by Steve Habrat
About three years ago, director Robert Schwentke’s geriatric action-comedy RED became a respectable success. It raked in a nice chunk of change, it seemed to charm anyone who went to the theater to see it, and it even went on to earn a Golden Globe nomination in the Best Picture-Musical or Comedy category. While I found RED to be a fairly entertaining comic book outing, it really didn’t win me over like it did with almost everyone else who ventured to the theater to check out Helen Mirren with a machine gun. The absolute last thing that I thought it needed was a sequel, but apparently Hollywood thought differently. Enter RED 2, an action comedy that practically throws its back out to capture the same small, off-beat charms of the first film in a summer blockbuster season crammed with giant robots, monsters, and other, better superheroes. While new director Dean Parisot may have had his heart in the right place, RED 2 is a sluggish and stale shoot-‘em-up that feels obligated to incorporate every action movie cliché imaginable. The returning cast members sure seem spirited and the newcomers are relishing the idea of spending time with Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, and John Malkovich, but after a while, all of them start to seem bored, confused, and, much to my horror, a bit winded. Come on, guys, pick it up!
Former black-ops CIA agent Frank Moses (played by Bruce Willis) is trying to live a normal life with his feisty girlfriend, Sarah Ross (played by Mary-Louise Parker). One day while shopping at Costco, Frank and Sarah bump into paranoid buddy Marvin Boggs (played by John Malkovich), who warns Frank that there are people after them. Frank dismisses Marvin, and moments later, Marvin’s car is blown up. Sarah and Frank attend Marvin’s funeral, even though Frank is convinced that Marvin is not dead, and afterward, Frank is taken to the Yankee White Facility to be interrogated. While in custody, the Yankee White Facility is attacked by Jack Horton (played by Neal McDonough), who is there to find Frank, but right before Frank is going to be killed, Marvin, who turns out to be alive, saves the day. Frank and Sarah go on the run with Marvin, who explains that they were listed as participants in a secret Cold War mission called “Nightshade,” which revolved around sneaking a nuclear weapon into the Kremlin piece by piece. As it turns out, that mysterious weapon is now in high demand. Just when the trio believes that things can’t get any worse, they learn that their old friend Victoria Winters (played by Helen Mirren) and top contract killer Han Jo-bae (played by Lee Byung-hun) have been hired to kill them. As Frank, Sarah, and Marvin travel the world to clear their names, they come face to face with the beautiful Russian secret agent Katya (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), a deadly assassin called “The Frog” (played by David Thewlis), and the crazy Dr. Edward Bailey (played by Anthony Hopkins), the man responsible for the creation of the weapon.
After getting off to a cloudy start, RED 2 quickly morphs into another seen-it-all-before action comedy. While RED was more humorous than it was flat-out funny, RED 2 can’t seem to deliver a good laugh to save its life. The only one who doesn’t fumble through her one-liners is Mirren, who really knows how to make even the most wooden joke cut like a knife. It is one thing that the jokes come off as lazy, but it’s another when the action can’t seem to ever get your adrenaline pumping. There are the expected car chases through narrow Paris streets, there are the fistfights that are meant to show us that Bruce Willis can still throw a mean right hook, and there are the Gatling-gun shootouts that turn cars and buildings into Swiss cheese, but all of these would-be rushes seem like they were executed by using a how-to manual for action films. The only time that Parisot really adds any personality to all the compact destruction is near the end, when Byung-hun and Mirren hop into a ice blue sports car and swerve around whizzing bullets like they belong in The Fast and the Furious. The entire sequence is anchored by Mirren’s ability to barely raise an eyebrow as cars go flipping end over end behind them. This is basically where the fun begins and ends in RED 2.
The true strength of RED lied with its all-star cast of energetic veterans who really made the film something worth talking about. While the cast of RED 2 is clearly having a good time with each other, their performances are a mixed bag. As far as the returning cast members go, Willis is the one headlining the mayhem and he looks to be right at home while doing it. He jumps, shoots, kicks, punches, and bleeds like a champion, but as the story progresses, he almost seems to be loosing interest in saving the world for the hundredth time. As Marvin, Malkovich dials back some of his acid-flashback craziness, which is a shame because his character relied on the idea that he had more than a few screws loose. Parker is clearly enjoying the fact that she is surrounded by a handful of legends, but she probably gives the laziest performance in the entire film. She basically just constantly gets mad at Frank for having dated Katya several years earlier. Mirren probably gives the best performance of the film as Victoria, who doesn’t remotely seem phased by anything going on around her. As far as the newcomers are concerned, Jones is here to give the film a bit more sex appeal. She is vampy and fun, but we are barely given the chance to get to know her character. Byung-hun turns up as the usual unstoppable hitman who can, you guessed it, kill someone with almost ANYTHING. It appears that Malkovich handed all of his crazy pills over to Hopkins, who jolly-goods his way through a crackers performance as Dr. Edward Bailey. Rounding out the cast is Neal McDonough as Jack Horton, the most boring bad guy ever. Seriously, he even has a boring name!
