June 20, 2010


So I know I’ve been writing mostly of vampires and werewolves lately. So I thought that today I would completely and totally change things up and review a movie about… wait for it… killer angels. That’s right, world. Tonight I am sitting down and for no other reason than that I have nothing better to do, I am watching Legion.

We have a semi-confusing introduction bit alla Terminator in which mystery dude in a trench coat cuts off his angel wings in a dark, dingy alley. Sadly no, our fallen angel is not played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Paul Bettany headlines this little reeking gem of a movie, which I can only assume means that Paul Bettany got drunk on the lot and wandered into the wrong sound stage. He has a record of this; how else can anyone explain that time he was in Wimbledon? Someone needs to sit Paul Bettany down and say, Look Paul, we all like to get drunk on Hollywood lots from time to time, but mayhaps you should first lock yourself in the sound stage of whatever semi decent film your currently working on (say, Master and Commander or that Darwin-biopic) lest you once more wander off and wake to find yourself cast as a buck-naked medieval bard in a depressingly scripted and acted teen flick that will forever more play afternoons on TBS.

Anyway, after Michael the fallen angel/actor stitches himself up and escapes the demon-possessed police by literally blowing a fiery cross-shaped hole in a cinder block wall (no, really), the film abruptly relocates to the middle of the godforsaken desert to the “Paradise Falls” diner, which is inexplicably staffed and populated by actors who should really know better (Look Dennis Quaid, we all like to get drunk on Hollywood lots from time to time…) I’d assume that this is going to be our setting for the rest of the film, and that these shitty characters are going to but what we’re working with. We have pregnant smoking waitress, ornery alcoholic Dennis Quaid, shifty passerby black dude, heavyset cheerful black fry cook, slutty teenage girl, her completely neurotic and depressing WASP parents, and a possibly mentally-handicapped guy who is in love with pregnant waitress. At this point the television, of course, starts broadcasting an emergency message and an eerily pleasant octogenarian shows up, orders a raw steak, starts verbally abusing the customers, and morphs into a demon. Because of course that is what happens. At this point she pulls a Trainspotting-baby on the ceiling and gets gunned down, but only after ripping the neck out of WASP father with her demon shark teeth and being hit in the head with a cast iron skillet by the fry cook. This is what I like to call the “shit just got real” moment. Or, perhaps, the “shit just got surreal” moment. And then the plagues start. So now we’re just waiting for our fallen angel to show up. Which he promptly does, in a stolen police car, just in time for him to mobilize his rag tag crew of American stereotypes in order to defend the diner from an onslaught of… a killer angel driving an ice cream truck. Yes. This is the point that I started to fall totally in love with this stupid, stupid movie. Or maybe it was when Tyrese Gibson delivered this gem of a line: “You expectin’ me to explain the behavior of a motherfuckin’ pestilence?”

Anyway, the premise of Legion is this: after receiving a command from God, Michael the angel general disobeys orders and falls to earth in order to protect the waitress’s baby, who is apparently the savior of mankind. At the same time, God mobilizes his creepy angel army, led by Gabriel, to exterminate humanity and kill the unborn baby. Now, I am by no means saying that Legion is actually good. If that log line sounds like something you could suspend disbelief and enjoy on its bizarre merits alone, I’d recommend this for a Thursday night viewing, possibly with a healthy dose of libation. There are movies in this world that are so bad that they are good. These movies are what I like to call Bagoo. Somewhere along the line there badness becomes to completely and totally over the top and enjoyable that they drift back to good. Albeit, a horribly mutant strain of good, but good enough to want to show your friends, or even buy the DVD. True Bagoo movies usually have something going for them, like a cast that should know better, or extremely snappy dialogue written by a screenwriter who either hit on one-time creative gold or is slumming for a big studio paycheck. A little dose of self-awareness usually helps to send the movie back into the golden pastures of my appreciation. Take The Rock. You must adore a film that gives Sean Connery the chance to utter this line, one of the greatest ever: “Losers always wine about their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen.” And it has Nic Cage in it, who has made a career out of trying to send bad movies over the edge into good. Just look at Wicker Man. But remember, Bagoo movies are like unicorns; not everyone can see them. Virgins are to unicorns as the slightly twisted are to Bagoo films. You sort of have to enjoy a little pain to enjoy a true Bagoo masterpiece. Because let’s be honest, no matter how good-bad they can become, these films are not Days of Heaven. One occasionally shows up on a best of list, or even gets a Criterion Collection release (Armageddon at #40?!) but they are a joy to watch primarily for their novelty. They are the filmic equivalent to a visit to the World’s Biggest Ball of Twine. And God help you if you don’t enjoy a gigantic string-ball.

May 14, 2010

Undead Neo

I watch a lot of films that are never mentioned on The Nowhere Nickelodeon. Part of this may be symptomatic of the embarrassment I sometimes feel of the amount of time I spend watching films. But then I have to remind myself that I don’t think that film is a waste of time. That’s why I got my BA in Film and Digital Media, and it’s why I will drive forty-five minutes to the next county to see Iron Man 2 (which was sort of a shrug movie, all in all.) I am not particularly consistent in my watching-taste; I’ll watch almost anything that made it into a theater, with some exceptions. I don’t watch horror films. I don’t watch torture porn films. I rarely watch “scary movies.” I don’t have much of an appreciation for thrillers, though given the right cast/director I will occasionally indulge. I have no love for film noir, especially not if it was made anytime after 1960. And despite my deep, undying, irrational love for Indepedence Day, I rarely watch end-of-the-world flicks any longer, and especially not when they are made by Roland Emmerich, also known as, The Guy Who Makes Movies In Which Major Cities Suffer Unforeseen Natural/Supernatural Disasters. He also made Stargate, another film I have a deep, undying, irrational love for. I don’t know what happened after Indepedence Day (Godzilla), Ronald, but for the love of God, get a hobby.

