Daybreakers (2010)

★ ★ ☆ ☆

Daybreakers was an ambitious attempt to create an unconventional vampire film that would force the audience to examine the philosophical implications of the genre anew. By that metric, it failed. Unfortunately, the Spierig Brothers have no eye for subtlety. There's an old literary adage that tells authors that it's better to 'show' the audience something, rather than to 'tell' it to them. The Spierig Brothers prefer to do both. This is the kind of condescending screenwriting that gives Hollywood a bad name. The laughably bad dialogue doesn't help either.

If you can put aside any concerns for psychological realism, and artistic merit, you may still enjoy the movie. The action sequences are above average, and it does have a few laughs (not all of them are unintentional). Ethan Hawke and Sam Neil did a fair job, and Willem Dafoe was actually quite good. I'm not quite sure why the directors felt the need to blow everything up. I think they drastically overestimate how much the audience enjoys gratuitus destruction.

There really isn't much more to say about Daybreakers. It's a typical action movie that seemed like it might have some depth. The anti-pharmaceutical industry allegory was somewhat interesting, though overplayed. The screenplay was so thoroughly drenched with vampire blood that I doubt anyone actually cared about the plot. The only particular strength was the ending. It calls to mind George Constanzas thoughts on dying: “I’ve lived my whole life in shame — why should I die with dignity?” If you're looking for a generic action movie, it's probably worth your while. Just don't expect anything more from it.


Worst Blockbuster Movies of the Decade

The first thing you'll notice about this list is that Battlefield Earth isn't on it. There are two reasons for this. First, it's hard to call it a blockbuster. The budget was over $40 million, but it only made about half of that back. Second, it is hilarious. Sure, it wasn't supposed to be funny, but it was. This makes it an awful movie, but not quite as bad as the 10 on the list. Without further ado:

10) G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

Alright, I admit I couldn't actually bring myself to watch this one. I've heard such bad things about it from people I trust, that I feel comfortable sticking this on the list without having to sit through it. If that's not good enough for you, try sitting through it yourself.

9) Knowing

If Hollywood had a slogan, it would surely be "We Didn't Listen!" It seems that every second blockbuster is about how either we are headed for a cataclysmic event, and it could be averted if we listened to the mystics. It bothers me that Nicolas Cage takes roles like this. Cage has proven himself to be a world class actor in films such as Adaptation, The Weatherman, and Leaving Las Vegas. Unfortunately, he seems to privilege high paying roles where he doesn't have to play a loser.

8) Spider Man 3

The only thing worse than making one superhero movie starring Tobey Maguire is making three superhero movies starring Tobey Maguire. Then again, making four would be get the point.

7) Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

An movie about an emo kid and his robot friends trying to save the world from a bunch of other robots. It doesn't help that the kid is Shia LaBeouf. I'm still confused why they felt the need to include not one, but two dog sex scenes in the first hour. When I figured out that it was a 2 1/2 hour movie, I gave up and walked out. I wish I had that hour of my life back.

6) The Day After Tomorrow

Filmmakers often use their craft in order to shed light on a social issue that they care dearly about. That is fine, as long as it's done honestly. Unfortunately, this was not the case in The Day After Tomorrow. The degree to which the effects of global warming was so ridiculous that it became nothing more than a joke for global warming skeptics. Of course, director Roland Emmerich isn't out to fight global warming any more than he is to shill for Mayan prophecies. He's just looking for any excuse to use special effects.

5) 2012

Yes, a second Roland Emmerich movie. His 10,000 BC nearly gave him the hat trick (in his own net?). Emmerich has no eye for subtlety. All he knows how to do is knock over buildings. I don't even particularly care that the movie is about a dumb Mayan prophecy. I'm more perturbed by his general disregard for the laws of physics. I still don't understand how a vehicle can scrape it's way under a falling bridge. It's as though he pauses and fast forwards gravity at his discretion. This is film making at it's laziest.

4) Star Wars: Episode III

To be fair, Episode I was much worse. Yet even with the low expectations most people had for this, it still managed to disappoint. It was alternatively boring, and hilarious. Neither was intentional. I can't think of a worse way to end the disgraced Star Wars franchise.

3) The Matrix Revolutions

I hated the first Matrix movie. I understand why people liked it, but I hated it. I can't imagine anyone having liked the third installment. I don't understand what the point of the third movie was. We realised that Neo was supposed to be Jesus. Do we really need a movie about him being crucified? And what is with actually creating an entity called Deus Ex Machina? (Hey, let's use a scorned literary device, and actually call it by it's name). I kind of assume the irony was intentional, but it sure sucked all the gravitas out of the series (if there was any to begin with).

2) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones + Shia LaBeouf + aliens. Apparently this is a formula for box office success. The only good thing about this is that it was fodder for a great South Park episode.

1) Crash

There are 8 people in LA, and their lives are intimately connected (even though most of them don't really know each other). Crash is a movie about how pervasive racism is, yet they can only demonstrate this by relying on a series of unlikely consequences. While watching it, you can just imagine the biggest possible coincidence, and it'll happen in the next scene. Even beyond the coincidences, the premise is just ridiculous. I still remember hearing about Crash on a morning talk show while having breakfast with a friend. When we heard that it was about a "philosophical carjacker," we both burst out laughing. Imagine my reaction when it won best picture.


