Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dark Shadows

Alternate Title:  Fall of the House of Munster

One sentence synopsis:   A two hundred year old vampire returns to his family estate to rebuild its fortunes and defeat an evil witch.

Things Havoc liked: What is there to say, really, about Johnny Depp? The versatility and breadth of the man's work speaks for itself, and while I do not love everything he's ever done, he's rarely (Nick of Time) not fun to watch. The same applies to most of this cast. I could write an elegy on the merits of actors and actresses such as Michelle Pfeiffer (Batman Returns, Dangerous Minds), Eva Green (Kingdom of Heaven, Casino Royale), Jackey Earle Haley (Little Children, Watchmen), or Chloe Moretz (Kick-Ass, Let Me In), every one of whom has proven time and again that they know precisely what they are doing. Even those actors in this film whom I do not automatically like (such as Helena Bonham Carter) have definitely turned in excellent performances. A cast like this assembled for the purposes of a quirky romp in the style of Tim Burton can't have started out poor. Throw in the compositions of Danny Elfman and Burton's trademark visual style, and one might expect something special. This is how Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice came about, after all.

And the visual style is indeed quite good. The film is set in 1972, and Burton takes full advantage of the cultural insanity that was the early 70s. Unlike some of Burton's earlier films (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for instance) the stylization isn't overdone. Instead of some kind of ludicrous over-development of what was going on in the 70s, Burton simply picks out trends, hairstyles, clothes, and other visual props that fit the era and lets them stand by themselves. As a result, the movie still looks campy and insane, but without looking completely farcical. Depp's vampire is done up in full Hammer Brothers regalia, contrasting well with the pastel lunacy of the era, particularly when (in one of the movie's better scenes) he sits down with a group of young hippies around a campfire. Meanwhile, Eva Green's witch is done up like a porcelain doll, complete with fissures and cracked paint, a touch I don't think I've ever seen before. Whatever the movie's sins, it certainly looks good.

Things Havoc disliked:  Where do I even begin?

If it sounds like I'm reaching for good things to say about this movie, there's a reason. This film is downright awful, and the responsibility for why lies upon the shoulders of one man: Tim Burton.

To begin with, this film has the slowest pacing I've seen since the first half of Hugo. But unlike Hugo, which had an hour of story stretched into three, the massive number of characters and subplots in Dark Shadows mean that we have two hours of story artificially compressed into one simply because the director can't move the goddamn plot without taking a hundred years to do it. There are lengthy pregnant pauses between and even inside almost every single line of dialogue in this movie, with the result that it physically takes three times longer to say anything than it realistically should. Scenes that could be over and done with in two minutes inexplicably take six or seven minutes to laboriously drag through, as after every line, the camera has to flash to silent reaction shots from five different characters, as though to remind us that they're in the film.

And speaking of the characters, if ever there was a case of too many characters spoiling the plot, it would be this film. I appreciate that this was a soap opera before it was a movie, and that fans of said soap opera will expect to see this character or that one. But soap operas tend to have casts in the dozens, and this movie consequentially has characters in it that have nothing meaningful to contribute (the father and doctor, for instance), but who nevertheless get generous allotments of screentime, further decreasing the amount of time we have to actually run through the story or the main characters. Similarly, what should be a simple cameo for a youthened Alice Cooper is expanded into a multi-minute performance set, as though Burton was actually stretching for material to add. The result of all this wasted time, is that the movie has to rely on multiple clunky scenes of "Allow-me-to-soliloquize-my-life-story" style exposition just to squeeze in the backstory of several characters. Even then, they can't fit it all, and one particularly vital piece of backstory is actually shoehorned into the plot at the last possible second with no setup whatsoever, leaving the audience scratching their collective heads as to where the hell that just came from.

