Tuesday, November 15, 2005

SAW II, rated R for gratuitous violence, and also for replacing Cary Elwes with Donnie Wahlberg.

Everyone loves a sequel. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked for a DVD to enjoy and found myself saying “Let’s watch Jewel of the Nile or Lethal Weapon 4 again!” 2005 is truly becoming the Year of the Sequel, first with Oscar contender The Legend of Zorro emerging as a smash hit, and now with Saw II capturing the spotlight.

Oh, enough with this. The editors here at Reviews pressure us to write upbeat articles and look for the positive in every film. “If you can’t say something nice, make it up” says my boss. But today, I’m going to tell you the truth. Saw II sucks. Maybe director Darren Lynn Bousman has a secret book called “How to Make a Sequel Really Really Suck,” because he seems to have succeeded on every point.

First, he replaced an offbeat yet recognizable star who can really act--Cary Elwes--with a forgettable actor that nobody particularly likes or dislikes: Donnie Wahlberg. I had to look up his name three times before I could manage to write it down, because I kept forgetting it in the time it took to click over to my Word doc. Is it just me, or does he look like you took Matt Damon and smoothed out his face and performed a lobotomy to remove any traces of personality?

Second, where the film might have explored character motivation, back story or plot, it instead fell again and again into stupid, gratuitous violence. Donnie walks into a room and eek! There’s a bloody arm on the floor! Donnie goes home to his apartment and eek! There’s a note with an ear pinned to it! Donnie follows up on a lead and eek! His partner is caught in an elaborate man-trap that must have taken an entire crew of Survivor stagehands to set up! After the tenth or eleventh discovery, the body parts and blood spatter just aren’t shocking anymore.

Third, Bousman took what was a disturbing and unique idea in Saw—locking two guys in a room to solve the psychopath’s puzzle and possibly murder each other—and decided “more victims, more murder, more better!” In the sequel there are not two but EIGHT people locked in a room with a puzzle to solve and a body count to amass. Of course they fall into the usual stereotypes: The cool guy, the hot chick, the uncool guy who lusts after the hot chick, the not-hot chick who is played by a hot actress with glasses and dyed-black hair; the smart guy who happens to know trivia relating to the puzzle; the professor; Mary Ann; and a child/sweet mentally impaired person/pregnant woman/other figure who inspires pity. Yawn.

Anyway, I’m going to post this now. Maybe my editors will take it down, maybe they’ll replace it with a glowing review. Maybe I’ll get fired. But for once I want to warn you: Saw II is terrible! Don’t see it!

On the sequel scale, which ranks Batman Forever at -**** and Look Who’s Talking Now at -*****, I rate Saw II right down there next to Home Alone III.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Jarhead, rated R for graphic war violence as imagined by an effete Hollywood fancylad.

I'll admit that I didn't hate "American Beauty." True, you had the dopey kid who followed the floating cellophane bag around with a video camera. That was pretty dumb. You also had the eyebrows guy from "The OC" to have to look at, and that's harsh. On the other hand,the movie made you realize what a great actor Kevin Spacey really is. Imagine, for example, the sheer professionalism and mastery of the craft that it took for him not to want to run offstage and wretch when he had to pretend to be about to get it on with Mena Suvari.

Yet, for all the swirling, varied thoughts that came to mind after watching "American Beauty," here's one that never did:

Gee, I'd love to see this director's take on the Marine Corps.

Yes, folks, Jarhead is a movie about Marines made by the guy who made "American Beauty."

The story opens with Spuds MacKenzie, the Bud Light Party Dog, paying a visit to the troops a few days before hostilities break out over Hussein's conquest of Kuwait. The party is a rager. Somebody's got a keg on the 3rd floor of the ammo dump and a funnel with a really long tube attached to it so that if you're standing at the bottom of that thing when the beer comes out, it hits you like a Steven Seagall punch to the throat. Party on, jarheads!

Soon, the war starts, but what's interesting is that these particular Marines don't seem to be involved in any fighting. They do a lot of walking through the desert and making overly obvious early 90s pop culture references. For example, Gyllenhaal says at one point, "How about that 'Parker Lewis Can't Lose'?" To which one of his jarhead buddies replies, "yes, despite the fact that they have a limited number of affiliates, Fox has demonstrated a willingness to experiment with innovative forms of programming which may lead them to success in the coming decade."

