Double feature at the drive-in
© 2004-2011 by John Varley; all rights reserved
June 10, 2010: First FeatureShrek Forever After (2010) Shrek is fed up with his family life and decides he’d like his old, carefree ogre life back. He makes a deal with Rumpelstiltskin that ends up such that he was never born. He returns to Bedford Falls to find it is now ruled by … wait a minute, that’s Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. Okay, so Far Far Away is now ruled by Rumpy and a lot of green witches, clones of Margaret Hamilton. And so forth and so on. It’s all good for a few laughs but much of the life went out of this series with the third one, and I’m glad this will be the last one. IMDb.com
Second Feature Iron Man 2 (2010) We get off to a real bad start here with Tony Stark doing his Steve Jobs impersonation at “Starkland” or some such shit, jetting in with his ego pinned to his sleeve to the roars of the adoring crowd. Exactly like an Apple new-product rollout, except of course that the screaming fans here are pretty instead of pimply, and that Tony’s narcissism is not equal to Steve’s. (Whose possibly could equal it?) We go rapidly downhill from there. Once more it is proved that if you edit fast and blow lots of stuff up, that’s all you really need to make the fanboys happy. And once more I am overwhelmed by how much sheer technical wizardry is expended to produce $200,000,000 worth of crap. About the only thing I enjoyed here was Scarlett Johansson kicking ass near the end of the movie. At least it was human-on-human combat, and I could see what people were doing. What a pass we have come to when I long for a little bit of old-timey Jackie Chan kung foolishness. Oh, yeah, and it was fun to see the grounds of the old New York World’s Fair. So I am reduced to praising the locations. Is that pathetic, or what? IMDb.com
May 20, 2010: First Feature Robin Hood (2010) Somehow I just expected more from Ridley Scott, I guess because I associate him with such wonderful movies as Alien and Thelma and Louise. But then I look over his credits and discover, to my surprise, that the list is full of crap like Gladiator (tied with Braveheart for Worst Best Picture ever, in my opinion), G.I. Jane, and Hannibal. Here we have a mud-and-blood epic with absolutely nothing new or interesting going for it, other than the obvious hope on the part of the producers that it will turn into a “franchise,” like (shudder) Sherlock Holmes, if the box office is good. This is an “origin” story, like Spiderman Comic #1, and the last thing you see on the screen is “And So the Legend Begins.” Oh, lord, I hope not.
An unintentionally funny moment, at least to anyone who knows history: The final battle involves an amphibious landing on a beach on the English Channel … only this time it’s the French invading England. The wide-angle CGI shots of the huge invasion fleet will surely remind you of D-Day. And when they hit the beaches they do it in craft that look pretty much exactly like LSTs, only made of wood. I have no idea if such craft actually existed in the 12th Century. Maybe it’s a case of horse-drawn carts resembling automobiles, in that they both have four wheels. In other words, when you create a vehicle for a specific purpose, all designers are going to come up with similar ideas. All airplanes have wings. All sleds have skids. All beach-assault craft are shallow-draft with a gate in front. But when that gate came down, I half expected Tom Hanks to come charging out to save Private Ryan. IMDb.com
Second Feature Green Zone (2010) Paul Greengrass directed some amazing films, including United 93 and the second and third Bourne movies. This one did many of the right things, but it didn’t quite connect with me. It’s a political film, and I applied my sure-fire formula for political movies: If the Wall Street Journal hates it, then the movie is truthful. At Metacritic, the WSJ’s review was right at the bottom. QED. But just because you got it right doesn’t mean it was worth doing. It’s shortly after the beginning of that monumental clusterfuck called Operation Iraqi Freedom, while the smart boys and girls in Washington and the Green Zone—a palatial spa for pampered CIA and State Department degenerates while outside Iraqis weren’t even getting enough water—still thought they were on top of things, before their idiot decisions brought the world down on their fucking stupid heads. It shows how it all went down. We even see that treasonous asshole Bush on the aircraft carrier declaring the end of combat operations. We see all the horrors, large and small, from torturing prisoners to the imaginary WMDs. And I kept thinking, okay, we all know how this is going to come out. Our boy, Matt Damon, will fail in his mission to stop the situation from going to hell. This is a big strike against any movie, knowing all the action is futile. It can be done—hell, Greengrass did it himself in United 93—but it’s very hard. We know they lied, we know they flat-out made up the WMD intelligence—treason in itself, as if they hadn’t done anything else wrong or illegal—and even worse, we know that those who did it will not be punished for it. They were exposed, it’s a done deal, ancient history, everyone knows there were no WMDs, they were caught red-handed … and still Cheney insists there were. This is so depressing. I still might have liked it, but at the end Greengrass, who has a tendency for shakycam “immediacy” but so far has kept it within bounds, completely lost it and the final fight degenerated into unintelligible and boring explosions, blurred images, gunfire, and extremely short cuts. For the entire last half hour I had very little idea what was going on. I swear, I can fall dead asleep in action scenes like that. IMDb.com
April 29, 2010: First Feature How to Train Your Dragon (2010) I expected that this would get about a 50% at Rotten Tomatoes. Half liked it and half didn’t. Imagine my surprise when I saw it had 98%. That just doesn’t make sense to me. There was very little going for this movie, it was so routine you could imagine the scene 15 minutes down the line, you could know pretty certainly which line of dialogue was about to come from the mouth of which stock character. Utterly unoriginal. There was all the hyperkinetic movement we have come to expect (and dread, in my case) in movies that exist only to show off the 3D. I was very glad we were seeing it in good old-fashioned 2D. I didn’t understand why the boy—naturally, the only smart person in the whole village—having gained the trust of the dragon with the broken tail, was suddenly able to bond with and train all the other dragons. Made no sense. And something that kept nagging at me … why was it that all the adults—Vikings, for chrissake—who didn’t even seem like the same species as their children—spoke in annoying Scottish accents, and the children all spoke like kids weaned on Facebook, cell phones, shopping malls, and television sitcoms? No trace of an accent. Was it because Shrek speaks like that (the only thing I don’t like about the Shrek movies)? Just plain annoying. The only thing I liked in this movie was that the dragons were fairly interesting to look at. That’s faint praise indeed. IMDb.com
Second Feature Alice in Wonderland (2010) I have an idea. Let’s remake The Wizard of Oz. Only, let’s have it kick ass this time! (Actually, what we’ll be making is a sequel, but there’s already a movie called Return to Oz, so let’s keep the title to confuse people.) Let’s turn the Tin Man into a Transformer who can shoot lasers out of his eyes and missiles out of his hands. Let’s make the Cowardly Lion into a were-lion who can turn into a muscle-bound warrior as our little band pilot their ass-kicking motorcycles down the Yellow Brick Freeway. The Scarecrow can be comic relief, with all the wry, cynical lines a movie must have these days. Let’s have Dorothy fall in love with the Wizard, who is really a young stud. And let’s bring in a dragon for Dorothy to slay at the end.
If you like the scenario above, you’ll like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (which, we learn, was really called Underland; Alice misunderstood). If you don’t …
I can’t tell you how dismayed I was to see this movie unfold. It is intermittently visually interesting—I liked the big head on the Red Queen; in fact, I liked her much more than the simpering, sissy White Queen, at least Red had some blood in her veins—but for the most part the Disney version was much more imaginative.
But what were they thinking? The Mad Hatter becomes a tortured soul. The Cheshire Cat gets involved, which is something he would never do. In fact, making any of these characters into the sort of beings who would go on a quest, get involved in battles, behave in any way other than nonsensically, is so wrong-headed I can’t find words to describe it. Then they import stuff from “Jabberwocky,” one of the finest nonsense poems of all time, and try to make it make sense. There is the vorpal sword. There is the frabjous day, sort of like D-Day. There is a frumious bandersnatch, some sort of freaky giant fat cat. And of course, in the end Alice turns into Joan of Arc, complete with armor, and must slay the Jabberwock, which turns out to be nothing but a ho-hum dragon somebody dug out of the cyber-trash cans at some third-rate CGI firm in Taiwan. And we wind it up with the most ho-hum final battle I’ve seen in an age of ho-hum final battles.
I will never forgive Tim Burton for turning Alice in Wonderland into just another fucking video game. IMDb.com
March 3, 2010: First Feature Shutter Island (2010) It’s going to be hard to write very much about this. I don’t think it’s any secret that the ending is quite a large surprise, and I won’t say anything more about it than that it is a surprise. But I got the surprise by reading the book, both when it was new and a few months ago to refresh my memory. And while I was watching I was struck that, subjectively, there are two movies here. Sort of like the difference between going to see Psycho knowing nothing about the movie, and going in knowing that Janet Leigh was going to be butchered halfway through and that Norman Bates’ mother was dead and pickled … but even worse. Nothing is what it seems, but if you know what is really going on you scrutinize each scene for honesty to the hidden premise, and keep saying “Aha!”, yes, that conforms to what the ending will be. Whereas if you don’t know the secret, you will be aware only of the masterful building of tension. In either case, you’re going to be seeing a top-notch thriller. Scorsese said he wanted to make a Gothic movie, and he sure has. The creepiness and larger-than-life, almost operatic menace is there from the very first scenes, on a boat moving through fog to a mysterious and ominous island. And it just builds from there. IMDb.com
Second Feature Up in the Air (2009) There is a film in theaters now, which I haven’t seen yet, The Messenger, that shows a worse job than the one shown here. In that film two soldiers have the duty of going to the homes of men and women killed in action and informing the families that their loved one is dead. In other words, they get to do that scene from Saving Private Ryan that damn near destroyed me, where the soldiers drive up to the isolated farmhouse with the four blue stars in the window. The mother doesn’t need to be told; her knees give out the moment she sees the government car. These guys get to do that day after day. I'd be dead in ten minutes at that job. In this film George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who has a job that isn’t as bad as that, but it has to be a strong second place. He hops all over the country, firing people who their employers are too chickenshit to fire themselves, face to face. He has it down to a science. The writer had enough smarts to make these tragic scenes, the firings, full of wry humor, and the scenes of his life even more amusing. Basically, he is emotionally disconnected from the entire world … and he doesn’t mind (or at least he tells himself so, and even convinces us for a long time). He likes flying first class, staying in good hotels, picking up women as unattached as he is. Or at least he tells himself he does. He has systematized his life as thoroughly as he has the process of breaking it to some poor schlub that, despite 10, 15, 20 (fill in any number) years of faithful work, the company doesn’t need your used-up ass anymore, here’s two month’s pay and there’s the door, please clean out your desk in fifteen minutes. Last year Ryan spent something like 34 days at “home,” in Omaha, and hated every one of them. When he finally does go home, I didn’t even realize it for a while, as his one-bedroom apartment looks pretty much like the dozen hotel suites we’ve already seen, sterile as an operating room, without a single hint that a human being has ever set foot in the place.
So along comes a hot-shot college graduate (Anna Kendrick, in a wonderful performance that got her an Oscar nomination) with a new computer program that will allow Ryan and others in the company to fire people over the Internet, without ever leaving the office. It works great on paper, and in a staged demonstration. Ryan is outraged, and takes her on the road, where she learns that face-to-face is a lot different than a 16-inch computer screen. This is one of the worst moments of these people’s lives. They cry, they get furious, they threaten suicide. And the great thing about the movie is that George is shown to be compassionate, if not emotionally involved. He’s done this a thousand times, he knows how to soften the blow, he even is able to suggest ways these people might get through it, and possibly even better themselves. After all, most people who work in offices, I believe, didn’t grow up wishing to be a paper shuffler or number cruncher or a sales person. Everyone had a dream. Getting kicked out might be your last chance to realize it. Naturally, things happen to break through Ryan’s emotional barriers, and none of them were what I expected. One of them is his on-the-road girlfriend (Vera Farmiga, with another well-earned Oscar nomination) who he thinks is just like him—she tells him “Think of me as you with a vagina”) and turns out to be something else entirely. A really top-notch movie, so good I think I will read the book it was based on. IMDb.com
January 5, 2010: First Feature It's Complicated (2009) You see this one mostly for Meryl Streep, and how many times could I have written that line over the last 20 years? Here is another case of a movie that no critic got very excited about, but few actively hated. It scored a perfect 50% at Metacritic. It cost $18 million to make and in two weeks has grossed $60 million. That’s pocket change to James Cameron, but a nice little profit for the studio, and it will earn more, maybe as much as the iconic $100 million that pretty much defines a hit these days. And why is that? I think it’s because we late-middle-aged, almost-ready-for-Medicare … okay, I’ll say it, we boomers, are starved for a decent romantic comedy. There are four new teenage or young-adult comedies released every week, and 3.9 of them suck, even for their target audience. If we get one old boomer comedy every six months we’re doing pretty good. So we take what we can get, and if it stars Meryl Streep, so much the better. There were a lot of good laughs in this, and though it skated very near to what I think would have been a disastrous and dishonest ending, it managed to avoid it. Put aside the unbelievable fact that Meryl was living alone in a house slightly smaller than Buckingham Palace, and was adding on to it … this is the movies, okay? This is romance. People in romantic movies have nice things, nice cars, nice houses. If you’re my age or older, you will probably have fun. If you’re younger, I don’t have a clue what you’ll think. IMDb.com
Second Feature The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009) It’s amazing the dreck you see when you go to a double feature at the drive-in. We’ve sat through some stinkers, but this was the worst yet. If you look at my review of the first one you’ll see I gave it a marginal thumbs up, mostly because it had a slightly new take on the wheezing old vampire trope, and because the idea of being super-powerful and living forever appealed to me. This movie has nothing going for it. Literally nothing. The boy and girl could have been improved on by substituting dressmaker dummies in the roles, but the dummies might not have paused quite so long between every line. It is one of the most boring movies I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Gerry and Japon. I mentioned that Bella was into bad boys; how much badder can you be than a bloodsucking fiend? Well, I’ll tell you. You can be a werewolf, who now appears as her second boyfriend. What’s in the third book? Zombies or Egyptian mummies? I guarantee you that Bella will fall in love with the hunkiest of either creature, even if she has to pickle the zombie or unwrap the mummy. I stayed to the end of this one for reasons similar to the reason you don’t stop watching a train wreck in the middle. Except a train wreck is interesting. I just had to see if it could keep getting worse. It did. This movie goes directly to my list of Worst Films of All Time, which I’ve got around here somewhere. It’s a short list—I spend a lot more time trying to forget these films than to remember them—but a boring one. IMDb.com
December 29, 2009: First Feature Sherlock Holmes (2009) TAKE TWO. I was sure I’d never see this movie, but I didn’t count on it being on a double bill at the drive-in with Invictus, which we did want to see. Well, what the hell? We could pay less at the drive-in for two films than we’d pay elsewhere for one. Sounds like a bargain, doesn’t it? It wasn’t.
Roger Ebert had this to say about the movie North: “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.” So, with thanks to Roger: I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.
You get the idea?
I have read all the Sherlock Holmes stories. I am by no means a Baker Street Irregular, but I admire the stories, and feel that Sherlock is one of the great creations of English genre fiction. Arthur Conan Doyle practically invented the detective story, and his tales have endured for a century. But if anything could kill them, this movie would.
I do not necessarily object to new Holmes stories. Many have been done over the years, movies such as Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Percent Solution and Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, novels such as Rick Boyer’s The Giant Rat of Sumatra and Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, with Holmes as an old man. There was They Might be Giants, where George C. Scott thought he was Holmes. There was Young Sherlock Holmes, his adventures as a student. All these books and movies had one thing in common: they respected the character. Few characters in literature have been described in such exacting detail as Holmes. If you’ve read the stories, you will know him when you see him, and you will know when you are not seeing him. There is no Holmes in this movie. It’s as simple as that. Yes, Sherlock was good with his fists, and he knew some Eastern martial art. But this witless, dark, violent, quick-cutting abomination lingers on the violence and not much else. Goddam it, if you want to make a Jackie fucking Chan movie, get Jackie fucking Chan.
This movie made something like $50 million in its first weekend, which guarantees there will be a sequel. In fact, it’s already listed at the IMDb. I look forward to it with the same enthusiasm I would bring to contemplating a third Chipmunk movie, a seventh Saw movie, Sidewiki postings, a Sarah Palin presidency, or a dose of the clap. IMDb.com
Second FeatureInvictus (2009) Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison, and in the end he forced the government to let him loose. Most people—myself included—would have been pretty pissed off when they got out. They’d be looking for revenge. Not Mandela. Most people—myself included—figured South Africa would soon descend into race war as the blacks got even for the atrocities committed against them during apartheid. But Nelson Mandela was determined to avoid that. He wanted, somehow, to unite the nation, black and white. His main tool to avoid violence was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But another thing he wanted to use was rugby.
(Almost 20 years later, there is still tension and a great deal of economic disparity between black and white South Africans. The country has a lot of problems. There has been violence. But there has not been race war, at least so far. For 20 years South Africa has avoided the ugly fate of Zimbabwe. I believe this is almost entirely attributable to Mandela’s policies.)
South Africa is sports mad on a scale that dwarfs NASCAR or the NBA. In 1995, blacks played soccer and whites played rugby. Blacks (including Mandela while he was in jail) rooted against the national team, the Springboks. I would have, too, wouldn’t you? Whites chafed at the boycotts that had kept them out of international competition for a long time. The Springboks were no longer the team they used to be; they hadn’t been able to play against the big boys for years. Mandela went to the captain of the team and asked him to do the impossible: Win the Rugby World Cup. And they did.
I don’t know if Mandela was quite as hands-on with the team as he is shown here, if he was as caught up in their games, but who cares? The spirit of the story is accurate, and it’s a real crowd-pleaser.
This is the second good sports movie this season, following The Blind Side, and of course they are both about much more than sports or I wouldn’t give you a nickel for either of them. I know about as much about rugby as I know about buzkashi, the national sport of Afghanistan, where horsemen hassle over the headless carcass of a goat instead of a football. Rugby is very strange to watch, with about twenty guys huffing and puffing in a tangle called a scrum. Suddenly the ball pops out, and the mayhem begins, and seems to just keep going on and on, with the ball being tossed about and kicked. It makes no sense to me (I didn’t understand what was going on in the scrum, but I suspected they were up to no good in there), but that didn’t matter. You don’t need to know anything about rugby to enjoy this movie. I could tell when they had scored a goal, or a point, or a home run or a touchdown or whatever they call it because the director, Clint Eastwood, wisely showed us the scoreboard when that happened. That was all you really needed to know. And the crowd went wild!
I have to note that I’ll bet the players of rugby and Australian rules football regard our National Football League as a bunch of overpaid wusses, sissies, and nancy boys. NFL guys go out there with enough armor plating to stop a howitzer shell. Rugby and Aussie rules players go onto the field in sweaters and boxer shorts, and the play is just as violent, if not more. They don’t even wear helmets! In America, helmets are recommended in croquet, ping-pong, and Scrabble. What’s the deal here? Are they made of sterner stuff, or are the South African hospitals full of drooling, brain-damaged ex-ruggers? IMDb.com
November 13, 2009: First Feature The Blind Side (2009) My feeling is, a movie like this either works for you, or it doesn’t. With me, much depends on the performances, and this one was sold to me, big-time, by Sandra Bullock. Lordamighty, that girl has chosen some real bad shit since her knockout debut in Speed, including the very recent All About Steve, which achieved a 17 rating at Metacritic on its way to flopping. I haven’t seen it, and may not, but apparently almost everybody hated it. Even the poster sucked.
But she nails this one, with a strong performance in a strong based-on-fact story. It’s simple enough. A very large black kid from a terrible background is taken in by a rich family in Memphis, and eventually legally adopted. He is emotionally shut down and everyone thinks he’s stupid, but boy, would they like to get him on the football team! So with tutoring, and coaching, he becomes a star, goes to Ole Miss, and just last year was signed by the Baltimore Ravens for something like $13,000,000. I like a story like this if it’s done right, and I think they hit all the right notes, centering around Bullock, who plays Leigh Anne Tuohy as a take-no-prisoners force of nature, and manages to stay away from the more blatant tear-jerking.
The main objection raised by some critics (including some who loathed it just because of this) was racism. You know, sweet white people intervening and rescuing this rather simple boy from the clutches of poverty, drugs, and street crime. I have a problem with this perspective because the fact is, the dude needed saving. Does anybody doubt that? Is it likely that he could have rescued himself? He was homeless; that’s as desperate as it gets. His crack whore mother has eleven or twelve kids, she’s not sure how many. Would it have mattered if he were white? Would that make it look okay? I think there’s some racist thinking in the idea that it’s somehow bad because it was a white couple that helped raise this man out of despair and uselessness.
But there is a grain of truth in the accusation, and the movie acknowledges it. Viewed from the outside, without knowing of the genuine love that developed between Michael and his adoptive family, the situation could look a little suspect. The NCAA sees it that way, when he decides to go to Ole Miss, which just happens to be the alma mater of both the Tuohy’s and the tutor they hired to goose his GPA up to an acceptable level. Did they do it for him, or for themselves? Did they exert unfair influence on him, when it was pretty clear he preferred Tennessee? Would people stoop that low? You bet they would, in the crazy world of college football. We see the recruiters arriving, unable to offer money but dangling every other enticement they can dream up. (Some of them were played by real college football coaches.) You bet these football fanatics in the south would do pretty much anything for a left tackle like Michael.
Leigh Anne realizes this when Michael is told how the family might be treating him as a prime piece of livestock (which, let’s face it, all college prospects are, white or black), and briefly rebels. She realizes she’s never even asked him if he likes to play football. His answer: “I’m good at it.” Which says a lot. And the hard fact is, without football, the best Michael can hope for is a solid middle-class existence. (He’s not as dumb as he seems; he graduated with respectable grades and a degree.) There’s nothing wrong with such an existence, but the question he has to answer is, does he want to take a shot at becoming a celebrity and a millionaire doing something he basically doesn’t like all that much. I know how I’d answer. I’m 6’6”, and the despair of all the high school coaches at Nederland High School. The tallest kid in school, and he can’t dribble, can’t jump, can’t shoot, and doesn’t give a rat’s ass for basketball anyway. But, if I could jump and shoot, and the pros were interested in me, I’d somehow have found it in me to suffer through a few multi-million-dollar seasons. Michael has made that choice, too. I think most people would. IMDb.com
Second Feature The Box (2009) In the beginning was the short story, and the short story was called “Button, Button,” and it was by Richard Matheson, and it appeared in Playboy in 1970. And in those days I read Playboy (for the stories and interviews, naturally), and I read the story, and it was okay. It went like this: Guy gives a couple a box with a button on it. Press the button, he says, and you will receive $50,000, and somebody you don’t know will die. After a short period of agonizing, she pushes the button. Her husband is then pushed in front of a train, and dies. The guy tells the woman she never really knew her husband. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom, rim shot, the end.
And then there came the re-incarnation of “The Twilight Zone,” the one in the ‘80s, and the producers made the story into a teleplay and changed it a little bit. She presses the button, the guy returns with the $200,000 (inflation), and says he will now pass the box on to another couple, "I can assure you it will be offered to someone whom you don't know.” And yea, verily, Mr. Matheson was pissed, and used his WGA pen name on the script. Myself, I don’t really care which ending is used. It’s a funny trifle, a story that had “Twilight Zone” written all over it from the git-go. Move on.
In either version, this simple little story is just a parable, with different outcomes. You got your set-up, you got your moral dilemma (would I push the button?), and you got your punch line. It’s very much like a Deal With the Devil story, in that you can’t win, the Devil is always one step ahead of you. This new movie makes the fatal mistake of trying to explain it all (and ups the payoff to $1,000,000). There should be no explanation; it simply is, like most of the best “Twilight Zone” stories. If you tinker with them, they fall apart. And boy, does this one fall apart. For about the first 45 minutes they simply repeat the story, and then they go off into machinations too complex for me to explain here … and, in fact, too complex for me to understand. I had no clear idea what the hell was going on. And worse, I didn’t care. IMDb.com
November 13, 2009: First Feature A Christmas Carol (2009) This is another exception to the rule (see The Bad News Bears) that it’s always a bad idea to remake a classic. “A Christmas Carol” is one of the greatest stories of all time. It can withstand a new directorial hand. It might even be a good idea to remake it every twenty years or so, because so many kids won’t look at anything more than ten years old, and they really should see this story. All I ask is that there be minimal tinkering. Don’t try in any way to “improve” the story. It can’t be done.
Robert Zemeckis, the zealot of motion-capture CGI animation (The Polar Express, Beowulf) has followed that rule. I have seen this story so many times, in so many versions, that I know many lines of dialog by heart. They were first lifted directly from the Dickens story, and no remake worth its salt would try to improve on them:
All these lines, and many more, are here in this newest version. And that’s good, because you really don’t want to mess with this story. I don’t say that in a metaphorical way; I mean that I may personally drop by your house, Mr. Zemeckis, puncture all your inflatable yard Santas, and set your wassail on fire. So watch it.
The one scene that was added was at the very first. Scrooge very reluctantly pays for Marley’s funeral … and then plucks the pennies off the dead man’s eyes. “Tuppence is tuppence,” he says, and I liked it, because it was appalling and perfectly in character.
CGI motion capture enables Jim Carrey to play not only Scrooge at four stages of his life, but Marley’s Ghost and all three spirits. I have to say he does a good job of them all, but I’m a little surprised he didn’t also play Bob Cratchit, Fezziwig, the prize turkey, and Tiny Tim and his crutch. The look of the film is marvelous. I suppose a time will come when I stop being amazed at the sheer detail they can put into CGI these days, but it hasn’t happened yet. And CGI, at its best, is also very good at giving the director complete freedom to choose his shots. Things that would have taken huge amounts of labor or would not have been possible at all are easily achieved in the computer. Zemeckis often uses this to good effect.
So now we come to my one beef, and it’s a simple one: That goddam 3D. We did not see the 3D version—I guess we’re going to have to spring for the extra money one of these days, as more and more pictures come in a 3D version with this new process, but I don’t expect to be impressed. I’ve seen 3D. I remain convinced that it’s a gimmick. And movie after movie proves my point, because watching the 2D version it was glaringly obvious—as it has been, so far, in all 3D movies—that it was made for 3D. Things are forever leaping out at you. Fingers and other objects point such that you know they are extending into the theater in the 3D version. This, I submit to you, is puerile. It is distracting. It is … boring.
The other thing we inevitably get in a 3D movie is the roller coaster ride. This is not always bad, but it usually is, because it is obvious that the ride has been inserted merely to exploit the technology. When a movie is driven by technology first and story second, story suffers, and in the end, it is really all about story.
