Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cyrus

"I know! Let's make a movie about a couple of ugly, doughy dudes."
"John C. Reilly!"
"Yeah, and that Jonah Hill kid."
"That's pushing the definition of doughy."
"Roll with it. OK, how do we get people to go see it, then?"
"We need some hot, to counteract the doughy."

And so it came to pass that Marisa Tomei co-starred in Cyrus, a movie about a broken-hearted man who finds the woman of his dreams, and her goofy, manipulative, adult son. Or so I like to imagine it, anyway.

Cyrus is a low-key, low-budget movie, which has some of the uncomfortable intimacy of a Woody Allen movie, some (but not much) of the zaniness of a Will Ferrell movie, and moments that are occasionally dark and are-we-supposed-to-be-laughing-at-this type stuff.

I didn't put it together, but this film is by the Duplass brothers, whose last feature, Baghead, I reviewed a couple of years ago. My reaction to this film is much the same: It's good in parts, well-worn in others, awkward in other parts, a little slow at times, but short and ultimately pleasing.

The Boy and the Old Man both liked it, the latter more than the former, I think, as he felt the resolution was reasonably just.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Inception

Of course, the problem with lagging so far behind in my reviews is that, by now, you've heard everything about the big movies like Inception and probably seen them parodied by now. (See "South Park" and Mary Katherine Ham on the "Rally For Whatever".)

Well, that's one problem. Another problem is remembering the movies.

Anyway.

Inception answers the question, "What if one of our greatest younger directors, Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight) remade that cheesy 1984 Dennis Quaid movie Dreamscape?"

And the crowd goes wild! (Raaaaaah!) But they always do with Nolan. Your mission is figuring out whether or not it's a good movie regardless of the hype surrounding it.

And?

Well, it's...okay. Good, even. The cheesy 1984 movie was a fun, dopey popcorn flick. This is neither cheesy nor dopey, but it's also not as much fun. It's loud and serious; kind of grim, even.

The premise is that a team of people operate in the dream-sphere, influencing important people through their unconscious minds. (Not, like with the original, killing them.) What makes this particular mission special is that instead of influencing the person, the team is going to plant an idea. Hence, Inception.

The rules are as follows: Time in the dream world moves an order of magnitude slower than in real life. To wake someone up, you just need to push them so that they fall backwards—that triggers a reflex.

Also, it's recursive: You can dream up a dream-within-a-dream. And the dream-within-a-dream will be another order of magnitude slower. You can, in the logic of the movie, go down about four layers before hitting "limbo", a place where time moves so slowly that you can live a lifetime in seconds.

So, with our rules set up neatly and well in advance—okay, we've lost about a third of the audience, but 2/3rds of us ready for a good time! Sort of like Memento.

I actually didn't find the rules difficult to understand. But I didn't feel like the filmmaker was following the rules. And I found myself irritated by that. One of the best examples comes from one of the more famous scenes: A fight scene where because of a car accident on a higher level, the lower level is being made to go all topsy-turvey and the fight takes place on the walls and ceilings and so on.

But at the same time, there's a level under that which is completely unaffected by the tumbling around. Huh? Now, that's something that I'm pretty sure they didn't qualify, and even if it had, I'd probably have found it asking a bit much.

And this movie does ask a lot of you in the suspension of disbelief department. Falling backwards is the magic that pulls you out of one dream level back up to the previous one, but tumbling every which way doesn't?

I blame Leo DiCaprio. Heh.

I actually don't think I'm kidding. The real problem with this movie for me isn't the rules, it's that it just never engaged me emotionally enough to where I fully set aside my attention to those rules.

Now, I didn't have this problem with Memento. I didn't have it with Insomnia (which a lot of people viewed as a let-down after Memento). I had a little bit of this kind of detachment for the Batman movies. But here it's in spades.

And I think it's because I just don't care what happens to DiCaprio. It doesn't matter what movie it is. I didn't care if he was insane in Shutter Island. I didn't care if he lived or died in The Departed. I didn't care what was eating him as Gilbert Grape. The Titanic? Glad to see him go. (And the scenes in the staterooms with the poor people drowning makes me tear up every time, so it's not about the movie.)

It's not a personal thing, either. I've defended his performances; I don't think he's trading on his looks. (He actually looks kind of rough these days, I think.) But it happens that sometimes you just don't connect with an artist, an actor, a director, whatever. And it's pointless to try to describe why in the same way it's pointless to try to describe why you don't like brussels sprouts.

But where I felt for Al Pacino's weary, compromised cop (Insomnia) and Guy Pearce's complex amnesiac, I just don't connect with DiCaprio at all. And, while we're on it, all the characters are thinly drawn. As is the motivation for all these shenanigans.

Anyway, I'm overcompensating here. It's a good movie. There's a lot to admire. The score. The use of special effects, which is actually very restrained. (cf. the cheesy excesses of Dreamscape) The occasional moment of "Oh, wow, that's right, we're in a dream."

I'd probably write a lot more positive review if people weren't gushing over it like it was the next coming of Blade Runner. It's good. But I don't think it's the sixth greatest movie of all time, as IMDB voters would have it.

The Boy liked it quite a bit. The Old Man enjoyed it, though not without observing more plot flaws than I did. My advice, though, at this point is: If you haven't seen it, scale down your expectations a bit. Worst case is you end up being pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Case 39

Conversations From The Living Room, Part 30: You know, I don't remember!

"I recorded My Dinner With André!"
"What's it about?"
"It's two guys having dinner."
"Sounds boring."
"It does! But I really liked it--and I was The Boy's age when I saw it."
"Well, what did they eat?"
". . ."

Monday, November 8, 2010

Despicable Me

Evil genius adopts three orphans to aid him in his battle against another evil genius. In the course of his travails he finds himself changing to accommodate his newest minions.

Sounds cute, eh?

Well, it is. Very cute. In fact, going in, my big concern in going to see Despicable Me was that it would be overly cute. I mean, kiddie movie, right? Not everyone can be Pixar. The traditional mistake is to go overboard on the sweetness and cute for kiddie fare—you may recall how "edgy" Nickelodeon was by having kid game shows involving a lot of goo—though Dreamworks often goes the other way.

Despicable me does a delicate balancing act, being at times sweet, silly, and also lightly dark and edgy with some nice grown up humor.

The cast is wall-to-wall celebrity, with Steve Carrell playing the lead "villain", Gru, with a Eastern European-ish accent, Jason Segel as Vector, his Bill Gates-ish nemesis, Russell Brand as Gru's assistant and Julie Andrews as his mom.

But they're actually voice acting, so you don't necessarily hear them, which is kind of nice. I mean, if celebrities are going to take jobs from real voice actors, they could at least, you know, do some real voice acting!

We had a full contingent for this one, with The Old Man, The Boy, The Flower and The Barbarienne all giving thumbs up. And me, too.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Solitary Man

Ben Kalmen is a hard-driven, successful middle-aged (okay, that's a bit of a stretch given Michael Douglas is 65) family man/car dealership owner having his yearly physical when the doctor gives him some news. What news? Well, maybe nothing, but the doctor wants to run some more tests.

Flash forward a few years. Kalmen's life is in ruins. He's lost all his car dealerships due to ethics issues. He's split from his wife. He's using his considerable charms to bed every hot chick he runs into. He's trying to stage a comeback, but—well, see the thing about bedding hot chicks, even when it compromises his ability to function otherwise.

This is the kind of movie that rests heavily on the performance of its lead, and Michael Douglas pulls it off amazingly. In real life, guys like this are pretty creepy. Kalmen is pretty creepy but Douglas' charisma and acting chops make him a palatable character somehow, even as he's trying to seduce women who are involved with his fractured family, women who are involved with guys he's supposed to be friends with, women who are the daughters of women he's bedded before...

He descends further and further, burning bridges, until he's down to working in a diner with stable, nice-guy college buddy Danny De Vito. Even there he can't escape his inclinations or the ramifications of his past acts.

The movie avoids pat answers and neat conclusions, threatening to tie the ending into the beginning, and leaving us to wonder whether Ben will get his act together or whether he'll just keep spiraling downward. The effectiveness of the movie is in that it feels very satisfying without doing these things.

Susan Sarandon provides solid backup as Kalmen's baffled wife, Mary-Louise Parker, Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Jenna Fischer and Richard Schiff round out the cast. Brian Kopelman directs his (with David Levien) script but this 2009 film never gained any traction last year.

Which is interesting. It has a truer ring and is a lot more intelligently written than most of what gets made, and Douglas' acting is stronger than ever. The Boy and The Old Man both approved, as did I—but its current IMDB rating is just 6.6.

