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August 21, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»drama

Scoop

In 2005, Woody Allen made Match Point. It surprised a lot of people, because it was A) not a screwball comedy, B) did not put Allen on screen, and C) was actually quite good (perhaps because of A and B).

I haven't watched a lot of Woody Allen movies, but I enjoyed Match Point. So I was looking forward to Scoop, his next film. Like its predecessor, it stars Scarlet Johansson, it is set in England, and it concerns itself with murderous aristocrats--but this time, it is a screwball comedy, it does include Woody Allen, and unfortunately it's not very good at all.

Scoop sets up Johansson as a college reporter on vacation in London who attends a magic show hosted by The Great Splendini (Allen), only to be visited by the ghost of an investigative journalist (Deadwood's Ian McShane) who says that a rich playboy (Hugh Jackman) is actually the Tarot Card Killer. Johansson teams up with Allen to uncover the story, while trying not to fall for the killer. If that sounds like a stretch, it's because it is.

At around 90 minutes, you wouldn't expect the movie to move slowly, but it does. I'd say that it's due to Allen's dawdling performance as Splendini, but the pace remains slack even when he's not on screen. When you've got a premise as offbeat as this, you really need it to be snappy to distract from the plot holes and the awkward story constraints, and Scoop is anything but.

It doesn't help that there's no chemistry at all between any of the three leads, making their actions seem disjointed. Allen and Johansson bicker amiably enough, but there's no real affection there, and I could never quite figure out why they were working together. Likewise, why Jackman and Johansson become involved is a mystery--and making Scarlet Johansson seem unappealing is an impressive feat. It's particularly odd, considering that in Match Point she was such a sexually-charged figure. Clearly, it wouldn't match the tone of the rest of the film for her to be a full-on seductress, but a little romantic tension is desparately needed. She and Jackman are boring together, if not a little creepy.

Hints of a better, funnier movie peek out from time to time in Scoop, which makes it all the more disappointing. There are some good lines here for both Johansson and Allen, even if they're lethargically delivered--she doesn't quite seem to get what makes them funny, and he's moving too slow for the one-liners to catch viewers unaware.

Sondra Pransky: I wouldn't be surprised if he asked me to marry him someday.

Sid Waterman: You come from an orthodox family, would they accept a serial killer?

It's a crime against casting that these aren't delivered well (they cry out for someone capable of a Thin Man-styled banter), not to mention the waste of McShane in a tossed-off role that's not much more than a cameo. Surely, there must have been actors better suited to play the roles of cub reporter, aristocrat, and vaudeville entertainer. The material's all there. It's just self-indulgently performed and shot. All of which is what I would have expected, not knowing any better, from a Woody Allen movie. That's the problem with making a Match Point and raising expectations. It becomes more disappointing when they're not met.

July 5, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»documentary

Sicko

What better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than with a Michael Moore movie?

Sicko (I will not bow to anyone's ridiculous capitalization schemes) has less Moore, pardon the pun, than previous documentaries, but probably provokes more thought. It is, as the director himself states in the film and several pundits have noticed, as much a movie about who we as Americans want to be as it is about health care. Do we want to be a nation that forces people to choose which finger they can afford to have reattached? Should we be a country that quibbles over health care for 9/11 volunteers, now suffering from pulmonary problems due to the hazardous dust?

It's easy to see this movie from my perspective and say no, we shouldn't be that kind of country. And I think it's remarkably persuasive at making that point, both in showing the advantages of other health care systems and by noting the other areas where America has implemented "socialized" government (education, transit, libraries, etc.)

It's persuasive to me, but I'm practically a socialist already. I don't know how it plays to the kind of people that think the government should be devoted only to invading countries and funding churches. I have a feeling that a lot of people will not be able to see beyond the idea of corporations and economies as the root level of the American system. Many people tend to forget that those corporations and economies are in fact composed of people just like us--or they choose to believe that the people are less important than the economic machines they constitute.

