Sunday, June 29, 2008

MovieWatch: "Wanted"

Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 35
In a Nutshell: In reviewing Timur Bekmambetov's "Night Watch" back in early 2006, I wrote: "I don't remember an iota of the plot, a single memorable performance or anything emotional or thematic from the movie, but I'm not surprised that every studio wants a piece of director Timur Bekmambetov. He's worth watching."

Somehow, I think I meant that as a compliment, though after seeing "Wanted," Bekmambetov's studio breakout feature, I'm tempted to wonder why. The reality is that "Wanted" delivers *exactly* what I could logically have expected. It's loud, brash, audaciously cool and even more audaciously stupid. And I'm not talking stupid in a "Excuse me, I studied physics in high school and I'm aware that bullets, cars and trains can't do the things they do in this movie." No. Not at all.

Also of "Night Watch," I wrote, "For all of the film's aesthetic spunk, though, the ethical quandaries of this universe -- issues of fate, free will and human nature -- are as banal as anything that bogged down the last two 'Matrix' movies."

"Wanted" is actually even worse. It's "Fight Club" for people who didn't realize that "Fight Club" was a satire. It's "Fight Club" for people who prefer not to think, not to actually deal with any sort of commentary on modern society. Oh, and it should be noted that the needlessly reductive ideology of "Fight Club" frustrates the heck out of me, but I watch for David Fincher's brilliant handling of the material.

Anyway, the rant is gonna continue after the bump. For the record, my starting Fien Print rating on this one is a "40," but I have a feeling I'm going to talk myself down to something lower before I'm done.

Click through...

Stylized ultra-violence is all the rage these days and "Wanted" is no better than a more financially successful version of "Smokin' Aces" or "Shoot 'Em Up," two films in which the only goal was raising the stakes on the chaos, embracing the cartoonish anarchy. Now "Smokin' Aces" is a dreadful movie. And "Shoot 'Em Up" is a shockingly boring movie. Both movies at least have the sense to know they're not *about* a damn thing. They're not nihilistic, they're just nothing. With its dime-store ethics, "Wanted" is nearly dangerous in its degree of cluelessness.

James McAvoy, sporting an admirably acceptable American accent, is Wesley, a lifeless, passive, washed out cubicle monkey. He isn't a man at all until he discovers that his recently killed father was an assassin and he's genetically predisposed to be a killing machine himself.

What follows is a loveable saga of white male empowerment through violence. Now don't get me wrong, I also someday hope to undergo a process of remasculinization that includes punching somebody, killing somebody or, if we go back to the genre classic "Falling Down," bustin' up some minorities. I mean, for fuck sake, it's the reason millions of men nationwide are addicted to "Grand Theft Auto." The thing that "GTA" players don't seem to understand is that vicarious thrills will only help you regain your masculinity for so long. Eventually, you're going to have to go out there and get your hands dirty.

"Fight Club" at least had a sociological and anthropological explanation for why Edward Norton's character lost his mojo and, in the context of that initial explanation, his "What Would Tyler Durden Do?" lifestyle change makes some sense. Of course, with "Fight Club," the twist-ish ending to the movie makes a very clear value judgment on all of the choices that were made beforehand and recasts the entire movie through a new prism.

With "Wanted"? No dice. Wesley learns that he's a killer-by-birth, the heir to a guild of assassins (currently in negotiations with the AMPTP, one can only assume) following the instruction of the Loom of Fate, retaining balance in the universe by killing people the fates of determined need to be killed to keep humanity from filling our world with garbage and abandoning the planet in the hands of soon-to-be-semi-sentient clean-up robots with musical fetishes. Wait. Went too far there.

Anyway, the Assassins are compelling because the head guy is played by Morgan Freeman and we all know Morgan Freeman wouldn't be associated with anything even vaguely shady. Or something. Or maybe the Assassins are compelling because the combination of Angelina Jolie and guns is frightfully hot.

So when Wesley's character hears that their motto is "Kill one, save a thousand," he jumps right on board. Even when he hears that a Magical Loom is spitting out the killing instructions, it makes perfect sense to him. And even by the end of the movie, the "Kill one, save a thousand" message is never contested. Ick.

"Wanted" is based on a comic by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, but it's really only based on the comic to a limited degree. In the comic, the society of assassins is really a group of supervillains killing off superheros. There's time travel, interdimensional jaunts and creatures made out of feces. In short, there was no way the narrative was *ever* going to make it to the big screen.

Nor was the morality. As I said, in the book, Wesley joins a cabal of highly skilled evildoers who view people as cattle. His training includes raping and killing hundreds of people, which he learns to do without blinking an eye.

Again, there was no way that shit was ever going to make it to the big screen.

But screenwriters Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan want to have it both ways. They actually seem to want us to *like* Wesley, which Millar and Jones never wanted. In the process of trying to make us like Wesley -- a process helped by James McAvoy's perfectly fine performance -- they also just nod and condone the actions of the assassins' guild, as if there were some reasonable system of values in which it could be acceptable (the ending also comfortably condones the "kill one, save a thousand" message). In the book, the deaths of countless civilians can be ignored, because it's explained away as the action of these supervillains. In the movie, a train goes off the rails over some gorge or other and hundreds of civilians are almost certainly killed and the movie explicitly tries to distract the viewers from the carnage. I mean, Wesley's walking through a crowded train waving his gun, but when the train goes off the tracks -- it's in the trailer, I'm not spoiling anything -- suddenly all those people are never seen again. Save one Wesley, kill a thousand civilians? That's a fair ratio, right?

And why, if I might ask, does Wesley's pistol so totally replace his penis? One of the key signs that he's neutered in the beginning is that his bored girlfriend is having sex with Bright Abbott (or a character played by Chris Pratt). So he gets his manliness back with the gunfiring and all that stuff, but his libido? That never returns. He has Angelina Jolie wandering around him naked and she can do that because she knows that even if Wesley's comfortable killing, he's just a glorified castrati. At least in the book, Wesley gets to have sex with Jolie's character.

Message of the comic: Because you are complacent, you're allowing the villains to rule the world.

Message of the movie: It's not that killing is necessarily "right" or "good," but it's sure cool!

I think there may, incidentally, have been efforts at making "Wanted" into a "Fight Club"-style satire, but Bekmambetov's comic touch is lacking. I didn't laugh once at "Wanted," so even if the problem is just my sense of humor, that's a pretty big disconnect.

Some critics of "Wanted" are going to say that it's the victim of visual overkill. I'd say there's a difference between overkill and stylistic redundancy.

Assassins with the ability to make bullets bend at will? Well, that's stupid, but it's stupid *cool*. I dug it the first couple times it was demonstrated. I dug it when Wesley does it for the first time, bending a bullet around The Lovely Angelina. But after it's happened three, four, five, six times after that? It actually isn't cool anymore, because it apparently becomes something that anybody can do in any social circumstance with complete and total control over the bullets in question. By the end of the movie, what was initially special, is dull.

Two bullets smashing into each other in mid-air? Well, that's stupid, but it's stupid *cool*. And the first time it happened, I was all "WOOT!!!" Then, in the course of 10 minutes, it happens an additional three times. And just like that, the edge is off.

There are two or three other stylistic tics that Bekmambetov successfully drains the cool right out of. In "Night Watch," I was impressed by how rarely he repeated himself. In "Wanted," he can't seem to stop. And the speed with which his tricks wear out their welcome is amazing! I mean, It wasn't until half-way through the second "Matrix" movie that I began to doubt the Wachowskis had anything new to offer and two-thirds of the way through before I become offended.

Oh Good God this is long.

Point made, I guess. Or maybe "point stated for the record."

[OK... Last word... Total spoilers here. Vague, but total. The last scene of the movie is what screenwriters would call a "callback" to the first scene of the movie. The problem? The opening scene is set up as one thing and debunked without any alternative explanation being provided. What I'm saying is that it's a callback to the death of a man who's never identified and whose demise doesn't make a lick of different to the movie. It's a callback to NOTHING. I'd also emphasize that, unless I'm misremembering, it's a callback to a method of killing that Wesley shouldn't have had any knowledge of. He wasn't there and the killing method wouldn't have been in his father's records anywhere. And it isn't the first callback to that scene, since the breaking through glass with mosaic effect from the opening scene is also echoed. Again... A callback to NOTHING. That's just bad writing.]

[Finally, as I like to say, if you haven't read "Uncharted," go do that!!!!]

Saturday, June 28, 2008

MovieWatch: "Wall*E"

Director: Andrew Stanton
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 79
In a Nutshell: [After nearly six months of general cinematic disappointment and forcing myself out to see stuff like "Jumper" and "The Happening" just to keep my muscles flexing, I've had a couple really good days for movies. "The Pineapple Express," which I saw on Wednesday, is my favorite comedy of the year to date. And "The Dark Knight" is my favorite film overall. So what did that mean for my impressions of "Wall*E"?]