The A-Team

In 1983, a motley assortment of actors were assembled by a team of crack TV writers and sent to a TV series that was a successful as it was goofy. Today, these men are mostly forgotten but the characters they created live on. If you need a mindless way to blow a couple of hours, and if it's playing at your cineplex—maybe you can go see The A-Team.

I never saw the original TV series, though something of a fan of Stephen Cannell's work on "Maverick""Rockford Files" and an admitted fan of the short-lived, never quite realized "Greatest American Hero". (Actually, by 1983, I had already given up on the prime-time TV thing.)

I don't have a whole lot to go on, therefore, as concerns the original compared to the movie version. There's some corny patriotism, some absurd action, some silly character development—I think that all fits in with the original series.

As a summer movie, it's not—well, it's not boring. You can follow the plot and the action, and most of the action is pretty well laid out. It never really engages beyond an almost aggressively superficial level which makes one aspect of the movie very jarring to me.

In what is basically a comic book world of ridiculous stunts, tone is usually kept by minimizing any real sense of consequences for violence. (This is parodied in this "Family Guy" clip at about 2:25.) While that's mostly done here, there is a plot point involving a character killing, and the killing is shown.

It's rather seriously done and struck me as gratuitously brutal.

Anyway, the Boy was not displeased (which counts as fair prize from him for this type of movie), though the Old Man seemed a little grumpy. He thought it was corny, but in the same breath said it was like the old show in that regard—and he was a huge fan of the old show. So I think he liked it but something rubbed him the wrong way. (Maybe the passage of the past 30 years.)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Toy Story 3

Movie trilogies. There never really has been a great one. It's rare enough to get a good sequel. OK, yeah, you got your Star Wars fans, but Return of the Jedi? Let's just say "Ewoks" and leave it at that. Lord of the Rings? I'd argue against it on two fronts: First, it sucked. Second, it's really just one really long movie. The Frankenstein movies come close, but the third entry is pretty weak.

Are there any other contenders? Rocky II was adequate, and Rocky III turned the franchise into a cartoon. The less said about Godfather III the better. Alien 3 is an epic tragedy of filmmaking (oh, what might have been!). Terminator 3 was...well, I didn't see it, but it wasn't regarded as a classic by anyone.

Let's face it: As rare as it is to get one great movie, it's vanishingly rare to get two great movies in a row. A trilogy seems nigh impossible.

Well, until now.

The only question about Toy Story 3? Is it the best of the three movies? It's possibly as funny as the first one (the funniest), and it has all the heart of the second one, without the heart-rending tragedy (I hate you, Randy Newman).

Continuing a trend that started with The Incredibles, this movie has at least as much to appeal for adults. What's more, the a lot of the kids who grew up with Toy Story are now in or on their way to college, just like Andy is in this movie. (One of the interns at the office talked about going to see it with all his friends, who would've been about 5 in 1995.)

The movie opens with the opening play scene of Toy Story 1 combined with the closing play scene of Toy Story 2, only instead of listening to Andy narrate the action, they actually render it, rather spectacularly.

After that, the story picks up about a decade after Toy Story 2 and the toys have met the fate that was the plot point of Toy Story 2. Andy is about to go off to college, and while the toys are still around (most of them—Bo Peep is conspicuously absent).

The question is, what to do with his toys? Attic? Or donation?

Andy sets them aside for the attic, but through a series of unfortunate events, mom donates them to a local pre-school. Woody wants to get back to Andy, while the other toys are enjoying the prospect of being played with, something that Andy hasn't done for years. It soon turns out, however, that a cadre of bullying toys run the place and decide which toys go in which room—with one room being filled with brutal pre-schoolers.

On a practical, philosophical level, the problem with the Toy Story movies is that they've always encouraged children to cling to their toys. (And, really, in Toy Story 1, Sid is really the creative one, however villainous.) The Boy and The Flower both refused to ever throw away/give/sell any toy after Sarah MacLachlan ripped their hearts out.

And dramatically, this creates a difficult problem, set up by the first movie: Andy is a good kid, based in large part in how he plays with his toys. But obviously they can't have a kid going to college still playing with dolls. (Otherwise you end up with Michael Richards circa 1980. Actually, I sort of wonder if Michael Richards and Marydith Burrell weren't the inspiration for Sid and his sister.)

I don't want to give anything away, but let me say that I thought at one point that Pixar had decided to end the series by destroying all the toys. And I thought that both times I saw the movie.

But that's pretty typical for Pixar: They do suspense well. And there's plenty of action, humor, drama—and if you have a kid who's about college-age, you'll probably spend the last five minutes of the movie crying.

And, of course, it's technically flawless. Beautifully rendered to make the dolls' features seem both expressive and plastic. (We don't need plastic surgery, we need CGI.) Music by Randy Newman (again) though without the mid-movie song. There really wasn't time for it.

The voices are all back: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Jodi Benson, R. Lee Ermey as Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Rex, Hamm, Barbie and Sarge. 76-year-old Estelle Harris and 84-year-old Don Rickles return as Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head. Laurie Metcalf is back as Andy's mom, and even John Morris—who hasn't acted since 1999's Toy Story 2—is back as grown-up Andy.

Annie Potts is missing, as Bo Peep, and Blake Clark fills in for the late Jim Varney as Slinky.

Joining the cast are Pixar favorites Bonnie Hunt as Dolly, gravelly-voiced animator Bud Luckey as Chuckles the Clown, Richard Kind as the Bookworm, Jeff Garlin as Buttercup and Michael Keaton as Ken. Newcomers include Whoopi Goldberg as a menacing octopus, and Timothy Dalton in a hilarious turn as Mr. Pricklepants.

Ned Beatty turns in a great performance as Lotso, the CareBear-esque lord of the day care center.

It will doubtless win the Oscar for animated feature, but there's going to have to be some real quality put out by Hollywood to beat this in any way. Here's a film that ends a beloved story in a satisfying way, while introducing new characters, and still coming in at around 90 minutes. (Yeah, the official running time is 1:40, but half of that is end credits.)

Interestingly, the previous Pixar tradition of having mid-credit scenes is revived here, though not in outtakes form, as seen in the '90s movies. I wonder if that's not because they didn't want to break the fourth wall.

Yeah, everyone loved it: The Old Man, The Flower, The Barb and The Boy. And me? Well, I said I'd seen it twice.

So far.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Brain--er, Breathless, 50th Anniversary

The 50th Anniversary of Breathless is this year and, this being a seminal film, it was given a limited re-release so that we could all enjoy its, uh, seminal-ness.

And it surely is seminally. It's black-and-white, hand-held camera, minimal sets and cast. There hasn't been a movie this seminal since Blair Witch Project. Which of course was 40 years later. But still.

OK, here's the thing: You absolutely can see in this 1960 movie the future of the ambitious art film, a style which persists to this day, but dominated cinema more and more till the late '60s and early '70s. A lot of movie critics mourn the passing of this era, which was pretty much done in by Jaws and Star Wars.

Thing is I hate this era of cinema. Hate hate hate it!

But let me explain what this movie is about: Sociopath Michel steals a car then kills a cop who pulls him over. The editing is awfulexcuse me, seminal—to where it's really unclear what happens in this and the other semi-action scene. He then sort of sulks around, bedding some women and stealing their money, while setting his cap for Patricia, who's apparently taken by his psychotic ways.

In between ducking cops (in the least suspenseful running-from-the-cops scenes ever), Michel and Patricia have long, meaningless conversations in bed about—well, who really cares. They're not likable people. They're not even interesting.

So, I guess there's the low budget aspect of it. The handheld camera. People praise the acting, but it's as stilted as Metropolis without any of the charm, scope or aesthetic.

The Boy was meh, but then he was shocked to find out it was only 90 minutes long. "Seemed a lot longer," quoth he, and I agree. The Old Man and I enjoyed looking at the Citroens. (The Old Man had a couple when I was growing up. Great, unusual cars.)

You know, I'm not the audience for these kinds of movies. This is a movie I think, I dunno, maybe Althouse would like.

It reminded me of music school, where the professors wrote really "inaccessible" music, because if you wrote anything else, people could listen to it and compare it to what's colloquially referred to as "good music".

Worse than that, because these guys—and I'm including Jean-Luc Goddard, who directed this film—are so aware of the great art, they're paralyzed by it. In this movie, Michel idolized Humphrey Bogart, who of course starred in many noir films, which this movie weakly invokes, like a 30-year tenured professor trying to write an atonal fugue in the style of Bach.

