The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Master Chief says he'll be in his trailer while we sort this out

Full post behind the jump

The folks at Ain’t-It-Cool-News have
set their phasers to angst over the announcement that the big-screen adaptation of HALO is being postponed indefinitely. With typical journalistic subtlety, the article is headlined “Why are the studios retarded?

Now, I’m not exactly chief apologist for Hollywood gray matter, Jimmy, but I do know a few things about their underlying strategy. And it is not, contrary to rumor, “spend whatever is necessary to deliver entertainment to fanboys who don’t like paying for anything and will still crap on you no matter how much you court them”. Nine times out of ten, if a studio makes a decision, it’s because they think it will make them money. The tenth time is to soothe some cokehead’s ego, because they’re convinced the cokehead has magical powers and will make them money.

So permit me to introduce two kindergarten-level concepts that might help clear up how we got to this point.

Game Economics: Shockingly, Different than Movie Economics

Much in the way that $100M long stood as the threshold for “blockbuster” status at the domestic box office, one million units has long been the blockbuster figure in the home videogame world. And for the video game industry that makes economic sense. It’s also the reason why adaptations of video games are rarely as profitable as the expectations set for them.

“Quint”, the author of the AICN article, makes the following asinine observation: “HALO as a video game has out-performed most films in sales.” And if you go by straight dollars, he’s accurate. Of course, people paid $40-60 for each copy of HALO, and the average movie ticket runs between $6-7 dollars; but mysteriously, “Quint” left that bit of complex mathematical hoodoo out of his expert analysis.

Let me make it simple: If you take a video game that sold one million units, and made a movie out of it, and every single person who bought the game went to the movie, you’d have a gross of about $6-7M. In other words, just a smidge higher than the adjusted gross of From Justin to Kelly.

The thing about the internet is, since it allows geeks to huddle in numbers, we develop the illusion that there’s actually more of us out there than there really are. The truth is we’re just another minority for advertisers to target, and our mewling alone is of no concern to the bottom line. We cannot make HALO a hit all by our lonesomes, no matter how much we’d like to believe we can.

Now you could smartly argue that HALO is beyond a blockbuster, it’s an earth-shattering megahit. And while I’d chide you for your lazy hyperbole I’d concede the point: after its first holiday rush, as of January 2005 HALO 2 had sold 6.4 million copies. Come October of ’05, when the franchise Triple Pak was released, the publishers reported nearly 14 million copies sold across the whole franchise. Some of that, a lot of that, will be overlap, people buying the original and the sequel. But I’ll be gracious and stipulate, for sake of this example, that there are 12 million people with copies of HALO franchise games sitting proudly on their shelves.

According to this recent Variety article, the stated budget of the HALO movie is $128M, or $145M less New Zealand tax rebates. This is a lie. Every time anyone in Hollywood says any sentence with the word “budget” in it, they are lying. Even if they just say “This movie has a budget.”, they figured out a way to slip a lie in there.

The rumor mill addressed in the same article pegs the budget as potentially as high as $200M. My gut says they’re not there yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they got there along the way. You do not hire Peter Jackson’s crew if your goal is to save a buck. There’s a price tag attached to their exceptional talents, and they do let their imaginations run away with them. It’s why we like them, but again, not cheap to come by.

Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they get the movie in the can for about $150M. With exhibitor splits and marketing costs effectively countering international grosses, the usual rule of thumb is that if you outgross your budget in domestic ticket sales, your movie will be profitable once DVD, pay-per-view, and cable windows are factored in.

Now this genre does well on video and could run forever on cable, which helps, but you’ve made a fat deal with the game’s publishers and Jackson’s team gets gross participation (meaning they take a percentage of every dollar that comes in, not just what’s left after recoup), so let’s be (extremely) generous and say those two factors are neutral impact.

That means that the break-even number for the HALO movie, with me in a very giving mood, is $150M. This year, of the hundreds of films released in theatres so far, seven have made this much money. Seven. So you’ve got to be one of the biggest hits of the year to break even.

Even if every one of those 12 Million game owners I mentioned above shows up (and they won’t), you’re looking at $70-80M. Which spells “box office tank job”.

So you’ve got to expand beyond them, and it can’t just be to that fickle teenage male crowd. Teen boys: your time has passed as the coveted demographic, and you’ll have to be happy with the 200 cheap horror and action movies annually given you from now on. Hollywood’s figured out your profit margin – make the movie for $10M, hope to skim $20M before you get bored or realize it’s garbage.

Nowadays it’s all about the crossover appeal. My lit agent friend, we’ll call him Big Slick, since that’s what he fancies himself, says the new buzz phrase going around the studios is “A Four Quadrant Movie”. I’m not sure anyone knows what’s in all four quadrants, but each represents an audience demo you have to reach. It includes families and females, too, because they liked that Pirates movie, and with the amount of money you’ve got to spend on a tentpole picture these days, you need their butts in seats.

Say you’re a studio executive. You’re looking at an expensive property that’s almost exclusive to young men and geeks, a budget that’s already swelling in pre-production, and a hero without a face. Do you think The Rock gets paid to keep a helmet on for two hours? You can’t rely on the fans to bring you solvency, but the more you try and widen the movie’s appeal, the more you piss them off and create negative buzz.

What we’re seeing right now might be a hardcore case of buyer’s remorse.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t love to see a huge, hitch-yer-belt-up-and-get-set-to-kick-some-asses $200M action space epic HALO. Hell, I would have shown up for The Chronicles of Boba Fett before Lucas ruined him as a character. See, I’m a geek. But there’s not enough of us for it to make business sense.

And as for my other point:

The Story Still Matters

By and large, people don’t buy games for the stories. There are those that get emotionally involved in the Legend of Zelda saga or whatever the latest Square RPG is, but for the most part it’s about spectacle and whatever you call that balance or twitch mechanic that makes it fun to put the controller in your hands for. The rest is detail work.

This doesn’t compute when it comes time to get folks down to the multiplex. You’ve got to give them something to feel. Really, they decide to see a movie because they get a taste of how it will make them feel and they want that. The story’s emotional angle is part of its identity.

Games aren’t as good at this, because they don’t do personal growth well. The conflict is usually totally external, and your avatar is often a fixed personality with little to no character arc. Again, there are exceptions, and HALO 2 in particular won notice for its story and its attempt to expand its creative universe, but what was the strongest emotion it elicited in its audience? An abiding need to drive a Warthog?

It’s action, action, action. Adrenaline, adrenaline, adrenaline. Do you think that’s what those Four Qudrants want from a movie? This is why the mathematics are against this project.

See, it’s still a relatively young medium. Let’s compare it to the movies: On the evolutionary timeline, if we lined up Pong with the Edison Laboratory’s 1894 sensation Fred Ott’s Sneeze, and, say Space Invaders with A Trip to the Moon, we still haven’t even reached the stage of the talkies. You could make an argument that the open-world scope of Grand Theft Auto III was as galvanizing as the leap films made to feature length with Birth of a Nation, but that’s for a longer, stuffier essay than this.

Gaming is going to be around for a long time and we’ve barely scratched the surface of what it’s going to become. Games like Knights of the Old Republic have a dynamic, branching quality that hints at how the medium can tackle character, and it’s going to be a necessary part of its evolution into true, moving storytelling. But it will take further time and work.

And because it’s young, it’s yet to prove its ability to penetrate the culture and become part of our collective myths. Everyone knows Superman’s back story, but could you ask the average citizen to tell you if they know what happens to Aeris in Final Fantasy VII? Does Joe Sixpack have any emotional investment in the latest ludicrous plot whiplash in the Metal Gear universe?