Two quick reactions from "Wall*E" that I wanna share.

#1: The closing credits -- an AWESOME survey of the history of art -- begin rolling and a kid next to me, probably three or four looks at his parents and says, "That was too long!"

#2: A group of college-ish kids are just gabbing up a storm about how they liked the movie and they're swapping the various visual references they caught -- "Blade Runner," "2001," "Toy Story" -- and how much they liked it. One finally says, "Yeah, but it was slow at the beginning and then it picked up." And his friends agreed.

I'm not necessarily sure I have commentary on either of those reactions. Or if I want to commit to either POV. Nor do I know how typical they're going to be. At 103 minutes, "Wall*E" isn't really a long movie by Pixar standards, but I'm not in any position to explain to a pre-schooler that 103 minutes isn't too long. Nor did I want to sit down and explain to the college students that the first 45 minutes of "Wall*E" were probably the most purely and magically cinematic I've seen at the movies in several years and that when "the pace picks up," that's when the movie becomes bland and conventional, to my mind.

More thoughts after the bump...

Click through...

For 45 minutes, without an iota of dialogue -- barring an obtrusive, expositional training video featuring a live-action Fred Willard, I mean -- "Wall*E" is a perfect silent movie. Our hero is an expressive walking trash compactor who -- like Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity -- far outlived his expected shelf life. Accompanied only by a disturbingly cute cockroach, he scuttles amidst the detritus of a human modernity, ineffectually cleaning up the mess the vacated people left of the planet. The Pixar team -- led by director Andrew Stanton -- give Wall*E an entirely original Earth to play around in, one that doesn't mimic any sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland cinema has previously offered. The key of "Wall*E" is that it isn't post-apocalyptic at all. When Earth ceased to be inhabitable, humanity made a half-hearted attempt to clean things up, but mostly abandoned the planet to cleaner-bots.

The real star is Ben Burtt, a legend of sound design. Not only does he sort of give Wall*E his limited voice, but the robot's every move is emotive and the landscape is aurally alive around him. Accompanied by the character's equally expressive eyes and limbs, it's no wonder that by the time Eve, an exploratory probe sent from humanity's interstellar outpost, arrives, audiences are in love with the main character. From there, we're even rooting for him to romance, even though part of us recognizes that what we're rooting for is for Number Five from "Short Circuit" to have sex with a flying iPod.

One of the essential tropes of silent comedy is a wonderment with new technology. In the works of Chaplin and Keaton and Lloyd, plots were frequently generated by the new gizmo of the moment, be it the car, the automated assembly line or, in several cases, the movie camera. Decades later, Jacques Tati would mine similar territory, as the writer-director-star's mostly wordless main characters would engage with the modern world as if it were something entirely unfamiliar. So many of those vintage silent or near-silent films can be boiled down to the theme: In a new world, there's always room for an old-fashioned man, while certain virtues -- that'd be "love," mostly -- never go out of style.

I really dig the alternative spin that "Wall*E" puts on that formula. Our hero lives in a bizarre world where it's been the technological present for nearly 700 years, where no advancements have been made at all, because nobody's been around to make them. With that stagnation in place, Wall*E's fascination isn't with the technology of the 21st or 22nd Century, whatever the peak of human engineering happened to be. He's nostalgic for a time before he existed. He looks at his peers as spare parts for when he has a malfunction, but he marvels at older equipment. If a Lloyd or Chaplin would find himself done in by something sleek and new, Wall*E is flummoxed by sporks and Rubix Cubes. He listens to old music and classical musicals and when he watches "Hello Dolly!" it's on a VHS cassette. Wall*E isn't exactly a Luddite, but he has a retro-appreciation. And he -- like Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton -- is a romantic.

I think it all has to do with two different versions of filmic storytelling separated by 80 or 90 years and conveying a similar message: The silent film greats used the developing medium of cinema to say, "Look, no matter how advanced things get, the core virtues of storytelling and romance aren't suddenly going to change." It's a view of the world that's both progressive and yet conservative. The Pixar ethos has always been the same. It says, "Yes, we're using computers and we're making animation look more and more like real life, but don't be freaked out! We aren't abandoning character and heart in the process."

That may be the most intelligent thing I have to say about the movie, so you may wanna quit now.

Anyway, on Earth "Wall*E" has a charm and a sweetness that's entirely irresistible. Up in space, on the massive Axiom spaceship, "Wall*E" loses some of its charm. Suddenly, "Wall*E" is often a supporting character in his own story, as the Pixar team can't resist the need to introduce humans and conversation into the story. The people, having been raised for many generations in zero-gravity, are fat blobs who travel on hover-chairs and eschew their actual surroundings for virtual reality.

It took me a bit of thought to figure out why the human segment of "Wall*E" doesn't work narratively and here's the best I can come up with: Wall*E is the hero of the story. He's our hero. He's EVE's hero. He's the hero to the motley "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" gang of malfunctioning robots he accidentally rescues. But the humans on the Axiom don't recognize that he's *their* hero. And, in reality, he isn't. Eve has a directive. Wall*E will do anything to help Eve. But Eve doesn't care about the people on the ship. So Wall*E doesn't care about the people on the ship. So why should *we* care about the people on the ship. What's the opposite of collateral damage? Where simply by virtue of being near something positive, uninvolved civilians benefit? Collateral Improvement? That's what the people on the Axiom get. They get a savior they didn't ask for and didn't want and a savior who doesn't have any interest in saving them.

As I think about it, Wall*E's lack of interest in the humans is interesting. As I said before, he loves him some "Hello Dolly!" but when he gets aboard the axiom, he makes no connection between the floating tubs of jelly he meets and the dancing, singing stars of his favorite movie. Why doesn't he? Why does the story not refocus around Wall*E helping humanity rediscover its musical energy? I wonder.

The political message in "Wall*E" is simultaneously laid on thick and unconvincing. Yes, it's about rolling up your sleeves and doing your part to clean up the world, but is it REALLY? Wall*E cleans up the world because that's what he's programmed to do and he picked up the green seedling because it's something different that he's never seen before. It's both simple and primal and it has nothing to do with what's right or wrong, ethically, so I highly doubt that children are going to come away having gotten that as a message. And there's absolutely zero chance that they will internalize the message about rampant consumerism and waste. As they put on their Wall*E shirts and eat their Wall*E snacks from their Wall*E lunchboxes, what are the odds that they'll pick up on a message about how it's wrong to bow to every trend pushed on you by marketers? I'm much more certain that "Ratatouille" will spawn a generation of wee foodies than that "Wall*E" is going to yield millions of little independent-minded Green Party voters.

My complaints about "Wall*E" are quibbles. They're the reason I only really, really liked it, rather than necessarily loving it. "Wall*E" does nothing to tarnish the Pixar image, nor to make one wonder what it is that Pixar is doing that no other animation company seems to understand. And it isn't just the storytelling, which has always been Pixar's trump card. Surely by this point some other company should have poached enough Pixar animators or hired enough art school hot shots to catch up on an artistic level, but "Wall*E" is in a different aesthetic league from "Kung Fu Panda," for example. And it's not a small gulf.

On to the next movie!

[Finally, as I like to say, if you haven't read "Uncharted," go do that!!!!]

Friday, June 27, 2008

MovieWatch: "Hancock"

Director: Peter Berg
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 62
In a Nutshell: [I've got a problem here. I just saw "The Dark Knight" last night and it's superior enough that I feel uninspired in my attempts to justify the things I liked about the sloppy, mal-edited mess that is "Hancock." But it's too soon to review "The Dark Knight" (it's gonna top 80 on the silly and arbitrary Fien Print ratings scale), so I've gotta do what I've gotta do. Let's say I liked "Hancock" in the moment, but it hasn't gotten better.]

So you hear about a cool new concept for a comic book and you rush out and buy the first issue. You're intrigued by the premise and the set-up, but then you realize that you're a 31-year-old man and 31-year-old men don't buy comic books. Several months later, you decide that it's completely acceptable for a 31-year-old man to buy comic books and you try to catch up on the comic book series you enjoyed so much, but you missed two issues and the store only has the fourth issue, the conclusion of the first story arc. Well, it started well and ended well. You can't help but feel like you'd have understood it more if you'd read the two middle issues. But whatever.

That never happens to me. I only read comics after some friend or another tells me I'm supposed to and I only read trade paperbacks, so the arcs are all together, nicely bound start-to-finish.

But I can imagine what it would feel like.

And I imagine it would feel an awful lot like "Hancock."

