MOVIE REVIEW - Atonement
Full review behind the jump
Director: Joe Wright
Writers: Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Ian McEwan
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster
Stars: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Romola Garai, Saorise Ronan, Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Blethyn
I’d never fully considered before Atonement how imagining can be a violent act. The internal world of the mind can indeed inflict damage in the real world. The film, based on Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel, has the surfaces of a romance, and a triumphant one at that – it’s rare to see a piece that can incorporate both the splendid and the intimate, the scenic and the sexy. It’s never failed to be understood how imagining can be erotic. But imagination is ultimately more fundamental than love in this picture, and as such it is not going to give you the easy conclusions or comfortable themes of a traditional love story.
I find it no coincidence that three of this year’s five Best Picture Oscar nominees, Atonement along with There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, feature shocks in the final scenes that directly challenge the viewers’ presuppositions, that unveil truths that had been hidden in plain sight on the screen. These are not plot twists in the conventional sense, they are provocative dares against the very nature of narrative finality. We can wish with all our might that some karmic magic will drop every peg in its proper hole and give us the relief of new equilibrium, but this film reminds us with aching poignancy that resolution is illusory, and there’s only one real way for a life to reach “The End”.
We begin at an elegant British country house, and a girl on the brink of adolescence named Briony Tallis (Saorise Ronan). There’s a feverish will in this girl – we can spy it in the way she hammers at her typewriter, composing stories and dramas, and in the way she marches around the house, turning each corner at a determinedly perfect right angle on her mission to distribute her latest opus to the family, the guests, the servants. Does she, with her plainer features, her awkward attempts to integrate with the grown-up world, feel an unspoken spite for her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley), who is through with her adolescence and in all visible respects a poised, stunningly beautiful young woman? Does that, mixed with her possessive, desperate crush on the gardener’s son Robbie (James McAvoy), create a potion of poisoned thought that has her misinterpreting events she glimpses through windows and around corners?
The screenplay, by Tony- and Oscar-winning Dangerous Liaisons scribe Christopher Hampton, must deftly play with time and perspective, showing us what Briony sees, then backtracking to replay them from the full perspective of the participants. It is the only way we can understand the strange tension between Cecilia and Robbie, who was born low but has become educated and ambitious thanks to the generosity of his masters. And it shows us how a little girl, head surging with feelings, might tease hints and suppositions and misunderstandings into a narrative that makes all-too shocking sense to her.
And on one fateful weekend she does just that, convincing first herself, then her family, then police, that she has seen something terrible. The tragedy for us is that we can divine both what has actually happened, and the defiant path by which Briony reaches her own conclusion, one that sets everyone’s life in a new direction.
We flash forward into World War II to catch up with the results, and we see the grown-up Briony (Romola Garai), now in training as a war nurse, still battering away at her keyboard, still thinking back to that night. She understands now what she has done, what her imagination has wrought. But can imagination be a healing act as well – as when she plays along with a dying soldier who has mistaken her for his beloved?
Painful real life has intruded, with Cecilia estranged from her family, and with Robbie an enlisted man in France, struggling to find his way to safety as the Nazis fill the continent. He reaches the historic mass evacuation at Dunkirk, and we watch him explore the horrible spectacle of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, stranded on a beach. It’s done in a long unbroken take that ranks among the most accomplished I’ve seen – only as it pulled back to take in the whole picture did I understand its purpose. He is in purgatory, sent there by a lie.
Director Joe Wright broke into feature film from BBC minis with the excellent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and the chief virtues of that picture – sumptuous visuals, red-blooded passion, and keen casting – are each enhanced here. Ronan gives a fiercely-committed performance as the young Briony, while McAvoy graduates to leading man dash, and Knightley embodies the dawning realization of love, and the hunger it creates once realized.
And while the landscapes are grand in front of DP Seamus McGarvey’s camera, it’s the small gestures that move the heart. How potent, how packed with luscious promise, is the moment of a woman lifting her foot out of her high-heeled shoe; how staggering is the sight of a man trying to steady his hand while stirring a cup of tea across from the woman for whom he burns.
Memories gain color and power in the reliving of them. The film of Atonement contains moments that you will relive in your mind, over and over, for their sensuousness, for their sadness, and for the troubling way they avoid any conclusion you could seize on to put them away. This must be the fate of Briony, whose punishment for the richness of her imagination is that it will be fixed on these memories for the rest of her days.
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From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Once
Originally published 9/8/07
Full review behind the jump
Director: John Carney
Writer: story and screenplay by John Carney, music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová
Producer: Martina Niland
Stars: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová, Bill Hodnett, Danuse Ktrestova
Watching Once, I thought to myself that so many Hollywood movies boil down to beautiful people posing and making faces. The film industry has made such an expert science out of stimulating the twinkle in the eye, extracting the maximum manly resolve from the heroically jutting jaw, that the application of these visible results of feeling does everything it can to counter the hard truth that what these performers are doing is not earning that feeling. Sometimes when the music is swelling and an actress’s eyes are going wobbly with tears, it comes across not so much an inspiration to feeling as a command.
That’s a long way around to a fairly basic idea, but I think what gives an audience an unforgettable experience is when they have the opportunity to discover something which is simple, and genuine. Once tells a boy-meets-girl story with an almost total lack of artifice or inflection, with ordinary-looking people placed in ruddy and unglamorous environments, speaking in the overlapping accidental rhythms of people who have not been given any clever dialogue to say. Its microscopic budget means a low-resolution, shaky, blown-out image and night scenes where the actors’ faces are barely discernible.
But for all those overt rejections of the Hollywood method, Once is a work of extraordinary joy and intimacy, an emotional experience so immediately genuine and accessible that it must be considered one of the best films of the year. Without any of the crutches of fakery, writer/director John Carney is able to focus simply on showing what his boy and girl are doing right before our eyes – making beautiful music, and falling in love.
Glen Hansard, formerly of the Irish band The Frames, plays the boy, a young Dubliner who works in his father’s vacuum repair shop by day and plays guitar on street corners during his off hours. He has a full and yearning voice, a voice that cries with the inevitable sadness of feeling so much, but would not imagine living any other way. Many of his songs are about a love that abandoned him, and the way he obsessively revisits that agony suggests he won’t be over it until he has written enough songs.
Markéta Irglová, Hansard’s musical partner in real life, is the girl, an immigrant from the Czech Republic selling flowers in the street, and stealing into a music shop at lunch time to commune with an unsold piano. Their approach to each other is tentative, spiked with miscommunications, but also somehow helpless. When she asks him to play a song for her, we know his resistance will not last. And we know that when he asks her to sing along, she will, and it will work.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with the patience to simply observe a process the way Once does. We watch Hansard pull out his guitar, check the tuning, page through a notebook to place at the piano, and walk Irglová through the melodies of the song before they begin. Most movies would consider this a dire waste of screen time, but it is so totally authentic, such a clear demonstration of the way these people live with music.
There’s a scene where they are at a party where everyone takes a turn singing. Scattered across the pushed-together tables are empty beer bottles, dozens of them, and the atmosphere of the party is so warm that you cannot convince me some prop crew emptied those bottles and arranged them photogenically – they got there the natural way. Our street singer’s guitar has a hole in it – I believe it got there the natural way, too.
This movie’s creation of a convincing reality is what gives the leap into song so much power – in one scene the girl steals out in the middle of the night to buy batteries because the CD player the boy leant her to listen to his music has burnt out. We watch her walk home under the streetlamps in a nearly unbroken shot as she puts her headphones on and begins to sing. The life going on around her – kids hanging out, a car parallel parking – is never forced away from the mundane, because if it was then we wouldn’t have this hypnotic embodiment of the way music can transport us into a private world.
In the days after they meet, he begins to change his routine, take steps he’d never allowed himself to consider before when it comes to doing something with his music. The power of meeting someone special is when you don’t know if their appearance made you ready to change you life, or because your readiness to change your life helped you make the connection with them. Things seem to be aligning out of inevitability, coming to a perfect harmony. What makes Once so magical is that all this can be communicated with so little. What words pass between them are often so mumbled and minimal, it is as if they have already pacted to leave certain so obvious things unsaid.
