Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

"Difficult, not impossible."

Making a good movie based on a video game is "difficult, not impossible," but sadly Prince of Persia doesn't quite manage it. The movie had a few high points and the plot wasn't all that bad, but the screenplay left much to be desired and the lack of chemistry between the two leads really lowered the tone of what really could have been a great movie.

The plot is in no way based on the game, except for the fact that there's sand the dagger can control it. No, in the movie Dastan (the Prince) is actually an orphan who was adopted by the King (rather conveniently) and later leads an army contingent with his two brothers. Shifty Vizier, and brother to the King, manipulates the eldest brother, named Tus, into attacking the Holy City of Alamut, against the protestations of Dastan. Well the invasion comes off pretty smoothly and along the way Dastan comes into possession of a strange dagger, which he 'accidentally' discovers can turn back time. It transpires that the princess Tamina is a member of an ancient order who are sworn to protect the dagger and the associated Sands of Time. Well she's none to pleased about the occupation of her city or the fact that one of the oppressors now holds their most sacred relic. Which leads to a fine mess when she is forced to go on the run with Dastan when he is framed for the murder of the King.

Jake Gyllenhaal did a pretty good job as Dastan, in my humble opinion. I saw a lot of the Prince from the video game in his performance, he clearly was giving it his all and trying to connect to the fans. Gemma Arterton on the other hand wasn't all that great as the princess, though she certainly performed the role of 'eye candy' to perfection. She had next to no chemistry with Gyllenhaal, which made the inevitable romance seem a tad forced. I also think that she figured out her lines were rather goofy because she seemed to have a hard time delivering them convincingly. The writers do have to take some heat for that though, I think I'd have a tough time saying "Secret Guardian Temple" with any kind of conviction too. The elder brother Tus (played by Richard Coyle) was sadly a pretty one dimensional character, perhaps because he wasn't really on screen that much. Far more interesting was the younger brother Garsiv (played by Toby Kebbell) who was playing an antagonist to the hero sure, but still managed to show some level of humanity in his performance. Ben Kingsley as the Vizier, Nizam, was really rather bland too. It's not too much of a spoiler to say he's the villain of the story, Ben seems to gravitate towards such roles. Kingsley really goes all out on this character to make him as shifty and sinister as possible, which worked out pretty well. There's really nothing better than a villain you love to hate. Finally a quick shout out for Alfred Molina who had a small supporting role in the movie as Sheik Amar, who in addition to becoming a reluctant ally of the prince, races ostriches. He added some nice comic relief to the movie along with his trusty sidekick Seso (played by Steve Toussaint).

The problem with the movie, as is so often the case with video game adaptations, is that they completely disregarded the story of the game. Sands of Time (the game) has a very solid, and well thought out story, so I really can't imagine why they felt the need to change it as much as they did. The new story isn't terrible, but it does seem rather strained at times. There are some actions taken by the characters that just don't make a lot of sense. Initially the goal is to take the dagger to the aforementioned 'Secret Guardian Temple' but when that doesn't work they instead go back to Alamut - the same city they started all this nonsense in. After the inevitable show down with Nizam......SPOILER ALERT...... Dastan succeeds in rewinding time all the way back to the aftermath of the invasion of Alamut (I think that point is about 20-25 minutes into the movie). Well if that was possible, why didn't the princess just tell him to do that in the first place, why did they go on a trek across the desert, because that would have made for a pretty short movie I guess...... END SPOILER. The other problem is that the whole motivation for Dastan is the murder of his father, something that we should be pretty invested in no? Well there lies another problem, the King himself has so little screen time, much less screen time with Dastan, that we really don't know him. Not knowing him, or anything about the relationship between him and his sons, it's hard to really feel anything for the character when he dies. It's not all doom and gloom though. The stunts and fight sequences were satisfying and the special effects (especially the rewind time effect) were absolutely spot on. If only they had invested such time and energy crafting the screenplay as they did on the special effects.

The single biggest issue I had with the movie is that it had the potential to be great, I wanted it to be great, but instead it falls way short of average. So while it may be somewhat entertaining at times, the movie really doesn't hold up to that much scrutiny. Of course I can't assume that everyone will scrutinize the motivations and actions of characters the way I do, so your mileage may vary.

Final verdict on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Monday, June 21, 2010


"Classic MacGruber!" 

