Max Payne


Max Payne

Mark Wahlberg finds out that this movie is for the birds.

(20th Century Fox) Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Beau Bridges, Ludacris, Olga Kurylenko, Chris O’Donnell, Donal Logue, Kate Burton, Amaury Nolasco, Marianthi Evans. Directed by John Moore

When tragedy strikes, we have a need to know who was responsible, the better to make sure they are accountable for what they did. Sometimes, however, the more important question is not who but why.

Max Payne (Wahlberg) is an NYPD detective who has the kind of life nightmares are made of. His wife Michelle (Evans) and baby were murdered by apparently drug-addled thieves who have not been caught three years later. Max works in the cold case division, where his own wife’s case rests. He is not a very companionable guy to say the least.

He is also an obsessed guy, still looking for the person responsible for the death of his family. A tip leads him to a party where he meets Natasha Sax (Kurylenko) and her sister Mona (Kunis). When Max sees Natasha’s wing-like tattoo on her wrist, he invites her back to his place for a chat. The tattoo has some significance to his wife’s murder and he intends to question her about it.

Instead she attempts to seduce him but breaks the mood with an insensitive remark about his wife. He throws her out of the apartment, leading her to walk away down a snow-covered alley to an encounter with a misshapen winged creature. The next morning, her body is discovered and Max’s wallet (which she had lifted in a snit at being tossed out on her derriere) is found at the scene. Max becomes suspect number one. His ex-partner Alex Balder (Logue) who was the lead investigator on his wife’s murder is investigating this one. The tattoo on her wrist intrigues him as well, and as he digs further he finds out a further connection to his wife’s murder. Unable to contact Max, Alex goes to his apartment to wait for him.

When Max finally does return home, it is to an apartment in shambles and the body of his friend Alex lying on the floor. Before Max can react, he is knocked out from behind. He awakens in a hospital with his dad’s ex-partner on the force (and current head of security for the pharmaceutical company Aesir which Michelle was working for when she died) BB Hensley at his side. BB assures him he will take care of him as best he can with what connections he has left on the force but that he is the prime suspect in both murders now.

As Max delves deeper and deeper into the mystery, the body count piles up and the suspects begin to die off in droves. Who are those mysterious winged creatures, and what role does Aesir play in all of this?

This is based on the 2001 videogame of the same name and while some of the plot points are similar, the movie diverges from the videogame in a lot of significant ways. Director John Moore has said repeatedly that he was trying to keep the fans of the game happy, but in the end I honestly don’t think they were.

The tone here is dark, dark, dark, black as pitch and twice as gloomy. This is cinematic depression at its finest folks, and if you’re in the mood for a good brood, this is your express train. Moore tries to capture the noir-ish look of the game and to a degree succeeds. One of the best things about the movie is the way it captures and maintains its mood. Wahlberg does a credible job in a role that doesn’t call for much more than scowling and shooting.

What eventually sinks the movie in my opinion is that the script takes too many liberties with logic and advances the plot with too many cliches. I don’t mind a cliché or two when necessary but it shouldn’t be so easy to predict what’s going to happen next. Also, the movie was sold as a supernatural thriller but quite frankly, it ain’t. Fans of the videogame will know that to be true but those of us who are less familiar with the game are going to be a trifle pissed off when the big reveal comes.

I think the videogame had enough elements in it that were worthwhile that a good movie could have been made out of it with very little tinkering. Unfortunately the tinkering that was done here was not for the better and in fact made the storyline even worse. Videogame adaptations have been, for the most part, simply awful (the Resident Evil series is a notable exception) and this one doesn’t improve the batting average. I think part of the problem is that Hollywood doesn’t really respect videogames very much and quite frankly, videogame producers have tended to sell their rights to producers and writers who might not meet the standards they’re looking for. Hopefully, before such big ticket properties as Halo and World of Warcraft hit the big screen, some of that paradigm will change. Until then we’re going to see an awful lot of movies just like this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Those who like dark-tone action movies like The Crow will probably find something in this worth liking. Wahlberg is a fine brooder.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Deviates from the videogame enough to alienate those who loved the game. The script takes far too many leaps of logic to be taken seriously.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of violence, some sexuality and plenty of foul language. Definitely a movie for mature teens or older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James McCaffrey, who voiced Max in the videogame, makes a cameo appearance as an FBI agent.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an animated graphic novel on the Blu-Ray edition called Michelle Payne that supposedly fleshes out the backstory of Max’s doomed wife but in all honesty an awful lot of this is covered in the movie as well.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Powder Blue

Fred Claus


Fred Claus

Elizabeth Banks stands out in any crowd but in THIS crowd...