Now, it probably is, besides first, best of breed. But unless the self-absorbed, self-indulgent, ultimately nihilistic point-of-view appeals to you, you probably would do well to avoid the subsequent decade-and-a-half of "ambitious art movies".

But, hey, that's my opinion. I could be wrong. (With apologies to Dennis Miller.)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

How To Train Your Dragon

Back when I was trying to sell kids' books to publishers, waaaaay back in the '80s, the various publishers would send out rules of what not to bother sending. Tops on most of their lists? "DON'T SEND ANYTHING WITH DRAGONS."

Apparently there was a glut.

I didn't have anything with dragons but I sort of thought it was dickish.

Relevance to the movie How To Train Your Dragon? None, really, except that given this is based on a series of books released in the past decade, I guess the ban is up.

Which brings us to the latest venture from the team that brought you Lilo and Stitch. L&S is an underrated Disney film which managed to unselfconsciously break out of the mold of "young person doesn't meet societal/parental expectations and successfully forges own way in world" that dominated their 'toons since The Little Mermaid. It also used a lot of Elvis unironically.

This is the story of young Hiccup, a Norseman of some sort, who lives on an average Norseman island except for being plagued by dragons. Swarmed, even. So, the young of the village train to become dragonslayers.

Naturally, Hiccup's not really up for that. (We wouldn't have a children's story if he embraced the slaughter of dragon's wholeheartedly and was good at it, would we? Not these days!) He's more of an inventor; and he invents, essentially, a ballista. He manages to hit a dragon—the particular type of dragon so fast and destructive that no one has ever even seen one—and no one believes him.

He stumbles upon the injured beast, though, and discovers something other than the completely unrepentant destroyer of Norse villages he's been taught to believe. The subsequent relationship is...problematic.

This is a fast-paced, sometimes funny, nice-looking film. It walks the line between too cute, too much Kumbaya, and brutal fairly facilely. In that sense, much like Lilo & Stitch, where Stitch was both cute and a destructive monster, but far less cute. (There is a real villain in the peace, and it's fairly unapologetic in its scariness.)

Jay Baruchel (best known to me as the skinny kid in Million Dollar Baby) plays the skinny Hiccup while America Ferrara plays his jealous peer, Astrid. Astrid is one of those now clichéd overachieving girls who just wants to kill some dragons and is increasingly pissed off by Hiccup's strange increasing facility with them.

Supporting characters include Gerard Butler, as Hiccup's predictably not-understanding father (speaking of clichés, didn't we just see James Caan do this in Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs?); Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Jonah Hill (kinda sorta doing Jack Black) as the skinny and fat kid vikings—though at least they made Jonah Hill the skinny(-er) one and Mintz-Plasse the fat one; Kirsten Wiig as the twin of—

Wait. Do you care? Does anyone? Why do they keep putting celebrities in animated films when a professional voice actor is probably going to be better (and way cheaper)?

Are you people actually lining up to see How To Train Your Dragon because Gerard Butler was so hot in 300? What the hell is wrong with you?

Or is it just some Hollywood trend?

I hope it's the latter. I get why actors like the voice gigs. No makeup, no costume, just hamming it up in front of a bunch of A/V geeks who are probably all starstruck.

Anyway, the movie was a hit with everyone, from the Old Man, to The Boy—who didn't expect to like it—to both the Flower and the Barbarienne. And me. It's a solid piece of work. Rewatchable. The Old Man objected to the cuteness of the main dragon, and I could see his point. The dragons were all a hair too cute for me.

Curiously, he preferred Shrek 4, but he's a definite outlier in that regard.

Interesting side-note: We saw this back in mid-June at the bargain theater and it's still playing there. That's a good sign.

Best Valedictorian Speech Ever?

I was impressed enough to believe this was a fake, but I found the YouTube of Erica Goldson reading it at her graduation.

YouTube here.

Coxsackie-Athens Valedictorian Speech 2010

Here I Stand

Erica Goldson

There is a story of a young, but earnest Zen student who approached his teacher, and asked the Master, “If I work very hard and diligently, how long will it take for me to find Zen? The Master thought about this, then replied, “Ten years . .” 
The student then said, “But what if I work very, very hard and really apply myself to learn fast — How long then?” Replied the Master, “Well, twenty years.” “But, if I really, really work at it, how long then?” asked the student. “Thirty years,” replied the Master. “But, I do not understand,” said the disappointed student. “At each time that I say I will work harder, you say it will take me longer. Why do you say that?” 
Replied the Master, “When you have one eye on the goal, you only have one eye on the path.”

This is the dilemma I’ve faced within the American education system. We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn’t you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I’m scared.

John Taylor Gatto, a retired school teacher and activist critical of compulsory schooling, asserts, “We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids into truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then. But we don’t do that.” Between these cinderblock walls, we are all expected to be the same. We are trained to ace every standardized test, and those who deviate and see light through a different lens are worthless to the scheme of public education, and therefore viewed with contempt.

H. L. Mencken wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. … Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim … is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States.

To illustrate this idea, doesn’t it perturb you to learn about the idea of “critical thinking.” Is there really such a thing as “uncritically thinking?” To think is to process information in order to form an opinion. But if we are not critical when processing this information, are we really thinking? Or are we mindlessly accepting other opinions as truth?

This was happening to me, and if it wasn’t for the rare occurrence of an avant-garde tenth grade English teacher, Donna Bryan, who allowed me to open my mind and ask questions before accepting textbook doctrine, I would have been doomed. I am now enlightened, but my mind still feels disabled. I must retrain myself and constantly remember how insane this ostensibly sane place really is.

And now here I am in a world guided by fear, a world suppressing the uniqueness that lies inside each of us, a world where we can either acquiesce to the inhuman nonsense of corporatism and materialism or insist on change. We are not enlivened by an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated, for work that need not be done, for enslavement without fervency for meaningful achievement. We have no choices in life when money is our motivational force. Our motivational force ought to be passion, but this is lost from the moment we step into a system that trains us, rather than inspires us.

We are more than robotic bookshelves, conditioned to blurt out facts we were taught in school. We are all very special, every human on this planet is so special, so aren’t we all deserving of something better, of using our minds for innovation, rather than memorization, for creativity, rather than futile activity, for rumination rather than stagnation? We are not here to get a degree, to then get a job, so we can consume industry-approved placation after placation. There is more, and more still.

The saddest part is that the majority of students don’t have the opportunity to reflect as I did. The majority of students are put through the same brainwashing techniques in order to create a complacent labor force working in the interests of large corporations and secretive government, and worst of all, they are completely unaware of it. I will never be able to turn back these 18 years. I can’t run away to another country with an education system meant to enlighten rather than condition. This part of my life is over, and I want to make sure that no other child will have his or her potential suppressed by powers meant to exploit and control. We are human beings. We are thinkers, dreamers, explorers, artists, writers, engineers. We are anything we want to be – but only if we have an educational system that supports us rather than holds us down. A tree can grow, but only if its roots are given a healthy foundation.

For those of you out there that must continue to sit in desks and yield to the authoritarian ideologies of instructors, do not be disheartened. You still have the opportunity to stand up, ask questions, be critical, and create your own perspective. Demand a setting that will provide you with intellectual capabilities that allow you to expand your mind instead of directing it. Demand that you be interested in class. Demand that the excuse, “You have to learn this for the test” is not good enough for you. Education is an excellent tool, if used properly, but focus more on learning rather than getting good grades.

For those of you that work within the system that I am condemning, I do not mean to insult; I intend to motivate. You have the power to change the incompetencies of this system. I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored. You cannot accept the authority of the governing bodies that tell you what to teach, how to teach it, and that you will be punished if you do not comply. Our potential is at stake.

For those of you that are now leaving this establishment, I say, do not forget what went on in these classrooms. Do not abandon those that come after you. We are the new future and we are not going to let tradition stand. We will break down the walls of corruption to let a garden of knowledge grow throughout America. Once educated properly, we will have the power to do anything, and best of all, we will only use that power for good, for we will be cultivated and wise. We will not accept anything at face value. We will ask questions, and we will demand truth.

So, here I stand. I am not standing here as valedictorian by myself. I was molded by my environment, by all of my peers who are sitting here watching me. I couldn’t have accomplished this without all of you. It was all of you who truly made me the person I am today. It was all of you who were my competition, yet my backbone. In that way, we are all valedictorians.

