Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Season 1" (2008)--4/5

Unlike most time travel films, the Terminator series embraces its fundamental paradoxes. Kyle Reese is sent back in time by John Connor in "The Terminator" so he can save Sarah Connor and conceive, um, John Connor.* As seen at Cyberdyne Systems in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," the original T-800's (Arnold Schwarzenegger) arm and CPU have been preserved. The study of this futuristic technology leads to the development of Skynet and the Terminators!

The three films (so far) in the series should be appreciated for their superficial pleasures--action, special effects, moment-to-moment plot. Thinking about the temporal problems too much leads to madness.

Ignoring established continuity, "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" works in much the same way; it can be enjoyed for what it is. The Fox TV series seems to ignore the plot developments of "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines." Jumping from 1999 to 2007, John (Thomas Dekker), Sarah, and Cameron (yet another new Terminator) skip over the action of that film. Also, John’s age doesn’t mesh with “T2.” In 1999, Dekker is only a year (or so) older than Edward Furlong was in 1991. (They jump forward in time in the first episode. Would it have been too hard to just start in 1991?)

"Sarah Connor" delivers thrills in the vein of “T2”--robots chasing cars, robots killing each other, flash-forwards, gunplay, etc. Since cutting-edge special effects from 1991 are cheap enough to be on a weekly series today, the "look" of the show is similar to an expensive feature film.

The new medium supports variations on the established themes of the series. On “monster of the week” episodes, Sarah and John encounter, for example, Terminators on different missions or people accidentally caught up in the main storyline.

And throughout the first season, the serialized adventure allows stories and characters to slowly build momentum. FBI Agent Ellison, curious to a fault, is gradually schooled in the ways of the future. Cromartie is a malevolent Bad Terminator whose head travels through time and—well, it’s sweet, but it takes some explaining.

Watch the show. Just don’t think about it as much as I did.

*Evidently, this is called a predestination paradox.

Forget you ever saw these losers.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Strangers (2008)--2/5

"The Strangers" observations:

The bad guys:

They can get into and out of a dead-bolted house without making any noise.

They can shatter four car windows just as quietly.

Too many times to count, the camera--or Liv Tyler--spots a masked figure from afar. After a quick cutaway shot, the figure disappears! So apparently, they can also cover dozens of yards in a second.

The good guys:

At four in the morning, and without much hesitation, Scott Speedman opens the (conveniently windowless) door to a girl who's scouting for victims.

After accidentally shooting his buddy, Speedman illogically gives up the well-defended room he and Tyler are bunkered down in. Instead, he runs outside by himself to a decrepit barn to possibly find an old ham radio. This does not turn out well.

The three villains are actually morons as well. They're lucky enough to be slightly less moronic than the Speedman and Tyler. After being shot at by the defending couple, do they run away and try their luck on another, less well-defended house? No, they continue to wander around outside and inside of the house.

"The Strangers" has a reasonably realistic and scary setup; the ineptitude of the filmmaking ultimately renders it unsalvageable.

Michael Pitt in "Funny Games," a much better movie.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hud (1963)--4/5

For maximum dramatic convenience, the denizens of “Hud” serve as surrogates for absent “traditional” family members. Fifteen years ago, a car accident caused by Hud Bannon (Paul Newman) killed his older brother. Hud’s father has raised Lonnie (Brandon De Wilde), the brother’s son. Hud is essentially Lonnie’s cool, dangerous older brother. Alma (Patricia Neal), the housekeeper, completes the group as a lone maternal voice.

“Hud,” based on a Larry McMurtry novel, is a rare western in which languor and repetition trump action and dynamism. The lone bar fight sequence is as sad as it is thrilling. Geneses of characters’ behaviors are buried deep in the events of their lives. By the end of the film, accumulated behaviors and imagery define a complete picture of each star.

Hud spends much of his time driving into and from town in his gaudy pink Cadillac. The amount of time the film spends on the road indicates the distance the farm is from anybody else. Over the years, this long, necessary journey has been the defining motif of Hud’s life. The accident that killed his brother hasn’t taught him to drive carefully. Rather, he drives faster, more recklessly (and drunkenly), as if to get it over with as quickly as possible.

