Monday, April 11, 2011

"AntiTrust" = "AntiFun," "AntiThrilling," "AntiCredible," "AntiWellFilmed"

"AntiTrust" is a spectacularly misguided movie. It thinks its being suspenseful when it isn't; it handles its plots like a 5 year-old with a grease-coated basketball; and the story really is insane nonsense. What's surprising then is that it had all the right working parts to make a perfectly good thriller. Or even a perfectly decent one.

No, this wasn't a disappointment on the scale of "Enemy at the Gates;"  It didn't have the budget, the "based on true events" aspect, nor was the cast as impressive. Yet what does it mean when Tinseltown can't even manage a little suspense movie with so much going for it? The cast featured Tim Robbins, Ryan Philippe, Rachel Leigh Cook, Claire Forlani, and even Richard Roundtree (yes, John Shaft!). Those are 5 good names to work with.

"AT" was helmed by Peter Howitt, whose first directing credit was the surprise success, "Sliding Doors." The sets were designed by Catherine Hardwicke, who directed/wrote (ick) "Thirteen" and filmed (ugh) "Twilight." Hell, it came out in January 2001, so the tech stock/startup/computers/gaming/program dev angles were perfectly topical!

A computer genius (Philippe) decides to leave his best buds behind when he gets an offer from the world's biggest computer company NURV, which is totally supposed to be Microsoft. He's thrilled by the amazing offer, and he runs off with his loving girlfriend (Forlani) to drink deeply from the cup of success. For some reason, his young corporate world is full of sketchiness, especially from the big boss (Robbins). Now, one of his closest friends is dead, and our 21st-Century hero is close to wigging out.

What went wrong? As I said, the story is just completely nuts. I am, however, inclined to put some of the blame onto the director; he had to sign off on the finished product, after all. Now, I never saw "Sliding Doors" (which Howitt also wrote), but I know it did well and was at least decently well-received. Still, the guy's next project was directing "Johnny English," so...

Or you can observe this trailer, which gives away the entire film. Who the hell edited this?

Largely, the problem here is tone. Robbins is supposed to be an evil Bill Gates (well, "evil-er") - smart, business savvy, ambitious, having "vision." His computer mogul is, occasionally, utterly unconvincing. At times, Robbins' character seems blank, and even experienced viewers like me wonder if Tim's acting is falling apart. Maybe he just doesn't realize how bad the moment looks - or that he resembles "Bill the Cat" from "Bloom County" sometimes...

Or again, maybe the director didn't quite do their job by adjusting the performances, camera angles, and/or dialogue to correct for the on-screen flaws. If there's something wrong with a movie's tone, the director is supposed to be right on top of that...

Similarly, the entire experience wants to be an engaging thriller with huge stakes, but doesn't generally pull it off. Honestly, if "AntiTrust" seemed to have any ambition (aside from riding the "tech craze"), then I'd say it wanted to be "The Firm," but with software/hardware developers. Unfortunately, the picture has a difficult time establishing and maintaining the necessary tone to keep the audience tense and engaged.

So, except for when he seems to be wildly flailing his way through scenes, Tim Robbins is good. Ryan Philippe is pretty much always a fine actor. Rachel Leigh Cook and Claire Forlani are perfectly solid, although I wish both of them (especially RLC) had more to do. Yet none of these characters are given sufficient time or dialogue to really establish their characters.

This not only means that the actual acting talents of these people were pretty much wasted. It means that the viewer has very little reason to ever care about what's happening, or to connect with what the characters are going through. For 110 minutes! People don't usually try to make a movie about which people are apathetic.

The film is not badly shot. The soundtrack is not horrible. There are a few neat/decent sequences or ideas playing around here; it all falls flat, it all dies in execution.

It's funny, because I can imagine how some studios/producers would try to tackle this plot. They'd (a) fill it full of sex and attractive youngsters, as well as a rebellious message, because these things appeals to the youth market.