I am now supposed to say farewell to this institution, those who maintain it, and those who stand with me and behind me, but I hope this farewell is more of a “see you later” when we are all working together to rear a pedagogic movement. But first, let’s go get those pieces of paper that tell us that we’re smart enough to do so!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Shrek 4: It's A Wonderful Strife

It's always good to remember that It's A Wonderful Life isn't a comedy. It's got a lot of funny parts to it—laugh out loud funny, even—but it's essentially a dark, existential drama by its very nature: A man so overwhelmed that he considers his existence to be a negative to the world. The brooding darkness is essential to the plot.

OK, most of us don't have to worry about this much. But those of us making kiddie movies based on It's A Wonderful Life would do well to keep it in mind.

Which brings us to Shrek 4: The Final (Thank, God!) Chapter.

This time around, Shrek signs a deal with Rumplestiltskin (filling in for the Devil) to get one day away from his shrieking brood (triplets). The catch is, he has to give up one day to get it.

That day (unwittingly) being the day of his birth. (This is sort of awkward if you think about it, since Shrek has no parents even worth referencing once in the previous three movies.) And so, Shrek finds himself in Pottersville, in the form of Rumplestiltskin's witch-laden kingdom, where there's an ongoing war between the trolls (led by Fiona) and said witches.

It's not bad. The Barb liked it. The Flower thought it was okay, as did the Boy. The Old Man liked it quite a bit (more than he would How To Train Your Dragon). But it is dark.

I mean, literally. For all the advanced CGI and what-not, the bulk of the movie seems to take place at night. And some place full of ogres.

Yeah, that's one place where the movie really falls down: It's A Wonderful Life shows us Bedford Falls, all the places and people who later change due to no George Baily, and despite having three movies behind it, the Far, Far Away of this movie doesn't manage to invoke any fraction of that kind of resonance.

Which is kind of a shame, since you could have seen Lord Farquat and the evil Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming, and all the other baddies vanquished in the previous films. The setting was always a gag throwaway, but it seems like they could have made some callbacks.

Then again, maybe they did, and I just missed them.

Anyway, this is one of those movies where I'm probably the only one who cares one way or another about stuff like that. The kids liked it, forgot it quickly, and we moved on to the next summer film.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Complete-ish Metropolis

They do this. They find long destroyed scenes or a missing print and say, "Hey! This is the COMPLETE version of this movie." But it's not.

Case in point, The Complete Metropolis. It's complete-er. To say it's complete-ish, even, suggests that the missing hour doesn't add anything to the movie. Yeah, that's right. The original Metropolis ran 3 hours and 30 minutes, and I think it was a complete flop at the time.

This version is 2 1/2 hours long, and at one point, a critical scene is filled in with title cards. It's got about a half-hour of deleted stuff, big chunks of which assist the movie in its struggle to make sense, but lots of little snippets here-and-there were probably pretty wisely edited out.

Keep in mind: I love this movie.

It's a towering work of cinema with a cast of tens of thousands, a seminal work of science-fiction that blends heart-stopping imagery with clunky social messages, the very essence of retro-sci-fi with an art deco style that's never matched—never will be matched.

You ever notice how sci-fi always is steeped in the time it's created? And the more far out it tries to get, the more inexorably linked to its time it becomes (because it's really just exaggerating the modes of the day where, in reality, those modes get changed.) Think Star Wars' braless princess Leia, alien chicks with bouffants in '50s sci-fi or, heh, the way the latest incarnation of Star Trek looked like the iEnterprise.

This movie is so dated, it laps around to looking futuristic again.

Like all great movie dystopias, Metropolis creates a completely nonsensical future and its travails as a metaphor for current issues, and then resolves those issues in a happy ending that's actually pretty horrifying if you look at it too closely. Thing is, Metropolis did it first. Or at least I think it did.

The story of Metropolis is that of the city itself, with the elite living above ground in this worldly paradise of barely clothed flappers ('20s-era German nipples!) and the workers living below ground in hellish (but very stagey) servitude to machines, like a cross-between assembly line workers and Solid Gold Dancers.

Our hero, Freder Frederson has his cavorting interrupted one day. And when I say "cavorting", I mean that literally: He's running around with a bunch of his mates and scantily clad girls. The interruption is by a schoolteacher from the underground, who's brought her charges up to see the good life.

Security is lax in utopia.

And while this creates a sort-of micro-scandal, Freder has enough time to see, and fall in love with, the young schoolteacher, Maria.

So, like any other red-blooded, if slightly effete, male he chases her back down to the underground where he sees The Machine! And the men are working on the machine, doing—well, nothing that makes any sense, really. But if the levers aren't pulled in time, and the wheels spun, and the clock-hands moved (I didn't get that one either, but some of the workers had to move the hands of a clock-like thing to hit certain lights as they lit) the whole machine goes kablooey.

Freder swoons (literally) on seeing the machine, instead seeing the face of Moloch, the ancient Babylonian god that demanded human sacrifices.

You know this is going to come to no good, right then.

Setting aside the silliness of this hyper-powered Metropolis (with flying cars!) being driven by manual labor, where the workers do 16-hour shifts, and when they collapse with exhaustion, the whole machine goes kaboom, it's a visually stunning scene.

The first half of the movie is powered by similarly amazing visuals.

Freder's dad is the architect of the city, and he finds the under-dwellers sort of troublesome, so he's not all that interested in Freder's newfound understanding of How Things Are. He's too busy spying on the leader of the underworld's religious labor movement—who just happens to be Maria.

Y'see, Pa Frederson feels that the workers are getting all riled up, and he wants to encourage that. This will justify the excessive use of force it will take to crush any rebelliousness they have. Lacking any great ideas, he turns to his old pal, his partner in the development of Metropolis, "C.A. Rotwang, the inventor" as he is credited.

But if you steal a guy's girl, you probably shouldn't go to him for help. If you think, well, it's been 20 years, he's over it, there are some clues that should tip you otherwise:

1. He talks about it immediately and incessantly upon seeing you.
2. He has a giant—like 20 ft. diameter—likesness of her head in his otherwise empty living room.
3. He's built a robot he plans to make look and act just like her.

Frederson, Sr., is not so bright about this, however, and commands Rotwang to make the robot look like Maria so that he can get the results he wants. Rotwang, seeing this as an opportunity to destroy young Freder eagerly agrees.

4. He agrees to scuttle his lovebot plans to advance your agenda even after swearing revenge to your face.

Anyway, the robot is brought to life as Maria's doppleganger, and Freder is naturally devastated. Rotwang has programmed her to be a rabble-rouser by day, and a slut by night. Or at least a serious tease. It's a little hard to tell whether or not the 'bot is putting out.

She does have some serious charisma, however. The entirety of the aboveground male population of Metropolis is just as under her spell as the increasingly agitated workers.

Disaster ensues.

Lang didn't care much for mobs, regardless of their station in society, and the rest of the movie is basically an exercise in mob madness, with a great literally clashing of workers and society folk.

The movie's happy message? Communists and Fascists need to work together to form a better world.

Well, come on, it was 1927. Germany. What other options were there?

Religion's in there, too. Sort of a heart, brain, body combo.

Apart from some highly affected acting which lost its potency with the advent of sound, the movie itself holds up really well. Yeah, the message is stupid, but no stupider than "Demolition Man" or the "Star Wars" hexology or "Soylent Green" or any other utopian/dystopian flick.

I love it more than ever now, as just a ballsy act of creation if nothing else. But the visuals are still stunning. Even at 2:30, the movie doesn't really drag. There's some great action at the end that was restored. Despite the message about fascism and communism, and a low opinion of group mentality, it's an optimistic film that celebrates heroism and decency.

The Boy pronounced it "different" in a not displeased manner.

The Old Man likes the silents, and liked it almost as much as I did.

Me? I could watch it again right now.

Harry Brown

Once upon a time, in a magical land called "the '80s", it was required by law for Michael Caine to be in every movie made. Or so jested Dennis Miller before he became a pundit. (Caine was in 22 feature films between 1980 and 1989, usually as the lead.) Two Oscars and countless other accolades later, he still manages to maintain his vigor, even as he gets more and more of the "checking out" roles.

And so, Caine—or as The Boy refers to him, "Alfred, from Batman" (hey, I can't knock it, I thought of Shirley Jones as the mother from "The Partridge Family" for years) plays a widowed pensioner marking time with his shrinking pool of friends till the inevitable comes.

The generically named "Harry Brown" (I think I voted for him once) lives in crappy public housing and walks to the hospital to see his comatose wife, and visits the pub to play chess with his friend, while the city falls down around his ears.

