Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Movie Review Quickies, VIII

Action films and sequelitis make up most of the entries for MRQ VIII. Then again, most of the entries here received wildly-off scores from Rotten Tomatoes and/or Metacritic. This time out, I cover: Dick Tracy, Spy Kids 2, Scream 2, The Golden Child, Live Free or Die Hard, Judge Dredd, and Finding Forrester.

PS - the jump links will be fixed momentarily. Just scroll down like a normal person.
PPS - It's fixed now; there was no way to avoid the problem before I published this post, and it's hard to fix these things when you like to actually do your job when you're at your job. Click or scroll as you wish!

Dick Tracy

How do you review a vanity project with lots of A-list stars, media attention that approaches that for Tim Burton's "Batman," and a franchise property as big as Superman or Mickey Mouse? You can do it in a lot of words, and many did... But "Dick Tracy" was no fun, so I'll do it in just a few.

Warren Beatty plays the famous serial detective - a straight-laced, savvy do-gooder named Richard Tracy. He's a good cop in a crooked town full of vivid noir-esque characters. Many of the villains, for some reason, look like mutants. Yet Dick's faithful friends, and his wrist-watch communicator, will help him out as he's heading into a big fight with one ugly mobster (Al Pacino); he's also on a collision course with two beautiful women (Madonna, Glenne Headly).

The main problem here is the similarity to Burton's first "Batman," actually. For one thing, "DT" came out one year later. For another, it's about a comic book crime-stopper who fights to a Danny Elfman score. One of the nicest things about "Dick Tracy" is that the city is a real character in the story - it's neatly-done, well-filmed, and beautifully-crafted. This too, is just like "Batman."

But "DT" isn't much fun. Pacino hams it up enough to be a good "Joker," but he doesn't have Nicholson's charisma here. That's intentional, as Pacino looks disfigured, but he's just not as funny as Jack was. Sure "Big Boy Caprice" is constantly mis-quoting famous quotes, and that will make you laugh from time to time. It's not as cool as a quick Jack Palance impersonation, or whipping a gun around to shoot someone backwards...

The tension seldom really touches the audience, whereas "Batman" had many intense sequences. The wide cast of characters isn't as interesting, either. Madonna, Beatty's lover at the time, does a nifty job singing and playing the vamp (it's her career-long dynamic, after all) - but few viewers will feel the raw heat this pair is supposed to have. Headly is a good actress, but she's playing someone who's a bit stiff, like Tracy himself.

65% on Rotten Tomatoes? Only if you're very drunk. In short, "nothing to see here, move along..."

Spy Kids 2

Bless Robert Rodriguez. The guy is careful with his projects, yet he's capable of steady production. He's no Woody Allen, of course, but RR releases movies far more often than his famous friends, Quentin Tarantino and GDT(?).

I'd never argue that Rodriguez is *not* a genius. I saw his first movie, "El Mariachi," before I'd ever heard of him, and I knew the man had a great talent.

But genius sometimes comes with Madness, and Robert is clearly a manic guy. Everyone says that when he gets talking, he starts going breathlessly, mile-a-minute.

Nowhere is this character trait more apparent than this sequel to "Spy Kids." Everything happens superfast, the story races along from one scene to the next, and the characters are often getting their words out at tight clip.

"SK2," then, is a dim, drug-addled, blurry reflection of its predecessor. All the creativity and romance and ability to relate is gone. Real emotional content has been replaced by wall-to-wall CGI.

Y'know how it's always annoying when a sequel caters too much to new viewers? Imagine the extreme opposites: movies either mired in their own past or changing every second. Even when this picture isn't referencing something new, there's very little opportunity to form a real connection to anything that's happening on-screen.

I remember the original pic in this (sigh!) franchise. It was an extremely pleasant surprise. You know what surprised me about "Spy Kids 2?" Exactly two things:

(a) How closely it adheres to every stereotype of sequels. While RR is the sort of writer/director who can intentionally play with those sorts of cliches and ideas, I'm not convinced that any of it is necessary. Does a knowing mistake get credit if it still doesn't fire as well as it should have?..

(b) "SK2" is a movie on meth. As a result, it shows little of the careful work of the first movie. There isn't much care to make scenes believable; it's almost as if getting them over with is enough to make them make sense.

