Thursday, April 30, 2009

First trailer for GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra...

This is the first extended look at the last real tent pole picture of summer 2009. The tone seems to be be serio-comic, as if the studio suits are afraid to spend $170 million on an action spectacle that takes itself too seriously. There are unbelievable stunts and action beats galore, with plenty of consequence-less free adventure (the Eiffel Tower's destruction is used for a cheap laugh). For example, in the final shot, as our fearless heroes dodge several missiles that are fired at them in a crowded city street, am I the only one wondering about the people that those missiles actually crash into?

Aside from the promise of a climactic ninja fight between Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, the trailer seems to be pushing the hotness of Sienna Miller as The Baroness as one of its trump cards, which is not a promising sign. Granted, I dig 'hot chick glasses', but men do not go to see movies that otherwise don't catch their fancy because an attractive woman is in it. Oddly enough, they seem to be almost hiding poor Rachel Nicols, who plays Scarlett. We see maybe three shots of Dennis Quaid and maybe two of Marlon Wayans. For whatever reason, this is a film that seems to be scared of its own cast.

The action looks suitably over the top and frenzied, but there seems to be no attempt at dramatic heft (the GI Joe unit seems to have no problem with endangering civilians as they do battle). I'd imagine that the just-aired Cartoon Network movie GI Joe: Resistance will end up being darker and more violent than this $170 million+ adaptation. Hopefully it will be a bit less boring and stupid - ultra violence for the sake of ultra violence doesn't equal maturity if the dialogue is still more juvenile than the 1980s cartoon that we all grew up on.

Those 'power suits' look silly and pointless and would it have killed them to use the old logo font and/or a few bars of the theme song? Why not compose a hard-charging instrumental variation of the G.I. Joe theme song, with a full orchestra behind it? What's the point of cashing in on 1980s nostalgia if you aren't willing to use the tools at your disposal? Anyway, carping aside, the picture does look like the kind of brainless high-octane action that you'd expect from a GI Joe movie. Come what may, I rather liked director Stephen Summers's first two Mummy pictures, although I loathed Van Helsing as much as anyone else. I'm sincerely hoping that this will be a perfectly moronic but acceptably entertaining way to blow $6.00 on the morning of August 7th before heading into work. We'll see...

Scott Mendelson

The 2nd Transformers 2 trailer... wow.

Once again I am amazed at the sheer scope, size, and scale of this one. What I'm sincerely hoping for is that Transformers 2 plays like a dark, brutal, hard-as-PG-13 can be giant monster movie where the monsters happen to be giant transforming robots. And since we're dealing with the Godzilla/Gamera genre, some silly humor is allowed. What makes me love the clips (as someone who loathed the original) is that the robot destruction looks genuinely intense and scary. Buildings are blowing up, helicopters are being knocked out the sky, and people, innocent bystanders including, are seemingly dying by the scores. And is it just me, or are the trailers implying that a major character is going to die at the halfway mark?* This may be the epic, globe-spanning horror show (what would happen if giant robots came to Earth and began slaughtering people?) that the first one lacked the nerve to be. If Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen can take itself seriously and make me scared of the evil robots, than it will work splendidly. I'm cautiously optimistic.

Scott Mendelson
* Spoilers if correct - A friend of mine thinks the shocking mid-film death is Kevin Dunn (Sam's father). I'm wondering if they won't follow the 1986 animated movie and, if they dare, kill off Optomus Prime himself.

Review: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)

Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past
100 minutes
Rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is a relatively okay movie, even while at its core it's pretty unremarkable. It is well acted and stylishly shot, with a brisk pace that only lags just a bit in the middle act. But it is at heart a simplistic story that purports that most people who make the choice to not have a conventional life (marriage, kids, two-car garage) are motivated not by personal choice but by deep-seated emotional scars. That may be the case for some, but couldn't we at least once have a film about a confirmed bachelor who gets to remain a bachelor by the film's climax, even if he has to become a somewhat better person?

The plot, in brief - Conner Meed (Matthew McConaughy) is a big-time fashion photographer and a full-time lothario. With a somewhat cartoonish love-em and leave-em philosophy, he embarks to his brother's wedding not with joy but merely family obligation. After arriving and making an ass out of himself in front of his family, the bride's family, and his childhood sweetheart (Jennifer Garner), he is visited by the ghost of his uncle (Michael Douglas) who advises him that he must change his promiscuous ways or risk being alone forever. What follows is a textbook variation on Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, as Conner is visited by three ghosts representing relationships past, present, and future. As expected, childhood trauma is revealed, secret motivations and fears are uncovered, and Conner realizes that he is controlled not by his libido but by his fears.

On the surface level, the film more or less works. Everyone in the cast is game and the film looks lovely. What's most impressive is the fact that the women in the film are actually allowed to be funny. As Dr. Jenny Perotti, Jennifer Garner is not just 'the childhood sweetheart who Conner pushed away', but a completely charming and humorous character of her own accord. In fact, it is a flaw of the film that she seems too smart and world-weary to still have feelings for the dope who cruelly left her, and her exceptional chemistry with another bachelor at the wedding (Daniel Sunjata) doesn't help the movie's grand schemes. Lacey Chambert's blushing bride is relatively amusing, with the amount of Bridezilla moments kept to a bare and reasonable minimum. In what could have been a stock role, Noureen DeWolf gives Conner's thankless secretary a sharp personality and a no-bullshit demeanor (it helps that she's arguably the only woman in the film not drawn to the cad). Emma Stone gets laughs as the 'past-tense ghost', the sixteen-year old nerd who was Conner's first conquest. Best of all is Anne Archer as the mother of the bride, who gets one of the film's best scenes during a warm flirtation moment with McConaughy. Unlike many comedies, the women actually get just as many funny lines and just as much personality as the men.