Nick Cave gave a famous lecture on love songs, which you can read here. In it, he argued that no love song can be truly great without containing a dark sadness, an awareness of an almost inevitable loss and loneliness. The love story in Once, woven together by so many love songs, is one we sense might not end in happily ever after; but it does what great love songs do, which is say that we are simple people, and flawed, but we have the chance to touch something now which will lift us above everything that might be sad or ordinary about our lives.
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MOVIE REVIEW - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Full review behind the jump
Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)
Director: Julian Schnabel
Writers: Screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the novel by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Jon Kilik
Stars: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, Marina Hands, Isaach De Bankolé, Max Von Sydow, Niels Arestrup
In elementary school I learned about both photography and the human eye by making a shoebox camera, letting light enter the dark through a single pinhole. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly merges camera with eye with pinhole, affirming beauty’s power to light up a place of unimaginable darkness and despair – the mind of a man imprisoned in his own skin. With a lead performance that re-writes the definition of an actor’s trust, and virtuoso work from one of modern cinema’s greatest cinematographers, it breathes fresh life into a very old theme about the human spirit and its capacity to overcome tragedy.
It could have been a gimmick movie, it could have been disease-of-the-week treacle. It could have stolen away its lead character’s flawed humanity in a misguided quest for maximum uplift. Instead it transcends, becomes a work of laudatory art as unique as its subject could demand of it; a marriage of sight and thought that challenges our gratitude for the freedom our bodies afford us by dramatically drawing us into the experience of someone who was robbed of that very freedom.
Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), called “Jean-Do” by his friends, is on the cool cutting edge of urban cynicism. Editor of the French edition of Elle magazine, he’s used to hanging out with rock stars and models and acting utterly bored by it. Offered an anything-goes contract to write a book, he’s mulling over a modern re-telling of The Count of Monte Cristo, a challenge he ponders casually, like one might think about hammering together a birdhouse for the backyard. He has left the mother of his children (Emmanuelle Seigner), whom he never married, and is lavishing money and attention on a mistress (Marina Hands) even while he talks non-chalantly with her about breaking it off*.
But in a freakish twist of fate, this man in the seeming prime of physical health (his spiritual health is another matter) is struck down without warning or pity. He suffers a stroke, and emerges from a coma into a rare and little-understood condition called “locked-in syndrome”. His mind is as alive and active as it’s ever been, but his body is helpless, entirely paralyzed except for his left eye, which he can move and blink.
The movie throws us right in at his moment of awakening – more than half of the picture is shot from the perspective of that roving, struggling-to-focus eye. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who has worked almost exclusively with director Steven Spielberg over the past 10 years, faces an enormous challenge in plotting a movie’s visual scheme from such a restricted vantage point. But this is intrinsic to the movie’s theme: even if this is all you have left, how beautiful it can be.
What’s extraordinary about the film, directed by painter Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, Before Night Falls), is how it subtly re-programs your brain in the act of watching. It has you transfixed by the luscious sight of a woman’s long hair, whipping in the wind. By the time Jean-Do explains that his favorite place to sit at the hospital is in front of the red-and-white lighthouse on the shore, we understand completely, and contemplate the vivid colors, the surfaces and textures, the very quality of the air. The movie even takes you into his fantasies, as he travels to faraway lands, and seduces his nurse.
He is not saintly, and Amalric’s performance of Jean-Do’s inner monologue is incalculably important. He is angry, and sad, and frustrated; all his human appetites still intact, but seemingly no hope of ever enjoying any measurable percentage of them again. But he still has a great wit and playful sense of humor, and we hear him come around to the reality of his situation, even jibe his friends in his thoughts as he watches them struggle to know how to behave around him.
His speech therapist (Marie-Josée Croze) develops a technique that allows him to communicate – she recites the letters of the alphabet, from most commonly-used on down, and he blinks when she reaches the right letter. His first sentence to her, and her reaction to it, is key – it shows us a movie that is sympathetic, but not too sentimental. It does not want to hide the suffering and indignity of his situation. When the camera steps outside him, and we see his limp body being bobbed in a pool by an orderly, or watch his eye dart back and forth while his children play in front of him, we think we can guess what he’s feeling, but that frozen mask of a face reminds us that we can never truly comprehend it. As an actor Amalric must put himself completely in the hands of his director, his fellow actors, and the story being told. None of the usual tricks or distractions are available to him.
Jean-Do takes that old book contract, and decides instead to write about his new life of physical imprisonment. For hours, he will blink, and the patient Claude (Anne Consigny) will transcribe, a whole day devoted to shaping a precious page or two of thoughts. Life takes on an entirely different pace – watch one scene where he confesses a truth that he knows will cause pain. The old him would have dodged, but lying takes too long now.
Ronald Harwood’s screenplay for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is constantly setting up little flashes of truth like that. They would only come across to us if the movie had thoroughly wed us to the experiences of Jean-Dominique Bauby, only if we could understand the seeming paradox: that he could be trapped in the murky, inaccessible silence of his diving bell, but how he comes to learn that inside it all he needs is a little light, and the power of his thoughts, and he is free.
(*The biographical accuracy of Jean-Dominique’s relationship with these two women, as dramatized, has been called into question. this Salon.com article, which contains a few spoilers, lays out the lines of the debate.)
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From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Originally published 9/1/07
Full review behind the jump
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Director: Seth Gordon
Editor: Seth Gordon
Producer: Ed Cunningham
Featuring: Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, Walter Day, Brian Kuh, Steve Sanders
I heard a story once about a behavioral psychologist who was studying a tribe of apes, learning how one ape achieved dominance over the others, how mates were selected, what plots displaced apes might undertake to topple the alpha. Everything changed, the psychologist noted, once she gave the apes names. Their activities suddenly read like the plot summary of a soap opera.
Donkey Kong is not a real ape, but a cartoon made of pixels to resemble an ape. He got his name when legendary game artist Shigeru Miyamoto (the father of Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda) opened a Japanese-to-English dictionary and chose words it claimed were synonymous with “Stubborn Animal Gorilla”. This virtual stubborn animal gorilla will chuck barrels and springs and fireballs at you, frustrating and punishing every attempt you make to climb the ladder to reach him. And each time you reach the top, he just grabs your girlfriend and climbs up yet another ladder with her. Unless – unless you reach the level that represents the limits of this legendary 1982 arcade game’s program capacity. On that level, spoken of in reverent whispers as the “Kill Screen”, your on-screen counterpart simply takes a few steps and dies, like victims of the 5-Point Palm Exploding-Heart Technique in Kill Bill.
So the cartoon ape’s philosophy is simple: life’s a bitch, and then you die. And in his electronic world, the big ape always wins. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, is a ragged and dorky but immensely appealing documentary about two men who’ve allowed their lives to be taken over by this implacable, infuriating game; and about how their quest to be the world’s greatest player reveals the way they conduct their lives, and reminds us all too easily of that behavioral study about the apes in the wild, tearing and howling for superiority. Are we apes or men? How we play the game tells us.
As the movie opens the world record for Donkey Kong is well over 800,000 points, and held by Billy Mitchell, the first man in history to achieve a perfect score on Pac-Man. He is the face of Twin Galaxies, the official record-keeping organization for video gaming, and ambassador for a sport whose fans seem to number in the hundreds on a good day. Outside of the arcade world he drives a minivan and owns a buffalo wings restaurant in Hollywood, Florida, but he carries himself with a self-confidence that is mesmerizingly absolute. He favors black shirts and has the long hair of a dark wizard; other gamers speak of him as if he’s a combination of Wilt Chamberlain and Eddie Van Halen. We can sense that the active movers in his world have not only a professional investment in his fame, but a deeper psychological one. They want to be following the right alpha, and what better one than the man with the perfect Pac-Man score?
But Donkey Kong is a game with such an insidious arrangements of variables – its cruelest actions are essentially random but so frustrating that devotees speak of it as a living thing with a malignant will – that a “perfect” score isn’t really possible. So on this game, Mitchell is only as invincible as people believe him to be. And a few years ago, a middle school science teacher named Steve Wiebe looked at Mitchell’s 1982 record and thought “I could beat that.” Little did he know that joystick skill would not be all that’s required of him.
Wiebe’s life has a lot to envy. He is smart and decent, appears good at his job, has a patient wife, two precocious children, and a comfortable house in Redmond, Washington. He was a two-sport star athlete in high school and can play the hell out of the drums and piano. And yet there is a discontent to him, a sense of coming up short in life. He remembers keenly the day he pitched at the state championships, only his arm was worn out and he failed in front of the largest audience of his life. It stings that he got laid off from Boeing, his father’s company, the same day he closed paperwork on his house. He’s doing well enough, but is still haunted by the sense that fate has thwarted his potential.
