Archive for the ‘Disappointments’ Category

Lady In The Water (2006)

M. Night Shyamalan, the kinda-sorta auteurist filmmaker who rocketed to above-the-title fame with a couple movies only to struggle critically over the tail end of the past decade, has a new movie coming out this summer.  It’s called AFTER EARTH and it stars Will Smith, one of the last dependable movie stars, and his son Jaden.  The movie is a sci-fi epic about a father and son who return to Earth in the deep future, long after the planet has been abandoned by humanity.  I included AFTER EARTH on my list of 2013’s potentially strangest movies, which is totally a dick move on my part.  I mean, how much have I done with MY life to be sitting here taking cheap shots?  At least this guy is out there making movies, and making them with some of the world’s hugest stars.  In my heart, I’m really not a so-called hater.

Quite the contrary in this case, in fact.  I think there’s a particular angst for movie lovers when we start following a talented filmmaker who then makes a severe right turn down the off-roads of unfulfilled or squandered promise.  It happened to me with Kevin Smith, for example, a witty, bold, and perceptive writer who I always hoped would take an interest in learning what to do with a camera, but it turned out he’d rather pursue other interests besides visual storytelling.  By contrast, Shyamalan never had a problem being cinematic, but he certainly grew overly enamored of certain tics that precluded concise and coherent films.  I would have liked to remain a fan, but at a certain point I had to decide that I didn’t want to follow these guys up their own asses.

So here’s a chronicle of me falling in love with another man’s talent, and then rapidly falling out of it.  I wrote most of this piece back in 2008 but unfortunately my mind hasn’t much changed since then.

NOTE: This will not include anything Shyamalan did before THE SIXTH SENSE, because I haven’t seen any of that stuff. I’m most interested in the Shyamalan of self-created myth & legend, the Shyamalan we have come to know in the past decade, the one who – like a young Bruce Wayne in his study who looked up at a bat and gained an instant career direction – looked up at the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK poster in his office and asked himself why he wasn’t making those kind of movies. That is the filmography I will be talking about here.

I also won’t be talking about anything after THE HAPPENING, for reasons that may soon enough become apparent.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

THE SIXTH SENSE (1999) – This one came out of nowhere in the summer of 1999 and blew most people’s minds.  It was a ghost story with the emphasis on story.  The dramatic twist near the end actually deepens the experience, and it doesn’t hurt that it makes you want to re-watch the movie with the twist now in mind.  This is an extremely solid movie about faith and the after-life and how those intersect and overlap. Is it maybe even good enough to one day sit on a shelf alongside another one of the director’s inspirations, THE EXORCIST? That may be going a little far. But it does serve as an answer to the most vehement haters, the ones who, burned by his later films, have rechristened him F. Night Shyamalan:

Anybody wondering why they still allow this guy to make movies should re-watch THE SIXTH SENSE. It was a massive financial success achieved with an actually good movie. The people who make the decisions are no doubt optimistic that one day, this guy will do that again. (So am I, for the record.)

But the movie itself does indeed hold up to revisiting. To prospective screenwriters like myself, I also recommend reading it in script form, if you can track that down, because it’s still just as affecting on the page. This movie is so solid that it has a good performance by Donnie Wahlberg.  That’s directing, son.

The truth is that Shyamalan’s filmmaking talent is very real. Every movie he has made since THE SIXTH SENSE has contained varying degrees of that copious cinematic talent. Key word: “varying.” It’s why his filmography is so frustrating. He wouldn’t be so widely discussed if he wasn’t so capable.

UNBREAKABLE (2000)

UNBREAKABLE (2000) – I loved this one when it was first released. Saw it twice theatrically and a couple more times on DVD. So I hope that earns me enough leeway to suggest that it does not really hold up viscerally eight years later. It’s slow as a turtle attempting to moonwalk. Okay, hang on–

Here’s a rule: You can’t make a movie that’s more boring than real life. You just can’t. It’s why — to take a random and unrelated example — BROKEN FLOWERS was so disappointing to me. No matter how much Bill Murray you pour into a movie, you can’t slow a story down so much that you leave out the space for narrative.

Anyway, that’s why Shyamalan’s “deliberate” pacing falls so often flat. It also plays into the cardinal mistake Shyamalan likes to make of turning lighthearted subject matter — in this case superheroes — into a somber and ponderous suite of melancholy. It’s true that comic books themselves have been doing this for years, and now comic book movies are doing it too, so Shyamalan can’t be entirely faulted there.  In a way, he was ahead of the curve.

