Monday, December 28, 2009


Watching Avatar, I was reminded of all the reasons James Cameron's films were so important to me as a boy and later a teenager. I am now something close to an adult viewer and I felt strangely in commune with my adolescent self. "I would've loved that," I thought, watching the giant dinosaur-bird-thing demolish the giant helicopter-warship-thing. My old self, I thought, would not have known what to do with the blue alien sex love scene but, again, I think he would've liked it.

Avatar feels like a great launchpad for a revisiting of Cameron's oeuvre. It's got everything that makes his movies great and everything that makes them silly.

Cameron's films will forever connect to the fourteen-year-old boys of the world. As an action director he is visceral and kinetic in the best way: his films are exciting and breathtaking and always feel "new" (even the old ones, still), but for all his talk of reinventing cinema, he speaks in a very old and trusted language. Where Michael Bay reaches his audiences (somehow) through noise and static, Cameron's genius lies in his ability to tell a fluid story with his camera. It feels great to be talked to again. With the language of film, Cameron is a master poet.

So no, I don't think anything has been reinvented here, except for a lot of special effects.

Those special effects, though, are not to be denied, and are the reason every professional filmmaker is currently dropping Avatar as the revolution Cameron claimed it would be. I am generally suspicious when I read an interview with a geeky filmmaker talking about all the special effects he needed to tell his story. In this case, however, I believe Cameron knew exactly what he was doing in the twelve years since Titanic.

Cameron made an appearance at ShoWest (the National Association of Theater Owners' annual Vegas tradeshow) in 2005 to announce that when he finished Avatar, there would have to be thousands of digital, 3D-equipped screens around the country. Have you noticed the proliferation of "digital 3D" cinemas in the past five years? There you go. This is why.

I have now seen the film twice: once on a full-sized IMAX screen with 3D glasses and a $15 ticket, and again on a screen not much bigger than my televison, with poor sound and poorer focus and only two meager dimensions. I can say that while the picture obviously wasn't as nifty the second time around, it still worked, and I still loved it. And that's because Cameron knows how to tell a story.

The key to enjoying Avatar is the same as it was with Titanic: these are both epic, three-hour disaster movies with a lot of amazing effects, but unless we want to see the boy and the girl in each other's arms, we won't care if their lives are in danger. It's about the difference between threatening the life of our main character and threatening the life of the person we know the main character to love (see also: Aliens, Terminator 2). What sets Avatar apart is that in this case, the girl our main character loves happens to be a ten-foot tall blue alien, and that's where special effects become necessary instead of decorative. "We figured the story wouldn't work if you didn't want to do her," says Cameron in a refreshingly candid interview for Maxim. This is about as perfect a definition of 'pathos' as I've ever heard.

The girl here is Neytiri, whose tribe lives in a very large tree on a distant moon called Pandora (cough). The Na'vi are a peaceful, spiritual race who communicate with all the flora and fauna on Pandora through what Glenn Kenny describes as "organic USB ports". From within their ponytails sprout bioluminescent feelers that hook into similar antennae in the animals or just wrap themselves around a tree branch, leaving the whole orgiastic population literally connected to nature. The humans that intrude on their land deplore them as primitive and undeveloped, but why fix what isn't broken?

The humans have come because they (I hesitate to say "we") have wrung the Earth dry of its natural resources and intend to mine Pandora for a powerful ore called "unobtanium" (which is a ridiculous name even if Cameron is just paying homage to a classic trope). There's a particularly strong deposit of the rock underneath the Na'vi's tree, so the humans are going to bust up the hood whether or not the Na'vi are still hanging around.

This is where our hero Jake (of the "Jarhead Clan") comes in, wirelessly piloting a genetically-engineered Na'vi body and earning his keep with the natives. Jake is the "diplomatic solution", charged with persuading them to move from their giant sacred tree so they don't all get killed when the humans swoop in to knock it down. From here, the story goes exactly where you expect it to if you've seen (obvious comparisons) Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas/The New World or Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.

What impresses about Avatar, and what transcends the sentimentality that so many haters claim turned them off from Titanic, is the fiercely political message. The film is anti-war, pro-environment and very nearly anti-human. As Jake earns his place with the Na'vi and his allegiances begin to sway, the audience sways with him until we are rooting for the blue guys. There is a faction of about four or five humans that have defected, but when it comes time for the climactic battle to save Pandora, it's the humans in their warplanes we must be rooting against.

What bothers me is hearing 14-year-old boys in the theater cheer on the devastation - "Yeah, get some!" I heard one say as a Na'vi warrior put an arrow into the heart of a faceless GI. Coppola said that all war movies are inherently anti-war, but as The Hurt Locker effectively illustrated, the anti-war sentiment is going to be in the eye of the beholder. I think Cameron gives it his all to set up this battle as not a good thing, but there will always be a boy in the audience who just thinks war is cool.

Early in the film, Jake is being attacked by a gang of ravenous, fanged Pandoran wolf-creatures. He's saved by Neytiri, who smacks him when he thanks her. "This is a bad thing," she explains. "They did not have to die." That's anti-war movie-making in a nutshell. Is it a good thing that our hero was saved? Sure. But it's also a terrible thing that the war had to be fought in the first place. If he hadn't gone trespassing in the Pandoran jungle, nobody would've died.

In the next hour leading up to the final battle, Cameron references Vietnam, the Trail of Tears, the wars in Iraq and finally 9/11 as the humans come in and collapse the Na'vi's towering tree in a cloud of fire, smoke and floating ash. Is it cynical to imagine Cameron, who has allegedly been assembling this film since 1995, sitting in front of his television on September 11, 2001, thinking "I can use that..."? I suppose it's more likely he thought, as most of the world's artists did that day, "I have to use that - it's now my duty."

