Sunday, January 31, 2010

After Dark Horror Fest 4: Kill Theory

On the scale of unpromising horror premises, "college kids trapped in house by maniac" has got to be in the So, when Kill Theory starts with a maniac being released by a doctor and we cut to a bunch of college kids in a van on a way to the Rich Kid's dad's lake house, I was not optimistic.

All the clichés are here: You got snotty Rich Kid, all around Good Guy, the Fat Dude, the Hyper Guy, and their girlfriends. You got the Level-Headed girl who loves Good Guy, and the kinky Curvy Girl who's hooked up with Rich Kid but pines for lost love, Good Guy. Hyper Dude has the Sweet girlfriend. Fat Dude is, of course, alone, but Slutty Stepsister shows up at the lake house.

There is what seems to be an inordinate time spent on characterization in these opening scenes. This also didn't fill me with hope.

Yet, when the first dead body shows up, not only does the story move in some unexpected ways, a lot of the earlier characterization shows up again as a plot point.

This movie is, sort of, Friday The 13th by way of Saw. You know, in a very real way, the Jigsaw Killer is not far removed from Jason, Freddy or Michael. He's all-powerful in his anticipation of the characters' actions, and his ability to plan for them far in advance, and (more importantly for the movie's purposes) his ability to lock them into a very simple moral dilemma.

The Maniac in this movie is not quite so sophisticated. His traps are simple and secondary.

The main tension is this: Mr. Maniac (Kevin Gage, who could easily do a bunch of sequels to this, a la Tobin Bell) spent three years in an institution because on a mountain climbing expedition, he cut loose three of his friends to save his own skin. (I'm not sure how that's illegal but play along.)

His exceedingly annoying psychiatrist (working actor Don McManus, whom you recognize without being able to name, and who actually manages to be irritating on a Richard-Dreyfuss-in-What-About-Bob? scale) has taken exception to Mr. Maniac's insistence that anyone would do the same thing he did, and in his smug, wanna-punch-him-in-the-face way demands that while Mr. Maniac is no longer a threat to society, he does need more therapy.

Mr. Maniac plans to prove his side of the argument by putting the college kids to the following test: If one of them is left alive in the house at dawn, that person goes free. If more than one is left alive, they all die.

The kids are pretty good actors, though I was really confused at first because I thought they were high school kids. But they looked far too old and they acted like college kids. Then, yeah, it was made clearer later on, but, to be honest they're largely too old for that, too. (It doesn't matter much, but I did notice, and I'm not the most observant in this area. Theo Rossi, whom I've dubbed "Hyper Kid", is 34! He's in good shape for a middle-aged man!)

It's not, I don't think a huge acting challenge, for the most part. There's a lot of low-key stuff. Curvy Girl Ryanne Duzich has a relatively tough part, having to be both sexy and vulnerable and in love and desperate, all in turns. (Also, she's not that curvy but wears what must've been a pretty dang uncomfortable bra the whole time.) Fat Kid Daniel Franzese (30 years old, by the way) has to do a lot of whining and cowering, but manages to be sympathetic all the same.

I'd lay the credit for the success of this movie at the feet of writer Kelly C Palmer, who was in the audience. Within some very narrow constraints, she does a good job of avoiding a lot of the horror movie trope traps. And there's a strong undercurrent about the characters' basic goodness: They don't, for the most part, want anything to do with the Maniac's plan—and willingness to go along comes from some surprising arenas.

The other guy who gets the credit is Chris Moore. Now, this is Moore's first outing as a director, but if you ever watched "Project Greenlight", he was the incredibly nice, remarkably professional producer who made sure that the movies actually got made.

Moore handles this movie really well. Most of the directors picked for "Project Greenlight" were sort of flamboyant. Moore handles this confidently without being flashy. You never think, "Oh, that was clever." The shots tell the story without pulling you out of it. His pacing, along with the humor and twists of the script make this above par.

'course, we get the old "so far out we can't get cell phone reception" gag, along with the phone lines being cut, but Something Must Be Done about the phone thing. Still, recommended.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

After Dark 4: First Thoughts

I pondered last year how long the After Dark Horrorfest could go on, with so few people in the audience. This year, there are a total of four venues in all of California, and the closest one (by a margin of 50 miles) is the dreaded Beverly Center 13, located in that monstrous mall in downtown Beverly Hills.