Anyway. The reason I don’t write extensively about the vast majority of the films I watch in any given week is that most of the time I don’t have a whole lot to say about them. So much of what passes through our cinemas is so unremarkable that there really isn’t anything to say about it. Critics complain that it’s the internet that is stealing their columns’ thunder, but in all honesty I think it has more to do with what they’re critiquing: movies so familiar/boring/bland that reading a couple paragraphs about them in the local paper requires more time than the average person feels said movies deserve. And I sort of have to agree. Between the films so bad that to read a review of them is a vicious delight and the films so good that critics actually write solid, insightful pieces about them there is a vast, monotonous wasteland of films that very little can be said of. Formulaic rom-coms, tried and true action epics (complete with requisite male protagonist origin story/child star cameo), magic dog stories, cheaply produced kid-targeted CGI projects, buddy cop movies, things starring Jennifer Aniston, Nicolas Sparks “novel” adaptations, flaccid biopics of that famous _______ who just died, crass and likely sexist movies aimed at the 13-19 demographic, and melancholic indie films about 20-something year old manboy on anti-depressants whose salvation lies in that manic pixie dream girl over there. There is rarely anything that anyone can say about any of these films because we have seen them so often, in so many mutations, that no one in their right mind expects anything new, challenging, or worthy of intellectual investigation in any of them. I dare you to try and find a person went to see The Bounty Hunter because they were seeking intellectual stimulation. Find me the person who watches the trailer for Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore 3D and thinks, I am so curious to see what my local critic has to say about the use of cinematography, match-cut editing, and non-diegetic sound in this 3D film about spy cats and spy dogs that fly biplanes (poster byline: Just like real spies… only furrier.)

The movies that are most interesting to write about are the ones a) are so glaringly flawed that you can gleefully rip them apart, mocking inconsistencies, casting choices, and bafflingly daft artistic choices, or b) do something so new and interesting (however small a thing) that it reminds you why you bother wading through all the cinematic garbage searching for treasure. I tend to get the most incensed about films that could be great, but needlessly bungle something that effectively negates all the good qualities of said film. This week’s workshop study: Daybreakers (Michael and Peter Spierig, 2009). This is a movie about vampires. I know, I know. Vampires again. BUT what is truly shocking about Daybreakers is it manages to do a totally new take on vampires, something that you’d think would be totally and completely impossible in this post Twilight world of ours. It also has Ethan Hawke in it (=my reason for bothering to watch this. I have a deep and abiding love for all things Ethan Hawke. I don’t know why, but there you go. I’m a child of the 90s.) So the concept that Daybreakers presents and then completely unnecessarily complicates to the point of cinematic implosion (more on this in a moment) is that vampires have taken over the world and humans are now basically being Matrix-ed into extinction. It sounds pretty simple, and so long as it remains simple it remains interesting. The high concept is pretty well thought out; the world is basically deserted during the daytime, despite technological advancements allowing vampires to traverse the sunlit world without harm (cars with blacked out windows and roof-mounted cameras, an underground travel system cleverly called the “Underwalk.”) At night refreshingly creepy vampires go about their undead lives, and it’s a weird mirror image world where everything is pretty much the same, but not quite. That’s not milk in your coffee. It’s blood. That’s not a homeless guy. That’s a blood-starved/crazed mutant vampire. And that is where things start to get convoluted. You could argue that Daybreakers is a social awareness documentary about sustainable agriculture and civic duty cleverly disguised as a vampire horror film. For some crazyass reason, the vampires didn’t see fit to replenish the residual human population as they systematically hunted them down and drained their blood, so there is now a massive blood shortage. Vampire Sam Neill comes out and admits that there’s only enough blood left to feed the population for a month. Now, I know it seems a little ridiculous to watch a vampire movie and then scoff at the anachronisms in the vampire economy, but I am just that kind of lady. A month? And you’re just bringing this up... now? Even though you for all purposes appear to be an extremely modern and streamlined society complete with government funded public works (Underwalk), a day-functional police force, and coffee kiosks? I am sorry Mr. Spierig and Mr. Spierig, but I am just not buying that.

On top of this basic flaw in the high concept that is the draw of this whole venture, the plot is a mess. At the bare bones of it is a tried and true recipe for success: sympathetic male protagonist changes teams and rectifies the injustices visited on his new team by his old team. It is 2009 favorite science fiction plot line. Avatar, District 9… it’s pretty difficult to go wrong with a good old-fashioned team changing plotline. Ethan Hawke’s character is a vampire-scientist searching for a synthetic blood substitute. It slowly becomes apparent that his motivation in doing so lies with his sympathy for the humans, who are basically being factory farmed in a super-Matrix-reminiscent futuristic slaughterhouse/bloodletting facility. In a clear cut, simple team-changing plot, Vampire Ethan should through extenuating circumstances find himself in the care of the human resistance, slowly align with them and earn their trust, and then re-enter the vampire world only to sabotage it and save the day. I am not saying that this is the only way it could work; I’m just saying that this is the usual progression, and Daybreakers would have been just fine had it followed suit. Instead we get crazy Willem Dafoe, a human colony that avoids detection by just living at a winery, a completely unconvincing “cure” for vampirism, an increasingly complicated crazy-homeless-mutant-vampire-outbreak side plot, and a finale that makes every single character look really, really stupid and illogical. We get really awful supporting actors, a totally uninteresting female protagonist, and a really bizarre scene in which a troop of homeless-mutant-vampires are killed in the most inefficient way imaginable (a chained march into an open air courtyard, where they one by one flambé.) I just do not understand why all of this was necessary. The concept was cool enough to hold the film together, had the film’s plot stayed a manageable and navigatable size. Not every movie needs to be frickin’ Primer is all I’m saying.