How you can sit through all this and end up excited for the battle is beyond me, but I suppose that's the way boys are. The action sequences are quite awesome in the literal sense of the word. I only hope that those in the audience shouting "Awesome!" are not missing the point. They are cheering on a story based on the darkest sides of our humanity. By the film's end, Jake is referring to the humans as "the aliens". We are the invaders, the murderers, who killed our planet and want to ravage another and another after that. Awesome.

This is the first part of an open-ended series revisiting the work of James Cameron. To read any more I may publish in the future, click through his tag.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Die Hard (1988)

Here's why Die Hard is one of the best Christmas movies ever.

Die Hard
tells a Capra-esque story about a lonely man in a foreign land who just wants to get to his family for Christmas. Not only does the holiday serve as inciting incident (it's what finally uproots our hero from New York City and drags him to California), it's also worth looking into Hans Gruber's selection of the date for his big heist.

Getting off a plane at LAX, John McClane mutters a bemused "California..." under his breath at various points, once upon seeing a blonde bimbo jumping into the arms of her beloved. He's a stranger in a strange land - this provides much of the movie's pathos. McClane doesn't like even setting foot in Los Angeles (I can get behind him on this). When his limo driver Argyle is pressing for his life story, he explains that his wife abandoned him ("She had a good job that turned into a great career", he says) and took the kids to the other side of the country. Why didn't he go with them? He tells Argyle: "I got a six-month backlog of New York scumbags I'm still trying to put behind bars. I can't just pack up and leave that easy."

Obviously, there's more to it than that. A deep rift at least a continent wide has been keeping John from his wife. When he shows up at the Nakatomi tower to meet her at her company's holiday party, he discovers that she has been operating under her maiden name. The film is never explicit about what exactly the company does, and this is key. The closest we get to the inner workings at Nakatomi are when Gruber takes Takagi up to his executive office to shoot him in the head. Here we see some models of various infrastructural projects, and Takagi pledges that his company has always acted altruistically.

But the thing is: Gruber isn't even interested in the company. He's just there for the money. The entire scheme hinges on Gruber's particularly brilliant idea to disguise an extraordinary smash-and-grab as global terrorism. His plan is calculated to a tee and based around a number of circumstantial factors: on Christmas Eve, people are going to be well-lubricated and with their guards down, and the building, still partially under construction anyway, will be mostly empty.

Nakatomi is rich and some theives want to steal their millions of dollars in bonds. That this action can be so easily construed as terrorism - especially post-9/11 - is an essentially American perspective. Gruber is counting on the dumb Americans to get their panties all in a bunch (and most of them do) - it's the misdirection in his great magic trick. He orders the release of political prisoners he read about in a magazine just to confuse the police and buy time.

Of course, Gruber didn't count on John McClane. This is his great failure, and it's one we can fault him for. As Michael Scott so eloquently explained, what makes McClane such a compelling hero (at least in this installment of the franchise) is that he is, in fact, an everyman. He may be a New York City cop, but that doesn't count for much in Los Angeles (even to the LAPD). As one officer says, he might as well be a bartender up there. What counts from McClane is his resolve. Gruber assumed he would be busting up a party full of drunken, coked-up capitalists who would cower in the corner and wait for him to finish his plot. But it's Christmas, man, and John McClane has a family to reunite. Were Gruber not so cynical about Americans at Christmastime, he might've seen this coming.

Christmas is when the magic happens. It's when daddies come home to their daughters and spirits are raised in happy memories and optimism. The Nakatomi company may be Japanese, but Takagi moved to San Diego when he was two years old and built a global corporation. The Tower is built of money that the foreign bad guys want to run off with. Hans Gruber is attacking America the same way Osama Bin Laden did - he may only be a thief, but if you scare somebody you are, effectively, a terrorist. Gruber just has a different motive. He expects that Christmas will be when he can catch us at our most vulnerable (a notion shared by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab) but it's also when we are going to fight for our families.

John McClane is cast here as the perfect American hero. He's a cowboy. The Nakatomi company is filled with globe-hopping traders, but this New York City cop is purebred. He's a die hard, and if he didn't have his police training he'd still be resourceful and willing to stand and fight to the death. Lucy McClane, his young daughter, appears twice in the film to ask when her daddy is coming home. Terrorist or no terrorist, you get home to that girl for Christmas.

McClane does suspect he might die. He knows he's mortal but he's willing to make the sacrifice if it means saving the day. At his lowest, after Hans tells his henchmen to "shoot the glass!" and he gets his feet all cut up, he radios his brother-in-arms down on the ground to deliver a message to his wife.

"I want you to tell her something," he says. He's not even sure what it is yet. This is a great soliloquy: within this beat, McClane realizes that he is sorry. "I want you to tell her that, um ... tell her it took me a while to figure out what a jerk I've been. But, um, that ... that when things started to pan out for her I shoulda been more supportive and I just shoulda been behind her more. Ah, shit. Tell her that ... that she's the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me. She's heard me saying 'I love you' a thousand times. She never heard me say 'I'm sorry.' I want you to tell her that, Al. I want you to tell her that John said that he was sorry. Okay? You got that, man?"

