Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Golden Age of TV: HBO Pulls the Plug on Preacher

It has been widely reported that HBO has decided not to proceed with their plan to adapt Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's long-running comics series Preacher into a television show. This is some of the worst news that people who are fans of excellence have received in a while, with one very minor silver lining. You can read the whole story over at Newsarama, but here are my thoughts:

When I said this is bad news for fans of excellence, I meant it. You see, there's been a great deal of excellence going on in comics for the past two decades, and a great deal of it has hit the silver screen. But there are a number of absolutely fantastic series that have not managed to make the big screen, for the simple reason of length. When Batman or Spider-Man is made into a movie, the creators have decades of material to choose from, but that material is not arranged into a coherent plot, and it's up to them to make a movie out of it. And smaller projects featuring great recent comics have been made - like 300, Wanted, or V for Vendetta - but these have one single plot that (with modification) can be turned fairly easily into a movie.

But lingering beyond moviedom are some legendary series that took years to make and have 50 or more issues. Comics like The Sandman (the grandaddy of them all), Ex Machina, Transmetropolitan, Lucifer, Y: The Last Man, Fables, 100 Bullets, Doom Patrol, and yes, Preacher wouldn't make sense as movies. These stories often take a decade to tell and occur over the course of many years; to attempt to condense this long-form storytelling into 110 minutes would require the worst form of synecdoche. Some of them perhaps could survive the Hellboy treatment, with one of their more important stories serving as an origin/launching point for future adventures. But most of them are less episodic than Hellboy, and that means there's only one option to tell the whole story: TV.

The problem is, the comics revolution brought with it violence and dirty words. Those things don't play that well on networks or even regular cable. And even if they did, we're talking serious storytelling, the kind that you wouldn't trust the people responsible for Friends or Malcolm in the Middle to tell. So for as long as I can remember (at least, since the Golden Age of Television began) fans have called for the very best long-running comics series to be made into shows by the people that brought Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire to life. Only on HBO can you get the mixture of elements that would make these comics work on the screen: commitment to long-form storytelling, excellent acting and production values, willingness to show violence, gore, and sexuality, and the cultural cachet to turn these long beloved comics into legitimate landmarks of American culture.

Preacher was supposed to be the test case for this project. It's a little older than most of the other series I mentioned, and although it's not my favorite, it's certainly one of the best. If HBO could take Preacher and make it into a viable television series, the sky was the limit. No longer would we have to dread the upcoming film versions of our favorite comics, certain that 8 years of storytelling would get ripped up and rewritten into a single nonsensical movie. Instead, we could just sit back and relax while stories that were serialized over years were adapted over years by the best creators on the small screen.

There are a few pieces of good news. First, the man behind the Preacher series was Mark Steven Johnson. He was writing and executive producing, and he previously wrote Jack Frost (the Keaton vehicle), Daredevil, and Ghost Rider. His Preacher might not have been what we wanted anyway...

More importantly, Johnson said that HBO kiboshed Preacher because it "was just too dark and too violent and too controversial." Now, on the one hand, that's pretty scary: HBO is backing out of a violent and controversial show? And this defeats my point that HBO is the only place these shows could live. But, on the plus side, Preacher is one of the most violent and controversial pieces of comics literature ever made. So just because Preacher was too dark doesn't mean that 100 Bullets would be.

Both of those caveats aside, this is some bad news. True, D.J. Caruso's plan to do Y: The Last Man as a trilogy might be even better than an HBO show. What 3 2-hour movies would lose in nuance (when compared to five 12-hour seasons), they might be able to make up in superior budget and style. But Preacher would have been a giant step forward for bringing long-running comics series to life, intact and unsullied. I don't know when the next chance will be, but I'm hoping it's soon.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Film Ignorance #15: Sweet Smell of Success

Once again, I bring you a Film Ignorance post on the same day that you can read about the same film over at MovieZeal for noir month. And the person at MovieZeal probably even liked the movie. Go support noir month!

Film: Sweet Smell of Success
Rating: Meh
Director: Alexander MacKendrick
Stars: Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster
Year: 1957
Reason for Ignorance: Never heard of it

Ignorance Rating*: 40 (54 Votes)

Let me be upfront about a personal preference: I hate Tony Curtis. I think he's a hack who could never act in the slightest little bit. Now, I especially hate that this quintessentially 20th century ass clown was repeatedly cast in period pieces like Spartacus and The Vikings, which admittedly isn't the problem here. But man do I hate Tony Curtis. That guy sucks.

Sweet Smell of Success probably offers the best Tony Curtis performance I have yet seen, but you'll pardon me if I don't think that's so special. Tony plays Sidney Falco, an unbelievably slimy press agent whose only skill is being friends with J.J. Hunsecker, a gossip columnist who can change a nightclub's fate with just a few lines of text. When the film starts, Sidney is on the outs with J.J. because he has failed to break up J.J.'s sister's relationship with one of his clients. Thus, Sidney has to get slimier than ever to slander his own client to appease J.J. while preventing J.J.'s sister from finding out about J.J.'s involvement.

This is a pretty good premise for a movie, and when it's focusing on Sydney's wheelings and dealings, it actually works pretty well. Curtis may not have been a competent actor, but he's quite convincing as an asshole who's no good at his job but has managed to succeed based on his looks, connections, and inexplicable previous success (which we find out he sometimes fakes). As a desperate and failing man, all of Curtis' failings are rewritten as strengths; it's easy to believe that this guy has no idea what he's doing, and will sell his soul to keep his embarrassing career alive.

Unfortunately, as machination piles up on machination, the film's tone shifts and becomes more serious. Eventually, it seems to be aspiring towards Shakespeare - both with its incestuous and tragic themes and some dramatic irony of the type that always strikes me as charming in Shakespeare but clumsy and sitcomish in 20th century film. It doesn't help that Burt Lancaster plays J.J.; I like Burt, but I consider him something of an overactor. The overacting serves him very well in the film's first act - he's playing a god-like columnist, after all. When the business gets more serious and fate hangs in the balance, Lancaster's overacting combines with Curtis' natural hamminess to seriously hurt the movie.

There are really only three things I can unreservedly praise in Sweet Smell of Success. First, ace cinematographer James Wong Howe's work is absolutely superb - it reminded me of Gordon Willis' later vision of the same city in Manhattan. Second, Elmer Bernstein's score is, as you might expect, not just a pleasure to listen to but far better at conveying the emotions at hand than Curtis or Lancaster. Finally, Lancaster's reverse mullet (party in the front, business in the back) is one of the most awesome haircuts I have ever seen. But you don't need to watch the movie to appreciate it.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Golden Age of TV

I don't watch that much TV. And I especially watch virtually no TV as it comes on the TV; I'm a Netflix TV guy. But even I have a few things to say about TV, as the new seasons start up and everyone notes, once again, that they're going to suck. I have no doubt that most of them will suck, and I certainly don't pay attention to what new sitcoms are going to be paired with Two and a Half Men. But in case you hadn't noticed, we're living in a golden age of TV. I'm probably not the go to person to talk about this, since I'm nowhere near as up on TV as I should be - I haven't seen a single episode of The Sopranos. But I have recently started filling out my knowledge of recent TV successes with shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Wire, Deadwood, Dexter, and others.

