Find Me At Screen Rant

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Wrestler (****)

A couple of my favorite moments in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler – one of the best films of 2008 and the greatest pro wrestling film ever made - involve the kids who live next door to Randy "The Ram" Robinson's trailer. When he's woken up from sleeping in his Dodge Ram, Randy bursts out of the back door and “wrestles” the kids, giving one a chokeslam on the ground. Later, he invites another kid over to play Wrestle Jam on his 8 bit Nintendo. While the kid complains about how ancient the game is and baffles Randy about Call of Duty 4, Randy beats the kid in the game and invites him to a rematch. It's a perfect little moment if you understand pro wrestling: Randy beat the kid in the first match and he wanted the kid to win the rematch. The kid put him over, now he'll put the kid over. That's pro wrestling.

If Randy “The Ram” Robinson were real, I'd have seen him wrestle live probably dozens of times. As it was, I actually struggled not to call the action during the matches in the film. To the chagrin of anyone who's ever sat in the row in front of us at a wrestling show, my friends and I love to provide funny (we think) color commentary, usually quoting Gorilla Monsoon, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, Jim Ross, Jerry “The King” Lawler, and Vince McMahon when he was “just an announcer” in the 80's. The Ram's dive over the top rope onto the Ayatollah deserved a McMahon-esque “Whatamaneuver!” When the Ram stuffed the Necro Butcher into a garbage can before hitting him with some guy's fake leg (which really happened in a Shawn Michaels vs. Diesel match on pay per view in 1996), it would have been a perfect time for a Monsoon-esque “That piece of garbage!” And in the final moments of the movie when the Ram's weak heart was giving out on him, but he still climbed the top rope (“Quick as a cat!”, I did joke) to deliver his Ram Jam finisher, Vince McMahon might have been heard to worriedly exclaim, “Let it be over! Let it be over!”

The Wrestler blatantly exposes the pro wrestling business. It's not the first movie to do so as exposes about professional wrestling have become commonplace since the late-1990's. To its credit, The Wrestler depicts professional wrestling with verisimilitude, especially on the level of weekend independent wrestling shows run out of high school gyms and VFW halls. It's all there, just how it really is: The audience made up mostly of grungy men, the occasional hot-looking girls, and the …how you say… retards. (With some exceptions, ahem ). The seedy-looking promoters with questionable grasps of grammar (“Two words: Re. Match.”) The backstage areas, usually classrooms or VFW lounges, populated by hulking dudes in spandex possessed of various levels of talent, most of whom will never make it to McMahon's WWE. These are, in wrestling vernacular, “the boys”. The boys have camaraderie unique in any walk of life, involving them privately deciding how they plan to make it look like they're hurting each other while doing their best not to hurt each other before they “go home” and perform the predetermined finish of their match.

The use of real-life magazines like Pro Wrestling Illustrated in the opening credit montage detailing Randy “The Ram” Robinson's main event-level career in the 1980's was appreciated. We are also shown in great detail how to create a razor blade, how it's hidden, and when it gets used in a match by a wrestler to cut himself (“draw color”). That moment reminded me of when Quentin Tarantino showed step by step how to freebase heroin in Pulp Fiction. Kids, don't try this at home.

Apparently, Vince McMahon screened The Wrestler privately and was said to have “hated” it. It would have surprised me more if he didn't. The story of this broken down old wrestler with a shattered family life who will wrestle until it literally kills him is not how McMahon wants his business seen by the general public. The Wrestler clashes with WWE's image of perfect, muscled physiques; men and women in their physical prime who entertain thousands of adoring fans, accompanied by state of the art lights, music, video and pyrotechnics. And yet every one backstage in WWE knows someone, or is actually related to someone, similar to Randy “The Ram” Robinson. It's a cautionary tale any professional wrestler has heard of from the “old-timers” or seen with their own eyes.

Something else McMahon might not be too crazy about is how, in the relationship between Randy “The Ram” and Marisa Tomei's stripper, The Wrestler cannily equates professional wrestling with strip clubs. The two businesses do have a number of qualities in common: In both professions, the performers use fake names and guard their true lives from their fans/clients. (There is a clever reversal where Randy, who despises his real name Robin Ramzinski, spends his waking life always trying to be Randy “The Ram” while Tomei's dream is to stop being “Cassidy” the stripper and just be Pam, full-time mom to her 9 year old son.) The Wrestler depicts the many cosmetic duties of a pro wrestler, from streaking his hair, to shaving his upper body hairless, to tanning. Wrestlers have to sell their “look” just as much as a stripper would, and sex appeal does play a large role in wrestling.

Indeed, both professions are about physically offering audience gratification, both professions tend to (with exceptions, ahem ) attract the less-desirable types in our society, and both professions are not looked upon favorably by polite society. ( The Wrestler provides a mouth piece for those who look down upon pro wrestling in Randy's boss at the grocery store, who calls his weekend passion “sitting on other guys' faces.” Meanwhile, Randy catches him watching porn on his work laptop.) McMahon presents his WWE as entertainment for the whole family the equal of anything Hollywood has to offer, but no matter how glossy WWE is (and to be clear, I love WWE) they can't escape the grimy and unfortunate aspects of their business.

There is humor in The Wrestler, such as the scene where Randy (scowling because his nametag says Robin) enjoys himself working at the supermarket deli counter, calling his ugly and old customers “good lookin'” and “spring chicken”. There is a nice laugh when Randy gives Pam a Randy “The Ram” collectors item action figure "worth $300". (“Really?” “No.”) Anyone familiar with the predilection wrestlers have of wearing T-shirts with their own names and logo on them was amused when Randy picked out a shirt for his daughter and thought she'd love it because it has an S on it. (“The S stands for Stephanie!”) I appreciated Randy's love of 80's hair metal and his loathing of “that pussy Cobain ” and the 1990's. I thought it was funny how much the Ayatollah broke "kayfabe" during the last match in the film, showing his genuine concern for his "hated" opponent. I also loved the “shopping for the hardcore match” scene where Randy and one of his co-workers hit a supermarket and look for “plunder” to use in their match.

The hardcore match itself was not funny. It was bloody and brutal, although the exchange backstage about using staple guns and mouse traps in the match was amusing. I was surprised by the gasps and shock in the theater during the hardcore match, until I remembered most people in the audience are not wrestling fans. To me, guys wrapping each other in barbed wire, getting thrown through tables, and stumbling to locker room with thumbtacks stuck to their back and ass is old hat.

I see now I've written well over 1,200 words and not mentioned Mickey Rourke by name. Rourke is incredible; delivering the year's most worthy Best Actor Academy Award performance. From years of real-life hard living, Rourke does look like a broken down professional wrestler. He amazingly performs a great deal of his own stunts in the wrestling match scenes. Most importantly, Rourke creates Randy “The Ram” Robinson from the inside-out. His attempts to reunite with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) lead to the most raw, moving moment of the film when Randy called himself “an old broken down piece of meat” and asked his daughter not to hate him. (If only Stephanie would have listened to the really good explanation as to why he missed their planned dinner date before she evicted him from her life: he met a skank in a bar, did some blow, fucked her in a rest room, and woke up in her bed surrounded by posters of firemen. It could happen to anybody!)

Rourke's Wrestler is a heartbreaking performance of a suffering man desperate for love and acceptance who defeats himself in every aspect of life except when he's in the ring wrestling in front of a couple of hundred people chanting his name.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Gran Torino (***)


The strangest movie I've seen this year. In its own way, the funniest movie since Borat. Gleefully racist; in between scowls and growls, Cliint Eastwood somehow gets away with firing off every insult in the book to just about every race and creed, with special attention paid to Asians. And judging from the applause at the end, we love Clint for it. About halfway through it turns into a bizarre race/reversal of Karate Kid when Clint takes the Asian boy next door under his wing and makes him do all the odd jobs Miyagi made Daniel do, plus a bunch more Miyagi never thought of. Finally, Gran Torino dives into the crazy old man revenge fantasy it purports itself to be, then it pulls the rug out from under us. Such a weird movie, but still really satisfying.

