Monday, September 29, 2008

Speed Racer (2008)--2/5

For whom was “Speed Racer” made? Babies, cats, and drug users will like the bright colors and movement, but not understand the stabs at narrative. Fans of the original series will like the attention to character and vehicle detail, but zone out during the two-plus-hour pummel of the whole thing. Gamers and ten-year-old boys will like the races, but be insulted by the juvenile humor holding them together.

And this is only the potential audience. It rules out people that wouldn’t even come near the movie (film snobs, hockey moms, etc.).

For years, film critics have used the phrase “like a video game” to describe a movie they think is too artificial, colorful, and manic. This is as unfair as saying a movie is “like an album” and leaving it at that. A whole art form can’t be shorthand for crappiness. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Roger Ebert famously claims that video games are not "high art" and never will be.

The phrase “like a video game” is this era’s version of “like MTV.” When used in a review, both cases require some elaboration. 1) Which video games or aspects of MTV?* 2) Why is the movie actually not good?

The parts of “Speed Racer” most like a video game are, admittedly, like a sweet-looking video game. Taking inspiration from the anti-gravity game series “Wipeout,” the cars in the film have tenuous traction with the ground. This allows them to flip around, power slide, and jump over other racers at will. Nausea-inducing drops and twists in the well-defined tracks seem designed with this in mind. Further linking “Speed Racer” with a game are the weapons integrated into the Mach 5, which are introduced by their concomitant steering wheel buttons; the steering wheel is a glorified console controller.

The final lap of the final race of "Speed Racer" will hopefully be inspiring for future games. The faster Speed drives, the trippier the visuals become. By the finish line, he's skimming through a swirling seizure of red and white diamonds.

The rest of the movie is truly terrible though—like a novel.

*Okay, it’s well-documented—on the Web and in everybody-of-a-certain-age’s mind—what’s wrong with MTV. This mention is specifically referring to the quick cuts, outr√© fashion, and narrative haziness of 80’s music videos and the supposed infiltration of said elements into *respectable* films.

BTW, Defamer fondly remembers an era of MTV that most people already complain about for the lack of “M.” It’s gotten worse?

Friday, September 26, 2008

On Wikipedia

Have you ever watched a movie and noticed details that were laughably wrong?

Some examples for me:

--The family in "Dan in Real Life" competes in teams on the same crossword. One team yells across the room that they've finished with the acrosses and are starting with the downs--an impossible way to solve a crossword.

--Robert Downey Jr. in "Chaplin" plays the violin, by holding the violin and bow in the wrong hands. (It's not a lefty violin--the chinrest is on the correct side.)

--Gogol's mother in "The Namesake" has the title of Librarian, but all she seems to do is shelve books.

If these movies are this wrong about stuff I do know, how can they possibly be accurate regarding anything else? While using Wikipedia at least ten times a day for years, I've spotted one or two errors on the site. Since it gets the few things I know right, I trust that it gets everything else right.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Fall (2006)--4/5

In Tarsem Singh's "The Fall," Roy Walker (Lee Pace) is a laid-up stuntman who tells a fantastic tale to a similarly-injured (they both "fell," get it?) young girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru). Alexandria visualizes the story as an ostentatious, globe-spanning epic. Tarsem's first film, 2000's J-Lo vehicle "The Cell," visually conveyed the mind of a serial killer with arresting style. The production design was tragically married to a by-the-Thomas-Harris-numbers crime thriller. Thankfully, "The Fall" has style and substance.

In the 1920's, Walker, a Hollywood stuntman, has the disconcerting charge of being seen in films, but never recognized. Slowly revealed during "The Fall" are the circumstances of his accident: namely, a girlfriend leaving him for the film's star and a botched attempt at a foolhardy stunt. By telling a story, he is able to control at least one thing in his life. He captivates Alexandria better than any movie could.

Walker has a selfish plan to commit suicide by gaining Alexandria's trust. Since he is unable to move from bed, he enlists her to bring him pills. These attempts fail for different reasons, underlining the lack of power he has, even over whether he lives or dies. Alexandria befriends Walker before connecting him tangibly to the film industry. When his latest movie is projected at the hospital, she see his value to the new medium.

"The Fall" has a passing similarity to Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," in that they both concern the inner lives of girls. However, "The Fall" lacks the earlier film's claustrophobia and brutality (mostly); it could spiral out infinitely. Paradoxically, pretentiousness is somehow an asset to Tarsem's vision. Traveling to India to film an incidental scene of a fantasy movie in front of the Taj Mahal almost defines the word. From the beginning, though, the ever-widening scope adds to a concatenating beauty.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)--2/5

Criteria for a good kung fu movie:

1) Exciting fight scenes

2) Lots of fight scenes

3) Other things (story, characters, setting, acting, etc.)

