Monday, July 30, 2007



reVIEW (11)
SAW

With Saw IV set to open this Halloween, I thought it a good idea to resurrect this review, which was previously published in 2004 under the title, “The Big Blood-Drenched Picture.”

jigsaw
n : a machine saw with a narrow vertically reciprocating blade for cutting curved and irregular lines or ornamental patterns in openwork
vt : to arrange or place in an intricate or interlocking way in the manner of the parts of a jigsaw puzzle
adj : suggesting a jigsaw puzzle or its separate pieces

James Wan’s Saw is the cinematic equivalent of a bear trap (to borrow an analogy from the film); once it begins, those rusty, razor-toothed jaws snap shut, and there’s little else you can do but sit riveted to your seat till the bitter, bloody end.
What if you woke up to find yourself chained to a pipe in a decrepit bathroom, without knowing who put you there, or why? From this seed, the twisted and gnarled script of Saw—written by Leigh Whannell, who plays Adam in the film—grows. And it turns out to be one of the best, most intense, and most involving English-language horror films made in quite a while.

An excellent marriage of content and technique, Wan’s directing style, modern and yet not too MTV for its own good, complements the non-linear script written by Whannell to a tight tee. In much the same way that the David Goyer-written script for Alex Proyas’ Dark City emulated the structure of a spiral (a central image of the film), Whannell’s script is a jigsaw puzzle, referring to a central story element of Saw. The plot is structured in such a way that events and revelations are parceled out to us like puzzle pieces, for us to feverishly plant in place, as we attempt to make out the big picture. And, deviously, Whannell and Wan give us pieces that can fit into their slot in more than one way, so our perception of the big picture can change in an instant.

Now, a short lesson: the difference between a plot twist, and a plot flip.
A plot twist is a sudden curveball in the story that you don’t see coming: the apparent good guy who turns out to be a baddie; the seemingly innocuous neighbor who turns out to be a government agent. Plot twists in recent films are: exactly who the sacrifice is in Darkness, bringing to light just how wise the titular evil really is, or the fact that there is no Totenkopf in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, merely the video ghost of Sir Lawrence Olivier playing God-in-absentia, as his clockwork creation continues to run through its programmed agenda. There is also the last-second revelation that Beatrix’s child is still alive, at the end of Kill Bill Volume One.
A plot flip is a single event or revelation in the story which results in a total re-evaluation of everything that came before it, a pivot point in the story which requires you to see the whole tale from a different perspective. A very popular plot flip is the ending of The Sixth Sense, which forces you to see the whole film in an entirely different light. There is also Neo’s awakening from The Matrix into the real world (though this occurs early on in the film’s running time), or the pair of flips in Janghwa, Hongryeon (A Tale of Two Sisters).

The wonderful thing about Saw is that it has twists and it has flips. Usually, a film will either have a bunch of twists, or one flip; it’s rare that a film will contain both. (The Village is another recent film that displays its fair share of flips and twists.)
In Saw, the twists and flips and sudden and savage, malevolent Jack in the Boxes that spring out with a demonic howl, leaving in their wake a stunned sense of revelation, as we stand in ever-widening pools of blood, for a few precious moments too shocked to move, lest another come leaping out of the darkness (which it sometimes does).

Now, two films Saw has been compared to since its release are The Blair Witch Project and Se7en, Project merely because of Saw’s low production cost (reportedly less than $10 million), Se7en because of its mood and content.
Se7en seems the more valid of the two comparisons, though I will say this: Saw displays genuine malignancy and unease, as opposed to the faux dress-me-up-in-moody-dimly-lit sequences of MTV malevolence that characterizes Se7en. While The Blair Witch Project is the resounding triumph of marketing over content, Se7en is the victory of style over substance. Saw, for better or worse, is the real thing; it’s the Se7en I wish Se7en had been.

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival last January to sold-out screenings, Saw is currently enjoying box-office success in the US. Clearly, Saw has hit a nerve, and audiences are twitching and screaming and grimacing, fingers slipping on blood-drenched pieces, as they try desperately to put the puzzle together before the clock runs out.

Parting shot: Saw is intense horror, and quite possibly not to everyone’s tastes. A good barometer would be Se7en: if you found that agreeable to your cinematic palette, chances are, you’ll appreciate Saw.

(Saw OS’s courtesy of impawards.com.)



CAPTIVITY
(Review)

There are some movies that just don’t live up to the hype. Roland Joffe’s Captivity is one of them.
Even as gorno became the horror genre’s whipping boy, billboard ads for Captivity (which tells the story of the abduction and torture of fashion model du jour Jennifer Tree, played by 24’s Elisha Cuthbert), apparently unapproved by the MPAA, went up in New York and Los Angeles this past March. The billboards—which featured four panels depicting Cuthbert in the stages, Seduction, Confinement, Torture, and Termination—attracted a firestorm of controversy, and were subsequently pulled down.
Thus did Captivity become “the movie they didn’t want you to see!” (Or so the trailer put it following the billboard incident.)
As it is, there’s probably more excitement in the hullabaloo of that run-in with the MPAA than can be found in the film itself.

This is a limp and tepid exercise in thrills, and the twice-Oscar-nominated Joffe (for directing The Killing Fields and The Mission) never manages to raise the tension level above the slow simmering that runs through the film’s entire course. There is one brief moment, about an hour into the film, when something happens that could make you wonder, “Okay. So where are you taking this?”
Past that point though, the film settles back into its slothful zombie shuffle and sort of just shambles off towards its uninteresting climax.

Nothing really quite works in Captivity.
Once you get past the initial sense of discomfort and unease at the idea of abduction, things settle into a sense of humdrum tedium that never fully leaves the premises, like an unwanted, overstaying guest.
And while Jennifer is tortured (largely a psychological ordeal; despite appearances, this film is hardly gorno), the bits of police procedural interspersed throughout the proceedings seem lackadaisical, as if Joffe were begrudgingly giving us these scenes because that was expected of him. It doesn’t help that Michael Harney and Laz Alonso, who play the detectives, aren’t exactly the Oscar types either.

Additionally, the identity of the mystery abductor is immediately obvious to any film geek. (And if you don’t instantly identify the abductor when you get to see the eyes, pay attention to the abductor’s actions.)
Thus, not only is there no tension, there is no real mystery either.
So that’s bad enough. But the film also chooses to leave the abductor’s psychology a complete blank to the audience. By movie’s end, we have no frakking idea why all this happened. We get no sense of the abductor’s past, of the presumed trauma that caused this much psychological damage.

And ultimately, Captivity is also the kind of movie that doesn’t seem to have a point at all.
Certainly, this is not entertainment.
A: I would not call a bad movie “entertainment.”*
And more importantly, B: The reality of abduction and torture and murder is hardly “entertainment.”
Even with films as dark as the first Saw and Hostel, there were points to be made, and skill and savvy used to tell the tale. Captivity seems to have none of these.
There is a brief brush against the class divide, as Jennifer is made out to be a rich b!tch who has no real idea of how the other half lives, as well as some babble about the only real things being what you can touch, but these ideas don’t really go anywhere, trapped in the dreary hollow of this film the way Jennifer is in her cell.
And though it was apparently Joffe’s intent that Captivity be about “female empowerment” (the common PR spin for horror movies that have women running about and screaming and being stalked by unsavoury, would-be killers), I really don’t see that.
And even if the whole female empowerment aspect managed to escape me somehow, even if it’s actually there, hiding under the bed or in the crawlspace, it still wouldn’t change the fact that it’s contained in a drab and uninvolving film.

At the end of it all, Captivity just doesn’t seem to be worth the time or the effort to actually sit down and watch it.
It’s not exciting, it’s not thrilling, and it doesn’t have anything important to say. (Yes, I am aware that these things happen. All I have to do to know that is watch the news. I don’t need an uninspired horror movie to make me aware that we live in very troubled times.)
It doesn’t even have the gore.
All it really does have is Elisha Cuthbert in peril, and we already saw that on 24 Day 2, and in the House of Wax remake.
And on that note, I’d have to say that watching either is a far better prospect than enduring Captivity. (Yes, even if Paris Hilton is in House of Wax. Not only does House of Wax have an interesting climactic sequence as the eponymous house melts in a raging fire while the principals are still in it, but if you need added incentive, there is the opportunity to cheer madly when Paris gets iced. Come on, admit it. You want to.)

* Unless of course, it falls into the MST3K/so-bad-it’s-good territory, in which case, you can’t beat that kind of entertainment.
Captivity clearly does not have a passport or VISA to enter said territory.