He sets up a Donkey Kong machine in his garage with a video camera pointed at the screen, and every night he plays. He stares at that screen for hours upon hours – mapping the game’s patterns, training his reactions, cracking its secrets. It’s when he finally blows by Mitchell’s record, scoring over 1,000,000 points, that his life turns upside-down.
Mitchell is one of the people in authority to verify the authenticity of Wiebe’s score, and what results is an agonizing series of inquiries, insinuations, and psychological games. Wiebe undertakes a cross-country odyssey to prove his skills live in arcades - with referees, and Mitchell’s acolytes, watching. Mitchell, meanwhile, adopts an air of aloof unconcern, avoiding direct contact with Wiebe but trying to intimidate from afar. Could he really beat Wiebe head-to-head? If so, why all the mystery and chicanery?
This movie doesn’t necessarily benefit from big-screen exposure, the camerawork (director/editor Seth Gordon shot most of the footage himself) is low-grade and handheld for the most part, and the presentation lacks usual standards of polish. But Gordon is a canny storyteller who has either unearthed or blundered into, likely some combination of both, a fascinating Petri dish of paranoid and desperately competitive personalities in a world many people don’t know exists. Brian Kuh and Steve Sanders, two also-rans on the Donkey Kong scoreboard, are captivating portraits of subsumed egos writhing in the face of an unexpected threat – staring over Wiebe’s shoulder, breathlessly calling reports in to Mitchell, trying so hard to please their master so they can claim table scraps of his glory.
You have a clear hero to root for: Wiebe tries hard, faces setbacks, plays by the rules, refuses to knuckle under to Mitchell’s maneuverings, and even takes time out to go swimming with his kids. And you’ve got a sterling villain in Mitchell, who speaks of himself in the third person and enjoys the will he can exert over the expert gamers he’s whipped into obedience. Where their clashes end I will not reveal, but I will ask you, if you do see this picture, to pay close attention to two scenes where Wiebe calls Mitchell and leaves him voice-mails asking for a head-to-head challenge. The difference between the two phone calls says everything about the way this quest has given Wiebe a purpose; even, strangely, made him more of a man.
The current world-record score for Donkey Kong, according to Twin Galaxies, now stands at 1,050,200. Go there yourself if you want to know who holds it. I must confess that after watching The King of King: A Fistful of Quarters, I fired up an arcade emulator on my computer and spent an hour wrangling with the old stubborn animal gorilla. The best score I managed was 25,600 – but I was sure that I could do better, with just a little more practice…
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Honoring Achievements in Motion Picture Excellence...Texas-style
Well, I’ve got chili on the stove and friends on the way. It’s Texas chili, of course, to be garnished with California avocados, served with a California cabernet, after an appetizer course involving French cheese. It’s in honor of the Texas-set No Country For Old Men, California-based There Will Be Blood, and the French Ratatouille, all of which I hope and expect to see honored with gold statues in a matter of a few hours. Dessert will be Kahlua milkshakes - we will drink each others' milkshakes.
My intent had been to publish my final two reviews of 2007 releases (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Atonement), proceed to my Top 10/Bottom 10 List (which has been made difficult from not having seen 10 truly awful movies last year, I must be slipping), and then round it out with my annual predictions. But, as I’ve said, the chili’s simmering, my friends are near, and of all that I need to post, the predictions are rather time-sensitive, no?
So let’s proceed with those and see what else happens. In honor of my former Theatre Lit. professor, Dr. Richard Hansen, here are my predictions for every category. By his rules, 1st choices are worth 15 points, 2nd choices are worth 10 points, and the goal is to clear 240 points overall. I have a…spotty record of achieving this, but I’ll give it my best.
It should be stated for the record that anything to do with foreign films, documentaries, and short films is an utter shot in the dark for me. You’d think being a Hollywood Insider™ would grant me more knowledge about these categories, but if it does, I have failed to capitalize on it.
You might also note that some of these have shifted from my initial predictions of last month. This could either be me attempting to factor changing realities into my present calculations, or that I want the terrorists to win. You decide.
1. No Country For Old Men
1. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men
2. Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
1. Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
2. Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd
1. Ellen Page, Juno
2. Julie Christie, Away From Her
Best Supporting Actor
1. Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men
2. Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
Best Supporting Actress
1. Ruby Dee, American Gangster
2. Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Animated Feature Film
Writing – Adapted Screenplay
1. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men
2. Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
Writing – Original Screenplay
1. Diablo Cody, Juno
2. Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
1. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
1. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
2. There Will Be Blood
1. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
2. Across the Universe
1. Taxi to the Dark Side
2. No End in Sight
1. Salim Baba
2. Sari’s Mother
1. There Will Be Blood
2. No Country For Old Men
1. The Counterfeiters
1. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
2. La Vie en Rose
Music (Original Score)
2. Michael Clayton
Music (Original Song)
1. “That’s How You Know” from Enchanted
2. “Falling Slowly” from Once
Short Film – Animated
1. Madame Tutli-Putli
2. Peter & the Wolf
Short Film – Live Action
1. Il Supplente
2. At Night
1. No Country For Old Men
1. No Country For Old Men
2. 3:10 to Yuma
2. The Golden Compass
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MOVIE REVIEW - Cloverfield
Full review behind the jump
Director: Matt Reeves
Writer: Drew Goddard
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk
Stars: Michael Stahl-David, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman, T.J. Miller
Cloverfield understands sensation as well as any movie I’ve seen recently. And it has to, since that is the alpha and the omega of what it has to offer. It is a parade of the primal – shock, terror, dread, confusion, dizzying heights, noises in the dark, and the awe of a threat so massive it obliterates one of the two options in the fight-or-flight response. And in that carnival spook-house way it is a triumph.
It is also a rather brilliantly-conceived technical stunt, marrying the low-grade aesthetic of The Blair Witch Project’s meta-camerawork with the modern ability of digital effects to live in plain sight. We do live in an era where shaky home movies have captured sights beyond anything we would have imagined seeing in the real world, and in exploiting this familiarity with grainy footage of cataclysm, the filmmakers clearly know which buttons to press.
But is there any idea this all is in service of beyond a street-level re-imagining of some very old movie concepts? Could Cloverfield do more than it does? Is it cause to fault it that it could, but doesn’t?
It is all-but-assured by now that you have a general idea of what is wreaking havoc in New York City in this picture, but I’ll try to be artful about it nonetheless, since the movie’s way of teasing you with progressive revelations of detail is one of its strongest thrusts. It’s presented a single piece of catalogued evidence – the contents of a camcorder memory chip found by the U.S. Army “in the area formerly known as Central Park”. That’s a pretty fair sign that Rob’s going-away party isn’t going to end well.
Rob (Michael Stahl-David) is – well, I wish I could tell you more about who Rob is, but he and the other main characters are painted in colors so primary that it scarcely matters they have names. He is a handsome modern urban dweller of the young and scruffy variety, he is on his way to Japan for work, he is pining over his long-time platonic girl-mate Beth (Odette Yustman), who recently cancelled their platonicism. He has a brother (Mike Vogel), the brother has a girlfriend (Jessica Lucas), they have an exasperating goofball buddy named Hud (T.J. Miller) filming the party, and Hud is flirting awkwardly with approachable oddball Marlena (Lizzy Caplan).
That is all ye know about these characters, and all ye need know. When catastrophe strikes, Hud dutifully keeps the camera off himself and on his prettier co-stars as they dash from one terror to the next in the night streets; Rob leading them in a quest to rescue Beth from her battered high-rise. I care about this couple only so much as they both seem attractive, clean, and decent. No matter – Rob’s determination to get to her, and his willingness to put his friends’ lives in peril by letting them tag along on a cross-town hike through a war zone, is what gets us into the action, and that’s what we are here to see.
What we do see is impressively realized; able to produce both creeping disgust in a darkened tunnel (just what is that terrible, chattering sound?) as well as the large-scale disasters like the frequently-marketed image of the decapitated Statue of Liberty. The movie’s cleverest touch shows the New Yorkers, within moments of Lady Liberty’s giant head skidding down their block, shuffling dazedly towards it with their cell phone cameras held in front of them like talismans. In a movie that so thoroughly amalgamates the contemporary visual vocabulary of our real-life mass traumas then does little more than play a game of “I Spy” with them between running and screaming, it is the closest feint towards a statement about our transformation into dulled and desensitized consumers of strife.