Also helping things is the low-key nature of the plot. With the exception of one painfully contrived scene involving a wedding cake, the film avoids over-the-top set pieces and pratfalls. Even the climax of the film refuses to take place at an interrupted wedding or an airport, but in a location irrelevant to the situation at hand. And said climax involves not a public confessional but a quiet conversation that is witnessed by only a few others. Furthermore, the relationship between Conner and his brother (Breckin Myer) is surprisingly thought-out, and a moment of Paul defending his older brother is the emotional highlight of the film. The supporting cast, from Robert Forster to Michael Douglas, seem to be trying their best to make this a real movie. And they pretty much succeed despite the formulaic narrative at play. It helps to have a real director, and Mark Waters (he of Mean Girls, the best movie ever made about high school girls) once again elicits terrific performances to help somewhat redeem a stock romantic comedy (re - Just Like Heaven).

But in the end, it is just another story about a ladies-man learning that having tons of consensual sex with willing partners is a huge character flaw and a sign of darker personal demons. We're once again told that women aren't smart enough to know when they are just rolling in the hay with an obvious playboy, thus Conner is responsible for countless heartbreaks and tears. And once again we're led to believe that a guy would have been happy forever more if he had just married his preschool sweetheart right from the get-go (sure plenty of happy couples met that early, but must that be the finale to so many romantic comedies?). It's something that's long bugged me about romantic comedies, but at least this is a relatively entertaining variation on that old hat moral.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is a surprisingly entertaining presentation of a sour package. But if you know what you're getting into, it's funny and well-acted, with equal laughs for the actors and actresses both. While I wish that McConaughy would do more varied work in the vein of Frailty, Sahara, and Lone Star, but this is a fine romantic comedy and is certainly a step up from Fool's Gold.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
107 minutes
Rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
is a film that has no particular reason for existing. It tells the background story behind a major character from the X-Men film franchise. But Wolverine was the lead character of said films, and we’ve already learned everything we need to know from the films in said franchise (like The Powerpuff Girls Movie, it is a feature length variation of an origin story that we already knew). And the extra information given here actually serves to make the character of Logan/Wolverine less interesting. It’s not necessarily that a character like Wolverine is better when his past is left a mystery, so much of that past that is revealed here is so astoundingly conventional, uncompelling, and completely cliché. In a time when even bad comic book films like The Spirit have a certain ‘are you kidding me?’ nerve, Wolverine is shocking in its adherence to formula and lack of imagination.

A token amount of plot: Born with mutant powers that consisted of healing abilities, unnaturally slow aging, and the ability to pop boney claws out of his hands, the man who would be Wolverine finds himself at home on one war-torn killing field after another, along with his friend and apparent brother Victor Creed/Sabretooth (a slumming Liv Shreiber, who does so little with the role that they should have just rehired Tyler Mane). After they are captured and unsuccessfully executed during the Vietnam War, they are both recruited into a super secret black-ops program known as Weapon X. Led by the mysterious William Stryker (Danny Huston, as the man who would be Brian Cox in X2: X-Men United), this band of super powered assassins proves too much for Logan, and he quits after Creed murders innocent civilians in an operation. Six years later, Stryker tracks down Logan with the information that someone is apparently murdering members of his old team. But before you can say Commando, the insidious plot hits close to home, shattering Logan’s world and putting him on a course to become the steel-clawed superhero we know and love.

The resulting film is every bit as predictable and dull as the information imparted above. The entire film is a muted, oddly lifeless affair. Without knowledge of the behind the scenes struggles between Fox and director Gavin Hood, I cannot say who is truly to blame. But the filmmakers seem to be under the impression that ‘dark and moody’ means visually gray and woodenly acted. Hugh Jackman does what he can with the character that he so obviously adores, but the bland, expository dialogue and routine storytelling leave him adrift. For all the blather about presenting a darker, more animalistic Wolverine, Logan is still the conflicted but generally morally sound do-gooder that he is in the X-Men pictures. Actually, within his element, he’s actually far less menacing than he was in the first X-Men, where he theoretically posed a genuine threat to the children of Xavier’s institute. He may occasionally kill his opponents, especially while at war, but he is friendly to kind-hearted older people and is no threat unless attacked first. In the end, the legendary Logan is rendered no more savage or dangerous than Jason Statham on a bad day.

That brings up another issue, which is the lack of memorable action set pieces. While the X-Men pictures were not legendary action-fests, they were rooted in quality storytelling and character-driven drama. Since those components are so lacking here, it would be up to the fights and chases to merit actually viewing this picture. But there are really only two even competent set-pieces. The first-act black-ops take down resembles a deleted scene from Spawn. The only action scenes of note are the climax and a mid-film chase involving a motorcycle against several hummers and helicopters. But, alas, every single gag in the mid-film chase has been revealed in the trailers. The already short running time is padded with several fights between Wolverine and fan-favorite cameos. Did anyone really want to see Logan boxing Blob? As for Gambit, he barely appears and exists only to appease the few and vocal. His fight scene with Logan is especially amusing, as it causes tons of property damage without comment, and because it quickly becomes a classic ‘neither of us want to lose, but the fans want to see us fight’ smack down, resulting in no real outcome and no story advancement (see The Forbidden Kingdom for another example).

So the action is more or less dull, the writing feels like a bad television pilot, and the acting is barely perfunctory. To make matters worse, a few would-be plot twists seem specifically designed to aggravate the very hardcore fans that would theoretically flock to this picture. The climax, for reasons that I won’t reveal, will absolutely infuriate devotees of a specific fan-favorite character (for comparison, imagine if, at the end of Spider-Man 3, Eddie Brock turned into The Vulture). A couple future X-Men make brief appearances, but their roles in the narrative ends up contradicting explicit X-Men continuity. The cameo that is revealed in the previews is especially odd, as Scott Summers finally gets a moment to shine, in a Wolverine spin-off of all things. This is of course ironic since Cyclops constantly had his story lines muted or stolen in the X-Men pictures by filmmakers who wanted to emphasize Wolverine at all costs.

