Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Must they all jump the shark? (Sopranos included?)

The Sopranos has always had so much going for it that other shows haven’t. Sure, it’s an HBO original series, and as such, can afford its fair share violence, language and sexuality. But these things aren’t what has made the Sopranos such a stand out series. The Sopranos has always managed the paradox of taking itself very seriously, while having the capacity to see humor in itself. It’s blend of drama and comedy succeeds because it exists in a world that (though built on certain stereotypes) feels 100% authentic and convincing. These characters reside in a mafia fantasy world, where the rules of living and working are completely foreign to us. But in spite of this, we are able to relate to it, to see the layers in it, because we come to know and love the characters so much. We buy into their actions and motivations, their hopes and their dreams. Who could a more unlikely hero than Anthony Soprano? And yet where is there a more layered, relatable, likeable character on Television? He is the dark horse everyman (and woman), struggling through the pitfalls of day to day life, that are rife with family, friends, work and obligation.

The Sopranos shows us criminals, men who have killed in cold blood, and yet makes us root for them, hoping they overcome their strife and stay out of prison, even though we know on some level we know they should be paying heavily for their sins. The richness of relationship these characters share with one another is what creates such a solid foundation for the show. Anthony and Carmella’s complex marriage, Anthony’s paternalistic and at times antagonistic mentorship of Christopher, Paulie and Christopher’s rivalry, and on and on. Each dynamic has its own bit of comedy and tragedy, with history that now goes back five, six seasons.

Though I can’t recall the interview or place that this factoid came from, it seems to be common knowledge among fans that, originally, David Chase, the creator of the Sopranos, had a four season arc for the show. However, the show was SO successful that the inevitable happened. When HBO realized just how much money and popularity they held in their hands, they wanted to extend the Sopranos glory, so in rolled the idea to extend the show two extra seasons, with a complete season five, and a two part season six. I think ultimately the show has suffered for it.

One can always make the argument that no matter what, a weak Sopranos episode is head and shoulders above “everything else on Television”, and to a certain extent that may be true. No matter what, the production value and acting are generally flawless. BUT, that doesn’t mean it’s any less frustrating as a fan of the show when a “watered down” episode comes along, where not much happens, and the resolution of larger storylines are postponed or even forgotten. I’ve heard some folk talk that they think the “water down” trend began very subtlely in season four, and while there might have been an episode or two I wasn’t crazy about, things didn’t really start to wane for me until season five.

This season, for the first time, I have been watching the new sixth season week to week as it airs on HBO. Normally, I watch the entire season over the span of a week or less, gorging myself on three or four episodes at a time. Maybe it’s my new viewing style, or maybe it’s my faded memory of the fifth season, but whatever the case may be, I find myself loosing patience quickly. The season premiere was interesting, no question. It was undoubtedly shocking when the member of Tony’s crew who wanted to move to Miami, ended up killing himself. Especially since if followed an episode’s worth of build up on the subject of him potentially doing something drastic to make his move happen. Some found this old “switcheroo” to be brillant, regardless of whether or not it ends up coming back in the season. But it’s my feeling, that if this suicide does not play out somehow before the show is over, it will have been a complete waste of time.

Junior shooting Tony was huge –it completed the one-two punch, (first the suicide, then Junior’s crazed behavior) of the episode. If it’s one thing the Sopranos has always been able to make me do is to gasp out loud, and I did so twice that night. But I haven’t been crazy about the direction the show has been going in since then, i.e. the last two episodes. While putting Tony in the hospital was a bold and daring move, and his dream world had some interesting elements, these scenes began to drag and become tiresome. The second episode, which comprised, of basically just Tony wandering around a bizarro LA, and his family members crying and talking to him at his bedside, felt decidedly UNSopranos. While moving at times, it also bordered on sentimentality, and I found Kevin Finnerty and his briefcase to be heavy handed. I liked that Tony’s real life pierced the hallucinatory coma, like the fact that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (Junior’s disease), and the obvious issue of confusion his identity and his future (I’m 46 years old, where am I going in my life?). But it just kept going on and on. Yes we get, Tony has lost his way in some bizarro spirit world, and he doesn’t know who he is. Overall the scenes with Tony in his coma/dreamscape felt stifled, and drawn out.

In this Sunday’s episode, I was fascinated by how quickly his underlings and “friends” were eager to move in for the kill, and push him and his family out of the way. It was intriguing to see what happened in the wake of this newly formed power vaccum. I also liked the idea of Carmella going to Dr. Melfi instead of Tony –though it’s unclear how long that might last. But even with these pieces of new intrigue, I couldn’t help but feel that the episode dragged. It’s difficult to put my finger on, there wasn’t one particular thing that I found egregious, it was more of an overall feel. And just when I thought things finally were starting to get interesting, Tony wakes up, and it would appear that things start to go back to mob business as usual.

Which begs to ask the question, has The Sopranos jumped the shark? I think the answer is yes. As excited as I am to see it back on the air, I do think it has run its course a bit. I’m not sure what else they have left to do and where else they have to go. For all our sakes I hope I am wrong. Is it an inevitability that all shows, even those that don’t deal with the politics of network televsision decline before their finally taken off the air? It’s a question I know I’ve asked before. But it’s sad to see that even the sweetest of things can grow a little sour. Oh but it’s still head and shoulders above ANYTHING else on TV, my detractors might say. Yeah, …but it still used to be better.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Tagline of the Week: Courtesy of An American Haunting

It’s not typical that a horror movie slips under my radar for very long. Typically I have an inkling of current horror films at least a few months before their release date. However, every now and again something does slip through the cracks. The trailer for An American Haunting, which will be released on May 5th, was just posted on the Apple trailer site a couple of days ago. Not only had I never heard of AAH funtil today, but I had never even heard of the infamous incident upon which the film is based. AAH recounts the story of the only recorded death caused by a spirit in U.S. history, which occurred in the early 1800’s. The trailer paints the event as a phenomenon as widely studied as the Salem Witch Craft Trials, and perhaps it is, but I would be surprised. I am so jaded by trailers that volley for the title of being “the most historically significant.” After all, it’s a movie, not a documentary, not a non-fiction book, and when studios always use a film’s faux factuality to market it, I’m always annoyed.

I’m well aware that films within their genres are forced to repeat the same sorts of stories over and over again, but the terrorized/possessed young girl subgenre is one which I have had just about enough of. Wasn’t it only about six months ago that The Exorcism of Emily Rose was released? It was a film with an interesting take, (melding horror with courtroom drama), but one which lacked the characters and storytelling to make it really memorable. From the looks of it, An American Haunting, appears to have a similar storyline to TEOER. It is about a young teenage girl in the rural early post-colonial U.S. who is haunted and possesed by “something evil.” The set pieces that follow are ones which have been made unforgettable by the mother of all possesion films, The Exorcist. The rolling of the eyes into the back of the head, the blankets being pulled back by the spirits as the child sleeps, the hurling of crucifixes across the room ---all of it feels very routine. I think that doing a film that deals with “demonic possesion” is very difficult, because of the inescapable shadow of the Exorcist. Some people find The Exorcist to be laughable and silly, others find it to be profoundly terrifying. I fall into the latter category. Up until fairly recently I had only scene snippets of the most famous sequences with the head spinning and the pea soup, so it was easy for me to brush it off. But once I had seen the film its entirety, I could not do so any longer. The Exorcist is effective because of the depth of its characters, the thematic undertones, and the questions of faith and inner demons. It is terrifying because of the questions it makes us ask about ourselves.

Somehow, I have a feeling that An American Haunting is not going to be a film with that sort of sophistication. The film was directed by Courtney Solomon, who also adapted the screenplay from a book by Brent Monahan. Solomon’s latest claim to fame (or unfame as it were), was the Dungeons and Dragons feature film which was released in 2000. I actually saw Dungeons and Dragons. In the theatre. Please don’t ask me why. While I’ve since blanked most of it out, I have a vague recollection that the storyline verged on the painfully boring, and I recall laughing at moments that were supposed to be “poignant”. Along with a filmmaker of questionable taste, the film has another bizarre element, which I think will hamper it, instead of help it. The film is a period piece, but not entirely so. According to the trailer, the haunting which transpired in 1818, “is happening again”, and we are introduced to a young woman who lives in present day U.S., who is also being terrorized. It would appear that the film tells the stories of both these young woman, as they struggle with the evil pursuing them. Call me a pessimist, but I think it would take a lot of finesse and class to properly cut between two stories that take place almost two hundred years apart. Very few films are able to pull this sort of thing off, The Hours being one of them, and that film was a multi-narrative piece which told its stories in big chunks. It was not promising that even the way the trailer was done was clunky, the modern footage at the beginning and the end felt slapped on and disorienting.

