October 5, 2007 - Movies Lee Didn't Want To See

© 2007 by John Varley; all rights reserved



Lee is out of town, up in Oregon for a while, and I’m still here in Hollywood. Bummer. Without a car. Double bummer. I’m supposed to be getting started on a new novel, which I don’t have a title for yet. Triple bummer. These things always start slowly, and though I’ve got a lot of ideas, they aren’t coming out onto the page easily. There’s no point in sitting at the computer all day trying to force something to happen. It won’t. So I find myself with a lot of time on my hands. What to do?

Well, read, and watch movies. But there’s a problem. We usually watch movies together, it’s more fun that way. There are some good ones coming into the theaters now that we’ve got the summer dreck out of the way … but I’d rather wait and see them with Lee. I made two exceptions. I figured I could go to one I was pretty sure I’d want to see again, so I went to see Across the Universe … and I was right. I’ll want to see that one many more times over the years. And I figured I might as well go to one I was pretty sure Lee wouldn’t enjoy … and I’m batting two for two; 3:10 to Yuma wasn’t Lee’s cup of celluloid. I figure I can wait to see Eastern Promises and The Kingdom and In the Valley of Elah, since they all sound good.

Then I had a brainstorm. From time to time a movie comes out that I know Lee doesn’t want to see, and that I’m pretty sure, myself, is not quite what you’d call a great movie. In fact, it may be utter trash … but I’d sort of like to see it to be sure. Maybe it’s because it made a zillion dollars and I’d like to know what sort of crap is making that kind of money, and maybe figure out why. Saw is such a movie. Maybe it’s got state-of-the-art special effects, like 300. Maybe it’s a movie that got terrible reviews, like Tideland, but it’s by somebody I really like. Could it be that bad? (Yes!) Maybe it’s a comedy with somebody I can’t stand but with an interesting premise that I’m pretty sure they’ll do a bad job on, like Click. (Right again!) Maybe it’s to see what comedic depths Robin Williams has sunk to this time, i.e. RV. Maybe I’d even find a pearl among these slops thrown out for the swine … and I did: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Or there’s a few animated features I haven’t seen because Lee just isn’t into animation as much as I am (Flushed Away).

This seemed like a good way to waste some time while waiting for Lee to return. It also held a reasonable possibility of driving me insane … but I’m doing it so Lee doesn’t have to.

I’ve found that I can get through two of these per day, most days. God bless the DVD, which has a little button that will speed up the film. At 1.5X you can even hear all the dialogue, and will miss only the comic timing … but by the time you press the button, it’s because you’ve already decided that movie has no comic timing, so there’s no loss. At 5X you can’t hear dialogue, but you can follow the plot quite well. You don’t hit that button until you know the movie is a total loss. At 20X—which you hit only when your eyes are bleeding and you’re thinking about slitting your wrists—you can still be sure there wasn’t some surprise lurking, and just get the damn thing over with. (There is a 60X speed, but we’ve only employed it twice: Once for Gerry, Gus Van Sant’s cruel joke on critics all over America who take that asshole for an auteur … and it was still boring, at 60X! … and once for a cinematic carbuncle called Japon. Both films featured endless scenes of men walking and walking and walking. In Japon, he was crippled, which made it even more hideously boring. These two movies are in serious contention for the worst film ever made.)

After the harvesters have come through a field, wielding their scythes in broad strokes, people used to follow them around and pick up the grains that were missed, out of the dirt, stones, and chaff. Waste not, want not, right? There’s usually a few tasty oats in there. So come with me as I glean through the last few years of withering, rotting stalks  from the cereal factories of Hollywood. I might find enough for a nourishing bowl of granola.

Or I could end up with a mouthful of dirt, stones, and chaff.


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300 (2006) Another comic-book movie. Another green-screen movie, shot entirely in a warehouse in Toronto with all scenery CGIed in later, like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but with no sense of humor. Based—very loosely—on the Battle of Thermopylae between the Spartan Greeks and the Persian Empire of Xerxes. I figure history may have exaggerated it a little, but the story goes that 300 Spartans held off an army of … well, in the movie, billions. This, being a comic book, exaggerates it a lot. I doubt that Xerxes was a 7-foot-tall African, for instance.

These things are written and drawn primarily for pimpled teen fanboys who would run screaming and puking and pissing themselves if they ever found themselves facing a real swordsman, so everything plays to their longing for power. All male characters are pumped to the point they’d make Our Guv look like a pathetic girly man. Females, when they appear at all, are half boobs and half ass, with lips like Angelina Jolie. Mighty sword thrusts pierce craven barbarian bodies and scatter gobbets of gore, then are pulled out to thrust into the next one. Faces are in perpetual battle snarls, muscles are always clenched. It is the stupidest drivel you can imagine, and I didn’t buy into it even when I was a pimpled youth myself.