Much of the time what hobbles Cloverfield is not its stylistic daring, but its absolutely mechanical approach to everything else. The image may feign rough immediacy but it’s just a façade, behind it this movie is as squared-off as Eastern Bloc architecture. After a few behavior-based laugh moments at the party, character and dialogue in Drew Goddard’s screenplay are effectively sandblasted of all distinguishing details. Our lead group is whittled away in the traditional order, and you could distribute Bingo cards with the collected interjections of Event Movie cliché: “Oh my God!”, “What is THAT?!”, et al.
As persistently unsteady as “Hud” is with the camera, he always manages to get what needs to be in or out of the frame for maximum jolt, it always manages to show just a little bit more of that mythic “Cloverfield” as we near the final reel. Michael Bonvillain, veteran of producer J.J. Abrams’ TV shows like Lost and Alias, is the movie’s cinematographer, and must be commended for how ingeniously he’s able to stage and capture the necessary actions and details of each scene in unrelentingly long takes, with none of the traditional angles and coverage of film grammar.
But these are just the trappings of Cloverfield, the daring new evening gown on a most familiar guest. As flashy as its presentation is (and as nausea-inducing on the big-screen for those of fragile equilibriums), this is still a throwback. A simple and ruthlessly-effective one, but a throwback still. In the end I cannot truly condemn it for that – I don’t imagine that the filmmakers’ ambition exceeded what I’m describing. On their own terms, they have pulled one off.
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From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The 11th Hour
Originally posted 9/1/07
Full review behind the jump
The 11th Hour
Directors: Nadia Conners and Lelia Conners Petersen
Writers: Nadia Conners and Lelia Conners Petersen
Producers: Leonardo DiCaprio, Chuck Castleberry, Brian Gerber, Leila Conners Petersen
Featuring: narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, full list of featured interviewees available at film’s website
I cannot critique movies based on good intentions, because if I did then The 11th Hour would be the best picture of the year. I honestly believe that the film’s producers, including the Prius-driving, private-jet-eschewing, carbon-offset purchasing megastar/narrator Leonardo DiCaprio, genuinely seek to improve our relationship with the planet we inhabit and the resources we use to survive on it. This goes too for the dozens of interview subjects; these are PhD’s, Nobel laureates, world leaders, authors and scientists and men of the cloth and they all mean terribly well. They are not just out there weeping over the spotted owl, they are keenly aware that the population of the Earth has doubled in the last 45 years, many of the energy sources we use to support this population are finite, costly, and come with terrible side effects, and if we keep unbalancing Nature we run the ominous risk of Nature re-balancing itself, with us no longer in the picture.
As one of the talking heads says: “The planet has all the time in the world. We don’t.” Professor Steven Hawking takes time out from cracking the mysteries of the universe to point out the flimsy range of tolerances that we are able to exist in – such-and-such temperatures, such-and-such mixtures of atmospheric gases, such-and-such volume of clean water and available biomass to consume. Cast in those terms (and his famous computer-aided speaking “voice” serves to underline this cold reality), it feels like a thriving human race and virtual extinction are, in planetary terms, only the smallest nudge apart.
There are solutions, of course, but The 11th Hour seems torn between its desires to both scare the hell out of us and inspire us with the possibilities of a new relationship with our home. Any good preacher will tell you that you talk about Hell first, then salvation, and writer/directors Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen have eagerly appropriated that lesson. But in striving to do both jobs as thoroughly as their 93-minute running time allows, their film dashes pell-mell around the planet, trying to tie together mercury pollution and cracking ice shelves and childhood asthma and war in the Middle East into a single thesis about, well…I can’t seem to put it in a single sentence. That’s the problem, really.
The film takes on an almost thudding routine, switching from talking head to nature footage back to DiCaprio, whose presence further muddies things. He doesn’t have the credentials of the interviewees, or the meticulously-credible air with which Al Gore plodded through the evidence in An Inconvenient Truth. He is here as a celebrity spokesperson, and our generation has grown plenty weary and suspicious of them. His presence may sell more tickets, but is it going to be someone from that audience segment that really contributes to the solutions this movie is calling for?
They show intermittent miracles-in-progress, but rarely stop to spend any time appreciating them. We glimpse a beautiful office building built with ascending terraces covered with green plants, and half-a-second later it’s gone; we’ll never know if it’s actually under construction, or how its elements might work harmoniously. We spend two seconds in a dance club which is actually powered by the thermal and kinetic energy released by the people dancing within it. Thought-provoking, but what happens when the DJ switches to Kenny G?
Worse still are the images that have no apparent context. We watch animal carcasses being carved up on an assembly line. We’re an omnivorous species and there’s a lot of us that need to be fed – is the film protesting the meat-eating itself, or the cold efficiency with which we acquire it? Is there anything that could actually be done about that? Or is it hoping to simply press one of our visceral sympathy buttons, like that shot of scientists releasing penguins from crates on a beach so they can trundle to the ocean? Why were they in the crates to begin with? What does that have to do with more efficient roofing?
Nature photography is an art form that has quietly become more astonishing in each passing year – one need only look at the recent BBC-produced miniseries Planet Earth to sample the breathtaking imagery you can get with patience and good equipment these days. By contrast, the vistas of The 11th Hour have an off-the-shelf feel. It’s fond of LA’s smoggy skyline, and swooping shots of the rainforest, but they look grainy and de-saturated, and the filmmakers have neither the time nor the poetry to arrange such sights in a way that ever communicates more than – Earth is beautiful, but bad things are happening.
The film’s most effective moments happen when it manages to stick with one topic and develop it for a few minutes. Author and talk radio host Thom Hartmann builds an effective metaphor about how ancient humans sustained their population solely on the energy the sun put out any given year to provide heat and food for crops, which fed animals which we used for meat and skins, etc. Now, he argues, we’ve learned to tap into fossil fuels, which are effectively “ancient sunlight”, unused and stored beneath our surface. What happens to a population of 6 billion that hasn’t developed alternatives when the ancient sunlight, as it inevitably must, run out? That’s the sort of provocative question The 11th Hour should be asking more of.
I love the message of this movie – that Nature has an inspiring system that lets nothing go to waste and makes the most use of the energy given it. This makes it resilient – it can rally back from just about whatever we throw at it and still bring forth marvels. If we could learn such flexibility then our limits as a species would be beyond dreaming. But there are tipping points, massive melting glaciers, trapped pockets of carbon dioxide, that if triggered could re-set Earth’s equilibrium outside our comfort zone, and the contributors to The 11th Hour are concerned that such tipping points don’t always announce themselves until it’s too late. We could learn a lot about the way we build skyscrapers, transport ourselves from place to place, make consumer goods, and anything else that uses energy from the way Nature cycles eternally through construction, re-absorption, and transformation. Like I said, I cannot grade on heart, because these peoples’ is in the right place. They are optimistic, imaginative, sincere. But this does not save the movie they are participating in from a distressing lack of artistry.
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'Scuse me while I whip this out
The other night I was playing poker with some movie-business types, and one of the other writers at the table expressed shock that I wasn't actually working on any scripts, that I was following strike rules to the letter and didn't have a little spec cooking on the sly. But it's true - I haven't written a page of screenplay since November.
But today, for the first time since then, I clicked on Final Draft, opened a screenplay file...and wrote. It wasn't much, maybe a page-and-a-half (so far; day ain't over yet), but it finally got me to the end of Act One, which is cause for some relief.
And just DOING it felt like having sex again after a long drought. Even if it ain't the best of my life, it sure beats all the jerkin' off I've been doing.
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Jesus didn't make it through the Eliminator
Since I loved American Gladiators growing up, and wanted to see just what the networks were going to weather the strike with, of course I was going to check out the new version. Most of the contenders are garden-variety reality-TV narcissists, struggling to brand themselves in front of primetime eyeballs, but I admit I've developed a TV crush on indomitable soccer mom Monica, who grins, sees this ordeal as the ludicrous game it is, and resists the pressure from all quarters to become a nasty smack-talker crowing about phony glory. Her mix of adrenalized go-getter cheer and ropy dancer's muscles seem poised to make her the ladies' champion.