The only thing which gives me any pause at all is that it does have some big names in the cast. Both Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek are legends in their own time, and I’m intrigued that they would both do such a film. Still the sinking feeling in my stomach tells me it was probably just a paycheck for them and there aren’t hidden redeeming qualitites to AAH.

Judging by the trailer, this movie has such a predictable and boring trajectory. Girl in the past is haunted, hauting escalates, she is possesed, and then dies. Girl in present is haunted, she too is possesed, but she does something to stop her eventual death and somehow free the spirit of the girl from the past whose spirit has been in eternal torment.

The tagline of this one is “Posession knows no bounds.” In a way, I find it quite fitting of the project. Because these posession movies keep on keepin’ on no matter what the quality.

There however two fortes to An American Haunting. The first is that the acronym for a horror film is AAH(!). The second is the poster, which I think has a eerily beautiful design.

Friday, March 24, 2006

A pregnant pause; this week’s episode of LOST

By now, it’s becoming old hat. LOST airs a new episode, and then I proceed to rant and rave about all the plot holes, the lagging pace the show has taken, and the illogicalness of it all. I lament about the drop of quality between the first season and that of the current second season. Remember those early fan boy theories last year about the characters were really in purgatory? Well unlikely as it might seem, it’s certainly what it FEELS like to me these days.

And then I had a change of heart. I realized what the cure might be for my LOST blues, and though I may be speaking to soon, I think my whining and complaining might diminish to a dull roar. You see, if I race to the TiVo every week expecting the best show on Television to give me my fix, then I will be sorely disappointed. BUT, in turn, if I take it off its pedestal, and it simply becomes another show on my season pass roster, then the monumental expectation dwindles and I watch it with the same sort of apathy that I might watch a show on the food network. Sometimes they’ll make a dish I like, sometimes they won’t, but either way it was a decent bit of entertainment.

I will now attempt to write an even-handed, not fanatical review of this week’s episode. Ready? Here goes:

This week’s episode, of LOST, titled “The Whole Truth”, was a matter of fifty-fifty for me. There were two major storylines in the episode. The primary storyline focused on Sun and Jin, who were on the outs most of the episode. Concerned about leaving Sun alone after her kidnapping, Jin forces Sun to stop tending her garden and return with him to the beach. When she refuses, he pitches a fit and rips up her garden. Sun is angered and upset by his behavior, and as she walks along the beach she begins to feel faint. She discovers she is pregnant but is hesitant to tell Jin, because, as she tells Jack, it’s complicated. Turns out that back in Korea the couple tried to concieve consistently, but were unable to get Sun pregnant. After going to a fertility specialist, Sun is told that she is infertile and it is impossible for her to have children. Of course it turns out that the doctor was just lying to save face with Jin in the office, and he later confides to Sun that Jin is the one who will never be able to have children. We also learn that Sun had learned how to speak English from the handsome hotel heir who led her to Jin in the first place. There is some romantic tension between the two of them, but it is ambiguous as to whether or not Sun and Hotel boy actually had an affair. While there were some poignant moments in this storyline, I ultimately thought it was fairly inconsequentail to both the characters and the overall storyline. We’ve already known that Sun and Jin had big problems in the past, and that she was ready to leave him. Both these facts were only reiterated by the episode last night. Rehashing personal issues which were revealed in previous episodes seems to be the new calling card of this season. The fact that Sun is pregnant is supposed to create a conundrum because while Jin could not “technically” be the father, she swears that she has not been with another man. This means one of two things. Either Sun is lying, or the island is working some sort of “magic” on her. Well, correction, there are three possible truths I suppose, the last being that Jin really is the biological father, and it is a miracle. Any way you slice it, I don’t really care what the answer is, and I don’t see how or why the audience should. As one faithful reader of mine pointed out a while ago, at the rate that the show is going, there would need to be about twleve more seasons for us to actually see the baby be born. Secondly, even if she was cheating on Jin, it’s not that huge of a reveal, because we knew she already had every intention of leaving him before the plane crash. I’m not exactly sure what getting pregnant does for her character. She didn’t seem particularly passionate about having a child one way or the other before the crash. As for the possibility of the island voodoo, if it is some sort of magic virus baby, I just hope it pays off before a decade passes. I did, however, think there were some good moments for Jin’s character in this episode. His rage in Jin’s garden, and his subsequent replanting and repairing of it, gave him two good counterpoints for his feelings for Sun, and the way he operates. It gave some emotional vibrancy to a character, who is not exactly a man of many words. My favorite scene for him, was actually the moment when he reminds Sun that he can not understand what anyone says on the island, and that he has no friends. I liked that little segment where he was listening to Bernard and Sawyer speak and all he heard was jibberish. As an english speaking viewer, I think it is easy to forget what the entire island experience must be like for Jin, and how frustrated and isolated he must feel at times. I liked that this episode reminded us of that.

In regards to the episode’s flashback, I did think it was a little sloppy that the flashback was directly related to the action on the island, when the writers on the show have become famous for the indirect connections between flashback and current story. Juxtaposing Locke’s struggle with the relationship with his father in the past, with Locke relationship with Boone and struggle with the island is brilliant, because the connection is not overt, but emotional, and the thematic underpinnings are quite moving. Watching Sun try to get pregnant, and then get pregnant, is well, linear and somewhat boring storytelling, considering this is a woman who seems indifferent to the matter.

The second piece of the episode relayed the continuing issue of the balloonist Mr. Henry Gale (of OZ???), as Jack and Locke try to determine if he is a goodie or a baddie. We watched Locke seek out the interrogation expertise of Ana Lucia, who in turn, spent some time with Mr. Gale in the locked cell trying to figure out just what he was about. There’s something about the scenes between Henry Gale and the other survivors that I really like. I find myself looking at the scenario from all the different perspectives. Say Henry Gale is innocent, and his balloon really did crash in the jungle. He must think the survivors are a bunch of savages, and hold his breath every time the door opens. What kind of freak will enter this time? A former soldier with a propensity for torture? A priest ready to confess his sins? An ex-cop telling him to fess up or die? Yet it’s only natural that the survivors are cautious. Henry Gale could be bad news. He could be an infiltrator, another Ethan. There’s a power dynamic between Gale and the survivors that’s delicate and curious. On the one hand the survivors have all the power, because they hold him in captivity, allowing him food and water when they deem appropriate. But on the other hand, Henry Gale holds the power of his truth over them. He holds the power of suggestion, or insinuation. He can slip all sorts of thoughts into their heads which may sit and reverberate off the walls of their minds late into the night.

Be it through the power of her feminine charms, or from just “asking nicely” Ana Lucia gets Gale to draw a tentative map of where he thinks the balloon is. Covertly, (though I’m not entirely sure why they keep it so secret), Sayid, Charlie, and Ana go in search of the balloon. As they tromp through the jungle, they have petty arguments about who should hold the gun, and how thoroughly they should search, etc. I liked this particular selection of characters, because in many ways it was a group of some of the more miserable, outcasts types on the island. The others on the island don’t view Sayid as an outcast, but his emotional state of grief probably makes him feel like one; the death of his lover having rendered day to day activity futile and grating. Charlie is still a bit of a pariah from his stunt with the baby a couple days (weeks) ago and since she’s been on the island, Ana Lucia accidentally caused the death of two people, so she’s not feeling too popular either. It’s an interesting mix of folk, and a nice change from the constant John and Locke show. There was a certain disgruntled tone and attitude about those scenes, a grim moodiness that I thought was all too fitting. I think at times the show’s tone can slip into a humanity inspired giddiness, and while I understand that all folks wouldn’t be depressed ALL of the time, the grumpiness is, I think, considering the circumstances, to be expected.

I liked the line from Ana Lucia, where she says “Jack and Locke are too worried about Locke and Jack,” and I do like the slow burn that continues to grow between these two men, though their behavior towards each other can border on erratic. I also really like the last scene where Henry Gale sits with them having cereal and theorizes about what he would do IF he was an “other.” He’s certainly screwing with their minds, and I think that it might be even more interesting if he wasn’t an “other,” but was just a sick, crazy guy, possibly trying to vie for power himself.

So all in all, terrific episode? No. I liked some parts more than others, but it was good enough for just an ordinary TV show.

