Vantage Point Director: Pete Travis Writers: Barry L. Levy Producers: Neal H. Moritz Stars: Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Edgar Ramirez, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ayelet Zurer, Eduardo Noriega, Bruce McGill, Zoe Saldana
So many movies written by eager screenwriters hoist the banner of Rashômon while consistently failing to understand Rashômon. I sometimes wonder if they’ve even seen it. What made Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 breakthrough film memorable was that it exposed our self-deceiving nature. Revisiting a violent confrontation in the woods from the points-of-view of the three participants (one of which is a ghost), each recalls the events differently. But the fourth and final recitation, by an uninterested passer-by, reveals them all to be cowardly, self-flattering liars, even the ghost.
That haunting notion is what you might label the Kurosawa Uncertainty Principle – that in any event that involves our selves, our memories are irrevocably made unreliable. We are doomed, even after this life, to sinful false witness by our own prideful egos.
Vantage Point is not about any of that distressing chimerical truth stuff; it is a conspiracy thriller with a gimmick. It shuttles back and forth in time over the same rough half-hour period, each trip centering in on a different participant in the key events. Its revelations are not soulful but procedural – the liars are the filmmakers, steering us, not very artfully, around the truth until it’s time for the big chase. It is mounted with resourcefulness and polish, and populated with excellent actors, but substantively it amounts to little more than a carnival ride; one that swiftly deposits you back where you began, scarcely enriched for the experience.
The central incident is an anti-terrorism address that was supposed to be delivered by American President Ashton (William Hurt) at a summit of world leaders in Salamanca, Spain. But a shot is fired, commotion erupts, there is an explosion, and the story fragments, each major character there for one piece of the puzzle.
There’s Brooks, the news director (Sigourney Weaver), trying to manage a live broadcast that’s become much more deadly and chaotic than imagined, real news suddenly igniting in front of a team accustomed to broadcasting puffery friendly to the powers-that-be. There’s the genial tourist Howard (Forest Whitaker), wandering the historic city with his camcorder, who befriends a little girl, and thinks he sees a shooter in a window. And there’s Barnes, the veteran Secret Service Agent (Dennis Quaid) who has already taken one bullet for this President, who spots something on a videotape that haunts him.
Naturally the attempted assassination is more than meets the eye, and involves one of those typically convoluted cinematic alliances of dupes and turncoats and good people forced into bad deeds, presided over by a serenely confident evil mastermind who has never learned that simple plans are less likely to go awry. It presents a sturdy opportunity to play one of my oldest movie-going games, wherein I derive the likelihood of a character’s “surprise” involvement in a conspiracy by considering the ratio of their star power to their seemingly incongruous lack of screen time.
Many people are imperiled and/or killed, and many things explode, and there’s an invigorating car chase. There are two quite involving sequences. In one our sympathies are scrambled as we watch a decent-hearted person supremely successful at a horrible mission. That’s an old trick in this genre, but it got that way by being an effective trick.
The other is a nimble stretch where Howard tries to keep up with a police foot pursuit, camcorder in hand as he balances his concern over that little girl with this obsessive sense that, by recording these events, he has become an intrinsic part of them, and cannot miss out on the ending. There’s an opportunity here for the dispassion of videotape and the shaken psychology of an ordinary man suddenly enmeshed in world-shattering drama to produce some conflict around truth, something almost Rashômon-like, say. It doesn’t, but at least it’s energetic as we watch it.
Vantage Point has recycled the lingo of our contemporary circumstances but not the complexity. Pro forma arguments erupt about the consequences of violently overreacting in a world that does not boil down into easy good-and-evil clichés, but that’s a fine dialogue to try and have in a movie where the bad guy might as well dispense with ideology and put on a black hat. Appropriating the War on Terror for such a fundamentally non-serious shoot-‘em-up is arguably a greater insult to the intelligence than claiming lineage to Rashomon, but it’s hardly a new crime for Hollywood – this movie would have and could have been made in the 50’s through the 80’s with scheming Cold Warriors, and all you’d need to change would be the accents.
Perhaps I’m condemning a legitimately competent piece of action programming on the basis of its trappings and its marketing claims. After all, it is successfully fast and slick, and Weaver, Quaid, and especially Whitaker demonstrate excellence within what room they have to maneuver in Barry L. Levy’s script. But the critic must adopt the role of that final witness in Rashômon – the one who, having observed all but participated directly in none, can render final judgment on all pretensions: I know Rashômon, Rashômon is a favorite movie of mine. And this, sir, is no Rashômon.
From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Resident Evil: Extinction
Originally published 9/22/07 Full review behind the jump
Resident Evil: Extinction Director: Russell Mulcahy Writer: Paul W.S. Anderson, based on the video game by Capcom Producers: Paul W.S. Anderson, Jeremy Bolt, Robert Kulzer Stars: Milla Jovovich, Oded Fehr, Ali Larter, Iain Glen, Ashanti, Christopher Egan, Spencer Locke, Jason O’Mara, Mike Epps
It’s a relief to know I can still be surprised. I walked into Resident Evil: Extinction carrying all the baggage of its two predecessors. These adaptations of the zombie-laced video game franchise were both ugly and moronic; tragic wastes of the killer-doll features of star Milla Jovovich. I was ready to spend 1,000 words artfully tearing this third edition asunder, only bloody chunks of it left to land on my annual “10 Worst” list.
But honesty compels me to state that its “10 Worst” status is no longer a lock. It’s far from a good movie, but it’s an appealing sort of not-good, if you take my meaning. At last it feels cozily wed to its own daftness. There are moments that actually display a genuinely playful idiocy, an ownership of this silly goulash of sinister corporate suits, undead Dobermans, and a heroine who, surrounded by hundreds, thousands, or even millions of ghouls, will still take them on one at a time, with knives. These have always been ridiculous movies, but it’s as if the filmmakers themselves finally got the memo and have stopped trying so hard to look cool.
I don’t know how to account for this sudden outbreak of non-badness from writer/producer Paul W.S. Anderson, who has written all three pictures and directed the first before gallivanting off to ruin other franchises as well. I fear it won’t last past the credits of this one, but at the very least I can report far less people, this time around, will feel like they’ve wasted their money.