When the battle is won, John introduces his wife to his compatriot Sgt. Al and he refers to her as "Holly Gennaro", displaying a newfound acceptance of his wife as an independent woman on a career path. When she corrects him - "Holly McClane" - the arc of their relationship is complete. The credits are rolling two minutes later, in which time Al, Argyle, and William Atherton's sniveling Action News reporter Richard Thornburg all get wrap-ups (Al fires his gun again, Argyle busts out of the locked-down parking garage and Thornburg gets one right in the kisser from Mrs. McClane), but the reconciliation of the McClane family is what Die Hard is all about. And what's better for a Christmas story than a man and woman who love each other working out their issues and going home to give Lucy a big stuffed bear?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

Guy Ritchie's new incarnation of Sherlock Holmes comes with two surprises: 1) the story, though dull, at least makes sense and doesn't flail out of Ritchie's limited grasp and 2) the film recasts Holmes and his life-partner Dr. Watson as the most blatantly homosexual pair of screen idols this side of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist. I hesitate to use the word 'subtext', though that is technically where the gayness lies; the homosexuality is never explicit, unless you count the pet names "Old Cock" and "Mother Hen" as 'explicit'.

I have to wonder if the two leads, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, decided to see if they could pull this off without telling anyone. (I can envision the two of them meeting at a pub the night before production began to wager their paychecks on whether or not Ritchie would catch on.) The two of them are playing in a different film than all the other actors, although the script does seem to back them up: Watson is moving out - the two men share a flat - and in with a woman whom he intends to marry. Neither seems particularly thrilled with this - there is no chemistry between Watson and his fiancée, and the marriage for both is decidedly convenient. Holmes in particular is facing a rapid descent into depression, drug-addiction and alcoholism. He proceeds to prank the happy heterosexual couple throughout the film with varying degrees of taste.

In fact, Holmes' and Watson's relationship follows a pretty standard rom-com arc. It begins with the other woman, whose presence leads to hijinks of an increasingly bitter nature. This results in Watson giving Holmes the silent treatment for most of the second act of the film, until Holmes lures him back into his heart with a delicately choreographed re-enactment of one of their favorite dates (in this case: solving murders). Finally they team up once more to bring down the bad guy - you kind of hope Watson will refer to Sherlock as "Shirley" during their sweet rekindling.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. The flirtation between Downey and Law is pretty much the only interesting thing the movie has to offer. I suppose it's worth mentioning that if homosexuality ever does become acceptable in mainstream culture, we stand to lose a great wellspring for subversion.

Oh, yeah: there's some complicated business involving a bad guy with a plot to take over the world. Lord Blackwood wants to take over the Parliament so that he might stage a coup to regain control of "the colonies" across the Atlantic (nefarious!) and he's going to do it with a biological weapon that will incite fear in the common people (relevant!).

Sherlock Holmes, we may recall, is allegedly a detective of some kind. Most of the detective work we witness involves deducing how best to beat up henchmen. Apart from this, there are a few revelations of the indecipherable-jargon variety and some plot twists that just don't qualify. Why, if you're trying to surprise your audience with a dead villain's resurrection, would you set up the action by showing Holmes drugging his bulldog into a sedated state which, to the very same doctor that will pronounce the bad guy deceased, is indistinguishable from death?

The bulk of the film is loud, obnoxious action perforated by lengthy spans of tedious exposition. It's really quite boring, although it provides one of the more impressive motivations I've found in a while to make me wish the two leads would just quit bantering and make out already. As homoerotic tension goes, the movie is something to behold. If you're looking for anything else - an action-packed holiday thrill ride for the family, for example - go with Avatar.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

Rom-com quirk-fest (500) Days of Summer announces itself as a response to, or examination of, all the dime-a-dozen rom-com quirk-fests sleeping around these days. The main character, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explains several times throughout the film that our contemporary sadnesses are often attributable to a reliance upon pop music, love stories and fairy tales. He stole this theory from High Fidelity, but whatever.

Tom works at New Hampshire Greetings, authoring greeting cards that, throughout the film, inevitably offer a reflection of his love life. His career then takes a turn for the worse whenever Tom is heartsick, so it’s worth asking how he’s been at this job for four years when, according to the film’s narrator, he has been down-in-the-dumps and wearing the same Joy Division t-shirt since he discovered mopey British pop at eight years old.

The five-hundred days of the title refer to the amount of time it takes Tom to meet Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), fall in love with her, win her over, get his heart all busted and broken, and then finally get over her. The film zips back and forth among the days, always carefully numbering them. The film begins: on Day 488, Summer has a wedding ring on, while somewhere around 350 she apparently dumps him. This is just one of several gimmicks that director Marc Webb pulls out to disguise the film as something more profound than the generic May-to-December romance that it is.

Occasionally, Webb’s trickery works. Several standout sequences provide rushes of pathos and laughter, including a top-notch production number set to Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams”. This kind of surrealist ‘what’ll they think of next?’ tomfoolery has been attempted before, of course, but a good production number is almost always fun and in this case Webb proves himself to be delightfully inventive. He also doesn't rely on cheap jokes: another winner involves Tom showing up at Summer’s rooftop party for a harsh dose of 'she's just not that into you'. Here, the screen splits into two halves, with the left labeled “EXPECTATIONS” and the right “REALITY”.

But never mind the kitchen-sink visual aesthetic: most of the film’s success comes from the two lead performances. Deschanel, presumably cast by Alexandra Patsavas, is a post-modern choice for the role. As she gains in popularity (the actress and the character) you can see the trail of broken hearts leading away behind her - the film comes close to literally illustrating this. Then, there’s few actors working today who could infuse the monotonous Tom with as much honesty as Gordon-Levitt, whose low, crackling voice defies his boyish frame, as his eyes consistently betray his feelings for Summer to us and to her.

