Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)

I've been writing these reviews for the better part of a decade. And in that time, I've seen quite a few bad movies. Some of them I went into with high hopes, only to be disappointed. Others I knew were bad from the outset, but I sat through them because I wanted to test my endurance. But of all the bad movies that have been reviewed since I began "Sutton at the Movies," few have left me as puzzled as Twilight.

In spite of what the "Twi-hards" will try to tell you, Twilight is a truly awful movie. Everything about it seems purposely designed to torture non-fans. I could barely even watch it long enough to make fun of it. But the fans came out in droves to see it, so I shouldn't have been surprised when Summit Entertainment began production on The Twilight Saga: New Moon, a sequel based on the second book in Stephenie Meyer's series of novels. And let me tell you, it's every bit as bad as its predecessor.

As the movie begins, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) has just turned 18, but this doesn't exactly fill our plucky heroine with glee. Her birthday only reinforces her fear of growing old while her vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), will remain a teenager for eternity. But while she doesn't want to celebrate, Edward and his adoptive family throw her a party anyway.

The party ends up having been a really bad idea. When Bella gets a paper cut while unwrapping a gift, the scent of her blood causes Edward's brother to lose all self-control and attack her. Afraid that being around his family will put her in further danger, Edward dumps Bella, and the Cullens leave town permanently.

With her beloved Edward gone, Bella falls into a deep depression for several months. She eventually tries coming out of it by reconnecting with her friends, but finds that by engaging in increasingly risky behavior, she can evoke images of Edward in her mind.

Bella also manages to find comfort in her blossoming relationship with Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). She soon discovers, however, that he is a werewolf, the age-old enemy of vampires. And wouldn't you know it, Jacob's also a member of the Quileutes, a pack of werewolves who have long held a tenuous peace with the Cullens despite their rivalry.

The Quileutes have also sworn to protect Bella from a vampire that wishes to harm her, but problems far worse than that quickly arise. When a series of miscommunications leads him to erroneously believe that Bella has committed suicide, a distraught Edward chooses to provoke the Volturi, an ancient vampire coven, into killing him. Bella rushes to Italy to stop him, but is faced with an impossible choice that could result in either a war between the Cullens and the Quileutes or her own death.

I don't get it. I just don't get it. I don't see the appeal of the Twilight movies. The first one was bad enough, but New Moon is so dull that I cannot understand why the army of tween girls that adore this franchise so much can be so enthralled with such a bad movie. Are they so happy to see their favorite books turned into movies that they'll accept any crap that Summit Entertainment squeezes out?

The honest truth is that New Moon is just as bad as the first movie, and I have no idea why I watched it other than that I'm a total idiot. I'd have to be an idiot to keep subjecting myself to movies I know I won't like. Why else would I do so? But yeah, New Moon is bad.While Chris Waltz's direction is serviceable (and far better than the movie deserves), every other part of the movie is either laughable or cringe-inducing. The emo pop-punk soundtrack is annoying, the writing is atrocious, and the acting is so banal that it practically goes beyond words.

Let's get onto the writing for a second. I'm going to have to assume that screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (and by extension, Twilight creator Stephenie Meyer) just doesn't care at all. The entire idea of the movie, the whole premise, could have been done in such a way that a good story resulted from it. But that's not what we get. Instead, we get some mentally disturbed child who is so obsessed with her boyfriend that when he becomes a non-factor, her co-dependency drives her to madness. This has been analyzed by reviewers far more talented than I, so maybe I'm just rehashing other people's points. But the whole concept of New Moon, and especially the character of Bella Swan, is so offensive to my particular sensibilities that I really wish Rosenberg and Meyer had more talent than what they do.

And I can say the same thing about the cast. I'd like a more talented cast, but the Twilight franchise is stuck with these goons until the last book gets adapted. The odd thing is, though, that all but the three main characters are so inconsequential that they might as well have just been extras in the background.

Robert Pattinson's performance as the sparkly-skinned vampire Edward Cullen is an improvement over what it was in the first movie, but he still felt really bland. He's so boring and uninteresting that I honestly cannot fathom why girls are so in love with Pattinson, an actor who apparently has the polar opposite of charisma. Taylor Lautner fares better, however. Lautner isn't great or anything, and the only thing really demanded of him is that he stand around with no shirt on. But he's obviously trying not to suck, which is a breath of fresh air compared to the rest of the cast. The worst of the cast, though, is once again Kristen Stewart. She is terrible, doing nothing but look lost, stammering like she'd forgotten her lines. Stewart is awful to the point that I cannot believe anyone in the audience would be able to connect with her.

