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Movie review

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

Directed by Gavin Hood. Starring Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Will.i.am, Lynn Collins, Dominic Monaghan, and Ryan Reynolds.

The first thing I noted was that they must have been in a little bit of a rush to get the movie finished in time for its first-of-summer-season release (which will creep back to late April or possibly the start of Daylight Savings Time in a few years, at the rate it’s going), because there were no fewer than 14 credited visual effects companies, the last 9 of which were just listed in a bunch, kind of like the “…And the rest” verse from Gilligan’s Island. That’s a lot of parallel processing, but the movie does have quite a lot of explosions and people flying around and sprouting sharp things from their bodies that have to be match-moved and whatever.

Oh yeah, is the movie entertaining? Sure, it was. I certainly have enjoyed Hugh Jackman’s embodiment of the character in the movies so far, and he’s still good at it, although there’s funny ways in which you feel like the first X-Men movie gave you more of the character’s background and psychology through fleeting glimpses and hints than this whole new movie does, even though it’s a full origin story, covering over 100 years (most of them as an opening credits montage).

I never collected X-Men comics. What I knew about Wolverine came mainly from owning his first appearance (in The Incredible Hulk #181, which was the main comic I collected from 1976 to about 1996) and having my brother summarize for me what he knew about it. That the adamantium claws aren’t his mutant power, it’s that crazy healing factor that he has; furthermore, this is the reason that scary people were able to graft adamantium metal onto his entire skeleton and give him indestructable claws. My impression from this second hand retelling, as well as the hints in the first two X-Men movies, as well as a significant amount of build-up in this new outing, was that Logan basically had to be flayed alive so they could do the surgery, with his healing factor keeping him alive and re-growing all of his tissue and muscle as they worked. So, unbelievably torturous procedure.

When they finally get to the scene where they do this, they kind of take a movie cheat with it. They talk it up like it’s going to be something along the lines of the live flaying, and then it’s just a bunch of needles that poke him and a computer readout showing that his heart rate goes to 300, then 0. I won’t spoil the surprise of whether the electrocardiogram line goes from flatline to BIP! BIP! BIP! he’s alive! again. You’ll just have to see it to find out.

Okay, the other thing about not reading the actual comics whence all of this mythology derives is that I don’t know whether any of the side mutant characters are from the comics too or just made up or what. The main one that’s puzzling to me is this guy Gambit. I’ve heard that character’s name before, okay, but that’s it. Having watched this movie and seen him in action, WTF? I have no idea what the dude’s mutant powers are supposed to be, which is kind of stupid. He’s really good at winning card games, then he’s good at throwing cards, and maybe making them look electric-glowy, then he seems to be able to jump and flip around pretty well, and then he has this stupid cane that goes WHOMPH to things, making it seem like that’s a source of power or something, except it gets snapped in two and that doesn’t slow the guy down. Later he has another cane anyway.

I didn’t know who he was, I didn’t figure out who he was, I didn’t care who he was. Maybe he’s a great character in the comics, but he was completely opaque and random to me. I have no idea whether he’s faithful to whatever he is in the comics or not, but I kind of hope not. The guy was also kind of a dick. Wolverine was just about to finally put the claws into a bad dude who pretty much deserved it, and then Gambit came in and whomphed the ground with his cane and the bad guy got away, and as far as I can tell it was none of his goddamn business to do that.

When the opening credits came up, I was cheered by seeing that it was a Donner production, meaning Richard and Lauren Shuler Donner, because those guys know how to make entertaining action movies, like the first two Superman movies and the Lethal Weapon series and all that. Not real deep movies, but they have the power to entertain. Also listed as producers of various types were Ralph Winter (once of Star Treks III, IV, and V) and Hugh Jackman himself. (“If you want me to go through all that again and pump iron for eight months to be beefcakey then I want a huge cut of the take and a producer credit” one imagines him demanding, and receiving.)

Just because I mentioned Gilligan’s Island once already, I’ll do so again by randomly mentioning that Richard Donner’s early directing career includes episodes of Gilligan’s Island.

So, as this light entertainment unspooled, I was for the most part thinking it was a pretty good comic book. Like, some sort of Giant Size X-Men Annual or something, like if I’d read it when I was a kid I would have enjoyed it okay. Thinking more critically about it, there’s very little here that’s original in plotting or detail. Kinda seen this, kinda seen that, kind of saw that coming.

Oh, wait, that’s not exactly true. At regular intervals I was chuckling out loud, or making kind of a “Ha!” reaction to a detail or a line that was unexpectedly clever or cute. If I tell you what they are it spoils them a bit, but, as an example, Wolverine at one point jumps into the ocean from a single-engine aircraft. I’ve seen that before. But instead of going Sploosh!, he skips along the water like a pebble (in a series of painful smaller splats) because of his forward velocity.

The movie ends with a pretty good fight where Wolverine and Qui-Gon fight Darth Maul at the top of a big shaft. Actually given the story I guess it’s more like Obi-Wan and Anakin fighting Darth Maul, but whatever. It didn’t occur to me until this morning, when another reviewer helpfully noted that it was actually Three Mile Island that they were on, that the movie was winkingly suggesting (because of the timeline) that the meltdown crisis that history records was actually because of this superhero fight on top of the cooling towers.

Anyway. Yeah, not exactly new and original, but the movie is directed with snap and a light sense of humor by some guy I don’t remember hearing about before, though he’s probably a young dude. I did have a good time as long as I watched it uncritically, if you know what I mean. It would be easy to chop it to pieces, but a little more fun to go ahead and take the popcorn ride, eh? What the hell, it’s just superheroes.

There were a couple of mountainy locations that I kept thinking reminded me of locales from The Lord of the Rings movies, and the end credits thanked the New Zealand film commission (but also claimed to have filmed entirely in New South Wales, and didn’t list any New Zealand locations).

The main guy apart from Hugh Jackman in this thing is Liev Schreiber, a good actor whom I’ve taken a long time to warm up to. This is probably due to a certain syndrome — namely, a guy who’s a good enough actor to be believable as a scummy guy, and the first role I ever see him in, he’s so scummy I develop a dislike at a subconscious and conscious level for the actor, without exactly knowing why. My brother does this, too. You just kind of associate them with unpleasant feelings. Having realized I do this, I try to give the actors a break and take another look at what they do, and also try to look for movies where they’re just as convincingly playing good guys who give you a good feeling.

This isn’t the first time Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber have worked together, of course. They were also both in the time travel romantic comedy Kate and Leopold, whose modest charms I discovered by being bored one weekend and finding it on cable. In this pairing, Schreiber plays Wolverine’s brother, another mutant with a similar set of powers (nasty claws, bit of a gift for healing quickly) but a much more feral mindset. He’s also got a pair of sharp little pointy canines, which must have made the guy think, “Hey, with fangs like these, I’d better start chewing the scenery pronto!” It does mean that you enjoy the movie slightly more every time Schreiber is there, just because he brings this energetic mania into the scene. The movie does a really lousy job of explaining his actual loyalties and where he fits into a confusing tangle of half truths and misdirections. Near the end he’s yelling at Stryker that he was promised — uh, I’m not sure what. “You promised me it!” is kind of all I remember hearing, and nobody ever quite says what it is. Unless it’s just that he wants an adamantium skeleton, too.

Ultimately, it is completely unclear why they gave Wolverine a metal skeleton in the first place. They give a couple of reasons, then turn around and say those are lies, and by the end the last remaining reason that I heard didn’t make any sense if you went back and thought about events. How could that be the motivation if the other story was also a lie because Sabretooth was really working for Stryker and so — whah? Huh?

Oh well. It doesn’t matter. There are lots of explosions and things getting clawed to pieces, and then explosions. Summer movies 2009 have started, for better or worse.

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Notes on “Coupling”

Thoughts on “Coupling”

Well, it started with Doctor Who, and Steven Moffat. He’s the writer who, following the submission of a script a year for each of the four new seasons to date, all of them quite well received, is taking over executive producer and show-runner duties from Russell T. Davies from now on.

Having watched some of those Moffat episodes again recently, I decided to also look at “The Curse of Fatal Death”, another script of his, and then look up what else he’d done before all this Doctor Who business. In one of the Dr. Who dvd commentaries, someone tells him, “Well, Steven, you come from sitcoms, so…”

Sitcoms, eh? Well, that explains “Curse”, I guess. Which sitcoms? Oh, “Coupling.” I’ve heard of that, but never seen it. I’m led to believe it has a bit of a following, or else I wouldn’t have heard of it. I did a little pre-briefing research. Moffat had first written a series called “Joking Apart,” a semi-autobiographical spin on the break-up of a relationship he’d had. This was followed by “Coupling,” a semi-autobiographical spin on the new and lasting relationship he subsequently found.

I was more interested at first in the former than the latter, for various reasons that are completely obvious. Alas, though the two seasons of that series were released on DVD (by some fan of the show who bought the video release rights to the series from the BBC, when the BBC weren’t doing anything with them — kind of interesting), they weren’t available at my favorite local video shop.

They did have “Coupling,” though. There were four seasons (or four series, to use the proper term for a BBC program; or programme, to use the proper term for that as well), and my local video shop had all four of them. Right, let’s give them a whirl.

Summary

The show is about this group of 30-something friends: three ragingly heterosexual men, and three women, also ragingly heterosexual with one exception. They don’t do much except go to their mostly off-screen jobs and then hang out after work. The women drink wine and talk about sex and guys and relationships. The men drink beer and talk about sex and women and breasts and bottoms and panic attacks and how freakish women are about everything.

At the core there’s Steve and Susan, named after Steven Moffat and Sue Vertue, the show’s writer and producer, respectively, who are also the real-life couple whose relationship some of the material is drawn from. Moffat describes them as being the most ordinary and normal of the characters, with the other four exemplifying extremes of (male and female) anxiety and (male and female) self-confidence. Sally is a tight pill of worries about looks and age and weight and the inexorable slide that takes place; of course she worries about ending up a tragic spinster. Jeff is a manic nervous wreck, a freak with an overactive libido who has experienced nothing but humiliating shame because of it, a paranoid who keeps numbered lists of the different types of fear and embarrassment that can befall someone, and who never fails to say the worst possible thing at the worst possible time, especially when trying to chat up a good looking woman. At the other end is Jane, a kind of flaky nymphomaniac whose wacky thoughts seem to come from some other planet entirely, making her a reliable source of absurd non-sequiturs; she also claims to be bisexual. And then there’s Patrick, a serial womanizer who breezes through life and sexual encounters with a relaxed self confidence and a lack of self-examination or reflection that sometimes comes across as dim-wittedness, but which is mainly just an inexperience at ever having to actually consider anything deeply.

Reactions

Series 1. I didn’t like it at first. I kind of folded my arms and waited to laugh, but no laughter came until five minutes before the end of the third episode. Jeff finally said something so screwy and outrageous that I couldn’t hold it in, and made a “Bweh-heh!” noise. Then I laughed once during the 4th episode, again at something Jeff said. The fifth and sixth had intermittent but more easily won chuckles.

For something that I could have sworn I wasn’t enjoying, I was eager to start watching series 2 as soon as I finished series 1. Hmmm.