While MacGruber occasionally hits on a good joke, for the most part it's crude, unimaginative and just down right stupid. I wasn't entirely surprised at this outcome, honestly I only saw the movie out of a morbid sense of curiosity. Now I wouldn't go so far as to say MacGruber is the worst movie I've ever seen in my life, but it's by no means good.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the arch villain Cunth (Val Kilmer) who has stolen some kind of doomsday weapon and plans to use it on Washington D.C. Thus, the US military turns to the only man who can save them, MacGruber (Will Forte). There's also some back-story between Cunth and MacGruber about how Cunth killed MacGrubers wife, I'm not really sure why this subplot was in here as it really adds nothing to the movie. Vicki St Elmo (Kristen Wiig) and Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillipe) are MacGrubers reluctant sidekicks on the mission to take down Cunth (and yes every time a character says that name the 'h' isn't pronounced all that clearly). 

The gimmick of the SNL skit was that MacGruber's inventions and schemes never work, and inevitably everyone dies. This wouldn't make for a particularly lengthy movie though, so instead none of his inventions or schemes work, but somehow everyone lives anyway. I was never really a fan of the skit, I thought it was pretty shallow and the joke gets worse as time goes on. Will Forte really seems like he's trying too hard to hit the punchlines, every joke he makes on screen seems strained, which doesn't work so well in a movie that relies almost exclusively on said jokes. Val Kilmer (who really isn't looking too well these days, boy that guy put on some weight) is camping it up as the arch villain Cunth, delivering every line like a cliched, poor mans Bond villain. Cunth is a character so one dimensional that he could really have been portrayed by a cardboard cut out and the movie wouldn't have suffered from it. Then we have Kristen Wiig (resuming her character from the original skit) and Ryan Phillipe as the straight man to play off of the insanity that is MacGruber. Wiig looks lost for most the movie, I suspect she was wondering what horrible act she'd committed in a previous life to deserve being cast in the movie. Phillipe, to my surprise, actually tries to be professional, as if he's completely unaware of what a train wreck he's part of.

I know what folks say about analyzing slapstick movies like this one... that we should just leave our brains at home and enjoy the movie for what it is. Well yes, I agree with those folks, in fact I'm usually one of the people saying that - however that argument only goes so far. There is a delicate balance between farcical comedy and entertaining story telling, and I can assure you that MacGruber is completely unsuccessful in pulling it off. Instead it seems to be comprised of several SNL skits just mashed together to produce a feature length movie. To make matters worse only the smallest fraction of those skits are actually funny. It was somewhat embarrassing to sit in a theater watching a so called 'comedy' and nobody was laughing at the jokes. Or at least when there was an amused chuckle, it was more along the lines of the sound one makes when laughing at the boss's jokes (just to be clear, the term I'm shooting for here is 'insincere').

If you've seen the trailer for the movie, then you've seen the best gags already, don't punish yourself by submitting to 90 minutes of torture.

Oh, but wait... didn't I say this wasn't the worst movie I've ever seen? My analysis has been pretty harsh though hasn't it? So if this isn''t the worst movie I've ever seen what is? Well I can't honestly narrow it down to a single movie (though Edge of Darkness is very tempting) so instead just let me say I've seen my share of Uwe Bole movies and leave it at that.

Final verdict on MacGruber:

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Iron Man 2

"It's good to be back!"

Iron Man 2 had big iron shoes to fill, and I think it has made a damn good attempt, but falls just a little shy of the brilliance of the original. Rotten Tomatoes rates the movie at 74%, and since I'm writing this up a full month after the release I'm fairly sure that score should remain constant.

This time around the movie begins in the aftermath of Stark's announcement that he is Iron Man. The US Military wants the suit, for obvious reasons and Tony is stalwartly refusing to turn it over. Into this situation comes Ivan Vanko, a man seeking vengeance against the Stark empire for the death of his father, Justin Hammer, a rival weapons manufacturer and the fact that Tony himself is slowly being poisoned by the very same device that is keeping his heart beating. As you can imagine things get pretty interesting before the end credits role.