But it doesn't help that Stewart is playing one of the worst characters ever created. Bella Swan is a selfish, shallow bitch with borderline sociopathic tendencies and no regard for the feelings of anyone who cares about her. Why do people like this character so much? Why?! Can someone answer me? Yeah, everyone reading this was devastated the first time they got dumped. But you know what? I'm pretty sure we all eventually got over it and moved on, as opposed to Bella, whose self-serving obsession with Edward and apparent inability to be a functional member of society make her thoroughly irredeemable.

Now I know what you're saying: "Matt, why even watch the movie at all if all you're gonna do is bash it?" That's the thing. I actually went into New Moon hoping that it wouldn't be so bad. I mean, I didn't like the first Twilight movie, but maybe the second one would have been different. But no, all those hopes were dashed away when it proved itself to be nothing but junk. Outside of the most hardcore of "Twi-hards," you probably should avoid New Moon. It's not for regular people, just the fans. Those poor, pitiful fans.

Final Rating: **

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Jonah Hex (2010)

There's more to comic books than just superheroes. While tales of cape-wearing crimefighters may be the medium's dominant genre, there's also horror, fantasy, romance, and science fiction to be found at your local comic shop.

And though they are nowhere near as prevalent as they may have been decades ago, Western comics are still around. Among the rare Western characters still in publication is Jonah Hex, a horribly scarred bounty hunter and antihero who has been floating around the DC Comics universe since the '70s.

The creation of writer John Albano and artist Tony DeZuniga, Jonah debuted in 1972, in the tenth issue of what would become Weird Western Comics. He's been around in some form or fashion ever since, but outside of a few appearances in various DC animated projects, the character's media penetration has been practically nil... until recently. Of the multitude of characters in DC's pantheon, Jonah was tapped to star in his own movie. And you know what? He probably should have stayed in comics.

Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) was a soldier in the Confederate army, but was labeled a traitor after going against the orders of his commanding officer, Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich), to save a hospital full of innocent people. Turnbull's son is killed in the process, and swearing revenge, Turnbull murders Jonah's family before scarring his face with a branding iron. Found near death days later by a tribe of Native American mystics, he is nursed back to health but left with the ability to communicate with the dead.

Jonah pursued Turnbull for several years, but gave up after hearing Turnbull had perished in a hotel fire. Since then, he has establishing himself as an unrivaled bounty hunter. However, he may have a second chance at having his own modicum of vengeance. Turnbull turns up alive and well, having robbed a train of a powerful weapon with which he intends to overthrow the government. Once word gets back to Jonah that Turnbull is alive, he readies himself to settle their feud once and for all.

Jonah Hex is a movie that could have been so much better. But instead of the potentially awesome ultra-violent Western tale of revenge that it could have been, we're stuck with some mediocre mess of a movie that feels sloppy and unfinished. It's just a mishmash of scenes with not much of anything to connect them. It's sad, really.

In the director's chair is Jimmy Hayward, whose only prior directorial experience prior to Jonah Hex was the animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears A Who. His work isn't too awfully bad, but it would have been better had the movie didn't seem like it was taken out of his hands during editing. The editing is choppy in more than a few places, and I got the impression that a lot of stuff was chopped out to get a PG-13 rating. (The fact that the movie is barely 80 minutes long, including the end credits, says something.)

The editing makes the movie move along way too fast, which has the side effect of making it hard for anything in the movie to sink in. I'd actually forgotten half of the movie as soon as the credits began rolling. At least it never gets boring, and features some great music by John Powell and thrash metal band Mastodon. Those are plusses, at least.

As far as the script goes, it's nothing short of ludicrous. Written by Crank writer/directors Mark Neveldine and Bryan Taylor, the script is practically all over the place. There are more than a few scenes that have no real bearing on what little plot there actually is. I mean, what was that scene where Jonah coughs up a bird about? And that scene where Jonah and Turnbull are fighting in some kind of dream world of red sand? Is it too much for the movies I watch to make sense?

Last on my list is the acting, which ranges from "not bad" to "forgettable." In the lead role, Josh Brolin is fun and engaging. He growls his way through the movie, channeling his inner badass while delivering his one-liners with conviction.

However, he runs the risk of being upstaged by our villain du jour, John Malkovich. Malkovich is one of those actors you can count on to play a great bad guy, and his appearance in Jonah Hex further shows that. He's a heck of a lot of fun, and the role couldn't have been played any better.

Rounding out the primary members of the cast is Megan Fox, who plays a hooker who's taken a liking to Jonah. The advertising makes her out to be a major part of the movie, but the truth is that she only has about ten or fifteen minutes of screen time. Both Fox and her character are utterly useless here, and the movie would have been better off had both been eliminated. And let's face facts: Fox is just a crappy actress, period.