The one who really fascinates me, though, is Andy, the youth minister who's ripped like Carrot Top. The moment anything goes wrong on his sunny mission to prove to America that Christianity can kick some, you can see the raging, paranoid passive-aggression trying to tear out of that thin smile on his face. I'm almost sad that he got knocked out of the semi-finals, his Jesus power apparently not enough to overcome a scrappy high-school wrestling coach with Roadrunner speed. The true dirty thrill of these new personality-oriented game shows is that we get to watch peoples' carefully-constructed self-images come totally unwound.
And here was the other thing I couldn't help noticing: During one of his interview segments, he said that one of his goals in competing is to teach people that "Christianity really is for everybody!" Can you imagine a primetime network show airing an interview segment where a contestant said that his reason for competing was to teach America that "Islam is for everybody!"
I'm just askin'.
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I am NOT going back to work...on Monday, at least
Word out of New York and Los Angeles is that, despite some last-minute attempts by 20th Century Fox's lawyers to play Calvinball with some minor deal points (way to change that reputation as a petty, money-grubbing bully, Mr. Murdoch!), the membership is solidly behind this proposed deal. I was not able to attend, but don't regret in the slightest what I was doing instead, and it sounds like the standing ovations for our board and negotiating committee did just fine without me.
Instead of immediately lifting the strike as of Monday morning, the board changed their tune out of respect for the membership, allowing us instead to vote as a full body on this matter. This means an extra 48 hours to get the details of the deal disseminated and arrange a vote. In all likelihood, this puts us back to work on Wednesday; and 10 days after that, we have our vote on the actual deal. And barring any nasty surprises, it sounds like it will pass with a healthy margin.
The Oscars will be saved, and maybe without so many months to over-think jokes it might be a bit brisker a show (a guy can dream, right?) A stripped-down pilot season for this fall can be salvaged, and the "Back 9" (the mid-season order of 9 episodes that completes a scripted series' full 22-episode season) for many shows will be thrust back into production. Your talk shows are going to get much funnier again, your soap operas won't be written by scabs, and after a few weeks of madcap crewing-up around town, scripted primetime shows will be back in front of the cameras in about six weeks, and in your homes a month or so later. By late April/early May, TV should be relatively close to what it looked like before the strike hit.
Features will rush back into production, but are likely to still be a little gun-shy pending SAG's deal. Their contract expires at the end of June, and if you thought the writers were able to grind things to a halt, just watch what happens if the studios try screwing with the actors. For the moment, any feature that isn't likely to be in post-production by July will probably avoid going into production. And if the studios are smart rather than simply mean, they'll start negotiating with the actors lickety-split. They played the strongest hand they had, and they lost.
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Am I going back to work?
Full post behind the jump
Contrary to what the papers keep reporting, the strike is NOT over, even though the media has grown bored with it like they grow bored with wars that aren't fun anymore. However, there is a tentative deal that our board is in favor of, and there will be doubtlessly-contentious meetings on both coasts tonight to go over the deal and air a few arguments on both sides.
For those with a perverse interest in this sort of thing, the summary of the major deal points is here; and having looked it over, to the best of my limited knowledge, I'm going to agree with what many are saying: that this is a modest victory for our side, but a victory nonetheless.
First, the bad news: I don't even see the letters "DVD" in there, which means that we gave up trying to stitch up that old wound. That's a heavy pill to swallow, especially for a feature writer like me, but we knew going in that the leadership was ready to trade this if it meant making a big move on the Internet. We had to be ready for this, and DVD revenue is declining while the Internet is growing - didn't anyone notice Steve Jobs' new ultra-thin iMAC doesn't even HAVE a DVD drive? You think he doesn't see the writing on the wall when it comes to downloading content wirelessly? There's a silver lining to this I'll discuss below.
More bad news: We just couldn't manage to kill that free streaming window. While we incrementally improved on what the directors got, and ensured ourselves a percentage share down the road (in the THIRD YEAR OF RE-USE; you know, when the real popularity of a TV show kicks in), those low flat rates for the first two years are still there, and studios will still get to keep every penny of advertising revenue from the first 17 days of a show's life on-line, when most of the viewing takes place. It's obvious that the studios are gambling on ad-supported streaming as THE future of television; because they fought like devils, and gave up a lot of other little morsels, to preserve those 17 days. I have a hunch that they've guessed wrong, but we'll get into that later.
Also: we sacrificed our efforts to unionize reality TV and animation. These are long-time sore spots for our union, and I can only imagine how much more leverage we would have had if we'd been able to shutdown The Apprentice and Project Runway. You thought the primetime schedule had been looking anemic; just try and picture that. But, knowing our leadership, we're not done working this angle, and will resume pressuring the shows on a one-by-one basis. We don't have to wait for three years to make noise on this one.
The final significant problem I see, and this has potential to be incredibly thorny: as in the DGA deal, there's a limbo bar the studios can wriggle under when it comes to original Internet programming. If the budget is under $1,500-per-minute, or $300,000 per program, and the writer(s) is/are not already a Guild member or by some other means a "professional writer", then the Guild has no jurisdiction. No minimums, no pension and health contributions, nada.
I know why the studios want this - in their minds, they're now in direct competition with every teenager who has a youTube page, so they want to be able to put micro-budgeted content out there without always being saddled with Guild minimums. As someone who has thought about making his own short films but wondered if he'd end up being hammered by having to pay SAG minimums out of his own pocket (my pockets ain't that deep), I actually sympathize with this, even though I think the numbers are way too high. Many episodes of basic cable programs are already under $300,000 per episode, and because "uncovered" Internet programming can then be "re-used" on traditional media without any visible guarantee of then having to conform to normal terms, this opens up a huge hole for non-union work on TV. In one sense I applaud it, as it will give a lot of young, non-union writers a way they can get their foot in the door with the studios. The trouble is - once they're in, will the studios try and KEEP them non-union?
What's the nightmare scenario? Let's say I'm a studio that wants to try out a pilot, but isn't sure that it's going to catch on, so I don't want to risk a lot of money. Let's call my show...um....
quarterlife Bland Young Adults Navel-Gazing. If I keep the budget under $300,000 and tell everyone in earshot - "I'm producing this for the INTERNETS, by Jimbo! The Highway of Tomorrow!", then I can hire a non-union writing staff, work them 80-hour weeks, pay diddledy-squat in benefits, and keep 100% of the ad revenue. And then, a few months later, I can tell everyone in earshot "Why, America LOVES this Bland Young Adults Navel-Gazing business! If only I had another platform, something like a major TV network, to show it on. Wait! I DO!" And then I can just port the show over to my Network, treat it like a new show for the non-Internet-savvy crowd, AND NEVER SHARE A RED CENT WITH ANYONE WHO WORKED ON IT.
I would love to have someone explain to me that it couldn't possibly work that way, but I'm not seeing it.
There are two small comforts here: 1) if the actual budget ever exceeds $300,000 sometime during production/post-production, the Guild's Agreement immediately applies retroactively. A lot of companies are going to squeeze right up to that line, and a lot are going to tumble over it early on. 2) By cutting themselves off from not just Guild talent, but any professional writer (including produced playwrights and published novelists), they will only be getting to play in the shallow end of the talent pool, and every time they find a promising artist there, we'll know about it and be working to put the Union stamp on them. And they'll want it, too, because they'll want the benefits and percentages they get working under our Agreement.
Still, things could be a little Wild West out here for awhile. But that's the effect the Web has.
Now, you're saying - God, this sounds WRETCHED, Nick! Why do you have anything like the cautious optimism you're projecting? First, a general note about strikes:
Strikes are negotiations that harness the emotional volume of a mass organism of pissed-off laborers. Remember that: even with all the signs and chants and invective, it is ALWAYS a negotiation. And in negotiation, no side ever gets everything they ask for, unless you're President Bush beating Congressional Democrats with a rolled-up copy of the Constitution (it's what he thinks it's for. That, and cleaning up BBQ-sauce stains.) So, if you're negotiating for labor, there's no way you can tell 10,000-plus people "This is what we think we can get, but they'll never just agree, so THIS is what we're going to demand, in the hopes that after it's chipped away, we'll be back at what we considered acceptable before. SHHHHHH! Don't tell anyone! It's a super best-friend pinky-swear secret!"
