June 10, 2011

Super 8 (Filmed on Fruit Roll-Ups)

**Warning: this film review contains a picture of a guy with glasses so huge he makes blind hipsters look like unironicly dressed fighter jet pilots. And I'm not even talking about JJ Abrams. You have been warned.**

When you were younger, did you ever watch Jurassic Park? ET? The Goonies? Poltergeist? Close Encounters of the Third Kind?

I am going to assume you haven't just come out of hiding in the Rockies where you lived in a shack and sent package bombs to industrialists in your spare time, so therefore your answer is yes.

If you remember anything about these films, you'll understand what J.J. Abram's new film, Super 8, is all about. Super 8 focuses on a group of kids making a film in small town Ohio, when suddenly a train accident drags an unexpected monster right into their shot. Super 8 drips with nostalgia, but not for the period the film represents, but for the film styles of the late seventies and early eighties. This film harkens (yes, harkens) back to a time when movies with kids were allowed to be both family friendly and thrilling as all get-out. Super 8 is a monster flick with the same sort of thrills that made the original Jurassic Park such a great summer blockbuster, the same sort of characters that made The Goonies so memorable, and the same sort of heart that made ET so magical. It's got lovable characters, amazing actors, great dialog, heartfelt moments, and a monster that will really make you jump. This is The Goonies versus Predator. This is ET gone Cloverfield. This is Poltergeist meets... Poltergeist.

It is hard to capture the tone of the film in words. Imagine if golden-age Steven Spielberg woke up from the coma he fell into in 1994 and started making movies again. Real movies, like he used to. I can imagine him, coming around in the hospital ward, George Lucas dutifully holding his hand the whole time, and not believing his eyes. He'd be disoriented for a while-- I went from directing "Schindler's List" to "Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn?" I did a three-hour flick with that kid who could see dead people? And did I seriously put the money together for *three* movies about robots who turn into cars? The first thing he'd do is pull the catheter out, kick Lucas's ass over "Crystal Skull," and put the scratch together to make this movie.

This is Spielberg popcorn at its best. Imagine if you could watch ET again for the first time. That's what this movie is like. Go out and see it right the fuck now.

PS. Kaczynski's favorite Goonie was Chuck.

December 30, 2009

Avatar: The Last 3D Mindbender

**Warning. This movie contains a lot of CGI. Pregnant women and people who are sensitive to CGI should not take this movie. Consult a doctor if CGI is right for you.**

Let's talk about colonialism, kiddies.

For the last half a millennia or so, Europeans have been going to other parts of the world, establishing bases, running up flags, and generally kicking ass, taking names, and giving out the occasional blanket covered in small pox. Imagine Christopher Columbus in wrap-around shades with an Uzi in one hand and the Spanish flag in the other discovering the new world so he can BRING THE GODDAMN HURT, and then you've got a pretty good idea of how it went down. If you've ever actually been to England, you'll understand, too, because the place is a boring shithole.

However, eventually people got tired of listening to the 17th century equivalent of "America, Fuck Yeah!" on repeat and watching an unstoppable army of white guys named John O'Sullivan shoot down indigenous people like it was garbage day, so they came up with the concept of the noble savage.

In short, the "Noble Savage" is a romantic way to dress up racism-- In this version of racism, instead of the natives being inferior to civilization, the "savages" have a closer connection to nature due to their primitive, unencumbered-by-civilization state. However, in order to survive the destructive presence of the all-powerful white man, they need to be led into enlightenment by a white man. In noble savage stories, a white man is always the one who saves the day for those poor, salt-of-the-earth virtuous natives.

And that's where I come back to James Cameron's epic Avatar, because it is chock-full of this same racist, hacked-together "noble savage" bullshit I'm tired of being force-fed. I went into this movie expecting to have my intelligence and morals insulted like being ball-gagged and forced to watch The Glenn Beck Snow without commercial interruptions, but then something so rage-inducingly frustrating happened that I can't even put words to the sheer mangled hatred that boiled through my veins.

The movie was actually pretty good.

Does a white guy working for an EVIL CORPORATION(tm) join a tribe of native oversized smurfs, become their leader, and save the day due to his uniquely racial tenacity and ability to think outside the box? Yes. Should that be fundamentally belittling to the plight of native peoples around the globe? Yes. Is the film equally insulting to human civilization, even going so far as to trivialize the sum of human creative, social, and technological achievement as "light beer and blue jeans?" Yes. Is is awesome?

Sadly, yes.