I’ve stated before that it’s a personal mission of mine to get good video game adaptations made in this business, and during my executive days I took a lot of meetings where I assailed the institutional mindset about them and argued for their potential. A couple of generations ago a lot of excited young people had to make the same arguments about comic books, which is how we get rich adaptations like Road to Perdition and Sin City now. I’m proud to be part of the modern version of that mob. But, as fans, we need to take a hard, realistic look at the corner Hollywood painted itself into when it decided to get in bed with HALO, and admit that, maybe, in this case, they’re not quite as retarded as usual.

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Monday, October 30, 2006

You are old. You are very old.

It's been a full generation now since Hollywood first took the video game world out to a sleazy roadside motel and had its way with it. The results have nearly always been ugly. But here's the real sign that this affair has gone on for too long without anything good coming of it: a production company is now set to create a REMAKE of a video game adaptation.

I suppose there's nothing really to complain about, since the game franchise's time of prominence has passed and the first movie was a laugh riot, 1994's best attempt to dethrone
Plan 9 From Outer Space as the most watchably awful movie ever made. It's not even the only feature version, I've seen about half of the Japanese animated feature (the one with the infamous shower scene).

The fact that a company is willing to take a crack at it at all is either a comment on our vanishing memory capacity as an audience, or on the desperate fear that makes them seek a branded title, any branded title, rather than come up with anything like (gasp!) an original idea. It does give me hope, though, that the video game titles previously sullied will come up again, and maybe there will be a chance to do them right this time.

And there's a real chance that this is the last you'll ever hear about this little project. According to the article, producers are going to sell it American Film Market, presumably to raise production funds. AFM is a consumer carnival that deserves its own write-up someday. Suffice it to say the product for sale is the distribution rights to films, made and unmade. Sometimes they've just got a poster and a dream, or a poster and a dream and a letter of intent signed by Tara Reid, which is marginally better.

The movie could go direct-to-DVD. It could become a huge hit in Germany and the Benelux territory and never see the light of day here. They might go after movie stars. They might just sign Lorenzo Lamas and drink away their shame later. "Quality" is not a part of the discussion here. It's about making the numbers work. So time will tell what kind of profile this thing attracts, or if it will ever become more than a press release, but I'll be keeping my eye on it.

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - The Last King of Scotland

Full review behind the jump

The Last King of Scotland

: Kevin Macdonald
: Jeremy Brock and Peter Morgan, based on the novel by Giles Foden
: Lisa Bryer, Andrea Calderwood, Christine Ruppert, Charles Steel
: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Gillian Anderson, Simon McBurney, David Oleyowo

When everyone else’s brow is clean and dry, Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) is sweating. It’s as if his whole being is consumed with a fever, or perhaps that his paranoid mind is clocking at too high a speed for his body to handle. And there’s something about his eyes – you can feel that there’s power there, and that if his stared straight into yours you might wither away. But there’s something else too – absolute madness.

The narrow divide between divine inspiration and lunacy is all in the eyes in
The Last King of Scotland, which takes its title from one of the many honors Ugandan dictator Amin conferred upon himself during his grievous nine-year reign. Another one was “Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea”. This was not a man who thought small. He stampeded through life, through his enemies, through his friends, through his family, and through the nation that so tragically believed he would be a different kind of ruler after one too many military coups. Whether he had a smile on his face while he did it all makes little difference to those stampeded.

All of this is communicated to me by Forest Whitaker, a veteran actor who delivers the performance of a lifetime. He is the hypnotic and terrifying center of The Last King of Scotland and absolutely the reason to see this confident and relentless film. For an actor who has projected such gentle aloofness over the years (he often comes across like a teddy bear from outer space), how unexpected that this real-life nightmare now looks like the role he was born to play.

There’s another narrow divide in this movie – between boyhood and manhood. That’s in the eyes of Dr. Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), who by a series of quirks of fate lands in Amin’s inner circle, and lives with a heedless, callow unease that indicates he knows he does not belong there, and is not growing up fast enough to keep pace with events.

He is in Uganda, it seems, for two reasons: 1) It is not England, and 2) He thinks it will annoy his father. At first he inoculates villagers and makes advances on his boss’s wife (Gillian Anderson). And then it just so happens he is the one doctor in the area when Amin breaks his hand in a traffic accident, and he just happens to be wearing his “Scotland” football jersey that day.

Amin loves the Scottish people, in part because of their history of sticking it to the English, who once ran Uganda as a colonial power and still meddle out of habit. He insists that Garrigan become personal physician to he and his family, and promises the job will be simple, for he has seen the time of his own demise in a dream and it is a long way away. You can practically hear the quiet, too easily-smothered warning bell go off in Garrigan’s head at that remark.

I saw this movie 24 hours after seeing All the King’s Men, and it strikes me as no coincidence that in both, populist leaders inspire the underprivileged with promises of roads and schools and hospitals, and end up dictators consumed by petty vendettas and personal vices. But Louisiana politics, for all its slime, doesn’t have too much of a body count; in Africa politics comes complete with armed militias and foreign intelligence officers not afraid to muck about with the lives of hundreds of thousands.

Without ever directly addressing it as a theme the movie demonstrates the tragedy of people who think they can work behind the throne of a “strongman”, never remembering that he’s the one with the power to give orders, even to order their deaths. Amin is dangerously unstable, but he is not without charm or cleverness – he knows, for example, how to appeal to the cynical Western press, which is eager to laugh and be distracted by stories of the buffoonish corruption of their own countrymen and ignore the gathering tide of horrors around them.

McAvoy, whom I thought underplayed excellently in last year’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, has a tremendous challenge before him occupying the protagonist’s position opposite Whitaker’s tour-de-force. It is because Garrigan is not so much a hero as an observer, and a victim of circumstance whose circumstances might not victimize him quite so much if he chose better company and didn’t give in to his urges so often. When other movie leads are galvanized he’s desperate, when others seek to right wrongs he fearfully seeks to escape them. I think his helplessness, the softness engendered by the comfortable life he came from and the petulance of his rebellions, act as a cocoon on him. And the irony is that cocoon is likely the reason he survives in his precarious position long enough to see what he sees.

No matter how subtly he navigates this terrain McAvoy is destined to be overshadowed, that’s the inevitability of Amin’s presence. The praise he’s due is less obvious, but no less deserved than Whitaker’s.

Director Kevin MacDonald provides an atmosphere of unease and a never-waning possibility of violence, very much like Fernando Meirelles in his masterpiece City of God. It’s the right tone for The Last King of Scotland, too; the churning slums of Rio De Janeiro are almost as scary as what is implied by a look from Whitaker’s Amin. This is one of the best films of the year.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

I am sure, in this nerd paradise called the Internet, that someone has pointed this out before

With the benefit of hindsight it’s stunningly obvious. Re-watching Aliens the other night put a bug in me and I decided to close out the series courtesy of my Quadrilogy Box Set. So I finally watched the “special” assembly cut of Alien3, which had a lot of the customary first director’s cut padding (it’s 30 minutes longer, most of it unnecessary), but a dynamite extended opening – an echo of Vincent Ward’s original “monks in a wooden planet” version of the story that sets the funeral rite tone for the whole episode.

And then I ventured back into
Alien: Resurrection, which I haven’t seen from start to finish since its theatrical run in 1997. I remember where I saw it, the newly-installed multiplex down the road from my grandparents’ place in Michigan, where I was spending Thanksgiving break that year. I even reviewed it for that titan of journalism – the Bradley Scout. At the time I called it an improvement over the third: neither the first nor last stupid opinion I’d express in my critical portfolio.

The extended scenes in the special edition don’t amount to much: a little more historical background and fill-in detail, a so-so opening visual gag, and a closing dialogue that very nearly gets your hopes up for the movie they never made, when the Aliens finally reach Earth like we always imagined they would. The last shot is bleak and wonderful and loaded with possibilities.