The idea is pretty interesting, and it’s refreshing to see vampires who act like vampires. There isn’t a trace of sparklage anywhere in this movie. There is a lot of over-the-top gore for gore’s sake, but it’s sort of nice. It provides some much needed balance to the vampire universe. We see your sparkles and R-Patz and raise you a barrage of grisly decapitations. Something to tide us over until True Blood starts up again in mid-June. Mark your calendars people.

May 3, 2010

How Not to Adapt a Book to Film

It's no great surprise that every time a new film adaptation is announced, the online film community reacts with a combination or excitement and dread. Our hopes are kept alive by the sporadic successful book-to-film adaptations. Where the Wild Things Are, The Lord of the Rings, No Country for Old Men, Sense and Sensibility, The Silence of the Lambs... great adaptations are possible, if rare. Most are not great. Most are barely mediocre recreations of the source material, unimaginatively mushed into script form and thoughtlessly cast, shot, and edited. Some are so bad that they effectively ruin the books that spawned them. They bring out the weaknesses of the source material, amplifying the flawed parts of a book that we once liked, if not loved. Don't even get me started on The Time Traveler's Wife. I mean, Eric Bana. That's like casting, I don't know, a chicken breast as your lead role. Or a bar stool. Or a rolled up piece of beige carpet. Eric Bana?

And then there is The Lovely Bones. The book, by Alice Sebold, is not the Great American Novel. But it is wildly popular, and upon reading it I found I respected the grace with which is handles some truly grisly and complicated stuff--namely the rape/murder scene of a fourteen-year-old girl, Susie Salmon. The strength of The Lovely Bones is in the Salmon family. The author is never too easy on them; they seemed like real people, endlessly capable of human error, but equally capable of earning forgiveness. Mr. Harvey was an interesting element. He was depicted with the level of disgust appropriate for a man who rapes and murders young women, but Alice Sebold also seemed intent on examining him--making him a complete, horrible man rather than a simple monster.

What's really important is that the book seemed adaptable, and had some qualities that would compliment and benefit from a filmic treatment. Some books are just not meant for film (though that doesn't stop the studios from trying, year after year, to make films out of Atlas Shrugged, Enders Game, Naked Lunch, or Catcher in the Rye.) Too long, too much child-on-child violence, too weird, and too loose a narrative. The Lovely Bones had a clear narrative structure, complete with beginning and logical end, and while long, its core narrative could be easily teased from the larger, more sprawling story that the book provides. The main character, Susie, is likable and relatable, if dead. The trick of the thing would be in the pacing; the book takes its merry time, developing characters, creating new relationships, and following Mr. Harvey all while Susie watches from the in-between. A good script based on the novel would need to create a clear plot and character progression with a discernable objective or desire--something the audience knows it wants out of the story, something that keeps them watching, even if it is something as small as Susie kissing Ray Singh, or as large as her redemption.

So, Peter Jackson. Let's talk. What's your excuse? No, really. What is it? Because sir, I gotta say, this was bad. Student film bad. Made for TV movie bad. It was sloppy, boring, squeamish, overlong, and self-indulgent in the worst of ways. When I saw that you were tagged as director, I thought to myself, Muh, that could work. Not only have you more than proven your chops where adaptation and special effects are concerned, this film would demonstrate your ability to tackle realistic dramatic fare. Of course, that was assuming you didn't fuck it up. Which you did. Royally. I mean, everything was lined up for you. You got to work with the same screenwriters you've been working with since Heavenly Creatures. You were handed an amazing cast. Saoirse Ronan more than proved her ability in Atonement, and with Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg (I know, who would have thought he'd someday fall into the pantheon of heavy hitting actors?), Susan Surandon, and Stanley Tucci. To their credit, they all tried valiantly to redeem this quivering mass of a film, but to little avail. The film was tonally so all over the place that any actor would get dramatic whiplash. The Lovely Bones couldn't seem to decide whether it was an after school special, What Dreams May Come, or Halloween. Between those three choices, I think you really have to pick one. I feel like this film was just a brainstorm-vehicle. For example, all the interior scenes with Stanley Tucci's character appeared to be filmed in digital. I can just imagine how this happened.

Peter Jackson: I need a way to cleverly convey that Mr. Harvey is creepy. Other than having him rape and murder Susie on camera. That would be too logical and straightforward.
WETA: We can make him like like an orc. OO! No! A cave troll!
Peter Jackson: That is tempting. But no, I want something more... subtly ingenious.
Unpaid Lackey: Everything you do is ingenious, Sir Jackson.
Peter Jackson: Why thank you, Frodo. Wait! I have it! We'll shoot all of Mr. Harvey's scenes in digital! Like Lars von Trier! He's so hot right now! Digital! Yes!
Voice of Reason: Won't that be unnecessarily jarring, visually, and give the film the air of a poorly executed and clumsy student film project?
Peter Jackson: Silence! Your words are poison!

Which brings me to the most glaring flaw of the whole doomed affair (other than that whole segment where drunken Susan Sarandon appears and temporarily hijacks the film, turning it into an episode of The Real Housewives of New Jersey): the complete absence of the rape/murder scene. In a film that purports to be based on a book that is expressly about a young girl and her family dealing with the ramifications of her extremely violent loss, don't you think you would want to include a smidge of said violence? I know that including a rape scene in a film is always a bit touchy, especially when it is the rape of a minor, but in this instance I think it was absolutely a mistake to omit it. The book is about trauma. The film seems to be about revenge/teenage fantasy. It's especially disappointing that the only scene in the film that seems to even remotely work is leading up to Susie's murder, when she and Mr. Havrey descend beneath the corn field into the room he built for the express purpose of what happens next. The scene takes its time, and we are left to watch as it slowly dawns on Susie that something is very wrong. Discomfort gives way to terror, she attempts an escape, and then... nothing. We follow Susie from the hatch as she sprints though the cornfield, through Ruth, and then vanishes. This is supposed to be the !!!!!! moment that we realize, Oh no! She didn't escape! In fact she's being raped and murdered! But we don't see this. Peter Jackson leaves us to imagine what is happening to Susie as ghost-Susie runs, terrified from the scene of her censored murder. There is no implication anywhere in the film that she was raped. Given Alice Sebold's personal and writing history, I have a feeling that this was a pretty important aspect of the novel for her. I especially think the rape is significant given that in the novel's final chapters, the rape scene is given a foil in which re-embodied Susie and Ray Singh make love. As part of Susie's redemption, she is given the chance to replace her experience of sex as violence with an experience of sex as love and pleasure. Pretty important. Just saying. But no, all too unsavory for Peter Jackson. So he removes it fully from the film's narrative. He also removes the murder, leaving the audience to fill in between the lines. And as a result, the film that follows does not work.

