Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The New Yorker finds the Academy picks to be B_O_R_I_N_G

By Hollywood standards, the nominees for the 78th annual academy awards are old news. It’s been a almost a whole seven hours since word got out this morning at the crack of dawn, about who was in the running for those beloved little gold statuettes. Since then, chatter has been everywhere –the internet, the radio, people gabbing about how now more than ever the “serious” and “intelligent” films are really getting the recognition they deserve.

In case you haven’t look at the list of nominees yet, here is a brief run down:



**The directors of each of these films were nominated for best directing, so we’re talking, Ang Lee, Bennet Miller, Paul Haggis, George Clooney, and Steven Speilberg.



As I was driving in my car this morning listening to NPR, I heard an entertainment commentator talk about how the “NPR audience” was “to blame” for the change in certain independent type films coming to the forefront. The NPR anchor (on the show Day to Day) then asked the commentator why he used the word “blame”? Wasn’t it a good thing that “real” and “smart” movies were finally being made and recognized?

Oh it was all enough to make me puke.

Don’t get me wrong, I like NPR, and being “smart” and all is great, but why does everyone, excuse my language, have to run around with such a stick up their a**. Because I thought Capote was terrific, and Munich was a very interesting film, and Good Night and Good Luck looked great, –but what about Batman Begins? What about King Kong? Batman Begins only garnered a single nomination in Cinematography, but I think it should have also been nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Directing, and Best Picture. I would have nominated the screenplay for Batman Begins over The Squid and the Whale, which was an intriguing movie but not particularly splendid. King Kong was nominated for Art Direction, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual FX, but I also think it should have been nominated for Directing and Best Picture. In fact looking at the Best Actress nominations, I think if they are going to go ahead and nominate Charlize Theron in North Country, they should in turn nominate Naomi Watts for Kong too –because Watts was better than Theron.

I also thought that Star Wars: Episode III was sorely missing from some of the more technical awards. I would have bumped out the dreary, drab Art Directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and replaced it with Revenge of the Sith, for its gorgeous interiors, and beautiful spacescapes. Also how is it possible that Sith did not get a nomination for Visual Effects? How did that happen?!

Now I haven’t seen Crash and I haven’t seen Brokeback Mountain yet, which are two major contenders in this oscar race. While I think it’s a good thing that Brokeback Mountain is getting recognition despite of its controversial subject matter, to me a love story is a love story is a love story, which might be well acted and beautifully portrayed, but is also typically boring. I think of all the films that was smothered in nominations the one that seems the most surprising is Good Night and Good Luck. I thought the most impressive element about this film was its visuals. So I think it properly deserved its nominations in Cinematography, and Art Direction. But McCarthyism isn’t exactly a novel topic, and while Edward R. Murrow’s story is both significant and interesting, the film was very heavy handed, and bordered on its own brand of propaganda. Another surprising omission to me in the nominees was Walk the Line in the catagories of Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Directing and Best Picture. I am not usually one for a bio-pic but I thought this film was really quite good, and certainly Oscar fare. The way that James Mangold pieced together the story of Johnny Cash’s life was both compelling and original. I actually thought this film was better than Ray, which was nominated in all those catagories, and I think at the very least it should have gotten a screenplay nod.

Why is it that when the Academy looks at a film like Batman Begins they think, “Ridiculous –it’s about a man who dresses up like a bat,” instead of “This is really a movie about fear and violence and revenge. It’s about learning how to deal with one’s internal demons, in a way which might mean incorporating them into oneself instead of banishing them.” And why is it that when they look at King Kong they think “It’s merely a movie about a gigantic ape,” instead of “This is a film about alienation, about man kind’s fear and wonder of the wilderness within his own heart, and about the unavoidable conflict between man’s desires to cherish and destroy that which he loves.”

What makes a movie “serious” anyway? Is it a lack of comedy? That certainly seems to be part of it, as comedies are traditionally snubbed at the Oscars. Is it a lack of ground breaking visuals? That too, seems to be part of the package since, with the exception of the recent Lord of the Rings victory, films with massive visual FX are ommitted from the nominee list. Must it be grounded in historical events, and forego anything imaginative or fantastical?

The Academy seems to be narrowing down further and further its criteria for who it chooses to nominate. Cinema is such a vast medium, and there are such of a variety of different films out there. Shouldn’t the award show with the highest profile in the world properly reflect diversity? Isn’t the race more exciting and balanced, when you have a blockbuster fantasy extravagnaza, next to a small, independent bio-pic? Apparently, according to the Academy, the answer to these questions is no.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Tagline of the week: Courtesy of UltraViolet

I had never even heard a whisper of this movie until last week, when a friend of mine pointed out the one sheet poster amidst his giggling, in the lobby of a movie theatre. I quickly glanced at it, but only long enough to notice that it was a hyper-stylized graphic image of the indomitable Milla Jovovich in huge Fendi like sun glasses. I figured it was some sort of bizarre assassin flick a la Le Femme Nikita, and didn’t really give it a second thought. Then, while doing my periodic scan on the Apple Trailer site, I stumbled upon THIS , the trailer for UltraViolet. I urge you to view it before you continue reading anymore of this blog. You simply must watch the trailer for this film, because you won’t believe it until you see it, and even then you’ll be questioning if it was all a hallucination. My own eyes and ears could barely believe what they were seeing and hearing as the trailer flashed forward on my computer monitor.