That’s the way Joss Whedon imagined it. He wrote
Resurrection before he became a household name to all geekdom. And although the movie’s still an obvious failure to me, and I’ll get more into why below, now that I’ve become the Firefly junkie I am I appreciate how many ideas Whedon got to give a trial run to in someone else’s sci-fi universe before he built his own.

At the time he was a promising young TV writer with a couple of seasons on staff at
Roseanne. He’d branched out into animation, sharing credit on the screenplay for Toy Story and eventually co-writing Titan A.E. and a treatment that outlined the story for Atlantis: The Lost Empire. He also had this crazy idea about taking a flop of a script he’d written about an undead-hunting cheerleader and reviving it in primetime.

His draft of the long-hibernating fourth
Alien movie jolted the project to life, not only cracking the problem of how to bring Ripley back from the dead, but giving her an interesting enough storyline to coax Sigourney Weaver into another round. And call me crazy, but I think I spy with my little eye as the main characters of this picture a scrappy band of outer-space scavengers flitting around unregulated space expecting square treatment in return for their dirty work. Mind you, I don’t think the good Captain Malcolm Reynolds would knowingly shanghai innocent people from cryo-sleep tubes and deliver them for army medical experiments like this movie’s Elgin does, but that’s just Mal’s Browncoat respect for the individual and government-hatred showing.

And that muscle man on board, the one who’s an undisciplined sadist but sort of funny about it? Tell me that Ron Perlman’s Johner isn’t just version 1.0 of The Man We Call Jayne. People whose ears are tuned to Whedon’s playfully malicious dialogue should get a ping of satisfied recognition from lines like “
I'm not the mechanic here, Ironsides! I mostly just hurt people!

Not to mention, we’ve got an adorable young woman in a jumpsuit who just so happens to know her way around an engine. Because of my adolescent fascination with Winona Ryder (what can I say, I’m always drawn to the spacey or disturbed girls), it surprises me to discover that I have absolutely no internal debate about who I’d rather have fixing my hyperdrive. It’s Kaylee all the way, and I further think that Ryder’s Annalee Call is at the center of this movie’s failure.

See, if you pay attention to the structure of the story, she’s actually supposed to be the hero, with the cloned “Ripley 8” as the dangerous enigma. But you’ve got such a titanic mismatch in the screen charisma department here, Sigourney Weaver blows Ryder over like a dandelion. What she projects on screen is so small and wrong for this genre, when she tries to talk tough with her fellow future pirates she just comes off bratty. Casting her was the essence of idiot studio demographic thinking, because from that point on they were serving two masters, trying to pump up her role while simultaneously fighting the will of the series’ established star, who was not going to just hand the franchise to Generation Y without making them earn it. I’m not suggesting Weaver consciously demanded re-writes to give her character more big hero moments (even at the cost of internal consistency), but actors have a way of expressing their dissatisfaction that gets people hopping and making panicked changes.

Meanwhile you’ve got an indifferent foreign director cashing a Hollywood paycheck – 20th Century Fox didn’t realize that when Jean-Pierre Jeunet said he didn’t want to make a “Big American Movie” he wasn’t just Euro-posturing, he was seriously admitting that he had nothing to say as a filmmaker with this story. So instead of a Ridley Scott, James Cameron, or a nascent David Fincher infusing the story with their voice, you had a gifted visual artist who came in with the attitude that he was shooting a 110-minute TV commercial for hire. Watching the rapturous
Amélie confirms that he’s a brilliant filmmaker, just wrong for this project.

That he missed the tricky tonal balance beam act Whedon fans adore and just piled on the glop and gore is tragic but predictable. There’s a bundle of missed opportunities in
Alien: Resurrection, chief among them is its inability to effectively fold the abundance of ideas he supplied into the narrative. Every moment where he expands the Alien universe is too good to abandon, and yet consistently comes as an impediment to the action rather than its saving grace, or is scuttled by poor design. I still just can’t find much scary about The Newborn.

But his joy at coloring in the personalities of those ne’er-do-wells aboard that broken-down mercenary ship “The Betty” is palpable. You can tell he felt like he was onto something with them. How lucky we are that his career has turned into such a tribute to the efficiency of recycling.

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Sunday, October 22, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Open Season

Full review behind the jump

Open Season

: Jill Culton and Roger Allers, with co-director Anthony Stacchi
: Screen story by Jill Culton and Anthony Stacchi, screenplay by Steve Bencich, Ron J. Friedman, Nat Maudlin, based on an original story by Steve Moore and John Carls
: Michelle Murdocca
Featuring the vocal talents of
: Martin Lawrence, Ashton Kutcher, Gary Sinise, Debra Messing, Billy Connolly, Jon Favreau, Gordon Tootoosis

Here’s something new – an animated story about creatures living in the wilderness that doesn’t even bother trying to make the wilderness look appealing. Although Sony Pictures Animation, newcomers at the digital trough, demonstrate impressive rendering power in
Open Season (I especially like how soft and plush the animal fur looks), the mountainous forest outside the fictional small town of Timberline is an unforgivably under-designed place. Only it’s so aggressively bright and antic that you might not even notice just how bland it is, and how unpleasant the undertones of its story are.

The movie spends almost no time even looking for majestic vistas, much less appreciating them – remember how in
Cars you believed that the animators had gone out into the heartland, fallen in love with these places, and determined to put them on screen for us to love too? I might be wrong (it’s happened before) but it feels like the closest the makers of Open Season came to a forest was gazing out their office window at a tree on Culver Boulevard.

And after they’ve scribbled in the environment, they populate it with childish and mean-spirited critters and show it to be little more than a place where nasty violence occurs and there’s no toilets. Small wonder that comfortably-domesticated grizzly Boog (Martin Lawrence) takes one look at the place and votes to return to his TV and processed food. And we in the audience are left with a family comedy ostensibly pitched at children, but which at its heart (unconvincingly tacked-on ending message notwithstanding) is about the shallow worries of fat suburbanites who hate and fear the outdoors.

Perhaps we’ve just achieved talking animal critical mass since every studio in town decided they wanted a piece of Pixar’s action. The mere thought of cataloguing the foibles and celebrity voices of another set of cute mammals banding together to stick it to the man produces a deep sigh in me, I’ll admit. But that’s my problem, not yours, and you’re not here to hear about my problems.

Let’s start with Boog’s problems. Well, really, as far as he can tell, he doesn’t have any. He was adopted by spunky animal wrangler Beth (Debra Messing) and lives in her garage, watching Wheel of Fortune and making cute to get cookies. He performs in a show for children and gets to chill through life. The humans all seem worried that he doesn’t belong in their world and will need to leave someday; I didn’t see the trouble, since he acts less like a bear and more like a relative who overstays his invitation to “crash for awhile”.

The behavior thing keeps hanging me up, since the animals spend a lot of time walking on their hind legs and using tools. In fact, when threatened by hunters, instead of fighting back the natural way they immediately start appropriating lethal objects like chainsaws and propane tanks. And since the hunters are broadly depicted as nothing more than a band of trigger-and-truck-happy yahoos who deserve whatever comeuppance they get, you begin to question who’s really the victim in this relationship.

But the only character who cares to notice when, say, a deer is walking down the main thoroughfare of town drinking coffee from a to-go cup, is the psychotic hunter Shaw (Gary Sinise), who sees a conspiracy afoot in the animal kingdom. He’s kind of right – too bad he’s such a heel. I do like the complicated relationship he has with his rifle, though, he’s the one celebrity-voiced character where the performer seems to have done any work creating an alternate persona to play.