Because the audience can't experience the moment of trauma, we can't participate in the narrative that follows. We see Susie's anguish (though over what, we never see), and her parent's crippling grief, but it isn't a shared experience. As a result, we can't share in the catharsis, had the film provided the opportunity for catharsis. The end of the film is mangled--a slapped together, emotionally dead tack-on that doesn't seem to have much to do with anything. This is a film that could have only worked if it was emotionally evocative. The payoff of the novel isn't in Mr. Harvey's capture, or death. It was in Susie finding closure to her prematurely ended life, and the subsequent release of her family from their grief. The way Peter Jackson handles it, you'd think it was a murder mystery.

I am not an adaptation purist. It is a rare book that can give way to a film that is both completely faithful to the text and successful at the same time. I am a believer in emotionally-faithful adaptations--movies that may not replicate the novel's narrative scene for scene, but rather seek to capture a novel's emotional essence. In adapting The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson seems more interested in special effects than story. In fact, I doubt he understood the story. If he had, I don't know how he could have made this film.

March 30, 2010

"Strong Female Leads"

When I browse the film selection on Netflix, the site offers me the following categories to "mix and match": Comedies, Crime, Dark, Dramas, Emotional, Independent, Romantic, Showbiz, Strong Female Leads, TV Dramas, TV shows. This list is based on the "Taste Preferences" I set for myself. Recently, I've been getting a lot of suggestions from the "Strong Female Leads" category, which got me thinking. The more I think about it, the more it pisses me off. I mean, I
do prefer films with strong female leads. But this category seems problematic to me. It suggests that a film with a strong female lead is distinctive from other films with female leads because of her strength. Strong as opposed to... weak? They don't give you the option to prefer "Weak Female Leads." If the "Strong Female Lead" category is seen as a subset of the "Female Lead" category, the implication is that the majority of cinematic female leads are not strong. Not to mention that since this is a "preference" option, it means that people can decide, No, I don't prefer films with "Strong Female Leads." I prefer all the other films, you know, with the normal, non-strong women in them.

This probably wouldn't bother me if they gave you the option of a "Strong Male Leads" preference. Why isn't there a "Strong Male Leads" category, and what does its absence mean? I see only one option, really: male leads are strong. It's as if to say, "Strong Male Leads!? Isn't that repetitive?" This isn't actually true. I can think of plenty (plenty) of films with weak male leads. Of course, these films tend to be about said male's transformation into a stronger male (sometimes with the help of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and sometimes with the help of sports montages.)

It's also worth mentioning that if you take a look at the "Strong Female Leads" category, there are some films in there that sort of make you go, Huh? Like, Twilight. No. I'm totally serious. Twilight. Films like The Nanny Diaries, My Best Friend's Wedding, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days seem to mock the more appropriate inclusions. These are strong female leads? The inclusion of other films like, Monster, Grey Gardens, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? make me wonder if "Strong Female Lead" = "Insane Female Lead." Which is even more alarming. Sure, Aileen Wuornos was a memorable woman in history, but I wouldn't house her under the same umbrella with, like, Queen Elizabeth. That seems to imply that any woman who doesn't stay in some kind of 1950s conception of the normative female gender role belongs in the same category, whether she was a serial killer or the Queen of England. Bella Swan = Erin Brokovich. I kind of want to meet whoever is in charge of the "Strong Female Leads" category. I am really, really curious at this point. I mean, 27 Dresses is in there with The Silence of the Lambs. It is sacrilegious.

Doesn't it just make you hurt? This whole thing sort of makes me hurt. I think it is positive to support and encourage cinema that depicts women as strong, but I don't think Netflix's "Strong Female Leads" category is helping us out. It's really just symptomatic of the popularity of destructive depictions of women in film (specifically in film marketed to women.) So what combative strategies are there? I think the best thing to do is to celebrate film made by, for, and about strong women, and hope that this industry won't continue to profit by depicting women as weak.

Speaking of depressing, has anyone seen the trailer for ABC Family's made for TV movie starring Hillary Duff, entitled, Beauty and the Briefcase? Fuck you ABC Family. Fuck you very much.

March 23, 2010

Vampires, Werewolves, and Abstinence. Oh my!

I love me some vampires. Buffy? Yes. True Blood? Hell yes. Most anything involving vampires made in the last decade? I've probably at least sampled. I think vampires are just great. They are the fodder of some really dramatic, oft-sexy, intentionally hilarious film and television. And then, there's Twilight. Thankfully, I think vampires are too broad and enduring a cultural fetish to be Donnie-Darkoed into the much-hated land of things that teens obsess over. But God bless Stephanie Meyer, she is trying her darnedest isn't she? Luckily, I think True Blood pretty effectively negated the devastating effect Twilight and its twee, self-hating minions could have wrought on my brain in 2008 (thank you, Alan Ball). The best antidote for Mormon vampire abstinence porn? Southern gothic vampire actual porn. But sadly, Twilight is to everywhere to ignore. According to a lot of people who don't know what they're talking about, Twilight is the twisted, malformed harbinger or some kind of mainstream vampire media Renaissance. And sadly, in the years since Ms. Meyers bestowed her bastardized vampire lore upon a hoard of desperately repressed thirteen year old sadomasochists, vampires have indeed been all up in everyone's business. Vampires who are unaffected by sunshine. Vampires who sparkle like the frickin' Heart of the frickin' Ocean/a disco ball at your skeevy local bowling alley.