Have you watched it yet? Doesn’t it seem incredibly familiar? Remember Aeon Flux ? That crazy futuristic sci-fi movie, which came out less than two months ago?! I find it highly ironic that the big plot reveal in Aeon Flux revolves around clones; how fitting that it should in turn, spawn off its own cinematic clone. I was simply flabbergasted at the outright similarities between UltraViolet and Aeon Flux; everything about them is so congruous. UltraViolet tells the story of a female assassin, who has been “altered” in some way, giving her strength and skill beyond the average human. Her mission is to try to get rid of the fascist government which has taken over earth in the future, after some debilitating virus has crippled the human race. Aeon Flux is quite nearly the EXACT same thing. Another coincidence in a sea of coincidences is the fact that both Theron and Jovavich donned silly raven colored wigs for their roles. Theron’s was an 80’s-esque asymmetrical do, while Jovavich’s make her look like Bettie Page after two months without eating.(and I don’t mean in a good way). But next to UltraViolet, the barely passable Aeon Flux looks like a masterpiece the likes of “A Clockwork Orange”. Not only UltraV’s trailer put together poorly, (using some of the music that was actually in Aeon Flux), but everything that was silly and postured about Aeon Flux seems a hundred times worse in UltraV. Such freewheeling dialogue exchanges such as:

Evil Guy: Are you mental?
Milla: Come and get it!


Milla: I hate humans.
Ambivalent Guy: You used to be human.
Milla: But not anymore, right?

nearly boggle the mind. Wow. I mean wow. This trailer has rendered me speechless. I’ve never had a problem with Jovavich per say. She’s not a particularly remarkable actress, but I actually found the first Resident Evil to be mildly entertaining, and she was somewhat endearing in The Fifth Element. Certainly, her looks are quite striking, and she can put in a decent performance, but something tells me that director/writer Kurt Wimmer, probably didn’t bolster the innate talent she does have. Wimmer, who also did Equilibrium in 2002, another fascist futuristic sci-fi flick, which I had actually never heard of until I looked him up on IMDB , has spent most of his career as a writer. He wrote The Thomas Crown Affair remake, and the adaptation for Michael Crichton’s Sphere (yikes) among other random projects. Truth be told, I know very little about the guy, and don’t have a very informed opinion about his level of talent. Maybe this project has been on his slate for years, maybe it’s his “baby”. But what still seems so incomprehensible to me about all this, are the blatant similarity between UltraViolet and Aeon Flux. I mean the script was probably written and greenlit before they knew if and when A.F. was being released, but even the marketing is disturbingly similar. If I were Sony or Screen Gems, I’d be trying to make that movie look like a sci-fi western, a romantic comedy, a story about a girl and her gun, anything, but the futuristic facist dysptopian setting, where a scantily clad, beautiful woman runs around slaughtering bad guys. Financially speaking, Aeon Flux was a flop, it cost about $60 million, and only made $30 world wide in its eight weeks of release. It’s curious to me that the folks behind UltraViolet wouldn’t take that into consideration, and try to avoid the stink off A.F. as best they could.

I guess I just don’t understand how this sort of thing happens in Hollywood. This certainly isn’t the first time, but if you ask me, it’s worse than Deep Impact and Armageddon, or Finding Nemo and Shark Tale; Aeon Flux and UltraViolet are a hair away from being identical twins. In my mind, I imagine a sort of bizarre game of chicken where by each studio thinks the other is going to flinch or give up first, but ultimately neither does. Cutting together a trailer that wasn’t so completely reminiscent of A.F. would also help. Releasing it with more than two months in between would help even more. Of course, at the end of trailer, there is no date given for it’s release. It merely says “Coming Soon”, and something tells me it might not see the light of day for a long time yet…

As for the tagline? According to IMDB, it’s, “The Blood War is on.”

Whatever that means….

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Dark Tower Update

It’s been two weeks since I last blogged about my progress on the journey to the Dark Tower. At that point in time I was about seventy five pages or so into the fourth installment of King’s Saga, Wizard and Glass. By now, I’ve completed the fifth chapter in the quest of Roland and his fellow Gunslingers, Wolves of the Calla. After I posted my first blog, I received a fair amount of comments from folk, and the general consensus was that after the fourth book in the series, the quality of the books starts to dwindle down. Now after having completed the fourth AND the fifth books, I am sorry to say I agree with this sentiment.

First off, I found Wizard and Glass to be remarkable, perhaps my favorite of the lot. It was the meatiest installment thus far, clocking in at about 670 pages, almost double the size of some of its slimmer predecessors. Wizard and Glass does in fact, take a large sidestep from the path that Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy are on, but it was a sidestep that was not regrettable in the least. Within the crust of the main plot, lay a wonderful fairy-tale like yarn with textures both hard and soft; one which so compelling it could have stood on its own if necessary. The fact that the story of Roland’s adventures in Mejis was woven so craftily, into a pre-exisiting mythology and set of characters, made it all the more impressive. I was completely enchanted while reading about the vibrant community of characters, the peculiar geography, and unique dialect and customs that King had created within the pages. There were a million little revelations for me from chapter to chapter as I saw how each little tendril of the story, sneakily found its way back to its origin, forming a complex and detailed tapestry that was breath taking to behold. At times, my mind would beg to wander, and I might begin to wonder why King was spending so much time developing a seemingly tertiary character –yet everytime, I was met pages down the line, with a satisfying answer.

It was fascinating to peer in through the glass and watch Roland, with his compatriots, Cuthburt and Alain (of whom he had always spoken of), when they were nothing more than children. To see Roland, when he could feel and express sheepishness, boyisheness, giddiness, in both his love affair with Susan and his handling of his mission, added a whole new dimension to his characters. The first three books gave him depth, purpose, mannerisms, and even heart, but by the end of the fourth it seems we had seen Roland’s very soul. The only thing that I found to be slightly over the top was the fact that, shortly after returning to Gilead, Roland mistakenly shoots and kills his mother. While it made sense logistically that Rhea of Coos has yet to exact her final revenge, and that this act broke the last strands of Roland’s heart, it teetered a wee bit on the side of the melodrama. I think particularly because it happened so close in tandem to Susan’s death made it seem a bit over the top.

The story as it takes place in Mejis is captivating, and though simple in its concepts and themes, was remarkably intricate in its execution. I myself, could never imagine thinking up all that “story”, -not just the major plot elements, but the little staples that pulled all the pages together. Equally compelling was the bizarro Kansas and Oz that the Gunslingers stumble upon as they try to find their way back to the “beam”. I liked all the little allusions to the Wizard of Oz, including the ruby red shoes, the Emerald City-like Palace, and the throne they find inside it, operated by the elusive “man behind the curtain”. Somehow it made sense that there should be a confluence between the fantasy world of Oz, and the fantastical world of Roland’s Mid-World.