Every time we catch up with Alice (Jovovich), the world has gotten much much worse. First the “T-Virus” manufactured by the ruthless Umbrella Corporation infected their underground laboratory, “The Hive”. After that, it spread above-ground to the ill-fated Raccoon City. Now it has essentially consumed humanity, leaving only small roving bands of survivors traveling across a wasteland that even Mad Max would label as being a bit on the bleak side.
Alice, who in addition to her combat machismo has also developed mental powers somewhere on the threshold between a Jedi Knight and Stephen King’s Carrie, travels on a hefty motorcycle, which is unwise in that it ties her to a network of increasingly malfunctioning and empty gas stations. Zombie survival guru Max Brooks recommends the versatile, quiet, and human-powered bicycle as the most effective means of transport in a post zombie-pocalypse world. But in all fairness, BMW probably provides much heftier promotional support than Schwinn.
Some of the other survivors of the previous film have banded together under the leadership of Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) in an armed caravan. No bicycles to be found there, either. And in underground facilities around the world, Umbrella executives hunker down in their labs with more genetic goop (and presumably, a lot of canned food) and try and figure out the strategy for the next fiscal quarter.
All will clash eventually, and what I enjoy about the conflagrations this time is not just their clarity and gushy excess, but their willingness to goof. Director Russell Mulcahy was part of the first generation of music video shooters to break into the feature world, he made the original Highlander as well as the big-budget adaptation of The Shadow, which I think was at that time unjustly-maligned due to severe Baldwin fatigue. It too had a kind of a sly strangeness that crept into scenes just long enough to make you double-take.
Watch the performance by Jason O’Mara in this movie, as Umbrella Chairman Arnold Wexler. His dialogue delivery is inimitably bizarre; both mannered and dripping, like a robot trying to impersonate a soap opera bad guy. Whether this is a tribute to the famously-stilted speech of the original game (“STOP!.....DON’T! OPEN!.....THAT DOOR!”) or it’s O’Mara’s Irish mouth mishandling the American accent, or even if it’s some cunningly intentional bit of manneredness, he comes off like he was choppered in from a David Lynch film.
I see feints in the direction of other movies all over – like Akira and Planet of the Apes. There’s a riff on Hitchcock’s The Birds that posits the question of what happens when crows eat undead flesh. And a laugh-out-loud scene shows what inevitably results when scientists attempt the same domesticating education that produced the endearing zombie Bub in George Romero’s Day of the Dead, only with a much less dedicated student.
The zombies in the Resident Evil picture have been gradually evolving their own identity. They’re a surlier, more vocal bunch than Romero’s, and their faces are inexplicably chunky, like they’ve been dipped in mud, yet the run-of-the-mill ones (an enhanced breed is rolled out as a new Umbrella product) never accelerate beyond the customary old-school lurch, which I approve of. But the human characters are a little different this time around; at long last it’s gotten through to them what’s happening to planet Earth because of this Virus, and there’s less posing and spouting of dim-witted catch phrases. Even Alice is finally letting her husky voice and steely eyes soften once in awhile.
That’s a long way from saying we care about them, or even remember most of their names – one of the refugees calls herself K-Mart (Spencer Locke), which wedges product placement into the collapse of society easily as well as the heroic character “Ford Lincoln Mercury” in Kevin Costner’s The Postman. They, and the zombies who seek to devour them, are still little more than action figures pulled out of the toy-box for an unserious scrap. But it’s that unseriousness which makes Resident Evil: Extinction, unpredictably but decisively, the best movie of its series.
Because I have to remind myself it's not my actual job to review movies for y'all
I'm working on a short story that scares the giblets out of me. It involves no safety net. It is not funny, not satirical, it has no zombies or robots or hot sex or violence, and it desires to be taken seriously. The language desires to be beautiful. I think I'm pretty good at this whole scratching-on-stone-tablets thing, but to be honest, most of the time I'm noodling, and I'm very aware of it. That may be enough to get me through some daily snark or a jokey script, but it will not suffice for this.
That makes progress much slower and more frustrating, at first. I know how many words I CAN produce at a sitting, and by that simple math I could have this story by dinner tomorrow. I won't. Every sentence must be deliberate, specific, useful, and (hopefully) a little lovely. That's a far different process than what I'm usually doing here, just beating the keys to try and keep up with the whizzing around in my brain.
But what helps is that I can see how it is good for me; to be slow, and measured, to apply real consciousness to each sentence as a unit before I type. Once that notion has broken through the manic static, it soothes, even strengthens. It is writing-while-awake. It is also writing-with-everything-you've-got, and I bet that's what really frightens. Once I unveil that, what about my capabilities is mysterious?
What's most frightening - I sense a chance that this story could be good. I just have to not let it down.
Diary of the Dead Director: George A. Romero Writers: George A. Romero Producers: Art Spigel, Ara Katz, Sam Englebardt, Peter Grunwald Stars: Michelle Morgan, Joshua Close, Shawn Roberts, Amy Ciupak Lalonde, Joe Dinicol, Scott Wentworth, Philip Riccio, Chris Violette, Tatiana Maslany
I never thought I would see George A. Romero truly misfire on a zombie movie. Not only is he the Godfather of splatter and one of the pioneers of modern independent film, he wrote the Bible on what is the dominant supernatural creature in American pop culture today. There were zombie movies before Romero, even quite excellent ones like the 1943 Val Lewton-produced haunted romance I Walked With a Zombie, and the first known zombie feature, 1932’s Bela Lugosi vehicle White Zombie. But they were wed to the West Indies mythology of the sleep-walking slave hypnotized by spells and potions. It was Romero, with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, who re-cast them as a relentless virus of consumption, lurching and clawing and eating away at humanity, foot soldiers of an Apocalypse made by our own flaws, wearing our faces.
Even at his previous low point, in the hysterics of 1985’s Day of the Dead, you still had his imagination for blood-and-guts, his knack for oddball characters, and the provocative implications of the “trained” zombie Bub. In movie after movie he consistently demonstrated a voice for contemporary satire, using the threat of flesh-eating ghouls to create not just action and disgust, but scenarios where humanity’s pettiness and willful denial of reality were frequently more destructive than the ghouls themselves. His settings were perfectly-conceived microcosms – the besieged farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, the derelict shopping mall, the government-subsidized cavern base, the feudalized city-fortress of haves and have-nots.