Case in point: A Christmas Carol opens with an aerial roller coaster ride above London and through its busy streets. This is okay with me; it sets the scene nicely. That’s one. When the Spirit of Christmas Past appears (a very nice effect, an androgynous being who resembles a candle), the two of them go zooming through time and over a snowy landscape to revisit Scrooge’s past. This is okay, too, I didn’t mind it. But that’s two. The spirit is carrying a candle snuffer. When Scrooge attempts to snuff it out, he is taken on a rocket trip far, far into the air. Zoom, zoom, zoom. Well, all right, that wasn’t too bad, though it was totally unnecessary. That’s three. When the Spirit of Christmas Present appears (when I was a child, I thought he was the Spirit of Christmas Presents), we go zoom, zoom, zooming again, as the floor of Scrooge’s house becomes transparent, like a glass-bottom boat. It’s the least interesting of the choices Zemeckis made, and it’s number four, and I’m beginning to get annoyed. And, of course, we’re still not finished. For most of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come’s time on the stage, we never stop zooming around, including an extended and by now quite boring sequence where Scrooge is tossed, willy-nilly, all over the goddam town, and I’m really starting to grumble, “Bah, humbug!” That’s five, six, and maybe seven, and I say the hell with it. When, and if, somebody makes a grown-up movie in 3D, a movie that takes 3D in its stride, like Dial M For Murder (yes, it was originally 3D), instead of continually shouting “Hey, Daddy, look at me, look at me!” … well, I might start to take it seriously. But I don’t see it happening.
Other than that rather large objection, I thought it was a pretty good movie. IMDb.com
Second Feature Astro Boy (2009) Sometimes going to a movie with very low expectations is the very thing you need to enjoy it. My expectations for this one were below zero. I have no interest in Japanese anime, and no knowledge of the hero other than he looks pretty stupid. If you dressed him in red-and-white-checkered dungarees he’d look a lot like Bob’s Big Boy. Not a promising beginning. And the story isn’t much, either. Sort of a high-tech Pinocchio, except Gepetto never rejected the little wooden boy. No, the delights here are in the secondary characters, and the general level of wit the writers brought to the project. There are a lot of very funny lines, and a lot of references to other movies that you may or may not catch. The three robots of the RRF, the Robot Revolutionary Front, are great. And the action all takes place in a well-designed sort of art deco city floating over a giant junkyard. The kids will probably enjoy it more than the adults, but this adult had a good time. IMDb.com
November 3, 2009: First Feature Paranormal Activity (2007) I can’t help it, this is the sort of story I just eat up. Not the story the movie tells (though it’s a good one), but the story of the movie. The writer/director, Oren Peli (who???) had never made a movie, but he figured, How hard could it be? So he wrote a scenario—there never was a real script, he had his actors improvise—bought a video camera, and shot the whole thing in his own house. I’ve heard various numbers as to how much he spent doing it, from $11,000 to $15,000. Yes, that’s thousands, not millions. Essentially, it was no budget at all.
As of today, it has grossed $66,000,000 at the box office. Yes, that’s millions, not thousands. It may be the largest expense/return ratio in the history of film. It dwarfs the profit margin of all the Star Wars stuff, beggars the profits of The Dark Knight, totally overwhelms Gone With the Wind and Titanic.
Yeah, but is it any good? The surprise answer: Yes! It’s damn good!
It’s the latest example of a not-too-distinguished sub-genre that I think of as the “found object” movie. The grandmama of the genre is The Blair Witch Project, a film I wasn’t too impressed with. Other examples I have seen are Quarantine (budget: $12,000,000), and Cloverfield (budget: $25,000,000). The idea behind all of these is that a videotape or DVD has been found that shows the development of some horror, and we’re pretty safe in assuming that it was made by people who are now dead.
So. The plot. A demon has attached itself to this young woman. It has never harmed her, but it follows her around from home to home, whispers in her ear, does the usual poltergeist stuff. It’s a distinctly low-budget demon/poltergeist. There are no shattering walls, no flying china and silverware, no collapsing floors that lead straight to Hell. It’s subtle. Things move a little. Distressing thumps and indistinct sounds are heard. It has begun to manifest itself in the home of her boyfriend, where she is currently living. He is skeptical, and wants to record it on video, capture it, bring it back alive.
Now, let me be clear, I don’t believe in ghosts, demons, or any of that horse manure. Not in real life, anyway. But I can believe darn near anything for two hours, for the length of a movie, if the story is well told. And this one is a crackerjack. Mr. Peli knows two things that almost everyone in Hollywood seems to have forgotten:
1) Suspense is better than cheap thrills. Most movies today are described as roller-coaster rides, and it’s an apt comparison. On a coaster you get maybe sixty seconds of suspense, going up the first hill … and it’s not really suspense in the best sense of the word, it’s anticipation. After that, it’s hold onto your hat. You are given one thrill after another, as fast as possible. Or in a horror movie, a bucket of blood is dumped on your head every few minutes. Alfred Hitchcock was called the master of suspense because he knew that building tension was much more effective, and the effects stuck with you longer. Hardly anybody in Hollywood knows how to do that now, or if they do know, they eschew it in favor of what is much easier: Wowing you with CGI and/or buckets of gore. Oren Peli has rediscovered the suspense movie, and made a humdinger.
2) What you don’t see is a lot scarier than what you do see. Alien stopped being a scary movie the moment I got a good look at the creature. After that, it was exciting, but before that I was scared shitless, just about the last time I have been scared at all at the movies. Same with Jaws. Once we see the shark, he’s just a big fish with big teeth. Before that, hidden under the water, he is terrifying on a whole different level. The typical “scary” movie today hammers you relentlessly with gigantic effects and one bloody scene after another, starting about ten minutes in. It gets, and I’m not exaggerating here, boring!
Peli has done something else, too. He has tapped into a primal fear. I have a fear of deep water, and things in that water that I can’t see, so Jaws really got to me. It’s ridiculous to be sitting in a theater, wanting to pull your feet up so a shark can’t bite off your leg, but that’s exactly how I felt. Hitchcock exploited our feelings of vulnerability about being naked, about almost seeing something (through the shower curtain), and the fear of knives that a great many people have (including me) to the point that there are people who to this day feel uneasy getting into the shower.
Here the fear is of what might be happening when we are at our most vulnerable: when we’re asleep. Long sections of this movie are absolutely static shots of the couple in bed, asleep. Nothing happens. Nothing happens. Nothing happens. Nothing happens. And then … something happens. It’s a small thing, a door moving a few inches. A pause, and then the door moves back. You think this sounds boring? It isn’t, trust me. You find yourself obsessively watching this non-moving picture, worried about what will happen next, and the longer you look, the scarier it becomes. We come back to this obsessive shot time after time, night after night, and each time something a little more alarming happens. People have been leaving the theater in the middle of this film, that’s how frightening it gets. The couple hears things, they get out of bed, and we see the jerky camera shots as they try to track this thing down. The woman is beginning to lose her mind. And still the tension builds.
I don’t know about you … the next day, when they are looking at what was taped in their bedroom the night before … well, I try to imagine myself watching some unseen presence billowing the sheets around me as I am lying helpless in the dark … like I said, I don’t believe in haunts, but the moment I saw that I’d tell my girlfriend to take a hike, and take her goddam demon with her. I may be a skeptic, but I’m not a fool.
Interesting bit of trivia: This may be the only major studio release since the silent era to come out with no credits. Not at the beginning, not at the end. No director, no actors, no nothing. Of course, the credits would have been short, there’s only about 5 people in the film and there surely were no caterers, drivers, grips, best boys, or third assistant directors, but still. I have to admire Peli’s dedication to the idea of the “found object” by effacing even himself from the final product. IMDb.com
Second Feature Law Abiding Citizen (2009) The events portrayed in this movie are often referred to as “Taking the law into your own hands.” I don’t think that’s accurate. When you go out to avenge some great wrong without the help of the police and the courts, you are ignoring law entirely. You become your own law, and it’s because the law did not grant you justice. Bear in mind that “law” and “justice” are two entirely different things, and often have very little to do with each other. Laws are supposed to be the same for everybody. We each have our own conception of justice, what we will settle for, and what we won’t. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t.
The granddaddy of this genre is Death Wish, where we all thrilled to the sight of a lone man challenging the entire system, killing scum like the degenerates who murdered his wife and daughter. This one also features a man whose wife and daughter were taken from him by two poster boys for retroactive abortion, but he is a lot more methodical, he takes his time. As they say, revenge is a dish best served cold. In this case it’s mighty cold indeed; ten years elapse between the murders and the man’s revenge. But it is ten years well-spent, by a man who is said to be a brilliant tactician. And as he says, his revenge will be Biblical.
One thing that often bothers me about evil genius mass murderers is, just how did they find the time to set up their insanely elaborate traps and ruses? Well, I figure that with a lot of money and ten years of thinking about nothing else, a brilliant inventor could come up with some really fine ways of getting even. He certainly does here.
Movies like this force me to face a fundamental schizophrenia on my part. The good liberal in me believes that, though our system of law is far from perfect, it also happens to be just about the best system anyone has ever come up with. No system will ever deliver justice 100% of the time; there is probably no such thing as perfect justice, so we must stumble along as best we can. I believe deeply in protecting the rights of the accused, and I support the system of appeals. There are endless things you could tweak, but not the core beliefs.
On the other hand … there is a part of me—a part of many of us, I suspect—that insists that, in some situations, nothing will do but justice. That part of me hates the exclusionary rule, Miranda, Escobedo, and 95% of defense lawyers. The rigor with which these things are enforced has sometimes (I won’t go so far as to say often) resulted in gross miscarriages of justice, whereby people who are obviously guilty of the most heinous crimes walk free.
One thing I deplore without reservation is the prosecutorial practice of cutting a deal with some of the scum of the Earth in order to convict someone else. I know that sometimes it is the only way anyone will answer for a crime, but what it boils down to is, the first one to rat gets a walk, while someone who is possibly less guilty does the time, or even rides the needle. That’s the situation here. The scumbag who actually raped and killed the daughter gets an easy sentence, while his dumb-ass accomplice gets death. And that’s when the shit hits the fan, because the execution is what the husband has been waiting for. He manages to exchange one of the solutions in the death machine for something really nasty, that causes the lesser scumbag to suffer greatly.
Confession: I liked that scene. It has always pissed me off that we spend even a freakin’ second worrying that the pinprick of the needle might give a child rapist-murderer an oowie, or that one of the solutions might give Ted Bundy a momentary discomfort on his way to Hell. Fuck him, I say. And fuck the guy who fries and burns in a faulty electric chair. I think that if we’re going to kill bad people, cruel and unusual is a damn good idea.
Again, that’s the Biblical part of me speaking. The part that enjoyed it when the husband trapped the major scumbag, tied him to a torture table, and described in loving detail the things that were going to happen to him in the next ten, twelve hours, or as long as he could manage to keep him alive as he removed his limbs and genitals and organs one piece at a time.
See, there is very short list of people whose brutal murder would impel me to “take the law into my own hands.” Nothing else would be acceptable. I’ve thought about this a lot. When I read of some innocent person tortured and killed by an animal that should have been strangled in the bassinet, I think, “What if that was someone in my family?” Would I rely on our system to give me “justice?” No, I would not, because on a personal level, the system cannot deliver justice. It’s not justice to have the animal sit comfortably on death row for 20 years, and then be put painlessly to sleep. Not in my Biblical estimate of things, it isn’t. It’s not justice for him to serve 30 years. If I was alive when he left prison, I’d be waiting there at the gate with a rifle, and I’d know how to use it. If he was going to trial and my testimony was needed to put him away, I’d refuse to testify, or do it badly. Because once he’s in prison I couldn’t get to him. That’s just me, I don’t expect you to agree. And I recognize that, sometimes, justice just can’t happen. They may never know who did it. He may be sent to prison for life, no parole, without my testimony. I can’t control that. But if I can get to the sonofabitch, I will kill him. If I could, I’d torture him first, give him at least as much suffering as he gave my loved one. I would do my best to get away with it, but if I were caught I’d plead not guilty and take my chances with a jury. Sometimes they do the right thing, in spite of the law.
That’s just something I had to get off my chest after seeing this movie. Now, as to the movie itself … In Death Wish, Charles Bronson never killed the actual murderers of his family. They were never identified. He took out his rage by becoming a vigilante, finding and executing people who richly deserved it. No trial, no sentencing; see a scumbag hurting someone, kill a scumbag hurting someone. And I have to say I respected him for that. I don’t think I’d be able to do it, but he damn sure didn’t kill any innocent person, and he cleaned up the streets just a little hit.
In Law Abiding Citizen, the man goes a lot farther than that. You’d have to say he goes crazy. He sets out to punish every person who had a hand in the miscarriage of justice ten years previously: the judge, the defense attorney, and the prosecutor who made the deal. I can’t say I wept for them, but I also don’t think it was right. In the process of his vendetta he kills many innocent people who had nothing to do with hurting him. Clearly, he’s in the wrong … and he just doesn’t care. He’s got a point to make. He’s a nut, but he does have a point. Some of it is pretty far-fetched, but … one more confession … I didn’t hate him. In fact, I was with him for a while. So sue me. I have to say that, though this isn’t a good movie, it got my Old Testament blood going. IMDb.com
October 20, 2009: First Feature Where the Wild Things Are (2009) First, let me say I don’t know from Maurice Sendak. I’ve never looked at any of his books. I have a CD of a performance of The Nutcracker for which he designed the sets and the CD cover, and that’s the sum total of my contact with Maurice Sendak. So this movie is not a rendering of a beloved classic to me. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. Maybe if I’d loved the book the movie would have made some sense to me. Or maybe I would have hated it; after all, I understand the book had only 10 sentences. We’re looking at some major padding here.
I hated this movie more than anything I’ve seen in years. It starts off with this little 9-year-old shit throwing a tantrum and biting his mother. Now, I don’t believe in hitting kids, but I don’t believe in biting, either, and I’m afraid I’d have clocked the little bastard right into next week. I’d have probably felt rotten afterwards, but what are you gonna do? He runs, and ends up on an island populated by large men wearing fuzzy suits with big heads. And that’s what they look like, too. Muppets. And sure enough, I find they were created by Jim Henson’s crew. Ten sentences in the book, and these rag dolls talk, talk, talk, and talk some more. The script must have been the size of a phone book. And every word of dialogue is beyond stupid, even for an angry 9-year-old. They devote the next hour to breaking things and trying to work out some interpersonal relationships that had me falling asleep. Then he goes home. I don’t know why. I can’t see that he’s learned anything. The end. I’m not kidding. That’s it.
Every element of this movie sucked in a major way. It is visually uninteresting. It seems almost to have been shot in B&W (brown and white). The music is insipid (and I found out, back at home, that it was written by the director’s girlfriend). The voices just do not work with these creatures. They are provided by the usual “name” actors picking up an extra couple hundred grand for two day’s work. None of them know how to create an interesting voice; they just talk. Nice work if you can get it. And the whole exercise was not juvenile, it was infantile. They spent 80 million dollars on this gigantic regurgitated hairball of a movie, and I sure don’t see how they did, unless each of those suits cost 10 million. There’s nothing to look at, nothing to think about except how much longer will this idiocy go on, and absolutely nothing to enjoy. A triple threat. IMDb.com
Second Feature The Invention of Lying (2009) How’s this for a Coca-Cola commercial: “It’s mostly brown water and sugar, but it doesn’t taste so bad. Of course, it tends to make your children obese.” Or on the side of a bus, for Pepsi: FOR WHEN THEY’RE OUT OF COKE. This is advertising in the world created by Ricky Gervais, where no one can lie, where they don’t even understand the concept of lying, it’s as alien to them as quantum mechanics to a monkey. Honesty can be painful. Everybody tells everybody else exactly what they think of them. Our hero, Mark, is short, fleshy, and has a snub nose, and no one ever fails to mention this when they talk to him, especially girls. He is a screenwriter … but since fiction is lying, all movies consist of experts sitting in chairs reading history. Sort of a PBS hell. Mark has been assigned the 14th Century, whose most important feature was the Black Plague. Try making a fun movie out of writing about that. He is fired, he’s about to be evicted, he only has $300 and he needs $800. He goes to the bank, and has an Einstein moment. What if he claims he had $800? Well, since the teller has never even encountered the concept of untruth—they have no word for it, which makes it hard for Mark to explain what he does—she assumes the bank made a mistake. He gets the money, and he’s off to the races.
Soon he’s lying about everything, and doing pretty well in life. Except that he’s basically a nice guy and can’t bring himself to lie to the woman he loves, who won’t marry him because she needs a guy with better genes, which, of course, she tells him. But for everything else, all bets are off. The best scene is when he tells his dying mother that you don’t just vanish when you die, you go up into the sky where everyone is happy all the time. She dies happy, but the doctors and nurses hear him, and of course they believe it instantly and want to know more. So Mark basically invents religion in 24 hours, complete with sin, judgement, and the Man in the Sky.
Many, many complications, and they all worked for me. Take casinos. As you enter, they tell you that your odds of winning are small, and the House always wins in the end. Would anyone gamble? Yes! Because anyone with any sense at all knows that going into a casino, we just like to think we’re the exception.
No movie could include all the possibilities of such a premise, but if they ever make a sequel I’ve thought of a few. How would lawyers operate? Could they even have lawyers? Used car salesmen would be a pretty depressing job, telling the truth about all the lemons you’re trying to sell. Then there are politicians, of course …
There was one missed opportunity that I wish I could have contributed to. Mark wants his job back, so he makes up this absolutely insane screenplay involving space aliens and the planet Mars and every wild—but interesting!—thing he can think of, and calls it “The Black Plague.” He says it all happened in the 14th Century, and the aliens wiped our memory of it, so the only record is the (forged) document he has found. Everyone believes him, and the movie is a smash. What they should have done was summarize the incredibly wacked-out texts of Scientology for his wild story, with the body thetans blown up by atomic bombs, the Galactic Emperor Xenu, and spaceships that look like DC-8s with no engines. No kidding, Scientologists really believe that crap. I wonder if Scientologists came through a time warp from this Ricky Gervais world where everyone believes everything they are told? IMDb.com
October 17, 2009: First Feature The Stepfather (2009) In 1987 a pretty darn good thriller came out, written by Donald E. Westlake, who also did the fantastic The Grifters. It had a very scary, very original psychopath as the central character. This man’s obsession was nothing new: He wanted a perfect family. His solution when his family turned out less than perfect, as they all eventually do, was nothing new, either. He killed them all. And here’s where he departed from the usual script. He didn’t kill himself. He moved on, found another family, and eventually killed them. In the very first scene we see him cleaning up, stepping over the bodies of wife and children. No telling how many times he’s done this before. (These monsters are called family annihilators, and one could only wish they’d reverse the killing order. Kill yourself first and then slaughter your family. They seldom do.) The movie was tense, very well acted by Terry O’Quinn, who I’m sure you’ve seen in a hundred supporting roles. This was his chance to shine, and he sure did. They made a couple of sequels that were reviewed so badly I never went to see them.
Now somebody decides to re-make it. I’ll never understand the urge to re-make, with a few exceptions for the classics. There’s a new A Christmas Carol coming out this year, for instance, and I’ll probably see it. But why fool with something that, while no Citizen Kane, was perfectly good the first time around?
Well, they did. And I will confess that I wanted to hate this movie, and I didn’t. The reviews were pretty awful, so I was surprised that, once again, we have a competent thriller, that at times even rises to the level of pretty darn good. It’s not half as good as the first one, but it’s tolerable. The ending sucks, but the build-up was good, aside from a few stupid actions by the characters. Pretty faint praise, huh? Well, that’s all I can give it, but I have to say that I was grateful not to have to sit through 101 minutes of sheer dreck while waiting for the second feature, which is the one I came to see. IMDb.com
Second Feature Zombieland (2009) There has been a funny zombie movie before this, the excellent Shaun of the Dead. That one takes place in England. This one is American, and I think it’s even a little better than Shaun. I think zombies are funny in and of themselves. They are so pitifully easy to kill. They shamble after you, no tactics, no lurking about, no plan at all, drooling blood, and you whack them over the head with whatever is handy. True, it’s gruesome, and they often get up again for another dose, but unless you are surrounded by them, you have little to fear from zombies.
This movie ups the ante a little in that these zombies don’t shamble, they sprint! Which leads to the first of Our Hero’s long list of rules for dealing with zombies: Cardio. Keep yourself in shape. The first people who got eaten alive by the plague of zombies were the fat people. So many of the zombies we see are enormous.
Other rules: Always check the back seat. Beware of restrooms. Always fasten your seatbelt. And: Double tap. You’ve shot the zombie once, and he’s lying there. Make sure he doesn’t do a Michael Myers Halloween number on your ass. Get up close and put a round into his head, just to be sure. These rules pop up (literally, like pop-up ad on your computer) all over the place as they are narrated by Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), a nerdy guy who joins up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) in a quest to get to a California amusement park where the rumor is there are no zombies. Where did the rumor come from? Who knows. Why would there be no zombies there? Excellent question, but who cares? This is not a movie that cares much about plot logic, and neither do I. It’s clear that they are going there because an amusement park will be a cool place to film the final scenes, which involve killing lots of zombies. Cool. It’s all in fun, and very funny. IMDb.com
September 30, 2009: First Feature Surrogates (2009) The idea of people staying perpetually at home and interacting through television is not a new one. Neither is the use of remotely-controlled robots as stand-ins. Many science fiction stories have dealt with these themes, and I think there have probably been movies about it, too, though I can’t bring one to mind just now. There are all sorts of possibilities here, and this movie manages to miss just about all of them in pursuit of a ho-hum detective thriller.
Many of the premises are pretty stupid, too. I’ll take just one of them; I don’t have all day to pick them all apart. Right up front we are told that 98% of all humanity now interact solely though their surrogate robots. Yeah, right. This is happening no more than twenty years from now. I’m sure surrogates come in real handy to a Bedouin on a camel caravan in the middle of the freaking Sahara desert. Or the African villager trying get in a pitiful harvest of millet or sorghum when the rains haven’t fallen. “Just what I needed! Now I can starve to death in the comfort and safety of my mud hut, while my $500,000 surrogate fails to get in the crops! Thank god for the United Nations for providing this useful tool!” What fucking planet are these screenwriters living on? Planet Rodeo Drive, apparently. Do they really think the problems of hunger and poverty and ignorance will be solved in 20 years, giving the billions of poor people around the world the leisure to use a high-tech robot for their daily affairs? It would have been a quick fix. Just say that 98% of the industrialized world is now using surrogates. I mean, it doesn’t bear thinking about for a nanosecond, but it apparently shot right by these shit-for-brains writers that much of the world aspires to nothing more than a handful of rice a day, and here they are supplying the whole world with robots when we haven’t even been able to get $100 laptops to a few million African kids in five years of trying. (The idiots in question are Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato. It takes more than one moron to come up with something this boneheaded, and they should be named.)
As for missed possibilities … some of the things people are doing to their one and only, irreplaceable and all-too-delicate bodies even today would take your breath away (and in some cases, nauseate you). Body piercing, whole-face tattoos, extreme body modification. People with metal spikes embedded in their heads. Yes! People do this! How much more radical do you think they would get if they could express their creativity on a plastic golem that felt no pain and could be made to look literally any way you wanted it to look? I have a feeling the streets of a surrogate society would be more colorful than the bar in Star Wars. Here, the most anyone does is to make their robot surrogate younger, thinner, and prettier than the poor schmuck or schmuckess lying back home in the simulation chair. And how about sports? When all surrogate bodies are engineered to be super-strong and insensate to pain, what would that do to, say, the NFL? The star quarterback could be a 10-year-old girl in India, playing a game in New York.
That’s only a few of the more obvious ideas. I’m sure you can think of half a dozen more in ten minutes. Sorry to say, the writers didn’t. IMDb.com
Second Feature The Proposal (2009) There are more possible story arcs for a romantic comedy than the standard boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl … but not many. One of them is boy and girl hate each other (or are simply wildly incompatible), boy and girl are thrown together in a comic situation, boy and girl fall in love. I’ll bet you’ve seen a hundred of them. This doesn’t have to be bad. There are very few original story ideas out there (sometimes I’m tempted to say there are none), most good stories are variations on old themes. Thus, when you know you’ve seen this story before, you can only be wooed if the new iteration brings something charming to the table. Lee and I liked Forget Paris and Fever Pitch, one because it found a fresh way to tell the story, the other because it just all seemed to click. (I’m talking about boy meets girl, etc.) This movie has quite a few funny moments, good lines, good situations. It also has some that hit the ground and just lie there, flopping awkwardly, even embarrassingly. Dead fish moments. Trying too hard for a cheap laugh. On balance, we had a good time, but it was a near thing.
This movie is a variation on Green Card. Sandra Bullock is a Canadian working as a ruthless, relentless, hated book editor in New York. She is so arrogant that she neglects to keep her visa affairs in order—no one could possibly give me any trouble; I’m too valuable!—and suddenly finds she is about to be deported for at least a year. Solution: Marry her harried and abused assistant. But an immigration dick is onto their scam and they might be in big trouble. Then it’s off to Sitka, Alaska (which is actually Gloucester, Massachusetts and Newport, Rhode Island, and ain’t movie-making wonderful?), to meet the folks. The set-up is funnier than the payoff, though there are some good moments at the parents’ house. IMDb.com
September 22, 2009: First Feature Jennifer's Body (2009) When you win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in your first time at bat, like Diablo Cody did with Juno, it’s no surprise that expectations will be high for your next film. And when you’re Diablo Cody and a whole lot of industry people really, really don’t like you because you aren’t what they want and expect from a screenwriter, you should probably be prepared that every review of your new film—even this review—will start out mentioning Juno, and how this film isn’t as good. It isn’t. But the subtext of many of these reviews is the nasty sort of I told you so! gleeful snorts you get from people who never could and never will write anything as good. See? That former-pole-dancer trailer-trash in-your-face bitch isn’t as good as you thought! She confounded all of the artsy-fartsy pretensions of Hollywood, and was rewarded for it, and she will probably pay for that all her life. And the sad thing is, when you do write something that good for your first film, the odds are that you never will write anything as good or better, as with Orson Welles with Citizen Kane and Peter Bogdanovich with The Last Picture Show. It’s something you just have to live with. You can do perfectly good, even brilliant, work afterward, but the shadow of that masterpiece will always loom over you.
That said, this movie is at best a competent B-grade dead-teenager thriller. There’s some supernatural horseshit to justify it all, but basically, it’s just this girl who kills boys and eats their sweetmeats. That may or may not be a departure from the norm; in my experience, mass butchers in the movies are one of two types: the sexists who only kill girls, and the politically-correct equal-opportunity slaughterers who kill any person who gets in their way, gender be damned. But I don’t see enough of this kind of movie (he said, proudly) to really know if a girl-on-boy cannibal is a rarity.
With Diablo Cody’s history as a nude dancer I suspect that she was trying to work in some sort of sub-text here. Jennifer (who even before she started disemboweling her classmates was a … a word too incendiary to use here, but it rhymes with hunt) tells her best friend that, basically, your body is powerful, you can manipulate boys to your heart’s content if you just use it. That’s something all pole dancers learn, if they didn’t know it already. Cody has even written about it, elsewhere. I’m sure that must feel empowering, to know that you can literally control a boy who’s twice as big and strong as you, but I have almost the same contempt for girls who use sex in a certain way as I am of boys who force themselves on girls. Nasty people, both of them. So I didn’t care much what happened to Jennifer. Nor to the boys she killed, come to that. They just didn’t seem real enough in the first place.