The decay is most noticeable by the thugs that have made their home the pedestrian tunnel by the projects (or whatever it is the Brits call their public housing). Poor old Harry has to walk the long way to see his dying wife. Selfsame thugs delight in torturing Leonard, his chess friend (David Bradley, best known as the repulsive Argus Filch from Harry Potter).

Ah, but Harry? Used to be Special Forces. He doesn't talk about it much. But Leonard knows and is eager to encourage Harry to strike back against the thugs. Whereas Harry prefers to avoid, to live-and-let-live, not because he's afraid, of course, but because he knows how awful he can be.

And by awful, I mean murderously kick-ass.

So, yeah, a late British entry into the "Death Wish" genre, a kind of English Gran Torino, though curiously defused of a lot of the clichés, and really kind of brutal about the wages of socialism, however unintentionally. Actually, pretty brutal about London in general. Incompetent cops—including Emily Blunt, recently seen in City Island—invisible care at his wife's facility, drug dealers galore.

Curiously enough, though, no Muslims. In fact, all the youths in the movie are typically pasty.

Well, I suppose it's a minor miracle a film like this (where a citizen vigilante is portrayed as hero) made it out of England at all.

The whole thing feels sort of awkward actually. I really don't like Death Wish, but it knows what it is. Michael Winner (also a Brit!) had his hand in exploitation flicks for years before unleashing Bronson in that movie (their collaboration on The Mechanic and Chato's Land probably being the highlights of both their careers).

Newcomer director Daniel Barber, on the other hand, doesn't seem to want to dive into the muck even though, really, vigilante pix almost by definition require it.

There are some very "nice" aspects of it, however. First of all, as noted, Caine is as strong as ever (and actually did serve in Korea). Second of all, Caine's transition into vigilante hinges on one scene that is beautifully done and, I think, very true to life.

After that the film sort of loses focus, which might be true to life but tends to defuse some of the tenseness. And it sort of does that throughout: Bring us a very sharp scene, then sort of back away timidly.

It may be the cops that are most responsible for this. You might notice that in most vigilante movies, cops are non-existent (or with the bad guys). That's because the whole point of the vigilante premise requires them to be antagonistic or ineffective.

So we keep cutting back to the hapless Emily Mortimer (who's only slightly less daft here than she was in her goofy City Island character) and her even more hapless partner (Charlie Creed-Miles, who played the hapless younger priest in The Fifth Element), and their struggles with the chief, who is actually not hapless but actively aggravating and riot-fomenting.

Damning stuff. But not real interesting, at least not for us yanks.

I did like it. The Old Man, too, maybe a bit more. The Boy less so.

Best British movie of the year? I don't know. Maybe. I suspect it resonates more strongly with Brits. Whatever else you might say about it, it strongly rests on Caine's acting abilities. Which, when you think about it, is not a bad place to rest things.

Iron Man 2

The reviews of the Iron Man sequel are pretty much dead on: Good, probably not as good as the first one. Though there were things about this one that were better than the last, I think.

Rather than review the movie (what's the point, really?) I'll just make a few random observations.

Robert Downey, Jr., is still a great actor, even when doing a phone-it-in kind of role like this. (Seriously, didn't he play this character in Less Than Zero? No, wait..Weird Science? I dunno. Looks familiar—but it works.)

While I like these movies, it seems like they might, with a little more script effort, be able to reach some of the greatness of some of the greatest superhero movies: Donner's Superman, Singer's X-Men, Nolan's Batman, Raimi's Spiderman. There's something almost casual feeling about these films, something afraid to go near the greatest heroic themes.

Terence Howard sure looks a lot like Don Cheadle in this movie. Waitaminute. They actually replaced Terence Howard with Don Cheadle!

What the hell did Gwyneth Paltrow do to her face? Is it just me? I'm seeing botox and plastic surgery everywhere! She's looking kinda scary-thin, too. And she was so cute in Shallow Hal!

I know Blythe Danner's my mom's age but is it wrong I think she's hotter than Gwyneth?

Actually, Paltrow does a good job, acting-wise, with a much meatier part. It's a bit scoldy, which seems to be the fallback for women these days, but she has a certain warmth, too. She was just a decoration in the last flick.

Heheheh. MSNBC is anti-Iron Man. And O'Reilly is anti-Pepper Potts. Anyone doubt that it would play out that way in real life?

The Old Man doesn't like Sam Rockwell's performance. Too goofy. We're pretty big fans of the Rockwell here at the 'strom, generally speaking, and I wonder if there isn't a generational gap. He would've liked Jeff Bridges in the first one better, I think. Rockwell's more patterned after a Steve Jobs.

Speaking of Bridges, a lot of the dramatic heavy lifting in this movie comes from Mickey Rourke as the...uh...Russian dude. It's not his fault that he's not exactly playing an iconic villain who's much different from the iconic villain in the last film.

I wonder if the film's impact isn't somewhat diluted by the need to pervade it with threads to pick up in all the various spin-offs they're planning.

Case in point: Scarlett Johansson as Molotov CockteaseNatasha Romanov. OK, she looks great in the catsuit. (Though, I dunno, to my eye she doesn't act sexy so much as sort of stand there being young, pouty and curvy.) But talk about an extraneous character, not really developed, and not really all that interesting.

Nice. (Director) Jon Favreau gives himself the scene with Johansson. Funny, too.

The whole super-bad-ass chick has been done to death by now, hasn't it? I mean, that's why the aforementioned Molotov (from "The Venture Bros") is so funny. Is it just me that's finding it less-and-less plausible? I mean, first of all, in any serious fight, she'd be hard pressed to maintain consciousness, considering the diet she had to undergo to fit in that suit....

You know who actually could do that kind of zillions of characters thing well? George Lucas. The original Star Wars movie really did kind of give you a sense of depth even on characters just passing through. (Shame about when he actually fleshed them out, of course.)

Samuel L. Jackson is back as Nick Fury, looking more like Nick Irritated or Nick Yer-Startin'-To-Piss-Me-Off. C.O.N.T.R.O.L. or S.H.I.E.L.D. or whoever it is he represents has bigger fish to fry than what's going on in this movie.

That's nice. Tell the audience they're idiots for going to see the lesser of two movies, when the better one hasn't even come out yet.

Wow. Nice blocking in the big fight. Glad to see Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, Clone Wars) getting some work. They are dodging the whole devastation-everywhere-but-no-one-gets-hurt thing a little wildly. That worked better on "The Powerpuff Girls".

Wait. That's it? Huh. Reminds me a lot of the first one. Is Jon Favreau suffering from premature climaxing? Must've been that scene with Scarlett.

Stinger! Oh. Uh. I have a bad feeling about this. Ooh! Kenneth Branagh directs!

The Boy and The Old Man liked this one.

City Island

The dysfunctional family movie is kind of an icky genre overall. I tend to blame Robert Redford's Oscar-winning Ordinary People (not a link to that movie but to the last dysfunctional family film I can recall seeing) but The Lion In Winter pre-dates it and is really pretty much the same formula. And, frankly, the melodramas of the '30s are pretty much the same beast, though due to the conventions of the day, less explicitly icky.

This is often true whether the movies are meant to be super-dramatic, like People was, or comedies, which can sometimes be ickier as they invite you to take some truly horrible things lightly.

So, City Island is a refreshing entry into the field, with the dysfunction being really a sort of cultural artifact of this little spot in New York called City Island. (Not that this is the only place in the world where people's expectations and roles are so ossified they're afraid to talk about what they want.)

And it's funny! They're good people with some problems that seem like they could be mostly easily resolved, which makes it a lot less icky to be laughing at those problems.

The story is this: Vince, Joyce and Vivian live in their little house on City Island, as they have for over 20 years. Vince (Andy Garcia) is a corrections officer. Joyce (Julianna Marguiles) is a housewife. Vivian (Garcia's real-life daughter Dominik Garcia-Lorido) is a college student. Vince, Jr. (Ezra Miller) is in high school having trouble with girls. They're the yell-y sort of family you'd expect from, I dunno, what's the stereotype? Queens, I guess? Not quite New Jersey loud, but a far cry from the repressed, button-down personae that typically populate these sorts of films.

I'm not sure if the outwardness of it all isn't part of what makes it work. You always know where these guys stand, and you sort of expect that part of wearing things on their sleeves means that they don't bury a lot of heavy sins.

In this case, the catalyst of change comes in the form of a Tony Nardella (Steven Strait), who gets incarcerated in Vince's facility. Vince decides to get Nardella released to him, and puts him up in the (unfinished) boat shed (Vince has been working on for years) on the condition that he help finish it.