As for Sicko, if there's one weak point, it's probably Moore's trip to Cuba. He's not a subtle man, but you can see admirable restraint in the rest of the film: in fact, he often frames himself as the ridiculous American, unable to believe that the English, French, and Canadian systems provide such caring service. Moore's awkward bulk becomes a kind of sight gag, as well as a symbol of American prejudices on the issue. Sadly, he abandons that light touch for his jabs at Guantanamo, and the last third of the film suffers a little for it--not enough to falter completely, but enough that you wish he'd just get on with it.

June 17, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»horror

The Dark of the Matinee

Although he is a ridiculous figure, there is something about Uwe Boll's movies that's a cut above the average B-movie. I think it's the star power, actually. He's not much of a director for the A-list actors that his tax loophole payoff attracts, but even on a bad day many of his leads outshine the typical horror-movie fodder. It's especially apparent when his movies show up on Sci Fi, where a big pitch is apparently professional sibling Stephen Baldwin in "Stan Lee's Harpies."

Speaking of which, I wonder how that goes over in the evangelical community after Baldwin's much-publicized conversion. I know he's supposed to be the cool face of Christianity for the home-schooled crowd, but I have a hard time imagining that Army of Darkness ripoffs are really what they consider "godly" entertainment. Then again, I enjoyed Bubba Ho-Tep, so I'm really in no condition to judge anyone.

So today's Tivo'd diversion is Boll's Alone in the Dark, which corrals Tara Reid and Christian Slater together for an on-set disaster nearly as horrifying as the idea of Tara Reid and Christian Slater together off-set. The guide gives it 1 1/2 stars. I can hardly wait.