The thesis of this post is that TV sucks, and by TV I mean the regular normative kind of TV: the kind of TV where every episode is exactly the same, follows the same formula, has no overarching storyline, has virtually no character development, etc. There was a time (aka the 50s) when the American mainstream wanted a reassuring and repetitive commercial art form, and they got it, and for some reason we've been stuck with it ever since. Occasionally, something great happens within this formula (like The Simpsons or Futurama) but regular, TV-TV usually delivers things more along the lines of Full House or CSI: Miami. I know both of those things have their fans, but they're not for me.

TV was pretty much this from 1950 through 2000.

But now we're not stuck with TV-TV. The revolution happened, and it happened by drawing elements from outside of TV's long and boring history of non-experimentation (for the most part, it also happened on pay channels, which is not a big surprise). Here's the ideas from outside of TV that I think have had the greatest impact toward making TV not suck.

1.The Godfather, Parts 1-60
Apparently, we had to wait 30 years for someone to realize that you could take a long-form, gritty, deep crime story, ala The Godfather, and tell it on TV, where it might be less gritty but could be even deeper and longer. Crime sagas were just begging to be epic TV shows told over years of deep and engaging episodes with an ongoing storyline, but no one did a good job of it until lately (various police procedurals, from Hill Street Blues onward, tried a version of this, but it rarely went outside the police procedural genre). And now we're practically drowning in (recently concluded) crime shows with an epic, overarching storyline. This is the genre that started the TV revolution, with The Sopranos, and if it's hit a low ebb now, I've still got years of DVDs to get through.
This Brought Us: The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Dexter

2.Christopher Guest on the Small Screen
In 1999, Larry David, the creator of the repetitive, bland, unfunny, and well-beloved show Seinfeld, did a one hour HBO mockumentary called Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm. It was a TV special, shot with a single camera and treated as if it were a documentary about Larry's life. As a fake documentary, it represented a bold and different way of doing comedy. Well, the idea was bold and different for TV - Christopher Guest had been doing it on the big screen for decades, and Woody Allen invented it in 1969 with Take the Money and Run. Seriously, Woody Allen invented it 40 years ago and it came to the small screen like five years ago. Still, I'm glad it finally came, and it's responsible for the best of TV Comedy.
This Brought Us: Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office [UK], The Office [US], Arrested Development, 30 Rock

3.Did You Know Brian K Vaughan Writes for Lost?
The American people have told us at the box office, over and over again, that they have a taste for genre entertainment: science fiction, superheroes, neo-noir, etc. And in the comics world, those genres are being practiced with enormous success, particularly since they have a weapon movies don't have: the cliffhanger. Pair an exciting detective, science fiction, or superhero story with the cliffhanger, and then put it on TV, and you've got yourself a TV show only slightly less addictive than crack. It's no surprise that, when Lost started sucking, they hired comics writer and cliffhanger master Brian K Vaughan to right the ship (spoiler: he didn't).
This Brought Us: Lost, Heroes, Battlestar Galactica, Veronica Mars

4. This car has a dent in it. And another dent here, and another dent here.
Quirkiness sells. It sells tickets to Wes Anderson movies, tickets to Napoleon Dynamite, advertising time on NPR's This American Life, books written by David Sedaris, and thousands upon thousands of "vintage" T-Shirts at thrift shops (awesome!) or Urban Outfitters (posers!). People love watching awkward and slightly weird characters have disjointed but ultimately charming adventures. And it didn't occur to anyone to put them on TV? I think Seinfeld might be as close as it gets, pre-revolution...yuck.
This Brought Us: My Name is Earl, Monk, Flight of the Conchords, Six Feet Under

As near as I can tell, those are the big four. But I know that I left out a lot of great shows from the revolution, and I probably left out a lot of influences from movies and other media that helped bring about the revolution. And since I'm not the most TV savvy guy in the world, I need your help: What shows and trends did I overlook? Post a comment and put me in my place.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Woody Allen Poll

Well, I did my first poll for a while, and it got 11 votes, which is probably a record but also sad because it was up for a week. Of course, maybe people just don't have strong opinions about recent Woody Allen which case they are excommunicated from my religion. Which is pretty much a one man religion which worships Woody Allen. Anyway.

The poll asked what was the best film that Woody has made since Husbands and Wives, Woody's last masterpiece. The obvious answer is Deconstructing Harry, which of course means that my vote was the only one that film received. The winners tied with three votes a piece: Manhattan Murder Mystery, which I love and almost voted for, and Bullets Over Broadway, which I have not seen. It just made it to the top spot on my netflix queue.

Outside of Harry, Manhattan, and Bullets, only two films received votes. Match Point, which I loathed but many praised, got two votes. "Other" also got two votes. Mighty Aphrodite (which I haven't seen), Melinda and Melinda (terrible but rather well-received), and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (pretty ok!) got 0 votes.

Remind me never to do a poll again. Only getting 11 votes in an entire week is so depressing. If you remove my vote, that's like 1.1 votes a day. Welcome to Movies et al, where 1.1 readers a day enjoy the site enough to vote in the poll!

P.S. Woody is ageless. Those two pictures were taken roughly 40 years apart. I've aged more since 2005 than he has since the 60s.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Film Ignorance #14: Kiss Me Deadly

This post isn't technically a part of MovieZeal's Noir Month, but I thought I'd get all the noir I could into this month while my favorite blog was celebrating it. Head on over to Movie Zeal for another review of Kiss Me Deadly, and so much more noir.

Film: Kiss Me Deadly
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Robert Aldrich
Stars: Ralph Meeker, Cloris Leachman
Year: 1955
Reason for Ignorance: Never heard of it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending
"They. A wonderful word. And who are they? They are the nameless ones who kill people for the great whatsit. Does it exist? Who cares."

Allmovie calls Kiss Me Deadly "the ultimate film noir." It's hard to disagree with them; the movie follows the perfect noir arc, as our private detective protagonist meets a dame, has the dame die on him, and then must travel through the underworld, acquiring contacts that die minutes after meeting him, in search of "the great whatsit." And our hero, Mike Hammer, walks a nice balance between classic noir heroes: he's half upright detective, half sadistic thug.

On the other hand, his name is "Mike Hammer." Get it? He's big and hard and hits people. Mickey Spillane is a well-regarded hard boiled writer (and Kiss Me Deadly is reportedly not terribly faithful to the source material), but he was certainly no Chandler, Cain, or Hammett. Kiss Me Deadly is the ultimate film noir because it takes every noir element - already a hyperbolic treatment of the standard pulp story - and ratchets it up even further. There's no subtlety, no confusion, and most of all none of the fascinating character development that makes the greatest noirs so compelling.

