Friday, March 30, 2012

Shark Night (2011)

     Had I seen Shark Night (2011) in the theater, well it would have have a ridiculous 3D attached to its name and I would have gotten up to go ask for my money back (or a ticket for a different show) once the time lapse montages started.  I really don't want something that screams mid-1980s without honoring that era.  The rules for watching a movie at home are quite different however, and I found myself able to make it most of the way through the film without wondering why I had gone through the trouble to see it.  Seriously, I made it 1:17:31 into the film before I had to pause it and just figuratively scratch my head.  What else should have filled up the slot I used to make sure I got this movie?
     I guess my biggest complaint is that director David R. Ellis (former actor, former stuntman) has no idea what kind of tone he is setting.  In what should be a ridiculously funny, over-the-top absurdist commentary on horror films that rely on creatures and scary Southerners, Ellis instead seems to be all ahead full on dull and listless.  What I suppose were meant to be scary moments have all of the plausibility of the shark eating the gorilla from The Simpsons (1990-present) episode "Lisa the Vegetarian".  If you find the video scary, then Shark Night will work for you.
     It isn't as though Ellis' record is a straight string of abject disasters.  Both Final Destination 2 (2203) and Cellular (2004) are decent, engaging flicks that find a way to mix humor with tension (more humor in the former than the latter).  But one also has to look at Snakes on a Plane (2006) and The Final Destination (2009), both quite properly loathed movies.  I would have thought that TFD was so poorly received that it would have kept any studio from even thinking about letting Ellis helm a film with a budget over $20 million. But if TFD didn't kill the Final Destination series, I shouldn't expect to be strong enough to derail Ellis' career.
     The problem with Shark Night is that there is no horror, nor terror, and not really any gore.  I am not going to complain that it isn't chock full of gratuitous nudity, but it threatens to be that kind of movie without wanting to cross the threshold into being an R-rated movie.  Why is anyone making a PG-13 horror film?  The answer is because it means more teenagers can pay to see it, and that is where horror films make their bank at the box office.  The problem is that unless the writer and director commit to a slow, steady building of threat and tension, horror films need real violence, gore, and some fucking cursing.
     Borrowing too heavily from Jaws (1975), Shark Night starts – after a lengthy, off-putting title sequence – with a female swimmer getting all eaten by a shark.  Fantastic.  Because it isn't as though Jaws was about managing economic interests versus protecting the innocent people from a man-eating shark, and the struggle from three different men to work together to end the threat.  Except that it is.  Shark Night is about a bunch of leaping sharks being able to swim faster than boats and the people who apparently have some ability to dictate there whereabouts so that the sharks only pose a danger when it is convenient for the plot.  Or what passes for a plot.
     Personally, I spent a good portion of the film wondering if Chris Carmack was somehow created by splicing the DNA of Marc Singer and Casper Van Diem, or if he was just told to have his character act like he was the result of the unlikely mating of the two actors.  That happily distracted me from the fact that his character never sued the ultra-rich parents of the girl who ripped half his face off with a propeller and then used those proceeds to fund his miscreant schemes.  None of the characters are well developed, but at least the actors help that out by not doing much to make the audience care about them.
     Shark Night could have been incredibly worse, but it would have to try to be to get there.  As an attempt at competent film-making, it fails (of gets a low D), but that has to do with the undercranking (or whatever causes fast motion on digital cameras) that makes for shots that evoke memories of The Munsters (1964-66) intercut with overcranked shots (resulting in slow motion).  Then there is the poor alterations of the coloration to make scenes shot during the day look like they were done at night.  And that the shots that were done in front of a green screen can't match even that horrible look.  Here's my advice for a film that has only a $25 million budget.  Spend less on shots of sharks leaping out of the water and more on making sure the shooting script can allow for us to give a damn.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Host (2006)