0:00 Already, we're looking at a long chunk of on-screen text and narration, explaining something about a lost civilization and experiments that "merge man with creature." Sounds like a Mercer Mayer book gone horribly awry. A flashback establishes that the experiments were performed on orphans (except for one--I smell foreshadowing!) with the assistance of a weak-willed nun. Isn't that always the way?
0:05 Christian Slater wakes up from the flashback, unshaven and unkempt, on an airplane. Some kid tells him that there's nothing to be afraid of in the dark. Slater tells him that being afraid of the dark keeps most of us alive. I don't even know what that means. During a taxi montage, he voiceovers that he wasn't just scaring that kid for nothing, but that what you don't see can kill you. He's Edward Carnby: cliche hunter and child abuser. John Stossel in a trenchcoat.
0:09 The taxi montage leads directly to a car chase, the best moment of which is when Slater tells his cabbie to duck into a farmer's market and they immediately crash into a truck. The pursuing cabbie rams them, then gets out of the car and runs away--so he can jump down on Slater from a bridge. Why he needed the altitude is not entirely clear. The resulting fistfight ends in an ice factory, which I think exists only so that Boll can do a bullet time shot through a block of ice. There's also a lot of shoving going on, which is the mark of lazy action movie direction--if the bad guy shoves random people around to establish his evilness, he's clearing a pretty low bar. He could at least shoot an innocent bystander before Slater impales him on a convenient metal spike.
0:12 Tara Reid as a museum curator. I sense a great disturbance, as if thousands of casting directors cried out, and then were suddenly silenced. The last time I saw cheesecake this unaccountable was Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist for that James Bond movie.
0:20 On a boat, Reid's archaeologist boss has extracted some kind of evil basement refridgerator from the ocean. It's made of gold, which sets the boat's captain off in a capitalist lust. The archaeologist muses that nowadays "we don't even remember why gold is valuable in the first place." Perhaps to point out the stupidity of the statement, the captain slugs the archaeologist and cracks open the vault to get at the sweet, sweet precious metals inside. Sadly, the only thing in the case is an unseen evil force that slaughters the crew. Around the world, said force also activates some people that I guess are "man merged with creature." One of them shoves someone around on the way out of the house. Clearly, the height of malignancy.
0:26 Christian Slater has a flashback to establish that his orphanage was the center of these experiments, but he was somehow immune. After making some calls, he heads back to the orphanage, where he's greeted by the same nun. Long-lived, these sisters. Slater's driving an SUV in these sequences, by the way, so I guess being a crusty psychic detective pays pretty well.
0:33 As if to make sure that even the dimmest viewer gets the plot, Slater's contact at the paranormal Bureau 713 has a thirty second lunch with him, just long enough to establish that yes, all the disappearances are from his old orphanage. Alone in the Dark is actually filled, so far, with scenes that only last 30 seconds or so, just long enough to deliver their one line of exposition. Normally, I'd say that this kind of choppy, incoherent storytelling was the fault of the network's chopping it up to fit into two hours with commercials, but this is a Uwe Boll movie. Again, here's where he differs from most low-talent filmmakers, because most of them don't have the budget for so many location shots. It costs a lot to make a movie this badly.
0:36 Tara Reid and Christian Slater meet up at the museum. They hug, and then she punches him in the face. Score one for Tara Reid! Slater obtains forgiveness by handing over a paranormal artifact that he's been lugging around for the last 20 minutes. Jewelry makes things all better. Reid adds unintentional hilarity to her impression of a brilliant art expert by mispronouncing "Newfoundland" in her description of its history.
0:38 Remember that old horror movie where the creepy wooden tribal doll runs around a museum with a butcher knife? That's about ten times more disturbing than the giant bug that attacks the museum now. Especially when the SWAT team from Bureau 713 drops in, led by Stephen Dorff, and the bug just runs away. Another thirty-second conflict: done. This movie even makes The Relic's museum monster look terrifying.
0:54 Having returned from his disastrous boat trip, the archeologist injects himself with blood extracted from another giant bug, which he's keeping in the broom closet. Dude, there are easier ways to get high. Meanwhile, Slater's bureau friend explains that the monsters disrupt electricity (hence the darkness of the title and the flickering lights whenever they show up), but not flashlights, because "the shorter the path for the electricity, the less disruption." That's convenient, and also completely incoherent. He also passes on some bullets filled with light-producing resin, because they're allergic to sunlight. The producers of Underworld contemplate suing, but settle for watching Kate Beckinsdale in tight leather again.
0:59 Tara Reid shows up at Slater's loft apartment for no discernable reason, where he is passed out on a filthy mattress, and has sex with him, again for no discernable reason. I'm confused, and slightly unnerved. One or both of them should probably go get tested.
1:05 From sex directly to dubious archaeology--just like real life! The costume designers have obviously decided that putting little indie-girl glasses on Tara Reid will make her look smarter. Shockingly--and I say this as a guy who's totally got the hots for the indie glasses--it doesn't work at all. With thirty seconds elapsed from the last plot point, evil orphans and another bug now attack. The SWAT team drops in again. Why don't these guys ever use the door? Who's going to pay for all those windows? The resulting shootout resembles the first scene from Equilibrium, with lots of strobe-light gunflare in pitch darkness, although it goes on for about twice as long and includes a truly terrible nu-metal soundtrack. I have to admit, it does bear a strong resemblance to a video game.
1:18 Obligatory scene in which the characters prepare for the big finale, which looks like it will take place in a mine. While we wait for something interesting to happen, I'd like to say that I never actually played the Alone in the Dark games. I had a demo once, back in the late 80s, of the first one, but it only gave you one room, an attic, and had one monster, who burst in through the window a la a hellhound from Resident Evil. This movie seems to be based on the rebooted fourth game in the series, which ditched the offbeat adventure genre for forgettable survival horror. I think they would have been better off sticking to the setting from the earlier games, because monsters are almost always cooler in the 1930's.
1:34 Standing in a room wallpapered in human skulls, Christian Slater mutters, "I don't think we're supposed to be here." Subtle. Meanwhile, giant computer-animated bugs tear the marines outside the mine into little bits. For a movie that was previously edited like a tribute to ADD, Boll now finds the patience to linger for a long, long time on these shots. All the marines die. It's all very expensive and tasteless. Most of it is a ripoff of Aliens, except for the parts that are a ripoff of Starship Troopers.
1:47 Double cross! Triple cross! No-one cares! Tara Reid's boss reveals that he's one behind the experiments, and proceeds to open a door into a giant cave of darkness using the artifact from an hour and fifteen minutes ago. Now that it's assembled, it looks like a candleholder from Pier 1. Stephen Dorff tosses a knife into the archeologist's chest and then he stays to set off a bomb while the others run for the surface. I don't know why they're so desparate to get outside, since there's just a bunch of monsters and dead marines out there.
1:54 Wait, what? Slater and Reid climb out of the mine and end up just outside the orphanage which is in broad daylight. So I'm confused, because all of the previous scenes took place at midnight. Maybe they've been climbing for 12 hours. When they leave the orphanage, the city is evacuated according to the onscreen titles. Again, I'm not really sure when that happened. Slater voiceovers that the people have been wiped off the face of the earth, just like the ancient civilization. This word "evacuation," I do not think it means what you think it means.