On an intellectual level, UNBREAKABLE still works. It’s an interesting approach to the standard superhero/supervillain origin story. I just don’t want to rewatch it ever again. Unless…

You know what would solve all its problems? If the once-rumored sequel were to actually happen. Because as it stands now, UNBREAKABLE feels like the longest first act ever.  I would definitely be curious as to what happens in the second UNBREAKABLE movie if it ever happened, especially since the second act is traditionally where the majority of the actual story takes place.  UNBREAKABLE doesn’t add up to much without its MR. GLASS STRIKES BACK.

Signs (2002)

SIGNS (2002) – Forget the fact that it’s kind of impossible to look at Mel Gibson anymore without off-the-screen baggage.  He’s fine in the movie, really.  It’s the movie itself that’s the problem.  This is where the storytelling problems infecting Shyamalan’s arsenal start to rear up violently. Shyamalan’s technical skill is still crazy-impressive – every scene where those aliens appear (or don’t) is freaky and great.

It’s the other stuff that just plain doesn’t add up in a coherent way — first and foremost that ending — and there’s been enough cyber-ink spilled on the subject for me to not bother to add to it. But the movie still made tons of money, and enough people still inexplicably say they like it, which is no doubt precisely how the first out-and-out blunder came to pass.

The Village (2004)

THE VILLAGE (2004) – Or as I call it affectionately: Cinematic blue-balls.

There’s nothing wrong with the original premise – colonial village is surrounded on all sides by a thick forest and maintaining an uneasy truce with the horrible monsters who live there – in fact that’s a great goddamn premise! And the way those red-cloaked spiny creatures are set up is chilling. Even knowing how things turned out, I still get chills thinking of their first couple appearances in the movie, and trust me, I don’t scare easy at movies. The first half of THE VILLAGE does the tough part and brings the fear.

So why completely subvert it for a corny twist ending? I’ll tell you how I figured out the twist after the first five minutes of the movie: “Okay, colonial village, bunch of musty old white people, how are they going to work in a role for the director, a modern-sounding East Indian guy, AHA! – it’s actually set in the present day!” And sure enough, there he was, and so it was. Sorry to ruin the movie, but you’d be a lot happier if you turned it off at the hour-mark anyway.

Lady in the Water (2006)

LADY IN THE WATER (2006) – Even worse, somehow.  Massive folly. Near-unbelievable, but I didn’t see it alone, so I know for a fact it really happened.

Reading Shyamalan print interviews is one of my guilty pleasures. I’m just fascinated by how someone so smart and talented can so often be so misguided. I may risk sounding like an asshole to say so, but I truly find it illuminating. For a while there, Shyamalan was fond of defending his work by questioning why so many people criticize him and not his movies. Seems to me that one way to avoid that is to take a break from casting yourself in your movies. Right? Kind of hard to separate the two when, in this case, you’re playing the pivotal role of the man who will write the book that will change the world, even though it will mean he will die a martyr. And you can’t be so naive as to think that notebook-toting, detail-oriented professional film critics won’t pick up on the fact that the only character to meet a gruesome death, in an entire movie about the act of storytelling itself, is the cranky film critic.

The same way that you can’t complain about the way that people are always trying to figure out the twist endings of your movies when you keep putting twist endings in your movies. Right?

I particularly liked how the title character spent very close to the entire running time curled up in the shower. That was exciting.

And Paul Giamatti had the speech impediment coming and going, and that Latino dude with the fucked-up arm… (Now I’m getting confused again.) The wolf made of grass was pretty cool though. (Was I high?)  Wikipedia tells me there was in fact a grass-wolf. It was called a “scrunt,” which really isn’t a great word to have in what was intended as a children’s movie.

The Happening (2008)

THE HAPPENING (2008) – Okay. Okay.

It’s starting to become apparent that the director may no longer be interested in suspenseful stories about the supernatural, and has in fact now evolved into the maker of really, really weird comedies.

If you go into THE HAPPENING in this spirit, you will not be disappointed. If you are looking for a creepy edge-of-the-seater, you surely will. Without giving anything important away (I want to leave the half-hearted yet still insane ultimate revelation to the bravest among you), here are some reasons why I enjoyed THE HAPPENING:

