Category Archives: 2002

Signs (2002, M. Night Shyamalan)

It’s impossible to overstate what a profoundly, risibly bad movie Shyamalan has made with Signs. As the end credits started rolling, after the most disappointing “epilogue” Shyamalan could’ve come up with—it’s not just disappointing, it’s also pointless (pointless is the probably the best adjective to describe scenes in Signs)—my wife joked the movie took two weeks to film. To which I responded, “Thirteen and a half days longer than it took to write.” Because even with all the bad in Signs—and there’s so much bad—the writing is the worst.

And Shyamalan does this non-committal “camera as POV” thing—cinematographer Tak Fujimoto should be ashamed of himself for enabling Shyamalan to do it and embarrassed with how poorly he shoots the thing; Signs looks terrible–so, in other words, there’s a lot of competition for what’s worst in Signs. Shyamalan’s direction of the talking heads scenes—and there so many talking heads scenes because Shyamalan, who’s ego is literally oozing from every grain of film–involves characters almost looking directly into the camera but then just a little diagonally. Shyamalan is going for something with Signs, with his very intentional direction, his very intentional casting of himself as the guy who kills star Mel Gibson’s wife in a traffic accident (Shyamalan was asleep at the wheel) and vehicular manslaughter isn’t a thing and it just turns reverend Gibson into an atheist (but they never say the a-word because while Signs is definitely a millimeter thinly veiled Christian movie, there’s still the veil and it’s never going to get confrontational about it). Also… Shyamalan wrote the movie, so he did kill the wife.

Symbolism. Pass it on. Like the dog tchotchkes at the end to remind the viewer there are dogs, even if everyone forgot about them because they don’t matter because Signs is insipid.

Signs is full of symbolism but not really full because there’s not much because Shyamalan gets frequently bored with things like mise en scène because there’s better things to do like write the awful scenes between Gibson and his family. I went into Signs at least thinking Gibson would get through it unscathed (performance-wise). No. No. Not at all. It’s a godawful performance. He is incapable of pretending to be a former reverend, a widow, a husband, a father, a brother, and a farmer. The scenes with Gibson and kids Rory Culkin (who’s kind of terrible; it’s not his fault, Shyamalan seems to be having him do a Macaulay impression circa Uncle Buck but he’s still bad) and Abigail Breslin, who gets terrible material and terrible direction, but is still phenomenal. Shyamalan can’t figure out how to direct her because she’s not terrible like the rest of his cast.

Though, not Joaquin Phoenix. He’s leagues better than Gibson, though it helps Phoenix’s character is a dope. Gibson’s ostensibly functional enough to get to this point in his life—whereas Phoenix apparently always had Gibson to lean on—yet Gibson is real dumb. Real dumb.

Other bad things about Signs? Cherry Jones. She’s awful. Ted Sutton is so bad SAG should’ve shut the production down. Bad editing from Barbara Tulliver; Tulliver’s editing, cut for cut, is probably even worse than Fujimoto’s photography. Tulliver—presumably unintentionally—screws up all of Shyamalan’s jump scares. Larry Fulton’s production design is bad.

James Newton Howard’s score, while inexplicably a complete Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock rip-off (oh, wait, was Signs in the middle of Shyamalan being the new Hitchcock era), and poorly utilized, isn’t poorly composed. It’s competent, just misapplied. Everything else is incompetent and misapplied.

I was looking through Rodale for a good, fresh adjective to describe Signs but I think vapid does the job best. It’s worse than I expected it to be, which is saying a lot, but it also surprised me. I had no idea Gibson would so spectacularly fail or Phoenix would be—with a lot of conditions—so much better. And I guess Shyamalan managed to be inventively terrible, it’s just he’s a pointless kind of inventively terrible.

Oh, you know what… there’s the word.

Puerile.

Signs is puerile.

CREDITS

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; director of photography, Tak Fujimoto; edited by Barbara Tulliver; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Larry Fulton; costume designer, Ann Roth; produced by Frank Marshall, Sam Mercer, and Shyamalan; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Mel Gibson (Graham Hess), Joaquin Phoenix (Merrill Hess), Rory Culkin (Morgan Hess), Abigail Breslin (Bo Hess), Patricia Kalember (Colleen Hess), Cherry Jones (Officer Paski), Ted Sutton (SFC Cunningham), Merritt Wever (Tracey Abernathy), and M. Night Shyamalan (Ray Reddy).


Catch Me If You Can (2002, Steven Spielberg)

Catch Me If You Can is a spectacular showcase for Leonardo DiCaprio. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t exactly rise up to meet him, not the filmmaking, not the writing, not his costars. With the exception of co-lead Tom Hanks, who’s a whole other thing, the direction, the writing, the supporting cast, they’re all tied together in a less than impressive knot.