Final verdict: if we were ranking Uwe Boll movies, this is much better than House of the Dead. It's also better than Bloodrayne, but it only manages that by stealing virtually every moment from much better movies. Neither, of course, is anything to be proud of. There's also no real charisma on exhibit here, so you can't even feel sorry for its stars. The thing is, every month Sci Fi broadcasts monster of the week movies that are three times as good as this, with a fraction of the budget. If anyone should be profiting from illicit tax money, it's those guys. If that means supporting Stephen Baldwin's career, I think we should take that risk.

April 30, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»horror

The Descent

The shorter version of The Descent goes something like this:

Six women have a really bad trip in a cave, and then the C.H.U.D.s show up.

Indeed, there are lots of places where the movie shines: it's well-acted, solidly directed, and written intelligently with a set of strong and interesting female characters--a rarity in horror. But its real strength is that it maintains a constant level of tension and dread for practically the entire film, yet doesn't overstay its welcome. It does this by layering and gradually introducing new stresses, starting with a vague but definite unease between the main characters. Once in the cave, that unease is magnified by the claustrophobic confines and some clever tricks of the light--at times the characters are lit as normal for a film, however unrealistic, but in other cases the frame is almost entirely black, with only a few outlines and bobbing headlamps visible. It's only when the audience gets adjusted to the dangers of spelunking that The Descent introduces deformed cave monsters to the mix. With a running time of less than 100 minutes, there's just enough time to develop the scares, but not enough for "villain fatigue."

All in all, The Descent is one of the best horror movies I've seen in a very long time. It's not particularly original, but it displays a mastery of the genre and pacing that similar niche horror films (including the ridiculous Hills Have Eyes remakes) would do well to study.

April 16, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»documentary

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

The first thing that you take away from This Film Is Not Yet Rated is a genuine distaste for Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America from 1966 to 2004. The documentary's subject is the troubling mechanics and implications of the MPAA's film rating system, particularly the NC-17 rating when applied to sex and violence. Since he created and strongly advocated for the rating system, Valenti--whose swollen visage at times resembles a grandfatherly pumpkin--is featured prominently in archive footage, bookended by examples that directly undercut his words.

The second thing, oddly, is sympathy for the ratings board. The MPAA insists that its raters (all of whom, it says, are parents of children between the ages of 5 and 17) must remain anonymous to do their jobs well, a fact that galls a number of the interviewed filmmakers like Matt Stone and Kevin Smith. In response, director Kirby Dick hires a private detective to track down the raters and manages to find 11 out of twelve. These parts of the film evoke the most mixed feelings, and seem to have been the most controversial. On the one hand, it's genuinely enjoyable to watch the investigator (a middle-aged lesbian named Becky) as she tracks down the raters using a mix of surveillance and social engineering. On the other hand, it does seem like an invasion of privacy. In the end, for me at least, I think the investigative stunt proves worthwhile, because if these raters are supposed to represent "the public" we should be able to see the sample. Unlike other reviewers, I don't think Dick mocks the subjects--he simply uses them to show that they're not who the MPAA says they are: they're older, mostly White, and probably wealthy, with kids that probably long ago left home.

Not Yet Rated is on more solid ground when it discusses the inconsistencies of the ratings board, particularly when it comes to the differences between sex and violence. Put simply, the board is much more tolerant of violence than sex, and it's far more tolerant of heterosexual sex than homosexual pairings or group sex. Dick illustrates the latter by putting scenes with nearly-identical framing and action next to each other, one gay (NC-17) and one straight (R). It's not convincing on its own, but collectively the evidence shows an agency that's increasingly puritanical about the bedroom, but also increasingly permissive when it comes to violence.