(Captivity OS and billboard ad image courtesy of wilaboutmovies.com)

Sunday, July 29, 2007

REVELATIONS
(Getting at the Truths of Apocalypse Cinema)

The man coughing violently in a darkened theater, spewing unseen plague into the cool air. A rain of fiery meteors falling from a blood red sky. The ravenous zombie pounding at the bolted door. The finger hovering over the red button.
Just a handful of images from the gallery of apocalypse cinema, the collective term used to encompass films chronicling end of the world scenarios, with civilization in dire jeopardy from threats natural and man-made, extraterrestrial and supernatural, biological and mechanical.

Apocalypse cinema has always been, more often than not, profitable at the box office, as if movie-going audiences yearn to witness the destruction of society from one safe remove, as if we are all, every single one of us, willing—and eager—voyeurs to ruination.
David J. Skal, in his excellent book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, observes, "Cataclysmic junctures in history usually stir up strong images in the collective mind..." And cinema is one of the repositories of these images.

From the atomic monster films of the 50's—produced in the wake of the bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—where irradiated creatures grew to gargantuan size and went on real estate rampages from the United States to Japan, through the Irwin Allen disaster movies of the 70's, through the peak of zombie cinema (the late 70's to early 80's), all the way up to pre-millennial films like Armageddon and Deep Impact, the threat of our society's destruction has been a staple of cinema for a long time now.
One would think though, that after the calendar hit January 1 2000, that the millennium fever that always strikes at that sort of pivotal transition, would pass, and we'd be free from visions of the screaming populace of ruined cities, at least for a while.
Apparently not so.

It's only 2004, and we've already seen a remake of George Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead, and Roland Emmerich's latest CGI-popcorn offering, The Day After Tomorrow, while last year gave us The Core, Eli Roth's Cabin Fever and the year before that, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later.
Now, within the confines of apocalypse cinema, I will cop to a preference for the flesh-eating zombies overrun the world scenario (and its variations) as opposed to the global disaster scenario of The Core and The Day After Tomorrow.
While zombies walking the streets is a very visceral, in-your-face threat, the CGI-generated catastrophes of films like Tomorrow seem a bit impersonal to me. (So much so that some movies of this persuasion feel compelled to pile sequence after sequence of "characterization" on our laps, till we're all but gnashing our teeth in aggravated boredom, waiting for the final ten minutes of eye-popping CGI devastation. See: Deep Impact.)
Additionally, in movies like this, you seem to have to be a brainy scientist to stand a chance of survival. (Either that, or be Bruce Willis.) If you're a regular schmoe who doesn't know anything about meterology or geology or some other -ology, you may as well just lie down and wait for the tsunami/asteroid/red hot magma to put you out of your misery.
I prefer films that give sedentary writer guys like me a fair shake.
Thus, my three films of choice for this article: Cabin Fever, 28 Days Later, and this year's remake of Dawn of the Dead.


“You look a little peaked…”

Though the effects of the flesh-eating virus in Cabin Fever are, for the length of the film, confined to a contained area (a remote cabin and the surrounding woods), it’s the first title on our list since it captures societal breakdown on a microcosmic level, as the bonds that hold a group of friends together decay and fester, much like their infected flesh does.

Directed by David Lynch protégé Eli Roth, Cabin Fever is a low-budget surprise, by turns funny and disturbing. It is also an interesting variation on the zombie film, where the infected should, by all rights, become objects of compassion and sympathy, but instead, become objects of revulsion, pariahs to their friends and lovers.
Part The Evil Dead, part Outbreak, part 28 Days Later, Cabin Fever deals out the proceedings with dollops of very black humor, and very visceral, unnerving shots of tainted blood spraying and gouting every which way. (There are also a number of shudder-worthy sequences here that are hard to forget: the leg-shaving scene is probably tops on that list.)

But above and beyond the gut shock, is the ugly, brutal reality of how friends can turn on each other when it becomes every man for himself, how tenuous the bonds of society and community can be when faced with the cold, inhuman workings of a highly infectious disease.
In the end, it is the onscreen corrosion of these interpersonal dynamics that is the lasting impression of Cabin Fever that remains alongside the blood and grue, an insightful and excellent metaphor for the disease of egocentrism, which is perhaps the greatest enemy of the societal body.


“Sorry about The Beach…”

Almost as if in abject apology for the Leo-starrer (adapted from the Alex Garland novel and directed by Danny Boyle of Trainspotting fame), director and writer teamed up again for 28 Days Later (directed by Boyle from a script written directly for the screen by Garland).
Another post-millennial variation on the zombie film, 28 Days Later begins with a prologue set in the Cambridge Primate Research Centre, where some animal activists unwittingly let loose a virus—called, appropriately enough, “Rage”—which causes the infected to go into a constant state of mindless, uncontrolled violence. Once infected by tainted blood or saliva, a person ceases being a person, and becomes nothing more than a wild, vicious beast; perhaps, the beast that lies in wait in all of us, free of the imposed restraints of ethics and morals and rational thought.
We then jump four weeks ahead—thus, the title—when Jim (Cillian Murphy) awakes in hospital (he was in an accident before the outbreak began), to find it empty and ransacked. (The scenes of Jim walking through a deserted London are far more haunting than Tom Cruise in an empty Times Square in Vanilla Sky.)

Thus, we are not witness to the actual breakdown of society, but rather—like Jim—suddenly thrust into some horrible New World (Dis)Order, where there is apparently no government, no police, no army, and a church is no longer a sanctuary.
So who do we turn to when all structures fail? We turn to one another.
Garland manages to avoid the clichés of this sort of film, where strangers are thrust upon one another in a bid to survive. He manages to write people; flawed, yes, but not necessarily good, not necessarily evil. (Some though, perhaps just horny and misguided.) It is a minor triumph of the film that we are not asked to endure the whiny self-important complainer whom the audience is just waiting to get offed in the next reel.
Reprisals and turn-arounds however, are sudden and brutal, and that mood is helped tremendously by the occasionally rapidfire, staccato editing of Chris Gill, working with excellent footage shot by Anthony Dod Mantle.

Generally a rather nihilistic film, 28 Days Later seems to say that in the face of such calamity, the tendency will be for little pockets of madness to bloom, merely echoing the insane society that’s just been eradicated. Garland seems to say that, in the end, man is his own worst enemy. (At least with the infected, there is no pretense of culture and civilization, while indulging in one’s basest desires.)
Which is not to say the film is all doom and gloom. There are surprisingly somber and melancholy notes struck in this dirge: Jim’s discovery of his parents’ fates; choral music playing during the taxi ride through the devastated and deserted city.
There is a strain of hope, however fleeting and ephemeral, that runs throughout the film, carrying us along with it, doing its best to raise us above the detritus and leavings of a society perhaps better off dead.


Dead Again

From the precious few moments of Ana’s (Sarah Polley) last night of normalcy, to her escape from a suburbia rapidly descending into chaos, to the quick-cut opening title montage set to Johnny Cash’s Revelations-tinged “The Man Comes Around” (with the credit letters scattering like blood in a high wind), it is immediately established that this is a slicker version of the original 1979 Dawn of the Dead.
What is also instantly obvious is that director Zack Snyder and his team seem to have taken a page from the rushing, rabid hordes of 28 Days Later; gone are the shambling, lethargic zombies of the original Dead trilogy. What we have here are strangely energetic and limber zombies, as if fresh from an aerobics class taught by an undead—though still horribly hyper—Richard Simmons.

What we also have here, in light of this article, is a curious paradox: What is possibly the most visceral and graphic of the three films we’re taking a look at, is also the most entertaining. “Entertaining” in that it pretty much sticks to audience expectations of what this sort of movie is supposed to deliver. (And yes, here we are asked to endure the whiny self-important complainer who we’re just waiting to get offed in the next reel. There is also the macho alpha male whom we at first hate, then find ourselves rooting for by film’s end.)

As with George Romero’s original vision, the exact reason for the zombie epidemic is left unstated (though the religious/supernatural reason is given a boost here by a televangelist who utters one of the best taglines in cinema history: “When there is no more room in Hell, the Dead will walk the earth”), and the mall setting—of which much has been said in the past by the more critically-minded of us gorehounds—is also left intact.
And although we do catch glimpses of societal breakdown, what we are more privy to here is the attempted rebuilding of society. Crossroads Mall becomes the stage for this new community, the idea of mall-as-Heaven, where everything you might possibly want can be found, an air-conditioned Paradise isolated from the Hell of Zombieville outside.
But what eventually comes to the fore is the fact that this is merely just another state of living death, mall-as-Limbo. (Though the indictment against mall culture is still present, it is perhaps not as overt as in the original.)
Again, as to be expected, the Paradise-turned-Limbo comes to an end, and the survivors are forced to flee once more, in the hopes of finding a more permanent surcease from the insatiable dead.