James Cameron's Avatar is good. The CGI is so photorealistic that every single frame of this movie could make an amazing desktop background. The flora, fauna, and native civilization are imaginatively put-together. The character development is thin enough that one doesn't get the sense that this is nothing more than a pompous version of Fern Gully, but thick enough that when the final battle sequence starts TWO AND A HALF HOURS INTO THE MOVIE you almost don't feel like you've lost two hours of your life. The movie is in every way worth your ten bucks.

But beware, all you who might fall prey to the movie's romantic view of nature and criminalizing view of society. Life among those blue-skinned natives isn't so great. Yeah, the Na'vi might be able to fly around on pterodactyls powered only by their minds and have face paint that is metal as fuck, but they don't have any of the benefits of a real human civilization. You may think this a eurocentric point of view, and you're damn right: I'll take having a written language and the scientific method over faith healing and flying pterodactyls any day.

And so, I'll leave you with the greatest example of colonialism I can muster:



And PS: Hardcore movie nerds may have caught the name of this film's macguffin, the little rock that the humans want to mine on Pandora. The element is called "Unobtainium," which happens to be the same name as the plottainium element from the 2005 bomber The Core.

December 25, 2009

It's Elementary, My Dear Whats-his-face

**Wikipedia Warning: This article is about the detective, Sherlock Holmes. For other uses of "brilliant cokehead" see Robert Downey Jr.**

What comes to mind when I bring up the name of the world famous detective, Sherlock Holmes? Are you the type of person who immediately thinks of the dashing ratiocinator with his pipe and hat, sitting in the back of his room at 221b Baker Street, snorting a line of Colombia Gold like he's Little Wayne on a drug bust and then thoroughly explaining why it's all the butler's fault, or, perhaps, are you the kind of person whose mind immediately flashes to a white Dalmatian wearing a plaid hat and a cape?

If you fall in the latter category, you might be the target audience for Guy Richie's surprising new film revolving around that same titular character. By this, of course, I mean that ever lovable dog, Sherlock Holmes. The only difference between the Wishbone version and this $200 million dollar version is that that except for the dog we get Robert Downey Jr, and except for made-for-PBS kid-friendliness we get Guy Richie's fast-talking, guns-blaring speed material so heavily steeped in contagious style that one might serve it with crumpets and Tarantino.

And a side of raw cocaine, but that's another story.

Don't get me wrong, Sherlock Holmes (2009) isn't bad by any stretch. It promises modern action and delivers. Holmes blares across the screen, karate-chopping and judo-punching his way through hordes of mustashio'd henchmen like some sort of Bruce Willis character who rounds out his beatings with a "Jolly ho, good chap!" and a dramatic correction of his hat. Yes, there are some things to gripe about, like the the villain who is so sinister he looks like a British version of Andy Garcia and acts like Xanatos from the Gargoyles animated television show, but he's scary enough and smart enough to give Holmes a good run for his money, and the dialogue, if you're quick enough to follow it all, makes the whole film worth watching.



But there's something just a little too predictable here. The film forsakes the narrative structure of the source material, and instead picks up the structure of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Just like Indy, Holmes is a period adventurer whose intellect is only matched by his physical prowess. Just like Indy, Holmes matches each impossible intuitive leap with similar physical leaps across London. Finally, Just like Indy, director Guy Richie shows off his prowess just a little too much: he shows us each scene with the wool over our eyes and then relishes jumping back in time to show us exactly how it all really went down through the eyes of Sherlock Holmes, just like Troy Duffy would do if he were, you know, talented.

And that brings me to London. The film does a great job using CGI to recreate the look of 19th century London, but one gets a sense of anacronism in the task. Did you know, for example, that 19th century London was actually designed to look like the rooftop scene in Mary Poppins? The whole city looks like it fell out of an old lady's handbag and then got ran over by a car filled with coke, and I mean the kind made of charcoal, not the kind made out of Robert Downey Jr.

There are hints at the sinister Professor Moriarty, but these hints are actually more distracting than anything else. Is there anything worse than a movie that knows it's going to get a sequel or two? Yes. It's a movie that relies on it's sequel, like this one. If Sherlock Holmes made any more room for it's own follow-ups, it would be just a gaping, two-hour trailer for Sherlock Holmes 2: The Hound of the Baskervilles. Am I looking forward to the sequel? Yes. Does this movie merit one? No.