Between Deadpool, Sabretooth, Gambit, Agent Zero, and Kestrel, 20th Century Fox could have started a whole new Weapon X franchise. Alas, none of these characters are even remotely developed. Dominic Monaghan has a moment of bitterness and regret as a light-controlling mutant named 'Bolt', but he's brushed offscreen right before he gets interesting. None of the other c-level X-universe characters make any such impact, and nonfans will struggle to remember their names as the credits role. Ironically, this is as much of a franchise killer as Stephen Summer’s Van Helsing (which also starred Hugh Jackman), which wrecked the film making potential of the entire Universal monsters library for several years afterward.

It’s been awhile since such a major tent pole picture that felt so lifeless and ordinary. The plot and story are Mad Libs by the book. The writing is shockingly lazy with even the simplest details (certain supporting characters are rarely if ever referred to by their names, leaving the audience wondering who they are), and the action scenes vary between dreadfully dull, completely pointless, and utterly ridiculous. This film is the kind of bland and boring assembly line product that makes me appreciate the ambitious comic book films that I didn’t care for (Spider-Man 3, Superman Returns, The Spirit, etc) and it makes me a little less hostile toward the lousy comic book adventures that at least had a junky spark (think Ghost Rider or Judge Dredd). Tragically for all involved, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is the worst major comic book adaptation since Catwoman.

Grade: D

Batman's garage sale...

This is awfully funny, but it'll be especially poignant for Batman: The Animated Series fans who remember Adam West's voice work as Simon Trent aka The Grey Ghost.

Scott Mendelson

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Kicking them while they're down, rooting for news (but not artistic failure)...

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read."

There is a movie coming out this Friday that I have written quite a bit about over the last month. Some have taken my constant commentary on said movie, and the circumstances which surrounded the month prior to its release, as some kind of rooting interest in its artistic and financial failure. This is not the case. Although I will confess that I perhaps became, for a moment, the sort of media person that I often criticize. In that, I became aware that if X-Men Origins: Wolverine opened well this weekend, despite the leaked work print and despite the current flu scare, then there would be no story and there would be nothing to discuss. However, if the film underperformed over the weekend, it would be news.

"But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."

It it opens at anything under $55 million, it will be seen as a true disappointment. It may be blamed on the availability of the rough cut, the bad word of mouth, the slowly forming bad buzz in the form of negative reviews, or, yes, the theoretical panic of swine flu (quick, what's the most memorable scene in Wolfgang Peterson's Outbreak?). But if it bombs it's news. If it does the 'normal' $70 million+ opening weekend, there will be nothing for us to talk about. So if I am guilty of subconsciously wanting the film to under perform, it is because such a thing would be news, and it will give me material to discuss on Monday night. So, yes, I'm guilty of being a film pundit who hoped for a situation in which there would be news. In those moments, I was no better than the political pundits who constantly try to turn every election into a horse race, because that would be more exciting to write about than a blow out. Regardless of how Wolverine opens this weekend, I will still write about it. But I will not take joy or sadness in whatever comes of it.

"But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends."

The main reason I'm writing this is to give some context to a review of the film, which is coming down the pike. It will be published very soon, depending on my work schedule. It is everything I feared.. And, frankly, at this point, it feels like any full-on negative review feels like kicking a sick puppy. The failure of this beleaguered project, after all that has transpired, brings nothing so much as pity for those involved. Contrary to popular belief, a film critic should take no joy in the failure of the art form which he or she covers. When a film fails, it is a cause for mourning, not celebration. Nothing would have made me happier than to be proven wrong. But, alas, I am not wrong. Not this time.

"Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source."

My review of Wolverine will be up soon. In the meantime, let me do my job as a film critic and point my readers along the path to some truly great somewhat-recent movies that have slipped through the cracks. Some are simply great movies that failed to find their audience, some are unfairly maligned gems that deserve a second look. All of them are better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine. All of them are examples of what makes this worthwhile.

Meet The Robinsons, Akeelah and the Bee, Frailty, Black Book, Nothing But The Truth, Shanghai Knights, Sixteen Blocks, Dark Water (the remake), Open Range, In America, Spirited Away, Joyride, Wet Hot American Summer, Sunshine, and the just released State of Play.

Scott Mendelson

Monday, April 27, 2009

Why I stopped watching Heroes...

Some choice blurbs from a Boston Herald review of tonight's season finale of Heroes...

"In the third-season finale of the NBC sci-fi drama, the good guys band together to take down villainous Sylar (Zachary Quinto). That was the premise of the first season finale. There are differences, of course. In the first season, the heroes united to stop Sylar from destroying the world. Now they want to prevent him from meeting the president."

And my favorite tidbit...

"When two of our power players finally catch up to Sylar, there’s an epic battle. Viewers won’t see a second of it. It takes place behind closed doors."

Ah yes, sounds like the show hasn't changed a bit. I'm sure 24 will be great tonight, with its consistent character development, vaguely differing story lines, and its, I dunno, onscreen action.

Scott Mendelson

Sunday, April 26, 2009

James Cameron's Avatar... it's still only a movie.

Here is an interesting and relatively spoiler-free look at Jame Cameron's Avatar. I've avoided most articles on this one, although it was awfully nice of Michelle Rodriguez to drop a massive spoiler during her otherwise unrelated press junket for Fast & Furious. Other than that, I know next to nothing and the cryptic little bits and pieces are fascinating.