Moffat, the sole writer for all four series, takes these characters and, having established them and the show’s basic format, begins to have a lot of fun with them in the second and third series. There’s the rearrangement and swapping around of them to find new frictions and bounces in different pairings, notably the discovery of sparks between Sally and Patrick, and the dedication of episodes to exploring each of the characters a little more probingly to find new insights into their back-stories and facets to their already-defined personalities.

That’s pretty standard. Then there’s the continual effort to make the show work as a modern farce. The best of the farce episodes hurl these characters into mad situations at breakneck speed, culminating in a final scene where all the different threads that have been spinning in parallel all dovetail into a single shimmering explosion of comedy. Writer, cast, and director all know their jobs, and it’s terrific to see done properly, of course.

There’s another experiment going on, which is a playing with the format itself, and of place, time, and perspective. In retrospect, it makes Moffat’s Doctor Who episodes — and their intriguing exploration of what traveling around in time can look like if you take a step sideways from it and watch it going on from a different perspective — seem obviously a product of the same mind. (Though actually, it’s more proto-spect, since he wrote those later, but I saw them first; See also: Time, Ball of, Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey.) In the first series, there’s an episode where Jeff tries to ask out a woman who speaks only Hebrew. He has an entire conversation where they each speak different languages and don’t understand each other at all, but seem to be making some kind of connection. Then the videotape literally rewinds, and we watch the scene again, this time with the woman speaking English and Jeff (and everyone else) speaking Hebrew. Moffat says in an interview that he meant to write a conventional series, but this experiment was so well-received that he allowed himself the license to get more creative about his storytelling.

So, in the second and third series, these formal experiments continue. There’s an episode where we watch the same events two or more times from differing perspectives, a split-screen episode where we watch the two sets of characters simultaneously in different places, and an episode where we see a past event as remembered differently by people; an episode where the screen flashes and announces that an auto-translation will now show us what the characters are really saying to each other as they purport to discuss something mundane; and of course the usual assortment of flashbacks, fantasies, and dream sequences.

The best episodes are where the formal experiment and the farce are both flying at the same time and working with each other to make something that feels original and fresh, and is genuinely funny. Probably the height of this is the end of series 2, which ends with everyone (the main six, plus an extra seventh) loudly declaiming that they’re either an Australian named Dick Darlington or a French woman named Giselle, a situation we the audience understand only because we’ve seen everything leading up to it from all the different points of view.

In fact, it’s clear that the show peaked in series 2, although series 3 is quite good and has some favorite moments in it. It goes a little deeper into the characters, which sometimes tames down the comedy, but keeps you interested. The show had the standard six episodes in the first series, an incredible nine in the second, seven in the third, and then six again at the fourth, which makes you feel the waning interest and energy of everyone involved.

Series 4

In fact, the fourth series is a little disappointing. Probably famously so, though I haven’t researched it, but I can intuit this just from watching it. Most importantly, it lost one of the main cast members — Richard Coyle, who played Jeff.

This actually didn’t surprise me. Somewhere on the first series disc, there’s an incredibly brief interview snippet with Coyle, who was the only one in the cast who seemed 1) completely unlike their character, and 2) completely reticent to talk about the show or their work in it. Unlike manic Jeff, Coyle was reserved and sober and I immediately recognized the fact that this person was first and foremost a serious actor, and this role was just a job he got, and that this is all it is. I was not the least surprised to then read that he was classically trained as an actor, and probably equally capable of playing Hamlet as he was this insane breast-obsessed Welsh bloke. Further, everyone in the cast contributed to recording commentary tracks to episodes that centered on their characters — except for Coyle.

As soon as I looked at the fourth series dvd cover and did not see Coyle on it, I easily imagined that he had grown tired of playing this character and wanted to move on with his career. Three years is a lot, and the character (while growing a little) wasn’t that deep; the challenge of it had probably waned, and there was the danger of casting directors not taking him seriously because they assume he’s going to be like this character he’s famous for playing. I haven’t looked it up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he next went on to play a steely, cold-eyed killer or some other type of villainous sod after he declined to reappear in the fourth season.

So, the whole fourth season is thrown off by having one of its linch-pins knocked out. I can sense the scramble. Some of the episodes bear the marks of having originally been plotted out with Jeff being there, only to be re-tooled to remove him (or to insert a replacement character called Oliver, who is as disastrous as Jeff when talking to women, but not quite the same nervous wreck otherwise). It puts me in mind of negotiations going on, trying to convince Coyle to stay on and give it another go, and him finally putting his foot down and saying, sorry, can’t do it — even while preparations are underway for the fourth series. The removal of Jeff also removes a fair amount of random comedy, as the character was known for launching into a bizarre monologue full of weird stuff from his brain, usually winding up with a memory of his chastising, castrating mother expressing her shamed disappointment with him. Sometimes these monologues were tied into a conversation the guys were having, and sometimes they interrupted these conversations as non-sequiturs, which Moffat admits at one point as being a little lazy: there hadn’t been enough jokes on this page, so it was time for Jeff to spout off about whatever. Still, they were funny, and now there was no Jeff.

He was also trying to explore the insecurities hidden within the crazy exterior of Jane, that her strange self-confidence was masking a frightened loneliness, but this made Jane considerably less funny as well. In some scenes in the fourth series, she’s the straight man, where she had been the equivalent of Jeff for the women: the one who could be relied on to say mad things when the scene hadn’t been funny for 30 seconds. So with neither Jeff nor Jane saying random mad things, the whole series feels a little off-balance and empty. Moffat feels like he’s running low on inspiration, and there’s a general sense that, while everyone seems to enjoy doing the show, and that doing another go-round made sense because of the show’s popularity, that they might all have rather been brave about it and stopped after the third series.

It’s the sort of reasoning that kept John Cleese from doing a third round of Fawlty Towers, I suppose. And he was right.

Thus

So, after watching all that, I went back and looked at the Moffat episodes of Doctor Who again. Now they very obviously sounded like the work of the same writer. It’s the same sense of humor, especially when the characters engage in light-hearted banter or act slightly crazy. It’s funny, because I had been associating the Moffat episodes with fright and horror, since they had that unnerving, make-the-kids-hide-behind-the-sofa quality to them. But it’s also true that they are playful, and crack jokes. It’s kind of like how after watching a ton of Buffy and Firefly that you easily recognize a line as being Whedonesque; there’s dialogue in “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink” that’s obviously Moffatesque. (Side note: there was a line of dialogue in Dr. Horrible that I laughed at and tagged as being particularly Whedonesque, only to learn in the commentary tracks that Joss Whedon’s brother had written that particular line — although, since he’s also named Whedon, it can still be called Whedonesque, I suppose.)

In general, though, a series with justifiable fan following. Good characters, funny jokes, well-executed farce, and enjoyable formal experiments in storytelling. Moffat is clearly a prolific writer who writes top-quality stuff; it’s not easy to single-handedly write a series, and he’s done it three times now. But secretly, he’s always been what he calls a “tragic” Doctor Who fan, and has now been given the keys to the Tardis, as it were. As his first act, he cast the youngest actor ever to play the Doctor, and I hope that works out. But it does make me look forward to the upcoming fifth series of the reincarnated Doctor Who.

Coupling: Series 2 and 3 recommended; series 1 probably a good idea to watch to get into the swing of things; series 4 a disappointment, but an interesting one and Oliver’s not that bad a character really, plus there’s a documentary on the bonus disc about how the series is produced from script to screen that I found quite interesting.

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movie reviews

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Directed by Jake Kasdan, Produced by Judd Apatow. Starring John C. Reilly, Raymond J. Barry, Kristen Wiig, Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell, Jenna Fischer, and cameos by an assortment of Judd Apatow regulars.

Capsule verdict: Disappointing misfire, eliciting a smattering of chuckles at best.

Ten minutes into the movie, nobody in the audience had laughed yet. Full crowd, too. Probably full of people who have seen the other two Judd Apatow movies this year, Knocked Up and Superbad. Maybe even people who saw and liked Talladega Nights and Anchorman and The 40 Year Old Virgin, which all have more or less the same pedigree as well as cast. There were jokes, but nobody was laughing.

They were a peculiar, particular kind of joke. It was sort of the joke style for the whole movie, so if you didn’t like that kind of joke, you weren’t in for a treat. I spent a lot of time engaged by the mental exercise of trying to nail down what this kind of joke was so that I could write about it later. It’s a kind of joke writing that felt really familiar — that I knew from somewhere else, but not movies, exactly. What was it? I had a lot of time to think, and the audience was nice and quiet, which was conducive to long stretches of rumination.

About an hour and 15 minutes in, I laughed out loud, surprising myself. It was the last joke in a montage of not very funny shots of Dewey Cox (whose name was chosen to be funny, but never quite is) destroying things in his house because he’s feeling very emotional. It was the one joke that got a laugh, and I’m not sure why, and that was just as fascinating — although I can tell you it was a different type of joke. It was a sort of truthful human moment that slipped in by accident into the contrived script. Having overturned his piano, sawn his sofa in half, broken his sinks, smashed his guitars, Dewey doggedly keeps destroying everything he can, finally having to settle for smaller and pettier acts of destruction, grabbing spoons out of his drawer and bending them. “Rrrr!” he says, bending a spoon. He grabs another. “Rrr!” he bends that one. There’s a dissolve, showing some amount of time has passed. He’s seeing through his intention to the bitter end, looking a little fatigued by the tedium of it, but he’s clearly bending every last spoon he owns. He sighs instead of growling as he bends another spoon.

As stupid as that is, that’s what I laughed at, in this whole idiotic movie. Somehow that moment looked like actual human behavior. Exaggerated for comic effect, but yes — sometimes you get wound up and commit to some silly course of action, and the emotion that prompted it runs out but there you are, still seeing it through, just because. So I recognized something of my own foibles in that, and so I laughed.

Now the rest of the movie, I finally figured out, is written in an internet style of making fun of things. It’s a lazy form of satire, a style I think is really weak and never find funny. In fact, I maintain an active dislike of it and make gripey noises when people foist URLs on me. But it gets traded around and is popular in its own way, probably because it’s easy to write. Non-writers can write it. You just have to be snide and obvious.

It is usually found in fake-script form, making fun of movies. It is thus a written form of humor, and I can’t recall having seen this kind of material actually made into a movie, let alone by professionals (as opposed to some sort of youtube skit).

Allow me to contrive an example. Suppose you wanted to make fun of Spider-Man movies. You would write something like this:

Peter Porker is talking to his Uncle Joe.

PETER: Hey aged father figure that I'm too self-absorbed to listen to, I need to go exploit my secret super pow-- I mean, uh, I have to study at the library. Yeah.

UNCLE: Just a second Peter. Now as an aged father figure to
you I need to tell you something important.

PETER: (not listening) Yeah yeah whatever.

UNCLE: Hold on sport. In case I suddenly die and the last thing I tell you becomes suddenly poignant, you better listen.

PETER: What, are you going to tell me that with great power comes great responsibility or something?

UNCLE JOE is suddenly killed by a crook!

PETER: Nooo, Uncle Joe! If only I'd listened, and now it's all my fault and I'll be haunted by your last words forever!

