Monday, December 21, 2009

Five Star Film/TV 2000-2009

9/11 (2002)
American Pie 2 (2001)
The Animatrix (2003)
Band of Brothers (2001)
Batman Begins (2005)
Battlestar Galactica, Seasons 2-3 (2005-2006)
Before Sunset (2004)
The Best of Youth (2003)
Children of Men (2006)
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2006)
Donnie Darko (2001)
Finding Nemo (2003)
The Gleaners and I (2000)
Hot Fuzz (2007)
How I Met Your Mother, Seasons 1-2 (2005-2006)
The Incredibles (2004)
Into the Wild (2007)
Lagaan (2001)
Lake of Fire (2006)
Land of the Dead (2005)
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: Extended Edition (2002)
Man on the Train (2002)
May (2003)
Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)
Minority Report (2002)
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Mutual Appreciation (2005)
The Office (US), Seasons 2-4 (2005-2007)
The Office (UK), Series 1-2 (2001-2002)
The Office Special (2001)
Planet Earth (2007)
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Ratatouille (2007)
Rescue Dawn (2006)
Rivers and Tides (2003)
Six Feet Under, Season 1 (2001)
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
The Sopranos, Seasons 1, 3, 4, 6 Part 2 (1999-2007)
To Be and To Have (2002)
United 93 (2006)
Wall-E (2008)
Wendy and Lucy (2008)
When the Levees Broke (2006)
The Wire, Seasons 1-4 (2003-2005)
Wordplay (2006)
X2 (2003)
Yi Yi (2000)
You Can Count on Me (2000)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Clip From "Student Confidential"

This clip is unintentionally Lynchian. If you're not the man himself, it's quite hard to be intentionally Lynchian.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Gymkata (1985)--2/5

Early in "Gymkata," Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas takes out some foes by swinging on a pole and kicking them in the face. This sequence bodes well for the film, promising to deliver on the ridiculous premise of kicking butt using tumbling skills.

Sadly, "Gymkata" is more interested in generic karate moves than in anything original. Even when it does later try something new, as in a "pommel horse" fight scene, the filmmaking is just inept enough to mar the enjoyment. As with the pole, the city has a statue that just happens to work as a pommel horse. I can buy that in a film called "Gymkata;" it's like a carefully constructed "Tomb Raider" level. However, the villains surround Thomas and allow themselves to be kicked in the face in one at a time. Extras swinging halfheartedly in the background are more interesting than what we're supposed to watch.

After recently watching a few "MST3K" films, I'll say that the MacGyver-haired Thomas has screen presence, even though he's not a good actor. Since he's been cast for his maneuverability, this works in his favor. Think of him as a Jackie Chan type of actor; he admirably gets from one fight scene to the next.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

(500) Days Of Summer (2009)--3/5

The title of this film is not as fun to type as "Laserblast." (That was the last "Laserblast" mention, I swear.)

Perennial Manic Pixie Dream Girl Zooey Deschanel meets her match in "(500) Days of Summer." Summer (Deschanel) dresses like she's in The Decemberists. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dresses like he's Chip Kidd. He's a greeting card writer (snort) and a wannabe architect (double snort). They pretty much have to like each other.

I'm often annoyed in ostensibly romantic movies by characters who are seen talking while the soundtrack drowns them out. In order for me to buy an onscreen couple, I have to believe they can hold a conversation. (Richard Linklater has made two successful films, "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," based on this thought alone.) "(500) Days of Summer" has two such scenes, probably scored to Regina Spektor or Ingrid Michaelson or some similar singer. I was annoyed on principle while watching the film, but I think they actually make a point. Tom can't see through his infatuation of Summer based completely on her taste in pop culture. They really don't have anything to talk about.

"(500) Days of Summer" has a gimmick. They all do. This one's not bad. Each of the 500 days of their relationship is numbered. The film is free to jump back and forth in time to underline an idea, to confuse, to generally be different. For the most part, "(500) Days of Summer" follows a linear path, with minimal digressions. It could be a lot more complicated and, as a result, more insightful. Why create this innovative conceit if you don't have the nerve to take it as far as it can go?

"Mystery Science Theater 3000: Laserblast" (1996/1978)--3/5, 1/5

"Mystery Science Theater 3000" is the brilliant show that lets you do two things at once. Each installment is an episode and a movie. Granted, they're not movies you'd ever want to see without Mike (or Joel) and the robots. And some would say many of them are still not worth watching.

Usually, the worse the movie on MST3K, the better the banter. "This Island Earth," the film viewed in the MST3K movie, proved too watchable. The commentary came across as slightly distracting.

"Laserblast" is typical of the most inept, pathetic movies served up by the show. Filmed by a one-time director, it has about ten minutes of actual laserblasting by its detestable main character. Also typical of terrible lost films, "Laserblast" is filled with shots of people getting into and out of cars, hanging out aimlessly, and generally not concerning themselves with the plot. One of the robots comments that the entire film seems to consist of second-unit footage.

This may connect to why the worst movies make the best shows. Competent genre movies are more tightly edited, leaving less room for the peanut gallery.

Is the episode funny? Sporadically, especially when the guys get into a groove. Their mockery of the cop who looks exactly like Hank Williams Jr. has its own arc. At first, he's real excited about Getting Ready For Some Football! Later, he's disappointed that people aren't ready for some football. They also have some fun with the overt transgressions of the filmmakers, pointing out the crew's reflection, the camera mount on an external shot of a van, and the misspelling of Roddy McDowall's name in the credits.

"Laserblast." I just like typing that.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Girl Next Door (2007)--1/5

Call for Unique "Hollywood" Opportunity!

Date: 2009-07-27, 9:27PM EDT

Attention all residents of [insert small-town name here]

I am making a big Hollywood movie, "The Girl Next Door," in the town of [insert small-town name here]. If you live here and have a fifties car you would like to see in a movie, please contact me!! Also, if you have any old clothes or props, that would be good. And if you know of any songs from the fifties that have fallen into the public domain or can be gotten for cheap, please let me know.

Can you act? Have you ever tried to act? Just want to be on film? We have some pretty intense dramatic roles. You'll do great!!

If you are a minor, please get permission to be in scenes involving graphic torture and nudity. I'm sure it'll be OK!

Location: [insert small-town name here]
it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Brothers Bloom (2008)--3/5

"The Brothers Bloom" takes place down the street from Wes Anderson's world of oversaturated quirk. Penelope (Rachel Weisz) collects hobbies the way Max Fischer heads school extracurriculars.

"The Brothers Bloom" is yet another heist movie in which the con-men are doing "one last job" so they can "get out."

That's two strikes.

The film eventually comes into focus. It's still got kids in suits, slow motion to Cat Stevens, and a smug literary preciousness. All of that is ancillary to the plot; it's not the whole point.

The heist aspect of "The Brothers Bloom" mostly delivers. It's one of those movies, like "eXistenZ," that appears to be misstepping as it moves forward. The legitimately twisty ending needs to be digested and applied to the rest of the film in order for the whole to work. The laughably predictable double-crosses of the rest of the film aren't sloppy after all.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Decasia (2002)--3/5

The striking "Decasia" would look amazing projected behind a local band at Carabar. The real draw here is Michael Gordon's symphony of the same name, created in tandem with the visuals. It starts out with a provocative grinding and pitch-shifting, settles comfortably into a Philip Glass-esque staccato, before wowing with an extended post-rock freakout. That initial grinding sound comes from rusted brake drums as percussion instruments. In every way, they're a perfect choice for "Decasia"--found, decaying objects contributing to an otherworldly ambience.

"Decasia," as I learned after I watched it, is trying to examine recorded life as the film it's on disintegrates. It's a spooky idea, borne out in the mostly pre-1935 found footage on display. People long-dead exist tenuously on rotting celluloid piled in dingy storerooms.