See that was pretty non-dogmactic, right?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

R for Review (of V for Vendetta)

Sometimes, the most difficult thing about watching a movie is observing tremendous potential be squandered. V for Vendetta wasn’t bad. In fact it was pretty good. But it could have been great, maybe even fantastic. In a post a couple days ago, I remarked on how I couldn’t really figure out the main gist of the story from the trailer. Now, after having seen the film, I understand why. The story, was adapted from the Alan Moore series, which was eventually compiled into a graphic novel, and it is one of complexity and detail.

Natalie Portman plays Evey, a young woman who lives in a small studio apartment, works at a Television station, and generally abides by the laws of her totalitarian government. At the start of the film, Evey has snuck out past curfew, when she is stopped by “fingermen”, --the corrupt secret police of the government, who begin to assault her. Just when things are starting get really ugly, the masked crusader with a propensity for Guy Fawkes, V, jumps in, knives the fingermen, and saves Evey from a grim fate. So begins the strange relationship between V and Evey. V dazzles her with a display of explosive pyrotechnics, that destroy government property and are set off to rousing classical music. Evey is both apalled and amazed by this man who embodies so much gall and ruthlessness. While Evey is at work the next day, V infiltrates the TV station and hijacks the control room. V then broadcasts a mission statement, urging the British public take action at the conspiracy wrought by their dictator and government. He makes a plea for every citizen who values freedom to join him next November 5th to take Parliament down by storm.

This moment is the launching point for the entire film. When Evey saves V from being captured by the police in the station, she is knocked unconscious. The next thing she knows she is in V’s underground lair, a charming clutter of books, antiques, artwork, and other collectibles. It is here, where things become a little diluted for me. V informs Evey that she is not allowed to leave, because he would compromise both of their identities and safety. While she is a bit flummoxed at first, she also seems perfectly happy to admire his jukebox, and eat the delicious eggs in a basket he has cooked for her. We see a couple more scenes of the two of them “hanging out”, watching films and the like, and inevitably hear of Evey’s past. Evey came from a family of political activists; her father was a writer, and both he and her mother were involved in protests against the government. They were both killed by the military police, and her brother was a victim of the “St. Mary’s” virus –a horrible pandemic that struck a children’s school, and part of suspected bio-terrorism. Evey tells V that she wishes she wasn’t afraid, but she is, all the time. This is supposed to be the crux of Evey’s character, her past, and her fear of the future. But if so, it wasn’t conveyed very well in the film. Evey was one of the protagonists in the film, but ultimately I found her one of the less interesting, because the emotional journey of her character was muddled. At the start of the film Evey doesn’t seem to be distraught or scared. She listens to the proclamations of a tv political evangelist with a roll of her eye, and she certainly doesn’t seem too frightened to break the state enforced curfew. And what of her past? She doesn’t really exhibit emotional scarring from watching her brother die horribly, and watch her mother get dragged away by the police. As for her day to day life, Evey seems perky and coiffed at her job. I suspect that the filmakers wanted to intimate that Evey had beome a drone, content with the status quo, and unwilling to give much thought to the state of things in her country. But I don’t think they succeeded very well. Evey seemed too vibrant and happy–not apathetic, or scared, or resigned.

After a successful attempt to escape from V, Evey ends up at a former associate’s house, Gordon the Television host, with whom she had meant to dine with on the night she ventured illegally out of her house. Luckily for her, (and it does seem almost too good to be true) Gordon is one of the good guys, and gives her a spot of tea telling her she can merely stay at his place as long as she likes. When the police break into Gordon’s home for a seditious Television broadcast, Evey is “black bagged” and the next thing she knows she is in a prison, where her head is shaved, and she must endure torture and near starvation. But every time the authorities ask her to give information on V, she refuses. This is supposed to be the turning point for Evey, a metamorphsis, from a scared sheep into an empowered political activist. While she is in the prison, her cell mate who is about to die, slips her fragments of her autobiography scrawled on toilet paper. We learn that her cellmate, a woman named Valerie, was seperated from her lover, and imprisoned for her homosexuality. The last thing Valerie writes to Evey, is:

“I don't know who you are. Or whether you're a man or a woman. I may never see you or cry with you or laugh with you or get drunk with you. But I love you.”

It is a poignant moment, one which is meant to effuse one of the political statements of the film, which is that everyone is much the same, no matter our gender, age, orientation, religion, etc., and that this is what the governments wish to keep us from actualizing. And yet this gripping moment seemed to float out on its own, a piece that is meant to fall into the puzzle of the film, but doesn’t quite fit.

When asked one last time if Evey will give up information in order to save herself, she refuses and is suddenly let free. As she walks out of the prison she discovers that she has been in V’s home all along, and that he created this whole ruse to “rid her of fear” and “make her stronger.” Evey is livid; she is baffled and furious that he could have done this to her. V tries to calm her, telling her that it was the only way to set her free, and that now she had achieved the ultimate state of fearlessness. He takes her out on the roof, and as the rain pours down on her shaved head as she yells with emotion….yet, it is unclear exactly why. Again, what I think the filmakers were trying to imply within the context of the film, that only those who value their beliefs over their lives can truly be alive or effect change in their government. An interesting statement considering today’s political climate of 24 hour terrorism talk, yet muddy and unclear. I certianly don’t think they dealt with the fact that V had actually imprisoned and tortured Evey because “he loved her” and “had to.” This darker, sadistic side does not really jive with the rest of his character of protect the innocent, harm the guilty.

At the end of the film Evey pulls the trigger on the bombs which will blow up parliament. V has been killed, and she takes Stephen Rea’s character up to the roof to watch the explosions, just as V had brought her months before. When Rea asks her who V really was she says, “he was my father, my mother, my brother, …., he was you and he was me.” Again another piece of passionate dialogue, but I had a hard time believing the journey that Evey’s character had made to this end point, where she blows up Parliament. She left V after he released her from the “prison” –but where did she go? We don’t know. What was she doing? Was she out on the streets fighting the same battle he was? Unclear. Yet, she comes back after weeks or possibly even months, letting V pass the torch to her, and essentially becoming the new V. It just didn’t really add up for me.

I found V’s story to be more compelling than Evey’s. As V for Vendetta unfolds, we also follows the story of two detectives played by Stephen Rea and Rupert Graves, who are trying to locate where V’s hideout is. As the detectives begin to explore just what lays behind the masked figure, they also uncover a massive coverup on the part of the government. To me, this was one of the more interesting, albeit gruesome portions of the story. I was intrigued, learning about the test facility where V was shot up with drugs and tested in an effort by government scientists to study the human immune system. Yet V’s victimization by the hands of the government was only part of a larger conspriacy that they had orchestrated which culminated in the coming to power of the dictator and the military police state. At one point Stephen Rea’s character posits the question to his partner –if your government was responsible for the death of thousands in your nation, would you want to know? Again, another viable political question, and one that has resonance in our society, but it wasn’t properly woven in with the rest of the film coherently.

The other story that the V for Vendetta tried to tell, peripherally, was the story of “the people.” Throughout the film we saw shots of civillians in their home or local pubs watching various events on TV like the hijacking of their national channel by V, and the subsequent efforts by the tyrannical leader to quell any thoughts of dissent. Eventually we watch them take action against their government. This provided a neat little runner throughout the movie, and represented another political theme. The last moments of the film looked stylish (I loved the image of all the masked individuals running towards the armed men, and then taking off their masks all together), and were powerful. But they did not have the power that they could have had because it was yet another straggling appendage flapping in the wind, instead of an endemic part of the whole; none of it added up. This movie lacked the very thing that it espoused above all –unity.

First time director James McTeigue did a formidable job, all things considered. He has a great sense of visuals, and had dynamic camera work. The art direction was solid, and he seemed to have an intuitive sense about his actors. I think ultimately the biggest problem with the film was story structure. The film clearly came from an intelligent source and there was some poetic dialogue and some nice turns of phrases; the language was there. Only it didn’t mesh together within the construct of a larger story. I haven’t read the original source material, so I am unable to deduce just how difficult it might have been to adapt. But it would seem with this film, the writer/producer Wachowski brothers had vision, but lacked clarity. V for Vendetta had some great ideas, some striking images, and some solid performances. I was interested and engaged by the film because it was…good, but with some streamlining and restructuring, I believe it could have been remarkable.

Monday, March 20, 2006

New Yorker is ambivalent about new Cars trailer

I saw the new Cars trailer online the other day and am feeling a little bit mixed on the matter.