The only thing I'd seen Ralph Meeker in before Kiss Me Deadly was the Anthony Mann-Jimmy Stewart western The Naked Spur. I guess he specialized in dense sadists; his Naked Spur role was an amoral cavalry man discharged because he was psychologically unfit. Mike Hammer fits right in with that role; he looks and sounds bland, and is a somewhat improbable lady killer, but his eyes light up when he's asked to do physical violence to a human being (improbably, he never hits a lady. What kind of noir is this?). He also apparently likes blonds a great deal; his partner/secretary/girlfriend is absolutely gorgeous, a film fatale who works for him gathering information, and spends her spare time practicing her ballet moves. But like L.B. Jeffries of Rear Window, Mike doesn't seem to have much interest in "hammering" this gorgeous lady who's in love with him. Instead, like Hitchcock himself, he chases every single blond he comes across, including the damsel in distress who starts off the whole thing, her equally in distress roommate, and even the sister of one of the heavies who menaces him.

Even if you've never seen Kiss Me Deadly, the great whatsit will seem familiar when it finally appears on screen: it's a dangerous glowing box that shouldn't be opened. But if Kiss Me Deadly's MacGuffin appears in Pulp Fiction, Repo Man, and even Raiders of the Lost Ark, the movie is most similar to Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez's Sin City. The body count is massive, the violence is sadistic, and the misogyny is palpable. Mike is like a slightly subtler version of Marv; he doesn't seem to be brightest detective, but he finds out what he needs to know by slapping, punching, and, in one particularly sadistic moment, slamming the coroner's fingers in a desk drawer. Like Sin City, Kiss Me Deadly is larger than life noir. It goes on a bit too long, it's completely lacking in subtlety, and it's loaded with violence. But if you like noir, it does represent one of the ultimate experiences, especially if you enjoy it painted with a broad brush.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Roger Ebert: Ruining America's Movies since 1967

Roger Ebert ruins movies. He just does. He always has. But I've recently run across a feat of movie ruining that I think is previously unmatched in Roger Ebert movie history.

I just watched, via Netflix's Watch Instantly feature, a really great documentary called King of Kong. If you haven't seen it, go rent it or watch it instantly immediately. It's that great. It's about two men who vie for the world record highest score on Donkey Kong. One of them, Steve Wiebe, is an affable, possibly mildly autistic laid off engineer. The other is a douchey, mulleted hot wing baron named Billy Mitchell. The whole movie is a good vs. evil struggle of the highest order, resting on a single question: which of these men will end up with the Donkey Kong record?

After rating the film on netflix, I checked out their link to Ebert's review, since I wanted to be mad at him for not praising it highly enough. I was treated to a shocking final paragraph:
"I would never dream of giving away the ending. But I can give away what happened after the ending. Today I went to and discovered that ... "in front of an audience of hundreds," [name redacted] topped his own record by scoring 1,050,200 points."

Oh God Ebert, you bastard. First you tease us with your well-known and longstanding predilection for ruining the ends of movies. Sure Roger, you'd never dream of giving away the ending. Not you, a paragon of non-spoilerness. But you don't mind at all removing the dramatic tension of the film, and EVEN BEYOND IT, by telling us that the victory in the film is rendered moot.

Seriously. This is like if there was some good romantic comedy - a real romantic comedy, like Knocked Up or Annie Hall, and you legitimately don't know whether or not the couple will get together. You're actually curious whether love will conquer all or not. And then Ebert writes:

"I would never dream of revealing the ending of this movie. But I do know for a fact that, two years after they get married, the couple in question gets a divorce." Sure, he didn't tell you how the movie was going to end. But he did something even worse: he told you how events would end, even beyond the movie itself.

Having actually seen this movie, I had no problem with Ebert giving us this information - I was glad to know. But I can't imagine reading this review before seeing the movie. Every time someone was going for the record - and those were some tense scenes - I would have thought "I know who wins in the end." How could I not have thought that? The world's most famous movie reviewer told me who ended up with the record. What a bastard.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Over 50% of Star Wars Sucks. Deal With It.

I had a brief conversation about Star Wars with an incoming grad student, and he offered up a popular opinion: the most recent four movies (Episodes 1, 2, 3 and Star Wars: The Clone Wars 2008 CG theatrical feature film) aren't really Star Wars. Star Wars is, you know, that cherished thing we had when we were younger. And then Salon ran this amusing little Keith Knight cartoon:

According to the cartoon "Like any true fan, the new films are dead to me. Didn't exist. Never happened."

Ok fandom, I'm gonna tell you the truth now. You won't like it. You'd prefer not to believe it. It's probably striking deep at the heart of your self-image. But there have been seven Star Wars movies released in theaters, and four of them suck. Therefore, over 50% of Star Wars sucks. It just does.

I know you don't like living in this universe. This is obviously why Keith Knight would prefer to live in denial. But please, you're just embarrassing yourselves. Those movies did happen. We all watched them, we can't unwatch them (well, hopefully you won't go see Clone Wars). But they happened, and the new reality is that Star Wars mostly sucks.

Look, I'm not asking you give up your love for the original trilogy. You can even still love Star Wars itself. But for an entire generation, growing up has meant watching the beauty and joy of Star Wars die before our very eyes. That's what adulthood is like. Things, even Star Wars, start to suck. You can't make it go away.

So, Keith Knight et al, welcome to the new reality. More Star Wars movies suck than don't. You can either deal with it, or you can wait for Santa Claus and/or Jebus to make it all better. Have fun waiting.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ziro the Hutt: Is America OK with Gay Characters in Kids Media?

You might not see the need for this question. It sounds silly that anyone would be upset that a new villain in a terrible Star Wars movie is purple, wears feathers, and speaks like the recently popular film character Truman Capote. In other words, this character is amusingly gay, and no one seems to be too upset about it. What's the big deal?

Well, the big deal is that this probably would have been a big deal earlier in the 21st century. Remember, we've had at least three "the homosexual lifestyle is being promoted through children's television" controversies in the last ten years. In February of 1999, Jerry Falwell warned that "Tinky-Winky" the Teletubby was gay and encouraging a gay lifestyle. In 2005, the current Secretary of Education found it unacceptable that Buster the Rabbit visited a Vermont town with lesbians in it - some of the children he met had two mommies. Also in 2005, James Dobson and Focus on the Family alleged that Spongebob Squarepants was gay because he held hands with his friends and appeared in a video promoting tolerance and diversity.

So, if the practice of finding gay messages in mainstream children's programming is less than a decade old, and reached its high point only three years ago, why has the flagrantly gay Ziro not received any right-wing media attention. Here are some of the answers I can think of:

1.He's not actually gay. This is the Lucas party line: the Hutt's not gay. He just, you know, looks and talks gay. And I'm sure James Dobson will absolutely love the explanation, from director Dave Filoni: "He’s of questionable [sexuality] at least as a slug. They tell me that these slugs can be either male or female depending. That’s something I guess that slugs and snails do." This charming purple Hutt isn't gay, it's of ambiguous sexuality, and probably a hermaphrodite! Surely this would not protect Ziro from right-wingers' wrath.