Let’s get the filmmaking out of the way first.

Spielberg’s direction is adequate, at least as far as the composition goes. It’s never too good, it’s never too bad. The film opens with these extremely cute animated opening titles, but they go on way too long and the accompanying John Williams music is some of the film’s least impressive as far as the score goes. And the score’s usually middling so to open on a low point… Not a great start. Then the movie goes into the framing device (getting ahead of myself on the script problems) as FBI agent Hanks is trying to get DiCaprio out of a French prison. There’s something very affected about the style, with Spielberg mimicking late fifties and early sixties style without bringing anything new to it. He and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski don’t show the mid-sixties through rose colored glasses as much as they artificially twinkle the past. Everything shimmers with unreality, which kind of hurts the true story angle as Catch Me rarely shows how DiCaprio is pulling off his cons. Plus the age discrepancies. DiCaprio’s twenty-eight playing seventeen playing twenty-eight. It mostly works, thanks to DiCaprio’s performance but against some of what Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson throw at him; there are significant hiccups.

Like Christopher Walken as DiCaprio’s WWII vet dad. Walken’s sixty; he looks pretty good for sixty. But he was supposed to be some kind of forty-year old grunt in WWII? Again, Catch Me’s fast and loose with its hold on reality but given it’s all about the amazing things DiCaprio’s character was actually able to do… not having to constantly suspend and re-suspend disbelief would be nice. Walken’s actually good, even if he’s a stunt cast and his part is so thin he’s just doing a generic Christopher Walken performance. Nathanson doesn’t do character development or texture. Even when the story needs it. Spielberg doesn’t help with it either; it’s DiCaprio’s movie but Spielberg’s more concerned with Hanks’s FBI agent.

Let me just use that to segue into Hanks. Hanks is not good. He does a questionable and pointless accent, presumably to make the character seem less flat, and there’s nothing else to it. First act, it seems like Hanks might go someplace—and the film does try to force him into a paternal relationship with DiCaprio, which doesn’t work—but it’s a nothing part. It’s not even engaging enough to be a caricature. Nathanson’s a shockingly thin writer.

Okay, maybe not shockingly. It’s not like the script’s ever got any more potential than it delivers. But Spielberg really does just go along with it. The female roles are exceptionally thin; they’re all dumb and easy, whether it’s bank teller Elizabeth Banks, flight attendant Ellen Pompeo, working girl Jennifer Garner, or nurse Amy Adams. Worse is when DiCaprio ends up staying longterm with Adams, it’s never clear why; especially since the movie makes fun of her so much. Though, I suppose, even worse is when Adams brings her parents into the film. Martin Sheen—in a stunningly bad bit of stunt-casting—is bad. Nancy Lenehan is mom, with zip to do, which is actually much better for her than, say, Nathalie Baye as DiCaprio’s mom. Baye gets the film’s worst part by far.

Through it all, DiCaprio manages to keep his head up and keep Catch Me working. He contends with some questionable makeup decisions, never getting to followthrough on set pieces, and the astoundingly bad pop culture reference. There’s a truly incompetent James Bond Goldfinger sequence, which ought to be a gimme but instead Spielberg completely fumbles it.

Spielberg never takes Catch Me If You Can seriously enough, from the casting to the writing to Kaminski’s silly photography. DiCaprio takes it seriously, to good effect. Hanks takes it seriously, to… if not bad effect, at least wanting. It’s a glossy, trite trifle. Could’ve been a lot more.

Though not with the same script, supporting cast, principal crew members, or director.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, based on the book by Frank Abagnale Jr. and Stan Redding; director of photography, Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; costume designer, Mary Zophres; produced by Spielberg and Walter F. Parkes; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Frank Abagnale Jr.), Tom Hanks (Carl Hanratty), Christopher Walken (Frank Abagnale), Nathalie Baye (Paula Abagnale), James Brolin (Jack Barnes), Amy Adams (Brenda Strong), Martin Sheen (Roger Strong), Nancy Lenehan (Carol Strong), Brian Howe (Earl Amdursky), Frank John Hughes (Tom Fox), Ellen Pompeo (Marci), Elizabeth Banks (Lucy), and Jennifer Garner (Cheryl Ann).


Ghost Ship (2002, Steve Beck)

I am going to set a goal for myself with this post about Ghost Ship; I’m going to try to make it entertaining, which is going to be a challenge because there’s nothing entertaining about Ghost Ship. It’s badly directed and badly written. The actors are bad. They’re good actors and okay actors and mediocre actors but none of them are good, okay, or mediocre in the movie. They’re all varying degrees of bad. Some are embarrassed (Gabriel Byrne), some should be embarrassed and aren’t (Desmond Harrington), some aren’t embarrassed but also aren’t any better for it (Ron Eldard and Karl Urban), some are completely flat (Julianna Margulies), and some literally have to embarrass themselves as part of the movie, in character (Isaiah Washington and Alex Dimitriades, though Dimitriades is bad and Washington is… not always bad).

