Thursday, September 24, 2009

Summer in the Cinema, Part II

Summer is officially over. Let's glance back at its lowlights, shall we?

The Worst of the 2009 Summer Movie Season
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Last month," I shared what I felt were the finest aspects of what Hollywood had to offer throughout the warm weather months. Now we come to the worst – the sins of summer cinema that are as remarkable for their missteps as the others were for their merits. Before we proceed, a disclaimer: I don't see too many bad movies if I can help it. I've got a pretty keen radar for what will soar and what will suck, and there are too many titles with gravity-defying potential to waste a lot of time on those that will almost certainly fall flat. So, within this list, you're not going to find a full lineup of obvious duds like Land of the Lost, The Ugly Truth and Nia Vardalos' repellent double-whammy of My Life in Ruins and I Hate Valentine's Day. What you will find are the most disappointing parts of films that initially showed promise, as well as the especially shameful bits of the ones I suffered through despite the warning signs. Here's to wrapping up the summer on a very opinionated note.

Worst Comeback:
The cast of Fast & Furious

Fast & Furious, the ingeniously titled fourth installment of a franchise that stubbornly refuses to die, isn't so much awful as it is awfully un-engaging (which is pitifully ironic for a film that spends so much time homing in on fuel injectors and nitrous boosters). Of all the oomph-lacking elements in this movie (which plays like a lengthy hip-hop video mashed up with a bad C.S.I. episode), the most nullifyingly lifeless is the principal cast of Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster, the original foursome from 2001's The Fast and the Furious whose reunion is apparently a big deal to motorhead moviegoers who actually remember the characters. I didn't, and evidently, neither did the actors. Save the lumbering lug played by Diesel (who we identify as, well, Vin Diesel), these people have no discernible identities. And though the junker of a script doesn't do them any favors, when the players attempt to convey how much their fictional counterparts mean to one another, they're each about as convincing as Amy Winehouse at an AA meeting. When one of the four kicks the bucket, the other three have mixed reactions, all of them grossly inauthentic. One's eyes fill with crocodile tears, another's eyes fill with impalpable anger, and the other's eyes remain as dead as a shark's. My eyes rolled.

Worst Couple:
John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph in Away We Go

While their performances are far from extraordinary, lovable TV alums Krasinski and Rudolph aren't necessarily the ones to blame for the extreme un-lovability of Burt and Verona, the expectant couple the actors portray in Sam Mendes' soulless road movie. The real culprits are writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, real-life sweethearts who fill their main characters' mouths with enough quirky hipster jargon for three Juno sequels. Eggers and Vida want us to believe that Burt and Verona, with all their odd-yet-ordinary qualities, are just your average idiosyncratic thirty-somethings; however, neither of them are like anyone I – or you – have ever met. They exist in an intentionally wacky world that hovers above our own, and from there they look down on us, listen to alt-rock music, wear nothing but second-hand clothing and speak in annoying tongues. I wasn't just unable to connect with these people, I began to resent them. The only time they felt vital to me was when they'd scream at each other as part of a running joke, and by then, I wanted to scream right back.

Worst Funnyman:
Eddie Murphy in Imagine That

Oh, Eddie. Remember when you were painting the town with your nimble brand of cool in Beverly Hills Cop? Or when you brought to life a whole clan of crazy characters under mounds of makeup in The Nutty Professor? Or even when your electric performance in Dreamgirls got you nominated for an Oscar? Those were the days. Rather than occasionally dabbling in drivel (like, say, The Adventures of Pluto Nash), you now seem hellbent on slamming the nails into your career's coffin with heavy-handed hammers like Norbit, Meet Dave and Imagine That, a fantasy so insufferable even young actress Yara Shahidi's cuteness is rendered moot. When you were reading the script for this film,what, exactly, jumped out at you and screamed: “Go for it!” Could it have been the scenes in which you wear a blankie on your face and sing to imaginary dragons? Or the ones that have your financial advisor character, Evan, insisting that stockholders sell because their stock “wets the bed?” At one point, I considered the possibility that maybe you, the director and the screenwriters had all started your own peyote-popping cult. How else to explain all the wack-a-doo absurdities here? What? What's that you say? It's a harmless family film? With a wholesome message about parental priorities? Right. Problem is, Imagine That isn't a family film; it's nobody's film. The finance talk is Greek to the kids and the fantasy hogwash is intolerable for their parents. Come on, Eddie – you're better than this. Aren't you?

Worst Eye Candy:
Public Enemies

A lot of critics and audiences went ga-ga over Michael Mann's John Dillinger biopic. Not me. Systematic and monotonous, the film has the grip of an arthritic bank robber. And call me old-fashioned, but if I'm going to watch an epic crime drama set in the 1930s, I'd prefer it not look like a high-def cut of The Blair Witch Project. Mann, who until now has never made a movie I didn't like, opted to shoot Enemies on handheld digital video, the same medium he employed for Collateral and Miami Vice. The aesthetic is a perfect fit for contemporary works with brooding urban settings, but for a period picture, it's distracting and terribly mismatched. The constantly wobbling camera and the excessively sharp pseudo-graininess act as a shield against the senses, making it nearly impossible to appreciate Coleen Atwood's elegant costumes, Patrick Lumb's art direction, or even cinematographer Dante Spinotti's canny eye for pattern and composition. It seems that Mann is going through a period of artistic experimentation. It's my hope that Enemies is his last guinea pig.

