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Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Good Shepherd (**)

The Good Shepherd is Robert DeNiro's fictionalized account of the birth of the CIA. It stars Matt Damon as the head spy. He's married to Angelina Jolie, who he isn't attracted to at all. Say what? How could that be? One reason the movie gives is that Damon's character is a member of Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society. The Good Shepherd goes out of its way to depict Skull and Bones as an exclusive haven where affluent white boys get naked, lie on a stone table, confess their darkest secrets, and then take turns peeing on each other. The Skulls starring Joshua Jackson and Paul Walker painted a cooler and more heterosexual picture of Skull and Bones, if you can believe that. The biggest gripe I have against The Good Shepherd is that it's three hours long and it's fucking boring. Real spies can't be this uninteresting and I know movie spies are a hell of a lot cooler than this (see: Bond, James and Damon's own Bourne, Jason). Hell, I complained about it in MI:3, but The Good Shepherd could have seriously benefited from some latex masks, a lot of rappeling, and a helicopter chase or two. Also Damon has a perpetually nervous son in the movie who's about 10 years younger than he is. The Good Shepherd spans about 30 years of Damon's life but he hardly ages a day. What's his secret to perpetual youth? It must be the golden showers he received in college.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Juno (***1/2)


December 26, 2007
Every now and then -- not often -- but sometimes, you meet a character in a movie who just about makes your day. Juno MacGuff is one of those. I wish she were real and I wish I knew her because life would be richer with someone like her around. Ellen Page is probably the best actress under 25 we have in movies today and she makes Juno probably the most memorable lead character in any movie this year. Page is backed by a stellar supporting cast including Michael Cera, JK Simmons, Olivia Thirlby and Allison Janney. How fantastic was it to see Juno's parents be so well written and supportive of her? Parents of teenagers since John Hughes tailblazed the teen movie genre 25 years ago have either been emotionally distant strangers to their kids or willfully ignorant, barking ogres. Juno has a dad who loves her, doesn't understand how she got herself pregnant, isn't crazy about it, but stands by her daughter no matter what. Allison Janney is also really good as her stepmom, who feels the same way her dad does and provides the motherly support Juno needs, even after Juno spits blue slurpies in her urn after they argue.
As great as they all were, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman as the prospective adoptive parents to Juno's baby almost stole the show for me. I was most impressed by Jennifer Garner's performance. She played a character who desperately wants to be a mother and nursed some deep pain about her failures both to conceive and adopt. Garner showed here she's a much, much better actress than the material she has chosen in the past allowed her to be. Juno is easily her best cinematic work yet. Bateman turns in a very sly performance where he slowly reveals the glaring hole in his personality that makes him kind of a creep. They walked a fine line in the budding relationship between Juno and Bateman but they cleverly avoided all the usual traps. Both Bateman and Garner's characters would have degenerated into standard villains if Juno were the standard crass, cynical, turd burglar Hollywood spews out. (Which includes superhero turds like X-Men: The Last Stand and Elektra, which criminally wasted the talents of Page and Garner, among many others.)
If I have quibbles with Juno, it's that I thought the first 15 minutes or so went a little overboard on the stylization of the dialogue and the characters. Lines like "Silencio, old man!" and "That's one doodle that can't be undid, home skillet." were more distracting than funny to me. But once Juno revealed her pregnancy to her parents (I liked how her stepmom kept hoping she was expelled from school) the movie took off.  And by the time Juno called the abortion clinic on her hamburger phone, looking to "procure a speedy abortion", I had warmed to the snappy banter by Diablo Cody. The dialogue really is quite good in the movie. What a treat to see a movie about teenage kids that's very funny but doesn't have the main character constantly screaming and swearing, unlike that other blockbuster comedy Michael Cera was in this year. The other thing that didn't sparkle with me was the folksy music on the soundtrack. All of the music conversations Juno and Jason Bateman had about bands like Sonic Youth made me wish they were on the soundtrack of the movie, even if Juno decided "it's just noise."
Juno is one of those movies that are all too rare; filled with smart, honest, emotionally complete characters, whip-smart writing, fine directing from Jason Reitman (Who's 2-0. First Thank You For Smoking and now Juno. What a career this guy is putting together), genuine humor, and love. The movie poster for Juno should have come with the label "made with love". Juno is a movie made by people who care. Who care about quality, about audiences, about their characters, about saying something sweet and genuine about themselves and about us. One of the best movies of 2007.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Charlie Wilson's War (***)


December 21, 2007
According to Charlie Wilson's War, Charles Wilson, a Congressman from Texas "of no particular importance" finagled a billion dollars of US funds for the CIA to finance Afghanistan's war against the Soviet Union in the late 1980's. Because of Wilson's efforts, the Afghanis had the weapons they needed to become the first nation on Earth to defeat the Soviet Army, which lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. This is all "based on a true story." Whatever may be true about this story is buried somewhere in a slick, talky, entertaining, 87 minute fluff piece with a lot of snappy patter and virtually no conflict or drama. Seriously, there's no conflict in the entire picture.

In Charlie Wilson's War, Charlie Wilson wins. Every time. Every single problem he faces, he immediately overcomes. Whenever he needs something done, he goes out and does it and nothing impedes him. He makes enemies who meet behind closed doors and complain about him, yet none of them do anything to stop him.

Charlie Wilson always gets exactly what he wants at no cost and with no sacrifice. Charlie Wilson needs to get Israel to work with Pakistan despite their mutual hatred? One meeting and it's done. He needs Egypt to work with Israel? One meeting in a nightclub with a belly dancer he brings in from Texas (!), it's done. He needs his boss Ned Beatty to sign off on giving a billion dollars to the CIA? A trip to Pakistan so Ned Beatty can see the refugees and it's done.

Even when Charlie Wilson isn't personally involved, it's done. According to the movie, the Afghanis had no trouble at all using the US-supplied weapons to destroy the Soviet Army. It was easy as pie. Look, Soviet helicopters and tanks! Just point the rocket launcher and BOOM! It's done. Just like Charlie Wilson taught them. Apparently, waging a clandestine war against the USSR and ending the Cold War was surprisingly easy.

The biggest threat to Charlie Wilson in the movie is a federal indictment pending because he spent a night in a fantasy suite in Las Vegas with a Playboy model, two strippers, a sleazy would-be Hollywood TV producer, and some blow. Not that Charlie Wilson did any lines. The pending indictment causes great consternation to his big boobied harem of assistants, including Amy Adams, Rachel Nichols, and Shiri Appleby, but Charlie Wilson isn't worried. Why should he be? Less than 20 minutes of movie time later, the indictment is dropped and Charlie Wilson skates by another problem that didn't actually pose a problem for him.

I did like Charlie Wilson's style, however. He has excellent taste in big boobied assistants, and even Emily Blunt shows up just to prance around in her underpants and show off her suprisingly hot body. But if I learned anything from the movie, it's that Shiri Appleby needs to be in more movies because she's ridiculously hot.

The engaging dialogue complete with walkandtalks and wink-wink jabs at Washington politics by Aaron Sorkin and the performances by Tom Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman carry the picture. Sorkin sets a record for characters in a movie gleefully talking about how much they love "killing Russians". Hanks musters up all the charisma he has and all the credibility he loaned to the US Government in The Simpsons Movie to give us a very, very likable hero.

Although we're told Charlie Wilson is a drunken, promiscuous rascal (the biggest laugh in the movie is when the murderous President of Pakistan tells Wilson flat out he has character flaws), we never see him do anything wrong. He likes beautiful women and enjoys sex with them. Also, he drinks a lot. Those are his character flaws. Otherwise, he's a prince. Phillip Seymour Hoffman's CIA agent even marvels that Wilson's the "only honest politician" in Washington.

Hoffman does his unkempt, smartest and angriest guy in the room schtick and does it really well. Still, Hoffman might want to get 8 hours of sleep once in a while. Hoffman always looks like he's about to keel over from exhaustion in every movie. Hanks and Hoffman make a good team and there's a hilarious exchange where Hoffman bugged a bottle of scotch he gave Hanks as a present.

Julia Roberts, playing a plastic Southern rich lady version of Tess Ocean, is ostensibly the lead actress because she's Julia Roberts, but Amy Adams has a lot more screen time and is far more endearing as Wilson's number one aide. Since Amy Adams is on her way to becoming the new Julia Roberts, it might be time to retire the original.