I sincerely doubt that the movie will be as revolutionary as the article implies or hopes. The piece by Michael Cieply makes the picture seem like a new kind of mind-altering drug. I sincerely doubt that it will completely change the landscape of movie going for all time. I recall pundits saying similar things about The Matrix Reloaded. In the end, that anticipated sequel was only a movie, a thoughtful, vastly underrated and misunderstood science fiction film, but just a movie none the less. Whether or not this revolutionizes movies and becomes the next-generation equivalent of The Jazz Singer, or whether it's just a terrific science fiction adventure picture, Cameron doesn't do anything half-assed, and he has yet to make an even remotely mediocre film since breaking out with The Terminator in 1984.

Anyway, don't believe anyone who tells you that this film is any real threat to the $1.8 billion worldwide total that Cameron set over eleven years ago. Titanic, which opened on the same date - December 18th - that Avatar will open, was an anomaly. The factors that were at play are unlikely to be repeated again. Much like how television viewing habits have changed to the point that nothing will ever top the ratings for the MASH series finale, the movie going experience no longer has a place for major films that run nonstop for months on end.

And don't believe any of the hand-wringing that goes on while discussing the film's sure to be monstrous budget. James Cameron has broken the record for the most expensive movie of all time each of the last four times he's made a film. The Abyss cost about $80 million, Terminator 2: Judgment Day cost $100 million, True Lies cost $125 million, and Titanic ended up costing $200 million. And, with the exception of The Abyss, each film has been a major short term profit machine, and I'm guessing The Abyss has long made its money back over the last twenty years. Come what may, Cameron has earned the benefit of the doubt to spend what he wants, as he always delivers the goods.

Avatar - the next evolutionary step of movies, merely a top-notch adventure film, or the science fiction equivalent of Eyes Wide Shut? We'll see.

Scott Mendelson

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Is Obssessed sexist and racist? Once again, a genre film targeting minorities is deemed offensive for said minority group...

I was reluctant to get into this because I haven't seen Obsessed (which, as I correctly predicted, is going to do nearly $30 million this weekend), but the wolves are already out in force at Hollywood Elsewhere, Deadline Hollywood, and elsewhere.

Whenever any genre film comes out that doesn't revolve around white geeks or white action heroes, everyone gets up in arms about how the film is somehow racist/sexist/bad for the specific demographic that it's targeting. White men and overgrown boys can have their trashy exploitation jollies as much as they want. But as soon as women or a minority group is given their own somewhat trashy entertainment, it's suddenly a problem for culture at large.

For what it's worth, I've been told that the issue of race is never actually discussed in the film, so it very well may be an example of colorblind storytelling. Of course, regardless of what's discussed in the film, I think we can presume that any film that has the working title of 'Oh No She Didn't' probably has a specific racial audience in mind (unless that catchphrase has itself transcended race, but I digress).

But let's presume that the film has racial politics on its mind. Is Obsessed a thriller that specifically exploits genuine resentment that some African American women feel when some of the more suitable black bachelors end up with white women? Quite possibly. That's why they are called 'exploitation films'. Would it be better if the film didn't have any particular social issue at its core? Maybe it would be less 'offensive', but it would also be an empty, hollow film that had nothing going on underneath the thriller mechanics. Regardless of whether it's a good film, shouldn't we be pleased that this mainstream thriller is actually about something?

I wrote about this at length when Sex and the City came out and pundits and critics were declaring that the film was somehow a 'Taliban recruitment film'. or 'the equivalent of the OJ Simpson verdict for women'. So it's OK for men in indulge in power fantasies like Iron Man, but Sex and the City is bad for women and Obsessed is bad for black women? Obsessed could very well be a piece of garbage. But it shouldn't be deemed smellier than the norm purely because it's aimed at African Americans. Real racial/sexual progress will come in Hollywood once other demographics are allowed to enjoy their own trash and exploitation genre pictures in peace without being scolded by moralists both within and outside said culture.

Scott Mendelson

Friday, April 24, 2009

H2 (Rob Zombie's Halloween 2) trailer...

I more or less loathed the first Rob Zombie Halloween picture, and while this one doesn't seem much better, the trailer certainly feels different. I am intrigued by Zombie's comments a month ago about how the sequel would deal with how a young woman would realistically react to a mad slasher killing her parents and all of her friends in a single night, so we'll see. Either way, trailers get lots of hits so enjoy.

Scott Mendelson

Obsessed = Tyler Perry's Fatal Attraction?

For the record, the title joke comes from a friend of a friend named Brian Lynch (credit where credit is due). The reason I bring it up is because I'm wondering if Obsessed is yet another well-marketed film involving African American actors that is going to shock... SHOCK the pundits by grossing over $25 million this weekend. Just like pretty much every Tyler Perry film is a SHOCKING surprise at the box office? We'll know tomorrow, but I'm thinking the $17 million predictions are a little on the light side. Beyonce Knowles is a major star, and Idris Elba has been making his way through the ranks for awhile (and of course, he starred in Tyler Perry's Daddy's Little Girls back in 2007). Toss in the plastering of the poster on every inch of every wall in LA, along with the simple and easy to explain premise, and this looks like a not so surprising surprise hit.

Scott Mendelson

Thursday, April 23, 2009

I was right? Wolverine final print confirmed as identical to workprint?

As some of you know (especially people who follow me on Twitter and Facebook), a bit I had written on Tuesday inspired a bit of controversy when Movieline (the revamped online version of a magazine I used to read) asked a 'Fox Source' for comment on said story. In the article (published at Mendelson's Memos, Film Threat and Huffington Post), I noted with amusement that, despite Tom Rothman's claim that the work print version of X-Men Origins: Wolverine was ten minutes shorter, the final running time of the theatrical cut was the same 107 minutes as the work print. This alleged 'exchange' basically had the Fox source claiming that I was not aware that the bootleg in fact lacked finished production elements (music, fx, matte work, etc).