But tactics that felt clever and organic in Wizard and Glass, became unnatural and obnoxious in Wolves of the Calla. In this fifth book King decided to cross from the territory of literary references, into the post-modern modern world of the self-reflexive pop culture flourishes. In “Calla”, King brings back Father Callahan, a main character from one of his first novels, ‘Salem’s Lot, which I have yet to read. From what I gather from the information in “Calla”, the book deals with a small New England town which becomes inundated by the undead/vampires. Father Callahan is actually quite a compelling character --of the tortured soul variety, and ‘Salem’s Lot seems like a scary and interesting book, but I am reading the Dark Tower series, and I’ll be damned, but it feels like a heck of a cheap trick to me. Now again, since I’ve never read the book, I don’t know how much of the material regarding Father Callahan was previously dealt with in ‘Salem’s Lot. Granted much of the stories we learn about him have to do with his life after he left said small New England town. But still, recycling one’s characters, when they are not already part of a given series just seems like a bit of a cop out to me. Particularly since, try as he might, King, who so artfully constructed and meshed together the story elements in Wizard and Glass, struggled to marry the mythology of vampires with the mythos that he’s already created within the world of the Dark Tower. As intriguing as Callahan’s wanderings into the world of the vampiric might have been, the “payoff” of his stories within the grand plot of the Wolves of Calla was meager at best. The fact that Roland told the town folk of the Calla that the Wovles that came after their children were actually vampires, in order to fool certain people listening, was ridiculous. It was fairly obvious from the beginning that the Wovles were robots at any rate. This and other secrets held within the pages of Wolves of the Calla were not nearly as well hidden as some of the other mysteries which had been revealed in earlier volumes of the series.

I was particularly shocked, when in the final pages of “Calla” – the book ‘Salem’s Lot actually appears in the story, as written by an author named Stephen King. I know King isn’t the first writer to reference himself in a his own work of fiction, but in the world of the Dark Tower it just doesn’t seem to fit. Not to mention the fact that I nearly fell out of my chair and onto the ground, when I read that some of the weapons used by the wolves were “sneetches –Harry Potter Model.” Nor did I care for King’s last ditch effort to draw uncanny similarities between the wolves and Dr. Doom from Spiderman comics. These items felt slapdash and ill-suited to the rest of the story.

Now, criticims aside, let it be known that I devoured this fifth volume, which was even bigger than the last (714 pages), in a matter of days. I have not given up hope on Roland and his team, and I am still as committed as ever to the see this story to the finish. In terms of the general plot structure that founded the fifth novel, I thought it was well conceived. I like the idea that King took a simple fairy tale conceit ---bad wolves who come to steal away the children, and turned it into a rich piece of folk lore. I liked how King developed the Calla of Bryn Sturgis, and how it mirrored various aspects of Mejis, and the mission that Roland completed in that similar outpost so many years ago. Though similar, the Calla also had its own unique nuances. I thought the idea of Andy the messenger Robot was brillant and wonderfully sinister, and I liked the rest of the supporting characters in the town. The details involving the twins, and how half of each pair inevitibaly became “Roont” by the wolves was original and creepy, though by the end I felt King stopped short of giving it the full explanation and resolution it deserved. Even creepier than the twin-nabbing, was the development of Mia, --yet another alter ego for Susannah, and the reveal that she was pregnant. Even more unnerving, was the plot twist that it was not Eddie’s child she was carrying, but the child of the demon she had battled in the third book “The Wastelands.” The scenes that King wrote about Susannah/Mia in the Castle Dining Hall, where she fed her and her “chap” were completely gripping and utterly terrifying. Equally unsettling was the surfacing of “Black Thirteen”, the wizard’s glass that embodied ultimate evil, in the semblance of a singular and unblinking eye. King has a knack for writing about evil; he turns is from a disembodied concept into a hovering, palpable presence. King creates visceral descriptions and striking analogies that solidify into frightning images in our minds eye. I finally had my first Dark Tower related nightmare while in the midst of reading “Calla.”

So all in all have I noticed a decline? Yes. Am I resolute as ever to make it to the end of this journey. Yes. Wizard and Glass was amazing, Wolves of Calla was still a page turner, but not as artfully done. Song of Susannah awaits me on a shelf at home. The cliffhanger at the end of “Calla” with Susannah’s disappearance is a nail biter… so I may not be getting much sleep tonight, do ya ken it?

Monday, January 23, 2006

LOST feels Lost

I figure by now, anyone who is an avid watcher of Lost (is there any other kind?) has seen last week’s episode, titled “The Hunting Party.” In this episode, Michael runs off to find Walt and we get yet another peek at Jack’s past life as a surgeon.
I thought it was one of the weakest episodes I’ve seen yet in a series which I’ve always touted as being remarkably strong and elegant. I’m not sure if it’s a sophmore slump or pressure from the network, but I cant’ shake the feeling that the writers behind Lost, are feeling lost themselves.

