Friday, March 21, 2014

Incredible setting, broken plot in new YA movie

In the race to get young adult books turned into movies I feel like roadkill as the studios speed to get their hot properties, with plots involving warring schools/houses/factions/districts/classes, onto the screen to woo in Hollywood’s most fickle audience — teenagers.

This week alone, we’ve already seen the release of trailers for two more, The Maze Runner and The Giver. Between them, The Hunger Games and now Divergent, you would be forgiven for not telling them apart with all their angsty teens, dystopian settings and perilous class warfare.

Divergent, like Hunger Games before it, benefits for looking absolutely stunning. It takes place in a fully realized and crafted science-fiction world, with scarred skyscrapers serving as wind turbines and drained harbors as farming land. Around the city is a fence, it’s electrical countermeasures humming ominously in the soundtrack, that would break the morale of Kong. Early in the film, we’re shown cables criss-crossing the city and later we get a payoff: the cables serve as an exhilarating and impractical transportation system. The production designers must have had fun creating this world; I had fun taking it all in. (On a side note, notice how the most futuristic prop in every sci-fi movie is a syringe.)

And that’s where my praise largely ends. This is a broken movie. It’s plot simply can’t sustain itself. It takes place in a time after mankind has apparently destroyed itself because “people had choices.” I would roll my eyes and say “whatever” to that reasoning, but this plot point is so important that it’s the basis of the entire film and others beyond it. And it ruins the movie. 

Divergent begins with Tris (Shaileen Woodley), a sweet-natured girl who questions her less-than-sweet thoughts. She lives with her parents in nearly complete segregation in a destroyed version of Chicago, which is divided into five social classes or castes: Abnegation, the selfless and charitable; Amity, peaceful farmers; Candor, the brutally honest types (and comedians?); Dauntless, the warriors; and Erudite, the intelligent bureaucrats. At a certain age, teens are required to attend the reaping … wait, wrong movie … they’re made to take LSD-fueled tests and then pick the faction that they want to serve for the rest of their lives.

After a lengthy choosing process that involves a disease-ridden knife, Tris picks Dauntless, a class so laughably dopey they are nearly cartoons. For starters, Dauntless faction members run everywhere, and they climb on everything like spider monkeys. And when they arrive at train stations, they wait for the train to leave so they can board it by jumping into the open doors. I’m pretty sure Dauntless’ creators were born from a Mountain Dew overdose sometime during a mid-’90s X-Games broadcast. Remember Poochy, from The Simpsons? I’m pretty sure he was Dauntless, as was the cast of Point Break, all those Mentos commercials and the Neverland boys in Hook (“Bangarang, Ruffio!).

And this is where the movie gets screwy. See, the factions maintain order. How or why is never really explored; you’re just expected to buy it, ludicrous price tag or not. Some exposition is offered by Erudite mastermind Jeanine (Kate Winslet), but it just made my head spin faster and in the other direction. Most troublesome is how the movie seems to encourage people — teens especially — to choose a team and stick with it. In high school, these factions would be called jocks (Dauntless), nerds (Abagnation), cheerleaders (Candor), student council (Erudite), and cowboys (Amity). Fans of the books will argue that the classes don’t really matter, because the point is that the classes need to be thrown out, which is what Tris eventually tries to do. But why then do fans show up happily proclaiming their faction of choice, and why does the Divergent website proudly let you pick your faction? It as if the movie subscribed to this kind of unusual segregating.

It’s clear the factions are part of a flawed social system, but no one in the movie sees that, even as one faction is chemically programmed to exterminate another faction. The rationale for the genocide: fear … of free agency, of peace, of an open government. None of it makes sense. Consider how this was handled in a better movie: Equilibrium, in which mankind is required to take an emotion-suppressing drug because emotion is what causes war and violence. That's a tidy package, wrapped as neatly as it can be considering how ludicrousness of the premise. Another example, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the model for many of these films. At least Hunger Games made sense: there was a war, a tyrannical ruler and a punishment for choosing the wrong side in the war. You could connect the dots and get an idea of what kind of story was being told. Divegent’s dots lead to a scrambled mess.

When Divergent isn’t tripping over itself, it spends much of the movie with Tris as she is pummeled through Dauntless’ training program, which involves laser tag, train hopping, freefalling through condemned buildings and public beatings, lots of public beatings. She has one nice instructor (Theo James) and one awful one (Jai Courtney), both of whom seem to make kissy faces in the mirror when they look at their tattoos. Woodley, who does wonders with her sub-standard material, deserves a better young adult movie franchise. This one is beneath her talents. Divergent does reunite Woodley with Miles Teller, who shared some lovely and heartbreaking scenes in last year’s much more rewarding film The Spectacular Now.

I read online yesterday that Veronica Roth’s book franchise falls apart after Divergent, and even the books’ fans are keenly aware of this problem. If this is what the first movie of the first book looks like, imagine what’s in store in the later films. Or not.

Brings your smiles to new Muppet movie

The Muppets give me great hope for humanity. Their very existence is cause for celebration; their longevity and persistence an added triumph. Certainly, if our civilization can create Muppets, then there is good in the world, and that goodness runs deep.

This might soundly grossly overstated, to give such power to little felt hand puppets, but look at what those puppets represent, look at the spirit in which they were created, consider the reason they have thrived for this long — they are, from top to bottom, inside and out, stitch by stitch, happiness.

That happiness explodes from the screen in Muppets Most Wanted, a silly and rewarding follow-up to the great Muppet return in 2011 with the charming, plainly titled The Muppets. That movie’s last scene is this movie’s first: as soon as the Hollywood lights flicker off, the Muppets are once again hunting for an audience to entertain. Out of nowhere Dominic Badguy, pronounced like “badgey,” turns up and whispers the magic words — “world tour.” And off the Muppets go.

The movie is infused with all varieties of comedy bits and musical numbers. The first song is fantastically weird and unabashedly meta as the Muppets sing about how sequels are never as good as the original films, a statement they mostly render false. In one of the verses, they even hint at how Most Wanted isn’t really a sequel because, after all, this is actually the eighth film since 1979. One of the recurring bits involves Gonzo pleading to do a stunt called Indoor Running of the Bulls. It goes off in typical Muppet style, about as well as one of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew’s experiments, one of which is a bomb-attracting vest. Of course, Beaker is wearing it.

As the world tour travels through Europe — the German stop includes the towns of Vomitdorf and Poopenbürgen — it’s revealed that Badguy (comedian Ricky Gervais, as wooden as the Swedish Chef’s cutting board) is actually a master thief following a series of clues that will reveal a way to steal the British crown jewels. He enlists fellow thief Constantine, who perfectly resembles Kermit except for a mole on his froggy lip. After a stealthy switch, Constantine infiltrates the Muppets while Kermit is sent to a Russian gulag in Siberia — or, as the prison guards call it, a state-funded hotel. The turmoil in the Ukraine makes these scenes feel especially appropriate. 

In the gulag, Kermit meets a Russian guard (Tin Fey) who says his name like she’s training for some kind of over-pronunciation contest — key-herr-meat, she says struggling. Other prisoners are played by Ray Liotta, Jemaine Clement and Danny Trejo, who other characters simply call “Danny Trejo.” (What a sport: Trejo plays Thug #1 and Inmate #2 in more movie than can be counted and here he does it again as a gag on his career.) In prison, of course Kermit puts together a spirited gulag variety show with musical numbers, sets, props and a prison break that somehow escapes Fey’s Kermit-smitten guard — “I have Netflix and I see every prison-break movie ever,” she says earlier.

Back on the Muppets tour, Constantine is botching up the Muppets careful dynamic by saying yes to every terrible sketch, including Gonzo’s Indoor Running of the Bulls, Miss Piggy’s Celine Dion covers and Animal’s “DRUM SOLO! DRUM SOLO!” Kermit, it seems, is the glue that holds the troupe together. There are many celebrity cameos, including Lady Gaga, Salma Hayek, Puff Daddy and, inexplicably, Christoph Waltz. None of them are as invigorating as the actual Muppets, most of whom get choice scenes, including Beaker and Honeydew, Animal and Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, Pepe the Prawn, Rowlf the Dog and Fozzie, who is threatened with a fantastic line — “You’ve just wocka’d your last wocka.” Another great line that requires no context: “He’s too stupid to be stupid so he must be a genius.”

Two unlikely stars are Modern Family’s Ty Burrell playing a French INTERPOL detective and Sam the Eagle playing his American counterpart. In their first scene together they start comparing badges, a game of one-up that ends with an endearing payoff. Later, in a scene that simultaneously laughs at the French and ‘Murica, Burrell sips from the tiniest of coffee cups while Sam chugs on what must be a 10-gallon cup of joe. The car they share is European, a skateboard with doors.

This is not a perfect Muppet movie, if only because too much emphasis is placed on human characters, who frequently can’t keep up with Jim Henson’s adorable Muppets. It does have lots of jokes, and many of them are clobbered out of the park with spectacular send-offs. The movie has a Pixar feel with it’s humor: it caters to adults and children, and frequently finds middle ground as well. Take your family, they’ll howl through it.

Why are there so many songs about rainbows? Because they make Muppets smile. And smiles are the currency this world should trade in.


Teller, Courtney divulge on Divergent

Actors pick winners and they pick losers. Sometimes the obvious winners are duds, and the obvious losers are on year-end best-of lists. It’s a strange way it all happens, especially when the film’s budget is factored in.

Take Miles Teller, who starred in last year’s indie-darling The Spectacular Now, a film that made many critics lists (including the top of mine) and is sitting at a cushy 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Its estimated budget was under $3 million. Then consider Teller’s new movie, Divergent, with its novel pedigree, huge cast, special effects and a budget that reportedly inched close to $100 million. Critics have been savaging it and on Rotten Tomatoes; it’s sitting at a depressing, but not altogether miserable, 37 percent.

Teller, who was in town promoting Neil Burger’s adaptation of Veronica Roth’s young adult novel Divergent, put it bluntly: “You want some successful movies on your résumé. You do it for the art all the time, but it’s nice to have one that makes money. You don’t want to be a part of a bunch of flops.”

We spoke before the reviews came out, but Divergent is likely to get the last laugh — it’s expected to do solid business, enough to send the franchise onto its next book, Insurgent. The movie involves a dystopian world set in the ruins of Chicago, where the social classes are broken into five factions, one being Dauntless, a warrior class where Teller’s character resides. The star of the film is Shailene Woodley, who plays a divergent, someone whose mind belongs to any faction it chooses. Woodley and Teller last worked together on The Spectacular Now. They had a different experience together this time out — “Falling in love is hard, learning a fight scene is easy,” he adds.

“It was pretty funny. When we first got there we’d be doing this fight training, working on our fight stuff and she’d be like, ‘Aww, Sutter.’ [His character from Spectacular Now] And it’s like ‘Stop. We’re not doing that shit now. I’m beating you up, little girl,’” he said of teaming up with Woodley again. “I think any time you’re more familiar with an actor, it allows you to just be more honest with them. So Shailene and I would be doing a scene, and if a scene wasn’t working we could almost … not direct the other person, but it’s like we didn’t even need Neil to help us figure it out. We would just be like, ‘alright, this isn’t really working.’”

Teller plays a minor villain, someone who starts the film as a punk, but comes around to the turmoil he’s causing. “It was fun for me. I had just done That Awkward Moment, and before that … The Spectacular Now. I wasn’t necessarily looking to play a villain, and I use that word lightly because I think [my] character kind of comes full circle. He’s pretty conflicted. But for me, I was just wanting to do something different, to get off the light-hearted comedy stuff and beat somebody up.”

Jai Courtney, who was last seen in Jack Reacher and as John McClane’s son in A Good Day to Die Hard, was also in town with Teller and agreed that playing villains was oddly cathartic. Courtney’s villain, though, doesn’t have a change of heart and is mostly vile throughout Divergent.

“[Villainy] doesn’t require much of a transformation. You want to try and make your character as likeable as possible, even when you’re playing someone who’s not supposed to be,” Courtney said. “So that’s probably the challenge, remembering that you’re not supposed to be liked. I would try, just instinctively, to be a little more charming with the character and [Burger] was always telling me to just make it dead and flat.”

Both actors are moving onto massive new franchises for their next projects: Courtney is the new Kyle Reese character in a new Terminator reboot, and Teller is going to the new Mr. Fantastic in a Fantastic Four reboot. But for Teller, Divergent was one of the biggest projects he's been attached to.

“For a big-budget movie these were the shittiest sets I’ve ever been on. This is, by far, the biggest budget I’ve ever done and I was expecting the red carpet and it was pretty much all abandoned buildings in Chicago that would leak when it snowed,” he said. “There would be rats around and Shailene would be like ‘I want an inspection.’”

He continues: “Acting-wise, obviously it’s the same thing. You don’t adjust your acting. But there’s more angles. On Spectacular Now, you’re doing a lot of stuff in a one-shot or a two-shot, and we get about three takes. On this, you’re really breaking it up. You’ll get like 20 takes on one line from six different angles … The trailer was better, a lot better. More time for my hair and makeup. And the scope of this was a lot bigger: at any given time, there’s like 10 of us in a scene, I don’t think I got any one-on-one scenes. There’s always people there, so I guess that was different for me. I’d be on set 12 hours to just … be in soft focus in the background fighting.”

After Divergent’s release, both actors plan on diving into their next roles, and they both admit that taking on established characters, be it comic superhero or a Terminator mainstay, is a little daunting.

“If you want to be a big movie star or whatever you’ve gotta do some big films and take some risks. I’m excited to kind of latch onto this character for the next couple of years and put my stamp on something that somebody else has already done,” Teller said. “That’s what I’m excited about, to kind of reinvent it.”

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Check in at the Grand Budapest

Few things are more blissful at a movie theater than a Wes Anderson film. Even amid death, suicide, his depression-laden heroes and some of his more morbid curiosities, you can’t help but smile at his films’ intoxicating presentation and cheerful precociousness.

Anderson’s body of work, astoundingly unique and inventive beyond all reason, exists in a strange world somewhere between cinema and stage play. And not like a Broadway play either; more like a low-budget children’s theater, one overrun by adult actors, even prestige adult actors. He frames his characters with deep affection amid tableaus of quaint artifice, living dioramas in make-believe tangents of the real world.

His new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, seems to exist even further outside our plane of existence, in an implausibly quirky Eastern European country in the 1930s. Previous films were shot in schools (Rushmore), trains (The Darjeeling Limited) and oceans (A Life Aquatic), but Budapest exists in many places, mostly in sprawling interiors, hilariously simple effects shots and in stylized graphical animations. I hope a hotel like this actually exists, but then again it works better as fantasy untouched by reality. The movie has an interesting framing device: a woman is reading a book by an author who was told a story by a guy who knew a rather famous hotel concierge. It's somewhat confusing, but made clear in the final shot.

In flashbacks, we're shown the Grand Budapest Hotel and its star concierge, Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes), a man of impeccable taste in everything except ethics, which he abuses to no end by wooing and sleeping with the hotel's older guests. His scorecard of nonagenarian conquests is shown in a montage that is purely Andersonian in spirit and delivery.