Much of the film is over-decayed by the director Bill Morrison. For some reason, I'm okay with splicing and overlaying *found* cracked, melted, or otherwise decrepit film on the already declining images. Morrison often takes it too far, pixellating and reversing the film with a computer. The less-authentic decay is disrespectful to the films' subjects and it prevents the art from making a solid statement.

"Decasia" would also work well on a wall of the Wexner Center, seen in short bursts by passers-by.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

From the blogs:

"Wow, this is another ambitious Thursday crossword...Nicely done, Gary and Stephen Kennedy!"--Jim Horne, Wordplay.

"Haven't disliked a puzzle this much in a while."--Rex Parker.

From the comments:

"I actually read it the first time thinking Rex was trying some crazy meta experiment to see how many commenters would agree with a clearly incorrect opinion... :)"--Dan, on Rex's Blog.

"The puzzle of the year, so far."--twoberry, on Wordplay.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Abyss (1989)--3/5

I don't remember watching the whole film through. But prior to today, I had apparently seen every minute of James Cameron's "The Abyss." It can be watched in portions and out of sequence with little reduction in quality. As always, the film is a model of complicated shots and seamless, awesome effects. There's just so damn much of it.

Each plot in "The Abyss" contains a smaller, mostly unrelated plot. The insane Navy Seal strand wraps up tidily, leading to Brigman's (Ed Harris) heroic descent in the abyss, leading to the final appearance of the No Nuke aliens. (Peace? Yeah, right. Cameron would be out of a job.) James Cameron seems to have been afraid he'd never make another film after "The Abyss."

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Knowing (2009)--3/5


"Knowing" writes itself into a corner. Will "everyone else" perish as predicted by the whispering Spike-from-Buffy look-alikes? (And "Nightbreed" had the Angel look-alike last month!) Or will John (Nicolas Cage) be saved by a deus ex machina, as happens in these kinds of films?

To its credit, "Knowing" ends up splitting the difference. And it isn't one of "these kinds of films," since nobody's yet combined "National Treasure" with hard sci-fi. Billions die, as you probably know from watching any of the trailers. This figure includes the two leads. Yet a small portion of humanity is whisked away to start anew. The aliens, or whatever they are, that allow the survival of the species suggest a benevolent invention of Arthur C. Clarke. The beings pulling the strings in the "2001" or "Rama" series meddle in the affairs of humanity only when absolutely necessary.

Their salvation comes as a semi-surprise. Throughout the film, they needlessly approach the "chosen" people and do nothing. Even though they don't need to, they behave like The Strangers from "Dark City," another Alex Proyas film. A late reveal of these guys would be more powerful. (Or more laughable, depending on how you feel about the rest.)

John jumps through Dan Brown-inspired (what isn't these days?) hoops to get to the end. The secret code in this one is particularly absurd. A block of numbers, sealed in a pathetic time capsule* for fifty years, predicts every major tragedy of the future. At the time it's unearthed, three have yet to occur. John figures out the code correctly. Then, CalvinBall-style, he decides that the last event will follow a different rule. And he's right!

*It only contains children's drawings.

Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince (2009)--3/5

This one's the randiest Harry Potter film yet; the most common gerund in the script is "snogging." It's also the scariest. If naked underwater death zombies don't push the rating past a "PG," nothing will, it seems.

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" takes an agonizing amount of time to move past the snogging and just get on with it. "The Hot Goblet," two films ago, established Ron and Hermione's sexual tension in a charming eighties movie prom milieu. They--and Harry and Ginny--can just be together, alright? There's this guy, you know, Voldemort? Trying to destroy the world? Guys? (They're too busy snogging.)

The last, I don't know, forty-five minutes of "Half-Blood Prince"--from the moment Harry drinks the luck potion to the end--are as sustained, propulsive, and exciting as these films get. Harry and Dumbledore finally get some long-overdue male bonding time. Too bad it involves poisoned potion, not butter beer, drinking.

Let me air one Huge, Nerdy Complaint (it ties in to the weaknesses of the film, I promise): The Death Eaters use the Vanishing Cabinet to sneak into Hogwarts, where they--blow up Hagrid's unoccupied house. Wow, I seem to remember, from the book, that Snape and Harry's showdown takes place against the background of all-out war on Hogwarts' grounds. Maybe the sixth, seventh, and eight appearance of Lavender sighing in the background could have been excised to allow for a more faithful fight.

If you look at it from the perspective of someone who hasn't read the books, this change would still confuse. The Death Eaters go to all that trouble just to watch Snape from the sidelines and then run off. They'll be back for the next money-maker.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Getaway (1972)--3/5

Peckinpah's bloody violence, so innovative in its time, has become commonplace. We have to look a bit harder at the director's work to see what, if anything, makes him so well-regarded.

Besides, he seems to have been at the right place at the right time. The late-sixties dissolution of the Hayes Code allowed macho directors to include the "adult elements" they'd been wanting for years. Just look at "Topaz," one of Hitchcock's final films. He'd been pushing and skirting the Code for years. With an MPAA rating, he was free to include a graphic, sexualized murder scene. (It's like the "Psycho" shower scene without any edits.)

Looking past the violence in "The Getaway" reveals--not as much as you'd think. The strongest element is the casting, including a wizened Slim Pickens and Al "I'm gonna speak Italian to Mike" Lettieri.

"The Getaway" has all the McQueen/Peckinpah signposts: a jail, a robbery, car chases, seedy hotel rooms, and small-town shootouts. Unique to this film are a dinner scene on the San Antonio River Walk and a scramble inside of a garbage truck. But that's about it. Nothing is elevated past simple-minded entertainment.

I admire the chase scene in which McQueen is behind the wheel of a real boat of a car, sliding through traffic and eventually through a front porch. Peckinpah makes no effort at making McQueen look cool. The car is handling as it probably would in the situation. Totally Natural Connection: Like the car, this Steve McQueen flick is a bit pedestrian.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Street Fighter: The Legend Of Chun-Li (2009)--1/5

Overheard from Andrew and Steve while watching "Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li:"

"Ever since you watched that six-hour silent piece of crap [The Birth of a Nation], I've always been impressed by your bad movie-endurance"

"Does this have Jean-Claude Van Damme?"

"No. They made a second one."

"Audiences were clamoring for another."

"What's up with that guy's wig? It's like a Thomas Jefferson wig!"

"Where's Dhalsim?"

"Where's Guile?"

"Where's Blanka?"

"His name's Gen? Is he actually Ken?"

"Chris Klein is by far the best actor in this movie. It's like he's channeling Steven Seagal."

"When are they going to fight?"

"This is terrible."

The Thomas Jefferson wig.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Fanboys (2008)--2/5

The makers of "Fanboys" really wanted George Lucas to show up. He doesn't, and it's one of the few smart film-related choices he's made since 1983. Somehow they did trick Billy Dee Williams, Carrie Fisher, Ray Park (Darth Maul), and William Shatner into making appearances.

"Fanboys" is an amiable, unfunny road trip movie by, for, and about huge nerds. They drive in a panel van to Skywalker Ranch to steal a print of "Episode I" so their friend can see it before he dies in a few months. It's not a very good idea; I don't think there were any prints of "Episode I" until a few days before the movie was actually released.

The only time the movie rises from embarrassing to mildly amusing is when it finds a novel pop-culture IP to mock. Like "Six Days, Seven Nights!" I don't think I've seen any jokes recently about that turkey. Later, guards at the Ranch dress and talk like the police in "THX 1138." That's very cool and may be even nerdier than "Star Wars" references.

"Fanboys" takes place in 1998, so it has the greatest hits of the era, like "Lump," "In The Meantime," "Tubthumping," and "Whoomp! There It Is!" I have no judgment on that--just putting it out there.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

White Dog (1981)--3/5

Samuel Fuller's "White Dog" is best described using words from the Waffle House menu.