I was immediately struck by the beauty of the artwork portraying the dusty, craggy mountain ranges surrounding Route 66. The landscapes are stunning, and in particular there is a shot of the red car driving through the tunnel towards a waterfall that is breath taking. Not that Pixar has ever failed to impress in the visuals department, but what I think is most astounding about them, is how they are able to create a unique stylistic vision for each of their films, while maintaining certain visual trademarks.

What I am not so sure of however, are the characters and the story. While the setting of the film is striking, the design of main character –the lil’ red racing car, is strangely cartoonish. While I think the characterizations of the different kinds of cars are funny, there’s something about it that also feels a little gimmicky about it. That technique of personifying inanimate objects and animals based on their appearance can be funny and clever, but it also seems like kind of an easy joke, and one that Pixar has definintely used before. In The Lion King, it was enough of a stretch for me to believe that Simba and Nala shared a romantic night together where they felt “the love”, but ask me to buy a race car and a porshe courting each other, and that might be just too much for me.

My feelings on Pixar varies greatly depending on the project. I think most of their short films are terrific, (my favorite is Boundin’). Features wise it’s a bit hit or miss. I certainly think they all look incredible. I love Toy Story, but not Toy Story too. I though Monsters Inc. was a terrific idea, but had so-so execution. I thought Finding Nemo was OK, but loved The Incredibles. Usually its about every other one that I really like, so they are actually due for a less than stellar entry. Nevertheless I will be at the theatre to admire their craft and precision.

Friday, March 17, 2006

V For Vendetta: Hit or Miss?

Well here it is. After almost three months of lagging and unexciting film releases, the first, big “nerd” film of 2006 is released today. I am referring of course to V for Vendetta , the film starring Natalie Portman, written and produced by the Wachowski brothers and directed by their protégé James McTeigue.

V for Vendetta is one of those rare genre films that has slipped through the cracks for me. Granted, I never read the original Alan Moore comic, so I lack the connection that I have with other big comic book films like Batman, Spiderman, Superman, and X-Men. But I just don’t feel as much anticipation as I think I should for this movie. The first time I saw the teaser , I was certainly interested. Utter the Wachowski namesake, and I pay attention, I don’t care what people said about Reloaded and Revolutions. The teaser had an arresting visual style, and I was strangely drawn to the masked face of V.

I consider myself to be decently savy with the cinematic language, yet, even after watching the trailer a couple of times, I found myself unable to understand exactly what the movie was about. Remember the first trailer for the Matrix? It was very odd, with slo mo sequences, and voiceover that merely posited the question, “What is the Matrix?” While some people were actually inspired by this trailer, flocking to the theatres on opening weekend, I remained perplexed. I refused to go see it for weeks (I would of course eventually see it and become entralled) because I couldn’t get a grasp on what it could possibly be about.

I feel a bit of the same with VFV. Sure, I’ll go see it this weekend, but more so because there’s been a drought of good movies lately, and I’ll take my gamble on this one. But, I can’t really say I can make heads or tails of the plot. I know it takes place in the future, under some sort of dictatorial reign in the UK. So far, so good. There is a masked vigilante, V, who fights against the evils of the government. Natalie Portman plays a young woman, who is abducted and then….shaves her head and fights bad guys too? As you can see, this is sort of where it falls apart for me. I’m not one of those people who wishes to see everything in a trailer. In fact I hate the recent trend of revealing “too much” in the trailer, and spoiling the twists and turns of a film before you can even get to see it. In my opinion a good movie marketing campaign should be two fold. A teaser can be vague or primarily stylistic in nature. It is meant to pique the interest of the audience, and leave an impression or image in their mind. A full length trailer however, should provide a bigger sense of story. Whether or not it reveals the actual story of the film is not the point, the trailer in and of itself should tell a story, and be driven with a narrative. However, I don’t think the VFV trailer does a very good job of creating a story that will hook people in and reel them into the theatres.
I’m also curious to see how the film does at the box office. I think it could go either way for VFV. It could bring the fanboys out in droves and open very well, or it might alienate the population at large with its morose and eeris photgraphy. The film is hyper stylized, in a way that people might brush off as “too weird”, and as beautiful as she might be, I think even Natlie Portman will have some trouble overcoming the idea of “A girl with a shaved head? Ew.” The one sheet poster, while bold and artistic, is also a pretty bizarre image. Definitely not a safe choice on the part of the marketers, and I like that its not safe. But I also think it might make some people shy away from the film even more. Monday morning box office reports should be interesting.

Though I try not to pay attention to the critics before I go see any given film, I can’t help but take notice of the wave of positive reveiws for this movie. It fills me with some hope, because on first glance it seems like the type of movie that is difficult to be a darling with the critics. It is dark, political, and violent. So maybe there is some hope after all. I could use a good film right about now. Review forthcoming.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Indiana FINALLY gets the green light?

Could it be? Is it true? After four years of blurbs in the trades and rumors on Aint It Cool , Yahoo! News broke a story last night, quoting Harrison Ford from an interview with a German magazine, in which he said that the current draft of the fourth Indy installment had finally been OK'd by the powers that be, AND there was actual talk of pre-production. It was almost a year ago (last May), when I last blogged about the status of Indy 4, sparked by an announcement in VARIETY that Ford and Spielberg ha approved Jeff Nathanson's script of the project, and were awaiting word from George Lucas. Ten months later it seems that Lucas has warmed to it after all. The three men had made an agreenment years ago that they would not proceed with the project unless all of them were pleased with the script.

Now, there is no direct quote from George Lucas in the article elucidating upon his official approval of the draft. Well not directly anyways… Lucas' producing partner Rick McCallum alluded to the fact that both he and Spielberg were doing their own little tweaks on the latest draft of Indy 4. Lucas' role as a producer and story teller might be essential to that magical formula for Indiana Jones, but I have some concerns about his role as a writer…. I mean, for whatever visual masterpieces the recent Star Wars films might have been, they were certainly not, how should we say, the most adroitly written things in the world. Not only is Lucas apparently putting his one two cents in the actual drafting process, but he has always been the most finnicky about the written word of Indy 4. Both Ford and Speilberg had expressed interest in earlier passes, by the likes of Frank Darabont and M. Night Shyamalan, but Lucas had reneged on both, halting pre-production on the film in both instances.

That's right, Lucas, God bless him, has been the most discriminant about the quality and tone of the script. This from the man who wrote lines like “I don't like sand. It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth. Like you.” And “I killed them. I killed them all. They're dead, every single one of them. And not just the men, but the women and the children, too. They're like animals, and I slaughtered them like animals.” And of course who could ever forget: “Better dead here than deader in the Core. Ye gods, whatta meesa sayin'?”

Whatta meesa sayin', indeed. The fourth Indiana Jones film has a strong writing legacy to live up to, as the first three Indy films are basically how-to models for writing a terrific action adventure. Granted, I have never read any of these drafts, but Lucas' reasoning puzzles me. Darabont and Shyamalan eat your hearts out, Jeff Nathanson this is your lucky day. Yes, the writer of Rush Hour 2 and 3 beat out the writers of The Sixth Sense and The Shawshank Redemption. Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson has had an interesting career. After a short lived stint in TV, where he wrote for the show, “Bakersfield, P.D.”, he wrote a small independent romantic comedy, “For Better or for Worse” in '96, which was directed by Jason Alexander. Shifting gears yet again, Nathanson's next film project was Speed 2: Cruise Control, which I have actually seen in passing on Saturday afternoon Television. It is not good and borders on the nonsensical, chock full of comedic Sandra Bullock lines like “Jack, he was never the romantic type. For our anniversary he gives me pepper spray. PEPPER SPRAY. I think it's perfume. I end up in the emergency room.”

For a little while it seemed Nathanson was going to make his name with lackluster action sequals, when he followed up Speed 2 with Rush Hour 2. But then something strange happened. Rush Hour 2 came out in '01 and then in '02, Catch me if You Can was released, which Nathanson also wrote. How he made the jump from B action movies to Steven Spielberg, I'm not sure -but it's a heck of a transition. The story for Catch Me if you Can was intriguing enough, though Nathansan had the luxury of the stories of the real man and his autobiography to help him along. Apparently Speilberg really took a shine to Nathanson, because he hired him to write his next script, The Terminal. Inspired again, from a true story, The Terminal seemed to be widely regarded as one of Spielberg's weakest films in years, and for me, a large part of the problem lay in the script. I thought the first half hour with Tom Hanks trying to accquaint himself with the airport and creating his new lifestyle there was endearing, but once Catherine Zeta-Jones' character entered the mix, it fell apart. Their love story was not believable in the slightest.