Number three is not that important. A kung fu movie's story only has to quickly move--plausibly or not--from fight to fight.

"The Forbidden Kingdom" wastes time developing a derivative story. Like "Doomsday," the inspiration is Xeroxed rather than referenced. At least "Doomsday" had some upper-class ripoffs (Cameron, Carpenter, Romero). "The Forbidden Kingdom" steals from forgotten and/or junky kids' movies. The nerdy kung-fu movie fan who learns to fight from the legends is a lift from "Sidekicks," which was already a shameless "The Karate Kid" rehash. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III" is already the definitive time-travel-via-mystical-Chinese-artifact movie. The entire framing story is, for all intents and purposes, the same as that in "The Neverending Story." Ergo, "The Forgotten Kingdom" is a soon-to-be-forgotten, junky kids' movie.

("The Neverending Story" may not mesh here for some, and it is kind of forgotten, hence the "and/or.")

The main draw of "The Forbidden Kingdom" is the "once in a lifetime" meeting of "kung fu legends" (I'm sure this is how the press release of the movie breathlessly reads) Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Ho-hum. It could be that the meeting is ten years too late. It also could be the dullness of the whole affair.

Classic Jackie Chan movies are known for the impressive martial arts, death-tempting stunts, and intricate physical comedy, sometimes in a combination of all three. Presumably, Chan's age keeps him from attempting the intense stunts of his youth. Since he still fights with prowess, the opportunity still exists for decent fight scenes. With the exception of a few intoxicated Chan moves (echoing the canonical "Drunken Master" films), the fighting in "The Forbidden Kingdom" is all in the self-serious Jet Li style. It's also loaded with tiresome "wire fu." Quick and technically proficient, yes, but without memorable moves or character quirks of the best choreography.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Regarding The Previous Post

Oh, I’m gonna catch some flak for actually recommending that last one. The film in question (I can’t type the title anymore) holds a metascore of 55/100 at Metacritic. Yes, my score of 3/5 is only slightly higher than this. But movies are becoming just as susceptible to modern critical grade inflation as video games. (The scales are still different. The 65/100 for Microsoft’s “Too Human” is essentially a drawing of Calvin pissing on the game.)

The low score for this movie—okay, okay: “Baby Mama”—indicates a similar level of disgust. I think critics initially cringed at the high-concept-by-committee-ness of the whole thing. They punished Tina Fey et al for not making something as fresh and off-the-wall as “30 Rock.” (Very little is.) To be fair, most reviews did pick up on Steve Martin’s performance.

Baby Mama (2008)--3/5

Spoilers ahead.

“Baby Mama” is yet another movie squarely in the Romantic Comedy mold. Two strangers form an odd couple through plot machinations (Tina Fey hires Amy Poehler to be her surrogate mother). A series of lies and impossibilities builds to a scene of revelation (the baby isn’t actually Fey’s). Finally, serendipitous and thematically germane plot “surprises” tie up the story (Fey actually does become pregnant).

It also has a terrible title that makes it sound like a sequel to “My Baby’s Daddy,” a movie to which nobody wants a sequel.

Making a movie like this is playing with a stacked deck. The only way to combat the unyielding conventions is to get the little things right. To that end, “Baby Mama” is rich with supporting characters. Steve Martin is almost phoning it in, but his new-age Whole Foods-ripoff owner is still the most consistently funny character in the film. Martin’s ability to deliver lines like, “I was talking with Jimmy Buffett this morning about trans fats…” is without peer. Sigourney Weaver is also amusing as a loopy and well-meaning surrogate finder. The jokes about her age vis-√†-vis her fertility are consistently on target--Fey and Poehler even bond at a particularly low moment by commenting on this.

In a rare stroke, “Baby Mama” does not take place in New York. Although Philadelphia has been used in plenty of movies, the setting is still novel enough. And it isn’t New York. With close attention to detail, the movie gets in some quick throwaway gags with Greg Kinnear’s Pennsylvania-themed fruit smoothie names. (BTW, the best movie about Philadelphia is “Philadelphia.”)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Drunken Angel (1948)--4/5

The stagnant cesspool throughout Akira Kurosawa's "Drunken Angel" artfully evokes postwar Japan. The opening credits are shown over a closeup of the bubbling mess in the center of a busy Tokyo block; it's visible or nearby for the entire film.