The week before last, the episode, “The 23rd Pslam” aired on January 11th, and went into the backstory of the solemn and enigmatic character Mr. Eko, one of the “new” survivors”. This was the first new episode that the show had aired since November 30, which was almost a month and a half prior! Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, the actor who portrays Mr. Eko, has been a solid addition to the cast, and I think he is terrific actor. Akinnouye-Agbaje has a subtlety to his mannerisms, and a gentle intensity that fills up the screen with power. I was intrigued by Mr. Eko’s former days as an African warlord, and these scenes felt surprisingly authentic, as they told the story of his unfortunate childhood and the difficult decisions he was faced to make once grown. I thought the writers did a clever job of weaving together story elements from last season and the current season; explaining the origin of the priest’s corpse which had been found by Jack and Locke hung up in a tree last year, and the plane wreck in the middle of the jungle that led to Boone’s death. I liked that they were once again able to tie up the fate of one of the new survivors on the island, with the fate of the other survivors. “The 23rd Pslam” even featured a guest appearance by the ever elusive “black smoke”, with its mechanical, clanking sounds, as it faced off Mr. Eko in a clearing. As peculiar and menacing as the smoke is, my response to it has dampened. The first time I saw the smoke in last season’s finale, I was shocked and perplexed, but now I feel somewhat jaded, because I feel certain that nothing about it will be explained. It’s like a dog who smells the delicious aromas of cooking wafting through the screen door of a kitchen. He will anxiously wait for someone to step through the door and feed him, drooling and pawing at the metal mesh seperating him from the food. But after a while of waiting, he will give up hope and walk away from the door, certain the a meal is never coming.

This metaphor is fairly accurate in describing how I’m beginning to feel about LOST. “The 23rd Pslam” was a good episode because it highlighted some of the inherent strengths of the show, --creating characters with depth and intrigue, and weaving together new plot elements with old ones, these are the things that LOST can be so good at. But as well done as it was, it still didn’t really advance much of anything in terms of the story on the island.

“The Hunting Party”, was an egregious stall tactic episode if I ever saw one. It felt like recycled themes, and continued the show’s recent knack for opening up can of worms upon can or worms. The characters on the island must be up to their eyes in figurative earthworms, no wonder they can’t get anywhere. First off, even though, the first episode of the season was months ago, I felt like we’d JUST seen a Jack flashback episode. Especially since the flashback scenes in this episode were so familiar and predictable. Once again we saw Jack as a surgeon, doing spinal operations, struggling with his role as a doctor/miracle worker, and letting people down. I felt like we saw similar elements in the episode “Man of science, Man of Faith” (season 2 opener). The only difference is that in one case, he succeeded in his miracle, in another he did not. As for his relationship with his wife, there was too little interaction between them to surmise what was really going on, and his act of kissing the Italian woman was deflated by his wife’s admission that she was already having an affair. We already knew from last season that Jack was divorced, to learn that the cause was nothing more than some standard workaholic tendencies and textbook infidelity was kind of disappointing. Futhermore, the link that the writers always make between the action in the flashback and the action on the island was especially weak in this episode. According to his wife Jack, “always has to try and fix things” –this sentiment is mirrored somewhat by Locke, who accuses Jack of doing the same thing by trying to chase after Michael, who has absconded to find Walt. This felt like a like more than a bit of a stretch to me. Jack doing his job and trying to save a man’s life, and Jack deciding to give his marriage a second try, are not that comprable to his control issues on the island.

While I think its creepy and interesting to have Walt purportedly typing to his father, Micahel, at an unknown computer at the island, I think the writers of the show have chosen a very bizarre way to play the scenario out. First of all, it seems HIGHLY unlikely that Michael would be so surreptitious about the fact that he was talking to Walt over the computer. Especially if Jack walks up to him, (as he did in the episode “The 23rd Pslam”) and brings up Walt, and how he and the other survivors haven’t forgotten about saving him. Why wouldn’t Michael tell him immediatley what was going on? It seems like a natural response for Michael to get up screaming from that chair in the Hatch, and tell anybody who would hear him that his son is alive and that they must figure out where he is. Furthermore, I don’t think they’ve fully justitified why Michael would go out on his own to go collect Walt. Maybe Sawyer, or Kate would do something like that, but Michael has always been painted as a more logical and rational individual, a smart man who wouldn’t unncessarily throw either himself or his son into danger’s way. Knowing what he does know about the Others, he seems completely crazy to go after them by himself. Even if he did suddenly snap, and go AWOL on account of his son, I think the way to do it would have been to make it a Michael or a Walt flashback, and center it around their story, rather than making Jack the focal point, when it really has little to do with him.

On the subject of The Others, I thought the scene where that creepy old sea billy walks out of the trees was certainly unnerving, as was the instantaneous lighting of the torches at his command. But we still didn’t get anywhere with anything! There was no real information divulged about the Others, such as how they got there, what their M.O. is, and why they took Walt. Is this “Others” racquet getting old to anyone else? Not to mention the fact that it feels like there are too many main characters on the show. What the hell happened to the French Woman? Desmond? And has Hurley done anything but make his occasional wisecrack for the past several episodes? It’s time for them to kill more people off or have some sort of real event occur on the island. They go on hiatus for a month and a half, and this is what they come back with? The only thing right now that is kindling my hope, is the last line of last week’s episode, where Jack asks Ana Lucia how long it would take to train an army. Now that’s what I’m talking about.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Trend of Torture

In the past couple of years, it seems that the sub-genre of the “torture” horror film has had a renaissance. First there was the Rob Zombie gorefest, House of 1000 Corpses, which was released in Spring of 2003. A few months later came the Michael Bay produced remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Then in 2004, came SAW, and in ’05 we saw two new sequals in the torture genre with SAW II and The Devil’s Rejects (aka House of a Thousand Corpses 2). This past summer, a film called Chaos, was released, which many critics have pegged as a “rip-off” of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, despite the fact that director David DeFalco denies it as a remake. A couple of weeks ago Eli Roth’s Hostel came in at number one at the box office, and though I myself have not seen it, it is apparently, the torture film to end all torture films. But things aren’t quieting down yet. In less than two months a remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes will hit theatres, and who knows what other horrors are in store for us in the near future.

The plot for most of these films are pretty similar to one another, and fairly unsophisticated to boot. Unsuspecting innocent folk (usually attractive young people) stumble upon a group of psychotic killers, who slowly torture and murder each one of them, with slight variations on the theme. Sometimes the killers wish to dine on their prey, other times they wish to watch their victims to hurt each other, but often the killers view the rituals leading up to death, and the murdering itself, as games or sport. Typically, by the end of the film, there is only one survivor who is able to escape the clutches of these human monsters, sometimes by outwitting and killing their captors, occasionally with the help of others.

