Category Archives: 2009

Creation (2009, Jon Amiel)

Creation is the not the story of how Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) and the ghost of his oldest daughter (Martha West) collaborated in the writing of On the Origin of Species. That story would make a much better movie.

The film opens with a title card explaining it will be about Darwin writing that book, released in 1859. Some conversation early on places the present action in 1858. So a year. At this point, it’s been twenty years since he published Voyage of the Beagle. Some of those adventures show up in flashback–a flashback’s flashback–as Bettany recounts stories to West.

Well, at the beginning. Then not. The Beagle flashbacks are the biggest budgeted sequences in Creation and director Amiel treats them as set pieces. Only then such flashbacks (in flashbacks) stop and so do set pieces. Instead, it’s just Bettany hanging around at home, making churchy wife Jennifer Connelly real upset with his blasphemous manuscript and research. It seems like this narrative floundering is covering a lot of time but it turns out it isn’t. Amiel and screenwriter John Collee are terrible at pacing. Why do they need pacing when they can have Bettany talk to West (not an actual ghost, just a narrative contrivance). If only the exposition moved the film along.

After a promising first act, Creation settles into that “ghost” story. Amiel and Collee tease out details of West’s death in the present while flashing back, at first, to unrelated family bonding scenes. The flashbacks eventually get confusing because Bettany’s makeup for Darwin age forty-nine is bald with stringy hair, very pasty skin, a paunch. The film skips back seven and eight years to the West flashbacks–those seven actual years in between Darwin’s daughter’s death and the Species’s completion are apparently empty of worthy story material. Darwin age forty-two makeup is bald with stringy hair, mildly pasty skin, general nineteenth century upper class flab. It’s not hard to tell them apart, but only because Bettany’s good. But in terms of filmmaking–Amiel’s direction, Jess Hall’s flat photography–well, it’s good they have Bettany.

Also because it’s an entirely thankless part. Collee’s script is deceptively worse than first impression. It’s not bland biopic stuff, it’s bland biopic stuff without any characters. Amiel, whose direction is never better than mediocre (outside the special effects sequences of animal decomposition and so on), he at least tries occasionally. He really likes his close-ups. So the actors can spout either ominous lines (because of hiding daughter West’s fate in flashback) or exposition.

While Bettany’s got it bad, he at least gets to walk around in his make-up. Connelly is left to take care of the kids and give disapproving looks when Bettany doesn’t take his “war on God” seriously. And Connelly never really gets a role. She ends up with one poorly written, well-acted scene. It’s exceptionally impressive filmmaking from Amiel, Hall, and editor Melanie Oliver. It’s this entirely manipulative, cheap, soapy scene and it still works. Because Bettany and Connelly. Connelly gets some character motivation at what might as well be the end of the movie. There’s still more movie and it’s bad, but that moment is when Creation could’ve got out in the black.

But it doesn’t. Because Amiel and Collee are entirely artless with Creation. They want all to benefits of melodramatic contrivances without ever embracing those contrivances. There’s also the issue of how the film characterizes the religious. Caricaturizes. Connelly and Jeremy Northam (extended cameoing as the village clergy) are inappropriately villainized. But meaning they need to be villainized differently. There’s no dramatic fodder in it as is.

Bettany’s good. Not great. Better than decent or fine. West is decent. Connelly is problematic; the part’s crap. Northam’s cameo is too thin. Ditto Toby Jones. He’s bombastic though. Energy is a lot in Creation, as the film stops producing any once the second act hits. Benedict Cumberbatch is good. He tries.

If there’s a great film about the final year of Darwin writing Species, Creation sure ain’t it. Amiel’s just too bland a director to save the film from the script. It could’ve at least maintained mediocre, but as it becomes more and more clear how bad Collee’s plotting and pacing is going to get… well, mediocre’s way out of reach.

The awful Christopher Young score doesn’t help either.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Amiel; screenplay by John Collee, based on a story by Amiel and Collee and a book by Randal Keynes; director of photography, Jess Hall; edited by Melanie Oliver; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Laurence Dorman; produced by Jeremy Thomas; released by Icon Film Distribution.

Starring Paul Bettany (Charles Darwin), Jennifer Connelly (Emma Darwin), Martha West (Annie Darwin), Jeremy Northam (Reverend Innes), Benedict Cumberbatch (Joseph Hooker), Jim Carter (Parslow), Bill Paterson (Dr. Gully), and Toby Jones (Thomas Huxley).