2. It's movies, not TV. This one doesn't make any sense to me, but the FCC and people at large seem to think that something that is broadcast into your home is demonstrably worse than something that you have to go and pay to see (this would only make sense if you didn't have control over what channel you were watching). I would maybe buy this one, except that advertisements for this crappy movie ARE being broadcast into every home in America, and are obviously working, judging by all the kids in the theater when I went to see this. So if the conservatives aren't worried about this character because he, unlike Spongebob, resides at the movie theater, I think they're a little confused. Plus, that didn't prevent them from raining their wrath down on sexy Jesus.

3.It's not educational. All of those three previous examples have some sort of educational angle. Postcards from Buster is pretty classic edutainment. Spongebob is not educational at all, but the controversy occurred when Spongebob was trying to teach kids about tolerance. And although I can't find the slightest educational angle in Teletubbies, I think it's supposed to teach problem-solving and getting along, or something. But I'm pretty sure that homophobes have been getting mad about plenty of non-educational gay-themed things for a long time, so I still don't think that goes all the way to explain it.

Which brings us to my slight optimism. True, we may not have heard any complaints because Ziro is a giant space slug who is not beamed into homes and who is a role model. But I'd prefer to believe that America has, in the smallest way, moved on. Which is not to say that the complaints about Spongebob, the Teletubbies, and Buster were really taken that seriously by mainstream America. I do not think we were in the grips of gay lifestyle promotion hysteria three years ago. But some people with (admittedly right-wing) credentials complained about each of those events, and each of them got media coverage. Whether it was blown out of proportion or not, in each instance someone decided that there was a problem with kids witnessing gay characters, and decided to go to the media with their complaints. That hasn't happened with Ziro. Maybe, just maybe, that's progress.

Of course, William Gatevackes over at Film Buff Newsreel does think someone might be offended by Ziro. He writes "It appears that Lucas is trying to present Ziro the Hutt as a gay sterotype. I don’t know who is going to be offended more–gay rights groups or hardcore Star Wars fans." The fact that he thinks Star Wars fans will be horrified by this character is silly; the movie is considerably more offensive to the Star Wars lovers than the character.

I probably don't won't to get into the issue of whether or not Ziro is offensive to gay culture. I personally found this ridiculous bit of camp to be the only breath of fresh air in this entire deplorable movie. But the mere fact that Gatevackes thinks that gays will be offended before he thinks that homophobes will be offended strikes me as a good sign. If we're more worried that a character in a kids movie shortchanges gay culture than promotes homosexuality, it seems like we've come a long way since 2005.

Am I Crazy, Or Does Traitor Look Pretty Good?

Everyone knows that late winter/early spring is a terrible time for movies. Late summer/early fall is also pretty bad, as subpar summer blockbusters get dumped at the same time as subpar "prestige" films get chucked out so they don't interfere with the releases of better pictures. In other words, we get both Death Race and more screens of Elegy this week.

But they've been advertising a movie that actually looks good to me: Traitor. Here's the trailer:

I haven't heard a word about this movie, beyond a few TV ads. I haven't even seen the trailer in theaters. There's buzz and/or hype around obvious garbage like Babylon A.D., Henry Poole is Here, and The House Bunny, while Traitor is invisible. That should mean it'll suck. And yet...this movie looks good!

Frankly, the production credits don't excite me: This is the directorial debut of Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who also wrote the script. His only previous credit is co-writing the crapfest Day After Tomorrow. But that trailer makes it looks like the rarest of all film animals*: an intelligent action movie. And Don Cheadle as a conflicted double agent, Jeff Daniels as his paper-pushing CIA Handler, and Guy Pearce as the goateed FBI douche bag hunting Cheadle makes for a damn fine cast. I imagine it won't be The Departed or The Bourne Ultimatum, but I'm excited about Traitor. Weird.

*Not that long ago, I would have thought the intelligent grossout comedy to be the rarest of all animals. See Filmography: Apatow, Judd for why that is no longer so.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

I instantly loathed Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Sure, it showcased beautiful people in a beautiful city, beautifully photographed. But it seemed unbelievably facile. For starters, it is possessed of one of the worst, no, scratch that, the absolute worst voiceover of all time. The bland, uninteresting voiceover works like captions in pre-modern comics: it describes the things that you can see happening on the screen. The voiceover tells us that our two heroines are arriving at the hotel and checking into a different room than that of their Spanish suitor...and we see them arrive at the hotel and check into separate rooms. Mind-blowing. Furthermore, the voiceover also tells us about the characteristics and emotions of the two women, which is one of the most bizarre developments in recent filmmaking: everyone knows that Woody Allen's characters display their emotions via copious buckets of confessional dialouge. A voiceover, in lieu of this process, just felt wrong.

Of course, I reconsidered this stance when Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) started explaining their feelings via dialogue. As Johansson has demonstrated several times, and as Hall demonstrated throughout this film, neither of them can handle Allen's hyper-literate dialogue. The worst voiceover of all-time suddenly seemed sophisticated and nuanced, compared to Hall and Johansson's clumsy butcherings of the English language.

But a number of things happened to defuse my loathing and ultimately transform it into pleasure. Most importantly, the newly-minted international superstar Javier Bardem arrived. Just as in No Country for Old Men, Bardem is palpably charismatic, although this time out he kills considerably fewer people. He plays Juan Antonio, a Spanish painter interested in both Vicky and Cristina. Vicky is an engaged Type A personality who is certainly not his type; Cristina is an aimless psuedo-artist who certainly is. And yet both of them are interested enough in Juan Antonio to travel with him to Oviedo to look at some sculpture.

The person on the right speaks demonstrably better English than the two on the left.

Beyond the sheer magnificence of Bardem, this film's greatest strength is its deceptive complexity. The film's trailer and opening quarter make it appear hopelessly schematic: Cristina is an artistic free spirit, Vicky is hard-nosed realist, Juan Antonio is a suave lady killer, Juan Antonio's crazy ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) is a violent wacko, and Vicky's fiance is a boring Wall Street douche bag. But after allowing us all of these illusions, Allen slowly twists them. The film's only truly sympathetic character is the fiance, who turns out to be a genuinely nice guy with a romantic streak. Cruz is in fact a better artist than Juan Antonio, and is a more efficient ladykiller. Juan Antonio's ladykilling is not so much calculated as hopelessly romantic. And most importantly, both Vicky and Cristina are revealed to be characters of problematic depth, with complex and contradictory desires. Luckily for us, they have relatively few scenes together after the film's opening moments; for some reason, when they're separate, they seem to handle the dialogue much better. This may be because they aren't stumbling over each other's incompetence, or possibly because Bardem, Cruz, and the girls' mentor Patricia Clarkson are such masters that I failed to notice their incompetence.

