Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ed Wood (1994)

Those bizarre people who consider themselves fans of bad movies have in recent years latched onto filmmakers like Uwe Boll and Tommy Wiseau. Though their respective outputs are pretty awful, you can at least enjoy them because of how amusingly laughable their faults are. But neither Boll or Wiseau can compare to Edward D. Wood, Jr. Often labeled the worst filmmaker ever, Wood made some of the most famous bad B-movies of all time. But despite how awful his movies are, Wood's passion and overall love of making movies make his flicks all the more charming. His movies have earned him a ton of fans among lovers of movies that are so bad, they're good.

Among those fans is Tim Burton, a filmmaker whose movies are actually good. So enamored with Wood's work was Burton that in 1994, he developed a movie about Wood's struggles to create his most famous movies. The movie — appropriately titled Ed Wood — recouped less than half of its budget upon its release, but it is a wonderful tribute to the creator of some of the most beloved bad movies of all time.

Meet Ed Wood (Johnny Depp), a wannabe filmmaker desperate to make his big break in Hollywood. After hearing that a movie studio intends to make a movie about Christine Jorgensen's successful sex change operation, Wood convinces the producer to hire him as the movie's writer and director by revealing that he's a transvestite. But due to legal complications, the movie is forced to become a fictionalized exploitation movie titled I Changed My Sex. With Wood in charge, however, the movie ends up becoming Glen or Glenda, a movie about a transvestite struggling with his identity. But Glen or Glenda is a critical and commercial failure, and is so comically inept that a few Hollywood bigwigs Wood wanted to impress with it initially believed he was pulling some kind of elaborate practical joke.

Wood remains undeterred, however. He meets and subsequently befriends legendary horror star Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), who is now nothing more than a washed-up morphine addict. With Bela and his own band of friends and hangers-on along for the ride, Wood moves onward to his next project, Bride of the Monster. The production is a chaotic one, with financial troubles, investors forcing unwanted casting changes upon Wood, and a climax where Bela is forced to pretend to wrestle a stolen mechanical octopus that has no engine. Wood's flustered girlfriend Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker) even dumps Ed during the wrap party in front of all his friends. Bride of the Monster ends up being another bomb for Wood, but his next movie is the one that will make him a superstar. That movie in question: the notorious Plan 9 from Outer Space.

As a self-professed fan of "so bad, they're good" movies, I'm actually a little disappointed with myself. The truth is I've never actually seen any of Ed Wood's movies. Not a single one. Mystery Science Theater 3000 even lampooned two of his directorial efforts, and I have yet to watch those episodes. And MST3K is my favorite TV show, too! But my failure to actually see any of his movies doesn't stop me from enjoying Ed Wood. It's exactly what you'd expect from a Tim Burton movie; it's kooky yet dramatic, full of fascinating characters and fun to watch from start to finish. And I absolutely loved every second of it.

I really couldn't imagine anyone else at the helm of this little adventure, because Burton handles it perfectly. He is obviously a student of the game, because the movie looks and feels exactly like those cheesy B-movies from the '50s. It's a lot more slick because of the bigger budget (and because Burton is actually talented), but the movie's fearless leader has effortlessly built an homage to not only Ed Wood himself, but the schlock he created.

He shows just as much passion in making Ed Wood as Wood is described as having had during the production of his movies. The intimate black-and-white cinematography and Howard Shore's score really help to set the proper tone, and Burton's ability to make us fall in love with the characters and pull us into the movie's world make the movie all the more fun to watch.

I also really enjoyed the script, penned by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Sure, they had to fictionalize a few things for the sake of drama, but they still tell a captivating story. Even if the movie had been about a fake director and not Ed Wood, Alexander and Karaszewski have built a tale of ambition trying to conquer ineptitude. They don't really seem to decide whether Wood is a deluded joke, a swindler with no other talents, or a folk hero, but they make him a fascinating person in any event.

