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


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


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.