He’s been mad ever since Boog helped one get away from him, the hyperactive deer Elliot (Ashton Kutcher). Elliot’s a little too runty and unfocused for his own herd, and he sort of likes the creature comforts (ho ho) of the human world. But, as his brain moves too quickly to consider consequences, he gets the two of them in enough trouble that Beth finally takes Boog out to live among his fellow quadrupeds. She reasons that, since he’s above the falls, he’ll be safe when hunting season begins – the movie is unconcerned about the creatures living below the falls, we never even see them.

There are flourishes that I appreciate – the movie is just right in how it constantly refreshes but never comments on a goofy running gag about rabbits used for purposes beyond their design. And one little critter honestly did capture my heart, a lonely porcupine voiced by non-celebrity Matthew Taylor. Compare what personality he’s able to create with essentially one word of dialogue against Jon Favreau, who plays blue-collar beaver Reilly and was presumably cast because of the millions of 4-7 year-olds who can’t get enough of the voice of Jon Favreau. He’s not bad, but what could a real voice pro have done?

Every film genre goes through a kind of wax and wane at the multiplex, Hollywood’s mentality is that if you like a slice of pie, then you’ll love being forcefed five whole pies at gunpoint. Saccharine computer-animated kids’ movies and grisly torture-filled horrorshows are the “it” genres right now, and there’s a glut of Jesus movies lining up for their shot. I don’t know what that says about America’s state of mind, but I don’t know what else to say about Open Season, either. It doesn’t have high aspirations, and other than describing a couple more cute jokes, or grumping about more of its less-charming tendencies (really, did we need the poop?), I suppose I’ve had my say about it. On my next camping trip, I’ll breathe deep, take a healthy look around, and appreciate the things this movie didn’t bother to share with us.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Yo Adrian, I shoulda quit while I was ahead!

Why does Rocky work? I’m laid up in bed sick today, and on Friday I saw the kind of ghoulish trailer for the latest sequel-no-one-was-asking-for, so I went back and re-visited the original. As moviegoers we have a tendency to sort of mush the whole Rocky franchise together, so the music video slickness and buffoonish villainy of the later editions reflects back poorly on the first.

In the 80’s, Rocky Balboa was the Reagan zeitgeist’s heavy man –
thrill as he beats the Red Menace with his own two fists! He became a kind of gleaming luddite fetish object, acting out science-spurning fantasies of self-reliance; this despite the fact that it always took Adrian, in her obligatory Big Scene, to shake the mope out of the big lug in time for the final throwdown.

And the original breaks one after another of the supposed “rules” that govern what makes a screenplay work. It is clutzy in how it tracks its various storylines, commits the cardinal sin of having its hero announce his own character arc, and holds off the hook of the entire story – that said hero learns he’s been offered a shot at the heavyweight championship as a publicity gimmick – for nearly an hour. To top it off it is near shamelessly obvious as it cranks up the underdog heartstring-tugging, you can almost hear the plot template, after decades of Hollywood overuse, crying “
Oil can! Oil can!

But, viewed in isolation, it is really quite a winning little movie, and it can still create that surge of triumph. Part of it, I think, is that its characters, not yet carved into wax caricatures of themselves, give the movie power to charm. Rocky is not the likeable protagonist Hollywood usually insists on – he’s nearly illiterate, not even successful enough to be a has-been, and he breaks thumbs for a local mobster. And yet there’s sweetness to him, an awkwardness and a kind of core decency. Those contradictions do not cancel him out, they define him for us and make him more real.

And then there’s Paulie. I can’t help but think that Sylvester Stallone knew someone like Paulie – someone so thoroughly miserable with himself that he seeks people to spread his misery around with. Paulie is a frightening bully but just pathetic and needy enough that you understand why no one can completely cut him out of their lives.

Most movies these days are terrified to ever make you feel bad, even for a second. They’re terrified to present loneliness that can exist in everyday life, or the kind of fear that comes from never knowing when someone under your own roof might lose control and hurt you. Not so this movie, which presents a tiny marvel of a domestic scene where Paulie comes home late and drunk, tries to break off his friendship with Rocky, trashes his own living room with a baseball bat, humiliates his sister by accusing her of being “busted”, and then on a dime pivots and starts whimpering about the state of his own life, saying “
You’re supposed to be good to me!” The movie presents no solution to the problem of Paulie, but that hopelessness is part of what you struggle through life with. Audiences recognized that.

Stallone was an unproven actor who insisted on starring in his own screenplay –studios wanted Burt Reynolds or Ryan O’Neal, neither of whom could have gotten into the skin of someone so down on himself as Rocky. To keep risk down the budget was very low, and they wouldn’t have many shooting days. Director John G. Avildsen, who at various times in the studio world has been writer, assistant director, director of photography, and editor on films, and has conducted himself ably at all jobs, made the crucial choice that I think helped this movie get over on its audience. He demanded a long rehearsal period so the characters could be worked out by the time they started shooting.

This takes explaining about the way Hollywood works: Agents negotiate actors’ deals, which include how many days they will rehearse and how many days they will shoot. An agent earns more money the more gigs they can book their client into. And so their incentive is to crush the rehearsal period into nothing and have the actors on and off the set in as few days as possible so they’re available for another gig. This flatters the actors, too, who can be told that their natural gifts, their intuitive process of discovery, will make the magic happen on set without silly accoutrements like “analyzing the script” or “meeting your fellow actors beforehand”.

Nowadays some productions might feel lucky to have two days of rehearsal with certain actors, who will not even memorize the script and instead have the lines read to them through an earpiece while the camera rolls. And you wonder how movies end up bad.

But here, instead, you had exploration, discovery, and a comfort level that helped you believe these peoples’ lives were bound up in each other. Watch the little behavioral details, like how Rocky will unconsciously start bobbing and shadowboxing at certain moments. What territory did the conversation enter that led him to grab hold of that routine for security? And watch the way Adrian ice-skates next to him – self-consciously, but occasionally working up speed. When is she enjoying herself? When is she hoping to impress him?

Nearly every actor in this movie – save perhaps Burgess Meredith, whose C.V. is too long to dismiss with a generalization – gave the most rounded, detailed performance they would ever give in a movie. Talia Shire’s introversion is almost painful to watch.

Also worth noticing is the way that Rocky
talks. I’m not referring to his famously muddy way with the consonants of our alphabet, but the words he chooses to express what’s in his brain. It’s more odd and fascinating than you’d realize until you start paying attention to it. As he tries to woo Adrian he announces, encouragingly even: “I think we make a real sharp couple of coconuts – I'm dumb, you're shy, whaddaya think, huh?” There’s guilelessness there, low self-esteem too, his mind is whistling in the dark. You could see that line coming out of Ernest Borgnine in Marty, and Stallone dusts it off with conviction. He drops caveats and modifiers into everything, avoids complex ideas. When asked where he got the nickname “The Italian Stallion”, he just says “Oh I made that up one night while I was eating dinner.” All the more contrast, then, when he finally confesses, without caveats, what he knows in his heart – that he cannot win this fight.

was a movie about losers. Losers who struggle, pay the bills however they can, never let themselves believe happiness could be theirs. It was not, like the sequels, about a movie star who finds the muscle to pound a scary person into submission, it was about someone who has been pounded on for his entire life, who has bottled up his anger at the world for doing it and his anger at himself for taking it. Who clowns around and drinks and smokes and almost, almost passes up the chance to actually fulfill his potential. And finally he accepts that you can’t get around it, but you can be a winner just by taking all they give you and staying on your feet. Like all great sports movies, it finds a way to be about something bigger than the big game/match/whatever. Like its hero it can be clumsy as it goes about it, but its sentiment, its eagerness to please, is genuine.

Or hell, maybe it’s the cold medicine talking.

