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Dave on firm: one stinker, one pleasure

Dave Taylor //April 2, 2010//

Dave on firm: one stinker, one pleasure

Dave Taylor //April 2, 2010//

Two films this week, one that stunk, and one that was a delight and well worth seeing: Repo Men and How to Train your Dragon. Interestingly, their box office results have reflected this view and it’s Dragon that had a solid opening weekend, one of the best ever for a spring animated film opening.

Review: Repo Men

Let me just start my review by saying that Repo Men was awful. Graphic, bloody, and with a staggering body count, this is all that’s wrong with Hollywood action films, a glossy sheen on a completely vapid, empty story that works against itself in scene after scene. Then, the worst of all is the surprise ending, a twist that’s always frustrated me. I won’t reveal it, but if you do suffer through this dreck, you’ll know exactly why it’s a formulaic ending that ruins all but a precious few films that utilize it.

Repo Men explores a dystopic future where cities look curiously like the brilliantly realized urban landscape of Blade Runner and artificial organs, “artiforgs”, have been perfected and replacement eyes, ears, voice boxes, kidneys, livers, hearts, lungs, kneecaps, etc., are not only manufactured by a variety of companies worldwide, but there’s also a thriving black market in replacement parts (a la Minority Report). Problem is, these artificial body parts are extraordinarily expensive, so just about everyone opts for a payment plan. Miss a few payments, though, and the repo men show up to reclaim their wares.

Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forest Whitaker) are repo men working for The Union, one of the companies that sells replacement organs to hapless citizens. “You owe it to your family, you owe it to yourself” is the company slogan and its bland showroom reminded me of the retail pet cloning business in The 6th Day.

Remy and Jake are top repo men for the company, fast, efficient, and they clearly enjoy their work, which generally involves tasering overdue artiforg holders then brutally slicing them open and ripping out the artificial organ while in the back seat of a car, in their kitchen, bedroom and even in front of their children or lovers. Remy explains “almost every job I do ends the same way, with them doing the horizontal mambo.”

The two men have been friends since they were in grade school and still interact as if they’re school boys, roughhousing and harassing each other with a familiarity that has homoerotic overtones. Remy’s wife Carol (Carice van Houten) is sick of his unpredictable hours and job as a repo man, and gives him an ultimatum: either he changes jobs or she, and their son Peter (Chandler Canterbury), are going to leave.

Jake, however, thinks that being a repo man is the perfect job for Remy and thus sets up the triangle that creates the core tension of the film: should Remy stick with his job and his buddy Jake, or should he change jobs and create familial harmony, even at the cost of his friendship with Jake?

Remy decides he’s going to switch into sales, and on his last repo job the equipment fails and his heart is blasted out. He wakes up in hospital and is horrified to find out that he’s fitted with a new top-of-the-line Jarvik-39 artificial heart, made and owned by The Union. He’s now in debt, the hunter to become the hunted, but in a daft story element, getting an artificial heart causes him to see the proverbial error of his ways and he finds his “heart” and becomes jaded and cynical, unable to sell replacement organs and unable to accomplish the occasional repo job to raise money.

As is common with action films, relationships are ridiculously shallow, and Carol is not at Remy’s bedside when he wakes up and later refuses to let him even see Peter when he shows up on the doorstep. That’s okay, though, because he quickly forgets her and connects with Montego Bay lounge singer Beth (Alice Braga) who has all sorts of artificial organs and is way overdue on her payments. Remy can’t pay for his heart either, so it’s not long before the repo men are after the fleeing couple.

Remy decides to fight rather than run, quickly realizing that the only way he can truly free them from the threat of reposession is to destroy the central organ computer (backups appear to have been not invented in this cinematic universe).

Here’s where the film slams into a wall: in the interest of helping people with overdue organs, he wantonly slaughters any and everyone in his way, including scene after scene of graphic and unnecessary murders. If it’s your humanity that’s propelling you to try and help people, wouldn’t you be reticent to kill others, even if they stand in the way of your goal? Then again, given how this mess of a story ends, perhaps it’s all irrelevant anyway and there is no reason to require an internal logic to the storyline.