But the best part of the entire movie is its cast. Everyone in the movie is absolutely perfect. But let's start with the leading man, Johnny Depp. Say what you will about the real Ed Wood, but Depp's portrayal of him is stellar. He plays Wood as a fast-talking huckster with more ambition than ability, and you simply cannot take your eyes off him.

Among the supporting cast, there are likable, entertaining performances from Bill Murray, Jeffrey Jones, and pro wrestler George "The Animal" Steele. I also thought Patricia Arquette was sweet and charming, and though I've never been a fan of hers, I also thought Sarah Jessica Parker played her part quite well.

But the real star of the show is Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi. Landau absolutely steals the show, playing Bela with an unflinching sense of sadness and self-loathing. His portrayal of Bela is deeply haunted by his dwindling fame, drowning in drug addiction and desperate to reclaim some semblance of his glory days. His performance is so amazing, so undeniably gripping, that it feels like someone let all of the air out of the movie's balloon once the movie reaches the point where Bela passes away. Landau's performance is perhaps his most acclaimed work, having earned him an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a SAG Award, and a ton of critics' group awards upon Ed Wood's release. That acclaim is 100% justified, because it's a performance for the ages.

While film critic Michael Medved might have deemed him "the worst director of all time" in 1980, I'm going to say Ed Wood couldn't have been all bad. I mean, he did give the world some of the film industry's most beloved cult classics, and it also led us to the biopic that shares his name. While I feel guilty I haven't seen any of the real Wood's movies, the movie about his life is a fantastic flick that I cannot recommend enough. It's a fun movie, with amazing performances from its cast (especially Landau's) and a nonstop energy that makes it engrossing from start to finish. It's a movie that people like me — those who love bad yet fun B-movies — should definitely sit down to watch. And thus, I'm going to give Ed Wood four and a half stars and a huge thumbs-up. And I really should go check out Plan 9 from Outer Space. What's been keeping me for so long?

Final Rating: ****½

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)

I often wonder why I continue to willingly suffer through bad movies and movies I know I'm not going to like. Many times it's pure masochism. Watching a terrible movie for the sake of having watched a terrible movie is nothing new for me. But other times, it's a case of pure morbid curiosity. I just have to know what the big deal with the movie is.

Such is the case with the Twilight franchise. I know that the Twilight movies are solely for tween girls and that I'll probably hate them as soon as the opening credits begin. But I'm compelled to watch them because I want to try and comprehend why the target audience loves these movies so much. And since I've already seen and reviewed both the first and second Twilight movies, I might as well aim for the third one. So join me as I try to figure out what The Twilight Saga: Eclipse is all about.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is faced with a conundrum. Her vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), has asked for her hand in marriage, a proposal that means she will have to be turned into a vampire should she accept. This doesn't sit well with Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), the hunky werewolf who hopes to woo Bella away from Edward. His insistence that he's the right guy for Bella puts the two male points of this love triangle at odds, especially when Bella realizes that she may be developing feelings for Jacob too.

But romance will be the least of their worries. A vampire named Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard), angry that her mate was killed by Edward and his family in the first movie, is hungry for revenge. To get it, she has created an army of powerful newborn vampires she plans to send after Bella and the Cullens. As the ever-growing vampire army raises hell in Seattle and begins moving closer to the town of Forks, the Cullens and Jacob's werewolf pack must put aside their long-standing animosity to protect Bella.

I've said in my reviews of both of the prior movies that I did not get the appeal of the Twilight franchise. And now, having sat through three of these damnable films, I still don't get it. What is there to like about this crap? Is it wish fulfillment? Do the devoted "Twihards" imagine themselves as the franchise's vapid heroine, being fought over by two exotic men? Are tweens so starved for entertainment that they're willing to accept and enjoy movies like these?