The 1979 original is considered a classic of horror cinema, described by David J. Skal as a “razor-edged social satire” and “an indelible image of consumerism gone mad.” Given that Snyder’s remake doesn’t add anything significant to the equation—and in some instances, actually mutes the anti-mall culture statement—it could very well be leveled with the accusation of being “unnecessary, but well-made,” as was the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead.
Quite possibly. But at least it’s well-made.
And there is a cameo by special make-up effects guru Tom Savini (who directed the 1990 Night). And can anyone honestly say they’ve seen the brilliant Sarah Polley in a role like this before, kicking zombie butt?! I think not!

Last words

So at the end of it all, why are we fascinated by these films of death and destruction? Is it only here that we can secretly and comfortably acknowledge our own mortality, accepting the presence of the ever-hovering shadow on the doors of our own existence? Is it that we wish to witness societal breakdown, wondering how we would react in that situation, whether it would bring out the best, or worst, in us? Or is it because we delight in seeing others' misery? (Better them than us...)
Perhaps the answer lies in the term itself. The word "apocalypse," after all, contrary to popular belief, does not mean the end of the world. It comes from the Greek, apokalypsis, literally, "uncovering" or "revelation." (A synonym for "apocalypse" is "disclosure.") Perhaps we are fascinated by these films because we see truths in them, about ourselves, and the nature of our existence.
Or do we just bloody like being scared out of our wits?
Maybe it's a combination of all of these reasons, and quite possibly, even more, unknown to anyone except God and our private, most secret selves.

Parting shot: Due to the graphic nature of these films, those easily repulsed, or with weak stomachs and hearts, should probably not even consider watching them. You have been warned.

(Cabin Fever, 28 Days Later, and Dawn of the Dead OS’s courtesy of impawards.com.)

(The above is a slightly altered version of an article previously published in 2004.)

Friday, July 27, 2007





AFTERTHOUGHTS (13)

13.1 The U.S. Television Critics Association announced the winners of this year’s awards, so congratulations to Michael C. Hall, for winning the award for Individual Achievement In Drama (for Dexter), and all involved in Heroes, which won the big enchilada, the award for Program of the Year.
Yahoo!

(See the complete list of winners here.)

13.2 I’ve been following the whole Cloverfield/1-18-08 thing since the story broke on aicn, and the latest bit of vital information: the first official teaser poster is online courtesy of ew.com, and newlywed Harry Knowles (congratulations, Harry!) may just know what the film’s real title is. (If Harry’s spy is on the level, X-Men fans will know it too.)

13.3 And before I go, Michael’s coming back to Lost.
I really hope the schmuck returns just so he can wind up dead and have that viewing no one attends in season 3’s finale. (Yes, I’m still ticked off about his not only shooting both Ana Lucia and Libby, but also leaving Jack and company in the hands of the Others.)

(Dexter image courtesy of tv.com; Heroes image courtesy of comicbookresources.com; 1-18-08 teaser OS and Harold Perrineau image courtesy of ew.com.)


AKUMU TANTEI
(NIGHTMARE DETECTIVE)
(Review)

Kagenuma (Ryuhei Matsuda; Takashi Miike’s Izo) is a suicidal man gifted (or cursed) with the power to enter people’s dreams. Keiko Kirishima (J-pop singer Hitomi) has just been transferred—at her request—from a significant position at the National Police Agency to regular law enforcement. These two individuals cross paths as Keiko’s first case involves apparent suicides carried out while the deceased was in the grip of a nightmare. The two then reluctantly join forces as it quickly becomes clear that the police have bitten off more than they can chew in their investigation.

Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto (best known for the bizarre body horror extravaganza, Tetsuo, Tsukamoto again wears a number of hats here, as he often does on his films; he co-wrote the screenplay, edited, and shared credit for cinematography; he also stars in it!), Akumu Tantei is an interesting thriller that revisits A Nightmare On Elm Street territory, as we are introduced to “0,” who, like Freddy Krueger, is a malicious entity that kills people in their sleep. This time out though, “0” targets victims who want to die in the first place (and sometimes, that suicidal tendency is entirely subconscious).
Unlike other films that depict a dream reality though, in Akumu Tantei, the dreamscape is pretty much indistinguishable from the real world (no bizarre costumes or production design here). Tsukamoto does however, portray an interesting layering of action in the dream realm, as if in piercing the veil of sleep, Kagenuma enters a potentially endless recursion of worlds; Tsukamoto suggests an infinity of cerebral Russian nestling dolls waiting inside all of our sleeping minds.
And while the plot itself is serviceable enough, and the mystery regarding “0”’s nature and identity neither entirely opaque and unsolvable, nor entirely transparent and predictable, the performances are another matter entirely.


It’s unfortunate that Matsuda does not have the acting chops to carry the weight of Kagenuma. What should be a deep and intrinsic self-loathing comes off as petty and self-involved juvenile angst. There isn’t any depth nor subtle nuance to Matsuda‘s performance, which is sad since the character of Kagenuma presents an interesting paradox in the narrative: he is one of the main protagonists and quite possibly the only one who can actually stop “0,” and yet he displays the prime characteristic of “0”’s victims—he wants to die.
And while Hitomi‘s performance is not as troublesome as Matsuda‘s, it is still not as powerful and convincing as it should be. Keiko is self-described as “socially inept,” and while Hitomi does succeed in portraying the rookie detective as if at one remove from the people around her, that distance sometimes translates into a total disconnection between the character and the audience. One never really feels the pain and isolation of Keiko.
And in one particular scene, her performance seemed so off-pitch, what I can only assume was meant to be existential revulsion played out like a self-induced orgasm.

Thus, with a pair of central performances that are as compromised as these are, the chemistry that one would expect between the two characters just doesn’t manifest. When these two fractured individuals find each other and acknowledge the bond they share, there should be some overriding emotion, a feeling that they have each found the other that can share the burden of their pain, and perhaps help heal each other’s wounds.
Instead, there is a resounding emptiness, a vacuum of emotion as Keiko professes not just her own desire to live, but her desire that Kagenuma go on living too.

Despite this significant failing on its part though, Akumu Tantei is still watchable, an interesting story of life, and death, and dreams.
Clearly not as outlandish as Tetsuo, not as arthouse-leaning as Bullet Ballet, Akumu Tantei is quite possibly Tsukamoto’s most mainstream film to date, and the one with significant franchise potential.*
If you do decide to check it out though, just don’t be surprised if you don’t feel any emotion other than a little horror and a little revulsion.
Which may not necessarily be a bad thing; as Stephen King once said, “A little revulsion is good for the soul.”

* Tsukamoto is currently in pre-production on a sequel.


Parting shot: With his cloak and disheveled hair, Kagenuma looks curiously like Neil Gaiman’s Dream, from Sandman.

(Akumu Tantei OS courtesy of cho-yaba.com; Nightmare Detective OS courtesy of moviexclusive.com; film image courtesy of twitchfilm.net.)

Thursday, July 26, 2007


TRANSFORMERS
(Review)

It’s curiously apt that Transformers is produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Michael Bay, as it feels like nothing so much as an attempt at a classic Popcorn Spielberg film, pumped up on adrenaline and testosterone.
Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf, recently seen in Disturbia and soon to be seen in Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods) is an American teen-ager seriously crushing on Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox, from Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen and TV’s Hope & Faith), a girl who doesn’t even know he exists. He’s got a bling-wearing Chihuahua called “Mojo,” who happens to be popping pain pills at the moment for a leg injury. He’s also busy selling some of his explorer grandfather’s stuff on eBay for his car fund.
But after he wrangles an A- from his History professor (one of his father’s conditions for getting Sam a car), he ends up taking an Internet-savvy alien robot home.
And though there are a couple of other plot threads that run through the first two-thirds of the film, the grand coming-of-age tale of a boy and his first car is the core of Bay’s Transformers, and it’s an effective and affecting hook that manages to hold all of the film’s other elements together, though just barely.

Considerable stretches of Transformers succeed admirably in the popcorn entertainment department; this film can move when it wants to. When Bay pulls out his standard bag of tricks (yes, lots of things go bang and boom here), aided as he is by impressive CGI courtesy of ILM and Digital Domain, you really do believe a vehicle can turn into a robot and piss on a man. Oh, and cause massive amounts of property damage too.
But it’s perhaps in the number of plot threads—survivors from a Decepticon attack on a US military base in Qatar; the efforts of the Pentagon to deal with the threat; the actions hacker Maggie Madsen (Rachael Taylor, soon to be seen in the English-language remake of Shutter) takes to decipher a signal used by the enemy—that the ride gets a tad wonky.
The film’s pacing is never quite as sharp as it should be, its rhythm mostly erratic, ultimately making it feel it really is as long as its running time indicates, always a no-no with movies that run over two hours.
Characters drop on and off the narrative’s radar like a Decepticon on buggered stealth mode, and some of the comedic aspects—particularly some of the Transformer hi-jinx, a borderline loony character played by John Turturro, and a hacker played by Anthony Anderson—though certainly not as blatantly off-key as those found in Spider-Man 3 (see review in Archive May 2007), still do manage to grate at certain points of the film.
And some of the dialogue, particularly from Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen, who gave voice to Prime in the cartoon; he’s also been Eeyore, the Red Skull, Captain Crabnasty from—heh—My Little Pony and Friends, and Glitterbot from—double heh—Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer) tends to be clunky and awkward.