Going back to the comic book analogy, I may need to add some modifications. I'm also now going to need you to imagine that between the first issue and the fourth, there were a number of creative changes, some big and some little. Maybe just the inker changed. But maybe a new artist came on board and suddenly the characters started looking completely different. And finally, by the end, there was a new writer and artist and inker and everything. And through it all, you keep saying, "Yeah, but there are things I'm liking here..."

Yeah. That's "Hancock."

Full review after the bump...

Click through...

[This review contains a lot of rambling but, as I glance over it, almost no spoilers at all.]

The story of the pre-production on "Hancock" (formerly titled "Tonight, He Comes") is the stuff of industry legend. There was a script by Vincent Ngo. Over the course of a decade, it was rewritten by Vince Gilligan and polished by everyone from John August to Akiva Goldsman as one director (Jonathan Mostow) after another (Michael Mann) circles and chimed in on the project before it was finally helmed by Peter Berg. There was reportedly a longer, R-rated take on the movie that was tested and discarded because if you've got a Will Smith movie and it's coming out at the 4th of July, it has to be short and it can't be R-rated.

So "Hancock" will hit theaters at 92 minutes and PG-13 and I don't think either one of those things was a good idea for the creative integrity of the movie. But if "Hancock" makes $150 million over the long 4th of July weekend, I doubt anybody is going to be crying about soiled creative integrity.

At its core -- whoever was responsible for that core, I can't speculate -- "Hancock" has a really good premise. Smith plays Hancock, a misanthropic alcoholic superhero with anger-management issues and deep insecurities. Because he hates himself, he can't help but screw up his attempts at altruism. In order to become a true and beloved superhero, he has to learn to love himself. Enter an kind-hearted PR man (an oxymoron never really explained, but well-played by Jason Bateman), who understands that strategies to improve Hancock's image.

Comic fans won't necessarily think this premise is all that fresh. The funny books are full of reluctant superheroes, full of aspiring do-gooders who are treated as freaks by a general population incapable of dealing with anybody outside of the norm. That is, in fact, one of the major themes of "The Dark Knight."

Smith has no objections to playing Hancock as initially unsympathetic. It's almost impossible not to like Smith as an actor because he doesn't play by that Brad Pitt "I might look like I'm a movie star, but I'm really a character actor" rule where every other performance has to have funny hair or a weird accent. And he also isn't like Tom Hanks in that way that Tom Hanks went from frothy comic actor to Multiple Oscar Winner Tom Hanks by pounding his way through a series of aggressively award-baiting movies until we figured out that he was SERIOUS. Smith is happy to be a star and he's happy to give audiences exactly what they want out of him, but in the corner of his better performances, you sense that he's pushing himself. "I Am Legend" was a Will Smith action movie with zombie-vampire-CG-albinos, but my favorite scenes where the ones where he conveyed the stir-crazy confusion of a man without social contact for 1000 days. He wasn't over-the-top nutty. But he was still nutty.

I feel the same way about his performance here, where he initially plays Hancock's unkempt side for laughs, but actually performs things much more subtly as we see Hancock beginning to care and beginning to believe in himself. The movie gets darker as it progresses and Smith gets better, albeit less funny. I don't doubt, though, that audiences are going to prefer the funny, lewd Hancock to the more emotional material. And I don't doubt that the studio pushed the final cut in a direction that emphasized Will Smith cracking wise.

I think there were probably drafts of the "Hancock" script that made it into a full-fledged deconstruction of the comic book genre, taking apart the expectations society places on its heroes and finding the tragic-comic value in a man with the ability to save the world, but not the inclination. Instead, the movie verges on being a parody or satire on the genre, which makes it a broader, less intelligent and less satisfying thing. The closer the movie goes to broad, crowd-pleasing comedy the worse it gets. Hancock threatening to insert one character's head into another character's ass? Vaguely funny. Hancock actually doing the deed? Much less funny, even with the soundtrack from "Sanford and Son" inexplicably playing in the background.

I'd bet those moments will have audiences hooting and whooping in the aisles -- heck, there were even applause at the press screening -- but they make it harder to take anything that comes afterward seriously. And "Hancock" requires you to take it seriously, since the last act takes at least a stab at explaining the movie's overall mythology. But the reveals about Hancock's true identity feel truncated and ill-formed. They suddenly require that you accept the gravity of the characters and their situation, a gravity that's been downplayed by every previous editing decision.

But they kinda had to play up the broad comedy, since the final movie lacks in several things that usually push narratives forward. There's no love story. There's no single threatening villain (though I bet there was a version of the script, film worthy of the talents of Eddie Marsan as the semi-baddie). I believe on your basic Dramatic Conflict flow chart, "Hancock" goes down as "Man versus Self," which isn't a very popcorn movie notion, so it's been downplayed in the final cut.

While I get the feeling that the studio bulldozed Berg in the editing room, he was a fortuitous choice for the movie, as a director who's proven capable with comedy, drama and action, occasionally blending several genre elements in the same film. I think Berg's versatility is the reason why nearly every individual scene of "Hancock" plays pretty well in isolation. The funny parts *do* get laughs. The action parts *are* exciting. And thanks largely to Smith, Bateman and Charlize Theron, I can't say that I didn't care about the characters, at least bit.

Aesthetically, Berg has Michael Mann's jittery intimacy down pat -- everything's in close-up and everything's hand-held. The thing he doesn't have is the thing that -- occasionally at least -- elevates Mann, which is a compositional confidence that helps pull everything together and sell the movies as a whole.

In the end, I'm a lot split on "Hancock." I enjoyed the movie in the moment, couldn't refute a single claim from colleagues about its failings and then felt the desire to stick up for the poor little guy after both industry trade papers rushed out with harsh pans.

I can't defend "Hancock" as an overall picture. It wants to be many things, but doesn't quite succeed at being any of them. I *think* it wants to say things about the nature of heroism and altruism in the 21st Century, but ultimately it kinda doesn't.

Seeing "Hancock" on Monday, I already knew I was seeing "The Dark Knight" on Thursday. It was a light snack before the big meal. There's no reason why it shouldn't be the same for general moviegoers. And maybe the best argument I can make for seeing the film is that perhaps if it's a huge success, that will allow Berg to release a 110 minute, unrated director's cut. That's the cut I want to see.

[I also wanna add that this is one of those instances where I'm pretty sure my score for the movie is too high. My point? "Hancock" isn't as bad as some people are saying it is. Nothing more...]

Monday, June 23, 2008

WTF, EW? Notes on the Best 100 movies of the past 25 years

Another day, another list. Actually, another day another 30 or 40 lists, courtesy of the desperate-to-stay-in-business folks at Entertainment Weekly.

In this week's issue, the magazine lists 1000 random things. It's a good way to get page-views on the website and to stir up debate on the Internet. And, like every other good lap-dog, I'll take the bait. Mmmm... Bait... WORMY.

Before we go any further, here is the list of EW's 100 New Classics, or "the 100 best films from 1983 to 2008." It actually has 102 moves on it, because despite having 100 potential positions, the cowards at EW still insisted on lumping the entire "Lord of the Rings" trilogy into one movie. They didn't do the same for "Spider-Man" or the "Bourne" movies. Weenies. But that sort of refusal to make an actual choice is part of why the list stinks anyway.

One of my favorite expressions is "neither fish nor fowl" and the EW Top 100 list is neither fish nor fowl. It is, indeed, so nebulous and bland a list as to actually defeat its very purpose. Yes, EW wants the list to stir up discussion, but it's such a meaningless assemblage of movie names that there's almost no cause to argue. I don't get the impression the EW editorial staff knew what they were listing, so how can one reasonably say their list is wrong?

But I like to complain... Follow through after the bump for that complaining.

Click through...

With the EW list, the first and biggest problem is one of terminology. Are these the 100 films of the greatest cinematic merit of the past 25 years? Are they the films that were the most influential of the past 25 years? Are they the films that had the biggest impact on the overall popular culture? Are they the films that hold up best in a retrospective glance back over the past 25 years? Are they 100 films you need to have seen to claim more than two decades worth of cinematic literacy? The list seems to go back and forth and loses all meaning.

Look smack dab in the middle to see the split personality at work. At No. 46, you find "Children of Men," a movie that perhaps deserves higher placement on cinematic merit, but didn't necessarily impact the popular culture. Two places later, though, you find Brian DePalma's "Scarface," an atrocious movie on qualitative levels, but a piece of obvious lasting influence, particularly in the hip-hip community. And then, smack in the middle at No. 47, you get "Men in Black," a movie of negligible cinematic merit -- after a fun beginning it snoozes for nearly an hour -- no cultural impact and no meaningful place at all in the cinematic landscape. "Men in Black" -- a bit like "Beverly Hills Cop," which inexplicably sits at No. 61, 10 spots ahead of "Unforgiven" -- is nothing more than a successful popcorn movie. But there it is between the masterful ("Children of Men") and the influential ("Scarface") making you wonder what the standard of measurement was that brought them together.