  • “Filbert.”  Let me explain: The main characters are fleeing Philadelphia on a railroad train, which inexplicably stops. Someone ducks their head away from the window, and the name of the town in which they are now stranded is revealed: Filbert. FILBERT! Duh-duh-duhhhhh! No, God, please, no, not…      Filbert! Filbert! Dooooom! I don’t even care whether or not I’m the only one who laughed at that, because it’s still funny to me. Fucking Filbert, man.
  • I was NOT, however, the only one who laughed when the construction workers started walking off the building. Everyone in my theater laughed at that.  It’s mostly because the plummeting crazies are played by dummies. And if we learned anything from The Three Stooges and Saturday Night Live, it’s that dummies are the greatest of all comedy props.
  • I don’t know who in all of Hollywood I would cast as a science teacher and a math teacher, respectively, but Mark Wahlberg and John Leguizamo are not they. Likable and down-to-earth actors both, but far better casting for, say, the cranky gym coach and the wisecracking AV teacher. They do their best, but the dialogue they are given does them no favors.
  • I swear a couple times Shyamalan cuts away from the action to a reaction shot of Zooey Deschanel and it looks like she’s trying to suppress a crack-up. Shyamalan may not have noticed, but I’m sure I did.
  • Intentional laughs are in the movie for sure, to the point where it’s almost confusing when it happens – stay tuned for the scene where Wahlberg tries to relate on a personal level to a plastic plant. Expertly written and played, and I’m not being sarcastic at all.
  • Far and away Shyamalan’s best and most hilarious cameo in all of his movies to date happens in THE HAPPENING. If you end up going, please stay for the credits to see what role he played. It’s just got to be a joke. But one of those jokes that only the one making it gets; you know that kind.
  • The Lion Scene! Oh man, the lion scene. The lion scene is a horror-comedy classic of which an EVIL DEAD 2-era Sam Raimi would be chainsaw-wieldingly envious. Soon to be a YouTube staple, guaranteed.

So if you’re looking for scary, this is not your territory. Watch the news instead. But if you’re a certain kind of moviegoer in a certain kind of mood, grab a couple like-minded buddies and Mystery-Science-Theater away.

Now, I skipped Shyamalan’s 2010 movie, THE LAST AIRBENDER, because I didn’t think my brain could handle all the fart jokes I was destined to make about that title.  By every last account (except probably Shyamalan’s), I made the correct decision.  But I’m curious about AFTER EARTH.  Did the nasty thrashing he got over his last couple flicks make Shyamalan reconsider some of his more over-used quirks?  Does the presence of Will Smith, one of the most infallible choosers of successful projects of the last decade-and-a-half, suggest that Shammy has reclaimed his earlier mojo?  The AFTER EARTH trailer does not look overtly comical.  It’s somewhat well paced, and more importantly, it has hordes of monkeys in it.  That’s not any guarantee I’ll be able to stay away.

@jonnyabomb

MANKEY

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This happened on October 15th, 2009.  There’s still no joy in it for me.

Trick ‘R Treat is a movie that has developed a large internet and word-of-mouth following among a certain kind of film fan, the kind that loves to find a little-known movie worthy of attention in order to champion its merits to the world.  Trick ‘R Treat was originally slated for a 2007 release and was never released widely; it finally made it to DVD last week.  Having heard scattered but rapturous praise in advance, and always on the lookout for an original horror film that could use a defender, I made watching it a priority.

The verdict:  Disappointing.

It’s not good.  It’s not.  In fact, a half an hour into the movie I realized that it was actually bad, and it wasn’t going to stop being that way.  And sure enough, it didn’t.  It’s twice as disappointing because I know that there are plenty of smart people that love this movie, and good for them, but they’re not right on this one.  There’s some nice cinematography in Trick ‘R Treat, and some occasionally inspired imagery, but a new and original Halloween classic?  No.  Really, it isn’t.  Not hardly.

Trick ‘R Treat is an anthology horror movie, meant in the spirit of Creepshow (George A. Romero & Stephen King) or Twilight Zone: The Movie (John Landis & Joe Dante & Steven Spielberg & George Miller), and the five individual stories are meant to overlap seamlessly in the spirit of Pulp Fiction.  (Stepping into big shoes can make it real easy to trip up…)  The five stories – or four with an introductory sequence – all take place on the same Halloween night, and all are haunted by a scarecrow-mask-wearing trick-or-treater in orange pajamas, kind of a silent Crypt-Keeper figure.   That character is by far the most memorable thing about the movie, and he features into the final and most straightforward story, the only one that is ultimately worth watching in the least.

Here’s the lead-off problem:  Trick ‘R Treat is operating on the premise that Halloween has a series of traditions, and that bad things can happen if you violate those traditions.  The movie mistakenly assumes that every viewer is acquainted with the traditions featured in each story.  It certainly does not lay out the traditions clearly at the outset, and even after watching all of the stories, I wasn’t clear what principle they were referring to.

Let’s look at each segment in these general terms:

The prologue features a young couple returning from a Halloween parade.  The young woman (Talladega Nights’ Leslie Bibb) snuffs out all the jack-o’-lantern candles in the yard, against her boyfriend’s warning.  In an extended “homage” to the opening sequence of John Carpenter’s Halloween, she is stalked and killed.  The tradition broken here:  Don’t take down the Halloween decorations until the night is over?  Okay, this one I get, although it hardly seems like the punishment fits the crime.  (After all, how else can she make room for the Christmas lights?)