But even when the plot isn't falling over itself, everything else conspires to take up the slack. I can't conceive of what direction the various actors in this movie were given, but it appears to have been assembled randomly out of a hat. Depp does all right with a standard Vincent Price impression, but Green seems to have been encouraged to chew enough scenery to choke an elephant, and goes so far over the top that she manages to make Johnny Depp playing a vampire look restrained and understated. Pfeiffer, whom I usually like, plays her matriarch role so woodenly that one would imagine she had never been in front of a camera before. Confronted with the sight of literal piles of riches that she can use to rebuild her family's fortunes, she can barely muster the energy to raise an eyebrow. Meanwhile Moretz, who was so good in Kick Ass, Let Me In, and even Hugo, plays this one in a constant stoner-monotone that makes it hard to even hear what she's saying. She has exactly one line that sounds like something a human teenager would say, otherwise retreating so far into caricature as to render her unrecognizable.

Final thoughts:   I love these actors, I really do, and my love of these actors probably inflates this movie's score by a point or so. But when I say that I walked out of this film unsure if my decision to see this movie rather than Battleship was a wise one, I'd like you all to take my full meaning. Simultaneously too long and too short, poorly executed on almost every level, if this film doesn't finally put the long-delayed nail in the coffin of Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaborations, then I don't know what will.

If it comes down to watching this movie or Battleship, do yourself a favor and go see Avengers again.

Final Score:  3.5/10

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Men in Black III

Alternate Title:  Too Old for this Shit

One sentence synopsis:   Agent J must go back in time to save Agent K from a time-traveling nemesis.

Things Havoc liked:  It has become somewhat typical of these reviews for me to start by praising the previous work of some actor or another. In this case, that actor will be Josh Brolin, a man whose work I've been a consistent fan of in movies from True Grit to W, Milk, and No Country for Old Men. The decision to cast him as the younger version of Tommy Lee Jones' K is probably the best single decision that went into this film, as Brolin doesn't merely do an impression of Jones, but flat out transforms into a younger version of the quintessential Texan. I don't believe I've ever seen two actors whose look, sound, mannerisms, and general demeanor are so identical, and in fact I'd say that Brolin's take as Agent K is, if anything, more interesting that that of Jones (whom we'll get to). Though we've seen Jones' no-nonsense schtick a hundred times, Brolin manages to infuse a bit more energy and humanity into the exact same archetype, despite playing it with identical voice and mannerisms. His presence in the film makes it notably lighter and more interesting, and managed to re-energize my interest in a series that, with its last movie, had begun to seriously wane.

Not that Brolin is the only thing the movie has going for it. The villain of the piece, played by Jermaine Clement (of Flight of the Concords) is well beyond the villains of either of the first two films (particularly the second). Campy as all hell, with an unsettling and yet very clever design, Clement chews scenery like he's trying to derive nourishment from it, but in a movie like Men in Black, that's entirely appropriate. The scene where he confronts himself (don't ask) is a riot, and his growling, refined manner of speech (which sounds like a cross between Hugo Weaving and Tim Curry) livens up the otherwise pedestrian chase or combat sequences that the film puts him through. On a no-less campy but completely different note, Michael Stuhlbarg plays an alien named Griffin whose concept (an alien who can see all possible outcomes of all situations at all times) is actually fairly intriguing, and whose segues into metaphysics are well-thought-out and provoke a sense of the wonder that the first movie had in spades. Finally, a series of cameo roles, from the always fun Emma Thompson as the new boss of MiB to SNL alum Bill Hader's drop-dead hilarious sequence as Andy Warhol, are all wonderfully conceived, written, and put together.

As a time travel flick, the movie makes a great deal of the art design and style of the 60s infused with the Men in Black space-age chic. The results are actually damned impressive. Much hilarity is had from seeing the older, clunkier versions of Men in Black standbys (such as the Neuralizer), or what the Agents of the 60s consider to be reasonable for portable phones or jetpacks. Though more could probably have been done with these sorts of gags, what ones made it into the film are well done, and buttressed by hilarious send-ups to the high-culture world of the late 60s. Even if some of the uglier aspects of American 60s culture are ironed over (I'm not sure how many black US Army Colonels there were in 1969), the nostalgia shines through, and the film is not intended to be a serious study of late-60s society.