The list is populist and inoffensive in the way you'd expect an Entertainment Weekly list to be and, as a result, it ends up making saying nothing. Why do a list like this at all if you're going to pussy out at the end.

The top movie of the last 25 years? "Pulp Fiction." Yawn. Leaving aside that in my book, "Pulp Fiction" goes behind both "Reservoir Dogs" and "Jackie Brown" (both excluded here) in Quentin Tarantino's body of work. But magazines have been calling "Pulp Fiction" the best film of the year, the decade, the century since the week after it opened. It's a movie that has been recognized and honored and celebrated to the point that recognizing it and honoring it and celebrating it accomplished nothing other than a reaction of, "Well duh." It produces exactly the sort of indifference that compilers of a list like this *ought* to want to avoid.

If you're making a list like this, you want to go out on a ledge and thumb your nose at the world as you declare...

"The Best Movie of the Past 25 Years Is 'Do the Right Thing.'" Then you can write a feature on how Spike Lee's critique of race relations in America is every bit as relevant today as 19 years ago, particularly as an African-American man is in a race for the White House. You talk about the integration of rap into mainstream cinema and the use of the commercial and music video aesthetic in Spike Lee's work. Some people disagree, but darnit... You said it.

Or you declare...

"The Best Movie of the Past 25 Years Is 'Three Kings.'" Then you can write a feature on how David O. Russell's movie is the smartest film about the first Iraq war and how it's an even smarter critique of our current failings in the Middle East. Then you say how even if you ignore the politics, it's still a smart, funny action movie and those don't get made nearly enough.

Hell, you declare...

"The Best Movie of the Past 25 Years Is 'Toy Story.'" I can't defend this one, but EW has it in the Top 5. So stand by it. Put your name on the DVD box. Own the position.

Entertainment Weekly can't own the position of calling "Pulp Fiction" the best movie of the past 25 years. It's a subjective decision and they've been scooped on it 1000 times over. They're just another voice in the chorus and if that makes the EW editorial staff happy, good for them. They listed 100 movies and said nothing.

But again... the terminology is meaningless.

Best movie from 1983 to 2008?

By my count, the list includes exactly five films in a language that isn't English. Better they should have made this a list of just the 100 best English language films of the past 25 years, because otherwise the editorial staff of EW is saying that in the past 25 years, no French or Italian or Japanese or Indian or Finnish or Russian filmmaker has made a SINGLE movie the equal of "Napoleon Dynamite." Is that really what this magazine wants to say? And the token foreign language choices are a bit silly anyway. If you're working with a 25 year period and you have one Pedro Almodovar movie to pick and you only choose the sanitized simplicity of "All About My Mother," that's a sign that you didn't really like Pedro Almodovar anyway.

And, by my count, the list includes exactly two nonfiction films. I won't get into putting "Crumb" higher on the list than "Hoop Dreams," though "Hoop Dreams" would have made my Top 10. But maybe they should have called the list the "100 best narrative, English-language films of the past 25 years." Because otherwise you're saying that Errol Morris hasn't made a movie better than "Napoleon Dynamite" in 25 years. Given the mainstream sensibilities at EW, I'm amazed that there isn't a token Michael Moore movie on the list, much less "An Inconvenient Truth" or "March of the Penguins." But I guess that if you're making room for "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery," it's hard to open things up for another couple documentaries. But since the list isn't called "100 movies that made us giggle and that were turned into popular t-shirts," I guess I expect more.

I'm amazed by the number of genuinely important or influential filmmakers who somehow didn't make the cute. So we include "Napoleon Dynamite" but not "Clerks" or "Chasing Amy"? You can't slip in something by Jim Jarmusch? No "Sweet Hereafter" or "Exotica" for Atom Egoyan? And no nod to David Cronenberg by putting "The Fly" at No. 100? No room for Michael Mann? And unless this has suddenly become 1996 all over again, putting "Natural Born Killers" as Oliver Stone's lone slot can't really be justified.

Since I can and would happily make the argument that "Three Kings" could have topped a list of this kind, I'm disappointed that it isn't actually here at all. And "Groundhog Day" should have been in the Top 20. If "Casino Royale," a solid action movie that runs at least 35 minutes too long, belongs there...

Strange. I think they're better movies than "Napoleon Dynamite."

25 other movies I might have included on the list: "Babe," "Quiz Show," "Pan's Labyrinth," "Election," "Before Sunset," "Hard-Boiled," "Shawshank Redemption," "The Usual Suspects," "Gremlins," "Something Wild," "Midnight Run," "The Untouchables," "True Romance," "The Return of the Jedi," "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," "Se7en," "Almost Famous," "City of Lost Children," "Bullets Over Broadway," "Big Night," "The Ice Storm," "Election" and "Wonder Boys."

I wrote that list in roughly a minute without giving any real thought. None of them are snotty, intellectual films. They'd all fit with the EW populist brand. They're just better movies than "Beverly Hills Cop." With your usual AFI list, I'd say I might want to replace 15 or 20 choices with my own favorites. With this EW list, I'd ditch half of the choices and start again.

I could also play all sorts of other games replacing and swapping films by various directors, but if those are the Paul Thomas Anderson or Coen Brothers movies EW wants, it's their list. If they think putting "Napoleon Dynamite" on a list like this makes them seem "cool" or "edgy" or "hip," I hope they gave a good long look at "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

Saturday, June 21, 2008

MovieWatch: "The Happening"

"The Happening"
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 15
In a Nutshell: Yesterday afternoon was hot and the smell of tar was seeping insidiously into my apartment, making my head swim and my stomach spin. I'd like to blame those factors for my decision to go out and see "The Happening," but I know that I probably would have gone even if my apartment had been cool and clean and I hadn't had an expiring coupon in my wallet for a free popcorn.

I mean, I've given up on Shyamalan. He's a hack. "The Sixth Sense" was just something flukish that happened -- and a movie that I didn't really like all that much, even at the time -- and "Unbreakable" was just an statistically anomalous deviation from the norm. After "Signs" and "The Village" and "Lady in the Water," it's clear that those three movies represent Shyamalan's expected level of output, not anything that came before and that expecting anything better at this point is just folly. Even the things that he once did well -- twist endings, moody atmospherics, acceptable cast performances -- are no longer in evidence.

And yet you keep wondering when he'll hit bottom. Or at least I do. And the amazing thing is that as bad as "The Village" and "Lady in the Water" were, "The Happening" is even worse. It's Ed Wood bad. Shyamalan has said in interviews that all he aspired to do with "The Happening" was make the best B-movie viewers had ever seen. But what does it mean that he made an awful B-movie?

There's more review after the bump.

Click through...

[OK. There's not much to spoil about the movie, since there are no surprises or twists. I am, however, going to give away most worthwhile details about the movie, so if you really want to someday see this movie without being spoiled, I'm afraid I'll urge you to stop reading now.]

[No, really. Spoilers.]

So yeah. Shyamalan is calling this his B-movie, but why did he make somebody foot a $60 million budget for the production? And where did that money go? I know Mark Wahlberg is a star, but even if he made $15 million, there's still $45 million floating around on a relatively ugly movie -- despite Tak Fujimoto behind the camera -- that includes almost no special effects or production design. If I were an auditor, I'd want to investigate how Shyamalan required $60 million for this, while Danny Boyle made "28 Days Later for $8 million. It's mighty profligate.

"The Happening" is Stephen King's "Cell" meets John Wyndham's "Day of the Triffids." That is to say that the movie's underlying message has something to do with humans failing to properly communicate in a modern age, but at the end of the day, it's about the terror that comes when the plants start to attack.

Yes. The fucking plants.

But these aren't active and aggressive killer plants like in "Triffids" or "Little Shop of Horror." These are lazy and nefarious plants that prefer to release chemicals to have us kill ourselves.

Step up, plants. If you ever want to control the world, you're going to have to get your little green hands dirty.

But I digress. Because the plants aren't actually walking through the streets whacking people with their poisoned tentacles, "The Happening" boils down to two types of scenes, one in which people who don't care about kill themselves and the other in which Shyamalan sticks the camera in Mark Wahlberg's nostril and asks him to express confusion and disbelief.