Scattered on the screen. The messages of "White Dog" are all over the place. He's a snow-white German Shepherd who's been trained by a racist to attack African-Americans with no provocation. This part's easy: racism is learned. There's also: racism is only black or white--like a dog's vision, racism can be cured, no cost is too great for this cure, and a few others.

Covered with stage blood. The White Dog kills two men and attacks more in the film. Luckily, "White Dog" was made right at the dawn of realistic blood on color film. You won't find any seventies orange paint blood ("Billy Jack," "Dawn of the Dead") on the dog's fur.

Diced in the editing room. No puppets or animatronics are ever used in place of the White Dog. Because of this, attack scenes are heavily edited to hide inconsistencies in his level of rage. The White Dog will be seen snarling in a tight shot, then jumping from behind, then raising his eyes menacingly. It's a little silly, but at least it's always an actual dog, not phony effects.

Topped by a younger generation. With it's conservative runtime, simple genre trappings, and reach beyond cheap thrills, Fuller here has been inspired by the contemporary works of John Carpenter and David Cronenberg. They do it better.

Smothered by the score. Composer Ennio Morricone further degrades his legacy with the score for "White Dog," though it's still not as "Once Upon A Time In America." *shudder*

Peppered with cool actors. Burl Ives appears in a role that could've been written for Orson Welles. Paul Winfield is the trainer who deprograms the White Dog. And Dick Miller (Gremlins) appears briefly as another animal trainer.

Capped by a confusing ending that only further muddles the subtext. After being "cured," the White Dog attacks white man Carruthers (Ives). Is the point of the film now that we all have to hate something?

Friday, July 10, 2009

AVQ&A: First Jobs And Pop-Culture Memories

Taken from The Onion AV Club's weekly feature.

What was your first job, and what film/book/song/etc. do you most associate with it?

During my last year of high school, I worked weekends for a few months at Ben Franklin on Lexington Avenue. I was scheduled by myself at the register with about ten minutes of training during the Christmas season. The soundtrack to my cluelessness was a repetitive stream of piped-in lite rock. The song that got to me the most--and that seemed to be played once or more an hour--was "Constant Craving" by K.D. Lang. (I refuse to type her name in an affected lowercase.) Lang's caterwauling could cut through any conversation or cash register ring. I would fear the end of other songs because "Constant Craving" could be coming up next.

In Mansfield, Y105 was (still is?) the only radio station that could be received in the School Specialty warehouse in which I worked for four summers. (Technically my second job, but the first I worked regularly.) Y105 played Smash Mouth's "All Star" about thirty times a day for three consecutive years. I have never voluntarily listened to this song, yet I know every whistle, every grunt from the lead singer, every line of the wordy chorus. I actually don't hate this song anymore. It would always liven up the line; my fellow seasonal employess would sometimes sing or dance along while working.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Two Lovers (2008)--4/5

Two virtuosic action scenes--car chase and apartment shootout--in James Gray's previous film, "We Own the Night," are high points in an otherwise blasé crime drama. "Two Lovers" is somehow more inventive than those scenes--and this is throughout, showcasing Gray's mastery of spatial and human relationships. It's like a vintage de Palma film with characters that are more than just directorial pawns.

Part of this is due to a de-bearded, sort-of-sane Joaquin Phoenix as Leonard. He's living in his parents' Brighton Beach apartment after a few too many setbacks. On a busy day, he tries to kill himself by jumping into the bay and, back at home, meets the beautiful Sandra (Vinessa Shaw). Her father has an interest in the family business and she's noticed Leonard before. A short time later, he discovers a neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who may be even more messed up than he is. Of course, he's instantly obsessed with her.

Sandra is a bit of a cipher. I hope she isn't actually as pure as the glimpses we get of her imply. But she has to be portrayed this way as a counterpoint to Michelle. Leonard and Michelle together--that's just too much crazy. In Leonard's lowest moment, he's saved from a successful suicide by remembering Sandra's kindness.

Short-term audience pleasure in "Two Lovers" is dispassionately crushed. Leonard is cocky and insensitive--the average guy, right? He calls Sandra only when he's feeling rejected by Michelle. In turn, Michelle is infatuated with a married creep (Elias Koteas). "Two Lovers" is not romantic, but it is captivating. And claustrophobic. Even though Leonard makes the "right" choice, it's still clear that he's deeply troubled.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Updike Postcards

From the new blog "Updike Postcards," created by my parents:

"John Updike, who died in January 2009, was known for his prompt and kind postcards in response to mail from friends and strangers alike. This site is devoted to displaying Updike's postcards, and invites submissions. Send JPEGs of both sides to"

Spy Magazine Presents: Separated At Birth?

Samuel L. Jackson making a funny face while drinking Sprite in "Pulp Fiction"...

and Falkor the Luckdragon from "The Neverending Story?"

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Baghead (2008)--2/5

"Baghead" would be like "Scream" if the characters knew anything about horror films. That's OK; they don't know much about anything because they're mumblecore players--those shiftless, whiny do-nothings from countless other sub-$1,000 films. As I may have said before, these actors (including mumblecore's starlet (mostly because she's often clothes-less) Greta Gerwig) are acceptable in stories about hipsters hooking up in crummy Williamsburg apartments. "Baghead" asks them to do too much. It's a semi-sly--and semi-stupid--dig at their infirmities.

Two guys and two girls travel to a remote cabin to try to make a movie. They've been inspired by an awful looking cheapie and think they can do better. It's a struggle to even think of a premise for a film. They mostly drink and try to have sex with each other, eventually hitting on a simple horror story of a killer with a bag on his head. Before they've even filmed anything, they're menaced by a fifth person with a bag on his head. In "Scream" fashion, of course, it's a while before we see all four of them at the same time with the real Baghead.

Their phones don't work and their only ride out has been sabotaged. They decide to walk the eleven miles to the road in the middle of the day and without food or drink. Again, "Baghead" is playing on how pathetic my generation appears to be, according to movies like "Mutual Appreciation" and "Hannah Takes the Stairs." The meta-critiques within "Baghead" can inevitably be used on the film as a whole--lazy, rushed, stretched painfully thin, etc.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Teachers (1984)--2/5

"Teachers," filmed mostly at the stately old Central High School (now part of COSI) in Columbus, is a disappointing stew of hot-button issues. Mr. Jurel (Nick Nolte) and the other teachers carry an unearned self-importance. With all the things going on at their school, it's amazing that they even keep faith in humanity, much less any reverent ideals.

An ex-student is suing the school because he can't read or write. A crazy student (the inimitable Crispin Glover) bites a teacher, steals his car, and is later shot in the hallway by the police. A shy student (Laura Dern) is impregnated by the gym teacher and driven to the abortion clinic by Nolte. These are just a few of the incidents that, by themselves, would be enough for a single film.

One moment "Teachers" feels like a slightly more mature John Hughes film, the next it's an idealistic-teacher-inspires-inner-city-youth film a la "Dangerous Minds" and countless others. Whatever it tries, "Teachers" comes off as half-assed. The jokes are barely presented and the kids are white-bread with a few ringers.

What good films have been made in Columbus? The Michael Douglas thread of "Traffic" has a few shots of the Statehouse. Too bad it's the weakest link in the film. (Benicio Del Toro's story should've been feature-length.) "Little Man Tate" has some cool stuff from the early days of the Wexner Center, but is otherwise undistinguished. "Brubaker" has a decent reputation; I haven't seen it.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Amblin' (1968)--3/5 & Xenogenesis (1978)--3/5

Think about the contexts of "Amblin'" and "Xenogenesis." Steven Spielberg and James Cameron, respectively, are hungry young filmmakers, scrambling for any opportunity to put a vision onto film. They had no idea that people would be picking these films apart thirty or forty years later, finding the seeds of later wild success.

