Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Transformers: The Movie (1986)

I was born in that awkward grey area where I could be labelled as among the youngest members of "Generation X," or among the oldest members of "Generation Y." Because of that, I like to refer to myself as belonging to "Generation X½." And I could be a little biased, but the Gen X½'ers around my age had the coolest childhoods ever. The toys were cooler, the TV shows were cooler, the movies were cooler, and the cartoons were cooler. And thanks to Ronald Reagan, we were the first to see a new way products were marketed to kids.

Prior to the '80s, the Federal Communications Commission strictly regulated how things were advertised to youngsters. But in 1984, the FCC decided to open the floodgates and do away with most of their restrictions. Thanks to this, toy manufacturers started making their own cartoons based on their products. Soon we were seeing cartoon versions of G.I. Joe, Masters of the Universe, M.A.S.K., the Care Bears, Rainbow Brite, Strawberry Shortcake, and countless others. And let's not forget one of the more memorable ones, the Transformers.

The creation of Hasbro, the Transformers began as a series of action figures before transitioning to their own popular syndicated cartoon not long after the FCC dropped their restrictions. The cartoon even inspired a movie, appropriately titled The Transformers: The Movie. It was the second animated movie released in the summer of 1986 that was based on Hasbro toys, following My Little Pony: The Movie. Both underperformed so badly that Hasbro's yet-to-be-released G.I. Joe animated movie had its theatrical release cancelled and was sent direct to video.

And although the movie was a critical and financial failure, long-time Transformers fans continue to hold it in high regard. I wasn't really into the Transformers when I was a kid, and I thus have no sort of nostalgic feelings for it. So let's see if the movie holds up for an outsider looking in.

It is the distant year 2005, and the villainous Decepticons have conquered the Transformer homeworld, Cybertron. Forced to retreat to Cyberton's moons, the heroic Autobots aren't willing to take this sitting down, and make plans for an attack. They launch a supply shuttle to their base on Earth, but the Decepticons catch wind of this and launch a full-scale assault on Earth.

The Autobots manage to repel their enemies, but not before their commander, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), is mortally wounded by the Decepticon leader, Megatron (Frank Welker). Before he dies, Optimus Prime chooses Ultra Magnus (Robert Stack) to succeed him as leader of the Autobots, bestowing upon him a powerful talisman known as the "Autobot Matrix of Leadership." With his dying words, he states that the Matrix of Leadership will shine a light when the Autobots are in their darkest hour.

Meanwhile, a fuel shortage in their spaceship prompts the fleeing Decepticons to lighten the load by throwing their wounded out the airlock, including the injured Megatron. As the remaining Decepticon lieutenants argue over who will be the new leader, the castoffs are left to drift through space. They ultimately encounter Unicron (Orson Welles), a planet-sized machine that consumes other planets for fuel. Unicron retrieves them and offers to rebuild them on the condition that they destroy the Matrix, the only thing that could possibly destroy him. Megatron reluctantly agrees, and is reborn as Galvatron (Leonard Nimoy).

Galvatron's first order of business is to destroy his treacherous underling Starscream (Chris Latta), taking command of the Decepticons as he did when he was Megatron. He then finds Ultra Magnus and defeats him long enough to steal the Matrix. With Ultra Magnus out of commission, Hot Rod (Judd Nelson) steps in to lead the Autobots on a mission to reclaim the Matrix, defeat Unicron, and take out the Decepticons once and for all.

If you don't eat, sleep, and breathe Transformers, you probably aren't going to like The Transformers: The Movie that much. In fact, I'll guarantee you won't. The whole thing is utter nonsense from start to finish, thanks to ugly animation and terrible writing. But I'd be stupid to expect anything more out of it. The movie was produced with the sole purpose of selling toys, so if Hasbro's stock went up after this, good for them. But since I've always been relatively indifferent to the Transformers, I can't really see why the movie is so beloved. Yeah, there are the stories of kids losing their minds because Optimus Prime died, but I couldn't get over how bad the movie is. Maybe it's one of those cases where I'd appreciate it more if I were a kid in 1986 instead of as an adult in 2009.

