Thursday, April 30, 2009

Screaming Masterpiece (2005)--3/5

"Screaming Masterpiece" showcases bands and singers from Iceland. Many of them include Björk or are Björk herself. With shots of endless crags and frozen rivers, the film makes the not-so-new point that Icelandic music is cold, glacial, and eerie.

Sigur Rós is the most famous--and best--synthesizer of traditional and modern Icelandic music. The mournful chanting of the country's Head Pagan(!), Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, segues easily into their epic sound.

At a performance duplicated in the Sigur Rós concert film "Heima," the band plays with Hilmarsson. Artist Andy Goldsworthy would be proud of the stone marimbas created for the performance. Flat stones are collected and hit with a mallet to determine their sound. After a few octaves worth of stones are found, they're lashed to a resonating frame. This instrument, derived almost completely from nature, is wonderfully complex. ("Heima" has more on its creation than "Screaming Masterpiece;" I never wrote about that film.)

Ventures past the core "Icelandic" sound elude "Screaming Masterpiece." Attempts at punk, metal, and rap sound like third-generation xeroxes of better bands. There's a reason Sigur Rós, Björk, and múm are the most famous bands from Iceland--they sound like nothing else.

A stone marimba, from the Sigur Rós site.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Notorious (2009)--4/5

This is the second-best movie with the title "Notorious."

Chris Wallace's eyeblink rise and fall tragically serve the biopic format well. Wallace aka Biggie Smalls aka The Notorious B.I.G. broke in 1994 with "Ready to Die" and was murdered in 1997, sixteen days before the release of "Life After Death." He can credibly be played by the same actor (Jamal Woolard) without a suspension of disbelief. Events from his life during these years are uniformly interesting and they easily stack into a complex arc.

Biggie always had the talent, rhyming to himself and to his friends. It took Puff Daddy's (Derek Luke) compromising genius to make him a sensation beyond Bed-Stuy. Puffy strongly encouraged Biggie to soften his image and rap against the early eighties song "Juicy Fruit." The resulting single, "Juicy," became his first hit. (It was also one of the first of many "Remember how great the past was?" hip-hop tracks.)

Despite his prophetic album titles, Biggie tried to stay above the deadly West Coast/East Coast rivalry. Having said that, he and Puffy are portrayed as a bit too angelic in "Notorious;" the excitement ultimately helped sell albums for both camps.

According to the film, the blame for the rivalry lies with Tupac, Suge Knight, and the media. Tupac, the scared aggressor, believed the hype about former friend Biggie, especially after a violent mugging with suspicious connections. Suge, ruthless and quick to violence, pulled the strings. The news, quick to the sexy rap-shooting angle, only brought more attention.

The shootings--the mugging and the murders of Pac and Biggie--are still a complete mystery. "Notorious" wisely skips any speculation, reenforcing the senselessness.

The Uninvited (2009)--2/5

Apologies for the spoilers and the exclamation points:

1) It was all a dream!

2) Every strange thing that's happening to me can be conveniently explained by the fact that I'm totally crazy!

3) Someone I thought was alive has been dead the whole time!

One of these cliches is usually enough to derail a horror flick. "The Uninvited" uses all three, sometimes in concert. The acrobatics fail to make the film scary or even noisy.

Anna's (Emily Browning--Violet from the "Lemony Snicket" film) insanity can't retroactively correct the pace of "The Uninvited." Convinced that her new aunt (Elizabeth Banks, for real) is homicidal, Anna discusses what to do with her sister and a local boy. For the first hour of the already short film, these conversations abruptly end with promises to meet or investigate later. Why not just continue the conversation now? Crazy!

Monday, April 27, 2009

What Would Jesus Buy? (2007)--2/5

With his name in the credits as a "presenter" of "What Would Jesus Buy?," Morgan Spurlock is to gimmicky documentaries with a conscience as Quentin Tarantino is to neo-grindhouse movies. The film is a scattershot screed against--what, exactly? It's hard to tell. Tucked between scenes of Reverend Billy's revivalist-inspired anti-shopping sermons are chestnuts from other recent documentaries.

1) Wal-Mart is evil and it's destroying small-town America. That's from "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price."

2) Credit cards lead to endless individual debt. "Maxed Out" already took on credit card companies.

3) Products are made in sweatshops. Michael Moore confronted Nike and other corporations, in "The Big One."

Reverend Billy is onto something by focusing on ugly Christmas shopping hysteria. Sickening shots of near-riotous after-Thanksgiving sales illustrate his point. "What Would Jesus Buy?" should have stuck with this theme.

The Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir confuses more than it raises legitimate questions. Most people think the choir is from a real church. Those that investigate are puzzled by the message--shouldn't it be the "Shop Less Gospel Choir"?--and frightened by the messenger.