All the Oscar talk for Charlie Wilson's War seems like overpraise. It's an entertaining crowd-pleaser but there's not a hell of a lot to it. It seems like all the actual dramatic parts of the story are missing, except for the one dramatic part that made it into the movie: Tom Hanks's bare ass. Thanks, Hanks.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Simpsons Essay


I love The Simpsons. It's been the major influence on me for as long as it's been on the air and it all but defined my sense of humor and worldview, for better or worse. I tend to be a Simpsons apologist (or justifier as I see it). I know the series is never going to be what it was 10-12 years ago. The Simpsons has been on for almost two whole decades. Along with its natural aging, shows like South Park, Family Guy, Futurama, and live action series like Arrested Development, The Office (run by former Simpsons writer Greg Daniels), My Name Is Earl, etc. have since stolen a lot of their thunder. But when they're on point, The Simpsons can still deliver.

I feel like The Simpsons Movie's long development distracted their best writers and animators over the last few years. It takes six months to create an episode from start to finish. The Simpsons Movie was five years in development and was being re-written and re-edited right up to its release date. The Movie's five year journey to theatres meant at least 5-6 seasons were affected by the series' all-star writers and animators having to split their time between the series and the Movie. I'm curious what the series will be like a year from now with their top talent back on the mothership, if you will.

I've been spending quite a bit of my free time lately watching seasons 4-7 on DVD with commentaries. These were the show's golden years and I'm fascinated by The Simpsons' unique brand of comedy writing. The commentaries are like master classes in writing comedy.

There are definitely aspects of how episodes are put together today (timing, editing, style of jokes) that are different from the golden years. One theory is that the newer writers just aren't as good as the original crop. There's a case to be made for that. However, there are also strange restrictions now placed on them by FOX borne of the current cultural climate that The Simpsons never had to deal with in the mid-90's. (For instance, there is currently a ban on The Simpsons being able to show Homer's (or anyone's) bare ass on the show. The nudity ban is what made them go all out with Bart's full frontal in the Movie. Also, it is now harder/more expensive to do big musical numbers which is why there have been so few in the last few years. On the other hand, they get away with any number of copyright violations -- Count Chocula, The Incredible Hulk Melon Baller that "shits out" melon balls to name two -- these days.)

The showrunner (head writer) for the last few seasons has been Al Jean. The showrunner definitely gets to determine the style of humor the series takes under his stewardship. The most popular years of "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" in the mid-90's were largely run by David Mirkin, who had a style different from Jean's. The episodes speak for themselves. I prefer Mirkin's style and his episodes. I feel Al Jean's run on the series has been more slapdash, although he has modernized the series to a degree (Homer Simpson having a laptop, cell phone, and knowing what YouTube is. The writers ten years ago steered clear of the Simpsons having such amenities so that Homer getting a computer or stealing cable were big deals. Times change, things change.)

The biggest change to me over the last few years has been in Homer Simpson himself. It's really amazing hearing David Mirkin, David Cohen (showrunner of Futurama), Greg Daniels, et al discuss their vision of Homer. To them, Homer "is the most positive guy in the world." No matter how crummy his life is, he's optimistic and happy. He keeps hoping for the best. Watch those seasons and see how loveable their Homer is.

Homer in recent years has veered away from that. He was always a jerk, but in the last few years he has not only acknowledged he's a jerk but takes delight in it. And today's Homer is miserable. He's almost always unhappy and complaining. In the old years, no matter what Homer did, his devotion to Marge and his love for his family was always the elastic that brought him back. Now, Homer regularly dreams of leaving them and even fantasy episodes set in the future have Homer and Marge separated or divorced, unthinkable a decade ago.

It's weird how different the Homer character is. He's still Homer, just with different textures. I personally prefer the older Homer. One of the things I admired in The Simpsons Movie is that they managed to merge all the various aspects of Homer together so the character embodied all of those dimensions in the course of the 90 minutes. I also loved that the Simpsons family unit was the crux of the story, which is rarely the case in the series these days.

Anyway, 2008 will be The Simpsons's 20th season. Imagine that. I'm on board as ever, but I wonder if my theory of The Simpsons Movie finally being in the rearview mirror will cause any noticable changes in the quality of the series.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Am Legend: The IMAX Experience (***)



The rightful winner of the Best Supporting Actresss Oscar for 2007 has been found. Her name is Abbey, she's three years old, and she plays Samantha in I Am Legend. That Abbey is a German Shepherd will disqualify her from consideration from those specists in the Academy. Speciesm! I hate speciesm. I don't care who gets nominated for the Oscar this year, Abbey's performance pwns all those other bitches. Show me a better supporting performance by a human actress in a motion picture this year. Even though she'll be robbed of an Oscar she deserves, it won't matter to Abbey. Abbey doesn't care about awards or the Oscars. She's a good girl. Good girl. Have a cookie. Christ, I loved that dog. 

I Am Legend is pretty solid all around. Sometimes terrifying, kind of despressing, exhilirating but not too exhilirating, yet generally effective and satisfying. Unfortunately, the final act isn't nearly as good as what came before it. The movie never quite recovers from the pivotal tragedy that ended the second act. However, there is a palpable feeling of dread that creeps in as things fall apart for Robert Neville, the Last Man on Earth, and it becomes clear he's more screwed than he was before. 

Will Smith was really good. Big Willie delivers one of the best lead performances in a big budget sci-fi action thriller that I've seen in quite a while. It was a bit of a pill to swallow that Will Smith was a brilliant scientist trying desperately to cure the viral infection that turned 90% of the world's population into vampires, but he's a hell of a lot more convincing than some other actors and actresses Hollywood has asked us to buy as brilliant scientists.

Beyond his relationship with his wonderful dog, the best stuff Smith did was convey how the three years alone with his dog in Manhattan drove him insane. His life is an endless series of routine designed to keep himself and his dog alive: wake, exercise, hunt for meat, forage for supplies, broadcast emergency SOS and look for other survivors, back home before dark, set up defenses, try to sleep while 5 million vampires party outside all night. Beyond that, Smith's Robert Neville carries the agonizing guilt of being partly responsible for the virus and for the death of his wife and daughter. Coupled with his loneliness and desperate need for human contact, this is some of Smith's best work. When he traps a vampire female, brings her back to his lab, and tests potential cures on her, it feels like he's not so much trying to be the savior of humanity as he is hoping she'll wake up and provide a dinner companion that doesn't eat off the floor.

Robert Neville's insanity due to his isolation was quite interesting. He goes to video stores during the day and rents DVDs of the Today Show so he can hear human voices and maybe pretend things are the way they used to be. He has conversations and relationships with mannquins he dressed in clothes. When you compare what Neville has to what Tom Hanks had in Castaway, a soccer ball named Wilson, Neville is far better off but still, being the Last Man on Earth is really depressing. I also liked that despite his routine and his precautions, Neville was getting careless. The first time we see him he's chasing deer around Manhattan in his Shelby Mustang and runs head long into a pride of lions escaped from the zoo. Later we see he's staying out later and later, barely making it back to his home by sundown. It was inevitable he'd lose what little he had left by his own behavior and carelessness. It's actually amazing Neville and Sam lasted the three years they did alone in Manhattan surrounded by vampires.

An idea that didn't quite get across as well as it could have was that the vampires were watching Robert Neville and learned from him. The pivotal event of the film begins when one of Neville's mannequins suddenly appears at Grand Central Station and this cracks Neville's fragile psyche. How did "Fred" get there? The movie was a little unclear about it. At first I believed that Neville had simply forgotten he had moved "Fred" and he walked into one of his own vampire traps. I later realized what had actually happened: the "Alpha" vampire that Neville encountered previously saw how his vampire trap worked and set one for him.

The vampires were not well explored in terms of their behavior and whatever "culture" they had. That makes sense since the audience's POV was with Robert Neville. We only see what he sees and know what he knows about them. No one can blame Robert Neville for not descending into the dark vampire hives to do studies on how they spend their days. (The most frightening sequence in the movie is when Sam runs after a deer into a hive warehouse and Neville has to go in after her.) All we know about vampires is that they're hairless, pale, UV light is fatal to them, the CGI used to make them wasn't so great, and they're superfast and superstrong like movie monsters are these days.

Still, there are many questions about the vampires that were left unanswered, especially about what they retained of their human personalities, memory capacity, and identity. The Alpha vampire was more overtly "villainous" than expected by the end. He really seemed to have it out for Neville. Maybe he heard Neville dubbed him and his vampire pals "dark seekers" and thought it was a dumb name. One of the best parts of the novel "I Am Legend" by Richard Matheson was that the vampires knew Robert Neville; the ones who stalked him were once his neighbors and friends. At night, they'd pound on his doors and call his name ("Neville! Come out!") and the female vampires would behave in sexually suggestive ways to entice him to come out. I'd have liked to have seen some of those aspects from the vampires in the movie.