The first time this sub-genre of horror had it’s hey day was in the 70’s. In 1972, master of terror Wes Craven directed his first feature film, The Last House on the Left. This film is a grisly depiction of a gang of murderers who rape, torture and kill two young women, and then unknowingly end up at the home of the girls’ parents. The parents, who discover what the murderes have done, subject the murderers to a series of brutal torture, before they kill them. Craven defended the film (which was banned in the UK), as a work that was meant to show the true terrible and horrifying nature of violence. Three years later, Wes Craven followed up his Last House of the Left, with the original version of The Hills have eyes. THHE is a tawdry tale of a family whose car breaks down in a deserted area of the midwest, and is ambushed by a roving family of inbred, primitive freaks. The 70’s also saw what is perhaps considered to be the quintessential torture flick of all time in ‘74 with Tobe Hooper’s ground breaking original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. TTCM followed the story of a group of teenagers who come across a enclave of psychopaths in a deserted part of Texas, and are then successively mutilated and killed in a smorgasbord of gore. On a personal note, I consider myself a veteran of horror films, and one who is not too easily frightened, but to this day I can not bare to see the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre for a second time. I saw the remake when it came out and found it somewhat engaging, though it did not terrify me the way the original did. In it’s polished and stylish presentation it lacked the grittiness and rawness of the original, (though it had quite a good trailer . The original TTCM, feels almost like a documentary, and gives you the shivering sensations that everything you are watching might have actually happened.

But what exactly is it about these sorts of films that have people flocking to the theatres to watch bodily dismemberment? Is it that these films are like a gruesome car accident which we recognize as horrible, yet can’t bare to look away from? We wince and shriek when we see a character mangled on screen, and our stomachs curdle with empathy at the pain that the person on film must be going through. We feel a combination of disgust and horror as we watch fingers be clipped and blood ooze from the wound. But to what end, one might ask? So many of these films, particularly the recent lot have lacked a real point or story. One begins to blend into another with a sense of redundancy, when the main characters are one dimensional, and the film making unartistic. For a horror movie to really work on the level of its genre, it needs to not only operate on different levels, but to tap into our fears on a more metaphorical sense. Yes, everyone is afraid of getting murdered, but it is the mystery of the unknown and the unexpected that can be even more terrifying.

There is a marked difference between the horror movies that are chock full of violence, and those that are not. Certain horror films rely on what remains unseen to create a sense of suspense and terror, while others use the shock and sensationalism of blood and gore. There are many varying shades of grey in between these two techniques. There are ghost stories, like The Ring, pyshcological horror films like Rosemary’s Baby, and serial killer movies like Halloween. But the torture-horror films? I’m not so sure what to think about them. The films in the 70’s had a sort of cinema verite quality –they were terrifying because everything about them felt so real. The actors looked like real people, the settings felt organic, and that small irrational part of your brain wondered whether or not this footage might actually be real…. Yet, this new slew of movies involving torture are so slick and hollywoodized that they feel or at least seem, fake. The actors aren’t everyday looking people, but hunky men (Cary Elwes, Jay Hernandez) and doll faced women (Jessica Biel, Emilie de Ravin) who’s presence shatters the conceit that these terrible horrors could be happening next door, because we’ve just seen them the day before on Entertainment Tonight. The quick editing style, outlandish camera angles, and filtered and colored film stock, also give a lot of these films the aura of music videos rather than documentaries.

Once you take the realistic elements out of these films, what do you have left? A couple of hours of people people abused, mutilated, and killed? As I already stated the plots of these films usually aren’t too intricate, so all there really is to focus on is the blood letting, and anguish. These films just seem to be repetitive after a while. I know these things all boil down to a matter of personal taste, but I really don’t find anything redeeming or particularly enjoyable about watching people be tortured and dismembered without a deeper theme or story behind it. It’s not my cup of tea, and I think these sorts of films just try to capitalize on the “gross-out” factor, and shock value.

I also generally find horror films that deal with the supernatural to be more frightening, then those that merely deal with a couple of psychopaths. (Of course, I’ve found exceptions, like Silence of the Lambs, the original TTCM, When a Stranger Calls, etc.) For me, some of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen are The Exorcist, The Ring, Poltergeist, The Birds, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Jacob’s Ladder, just to name a few. Some people think its scarier to witness the horrors that may reside in the hearts of men, causing them to committ evil acts (none display this more aptly than war movies I think). But I find the monsters that can not so easily be stopped in their tracks by bullets or blades of steel to be the most terrifying of all.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The King and the Dark Tower

About a month and a half ago I embarked on the long and distant journey to the Dark Tower. In other words I started reading Stephen King’s fantasy-horror epic: The Dark Tower series. The Dark Tower, is part vintage western, part Tolkeinian, and part ghost story, and follows the tale of Roland of Gilead as he searches for the Dark Tower, the answer to saving the world that crumbles around him. It is King’s self-proclaimed masterpiece, and many fans agree. Though getting through all seven volumes, as a grand total of 3,770 pages, is in my opinion, no small feat. It seems to be the consensus that the first book, titled The Gunslinger, (though the shortest in length at around 230 pages in the paperback edition) is the most difficult to get through because of its slow pace and unweildy prose. It is fairly atypical for Stephen King book; a piece more dedicated to it’s protagonist than to a rip-roarin’ adventure. But the first book is not to be skipped; once you move onto the second and third books, you realize you could never enjoy them as much if it hadn’t been for the first, which is instrumental in setting up the story’s hero, Roland of Gilead, as well as the world he travels in and through.

First published in 1982, The Gunslinger was the first of the seven novel saga, the last installment was appropriately named, simply, The Dark Tower, and was finally published in the fall of 2004. What I find neat about reading the series now that it’s been completed is:

a) I don’t have to worry about waiting around for the next book to be written and published. (which I guess is cheating a little bit but I also don’t have the detriment of forgetting things from previous books when I pick up the next one)

c) King has revised and expanded certain pieces of the original four novels, and has included a pretty nifty introduction to the series, which talks about his inspiration for starting the dark tower books, and the journey that he took as a writer over the two plus decades it took him to complete Roland’s story.