And with that, I'll leave you with the best Sherlock Holmes movie I've ever seen:

November 20, 2009

New Moon (Not the Chinese Restaurant)

**Warning. If you're remotely attracted to men, you might have already seen this movie. Every straight, single, painfully awkward woman between 14 and 25 on earth might have been in the theatre with me.**

The words "New Moon" conjure up strange feelings for me-- I think back to the joyful harvest time during my youth, when my father would tell us children to go out and "make cider" out of the several hundred bushels of apples we had collected over the course of the month by running each and every rotted fruit through a loud and dangerous press the size of a 1996 Subaru Forester and just about as safe and reliable. I am also reminded of my girlfriend's period, which is often accompanied by mood swings that would make Mr. Hyde look like Carlyle Cullen and often reduce the otherwise amiable girl into a firebreathing actress diva capable of destroying Tokyo 37 times. In general, my associations aren't good.

And, after having returned from New Moon, the second chapter in The Twilight Saga, these negative associations are firmly intact.

First, I had to buy my tickets in advance. I had to buy tickets *two weeks* in advance. As a movie reviewer who is not habituated to paying for movie tickets whatsoever, this was a big deal to me. The theatre I went to had a midnight showing of New Moon on every one of it's six screens save one, which was showing Twilight as a throwback to the diehard Twifans who had been camping in front of the theatre in their Edward Cullen snuggies and long name-brand pajamas since dawn. It was as if Harry Potter and Anne Rice had a baby directed by Steven Spielberg on crack. This baby had grown in the minds of many young women into some sort of raging monster of misplaced sexual metaphors, capable of taring down even the most basic elements of story structure and plot. What else would you expect from a Stephanie Meyer crack baby?

Nevertheless, it's fair to say that every single drop of estrogen in the city of Portland Oregon was present in the theatre that night. Sorority sisters displaying proud "me too" college sweatshirts giggled in the row behind me. Japanese fangirls bubbled in the seats next to me. Diehard 43-year-old twimoms in makeup heavy enough to make Vincent Price go "Dayyymn, girl" waited with bated breath on every mangled perversion of the english language that came out of Edward Cullen's light-rouge colored mouth. I facepalmed.

And then the movie began.

Or, as I should say, then the music video began. It's unfair to movies to call New Moon anything else-- the not-montage segments of the movie are outnumbered two-to-one by the "fresh from VH1" sections of the movie. The filmmaker decided that the best way to represent the surprising absence of plot was to cover it with light acoustic guitar covers of every song ever composed that featured a lyric about the moon, and then pad the movie by making every other shot in glamourous slow-motion like some sort of pre-teen Sam Peckinpah. Whereas Twilight brought us the wildly misplaced but incredibly good Muse song "Supermassive Black Hole," New Moon brought us a man with a soft beard gently strumming an open-G on his Aston 388 in the back of a local Starbucks. Whee.

The plot introduces Jacob, the will-be werewolf from the first movie, as an unlikely new love interest. In the first Twilight movie Jacob was a lovable and punchable version of Thomas Builds-The Fire. In this movie he has apparently put on enough muscle to qualify as an action figure, considering his neck is now the size of several industrial components illegal in the United States. He is prone to 'roid rage and joins a gang. Not even kidding.

And the plot? You want to know about the plot? LOL. *sobs uncontrollably*

I walked out of the theatre and watched the teaming masses of girls and women pour from the theatre doors and push their way down the up escalators and through the emergency exits to their cars. In my mind, they were fleeing.

And they were running from the werewolf version of this guy:


November 13, 2009

2012 (The Year After Tomorrow A Year From Now)

**Warning. This review might seriously disillusion those six people left on earth who really like disaster movies. The rest of us have moved on to liking movies that are themselves disasters. Like Twilight.**

Let me begin this review by saying that I've written about Roland Emmerich before. Let me then follow this statement by saying that I have a mindcrushingly hard boner for John Cusack. Given these two things, you'd expect me to have a similarly large tent in my pants for this movie, right? Wrong. 2012 was actually kinda painful.

First, this is a Roland Emmerich film. You may know him as the guy who brought you ID4, The Day After Tomorrow, and that really crappy Godzilla movie. I know, he's not that big of a name among the breakfast cereal set, but he taps into a deep underlying passion at the heart of every American to see New York burned to the fucking ground, and he's usually pretty good at coming up with creative ways of doing just that. ID4 had aliens who used powerful laser beams capable of blowing the shit out of large buildings. The Day After Tomorrow had freezing tidal waves and environmental destruction. Godzilla had Mathew Broderick trying to pull off a Brooklyn accent, which on principle alone should have caused New York to fall into an angry, murderous pitchforked riot like people forced to watch George Lopez do standup. In this case, Emmerich came up with the idea of making a disaster movie about the Mayan 2012 apocalypse, which, accoriding to Emmerich, is caused by neutrinos from the sun which cause massive environmental damage and tidal waves. Waitafuckingminute. This sounds familiar.