I've often wondered why Marvel Comics could crank out two or three movies a year, while DC just trotted out Batman every so often. I'd think, "Why can't DC start making movies based on their other properties?" Well, be careful what you wish for, because you may just get it. It thankfully isn't as bad as Steel or Catwoman, but Jonah Hex is a real disappointment. The concept of the Jonah Hex character could make for a truly awesome movie, but what happened? Who can I blame for screwing the movie up? Do I blame the writers? The director? The studio? Sigh... maybe DC should just stick with Batman after all.

Final Rating: **

Monday, June 21, 2010

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)

There's a rule in Hollywood: if it makes money, keep doing it. This can sometimes be interpreted as doing movies that copy the style of a successful movie, such as the glut of horror remakes we've seen over the last few years. But more often than not, that rule means sequels. And if the sequels make money, you do more sequels. Such was the case with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Inspired by the popular Disneyland ride, it was one of four attempts by the Walt Disney Company to make movies based upon their theme park attractions, and the only one to have any substantial commercial or critical success.

Truth be told, it was a massive hit, and got five Oscar nominations to boot. So naturally, Disney wanted to follow up on it. But instead of just one sequel, Disney ordered two, to be filmed concurrently and released in consecutive summers. The first sequel, Dead Man's Chest, had a mixed reception from critics, but ended up becoming the third movie to gross over one billion dollars at the worldwide box office. The third chapter of the Pirates trilogy, titled At World's End, had some pretty big footsteps to follow in. But did it manage to live up to its two predecessors?

Following the events of Dead Man's Chest, the status quo has drastically shifted. Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander), the chairman of the East India Trading Company, has been granted an unprecedented level of power. He has declared martial law over the Caribbean, arresting and executing any man, woman, or child even remotely associated with piracy without a trial. And since he is now in possession of the dead man's chest, Beckett has turned Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) into a slave, forcing Jones and the Flying Dutchman to destroy any pirate ship they encounter.

With no other options, the nine pirate lords must come from every corner of the globe to assemble for a rare meeting of the Brethren Court. But there's one catch: one of the pirate lords, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), was condemned to the mythical realm known as "Davy Jones's Locker" after his duel with the Kraken at the end of the previous movie. Because he failed to name a successor, the Brethren Court cannot meet without him.

And thus, Jack's closest acquaintances — Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth Swann (Geoffrey Rush), the newly-resurrected Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and voodoo priestess Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) — must travel to the end of the earth to retrieve him. They are successful in returning Jack to the land of the living, and although there is no trust to be found amongst the pirates, they must come together if they hope to defeat Davy Jones and the East India Trading Company.

There's an ever-growing belief that a "three-quel" will probably end up being a disappointment. Just look up any third movie in a trilogy, and you'll probably hear stories of people complaining about it. But there is a little bit of truth to that belief, because Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is most assuredly the least of the trilogy. It's a convoluted, disjointed mess that runs completely off the rails at roughly the same time the opening credits have concluded. It goes on way too long and is just too hard to follow for me to actually defend it.

Once again at the helm is Gore Verbinski, whose direction is visually astounding. Unfortunately, Verbinski also allows the movie to become boring. There's way too much going on and so little of it is actually interesting. And considering that the movie is a few minutes short of three hours long, that makes the movie practically unbearable. It's just so plodding and tedious that watching At World's End feels more like a chore than anything. Here's the occasional bright spot, but they're sadly few and far between. Perhaps if Verbinski had been willing to trim about thirty minutes of fat, the movie would have worked a little better.

Then again, that wouldn't have helped the script much. Written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the screenplay is bloated, clunky, and full of too many subplots that ultimately make no contributions to the movie. In watching At World's End, I got the feeling that Elliott and Rossio were trying to cram as much as they could into the movie, just in case Disney decided not to make a fourth one. But all it does is make At World's End a jumbled-up mess.

Not even the cast can truly save At World's End. Perhaps the worst offenders are Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly, who I thought were unappealing. It didn't help that I felt Bloom and Knightly's characters were being shoved down my throat, which led me to resent both the characters and the actors. I've heard that Bloom and Knightly won't be appearing in the fourth Pirates movie next summer, which I'm okay with. It's not like anyone is seeing the Pirates movies for them, anyway.

The truth is that everyone is watching them for Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. He's the best part of the first two movies, and At World's End is no exception. Depp is fabulous, with his charm and charisma making him more likable with each scene. I don't know why they even needed any characters or actors beyond Depp. At World's End may be a disappointment, but he most certainly is not.

The remainder of the cast is mixed bag. Tom Hollander and Bill Nighy are great villains, while Chow Yun-Fat does a fine job with his limited screen time. Everyone else is just kinda there, with the exception of Geoffrey Rush. Rush is awesome, playing a perfect foil for Depp. If I could make my own Pirates of the Caribbean movie, the whole thing would be nothing but Depp and Rush chewing the scenery and being awesome.