On the plus side, my article got mainstream attention at Yahoo and The Internet Movie Database, as well as several other mainstream movie sites. Well, apparently my hunch was right on the nose. According to this (hopefully accurate) Ain't It Cool News article, written by the alias Merrick, well... see for yourself:

"Well, having seen the finished film, the mystery is solved: the workprint version IS in fact identical to the release print, sans effect and some audio work. It's obvious that FOX is trying their darndest to keep this news from getting out, because it will eliminate most of the motivation for people who have seen the workprint to pay for a ticket."

Once again, if this is true, I don't blame Tom Rothman for doing everything in his power to mitigate the effects of the leak, up to and including lying to the public about the content of the final product (to paraphrase a popular political chant, no one died when Tom Rothman lied). I do however think it is very suspicious that no one has been arrested for the leak. A lack of a clear conclusion will further fan the flames of 'inside job conspiracy' and/or 'a kid of a powerful executive at Fox or an outside company' (think Hasbro). I'm purely speculating here, but I'm thinking that if this were some web-hacker or a disgruntled/glory seeking Fox employee, the villain would have been caught by now.

Oh, and Fox, would you mind releasing a few more official screen grabs, so I and other writers don't have to keep using the same three or four images? Thanks.

Scott Mendelson

James Marsden cast as the lead in Rod Lurie's Straw Dogs remake

Rod Lurie announced last night, along with The Hollywood Reporter, that the lead actor in his upcoming Straw Dogs remake would be none other than James Marsden. Great news for an actor who is still waiting for leading man breakout after several scene stealing performances in the last few years. He survived an X-Men series that, all positives aside, couldn't be bothered with Cyclops. He more or less stole Superman Returns from Brandon Routh by being more heroic and likable than the Man of Steel himself (good for Marsden, but very bad for the film). He was terrific in Hairspray, and he was the only character who didn't royally piss me off in Enchanted. He was dangerously close to Mark Ruffalo territory in 27 Dresses, as the kind of actor who could make a bad romantic comedy into a watchable one. Late last year, he pulled the same trick with a bawdy supporting role in the slightly better than expected Sex Drive. I'm pretty sure that Straw Dogs represents his first out and out lead role, which is saying something as the guy has been acting since 1993 (his first small role was in the NBC telefilm In The Line Of Duty: Showdown In Waco).

Come what may, this casting choice seems to imply that Rod Lurie is attempting to be more faithful to the original literary source (The Siege of Trencher's Farm) than Sam Peckinpah was with his 1971 film. In the original book and this new film, the main character was a big-city writer. Dustin Hoffman famously played the role as a somewhat nerdy mathematician. I'm guessing that this casting is a sign that Lurie wants this new version to be compared to the original book, rather than the first film adaptation (the first film took place in rural England, this one will take place in the American deep south). So noted and fair enough, although I'd suggest changing the film title back to that of the original book for starters. Oh, and Rod Lurie's Nothing But The Truth comes out on DVD on April 28th. The original company, Yari Pictures, went bankrupt right in the middle of the awards rush. Sony was nice enough to pick the film up for home video distribution. You no longer have any excuse for passing up this tight, well-acted thriller.

Scott Mendelson

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince posters- Mostly grand, but why is Draco's nose so um... altered?

These are four pretty terrific posters for the upcoming Harry Potter picture. No one does individual character posters better than Warner Bros, and these action shots are no exception. Everyone looks moody and serious and, for the first time that I can recall for one of these films, Ron Weasley isn't being made the butt of a joke or made to look foolish in the print materials.

Just one awkward question. Why is Draco Malfoy's face and specifically his nose so um... altered? If I were Tom Felton's agent, I would not be happy about this relatively obvious misrepresentation of my client's facial features. Especially when compared with the screen shot from the latest film on the right, someone took some creative license at drawing board. I'd hate to think that someone at Warner decided that the evil Draco Malfoy needed a less Aryan nose to better represent the forces of Voldemort. That would of course be ironic, since Voldemort and his Death Eaters are all about genetic superiority and ethnic cleansing. I'm sure I'm making too much of this, but the artwork really jumped out at me.

Review: Crank: High Voltage (2009)

Crank: High Voltage
96 minutes
Rated R
by Scott Mendelson

Crank: High Voltage is a movie that spends 90 minutes seemingly punishing the audience for having enjoyed the first Crank. The original picture was of course the definition of a guilty pleasure. It was loud, trashy, vulgar, and violent. But, underneath all of the mayhem and property destruction, there was a real movie with and an actual relatable plot. While the original film wasn’t terribly concerned about whether you felt for any of the characters, this sequel basically dares you to give a damn.

A token amount of plot: After plunging from a helicopter and landing on a car, the wonderfully named Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) inexplicably wakes up to find a group of evil Chinese doctors attempting to harvest his organs. Bloodshed ensues and he escapes, only to realize that his heart is missing and in its place is an electric artificial model. Sure enough, Chelios once again has only one hour to make things right, unless of course he can keep the electricity flowing into his body one way or another. Can Chev find his original heart in time for Doc Miles (Dwight Yokum) to put it back in?

The problem with Crank 2 is also its greatest asset. Unlike the original, which at least had a pretense of being somewhat earth bound, High Voltage raises the level of carnage and mayhem to the level of a cartoon. If Crank was attempting to be a film version of Grand Theft Auto, then Crank : High Voltage is basically a gore-drenched Loony Tunes cartoon. Among other highlights, elbows are sliced off, a shotgun is inserted into a man’s butt, and a woman watches as her fake breasts are punctured by bullets and her chest melts away. There’s an inexplicable climactic moment where a good guy pauses mid gunfight, turns around, and unloads into the back of the unarmed gardener. I have no problem with extreme violence, but the film makes no bones about being filled with gore for the sake of gore. The absolute lack of any emotional investment makes the picture feel much ickier than it would have been had it even pretended to be telling a story. The first few times I took slight moral offense at the heartless carnage on display. After that, I just became bored.