Isn't this the exact same premise as Knowing (2009) staring Nicolas Cage who uses his power of numerology to predict the end of days?

Isn't this just The Day After Tomorrow, except with John Cusack instead of that guy in the hat from G.I. Joe? Haven't we seen the whole death-by-giant-wave thing before? Like here? Or here? Or even here?

The whole 2012 Mayan calendar thing isn't even there, either. This movie makes no mention of how the Mayans made their prediction, who made that prediction, why, or when. The movie may be named 2012, but it is named so only to cash in on a current cultural meme without actually having to make a movie that actually addresses any aspects of that meme. It's like taking a DVD of Towering Inferno and renaming it World Trade Center. Wait. Oliver Stone already did that.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love end of the world movies. There is something about the idea that the end is coming that really gets to people. But this movie doesn't even offer that. The main characters are too busy rolling initiative and jumping away from rocks the size of Roxanne's Tits to really reflect on the value of their lives. There is footage of people praying, so it seems that in the Emmerich-verse at least the people who are constantly dying in increasingly senseless ways are completely at ease with their respective gods as they do so.

And then, Emmerich tries to tack on this absolutely over-the-top preposterous Noah's Arc ending that is ripped, shot for fucking shot, from the ending of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Of course, in Metropolis when the emotional lead character leads all the great unwashed little people to smash the machines that will keep the richer members of humanity alive, the filmmaker is really trying to show us how fucking retarded such populist pathos is, especially because everybody drowns as a result. Emmerich riffs off this scene with a straight face, and instead waves a magic wand and makes everything okay. Considering Emmerich had $250,000,000 to play with and Lang didn't have sound or color, and the Lang ending makes abso-fucking-lutely no fucking sense in this context, I'll just let my frustration speak for itself.

So, in my rage, I'll leave you with the one good end-of-the-world movie I've seen in the last week or so. Or ever. Probably ever.

October 2, 2009

Zombieland (Not New Jersey)

**Warning. This review contains some minor spoilers, so if you're a surprise-type Pokemon I suggest you keep spamming "sleep" until you've seen it. Also, Rosebud is the sled.**

There are zombie movies, and then there is Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland. Don't run to see this movie. Get in your zombie-proofed SUV and slam through traffic like Mel Gibson on a bender to this movie.

You've heard the premise of Zombieland before-- If you've seen fifteen seconds of any zombie movie since George A. Romero barfed all over the first print of Night of the Living Dead, you'll understand what Zombieland is about. Yes, we've got a diverse group of survivors who learn to tolerate each other through battle with the undead. Yes, we've got shotguns and chainsaws and all sorts of zombie killing devices which get used for better or worse effect. So, in lue of repeating the tired old zombie premise, I will just run down the checklist of traits this film fulfills as part of it's genre:

Zombies: Running and climbing, but killed by headshots.
Hero: pathetic.
Love interest: Two dimensional.
Main character survival rate: %100

That being said, if Zombieland played itself with a straight face, it would feel like an over-budget remake of Dawn of the Dead except without the mall or the tacky seventies film palette. Luckily, Zombieland is unlike any other zombie movie you've ever seen before, because of Fleischer's ability to stuff absolutely everything you could ever want out of a zombie horror comedy into only 81 minutes of bloody, graphic celluloid. This is the baby Jesus of zombie movies.

If you're the kind of person who wants a few pop-scares and a few gross-outs to keep you interested, this movie has something for you. Each shotgun blast feels like an earthquake in the theater, and the danger feels real even when the film launches into one of it's many flippant, comedic digressions like an episode of Family Guy with even worse attention deficit disorder than it already has.

No, it's not quite as go-tell-your-friends funny as 2003's seminal zombie classic Shaun of the Dead with all it's pan-referential glory, but there's something pitch-perfect about Zombieland's gags. This zombie apocalypse has all the humor of a world collapsing in on it's own contradictions and neuroses: sketchy men are chased by zombie strippers out of lowlife tittybars. A soccer mom is pursued by her own tutu-clad brood from a deadified birthday party. An nonathletic sports jerk is outrun by a zombie footballer under the Friday night lights and digested like Terrell Owens shotgunning a whole bag of popcorn. I found myself simultaneously horrified and in hysterics watching these pedestrian scenes of domestic tranquility erupt in sudden ironic violence. If Franz Kafka frothed at the mouth and ate brains, he'd be right there with 'um.