King completed the first four books of the series, Gunslinger, The Drawing of Three, The Wastelands, and Wizard and Glass in about a decade’s time. But after Wizard and Glass, he put down the gauntlet of the Dark Tower for a while, and it wasn’t until several years later that he was inspired to pick it back up again. In the summer of 1999, King was in a near fatal car accident, which left him severely injured. After his recovery, shaken by a newfound sense of his own mortality, he decided it was time to wrap up Roland’s journey, and in only four years completed volumes V Wolves of the Calla, VI Song of Sussanah, and VII The Dark Tower.

I am currently about seventy five pages into the fourth book, Wizard and Glass, and considering the cliffhanger that the third one had, I was excited to be able to pick up the next book immediately. Despite the slow going first installment, I have to say I’m quite enjoying the whole journey. I am constantly impressed, within this set of novels, at his ability to weave together a great deal of elements into a cohesive whole while shrouding them all the while in a hovering atmosphere of mystery and magic. In the Dark Tower, King has created an imaginary world which is both palpable and ethereal, and he tirelessly creates a bountiful amount of new monsters (my favorites are the lobstrosities and Blaine), scenarios(LUD is a page-turner), and mythologies (ka, ka-tet, and kehf can get burdensome after a while, but are all interesting concepts). Roland and his merry band of GIT (gunslingers in training) are eclectic in their chemistry and each is endearing in their own unique way. Yet Roland is the most magnetic of the characters perhaps because of all the dichotomies that reside within him. He does whatever needs to be done for his quest, and internally advertises his own solitary qualities, yet the reader knows he would never have survived through his various trials if not for the trusty friends he hand picked from the “real” world. There is Eddie, the former heroin addict, smart aleck, Susannah, the formerly schizo phrenic African-American who lived her prime in the era of the civil rights movement, and Jake, a young boy who up until his “drawing” was a regular NYC prep school kid. These characters are lively in and of themselves, but they are also particularly instrumental in bringing out Roland’s humanity. Roland invokes such tenderness in the reader because of the juxtopisiton of his strength and resolve next to vulnerability and kindness that he unknowingly exhibits.

King is often crtiqued among the erudite for being a cheap populist writer who has no style, and churns out newstand rubbish. In 2003, when Stephen King was awarded the National Book Award for lifetime achievement, many balked at the National Book Foundations’ choice. Harold Bloom, a stodgy Yale professor and scholar, wrote a scathing op-ed piece that was published in the Boston Globe, with the title "Dumbing Down American Readers". This article, and the mentality that it represents really irks me. According to the ideas espoused in this article, in order to be distinguished in the world of literature, one must either be dead or difficult to understand; at the very least inaccessible to those who aren’t literary scholars. In the same breath, Bloom goes on to lambast J.K. Rowling and her “dreadful” Harry Potter. This idea that anything which is “catered to the masses” is tripe, is both foolish and inflammatory. I’ve hummed this tune many a time before, but I hate the way genre items are so casually discarded as pedestrian; I think there is equal value in all sorts of literature. Some books are impressive because of their language and style, for the way that they are written. Others may be revolutionary in their narrative and the way that they are structured. Still others may be deliberately moving character studies with little to no plot, that are fascinating because of the person/people that they center on. But in my opinion, nothing beats a good “yarn” or story, and this is the very sort of crafting at which King thrives; he is a master storyteller. Yes, it’s true that his writing style can get a wee bit sloppy from time to time, (for example, he’ll use the phrase “mint green jelly” several times in a relatively short span of text to describe the appearance of a character’s crushed eyeball), though I think he has his more poetic moments as well. But beyond that King is astonishingly adept at creating a story, filled with a charismatic cast of characters, and a landscape of imagery for them to inhabit. King takes us to places we never dreamed (or wanted to dream) existed

What Stephen King has done for our cultural lexicon is nearly unfathomable. King has published a total of fifty four books (most of them novels, though some short story collections and non-fiction) in the past thirty sem-odd years. Over twenty of his works have been adapted into feature films, and television movies or mini-series. The man is a behemoth. His imagination is an unstoppable freight train. Behold his influence and power on the minds of countless readers, movie goers and pop culture consumers around the globe; do we not avoid hotels named Overlook? Cringe at the thought of pig’s blood pranks on prom night? Shudder at the thought of clowns?

I have read only about a third of King’s works, but what I’ve read I’ve always enjoyed. Some stories I found more compelling than others, but all of them consistently delivered as stories of intrigue, horror and macabre. Despite what people may say about him these days, I have a feeling his books are going to be kicking around for a long time to come. As for the Dark Tower? Wish me luck as I continue to delve for its answers.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Forget raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, all the New Yorker needs is a little Peter Jackson

When I’m feeling blue, I resort to the one thing that has without fail served to fill me with some comfort time and time again: behind the scenes footage and DVD extras for Peter Jackson’s films. I own all of the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings films, and have delved into all nine DVD discs (there are two in each extended edition, plus one dvd for each of the standard releases) of extras that exist, though I’m certain that not even I have watched everything there is to watch yet.

On December 13th, King Kong: Peter Jackson’s Production Diaries were released on DVD. These two discs contain every single video diary that was posted on the fan run website Kong is King during the production of the film. While I had already seen a handful of these diaries, (I even posted some links to them on this blog in the past), I never followed the site as religiously as I could have. Of course it turned out for the best, because I was rewarded with almost four solid hours of video footage I hadn’t seen, which included interviews with the actors, crew, and most of all, the beloved Peter Jackson. These diaries really showed, beyond anything, Jackson’s loyalty and dedication to his fans. Many a diary entry were responses to emails that fans sent in to the website asking details about any given facet of the film making process, be it the sound crew, the wardrobe department, or the way certain FX sequences were orchestrated. There was a diary on the hundreth day of production which showed “A day in the life of Peter Jackson.” We saw how Jackson was up and on his way to a meeting by 8:30 AM, and did not finish his work day until midnight of that same day. Of course all of it is done with a humorous touch, the camera zooming in to capture him dozing on a couch in the edit bay, or intercutting between PJ working and while the crew celebrates at a party going on in the meantime.