What I really didn't like was A) all that Shrek in the movie (Neville really likes Shrek but I really don't. I've never seen a movie use dialogue from another movie to convey its characters' motivations quite like Legend does Shrek.), and B) Anna the plot device and Ethan, the boy who never talks. The appearance of Anna the plot device right when Neville has lost his best friend and his will to live is right out of the deus ex machina playbook. Anna the plot device doesn't even make any sense: she and Mute Boy somehow survived the vampire apocalypse yet they seem to have stepped out of central casting. They don't look or act like survivors. They have no weapons, no training. Their story was full of holes. They were driving up the East Coast to the last human colony in Vermont and heard Neville's SOS? How the hell did they get onto the island? The flashbacks clearly established all the bridges were destroyed. Assume all the tunnels were as well. Anna is so jarringly out of place and is so clearly a device, it's distracting. We don't care about Anna and her crazy "God told me to drive to Vermont" stories. We don't care about Mute Boy surviving. We care about Robert Neville. We wanted to see Robert Neville set foot in the survivor colony and teach the last humans to get jiggy wit it Big Willie Style. The ending is ultimately a letdown.

If there's one important lession I Am Legend teaches us, however, it's that Emma Thompson will destroy human civilization as we know it. It's all her fault. Somebody stop her before it's too late.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Atonement (****)


Atonement stunningly brings to life England in between the World Wars, and both England and France during World War II. Director Joe Wright palpably recreates a bygone era only some of our grandparents have memory of and fuses it with a dreamy, tragic otherworldliness. Above all, Atonement shows the cost of how one terrible lie can ruin the lives of innocent people.

The details throughout the movie are extraordinary, from the strange singlet swimsuits men wore back then to chocolate bars wrapped in silver paper soldiers carried in their kits to the pneumatic red tubes used to send mail. The production design and costumes are fantastic. Wright uses the percussion beats of an old manual typewriter like the sound of a ticking time bomb and weaves between different point of views of critical scenes to show us how reality differs from what one naive, imaginatively vengeful 13 year old girl perceives.

Atonement's first half immerses us in life in an English country manor, showing the classism between the wealthy owners and their servants, complete with lies, hidden raw eroticism and sexual intrigue. The second half takes place during the war, showing the devastation of France at the hands of the Nazis as well as the cost of the Blitz when the Nazis bombed London, with hordes of wounded British soldiers arriving in the hospitals, met by nurses performing triage. (The grittty authenticity of the war scenes additionally bring to mind what a bullshit cartoon Pearl Harbor was.)

Wright also attempts to match the amazing single unbroken take in Children of Men with his own, showing James McAvoy and his companions arriving on the beach in Dunkirk, the camera sweeping along with and past them across the vast expanse of men and machinery in one amazing unbroken shot.

The cast of McAvoy and Keira Knightley are superb, but for all of Knightley's top billing and Oscar hype, I was most impressed by the two actresses who played Briony Tallis: Saorise Ronan, Briony age 13, and Romola Garai, Briony age 18. Both actresses shared the same mannerisms to convincingly portray the same character five years apart. Ronan's combination of a young girl's naivety and vindictiveness is beautifully matched by the older Garai's silent regret and intention to sacrifice herself to make amends.

The finest scenes in the movie for me are when Garai's Briony attempts to comfort a fallen soldier with the worst headwound imaginable, and the scene where Garai confronts Knightley and McAvoy and attempts to atone for the lie she told that ruined their lives. Both are incredibly staged and performed. Then Atonement gut-punches the audience when Vanessa Redgrave shows up as terminally ill Briony in her 70's and finally tells the whole truth once and for all.

As relentlessly tragic as Atonement is, it's better than something like Babel in that the characters are aware of the tragic turn in their lives and spend the entire movie fighting against fate to restore the happiness they know in their hearts they deserve. McAvoy and Knightley are torn apart by the lie her sister told yet never give up on each other or the dream that they can get back the time stolen from them. Garai is just as tragic as she lives with the guilt of what she did and the cowardice in her heart for her entire life.

Haunting, hypnotic, moving, classy, and ultimately, inevitably crushing, Atonement is one of the best movies I've seen this year.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (****)

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe."

Seeing Blade Runner as a boy was like witnessing a fortune telling of my future. I knew when I first laid eyes on Rick Deckard, the laconic blade runner who hunts Replicants in dystopian Los Angeles circa 2019, I'd end up just like him in three specific ways. First, I would have a short haircut. (I actually had a variation of Harrison Ford's Caesar haircut for a while in the '90s.) Second, I would still be single in my 30's. (Kudos to me for keeping that dream alive.) Third and most importantly, like Deckard, I'd be willing to have sex with a robot. (If she looked like Sean Young, although I'm sure when they're eventually invented, fembots will be much hotter.)

The 1992 Director's Cut of Blade Runner has always been the definitive version for me. I've watched it at least a dozen times over the last 15 years. I've also seen the theatrical cut on video with the voice over and more upbeat ending. The harsher, colder, more impenetrable Director's Cut, even with its unicorn dream that Sir Ridley Scott thinks supposedly "proves" Deckard is a Replicant, resonates with me much more.

Deckard has never been a hero by any measure a traditional hero is defined. He shoots a Replicant in the back. He coldly and cruelly reveals to Rachael that all of her memories are implanted from Tyrell's niece, which means she's a Replicant. He then calls Rachael while he's on a case and asks her out even after the way he treated her. Worst of all is their "love scene", where he becomes alarmingly violent both physically and emotionally as he forces himself on Rachael.

The "love scene" is an example of just how vital the score by Vangelis is. Vangelis' haunting music may be the single most important component of Blade Runner. Without the score laid over the "love scene", for example, it would play much, much differently. You can replace the word "love" with "robot rape".

Personally, I still don't believe Deckard is a Replicant. It just doesn't make sense from what we're shown of him and how his few associates behave towards him in the movie. The arguments towards him being a Replicant -- Unicorn! He has red eyes in one shot! More unicorns! -- don't wash with me. Deckard being human -- in some ways being more cruel and dangerous than the robots he hunts -- is the way I prefer to view his character. It makes for a better, more resonant story than "Deckard was a robot all along!" Sir Ridley can insert all the unicorns he wants into his movie, but I'll never buy Rick Deckard is a robot. But the beauty of Blade Runner is that it's ambiguous enough for either interpretation.

After years of blundering about with the rights to the film, the 20th anniversary restoration of Blade Runner in 2002 was completely blown, but here now for the 25th anniversary is the Final Cut, which Sir Ridley promises is the definitive Blade Runner. Having finally seen the Final Cut, it really ain't all that different from the Director's Cut. It actually is just the Director's Cut with a few added shots here and there and some altered or added dialogue noticable only to nerds who know the lines by heart. (That'd be me.)

Here's what I noticed as new or different:

* Bryant giving a bit more information about Leon to Deckard.
* A couple of added shots of the spinner in the air as Deckard heads to the Tyrell building to Voight-Kampf Rachael.
* A shot of Deckard's car entering the garage of his apartment building.
* The death of Zhora has finally been fixed where it is no longer clearly a stuntman in the wig that Deckard shoots in the back and crashes through glass.
* The dialogue where Rachael asks Deckard what he would do if she ran is different. In the Director's Cut the lines are: "Would you come after me? Shoot me?" In the Final Cut the words are now "Hunt me?" To which Deckard replies in the Director's Cut: "No. But someone would." But the Final Cut, there's a new line in the middle: "No. I owe you one. But someone would."
* When Roy Batty confronts Tyrell, in the Final Cut he demands, "I want more life, father." Much more polite than in the Director's Cut: "I want more life, fucker."
(In both instances, I prefer the Director's Cut's dialogue.)

The pivotal, iconic, climactic dialogue from Roy Batty (invented on set by Rutger Hauer) thankfully remains untouched:

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've seen c-beams glitter in the dark of Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like... tears in rain."

It would have been lunacy to change anything about that scene; in a way the entire experience of watching the movie hinges on it.

Despite the minor additions and alterations, I'm glad to see the Final Cut is the same bleak, sad, difficult, and strangely moving Blade Runner I've loved for half my life. They just don't make 'em like that anymore. 

"Too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?"

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Beowulf: The IMAX 3D Experience (****)


The Lies Heroes Tell

"How many sea monsters were there?"
"Huh. Last time there were three."