And through Tony, we see all the family's secrets. This is essentially the movie-opening, by the way, I'm not really giving anything away. For example, they all smoke. They all go through great pains to hide that from each other. Vince? He wants to be Robert De Niro. Vivian? She's having trouble in college. Vince, Jr.? Well, the troubles he's having with girls are not the usual troubles, exactly.

Tony, of course, thinks they're all crazy. And, as you might expect, he's the source of a number of other mysteries.

Ultimately, there's a strong current of family togetherness running through the whole thing, so the ickiness is relatively subdued.

Garcia's performance is particularly wonderful, as the cop(ish) wanting to be an actor. He gets to do a really stiff De Niro imitation that's so good, you forget when he goes back to being Vince, that's not really him (the actor) either.

His daughter seems to be a natural. Marguiles is always good, fitting as naturally in as a hard-ass housewife as she has in her more sensitive roles. Other standouts include Emily Mortimer as a wacky acting partner of Garcia, and Alan Arkin in a small (but great) role as their drama coach.

Kudos to writer-director Raymond De Felitta (The Thing About My Folks) for, uh, putting the fun back into family dysfunctional flicks.

Thumbs up from The Boy and the Old Man, too.

The Secret In Their Eyes

A newly retired Argentinian justice agent decides to write a novel and picks for his topic the one case he couldn't solve. Or perhaps more accurately, a reluctantly retired justice agent decides to use writing a novel as a pretext for trying to resolve a lot of loose ends in his life.

Such is the premise of Juan Jose Campanella's El Secreto De Sus Ojos—The Secret in Their Eyes—which takes place in 1999, but flashes back a lot to the '70s when the murder and first investigation took place. In a rather odd, old-fashioned choice, we're mostly supposed to just accept the actors as being young, not a lot is done in terms of makeup or CGI (a la Benjamin Button).

In fact, there are a number of places in this movie where things seem rather low budget. The film quality itself reminds of '70s Kodachrome, there's no THX (it might as well have been mono, and the camera doesn't do the swoops and twirls that are lingua franca today.

But the movie works. Well.

Well enough to win the foreign-language Oscar.

And well enough to stay with you, if you're the sort of person to pick at the loose threads that are often subtly resolved. Also, subtitles and a non-spanish-phobia are helpful. For example, a key element of the film involves a rickety typewriter and the difference between "TEMO" (I'm afraid) and "TE AMO" (I love you).

The Boy had a difficult time with it. He liked it, but he didn't entirely get it. The Old Man loved it. I, too, was won over by this strangely awkward and sincere film.

Our hero, Benjamin, is a crusty middle-aged middle-class detective working on a rape/murder case (he tries to palm off) when our heroine, the fiery Irene, a vibrant young upper-class lawyer joins the department. (The actual actors, Ricardo Darin, 52, and Soledad Villamil, 40, rely heavily on something called acting to convince you they're closer to early 40s and late 20s, respectively.)

Benjamin is immediately smitten, but he's too old and too low class for Irene.

This isn't a plot thread you see much in America since about the '30s, and why all those remakes of the old melodramas never work. (After all, when the upper class is making porn tapes, the whole concept of "high class" is a wee bit strained.)

Rounding out the main cast is Guillermo Francella, the brilliant Argentinian comic, as the low class drunkard Pablo. This guy is golden-age material: He manages to be both funny and deeply sympathetic, without being maudlin or pathetic, which is not something you see well done any more.

He's the one reminding Benjamin that Irene is out of his league in so many ways. This is very helpful for people like me, in the American audience, who would probably not get it without the exposition.

Between the three of them, including a very gutsy move by Irene, they manage to catch the killer and send him to prison.

But, wait! If that were all, then whence the unresolved issues that power the movie?

Well, as it turns out, a few years later, Argentina has one of its periodic revolutions. The murdering raping psychopath is found to be useful to the new regime and thus ends up getting out of jail and into the secret service. (Once again, a weird concept to an American, though perhaps strangely like peering into America's future.)

Some very awful things follow.

I can't really talk about how things proceed without being spoily but suffice to say, I did not see the ending coming till about 2 minutes before it came. And the Benjamin/Irene romance resolution isn't what I was expecting either.

But this is one of those rare movies that manages to keep one foot squarely in the mystery/thriller camp, and one squarely in the romance camp. Themes cross-pollinate without being creepy. The very title The Secret In Their Eyes refers both to the criminal element and, as we see at various points, the tells of a smitten, unrequited lover.

Good stuff, and I liked it more the more time has passed. Even if it isn't very American.

Cop-Out: The Smith Kid Strikes Back

Kevin Smith is famous (inasumuch as he is) for his idiosyncrasies. You always know "who the Devil made it," to borrow Welles' quote to Peter Bogdonavich when asked about which directors he preferred. His movies are vulgar and thoughtful and juvenile (sometimes all at once). Also, they take place in New Jersey.

He got his start when some incredible luck drew attention to his funny, quirky, $60,000 shot-on-video debut, Clerks. Since then, he's made about six or seven other movies, all set in the same universe, all set in Jersey and, since his fourth film, Dogma, all making about $30M at the box office.

But the Smith kid, for all his laid back attitude, is ambitious. All of his movies have progressed, one to the next, showing increasing competence, vision and scope, on a technical (if not artistic) level. Though I doubt he's done making his idiosyncratic movies, it's clear that he yearns for greater success. (And like all good men, he knows his limitations, having turned down a superhero flick years ago, despite being a huge comic book fan, simply because he knew he wasn't ready.)

His breakthrough film should have been Zack and Miri Make A Porno. A sort of Judd Apatow-esque movie (and some say Apatow is the spiritual heir of Smith) with the currently hot Seth Rogan?

It made about $30M.

A huge disappointment. And whether that was because of the balky ad campaign hampered by the word "porno" in the title, overexposure of same Mr. Rogan, or because of some quality of the movie itself is a topic for another time.

But for reasons he's detailed on Twitter (and elsewhere, honestly, the guy never shuts up), he opted to make his next film one that someone else wrote; he would serve only as director. A lot of the fans were crushed. The critics were brutal; doubly so when the movie turned out to be a Bruce Willis/Tracy Morgan vehicle that is basically a throwback to the '80s buddy cop movie.

That film, with the Smith-y working title of A Couple Of Dicks ended up being released as Cop Out.

But Throwback would've been a good title. Willis and Morgan are cops who don't play by the book and end up in trouble with the chief, who suspends them, so they're forced to pursue the case independently, all while their rival detectives at the precinct are making fun of the--

I don't really have to go on, do I?

I mean, we've seen this movie before. We've seen it with Bruce Willis before!

More than that, a few cues in the opening scenes tell you that this movie is an homage bordering on parody. It's too '80s, for a movie taking place in 2010. I mean, they didn't open with "The Heat Is On" on the soundtrack, but pretty damn close.

Worst-case scenario for a movie like this, of course, is to be boring. And Cop Out isn't boring. It is a little frenetic, however. It's paced like a zany comedy while the script feels more like it can't decide whether to go for laughs or action, and thinks it can do both better than the '80s flicks could.

It can't, of course: The action/comedy flick was what the '80s did best. Tracy Morgan's a little too Chris Tucker and not enough Danny Glover/Billy Dee Williams/Eddie Murphy. Bruce Willis is a little too much wizened 2010 Willis and not enough smart-ass 1985 Willis. (Remember that? Till Die Hard, Willis was the wise-cracking, glib goof-off who co-starred with Cybill Shepard on "Moonlighting".)

But somebody had to be the straight man and Willis is one of the best. (Also, for a star of his magnitude, you never see him crowding anyone out for screen time. Also, what's he doing in this $30M budget film?)

There are a few twists, a few turns, a climactic shootout scene that isn't the worst I've ever seen. Sean William Scott steals the show in the Joe Pesci role; he plays a goofy cat burglar who delights in tormenting the tortured Morgan (who is wracked with anxiety over his wife's fidelity).

Ultimately, it's a sort of an odd film. It aims low and hits about two-thirds of the time. I think it would've been better had it been played stronger one way or the other: either as a serious attempt to do an '80s cop movie today; or as a subtle but definite parody.

Instead, we're left with a sort of uneven mess that wants us to laugh while showering us with violence.

Which, to be fair, is what a lot of those '80s cop movies were like.

Oh, and I should add: Cop Out made $44M, about 50% more than what it cost to make, and a personal best for Smith. So, far from a complete flop.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Is It Just Me Or Is Hollywood Looking Weirder?