But, as I have long discussed with my co-conspirator/life partner, Miss Hannah Gelb, the affront is not so much that Twilight exists, or is popular, or generally sucks. No. The true tragedy of the whole sad enterprise is that Twilight takes a whole bunch of totally promising elements and nearly completely saps them of all appeal, whether that appeal be pulp, ironic, or literal. It's like taking Fromager D'Affinois, kalamata olives, a good ciabatta, and a Grigich Hills Chardonnay and covering it all in Cheez Wiz. It's like sprinkling your shaved truffles with manure.

And, AND, the whole thing could be so easily improved what with a few relatively simple revisions. I am talking about the film adaptations solely, as I have not read the "novels." There comes a point when you are just too old/proud to be seen with a series of young adult vampire books in your possession. Film adaptations, I think, should almost never be totally faithful to their source material. This usually ends badly (see: The Da Vinci Code, or as I like to call it Boring). So, now, revisions. I tried to stay away from major changes to the plot at the heart of the great seething pile of warm goo and angst that is The Twilight Saga.

8 Minor Changes that Could Maybe Make Twilight Not Suck So Hard:

1. Give Bella a basis in reality as a character before surrounding her with fantastical gothic otherworldliness. This is really very important and basic. Almost all classic fairy tales establish a normal world and character that the fantasy world changes, or is a departure from. Until fairies/elves/wicked witches show up, Dorothy is a bored Kansan, Cinderella is a verbally abused housemaid, and Ariel is... well... a teenage mermaid (but really, she's more of a very literal representation of female virginity). Because Twilight barely affords us an opportunity to meet Bella before her whole life is thrown into upheaval (move to Forks, ensuing vampire love story). We have no concept of her or her world before things get all shaken up, and no impression of her as a consistent character, with a recognizable personality or context. She's just a plot device who shit happens to.

2. Introduce a little teensy weensy bit of levity (maybe even some self awareness). No, unfunny Asian dude does not count. I mean, vampires and werewolves and frickin' Kristen Stewart feature prominently in this. It is not King Lear. We are supposed to enjoy these movies, right? No?

3. Eliminate ALL dialogue that does not either further the plot in a detectable way or help to develop characters. The following is an example that does neither or these things, and seems to exist in the movie for no other reason than to get Bella and Eddie on screen together. Do we learn anything about either of them? No. Does it further their relationship? Really, no. Does it move the plot at all? Hell no.

Bella: You were gone.
Ed: Yeah, um, I was out of town for a couple of days, personal reasons.
Bella: [pushes microscope to Ed] Uh, prophase.
Ed: Do you mind it I uh, look?
[Bella morosely shakes her stupid head]
Ed: It's prophase.
Bella: Like I said.
Ed: So you enjoying the rain?
[Bella attempts something like human laughter]
Ed: What?
Bella: You're asking me about the weather?
Ed: Yeah, I-I guess I am.
Bella: Well I don't really like the rain. Any cold wet thing I don't really...
Ed: [makes a sound that is supposed to be laughter but comes out more like a nauseous moan]
Bella: What?
Ed: Nothing, uh. It's uh, anaphase.
Bella: You mind if I check?
Ed: Sure.
Bella: Anaphase.
Ed: Like I said.

4. Introduce villains before third fucking act, and make said villain intimidating enough that we care at all. Actually, it doesn't even matter when he shows. Just make us care at all. This is particularly relevant in the first film (though still a continuing problem in the second), which muddles around for a bajillion hours before we even get a look at the aggressor, and when we do, he looks like he's an extra who wandered off the set of, like, the 1995 "Hercules" mini-series. Oh, and when he does get all "scary" he sort of just half-crouches and holds his hands out in front of him like eight-year-old-me doing my best velociraptor impression. Hiss! Hiss! Rar!

5. Depict the actual passage of time in a way that makes us, as an audience, aware that time is passing rather than relying on ineffective sped-up/slow motions montages. As much as montages are super fun and classy, there are other ways to make the audience understand that time has passed. But I guess that would require some acting or cleverness. For the record, the whole "September... November... [Bella sits on her stupid bed morosely staring out her stupid window at a never-changing landscape that I don't remember being there earlier]" sequence in New Moon did not work, and does not count as either acting or clever. The complete lack of temporal context kills any level of suspense that could have existed in the script. In Twilight Bella run like hell from Forks to the Southwest trying to escape the non-scary villain guy, and this takes about five minutes. In New Moon Bella finds out that Edward's gonna, like, out himself in Italy or whatever and travels from Forks to the scene of said Sparkle Motion in about five minutes. This gives the audience no chance to get anxious whatsoever about Ed or Bella's respective impending dooms.

6. Shot reverse shot, people. It's not rocket science, and these films aren't directed by Ingmar Bergman. Though this improved slightly in the latter of the films, in Twilight the poor cameramen appeared to be constantly running in dizzying, tilting circles around the action (lack of action), the better to look at the back of everyone's heads. Because that's what we want to see, obviously.

7. Remove respective sticks from Kristen Stewart/R-Patzzz's bottoms. At this point, watching them act onscreen together makes me physically uncomfortable, which the tweens may mistake as sexual arousal, but us grown-ups can hopefully identify as nauseous boredom. This isn't just the fault of the script; there is something really weird happening between the leads that makes it totally unpleasant to see them talk to each other at all. The second film was a lot better than the first just for the fact that Edward was barely in it, meaning we didn't have to suffer through their scenes, which inspire the same feelings in my as watching Josie Grossie in Never Been Kissed, or "Everybody Loves Raymond."