Actually, the theater itself is not bad. But having to navigate the streets is not great.

We planned to split the movies up in to four days this year, a plan I think The Boy favored given how bad the movies were last year. But he was in the mood to go Friday, so we went to the 10PM showing of Kill Theory.

About ten people in the whole theater, until some members of the crew came in.

Got a bad feeling about After Dark 5. Good news, though: Kill Theory did not suck.

White Ribbon: A German Children's Story

Generally speaking, if a foreign language film gets much play in the US, it's going to be pretty good. We are monoglots with extreme prejudice. (I don't find this a condemnation of the USA; we're monoglots because we can be, and any other group with that luxury would take to it just as readily as we do.) It takes a Das Boot or a La Vita E Bella to get our butts in the chair (and even then, a lot of us insist on dubbing).

When I heard that White Ribbons (the title actually translates to The White Ribbon - A German Children's Story but I can see why the distributors didn't want to use that) had won a Globe and was being praised up-and-down, I seized on it as a likely way to break the award-season doldrums. (This year has been particularly uninspired.)

A little hasty on my part, unfortunately. Da Weisse Band was directed by Michael Haeneke, who is a critic's darling and, well, you have to know that he directed one of his movies going in, or you're probably going to be disappointed.

This reminded me heavily of one of his earlier films, Caché, which is about a French couple that's being mysteriously filmed. The films are being sent to them, the (rather despicable) hero runs around tracking down people he's pissed off in the past, and the general level of menace increases until—well, until nothing, really. That's sort of the problem.

You start to engage with the movie as a mystery, as a thriller, but it never goes anywhere. Because it's neither a mystery nor a thriller, it's a metaphor. It's a metaphor for how crappily the French treated the Algerians, something portrayed excellently (and literally) in the contemporary film Indigenes.

This can really piss you off. You're not being entertained, you're being instructed.

Which brings us to White Ribbon.

Same deal. Here we have a story that should be exciting, thrilling, suspenseful and creepy, but it really just comes off as creepy. Any actual excitement or enjoyable aspect is meticulously stripped out. Sort of like an Oliver Stone movie, where if you actually start having a good time, the movie's gonna turn around and slap you for being so shallow.

Believe it or not, I don't mean that to be condemnatory. Some people like going to serious, joyless films. Most of them seem to be art critics. And, honestly, I can do that if I'm aware of it going in. And I did pick up on it soon enough.

The Boy was irritated, though.

Basically, the story is that bad things are happening in this small town in Germany. Some are accidental, but some are very clearly deliberate. As the tale unfolds, we get a closer look at the characters.

The widowed town doctor, is the movie's first victim, when someone strings a wire between two fence posts and trips his horse on his daily ride. We learn that he's a sexual deviate who abuses the midwife who has taken care of him since his wife's demise. (And that he was no better to his dead wife.)

Oh, hell, I can't even bring myself to list the litany of horrible things everyone is doing to everyone else. The narrator and his love interest are at least decent people, but apparently the only decent ones in the village.

It becomes apparent soon enough—like, from the opening scene—that the children are behind all the horrible "accidents". They don't restrict themselves to taking revenge on the bad adults, mind you. They happily do bad things to each other and even babies and, in that crowning glory of storytelling, a Down's Syndrome kid. (Don't you love it when movies feature abuse of the handicapped?)

Of course, we don't see any of this. What we see is the slow, plodding narrator (a schoolteacher) figuring out what's going on. All the action occurs off-screen, and we're left to view the horrible after-effects.


OK, I'm not gonna beat the guy up for making an unpleasant movie because that's clearly what he had in mind. Mission accomplished. I am going to beat him up a little because the movie, which takes place on the eve of WWI, is meant to be insightful as to the rise of Nazi-ism.

In that regard, I think it's a wash. I mean, it's a made up story with made up characters, and while I have no doubt that there was plenty of sexual perversion in Germany before the War (as everywhere else), and that they were perhaps indulgent of their children (though my experience says "seen and not heard"), I don't think it makes for an insightful storyline.

But it's really my fault: A bit more research and I would've connected the director with his past works, but I'm not so up on foreign films that I expect to recognize directors.

Anyway, if you're into flat, nasty, long stories of decadence, this is your movie.

So, What About That iPad?

I don't really follow Apple stuff. I've worked on Apples from time-to-time but the last Apple product I owned was the Apple ][+. (First computer I ever owned. Learned programming on it.)

