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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.