Perhaps one of the most astonishing aspects of the diaries, is how genuninely good natured Jackson remains through all of them. There really aren’t that many directors of his stature that I can think of, who would embrace the idea of having cameras on them while they’re shooting a movie the way he did. Not only does Jackson allow it, but he seems excited by it. He seems so interested in sharing his own enthusiasm with others. And it is in fact delightful to see his fervor over things like the original models of the dinosaurs that were used in the 1933 stop motion sequence. It is apparent through his commentary, that above all, Jackson is as big a fan as anyone out there, and that he is thrilled to be working on a project (King Kong) that has been a life long dream of his.

These diaries manage to be informative and interesting, without becoming boring or tedious; and they are ideal for anyone who just wishes to guzzle up information about the film making process, or the bevy of minutia involved in the production of King Kong. Along the way of course, are a lot of silly moments, like the April Fool’s day prank where Jackson, cast and crew tried to fool everyone into thinking that they were going to start shooting two sequels back to back “Son of Kong” and “Kong 3: Into the Wolf’s Lair.” There is also a bizarre segment during one of the last diary entries before the very end of shooting, where Jackson pretends he is too tired to direct, and invites both Bryan Singer and Frank Darabont to do guest directing spots on the last two days of shooting. (Singer was relatively near, in Australia, where he had been working on Superman Returns). Despite the fact that I have a bit more respect for Singer on a personal level, due to his association with Jackson (any friend of Peter’s is a friend of mine, though Singer is undeniably a talented director) I still can’t help using this moment as an excuse to use this picture of Singer again:

And yet the initial question still remains somewhat unanswered….what is it about watching this particular film maker and his cohorts make a movie, that fills me with such a sense of calm and comfort? I think ultimately, it’s knowing that there is someone out there who is as big a fanboy(girl) as I am; that there is a group of people who would get equally excited by looking at a seventy five year old model of a brontosaurus. There is a moment in one of the diaries, where various cast and crew members are going around giving reasons for why steam comes out of the potholes and street vents in New York City. Peter Jackson’s repsonse is one that I could imagine coming out of my own mouth. He posits that it is all of the alligators in the sewers who huddle together when it’s cold and breathe their hot breath out into the streets where it condenses and becomes visible. Jackson’s sense of childlike wonder and imagination is to me both admirable and touching. But what I find even more inspiring than the level of Jackson’s talent, is his passion for what he does. He and the group of people that he works with at WETA and otherwise have such a love and dedication to what they do. I find some peace in that.

So if you liked King Kong, or are a fan of Peter Jackson, or even if you just have an interest in the many different elements involved in film making, I highly recommend the King Kong Production Diary DVD’s.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Spielberg shows his darker side

For decades, detractors of Spielberg have proclaimed that he favors Hollywood happy endings too heavily. They peg his films as too “sweet”, too “saccahrin”; films that lack the guts to be raw and dark. Certain critics feel that even his more serious historical films such as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan can still ultimately be reduced into sentimental anthems about the milk of human kindness.

But if ever there was a Spielberg film to counter these philosophies on his style of film making it was Munich.

Munich’s was a fictionalized story based around an actual event. The film begins with the slaying of Israeli athletes which occurred during the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, Germany. The Palestinian terrorist group which committed the act lost some men during the operation, but many of the masterminds behind the crime escaped without punishment. Munich tells the story of Avner, an Israeli man who works for the government as a Mossad agent, and is called upon by his country to undergo a very special, very secret mission. Avner, is assigned to assasinate all those who orchestrated the massacre of the athletes, with the help of four other men.

The film starts with a frenetic millieu. Speilberg intercuts between what appears to be actual archinval news footage of the incident, and scenes that he shot with actors playing reporters. We also see the moment where the terrorist group is helped into the Olympic village by unknowing American athletes, in what is perhaps meant to be ironic commentary of the role that the U.S. has played in Israeli – Palestinian relations. We see the brutal and bloody entry of Black September (the terrorist group) into the sleeping quarters of the Israeli athletes, and more intercutting occurs, before we can piece together the sequence of events on that fateful night. We also see snippets of families, both Israli and Palestinian, as they remain glued to the Television watching the events unfold, each praying and hoping that their loved ones will return home unharmed.

At the start of the film, the audience naturally feels a sense of horror at the crimes that were committed in Munich against innocent atheletes who had no part in the political going ons of the day. We hear the solemn speech made by Lynn Cohen’s character, Golda Meir, the prime minister of Israel, in which she says, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” We see the resolve in Eric Bana’s eyes (as his character Avner) as he takes on this onimous mission of vengance. A mission that will not only avail his nation, and prove that his, are a people to be reckoned with, but one which might somehow assuage the aching wound that was incurred upon all Israeli’s that fateful summer night in Munich.

Avner’s team is an interesting group. There is Carl, (who was played by Ciaran Hinds), the oldest of the group, probably in his mid 50’s, he was in charge of “clean-up” after an execution. He made sure no incriminating evidence was left behind and the like. Then there was Robert, (played by Mathieu Kassovitz), a baby faced engineer, who had been assigned as the explosives expert of the group –a bomb maker, despite the fact he had originally joined Mossad, for his skill and desire to disarm bombs. Hans, (played by Hanns Zischler), perhaps the quietest member of the group, dealt in “papers and documents” creating false passports, visas, and any other paper work that might me necessary. The most colorful member of the group was Steve (portrayed by Daniel Craig –our next James Bond), a self-proclaimed Zionist who dressed like he was on his way to the disco, and would never waver on a mission.