Clearly, the film could have done with some judicious editing and quite possibly, the deletion of a character here and there.
I have a feeling though that many will choose to overlook these problems in the film since the action set pieces do their work like gangbusters. And LeBeouf goes a long way in giving the audience a relatable protagonist, in making us care, not just about him, but about his car/guardian/friend too.
Yes, for a bunch of pixels that speaks in snatches of songs and sound bytes, Bumblebee is surprisingly an endearing fictional construct. Certainly not on the level of a Gizmo or an E.T., mind you, but affecting nevertheless.

Contrary to what its iconic theme song claims, there really isn’t much more than meets the eye with Transformers.
It’s a Michael Bay film. It’s got money shots aplenty, handsful of underwritten characters, and it’s got loads of stuff that blow up real good. It’s fun, manipulative, and ultimately disposable popcorn entertainment. (Allowing your brain cells to chill out during the 144-minute running time is advisable.)
What is surprising though, is that the Popcorn Movie King throne vacated by Spielberg and assaulted by would-be usurpers like Roland Emmerich, Stephen Sommers, and most recently, Gore Verbinski, could very well be snatched up by Bay, of all people.
He’s taken his patented action formula and applied it to the PG-13 family friendly film franchise template, and produced a flawed, yet crowd-pleasing hybrid, with the resultant boffo box office that all studio heads just love.
Watch carefully, kiddies, we’re watching Bay transform before our very eyes.

(Transformers OS courtesy of wildaboutmovies.com.)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007



ON THE LOT
Episode 12
Comedy Night

So Kenny and Mateen are sent home and we’re down to a half dozen, with three more weeks to go.
And without further ado…

MY FAVORITE: Will Bigham’s “Unplugged”
In an office locked up for the night, two table lamps fall in love…
Will takes a concept you might normally see in a CGI short and makes it work in live action.

Adam Stein’s “Girl Trouble”
A dude finally gets lucky… with a dude.
The performances help sell this one, and the American Beauty bit was a hoot and a half.

Andrew Hunt’s “Keep Off Grass”
A superhero couple argue in an innocent bystander’s backyard.
Fun idea, though the couple may have spent a little too much time arguing verbally. I mean, that’s what normal people who don’t fly do.

Sam Friedlander’s “American Hoe”
A couple deep in wedding preparations get into an argument over the stamps for their invites.
Fun and funny, Sam makes this involving even if it is just two normal, non-flying people in a room. I could’ve asked for a better punchline though.

Zach Lipovsky’s “The Bonus Feature”
The bonus feature on the DVD player of a guy’s car zaps a couple into a number of very familiar situations.
This basically just bounces us around from movie to movie, and for Zach to deliver his weakest short in the competition thus far at this late stage is troubling. Maybe the pressure’s just gotten to the wiz kid. I’m hoping this is an aberration, and not a fatal misstep.

MY LEAST FAVORITE: Jason Epperson’s “Old Home Boyz”
A man at his 50th anniversary reunion with his former high school classmates has a dance-off over the girl that got away.
This one got the judges, though it really didn’t get me; I realize Jason knows how to please the crowd, but he’s just not pushing my buttons.
Of course, maybe it’s just that me and hip-hop aren’t exactly close.

Having gone on the record with my rundown tonight, I’ll be nonetheless surprised if Jason’s sent home, as I get the feeling he’s got a lot of the voting public in his pocket. We’re down to six contestants, five of whom I like, so next episode is the first that could genuinely make me feel bad when the elimination is announced.

Next week: shorts about the American’s love for the automobile. (Can anyone say, “Ford is a sponsor of the show”?)
Additionally, the box office winner from tonight’s batch gets Jerry O’Connell to star in their next short.

Tonight’s guest judge: Brad Silberling; see reVIEW (10).

(Contestant image courtesy of thelot.com; Brad Silberling image courtesy of dvdtoile.com.)




reVIEW (10)
LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS

As a companion piece to tonight’s On The Lot review, I thought I’d wheel out this oldie but goodie, which was originally published under the title, “The Wonderful(ly Dark) World of Snicket.”

Little Red Riding Hood is eaten by the wolf. Sleeping Beauty is impregnated as she sleeps and wakes to discover she is the mother of twins.
These are just some of the fairy tales (or marchen, as they were called in German) in their original forms, before the Age of Enlightenment dealt them a crippling blow, and Disney all but obliterated them. They’re still there though, these dark, rather adult tales, there for the curious and the enthralled.
Which brings us, in a roundabout fashion, to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is not unlike a dark, traditional fairy tale, though without the magic. What it lacks in spells and cantrips though, Series makes up for in mystery and deaths.
Oh, yes, there are deaths here, children. In fact, the film’s plot is triggered by death.

In one fell swoop, at the hands of a mysterious fire, the Baudelaire children (Violet, Klaus, and Sunny) suddenly find they are the Baudelaire orphans, left in the care of frustrated actor—and villain of the piece—Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). What follows is, as the title may suggest, a series of close calls, near-mishaps, and fatalities (both apparent and actual).
Clearly, this is not a Disney family movie, and early on, we are invited by Jude Law—who does a tremendous voice-over job as Lemony Snicket, relating the sad and woeful tale of the Baudelaire children to us—to leave the theatre, if we are expecting light, fluffy cuteness. He actually does this twice, and if by the second time, those of the audience who have no appreciation for the dark and the macabre are still in their seats, then they’ve effectively forfeited any right to complain.
Now, having firmly established its darkling nature, it’s time to examine the film itself.

To begin with, the star of Series is clearly its production design. It has that otherworldly feel peppered with Gothic chic that is Tim Burton’s greatest gift to mainstream cinema. Small wonder, as Series production designer Rick Heinrichs collaborated with Burton on the pretty-to-look-at-but-not-much-else Sleepy Hollow. The world of the Baudelaires is Dickens on absinthe: grand and gloomy, shadowy and cobwebbed, like a skewed cartoon where the figurative animals neither sing nor dance, but stare at you furtively from the nooks and crannies.
Don’t think this is another Sleepy Hollow though. You can actually look at other things aside from the sets. As I’ve already mentioned, Law is excellent here, as is Meryl Streep, as the overwrought and overly neurotic Aunt Josephine. As far back as She-Devil and Postcards from the Edge, Streep proved that she wasn’t just adept at accents and drama; she had a killer sense of the comedic as well, which serves her well in Series, so much so that you wish she had far more screen time than she actually does.
And Emily Browning and Liam Aiken, who play Violet and Klaus Baudelaire, respectively, though not giving breakthrough performances on the level of a Haley Joel Osment, are certainly a sight better than the three Harry Potter principals were in the first film of that franchise. (The comparison arises from the fact that Series is based on the Lemony Snicket children’s novels, The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window, enjoying the current wave of popularity kid lit is experiencing in this post-Harry Potter world of ours.)

Given that Count Olaf is a central character to the tale, it’s sad then that the weak link, performance-wise, is Jim Carrey. Let me make it clear though, that I am not the biggest Jim Carrey fan; I find there is a certain tolerance level I have where he’s concerned, which, once crossed, subsequently makes me inured to his antics. In Series, I reached that level rather quickly, so much so that I found I was happiest when Count Olaf was off-screen. The script, with its occasional modern colloquialisms in its dialogue, isn’t much help either. (Of course, it’s tricky telling where the script ends and Carrey’s ad-libbing begins.)

It’s curious that Brad Silberling ended up directing Series, which is so far afield from his previous film, Moonlight Mile, where Jake Gyllenhaal, Susan Sarandon, and Dustin Hoffman play the fiancée and parents of a recently-deceased woman, coping with their grief and sense of loss. Not only is the scope of Series so much larger than Moonlight Mile (or anything else he’s done for that matter), but the tenor of the piece is vastly different as well.
I bring this up not because Silberling botches the job, but rather because there’s nothing specific and peculiar to the direction of Series that makes it stand apart. For all I know, it could have been Barry Sonnenfeld—who directed The Addamms Family and its sequel, as well as the Men in Black films—at the helm. Perhaps if Series had been allowed to linger a little more on its characters, we might have seen some of the insightful character bits evident in Moonlight Mile. But, preoccupied as the script of Series is with how Violet, the family inventor, gets to McGyver her way out of the latest precarious predicament the dastardly Count has put her and her siblings in, there’s precious little time for those pesky things called “emotions” and “character development.”