However … if you are into this sort of thing (which I’m not), this is the ne plus ultra of gore-‘n’-sandals comic books. The word is that the director, Zack Snyder, reproduced the comic book by Frank Miller almost panel for panel, and if so, then I have to hand it to Miller. He’s got a real eye for composition, and he can sure draw. It is very fetching to the eye. If you do like gore for gore’s sake (which I don’t) this gives you buckets of it, artfully splashed around. If you like a screenplay stripped down to its bare essentials (and I do, sometimes), then this is a pretty good one. There is surprising humor in some of the we-who-are-about-to-die dialogue of the Spartan King, Leonidas. And I felt my goose pimples quacking, just a little bit, at some of his lines.

I guess there’s really no point, but I have to mention something else, which is the bitter pill in the center of this story. Times without number Leonidas exhorts his men by bellowing that they’re fighting for their freedom.

Freedom. My friends, in the last 7 years I’ve come to dread hearing that word, because it usually comes from the mouth of that whining little mouse, George W. Bush. And his definition of freedom and mine couldn’t be farther apart. In his understanding, the best way to ensure our “freedom” is by hacking at the Tree of Liberty, root and branch, and by lying to get us into quagmires in the name of the War on Terror, which is code for the War to Get All That Raghead Oil. Leonidas is the same way, contemptuous of the “slave armies” of Persia, while apparently forgetting (at least in this movie) that one of the things he’s fighting for is the right of Greeks to own slaves. In fact, at the Battle of Thermopylae it seems there were 1000 helot slaves, as many as the Spartan and other Greek forces combined. I’ll bet their blood ran as red as Spartan blood. IMDb.com


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1408 (2007) I guess you could think of this as The Shining Lite. (Hey, is that a pun?) That movie dealt with a haunted hotel, this one is just a haunted hotel room. (A suite, actually, and quite a nice one before the SFX people get at it.) But that makes it a little more manageable. The Shining was filmed twice, and the problem in the first was that it’s such a sprawling novel—like most of Stephen King’s work—that even a genius like Stanley Kubrick wasn’t able to get a handle on the whole thing. Still, his version was better than the slow, turgid, and overlong version King caused to be made for television some years later, still steamed about Kubrick’s version.

This is a real rip-snorter, notably lacking in the goofy monster type of scare. You realize quickly that the most horrible things happening here are in the protagonist’s own mind, which is always scarier than external stuff. John Cusack has never turned in a bad performance that I can remember, and he’s in top shape here, having to carry scene after scene all by his lonesome. The SFX are good, and the gradual build-up of terror is handled quite well. Highly recommended, if you don’t scare easy. IMDb.com


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Aeon Flux (2005) Very pretty to look at, but rather dumb. Charlize Theron is the main reason I wanted to see this, as she’s very pretty to look at just sitting there, unless she goes to extreme measures as in Monster. And she doesn’t disappoint here. She gets to wear a lot of really sexy clothes, and makes them all look better. She moves like a big cat and jumps and spins like an acrobat. (Okay, she’s got wires on her that you can’t see, but that’s the only way to do these stunts, and she trained for months, and injured herself at one point.) But the set design, the locations, and the other people … all very pretty. Too bad nothing interesting is going on, other than the action scenes. I quickly got to the point where I was FFing through everything but her. The plot is tired, the screenplay is clichéd, and all dialogue—practically every word—is delivered in a low, emotionless monotone.

One virtue: it’s short. That will give you time to take a look at some of the DVD extras, which are actually more interesting than the movie. (Yeah, I know, that’s faint praise indeed, isn’t it?) But check out the one about the locations, which were going to be in Brasilia, but they ended up in Berlin. And most of all, look at the 15 minute short showing the training of the actresses. You can sure see that Charlize trained as a dancer.

Oh, and I have to mention … they stole an idea from me! One character has replaced her feet with large hands, which is … handy, I guess is the word, for climbing and swinging from trees and such. I believe I was the first one to use that, in several of my short stories. Think I should sue? IMDb.com


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Apocalypto (2006) What was Mel Gibson thinking? That if people would pay $611,899,420 to see a film in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin, they might pony up a similar amount for a film in Mayan? He forgot one thing, which was in The Nazz. But most of the other elements were in place, the fixation on violence and torture, in particular. The only thing it was really missing was Mel himself, getting the shit kicked out of him. He likes that. Instead, we have a guy named Jaguar Paw getting the shit kicked out of him. And Mel had the last laugh. Though this didn’t become the monster hit that The Passion of the Christ did, it made about $100,000,000 over its $40,000,000 budget (most of it Mel’s own money, according to the rumor).