Robert Downey Jr is still terrific as Stark, they really couldn't have cast anybody better in the role. He possesses just the right mix of authority and immaturity that really brings Stark alive onscreen. It was also great to see Gwyneth Paltrow back as Pepper Potts. The chemistry between her and Downey is very natural and adds a real sense of closeness to the characters. Mickey Rourke turned in a good performance, for the relatively small amount of screen-time he got. As Whiplash was billed as the villain of the piece, I rather expected to see more of him, instead his character was restricted to a few key scenes. Instead Sam Rockwell, as rival weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer, seemed to be front and center as the main antagonist to Stark and Iron Man. I absolutely despised Hammer as a character, for which I give enormous credit to Rockwell, his performance created a man the audience loves to hate.

A fairly large degree of press surrounded the fact that Scarlett Johansson was going to be playing Russian super spy Black Widow in the movie. Aside from serving up some rather delicious eye candy, she adds absolutely nothing to the movie. Her performance was bland and about as wooden as Keanu Reeves on a good day. It almost seemed like she didn't even care about the role, or the character, delivering every line with a completely expressionless look on her face and in a dry monotone. Is this the fault of the director? Did Favreau tell her to make Widow stoic? Was it really the case that she knew she was there to look hot and didn't really give a damn about anything else? Who knows, but I suspect the latter is the truth in this case.

Finally, we come to Rhodes. In the first movie Rhodes was played by Terrance Howard, in the sequel Don Cheadle steps into the role. I doubt we will ever know what really happened to spur such a switch, but it happened and we have to live with it. In any case I like Cheadle as an actor, I'm a fan of several of his movies (including the terrific Traitor), but it's difficult to gauge his performance without comparing it to Howard. Howard played Rhodes as a real straight laced air force officer, but also showed the capacity to kick back and relax with Stark. When Howard was Rhodes, it was easy to get the sense that he and Stark will good friends. Cheadle nails the straight laced air force officer, but in my opinion fails to convey the friendship between Rhodes and Stark, at least until the climactic showdown. This colors every action he makes in the movie to suggest that instead of being Stark's friend, he'd quite happily stab him in the back to satisfy the military.

Some have criticized the plot for being slow in places, I think I have to disagree on this point. I have, over the years, developed a foolproof system to determine if a movie is dragging or not. If I am repeatedly glancing at my watch to see how much time is left in the movie - then it's slow. I did not, even once, glance at my watch during the movie - thus I wouldn't call it slow. There are however some points that strained the realm of believability, such as how Stark solves the problem of his blood poisoning. In the interest of a spoiler free review I wont go into detail about it, but suffice to say it was both rather convenient and somewhat skeptical. As a whole though, the overall plot of the movie is fairly solid. Though granted it doesn't quite seem to flow as well as the original movie did - sequels are always judged harsher though.

Once again the special effects and fight scenes were top notch. Favreau has, in both movies, done a fantastic job of merging comic book style action with a real world feel. The Iron Man suits really feel like the they have weight, and when they strike something the sound effects really help sell the impact of metal on metal. Whiplash's energy whips also looked really good, though they were somewhat spoiled by their prevalence in the trailer. Between cutting edge visuals and top of the line sound design, the fight scenes really come alive in a big way.

Of course Iron Man 2 is about more than just fights. The continuing relationship between Stark and Potts is treated very well in the sequel, from the beginning we can sense connection between them that neither one is willing to pursue. Stark, as a results of the blood poisoning, has to come to terms with his own mortality and tries to tie everything off so that he doesn't leave a mess behind for the people he cares about. Despite the lack of what I'm call to call the "friendship vibe" caused by Howards replacement, there is also some development between Rhodes and Stark. Stark has to accept that he can't save the world alone and needs to trust Rhodes to help him, which means trusting another person with the Iron Man technology.

Overall I thought that Iron Man 2 is a really entertaining movie. Is it as good as the first, when I walked out the theater I thought so, but on further reflection I think perhaps it does fall short a little. There is an element of 'Die Hard syndrome' to be had here. While the sequel is a good movie in its own right, as a follow up to the near perfect Iron Man it does seem a tad lacking. The other factor to consider is that Iron Man 2 bears the burden of having to lay threads for the Avengers movie (which is the only reason Samuel L Jackson's Fury was in there) which also bloats areas of the story with unnecessary exposition that is probably what most folks find slows down the pace of the main story. Despite this I still really enjoyed the movie, and will definitely be adding it to my collection when it gets its DVD release.

Final Verdict on Iron Man 2: