Best Laid Plans

Movies reviewed this week: Blade Trinity and The Spongebob Squarepants Movie

These things happen in the life of a film critic. He has determined from his screening schedule that if he catches the first of two scheduled screenings of Ocean's Twelve he will have enough grist to fill up the hole on the week of December 10, and he can skip the screening of the Italian art-house item, Remember Me, My Love, and catch that one after it opens. He has nothing better to do before the first Ocean's Twelve, for which he has no great expectations anyway, than to attend a screening of Blade Trinity (or Blade: Trinity, according to preference), which might come in handy as filler in the event that Ocean's Twelve merely meets, or fails to meet, or at any rate fails to rise above, expectations. He could have held off a week on Closer instead of throwing it in a pile with Alexander, Christmas with the Kranks, and others, but timeliness in film criticism (as in all other areas of journalism) has evolved from a simple virtue into a total mania, and he must keep up as best he can. So, all right, then. Ocean's Twelve and Blade Trinity. A couple of mass-audience sequels opening in the same week; two peas in a pod; a topic. But then, without warning, the first of the screenings of Ocean's Twelve gets cancelled, and the second one will be too late for his deadline, and he has already skipped Remember Me, My Love and frittered away Closer, and now all he has left is Blade Trinity. He is me.

This, the third installment in the god-awful series about the preening and posturing vampire-hunter out of Marvel Comics, would not be worth discussing if not for dire need. I could take a page out of the Manohla Dargis playbook and use the occasion to expatiate on the vampire genre in general (where it's been, where it's headed), or on the acting career of Wesley Snipes (where it's been, where it's headed), yet the occasion, to be blunt about it, is not one to rise to; it is one to sink to. The previous installment in the series at least had the curiosity of a slumming Guillermo del Toro at the helm. He, in the meantime, has taken his slumming elsewhere (Hellboy), leaving the scriptwriter of the first two installments, David S. Goyer, to assume command. If so gifted a filmmaker and so strong a personality as Guillermo del Toro could make no (or little) difference, a novice will have no (or little) chance. Especially if the novice has been the man writing these god-awful scripts.

The present one literally digs up the original Dracula (in Iraq, to be exact, "about six months ago"), now going by the name of Drake and looking rather like a skinhead soccer hooligan (Dominic Purcell), when he isn't shape-shifting into a gargoyle Lucifer. ("You shouldn't have woken me," grumbles Drac or Drake, with some prescience.) His minions, digging him up to be the führer in their "final solution" (world domination, no less), have successfully set up their nemesis, Blade, to kill a human being by mistake. "Staked you with silver. Why aren't you ash?" he muses over the body that stubbornly refuses to disintegrate as a dozen others have done in the teeth of his special arsenal of anti-vampire gun, whip, samurai sword, hallogen headlights, etc. Not only have they got him to kill a human, fooling him with a pair of plastic novelty-shop incisors, but they have got him to do it on videotape, plastered his picture on the cover of Weekly World News, turned public opinion against him, and landed him securely behind bars.

Lucky for Blade, in desperate need of rescue, an independent team of swaggering, swashbuckling vampire-hunters, calling themselves the Night Stalkers ("We were going to go with the Care Bears, but that was taken"), have emerged under the leadership of an au courant Kick-Ass Chick (Jessica Biel) who has her own arsenal of vampires-to-ashes weapons: switchblade boots, silver-tipped arrows, laser hacksaw, etc. This turns out to be the daughter of Blade's personal weapons manufacturer, wheezily played by Kris Kristofferson, who gets killed for the second time in three movies. (As that character was called Whistler, the new character would be Whistler's Daughter.) Right-hand man of the Kick-Ass Chick is a traditional Smart-Ass Sidekick (Ryan Reynolds), who lowers the tone another couple of octaves: "Unlike typical vampires," he says of the Parker Posey vampire, "her fangs are located in her vagina." No less vital a part of the team are the behind-the-scenes scientists at work on a chemical weapon code-named Daystar, an anti-vampire virus capable of wiping out the entire race in one fell swoop. (Dracula's connections to Iraq really do not bear thinking about.) To believe that this is in fact the "endgame" -- the advertised "final hunt" -- you would have to believe that things like common sense and common decency can trump things like greed and impoverishment of imagination. The box-office will call the tune. Certainly there still remains, after three movies, the unanswered question of who does Blade's hair.

For filler, I have belatedly had to go where I had no intention of going: to The Spongebob Squarepants Movie. Somehow I had completely missed out on the "phenomenon" of the Nickelodeon TV cartoon show, brain-child of writer and director Stephen Hillenburg, which I understand appeals to all ages and intelligences. (I mean I understand that it appeals, I don't mean I understand why it appeals.) It is rather sobering, to say the least, to contemplate how much culture can pass you by when you're shut up in movie theaters. Like many another transplant from television, Spongebob offers the preoccupied moviegoer a deferred initiation -- or, in keeping with the submersion motif, a baptism -- but it does not provide him a means of comparison, a standard of the typical, an adequate background.

After a campy musical number with a crew of live-action pirates (singing an infernal tune I now can't get out of my head), we pile into a movie theater, in the company of the pirates, to watch the cartoon we thought we had come to watch in the first place. There, we are introduced to the ocean-floor community of Bikini Bottom; to the title character who looks as much like a block of Swiss cheese as like an O-Cel-O sponge (the rectangular pants, something like a step-in flower box, do not identify him either way); to his starfish pal, Patrick; to his boss, Eugene Krabs, owner of the Krusty Krab eatery, home of the Krabby Patty; and to the latter's envious business rival, a specimen of plankton who runs the unsuccessful Chum Bucket and steals the secret recipe of the Krabby Patty, along with the crown of King Neptune (exposing his bald spot and fragile ego), and frames the crab for the crime. It's up to Spongebob, the Krusty Krab's fry-cook who covets the position of manager in the newly opened Krusty Krab 2, to set things right. Is he man enough for the job, or is he just a kid who likes to blow bubbles and eat ice cream? A live-action David Hasselhoff comes to the rescue in a campy climax that balances the campy prologue.

All of this is apt to sound viable enough in summary. The actual artwork, on the other hand, when you get down to brass tacks, is willfully primitive, knowingly naive, or, without the equivocation, just plain lousy, and the voices are almost unanimously annoying. A newcomer to the terrain might be struck by the number of phallic shapes on parade. Phallic heads, phallic snouts, phallic appendages. The phallic eyes of the crab are even covered, on and off, with roll-down condom-like eyelids (if that's the proper crustacean word). Such a newcomer may, even so, have a hard time convincing himself that this constitutes an appeal to the adult. The same may be said of the self-conscious mythicizing: the quest motif, the growth motif, the deliverance motif. Even that, in the aftermath of Star Wars, has become kids' stuff. No doubt there's a creative touch or two, possibly three: the sandwich car, one or two of the sea monsters. The rest is not quite all the way to appalling, but it's nearer that than amusing.

The hole has thus been filled. Ocean's Twelve can go jump in a lake.

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