Yet the mediocrity of The Terminal was apparently not enough to dissuade Speilberg from hiring Nathanson a third time, to write the fourth chapter in the Indiana Jones legacy. But even Nathanson was not Speilberg's first choice to write the picture and from the outside looking in, it would seem sort of haphazard that Lucas would suddenly agree on the script. I suppose there's always the chance that Harrison Ford finally threw down the guantlet and said, “Look. I'm not getting any younger -let's make this thing, it's now or never!” Yet the idea of the boys getting back together to make Indiana Jones with whatever script they have in hand just because time is running out is not exactly reassuring. One can't help but wonder if they're settling. Especially, when one compares, even though one shouldn't, the unveiled screenplay to those of the three prior films. The first three films are filled with great action set pieces, clever banter and interesting twists. Let's take a look at what sort of people penned the original Indy trilogy.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, deemed by most to be the strongest of the three, was written by Lawrence Kasdan, a screenwriting Hollywood legend, who wrote the best of the Star Wars trilogy -Empire Strikes Back, as well as Return of the Jedi (yes the ewoks were a little too cute, but its still a great movie). One might compare Kasdan to Nathanson and think…Oy, what has the franchise come to. But lest we not forget that Kasdan in more recent years has also written The Bodygaurd, and the unforgettable Dreamcatcher (Dudditts!). Temple of Doom was written by writing team William Huyck and Gloria Katz, who also authored such respected works as American Grafitti and Radioland Murders. But they also wrote Howard the Duck, a film which I will defend to the bitter end, but which I must also recognize as flawed. The Last Crusade was written by Jeffrey Boam, who wrote solid genre fare like The Lost Boys and Innerspace, but also wrote Leathal Weapon 2 and 3. I find this factoid particularly interesting since Nathanson has written Rush Hour 2, and the upcoming Rush Hour 3. So maybe the series hasn't gotten too far off after all. All writers, even some of the best, have their misses, and sometimes writers with botchy histories, may breakaway from their past to impress. For all my postulating on how good or bad the next Indy film will be, it is impossible to say at this point. The right talent is involved, and as fans, all we can only hope that the enthralling image of that archiologist with his whip and his fedora will be done justice once more.

According to the Yahoo! article Spielberg's people have confirmed that “…this is certianly the closest where we've been in this whole development process.” Spielberg's next project is the Lincoln biopic with Liam Neesen, but there is hinting in the article that he may bypass that for a bit to do Indy 4 first. This means we could potentially be seeing the new Indiana Jones by next summer if they really fast track it…. Still, as I've said in the past, I'm not holding my breath.

Monday, March 13, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

I adore this poster, and am very excited for the movie. I never saw Waking Life, though it seems the animation style is similar, no? The image on the poster is cool to begin with, the folk peering behind the venetian blinds reeks of noir, and there is something very hip about seeing Keanu Reeves, Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr., and Winona Ryder all in 2-D.

I'm debating whether or not I should brush up on the Phillip K. Dick book before or after I see the film...I may wait till after, since I don't even remember the ending.

Release date is July 7th. It's going to be a good summer for nerds...

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Double Feature Baby!: A look at Ultraviolet and The Hills Have Eyes

It had been years since I had committed a continuous block of time to go see a double feature at the theatre. But this past Friday I decided to buckle down and catch up with the genre fare out there.

UltraViolet whimpered into fourth place at the box office after it was released last weekend, just barely breaking the nine million mark. Ouch. A few weeks ago, I posted my first thoughts on Ultraviolet after I saw the trailer. I remarked on the similarities to Aeon Flux, another futuristic dystopian sci-fi female hero flick. Now after having seen both films, I can safely say, that yes, they are similar, but more so in their packaging than in their contents, and also that Ultraviolet is the weaker of the two.

The total running time for Ultraviolet is 86 minutes. Without the credits, it clocked in at total of an hour and twenty minutes of actual film footage. That’s shorter than your average Disney animated feature, and I can’t help but wonder just how much of its footage ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor. The opening credit sequence is probably the best part of the movie, featuring a multitude of vibrant comic book art of the character Ultraviolet. (The film was not actually based on a Comic –this was just a gimmick chosen by director, Kurt Wimmer). After the artistic credits, things start to go downhill quickly, as we are plunged into the mother of all expository voiceover monologues. It goes something like this:

“Hi my name is Violet and you may not understand this world that is because several years ago a virus emerged and killed out many in the planet and it created a divide among the population, between the infected and the healthy and whereas before terrorism ruled the ages, now does disease. I was pregnant and had a husband once but then they killed him and infected me and now I am sick too with no baby and I must fight against the evil rulers who wish to kill out those of use who are infected you probably didn’t understand any of this or this world.”

Damn skippy we didn’t. The voiceover segment was accompanied by blurry visuals showing men in labcoats, people wearing face masks, and Violet (Milla Jovovich) becoming “infected.” Before my head to stopped spinning from the amount of information that had so ungracefully been shoved into my face, the movie launched into one of its many abrasive action sequences. Violet, or “V”, as her friends call her, is on a mission to retrieve a briefcase (that looks more like a futuristic Fendi purse) which supposedly contains an “antigen” that will wipe out the infected members of society.
V is able to get through the security checkpoints by altering her blood state with some sort of suppressants, and once inside blasts through about two hundred bad guys in order to get out of there alive and with the goods. Jovovich of course is as thin as a rail and has the muscle mass of a child in elementary school, but don’t let that fool you, because she can manifest guns out of thin air and wields a thin square blade with Asian looking cuneiform on it. Exactly how or why V uses the weapons she does is ever explained. One of the big flaws of this movie is that it takes place in a world with many of its own caveats, rules, and histories, but fails to draw the audience in and make it palatable. Even when writer/director Kurt Wimmer does tries to elucidate on certain facts of Violet’s world, he does so with some clunky throw away dialogue.

About thirty minutes into the movie, I begin to suspect something. The “infection” that is rampant in society is actually Vampirism. How do I know this? Well not because it was clear in any way shape or form, that’s for sure. V and her friends do not attack humans or animals, nor do they seem to need blood at all. They can walk around in daylight, and are not afraid of churches, garlic, or crosses. The only way that it’s possible to detect it is by the occasional sporting of the traditional set of fangs by some of the characters, some of the time. Characters do also mention Vampirism in passing, but its all incredibly vague. Exactly what the vampire virus does to humans is uncertain as well. Do these vampires have super human strength? It’s possible, though it’s never laid out that they have more strength than the uninfected folk they battle. They can certainly be killed just as easily. It appears only downside to being infected at all is a shortened life span. Other than that they look just as healthy and strong as can be. V has bouts of “sickness” during the film, but again, it is unclear as to how this is connected to her illness, and if its more so connected to the additives she takes to cover her “blood identity.” What I want to know is, what is the point of having vampires around if they don’t do anything that vampires do?

After Violet gets away with the stolen goods, she gets on her way to deliver the briefcase to her fellow infectees so they can destroy it. Despite a warning from her associate, curiosity gets the best of her and she takes a peek inside the briefcase. V is shocked to find that the briefcase does not contain any test tubes or lab reports, but a young child. (Don’t ask me how its possible for a smallish briefcase to carry a ten year old boy, because I don’t know the answer.) V goes in and confronts the gang of vampires she is working with/for, telling them she was lied to, that the briefcase held a hell of a lot more than an antigen to wipe them out. The head vampire tells her that this “child” has the antigen coursing in his veins, and that he must be eliminated in order to save those like them. V’s harsh, tough exterior falters, and she pleads on behalf of the life of the child. The vampires brush her aside and she leaves. As she walks down the hall we see that she has fooled the vampires, and stashed the kid in a corner! The rest of the movie is dedicated to following Violet and her half pint sidekick named Six, as they run away from the bad guys who are trying to recapture the boy. All sorts of reveals are woven into the haphazard story. Violet brings Six to a friend to have him tested and it turns out he doesn’t have the antigen to the infection in his blood. Then we find out Six is terminally ill. Then we find out Six is actually a test tube baby, a clone of the villainous Daxus who governs the bio-terroristic Garrison state, and is V’s archnemesis. Then we discover he actually contains the Vampiric virus and he will be used to reinfect the population so that Daxus can deepen his controlling grip over the society. None of it makes any sense, but in Ultraviolet, that’s par for the course.