Now that we're forever required to call him "Oscar nominee Marky Mark," I don't begrudge Wahlberg for feeling that this is the right time to expand his comfortable limits. We know he can play the brash guy, the smart-ass guy, the guy from the streets. When Wahlberg is at his best, it's easy to figure why he works: He looks like a hard-edged tough, like a Marine, like a soldier, like a gangster. But his voice is soft and surprisingly high, it's a disarming counterpoint to the way he looks. But I think you can probably look through Wahlberg's performances and determine that the softer he has to play overall, the worse he is. He's not an Everyman. That's what his character in "The Happening" requires and Wahlberg is too far against type. Asking this man to play a passive intellectual, to play a near-cuckolded husband, to attempt to think on-screen is just a waste. But Shyamalan's ego is too big to realize. This is a man who got Bruce Willis to play soft, who made Paul Giamatti into a romantic lead, who got Mel Gibson to play Jewish! That last part isn't true. But still, Shyamalan puts Wahlberg in close-up and tries to show his inner tumult and gets nothing back in return. I can't begin to say how much better "The Happening" would have been with an Ed Norton or a Sam Rockwell or a Ryan Gosling in the lead. Hell, you make "The Happening" a Ryan Gosling vehicle and I bet it rises to the level of mediocre in an instant.

With Wahlberg, you aren't sure if you're suppose to laugh at his confusion. It's also hard to know how to react to Zoey Deschanel, whose indie-quirky mannerisms are at odds with the sort of wooden-nonresponsive performances Shyamalan prefers. While a dozen (or more) actors could have played Wahlberg's part, I'm not sure which actress could have retained dignity in Deschanel's role, so I sympathized with her on that level. Meanwhile, this was the first time I ever watched a Zoey Deschanel performance and though, "Boy, she looks like her sister Emily!" What can I say? I like me some "Bones."

There was a strange realization that I had maybe 40 minutes into the movie: Some of what Shyamalan is trying to do in "The Happening" is *intentionally* funny. Wait. No. That's putting it the wrong way, because it implies that what's happening on screen *is* funny and with intent. No, what I mean to say is that Shyamalan isn't intending for certain things in "The Happening" to be taken seriously. Frank Collison as the wacky hot dog-loving nursery owner? That's supposed to be a silly, over-the-top B-movie archetype, the crazed Cassandra figure. Jeremy Strong as the hyper-nervous military figure? That's supposed to be a silly, over-the-top B-movie archetype, the bumbling soldier.

Thinking back over Shyamalan's body of work, though, I can't think of any time he's every been effectively funny. Levity isn't a tone he understands. He's like Ah-nold's Terminator at the end of "T-2," valiantly committing career suicide in an effort to try comedy, saying, "I know now why you laugh, but it is something I can never do." The key to selling those moments or characters as comic is in contrast, but are those two aforementioned characters any more one-dimensional and intentionally silly than Spencer Breslin and Robert Bailey Jr. suddenly popping up as teen sidekicks engaging in really awkward conversations? And why are those over-the-top characters supposed to be funny, but we're supposed to be jarred and intrigued and maybe scared when Betty Buckley pops up as the reclusive Mrs. Jones? Poor Betty Buckly.

Shyamalan still has a potent eye at times, but he lacks confidence in his imagery. The bodies falling from the sky or hanging from trees make for a potent visual. But they should be chilling and not necessarily scary, per se. Shyamalan uses the soundtrack, both the over-amplified foley work and James Newton Howard's score, to try to make viewers jump.

Why does he need to do that? "The Happening" isn't even vaguely scary. The entire second half of the movie boils down to characters fleeing from the breeze. Oh no! The ferns are gonna get me! But Shyamalan keeps pushing for those scares, keeps setting up his shots as if something terrifying will be there around the next corner, but every one of those loaded Hitchcockian angles is a cheat that he never intends to pay off. Because he can't. He can't change the fact that... again... it's just the wind and a bush.

The glory of the 1950s creature features that Shyamalan would have done well to better emulate is that as absurd as it might have been for an ant to become gigantic and terrorize a town, you just needed to say the word "nuclear accident" and viewers were on board. On one hand, Shyamalan wants to drive home a point that nature is hard to explain and we still don't understand why the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees operate the way they do. And he tosses out chemical spills and terrorism and nuclear accidents as convenient scapegoats that, in this case, fail to provide adequate explanations. It's an environmental thriller, but after the first act, he doesn't blame global warming or climate change or anything like that, so the asinine critics calling this a horror movie that only Al Gore could love are reading in explanations that Shyamalan purposely avoids. If, however, the culprit is impossible to comprehend... STOP TRYING TO MAKE US BELIEVE IT COULD HAPPEN. Characters keep providing botanical evidence and real world precedent, telling stories that seem really out of place in context, but the more that somebody tries telling me that something like this really could happen, the more I stop and go "Not like this, it couldn't." Because Shyamalan can't decide if he wants to make nature unknowable or if he wants to anthropomorphize it to the point at which plants have strategies, motivations and desires. And once you're anthropomorphizing the plants to that degree, they might as well sing and dance.

And in the place of a twist ending, Shyamalan substitutes two talking heads on a television screaming at each other about the events of the movie, again trying to explain how unexplainable everything is. As I look back at my Zap2it review for "Lady in the Water," I complain about the exact same thing. Shyamalan's movie's all have a thematic undercurrent about belief and faith, but the filmmaker refuses to trust that his audiences will fully believe in him.

The more you say, the less things are still spooky.

But Shyamalan can't resist blabbing. For a script with so little actual dialogue, at least 80 percent of it is superfluous. How many times must Wahlberg say, "Oh my god!" How many times, in the midst of a horrifying global event, must Deschanel's character lean over and say, "I'm scared." We know! Or Deschanel's standing in a parking lot. She and Wahlberg are looking for a car. Deschanel says, "There's a car," at the exact second that a car pulls up directly next to her in the lot.

There are times where it really seems like Shyamalan doesn't get the English language. Like John Leguizamo's character is saying where his unseen wife is heading and he says something like, "She's going to New Jersey, to the town of Princeton." "To the town of Princeton." As if long-term residents of Philly needed clarification that Princeton is a town. In New Jersey. It's strange that the addition of one or two extra words in a sentence would irk me so, but Shyamalan's characters do that all the time and it's just not the way people talk.

And groups don't behave the way Shyamalan seems to think. In at least three moments of chaos, every time one person talks, the rest of the group is silent. Then, when one person declares, "Let's go," the group bolts out the door in unison. He has no understanding of group-think or mob-mentality or the ways that people under stress respond to this sort of communal horror.

The only *good* part of that shortcoming is that Shyalaman never lets "The Happening" become a 9/11 parable. The Evil Plants aren't stand-ins for The Terrorists. It's almost appealingly naive and post-ironic how Shyamalan uses bodies falling from the top of a building as an visual with no referentiality to the people jumping from the World Trade Center. The image has become iconic, but Shyamalan is stubborn enough to ignore it.

OK. I'm at the point where I could either ramble on, or I could go to the gym.

I've given this movie more time than it deserves already...

[Finally, as I like to say, if you haven't read "Uncharted," go do that!!!!]

Friday, June 20, 2008

Is Curt Schilling a Hall of Famer?

Readers of this blog know that I'm a Red Sox homer. And people who have been to baseball games with me in recent years know that I'm prone to wearing my official MLB Curt Schilling jersey. Just for fun. And the most exciting game I've ever been to was Curt Schilling's near-no-hitter last June.

I mean, I love Curt Schilling despite the fact that I often really really really wish he'd, um, shut up.

So today, with Schilling discussing his pending surgery and potential retirement with just about anybody who would listen -- If you wanna do an interview, Curt, I'm game -- I took pause.

If Schilling never throws another pitch, he retires with 216 wins, 3116 Ks and a lifetime 3.46 ERA. More than that, he retires as The Guy With The Bloody Sock, a postseason warrior who will never need to buy another drink in New England as long as he lives. He's got three World Series rings. He'll go out with a reputation as a Big Game Stud.

But does he belong in the Hall of Fame?

Follow through after the bump for some rambling. And if you don't care, a movie-related post'll probably be up tonight or tomorrow...

Click through...

I started watching baseball in the early-to-mid-80s and when I think of the Big Game pitchers of my youth, the hurlers whose baseball cards I stockpiled, none of them are in the Hall.

I think of Dave Stewart (168-129, 3.95 ERA), of Bret Saberhagen (167-117, 3:34 ERA), of Orel Hershiser (204-150, 3.48 ERA) of David Cone (194-126, 3.46 ERA). None of those guys are going to the Hall. Want me to try a ridiculous comparison as I think back to the big-time pitchers of my youth? Try Dave Stieb, with his 176 wins and only 137 losses despite playing the first half of his career on some of the worst teams in baseball history. Stieb's lifetime ERA? 3.44. He was a seven-time All-Star (Toronto was short on options in those early years) and was in the Cy Young Top 10 four times, same as Schilling. And nobody in their right mind took Dave Stieb seriously as a Hall of Famer. But growing up? He was a favorite of mine.