I have to say, he got a lot of mileage out of his money. The old saying in Hollywood is “put every dollar up there on the screen.” He filmed this in the jungles of Mexico, and on a huge set he built there, with up to 700 extras—multiplied by CGI to look like many thousands more. The movie is an absolute masterpiece of set and costume design, and most especially, make-up. The DVD extra, “Becoming Mayan,” concentrates on these tech aspects, which are what I most want in a DVD extra for a film as complex as this. They had as many as 250 make-up artists working every day on the main actors and the 700 extras, with very extensive stuff to apply, including whole-body tattoos and literally thousands of phony piercings and scarification. Every extra had a lot of this stuff, such as huge plugs through the ears and nose rings. It was a hell of a job. Lee and I saw about a dozen of the costumes on display at the Fashion Institute downtown. Amazing!

So the look of the film is beyond reproach, stunning, a real benchmark in the cinema. But what about the rest of it? Not much, I’m afraid. It’s really two movies, one set in the jungle with only a few characters, and one on the big set with the huge cast. Both movies drown in blood and brutality. Sure, the Mayas were brutal, as were the Aztecs, and I guess the point—underlined by a quotation about rotting from within at the beginning of the film—is that brutal regimes like this can’t last. But Mel enjoys it so much. Myself, I get a bit tired of seeing severed heads roll down from pyramids, and beating hearts ripped from chests, or getting a head’s-eye view of what’s it like to be decapitated and held up for the crowd to cheer. The chase through the jungle as Jaguar Paw escapes from the slaving Mayas is well-done, but again, too much brutality.

I understand Gibson’s next movie might be about Vasco Núñez de Balboa. If so, I can make a prediction here: Ol’ Vasco will get the shit kicked out of him. IMDb.com


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Bewitched (2005) Sounds like a great idea. They’re re-making the TV show “Bewitched,” and they happen to have cast a real witch in the character of Samantha. All sorts of devilment should result. Well, Rumor Has It, the sequel to The Graduate, also sounded like a great concept but didn’t deliver, and this doesn’t, either. It’s mostly the fault of Will Ferrell, who chews the scenery almost endlessly, and isn’t very funny. Nicole Kidman is nicely innocent, putting on a sweet little girl voice. But the real problem is that they didn’t think it through. The reason you tuned into the show was to watch Samantha do magic. Sure, she’d sworn it off, but even if only to combat the schemes of her relatives, she always ended up doing a lot of magic. There just wasn’t enough of that here, and it’s too bad, because when she did do magic, some of it was pretty good. IMDb.com


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Bug (2006) I don’t think I ever even heard of this one. I don’t know if it ever “opened wide” at all, but they’re sure giving it big DVD play. Blockbuster has a ton of them, all checked out but the one I rented. The cover certainly suggests that it’s a horror movie … and it is, but I think a lot of people will be misled. It’s not about entomology at all, it’s about real horror: paranoia. Personally, I value a horror film like this a whole lot more than just another creepy-crawly exercise, whether the scary part is a psycho killer or a swarm of insects. True horror comes from humans. The scariest film I’ve seen in a long time is Deliver Us From Evil, the true story of a pedophile priest.

This movie was based on a play, and is essentially a three-character piece. At first you’ll think it might actually be about bugs, but you’ll quickly catch on, I don’t think I’m giving much away here. The strength of the movie is in the acting, which is frighteningly intense, with Ashley Judd and Harry Connick, Jr., and someone I don’t know well, Michael Shannon. Most of the best scenes are between Shannon and Judd. It was directed by William Friedkin, who is always cited as the man who made The Exorcist, though I recall him from two much better movies: Sorcerer, and The French Connection. This is quite different. It’s a small movie, but one that might stick around in your mind. IMDb.com


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Click (2006) Sort of a combination of It’s a Wonderful Life and Bruce Almighty. A man gets a miraculous device that works like a TV remote, fast forwarding, pausing, with director’s DVD commentary … the whole works. For a while they work some pretty funny variations on this. But, it being an Adam Sandler movie, there is a mean streak to some of the humor, and of course the obligatory fart scene. The point is, he wastes his life by skipping big parts of it, and learns that family is more important than his job. Now, there’s a theme you don’t see every day! The lack of imagination in Hollywood can be absolutely staggering, which is why we get so many IIIs and IVs and even XIIs. For an intelligent treatment of something a bit similar, see Stranger Than Fiction. IMDb.com


