San Andreas

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2015

Warner Brothers/New Line Cinema/Flynn Picture Company/Village Roadshow Pictures/RatPac-Dune Entertainment

Directed by Brad Peyton

Produced by Beau Flynn/Hiram Garcia/TrippVinson

Screenplay by Carlton Cuse

Story by Andre Fabrizio/Jeremy Passmore

You know what SAN ANDREAS needed to be a real, Honest-To-Irwin-Allen Disaster Movie? Director Brad Peyton needed to have rounded up a dozen aging character actors from the 1980s and sprinkle them in his movie in various roles so that we in the audience could have the fun of guessing which ones were going to die and which ones would be around for the closing credits. Because that’s how those classic Disaster Movies of the 1970s sold: “Who will live and who will die?” the posters asked. And that was part of the fun of going to see a Disaster Movie back then.

SAN ANDREAS chooses to focus on one family as they struggle to survive the largest earthquake in human history: a 9.6 that rips California apart and obliterates cities. It’s a narrow focus, yes, but the real stars of the movie aren’t Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino, good as they are. The stars of SAN ANDREAS is the special effects department and it goes absolutely batshit insane destroying Los Angeles and San Francisco. Even for a long time movie goer like me who has seen plenty of destruction on screen, the apocalypse depicted in SAN ANDREAS is magnificently outrageous. And that’s the fun of going to see a Disaster Movie now.

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Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson) is a Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter rescue pilot. He’s going through a rough divorce from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino) who he still loves madly even though she’s moving in with her mega rich real estate developer boyfriend Daniel Riddick (Ioan Grufudd) Ray is looking forward to spending quality time with their daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) in San Francisco. Quality time that is cut short by a devastating 7.1 earthquake that destroys Hoover Dam.

Caltech seismologist Dr. Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) had predicted the quake but in true Chicken Little fashion, nobody believed him when he said the sky was falling. But with the help of plucky news reporter Serena Johnson (Archie Panjabi) they believe him when he says that this is just the beginning. Things are going to get a whole lot worse and basically, everybody in San Francisco needs to start running as if their asses are on fire NOW and don’t stop until they hit Canada.

The quake hits Los Angeles and Ray is able to save Emma using his chopper. They then set out to fly to San Francisco and hopefully get there ahead of the quake and save their daughter.

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And that’s all you need to know. SAN ANDREAS knows what you’ve come for. You want to see skyscrapers tumbling into rubble, famous landmarks blowing up, cities engulfed in tsunamis, women clutching their children to their breasts as they run screaming down the street, men stampeding like blood-mad bulls and everybody pretty much hollering “Oh, shit!” non-stop as they all try to stay alive while California slides into the sea.

Director Brad Peyton and screenwriter Carlton Cuse have no pretense that they’re making art here and stars Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino don’t for a minute try for Academy Awards. But they do understand the genre they’re working in and conduct themselves accordingly. Both Johnson and Gugino are always wonderful to watch on screen and they acquit themselves well here. Between dodging collapsing buildings and explosions they rebuild their damaged relationship, providing moments where their characters and the audience as well can catch a breather until the next crisis must be overcome.

Paul Giamatti and Archie Panjabi are also fun to watch as they work their side of the street warning the hapless citizens that they have to run for their mollyfoggin’ lives NOW. I liked how Paul Giamatt’s Dr. Hayes gets to have his Action Hero moment during the destruction of the Hoover Dam (a truly frightening sequence) where he’s getting tourists off the dam as its falling to pieces.

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I saw SAN ANDREAS in 3D and while I normally avoid 3D like the plague, this time I couldn’t get out of it as my wife Patricia insisted on seeing it in 3D. She’s very good about going to see movies with me she has no interest in so I couldn’t be a swine and refuse her. And you know what? It wasn’t bad at all. In fact, I enjoyed watching it in 3D way more than I thought I would. The 3D was especially good later on during the scenes in a drowned San Francisco that are utterly and totally surreal. And yes, fellas, you will most definitely appreciate the 3D in the scenes where Carla Gugino is running.

So should you see SAN ANDREAS? Yes. It’s a total Summer Movie. It’s all spectacle, all massive action set pieces and enormously outrageous stunts and special effects. It has no pretentions and no desire to do nothing else that make you forget your troubles and entertain you for 114 minutes. And it does it with strong actors and a simple, direct story that has just enough characterizations and genuine emotion to get you invested in the characters. Enjoy.

114 Minutes

Rated PG-13

Watchmen

2009
Warner Bros & Paramount Pictures

Directed by Zack Snyder
Produced by Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin and Deborah Snyder
Screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse
Based on the comic book limited series and graphic novel created by Alan Moore (writer) and Dave Gibbons (artist)

If you were reading comic books back in 1986 then you probably read the twelve issue limited series WATCHMEN right from the beginning. You were in on the ground floor of a work of art that has come to be called ‘The Citizen Kane of graphic novels’. Actually that should be ‘The Citizen Kane of comic books’ but I’ve noticed how hard the advertising is stresses that WATCHMEN is based on a ‘graphic novel’. It’s as if Warner Bros. and Paramount are trying to hide the comic book roots of the material. They’ve got no reason to. Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, the comic book version of WATCHMEN was far more than men and women in brightly colored spandex beating the piss outta each other. It was a political thriller/satire, a murder mystery, a deconstruction of the superhero concept and an examination of the psychology of those people in the brightly colored spandex. And thankfully, the movie version of WATCHMEN is the same.