So what was it, though, that was supposed to set this movie apart? What does this movie have to say about relationships that we haven’t heard a hundred times before? As much as I thoroughly enjoyed the romantic antics of the first two thirds, it slowly creeps up that the film has no answers to those very questions it poses.

Borrowing another page from the superior High Fidelity, Tom and Summer are purported to be wise and knowing heroes, each with conflicting theses on the nature of love and each poised to learn something from the other.

The film sets up in the opening credits that at only eight years old, Tom learned from The Smiths that storybook love is the only thing worth living for (so stay emo 'til you find it, kids!) while Summer learned from her parents' divorce that love as we have it marketed to us doesn't exist. That these two crazies sociopathically carry these opposing worldviews into their adult lives until they meet each other ought to make for a great showdown. But Tom and Summer don't learn any lessons from each other: Summer learns that Tom was actually right the whole time. Love as we know it from romantic comedies does exist, it's just Tom wasn't the right one for her.

That this is where (500) Days of Summer finds its endpoint, with the eight-year-old Smiths fan proving to be a romantic prophet, finally destroys any commentary it makes on the toxins we receive from watching romantic comedies. When you take away the trick storytelling, the story being told here is really just another rom-com like any other at the bottom of the barrel. The vomit-inducing coda confirms this, as Tom meets a girl named Autumn and knowingly grins at the camera. No lessons learned here, there or anywhere, but thanks for playing.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Me and Orson Welles

A tender little trifle called Me and Orson Welles is whispering its way through theaters this holiday season and I can't recommend enough that you run out and catch it while you have the chance. Presumably unmarketable despite a couple marquee names, the picture is being distributed by its own production company after failing to find a buyer on the festival circuit.

Set in a glossy 1937 New York City, the film follows a young boy named Richard who stumbles into a bit part in Orson Welles' controversial, galvanizing staging of Julius Caesar. Or rather, the production is just "CAESAR" - Welles is that rare figure that can slice half of the text out of a Shakespeare play and still make it count. As Richard enters the fray, the opening has already been delayed several times and Richard's role is available because - and this is just one of several ego-related problems backstage with the production - Orson keeps firing people. Richard is warned: the last guy gave Orson attitude.

Richard is played by Zac Efron, for whom I will humbly admit a growing affection. He's a uniquely perfect choice for the role. Richard essentially lies his way into getting the part, pretending to be older, more experienced and more able to play the ukelele than he actually is. Everyone rolls their eyes at the kid, which is pretty much what the artsy intelligentsia like to do at poor Efron in spite of his considerable wit and charm. Richard has a week to learn his lines as well as how to play the "lute" or else his career in the theater will be over before it starts. His part as been recast before, and if it comes down to the wire, Orson can always just cut it.

There are lots of great theater in-jokes - Welles refers to the Lunts as "the dinosaurs on the cover of Time Magazine" - but there are plenty of lessons to be imparted here, not all having much to do with playacting. It's a very straightforward coming-of-age story, and Richard is going to get a dose of love, heartbreak and adulthood. This is nothing we haven't seen before, but the movie strikes perfectly that rare chord between sentimental and saccharine.

The real triumph of the film is the actor Christian McKay, who plays Welles. Orson Welles is more legend than man at this point, and McKay is hardly the first impersonator to come along (my favorite so far has been Vincent D’Onofrio in Tim Burton’s underrated Ed Wood). But McKay doesn’t stop at doing impressions, though he might’ve gotten away with it given his uncanny physical and vocal resemblance. No, McKay imbues this character with a sense of flawed humanity that carries the picture. The Orson Welles as written here hews dangerously close to comic book villain – he’s a mentor and a genius, but set off his temper and you can imagine him dropping a skyscraper on you or exploding your head with his eyes. McKay pulls this off without once hamming it up or overacting. His Welles knows full well that he owns a rare and necessary artistic voice, that he can (and will) sleep with any woman in New York and that if his Fascist Italy-set play is too abrasive or too muddled, his company will be bankrupt and his career in the theater will be done with. This is a complex character raging with torment and self-loathing – a madman torn apart by his own brilliance. It’s thrilling stuff to watch.

It also sets a perfect juxtaposition to the simplicity and naivety of Richard and his arc. Richard, who doesn’t have enough problems, also decides to pursue the company secretary, who is lusted after by every man in the show. She is played by Claire Danes, who gives Efron his biggest obstacle. (When I watch these two onscreen I’m confounded by anybody who would challenge Efron’s charisma when it is so visibly being sucked away by Danes’ black hole) Despite Danes, the beats of their relationship play out like a song, and the inevitable ending is made sweet by the presence of a brunette to Danes’ blonde for Richard to default to.

Early in the film, Richard flirts with a struggling writer named Gretta. She is doe-eyed and dreamy to match him, and they share a reverie about the exciting promise of being young and creatively-inclined in New York City. Played by Zoe Kazan, Gretta is a wonder for what little screen time she has. It’s only after their encounter - wherein Richard embarrassingly admits that while self-identifying as an actor he doesn’t actually have any experience acting - that he walks around the block and gets himself a role in CAESAR. It’s possible, actually, to read the entire film as an elaborate plot to win her hand and if that’s the case, I’m fine with it. Kazan is exactly the kind of girl you set out to impress by risking all your dignity in front of someone like Orson Welles.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Blog Notes 12/19/09

The poll has closed with a tie.

The first person to email me a tie-breaking vote - regardless of whether or not they have already voted - will decide between "James Cameron" and " 'Chick Flicks' of the Aughts".

I haven't posted in a week - this is true. In my defense: the holidays are stressful and I have been under the weather. You can look forward to plenty of content in the coming days.