The Passion of Anna (1969)--4/5

Ingmar Bergman interrupts "The Passion of Anna" four times with "interviews" of his actors. In the first and most shocking instance, Max von Sydow remarks on the difficulty of playing Andreas, a man with very little outward emotion. This technique--downright Godardian in its destruction of conventional filmic escapism--is way out of the ordinary for Bergman.

Andreas is a divorcee living in solitude on a small Swedish island. He meets Anna (Liv Ullmann) via two married friends. In typical Bergman fashion, they all have tragic inner and outer lives. "The Passion of Anna" is punctuated by trysting, violent emotional explosions, and existential musing.

Von Sydow's interview, and one each with Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, and Erland Josephson, segment "The Passion of Anna." Each interview is increasingly "scripted." That is, each one may be the thoughts of the actor on their character. But these thoughts are dense, metaphorical, and delivered free of extemporaneous pauses and hiccups. In these moments, the audience is aware of the artificiality of the film's content. It's also aware of Bergman's control over an entire world--the narrative, the characters, even the actor's interpretations of the characters.

Chess probably isn't the best idea, guys.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)--4/5

I had the Keanu Reeves remake sitting on my shelf well past the due date, taunting me. At about the third or fourth dismissal, I actually opened the case to find the original film inside, on a second disc. "The Day The Earth Stood Still" is one of the few sci-fi films from the fifties that is worth watching today in a non-campy mood. ("The Forbidden Planet" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" are also on this list.)

Klaatu, the alien Jesus, is just as much a reaction to nuclear war as "Godzilla." That film's pained destruction is replaced by the competing hubris and humility of post-war America.

Klaatu's flying saucer settles in a public park in the center of Washington D.C. As an interstellar diplomat in a Hollywood film, where else would he land? Testaments to U.S. importance, like the Washington Monument and the Capitol, are visible in the foreground of Klaatu's touchdown. They're meaningless in the face of Gort, an unstoppable robocop capable of destroying planets. It's implied more than a few times that humans have been of no galactic consequence until now.

Trailers for the remake show mass destruction of a stadium, a semi truck, and other man-made things. Not knowing the context, I can only speculate, but it seems as if this misses the point by a few parsecs. "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is a powerful anti-war film, memorable for its lack of unnecessary violence. Gort is terrifying despite only using a small percentage of his full power. He vaporizes weapons and later--after Earthlings have shot Klaatu for the second time!--two soldiers. Thrilling as the 1951 special effects are, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is still watched for its pacifism and indictment of humanity.

RocknRolla (2008)--3/5

Guy Ritchie exhibits an incremental maturation in his latest, “RocknRolla.” Ritchie made a stylistic first impression with “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,”* successfully returned to the well with “Snatch,” and seemed to fade away after the “Swept Away” fiasco.

Like those first two films, “RocknRolla” follows a few too many MacGuffins through serpentine criminal activities. Also, many of the characters have “whimsical” nicknames. One-Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba) stick up Uri’s accountants. Uri (Karel Roden) owes Lenny (Tom Wilkinson), who’s also owed by One-Two and Mumbles. A valuable and never-seen-from-the-front painting, originally borrowed by Lenny, travels a similarly convoluted path.

The second of two ostentatious stickups has a blithe framing device. A severely beaten One-Two limps into a restaurant to pay off his “finder’s fee.” He has to ask, “Don’t you want to know what happened?” Before we even see one second of it, the chase is entertaining. It involves superhuman Russian warriors, multiple car crashes, a sporting goods store, and an increasingly pathetic chase on train tracks. And it manages to somehow be longer and goofier than expected.

For all the macho posturing and plot calisthenics, “Rocknrolla” manages to sneak in some grounded characterization. This time around, the individual crooks are more than just funny nicknames. At the center of everything is Archie (Mark Strong), narrator of the film and right-hand man to Lenny. Andy Garcia-lookalike Strong doesn’t play Archie to the cheap seats. Instead, he slowly burns brighter, a secret voice of relative sanity and wisdom. Lenny’s comeuppance at the hands of Archie is surprisingly cathartic.

*I prefer the Italian title to the film, “Lock and Stock.”

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Role Models (2008)--3/5

"Role Models" fails to maintain the anarchy of its opening act. One-note situations and people are hysterical at first, less so the more they're around. Ronnie (Bobb'e J. Thomson) is a little kid with a foul mouth. Gayle (Jane Lynch) has an embarrassingly-recreated past life. Laire is a Darkon-inspired LARPG with insanely dedicated players. Writer/director David Wain refuses to build on these initially amusing foundations. Luckily, "Role Models" has a lot of stuff to introduce.

More importantly, MTV's The State is actually coming to DVD on July 14, 2009! Many of the actors from The State have been recently successful. "Role Models" is written by two and stars four of them. "Reno 911!" features three in the regular cast. Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon are successful screenwriters, having penned "Herbie: Fully Loaded," "The Pacifier," and "Taxi."

Okay, forget that last one.