Okay, you get that? You’ve seen that, right? That style of comedy? It’s almost like watered down 1970s MAD magazine writing, now that I think about it. It seems juvenile and uninspired to me. It’s like notes for jokes, placeholders where actual jokes should be, without actually being funny. Well, Walk Hard is about 85% made up of scenes that are written like that. Yes, literally, just like that. The remainder is songs written in various styles, but which also aren’t funny.

And through it all, they neglected to make it actually hang together like a real movie. It wanders, getting lost in the 1950s for quite a long time, before rushing through the 60s and 70s and skipping the 80s entirely. Strange, since if the conceit is that Dewey Cox lived through all of these musical eras, you could get a lot out of doing an 80s pastiche, but it’s like it didn’t even occur to them to do that. There’s one moment earlier when somehow Dewey starts to get addicted to cocaine, but way too early, like in the late 50s or maybe early 60s, and they nearly make a joke about him inventing punk rock, but it doesn’t go anywhere, and doesn’t make any sense. Then by the time they get to 1978 they don’t even have any more music ideas for their musical lead character, and have him doing Sonny & Cher-style variety television.

That reminds me of another complaint. It’s like they didn’t bother to do any research about any of the eras they were going through. Oh, I guess the costume department did. It seems like they missed a lot of opportunity for comedy by not knowing enough about anything to actually mine it for humor. The Beatles show up in a cameo that seems to be written by, and for, people who have never seen the Beatles before, just heard other people referencing them second or third hand. They bring on the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly and I was sure they were going to go for a joke about Dewey Cox failing to get on a plane with them after the show because of some amusing reason, but they didn’t do that. Instead they end the scene with a guy doing a cliché parody of 1970s Elvis while dressed as 1956 Elvis, throwing karate chops and calling himself The King. I dunno, is that the joke, that 1956 Elvis would act like 1976 Elvis? Maybe they thought that was funny.

walkhardpic10.jpg
I am completely mystified insulted by the casting of Jack Black as Paul McCartney.

Geek pedant complaint: So Dewey complains to his manager that his variety show is getting trounced in the ratings every week by The Incredible Hulk. Okay, that works if it’s 1978. Then they talk about a supposed recent episode of Hulk, where he has an evil twin who’s red instead of green. There’s no such episode, so is that the joke? They made up an evil twin episode that doesn’t exist. Did somebody sitting there typing the script think that was funny for some reason? Suppose they assume most people in the audience won’t know that there wasn’t an episode like that. Is that why it’s funny? Anyway, they talk about helping the ratings by plugging the variety show on a news interview, and Dewey practices saying that it comes on “Thursday evenings, right after the local news.” That’s my geek pedant complaint: Hulk was on Friday nights for its entire run. You know, right before The Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas.

There’s no point in them actually researching when Hulk was on, since it doesn’t make it any more funny to get it right. But why get it wrong? I really don’t see why they couldn’t look it up and write Friday into the script instead of Thursday. It’d take 20 seconds. It just seems lazy. They didn’t look up anything, they didn’t think through anything. How can you be funny when you’re just faffing around like this?

It seems, ultimately, like they had an idea for a movie. And they thought that was enough to get started. Lots of wheels to get spinning to do a movie like this. You have to write a bunch of songs, pre-record them. You have to get all those period costumes made. You have to order some Yellow Submarine-type animation. It’s like they were so focused on all this business that they went into production with a first draft. One with lots of ideas for scenes but no actual scenes. Lots of ideas for jokes but no actual jokes. Or jokes that exist just to narrate themselves.

Very weird. I remember I had trouble with Anchorman too, for what seemed like different reasons at the time, but I think underneath there is a related problem. However, that movie was way funnier than this, and I think it’s because of Will Farrell being able to riff while the cameras are rolling and make things funnier. I’m not a really big Will Farrell fan, but I recognize that he has this ability to funny things up.

I couldn’t help but think the entire time that they wanted Farrell to play Dewey Cox, and he either couldn’t do it because of other commitments, or he was wise enough to turn it down. Or, he said to them, “Hey, get Reilly to do it. He was hilarious in Talladega Nights. He’s your man.” So they said, yeah, Reilly’s a hell of an actor, and he’s funny, too, and he can sing. So we’ll do that, it’ll be great.

Only it’s not great. And as flabby and pasty as he is, he’s not funny running around in tighty whities the way Will Farrell is.

Oh yeah, about a half hour in, a completely naked woman walks across the screen. It wasn’t funny, but it was pleasantly distracting. Then they showed a giant close-up of a penis. Twice. Three times if you count the recapping montage at the end of the movie. I think they thought that was funny, too, and I guess from a certain perspective it is.

Cox. Get it?

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on the great boss battles of life

I thought about posting stuff this year a lot more than I actually posted stuff. I guess that’s not unusual, but it always bothers me. I think there was more of a reason than usual this year than in previous years, because for a solid 13 years I had a certain coffee shop I went to that I used as an office, and if I thought of something I wanted to write, I would go there and write it.

2006 was when I lost that coffee shop and had to move on, but 2007 is when I felt the effects of that loss — of not having anywhere to go to work, that would really serve as a workplace for me and my creative projects. The best substitute I found had good coffee and was open 24 hours, but it is really a restaurant, and so has the problem of not really being a good place to hunker down for several hours to work on something, the way a coffee shop can because that’s what it is by design. You’re not putting out the management by sitting there for ages, not really, if they’re running a coffee shop. If you’re running a restaurant, a guy might be taking up a booth that a family of four will order a lot of food and drinks from, and then leave and be replaced by another family of four, and there’s this guy still sitting there. I definitely feel that pressure.

However, after hanging out there for a year, eventually the whole staff gets used to you, and appreciates the fact that, just by plunking down money into their cash register and tipping the wait staff nearly every single day, you’re actually supporting the place more than the family of four who only eats there once and doesn’t return. So they start getting nicer and more tolerant, and go “Yeah, whatever” if you want to sit there for a while.

bullfinch-1.jpgStill, it’s a restaurant, and it’s not the same. I can’t really knuckle down the same way and be productive there, which bugs me. All year I felt off-kilter, and a lot of things went un-done that I wanted to do because I’d be in the mood to get something done, but it’d be a high traffic mealtime at the restaurant, so I’d try and wait for a better time, and by then, the mood or the muse was gone. Life goes on, none of these missed projects were a great tragedy, but cumulatively, they felt like a real drag on me this year, and added to my overriding sense of frustration.

That was one of the major themes this year, at least in terms of my emotional life. I’ve been feeling just absolutely frustrated, day and night, for quite a long time now. Feeling frustrated makes me quick to anger instead of easygoing. I can’t tell you how many times I had a spastic tantrum over something that shouldn’t even have bothered me, because my general frustration level was so high that a minor uptick would make me hit the boiling point. I had to switch from playing active-type videogames to more passive ones (turn-based combat is my new friend) so I would stop exploding into rages. Boss fights were starting to feel like symbols for my powerlessness in actual life to find any traction. When I played Shadow of the Colossus, I invested it with a lot of psychological weight and baggage, let me tell you.

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That reminds me of something else I was thinking of writing about as a one-shot post, but I guess I’ll conjure some of it now while I’m on the topic. Currently I’m playing this fairly mild mannered and pleasant RPG called Dragon Quest VIII: The Journey of the Cursed King, another Square Enix adventure. Late last night, fulfilling a side quest led me down into this labyrinth that ended with a pretty rough boss battle against two giant dudes who could really whale on you, and who had ridiculous hit points (actual amount hidden, but it must have been 2500 to 3000 each).

Have you ever had a really satisfying scrap with a boss? Like, where it’s definitely pretty challenging, but not so overwhelming that it’s impossible? It reminded me almost of the way a classic Jackie Chan fight goes (when he’s fighting the boss henchman dude at the end of a movie). First Jackie has to get beaten down where it looks like he’s not going to win this one, then he manages by luck or by starting to approach the fight differently, he regains his ground, only to lose it again. And then the tide spectacularly turns just when it’s about to be hopeless, and the boss goes down. Well, that’s how this fight went.

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I had four guys against these two, and they killed two of them early on. But one of my guys had just gotten the ability to sacrifice himself to resurrect everybody else who was dead, and one of those guys had just gotten the ability to resurrect with 100% success. So I brought everyone back. Then they killed half my party again, this time both of those guys who could bring people back. One guy, down to about 20 hit points from 250, had a resurrect spell, but it only worked 50% of the time, and it failed 3 times in a row. I was down to a turn where if it didn’t work this time, I was pretty much finished. Meanwhile, the other guy (girl) I had was casting spells that was zapping both bad guys every turn for about 70 points of damage. I just kept doing that, turn after turn.

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On that turn where it was make or break, pow, one of the bosses keeled over dead, and my resurrect spell finally worked. That revived guy resurrected the other guy, and all four characters whaled on the remaining boss with all they had, and he went down a couple of turns later. I was really happy that everybody was alive and in fact in pretty healthy shape when the battle ended. A triumph!

“That was a pretty good scrap!” I said. (Actually, I may first have said, “BOOM! Gotcha, you f*cker!”) It just felt satisfying to have been nearly wiped out and then managed to pull it out in the end. It felt like I had met this challenge with my characters leveled up exactly to the right spot to have the most engaging battle I could have had. I really enjoyed that.

The future is always completely uncertain, but I’ve been feeling an undercurrent of optimism starting to buoy me for the past six months, sort of an antidote to that corrosive feeling of frustration. I’m kind of waiting for my real life to have some sort of dramatic turnaround like this. I’ve felt psychologically nearly wiped out a few times this year, and it would be nice to know that the tide will turn and I’ll pull out some sort of overwhelming victory and get to do a happy dance at the end.

Then I’ll get to look back on the experience, nod with satisfaction, and say, “Hey, that was a pretty good scrap!”

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Movie review

The Lake House

Directed by Alejandro Agresti. Starring Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, and Christopher Plummer.

Well, I must admit, I’m fond of time-travel romances. I like time travel stories, I like romances, so there you go. I was just trying to think about how many time-travel romance movies I’ve seen, and I thought of five off the top of my head. [How many can you think of? My answers are below.] The time travel — however it is achieved — is always just a way of updating the theme of lovers from mismatched backgrounds, or of lovers separated by circumstance. Seemingly fated to be together, yet kept (or torn) apart.

This movie, in fact, uses Jane Austen’s Persuasion as a reference point, openly drawing the parallels. In what I think is my favorite scene in a movie with a number of nice bits, Alex (Reeves) and Kate (Bullock) sit out on a porch one evening, escaping a party for her that she doesn’t want. He asks her if she’s read Persuasion, and what it’s about. They have a long, very natural conversation, with many emotional pivot points. What I admired about the way this was done is that it was all in one take, a two-shot of both actors, letting them act and react to each other over the course of a few minutes. If the actors come up with the goods in a take like this, which both of them do, hooray for not cutting up the take.

Sandra and Keanu on the porch.The scene continues after that, with a moonlight dance. A romantic song starts playing in the house, and he asks her if she knows it. She says yes, and they begin to dance. I was very surprised to hear the song they chose for this, since it was a Paul McCartney song. The funny thing about it is that it
blows the continuity. The movie goes to great lengths to explain that Alex lives in 2004, and this night is told both a flashback for Kate (who is living in 2006), and present-day for Alex. The problem with the song is that it was released in September 2005. It didn’t exist yet! However, I must say that the sentiment expressed in the song’s music and lyrics exactly fit this particular scene, and the scene’s place in the movie’s story. I can see how they decided that was the right song to use, even with the anachronism.