You could say that almost any Woody Allen movie is about adultery, and you'd usually be right. But what his movies are really about is the way that desire overcomes the channels it's supposed to run through, and finds new and unexpected ways to express itself. Vicky Cristina Barcelona explores a number of the different ways desire can flow. It problematizes all of them and valorizes none of them, but it also finds room to praise love in all its forms. It may not be Hannah and Her Sisters, but it's as good as we're likely to get from latter-day Allen. I, for one, am grateful.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Avril Lavigne

I know this isn't film news, but I couldn't resist:

" Malaysia's Islamic opposition party has urged the government to cancel a concert by Avril Lavigne, saying the Canadian singer's on-stage moves are "too sexy," an official said Monday."

Clearly, Malaysia's Islamic opposition party hasn't ever actually seen Avril Lavigne's on-stage moves.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Film Ignorance #13: In a Lonely Place

Ok, so it's a bit late in the day, but I've got another film ignorance entry for you on the same day that the same film is featured as part of Noir Month over at MovieZeal. Enjoy!

Film: In a Lonely Place
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Nicholas Ray
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame
Year: 1950
Reason for Ignorance: Never heard of it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Dix Steele (Bogart) is a hard case in a bad way. He's a hard-drinking screenwriter who hasn't had a hit for years. His only friends are a drunk Shakespearean who bums brandy off of him and his loyal agent. He's got a hair-trigger temper, a history of barfights, and is a rumored abuser of women. But he's not a murderer. Or is he?

Steele can't stand to read the trashy novel he's supposed to adapt, so he invites the hat check girl who read the book while holding it for him back to his place to tell him the story. He immediately loses interest in the crappy story, gives the girl cab fare, and sends her home. The next day, she turns up dead in a gorge. Steele's heartbroken:

The police captain: You're told that the girl you were with last night was found in Benedict Canyon, murdered. Dumped from a moving car. What's your reaction? Shock? Horror? Sympathy? No - just petulance at being questioned. A couple of feeble jokes. You puzzle me, Mr. Steele.
Steele: Well, I grant you, the jokes could've been better, but I don't see why the rest should worry you - that is, unless you plan to arrest me on lack of emotion.

Luckily for Steele, his neighbor provides him an alibi: she saw the girl leave. And after meeting each other at the police station, Dix and Laurel start to fall in love. With her, his passion is rekindled, his new script flourishes, and his violence seems restrained. But cracks appear at the edges, and as Laurel gets to know him better, and witnesses him nearly kill a man in a fit of road rage, she begins to question his innocence.

This is a shockingly difficult film to watch. There's no doubt in my mind that it's Bogey's darkest film and his darkest role. We legitimately don't know whether or not Dix is the killer. We can tell that he loves Laurel, and that she loves him, but although his violence and his drinking seem in check, her doubts are our doubts. At first I simply didn't believe the idea of Bogart as a murderer, but by the time we finally learn whether or not he killed the girl, I no longer had any such convictions. Either result seemed equally plausible; Dix was, particularly before meeting Laurel, a broken, violent, and unpredictable man.

Of course, by the time you learn the truth, it has largely ceased to matter. The film shifts from the noirish murder-mystery that it seems to be to an authentic, troubling love story. Dix and Laurel are two very different, equally vulnerable people. Laurel has a history of running out on men; Dix has a history of holding on too tight. Bogart and Grahame are both shockingly believable; it's been argued that Dix, as both a violent tough guy and a vulnerable depressive, is closer to the real Bogart than any of the tough guys he played. And Gloria Grahame was a good actress under any circumstances, but the deterioriation of her marriage to director Ray brings added poignancy to this tale of two broken people who found each other but are breaking apart.

Which brings me to Nicholas Ray. Talk about Film Ignorance: I had never seen a film by this legendary auteur. I always feared that what people regarded in the 40s and 50s as shocking sensitivity and profound alienation would seem dated and contrived today. But if Rebel Without a Cause and Ray's other pictures are like this one, I have nothing to worry about. This is a remarkably true story, with characters that think and act and feel real. It reminded me, of all things, of Woody Allen. This, at long last, explains the appeal of Bogart to Allen; although I see few similarities between Allen's Little Jew persona and Bogart's Casablanca/Big Sleep/Maltese Falcon persona, Allen and Dix spiritual brothers. They're both real people, just trying to find love in a crummy world of alienation and unhappiness. In other words, they're just like the rest of us.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Review: Stars Wars: The Clone Wars

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (not the 2002 video game Star Wars: The Clone Wars nor the 2003 traditionally animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars nor the forthcoming 2008 CG animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, but rather the 2008 CG theatrical feature film Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Maybe they shouldn't have given four different things all the same name?)

Like Citizen Kane, Star Wars: The Clone Wars delivers its exposition via a faux-newsreel voiceover. As you might have guessed, the similarities end there. Clone Wars is one of the most annoying movies I have ever seen. It follows the adventures of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker as they try to rescue Jabba the Hut's infant son from Count Dooku's evil clutches. It also introduces Ahsoka Tano as a young padawan of Anakin's, who he insists on calling "Snips" for no clear reason. (People apparently do not have real names in Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008 CG feature film). "Snips" refers to Anakin as "Skyguy," and they both refer to Jabba's son as "stinky." The fact that no one calls Dooku "Dooky" represents a serious lapse in continuity.)

On a Star Wars scale of character annoyingness, where JarJar is a 10, A New Hope's Obi-Wan is a 0, and Luke Skywalker is a 5 or so (whiny but tolerable), Snips is somewhere in the 9 to 9.5 range. Everything she says is whiny, and her "character growth" with her "mentor" "Skyguy" is as contrived and laughable as anything outside of the Padme-Anakin scenes in Episode 3. Skyguy himself registers an annoyingness rating of about 8.5, which, while intolerable, is a good deal lower than the Hayden Christiensen* Skyguy of episodes 2 and 3 (who I rate at around 9.999).

This story's plot is so simultaneously simplistic and convoluted, and its dialogue so bad, that I have a hard time believing that it wasn't written by George Lucas. Three writers were credited, but I will leave their names out of this review to protect their families; you can look them up if you desire, but I must try to protect the innocent. I've decided to ladle most of the non-Lucas blame on director Dave Filoni. You might remember that I included this movie in my feature about late-summer movies to look forward to. Well, I did so based on the fact that Star Wars: The Clone Wars (the 2003 traditionally animated TV series) was so excellent, and it looked like this movie would effectively translate Genndy Tartakovsky's handdrawn saga of amusingly stylized, plotless, action-driven nonsense to the big screen.

Fail. Of course, part of that has to do with the story; whereas Tartakovsky ignored both plot and character in favor of sheer action-mayhem, this attempt at a coherent and "moving" story is grating. But mostly, the character designs here suck. Or rather, they suck when they try to move. As stills, or in a brief trailer, they seem to be some version of Tartakovsky's visions: charmingly elongated cartoon caricatures of the various bad actors appearing in Episodes 1-3. But in Filoni's hands, they are wooden and awkward creations. They can't cross their arms, or lift a lightsaber, or even speak without appearing to be crude puppets manipulated by drunken sloths. Every bit of movement in this film belies anatomy, tortures animation, and gives Tartakovsky a bad name.