Although this is a kids' series, the first effort was perfect for adults too. This time, stuff just happens.

The real joy to be found here: George Clooney appears here, and he does an impression of Sylvester Stallone that is one of my favorite moments out of everything!

Despite the brilliant joy of that scene, I doubt you'll find any happiness here. If so, I pray you develop better standards - there's no attempt to give the moments an emotional foundation, and even a kids' flick can aim higher than that. 75% on RT, a 66 Metascore? No way.

Scream 2

Unfortunately, Wes Craven proves here that inspiration, unlike lightning, only strikes a franchise once. I covered "Scream" before, and consider it so good that I'll probably write it up again [UPDATE: 3 years later, I did]. The problem is that Hollywood has a very skewed concept of what makes for a "franchise."

The real test here - assuming you saw the initial entry - is that the characters were a lot of fun in that first movie. For whatever reason, in "S2," I felt engaged with four of them (Arquette, Campbell, Cox, and Kennedy), and very dissatisfied with the writing - or the film's use - of the rest.

The story didn't lend itself to a sequel, but I can understand the studio's thinking. The real lesson of "Scream" was that a vicious, brutal, visceral murderer was very thrilling - especially when that killer goes up against a slew of all-too-real teens who are filled to the brim with horror film knowledge and pop culture references. Other people, I think, only took one lesson: that "Scream" made $173M worldwide.

In reality, the studio could've asked Wes Craven to do several youth-centric horror films without having to use the same cast or the same killer - or maybe, gasp!, do a wholly unrelated story with a different name (oooooh), creating something that is high in tension, scares, and wit. Nope. The people behind this decided to bring everybody back, including gifted/indulgent/flawed screenwriter Kevin Williamson. So what can I say?

I lost my faith in the film-makers early on... This sequel shows an ability to be smart, but it's not as clever as it thinks it is, especially when we learn all about the killer. There are some good jokes and at least some decent acting. There are many bloody deaths, yet I never felt afraid like I was during the first flick. It's just another game of "Ten Little Indians."

The end result is "Scream 2," a wretched mock-parrot of a film that doesn't do much to earn most anything it does. If you're looking for a good scare, look elsewhere. If you're looking for a funny ride, please keep in mind that too much Williamson dialogue grows tiresome quickly, unless you love the acting. I really couldn't believe how impressed I was with Craven in 1996, and I couldn't believe how disappointed I was with him 1 year later. RT shows a confounding 81% score, which Metacritic follows up with a too-high 63.

The Golden Child

Believe it or not, there was a time when Eddie Murphy seemed like the funniest guy in America. It was beautiful. He'd made a great run on the comedy circuit, which led to an exceptional 4-year run on Saturday Night Live. Walter Hill's great "48 Hours" put Eddie on the charts as a natural movie star.

"The Golden Child" is a supernatural action film that came out in 1986. Murphy had already become a hot ticket - "48" was followed by "Beverly Hills Cop," which was also a critical and commercial blockbuster. Eddie's streak, in quality and success, did not end here.

In short, Eddie is an LA social-worker specializing in missing kids; he's a slick conman-type, but he's willing to ask questions, pass bribes, and bust heads in order to stop crime and help people. After a lot of freakish special effects (excellent at the time) and events, he's told that he's the chosen one - only Murphy can save an innocent, dalai lama-esque boy from a fiendish man with the impossible name of Sardo Numspa.

If anything, "The Golden Child" was so popular because it was carefully-targeted to a broad American audience. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as I recommend this pic and think it's a fun watch. I'll explain what I mean and you decide what you think of it...

Please understand, everything about this movie is purposeful, and its focus is, ultimately, very effective. Three examples should suffice. First, the film wants you to feel like you're in the real-world Los Angeles, and it succeeds. People go missing, get involved with gangs, cops don't get the job done while vigilantes can...

Second, TGC wants you to know that the supernatural exists alongside our modern times, and it integrates all those elements perfectly. Our hero walks into dreams that are absurd in just the right way; a large winged monster might crash on top of your car, then fly away to hover overhead; and normal objects might suddenly spring to life, or be deadly in unexpected ways.