It's easier to see Cameron's narrow obsessions in "Xenogenesis." To stretch his budget, he posits the short as a small chapter in a world-spanning space saga. Cheesy paintings describe other installments. Cameron would do the same with "The Terminator." The series may seem completely played out now, but it's been feeding off of the expansive back story of the first (independent and Hail Mary) film for twenty-five years. The short sequences of Kyle Reese in the Future War are exciting and colored beyond the edges of the film.

"Xenogenesis" has simple sci-fi beats for Cameron to drape his mastery of stop-motion and film-layering. The heroic Raj is out on a mission "to deliver humanity from the final cataclysm" when he encounters a giant cleaning droid. This droid has the same treads and proportions as the Hunter-Killers from the Terminator series. Just as he's about to get "swept away" by the droid, his partner appears in a spidery walking machine. She fights the droid in a scene that would later be refurbished as the climax of Cameron's masterpiece, "Aliens."

Even at this early stage, Cameron is a master at creating insane special effects using any budget or technique. Each shot in "Xenogenesis" works towards a functioning, other world. This is not an easy thing to do when a close-up on an actual set cuts to a wide shot of an immense room cuts to a stop-motion shot of two robots battling cuts to...

You can watch "Xenogenesis" online.

Steven Spielberg's twenty-five minute "Amblin'" doesn't point as succinctly to the director's future. He's been a little harder to pin down than Cameron. But he's still distinctly himself. "Spielbergian" is heard almost as much as "Lynchian." Maybe what "Amblin'" does illustrate is Spielberg's skill of shorthand characterization and his subtle experimentation.

"Amblin'" has a simple story of two hippie drifters, one good-looking guy and one good-looking girl. It's mostly silent, with a soundtrack suggesting an AM Gold version of Fairport Convention with less singing. In other words, it's kind of icky. The film becomes a clever interplay between emotive personalities, not unlike a modern Pixar short.

Perhaps atoning for the threadbare nature of his story, Spielberg uses some overt techniques to keep attentions from waning. In a long shot, the young man is seen slightly distorted as he runs towards the camera. It zooms out, revealing the reflection of a car's rear-view mirror. Not necessary, but kind of fun. Later (or is it before, I forget), the two drifters smoke weed in a large drainpipe. They're seen in a striking silhouette, evoking "E.T.'s" classic shot of bikers in the moon. (This shot has been combined with the word "Amblin" as Spielberg's production logo.)

"Amblin'" ends with a prescient idea. The girl looks in the guy's guitar case as he swims in the beach. Finding a nice shirt and tie, she realizes that he's appropriated the hippie lifestyle as a fashion choice. He's just another future automaton, working for the man. I leave you to decide to whom Spielberg relates more.

"Weeds: Season Four" (2008)--2/5

Questions for "Weeds: Season Four:"

Why is Nancy trained to mule drugs over the border when the tunnel to the maternity store has been in progress for months or years?

Are "Weeds" writers "Friday Night Lights" fans? If so, they could maybe get away with calling the teenager-sleeps-with-precocious-neighbor-kids'-mom subplot an homage and not a total rip-off.

Why is Andy stuck at the border once Nancy drives away? It seems to take minutes to travel from the American store to the Mexican mechanic. And even if the border is far away from their home, he could walk a few miles and then call a cab. (Yes, even while stoned.)

Why is it so horrible that Nancy traverses the tunnel? It's not like she isn't going to find out what's happening: an armed Mexican guards the delivery of giant bricks of weed all day and night.

Where exactly is this tunnel? It only descends a few feet into the earth, yet it doesn't run through any storm sewers or gas pipes.

Why is Esteban so concerned with hiding his true identity to Nancy once she's seen his face? He's the mayor of Tijuana, a fact that is discovered with, ummm, no effort.

Cool--more Wacky Packages!

Confessions Of A Shopaholic (2009)--1/5

In this despicable husk of a movie, a superficial idiot (Isla Fisher) buys couture that Brüno wouldn't touch to the soundtrack of early-nineties club hits and her own Muffy Mouse voiceover. She writes barely incoherent columns comparing fashion with finances. Inexplicably, especially considering the states of the magazine, fashion, and money industries, she's a hit. Laura tells me there's a scene in "Confessions of a Shopaholic" in which the Dude (Hugh Dancy) opines on how intelligent she is. (I was on the phone for a good chunk of the film.) This is a disconnect akin to everyone saying how beautiful Maggie Gyllenhall is in "The Dark Knight." Or, if you're offended by that, it's like everyone saying how much Hilary Swank looks like Mia Kirshner in "The Black Dahlia." No matter how many times you tell the audience, it still isn't gonna be true. (I guess I'm a superficial idiot, too.)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

El Norte (1983)--3/5

"El Norte" hinges on a single quick cut that comes seconds before the end. Enrique (David Villalpando) daydreams while digging a ditch with other day laborers. The spinning of the concrete drum turns into the spinning water wheel of his Guatemalan village. He's travelled 3,000 miles with his sister Rose (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez), from Guatemala to LA. They had little in a land of little. Now they have little in a land of plenty.

"El Norte" could be the tale of Enrique or any one of his coworkers. It could take place in 1983 or now. Every faceless immigrant, hired or discarded without much thought, has their own story. Enrique and Rosa's may be one of the more tragic stories, but it's still unfortunately typical.

Director Gregory Nava takes a mostly matter-of-fact approach to the journey. This is a good thing, since "action" sequences, such as the sewer pipe rat attack, are incompetently filmed. The rat scene goes on and on while sequencing metronomically through the same three shots of fake-looking creatures.

Enrique and Rosa make it to el Norte. Enrique even lucks into a decent job waiting tables. Any success they have, though, is untenable. They don't even have to make mistakes. For Enrique, it's an anonymous call made to immigration. For Rosa, it's a refusal to go to the hospital for fear of deportation. "El Norte" is a sobering rebuttal to people's aspirations.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Valkyrie (2008)--4/5

"Valkyrie" is like "Titanic." We know how it's going to end. This doesn't make the ride any less entertaining. Or frustrating. I got so caught up in "Valkyrie" that I secretly hoped it would turn into a Harry Turtledove-style alternate history. Would Colonel Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) succeed in killing Hitler?

Stauffenberg is a man with many demons. His misgivings about Nazi policies are concretized after an Allied strafing in Tunisia. He loses his right hand, two fingers on his left hand, and his left eye. These perceived weaknesses only drive him harder into the resistance.

For a Brian Singer-directed Tom Cruise vehicle, "Valkyrie" is surprisingly heavy. Cruise gives one of his most complete performances. He's rarely slowed by his injuries. The few moments he even stops to ponder them--like when, sans eyepatch, he looks at himself in the mirror--are moving.

The moments I find overly dramatic and scripted in "Valkyrie" are faithful to actual events. Major General Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) has some particularly purple lines about "doing the right thing." Many quotes of this type are directly attributed to the man. In the final scene, Lieutenant Haeften (Jamie Parker) runs into the path of the executioners' bullets, something he really did.

"Valkyrie" also stars Eddie Izzard--that's smart casting.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Workingman's Death (2005)--4/5

Or, "People Really Live This Way."

It starts with a lone man digging for coal on a Ukrainian hill. Not a job anyone would want, but not the worst thing one could do. Soon after, a group of men discuss their job. They're in good spirits, despite the fact that they appear to be permanently tattooed from coal dust.

Suddenly, we're in an two-foot crevice with the men. Unable to stand for hours at a time, they hammer at fissures in the ceiling, causing small cave-ins. At the end of the day, they drag out a paltry haul. This is the first of five hellish jobs documented by Michael Glawogger in "Workingman's Death."

