Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Awwww HELLS No! I AM LEGEND - Reviewed - plus DARK KNIGHT and HOBBIT thoughts

Ahhhh this week has been nuts. I've been itching to write here but just haven't had time. But anyways, here I am, so let's get right to it:

- Firstly, I have to lend my voice of approval to the fact that Peter Jackson is back where he belongs, signed up to executive-produce more films in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings universe. Now, of course the immediate question mark is: who will direct THE HOBBIT and its sequel, culled from the secondary Middle Earth writings of Tolkien? Of course, everyone has their own opinion, and there are the usual suspects tossed around, from Terry Gilliam to Guillermo del Toro to Sam Raimi. All of those could be good if not great, but man, I just want to see more Peter Jackson-directed material. My hope is that Jackson finds someone who can kind of fill the role of apprentice while he serves as the mentor, so that the films will still have PJ's distictive stamp. But the three LOTR films were maybe the greatest event films of the last 10 years, and it's just great to know that we can hopefully look forward to more of that magic. As a sidenote, I'm assuming that Ian McKellan is on board, and Viggo Mortenson and Liv Tyler for that second movie where I imagine they might be featured ... so I guess the big question is ... who should play Bilbo in The Hobbit?!? Ian Holm was so great in LOTR ... if only they could just digitally de-age him ... hmmm.

- Oh, man, I almost forgot to write about this ... but, brace yourself for a quick rant. So on Sunday I checked out I Am Legend in IMAX, in large part motivated by the chance to see the first six minutes of THE DARK KNIGHT that would precede it. HOLY LORD, those six minutes or so were pure bliss. I was completely geeking out the entire time, and beyond that I think I had chills from the sheer awesomness and undeniable GRAVITAS of what I was seeing. It's the same feeling I had way back when, when I saw the first extended trailer for Batman Begins at Wizard World LA. Just the atmosphere, the tone, felt so spot-on. And man, there could be no denying that WILLIAM FICHTNER, in a cameo role as a vigilante bank-owner, completely ruled it here. I mean after seeing this clip I almost forgot about Batman and was about ready to watch a whole movie of a shotgun-toting Fichtner versus the Joker. But seeing how the clip played out, seeing how potentially kickass Heath Ledger will be as The Joker, seeing how this one looks to take everything that worked about BB and improve on an laready-great formula ... well, I don't know if there's any movie I'm more anticipating, or any movie I have anticipated more in recent memory. Batman vs. The Joker, done right ... it doesn't get any better than that.

So, speaking of I AM LEGEND ...


- I Am Legend is yet another big-drawing action flick that, with its intriguing premise and epic scale, COULD have been a truly great movie. Enter Will Smith, who rarely fails to entertain but usually feels compelled to inject his trademark goofiness and cartoonish sensibilities into otherwise serious movies. Last year at this time, I was seriously impressed with Smith's ability to restrain his comedic insticts and immerse himself in a character in The Pursuit of Happyness. But I Am Legend, partly thanks to Will Smith and partly due to writer Akiva Goldsman (the scribe who brought us such action-adventure masterpieces as Batman and Robin), is a return to to movies like I, Robot, where we get, essentially, Will Smith as Will Smith, and its to the detriment of the movie. And that's really a shame.

Make no mistake, I Am Legend is a pretty entertaining bit of popcorn filmmaking. And it's funny, because that whole Will Smith as Will Smith thing I just alluded to is kind of what makes it a popcorn movie for a wide audience. Without his excitable presence, I Am Legend is a pretty dark, scary movie about post-apocalyptic horrors - a pretty straightforward adaptation of the book by the same name, the tale of a killer virus that wipes out most of earth's population and turns nearly everyone else into crazy zombie monsters with a thirst for human flesh. So, for the handful of people left and left intact, let's just say it's a pretty hard knock life. This goes for Will Smith's character in particular - he just so happens to be an army scientist who had been working on a cure for the virus as it first began to spread, and who continues to spend his days in a totally deserted NYC still searching for that elusive cure.