On the edge of the sump lives Doctor Sanada (Takashi Shimura), an alcoholic--seemingly all of the men in the film are--who cares more for his patients than they deserve. The surprising central relationship in the film is that of Sanada and Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune), his patient. Multiple scenes in which they meet end in fisticuffs, all because Matsunaga insists on living an untenable lifestyle.

Kurosawa has strong disdain for the insidious world of organized crime, of which Matsunaga is a part. It would be one thing if it remained self-contained. Tragically for Sanada, this is impossible. His scruples as a doctor require him to care for Matsunaga. Even worse, the girl he looks after is falling into this wrong crowd. (In a heartbreaking, unspoken grace note, Sanada's ward is presumably an orphan from the war.)

Every element of the movie seems to be weighted with more than a superficial importance. A Japanese historian could say exactly what each motif and character symbolize. As it is, one thing is more obvious/worth mentioning: Toshiro Mifune's Matsunaga as a potent stand-in for WWII-era Japan. He is a yakuza in a world that, in its tenuous grasp for basic sustenance, doesn't have a place for him. He refuses to listen to reason, even--and especially--when it leads to certain death.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


I took a look at LibraryThing. It looks "eerily similar" (to appropriate their words) to Goodreads, which I use regularly. Every time I finish a book, I go to Goodreads to rate it. (It's the same for me with movies and Netflix.) I use Goodreads more than I ever used any other social networking site. I don't really want to go through and catalog every book I've read/am reading again.

Redacted (2007)--3/5

In "Redacted," another Iraq War movie that nobody saw, a spiral of violence in Iraq leads to the rape and murder of an Iraqi family by American soldiers. The film is made to look like various formats of "found" footage. Some of the sources are a soldier's video diary, a French documentary, and YouTube.

Since the sixties, Brian De Palma has been playing with voyeurism on film. In "Hi, Mom!," Robert De Niro is an unlovable loser who rents an apartment in order to spy on the tenants living in the building next door. John Travolta, in "Blow Out," becomes obsessed by an audio recording of a possible murder. "Redacted" is the essential De Palma film about voyeurism. Every shot implicates at least two characters: the filmer and the watcher.

Scene/format changes bring up the reasoning behind the person controlling the camera. The French documentarians are furthering their arthouse and anti-American credentials. The soldier's wife on YouTube is getting her thoughts down in the best way she knows.

"The Blair Witch Project" and "Cloverfield" are problematic because they only use one perspective; the movies become more ludicrous the longer they go on. Why would anybody still be filming? "Redacted" solves this problem by changing perspectives and by using (mostly) reasonable set-ups.

Of more interest is the responsibility put on the audience. The footage is from such varying--and sometimes classified--sources, that only a few people could actually be able and allowed to see all of it. Tellingly, in a movie titled "Redacted," none of this footage is actually redacted. This implies that we are caught up in the creation of the story. We are the censors for public consumption. A turning point comes in the film when a member of the squad posts an anonymous YouTube video to tell about the crimes. At this point, something has to be done to appease the public. What follows is a farce that sweeps the crime under the rug.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2003)--2/5

The final (or third, depending on how much you care) Star Wars film is troubling because its first twenty minutes are among the best that the series has to offer.

"Episode III" opens with some battle in the endless Clone Wars. Obi-Wan and Anakin are trying to save Chancellor Palpatine from General Grievous, blah blah blah. All one needs to know is that they're trying to get somewhere to do something. It really is best to tune out any details of the plot because they're either a) dependent on a ten-year-old's intricate knowledge of the backstory or b) completely superfluous.

This whole sequence zips along, the CGI looks fabulous (finally), and it's funny without pandering to children.

It also contains a minutes-long opening shot (always welcome). The shot starts out encompassing the entire battle and slowly zooms in to focus on the two Jedi ships.

Above all, this sequence has a sense of place. The Jedi crash-land in a loading dock of Grievous's ship. They figure out where they need to go on the ship by looking at a map. External views further ground the action. At all times, the audience has a sense of where everything is happening. Later, when the ship accelerates towards the planet, the change in orientation is easily grasped.

The end of the sequence is both thrilling and metaphorical: "Episode III" crashes as spectacularly as the ship. The following twenty minutes--a rehash of the endless talking-head and "landing strut" scenes of "Episode I" and "II."--kill the buzz. The tour-de-force opening sequence only enhances the depression at the realization that "Episode III" is just as disappointing as the other prequels.

(I'll try to stop writing about "Star Wars" now.)

Yes, this is the best picture of the crash in question that I could find.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Gremlins 2 (1990)--4/5

This is mostly an excuse to promote the new alternate "Gremlins 2" "film break" scene created by Sacha Feiner. Keep in mind that this was reportedly created in two months for less than $5,000.