8. Resist the urge to subject your actors to the stupidest possible costume/makeup work available. Jean short cut-offs? Really? Awkwardly pristine baseball uniforms with matching caps? Gahh. Maybe practice a little critical restraint and spend money where it could do some good. You're certainly going to be making enough money to pay of the monumental debt sustained while buying some lipstick that doesn't make Edward Cullen's lips look like something out of Cabaret. Spend the money to have wigs made that don't so much resemble wigs from the 1964 television series "The Addams Family."

There you have it. It might be just that easy. Now, it won't make it good. But it can make it not so much suck, maybe. And now, lastly, a change that is not so minor, but simply cannot go unsaid:

Fuckin' just adhere to the generally accepted vampire lore. Please? Vampires do not sparkle. Vampires do not survive in sunlight/lowlight/partially cloudy skies, chance of light showers. Vampires do not appear in photographs or mirrors. Vampires do not get jiggy with crosses or silver or garlic. Vampires would never say anything so stupid as "Think of us as vegetarians. Nom nom nom helpless Bambi." OR, if you must completely ignore the entire fabulous mythology of the paranormal being you've inexplicably chosen to write about, consider just calling them something else. Cold Ones. Whatever. Pacific Northwestern tree moncheechees. Sure. Hella-gay-immortal-manifestations-of-some-perverse-abstinence-myth/rape-fantasy-purported-by-sexually-repressed-middle-aged-people. Be my guest. R-Patzzzies and Jacobsies. Sounds about right.

February 21, 2010


I am currently watching Step Up (Anne Fletcher, 2006) on ABC Family. Why? you may ask. You may even ask, Why, in God's name why?! The answer to both questions, as is my answer concerning most films that I watch on basic cable, is, Why not?

Step Up is basically Good Will Hunting, but with dance instead of math and Channing Tatum instead of Matt Damon. Down on his luck, rough around the edges janitor’s secret ______ genius is revealed while he’s mopping floors at a swank ______ school, changing his life, and the lives of the people who believe in him! Apparently, Channing Tatum is the inexplicable draw of this film, despite being once accurately described by one reviewer as “a violently unappealing mongoloid.” (I love you, Pajiba.) Channing Tatum, whose name sounds like a kind of heavy machinery, plays a character who is basically just that. His sole purpose in this film seems to be lifting a small, unappealing person in the air repeatedly, like a big dumb cherry picker. Tatum also has the habit of not so much saying his lines as muttering them at inexplicable speeds and pitches, though I don’t know that it does much damage to the film’s script. Somehow he emerged from this film with a legitimate film career, as evidenced by the recent success of Dear John, a movie whose title alone can make me feel like I’m about to wretch.

This is all brings me to my larger topic: watching films on television. Let’s call it, movie-vision. Movie-vision is like a free pass to behave badly, and to secretly consume cinematic fare you would never be willing to openly slide across a Blockbuster counter and pay for. I’m not talking about films made for television, since they are made with commercial interruption/etc. in mind. And they are consistently awful. Watching actual film on television is strange because it is the forcing of one media into another, whether or not it works. Film bends to television’s will, accepting multiple interruptions and heavy-handed editing/dubbing. Some films work better for television than others, and can be pretty reliably encountered on television every few weeks or so. Examples? Bring it On, Goodfellas, Gone in 60 Seconds. They never really seem to have much in common except for their broad appeal. Sometimes weird, unexpected films end up in repeated television circulation, like The Shawshank Redemption. Baffling, as that's like a five and half hour commitment via movie-vision. But maybe that’s the thing about movie-vision: most of the time people don’t actually sit through the whole thing. The film is like a network placeholder. Hm, what are we going to show between the hours of blah and blah? How about American Pie! Movievision films also tend to be things that people have seen; they aren’t often rare or long-forgotten films. They’re ones that you kind of remember seeing in theaters and sort of remember not minding and hey it has so-and-so in it and you’ve always sort of liked him and why not? Nicolas Cage features prominently in a lot of movie-vision. This probably has something to do with his role-choices, and his inexplicable appeal to American audiences. I mean, not to knock his acting ability. I have been known to enjoy me some Nic Cage from time to time (Moonstruck, Wild at Heart, Leaving Las Vegas, Adapatation) but he has starred in some really, really, really unforgivably embarassing fare in the last decade—enough to make people forget that he was ever a lead in a David Lynch film.

Side note: Nicolas Cage has the best character name in every single awful or good movie he stars in, leading me to believe that that might be his criteria for choosing roles. Sorry Nic, I’m onto you. Let’s look at a random sampling from his career: Cameron Poe, Dr. Stanley Godspeed, Smokey, Sailor Ripley, Castor Troy, Speckles, Fu Manchu, H.I. McDunnough, Sergeant Joe Enders, Zoc, Johnny Blaze, and (my personal favorite) Memphis Raines.

Okay, Step Up was getting too painful. The joy of movie-vision: the complete and utter lack of any feelings of commitment or obligation. CLICK, and goodbye, Channing Tatum. I’m sure I’ll be seeing your obnoxiously vanilla, dead-eyed face occupying a square-shaped space on my silver screen soon enough. I’ve been having a good run of movie-vision in the last few weeks, even before I got HBO for myself for Valentine’s Day. Major upgrade here at the Nowhere Nickelodeon, people. I am excited. Lately, the TV networks seemed to have understood my deepest, darkest desires and filled the airwaves with films, both good and bad, that I am always pleased to partake of via the wonder of television. Because, of course, we all have our specific movie-vision favorites—the movies you will watch, piece by piece, time and again every time it magically appears on the TV in front of you, like a gift from the network gods. Some you can proudly claim to enjoy, even watching them in front of other people (Goodfellas, When Harry Met Sally, anything black and white) but some you would probably never admit to watching, even on movie-vision (City of Angels, Hook, Six Days Seven Nights, Con Air). Yes, I just admitted to watching all four of those films, and more than once. I am a secret City of Angels repeat offender. Damn you, Nicolas Cage!