(Warner Brothers) Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Kevin Spacey, Rachel Weisz, Miranda Richardson, Kathy Bates, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Bobb’e J. Thompson. Directed by David Dobkin

Although we love our brothers and sisters, our lives are one long game of “who’s better.” The term “sibling rivalry” takes on an additional dimension when one of the siblings is famous and successful.

Fred Claus (Vaughn) has a secret – he is the older brother of Nicholas Claus (Giamatti), better known as Santa. Nearly from birth his mother (Bates) made it clear which sibling was her favorite, with a barrage of “Why can’t you be more like your brother” remarks tossed Fred’s way. And to be truthful, Nicholas has a pretty long shadow to step out from. He is so filled with goodness that he becomes a living saint and as such, he and his family also become immortal (don’t ask me to explain it – just go with it and you’ll find your head aching less).

At an early age Fred learned to resent the attention his younger brother got and chose to turn away from his family. He lives in Chicago now, just skating by on charm and full of promises that he rarely keeps, driving his girlfriend Wanda (Weisz), who works as a meter maid, crazy.

When a misunderstanding with a group of Salvation Army Santas leads to a fight in a toy store, Fred has no choice but to turn to his little brother to bail him out of jail. He also needs cash to open an Off-Track Betting parlor directly across the street from the Chicago Mercantile and time is of the essence. In order to get the cash, Fred agrees to work for his brother as Christmas approaches.

Despite the misgivings of Annette (Richardson), Nicholas’ wife, Nicholas sends head elf Willie (Higgins) to fetch Fred via flying reindeer and sleigh. He arrives to find the situation in the North Pole not as hunky dory as you might expect. Longer wish lists and a population explosion of children have left the elves unable to keep up with demand very well. Nicholas copes with the stress by overeating and to make matters worse, the powers that be have sent Clyde Northcutt (Spacey) – an efficiency expert – to report on the state of things at Santa’s Workshop. If the report is bad enough, Clyde can shut the whole operation down…permanently.

Nicholas puts Fred to work in the Naughty/Nice department, making the determination which children get presents and which kids get nothing. In the meantime, he has to deal with a one-dimensional DJ (Ludacris) and an unrequited romance between Willie and Santa’s Little Helper, a tall and buxom number-cruncher named Charlene (Banks). To make matters worse, someone is actively trying to sabotage the operation and is using Fred as the fall guy. Can even a saint – or a saint’s brother – save Christmas?

This movie got scathing reviews when it was first released in 2007 and in some ways, I can see why. It advertised itself as a comedy (and with Vaughn in the cast, who could blame them?) and I think that might have been the original intentions of the filmmakers to produce one.

But this isn’t a comedy, and if you expect it to work as one, you’re going to dislike this movie intensely. What Fred Claus REALLY is, is a family holiday movie. Granted, there are some scenes that are actually funny (the Siblings Anonymous scene comes to mind off the bat) and the by-play between brothers Nicholas and Fred are pretty realistic and laugh-inducing, too.

What’s at the heart of this movie is the sibling rivalry between the two brothers, and Fred learning to grow beyond it. His life is empty without people in it and his relationship with his brother has informed all the other relationships in his life since. If Fred comes off as a bit of a huckster, well it’s more or less a defense mechanism. When he cynically informs Slam (Thompson), an orphan he has befriended, not to drink the Kool-Aid, it’s because he’s terrified of finding out the Kool-Aid actually tastes good.

There are a lot of good actors involved in this and production designer Allan Cameron has given them a gorgeous playground to work in. The North Pole sets are definite eye candy, particularly the magnificent Workshop that comes off as a cross between the Crystal Palace of London and a Rube Goldberg-designed factory.

There are some scenes that are genuinely heartwarming, and I really liked the Elf Ninjas who act as a kind of deranged Santa Secret Service. If you like either Giamatti or Vaughn, they are at the top of their games here and since I like both of them, it’s like getting an extra scoop of ice cream in your hot fudge sundae.

There comes a time in all our lives where we must assert our own identities and this movie is all about that. It took Fred centuries to learn that he was his own person and special in his own way; hopefully it won’t take most of us that long to get the same message.

WHY RENT THIS: The interplay between Vaughn and Giamatti is brotherly and fun. Some touching familial reconciliation tugs at the heartstrings. North Pole set design is off the hook.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes Vaughn gets a little bit out of control. If you’re expecting a comedy, this really isn’t one.

FAMILY VALUES: As with most Christmas movies, everything is fine for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeffrey Dean Morgan has an uncredited cameo as a parking ticket recipient who hits on Wanda.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition comes with a Ludacris music video as well as, oddly, a DVD games disc. There is also a featurette on sibling rivalry featuring several of the participants in the Siblings Anonymous scene.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues.