“Hud” is also a rare modern western, taking place during the time of its release. Despite this, the film is not based on a pining for an earlier, purer cowboy archetype a la the McMurtry film “The Last Picture Show.” Instead, change is defined as incremental generational differences. The three ages of the Bannon family men effectively delineate these changes. And although the sequence screams “Symbolism!,” the shooting of a herd of sick cows later in the film speaks to encroaching government regulation.

Most of the strength of “Hud” stems from its gorgeous black-and-white photography. The camera lingers on the far horizon, sometimes populated with gloomy cows, sometimes free of any movement. Paul Newman plays such an electric character that his presence is felt even in the empty vistas.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Confessions of a Superhero (2007)--3/5

Among the hordes of sad, wannabe-actors in Hollywood, the costumed figures in the fascinating “Confessions of a Superhero” stand out. You know these guys. They greet tourists in front, but not on the property of, Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. In some ways, they have reached a certain level of success: tourists enjoy taking pictures with them; there’s this movie about them; they’ve appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” On the other hand, they’re glorified panhandlers, emphasizing to every passer-by that they work on “tips.” All of them want to be doing something in the film industry. This is just a temporary gig—that’s lasted five or more years.

“Confessions of a Superhero” examines four of these entertainers (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and The Incredible Hulk) in sometimes painful detail.

Superman (Christopher Dennis) is the saddest and most deluded character in the film. He’s surrounded by mountains of eponymous memorabilia (worth “one million dollars”) in his one-bedroom apartment. He claims to be the son of Oscar-winning actress Sandy Dennis. In an interview with her living relatives, they say they’ve never heard of him.

On the street, Superman is the de facto role model of the costumed mass. It helps that he bears a remarkable resemblance to Christopher Reeve and that his costume is modeled authentically on Reeve’s. He has no problem finding paying tourists. In one amusing exchange, Superman chides Ghost Rider for smoking while on the job. Ghost Rider’s reply: “He’s made of fire.”

Although she conforms to a lot of stereotypes of the “country girl trying to make it in Hollywood,” Wonder Woman (Jennifer Wenger) has the most potential to break free. She’s still young, talented as an actress, and aware of the world outside the Hollywood Boulevard sidewalk. With any luck, she’s not there anymore.

Northside History, Vol. 1

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

W. (2008)--3/5

“W.” digs as deep as it can into the mind of George W. Bush. The result is a surface-level movie about a surface-level person. Except for a need to impress his “Poppy” and a spiritual awakening, no other explanations are needed for his aspirations.

To his credit, the usually slippery, left-wing Oliver Stone mostly sticks to the facts in “W.” If the whole thing feels like re-watching painful recent history, so be it. The serial failures of Bush’s youth and presidency are made clear with this approach. People watching this movie in the future will stammer, “It couldn’t possibly have been like this!” To which we will solemnly reply, “Yes. That actually happened in this country.”*

Ignoring the scattered dream sequences, the few moments treated as fact that clearly go off-topic weaken the film. In an extended, overwritten war room scene, Dick Cheney proclaims that, in order to secure Middle Eastern oil, there is “no exit” from Iraq. Even though Cheney thought this, he never said it so dramatically to a room of people.

Later, Josh Brolin (perfectly cast) recites Bush’s infamous “Fool me once” quote. The only problem is: he does it at the dinner table. As anybody who’s seen “Fahrenheit 9/11” knows, this quote comes from a public speech.

Like Jr., George Bush Sr. is treated the way he deserves. To wit, James Cromwell’s character’s inner life is the most plumbed in “W.” Bush Sr.’s decision to end the Gulf War after one hundred hours is the reason believed by the rest of his family for Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory. To his dismay, Jr. takes out Hussein in order to get re-elected. It’s an extension of the life-long “disappointment” father feels towards son. (Sorry: I know it’s crass to compare young and old W in this way, since the latter’s decisions have destroyed the world.)

W’s well-cast cabal members fall into one of three groups. Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) and Rove tell him what to do. Powell (Geoffrey Wright) and Tenet (Bruce McGill**) meekly raise concerns. Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Rice (Thandie Newton), and everyone else sycophantically follow him.