What made Crank work was that, amidst all the mayhem (which, gore and body count-wise, was actually relatively restrained until the climax), we had an undertone of a man realizing that he had wasted his life on the very day it was to end (to say nothing of the irony that he was killed in retribution for the one murder he chose not to commit). Yes, it was trashy, loud, and anarchic, but it worked on its own limited emotional scope, and the filmmakers stuck to their guns and actually killed Statham at the end.

Alas, the sequel betrays the limited investment that anyone had in the characters of the first film. Not only is Chev now not dead, but apparently he is in a position to save his own life for good if he can recover his um... stolen heart. People can certainly relate to the idea of knowing they've only got hours to live and taking revenge on the people who murdered them. I don't think many people can relate to the idea of having their heart stolen, replaced with an electric heart, and then having to get the original back from gangsters.

Dwight Yokum isn’t given nearly as much to do this time around. Amy Smart is given even less to do other than striptease, fight with other women, and end up… well, that’s a spoiler but I didn’t like it one bit. Random minor characters from the first film show up only to remind you that this is a sequel. To be fair, I did enjoy the climactic appearance of a major player from the first film (no spoilers, but I think they were paying homage to the video game Doom 2). As for Chelios himself, the first film walked a fine line between making him an impulsively violent hit man and yet still making him a vaguely noble samurai whom we could actually root for. This time around, the savage beast is unleashed and the film spends much time recounting what a menace Chelios really is (for the first time ever, Jason Statham is unlikable). If Chev Chelios is such a monstrous outlaw, why should we root for him to get his heart back and live to murder and maim again?

The answer of course is that all of these qualms are beside the point. Crank part duex is theoretically a thoughtless, soulless picture where violence and destruction happen on a grand guignol purely for the hell of it. But, when you’re working in a mid-budget R-rated action film, there aren’t really any prizes for gross outs and pointless carnage. Writer/Directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are breaking no taboos and are operating in an arena where they have no limitations and no real restrictions. Thus they are not being ‘edgy’ or ‘daring’, but simply being loud and brutish. The irony of course is that the very video games that Neveldine and Taylor are attempting to emulate have in fact grown up in the last several years. Even Grand Theft Auto IV has created rich characters and shades of gray moral choices to balance out its wanton violence. Compared to the video games of today and even the original Crank, Crank: High Voltage is just too pointless and dumb to merit any real reaction at all.

Grade: C-

10 Years after Columbine part 02 (004/26/01)

This second post Columbine editorial was written two years after the shootings, for my college newspaper. In it, I bitterly recounted a brand new 'blame entertainment' lawsuit that had been filed in direct correlation with the two-year anniversary of the crime. The irony of course was that it was an almost identical sort of lawsuit, as well as the identical illogical reasoning that sparked the lawsuits that I discussed the week after the shootings. The more things change...

Here We Go Again...

by Scott Mendelson

“Imagine, if you will, an increasingly plausible future scenario. You are angry about affirmative action. So, you write a letter to the editor to USA Today. You state that something has to be done about this situation. You state that action must be taken to avert this alleged injustice. In response to your letter, a disturbed, angry loner whom you have never met walks into the local NAACP building and opens fire. The families of the victims then sue you. Your crime? You wrote material that you should have known could have inspired a crime. You put out a call for protest, but you should have known it could have been taken as a call to arms.”

The above paragraph is nearly two years old. It was the beginning of my twelfth and final editorial for my high school paper. This post-Columbine-piece dealt with lawsuits filed by victim’s families and survivors of a couple of related shootings which held Hollywood and the video game industry responsible merely because they should have known that their products would be misinterpreted and misused. Both lawsuits were dismissed late last year and those who enjoy free artistic expression breathed a sigh of relief. Alas, the peace could only last so long…

Two weeks ago, a day before the two-year anniversary of the Columbine shootings, the families of several victims filed a five billion dollar lawsuit against several video game companies and Internet porn sites, claiming that video games and pornography are responsible for the actions of individual human beings. Once again, even though these products were not intended to insight violence, the makers should have known, say the plaintiffs, that some random loony would have used this video game or that porn site as inspiration for a violent act. Here we go again…

There has never been a factual, objective link between violence in TV, movies, video games, and books and violence in the real world. Early this year, Surgeon General David Satcher released the findings of a massive study on youth violence found that media violence was not a major cause and was not a contributing factor to youth violence. As common sense would indicate, the economic background, family life, educational background, and mental well being of the child were far more important factors.

Artists should never, ever be responsible for the actions of someone else in relation to their art. To hold ID Games responsible for a fan of Doom going on a shooting spree is to hold JD Salinger responsible for the death of John Lennon is to hold the Catholic Church responsible for the latest abortion clinic shooting.

Alas, the dubiousness of the claims is not why this issue is being revisited. I swore that the previous piece would be the final time I would write about such foolishness. Alas, Joseph Lieberman is now trying to pass legislation to enforce a voluntary movie ratings code which was never intended to be a matter of law, and various champions of decency are trying to get MTV’s Jackass thrown off the air because kids are too stupid to read the warnings before each show (the news shows condemning Jackass while showing the same offending scenes carry no such warning). But the simple wording of the lawsuit brings a once-hidden agenda blindly to light and is the cause of this piece.

“Absent the combination of extremely violent video games and these boys' incredibly deep involvement, use of and addiction to these games and the boys' basic personalities, these murders and this massacre would not have occurred.''