Back then, I, of course, favored Woz of the two Steves. The engineer over the sales guy. The guy who had built the machine, not the guy who had sold it. And some of the other Steve's failures seemed to vindicate that viewpoint. (Though, even though the NeXT was never very successful it did show Jobs' dedication to making a quality product.)

But clearly, I underestimated the guy. He was the CEO of my beloved Pixar, and now is a major player at Disney. And he brought Apple back from the almost-dead.

However, the two most interesting things he's done, to me, are the iPod and the iPhone. Both products were introduced into a seemingly saturated market. They were both, from a technical standpoint, not all that impressive, at least on paper. They were both relatively expensive.

And both ended up dominating their markets. The iPod, factually, with something like 3 out of 4 all music players being iPods. I'm not a gadget guy, don't have any real interest in an MP3 player, but do find the iPod sort of pleasing despite that.

The iPhone "only" has 30% of the phone market. But it dominates the mindspace. It's the iPhone, largely, that has contributed to this idea that the computer of the future will be a phone. (This makes a whole lot of sense, and has been semi-predicted in many ways over the years. I always figured a computer that you carried with you, but that hooked up to available screens and keyboard/mouse set ups, would be ideal in many ways.) I don't really need a fancy phone (or, truth be told, any cell phone) but I might get an iPhone for development purposes.

So, all the noise about the iPad is amusing. People's hopes were incredibly high—one of the hazards of being so amazingly successful. Will it be successful? I don't know. The iPod was very clearly an MP3 player and the iPhone a phone. I'm not sure what the iPad is, really. An eReader? Well, it could be successful, then, depending on how books get to it—where's the iBooks store?

Also intriguing to me is that one of its main flaws being cited is that it doesn't support Flash.

From a developer's standpoint, I've seen this sort of battle play out many times. Back in the '80s, a machine had to support DOS. Microsoft worked very hard to make sure that there was a lack of confidence in any non-Microsoft solution (even though there were many better ones). In the '90s, the battle was over running Windows programs—again with MS doing every dirty trick in the book to break competitors both at the low end (with DOS) and at the high end (with OS/2).

That's why MS destroyed Netscape and then essentially abandoned the Internet. Their purpose wasn't to try to compete on the Internet so much as it was to make the Internet non-competitive with Windows. (Many advances were made to allow programs on the Internet more like desktop applications, but since they weren't supported by the dominant browser—Internet Explorer 6—things stalled until Netscape reincarnated as Firefox. This is why Google has Chrome, too; they have no desire to see MS dominate browsing again.)

But the de facto winner in all this is Flash, which is now pretty clearly "The Platform". iPhone apps may be great, but people want their Flash games. MS (finally) responded with Silverlight which may, eventually, overtake Flash—but which also doesn't run on the iPad.

However, Silverlight's very existence suggests that Microsoft realizes that it's lost the mobile OS war, and Windows CE, while not technically dead, isn't going to secure their monopoly.

Nobody cares if the iPad runs Windows.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Single (Gay) Man

We should be flush with Oscar-bait movies and I guess we are, but they seem to lack a certain majesty. Or even modicum of interest. I suppose Avatar will sweep, since it combines the right politics with big budget and big success. (I will see it. Eventually. I guess.)

We haven't been able to muster up the interest in seeing The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus so The Boy opted for the other seemingly, potentially, might-be-good A Single Man. We didn't know much about it other than being the story of a widower trying to get through his day.

Being the sort of heteronormative guy that I am, and seeing Julianne Moore on the poster, I jumped to the conclusion that his wife had died. But no, it was his partner. His young, male partner.

While Cartman may not be correct that indie movies are all about "gay cowboys eating pudding"—an observation made years before Brokeback Mountain—there was a time about five years ago where it seemed like every indie movie had to have a subplot with a gay character.

Now, not so much. And it's preferable to have a main gay character if that's the story you want to tell. So, props there, even if minus a few points for the stealth ad campaign.

Expectations were not exactly high. This is a movie about a guy moping. Part The Constant Gardener (without the massively stupid drug plot), part Hamlet's soliloquy, you've got about 100 minutes of "to be or not to be, for a broken heart".

Colin Firth plays a college professor (looked like UCLA) in 1962 who's lost his partner of 17 years (they met during post-WWII celebrations). Eight months has passed and he's still racked with grief, and as when we meet him, he's making preparations for his own demise.