Now, at the time Ghost Ship came out before many of the cast had their greatest career successes. 2002… Byrne had peaked and maybe Eldard had too, but everyone else (not Dimitriades) had some high profile TV and film work in their near futures. Margulies had “Good Wife,” Urban had Star Trek, Washington had “Grey’s Anatomy,” Harrington had… getting another job after being so godawful in this movie. And “Dexter” and whatever. You know Ghost Ship is going to be bad in some strange way because no one’s ever talking about it, despite it having eventually successful stars. No one talks about it because it’s unspectacularly crappy. The opening’s almost good, but then quickly goes to pot because after implying the movie’s going to have a sense of humor it turns out it won’t. But real quick. Like, before we get to the present day from the Italian ocean liner in the opening sequence.

Present day is the above-mentioned cast members. Besides some ghosts, they’re it for the cast. Ghost Ship tries to be economical but it’s bad at it. Because it’s not just bad dialogue in the film, it’s the structure of the conversations. The writers don’t have an ear for dialogue in general, much less what the actors bring to it. Though the latter is more director Beck’s fault, but it’s hard to blame him because he’s so obviously incompetent it’s not his fault. No one should’ve let him drive this… car; it was irresponsible of producers Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver, and Gilbert Adler and the studio to allow this movie to happen with Beck. Whatever happened, they had it coming.

Because nothing in Ghost Ship works even though nothing’s exceptionally incompetent. Not even the CGI is incompetent. It’s not good, but it’d be a lot better if the shot composition didn’t suck. There’s no aspect of direction Beck’s good at or passing at or not offensive at; he does a real bad job. The whole movie I was waiting for one decent close-up shot of a character, any character, anyone—Beck can’t do it. He just can’t figure it out; he’s not responsible for his actions. His numerous failings as a director are often unrelated to the movie’s problems at any given time. Beck’s incompetencies don’t interact with the script’s incompetencies. There are these two tracks of bad without crossover. Ghost Ship’s greatest success is in showing how various types of badness—writing, directing, casting—don’t necessarily need to interact with one another outside coexisting.

Some of Ghost Ship is see-it-to-believe-it mundane bad. The soundtrack is quite bad, though John Frizzell’s score is one of the least unsuccessful things in the film. The songs they play are bad and poorly cut into the film. Crew-wise Gale Tattersall is a perfectly competent cinematographer, but Roger Barton’s editing is pretty janky stuff. Ghost Ship ought to move better, visually. Beck’s the big problem, Barton’s one of the smaller ones.

The end seems like it was meant to be a little more pompous in its grandiosity—grandiosity with not good CGI—but no matter how the effect would play, it’d still be on the end of Beck’s visually disinteresting movie. Would Beck being good at integrating visual effects improve the movie? No. Nothing would.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Steve Beck; screenplay by Mark Hanlon and John Pogue, based on a story by Hanlon; director of photography, Gale Tattersall; edited by Roger Barton; music by John Frizzell; production designer, Graham ‘Grace’ Walker; produced by Gilbert Adler, Joel Silver, and Robert Zemeckis; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Gabriel Byrne (Murphy), Julianna Margulies (Epps), Ron Eldard (Dodge), Desmond Harrington (Ferriman), Isaiah Washington (Greer), Alex Dimitriades (Santos), Karl Urban (Munder), and Emily Browning (Katie Harwood).


Blade II (2002, Guillermo del Toro)

There’s a legitimately great sword fight scene in Blade II, after some really solid ones—the film’s CG assists never help it but director del Toro does understand how a fight sequence is like a dance sequence (particularly in the great sword fight) and star Wesley Snipes is always ready to show off his fight choreography abilities. The sword fight is so good you spend almost the entire rest of the film waiting for del Toro to execute something superior. Why open with such a stunning sequence if you don’t have something even better later on.

But with Blade II, there is no better later on, not for swords, fists, or anything else. None of the fight scenes following the sword fight get anywhere near the ones in the first act, which were Matrix-ripoffs but still well-executed Matrix-ripoffs. There’s a “this would be confusing if it mattered” sequence where Snipes and his newfound team of vampire super-vampire hunters each fight the super-vampires and the focus moves from character to character. The super-vampires all look like Nosferatu as homaged in Salem’s Lot, only their faces open up like a Predator and they shoot out tentacles and an inner mouthes of Aliens. It’s not a bad design but it’s nowhere near as terrifying as it would be if the CG weren’t middling. A lot of Blade II fails thanks to its bad CG, particularly in the third act, which isn’t good. It’s like del Toro knows the right shot, the technology just isn’t there to execute it.