And that doesn't even cover the other brilliant parts of this movie. Jesse Eisenberg plays an hero who might rival Michael Cerna as the most awkward person in cinema. Woody Harrelson plays a character whose only motivation is to collect every Twinkie in the continental US and Mexico. There is even a cameo / guest star (epic spoilers in link) who provides the best performance for a walk-on role I've seen in years.

The dialogue is witty without testing the bounds of realism. The situation comedy channels the darkest elements of absurdity. The zombies are frakin' scary, and even though some of the best jokes are spoiled in the trailer, they're still incredibly funny on second, third, and fifty-second views. So with that, I'll leave you with something brainy to chew over:

September 27, 2009

Say Anything (Else)

**If you hear the 1989 cassette cut of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" blaring outside your window, don't call the cops. Find a condom.**

There are few things in this world that make me feel romantic.

1989's "Say Anything" is one of those things I have experienced in my life that accurately, if somewhat ineptly, captures the feeling of falling deeply, and irrevocably, in love. When John Cusack lifts that boombox over his head and makes those nervous facial twitches, I can't help but going week in the knees like Eagles' tackle Jerome McDougle at the prospect of actually playing football.

And to put my statement in context: although I am a sucker for romance films (I cried during "A Walk to Remember" like I hadn't cried since Littlefoot's mother died at the beginning of "The Land Before Time"), I never get involved with romantic subplots. If the badass hero of an action movie is in love with his sexy heroine, I just go along with it without ever actually batting an eyelash. But a pathetic, lovable kickboxer played by John Cusack standing outside my window blaring the top 1000 pop hits of the 1980s one by one from a jimmyrigged cassette player? I would make love to him on the spot, and not just because he's my boyfriend.

But, since I am The Midnight Movie Guy and not The "Sleepless in Seattle" Guy or The "such a pussy, why won't he stop crying in his room every time he hears Coldplay on the radio?" Guy, I might as well point out the aspects of this movie that get me every time.

First, "Say Anything" starts with the great granddaddy of cold opens. It's an ice opening. A liquid nitrogen opening. A breezy day on the north pole of Pluto opening. Starting from the moment the Twentieth Century Fox tag appears, it takes less than 15 seconds for us to go through exactly one establishing shot, two title-overs (the director's name and "Say Anything..."), and a plot-heavy opening line accompanied by someone absently noodling on a guitar. I had to restart the movie THREE TIMES because each time I thought I had missed some sort of exposition, establishing shot, or theme music that would make this opening less frigid. To make it worse, the "beginning" that's supposed to happen after the cold open never actually comes. Instead, we're launched into an incomprehensible mess of cinema verite screenwriting, drunk cinematography, and teenybopper direction which, when put together, could be called "romantic comedy" only by those who have a very forgiving definition thereof. If you're the kind of person who needs to be lulled into suspending your hard-earned disbelief, forget this shit and stick with the slowest film ever made.

And what follows is the mushiest possible romance late-80's realism will allow-- consider, for example the name "Loyd Dobbler." It's as if a group of Hollywood screenwriters locked themselves in a room and brainstormed until they came up with the most awkward combination of sounds in the English language and slammed them together with two capital letters. Cusack delivers his lines with the nervous rush of Dennis Miller with a speech impediment, and comes off simultaneously witless and witty in a way that makes you want to kiss him every time he says "...um," which is far more often than any other actor could pull off.

But by far the most annoying aspect of Say Anything is the screenwriting. The screenwriter uses a trick where each scene begins in the middle of a conversation, and then suddenly cuts off before the end. We never linger or stay to listen, as if the cameraman had such severe attention deficit disorder that he couldn't follow a whole conversation without his head exploding like a David Cronenberg extra. Not only will the scenes suddenly stop, but with them goes the entire soundtrack! If you ever want to hear more than eight measures of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes," you better go out and buy the cassette because the sound editor aborts the song mid-lyric like a musical George Tiller.

But for everything bad I could say about the writing or the direction or the music or the cinematography, the last scene could remind even this cold-hearted cynical moviegoer what a good romance should be. I don't care if the rest of the movie feels like a frenetic late-80's music video, When Cusack and Ione Skye sit on the airplane to England together, waiting for the "ding" of the seatbelts sign, suddenly the artfulness of the work shines through in a simple act of symbolic realism. It's like Waiting for Godot except instead of Godot we've got the rest of the 1990s waiting for us, and any artist that could say that could say anything.

I would fly off with John Cusack any day.