With that exchange, Beowulf shifted gears in the first act from being a gimmicky CGI Hollywood blockbustering of the ancient heroic tale to something much more. Unferth, counsel to Hrothgar, King of the Danes, has doubts that the boastful hero from across the sea who has come to Denmark promising to kill the monster Grendel is all he boasts he is. Unferth questions Beowulf about his losing a swimming match in a prior exploit. We see a flashback where Beowulf weaves a tale of a five day swimming match interrupted by a sea monster attack. You see, Beowulf lost the swimming match because he had to kill the sea monsters. The number of sea monsters varies according to whatever Beowulf needs at that moment to impress his listeners.

Yet Beowulf makes no mention of what we see in the flashback, where the final "sea monster" was a lusty mermaid. So what really happened? Or did any of it happen? How accurate are the legends of Beowulf's heroic deeds? The answers are who knows, probably, and they're whatever you want to believe.

What about the mermaid? Perhaps the mermaid in the flashback is symbolic of Beowulf's weakness, which he shares with all classical heroes: women and lust. Against any manner of man, beast or monster, the classical hero is indomitable. But against a beautiful woman, even the bravest, mightest hero finds the shinest armor or sharpest blade of little help. The enemy becomes the deepest desires within the hero. They spell his own undoing.

Beowulf does exactly as he comes to do, as the story goes. He takes on Grendel in Hrothgar's beer hall and kills him to the acclaim of all in Hrothgar's city. Then Grendel's Mother visits Beowulf in a dream and scares the mead out of him. I liked how mighty Beowulf suddenly turned into a trembling nervous wreck as he finds out that Grendel has a mother and his job isn't done. Naturally, when the mighty hero is faced with Grendel's Mother, guised in the gorgeous, shimmering, golden, wet, naked form of Angelina Jolie, in her magic cave, he caved.  All those promises of power and glory and being eternally king; they all sounded pretty good but what's even more good was the naked, wet, golden Angelina Jolie cartoon. It wasn't a fair fight.

Another neat thing about Beowulf was how the choice he made of lying about killing Grendel's Mother essentially ruined his life. The old king Hrothgar made the same choice when he was young and it came back to bite him in the ass. I liked how as soon as he saw the new kid fuck up, Hrothgar saddled him with the burden of the crown and jumped out the window. You've never seen a naked old man happier to die. Meanwhile, Beowulf's awesome life of traveling the world killing monsters and bagging comely lasses was over. Beowulf was stuck with a kingdom he didn't want, a queen who would have fucked him but now wouldn't touch him with a ten foot spear, a God he didn't want ("Christ Jesus, the Roman God"), and the burden of being the greatest hero who never killed a demon like he said he did.

Like King Arthur, Beowulf had a bastard on the way. And like Arthur's bastard Mordred, clad in golden armor, Beowulf's bastard is a golden man who morphs into a golden dragon (seems like Beowulf's DNA is better than Hrothgar's. Hrothgar's sperm only made Grendel, a deformed monster who didn't like loud singing.) The fight between old man Beowulf and the giant dragon is all it's cracked up to be. Beowulf's moment of realization of what he had to do to pierce the dragon's heart (a solution totally telegraphed by Hrothgar in act one telling Beowulf step by step how to do it) totally eclipsed every time Martin Riggs had to separate his own shoulder in the Lethal Weapon movies.

It's particularly enjoyable how Beowulf showed both the young hero at the height of his powers and later as an old man coming back for one last heroic deed that must end in his demise. Like Rocky in Rocky Balboa, that old chestnut of the aged hero coming back one more time to do the impossible never fails. I definitely dug old man Beowulf taking on his dragon son more than naked young Beowulf fighting Grendel. Both were awesome, but you can't top an old man vs. a dragon.

What is it with movies this past year with naked dudes fighting? First Borat, then Eastern Promises, and now Beowulf; they all feature naked dudes slugging it out. Beowulf went to comical, Austin Powers-esque lengths to conceal Beowulf's cock and balls before, during and after his fight with Grendel. I assume Robert Zemeckis kept all the fully rendered footage of Beowulf's balls for his own private collection. Maybe we'll see Beowulf's cock in Planet Hollywood someday.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

American Gangster (****)


That Ol' Blue Magic

Did I ever mention Denzel Washington is my favorite movie star? Odd if that's news to you. Seems like I say it over and over to everyone within earshot whenever a new Denzel picture opens. Let me state for the record, gentle reader, that Denzel Washington is my favorite movie star. I like a lot of actors, I'll go see a movie because of certain actors (I also hate certain actors and abhor seeing their movies but we won't go there), but there's only one guy at the top for me. There's Denzel and then there's everybody else. Ever since I was a teenager and saw Malcolm X for the first time (although it took me another 10 years to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which is now one of my favorite books), Denzel has been The Man. "My man," as he likes to say.

I was one year old when Frank Lucas was sent to prison for conspiracy to distribute narcotics so the filthy, corrupt, crime-ridden New York City of the early 1970's depicted in American Gangster is the stuff of legend. New York today can still be dangerous although I lived there for years, still visit often, and never see any crime firsthand. Sir Ridley Scott and his filmmaking team palpably recreate New York circa 1968-1976. This was a time when the microwave oven was a new and scary invention.

So thorough and immersive is the experience that you can almost smell the sweat and desperation of the junkies and can almost feel the grit and dirt under your fingernails. From the apartment buildings in the projects of Harlem to the swank night clubs owned by the Mafia to the seedy diners in New Jersey, everything feels authentic. The soundtrack is persuasively of the era yet avoids being a jukebox of the most obvious pop hits. Plenty of movies have parodied the 70's in recent years but American Gangster doesn't mock, it brings the era to life.

About half an hour into the picture, Frank Lucas dons an afro wig and observes incognito as the pure grade heroin he purchased from Southeast Asia reaches his customers on the street. I sat there wondering what was going through his mind as he watched his fellow black people shoot up his "Blue Magic", heroin with a brand name as "trusted" as Pepsi. This is something Malcolm X wouldn't have stood for, to have a black man poison other black people and get rich off their addiction.

A few scenes later, Lucas reaches out to his family living in poverty in North Carolina and brings them all to a brand new estate in New Jersey, which he built for his elderly mother. They have a loving Thanksgiving dinner before Lucas brings his brothers and cousins back to Harlem and makes them underbosses in his "company". Frank Lucas is a man who gives a speech about how family is the most important thing, and then he immediately lets them watch as he shoots a rival in the head on the street in broad daylight.

Frank Lucas falls for and marries a Puerto Rican beauty queen, convinces her he's a gentleman, and later beats his cousin to death at a party in his home in front of her and their guests. He's devoted to his wife, never gives a second glance at the cheap and easy prostitutes during his Vietnam excursions, but makes the women who cut and bag his heroin work completely naked "so they don't steal anything."

Frank Lucas is fucking fascinating.

Not quite as fascinating but intregal to the story (because if he didn't exist, Frank Lucas would have only risen and not fallen), is Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the honest cop who brings Lucas down. Roberts is famous within the New York drug community as the cop who found a million dollars in unmarked bills and turned it into evidence instead of pocketing it like all the other crooked cops. Roberts may be a straight arrow but he's also got his crazy streak; I especially liked a scene in the park when some teenagers were annoying him to he threatens that he's "gonna have to kill" them because they didn't shut the fuck up like he ordered.

Roberts's unyielding honesty as a cop balances his disasterous personal life as a dead beat dad who cheats on his wife Carla Gugino with strippers, hookers, and his hot divorce lawyer. But goddamn it, Roberts isn't on the take, so he's the good guy. And he is, in spite of his failings. There's a heartbreaking scene where Gugino calls him out at their custody hearing for being a deadbeat philanderer and Roberts realizes she's right, surrenders the fight for his son, and walks out of the courtroom.

The home run of the movie's plotting, though, is the fur coat. Frank Lucas is a stylish man but he's business-like and proper in his appearance. He scolds his younger brother Chwetel Ejiofor (another of my favorites, reunited with Denzel from Spike Lee's Inside Man) for wearing a gaudy "clown suit", musing that the "flashiest one in the room is also the weakest one in the room." The one time Lucas breaks his own rule, when his wife Eva gives him a ghastly fur coat and hat which he wears to Ali-Frasier II so as not to offend her, he draws attention to himself and gets made by Roberts and his special narcotics team. (What a shame they couldn't get Will Smith to cameo as Muhammad Ali.) Later, when Lucas realizes what did him in, he throws the fur coat in the fireplace. Let that be a lesson to all men: don't ever wear a big, stupid fur coat. 