The first full story features a school principal (Spider-Man’s Dylan Baker), a single parent with a young son, who confronts a sloppy brute of a child (Bad Santa’s Brett Kelly) who has been smashing pumpkins and stealing candy.  The principal calmly poisons the kid, then spends the rest of the episode trying to nervously hide the body from the neighbors and his son.  The tradition broken here is:  Always check your candy.  That one I get, because it’s the only time in the movie that a tradition is clearly stated.  The crippling problem with this story is character-based:  Why does this guy kill a kid on his front steps, totally out in the open, and then all of the sudden get shy about it?

In the second story, a group of adolescents plays a scary prank on an autistic girl, but in doing so, they invoke an old supernatural menace.  Tradition broken:  Don’t play pranks lest they happen for real? I’m not sure.  This was a pretty convoluted segment, with plenty of character and plot inconsistencies.  My more empathetic tendencies also lead me to take issue with the concept of the mentally-challenged undead.  If you are the type of person who is excited by the prospect of retarded zombies, go ahead with it I guess.

In the next story, a virginal college student (True Blood’s Anna Paquin) is stalked by a cloaked, fanged man, but she and her mega-hot friends turn the tables on him.  Tradition broken:  Don’t take anyone’s Halloween costume too literally?  I really can’t say.  This segment is an utter mess, and it pains me to say it because it culminates in the appearance of my favorite movie monster.  But the story makes no sense, it is confusingly intercut with the previous stories, it features the abrupt and not-well-explained reintroduction of a character from an earlier story, and it features the worst acting of the entire film.  You can distract me with amazing cleavage, but only temporarily.

In the last story, a wheezing old bastard (awesomeness’s Brian Cox) is besieged by that scarecrow kid who’s been appearing throughout the movie.  Tradition broken: Be kind to trick-or-treaters lest they be unkind to you. I guess.  This isn’t fully clear, but it almost doesn’t matter this time around.  I called this one the best segment earlier because it has the most interesting filmmaking – it has the movie’s best actor playing against a legitimately decent monster design, and it’s just an extended chase sequence that doesn’t waste time on poor dialogue or cute twists.  The pumpkinbaby’s motivations are still mighty unclear, but at least I wrung some entertainment out of the movie’s final moments.

The one thing that fans of Trick ‘R Treat and I can agree on is the mystery behind its delayed and unceremonious release.  Not that I believe that this movie is good enough for anyone but the most optimistic and desperate horror fans, because it’s not; but because I literally see a worse movie than this dumped into theaters every single week.  Trick ‘R Treat doesn’t hang together right, but it’s less ugly and sadistic than the Saw movies, more energetic than (for example) Surrogates, and more ambitious than just about any Sandra Bullock movie.  Trick ‘R Treat fails, but at least it tried.  It’s sad that I consider that praise, but I’d rather give a chance to a movie that wants to be original than a movie that is cynical and lazy.

But yeah, probably skip this one anyway.

Am I wrong?  All I know for sure is that I’m on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

In the realm of faceless people writing about movies from the safety of the internet, I like to think I’m one of the more reasonable you’ll find. But I could be wrong. (See?) It’s a point that’s come up before, but it bears repeating: Unlike most people who write about movies online, I’ve spent A LOT of time working in all corners of the film and television industries in virtually every position there is. I know well how hard people work, around the clock, to bring every show to an audience. I try not to take that hard-earned knowledge lightly. Besides, I have friends who still work in film and TV, and I’m not even all the way out myself. I try mighty hard not to put anything on a computer screen that I don’t feel ready to say to someone’s face. On top of all of that, I grew up with movies. I love this stuff as much now as I did when I was young — if not more. It doesn’t make me happy to be unkind. I’m in this to share my enthusiasm, plain and simple.

All of that said, and try as I might, it’s way harder to find new ways to be nice. It’s certainly harder to be funny that way. And sometimes, a movie is put in front of me about which I just can’t find much nice to say and still remain honest.

These are the movies that forced me to be unkind.

_______________________________________

This is from April 12th, 2010:

The reason to see Date Night is exactly the reason you expect it will be.  Actually, it’s two reasons – Tina Fey and Steve Carell – two very, very good reasons.  These are quite possibly the two most lovable comedy stars in America at the moment, blending a broad audience appeal with the sharpest of comic sensibilities.  Seriously, if you can come up with a single reason to dislike either Fey or Carell, it’s time for you to get hit with the defibrillator.  They were both bred in the fabled Second City comedy troupe in Chicago, hit big with Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show (respectively), then moved onto movies and 30 Rock and The Office (respectively) — these are people with the highest caliber of expertise at their craft, but both possessed of the kind of innate likability that just can’t be taught.