Things get worse. The second segment follows Indonesian sulfur miners climbing to the base of a mountain. They slam a long pole into the smoking ground and fill a contraption made of two baskets connected by a cane. This is the easy part. They then climb up the mountain for the rest of the day, carrying their two hundred pound loads. Tourists snap their pictures as they rush by.

Glawogger offers no narration and the jobs are illustrated as an aggregate of unembellished long shots. He still manages to find something like a lyrical beauty in the muck.

Glawogger visits an open Nigerian slaughtering pit, certainly one of the most Godforsaken places on the planet. After the cries of stuck goats and cows, the Pakistani oil-rig salvage yard is something of a reprieve.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The International (2009)--2/5

"The International" flits from Milan to NYC to Luxembourg to Istanbul for no good reason. It makes the mistake of thinking a MacGuffin is more important than the shenanigans created around it. In this case, the MacGuffin is a lazy conspiracy involving an international bank buying and selling arms. They want war-torn countries to have lots of debt with their bank. Jeez, remember the day when shady cabals wanted to destroy the sun?

The few scenes of shenanigans are also slackly conceived. The bank will stop at nothing, leading to a by-the-numbers shootout between Clive Owen and about two hundred bad guys that destroys the Guggenheim Museum. As a pointless desecration, this is up there with Rome letting the makers of "Jumper" film a noxious action sequence inside the Colosseum.

Super Troopers - Shenanigans

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Friday The 13th (2009)--2/5

The title of this movie means nothing. "Friday the 13th" isn't a remake of the first film. Jason, not his mother, is the killer for ninety-five percent of the film. It truthfully is "Friday the 13th: Part XII." (If "Freddy Vs. Jason" counts.)

Normally, any description of character motivation in a "Friday the 13th" film would be beside the point. All you need to know is that some kids go into the woods and are creatively hacked to death. One (or two?) make it through to the end. This latest "Friday the 13th" has a slightly interesting twist in the person of Whitney (Amanda Righetti). In a long preface, she's captured by Jason, who sees her as his dead mother. Six weeks later, Clay (Jared Padalecki, who's been spending his time pumping iron since "Gilmore Girls" went off the air) is investigating her disappearance. You can tell he's a "rebel," or whatever, from his vintage motorcycle.

Whitney and Clay's escape through Jason's surprisingly well-engineered underground complex is a rare scary scene. Horror filmmakers take note: we care about the characters.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Pretty In Pink (1986) & Some Kind Of Wonderful (1987)

One night in "He's Just Not That Into You," Ginnifer Goodwin watches "Some Kind of Wonderful." The next day, she corners her coworker. "I'm Keith and he's Watts." "But Watts is a girl in that movie." (These aren't direct quotes, but you get the idea.) Why can't they just talk about "Pretty In Pink," which has the same plot, but with reversed genders? This is nothing new; everyone who's seen both "Some Kind of Wonderful" and "Pretty In Pink" knows the similarities. I'm bringing it up as an introduction to a showdown of the two films.

Andie (Molly Ringwald) vs. Keith (Eric Stoltz)

Advantage: Keith (Some Kind of Wonderful)

Andie is defined as a poor semi-outcast in "Pretty In Pink," yet she owns a refurbished classic car, her own phone line, and an answering machine--in the eighties. Keith works after school at a service station. (Nobody else seems to work there.) He also has a passion for art. Oil and paint are often artistically smudged on his face and clothes. He's still more authentically from "the wrong side of the tracks" than Andie.

Duckie (Jon Cryer) vs. Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson)

Advantage: Watts (Some Kind of Wonderful)

Duckie is pretty cool and we do feel bad for him. But he's a high school friend more like Ricky from "My So-Called Life," except not gay. Well, maybe a little gay. The point is, he's never truly in the running for Andie's love. Watts, on the other hand, is hot, stylish, funny, bad-ass. Her smooching scene with Keith is the highlight of the film. If Keith doesn't end up with her, there's no justice in the John Hughesiverse.

Blane (Andrew McCarthy) vs. Amanda (Lea Thompson)

Advantage: Neither

Blane and Amanda are both blander than Kashi cereal. As I type, I'm forgetting that Amanda even existed in the film. This category, then, tips toward "Some Kind of Wonderful" because Keith realizes the truth and runs down the street to Watts.

Winner: Some Kind of Wonderful. Sorry, Molly Ringwald fans.

For the record: Pretty in Pink--2/5 & Some Kind of Wonderful--3/5

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tell No One (2006)--1/5

Laura (before): Well, I hate Harlan Coben books and I hate French movies.* Let's watch it!

Harlan Coben pens yearly variations on the same sub-Dean Koontz theme. A normal person is confronted with some left-field revelations from the past. Tugging at the strands revs up the tension and mystery. A lengthy explanation towards the end make no logical sense while attempting to clear up events of the book.

In "Tell No One," Alexandre Beck (François Cluzet) is sent an email linking to a security camera's feed. His wife, dead for eight years, is seen staring mournfully into the camera. It's a neat germ for a Hitchcockian story. Everything after this cannot be called "Hitchcockian."

Writer/director Guillame Canet tries for maybe an hour to transcend Coben's asinine story. A long chase scene, including a stretch across a busy highway, is at least watchable.

André Dussollier is the unfortunate actor charged with reading the endless lines of explanatory dialogue. The scene goes on for at least twenty minutes. Then, after a pause, an additional five minutes explains the twenty minutes.

Laura (after): It should be called "Tell No One...To Watch This Movie."

*She doesn't really hate all French movies, though we have seen some wretched ones together. "Cache" comes to mind.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Open Hearts (2002)--3/5

What a terrible title for this otherwise acceptable film.

"Open Hearts" is filmed in the minmalist Danish "Dogme 95" style, with at least one bothersome exception. Cecilie (Sonja Richter) walks through town wearing headphones and listening to an annoying dentist's office song (think: the song "Dreams" from "Magnolia," but more insipid). The song follows the action through several cuts, indicating that it was recorded separately and added in post. Rule 2 of "Dogme" states, "The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa."

I guess I don't really care--I just don't think the song fits the character. The Dogme 95 regulations can be more trouble than they're worth. As something to aim for, they can help cut out waste in a film. Conversely, I'm often more fascinated by how a film has been made with the limitations than with the story.

"Open Hearts" finds the right balance. The most striking thing provided by Dogme 95 is an awareness of the time of day. Lighting has to be natural or already available on location. As a result, many scenes are lit by tall, clear windows. The actors have a luminous look that feeds their naturalistic acting.

Mads Mikkelson, the great villain from "Casino Royale" and great humanist from "After the Wedding," here portrays a third distinct character: slimy adulterer. It's almost a shame that "Open Hearts" ends up circling around him, since the other characters aren't as pathetic.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Miracle At St. Anna (2008)--3/5

The World War II actioner can defeat an auteur, but it's still a rite of passage. Steven Spielberg succeeded with "Saving Private Ryan," but he's been making WWII pictures of a sort throughout his career. John Woo tried to dampen his more delirious impulses with "Windtalkers," embalming the action. Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" has yet to be seen outside of Cannes, but it looks to be "Kill Bill: Poland." Take that as you will.

Spike Lee's "Miracle At St. Anna" is an enhancement of the director's strengths and weaknesses. Two battles bookend the film--the first sprawling and the last in close quarters. Lee is out of his element on the first battlefield. We don't know any of the characters yet and Lee is obsessed with cutting to a Nazi studio broadcasting propaganda to the Buffalo Soldiers.

The later fight, in the serpentine streets of a small Italian town, quiets earlier criticism. A lot of things are improved; I wonder if it was filmed late in the shoot, after Spike Lee found a new vocabulary.