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Coneheads (1993) I first saw the Coneheads in Philadelphia, I believe in 1976. I was a guest at an SF convention there, and many of us were gathered in the con suite to watch this fairly new show, “Saturday Night Live.” On the TV Dan Aykroyd comes through a door wearing a very tall stocking cap. He takes it off … and his head is 18 inches tall! People began to laugh, and kept laughing more and more as the schtick became clear. Aliens living among us! At a science fiction convention! A guy (Bill Murray?) delivers pizza to “Uh … Mr. Con-Ed?” He doesn’t notice the cones. Then bang, bang, bang, one hilarious joke after another. “We’re from France!” “Consume mass quantities.” I don’t know when I’ve laughed so hard.

Everybody said this movie was a dud, and though I was still interested, I never got around to seeing it. Making a movie out of an SNL skit is usually a bad idea … though there was Wayne’s World, and The Blues Brothers. (Then there was It’s Pat, which, okay, I haven’t seen, but that was a funny-once skit and was already tiresome on SNL, which was never the case with the Coneheads.)

To my considerable surprise, I liked this movie. Not all of it worked, and they probably could have dispensed with the whole business of returning to the home planet of Remulak, but I kept finding myself smiling. I don’t recall any huge belly laughs, but the situation is just so goddam funny. There are two things that make the Coneheads work. One is their appearance in itself. You just gotta laugh. But the key to what makes it so brilliant is … no one notices! It’s a joke that just doesn’t seem to get stale. Here are people going about their business with these outlandish aliens in their midst, talking pseudo-scientific gibberish—which everyone understands!—and doing impossible things, to which the most amazed reaction is just a subdued whoa!

I think at least half of the people who were ever regulars on SNL are in this movie in small parts. (Laraine Newman is there, somewhere on Remulak, but I couldn’t spot her under the make-up.) The daughter, Connie Conehead, is played by a newcomer, Michelle Burke, who was 23 but can play 18. Connie has a bigger role here than she did on TV. She falls in love with Chris Farley and they engage in a little inter-species sex. I must say, her cone looks very sexy. I’d play Remulak Ring-toss with her, but, being cone-less, we’d have to come up with something else to … hey, I’ve got it! …

All in all, not a comedy classic, but I had a good time. IMDb.com


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Flushed Away (2006) I liked this, but I think I would have liked it better if I hadn’t sort of … seen it all before. I mean, really. Animation and CGI have reached a point where you can now be amused and engaged, but I’m afraid the sensation we got with, say, Toy Story, or with Lord of the Rings, the feeling of being blown away, is forever gone. There simply isn’t anything more they can do with special effects, or with animation magic. If someone manages to show me something new anytime soon, I’d be very surprised. And in the end, isn’t the whole point of CGI and animation—these days, at least—to boggle the mind? Can’t be done. (I’d love to be proved wrong.)

So a film must stand or fall these days on the story … and a lot of animated features recently have come up short. This one satisfies, though again, there are a lot of rather familiar elements. This is the first all-CGI movie for these folks, the ones who brought you Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit. They’ve retained their trademark character look, with the bulbous eyes and wide mouths. They look like claymation. And like everything these days, the characters are all voiced by live-action movie stars, thus driving up the already high price of the movie and leaving a lot of cartoon-voice actors with the bit parts, but apparently guaranteeing good box office. Why? I don’t understand why having Kate Winslet voice a rat should make any difference. I’d have never have known it was her if they hadn’t told me. Same with Hugh Jackman, Jean Reno … the whole cast, actually. They are all quite competent, but you really can’t tell. That’s a pet peeve. Here’s another. Though the backgrounds are wonderfully imagined and incredibly detailed, you seldom get to see most of it for more than half a second. The only way to appreciate a lot of it is to have a large, HDTV screen, and go through it frame by frame looking for the funny little inside jokes you don’t have time to see otherwise. Apparently there are people willing to do this. At the IMDb there is a list of the DVD titles we see, for a few seconds in one scene.

Somebody paused it and wrote them all down. Amazing dedication! They are funny … but I couldn’t read them even if I did freeze-frame, on our dinky little set.