While the original RED had quite a few positives working in its favor, the film found success mostly because it was released during a slow month at the box office. The film came out at the end of October, with absolutely no competition whatsoever. RED 2 has been released in the middle of July, on a weekend that is usually reserved for a major studio release that is sure to make close to $100 million. It is surrounded by epic releases that almost dwarf it and make it seem like a wimpy effort. While it could be argued that RED 2 offers a nice change of pace from the usual superhero movies and alien invasion blockbusters, the film is still trying to be an action movie without bringing anything new to the table, which is really a shame. Overall, RED 2 isn’t a particularly awful film, but it is one made with absolutely no artistic vision. The tone is flat, the plot is dull, the action recycled, and the acting all over the place. Maybe if the studio shot for a release date earlier in the year or later this fall, these issues may not have been as noticeable. If there is a RED 3 in the works, which I’m sure that there is, maybe they should start rethinking it or hire a director willing to shake things up a bit.
by Steve Habrat
I have seen quite a few comic book movie bombs in my day but I can honestly say that director Jimmy Hayward’s 2010 monstrosity Jonah Hex has got to be one of the worst I have sat through. Based on the DC Comics gunslinger created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga, Jonah Hex is rank with studio interference, cropped down to a blink-and-you’ll-practically-miss-it runtime of just barely over eighty minutes. It really is a shame that this film has been butchered as bad as it has because the talented Josh Brolin pours everything he has into the growling bounty hunter who can speak to the dead. I bet Brolin even gagged when he added this to his resume. Severely incoherent, massively brainless, and loud to the point of making your ears bleed, Jonah Hex is such a mess that I have to say I can’t believe the studio even bothered tossing it into cinemas in the first place. I honestly have to say I hope someone lost their job over this because I would have locked this film away, crossing my fingers that no one would ever stumbled upon it and unleash it on the world. It is THAT bad.
Jonah Hex begins by flashing back to the Civil War, with our hero (Played by Brolin) serving on the Confederate side of the conflict. Hex is ordered by his commanding officer, Quentin Turnbull (Played by John Malkovich), to burn down a Union hospital. Hex refuses to carry the order out and retaliates by gunning down his friend and Turnbull’s son Jeb (Played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Turnbull tracks down Hex just after the war ends and proceeds to burn Hex’s family alive and make him watch. He then horribly disfigures Hex’s face and leaves him for dead. After several days, a group of American Indians stumble upon Hex and nurse him back to health. As Hex regains his strength, he realizes that he possesses the power to reanimate and speak to the dead by touching them. Hex is anxious to get back on his feet and find Turnbull but he learns that Turnbull died in a fire shortly after he massacred Hex’s family. To deal with his pain, Hex turns to bounty hunting but is soon approached by Lieutenant Grass (Played by Will Arnett) with news that Turnbull is alive and well. It appears that he has robbed a Union train of a weapon component for a doomsday device that can wipe entire towns off the map. Grass recruits Hex to set out and stop Turnbull before he can locate all the pieces of the weapon that he needs.
Judging by all the star power in Jonah Hex, I have the sneaking suspicion that the original script had much more to it than what we actually see on the screen. There is no way any A-list actor like Brolin would agree to be in something this god-awful. Brolin really takes his role seriously, growling through gritted teeth as he rides around rotting western towns, laying waste to anyone who dares piss him off. It is a shame that his back-story is brushed over with an animated flashback that fails to really add anything to his character. We are just supposed to accept that he is mad and he won’t be getting glad until he stands over Turnbull’s corpse. Hex finds an ally in Lilah (Played by Megan Fox), a beautiful prostitute who practically drools all over her cleavage when Hex knocks on her door. Fox is only in Jonah Hex to serve as some obvious eye candy for the male audience that this is aimed at. Her character adds nothing to the poor excuse of a story that is strung throughout the film. Brolin seems to just be humoring her when she is in his eyesight—even he seems perplexed why she is in front of the camera.