I will say that the film is very well assembled. The environment is an interesting mix of futuristic and dystopic settings, with the mostly CG exteriors quite cool. There were some aspects that were also intriguing: the film opens with the news that the government is about to declare bankruptcy, and there are omnipresent TV screens running news non-stop, including a snippet about the wryly named Operation Hope Springs Eternalabout a pending war in Nigeria.

Still, a pretty film with good special effects, nicely choreographed fight scenes and shiny props can’t mask a wreck of a story that has no internal logic and is disgusting, scene after scene, with no ultimate climax that explains what’s happened and leaves the viewer fulfilled. When Ninja Assassin (see my earlier review) is better, well, maybe it’s time to hire better scriptwriters for director Miguel Sapochnik’s next film.

For now, I encourage you to skip Repo Men entirely. It’s just not worth the popcorn.

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 Review: How to Train your Dragon

How to Train your Dragon, the latest film from Dreamworks Animation, tells the story of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a young Viking and the only son of village chief, blacksmith and single dad Stoick The Vast (Gerard Butler).

Hiccup is a disappointment to his father because he’s a klutz and not interested in slaying the dragons that constantly attack their village and steal their livestock.

Hiccup is also attracted to Astrid (America Ferrera) but, a tough Viking girl, she’s only interested in boys who want to kill dragons. The story begins in earnest when Hiccup is thrown into dragon training class with Astrid and other town children, while he is secretly befriending an injured Night Fury dragon he names “Toothless”.

As is common in children’s movies, there’s a group of misfit kids who tease each other but band together when the going gets tough. Curiously, though, we almost never see the children interacting with their parents and are instead left to their own devices. Even when they have meals, the children are together in the Great Hall, not with their parents. Coupled with Hiccup’s missing (and barely mentioned) mother, it reminded me of how rarely children in these movies live with their birth mother and father.

The animation style was delightfully whimsical and many of the dragons were almost elementary-school-style drawings with teeth impossibly big and curved. Still, when they spit fire and attack the village, it’s frightening and certainly might be a bit intense for the youngest of filmgoers. If you have a young child, you might want to screen the film in advance to make sure they can handle the imagery.

The animation team also deserves special kudos for the character names. You don’t necessarily catch the wry silliness of the names when you watch the film, but just about every character in How to Train your Dragon has an amusing name. Here are some of the best: Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Phlegma the Fierce (Ashley Jensen), the twins Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Spitelout (David Tennant).

Unlike films that retrofit the 3D technology onto an already completely film (Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans), a film like How to Train your Dragon is rendered in 3D from the first frame, and it shows. There’s more depth to the visuals and they’re rendered as three-dimensional objects rather than multiple 2D layers. The exterior shots and the scenes where Hiccup and Toothless are flying high above the village, swooping through precarious terrain, are terrific.

However, there was a problem with the 3D that I noticed too: in many scenes there was a visible motion blur. In one scene the camera pans down the mountainside to show you the boats preparing to depart from the dock, and it’s not until it “stops” panning that the objects in the scene gain clarity. Once I noticed that effect, I saw it occur again and again as the scenery raced by in 3D. Perhaps it’s a limitation of how our brains can process the forced dimensionality, but it marred an otherwise fine example of 3D technology.

I was also startled at how much Toothless looked like Stitch from the 2002 Disney animated feature Lilo and Stitch. One’s a dragon and the other is analien refugee, but the scenes where Toothless tries to smile or eats fish make him look a lot like Stitch. A curiosity, but as you can see in the image above, there’s another “inspiration” that seems to have impacted the Dreamworks Animation team: Avatar. The exterior mountaintops, constantly wreathed in clouds, are often remarkably similar to the planet Pandora in the James Cameron blockbuster.

Oh, and one more parallel: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. What most stands out in my mind about ET was how it simplistically made all adults bad and untrustworthy and all kids good and able to really band together and save the day. In a similar way, How to Train your Dragon has a strong subtext of adults ignoring children and being stupid and violent while children are good and generally want to work together to achieve harmony.

I enjoyed How to Train your Dragon. The visuals were impressive, the story was predictable but lively and interesting, and the voice characterizations were amusing. It’s not a great children’s movie but would be a pleasant 98 minute diversion, particularly with its generally splendid 3D imagery.

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