But, more seriously, movie-vision is something of a weird gift, in my eyes. I have affection for it, even if I usually abuse it in order to watch something that I most likely should not be wasting the precious hours of my young life watching. I have affection for it because once in a blue moon I idly start watching something on television and it is amazing, and possibly more so because it came to me by pure chance and happenstance. Such was the case with Wings of Desire, or Dancer in the Dark, or The Station Agent. These films were very possibly the reasons I became interested in film as more than a dalliance, or an entertainment, and I saw them all, or even just a piece of them, for the first time on television. I suppose what I am trying to say is that there are worse things than channel surfing and landing on a film, new or old, and watching for a little while. You might be surprised what you might find out there, brave television voyagers. And should you find only Step Up, despair not. No one ever has to know.

February 12, 2010


I will never understand some of the marketing decisions made in the film industry. It’s truly incredible how a bad pitch can color a movie’s entire box office performance (see: Jennifer’s Body, or Jarhead). Admittedly, it is more often than not deserved. The film is awful, and its marketing is duly awful. However, given the crazy success of a lot of really, really awful films in this country, it doesn’t really make sense. Unless the film is pitched at entirely the wrong demographic, or misrepresented in a way that makes it unappealing even to the idiots who actually get excited about the Transformers franchise, there is no reason that shitty movie by that shitty director can’t make tons of money. I mean, G-Force people. G-FORCE. Turning a children’s film about ninja guinea pigs into box office gold. Nothing is impossible.

I like watching trailers. Even more, I like watching films and then watching the trailers for said films after experiencing the real thing. The packaging becomes so much more interesting when you can recognize what it is purposefully misconstruing. But when you see a trailer and go, meh, and then see the film and go ?! I am always left baffled. Why make a good film look stupid? After recently watching Adventureland I asked myself, Why didn’t I see this in theaters? I had access. I wouldn’t have had to pay for it or the delicious popcorn I would have consumed whilst watching it. And I was bored a lot around the time this came out, and I remember seeing some pretty bad films in theaters just to stave off this boredom. So why did I almost actively avoid Adventureland? Then I rewatched the trailer and made this sound: Oooooooooh. I understood, suddenly, why I had put it in the “maybe-rent” section of my film-brain. Because, based on the trailer, I had seen it already. It was called Superbad. Michael Cera look-alike? Check. SNL cast members playing supporting roles? Check. Snappy, culturally referential dialogue (sometimes I call this “Gilmore Girl Speak”)? Check. Lots of pseudo retro merchandise/costuming? Check. House parties? Check. Embarrassing situations involving boners and y-fronts? Check. And the things that made it look different from Superbad really didn’t seem like good enough incentives to justify me seeing the same movie over again. Ryan Reynolds? I don’t really understand the film-geek obsession with the guy. I mean, yes, very pretty to look at. Married to Scarlett Johansson. Delivers lines like a yankee Mathew McCaughnoehydhsudevufbay on speed. Next, Kristen Stewart. Really, marketing guys? If you wanted to give me a reason to see this movie, showing lots of Kristen Stewart in your trailer is not the way to go. I have compared watching her act to watching a box of rocks. The success of Twilight? Just a hint, marketing execs: tt has nothing to do with her. In fact, the casting directors really did a good job casting her, because she’s so boring and forgettable that the Edward Cullen obsessed tweens out there can completely pretend she isn’t there. It’s the same tactic they use in romance novels. And porn. What else? Oh, the whole “I just graduated from college and am now next to useless in the real world!” angle. Yeah. This may have been the real reason. I don’t need to watch a movie about post college malaise. I can just wake up in the morning.

For whatever reason, on this week’s trip to the nearest Blockbuster (45 minutes away, has a “Western” section, no foreign film section) I picked up the Adventureland DVD, shrugging and making non-committal sounds. I didn’t watch the film for a full 24 hours after renting it. Finally, it had me cornered. I had nothing else to do. I even cleaned the bathroom. The time had come.

And of course, it was great. The Michael Cera knock off guy was actually less Michael Cera like than the trailer would have had me believe. The script was honest and actually kind of gimmick-free. The supporting cast was great and funny, but never felt like it was there for the sole purpose of providing comic relief. In fact, some of the supporting cast was given its own storyline! I know! Multiple story lines? Fancy. Ryan Reynolds was perfect as that attractive but pathetic dude who never left his hometown and now fills the empty void left by his unfulfilled potential with barely legal tail (man, I can’t wait for my high school reunion). And get this, world. Kristen Stewart did not suck. I mean, she was no Meryl. She was not transcendent. But nor was she a place-filler for adolescent-female-vampire-porn-vixen. She carried her weight and interacted believably with the other characters; she even emoted, and no, I don’t mean just biting her bottom lip. And the film as a whole? The script was great, and the film’s feel managed to remind me really strongly of American Graffiti, which isn’t easily done. I mean, that film’s director can’t even halfway recreate that kind of brilliance (Lucas, man, what happened?). It also reminded me of The Graduate in the way it approached the post-college world. Adventureland’s post college ether, effectively manifest in the theme park itself, was a large part of the story, but it wasn’t the whole story (see: Post Grad.) Instead, the college limbo land that our main character lands in is just the lens through which we get to look at his whole life, past and present. He isn’t just a post graduate, and neither are the other characters which inhabit the limbo with him. I also thought the film was timely, given the number of college graduates who are falling off the end of the conveyer belt as we speak, trading in their philosophy and modern literature degrees for jobs at Starbucks and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. I guess I am saying that Adventureland took a topic that is sometimes reduced to gimmick and sideshow in a lot of films and looked at it honestly, taking advantage of the surrealism that is post-graduate life to tell a really realistic story. And my question is, why did the marketing team for this film do everything it could to convince you that this movie was not that movie—that it was gimmick and comic relief and boner jokes? Thanks marketing team, but if I wanted to see a movie about bad corndogs… well. No. Why would I want to see a movie about that? The mind reels.