If all this sounds didactic and simple-minded, that’s the point. The strength of the film is its adherence to the primitive, “us vs. them” mentality of the Bush administration.

*Thanks to Laura for the theoretical conversation. She also brought up how awesome and creepy this movie would have been if directed by David Lynch. Imagine Toby Jones’ Karl Rove (even more troll-like than in real life!) entering Bush’s head, appearing in front of red curtains, and speaking the secrets of re-election in tongues.

**Jack Dalton from MacGyver!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Wall•E (2008)--5/5

Pixar is the most masterful modern studio at promoting its films. The standard advertising campaign for them barely scratches the surface of the depth within. (It doesn’t hurt that most of their productions naturally expand fictional worlds far beyond audience expectations.)

After doing this for awhile, Pixar knows exactly how much to show in a trailer to get people to the theater. Just the setup for great Pixar films would be the absolute for most other studios. The superior Pixar films can—and do—have the most content withheld in their trailers.

The trailer for (and title of) “Finding Nemo” promises an undersea adventure of parent searching for child. It conceals the significant portion of the film that takes place in the saltwater tank at the dentist. Notably, this setting is the home of Nemo for most of the movie. It also introduces nearly half of the speaking roles in the film. The more limited setting* allows for sharper action and a stronger definition of character traits.

Not surprisingly, “Cars,” the least-interesting Pixar film to date, has a revealing ad campaign. If not explicitly stated, the main character’s arc can be inferred from the trailer: a race car learns to slow down and appreciate life in a small town. That’s it, really—the setup is the movie.

“Wall•E” is the apotheosis of the ratio of trailer content to film quality. A hint of the first act’s story is visible through a trailer dominated by simple character traits. No mention is made of the melancholic tone of the film or of the Axiom. This ship, carrying the infantile remnants of humanity, is where a large portion of the movie takes place. Upon first viewing, “Wall•E” moves in unexpected, lyrical directions.

Pixar was once the only producer in the now-crowded market of computer animated features. Its consistency has allowed it to have faith in potential customers.

*Almost anything would be more limited compared to the ocean!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sex and the City (2008)--2/5

Read the previous two posts for this one to make (more) sense.

Four years later, “Sex and the City: The Movie” arbitrarily breaks three of the four primary relationships of the series.

Maybe it isn’t terribly surprising that the characters slip into easily-sketched character traits of lesser episodes of the series. Time has to be spent to reintroduce four main characters, their beaus, and a host of lesser beings. Any shades of grey or complexities would extend the already-deadly two-and-a-half-hour runtime. It’s fun to see these characters again, but their development as people is stunted.

Big gets cold feet again. Miranda is mean to Steve again. Samantha can’t be in a relationship again. Plus, Steve cheats on Miranda! This is so out-of-character that David Eigenberg, the actor playing Steve, has trouble delivering the lines.

Michael Patrick King, writer-director of “Sex and the City: The Movie,” is like an angry, manipulative god. Under his power, Carrie and friends are tossed around like kamikaze “Sorry!” pawns. Samantha has moved to California, but she is able to pick up and take weekend trips to Manhattan like it’s a PATH ride from Jersey. Seemingly every other scene has the three other friends gasping in surprise that Samantha has come to New York. Why so shocked? She was just here two days ago!

Almost axiomatically, any dramatic action in the spirit of the original series has to destroy the gains made in later seasons. This movie really shouldn’t exist.

Charlotte, Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, about to clothesline a pedestrian.

"Sex and the City: Season 6" (2003-2004)--3/5

In the satisfying final episode of “Sex and the City” (the TV series), all four characters had finally found love. End of story. Yes, the entire series had been about finding and losing love, but this is what it had been building towards. Using love-interests and plot points introduced in prior seasons, the respective relationships of the characters were stronger than any that had come before. (In Carrie’s case, Mr. Big had been introduced in the first season.) Unlike “The Lost Weekend,” “Sex and the City’s” happy ending was earned.*

*This isn’t to say that the characters can’t be happy without men in their lives. (With the exception of Samantha, the show/movie may think otherwise.)