Let's start this critique with the animation, courtesy of Toei Animation. It might have worked for a Saturday morning TV show, but for a motion picture to be released theatrically, it sucks. It looks cheap, to be blunt. Half the time, I wasn't quite sure what was supposed to be going on, since the animation didn't strike me as being very detailed. The scaling is inconsistent as well, because some characters appear larger or smaller depending on what was needed for the shot. And let's not forget the handful of sequences where I would swear that the animators were just repeating a few frames over and over in order to get the necessary shots.

At least it was counterbalanced by the movie's awesome music. From the great synth-oriented score composed by Vince DiCola to the rockin' soundtrack, the music is nothing short of spectacular. Okay, I'll admit that twenty years of musical evolution have made the songs kinda cheesy in retrospect. But don't tell me you can't listen to Lion's version of the Transformers theme song or "The Touch" by Stan Bush and not get a little excited. And even though the use of Weird Al Yankovic's "Dare to Be Stupid" at one point seems really out of nowhere considering the rest of the songs, the music is totally awesome.

Unfortunately, Ron Friedman's script isn't so fantastic. It's actually the exact opposite of fantastic. The plot is insane and disjointed, the dialogue is forgettable, and it moves from one scene to another seemingly at random. There's pretty much zero character development, so unless you've seen every single episode of the cartoon, you're not going to know anything about anyone in the movie.

And oddly, the movie actually has a pretty huge body count, while a lot of brand new Transformers appear for the very first time with barely an introduction. Turns out it's because Hasbro wanted to kill off as many of the original Transformers as they could so they could roll out their newest product line. Classic characters like Optimus Prime and Megatron don't even appear on the poster, because they've been replaced by all these new Transformers. Just as the show was a commercial for toys, the movie is a commercial for new toys. Maybe that's why Friedman's writing is so sloppy. Why bother coming up with anything substantial when all you're really supposed to do is make sure a bunch of new toys get face time while pushing the old ones out of the way?

Last on my list is the voice acting, done by a combination of big-time actors and the usual people from the TV show. The most talked-about member of the cast is Orson Welles, who died just five days after recording his dialogue. They supposedly had to run his voice through all kinds of computer filters to make it sound presentable, though you still get the feeling that Welles just didn't care at all. (And if I'd gone from making Citizen Kane to doing voice-over work as a planet-eating giant robot in an 84-minute toy commercial, I probably wouldn't care about too many things anymore.)

The rest of the cast, though, aren't too bad. Among the famous names who contributed, the only negative part came from John Moschitta, who you may or may not remember as the fast-talking guy from the FedEx and Micro Machines commercials back in the '80s. The whole fast-taking thing is okay for commercials, but having him play a character that talks at super-speed every time he shows up is annoying. But as a whole, the celebrity voices — which include Leonard Nimoy, Robert Stack, Monty Python member Eric Idle, Casey Kasem, Judd Nelson, and Scatman Crothers in his final movie — aren't bad, even if they're only really there to collect a paycheck.

As for the usual Transformer voice actors, it's just business as usual for them. Among them, the only really memorable work comes from Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime. He's simply fantastic. Cullen makes Optimus Prime sound like the proud, inspiring hero he should be, and if there's one positive thing I can say about the Transformers property as a whole, it's that Cullen rules.

But honestly, I can't say that I'd recommend The Transformers: The Movie to anyone that isn't already a huge Transformers fan to begin with. If you aren't already a fan, I doubt this flick will convert you. I'm convinced that only the truly die-hard Transformers aficionados, the ones who absolutely cannot get enough of it, will love this movie.

Me, on the other hand... I didn't care too much for it. I'm sorry, Transformers fans, but it just wasn't for me. There are some really cool parts, granted. But for me, those cool parts are ultimately few and far between. So while I'd give it a higher rating if I were a fan, I can't justify giving The Transformers: The Movie more than two stars on the Sutton Scale. I keep saying it, but if I were more into the franchise, I'd have probably been able to appreciate it more.

Final Rating: **

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Double Dragon (1994)

I've seen quite a few movies based on video games, and the ones that are actually good are so few and far between that you'd swear they don't exist at all. The truth is that most of them fall into one of three categories: merely adequate, so bad they're good, and so awful that they only exist to show where the bottom of the barrel is. And there have been quite a few of these "bottom of the barrel" movies, too. Just take a look at Mortal Kombat: Annihilation or any of the video game movies directed by Uwe Boll.