Revolutionary Road (**1/2)


Revolutionary Road postulates an alternate reality where Jack and Rose didn't meet on the Titanic but instead got married and moved to the suburbs of New York in the 1950s. Except Jack kept calling Rose "April" and Rose kept calling Jack "Frank." Revolutionary Road is seriously damaged by the existence of Mad Men, which is a more subtle, layered take on many of the same themes of the lies, hopelessness and emptiness behind the American Dream of love and marriage in the 1950's. DiCaprio's character sometimes even alternates between behaving like both Don Draper and Pete Campbell. Kate and Leo have scenes together where they're really excellent, and then there other moments where Sam Mendes directs them up to the edge of shrill histronics, then lets them dive right over without a net. (Leo busts out the Harrison Ford Finger of Doom more than once.) There are intriguing issues regarding marriage, compromise, happiness, manliness, and the 1950's cultural image of what a perfect life should be vs. the pursuit of an ideal life free of culturally-determined burden and responsibility. There's also an interesting exploration on why married people have affairs. Some of the arguments and emotional blackmail between Kate and Leo become so uncomfortable, the audience's reaction becomes laughter just as a release to the tension. While the performances are generally terrific from the leads and the issues are intriguing, the movie doesn't end when it should and goes on ten minutes too long, filling in details that just weren't necessary. There is a built-in laugh where Kate and Leo plan to go to Paris and decide to go there by steamship. It probably would have been better for them to go out that way than remain on the sinking ship of their marriage.

Doubt (***1/2)


The few years I spent in Catholic school growing up instilled in me a healthy ...what's the word?... fear of nuns. Priests? Priests were cool (save the jokes, folks) but nuns, not so much. Nuns were the ballbreakers of the Catholic schools. As nuns from Hell go, Meryl Streep plays a doozy. And though Doubt is set in 1964, the story could have been ripped from the 6 o'clock news of just a few years ago, when sordid tales of priests tickling young boys' balls and not busting them like the nuns were rampant. Caught in the middle of the war of uncertain conviction between Sister Streep and Father Phillip Seymour Hoffman is Amy Adams, a sweet-hearted young nun in Streep's Catholic school. Perhaps the great tragedy in Doubt is how Streep's intolerant hard-assedness creeps into Adams's soul and she gets pulled more and more towards Streep's methodology. Doubt gets the details just right of Catholic school and being an altar boy. It all looked very familar to what I remember growing up. The acting is superb, though the writing and blocking is very stagey and the camera angles strangely tilt so that Doubt looks like the old 60's Batman TV show.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (****)


Natalie Smyka, star of Across the Hall, hails The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as the best film of 2008. I share her enthusiasm and I'd say it's right up there. Benjamin Button is a sweeping, ambitious film of stunning scope and depth of feeling. Far from being what I joked would be a remake of the last season of Mork and Mindy, with Brad Pitt standing in for Jonathan Winters, Benjamin Button told an unforgettable story of a boy born old and growing younger and the extraordinary life he lead from 1919 to 2003. The special effects are so seemless, the illusion of Brad Pitt growing young is completely persuasive. I found Benjamin's early years as a young/old man much more more interesting than his later years as an old/young man, though the ladies might disagree, after having to wait close to two hours to finally see Brad Pitt all handsome and strapping. Me, I liked the shriveled up, hobbled Brad Pitt who went to his first brothel at 14 but looking like he was 74. I was also more fascinated and moved by his relationships with his adoptive mother and birth father than his love affair with Cate Blanchett. And though the film loses a bit of steam in its last act and glosses over what would be annoying details regarding Julia Ormond's character, it can be forgiven. Benjamin Button is groundbreaking, epic film making. Not without its flaws, but quite grand.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Valkyrie (***)

“The last time I saw Hitler, we had dinner and laughed about it.” – Abe Simpson

The end titles of Valkyrie inform us that numerous attempts were made by conspirators in the Nazi High Command to assassinate the Fuhrer. The plot lead by Tom Cruise apparently came closest to achieving that goal. Since history records… hold on, let me look this up… the Allies won World War II (I'll be damned!), Valkyrie by its very conception immediately places itself in a situation where we march towards an inevitable conclusion where the protagonists can't possibly succeed. This different from something like Titanic; we all know the boat sinks but we didn't know if Kate and Leo would get off the boat together. In Valkyrie, there was no doubt that A) Cruise and his friends would fail and B) since this is Nazi Germany, their Nazi hearts would not go on.

Tom Cruise delivers a performance quite unlike anything he's done in the past. Donning an eye patch to cover his missing left eye, lacking a right hand and two of the fingers on his left, Cruise is a stiff-upper-lipped powder keg that never quite goes off until the end, when his one good eye is staring at the business end of Nazi rifles. Cruise never once flashes his trademark grin. He delivers his dialogue in rasps and whispers. His one moment of levity was how he recruited Eddie Izzard to the Kill Hitler Cause by dropping his fake eye in Izzard's drink.

Cruise becomes the leader of a secret cabal of the some of the finest actors in movies today, including Terence Stamp, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, and Tom Wilkerson; all tightly-wound in their Nazi best. They're the Justice League of Germany, banded together to bring down the greatest super villain of the 20th century. Valkyrie is effective in showing that these were flawed, frightened men trying to do what they thought was right. Some of them saw the removal of the Fuhrer as an opportunity to ascend to power, others were simply trying to do what was best for the Fatherland. There's an amusing line during one of their many secret back-room arguments about how badly their plot was going; that the Allies would hardly be inclined to negotiate with them if they're already in Berlin before they got their act together. Whatever their intentions were, these men were simply not up to the task they set out for themselves, nor did it seem like they could have stabilized Germany if they had succeeded in killing their Fuhrer.

The plot itself was a crackerjack, fiendishly clever in its intricacies. Step one, the actual Kill Hitler part, involved low-tech explosives in leather satchels and basically hanging out with Hitler in his bunker. Step two was infinitely more complicated. This required Cruise and company to take control of High Command, bluffing everyone who runs panicked into their office, while tricking the SS into performing the coup and controlling the army for them.

Valkyrie's last half hour was its best, as Cruise personally dropped da bomb on Hitler and flew back to Germany to assume control of the country. Except Cruise blew it. He didn't get the job done, all the while behaving in the most suspicious manner possible. His folly becomes more exponentially more pitiful (“I saw the blast!”) when it becomes clear Hitler was barely harmed by the explosion. Then the SS figures out they were being played and the jig was up. Cruise and the Justice League watch powerlessly as all their lofty, well-meaningness comes crashing down on their heads. If Peter Sellers were alive, no doubt he would taken the same material in Valkyrie and come up with a hilarious satire. As such, Valkyrie was a comedy of errors without any comedy

Hitler himself (David Bamber) was a disappointment. If there's one bit of praise one can give Adolph Hitler, it's that he was charismatic. This is a man who gave rousing speeches that inflamed the hearts and minds of Germany to follow him in a racist, genocidal quest for world domination. You'd never know it from the way Hitler was portrayed in Valkyrie, as a withering old mope brushing the bangs from his forehead. Sure, things were going badly for him by 1944 and Hitler likely would have lacked the verve of a decade prior, but the opportunity was missed entirely to showcase why Hitler was the Fuhrer. At the end of Valkyrie, Hitler delivers one of his famed radio addresses to reassure Germany that he was alive and the plot to kill him failed. Instead of being inflamed in rage and righteousness, he sounded like grossvater offering every Nazi a piece of Werther's Caramels.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Tale of Despereaux (*1/2)


This review isn't in the Christmas spirit but Tale of Despereaux blew. I have a standing rule that I don't see any animated movies that aren't from Pixar. Broke the rule because my niece wanted to see this. Sometimes rules are made to be broken, but that rule exists for a good reason. Shoddy, awful script that needed a serious rewrite and doctoring; no way that script should have gone into production. Not a single character said anything interesting or clever and there was no one to root for. The main character Desperaux is an underwritten collection of dull cliches, and the rest of the characters were even less developed. The storytelling is as full of holes as the cheese the mice eat. Gloomy and cheap-looking animation compared to Pixar. There was no humor or joy. The mice and rats can speak but the movie plays fast and loose with when people can hear the rodents and when they can't. There's a theme involving cooking soup that Ratatouille did far better. Even the voice acting sounded trite, especially the narration by Sigourney Weaver, which at times entered Mohinder on Heroes territory for insipidness. Unless you're 6 years old, this movie sucked.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Frost/Nixon (****)