American Gangster is a pretty fucking great movie but it does run a bit long. Denzel and Crowe only finally come face to face in the final ten minutes, reuniting them for the first time since 1996's Virtuosity, a year before Crowe achieved stardom in LA Confidential. Their scenes, as Denzel agrees to work with Crowe to name names and bring down the corrupt New York cops, are an all-too-rushed denouement wrapping up the story. As good as their scenes together are, they lack the electricity of Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino's coffee shop conversation in Heat. The closing title cards even run over their scenes.

The last shot of Lucas walking out of the federal penitentiary in 1991 with Public Enemy playing on the soundtrack is pretty awesome. By the time he walks out a free man, his wife has long since left him, his family members are still in prison or dead, his money is gone, and he missed the 1980's entirely. Yet one gets the impression that while he's out of Blue Magic, he's still got some of that ol' black magic and he can make it all happen again.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Lars and the Real Girl (***)


October 17, 2007
Lars and the Real Girl tells the heartwarming story of an emotionally stunted man who buys himself a sex doll online, passes her off as his girlfriend, and somehow the whole town plays along. Ryan Gosling plays Lars. He's a deeply repressed man with serious abandonment issues (his mother died during childbirth) who becomes delusional. Also he dresses in ugly sweaters. Gosling plays Lars with constant eyeblinking, nervous ticks, and all wide, thin-lipped smiles. Because it's the dude from The Notebook playing him, a cursory glance of the ladies in the audience told me they were registering Lars as a sweet, attractive guy with a serious problem they wanted him to overcome instead of what I was seeing him as: a potentially dangerous time bomb. But then, I thought Rachel McAdams should have stayed with Cyclops in The Notebook.

Lars buys himself a Real Doll, which in the movie is called Bianca, although is/she looks a lot like "Stacy" on the Real Doll website (ah, research). He manufactures an entire backstory about her being an orphaned, wheelchair-bound Brazillian missionary to explain her to his brother and pregnant sister in law (Emily Mortimer). Lars also conjures Bianca as being deeply religious to explain why he doesn't actually have sex with his sex doll. But he's totally serious about thinking that she's real and she's his girlfriend. He eats its/her food for it/her and has one sided conversations with it/her. He even has fights with it/her. That's right, he argues with his plastic girlfriend but doesn't get the makeup sex afterwards. The guy is nuts.

Lars's brother has some touching scenes where he blames himself for leaving home and Lars too soon, which he fears eventually lead to his brother paying five grand for a plastic girlfriend he doesn't have sex with. Lars's brother is the only person in the entire movie who sees what's going on for what it is and fears for Lars believably. He and Mortimer take Lars to see the town shrink, Patricia Clarkson, and then they ask the rest of the town to play along and not upset Lars. From the intriguing problem set up, things start to go south.

In a meeting with the town elders, the local priest considers their situation and asks, "What would Jesus do?" It's tough to say, padre, but consider that Jesus might not have done what you guys did: take Bianca, give her a fake job, fake appointments, and basically all pretend that she's real. The entire town bends over backwards to make like this plastic love toy is a real person, so much so that it/she begins spending less time with Lars and Lars doesn't like it. Luckily, there's a real girl in Lars life, Kelli Garner (who's pretty hot in real life but they sure uglied her up here. She looks a step above Charlize Theron in Monster.) Garner patiently waits for Lars to work out his disturbing issues. The movie sets up from the outset that she likes him and she's the girl for him so the conclusion of their story is pretty rote and unsurprising. Garner doesn't seem to realize that with a little makeup and nice clothes she can do a lot better than that psycho.

I'm giving Lars and the Real Girl three stars, but on the lower end of that rating. They accomplished what they were trying to do, and Gosling gives a convincing performance as Lars, but there was potential here that was left unexplored, questions that could have been answered. For instance, Lars is crazy, but the way the entire town accepted Bianca as their own raised serious questions about the sanity of everyone else. The comedic possibilities were touched upon but could have been mined deeply. I began to wonder whether Lars was really just bullshitting everyone (he wasn't), why the townspeople were going along with it (because they all love Lars as Mortimer claimed? Doubt it), and whether or not people were afraid of him (they probably should have been.) As the movie progressed, the circumstances regarding how Bianca departs from the story are absurd and wildly stretch credibility. (No way 911 shows up and ambulances a sex doll to the hospital.) If the movie were more comedic-minded, they would have had more leeway to do the things they did in the last act, but the filmmakers were intent on playing Lars' plight as heartwrenching drama.  

Lars and the Real Girl however is an unbelievably persuasive advertisement for the Real Doll. The manufacturers of the Real Doll must be real pleased. Real Dolls aren't just for sex! Apparently, the Real Dolls are wondrous, miraculous creations that can not only heal the most emotionally disturbed of us, but they have the power to bring an entire town together. I know when the movie was over I wanted one. They handed out posters of the movie to everyone exiting the theater. What they should have done was hand out Real Dolls. If they did, I wouldn't be writing this review right now, I can assure you.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (***)


The Enterprise of England

Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a two hour movie that feels like three hours. This is meant as a compliment. There's so much going on in the film, so much intrigue, war, and quasi-history, it feels like a miniseries, but I never found any of it boring. The sets and costumes rival last year's Marie Antoinette for splendid opulence, bordering on excess, but Elizabeth: The Golden Age tells a more ambitious, sweeping story and has far superior performances. For my money, this sequel is also better than 1998's Elizabeth. The Golden Age not only features Cate Blanchett in a tour de force eclipsing her previous performance, but supporting her is Clive Owen in place of Joseph Fiennes. That's like trading blended horse manure for frosty chocolate milkshakes.

The story in The Golden Age weaves between sexual intrigue in Queen Elizabeth's court and the labyrinthine plot by Catholics King Phillip of Spain and Mary Queen of Scots to have Protestant "godless bastard" Elizabeth assassinated. (A plot referred to in the film as "The Enterprise of England".) When the big reveal happens of who betrayed whom, who really did what and why, in the words of Homer Simpson, it's "a plan fiendishly clever in its intricacies."  

The Golden Age is an (attempted) murder-mystery in its first half (it's no spoiler to reveal that Queen Elizabeth is not assassinated) and a naval war movie in its latter half. The Spanish Armada sets sail to invade England in full-scale war, only to be miraculously defeated by the outnumbered English forces. (Hey, it's history.) By the time Clive Owen as Sir Walter Raleigh leads his galleons to a fiery victory against the mighty Spanish Armada, I half expected Captain Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, and Elizabeth Swann to show up and lend him a hand. (Captain Barbossa Geoffrey Rush returns as Elizabeth's spymaster Walsingham but his feet remain firmly planted on dry land.)

Blanchett is fantastic as Elizabeth, even more comfortable and commanding wearing the crown. It's a slam dunk nomination for a Best Actress Oscar, especially for the ways Blanchett lays bare Elizabeth's buried fears, jealousies, and secret desires. She also looked pretty damn sexy in her royal suit of armour. Owen is as good as I've ever seen him as the charming pirate Sir Walter Raleigh. Owen delivers an electrifying monologue where he describes for the Queen what it's like to cross the ocean on a ship searching for the New World. Film is a visual medium with a hard and fast rule of "show it, don't say it" but Owen proves a rare case of how much more effective it can be when an actor is allowed to describe something with just words and his talent, allowing the audience to join the Queen in visualizing what he's saying with our minds' eyes.

Samantha Morton delivers an unearthly performance as Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Morton portrays Mary which such sympathy, dignity, desperation, and regality, especially in how she faces her execution, that if I were Blanchett's agent, I'd have lobbied to have her cut from the movie. Morton gets the Best Supporting Actress Oscar if I have anything to say about it (and I don't.). Geoffrey Rush, meanwhile, is as reliable as ever but isn't given a whole lot to do besides skulk around the edges of scenes spying and then apologize twice, to his traitorous brother and to his Queen, for not being all the spy he could be.

It's not all good news for the acting though. Abbie Cornish as Bess, Elizabeth's ward and favorite maiden-in-waiting, doesn't fare too well with her attempts at an English accent. On the Costner Scale, Kevin Costner as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves being a 10, she's about a 7. It was also distracting how Bess, whom everyone in the court knows is the closest person to the Queen, is somehow able to wander around London unescorted whenever she wants, visiting pirate ships and the homes of her cousins, known Catholics and conspirators against the Queen. And maybe I'm mistaken, but part of the movie's R rating is for nudity. I believe we were promised some boobies. I'm looking at you, Cornish. (The bare ass of Blanchett's body double doesn't count.) 