The story gets away from Lee at times. He wants to comment on too much, leading to long scenes away from the four soldiers: Stamps, Cummings, Negron, and Train.

It's in the fears and prejudices of these black soldiers that Lee finds his muse. A flashback in the center of "Miracle At St. Anna" is the film's Rosetta Stone. The soldiers, proud to be in uniform and serving the country, are turned away at gunpoint from a Southern eatery. The owner will serve Nazi POW's but not African-American soldiers. Throughout the film, they wonder what exactly they're fighting for. "Miracle at St. Anna" answers them once in a while.

Does Woody Allen have a WWII film?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Surfwise (2007)--3/5

Annette and Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz have nine children. Eight boys and one girl. For their entire childhoods, they traveled from one coast to the other in a half-sized RV.

Eleven people. In an RV. His children are a little bitter today, what with their lack of education. They sure can surf, though. The Stanford-educated Doc believes that surfing is the cornerstone of human health and education.

"Surfwise" is amusing because it's a ninety-minute documentary about eleven people. The Paskowitz kids are labeled "#1," "#2," and so on. None of them get much screen time, which is a shame, since they all seem interesting. Maybe that's a strength of the film; intriguing facts seem more so because they briefly tantalize.

For example, two of the sons (#5 and #7? I have no idea) were in a band in the late nineties that had a hit song. They were The Flys and the song was "Got You (Where I Want You)." Wait a second, these Bohemian surfers cracked the Top 40? Other careers taken up by the family: comic book/surf logo illustrator, model, surfing champion, screenwriter, stuntman...

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Revolutionary Road (2008)--3/5

Leonardo DiCaprio is a perfect casting choice as Frank Wheeler, arrested man-child of "Revolutionary Road." He looks like he's grown two years to Kate Winslet's actual ten in the years since "Titanic." (And Kathy Bates is in this one as well.) Leo is thirty-four. Frank turns thirty in the movie and it's still hard to believe.

Central to "Revolutionary Road" is the idea of being trapped--in the suburbs, in a family, in a job, in the fifties. No solution is better than another. April Wheeler (Winslet) wants the family to emigrate to Paris. Frank goes along with the plan because he hates his job. But does he hate it enough to turn down a healthy raise to do the same bullshit? When telling their friends, they might as well be saying they're traveling to Titan without spacesuits. "How will you make money?" "Your wife will support you?"

Once this central conflict is finally resolved, the air goes out of "Revolutionary Road" a bit. Conflicts are mundane without the dynamic tension of whether they'll affect Frank and April's plans. Though for the most part, "Revolutionary Road" is cannily melodramatic and may strike close to home for a lot of people.

This Japanese poster makes "Revolutionary Road" look like a Beverly Lewis novel.

[Beavis laugh]

Saturday, June 13, 2009

AVQ&A: Pop-Culture Relic Quotes

Taken from The Onion AV Club's weekly feature.

"What bit of pop-cultural ephemera still sticks in your own personal quote machine that few people get?"

I immediately thought of the commercial for crappy-looking board game "Splat." A claymation bug with an exasperated New Yorker accent, gets smushed by a giant hand. "I hate when that happens," he says. "But we love it!," responds a roomful of excited children.

For the last nineteen years, whenever someone has said "I hate when that happens" or one out of every ten times I've done something dumb, these lines have run through my head. Often, I'll say them out loud.

Until yesterday, I had forgotten the name of the game and the commercial's jingle. Thanks to Jo Pulcini's incredible Google skills, it's all come back to me now. If you ever watched the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Super Mario Bros. Super Show" block on WUAB Channel 43 Kids' Club, you've already seen this ad twelve thousand times.

Martyrs (2008)--2/5

Don't watch this movie. "Martyrs" is a nasty French horror flick that, in measured pain and suffering, outruns "Hostel" by a few hundred kilometres.

Fifteen years after escaping a bizarre captivity, Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) is convinced that she has found, in a random newspaper photo, the couple responsible. They have two kids and live what appears to be a normal suburban life. Anna (Morjana Alaoui), Lucie's friend from the group home, is not convinced. The photo is blurry and Lucie's memory may not be reliable. Nevertheless, Anna is an accomplice. She arrives after Lucie to find the family killed. Lucie takes her own life soon after. This happens in the first, um, thirty minutes of "Martyrs." Anna, the new focus of the film, discovers a hidden metal stairway in the house, behind a cupboard.

The rapid, yet logical, twists of "Martyrs" give the film an authentic creepiness. Anna's journey down the stairs, what she finds there? One of the scariest scenes I've ever watched. I'll give "Martyrs" that much.

Those who made "Martyrs" can probably tell you why their film is more worthwhile than other extreme horror films. How the violence is meta or existential. This is most apparent in the third act of the film. It's an austere series of transcendentally painful blackout scenes that somehow combines Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc," "2001: A Space Odyssey," and Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle." All good things, for sure. What are they doing in this movie? The DNA of "Martyrs" is always going to be sick--a murdered family, a man beating a woman unconscious, and worse. In a movie like this, you can't take this stuff seriously.

(I couldn't find any suitable pictures from "Martyrs.")

Thursday, June 11, 2009

He's Just Not That Into You (2009)--3/5

I'm being a little generous here. "He's Just Not That Into You" is a romantic comedy based on a non-fiction book based on a line (lines? a whole episode?) from "Sex and the City." Additionally, it's a film in the five-plots-are-better-than-one style of "Love Actually." Yikes.

Alex's (Justin Long) dialogue seems to be taken verbatim from the book. He exists only to explain to Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin) why men aren't into her. Big surprise: he falls for her. Non-sarcastic surprise: it's kind of sweet.

In wrapping up all but one of its stories with a happy couple, "He's Just Not That Into You" may be a pleasant, inoffensive experience, but it argues against the book's logic. Gigi is told that she's the "exception" when earlier in the movie her friends assure her that there are no exceptions. That friend of a friend who got a call weeks later from a guy? That never happened. Except it does for Gigi. And the guy who's just not that into you because he won't marry you (Ben Affleck, of course)? Just give him time and make him miserable--he'll cave.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Jon & Kate

Can Troy Patterson's Slate article be the final word on these guys?

"She is a moaning 34-year-old harpy with highlights as wide as mountain-bike tires sporting an asymmetrical haircut suggestive of a wounded stork. He is a sullen 32-year-old layabout whose skate-punk sideburns and gelled forelocks signal boring bad news."

Terminator Salvation (2009)--2/5

John Connor has been saved now in four features, one television series, and one 3D "experience." I ask: why is John Connor so great? He's like the baby in a "Roger Rabbit" short--leave him alone for a nanosecond and he's falling twelve stories to his death. He's never done anything particularly amazing for the resistance. The only reason John even succeeds at blowing up one (of many; there will be sequels) Skynet base in "Terminator: Salvation" is because he's trying to save Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the teenager who grows up to travel back in time to be his father in the eighties.

The resistance fighters have a choice of who lives at the end of the film: John Connor, accident-prone mortal and possible future leader; or Marcus Wright, nearly indestructible half-Terminator, half-human who's working against his creators. Marcus has already proven that a "Terminator" movie can be carried without Connor; he steals the show by starring in the substantial action scenes.

Each "Terminator" film has a twist that calls into question the original cause of events. As mentioned, Kyle Reese fathers John Connor. Later, Skynet is created using the smushed T-800 from the first film and Judgment Day ends the third film, despite everyone's best efforts to stop it. Removing John Connor from this infinite loop would be a much needed restart to the creaky series. And it would support the series cockeyed approach to fate.

After the repeat of Arnold's *good* T2 Terminator in T3, it's nice to see him back as the mute villain. Never mind that his digitally-created face is quickly burned away because of the cost of the computer effects involved.