Well, gay or not, it's not exactly an exciting story. And it's rather indulgent, like Constant Gardener, but it comes in well under 2 hours which means that you only get a little tired of the slow-mo and flashes of imagery. It also wasn't as oppressively bleak as you might think, either.

There seemed to be a modern sensibility imposed on the story from time-to-time, but nothing too heavy-handed to me.

Strengths: Performances by Colin Firth and Julianne Moore as the woman who loves him; A lush score by Pole Abel Korzeniowski, who also scored the moody Tickling Leo; confident direction; not overlong.

There were some weaknesses, too. It's a very static film; the main character is hung up between living and dying. You can't get much more static than that. But The Boy was particularly insightful and loquacious.

He said the problem wasn't that the main character was gay, but that was all he was. We didn't learn anything about him except that he was gay. No hobbies. Nothin'.

Well, yeah. Good point, kid.

Truth be told, if I'd known it was about a gay man, I probably wouldn't have gone to see it. As well as directors, certain themes are particularly overrated (to my mind) relative to others. Alcoholism and drug addiction, homosexuality or sexual deviance, anti-American, etc. Not to say these movies can't be good, or that this one isn't good, just that it tends to result in inflated evaluations.

Where would I put it? It's...okay. The ending is such an "art movie" cliché, it reminded me of all these horror movies where everyone dies. And somehow, it comes off not as pretentious as it seems like it ought to. It's often touching and of course very intimate.

But as The Boy points out, it doesn't do the leg-work as far as characterization goes to build the sentiment properly.

Now I can see there being an exception, if you're a 50-60+ year old gay man. You might really be able to relate in a way that needs no further detail.

That's another one of those niche markets.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Today Is Not That Day, Part 8: Weird Science

You know, the sort of cowardly stupidity (combined with awesome arrogance) described here is pretty run-of-the-mill in today's schools.

The part that won't get mentioned much, if at all, is that the principal was apparently so astounded by the 11-year-old's science project—so baffled, so dazzled, so stunned—that he thought not only was bomb a reasonable interpretation of a motion detector but also, having cleared up his confusion after much expense and hysteria, that counseling was a reasonable suggestion for the child and his family.

Being a bureaucrat, of course, means that it's never your shortcomings that cause these problems. It's not that you're too stupid to have a basic grasp on not just electronics but human nature and current events (quick, name the number of times an eleven-year-old has blown up his school!), nor even that you should handle such a situation to delicately cover-up your ignorance.

No, take it to the mattresses every single time and insist that anyone who makes you feel uncomfortable with your ignorance is probably psychologically disturbed.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sherlock Holmes and the EXXXTREME Mysteryish Thing!

I miss mattes. There, I said it.

I remember seeing The Wizard of Oz and the matte of the Emerald City that Dorothy and her pals were dancing toward. I loved that matte. It was quite evident they were going to dance their way into a wall if they kept on, but the very principle was elegant storytelling, to me.

"This is the setting. We have painted it for you on plywood. We've done an excellent job, and we're going to throw it away after the shoot. Enjoy."

I loved the matte used in When Worlds Collide, too. The oncoming Alpha and Bronson Beta painted multiple times larger and larger and super-imposed over the foreground—sheer menace.

There's some great matte work in the 1979 Dracula by the master, Albert Whitlock, who did a lot with Hitch, the disaster movies of the '70s, and even the '80s-era Dune. The guy was genius with

Mattes used to be such a big deal, the Universal Studios tour—back when it was more tour and less amusement park—actually began with a display of a matte. I think it was of San Francisco. Gorgeous.

Mattes aren't used much any more. Instead, everything is 3D computer generated cityscapes. As a result, everything looks like freakin' Hogwarts. Mordor. Gotham. Fake. Comic-booky.

"But Blake," you say, "mattes were, like, the fake-est looking fake things evar!" Well, yeah, maybe the early ones, but I think they were simple and communicated clearly. The obsession over "fake" and "natural" is a dumb one. It's all fake.

But this CGI stuff isn't supposed to look fake. And CGI smoke, dust and fog particularly does to me. There's a scene in this movie where some mooring comes loose and smashes through the scenery. And whatever it smashes through leaves a kind of dusty haze. The same dusty haze you saw when the troll broke through the door in Mordor, or when the Quidditch ball breaks through some bleacher supports. Fake.