The occassional stunts and gimmicks used throughout Not Yet Rated, as have become traditional in pop-culture documentaries, can be hit or miss. But one of the big hits, and the dramatic climax of the film, comes when Dick submits the documentary itself--including its reveal of rater identities--to the MPAA for a rating, receiving an NC-17 (most likely for the clips shown of sex and violence from other, similarly-rated films). Upon appeal, the draconian nature of the entire process is highlighted (and supported by testimony from other filmmakers). Dick is not allowed to refer to other films that have received ratings by way of comparison, nor is he allowed to know the identities of the members of the appeals board (which, we discover, includes two members of clergy). Repeating her performance from the first ratings board, Becky the detective hunts down the appeals board members despite the best efforts of the MPAA. The result is a checklist of distributors, cinema chain VIPs, and studio executives, confirming the industry's control of its own rating system. Needless to say, the appeal is denied, and the current version of the film is unrated.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated provides few solutions for the problem, other than to advocate for a government-run board, which could be appealed through a standard legal suit and would keep public documentation on its process. I feel that it also draws uncomfortable conclusions about the influence of the media on the populace, a debate that has raged practically since Birth of a Nation. Perhaps it's also cynical to wonder if a government board, particularly given this government, would be any better. But the questions raised by the film are nonetheless thought-provoking, and (especially given how movie ratings are often cited as an example by the gaming and other artistic industries) need to be asked.

And for that matter, as with any movie that revels in the backstage intrigues at the edges of family-friendly entertainment, it's a lot of fun to watch.

February 19, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»documentary

Jesus Camp

My thoughts on Jesus Camp were definitely influenced by reading Bob Altemeyer's work on authoritarianism this weekend. If you haven't taken the time to flip through Altemyer's work, here's a basic summary: Altemeyer's research shows that a healthy portion of people fit into a psychological category he calls "Right-Wing Authoritarians," and these people display tendencies for submission to authority, compartmentalized thinking, heightened prejudice and clannishness, and a greater feeling of fearfulness. These people tend to be conservative, but it is not impossible to have Left-Wing Authoritarians, as Stalinism showed. Authoritarians also tend to be very religious, which makes sense, seeing as how organized religion often stresses submission to a supernatural authority.

Jesus Camp, in many ways, showcases these behaviors. It's actually the story of a camp in the Midwest called "Kids on Fire" that trains evangelical Christian children in zealotry and preparation for the end times. It may sound biased to say that they're being trained as zealots, but the organizer (who apparently fully endorsed the film) directly compares it to Islamic training camps and suicide warriors. There's a fair amount of martial metaphors on display here, and a lot of talk about culture warfare that sometimes becomes alarmingly literal. They are the "Army of God."

The directors have focused on three individuals: the pastor Becky Fischer and camp participants Levi and Rachael. Fischer comes across as surprisingly charming and humble, which can be disarming considering that she spends a fair amount of time making the kids cry and leading them in glossolalia. Levi is about ten, with a long rat-tail haircut, and he hopes to be a youth pastor, while Rachael is a little younger and almost desparately earnest about her faith. Both children, however, give off the vibe that they're robotically repeating the lines they were given in church, prompting my diversion into authoritarianism. And perhaps what the film does best is show how insular their lives really are: they're homeschooled from creationist textbooks, watch only Christian movies and television (Becky berates them about the witchcraft of Harry Potter), and seem to talk about little other than Jesus. Their parents even come with them to the camp (Belle: "Worst summer camp ever."). The evangelicals wear this isolation from the rest of society as a badge of pride, even the children--in one heartbreaking interview, Rachael admits that the other kids at school have teased her, but protests that it's only God whose judgement really matters to her, and (here I paraphrase but only slightly) it won't matter when her schoolmates are in hell.

Where Jesus Camp misses the mark is when it fails to emphasize the influence and extent of the evangelical population. When reading books about the movement (and Belle likes to give me a hard time about the number that I own), it's made clear that the religious far-right is a real threat to the country. Jesus Camp tries to make this point in guest-segments from an Air America radio host, but he's really pretty limp and unconvincing. Belle wasn't even sure whose side he was on until half an hour into the movie. It's only toward the end, when Fischer calls into his radio show and admits that democracy is really something she'd prefer to replace with Jesus, that the film feels really substantial.