Celebrated former sitcom voiceover narrator and occasional guest star on The Simpsons Ron Howard outdid himself with Frost/Nixon. I'm just goofing on Ron, but what a great reminder of how formidable a director he can be. The 1970's setting in Frost/Nixon is persuasive and the performances in the key roles by Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are two of the finest of the year. Especially Langella, who creates a tormented, fascinating, sympathetic portrait of Nixon. The interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon play like a devastating prize fight. The war of words and unlikely triumph by the underdog over the tenured, superior champion is in its own way as thrilling as a Rocky movie. We see an awkward, uncomfortable, but defiant Nixon ultimately, painfully humbled by the unlikeliest of giant-slayers. I loved how Langella's Nixon spends the whole movie mindfucking Frost, who maintains a bizarre obliviousness that ultimately benefited him. Meanwhile, Nixon is so embroiled in his guilt and self loathing that despite running rings around Frost, he provides Frost with the means to glean that historic confession out of him. (The pivotal, entirely-fabricated scene where an inebriated Nixon calls Frost and lays his soul bare was the one moment I couldn't fully buy into, though the acting is killer and cemented the similarities Nixon saw between him and Frost.) There's a brilliant runner throughout the movie about Frost's "too effeminite" Italian loafers that ends with a terrific payoff. It was also fun to see Kevin Bacon, who said in JFK "Nixon was gonna be one of the great Presidents of this country before Kennedy fucked it all up!", get to play the Waylon Smithers role to Langella's Nixon. If Josh Brolin is worthy of an Oscar nomination for W., then so is Langella. Between George W. Bush and Richard M. Nixon, I vote Nixon by a landslide.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Ruins (**1/2)


It's rare I like a gimmicky dead teenager movie but I like this one. Better than the similar Turistas; not a bad concept with supernaturally evil foliage protecting a Mayan temple from intrusive ...turistas. The four Americans and the German they followed to the ruins were above average in their behavior and relative intelligence level usually found in movies like these. Once one gets over wondering what Jena Malone is doing in this movie, it turns out the acting was also above average. I liked the kid who was studying to be the doctor incredulously stating, "Stuff like this doesn't happen to Americans on vacation!" Standout was Laura Ramsey, who I just saw seduce Don Draper in season 2 of Mad Men the other day, so it was great to see her here. The Ruins is quite all right.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Punisher: War Zone (*1/2)


At a rating of one and a half stars, the best Punisher movie ever made. There was one gag I liked: a bunch of parkour gangsters were flippy-flopping across a rooftop, and then the one in the middle gets exploded by an RPG rocket. That was fun, cheered me up for a second. War Zone is violent, yes, but it goes for the Tom and Jerry level of violence. In this movie, the Punisher can punch his fist right through a man's face. Every male character and one female cop is shot, exploded, impaled, amputated, deformed, with as much blood splurting out as the budget would allow. I'd love to see squib budget for this picture. Ray Stevenson steps in for pouty Tom Jane as ol' Killy McSkull Chest. Stevenson was awesome as Titus Pullo in Rome, but here he has nothing to play. A few dumb one liners aside, he mostly has to be stoic and shoot people. By saying next to nothing and squeezing triggers on some big, fake looking guns, Stevenson manages to out-act everyone else. The rest of the cast decided to compete in the Bad Acting Triathlon and the Iron Man is Dominic West as preening peacock turned ugly mug Jigsaw. Holy shit, was West terrible, swaggering around in a grating Italian New Yawk accent. Getting two fine actors from Rome and The Wire together in the same movie and making them perform at the caliber of 13 year olds playing the Marvel Superheroes Role-Playing Game was a mean feat. Numerous scenes and moments are outright stolen from other superhero movies; primarily Batman (1989), including the famous "the mirror!" scene when the Joker removes his bandages. Jigsaw's clothes and demeanor are textbook Harvey Two-Face from Batman Forever. They even swiped "The World Is Yours!" from Scarface. The simple and depressing origin of The Punisher is of course touched on: Frank Castle sees his family brutally murdered during a picnic in a park for witnessing a mob hit. Castle goes insane, yet comes up with a wildly marketable skull design to wear on his chest, decides to call himself The Punisher, and declares war on the New York mob and other bad people. That's it. Apparently, this story is so powerful and important it was worth adapting three separate times into three unrelated motion pictures. (Except it really isn't.) War Zone more or less stays close to the details of the comic book; the 2004 Tom Jane starrer changed the details and moved the battleground from New York to Tampa. War Zone disavows its predecessors the same way The Incredible Hulk did the 2004 Hulk directed by Ang Lee. One doesn't need to see any prior Punisher movie to see War Zone. Also, eliminate every word after "see" and before "war" in the previous sentence.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Twilight (**1/2)

Looking Good Enough to Eat

Twilight could have used a little bit of levity. The story of a pretty, sullen teenage girl falling in love with a shiny (in the sunlight) broody vampire doesn't have to be so gloomy. Case in point is when Edward Cullen brought Bella Swan home to meet his vampire family. Hosting their first human guest ever, the vampires went all out and cooked up what looked like a really delicious Italian feast. (Me: Oooh, is that pancetta? I love pancetta) Watching vampires dance around the kitchen like Giada Di Laurentiis was kind of fun. It could have turned into a delightful dinner party: a bunch of vampires who don't eat human food sitting around the table watching the human girl eat. Even better if they all made awkward jokes about eating humans. But no, Bella killed all the fun that could have been had by saying she ate beforehand, ruining the dinner party for everyone. 

Twilight's first half hour where Bella moves from Phoenix to rainy, glum but beautiful Forks, Washington was pretty slow. Bella takes her sweet time discovering what every single person in the audience knows going in - that the mysterious Edward Cullen and his pale gothy flock are the unholy undead. Nosferatu. Das vampyres. Once she finds out though, and this is after Edward saves her from being squished by a truck and gang raped by a bunch of drunk assholes, all the while confounding her with his wild mood swings, she's refreshingly all for it. Bella and Edward are a good match for each other. They're both pale, attractively angular, self-centered, and kind of dull.

To her credit, Bella asked a lot of questions about Edward, his origins, his powers and the sordid details of Twilight's version of vampires. We learn that Edward is 114 years old, super fast and strong, doesn't sleep, claims to read minds, and likes to spend more time in trees than Tarzan or the Viet Cong. Also, his vampire clan enjoys playing baseball during thunderstorms. The Cullens actually seem like pretty cool cats once you get past their douchey gothness and blank stares. They live in a posh glass house but it seems like none of them throw stones. That the Cullen brood spend their eternal lives in a living hell of going to high school is an intriguing idea touched upon but not explored. 

Twilight is surprisingly chaste. Some kissing, just a little neck nuzzling, but no wham, bam, thank you, Dracula. Vampires are usually hardcore about getting in the ladies's knickers as well as their necks, but not Edward, who has self-control issues regarding blood sucking. The Bella and Edward love affair seemed rather subdued. Despite Bella's occasional voice-over declarations of eternal love for Edward, their relationship wasn't quite the bubbling cauldron of romantic intensity it ought to have played as.

I sure don't blame Bella for falling in with the bloodsuckers. Author Stephenie Meyer (whose cameo in the diner was a 7.5 on the Stan Lee scale) gave Bella the following choices for friends: the vampires, Native Americans descended from wolves, or a gay Asian kid, two whiny chicks, and a doofy faux jock. Hanging out with the monsters breathing men would kill was clearly the best choice for a girl looking for some excitement in the sopping wet town of Forks. I liked the squinty glares the Native Americans and the vampires traded whenever they ran into each other.

Unfortunately, any time Bella walked against the wind riled up the hungry and the horny of the vampires. This lead to a tacked on subplot about evil vampire serial killers who suddenly wanted to make a meal of Edward's human girlfriend. The plot holes came fast and furious as the Cullens decided to split up to protect Bella. Some of Cullens drove Bella back to sunny Phoenix (long drive seems to take moments) while Edward lead the others on a decoy mission. Bella somehow gets away from her Cullen bodyguards when the evil vampire called her while holding her mother hostage, although he apparently didn't have her at all. Then Edward Cullen inexplicably appeared out of nowhere to save Bella with vampire violence before the other Cullens suddenly came on the scene. This was Heroes-level lack of attention to details and logistics. The explanation to Bella's parents of how she wound up in the hospital in Phoenix with a broken leg, cuts and bloody bitemarks makes even less sense.

Considering there were 7 Cullen vampires the whole time, their splitting up made no sense. The Cullens could have just stuck together and killed their enemy. They still could have worked in Edward fighting the evil vampire mano e mano. Also, these Twilight vampires sure fight gay. A lot of grabbing, holding, gaping mouths and flicking tongues. I did like the hottest of the Cullen girls, the little dark-haired one with clairvoyance, jump-straddling the bad guy and snapping his neck. I also thought the Cullens dismembering the villain and dancing around his bonfire of death was pretty neat.