Things Havoc disliked:  There are certainly things going for MiB III, but unfortunately, two of the things that don't go for it are the two leads, both of whom, frankly, are too old to play the characters they originally played 14 years ago. Tommy Lee Jones simply looks tired in his (surprisingly limited) scenes, a bitter old man who has passed his sell-by date and is merely going through the motions of his position in a daze. While I get that this is part of the point of the film, the original had Jones looking like an grumpy old man whose dedication and skill were still at their peak, turning his crotchetiness into impatience and his weariness into jaded cynicism, both attributes which play better in a comedy than exhausted indifference. Lest I sound like I'm insulting one of the great icons of American cinema, contrast this performance with Jones' stellar send-up to George Patton in last summer's Captain America, a movie in which he stole every scene he was in, and where his lines seemed sharper and wittier than the rest of the (still quite good) cast. I must therefore conclude that this performance was the result of poor directing, especially since it reminded me of the same soporific turn he gave us in MiB II.

But Jones, honestly isn't the problem. The problem is that at age 43, Will Smith cannot play the fresh-faced young partner anymore. Oh, it's not that he doesn't look the part. Smith can do all the physical stunts required, and doesn't appear over the hill. But his character doesn't seem to have changed a bit in 14 years, still refusing to take any situation seriously, and reacting to every situation with more of the same jokes that he used in the original film. What worked when he was a 29-year old rookie, simply does not fly with a middle-aged veteran agent, and it's perhaps telling that Josh Brolin, who is a year older than Smith, plays his role of a literal 29-year old agent far more effectively than Smith does. Smith's one-liners feel forced and old-fashioned, neither as sharp nor as biting as they were in either of the original movies. I like Will Smith, and I've liked him more as he's gotten older, but this role needs to be updated if he's going to continue to play it, and trying to emulate the Fresh Prince isn't the way to go.

Finally, even ignoring the two leads, the movie just isn't well-crafted. Subplots (like Jones/Brolin's relationship with Emma Thompson/Alice Eve's Agent O) are introduced, developed, and then completely forgotten about. Questions established at the beginning of the film never receive answers or even acknowledgment. The subplots that are fully developed are handled in a leaden, clunky manner, particularly the subplot with the sympathetic colonel, which comes across as a completely misguided attempt to add pathos into a film series that was supposed to be about light-hearted alien comedy. The first movie managed to generate a sense of wonder, despite the comedy, by subtly shifting tone within a given sequence. This movie has all the subtlety of an anvil, bringing string orchestras into the soundtrack from nowhere whenever we are meant to feel "sadness" for a character. Though the writing isn't bad, and some scenes manage to work despite this tendency, the overall result looks rough and amateurish. Barry Sonenfeld has directed his share of disasters (Wild Wild West comes to mind), but even by his standards, this work is very poor.

Final thoughts:   Despite all I just said, there is an earnestness to this film that shines through the boring tropes and tired characters, and when Brolin and Smith get together, it almost becomes fun. Ultimately though, while this movie is better than the one that preceded it, it hardly serves as a shining moment in the franchise. When someone asked about the possibility of an MiB4, Sonenfeld is said to have joked that, for that one, Will Smith would be out, and his son Jaden would take over the series. Frankly, given this movie, I'm not sure that's such a bad idea.

Final Score:  5/10

Friday, May 25, 2012


Alternate Title:  The Nicest Guy in the Room

One sentence synopsis:   An outgoing funeral director becomes the companion and slave of a bitter old widow.

Things Havoc liked:  Jack Black is a surprisingly polarizing figure, I've found. I tend to like him, even in movies that are admittedly not very good (Nacho Libre for instance), and when Black is good (High Fidelity, Tropic Thunder), he's a blast to watch. Generally his appeal comes from his ability to throw himself into roles that other comedians (such as Jim Carey) would turn into simple gag reels of stupidity, and elevate them by appearing smarter than his character is allowed to be. Yet in this film, Black's character (the eponymous Bernie), is a smart, decent man with only the faintest hint of comedy lurking beneath the surface. This is probably the most understated I've ever seen Black, and given his usual fare, one is constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, and the character to be revealed for the madcap lunatic that Black typically plays, yet it never is.