Oddly, the movie only really came alive for me in the end credits, when some guys who really had it coming got their just desserts in a series of artfully-composed stills. And I almost missed that in my haste to get to the rest room and back before the next feature started! IMDb.com
Second Feature Whiteout (2009) Canada stands in for Antarctica. Well, why not, Canadian snow is just as cold as any. We see lots of snow here, which makes sense, but the director did not solve the problem of how to distinguish among three people in huge parkas fighting in a blizzard, as in the climactic scene. I had no idea who was doing what to whom … and the sad thing is, I didn’t care much. It’s just not much of a thriller. When that happens you find yourself obsessing about the details. Like:
What sets the plot in motion is the discovery, way out in the middle of nowhere, of a mostly crushed dead man. (It takes them a ridiculously long time to figure out he’d been dumped from an airplane.) Now, Antarctica is vast. Other than penguins, there’s almost no one there at all. Highly unlikely that a plane would ever fly over that body, or if it did, that anyone would see it.
They find a Russian plane that crashed 50 years ago. It’s buried about ten feet deep. Another thing Antarctica is, is dry. Driest continent on Earth. It would take centuries to bury a plane that deep in new snow. I can see blowing snow piling up around it, but not burying it.
This may be a legend, but it rings true to me … It’s not a good idea to bring a bottle of vodka in from a –50-degree environment and then take a deep swig of it. Most vodka sold in America is 80 proof: 40% alcohol. Even that probably wouldn’t freeze at –50 F (alcohol freezes at –173.2 F), but most Russian vodka is a lot stronger, up to 95%. Whatever the case, chug-a-lugging a liquid at –50 would freeze the lining of your throat and probably kill you. This happens in Drop City, by T.C. Boyle. IMDb.com
September 7, 2009: First Feature The Final Destination (2009) Horror movies are really the perfect genre for hack writers, especially in these days of the horror movie “franchise.” Halloween I through Halloween XX (some of which haven’t even been made yet!) are all the same movie. How easy it must be to simply write the same script twenty times! You name it: A Nightmare on Elm Street, Night of the Living Dead, Evil Dead, Friday the 13th, Saw … all the same movie, filmed over and over. All merely excuses to kill people in imaginative ways. And that is the only element of imagination that enters into Part II though Part ∞. Maybe the first movie had an original idea in it. I can guarantee you that the most recent one doesn’t.
These movies impinge on my cinematic world so little that I wasn’t even aware of this franchise—and this one is the fourth, even though the only number it has is 3D. Mercifully, they don’t show movies in 3D at the drive-in (I stopped being amused by objects flying out of the screen with the first 3D fad, back in the ‘50s), so we saw only the flat version. I must say that, if the only goal of your movie is to show people crushed, sliced, diced, squashed, fried, fricasseed, and pureed (all of which happen in this movie), I gravitate toward something like this rather than the aforementioned hamburger stands (gimme a Halloween sandwich with a side of cole Saw), because this one explores the inimical nature of the universe itself, rather than plumbing the depths of evil in men, vampires, or zombies.
The plot here (and, according to what I read in Wiki, it’s exactly the same in all the previous three) is simple. A group of friends survive a giant disaster because of a premonition of one of their number. In the first one it was an airplane crash. Here it is a giant smash-up at a NASCAR race. Only they’ve apparently violated some basic law of the universe, or probability, or Fate, or whatever, because the people who survived and were not supposed to survive begin dying in very unlikely and very horrible ways. That’s it. Oh, there’s some half-hearted discussion of why this is happening, and what might be done to avert it, to regain control of one’s destiny, but you can sleep through that garbage; you came here for blood, didn’t you? And you’ll get it, about every ten minutes. And it must be said, here is where the dim minds who write parts two through infinity really shine, in thinking up awful ways to die They find some doozies. Each death is caused by some Rube Goldberg improbability machine, a chain reaction of malign happenstance that makes you laugh involuntarily. And there is even a trace of wit, in that you are often set up to think that one thing is going to happen, when something even more improbable is the actual result. It all reminded me of “Dead Like Me,” where each week there was some ironic and gruesomely funny way of dying.
But bottom line: The best thing about this movie is that I now don’t have to even think about seeing Parts I, II, and III. I’ve already seen them! IMDb.com
Second FeatureDistrict 9 (2009) What a huge letdown. This has been touted as the SF movie with a brain, a subtext, a message. It’s all about intolerance, and it was made in South Africa, that former poster country for institutionalized discrimination. And it is, for about 2/3 of the movie. Then it gets as dumb as Transformers or Terminator Salvation …
It starts out well enough. Premise: 20 years ago a vast spaceship arrived and hovered over Johannesburg. The interior of the ship proves to be a stinking slum, its inhabitants starving to death. The aliens are relocated to another stinking slum, not unlike a South African township, and resentments fester with the human population. And rightly so, it would seem. It looks like a ship of intergalactic deadbeats to me. It is decided to move the 1.8 million “prawns” to another stinking slum, much farther away from town. The relocation turns violent.
It is filmed in a documentary style with shaky cameras which, oddly enough, make it all seem more realistic than your usual CGI. When the camera is not pointing right at your money shot, but the action is taking place off to one side, and a bit indistinctly, it lends weight to the fiction that it’s simply being filmed as it happened, not painstakingly shot with actors playing to empty space and aliens later CGed into reality.
Much more happens, which I’m not going to bother with, as the plot logic soon begins to break down. The pace is relentless and, eventually, mind-numbing. The justification for the cinema verite style is lost, and its use is continued merely for its supposed kinetic attraction to ADD fanboys. What follows is a series of high-tech fist fights, lip-smacking sadism, and stupidity filmed at such a pace that half the time … no, make that ¾ of the time, I had very little idea of who was doing what to whom. Soon, I didn’t care. I was bored witless during the last 15 minutes.
I think it is a very sad commentary on the state of action films these days that so many critics lauded this crap. Have they forgotten what an honest action film looks like? Is motion all you need now? Apparently so. They should be ashamed of themselves, critics and moviemakers alike. And that means you, producer Peter Jackson. IMDb.com
August 20, 2009: First Feature Inglourious Basterds (2009) Quentin Tarantino, from the times I’ve seen him on talk shows, seems to be the consummate asshole. He’s an asshole who knows how to make movies, though, and this is another amazing entry in his very small oeuvre. I must commend him for having made one of the few action-oriented films I’ve seen lately where the director has the confidence to let his camera linger, with no distracting moves, to let the dynamics of his dialogue and the actors delivering it sell the scene instead of using flash cutting and ominous music. His movies are famous for never going where you expect them to go, and with one terrible exception (which I will get to very soon), this one delivers right from the first sequence, where the tension builds to amazing levels and then something happens that I did not expect at all. And it continues doing that, right through to the satisfying final scene.
And I guess I must at this point issue a half-hearted spoiler warning. It’s half-hearted because I’d really like you to read it, even if you haven’t seen the movie, because I want to warn you about how bad, how really awful this one scene is, so you’ll be ready for it. So:
HALF-HEARTED SPOILER WARNING
A Jewish girl is the projectionist at a little film festival she has arranged to incinerate Hitler, Göring, Goebbels, and Himmler all in one glorious auto de fé. A Nazi sniper who has been pursuing her barges his way into the room and seems prepared to rape her. She gets the drop on him and shoots him twice in the back. Then, she realizes he is still alive and appears to take pity on him, rolls him over … and he shoots her.
I can’t even count the number of ways this scene is … stupid, ludicrous, stunningly bad, clichéd … wrong, wrong WRONG!!! For one thing, the Nazis murdered this girl’s family in the opening scene of the movie. The sniper is famous for killing 300 Americans in one battle. And she feels sympathy??? WRONG!!! Up to this moment she had not shown the slightest trace of stupidity, and then she does this monumentally stupid thing. WRONG, Mr. Tarantino. Upon realizing he was still alive, the girl you wrote would have fired all the bullets in her gun but one into the man’s back, saving the last round for a cautious shot to the brain, which is guaranteed to kill even a Nazi. And it’s just plain beneath you, Quentin. It’s a scene that belongs in a movie by an incompetent asshole like Michael Bay. The cheap surprise! Jesus, man, the girl was a cinema buff, just like you! She would know a gotcha! moment as well as the rest of us do. These things are Cinema 101, even in 1944 Paris. Don’t split up in the spooky house. Don’t walk through a door backward. Don’t approach that almost-dead Nazi until he has some serious lead in his brain pan.
She would know these things! She would not have an ounce of sympathy for this murdering degenerate! She wouldn’t hesitate a nanosecond to perforate, mangle, and dismember him! Shame on you, QT, for including this scene from another—bad—movie in this otherwise fine film. It almost destroyed the whole movie for me. Just almost, thankfully.
Other notable impressions: Much has been written about Christoph Waltz as colonel Hans Landa, the urbane SS killer. He’s being compared to Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter and Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh. It’s all true. This is the creepiest character in a long time. And like Lee said, there’s not too much Brad Pitt. IMDb.com
Second Feature A Perfect Getaway (2009) When I say this is a better-than-usual thriller involving people out in the wilderness in mortal danger for their lives, you should bear in mind that the bar for that sub-sub-genre of scary movie has been set very, very low. That said, I have to say I enjoyed it up until the usual last ten minutes, when events blast their way over the top and into la-la land. But before that, the development was good, as three couples meet on a hiking trip on a remote trail on Kauai and it seems likely that one of the couples was involved in a gruesome murder a few days ago on Oahu. But which one? There is more characterization that I’ve come to expect, and the solution, when it comes, seems to be honestly arrived at, though unlikely. Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich are quite good. I have to mention a bit of psychotic-killer trail lore here for the ladies in the audience, though. If you’ve just pinned a homicidal maniac to the ground with a knife through his hand, don’t run off and leave the knife sticking in him so he can pull it out and come after you with it. Stomp on his face and push him off the cliff he’s hanging over, okay? IMDb.com
August 20, 2009: First Feature Aliens in the Attic (2009) We’re all familiar with the genre of kid movies where the kids repel some threat in spite of the cluelessness of their parents. I find I tolerate them less and less as I grow older. As I turn into a grumpy old man. Here, it actually makes a sort of sense, as the invading aliens have a gizmo that enables them to animate a person like a remote control puppet … but it only works on grown-ups. Naturally the main character son has issues with his father, and naturally they are resolved at the end, though I can’t fathom why. Nothing has happened to bring them together. This is a totally uninspired movie which I suppose the kids will enjoy, as it’s full of action. There was one funny schtick, involving the awful older boyfriend of The Girl, whose mind and body are taken over by the aliens, but whose controller (looks just like a video game controller) is captured and operated by the kids. It’s fun to see him get his just desserts, crashing into things and so forth. Other than that, I didn’t laugh at all. IMDb.com
Second Feature Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009) Very few franchises can survive Installment #3, and this isn’t an exception. It is lovely to look at, as pretty much all computer animation is these days, but the plot didn’t involve me at all. The only thing I remembered from the first movie was an ingenious sequence with a squirrel and an acorn. Very funny. Apparently everybody else thought so, too, because in this one the squirrel and his new love interest interrupt the action every ten minutes or so, and it quickly grows tiresome. I don’t remember the first one being all that great, and this one has had what life was there to begin with pretty much squeezed out of it. IMDb.com
August 8, 2009: First Feature Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) About halfway through it really dawned on me, what a remarkable achievement this series is. I can’t think of a single thing in the history of cinema to compare it to. By that I don’t mean that this series is the best that’s ever been done—though it is damn good—but that we’ve never seen a trio of actors grow from children to adolescents to young adults playing the same parts! Can you think of another example? (There have been examples on television, like little Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show,” but that’s different.) They’ve been at it for nine years now (filming began in September 2000 for a November 2001 release), and will be shooting right into 2010 … they are, in fact, shooting right now on the two-part final installment, due out in the summers of 2010 and 2011). Remember what little Daniel Radcliffe looked like? Little Emma Watson? They’re grown up now. And the filmmakers got lucky, because all three of the friends turned out to be competent actors as adults. Pretty much everybody in the British theater has appeared in one role or another, and of them, only Richard Harris has died. His replacement, Michael Gambon, was an excellent choice; I hardly notice the difference.
I hunted around for a few other numbers, money numbers, and they are staggering. Not counting whatever they will spend on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts One and Two (and it will probably be in the neighborhood of $400,000,000), the six films have cost about $850,000,000 to produce. Yikes! But they have returned one and a half billion dollars domestically … and a mind-boggling five billion dollars world-wide. That’s not even counting the thousands of tie-ins: computer games, stuffed toys, action figures, clothing, any-flavored gumdrops, etc. Oh, and don’t forget the books. J.K. Rowling’s share has made her a billionaire. I’m going to guess and say that, when it is all added up, all things Harry Potter will have generated around 25 billion dollars. (I think it may be more than that, but let’s not quibble.) That is more than the Gross Domestic Product of 100 of the world’s 190 nations as listed by the CIA World Factbook. Not bad for an idea dreamed up by a 25-year-old welfare mother on a train trip from Manchester to London, huh? And she’s given away many millions to charities. Who says nice gals finish last?
Oh, and the movie? It’s a great relief to see a summer movie that isn’t just a series of stupid action scenes, like Transformers. There is an actual plot (though with a year between them, it might be a good idea to see the last couple before seeing this one; we were confused from time to time), and actual characters that grow, and that you care about. I’m very impressed that they have maintained a high standard through six films now, and I look forward eagerly to 7A and 7B. And one day (or I should say, one week and a day) in the future, it might be fun to watch all eight films in a row. So far, we have just over 15 hours of Harry Potter. If the next two are as long as the average 150 minutes, we will have 20 hours when it’s all done … IMDb.com
Second Feature My Sister's Keeper (2009) What was this movie doing at the drive-in? I’m not complaining, really I’m not, but I have never seen a real tear-jerker at the drive-in. I’ve seen some serious dramas, like The Departed, but ever since I was a teenager going with friends to dusk-to-dawn 5-movie marathons the flicks playing have tended to feature giant radioactive ants, creatures from outer space, cowboys, teenage werewolves, or girls in bikinis. (They still do, in 21st century versions, except for the cowboys, which have been replaced by comic book superheroes.)
This was based on a book by Jodi Picoult, co-written and directed by Nick Cassavetes. And it is a harrowing story. Sarah (Cameron Diaz) is a lawyer, married to Brian (Jason Patric) a fireman. They have a son, Jesse, and a daughter, Kate. At age 2, Kate is diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia. She will die without donations of bone marrow. None of the family is a match, chances of finding a match are slim. But if they have another child …
Their daughter Anna is the result of in vitro fertilization and selection, carefully chosen to be a match for Kate. And already we are into very tough bioethics questions. Anna’s first contribution is fetal cord blood. Well, sure, why not? It’s just going to be thrown away. But not long after, Kate needs blood, then bone marrow … we are treated to descriptions of how painful that is, of how two nurses had to hold Kate down, how there were complications, how she spent a week in the hospital. We see a lot of this stuff in flashbacks.
And now Kate is 15 and Anna is 11, and Kate needs a kidney. It doesn’t even occur to Mom to ask Anna if she wants to do this. Of course she wants to! It’s her sister! She loves her sister. Only … Anna has had enough of being sucked dry by vampires and turned into an organ farm. She goes to a lawyer (Alec Baldwin) and wants to get “medically emancipated.”
And I can’t talk about what I want to talk about here without issuing the famous
This movie is so good, much of the time, that it made me angry that it was so bad some of the time. There were scenes that were played honestly, and were heartbreaking. I was in tears through about half the running time. But there were entirely too many musical montages of impossibly happy people enjoying life, skipping and jumping, laughing heartily, smiling, smiling, grabbing for the gusto … I might as well have been watching a beer or soft drink commercial. Nick Cassavetes needs to decide if he’s going to make a serious film, or a Hallmark TV movie of the week. This movie is half and half, and frustrating because of that. There is also a serious case of piling on the tragedy. Jesse is dyslexic. The judge lost her beloved daughter to a drunk driver six months ago and “suffered a very public nervous breakdown.” She’s only just back on the bench. The lawyer is epileptic. (This is actually rather neat, as he has a service dog and we are puzzled as to what the dog does. The man doesn’t seem disabled. But the dog senses when the lawyer is about to have a seizure—service dogs can be trained to do that!—and gives him some warning. Still, with everything else, it’s too much.)
But worse, I felt that both the book and the movie didn’t have the courage to explore some of the really tough questions raised by this situation. (I haven’t read the book, but the Wikipedia article summarizes it, and enumerates the differences between book and movie.) In both book and movie it turns out that Kate, recognizing that kidney donation is a possible life-threatening situation for Anna, and a certain life-limitation for her (she won’t be able to do a lot of things, and her life expectancy will be shortened) … and since the new kidney will probably give her only a few more years of life … that she asks Anna to go to the lawyer. She wants to die, her life is too painful anyway, she’s weary of it, and she doesn’t want to ruin Anna’s life. Very brave, very commendable, very believable. In the movie the mother relents, Kate dies, and Anna wins her case when it no longer matters.
Now here’s where it gets sticky. In the book, Kate is in a very convenient auto accident, and is left brain-dead. WRONG!!! Wrong, wrong, wrong! I very seldom approve of changes to novels made into films, but every once in a great while Hollywood is right, and this is one of them. I’m sorry, Ms. Picoult, but this is a massive cop-out. I’m glad I didn’t read the book; I would have thrown it across the room. Here’s from the Wiki summary: “In the epilogue, it is revealed that Kate survived the transplant, although doctors had thought she might be too weak. Kate believes that the reason she survived is that Anna took her place in heaven.” Oh, please. Once more Kate gets the best of it, and little Anna is screwed. Anna’s whole life is about being screwed, by everybody in sight. This auto accident allows the author to skirt the really, really important question she raises, which is this: Does Anna have the right to refuse to donate her body parts?
I say a resounding YES. The law supposes that a minor child is unable to give informed consent. Fine, I agree. Now, a five-year-old may not want a polio vaccination, and the parents may overrule her, even hold her down. All well and good … but the shot is demonstrably for her own benefit. There is no way you can make the involuntary “donation” (actually, theft) of an organ look like it is to the owner’s benefit. Therefore, I believe it is immoral, and should be illegal, to take an organ from a minor child for any reason. In the eyes of the law, she cannot consent. Try to imagine the pressure Anna will feel from her frightening mother (and I’ll get to her in a minute). “Don’t you love your sister? How can you murder her this way?” You can’t tell me an eleven-year-old can be said to consent in that situation.
One of the good things about the movie is that we see how this horrendous situation came to be, and even to understand it, a little. Sarah loves her little daughter to distraction. She has given up her law practice, and when she finds her darling is sick, she basically gives up everything else, to devote herself to keeping Kate alive at all costs. That’s fine, for her, but she never stops to count the costs to Anna. Never once, not for a second. And I see how it happened. When a doctor suggests (unethically, by his own admission) engineering a perfect donor child, Sarah leaps at the chance, and two years later she has her organ bank. Her attention is focused like a laser beam on keeping Kate alive. The family basically forgets about their son, and I understand that, too. (At one point he runs away, and expects them to be angry when he returns. They don’t even notice he’s been gone.) When you have a dying child, that child takes over your entire life, and everybody in the family suffers. And when Anna says she doesn’t want to donate the kidney, mom couldn’t be more stunned if a potted tree told her to stop picking its fruit. Sarah is that type, which lawyers so frequently are, that is totally intent on winning. The problem is, her opponent here is Death, and nobody beats Mister Death in the end. This puts her in an impossible situation, determined to win, fated to lose. She is started down this path by love. She was basically a decent woman, and she never sees what a monster she has become.
All this is so good that it makes me very sad about the bad parts. The amazing Abigail Breslin of Little Miss Sunshine shines again. Cameron Diaz is very good in a tough part. Sofia Vassilieva manages to keep the dying girl from being too sappy; I liked her, I wanted her to live. It broke my heart.
Here’s the story I’d have liked to have seen: It is Anna’s decision to seek emancipation. She does love her sister, and Kate loves her, but enough is enough! She must stand up for herself, or what’s next? Half her liver? They can do that, you know. One of her lungs? What if Kate’s bowels fail? Could she take half of Anna’s intestines? Can they do that? I have a feeling they’d like to try, see what happens, the fucking ghouls, and Mom would be demanding they give it a shot. Anna hopes Kate will understand. Given the horrors of Kate’s life and the certainty that she won’t survive very long even with a new kidney, I think she might.
And I haven’t even addressed what would be a really tough situation. In this story, Kate is going to die. Without a kidney, she will die right now, in hours or days. With one, she might live another two or three years. What if the donated kidney would save her life for a meaningful amount of time? Say, twenty, thirty years? Would Anna still have the right to turn her down?
My answer is yes. What’s yours? IMDb.com
August 7, 2009: It must seem like we never learn. How frequently in these reviews have I reported that not one, but both movies at a drive-in double feature was terrible? Why do we keep going? Well, the big reason is that we like the drive-in. The second one is that hope springs eternal. Maybe the movies aren’t quite as bad as the reviewers are saying. (Sometimes that’s even true. Alas, not often, though.) And, no small factor, if a movie is truly horrible, at the drive-in you can make rude noises, nasty comments on the parenthood and intellect of the morons who made this shit, and not disturb your neighbors who might be enjoying it. (Somebody must enjoy them, though I can’t imagine who.) Plus, I get to come home and write a really, really, really killer review.
First Feature The Ugly Truth (2009) Why is it that Meg Ryan faking an orgasm in a restaurant—an unlikely situation, I think we could all agree—is hilarious, a classic that no one will ever forget, while Katherine Heigl having an involuntary orgasm in a restaurant as a result of forgetting to take off her vibrating knickers just lies there, flat, dead on arrival? I sure don’t know, but that’s the case. Nothing in this movie works. Not one joke. I disliked everyone in it, to the extent that I thought about them at all. No chemistry between Heigl and Gerard Butler, which makes their inevitable falling-in-love scene fall as flat as a pair of vibrating knickers with dead batteries. In fact, the only enjoyment I got from this movies was the chance to use the word “knickers” in a review, a word that I think is much superior to the American “panties.” Don’t you?
And what’s the deal with this Gerard Butler? He’s Scottish, and here he looks something like a chipmunk with acorns in his cheeks. The previous movies I’ve seen him in are the horrible, horrible 300, where he was pumped up like a steroid freak and spent the whole movie screaming with the cords on his neck standing out, comic-book style … and The Phantom of the Opera, if you can believe it, where he sang. And apparently he did his own singing. I thought he wasn’t a very good choice … but what the heck, he was in a mask most of the time, so I guess it hardly mattered. IMDb.com
Second Feature The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) Boy, did I ever nail this one. When I heard that the classic film starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw was being remade by Tony Scott, script by Brian Helgeland, I just had to see the original again, which turned out to be even better than I remembered it. I also made a few predictions about this one, and I’m batting a thousand.
I said it would be more action-packed. In the original, a police car rolls onto its roof and skids a ways while hurrying to deliver some ransom money. Here, there are no less than three bad accidents doing the same thing, the last one being one of those idiotic automotive ballets where a car flies into the air and rotates at least 17 times before ever hitting the ground, where it stays only momentarily before falling off a bridge. Can you spell Overkill?
In the original, Robert Shaw was pure controlled menace, never so much as raising his voice. Psycho, sure, but smart. Here, John Travolta starts off screaming, and raises the noise level from there. His pitiful performance is all over the place.
Original: There are actual people helping Shaw in the hijacking, people with names and a wee bit of characterization. (They call each other Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, etc. They have brains.) Here, one man has a name and a few lines; the others are ciphers, plug-ins, the sign of a truly lazy screenwriter.
Original: Walter Matthau was wry, funny, and dead serious, by turns. Here, Denzel Washington is simply dull.
Folks, I thought no one could out-crap the putrid remake of Sleuth, but this one manages to do that. This movie pisses all over the memory of the original. It’s a remake for the short-attention-span, shakycam, steadicam, stuttercam, and—I’m really beginning to believe this—pretty stupid new generation.
You all know of the two-frame action scene cut. You can never quite tell what’s going on, but by golly, it moves, don’t it? This is the technique favored by incompetent directors who don’t have the courage to let you actually see anything, who hope to whip you from one stupid action scene to the next without engaging your brain at all. They believe that you can’t concentrate on anything unless it goes by in a blur, that you have an attention span of about 2 frames, which is one twelfth of a second. Personally, I think it may be only one forty-eighth, which will entail, in the future, that cameras be overcranked to accommodate almost 50 separate images per second.
And you are familiar with the shakycam, which is operated by cinematographers with cerebral palsy, drawing attention to the awful camera work even in scenes where there is no intrinsic motion. Especially in those scenes; we don’t want to have these fanboy jerks think nothing’s moving do we? Motion at all costs, even when it makes no sense.
And we all know of the love affair moron directors (I mean you, Tony Scott) have with the steadicam. If the people in a scene aren’t moving, well by god we’ll move the camera, around and around and around them, pointlessly. Drawing attention to our snazzy camera work. The steadicam was invented to follow action without having to lay cumbersome dolly tracks, asshole, not to generate useless motion.
To those three execrable cinema techniques, I’m adding a new one, with a word I believe I’ve coined myself: the stuttercam. You’ll see this many times in The Pimping of Pelham 1 2 3, but it is at its most blatant near the end when the train car comes out onto elevated tracks and hurtles around a curve. It goes for two frames, and then it jumps. Two frames have been removed. Two more frames, and it jumps again. Two more frames have been removed. Continue this pathetic action until you cut to the next incompetent scene. What this is meant to do is beyond my poor powers of understanding. It must be another attention span thing: “Oh, fercrissake, is the goddam train never going to get around that curve? I’m falling asleep. Oops, it jumped! Thank you Mr. Scott, for keeping me awake!”
What else? The list of stupid techniques and even more stupid choices here is endless, there is no hope of me enumerating them all, but here’s a few more:
In addition to making the Denzel Washington part boring, a sub-plot wherein he has taken a bribe is laid on, for no reason I can see. Contrast with Walter Matthau, who we first see reluctantly escorting a visiting group of Japanese trainmen around the control room. He believes they don’t understand English, and insults them freely. They smile. And when it comes time to go, they thank him profusely, in English. This is the sort of wit we see in the original. Brian Helgeland can’t even spell wit.
Travolta is not really interested in the $10,000,000 ransom money, he has bigger fish to fry, involving the effect his hijacking will have on the stock market, which is so loony, so idiotic … what’s the synonym for brainless I’m looking for here? … aha! .. so “Brian Helgeland,” that I defy anyone to believe it for a single second.
So how do they end this piece of shit, this inflamed pimple on the ass of good cinema, this rotten, oozing pustule pretending to be a movie? I’ll bet you’re way ahead of me. The good old stand-off, Denzel holding a pistol on Travolta after one more standard final chase scene that had me snoozing until the sound woke me up and I wished for a rotten tomato to heave at the screen—or better yet, at Scott and Helgeland.