UPDATE: (12/20/09)
I appreciate the enthusiasm for a "Chick Flicks" of the Aughts series, and I promise to get to that project soon. In the meantime, stay tuned for a look back at the work of James Cameron - including a response to Avatar - as well as (hopefully) a return to more frequent posting.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

V & FlashForward

We are in the middle of a golden age of television, with serialized storytellers making indelible marks on a medium that simply cannot be ignored. With the advent first of TV-on-DVD and next of TV-on-the-internet, audiences are more feverish than ever for new, exciting dramas. A decade ago, you never heard somebody say "I need a new show to watch." People are consuming television at a faster rate than ever before, and correlated with the increases in viewership there has been an increase in quality and depth.

So, how is it possible that in this day a network will invest so much capital in a product that is exactly and merely that: a product? (Obviously, there's an economic debate to be had here about the lack of revenue coming in from viewers on the internet, but that's a topic for another post.) With so much great television being made, it's inconceivable that ABC would try to set up a replacement for the Lost juggernaut that doesn't match that series for depth of story, precision of character development and production value. Lost has been carrying ABC for five years; whatever show gets slotted to take its place would have to be a heavyweight, right?

Wrong. How terrible are these two new shows on ABC? There are two reasons these shows are on network instead of cable. One is that the Sci-Fi Channel is in the midst of a re-branding as "SyFy" and trying to produce edgier content. The other is that some suits at the American Broadcasting Company specifically ordered an action-adventure science-fiction hour-long with a lot of built-in mythology because Lost is ending in May.

Both shows reek of desperation like a sweaty sixth-grader at a middle school dance.

V is, of course, a remake of the 1980's series of the same name. A fairly straight-forward alien invasion saga, the first thing that happens in the pilot is the arrival of a series of motherships hovering above all of Earth's major cities. "It's just like Independence Day!" shouts an onlooker, which is kind of like a background Ewok from The Battle for Endor exclaiming "It's just like Return of the Jedi!" The aliens promise peace on Earth and goodwill towards Humanity, but before the end of the first hour they are revealed to be wolves (or lizards, I guess) in sheep's clothing bent on our destruction.

The hook for FlashForward is a lot more complicated, in the way that I wish I had a convention-goer here to help me out. Everyone on Earth blacks out at the same time and for two minutes and sixteen seconds has a "flash forward" to what their lives will be like on a seemingly random day in April of 2010 (ironically, nobody we've seen in the ten episodes so far saw themselves watching ABC). Like in V, the main protagonist is an FBI agent, played here by Joseph Fiennes, confusing "recovering alcoholic" for "constipated". Fiennes' Mark Benford sees himself in April uncovering a massive conspiracy behind the flash forwards, meaning they weren't just a freak phenomenon and that we're gonna have to dirty our hands in police procedural to figure out what happened.

From here, both shows unravel winded, Dan Brown-inspired tales of conspiracies-within-conspiracies, unrelated characters matched up by coincidence and the ever-present threat of a bigger fish. I'm reminded, actually, of the legend about Joel Surnow sending a bid to Dan Brown himself to adapt The Da Vinci Code into the third season of 24 (Brown rejected the offer, forseeing, like his resourceful hero Robert Langdon, the promise of a lot more money from a feature film). The success of Brown's novels has seriously infected the way some producers are going about their storytelling.

24 itself has gone down the Dan Brown rabbit hole in recent years, though it was never exactly high-brow in the first place. The past few seasons (sharing with FlashForward in season four "Iranian with Dignity" go-to actress Shohreh Aghdashloo) of that show were particularly terrible for their repeated folding of the plot in upon itself. It's more obvious there due to the "real time" format; you end up tuning in just to witness the new depths of preposterousness as a third and then a fourth higher ranking sect of the same terrorist group attacks America not five hours later. The first wave was just a diversion!

Angels & Demons and its successors (and imitators) are popular because they keep you interested in (only in) what happens next. It's cliffhanger-based storytelling. I'm not interested in saying anything positive about Brown, but if there's one thing he's inarguably good at, it's plotting. He writes according to a page-turning formula that adheres to low attention spans and keeps people reading. There's a reason the majority of the chapters in his books are less than two pages long, and there's a calculated science to the way those chapters end. From Angels & Demons: "Tonight we change the world." (end of chapter 3); "The entire power structure of the Roman Catholic Church is sitting on a time bomb." (end of chapter 33, italics Brown's); "Then ... the little girl began to scream." (end of chapter 74) [*see comments]

This is exactly the kind of thing we see at work on V and FlashForward, although if you watch them both with any kind of juxtaposition, it's clear that the latter is superior in this delicate art. Both shows are on mid-season hiatus right now until next year, V having aired four episodes and FlashForward ten; if I were to pick one to keep watching from this point, it would have to be FlashForward and for the very reason I've stuck with it this long. I want to find out what happens next - V is so boring and underwritten, it was a slog getting through the pilot.

The slow eke of information on FlashForward is ridiculously paced, to the point where the show has, over ten episodes, established an ensemble at least fifteen-deep of regular characters about whom I couldn't care less. It's not the who, it's the why. We know the flash forward was caused by humans, but we don't know why. We suspect it was malicious, but we haven't a clue as to the motive. We don't care about the electrician's daughter showing up alive after being presumed dead in Iraq; we just want to know "whence the cover-up?" The inimitable Ricky Jay popped up for one minute at the end of episode eight to shoot a guy over a suitcase - and you know what? I'm curious as to why he did that. It's a morbid curiosity, and a sick one, but it's kept me going two episodes later, wondering when (and if) Jay would come back (he hasn't yet). I don't want to keep going, because I'm well aware that the show has me on a superficial hook. I'm sick of it.