Another of these awful movies is Double Dragon. Based on the classic '80s arcade game distributed by the now-defunct Taito Corporation, Double Dragon can actually say it was the second live-action video game movie ever made. But it can also say it had one of the poorest receptions of any video game movie, grossing just barely over two million dollars during its domestic theatrical run. And let me tell you, this movie sucks pretty hard too.

The movie takes place in the far off year of 2007, where the city formerly known as Los Angeles has become a post-apocalyptic hellhole in the wake of a big earthquake that hit seven years earlier. The city became so riddled with crime that the police were forced to reach a compromise, where the gangs would have free reign over the streets once the sun goes down.

Among the city's criminals is Kogo Shuko (Robert Patrick), a would-be crime lord seeking to possess "the Double Dragon," a mysterious medallion said to give immeasurable power to whoever wields it. It was split into two pieces centuries ago, and Shuko has managed to get his hands on one piece. All he needs now is the other half...

...which is in the possession of Satori Imuda (Julia Nickson), the mentor and mother figure of karate experts Billy (Scott Wolf) and Jimmy Lee (Mark Dacascos). Billy and Jimmy are supposed to be brothers, but I just don't see it. Anyway, Satori and the Lees run afoul of a particular gang, who sends word back to Shuko that they have the other half of the medallion. Figuring that there's strength in numbers, Shuko unites the gangs and breaks the truce with the police in order to find his quarry.

He even tracks down and kills Satori, though Billy and Jimmy manage to get away with their half of the medallion. Left with nowhere to turn, Billy and Jimmy seek help from Marian Delario (Alyssa Milano) and the Power Corps, a group of urban youths dedicated to reclaiming the streets from the gangs. Now with their own backup, Billy and Jimmy decide to take the fight to Shuko and claim the complete medallion for themselves.

I'm not going to bother sugarcoating it: Double Dragon sucks. It's such a terrible movie that it makes me pine for such fare as Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life or Doom. I'd rather watch a random Uwe Boll movie instead of Double Dragon. That's how awful this movie is. I take that back, I'd rather not watch one of Boll's movies. But that doesn't change the fact that Double Dragon sucks.

It's just so horribly made, from the acting to the writing, right down to the set design and the costumes. It's almost embarrassing to watch. I watched the movie two or three times while writing my notes for this review, and I kinda hate myself a little because of it. Do you know how bad a movie has to be in order to inspire feelings like that? It has to be unbelievably bad. The movie is like Street Fighter, but worse. The direction is sub-generic, the effects are weak, the writing is mind-numbing, and the acting is lousy. This whole thing is one big crap sandwich trying to force itself down your throat. And that just isn't cool. You hear me, Double Dragon? That's not cool!

The man at the helm of this sinking ship is James Yukich, a music video director with no prior movie experience. And considering he's only directed one movie since, I guess he decided to stick with music videos. That's a good thing, because his direction here is the worst kind of generic. There is nothing memorable or exciting to mention. Yukich's lack of filmmaking experience is apparent, as he doesn't get any decent cinematography or any decent performances from the cast. If I'd actually seen this movie theatrically, the only thing Yukich would have directed would have been me towards the nearest exit. That's how flat and uninspiring his work is.

Even the music is bad. Composed by Jay Ferguson, the score is just as unremarkable and forgettable as every other part of the movie. It's like he saw the movie sucked, and decided he just wouldn't bother.

The script is also pretty awful. It's written by Michael Davis and Peter Gould, but the most surprising thing is that Paul Dini gets a "story by" credit. Yeah, the Paul Dini that created the awesome Batman cartoon in the early '90s. It's the same guy. But as to the script, it's dreadful. A trained chimpanzee could have written this movie. It's just one lame joke after another. You get the feeling that the writers were so busy coming up with stupid crap to put in the script that they never got around to putting forth any sort of positive effort.