You may be wondering: Why the excess of bile toward what is, after all, only a routinely bad action movie, not really all that different in essence from a hundred, a thousand brainless action movies of the last decade? Two reasons. One: People will go see this pile of cow flop and never imagine that the original could be a trillion times better. They will not realize that Brian Helgeland is a rapist, and Tony Scott is an asswipe.
And two: It provides us a baseline, a comparison, that shows us just how far we—as a film industry and, I’m afraid, as a society—have degenerated in a mere 35 years. I know I’m going to come off as a pathetic, grumpy old man. “The world is going to hell! Why, in my day …” I realize that oldsters have been decrying the new generation ever since Alley Oop, Jr., picked up that newfangled bow and arrow and killed a mammoth with it, instead of using a good old sharp stick. “Look, dear, they’re drawing pitchers of bears and elk now, and people a-huntin’ ‘em, instead of just making handprints on the cave walls like we used to do. What are we going to do about all this violence in the media?” So you may not agree with me, if you’re less than my 60 years. But I invite you to just listen to this movie. I am a lifelong advocate of free speech, and the freedom to use dirty words. Shit, I use them in my reviews. But the excessive use of such speech has now become just a symptom of laziness. Robert Shaw never yelled, never cursed, and succeeded in being much more frightening than Travolta, whose every other word is motherfucker. Really, take a look at the old one, then the new one, and see if you don’t think we’ve gone an amazing distance downhill since 1974. The technology is better. Everything else sucks. IMDb.com
July 17, 2009: First FeaturePublic Enemies (2009) A few weeks ago it was Jesse James, tonight it’s John Dillinger. Pick your scumbag. I know that movies creating semi-heroic myths about people who were, in reality, worthless, murdering pieces of shit can yield fantastic results, as in Bonnie and Clyde. But they are a hard sell to me. It helps if I don’t know too much about the criminal’s actual crimes; I knew nothing at all about Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker when I first saw that movie, nor about the human garbage called Billy the Kid when I saw Paul Newman in The Left Handed Gun (both movies by Arthur Penn). But beyond that, the movie must be compelling in some way other than (almost always wildly inaccurate) biography, and this movie has nothing to recommend it in that regard. IMDb.com
Second FeatureThe Hangover (2009) I laughed. (Whether or not you will laugh is something I can’t predict, so in line with my policy of never recommending a comedy, reporting only whether or not I laughed: I laughed. Quite a lot. And I hadn’t expected to laugh, which makes it even better.) The situations were hilarious, as three guys on a bachelor party spree in Vegas unwittingly take some roofies and the next morning can’t recall a thing about what they did the night before … but what is that tiger doing in their $4200/night villa at Caesar’s? Who is that naked Chinese guy in their trunk? Why is the dentist missing a tooth, and did he really get married to a call girl? And most important of all … where’s the groom? I liked these guys, most of the time. There are parts that will gross some people out, but what comedy these days doesn’t have a few gross moments? This one is pretty tame compared to some I’ve seen. And I have to admit that it gives me great pleasure in these days when the big names of movie comedy (think Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, and most terrible of all, Eddie Murphy) are turning out $100 million-dollar movies that are terrifically unfunny and/or commercial flops, to see a film with not a single big marquee name, that cost $35 million, return $200 million at the B.O, and counting. Lindsay Lohan turned this one down, didn’t think it had any commercial potential. Oops! My favorite line: “Remember, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Except herpes, that will follow you home.” IMDb.com
June 17, 2009: First FeatureLand of the Lost (2009) This movie seems to have been constructed from cast-off bits of other movies—the parts other writers deemed too stupid to include in their already fairly stupid plots. Will Farrell plays the most unappealing, obnoxious, idiotic character to be found even in his own portfolio of assholes, which is quite an asshole portfolio. At one point he is swallowed by a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and a bit later is expelled through its prehistoric anus. (Sadly, we don’t get to see this.) A bit before that he pours a bucket of dinosaur urine over his head. In case we didn’t get how howlingly funny this was, he does it again, and then again. Then he drinks some. That’s sort of how I felt after watching this movie: Marinated in reptile piss, and then shat out through the bunghole of a giant lizard. IMDb.com
Second Feature Drag Me to Hell (2009) Scary movies are a hard sell for me. Since Linda Blair vomited pea soup, the holy grail of these stories is grossness. These scenes no longer have the power to shock, though you may grimace. The art of scaring audiences with subtlety seems to be almost lost. The standard devices in a spook story is to take a little bit of The Exorcist, a little bit of Poltergeist, then hurl your character up against walls from time to time, and spice it up with half a dozen shocks that turn out just to be bad dreams. This movie, though it had its moments, doesn’t deviate.
What really pissed me off, though, was the end, which, I will warn you is a real bummer. For the sake of a cheap twist ending—which I was able to guess ten minutes early—the director undercuts the only good element of the film, which is the plucky heroine, and basically takes a character we actually like and throws her under a train. This trend seems to have started with Halloween, a well-regarded film that I was enjoying, too, up until the last five minutes. Jamie Lee Curtis fought back, and fought well, and she defeated the bad guy. And then the supposedly dead man got up ... which was okay, because it was a nice surprise. And she defeated him again … and the man who, without a doubt, had suffered wounds that were unquestionably fatal, got up again, none the worse for wear, at which point I said phooey! If your villain is literally unkillable, if he will keep getting up again endlessly, you don’t have a story, you have an exercise in sadism. She can’t win, no matter how smart she is.
How many dozens of movies have you seen where the heroine (the victims in these films are usually women) does every stupid thing you could possibly imagine, practically inviting bad things to happen to her, and then is saved at the end by dumb luck? Those films bore me. How much more interesting to have a film like The Stepfather, or Red Eye, in which the girl fights intelligently, and when she wins, the bad guy stays dead. Here, we have a plucky young woman who doesn’t dodder around, and never flinches from the fight. She does what needs to be done, some of which is pretty awful … and it all comes to nothing. And I say phooey! IMDb.com
June 16, 2009: First FeatureNight at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009) The first one was certainly no comedy classic, but it did have a sense of fun, here and there, now and then. That’s almost completely lacking in this one. In the first one, when the scary T. Rex skeleton came to life, it was … scary! At first. And then the punch line was that it was just a big friendly dog who couldn’t resist chasing a stick and bringing it back to you. In this one, nothing scares Ben Stiller or us. He’s seen it all before, and so have we. It’s kind of amazing that with all the technical wizardry on display here, there is so little imagination, so little that really makes us sit up and take notice. Just about the only thing I liked was when they were in the National Gallery of Art (which had a lot of stuff that is not in the Smithsonian, but never mind), when the pictures came to life. At one point Ben Stiller and Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams, the best actor in this turkey) jump into that famous VE-Day photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt of the sailor kissing the nurse. That was fun. There is also a giant balloon-animal dog that we’ve actually seen at the Broad Museum. Other than that, the only pleasures were seeing some of the Smithsonian itself, particularly the Air and Space Museum. Nobody has ever been allowed to film there before. The bright red-orange plane that Amelia flies here is the actual one she crossed the Atlantic in. Most of the rest of the movie was simply teeming with CGI SFX (gosh wow, but we’ve long passed the point where that is enough to carry a movie), and most of the participants had nothing to do but mill around. Hank Azaria was just plain awful, and Owen Wilson as a teeny tiny cowboy was just a pain in the ass, like he was in the first one. I kept wishing somebody would step on him. IMDb.com
Second Feature X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) I know, I know, I keep saying I’m through with stupid comic book movies, that they insult my intelligence and, by golly, those idiots that make them won’t be getting any more of my money. So you’re probably asking yourself, why doesn’t he just shut the fuck up, and stop complaining about them? Why did he go see yet another stupid comic book movie?
As for the why, it’s because we still enjoy a night out at the drive-in, and that’s the kind of movies that play at drive-ins. If we wait a while, the stupid comic book movie will be the second feature to something we might actually, marginally, with probably false hope, want to see. And as it’s the second feature, we can always start up the engine and motor noisily away, playing our headlights over the screen in hopes of ruining the experience for all the pathetic fan boys sitting out there slobbering over this shit.
As for these reviews of stupid comic book movies … I just can’t see a pile of whale vomit like this one and remain silent. I have to voice one more lonely warning. But I will do my best not to get tedious …
Is there anything more boring in the movies than watching a fistfight between two invulnerable psychopaths? I can’t think of anything, and I’m including Andy Warhol’s epic Empire, which is a static shot of the Empire State Building, eight hours long. So I won’t bother detailing the idiocies here. They’re generic: they smite each other mightily, they hurl each other over tall buildings, they twist each other’s heads off. Then they get up and do it some more. After ten minutes they stop, and two minutes later we’re at it again. Wake me when it’s over.
No, what I’m thinking about, yet again, is … Who likes this shit? Fan boys, obviously, who I used to dismiss with easy contempt, but they’re starting to scare me a little. Obviously they have no idea what it says about them, liking this stuff, about their embarrassingly obvious inadequacies and insecurities. Their worries about the size of their cocks, about how girls are contemptuous of them, about how they don’t fit in. Superheroes are, by definition, outsiders, as these sad little boys see themselves … but superheroes kick ass, something they will never do. X-Men are among the worst panderers to this insecurity. They are mutants. The world is out to get them. They have to band together with other mutants. Remember Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris? They were mutants. They felt the whole school was out to get them. The big difference between them and other video-gaming fan boys is they actually did kick some ass. About all we can be thankful for with them is, they didn’t get back up.
Am I saying comic book movies lead to Columbine? No. But they sure don’t help. IMDb.com
May 25, 2009: First FeatureTerminator Salvation (2009) Oh, McG! You horrible piece of crap, McG! What have you done? What have you done to my beloved Terminator series? First you shortened your name from Joseph McGinty Nichol to that ridiculous moniker you’re using now, which might almost be forgivable, considering the one you were born with. Then you directed Charlie’s Angels, and compounded the felony by making Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle … which was not forgivable. Now you’ve done gone and messed with something that shouldn’t have been messed with—certainly not by you—which is one of the few action movie franchises that actually had a bit of a brain, and a droll sense of fun.
And what’s so wrong with the new one, you ask? After all, isn’t it currently enjoying an 8.3 user rating at the IMDb? (Yes, apparently because a large part of the audience these days likes absolutely anything so long as it’s loud. This movie is loud. QED) So what’s wrong with it?
Well, about five trillion rounds of high-caliber ammunition are expended, and only one of them (which would have blown her leg clean off) hits anyone … but we’re used to that. Human beings are hurled around and smashed into things dozens of times, any one of which impacts would break every bone in their bodies and rupture all their internal organs, and the sum total of injuries are one oowie on John Connor’s knuckle, and possibly a severe hangnail on another character (not shown; too graphic, I guess) … but we’re used to that. The serious injury, when it does come, involves a thick, sharp object shoved right through John Connor, in the vicinity of the heart, and he survives … but we’re used to that. A ten-story killer robot sneaks up on a bunch of humans in broad daylight with absolutely no cover for miles and miles—apparently it walked on tippy-tippy-toes—just so we could get a startling but oh-so-phony shot of its massive claw crashing through the roof and grabbing Jane Alexander. (Jane Alexander? What’s she doing in this crapfest? Cashing a paycheck, it would seem. I hope it was a big one, Jane.) … but we’re used to that. We are now used to a whole list of idiocies in movies like this—yes, even in the Terminator films I liked—so there’s no point in going over it all yet again. If you like this sort of stuff, you’ll just think I’m crazy for objecting to it.
McG and his inept screenwriters seem to think a Terminator movie is about nothing more than gunfire, explosions, and catch phrases. “I’ll be back.” “Hasta la vista, baby.” Wrong! Those are just the embellishments.
No, there is one thing glaringly missing from this Terminator movie, the absolute core, essential to any Terminator movie, that I would think anyone could instantly see is missing. I can sum it up in eight words:
They forgot to put a Terminator in it!
Don’t try to tell me the dozens of knock-down Tinkertoys we see here are Terminators. Don’t try to tell me the cyborg/android/ whatever made from the body of an executed man, the one who thinks he’s human, is a Terminator. If he thinks he’s human, if he’s really nothing but the Tin Man looking for his heart … he’s not a Terminator! (By the way, if you were building an invulnerable killing machine within a human skin, don’t you think one of the things you would replace, along with the skeleton and muscles, would be that vulnerable heart made of meat? Not here.)
Here is the plot of all the Terminator movies:
No matter how much other stuff you dress it up with, no matter how many plot complications, that is the movie. You can change Arnold into a nice guy, a namby-pamby reformed Great White Shark like in Finding Nemo, and it changes nothing. He simply becomes the toughest of the people fleeing from the killing machine.
Remember the first movie? Arnold arrives, naked. We know nothing about him. He walks up to a punk. “Give me your clothes.” Punk laughs. Arnold reaches into his chest and pulls out his heart. He gets the clothes. We soon learn he is tasked to finding and killing Sarah Connor. How does he do this? The simplest, most direct way possible. He finds a phone book, sees there are three Sarah Connors, rips out the page (at which point we know he is dead serious: vandalism!), and sets out to kill all three. Wow! You blow him away with a shotgun; he gets up and keeps coming. You hit him with a truck; he gets up and keeps coming. His quarry is in a police station? He smashes a car into it and kills everyone in his way. Blow him up in a burning tanker; his steel skeleton gets up and keeps coming. Cut the skeleton in half; the top half keeps coming. If a building is between him and his quarry, he blows through the building. If 100 cops or 1000 women and children or 10,000 cute little puppies and kittens are between him and his quarry, he blasts through them. Direct and inexorable.
I was worried when I heard about the plot of T2. A nicer, gentler, shoot-to-disable Terminator didn’t sound very interesting. Not to worry. The T1000 was every bit as inexorable as the Terminator I had grown to know and love in the first movie … and a lot more flexible! Same in the third movie. All sorts of stuff is going on, but at the center of it, the relentless machine that drives the plot, is the new Terminator, as monomaniacal and emotionless as ever.
There is no such character in this silly mess of a movie. In their incredible stupidity, they have made a Terminator movie with no Terminator in it. And in the end, that’s really all you have to say. IMDb.com
Second Feature Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009) Maybe it’s because it followed the gigantic (but not unexpected) letdown of Terminator Salvation, but I enjoyed this movie a lot more than the bad reviews led me to believe I would. Goes to show you; don’t put too much credence in reviews, especially of romantic comedies. There were those who liked Zack and Miri Make a Porno and then thought this movie was vulgar …
The plot is simple, just a variation of “A Christmas Carol,” surely one of the best-known stories in the English language. Instead of a being a miser, Matthew McC (and here’s a guy who should shorten his name; I can’t spell it) is a man who is too generous … with his cock, as the girlfriend says in All That Jazz. There’s no sin in being uninterested in marriage, and no real sin—in my estimation—in having serial girlfriends, so long as you treat everyone decently. But this loathsome prick breaks up with three girlfriends at once, in a conference call, on split-screen video on his computer. Saves time, he reasons, since he was going to say the same thing to all of them. He is so good at getting women that he does this while his soon-to-be new girlfriend is watching, that’s how confident he is.
His little brother is getting married, and he attends the wedding. Maid of honor is the girl he fell in love with, but lost, when he was a child … and of course you know what will happen at the end between the two of them. The ghost of his uncle, the man who taught him how to be a loathsome prick in the first place, visits him and … you know … three ghosts … look what a prick you were … look what a prick you are, what people say about you when you’re not around … look what a dead prick you will become! Lawsy mercy, I has seen de light, I’ll be a good boy now. And God bless us, every one!
I enjoyed the middle of the film. But like a better Dickens take-off, Scrooged!, this one can’t pull off the sappy ending. For one thing, he’s not old, like Scrooge, so it doesn’t have as much impact. One variant that might have worked better is if, instead of seeing his own bleak funeral, he were to see himself as an old man, friendless and ugly, incontinent, farting and drooling, because the thing that would terrify a pretty-boy womanizer like him much more than death would be the loss of his looks.
May 20, 2009 - I’m beginning to wonder why we bother. I’m having a hard time recalling the last time we saw something at the drive-in that was actually good. I’m sure there must have been something, but it’s eluding me. It’s not even that much of a bargain anymore, it’s worked its way up to $8 a head now. (Okay, that’s for two movies … but what kind of bargain is it if they both suck?)(I guess it’s a better bargain than paying $10 for one movie that sucks.) Yet every Friday we scan the websites for the Mission Tiki (nice, but far away) and the Vineland (rundown, but closer) to see if there are two features we A) haven’t seen already, and B) we just possibly, if we’re really, really lucky, enjoy.
Hope springs eternal. Maybe tonight …
No such luck.
Before the story even begins, the Pope has been assassinated and four Cardinals have been abducted. The Cardinals will be killed, one every hour, beginning at 8 PM. At midnight Vatican City and much of Rome will be destroyed by an antimatter bomb. (Don’t ask, it’s way too silly to explain.) So right off, I have trouble caring. The Pope, to me, is just another stupid guy in a silly hat, like the stupid orthodox Jews I see walking around the Fairfax District every Saturday. I had no use for the Polish Pope, and I have even less use for the new, Nazi Pope. As for the College of Cardinals, they’re just a bunch of guys in red pajamas. I don’t really care if any of them are killed. In fact, recent experience has shown us that there are those among the College who really ought to be blown to bits by an antimatter bomb. So any real tension was lacking, but that’s just me. You might care.
The book this movie was based on was written before the super-ultra-mega-colossal bestseller The Da Vinci Code, but here it’s rewritten such that the events of that book took place before this one. A few years back I broke down and read TDVC, when I realized I was the last literate person on the planet that had not done so. I thought the puzzles were pretty ingenious. As for the rest of the book—plot, characters, etc.—I thought it was a pretty good candidate for third-stupidest book ever written. (#1 and #2, in no particular order: The Bible and the Koran.) Lest you think I’m getting too snarky here, let me assure you that if I could expect to sell 60 million copies, as Dan Brown has, I would cheerfully pen the fourth stupidest book ever written. But I don’t know how.
The film of TDVC was not much better; in fact, I guess it was worse, in that the sheer impossibility of all this happening in about 24 hours was more starkly evident in a two-hour movie, and Tom Hanks’ propensity to arrive at a scene and instantly stumble across the one tiny clue that would lead him to the next puzzle was even harder to swallow. Nobody is that good.
Well, in this one he’s even better. And it takes place in less time, and is even less plausible. He gets there, finds the dead cardinal, finds an angel statue pointing the way, solves the clue, and races off to find the next dead cardinal. All this hanky-panky has been perpetrated by an ancient order called the Illuminati, who were and are scientists who have an axe to grind against the One Holy Infallible Catholic and Apostolic Church. These dudes carry a grudge for 400 years or so before going after their revenge …
… only it’s not them. A rogue priest has set this all up, which afforded me a little bit of solace, as I couldn’t see real scientists giving a shit about any of this, while the Church has committed atrocities through the ages that make an antimatter bomb detonated over Rome seem penny-ante. But by this time the story had come apart entirely, and I didn’t really care about anything. IMDb.com
On to the second feature …
Second Feature Obsessed (2009) I’m tempted just to dismiss this in one sentence as the stupid, noxious piece of shit that it is, and get on with my life. But let me say just a few words about what makes it so bad …
What it is, is Fatal Attraction without the original sin. That is, Michael Douglas did fuck Glenn Close. Her reaction was, shall we say, a bit extreme, but she did have at least that starting point to get pissed at him. In a way, he did bring it on himself. Here, Idris Elba (an Englishman born to parents from Ghana and Sierra Leone, and I never would have guessed) is innocent of anything except not telling his wife in a timely fashion the details of how he is being stalked, for no reason we can see, by a psychotic woman. I can certainly forgive him for that; I suspect almost all men would react the same way. “You see, darling, this fabulously beautiful woman just can’t keep her hands off me. She cornered me in the men’s room, and she got in my car and stripped. Had to shove her out onto the pavement on her lovely white ass …” Uh-huh. That would play real well. And he’s proven right, because when the wife, Bouncy Knolls (sp?), does learn of the non-affair, she refuses to listen to his side of the story.
MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD
But the real problem is that, when it becomes clear how loony and dangerous this woman is, everybody does the stupidest thing possible, all the time. I can’t stand that. People that stupid deserve to die. So be sure to forget to arm the burglar alarm you just had installed. When you know she’s in the house, be careful not to turn on any lights or to arm yourself with so much as a paring knife as you pursue her up into the spooky attic. And most of all, after she’s fallen through the attic ceiling and is dangling from a rafter over a 40-foot drop, be sure to lean way over and offer your hand to pull her back up. This is the woman who kidnapped your child. Me? I’d stomp on her fingers. If that makes me a bad person, then so be it. But I think that most people would at least sit back and let gravity and exhaustion do the deed for them. IMDb.com
May 11, 2009 - I have to describe our drive-in experience this time. Talk about odd …
There are two drive-ins we patronize here in the Southland: The Vineland in the City of Industry, and the Mission Tiki in Montclair. The Tiki is the nicest one, with a good snack bar and rest rooms that don’t smell of urine, but it’s also the most distant, about 35 miles away. These days the first feature starts at 8:15, which means leaving home during rush hour on weekdays. We made the decision to go rather late on Friday, and I checked Google Maps to see how the traffic was on the freeways. Disaster! The 101, the 5, and the 10 were a sea of red, which means 5 mph. So we elected to get an earlier-than-usual start and stay on surface streets, and handed the navigation problem over to Eliza Doolittle, the nice British lady with the sexy voice who lives in our Garmin GPS. (We can set it to speak in American, British, or Australian English. No Canadian, oddly enough, eh?) We have the unit programmed to keep us off the freeways, because we hate driving on them unless it’s a real long trip.
But Eliza doesn’t know anything about traffic, which was stop-and-go all the way down Sunset Boulevard. She knows a neat little shortcut on Elysian Park, a route you’d never think of taking on your own, but it goes right by Dodger Stadium. She wanted us to go down that way, but she didn’t know there was a game that evening. With the Giants, no less, so attendance would be high, even without Manny Ramirez. I overruled Eliza, and continued down Sunset as she figured out a new route. (Which she always sounds a little bitchy about. “Recalculating,” she sniffs, in a slightly exasperated voice.) Traffic was still terrible, everywhere we went. Most of the time I really love living in LA, but every once in a while, stuck in traffic, I wonder how we manage. This was one of those times when it seems like, when you do get a break in traffic, you always hit every red light and/or end up behind the worst slowpoke in town. I’m a fairly patient driver, but I was getting steamed as Eliza’s ETA kept creeping later and later. It was showing 8:30, fifteen minutes after the movie should start, and we still were on the road. I hate being late. The first feature would be shown twice, so we could see the whole thing, but still …
We finally pulled into the box office at 8:40, after almost two hours on the road. I headed for the third row, and we noticed that the big screen we were approaching was blank. The other three screens were showing their movies. What the …? So as we were parking the manager came on the radio and said they’d be re-starting the movie. We couldn’t believe our luck! I wasn’t sure what had happened. Maybe the film broke? Maybe we were such good patrons they decided they should start over because we were late …?
Whatever. They began the film again … and the sound was so bad that all we could hear was loud crackling and faint voices. Ten minutes in, I had very little idea what was happening. This being a drive-in, the patrons were enthusiastically honking their horns. I joined in, and soon people began to leave. We headed out, too, hoping to get our money back but assuming we’d get passes to return. We waited in line while the employees were handing out passes, and when the guy finally came up to my window he said they thought they had fixed the sound. He asked us to tune to 92.7 FM, which Lee did … and it sounded terrible, worse than before, like there was a NASCAR race going on. Then I realized it was a car racing at high speed on the soundtrack. We could hear fine, so we turned around. As we parked again the manager told us they would be re-starting the film for the second time. And this time, everything worked.
If only, after all that, the movies had been worth seeing …
First FeatureStar Trek (2009) This movie answered a question I’ve wondered about for a long time. What was Spock’s first name? For a while I thought it was “Mister,” but then I realized a lot of other crew members of the Enterprise also answered to Mister. But at one point in this movie Spock says, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth.” So, apparently, his name is Sherlock. Sherlock Spock. Has a ring to it, doesn’t it?
One reviewer I heard on the radio said there had been seven Star Trek TV series and ten Star Trek movies. Could that be right? Ten? Wikipedia says it is, and this is the eleventh. I’m pretty sure I saw the first three movies. Of the TV series, the sum total of my viewership is maybe half a dozen episodes of the first series. In short, I’m about as far away from being a Trekkie as you can be and still be a resident on this planet, so you won’t be getting an analysis here of whether this one stayed faithful to the sacred canon. There will be no parsing of Romulan grammar. (And I still find it hard to believe that there are people who have so little in the way of a real life that they actually made up a Romulan language … and can speak it!)
Let’s start off with James Tiberius Kirk. This movie begins with his birth. The first time we see him out of swaddling clothes he is about ten years old. I hated the little prick instantly, and that was before he drove a Corvette over a cliff. (Driving a Corvette over a cliff should be, in my opinion, a capital offense in any civilized society.) The next time we see Kirk he is a medium-sized prick, starting a bar fight, and I hated him even more. One of the high points of the movie was seeing him getting the shit kicked out of him, but it didn’t last long enough. The third time we see him he is in the full flower of his prickhood, hacking into a Starfleet Academy combat simulation because … well, because he is Kirk, and he always knows better than anybody else. All this while eating an apple in a manner that made me want to kick the shit out of him even worse than those gentlemen in the bar did. So what happens? He’s on academic suspension, so the idiot Dr McCoy smuggles him aboard the Enterprise, where because of his insolent behavior, insubordination, and general prickhood … he is promoted to Captain in about 24 hours. I guess it makes perfect sense to a Trekkie, but he was the absolute last person I would entrust a spaceship to. I’d have had him scrubbing zero-gravity toilets for the duration.
He’s still a prick at the end of the movie, at which point he presumably morphs into William Shatner. Need I say more?
Let’s just skip over all the stupid science. The thing that annoys me most about movies like this it that they call them science fiction. It’s space opera, science has nothing to do with it. Just change the furniture and it’s a western: “Let’s head ‘em off at the pass. Deputy Sulu, take the posse into warp drive …”
I found most of the crew as annoying as they were in the episodes of the original series I saw, particularly Chekov and Bones. Uhura is the only female character in the original series and she’s fairly useless, so naturally she gets to kiss Sherlock, which looked like a pretty dry experience. An exception to the rule that Enterprise crew are mostly annoying: Simon Pegg, thrown in for comic relief as the irrepressible Scotty, and he actually does a damn good job of it. Too bad he only shows up in the last half hour. They promptly squirrel him away in the engine room, which is much much bigger on the inside than the Enterprise is on the outside (no doubt some sort of space warp) and looks like either a chemical refinery, a brewery, or a cheese factory. As for Spock … he’s played at first by Zachary Quinto, who has the proper eyebrows for the job. Forget the elf ears, playing Spock is all about the eyebrows, trust me on this. I’m sure that the first time J.J. Abrams saw Quinto’s eyebrows he shouted “That’s my Spock!” He is later joined by a severely wrinkled Leonard Nimoy as Old Spock. He sure looks like he’s lived long … and judging from all the philanthropic institutions I see Nimoy’s name on all over town, he must have prospered.
