A Scanner Darkly may be the most fascinating boring movie I’ve screened in recent years. The set up for the story is novel: In the not-too-distant future, a superdrug called Substance D has spread to epidemic proportions. A group of So-Cal junkies & dealers, led by Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) begin to suspect a Big Brother-ish sting operation is closing in on them. Living with Arctor in his ratty house are his sort-of-girlfriend, Donna (Winona Ryder), surfer burnout Ernie (Woody Harrelson), and Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.), a geeky, engineer chatterbox full of conspiracy theories.
Visually, the film adopts the technology employed in Linklater’s 2001 film, Waking Life, wherein the actors are filmed and then the film is painted over as animation. This type of filmmaking is an interesting comparison to the motion-capture animation employed in the current Monster House and in 2004’s The Polar Express. Many critics complain about the dead-looking, unexpressive characters in motion-capture animation, a criticism not without merit. The animation here, while not without its awkward moments, is generally more expressive.
The film has the look of a comic book, which is appropriate given that the source material is a short story by Philip K. Dick, whose sci-fi-meets-noir writing style mirrors the graphic novel aesthetic. Dick’s material has received decidedly mixed treatment on the screen (see the 2002 dud Impostor or 1990’s Total Recall, which might best be described as trashy fun) and A Scanner Darkly, unfortunately, is no exception.
Linklater’s script is extremely talky, with too many long scenes of the junkies meditating on life’s minutiae, which grows old fast. At times, it becomes awkwardly funny, not in a laugh-out-loud kind of way, but rather in a were-they-trying-to-be-funny-or-is-this-just-weird kind of way. The film’s pace is lazy, and potential moments of suspense are diffused by the lack of momentum. Also, given the creative freedom this type of animation allows, the visuals are sometimes lackluster. It’s curious that Linklater didn’t stylize the set design more. Coupling that with the extremely static camerawork (it’s almost entirely stationary) gives the film a very flat feel.
In this format, judging the actors is a bit tricky because the animators control some of their expressiveness. Perhaps the best of the bunch is Rory Cochrane as Freck, an outsider to this junkie posse whose brain has been completely fried by drugs. Cochrane, who was so charming as a cheerful, hippie burnout in Linklater’s breakout film, Dazed and Confused, manages to convey his character’s edginess without slipping into caricature. The same cannot be said for Woody “Pass the Hemp” Harrelson, whose poorly defined, overacted character contributes almost nothing to the story. Harrelson’s co-star in the 1994 atrocity Natural Born Killers, Downey, goes in the opposite direction, making his character fussy and overly quirky—the performance has the cumulative effect of an odd James Spader impersonation. Downey and Harrelson are both gifted actors, but here they seem to be trying too hard to make their characters interesting. Ryder isn’t bad, but her “insert-girlfriend-here” character feels formulaic and underdeveloped. Leading the pack is the King of Blankness himself, Keanu Reeves. Reeves takes repeated beatings from critics (myself included) and I think his main problem as an actor is an inherent opaqueness. His face and his whole energy reveal almost nothing of an internal life. He’s not terrible here, but his performance, combined with the writing style, keep the audience at an arm’s length from A Scanner Darkly.
Ultimately, Linklater may have been the wrong writer-director for this material. While outsiders and slackers are his specialty, taut storytelling is not and he lacks the sci-fi-geek intensity that Cameron and Spielberg have brought to similar projects (including Spielberg’s rock-solid Minority Report, also based on Dick’s writing). A Scanner Darkly is a film about junkies that has the feeling of a drug trip: chilled-out, occasionally inspired, but in the end vague and not terribly coherent.
John Tucker Must Die! Or at least suffer a little.
Right off the bat I have a disclaimer: this is a teen movie. If you give an audible groan when you see youthful pranksters on the screen, or shudder at reliving high school, this movie is not for you. It’s a mix of She’s All That and Mean Girls. And Jenny McCarthy is in it too.
Do I still have you?
Just as the title suggests, the main character is John Tucker, one good looking high school boy who has everything. Money. Popularity. A winning personality. And girls. Oh the girls. The premise of this movie is not original, nor is the way it is carried out. However, it is an entertaining movie with good laughs, which is admirable in a genre that has become a parody upon itself.