The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

★ ★ ★ ★

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is the most significant film event of the decade. This is not to say that it is the best film of the decade, though it is certainly near the top of that list. It's importance lies nearly as much in the circumstances of it's production and marketing as in it's actual aesthetic value. The film was nearly derailed by the untimely death of Heath Ledger, who was cast in the lead role as Tony. In order to save the production, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell offered to complete Ledger's role. The film took place partially in London, and partially in an imaginary CGI world. Miraculously, all of the non-CGI scenes were shot before Ledger's death, so the film was ultimately salvaged. For fans of the late actor, this came as a welcome surprise. Despite the fact that the Joker was Ledger's strongest role, I could not think of a more appropriate way for his career to end.

The Imaginarium is an extremely complex film. Terry Gilliam is known for throwing way more at his audience that they can handle in a single viewing. If you've seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, you might know what I mean. If you've seen it more than 3 times, you definitely understand. Nominally, it is simply a film about an archaic side show. The ring leader, Doctor Parnassus, has mystical abilities which allow bystanders to be transported to a mystical world, where their dreams--or nightmares--may come true. Unfortunately, this summary doesn't do it justice. There simply is no way to summarize the film. At it's core, it is about the tension between reason, and the imagination. This struggle is embodied in the aging Parnassus, who's show has long since lost any mass appeal. He lives to show the world the pleasures of the mind, though he struggles to do so in a society largely dedicated to instant gratification. In a crucial scene, Tony attempts to convince Parnassus to modernize his show. Listening to the newcomer lecture the old master, it is clear that this is an extremely personal matter for Gilliam. As a director who's films lie outside of the mainstream, Gilliam has been pressured to do so for his entire career. As we watch Parnassus fall prey to this temptation, we are also watching Gilliam do the same. Unfortunately, critics seemed to have missed the irony.

The world's that Gilliam created behind the mirror were as beautiful as anything I've seen in CGI. Though it was not as technically as impressive as Pandora was in Avatar, it was used to greater effect. The fluid melange of landscapes, mostly created from great American paintings, combined with Gilliam's array of surreal creatures and props, created a dream world of epic proportions. I now feel like I've experienced the dreams of Terry Gilliam.

Heath Ledger made the single most dramatic entrance to a film I have ever seen. Aside from the eerie effect of Ledger posthumously entering the film, the way in which he does so is particularly ominous. Ledger's death increased the gravitas of the role to a near prophetic level. Each time Ledger stepped through the mirror, I couldn't help but wonder if it would be his final exit. The themes of death and immortality have rarely seemed as imminent.

Some critics may point out that some of the dialogue is stilted. This is particularly the case in the scenes with the Devil. This is inevitable with this type of film. I chuckled during my first viewing of The Seventh Seal, when the protagonist challenges death to a chess match. It's so outlandish a proposition that it's hard to take it seriously. The same thing happens to an extent in Parnassus, though it's important to remember that it is not supposed to be as dark. Gilliam's devil is not the dark, suave figure that is typical of such films. That would be too simplistic for Gilliam's taste.

Unfortunately, Parnassus has not yet received a full release. Many theatres have not yet released it, likely because it is being crowded out by the success of Avatar. Hopefully when the Avatar hysteria dies down, Heath Ledger will get the send off he deserves.


The Hurt Locker (2009)

★ ★ ★ ★

Conventional war movies bore me. In fact, there are few things that put me to sleep faster than a machine gun laden action sequence. The Hurt Locker is the latest in the underrepresented genre of war movies that are about the soldiers rather than the war. The movie follows a bomb squad through the final days of its deployment in Iraq. The film is remarkably apolitical, focusing on giving us a soldiers eye view of a combat environment. The handheld camera gives us an eye into the paranoia of soldiers in an urban combat environment. We get as close as observers can to experiencing the fog of war. In one scene, a man with a gun is picked off by a sniper. We don't know if he's an insurgent, and we never will. That is how urban warfare works.

While director Kathryn Bigalow was provided a remarkable cast for an independent production, she didn't feel the need to allot screen time based on reputation. Actors were casted for specific roles, and only got as much exposure as their role merited. Bigalow leaned heavily on two relative unknowns, Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie, who delivered stunning performances. Each character illustrated the near stoic demeanor required to perform a near suicidal mission. Yet even martyrs are prey to human frailties, and neither character was an exception.

As good as it was, the film was not perfect. The decision to include footage from the home front was at best superfluous, and there were a few departures from the soldiers point of view that diminished the aura of uncertainty. Furthermore, the scenes with the psychologist were characterized by unrealistic dialogue, and weak performances by both doctor and patient.

Shortcomings aside, the film is one of the best war movies of the decade. I would not be disappointed to see it win best picture, and would be extremely disappointed if cinematographer Barry Ackroyd was deprived of an Oscar nomination. After a series of lackluster releases, Kathryn Bigalow has proven that she can be among the best directors around.