Then there's the one jarhead who keeps repeating lines from Max Headroom and being told, "hey, man, it's 1991. Max Headroom is no longer cool." War, however, is cruel, and what the jarheads don't know, but the audience does, is that Max Headroom was never cool. It's a grim foreshadowing of things to come.

Jamie Foxx stars as one of the other jarheads. His role in the movie is to act as the foil to the white characters love of Def Leppard and Sylvester Stallone movies and drop in all the appropriate black cultural references of the time. Fair enough, but with little more than "Mo' Betta Blues" and basketball to work with, it gets tiresome pretty fast. So in traditional Hollywood form, he's the first guy in the platoon to die. Not from battle, mind you. They never seem to get to that. Instead Foxx suffocates on his own vomit after Spuds pays them another visit on the front lines, they all get trashed, and nobody turns Foxx onto his stomach when he passes out.

Through a series of Gyllenhaal flashbacks to a life-changing experience at the "Us" Festival, we learn that Gyllenhaal joined the Marines not just as a way to get to party with Spuds Mackenzie, but also to live out his dream of marrying Christina Applegate. Frankly, it's not much of a plan. It revolves chiefly around going to ragers because he thinks Applegate's character on "Married with Children" is real and will probably show up at the kind of bitchin' parties Marines have.

After a few days of walking around, cursing meaningfully at each other and casually referring to things like the "Humpty Dance" while artillery shells explode in the background, the war ends.

But that doesn't mean the party has to!

To the strains of "Fight the Power," our heroes celebrate their victory in the desert, and with Hussein out of the way, there's an awkward scene where they all realize they're sexually attracted to each other. Since it's 1991, they can't do anything about it except look angry, confused and stupid. They'll have to wait until 1997 or so, when suddenly everyone in movies like this became gay.

The story closes with a voiceover from Gyllenhaal as Spuds Mackenzie leads the troops on a ticker tape parade down Wall Street in New York. It's a rager, and Chrstina Applegate is there. Gyllenhaal's character declares that he loved every minute of his stupid life, just before he chokes on his own vomit.

What is striking about this movie is the realism. It's a very convincing portrayal of what the director of American Beauty would imagine happens during a war, which is mostly Marines suddenly realizing they're gay.

On a scale of Max Headroom being the worst (never cool) to Christina Applegate being the best (still pretty cool), I rate this movie a Corey Haim, which is pretty freakin' bad.

THE LEGEND OF ZORRO, rated PG for gentle poking with forks swordfighting and even gentler conjugal smoldering between hot stars Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones-Douglas.

This time of year, right when you can find half-price candy corn alongside giant singing Santa Clauses, the Oscar buzz begins as the year’s best films line up for release in November and December. Crash, Jarhead, Munich, Brokeback Mountain and The Legend of Zorro are all slated as early favorites in the coveted Best Picture category. With its nonstop action, riveting character portrayals and lush period dressings, The Legend of Zorro is a strong contender.

If this film wins, it will be only the third sequel ever to win Best Picture (after The Godfather, Part II in 1974 and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003). Oh—didn’t you realize this was a sequel? It’s a common misconception that The Legend of Zorro is “that Zorro movie that came out a couple years ago.” In fact, that’s The Mask of Zorro, the 1998 film that launched the Banderas/Zeta-Jones-Douglas franchise (whose comparison to Hollywood duos like Bogart/Bacall and Tracy/Hepburn is now almost a cliché).

The long awaited sequel to that beloved film is finally here. Seven years have passed in our universe, but in Zorro’s, it’s been long enough for him and Elena to have married and spawned a 10-year-old son, Zorritorito, a precocious whipper-snapper with dark flashing eyes, day-glo teeth and an infinitely tousleable head of slightly messy hair. Zorritorito is played by the talented young Adrian Alonso, who is rumored to be on the short list for Best Supporting Actor. Zorritorito’s trademark phrase “Kill the white bandits! Viva la Aztlan!” has already become a rallying cry for MEChA, and is sure to trickle down to the grade school set across the nation who have been pining for a playground punchline ever since “Eat my shorts” went out of style in the late 80s.