A lot has been made of this J.J Abrams dude “re-booting” this weary old franchise, using younger characters to appeal to a younger audience. It probably will, since this is definitely a short-attention-span movie, and it helps if you can’t actually think. I was just looking over the man’s credits. There are some TV shows I never watched, and then there was Mission: Impossible III, a pretty bad movie, and Armageddon, one of the worst “science fiction” movies of the later part of the last century. God help you, Trekkies. He’s already signed up to make another one.
Aside from a younger cast, he seems to be pioneering a new technique that I’m going to call “mind dazzle.” In the scenes where no frenetic action was taking place—only about twenty minutes of screen time, but it seems longer—I kept seeing bright lights flashing in my eyes, about every five seconds. That, or a bleed of white light at the edge of the frame, like a car had turned its headlights at the screen or the film had been badly overexposed. I finally realized it was being caused by bright lights that had been arranged all over the walls of most of the interior sets, most especially on the bridge, to shine directly into the sets. (Well, if you were designing the bridge of a fighting vessel, wouldn’t you be sure to have bright lights shining into the crew’s eyes at all times?) More important, I figured out why those lights were there. See, the action had slowed. A good part of the audience was getting antsy, almost falling asleep, because the camera was hardly shaking at all and many of the cuts were longer than one second. The lights were to assure them that they were still watching a motion picture. Short attention span. Gotta love it. The total effect was sort of like having a bright flashlight shined in your eyes for half an hour. Try it. It pretty much guarantees a splitting headache.
So be warned, you will be seeing a lot more of this technique, in addition to the standard shakycam and two-frame cross-cutting. Plus, you’ll be seeing it mostly in brain-frying, color-challenged 3D, if Jeff Katzenberg has his way. It’s the wave of the future, don’t you know. If the future means 1955 … IMDb.com
Second FeatureMonsters vs. Aliens (2009) Speaking of 3D … Drive-ins don’t do 3D (they’d lose too many glasses), so we had to make do with the flat-screen version of this one. Just as well. How many times do you want to see a paddleball flying into your face? When this came out I heard a radio interview with the director. He emphasized that he didn’t want to do the same old, same old with 3D, didn’t want to have objects projecting from the screen purely for the purpose of reminding the audience they were seeing a 3D movie. So what does the first reviewer I read have to say? That every few minutes something comes flying out of the screen at you. And he was right. Of course, in the 2D version we saw nothing comes flying out, but you do tend to notice that that little red ball would come flying out if you had those damn glasses on, and that the only reason the character is playing with a paddleball at all is to demonstrate 3D, as if anybody needed a demo at this point.
As I write this, Pixar’s 2009 summer movie, Up, is a few weeks away from opening, and it’s going to be in 3D. I’m divided about whether I want to see it that way or not. I am hopeful that Pixar will use the process in a more intelligent way, like Alfred Hitchcock did in Dial M For Murder, back during the original 3D craze that turned out to be just a fad. But there’s the matter of color, and brightness. Those polarized glasses are certainly 1000% better than those awful red/blue cardboard things, but they are still pretty dark. Do I really want to wear sunglasses to watch a movie?
As for MvA … it’s just another slam-bang action film with no real heart. Contrast it to Pixar films and Disney films, and it comes off very badly. Kids will be amused, I’m sure, and the writers tried to get adults interested with a lot of jokes and movie references. Some of them are even funny, but I wasn’t laughing much. There is one good action sequence on the Golden Gate bridge involving the 50-foot woman and the big alien robot. Other than that, it’s entirely forgettable.
I can’t end this one without registering once more my protest concerning the hiring of movie stars to voice characters in animated movies. I know it’s far too late to go back to the world where voice actors like Mel Blanc, Paul Frees, June Foray, Stan Freberg, and many others made a living doing voices without being marquee names. Back then, nobody went to an animated movie and expected to see A-list names in the credits, and nobody seemed to mind. These artists labored mostly in anonymity … but they labored. Now those days are gone. You mention a new animated film and the first thing people want to know is, “Who’s in it?” When you think about it, it’s pretty silly. Very few actors have voices so distinctive that you instantly say, “Why, that’s Stephen Colbert as the president!” (It didn’t sound like him at all.) If you didn’t see it in the credits, if it wasn’t plastered all over the promotional material that Reese Witherspoon and Seth Rogan and Hugh Laurie and Kiefer Sutherland are in this movie, most of us would never, never guess it. So what is the effect of this insistence that million-dollar names voice cartoon characters? Why, it means the cartoons cost many millions of dollars more to make. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of actors out there who would be just as good, and often a lot better, and they’d work for relative peanuts, believe me. More important, they’d get some work, that they need, instead of all that money being squandered on Big Names who do not need it.
I know this is a lost cause. I know that celebrity names in animated films is here to stay, because the people who make them think that those names draw people to the box office. And they’re probably right. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. IMDb.com
March 27, 2009 - First FeatureKnowing (2009) Does this dramatic sequence ring a bell?
ACT ONE: An interesting premise is introduced: In 1959 students were asked to draw their ideas of what the future would be like, and these drawings were put in a time capsule to be opened 50 years later. One of the items is a dense series of numbers, which our hero, John (the ubiquitous and increasingly-unwelcome Nicholas Cage), soon divines are dates and locations of all the major disasters of the last 50 years … with three more still to come … Okay! You got me! I’m eager to see more …
ACT TWO: Good plot development follows: Sure enough, on the predicted day at the predicted location, an airliner crashes, killing the predicted number of people. John “happens” to be there, and it is a crackerjack scene, really well done. So now X number of people are predicted to die at latitude Y and longitude Z, in New York City. John goes there, thinking he can prevent what he is assuming is a terrorist bomber, and is instead involved in a terrible subway crash … again, very well done. We’ve seen hints that something on the sun may be behind some of this. (John happens to be an astronomer, and he knows these things.) There is talk of a “super-flare,” that will wipe out all life on Earth and, naturally, a government cover-up. So far, so good. And then …
ACT THREE: They throw it all away. Before long we have descended into a farrago of metaphysical claptrap mixed with dubious science, pointless action just to keep things moving, and the worst drawn-out sob-story goodbye scene since E.T. (an excellent movie that pissed me off at the end by carrying on far too long). In fact, it is a shameless rip-off of E.T., and god help me, of my own farrago, Millennium, if you can believe that. I won’t reveal what the “explanation” of all this was. It was too stupid and too derivative to be believed. At the end we do get to see the world destroyed, and it’s very good CGI work, but by then I didn’t care. In fact, if the super-flare would rid the world of Nicholas Cage, I figure it was a small price to pay.
I laid it out like that because this sequence—good beginning, good development, stupid ending—is the dramatic arc of at least 95% of SF movies these days. It’s depressing, and I don’t know why screenwriters, directors, and producers keep churning them out when with just a little more imagination they could have had something good. … well, of course I do know why. Because people will pay to see it, even if they know it’s probably going to be bad. I did.
And Nicholas Cage … I used to be sad; now I’m almost angry. Wasted talent does that to me. John Anderson just gave chapter and verse on Cage’s voluntary decline, and I agree with everything he said. IMDb.com
Second Feature Taken (2008) I guess you have to call this one a guilty pleasure. I’m almost ashamed to admit how much I enjoyed it, because it contains many of the elements I’ve railed against in past reviews of action/thriller movies. The worst one is the bad guys who can’t shoot straight, even with Uzis at almost point-blank range. There is a car chase that is almost incoherent, no way of telling which person is in which car. I could go on … but the fact is, I really got into this one. Liam Neeson seems to bring something to this standard plot that just makes it work. He’s a retired CIA agent (he calls himself a “preventer,” in that he prevents bad things from happening). His daughter is kidnapped and sold into what used to be called white slavery. The sex trade. Dope ‘em up and ship ‘em off to a degenerate Arab in Saudi or Kuwait. You know the drill.
The first half hour establishes his iffy relationship with her. He’s divorced from her mother because of his job, mom remarried to a very rich guy, she’s a bit spoiled but loves her daddy. Against his wishes, she goes off to Europe with a friend, and is spotted at the airport and kidnapped within hours of getting to her apartment. (They might as well have been wearing signs on their backs: ABDUCT ME!) But she’s on the phone with dad as the kidnapping is going down, and from that scene on, they had me. Watching Neeson as he listens, and thinks furiously and intelligently all the while, already planning what he needs to do to get her back … it was intense. From that moment he is a killing machine, willing to do absolutely anything to get her back. Yeah, so he kills 20 or 30 people in the process (I lost count). Each and every one was such a scumbag that I felt like cheering. He tortures one of them with electricity, and when he goes off and leaves him bound and twitching from the current still being on … my main reaction was that the shithead got off easy. I am morally opposed to torture … most of the time. It is almost always unacceptable for a nation to do it (the exceptions are so rare they’re not even worth talking about), but there are circumstances where I could do it. If someone was holding someone dear to me hostage, and someone else knew where I should go to rescue her … well, that second someone had better never let me get the drop on him. I would pull his intestines out through his nose if that’s what it took to get him to talk.
Yeah, yeah, the only way this revenge and retribution fantasy works is by setting up people so evil that Gandhi would probably want to torture them … but it works for me. The world is so full of truly evil people … who get away with it! … that every once in a while it’s fun to get a little emotional release, to believe for the length of a movie that justice can be meted out by a single determined, skilled, and absolutely deadly man.
BTW: One thing we don’t see here is what is rapidly become my least favorite movie cliché: The “good guy” walking slowly away while behind him a massive explosion goes off. This scene was in both of the trailers before the movie. I’ve seen it 30 or 40 times now, and it annoys me even more than that other cliché: our heroes outrunning such an explosion. Is this supposed to be cool? It’s so stupid. If I had a good reason to blow a car or a building up, I’d damn sure want to watch! Wouldn’t you? IMDb.com
December 7, 2008 - First Feature Twilight (2008) Very popular series of books (which I’d never heard of), and boffo BO: Cost only $37 million, and earned $70 million just on opening weekend. But the reviews were pretty bad. To my surprise, I liked it. Now, let me add that I don’t want anyone to take this is a recommendation. I don’t think it will be everyone’s cup of tea, though it must be raw meat to adolescent girls. Kristen Stewart, who plays Bella, the high school girl who falls in love with a vampire, is very beautiful, and Robert Pattinson, who is the bloodsucking fiend Edward, is almost as pretty. I can just imagine the moist panties.
The fact is, I don’t understand, and I suspect that no male understands, the attraction many women have for vampires, but it’s undeniably there. (Not the Nosferatu-type vampires, of course, but the Anne Rice, Frank Langella, Gerard Butler, Peter Fonda, Louis Jourdan vampires. Sexy vampires.) (Count Dracula has had an enduring fascination. If you type his name into the IMDb, you’ll get almost 200 movies.) There’s apparently something about a dark, pale, cold creature stealing into your bedroom at night, not to rape you but to bite you on your lovely white, vulnerable neck, that is just delicious to contemplate. I don’t get it. But Stephanie Meyer does, and she’s mined it for four best-selling books and what is sure now to be a money-making movie franchise.
This is the ultimate “bad boy” story. You know, that certainty that some girls seem to have that, though their beloved Johnny the Rebel seems to be bad, he really has a good heart, he’s sensitive, he’s misunderstood, and I’m just the girl to change the bad parts and bring out the good so everybody can see it. (And he only hits me when I make him really, really angry!) Frankly, it’s not the sort of movie I would usually like, and I’m aware of its flaws. But there is a resonance here that goes beyond teenage girls. I was reminded of one of our favorite TV shows of all time, which you may not have heard of, a ShowTime sleeper called “Dead Like Me.” (Not that this movie is that good; it isn’t.) In that one, Georgia “George” Lass is killed by a falling toilet seat from the Mir space station, and returned as one of the undead. Her job is to be there when someone is about to die a violent death, take their soul from their body before the violence, and then conduct them to some undefined “other side.” In each episode we see more clever and unlikely deaths. And she spends the first two seasons bitching about it, which was the only real flaw in the series, to my mind. Hey, she’s immortal, never ages, she can heal from any injury, and the work is always interesting. She gets to hang out with Mandy Patinkin. What’s not to like? (Okay, the main drawback seems to be that she can’t contact her family again … but she didn’t like them much, anyway.) And everybody has to have a job, right? Why not be a grim reaper? So all the time I’m asking myself, Would I like to become one of the undead? You bet! In a heartbeat (or lack of heartbeat, as the case may be). It sure sounds better than falling into oblivion, burning in Hell, or playing a friggin’ harp and glorifying some petty pissant God for all eternity. Hell, I’ve tried mortality for 61 years now, and so far it sucks. Gets worse every day, and I suspect it will come to a bad end amongst the worms.
That’s the case here, too. Edward spends the whole movie agonizing because he can’t eat her (she smells very good to his hyper vampire senses) or bite her. His family of vamps consider themselves vegetarians; i.e., they only drink animal blood. They are ethical vampires, unlike some others they could name. Edward is a bit over 100 years old, and looks seventeen. He can run faster than a car (one of the vampires follows Bella from Forks, Washington, to Phoenix, Arizona, apparently on foot, and gets there before she does in her car). He has super strength and reflexes, and super senses. He’s immortal, fer cryin’ out loud. Again: What’s not to like? And yet, when she finally gets around, in the last reel, to asking him to do what I’d have been asking him to do from the get-go, which is “Bite me, you gorgeous hunky animal!”, he refuses to even nibble. Even though we know this is going to mean endless trouble with the bad vampires down the line, because they hate humans and see them only as meat. His rather thin rationale: “I don’t want to turn you into a monster.” Well, he’s not a monster, he’s proven that. His other reason is so she won’t to suffer the terrible yearning for human blood, which the good vamps have to fight every day of their lives.
I’m speaking for Bella now: Listen up, dude. I love you and you love me, but what happens when I’m 80 and you’re still 17? I’d be seriously pissed off that you let me get old, that’s what. Plus, I’d be a lot better able to defend myself from the baddies if I had all your powers. Plus, I want to live forever, and leap tall buildings in a single bound, and stuff. And as for the blood thing, haven’t you dorks figured out that there’s a ready supply of people who never would be missed? I’m speaking of human scum, the child molesters, murderers, rapists, litterers, people who don’t return library books. You are creatures of the night, you wouldn’t have any trouble finding people like that. You could be doing the human race a big favor.
As for myself, hell, I’m horribly seduced by the smell of cinnamon buns in the mall. The urge is well-nigh unbearable. I could eat half a dozen of them, easy, but I can’t do that because I’m diabetic. It’s sheer torture, but I’ve found a way to live with it … most of the time. Now and then I cheat a little, just as these vampires could stick to possums and gerbils and skunks most of the time … with just a wee little nip of homicidal psychopath when they were feeling really peckish. And these vampires don’t even have to deal with the inconvenience of melting in the sunlight; they don’t like the sun, and that’s why they live in the rainiest place in the continental US, but it doesn’t hurt them. And they aren’t affected by any of that can’t-be-seen-in-a-mirror or can’t-be-photographed or can’t touch a cross bullshit, either. So … bite me, Bella, you gorgeous seductress!
I of course do understand why Edward refused her at the end. It was to keep the dramatic tension up for the next three books. And I learned that at the end of the last one, Bella does get her wish. But I just had to get that off my chest.
So that’s why I found what is really only a mediocre movie rather appealing. It portrayed a lifestyle I’d like to live. And it wasn’t stupid. And it wasn’t hyperactive, like so many films I’ve seen recently. It kept me engaged.
Bottom line: I liked it, but you may not. Lee didn’t. IMDb.com
Second Feature Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008) The best I can say about this is that it was competent. But it tried to take on too much story, and spent too much time with characters I thought were peripheral, at best. (The first one wasn’t much better.) The funniest parts again involve the four penguins, but they are too few and far between. It also suffers from the too-frenetic syndrome, which infects almost all animated movies these days, except the ones from Pixar. Those guys know when it’s appropriate to go into high gear, and when it’s better to slow down and let something build. You’d think the geniuses who greenlight these projects would take a look at the tons of money every Pixar film has made, and study them, and maybe a light bulb would go on … hey, maybe we should take a little more time here and there!!! … but no. IMDb.com
December 4, 2008 - Gosh, two talking dog movies at the drive-in. What an embarrassment of riches … actually, two talking dog movies is one more talking dog movie than I really want to see in any given year, but at the drive-in you pays your money and you takes your chances. I was extremely dubious about the second feature, but hey, it was the second feature. We could always leave if it stunk.
First Feature Bolt (2008) Disney’s newest all-talking, all-CGI, all celebrity voices (John Travolta as the super-dog, Bolt, with Miley Cyrus as the little girl) entry in the big-ticket animation sweepstakes. We’re getting at least half a dozen of them per year now. Some are actually good. Some are masterpieces, like WALL*E. This isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a creditable piece of work. (I see that Twilight ate its lunch this weekend, though. Only $26,000,000 at the B.O. That hardly pays for advertising and prints these days. But it’ll do well on DVD.) Not much else to say about it. Worth seeing, but I won’t be playing it again and again.
Actually, the most exciting thing happened in the trailer that showed just before the movie started. Pixar’s newest venture, Up, is due out next summer. I can hardly wait! Once more, they’re pushing the limits, this time by having a cranky old man (Ed Asner) for a central character. You can’t do that! It’s a youth market, don’t you know? Well, if anyone can pull it off, it’s Pixar. [This movie is not to be confused with the Russ Meyer boob-a-thon Up! (1976) (co-written by Roger Ebert, no less!), which gave the world Kitten Natividad (46EEE-28-39), and where the title seemed to be concerned with how the hell do you keep those humongous bazookas up?] IMDb.com
Second Feature Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008) Bow wow! Bow wow wow wow! Bad dog! Bow wow wow wow wow wow! You cut that out right now, if you know what’s good for you! I’ll beat the crap out of you with this rolled-up newspaper, you mutt!
This movie puked on our shoes, humped our legs, pissed on the seats, and left the inside of the car hopping with fleas. It did everything but bite us on the butt, and I’m seriously thinking about getting rabies shots anyway, just in case. We fled, yipping and baying at the moon, after 30 minutes, not having laughed once. Seriously, folks, avoid this mangy labradoodle like the Hound of the Baskervilles. It will seriously fuck you up. IMDb.com
November 21, 2008 - First Feature Quantum of Solace (2008) I suppose it got started when a cowboy in a silent-movie saloon fight broke a balsa wood chair over another cowboy’s head, and the stricken wrangler didn’t fall down dead with a cerebral hematoma, but got up to fight some more. It wasn’t helped when Tom Mix or Gene Autry shot a pistol out of a bad man’s hand, and the baddie just said OUCH! and shook his hand like it stung a little, instead of getting on his knees and picking up his severed fingers. No need to get into the inability of men with machine guns pouring out a virtual cloud of lead to hit anything they’re aiming at with lethal, much less injurious, result. Over the years the movies have become more and more divorced from the principles of gravity, inertia, and momentum so brilliantly expounded by Sir Isaac Newton. Now we have heroes falling off seven-story buildings, landing on their feet, and not even breaking a toe. No explanation necessary, you don’t even have to land on a convenient awning or car roof any more. Two other principles that have been dispensed with entirely are the chemical properties of combustion (a big fire—and there are no small ones in the movies—usually produces choking, lethal smoke, and it always uses up all the oxygen in a room, in addition to being hot enough to burn the skin off your body and set your clothes on fire if you stay close to it for more than a second or two) and any notion of the velocity of an explosion powerful enough to destroy a building. You don’t outrun an explosion like that, believe me. Yet we see it in every action movie now, sometimes three or four times. I could go on, but you know the drill. These days, if a movie has only a few implausible scenes, like the Bourne movies, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. But most movies are like this one, with a flatly impossible series of capers every ten minutes or so. I yawn. Daniel Craig is a terrific James Bond and I liked Casino Royale well enough, but this one was way over the edge. Not to mention the ultra-fast editing, such that you frequently don’t know who’s doing what to whom … and even worse, don’t care. IMDb.com
Second FeaturePassengers (2008) Despite the presence of the lovely porcelain doll Anne Hathaway and the talented Patrick Wilson (who we just saw in Lakewood Terrace, and who was so brilliant opposite Ellen Page in Hard Candy), this is a dud. The direction is terrible, with long silences in most scenes. In a picture that is supposed to build suspense, this is fatal. Hathaway is so restrained she almost seems inanimate; she gets no chance to shine. I would have abandoned this in the middle, except I had read that there was a twist ending (which the reviewer said was not worth the long build-up) so I stuck around to see if all this dreary exposition was going anywhere. I won’t put a spoiler warning here because I’m not letting this cat out of this bag. But I have to brag that I figured most of it out before it was revealed, and I’m not very good at that. Let’s just say it probably won’t make you gasp, like The Sixth Sense. IMDb.com
November 14, 2008 - First FeatureQuarantine (2008) A remake of a Spanish film of 2007 called REC that got very good reviews at Rotten Tomatoes … and one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. For that reason I’d like to see REC (not yet available on DVD) to see what could be made of the promising premise that this movie totally wrecked. The idea: A super-rabies virus is loose in an apartment building—illuminated entirely by 5-watt light bulbs, it seems, most of which are burned out—and makes anyone exposed to it a rapid, frothing maniac within one hour. These maniacs like nothing more than to crouch in the dark and then attack anything that moves with superhuman strength. The building has been sealed off and the people inside are apparently expendable. They try to escape.
Okay, I’d watch that movie. But not this one.
Because we saw it at the drive-in I was at first inclined to cut it some slack. See, this is a very dark movie, like Cloverfield, and like that one it is shot entirely with hand-held cameras. Dark movies are a problem at the drive-in, because there is too much ambient light. However, also like Cloverfield, this is a whiplash movie, meaning that if you saw it on the huge screen in a theater, you’d get a headache and eyestrain, because the camera moves in a willfully, and distractingly, jerky manner. In Cloverfield, which was supposedly shot by amateurs on a cell phone, this makes sense, but this one is supposed to be by a TV newsman. Couldn’t he steady it every once in a while? This means that the ideal way to see it would be on a widescreen HDTV (which we have now!), so at least some of the details could be seen, without needing a neck brace afterward.
There’s so much more I could say, but this movie is so awful I don’t even want to waste any more time over it.
… oh, yes I will, to mention that the last half hour was among the most awful experiences I’ve ever had at the movies. The female main character is shrieking almost nonstop, and when she’s not doing that she’s hyperventilating, noisily. And talk about dull! Every door they open, ever corner they turn, they run into a rabid person who jumps out like a jack-in-the-apartment-building. I’m not exaggerating here. Every door, every corner, up in the frickin’ attic where nobody has been in years! They apparently crawled up there just to scare the girl. Result: after about the fifth BOOO!!!! you yawn, and by the 20th you want to find the director and writer and beat the crap out of them. And that girl, too. Anything to shut her up. IMDb.com
Second Feature Lakeview Terrace (2008) The husband is white, the wife is black. They move into a very nice neighborhood but they soon find out that the man next door is a racist cop. He’s controlling of his children, his neighborhood … everything around him. He tolerates no differing opinions on any subject. He is the macho sort who is constantly proving his manhood by needling those around him in a way that it’s almost impossible to respond to, and he is helped in this by his badge and uniform, which he abuses. The wife tells him to get off her property. “Or you’ll do what?” he sneers. “Call a cop?” They are pretty much helpless, because they are civilized, and he is not.
Ho hum. Only the cop is black, not white, played by Samuel L. Jackson. This is an interesting twist, and the first part of the movie builds tension well, tension of the sort that makes your stomach uneasy and your fists itch for revenge. The problem, for me, is that you’ve got no story if you do the sensible thing suggested by her father: move out. I understand that it would be a severe blow to the man’s ego—no one likes to back down to a bully—and there would be no guarantee that a mixed-race couple might not encounter similar problems in any neighborhood … but at least the racist neighbor would probably not be a cop, which makes all the difference. The other cops all believe his versions of events, and always will. You can’t beat this man in a “civilized” way, the only way to deal with this motherfucker is to kill him, and you can’t do that except in self-defense, and by the time he’s coming at you with intent to kill (as you know he eventually will) it’s probably too late, because he’s better at this than you are. Therefore: Move!
There are some good things here, but I can’t recommend it. IMDb.com
October 20, 2008 - First Feature Body of Lies (2008) About halfway through this movie I realized that I’d read this story. But for the life of me I couldn’t remember who wrote it. I read a lot, and don’t retain plots very well. I sometimes get to Chapter 3 or 4 before realizing I’ve been here before. So when I got home I looked back at my list of BOOKS READ, and sure enough, there it was, some years ago. It’s by David Ignatius, who is not on my regular author reading list. I think he should be on it, on the strength of this novel. He’s a writer, editor, and columnist for the Washington Post, and an expert on the Middle East, which sure helped him in this book, with its very complicated plot. I believed his story. And I will look for more of his books.
As for the movie adaptation, it’s pretty good. Not quite up to Ridley Scott’s usual standard, but not an embarrassment. Russell Crowe is rather annoying here with a phony southern accent. I didn’t believe in his character at all, not once. But once again Leonardo DiCaprio is very good. There’s an Oscar in this boy’s future. IMDb.com
Second Feature Righteous Kill (2008) This movie has a surprise ending, so I really can’t say too much about it. I began to suspect something about halfway through, but Lee said it fooled her, and I’ll admit I didn’t guess correctly what the surprise would be. That’s enough about that. The attraction of this otherwise fairly standard cop story would be the idea of De Niro and Pacino working together. All those Oscar wins and nominations—De Niro is 2 for six, Pacino 1 for 9—they’ve gotta be good, right? Not according to Francis Ford Coppola, who recently really bad-mouthed them, and Jack Nicholson, as not being hungry enough to be good, and averse to trying anything new:
"I met both Pacino and De Niro when they were really on the come. They were young and insecure. Now Pacino is very rich, maybe because he never spends any money; he just puts it in his mattress. De Niro was deeply inspired by Zoetrope and created an empire and is wealthy and powerful. Nicholson was when I met him and worked with him he was always kind of a joker. He's got a little bit of a mean streak. He's intelligent, always wired in with the big boys and the big bosses of the studios. I don't know what any of them want any more. I don't know that they want the same things."
Whew! If you wanted to be catty, one might ask “And what have you been up to lately, F.F.?” but I won’t. ... Oh, hell, why not? I didn’t see his last picture, Youth Without Youth (terrible title, I thought), but it was critically panned. Ten years before that he directed The Rainmaker, a pretty standard legal thriller. Hated Godfather III, largely because he cast his talentless (as an actress) daughter in a pivotal role. I’ll never forgive him for that. He’s produced a lot of things in those years, some of it good, some indifferent, some pretty bad, one written and directed by his son ... but I can’t see any work by him that could stand beside his work as a younger and ... it must be said ... hungrier man. So shut up, Francis.