There's just so much garbage in the script that I can't imagine anyone with an IQ over 75 thinking that it would have made a good movie. But let's break this down into specific complaints. First, there's the villain. Kogo Shuko's main goal is not the usual world domination thing. Instead, he just wants to take over one city. One single, solitary city. Really. And it's not even a city that's worth taking over in the first place! Either Shuko's aiming really low, or taking over a city is the first step in a grander scheme. But one way or another, you'd think that a bad guy would aim a little higher, even if wanting to rule the world is a bad guy cliché.

And then there's the awful, awful dialogue. You know how the dialogue they gave Michelangelo in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon from the '80s is kinda irritating when you look back on it? Imagine more than one character talking like that. Yeah, it's as bad as it sounds. And then there are the cheap little shout-outs to Who's The Boss? and General Hospital. Just because you've cast people who starred on popular television shows doesn't mean that you should use the names of these shows as jokes. At least the General Hospital one was a bit less on-the-nose.

Last on my list are the actors, and what a motley crew they are. I'm pretty sure there's not a single good performance among them. But I guess I should break this one down, too. Our heroes are played by Scott Wolf and Mark Dacascos, who play their roles as a couple of losers whose combined brain power couldn't turn on a light bulb. I don't know whether to blame the piss-poor writing or the actors themselves, but Wolf and Dacascos just plain suck. Their characters are ineffectual idiots for pretty much the entire movie, and their performances don't exactly improve the quality of the material.

As our villain, Robert Patrick is so hammy that there's no way to take him seriously. Patrick obviously realizes that he made a bad decision by agreeing to be in this movie, because you can tell by the way he acts that he just doesn't care. He's so over the top that it almost becomes comedic. And I'm sure Patrick was wondering the same thing I was: How did he end up going from Terminator 2 to Double Dragon?

Bringing up the rear is Alyssa Milano, whose career was in that awkward stage between Who's The Boss? and Charmed. She did an awful lot of crap during that period, and I'm surprised we never heard a story about how she beat her agent to death with a crowbar. Anyway, Milano is at least watchable, in spite of having so much going against her. The script sucks, the wardrobe department made her wear some really goofy costumes, and the hair and makeup department gave her a bleached blonde crew cut. No, seriously. Milano is able to overcome the nonsense for a little while, but it ultimately drags her down into a performance that is mediocre at best.

I will admit that Double Dragon does have something of a goofy charm to it, but that will only get you so far. It doesn't change the fact that the movie is utterly inept. And the odd thing is that, in the pantheon of bad video game movies, Double Dragon has been pretty much forgotten. Everybody always gravitates to Super Mario Bros. or Street Fighter or one of the zillion others out there. But nobody ever mentions Double Dragon. It's almost on the level of one of those movies that a friend of a friend has seen, but you've only heard about.

I've actually seen it, and I can tell you that it's a real stinker. It's not so bad that you can't watch the whole thing in one sitting, but it isn't a movie that you'd ever see yourself wanting to watch more than once. So in summation, I'd give Double Dragon one and a half stars on my usual grading scale. But at least it wasn't as bad as BloodRayne.

Final Rating:

Friday, July 10, 2009

Watchmen (2009)

"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"
("Who watches the watchmen?")
—Juvenal, Satire 6.346–348

For the longest time, comic books were considered solely kids stuff, an unsophisticated form of entertainment with no relevance to those who had put away childish things. But as the world began edging ever closer to the twenty-first century, things started changing. Books like Frank Miller's Sin City and The Dark Knight Returns, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, and Garth Ennis's Preacher helped to expand comics beyond their regular audiences, and they all have Watchmen to thank.

Written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons, and published by DC Comics, Watchmen was first foisted upon the world as a twelve-issue series that began in 1986. The series was compiled into a single tome soon after its conclusion, and quickly earned recognition as a benchmark in the comic book industry. Moore and Gibbons's acclaimed murder mystery is, at the time of this writing, the only comic book to have both won a Hugo Award and earn an inclusion in Time's list of the greatest English-language novels published since 1923.

Rumors of a cinematic adaptation surfaced not too long after the beginning of Watchmen's initial monthly publication, but the project languished in developmental hell for over twenty years before any real progress was made. The movie finally entered production at the end of 2007 and saw its theatrical release four months ago, much to the anticipation of devoted comic book readers around the world. But does the Watchmen movie live up to the seminal comic book that serves as its inspiration?

