Next (2007) (F)

IMDb / Rea / Ingman
Written by a series of shiftless, talentless idiots
Directed by Lee Tamahori

I’d never watch something like this, but a friend sent me an effusive email detailing how terrible it was and that I should watch it and see the ineptitude myself. It’s tempting to just post his email here, because I agree with everything he said, but that would be as lazy as the people who wrote this mess so I’ll put in a little bit more effort. It’s a movie about seeing a short time into the future, which – besides being impossible to make a decent movie about in the first place – should twig them to the fact that every single negative review will make a bad joke about it. Here’s mine: the future showed me turning the movie off and watching more Simpsons re-runs. But my friend’s words bound me to finish it.

The laziness of the writing truly astounds. I’m not kidding here: if anyone – you, my four year-old nephew, Rob Schneider – sat down and watched this, they’d think of better ways to write every last scene or line of dialogue. Without thinking. Things in this movie that are totally unexplained: 1) Cage’s ability to see the future 2) the reason for a plot to destroy Los Angeles with a nuclear weapon 3) why Cage can see all of Biel’s future, but nobody else’s 4) why Julianne Moore is hanging out at shitty Vegas magic shows looking for someone to help find said nuclear weapon… etc. A dead hooker appears in a shot for literally no apparent reason. The ‘it was all a dream’ cop-out is used more ridiculously than ever before. Worst of all, the film is 90 minutes long, but barely anything happens in the first hour, a balance which utterly fails to make you give a shit at any point.

Of course they’re not alone, though. In fact, it’s obvious throughout that every single person involved knows they’re working on D-grade trash. Every single person. And not the entertaining kind of trash, either, the kind which has violence or really bad acting or unintentionally funny lines. No, I imagine this film set was populated entirely by people who were only there for the coffee and donuts. I wonder how big Cage’s trailer was. I wonder what he thought as he looked over the day’s re-writes. Probably ‘do it for Kal-El’ or something, but I’d like to think there would’ve been a healthy dose of ‘gots to get paid’ in there. Anyway, the CGI smacks you over the head and says “I AM NOT REAL”, the cinematography ignores all basic film shooting principles at some point or another, and Tamahori’s direction is now officially the opposite of what it was back in ’94.

I do like Nicolas Cage as an actor, and I do always derive some enjoyment from his work, but he has two modes. One is mega-brilliant, inspired, inhabit-the-character Cage that we saw in Adaptation. and Leaving Las Vegas, while the other is often hilarious, sometimes overdone, always phoning-it-in Cage of Con Air and The Wicker Man. And in mode 2, which he offers up here, he is the least assuring person in the world to say the words, “Look at me. It’s okay. It’s over.” I’m not saying the role should’ve gone to someone else – nobody’s right for it – but he’s particularly not right for it. Same goes for Julianne Moore, the least urgent FBI agent handling a broken arrow crisis ever. Jessica Biel looks lovely as always, but pretty face can only distract for so long.

The music sucks, too. It’s all turgid shite, film ‘entertainment’ in the loosest sense of the word. The only thing I wouldn’t change is that bit where Dr. Strangelove was on the TV. In the above picture, an exchange of outrageous mediocrity has just taken place between Biel and a girl, the result of which is Biel learning that Cage ‘likes’ her; cut to Cage “leering at her like a deranged mental” as my friend so eloquently put it. The director asked for wistful, bashful longing; he gave him deranged mental. The audience asked for a solid helping of meat and taters sci-fi action; they were given a slice of mouldy bread and a packet of instant mash.

A History of Violence (2005) (F)

IMDb / Ebert / Cale
Based on some graphic novel
Written by Josh Olson
Directed by David Cronenberg

I’m moved to write about A History of Violence after writing about Caché, because they are a pair of films with similar ideas at their centre; while Caché hits all the right marks and transcends any sort of label, A History of Violence is a gigantic miss on all fronts. A buzz went up this time last year as it premiered at Cannes, with critics hailing it as Cronenberg’s return to form after years of mediocrity. When it went on general release in the USA, the buzz became a near across-the-board celebration of what almost every critic deemed to be one of the greatest films of the year. They’re all wrong.