But with Diary of the Dead, rather than carry on the loose chronology of his four prior zombie pictures, he has attempted to re-launch the plague, and re-invent himself in the process. He has embraced digital filmmaking and the trendiness of viral video. And he has a very good idea, attempting a mixed media pastiche, involving the filmmaking process itself in the action in the way that the cameramen of The Blair Witch Project and the recent Cloverfield found themselves recording their own violent misfortune. But he does not have nearly enough resources, nor, I think, the flexibility as a filmmaker, to survive the trip into this new aesthetic with his bite intact.
Our leads are a group of student filmmakers in the woods, trying to shoot a clichéd mummy movie. The director, Jason Creed (Joshua Close) clearly has higher ambitions, even as he’s impatiently explaining to his mummy Ridley (Phillip Riccio) that he can’t run, and suffering the protests of his leading lady Tracy (Amy Lalonde) about unnecessary topless shots.
Sensational reports trickle in on the radio about the dead rising and attacking the living, and although they don’t know if they believe it’s true, the students and their hard-drinking, pretentious speech-making professor (Scott Wentworth) begin to document their trip back to civilization to find their loved ones. Along the way, they mix in news footage they’ve pulled from the web, of cops shooting attackers that won’t fall down – footage which they later see scrubbed and sanitized for broadcast. The movie is presented to us as the final edited assembly of Jason’s vision – the story of what happened when the dead walked, interspersed with their own struggles to survive long enough to finish it so the world remembers “what really happened”.
This opens up two dangerous traps, and Romero, his customary gruesome playfulness aside, falls into both. Firstly it works against his habits – Romero’s filmmaking background is in editing, and when you are accustomed to finding the emotion of a picture in the editing room, shooting long, single takes like this without close-ups to track the characters’ emotions is bound to leave you at sea. The moods of this picture don’t feel grim or desperate, they feel shallow and insincere.
Late in the picture, when they arrive at Ridley’s parents’ mansion, the picture drastically improves, as Romero has security cameras to cut between and create a rhythm of dread. He also has the benefits of a panic room, a character deep in the creepy throes of the denial crazies, and a superb use for a swimming pool.
Until then the actors just move from location to location, emotions fraying while their numbers are methodically reduced by the ubiquitous undead. They spend time in a hospital, at a compound where a self-made militia is organizing and stockpiling, at a farmhouse where the occupant has both a unique communication method and unusual zombie-fighting techniques, and is the most entertaining character to be found. Between his presence, the climax, and a few inspired zombie kills, hardcore fans will probably piece together enough to not feel too let down.
But he stands out with even more humor, I think, because he’s such a startling contrast to the annoyingly bland central characters. It could be a lack of charisma among the actors, it could be how difficult it is for their personalities to reach the camera lens when their circumstances give us nothing more to do than wait for zombies to pop in, but I think it’s largely half-baked writing. Jason and his partner Debra (Michelle Morgan) have this perpetual argument about what they are doing, about the desensitization that happens when you pick up a camera. It never comes to any conclusion, and it’s certainly a smaller, pettier theme than any Romero’s ghouls have shambled through before.
I mentioned that there are two traps. The second, an unfortunate one, is that with his skimpy budget, he simply does not have the means to fake enough raw material to make the conceit convincing. His patchy little blurps of external media pale in comparison to the grimly witty opening credit montage from the re-make of Dawn of the Dead, which melded staged press conferences and news broadcasts into stock footage of riots and mayhem. Compared to that little masterpiece of montage, in Diary of the Dead you end up asking why, if these filmmakers have access to the collected footage of amateur journalists of the undead from all over the world, does so much of their master project consist of their bickering selves in a Winnebago?
George Romero never intended to spend his life making horror movies, he was simply a smart, technically-resourceful commercial producer who concocted a feature story that he figured could be shot within his means and would probably make his investors their money back. Now his ambitions of format have far outstripped both his resources and the sum substance of his content.
Perhaps it’s finally that he did the job too well over the last two generations. Legions of creative minds have grown up inspired by Night and its sequels – some big names among them have voice cameos as newscasters here, like Wes Craven, Stephen King, Guillermo Del Toro, Simon Pegg, Quentin Tarantino. And his ghouls have busted out of the medium of film and invaded others, producing brilliant works like Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series The Walking Dead; and World War Z, Max Brooks’s epic “oral history” of a fictional worldwide zombie outbreak. The scope and detail of projects like this, having thoroughly imagined the effect of the undead from social, political, ethical, and every other angle, leave this picture looking flimsy and undernourished. The thematic body of zombie work has grown exponentially, while the original author, sadly, has tried to return to the drawing board, but with nothing to say worth saying.
Originally posted 9/22/07 Full review behind the jump
Into the Wild Director: Sean Penn Writers: screenplay by Sean Penn, based on the book by Jon Krakauer Producers: Art Linson, Sean Penn, William Pohland Stars: Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Hal Holbrook, Kristen Stewart
What a beautiful and perplexing movie this is. I’d call it an uplifting tragedy, or a movie of inspirational sadness. It did not take long for me to decide it was made with incredible artistry and sensitivity, it took me longer to decide whether or not I liked it.
I think, in just about all the ways that matter, Into the Wild reflects the conundrum of its subject, which is a credit to writer/director Sean Penn. Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was the brilliant son of wealthy parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, their faces pinned into the heartbreaking masks of upper-society denial) who, having graduated from Emory University with straight “A”’s and law school on the horizon, suddenly donated his life savings, destroyed his identifying papers, and set out to wander America with a backpack and a water jug. His travels, culminating in an exile in the Alaskan wilderness and pieced together from his journals and interviews with people he encountered by adventurer/author Jon Krakauer, certainly have the beguiling romance of that drop-out impulse in so many of us.
But the keenness of Penn’s observation stops this from being a trite cinematic folk song about anti-societal hoofing. “Freedom” is a tantalizing chimera in this film, because dependence has many forms, and so does happiness; and McCandless, for all his wit and willpower, for all his commitment to his vision and his ability to drop high-minded literary quotations into any circumstance, carries a doom about him because of a lesson he refuses to learn. That is what elevates this film from pastoral preachiness to a profound mix of frustrating and mesmerizing.