Which is not to say he’s wrong. All three of these guys who were so fresh and new in the ‘70s and into the ‘80s have shown a tendency to act for the paycheck, to phone in the part, to fall back on a persona that comes easily to them. Both De Niro and Pacino do a lot of that here. But the worst thing about this movie, in common with so many others these days, is that it goes on for about 10 minutes too long. A scene that should have ended economically and honestly drags out interminably, making me yawn when I should be riveted. Very few writers and directors know how to end a film these days. Jon Avnet is not one. IMDb.com
August 4, 2008 - First Feature Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) I think I may have to just give up on comic book movies. Even if they’re well-reviewed. Even if it means that I might miss the occasional one that has some wit, some humor, like Iron Man, that is onto itself and understands how frickin’ goofy the whole thing is. I mean, what the hell has happened to our culture, that we spend multiple billions of dollars making these stories based on stuff that is “read” by pimply 12-year-olds, and is “written” on that level, and then spend billions more to watch the putrid things? Why would I, as an adult, want to see such shit? I can no longer think of a reason.
This one got good reviews, as a lot of them have, lately, from some magazines and newspapers who should have known better. Not the astronomical, super-stellar reviews that overblown, overlong piece of crap The Dark Knight got, but very respectable. It was directed by Guillermo del Toro (Gill the Bull?), who did Pan’s Labyrinth, so I was hopeful. And it is, no question, staggeringly imaginative. There are so many weird creatures that you gape in awe, and realize that each of these things was designed by somebody, animated on a computer by somebody, or in some cases created in the make-up department by somebody … and there are thousands of them, just in the mind-boggling environment of the troll city under the Brooklyn Bridge. Such amazing talent, such skill, such patience (CGI still takes a long time), so many man- and woman-hours devoted to this, ultimately, very dumb stuff. Squandered! Wasted!
You may ask, legitimately, how can I, a science fiction writer, who make my living writing about the improbable, hate this stuff so much? Well, first, I didn’t even like comic books when I was a kid. I read some, but in my heart I knew they were second-rate crap, not my cup of tea at all. Fantasies, sure, but I don’t think they are healthy ones, not even back in the ‘60s when there was a comics code to keep the mayhem down to a reasonable level. Now all bets are off, anything can be shown, and we get sado-masochistic swill like Sin City, that would make a shithouse rat barf … and was loved by most of the critics! We have now reached levels of violence that, in this era of “you have to top this in your next picture,” will soon reach the point where we won’t be satisfied with levels of violent images short of machine-gunning infants in their cribs. I’m not kidding, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that, and soon! IMDb.com
Continued in the second feature …
Second Feature Wanted (2008) Another comic book. And I thought it was sort of interesting—even though bloody and sadistic, but that goes with the territory, doesn’t it?—for about the first hour. Shooting the wings off flies and making bullets curve with your mind fall within the parameters of speculative fiction, I have no problem with that. (I do wonder, though, how in some scenes Angelina Jolie can curve the bullets, and in others she fires off scores of rounds and only manages to hit the windshield of the pursuing car. Apparently the deadly accuracy only works when the plot requires it.) Then, as these things almost always do, it goes apeshit. It had already lost me long before the passenger train cars dangled off the tracks in the mountains (very strong couplers on those cars!), so by the time the train finally plunged 1000 miles into the ravine (well, it looked like it) KILLING EVERYONE ON BOARD EXCEPT THE SUPER-HUMAN COMIC BOOK CHARACTERS!!!! … I was yawning. I mean … I guess it’s a matter of what we’ve gotten used to. You’ve seen 10,000 car chases by now. Maybe when you started seeing them, you might have wondered what happened to all those innocent bystanders in the cars our hero and the fleeing/chasing villain hit during the 10 minutes of mayhem. Surely there were some fatalities, I mean, those were bad crashes, weren’t they? I’ll bet you seldom think of it now. Smash! Screech! Crunch! Oh, look, a baby has been thrown from that car, and here comes a bus, and it’s squashing the baby … but we don’t show that, do we? This is all in fun. And I’m not trying to be a total spoilsport here, I enjoy a good car chase. But we have crossed over into LaLa land and I wonder if we can ever get back to anything approaching reality? There must have been 500, 600 people on that train, and believe me, none of them could have survived. They’re all dead, men, women, and little babies. But Angelina and James McAvoy, who caused the train to plunge, are the good guys! And they survive! Do you recall a time when, if the hero fell 20 stories to the ground below, he at least hit an awning, or landed in a convenient dumpster full of kapok … a time when the writer and director at least made a nod to the laws of physics, at least supplied a quasi-plausible reason for survival? No more. In the last reel of The Dark Knight Batprick falls at least seven stories, lands on his back on hard ground, and gets up, brushes himself off without even a crick in his neck. And both the mass killers in Wanted survive the train plunge. I can take a certain degree of implausibility, it can be funny … but come on! Come on, people! Are any of you out there enjoying this crap? I guess you are, you keep lining up to see it. And, sadly, so have I. But I am going to be seeing less and less of it, if I see any at all. IMDb.com
May 13, 2008 - First Feature Iron Man (2008) So what do you expect from a big summer superhero action movie, of which this is the first of 2008? Action, of course, but you might also wish for wit, an appealing character or two, some funny situations and some real ones (just to set off the unreal stuff that’s bound to happen in a comic book movie), an intelligent script (within the limits of the genre), and maybe even some attention paid to science and engineering. That it will be fast and dazzling with CGI-SFX is a given these days … but will it show you something original, something cool, something that makes your jaw drop?
This movie delivers on all counts. First, casting laid-back smart-ass Robert Downey Jr. was a stroke of genius, as he can take the smart-ass lines and give them his own personal, droll delivery. (Man, I sure hope he has his drug problem under control.) There is an appealing, understated and never-consummated romance between Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow (who I adore) as his assistant, Pepper Potts. There are three different Iron Man suits, and a lot of very funny stuff about learning to use them. Many of the problems inherent in such a crazy device are at least addressed. Even the climactic final battle, where many superhero movies bore me, was well done. This one is a keeper.
Robert A. Heinlein, in Starship Troopers, beat Stan Lee to the idea of a powered suit by a few years, but so what? Heinlein beat everybody to a lot of things. The chief problem with such a thing is, of course, power. The best flying suits we’ve ever developed are good for about 30 seconds, and crash a lot. They are unlikely to get any better in the next century or two. As for weapons, Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry used everything up to and including small nukes. I can’t recall what power source Heinlein used, probably something nuclear. Iron Man at least pays attention to this problem, and solves it in the traditional SF way: It cheats. It makes up a gobbledygook power source. Again, no problemo, homey. My last three books have involved even worse cheats. You get one big cheat per book, that’s a basic rule of SF.
Look for Stan Lee as Tony Stark is entering the Disney Center. He’s standing with three stunning women, back to the camera, wearing a maroon smoking jacket. Tony pats him on the shoulder and say something like “How you doing, Hef?”
If only the rest of this summer is this good … in particular, the new Indiana Jones movie. IMDb.com
Second Feature Drillbit Taylor (2008) I had prepared this line before I ever saw the movie, in case it sucked: “Now I understand why Owen Wilson tried to off himself.” Yeah, I know, it’s cruel, but what the hell? And sorry to say, if I’d been involved in this movie in any capacity I’d be thinking about the rope, the gas pipe, or pills. Like any comedy, except the very worst, there were a few laughs. But there were also great stretches of silence. Premise: three high school nerds are terrorized by a bully and decide to hire a bodyguard. (For a much better, serious treatment of this idea, see My Bodyguard, which, oddly enough, co-stars one of the guys these boys interview and reject!) They end up with Drillbit, a homeless vet who’s never seen combat and is completely incompetent and only plans to rob their houses. These boys are too smart to be taken in by his bullshit, which is very lame, but of course they are. And of course Drillbit reforms … you can fill out the rest. But don’t bother. IMDb.com
April 21, 2008 - First Feature Nim's Island (2008) Somebody at IMDb said this was like Indiana Jones for little girls. Maybe, but I think the better parallel is Romancing the Stone, that wonderful, unlikely match of adventure and humor that was such a big hit in the ‘80s. Both stories involve a female novelist who writes adventures and ends up having an adventure herself. In this one, though, the novelist is Alexandra Roper (Jodie Foster), who under her pen name Alex is widely believed to be a male. She has one small problem, a slight case of agoraphobia (“What’s slight about it?” her alter ego, Alex, asks her). She hasn’t left her apartment in a long time. But she gets involved by email with Nim, who lives with her father on a remote, secret island. Her father has been caught in a storm and is having a great deal of trouble getting back home. Nim, who is 11, is all alone. Alex decides she has to go to the South Pacific and help out, accompanied by her imaginary hero friend. Nim is actually far better suited to take care of herself. She is plucky and smart, and she has animal friends—a sea lion, a lizard, and a pelican—who she talks to (they don’t talk back, thank god; that would have been a little too much), and who display far more than the usual animal intelligence. It’s an odd blend of reality and fantasy, a hard balancing act to maintain, but they do a good job of it. We both enjoyed it. Jodie Foster is quite good in a comic part, something she doesn’t usually do. And Abigail Breslin, of the wonderful Little Miss Sunshine, shines again. IMDb.com
Second Feature Horton Hears a Who! (2008) First reaction: Why does everything have to be so friggin’ huge these days? The great Chuck Jones did this in 1970, staying exactly with the Dr. Seuss story, narrated by the great Hans Conried, and it is a classic. But it’s 2008, this is CGI animation, and it has megastars Jim Carrey and Steve Carrell. Naturally, it’s all over the place, full of frantic action, cute references, new characters, new sub-plots, and many, many changes from the original.
Second reaction: It ain’t all that bad, for what it is.
I should tell you, I’m a giant Dr. Seuss fan. They were some of the first books I ever read, and I read all of them, a thousand times, had them virtually memorized. (I was too old for his later, very young person books, like Green Eggs and Ham.) My favorites were the ones that didn’t really have a story at all, just one fantastic thing after another, all drawn in that amazing, droopy, flamboyant Seuss style, books like McElligot’s Pool, If I Ran the Circus, Scrambled Eggs Super, and On Beyond Zebra. I liked Horton, and Bartholomew Cubbins, but it was the crazy world of these other books that drew me. That, and the catchy little rhymes.
Some of the trademark anapestic tetrameter is preserved here, read by Charles Osgood, of all people, but most of the story is dialogue. So there’s no way you can say this is faithful for the book, at least not in terms of story (though the basic plot remains), but where it shines is in capturing the art of Seuss. Whoville in particular is a delight, the Jungle of Nool a little less so, but still good. Carol Burnett is great as the Sour Kangaroo (named Jane here, for some reason). I didn’t mind that her joey was a larger character, and a pivotal one, in this version of the story. (You may recall, if you are a Seussian like me, that every time the Sour Kangaroo expressed an opinion, the next line would be “And the small kangaroo in her pouch said “Me, too!”) And it was inevitable that the who kid, Jojo, who was a “shirker” in the book, and only let out with his world-saving “YOP!” when the mayor of Whoville grabbed him and gave him a bit of a belt, would now be the Mayor’s only son, misunderstood, but able to save the day. Oh, well. Could have been much worse, as in The Cat in the Hat, which Audrey Geisel wished she’d never authorized.
(P.S. Everybody pronounces it “Soose,” but it’s actually “Zoice.” Too late for me to change, though. He’ll always be Soose to me.) IMDb.com
March 4, 2008 - First Feature The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008) I wanted to like this but, try as I might, I just couldn’t get into it. It’s based on a series of children’s books, and I might check one out, but faeries and goblins are not really my thing. It didn’t give me time to get into its world; before I knew it I was being overwhelmed by CGI critters that weren’t all that interesting. (Nick Nolte as the Big Bad Goblin might have been scarier if they’d animated his drunk-driving booking photo that’s had such exposure on the Net.) For me, but apparently not for today’s audiences, just shoveling more effects into the hopper and grinding out some more CGI-animated sausage is not the formula for a good movie. And I have to be honest here, more and more I’m finding movie children, from ages about 8 to 16, to be a real pain in the ass. Is this just because I’m an old fart now, and can’t abide their problems? This is entirely possible, I admit it. These days the chances that kids are from what we used to call a “broken home” are about 50/50. They have “issues,” and they aren’t shy about expressing them … and I get real tired of it as a story device. Call me insensitive, I don’t care. Lee and I were bored. IMDb.com
Second Feature Cloverfield (2008) What an odd little movie. We had been warned that sitting close has actually caused cases of vertigo, due to it being filmed entirely with hand-held cameras. It’s a point-of-view movie, but it’s not The Lady in the Lake. I didn’t figure that, being at the drive-in, this would be a problem, and it wasn’t. The problem was that it was too dark for outdoor viewing. Half the time—more than half the time—I had only a vague to non-existent idea of what was going on. And here’s the odd thing … it didn’t matter! The whole idea of the movie was to show Godzilla not from the point of view of the people who were actually fighting it (Raymond Burr, or the president, or the generals in the Pentagon), but from the poor schlubs who were just trying to get the fuck out of Dodge. They had no idea what was going on except some big critter was eating cars, buildings, soldiers, and their friends.
Dodge City is, of course, New York, and more specifically Southern Manhattan. It ties skillfully (some said cynically) into all our nightmares of 9/11, with the Woolworth Building collapsing. We are set up with 15 or 20 minutes of stuff that looks just like what a New York yuppie might actually film at a going-away party for a friend of his. Characters are introduced and we have to infer a lot, which is okay, these guys aren’t going to be around long enough to get too attached to. Affairs are happening, people are getting pissed off at each other, the guy with the camera is trying to make time with a girl who’s having none of it. Then, bam! Earthquake … or something very much like it. Up to the roof, where chaos reigns. Something huge is eating the city!
(What a rush this would have been in a media-less world, where we all hadn’t already been clued in via the expert use of viral videos as to what was really going on. Just about at the point where I’d have been ready to fling my Coke and popcorn at these assholes on the screen, we discover this movie isn’t about relationships at all, it’s about how quickly your life can go from routine to … fuck, I’m about to die! One second, and everything changes!)
I’m really going to have to see this again, on DVD. Thanks to Wikipedia, I now know some of what I missed, and I’d like to look for these things when I can freeze-fame and get a longer look. For instance, there is apparently a big back story that they may use for the sequel (and at over 100 million worldwide, there will be a sequel). And the crablike critters our heroes have to fight are parasites on the big mother. We get only one good, long look at the creature, at the very end, and that’s fine with me, on the invariable principle (promulgated by me) that what you don’t see is far scarier than what you do see. And it seems that in the last shot, on a Ferris wheel at Coney Island (don’t ask why that’s in here with all the disaster; it actually makes sense) something falls into the ocean in the background, and at the very end of the credits there is a tiny clue to what may come next.
Cultural aside: The entire premise of this movie, the hand-held camera, just makes me stop to wonder. When I was young not many people had movie cameras, and they were only good for about 5-10 minutes per reel of film, and fairly expensive. Most of what people shot was crap. Now everybody has either a video camera or a video cell phone or both. Most of what they shoot is still crap, but my, do they shoot! It’s entirely plausible that, if the head of the Statue of Liberty came tumbling down their street, followed by Godzilla, many of this generation would stand there with their cell phones in the air, watching the whole thing on the tiny screen. And that, even when pursued by rabid crabs the size of German shepherds, they would hang on to their vidcams and continue to shoot as their girlfriend bled from the nose, ears, eyes, and mouth, and exploded from an alien virus. I have no idea if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Do you? IMDb.com
January 22, 2008 - First Feature The Bucket List (2007) Starts off better than I’d expected. You know from the previews that these guys are dying, and out to have some fun before that happens, and I expected it to be a lark from the beginning. Not so. It’s pretty grim. But then after the list of things to do was made it began to lose its way. I thought it was overboard to have Jack Nicholson be so damn bloody rich that they could do anything, at the snap of a finger. Mightn’t it have been more fun if they had to figure ways to do these things other than just have Jack put it on the endless tab? If I was Morgan Freeman, that would have made me very uncomfortable. I never quite understood why Morgan was doing this. Sure, he’d missed a lot of opportunities, but a whirlwind tour of the Himalayas and the Taj Mahal wasn’t going to make up for that. I didn’t believe for a second that, given a chance to drive a Mustang Shelby 350, he’d treat it like a bumper car. Jack was way too big a lifelong asshole to have turned all gooey inside from what I saw happening on the screen. And the end was pretty shameless at jerking the tear ducts. Not a complete waste of time, but not very good, either. IMDb.com
Second Feature National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) Even lamer than the first one. It’s all recycled Indiana Jones, with the idea that ancient people had nothing better to do with their time but to construct elaborate deathtraps for people who wouldn’t come along to set them off for 500 years or so. What was fun in Raiders of the Lost Ark, because it took us back to those days of awful cliff-hanger black-and-white adventure serials of yesteryear, only with a big budget and tongue in cheek, is getting awful tiresome now. Who the fuck cares if these poorly-written jerks fall off the teetering platform? Who could possibly believe the stupid break-in at Buckingham Palace and kidnapping of the president? How did they do it? Oh, we got this computer whiz, see, and he knows how to … oh, bullshit. How many more times do we have to see that one? I don’t object to over-the-top and/or unlikely, if it’s funny, if it’s fun. This is all by-the-numbers. IMDb.com
December 28, 2007 - First Feature Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) I guess I’d have to call this one intermittently funny. It sets out to spoof all those musical biopics, in particular Walk the Line, Ray, and even La vie en rose, to name a few more recent ones, and does a pretty good job of including all the clichés, hammering a little hard on them to be sure you get the joke. You have noticed that just about all the superstars of music have followed pretty much the same career arc, haven’t you? Start poor, get some success, get messed up with drugs, and then either die or make a comeback, it hardly matters in story terms. Dewey Cox does both: he dies three minutes after his comeback. In fact, he does everything that anyone in pop music did, from the early ‘50s to the ‘80s. He is sort of a musical Zelig. Remember that Woody Allen film about the guy who was the human chameleon? Put him in a group of people and he instantly became just like them. John C. Reilly is actually one hell of a singer, and he gets to do Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and John Denver, among others. Whatever the musical vogue of the moment is, that’s what he is. His one stumble is when he invents punk rock … in about 1960. Nobody’s ready for it yet. This all works best when Dewey is on stage, making music. The back story with his family is a little over the top, and sort of clashes with the other stuff, which is quite well done. IMDb.com
Second FeatureAmerican Gangster (2007) I guess my main complaint about this is stylistic. How dark and murky can a movie get before you don’t have any idea what’s going on? Many directors have been exploring this question in recent years, and here Ridley Scott, who’s always been dark, almost achieves nirvana in some scenes: a completely black screen. In every indoor scene where it is possible, he shoots into the light. People are framed against picture windows, with all the interior light behind them, walking into buildings with the open doors behind them … like that. Every scene! Outside, New York is almost as dark as the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, or the London of Sweeney Todd. Not quite, but almost. The movie might as well be in black and white. And since so many of the characters are dark-skinned people, their features are almost impossible to see in these situations. You’re going to say this is 21st Century film noir, but if it is, you can fucking have it. Those old noir directors of the ‘40s and ‘50s shot dark, sure, but they knew how to place the lights so you saw what you needed to see, what they wanted you to see, and left the backgrounds shadowy. Here, the backgrounds are visible and the characters are in the dark, almost all the time. It really sucks, my friends. They might as well make a movie in Braille.
Now that that’s out of the way, what about the content, as opposed to the presentation? Well, it’s very well-written and well-acted, and the story is good, and all in all I’d have to say it’s a good movie. I’m glad I saw it. But as I watched, I kept thinking, “What’s the point?” Do we really need to see this story again? If you’ve seen The French Connection, and maybe 100 cops vs. dope dealers movies since then, this movie could not possibly have anything new to say to you. TFC is even referenced specifically, several times, and there is a scene that is a direct steal. Remember Frog One dining in a fine restaurant, and through the window Popeye Doyle is freezing his butt off, sipping awful coffee? Here, the big dope dealer, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), sits down to a lavish Thanksgiving dinner with his loving family, while Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) chows down on a pressed turkey sandwich. Yeah, I get it, the doper is rolling in dough, and the honest cop is almost eligible for welfare. And the crooked cop drives a Shelby Mustang. And yeah, at the end we learn that 75% of the NYC drug detail was indicted for various crimes in the early ‘70s, and it’s plain that the other 25% just got lucky. Seventy-five percent! And are you surprised? And do you think anything is any different today? As Frank Lucas says in the movie, the NYPD lived for years on that French Connection dope, swiping a bit here and a bit there, selling it back on the streets. And the day after they shut down that operation, do you think heroin was any harder to get on the streets? And the day after this operation was shut down …
Are we ever going to get it? One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing again and again and expect different results. That describes our long-running, eternal, and totally hopeless War on Drugs perfectly. Why not declare war on water, or oxygen? It’s just as likely to get results. And I’ll guarantee you this, there would be water and oxygen gangs and cartels, getting filthy rich and paying off cops, corrupting the system, killing each other, selling adulterated water and watered-down oxygen cut with radon. We would be passing laws that violate our civil liberties, confiscating the property of anyone caught in possession of oxygen (or ozone, O3, a “precursor” of oxygen), handing down lower penalties for deuterium oxide (heavy water), the preferred drug of rich folks, and heavier sentences for possession of regular water, which only black people use because it’s cheaper.
Drugs are not the scourge! The war on drugs is the scourge! IMDb.com
December 18, 2007 - First FeatureThe Golden Compass (2007) This was supposed to be the next fantasy franchise, like Shrek, Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia. ‘Fraid not. The books, which I haven’t read, were popular, and apparently thought-provoking. I may even read them myself, as it seems they strongly attack organized religion, which is always worthwhile, in my opinion. But the problem here is simply too much story and not enough time. There was so much going on, which needed so much explaining, that I never had enough time to develop a real rooting interest in any of the myriad sides, and often didn’t know which side was which, especially in the murky final battle. Visually, it is way beyond stunning … but what isn’t, these days? Much imagination went into the set and creature design. In particular, every character in every scene has an animal “daemon” accompanying him or her, and that is a daunting task. I can’t say I disliked the movie, but it never really caught fire for me. IMDb.com
Second Feature Beowulf (2007) I don’t know why they chose this title. It’s really the story of a poor, abused young man and his mother. We don’t get a lot of his back story, but from appearances he was horribly burned at some point. He seems to be profoundly retarded. He has no genitals, and not much is left of his face. His body is twisted, whether from deformity or mutilation it’s hard to say. (I wouldn’t be surprised if he was brutally beaten, possibly by his classmates, for his ugliness. You know Vikings, not a race noted for gentleness and compassion.) He lives in a cave with his devoted mom, and they both mind their own business.
A rowdy group of drunken slobs moves in not far away, led by a loutish “king” who wanders about wearing nothing but a sheet. You’ll be reminded of the Hell’s Angels. The king and his gang and their sluts spend most of their time roistering in a big pigsty—a “mead hall”—they’ve built especially for the purpose of getting swacked out of their minds every night. I don’t know what’s in this “mead,” but it makes them want to sing a lot, and play their electric lyres very loudly. One night around 3 AM the boy, Grendel, has had enough. He goes down the mountain and kills most of them. (Did I say Grendel is a mighty big boy?) He takes one home to eat and, sweetly, to share with his mom. Any apartment dweller banging on his ceiling in the wee hours will understand Grendel’s actions perfectly, and completely forgive him. I mean, haven’t we all killed, dismembered, and eaten an inconsiderate neighbor or two now and then? Where’s the harm?
The king and his surviving thugs are a little subdued after that, cowards that they are, but they quietly put out on a contract on Grendel. This brings hired-gun and big-time braggart and blowhard Beowulf to town with more thugs. They lure Grendel down from the mountain with more roistering, and after Grendel has worn himself out slaughtering the big hero’s hapless men—where was Beowulf? Uh, maybe he had “other priorities”—Beowulf meets him in single combat … stark naked. Poor Grendel, confronted with the sight of the Mighty Nordic Member that he lacks, is so flustered he is thrown off his stride, and Beowulf pulls off his arm and sends him fleeing into the night, where he dies in the arms of his heartbroken mother. Then Beowulf decides to kill the grieving mother, fuck the king’s wife, and drive the king to suicide …
All of the above aside, I actually enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would. Robert Zemeckis has apparently decided he never wants to work with an actual camera again, as this and his last movie, The Polar Express, and his next, an All-Jim-Carrey (Scrooge and all the ghosts) all-green-screen motion-capture-suit rendering of A Christmas Carol are, or will be, entirely generated in computers. There are certain advantages to this (no props, no sets), but it still ain’t cheap. This one cost $150,000,000. For all that money, some of the CGI shots were surprisingly unconvincing. I’d call them uneven. Some were so damn good you forgot you were looking at animation, others made you think of Shrek and Fiona. Horses, for one thing, are still a problem. They don’t gallop right. But all in all, it is a visual feast. Every so often I was reminded that there is a 3D version of this film, when a character pointed a spear or threw something in my face. In the end, that’s really all 3D’s good for, isn’t it?
What was unexpected was that I liked the story. Beowulf really is an asshole, at the beginning. Most of his dialogue consists of bellowing “I am Beowulf!” Okay, we got it, jeez, can’t you shut up about yourself for one minute? But after he’s seduced by a deliciously CGI-naked Angelina Jolie (with a prehensile pigtail!) a little over halfway through, we get the rest of the story, sort of like Stephen Sondheim did with the after “happily-ever-after” second act of Into the Woods. He’s been an effective king, slaughtering and enslaving and raping and pillaging like a good Viking, but he’s unsatisfied. He’s hung with this image he knows he doesn’t deserve, what with failing to kill Grendel’s mother and having a curse on him and all, and he’s got one Big Nordic Case of Angst. I was supposed to have read the epic poem in high school, but like so many, I blew it off, or have completely forgotten it. In the back of my mind I thought heroes were supposed to slay the monster and then everything’s swell. Here, the best parts of the movie are after Grendel is dead.