Thanks to a really cool credits sequence we’re introduced to an alternate world where superheroes came into prominence during the World War II era. Although costumed crimefighters such as Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis, Silhouette and Dollar Bill are called superheroes they actually have no real superpowers. They’re ordinary men and women who put on masks, wear costumes and go out to fight crime. It isn’t until the 1950’s that the world gets its first real superbeing: Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup) who, like a lot of DC and Marvel characters gains superpowers due to a scientific accident. Ironically, its Dr. Manhattan’s creation that intensifies the Cold War between The United States and Russia. The Russians are kinda spooked that America has a glowing blue god who can reshape matter and energy at will. Thanks to Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian/Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) the Vietnam War is won in a week. Both Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian go to work for the U.S. government while other costumed heroes are forced into retirement due to legislation outlawing superheroes.

Things heat up rapidly when The Comedian is brutally killed and his murder is investigated by Rorschach/Walter Kovacs (Jackie Earle Haley) a vigilante who ignored the ban on masked heroes. Rorschach believes someone is out to kill all the retired heroes and goes to visit them one by one, hoping to persuade them to join him in his investigation. Silk Spectre/Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman) thinks he’s crazy. Dr. Manhattan doesn’t care. Nite Owl/Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) thinks he’s paranoid. And the richest, smartest man in the world, Ozymandias /Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) is too busy trying to create a new energy source to be bothered. But before long events will drive all these former heroes back into their costumes as it soon becomes apparent that the world is on the verge of a nuclear holocaust and they may be the only ones who can prevent it.

For years WATCHMEN has stumped some of the most creative directors working in the industry today. We’re talking about guys like Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky, both of who thought the graphic novel was unfilmable. And then along comes Zack Snyder who does such a terrific job and is so faithful to the source material that you wonder what the fuss was about. All of the characters look as if they stepped right out of the graphic novel and Zack Snyder recreates scenes in such detail it’s scary. And there’s plenty of Easter Eggs all through the movie for those of us who have read our copies of WATCHMEN to death but that won’t prevent those of you who haven’t from enjoying it.

The acting in this movie is top notch. Jackie Earle Haley easily walks off with the honors in this one. Rorschach is an extremely disturbed and dangerous man and Haley plays him that way, with no sugarcoating. I remember first seeing Jackie Earle Haley way back in 1983 in a raunchy comedy called “Losin’ It” which also starred Tom Cruise and Shelly Long but Haley stole that movie from them easily. He’s got great people to work with in this one such as Patrick Wilson. He plays Dan Dreiberg in such a way that you at first have a hard time imagining this overweight, quiet guy was ever a superhero. But once he puts on that Nite Owl costume his transformation is remarkable to see. And Malin Akerman is nothing short of amazing. I just couldn’t take my eyes off her anytime she was on the screen. Her character occupies a unique place in the superhero history of this world and one of the most interesting aspects of this movie is to watch her complex relationships with the other characters.

So should you see WATCHMEN? Absolutely. It’s not just a great superhero movie. It’s a great movie, period. The characterizations and story aren’t just excuses to have golly-gee-whiz special effects and big fight scenes. Even though the movie is complex and there are flashbacks and flash forwards it’s never confusing. And it’s truly a pleasure to watch a director at work who knows how to film action/fight scenes and doesn’t take the lazy way out by resorting to shaky-cam. It’s a movie with intelligence and one sign of its intelligence is that the superheroes don’t fight supervillains. They’re fighting something even more deadly: social conditions and their own moral values. It’s an amazing piece of filmmaking indeed and between this and “300” Zack Snyder has a place in movie history.

163 minutes:
Rated R:  This is most definitely a superhero movie for adults. There’s graphic violence, nudity and language.  Send the kidlets to bed before you watch this one, folks.

Sucker Punch

2011

Warner Bros.

Directed by Zack Snyder

Produced by Deborah Snyder

Screenplay by Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya

Based on a story by Zack Snyder

Zack Snyder has provided me with two of my favorite movie watching experiences of recent years.  “300” which I fell so in love with the first time I saw it, I wanted to marry it and take it home to meet my mother.  And “Watchman” which I thought was a brilliant adaptation of the graphic novel and actually improved upon it in certain areas, particularly the ending.  Upon hearing that his new movie SUCKER PUNCH was based on an original story by Zack Snyder I was really pumped to see it as I could imagine what his extraordinary visual style could do when applied to characters of his own creation.