There are a few moments of sardonic amusement to be had with the evangelicals, especially former pastor Ted Haggard, who appears momentarily when Levi visits his Colorado Springs mega-church. Even though Levi may be a little brainwashed, he still shows enough signs of being a normal, likeable ten-year-old that Haggard's dismissal of his pastoral ambitions hits a little close to home. I might not empathize with Levi's dreams of preaching, but we've all be talked down to by an authority or role model. Of course, neither Levi nor the filmmakers knew what we know now: that Pastor Ted was secretly visiting a gay prostitute for sex and meth sessions, a fact that would lead to his fall from power when it was exposed to the world, and which lends some extra frisson to Haggard's jibes. Randall Terry Lou Engel, the fanatic who protested outside of Terry Schiavo's hospital room with "LIFE" taped across the lips of his companions, also makes a cameo appearance to teach the kids about the evils of abortion. Then there's the horrified looks of the other children when one admits to having watched the Harry Potter movies at his father's house. Rebellion, for these kids, is a low bar to clear.

For viewers who are unfamiliar with the evangelical Christian movement, Jesus Camp may be an eye-opener. But perhaps due to the movie and its buzz a few months back, as well as the increased power and profile of religious leaders within the Republican party, I think it's harder to be blissfully unaware of its subjects, even among urban liberals and heathens. I guess I'm trying to say that I was underwhelmed, but less-obsessed audiences might not be. Regardless of your exposure, it can still be fascinating for outsiders to listen to these believers, who clearly desire nothing more than to be puppets driven by the will of God, without individualism or personal choices.

February 7, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»foreign

Cronicas

Ultimately a disturbing film, Cronicas wavers between unsettling ambiguity combined with blatant and unsubtle plot points. It's a story about tabloid journalism set in Latin America, although that shouldn't limit its impact only to Telemundo. John Leguizamo plays a TV reporter, accompanied by a producer and a cameraman, tracking a serial killer and pedophile in the village of Babahoyo. The reporter zeroes in on an imprisoned man that he suspects may be the killer, but a confession is slow to come. Meanwhile, the team sends footage back to their program that triumphs the suspect as wrongfully imprisoned for hitting a child with his truck--footage that obviously conflicts with the other narrative that they're simultaneously developing.

Cronicas eventually lets us know which story is the truth, and a great amount of its suspense comes from figuring out which will actually air. The director, Sebastian Cordero, wants us to understand that these two factors, truthfulness and exposure, are not inextricably linked in the minds of these journalists, although they may posture to the contrary. I'm not saying that this isn't a good point, or that Cordero doesn't leave the audience uncomfortable. I think the confusion comes from the suspected killer, played with a damp madness by Damien Alcazar, whose performance is genuinely creepy but who doesn't leave the audience with much doubt as to his innocence or guilt. This may be a weakness in the writing, which sets up this question as the primary dilemma of the film, and as a result the crisis of journalistic ethics basically sneaks up on viewers. For some reviewers, this has been interpreted as the movie falling apart, but for me it's really the moment where it congealed from a Latin Primal Fear into something more interesting.

As a side note, it's surprising (to me at least) to see Leguizamo carry off a leading role. Previously, I'd mainly thought of him as a character actor or comic relief (his unfortunate turn in Spawn, for example). It's not accurate to say that here he boasts "star power," but he's certainly believable as a reporter who's chasing the spotlight as much as the truth. It's an understated performance, which is not something I thought I'd ever say about this actor.

January 22, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»horror

Rayne O'er Me

In which I liveblog Bloodrayne. It's Uwe Boll: how bad can it be?