With the help of an intelligent script by playwright Tony Kushner (of Angels in America fame), Spielberg developed a muted yet significant rapport between the members of this little motley crew. Avner, as a team leader, was also a adept cook, and had a wonderfully quirky habit of obsessively cooking dish upon dish, which was a unique trait that developed his character further. His constant outpouring of food created a sort of symbolic binding material, that brought his team together. This was appropriate since he was their leader, but it was definitely an unusual method considering they were a band of traveling assasins.

The film consistently touches upon the irrefutable moral conundrums of murder. Beyond the topics of Israeli versus Palestinian, the film digs deep to ask the question, can the killing of a person ever be completely justified? Speilberg and Kushner took care to humanize each and every one of the victims that Avner and his men take out. We see one man thoughtfully requested grocery items from a bakery. Another speaking softly to his young daughter, (the young girl is almost killed by the explosive set for her father, when she rushes back into the apartment to collect something she had forgotten.) In another instance, one of the unknowing targets tries to make small talk with Avner about the boisterous couple adjacent to his hotel room. These small moments succeed in showing an understated humanity in the targeted men, without being overly sentimental or unrealistic. It is intriguing to observe the way that Avner and his men change over the course of their tenure as guns for hire. In the beginning they were so cautious about making sure that no family member of the accused got caught in the crossfire of their mission, and that no innocent blood be shed. But as time went on, they took less precautions and simply accepted that there would be other casualties now and again. In the latter half of the film, Carl (the clean-up guy) is killed by a female assasin, who though not directly affiliated with Black September (the terrorist group), was probably hired by someone on their side. There is a particularly brutal scene where Avner, Hans and Steve go to Belgium to find this woman, and shoot her in her home, while she is wearing nothing but a slim robe. As she lays dead in a chair, her nude body sprawled grotesquely, Avner reaches out to cover her up, but Hans stops him. Later on Hans expresses his regret over doing so, and it is implied that he kills himself later that evening.

I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine years ago about Speilberg’s A.I.. We were discussing the opening scene where William Hurt’s character is giving a lecture to some associates about the sentient artificial intelligent beings he has created. He tells a female robot to remove her clothing, and she begins to do so (thereby proving that as a mechanical construct she lacked human modesty and humility) –but Hurt stops her before she could get past the second button of her blouse. Despite the bizarre ending of A.I., I have actually always been pretty fond of the film, though I’m aware that many have panned it. My friend made the point that if Stanley Kubrick had directed the film (as was originally intended), the female android would have stripped herself bare, and the audience would have felt the discomfort of those in the room with her as it radiated off the screen. My friend thought that since Speilberg was such a “family-friendly” director, he would never make such a provocative move, and stopped the moment before it could even get started. In contrast, I think Munich shows that Speilberg is truly not afraid to go to dark and uncomfortable places, and does so when he feels it’s right.

People commented on the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan because of the way it violently real depiction of the storming of the beaches at Normany. Yet as brutal as that was, there was something far more ferocius about this film. As the story reveals itself, Avner’s reticence to kill slips away, and his mind becomes clouded with the emotional and mental fallout of all that he has done. He begins to become paranoid that people are trying to kill him, and has dreams of horrible bloodshed. There is a running nightmare that haunts him both day and night, where it appears some Palestinian terrorists have hijacked an Israeli plane. They move the passengers off the plane and into a helicopter, and then they are ambushed by what appear to be Israli forces. The terrorists are killed, and the captors are killed as well, and everything is awash is a horrible glare of blood and splattering flesh. It is grimmer than the beaches at Normandy, because at least in that instance there was a sense of purpose and duty, and the knowledge that everything (somewhat) comes out alright in the end. Yes, millions of lives were lost during WWII and the Holocaust, but in the end good prevailed over evil and peace was eventually met. There is no such calming reality to resort to after watching Munich. The killing and fighting that exists now seems just as volatile as it did over thirty years ago. Munich is particularly poignant because of its current relavency, and what makes it such a intricate film is that it resonates on varoius levels. Not only as a reminder of how little things have changed since ’72, but also as a commentary on the nature of preserving one’s nation, and the inevitable moral foibles of killing other humans, no matter what the reason. There is a very moving scene in the latter half of the film, where Robert, the soft spoken bomb-maker tells Avner that he can no longer continue with them on their mission, and must take a leave of absence. His eyes water as he tells Avner that though he is supposed to be fighting for his beloved country Israel and its people, the actions he has been taking compromise his very identity and soul. He confesses that he fears that if he continues down the path he has been travelling on, he will loose his Jewish self and his soul. In its essence, this film is very much a basic fable about men who become the monsters that they were chasing, and it posits the question of how to reconcile and deal with one’s enemies.

Munich was artfully shot and edited, the performances of its actors were consummate, and it had a finely written script. But it was no easy pill to swallow; at a running time of almost two and a half hours, it was a engulfing journey that bordered on tedious at times because of all the names and facts being thrown out at once. There was a lot of storylines going on at once; the whole sub-plot involving Louis and his father, and their French family run business which proveded information to Avner from suspicious orgins. There was the sub-plot of Avner’s wife Daphna, and the baby daughter who he has barely been a father too. It is definitely the sort of film that requires multiple viewings.

A couple of days after I saw Munich, one of my brothers was watching Speilberg’s reamke of War of the Worlds, which was recently released on DVD. As I sat and watched the devestation and the desperation wrecked upon humans by the aliens, I couldn’t help but draw a link to the final scenes of Munich where Avner is tormented with images of a gruesome hostage scenario, unable to lie peacefully in bed with his wife. Despite the fact that Speilberg remained faithful to the original ending of WOTW, some felt he cheaped out with such a “happy” ending, especially since Robbie (the teenage son) emerged from his grandparent’s home unharmed. But go back and watch it again, --up until this point, Speilberg has created a landscape of despair, where your neighbor is more likely to try and steal your car than help your daughter. It shows a certain bleak outlook of mankind that I think was echoed in Munich. And yet it is unfortunate that even aliens from outer space seem easier to conquer than the conflicts that exist between peoples here on our earth.

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