Uneven as it is though, A Series of Unfortunate Events is an agreeable piece of macabre entertainment. It’s also a good introduction to the darkly wonderful world of Lemony Snicket. And the cameo by Dustin Hoffman (reunited with his Moonlight Mile director Silberling, and his Kramer vs. Kramer co-star, Streep, though they don’t actually share a scene together) is a nice touch, to boot.
Perhaps if we’d just seen more of the children, and more of Jim Carrey being Count Olaf (as opposed to Count Olaf being Jim Carrey), then we would have discovered characters equally as strange and interesting and darkly delightful as the world they live in.

(Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events OS’s courtesy of impawards.com.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


FANTASTIC FOUR:
RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER
(Review)

If you’re a comic book fan who loves a good film adaptation of your favorite hero—and what self-respecting fanboy doesn’t?—the 80’s were not a kind decade to you.
DC’s Superman franchise was running on empty with Superman III, and that particular flight ended in a messy crash with Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. Meanwhile, Tim Burton was yet to redefine the superhero film at the tail end of the decade.
But for all the misfires DC had at the time, Marvel was by far the more evil villain in that scenario.
There were low budget attempts at Captain America and The Punisher, and inept TV stabs at Thor and Daredevil, all of them not particularly good, and some, downright dreadful.
Funnily enough, these days it feels like a Marvel renaissance, with most of their efforts falling squarely into the not-particularly-good-and-some-downright-dreadful category.
Granted, the effects and costumes are way better, but a lot of the plots and scripts, and some of the performances, could very well have traveled here on a time machine from the good old 80’s to leave us comic geeks with sleepless, rant-filled nights.*

At this point, I should establish that Marvel’s latest, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, is actually better than some past turkeys like Ghost Rider, Daredevil, and Elektra. FF:RotSS is even better than its predecessor (see reVIEW (1); Archive June 2007).
That doesn’t make it a good film though.

The plot is just as threadbare as the original’s: the Silver Surfer (frequent Guillermo Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones, voiced by Laurence Fishburne) arrives on Earth to prepare it for the coming of the dreaded Galactus (in this incarnation, a planet-devouring cloud), thus disrupting the fourth attempt at a proper wedding by Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba).
The U.S. Military gets Reed to help them, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) crashes the party, Galactus arrives, but is thwarted by our heroes.
In the midst of all this, what I can only assume are attempts at “fun” and “funny”—schtick that barely manages to be juvenile hi-jinx—pepper the 92 minute running time like fleas on a mangy dog. (And though it’s good that all the power-switching becomes a climactic plot point, the bachelor party dance is still a particularly atrocious bit.)

Just as in Fantastic Four, where there was no joy to be found in a plot, we also don’t really see much in the way of characters again.
Even Chris Evans, whose superficial Johnny Storm was the highlight of the team in the first film, doesn’t seem as convincing as he once was. And what could have been an interesting character arc (as Johnny learns some much-needed lessons in responsibility) is not fully explored.
There’s some conflict with Sue wanting a normal married life away from the media spotlight, but it’s pretty much lip service and doesn’t have the ring of authenticity.

It’s really only when the CGI takes center stage that the film becomes halfway decent, particularly when Galactus arrives to devour the Earth, ironically, the sequence that could potentially piss off countless fanboys with its depiction of the Jack Kirby planet-eater as a roiling cloud.
With visual effects by Weta, The Orphanage, and a handful of other effects houses, the spectacle is certainly not too shabby. But without any honest emotional underpinnings and real characters, the film cannot generate any genuine tension and is grossly unsuccessful in involving its audience in its story. Without characters to truly care for, all we’ve got here that merits any sort of attention are pixels; pixels that are sure pretty to look at, but certainly not pixels worth any sort of emotional investment.
Did it look impressive? At times, it actually did.
Did I feel for once that there was any real danger, that the Earth stood on the brink of total destruction, and that all life as we know it was in jeopardy?
Certainly not.

If there is any triumph to be found here, it’s that director Tim Story managed to deliver a better film than the sad-a$$ original. (At the very least, Story’s got a better track record than Mark Steven Johnson. Already guilty of inflicting Daredevil upon us, Johnson outdid himself with the horrible Ghost Rider; review in Archive March 2007.)
But it’s a hollow victory, as FF:RotSS is nowhere near being a good comic book film adaptation; it’s the kind of comic book film where the heroes still have time to do some goofy skywriting even as Venice is sinking into the sea.
It’s all ultimately very inconsequential and disposable, like a planet that’s had the life sucked out of it by Galactus. And where’s the fun in taking an hour-and-a-half long round through lifeless territory?

* The other thing that’s different about Marvel’s current crop of stinkers is that a lot of them are making money. Ghost Rider is actually the 13th biggest film of the year at the moment, with a total gross of $115, 802, 596. FF:RotSS is 10th, with $128,879,368! (And these are just the domestic figures for the U.S. box office.)


(Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer OS courtesy of kinopoisk.ru.)

Monday, July 23, 2007


AFTERTHOUGHTS (12)

12.1 The nominees for the 59th Annual Emmy Awards have been announced, and here are the noms that have got me jazzed.

79th Annual Academy Awards
Outstanding Art Direction For A Variety, Music Or Nonfiction Programming
Outstanding Picture Editing For A Special (Single or Multi-Camera)
Outstanding Hairstyling For A Miniseries, Movie Or A Special
Outstanding Lighting Direction (Electronic, Multi-Camera) For VMC Programming
Outstanding Music Direction
Outstanding Individual Performance In A Variety Or Music Program (Ellen Degeneres)
Outstanding Special Class Program
Outstanding Sound Mixing For A Variety Or Music Series Or Special
Outstanding Technical Direction, Camerawork, Video For A Miniseries, Movie, Or A Special

Battlestar Galactica
Outstanding Directing For A Drama Series (Felix Alcala for “Exodus, Part 2”)
Outstanding Sound Editing For A Series (“Exodus, Part 2”)
Outstanding Special Visual Effects For A Series (“Exodus, Part 2”)
Outstanding Writing For A Drama Series (Ronald D. Moore for “Occupation/Precipice”)

Dexter
Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing For A Drama Series (Elena Maganini for “Dexter”)
Outstanding Main Title Design
Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music (Rolfe Kent”)

Entourage
Outstanding Casting For A Comedy Series
Outstanding Directing For A Comedy Series (Julian Farino for “One Day In The Valley”)
Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Comedy Series (Kevin Dillon)
Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Comedy Series (Jeremy Piven)
Outstanding Guest Actor In A Comedy Series (Martin Landau)
Outstanding Comedy Series
Outstanding Sound Mixing For A Comedy Or Drama Series (half-hour) And Animation (“One Day In The Valley”)

Family Guy
Outstanding Original Music And Lyrics (Walter Murphy and Danny Smith, for “My Drunken Irish Dad,” from “Peter’s Two Dads”)

Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms
Outstanding Animated Program (for Programming One Hour Or More)

Heroes
Outstanding Art Direction For A Single-Camera Series (“Genesis”)
Outstanding Directing For A Drama Series (David Semel for “Genesis”)
Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing For A Drama Series (Michael Murphy, Donn Aron, and Louise A. Innes for “Genesis”)
Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Drama Series (Masi Oka)
Outstanding Drama Series
Outstanding Sound Mixing For A Comedy Or Drama Series (one hour) (“Genesis”)
Outstanding Special Visual Effects For A Series (“Five Years Gone”)
Outstanding Stunt Coordination (Ian Quinn for “Genesis”)

Lost
Outstanding Directing For A Drama Series (Jack Bender for “Through the Looking Glass”)
Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing For A Drama Series (Stephen Semel, Mark J. Goldman, Henk Van Eeghen, and Christopher Nelson, A.C.E. for “Through the Looking Glass”)
Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Drama Series (Michael Emerson)
Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Drama Series (Terry O’Quinn)
Outstanding Sound Editing For A Series (“A Tale Of Two Cities”)
Outstanding Writing For A Drama Series (Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse for “Through the Looking Glass”)

Nip/Tuck
Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup For A Series, Miniseries, Movie Or A Special (“Conor McNamara”)

On The Lot
Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music (Mark T. Williams and Jeff Lippencott)

Project Runway
Outstanding Cinematography For Reality Programming (Tony Sacco for “Iconic Statement”)
Outstanding Picture Editing For Reality Programming (“Iconic Statement”)
Outstanding Reality-Competition Program

South Park
Outstanding Animated Program (for Programming Less Than One Hour) (“Make Love, Not Warcraft”)

To one and all, congratulations and the best of luck. You can check out the entire list of nominees here (downloadable in three formats).
The Creative Arts Emmys will be given out on September 8, while the Primetime Emmys will be presented on September 16.