Of course, Blade II having piddly CG is the least of its problems. It’s got a lousy script (courtesy David S. Goyer) and some really, really bad acting. And costumes. The costumes are terrible. At some point the vampire super-vampire hunters put on this glossy black body armor and look like the stormtroopers from Masters of the Universe: The Movie. It’s also not clear how the body armor helps them? Or would help them against the super-vampires or Snipes—see, Snipes has to take over this team of elite vampire commandos who trained to take him out but now have to deal with the more dangerous super-vampires. About the only way to make the shiny body armor sense would be if Snipes had them wear it to embarrass them.

But the shiny body armor is nothing compare to main villain Luke Goss’s ratty clothes. He’s got this intricately choreographed fight scenes but thanks to the costume he looks lumbering and artificially sped up. Blade II has a bunch of slowdown and speedup editing techniques. They’re all terrible. Not sure if they’re editor Peter Amundson’s fault or del Toro’s.

The film is a particularly frustrating tug of war between attentions—it’s a Snipes star vehicle, only Goyer’s script gives way too much to the supporting cast (almost to snipe Snipes), and then del Toro’s just trying to show off what he can do. At least del Toro doesn’t actively work against Snipes, who easily gives the film’s best performance but only because he’s not terrible like almost everyone else. Goss ends up giving the second best performance by default; he’s at least trying. If the rest of the cast is trying and Blade II is the best they give… shivers.

The worst performance is probably Norman Reedus as Snipes’s new sidekick. The film opens with Snipes rescuing his old sidekick, Kris Kristofferson, who’s also bad, but not as bad as Reedus. Kristofferson’s still really bad, but at least he’s committed to the performance. He was nowhere near as physical in the first movie as in this one, crawling all around as Snipes and Reedus worry the vampires secretly turned him before Snipes could rescue him. Is Leonor Varela worse than Kristofferson? Maybe. She’s really bad. But she and Kristofferson are better than Thomas Kretschmann, as the head vampire (and Varela’s father; the film never explains if its vampire father or father father). The more Kretschmann gets to do, the worse Kretschmann’s performance. Blade II doesn’t even get a good performance out of Ron Perlman, partially because—even though Goyer’s script doesn’t want to give Snipes too much to do, it also features him frequently pwning his uneasy vampire allies at every turn.

The rest of the supporting cast is low middling, with Danny John-Jules’s being the most acceptable. Matt Schulze is nowhere near as bad as I was expecting; possibly because Perlman not being good draws attention away from him.

Gabriel Beristain’s photography runs mostly cold. Despite that awesome sword fight scene, which is shot entirely in blue light except for the spotlights—it’s so gorgeous it’s hard to say the film’s not worth seeing just for it; maybe the sequence is on YouTube—but other than that scene, Beristain and del Toro shoot the nighttime exteriors through a sort of piss yellow filter. There’s some okay lighting throughout, but mostly piss yellow. Not sure if it’s a budgetary choice or a stylistic one but the result is… pissy. The action choreography deserves better.

The second best thing—after the good or better fight scenes—is Marco Beltrami’s score. Sure, it’s derivative of other famous film scores, but it comes together fairly well. Except when the action is cutting between all the “good guys” fighting the Max Schrecks… there’s no flow between the action focuses in the score. Benefit of the doubt is Beltrami scored each character’s sequence separately and then Amundson screwed it up in the cutting but it’s just as probable Beltrami couldn’t figure out how to go between sequences. Like, it’s a surprisingly good score for Beltrami. The heavier lifting might’ve escaped him. Fixing a poorly conceived action sequence is a lot for a score to do.

Anyway. Blade II. It’s a disappointment. It’s a testament to Del Tori the film’s a disappointment, given the crappy script and the bad acting and the goofy visual effects. As for poor Snipes, who has to fight for relevancy in his own vehicle… he gets a pass. He’s able to sell the potential for the franchise, even if the film doesn’t.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Guillermo del Toro; screenplay by David S. Goyer, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan; director of photography, Gabriel Beristain; edited by Peter Amundson; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, Carol Spier; produced by Tomas Krejci, Patrick J. Palmer, Peter Frankfurt, and Wesley Snipes; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Wesley Snipes (Blade), Kris Kristofferson (Whistler), Leonor Varela (Nyssa), Luke Goss (Nomak), Norman Reedus (Scud), Thomas Kretschmann (Damaskinos), Danny John-Jules (Asad), Matt Schulze (Chupa), Donnie Yen (Snowman), Karel Roden (Kounen), and Ron Perlman (Reinhardt).