Worst Imitation:
The Answer Man

The Answer Man, an As Good as it Gets wannabe set and shot in sunny Philadelphia, may look like a legitimate movie, but is in fact a second-rate sitcom stretched out to feature length. As Arlen Faber, a hugely successful self-help book author whose own soul is in dire need of chicken soup, Jeff Daniels gives it his irascible all, chomping away at the familiar scenery and extending his already considerable range. But neither his impressive performance nor first-time writer/director John Hindman's intermittently profound philosophies could keep this turkey from gobbling up my patience. Even if I were able to ignore the odd discomfort of its mood swings (it tries and fails to be naughty and nice at the same time), The Answer Man uses, quite ineffectively, the gimmick of a bestseller to plug the exhausted premise of a curmudgeon's redemption. It's the type of uninspired, manipulative, borderline insulting “entertainment” that's broadcast profusely on basic cable, and most of its humor is so broad that the only thing missing is the laugh track. Long before the unforgivably clichéd conclusion arrived, I found myself not looking at my watch, but looking for the remote.

Worst Action Sequences:
X-Men Origins: Wolverine

I considered director Gavin Hood's bumbling franchise spin-off for a number of categories: Worst Dialogue, maybe, or perhaps Worst Villain for Ryan Reynolds' ripped-frat-boy take on comic book baddie Deadpool. But, ultimately, no one really goes into an X-Men film expecting brilliant screenwriting or award-worthy acting (at least I don't). The major drawing factors are the action setpieces and special effects, and the biggest blunder of Wolverine is that these main areas of interest are practically devoid of punch. Looking lost in his own movie, poor Hugh Jackman leaps from one redundant, run-of-the-mill skirmish to the next, dodging a bazillion bullets and walking away from explosions like a furry clone of Mad Max. Throughout, Hood stages his innumerable and indistinguishable battle scenes with a boastful showiness they definitely don't warrant. Wolverine is a base-level actioner. There's nothing presented that hasn't appeared in scads of other, better blockbusters, and its methods for creating suspense begin and end with overly emphatic close-ups of growing claws. If I gained anything from it, it was the inspiration to sharpen my own claws for this critique.

Worst Ending:
The Stoning of Soroya M.

The Stoning of Soroya M., a somewhat contrived but deeply harrowing account of actual events that occurred in the outskirts of Iran in 1986, means to shock and succeeds. Though beyond objectionable as far as taste is concerned, the movie's climax – which depicts the public execution of the title with prolonged and vivid brutality – is one of the most devastating and indelible things I've ever seen on screen. That director and co-writer Cyrus Nowrasteh follows such a powerful segment with a trite resolution straight out of the Hollywood handbook is a travesty. Emerging from flashback to conclude the film's bookending storyline (in which a journalist played by Jim Caviezel gets the dirt on the hush-hush incident from Soroya's aunt, played by Shoreh Aghdashloo), Nowrasteh resorts to cheesy conventions and daft melodrama. After having been agape for nearly twenty minutes, my mouth contorted into a snarl while watching the journalist's car fail to start as he attempts to escape some cartoonish villains. Then Aghdashloo's character spreads her arms and shouts hokey lines to the sky as the camera zooms out for extra-hammy effect. The Stoning of Soroya M. should have ended with the stoning of Soroya M.

Worst Overall Experience:
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Forget worst of the summer. The way I see it, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a surefire contender for worst film of the year, maybe even the decade. It is so awesomely and thoroughly god-awful that it will likely stand the test of time in the tradition of notorious flicks like Caligula and Battlefield Earth. How will I remember it? Let me count the ways: 1) As an endless, incomprehensible nightmare of raucous special effects that made me feel as though I'd been fired through a pinball machine. 2) As the quintessential movie of the ADD generation. Not into boring stuff like plausible plot and character development? Here's a frantically edited, mile-a-minute spectacle so huge, your boredom won't know what hit it. 3) As the moment in which director Michael Bay finally came full circle in his career, finally delivering a disaster movie that is itself a disaster.

*This article was previously published in the September 2009 issue of ICON magazine and has been reprinted with permission.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Don't agree with all...but this is still hilarious and even insightful. I haven't seen the stoning of...but oh well. I don't really understand from the post what happens at the end. Care to enlighten? I love spoilers.

Kurtis O said...

You mean the very end? The journalist escapes with proof of the incident and goes on to write a book about it (which we learn from Lifetime-like on-screen text).

Or do you mean the stoning? In a nearly unwatchable, completely unforgettable sequence, Soroya is stoned until she is dead by all the men in her village, including her father and young sons. It is all kinds of awful and the director shies away from nothing.

Danny King said...

I actually just posted my review for Away We Go yesterday and I have to agree that it was very disappointing. I thought Krasinski and Rudolph were good enough, but the script lacked real energy.

I disagree on Public Enemies. It certainly didn't live up to expectations, but I found it a solid gangster drama with a great performance from Depp.