Gustav is thrown under the microscope when one of his mistresses dies as unexpectedly as a 97-year-old woman can. Before she died, she drafted a new will, one in which her concierge Romeo gets an expensive painting the rest of her miserable family had been hoping to inherit. With the help of a talented lobby boy named Zero (Tony Revolori), a baker's apprentice (Saoirse Ronan), a hotel owner (Jeff Goldblum) and a fleet of other smaller characters, Gustav H. fights the mistress' family, a vampiric assassin (Nosferatu himself, Willem Dafoe), local police and thinly veiled Nazi SS stand-ins known as the Zig Zag.

Of course, that's the plot, but that's only a small portion of any Wes Anderson movie. Much of the movie exists in its wacky presentation, its dryly written humor, its adorable sense of time and place, and its ever-expanding cast of characters — Bill Murray and Bob Balaban turn up, and I think George Clooney had a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo. And in an Anderson first, the director jumps genres mid-film. What starts as a fairly standard indie-comedy eventually plays with other motifs: a whodunit, a slasher thriller, a romance and a prison movie.

The prison material takes up a large chunk of film, but it's likely to be a highlight for many viewers, with Gustav H. serving as the prison concierge to a bunch of murderers and cutthroats — “How bout some mush, old chaps?” This is the kind of movie that has cakes filled with hacksaws and hammers delivered to inmates and it totally gets away with it. The tools serve a prison breakout that lovingly winks at The Great Escape. Anderson is prone to homage, and he does it several times here. In one scene, he re-enacts a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain almost verbatim, but with a quicker and more gruesome finale.

And when Budapest is not re-imagining classics, it's becoming one: there’s an extended chase sequence that leads high up into the Alps on a cable car and then into a monastery, where Gustav H. tracks down his only alibi. The scene ends with the most understated and absurd chase scenes of recent memory as Zero and Gustav sled through every winter Olympic event possible. The special effects are bogus and cheeseball, but that’s precisely the point of this whimsical movie and its outlandish examination of Europe's nuttiest mountaintop resort.

One other curiosity: the film switches aspect ratios depending on which time period the movie is in. Some of the picture is told, presumably, in the 1980s, as Jude Law plays a hotel guest listening to another guest (F. Murray Abraham) talk about Gustav H. In these scenes, the film fills the whole canvas of the screen, but then in the 1930s the edges are cropped, as if watching an old movie, its squarish aspect ratio curtained by blackness on its sides. 

Everything about this movie is just lovely: the clothing, dialogue, every character, Fiennes, Fiennes, Fiennes, the pastel coloring, meticulously designed props, lavish sets, obviously fake sets, sets that seem to be made of paper … each scene is rich with tiny detail. Notice how Gustav H. flips the light switch on every time he uses the elevator, or Zero’s penciled-in mustache, or how Saoirse Ronan has a birthmark in the exact shape of Mexico on her cheek, or that obscene painting Gustav hangs on his mistress’ wall. The movie careens forward with presence and determination.

That being said, let me offer this: this is not Wes Anderson’s best work, a spot I still reserve for The Royal Tenenbaums. I wanted Grand Budapest Hotel to be funnier and more mischievous, but also more grounded. It’s still very good, but as an admirer of Anderson’s previous films, I wanted this one to ring with more truth. At times it gets so big and so comically wacky that it feels empty in places. Let me be clear, though, about my brief complaints: some unevenness aside, this is still enchanting filmmaking of the highest order and yet another reason why Wes Anderson is one of the most important directors working.


Thursday, March 6, 2014

300 more spartans, 8 years too late

In 300: Rise of Empire’s world, there is no honor in life; only in death. That theme finds its way to the screen, where bodies are disemboweled, hacked into pieces, impaled, smooshed, drowned, lit on fire, raped, sliced, diced and tenderized into an organic hamburger meat. If this is the code of Sparta, then maybe it’s good the civilization never made it out of the BCs.