Often in a film like this it’s the small touches that work best. Here it is a lot of slugs who provide a musical Greek chorus for the action. Very clever stuff. And I must note, before flushing this review, that most of this film takes place in a sewer that contains every kind of flotsam imaginable … except turds. I was just remarking this, when our hero, floating along, grabs onto what looks like a turd (eek! he eeks), and turns out to be a chocolate candy bar. After that, the subject is forgotten. I’m down with that. There are plenty of farting and belching jokes to make up for it. IMDb.com


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Nacho Libre (2006) Let’s hope this is just a hiccup in Jack Black’s career, because it’s bloody awful. There is probably a funny movie in Mexican wrestling, but this ain’t it. It’s all over the place, slow-paced … frankly, pretty stupid. In fact, I can’t recall a good movie about wrestling at all, and there’s a billion about boxing. The only other one I recollect is All the Marbles, back in 1981, and it made the same stupid mistake as this one: It asked you to believe it’s real, and that, going into the ring, nobody knows who’s going to win. Just because it’s rigged doesn’t mean it can’t be a source for drama … and it ought to be an easy source for comedy.

And speaking of rigging … why, of all professional sports, did wrestling degenerate into puffed-up violence porn for people whose IQs are in the deep freeze range? Wrestling is a noble sport, it was in the original Olympic games in Greece, I believe. I think it’s much better than boxing, because boxers are supposed to knock their opponent out, do some damage to them, but wrestlers only seek their opponent’s submission. There are countries where it is taken very seriously indeed, and it’s a big draw at the modern Olympics. There are areas of this country where high school and collegiate wrestling is almost as big as basketball and football. And yet, when you graduate, you either have to hang up your jock strap or put on a feather boa and strut around the ring roaring like a psychotic child on steroids. It’s very odd. IMDb.com


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Night at the Museum (2006) When the museum closes, all the exhibits come to life and the new night watchman must deal with the chaos. A lightweight, inoffensive, and totally predictable summer movie that I’m sure I’ll forget all about within a year. But I have to wonder, do you think Ben Stiller and Hugh Grant were twins, separated at birth? A little of that stammering, hesitant, awkward delivery goes a long way. Ben Stiller never delivers a line without three qualifiers afterward … and then another for good measure. Same with Grant. I’m trying to envision a movie starring both of them, a scene between the two, with each stumbling over the other … oh, the horror, the horror. IMDb.com


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The Number 23 (2007) The trailer for this was intriguing, so I was surprised when it came out that it was almost universally savaged by the critics. Metacritic: 24. Rotten Tomatoes: 8%. Could it really be that bad? Answer: Yes. It’s that bad. The pace is slow, the setup unbelievable, and the development tedious. The shock ending didn’t shock. I know it’s possible to make a good movie about obsession (Vertigo, Blowup), but they missed the boat on this one. IMDb.com


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The Pink Panther (2006) This was what they call a “troubled production.” We started seeing the trailers more than a year before it finally came out, so I assume they were working in the cutting room trying to assemble something funnier than the test audiences saw. You know you’re in trouble when the best thing about a movie is the music, and that music is 44 years old. (By Henry Mancini, and still as good as the day I first heard it.) Some of the physical humor works, but even that seems a bit off. (They start out with Clouseau nearly killing two old people, one of them in a wheelchair. Hilarious.) The verbal stuff just falls flat. They even go the ridiculous path of trying for pathos near the end, when Clouseau is made to realize he’s an idiot. Clouseau must never realize he’s an idiot, you idiot screenwriters! His self-assurance is impenetrable! Then they make him into a genius, which is even worse. Steve Martin is no Peter Sellers, and whoever directed this piece of shit is no Blake Edwards. But don’t worry! There’s a sequel in the works! The mind reels to think it might be worse than this, but you know sequels … IMDb.com


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Poseidon (2006) Here’s something really rare: A re-make that’s actually better than the original. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) was what really got the “disaster movie” vogue rolling, though Airport was two years earlier. For a while they were the hottest thing in Hollywood, pretty much culminating in The Towering Inferno. Looking back, they really weren’t very good. (Exception: Richard Lester’s Juggernaut, which didn’t do any business. I guess people didn’t really want interesting character development in these turkeys.) They’re still with us, I guess, with a few disasters coming out every year, but most of them are fairly pulpish, low-budget affairs.

Not this one. It cost $160,000,000, and you can see why. It was shot entirely on the sound stages at Warner Brothers, except for one day of location shooting at the Sepulveda Dam, which we visited a while ago. They shot one green-screen thing there, which was later composited into a really good, very long shot of the ship’s exterior, which was entirely CGI, like Titanic. But it’s much more detailed. Almost a decade has made a big difference in computer capacity.