Elapsed TimeNotes
0:00 The movie opens with a series of faux-Renaissance frescoes, depicting the characters in the movie. I would love to have been the guy who got to photoshop Ben Kingsley into a fresco.
0:01 Hey, it says that Meat Loaf's in this! But his last name's credited as "Aday." Is that really his real name? Or is it a joke, like "A meat loaf aday keeps something at bay?" These are deep thoughts.
0:06 Kristanna Lokken as the half-vampire is being used as a freakshow attraction. They make her drink lamb's blood. It gives her a blood mustache, like a very morbid "Got Milk?" commercial.
0:08 I was hoping that Ben Kingsley being in this movie was just a sick joke, but there he is in white pancake makeup and a get-me-out-of-here-please lack of emotion. He's the only person in this movie with an actual accent, even though it's set in Europe during the 1600's. If I pretend not to know that fact, it's like I'm watching the Maryland Renaissance Festival.
0:12 I'll say this: Boll must have hired a decent DP for this. It's much more competently shot than House of the Dead. But he still can't direct actors, and he's emphasized that fact by hiring the least expressive actors he could find. Putting Michael Madsen and Michelle Rodriguez together in a scene is like watching the animatronic Presidents at Disneyland perform standup, except the robots are more charismatic.
0:22 Boll keeps doing these low establishing shots. I guess they're supposed to look very slick, but it's more like he's hired midgets to do his steadycam work.
0:31 There are movies based on videogames, and then there's this movie, which follows gaming logic to its disastrous end. Rayne sneaks into the basement of a monastary to steal something for some ridiculous reason, sees a sleeping guard wearing a cross, and then spies a cross-shaped hole in the wall. A normal person would think that maybe those both have to do with the monestary decorating motif, what with it being a religious institution and all. But Rayne knows that it's actually a lock for a secret passage. It's embarrassing that she leaps to this conclusion, and even stupider when she turns out to be right.
0:34 At some point my TiVo is going to catch up with realtime, and I'm going to have to watch those terrible Galactica promos with the emo rock. The exec who okay'd that must have been the same guy who decided to run Bloodrayne as a Saturday night movie. On the other hand, I'm actually watching it. Touche, tasteless NBC producers. Touche.
0:46 Meatloaf's not phoning it in. I respect that.
0:54 If I were a vampire, I don't think I'd put stained glass windows in my bloodsucking orgy lair. I also wouldn't let Michael Madsen and some generic minion just walk right in, swords drawn. But that's just me. Still, the movie does seem to prove my instincts correct.
1:08 Oh, look! Michelle Rodriguez is angry! That's different. And now for a training montage. I love a good training montage. Remember in Army of Darkness, when Ash trains the townspeople to fight with spears, all in unison? And then later on, when they face the skeleton warriors, they do the exact same moves, like it's a synchronized dance routine? That was awesome. I wish I was watching that movie instead.
1:24 All of the swords in this movie look like they were just cut from sheets of aluminum. They don't have any edge at all. It looks really silly, like they're fighting with large butter knives. I'm reminded of this because the characters have gone to some blacksmith to get weapons. He's also got holy water just sitting around on the shelves. I wonder if holy water has a sell-by date. I'd hate to use it on the undead, only to find out that it'd gone bad.
1:30 Rayne gives her cross medallion to Madsen's generic assistant as protection. Did anyone ever explain if other holy artifacts also work on vampires, or is it just the cross? In Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, the protagonist figures that the aversion to crosses is some sort of bizarre superstitious reflex left over from life, caused by self-loathing. The Jewish vampire is repelled by the Torah. Does that mean that atheist vampires are repelled by science textbooks and biohazard symbols? So much for Cobb County.
1:40 Every time someone gets on horseback in this movie, suddenly we get lots of helicopter shots. It's like Boll watched Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies and thought "Hey, I could do that."
1:43 Why doesn't anyone in this script use contractions? Is that supposed to make them seem like thespians? I'm going to have to try that sometime. "I think I will walk the dog," I'll say. I feel more dramatic already.

Also: thespian? I don't remember dating within my gender.

1:51 Last fight scene between Kristanna Lokken and Ben Kingsley. I can't believe I just wrote that. Why did he agree to this? He was Ghandi! Ghandi! I'm at a loss for words, frankly.
1:58 It's over! It didn't make any sense, but it's over. Looking back, it could have been worse. I mean, yes, the dialog, plot, special effects, acting, and set design were all terrible. But some of the camerawork wasn't too bad. If Boll is set on the subject matter, maybe he could just direct video game commercials instead of movies. But then, there's probably no tax loophole in that.