Black's Bernie is a warm, outgoing, friendly-to-a-fault funeral director, who sees nothing whatsoever oxymoronic about these two attributes. He sings in church and at the amateur theater, gives money and goods away freely to all and sundry, and is well liked by practically everyone in the small town of Carthage, Texas. His character is hinted at as being gay, but never is this either confirmed nor made a matter of ridicule. Certainly he is the toast of the "blue hair" crowd, including Shirley MacLaine's Marjorie Nugent, a bitter, evil woman hated by the rest of the town, who becomes Bernie's sugar momma and slave driver all at the same time. MacLaine is always at her best when playing an abrasive curmudgeon, but outdoes herself here, portraying a character whose appeal is entirely inexplicable to one as nice as Bernie, a fact most of the rest of the townsfolk comment on at length.

Speaking of the townsfolk, they are by far the best element of the film. The movie's framing device is a mockumentary, wherein much of the time is taken up with members of the local community looking into the camera and talking about Bernie and the events that involved him. Normally this approach annoys me, as it seems somewhat lazy for a filmmaker to have characters tell you about a character instead of showing him to you, but in this case the townsfolk themselves are so well drawn, with a perfect combination of small-town aphorisms and rustic "charm" that they steal the show (as well as giving us most of the best lines in the film). As the insanity that is the plot plays out, they are the ones who ground us in what's happening when, and why the various characters are doing what they are.

Finally, the villain of the piece, if he can be called that, is the local sherrif, played by Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey's not my favorite actor in the world, as he usually plays insufferable mugging assholes whom we are expected to accept as leading men (Sahara and Failure to Launch come to mind). Recently though, with movies like this one or The Lincoln Lawyer, he has been transitioning to insufferable mugging assholes whom we are expected to find sleazy. That may not sound like an enormous change, but it makes all the difference in a movie like this. McConaughey does an excellent job as the stuck-up, vaguely homophobic small-town sheriff, all without pushing the boundaries too far into outright villainy.

Things Havoc disliked:   The first half of this movie feels like an extended "setup" piece that simply won't end. I was conscious about 45 minutes into it of wondering when the director was going to stop giving me quirky exposition and actually get to the story. In reality, the quirky exposition sort of is the story, in a strange way. It's not a terrible method, and it works better than I thought, but this is a very slow-paced film, taking its sweet time getting anywhere at all. Those coming in expecting a high-energy Jack Black comedy will be sorely disappointed.

Other than that however, there isn't much that the film does wrong, more simply that the material here may not support a runtime of two hours. Much of the film consists of filler material, and while it's good, entertaining filler, it doesn't do a lot to actually advance the story beyond telling us what we already know. I appreciate that the filmmakers intended this, at least to a point, but good as their disguise was for the lack of material, it remains a disguise. While this certainly isn't enough to ruin the film, it does necessarily limit the horizons of the movie.

Final thoughts:    Again though, there's very little that this film actually does wrong. In addition to being one of the best performances I've seen from Jack Black, the entire movie has a warmth and verisimilitude to it that is rare in an age where even quirky independent films bear the mark of Hollywood polish. Though its lack of material keeps it from the lofty heights of the best films ever made, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with a simple story, well-told and acted. And given that the cinemas are presently hosting such brilliant pieces as Battleship, one could certainly do far worse.

Indeed, I suspect next week that I will.

Final Score:  7/10

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Avengers

Alternate Title:  How it is done

One sentence synopsis:   Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Captain America must team up to stop Loki and save the world.

Things Havoc liked:  This is it. The payoff. The final countdown. This is where Marvel, having begun this franchise of films four years ago with Iron Man, and having built up the tension through Thor and Captain America and Iron Man 2, finally had to cash in their chips. This is where all the plot threads, all the characterization, all the implied awesomeness that we've been promised for five years was supposed to finally deliver. And despite the excellence of the other constituent movies in this amazing series, there remained an unanswered question. Could Marvel, having promised so much, actually make good?