It’s interesting to watch these two in Date Night, because while Fey has found great success in playing smart, and Carell has found great success in playing dumb, here they are both playing people who are resolutely normal – neither astoundingly smart but not hardly dumb, just plain average.  They play Claire and Phil Foster, a nice couple of suburban parents from New Jersey, who on an increasingly rare date night in New York City get wrapped up in a scandalous whirlwind of corrupt politicians, corrupt cops, hustlers, gangsters, and strippers.  The cast is stacked with small roles from old pros and recognizable faces: William Fichtner as a district attorney, Ray Liotta as a crime boss, Common as a glowering bad guy, Taraji Henson as a tough cop, Kristin Wiig and Mark Ruffalo as a neighbor couple headed for a split, James Franco and Mila Kunis as a couple of blackmailers, and Mark Wahlberg as a constantly shirtless James Bond type, an old acquaintance of Fey’s character.  It really is a parade of extended cameos, but everyone is well-cast and everyone comes off well.

The less you know about the movie going in, the better.  There’s not much here you haven’t seen before in many different ways, but the jokes and the set-pieces are occasionally innovative – or at least original and ingratiating enough to be entertaining.  I’ve seen some reviews coming in on Date Night that slam the script, which is credited to Josh Klausner – that’s not really fair.  This movie worked great on an audience – obviously when you have tremendous talents at hand like Tina Fey and Steve Carell, both terrific writers as well as practiced and meticulous comedians, you’re working at an advantage.  But one of the movie’s signature scenes, where a fender-bender with a cab turns into a high-speed chase through the streets of New York with the two cars still attached, really blew up the audience and that’s a credit to the writing.  Also to the script’s credit, it moves fairly quickly from the opening domestic scenes right into the main thrust of the story.  (Not enough mainstream movies seem willing to do that.)

It’s more the direction of the film that leaves something to be desired.  Shawn Levy is a director who takes a lot of criticism from the kind of movie fanatics who keep track of the names in the credits.  He’s a guy who makes middle-of-the-road entertainments with huge stars, most recently the two Night At The Museum movies.  I don’t have the same problem with the guy that many people of similar taste to me do – I think Shawn Levy makes effective enough movies that do the job they set out to do by obviously hitting a lot of demographics at once.  He’s not an artist or a risk-taker but he’s not offensively, oppressively bad (compare this movie to Cop Out, for example) and Date Night is definitely his best movie so far… however much that says (or doesn’t) as a compliment.

I think where I agree with Shawn Levy’s critics is that his movies make me long for the days when true cinematic anarchists were holding the reins on huge-budget, huge-star comedies.  Twenty or thirty years ago, guys like John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers) and Ivan Reitman (Stripes, Ghostbusters) were working these kinds of movies.  Nowadays, the really ballsy helmers are either working mostly in TV or animation, such as Trey Parker (Team America), or they’re being unfairly ignored by the majority of moviegoers, such as Jody Hill (Observe & Report).  This may say more about the changing culture of big-budget moviemaking and marketing than it does about Shawn Levy’s personal taste or interests, but as one of the most successful yet somewhat anonymous filmmakers working today, he is somewhat representative of the change, fairly or not.

When you see Date Night (and I’m clearly not recommending strongly for or against it), just keep an eye out for the subplot with the DA and you’ll understand what I mean.  Without giving much away, I’ll say that William Fichtner’s character is clearly inspired in part by former governor Elliot Spitzer’s shenanigans.  Instead of going for the satire with teeth bared, the movie uses the character as a plot device and generally side-steps any assertive or resonant comedy that could have been.  (You could argue that Date Night is a fairly soft PG-13 and so it shouldn’t be going for such adult material, but then again there are guns fired throughout the movie and one particularly lengthy scene takes place in a strip club, so there goes that argument.)  Also, the pacing is noticeably more slack and muted than the great comedies tend to be – the feel of Date Night is very much watered-down and sanded edges.  That begins and ends with the director.

But again, it’s Steve Carell and Tina Fey who are front and center, and they are predictably polished, energetic, and hilarious.  They’re also a really great match onscreen, each one sympathetic and compelling and well-complemented by the other.  They make you care about these somewhat underwritten characters, they make you believe the rare tender moments, and they make you want to see them stay together as a couple.  I certainly wouldn’t care to see a sequel to this movie, but the pairing of these two stars almost demands a rematch, preferably in material that is somewhat more biting.