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Game over, man. Game over!

I’ve always been divided on the special edition cut of Aliens. The shorter theatrical cut has a way of leaving much more to the imagination. We walk into the colony knowing no more than the Marines. There’s a haunted house aspect to that I like – getting an insider’s look at it pre-infection as a hustling, bustling little outpost makes it less spooky on arrival, although more poignant for knowing all the people we met so briefly have been turned into monster factories. On balance I’d have preferred it as a deleted sequence, bonus material to expand the world of the movie for the fans while leaving the narrative more breakneck. The battle of Hadley’s Hope is a whole horrifying story unto itself, and we can leave it that way, and enjoy speculating.

The gearhead in me appreciates the sentry gun sequences, and it does keep the Alien menace alive as we sense them moving around the perimeter, testing the defenses, searching for a way in. The rapidly declining ammo count is one of those clever little Barrel=Shark devices that allows our mind to conjure up the threat without the filmmakers having to spend much money. Though on the flip side it’s much more primal and unsettling to simply
know they’re out there, and that inevitably, they will get in. That breathless approach from above the ceiling tiles, capped off by poor Corporal Hicks shining his flashlight into the maw of a nightmare, resonates deeper when we’ve let our awareness of the horde outside lull just that little bit while we worried about the dropship and the unstable processing plant and those little scuttling facehugger bastards in medical.

There could also be bias here, because I watched the original so, so many times growing up that every scene that’s out of my memory sequence jars like hell. They just don’t feel like they
belong. Hudson’s little dance of braggadocio as the squad preps for deployment, tipping off the eventual debut of the Alien Queen, hell, finding out Ripley and Hicks’ first names, they just don’t add up to being worth anything for me.

But I am absolutely in favor of the extra grace notes about Ripley’s lost daughter. There’s a strong enough theme of maternal instinct, both human and non-human, running through the movie, but knowing the extra anguish that ties into her survival of the first movie’s trauma really helps us appreciate her transformation into Fierce Mama Lion when she internally assigns herself the job of Newt’s protector. That, and it reminds us that Sigourney Weaver is the absolute shiz-nit.

Given the choice, I wouldn’t watch the theatrical cut of
Terminator 2: Judgment Day anymore – the director’s cut lets us see that the liquid metal T-1000 is way too experimental to be trusted with field duty yet (which is how they’re able to stop the dag-blammed thing at all), and it gives Sarah Connor (in her dreamland reunion with Reese) a chance to show a warmer side than the dominatrix-revolutionary notes she’s playing in most scenes.

There I think Cameron got it right. In
Aliens I feel like the best version may just lie somewhere between the two we have. But watching it reminded me of something any screenwriter worth their salt should file away – for a movie that everyone remembers as a non-stop rollercoaster ride, it takes a full hour, an hour plus ten in the extended cut, for the first actual action sequence in Aliens. Funny how that works.

Last Movie I Saw
: The Departed. The review is on the way.

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Friday, October 13, 2006

I also write about roller-coasters

Wednesday night Monkeygirl and I, in a fabulous foursome with The Voluptuous Geek and her husband Pirate Steve, went to Knott’s Halloween Haunt. For you non-Southlanders out there, Knott’s Berry Farm is like the punk kid brother to Disneyland, a little scuzzy, not quite magical, but with rides that go upside-down. And funnel cakes. Soul-corrupting funnel cakes.

For over 30 years, Knott’s has given itself a mutilated face lift in October, charging separate admission for people to crawl the park at night, scuttling furtively through strobe-lit mazes and letting local volunteers in rubber masks leap out and frighten them. They’ve got it down to a science by now.

I can’t break the habit of peeking around every corner and looking for the unlit spots they might hide in, but it is fun to be spooked once in awhile. The scariest thing that happened to me this year was when a ghoul leapt into our path, looked at me, and shouted “
Oh my God! It’s Bon Jovi!

While for a long time Knott’s had all of two rides worthy of the “thrill” nomenclature, they’ve been busy little Bob-the-Builders in the last decade, and have kept the SoCal theme park nausea arms race lively. So in addition to the mazes, we had time to patronize three excellent coasters:

The Silver Bullet
holds a reserved place deep in Monkeygirl’s heart, even if for awhile we suspected it had given her whiplash. Maybe the finest local example of the leg-dangling “suspended” coaster, it’s a long, proud steel beast not afraid to fling you around its axis a few times. After swaying you back, forth, and over and over, it wraps up with a dilly of a corkscrew, and when you’re essentially sideways with your head oriented straight towards center, it gives it all the more blackout power. It’s just not fair to make you navigate a real stairway at the end.

It always fills me with a special fear, because no matter how hard I squeeze, I just can’t get the shoulder harness down to that last snug “click” that helps you feel locked in. When you’re arcing down on the outside of a loop-de-loop, the coaster seemingly flicking you ground-ways like a booger off its finger, it
will crimp your heartbeat when you feel your torso smack into the pads, and pray that they stay shut.

Montezooma’s Revenge
is a simple novelty, a lot of acreage for a ride that lasts all of 30 seconds. It’s rollercoaster Zen, you sit in silence on a long straightaway, the operator mutters the immortal words: “Clear. Dispatch.” And with a hiss, you blast up to 60mph at an eyelid-peeling rate. That one surge carries you through a long, graceful loop, then up a near-vertical slope. Then you fall back, back through the loop, back through the station, and back up another slope, finally racing forward into the station for a neck-jarring quick-stop.

Once I rode this ride 13 consecutive times. Way back when, I took my grandfather on this ride on his 70th birthday. I can only hope to ever be that cool.

Ghost Rider
is as good as wood gets. Steel coasters are elegant and antiseptic; you can imagine how each curve was plotted to a thousandth of a degree on powerful, benevolent computers. By contrast, wooden coasters always look and sound like they were hammered together by madmen – towering, clattering cages meant to trap the evil in their hearts. On a good wooden coaster, every ride feels different as the wood stretches in the heat or moisture, and every cross beam looks like it’s coming straight at your forehead until the track suddenly plunges you downwards.

They cannot go as fast, they cannot plunge as steep, and they can’t take you upside-down, but since they usually stick you with a lap bar and
maybe a seatbelt, your most fiendish wooden coaster will make you feel less safe, like it’s going to shake your skeleton right out. Ghost Rider is endless and vicious, the track even crosses a street on its way around. It’s a dark jungle of 4x4 boards and it’s very hard to trust. Best to ride with a chiropractor on call.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - All the King's Men

Full review behind the jump

All the King’s Men

: Steven Zaillian
: Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren
: Ken Lemberger, Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, Steven Zaillian
: Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Jackie Earle Haley, Kathy Baker

All the King’s Men, the only place you’ll see the name of Huey Long, the radical populist who became both Governor of and Senator from the state of Louisiana during the Great Depression, and was once labeled one of the two most dangerous men in America by FDR, is, of all places, in the songwriting credits. He is the co-writer of Every Man a King, a campaign anthem that defined his vision for America, and is sung here by governor Willie Stark (Sean Penn).

Stark, unlike Long, is a fictional character, and Long is never explicitly named as an inspiration, but readers of Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel, and viewers of the Oscar-winning 1949 film adaptation, certainly recognized what the story was getting at. The tragedy defined by
All the King’s Men is that it is either about a man who fought as hard and viciously as was necessary to provide for the poorest in society, and succeeded before being cut down by the institution he challenged; or it is about a reckless revolutionary who, if he had not been so corruptible and prone to making enemies, could have become America’s Hitler.