For the first half of the movie, it's shades of Castaway as we see Will deal with all of the madness and weirdness tht comes with being one of the Last Men on Earth. There are only hints of the dangers that come out at night. Then, things take a more desperate turn, and we begin to get a bit more up close and personal with the monsters that lurk in the sewers and come out at night looking to feed. All of this would be well and good -- and a lot of it is satisfyingly intense and well-shot by director Francis Lawrence, with sompe particularly well-done shots of a bleak and empty NYC that is slowly beginning to become wild and untamed, with deer running through the streets and brush growing in the developments. The problem is that the guy we are focused on through all this is Will Smith-as-superhero. He's a scientist, but of course he's a crack shot with a rifle, freakishly ripped, and a guy who still mostly speaks in Will Smith-isms. There's no shout of "aww HELLS no!", luckily, but rarely do we look at this guy and believe him as a credible genius who was mankind's last, best hope for a cure to the worst viral outbreak the planet has ever seen. And hey, I'm all in favor of over-the-top, comic-bookish characters when the situation is right. But the problem with I Am Legend is ... Goldsman and Lawrence are clearly not going for an over-the-top grindhouse-style horror movie here, so the film jsut falls in this odd in-between place where it's kind of wanting to be taken seriously, yet is too cartoonish for us to really buy into it.

Meanwhile, the film coasts on Will Smith's charm and the whole novelty of its premise, often at the expense of much in the way of plot. We get plenty of flashbacks to Will Smith's last days with his wife and daughter before he stayed behind in New York while they were whisked away as people fled the island upon the mass viral outbreak. But in this post-Lost age, I expect a bit more from my character-revealing flashbacks. Here, these scenes never really reveal all that much about the virus or about how we got from Point A of mass panic and evacuation to Point B of post-apocalypse. Especially in light of the fact that I've been reading Stephen King's THE STAND, which masterfully details just such a scenario, it was tough seeing a film that so breezily skipped over much of this kind of detail.

On the plus side, I was pleasantly surprised that despite some cartoonishness and Will Smith-isms, the movie had a bit more restraint than I, Robot, and managed to stay pretty dark and intense. The mutant monsters here were genuinely creepy, and there are a number of unsettling twists and turns that don't shy away from how bleak a picture of the future is being portrayed. While in the theater, I was sitting next to a kid who was probably about twelve or thirteen, and he was genuinely pretty disturbed by the movie and scared of some of the scenes, so I give the movie credit for keeping things interesting and unpredictable to some degree. And I also don't want to totally rail on Will Smith or anything -- let's face it, he does have a ton of charisma, and even when I was cringing at his attempts to inject goofy humor and cuteness into the script, he is certainly always a fun guy to watch. Not to mention that he really does have some nice moments scattered throughout the film, a few scenes where he does stretch himself and have some real sadness, intensity, and anger.

What we're left with is a perfectly watchable movie. It's a Will Smith blockbuster to be sure, but compared to some other films that fall into that category it's pretty dark and restrained. Still, this is a far from perfect script, with some lame cutesy moments and a plotline that feels jumpy and incomplete, especially with a series of flashbacks that prove kind of pointless and unfulfilling. In the end though the story comes together pretty decently, with an ending that is certainly not exactly typical for a Will Smith blockbuster. Sure, this movie is good fun - I'd recommend catching it, especially as a nice change of pace from all of the droll and pretentious Oscar-bait films released over the last few months. But like I, Robot, it's frustrating to think what might have been, if only I Am Legend had been instilled with the level of prestige and passion that a movie like Batman Begins used to elevate itself past typical blockbuster fare.

My Grade: B

- Okay, I'm about out of time on this one, but I still have to review INTO THE WILD, which I also finally caught this past weekend. Until then, check yo'self before you wreck yo'self.

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