Now I'm holding out for the DVD release of "You Wrote It, You Watch It."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Spirit (2008)--2/5

Is that David Straithairn overacting? Why would he have such a small part? Oh, it's just Frank Miller, writer/director/questionable auteur.

"The Spirit" has been hijacked by Miller and in turn hijacked by Hollywood. Creator Will Eisner's original vision is awfully hard to discern. Miller needs an R rating to explore his version of Central City. With a PG-13 rating, "The Spirit" lives in an uncomfortable valley between the base noir fetishism of "Sin City" and the campiness of Adam West's "Batman." Corny asides from The Spirit (Gabriel Who?) share the screen with a belly-dancing torturer (Paz Vega) and a Nazi-uniformed villain (Samuel L. Jackson). Okay, now that I've written them down: those are just bad ideas, no matter what the rating.

All his illustrations may look like pulverized Superman, but on film Frank Miller is still an expert visual stylist. He's helped in part by the trailblazing effects work of "Sin City" director Robert Rodriguez. The studio-mandated pulled-punches occasionally contribute to the fun in the form of silhouettes--think The Spirit viciously beating a thug in an alley or Sand Saref's victim in the foreground of a shot.

As in "Sin City," Miller shows his love of Chuck Taylors; The Spirit's soles are the brightest objects in the film. "The Spirit" gets an extra star for this.

Frank Miller's pulverized Superman.

The Spirit's shoes.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bedtime Stories (2008)--2/5

With "Bedtime Stories," Adam Sandler has now entered the "Jumanji" phase of his career. It's a lazy, crassly designed Disney film. The stories within are broad, barely diverting genre sketches featuring, say, Sandler's evil boss as an evil space emperor or an evil medieval king. They're all the same; the only thing that changes is the obvious window-dressing.

Yes, "Bedtime Stories" needs to be tidy in order to serve the Triumphing Underdog plot, but there's not even a hint of the wonder and surprise of something like "The Fall." Or "Labyrinth," or "Return to Oz," or most other movies about kids' imaginations.

Russell Brand tries and fails to rise above the middlebrow-ness. This suggests the First Law of Russell Brand: The more groomed his hair, the less entertaining he is.

Normal Russell Brand.

"Bedtime Stories" Russell Brand.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Pennsylvania's Amusement Parks, Part I: Idlewild

"Adventureland" was filmed at Kennywood, an actual amusement park in Pittsburgh, PA. By all accounts, Kennywood is nothing like the run-down, pathetic Adventureland. To find the real Adventureland, just drive east into the mountains until you reach Ligonier, PA, home to Idlewild Park. In the summer of 1994, during an already memorable vacation, I spent a surreal day at Idlewild Park.

I remember the exact date of the trip--September 9, 1994--because we spent the weekend catching local news updates on Flight 427, a plane that had crashed outside of Pittsburgh.

My sister came to Idlewild Park to compete in a Scottish dance tournament. The highly-regulated competition consists of rows of girls dancing over swords to the shrill squawking of The Only Song You Ever Hear On A Bagpipe That's Not Amazing Grace.

I have no memory of watching Sylvia compete, although I'm sure I did. I was more interested in the other eighty percent of the park, completely unstaffed and unmonitored. GK and I* wandered away from the dancing and spent the better part of the day exploring a creepy abandoned amusement park. Edit: It was only closed for the season.

We crossed a river on a train bridge, the tracks disappearing into the forest beyond. As we ventured in, hidden architecture appeared through the trees. We stared at the first structure for a bit before realizing it was the Museum-Go-Round, home of Lady Elaine Fairchilde of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Aha, the trolley rode on these tracks! They passed oversized versions of each landmark from the Land of Make Believe. It felt like a daylit haunted carnival, what with the stillness in the woods and the empty, false facades of the buildings. It may actually be more frightening when the puppets are out in force:

Later, we stumbled upon Confusion Hill--it had no doors or locks to keep people out. Confusion Hill was a decrepit fun-house ride working exactly as it did--minus the bad actors--on normal business days. It was a series of rooms with slanted floors, skewed perspectives, and other optical illusions to "confuse" people. Embedding is disabled on this YouTube video, but you can see Confusion Hill's shenanigans. GK and I even rolled coins down the table in the video. We tried to get Mom to go into the house, but she took one look and immediately became nauseous.

Another look at Confusion Hill, which apparently still exists:

That weekend, we also visited Fallingwater. Western Pennsylvania always reminds me of uniquely designed buildings beckoning in the forest.

*And Scoob and Scrappy.

Stardust Memories (1980)--2/5

Heading off criticism, Woody Allen has a critic call his films "self-indulgent" in the first five minutes of "Stardust Memories." Sorry--the critic is talking about Sandy Bates's films. Not Allen's. Got it? Bates does have supporters. Die-hard fans--extras rejected from "8 1/2" for looking too freakish--attend a Bates film festival and idiotically praise him. The knee-jerk reaction is to agree with the critic and dismiss the film as another failed, yet beautifully photographed, Woody Allen ego-trip.