Just how fine it is possible for that distinction to be is agonizing, and this handsome adaptation by Steven Zaillian (who adapted
Schindler’s List and adapted/directed the underappreciated Searching for Bobby Fischer), zeroes quite effectively in on that as the perilous undercurrent that puts an electric charge in every action Stark takes. He could be investing in a better tomorrow, or he could be driving the body politic off a cliff, there was simply no way of knowing in the crackle of the moment. Sadly the film does not decide conclusively if it wants to be a dark and stately epic on these Shakespearean themes, or an intimate exploration of one man’s descent from disillusionment to deeper disillusionment. And with so much story to tell, that indecision allows things to slip by us.

It is absolutely a demonstration of Zaillian’s storytelling gifts, the movie has a nearly-blinding speed and confidence in laying out its tangled web of blood and family, old wounds and new sins. It is about so much more than Willie Stark, fits all of it into a package that runs just over two hours, yet still has time left over to dawdle in the melodramatic narration of Jack Burden (Jude Law). Burden is our lens into the movie, a reporter who meets Stark as a small-town city official unsuccessfully trying to expose corruption in city contracts.

Why he makes such an admiring attachment to Stark, eventually leaving his career to become part of his political entourage, has something to do with how little he’s ever done about the corruption he himself has seen, and also something to do with resentment of his rich mother (Kathy Baker) and her habit of marrying her way around Southern upper society.

When terrible tragedy shines a spotlight on Stark’s crusade, some fixers from the state’s political machine descend on him, convincing him he should run for governor. He is the last to learn he is not supposed to win.

He processes that first betrayal in a mesmerizing scene at a fairground. As moviegoers we’ve seen over and over the bit where the protagonist makes The Big Speech, and we watch as, one by one, the faces in the crowd turn, focus, begin to nod to themselves, and gradually are moved to ecstasy by the power of the words. That scene is common – what is rare is that the unity of the speech and the charisma of the performer is worthy to the task, so the effect of his call to arms washes over the audience in the theater as well. This is the talent of Sean Penn, who in two minutes transforms from natterer to Messiah and we buy it.

That moment, where Stark opens himself as a channel through which the rural and impoverished can pour all their frustrated rage, is the pivot point of his entire life. He promises roads, and free schoolbooks, and hospitals, and he promises to shake down every oil millionaire he has to in order to pay for it. And on these promises he is swept into power.

As a governor he has enough of a chip on his shoulder to bully the entrenched, but also the means to submit to weaknesses he’d never known were within him – he’s easy prey for fine food, and for women who are attracted to power. This latter aspect, I think, is one of the movie’s crucial mistakes; while it is not shy about presenting the parade of dancing girls who find their way to his private penthouse elevator, it is his relationships with more important women, particularly the spurned but resourceful Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson) that ultimately expose him to his enemies, and we only get to glimpse those movements through secondhand dialogue. Stark believes in the dictum that you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer, what he fails to remember is that they are still his enemies.

All the King’s Men
see the machine of influence and wealth as a beast which protects and preserves itself by instinct. One hand doesn’t need to tell the other what to do, and in the face of it a lone man like Stark can only look and act the more paranoid and unhinged as it turns inexorably against him. Over and over he takes to the Capitol steps to preach, and feed off the populace he believes he is serving, but as time goes on it’s more of a desperate hunger, for an appetite that’s grown beyond them.

The movie has a large canvas – I’ve yet to even mention the people in Jack Burden’s world, like the influential Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), who was kind to Burden growing up but now stands in his boss’s way. Or like the Stanton family, the son (Mark Ruffalo) and daughter (Kate Winslet) of a beloved and admired ex-governor. The inscrutable isolation and loneliness of the son, what happened on a particular night between Burden and the daughter, the nature of his relationship with the Judge, all will be absorbed into Stark’s machinations, as well as the grand design none of them can yet see.

What I am describing to you is a great story, which All the King’s Men was and remains. Zaillian’s movie benefits from fine acting across the supporting cast (which underplays to balance Penn’s zealous absolutism), Pawel Edelman’s rich photography and meticulous production design by Patrizia von Brandenstein (moving the period up from the 30’s to just after World War II). It does enough right that I can recommend it, including an even treatment of the inherently complex legacy of a Willie Stark, or a Huey Long. But it falls short of greatness, unable to do everything the story demands, unable to capture every facet of fate set in motion, and too willing to sink into Jack Burden’s private moroseness. He is our eyes, our reporter on the scene, and a good reporter ought to know that the story shouldn’t be so much about him.

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Saturday, October 07, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - The Illusionist

Full review behind the jump

The Illusionist

: Neil Burger
: Neil Burger, based on Steven Millhauer’s short story Eisenheim the Illusionist
: Bob Yari, Cathy Schulman, Michael London, Brian Koppelman, David Levien
: Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan, Jake Wood, Tom Fisher, Aaron Johnson, Eleanor Tomlinson

Although I haven’t read it, I can imagine the qualities that would, in the short prose form of Steven Millhauer’s story “
Eisenheim the Illusionist”, fire the imagination. They are the same qualities that so fatally cripple Neil Burger’s film adaptation The Illusionist, a demonstration of the hazards inherent in trying to capture on camera the hypnotizing charms of stage magic.

You see, we’ve been conditioned as moviegoers to accept that, by now, you can put just about any old thing on screen that can be imagined. We’re no longer the generation that would put stock in the marketing hook: “
You will believe a man can fly.” We’ve accepted that it’s a lie and merely ask that it be a novel and entertaining lie.

Truly moving stage magic depends on our primal desire to
believe, to let our dreaming space fill the gaps in what our eyes tell us is an affront to reality. The audiences that pack the theatre where turn-of-the-century conjurer Eisenheim (Edward Norton) works his dark trade need to believe that what he is producing on stage is real. And in order for the plot to work its magic on us, we have to believe too, at least temporarily. Only we don’t, because the movie betrays itself as a lie, illuminating the perspective of a character that should be mysterious in order to give more screen time to a movie star, and goosing his illusions with modern digital effects to the extent that not even David Copperfield, today, could put before our eyes what Eisenheim manages.

The movie takes so many right and romantic steps at the beginning. It’s Vienna, where Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell, effectively dastardly) broods, drinks, abuses women and schemes to hasten his inheritance of the throne. His courtship of neighboring royal Sophie (Jessica Biel) might well play a role in this. What he does not know is that Sophie has kept her heart for a young man she played with long ago, a poor carpenter’s son who did magic tricks.

The flashback sequences achieve a subtly-breathtaking effect – I’m not sure what marriage of techniques is used but there’s a kind of flicker and glow about them that’s reminiscent of silent films (they even use that relic of a camera flourish – the iris effect). Cinematographer Dick Pope shot the visionary Dark City as well as a number of Mike Leigh’s films, the combination of painterly eye and sensitivity to the intimacy of performance is one of The Illusionist’s best assets.

On the subject of performance, I conclude here that it is impossible for Paul Giamatti to give a bad one. In what is by rights the central role of the film, he plays Chief Inspector Uhl, a policeman who is observant without being especially clever, and morally compromised without being especially mean.

Giamatti does not overplay the more authoritarian means Uhl has of keeping the peace, he never judges his roles but seeks the simple and the good in them. In Uhl he finds a butcher’s son who has benefited from winning the Prince’s favor and knows there’s only so much benefit someone of his station will ever truly reap from such an arrangement. He is determined to enjoy it to the extent he can. To him, Eisenheim, who glides into town to beguile the populace and take impudent jabs at the Crown Prince’s authority, is a challenge that is at first invigorating, then deeply worrisome.

I say “by rights” only because the movie keeps refusing to let him hold the spotlight. I don’t begrudge Norton, an intelligent and chameleonic actor, the joy of playing at prestidigitator. He cuts a dashing figure on stage, with his dark clothes and smooth soliloquies about time and life and death. He understands that these fancies he spins both lull and distract the audience, so they do not see the wheels turning underneath the latest trick.