Why am I talking about mattes in a review of Sherlock Holmes? I guess because the computerized cityscape, with its computerized fog and smoke, looked fake to me. Also, mattes have about as much to do with this movie as this movie has to do with to Arthur Conan Doyle's stories.

Anyway, assuming you're not as big a dork as I—and, let's be honest, who is?—you're probably interested in other parts of the new Sherlock Holmes movie than set design and related special effects. And fortunately, the other parts are better.

Robert Downey Jr. plays the master detective this time. He looks not at all Holmesian, but that's okay, he's a good enough actor. Jude Law plays Watson, and I think that's one way the new version excels compared to most older ones. Nigel Bruce, who paired with Basil Rathbone in the classic '30s-'40s movies, tended to be a bit more bumbling, more comic relief, than the character in the stories, who was both tough and handsome.

The Boy really nails it, when he says if you're expecting an action-adventure movie, it's pretty good.

And it is. It's fun. It moves, mostly, with just a little bit of drag in the 2nd to 3rd act transition. And it's basically a buddy movie, with an aggressively modern sensibility applied to a stuffy old late Victorian tableau.

Director (and Madonna survivor) Guy Ritchie applies a mishmash of modern tropes to Holmes observational skills, making him somewhat reminiscient of TV characters like Adrian Monk or even Shawn Spencer of "Psych". Casual. A bit slovenly.

I found it didn't really fit with my idea of the character. Not that Holmes wasn't eccentric, but my memory of him is that of a gentleman without land. An aristocrat without money. A man who had used his skills to act as he felt a lordly person should, even though he didn't have the means.

But, okay. I wasn't expecting Basil Rathbone.

There is a sort of mystery here, though the whole thing is greatly informed by The Illusionist and The Prestige. There's the question of is it, or isn't it, supernatural, but you can't really have genuine supernatural elements in a Holmes story. The more the movie tries to convince you that it is supernatural, the more likely the final reveal is going to have a "Scooby Doo" feel to it.

But then, this isn't your momma's Holmes, or her momma's, or her momma's. So maybe they would ghost it up.

Not that you really care by the time Holmes explains everything at the end. It's an action movie. It's not like you're brooding over the meaning of the drop of blood on the transom nor the petals strewn mysteriously on the ledge.

Look, I did like it. But parts of it sort of irritated me, like the non-mattes, I guess because it didn't hang together for me in little ways. London didn't look quite right. Rachel MacAdams didn't seem quite English enough. Downy and MacAdams didn't seem to have any real chemistry. Hans Zimmer's score seemed a little clunky.

Also, it more than teases the sequel, which strikes me as a little presumptuous.

But these are minor irritations which may have drawn me out more than most viewers, due to my own prejudices rather than any real flaws in the movie. Like The Boy says, go in expecting a light action-adventure flick, and you'll have yourself a good time.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Cashing In

There are things you just have to do as a parent. You don't have to enjoy them, you just have to do them.

Seeing a sequel to Alvin and the Chipmunks is one of them. I tried, mind you. The original movie's rated about a 6 on IMDB, with the sequel at just under 3, so it's nearly half as good as the original, right? (That was more for The Boy, admittedly.)

The highly lauded Princess and the Frog was playing at the same time, for example. But, as The Flower explained, the Princess is a frog practically the whole movie. And who wants to see a movie about frogs?

Chipmunks, on the other hand, are apparently God's gift to celluloid.

So, let me start by saying The Flower was pleased. No regrets. Thought it was a fine movie.

Me? Well, I survived. Racked up a few Daddy points. It was only physically painful a couple of times—as when the Chipmunks did the Bee Gees. (I'm not exaggerating: The frequency and volume did actually hurt my ears, which I have not sufficiently impaired through the blasting of rock music.)

And it's nice to see that Betty Thomas is still working. She was great on "Hill Street Blues". And as a director, I thought some of her '90s movies were cute (The Brady Bunch Movie, Private Parts, The Late Shift). Sort of interestingly, The Flower was also obsessed with seeing Thomas' previous feature John Tucker Must Die. (She didn't like it, though. If I'd remembered, I would've tried that, too.)