(Image courtesy of visualterrain.net.)



PARIS, JE T’AIME
(Review)

An impressive array of directors are assembled for Paris, Je T’Aime, a collection of 18 five minute shorts set in and around certain sections of modern-day Paris. Ably assisted by an equally impressive ensemble, the 21 directors (3 shorts are co-directed) bring their visions of the City of Lights to the screen, and collectively produce this heartfelt cinematic portrait of life, love, and loss.
A shortlist of stand-outs would be pointless, as this film comes tantalizingly close to a clean sweep: these shorts are bittersweet and poignant, lives telescoped into a handful of minutes, sections of time that serve to illuminate entire existences.

If there are any entries that compromise that clean sweep however, they’re Vincenzo (Cube) Natali’s “Quartier de la Madeleine“ and Bruno Podalydes‘ “Montmartre.“
While Podalydes‘ entry—which opens the film—suffers in my eyes merely due to a personal pet peeve I have (characters talking to themselves), Natali’s effort is quite possibly the single misfire in this entire endeavour.
Though it is still pretty to look at (as are a vast majority of the film’s shorts), “Quartier de la Madeleine,“ which features Elijah Wood, just seems to be off-key, tonally all wrong. And it’s not because this is one of the more fanciful entries; Sylvain (Les Triplettes de Belleville) Chomet‘s whimsical tale of mimes and love, “Tour Eiffel,“ manages to be funny, moving, and magickal all at the same time. “Quartier de la Madeleine” just seems to be a misstep in an otherwise excellent selection of shorts. (I can live with Podalydes’ talking out loud in “Montmartre.”)

There are also a number of pleasant surprises, particularly cinematographer extraordinaire Christopher Doyle’s quirky entry, “Porte de Choisy.” Appropriately enough, like a Chinese puzzle box, “Porte de Choisy“ has another surprise within: director Barbet Schroeder as Monsieur Henny.

Without a doubt, there are some excellent shorts herein. But as art is ultimately a very subjective thing, whether or not the 18 shorts cohere into a single film rests entirely on the audience’s willingness to surrender themselves to the wizardry of the directors and their performers, and the vivid portrait they paint of a contemporary metropolis that quite possibly is not the common perception of “Paris.”

Paris, Je T’Aime is a genuinely moving collection of stories, snapshots of yearning and melancholy, of hope and regret, of loves lost, and found, tiny dramas played out under the shimmering lights of Paris in just under two hours, two hours that fly past quickly, as only the magick of love and cinema can make them.

Parting shot 1: Paris, Je T’Aime was originally intended to be made up of 20 short films, each set in a Paris arrondissement, but contributions from Christoffer Boe (“15th Arrondissement”) and Raphael Nadjari (“11th Arrondissement”) were dropped by producer Claudie Ossard; purportedly, they did not fit in with the rest of the entries.
Given my problems with “Quartier de la Madeleine,” I have to wonder what Boe and Nadjari had to say about Paris: did they have aliens blowing up the Arc de Triomphe? Or did they decide to pick up where 28 Weeks Later left off?

Parting shot 2: For the record, here’s an alphabetical list of the directors and their respective contributions:

Olivier Assayas: “Quartier des Enfants Rouges” (with Maggie Gyllenhaal)
Frederic Auburtin and Gerard Depardieu: “Quartier Latin” (with Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands; Rowlands also wrote the short’s script)
Gurinder Chadha: “Quais de Seine”
Sylvain Chomet: “Tour Eiffel”
Joel and Ethan Coen: “Tuileries” (with Steve Buscemi)
Isabel Coixet: “Bastille” (with Miranda Richardson)
Wes Craven: “Pere-Lachaise” (with Emily Mortimer, Rufus Sewell, and Alexander Payne)
Alfonso Cuaron: “Parc Monceau” (with Nick Nolte)
Christopher Doyle: “Porte de Choisy”
Richard LaGravenese: “Pigalle” (with Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant)
Vincenzo Natali: “Quartier de la Madeleine”
Alexander Payne: “14th Arrondissement”
Bruno Podalydes: “Montmartre”
Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas: “Loin du 16eme”
Oliver Schmitz: “Place des Fetes”
Nobuhiro Suwa: “Place des Victoires” (with Juliette Binoche and Willem Dafoe)
Tom Tykwer: “Faubourg Saint-Denis” (with Natalie Portman)
Gus Van Sant: “Le Marais” (with Marianne Faithfull and Gaspard Ulliel)

Parting shot 3: Interestingly enough, while Payne appears in Craven’s contribution, Craven appears in an uncredited role in Natali’s short.

Parting shot 4: Co-producer Emmanuel Benhiby is currently developing a film brand, “Cities of Love,” with the next project being New York, Je T’Aime.

(Paris, Je T’Aime OS’s courtesy of impawards.com.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007



ON THE LOT
Episode 11
Action Night

So in one fell swoop, we’re suddenly down to an All Boys Club-- nothing new for Hollywood-- as Shalini and Hilary are sent home.
I’ve never been Hilary’s biggest fan, but she actually got better in her final weeks on the show. Shalini meanwhile, has got a good eye, but last week’s “First Sight” wasn’t her strongest work, and at this point in the show, no one can afford a misstep. (I already said that, didn’t I? Last week. Sorry, no new material.)
First double elimination down, one more to go.
And on that note…

MY FAVORITE: Andrew Hunt’s “Zero2Sixty”
A car salesman makes a pitch under really stressful circumstances.
Though I wasn’t overly impressed by the car chase, and the actor playing the car salesman got a tad grating in some scenes, this one has Andrew’s humour running through it, making for an entertaining two-and-a-half minutes.

Jason Epperson’s “Sweet”
Clearly the crowd-pleaser, this one has a man remembering his anniversary at almost the last minute, and doing his best to compensate.
Nice, clean fun (and look, he even paid for the lemonade!), but where did the wife suddenly have to get to at the tag?

Mateen Kemet’s “Catch”
A man chases down a thief, with some unexpected results.
Of the five, the only straight-forward “action” short without any comedic strains running through it. Also the one that arguably, was the most exciting, helped by its pounding score.

Sam Friedlander’s “Key Witness”
The eponymous key witness is run down by a bounty hunter, getting them both into some hot water.
It alarms me that this week, Sam ends up in my bottom two, but this one was definitely not Sam’s best. I loved the swallow the key/”I used to do magic” bit (word play in the title!), but the shoot-out wasn’t all that, and the dumpster diving wasn’t either. (But getting the goon to go splat on the dumpster lid was smart.)
And dude, you’re smiling more! Excellent! Get those extra votes! (Though you might want to have shaved a bit…)

MY LEAST FAVORITE: Kenny Luby’s “The Losers”
A Physics geek Dad proves he’s a freak his son can look up to by competing in a skateboarding race.
As with Hilary’s effort last week, it’s ironic that Kenny’s best work to date still ends up as my Least Favorite of the night.
For the record, this one was still a good short, with a warm, fuzzy “even losers can be winners” ending. The skateboarding stuff wasn’t really that exciting though. (And the behind-the-scenes stuff showed Kenny’s tendency to be an enfant terrible, so he could be on shaky ground.)
And on a final note, I loved the Physics geek writing on air, but what was with the toy lizard?!

Tonight’s guest judge: Antoine Fuqua.
I’ve only ever watched one Fuqua film, The Replacement Killers, and wasn’t terribly impressed by it. I’ve seen stretches of King Arthur on cable, but haven’t seen it in its entirety, so I can’t form a proper opinion on it.
Don’t worry. Next week’s guest judge is Brad Silberling, and I’ve at least seen two of his films!
And speaking of next week, it’s another Comedy Night (with a little Romance, according to Adrianna), with the remaining six contestants all going head-to-head.

(Contestant image courtesy of thelot.com; Antoine Fuqua image on the set of Training Day courtesy of movies.yahoo.com.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007



ENTOURAGE
Season 4 Episode 2
“The First Cut is the Deepest ”

The boys finally get back from a break in Italy, since Billy claims Medellin is finally ready to be screened (for Vince’s and E’s eyes only). At the offices, Ari makes it clear that because of the bad word on the street regarding Medellin’s “troubled shoot,” no one wants to dangle an offer in front of Vince till it’s established that Medellin isn’t the next Gigli.
Meanwhile, Turtle and Drama prep the welcome back party, to be held at Drama’s condo (as Vince is currently staying at a hotel, much to Marvin’s very vocal dismay).
And meanwhile still, Ari and Mrs. Ari go on red alert as it looks like their boy may not get into the school they’ve poured so much effort into.