Then we have Mr. Malkovich’s Turnbull, a vile baddie who has a really evil plan that lacks a motive (Those are the worst, aren’t they?). Lt. Grass and President Grant (Played by Aidan Quinn) fret and stew over Turnbull’s horrific doomsday cannon and where he will strike with this weapon of mass destruction. Turnbull spits that he will wipe the United States off the map but he never explains why. Why is he so gung-ho on leveling all of these cities? Don’t expect an answer to that question. Just tremble in your boots as he sips absinthe and makes threats at wealthy aristocrat Adleman Lusk (Played by Wes Bentley), another character that adds absolutely nothing to what is going on. Turnbull leaves the gruesome enforcement to his giggling Irish right-hand man Burke (Played by Michael Fassbender), who I suspect is sometimes chuckling at what he has been asked to do by the director. Fassbender’s character is sort of interesting but he is always shoved behind Turnbull, who looks like he raided the wardrobe closet of Pirates of the Caribbean. While you are trying to get over the fact that Fassbender even attended this party, you’ll also be reeling from the fact that funnyman Will Arnett has shown up and is trying to be taken seriously as Lt. Grass. Both Arnett and Fassbender are probably hoping that you forget they were ever in this picture.
The action of Jonah Hex is earsplitting, muddled, and forgettable as it is set to pounding heavy metal music from the band Mastodon. The film features poor special effects and every action sequence is clipped too short to really be fulfilling. The finale is an absurd fistfight in the clanking steam punk engine room of Turnbull’s floating warship. He unleashes cannonball like delay-action bombs on Washington D.C. but there is never the threat that he will detonate them. You know Hex will throw a tomahawk into his plot at just the last second. Refusing to let us get to know any of the characters in the film, Jonah Hex is a hollow summer blockbuster with no feeling or direction. It is a free-for-all of noise and missed opportunities, with little care put into the development of Hex’s character. Even worse, the film seems like it was made in a mad rush just to get it on the big screen as quickly as possible and so DC had something to release against Marvel’s Iron Man 2. Overall, if Jonah Hex rides again, let’s hope it is given to filmmakers who actually respect his character and have an interest in his origin. Avoid this film at all cost.
Jonah Hex is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
What an idea it was to produce a film about the making of the 1922 German silent horror film Nosferatu while infusing it with a fictional, supernatural side. E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire is a refined vampire drama that miraculously pulls off this incredibly wild and inspired idea. F.W. Murnau’s original masterpiece is a film that has carried with it rumors of the occult, largely stemming from Murnau’s producer and production designer Albin Grau, who was also an artist, architect, and occultist. Merhige takes these dark aspects of history and uses them to ask us, “What if Nosferatu was made with a REAL vampire?” But Merhige doesn’t stop here; he then transforms his vampire, Max Schreck, into a difficult and greedy star who pushes Murnau to the brink of madness, madness for perfection in his art. Infinitely better than his visually striking but infuriatingly cryptic debut Begotten, Shadow of the Vampire has all its major components (acting, writing, and direction) in synch, creating a clear, concise vision that we can actually wrap our heads around. It seems that maybe Merhige learned that accessible core meanings have just as big of an impression as petrifying images.
Shadow of the Vampire takes us right onto the set of F.W. Murnau’s (Played by John Malkovich) Nosferatu, an unauthorized film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Murnau and his crew have tweaked Stoker’s story ever so slightly, altering names and places so they can still make the film. He drags his crew to places like Slovakia and Poland for on-location shooting, snapping at any crewmember that dares try to make any suggestions or attempt at slightly altering his vision. As filming in Czechoslovakia commences, Murnau’s loyal producer Albin Grau (Played by Udo Kier) and his photographer Wolfgang Mueller (Played by Ronan Vibert) have to consistently keep the eccentric Murnau grounded in reality. Soon, his “method actor” Max Schreck (Played by Willem DaFoe), who is portraying the vampire Count Orlok in the film, arrives to the shoot in full make-up and consistently in character. Murnau tells his impressed crew that Schreck will only mingle with the crew when filming and that he will always appear in character. It turns out that Schreck is actually a real vampire, one who Murnau has made a sinister deal with. Muranu promises Schreck he can feed on their vampy leading actress Greta Schroder (Played by Catherine McCormack) when they are done filming only if Schreck completes his work on the film. As the shoot unfolds, Schreck becomes increasingly difficult, threatening the entire crew and the outcome of the project.