Hirsch’s performance is a wonder, not just because of the physical transformation he must undergo as the journey wears on him, but because he is playing a person who defies nearly all our normal standards, and I didn’t doubt him for a moment. His McCandless, who abandons his name for the cheeky nom de hitchhike “Alexander Supertramp”, is a young man with a ravening appetite for “truth”. He loves books and nature (biting into a freshly-picked apple, he launches into a giddy recitation about its flavor), and despises his parents for their anger and lies. And yet as far as he wanders, we see what he cannot – that there is still part of him that is prisoner to this anger.
And as he meets people along the road, many of whom clearly want to pour love into him, we see that he doesn’t know how to let them. Behind his dark eyes and charmingly total enthusiasm, does he have contempt for them, the ones who fall even one inch short of his ruthlessly self-imposed standards for freedom? Watch the way he deflects every effort to reach deeper within him – after awhile you realize it’s not them he’s protecting.
This film is a spectacle of people and places. Spanning dozens of locations, captured with impeccable grace by French cinematographer Eric Gautier, it is an ode to the vastness and variety of America, its fields and woods and deserts and canyons. Enhancing the effect is a moody collection of original songs by Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, that never reach the grunge howl that made his fame but strum along in a meditative ache. To watch the film is to remember that there is still space out there for wanderers, and more of them than we often realize – a happy interlude is spent at “Slab City”, a desert refuge in California where hippies and squatters live off the grid on the remains of an abandoned Marine base.
Some of the people McCandless encounters are their real-life equivalents, while others are actors dropping in for brief essays of performance under Penn’s deft directorial care. The ever-excellent Catherine Keener and non-actor Brian Dierker (earthy and authentic, he was the movie’s kayaking supervisor before he got drafted in front of the camera) play a couple of “rubber tramps” who share their Winnebago with the Supertramp for awhile, and project him into a long-denied hole in their family unit. Vince Vaughn plays a grain harvester with a side business in unauthorized cable boxes, who relishes his life of beers, friends, and hard work, and tries earnestly to convince McCandless that he can’t spend his life “juggling blood and fire”. And in perhaps the sweetest and most devastating of these roving cameos, Hal Halbrook plays a lonely retiree who becomes, in a way, McCandless’s last chance to accept a life in the world of man.
I think people will bring a lot into Into the Wild, and that is largely what they will take out of it. Some will see McCandless as a hero, others an icon, others a naïve squanderer of potential. I personally found him bedeviling, a disappointment of great ideas. He doesn’t seem to see just how much he is surviving off of providence and the charity of others. I think there are more people than we realize who set off on these quixotic walkabouts and we just never hear about them because they wind up starved in a ditch. People selflessly provide McCandless money, food, shelter, affection, work, entertainment, they give him advice on how to use certain tools, and hunt and preserve meat; this is knowledge they attained from hard experience, and he scribbles it down in his notebook as if that’s all the substitute he needs, just more literature to live by.
And what does he give them in return but to swoop through like a self-made prophet, taking and then abandoning, leaving behind only their fantasies of what his appearance in their lives must have meant? I think this defiance of love and contact – his sister (Jena Malone) suffers at home, wondering what she did to deserve being as cut off from knowledge of him as their parents – is as destructive as anything he does. By the end, when his once-athletic physique is almost skeletal, I think it’s that without love, his body had to eat itself. But then there is the end, and a transcendent change that stirred even my skeptical analysis.
What are we to take from all this? Into the Wild is not going to presume to spell it out to you, but if you see this movie, you’re going to feel something big. That the feeling is likely to be different in color but equally strong for so many, makes this a film to note for this year.
There's a giant, gaping hole in the continuity of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, that has never been adequately spackled, even with the unexpectedly interesting spin-off TV series that recently emerged (River from Firefly as co-ed cyborg=deadly hotness). The first movie took place in 1984, and ended with Sarah Connor pregnant with her future resistance fighter son John. In confirmation of this, when the T-1000 adopts his police officer guise in the beginning of the sequel, the profile on John he accesses lists his date of birth in early 1985. It also lists his age as 10. This dates the movie's setting pretty clearly at 1995. This is a relief, since if it took place in 1991, the year of the movie's release, that would make John only 6 years old, so watching him rip off ATMs, scream around on a motorbike, and demonstrate an audibly-cracking voice would strain credulity even given the limitless hooliganism of These Damned Kids Today.
But here's the rub - the human race's hard deadline for nuclear annihilation is repeatedly given as August 29, 1997. Sarah mentions it in her loony bin ravings, and the T-800 played by Herr Governator Schwarzenegger confirms this when he lays out the history of Cyberdyne, Skynet, and the poor naive genius Miles Dyson. Which means there are but two years of civilization left after the events of the movie we're watching. But in his little speech about Dyson, the T-800 claims that Cyberdyne will start supplying the military with equipment in three years, which would be...1998? The hell?
Rather than try and patch this logical fissure, the makers of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines thought it would be fun to make things even more confusing, by having John claim he was 13 in the events of the prior film. So it took place...after Judgment Day? What?
I know this is a terminal case of Nerdius Sticklerenza I'm showing symptoms of here, but it has always stunned me how something so obvious could have slipped through when so much else about T2 demonstrates an expertly meticulous, even obsessive, attention to detail. I was 13 when it was released, the perfect age to declare it The Greatest Movie Ever Made on first viewing. But now it's aged to movie vintage, today's teenagers have never lived in a world when it, and the digital effects revolution that followed, didn't already exist, which I thought of while re-watching it the other night.
(They also have never lived in a world without Reservoir Dogs and Tarantino impersonators, but that's for another essay.)
The legacy of computer effects is that it made every hack with a desktop think they could be James Cameron. And audiences suffered an awful lot of silliness in the years that followed. For every Jurassic Park there were twenty Spawn-s. Terminator 2 contains less than 50 digitally-manipulated shots. Many contemporary movies barely have any shots that haven't been monkeyed with in cyberspace, especially with the practice of making digital intermediates for color re-balancing, first prominently used in O Brother Where Art Thou and really brought to jaw-dropping primetime in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
But in spite of all those intervening years, the visuals of Judgment Day prove remarkably resilient. The memory plays tricks on us - those groundbreaking computer gimmicks, taken all together, amount to less than four minutes of the film's 2-1/4 hours. Producer/Director/co-writer James Cameron, trained as an effects technician at Roger Corman's "school" of low-budget filmmaking, may be known now as a digital pioneer, but T2 is a rich demonstration of how to him, effects are effects, and when it comes to analog, he was a master. So many of the picture's memorable moments are not computer-aided at all, but the work of makeup, robotic puppeteering, miniatures, and old-fashioned opticals. That he knew how to use all these tricks to lighten the load on the envelope-pushing digital work is one of the primary reasons those shots hold up to scrutiny this day.