The moral dilemma in Twilight revolves around Edward's self-esteem issues as a vampire, which are in direct conflict with Bella's breathless desire to vamp it up. It's an interesting spin. Edward is steadfastly against Bella becoming "a monster" like him but Bella doesn't care; she wants it all, the even-paler skin, the permanent glitter in the sunlight, and the power to climb trees with superspeed by herself. Edward says no and for once, the vampire is the one with his head on straight. The vampire's making a lot of sense. Either way, they're screwed, because Bella seems like the kind of chick who'll find a way to get what she wants eventually. Meanwhile, Bella's underwritten parents are completely in the dark about their daughter practically having vampire in-laws. I didn't even realize until the end Bella's mom is Nina Meyers from 24. Jack Bauer suddenly bursting into the room and shooting her in the head would have been awesome.

It should have been a lot more hot blooded but Twilight mainly accomplished what it set out to do, which is launch a movie franchise for teen girls to call their own. But if you ask me, this vampire/human teen romance stuff has been done before and better. Young ladies, if you want forbidden romance and heartbreak plus a wicked sense of humor and a superior supporting cast to go along with it, you'd all be better off putting down your Twilight books and popping in seasons 1-3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD. I think you'll agree, your precious Edward is no Angel and Bella Swan is no Buffy Summers.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Quantum of Solace (***)

November 15, 2008

The frustration I feel with James Bond these days is different from the frustration M feels. M bemoans how uncontrollable Daniel Craig's James Bond is, although in Bond's defense, 1) she gave him that license to kill and 2) everyone he executes tries to kill him first.

My trouble with Bond is that for the second movie in a row, the filmmakers can't quite decide who James Bond is. They know who and what he was, as documented by the 20 prior "official" Bond movies before Craig stepped into the role. These days, the filmmakers behind James Bond come off more or less ashamed of his legacy. Quantum of Solace pays cursory lip service to Bond's traditions: there are the obligatory sexy girls, vodka martinis, an Aston Martin, globe trotting, promiscuous sex. Yet Craig's James Bond is dismissive of all of it, as if it's a bother to him to be James Bond. Is it too much to ask for Craig's Bond to actually enjoy being Bond? No, it isn't.

Bond's filmmakers continue to be envious of another man who shares the same initials: Jason Bourne. The Bourne trilogy haunts Quantum of Solace the way the ghost of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green, the Best Bond Girl Ever) haunts Bond himself. Bond is driven by the betrayal and death of Vesper in a similar way to how Jason Bourne was driven by the murder of his love Marie in his second and third Bournes. There's even a coda in a Russian apartment echoing The Bourne Supremacy, only instead of Bourne coming to apologize to the daughter of his victims, Bond has come to confront Vesper's mysterious boyfriend.  

Marc Forster directs the many, many bludgeoning action sequences as if he's taking marching orders directly from Bourne's maestro Paul Greengrass, but with a difference -- Greengrass knows how to use the shaky cam and edit his action so that it's coherent and thrilling. Forster's shaky cam seizures and vibrates but the action is bewildering to follow. There wasn't a single action sequence in Quantum of Solace where I wasn't wondering what the fuck was going on. Forster, who's an excellent dramatic director, fared much better in the quieter moments of character interaction and inevitable exposition.

In Solace, Bond is hot on the heels of Quantum, the secret organization of interchangable thin-lipped European men he ran afoul of in Casino Royale. Quantum is the new millennium's version of SPECTRE, only without the secret volcano headquarters, army of uniformed thugs, and mysterious bald leader stroking a cat. Quantum does however share SPECTRE's prediliction for secret decoder rings. Quantum isn't as much fun as SPECTRE, although I suppose they are more "realistic".

Once again, the main villain is hardly memorable. Dominic Greene, thin-lipped European environmentalist, is just a swarthy guy who wanted to stockpile Bolivia's water and sell it back to them at a premium -- a diabolical yawner of a master plan. Greene is a pretty damn uninteresting villain. He doesn't even have a visual quirk like Le Chiffre, who cried tears of blood in Casino Royale, and Le Chiffre was pretty boring himself. Bond's method of executing Greene, leaving him to die in the desert with a can of oil to drink, was novel, except I didn't like how Greene spilled his guts to Bond about Quantum off screen. What, we're not privy to the secrets of Quantum? The audience knew everything about SPECTRE. Thanks for holding out on us, James.

The sequence I enjoyed most in Quantum of Solace was Bond crashing the opera in Austria which was a cover for a secret bluetooth meeting between Dominic Greene and some other Quantum higher-ups. (Although Bond's ridiculous method of spying on his targets is standing out in the open so everyone can see him spying. Clever, James.)  I liked Bond stealing some guy's tuxedo (which turned out to be perfectly tailored in his size) and gift bag, then mocking the Quantumites on the air. I especially appreciated Bond throwing one of the Quantum goons off the roof by slapping his hand off his tie; a lovely homage to Roger Moore's Bond killing a henchman in Cairo in The Spy Who Loved Me. Bond even made a Cairo reference before he left for Italy that I quite enjoyed.

Speaking of homages to past Bond films, no one could miss the callback to Goldfinger. This time, Bond's innocent one night stand Fields (IMDB informs me her name is Strawberry Fields, which Quantum of Solace went out of its way to avoid saying; again foolishly ashamed of Bond's legacy) is drowned in oil and left on Bond's bed the way Jill Masterson was given the worst kind of golden shower. Before that tragedy, I enjoyed when Bond scoffed at the hovel Fields booked them to stay in and instead checked them into the best hotel in Bolivia. ("We're teachers who just won the lottery.") Craig was finally behaving like James Bond, although the moment was fleeting and the sex was only implied.

I was rather taken with Fields (Gemma Arterton) in the brief time we knew her, far more than I was with the main Bond Girl this time around, Camille (Olga Kurylenko). Camille was on a similar revenge trip as Bond was, looking to kill Bolivia's rapiest general. Kurylenko is certainly beautiful, but Camille just didn't have anything close to the impact Eva Green did as Vesper. Bond would agree since he never even tried to shag Camille.

I think the opening credit sequence set to Jack Black and Alicia Keys' "Another Way to Die" was the finest credits for a Bond film since Goldeneye. I was also glad to see Bond's fish eye with Craig walking in profile then shooting at the camera. Perhaps the next Bond movie can properly open with it like it's supposed to

After six films and two different Bonds she's been in charge of, I've come to the conclusion that it's time to retire Dame Judi Dench as M. Dench's M is terrible, a royal fuck up. She was totally bewildered that her personal bodyguard was a Quantum agent and spent the movie having Mr. Burns'-like trademark changes of heart; first empowering Bond, then disavowing him, then reauthorizing him. All she could do was scold him while Bond executed potential leads and beat up her security guards. Bond mocked her for acting like his mother while the Ministers she answers to roll their eyes at her inability to keep any control whatsoever over 007. And that's just in Quantum of Solace. Dench's M also let part of MI6 headquarters get blown up, then was captured and held prisoner in The World Is Not Enough. Dench is the worst M ever. There is no way her predecessor as M, that gruff old British bulldog Bernard Lee, would let himself perenially get caught with his knickers down the way Dench's M does. It's time to show this M the door. Craig's Bond doesn't need a denmother, he needs a hardass supervisor to keep him in line.

Even with its drawbacks, I would call Quantum of Solace a better overall film than Casino Royale, although that's a backhanded compliment. I still feel to this day that Casino Royale was a wildly overpraised Frankenstein monster of three different films wedged together, two of the three I'm not fond of. But I still really like the middle portion of Casino Royale, where Bond plays poker and begins his love affair with Vesper. Incoherent action sequences aside, Quantum of Solace is a more consistent film in its entirety, but nothing about it was as terrific as that middle hour of Casino Royale. Quantum of Solace is a sufficient James Bond movie, even if for large stretches of it, Bond is not quite himself. But he is getting closer. Perhaps third time's the charm.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Smallville 8x9 - "Abyss"

Could Smallville's new creative team be old TNA fans? That's the only reason I can think of for naming this week's episode "Abyss" and then topping it off with a preview for next week that showed DOOMSDAY! (Where's Father James Mitchell when you need him?)