The movie gets into a little trouble at the end, which is where time travel stories can tend to go haywire. You have to decide whether you’re doing the paradox thing, and how it works to be changing “history,” such as the movie has unfolded so far. Is the movie playing fair by its own rules? It is true that there are earlier scenes that establish all the precedents they need to get away with the ending, but it still seemed a little fishy to me. The more I thought about it, the more problems I noticed in it. Best to not think about it too much, although it’s the kind of movie that will obviously disappoint and/or enrage serious fans of time travel science fiction. They’re completely not the audience for this, though.

Having just worked as a production designer, I ended up staring at the art direction of the movie. It was bursting with color, which I liked. Lots of lovely primaries, along with some subtler palette shifts that are used to help you distinguish which time period you’re in. The seasons change, and time passes, for characters in two different years. Sometimes her colors are warm, and his are cool; sometimes his world is warm and golden and hers is overcast and blue.

I was surprised to see a credit saying that this movie was based on another movie. (The adaptation was written by David Auburn, the author of Proof.) I just looked it up, and the source is a South Korean film called Il Mare or Siworae (2000). I bet that the original would be appealing even to people who really won’t get much out of this remake. Possibly you might want to rent that instead of this, although I would definitely recommend it as a rental.

If you like this sort of thing, that is.


Time Travel Romance Movies

  1. Time After Time (1979) – Nicholas Meyer writes and directs this story of H.G. Wells (Malcolm MacDowell) and his time machine arriving in then-modern-day San Francisco. After filming, MacDowell married Mary Steenburgen, his love interest in the movie.
  2. Somewhere in Time (1980) – Jeannot Szwarc directs Christopher Reeve and a radiant Jane Seymour in what I consider a classic. Stylistically a little stiff (Szwarc has more experience as a television director), but beautifully done, with a very imaginative, non-technological means of time travel. Also stars Christopher Plummer.
  3. The Terminator (1984) – James Cameron writes and directs this superb bit of entertainment, which stars his future wife (and future ex-wife) Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn. Gutsy filmmaking, mating brawny, balls-out sci-fi action and chick-flick tragic romance.
  4. Back to the Future Part III (1990) – Bob Zemeckis directs. Mary Steenburgen again, playing the love interest of Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). The romance gets a little lost in Zemeckis’s action set pieces, but Lloyd is so sweet and sincere, and clearly having a wonderful time exploring the human heart of what had been a largely cartoonish character in the first two films.
  5. Kate & Leopold (2001) – Writer-director James Mangold directs romantic comedy veteran Meg Ryan in a sleeper that surprises you with its charms. Most of this charm handsomely radiates from Hugh Jackman, giving a poised, perfect performance in a role that could easily defeat a number of lesser actors and bigger movie stars. I keep catching this on cable and getting sucked in every time.

Honorable mention: 12 Monkeys (1995), Frequency (2000)

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movie reviews

Warning: Major plot spoilers for both.


FIREWALL (2006)

Directed by Richard Loncraine. Starring Harrison Ford, Virginia Madsen, and that blond guy from A Beautiful Mind.

I mainly went to see this movie because of the relaxed way Harrison Ford promoted it on The Daily Show. “It's a pretty good movie,” he said with a half-shrug. “And I hope a few people go to see it.”

Well, I dunno. There's ways in which it's pretty good, and there's ways in which it feels like reheated bits from other movies. It's uneven, it's cliched, it's confusing, you can feel the screenwriter straining to pack everything in, you have characters that don't act anything like normal people, and it kind of takes a long time before getting to the obvious conclusion. The old mano-a-mano fistfight between the good guy and the bad guy, and then the daddy hero saves his wife, daughter, son, and the little dog, too.

One thing is that Harrison Ford is a treat to watch every frame he's onscreen. Whatever it is that movie stars have, he still has. Everything is pretty hokey around him, but he delivers this shit like he means it, and somehow an illusion is sustained only so long as he's around. As soon as we cut to somebody else, questions like “wtf” start floating through our minds, and with good reason.

At some point during the final third of the movie, I started to wonder whether I was judging it too harshly because I was reading it wrong. I formed the theory that if I were around 12 years old, I'd find it very exciting, and none of the stuff that is preposterous or thinly drawn would bother me at all. It's more of a cartoon than a thriller, come to think of it. Maybe the filmmakers were aiming at kids, I think, rather generously. Then Harrison Ford beats a guy to death with a blender, leaving his face a frothy, bloody pulp. Hmm.

The picture has been compacted by the standard Hollywood compression algorithm. It is at times confusing, because they had to keep all of the set-pieces while jettisoning the connective tissue to minimize the length and pump up the pace. “Wait, why did they do that? What? Huh?” I said, more than once. Everyone acts very strange. House full of kidnappers with guns, and Mom is cooking eggs and bacon and Junior is playing with paints while acting very relaxed and friendly with these guys who just last night shoved him to the floor, handcuffed him, and taped his mouth shut. I'd expect a normal kid to retreat into kind of a fetal state of shock, but no, not this kid. Anyway, so there's this calm domestic scene going on, and then the phone rings, and the kid puts down his paints and goes over to the phone and picks it up to say hello. Then suddenly one of the guys tackles him to the floor and beats his head, and another good pulls out his machine gun and points it at the mother, and backhands her across the room, and another gun is pointed at the daughter's head, and it's suddenly bedlam, and I'm thinking there has to be a scene we missed where they warned the family “If anybody answers the phone we will go ape shit”. This is not the most confusing part of the movie, but it's the one that sticks in my mind right now. I was more confused later on when they seemed to be suggesting that the Best Friend character was an inside man on the job, betraying our hero. Not that cliche again! Except it wasn't. What was it? There's some exposition later that tries to explain all of it, but it — I dunno. As long as you're cutting bits out of the movie, maybe you should cut the ones that don't make any sense, instead of cutting ones that help the movie make more sense.

The movie had quite a lot of blatant product placement. “Here are our secure servers for our multimillion-dollar bank,” he says, standing in front of a big slick looking movie computer with a silver DELL logo carefully framed behind him. At one point, Ford announces that he needs “my daughter's mp3 player to use as a hard drive” as part of the bank heist plot. (The bad guys are making him do the dirty work for them.) Earlier in the movie, one of the bad guys was seen listening to a portable music player with suspiciously white earphones, but he was holding the player sideways to the camera so that you couldn't actually tell what brand of player it was. Uh huh. So I thought they were going to lengths to suggest that there were iPods in the world of the movie without actually showing one. Except then he wakes his daughter up and says, “Honey, I need your iPod.” Yes, and the bank heist itself, the crux of the plot, is pulled off with the aid of a pink iPod Mini. Hmmm.

The musical score sounds like the producers said, “We can't afford Danny Elfman. Can we get a cheap knockoff guy instead?” That's really the only comment I have about it. I kept thinking I was hearing loops from the score for HULK.

The computers the characters use in the movies actually sport slightly more realistic computer interfaces than the average computer does in a Hollywood thriller. The dialogue about computers is not much better. You can tell A) The filmmakers are hoping the audience is largely computer illiterate and doesn't know the difference if it sounds plausibly jargony and B) They don't know any better, either.

The scheme the bad guys employ is pretty ridiculous. The scheme the screenwriter employs to allow the hero to save the day is even more ridiculous. The bad guy, who has been tailing Ford everywhere and watching him like a hawk and planting bugs on him and never letting him out of his sight decides to stand outside at the crucial moment when Ford is transferring funds, allowing our hero to pull a fast one that will later give him the advantage. It relies on the brutal sociopathic kidnappers taking the family dog along with them to their secure hideout. You know, the dog that pops up in the first scene so they can say “Hey, remember to fit that new GPS collar on Fido” about. HINT HINT. This is the same scene where Junior says “Hey dad, look, my radio controlled car makes every television and computer monitor in the house go fuzzy.” Actually, Dad explains that to Junior, but not before asking his wife what she, a prominent architect and career mom, is going to do that day while he, a prominent bank security expert, goes to the big meeting about the merger that is crucial to the plot. Junior has one of those allergies to peanuts that is life-threatening. The bad guys threaten his life with it. Creeeeak. Rattttchet. Clannkkkk. Creeaakkk.

The movie is stocked with some nice character actors who are pleasant to see. There's Virginia Madsen and Robert Forster, both of whom are now working again in A-List pictures after having their careers revived by attention-getting turns in independent pictures. There's Robert Patrick, whom I'm starting to realize I always enjoy seeing. He's a workhorse, but he does good work. And Alan Arkin! It's always nice to see Alan Arkin. I wish he had more to do, but there's no room. There's also a young actress, Mary Lynn Rajskub, who plays Harrison Ford's secretary. She starts out as a midly comic side character, but grows into a role of more importance as the movie goes on. I was rooting for her as much as for Ford. They have a lot of good scenes together.

She has a slight subplot that kind of gets lost, about a coworker that has a big crush on her. This would-be-suitor's cellphone becomes important to the main plot, and Harrison Ford makes her go get it from him. She bursts in on him while he's playing bass in a Christian rock band, which I found hilarious. Since it's completely incidental where they find this guy, and it's only a 20 second scene, it could have been anything. But no, he's rocking out on his Rickenbacker while a robed chorus shouts Yay Jesus Wheooo! I guess you had to be there. Except if you were there, then you'd be seeing the rest of this movie, which you can tell I'm not necessarily recommending.

GRADE: C+



MATCH POINT (2005)

Written and Directed by Woody Allen. Starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, and Brian Cox.

Roger Ebert says in his review that this is Woody Allen's best film since Crimes and Misdemeanors (1987), which is arguably true; it's also true that it's quite nearly the same movie, which might explain it. Or, half the movie. Crimes and Misdemeanors is one of my favorite Allen films; when Turner Classic Movies was promoting their showing of it a year ago, they said “We consider it his masterpiece”, and I'm inclined to agree. This new film, Match Point, which I've been hearing about for a full eight months, is a re-exploration of the Martin Landau half of the earlier movie, without the leavening of the humorous second half. It recasts the story in a different setting with younger characters, and it spends more time on the build-up to the monstrous act and less time on the consequent guilt, but it's the same story. What to do with the Other Woman when you're tired of the affair but she becomes problematic?

I wasn't aware that this was how the film was going to go for most of it, then when I realized it was, I wondered whether it was going to do anything different. It didn't, really. In both films, the character waits for punishment from God, for some retribution by fate, something that will give morality to a cold and unethical universe, but no strike comes. Once the character learns to suppress the guilt, he can get on with his seemingly blessed life. In Match Point, this comes down to a sense of “luck”, repeated in metaphorical and literal terms throughout the movie.