The Golden Age ain't shy about its ambitions as full-fledged Oscar bait for Best Picture and Best Director, but it won't be getting either trophy. The performances carry the picture. The Golden Age is spottily edited, has some questionable and distracting camera work, and has an obnoxious score that in quieter moments works to practically sabotage the actors. Director Shekhar Kapur might as well have hopped in front of the camera periodically and waved, "Look at me, everyone!" And everyone would have yelled back, "You suck! You can't direct!" Still, one thing I can't fault Kapur for is that he really seems to love Queen Elizabeth I. The Golden Age is the second of his planned trilogy of Elizabeth movies. I suppose William Shakespeare will make an appearance in the third Elizabeth. That's cool with me as long as everyone loses Joseph Fiennes' phone number.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Kingdom (***)


October 1, 2007
"We'll kill them all."
Whatever Stephen Sommers is up to with his G.I. Joe feature film, The Kingdom has already beaten him to the punch. The Kingdom is basically a G.I. Joe movie set more like the original Marvel Comics written by Larry Hama in the 1980's: a small elite team of American specialists enter Saudi Arabia to investigate the destruction of the American compound and track down the terrorists responsible, who are Saudis and not Cobra. The plot descriptions of The Kingdom I've seen often state that Foxx's FBI team are sent to Saudi Arabia. This is inaccurate. Jamie Foxx actually goes renegade and inveigles his team's way into Saudi Arabia to investigate the bombing after being banned to do so by slimy U.S. Senator Danny Huston (always great in every role). Once in Saudi Arabia, Foxx's team is stonewalled left and right in their investigation by their Saudi handlers until they form a bond and understanding. From there Americans and Saudis work together to find the true culprits responsible for the bombings.
The Kingdom opens with the most entertaining opening credit sequence since the opening credits of David Fincher's Se7en, explaining the history from 1931-2001 of Saudi Arabia striking oil and the United States' becoming the largest oil consumer in the world. With the enemies being a Saudi terrorist cell, The Kingdom takes great pains to paint the Saudi characters in the movie as three dimensional people and not all evil, suicidal monsters. The Kingdom shows the simple things even terrorists have in common, like love for their families, separated into murderous intent by misguided ideology. The bond Foxx forms with his intitially hostile Saudi counterpart Faris Al Ghazi is touching, as is Foxx's relationship with his young son and his habit of visiting the sons of his dead partners. By the end, lessons are learned, people are changed, but the problems aren't solved, nor should they be. Critics have complained that The Kingdom simplifies or "dumbs down " the complex issues of terrorism in the Middle East. At the end of the day, The Kingdom is an action movie and first and foremost has to perform as one. It touches on the issues, raises questions, but must solve its story dilemmas with action and violence. By the end, The Kingdom convincingly argues "we'll kill them all" can't be the answer.
The action is depicted as realistic, although Foxx, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Bateman take on more superheroic action movie traits in the final 30 minutes. The Kingdom has probably the best use of Jennifer Garner I've yet seen in a movie. Playing on her five seasons as a secret agent on Alias and two comic book movies as Elektra, Garner survives a brutal fight scene that logically should have killed her and Bateman. To its credit, The Kingdom's characters are all very human. They bleed, they feel, they argue, they grow, change, and understand.
Fresh from portraying Tubbs in last year's Miami Vice, Foxx seems happy to be the center of attention without his erratic partner Crockett. Foxx relishes the command role and doesn't have to worry about any of his partners disappearing to Cuba for a sexy getaway with Gong Li. The Kingdom confirmed suspicions that Miami Vice would have been better if it were more about Tubbs than Crockett. Garner frowns a lot, provides gravitas and tank-top clad boobies, although as a coroner, it turns out she couldn't do her job since Muslims freak out if a woman touches Muslim corpses. But without Garner there, the movie couldn't highlight how fucked up Muslim attitudes are towards women. Bateman gamely gives comic relief and serves as the audience's window into the story ("What am I doing here? This place is scary. I better crack some jokes"). When Bateman is kidnapped by Muslim terrorists, I was reminded a similar thing already happened to him and Gob in Iraq during season 3 of Arrested Development. Chris Cooper is a calming presence amidst the chaos. But Ashraf Barhom as their minder and later partner, Col. Faris Al Ghazi, steals the whole show.
The Kingdom was like watching Friday Night Lights except with guns, terrorists, killing and explosions instead of football, right down to the ambient soundtrack by Danny Elfman perfectly mimicking W.G. "Snuffy" Warren and Explosions in the Sky's FNL scores. Worked for me. I love Friday Night Lights, I like Peter Berg, I like Jamie Foxx, I like Jennifer Garner, I like Chris Cooper, I like Jason Bateman, I like guns, killing, explosions, and action movies. Therefore, I loved The Kingdom. And I especially loved the cameos by Friday Night Lights's own Kyle Chandler and Minka Kelly. If there was a way to squeeze Connie Britton, Aimee Teegarden, and hell, the whole town of Dillon, Texas into The Kingdom, by God, Peter Berg should have done it.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Smallville = Action Comics

Smallville is a far better superhero TV series than Heroes. Smallville is a way more fun show to watch. They don't posture like they're more profound or original than they are. As far as I'm concerned, they have hotter chicks. More importantly, Smallville's characters have the advantage of being the established DC Comics heroes beloved by generations: Superman and his Superfriends.

For a second, just a second, I thought they were gonna kill Chloe. And for that second I was a little relieved because then I would have been done with Smallville for good. But no, she wakes up naked in a morgue. And I'm also glad because now's not the time to leave Smallville.

After hating this show for five seasons I rather enjoyed it in its sixth by embracing both its dumbness and its improvement with the addition of Green Arrow, Martian Manhunter, and the Justice League.

The best part of Smallville today is that they seem fully committed to turning the show into Action Comics. Smallville is much more now than the hoary "teen Superman growing up" concept they've beaten to death. Little by little over the years, and full-on in season 6, Smallville has become the DC Universe on television.

The roll call of the opening credits' main cast of characters this season is comic geek heaven:

guest starring

This show is now four very hot chicks surrounded by superheroes and supervillains. The Kents are gone, everyone is 21 or older, the pretenses that they are kids in school and must go to classes, etc. look ripe for permanent abandonment. If Clark somehow finally does the 180, stops being a selfish dumbass and begins acting like SUPERMAN, that will be the final piece of the puzzle missing. As Smallville turns into Action Comics: The Television Series, it's finally really finding itself. As series reinventions go, this is pretty fun. Still dumb, sure, but mostly fun.

Clark really needs to get on with learning how to fly. It's time he wore the tights and cape. It's time he really, finally becomes Superman. And stops being such a douche.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Resident Evil: Extinction (**)


September 25, 2007
Resident Evil: Extinction was a watchable bad movie. It was better than the second one so it has that in its favor. The first thing that annoyed me was that all of the trailers, TV spots and print ads sell this movie based on the Las Vegas setting but the Vegas sequence is only about ten minutes, fifteen tops.

There were all kinds of dumb logic gaps and plot holes that are typical of a Paul WS Anderson-written movie:

* The beginning where Milla Jovovich runs into the hillbilly family. It had nothing to do with the main story. We figured they were cannibals but instead they just capture people and feed them to zombie dogs. Why does the hillbilly family go through all the trouble of luring people to their town just to feed them to zombie dogs? Why do they even keep a kennel of zombie dogs? How do they get the zombie dogs back in their cages? It's not like zombie dogs take instruction or are trainable. It was a pretty stupid and unnecessary sequence. It doesn't establish Milla is a bad ass; we have two prior movies that told us that. And it didn't set up her new power of telekinesis, which came later. Stupid opener.

* The Umbrella board of directors threatening to take the antivirus project away from the crazy doctor. Why even threaten? If they have someone better at Umbrella who can do the job, why are they even wasting time with the crazy doctor? They don't even like him. The entire interplay of how the Umbrella corporation functions makes no sense. But then I suppose that's why those dumbasses got the entire human race infected and turned into zombies.

* Ali Larter (is hot) having doubts about the plan to take the caravan to Alaska. What was her backup plan? Keep driving around the desert and wait to be eaten? They already established that they had drained all the small towns dry of supplies. Yet the leader of the caravan needed to be convinced to take plan B, a chance at hope, instead of her current plan A of prolonging the inevitable death by zombie consumption.

* Las Vegas buried in sand. WHAT?! First of all, that could never happen in five years. Second, yes, Vegas is in the desert in Nevada, but it's a dry desert. It's not like the surrounding desert is dunes of sand like the Sahara or Tunisia. The explanation of "no one was here to keep the sand away" is retarded. No one in Las Vegas today "keeps the sand away." It makes no sense. Also, it doesn't seem like the filmmakers have ever been to Vegas. There were no casinos or buildings in between the Venetian all the way to the Stratosphere. And when the caravan parks they park in front of the Paris, send someone up the Eiffel Tower, but suddenly they're at the Venetian? Those casinos are at least a half mile apart.