The guy I really think of most, though, is Jack Morris. I've argued Morris' case before and, in this context, I'll do it again. A record of 254-186 and a difficult-to-question status as the best pitcher of the '80s, which I acknowledge is an arbitrary distinction. His ERA of 3.90 was high and his strikeouts (2478) were low. He was in the Top 5 in Cy Young voting five times, which is one more than Schilling.

In the postseason, he'll always have the 10-inning CG-SHO Game 7 win from 1991. That's about as defining a single performance as you could possible get. But he also won a world series in 1984 with the Tigers and another in 1992 with the Blue Jays. Granted that he had NOTHING to do with that 1992 title, as he lost three games in that postseason, but he won two games in each of his prior World Series and threw three complete games. He was a horse. He was THE horse.

Want another comparison who seems valid to me and isn't in the Hall? How about a Mickey Lolich, whose stat line reads 217-191, 2832 Ks, 3.44 ERA, 195 CG, 41 SHO. Remarkably similar to Schilling's on several levels. And Lolich had his best individual seasons after the pitching mound was lowered post-1968. When he retired, no lefty in baseball history had more Ks.

But if we let the bloody sock and the co-Series MVP make Schilling a Hall of Famer, surely Lolich's 1968 World Series should carried equal weight? He won three games, completing all of them. And facing off against the greatest single-season pitcher the game has ever seen, he beat Bob Gibson in Game 7. Lolich was in the Hall discussion, but he never REALLY threatened induction.

Baseball Reference's most similar pitchers to Schilling? Kevin Brown, Bob Welch, Hershiser and Mike Mussina. Obviously "similarity" doesn't take intangibles into account, but still...

But who, from the current generation of starting pitchers, is going to make the Hall of Fame?

The Three Braves are locks. Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz should retire after this season and they should all go into Cooperstown together, albeit with the tacit acknowledgment that if Smoltz hadn't done the closer thing for three-and-a-half seasons, he wouldn't have saved his arm for those last three seasons as a starter and his Hall status would be cloudier. And perhaps there should be some tacit acknowledgement that the Braves REALLY ought to have won more than one World Series with a starting rotation led by three first-ballot Hall of Fame pitchers.

Who else?

Randy Johnson's easy. Pedro Martinez is easy, though his window-of-dominance was nearly Koufax-esque in its brevity.

Since I've been outspoken in my support of the Hall of Fame candidacies of Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, I can't be a hypocrite on Roger Clemens. He'd get my vote.

But who else?

Mussina? That 260-148 record is utterly insane, but the lack of World Series titles and 20-win seasons is pretty crazy, too. Mussina has been a very good pitcher for 15 years. But do you realize that he hasn't had an ERA under 3.00 for a season since his first full season in the bigs? If he sticks around for two or three years, he'll probably get near-ish to 300 wins and he'll probably pass 3000 Ks. But was Mike Mussina a better pitcher than Tommy John? Or Bert Blyleven? Or Jim Kaat? Just asking... Was he a better pitcher than Schilling?

Things are going to get even worse after that. Look at the great pitchers in their low 30s... Tim Hudson's hit a wall. Roy Oswalt may have hit a wall. Roy Halladay's a horse, but he gets hurt every year. There's a very plausible reality that the career statistical measures for pitchers are going to have to be dramatically realigned after Mussina retires. Johan Santana has been the best starting pitcher in baseball for six years, but he finds himself at 29 with only 100 career wins.

My point? If you look back by the standards of baseball history, Schilling really is *not* a Hall of Famer. Or other people need to get in first for me to be satisfied. But looking forward, if Schilling isn't the standard by which you judge a Hall of Fame pitcher, pitchers may never be inducted ever again.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

WTF, AFI? Notes on 10 AFI Top 10s

It's a pretty pointless thing that movie bloggers do whenever the AFI launches its latest Top 100 list. We rant and rave as if any Top 100 list other than our own would have satisfied us. And, if I'm being honest, I probably wouldn't like my own Top 100 list very much either, depending on what side of the bed I happened to wake up on.

Thankfully, the AFI's new list-o-rama is typically contestable, as its broken things down to 10 individual Top 10 lists in a variety of genres. One could certainly get plenty irked by the choice of genres, but they categorization within each genre and then by the actual selections. Then there are all of the usual AFI problems about lamentably absent older films, lamentably absent recent films and the weird definitions of what constitutes an "American" film anyway.

Some of the genres I'm maybe 80% or 90% happy with. Then there are the two genres in which my favorite films didn't even make the Top 10. And then there's the genre that never should have been included at all.

I've already copied down each of the Top 10 lists for my straight-forward Zap2it news story, so I'm not going to do that again here. But after the bump, I'll do a quick assortment of complaints for each genre. It's what I do.

Click through...

Animation: I'm just going to say it: "Snow White" is overrated. Wildly. It's a movie with maybe two or three memorable sequences elevated by its "FIRST!!!!" status. But the AFI voters have always thumbed their noses at plenty of other "FIRST!!!" movies, things like "Birth of a Nation." I guess I'm fine with "Snow White" making the Top 10 in general, but it's in the top spot by default. Then again, I'm problematic because I happen to truly believe that "Dumbo" is the true and unrecognized peak of Disney animation and it would have received my top vote. I'd have given my top Pixar slot to "The Incredibles," which also didn't make the list. Plus I'm part of the group that figures "Toy Story 2" is a better movie than the first "Toy Story." So sue me. Would I have pulled "Shrek" and "The Lion King" to make room for "Iron Giant" and maybe "An American Tail"? Very possibly.

Romantic Comedy: The best romantic comedy ever made, if you ask me, is Billy Wilder's "The Apartment." It's not here so that AFI voters could vote for freakin' "Sleepless in Seattle." To my mind, that's inexcusable. I'd also advocate extremely strongly for "Bringing Up Baby," for something Rock Hudson/Doris Day-y ("Pillow Talk"?) and for "Say Anything." There also has to be something better than "Roman Holiday" out there, y'all. There has to be. But AFI voters love that dinky movie. I'm trying to think of other viable alternatives to "Sleepless in Seattle." Something with Julia Roberts, maybe? "Notting Hill"? Is "Sherlock Jr" a romantic comedy? I think it probably is and an addition silent film would help the list.

Western: This is perhaps my favorite of the AFI categories just because I have no problems keeping #s 1-9. I might do a little shuffling here or there, but I'm OK with them. "Cat Ballou" is just silly here. That does, however, leave just one position to be filled by something like "Rio Bravo," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "My Darling Clementine" or even "The Last Picture Show," which was categorized here by the AFI. Then you get into issues of why, exactly, "The Third Man" or "Lawrence of Arabia" are fair game and "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" isn't. I'd pick "Liberty Valance" for my #10 slot.

Sports: I know that it makes people like Billy Crystal get weak in the knees as the weep over their childhood Bronx memories, but "The Pride of the Yankees" is a bad movie. Not a so-so movie or a mediocre movie. It's BAD. Everything else in that Top 10 is lessened because of it, which is too bad, because eight of the 10 (assuming you happen to agree that "Jerry Maguire" is a sports movie) are perfectly satisfying. I'd pull "Yankees" and "National Velvet." That would then give me room for "Slapshot" or "Karate Kid" or "The Natural" or "Tin Cup" or "Miracle" or "The Rookie" or "Friday Night Lights" or, if we need an older movie, Harold Lloyd's "The Freshman."

Mystery: Even if I disagree with some of the ordering and some of the selections, this is a good list of 10 movies. VERY good. I'd put "Chinatown" over "Vertigo," but I won't hate you if you prefer the Hitchcock. I would also move "The Third Man" up to three and "North by Northwest" to four. I wouldn't cry over losing "Laura" entirely, nor "The Usual Suspects," though I really appreciate both movies. I'd also question how, exactly, "Blue Velvet" comes to be a mystery. But I'll leave it there. But you have to get the Coen Brothers onto one of these lists somewhere and Mystery would be the right home for "Blood Simple" or "Fargo" or even "The Big Lebowski." I also wouldn't quibble with something out of left field here, like Brian DePalma's "Blow Out." This could also be the home for something like "L.A. Confidential." Is "Touch of Evil" a mystery? It ought to be. Oooh and since "Citizen Kane" didn't make the cut anywhere else, how about putting it up here?

Fantasy: I really can't deal with the weird assortment of movies in this category. I have no way of comparing "Groundhog Day" to "King Kong" to "Miracle on 34th Street" to "Lord of the Rings." And I don't know how the voters did either. Perhaps this was the category, though, where a superhero movie could have made the cut? The Donner "Superman" maybe? Is this where "Babe" should have been? If so, that's Top 5 for me. Based on the other films that appeared to be on the ballot, I could have found room for one or two out of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?," "Purple Rose of Cairo" and maybe "Brazil."