December 12, 2006

Filed under: movies»reviews»cult

Review: It's All Gone Pete Tong

Maybe It's All Gone Pete Tong is funnier if you're a DJ, but I doubt it. This isn't a Spinal Tap, where many of the jokes become funnier if you've experienced the soap opera of rock band membership. And Pete Tong isn't without humor, but it seemed to me to be unsure of itself: is it a mockumentary, a cautionary tale, or a satire of club culture?

The center of the movie, Frankie Wilde, is a hotshot DJ spinning in clubs on Ibiza when years of drug abuse and loud music take their toll. The increasingly-deaf Wilde tries to hide his inability to hear as long as possible, but since he's producing an album (horribly) and still trying to match beats (badly), it's not much of a defense. "Generally, the field of music, other than the obvious example, has been dominated by people who can hear" says one interviewee. Eventually, Frankie loses his little remaining hearing in a monitoring accident, his wife leaves him, and he locks himself up in a soundproof room to try to recover. When he emerges a year later, it's with a new sense of purpose. He finds a lip-reading teacher, learns to DJ by feeling the bass through subwoofers, and ditches his addictions.

Part of the problem is that this plotline is really very trite--a standard recovery story--and the filmmakers aren't capable of finding a solid approach for it. Sometimes they shoot interviews (including plenty of cameos from real DJs like Paul van Dyk) and hand-held shots, documentary-style. But that approach is intercut with elements from a more traditional screwball comedy: one running gag has Wilde's cocaine habit represented by a man in a giant, filthy rat costume, who forces his face into huge piles of the drug. The inconsistent shift between those extremes means that the wilder jokes are too dry, and the dry humor too overcooked.

Which is not to say that this isn't a funny movie. There are moments, like the interview line above, or a scene where Wilde's agent tries to get his attention by yelling and hammering on a glass door, only to be thwarted by Frankie's deafness. And the last half-hour handles the issue of hearing loss with surprising sweetness and sensitivity--for a film that also includes an obviously illegitimate biracial son as an unspoken joke.

The art of old-school DJing is all about matching the rhythms, tempos, and sounds of records in order to fade from one to another. With digital music came a number of new techniques, like beat-slicing, time-stretching, and sampling, but even tools like Ableton Live still prominently feature an A-B crossfade function. But for It's All Gone Pete Tong, there's no smooth transition between its disparate sides. It's got a nice beat in there somewhere, but you can't dance to it.

November 29, 2006

Filed under: movies»reviews»foreign

District B13

This is not actually a movie. It's a sketch. An outline. A way for future film students to study the buddy-cop action film without being distracted from the structure by acting or clever dialogue.

B13 is a French film set in a future that extrapolates two trends--first, that the car-burning riots were symptoms of a class struggle that continued until the Parisians finally just walled off their criminal districts and abandoned them, and second, that parkour becomes a common urban sport. The latter is particularly important, because it's a big part of all the movie's chase scenes.

The basic plot is that a clean nuke has been stolen in one of the most dangerous criminal districts, and it will go off and kill everyone there unless one cop--teamed up, of course, with an edgy young native--can defuse it in 24 hours. Along the way, the plot hits all of the cliche points for one of these genre pictures: there's the family member held captive, the criminal with the heart of gold, the unbelievably deadly police officer, the tense conversation where the cop and sidekick agree to work together, and the tables turned on corrupt officials, finished with an unsupported "romance." The script seems embarrassed to be so blatant, and glosses by each of its plot points with almost a nod to the audience that yes, this is that part of the movie.

There's not necessarily anything wrong with such self-awareness, but the actors have so little chemistry with each other that it infects everything else with a kind of malaise. Say what you like about the Lethal Weapon series, perhaps the iconic example of the genre, but Glover and Gibson were fun to watch together. There's none of that rapport with anyone in District B13--maybe because, at just over an hour and twenty minutes, there's no time for it. In its quest for dizzying chase scenes and stunts, it speeds past everything else.

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