So, the attorneys involved fully acknowledge that the perpetrators themselves are just as much to blame as the evil empires of Nintendo and Sega. Alas, the perpetrators are dead and their families are not wealthy. But video game companies are big, faceless corporations that have deep pockets. Maybe, the plaintiffs could scare them into settling for a few hundred million before this suit, like the nearly identical Paducah case, gets dismissed on constitutional grounds. Obviously, greed is nothing new in the realm of civil litigation, but once again the stakes are high. What was true two years ago remains true today.

“Quite simply, if either of these lawsuits triumph, the first amendment will be a thing of the past. From then on, you will be in constant fear of what you say and what you write. If someone uses your written or spoken word as inspiration for a crime, you will be held liable, regardless of your true message. We will thus live in a nation of voluntary censorship. Don't let our most precious freedom become the next victim of random violence.”

Sometimes I wonder why I bother…

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Warner Bros's Earth Day mitzvah - a cheap HD-DVD to Blu Ray trade in program.

Kudos to Warner Bros. for their new HD-DVD to Blu Ray trade in program. I kinda wish they had done this a year ago when I actually had a handful of Warner HD DVDs, but better late than never I suppose (my local public library now has several HD DVDs and I have a tax deduction). Basically, send in the cover art, plus $4.95 and shipping and handling, and they'll send you the corresponding Blu Ray of the same title. Considering that it was Paramount that prolonged this format war by going HD DVD only back in October 2007, it might behoove them to offer a similar trade program (especially for pricey stuff like the Star Trek Original Series HD DVD sets). Between this and that wonderful archive program they started several weeks ago (they released countless old films from the vaults and allowed consumers to custom order DVDs for purchase), Warner Bros. is all but shaming their competition in the home video realm.

Scott Mendelson

Star Trek screens to rave reviews, and mourning the midnight screenings that I no longer attend.

First of all, the trades (Variety and The Hollywood Reporter) are raving about Star Trek. I'll hopefully get to see it within the next week, but it looks like I may just have to (happily) eat crow regarding Paramount's financial gamble. Oh, and thank you Paramount for scheduling advance night screenings at a reasonable hour (starting at 7pm). When you become a parent, one of the things you give up is the ability to do those beloved 12:01am advance showings of the big summer movies. Should I not be able to make the press screenings, I'll happily just waltz on in on Thursday night without worrying about losing sleep. Still... some great memories of those midnight movies. When Allison is old enough, I'll gladly tag along to whatever midnight screenings she wants, be it X-Men Origins: Random Mutant Who Can Shoot Wooden Stakes Out of His Arms or The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn.

Scott Mendelson

Review: Tyson (2009)

87 minutes
Rated R

By Scott Mendelson

What do Henry Tillman, Alex Stewart, Michael Spinx, and I have in common? None of us have lasted even a single round against Mike Tyson. I still remember the code for Mike Tyson’s Punch Out that allowed you to skip straight to the title bout (007-373-5963), and I never, ever defeated him. For about a two-year period, I was a boxing fan. When Tyson was in his late-80s peak, I distinctly recall several of his fights on HBO. My uncle ordered the much-hyped Tyson/Spinx fight on pay per view in 1989; leaving to grab a snack in the opening round and return moments later to discover the fight was over. To this day, I can vividly remember the shock of watching the seemingly invincible Iron Mike getting knocked out by the theoretically light weight Buster Douglas in the tenth round. Like the correlation between Mark Twain and Haley’s Comet, my fascination with boxing came and went with Mike Tyson.

Just over nineteen years after that stunning upset, Mike Tyson has sat down with friend and director James Toback for a blunt and intimate discussion of his childhood, his boxing career, and the downward spiral that his life plunged into following his epic loss. Anyone with a passing knowledge will know the main details. The rape conviction and subsequent three-year prison term, the failed attempts at a comeback, the infamous 1997 incident where bit off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear in the middle of a match (an incident that more or less ended his career)… they are all covered in seemingly forthright detail by the man himself.

The majority of Tyson is simply Mike Tyson sitting in a chair, facing the camera, and telling the story of his life up to this point. There are plenty of fight clips, news snippets, and other assorted visual aids, but at the end of the day, this is simply one of the most famous boxers in the history of the sport waxing poetically about his successes and failures.

While one can question the reliability of the narrator in several instances, he certainly earns our benefit of the doubt with his apparent honesty regarding all manner of bad behavior. Of his marriage to actress Robin Givens (currently a member of the Tyler Perry casting pool), he casually remarks the futility of one side accusing the other of being a bi-polar, emotionally abusive psychotic, while the other side accused their spouse of being a venomous gold-digger. He resoundingly proclaims his innocence of the rape charge that sent him to prison, and his memories of jail provide one of the highlights of the picture. The most potent moments occur as footage of the infamous ear-biting incident play onscreen, while Tyson recounts a kind of stream of consciousness of what was allegedly going on in his head during the fight.

What emerges from this narrative is a classic tale of a young man who achieved unimaginable success at an age when he was in no position to deal with the fallout. While the filmmaker is obviously a sympathetic ear (Toback has cast Tyson in two of his previous films), there are still doses of unflinching honesty to be found. What is contained here is compelling and worth listening to, but Tyson seems to be only scratching the surface. This first-person documentary is best viewed as a sort of ‘cliff notes’ for the great autobiography that has yet to be written.

Grade: B

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Ten minutes shorter, bub? Final cut of X-Men Origins: Wolverine runs 107 minutes - the same running time as the bootleg cut.

Well, tickets for X-Men Origins: Wolverine are now on sale at most major theater chains (they had been on sale at the Arclight chain for awhile now). So, if you watched that bootleg a few weeks ago, and you're feeling guilty about it, now's the chance to appease your conscience. Free tip - the AMC theater chain does super cheap shows on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for any showing before noon. So, for $6.00(in Los Angeles, likely cheaper elsewhere), you can purchase a ticket for Wolverine and swipe the slate clean.