Sci-Fi: Look, I just don't like "2001." Sorry. It maybe comes in at No. 10 on my ballot as a nod to convention. In fact? Pull it entirely. And pull "The Day the Earth Stood Still," which isn't a bad movie but still... I'd also replace the original "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" with the '70s Phillip Kaufman version, but that's just me. I'd also pull "A New Hope" with "Empire Strikes Back." But given two fresh spots, what would I add? The David Cronenberg version of "The Fly," for sure. Since the ballot included "The Invisible Man" and the list needs a bit more seasoning, I'd add that too. But I'd accept arguments for "The Matrix," Planet of the Apes" and, in particular, "Children of Men."

Gangster: I put "Godfather II" over "Godfather I" every time, but so it goes. The real abomination here, obviously, is the Pacino "Scarface," which goes far below "The Untouchables" on my list of 1980s DePalma gangster movies. That's gone from my list. I'm also not a huge fan of "The Public Enemy." And I'd put "Reservoir Dogs" in ahead of "Pulp Fiction." So again, that leaves me with two new spaces to fill. The first slot goes to "Miller's Crossing" and the second to "Touch of Evil," which was categorized here by the AFI. Strangely, the AFI also had "Some Like It Hot" in the Gangster genre. So be it. It still doesn't make my list.

Courtroom Drama: Why was *this* the genre AFI decided to do? Why not war movies? Prison movies? Movies about movies? Or so many others... Because this is a totally mediocre Top 10, compiled mostly of serviceable and boxy filmed plays with minimal cinematic merit. "In Cold Blood" may actually be the best of the flat lot and, if memory serves, it doesn't spend much time in the courtroom at all. But when you're stuck with "Kramer vs. Kramer" at No. 3, you've just got to go back to the drawing board. And the choices people didn't vote for weren't much better. This is just dismal.

Epic: First off, y'all, enough with the revisionist hatin' on "Gone With the Wind." If the category is "epic," it comes in right behind "Lawrence of Arabia" in my book. I don't think either of the Heston movies are good enough to deserve a place on this list and I don't think either of the Spielberg movies are really "epics" per se. The standard appears to have been "Long movies set in the past." Of the movies on the ballot that didn't make the cut, I'd have voted for "Apocalypse Now" and anything affiliated with David Lean, which means "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Doctor Zhivago."

[Finally, as I like to say, if you haven't read "Uncharted," go do that!!!!]

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Airplane MovieWatch: "Spiderwick Chronicles" and "Fool's Gold"

The way I reckon it, you never want to actually get a *good* movie on an airplane. You don't want to have to think about the movie or to get so involved that when the woman next to you has to go to the bathroom three times in 90 minutes you want to throttle her because she's interrupting your dime-sized cinematic experience.

You want movies like "The Spiderwick Chronicles" or "Fool's Gold," movies that are either innocuously pleasant or so brain-deadly awful that they'll kill time without excessive investment. But not as brain-deadly awful as "Rush Hour 3." Even bored on an airplane, I couldn't make it through more than 30 minutes of that one.

Side note before I talk briefly 'bout the two movies that got me to Chicago and back: Is there a revolt coming against the airlines? Like a bloody, pitchfork-waving revolt? The number of levels on which air-travel keeps declining is stunning and the number of levels on which it's about to start sucking -- $15 first bags, $2 cans of Coke -- keeps growing. I know that the price of gas is crippling, but there can't be any excuse for the levels of fraud and rudeness that accompany even a basic four-hour direct flight. And none of the airlines is innocent. Except maybe for JetBlue. I've only flown JetBlue once and it was a really good flight.

Anyway, some quick thoughts on "The Spiderwick Chronicles" and "Fool's Gold" after the bump...

Click through, if you care...

"The Spiderwick Chronicles"
Director: Mark Waters
Fien Print Rating: 66
In a Nutshell: Very rarely original, but completely satisfying as an effects-heavy movie for kids, "Spiderwick Chronicles" wasn't a movie I had much interest in paying $10 bucks to see in the theaters, but it exceeded most of my expectations. You can't go wrong with Mary-Louise Parker, even though I didn't exactly understand how she and Andrew McCarthy produced three children with European accents (or two children and one duplicate).

But wait. What the heck was Nick Nolte even doing in this movie? I mean, Roberto Benigni stole his Oscar and that was it? He just lost it? I take that back. I just said the other day that I liked his over-the-top performance in "Hulk." Nevermind.

I couldn't tell on the tiny screen how the effects were, but they didn't aspire to much more than intimate, low-scale cuteness or scariness, so I didn't have much to complain about there.

And the writing was much sharper than I'd have guessed. Do I credit John Sayles for adding enough color that the relationship between the kids and newly single mom felt fresh and believable? I think so.

As a director, Mark Waters is a proficient journeyman, a categorization I don't figure as an insult. He adds little and screws up little.

"Fool's Gold"
Director: Andy Tennant
Fien Print Rating: 23
In a Nutshell: I contrast Waters with Tennant, whose filmmaking touch is leaden. One of my very first posts on this blog was, if memory serves, a meditation on just some of the awfulness of "Hitch." And "Fool's Gold" is worse than "Hitch."

It's one thing to wonder how one director after another has worked to drain Kate Hudson of the appeal that seemed so natural in "Almost Famous." It's another thing that directors keep taking chances on Matthew McConaughey when the actor decided at least a decade ago that he won't do anything other than coast on his abs and charm, utterly ditching the potential he showed in "Dazed and Confused" and "Lone Star" and "A Time to Kill."

As bad as that is, "Fool's Gold" has what may go down as the worst written and directed scene I've seen at the movies in years. For those who have seen it, it's the sequence where Hudson and McConaughey sit down with Donald Sutherland's wealthy benefactor and explain the story of the treasure they're seeking. It's at least five minutes and possibly ten of pure, horribly scripted exposition about Spanish history or some nonsense during which none of the characters even move. The camera just cuts from one medium shot to another as the actors read paragraphs of dialogue that mean NOTHING. If you're a writer, why do you need more than "There was a Spanish galleon that went down with millions of jewels. Nobody's seen it since" to set off your plot? The decision to insert little "National Treasure"-style historical clues and graverobbing only showcases how thin the movie's storytelling and action are.

Two good things about the movie:

At the very end, Hudson and McConaughey crash into the water in a seaplane. Now since this is a romantic comedy, they aren't going to die or really be in any jeopardy at all, so we know they're going to be fine. But since this was an airplane edit, there was a fade to black after the characters realize they don't know how to fly. Then two seconds of black and a cut to the characters swimming in the water relieved. That censoring was silly enough to amuse me.

And also silly enough? The performance by Alexis Dziena as the spoiled socialite daughter of Sutherland's character. It's a wooden subplot that provides yet more filler (three credited writers couldn't come up with anything better), but Dziena is bizarrely alive and funny despite not having a single funny line to say or action to perform. It's like she was just allowed to do whatever she wanted and rather than doing the latest in an endless line of Paris Hilton impressions, she did something weirder and less explainable.

Anyway, that's all...

I'm still trying to formulate an opinion on "Kung Fu Panda" that goes deeper than "I wish the whole movie had been animated in the style of the opening dream sequence." I'll let you know if I get there.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

MovieWatch: "The Incredible Hulk"

"The Incredible Hulk"
Director: Louis Leterrier
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 59
In a Nutshell: Summer movies are supposed to be visceral things, they're supposed to be pleasing and accessible in the least complex way possible. This summer's movies, though, have been all about the management of expectations. You expect "Iron Man" to be another awful comic book movie? You come out overjoyed! You expect "Iron Man" to be the masterpiece a strange cadre of critics have dubbed it? You come out disappointed. You lower your expectations for "Indiana Jones and the Quest for Profit"? It comes out satisfying. You rewatch Spielberg's first two Indy movies and suddenly you're underwhelmed again.

"The Incredible Hulk" is yet another movie where viewer response will be completely conditional based on what they're expecting going in. Did you hate the Ang Lee "Hulk" because it was excessively pretentious and too rich in Freudian undertones? Have you read about star Edward Norton's original plan to distance himself from the final cut? Were you bored and annoyed by the original trailers Universal put out? If you fall into one of those three groups, you're probably going to enjoy "The Incredible Hulk" as the effects laden summer romp it intends to be.

But what if you actually liked the Ang Lee "Hulk"? What if you were in the crowd at New York Comic-Con and saw the rapturous response from fanboys? What if you've read Harry Knowles or Peter Bart's orgasmic reviews? Expect to come away disappointed.