Last, the non-leads do a lot to show that Murphy is both (a) flawed and (b) a great human being. At times, it seems like most of the dialogue in this pic is either praise or criticism of the protagonist.

A lot of times, these types of open exposition can grate against a film-goer. When the intentions of the characters are so clear, the writers are basically describing everything to you as if you were blind. Since the picture is always entertaining, though, it gets away with constantly telling you what things are. I guess it helps that so many things simply happen, and the roles are left to respond whether they know what's going on or not.

For the story, the real key, then, is having Murphy as the sort of hero who does well even when he doesn't know what he's doing. For the audience, the real key is having Eddie succeed while he's also cool, brash, and mocking. His incredible, dead-funny attitude is what pulls a viewer in to the movie and makes people connect with his part.

For those of us who remember and mourn Eddie Murphy's career, it's great to look back and remember when he was firing on all cylinders. Murphy's "Golden" performance is a perfect example of what Hollywood tried repeat with all those Chris Tucker movies: a proud, confident, boastful lead who is down to earth sensibility and clever without having much money or education. It's easy to get behind a lead who's civic-minded while being ignorant in a way that's likable.

Whether it's Tucker insulting the great Jackie Chan by asking if he "understand[s] the words that are coming out of my mouth" or Murphy is rapping a request to monks, it's the same spirit. Eddie sells it because he's funnier and his movies were better. Also, I find Chris' voice can be grating, and his lines in "Rush Hour" sound kinda racist.

Everything about this 1986 picture was made to draw young viewers in the US. An aside between two characters even contains the lines, “Those magnificent Americans. So much power and so little understanding of what to do with it." Believe me, "The Golden Child" may have been released 2 weeks before Christmas, but it was a summer blockbuster in most every way. It's amazing how 80's action works so much better than much of what came after it.

I like the odd, often subdued tone that makes "TGC" feel more "real." There are many fun and intense sequences throughout, and they all play well. Little things that are supposed to effect viewers - the soda can, the bird, the test for the dagger, Murphy's despair at defeat- they tend to play as intended. This is a fun, funny ride. 26% on RT makes no sense...

Live Free or Die Hard

When popular franchises - tv shows or movies - start to lose steam, they often become the "steroid version" of their basic description. People often feel like they have to "out-do themselves." The results can be good or bad - many thrive under this sort of pressure or philosophy. Sometimes, the results are predictable, yet still enjoyable.

Most of "Live Free or Die Hard" is the shrillest possible evolution of that. The basic idea of "Die Hard" is that John McClane (aka Bruce Willis) is a funny-and-flawed, "average joe," foul-mouthed New Yorker who's also a determined and smart cop; he finds himself with a personal stake (usually, his lovely wife) in a random super-crime run by a crack team of deceptive and cleverly-vicious baddies.

A bigtime money-making "Part 4" apparently required that a heist that isn't set over a skyscraper, an airport, or a city - now it's the entire USA. It's impractical and melodramatic to up the stakes instead of finding another way to engage the audience. The bad guy, played by Tim Olyphant, is crazier than any "DH" villain before him; but he's not especially scary and there's not much to his interaction with McClane.

And since it's been 19 years since the successful original effort, Bruce has a kid for a sidekick. It's PG-13, too, another great sign that the producers (why, Fox, why?) were desperate for mass-appeal. Then again, so is the pre-July 4th release (June 27th) and the title. This was the first "Die Hard" I didn't see in a theater, and I had good instincts...

Parts of this movie are just odd or absurd enough to make you think you're watching something clever: a weird tunnel sequence, flying cop cars, an appearance by Kevin Smith as a mega-hacker. Random freakishness, however, pops up a lot in Michael Bay movies (think Turturro in Transformers), and it doesn't make them any deeper, does it?

Now that John is freed from normal constraints like city limits, interior walls, and logic, he can get try to stop exploding gas lines and jets on a highway. The threat isn't just larger for society, it's bigger for John - the third act finds McClane's estranged (of course!) daughter as a hostage; as we all know, child>wife in film's family-threat hierarchy.

The biggest way that "Die Hard" shows its age - as a franchise - is not in Bruce Willis' clean-shaven scalp. It's in the fact that there's very little to enjoy, here. Even the inferior second and third parts offered up fun scenes or lively performances to help wash down the high-octane action. Everything here is less believable, less fun, and has become louder and more insistent instead of sharper or more distinct. I don't understand the 69 score on metacritic or the 82% approval on RT.