Avoiding spoilers, the message here - "open source is the best!" - isn't really backed up by what happens in the picture. If this movie involves killing and murdering competition, then promoting Open Source doesn't really help stop that... Also, the differences between something like Linux and Windows aren't explained clearly enough, so how can the movie give much support?

And, there are clean young faces all over this picture, but they're not used in a way to appeal to the young set. Lots of folks talk and type and look around, but there's too little action to engage you. Sex is kind of included here, but is used so little they should have just left it out altogether.

Maybe another studio would've (b) made "AntiTrust" as a "topical issue" flick that's also an actor's showcase. By that, I mean movies that center on one skilled up-and-coming actor set against one respectable veteran actor. These movies can rope in a large demographic, appealing both to kids with poor taste as well as discerning adults. Think Olivier-Caine in "Sleuth."

Well, the casting choices for "AT" did set up that possibility. However, Robbins is used too little and not fleshed out enough to be satisfying to audiences at all; he's often described here as "a caricature." There was no way to make this picture an actor's showcase; not between the bad dialogue and the spare/absent character development...

Perhaps another production team would've (c) made a movie that plays very straight-forwardly for a while as the "gifted kid makes it big" story before - bang! - becoming a full-on thriller with tension and betrayal and twists and... No, that didn't happen here either.

Again, the movie is set up to play out that way. There are twists and turns, and there is definitely a point after which the pic just picks up speed and keeps going straight to the end. It's spoiled by a soundtrack and dialogue that foreshadows too much. The film goes straight to the "dark suspicions" well too soon, and there's seldom much question or mystery as to what's happening, who's doing it, and why...

There isn't enough tension or scares, which is pretty fatal for a movie in this genre. The end is either the perfect length or happens a little too quickly; I still laugh at the group photo taken at the end because it's so awkward. 24% on RT, 31 on Metacritic.

I can't believe I found this much to write about such a universally ignored picture like "AntiTrust," yet there's still a few points to stress before I'm done...

(1) All movies should be made with clear goals and a purpose in mind. This movie could have been a perfectly decent entry. But giving half(?) an effort to lots of little goals meant that none of its aims were accomplished well.

(2) If you're going to have a good like Tim Robbins in your movie, especially playing a bad guy that seems based on stereotypes - then give him a lot of time and space. It would've been smart to give Robbins feedback to fine-tune his performance, or even just let him do whatever he wants with the role. At least the movie might've had a truly memorable or engaging character - that would've improved the quality and reception of "AntiTrust."

(3) Maybe movies like this should be directed/produced by at least one person with skill or a bigtime interest in Computer Science. Not only would someone like that know how to make a movie to appeal to the tech set, they would know what to definitely exclude from the picture.

For example, I learned how to code a basic web page, long ago. When the opening credits started, I began laughing - the names of the directors and actors are placed around a whole lot of basic HTML. Yes, this is how the movie began pulling us into an engaging high-stakes world of brilliant teens, top-notch technology development, and businessmen: with a basic programming language that lots of people know has little/nothing to do with software creation.

If you want to take a look at a picture that has similar elements and ideas, look at "Hackers" - that movie featured suspense and a strong youthful + tech angle. "The Firm" is a fairly crappy movie, but it has a very similar story; don't watch it, just keep that in mind. Check out "Breach" for an example of a quality thriller with a struggle between two age-opposite actors playing mentor/mentee. That last stars Ryan Philippe as well, and while "Breach" was actually pretty good, I see no reason that "AT" couldn't have approached that level of competence and adequacy. It could've gotten way closer than it actually did.

"AntiTrust" has many failings, and it was sort of stumbling right out of the gate. It was a wasted opportunity, as tech was everything in 2001, and many young people would've been nicely primed to watch and enjoy it. There might have been a slew of well-budgeted, well-cast movies trying to push technology, silicon startup, and intellectual property issues into the minds of vapid entertainment-seekers. This should have been a success for everyone involved, especially Rachel Leigh Cook and Richard Roundtree.

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