The original A&TC was not without its charm. Jason Lee is pretty good at being both irascible and paternal as Dave. (He's barely in the sequel.) Cameron Richardson was cute 'n' perky as the cute 'n' perky love interest. (She's not in the sequel at all.) David Cross is, of course, excellent at being the sleazy record company executive. (He's back, at least.)

And you had a simple plot: Chipmunk singing group makes it big in the city, learns family values. In the (ugh) "squeakuel", you've got more plot than any 80 minute movie oughtta have. (This movie has a whole lot of plot gettin' in the way of the story, as Joe Bob Briggs would say.)

You've got loser Toby (Zachary Levi, Chuck of "Chuck") taking care of the Chipmunks. You've got the chipmunks going to school. You got Alvin trying to fit in with the cool kids (even though the girls adore the Chipmunks who are both rock stars and cuddly little mammals). You've got the stern principal (Wendy Malick) who's trying to save the school music program. You've got Alvin and Simon fighting while Theodore longs for family values.

This all taking from the presumably main plot of evil David Cross having three new singing Chipmunks almost literally dropped in his lap, and trying to use them to both destroy the old Chipmunks and restore his lost musical producer career.

Also, of course, these are girl chipmunks ("The Chipettes") who are perfect analogs for the boys and act as their biggest fans, love interests and foils. Fun fact: Janice Karman, who created the Chipettes and receives a credit for this in the movie, was the daughter-in-law of Ross Bagdasarian Sr., who created the Chipmunks. She also voiced all of the Chipettes in the TV series where they originally appeared.

We're going for the $200M box office here, though, so we get hot properties Christina Applegate, Amy Pohler and Anna Faris doing the girls.

And, hell, they're going to get pretty close to $200M, so who am I to complain? (Oh, right, the guy who paid $20 to see this!) And, really, if you lower the bar on your expectations—I mean, way low, here, lower than the original—the time will pass reasonably quickly, if rather frantically.

But The Flower liked it, and so did some of her friends who saw it, and in the long view, it's not any worse than Dungeons and Dragons, which I took the boy to see.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

So, How Radical Are You?

I was watching Stossel's new Fox Business Channel show ("Stossel!"), and he had on the Whole Foods guy to talk about health care. This is a great plan: You can get anything on this plan. (And snake oil is expensive. I thought I should try to find a job with these guys.) Stossel had a good mix in the audience, and a communistsocialistprogressive to attack any ideas that didn't involve the government taking over the most intimate of choices we make.

As a sidebar, the progressive version is such an easily repeated lie, it reminds me of—well, of every other progressive lie I've been swamped with in my life. "Single-payer is the only way to get universal coverage." As if the government's first move isn't going to be to make that coverage a lot less universal to save costs. As if "medical treatment" had no metric of quality, just so long as everyone gets some.

Anyway, the lefty guy didn't have anything in the way of substance—not his fault, there really isn't a good case to be made, especially in light of the universal failures of the schemes at home and abroad—and so he accused the two of them of being Grover Norquist acolytes.

I, and both Stossel and Whole Foods guy John Mackey (and I hope most people) regarded this ad hominem with bemusement. The progressive wanted to equate their distaste for a state-run health system to a desire to destroy Social Security, Medicare, roads, apple pie and motherhood.

I don't really know who Norquist is. He seems to want to cut government in half, which is something I'm cool with. He then wants to cut it in half again. I'm pretty sure I'll be cool with that, too. He's anti-FDA, NEA and IRS. These strike me as good things to be against.

Anyway, the reason I bring it up is that Ruth Anne commented in the Cargo Cult thread:

Could you clarify this? My husbands thinks it means you want to legalize drugs. I don't disagree about the bad effects of the 'War on Poverty' and the probable bad effects of the 'War on Health'...

In short: Yes. I'd phrase it differently. I'd like to see a whole class of laws simply go away. The same power that allows the government to regulate drugs also allows it to threaten vitamins and other supplements.

I used to believe that the Democrats were the party of civil liberties. After listening throughout the '80s to the damage done to civil liberties by the War on Drugs, I could not help but notice the hypocrisy of not repealing it in the '90s. In fact, as soon as a Democrat was in charge, it was like the gross expansion of government powers was a feature, not a bug.

Needless to say, I wasn't any more surprised that the Democrats didn't curb the Patriot Act in 2009 than I was that the Republicans didn't curb spending.