But it's also because of my eternal little hobby-horse: storytelling. Cameron sensed, intuitively I think, that in the first Terminator he'd hit on the purest and most potent possible distillation of Act One in Hollywood's traditional three-act story structure. Events are perfectly calibrated in that first third to bring the tension to maximum boil at the exact moment that hunter meets prey meets protector. Notice how, if you bring no exterior knowledge into the movie, you don't know for sure what Kyle Reese wants with Sarah Connor until that single explosive moment in the nightclub. His enigma carries the audience along until the action of Act Two takes over.
Rather than re-invent the wheel, Cameron doubled down on his strong structural hand. The first half-hour of T2 is effectively an expensive re-iteration of the original Act One, with the added twist that the T-800 is now the protector; and again, if you pretend to no exterior knowledge, you can appreciate how carefully Cameron actually preserves that surprise until the confrontation at the mall.
But then, instead of the heedless chase of The Terminator, the genius of T2 is that, after its first Act; the second Act, the body of the movie, actually begins with another reprise of this same format. Once again hunter, prey, and Protector gradually converge, only this time with the dramatic irony that Sarah Connor believes she is the protector plotting her escape, while the audience knows that she is in fact the prey once again (the T-1000 intending to murder her and assume her identity to catch John), and the T-800 from her nightmares is now working with her son to save her. Wheels within wheels.
Why this picture always feels like an epic is that, within the overall body of the pursuit of John that starts in the build-up to the mall and climaxes with the freeway chase and the stalk through the steel meel, the central hour/hour-and-a-half is its own three-act movie about John and Sarah's relationship, and our perspective, detached now from Sarah, places our emotional grounding in John's ongoing lesson to the Terminator about the value of humanity. These things don't happen by coincidence - that is the true character arc of the movie, and Sarah, with her plans to murder Dyson, is now an unstable element within the lesson. Our sympathies move from mother to son; she is still his ferocious defender, but he is maturing to take the leadership role that will one day call to him, and the movie dramatizes that passing-of-the-torch.
Cameron is an efficient tube-feeder when it comes to exposition, he primes us to learn first by showing us the T-1000's amazing abilities, then, while our minds have been shocked to a moldable quivering by the sight of it, he quickly lays down the ground-rules - liquid metal, impersonates shapes, no chemicals or moving parts. Our imaginations thus inspired and prepared, we only need one fancy shot here and there and our own enthusiasm for the concept, paired with Robert Patrick's lean-mean-assassinating machine performance, fills in the rest.
It is not the stuff that happens which makes the effects in Terminator 2 immortal, it is the implications behind the stuff, the way it raises the stakes of danger, the way it makes the foe seem more implacable and unconquerable than ever. A little detail that often goes unnoticed in that climactic chase - while the T-1000 is chasing them in the helicopter, he's loading and firing his sub-machine gun at them with two hands; while piloting the 'copter with a third. Making an audience delirious with the question: "How do you beat an S.O.B. that can do THAT?", that, with 50 "effects shots" or 2,000, is how you become remembered.
And P.S. - If you ever wondered why so many Terminators look like Arnold, this goofy deleted scene from Terminator 3 answered the question:
Because really, what is it without the brain-eating?
I'm working on my review of George Romero's Diary of the Dead, which has me traipsing around Wikipedia reading about the history of zombies in cinema and pop culture, and I come across this gem of a line, from their page on the 1936 picture Revolt of the Zombies:
Although the word "zombie" is in the title of the film, absent is the aggression and brain-eating frequently associated with modern zombies.
And when was the last time you saw a line like that in the Encyclopedia Britannica?
Jumper Director: Doug Liman Writers: Screenplay by David S. Goyer and Jim Uhls and Simon Kinberg, based on the novel by Steven Gould Producers: Lucas Foster, Simon Kinberg, Stacy Maes, Jay Sanders Stars: Hayden Christensen, Samuel L. Jackson, Diane Lane, Jamie Bell, Rachel Bilson, Michael Rooker, AnnaSophia Robb, Max Thieriot, Jesse James
Movies don’t often prove their own theme as self-destructively as Jumper does. It reminds me of how the porn industry refers to its dialogue scenes as “fast-forwards”, knowing that the viewer, with the power to skip in their hands, will inevitably use that power to cut to the sex. And then when the sex becomes boring, they will cut to the climax.
As if to convince us to sympathize with its shallow hero and his Amazing Power, it provides characters and dialogue that, when not engaged in special effects-related-activity, are as banal and cliché-ridden as that in porn movies (not that I’ve seen any). And it’s true that after awhile I thought that if I had the power to teleport, and human beings were really this dull and predictable, I’d probably turn into a snotty globe-hopping sybarite too.
But I can’t imagine that the filmmakers put even this much thought into how they were orchestrating their own downfall. The movie is a transparent excuse to play with special effects, which they do with relish. And in the tradition of comic-book spectacle, to some small degree I can allow this, can accept that it’s going to mock plausibility at every turn as it manically riffs on the variables of its premise. But having abandoned the dusty niceties of effective drama, having already fast-forwarded its way to caring about nothing but climax, it feels far less than half-hearted as a movie.
Said hero is David Rice (Hayden Christensen), who as a teenager (Max Thieriot) discovered in a moment of crisis that he could tear little hop-holes in the fabric of space to go anywhere he can envision. Now a young man with a few impossible bank heists under his belt, he plasters his tasteful New York penthouse with pictures of exotic locales, and spends his days leaping among them – bedding women, chasing big waves, and dining on top of the Sphinx. The normal pace of reality is so insufferably boring to him that he teleports to the other end of the sofa when he can’t reach the remote.
