Thursday, March 26, 2009

Knowing... the ending.

Knowing, the new Nicolas Cage movie that grabbed the number one spot at the box-office last weekend, knows little about plot twists, less about being clever and absolutely nothing about basic human behavior. WARNING: if you're planning on seeing this exercise in obvious sci-fi illogic, stop reading now. At least you'll have the first five or ten minutes of film to still wonder how it ends. If you haven't figured it out by the time the blond guys in the trench coats show up, you're probably as easily mystified and as utterly plagued by a lack of logical reaction, as all of the characters in the film.
You've been warned - here's the ending... oh my god - they're aliens from another planet on a Noah's Ark rescue mission! Wow, revelation. Not.

Knowing anything in Knowing doesn't seem to make a bit of difference. Not to anyone. (And unfortunately that includes the audience.)  Having advance knowledge of a possible planet ending crisis doesn't even suggest to anyone that they might, oh, say something about it to someone other than a family member.

Nicolas Cage's character, an astrophysicist, looks at a chart (written 50 years earlier by a child) with a colleague and points out a chronologically correct prediction of the date and number of dead in world wide tragedies over the last fifty years, and his colleague's response is "Systems that find meaning in numbers are a dime a dozen. Why? Because people see what they want to see." Well that would be a pretty neat trick. You could build a career on that in a Vegas showroom.

While Cage's brilliance supposedly illuminates this chart of catastrophe his kid has stumbled on, neither he or his brilliant colleague notice that the elusive numbers that are not part of the date and number of dead, are map coordinates. That is until his ever present GPS unit (which has been staring him in the face every day in his car) flashes his own location to him, just as a jet plane crashes next to the highway he's traffic jammed on. Being the hero type (at least as an actor), Cage jumps from his car and runs into the jet fueled flames while burn-gag stuntmen stagger all around him. (Since when do people walk away from utter destruction, their only piece of bad luck, after surviving a horrific jet crash with no apparent broken appendages, being that they are unfortunately engulfed in fire?) That is fire, by the way, that causes sporadic explosions and assorted mayhem, but not enough heat to prevent the actors from standing only yards away.

By the way, Cage's useless heroics come at the expense of his young son, one still suffering from the tragic loss of his mother, being left and forgotten in the rain on the steps of his school. It's OK, the kid gets ignored lots more even though the script is fond of pointing out that Dad and son "will be with each other forever". Well, except Dad will die a split-second fiery death along with planet Earth and son & new girl pal will reignite the human race on a distant, alien utopian planet.

Throughout the film, people behave as directed and written, with no attention paid whatsoever to how actual people do behave. Even director Alex Proyas' supernatural and sci-fi classics The Crow (1994) and the brilliant Dark City (1998) made more sense than this. Characters search a school building for a missing child with flashlights rather than simply turning on the building's lights. Black, shiny pebbles seem to portend some alien message but are completely ignored as anything more than a curiosity (that one's never explained). Cage's character, racing to rescue his son from an apparent kidnapping, stops to hold hands with a dead woman in the back of an ambulance to utter some profound thoughts, seemingly once again forgetting that his son may be in peril. The list is long and increasingly unforgivable.

Perhaps some forgiveness for illogical character behavior could be summoned if the story were even the least bit riveting, nail biting, suspense filled. Sorry. The words hack, cliched and recycled are far better descriptors. Close your eyes and picture an alien - yep, a humanistic swirl of pulsing blue light with some amber and red around the heart and brain. What's an alien spaceship look like? Now-a-days its some fractal geometry written into a computer rendering program, all sliding and intersecting, constantly moving angles backlit with bright, white light. And where does it land? Does a bear shit in the woods? Apparently so do aliens.

Knowing's tagline is "Knowing is everything". It made lots of cash last weekend and as I'm writing, it's still been number one each day this week. If Knowing remains on top next weekend and climbs to financial success, there will be proof that Knowing does indeed know at least one thing for certain. There are lots of dumb people without a wit of logic in their own brains who still have enough money to go to the movies.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Following Genius?

This Friday, the film adaptation of the 12 part comic book series Watchmen will become the first superhero movie to follow Chris Nolan's total eclipse of that genre, last summer's billion dollar world wide blockbuster, The Dark Knight. And it's not as if audiences have had time to forget what an amazing movie that was. With nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in DVD sales and 8 Oscar nominations, The Dark Knight will likely still be being talked about a year from it's July 18, 2008 release. And then there's Heath Ledger's Oscar winning performance as the Joker, arguably the finest film portrayal of any comic book character in the history of cinema and one of the most complex takes on any movie villain, ever. That's an act no one in their right mind would want to follow, no matter how much time passes.

Take a look at the trailers to Watchmen and you get the sense that no one in their right mind has ever been any part of where this story came from, or is going. But the history of the tale, from it's release as a comic book series to it's genre defining release as a hard cover "graphic novel", to it's unpredictable and unlikely inclusion on Time Magazine's All Time Best 100 Novels list, Watchmen isn't by even the craziest definition, standard stuff. But is it going to make great cinema?

What has caught our interest during the prerelease hype, are the interviews with the cast and the reverentially praised director Zack Snyder. Snyder, who was approached by Warner Bros., Watchmen script in hand, was still filming the movie version of the graphic novel 300, and hadn't yet proved his eye for cinematic visuals that would ultimately elevate ancient battle tactics and extreme bloodletting into digitally enhanced art.

In seemingly every interview, there's a declaration, a rationalization if you will, of how Watchmen is somehow moving beyond the comic book conventions of The Dark Knight. That somehow, because the Watchmen comic was "conceived" as being "adult", that it's inclusion of rampant flowing blood, corruption, craziness and direct sexual entanglements was blatantly deliberate, that the film would carry an "R" rating, that this was above and beyond what The Dark Knight could have had an ambition to be. The Watchmen was authentically original and "targeted" to be serious, complex and DARK. That makes it different, somehow more. That places it's story in a new strata than any that have come before it. The very story itself, sets it beyond anything that a simple comic has been able to achieve as a film. And there's where we differ.

No one's comparing Watchmen to Iron Man, last year's third largest grossing world wide release. We're talking about The Dark Knight. The second largest grossing film in the history of all cinema. All cinema. The Dark Knight successfully and beautifully transcends superhero movies. It transcends comic books, originals, sequels, action, thrillers and any other singular genre. The Dark Knight succeeds as a film on the scale of the very best movies ever made. To compare yourself to only it's comic book attributes is to compare yourself as a film, to only other films who used a particular cinematographer, a specific type of camera or films shot only in a single location. That would defy logic as it would honesty.

To rate the potential of Watchmen against the filmmaking achievement of The Dark Knight is as ridiculous an exercise as listing it's comparisons to The Wizard of Oz. The discussion is broadly misplaced if it centers on a mismatched and narrow category of film rather than the merits of it's success in telling a cinematic story. Watchmen is a different kind of superhero movie. But so was last year's boring and unbalanced Hancock. If Watchmen is to break new ground at the movies, much as Zack Snyder's extraordinary visual achievement in 300 did, it will have to do so by forging its own destiny. If it indeed does that, the cast and the director, we're sure, will be first to claim that their movie defies any comparison, to any movie, superhero or not.

After seeing 300, we walked from the theater with the overwhelming feeling that we'd seen something new on a movie screen. Something a bit awe inspiring. We're hoping Watchmen delivers that same sensation. It certainly has that potential. But then, we laughed out loud when we saw the first trailer for Hancock. The groans at having spent ten bucks to see that one, still haven't stopped. Zack Snyder and cast... amaze us. You said you would. But we think it's one hell of a tall order.