In V, when FBI cutie Erica (Elizabeth Mitchell, one of three Lost cast members so far between these two shows, and, it turns out, way more bad-ass when she's not playing an FBI agent) stumbles upon an alien surveillance room, made up of thousands of floating video screens she manipulates with a touch of a finger like in Minority Report, the image that comes to mind is Hulu's television ad campaign.

Since I was entirely unconcerned about Erica's discoveries inside the security room, I took the moment to think about the bizarre synergy that would allow this terrible alien invasion show to juxtapose itself with the terrifying alien invasion commercials for the very conduit through which I was watching the television show. Is there a hidden message here? Are V and FlashForward carrying the subliminal directives of an actual alien attack, or perhaps merely suggesting subversively that all this crappy TV is going to melt our meager human brains (as the Hulu campaign suggests explicitly)? Probably not, but that would be a hell of a lot more interesting than anything else that'll be on ABC after Lost ends.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Messenger

Opening with a series of rules that will predictably all be broken in the emotional downward spiral of the American soldiers at its center, The Messenger quickly establishes itself as self-important "issue" filmmaking with an original hook and not much else to contribute to the conversation. It's understated enough, for the most part, to go down easy (assuming you're swallowing it as a liberal arthouse moviegoer) and is buoyed by a pair of strong - albeit inappropriately cast - performances.

The dynamic duo we're following here is Captain Tony Stone and Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, the latter taking up an apprenticeship with his elder superior officer in the duties of the Casualty Notification service following a nasty and near-fatal tour of duty in Iraq. Together the odd couple - one a wise-cracking recovering (for now) alcoholic and his ward a grizzled shell of a young man unable (for now) to feel emotion since coming home - go wandering around a small Anytown, USA informing mothers, fathers and wives that their loved ones have just been killed in action. Presumably this is an Army town, but there isn’t much detail given: there’s a bar and a base within driving distance of each other and recruiters are working the teenagers at the mall.

Where it goes from there is, sadly, the stuff of already-tired Iraq War cliches and some particularly bad writing.

Along with the machismo rules about crying and drinking (in the beginning, Stone is drinking O'Doul's as Montgomery takes prescription eye-drops – very symbolic), a strict MO is laid out for their professional mission. There is a tight script that must be followed to the letter with no breathing room allotted for tact. Touching a Next-Of-Kin is strictly forbidden unless they collapse from a heart attack - although Montgomery is chastised later in the game for physically supporting a man that has just vomited all over the place.

What makes the movie watchable are the two men playing the two stereotypes, Woody Harrleson and Ben Foster. They keep the movie afloat, but Harrleson and Foster are scenery-chewing character actors heretofore best in supporting roles. There's no doubt either can carry a movie; the problem is that Harrleson's expert pot-head jesting (admittedly hilarious here) and Foster's smoldering, sociopathic intensity consistently expose the movie around them as devoid of anything worth their time. They're having fun but they're playing with water pistols and it shows.

The best scenes in the film operate as self-contained vignettes, and these usually involve the notification duties that must be fulfilled before they can head to the bar and emote. Some great actors pop up in these for cameos - Steve Buscemi as a bereaved father, Halley Feiffer as a young army wife - but they only left me wanting more, and not in the good way. I wanted more for the actors.

The plot of the film, such as it is, tries to anchor itself to Montgomery’s flirtation with a widow played by Samantha Morton. The girl he left behind when he went overseas is getting married, so they have both lost somebody, but the depth of their surrogacy ends there. Theirs is a relationship of lustful glances and unpoetic, monosyllabic exchanges – it recalls the vampire-on-teenager relationship in the Twilight films, only with better actors.

Nothing is offered in contribution to the conversation about any of our wars. I honestly couldn’t remember whether Montgomery is said to have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan – I had to look it up in the press notes. The film has no interest in being relevant to our current situation. I suppose it’s aiming at timelessness but ends up dealing in War Movie platitudes (“It’s like we got back from another planet”, “He didn’t smell like my husband, he smelled like rage.”) complete with a tearful final-act monologue about War being Hell. Yes, we know. What’s the point?

The Messenger is that frustrating film that takes a weighty, important issue and doctors it up in cliché. Watching it, I was made to feel with every involuntary eye-roll I was supporting our troops a little less. The troops deserve better than this. Fortunately, they got it when Harrleson went on The Colbert Report to plug the film and ended up shaving his head on a dare while Colbert harmonized with him in a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. If I was a veteran (and I suppose it’s worth noting that I’m not and perhaps have no idea what I’m talking about) this - like most of what Stephen Colbert does - would mean a lot more to me than any tired retread about alcoholic soldiers institutionalized by their demons.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Eating the Dinosaur

Over at My Favorite Gum Commercial's wise, classy better half, Attic Salt: A Literary Blog, you can find criticism and conversation about the printed word right on your electronic screen. My new contribution to Amy Cavanaugh's blog is a response to Chuck Klosterman's collection of essays, Eating the Dinosaur, his first that I would describe as "indispensable". I had to take this book out of the library but I hope to add it to my shelf before too long.

Attic Salt: A Literary Blog

Eating the Dinosaur
, by Chuck Klosterman

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Up in the Air

In fact, there are three George Clooney movies in theaters right now. I haven't seen The Men Who Stare At Goats yet (I have it on good authority that doing so will only depress me as a die hard Clooney fan), but I have seen the other two. While The Fantastic Mr. Fox uses only Clooney's voice, Up in the Air uses only his face. Why this charming man wants to waste his considerable talent on a project like this I cannot imagine; he already has an acting Oscar and when he accepted it he stated outright that he'd rather have been canonized as a director.