I started thinking about all of the Woody Allen movies that have a plot about getting rid of a partner you're tired of. Sometimes you just ditch them by hopping on a plane and leaving them stranded, as in Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Or maybe you actually kill them. There's also Bullets Over Broadway (1994), although that was about killing someone who stood in the way of one's art, but it was about how the artist may or may not have a moral responsibility to protect his art at all costs. There was Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), but that was more about trying to determine if the neighbor next door had a very dark secret. There was the “getting rid of the troublesome, harping mother” in his segment of New York Stories (1989). I guess Allen's movies are mainly about two things, summed up by one of his own titles: LOVE AND DEATH.

If I'd never seen Crimes and Misdemeanors, this film would have been far more intriguing; instead, I started studying it more than getting carried along by it. Here's an artist taking another go at a theme that obviously intrigues him a great deal. Certainly Allen has told stories of interweaving relationships, people trading partners, and people being adulterous many times before; no doubt this reflects something of his own experiences in life. This motif that appears in his movies of deep sixing the troublesome element in one's life haunted my sleep last night. I now like to think that Woody Allen has actually killed somebody and gotten away with it; it's the romantic in me.

GRADE: A-

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movie reviews strike again

More movie reviews. Many spoilers, especially for SPIDER-MAN 2.

TROY
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

The first trailers for TROY came out last December. I remember rolling my eyes and then quipping, “The face that launched a thousand CGI ships.” I then spent the months leading up to the release of it expecting it to be sad and terrible, and intending to ignore it when it came out. Then when it finally did come out, I found myself in the mood to watch something silly (even if unintentionally silly), so I went to see it anyway, not expecting much. I was thoroughly surprised to find, twenty minutes into it, that I was enjoying it. I was even more surprised when I was still enjoying it two hours later when it finally ended. You have to understand that I am not a student of the classics, and I didn't care how much the movie deviated from the epic poem that was its inspiration (the credits do say “inspired by” rather than “based on” The Iliad). I just thought: Okay, filmmakers, show me a movie, tell me a story, and make it fun. It seemed to me that they succeeded.

Most reviews I read (after I saw it) were negative, and sort of confirmed my initial dread, and I guess they make valid points. However, they fail to explain why I liked it. I'm not sure myself, now that it's several months later, but I'm going to try to remember what I liked about it.

The first thing that comes to mind is Eric Bana's performance as Hector. Yet another Australian import, I never heard of him before he appeared as Bruce Banner in HULK last year, giving a pretty good performance. In TROY, he again gives a good performance, and I actually found the role to be well written. Hector had the unusual trait of always talking sense in every scene, in a movie full of characters acting on stupid impulse and superstitious faith. It's a sad story full of good guys getting killed, and if anyone had bothered to listen to Hector at any stage, things would probably have gone a bit better. They don't listen, and events pile up, and eventually Hector is forced into the position of dueling Achilles, the greatest warrior ever, in hand to hand combat, something nobody usually survives for more than five seconds. Even knowing that he tried to stop things from coming to this point, honorable Hector bravely girds himself and tromps out to face his doom eye to eye. The whole movie is simplistic in a comic book way, but I don't mind that. (It's a bit weird to say that TROY is a comic book version of The Iliad when there is now a graphic novel adaptation of The Iliad that is full of richness and depth, but maybe the point still makes sense.)

So then we have Brad Pitt, who buffed himself up to the right proportions to portray a demigod killing machine, and plays the part with an affected accent and a straight face. It's a performance that works, even though I giggled a bit when he would occasionally stare meaningfully at the horizon, contemplating Fate and Destiny. Achilles functions as a force of nature. Once he's set in motion, you've got to brace yourself for the consequences, because reasoning with him isn't going to make any difference. In the opening scenes of the movie, Achilles is trotted to show just what a badass he is, with his flying jump-and-skewer move, which looks a lot like the kind of super attack move you can get out of a Mortal Combat character by hitting the right buttons. When he eventually battles Hector, he refrains from using this move until he finally gets frustrated with Hector's ability to avoid dying. Then he uses his super flying skewer attack, and Hector blocks it. Hooray for Hector! There's some more tussling, and he tries it again, and Hector blocks it again. Achilles finally just has to wear him down the hard way before finishing him off. I guess I mention all this because it was fun to see that the choreography of this battle (which the movie builds up to for quite a long time) had been plotted out as a mini-story with intelligence and some amount of wit.

Two of the stars of Lord of the Rings are reunited here, Orlando Bloom and Sean Bean. Orlando Bloom plays Paris, who is not only a stupid kid who causes an entire war because he can't keep his sweaty little hands to himself, but who is later revealed to be a coward who crawls away from a fight on his hands and knees, clutching his brother Hector's legs and begging Hector to save him. Bloom is kind of a big matinee idol type star these days, and I admired him for playing a part that required him to be unheroic and snivelling. A lot of actors would have an ego problem about such a scene. Sean Bean plays Ulysses, another character in the movie who tends to talk a lot of common sense. Hector sees everything as too dire to have any sense of humor about it, whereas Ulysses offers his counsel with a bit of sparkle, a suggestion of seen-it-all sarcasm.

Most of the reviews I read, even if they didn't like the movie overall, seemed to like Peter O'Toole as Priam. I agree, his presence does add something. Old pro that he is, he can somehow invest his scenes with emotional straightforwardness and depth while still seeming to preserve the sense that this movie is all just in good fun, and not to be taken too seriously. I'm not quite sure how he does that.

One quibble I had that I couldn't quite erase from my mind was that the movie keeps mentioning explicitly that this war is going to be the greatest war ever fought, and that memories of it and the participants in it will last forever. Then we see it unfold, and somehow the entire Trojan War seems to take only about three and a half days. Well, they do elide over a 12 day truce for Priam to mourn Hector, but that still only makes it a little over two weeks. It doesn't quite feel like the most epic battle ever. On the other hand, I did like all of the battle scenes in the movie. CGI-enhanced though they may have been, they were presented with a clarity that I found helpful. Even with the screen full of crazy montages of noise and blood and sand and sword, I could always tell which army was which, which direction they were headed, who was making and who was losing ground, and so on. This is not an easy thing to do, which is why I admired the accomplishment.

The cinematography suits the movie quite well. The sun always looks baking hot on the beaches, and everything is given just a subtle glossy enhancement that makes it feel like you're watching mythic events rather than real ones. There is one very nice sequence two thirds of the way through the picture, where a battle erupts just before dawn, with the sky black. Then, as it continues to unfold, the sky begins to brighten; the sun is not yet up, and we see the armies in the grey predawn light. The light grows, shot by shot, a little brighter and more colorful each time, until eventually the sun rises and full sunlight spills over the beaches. My mind boggles at the ridiculous amount of planning that is required to achieve this effect, which the average audience member isn't even going to notice. It definitely caught my attention, and I thought it was fantastic.

Anyway, even though I had a good time watching this movie, I am loath to actually recommend it to anyone else. People who do actually remember and admire The Iliad should probably steer clear, because they're just going to hate every difference in story and character, and there are hundreds of differences. For me, though, I thought that the story they ended up using, about a love affair sparking war between a mighty army and a walled city, with heroes and warriors on both sides that you could root for, told with earnestness and good humor and a little bit of (PG-13 rated) nudity and sex, made for a pretty entertaining movie.

VIEWED ON: 05-16-04, 06-01-04


SPIDER-MAN 2
Directed by Sam Raimi

I have been reminded several times recently (by Adam Cadre) of what I said after viewing the first SPIDER-MAN movie two years ago: that I wasn't sure that it was a good movie, but that I thought it was good Spider-Man. I can say without hesitation that SPIDER-MAN 2 is a good movie among good movies, and also that it is good Spider-Man; however, I would like to talk a bit about what I mean when I say good Spider-Man — or, specifically, what I meant the first time.

Adam recently explained why he thought the first movie failed to be good Spider-Man. I noticed that his argument against it was based on the writing, and that my positive reactions were largely based on the visuals, a distinction that readers of ACX might find amusing. His primary argument was that it didn't feature Spider-Man making wisecracks as he fought bad guys. He's right, it is a distinguishing feature of Spidey that he throws as many jokes as punches. I have been trying to picture whether the fight scenes could have accomodated a lot of jokes. They'd have to be cut to a different rhythm. It seems to me that it would have been possible, but I'm not sure that it's a bad compromise to let them slide. I didn't even notice their absence until Adam pointed it out. I am led to wonder whether there was ever a version of the script where Spider-Man kept up an ongoing banter during a fight, or whether they made the decision early on to keep his witticisms to a minimum.

A lot of what I was keying on was that the comic book visuals were right: all of his leggy, acrobatic poses; compositions cribbed directly from Ditko and Romita, and so forth. However, I don't think Adam was ignoring the visuals; he, like other reviewers, probably didn't think very much of Spidey suddenly becoming fakey looking CGI whenever he sprang into action. This didn't bother me so much; I wasn't looking for perfection, just that they were doing they best they could with the technology while stretching him into authentic poses. I also wasn't completely ignoring the writing, either, although I was thinking more broadly: the origin story was intact instead of being rewritten (including the wrestling match, which I did not expect), and Spider-Man was placed into predicaments that could only have crappy outcomes no matter what he tried to do. I remember particularly liking the Green Goblin shouting, “CHOOSE!” and simultaneously dropping Mary Jane and a carload of innocent people. (I also remember particularly disliking the notion that the Green Goblin was capable of holding up the cable car with one hand, but oh well.)

On to the sequel. Large promotional posters for SPIDER-MAN 2 appeared a few weeks before its release, one of which was emblazoned with the tagline, “THE STORY CONTINUES.” That kind of promotion gives me a bad feeling, because it usually is hype leading to a big let-down. How gratifying, therefore, that in this case it wasn't a load of b.s. SPIDER-MAN 2 unfolds as the meaty second part of a larger story about the troubled life of a young man who had greatness thrust upon him.

Spider-Man may be a hero, but Peter Parker is unfortunately a bit of a loser, with a Charlie Brown-like ability to always come up short. When the movie starts, he's got a crappy pizza delivery job that even his ability to swing through the city unencumbered by traffic doesn't allow him to keep. He's behind on rent for his ratty apartment, he's already spent the advance on his Daily Bugle paycheck, he's falling behind in his college studies, and he can't manage to keep the simplest of promises to people. Being Spider-Man doesn't help any of this, and in most cases, makes them worse. His best friend has a vendetta against Spider-Man, and the woman he loves has given up on him because of his unexplained absences. That's basically the set-up. Then his life really gets bad.

The CGI is a little better this time, and I must admit I found it particularly thrilling to see Spidey fighting Doctor Octopus on the big screen, watching static images from my childhood suddenly alive and in motion. I did have a little problem with Doc Ock shrugging off punches to his face, given that Spidey can put his fists through bricks. I suppose you could argue that he was pulling his punches because he didn't want to kill the guy, but you'd think when his life and Aunt May's are both at stake, he'd kind of at least incapacitate the bad guy.