As near as I could tell, the audience I saw this with enjoyed it very much. But my friends and I were the only adults in the theater without children. It seems that, with Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008 CG animated theatrical feature film) we've finally come full circle. Lucas feared that the original Star Wars would only appeal to children, and could succeed only through merchandising tie-ins. Almost exactly 30 years later, he's finally produced a film that only a four year-old could love. Which, after all, seems to have been his dream all along.

Having gotten all of that out of the way, there is one bit of this film that deserves unmitigated praise. It turns out that Jabba has an uncle. An uncle who is purple, dresses in feathers, wears makeup, and speaks in a voice that is more than a little reminiscent of Truman Capote's. Yes, the Star Wars universe has its first ever Hut drag queen. Awesome.

*I probably misspelled that name, but I'm not bothering to look it up.

Film Ignorance #12: Gun Crazy

Another day, another Film Ignorance entry in the world of noir. If you don't know already, this is Film Noir Month at MovieZeal, and that site will be running its own (undoubtedly inferior) review of Gun Crazy. Not to mention numerous other noir-related reviews and features.

Film: Gun Crazy
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Joseph L. Lewis
Stars: John Dall, Peggy Cummins
Year: 1949
Reason for Ignorance: Never heard of it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Bart Tare (John Dall) is a regular kid. Although he's an orphan, his sister has done a great job raising him. He's a nice, well-adjusted boy who usually behaves well in school. He's got a few close friends, including the sheriff's son. He may not be the brightest kid who ever lived, but by all accounts he's a good guy. Except Bart likes guns a whole lot.

Now, it doesn't seem to be the most unhealthy obsession. He kills a baby chicken with a BB gun once, and is so horrified by the experience he vows never to kill again. He wants to have a profession that involves guns, but he certainly doesn't want to hurt anybody. He's not mean, or cruel, or deranged. He just likes guns.

This film is a nice psycho-analytic companion piece to White Heat. In White Heat, Cody Jarret becomes deranged because all of his sexual desires are tied up with his mother. In Gun Crazy, Bart Tare begins a life of crime because he finally finds a sexual object that gratifies his love for guns. The object in question is Annie Starr (Peggy Cummins), a carnival sharpshooter who returns his favors because she sees in him a kindred, gun crazy spirit.

In the misogynistic world of film noir, Bart is a lovable guy who just happens to like guns. But Annie is something worse - the film's alternate title is "Deadly is the Female." Annie wants a life of crime, and she drags Bart into it. But while she certainly is a femme fatale, Annie's not out to get Bart. She just wants to go a little deeper into the world of guns and violence than he does; while he's fascinated by it but ultimately too good-hearted to delve into it, Annie is willing to kill. But their relationship does flourish; like Bonnie and Clyde a couple of decades later, their sexual life is ignited by their life of crime.

Gun Crazy probably has the most authentic relationship of any film noir I've yet seen. Annie and Bart's dialogue is perfectly naturalistic, and they bicker and make up and bicker again just like any other couple. Dall is perfectly suited to play Bart, who would be a harmless screwball if his attraction was for anything besides guns. Cummins makes Annie a sympathetic femme fatale, a woman who's a bit further off than Bart, but who loves him and who is a far cry from the vicious femme fatale type. Their relationship especially shines through in their last heist, which is shot in a single take, from the back of their car, and features a real small town and improvised dialogue to heighten the naturalism. Seeing them actually drive the car through town gave me enormous joy, especially when Hitchcock would still be splicing cars and scenery together more than a decade later.

The authenticity of their relationship, and their deep feelings for each other, make this film a classic. Annie might be bad news, but she's also just like Bart: a lost soul who briefly found happiness with another of the same type. As such, Gun Crazy is just one happy ending away from being a screwball comedy - a happy ending that we know, from the very first scene, isn't coming.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Fire Stephanie Zacharek

As I have stated many times, last year was one of the best years for movies, ever. It was fantastic through a combination of prestige pictures (Darjeeling, Blood, No Country), great indies (Once, Away from Her), animated pleasures (Simpsons, Persepolis), and thinking man's genre entertainment (Bourne, Clayton, Knocked Up). One branch of moviemaking painfully, disastrously failed: summer blockbusters. A whole group of 3s (Spidey, Rush Hour, Shrek, Pirates) just flat-out sucked. Although they made tons of money, the studios completely failed to deliver good popcorn movies in 2007.

Of course, that's not the case in 2008. The big pictures have been not only big, but great. Iron Man, Wall-E, Hellboy II, Dark Knight, and Tropic Thunder have all delivered. Indy 4 and Prince Caspian weren't masterpieces but were a lot of fun. Even Incredible Hulk, Wanted and Hancock weren't horrible (ok, Hancock was almost horrible).

So you'd think a critic would be happy that Hollywood rebounded from one of its worst summers ever with possible the best ever, right? Wrong.'s Stephanie Zacharek has been making a name for herself this summer as one of our worst critics (disliking Dark Knight, loving You Don't Mess with the Zohan, raving about the merely tolerable Indy 4). Now, not content to miss the boat on individual films, she wants to be wrong about the entire summer.

To be fair, Zacharek's article sounds at first like she's tired of summer hype, not summer movies. Statements like "Just how much excitement can movie advertising realistically whip up? Is there a limit to how much movie hype we can take in before we say 'So what?'" are certainly accurate, although also not very interesting (News flash: Online movie critic tired of movie advertising!)

But Zacharek goes off the deep end when she complains: "And when it comes to the movies themselves, how big is too big and how much is too much - in terms of money spent on special effects and marketing at the expense of the basics, like having a decent script and a director who knows how to tell a story visually?"

Here, she's got no case. Sure Stephanie, unlike last year's "auteurs" (Michael Bay, Sam Raimi, Gore Verbinksi, Brett Ratner) Hollywood sure put their hopes in a bunch of hacks this time: Guillermo del Toro, Andrew Stanton, Christopher Nolan, Ben Stiller, and your favorite, Spielberg. Of course, none of them knows how to tell a story visually - they've never done it before, in Zoolander or Pan's Labyrinth or Memento or Finding Nemo or Schindler's List. Oh Stephanie, how I yearn for yesteryear, when the biggest movies were delivered by the brilliant minds behind Mouse Hunt, After the Sunset, the Hercules and Xena TV shows, and Pearl Harbor. Boy, it wasn't exhausting at all watching the films from last summer, but after Iron Man, Hellboy II, and Dark Knight, I'm worn out. Please Hollywood: no more good movies!

Zacharek also manages to completely misunderstand how blockbusters work, which is something I've harped on over and over again. First, she points out that success for blockbusters is based on anticipation. This is partially true: Dark Knight and Iron Man made lots of money because they were anticipated. On the other hand, great reviews and word of mouth drove them to make hundreds of million dollars more after they were out and no longer being anticipated.