When Zach Snyder made the first 300, way back in 2006, what he had created was an inventive bonanza of hard-boiled mayhem. Yes, the first film had just as much violence, but the filmmaking was fresh, the style inventive, the visuals iconic. We had never seen anything like it, aside from maybe Sin City, which was its own brand of neo-comic anarchy. Since then, though, a glut of copycats have emerged: The Immortals and The Spirit, both aping (terribly) the graphic novel bandwagon. Many of the most obvious rip-offs were by Snyder himself, including The Watchmen and Sucker Punch, hyper-fantasies of 300’s overt simplicity in style and design.

Now here we are with 300: Rise of an Empire, another nail in this visual style’s lowering coffin. The sequel isn’t by Snyder — though, he produced and co-wrote the screenplay — and is instead directed by Noam Murro, who manages to make a 2014 movie look exactly like a 2006 movie. Give him a medal. Here he strips 300 of all its novelty and discovers that all he’s created is this stupendously awful sequel. What a difference eight years makes. 

It begins where the last one left off: after the 300 Spartans, including Leonidas (Gerard Butler), are massacred at the Hot Gates, the Persian armies pour into Greece with Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) leading the charge atop his Fenway-sized throne heaved onto the shoulders of the most resilient slaves. Early parts of the movie focus on Xerxes, who is then abandoned altogether. Other early scenes contain prequel elements that flesh out minuscule details of the original film, details no one on the planet was curious about, like the name of that guy who’s kicked into that bottomless pit.

Eventually we get to Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), a Greek general who decides to help Sparta only after its bravest warriors have been ground into a crimson toothpaste. Themistokles groups an army and tries to button up the Greek coast to prevent a separate Persian army, one that seems to exist outside of Xerxes’ universe, from storming into Athens. This movie’s spatial awareness is difficult to follow, throughout. Locations seem to have large expanses between them, but then they’re on top of each other. The choppy editing magnifies this weird sense of place and distance.

I could tell you about other characters that float through the plot, but it would be needless punctuation to Rise of the Empire’s dyslexic grammar. Everyone looks alike, acts alike and dies alike. Even Lena Headey, so chillingly mad in Game of Thrones, seems bored here. If watching nondescript six-packed men in metal underwear clobber each other into pulpy stumps, the wounds spraying goopy chocolate syrup, then here’s a movie for you.The violence these men perpetrate is so constant that it turns into a steady drone of meaningless background noise. I mean, how many times can you really see a man get slashed by a sword? “A bzillion times,” Murro says from his fanboy pulpit. 

Much of the dialogue is that over-emphasized, self-important chest-beating of the first movie: “An honorable death is all that we can ask for,” “We choose to die on our feet rather than live on our knees,” “There will be death and destruction,” and enough Braveheart “freedom” speeches to make even William Wallace beg for mercy. The dialogue gets worse when Eva Green, playing the seductive warrior Artemisia, turns up and takes it all to a whole new level. Green, bless her heart, plays the role like it’s Shakespeare and it’s oddly beautiful, if only because it’s the most garish, over-the-top bad performance of the year. Artemisia, who wears a breastplate with nipples stamped right into the bronze, seduces Themistokles and they engage in a sexual Olympics that deserves a trophy so awesome it will need to be smelted from the gold, silver and bronze medals. At one point in the movie, Artemisia slices off a man’s head, holds up the severed noggin and makes out with it.

Mostly, though, 300: Rise of an Empire is all heroic posturing and lots of talking of death. Isn’t getting killed in battle counterproductive to the cause? Remember that quote from Patton: “I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor bastard die for his.” Yeah, Gen. Patton would have hated these warriors, who obsess over their eventual defeat like it’s some sort of rite of passage.

Now, all of this negativity I’m blasting out doesn’t mean the movie looks terrible, because it really does. It just mostly looks like its predecessor, with very little advancement since then. That being said, some images are magnificent, including one of the utterly bland Stapleton sinking in an ocean filled with floating ship debris, and another of a tradesman carving the bark off a tree trunk, bits of tree and dust shooting up into the air and choking the frame with clouds of organic matter. The slow motion effects, overused by a factor of three, can also be quite thrilling, if only because the pictures are so overloaded with spectacle.