As I got up out of my seat and walked towards the exit after the end credits rolled, I was frowning in disgust at having wasted my time on such rubbish. (Fortunately I saw it for free, so I wasn’t out of pocket to boot.) Here is a film that (if you believe the majority of critics) promises deep intelligence and insight into our perceptions of violence as moviegoers and citizens, but delivers hackneyed themes, practically invisible character motivations, and utterly implausible plot turns. When one character, supposedly a ruthless badass, stuck his gun UNDER HIS ARM to fumble in his pocket I was ready to throw shit at the screen – in all bad movies there is a final straw, a nadir, at which point you admit to yourself, “This is an unmitigated piece of shit”, and this particular scene was it.

I digress. A History of Violence starts kind of promisingly. Two evil bastards kill the family running their hotel, including an innocent-looking child, and it is kind of chilling until we cut to Tom Stall’s (Viggo Mortensen) daughter having a nightmare and being comforted by her entire family. It’s a picture of idyllic middle America, and we know immediately that it will be shattered, suggesting rather heavy-handedly that middle America isn’t so idyllic, and harbours secrets and past that people hide. As if we didn’t know that already. The idyll is broken when the two evil bastards come into Stall’s Diner for a bit of ultra-violence, and Stall takes them out in a heart-pumping blaze of cold, calculated killing. He’s a hero, his family and town get behind him, brilliant.

Then some mysterious gangsters from Philadelphia turn up, and despite the obvious connection between them and Stall – he used to work for them, or against them, or something, who cares – the film takes plenty of time setting up another bloody confrontation. After that is done with, we descend from implausibility into farce. Many would tell me that it isn’t supposed to be realistic, it’s all theory, and what theory, but I say bollocks – I can handle things being removed from reality, but I can’t handle them if they say nothing new and, often, say things that are flat-out false.

Take the sub-plot of Stall’s son, Jack. We see him being bullied at school and not really doing anything about it, but after Dad executes two baddies and is lionized, Jack takes his revenge for all the hazing and beats his nemesis to a bloody pulp. Why? Because violence is ingrained in him, in all humans but particularly him because his father passed it on to him, and it was released by that public approval. I get it, and it isn’t particularly profound, or necessarily correct. However, it gets worse as Jack inexplicably uses violence again, this time to a much longer lasting effect. The final insult, the most incredible in a series of stupidly contrived situations, comes when Jack (out of nowhere) confronts his father, spouting some of the worst dialogue in years. The whole things smacks of pretension, of trying desperately to be profound and knowing but falling way short.

There are other scenes involving Mr. and Mrs. Stall that are ridiculous too – not so much the sex scenes, not even the rough one, but the words spoken and not spoken. They feel very much like characters in a movie, compelled to say or do one thing when logic would imply a different reaction, or to say something when nothing is said at all. Their dialogue illuminates no deeper truth; it serves only to further alienate one already pretty peeved audience member. Likewise, the villains (Ed Harris and William Hurt) are cut from the same unbelievable, clichéd cloth. Most of the actors in this film usually do good work, but they all fail in this film because the material they are given cannot be made good.

Going back to the three pivotal scenes of violence, each includes at last one image of shocking depravity – a dripping face, a missing nose – apparently (according to what I’ve been told) typical of Cronenberg. Why were these brief moments inserted? Not to titillate, I’m sure, but to stun. In the context of the rest of the film, though, they just don’t fit. They seem to have come from another film universe, maybe one of Cronenberg’s other films, intruding on this dull, improbable landscape with their brutal realism. This may be precisely the point: violence is shocking and visceral, not something that goes along with our happy ideals. However, as I say, this doesn’t fit, because the film seems to suggest that violence is innate and will happen regardless of how we otherwise behave. It’s an aesthetic decision that doesn’t work.

There are many good defences of this film out there. I suggest you find one and read one as a companion to this slab of vitriol, because while the film itself is a monumental failure, the issues it attempts to deal with are complex and fascinating, and some reviewers were able to find genuine insight in the mire. Maybe the graphic novel was way more effective (though I doubt it). I have seen five Cronenbergs (incidentally his most recent five): Spider was splendid, eXistenZ okay, M. Butterfly a disappointment given the source material, Crash poor, and this equally poor. I’m told his early work is essential, so I’ll have a look there before passing judgment. Hopefully his next project is a return to form, but with the praise for A History of Violence deafening, he’ll probably continue along the same path. Someone who knows more of the guy, have a go at me.