Beyond its story problems, it was impossible to become invested in this story because of its lack of compelling characters. From the moment that Violet pleas with her fellow vampires to spare the life of the innocent child, it was pretty clear to me where all of this was going. Violet, who lost her baby when she became infected, was to reconnect with her maternal instincts as she developed her relationship with Six, fleeing like fugitives from the evils of the dystopia. While not an inherently faulty idea to explore its execution was quite poor. It was difficult to believe that the angular, cranky Violet was anything else than a depressed, embittered killer, and the film’s twenty second attempt at tapping into her past did nothing to shake this mold. I get the feeling that there might have been attempts to deepen Violet’s character, but that these were lost somewhere into the black hole of the editing room. The result of this heavy chopping was not only a two dimensional character, but a complete lack of continuity and coherence. There is a moment in the film where Violet is saved by a male friend, Garth, played by William Fitchner. Violet wakes up in a medical room and Garth says, “Well we didn’t think we could do it, but after four hours of heart surgery you have pulled through!” Frustrated, Violet, asks him why he bothered. Garth then looks at her with puppy dog eyes and says “Isn’t it obvious?” The film then immediately cuts to a scene of the two of them standing outside in the dark, and Garth asking Violet “But why do you keep people out?” Violet gives him some sort of surly answer and rides off into the moonlight. Now I assume here that at some point there was meant to be romantic tension between these two. I don’t necessarily mind that this was cut, but by God, if the filmmaker is going to change something like that, he needs to finesse it a bit better than that… Jovovich is someone who I think is capable of turning in a solid performance, but her portrayal of Violet was a labored endeavor. This was due in large part to the lack of material she had to work with in the script. Ultraviolet, like many films before it, was trying to tell the story of a superhero. In this case the superhero was the remarkably strong, fast, and resilient Violet, a vampire who did not require blood but was doomed to die at an early age. There just wasn’t nearly enough time taken to develop her character, be it by witnessing her past, or seeing her interact with other individuals. Her friend Garth was someone that she interacted with the most in the film, and their interactions were flimsy, fettered enterprises devoid of sincerity. Even the key relationship to the film, that between her and Six, felt empty and ill founded. Six might have been a child prodigy, but his gloomy eyes, lack of dialogue and dullard attitude did not exactly help justify why Violet would passionately fight for his life and connect to him so strongly.

You might think to yourself that the visuals for the futuristic setting of Ultraviolet were its saving grace…but they weren’t. You can’t tell this from watching the trailer, but the whole film was shot with these filters that created a hazy soft look that drove me nuts. They airbrushed Jovovich’s face so much, that at times it looked as though she didn’t even have a nose, just two petite nostrils floating in alabaster. The city where all of this unfolded looked like the cityscape of any U.S. city with a couple of large streamlined structures superimposed on top, resulting in an unappealing lack of congruity. The fight sequences were muddy and blurry, reminiscent of a young children’s ride at an amusement park where you can’t really see what’s going on and things are over before you know it.

Ultraviolet was lacking everything one might look for in a film going experience; story, characters, performance, and visuals. It wasn’t the kind of film that’s bad because it’s mediocre and unexciting, and it wasn’t the kind of film that was bad, but had enjoyable campy value. Ultraviolet was just bad; a sputtering, staggering, beast that should have been put out of its misery before it was released out of the gate.

After a grueling hour and twenty minutes, I was worried about sitting through another potential stinker. Luckily, in comparison, The Hills Have Eyes remake was at the very least, engrossing. THHE was directed by Alexandre Aja, who in 2003, gained notoriety with the French horror film, High Tension, which he wrote and directed and took the Sundance film festival by storm that year. High Tension has a radical twist ending which created a lot of hub bub among film geeks who seemed to be split down the middle about its effectiveness. At twenty seven years old, Aja appears to be one of these young hotshot directors, out to make his mark on the scene. Yet his eagerness to impress ultimately seems to get the better of him in THHE. (whatever the case may be, the man has written and directed two more feature films then I have –so don’t think I’m not munching on some humble pie as I type this blog).

The first half hour or so of the film is very well done. The suspense builds slowly and delicately, forming a house of cards that you know must inevitably tumble. While I haven’t seen the original Wes Craven ’77 version of the film, I’ve heard that the general story is quite similar. The film opens on the Carter family who are on a road trip vacation by way of a Bronco and RV. Ma and Pa Carter are played by the notable Kathleen Quinlan and Ted Levine respectively, are celebrating their twenty fifth wedding anniversary. Oldest daughter Lynne played by Vinessa Shaw, has brought along her husband Doug, (played by Aaron Stanford who also plays Pyro in the X-Men films, but looks completely different) and their one year old baby. The two youngest in the clan are Bobby (Dan Byrd) and Brenda, played by LOST’S Emile de Ravin. From the minute the film starts we get a pretty good idea of the family dynamic without being hit over the head with it. Pa Carter is a staunch conservative patriarch, and also a retired detective, which I thought was a cool occupation for the character, and Ma Carter a maternal, caring bordering on finicky presence. Doug, the son-in-law has plenty of reservations about being on the trip, because of his tensions with the in-laws, and his uptight nature, but wife Brenda does a pretty good job of soothing his frazzled nerves. Bobby is a sweet and loyal but insecure teen, and Brenda’s (de Ravin) character, with probably the worst set-up, is a stereotypical snotty and spoiled teen girl.

Straight off the bat we know who we’re dealing with, and the longer we watch them interact with one another, and handle their surroundings and situation, the more we want to yell at the screen for them to get the hell out of there. When the film starts, the family is pulling into a run down gas station to fuel up and stretch their legs. The owner, a bizarre and wizened old man, tells them about a short cut they can take to cut over to the main high way. At the behest of his impatient family, Pa Carter takes the short cut, and while on the bumpy, dusty, road, blows out all the tires and wrecks the SUV. The family is now stuck in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, with no other cars passing by, no cell phone service, and no signs of civilization to help them. I feel a set of shivers running up my spine just thinking about this as I type. While certainly not a novel concept for a horror movie, Aja is able to capture the isolation and vulnerability of the situation, and make us feel as though this could easily happen to us. He continues to build the tension in the rest of the first act and into the second act with by compounding small unsettling events. Doug and Pa Carter have decided to walk in opposite directions on the dirt road to find help, and Doug happens upon a crater filled with empty deserted cars that have been dumped there. Of course at this point, the audience generally knows that these are the cars of former victims of the mutants which live out in the desert. But Doug doesn’t, and we want to scream and tell him to find a car that starts so that he can pile up his family in it and save them. Back at the RV where the rest of the Carters have been waiting, Bobby has been trying to keep a handle on the family’s two german shepards, Beauty and Beast, who keep running off into the rocky areas of the desert. When Beauty runs away for the second time, Bobby is horrified to discover her body, mutilated and dismembered among the rocks. He is clearly disturbed by this, but at the same time does not want to panic his mother and sisters and so he stays quiet, nervously encouraging them to be cautious. Again, I found myself gritting my teeth and trying to will Bobby to come clean about the dog and evacuate the premesis. Though it is impossible for the family to escape their fate, you can’t help but root for them to do so. Meanwhile Pa Carter has made it back to the eerie gas station by nightfall, where he looks for the owner unsuccessfully, and instead stumbles upon evidence of the evil acts that have been going on in that desert. There is a horrible moment (and by horrible, I mean one invoking a sense of horror, not bad) where we see in Pa Carter’s face that he knows what lays in store for his family who are alone in the dark, back at the camp, and it is gut wrenching.

The first “attack scene” in the film, where the mutants finally descend upon the Carter family, is one of the most upsetting, terrifying, yet well executed scenes I’ve seen in a horror movie in a while. The scenario is structured in such a way that it is painful to watch the family in their panicked behavior, as you will them to get ahold of themselves so that they can save those family members who are still alive and in danger. The thing that struck me about this scene, was that though violent and barbaric in nature, Aja made the camera keep its distance, so that you could not necessarily see the sickest details, but felt the impact nonetheless. While some hardcore horror fans might classify this as “wimping out”, I was impressed by this because I’m the sort of person who doesn’t think it’s necessary to show a fingernail being torn off in front of the camera. Showing the back of the villain, and the scream of the victim, is sufficient and equally upsetting.