So this'll just be one of those reviews where I try figuring out where I stand and acknowledge that, as always, your results will vary. Follow through after the bump for a full review.

Click through...

The first thing to note is that, darnit, I dug the Ang Lee "Hulk." Right up until the Hulk versus Giant Electrical Id climax, I actually think it's a pretty great spin on the comic book movie, full of complex ideas and actual motivated characters. I loved Nick Nolte's ridiculously hammy performance and was interested by what Eric Bana brought to the table. Editor Tim Squyres and cinematographer Frederick Elmes brought unexpected technical mastery to the property.

But enough about that. I went into "The Incredible Hulk" expecting a disaster and was pleased to discover that it wasn't a disaster.

I'm not a huge Louis Leterrier fan, but I thought both "Transporter" movies were very acceptable they-are-what-they-are action B-movies and "Unleashed" actually hinted at something more. And it's to Leterrier's credit that the opening act of "The Incredible Hulk" plays as well as it does. Set in an overcrowded residential neighborhood in the Brazilian hills, the opening scenes start off CG-free, but they do a good job of establishing Norton's Bruce Banner in exile, a man trying to learn to control his anger issues, while also trying to learn Portuguese. These scenes represent an excellent and semi-organic use of a location I'm not sure I've seen in this type of movie, more reminiscent of a Bourne-style set piece than anything else. The Brazil sequence ends with the first arrival of The Hulk and, from there, the movie is downhill. Maybe, really, it's even downhill from the opening credits, which do away with a belabored origin story with quick-cutting flair.

That doesn't mean that it stinks, or anything, but is one of those cinematic instances where probably a savvier filmmaker would have been more successful in working around the limitations of his CG. There have been plenty of jokes about how odd it is that the new Hulk appears to be even less convincing than the Ang Lee version five years back. I don't think that's exactly true. The problem is that as decent as the effects are, they're not quite good enough to stand up to intense and prolonged scrutiny, so the less we see of the Hulk, or the more Leterrier uses editing to space out the creature's performance, the better it is. But the more I'm forced to stare at him, the more I wonder at just how little connection there is between the Hulk's face and Norton's, for example. Ang Lee's Hulk looked interestingly like Bana, enough so that we could understand how the one could become the other. Hulk looks like Hulk and Norton looks like Norton. But at least Hulk stays the same size for the entire movie, which will make some geeks happy.

And the movie goes from using Hulk sparingly to the end where Leterrier just becomes the latest director to go down that "Oh well, let's just let the two CG critters battle it out" path. And let me just say that the final battle between CG Hulk and CG Abomination is actually much better than the climax of "Iron Man," if only because it's louder, more chaotic and louder. Seriously, did I mention it's loud? That's pretty much the defining characteristic of that last showdown.

While Norton has publicly taken full credit for the script, it's Zak Penn who gets the sole credit onscreen. He's trimmed most of the subtext that made Lee so very giddy. Lee's take on Banner's repressed anger was all about contemporary masculinity and Oedipal pressures. Penn's is just about a guy who sometimes gets angry in socially destructive ways. It's about as thin a pull as you could possibly imagine. Even the scene of Banner talking to lady-love Betty's (Liv Tyler) new shrink boyfriend (Ty Burrell) has been cut because it was too probing and psychologically relevant. To heck with that.

The only undercurrent in the movie has something to do with the merging of biotech and military entities. William Hurt's General Ross wants to use science to create super-soldiers, but nobody gets dark enough to make any sort of Halliburton/Black Water resonances come into play.

While Norton is a better actor than Bana, his version of Banner isn't as interesting. In fact, I'd have hoped for more from Norton, an actor who has always gravitated toward showy roles that expose the duality of the human condition. He's already had three or four roles where he essentially was playing two different people and it's disappointing that Norton keeps the Hulk entirely out of his interpretation of Banner. Or maybe it's unexpected, like Norton knew we'd expect that sort of ACTING, so he subverts that by retreating entirely inside himself.

William Hurt also proves a mighty internalized Gen. Ross, much less wily than Sam Elliott's Ross in the Lee film, but probably a more believably bad father. I wonder if I could accept William Hurt playing somebody's awesome father. The thing is, I completely believe that Hurt has a "Big Lebowski"-style awesome comic character in him, perhaps as the WASP-y father or father-in-law in a Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach movie? Just a suggestion?

While I may not have raved about the eventual computer incarnation of The Abomination, Tim Roth's Emil Blonsky is a truly interesting character, decently embodied by Roth who, like Hurt, is pretty much capable of doing this kind of role in his sleep. Although Penn's (or Norton's) script delves only superficially into the effect of this sort of near-infinite power on a meek and scientific man, we get a much more interesting source of how a career soldier like Blonsky might respond.

Might I suggest that Blonsky's character is Barry Bonds-esque? He's basically this brilliant fighting machine who's had to watch his body go through the inevitable attrition, even though his intellectual processes have become more honed. Given the opportunity to put his ever-sharpened mind into the body of a younger and more powerful man thanks to an unproven and probably dangerous procedure, he doesn't hesitate. All Blonsky's ever been is a soldier and faced with the Hulk, who wields unwanted strength with only brute intelligence, he takes the opportunity without hesitation. Roth's diminutive stature only plays into the character, especially when he's standing next to Hurt, a very very very tall man. Roth made such a substantial character out of so little that I lost interest when the man vanished into pixels.

Wait. Does that make Bruce Banner into a Mark McGwire figure? I'm gonna say he's probably Brady Anderson-esque. How's that for a clumsy metaphor? It works! I swear!

Another weird acting note: What's up with Martin Starr appearing in two shots? Was he loitering around the set? And, more interestingly, how did Michael K. Williams end up appearing in exactly one shot, for less than two seconds of screentime? For that dozen "Wire" fans who watch the movie, that'll prove a weird distraction, though if reach for popcorn at the wrong time or blink, you won't even know he was there. Conversely, Stan Lee's extended cameos in Marvel pictures have begun to annoy me. Yes, I know. Stan Lee is a God. Don't think I don't know that. But his appearances get the same knowing chuckle from the same four or five hardcore fans in every movie and they ultimately add nothing. Haven't we reached the point at which we can play around with the nature of Lee's cameos? Hitchcock, after all, had fun with how he was used in movies. Sometimes he'd appear right in the middle of the screen and practically wink at the audience, but other times he'd be in the background and the camera would barely catch him. I'm more tolerant of Lou Ferrigno's much-longer-than-it-needs-to-be cameo, because, well, Lou Ferrigno probably needs the money.

[Spoiler-ish: Universal has made the somewhat explicable, somewhat perplexing decision to play up Robert Downey Jr's appearance as Tony Stark, making it the lead image in the latest trailer. Yes, this helps a movie that needs buzz capitalize on the buzz remaining around the year's biggest hit. It also opens the door for disappointment when viewers discover that Stark has *almost* nothing to do with the movie and the character of Iron Man has even less. If you ask me, Downey's appearance should have been allowed to spread as a little Easter Egg like Sam Jackson's visit at the end of "Iron Man." If you hear something is coming, but you don't know for sure, whatever you get is a treat. If you know for certain that the treat is coming, but it's such a small mouthful that the flavor doesn't even linger, you experience disappointment. Disappointment leads to bad word-of-mouth. The *last* thing a Hulk-based movie needs is bad word of mouth, even if the movie itself isn't so bad at all. So don't expect much Tony Stark. And don't expect *any* of Sam Jackson's Nick Fury, except for a quick name check.]

[And lastly, if you haven't read "Uncharted," go do that!!!!

Or, for an alternative spin on things, my bud Andrew "Call Me Drew" Melbourne has reversed the equation and written a theme song for "Lost" in the flavor [albeit not necessarily rhyme or rhythm] of "Gilligan's Island."]

Monday, June 02, 2008

'Uncharted': It's 'Gilligan's Island' Meets 'Lost'

I didn't blog on the finale for "Lost," though I fall very much into the "That was a good episode of TV, but it didn't change my life or anything" category.

For whatever reason, though, it got me thinking and got my creative juices flowing in really odd ways.
This is the result.
I wasn't exactly sure what to do with it, but as Sepinwall pointed out, if you write something, might as well put it up on the blog.

Well, it's 22 pages and I don't know if anybody feels like reading 22 pages on this blog (neatly embedded, I should add)... Let's just say that the subject line gives only a hint of what to expect.

If you follow through after the bump, I'll transport you to the world of... "Uncharted."

Click through...

And, before you continue, if the embedded version is too small (and it sure looks too small to me), you can click straight over to the Scribd version of the script here.

And forgive any typos. This was written fast...

[There's also appears to be a little "full-screen-y" button that'll make the doc blow up all "full-screen-y." Go figure.]

Read this doc on Scribd: Uncharted