The Lost Weekend (1945)--2/5

“The Lost Weekend” has one of the least-convincing of all film endings. Upon drinking himself silly for an entire weekend—this after a ten-day stretch of sobriety—Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is convinced that he is finally in control of his drinking problem. The movie he’s in believes this too; the music crescendos happily to signal the end credits.

If only the movie had maintained its earlier vein of cynicism. Up to the conclusion, “The Lost Weekend,” through Birnam, defines alcoholics as incurable and clingers to false hope. The sudden reversal of this idea smacks of Hollywood tinkering.

P.S. “The Lost Weekend” is the genesis of the scene—featured on “The Simpsons” and “Futurama”—of a character walking in the dark past germane neon signs.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Leatherheads (2008)--2/5

Towards the end of “Leatherheads,” Jimmy (George Clooney) has a plan to get Carter (John Krasinski) to admit the truth of his wartime deeds. Carter has ridden a wave of war hero and football star popularity to the pros, where he has invigorated the startup league.

Jimmy borrows a military truck and some uniforms, dresses up his teammates, and parks the truck outside the football commissioner’s office. Upon looking out the window, Carter has a pang of conscience and recants his story. On the way out, he sees who is actually in uniform. They share a meaningful glance.

This is a pretty obvious set of circumstances for a screwball movie. The audience should know some kind of setup is in the works from Jimmy. We may even guess that the truck has football players instead of soldiers. But “Leatherheads” seems to go out of its way to not explain what’s going on. The players have been so poorly sketched out during the rest of the movie that simply seeing them in a group is not enough. In an earlier scene, Jimmy runs into an old war buddy and asks if he can borrow something. Is it just the truck? The whole platoon? Just their uniforms? Only in the next scene is it explained what actually happened.

In other words, a not particularly funny, clever, or interesting gag is stretched over three distinct scenes. The climactic football game ends with the same kind of poorly-explained trick.

Like another recent George Clooney vehicle, Steven Soderbergh’s “The Good German,” “Leatherheads” focuses on the background, to the detriment of the rest of the movie. The 1920’s style is lush and inventive—the oversize billboards and painted murals throughout come to mind. Clooney, Zellweger, and Krasinski all comport themselves well enough, but they are ciphers against this onslaught.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"The Office: Season 4" (2007-2008)--5/5

Late in the episode “Dunder Mifflin Infinity” from “The Office’s” fourth season, Michael Scott, following directions from a GPS, drives a rental car into a lake. Since “The Office” is shot as a documentary, this scene is one unbroken shot. The actors and cameraman actually ride a car into a lake. While it fills with green water, all three have to scramble out and onto shore. “The Office” has been reinventing the concept of a sitcom for a while, but this stunning scene is far beyond other current primetime shows.

In the world of “The Office,” is the Dunder Mifflin documentary ever shown on TV? Characters never reference big things that would be revealed by its airing. (Correct me if I’m wrong.)* Just to name two: Pam doesn’t know that Jim bought a ring a month after they started dating. Andy still doesn’t know that Angela is cheating on him.

Since their work has nothing to show for it, the premise of a film crew at the office gets stretched each season that “The Office” is renewed.

The best thing about the documentary crew as a character is that the focus of the show is limited to work-related events. Stories from the outside are conveyed through clever use of the show’s format. The revelation of Jim and Pam’s relationship is seen when the camera crew follows him from work at a distance. What the audience gets of Dwight and Angela’s undercover romance is subtle glances, hushed conversations, and a happened-upon office party tryst.

The private moments that are seen are thrilling because of their rarity. Even better are the times when characters who know they’re being filmed don’t care what the camera sees. Andy’s serenade to Angela and Jim’s big smooch with Pam come to mind.

Maybe the last episode of “The Office” will have the premiere of “The Office” for the Dunder Mifflin employees. The show wouldn’t be able to continue after that.

*“Sex and the City” has the same problem. Carrie’s friends and dates don’t mention the mean things she writes (famously, for a major newspaper and book publisher) nearly as often as they should.