So while Vince and E meet Billy, only to have him flee the scene with the only completely-edited print of Medellin, Drama orders Porta-potties and padlocks his bathroom (among other drastic steps to ensure his place isn’t trashed). And in Ari’s quest to get his son into school, he finds out his son isn’t the problem; it’s Ari the foul-mouthed, cell-phone wielding maniac the school doesn’t want any more of.

At the party (where Drama insists on the use of coasters and has everyone take off their shoes), E finally gets a message through to Billy, stressing that Vince’s career—and bank account—are on the line with Medellin. So a nervous and insecure Billy finally agrees to a screening, asking only that Vince “Be gentle.”

As Vince and E finally see Medellin, the party moves to Vince’s hotel room, where Anthony Michael Hall pisses over the balcony, getting them all thrown out.
Exiting the screening room, Vince and E congratulate Billy on a great film. In the car though, E reveals he was only being nice to Billy, and while Vince apparently thought the film was great, E thought it sucked.

(Image courtesy of hbo.com.)

Monday, July 16, 2007


reVIEW (9)
HIDE AND SEEK

Hide and Seek is the story of psychologist David Callaway (Robert De Niro), whose wife (Amy Irving) loses her life suddenly and tragically, forcing him to not only cope with the loss, but care for their little girl Emily (Dakota Fanning). One move to upstate New York later, and Emily is having visitations from her new friend Charlie, and the expected strange goings-on begin.

The central riddle of Hide and Seek, of course, involves Charlie and his true nature. Is it supernatural, natural, or psychological? The big problem with the film is, the answer is painfully transparent, and the underlying reason for it, ultimately prosaic. To the credit of director John Polson (Swimf@n) and scriptwriter Ari Schlossberg, the clues are present, but there really isn’t much of a mystery here. A senile Angela Lansbury could solve this one without breaking a sweat.
And the red herrings are, at best, negligible. Admittedly, I’ve seen worse: the awkward and obvious herrings of Jane Campion’s In The Cut and Robert Zemeckis’ What Lies Beneath readily come to mind. And though a mystery’s red herring is supposed to distract you from the real solution, the herrings in Hide and Seek are instantly dismissable, as not only do they cross into the too-obvious zone, but the true answer is just so evident, that once you’ve latched onto it, you’ll be like a dog reluctant to give up its bone.

One of the other tragedies of Hide and Seek is that not only is talent of the caliber of a De Niro wasted here, but that of Oscar nominee Elizabeth Shue (for Leaving Las Vegas) and Famke Janssen (who did more as Michael Douglas’ injured wife in Don’t Say A Word than she ends up doing here) as well. Shue and Janssen don’t really play characters; they play plot necessities, the possible romantic interest, and the younger colleague/former student. We don’t really know much about them beyond the barest skeleton of a thumbnail sketch, and their on-screen time is limited, at best, visible only when the story’s events require their presence.
The lion’s share of Hide and Seek is handed over to De Niro and Fanning, which wouldn’t have been such a bad thing, if only De Niro had submitted more than the passably serviceable performance he gives here, and Fanning had done more than just steal a page from Christina Ricci’s Wednesday Addams, looking all gloomy and morose, like a pre-teen believer in heroin chic. One never really gets the sense of the presumably tremendous psychological weight these characters must be toiling under. In the end, everything is terribly mediocre and not very thrilling.

Interestingly enough, the space in which Hide and Seek operates is the same territory masterfully staked out by a certain kind of film from the recent Asian horror cinema boom. However, there is far more style and flair in Kim Ji-woon’s Janghwa, Hongryeon (A Tale of Two Sisters) or Park Ki-hyung’s Acacia, than in this piece of assembly-line Hollywood masquerading as a thriller.
Polson’s direction is casual when it should be taut. There is never any sense of something extraordinary taking place here. Instead, due to the throw-away manner in which the material is approached, it’s almost as if the filmmakers are saying, Nothing to worry about, this happens every day.

Any film should be involving, a mystery perhaps even more so. It should have the ability to suck you into its world, to subsume the audience into its twists and tangles, making you wonder, all the way until the final frame. It should be able to get you to participate in its game, get you to try and solve its riddle, to look as hard as you can for the hidden solution.
In Hide and Seek, with its answer plain to see, Polson and company don’t seem to care, one way or the other, if you choose to play their game. Well, all I can say to that is four simple words: sit this one out.

(The above review was previously published under the title “Sit This One Out.”)

(Hide and Seek OS courtesy of impawards.com.)

Friday, July 13, 2007




reVIEW (8)
EL MAQUINISTA
(THE MACHINIST)

Brad Anderson’s El Maquinista (The Machinist) is the most bewildering film I managed to see from 2004.
It’s the story of Trevor Reznik (a horrifyingly emaciated Christian Bale), who hasn’t slept for a year, and the gradual unraveling of his so-called life, when strange incidents begin to take place. It’s the kind of film that makes no effort to give the audience any idea about where it’s going; the kind of film where you keep on waiting for the other shoe to drop, unaware if the shoe’s going to be a high-heeled stiletto, black-leather dress, or steel-toed motorcycle.
There is an enigma at the heart of The Machinist, to be certain. The question is, if, by film’s end, the viewer will find the answer worth having waited for.

Edited by Luis De La Madrid and shot by Xavi Gimenez (the excellent editor and cinematographer tandem of Jaume Balaguero’s chilling Los Sin Nombre and Darkness), The Machinist has a bleak air about it, bordering on the oppressive without actually crossing over into the why-is-it-always-dark-and-raining territory of Se7en. But as visually interesting as the film is, it is in its script (by Scott Kosar, who also penned the scripts for the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Amityville Horror) where The Machinist breaks down.

The central mystery, of course, is why exactly has Trevor not gotten any sleep for the past year? Why is it that outside of his job, the only regular socializing he does is with Stevie, a prostitute played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Marie (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, who starred opposite Keanu Reeves in A Walk in the Clouds), an airport waitress he’s visited every single night for the past year?
The beauty of a mystery is when there are enough clues that the attentive and analytical audience member can actually solve it just before the final reveal. Just take a look at The Sixth Sense. All the clues are right there, if only we interpret them properly. The problem with The Machinist is that, though there are clues handed out to the viewer, they’re rather general and ambiguous, so much so that actually solving the puzzle before the climax is a slim, nearly non-existent possibility. And because the clues are not very precise, the audience could be left annoyed and irritated as the end credits begin to roll.

Ultimately, the most disturbing aspect of The Machinist is the physical transformation Bale underwent to play the insomniac Reznik, losing 63 pounds—a third of his body weight—making the Oscar-winning thinning-down Adrien Brody did for Roman Polanski’s The Pianist look positively little league by comparison.
Having debuted on the silver screen in 1987, appearing in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, and the lesser-known Mio, moj Mio (Mio in the Land of Faraway) from Vladimir Grammatikov, Bale has gained a reputation for the intensity and dedication he brings to his craft.
When he bulked up and honed his body to a stunningly high-definition for Mary Harron’s American Psycho, then maintained that build for Kurt Wimmer’s Equilibrium, I was suitably impressed by Bale’s ability to take on the physical transformation a specific role entailed. And though this latest feat is no less impressive, it is also a shocking thing to see.
You just know there is some deep, dark secret at The Machinist’s core, something so disturbing it can turn a man into the wasted husk we see on-screen. It is, I believe, this added pressure on the final answer to The Machinist’s dark question that results in its collapse.
Not that the answer is light-weight by any means, but somehow, it doesn’t seem enough, not for a feature-length film, where drama is heightened and magnified from its real-life proportions. In the end, the movie does not successfully convey the weight, the magnitude, of what we learn is the truth. Like John Polson’s Hide and Seek, the final reveal of The Machinist just seems too prosaic given all we’ve seen leading up to it.

Anderson’s previous psychological thriller Session 9 (with David Caruso, who managed to move from New York to Miami without seemingly becoming a different character) was also a slick little package that sadly lacked substance and cohesion once the wrapping had come off.
Maybe, if Anderson eventually manages to hold a solid script in his evidently capable directorial hands, we’ll all see the great film he so clearly wants to show us.
Until then, we’ll have to make do with the tantalizing possibilities already visible in his near-misses.

Parting shot: A Spanish production, The Machinist was filmed before Batman Begins, and Bale had to quickly gain back all the pounds he’d shed to bulk up to play Gotham’s Dark Knight.

Parting shot 2: I’m eagerly awaiting Anderson’s next film, Transsiberian, hoping this is the one that’s gonna kick my a$$.
Aside from that, Luis De La Madrid is also helming the upcoming The End of the Summer.

(The above review began life under the name, “Out Of Order.”)

(The Machinist OS’s courtesy of impawards.com.)