I say this is better than the original for several reasons. It delivers what it promises, which is big SFX, big stunts, lots of water, hair-raising escapes. You didn’t buy a ticket to this expecting nuanced character development, did you? No, you went to see a roller coaster ride, and this delivers. The original was mind-boggling in its day, and it also delivered on the spectacle. The ship rolling over was one of those memorable scenes, something you’d never seen before. Well, we’ve seen everything now, and though it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Gene Hackman version, I do remember that Gene Hackman was a pain in the ass in the original, as a priest always pushing his philosophy of self-reliance. We didn’t come here for sermons, man. I also recall that Carol Lynley spent the whole picture trembling and weeping. Pain in the ass. The little kid was a pain in the ass, as was Red Buttons … pretty much everybody, now that I think of it, including Shelley Winters, who I was not as taken with as everyone else seemed to have been.

This movie avoids almost all of that. The pain in the ass character is dispatched pretty quickly, before he can really start to rankle. Even the kid screws up only once. There’s not a lot of moralizing, only survival. You establish a few quick sketches of your characters, you flip the ship over, and you get down to business. The filming must have been harrowing, with most everybody up to their necks in water all day long for months. The excellent DVD “Making of” featurette details some of this stuff. The sets for the ballroom and the ten-story atrium were both practical … and had to be built twice, once right side up, and again upside down.

For some reason it laid an egg in this country, though it managed to recoup its investment worldwide. Myself, I wish now I’d seen in the theater, on the big screen. IMDb.com


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Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) I’d intended to rent the first of these (of which there are now 3, one in theaters as I write this) but hey, one shambling flesh-eating zombie movie is pretty much like any other, right? In fact, there is only one shambling flesh-eating zombie movie, they just file off the serial numbers and re-make it three or four times per year. They vary only in the number of shamblers, and the amount of ammo the good guys get to waste shooting at them without effect.

How smart are these people? A wee bit smarter than the zombies, who can’t do anything but shamble and eat, but not by much. One scene that has to rank as exceptionally stupid even for a shambling zombie movie: You’re being pursued by dead people reanimated by a virus or something, so where’s the logical place to stop for a bit of rest? I’ve got it. A graveyard! Or how about this? You know that being bitten inevitably turns you into a zombie, but you keep your wounded comrades around and alive, apparently so they can go all zombified on your ass at the most inconvenient possible moment.

I basically tuned in to see if there would be any more of Milla Jovovich’s sweet little belly button on display. I hadn’t realized that I’d get two kick-ass broads for the price of one. But both the second banana (Sienna Guillory) and Milla are pretty stupid here. They wear combat boots. Can you imagine? Boots are okay, but they have to have high heels. Ultraviolet wouldn’t be caught dead in combat boots. She knows that high heels have the power to cloud the minds of the waves and waves of cannon fodder that come after her three or four times per day. How do you think she’s survived this long? Baring your belly button helps, too. Nothing works better when seeking to put the whup-ass on a bunch of bad guys than a naked navel.

There’s a character in here I’ve been seeing a lot of these days, and I wonder why it’s not remarked on more often. This is the “street-wise cowardly black man with the funny lines who says muthafucka a lot.” He gets to comment on all the honkies, and while never actually shouting “Feets, do yo’ stuff!” he’s basically Stepin Fetchit.

A line I’d love to hear in one of these movies one day: “Let’s split up so they can pick us off one at a time!” IMDb.com


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RV (2006) Here’s about half of a funny movie. The funny parts mostly are physical comedy. The not-so-funny ones are where Robin Williams seems to be improvising. His routines were funny for about a decade, but now they’re getting tiresome. And this movie has to contend with a big obstacle as soon as they crank up the engine of that big ol’ RV: National Lampoon’s Vacation. That remains the quintessential family road movie, though Little Miss Sunshine is as good, in a different way. Clark Griswold and family endured as many horrors as Robin and family here, and yet Chevy Chase managed to create a unique character. No matter what happened, Clark rose about it with maniacal good cheer and optimism, and there was always the touch of the devil in him that made it all even funnier. Robin Williams’ character here is strictly off the shelf. You know the story without me even having to tell you. Husband is trying to succeed at work and family feels neglected. They pile into the RV (don’t ask why), sniping at each other and at Dad, and soon find themselves transformed into a loving family again. (I’ll give them points for a scene where Robin asks his daughter where she wants to go to college. Stanford? How the hell do you think I’m gonna pay for that, you privileged little bitch? By working, that’s how, something you have no experience of.) The first part of the movie is much like taking a cross-country trip in close quarters with people you hate; I’d sooner be on a Greyhound Bus. But then the “rednecks from hell” show up … at least that’s what they’re supposed to be, at first, before we discover they’re really just the finest, most genuine down-to-earth shitkickers you’d ever want to meet, aw, shucks! Thing is, from the git-go I liked them better than the Williams family. They’re played very well by Jeff Daniels and Kristin Chenoweth, who you may remember from “The West Wing,” and who turns out to be a world-class operatic soprano, as we saw in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide not too long ago. Who knew? They are the brightest lights in a rather murky mixed comedic bag. I also have to mention that the daughter is played by Joanna “JoJo” Levesque, who looks like Lindsay Lohan’s little sister, and she can sing! IMDb.com