Ask me out on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

 

 

In the realm of faceless people writing about movies from the safety of the internet, I like to think I’m one of the more reasonable you’ll find. But I could be wrong. (See?) It’s a point that’s come up before, but it bears repeating: Unlike most people who write about movies online, I’ve spent A LOT of time working in all corners of the film and television industries in virtually every position there is. I know well how hard people work, around the clock, to bring every show to an audience. I try not to take that hard-earned knowledge lightly. Besides, I have friends who still work in film and TV, and I’m not even all the way out myself. I try mighty hard not to put anything on a computer screen that I don’t feel ready to say to someone’s face. On top of all of that, I grew up with movies. I love this stuff as much now as I did when I was young — if not more. It doesn’t make me happy to be unkind. I’m in this to share my enthusiasm, plain and simple.

All of that said, and try as I might, it’s way harder to find new ways to be nice. It’s certainly harder to be funny that way. And sometimes, a movie is put in front of me about which I just can’t find much nice to say and still remain honest.

These are the movies that forced me to be unkind.

_______________________________________

From July 20th, 2010:

Cop Out stumbles into stores on DVD today.  In case you are still harboring any interest in spending your valuable time with one of the laziest, crappiest movies of the year, I urge you to do just about anything else.  I hated being so mean about it, because I know how hard it is to get a movie made.  Then again, I don’t think anyone involved tried all that hard at all, and I paid to see this one.  So until I get my twelve bucks back, I reserve the right to complain.

Here’s my appraisal of this sorry mess:

Cop Out isn’t Kevin Smith’s worst movie, for those who are keeping track.  His worst movie remains Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, that celebrity-studded, laugh-free, self-absorbed in-joke of a movie.  Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back is about as funny as Scary Movie, or Epic Movie, or Disaster Movie, or any of those other lazy parody parades – but at least those other junkers tend to reference movies that most everyone has seen.  Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back expects that you’ve seen low-budget critical favorites like Clerks and Chasing Amy, which could reasonably be considered to be an arrogant assumption on the part of its makers.

Cop Out isn’t quite as bad as that.  Cop Out at least had the good sense to cast action-movie veteran Bruce Willis and comedy savant Tracy Morgan, rather than the line-mangling Jason Mewes and an endlessly mugging Kevin Smith (nepotism!), but in this case the improvement is only marginal.  Bruce Willis looks drowsy, bored, and even a little sickly throughout the movie.  He looks like he’s stuck on line at the bank, just waiting to pick up his paycheck, and some loud fat lady in front of him keeps making a lot of noise to the manager.  Meanwhile, Tracy Morgan is that loud fat lady.  He shouts every last one of his lines and shows very little of the self-awareness and charm that his fans (myself included) have come to expect.

Cop Out is a buddy-cop comedy, intended to have the charisma and care-free fun of the 1980s cop movies that made the genre so popular.  Kevin Smith directed the movie, but he didn’t write it.  That’s kind of like inviting Alex Rodriguez up to the mike to do stand-up comedy.  Kevin Smith is a talented writer who very possibly could have come up with a fun buddy-cop story.  What Kevin Smith does not have is the sense of visual stamina or momentum that the genre needs (nor does his longtime DP Dave Klein).  What Kevin Smith could also have used is a sense of history – or do I really need to point out that the reason why those ‘80s cop flicks were so great is because they started with solid scripts and energetic participants?  Always remember that 48 Hours was written by Walter Hill, that Lethal Weapon was written by Shane Black, that Fletch was written by Andrew Bergman (Blazing Saddles), that Beverly Hills Cop starred Eddie Murphy at the height of his comedic powers.

By contrast, Cop Out began life as a script by Robb & Mark Cullen, TV writers who may yet prove to be very talented but who surely haven’t done so on the basis of this evidence.  It wouldn’t be fair to blame Kevin Smith for the awfulness of the story – the blame begins with the Cullen brothers, continues with whatever studio people thought this script was worth producing, and ends with Kevin Smith, who somehow thought it was worth making as the first film he has directed but didn’t write.  Kevin Smith always struck me as a savvy guy – since when did he become the kind of cynic who is lazy enough to hang a movie on a plot where a cop causes remarkable havoc trying to get back a valuable baseball card from a Mexican gang, so that he can sell it and pay for his daughter’s wedding?