Sounds like a good idea.

Dave Navarro has the same tasteless wallpaper in his "crib." (Source: MTV Cribs)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Yes Man (2008)--3/5

Superficially, "Yes Man" is no different from most other Jim Carrey movies. He radically changes his behavior, leading to wacky situations, a girlfriend, eventual comeuppance, and a crowd-pleasing resolution. "Yes Man" has two key differences: 1) Carl (Carrey) is a genuinely good person from start to finish and 2) His behavior changes are self-imposed.

In the crass "Liar Liar," Carrey plays a man forced to tell the truth through a son's successful birthday wish. "Bruce Almighty" gives Carrey no less than the powers of God. In "Yes Man," Carrey is starts out as simply painfully introverted, thanks to a crushing divorce. In a few eye-rolling moments, he even lies to his friends, signaling a carbon-copy of "Liar Liar" that thanfully never materializes. He attends Terence Stamp's motivational seminar and decides, with the help of a public semi-humiliation, to agree to everything. No supernatural forces are preventing him from saying no.

"Yes Man" is still a calculated Carrey vehicle. Until some illogical later conflicts, it has a little more fun than usual. Rhys Darby, so funny as Flight of the Conchords' manager on the HBO series, plays Carrey's nerdy, David Brent-emulating boss. He's constantly throwing elaborate parties, including two based on Warner Bros. properties ("Harry Potter" and "300"). In spite of the forced synergy, the costumes liven up "Yes Man."

Zooey Deschanel performs in a band, Munchausen By Proxy, that has just as many die-hard fans as it should (six or seven). The real band Von Iva performs organically with Deschanel as Munchausen. The details of "Yes Man" are remembered long after the plot has faded.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Towelhead (2007)--1/5

Alan Ball really should stick with TV. With “Towelhead,” the “Six Feet Under” creator fumbles badly in rehashing the Academy Award®-winning hyperactivity of neighbors in “American Beauty.” “Beauty,” as you’ll recall, had the closeted, murderous, right-wing Marine. “Towelhead” ups the ante by presenting a racist, pedophilic, right-wing Reservist. Also, since everything in the film comes in twos, it has a womanizing and abusive Lebanese father. Whew.

“Towelhead” only ever advances via smarmy sexual and scatological happenings. Involving Jasira (Summer Bishil), a thirteen-year-old girl. Events that have little impact the first time, other than a general embarrassment for the actors involved, are often repeated. The somewhat novel scene in which the heroic middle neighbor refutes Jasira’s father in Arabic is copy/pasted beat-for-beat later in the film.

At the whim of Alan Ball, Travis (Aaron Eckhart), the Reservist, makes some idiotic decisions. He’s constantly in scenes with Jasira in, for example, a living room, a restaurant, or his front yard. For Jasira’s sake, this is a good thing; the saintly neighbor sees the two of them and becomes suspicious. A criminal of some intelligence would go to greater lengths to not get caught. It’s like Ball got a certain artistic staging of scenes in his head and never stopped to think.

“Towelhead” is supposed to be some sort of meditation on prejudice and American race relations. The sensationalized, phony acts on screen negate any sort of message.

Adventureland (2009)--4/5

The trailers for "Adventureland" are advertising it as an eighties teen workplace/sex comedy. "Adventureland" is so much more. It's not even a teen movie, although the characters revert to their younger selves at times. To save money for grad school, Oberlin grad James (Jesse Eisenberg) is reduced to working with other helpless peers at the Pittsburgh-area amusement park.

"Adventureland" has a near-perfect ratio of good jokes to attempted jokes. Martin Starr, essentially maturing his "Freaks and Geeks" role, delivers some of the best lines, like, "We are doing the work of pathetic, lazy morons" and "Forty percent of these goldfish are dead." Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, and Matt Bush are reliably funny, as well.

"Adventureland" towers over brethren like "Wet Hot American Summer" by working just as well as an obsessively-soundtracked romance. It's like a lost John Cusack movie (minus John Cusack), bridging the gap between high school ("Say Anything...") and midlife crisis ("High Fidelity"). Eighties music really is the perfect focal point for this kind of movie. James and Em (Kristen Stewart) listen to The Replacements in a car while the park's resident sexpots dance to the twentieth daily playing of "Rock Me Amadeus." Everyone agrees that Lou Reed is the coolest. Some actually listen to him.

In "Adventureland," nights are parties with people you don't really think you like. Days are blurred hangovers at work. In spite of his clear, often stridently wielded, intelligence, James falls into trouble in the style of The Smashing Pumpkins' "1979" video.* At his lowest moments, he clings to the promise of three months from now.

*I'm thinking of the chase in the park ("Adventureland") as compared to the convenience store scene ("1979").

smashing pumpkins - 1979 - smashing pumpkins

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Train Man (Densha Otoko) (2005)--3/5

"Train Man" has fun saturating an ephemeral fairy-tale with nerdy details. Text messages and chat room posts fill the portions of the frame not already given to Train_man's Darth Vader statues and Gundam models.