Eclipse shows a little promise, though, because it was directed by David Slade. I was actually a little excited to hear he'd directed the movie, as he'd previously helmed Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night, two flicks that I immensely enjoyed. And considering how well 30 Days of Night turned out, I entered Eclipse convinced that he knew how to make a vampire movie that didn't suck. However, the vampires of the Twilight universe are the polar opposites of those from 30 Days of Night. Comparing the Cullens to the 30 Days of Night vampires is like comparing the weakest kittens to the most vicious, blood-hungry beasts in the jungle. But Slade still manages to do as good a job as he can.

Slade's direction is not as flashy as what Chris Weitz tried with New Moon, nor is it as lifelessly gloomy as Catherine Hardwicke's work on the first movie. He makes the movie his own, however. And like Weitz's direction on New Moon, Slade's direction is way better than the material deserves. He benefits from some really good camerawork courtesy of cinematographer Javier Agirresarobe, and he keeps the movie's pace moving fluidly. Even when some of the secondary characters start having flashbacks about how their supernatural abilities came to be, Slade doesn't let that stop the flow of the movie. A lesser director would have let these flashbacks take the viewer right out of the movie, but Slade makes them feel like a natural part of the movie.

Unfortunately, Slade is still up against the flaws that have plagued the Twilight movies since the first movie's release. The first I'll mention is the screenplay, once again written by Melissa Rosenberg. While the story is a bit more solid, it suffers from some of the most pseudo-pretentious dialogue I've heard in a while. Rosenberg is trying so hard to make the movie sound deep, but the banality of it makes it painful to listen to. Seriously, do tween girls really buy into this? I honestly dreaded hearing every word, every syllable that the actors had to say. Part of that is the lame acting, sure, but Rosenberg's writing is just garbage.

And once again, the cast doesn't do much to rise above the material. While Ashley Greene and Billy Burke contribute likable, engaging performances, the rest of the cast fails to make a substantially positive impression. Robert Pattinson once again shows improvement in his role, but I really got the impression that he'd rather be playing any character other than Edward Cullen. I can tell that he's at least trying harder this time around, but it feels like he's just getting tired of the Twilight saga.

I can say the same for Kristen Stewart, who continues to be the worst actor in the Twilight movies. Like Pattinson, she does show some improvement. But she's still pretty bad, mostly due to her complete lack of charisma. There are some moments in the movie where it seems like she might break through and actually turn her performance into something good, but the disappointing moments far outweigh the good ones.

I will confess, though, that I did like Taylor Lautner. Nobody can accuse him of being the best actor in the world, but as far as Eclipse goes, I can't say that he's bad. Lautner is definitely trying his hardest, bringing a level of earnestness to the character that actually made his performance more impressive than I anticipated it being. One could make the argument that Lautner only stands out due to how middling the other actors in the movie are, but I still thought his contribution to the movie was a respectable one.

To Eclipse's credit, it's a substantially better movie than either Twilight or New Moon. It's still not that great, but it's a marked improvement over the first two entries in the franchise. Even at its absolute worst, it's still watchable, I guess. I mean, I didn't hate it as much as I did the first two movies, so it has that going for it. But really, Eclipse is only going to get two and a half stars on the scale. And with the first Breaking Dawn movie being released today and the second being released next year, does that mean we're almost done with all the Twilight frenzy? Because it's wearing me out, man.

Final Rating: **½

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tron: Legacy (2010)

Though it's now widely hailed for its groundbreaking special effects, Tron wasn't met with that same warmth when it was released in the summer of 1982. It barely broke even at the box office, the critical reaction was mixed at best, and it wasn't nominated for any Oscars because its use of CGI was viewed as "cheating." But time has been kind to Tron, though. While I will concede that the effects look incredibly dated now (since you could only do so much with computer effects in 1982), the movie is still a fun, ambitious piece of cinema that holds up in spite of how far technology has come over the years.