DOOMSDAY! crashes Chloe's wedding to Jimmy Olsen next week. And it is Doomsday. The Armageddon Creature. A CGI monster with bony protrusions. They only showed a few seconds of it in the trailer but it's Doomsday. (Lana's back next week too, but Doomsday's the guest of honor.)

This week was the set up: Brainiac has taken refuge in Chloe's brain and began stripping her of her memories and replacing them with Kryptonian data, specifically the Kryptonian symbol for "Doom". Through Chloe, Brainiac has been attempting to contact Doomsday. Not coincidentally, Chloe and Davis Bloome, Doomsday's human form, have gotten tight this season, with Davis having serious unrequited feelings and pretty much throwing himself at her.

As Chloe's condition worsened, Clark decided to make nice with Jor-El in the Fortress of Solitude. Jor-El agreed to purge Chloe of Brainiac, but the price would be her losing her knowledge and memories of Clark being Kryptonian. Clark willingly gives up Chloe being his Girl Friday in the know because everyone who ever learned his secret has suffered and/or died.

And so Clark saves Chloe's life, Jor El gives her back her memories, and all is well for Chloe to marry Jimmy. (Having "forgotten" Clark is an alien, whether or not she remembers she runs the Isis Foundation and why isn't dealt with.) Except when purged from Chloe's brain, Brainiac went on to infiltrate the Fortress's crystal computers, seemingly gaining control over the Jor El avatar as well. Clark is unaware of this and, thinking he and his dead Kryptonian father's disembodied voice have finally reached an understanding, Clark calls Jor El "father" for the first time.

A week from now, Clark meets Doomsday and could take a dirtnap. If Clark "dies" in Lois' arms after the fight, my head might explode.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Smallville 8x8 - "Bloodline"

Huge episode this week that covered a lot of ground, further pushing my enjoyment of Smallville as Action Comics on television:

* Lois and Clark get sent to the Phantom Zone in the first two minutes. It's Lois's first time in the Zone and she thinks they were abducted by aliens. She gets conveniently knocked out when Clark finally finds...

* Kara, who's been banished by Brainiac at the end of season 7. With Lois unconscious, the Super cousins conduct some family business and do some catching up.

* Meanwhile, Chloe finds the mystery crystal at the Kent farm and recruits the Green Arrow to steal the component from Tess Mercer that she can use to activate the crystal and find Clark.

* Kara uses the "back door" portal Zor-El left for her (should she ever get trapped in the Phantom Zone) and sends Lois through, but a Zoner attacks and goes through the portal with Lois to Earth.

* Lois is possessed by the Zoner, who it turns out is General Zod's wife. I forget her name. Feyora, I think. Something like that. For convenience's sake, I'm just gonna call her Ursa.

* Chloe uses her crazy new superpowers given to her by Brainiac to activate the crystal/portal and retrieve Clark. Oliver objects for Chloe's safety. Line of the episode from Chloe: "Oliver, do I tell you how to shoot your arrows?" Oliver sees the extent of Chloe's powers for the first time.

* Back at the Phantom Zone, Kara is seemingly left for dead by Ursa's attack. Clark pleads with her to return to Earth with him. She's strangely obstinant about it. But when Chloe opens the portal to pull Clark out, Kara swerves everyone who expected her to die/be written out of the series here because she's only contracted for this one episode this season. Kara and Clark return to Earth.

* Ursa/Lois meets Tess Mercer and tells her of a Kryptonian spacecraft that landed on Earth. Tess now knows the word "Kryptonian." The BIG BOMBSHELL is Ursa is looking for the son she had with Zod whom they sent to Earth. It can only be...

* Davis Bloome, Doomsday. Mother and son are reunited and Ursa reveals Doomsday's destiny to be Earth's destroyer. She didn't birth Doomsday as no baby; she sent him to Earth as "genetic material" but he hasn't fully evolved into his final form yet. So mom kills son to Doomsday him up.

* Clark and Kara get up to speed with Chloe. Clark orders Kara to find Detective John Jones. (Completely skipping over how much Kara hates "that Martian Manhunter" from the events of last season.) 

* Clark confronts Lois/Ursa and they have one of those Superfights where they Supersmack each other around. Actually, Ursa just smacks Clark around. Kara arrives with some sort of red crystal (again with the crystals!) she presumably got from that Martian Manhunter she hates and traps Ursa in it, freeing Lois.

* At the Kent Farm, Oliver warns Clark that he's worried about Super Chloe.

* Kara frowningly and reluctantly leaves the series, telling Clark she heard that the (bottled city of?) Kandor exists and that she has to go find it. And so Supergirl flies off into the black yonder, towards a spinoff idea that probably won't happen.

* Finally, Doomsday awakens, stabs himself and finds that nothing less than a bursting shell (if even) can penetrate his skin. One giant leap forward towards maybe killing Clark...

Those sound like the ramblings of a madman, but that was Smallville last night. And I'm all for it.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Changeling (**1/2)


Curious title, "Changeling," for a movie where not a single character grows or changes throughout the course of the 2 1/2 hour story. Everyone is exactly the character they were at the end as from the start. The trailer says Angelina Jolie's son was abducted, the LAPD "found" him, but she says "It's not my son!" (300 times). Then they throw her in the loony bin for making their shitty policing look bad. That's what happens, all right. But there's an extra hour more to the story, most of it pretty unnecessary. The loony bin stuff was Girl, Interrupted circa 1930, only with Amy Ryan in a walk-on instead of, well... Angelina Jolie. Angie looks frail and sickly; it makes me long for the days when she was 25, fit, athletic and Lara Croft. I sure miss 25 year old Angie. The sweetest parts of Changeling were all the scenes they shot at the Universal backlot in the same streets we shot Across the Hall. The final shot of the movie was a long, loving look at the street we shot on, complete with the exterior of our Riverview Hotel. Ah, the memories.

Friday, October 17, 2008

W. (**1/2)


W. is no JFK, no Oliver Stone masterpiece. Not even close. Stone didn't learn his lesson from Alexander about time-jumping structures hurting his biopics. Josh Brolin's performance and impersonation of George W. Bush is Oscar worthy. Brolin is damned amazing as W. and he's surrounded by an all-star cast, caked in various degrees of makeup, portraying Dick Cheney, Donald "Rummy" Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, etc. as a grotesque Saturday Night Live-esque menagerie of lunatics and suck ups. No sympathy is offered for Cheney, Karl Rove and Rummy; none asked. Thandie Newton in her Condeleeza Rice makeup resembles a gargoyle. The most sympathetic portrayals are saved for Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell, Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, and James Cromwell as George H.W. Bush, who is presented heroically as W's opposite and emotional enemy. Though peppered with entertaining moments, overall, W. is a weird, purposely-manipulative collection of events that may have been or never were. Stone mixes in famous W quotes like "misunderestimated" and "fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice... I won't be fooled again!" - all dreamed up by Stone and his writer to explain away who the sitting President is. But to what end? Brolin's W never comes off as sympathetic or likeable. Perhaps he's never meant to. I know that by January 2009, I'll be glad to be rid of the real life W.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Body of Lies (***)


Entertaining Middle Eastern spy thriller with strong performances from Sir Ridley Scott's cinematic life partner Russell Crowe and Martin Scorsese's cinematic life partner Leonardo DiCaprio on loan to Sir Ridley, but the attempted verisimilitude gradually chips away and shatters completely by the third act. The budding relationship between DiCaprio and his Iranian nurse was probably the most interesting aspect of the picture for how well the cultural difficulties are played. Some effectively bloody and jarring violence wakes the audience up from the murky politics and talky-talky. Mark Strong all but stole the picture as DiCaprio's handler in Jordan, my dear. Ultimately, it felt a lot like Blood Diamond mixed with Syriana, although I'd say it's a bit better than both. Still, I probably won't ever watch, much less think about Body of Lies again.


October 10, 2008


Bret "Hitman" Hart's book tour rolled into Boston yesterday and I lined right up with a couple of hundred people to meet one of my wrestling heroes. 

My impressions of Bret in the brief minute I spoke to him while he signed my copy of "Hitman: My Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling" were that he was certainly older now.  Everything that has happened to Bret in the last ten years, losing his brother Owen, his parents, his brother in law Davey Boy Smith, his marriage, his stroke, has taken its toll.  His long stringy hair is now greying brown, no longer the slick greasy black of his heyday. There are more lines on his face than before, and that face is tinged with sadness and loss.  The T-shirt he wore of himself and Owen in happier days of the early 90's was a bittersweet reminder of that.