Small compartments--Train_man's bedroom and office, train cars and stations--are manifestations of the online and fictional worlds to which the hero escapes. For some reason, Train_man has a loyal group of online followers. He's like lonelygirl15, except he's not hot, an actor, or on YouTube. Again, I'm not sure of the appeal.

It first appears that Train_man (Takayuki Yamada) is a geek (or is he a nerd?) in the "She's the One" mold; a makeover will solve all of his problems. After successfully inviting his crush to dinner, he buys contacts, a haircut, and fashionable clothes. Yet he can't buy confidence. In Hermes' (Miki Nakatami) presence, and without greasy bangs to hide behind, Train_man is a nervous, stuttering buffoon. The "moment of truth" scene--lit by the neon of Akihabara Electric Town, of course--finds a comfortable balance. Train_man loses his contacts and fancy shirt, but finds Hermes and the right words.

(Hermes real name is never spoken. She's named after the expensive Hermès tea set she buys Train_man as a thank-you gift.)

This is mildly amusing at about the :50 mark.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Resident Evil: Degeneration (2008)--2/5

As much as Capcom would like to believe, the strength of the "Resident Evil" series is not its story. With a few exceptions,* the games' brief cut-scenes are mediocre-to-painfully mediocre connections between the interactivity.

"Resident Evil: Degeneration" is like a movie of strung-together cut-scenes. They deliver hammy exposition and set up action sequences. Instead of cutting to a few hours of gameplay, the film labors to deliver uninspired, poorly animated noise. A bizarre, too-long shot of a stationary truck, while two characters converse, hints at a budget crisis in this already low-budget production.

The whole thing is not worth the energy--"Degeneration" is a rehash of the eleven-year-old "Resident Evil 2." Leon and Claire must battle the same campy G-Virus mutation in an industrial setting. WilPharma in Harvardville has replaced Umbrella Corporation in Raccoon City; only the names have changed. (If nothing else, the "Resident Evil" series is an insightful look at Japan's conception of the U.S.)

"Resident Evil: Degeneration" is the canonical film fans have been asking for. The next one better have Milla Jovovich.

*"Code: Veronica's" John Woo-esque opening scene being an exception. (Watch starting at 2:10.)

Look into my dead, vacant eyes.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Bottle Shock (2008)--2/5

All the hype over the new wave of 3D movies undersells the power of normal 2D movies. Every movie is already its own world to be lost in. They’ve been around—unchanged visually, more or less—for 100+ years.

(Uh oh. This preface for a mediocre film?)

When it works, “Bottle Shock” is a reminder of film’s power to make almost anything interesting to anyone else. The love for wine in this film—by the characters, the filmmakers, and the world—is palpable.

“Eat Drink Man Woman” has its tastes. “Perfume” has its scents. “Bottle Shock” successfully combines the two. The wine tasters’ snobbish, reverent comments and their idiosyncratic ways of inhaling and inspecting every sip convey a devoted culture. You can almost taste it.

I don’t even like wine.

Although based on a true story, only a few moments of “Bottle Shock” can be verified. In 1976, a British vintner traveled to California to choose wines for a blind taste-test in France. To everyone’s surprise (then, not to viewers of the film) the favorite chardonnay came from the Chateau MonteLena—an American winery. A bottle of the chardonnay, along with the American red wine that also won—is displayed in The Smithsonian.

The film’s added elements contrast adversely with the easygoing nature of wine culture. Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), owner of the Chateau, irrationally acts like a butthead just to spice up the already interesting story.

And then there’s Sam (Rachael Taylor), the intern. She’s easy on the eyes—a sudsy “thresher washing” scene makes this abundantly clear. But she serves no purpose in this film. Scenes with Sam involve fighting, flashing, a love triangle, auto repair, and other things that don’t matter. “Bottle Shock” should be about wine, and little else.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Alphaville (1965)--4/5

In his first filmmaking lap, Jean-Luc Godard made the "Ultimate Godard Version" of most discrete film genres. "Breathless" is his crime film, "Les Carabiniers" is his war film, and "Alphaville" is his science-fiction film.

Outlander Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) is a refugee from a hard-boiled detective novel, down to his Mike Hammer-esque trenchcoat and hat. He's unflappable and off-putting. He's also the only person in Alphaville to show any emotions. The powerful computer, Alpha 60, keeps all citizens of Alphaville as prisoners of pure logic. The extent of Alpha 60's control becomes more apparent over time. It's able to read and control people's minds, shaping Alphaville into a hive.

Yes, Alphaville is the Matrix. Godard's cinematic dystopia is the first to speculate on the runaway dangers of computers. With cold logic, they approximate fascistic ideals, but in a futuristic way.