The goal of any negotiation is to trick the other side into revealing the minimum they'll accept, and then bleed them from THAT. So, you give your membership a list. Everything on it seems reasonable, everything on it is certainly deserved. And you say: "We're going in there to GET THIS LIST!" And we go "Huzzah!" and the strike begins.
Pissing off your membership by coming back with less than that initial list is not a bug in this process, it's a feature. Intellectually, I knew this. I also knew that my role in this strike was to say that everything on our list of demands is reasonable, and deserved, and we should get nothing less, and we stand with our leadership to make that happen.
So, that said, here's the good news, and there is quite a bit:
Distributors' gross, distributor's gross, distributor's gross. When I saw those words pop up in the DGA deal, I knew there was light at the end of the tunnel. Hollywood accounting is a finely-honed art of pretending nothing ever makes money around here, as a way of avoiding having to share profits. Don't believe me? Hollywood accountants claim Forrest Gump is still in the red* (*not a joke). Distributor's gross is our protection against that; it means that our share is calculated from all the money that flows in, before any of it gets diverted to other profit participants or cross-collateralized. We were never able to get this on home video or DVD. We've got it for the Internet, and the impact of that can't be undersold.
As for what concerns me most directly, on the feature side of things, Internet rentals and purchases of feature films have a formula that represents a HUGE improvement over home video/DVD. We're set for 1.2% for rentals and ad-supported streaming, and 0.36% for direct sales on the first 50,000, jumping to 0.65% for all sales afterwards. Now those numbers aren't sterling, and they are far short of the traditional 2.5% television re-use formula, but my rough math suggests that this represents a quadrupling of our share compared to home video/DVD. As a feature writer, this deal does a lot to cover my future.
Now remember how I said that all was not dire for TV writers, and that 17-day free window wasn't necessarily the ruin of everything? Here's my theory: at our Strike TV seminar, an expert in web marketing showed us a simple slide depicting the vast disparity in where advertising dollars are being spent compared to where consumer eyeballs are at these days. As I recall, it was something like only 8% of advertising dollars are presently devoted to the web, where Americans in the prime demographics are now spending as much of 34% of their leisure time there.
Advertisers look at that number and think - we should be putting lots more advertising on the web! I look at it and think - The reason people are flocking to the Internet is that they are sick of goddamn advertising.
We've got DVRs now to skip commercials. We wait for TV shows to come on DVD so we can watch them on our own schedule without interruption. We are becoming more active, empowered viewers, and TV has responded by giving us more ambitious serialized stories like in 24 and Heroes. If you have a choice to watch a show, streaming, in five minute chunks with commercials, or to pay a small fee and watch the full-episode at the touch of one button with no buffer lag and no ads, I think the studios are going to be very surprised how many people start choosing to pay rather than continue playing the Hostage Eyeballs game they've been running for decades. Remember how they kept predicting the doom of satellite radio, because no one would pay for commercial-free good music when we could get repetitive garbage with lots of commercials for free? There's signs of revolt brewing in the American consumer, we want to re-negotiate this deal where watching obnoxious ads is how we pay for our entertainment.
And the formulas for TV rental and purchase on-line? They're the same as the feature writers' shares. They actually get a better formula for sell-through after 100,000 purchases. I think that's going to be worth more than a lot of writers are imagining right now.
Maybe that's pie-eyed of me. There's a lot to grumble over in this deal, and I'm sure the grumbling will reach pretty high-volume tonight. To be honest, I'm not sure yet how I would vote on this deal, because I'm not educated enough to understand all the nuances and I want the more-educated people to weigh in.
But what no one can deny is - it's a substantial deal, and we would not have anything near this if we hadn't gone on strike.
I'll let myself smile about that for awhile.
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MOVIE REVIEW - In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale
Full review behind the jump
In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale
Director: Uwe Boll
Writers: Screen Story by Jason Rappaport and Dan Stroncak and Doug Taylor, Screenplay by Doug Taylor, based on the video game by Chris Taylor and Gas Powered Games
Producers: Shawn Williamson, Dan Clarke, Uwe Boll
Stars: Jason Statham, Leelee Sobieski, John Rhys-Davies, Ray Liotta, Ron Perlman, Matthew Lillard, Brian J. White, Claire Forlani, Kristanna Loken
There’s a sense of liberation in watching an Uwe Boll film, and that’s saying something, I suppose. He’s making an apparently-endless string of bad adaptations of mediocre video games (Postal is next), and to watch one of them is to know that no one feels bound by logic, taste, or even the usual aesthetic ground rules of professional filmmaking. We could cut to any angle at any time, we might dash away from important scenes, linger forever in pointless ones, the camera might focus intently on the least important character, tone may shift from grief to goofy with no warning, comically-loud music stings might leap onto the soundtrack with no motivation…The lead characters’ skin tones might even change from reel to reel – that’s how much Uwe Boll refuses to be tied down. I have been aghast and bewildered in every Boll film I’ve seen (and this makes three), but I confess I have never been entirely bored.
His latest, the bulkily-titled In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, contains neither a dungeon nor a siege, but is based on a video game called Dungeon Siege which contained little in the way of story. This movie tells quite a bit of story, two bloated hours of monsters and battles and awkward costumes and magic spells, clanging swords and thundering horses and inconsistent accents. Its budget surpasses that of Boll’s previous filmography all in, and I must admit that for once he seems to be working with a crew that has picked up a camera before. On the one hand, this reduces the damage he’s capable of. On the other hand, it means he really has no one left to blame.
Most surprising to me in all of this is the presence of Jason Statham, our generation’s best guilty-pleasure action star, the man who makes bad movies ridiculous and ridiculous movies good. But beyond some dexterous sword-whanging he can do little to help this picture. One of the most reliable facets of the Uwe Boll aesthetic is to cast “names” who are utterly, clangingly, wrong for their roles. Statham is far more upwardly-mobile, career-wise, than the usual Boll player, and the essence of his appeal is his contemporary growl and swagger. Making him a virtuous peasant in a fantasy epic is like, well, making Ray Liotta a diabolical wizard in a fantasy epic, or Burt Reynolds a stately warrior-king in a fantasy epic. So there you go.
Statham indeed plays the Little Villager with a Big Destiny in some Faraway Land that might be Ancient Vancouver. He calls himself Farmer, since, as his wife (Claire Forlani) explains, he believes that a man’s identity should become one with his work. This is a somewhat workable system in small hamlets, but in a modern city you’d have an awful lot of people answering to the name Muffler Specialist.
His wife is kidnapped (among other atrocities) by the Krugs, which are this movie’s catchall beast-monsters. They look like a six-year-old sculpted all the various evil creatures of The Lord of the Rings in Play-Dough, then smushed them together. Normally they aren’t given to weaponized raids, but they’ve fallen under the command of the wizard Gallian (Liotta), who is plotting to overthrow the King of Ebb (Reynolds), install the King’s fey and loutish drunk of a nephew Fallow (Matthew Lillard) in his stead, and rule the land. Surrounded by cutting-edge* computer effects (*if you’re in 1992), and with his voice comfortably in his Goodfellas cocaine-freakout octave, Liotta is trying to bull through his character’s lack of dimension with sheer crazy volume. He wears his spangly, collared longcoat and silk cravat like he’s at Comic-con, debuting his homemade concept for a new Dr. Who costume, and he’s very, very upset that people are making fun of it.
The movie is angling Gallian and the humble Farmer to a showdown, with intervening battle scenes of interminable length and a great deal of pointless intrigue involving the King’s mage Merick (John Rhys-Davies), Merick’s ambitious-but-naïve daughter Muriella (Leelee Sobieski), and a race of vine-swinging forest people who hate the violent ways of Man and don’t involve themselves in wars, except when they do. The actors soldier through all of it, and I confess a twisted admiration for them for believing that this would somehow make sense after it was all cut together.
Reynolds looks like he has no idea what a single one of his lines means, but that he intends to grimace his way to the end, even when, on the battlefield, he has to give the orders to dispatch his army’s ninjas. Ninjas?, you now ask incredulously…Yes, the Kingdom has exactly six of them, no more and no less, and the way their appearance decisively flings the movie across the threshold into total barking nonsense calls to mind that moment from the 60’s version of Casino Royale where the Indians dropped in by parachute.