Wednesday, July 11, 2007



ON THE LOT
Episode 10
“When Two Worlds Collide”

Shira-Lee goes home, and that’s too bad, as I did like the nursery scene from “Open House.”
And that’s not the only bit of bad news Adrianna brings to the contestants. It seems that from this batch of five directors, the two with the least number of votes get eliminated. Suddenly, the odds are ramped up against the contestants, and no one can afford a misfire at this stage of the game.
So, without further ado…

MY FAVORITE: Adam Stein’s “Worldly Possession”
Though the idea of a top secret military weapon getting mistakenly sent to suburbia was one of the loglines from the very first OTL episode, Adam makes the most of the idea, as a materialistic couple get their just desserts. (The punchline however, does wipe out the entire neighborhood as well…)

Will Bigham’s “Spaghetti”
A couple get lost on the road and end up in the middle of a spaghetti Western.
Will finally breaks out whole sentences of dialogue and makes this a fun little homage to the genre.

Zach Lipovsky’s “Time Upon A Once”
The new neighbours move in, but there’s something decidedly odd about them…
Again, the logistics and technical aspects of his short are impressive, but just as Carrie Fisher pointed out, Zach’s set his own bar so high, that even a good entry like this one suffers in comparison to his past work.
And I wouldn’t have minded subtitles, ala Twin Peaks.

Shalini Kantayya’s “First Sight”
A shallow and self-involved young woman has a shocking epiphany at a street fair.
Though I didn’t have as much of a problem with this one as Carrie Fisher and guest judge Luke Greenfield did, it did still lack some “Oooomphh.”
And the visual effects that turn Baba (I believe his name was) into a ball of light were so Charmed, it hurt…

MY LEAST FAVORITE: Hilary Graham’s “The Legend of Donkey-Tail Willie”
An interesting fable set in the Wild West, where true love can be found, no matter the particular circumstance of one’s physicality.
It’s ironic that this is definitely Hilary’s best work to date, and this week, it’s my Least Favorite.
I just really didn’t feel Willie’s predicament as much as I should’ve. And there wasn’t any sense of genuine conflict on our way to that happy ending.

This week’s guest judge was Luke Greenfield, who directed The Animal and The Girl Next Door, neither of which I’ve actually seen, so I don’t have anything really to say about the guy.
So I won’t.

Next week’s gonna be interesting (it’s Action Night) and tough, as two directors are going home… And the week after that, two more go home…
Things are getting down to the wire.

(Contestant image courtesy of thelot.com; Luke Greenfield image courtesy of ryanpinkston.com.)

Saturday, July 7, 2007



reVIEW (7)
DANNY THE DOG (aka UNLEASHED)

With Louis Leterrier at the helm of the Hulk sequel, I thought, hey, let’s let Danny The Dog out for a walk. After all, it’s been awhile since the little dude’s been out of his cage…

We all know Jet Li kicks serious butt.
In 2002, he worked with renowned director Zhang Yimou on Ying Xiong (Hero), arguably the thinking man’s martial arts film. In 2005, Li reunited with his Kiss of the Dragon writer/producer Luc Besson (best known for directing the high-octane actioneers, Leon and La Femme Nikita, as well as the gonzo science-fiction epic, The Fifth Element), in Louis Leterrier’s Danny The Dog (internationally known as Unleashed), another wire-fu flick with a difference.

This time out, he shares screen time with Oscar alumni Morgan Freeman (who won for Million Dollar Baby) and Bob Hoskins (nominated for Mona Lisa), to tell the tale of “Danny the Dog,” a man with the soul and spirit of a child, conditioned to have the cold beating heart of a brutal fighter when the collar he is forced to wear is taken off him.
And when fate conspires to take the ruthless Bart (Hoskins) out of Danny’s life, the man-child comes into the care of Sam (Freeman), a blind piano tuner who lives with his stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon, of Ned Kelly and Angela’s Ashes). Sam and Victoria, with their kindness and warmth, begin to deconstruct Danny the Dog, teaching him how to be human, as well as the meaning of family.

Described like that, Danny The Dog sounds curiously like Lilo & Stitch; that is, if Lilo & Stitch had fight scenes choreographed by the Master himself, Yuen Wo Ping (whose Hollywood credits include The Matrix trilogy and the Kill Bill saga). So fear not, action junkies, Danny The Dog doesn’t get all Bicentennial Man on us. What it does though, is present us with a curious paradox.

Like Hero before it, Danny The Dog is a film that puts martial arts squarely at its center, but at the same time has a strong anti-violence (and, in Hero’s particular case, anti-war) stance. But, like Danny, we the audience, have been conditioned to associate Jet Li with serious butt-kicking. Thus, there are times when Danny The Dog seems to be at odds with itself. Violence is equated with dehumanization; that we would be no better than wild dogs if we resorted to guns and knives and fists. What then about the audience member who has unabashedly come into Danny The Dog relishing with anticipation the fancy moves and high-flying kicks Jet Li is sure to amaze us with?
Presumably, we are supposed to take stock of ourselves, of our own innate fascination with the cinema of violence. Yet, unlike Hero, that aspect of Danny The Dog doesn’t quite work as well. Hoskin’s Bart is a little too cartoony, and the story’s resolution a little too pat, to make the integrity of the whole as solid as it could have been.

While Leterrier’s direction is adequate (Leterrier co-directed The Transporter with Corey Yuen, and flew solo on the sequel), ultimately, it’s the script by Besson that doesn’t deliver the goods.
We are made to hear the presumably strong filial bonds shared by Sam and Victoria through lines of dialogue by Freeman, without really being allowed to feel that bond through specific plot situations. And though scenes between Li and Freeman—in which Sam teaches Danny how to shop and cook—are effective, they aren’t enough to capture the feeling of family.
On another note, though I love Massive Attack, I feel their brand of music may be a wee bit laid back, compared to the hard-driving techno cuts that have become the standard soundtrack to films of this sort. (Which was, perhaps, the point, but somehow, Massive Attack’s score just didn’t work for me.)

If, however, you’re in it simply for the butt-kicking, then Danny The Dog delivers on that score. This is, after all, Jet Li. And though some of Li’s past films have been more creative in their choreography, there is still some solid wire-fu fun to be had here.
Still, if Besson had spent a little more time teaching the proverbial old dog its new tricks, if he had worked harder to subvert the wire-fu film (and, by extension, the cinema of violence), much as Sam and Victoria deconstruct Danny, Danny The Dog could have turned out to be much more substantial than it actually is.

(The above review began life under the name, “Deconstructing Danny (Teaching An Old Dog…).”)

(Danny The Dog and Unleashed OS’s courtesy of impawards.com.)

Friday, July 6, 2007



MASTERS OF HORROR
Season 2 Episode 10

“We All Scream For Ice Cream”
Teleplay by David J. Schow; based on “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For Ice Cream” by John Farris; directed by Tom Holland

Layne Bannister (Lee Tergesen, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning and a handful of Desperate Housewives episodes) has just moved back to his old home town, in time to watch the members of his childhood gang, the “West End Bunch,” start dropping like flies (apparently getting turned into melting puddles of ice cream, as we see in the episode’s opening sequence).
Playing like an ultimately ineffective variation on Stephen King’s It, this one was a particular disappointment, given the heavy hitters behind it.

John Farris.
I may not have been able to read the original short story on which this episode is based, but I do think Farris’ All Heads Turn When The Hunt Goes By is an excellent horror novel that really should be read by any self-respecting horror hound. (I wasn’t too thrilled by his Son of the Endless Night, though.)

David J. Schow.
Not only did he write the screenplay for Alex Proyas’ The Crow, but Schow is another kick-a$$ horror writer as well. (Though he did write the scripts for Critters 3 and 4, so take that as you will. He also provided the story for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, where episode lead Tergesen appeared.)

And Tom Holland.
He may have been low-key recently, but he gave us Fright Night and Child’s Play, so he knows his horror films.

So we’ve got three proven names, and what do we get?
Another sub-par MoH hour that feels like an excruciating two.

To begin with, this feels too much like zombiefied Stephen King material: childhood friends as adults, with a secret from their youth that has returned to haunt them.
Not only have we seen this all before, but due to the story’s premise, we are treated to flashbacks, as we see the main characters in their youth, and the secret which plagues them all.
Nothing inherently wrong with that, granted, but when we are asked to endure patently bad performances by child actors (Samuel Patrick Chu, take note), then this constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. I kid you not, the flashbacks are agonizing.

And though as I pointed out above, I’m a firm believer in Schow, there are a bunch of lines of dialogue that may sound fine on paper, but rolling off the tongue, they just don’t make the grade. Or perhaps, the performances are again to blame. It gets difficult to tell in this one, particularly when you’re too busy rolling your eyes in incredulity.
All in all, this one gets chalked up as a loss, a particularly painful one, considering the talent behind it.

(We All Scream For Ice Cream DVD cover art courtesy of fangoria.com.)