I don't normally do celebrity posts, at least partly because I cling to the naive belief that celebrities are similar to people and therefore possibly having things like thoughts, hopes, dignity, and so on.

And I have no strong feelings about either Josh Brolin or Megan Fox. If Jonah Hex sucks, it's probably not the fault of either of them. But then there's this picture from the premiere:


Do they not look a little freakish here? Brolin looks almost gaunt and Fox looks like she's going the Michael Jackson route as far as plastic surgery goes. I mean, I have no idea about that sort of thing but her face seems sort of "off" to me.

It could just be me. Ever since Up In The Air, where George Clooney alternately looked like himself and a ridiculously stretched piece of Italian leather, I've been seeing weird faces everywhere.

This photo may have been tampered with, too. The aspect ratio altered to make everyone look taller and thinner, perhaps? I don't know. But I just know I'm gonna have nightmares of leathery-faced clooneys and plastic foxes.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The President Is Trolling Me

I've been good. I haven't done a "stupid and lazy" post for months.

Then the President had to go and say this:


A few months ago, I approved a proposal to consider new, limited offshore drilling under the assurance that it would be absolutely safe


Awwwwwww.

That's just not fair! While there seems to be a mad hunt on for the real killerswhoever told Obama that drilling was safe, how detached from reality do you have to be to believe that sinking a metal pole into the ground, a mile under water, in order to rupture it and suck out the liquid could possibly be even remotely safe? It's a marvel of engineering that we don't get spills all the time!

This is dumber than the insurance thing. How am I not supposed to respond to that?

OK, some people think he's just lying, for political cover.

But how on earth can he think that makes him look good? Someone told me something completely impossible and I believed it, therefore I'm not responsible.

Well, maybe he doesn't, maybe it's even more cynical: If I say this, they'll believe that I'm not responsible.

This is rule by experts, people.

Learn to love it.

(Click on the OISAL keyword to see other posts in this series.)

A Post So Lazy It Could Only Be Written on Father's Day

Bein' a dad isn't so bad
Except that you've gotta feed 'em!
You gotta shoe 'em and clothe 'em
And try not to loathe 'em
Bug 'em and hug 'em and heed 'em

Friday, June 11, 2010

Kick-Ass

It's hard to believe that prior to Bryan Singer's X-Men (2000) and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man(2002) superhero movies (as such) were rather rare. Superheroes were kiddie stuff throughout the '40s and '50s, and the campy "Batman" TV series would have seemed to be the gravestone on any non-goofy interpretation of superheroes—which may have been the reason that the Salkinds struggled so mightly with Richard Donner over the classic '70s Superman movies, with Donner wanting to play it straight and the Salkinds going for slapstick.

But the Salkind's Superman movies didn't translate into a lot of other superhero movies any more than Tim Burton's Batman did. Burton's aesthetic translated marvelously to Gotham City and rescued an otherwise shoddy interpretation. (Burton doesn't get comic books at all, as was disastrously apparent in his sequel.)

But with CGI, and the fortuitous application of some of our greatest younger directors, like Singer and Raimi, the box office bonanzas of the early part of the millennium have meant superhero movies galore.

Not only do we get a bushel of 'em every year, we also get parodies, deconstructions, and movies that pretend not to be superhero movies, but really are.

Which brings us to this year's Kick-Ass. In this movie, a nerdy, bullied high-school kid decides to get himself a ski suit, some clobberin' sticks, and fight crime.

Now, you never know which route a story like this is going to go. Does he succeed, empowered by his...uh...ski suit? Er, training. Yeah, like Batman? Or, does he end up getting super-powers through some unforeseen random chance? Or does he just plain get the crap kicked out of him?

I don't want to spoil anything; in one of the nicer surprises I've seen in movies lately, the answer to the above is more complex than I've laid it out. Now, if you actually know anything about fighting and/or the human body, you realize that it's kind of stupid, too, but a little suspension of disbelief goes a long way.

In his adventures, our hero, who clumsily dubs himself "Kick-Ass", meets the equally clunky-named "Hit-Girl", an eleven-year-old girl who has been trained from a baby to be a killing machine. Her father, who goes by the moniker "Big Daddy", and dresses just like the campy Batman of the '60s, has raised her up to help him take revenge on the drug lord who ruined his career, and on whom he blames the death of his wife and her mother.

So, in other words, we have a full-on genuine comic book storyline and characters in the middle of our parody. Filmmakers do this from time-to-time, with a sort of ironic detachment (I'm better than this, so it's cool when I do it), and it can be disastrous.

It's not here, at least I didn't think so, until the climactic scene, when it's very clear we've completely embraced the comic-heroic logic and dispensed with the parody. The end is actually a bit campy, unfortunately.

Entertaining film. IMDB currently has it as #150 on their all-time greatest, right next to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Bourne Ultimatum. I can't imagine it being in the same class as the former but I suppose it's up there with the latter.

As I said, entertaining, but also rather uneven as a consequence of trying to straddle two different sorts of realities.

Some people (notably Ebert) had a problem with the language that came out of young Chloe Moretz's mouth, to say nothing of the violence she was subjected to and visited upon others. I tend to think that's taking it too seriously, as the whole thing was patently absurd.

What else is notable about this film?

Let's see: Nic Cage, as Big Daddy, does a dead-on Adam West impersonation, which is fun, but really makes it impossible for anyone familiar with the old "Batman" series to take seriously. The movie is trying to go for gritty realism and shock value with that stuff; it just seemed cheesy to me. (You don't get any "realism" points in my book for adding violence or death or downbeat endings.)

The music is awful. It's largely pop-songs and musical strains you've heard in other movies, but better in those other movies. Like Joan Jett's Bad Reputation which was used rather more effectively in the original Shrek (when he beats up all the knights).

The one that drove me nuts was the use of In The House, In A Heartbeat, from the Danny Boyle Zombie flick 28 Days Later. (You can hear it on YouTube; about a minute in is the four note pattern that Kick-Ass uses.)

And none of the music rises (or lowers) to the level of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", as used in the blue penis movie.

So it's got that going for it. Which is nice.

Anyway, The Boy said "It didn't piss me off." Which is high praise, because he thought it would. He rather liked it, though not so wildly as to put it at #150 of all-time movies.

It didn't piss me off either.

The Secret of the What?

In a remote Irish village under siege by Vikings, young Brendan is being schooled in the art of illumination by an old monk, while his uncle, the abbot in charge of protecting all the people grows increasingly impatient with his tomfoolery.

But there's more afoot in The Secret of the Kells than meets the eye. The illumination of the book has some sort of mystical power, and when Brendan sets off to the forest to collect berries for ink, he encounters a wolf-spirit-girl, Aisling.

The two develop a relationship, even as the crisis in the town grows worse. (Actually, the rhythm and setting of the movie is remarkably similar to How To Train Your Dragon.)

If you've heard of this movie at all, it's probably as the "Say what?" entry in the Oscars. You had Pixar's Up, Henry Selick's Coraline, Disney's Princess and the Frog, Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox and...this one!

This is pretty typical Oscar stuff, of course. Monsters vs. Aliens was the #11 movie last year, grossing about $200M, but no, let's nominate the little foreign film. (Just as a reference, Fox made about $20M, Coraline $75M, Princess $100M, and Up nearly $300M. Kells may not have made back it's $6.5M budget.)

The other thing you might have heard about this movie is how good it looks. Let me agree that, yes, it looks good: It also looks a whole like an episode of "Samurai Jack". It uses many of the same techniques pioneered by Genndy Tartakovsky, creator of that series, and former collaborator Craig McCracken (of the "Powerpuff Girls").

The whole thing is in the flat UPA style—remember Mr. Magoo—that McCracken and Tartakovsky proved could actually be artistic and not just money saving, with the aforementioned shows (and others like "Dexter's Laboratory").

Further, Tartakovky's trick of changing the screen shape based on the action is employed here. The image goes from 4:3 to 16:9 and even to a screen split into three parts to show different parts of the action at once.

And the Vikings (called "barbarians" here, but they have the pointy helmets) look just like villainous robots from "Samurai Jack".

None of this to say it's bad, but one gets the sense that a lot of the oohs and ahs from the critics may come from their lack of experience with the Cartoon Network.

It's short. We were all kind of startled when it was over.

Of the five of us, The Old Man didn't care for it, because he hates the style of the animation (it reminds him of the crappy cartoons of the '60s), and The Barbarienne had no clue what was going on.