One would think Reynolds has enough money socked away by now to not need to do this stuff, to not risk his dignity in a scene where he’s reclining on a pillow, and he shakes his head solemnly while his toupee stays conspicuously still. Not so Matthew Lillard, who gives himself to this trash with unrestrained glee. His performance is a riff on Johnny Depp’s boozy Captain Jack Sparrow, only without the wit, charm, beard, sex appeal, or timing.
It’s rare to leave a movie thinking that it could only have looked that entirely bad because someone intended it to, but in this case I could imagine Boll looking at the digital matte backgrounds of sprawling castles and rocky cliffs and demanding: “Grayer!, Blurrier!” He’s put a lot of stuff in front of the camera, we spend downright Wagnerian spans of time watching extras wave swords around with Statham in their midst, but to what end? Given that every character in this kingdom can seemingly walk to any other point in the kingdom in a brisk afternoon, how big a plot of dirt is Gallian really thinking to rule, here? The movie doesn’t know, and the movie doesn’t care. In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale is content to pour everything it can out of the Generic Fantasy Elements Bucket, and hope that, maybe this time, the mad Uwe Boll will not exercise his uncanny power to inject Stupid into it. Guess what happens?
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From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The Invasion
Originally posted 8/25/07
Full review behind the jump
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Writer: Dave Kajganich, based on the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
Producer: Joel Silver
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Jeremy Northam, Jackson Bond, Jeffrey Wright, Veronica Cartwright, Josef Sommer, Celia Weston, Roger Rees, Eric Benjamin
“Plastic people/Oooooh baby, now you’re such a drag”
I don’t think this is a small point to make – in the classic “B”-movies of 50’s science fiction, you couldn’t cut very much. Film stock meant money, after all, so suspense had to be created, not with jittery montage, but with invention and atmosphere (or by a well-placed theremin on the soundtrack.) It helped to reinforce that the cut is a distancing device, as well, with a tendency to disperse such genre-essential moods as dread and claustrophobia.
Further, for the same monetary reasons, these movies didn’t have stars in them. The real high-wattage marquee names didn’t want anything to do with such kids’ stuff; so again, the movies sank or swam on the potency of their ideas and the wit of their execution.
Nowadays, Hollywood has nearly abandoned every genre save the “B” picture, but contrary to its original aesthetic definition they hurl their biggest stars at them, with giant sacks of money tied ‘round their waists. This regularly produces fascinating misfires like The Invasion. Here is a movie that revives a well-traveled science fiction classic (now being adapted for the fourth time) and takes advantage of all possible modern resources. It can blind you with quick cuts, fill city streets with extras, and command you to bask in the warm radiance of A-list star Nicole Kidman. And all those assets, a critical mass of Hollywood Blockbuster Big Mo, are precisely what end up spoiling it by leveraging the movie away from its core good ideas.
As before this is a story about a nigh-invisible conquest of our planet by alien invaders, who replace us in our sleep with duplicates who can impersonate our behavior, but without the knack for how emotions work. The screenplay by Dave Kajganich has fun with pod-person dialogue which is revealingly just a few inches away from correct. In this iteration, the alien is viral, a pathogen that hitches a ride aboard a crashing space shuttle, and re-writes our DNA while we’re dreaming so we wake up unclouded by feeling, and filled with the desire to spread this sensation to others. Liquid is the preferred method, watch out for anyone who keeps trying to offer you coffee.
This is a great story because it always feels relevant. These days we’ve had to ponder a lot of dark suggestions – that we can free ourselves of the deepest depression, all we have to do is give up our best happiness; that we can keep America safe, all we have to do is give up what makes us Americans. This story posts a flag at the terminus of that nightmare train of thought – we could end all the war and poverty and suffering of humanity; all we have to do is give up what makes us human.
And in a few of its ominous sweeps The Invasion gets this very right. We see how our own ingrained obedience to authority makes us easier prey – infected government officials send vaguely dire warnings about a superflu through the compliant media and the populace lines up for “vaccinations”. Hey, remember all the duct tape we were told to buy? And as Dr. Carol Bennell (Kidman), a therapist, crosses the street to her office, she’s unnerved to see everyone…cooperating. Bus passengers lined up patiently and quietly. Pedestrians making way for one another. No car horns.
One of her patients (Veronica Cartwright) is claiming that her husband is no longer her husband, because he won’t even fight with her. Ever since Alien, when she got blasted in the face by fake blood during an improvised scene and became hysterical, Cartwright has been the go-to actress when you need someone to turn all wobbly on-demand. Appreciate just how much her performance paints a picture for you of what’s going very, very wrong in the world, and you have a glimpse of the way these movies used to have to get it done.
Even new 007 Daniel Craig’s incipient pod of movie stardom is not yet so hardened around him that he can’t crack through it and act. See how much presence and vibrancy he brings to Dr. Bennell’s friend Ben Driscoll; a character which is, on paper, all but thankless, the earnest and decent equivalent of a Ken doll. He’s still going about this as if his job is to create a character and perform him, rather than sell tickets, and I hope he preserves this habit as long as he can.
But it’s Kidman, with her porcelain doll face and a pointless chirpy Southern accent, that eventually capsizes The Invasion. It’s not that she gives a bad performance, it’s that her dreamgirl radiance carries the implied promise of everything being okay in the end. The movie seems hesitant to be too hopeless, to worry us too much about our capacity for annihilation from within.
In a way it has fallen victim to the wrong side of its own theme, finding it preferable to not make us feel too strongly one way or the other. When parables float into view, the movie looks the other way. When it finds a powerful spectacle of despair, it hurries off to a chase scene. It’s one of the puzzlements of Hollywood why anyone would want to spend so much money on a movie and then hope we don’t react too much to it. But too often, instead of being about our insidious undoing as a species, this version of The Invasion is just about a pretty woman with mean people trying to get her. From little movies with big ideas, we’ve arrived at a huge movie which actively shrinks its ambitions.
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MOVIE REVIEW - AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem
Full review behind the jump
AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem
Directors: “The Brothers Strause” – Colin Strause & Greg Strause
Writers: Screenplay by Shane Salerno, based on the Alien characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, and the Predator characters created by Jim Thomas and John Thomas
Producers: John Davis, Wyck Godfrey, David Giler & Walter Hill
Stars: Steven Pasquale, Reiko Aylesworth, John Ortiz, Johnny Lewis, Ariel Gade, Kristen Hager, Ian Whyte, Tom Woodruff, Jr.
Merriam-Webster’s on-line dictionary defines a “requiem” as a “mass for the dead”, or “a solemn chant (as a dirge) for the repose of the dead”. There’s no small amount of dead in AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem, which is clearly competing for the award of Most Obtuse Title for Anyone Outside the Core Fanbase. But the movie doesn’t seem to care about honoring them, simply giving them company at an anything-but-dirge-like pace. It is not so much for the dead as indifferently with them, killing by the thousands and not feeling particularly much about it.
Of course, a big body count is to be expected when finally giving fans of the Alien franchise what they’ve always fantasized about – a chance to see the acid-bleeding bug beasties set loose on Earth. Plus, you’ve got the wildcard of the Predators, those invisibility-wielding outer-space hunters who will only occasionally, and grudgingly, stop looking at individual humans as trophies. To top it off, as we glimpsed at the end of the first Alien vs. Predator grudge match, thanks to the Alien’s ability to adopt the traits of whatever host it gestates in, we now have a Predator-Alien hybrid (played by frequent Alien-suit wearer Tom Woodruff, Jr.) running loose. This was, logically, the only way left to create something with even more teeth.
This is sci-fi geek jambalaya, and ought not to have to try too hard to entertain within its own relatively-ridiculous idiom. I welcome these slime-dripping creatures with glad familiarity and comfortably-lowered expectations, since the days of filmmakers like Ridley Scott and James Cameron using them as anything more than pop-up monsters is clearly long past. All I ask is that you have enough new ideas to justify a new movie, and that you give me a few human characters to care about as something more than talking chum. Seeing this movie, I wonder if I might still be asking too much.
Here’s what I’m talking about: Two characters are having a grim conversation in a diner about a dead body that was found. The Sheriff (John Ortiz), giving his best that’s-gonna-give-me-nightmares look, chokes out this observation: “He was skinned alive!” Actually, no, we watched him get killed quite dead before he was skinned. But this is a script so incapable of resisting the gravity of cliché that screenwriter Shane Salerno can’t conceive of the word “skinned” not having “alive” come after it.