Antonio Banderas smolders his way through the film as an older-but-wiser Zorro who interjects bits of fatherly wisdom between swordfights and lingering kisses with his wife, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones-Douglas. CZJD, as she’s known to her close friends, does some smoldering of her own and shows off theWelsh swordfighting skills that have made her famous. In recent years, CZJD’s fame has intensified thanks to her job as the T-Mobile spokeswoman, which has turned her into something of a pop icon. What started as an advertising campaign grew into a cultural phenomenon, spurring everything from underground zines to streetwear emblazoned with CZJD’s likeness and unforgettable slogan, “Get more.”

The plot of The Mask of Zorro goes pretty much like you’d expect. Elena worries over Zorro. Zorro squeezes into his black leather pants (I’m getting the DVD just for that scene—hello slow motion!). Zorro fights for truth, justice and the Mexican way. Zorro, Elena and Zorritorito team up against the abjectly evil bad guys who are easy to hate and even easier to kill beat up and turn over to the authorities (this being a PG film). In the end, we get a healthy dose of the soccer mom values we’ve come to expect from today’s Oscar-winning films, only this time they’re delivered with a spicy Latin flair!

On a scale of Oscar winners from Casablanca to Titanic, I rate this film somewhere between Dances with Wolves and Driving Miss Daisy.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Chicken Little, rated G in the vain hope that just because it's legal for more people to come to this, they will.

We've all heard the story of Chicken Little and his famous hissy fit, but did you ever wonder what happened to Chicken Little AFTER he learned the sky wasn't falling?

No, neither did I. It never even crossed my mind.

See, that's why neither you nor I are hotshot Disney movie producers, because while we're traipsing through life, trying to be productive citizens, raising children or working for a living without a care in the world, the boys at Disney are sweating it out on the backlots of Burbank day after Craft Services-fueled day. And they do it all for us.

They're doing the hard and important jobs and asking the tough questions. Speaking of which, I have a tough question: why in the name of God would anyone go and see this movie?

Here's the premise: Chicken Little grows up with self-esteem problems for obvious reasons. He overcompensates by becoming some kind of karate prodigy, but it's no use. Nobody can forget what a little jackass he had been and so they keep treating him with the contempt he deserves.

All of this catches the attention of a the Director of Self-Esteem of the California Education Department, who forces the principal of Chicken Little's school (who is a cow, strangely) to hold a "Chicken Little Day." Of course, this backfires and the kids (who are animals) go from just hating him in silence to a combination of vicious and sudden physical attacks and some of the most mean-spirited insults you've ever heard in a G-rated picture. Eventually, Chicken Little succumbs to the pressure and runs home from school saying that "the whole school hates me." His parents, naturally, assume he's exaggerating, but in fact, it's true.

Naturally, Chicken Little eventually is called upon to save the lives of all the cruel little bastards who had been tormenting him by using his Karate powers against a group of aliens bent on taking over the Earth, starting with the school gym. Chicken Little realizes that even though his feelings have been hurt, the survival of the whole world is in his hands (or claws), so he puts on a display of cartoon ass-kicking like you haven't seen since you snuck out of bed when you were 10 and watched "Heavy Metal" on HBO after your parents went to sleep. The aliens are rat like creatures whose deaths at the hand of Chicken Little you will not mourn. Personally, I was hoping that Chicken Little and the rat leader of the aliens would kill each other at the end in one final orgy of blood. Alas, no.

After Chicken Little saves his classmates, they all celebrate, ironically among the ruins of the Chicken Little Day celebration that was supposed to have been. Like the rest of this movie, that irony is neither funny nor charming.

I can't be more enthusiastic in my recommendation that you not see this movie. Indeed, if for some reason you're given a choice between being stabbed gently with a fork for the running time of this movie (while not having to watch it) or watching this movie, I would strongly recommend that you think about the fact that being stabbed gently with a fork won't do you any permanent harm, but that this movie might.

If you want to take your kids to a movie and you were thinking of this one, I would strongly recommend that you poke them gently with a fork for a while instead. They'll thank you when they're adults.

On scale ranging from "wonderful, relaxing massage from a talented masseuse" being best to "slightly uncomfortable massage from a novice masseuse with long fingernails" being worst, I rate this movie a "painful 30 minute session of being poked with a fork by a chimpanzee."