That is the actual plot of Cop Out, for the record.  Bruce Willis drives up a significant body count trying to track down a baseball card.  It’s the only way he can think of to pay for his kid’s wedding – which makes his character seem obnoxiously prideful, by the way, since her step-father was intending to pay for the wedding in the first place.  Sure, the step-father is a bit of a prick, but he’s also played by Jason Lee, and if you’re a long-time Kevin Smith fan, like I have been, it’s tough to hate Jason Lee.  (This wasn’t what I meant when I suggested that Smith work with Lee again.)  In a convoluted turn of events, a Mexican gang comes into possession of the valuable collectible, so Bruce and Tracy (as his partner) have to go on the rampage.  Since when does Brooklyn have Mexican gangs, you might ask?  Hang on to that question, because just wait until I tell you how retarded Tracy’s subplot is.
Tracy Morgan, in this movie, is married to Rashida Jones, the adorably wry actress who’s most famous for her roles on The Office and Parks & Recreation.  I have nothing but love both of these actors, really and truly, but still:  There is no comedy on earth broad enough to convince me that Rashida Jones could ever fall for Tracy Morgan.  So maybe it’s understandable that he spends the entire movie snooping around on her, convinced that she’s cheating on him with the next-door neighbor.  What isn’t understandable is what this subplot is doing clogging up a cop comedy.  We’re supposed to be taking our inspiration from ‘80s cop movies here, not ‘80s sitcoms.  At least there’s a teddy bear with a camera in it; that’s what I was hoping to see when I bought my ticket.

Along the way, Bruce and Tracy cross paths with Seann William Scott as a parkour enthusiast who robs houses and craps in their bathrooms during the robberies.  Seann William Scott can be terrific at driving comedy plots (see Role Models or American Wedding), but he is not terrific here, and that’s as nice as I can be about it.  Bruce and Tracy also rescue a hostage along the way, a cute Mexican girl who doesn’t speak a word of English.  Her one running joke is that she says “hi” a lot, and that she is the second woman in the movie who falls improbably in love with Tracy.  This character does at least bring us to the movie’s one great jaw-droppingly racist scene, where the two cops need to know what she knows but they can’t take her to the precinct, so instead they take the girl to a Mexican restaurant for the maitre’d to provide translation.

There’s plenty more wrong with Cop Out.  There’s the way it totally wastes great stand-up comedians like Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s Susie Essman, and most egregiously, Jim Norton (who doesn’t even get in an attempt at a joke.)  There’s the way it was just clever enough to hire composer Harold Faltermeyer (Fletch, Beverly Hills Cop), yet not clever enough to notice that his score, sadly, is atrocious – grating and relentless.  There’s the way that Bruce and Tracy’s characters, supposed police veterans, have a weird habit of pulling loaded guns on unarmed suspects and civilians.  (If you made a drinking game out of how many times this happens in the movie, you’d die.)

This movie was horrible, and not in a fun way.  If you need to pay good money to see Tracy Morgan punch a ten-year-old kid in the nuts, this is your movie.  But if you like laughing, it isn’t.  (Admittedly, I did laugh one time, but at a reaction shot of Tracy Morgan at the climactic wedding – something I can see for free on 30 Rock, for the record.)

What makes Cop Out so depressing is that Kevin Smith was the one ultimately responsible for it, not some forgettable talentless director.  Kevin Smith is so far from untalented, but you’d never know it if you were to watch Cop Out, a movie that is best described as sluggish, unfunny, and mean-spirited.  He’s capable of so much more than this movie, but he settled for doing it, and that’s disappointing and sad.  Let’s face it:  The sun will rise and set on Kevin Smith regardless of what I think, but I wish that this time around he’d seriously listen to the people who didn’t like Cop Out, because many of them – myself included – used to be counted among his fans.

Come at me if you must, Kevin Smith army:  @jonnyabomb

And now here’s a picture of Rashida Jones, just because it makes me feel a little better:

In the realm of faceless people writing about movies from the safety of the internet, I like to think I’m one of the more reasonable you’ll find. But I could be wrong. (See?) It’s a point that’s come up before, but it bears repeating: Unlike most people who write about movies online, I’ve spent A LOT of time working in all corners of the film and television industries in virtually every position there is. I know well how hard people work, around the clock, to bring every show to an audience. I try not to take that hard-earned knowledge lightly. Besides, I have friends who still work in film and TV, and I’m not even all the way out myself. I try mighty hard not to put anything on a computer screen that I don’t feel ready to say to someone’s face. On top of all of that, I grew up with movies. I love this stuff as much now as I did when I was young — if not more. It doesn’t make me happy to be unkind. I’m in this to share my enthusiasm, plain and simple.

All of that said, and try as I might, it’s way harder to find new ways to be nice. It’s certainly harder to be funny that way. And sometimes, a movie is put in front of me about which I just can’t find much nice to say and still remain honest.

These are the movies that forced me to be unkind.

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There will be a particular breed of smartass who chooses to refer to Tim Burton’s new Alice In Wonderland project as “Tim Burton’s Avatar.”

A different breed of smartass may prefer to think of it as “Tim Burton’s Lord Of The Rings.”