While Shadow of the Vampire sounds like a horror film, it is actually more of a character drama and is often times surprisingly humorous. There are a few chilling moments, mostly a handful of exchanges between Dafoe’s Schreck and Malkovich’s Murnau and the final fifteen minutes. In fact, I would classify the film as more of a drama rather than a full-blown horror film. Shadow of the Vampire is chock full of must-see performances, particularly Dafoe’s transforming turn as Schreck. Much like Klaus Kinski’s unglamorous turn as Count Dracula in Werner Herzog’s faultless 1979 remake Nosferatu the Vampyre, Dafoe makes his vampire a grotesque oddity that is so old he can’t quite recall how he was turned into a vampire. You will be bowled over every time he enters the screen, the highlight moment coming when he snatches a bat out of the air, bites its head off, and then sucks the blood out of it while his eye roll around his skull in ecstasy. Dafoe successfully mutates his character into more of a creature than a man and disappears behind bulging eyes, understated fangs, pasty fake skin, and pointing ears. He really does take on a life of his own.
It may be Dafoe’s show but Malkovich makes damn sure he is remembered long after the credits have rolled. You may emerge talking about Schreck but your conversation will turn to Malkovich’s Murnau. Malkovich makes his determined director out to be pompous and pretentious, demanding but bursting with vision that he can’t quite convey unless he points a camera at something. He is as much a method director as his “star” is a “method actor”, willing to stop at nothing to capture an unmatched realism within his film. He will sacrifice any and all of his crew to achieve this and make something that is remembered for years to come, even running himself into the ground for greatness. Was the real Murnau like this? That is anyone’s guess but it could be said that Murnau did make something that is still popular today, still frightening, and contains one of the greatest performances (Max Schreck’s Count Orlok) ever filmed. Malkovich also gets the film’s best line, coming at the last second of the film.
Compliments should also go to the way Merhige approached the overall look of the film. He mixes German Expressionism, surrealism, black and white, and silent film techniques together to create a consistently alluring piece of cinema. After seeing Begotten, we know that Merhige is a stylish artist, at times getting carried away with the visuals over the story. Here he applies each technique to drive the work forward. He even goes so far to add some footage from the original Nosferatu into Shadow of the Vampire, blending his actors into that specific film. The film could almost double as a film history lesson the way he applies little qualities (gothic atmospheres, use of shadow, intertitles, kaleidoscope images, and even behind-the-scenes Easter eggs) of the genres listed above and it becomes a real treat for cinema fans, allowing them to spot and identify the traits.
All the supporting actors do fine work in Shadow of the Vampire. The best behind Dafoe and Malkovich are Udo Kier’s occultist and producer Albin Grau and Cary Elwes as the replacement photographer Fritz Arno Wagner. Over the years, much has been made over the minor occult touches in Murnau’s Nosferatu, specifically the way he used shadows, which were supposed to symbolize the dark side of reality and occult symbols that were stamped on a document that Count Orlok reads. Well, in shadows lie demons, NOSFERATU, the undead, and what if the undead were really used in the making of the 1922 classic? Shadow of the Vampire is a dramatic and entertaining “what if” that is also a great exploration of method acting and dedication to one’s own art. At least Shadow of the Vampire can spark clear conversation over the bewildered head shaking that Begotten lured out of its viewers. There is nothing to fear in Shadow of the Vampire, only much beauty to drink in and delectable performances to savor.
Shadow of the Vampire is now available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
As you exit the theater after viewing Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, there should be theater employees stationed by the door that snap a picture of you and toss you a t-shirt that reads, “I survived Transformers: Dark of the Moon!” I kid you not that when the theater lights come up, the gleaming credits roll across the screen, and Linkin Park blares down on you from the theater speaker system that you will need to take a minute to compose yourself. Your brain will be reduced the pancake batter, your ears will ring, your bones will ache, and you may suffer from a pounding migraine headache as your try to decipher what it is that you just saw. The truth is that Transformers: Dark of the Moon is infinitely better than the previous installment in the Hasbro toy franchise, but the bottom line is that the film, which hints at an intriguing concept early on, single handedly creates a new subgenre of action film: Explosion porn. In the last hour of this film, I’m absolutely astounded that you could not hear Bay’s maniacal laughter as he reduces Chicago to a pile of smoldering embers, reduces the premise to ash, and leaves you reeking of gasoline and defeat.
Almost everyone I talk to about the Transformers films seem to agree that the first film was a charming action film about a boy and his car. About an eccentric kid grappling with problems most teenage boys face (girls, popularity, money, ennui in suburbia) getting thrust into something that is larger than life. Then came the second film and the awe factor was reduced to racist rubble at the pyromaniac claws of Michael Bay. The first film was clearly overseen by Spielberg, who is the executive producer of these films; because Bay demonstrated some disciplined restraint and didn’t blow up EVERYTHING he pointed his camera at. The second film was an incomprehensible mess that was nothing but one confusing fight sequence after another. Furthermore, halfway through the film, it seemed like the writers realized the storyline was rancid and tried to redirect the entire film. Bad idea.