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The Invention of Lying (2009, Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson)

The Invention of Lying is a 100 minute exploration of a gag. In a world without lying–or any fictive creativity whatsoever–co-director, co-writer, and star Ricky Gervais one day spontaneously mutates and lies. He lies for personal gain, only to discover exploiting people doesn’t make him feel good, so he lies to make himself and others feel good, but it gets him into trouble. It doesn’t get him what he wants and it just ends up making him rich, famous, and miserable.

The film opens with Gervais on a low point. He’s about to lose his job and he’s out on a date with his dream girl, Jennifer Garner, only she thinks she’s too good for him. Because, objectively, his genetic material isn’t good enough to mix with hers. So the other thing this world doesn’t have is any relatable version of love. Gervais and co-writer Matthew Robinson aren’t even comfortable getting into the lust questions, because once they start down any problematic avenue, they run away as fast as they can. It’s like they release they can’t make the joke funny and hightail it away. So why do the joke in the first place?

The film takes place in a small New England town where there is, inexplicably, a movie studio. Except movies are just filmed lectures of history lessons because there’s no fiction and there’s no concept of it. Gervais and Robinson entirely ignore how the world would function and how history would have progressed without imagination or creative ambition. For a while, they just keep falling back on the gimmick–what if everyone just says what they’re thinking, no matter how awful. There are a lot of flashy cameos–Ed Norton is the best–but they can only distract so much. Eventually, the film has to reconcile itself, because Gervais is in love with Garner and Garner doesn’t want him because of his genetic material.

There’s this scene where Gervais explains how he imagines peoples lives upon seeing them and Garner just sees them as fat, bald, nerdy, losers. It comes right after Gervais telling Garner she’s the kindest, best person he’s ever met, which makes absolutely no sense, but whatever, she’s supposed to be angelic.

Eventually, Garner’s part contracts and the movie moves ahead an indeterminable time, becoming just Gervais moping with buddies Louis C.K. and Jonah Hill. By this time, Gervais has increased the scale of his lying, making up God. That subplot is the best one in the film; Gervais and Robinson don’t have to be subtle about their jabs yet still manage subtely in said jabs. It operates on two levels, something the film never does otherwise.

Sadly, it’s not about Gervais inadvertently becoming a messiah, it’s about him pining for Garner. Conveniently, Gervais’s first act nemesis (Rob Lowe, one note as a successful bully) also has eyes for Garner so there’s a love triangle thing towards the end.

It’s a yawn, partially because Garner and Lowe are extremely limited in their roles, partially because Invention can only handle so much emotion. If people can’t have creative expectation, their emotions are stunted. And even when they aren’t, Gervais and Robinson are focused entirely on characters on hand, not this world they’ve ostensibly created.

Gervais drops out during the third act way too much too. He’s the only relatable character in the film; everyone else is a caricature to be mocked. He’s a caricature too (maybe the thinest one), but he’s not supposed to be mocked.

Okay photography from Tim Suhrstedt covers for Gervais and Robinson’s lackluster directing. There are a lot of songs and song montages–including a criminally atrocious Elvis Costello cover of Cat Stevens’s Sitting–and they don’t make any sense since there’s no music in Lying’s world.

Gervais’s performance is fine. Garner ranges from inoffensive to miscast. Hill is an overblown cameo, while C.K. is an underdeveloped sidekick. Besides Ed Norton, Martin Starr’s probably the funniest cameo. Others are earnest but with limited material.

The Invention of Lying would’ve made a great six part sitcom or something, but Gervais and Robinson don’t have a full enough narrative for 100 minutes. It’s not funny enough to make up for all the laziness.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson; director of photography, Tim Suhrstedt; edited by Chris Gill; music by Tim Atack; production designer, Alec Hammond; produced by Lynda Obst, Oliver Obst, Dan Lin, and Gervais; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ricky Gervais (Mark Bellison), Jennifer Garner (Anna McDoogles), Rob Lowe (Brad Kessler), Louis C.K. (Greg), Jonah Hill (Frank), Tina Fey (Shelley), Jeffrey Tambor (Anthony), and Fionnula Flanagan (Martha Bellison).


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Halloween II (2009, Rob Zombie), the director’s cut

Halloween II is terrible. Unquestionably terrible. It sounds as though the director’s cut, which I watched, is even worse than the theatrical cut, based on the items director Zombie added back to the film.