As far as baiting the Oscars goes, Up In The Air at least has the decency and courage not to cook up a happy ending. This may be the only truly surprising thing about the piece: for all its contrivance and easy setup, it sure doesn't end with redemption and triumph. What the point is, then, eludes me.

Attempting to simultaneously satirize, mock, soothe and ultimately cash in on the American people's fears about the current economic climate, the movie tries to do a lot of abhorrent things all at once. Fortunately, director Jason Reitman, following his similarly slick entertainments Thank You For Smoking and Juno (the latter being one of the most irritating movies of the decade, though I'd blame the celebrity Entertainment Weekly columnist / screenwriter Diablo Cody for that one) has proved that he knows a thing or two about packaging an afterschool-special moral conscience so that it seems like high art. His strengths are not to be denied; rather, they must be feared.

Because what is Up in the Air about, exactly? Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, star employee of the Career Transition Corporation. He flies around the country firing people for a living and loves it because he only has to spend forty miserable nights a year at his apartment in Omaha. When a naive girl just out of Cornell shows up with an idea to ground him by having all the terminations executed on the cheap over video chat, he takes her around the country with him so she can see just how delicate their job is. He shuns all human connection, while she relishes it, having relocated to Omaha over more lucrative opportunities just to follow a boy she liked. It's a preposterous setup. Over the course of the film, she will grow up and he will learn to love again; this should come as a surprise to no one.

As a satire goes, it's a decent throughline, but Reitman poses Bingham as an everyman fighting to retain his status quo, resulting in a lot of mixed messages disguised as complexity. The grave problem with Bingham isn't that he is a hollow shell of a man - it's that we are never shown what made him like this. Asked to accept this preposterous archetype as some kind of reflection of modern man's existential dilemma, and if this is supposed to somehow edify me or invigorate my own existential crises, I am left asking, "Where's the subtext?"

Especially grating is that this arguement between the Self and the Community is recurring between Clooney and Anna Kendrick, his young sidekick. Kendrick may be one of the best actors in the Twilight series, but next to Clooney and Vera Farmiga, she just comes off as juvenile and whiny. The funniest moment of the film comes when she breaks down crying and Clooney responds with a deadpan, "Aw, fuck." Right there with you, buddy. Her crack about Clooney's age was a lot funnier a decade ago coming from Brad Pitt in Ocean's Eleven.

Farmiga, on the other hand, is a superb foil for Clooney - she may be the best Hepburn to his Tracy that he's found yet (though topping a list that includes Renee Zellweger, Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lopez is, admittedly, not so difficult and I dream of what Soberbergh could've done with them). I only wish they had some better material. They're playing with a fourth grade chemistry set here, and as much of a joy as it can be to watch two attractive, charismatic people half-naked in a hotel room, it would be a lot more interesting to watch them in a movie with some substance.

The hands-down best scene in the movie is between Clooney and J.K. Simmons as one of the terminated employees. Simmons' role amounts to a cameo, but the scene is framed by Kendrick screwing up the deal and Clooney saving the day by leading Simmons into the realization that with every ending comes a new beginning (his cliché, not mine). The two men are operating here on a level high above the rest of the movie, a level with actual pathos and emotion. Up in the Air aims for the stars and falls all too short.

Friday, December 4, 2009

30 Rock: "Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001"

The problem with 30 Rock that has nagged at me since the show's inception is reaching a nadir with season four's other-show-within-the-show plotline: Liz Lemon, overworked and under-loved showrunner of TGS has met with a sudden and unexpected literary celebrity thanks to her Girl Power book Dealbreakers. This has lead to her boss Jack Donaghy's development of the franchise into a talk show with Liz as the host.

There are few television personalities more identified with the fictional characters they portray than Tina Fey. Or maybe it's the other way around; there are few fictional characters more closely aligned with the actress playing them than Liz Lemon. The show was conceived as a roman à clef based upon Fey's experiences as head writer for Saturday Night Live. When 30 Rock premiered in the same NBC slate as the apple-to-its-orange Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, both shows were notably two-way mirrors for their showrunner/protagonists. Matt and Danny are to Aaron and Thomas as Liz and Jack are to Tina and Lorne.

Where the two shows diverged immediately from the shared behind-the-scenes-of-sketch-comedy pitch is that Tina Fey knew to make her show a comedy. Nothing kills a joke like analyzing it, as Aaron Sorkin learned the hard way (that I find Studio 60 to be criminally underrated and one the great beautiful disasters of the decade will be the subject of another blog post some other time). My problem with 30 Rock comes from the way Fey mines the comedy from herself.

I'm told by Rock supporters that Liz Lemon is a hero because of her girlish inadequacies, as opposed to in spite of them. Her unkempt hair, awkward demeanor, skinny frame and utter lack of feminine wiles are what make her a successful female role model to unkempt, awkward, skinny ladies everywhere.

The self-deprecation got old fast for me, and four seasons in, I couldn't believe the show being put on about the show being put on. Alec Baldwin's Jack spends most of last night's episode frantically running around to cover up the mistake of putting a writer in a performer's shoes. What is the joke supposed to be here, exactly?

