bits and pieces of Boondock Saints II that are enjoyable, but most of what's here is loud, pointless, and not so much overacted as under-acted. Nobody seems to care that they're in this movie, except maybe Benz, who probably is the best thing here even with the bad accent (and least it's consistent). The film also feels overlong and just played out. And the scariest part is, Duffy has clearly set himself up to do a sequel (whether anyone will finance it or not is another discussion), which makes me sad. I bet this guy has at least one other decent story with new characters to introduce us to. I'd rather see that than another tired retread of a movie that was fairly derivative to begin with. Either way, I'm at least glad Boondock Saints II is getting a theatrical release because I know there are folks out there eager to see it. I just wasn't one of them.