The story picks up from the previous movie, where the Predators, after the fiery destruction of their Antarctic hunting resort, bring back the body of one of their fallen, which unbeknownst to them has been “impregnated”. You’d think they’d have enough experience with these creatures and what they’re capable of to beknownst things like this by now. Anyway, the new Pred-Alien makes his primetime debut, crashing their ship outside a small town in Colorado – a state which, for Hollywood budgetary purposes, has been permanently relocated to Canada.
The dying Predators send a distress call to their home planet, and a single Predator (7’1” Ian Whyte) swings into action, which calls to mind the legend about how the ancient Spartans would answer calls for assistance by sending one soldier. He hits the ground and sets to work executing Aliens, and dissolving their bodies, along with any other evidence of the goings-on, with a little jar of glowing blue solvent. The Aliens are busily doing what they always do, which is to build hives and variously terrorize, melt, or infect anyone they find – one commendably disgusting new wrinkle shows them learning to use the wombs of pregnant women like we use a microwave oven for popcorn. Since each encounter with the Predator sees him thus more outnumbered, I imagined his wearied posture communicating the thought that he should have brought some friends, or at least a bigger jar.
The local human population is, typically, slow to recognize anything unusual is going on, even when people are showing up skinned-while-dead. So we spend a great deal of time meeting stereotyped characters we already know won’t live long, and who don’t really matter as people anyway, because all we’re really going to see them do is run and scream whilst firing guns. Occupying the heroic role of Handsomest Man in Town is recently-released convict Dallas (Rescue Me’s Steven Pasquale), and I don’t know if Dallas is his first name, last name, or maybe his only name, like “McLovin”.
The other Useful Grownup would be returning Army Officer Kelly O’Brien (24’s Reiko Aylesworth), whose daughter (Ariel Gade) must be protected so we can have a child screaming all the way through to the end. The odds on her mild husband Tim (Sam Trammell) are not so friendly, especially since we’ve got the Handsomest Man in Town around and all.
The second half of the movie indeed contains lots of running, and shooting, and screaming, and new Predator gadgets that slice, dice, and explode – the Predator homeworld must have its own Ron Popeil. The two monsters clash at least as often as Godzilla tussled with Gigan, and if that’s enough for your money, you’ll get what you were looking for. Co-directors Colin and Greg Strause are former visual effects supervisors, and you can sense their boredom with any performer not encased in at least 50 pounds of rubber and latex.
Even if they did care, I don’t think that, with this script, the passion could have been passed onto us, because AVPR presents its human participants with few opportunities to make any real choices. They can fight, praying that the Gods of Hollywood Narrative have deemed it necessary they survive, or die bleeding and whimpering. Who they are as people never legitimately affects the plot, and the fact that no characters in the future-set Alien franchise have any record of such a home-planet outbreak doesn’t bode well for anyone in this little Colorado town. Which is perhaps what qualifies this as a requiem – it is a pronouncement that humans effectively died out of this series a long time ago.
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From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Rush Hour 3
Originally published 8/20/07
Full review behind the jump
Rush Hour 3
Director: Brett Ratner
Writers: Jeff Nathanson, based on characters created by Ross LaManna
Producers: Arthur M. Sarkissian, Roger Birnbaum, Andrew Z. Davis, Jonathan Glickman, Jay Stern
Stars: Chris Tucker, Jackie Chan, Max Von Sydow, Hiroyuki Sanada, Yvan Attal, Youki Kudoh, Noémie Lenoir, Jingchu Zhang
Back when I was but a pup, a 21-year-old college senior writing film reviews for my school paper, the Bradley Scout, I started my review of the first Rush Hour picture by asking how it was possible for the plainly incompetent James Carter (Chris Tucker) to reach the rank of police detective at all, much less at such a young age, not to mention be able to afford to drive an impeccably-detailed Porsche Spider on a cop’s salary. But I recognized that the movie was not actually about police work, or competence, or really anything but a dressed-up series of contrived incidents based around such strange bedfellows as Tucker’s watered-down Eddie Murphy-in-48 Hours shtick and Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan’s human-pinball physical inventiveness.
I’ve come a long way as a movie critic since then, but Rush Hour 3 represents none too much progress for its franchise. Carter is still shallow, hyperactive, cowardly, and an absolute failure as a police officer – when the movie opens he’s been busted down to traffic cop, although why he’s still considered employable at all is beyond me. And the movie, as always, is a ramshackle progression of comic violence scenes hindered by a plot hole so massive it’s a wonder it doesn’t suck the whole movie into its maw.
The plot concerns the hunt for an assassin who has taken a near-fatal shot at Chinese Ambassador Han (Tzi Ma), the old friend of Police Inspector Lee (Jackie Chan) whose daughter was kidnapped in the first Hour. It was a sign of this whole franchise’s disposability that I had to reach deep into my memory to recall that was indeed what the fuss was about.
Han was about to reveal a centuries-old secret – the identity of the leadership of the international criminal organization The Triads. If you see this movie (and I’m taking pains to preserve one of its “surprises”) you’ll understand how absurd is the implication that Han had access to this information, and at no point had it preserved anywhere permanent. In the age of cell phone cameras and the ominously-growing Google cache, the Triads’ fabled methods of concealment are so far from foolproof it’s laughable – their identities would be on the Internet in about three minutes.
But this is a movie that discourages thinking. It operates on the level of the 8-foot-tall kung-fu student (Sun Ming Ming) that Carter and Lee end up in brief and comically unsuccessful fisticuffs with. On seeing Carter’s bug-eyed, mosquito-voiced antics, the giant grins and exclaims “Funny black man!” Whatever test screenings the Rush Hour movies have gone through, I think the positive scorecards must have been covered, with no sense of irony, in comments like that.
I’ve been a fan of Jackie Chan’s ever since that same stint as a college movie snob took me to see his first real break-through to American audiences, 1995’s Rumble in the Bronx. Even then he was a little off his physical peak, but his Buster Keaton-inspired comic timing, ingenious choreography, eager-beaver charm and sheer crazy stuntman guts granted him several more years at or near the top of his game. Now he is 53 and, given that he’s abused his body more than two Evel Knievels, that the man can still walk is impressive, but the effects of time on his speed and dexterity are now undeniable. In addition, the quick-cut, close-up heavy American filmmaking style has always done him a disservice, interrupting the almost melodic pacing of his stunt sequences, and time and time again they make the mistake of casting him as the disapproving straight man against the goofy likes of Tucker and Owen Wilson. This is squandering a rare and finite resource, my friends.
Rush Hour 3 doesn’t give Chan much to show off with until its climax, which involves a vigorous sword fight and a chance for him to clamber and leap around the superstructure of the Eiffel Tower. Carter has been studying up on his own kung-fu, which is gladdening, since before he could participate in fights it was a mystery why Lee even bothered to give such an obvious liability a chance to muck up his investigations.
It’s their enduring friendship, though, which provides what few sweet pleasures these movies have. By means which would take too long to explain, Carter at one point must protect a key witness (Noémie Lenoir) from hitmen by instigating a song and dance number with her; only to be joined by Lee (Chan has a thriving pop-music career in his native country). Suddenly it looks a lot more like a love song between the two men, which is more befitting this genre than many of its fans would care to admit. And at one point, as a disagreement has driven them apart, we see each having a lonely meal – Carter orders mu shu pork, and Lee suddenly craves fried chicken and sweet potato pie.
That means of poking at cultural stereotypes with a sort of impish guilelessness points the way towards what a more challenging kind of comedy the Rush Hour pictures could be, but they’re nearly always ready to settle for the easy gag lest you start thinking about what you’ve just spent money on. Director Brett Ratner has directed all three of these pictures, and as we know from filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg, having a trilogy is, for better or worse, one-stop shopping for people to study your filmmaking values. Ratner’s most consistent quality as a director has nothing to do with style, or voice, or even talent – he’s a breezy mediocrity who’s probably swell at parties and has yet to lose studio money in any egregious amount.
His trademark is that he never fails to hire top-tier technicians and designers (Lalo Schifrin has composed music for this series that is almost appallingly inventive considering what banalities it ends up accompanying on-screen), and then puts them to work without thinking too hard about what story they’re trying to tell, without breaking a sweat trying to unify them towards any creative idea. Rush Hour 3 is, then, another in an unbroken line of quintessential Brett Ratner pictures – all impeccably gift-wrapped empty boxes. I knew that when I was 21 – I still know it today.
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