What am I getting at? Well, the scourge of drugs is a problem; probably one of the worst we face today. (I'm so anti-drug, I extend this to a great many prescription drugs. See the latest reports on how anti-depressants are largely less effective than placebos.) It's right up there with—well, with a massive, intrusive, all-consuming government.

Let me tell you, if I had to choose between our current monstrous government or a country without drug abuse, I would probably take the latter. (Maybe partly because I think the stupidity of drug abuse feeds into the stupidity of big government. But still.) But that's not the choice.

Our monstrous government is particularly inept at social engineering. There have been successful wars on drugs in the past. They were won by rounding up all the suspected drug dealers and killing them. That's not something we can do, even if we wanted to.

So, if I want the government out of drugs—and sex, and health, and safety—does that mean I want a country full of drugs (and diseased helmet-free whores)?

Shockingly, no.

And this is sort of a problem. We used to have a church and society that enforced relatively homogeneous ideas of normalcy, decency, morality and other things that do the actual work of holding society together.

The whole question of what to do about that is a whole 'nother post at least. But it's also actually tangential to the question of government control. Because the War on Drugs hasn't appreciably reduced the amount of drug use, as far as I can tell. And government has a particular talent for both undermining traditional morality and destroying civil liberties in a draconian and semi-random manner.

So, yeah, in short, if you have a question about whether I think the government—particularly the federal government—should be involved in, well, just about anything, my answer's probably going to be no.

Movie Review: Invictus

The Boy was particularly eager to see the latest Clint Eastwood movie, Invictus. I had some reservations about it myself. I remember all the anti-apartheid protests of the '80s, which were all focused on divesting. While I got the potential power of the statement, I questioned the practical effect of success. (Withdrawing all the investment money from a country would hardly be likely to result in a happy ending.)

Anyway, South Africa-based apartheid stories have always sort of put me off (exception: District 9) but The Boy makes very few direct requests. So off we went.

Verdict? Warm, if not exactly enthusiastic applause. Now, on one level, I'm liking these movies better in some ways than the slicker films of his early '70s (Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River) but I can't deny that the unevenness may not have universal appeal. It's a fair call to point out Gran Torino, for example, is corny. I personally loved that, however.

Invictus? Actually cornier. Mostly in a good Capra-esque way, but a few of the pop songs do demand your attention, and they're a bit heavy. The score is generally an interesting mish-mash, with a jazzy '70s-ish track characteristic of Eastwood movies going back to Play Misty For Me, and a couple of tracks that are reminiscent of the marvelous Thomas Newman. (Eastwood veteran Michael Stevens also worked on the score, so I don't know who's who as far as the music goes.)

I mention the music I suppose because the story itself is—well, in an earlier era, I'd call it inevitably corny. These days, the inverse is true: A story like this would almost demand to be a tale of venality and corruption in order to be taken seriously at all.

But, hey, it's Eastwood. He's 79, and with five-and-a-half decades of showbiz experience in the bank, he's gonna do whatever he damn well pleases.

So, it's corny. This is the story of the persecuted man who ends up in charge of a country deeply divided by an ancient historical animus. But rather than strike back at his former tormentors, he seeks to mend the country's problems by soliciting a celebrity member of the former ruling class to unite everyone.

You see? The main characters are all good. There's no villain, except human frailty.

It basically works, though. Morgan Freeman's Mandela is the acting polar opposite of Langella's towering Nixon. Freeman almost disappears, portraying Mandela as a very humble, even ordinary guy. You end up thinking "Of course this is the right thing to do. Any decent person—and certainly a great leader—would know that."

And then you get depressed because even this level of basic competence and humanity exists in a vanishingly small percentage of politicians worldwide.

But it was a good way to go; you end up venerating Mandela without wallowing in martyrdom, and the story ends up being a nice, light one, with a strong, serious undercurrent that doesn't obscure the message of hope.

So, occasionally, the music makes you aware of the corniness which otherwise is similarly pleasant, as it was in Gran Torino.

The story, if you don't know it, involves Mandela's solicitation of rugby star Francois Pienaar, and Mandela's exhortation for the rather desultory South African rugby team to win the World Cup, a contest they clearly have no business winning.

It seems that rugby is a white man's sport—the team has only one black player—and the South African blacks (more invested in soccer) traditionally voted against the nation's team, which still uses the old flag and prefers the old anthem.

