Sunday, December 12, 2010

War of the Worst

Skyline (2010)

Many, if not most, artists get their start by copying the work of professionals. Cartoonists trace comic books and comic strips before trying their hand at creating their own characters and settings. Young filmmakers using Super 8 film or the family camcorder re-create scenes from their favorites movies in their backyards, i.e. the Raiders of the Lost Ark truck chase, but with Indy on a bike riding up to Dad’s old Toyota pick up.

Skyline, directed by visual effects supervisors “The Brothers Strauss,” is stuck squarely, and amateurishly, in the “recreate scenes from favorite movies” mode.

The story, if you want to call it that, concerns a group of Pretty (mostly) Young Things who are stuck in a fancy Marina Del Rey, California high-rise condo when aliens attack the earth over a three day period. Two of the young things - Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and his girlfriend Elaine (Scottie Thompson)- are from out of town. They party one night with Jarrod’s bud, Turk from Scrubs (Donald Faison, playing Terry), and his shrill gf played by Brittany Daniel, and wake up the next morning to the alien invasion. And you thought YOUR hangovers were bad.

There are two huge problems with this movie. One, none of the characters is very likable, especially Balfour, who just comes across as distant the whole film, even when he should be intimate with his pregnant girlfriend. Seriously, there is no one in the cast we care about or root for. Two - and it’s a big one - there is no story here. None. Aliens attack and our cast spends most of the time in the condo opening and closing the blinds, wondering what to do. I kid you not, they do this so much that the blinds manufacturer should have received a co-producer credit.

In the Spielberg/Cruise War of the Worlds remake, Cruise’s character Ray is trying to reconcile with his kids when the aliens attack. They go on the run with Ray doing whatever it takes to protect his family. In Skyline, Jarrod and Terry have the bright idea to leave their girlfriends and the relative safety of the condo to explore the roof’s helipad. Why? There’s no rescue or escape via that route. They do this stupid move simply so that the movie can show the giant alien ships in the distance and, later, a giant alien monster thing clambering up to the top for a silly action beat. Characters do things so they can get to the next effects shot; nothing is ever done to advance any sort of story or plot point.

It’s like the whole movie was put together from a visual effects “sizzle reel” where there were a bunch of “cool” shots, but when they tried to shoehorn in those shots to make a logical story, the thing falls apart.

The movies that Skyline rips off are blatantly obvious, from Independence Day, to War of the Worlds, to The Matrix, without adding one single spin or fresh idea to any of them. The whole point of this movie was simply to set things up for a sequel at the end.

Skyline is so bad, so inept I predict it will sweep the annual Razzie Awards for Worst Movie next year.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Put this dull beast out of our misery

Predators (2010)

Predators is the worst kind of sequel, one which simply regurgitates the first entry in the series and wants a generous pat on the back for doing so.

The original Predator (1987) concerned a group of Special Forces types led by Arnold Schwarzenegger with all his late 80s charisma in full effect, as they navigate a treacherous jungle on a mission. The tables are quickly turned as these mercenary predators find themselves the prey of a hunter - one from outer space. It was a Rumble in the Jungle like none other with larger than life figures like Arnold, Carl Weathers and Jesse Ventura, all machismo ("Ain't got time to bleed!"), rippling muscles, and cigars as big as loaves of French bread. Predator was directed by action maestro John McTiernan who went on to helm Die Hard (1 and 3) and The Hunt for Red October.

Predators is produced by Austinite Robert Rodriguez and directed by Nimrod Antal, the script was written by Michael Finch and Alex Litvak, reportedly from an earlier story idea by Rodriguez. This “original” story concerns dropping (here, literally by parachute) Special Forces types, led by Adrien Brody, into a treacherous jungle where they find themselves the prey of alien hunters. Like Predator, the Predators cast is multi-racial. Like Predator, Predators has a lone female member. I can hear Rodriguez saying “homage” but I call bullshit.

The writers’ big idea was to make the soldiers multi-national, instead of from just one country’s army; they are pulled from hot spots all over our world (Russia, Sierra Leone, Israel, etc.). The problem is, not one member of this group "pops" or is memorable in any way (neither the actors, or the characters). They’re bland ciphers, just waiting to be killed off.

I believe a much better angle would have been to have the characters be from different time periods: a feudal-era samurai warrior, a Clint Eastwood-esque cowboy from the 1870s, a Viking, a Special Forces merc, and, at this stage in the sequel game, throw in at least one EXTRA-TERRERSTRIAL soldier to boot. Predators and Aliens have already clashed, so introducing time travel and other intelligent E.T.s into the mix is the next logical step. That would be a real motley crew, a dirty half-dozen of the best human (and non-human) warriors to go up against the Predators.

The major deviation from the original is that this story is set in the jungle of an alien planet, apparently the game preserve of the Predator species. McTiernan shot in Mexico, while Antal has to make due with Hawaiian locations. After Avatar, which created an alien world from the ground (and blades of grass) up, it seems pretty lazy for filmmakers to go to familiar locations like a tropical jungle and call them “alien.” The exotic swamp world of Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back was built on a soundstage, in the Star Wars prequels they created green screen CGI shots of exotic and bizarre worlds, which is what Avatar did. I’m sorry, but the jungles of Hawaii are not alien enough. To add insult to injury, at one point a character recognizes a particular poisonous plant. My question is, HOW COULD HE HAVE RECOGNIZED A POISONOUS EARTH PLANT ON AN ALIEN PLANET THOUSANDS OF LIGHT-YEARS AWAY? And do NOT say the Predators brought the plants with them. That would be beyond stupid.

This is the type of movie that really raises my ire: stupid, pointless, uninspired, and boring. It’s a sequel/remake similar to what Rodriguez did with his second film Desperado, which was a bigger-budgeted sequel that was essentially a remake of his first micro-budget film El Mariachi. But while Desperado improved on the original by casting Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek (professional actors with real charm and personality who "popped" from the screen) and ramping up the action and mayhem, Predators fails at every turn with a dull cast (seriously, you do NOT go from Schwarzenegger to Adrien Brody unless there is a real character to play - see Robert Patrick in T2 for how to play the strong/lean silent type), lifeless characters, and standard cookie cutter action scenes. Rent the original Predator instead.