What do we even call a sequel? How about: "I Know You Died Hard Last Summer"
"Die Harder, Die Best?"
"If You Don't Die Hard, You Ain't Amurrican"
No wait, "Kill Bad Guys 'Cause You're Die Hardtm"

Judge Dredd

A textbook case for how a big budget doesn't translate to quality, or good box office. This picture is based on a popular line of comics set in a post-apocalyptic future where the police force is very rough and exact. There are cool weapons, a weird future world to describe, and an incredible danger to confront.

Unfortunately, "Judge Dredd" has Sylvester Stallone backed by Rob Schneider. This is the pair that's supposed to lead you into summer-time action-film heaven. Instead, we got a latter-day "Ishtar." Do not expect to enjoy this picture, unless you're drugged or laughing sarcastically.

Much of my criticism for "JD" is a worse version of what you could say about Stallone's other future actioner, "Demolition Man" : the future setting is mostly used to make the audience laugh or feel shocked; the weapons are there because cool killing toys are way easier to write than good ideas; and Sly shows that providing a charismatic action lead that's reasonably-tailored to a specific role still does not make for a compelling story or a good film.

It's all a shame, as the set-up for this comic-fiction world is supposed to be visceral, enjoyable, and a surprisingly thoughtful. The cast includes J├╝rgen Prochnow, Max Von Sydow, Diane Lane, Balthazar Getty, Joan Chen, and Armand Assante. Everyone puts in good work, as they can, but they can't help the story. It jumps from scene to scene sometimes; it's a choice that shows the director was just pushing the plots ahead.

Keep in mind that I generally revile Rob Schneider. He might donate a ton to charity every year, but I think he's not nearly so funny to be on-screen so often. It's a telling and sad thing that the best lines are where Schneider and Assante make fun of Stallone's voice. How sad is that?

You could mock the film for being a typical creation of mindless-but-bloated American film-making. You could mock it as something so dedicated to being an action film that it's almost a "meta-action film." Yet, in the end, you should mock "Judge Dredd" because it's not especially exciting to watch, the jokes are mostly un-laughable, and the story is neither emotionally engaging nor stimulating for the old noggin. As an unintentional comedy (15% on RT), then "yes," I think...

Finding Forrester

Gus Van Sant went back to nearly the same well that he rode to success in "Good Will Hunting." But it didn't work out nearly so well the second time with "Finding Forrester." I don't think you'd like the pic unless your dental surgery got you excused from work and the meds are still blissing your mind away.

In brief, a typical black teen in NYC has an incredible gift for writing. He's invited to go to the sort of fancy school that's attended by kids whose parents are often mention in the New York Times. He runs into Sean Connery, who plays "what if J.D. Salinger retired in the Bronx," recognizes him, and the two begin a friendship.

In every way, this movie has sequelitis, picking up the themes of "GWH" - the hyper-gifted kid who might find rare success or awful failure, a relationship with a strange, benevolent mentor... This time, the spin was that (a) the lead was just a kid, (b) the generation and culture gap was bigger, and (c) it wasn't about a bunch of white people. In a way, these lofty goals might've made the result even more painful.

In truth, I could describe "FF" as "a nice idea" and end my review there. All the elements I described are good things to strive for, but the execution was just shoddy. The prestigious school is largely taken from a Whit Stillman movie, offering conflicts and triumphs that feel bland or forced. The boy's natural genius isn't so dazzling as to win an audience over. It lacks something like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's friendship, one of the keys to the success of "Hunting."

Most tellingly, Van Sant is clearly a guy who doesn't want to give minorities mere lip-service. Yet there's nothing new, gripping or wise on display. Not in the depiction of life in the projects, nor in the conflicts that street life can have with a half-life among the upper crust. It's not educational or gripping, so what is "Finding Forrester?"

Some people would question whether Gus should even try something like this. No, the inter-racial romance doesn't make the story more compelling. But it's not helped by the opening, which shows us an 8 year old (?) rap artist whose rhymes should not impress anyone who has every heard rhymes before. It's not a good sign when that's how you begin your movie - a really bad rap.