I was particularly pleased with the sequence where Octavius puts on the octopus arms and fires up his machine, only to have everything go blooey. It's an incredibly dense sequence, full of exciting visuals and some impressive sound work. (In a theater with a good set of subwoofers, the machine makes some tingle-your-spine rumbles of the kind that I have always wished I could get in my movie, THE KRONE EXPERIMENT — which, incidentally, also has to do with a mad scientist using a giant machine with superfocused lasers to stimulate the creation of a dangerously powerful source of energy. Go figure.) I really like the extreme close up shot of Octavius's goggled eyes, one dark and one flaring with reflected light, as we hear him say, “The power of the sun — in the palm of my hand!” We don't see his mouth, so it functions as interior monologue, something that's standard in comics but trickier to do in a movie. (The line itself is also classic Stan Lee-type writing.) Immediately following this is a scene in a hospital that's done in classic horror movie style, all shadows reflections and movement, quick clips of screams and violence happening more in your mind than onscreen, making it all somehow scarier.

This scene unfortunately culminates in something so cliched I want to tear my own head off in despair. I would appreciate it if, never again in any motion picture or television show, even done ironically or for parodic value, will a character throw his head back and shout “Nooooooooo!!!” This is partly redeemed a minute later when Octavius uses his arms to toss aside a taxicab that's barreling straight at him. Throughout the movie, I loved Alfred Molina's body language, which really sold the idea that these mechanical arms were part of him.

Other problems I had with the movie, before going back to things I liked: The ridiculously rough treatment Doc Ock gives Peter Parker, that he would never survive if he weren't Spider-Man. Doc Ock needs to find Spider-Man, something only Parker can help with, so what does he do? He throws a car at Peter Parker. Then, after telling Parker to find Spider-Man in a couple of hours or else, Doc Ock throws him so hard against a wall that it collapses, burying him in rubble. Not a very smart course of action. This bothered me more the second time than the first, but it's going to bother me on all future viewings.

Back to the good stuff. Shortly after this, there's another battle that culminates in a terrific setpiece in which Spider-Man has to stop a runaway elevated train. They contrive to have him remove his mask for this sequence, but I endorse the idea, because it's the agony on Tobey Maguire's face that makes the scene especially work for me. It actually reminds me of my all-time favorite piece of Spider-Man writing, not from a comic book but from a Spider-Man novel written by Marv Wolfman. I don't remember anything else from this book except this one scene, but it really etched itself into my memory. A bad guy (probably also Doctor Octopus) has collapsed a building onto him. Buried alive under a mountain of bricks, he nearly gives up. Then his will to survive sparks anew, and there is an incredible description of the sheer fight and strain he makes to push himself up out of those suffocating tons of rubble. It's the willpower more than the spider-power that frees him. This movie really reminded me of that. There's a scene before this train sequence where Aunt May (who, in a departure from the comics, is a tough, experienced and resourceful lady instead of a feeble, naive, and weak-hearted one) tells Peter that a hero is someone who just hangs on one second longer. In a lesser movie, you'd get a flashback to Aunt May saying this as he's trying to stop the train, but of course it isn't needed. We remember it, he remembers it; he holds on, he saves everybody on the train. I love this scene.

Then after that, the scene continues in a way that's wonderful and surprising and that almost makes me want to cry. Exhausted by the effort, he collapses, only to have the people on the train gently, gently catch him and bear him up, and lay his nearly broken body down, and gaze tenderly at him, silently appreciating what he has just done for them. He still doesn't have his mask on, but nobody cares, nobody's going to call the Daily Bugle to get a reward; they just want to know that he's okay. Gosh, what a scene.

I feel like I've only described half the things that I found stimulating about this movie, but I guess I'll probably leave it at that. I caught one of these dodgy new VH-1 shows recently, the one where people pretend to be nostalgic about things that happened a month ago, and there was a segment exploring the inexplicable Summer 2004 phenomenon of “Sequels that don't suck.” One guy put it like this: “Shrek 2? Didn't suck. The Bourne Identity didn't suck. Spider-Man 2 *totally* didn't suck.”

I'd agree with that. This movie totally did not suck. Amazing.

VIEWED ON: 07-02-04, 07-05-04, 08-08-04


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movie review – Anchorman

I’m working in reverse chronological order through a huge backlog of reviews I’ve meant to write but never got around to, for basically all the movies I’ve seen since this spring.

In today’s installment, I analyze a comedy to such a degree that it can’t possibly be funny any more, if it ever was. Numerous jokes are spoiled in the process.

ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004)

Directed by: Adam McKay

I came across an anecdote about Will Farrell recently. Farrell, a member of the Los Angeles based comedy group The Groundlings (a west coast answer to Second City, one might say) before he became pretty much the star castmember of Saturday Night Live for the last three years of his run, apparently had a very normal and happy childhood. This goes against the grain of most people who end up as professional comics, who often have rotten upbringings, and learn to use comedy as a shield as well as an offensive weapon. Addressing this, his fellow castmember Chris Kattan gawped at him one day, and said, “I don’t get it. How are you funny?”

That’s a good question: How is Will Farrell funny? One trait he has that I’ve long recognized as crucial for comedians is that he is absolutely fearless. He’ll go as far as he needs to to get the laugh. At some point, he recognized that his slightly squishy, un-buff, hairy white guy body was a funny thing to show too much of. In dozens of SNL skits, he struts out nearly naked, getting squeals of displeasure from the audience that ripple into laughs. A gag in all of the trailers for the lame SNL-based comedy, A NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY, features him making catcalls at women on a beach while clad only in a tiny speedo. I don’t really find this that funny, but I recognize that it works for a lot of people. It works on me sometimes.

One thing Farrell has that I like is a talent for bombastic exclamations, which I believe he can generate on the fly in endless variations. (Getting ahead of myself, the closing credits of ANCHORMAN show serial outtakes where Farrell makes a different exclamation “By the beard of Odin! That smarts!” “Great Knights of Columbus! That really stings!”, and so on.) His famous line from his last movie, the surprise hit ELF, has him screeching at a department store Santa Claus, “YOU SIT ON A THRONE OF *LIES*!”, a line not in the script. As I just noted, ANCHORMAN features a lot of this, maybe a little too much; perhaps, unfortunately, someone brought it to Farrell’s attention that he was good at this kind of thing, so he wrote himself too many opportunities to go for it.

Anyway, I find Farrell sometimes funny, sometimes not. He has a schtick, and there are times when I can get myself in the right mindset to appreciate it, and have a few laughs. I went into ANCHORMAN in a positive spirit, wanting to be entertained, rather than fighting the groove. Alas, I did not get as many laughs as I was hoping for. I’ve heard from at least one other person that they found this movie to be a laugh riot, so maybe I failed to get into the mindset after all.

Mainly, what threw me was the inconsistency of it. In retrospect, this seems like a strange charge to lob at a movie like this. It is basically a sketch movie with one main character in all of the sketches, written by two sketch comedy writers (Farrell and Adam McKay, the director, who also used to be on the writing staff at SNL) and starring various sketch comedy actors. This means, I think, that they sat around and generated about four hours of material (I know there was a lot of extra material, because quite a lot of the jokes they show in the trailers and ads aren’t even in the movie), then whittled it down to what they thought was the best set, along with some scenes that kept a semblance of plot running through the movie. Oh, and a big climax scene where everything gets wrapped up; this climax showed to me how truly weak the writing was when compared to people who genuinely are good at the craft and art of screenwriting. Maybe Farrell and McKay can write good sketches, but they still haven’t learned how to write a proper movie.

I mentioned inconsistency. At some point in film school, I took a class called Film Aesthetics, in which the professor made the point that you can do whatever you want within the world of a movie you’re making, but once you set up the rules of that world, you have to stick to them. There is another sketch comedy movie that comes to mind that, to me, really holds up as a movie as well, and that is AIRPLANE! (1979). AIRPLANE has a range of different kinds of gags, but once it sets up the basic logic behind most of the gags, it stays within those crazy bounds for the entire movie. And although the comedy is absurd, the gags are logical: one type of gag is the metaphor-taken-too-literally, if you know what I mean. “The shit’s gonna hit the fan!” Another involves setting up a pattern, and then expanding it to the Nth version of the series, until it reaches an outrageous extreme, but it stays consistent. E.g., the sequence where they start slapping a woman who’s becoming hysterical, and the camera pans past a line that has formed for people to continue to whale on her. By the end of the line, we see people armed with bats and morningstars and pistols. That kind of thing.

ANCHORMAN, though, didn’t keep consistent with itself, in my opinion. (Others may disagree, or just not be bothered by the inconsistency.) At one level, it’s supposed to be a satire of 1970s mores; however, it never quite settles on which year of the 1970s it’s satirizing. It seemed to me like a story set in the 1970s by people who were too young to remember what the 70s were actually like, so it’s a mix of half-remembered childhood stuff and things learned later on, with a few of the caricatured-70s pop nostalgia bits thrown in. Farrell’s character, Ron Burgundy, is in some ways supposed to be a laughable relic of the time, with his odd clothes, big hair and mustache, his habit of smoking and drinking liquor just off camera, and so forth. But sometimes the people within the movie react to him like he’s really absurd and alien, and sometimes they react to him like he’s as normal as the next guy, since they’re all living in the 70s. Do you see what I mean?

There’s a running gag that’s set up where Burgundy comes home to his empty bachelor pad and talks to his pet dog. The usual talking-to-your-pet kind of talk becomes an involved conversation, with Burgundy responding to “woof!” with “You know I don’t speak Spanish!” So, is he very imaginative or just insane? It’s hard to tell what they’re going for (besides, I guess, the audience going “ha ha ha”), especially when, by the end of the movie, the dog reveals himself to actually be a talking dog, given subtitles so that we in the audience can understand him. So if we’re in a world where animals are intelligent enough to talk, and people can understand the language of dogs, then this is kind of fantasy world, and not just a satire about a bygone era when anchormen smoked on camera and wore polyester suits. Or are we?

The movie got weirder for me when it introduced the subplot of rival gangs from other local news stations. The main one is led by Vince Vaughn. This other news team kind of hangs out waiting to bully Burgundy and his compatriots as they walk home from school — er, I mean, work. Or I’m not sure where they’re walking, but all of these scenes are handled like they’re all elementary school kids who have settled into elementary school gang cliques. One time, Vaughn and company come riding up on bicycles to menace Burgundy and his friends. It seemed deliberately trying to call to mind elementary school bullying. I wondered what the deal was with that. Sometimes I see comedies that are sophomoric or adolescent or juvenile, but this was in betwen juvenile and infantile. However, it seemed to me like Farrell is about the right age to have been in elementary school around the year the movie is supposed to be set, and maybe that has something to do with it. It’s really a mixed bag. In some ways, it was fascinating to try to suss out how the writers had come up with the material. Did they try to remember the year 1971, and it reminded them of being bullied on the way home from school, so that went into the script? Hmmm.

ANCHORMAN features a guy I find very funny, Steve Carell, formerly of The Daily Show, who managed to steal the show from Jim Carrey in BRUCE ALMIGHTY. In this movie, he plays a guy named Brick. His first line in the movie shows him putting mayonnaise into a toaster and telling the camera that he has an IQ of 40, or something like that. Basically mentally retarded, I guess, or a moron in the classical sense, Brick is the weatherman for the station, a job that he has just enough intelligence to handle. In all of his scenes, I winced more than laughed at Carell’s performance. It’s almost like, out of context, everything he did was potentially really funny, but in the context of each scene, it all kind of fell flat. What it looked like to me was that he was making everyone on the set nearly die laughing every time he did a take, but out here in the audience, trying to watch what I thought was supposed to be a movie, I wasn’t laughing like I should have been. This is hard to describe. I was sitting there watching him thinking, “I can see that he’s being very funny, but I’m not laughing.”