But where he should be opaque the movie cuts right through, revealing his anguish, his undiminished desire for Sophie, and his naked willingness to get her by whatever means are within his powers. With every private minute spent with him, the shape of the movie lies exposed before you, leaving only the details along the way to be noted. We get the benefit of seeing things Uhl cannot, and so we cannot sympathize with his panic as the tricks grow more outlandish, and the stakes truly life-and-death.

And it must be said, Jessica Biel does not have anything approaching the larger-than-life charisma needed to substantiate Eisenheim’s earth-moving passion.

Neil Burger, who previously wrote and directed the well-reviewed curio Interview with the Assassin (a fake documentary purporting to present an exclusive tell-all by the real killer of JFK) seems out of his comfort zone in the machinery of a classic melodrama, which is what The Illusionist really is. Serviceable writing aside he has an obvious affection for showmen and grand gestures, and travels far enough down the proper corridors of film history that a really smashing movie seems almost within reach. But it is that film history, which has advanced us to the point where seeing is decidedly not believing, which crumbles the foundation from under us.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

I'm detecting a pattern here...

Remember this post?

Well here we are: another day, another O. Henry short story, another shy protagonist offering us dire warnings about the threat of blade-wielding wops:

I guess already that you been stuck in the ribs with a knife. I have many times told you those Dagoes would do you up."

So says Ikey Schoenstein, soft-spoken main character of "
The Love-Philtre of Ikey".

O. Henry, the Spike Lee of his day.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Jet Li's Fearless

Full review behind the jump

Jet Li’s Fearless
: Ronny Yu
: Chris Chow, Christine To
: Ronny Yu, Bill Kong, Jet Li
: Jet Li, Dong Yong, Nakamura Shidou, Sun Li, Collin Chou

It is expected in your average fighting movie that, if the opponent in the final showdown invites the hero to sit for a meal with him beforehand, that some intimidation, or at least an attempted poisoning, is going to be on the menu. So what a surprise it is that when Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li) accepts the request of Japanese master Tanaka (Nakamura Shidou) to take tea with him, that what follows is exactly that – two warriors of near superhuman power and ability, on the eve of battle, drinking tea and respectfully sharing their philosophies with one another. Tanaka speaks lovingly about the various grades of tea, and the preparation required to achieve the most transcendent flavor. Yuanjia smiles and counters “
If I am in a good mood, the grade of the tea does not matter.” And, though he does not agree, Tanaka finds this foreign viewpoint charming.

Some of you might be cringing at the above, because you are here to see combat, not friendly people smiling at one another on a sunny day. Rest assured that in
Jet Li’s Fearless – misleadingly billed as his “final martial arts epic” (he will kick and spin in films again, rest assured, there’s a fine parsing of genre language happening here) – you will see athletic clashes of dizzying variety and dexterity, staged by the world-famous choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen (The Matrix, Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

But you will also see a story cunningly bent to an idea that is clearly near to Jet Li’s heart. In
Hero he used martial arts as a means to cry out for national unity. Here he advances the message, and argues – during and in between stunning kung fu displays – that physical power cannot overcome honor, that fighting is primarily a means of discovering one’s own weaknesses, and that self-respect and respect for others are really self-reinforcing parts of a single mighty weapon.

How many movies can you name that pay more than lip service to an idea like that, that live it and breathe it? How many martial arts movies truly elevate “respect” to the level of highest virtue? Here is one that does it, and does not fail to please fans of the form at the same time.

The story, told in strokes that are broad and occasionally simple to a fault, is based loosely on what is known about folk hero Yuanjia’s life and the makeup of the turn-of-the-century China he lived in. Foreigners from Europe, America and Japan were filtering throughout the country, gaining commercial influence, and Chinese culture was being both exploited and degraded as a result (in one scene we watch a missionary pushing Bibles on street merchants). As a people the Chinese felt dispersed and humiliated, weakened by decades of interfamily squabbles, and these feelings were frequently reinforced by fighters from around the world who would hold open contests, belittling the Chinese people as “Sick Men of the East”.

Yuanjia, whose family for generations studied wushu (kung fu) in order to protect traveling merchants from bandits, began to answer the challenges, and established the Jing Wu Sports Federation in Shanghai as a place for the Chinese people to recover their pride through self-improvement. Not so they could beat up their oppressors, but because their very pursuit of excellence would unite them and set them free from oppression.

It’s easy to envision the epic spars such a storyline could inspire, but Fearless is more interested in the journey of a man to such a pure state of consciousness. As with the wushu its protagonist espouses, the journey becomes its own point. He is not so wise at the beginning.

As a child he is sickly, so his father (Collin Chou) refused to train him, and insisted he pursue scholarship instead. The child yearned to fight, studied in spite of father’s wishes, and grew into a man who was fearfully skilled, but shallow and arrogant. He cares only about being the unquestioned champion of his province, and his ego, his weakness for flattery and drink, lead to shattering tragedy.

He exiles himself to the countryside, and is taken into a small village, where he works in the fields and doesn’t understand why the other planters all stop and stand serenely when a breeze sweeps down through their valley. Fearless is, for all its other goals, also a universal lament for a simpler time, about a country that heals a man, and how that man finds a way to heal the country in return. Director Ronny Yu, known most in America for horror movies suffused with a kind of punky brio (Bride of Chucky, Freddy vs. Jason), here gets his crack at sweeping vistas, and with his long-time collaborator Hang-Sang Poon behind the camera, he captures them stirringly enough.

This structure, which lingers on Yuanjia’s evolution and leaves what you would expect as the climax shorter than customary, is part of Jet Li’s challenge to viewers with Fearless. He will fight with fist and sword and spear, he will demonstrate to the tips of his fingers the mastery over the physical he’s achieved in a quarter century of movie stardom. The fights, ranging from dizzyingly high platforms to circus tents to ritual halls, are splendid and largely reality-based, using little-to-no wirework and eschewing the supernatural aerial ballets of Hero.

But to him, that is not as important as winning you over to this philosophy. If this is to be his final statement about martial arts and what they mean to him, how compelling that he used not stunts to make his point, but story.

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Full review behind the jump


: Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor
: Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor
Producers: Michael Davis, Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg, Skip Williamson, Richard Wright
: Jason Statham, Amy Smart, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Efren Ramirez, Dwight Yoakam, Carlos Sanz

There’s a scene in
Crank where an evil gangster is seen playing the classic arcade game Berzerk. There’s an urban myth about this 1980 sci-fi maze chase – that the experience of playing it was so intense it literally killed people. As with many such myths there’s a kernel of truth, in 1981 two teenagers with heart defects died during long-stretches of play. Whether what looks in technological hindsight like a primitive stick-figure smackdown could actually contribute to fatal arrhythmia is irrelevant, because the story so perfectly dramatized the Baby Boomer generation’s anxieties about These Kids Today, and their weird, adrenalized hobbies. You can almost picture a Chick Tract circulating about it.

I’d like to think that Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, co-writers and directors of this satisfyingly silly action programmer, have heard this story and know exactly what they’re saying by providing a cameo to that little piece of video game history. Because
Crank is a defiantly self-aware riff on every cliché leveled against the Sensation Generation. It is a winking celebration of the heedless and decadent rush towards doom which has been proscribed as the fate for any kid who ever skipped homework to play Street Fighter II. Like it or lump it, you have to hand it to a movie with the guts to be this truly ridiculous.

Its story is essentially a redo of noir classic
D.O.A. sponsored by Red Bull, in that it concerns a man who finds himself in the pitifully novel position of investigating and avenging his own murder. The twist here is that Chev Chelios (Jason Statham), and only in a movie like this could you have characters with names like “Chev Chelios”, can artificially-prolong his brief time left on this Earth if he can just keep himself excited enough.