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Saw (2004) How do you turn $1,000,000 into $100,000,000? Here’s one way: Chain two people at opposite ends of a filthy men’s room, too far away from each other to touch. Tell one of them the only way he can get out is to kill the other. Add plot complications. Ta-da! A gigantic movie franchise in the torture/dismemberment/horror genre is born. As I write this Saw IV is fixin’ to come out, and the rumor is that at least 3 more are in the pipeline. I don’t see why not. They’ve got a nice gimmick. The serial killer—still alive at the end of the film—is a guy who’s dying, and is pissed off at the people he sees around him who are wasting their precious lives, or maybe just not enjoying them enough. So he constructs fiendish mousetraps for them, that require them to make a moral choice. Get your head blown off by that collar strapped around your neck, or retrieve the key from the stomach of that dead body in the room with you. Well … he’s almost dead … As long as screenwriters can continue coming up with nasty death traps, basically, they can just make the same film over and over with new faces.

Frankly, from its reputation I’d expected this to be gorier. There is plenty of blood, but nothing all that ground-breaking. One of the rest room dudes decides he has to saw off his own foot to get free, but that isn’t shown. I will fess up that the ending—finding out who the serial killer, Jigsaw, really was—caught me completely by surprise … and stretched the bounds of credulity, because he’d have to do something extremely difficult to pull it off, but it’s barely plausible. I’ve seen worse.

I guess that sort of sums it up: I’ve seen worse. Much worse. It’s okay, for what it is, but what is isn’t something I much care for. I wasn’t left with the urge to see Saw II, much less Saw XXXV.

By the way, I do not believe in the movie’s basic conceit. Serial killers, Hannibal Lector notwithstanding, are never evil geniuses with points to make, and endless money for renting abandoned warehouses and buying high-tech stuff and inventing fiendish plans. They kill for two reasons. They hate women, and/or they get sexual satisfaction through violence. That’s it, really. Most of them ain’t too smart (exception, Ted Bundy), and get away with it only because killing by strangers is such a bitch of a crime to solve. IMDb.com


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Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) I believe I really tried to dislike this, but it kept sneaking up on me and hitting me on the funnybone, hard. I don’t know if this is where Will Ferrell came up with the crude, obnoxious, gross, good-old-boy that you know you should hate but end up kind of liking, the character he basically repeated in Blades of Glory, but it works well here. This is a savage satirical attack on rednecks, on the South, on NASCAR … but so are Jeff Foxworthy’s “you might be a redneck” jokes, and rednecks are the ones who laugh the loudest. Rednecks may be the only minority group who don’t get offended by a putdown or a stereotype, they glory in it, and much as I hate to do it, I have to respect them for that. What if all minorities reacted like that? Refused to take offense? There is a line, of course, and one has to know it’s all in fun, but it should be easy to tell minority hatred from minority kidding around. Do you find Pollack jokes or dumb blonde jokes offensive? I don’t, nor jokes about white Anglo males. Why can’t we all just lighten up? But we’ve gone so far in the other direction that it’s no longer possible to even quote someone who uses … gasp! … the N-word. It rankles me every time I even hear that pussy-footed (can I say that without offending women, or amputees?) circumlocution. The word is nigger. Get over it.

Got off on a rant there. I laughed at this movie. My favorite scene comes fairly early, when Bobby and his family are at the table and he’s offering a prayer to the Baby Jesus, among many other howlers. Somebody calls him on it, and they get to debating the nature of Jesus, and Bobby says he prefers the Christmas Jesus in a manger, and he can pray to any damn Jesus he wants to. And it goes on from there. And there are many funny scenes afterward. If you like a comedy that pokes fun at everything in sight, this is it. IMDb.com