All of these things I’ve just been mentioning — Carell’s performance, the stuff with the rival news gangs, and the inconsistency of the movie’s world — come together in one joke and its after-joke. There is a big, hm, I guess Fonzie would call it a “rumble”, where not just Vaughn’s gang, but four others (from the other local affiliates, the PBS station, and the Hispanic station) also show up, armed with gang warfare weapons. Then there’s a crazy battle scene, which, AIRPLANE-like, suddenly has absurd things thrown into the montage: Brick is shown to be brandishing a trident, which he hurls at another guy. Okay, trident from nowhere, that’s kind of funny just because it’s random and absurd.

After the fight, we cut to a scene back in Burgundy’s office where the guys are saying, “Wow, that was some fight.” Then someone actually mentions that Brick was somehow wielding a trident at one point. So now it’s not just an absurdity for the audience to deal with, it is apparently a real thing within the world of the movie — and it’s weird to the other characters there, too. Now it’s not just a trident from nowhere as a throwaway gag, it’s a trident whose appearance kind of needs to be explained, where it didn’t before. The scene continues: Brick talks about the guy he threw the trident at, and says he thinks he killed that guy. Burgundy says yeah, he thinks Brick might have to lay low for a while, or go across the border to Mexico, or something. Wait, so now it’s not just a slapstick moment of a guy being hit by a trident, it’s an actual murder with consequences that are talked about (albeit comically)? But then, after this, Brick’s status as a trident-hurling murderer is never mentioned again.

I can see why this is supposed to be funny (it’s funny that we’re exploring the consequences of a throwaway gag, inverting your expectations! ha ha!), and I need to explain that it’s the inconsistency of the movie world that I have a problem with, not the humor of the joke itself per se. Going back to the slapping-the-woman scene of AIRPLANE that I mentioned earlier, if it had been like ANCHORMAN, there would have been a shot following that of someone saying, “Hey, how did you manage to get those weapons past security onto the plane?” Is that really going to make the joke funnier?

I’m totally ignoring the main “plot” of the movie, which is about how a woman (Christina Applegate) is hired as a co-anchor, sort of starts a romance with Burgundy, then despises him as he reveals himself to be thoroughly sexist and jealous. It’s beyond these writers to make this kind of thing actually interesting and funny on its own, and instead it’s just highly cliched and contrived, as they force these two characters to get along, then not get along, then get along again, because that’s the plot formula they’re following. Decades ago, this was a high art form in movies. Not that it was ever easy to achieve, but my gosh, do you have to miss by that gigantic a margin? Let’s raise our standards a little higher, please.

One thing I will give it credit for, and I think this comes from Farrell himself: the movie is not the least bit mean-spirited. It is good-spirited, and I vastly prefer that to mean-spirited, negative comedy, which dominated for a while there in the 1990s. However, I think that with better writing, ANCHORMAN could potentially have been three or four times as funny, along with being smart (smart-at-being-dumb, even, if you want that), truthful, acid, and arch. Instead, it’s just kind of funny and mostly kind of dumb; an okay bunch of sketches, it frankly stinks as a movie.

VIEWED ON: 9 July 2004

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more movies

Two more movie reviews. The second contains a number of spoilers, because I propose a theory about the movie and cite evidence in support of it.

LOCAL HERO (1983)
Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth

During a conversation about movies the other day, mentioned that his favorite is LOCAL HERO. It prompted me to think hard about why I had always given it a miss. I had many chances to see it on cable during the 1980s — I think it must have been a favorite of someone who worked at Cinemax, because I seem to recall them giving it lots of promotion as a special pick, or as part of their sleeper series, or something like that. It was also on in fairly heavy rotation for a while there, and I would catch bits of it here and there, but the pace of it seemed too slow, and I never managed to get into it. It was like having a book recommended to you, but every time you pick it up you read the same few pages over again and find yourself putting it down.

However, it occurred to me that I would probably enjoy it if I watched it now, with some more years in me and a broader appreciation of slower paced movies and quirky comedies. So, I rented it, and sure enough, I found it to be charming and funny.

The story is about a guy (Peter Riegert) who works at a Houston oil company that wants to turn a few miles of land on the coast of Scotland into the site of a refinery. Riegert is dispatched to the small village to work out a deal to buy the land from the locals for a handsome sum. The locals play it sly and cool, but secretly they're all ecstatic that they're going to become millionaires overnight.

Overall, LOCAL HERO reminds me a lot of other tiny-UK-village-with-eccentric- locals comedies I've seen (and enjoyed) through the years, like WAKING NED DIVINE and THE ENGLISHMAN WHO WENT UP A HILL AND CAME DOWN A MOUNTAIN, and so forth. This movie has the added mix of eccentric Americans (both Riegert and his astronomy-obsessed boss, played by Burt Lancaster), and strange bits of magical realism (hm, that's probably not the right term): sights in the skies at night, and a truly beautiful young woman who may or may not be a mermaid.

It's a small town, so everyone works various different jobs. The proprietor of the hotel and the owner of the bar is also the accountant who is the spokesman for the town in the negotiations with the oil company. I kept thinking the actor playing this guy looked familiar, and I had to slap myself in the forehead when I saw in the credits that he was good old Dennis Lawson, "Wedge" from the Star Wars movies (and Ewan MacGregor's uncle, incidentally).

The movie has a sweet, light tone, and is full of funny bits that build up over time, and some that become more apparent on repeat viewings. There is a bittersweet coda, but I thought it was a really terrific way to end the movie. We follow Riegert all the way home to his apartment in muggy old Houston. By now he's been thoroughly enchanted by his short stay in Scotland, has unrequitedly fallen in love with the hostess at the hotel, and has filled his pockets with shells lovingly collected from tidepools. Having now been on a few trips to wonderful places in the world and returned to a home I wasn't sure I liked as much any more, I thought this quiet ending was very effective. There's one more thing after this that caps it all off with a wink, but if you haven't seen it, I'll let you watch it for yourself.

LOCAL HERO is a movie where you can feel affection for every single character in it, and there are really no bad guys, and there's a happy ending but not for everybody, because life is a little more complicated than that. It's a bad place to be a rabbit with ambitions, anyway.

My only quibble: the unconvincing Texas accent by a disk jockey during the opening credits, which is more of a Southern twang than a Texas drawl. Nobody else would notice this or care.

Anybody who says that this is their favorite movie has very good taste. Recommended for everybody.

Viewed on: 08-02-04


THE TERMINAL (2004)
Directed by Steven Spielberg

The scenario: a man (Tom Hanks) arrives at JFK airport and is unable to leave, either by stepping foot onto U.S. soil or by boarding a plane back to the Eastern European country where he came from, for a year or so. This is vaguely based on a real-life incident, but mostly the facts are jettisoned in favor of inventive set-pieces that mine the premise for comedy (and a little pathos).

The first time I saw this sweet movie confection, I mainly just let it carry me along without stopping to analyze it too much. As I often am these days, I was delighted just to witness Spielberg's total fluency as a filmmaker, someone who knows cinema backwards and forwards, and can pull off ridiculously complicated things that general audiences wouldn't stop to find remarkable. He's my favorite director, and I always tended to regard him as having an innate talent and voice for filmmaking the way Mozart had with music. He was a young prodigy, but now he's well into middle age, still developing and going through changes. The strong stylistic tendencies of his early work have softened, and in this movie, like his last (CATCH ME IF YOU CAN), we can watch him having fun with lighthearted material.

Anyway, that was my general reaction the first time I watched it. I had a few problems with the way the movie ended; after a lot of build up, a lot of things happened a little too fast, and a main subplot seemed to kind of pizzle away. I wasn't sure what to make of that.

I waited several weeks and then went to see it again. This time, it was enormously more entertaining than it was the first time, because a few minutes into the movie I had a sudden and dramatic idea about what Spielberg and Hanks were up to. It was subtle enough that I missed it the first time, but once I started watching with this in mind, winking evidence to back it up piled so high that I was rather beside myself at having figured it out, because it made every scene more fun.

The idea came to me while I was watching the scene where Hanks is exploring the airport terminal for the first time, and catches a news broadcast about the upheaval in his home country — the source of his being stuck, since it invalidates his passport. For a moment I wondered why Hanks seemed to be almost overplaying the emotion of it. He races from television to television, unable to understand English well enough to make out what is going on, unable to speak English well enough to get anyone to help him. He looks stricken, nearly in tears, just so absolutely fraught that I wondered about the acting choice to play it up so melodramatically. There was a moment when it reminded me of silent film acting — which, owing to the language barrier, it basically was.

Then for fun, I pictured Hanks as having a little mustache and a derby, and it was like all of the tumblers clicked into place and the vault door sprang open. The movie was a Charlie Chaplin homage. Not, like I said, an overt one. If they'd put a mustache on him, it would have been obvious (or more obvious). And it doesn't cover the whole movie — the last 45 minutes or so don't really fit this theory so much. However, the first hour of the movie seemed rife with evidence that Spielberg and Hanks had decided together to make a Chaplin homage, Hanks with his acting, and Spielberg with his directing, and that they would do this very quietly, for their own amusement.

Once upon a time, Charlie Chaplin made a movie called THE IMMIGRANT, which was about immigrants coming to the U.S. and having run-ins with the immigration authority. And now we have THE TERMINAL (the title of the movie now seemed more appropriate, too, what with Chaplin having made dozens of movies titled “The [something]”), which has a different plot but a similar-enough premise.

So here's Hanks in his little brown suit, with his rather funny waddling walk. I didn't even notice how odd his gait was the first time, but now I was seeing that it was definitely not a normal looking walk. It's not the Tramp's walk, but it suggests it. There are shots in the movie of Hanks's feet, showing him standing with his feet splayed sideways — but I suspect I might be reading too much into that. However, there is the outright slapstick of full-bodied pratfalls, the kind you don't see anymore. where both feet fly out from under you and you land on your back. (Both Hanks's and Catherine Zeta-Jones's characters make these pratfalls.)

Significantly, Hanks shows himself adapting to circumstance by being enormously resourceful, a definite Little Tramp trait. In fact, speaking of that, what really had me believing that I was reading this movie correctly was that the first big challenge that Hanks's character overcomes is that he's hungry but has no money. Hunger is pretty much an archetypal Chaplin problem. Hanks doesn't eat his shoes, but he does show some ingenuity in fashioning sandwiches from free condiments. Then he hits on a means of earning money, a quarter at a time, by returning luggage trolleys to their holding rack, and soon he's feasting to his heart's content.

This trait of adaptability plays out in other ways. For Hanks, like Chaplin's Tramp, home is wherever you are, as long as you pretend it is. He begins to change an under-construction wing of the terminal into living quarters, fashioning a bed from terminal seating, a refrigerator from a vending machine, and so on.