"Terminator Salvation" has some other issues. Star (one-named actor Jadagrace) is a little girl following Reese who, despite being mute, is still more annoying than Jar-Jar Binks. She exists in the film only to dispense the exact item that's needed (Band-Aid, flare, detonator) at a given time. These reveals are played for laughs. I just want to yell at the screen like Gordon Ramsay: "Useless!"

Also, "Salvation" is finally a Terminator film set in the future, something that's been hinted about throughout the series. I know it's a callback to the history of the series, but couldn't the writers think of a climactic setting more original than yet another steel-smelting plant?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Nightbreed (1990)--2/5

While watching "Nightbreed," I kept thinking of how I was going to describe protagonist Aaron Boone (Craig Sheffer). This is what I came up with: He looks like the Buffyverse's Angel, if Angel were a bully in a John Cusack movie. As you can see, it was hard to pay attention to this film, Clive Barker's followup to "Hellraiser."

The Nightbreed creatures themselves, hatched from Barker's fertile mind and fashioned with a craftsmanship little-seen in today's digital effects-heavy films, are uniformly intriguing. And "The Scarecrow Movie Guide" claims that they all have deep backstories. But "Nightbreed" is the worst kind of fantasy: the heroes are given little to do but tag-team wrestle against an encroaching army of rednecks. (That's probably not "the worst kind of fantasy;" I like how the hyperbole sounds.)

David Cronenberg takes a rare bow in front of the camera in "Nightbreed" as Boone's unhinged psychologist. He made me wish I had watched one of his films instead.


...and Angel.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Drag Me To Hell (2009)--3/5

Did Sam Raimi really have to make three "Spider-Man" tent poles before he was allowed to make a new "Sam Raimi" movie? That doesn't seem right, especially in the case of the "Batman Forever"-emulating third installment.

Savor "Drag Me To Hell" now, since it's going to be another ten years--and another twelve subpar Marvel villains--before something similar comes along. Raimi's seasick approach to comic horror has no peer. "Drag Me To Hell," with the increasingly insane plagues set upon heroine Christine (Alison Lohman), is a spiritual successor to Raimi's classic "Evil Dead" cycle. The trials come about because Christine has the bad luck to get between an elderly Gypsy woman (familiar television actor Lorna Raver) and her home loan.

Whether it's a slog in a muddy grave or an epic battle in a compact car, Lohman is game for everything she's asked to do. She doesn't have quite the impeccable timing of "Evil Dead" star Bruce Campbell, but very few people do.

Playing a college professor, Justin Long's office is festooned with Apple products. Hilarious.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Defiance (2008)--2/5

Edward Zwick ("Glory," "The Last Samurai") brings his lifelike diorama style now to the Holocaust. Specifically, "Defiance" tells the little-known story of Belorussian Jews surviving in the unforgiving forest. "Defiance" quickly draws a line between brothers Tuvia (Daniel Craig) and Zus (Liev Schreiber). Tuvia, the eventual leader of the forest camp, is a stoic pacifist, while Zus believes in striking from the jungle as often and as viciously as possible.

In their situation, either approach is pretty much doomed. Stealing food alerts the Nazis to their presence and staying put leads to faster starvation. Since "Defiance" is billed as an exciting action movie, Zus's disposition easily wins out. Tuvia and company shoot their way out of the forest and then on to the next camp. Along the way, they're miraculously helped by Zus, who happens to be moving by at the right time.

Events are dangerously compressed in "Defiance." They're linked in a series that allows glimpses of true miserable destitution before whipping back to a more conventional world at war. The actors--including the leads--have been given one-phrase directions (stoic pacifist, wise teacher, rash whippersnapper, girl who looks like a runway model) and left for dead in front of the camera.

Shogun Assassin (1980)--3/5

It’s not difficult to imagine Quentin Tarantino watching “Shogun Assassin” for the twentieth time in preparation for filming “Kill Bill.” Almost every inventive evisceration or bloodletting in his movie has its genesis—or at least ultimate iteration—in Kenji Misumi and Robert Houston’s efficient original.

A little explanation is necessary: In 1980, Houston combined two Japanese films based on the long-lived “Lone Wolf and Cub” manga to make “Shogun Assassin.” Eleven minutes were culled from “Sword of Vengeance” and seventy from “Baby Cart at the River Styx” (what a title!). I wish I’d known this before watching “Shogun Assassin,” since the original films are available on DVD.

The basic setup has Ogami Ittō displeasing his paranoid master, the Shogun. Forever on the run, Ittō, now a “Lone Wolf,” encounters assassins at every crossroads, in every town, and on every boat. The story is episodic, without much to look forward to. The appeal lies in how Ittō uses the environment, his son, and his Swiss Army arsenal to dispatch the bad guys.

See, when Lone Wolf kills, he does it with style. And more often than not, Daiguro, his toddler son, is his accomplice. Lone Wolf’s duel with the Shogun’s own son sets the tone for what follows. As they run toward each other, Ittō bows at the last second, revealing Daiguro and his reflective crown. The blinded foe is easily decapitated. Spraying blood, the corpse drops in a striking, faked slow motion. (Ittō stands frozen in action during the shot.) Tarantino wishes he could be that cool.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009)--2/5

A Segway is not as inherently funny as "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" thinks it is. "Arrested Development" got some laughs out of brother Gob's Segway, but that was more from the character's assumed superiority while riding it. Paul Blart isn't a funny guy; he's a comedic straight man without a partner.

It's no surprise that "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" finds short-lived success in the first major scene without Segway-riding. Blart accidentally drinks at an after-hours mall-worker party. He spouts increasingly obnoxious non-sequiters before jumping through a window. It says something for the rest of this unholy "Home Alone"/"Dawn of the Dead" hybrid that this is the winning scene.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Taken (2009)--1/5

Bryan Mills' (Liam Neeson) daughter Kim and her friend Amanda are kidnapped shortly after arriving in Paris. In the alternate universe of "Taken," this is commonplace. American girls are kidnapped and sold into slavery everyday; the news media is not interested in something so boring. Mills has no faith in the police and immediately flies to Europe to kick some Albanian butt. In doing so, he seals the fate of Amanda, killed by an overdose and quickly forgotten. But he does find his daughter! And he kills, tortures, or mutilates enough Albanian- and Arabic-speaking rent-a-baddies to satisfy those who think Jack Bauer is a model of restraint.

We know Mills is a retired butt-kicker from his friends' painful expository dialogue. We also find out that he's worried his daughter will be abducted in Europe. It's a good thing the exact thing he's completely prepared for happens!

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith, Bone, and the Changing Face of Comics (2009)--3/5

When a "Bone" movie is finally made, "The Cartoonist" will be a welcome extra on the bonus disc. (This is, of course, if DVD's still exist that far in the future.) Mostly filmed during Jeff Smith's victory lap through the Wexner Center last year, the film concisely relates the genesis of "Bone." At the unbelievable age of five, Smith first conceived of the Bone archetype while doodling. Later inspired by Walt Kelly, Sparky Schultz, and the collection of Ohio State's Cartoon Research Library, he contributed daily strips to The Lantern.

Before beginning the epic "Bone" comics, Smith had a day job as a founder of Character Builders, a Columbus-based animation studio. In its most novel sequence, "The Cartoonist" unearths some primitive, little-seen commercials for White Castle, Time-Warner Cable, and other, smaller, companies.

The history of "Bone" has been told and told again. Smith has been asked the same questions so many times that he has a bank of sound bites--like the one about the childhood desire for a thousand-page Uncle Scrooge omnibus. Still, it's nice to have a feature companion to the Wexner Center's exhibit.

Emmanuelle (1974)--1/5

I've run into a problem, writing about everything I watch: I have to reveal that I Netflixed the infamous soft-core Eurotrash "Emmanuelle." It has a plot just as forced and banal as a standard porno, with an bonus layer of art-theater self-importance. (And without the porno--"love" scenes are shown not at all or through gauzy curtains! Just sayin'.)