And because of that, Tron has spent the last three decades building status as a cult classic. It's spawned comic books, novels, the occasional video game, and was even part of an attraction at Disneyland until 1995. But it never had a cinematic follow-up until last winter. You'd think that with how much more prevalent remakes have become over the last decade or so, Walt Disney Pictures would have just "re-imagined" Tron for modern audiences. But nope, they gave it a full-fledged sequel titled Tron: Legacy. So just how did the sequel twenty-eight years in the making turn out?

It's been over twenty years since Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), the brilliant software engineer and CEO of ENCOM International, disappeared without a trace. In his absence, his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) has inherited his father's fortune and become ENCOM's controlling shareholder. Sam prefers to stay out of the business aspect of ENCOM, though, choosing to let the company's board of directors run things instead.

Sam spends his time partaking in daredevil activities and playing pranks on ENCOM's executives, but none of it has managed fill the hole that his father left. His unwavering hope that he would one day see Kevin again finally pays off when Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), an ENCOM executive and close friend of Kevin, tells Sam that he received a page from the long-abandoned Flynn's Arcade.

The arcade's phone number has been disconnected for years, so the curious Sam just has to investigate. His search leads him to a room full of computers hidden in the arcade's basement, where Sam accidentally triggers a device that teleports him to "The Grid," an advanced version of the digital world that Kevin himself had visited in the first movie.

Sam is taken prisoner upon his arrival and forced into gladiatorial combat. One of his opponents, however, sees Sam bleeding and realizes he's human, refusing to fight any further. He takes Sam to Clu (Bridges in a dual role), the Grid's dictatorial ruler. Sam is forced into another battle, this time against Clu, but is quickly rescued by Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a program that's been assisting his father for years. Quorra reunites a bewildered Sam with Kevin, who has been living a reclusive life in the wilderness just beyond the Grid's central hub.

Kevin reveals that he had been living in the Grid the whole time he was missing. He'd built the Grid from the ground up, having created Clu to assist him. But a fierce disagreement over a race of programs that had spontaneously appeared and evolved within the Grid led to Clu turning on Kevin and seizing control of the Grid. Clu became more megalomaniacal with time, desiring to acquire Kevin's "identity disc" — his master key to the Grid — so that he might escape into our world and amass more power. Fearing that Clu could actually succeed, Kevin chose to stay hidden and not return.

But Clu's power within the Grid has grown. Each passing moment makes it harder for Kevin and Quorra to avoid detection. Their only hope is to escape through an exit portal that has been dormant for years. But to do so, the Flynns and Quorra must fight their way through nearly all of Clu's army and try to survive.

The original Tron was the result of imagination triumphing over technological limitations. And in the nearly thirty years it took to make Tron: Legacy, filmmaking has evolved past those limitations. It puts Tron: Legacy in a position where it has nothing to overcome. Thanks to the advances made in not only filmmaking but technology in general, Tron: Legacy can't be even half as innovative as its predecessor. And without that, the movie doesn't feel like it lived up to its full potential. It's a visual dynamo, no doubt about it, but it came across as more style than substance.

Joseph Kosinski makes his feature-length directorial debut here, and I actually thought he did a pretty good job. His work is actually rather solid. I'm sure that working on a movie that's so heavy on effects is no easy task, especially when it's your first movie. But Kosinski does as good a job as he's able to. He definitely knows what he's doing, his slick visuals never ceasing to dazzle. He makes the movie fully engaging with fun action sequences and captivating character moments. There might not be a lot of ground for Tron: Legacy to break, but Kosinski makes sure it's still worth watching.

The effects are also spectacularly done. Even something as minor as the de-aging process that made Kurt Russell look like a younger version of himself is superb. But the entirety of the world inside the Grid is itself a sight to behold. It might be considered blasphemy by some for me to say this, but it kinda makes me wish that someone would follow in the footsteps of the original Star Trek's "remastered" episodes and redo the original Tron's special effects to look like Tron: Legacy's.