Christensen is an actor whose depths go chronically unplumbed. Having admired the tormented sociopathy he etched in Shattered Glass, and conversely bemoaned his blank pettiness in two Star Wars episodes, I can glimpse a mathematical formula taking shape. The more a movie expects him to act through effects rather than across from people, the more it relies on his photogenic bones and muscles rather than any true depth of character, the less talented he comes off. He cannot do what Keanu Reeves did in The Matrix – vanish into a costume and turn into a stylized figure on a digitally-painted canvas. Christensen just plain vanishes. And it takes quite a movie to inspire me to point out under-recognized qualities of Keanu Reeves.
More successful is Jamie Bell in the role of Griffin, a sarcastic and temperamental fellow “Jumper” who warns David to keep a low profile lest he be captured and murdered by The Paladins, one of those ancient secretive orders like the Illuminati or the Elks. Led by the ruthless Roland (Samuel L. Jackson), and with unlimited funding and unchallenged license to wreak public havoc in any nation on Earth (yet remain totally secret), they carry on a divine mission to snuff out these aberrations of Nature. Roland’s point – that this power inevitably corrupts people – feels a lot righter than David’s feeble plea of self-defense: “What if I’m different?” Fine talk from the man who took about a day to discover grand larceny. His argument seems to boil down to I’m too handsome to die.
So he bounds around from country to country, with Roland and his scowling, conspicuously-dressed super-secret minions racking up the frequent flier miles trying to lasso him. Since endangering his own life and the life of his family isn’t enough, David also decides to check in on an unconsummated crush from his youth, hometown friend Millie (Rachel Bilson). Millie is a two-dimensional character, if you consider “pretty” and “nice” to adequately qualify as individual dimensions. David one again proves his heroism by lying to her, lavishing expensive attentions on her with his ill-gotten wealth, and then seducing her.
But now I’m just being picky. The action in Jumper is not about heroism at all, but about the cowardly self-preservation of an unworthy superman. Characters leap from one expensive foreign locale to another, sometimes pulling weapons or vehicles with them, and create little explosions of violence before skipping off to some other latitude and longitude. So much time and painstaking work must have been involved in a movie where so many shots required little poofs of trickery, and these effects do contribute to a bright and dynamic visual palette. The movie looks so crisp and colorful and expensive that it’s bound to seize your attention for a few minutes.
But long-form scrutiny doesn’t suit Jumper; it calls on it to display depth and feeling, which require patience and attention – qualities David Rice threw away a long time ago. It’s as if Jumper was designed not to be paid attention to at all, but to be forever played on a loop in the background of electronics stores, to advertise the resolution of their TVs. It ought to sell a few.
Originally published 9/14/07 Full review behind the jump
3:10 to Yuma Director: James Mangold Writers: Screenplay by Halsted Welles and Michael Brandt & Derek Haas, based on the short story by Elmore Leonard Producers: Cathy Konrad Stars: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Logan Lerman, Dallas Roberts, Ben Foster, Peter Fonda, Vanessa Shaw, Alan Tudyk, Gretchen Mol
If you watch the end credits of 3:10 to Yuma, you’ll see that the usual titles for support staff have changed. Instead of “Costumer for Mr. Crowe”, it reads “Costumer for Ben Wade”. Instead of “Personal Assistant to Mr. Crowe”, it’s “Personal Assistant to Ben Wade”. What movie star worth his oats wouldn’t want to strap on a gun belt and play a bad-as-hell bandit named Ben Wade? Crowe, whose career demonstrates a canny understanding of where his acting chops can take him and where star charisma takes over, steps into the role of Ben Wade not only with his usual meticulous empathy, but with an added zest, a playful malignance. Out of his glittering eyes and every pore too, he exudes the sense that he loves that this is an old-fashioned Western, and he gets to wear the black hat.
And who doesn’t love a Western? Rattling stagecoaches, swinging saloon doors, hostile Apaches, holsters and horses, the campfires, the heroic musical themes that twang and howl underneath wide vistas, bundles of dynamite, the way snow looks dusted across a high desert plain; Westerns are one of the pillars of American cinema. James Mangold is a filmmaker who, much like the genre-straddling Curtis Hanson, is first and foremost a craftsman who never fell out of love with the movies. And in remaking this Western (so faithfully that Halsted Welles, the screenwriter who originally adapted Elmore Leonard’s short story in 1957, shares a credit here) he’s created a movie which is not just a cracking good Western, but a proclamation fit to remind us about how great Westerns are.
Ben Wade’s gang has made a habit out of robbing the railroad’s payroll, to the extent that the railroad company now has to send out a reinforced stage with armed Pinkertons and a Gatling Gun. Wade robs it anyway. Blindingly fast with a pistol – his revolver is nicknamed “The Hand of God” – his true strength lies in the fanatical devotion he inspires in his minions. His right-hand man, the primly-sadistic Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), glows with either agony or ecstasy depending on how close he is to the boss.
So when Wade is captured, his sureness that his men will come for him, burning and killing anything that stands in their way, is not something he feels happy or sad about. It is a simple inevitability.
The railroad’s representative, Mr. Butterfield (Dallas Roberts), wants Wade transported to the town of Contention, there to be put on a train bound for Yuma prison so he can be tried and hanged. It’s a two-day trip, and Wade’s gang is likely to be hard after them the entire time, not to mention the threat of Wade himself, always calculating an escape and never hesitating to murder. But for the price of $200, Dan Evans (Christian Bale) joins the posse.
Why is something of a mystery. He’s a good sharpshooter, but he’s hobbled by a shot-off foot, and out here on the frontier he’s just a rancher with a sick young son (Benjamin Petry), debt markers to a land baron neighbor (Lennie Loftin) who wants to drive him off, and a wife (Grethcen Mol) who stopped believing in him long before he failed to keep the thugs from burning the barn down. Other men would have broken, and Evans for sure is bent double already.
He does need the money, maybe it’s that. Or maybe it’s that, when he crossed paths with Wade during a robbery, Evans saw how his older son William (Logan Lerman) lit up on seeing the legendary outlaw, how his eyes sparkled in a way that they never have around his limping, straight-and-narrow father.
But what keeps Evans on this deadly job, and what fascinates Wade about him, is a fierce belief that leads to an argument Evans will not back down from. It’s not an argument that the two give way to in conversation too directly, but they carry it on in choices of action all the way across a hostile countryside, into a climax that’s like the one from High Noon, only with a twist that tilts the odds even more ominously against the hero.