Here's the funny part though. Remember when Tom Rothman swore up and down that the final version of the film would be ten minutes longer? Apparently that was a lie. The bootleg apparently ran 107 minutes with credits. The official running time listed in the AMC and Arclight websites lists the film as running... drum roll... 107 minutes. While Tom Rothman had no choice but to convince moviegoers that the free version would be vastly different from the completed picture, it'll be interesting to see the reaction should that not turn out to be the case. Because, at this point, it would seem to not be the case. Aside from unfinished effects work and several minutes of extra Ryan Reynolds Deadpool footage that apparently comprised the majority of the reshoots (due to an alleged scheduling conflict), it's becoming increasingly likely that the bootleg that went out three weeks ago was in fact a rough version of the final film. And, judging by comments that have been posted at my various outlets and elsewhere, that's not a good thing at all. Boy, what a relief that Fox now has a bullet-proof excuse should the film under perform next month.

Scott Mendelson

Monday, April 20, 2009

10 Years after Columbine part 01 (05/06/99)

Since today marks the 10 year anniversary of the Columbine school shootings, I thought I'd republish the three editorials that I wrote in response to the event. The first piece was my final article for my high school paper. It concerns several class action lawsuits that were making their way through the court at the time of the shootings. Since these lawsuits concerned prior acts of violence, and the works of art that allegedly served as inspiration, no reference was actually made to the Columbine homicides. Of course, this is a ten year old article, and written for a suburban high school audience, but here is a look back.

The Thirteenth Victim: The First Amendment?

by Scott Mendelson

Imagine, if you will, an increasingly plausible future scenario. You are angry about affirmative action. So, you write a letter to the editor to USA Today. You state that something has to be done about this situation. You state that action must be taken to avert this alleged injustice. In response to your letter, a disturbed, angry loner whom you have never met walks into the local NAACP building and opens fire. You are then sued by the families of the victims. Your crime? You wrote material that you should have known could have inspired a crime. You put out a call for protest, but you should have known it could have been taken as a call to arms.

We, as a nation, must finally accept the fact that art, be it a Marilyn Manson concert, or the Statue of David, cannot be blamed when people act out in response to exposure. The sheer volume of violent material available vs. the number who have chosen to act violently in response to such images all but excludes the theory that Hollywood causes our nation to become kill. Television, books, music, video games, or movies are not capable of turning completely healthy individuals into sociopaths. Besides, if this is the case, why are there so few acts of similar violence in Japan or Great Britain, where citizens see the same television and movies, listen to the same music, and read many of the same books? The seed of discontent must be planted by other factors before a person turns to ways to recreate a fantasy. Of course, I have always believed that such sexual or violent material can actually prevent violence by providing a healthy outlet for fantasy, but that is for another day.* If one artist is capable of such impact, then every artist is. One man's Howard Stern is another man's Mr. Rogers.

There are two lawsuits in place right now that allege responsibility on the part of various entertainment companies for acts of violence. The suits allege that Hollywood is to blame because Hollywood should have known that, out of 270 million people, a choice few could use their work as possible inspiration for violence.

At this present moment, Oliver Stone and Warner Bros. are being sued for just this offense. According to the plaintiffs, Stone and company should have logically expected two kids to view Natural Born Killers, get high on drugs, and kill someone during a stickup. Even though the film attacked the concept of a media that glamorizes violence, he and others are now being sued because someone didn't get the joke. By this concept, Steven Spielberg will be held responsible, should someone ever watch Saving Private Ryan, which many teens enjoyed as a 160-minute gore-fest, and go on a killing spree. All forms of expression send all kinds of messages to all kinds of people.

There is another lawsuit being brought against Time Warner, Sony Pictures, Id Games, and various Internet porn sites. Filed by the families of the three students killed in a Kentucky high-school shooting last year, it alleges that the makers of Doom, the producers of Internet pornography sites, and the makers of The Basketball Diaries, a flawed if well-intentioned film concerning teen drug addiction, are responsible for the actions of one misguided teenager.

Although I often shy away from blaming the parents, as it is often undeserved scorn, I must ask who allowed the child to view such sites or play such games? As for the film, an art-house flick starring Leonardo DiCaprio that few people saw in its initial theatrical run, the suit alleges that the teen was inspired by a dream sequence where DiCaprio kills classmates with a shotgun. If this scene is truly responsible, how can we justify the constant display of this scene during the past two weeks on countless news stations that allegedly impressionable kids can view? Ten million people saw Natural Born Killers. At most, a dozen acted out following the viewing. How many were high on drugs at the time? Why are the drug dealers not being sued? By this rationale, after the release of Free Willy, there should have been dozens of incidents of people breaking into their local Sea World to free Shamu. Are we to deny free expression to the masses on the account of the few disturbed individuals who would copy a work of art? Are we to ban Shakespeare when people start beheading others after reading Macbeth? Are we to blame J.D. Salinger because Mark David Chapman was carrying Catcher in the Rye when he killed John Lennon?

What about lawsuits filed against God? If such cases triumph, I'm sure the families who have lost relatives in abortion-protest killings would love to have money from those who produced The Bible, which possibly inspired those who kill in the name of Jesus Christ. Would Jesus condone such things? Probably not, but that is irrelevant in such lawsuits. He should have known that teaching his gospel would have led others to commit murder in his name.

Quite simply, if either of these lawsuits triumph, the first amendment will be a thing of the past. From then on, you will be in constant fear of what you say and what you write. If someone uses your written or spoken word as inspiration for a crime, you will be held liable, regardless of your true message. We will thus live in a nation of voluntary censorship. Don't let our most precious freedom become the next victim of random violence.

* For more information regarding the positive link between pornography and violence, send a note to for a copy of my term paper on the subject.


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