Welcome to the year 1985, a world where Richard Nixon is still in office after successfully repealing the 22nd Amendment, America won the war in Vietnam before making the country the 51st state, and tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union are so high that nuclear war is literally weeks away. But none of that is of any concern to Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a masked vigilante who operates in open defiance of legislation that outlawed costumed crimefighters and forced those fancying themselves as "superheroes" into retirement.

While investigating the murder of Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Rorschach discovers that he was secretly "The Comedian," a ruthless, cynical superhero still active as an employee of the government. While Blake's exploits had made him many enemies in the world of politics over the years, Rorschach believes that his death may be part of a broad conspiracy to eliminate various members of what once was the superhero community.

And as it turns out, mounting evidence seems to prove him right. An assassin makes a failed attempt to kill Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), an influential and popular entrepreneur once known as "Ozymandias, the world's smartest man." Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) — whose vast godlike abilities have made him "Doctor Manhattan," the linchpin of the American military's success — exiles himself to Mars after allegations surface that he may be to blame for the terminal cancer that has stricken many of his former associates over the years. Rorschach himself is framed for the murder of an old foe and thrown in prison.

These incidents draw the attention of Daniel Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), a former masked hero who was once the closest thing Rorschach had to a friend. Dreiberg connects the dots and realizes that Rorschach's so-called "mask killer" may somehow be connected to the impending war between America and the Soviet Union. It isn't long before he and Doctor Manhattan's former lover, Laurie Jupiter (Malin Ackerman), find themselves being pulled back into their superhero identities of "Nite Owl" and "Silk Spectre" in their efforts to discover the root of this conspiracy.

Many people have labeled Watchmen as one of the most important comic books ever published. When something earns a description like "the Citizen Kane of comics," you know going in that it'll be pretty big. Watchmen's influence can be felt in numerous properties both in and out of comics. Its fingerprints can even be seen in the family-friendly Disney/Pixar collaboration The Incredibles, as well as in elements of the NBC television series Heroes. But a cinematic adaptation of the book had long been considered impossible, as it was believed that the book was so complex that a movie would never work.

The idea of a Watchmen movie bounced around from studio to studio, from director to director and writer to writer. Even after the movie was actually filmed and began its marketing campaign, its North American release date was threatened by a nasty legal battle between 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. over the proper ownership of the movie's distribution rights. But after all that time, we finally arrived upon the film that we're discussing currently. And while there are some glaring differences between the comics and this adaptation, I believe that Zack Snyder and company made the best Watchmen movie they possibly could.

The trailers and posters for Watchmen referred to Snyder as a "visionary director." I don't know if I'd go as far as to call him a visionary, but I will agree that he's a guy who knows what kind of movie he wants to make. His two prior efforts — the Dawn of the Dead remake and 300 — were ultra-flashy affairs that, at the very least, were ultimately more style than substance. And while I don't think Snyder was the first person anyone would have thought of when it came to directing a Watchmen movie, he brings his unique style to the movie and actually does a better job than I would have expected. Though he doesn't gravitate towards a completely literal translation like what Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City, Snyder still manages to create a visually compelling movie that looks and feels just like the world depicted in the comics.

He and cinematographer Larry Fong treat each shot as if they were works of art, and although Snyder is guilty of a few excesses (the violence being almost too violent and the over-gratuitous Nite Owl/Silk Spectre sex scene, for example), he has ultimately fashioned a movie that he should be proud of. I should also compliment the movie's fantastic score, composed by Tyler Bates. I've liked the music that Bates has done for other movies, and Watchmen is no exception. His music here is quite effective, improving each scene by helping define the mood. I also thought that some of Bates's music sounds like the scores from Blade Runner and The Princess Bride. Maybe it's just me, but I thought it really worked well.

Next on the list is the screenplay. It's credited to David Hayter and Alex Tse, though I'm not sure how much of their work survived the last-minute rewrites by Snyder, Robert Orci, and Alex Kurtzman. Either way, the script is good. It was expected that some elements of the comics would have to be altered, condensed, or outright eliminated, as that happens in pretty much every time a book is adapted into a movie. But I think the writers succeeded without jeopardizing the story's integrity.