Frankly, I need to stop asking that question.

The Avengers is a masterpiece. A glorious, artfully-designed masterpiece, filled with writing, acting, and spectacle of the highest quality. It encompasses the individual strengths that made all of its predecessors great, and melds them together seamlessly to produce something truly special. Written and directed by Joss Whedon (of Firefly, Serenity, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and most recently, Cabin in the Woods), this film should, if anything ever can, silence his many critics once and for all. If not before, Whedon has finally delivered the magnum opus that many in the nerd community long suspected him capable of producing, and has, at least in my mind, catapulted himself into the ranks of such modern filmmakers as Chris Nolan and Peter Jackson.

I've waxed eloquently about these characters and actors before in their constituent movies, and to attempt to do so here would result in three pages of me gushing like a waterspout over the transcendent brilliance of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. His portrayal of my favorite comic book character of all time is, as it was in Iron Man and Iron Man 2, absolutely flawless, and Joss Whedon's trademark dialogue only serves to sharpen the character still further into a biting, acerbic genius with a buried streak of responsibility he is never quite able to completely hide. I stated in my review of Captain America that Chris Evans' performance, while excellent, was a bit unpolished for my taste, in that the character, still forming in WWII, was not yet the Cap I knew and loved. All such objections are negated here, as Evans plays, if anything, an even better Captain America than he did previously, an anachronistic, world-weary hero who nonetheless rises effortlessly to the occasion from his core of grit and iron. Chris Hemsworth's Thor has come full circle from his movie, and matured into a sobered, yet still properly viking thundergod, whose confrontation with Loki, his younger brother and arch-nemesis, now takes on an hints of the Shakespearean tragedy we were promised initially. Loki himself has darkened significantly from his incarnation in Thor (as is only appropriate), giving in to megalomaniacal dreams of conquest and rule. Yet for all his bluster and rage, when he confronts his brother in combat, he weeps.

New to the franchise is Mark Ruffalo, though his character, the Hulk, is unfortunately not. Hulk has had a bad run in film for the last decade or so, and actors as varied as Edward Norton and Eric Bana have tried and failed to portray him well. Where they failed, Ruffalo succeeds. He plays Bruce Banner exactly as he should, a man who has been living with his condition now for some time, and who has evolved effective, though not foolproof, means to manage it. Ruffalo doesn't play Banner as a shrinking violet, nor as a cannon waiting to explode, yet the undercurrent of menace is always there, and when he becomes the Hulk, the result can be absolutely terrifying. Hulk was never a favorite of mine in the comics, and yet watching this film, I at last began to understand why so many liked the character so much, and what it was that set him apart from all the other superheroes in the Marvel universe. The raw, unfettered rage of the Hulk comes across here as clear as day, and in a film packed this tightly with action, character, and superheroics, that is not a statement to be made lightly.

Also new (or at least elevated beyond their previous cameo status) are Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Both of these characters are variations on the Jason Bourne theme of ultra-badass spy/soldier, providing an interesting sense of scale for the more outlandish heroes (and gods) that they are paired with. I've been a fan of Renner's since the Hurt Locker, and this movie exemplifies why, as he gives Hawkeye an icy, professional mien that, while not groundbreaking, provides an intriguing contrast to the larger-than-life archetypes that surround him. Johansson plays her character in much the same vein, though she has more of a role to flesh it out in, and while there is clearly much that she has done that she isn't proud of, she doesn't deal with that guilt or pressure the way one normally sees movie heroines dealing with it. The scenes with Renner and Johansson together (as the token normal-if-badass humans in this fantastical parade of demigods and robot warriors) are very good, as we get a pair of people who have clearly been through a lot together. Best of all, the movie lets their relationship remain mostly unstated, without ever once hinting towards a romantic one. This may actually be unheard of for a superhero movie with a female lead, and I appreciated it.