See, he’s a hitman, and hitmen can, as an occupational hazard, make enemies. So when he tumbles out of bed one morning feeling thicker than any hangover, it’s because something far worse has happened. According to his doctor (played with perfectly-pitched blasé corruption by Dwight Yoakam), he’s been spiked with a “Beijing cocktail”, an invariably fatal poison which blocks the normal production of adrenaline. The only way to stay alive long enough to get to the punk (Jose Pablo Cantillo) who did this to him is to up the level of stimulation. Get the heart pumping.

To this end Chev takes whatever pick-me-ups are available as he crashes around Los Angeles. Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll are merely jumping off points – he branches out to utilize reckless driving, theft, brawling, energy drinks, exhibitionism, cold medicine, a waffle iron, and the fortuitous appearance of a bus full of Asian schoolgirls. Looking back, there’s very little of the bad-tempered kick-fu that serves as Statham’s trademark in the Transporter franchise, he just doesn’t have the time to stick around and spar for too long. That he must constantly seek novel thrills while he stalks his prey is used most ingeniously as the device it is, I imagine this as the type of script that’s written in long, fevered rushes late at night, with lots of demented laughter.

The movie is lean enough to be self-fulfilling as a headlong sprint off a cliff; it’s a challenge for Neveldine and Taylor to find any variability in tempo but they do manage to fit all five stages of coping with loss in there, albeit on high-speed shuffle with an emphasis on the “Anger” stage. Their shooting approach is informed by the compartmentalized click-around of Internet surfers, forever stabbing their mouse buttons to the next amusement like lab monkeys ordering up their nicotine fix. Many of the tricks they use – speed ramping, nearly-subliminal cuts, misbehaving sub-titles – have been used elsewhere and more imaginatively, but you can see the amalgamation of MTV, Nintendo and the Netflix queue of Quentin Tarantino as forming a reasonably unified aesthetic. I wouldn’t say yet that they’re filmmakers to take note of, but they do know how to see this kooky idea through.

Statham is emerging as an action star who almost improves with the absurdity of his scenario – he is an agile, and grumpy, angel of death who has never found a situation so bizarre that it didn’t tick him off. And he knows how to be funny, too, just watch what a puppy pushover he becomes around his genially-baked girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart). Eve, the kind of irresistible couch tart for whom putting on pants is a drag on the mellow, comes around very slowly to her perception of what’s happening, then figures out ways she can be useful under the circumstances. One might decide to complain off this evidence that the movie is sexist – one would then be ignoring that it is also deeply insensitive to race, sexual preference, traffic regulations, the laws of physics, and appropriate behavior in front of Asian schoolgirls.

I can’t say Crank is a great movie, but it’s a satisfying movie in that it is different, and understands its own best assets – Statham’s scowl, Smart’s derrière, the writers’ inventiveness. I can see a small cult forming to appreciate it, for me it provided a lot of the guilty pleasure I couldn’t find in Snakes on a Plane. Those who would condemn it as just another sad exemplar of the voracious quest for cheap highs by the young folks are once again missing the message – that we’ve been in on that joke for a long time.

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Invincible

Full review behind the jump


: Ericson Core
: Brad Gann
: Mark Ciardi, Gordon Gray, Ken Mok
: Mark Wahlberg, Greg Kinnear, Elizabeth Banks, Kevin Conway, Michael Rispoli, Kirk Acevedo, Dov Davidoff, Michael Kelly, Sal Darigo

The admiration I have for
Invincible is the kind you have for a tightly-produced pop tune, or one of those fake double cheeseburgers that look so impossibly plump and juicy in commercials. It’s a factory job, Walt Disney Pictures providing you attractive movie stars, an energetic soundtrack without a single song you’ve never heard before, and an inspiring true-life story hammered just so into a vehicle for general uplift.

To say it is formulaic is to miss the forest for the forest. The intent is not to surprise nor reinvent. The intent is to go with what’s been known to work. And the reason it’s been known to work is: if you do it professionally, without pretension, then slick as it is, clichéd as it is, it will, kind of sort of, work. And people will leave the theatre feeling good, which is what they paid you to give them.

is an effective enough example of that premise, and an unchallenging way to spend a couple of hours. I wouldn’t call that damning with faint praise, it’s more the acknowledgement of middling expectations achieved.

The story concerns not one NFL rookie, but two. The first is Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg), a 30-year-old bartender and substitute teacher scratching out a living in the blue collar, heavily-Italian neighborhoods of Philadelphia immortalized in Rocky. Their jogging routes may even intersect. When the Philadelphia Eagles, lying hopelessly at the bottom of the league’s barrel, take the unusual step of holding open tryouts in the community, Papale answers the call.

The other rookie is the coach who proposes this fantasy to begin with. He’s Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear), hot off a Bowl victory in the college coaching ranks and far younger than the father/mentor figures usually stalking the sidelines. Football fans know Vermeil’s pro football C.V. well – he would eventually win a Super Bowl coaching for St. Louis in 1999 – but Kinnear’s subtly-excellent mimicry of the famously emotional signal-caller gives us a peek at where it all began, when he thought he might not still have a job a month hence.

Papale is accustomed to failure. His friends are accustomed to failure; his father (Kevin Conway), too. This is beyond the reality of life being hard for The Common Man, this is a pessimism so soaked into their bones you begin to feel they’ve lost the energy for even pursuing happiness, much less knowing what to do with it if they find it. In spite of the way he runs circles around everyone at their pickup football games, Papale is reluctant to go to the tryout. After all, his wife just left him, and scrawled a note pointing out that he’s never going anywhere in life just to rub the point in.

Of course the momentum of such granite-etched story arcs as these is so irresistible that one might even grow impatient with our heroes on screen. We know Papale is going to go and try out. We know he’s going to shine in the tryout and survive training camp, even though he keeps waiting in his little dorm room for the assistant coach to come knocking with that fatal phrase – “Coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook.”. And of course we know that foxy and feisty new bartender (Elizabeth Banks) will say yes if he can ever summon up the confidence to make a move. It is because we, as audience members, are trained to understand How It’s Supposed to Go.

However the filmmakers might round off the edges of the story and blur certain complicated details, it is not without very self-aware calculation. These are not panderers flailing their way towards the lowest common denominator, they are panderers determined not to insult the viewers who ultimately employ them. The space between those points is what graduates Invincible from the derogatory “waste of time” to the seemingly more benign “diversion”.

Wahlberg keeps his gaze steady and doesn’t overplay, he has enough savvy as a movie star to trust that his fellows will paint the inspiration around him. As a well-muscled guy who always looks just a little bit shorter than the people around him, whose instinctive stance is as a guy with something to prove, he’s the right actor for the role. Veteran cinematographer Ericson Core fulfills those duties as well as making his feature directing debut, as you might predict the movie is bright and interesting to look at but without a marksman’s aim for genuine emotion.

Football fans will appreciate the immersion in the world of equipment lockers and camp drills, as well as an enthusiast’s familiarity with the personality types you’ll find. When one player calmly explains “I’m the center. I hate everybody.”, there’s authenticity there. This is, of course, a double-edged sword, as it is the hardcore football fan who will recognize that Papale’s roster position as a special teams hitter is drastically inflated in importance here, and that the league rules would make what seems to happen on the climactic play impossible.

This returns us to our original point, that the goal is not to out-pick the nitpickiest. It is accurate enough for the casual fan, enlivening enough for the casual moviegoer, manly enough for the casual Mark Wahlberg fan, clean enough for the casual whole family. Invincible is a movie that wants to study just hard enough to get a “B”. If I were handing out grades, I don’t think that would be unfair.

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