I can’t end this without saying something about Beowulf’s Mighty Nordic Member. We don’t see it, of course, as the producers want to show it to kids. (The movie, not the Member.) (And we know it’s Big; the queen’s CGI eyes widen and elegantly shout “hubba hubba!” when they stare down at it.) And Zemeckis shows considerable wit in how he carefully fig-leafs Our Hero and His Hero in shot after shot. He’s naked for maybe 15 minutes of screen time, and not all of it is with his back to the camera. And I realized that, with green-screen and body suits, everything being recorded in computer memory as nothing but spatial relationships which can be manipulated in post-production, no actual film, no actual camera, this sort of thing is dead easy. The same process that enables great swooping “camera” moves makes it easy to select the right angle to never show the Danish Dingus. Will wonders never cease? IMDb.com
November 12, 2007 - First FeatureFred Claus (2007) What’s that? The sound of jingle bells, this early November? That must mean it’s time for Hollywood to start dropping its latest bunch of reindeer turds marketed as “Christmas movies.” We’ve been getting them regular as vegan bowel movements for many years now, sometimes only one, sometimes, in a year when the creative laxative is really working, as many as two or three. Mostly I haven’t seen them. According to rumor they reached the bottom of the toilet bowl a few years back with Christmas With the Kranks. I wouldn’t know. I understand Jingle All the Way was pretty bad, too; in fact, if a few more people had actually seen it we might not have Arnold for governor here in Cahleefornia. Whatever … they would have to have been really stunningly awful to out-awful this one, which is about as funny as shoving a really big holly wreath up your ass. Not a single joke works. Lee nodded off. Luckily, being in the car, nobody but me could hear her snore. (Kidding. I handle the snoring for both of us, and most of the rest of LA County, too.)
And I’m not a total Scrooge, though I no longer do anything at all for Christmas, I can actually like Christmas movies. I even like the straight ones, every once in a while, such as One Magic Christmas, with Harry Dean Stanton as an angel, or Elf, with Will Ferrell. But I admit, I prefer them with an edge. It can be a gentle, quirky edge, like in maybe the best Christmas movie ever, A Christmas Story. Or it can be like Scrooged, which I liked better than most people did, or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It can even be Bad Santa … and you want edge? That one was about as edgy as a bob-wire enema. But this one tries to split the difference, and that’s a balancing act it comes nowhere near to achieving.
There is one scene that has some potential, but it’s very near the end and by that time I was so angry at the people who had cobbled this crap together it made little impression on me. The schtick here, as I’m sure you know, is that Santa has a brother, and all his life this brother has been unable to live up to the giant shadow cast by the big ho-ho-ho dude. He attends Brothers Anonymous, where other loser brothers tell their sad stories. Among them are Roger Clinton, Sylvester Stallone’s brother, and one of the Lesser Baldwin Brothers … who the hell knows what their names are? Like I say, might have been some laughs here, but it would have helped if, say, Tommy Smothers had been there, too. Like I say, this movie is the log swimming in your egg-nog, and it ain’t cinnamon. IMDb.com
Second FeatureMichael Clayton (2007) Here is the first directing effort by Tony Gilroy, who wrote the very smart scripts for all three Bourne movies, and this one is super-sharp, too. Aside from one moment when a man gets out of a car at a moment that turns out to have been a very lucky one for him, without any reasonable motivation that I can see, it all hangs together. How nice to see a movie with a mind now and then. I thought it should have been a bigger hit than it was, and all I can figure out they did wrong was the title, and the advertising … which are pretty big things, come to think of it. I mean, take a look at the poster. Have you ever seen anything so uninteresting? As for the title, I don’t have a better one to suggest, and it is certainly possible to have a big hit with a movie named after the main character (Jerry McGuire), this one doesn’t resonate with me, and is actually about issues much broader than just one man. But forget all that, go see this. George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, and even more so, Tilda Swinton, are outstanding, as is every member of the supporting cast, so critical to the success of a realistic movie. IMDb.com
October 22, 2007 - Here’s a rarity: A double bill of two serious movies. Your typical drive-in fare usually includes at least one horror/slasher, comic book, lame comedy, or teen gross-out film. Both of these are at least trying to tackle important subjects in a serious way, with differing degrees of success …
First FeatureWe Own the Night (2007) Well-written, well-acted, well-photographed (minimal use of shaky-cam, hurray!) … and ultimately just a bit disappointing. I don’t know who to blame it on, except to say that it’s territory that I guess I’ve grown a little tired of. New York City, 1988, and the motto of the NYPD was “We Own the Night.” I don’t know exactly what that little bit of bravado was meant to translate as (certainly not something as bald and awful as “Giuliani Time!”), but never mind. The cops are fighting drugs, which is a useless fight, in my opinion—they should be a medical problem, not a criminal justice problem—so right there I’m a bit less than engaged. We got a cop family, with Robert Duvall a chief, his son Mark Wahlberg a new Captain, and the black sheep, Joaquin Phoenix, operating a trendy club. Drugs are bought and sold and used there, but Phoenix is not involved in that, at least not directly. You can easily see where this is going. Lee predicted that Wahlberg would be shot as a means to galvanize his ne’er-do-well brother to Do The Right Thing. We were both a little surprised that he survived the assassination attempt … but it was easy to figure who would be the next to go. I won’t tell you, but I’m sure you can figure it out. I have to give them points for avoiding some of the worst cop-action movie clichés—the bad guy, hit with one shotgun blast, does not get up and fight some more—and it was a better-than-usual night at the movies, but I know that in a year I’ll have trouble remembering what it was all about, just like right now I can barely recall anything about the highly-touted The Depahted. IMDb.com
Second Feature The Kingdom (2007) Let me say it right up front: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a seriously sick society. They are by no means the only one, but as they are our “allies” in the “War on Terror,” it makes me hate them all the more. If there were a button here on my desk that, when pushed, would cause every male adherent of the Wahabi sect of Islam to vanish (whether to Paradise or to Hell, I don’t really care; either way they wouldn’t trouble Planet Earth anymore), I’d press it in an instant. If there were a second button that would kill every male member of the House of Saud, raze every one of their incredibly decadent palaces right down to the sand, sow the grounds with radioactive salts, and cause a million pigs to piss on the smoking ruins, I’d push that button, too. As for Islam itself, “The Religion of Peace” … well, that’s enough buttons for today, and if I pushed that one I’d have to point out that I’d also want a button for Jerry Falwell and his tribe, Mormons, Catholics, Hindus, Scientologists … the list is long.
This movie gets off to a good start, with an awful scene of carnage as a truck bomb is detonated at a softball game at an American compound in Riyadh (actually Dubai, and Arizona). Hundreds are killed. Back in DC, the FBI wants to investigate, but is up against the usual wall of isolation imposed by the Desert Kingdom of Camel-fuckers. Four of them eventually get in, led by Jamie Foxx. (Among them is Jennifer Garner, who should have known better than to wear that t-shirt in sexually perverted SA.) They are making no progress, bureaucratic and religious obstacles cropping up everywhere they turn, until they finally convince a Saudi prince that finding the killers might actually be a good thing, and make friends with a true Saudi patriot in the police force. Then it turns into CSI: Riyadh for a while, which gives Chris Cooper a chance to wallow around in a mudhole and act macho. Soon the four are hot on the trail, so naturally they are attacked, leading to a huge, long car chase and shoot-out.
Now, I’ll admit to the no-longer-so-guilty pleasures of seeing men in robes and red-and-white-checkered keffiyehs getting blown up, riddled with bullets, dying horribly. Who could really resist it? But the plot takes some awkward leaps here at the end, as movies so often do, and I was left unsatisfied. Surely there is something to say about this situation a little deeper than the conclusion here, where Foxx and a little Arab boy both repeat the same mantra: Kill ‘em all. That’s emotionally satisfying, but as Israel has learned to its sorrow over 60 years, it doesn’t work in the end.
TECHNICAL NOTE: The shaky-cam operator really should be paid overtime for practicing his craft in slow, static scenes as well as action-packed ones. Paid … and then I’d cheerfully break both his arms. I’m thinking of starting a shaky-cam Hall of Shame, and inducting directors who overuse this most dreadful of “edgy” techniques when it is strictly un-called for. A permanent life member would be Jerry Bruckheimer, and I’d also add the director of Friday Night Lights … and goddam it if I didn’t just look him up, to find that he is none other than Peter Berg, who directed this palsied effort! Buy a tripod, Mr. Berg! IMDb.com
October 16, 2007 - First FeatureThe Heartbreak Kid (2007) A young man who is having an affair with an older, married woman falls in love with her daughter. Not a very nice thing to do, I think we’d all agree. Hideously inappropriate behavior. But we like Benjamin in The Graduate, because though he’s not man enough (he’s 18) to own up to it with the daughter, he struggles with it. He knows he’s behaved badly. We like him. We wish him well. And hey, at least all the men in the audience know there was no way in hell an 18-year-old could have resisted Mrs. Robinson’s advances. I know I couldn’t have.
Now, flash forward 40 years. (40 years!!! My, how time flies.) An older man who has commitment problems has second thoughts about his marriage and is strongly attracted to another woman … while on his honeymoon! Not a very nice thing to do. Hideously inappropriate behavior … and I detest this asshole, because his only solution to the problem is to lie, lie, lie. There is not an ounce of moral fiber in him. This is all played for laughs, of course, and I imagine it all could have worked (I never saw the Bruce Jay Friedman, Neil Simon, Elaine May original, but I wouldn’t be surprised it Simon and May could have pulled it off) … but not in the hands of the Farrelly Brothers. Don’t get me wrong, these dudes are very good at things like Dumb and Dumber and Shallow Hal and Stuck on You. There’s Something About Mary transcended its silliness and delivered some of the best comic moments ever, and they were even better when they made Fever Pitch, one of our favorite recent romantic comedies. But their next project is The Three Stooges, and that’s the level this one operates at. It takes a genius like Buck Henry to write about a situation we’d normally condemn, and make us like it. This script doesn’t have an ounce of that sort of genius.
I will admit, I laughed some during the first half. Maybe that’s where we should have left, only at the drive-in there’s the second feature, which is what we came to see, and that was … IMDb.com
Second FeatureThe Brave One (2007) I don’t understand the title. I guess it’s brave to come out of your apartment after a brutal mugging that leaves you near death and your fiancée dead, when you’re having panic attacks the moment you reach for the doorknob … but having a gun helps a lot. There’s really nothing brave about putting a gun in the face of a worthless piece of shit and pulling the trigger. Satisfying, sure, but not brave.
Most of us think about revenge. (I’d say all, but there are people who really believe in turning the other cheek. I’m not one of them.) You’d like to think it would be satisfying, and it certainly can be, but probably not if it involves killing someone, no matter how richly they deserve it. Unless you’re a certain kind of person who is not bothered by killing, and I have to think they’re fairly rare. I don’t believe they are all psychopaths, but many of them are, or at least they’re people who are incapable of feeling empathy. Charles Bronson, in Death Wish, seemed to suffer no qualms at all about cleaning up New York City, and Bernard Goetz was apparently bothered only by the lifelong hassle he incurred by plugging those assholes on the subway. Death Wish was probably a dishonest movie … but damn, it was a lot of fun. I remember getting a visceral delight in seeing these monsters blown away. Naturally, to get that delight, the screenwriters have to make the monsters into the absolute worst, most despicable, sub-human creatures who ever lived, the sort of people most of us would no more miss than metal rabbits in a shooting gallery. In this movie Jodie Foster tries for more honesty, showing the price a formerly peaceful vigilante pays for her clean-up campaign. But of course her final targets are the very murderers who killed her fiancée … and stole her dog, too! And that seems unlikely. Even more unlikely is the ending, as Terence Howard (who is a man to watch; he’s very, very good) does something … well, that’s a spoiler.
And damn it, bottom line, it would be a lot more fun if she enjoyed it more. Yeah, I know, she probably wouldn’t … but she has one great Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry line. She’s just hit this scumbag with a crowbar, undoing thousands of dollars of dental work, and the guy sputters through his blood: “Are you a cop?” And she snorts, and says, “You wish.” Meaning, a cop couldn’t do what I’m about to do to you. Loved it. IMDb.com
August 21, 2007 - First FeatureThe Invasion (2007) Review pending upon the completion of our Great Body Snatcher Film Festival! Four reviews for the price of one! (I’ll bet you didn’t know there were four versions of this story.) IMDb.com
Second FeatureHot Rod (2007) Some films are so bad you almost hate to attack them. It’s like making fun of a retarded person. This one is produced by Lorne Michaels, who ought to be ashamed of himself, not only for insulting me with this drivel, but for keeping that walking corpse, “Saturday Night Live,” shuffling along, belching and farting and making messes on the carpet, for twenty years after it stopped being very funny. It was given three stars by Roger Ebert, who also ought to be ashamed of himself. It scored an inexplicable 43 at Metacritic, when they should have been exploring the possibility of negative numbers. And it stars something called Andy Samberg, who displays not a trace of talent in comedy or … oh, god, the horror, the horror! … acting. I doubt that this Samberg thing is capable of being ashamed of himself. I have learned that he is all set to become the first Internet film star, having made his rep with short videos filmed with a couple of buddies who seem to have spent their lives stoned out of their minds on Dr. Pepper and Cheetos. I once asked myself, while watching the first part of an Adam Sandler movie (I didn’t finish it), “Could comedy possibly ever get any worse than this?” This movie provides the sorry answer. I’d almost be ready to destroy the Internet entirely if it keeps spawning IQ-lowering garbage like this. We fled after the obligatory 20 minutes I’ll give any film, feeling as if we were being pursued by the brainless undead zombies from the previous movie, The Invasion. Was that laughter we heard from the people in the next car? They’re coming, they’re coming! The pod people! IMDb.com
August 6, 2007 - First FeatureThe Bourne Ultimatum (2007) This is without question the smartest, snappiest, most satisfying series of movies now in production. The audience has built over the years, and this one opened very, very big and had excellent reviews, so even though there are only three Robert Ludlum books about Jason Bourne and this one really seems to wrap up the story … when a series keeps raking in the dough like that you can never say it is over. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fourth. And I’m not sure it would be a good idea, but money talks. We’ll see.
This one is as smart and challenging as the first two. It makes you work to keep up with it. The scenes where the CIA is trying to track Bourne through Waterloo Station with dozens of agents, computers, and CCTV cameras, and his tricks to avoid them, really crackle with intelligence. Like the first two, there are no fancy made-up James Bond gadgets, everything is off the shelf, everything is plausible. In fact, the whole plot is set in motion by an NSA computer picking one word out of the almost unimaginable babble of cell phone communications … which is something they can do! Jason Bourne is almost as relentless as the Terminator, he’s got no snide remarks, no clever lines as he’s killing someone, no smirk. (Oh, he does have one clever line, but it is so good that it makes you burst out laughing in admiration.)
Now, I called this film “plausible.” There’s no way you can call it “realistic,” though it has a feel of realism that almost no other action/thriller these days manages to accomplish. After all, though any one of Bourne’s escape might work, it’s simply not possible that, no matter how good he is, he could escape time after time after time. But this falls under the heading of “Hey, it’s a thriller, you gotta suspend your disbelief.” It’s a fine line, but these movies seldom cross it. Bourne outruns no explosions, for instance. He does absorb more punches with fists and feet than a human being really can do, and an explosion, and a fall in a car from about three or four stories up, and a bad wreck … and doesn’t seem too hurt when in fact he would be crippled for weeks by any of these things … but again, it’s a thriller, and I have come to be grateful for what I can get in that department, so long as it isn’t comic-book level.
It must be said, however, that in the matter of quick editing, it does put its foot over the line a few times, to the point where you’re not sure just what the hell is going on. That’s too bad, but I forgive it because most of the time, it stays just on the right side of the jerky-camera motion-sickness partially-obscured “edginess” that sink all too many action films for me. And there is no CGI over-the-top crap, which I have begun to regard as the refuge of the talentless. It’s all good old-timey stunt action. IMDb.com
Second Feature I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007) Sometimes a second feature at the drive-in is a bonus, sometimes it’s a cross you have to bear … but only for 30 minutes or so, until the screen has been stunk up so bad that you flee in terror. This one was a 15-minute stinker. IMDb.com
July 18, 2007 - First FeatureHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) I just re-read my comments on the first four films, and there’s a funny thing. I rated #4 the best of the lot … and I can’t really remember much about it. I’ve been a fan of both the books and the movies, and I’m waiting along with everybody else for HP and the Deathly Hallows. (I don’t think Harry will die, do you?) So … why didn’t this one excite me more?
I scanned some other reviews, and the ones who had a bone to pick mostly didn’t like that this one was so dark. (In both the figurative and literal senses; I had a hard time seeing what was going on a lot of the time.) Of course, the book was dark. The whole series is getting darker as it goes along, as it should. The first one was nothing but fun, in spite of the dangers involved. These were kids, they were studying magic, everything was delightfully wonderful. What’s not to like? Wouldn’t you like to go to Hogwarts, even if an evil mastermind was out to kill you? Sign me up, I’ll take my chances.
Now the kids are growing up, almost grown, and if we want to get metaphoric—which Rowling isn’t shoving down our throats, but I think it’s entered her mind—this is a tough time even if you’re not engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the Prince of Darkness. Hell, struggling with your own hormones is scary enough. As we move from childhood, many things become a lot less fun, and that may be sad, but it’s a fact. It is entirely right and proper that as her initial audience of 10 to 14-year-olds mature, the books should grow more adult along with them. It was inevitable that, as Harry was never intended to remain young forever, like Nancy Drew or Tom Swift, and the author intended all along that he would grow into a man’s estate, the mood would get more serious.
But I miss something, and I guess it’s just the sense of fun. I know that’s unfair, and how many jokes can you make about any-flavored-jellybeans? How many times can you re-capture the wonderful whimsy of owls delivering the mail? The answer is: Not forever. And it’s sad, as I guess all lost innocence is sad.
I didn’t love this movie. It’s not bad by any means, but I didn’t gasp in delight.
Something else: We saw this at the drive-in, and a couple of times I looked around at the three other screens to see the tiny, far-away action playing out there. Transformers. Live Free or Die Hard. The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. How did we come to this? Okay, it’s summer, it’s a drive-in, what did I expect, okay, okay, okay. But special effects used to be in aid of the plot. When did we tip over the edge to the point that the SFX now drive the plot? Are the only reason for the existence of the plot? I’ve given up railing about making movies out of comic books (or “graphic novels,” as their apologists sometimes call them), but when did we start making movies about toys, fer chrissake? What’s next? Attack of the Lego Creatures? Erector Set: The Movie?
Bigger is no longer better, at least not in my book. For a while, that worked. What new CGI creations do you have to show me, Hollywood? Oh, boy, that was snazzy, I’ve never seen that before! Now … yawn. Been there, done that. There is nothing new you can show me, Hollywood, nothing at all. You’ve reached the limits of CGI. I’ve fucking seen it all. I am not even tempted to see Transformers. So they change shape and fight a lot. Big deal. Now how about giving me a story that means something?
The Harry Potter series is still delivering on the story, but it’s also getting caught up in its own dazzle. It happened with Star Wars. The first was sheer WOW!!!! The second, gee whiz. By the time Return of the Jedi came around, I was feeling dissatisfied and wasn’t sure why. Now I know. I’m bored!! Oh, right, here it comes, another goddam stinkin’ light saber duel. Five minutes of screen time, the CGI people can do it in their sleep now, they can phone it in. Time for a snooze, wake me when it’s over. And you know what? One more scene of wizards hurling light at each other from the tips of their wands and shouting “Expectorate!” is just a goddam stinkin’ light saber duel, too. It’s too bad that it’s the dramatic climax of this film, because I was … bored. Spitless. IMDb.com
June 20, 2007 - First FeatureOcean's 13 (2007) When Ocean’s 12 came out I posted a short review, and a facetious review of Ocean’s 13: Don’t press your luck, Steve, referring to Steven Soderbergh, who usually goes in for much edgier stuff than this, but has done an adequate job on these frothy caper movies. He does it again in 13. It is very complex, and you don’t believe a frame of it for a minute, but you’re not supposed to. There are a few details I still haven’t figured out, but I don’t need to go see it again to get them straight. I recommend it, but only if you like this sort of stuff. IMDb.com
Second FeatureKnocked Up (2006) Judd Apatow was the writer/director of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which I thought was dandy, and this one is, too. There are no plot surprises, it goes pretty much as you would expect it to go, but the way it gets there is all the charm. Apatow seems to like nerds—we heard him interviewed on NPR and he seems a bit of a nerd himself—and he likes the nerd to get the girl. Lee had a bit of trouble believing this particular slacker man-boy would ever attract a woman like this one, and I think that’s probably true, and a problem a lot of women would have with the story. Several female reviewers did. But most cut the movie some slack, because after all, we’ve all seen odd couples, wondered “What do they see in each other?” It can happen, is all I’m saying, and it’s a harmless fantasy of guys like me who have never had women falling all over them to think that they could win the love of a smart and gorgeous woman like Katherine Heigl … and the key word is earn. She likes him at first—he’s funny, though pudgy and an obvious loser—but they both know he’s got a lot of growing up to do. He doesn’t know how, but the impetus of an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy gives him the needed shove. Will this marriage last? Who knows? I wouldn’t take odds on it. But lasting is not what the movie’s about. That’s another movie. IMDb.com
June 1, 2007 - Only FeaturePirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007) Read my reviews of #1 and #2 (it won’t take you long), add a lot of dittos, especially the part about not remembering much about brainless action pictures I saw 4 years and 1 year ago, respectively. Do any of you actually recall the plots of those movies, unless you’ve seen them multiple times? We sure didn’t. I had no idea what the black pearl was, who half these people were, what the curse was, why that guy was stuck in the ship’s timbers … the list could be very long. The only thing I remembered clearly about #2 was the great action sequence involving the big wheel rolling down the hill. Does that make me a bad person? Add in that this was way, way, too long, bloated with superfluous plot (I know, I complain about action pictures that have almost no plot at all, but this was excessive) … and then, sadly, that Jack Sparrow has overstayed his welcome. He’s just silly here. And the screenwriters seem to believe that if one JS is good, 100 will be even better. The scenes in Davy Jones’s Locker are boring and pointless. Anything good to say about it? The SFX were titanic, overwhelming, dizzying, mind-blowing … yo-ho-ho-ho-hum. That doesn’t sell a movie to me anymore. The depressing thing is that it’s guaranteed there will be a fourth in this tired old franchise. Yo-ho-ho-ho-ho-hum … and a bottle of rum. IMDb.com
May 23, 2007 - First FeatureShrek the Third (2007) The reviews were not good, which is good ... I mean, in the sense that my expectations were lowered. They needn't have been. I liked it. True, nothing is going to beat the originality of the first one, and it wasn't even as good as the second, but when you start off from a point as high as Shrek, you can come down considerably and still be worth watching. Faint praise? I guess, but I still enjoyed myself. I am not thrilled to learn, however, that there will be a fourth. But with box office numbers like this, I don't suppose anyone could resist. Making it, that is. I might resist seeing it.
Several reviewers thought the story line wouldn't appeal to young children, since it has to do with life choices instead of battling dragons. I spit on those critics. They are always whining that kids' movies are dumb, and yet they consistently undervalue a child's ability to respond to emotions other than anger and revenge and fear ... mindless action movies, in other words. Shrek was always a fish out of water, and he is here, too, and simply wants to return to his swamp. Going home is a theme that appeals to all ages ... and there is plenty of action and movement, nobody's going to get bored from the lack of that, and there are still the adult references that were what made the original movie appeal to such a wide audience. I'll say it again: Not as good as the first, but not bad. IMDb.com
Second Feature Blades of Glory (2007) Will Ferrell is a hit or miss guy. I gave up watching "Saturday Night Live" a long time ago, so I don't know much about his work there, but the clips I've seen are good. I first noticed him in Elf, which I liked a lot except for the ending. I liked him in Melinda and Melinda, The Producers, and Stranger Than Fiction. Didn't like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, didn't even finish it. I skipped Bewitched and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, though both are on my list of "Possibles to See When I'm Desperate."
This is one of the good ones. I laughed a lot. Very, very silly, but most of it worked. Figure skating is pretty silly anyway, when you look at it dispassionately. I happen to enjoy it, but won't argue with people who can't understand what all the fuss is about. And it raises an interesting question: Why not have two guys, or two girls, skating together? One day soon a gay couple is going to come out of the icebox and demand to do this very thing. (As one "man on the street" says here: "As if figure skating wasn't gay enough already.") What are the snooty poobahs who run big-time Olympic sports gonna do? Resist, probably, but they always lose these things in the end. Right? They resisted blacks and they resisted women, and who are the big stars now? I'm looking forward to the day.
One of the more delightful things was how many real skaters were willing to participate in a film that they had to know poked fun at their sport. The announcers are Jim Lampley, who is channeling Fred Willard in Best in Show with his idiotic comments, and gold medalist Scott Hamilton, who also does this in real life. And sitting on the panel that disqualifies these two bozos for life for their outrage on the medal stand are Peggy Fleming, Brian Boitano, Nancy Kerrigan (Look out! Is that Tanya Harding creeping up behind her with a billy club?) and Dorothy Hamill. They all seem to be having fun. So did I. IMDb.com
May 2, 2007 - First FeatureNext (2007) Will the plundering of the works of Philip K Dick never cease? What's the deal here, are the stories in the public domain? I mean, they're good stories, but no other SF author has had nearly as many big, expensive, stupid movies made from his works. It began 25 years ago with the gorgeous but overwrought and illogical Blade Runner (from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). Then we got the vacuous Total Recall (short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"), Screamers (1995) (short story "Second Variety"), Impostor (2002) (short story), Minority Report (2002) (short story), Paycheck (2003) (short story), and the horrible-looking rotoscoped A Scanner Darkly. There are even two truly obscure adaptations: Confessions d'un Barjo (1992), (novel Confessions of a Crap Artist), and Abre los ojos (1997) (novel Ubik). Now we get Next, based on the novel The Golden Man.
Actually, it's not nearly as bad as I feared. At least the first part.
But what's the deal with Nicolas Cage? He seems to have decided to alternate: One serious to fairly-serious movie (like this one), and one piece of total crap. Does he need the paychecks? Is he script-deaf? (This is an affliction that some actors have. Sandra Bullock comes to mind.) Whatever, his name used to be one I'd count on for a good picture. Not anymore.
The gimmick here is a good one. Dude can see two minutes into the future ... but that soon is abandoned, for reasons never really explained. By the middle of the film he's seeing hours ahead, and by the end, days. Now, that could have been an easy fix, and you still could have preserved the basic complications. What we gradually realize is that, at any moment, what we thought was the story line can turn out to have been merely his visions of possible futures. And here's a dilemma. This is man who is truly invincible. In one well-done scene, we see him appear to split in two, then three, then there are dozens of him exploring your obligatory Big Dark Space with lots of Places to Hide. We understand that this is merely threads of possible futures, and he's picking the only good one. It gives us a glimpse of his world. We've already seen him win many a fight simply by knowing where punches are going to be thrown, where bullets are going to hit, where booby traps are planted. Nobody can touch him. Then we go down a long, long trail of probabilities, half an hour or more of screen time ... and then things go fatally wrong ... and he wakes up, much earlier, and we see it was all just a thread of possibility. He gets to start over and make different choices this time. No one could possibly, ever, stand a chance against this man. No prison could hold him, short of a perpetual straitjacket and drugs, and then what use would he be? And this all sort of obviates the plot tension. All that hullabaloo over the atomic bomb was phony. It never could have gone off. It never will go off. If he could only see two minutes forward, we've got a plot, but the moment the writer decided he could see much farther into the future, everything from that point forward becomes a cheat.