But as with all of Marvel's recent hits, it is the writing, and beyond that, the pacing of the film that really elevates it into the next dimension. A long film (more than two and a half hours), Avengers wastes none of its runtime, barely pausing to orient new viewers before launching into its tale. With six major and a slew of minor characters to establish and show off, Avengers simply has no time to waste, and does not. The writing is snappy and distinctive for each character, with very few expo-dumps and a varied (though generally fast-paced) tempo to the many dialogue sequences. Joss Whedon has a distinctive "style" to his writing, but Avengers bears his mark somewhat less obviously than Cabin in the Woods did. This is a film that knows that its characters well, and respects the lengthy comic, television, and film history behind them, and Whedon manages to make every character sound like themselves, rather than like him.

Finally, the spectacle of the film itself is simply gorgeous. Enormous, elaborate fight sequences are crafted with such care and discretion that it melts into the background of one's consciousness. No shaky-cam, no tilt-camera, not even much in the way of slow-mo-speed-up (only one shot I can think of, and that one definitely warranted). The action is front-and-center and shot in such a way that the characterization of each character (forgive me) shines through, even when they are beating people with fist and shield and hammer. Every character is given time in and out of battle to both establish themselves and be awesome, leaving us with a sense, moreso than any other team-hero movie I've ever seen, that this is actually a team of individually awesome, interesting badasses. Thinking back on the achievement, and how easy Whedon makes it look, I'm filled with something like awe.

Things Havoc disliked:  Of course, the film isn't perfect. There are a couple occasions when Whedon's tendency towards snarky one-liners misfires (usually because of timing problems). One of the secondary characters (played by Cobie Smulders, I think her name was Agent Hill) is a bit below the others in terms of performances, and does drag some of her scenes down, and there were a couple sequences (Loki's confrontation with the lone elderly German dude in Stutgart, and Fury's speech about teamwork) that I thought were blocked out a bit too obviously. Neither sequence lasts more than about ten seconds, but in a film of this overall quality, it did stand out. There were also occasions when the CG-real footage transition was a bit obvious, particularly in the climactic action sequence, though none where it was immersion-breaking.

I was also somewhat disappointed with Loki. His character was a revelation in Thor, and remains so here, a villain with a real motivation and arc to his character. But though the film does give Loki room to breathe, there isn't enough room here to really continue the arc that was initiated in that previous film. His interactions with Thor are excellent, and carry over the thematic elements that Loki previously embodied, but the movie just isn't able to push them forward at all, instead turning him into a megalomaniacal would-be dictator. Granted, he suits the movie just fine as this, but I was hoping for a little more nuance.

Finally, I had a few problems with Scarlett Johansson in this one. It's not that she's bad, far from it, but there were scenes (her expositional talk with Loki for instance) that I just didn't buy. It didn't help that, playing a Russian spy who describes herself in those terms, she has no trace whatsoever of a Russian accent (Others have pointed out that a good spy would have no accent, and I acknowledge this, but it still jarred).

Final thoughts:    I don't think I'm likely to turn many heads with this review, as at time-of-writing, The Avengers is busy shattering every box office record ever produced, earning accolades from almost every reviewer online or off. I can do nothing in this case but add my voice to the collective. The Avengers was a triumph in almost every respect, a film that took my nervous expectations for it, set them gently to one side, and then showed me something great. It exceeds the bar set by Iron Man, by Thor, by Captain America, and places itself in the stratosphere of the greatest comic book films in existence. To speak of The Avengers in the same breath as the Dark Knight is not heresy.

Welcome to Blockbuster season. May it be blessed with such films as this one.

Final Score:  9/10

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Raven

Alternate Title:  The Plot and the Pandering

One sentence synopsis:  Edgar Allen Poe must catch a serial killer inspired by his own work.