The argument sneaks out when Evans has the chance to take a rich bribe and walk away unscathed, or when he could abandon Wade to some of the many enemies he’s made across the West, or when they dispute over supper whether or not it’s the same thing to shoot an animal as to shoot a man. Because if you accept there is such a thing as a man, higher than an animal, it follows that it’s because man has a choice to be selfless, to be good. And if there are good men, it must mean that there are bad men, and bad men have to get put on the train for prison. The frontier is where this argument needs to happen, because by the time the railroad finishes bringing the civilization in, the argument is settled.
Bale is superb in this role, he needs to be a humbled man with a core of iron, both pathetic enough for the average man to overlook, but passionate enough about his private code for Wade to see him as he is. The relationship that develops between them, the recognition that they stand across an existential gulf that both divides and links them, is something you see more often these days in the scrambled loyalties of a Hong Kong crime picture. But 3:10 to Yuma knows where the movies first made these sorts of icons.
There’s a poise and confidence here that reminds us Hollywood used to put its “A” resources to work for adults. Mangold is not an in-your-face stylist but quietly, capably delivers action, suspense, humor and poignancy with the gusto of a man who’s waited a long time to play with these particular toys. He also, as already demonstrated in his prior picture Walk the Line, understands the value of talent top-to-bottom in the cast ranks, which allows for such treats as Peter Fonda playing a grizzled bounty hunter, and Firefly’s Alan Tudyk as the jumpy Doc Potter.
But in the end, this show is about two men, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, taking each other’s measure as the guns close in and the train approaches. Whether Ben Wade gets on that train will not be so much about whether Dan Evans can physically force him, but about whether he can win that argument. With two actors like this, it’s going to be a formidable one. Both of them know what kind of picture they’re in, and just how to make it mythic all over again.
U2 3D Directors: Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington Music Written by: Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen, Adam Clayton; except Miss Sarajevo, written by Brian Eno, Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen, Adam Clayton Producers: Jon Shapiro, Peter Shapiro, Catherine Owens, John Modell; music producer Carl Glanville Featuring: U2 – Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen, Adam Clayton
Simply put – I have never seen a 3-D picture like U2-3D. The illusion of three-dimensional imagery is almost invariably a tease without sufficient follow-through, a gimmick that ends up delivering blurry imagery and a few cheap shocks reaching out at you from dull, static set-ups, while the glasses give you a headache.
But here is something different. Here is 3-D of a crispness and depth I’d never imagined possible before. Here is camerawork as dynamic as anything 2-D, and the movie screen re-cast as a true living proscenium, with tangible layers of virtual distance behind it like curtains of light, bodies bouncing en masse so vibrantly I thought the screen was flapping in a wind. This is the promise finally fulfilled – the company responsible for this technological triumph is 3ality Digital Entertainment. With me, at least, they have achieved name-brand credibility in one instant and overwhelming stroke. If I see their name on a future endeavor, look for me in a ticket line.
I want to make the point of craft up-front, so we can proceed to talking about just what is being presented with such groundbreaking expertise. This is a concert film, featuring U2, arguably the biggest rock-and-roll band in the world over the past generation. Notably, it is not the only concert film, or even the only 3-D concert film, presently competing for eyeballs in movie theatres, as any girl between the ages of 6 and 14 can probably inform you. As exhibitors figure out what to do with all these big, expensive screens that now have to compete with our home theatres, and the music industry tries to figure out how to replace the revenue from those gouging CD profit margins consumers are rebelling against, my bet is you’ll see more of this format, and U2, as is their habit, has succeeded in setting the bar high.
The show clocks about 80 minutes, short for a real concert but advantageous because it includes no forgettable opening act, no shuffling around until 45 minutes past the start time, and little-to-no waiting around between songs. The songs make a reasonable journey through the greatest hits of the band’s deep catalog: notably, Mysterious Ways goes unplayed, Beautiful Day is the only representative of the Grammy-winning comeback album All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and fans of Zooropa and Pop (I know you’re out there) will be disappointed to note that those albums have been dropped entirely down the memory hole. The band does take time to play Miss Sarajevo from their lesser-known “pen-name” collaboration with Brian Eno, Original Soundtracks 1, with Bono performing a passionate recreation of the vocal solo first recorded by the late Luciano Pavoratti.
Anyone who has winced recently to hear Sting grope scratchily toward his old upper-register on Roxanne will be relieved that Bono’s chops have lost none of their soaring strength. The same goes for his band-mates – U2 has always thrived in the live setting, and the experience shows in Larry Mullen’s crisp, sophisticated drumming, the slippery and subliminal pulse of Adam Clayton’s bass. You especially gain appreciation for just how much melody and texture, more than seems possible from a single musician, comes out of The Edge’s guitar.
The film takes a few numbers to find its groove, it’s most scattered in editing rhythm early on, and also the most thematically indecisive. Unlike Jonathan Demme’s landmark Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, which crafted the band’s add-a-musician structure into a subtle emotional narrative, for its first third U2 3D doesn’t care to tell any story more complex than Once Upon a Time, U2 went to South America and put on a hell of a show.
But then you start to see the peaks of feeling, Bono banging away on a drum with tribal fervor, and the little touches of effect, like the colored letters that cascade down around the band during a grinding rendition of The Fly. You see the band’s world-consciousness folded into the music – Bono, under the surface of rocking out, actually leading a rapturous mass prayer for peace and coexistence.
If the likes of The Rolling Stones and The Who carried the torch of rock-and-roll’s rebellion against conformity for their generation, U2 has taken that torch, stripped away the cynicism and spite, and expanded the ambition of the idea – this is rebellion against the planet’s apathy, despair, and low expectations. It may have taken them an entire generation to reach the point where a band could include readings from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their show and not look like poseurs, but from Sunday Bloody Sunday on in their career, it’s as if we can now see the twenty-five years of preparation and design that brought us to this moment. When in 2001 they declared “We’re re-applying for the job of biggest band in the world”, they were sincere, because they were ready.