Sadly, "awesome" is not a word I would use to describe Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. "Mediocre" is more like it. It's not outright bad or anything, but it's nowhere near as good as it could have been. The movie is simply two hours and 49 minutes of wasted potential. And on my usual scale, At World's End gets two and a half stars. Hopefully, the fourth one will try improving upon this one's flaws.

Final Rating: **½

Monday, June 7, 2010

Resident Evil: Degeneration (2008)

Three times now, I've spoken at length about the movie adaptations of Capcom's Resident Evil series of video games. And I stand by my belief that at this point, they've become vehicles that Paul W.S. Anderson uses to make Milla Jovovich look like the biggest badass possible. They're unbelievably mediocre attempts at this, but they're attempts nonetheless. And that's a real shame, too, because the movies are an incredible disservice to the games themselves. Outside of a tiny handful of characters and a few small elements, Anderson's movies have practically nothing whatsoever to do with the games.

But believe it or not, there actually is a Resident Evil movie that remains faithful to the source material. Commissioned by Capcom and released by Sony Home Entertainment, Resident Evil: Degeneration was a CG-animated flick intended to serve as something of an bridge between Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil 5 that could easily be fitted into the continuity of the games themselves. And even though it could have been better, it'll surely please most fans of the game franchise.

In 1998, the town of Raccoon City was decimated by a biological weapon known as the T-Virus. The effects of the T-Virus were devastating, turning those it infected into flesh-hungry zombies. To stop the outbreak and prevent its outward spread, the government was forced to launch a missile at Raccoon City and effectively wipe the town off the map. Only a handful of people were able to make it out alive, among them Claire Redfield (Alyson Court) and Leon Kennedy (Paul Mercier).

Seven years have passed since the Raccoon City disaster. In that time, Claire has joined TerraSave, a group that handles search and rescue operations following attacks using biological and chemical weapons. She arrives at an airport to meet a friend, but soon finds herself in the middle of a T-Virus outbreak.

The airport is quickly quarantined, leaving Claire trapped inside with a small group of survivors. As part of the lockdown, the military sends in Leon — now a government agent — and Special Response Team members Greg Glenn (Steven Blum) and Angela Miller (Laura Bailey). The three-person team enters the airport and fights their way through an army of zombies and monsters to locate the survivors, eventually escaping with them in tow.

At a debriefing, Leon discovers that a terrorist group is responsible for the outbreak at the airport, having obtained the T-Virus on the black market. This group's goal is to force the American government to admit their rumored connections to the T-Virus's development. As the movie progresses, dark secrets are brought to light as the source of the terrorist group is revealed, and the threat of a greater viral outbreak looms on the horizon.

In watching Resident Evil: Degeneration, I had something of a realization. People are always criticizing video game movies for straying too far from their source material. I've done my fair share of it in the past. But I realized that staying too close to those roots can be hazardous as well.

That's my biggest complaint about the movie. It's a direct translation of the game's world. The animation makes it look like a 96-minute cutscene from the games, some of the franchise's voice actors reprise their roles in the movie, and it's even introduces certain elements that would be referenced in Resident Evil 5. But while those are positives in a sense, they're also negatives. Because of how close the movie is to the games, it risks alienating potential viewers who are not avid followers of the Resident Evil saga. They won't know the characters or the backstory, and if they have to do homework in order to understand the movie, they probably won't watch it at all.

One of my other gripes is the quality of the animation. I'd be a fool to expect Pixar-quality CGI, but am I wrong for wanting more from the movie? Yeah, it's good, but it doesn't feel like it belongs in a movie. It looks like it belongs in a game, so much so that I was hoping that I could actually just start controlling the characters in the movie instead of just watching them.

The animation looks enough like the games that I felt like I was just watching someone play a Resident Evil game instead of playing it myself. It actually put me in the mood to turn the movie off and go play one of the games instead. It's just sad, really.

There's also the screenplay, credited to Shotaro Suga. Once again showing how close the movie is to the games, the screenplay is full of corny dialogue, precious little character development, and a convoluted plot that isn't really all that necessary. You tend to ignore flaws like that when you're playing the games, but the lack of interactivity makes them more evident and annoying.

Last on my list is the voice acting, which is okay, I guess. It's not great, but it's acceptable. (It doesn't help them that the dialogue is so clunky, though.) The voice actors get a bit hammy at times, almost to the point of being laughable, but as a fan of the game series, I can't say I didn't see that coming.

Maybe I'm being a bit harsh on the movie. It isn't really as bad as I may have made it out to be. In fact, it's a lot of fun. But you come away from it with a feeling of mediocrity. However, I would still recommend it to anyone who calls themselves a fan of the Resident Evil saga. Unfortunately, I don't think I can justify giving Resident Evil: Degeneration anything more than two and a half stars. And at least the movie didn't feature any of those frustratingly complex puzzles from the games. That would have been too much.

Final Rating: **½