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Tideland (2005) Could a Terry Gilliam film possibly be as bad as what the critics were saying? This movie had a few champions, but you could count them on one hand and have lots of fingers left over. Yeah, The Brothers Grimm wasn’t that good, but it had its moment. This one has nothing boredom and nausea. Sadly, it seems to have been an important film to Gilliam, based on a book I never heard of but which was well-regarded and which Gilliam loved. He went so far as to preface it with a personal appearance, speaking directly to the camera, warning us that some of us would like it, some hate it, and some not know what to think of it. Even more sadly, I know exactly what to think of it, and there’s not much point in writing it all down. Just take a look at the worst reviews, and they speak for me. The one bright point, the little girl, Jodelle Ferland, who is in almost every scene, could be quite good, she has a natural screen presence. Too bad she isn’t given much to do here. IMDb.com


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Ultraviolet (2006) I was expecting a poor-woman’s Aeon Flux, and was surprised. It was better than AF, at least at first. After a while it got tedious, as it only had one thing to do, which was put Ultraviolet (Milla Jovovich) up against thousands and thousands of bad guys at once, and have her kill them all, very fetchingly. The basic tactic of the bad guys here is to form a circle around Ultraviolet, all pointing their weapons at her. Then they all wait, to give her a chance to glare at them, change her hair color, brush her teeth, write out a shopping list, and draw her weapons. After they’ve all killed each other (can you say crossfire, class?), they like the result so well they immediately try it again. These baddies, you understand, were the guys who were rejected as Star Wars Imperial Storm Troopers because they were even worse shots than those pitiful mokes.

Some complained that the CGI (which is almost every scene) was not realistic enough, not “photo-real.” Myself, I think that now that we’ve shown we can do that, it gets tiresome fast. Since this was blatantly a comic book, why not have some of the mega-city be just sketched in? It’s time for some CGI Impressionism.

Forget the plot. It’s stupid. The only reason to see this is Milla Jovovich, who has fascinated me for a while, and who, I learn to my surprise, is even more fascinating than I had known. She was born in and spent her childhood in Kiev, USSR, now Ukraine. English is not her second language, but her third, after Russian and Serbian. (She also speaks French.) She speaks English with absolutely no accent. None at all. She has been a singer and a fashion designer. She was in a dumb little movie called Dummy, where she played a punk rocker so desperate to make it that she agreed to perform Klezmer music with her band at a Jewish wedding, not admitting she’d never heard of Klezmer … and invented the genre of Punk Klezmer, which was very funny and actually good.

So the reason to see this is to see Milla kick ass in a moving comic book. And since the audience for this is pimply adolescent boys who would love to have Milla kick their asses, it logically follows that her outfits show a lot of belly-button, since showing boobs would get an R rating and exclude them from the theater. And come on, what’s the point of ninja fighting if you can’t show your cute little belly button? And leathers, and lovely straight hair that changes color at will. And high heels, can’t go into battle without high heels. And lots of macho guns and swords and shit. Hell, she can kick my ass anytime she wants to. It’d be worth it just for a glimpse of that belly button. IMDb.com


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Vacancy (2007) Taken on its own B-movie terms, this is a nice little thriller. A man and a women with car trouble check into a motel late at night. They pop in a tape that’s lying on the video deck and see a violent scene, people apparently being killed. They soon realize the murders are happening in the very room they are in. Whoa! Sounds pretty familiar, right? Well, sure. It’s a scary movie about serial killers. But these are killers I can believe in. They’re not real smart. If they were, they could have built an escape-proof mousetrap out there in the boonies, but they didn’t bother to do so. It’s worked so far; what are you going to do if three guys bust into your room with guns and start slapping you around? You’re probably going to die. But the sloppiness of leaving that tape there gives this couple a warning, and a chance to fight back. This seems reasonable to me. Serial killers are not, by a large, a bunch of criminal masterminds with endless money to rent warehouses to torture their victims, and make fiendish and clever devices. (See Saw … just had to get that reference in there. Actually, we used to call a see-saw a teeter-totter. Is that a Texas thing?) These killers are in it for the kicks, sure, they’re psychopaths, but they are also making a buck on the side selling snuff movies. There’s a chilling scene where a truck driver pulls into the motel. Is he their salvation, or one of the killers? Neither. He’s a customer, and goes off with a big box of tapes. This is not Hannibal Lector or Ted Bundy, these guys are more like John Wayne Gacy, a not-too-bright schlub who buried his kills in his own basement … but remember, he got away with it for a long time.

I have to give this movie plaudits for what it does not do, and that is have a man absorb three slugs in the chest from a heavy handgun, then leap to his feet when everybody’s expecting it but the woman who shot him and turns her back on his “corpse.” These guys are easy to kill if you go at it right. This ain’t Halloween … for which I’m grateful enough that I’ll over look a few flaws. IMDb.com


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