Given this power they have to whip tens of thousands of people into an ecstasy of belief with music, you can almost forgive Bono’s momentary lapses to the Messianism of the moment, like a conspicuously beatific kiss he lays on Clayton. As the show ends and there’s nothing left for him to do but absorb the passion of the crowd he has channeled, he lets out an audible and unconscious “wow”. It’s still rock-and-roll to him.
Originally published 9/13/07 Full review behind the jump
Halloween Director: Rob Zombie Writers: Rob Zombie, based on the film written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill Producers: Malek Akkad, Andy Gould, Rob Zombie Stars: Malcolm McDowell, Sheri Moon Zombie, Tyler Mane, Daeg Faerch, William Forsythe, Scout Taylor-Compton, Danielle Harris, Kristina Klebe, Brad Dourif, Hanna Hall, Skyler Gisondo, Jenny Gregg Stewart
“And it occurred to me that if we did a movie about babysitters, it would work, because everybody had either been a babysitter, or been a baby…” -Producer Irwin Yablans, on the low-budget horror movie idea he pitched to a young filmmaker named John Carpenter
This sounds like the faintest of praise, but Halloween, Rob Zombie’s remake of John Carpenter’s landmark slasher picture, is quite competent when it’s not being unbearably silly. Zombie is well-versed in all the conventions of the modern blood-letting aesthetic: shaky camera work, screaming naked ingénues, filthy décor, extended death scenes that allow the victims to suffer and weep and beg and bleed out helplessly. Those seeking wounds that gush and breasts that bounce will get their money’s worth.
The trouble is, he’s co-opted the Die Hard of stalk-and-slice, here, and the modern context of a thousand imitators means it’s no longer such a jolt to the darker sides of our imaginations to see a masked madman filleting the nubile. While a previous generation of teen couples might have watched the original and shrieked “don’t go up the stairs!”, conspicuously dateless teens in the row behind me were shouting “You’re dead, dumbass!” Since this genre began to depend on pushing the gruesome shock threshold, its core fans have long since started rooting for the boogeyman. On some level I think Zombie understands this, which is why he’s geared this edition to focus more on the history of the unflappably stab-happy Michael Myers (played as an adult by bulky former pro wrestler Tyler Mane). What I don’t think he understands is why this means he shouldn’t be re-making Halloween.
The original 1978 picture was made on a shoestring budget of $320,000, and as much as half of that went to Panavision cameras and the (then) new Panaglide rig, which allowed Carpenter to play with the weight and depth of empty space in a wide frame, and compose agonizingly long takes where the camera swooped and slid around rooms. The result was a picture that was visually-entrancing, that invited the audience to witness impotently what was lurking in the background unbeknownst to our endangered heroes. It is, in retrospect, amazingly light on gore, and plays instead like the kid brother to Hitchcock’s Psycho, elegantly tightening coils of suspense like bondage knots in between brief explosions of violence.
It also had a star-in-the-making in Jamie Lee Curtis, who built a cunningly complex character out of the smallest of details – a hint of resignation in the voice, her department store loafers, the way she clutched her textbooks. Curtis herself is radiant and outgoing, but what she was able to do as an actress suggested greater depths to the stew of anxiety, sexuality, innocence, and evil that Carpenter was cooking. And her balance of terror and resourcefulness in the film’s climax remains a sacred text for any actress hoping to use this genre to catapult to success.
Her character, Laurie Strode, is played in this version by Scout Taylor-Compton, about whom I have nothing particularly bad to say. She is ripely pretty, and looks fetching in the glasses that were given to her so we would know she is “smart”. She may well be talented, but I had no chance to find out because this remake is not particularly interested in her. It is at least 45 minutes in before we even see her. Instead we get essentially a half-length new movie as preamble, about the 10-year-old Michael Myers and the genesis of his murderous habits.
The best thing Zombie has done here is to find the actor Daeg Faerch to play the young Myers. With the pre-adolescent pudge around his face hardened into a sullen grimace, and those eyes that look through things rather than at them, he does come across like the kind of kid who shouldn’t be left alone with small animals.
If only he didn’t live with such a clownish family. What was spooky about the old Michael Myers was that nothing about his surroundings was unusual – he came from an average house on an average street in an average small town, but for reasons unknown was just born with something missing inside. It’s no coincidence that the unforgettable demons of movie horror – like Dr. Hannibal Lecter before all the sequels and prequels, John Doe from Se7en, like the original Myers, have a large blank space in their biographies; the lack of easy explanation for their existence makes them more unsettling to our sensibilities. Instead Zombie has decided to knock an iconic character off his pedestal and smother him with traumatic childhood clichés – my exact criticism of Ron Howard’s movie adaptation of The Grinch, strangely.
This Michael has an aging stripper mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) and drunken cripple stepfather (William Forsythe) who can scarcely stop screaming obscenities and hurling things at each other in their grimy kitchen long enough to shove Michael off to school to be picked on by bullies. Everyone hates everyone so deeply, and so loudly, it’s like a Harold Pinter play re-written by hobos with the DT’s. I kept waiting for Dr. Phil to appear, offer assistance, and be bludgeoned to death by stepdad’s bowling trophy.
It’s scarcely even a surprise that when Trick-or-Treat night comes along Michael picks up his trademark pale mask and carving knife, we only wonder what took him so long. And then we see an extended and totally pointless stretch of him in a mental institution, where the woolly Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell, an appropriately melodramatic replacement for the late Donald Pleasance) tries in all sorts of incompetent ways to unlock Michael’s sociopath tendencies, and then writes a best-selling book about it while Michael makes masks in his cell and waits for the chance to strike again.
And I don’t see how any of that enhances what the heart of Halloween has always been – the stalking of teenagers by a menacing shape in the night, and the fear every female has that she might not be strong enough to fight off a big man who wants to stick something in her. What was once lean and elementally-potent enough for Carpenter to turn into a now-legendary exercise in cinephile style is what Rob Zombie takes for granted, an afterthought on his way to pick up more buckets of blood. When a filmmaker makes such an effort to leave nothing to your imagination, I must conclude it’s because he thinks his is sufficient for all of us. I disagree.
Movie reviews, travel photos, tales from Hollywood, and general snark. A haven for geekiness, because the Internet really hasn't blazed that trail yet. An emoticon-free zone. An exploration towards an understanding of our effed-up and beautiful universe. With root beer.