Doom (2005) (F)

IMDB / Ebert
Written by a Bunch of Hacks
Directed by a Talentless Mole

Here it is at last, the film I’ve been waiting for. A film to really sink my teeth into, to get me thinking clinically and brutally. This isn’t just the worst movie of the year; it’s possibly the worst movie I’ve seen in my entire life. Apart from a four-minute sequence that is like riding the Motion Master, and the abundant attention given to Rosamund Pike’s breasts, every last aspect is minimally thought out and ineptly executed.

Of its many sins, the most crippling is that it is painfully boring. It’s an action movie in which the action never threatens to excite or engage the viewer. Because it is shot mostly with very low lighting, it’s nearly impossible to get involved in any situation. Like, they’re moving along, and there are a lot of cold stares, then someone looks frightened, then there’s some gunfire and shouting, and then someone’s dead, and there’s more shouting. And I think to myself, what just… oh, I don’t even care. Is this the best you could do? Really? They are the laziest action sequences I’ve seen – put some guys in a dark space with guns, have them blind the audience with their flashlights (I shit you not, this happens several times), then get an unseen monster to kill one of them. It is insulting, but as I say, it is extremely boring, which is far worse. Insulting provokes a reaction in the individual; boring fails to do even that.

This film goes beyond asking you to fill in the gaps – rather, it asks you to create artificial bridges between chunks of information and make up a coherent plot as you go along. The names of the writers are Dave Callaham and Wesley Strick, and I hope they never work again after this mess. The basic plot is a bunch of Marines are called to Mars to secure a scientific facility which has been breached; when they get there, they find that through some sort of genetic research program, the scientists have created a race of super-strong beings that have wreaked havoc. There are obligatory revelations as the narrative progresses, but you know how when you’re being told a story at great length and the teller keeps adding details that just don’t matter and you’re tuning in and out, waiting for the story to end? That’s what this movie is like. A story is there, but it’s so threadbare and poorly told that I couldn’t give a shit.

The dialogue, too, is truly woeful. The last line of the film is “Almost home…” – that’s it! That’s the big, epiphanic finale that we were all waiting for, hoping for, praying that something cool would happen at the end to leave us a little more satisfied. Nope. “Almost home…” is all we get. Prior to that it’s all insults, exposition, and irrelevant nonsense. To compensate for the poor dialogue, the actors SHOUT IT as often as possible. Sorry, Dwayne, but shouting and yelling do not constitute good acting. I tell you, it’s quite bizarre to be saying that I came out of a movie thinking, “Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson wasn’t up to his usual standard.” He really wasn’t, though – after Welcome to the Jungle and Walking Tall I thought he was the new Arnie, but I may be sadly mistaken. He’s upstaged by our own Karl Urban, just, and by Rosamund Pike, particularly her fine figure. It sounds base, but seriously, that was all they were after when they cast her – not her evident acting skills, but because she is pretty and in good shape.

The so-called climax is the lowest ebb in a film of many bad scenes. Character A has just been injected with magic serum which makes him superhuman, and he comes up against Character B, his boss-turned-evil, who is supposedly equally strong. This limited logic that has been set up then goes out the window, as they alternate having the upper hand in new and ridiculous ways. You want to scream at the screen, “Can’t he just kick him off?” But they never do, the recovery is always something even more outlandish, usually involving a handy prop. At one point Character A is holding off death by sharp wire with one hand, and then – no shit – uses that hand to press a button, then brings it back to force back his opponent. What? Consistency with basic physical truths? Nah, we can leave that out – the audience won’t notice.

The director’s name is Andzrej Bartkowiak, a former cinematographer. He should never occupy the director’s chair again. It is appropriate that his (and everyone else’s) name is blasted by a shotgun in the closing credits, because that’s what his career should look like after this shit-fest. Most galling is that the games this film is based on (even Doom 3) are minimally referenced, such that this is almost completely separate from them. Except, of course, that four-minute first-person sequence. No sounds from the games – shit, hardly even any monsters, of which they had a great number of really cool ones to choose from.

I didn’t expect much, admittedly, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad. I suppose it doesn’t have any presumptions other than being a big, dumb action movie; thing is, it isn’t even that. It’s just dull, monotonous crap that we could all do without. Seriously, do not bother with this piece of shit, unless you have a desire to learn exactly what not to do with US$70 million. (Thankfully it didn’t come close to making that back, so there won’t be any sequel, or hopefully any word spoken of it ever again.)