* The scene that made me laugh out loud was when the crazy doctor injected a zombie with antivirus and restores a portion of his humanity temporarily. First, he hands him a cell phone. Zombie remembers how to use it. Then a digital camera. Oh sure, the zombie knows how that works. Point and click. After the zombie proves he can recognize complicated items, THEN he hands him the child's toy! "Circle... not fit in square? GRRAARRR! I'll kill you!"

I very quickly got tired of the lousy one-liners passing for dialogue:

"Sorry about this, Stevie."
"Maybe the desert took it back."
"Good thing we like a challenge."
"I wish I had a smoke."
And so forth. Most of the bad one-liners were delivered in Milla Jovovich's husky "I'm such a bad ass chick" voice. Obviously one doesn't attend Resident Evil movies to hear witty banter but it was still annoying.

There was other stuff I thought was stupid but I can't remember now. Still, though, the movie was all right.

Oh, so what the hell ever happened to Jill Valentine?

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum (****)


August 3, 2007

One word text message review of The Bourne Ultimatum as I left the theatre: "Wow!" 

The Bourne Ultimatum is a cinematic perpetual motion machine. The action and Matt Damon himself as Jason Boune are wound tightly then the tension builds and builds until the explosive release. Then a quick breather, a change of city (Moscow, Paris, London, Tangiers, Turin, New York City), and immediately back to more crazy ass action. When you travel the world with James Bond, you see the high class hotels, casinos, and hottest babes of the world's greatest cities. When Jason Bourne is your tour guide, you spend your time in streets, train stations, alleys and tunnels. The girls aren't nearly as hot but there is never, ever a dull moment. Mr. Bond can't make that promise.

Maybe it was during the hyper fight to the death with the Asset in Tangiers where Jason Bourne used a book as a weapon, jamming it into the Asset's throat before choking him to death in the bathroom shower with a hand towel. Or maybe it was when Bourne hot wired a car in the Port Authority parking lot and backed it at high speed off the roof to escape. Or maybe it was the literally smashing finale of the car chase in New York when Bourne's stolen police car rammed and flipped into the car of another Asset. No, it was definitely much earlier than that, in London, when Bourne was nearly as omniscient as Agatha in Minority Report as he helped a reporter for the Guardian evade capture in Waterloo station. That was when I sat back and marveled, "Holy shit, this is fantastic. I'm having an incredible time!"

Even Julia Stiles didn't harsh my Bourne movie buzz, though I didn't get what I've been clamoring for since the first movie: a bullet right through her flat face. (Why do I have it in for Julia Stiles, you ask? Sit through a movie called Down to You one day.) When Stiles tentatively dropped the revelation on Jason Bourne that they were more than just friends, back when he was a young, fresh-faced killer-to-be just signed onto the super-duper top secret and illegal Treadstone project, now renamed Blackbriar, I loved Bourne's lack of reaction. "You don't remember anything?" Stiles asks. No recognition from Bourne, nothing. ("Nope, sorry, not interested, don't care.")

Stiles is no Franka Portente, whose spectre hangs over Jason Bourne along with his quickly resurfacing memories of how he came to be the first and best of Treadstone's super assassins. Portente never should have been killed off at the start of the second Bourne (she's the first to agree) but to the filmmakers' credit, they've taken that boner and made the best of it, making Portente's death a driving force in Bourne's story. 

The Bourne Ultimatum is the top shelf of the new order of action films. Director Paul Greengrass delivered one of the best action films of the decade, the best of the three Bourne movies*, and one of the best films of the year. Greengrass took his epileptic shaky camera style and refined it. His camera doesn't shake quite as much as in The Bourne Supremacy and his direction is more confident and sure. There is no fat that needs to be trimmed, nothing extraneous or unnecessary. Storywise, this is the clearest, least confounding of the Bourne movies. But the Bourne identity lies foremost in its action and adrenaline rush and this is where Ultimatum shows its supremacy.

Finally, I love that all three Bourne movies end with Moby's "Extreme Ways", with Ultimatum's remix being more aggressive and in your face. While I'm perfectly happy with this Bourne trilogy and I don't think we need any more, if Greengrass and Damon some day decide they want another go, well then as Moby says in the song: 

I would stand in line for this. There's always room in life for this. 

August 4, 2007  

While I was getting my haircut this morning, I thought of Jason Bourne.  A curious thing about him:  For a man who spent three years on the run with the CIA trying to kill him at every turn, he manages to keep his buzzcut nice and trim. Johnny Unitas trim.  Bourne has a haircut you can set your watch by.  You'd think he'd get all shaggy and scraggly, but no.  Bourne prioritizes keeping his look clean and neat.  Maybe he has Flowbees hidden in his many safe deposit boxes all across Europe.

July 7, 2012

After numerous (you read that right, numerous) re-watchings of The Bourne Trilogy over the last five years, I've settled on the preference that my favorite and the best of the three is The Bourne Supremacy. That ending, man. When Jason Bourne breaks into that Russian girl's apartment and apologizes to her for killing her parents -- gets me every time.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Simpsons Movie (****)


Family Matters

Why is The Simpsons Movie exxxcellent? It marks the first time in the series' 18 year-plus history that the all-star team of ten writers assembled for The Simpsons Movie (whose "names you should memorize", chided Homer during the credits) successfully maintained a complete 90 minute narrative. (The longest continuous story in the series' history previously was the "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" two-parter in 1995. The Simpsons Movie was twice as long as that.) The Simpsons Movie's runaway box office success is a wonderful validation for the incredibly talented team of writers, producers, animators, and the voice talent lead by Dan Castelanetta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, etc. It couldn't happen to a better, more deserving group of people. (And they'd be the first to agree.)

More importantly, The Simpsons Movie is a loving tribute to the Simpson family. It's been many years since the Simpsons' family unit was itself the focal point of the story. Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie are here on the big screen in all their glory and lovable imperfections, and we're given the most caring and complete glimpse at all of their emotional cores since the early days of the series.

When Homer watches his wedding video and "Close to You" by The Carpenters plays, longtime fans remember it as Homer and Marge's song, going all the way back to when they were in high school. (The episode where Homer falls for Marge as a teenager remains one of the sweetest in the series' venerable history.) Bart's struggle to reconcile his growing attachment to Ned Flanders with his disappointment in Homer reminds us that while he should be 28 years old in real time, Bart is still a ten year old boy who needs his father. Lisa's awesome budding relationship with the Irish new kid in town, Colin, brings back memories of her failed past relationships with Nelson Muntz and Ralph Wiggum, as well as her doomed future relationship with Hugh Parkfield. Lisa's subplot of meeting a boy who likes her (who isn't Milhouse) might be the best in the entire movie. And Maggie probably is the best accident of the three Simpson children if you count how many times she's saved her father's life.

It is regrettable that in order to protect the main narrative and keep the focus on the Simpson family, some of the very best of the show's unbeatable supporting cast didn't get to have their moment. Just about everyone who has ever lived in Springfield got to have some face time, but in terms of speaking roles, the Springfield Elementary cast got shafted. Principal Skinner never said a word, nor did Superintendant Chalmers or Groundskeeper Willie. No Rainier Wolfcastle, but that is understandable considering the presence of President Schwarzenegger. No Sideshow Bob at all! (Maybe in the sequel, if they listen to Maggie's first word, and judging from the opening weekend box office, it's assured.) It's a shame Mr. Burns only got two quick scenes and Smithers never said anything. 

On the other hand, Chief Wiggum and Ralph Wiggum did extremely well for themselves and Ralph probably has the best line in the entire movie. Moe, Lenny, and Carl got some business, and Krusty had some great lines. Nelson set the record for "Ha ha!"s guffawed, while Martin finally took revenge for 18 years of bullying from Jimbo, Kearny and Dolph, as well as learning a valuable lesson for why a bully bullies at all. I wish the movie were longer and they could have given everyone some business, but then there's always the show itself. 

The Simpsons Movie is for everyone. For us, the die hards who've grown up with the show (two decades, almost, and counting!) and for anyone who's ever laughed out loud at any of its past 400 episodes (and counting!). Watching The Simpsons Movie was pure joy, the movie itself a magnficent balance of the show's irreverent humor and ability to tug at the heartstrings with genuinely sweet and tender moments. It's safe to say you'll never forget the sight of naked Bart's doodle as he skateboards through Springfield, or Homer giving everyone double middle fingers, or Marge yelling "Throw the goddamn bomb!" 

