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 chernclass@aol.com."

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.