We have the school hero John Tucker, who Jesse Metcalfe plays with charm, who is secretly dating the head cheerleader Heather, the Greenpeace loving Beth, and the Harvard bound Carrie. But, once the girls find out they aren’t the only ones dating John, they begin to plot revenge with the shy newcomer Kate, played by Brittany Snow. Kate has zero experience with boys, and the other three girls make her over and wait in the wings as they coach her on how to make John to fall in love with her. The plot heads predictably to ripping John’s heart out on his birthday. But writer Jeff Lowell does throw some interesting twists in to get us to the finish.
First is Kate’s mother, played by McCarthy. Perhaps it is the juxtaposition of McCarthy’s hotness with her motherly advice that makes the scenes real; we are shown what it really would be like to live with a hot mom who dates a lot. A lot. Done setting up Kate’s motive for revenge (on the whole male gender) we can see why she teams up with the three exes. Another interesting twist is Kate’s lab partner, who also happens to be John Tucker’s brother, played by Pen Badgley. Underutilized, his character stays on the sidelines for most of the movie, but what he does add is the cute underdog that you want to get the girl.
So, does John Tucker die? Not so much. A teenager this resilient must have some super powers to live through the whipping these girls dish out though. But, he does learn his lesson. Sort of. After the climax of the movie, which involved a timely entrance of strippers and cake to dull the preachy moments, he decides honesty is the best policy.
If you are under 23 and need a laugh, or forget what the teen movies are really like due to the constant parodies, rent this movie. You’ll probably enjoy it more from the comfort of your own couch, with your own cake scene to enjoy.
Collateral. Traffic. Heat. The Insider. Ali. Michael Mann possesses a resume filled with movies like these – excellent, high-quality films with popular appeal. Knowing this, I went into Miami Vice with high expectations, notwithstanding my reservations regarding the casting of Colin Farrell. Perhaps it was because of those high expectations that the mediocrity of the film was so disappointing. Yes, the aviators are stylish; yes, the boats are sleek and fast; but the plot is unintelligible.
Miami Vice opens as Detectives James ‘Sonny’ Crockett (Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) and their team, including Tubbs’s lover Trudy (Naomie Harris) are in the midst of a sting operation in a nightclub. Before anything happens, however, Crockett receives a frantic call from undercover agent Alonzo Stevens (John Hawkes), whose wife has been kidnapped and who has therefore compromised his assignment. At least, I think that that’s what happened, but the details don’t really matter: the stage is set for Ricardo and Tubbs to begin an operation to uncover the mole in the Miami Police Department that gave Alonzo away. From there, the plot takes off in a scattered and completely illogical way. Crockett and Tubbs go undercover, meeting drug lord Josè Yero (John Ortiz), the man Yero is working for, a man named Arcángel de Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar), and Montoya’s female counterpart Isabella (Gong Li). Mixed in is a messy and unexplained romance between Isabella and Crockett, several deals gone awry, and many other incomprehensible and never fully-explained events.
The cast is for the most part very talented, and it’s a shame to see them wasted on a script that so closely resembles a block of Swiss cheese. Foxx is successful as Tubbs, bringing a great deal of emotional depth below his suave, cool exterior. Farrell – who is really the main character of the film – is better than expected, but Mann made a mistake in resting the weight of the movie on him; his Crockett is a conflicted, jaded man who is beginning to lose sight of the line between right and wrong. Neither he nor Li, who otherwise does quite well as the tough-as-nails Isabella, is quite able to render believable the romance between their characters. Rounding out the central cast, John Ortiz is thoroughly enjoyable in the few scenes that we see him as the treacherous Josè Yero. Although Foxx easily turns in the best performance, for the most part the rest of them do creditably well.
Undoubtedly, though, the best moments are when no one is speaking and Mann pulls back from the action, building momentum and tension through his excellent cinematography and music. Throughout most of the film, the audience is being assaulted by information, plot, and dialogue that don’t really cohere; it is when Mann slows down that good things start to happen. It is this slow build that has made his past movies so effective, but in Miami Vice he tried to put too much in, and the result is a movie that despite being two and a half hours long seems rushed and undeveloped. A better script would have rescued it, but as it stands all that can be said of it is that it is a sub-par effort from an excellent director.