And yet, he's still Bret Hart. Bret seemed reserved and taciturn, but still carries himself with a bit of that trademark arrogance that helped define "the Hitman".  A little intimidating at first glace, it turned out Bret was gracious, good humored, and occasionally showed that world-famous smirk of his.

I was thrilled to meet him.  While in line with my friend Lance Jr., I cracked numerous jokes to temper the building excitement, but I was honestly nervous to meet Bret. When I was about 17, around the time Bret was WWF Champion for the first time, he was my hero.  Bret still holds my highest regards for his career and accomplishments. 

I hoped I'd be funny and cool, maybe say something clever to Bret when I finally got to the table and shook his hand but no, I just about totally marked out.  Just blathered about what a big fan I was and how I thought his book is fantastic.  It was maybe a minute of interaction but it felt like it was a microsecond.

About Bret's book:  This is the real deal.  Only 184 pages in, I can already honestly say "Hitman" is as good as Mick Foley's "Have A Nice Day"; perhaps in some ways even better.  This is lofty praise.  Bret's book and Foley's first book are the highest level of pro-wrestler autobiographies.  Chris Jericho's "A Lion's Tale" and I think to a lesser extent Edge's "Adam Copeland on Edge" are in the second tier but below what Foley and Bret have written. Every other wrestling biography is crap, crap, crap of varying shades.

A fan of pro wrestling, especially someone who craves an insightful, blunt, and intelligent account of the Calgary Stampede Wrestling era of the 1970's, and the World Wrestling Federation of the 1980's and 1990's, along with stories about working in Japan and the territories in the early 80's and WCW leading to its collapse, would gladly devour Bret's book.  Bret pulls no punches; he is brutally honest, funny, touching, sad, and impressive.  I'm glad to say Bret's autobiography is the equivalent of his wrestling talent.  It's the excellence of execution.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Duchess (***)


Indulging my Keira Knightley in a corset fetish this time finds a rather fine -- if long, two hours felt like three -- British tragedy of manners. Occasionally felt like Masterpiece Theatre crossed with an episode of Married... With Children. Gorgeous English scenery; the city of Bath in particular. Made me want to book a flight to the UK straightaway. The story spans fifteen or so odd years but no one ages. Ralph Fiennes added another character to his arsenal of thin-lipped, rod-up-his-ass, sneering villains-who-don't-wish-to-be-but-that-doesn't-stop-him. Fiennes was good enough to state the theme of the movie at the end, in case anyone's mind had wandered off: "How wonderful to be so free." Fiennes did have a couple of awesome dogs. There weren't enough of those dogs in the movie. I'd cast Fiennes' dogs with the dog Will Smith had in I Am Legend and make a movie. Two hours of me playing fetch with them.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (*1/2)


A WTF trainwreck featuring one stunning Megan-Fox-in-her-underwear scene. Skip the movie, wait for the clips on the Internet.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist (**1/2)


A miss by a fairly wide margin, which is unfortunate because the good things about it were really quite good. It was nice to have a perspective where the female lead (Kat Dennings, very appealing in a very non-CW way) really liked the male lead and pursued him. Usually it's the other way around in these movies. I really hate the hackneyed "One CRAAAZY night where CRAAAZY things happen" formula. It did no service to the characters of Nick and Norah, who were trying to have a pretty sweet little romance, except the stupid plot kept interrupting them and trying to keep them apart according to Screenwriting 101. The last 15 minutes turned out to be really good; it's a damn shame we had to wait so long and slog through so much muck for that payoff. Why couldn't the last 15 minutes be the first 15 minutes and then gone on from there and see where the characters take us?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Eagle Eye (**1/2)


Somewhat entertaining, gimmicky techno-thriller sabotaged by its own preposterousness. Eagle Eye, an intelligence-gathering AI program turns into Skynet's overly patriotic, equally crazy girlfriend. Eagle Eye should have just built time traveling Terminators. Would have been a huge improvement. Credibility of the plot stretched far beyond breaking point. Steals from every other movie where a "computer turns on humans", including the very similiar Wall-E just three months ago, and The Simpsons episode when they had a robot house. Even reduces itself to cribbing from Stealth and sends a robot plane to shoot missiles at Shia LeBeouf and Billy Bob Thornton. Why do sentient computers always think missiles are the best way to resolve a problem? Eagle Eye's plan to make Vic Mackey President of the United States is ill-advised at best. There's a shocking swerve where Eagle Eye calls Michelle Monaghan and gives her a secret order. Only Shia and complete retards were surprised the order was "shoot Shia." I did like Eagle Eye's impatience when Monaghan hesitated. Rosario Dawson's idea of acting like an Air Force liaison was to let her pants suit handle most of the performance. There's a nice scene on a plane between LeBeouf and Monaghan where the bullshit took a break and they were allowed to have a quiet character moment together, but overall Eagle Eye is a Greco-Roman thumb to the eye.

Smallville 8x2 - "Plastique"


SUPERMAN! CHLOE SULLIVAN! LOIS LANE! JIMMY OLSEN! (MIA this week) TESS MERCER! (Oh, Miss Tessmacher/Mercy. I get it.) DOOMSDAY! (The Armageddon Paramedic) THE GREEN ARROW! (Also MIA)
Special DC Universe guest star

Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Smallville. If that's what the new Smallville is gonna be like, count me in. I was pretty wowed and very pleased by the new direction of this show. The first five minutes of Lois and Clark at the Daily Planet was better than every single Daily Planet scene in Superman Returns combined. I don't think Clark has ever been funnier.

"This is a nice shirt!"
"A phone booth?"
"As long as I don't have to wear a tie."
"If I can keep my secret from you, I can handle your cousin."

The biggest howler was after Davis Bloome blew the Chloe engagement and asked Clark not to say he said anything: "I won't reveal my sources."

Follow that up with the hilarious delivery of this line to Chloe re: her engagement to Jimmy Olsen: "Is there anything you wanna tell me?"

Lois was also funny, especially the face she made when she said Jimmy Olsen's name.

Clark: "You're willing to share a byline with me?"
Lois: "Oh God no!"

That's exactly right! It's really too early to say how the rest of the season will shake out but they came out of the gate very strongly with the Lois and Clark competing reporters dynamic. I even LOL'd when Lois took a red marker and "corrected" the obituary Clark wrote.

Even without a tie and glasses, Clark out of the flannel and running around in grownup clothes was pretty striking. When he was wearing his borrowed blue dress shirt and pulling people out of the exploded bus, you can almost see Him. Just imagine the S and the red cape billowing and it's Him. It's really Him. In fact, Clark has never acted more like Superman. His speech to Plastique was very Man of Steelish. He wasn't even being a dick the whole episode.

The set up for the supervillain team Tess Mercer recruited Plastique for made my comic book nerdy self very happy. I hope they do the slow burn throughout the season and that they do pull the trigger on the Justice League vs. the Legion of Doom.

I even liked Doomsday. The little tease of him naked in the alley and seemingly transforming back to human was very nice. So it seems he does become a monster. If this vastly improved incarnation of Clark continues, I might actually be sad if Doomsday kills Clark. A year ago, Clark's gruesome death would have been the ending to Smallville I preferred. Not so much now, if this keeps up.

Next week, the not-so-Secret Origin of the Green Arrow! Color me actually excited.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The House Bunny (**)


Occasionally amusing bad movie. Comic timing was way off throughout. Jokes funny on paper blown in execution left and right. Constant mixed messages; movie had no clue whether it was glorifying Playboy or mocking it. Tried to have it both ways and failed. Yet at the center was Anna Faris giving an earnest comedic performance. Very endearing. Emma Stone was also good. Kat Dennings was unrecognizable prior to makeover. Colin Hanks did a Luke Wilson impersonation. Probably the best runner was Hefner so distraught at Anna Faris leaving the Playboy Mansion all he could do was eat Haagen Daas on his bed for days, but even that joke never found its sure footing. Still, I know what I hate and I didn't hate this.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (**)


The X-Files: I Want To Believe was like a reunion with old friends you now have nothing in common with. Yet you're stuck there for a couple of hours pretending like it's the old days until a requisite amount of time has passed for the ordeal to be over so you can politely excuse yourself and head on home.  

I Want to Believe is a dour, sleepy, unnecessary movie that fails to justify its very existence 6 years after the TV series limped to an end. Standing outside The X-Files' twisted mythology, with no aliens, black oil, monsters, Cigarette Smoking Men, Lone Gunmen, conspiracies, or even the X-Files division of the FBI, all we are left with are Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, two relics from the Clinton decade who look like they want to be there even less than we do.