Emmanuelle (Sylvia Kristel) couples with every attractive man or woman she meets (i.e. everyone she meets) and her clothing is less than optional. You can tell the filmmakers are trying to posit her stature as a daring feminist, throwing off the shackles of a patriarchal society. Like when she impulsively travels into the Thailand wilderness to consummate a passionate lesbian affair, leaving her husband to wallow in a dirty Bangkok stripclub. Eh, sorry. It's an impossible dream, this deeper meaning--leering men and a generally voyeuristic directorial style make sure of this.

"Emmanuelle" has more to answer to than just itself. Since it was a smash upon initial release, it's seen as a template for all successive soft-focus late night skin flicks. Zalman King and the creators of Skinemax have "Emmanuelle" to thank for their careers.

Thanks a lot.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

I.O.U.S.A. (2008)--2/5

Patrick Creadon, the director of "Wordplay," shifts into low gear with "I.O.U.S.A.," a soporific exposé of our country's financial woes. The film readily admits that this is a topic that doesn't get enough press--a local story on an important? town hall meeting is bumped from the newscast for the usual treacle. And Robert Bixby, the perennially ruffled executive director of the non-partisan Concord Coalition, admits that his message is "unsexy."

"I.O.U.S.A." tries to sex up both complicated and obvious axioms with fancy animated pie charts and bar graphs. They all--shockingly!--predict a dire future for the country. (The future we're living in, as the film was made in 2007/2008.) Every five minutes, it's like the irritating part in "An Inconvenient Truth" in which Al Gore rides an industrial lift in order to illustrate his point.

Reductionism is often a fault of movies, but "I.O.U.S.A." fails because it doesn't do it enough. Creadon crams too many concepts into a slim runtime. I'm not asking for him to dumb down the material, but rather to keep only the biggest ideas or to slow down complex narration. (Okay, maybe I am asking him to dumb it down.) "I.O.U.S.A." tries and fails to be a populist reference on the economy.

Partly Cloudy (2009)--5/5

The short "Partly Cloudy" screens before "Up" and after the "Toy Story 3" teaser. This enhancement of the baby-bearing stork legend is almost impossibly adorable. In this version, clouds are the creators and storks are the delivery-birds. Kittens, puppies, and babies are the primary output of clouds. But someone's gotta make less-desirable infants. An outcast cloud seems to be the only volunteer; he produces a baby alligator, porcupine, and head-butting ram. They're every bit as vibrant and singular as the "cuter" babies. And they come with the additional thrill of their danger to the cloud's stork.

"Partly Cloudy" is funny and tactile. It's told as a silent film; stork and cloud talk only in mumbling gesture-speak. With a well-earned story arc, it's the best Pixar short yet.

Up (2009)--3/5

"Up" is Pixar's "The Emperor's New Groove." This may sound like a dismissal, but I really like "The Emperor's New Groove." It's a loopy, inventive lark, free from ponderous expectations of being the latest "important" Disney film.

"Up" is a similarly freewheeling adventure. With a few dozen bushels of helium balloons, Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner, whose full name appears in crosswords more than you'd think) steers his airborne house to the Amazon Basin. Russell, a very round and earnest kid, accidentally stows away on the flight. "Up" has a lot of fun with the setup and with what Carl and Russell find when they arrive.

Initially, the meet a Rain-Blo-colored female bird that Russell names Kevin. Kevin has the temperament of a few different kinds of birds--ostrich, flamingo, chicken, turkey--combined with the physical genius of Donald O'Connor. She's an utterly original creation. Kevin and Dug, a talking dog, get the biggest reaction from the audience.

An ostensibly tear-jerking preface opens "Up" in the wrong direction. Carl's mostly silent life-story is a carbon-copy of similar, more effective sequences in earlier Pixar movies. I'm thinking of Jessie's abandonment in "Toy Story 2," the look back at Radiator Springs's heyday in "Cars," and even the first two acts of "Wall•E." Carl's old age, so forcefully introduced, is regularly contradicted: he can't walk down stairs, but he can hike over a mountain for days while dragging a floating house? Maybe writer-director Pete Docter feels a Pixar movie can't be simply fun. The brand demands pathos, no matter how corny.

In trash like "My Bloody Valentine," 3-D is an excuse to thrust stuff at the audience as often as possible. Pixar has wisely made a solid movie first and then thought about 3-D. Pete Docter, the director of "Up," says, "We’re showing you a story, and the 3D should be in support of that, not the opposite."

After the initial excitement, the 3-D in "Up" is forgotten. During the film, I kept pushing my Carl Fredricksen-style 3-D glasses down in order to see the actual film. Through the glasses, it's as if "Up" has been projected through a glass of rainwater. It's a tragedy for a film this vibrantly illustrated. Of course, I had to make do with the glasses; watching without them may be brighter, but it's also blurrier.

Shocking 3-D is annoying and subtle 3-D is unnoticeable. Conclusion? 3-D is a joke. It's not the future of movies. Here's hoping the fad dies out faster than Hollywood thinks it will.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

My Bloody Valentine (2009)--1/5

Is there a wrong way to watch a movie this bad? I ask because "My Bloody Valentine" is supposed to be seen in a theater in 3-D. The screen is constantly thrust at by phallic and otherwise distracting objects--a pickaxe, a tree branch, super exciting newspaper headlines!

Never mind the amateur acting, degrading female roles, and complete lack of reason for existing (because of the sort-of-recommendable original). It's the 3-D "improvements" that ultimately bring "My Bloody Valentine" down.

During a bar fight, a random thug punches at a mirror. Cut to the inside of the mirror shattering, followed by an excessive pause to the action to really sell the gimmick. At a rate of one 3-D money shot for every scene, the pace of "My Bloody Valentine" is undermined at every opportunity. 3-D glasses can't help this problem.

I don't know if this is to aid the 3-D, but "My Bloody Valentine" looks like it was filmed on video. Not digital video. Just video. Movement is blurry and colors are washed out. The cheap special effects are perhaps integrated more easily in this lo-fi environment.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Religulous (2008)--2/5

“Religulous” is evidence that Bill Maher’s smugness can’t carry a whole film. He has a better argument than Ben Stein’s intelligent design-propping “Expelled,” but their films could have been made by the same director. Each uses a distracting style of intercutting inexpensive or public domain clips to emphasize a point. So, for example, when Maher questions a Creationist Museum employee about dinosaurs living alongside people, a “Flintstones” clip amusingly (but not really) appears.

Maybe all the clips are in “Religulous” to obfuscate the fact that there’s not much going on in the film. Maher goes to some randomly selected religious centers, interrogates people with a raised eyebrow, and gets driven back to a hotel, thoroughly trashing them during the ride.

“Religulous” is concerned more with itself than it is about making any convincing refutation of religion. How else to explain the interview with a pot smoking Dutchman? He can’t even answer one question because he’s so baked. The only event of substance that occurs during this interview is that his hair (maybe) briefly catches on fire. His connection to religion is unclear.

The easy way to make these extreme religious people out as the nuts they are is to smartly debate them. Then, build the interviews into some kind of point. Maher is instead too concerned with cracking jokes and catching Biblical literalists in logical fallacies. “Religulous” is not a productive argument and watching it is not a productive use of 101 minutes.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Albuquerque, NM

New Mexican "Fez-Wearing" ducks, UNM Duck Pond.

My parents lived in this house before I was born!

This turquoise Beetle seems quintessentially New Mexican.

Mauger Estate B&B

Sandia Peak tramway.

Laura drinks the Doogie Mojito at Sandiago's. It's named after local celebrity--and personal favorite--Neil Patrick Harris.