February 8, 2010


I am a compulsive movie re-watcher. It usually happens accidentally, or at least unexpectedly. I watch a movie, wander off, usually unimpressed, and months later suddenly think of it, and find myself thinking of it more and more. “Huh, (insert random film title here), interesting.” I ignore this. Then some time later, it happens again, but instead of a Huh it’s more like a ? and I really just can’t say no to a ?. Historically, this has resulted in midnight trips to the nearest video rental place. Here, at the Nowhere Nickelodeon, it is more difficult. Always, always, the film is unavailable via Netflix streaming. Or, even in the rare event it is, the internet has decided to do its best 90’s dial-up impersonation, rendering Netflix’s streaming capabilities impotent and embarrassed. Error messages abound, each more ashamed than the last. Finally, I relent. I visit my Netflix mail-order queue. For those who are curious, my Netflix queue is 363 films long, as of this very moment. Sometimes I view this queue with despair; how will I ever watch all of these films? When, if ever, will the mood strike me to bump the Orphic Trilogy or Julien Donkey-Boy to the number one spot? According to my Netflix account, I have seen at least 2,160 films. I look at that number and think, bah, not so many, but then I really start to attempt to calculate, according to standard movie length, the amount of time I have spent as a cinematic voyeur and I balk, and not only because I loathe math and lost my calculator.

So, understand me when I say that I have 363 films on my queue, 2,160 in the bank, and I sometimes watch the same film twice. Nay, more, if it is a true re-watch. It has to be a wake-me-in-the-night, can’t-rest-until-I’ve-seen-it-again type of urge. A few days ago I had that urge. As ever, its object was an unexpected one—a film that seemingly had no staying power upon its initial viewing. In fact, I may have disliked it the first time around. Even been bored by it (though given this particular film, that’s hard to believe.) And suddenly, last week, my brain said to me, unbidden and ever-stubborn: Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. Odd choice, brain. I rented the film via random video rental store for the first time shortly after its initial DVD release. I had seen the trailer and been intrigued; my father had given me a large book of Diane Arbus’ photography as a birthday present some years earlier, eliciting hours of fascination and horror. The film’s subject was, thus, intriguing, and its premise even more so: an “imaginary portrait?” I was immediately taken with this upending of the traditional biopic. Rather than the usual, a The Blind Side-esque claim of “based on a true story” this film was rejecting that entirely, favoring instead an openly fictional interpretation of a real person’s life. This I liked, particularly given its subject matter. If anyone was destined for a macabre film representation, it was Diane Arbus. And then there was the director. Steven Shainberg, whose resume still fell rather short on imdb. However, one of the few films he had directed was Secretary (2002). I adored Secretary. It was exactly the kind of film you could recommend to prudish romantic-comedy loving Meg Ryan’s, cackling to yourself. I remember offering it to a particularly straight-and-narrow college acquaintance, relishing the experience as one might watching your homophobic in-law watch Brokeback Mountain.

Anyway, Secretary was fabulous. So, when I saw this intriguing trailer, populated by a cast of interesting enough talent (Robert Downey Jr., Nicole Kidman) I was filled with glee. The kind of glee that film majors get over Quentin Tarantino, but better-deserved. On a side note, fuck Quentin Tarantino, and all the male films majors who worship him. Also, fuck Memento. Not because it wasn’t entertaining or vaguely innovative, but because the word was something like a mantra to the same previously mentioned male film majors. Say it three times fast. Memento Memento Memento. Tarantino Tarantino Tarantino. Congratulations. You now have a B.A. in Film and Digital Media.

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. I expected great things. This expectation was dampened by the somewhat lackluster, confusing reviews it received from film-criticism-publications I usually trusted and admired. If my bizarre, compulsive urges to re-watch certain, peculiar and seemingly unrelated films have come to teach me anything, it’s that I should really stop reading or trusting film critics at all. Inevitably, it turns out that the film I once looked forward to, then was disappointed by, and then woke in the night desperately needing to see again was one maligned by critics, and usually for no apparent reason. Often they are the films that garnered a rare bipolarity in film criticism: half loved it, half loathed it. Examples? Dancer in the Dark. The New World. Both films that I had a rather so-so reaction to until later, when frickin’ Björk haunted my frickin’ dreams.

Fur is a completely off-kilter piece of film. Its production values make it almost seem mainstream, but its subject matter feels more John Waters than Jerry Bruckenheimer. It takes a loose biography of Diane Arbus’ life and fills in all the blanks. How did a beautiful, upper-middle class white woman come to be the photographic autobiographer of the American freak? That the films immediately embraces its own make-believe is genius; its storytellers assert that the most honest way to tell the story is to fictionalize it. What results is an oft-gothic, pleasantly disconcerting film. It takes the apparent mental epiphany/breakdown Diane Arbus must have had before endeavoring to capture what would become her disturbing body of work and externalizes it, personifying revelation as a fur-covered circus freak living just through the ceiling of Diane’s austere 1950s home. It is all very Blue Velvet and very Secretary and very, very Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete all at once, which is no mean feat. Think Beauty and the Beast meets sex, lies, and videotape (another now-beloved re-watch-film). Bipolar critical reception is all you can really expect of a film that marries Disney to Soderbergh. Downey is divine all covered with fur, and Nicole Kidman’s oddly manic-mannequin-like face really lends itself to her character. And the weird part is that it all really makes some kind of crizational sense, given Arbus’ work and life. It’s as if someone read her actual biography and was like, Ahem, I think not. I hope to live a life so absurd that someday someone is forced to fictionalize my entire biopic in order for the events within to make any sort of psychological sense. So, take that film critics. Take that, Walk the Line/Selena/The Aviator/Ray/etc. We don’t need your lip-synched musical numbers to appreciate the lives of our nation's mad geniuses! Nay, kind film-makers! Give us Robert Downey Jr. in a bear suit. Yes, please.