The Boy and The Flower both liked it, as did I. But I sort of think I'm going to end up liking Monsters vs. Aliens more over time.

Oh, and if you're interested in what The Kells are, Wikipedia is your friend.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Black Holes? Yeah: Racist

Buncha twits tweeted about this NAACP vs. Hallmark story, which really must be watched to be believed. It's a must-see.

A cynical person might wonder if the NAACP had been holding on to this, uh, race card racist card for three years just waiting for a time when they needed to bolster the credibility of charges of racism.

"Blackness is being made fun of...again!"

Honestly, where have these people been? It's being made fun of again since...when, exactly? "Amos and Andy"? Ted Danson's blackface costume?

And the perpetrator of this heinous crime? That edgy, boundary-pushing comedic daredevil known as Hallmark. That's right, Hallmark made a card that talks about "black whores". It's just like them.

Do these people realize how stupid they look? Indeed, are?

More than anything, they remind me of the stories my dad would tell about when he was a kid and he heard about some new dirty rock and roll song. He'd of course immediately go get the single and play it (over and over again) trying to hear the dirty words.

He was always disappointed. But then, he was honest about what he heard.

These guys? They're nothing more than the modern incarnation of the FBI playing the Kingsman's rendition of "Louie, Louie" over and over again, trying to hear the dirty words.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Conversations From The Living Room, Part 29: Stacy And Clinton's Revenge

"Dr. Girlfriend can really wear a deep V."

"Quoth The Flower. For context, she watches a lot of "What Not To Wear" and has lately been on a "Venture Bros" kick. Dr. Girlfriend typically wears a pink minidress and pillbox hat (imagine a "Sexy Jackie Kennedy" Halloween outfit, or just look here, though she doesn't know who Jackie O is) but since she married arch-villain The Monarch, she thought she should wear a new outfit as Dr. Mrs. The Monarch.

She then went back to counting all the gay characters in the show. My pride in her was only reflected in my shame over my parenting skills in letting her watch the wildly inappropriate show.

A Rare Week

Didn't hit the movies this weekend, first time this year, I think. Certainly since I got the new job. Last week hit How To Train Your Dragon and Breathless (the 50th anniversary). Week before the Shrek 4.

Not a great sign this early in the "summer" movie season to be wanting for films to see, but the ones we've seen have all been various degrees of entertaining. Nothing really spectacular though.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Why I Dropped A Whole Bunch Of Semi-Celebrity Tweeters

Twitter is an interesting thing on a lot of levels. Way more interesting than it should be, really. After all, it's just a massive stream of unrefined short communications that you tap into selectively—and then, very often, just whittle down again.

It's so amorphous as to be only as useful as you make it, and not really designed for the OCD-types like myself. My inclination is to want to read everything someone I'm following writes, but that's only realistic for a smallish number of people. My time being so scarce lately, when I get to Twitter, I focus on the Althouse-lists like Darcy's coffee-hellos or Ruth Anne's FTA list.

Even then, I have to stop myself from paging back, back, back.

I used to follow a bunch of celebrities. Not exactly A-Listers. Mostly comedians, vets and wannabes, and some musicians. But I had—and have—a rule: Mock Palin and you're off the list.

It's not that I'm a Palin fan, though I think she's very clearly an admirable woman. (Also, while I'm damning with faint praise, I think it's pretty clear at this point that of the four of them, she'd have been the most consistently sensible President.) But the smear campaign run against her was the most appalling thing I've seen since Junior High. And that's about the level of it: The cool kids, who are cool solely by virtue of agreeing that they're cool and having the megaphone, decided to hate the pretty newcomer who wasn't one of them.

The levels of the smears were the same level, too. First they went after her for the way she dressed, then they went after her for changing the way she dressed. They fabricated lies to smear her with than echoed them back-and-forth to each other as if they were fact. Their fury, increasingly impotent though it is, continues to rail at this woman who dares to survive and flourish even though she's hopelessly, terminally uncool.

Nobody should understand this better than a comedian. Comedians are almost universally losers. Ostracized growing up. (Maybe not Dane Cook.) Still on the outside of society in a lot of ways.

And, frankly, when I see them piling on, I find it pathetic. It's such a cheap shot.

I forget what it was that Palin had done—maybe the "death panel" comment—but I ended up dumping most of the celebs I followed when they started mouthing off about her. I don't even remember who they are any more, for the most part.

James Urbaniak (who plays Dr. Venture on the inestimable Venture Bros. cartoon) was particularly vile, and not the only one. I almost felt bad for dropping Michelle Collins because she actually pleaded "Please don't drop me" right after her joke. Dana Gould—Jeez, I've always loved Gould's dark schtick, which is almost entirely centered on being a doomed loser, and he, this guy who looks like he's never been so much as camping, decided to take a shot at Palin's grasp of reality.

Who else? Oh, the lovely and talented musician Marian Call. She actually didn't make a comment directly because she's smart enough to avoid those subjects, and said as much. And then...the temptation must have been too much, since she coyly linked to a really gross insult.

Does unfollowing mean I won't be supporting these people in the future? Yeah, actually, it probably does, at least for a little while.

I'm not much for fairness, but the whole assault on the Governor was so unfair as to get my hackles up. And I think this was obvious and blatant, and anyone being honest should be able to see that.

And, come to think of it, I never see comments like that from the few A-Listers I follow. (Kelsey Grammer, Kirstie Alley, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, etc.) I think that confirms my thesis about what's behind the attacks.

Ends, Means and the Arbitrary Execution of Power

My sister used to like to, as a sort of coup-fourré of any argument, snap "So, you're saying the end justifies the means."

It stumped me for a while, because everyone knows the ends don't justify the means. But then I realized she had reframed the argument in the wrong way, and began to retort, "The means don't require justification!" What I had realized was that she didn't like the ends, and was attacking the means rather than just coming right out and saying she didn't like the ends. (Sometimes she also didn't like the means, because she really didn't much like it when I did anything.)

I thought of this while I was driving and, as many of us do, wondering about whether I might be pulled over. I wasn't doing anything wrong I don't think. I wasn't speeding, hadn't done any reckless lane changes. I was driving the Bumblebee, which may not be compliant with all the laws. (I recently had to outfit it with a new catalytic converter to pass a smog test.)

And it reminded me of something Althouse said a while ago that appalled me: She said that universally applying the law would be horrible. I think she even used traffic laws as an example.

I, on the other hand, tend to view universal application to be a necessary requirement for justice and reasonable governance. Speed limit laws? If they were universally applied, they'd quickly be (mostly) repealed. And so it is with, I think, most of the laws—particularly "regulations", which are of course just laws that have been passed in violation of the way the Constitution allows—would go away were they all enforced.

What this means is that the government gets to pick-and-choose who to prosecute, allowing for the arbitrary exercise of power. This is often done for political reasons, but it's also just done because it can be.

This is particularly relevant in light of the recent James O'Keefe case, where he was prosecuted for doing what has been standard practice in journalism for as long as I can remember. Burying the lede about Senator Landrieu's lying, the old media completely unselfconsciously is labeling O'Keefe a "criminal" and an "activist" for doing what they've been doing since I was born.

It's such a dog-bites-man story these days that it's barely worth noticing, much like the old media itself. "It's only okay when we do it," they're telling us.

But this itself made me reflect on the phrase "the end justifies the means", and how the thinking of that is meant to be the very epitome of evil.

But when you think about it, the intended end is the only thing that can rationalize any means. I mean, think about it: You suffer many injustices in your day-to-day life, don't you? (I know I do. Well, maybe not many, but enough.) But you don't (e.g.) fly a plane into the nearest Federal building because they ripped you off on your taxes.

OK, some people do, but we call them crazy, even if we agree they were poorly treated.

People always end up talking about Nazis when this ends/means thing comes up. But the Nazis had no trouble with the means—the means were, in fact, the point. The end was what was hazy. "We'll kill all the Jews and life will be great!" Hitler sure didn't believe that. He thought actually achieving that end would be awful and require him to make up a new target.

Stalin and Mao killed tens of millions. In their cases, the means actually were the ends. Yeah, I know all the blather about justice and immanetizing the eschaton and what-not, but the point of communism (and socialism and environmentalism and fascism) is raw, naked power which is what any dictator ends up with. Power and the ability to continue to exercise it.

(Sort of tangentially related, Matt & Ezra's Excellent Adventure continues unspoiled. One of them is bound to win the Walter Duranty Award for Oustandingly Naive Journalism.)

Nothing really revelational here, I just always find it interesting when I end up analyzing something I've assumed for years and found it not to be all that true.

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