Everything up until this horrific climactic moment had me reeled in. I was engaged in the story, invested in the characters, and caught up in the moment. But as the mutants scampered away to their camp and the survivors struggled through the aftermath, things began to feel a little artificial. I think in part, this was due to the fact that two out of the three actors left were probably the weakest of the ensemble to begin with. I really liked Dan Byrd as young Bobby Carter, but Aaron Stanford as Doug seemed ill equipped to carry the rest of the movie (which was essentially what he did), and Emile de Ravin while realistically emotive of the horrendous trauma she had just been through, didn’t have terribly good chemistry with her brother. The scene in the RV immediately following the departure of the heathens felt forced and unrealistic. Ma Carter lay dying on the sofa, and the only one that seemed to give a damn was her son in law Doug. Brenda had just been horribly beaten and assaulted, but nobody seemed particularly concerned with her state.
With the family dynamic reduced to almost nothing, THHE deteriorated into a pretty standard horror genre film. What was alluded to before, was now shown in gory detail, and the serious, urgent verite tone morphed into a fantastical, campy affair. I think I can sort of understand the ideas that Aja might have had for doing this, --perhaps he wanted to show a shift from the gritty reality the characters had been based in to an elusive nightmarish dreamscape. Still, because the shift came in so late in the film, it did not feel organic, and I, myself, would have preferred it to keep its prior energy which felt more tempered and real.

Doug leaves Bobby and Brenda behind to man the camp while he goes in search of the mutant enclave where he believes his baby has been taken. Upon finding it, he discovers a ghost town which was left for dead after severe radiation from government nuclear testing permeated through it. The entire town is a dusty remnant of 50’s model homes filled with decaying mannequins and appliances. While I recognized this as a unique stylized choice on Aja’s part, it didn’t quite work. The mannequins seemed to clash with the miner mutant slaughterhouse and cannibalistic elements, and I understood the paradox of this, the 50’s theme wasn’t executed visually on a large enough scale to have the proper impact.

While at the atomic village Doug encounters some more mutants including an enormous man in a wheelchair, who looked like he stepped off the set of SNL after doing a Conehead sketch. The design for this particular mutant character was overboard with his triple chin and his Igor giggle. It was impossible to really be scared by this figure, and while he had some creepy lines, I wasn’t buying the make-up. In fact I would say one of the large weaknesses of this production was the make-up. None of the mutants looked particularly scary to me; one looked like a goofy Frankenstein, another a hare lipped version of Mackenzie Crook’s character from Pirates of the Caribbean. I felt like I could reach out and touch their puffy prosthetics, --they would have been better off casting some quirky actors and down playing the make-up, though I realize this would have put a whole damper on the mutant theme.

As Doug fights to save his baby, he must defeat one of the head mutants, a battle which evolved into an arduous, never ending fight, with tumbles through breakaway walls, and Doug getting bloodier by the minute. It is at this point that the film enters true gorefest territory with close-ups of fingers being lopped off, and pick-axes plunging into foreheads. Some people get a kick out of this sort of thing. I do not, and I was much more entertained when Aja relied on his mastery of suspense and tension.

In an incredibly bizarre moment of “meanwhile, back at the ranch…”, siblings Bobby and Brenda are once again thrown into terror when they realize that the body of their mother has vanished. When Bobby goes to investigate, he discovers a mutant eating the corpses’ remains, in the old gruesome red spaghetti guts fashion. I was more annoyed at this development than I was horrified, because the gut eating was the sort of old hat I had seen in countless Zombie flicks and b-movie horror fare. Beyond that was the inexplicable discrepancy in the appearance of this particular mutant, who did not look anything like the others, and did not appear to have any sort of deformity. With his long hair and trench coat he looked more like a renegade back up member of ZZ top than anything else. The non-mutated mutant chases Bobby back to the camp where he and his sister have set up a booby trap and the two blow the mutant and the truck and RV up to the sky. Right at this moment Doug appears with the surviving dog and baby in a comical hero stance through the licks of fire with over the top desperado music playing in the background.

When I say that Aja gets a bit ahead of himself, I believe that he is trying to prove that he can do it all, within the confines of this one picture. Aja, who worked on the script for THHE remake as well, also tried to infuse his two cents of political commentary within the film. One of his primary alterations to the story was to change the villains, from uncivilized homicidal maniacs who happened to live in the desert, to deformed individuals who were descended from people who had been exposed to massive radiation from the U.S. government’s atomic testing in the area. When he is conversing with Doug the Conehead mutant has a line which states that Doug and his folk created his people, and now they are suffering for it. I found this to be a thinly veiled commentary on the U.S. government having created situations in the world, and then having these “mutants” or “monsters” come back to haunt them or their people , i.e. terrorism, the situation in the Middle East. Again, while I commend the fact that Aja was attempting to inject some politics into a horror flick, it felt more tacked on than anything else. Aja wanted his American feature debut to be part suspense, part gross out horror, part social commentary, and part character study. I think the end result was a film that only succeeded in parts of these areas part of the time. I was completely sold on the film for the first half, but it lost me a bit in the second half. I was still committed to finding out the fate of the characters, but I thought it shifted gears a little clumsily, and lost the steady pacing of the first half. All in all it was one of the more absorbing horror remakes in the past couple years. More compelling I’d say than The Amityville Horror and The House of Wax. I only wished it hadn’t puttered out the way it did.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Every Once in a While...

Every once in a while a trailer for a film comes along that defies explanation, logic, commentary. You sit and watch it perplexed, not only by the concept itself, but by how it is that such a film could even have been written, let alone produced and set for release.

Here is such a trailer...

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Full Length Trailer for X-Men 3 is Up!!

After a dazzling teaser for X-Men 3: The Last Stand, was released a couple months ago, yesterday the powers that be at Fox finally released full length trailer . Boy, am I excited!

Though perhaps lacking in the sort of character driven emotional journeys of comic book films like Spiderman 2 and Batman Begins, the X-Men films have always been solidly done and great fun to watch. I don’t care what anyone says about him, Hugh Jackman makes a great Wolverine, and Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan battling it out as Professor X and Magneto is a casting dream come true. Not all of the other actors may be as strong, but none of them are actively bad, and besides they all look the part so much who can complain?

While I was dubious about the passing of the franchise from the hands of the foolish but talented Bryan Singer to those of the foolish Brett Ratner, it would appear that so far, so good. The camera work looks great, and film definitely seems to have a stylish element of its own. I love the shot of Angel flying out of the sky scraper, the line of mutants marching among the cars led by Magneto with Phoenix by his side, the section of the suspension bridge flying in slow motion through the air, and the mutant chase throught the concrete walls.

The script for this installment of the X-Men movies, was written by Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg. Penn worked on the story of X-2, and has also written Elektra (uh oh) Suspect Zero (never heard of it), and the dialogue for the Fantastic Four VIDEO GAME (interesting –didn’t know they hired official Hollywood screenwriters for video game copy). Kinberg was a writer on Mr. & Mrs. Smith (barf) and XXX: State of the Union (oh my). I know what you’re thinking, and believe me it’s crossed my mind as well. This does not exactly bode well for the screenplay of X-Men 3. Yet the screenplay for X2 was well done, and I’m hoping that Penn’s work from that film will carry over into this one. From the small glimpses we see in this trailer there is at least some continuity in the relationships between the characters, i.e. the love triangle between Cyclops, Wolverine, and Jean Gray and the dynamic between Wolverine and Rogue. I am also intrigued by the way that Kitty Pryde seems to come inbetween Rogue and Iceman’s relationship; mutant gossip, hooray! I didn’t notice any particularly egregious dialouge, except for maybe the line that Prof X says to Storm: “You of all people should know how fast the weather can change…”

Still, this trailer keeps me very optimistic. The culmination of this trilogy has been building towards a huge all and all out battle between the U.S. military, and each faction of the mutants, and finally it seems like this is what we are going to get. X-Men 3: The Last Stand will be released on May 26th, in what I hope will be an excellent kick off to the summer movie season of 2006.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Oscars Smoshcars or Has the New Yorker Become a Jaded Bitter Fool?

Last night’s 78th annual Academy Awards were a testament to just how vital TiVo has become to my life. I don’t think I would have been able to make it through the SEVEN hours of coverage (that’s one hour of pre-show red carpet, three hours and fourty minutes of actual award show, and about two hours of post show commentary and interviews), without making use of the fast forward button for commercials and stodgy portions.

Was it just me, or were the Oscars damn near unbearable this year? It’s true my opinion of them are often colored by how many of the films I liked in a given year were nominated, but I usually get some enjoyment out of watching the Hollywood royalty process out and about, amongst all the pomp and circumstance. But much this year felt forced and strained. Jon Stewart’s brutal opening monologue which fell a bit flat, was made ten times worse because of the chagrin radiating from the audience. I found it painful when the camera would cut to annoyed looks from the like of Keira Knightly and George Clooney in response to some of his jokes. I like Jon Stewart, --I think he’s a funny guy and the Daily Show is good, and all these things made watching him bomb in front of Hollywood’s cream of the crop torturous. Also the opening monologue seemed excessively long, and in fact lasted about fifteen minutes. Granted they had the opening video clip showing various former Oscar hosts turning the job down. There were several funny moments in this video, including Steve Martin’s silver haired children, and Jon Stewart’s dreams of waking up next to celebrities Berry and Clooney.