But she really fails by believing (as the studios clearly do) that marketing is what creates anticipation. She notes: "Last summer "Spider-Man 3" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" raked it in at the box office, and even though many die-hard fans of the "Pirates" franchise found the final installment disappointing once they saw it, the picture was so highly anticipated that its quality -- or lack thereof -- barely mattered. Blockbusters are built, and marketed, to make money, and more often than not, they do."

She's absolutely right that those movies sucked, and that they made money because they were anticipated. But they weren't anticipated because they were hyped. They were anticipated because Spidey 1, Spidey 2, Pirates 1, and parts of Pirates 2 were really good. Message to ignorant studio heads and elitist film reviewers: people do not see movies because of hype. People want to see movies that are good! That is all! And when the hype for something makes it look good (see the first Spider-Man) they will go to see it. When the hype for something makes it look bad (see The Love Guru) they will not go. Yes, anticipation can help make money, but the anticipation for Pirates 3, Spider-Man 3, and Shrek 3 were based on previous movies being good. Good movies, not marketing, raked in those hundreds of millions of dollars.

I don't even really feel like discussing the rest of Stephanie's points. She spends the middle third of her article explaining what the blockbuster is, and how Jaws was the first one, which I found interesting when I first learned that when I was 17. Then, in yet another absolutely pointless and pretentious jab at The Dark Knight, she writes "I suspect 'The Dark Knight' will inspire more budding video-game designers than it will filmmakers." Finally, she tells us that great summer blockbusters are rare.

That last bit is probably true - most of the time. But it's not true this summer. So if she's exhausted, she needs to get the hell out of the theater, and maybe even find another job. When your response to the best summer of blockbusters ever, which came just after the worst summer of blockbusters ever, is "I'm tired of these movie," you might not be film critic material.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

News: Harry Potter 6 Gets Pushed Back

This certainly isn't a news site, so if I discuss a piece of news it's usually because I feel strongly about it. This, well, I don't know how I feel, but I feel strongly about it: the sixth Harry Potter film was moved from Nov 08 to July 09 because Warner Brothers "decided to make the change to bolster its release schedule for the lucrative summer moviegoing season."

I can't say exactly how I feel about this, but it seems odd. The AP article does mention that
HP5 came out in the summer, and outperformed all the others except the first one. While that's a good point, the counter point is Chronicles of Narnia. The first movie came out during the holiday season, and succeeded because it had great word of mouth and was the perfect family movie - not just for grandma and tiny Tim, but also for your disaffected 16 year old who just likes violence and androgynous witches. But in the summer model, where family time is out and the first weekend is all that matters, Prince Caspian underperformed, and its May release date was blamed. It did well, but not like the first one (admittedly, it wasn't as good.).

But much more troubling to me is the fact that they made this decision about such a fan-centric film. If Hancock had been announced and pushed back, no big deal; people ended up going to that movies in droves, but they weren't writing Will Smith/Jason Bateman fan fiction about it. They loved it, but weren't anticipating it with bated breath. This movie, on the other hand, is bound to have Potter fans salivating - the books are done now, so all they can look forward to is the movies. And with a giant fan base foaming at the mouth, I find it bizarre to say to them "Yeah, we have the movie ready, and we told you that you'd get your Potter fix this fall, but we just decided to move it back because our summer movie slate was a little slim. It was a purely financial decision that had everything to do with the writer's strike and our inability to make blockbusters. The movie's done, but you don't get to see it. Sorry. Enjoy the new Twilight book."

I imagine everyone will still on board the Potter fan express, but that doesn't strike me as a nice or wise way to treat your fanbase. When your success is built on satisfying rabid true believers, making them wait for a purely artificial reason doesn't seem like a good idea.

Review: Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder

In this Apatow-dominated world, Tropic Thunder is simultaneously a frat pack triumph and the the final proof that the frat pack is finally, unalterably dead, swallowed by the juggernaut of comedy that is the Apatow brand. The triumph part is easy to explain: for the first time since Apatow and Co burst on to the big screen, the frat pack have a movie in theaters that is superior to the current Apatow offering: Tropic Thunder is better and funnier than Pineapple Express. That's something I didn't think was possible, but it is.

Now for the frat pack's death rattle. Although Stiller is acknowledged as the leader of the frat pack, the film's enormous cast includes: Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr, Nick Nolte, Tom Cruise, Steve Coogan, Matthew McConaughey, Bill Hader, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, and Danny McBride. The leader of the frat pack brings only himself and Black, a marginal packer, to the proceedings. Non-frat packers include Nolte, Downey, Cruse, Coogan, McConaughey, and Jackson. But here's the crucial bit: Baruchel is an Apatow kid, by way of Knocked Up and Undeclared. Hader was in Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Pineapple Express. McBride just hit the public consciousness in Pineapple Express, and was discovered by Adam McKay, who has never made a movie not produced by Judd Apatow. With Vaughn, Ferrell (who's had 3 movies produced by Apatow), and both Wilsons conspicuously absent, Tropic Thunder has Apatow players (3) outnumbering frat packers (1.5).

This film could not be a more fitting elegy for the frat packers' brief (2000-2007) run as the world's premier comedy creators. It's the least elegaic elegy ever. Like all the greatest frat pack movies, it is relentlessly crude, profoundly unsubtle, deeply strenuously, and riotously, gloriously, painfully funny. As a satire of Hollywood filmmaking, this story rings true: a troupe of Hollywood actors who, while filming a Vietnam War movie, get involved in a real military conflict. It smacks of the Hearts of Darkness fantasy that animates so much of our Hollywood dreams: the attempt at art which becomes life, which translates back into perfectly lifelike art. Compared to stories of Apocalypse Now, Stiller's washed up action hack, trying to go legit; Black's Eddie Murphy style prosthetics comic; and Downey's psychologically unstable method actor hardly even seem exaggerated. And they're surrounded by a troop of great actors in roles that fit them perfectly: Nolte as a deranged Vietnam vet, Coogan as a clueless director, McBride as a demolitions madman, Hader as a studio yes-man, Jackson as a rapper/drink spokesman, and Baruchel as a regular guy trying to make it as an actor.

I now write one of the strangest sentences in blogging history: Aside from the sublime Downey, the film's best performances come from McConaughey and Cruise (cue Universe implosion). McConaughey is great because, as a surface-obsessed dick, his turn as a surface-obsessed agent named "Pecker" requires no acting at all. Cruise is brilliant for the opposite reason; although he's a real life douche and studio head, his turn as a foul-mouthed, hairy, balding, giant-handed studio exec makes him into a completely different kind of studio head/douche.

Tropic Thunder (as you might have guessed by now) is not a movie that seems to need a critical evaluation, beyond "it's funny." Well, here it is: it's a very, very funny movie, packed to the gills with funny people doing what they do best or (quite enjoyably) what they do very well even though we had no conception they were capable of it. Every word Downey says is funny, and most of the rest of the movie is too. And Tom Cruise dancing to faux hiphop is possibly worth $10 right there.