The moments I loved included Homer still calling Jesus "Jebus", Bart calling Flanders "sister" and his "Oh my God!" when he drank Flanders' cocoa, the writing on the pig crap silo ("Return to Homer Simpson. (No Reward)"), Tom Hanks loaning the government his credibility, Colin insisting his father isn't Bono, Milhouse's line "Global warming is a myth! More study is needed!" before taking a Nelson punch to the gut, Bart drunk on whiskey ("I'm troubled"), the looks on the animals' faces when they watched Homer and Marge rock the casbah, the EPA drivers bemoaning Homer's misspelled road signs (SOP), and Homer's line to Spider-Pig, "Maybe we should kiss to break the tension."

For me, the callback of all callbacks was near the end of movie, after Bart and Homer jump Springfield Gorge on a motorcycle: There's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of an ambulance crashed into a tree. It's a simple callback, not drawing attention to itself but there for those with quick eyes and long memories. In season 2, "Bart the Daredevil" 17 years ago(!), Bart tried to jump Springfield Gorge on a skateboard and Homer saved his son's life by inadvertantly taking his place. Homer missed the jump and hilarously crashed down the mountainside. Then in a stroke of comedy genius, he is airlifted into a waiting ambulance that crashes into a tree immediately. Homer's gurney rolls out of the ambulance and he falls right back down the mountain. 

It was the breakthrough moment of the series to date, the bit people were talking about at the watercooler the next day. That segment was the series' first classic comedy moment. And in The Simpsons Movie, when Bart and Homer together make the jump Homer failed to complete way back when, we see that the ambulance is still there. That was a great little treat for the longtime fans, those of us who've been there since the beginning, who remember. Moments like that are why I love the show and why I love The Simpsons Movie.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

July 26, 2007
I'm not planning on spoiling a thing for anyone still reading, about to read, or just waiting for the movie.
My copy arrived from Amazon Saturday morning. It was waiting for me when I woke up. I don't have a secretary or appointments, but if I did, I'd have told her to cancel all my appointments and sent Pam home. I had some reading to do. Now, I'm notoriously not a fast reader, I usually take my sweet time and can take weeks to finish a book, but by Sunday night, I'd read 690 pages, including the pivotal reveals that not just this book but the events of the whole series hinged upon. (And I was happy at how I right my guesses were, made two years ago in a head to head with Rob.)
Only 69 pages left. The most important 69 pages of the saga. The big finish. I put the book down Sunday night. Waited three days and finally dived back in.
Having concluded the saga of Harry Potter, it's taking effort to wipe the smile from my face. The ending is everything it needed to be. It's wonderful.
Honestly, for much of the first half of the book, I wasn't digging it. I was impatient and growing annoyed with J.K. Rowling's storytelling choices. What I expected to see happen as set up in Half-Blood Prince wasn't what she was giving us. The answers I was looking for weren't there. I felt strung along, even bamboozled. I began to wonder if I was going to be betrayed. I still feel there are flaws and problems, but then how could there not be? One person was crafting an intricately complex web, tying together myriad characters and events. Human error was to be expected. But did Rowling know what she was doing? Did she know where she was taking us? Did she still have the magic?
Yes. She was just warming up.
I said to someone recently in defense of the Harry Potter films that I prefer Harry in the movies as played by Daniel Radcliffe to the Harry in the novels as written by Rowling. I always felt the movie Harry was less whiny, more heroic, a superior portrayal. I went onto to say that I couldn't give a fuck if the Harry in the book died but I'd be ripshit if the Harry in the movie died.
Rowling astounded me. In my mind's eye, she gradually and deftly in the course of Deathly Hallows merged her Harry with the Harry in the movie so by the end the end, Harry was the best of both mediums. The Harry I enjoyed watching in the movies was the Harry at the end of the book facing Voldemort for the last time (that's not a spoiler.)
And then she laid all the cards on the table. All the mysteries solved. All the answers revealed. She had to deliver and she delivered. She delivered it all.
Now that it's over, I'm satisfied. Totally satisfied. Like I just ate a great meal. I was told a great, epic story and it was worth the years and thousands of pages read and re-read. It's not the greatest story ever told, or the most original, or one that will shape the rest of my life in any way. It was simply excellent. Most importantly, like every great story must, it had a great ending worthy of what came before.
Harry Potter is over, but the best part is, it still isn't. Two more movies to go, and I can't wait to see the Deathly Hallows movie. I can't wait to see those actors play these parts, to see the battles brought to life and the answers to all the questions dramatized, to see the end of the circle on the silver screen. Lots of the book will likely have to be excised, nothing new there, but the parts that matter, the sequences that beg to be filmed, will have to be there. I can't wait to see that finish play out.
I'm happy. "All is well."

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Sunshine (***)


You're Not The Only One Staring At The Sun, Afraid Of What You'll Find

I like starships and phasers and Klingons and Jedi and giant transforming robots more than the next guy, but sometimes I crave a story set in space where none of the humans wear colored pajamas and swing lightsabers to fight aliens with bumpy foreheads. Every now and then, I get my wish.

With Sunshine, Danny Boyle's first foray into science fiction, he broke the pattern of my liking every other one of his pictures. His previous film, Millions, is one of my favorites, and now with Sunshine, he's two in a row with me, delivering one of the better sci-fi films I've seen in recent years.  

Sunshine is not a space opera like 2001 or a metaphysical think piece like Solaris, but contains elements of both as well as Alien and 28 Days Later. It's a great story written by Alex Garland, with interesting characters, an intriguing premise, terrific music by John Murphy and Underworld, ideas both big and small, and a bravura visual style. Sunshine overreaches a bit in its third act and adds an element of horror that seems to be at odds with what had come before, but the foundation for it was sufficiently laid out and it's used as a vehicle to portray the light and the darkness of the spiritual element of the story.

Fifty years from now, the sun is dying. Earth is caught in a solar winter. The human race is on the verge of extinction. An international assemblage of eight scientists on board the Icarus II spend years in space hoping to deliver a payload that will detonate into the sun and cause a new star to be born inside the dying one. Imagine spending years in space with the same seven people, hoping against expectations that your mission can possibly succeed when there are no guarantees it would. Meanwhile, the specter of the previous Icarus mission, which failed and was never heard from again, hangs over our astronauts. 

Sunshine is not a live action cartoon like Armageddon. Boyle and Garland have far more realistic ideas about how such a desperate mission of traveling millions of miles to re-ignite the sun would turn out. Sunshine presents an overwhelming problem to the survival of the human race and makes it damned clear that Bruce Willis isn't here to make you feel good about it.  I almost wished one of the characters was shown watching a DVD or whatever they'll use in 50 years of Armageddon, so they'd feel even worse about how screwed they are. The harsh reality of Sunshine was the polar opposite of funny Owen Wilson and Steve Buschemi in cracking wise in space and Ben Affleck playing with animal crackers on Liv Tyler's stomach while Aerosmith blasts the soundtrack. 

The crew of Icarus II, played by an excellent cast lead by Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis and Michelle Yeoh, are not necessarily the best of the best with the Right Stuff. They're all intelligent but flawed people who are presented with a series of obstacles where they are forced to make difficult choices that inevitably result in death and tragedy. Their performances are all layered and effective, but the standout here is Chris Evans as Mace, the ship's hotheaded engineer. As the Human Torch, Evans was one of the few bright spots of the Fantastic Four movies but in Sunshine, he shows he's a better actor than he's been allowed to be in his rotten comic book movie franchise. Evans exhibits genuine leading man qualities. If they'd just listened to Chris Evans, things might have gone better for the Icarus II. But they didn't.

In the course of the choices the Icarus II 's crew makes and the events that happen to them, they gradually discover an unforeseen element that is sabotaging their mission and trying to kill them, which directly relates to what happened to the crew on board the Icarus I . When the villain is revealed, the horror element introduced is jarring and seems out of place, but I understood why this choice was made and I liked it the more I contemplated it. 

The spiritual element and questions raised are intriguing. The sun dying becomes an allegory for whether God has decided that Man must die. By using our science and attempting to re-ignite it, can Man defy God? In the face of the sun's overwhelming heat and light, can Man see God's face and touch Him? 

Sunshine is exactly the kind of "hard" science fiction film I like. It's smart and stylish, it makes you think and makes you feel, and it's bleak . Sunshine holds you at bay, then creeps under your skin and fills you with awe and dread. It's flawed and sometimes difficult but Sunshine's the hot shit.