"Alphaville's" influence can be seen in "Blade Runner," as well. (For once, "Blade Runner" is influenced, not influential!) Caution's personality and relationship to Natacha von Braun (Anna Karina) have analogs in Deckard and Rachael of the later film.

I'll admit to some confusion over what exactly is going on at times in "Alphaville." Godard films have a lot to chew on and reward repeat viewings. It's this complexity and lack of exposition that sell the world.

"Alphaville" is dated, but not cheesy sixties sci-fi dated. Godard worked on location, with appropriated but unembellished buildings and props. With imagination, a bare bulb really is an evil computer eye.

Oops--wrong Alphaville.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"Friday Night Lights" 1.17: "I Think We Should Have Sex" (2007)--5/5

Yeah, these "Friday Night Lights" titles cut right to it.

This is the episode that stands above the rest. I'm starting to understand why Slate is so obsessed with the show.

It's a "themed" episode, which is to say, the parallel plots of the season align around some common ground (hint: it's sex). Paralyzed former QB Jason Street contemplates infidelity while Buddy Garrity deals with his own straying. QB1 Matt Saracen is surprised when his girlfriend Julie (the coach's daughter) utters the line that gives the episode its title.

With each episode, Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) has grown more complex and iconic. As the central character of the show, he defines its unbalanced themes of football and family. For "Friday Night Lights," football is necessary and not necessary at all at the same time. Football drives the plot, but drama off the field continuously--and accurately--diminishes its urgency.

"Friday Night Lights" is the spiritual successor to "My So-Called Life." They're both about high school kids and their crises of popularity, romance, and ability. And both shows give equal time to kids and their parents, moving through life without a set of rules.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)--5/5

There's not much left to write about "The Empire Strikes Back." Yet I continue.

At the very end of the film, Luke, Leia, and the droids remain on the medical frigate while Lando and Chewbacca leave to plan for Han's rescue from Tatooine. The space camera remains stationary while the small Rebel fleet floats away. With the ships still in motion, a wipe cuts to the closing credits: "Directed by Irvin Kershner."

George Lucas did write the story, create the world, and approve every decision. Though judging by the last shot, and tonal qualities of much of the rest of the film, he liked a lot of Kershner's ideas.

Lucas needs resolution. The endings to the "Star Wars" films he's helmed (I, II, III, and IV) all feature awkwardly-posed pageantry. See: Han and Luke receiving medals (IV) or Anakin and Padme marrying (II).

Kirshner's final "Empire" shot shows a just-introduced ship's backside, the characters inside microscopic blobs. The shot cuts out before a natural endpoint--not surprising for a film that so regularly subverts a sequel's expectations. It's this lack of conventional visual satisfaction, combined with the forward momentum of the ships, that tantalizingly promises the next step in the series. (Or it hypnotized 1980 filmgoers back in line for a repeat viewing.)

I've seen this one a few times.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Star Wars: The Clone Wars: A Galaxy Divided (2008)--2/5

By writing this up, I'm doing it a bit more justice than it deserves. In a crass marketing move, this disc packages the first four episodes of the first season of "The Clone Wars." The first episode is unrelated to the following three and the title, "A Galaxy Divided," means nothing. Furthermore, the entire season has twenty-two episodes. Studios moved on from this splitting-up-seasons garbage years ago, at about the time "Star Trek: TOS" came out in a complete season set.

The entertainment value of "The Clone Wars" is questionable. The open-ended series allows for variety and experimentation in plots. Each episode doesn't carry the weight of the "Star Wars" films, released every three years to the sobs of disappointed fanboys. The show is at it's best during scenes of pure action; space battles look as good as those in the films.

It seems like "The Clone Wars" could tell exciting, inconsequential stories forever. The series is more "Star Trek"* than "Star Wars," with plots tidily resolving themselves. But it still has an snobbish sense of canonical importance. If Anakin is a bit more aggressive than usual, it must be a key ingredient in his journey to the Dark Side--cut to extended close-up of his snarling face. Everything has already been set up, by "Episode II." "The Clone Wars" needs to loosen up.

Each modern "Star Wars" iteration has a rotating annoyance (Jar-Jar, Hayden Christensen, and others). George Lucas has chosen the battle droids to fill the position in "The Clone Wars." They're even more incompetent than usual, missing targets that are three feet away, questioning orders, and screwing up simple tasks. They're programmed automatons! Fire the IT guys.

*Sorry about the two "Star Trek" references.

Marley & Me (2008)--3/5

"Marley & Me" is a movie about itself. John Grogan (Owen Wilson) moves to Florida with his wife Jen (Jennifer Aniston). He gets a job at the paper. He gets a dog. And he starts writing about the dog. Eventually, he can't think of anything to write about except Marley, affectionately called "the world's worst dog." Grogan's column leads to promotion, success, and a movie starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston.