Time has passed Mulder and Scully by. Mulder looks pasty and tired. The courageous nut who once had the ability to wittily coerce not just Scully but millions of audience members to follow him on whatever lunacy he was investigating barely musters any enthusiasm. Scully's attractively rigid face has only gotten frownier and more right-angular in the years since the series ended. Scully and Mulder live together in some shack in the woods, sleeping together and having long, boring arguments that they seem to conduct on autopilot. They used to have sexual tension that has since dissipated, but it hasn't been replaced with a new dynamic. Their ghosts from the 90's want to continue to argue and debate belief vs. skepticm while their flesh and blood selves go through the motions but couldn't care less. They had a son but now they don't. He's barely worth a passing mention in an awkward bedroom scene that was more about Mulder's Grizzly Adams beard irritating Scully neck than anything else. 

Mulder is now a fugitive recluse. Scully is a physician and apparently also a surgeon working for a Catholic hospital that doesn't seem to make enough profit to pay their electric bill because the lights are never on. It's a gloomy, depressing hospital of deep shadows and glowering doctors and priests. I imagine the suicide rate for patients admitted into such a forbidding place must be a cause for concern. Scully has a subplot of a young boy dying of cancer. She wants to operate on him with a dangerous stem-cell procedure. This subplot does nothing for the movie except give Scully reasons to argue with Mulder and refuse to accompany him on his quest to find a missing FBI agent.

Just when Mulder and Scully thought they were out, the FBI pulls them back in. Sort of. Special Agent Xzibit (his character name is Drummy but I swear, each time he said his name, I heard "Special Agent Dummy") doesn't really seem to want either of them there, but Special Agent Amanda Peet is a fan of Mulder's work on the X-Files (hey, aren't we all) and wants his insight on their missing colleague. Peet calls herself "not the most-popular girl in Washington" (what professional woman would describe herself this way?) and introduces herself to Mulder with the greeting, "Fox Mulder, I believe?" Who the hell says that? Peet also has a penchant for flirting with Mulder during FBI raids on suspects. She's also Special Agent Dummy and deserves what happens to her (nothing good). 

The FBI has been working with a psychic priest, Father Billy Connelly, who may or may not be a fraud but is most certainly a pedophile. As Scully puts it, he's "buggered 37 young boys", and I hope none of them was named Dennis Blunden. Scully hates this priest. Fucking hates his guts. He must bring back terrible memories for Scully of when she was a red-haired little boy.

There is a lot of gabbin' about God in I Want To Believe; whether or not He would actually speak through a pedophile and whether that means He forgives our balls-tickling priest. It's an interesting idea but the movie tackles the issue mostly through Scully barging into the priest's apartment in the middle of the night and yelling at him. Scully eventually uses the priest's advice ("Don't Give Up" - did Father Sodomy get this from God or from a Peter Gabriel song?) to save Mulder's life in the end. Scully saving Mulder from the killer pays him back for saving her from the alien spaceship in Antarctica (in the previous and superior The X-Files: Fight the Future ten years ago), only Scully's rescue was far less interesting. She bonks the killer on the head with an axehandle and that was it. She didn't even quip, "Let me axe you something." 

Walter Skinner shows up in the last 15 minutes in an embarrassing walk-on where I'm pretty sure writer-director Chris Carter expected wild applause from the audience when they see his familar mug. Even the crickets were too bored to chirp. Skinner tells some bad jokes, points a gun at the evil Russian surgeons who offer no resistence, and then disappears back to Stargate Atlantis or where ever he hangs his hat these days.

Since there are no aliens or monsters of the traditional sort, I Want To Believe turns out to be Mulder and Scully versus the villains from Turistas. The mystery Mulder and Scully unravel (sort of, she really only helps tangentially, which is one of this movie's many, many problems) involves organ harvesting, kidnapped girls, severed heads, Russian homosexuals, Leoben from Battlestar Galactica, and dogs. (Batman would have warned Mulder to stay away from the attack dogs, but Mulder wouldn't have listened anyway.) I shit you not, all of the blood and gore in the movie is about a gay Russian who wants to be a female Russian. Apparently, when Father Billy Connelly raped him as a boy, it turned him gay and made him want to be a woman so he and his boyfriend Leoben began Frankenstein experiments, first on dogs. They harvest organs and bodyparts and then attempt to graft a whole new female body using mismatched parts from girls they kidnap who swim at the local public pool. No, seriously. It's over for The X-Files. It's so over.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight (****)

"You Either Die A Hero Or You Live Long Enough To See Yourself Become The Villain."

The Dark Knight behaves as if it would be surprised to learn it's a comic book superhero movie. It expends a muscular two and a half hours vigorously arguing that it's an epic crime drama and haunting Shakespearean tragedy. The Dark Knight would convincingly win its argument, too, were it not for the guy dressed like a bat, the clown-faced killer, and the man missing half his face. Even then it cuts them all down to size, tears them inside out, and bares their souls for the world to see. The Dark Knight turns out to be a gripping four way dance: three men trying to preserve their city and one enigmatic chaos-bringer tearing apart all their efforts, and tragically later, their bond.

Escalation. This was the idea that ended Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight all but redefines the word. There is so much going on in The Dark Knight, so much happening, often all at once, it's almost staggering. The intricate details of Batman, Gordon and Dent's war on the mob, going after the mob's money laundering, indicting underbosses to turn state's evidence against the godfathers of the city, could be straight from The Wire. Batman outdoes Mission: Impossible III's Ethan Hunt in both coolness and jumping off of buildings when he makes a special and all-kinds-of-illegal side trip to Hong Kong to "extradite" (a better word is "kidnap") Zau, a potential Wayne Industries business partner who works as the Gotham mob's accountant. (Side note: one of the best things about Christopher Nolan's Batman films is that they are global in scope. His Batman and his Gotham City are palpably a part of our world, not existing in a sealed off, self-contained universe of soundstages and CGI cityscapes.) 

Meanwhile, the Joker robs a mob bank in a splendid homage to Heat, and then essentially hires himself as the mob's enforcer, giving himself the assignment of eliminating the Batman. In between, the Joker bumps off each mob boss (played by Eric Roberts and Michael Jai White) and takes over their operations to give Gotham City "a better class of criminal". Then the real shit hits the fan. 

City officials are assassinated. Jim Gordon becomes Comissioner. A pivotal handsome face is scarred irrevocably. And a major death, but not the one expected. Minor characters, like one of Gordon's cops or Bruce Wayne's accountant, end up making huge mistakes that cost our heroes gravely. Even Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, bemused) and faithful Alfred (Michael Caine, rock solid) get important bits of business. Fox takes a moral stand against Bruce Wayne abusing his technologies while Alfred makes a difficult decision to burn Rachel Dawes' goodbye letter to Bruce and protect his employer from further heartache.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, confident and firing at all cylinders) was the singular focus of Batman Begins, and the previous chapter did its job so well that Batman is able share a much grander canvas with Lieutenant James Gordon, District Attorney Harvey Dent, and the Joker without being upstaged and shoved to the background. Wayne's two lives have settled into a successful routine in the last year. He can sleep through his days as Chairman of Wayne Enterprises and flaunt his bevy of easy hotties (to Rachel Dawes' eye-rolling chagrin) thanks to Lucius Fox minding the store. Fox is also ever-upgrading Batman's suit and weapons in the best Q tradition. Meanwhile, Batman has become a mythic figure of inspiration to the people of Gotham. In some ways, the wrong kind of inspiration as bands of misguided caped crusaders dress like him and attempt to protect the city, causing far more trouble than they're worth.

A year after the "Narrows Attack" and demise of Ra's Al Ghul in the first film, Batman, Gordon and Dent have formed an effective team in bringing down the mobs that choke the life out of Gotham City. (It was a nice touch to open the picture with Batman apprehending Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow, (Cillian Murphy, welcome back) tying up a loose end of Batman Begins.) The Joker reveals himself to be a dangerous wildcard, singlehandedly upending all of work being done to save Gotham. As tragedy compounds tragedy despite our heroes' best efforts, Wayne begins to ask the hard questions about what Batman is worth. I thought the pressures the Joker placed on Bruce Wayne midway in the movie where he decided to turn himself in as Batman were weak and insufficient. I didn't buy that part of the story. I was glad to see Rachel didn't either and she was more than a little disgusted at Bruce for allowing Harvey to take the fall for him. But everything worked out fine for them. Wait, no, it really, really didn't.