Not to say it wasn't amusing. I enjoyed it about ¾ of the way, then it slid into the usual orgy of chases and shooting, and then the cheating ending. I'm not saying the ending wasn't logical, given the rules they had already broken by then ... but it was still a cheat. IMDb.com
Second Feature Disturbia (2007) Poor LB Jefferies. All he had was a telephone (dial-up!), a pair of binoculars, and a camera with a long lens. (Oh, and Grace Kelly to keep him company now and then.) Don't remember old Jeff? He was the guy with the broken leg in Rear Window, which is the obvious inspiration for this film. The guy in this one is a teenager, naturally, and bored out of his mind because he's under electronic house arrest, confined to home and yard. After firmly establishing his credentials as a spoiled little asshole, after his mom cuts off his X-box, his MySpace, and his wide-screen plasma TV—all of which will probably be included in the new Geneva Conventions against torture when this generation gets around to amending them—he's left with only his laptop, his digital videocam, several cell phones, high speed download ... you get the picture. (Oh, and the voyeuristic pleasure of watching his neighbor, the delectable Sarah Roemer.) This is going to be a high-tech variant of Hitchcock. But he finally begins to get engaged in watching the world around him, and this is where the movie gets pretty good. Of course his neighbor is creepy (David Morse), and we wonder if things are what they seem. The tension builds nicely, though this is a long way from Hitchcock caliber ... and then ... without revealing any real surprises, then the movie degenerates into a gross-out in the dark with people behaving stupidly. Too bad. It had me going there for a while. IMDb.comFirst Feature Grindhouse (2007) Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, like a lot of movie buffs, love bad movies. The difference, I think, is that they don't think they're bad. They like them for themselves, not for the campy pleasure of seeing how awful they are. They like Hong Kong chop-socky, Japanese let's-stomp-Tokyo, and those awful sexploitation grinders from the early '60s. But when they set out to make this double-feature homage, they did so with 21st Century technology that none of the producers of this sort of dreck could have afforded even if it had been available.
But the reviews were pretty good, and Tarantino is always fascinating, even when I don't like the movie, and it Grindhouse is the quintessential drive-in movie, and we were at the drive-in ... so ... bad idea. Very bad idea. IMDb.com Planet Terror. This is Rodriguez, and I was interested for about the first half hour. It felt like a spoof, which worked pretty well. Solemn, nonsensical dialogue, shambling zombies, buckets of blood. Then ... it just went on too long, and though it never lost its over-the-top stupidity, after a while it was just ... over the top. They must have bought fake blood by the supertanker load. After a while, exploding bodies and a one-legged girl with a machine gun instead of a pegleg just didn't hack it anymore. No one except the queasiest could possible take the oceans of blood and gore seriously, and I sure didn't, but after a while it's just a yawn. After a while it's just not funny. If you want to see a funny "shambling zombie" movie, go see Shaun of the Dead.
Both films have "missing reels" (We apologize for the inconvenience!), and a lot of surface scratching and film burn-throughs and other stuff to make them look old, which doesn't quite work since they are both set in the present day. I wondered it if might have worked better if some reels were shown out of order, you could play little Pulp Fiction games with that ... but I don't think anything could really have saved them. I totally hated this movie!!!
This double comes complete with 4 trailers for coming attractions in the same vein: Thanksgiving (like Halloween, with turkeys), Werewolf Women of the SS, Machete, and Don't, all done by pals of QT and RR. The sad thing is, all four of them were better and funnier than the actual features, probably because they were so short.
Death Proof. Whatever else you say, Tarantino is one of the best ever at writing dialogue. His ear is unerring for the rhythms of speech, and for the startling reversal, and the new take on the old situation. This film basically breaks down into 4 parts: A long scene in a bar with several women and a lot of conversation; a short violent scene to set up the rest of the movie and establish the bad guy; another long conversation with 4 women; and a long car chase. The conversations work best. This was inspired by car-chase movies like Vanishing Point, Duel, Gone in Sixty Seconds, and maybe Thelma and Louise. The most fascinating thing about it, which I learned later, is that the character of Zoe, the one who is strapped to the hood of a 1970 Dodge Challenger (the same car used in Vanishing Point, which the characters refer to), is playing herself, Zoe Bell, one of the premier stuntwomen in the business, and she really is out there on that hood, she's her own stunt double. But all in all, this is a dud, though not nearly the mega-dud that the first one is. Second Feature The Hills Have Eyes II (2007) Cannibalistic mutant films are never high on my list of must-sees. I never saw the first one and never felt the loss. By the time Grindhouse ended we were so tired of this shit we didn't even stay around for the opening credits. IMDb.com
March 20, 2007 - Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, like a lot of movie buffs, love bad movies. The difference, I think, is that they don't think they're bad.
First Feature Meet the Robinsons (2007) I have seen the future of animated features, and it's not good. This overblown monstrosity is apparently based on an inoffensive little children's book titled A Day With Wilbur Robinson. It tells of a boy who goes to visit his friend, whose family is a collection of eccentrics. And that's about it. Disney Studios tacked on an elaborate plot involving time travel and an orphan, which I guess would be okay, but they've done nothing with it but add a lot of noise and SFX. Like Robots, it is endlessly visually inventive. Like all of these new CGI animations, I guess, though I have largely stopped going to them unless they're by Pixar. Boy, they know the technical side now, and it's easy to blow you away, visually. And the people who do the designing and drawing are first-rate, no question about it. But story is often minimal, as here, and the pace has gone way beyond frenetic to something you might call amphetaminic. These movies are made for people with an attention span measured in milliseconds; if you don't smack them in the eyeballs twice per second, you lose them. Dialogue is almost non-stop, so fast you don't have time to laugh before you're whisked to the next visual joke. Most shots here last two seconds or even less. There's no time to savor anything. When we arrive in the future and meet this family, we spend about one minute with each, and the distinct impression is that the visitor from the past has been taken to an insane asylum. Nothing here is funny, it's just weird, and not in a nice way. The whole thing was very creepy. I'm sad to see the Disney logo on this shit.
Good news: There was a trailer for Ratatouille, the new one from Pixar. Yeah, they pioneered this sort of rapid-fire narrative, but they've always had a good story to back it up, and they've always made me laugh. So far. I've got my fingers crossed. IMDb.com
Second Feature Wild Hogs (2007) We usually approach the second feature with a lot of trepidation, but my mom and sister liked this, so ... and what do you know? It's funny! Silly and predictable, sure, and far from a classic, but it earns its laughs as long as all you expect is a competent entertainment. Lord knows those are rare enough these days. IMDb.com
March 29, 2007 -This was our first time at the Mission Tiki Drive-in, in Montclair. It's 40 miles from our apartment in Hollywood, which is an hour on I-10 if the traffic is good, longer if it's bad. More like 2 hours if we go surface streets. So we may not be going back frequently. Too bad. It's not a bad place. It's South Pacific themed, with Tiki gods and such, and the snack bar is lined with bamboo on the walls. Clean, well-maintained, there's a swap meet here on the weekends.
First Feature Shooter (2007) A pretty good drive-in movie. I judge flicks a little differently when I'm sitting in the front seat of my car. I don't cut them so much slack that I'd enjoy some of the brainless shit that comes along, but still, a C movie in the theater might be experienced as a B+ at the drive-in. This is a B+. It has its moments, and it has its gaping plot holes and lingering questions you don't really want to look into too deeply. Such as, where did they get the money to buy all the stuff they use? Such as, how did they get to the top of that snowy mountain before the helicopters did? Such as, how did they drive from Eastern Virginia to Montana and get there in about 12 hours? Now, that's driving! Google maps tells me this is about 2200 miles, which is 180 mph average, so wear your astronaut diapers and carry a big gas tank, 'cause you ain't stopping.
Ignore all that if you can, and it's a pretty good shoot-'em-up. It's based on a story by Stephen Hunter, who is a hell of a good novelist, and also reviews movies for the Washington Post. (Be fun if he reviewed this one!) He and I would probably not get along, as he is a conservative, and a gun nut. Okay, maybe an "enthusiast." He likes guns, and knows everything about them. His books are about the retired sniper Bob Lee Swagger, an Arkansas boy, and his father, who died when Bob Lee was young. The reason I like him is that I treasure expertise about any field, even if I don't give a damn about it in real life (Dick Francis and horses), or actively hate it, as with guns. Hunter's books revel in the fine points of shooting, and the stories are great, and almost believable, which is all I ask of any good thriller. This movie preserves a lot of the gun lore from this book Point of Impact, and keeps the main plot device of a man framed for an assassination, but changes almost everything else, for the worse. The best thing about it is the in-your-face acknowledgment that our government lies to us and we believe it, and it all but names Donald Rumsfeld as one of the chief liars. I don't think this proposition would have sold very well 6 years ago, but now it's easy to accept. "Weapons of mass destruction? Peace and freedom in Iraq? Shit, boy, it's all about oil, and we'll do anything to get it." This from a US Senator before Bob Lee blows him away. Which is a nice touch. One down, 99 to go. But don't neglect the Executive Branch, Bob Lee!
Second Feature Ghost Rider (2007) We try to make sure the probable 2 hours of crap is the second feature when we go to the drive-in, that way we can drive away if the second feature is Jackass, Part II. Forgot that principle once and had to sit through Alien Vs. Predator, and I'm still not completely recovered. Nicolas Cage works a lot (he's got no less than 5 projects listed for 2008), and seems to alternate between serious stuff and complete, total crap. This is one of the turds. We lasted 30 minutes, could have easily left in 10. IMDb.com
October 10, 2006. A serious bummer in the Drive-in-land. The Vineland, which is the closest to our apartment, is a 4plex. All summer long they've been showing dreck that we wouldn't stoop to even at the drive-in, or maybe a movie we sorta kinda marginally might want to see ... but paired up with something so witless it would sour the experience. I mean, first feature Beerfest, second feature World Trade Center? What were they thinking?
Also, we've seen movies on the southwest screen once (or was it twice?), and it was perfectly adequate. But we've been to another screen, the northeast, twice, and the FM radio signal is atrocious. We would drive around and it would get a little better. Others were driving around, too, so it's not our radio. You can't find out which movie is playing on what screen because all you get is a recording telling you what is playing with what. It has become very frustrating.
As if that wasn't enough, as Lee complained after the first movie was over, they make so many movies so dark these days that, while they might be viewable in an indoor theater (though it can be a problem even there) they're hard to see on a drive-in movie screen. Add that to the scratchy sound and this was a less-than-wonderful movie experience. I'll try not to let that affect my reviews. So here goes ...
First Feature The Depahted (2006) Well, that's how they pronounce it in this movie, set in Bahstin. Everybody tahks like that. We've all seen stories about cops infiltrating the mob—the Irish mob in this case—but you add a level of complexity when you also have a mole in the police depahtment. It makes for some amazing twists and turns in the plot. Matt Damon and Leonahdo DiCaprio ah the twin rats, and their superiahs ah Mahtin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Mahk Wahlberg, and Jack Nicholson. All do a very good job.
I found I liked this movie less the longah I thought about it. Lee pointed out some plot holes and some questions that should have been ansahed but weren't. The relationships with the police shrink didn't make a lot of sense, and you got the feeling she was just thrown in to complicate things. This is a man's movie, no doubt about it; the only othah women in it were Jack's whoahs. Frankly, if this hadn't been a Mahtin Scorsese movie, I'd have probably given it higher mahks ... I know that isn't fayah, but it is a Scorsese movie, and I expect moah from him. The editing is a little ovah the top, with flash images of horrible things. Scorsese doesn't succumb to the worst abuses of a thrillah, like slomo and the infamous shootout in the empty wayahhouse, but it just wasn't up to the standahds of a great directah. IMDb.com
Second Feature Jackass Number Two (2006) This is the only way we could ever have seen a Jackass movie, as a second feature with something we really wanted to see. I warn you, America, there will be more of these. Getting our Subway sandwiches before going to the theater, the girl behind the counter asked us what movies we were seeing. Lee said The Depahted (actually, she said Departed, since she doesn't have a Boston accent). "Oooh, I want to see that." Then Lee said Jackass, clearly expecting a yuck! reaction. Not so. The girl started laughing, telling us how funny it was. Then, a little sheepish, that it was gross, sure, but it sure was funny!
She's not alone in her opinion. Here's some of the publications whose critics gave it a thumbs up, courtesy of Metacritic, where it scored an aggregate of 66%: Film Threat, Hollywood Reporter, New York Times, LA Weekly, Austin Chronicle, Entertainment Weekly, Onion A.V. Club, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Rolling Stone, Salon, Chicago Reader, Washington Post, TV Guide, Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald. Only the Chicago Tribune and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer had the balls to identify this wad of cowflop for the turd it is. Ebert and Roeper liked it, too.
We lasted 15 minutes. Lee was ready to go after 5. I would have held out a little longer, since I wanted to cite more atrocities in this review, but I'm not sad I missed them. I know from my reading that much worse was yet to come.
What have we come to, my friends? What has our culture come to? I was going to say what has America come to, but it's much broader than that. Survivor was based on a Swedish show. Japanese TV has stuff you wouldn't want to subject the inmates of a Turkish prison to. It's infected the whole world.
And what infection am I speaking of? Why, "Reality TV." It has now come to the movies, with a vengeance. God, how I loathe the whole phenomenon.
Yes, I know it's been with us in one form or another for a long, long time. Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour was reality TV, and some of the people were pretty bad. Then came The Gong Show, where they wanted you to be bad, where they were laughing at you, and the people lined up. But lately we're talking about something very different. I thought it was kind of creepy all the way back to its roots, the Loud family on PBS in 1973. Sure, sure, it was PBS, it was done tastefully ... but I wondered what impulse would drive people to invite the whole fucking country into their house to see their lives, both the good stuff and the wild dysfunction that is native to almost all families. What led Mrs. Loud to ask for a divorce while the cameras were rolling?
I guess it's Andy Warhol's famous 15 minutes ... but the scale of things you have to do to get that quarter-hour now has been ratcheted up drastically. When I was a teenager I went to a sideshow to see a guy with feet that weighed 50 pounds each. At another such place I saw dozens of "pickled punks," aborted fetuses with horrible deformities. I was fourteen or so, okay? I'm sorry! But I grew up! By the time I was 16 you couldn't have paid me to enter a ten-in-one. We've pretty much outlawed them now (depriving a lot of "freaks" of the only way they had to make a living), but they still exist, on the Jerry Springer Show, on Fear Factor, very much so on The Apprentice. Why would someone want to see inbred toothless hillbillies slugging it out on stage? Why would you want to see bright young aspiring bottom feeders stabbing each other in the back? Is watching someone eat a spoonful of slugs your idea of a good time?
There is also "performance art," which is basically just a variation of a guy biting the head off a live chicken, the infamous old-timey geek show. There are touring troupes these days that do things like eating a hamburger, throwing it up, and eating it again. If that isn't your cup of vomit, how about a guy who lifts a suitcase with his dick?
Jackass is the bottom of the bottom. Lee said it reminded her of that infamous video (which was shown endlessly with the appropriate tut-tutting) of the teens cruising with a paintball gun, shooting pedestrians and laughing to bust a gut. Cruising around on the dozens of online video sites, I've seen things that leave me totally stunned at how stupid people can be. Anyway, I pointed out to Lee that it wasn't quite the same, since these jackasses were doing it to themselves. And it's true, no innocent bystanders are hurt. Nobody gets hurt but the ones who are ... not risking injury, many of the stunts are intended to cause injury. For some reason this makes some people—a lot of people, judging by the box office—admire Johnny Knoxville and his idiot crew.
I guess the main casualty here is the sense of human decency. Taste, decorum, privacy ... these are all old-fashioned concepts, headed for the dustbin of history. And wouldn't you know it, it's an MTV production. Not content with killing the radio star and leaving us with the vast cultural wasteland that is modern pop music, full of talent-free but beautiful people who look good in a video, MTV now gives us this steaming pile of puke. I shudder to think what they'll come up with next. IMDb.com
July 11, 2006. The Vineland Drive-in, our new venue of choice for cheap entertainment, is located in the City of Industry. Since neither of the movies we saw this time was really worth a damn, I thought I'd say a few words about this odd little town ...
Industry, California, was incorporated in 1957. It's about 10 miles east of downtown LA. It follows the course of the San Gabriel River (like the LA River, really nothing but a concrete-lined flood run-off channel) and then San Jose Creek. But that's just where it starts. It stretches almost 20 miles, twisting and turning like Tom Delay's vermiform appendix, or a Texas congressional district after the Republicans got through buggering it and zipped up their pants. Nowhere is it wider than one mile, and most places considerably less. For a few miles it seems to be no wider than a railroad right-of-way, all but invisible on the map, until suddenly it opens up again. At one point it grows a 4-mile pseudopod out to the northwest, like some hungry amoeba, to gobble up a rail yard. In fact, railroads seems to be what the City of Industry is mostly about. It is surrounded by heavily Hispanic towns that most white Angelenos never see except from the freeway: Diamond Bar, Walnut, La Puente, and a lot of Heights: Avocado Heights, Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, and South San Jose Hills. You would think that the City of Industry is therefore in a valley, and I suppose it is, but it's not a very steep or narrow one. It finally peters out near Pomona.
The main street is Valley Boulevard, which is entirely lined with businesses, none of them very upscale, and other than that, there basically are no streets. There is no residential neighborhood. The 2000 census listed 777 residents, and they must be the sort who live in apartments over businesses.
What it is, naturally, is a tax dodge. There are no business taxes in the City of Industry. I guess all those Heights communities were looking to annex this strip of railroads and warehouses, and somebody found a way to screw them and make a buck for himself.
And now, sadly, on to the movies ...
First Feature Superman Returns (2006) Superman always was a stiff, but he's never been stiffer than he is here. What a bore! Anything they could do wrong, they did wrong. There's no chemistry between Stooperman and Lois. She's got a kid. It's obvious he's a hybrid, part Kryptonian, part human (which might mean he's a mule), and almost nothing is made of that. At one point he throws a piano, and after that he sits around like wart on a frog. He's irritating, as only a child in the movies who is assigned to be lovable can be. Lois has a boyfriend, who is earnest and patient with her obvious love for the Stoop. In other words, boring. In the comic, Kryptonite glows. Here, it's just a hunk of green glass. It's way too long. It's very, very, very slow. What else do you want? IMDb.com
Second Feature The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) In the beginning, there was Andy Hardy. Okay, maybe there were teen movies before that, but I don't know them. Andy was just so ... so gosh-darn enthusiastic! By golly, you wanted to smack him around some! "Hey, kids, we can use Farmer John's barn, and we can ... put on a show! What do you say, Judy?" "Gosh, Andy, that would be swell!"
Then there was Frankie and Annette. Annette had boobs and she wore a swimsuit, and the girls around her were real babes in bikinis. Eric von Zipper provided the comic villain. They danced in the sand to that crazy rocking roll music and our parents probably hated them. They brought sex into teen movies. Well, not actual sex, Annette was a Mouseketeer, and you can't get more wholesome than that. Just necking sex, and stay-away-from-my-girl head-butting, males staking out territory, females crying about their fickle boyfriends ... just look and don't fuck, Playboy magazine, stare-at-the-belly-buttons-and-butts sex, but a lot more than Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
There must have been gradual stages between F&A and this current kind of teen movie, which is basically a video game with short pauses for "plot," but I missed them. Whew! I feel like I dodged a bullet. The boys are a lot more macho, the girls are even more brainless, and they drive really expensive, really fast cars, really badly. There were two car races in the first 30 minutes, and "our hero" (a world-class loser who never, never, never backs down from a fight or a race) loses them both and totals both cars, one of which isn't his. Excuse me? I thought the point of a race was to win, and then race the car again. Especially if it's an $80,000 Viper.
30 minutes was as long as we lasted. Lee was ready to go while the credits were still rolling, but I wanted to see one race ... and then the asshole was banished to Japan (don't ask why; it made no sense) and for a while it at least got visually interesting. Downtown Tokyo looks like another planet, and if even a fraction of this stuff is to be believed, their kids are so far more wired into cyberspace that, by comparison, the kids back here with cell phones surgically attached to their ears might as well be communicating with tin cans and a string. Oh, yeah, I wanted to know what "Tokyo drift" was. Apparently (and I have no idea if this is done in real life) it's racing in multi-story parking garages in a sort of perpetual skid. Whoopee! Now I know! This is the 3rd in the F&F franchise. I hope they last as long as the Andy Hardys. That will be a long list of movies I don't have to go see. IMDb.com
June 14, 2006. We're back! At the drive-in, I mean. One thing we've missed since leaving the Central Coast was living within 20 minutes of not one, but two drive-ins. Nobody's building more, they're closing the remaining ones down every year, and the ones we have usually have flea markets during the day to support themselves. Too bad, because we love them. Where else can you sit in the comfort of your car and see not one but two movies? An actual double feature, something that died out in my childhood, during the 1950s. (Except in a few struggling theaters in downtowns or depressed areas. I used to go to theEmbassy Theater on Market Street in San Francisco in the '60s and '70s and see triple features, and they played a game they'd been playing since the Great Depression: Ten-O-Win!, with a giant wheel of fortune. All gone now.)
But Los Angeles is where the whole drive-in idea was born (they used to have drive-in churches, and may still have for all I know), and a few still survive here. Most are too far away from us to frequent, way out east in the San Berdoo hinterlands, but one, the Vineland, in the City of Industry, is only 25 minutes away on the 101 and the I-10. It's a 4-screen complex, and we have been intending to visit it for some time. Last Friday Cars began showing, and we figured it was time. So, we packed a blanket for Lee and popcorn for me and found a Subway shop just down the street from the Vineland, and we were off ...
First Feature Cars (2006) The drive-in is the perfect place to see this! I had a blast. Some critics are saying that the old Pixar magic wasn't quite there, but I don't agree. People are already puzzling about why it didn't earn as much the first weekend as previous Pixar releases, and I'm puzzled, too. Somebody theorized that kids (and their parents?) prefer warm, fuzzy, Ice Age or Over the Hedge or Madagascar talking animals to hard, shiny autos. May be, but for myself, I'm getting pretty tired of wisecracking animals, and I see there are at least 6 more in the pipeline just this year, with godnose how many over the horizon. This one was visually stunning, like Robots, but it had ten times the heart and a much better story. It just gets better and better. Water, smoke, mist, reflections ... they've got all that down pat now, and still they find ways to improve on it.
And the casting was fun. Bob Costas voiced Bob Cutlass. Jay Leno was Jay Limo. Tom and Ray Magliozzi, NPR's Click and Clack, the Tappett Brothers, were there as Rusty and Dusty. Then there were real NASCAR great in bit parts: Lynda and Richard "The King" Petty, sporting his Number 43, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mario Andretti. And Larry the Cable Guy was the comic star, as a tow truck named Mater. As in "Tow" Mater, get it?
But I have to say I had a lot more personal connection with this story than previous animations. I'm not a NASCAR person—I don't see a whole lot of point in stomping on the gas pedal and turning left for 200 laps in the world's fastest billboards—but the animators have it all nailed here, right down to the RVs in the infield. However, there were two themes in the film that did attract me: the Hudson automobile, and Route 66 in the '50s.
My family owned three Hudsons in the '50s, and I'd gladly trade my 2001 Dodge for any one of them in a split second. I drove one from Texas to the New York World's Fair and back when I was 17, without a bit of trouble. They were fat and funny-looking but full of surprises. For one thing, their revolutionary unibody "step-down" construction made them not only safer, but much more stable than other cars of the day. They hugged the road like a Formula One racer; you could power those suckers through a turn that a Ford wouldn't even think about. They were light, and had a monster 6-cylinder engine. Many's the time some asshole in a new Chevy would pull up beside me at a red light and contemptuously rev his engine ... only to gape as my taillights dwindled before his eyes and he realized this fat pig, this bulgemobile with the faded paint was ... shutting him down! Hudsons owned the NASCAR tracks in the early days, '51, '52, and '53. They won more races than any car before or since. All of this is in the movie, and I believe it was a big reason Paul Newman, that old racer, agreed to play the part of "Doc" Hudson. Paul knows his cars, and he knows Hudson was one of the greats. So did Steve McQueen, who owned a dozen of them, one of which we saw in the process of restoration in Pismo Beach.
Then there's the town of Radiator Springs, out in the Arizona desert. It was bypassed by I-40 and nobody goes there anymore. The inhabitants are relics of the glory days, when people going cross-country took the time to follow the road where it led, rather than making the road itself the destination. It is full of neon signs and decrepit buildings that we love and Lee loves to photograph. At the risk of sounding like an old fogey ... those were the days! There was no Starbucks, you had to try the local coffee. (And sure, sometimes it sucked, but so what?) No Mickey D, no Holiday Inn, no Wal-Mart sucking the life out of a million mom-and-pops, no soulless strip malls. Every town was different. What a concept! I'm sure that many of you have no idea of what it used to be like, and that's very sad.
But the good news is ... Route 66 is still there! Parts of it, anyway. In the countryside it's hit and miss, because sometimes the Interstate followed the old route, more or less, but often it just cut off great loops of the Mother Road, and many of them are still passable. In some towns—and Los Angeles is one—there are markers showing you where "Historic Route 66" was. And guess what? We drove on about 2 miles of it on our way to the Vineland Drive-in! We didn't drive on one foot of freeway to get to the City of Industry.
Okay, we took the freeway home, but that's different. That time of night you can't see much, the freeway zips right along ... and they don't call it the City of Industry for nothing. There's not much of interest except a nice Serbian church and the drive-in itself. IMDb.com
Second Feature Stick It ... right up your balanced beam! (2006) I said one of the great reasons to go to the drive-in is the second feature. There is also, sometimes, a big drawback, and that is ... you guessed it. The second feature! The good news is that, if it really, really sucks, you can get your ass out of there ...
We lasted about 15 minutes. Seldom have I disliked two protagonists as quickly and intensely as the characters played by Jeff Bridges and Missy Peregrym, the coach and the troubled gymnast in this turkey. I mean, hated, and instantly. If you like Bobby Knight and Vince Lombardi and Woody Hayes (and I loathe them all), you'll love "Burt Vickerman." And if you like Barry Bonds and John McEnroe, you'll love "Haley Graham." These are the sort of in-your-face prima donnas who have disgraced basketball so badly in recent decades. I just wanted to grab them both and slap them around a little.
Now, admittedly, they may have been just setting them up as deliberately obnoxious so the transformation in the final frames would be more dramatic ... but I didn't have the patience for it. All the other girls in the coach's camp were as snotty as Haley was. Don't write and tell me I should have stuck around until the end. I just flat-out don't believe the sort of sports heroine who is so much better than anyone else that she can walk into a gym with no warm-up and a lay-off of several years and throw a move the other girls are only dreaming about. And it may be that Mary Lou Retton was as shitty as these creeps when she wasn't smiling for the cameras ... but I don't want to know. IMDb.com