I should have listened more closely to my friend Jason who upon seeing the trailers opinioned that any movie with trailers that kick-ass couldn’t live up to the promise they were making.  Know what?  Jason was totally correct.  SUCKER PUNCH isn’t as kick-ass as those trailers promised.  But neither is it the complete and total disaster some would have you believe.  At most, it’s an interesting experiment by a still young filmmaker who I think was trying to tell a story too ambitious for his still growing talents.  But we’ll get back to that in a bit, okay?  Right now, the obligatory story synopsis…

Baby Doll’s (Emily Browning) life is about as bad as it can get.  Her mother has died, her sister killed in a tragic accident and her stepfather has had her committed to a mental asylum.  The stepfather has bribed the head orderly Blue Jones (Oscar Isacc) to arraign for Baby Doll to be lobotomized.  This way, he can keep control of the vast fortune left to Baby Doll by her mother and she will unable to tell anybody the true circumstances of the death of Baby Doll’s sister.

To cope with her horrific situation, Baby Doll’s mind creates an elaborate fantasy world where the asylum is now a strip club/brothel where Blue is the owner.  The asylum’s chief therapist Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) is now the madam.  Baby Doll becomes friends with the club’s top dancers; Amber (Jamie Chung) Blondie (Vaneesa Hudgens) Rocket (Jena Malone) and her older sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish).  Baby Doll is informed that in five days she is to be given to ‘The High Roller’ which is paralleled in the real world by The Doctor (Jon Hamm) coming to give her a lobotomy.  Baby Doll plans to use those five days to escape and enlists the aid of the other dancers to do so.  This involves Baby Doll creating yet another fantasy world where she and her friends, guided by The Wise Man (Scott Glenn) have to collect five objects to aid in their escape.

That sounds pretty simple and straightforward, right?  Well, it isn’t.  There’s an added dimension to this in that apparently Baby Doll can mesmerize everybody in a room when she dances.  We never see what the dance is but when she does, she and her friends are transported to the world where they have to gather the objects.  That’s at around the point you’ll probably start scratching your head.  I know I did.

Let’s get the good out of the way: I liked most of the performances.  Scott Glenn looks as if he’s having so much fun I was having fun watching him.  Jon Hamm is only in the movie for a few minutes but he really makes the most of his brief screen time to really bring an added note of horror and pathos to the movie’s bleakest moment.  And Carla Gugino is amazing as always.  Why this woman doesn’t have a bigger career infuriates me to no end.  Jena Malone I really liked in this one.  She’s got an 80’s Meg Ryan vibe going here I found appealing.  Abbie Cornish I don’t recall seeing in anything but I’m going to be looking for more from her.

The best part of the movie?  Undoubtedly the absolutely incredible action sequences where Baby Doll and crew acquire the objects they need.  I especially loved the World War I sequence with automatic weapons, steampunk battle armor, great big honkin’ zepplins porcupined with weapons and clockwork German soldiers.  You see those sequences and you mightily wish that Zack Snyder had built a better story around them.  He’s got an astounding eye for detail that is truly gifted and visually, SUCKER PUNCH is a treat.

The bad?  There was one too many realities to deal with.  Unlike “Inception” which was painstakingly clear about the rules concerning dream worlds, SUCKER PUNCH isn’t.  I took the movie to be an homage to “The Wizard of Oz” more than anything else since it starts off with a very dull gray look to everything but once Baby Doll starts her fantasy in the brothel, the movie switches to vibrant, eye-popping color.

But once I realized that the action sequences were little more than glorified cut scenes from a videogame, I got bored.  Because I knew they weren’t going to last.  And what I wanted to see was a whole movie with these five fightin’ females boppin’ around these incredible worlds kicking every ass in sight.  And I was frustrated because I wasn’t getting it.  I did find it amusing that Baby Doll apparently has learned Jim Kelly’s trick of switching footwear in mid-fight and that kept me active looking for when she would switch from high heels to flats and back.

So should you see SUCKER PUNCH?  See, that’s a tough one for me to call.  Let me put it to you from both sides of my movie persona:

The cheap-ass, misery, grinchy Derrick Ferguson says: even though I’m a Zack Snyder fan,  there were parts where I was bored so if you’re not a fan, I can’t see where you’d want to see this.

On the other hand…

The artistic, compassionate, film nerd Derrick Ferguson says Zack Snyder has given us something interesting that isn’t a remake or a reboot or dragging out some moldy old franchise, slapping a new coat of paint on it and going “Ta-da!”  He’s done his best to give us something original and he’s to be commended for that.  He stretched himself and didn’t play it safe and I respect that.  I’m willing to give him a pass for SUCKER PUNCH because this is only his fifth film and he’s still growing as a filmmaker.  This one got away from him because I don’t believe he’s built up enough directorial muscle to successfully pull off telling a story like this.  If SUCKER PUNCH is a failure it’s an honest one motivated by creativity and a desire to communicate with a unique storytelling style.

109 minutes

Rated PG-13