Film Ignorance #11: White Heat

What we have here are my thoughts on White Heat. Head on over to MovieZeal, if you haven't already, to get somebody else's thoughts on White Heat, and all the articles on noir you can handle in a month. It's noir month over at MovieZeal, and I'm just along for the ride.

Film: White Heat
Rating: Best. Film. Ever.
Director: Raoul Walsh
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Margaret Wycherly, Edmond O'Brien
Year: 1949
Reason for Ignorance: Hated The Public Enemy

Ignorance Rating*: 40 (5 Votes)
"Made it, Ma, top of the world!"

A couple days after The Departed came out, I was trying to make sense of its over-the-top nature (the rat scene, Jack with the dildo, the FBI nonsense) and I came up with an analogy. Just as White Heat came out 20 years after the heyday of the gangster movie of the early 30s, and represented a ratcheting up of its melodramatic and libidinal concerns to a point nearing self-parody, so did The Departed represent a hyperbolic and near-parodic rendering of the concerns of the classic 70s gangster movie. White Heat: The Public Enemy, Scarface, Little Caesar::The Departed: The Godfather Parts 1 and 2, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver. (The fact that you could replace The Departed in that analogy with 1983's Scarface didn't bother me in the slightest, even though Scarface is basically a White Heat remake).

Of course, as you can tell from its status as Film Ignorance, I had only read about, not seen, White Heat. Please, whatever you think of my analogy, allow me a little delayed self-congratulation: I can't think of any movie (not even Infernal Affairs) as similar to The Departed as White Heat. Not only are both absolutely over-the-top gangster movies that nevertheless manage to tell tight and exciting stories, both of them feature gangsters whose sexual desires have been radically diverted. And the coup de grace is: unbeknownst to me, White Heat is also an undercover cop story. Dynomite!

In the 30s gangster film, and particularly in Cagney's Public Enemy, critics noticed that the gangster seemed more attached to his Ma than to any more appropriate object of sexual desire. Dames and molls could come and go, and might get a piece of grapefruit in their face for their trouble, but the gangster would always love his Ma. White Heat's Cody Jarret takes these subtle undertones and makes them blatant, blazing overtones: Cody kills his own men indiscriminately, and displays almost no interest in his wife (sexual or otherwise) but this dude loves, loves, loves his Ma. In a very Freudian move, he used to fake headaches to get her attention, but now the headaches come unbidden as part of his psychoses. Cody Jarrett is a portrait of degeneration; he's falling apart at the seams, and getting more violent as he does so, as his libido builds up without finding an acceptable outlet. The only place it can come out is in death and destruction, which White Heat has in spades: I cannot believe the Production Code allowed such a murderous sociopathic portrait to hit the big screen. I've always considered Cagney a comical overactor (hence my dislike of Public Enemy) but in this film, his overwrought mannerisms are both enjoyably comical and murderously chilling (just like Jack's in The Departed).

But White Heat is not just about Jarrett and his hangups. It's an absolutely fantastic gangster film and undercover cop film. When Jarrett's in jail - having confessed to a crime he didn't commit to get an alibi from a worse crime - the FBI sends their undercover specialist Hank Fallon (Edmund O'Brien) to get info on the crime Jarret actually committed. Posing as a criminal, Hank has to get close to Cody, which is nigh impossible, as Cody seems to only trust his mother. Furthermore, Hank had a career as a regular FBI agent, so he also has to avoid criminals who know him. As in The Departed, this makes for some of the tensest and most exciting sequences in gangster film history, as Hank has to gain Cody's trust while keeping his own sanity and avoiding those who know him. If Cagney is the movie's flaming ID, O'Brien is its tortured Ego, trying to keep himself intact while performing a troubling moral balancing act.

To put it simply, White Heat is one of the most exciting and satisfying movies I've ever seen. Both the vicious opening heist and the overblown final heist provide action and suspense, as does the relationship between Cody and Hank. And the film's awkward love parallelogram between Cody, his wife, second-in-command Big Ed, and Ma has got sexual energy to spare. White Heat is a romp through America's criminal underbelly, not one in which criminality is revealed as the wretched, doomed inverse of the American dream, but the absurd, violent, and sexually charged perversion of the American dream. No film would make the romp so much fun until The Departed (or maybe Goodfellas).

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Review: Pineapple Express

Pineapple Express

For several decades, Hollywood spoofs followed the Mel Brooks/Abrahams and Zucker format of complete silliness and lack of narrative cohesion. Movies like Space Balls and Airplane take a movie or genre and spoof it into the ground, with no attempt to make it a watchable or enjoyable experience, beyond the spoofing. This has led to all the "Movie" films (Scary, Epic, etc) many of which are by Abrahams and/or the Zuckers, in which gag after gag is piled up, all of which you're simply supposed to laugh at because they remind you of something else.

For the last decade or so, a new brand of movie arrived. Scream, in fact, might be the first of these, but they've really exploded in the last few years: Dodgeball; Shaun of the Dead; Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang; Hot Fuzz; Old School; Galaxy Quest, etc. Each of them is both a parody, satire, or meta-genre picture and an actual example of that genre. Whereas Airplane is only a spoof of a disaster movie, Dodgeball is both a spoof of a sports movie and a sports movie - it lampoons all of the sports movies cliches while simultaneously asking us to enjoy them.

And at last we get to Pineapple Express, the supposed subject of this review. Pineapple Express is the mostly forgettable newest entry to this list: a stoner movie that becomes a meta-action movie. Especially in its latter half, in which the bullets start flying and the Asian assassins become prevalent, Express asks us to both laugh at and enjoy action movie cliches. Unfortunately, in the burgeoning meta-action picture genre (which is about to include Tropic Thunder) Pineapple Express doesn't make much of a mark.

Which is not to say that I didn't enjoy the movie. The story is relatively clever: a process server and his drug dealer go on the run when the process server witnesses a drug-related killing and the two realize the roach he left at the scene of the crime can be traced back to them. James Franco, finally shedding his pretty boy act, is fantastic as the dealer, and Seth Rogen brings his reliable regular guy who just happens to really like smoking weed persona to the server. Their sometime ally and enemy Red is played by Danny McBride, who was not very good in the not very funny Foot Fist Way. McBride shines here; he gets all the good lines, may of which sound like adlibs.

But I consider this movie a failure, after last year's Superbad (written by the same people and starring some of them) was not just the funniest movie of the year but probably the funniest of this century. Many of the jokes and running gags seem forced; even the banter between Franco and Rogen, which should have the relaxed quality of Rogen and Paul Rudd's classic "You know how I know you're gay?" scene, seems to be trying to hard. And the action movie cliches just add to this problem; it's as if the filmmakers are hitting us over the head with the knowledge that they're using cliches. We get it, Seth, Evan, and David. We get it. Try again, and come back when you have something as good as Superbad. Or Knocked Up. Or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Or 40-Year Old Virgin.

Let's hope Stiller and company offer up something better with Tropic Thunder. Otherwise this summer - probably the best in history - could end quite poorly.