More gags that reminded me of Chaplin: on his first night in his makeshift bed, Hanks is startled awake by a furious noise and the hot blare of spotlights behind him. His arms shoot into the air in a gesture of surrender. It turns out to be just an airplane taxiing away from the gate outside, a classic silent comedy visual gag. While collecting racks to earn change, he unceremoniously dumps onto the floor a couple of kids who are riding around in a cart. I laughed at that the first time, but the second time it reminded me of how children were not delicate creatures in slapstick comedies. They were tough little things to be thrown around, getting laughs just because of our inverted expectations about manhandling them. (When I mentioned this theory to a friend of mine, he pointed out that it was surprising to him to see children being treated so roughly in a Spielberg movie, so he was amused that I had a theory to explain the discrepancy.)

After a while, I started even hearing John Williams's tumpty-tumpty musical score as being reminiscent of the music Chaplin composed for his own films. At the very least, the score is not an argument against this theory. I am also reminded that the movie was shot, not in a real airport, but in an enormous set built specifically for the movie, with several stories connected by working escalators. There's a wonderful documentary about Chaplin (THE UNKNOWN CHAPLIN, narrated by James Mason) that delves into Chaplin's methods of working. At a certain point in his career, he wielded so much power and had access to so much money and resources, that he could make up his movies from scratch, trying things, throwing them away, trying other variations, going back to earlier ideas but in a refined way. At each of these stages, a construction crew would build full sets (including working escalators, if Chaplin wanted to play around with one), only to tear them down and build something else, only to rebuild what they had before when he changed his mind again. I don't think anyone since has had this kind of ability to order things to be built just to play around with, but the construction of this vast airport set just because Spielberg wanted to make this movie reminded me of that.

There is one joke near the end of the movie that is more of a Buster Keaton gag. A guy brandishing a mop runs out onto the tarmac, and appears to stop a jumbo jet in its tracks by swatting at its front wheel. Keaton had a gag he liked to pull (I don't think it's in any of his movies, I saw it in a documentary about him) where he appeared to stop a freight train by yanking gently on the end of the caboose, then set it in motion again, backwards, with a second tug. He did this by having experience with the timing of trains coming to a stop and backing up, and it was just in the timing. Even though this joke with the jet plane seems like the kind of thing they'd do with computer graphics, I can bet you that, in fact, we are watching an undoctored take of an actor with a mop and a real plane, and just the perfect timing of a swat at the wheel with the plane coming to rest. There's really no reason for this action to be in the movie except that Spielberg wanted to do it for fun. However, it's the kind of movie that allows for little bits of random fun.

When I got home from the movie this second time, I immediately did a Google search on “Spielberg The Terminal Chaplin,” and found a quote from Spielberg where he said that this movie was fun because it gave Tom Hanks an opportunity to do Charlie Chaplin stuff. I win!

If you go see THE TERMINAL, you might keep this in mind, but remember what I said about how it doesn't really hold up for the entire movie. I do think I'm right that it works as a quiet homage.

Viewed on: 06-18-04, 07-12-04

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movies

Every time I see a movie, I come out of the theater thinking I should write up my reactions and post them to lj. Then I never get around to it. But I saw two movies this past weekend, and thought I would try to make the effort.

Both are recommended. (Except for . and mrs. ctate shouldn't see The Manchurian Candidate.)

THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004)
Directed by: Paul Greengrass

The reviews said that this was a brisk, lucid, and highly engaging thriller, and they weren't wrong. Matt Damon returns as Robert Ludlum's amnesiac super-assassin, Jason Bourne. While Bourne is minding his own business in a coastal village in India, events in Berlin are about to disrupt his life: a fairly routine CIA cash drop is intercepted, and both agent and the seller are murdered. The Russian assassin who does the job leaves a fake fingerprint at the scene, incriminating Jason Bourne. After that, the same assassin arrives in India to kill Bourne, but no one can kill Jason Bourne.

From there, the movie whisks Bourne to Naples, to Berlin, and to Moscow, ending in the brawniest car chase I've seen since John Frankenheimer's RONIN. In between, there's a lot of cat and mouse action, with Joan Allen as a CIA officer who mistakenly thinks she's the cat and Bourne the mouse. Bourne is mainly on a mission to figure out what the hell is going on: why he was nearly killed in India, why the CIA thinks he was in Berlin. Along the way, he manages to pick up a few more pieces of his missing memory and atone for past sins.

Matt Damon does some nice work, portraying a man whose thoughts are in a constant scramble; whose senses are always acutely attuned to nuances in the environment; and whose face, apart from the occasional grimace of pain, is largely a blank mask hiding the above. Jason Bourne is a man in search of peace of mind, but he'll never quite attain it.

The production design gives us the usual high tech CIA, with cool colors bright overhead highlights, and dozens of computer monitors. The photography features a lot of big fat close-ups and a lot of long lens work, much of it handheld. The editing gives the movie its rhythms and momentum; the bulk of it is well done without calling attention to itself. The cutting in the car chase is almost abstract, approaching a sort of Eisensteinian montage of car-chase-ness: Pedals! Gear Shift! Splintering glass! Squealing tires! Police lights! Grimace! Pedals! Glass! Lights! Squeal! Shift! Smash! Pedals! Shift! Vroom! Gritting teeth! Gun! Bang! Glass shatter! Argh! Big truck! Pedals! Rrrrrrt! Car spinning! Shift! Vroom! Ughh!

The ending credits (which contain no bonuses or surprises) revealed two things to me. The first is that ILM provided special visual effects for the film, and I didn't even notice that the film had any special visual effects (VFX I don't notice are more interesting to me than VFX I can't help but notice). The second is that there are people in the world who are going through life stuck with the unfortunate last name of Assmann.

Viewed on: 08-01-04


THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (2004)
Directed by Jonathan Demme

This is a surprisingly good and worthy remake of a film that is famous for being intelligent, daring, canny, satirical, and slightly ahead of its time. I found Jonathan Demme's update to be, in its own way, also quite smart, more than a little bold, and crackling with the kind of dark energy I haven't seen since the heyday of the 1970s. I've seen other reviews that compared this movie to 70s thrillers like THE PARALLAX VIEW and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, but what instantly came to my mind, as soon as Meryl Streep made her first big entrance, was NETWORK (1976), Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky's unparalleled, prophetic satire. (I had the good fortune of catching NETWORK on TMC this morning, just when I was thinking about it again. Real life seems to be finally catching up to this movie, with the plot pivoting on a crucial business deal by Saudi Arabians; some of that material, played in the background, is about how critical the flow of Saudi Arabian cash is to the United States economy, since they own such a huge chunk of the country in terms of corporate holdings and real estate; this sounds eerily familiar after having just seen FAHRENHEIT 9/11. Also, pay attention to Ned Beatty's thundering monologue about the Natural Forces of Business that drive and shape the nationless world.)

I started to get a good feeling about this movie as soon as I learned about the casting. Denzel Washington is pretty much always good news, and it's hard to go wrong with Meryl Streep; Streep seemed even more like the best possible choice when I thought back to Angela Lansbury's really rather hard-to-beat performance in the original MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. I keep reading in the reviews how people are trying to figure out whether Streep reminds them of Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Dole or Madeleine Albright or whoever, but to me, her performance brought two things starkly to mind: Faye Dunaway in NETWORK, and Lady MacBeth. (I also note, in passing, that Sidney Lumet has a cameo appearance as a reporter. Two other cameos: Roger Corman, who gave Demme his first directing job; and musician Robyn Hitchcock, who was the star of a Demme-directed concert film, STOREFRONT HITCHCOCK.)

What really sold me was learning that Liev Schreiber was going to play Raymond Shaw, the role first inhabited by Laurence Harvey. That casting really sounded smack on the money to me. For a long time, I went around thinking I didn't like Schreiber. I finally realized that this was because he played a creep in the first role I saw him in, and he was so convincing at it that I got the idea that Schreiber himself was a creep. In time, though, I've seen him in enough different roles to realize and to respect what a good actor he is. The part of Raymond Shaw is a really treacherous one. I can't remember which review it was that I read, but the critic really nailed it when he pointed out that Schreiber somehow manages to make us sympathize with Shaw, to feel something for him, even though the character is thoroughly unlikeable. I like how this Shaw, unlike the thoroughly uncharismatic Shaw in the original, is able to turn on a tv-friendly charm in public — he's running for office, or rather, his mother (Streep) is running him for office. Behind closed doors, though, we see that his natural state is to be introverted, tense, and cold.

In both movies, Shaw is a war hero, and yet not. Everyone in his unit remembers that he acted with valor and saved everybody (except for the two men who were killed in action), and yet, the memories feel wrong. Denzel Washington, in the part played by Frank Sinatra in the original, plays a soldier from Shaw's unit, whose dreams become haunted by false memories, by cracks in the facade. As he starts to dig for the truth, and to make contact with others in his old unit (including Shaw), the closer he gets to the truth, the more he sounds like a delusional paranoid, raving about chips planted under his skin and in his brain, things he needs to dig out because they can control his mind.

Meanwhile, Shaw is in the news; he's been picked as the vice presidential candidate in the 2008 election (the movie says that the events happen “today” in a subtitle, but a close-up of a newspaper at some point shows the date). For all of the (real-life) election-season buzz about the movie, it doesn't pick sides; it never mentions Democrats or Republicans, just politicians in general. However, seeing this movie at the tail end of a week I spent watching what felt like eighty hours of Democratic convention converage on C-SPAN and CNN, and reading about it in the paper, and talking about it, I stumbled blinking out of the theater with really paranoid thoughts about John Edwards running through my head.

If I watched this movie any other time, I don't know that I would have found it as effective as I did, but I really went along for the ride. Demme seems to be in top form again. There are some touches that remind me of Lumet, and there's a certain point in the movie where it suddenly goes totally Kubrick. This is smart, though; Kubrick invented (or expanded) the cinematic vocabulary for getting across certain states of mind. It works particularly well where it's used here, so why not use it?

There's also quite a lot of Demme being Demme. Quite early he gets back into the thing he did in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), of big close-ups of characters talking to each other but staring very nearly straight ahead, directly into the camera. Once he establishes this, you get kind of used to it, and then you find out that he's doing it to set up some effects later in the picture that wouldn't be nearly as effective without the characters looking right at you.

I am also ashamed to admit I fell for one of the oldest scare gags in cinema, and got spooked by it. I can't figure out how they managed to fake me out like that. I guess I wasn't paying attention, or I was really wrapped up in the character's point of view instead of sitting back in my chair being detached about what I was watching; that alone says something.

The original MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE had more humor, but there are moments and touches and details here and there (sometimes you have to kind of look for them) that are delivered with a wink, letting you know it's not all as deadly serious as they're pretending it is. It's just a movie, after all.

The use of music in the movie is extremely good. Actually, everything is good in this movie, across the board: acting, directing, photography, editing, effects, music. This movie will come up during Oscar season next year, and deservedly so. I don't think it's ahead of its time like the original was, but it's impressive to see a movie this gutsy, daring, paranoid, and creepy come out of Hollywood in this day and age. In fact, I'm finding this to be quite a remarkable year for Hollywood movies. The good movies I'm seeing are genuinely very good, one after the other. I wonder what's going on? Is it still a conspiracy theory if the conspiracy is to make better products instead of the same old mediocre crap?

So this movie had the effect of making me both disturbed and optimistic at the same time. Well done.

Viewed on: 07-31-04

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