Those awesome effects are bolstered, though, by the awesome music by Daft Punk. I'm not normally into techno or electronica, but Daft Punk's music is quite possibly the best part of the entire movie. It suits the Tron world properly, really enhancing the movie by perfectly capturing the tone and mood of each scene. If I were a DJ, I'd totally add some of the Tron: Legacy score to my repertoire. It's exciting, with an epic feel that puts the whole production on another level.

And while we're here, I might as well talk about the movie's 3D presentation to boot. If you'll recall my Saw 3D review, I noted that it's a bit difficult to review a 3D movie after its home video release because the 2D version is the only one that's widely available. I don't have a 3DTV, so I can't say how Tron: Legacy's 3D Blu-ray release looks. I can, however, say that theatrical release's 3D effects were fantastic. I've noted in past reviews that I prefer the gimmicky "throw stuff at the screen" 3D over the Avatar-style atmospheric 3D, but this particular movie makes me want to rethink that. The movie is actually in 2D until Sam arrives in the Grid, similar to how The Wizard of Oz is in black-and-white until Dorothy realizes she's not in Kansas anymore. But when it does become 3D, it's subtle yet still immersive. It makes the Grid feel like a broad, glowing frontier, another world full of adventure waiting to be had. Most movies just use 3D to jack up the ticket prices and don't do anything with it, but Tron: Legacy actually benefited from its 3D.

Continuing onward, I thought the script by Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis was okay, but nothing special. Don't get me wrong, it's serviceable. But the problem is that while the Tron concept — one of an alternate, wholly digital world — was a fresh concept in 1982, other movies have done it better since then. It wouldn't have been so bad had Tron: Legacy brought something new to the idea. The plot isn't really anything that hasn't been seen before.

But I'll have to give credit where it's due, too. Horowitz and Kitsis's script is still engaging enough that you can actually end up becoming engrossed in the story. The characters are all well-written, and the parts where the movie slows down (so it can hammer home plot developments) never drag. For all that "we've seen this concept before" stuff I said earlier, Horowitz and Kitsis have still written a damn fine screenplay.

It's a script that's made better by the fabulous group of actors who've been assembled. In the lead role is Garrett Hedlund, whose performance suits the character perfectly. Hedlund effortlessly portrays Sam as a jaded, aimless young man who even in adulthood struggles with the emotional scars left by his father's absence. He makes his character's evolution into a strong, responsible young man ready to face a new future believable.

I also really liked Olivia Wilde. She plays her part with a doe-eyed wonder, as if she views everything around her with a childlike fascination and wonder. Wilde is very charming, very likable, and a lot of fun. Michael Sheen — who plays the proprietor of a popular bar on the Grid — is a lot of fun too, his hammy, over-the-top performance adding plenty of amusement to the movie. His flamboyance is really entertaining, and he practically steals each scene he's in.

But the best performance comes from Jeff Bridges. Though to be fair, I guess I should say "performances" since he's playing two separate characters. As Kevin Flynn, Bridges feels like he's channeling the spirit of his role from The Big Lebowski. It's a performance that's very much in the same vein as "The Dude," one that's very laid back and cool no matter what's happening around him. Bridges's take on Clu is the exact opposite of that, as he plays Clu as much more forceful, arrogant, and aggressive. Bridges makes Clu a great villain, and his work makes the movie that much better. But then I can't say I'm all that surprised. Bridges is an awesome actor, and he can make any movie better just by walking onto the set.

So just what did I think of Tron: Legacy? I dug it. It's a fun flick that's totally worth the two hours I invested in it. The movie's not a perfect one, and it doesn't have the same "ahead of its time" charm that the original Tron had. But it's totally worth a watch. It has awesome special effects and great acting, plus I'm all for movies that hearken back to the '80s. So me and Tron: Legacy are totally cool. The movie gets three and a half stars from yours truly, and I'll definitely recommend it. And I still want one of those light cycles. Who do I have to kill to get one?

Final Rating: ***½