So Mandela's task is to inspire the team, unite the country behind them, and ultimately invest the country in the team's winning. The movie doesn't at all suggest that this is his main task as leader, and the other characters react with astonishment at his own level of interest. Ultimately, Eastwood's juxtaposition of the "sports movie" with more serious dramatic genres is what raises it a cut above.

The acting is fine, though some die-hard rugby fans chafe at the notion of Matt Damon playing the considerably bulkier Pienaar, but he looked pretty bulky to me. It's not a role with a wide dramatic range, but Damon's actually pretty good at becoming this kind of stoic, rugged character. He's a good second banana.

Still, it's primarily Freeman's movie, with various characters reflecting off of him. Where his talent particularly comes through is that he manages to do this without hogging the screen. The others get their space.

So, we liked it, even if it didn't knock our socks off. I wouldn't recommend it, however, if you're looking for a more sports-action movie (like a Hoosiers or a Victory); the actual rugby scenes aren't that many, and they're kind of hard to follow (unless maybe you're well versed in rugby already, maybe).

I only mention this because my mom found it a little "talky". But she loved Victory.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Up, Up In the Air (san beautiful balloons)

Jason Reitman (son of iconic comedy director Ivan Reitman) is probably one of the most promising young directors around, having directed the darkly comic Thank You For Smoking as his feature debut, and following that up with the comically dark Juno.

So, while waiting for the lights to go down on his latest, Up In The Air, I had to wonder: Would it be comic? Would it be dark? What would the ratio of comic to dark be?

As it turns out, way more on the dark, not so much on the comic.

The story is about ruthlessly shallow Ryan Bingham, whose job it is to fly around the country firing people. The company he works for acts as a (very) short-term Human Resources department which has as its sole function the removal of employees in as painless and low-key manner possible. Bingham is glib, and so thoroughly disconnected from humanity that he actually prefers being in the air 320 days out of the year, and loathes the few days he has at home.

Played aptly by George Cloony and oh, my God! what did he do to his face? I wish I were kidding when I say that. I spent about 30% of the movie trying to figure out whether he'd been botoxed or lifted or what. And that's a shame since this is the kind of role he was made for.

Anyway, Bingham is flying around the country firing people when he gets called home by his boss (Bit Maelstrom favorite Jason Bateman). Seems that the latest addition to the firm, firm young Natalie Keener (Twilight's Anna Kendrick) has successfully promoted the idea of firing-by-webcam.

Cue existential crisis as Bingham must contemplate the notion of not flying all around the country. This plays out as Bingham flies Keener around the country to get some real hands-on experience firing people.

So. Yeah. Seeing people get fired for a good half-hour may not be exactly what the doctor called for in this economic climate. (Seriously, anyone looking for a veteran computer programmer/movie geek?) There's a buttload of acting, though, and we actually do gain a little respect for Bingham; there is some technique to what he does.

The other tension in the story comes from love interest Alex, played by the sexy Vera Farmiga (of this year’s Orphan and last year's Oscar bait Boy In The Striped Pajamas). Alex shares Bingham's love of the perks of travel, including the niceties that ultra-frequent travelers enjoy. As Bingham's work situation comes to a head, he also finds himself reconnecting with his sisters (about whom we know nothing till late in the film).

Can Bingham use this old connection to hel phim find happiness with a chick he picked up in an airport bar?

It's a well-made movie, with strong characters and believable settings, yet I wouldn't recommend it broadly. It's hard to explain why without some spoilers so let me just say that beyond the firings, while the movie's not exactly bleak, it's not exactly a pick-me-up either. (More dark than comic, like I said.)

Great little performances from J.K. Simmons, Bateman (of course), and Sam Elliott (who I swear is reprising his role as "The Stranger" from The Big Lebowski).

The Boy thought it was okay, but he expected more humor. This is the umpteenth movie we've seen this year that was made out to be funny in the commercials, but turned out to have a much more dramatic edge in the theater. (Adventureland, Duplicity, Observe and Report, Sunshine Cleaning, Management, just to name a few off the top of my head, all were advertised as being wackier comedies when they all had a fairly serious dramatic edge.)

A little more truth in advertising would be nice.

Cross-posted at Ace of Spades HQ.

Phrases That Should Never Begin Movie Synopses, Part VII: Piling It On!

Passengers (Sophia Loren, Richard Harris, Ava Gardner) are trapped with a terrorist and a plague on a Eropean train heading for a condemned wooden bridge.