Thankfully, the journey is unembellished. In high-concept Hollywood, "Marley & Me" had the potential to be "Beethoven's Eighth" (or whatever number that series is at). Indeed, "Marley & Me" does have scenes of wanton dog destruction. But Marley is as important to John and Jen as any other member of the family. As time passes, he's a constant. His disobedience is presented in relation to the normal family events that go on around him.

"Marley & Me" does step into two-dimensionality with John's only friend Sebastian (Eric Dane). He seems to be friends with John only so he can use his dog--and later his babies--to pick up bikini-clad Floridian babes. It's not funny ever.

Alan Arkin, on the other hand, makes the most of his brief screen time with some choice dry one-liners and asides. While reading John's columns, he deadpans, "I'm laughing my ass off."

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Death Note II: The Last Name (2006)--2/5

Here's the point where the series doesn't matter anymore. The Death Note's rules multiply, becoming arcane and plot-specific. Three, maybe even four Death Notes are in rotation at a time. Misa Misa retains all of the book's misogynistic fawning stupidity. Light Yagami, the original Kira, works with L and the police again. L eats increasingly more-disgusting food.

"Death Note II" is a mess. The lengthy explanations of what just happened only confuse. Either that or it's just not worth the mental energy to pay attention.

Some good things in "Death Note II:"

Light's father, played by "Iron Chef's" Kaga-san, posing dramatically and throwing down his helmet.

The appearance of Rem and Gelus, the second and third Shinigami.

Light and L's neverending one-upmanship.

The fact that it has a resolution.

Follow That Bird (1985)--3/5

I've been meaning to watch "Follow That Bird" for twenty-four years. It's the first movie that I can remember directly advertising itself to me. Sesame Street Magazine had a little book that could be cut out and assembled. When you turned the pages, the same image of Big Bird followed through holes in the page and appeared in various scenes from the film.

The biggest thrill of the original Muppet movies comes from seeing the familiar creatures out of context or in the real world. "Follow That Bird" doesn't disappoint on this front. Sesame Street itself is freed from the limitations of television production. It's been bulked up with the another side of the street(!) and the camera moves freely around the set. Much of the rest of the film is of Big Bird walking through the Midwest.

"Follow That Bird's" story becomes too simple at times, resembling nothing more than a Muppet-themed "Cannonball Run." The Followers' vehicles--Count's Countmobile, Grouch's trash jalopy, and Gordon's VW Beetle, complete with Cookie Monster battle-fatigue--are designed with their Happy Meal toys in mind. The sly education of Sesame Street takes a backseat to road movie standards and fuzzy lessons tucked into songs.

The Muppets save the movie from ever imploding. With Big Bird's limited set of movements, Caroll Spinney manages to evoke his hopes and fears. The Sleaze Brothers paint him blue and keep him in a cage, but it's Spinney's puppeteering and singing that bring the tears (to kids, not to me!).

As a selling point, Elmo appears on the DVD's front and back covers. "Follow That Bird" was filmed before Elmo even existed in his present form. He's in the film for maybe two seconds, and with a low, Grouch-like voice.

Death Race (2008)--3/5

A bold statement: Paul W.S. Anderson (not to be confused with Paul Thomas Anderson) hasn’t made a bad movie. To be sure, he hasn’t made any masterpieces, either. And I have yet to see “Soldier,” an at-the-time reviled Kurt Russell vehicle. Anderson routinely crafts bare genre ideas into heavyweight action gems. He’s like a next generation John Carpenter or Walter Hill, except less auteurist and with a bigger budget.

Anderson started his Hollywood career with 1995’s “Mortal Kombat,” which still stands, along with his “Resident Evil,” as a better video game adaptation. The game series, not known for its deep story, called for a competent kung-fu film with some otherworldly elements, which is exactly what Anderson made. “Mortal Kombat” gets bonus points for boundary-pushing CGI and a memorable, if Jock Jams-esque, soundtrack (remember: MORTAL KOMBAT!!!).

He runs into fanboy trouble with his adaptations of existing franchises and other story-dependent media. “Alien vs. Predator,” a joint prequel and sequel to its respective properties, takes excessive liberties with the “logic” of prior films. At its most offensive, the alien chestbursters take all of one minute to gestate, a process that, according to “Alien,” takes days. Yeah, whatever. It’s called “Alien vs. Predator” and it has aliens fighting predators—and both of them fighting humans. What more do you want? Besides, the “Alien” series already nuked the fridge long ago.

Paul W.S. Anderson’s latest, “Death Race,” takes its cues from no specific video game, although it would make a decent one. Roger Corman’s* “Death Race 2000” serves as the inspiration this time around. Its cross-country, pedestrian-killing extremism has been abridged and strengthened in the new film. Prisoners are the racers, an island of obsolete factories the track. A racer that wins five times is released. This never happens.

“Death Race” is a post-human film; they’re just the squishy centers to the cars, necessary but aggressively disposable. It’s all about the different ways steel can bend, concrete can be destroyed, and weapons can punish. No punches are pulled in exploring every kinetic angle the concept merits. While watching it, if you find yourself thinking, “I haven’t seen a car run through a wall of flames while firing two miniguns,” just wait.