The strangest stuff was Batman's (off the record) friendly relationship with the Gotham Police. There were moments of Batman in his full regalia inside police headquarters that skate memories of Adam West and Burt Ward hanging out with Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara. The Police didn't seem to mind Batman parking his, presumably unlicensed, Batmobile and Bat-Pod in the police parking garage. Maybe the glove compartment of his now-destroyed Batmobile (which must put smiles on toy licensors' faces) was full of unpaid tickets. Despite all his wonderful toys, there were moments when Batman seemed strangely inadequate for his mission. So much action happens in broad daylight that Bruce Wayne was reduced to meddling in his "much more subtle" Lamhborgini once or twice. And old Batsuit or new, light is not Batman's friend. The more clearly we see the Batsuits, the more the illusion is lost by what eyesores they are.

There has never been a Joker to equal the vile, mesmerizing psychopath the late Heath Ledger created. Ledger's Joker is a creature of pure malevolence, bereft of moral or ethical limitations. Every second the Joker is on the screen, Ledger virtually has his hand clenched around each audience's member's throat, forcing us to pay attention to him. The first big shock of the movie was the "disappearing pen" trick the Joker pulled on a mobster, and we laughed not because it was funny, but because it was sadistic and horrible. It was fascinating gauging the reactions of people in the theater when the Joker was on the screen. I overheard a number of people, mostly girls, whisper "he's so scary." 

All of the Joker's murders, his forward-thinking schemes of escape and attacks, were brilliant, if highly improbable. I loved the Joker's stories about how he got his scars, one about his father told to a mob boss, and another about his wife told to Rachel Dawes. I don't believe a word of it, or anything that comes from that lunatic's mouth, personally. Nolan and Ledger gives us sides of the Joker we've never seen before, like when he's dressed as a nurse visiting Harvey Dent in the hospital, or sitting on the floor "helpless", baiting a stupid cop. I believe Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker is the new standard by which the character will now be defined and redefined, in the comics and elsewhere. 

The Dark Knight more than satisfies in Batman's interactions with the Joker. Their classic interplay was brought to life, fully developed, in just a few precious scenes. The Joker's conversations with Batman, challenging Batman's sense of morality, creating dilemmas and provoking his responses, were amazing, far richer and more intriguing than the "comic booky" dialogue route they could have tread. I loved how the Joker quickly deduced Batman's affections for Rachel from the way he "dove after her". (A great bit was Batman's "Let her go" and Joker's retort, "Poor choice of words." before throwing Rachel away like yesterday's garbage.) 

The scene where Batman locks the interrogation room from the inside because he wants to beat the Joker half to death to find out where Rachel and Dent are was electrifying. This is most terrifying Batman has ever been in a movie, but even at his most intimidating, the Joker just laughed Batman's physical threats off. The Joker knows Batman's limits all too well. I adored how Joker lied to Batman, sending him to Dent's location and not Rachel's. Finally, the Joker's scheme to force one ferry of passengers to choose to blow up the other failing was great, especially in how it was a victory for Gotham and the goodness of the people who live there, proving Batman's point over the Joker's. Considering Ledger cannot return for any sequels, it was more than a little surprising that his Joker didn't take the long drop into a dirt nap that Jack Nicholson's Joker did.

Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, doing fine work), Gotham City's "White Knight", emerges as a bright, heroic hope-bringer, everything Batman can't be. So persuasive is Dent's crusading passion that Bruce Wayne's jealous asshole attempts to cock block him from their mutual love, Rachel Dawes, ends with him firmly on Dent's side. Bruce Wayne believes in Harvey Dent, and so do we. He was the best of them, as Batman says. I loved the way the movie showed violent little cracks in Dent's shimmering armor, like his tendancy to cheat chance with his lucky two-headed dollar coin, and when he kidnapped and went ballistic on one of the Joker's mental patient henchmen, foreshadowing the tragedy meant to befall him. The inventive way Nolan devised for Dent to lose half his face - to flames instead of acid - and become Harvey Two-Face, along with the runner of where the name came from, were light years better than the comic book's explanation of a mob boss throwing acid at Dent's face during a trial (as depicted hilariously in Batman Forever). It's tragic, operatic stuff and it works brilliantly. We truly feel for Dent, how he suffered, what he's lost. The special effects for the "scarred" side of Two-Face are grotesquely persuasive.

Perhaps even moreso than Batman, Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, for my money the MVP) emerges as the true hero of Gotham City. Half of The Dark Knight is a cop procedural, with Gordon front and center, making the hard calls, facing down mobsters and madmen alike. The difficulties of Gordon's job leading the police in the most corrupt city in America, the frustations he faces, the dangers he and his family endure, the compromises he is forced to make, have never been clearer or more compelling. Gordon pulled off the most shocking moment in his film when he faked his death and apprehended the Joker. (Yes, there was a moment when I did actually think Nolan had busted the ballsiest move in Batman movie history and killed Gordon off.) The climactic events where Batman saved Gordon's son's life stamped the friendship and understanding the two men have. In certain ways, Gordon's job is more difficult than Batman's. Gordon shares the burden of protecting Gotham with Batman but has the added pressures of having to publicly justify and secretly protect Batman himself, especially going forward into future Batman movies.

Replacing Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes was a savvy casting decision. Her pretty pout and perpetual headlights aside, Holmes merely (or barely, or hardly, depending on who you ask) held her own in Batman Begins. Gyllenhaal, a superior actor, immediately made the pivotal Rachel character her own. She was convincing as an assistant D.A. convincing Zau to turn state's evidence. More importantly, Gyllenhaal made Rachel a woman worthy of both Bruce Wayne's and Harvey Dent's affections, so much so that her death was a heartbreaker (the audience would probably have applauded if it were Holmes who died). Although the single most unbelievable event in the entire movie is when Batman dove off Wayne Tower after the Joker defenestrated Rachel. They plummeted dozens of stories, crashed into a car, and were both completely unharmed. Sure.

The action in The Dark Knight is superior to Batman Begins', though some of Batman's fight scenes seemed awkward in how limited Bale and his stuntmen could move in the Batsuits, old or new. There's no shortage of car chases and explosions -- an exceptional one was the Joker comically exploding a hospital. Whereas the previous film presented Batman the way a horror movie would -- jump cuts of action from the shadows that were impossible to follow -- The Dark Knight shows Batman's full fighting capabilities, as well as how much he gets hurt. Attack dogs are not the Batman's best friend. Batman is properly injured, and quite a bit too, the most bizarre example being when he coudn't bring himself to run the Joker over with his Bat-Pod and ended up crashing into the overturned trailer truck, knocking himself out in the process. The last time Batman spent this much time on his back in a movie, Catwoman was straddling him and purring about mistletoe.

The presence of the Joker notwithstanding, humor is at a premium. There's nothing funny about living in Nolan's Gotham City, much less trying to protect it. Bruce Wayne's millionaire playboy facade of concurrently dating prima ballerinas and handfuls of supermodels seems to be as much about amusing himself and the audience as providing an alibi for how Wayne is above suspicion as Batman. Does Wayne sleep with any of these girls, though? Seems like there'd be gossip if he didn't. Maybe he pays them off to keep their mouths shut. Or maybe Alfred finishes what Wayne started.

The finale of the movie is devastating. Before The Dark Knight, the bleakest chapter in Batman's cinematic journey was Batman Returns. The concluding events of The Dark Knight eclipse Tim Burton's singular vision of emotionally cracked animal-people living in a freak show. At the end of Batman Returns, Batman is so very sad because he thinks his girlfriend is dead on Christmas. Well, come what may. The Dark Knight pushes the pathos far beyond. Rachel is dead, and thanks to Alfred, Wayne will never know she had moved on. Add Dent's descent to madness plus the end of Batman's detente with the local authorities and no movie Batman has ever lost more. 

In the end, Batman chooses to be an armor-clad Atlas, shouldering the hopes, guilt, and dark secrets of the entire city. Batman takes the blame for Harvey Dent's mistakes so he can die a hero, while Batman becomes a hunted vigilante once more. No movie Batman has ever willingly re-examined his purpose in Gotham like this. As Alfred sagely advised, Batman is the one who can make the hardest choices. Harvey Dent promised that "it's always darkest just before the dawn." I think this Batman, our best Batman, has come to understand that for him, no light of dawn will ever break his dark nights.