In fact the funniest moments in the show for me, were the pre-taped video bits. The lobbying for the best actress race, and in particular for the sound mixing race was hilarious. Yes, it was done in Daily Show’s psuedo-political format, but it worked and added a fresh, new feel to the Oscars.

What didn’t feel fresh or new about the Oscars were the four film montages that played over the course of the evening, with a range of generic themes like, “biopics are good, haven’t we done a lot?”, “Movies can tackle issues!”. “Film Noir is cool!”, and last but not least “Movies are better on the big screen, (so please stop buying Video Ipods and downloading movies on your computer)” Don’t get me wrong, I love a good montage when it’s done well, but this Oscars represented montage overkill. While I appreciated the gestures that the Academy was trying to make with some of these clips, i.e. honoring the stylishness of film noir, it seemed neither here nor there within the context of the show. I love the Film Noir genre, but I thought most of the montage was a jumbled mess of credits over a lot of poor quality clips without much direction or climactic build. There really wasn’t any particular reason to include this montage in there. No neo-noir films were nominated this year, the honorary award was not going to a director of noir films, nor was it any sort of special anniversary in the history of film noir. Even the justification that the theme of the Oscars this year was “the glamor of Hollywood” doesn’t really fly, because when you get right down to it, the genre of “film noir” was not glamorous. In fact it was the antithesis to glossy Hollywood musicals and sprawling gradiose westerms. These were low-budget, gritty, dark, fly by the seat of their pants productions, which didn’t even get much attention from mainstream audiences in the states, until French film enthusiasts coined the phrase “film noir”.

The “biopic” montage and “issues” montage were at least a little more applicable to the films that were nominated this year, but the “big screen” montage was another one that felt extremely general and disconnected from the rest of the show. Honestly how many more times can I see that clip of Henry Fonda from Grapes of Wrath giving his “wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat” speech, which might be poetic and moving, but has been in every movie montage ever. As has the Sydney Potier line “They call me Mr. Tibbs” from In the Heat of the Night, as has the music from West Side Story, as has the “I coulda been a contender..” speech from On the Waterfront. These films and moments are classic cinema. I get it. But when time and time again they are used they begin to loose their ardor and grow hackneyed. I don’t understand why the montages rarely include anything from the past twenty or so years of cinema. Without being updated with newer films, everything just feels tired and old. Which is what most of the show felt like to me.

As for the winners? I’ve already made my feelings on some of the nominations clear in previous posts. I still haven’t seen a couple of the big contenders, including Crash, so I can’t really comment to that. I was pleased with several of the wins, however. I was glad Wallace and Grommit beat out the tepid Corpse Bride for best animated film. I was happy King Kong won three technical awards, including visual FX, for its outstanding work. Whatever story problems it might have had, I thought Memoirs of a Geisha was absolutely stunning to look at, and I thought it deserved it’s awards in Cinematography, Art Direction and Costumes. I thought Phillip Seymour Hoffman was well rewarded for his acting work in Capote, and Resse Witherspoon was good enough in Walk the Line. And even though I STILL (and yes I’m embarassed to admit it) haven’t seen Brokeback Mountain, I was content that Ang Lee took home best director, because based off his previous work I think he’s a very talented, competent director, and besides doesn’t he just seem like the nicest guy? Sure it would have been nice if Speilberg had won, but I also understand he can’t win EVERY year.

This wasn’t a very big Oscars for me. In the past I’ve gotten very wrapped up in the ceremony, either rooting heartily for one film to sweep or torn between a duo or trio of films I respect. I suppose part of it was that I was ill prepared this year, and didn’t end up seeing several of the nominated films in time for the show. But are these really the only reasons I was unexcited throughout? Is it just me, or was this particular Oscars fairly weak all around?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

New Precedent Set on LOST

For the first time in its short but complex history, LOST aired an episode in which the flashbacks experienced by the focal character of the episode took place after the plane crash on the island. Last night’s episode “Maternity Leave” used the format that we are used to, by honing in on one character –in this case Claire, and then cutting back to past events in flashbacks that are relavent to what the character is dealing with at the present. The only other episode that has broken the mold of “action on the island, story in a flashback” was “The Other 48 Days” which aired earlier this season. However that episode was more a snapshot of the tail section survivors and their experiences. While some could argue it was like one large flashback, I found it to be a fairly straightforward storyline, which just jumped through time to show the action on that part of the island.

“Maternity Leave” was not only unique because Clarie’s flashbacks took place on the island, but because they dealt with a secret we’ve all been dying to know since last year. We’ve all wondered what the heck happened to Claire when she was taken by Ethan, and finally after last night, we have some clue.

I think for anyone who has watched the show in its entirety, it was difficult not to be on the edge of one’s seat during at least part of this episode. I liked that they brought Rousseau back in a more logical manner than with the Sayid episode, and I liked that Ethan played a large part in the flashbacks. I also liked that fact that Rousseau’s daughter was woven into the plot (or at least a Red Herring for her character.) I myself, am not convinced the woman who helped Claire out of the bunker was Alex. Not to mention the fact I thought she looked much older than sixteen.

The most intriguing reveal of all to me about the episode was the moment when Kate went into the locker and discovered what appeared to be the props of the head “seabillie” who took Walt and challenged Jack in the jungle. We saw his worn cap, his beard and the “theatrical glue” he uses to stick it on his face. There are some interesting implications here, including the fact that the OTHERS may not be these savage tribe like people, but all part of the larger Dharma collective research group. I’m also glad that they finally wrapped up the scratches on Rousseau’s arm from Claire. I had forgotten about this whole story line and I think Rousseau’s choices here add an extra element of depth and contradiction to her character. She didn’t wish Claire to be harmed by the Others, and saved her, yet in her distraught state still took Claire’s baby to trade it into the Others for her own, Alex. While I had suspected Rousseau wasn’t trying to harm her, I’m glad this loose end finally got tied up.

I still can’t make heads or tails of the whole “infection” and “vaccine” element; and every time someone starts to go into particulars about it my eyes glaze over because none of it makes any sense. Claire’s insistence that she remembered “them” injecting her baby with something, and her vying to get the vaccine from “them” was patently ridiculous. Why would they do this? And why would Claire think they had a vaccine as well? How could they inject the baby when she was pregnant but not have the substance get mixed into Claire’s bloodstream? After all babies and mothers share blood, oxygen, and other bodily fluids. It’s unclear as to what the parameters of the infection, quarentine, and vaccine are, and so it all feels like garbled nonsense. Also assuming Claire didn’t know that the bunker was going to be deserted, how on earth did she really expect to get anywhere with the dangerous freaks who took her? And why would Kate go with Claire so readily? Did she really think that a single 9 mm would protect them, especially after everything she’s seen and experienced on the island?

I appreciate the fact that the writers finally wanted to show us what happened to Claire when she was taken, but the way they worked in into the episode felt somewhat forced and clunky. In a show which I had easily numbered as one of the best written on TV for a while, I find the overall quality of writing episode to episode declining a bit.

Still in an ocean of blah episodes, as least I could get invested in this one. I’m glad that they didn’t drop the story of the mysterious balloonist in this episode because I think it has interesting potential. The scene between he and Locke was interesting, and I like the balloonist’s meek comment on the power structure of the island. Though I wasn’t necessarily buying that Locke would express his anger by wrecking havoc in the kitchen afterwards. I think that Locke would have been a bit more controlled in his reaction, especially since it had just come up that the balloonist has good ears and can easily hear what is going on on the other side of his door. But I certianly like the idea that the balloonist is slowly and subtlely leaking out the poison of suspicion and mistrust among the other survivors until it becomes an all hell breaks loose Lord of the Flies situation.
I think it would be great to see some huge divide develop among the survivors, particularly since there are so many characters on the island at this point. While I I can see how this provides more fodder for story, it’s also easy to loose track of main characters entirely. I mean does anyone even care that Michael has vanished? Does anyone even remember? No one has mentioned his name in the past couple episodes.

All in all still a troubled episode, but at least one which I could sink my teeth into a bit. I really am curious to see what the rest of this season has in store; I’d love to see my sinking suspiciouns proved wrong and have them make some crazy revelations within the next five to eight episodes. I am also eager to see how and if the show’s flashback format will evolve and change in the future.

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