Mention should still be made of star Jason Statham. He’s beefed up even more and looks like he actually can take the delivered beatings. Also, he can act. At this point, Statham’s the first and only choice for this kind of film.

*I'm legally obligated to use the word "schlockmeister" here.

Three time Academy Award-nominee Joan Allen.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Movie T-Shirts: Pulp Fiction

1) Go! Speed Racer Go!

Lance (Eric Stoltz) lives the slacker, seventies-obsessed life (minus the heroin dealing) of Quentin Tarantino before his fame. Later in the film, he's still wearing the same Speed Racer shirt/bathrobe ensemble while eating Fruit Brute, a cereal that hasn't been produced since 1983! This wardrobe also serves as a record of the ubiquity of these shirts from 1993-1995, thanks to MTV's reruns.

2) Krazy Kat


3) UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs

Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent's (John Travolta) donning of these shirts lead to the following exchange:

Jimmie (Tarantino): They look like a couple of dorks.
Jules: Ha-ha-ha. They're your clothes, motherfucker.

They're falling apart, but I still own two of these shirts (1 & 3). The Speed Racer shirt was purchased at a cartoon T-shirt store in a back corner of the old Lane Avenue Mall. The store didn't last long. The Banana Slugs shirt was purchased in Santa Cruz, but not by me.

The Speed Racer shirt has some of the strangest label copy I've seen:

Machine wash your 100%
cotton silk-screened T-shirt,
clean your room and don't
stay out past 11:00 without calling: 
Stanley Desantis--the shirt's manufacturer.
Los Angeles, CA 
P.S. Do not remove
under penalty of law"

Thursday, April 2, 2009

It Looks Like Courtney Cox...

...has undergone a risky Danielle Steel-ification procedure.

Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns (2002)--3/5

One key element is missing from this heartfelt documentary: "Tiny Toon Adventures." This is a somewhat selfish criticism, since the show's videos--for "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" and "Particle Man"--were my first exposure to They Might Be Giants. It was two years, from fifth grade to seventh, before I finally connected those unforgettable songs to the band. (Yes, I know they say the name of the band on "Tiny Toons." It's a hard name for a ten-year-old to remember.) I'd bet that this story is similar for many nerds my age.

"Gigantic" mostly serves as a reminder of the obsessive, unique perspective the two Johns bring to songwriting. Cultists will appreciate a glimpse of the actual Dial-a-Song--actually an old cassette answering machine--still running in Flansburgh's old apartment. Dial-a-Song has come to define They Might Be Giants. It's a free, direct contact with the fans, playing one song to one caller at a time. And it's an external brain for the Johns. With minor effort, they can offload whatever melody or song-fragment they're working on at any given time.

Did They Might Be Giants get all the MTV airplay that "Gigantic" claims they did? Were they really the "vanguard" of indie music? Maybe and yes, along with other bands, but all movies about bands are ego-massagers. They're getting a movie made about them. They must be important!

(They are important.)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Primer (2004)--3/5

(Spoilers, maybe?)

No time travel movie can make much sense. Any actions to explain what's going on only magnify the inherent plot holes and logical inconsistencies. "Primer" makes the most sense as a time travel movie because it makes no sense at all. Through whispered conversations and experiments, four buddies (Shane Carruth, the writer/director is one of them; they're all deliberately nondescript) "plausibly" happen upon a working time machine in their garage. "Primer" has little of the standard sci-fi clichés. Rather, time travel is about as glamorous as an old homebrew computer club.

"Primer" realizes the power of time travel to destroy the world. When the main inventors utilize their machine, they create duplicates of themselves in the same time. Bunkered in a darkened hotel room, they're as careful as they can be to not contact themselves or the outside world.

But they forget one important thing: they don't know what their future selves will do. Once the time machine is created, any slip from any of them, at any time, will exponentially lead to total chaos. "Primer" ends on this note. Nobody knows exactly what's happening, but it's not good, and it's not going to get any better.

Elegy (2008)--2/5

Almost every scene in the inert "Elegy" is of David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) and one other person. The film has no hint of an outside world, no life to it. Making matters worse is the lack of content in the conversations. "Elegy" has the stretched-out feel of a one-act play adaptation. (It's actually adapted from a Philip Roth novel.) David will talk to his only friend George (a miscast Dennis Hopper) at a cafe, as a sort of old-man "Sex and the City." Then they'll continue the conversation at racquetball. Then it's back to the cafe. The director, Isabel Coixet, and screenwriter, Nicholas Meyer, have been unable to convert the (presumably) dialogue-heavy book into this newfangled "film" medium. No amount of "shocking" February-December sex scenes, between David and Consuela (Penélope Cruz), can awaken "Elegy."

Note the artistically applied sweat on Hopper's costume. These guys have sure been enjoying some racquetball, all right!