There's been a lot of talk among fans, however, about the ending. For the movie, Snyder has changed the villain's master plan from what it was in the comics to something that sets one of the heroes up to be a patsy. A lot of the diehard fans have complained that losing the most obvious element of the original ending is bordering on blasphemy, that the movie would need every single solitary detail about the comic's ending in order to work. But if you ask me, I thought the movie's ending worked fine. Complaining about it would be failing to see the forest for the trees. At the end of the movie, things end up falling into the same places as they did in the comic. So while the little details may have changed, the big picture stays the same.

Last but not least is the cast, the majority of whom I thought did fine work. Patrick Wilson is fantastic as the hopelessly dorky yet quite amiable Daniel Dreiberg. The character is a meek man who only feels strong when he's in his Nite Owl persona, and I felt that Wilson really nailed him, showing all the flaws and imperfections that you'd expect from the character.

However, I found Malin Ackerman to be a bit on the dull side, but that's more to blame on the character than on her acting ability. The problem with Ackerman's character is that Laurie never really seems to stand out. Even in the comics, Laurie ends up being overshadowed by every other character. She's not exactly one of the more memorable characters, and ultimately, Ackerman doesn't really contribute a very memorable performance. To her credit, though, she does remain consistent.

And then there's Matthew Goode. The casting of Goode was a bit controversial among the super-devoted fans prior to the movie's release, since quite a few of them didn't feel he was the right person for the role. But personally, I thought Goode did a great job. Though his switching back and forth between American and German accents depending on the scene can be distracting at times, I thought Goode was effective in portraying Adrian Veidt as the smug narcissist that he is in the comics. He really works well in the role, so in my opinion, hiring him was the right move.

I'll also admit that I was impressed with Billy Crudup as Doctor Manhattan. In other movies, his performance might get lost in the sea of CGI that comprises the visual aspect of the character. But Crudup's work manages to shine through, and he puts forth a respectable performance. He believably conveys the alienation of Doctor Manhattan, a character whose mere existence puts him in the unenviable position of being outside humanity looking in. Crudup's performance might seem cold, perhaps distant, but that only serves the character better.

But perhaps the best performances come from Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Jackie Earle Haley. Their work is so good that you don't see actors playing roles, you just see the characters. Though he only really shows up in flashbacks, Morgan is awesome as the thoroughly amoral Comedian. The character rapes and kills without feeling any sort of remorse, even seeming to enjoy himself at times. Morgan handles this well, playing the role with a certain self-assured cockiness that suits the character perfectly.

And what can I say about Jackie Earle Haley? He knocks it completely out of the park. Rorschach is arguably the most popular Watchmen character, and he makes a seamless transition from the comics to live action. Haley plays Rorschach as menacing as he is in the comic. His performance is riveting, and whenever he's onscreen, you can't look away. Haley practically steals the movie, and if you need one reason to see Watchmen, it should be Haley's performance.

As I said, I'd once heard the Watchmen comic book be described as being to comics what Citizen Kane was to movies. That makes sense to me. Like Citizen Kane, Watchmen's innovations completely changed the industry's landscape. But in regards to the Watchmen movie, I find myself agreeing with Geoff Boucher of the Los Angeles Times. Boucher wrote in his critique of Watchmen that it is, in essence, the superhero movie genre's answer to Fight Club. When David Fincher's adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel was released to theaters in 1999, it was an incredibly polarizing movie. Individual reaction to it was either at one extreme or the other; people either really loved it, or they really hated it. Some got the point, others missed it entirely. It's still like that ten years later. And judging by the reactions to the Watchmen movie, it's in the same boat as Fight Club. Like Fight Club, some will argue that Watchmen is a violent, excessive, and ultimately hollow movie with nothing to say, while others will argue that that the detractors don't "get it."

People unfamiliar with the comic book just weren't ready for a superhero movie like this, though as someone who loves the Watchmen that's on the printed page, I can't say that I was disappointed with the one that's on film. Personally, I'll gladly give Watchmen four stars and the "Sutton at the Movies" stamp of approval. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go try and subtract my intrinsic field. Wish me luck!

Final Rating: ****