So how does the third entry in this lucrative franchise fair? Well, it manages to be pretty average in the story department. It has a beefier plot than the previous film but the film is so garish and cramped that it almost bursts on screen. The plot wears thin after the first hour and a half and the film spends the next hour using an epic showdown in downtown Chicago as a dazzling diversion to the fact that the storyline has run out of fuel. The film begins with a nifty prelude that suggests that the space race of the 1960s was in response to a ship that had crash-landed on the dark side of the moon. Turns out that the ship actually belonged to Sentinel Prime, an Autobot that fled the planet of Cybertron during the war between the Autobots and Decepticons. He took with him a precious weapon that would have decided the outcome of the war. Flash forward to present day and the Decepticons are lurking on earth and looking for the weapon to launch a massive campaign against Earth and wipe out the remaining Autobots.
Back at the center of all the action is the bumbling hero Sam Witwicky (Played by motor-mouthed Shia LaBeouf). Once Sam was a lovable hero who just wanted to get the girl. Now, he’s been reduced to a shadow of his once beloved character. He’s set up shop with Carly (Played by Bay’s curvy Babe-of-the-Month Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) in what appears to be a left over set of a Victoria ‘s Secret commercial. The two can’t even come close to emulating the bizarre chemistry that LaBeouf had with Megan Fox in the first two installments. They seem like the most improbable couple on the face of the earth. The rest of the cast is back too and they are all as colorful as ever. We have the tough-as-nails army officers Epps (Played by Tyrese Gibson), and Lennox (Played by Josh Duhamel) back on the front lines of the alien/robot battle. Also back is Sam’s TMI-spouting parents and the eccentric former Sector 7 agent Simmons (Played with berserk delight by John Turturro). Newcomers include John Malkovich as Sam’s unhinged new boss, Ken Jeong as Sam’s jittery coworker, Frances McDormand as an icy government agent, and Patrick Dempsey as a charismatic boss.
It truly is enigmatic how Bay convinced some of the talent to actually agree to be in this beast of a movie. They must have all been desperate for a payday because I can’t imagine stars like Malkovich and McDormand actually biting at this tomfoolery. They do the best job they can with the material they are given. Let’s not forget that some of the dialogue has never been some of the sharpest banter ever projected onto the silver screen but it is given some life by these accomplished actors. Yet somehow all these characters are the reason that these films astonishingly stay afloat. Granted the second film may be one of the vilest movies of recent memory, but you have to admit that it had spunk. The characters are effervescent and so are their alien allies even if tired clichés pour from their CGI mouths.
While many are swift to accuse Bay of producing empty cinematic experiences, they are correct to an extent. Bay does action well and he can frame a scene better than most directors out there, but the problem with Bay is that he sabotages his own film’s potential. This film has plenty of said potential and the first twenty minutes of it are expertly constructed. He weaves history and fiction together just as effortlessly as they did in X-Men: First Class. But then Bay can’t resist himself and pulls the pin out of the grenade. He does this with a single shot that throws off the momentum that the film has been gathering—a shot of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s ass as it sways up a set of stairs. It sucks the life right out of the film and for the next hour, the film scrambles to gather back that momentum. It doesn’t help that the premise here is stretched to the breaking point, snaps, and then continues on for another hour. I believe that the first film worked so well because we knew so little about these alien visitors. Now, the films have been steeped in geek lore and suffer from being completely overblown. Everything is given a longwinded explanation that drags the events on another ten minutes. This entry keeps it a bit simpler but I still firmly believe the franchise should have been left at one. Shame on Hollywood’s gluttony.
Overall, Bay has become a target for another crime against his audience—making them feel no emotion whatsoever. His films are more concerned with the action sequences than any redeeming quality like emotion. Yes, a film should send you away with a feeling. That can include walking away sad, overjoyed, depressed, moved, or, yes, thrilled to your core. While the last entry sent you away confused and simply infuriated that it exists, Transformers: Dark of the Moon sends you away overwhelmed and disoriented. You will feel like you just stepped off of a rollercoaster. I guarantee that your stomach will be doing somersaults for hours after in your gut. We can spend all day arguing over the mediocrity of his latest film, or we can just agree on the obvious: At least Bay sent you away FEELING something this time around. Grade: C+
Transformers: Dark of the Moon is available on Blu-ray and DVD Friday.