The 300 true believers — and there are many — will adore this movie. But that’s not saying much; they’d adore anything with shirtless men butchering other shirtless men. Everyone else, keep clear of this clunky behemoth and its violent swing. 




Cusack's got a dud old bag

The Bag Man is propelled forward on the strength of one lingering question: What’s in that damn bag? Spoiler alert — nothing.

Not literally nothing. Something’s in there, but by the time the movie ends you’ll wish it contained stacks of cash, "nogotiable bearer bonds" or Walter Sobchak’s dirty undies, just not what actually was in there. Making matters worse, the contents of the bag have absolutely nothing to do with anything that happens in The Bag Man; if anything, the bag’s contents relate more to some never-to-be-made prequel that answers questions about the bag’s origins, implications and all the other tedium that can fit into a leather carry-on.

The movie stars John Cusack as an unnamed mafia go-to guy, who has the bag from almost the very beginning. In the first scene, he’s given instructions about the bag by crime underlord Dragna (Robert De Niro). Dragna, spitting and sputtering over dinner, illustrates the importance of the bag using his steak and potatoes. "This is you. This is the bag. This is me," he says partitioning off his meal, "so get me the bag." This scene made me realize that I would have preferred the entirety of The Bag Man to be performed by actual steak and potatoes over Cusack and De Niro.

Anyway, cut to the very next scene and Cusack’s Bag Man has the bag. Poof, like that. There’s also a dead man in the backseat, a bullet through his hand and a phone booth clearly rented from some third-rate Hollywood prop vendor — when was the last time you saw a payphone, let alone a full-on glass-walled phone booth? Bag Man is given specific instructions to go to a hotel and wait until Dragna can board a plane, fly to Bag Man’s location and retrieve the bag. Here’s a thought, Dragna: maybe don’t leave the state when someone is retrieving your goods.

This is an idiotic movie, one that seems to have been inspired by better films, ones made by much better directors. It has Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue, Guy Ritchie’s criminal oddballs and Michael Mann’s unnerving obsession with the night. But director David Grovic, who also co-wrote the screenplay, can’t turn any this hackneyed drivel into anything other than crumpled love letter to better movies.

It’s a shame because the movie had a brief window, about a third of the way through, that had potential. As Bag Man arrives at the hotel, he slowly spirals into a dream-like world of wacky characters, each more surreal than the one before them. For starters, the hotel is stuck in some kind of time warp, with a wheelchair-riding Crispin Glover serving as its de-facto Norman Bates. Other characters include two good ol’ boy cops, some trigger-happy federal agents and two pimps, one them a little person with a bladder that he empties on Bag Man’s head. I also liked how every guy Bag Man killed had an 8-by-10 glossy picture of the bag on them, revealing a wider bag conspiracy. All of this nuttiness threatens to spin the film into a unique, albeit odd, place, but then it settles on being a by-the-numbers crime thriller, and a dopey one at that.

Most of Bag Man is just downright cruel, especially to women. In an early scene, Dragna wallops a woman in the nose so hard she requires plastic surgery. Dragna, ever the gentleman, gives her a referral to a surgeon. In another scene, someone says flatly and with no irony whatsoever, "All women are whores." He was talking about women in general, and also prostitute Rivka (Rebecca Da Costa), a Fifth Element extra with blue hair, red leather miniskirt and theeck Russian accent. Not much on Da Costa looks real, which gives Grovic plenty of excuses to longingly slobber over her curvy frame.

This is not a good movie, nor is it even a commendable bad one. It just hurtles forward with its joyless action and grinding momentum. And that bag, its contents do not make anything better. If you must know what's in it, give it a week or two and the synopsis will be up on Wikipedia — spoil away.