Gamer


No matter how mad Terry Crews gets, Gerard Butler won't share his candy.

No matter how mad Terry Crews gets, Gerard Butler just won't share his candy.

(Lionsgate) Gerard Butler, Amber Valetta, Michael C. Hall, Logan Lerman, Alison Lohman, Kyra Sedgwick, Ludacris, John Leguizamo, Zoe Bell, Terry Crews, Ramsey Moore, Aaron Yoo, Jonathan Chase, Brighid Fleming. Directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor

Almost since the advent of Pong, certain parental groups have decried the violence in videogames. Once you’ve fragged enough aliens, monsters or opposing soldiers, what’s left to do?

In the near future, gaming has evolved to the next level. Instead of controlling pixels on a television or computer screen, technology developed by techno-genius Ken Castle (Hall) enables gamers to control actual human beings. At first, it’s fairly benign in the social networking game “Society,” in which paid actors act out the fantasy of their controllers, thanks to a nanochip embedded in the brains of the actors that allow the gamers to broadcast instructions directly into the brains of the actors, who then perform any action the gamers wish like a marionette on a string. Apparently what most gamers wish in this dystopian future is softcore porn and raves.

The next step in this process is Slayers, a game featuring death row convicts who battle it out in a gritty urban arena with automatic weapons and grenades. Should the convict survive 30 battles, they are given their release, inspiring a wealth of potential slayers.

The best slayer is Kable (Butler), who has come as close as anyone to achieving freedom. However, he knows a little bit too much about the nanotech developed by Castle, so the multi-billionaire has set Kable up to fall, using a very angry avatar named Hackman (Crews) who has no player, which allows Hackman to act independently without any lag time, a huge advantage over the other slayers who have a several second lag between gamer command and slayer action. Fortunately, Kable’s gamer Simon (Lerman) is very, very good at what he does.

Not everyone thinks this is a perfect world. A group of techno-terrorists who call themselves Humanz are led by Brother (Ludacris), who hack into the game feed, much to the annoyance of Castle and cause all sorts of havoc. A popular interviewer/journalist named Gina Parker Smith (Sedgwick) is also suspicious of what Castle is doing and wants to know more about the Humanz.

Kable doesn’t care about any of this. He’s more concerned about getting back to his wife Angie (Valletta) and daughter (Fleming). Angie is working as one of the actresses in the Society milieu, controlled by an astoundingly obese gamer named Gorge (Moore). Kable soon begins to understand that there is no winning the game, only escaping – and once he escapes, can he save his family from the slavery that Castle intends to unleash upon the world?

Neveldine and Taylor are best known for their movie Crank which was like a videogame on steroids, and was one of the most entertaining action movies of the past few years. They do have the action thing in the bag, as the Slayer action sequences are plenty cool. What happens in between is a little bit less copacetic. I can see where they’re going with this – a commentary on the desensitizing of society and the gaming culture in general. Still, it’s hard to believe that anyone would ever allow another human being complete control of their body, no matter how desperate they were.

Butler is becoming one of my favorite actors working, but this won’t be remembered as a role he nailed. Kable has pretty much no personality whatsoever and while you’re ostensibly rooting for him, the fact of the matter is that you don’t really have much reason to care for him. Hall is actually kind of entertaining as the nerdy but arrogant tech whiz who performs a lip-synch dance to the Sammy Davis Jr. chestnut “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” with his lackeys (every good villain’s gotta have lackeys) doing a dance number along with him. That’s one of the better moments in the movie and shows the kind of flair, humor and imagination that the Neveldine/Taylor duo has at their best.

Unfortunately, this isn’t their best. A good videogame has a storyline that you want to follow through to its conclusion; at the very least, you can’t wait to experience what comes next. In this case, what comes next is predictable to the point where you’re checking your watch to see if its time to go yet. It isn’t the worst movie that will be released this year, but there aren’t many compelling reasons to go out of your way to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent action sequences, and that’s about it.

REASONS TO STAY: Butler sleepwalks through his poorly written part. Neveldine/Taylor make movies for adrenaline junkies and this won’t sate even the most hardcore of fans.

FAMILY VALUES: Violence, a whole bunch of it and nudity, as well as sexual situations plus lots of bad language; not for the kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rather than using graphics that say “The End” at the conclusion of a film, directors Neveldine and Taylor use “GAME OVER INSERT COIN,” bringing to mind videogames from the ‘80s.

HOME OR THEATER: Skip it altogether, but if you must see it, you can wait for the home video release.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Hunting Party