The attempts to bridge the generation gap largely failed, too. The other key to "Hunting" was the Williams-Damon relationship; they were very caustic, but they understood each other and we saw the relationship grow. This pic is really screwed, then, as the connection in "Forrester" feels shallow. I know, it's "kindred strangers" versus "lifelong friends," but still...

"Finding Forrester" shows how inferior it is to "Good Will Hunting" in one last way: see, most people don't know math, so showing that a film role is a math genius is actually not too hard. Writing? That's what "Forrester" is about, and everyone knows how to understand words. Whereas Damon's Will got to impress an audience by scribbling symbols on a board and watching professors melt, Van Sant couldn't find a good way to translate "genius writer" to the screen. It's funny to watch this failure.

When the big moment arrives, Sean reads the words written by his young protege/mentee/friend/whatever. But the score just gets louder, to drown out his dialogue. While "nominate this for an Oscar" music plays, we see Sean's weathered face, and the looks of young minds seemingly blown away by his astounding "sh"-laden words. The sequence not only seems dumb, it's incredibly shallow; couldn't they create more than one straight sentence of "great writing?"

Doing a movie like this was not a good choice for Gus Van Sant. It was especially dumb, since this movie also features a protagonist who can embarrass people with his knowledge of obscure facts. It's just that this incident involves some bigotry instead of dating, and the origin of the BMW logo, not American history.

I cannot understand the 74% result on RT, nor the 62 on Meta, but I don't have to.This film is all about bad choices - the bad choices made by various production staff. In the end, "Finding Forrester" is so absurd and comical that it gave birth to the "You're the man now, dog" meme. Really, don't waste your time...

I'm not sure that I made these reviews shorter, really, so you tell me. Some day in the future, I will do one set as efficiently as possible, even if only as an experiment. And, next time, I'll probably scatter the genre selection more. I hope you liked MRQ #8.


  1. Wow, lot to comment on here. I'll start by the beginning!

    I liked Dick Tracy, mostly for it's unique visual style and Al Pacino. The rest was pretty average, but two things really annoyed me, the score and that whiny little kid.

    Spy Kids, I hate, all of them. I've watched them loads of times while growing up and disliked them more each time. I just find them incredibly stupid. Not much else to say really...

    Scream 2 I liked, but then again I liked all the three Screams, I didn't really think their was a massive decline in quality to be honest.

    Live Free and Die Hard is the worst Die Hard in my opinion, and I'm a massive Die Hard fan. It just didn't feel like a Die Hard, it was a complete departure from the type of film Mctiernan had set up with the first film, which had then been continued in the second and third.
    And those French villains were ridiculous.

    I haven't seen the others, and I'm kind of glad I haven't.

    Great reviews Thaddeus!

  2. Thanks, man! Yeah, Dick Tracy did have things to like, but the proportion is all out of wack, and it's hard to ignore. It's also one of those stories that shouldn't be hard to do (Tracy is a very typical, if distinct, hero), so I can't be nice if they didn't do well with it...

    I have to admit that I really liked the first Spy Kids. The story between the parents is a great set-up, and Rodriguez' style works nicely. I'll talk about it in a review, but Alan Cumming and Tony Shaloub made SK 1 easy to like.

    Scream 2 was another big let-down. I know I watch scary movies more often than you, so I have my annoying standard of wanting horror films to be really scary. The first nailed that, and the second felt so much like "I Know What You arghhh" for me to have a good time. It's a shame, because Part 1 was a real movie; with irony and killers.

    Live Free was another example of money that could've been spent to plant trees, or educate children, or feed the homeless, etc etc

    I do actually suggest The Golden Child, but you have to be in the mood for a hybrid popcorn blockbuster/B-movie-sensibility American action flick...

  3. I would no recommend watchign the third Spy Kids, it's absolutely terrible. Worse than the firs two even.

    Yeah, I think we have really different views on Scream 2 (and probably 3). I don't really like very scary films, so I was relieved that the Scream's weren't scary. You seem to think the opposite though...

    They could of even used the budget of Live Free to fund several other better films ;)

    Sounds like I'd have to be in a very specific mood to watch The Golden Child, Eddie Murphy really gets of my nerves though so I doubt I'll watch it.


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