But I wanted Halloween II to be good. It can’t be good–even with Zombie’s dumb ideas, there’s terrible writing and an awful performance from Scout Taylor-Compton in the lead–but I wanted it to be good. Because Zombie, after teasing the audience with a direct remake of the original Halloween II as an opener, does come up with an interesting concept. What happens to Taylor-Compton after the horrific events of the first film, with all “real life” psychology thrown in–including Malcolm McDowell making a jackass of himself as “famous TV psychiatrist”–it could be really interesting.

Zombie has all the pieces–Taylor-Compton’s friend, played by Danielle Harris, and her dad, an excellent Brad Dourif, take her in, which creates all sorts of problems and new situations. Juxtaposed against McDowell tormenting his media handler (Mary Birdsong), it all could have worked out. There’s some good stuff with Harris and Dourif, Birdsong and McDowell, but it’s all accidental. It’s actors with ability transcending terribly written material.

Oddly enough, Zombie cares. He cares about his dumb story invalidating every idea of the Halloween franchise–instead of a soulless shape, Michael Myers is driven to kill by his mystically evil (and undead) mother. Zombie spends most of the movie upset he can’t show Tyler Mane’s face until the end. Zombie puts it off so long, the reveal has no point–not as commentary on the Halloween franchise, which the film could’ve been perfect for, and not for his dumb evil, mystical Myers family thing.

Great photography from Brandon Trost on 16 mm. Occasionally okay music from Tyler Bates.

And, real quick, Sheri Moon Zombie is awful in it (though not worse than Taylor-Compton); it’s sad since the film opens with a flashback where Moon Zombie’s actually good.

Halloween II is not at all worth watching, but it should have been.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Rob Zombie; screenplay by Zombie, based on characters created by John Carpenter and Debra Hill; director of photography, Brandon Trost; edited by Glenn Garland and Joel T. Pashby; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, Garreth Stover; produced by Malek Akkad, Andy Gould and Zombie; released by Dimension Films.

Starring Scout Taylor-Compton (Laurie Strode), Tyler Mane (Michael Myers), Malcolm McDowell (Dr. Samuel Loomis), Brad Dourif (Sheriff Lee Brackett), Sheri Moon Zombie (Deborah Myers), Danielle Harris (Annie Brackett) and Brea Grant (Mya Rockwell)


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Fast & Furious (2009, Justin Lin)

With Fast & Furious, director Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan do something incredible. They take what, a decade before would have been at best a video game spin-off (maybe featuring the original, now down in their career cast's voices), and make an energetically mercenary movie out of it. The film's ludicrous at almost every turn, but it's hard not to appreciate a huge budget in CGI being spent on car chase after car chase.

Oh, there are some real cars racing, but Lin apes the conclusion to Return of the Jedi for the finale–just with cars. It's entirely admirable and entirely pointless. There's not an honest moment in the entire movie, everything is perfectly calculated to entertain. The film gets too loud and almost too busy–Gal Gadot's useless character is in the not really bad bad Bond girl part–seemingly because Vin Diesel wants a lot of tear jerker scenes to be a tough guy during.

Lin doesn't want to hold a shot–he's clearly more into Michael Bay for car chase inspiration than Billy Friedkin–but his composition is good and Amir Mokri does a fine job shooting the film. The real car racing footage looks great. All the composite CGI stuff is a little too obvious, but it's a video game, you're not supposed to care.

The film does require a certain enthusiasm for Diesel and Paul Walker's bromance; Lin gets a surprisingly okay performance from Walker.

Like I said, big, loud, dumb, sometimes perfectly amiable.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Justin Lin; screenplay by Chris Morgan, based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson; director of photography, Amir Mokri; edited by Fred Raskin and Christian Wagner; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Ida Random; produced by Neal H. Moritz, Vin Diesel and Michael Fottrell; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Vin Diesel (Dominic Toretto), Paul Walker (Brian O’Conner), Michelle Rodriguez (Letty), Jordana Brewster (Mia), John Ortiz (Campos), Laz Alonso (Fenix), Sung Kang (Han), Tego Calderon (Tego), Gal Gadot (Gisele), Jack Conley (Penning), Liza Lapira (Trinh), Shea Whigham (Stasiak) and Don Omar (Don Omar).


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