Personally, I happen to be both kinds of smartass.

It’s reminiscent of Avatar because it’s longer than it needs to be, because there are dragons flying around all over the place, because there are weird computer-generated forests, and because the 3-D element is still new enough to make it feel like an event, which has led huge audiences to happily overlook its story flaws. (Avatar is a much better movie, for the record.)

It’s reminiscent of Lord Of The Rings because it’s longer than it needs to be, because characters who look ridiculous in body armor are forced to wear body armor, because it has charmingly pudgy little men skipping through scenes, because the great Christopher Lee plays a villain (even if he only gets one line, in voiceover, here) and because there are more walking scenes in it than there are in the average episode of Lost.

It’s a little disappointing that my smartass tendencies were roused by Alice In Wonderland, because Tim Burton’s movies generally dispel cynicism and invite enthusiasm, particularly from a daydreaming wackadoo like me. Tim Burton’s movies imagine worlds of darkness which are always strangely populated by optimism. Tim Burton is one of my very favorite directors and there are no shortage of proclamations to that effect all across the internet, but the main reason is that his movies celebrate all the things I’ve always been most captivated by: Skeletons, shadows, monsters, ghosts, freaks, aliens, pretty girls, old horror movies, heroic acts of stupidity, stupid acts of heroism, love, death, and monkeys.

Alice In Wonderland has a couple of those things, but not many of them, and while it wouldn’t be accurate to say that he has been sticking to re-envisioning exisiting properties of late (he’s always done that – only a fraction of his movies began from his own original concepts), it could fairly be argued that Tim Burton as a ‘cover artist’ is getting somewhat stale. For one thing, Alice In Wonderland as source material isn’t really a good match for Burton’s sensibilities. The original Lewis Carroll stories and most of the subsequent interpretations are all about maddening nonsense, verging on insanity. They’re somewhat nightmarish, honestly. By story’s end, Alice wants to get the fuck out of Wonderland. In contrast, Burton’s best movies have a playful sense of fun that you’d love to visit, even if you wouldn’t want to live there.

Beyond the mismatch of filmmaker to material, there are problems with the new Alice In Wonderland movie. To begin with, the script credited to Linda Woolverton is a mess. The story is nonsense, and not in that compelling, affecting, memorable Lewis Carroll spirit of nonsense. Just try to describe the plot of the finished movie in any coherent way. Can’t be done! The script tries to weld a heroic, Lord Of The Rings type of fantasy structure onto the original story and it just doesn’t work. Johnny Depp, as the Mad Hatter, has some fun and is fun to watch as usual, but his role, beefed up and altered from the original stories, is more noble warrior than infuriating troublemaker. That’s not just disloyal to the original story; it’s boring. The most memorable thing Depp gets to do as the Mad Hatter is breakdance at the end, and that’s more because it’s incongruous and bizarre than enjoyable. Depp is one of the great impish rogues of the modern cinematic age, but he’s confined by weak dialogue, off-putting make-up, and an ill-defined role here.

With a couple exceptions, the rest of the cast is similarly ill-served. The great weirdo Crispin Glover is wasted in a humorless villain role. Anne Hathaway, as the White Queen, gives a wispy performance lighter than air, which drifts from the memory as soon as she steps off-screen. Maybe one of the movie’s biggest problems is that its Alice isn’t particularly interesting to watch. I don’t know the actress Mia Wasikowska from anything else – it’s possible she’s a very lively actress elsewhere, but I wasn’t interested in her at all here, and I didn’t think she brought anything that hundreds of other girls could do just as effectively. The cinematography, by the otherwise fantastic Dariusz Wolski, is uncharacteristically dingy and unpleasant, and the 3D element is totally useless.

To me, a Tim Burton movie is never less than watchable, although this one comes closer than any before. What turned me off is that it’s unrelentingly grim, which isn’t what I expect or need from a Tim Burton film. There was enough that I enjoyed to make the time spent feel worthwhile – I loved the freakish character design and execution of The Cheshire Cat and Tweedledee & Tweedledum. Those characters in particular, and Helena Bonham Carter’s giant head, were fairly awesome. Alan Rickman, as The Caterpillar, is always a welcome presence, on camera or in voice alone. And I liked the dragon, but I’m notoriously easy to please that way. Still, it wasn’t the most impressive dragon I’ve ever seen, to say the least.

Long story short, I’m very glad to see that Burton’s next project is a feature-length retelling of his early Disney short, Frankenweenie. It may be another retelling of a pre-existing property, but at least it’s one of his own! What the world needs right now is not Tim Burton, big-budget interpreter. The world needs Tim Burton, modern-day imagineer.

Disagree somehow? Hit me here: @jonnyabomb