Things Havoc liked:  There is a scene in this film where Edgar Allen Poe, broke and in desperate need of a drink, thunders into a bar and announces who he is, only to be met with ridicule and non-recognition, to which he responds by exploding and calling his audience 'philistines'. These are the sorts of bribes that movie directors put in their films when they really want me to like them.'

John Cusack is something of an acquired taste, and I've never really bought most of his forays outside of the romantic comedy genre in which he got his start. That said, he's a decent enough actor, and in this movie tries to infuse his character with all the blinding Gothic madness he can muster. I'm not sure the result is terribly accurate historically, but it certainly provides a bit of interest in a film that would otherwise be very procedural. His Poe is not the real Poe, but it's an interesting enough character (possibly more so than the real one would be), and he enlivens the movie more than he detracts from it with his attempts to channel Nicholas Cage.

Also coming out on the positive side of the line are veteran Irish actor Brendan Gleeson and Brit Kevin McNally, both of whom are fine actors here playing various cantankerous old men (Poe's love interest's father and his publisher, respectively). Neither one has a particularly rounded character to play, Gleeson hates Poe for wooing his daughter and the McNally despairs of Poe ever offering him another masterpiece, but they do manage to infuse both roles with a modicum of interest. Gleeson's character even manages to play against type later in the film, a spark of imagination in an otherwise pedestrian script.

Things Havoc disliked: I didn't even get three paragraphs before I had to start on this stuff, did I?

The Raven is a very formulaic film, aping the style and concept of police cat-and-mouse games like Seven, Zodiac, or Copycat, to name some of the better examples. The serial killer sends clues to Poe and the police detective (Luke Evans), daring them to catch him in a game of wits. We've all seen this plot a hundred times before, and better executed, yet the film seems to think that this idea is fresh and new, and that the audience will be shocked by the very notion of a killer who dares send clues to the very people trying to catch him. I played a video game last week made in 2003 wherein a man pitches a script very similar to this one to a Hollywood studio and is laughed out the door for being an unimaginative hack. That should suffice to explain my objection here.

But even an old story can be done well. Sadly, the acting generally lets this script down. Evans, as the police detective, is a complete cypher, speaking in a persistently gruff, "serious" voice and without any character points save that he is determined to catch the killer. We get no hints from the actor as to a deeper motivation (not that a phoned-in one would have helped much, but anything would be nice), no clues as to his personality and character, nothing but the bare minimum required to proceed with the plot. A similar fate befalls Alice Eve, who plays Poe's love interest, kidnapped (of course) by the killer in circumstances that are flimsy even by the standards of this film, and who appears to be acting under the influence of heavy sedatives. When captured by a raving serial killer and buried alive in a coffin, she can barely muster enough interest to raise her voice.

The plot, meanwhile, is not worth the sacrifice of characterization. While I won't spoil everything, I will note that the killer in this case claims to be a criminal mastermind, yet his master plan requires that all of the many dozens of bullets fired in his direction over the course of the film somehow contrive to miss, that none of the people he gruesomely murders look upwards at any given moment, and that the incredibly wealthy man whose daughter has just been kidnapped will not, in fact, hire large numbers of armed men to escort him as he rides to a location at which he expects to encounter the kidnapper. Moreover, some elements simply don't make sense. At one point, the killer fools the police by escaping out of a window that has a spring mechanism built into it that only unlocks when the correct button is pressed. The problem being that the killer is escaping from his victim's apartment, meaning he was lucky enough to select a victim who happened to build an elaborate escape hatch into her own windows drawn from a sketchy reference in an Edgar Allen Poe story. Simple issues like this point to a script that was not properly thought out.

Final thoughts:    This isn't an awful movie, by any stretch, but it is strictly mediocre in almost every way. Though Cusack may do his best, the material here leaves him nothing to work with, and his performance, odd though it is, simply isn't quirky enough to carry the interest of the audience. While the film isn't exactly predictable, the only reason it's not is because the logic to the movie makes no sense at all, and the revelations about the killer's identity and motives seem to come from left field, leaving us (or at least me) wondering what the point of the whole exercise was.

Final Score:  4/10

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

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