"Gremlins 2" is having a minor resurgence in popularity, at least in the orbit of sites that I keep up with. Scott Tobias, of The Onion AV Club, recently wrote about it for his New Cult Canon. About a week later, BoingBoing had a post about the new short.

The AV Club piece made special mention of the "film break" scene, posting the original clip and, for good measure, describing it in great detail. To re-rehash, the gremlins stop the film "Gremlins 2" in such a way that the audience thinks that the film they are watching actually has burned in the projector. Before long, the gremlins make shadow puppets in the light and play another movie. Everything is resolved when Hulk Hogan, sitting in the theater, intimidates them into putting "Gremlins 2" back on.

I quickly realized that I had never before seen this sequence. I first watched "Gremlins 2" on VHS at my grandmother's house. (If you'll believe it, I didn't have a VCR until I was twelve.) This being only the second movie I had watched on her brand new VCR, I was justifiably freaked out by the film breaking. Only, it was magnetic tape, rather than film. According to Wikipedia, an entirely new sequence was created especially for the video release of "Gremlins 2." The VHS version mimics the effect of the tape twisting up and breaking into static. The Gremlins do their shadow puppets over this static. The movie is brought back with the help of a John Wayne impersonator.

Sacha Feiner's new "film break" enhances the newfound timelessness of "Gremlins 2." It's almost a shame that he skipped over DVD in lieu of Video On Demand. Every format shift should come with a new version ad infinitum.

Additionally: I found that Bloglines' search had some satisfactory options for Movie-based RSS feeds. I also went to and brought their feed into Bloglines.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

"From the Earth to the Moon" (1998)--3/5

The Tom Hanks-produced HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon” is a mixed-bag effort to be more than just a twelve-hour riff on “Apollo 13.”

“The Original Wives Club” follows the dull and repetitive lives of some of the astronauts’ wives. Imagine the most obvious scenes from “Apollo 13”—e.g. Marilyn Lovell portentously losing her wedding ring in the shower, people on Earth staring fearfully at a TV. Now imagine those scenes expanded to an hour without the tonic of anything whatsoever involving tension or dynamism.

“Spider” follows the step-by-step design and construction of the Lunar Module, or LEM. Everything about this episode is novel. It makes hard science suspenseful while easily explaining the processes involved. Also, it’s a spot-on period piece of a milieu rarely seen in film—a 60’s engineering firm staffed by devoted, overworked geeks. By the end of the process, the LEM is just as much a character as any human. It’s the offspring of thousands of hours of manpower.

“That’s All There Is” depicts the camaraderie of the crew of Apollo 12. “Kids in The Hall” member Dave Foley gives a winning performance as Alan Bean, the accident-prone Lunar Module Pilot. This hysterical episode shows, with a dash of “The Three Stooges” style, that the Apollo missions weren’t always deadly serious—although they were when it counted. It starts with Bean getting briefly knocked out during atmospheric re-entry by an improperly stowed camera. The rest of the episode moves backwards and forwards through time to show the closeness of the crew on land and in space.

“From the Earth to the Moon” is sporadically brilliant. Just don’t expect anything as consistent as that other Tom Hanks series, “Band of Brothers.”

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Redbelt (2008)--2/5

David Mamet's unforgiving writing style brings scenes and actors in "Redbelt" to a dead stop. He seems to script with the aid of a calculator, taking relatively normal-sounding dialogue and multiplying by two. Even worse, dialogue that is naturally repeated is repeated again, resulting in this actual quote: "Who's gonna pay these bills? Who's gonna pay these bills? Are you? Are you? Are you? Are you gonna take care of me?" The whole movie is like this.

The embellishments in the dialogue are nearly matched by the excessive plot elements bearing down on main character Mike. Like the various "Karate Kid" installments, "Redbelt" is about a mixed martial artist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) forced to fight for much more than just his honor. This time, he's not fighting high school bullies. He's fighting (off the top of my head) a corrupt actor, the actor's connected handlers, a turncoat wife, circling loan sharks, and thieving fight promoters. All of these despicable elements, and more, are somehow supposed to be thematically embodied by the guy that Mike fights in the final battle. It's hard to remember who he even fights since it's not anyone that makes an impression anywhere in the movie.

This movie could possibly have been saved if it had any lack of pretension and if it had been called "The Karate Man."

Additionally: I don't understand aggregators. I mean, I think I understand how they work and what they do. But they only diminish my use of the Internet. Bloglines takes all the posts from the blogs I read, formats them differently, and removes most of the pictures. All of the blogs I go to are updated regularly. I go to them regularly. Bloglines isn't saving any time.