Sunday, July 31, 2011

Howard the Duck

To paraphrase Billy Madison, Mr. Lucas, the film you have produced is without a doubt the most insanely idiotic and audience-insulting piece of drivel I have ever seen. At no point, in its nearly two hours of awful duck puns and obnoxious, stupid characters were you even close to anything that could be considered entertainment. Everyone who has seen it is dumber for having done so. I award you no stars, and may God have mercy on your soul.

I don't award stars anyway, but I'm making a point. Howard the Duck (1986), regarded by many as one of the worst movies ever, is a one-joke premise that crumbles under the combined efforts of poor writing, embarrassed acting, shoddy special effects, and an overlong running length. Although he did not write or direct it (that honor belongs to the husband-and-wife team of director William Huyck and Gloria Katz), George Lucas did put his name on the film and fronted the money for it from his company. This is one of those projects you sit there stupefied the entire time, wondering why anyone thought this was a worthwhile investment.

Howard, a duck from another planet in which everyone is a duck, is somehow beamed to Earth, specifically Cleveland, where he falls in with rocker chick Beverly (Lea Thompson) and clumsy scientist Phil (Tim Robbins). Howard struggles to fit in, but that becomes the least of his problems when the beam that zapped him also brings one of the Dark Overlords of the Universe to threaten the world.

Based on a Marvel comic I've heard pretty positive things about, Howard the Duck is a movie I wonder who the intended audience is. It's rated PG, the duck suit looks like a theme park mascot, and the jokes are based mostly on duck puns ("No more Mr. Nice Duck,") and people seeing Howard and screaming, which all suggests it's intended for kids, but the gags about condoms in Howard's wallet, him working in a bathhouse, the Playduck magazine and naked she-duck in the beginning are certainly raunchier than what you would normally find in children's entertainment.

Side note to screenwriters: most puns already aren't funny, but the worst offenders are the ones that take common expressions and replace one word. Try wit and clever banter instead of this bottom-of-the-barrel, lowest-common-denominator technique.

The premise is limited and bizarre, but it might have worked if Howard was actually an engaging figure, but he's just not interesting. Apart from being a duck, nothing about him is distinct. Reportedly, he was toned down from the comic and softened for mainstream appeal.

Worse, he's obviously a midget in a suit; even characters in the movie accuse him of being such. The movie had a huge suspension of disbelief to overcome and never comes close. The movie jumps right into a series of fish-out-of-water set pieces without any introduction, buildup, or explanation. Some characters react with fear and hostility, like when people at a diner try to cut his head off (that's pretty morbid), while others think he's a kid in a costume. This inconsistency is jarring. The movie doesn't know how to treat Howard, so the audience doesn't know how to react. In either case, the characters act like idiots, so neither approach is funny.

The whole Dark Lord of the Universe, subsequent police chases, and special effects show at the end are all filler. They just go on and on. The filmmaker seemingly packed the film with as much as they could hoping some of it would work, but nothing does. It's just bad.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The American

After spending a romantic evening in a cozy, wintry cabin in Sweden, a man (George Clooney) and woman are attacked by a sniper. The man takes a gun out of his jacket and kills the sniper. The woman, stunned her lover had a gun, is told to go call the police. As soon as her back's to him, he puts a bullet in her head. Later, when asked if she set him up, the man says she had nothing to do with it.

Five minutes into The American (2010) and we already see this is not going to be like other espionage movies such as The Bourne Identity or anything with James Bond. Instead of high-espionage action and special effects, we'll witness low-key character development.

After his cover is blown in Sweden, Jack/Edward (Clooney) is sent by his boss, the mysterious Pavel (Johan Leyson), to Italy to assist another assassin Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) by assembling a special-order rifle for her. There, he meets a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who senses he is hiding something and Clara (Violante Placido), a prostitute. As he goes about his task, Jack/Edward tries to remain detached from those around him but finds himself increasingly drawn to Clara.
We never learn whether Jack or Edward is his real name, his background, or anything else about him. He lives in the moment: burned-out, cold, detached, focused. His field is not one of intrigue and excitement. He must constantly expect betrayal from anyone, anticipate death around every corner, and never feel truly safe. The life of the assassin is lonely.

There are a few chases and shootouts, but director Anton Corbijn films them in long shots, without the frenzied quick cuts of most modern action movies. They're blunt, over quickly, and generate more shocks than thrills. Most of the film follow Jack along his routine: collecting and assembling pieces discreetly gradually, doing pushups, and watching and observing. He must mind every little action because even the slightest inconspicuous behavior can give him away.

The drama of the film centers on Jack as he slowly rediscovers compassion and emotion. His relationship with Clara begins as purely business, but as he develops genuine feelings for her, he grows suspicious about who she really is. A common cliche of hitman movies is how they assassin will do one last job before retirement, but here, that thread, instead of whitewashing an immoral character, feels more genuine than in other features.

I remained invested in The American throughout it's running length. Instead of plot and action, it concentrates on character and behavior, and both aspects were fascinating. It was a nice change of pace from the usual fair being released these days.