Even if I am to accept a sexy, intelligent, hilarious woman like Tina Fey playing herself as unsexy, unhip and unfunny, I don't know what to do with her playing herself as playing herself as somehow even worse. Furthermore, the attempts to 'ugly up' Lemon as she prances in front of the camera don't really work. Tina Fey with 18-year-old garage band bangs still looks, frankly, pretty adorable. The joke about her not having any cleavage fails because I've seen her cleavage on 30 Rock. It's only when the show passes into the bizarre and ludicrous that it really gets funny, as with the HDTV gag (well, young Alec Baldwin and muppet Jack McBrayer, at least) or Liz crying out of her mouth after the off-brand "LASIG" surgery.

And it's sight gags like that, or crazy B-plots like Tracy's scheme to "EGOT", that will keep us watching the show. 30 Rock excels at lunacy, even with Whoopi Goldberg present (and what a ridiculous, sublime piece of trivia to use for writing her in). But even the HDTV gag began as Liz Lemon looking hideous on television. I only wish Tina Fey could find another vehicle like Mean Girls and present herself as the hero she is, instead of that same woman's Bizzaro alter ego.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Fantastic Mr. Fox is clearly the result of an artist - director Wes Anderson - realizing that he has been spinning his wheels and trying something new. I applaud this, but what's disconcerting is when it actually still manages to be about Daddy Issues. I have to wonder if making movies is just therapy for him - fine, but maybe the poor guy needs to see a real shrink.

You take two categories - Father and Son - and you can separate all of Anderson's protagonists into one or the other (the exception being Chas Tenenbaum, who is both and thus The Royal Tenenbaums' most complex character and the one with his father for a passing of the torch at the moment of his death). His new hero, Mr. Fox, is an egoist (natch) who ends up ruining the lives of not only his family but the families of all the wild animals in his wild animal village.

Fantastic Mr. Fox presents as the substance to its style the arc of Ash Fox, the young son whose pre-natal existence incites Mr. Fox, in a prologue, to give up bird-hunting at the behest of his wife Felicity. Obviously, giving up thrill-seeking to raise a kid isn't going to hold out, and as soon as Ash grows old enough to prove "different" (quotes belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Fox, not me, although I'm not positive Ash is supposed to be necessarily gay, just weird and slightly feminine) he gives up on his family to go try to knock off the three most dangerous and well-guarded farms in the county.

What kills me about the film is not the relationship of Ash and his dad, progressing as it does inevitably from Neglect to Begging for Validation to Failure and then finally Validation. No, what kills me is that, as the story ends "happily" with Fox saving his family from the farmers and telling his son that he loves him, all of the animals in the county have had their homes devastated and destroyed and they are now forced to live in a dystopian sewer system where they will make the best of it and hold a dance-off in a supermarket, because if stealing chickens from a farm wreaked apocalypse on their way of life, a grocery store will obviously prove safe to raid whenever it's closed for the evening.

This is the most Anderson seems able to muster in the pursuit of kids' flick optimism.

I must admit, however, that the animation, which had bothered me and worried me in the trailer, won me over immediately. The movie looks glorious, for which I will credit the animation company and not Anderson, who apparently directed the thing via iPhone. Perhaps if Anderson weren't bored with his own project, the climactic action sequence (which, in the past, Anderson has proved deft at mingling with the pathos of his characters' stories) wouldn't drag the way it does.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Spoiler Threat Advisory System

I've recently gotten into the "Spoilers in Criticism" argument with more than one person, and I've found that I reside squarely in the minority on the issue. I feel that any movie works better for an audience that has no idea what it is in for, and if I ever get the opportunity to go see a movie that I've never heard of - never seen a trailer, never read a review - I try to jump at it.

Film criticism, however, is something that works as an instigator to discussion. If this is a dead or dying art that will exist in the future only as the rantings of internet-users in their pajamas, I am glad at least for the commenting system that is now ubiquitous on most blogging websites.

An early lesson I received as a high school student operating as an intern at my local paper was that for most people, all that you want out of a movie review is a plot summary and a description of tone and genre so that you can decide whether or not you want to go see it. Similarly, any professional film critic with an internet presence can be found somewhere, on blog or message board, bemoaning the necessity of applying star ratings or letter grades to films, because it merely encourages people to disregard the conversation about the movie once it's already been labeled as "good" or "bad".

I say people are confusing the word "review" with another word, "preview," and that if I have something to say about any given story's ridiculous ending or shocking plot twist, it sucks to be stifled by a courtesy to anyone who just wants a summary of the first act and whether or not it's Good. Go watch the trailer: they usually sum up the whole thing for you, anyway.

All this, of course, has lead to the popularity of the "Spoiler Warning" on film websites. Rather than find a new way to work this into my writing every time I feel like discussing the fact that Bruce Willis being dead doesn't make the movie good, I have previously left that epithet in the banner of this site as a blanket warning that this project will work best for everyone if they're here to discuss. Mine is just one person's opinion. I want you to go make one up yourself, come back here and argue me into a reversal.

However, according to the aforementioned arguments, this isn't good enough and may simply result in nobody bothering to read my blog. So, as of December 3rd, 2009, I am instituting the Spoiler Threat Advisory System.

All forthcoming reviews will be assigned a color according to my arbitrary feelings on 1) the extent to which I give away the plot and 2) the extent to which I feel that plot was predictable and/or already given away by the damn trailer.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Boyfriend List (2005)

Available now over at Attic Salt is my review of E. Lockhart's young adult novel The Boyfriend List. This is my first contribution to Amy Cavanaugh's literary blog, which she bills as "a place of elegant and witty conversation about books". I hope to offer more to the site in the future, but in the meantime click on over for interviews with authors, reviews of new fiction, a weekly Wednesday Poem and much more. Oh, and, of course, my review.

Attic Salt: A Literary Blog

The Boyfriend List, by E. Lockhart.