     It seems like only a half a decade ago that I was roaming about inside the local Blockbuster video when I came across the box for The Host (2006), a mildly praised Korean creature feature.  It looked like it may have been worth seeing, but at the prices the old blue & yellow used to charge, I never took the plunge and actually gave it a chance.  Now, there is no local Blockbuster (there actually is, but it is not very accessible and the idea of driving to and from a store to rent a movie feels a little ridiculous at this point) and the cost to see The Host has dropped to $0.  That made it much easier for me to sit down and watch it.
     I don't think I can give a fair review of The Host, though.  The humor went beyond just not appealing to me; I actually was offended – intellectually, not culturally – by it.  It wasn't just that the humor was juvenile and dependent on the idea that the single father is a total loser (from a family of questionable abilities), but that it stood in an odd contrast to the monster horror that was competing for screen time in the movie. Rather than serve as a counterpoint to the tension of the terror of a beastie running about, the humor undercut the supposed seriousness of the situations and made it harder to simply give a damn about the characters.
     As far as the horror element went, I found it lacking.  The creature is appropriately havoc-inducing when it is introduced to the people on the banks of the Han River, but quickly becomes a beastie that seems to have an agenda.  That would be awesome if it were true, but beasties don't get to have agendas.  So it becomes a monster that has several filler scenes and can't figure out an efficient or logical way of killing the inhabitants of the film world it is destined to kill. 
     I was more than a little surprised by how anti-American the film was, though in a mild way.  The beastie is the result of an American doctor deciding it was a good idea to dump toxic materials down the drain (and thus into the local river).  Then again, there is some heavily implied that there were Koreans who were also complicit in these activities.  An American serviceman is first seen as the supposedly heroic foil to Gang-du (Kang-ho Song), but then becomes a means to introduce a type of panic that results in a government crackdown on the people that is supported by the American military and CDC.  The Americans are not so much concerned with saving any Koreans from the beastie or some sort of plague that may be spread by the beastie as they are in keeping the oppressive regime in charge (and maybe American troops within the country).
     I don't know that I have been as mildly disappointed in a movie as I was with The Host.  I have no idea what the people who gave it high praise were thinking or expecting.  I am not the type to be so easily impressed that a foreign film has a budget of more than $100,000.  While I may be missing out on so much by not being fluent in Korean (though I'm betting that the jokes are largely the same as many rely on the physicality of the scenes), I think that the lack of consistent central tone (humor with shades of horror or horror with shades of humor) make it an inherently flawed movie.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Muse of Fire (2007)


     There are some dangers in choosing a book off the shelf (in this case, the shelf of the Forest Park Public Library) largely because it looks like it could be read in a single day.  I did finish it before I made it home on the return trip, so I can find some level of comfort that I didn't need to spend multiple days with this Dan Simmons novella.
     Muse of Fire (2007) is over populated with underdeveloped characters, and even underdeveloped alien beings. Much of the supposed description of the characters is really a chance for Simmons to give some (universally positive) opinions on Shakespeare and Shakespearean actors. Never mind that there is an Earth with no oceans but constant rain and overcast skies (which offends my limited knowledge of functional climates and meteorology), Simmons truly tries the reader's patience with his weak, often off-to-the-side narrator, Wilbr.  Seriously, the story is told by an actor who wants to spend his time telling the reader how much better most of the other actors are.  And those are characters that have little or no other traits.
     This novella felt preachy and uninformed. The only good thing I have to say is that it didn't take long to read, but if an aggressive editor had been able to get his or her hands on it, Muse of Fire easily could have been 50 pages shorter (and thus a possibly compelling short story).  I wish that there was more to say, but there really isn't.  While I am appreciative that Simmons can write in a shorter format than most of his novels (which can run over 900 pages, and average 500+), I think that he has not mastered the format to any degree.  Also, given the listed price of the book ($30, $60 if it was a signed copy), I have to think that Muse of Fire saw most of its sales from the remainder table.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Human Traffic (1999)


More Self-Deprecating Comments Than I Expected For A Not Terribly Long Write Up On Fictional Welsh Drug Users
by Silence Do_nothing

One of the casualties from being a weird dude is any expectation of finding relatable movie characters. But since there's no one more relatable to myself than me, and I already have that material covered, it's no more lamentable a loss than the Denver Nuggets' of Carmello Anthnony. It's when the core of the film expects and depends on a familiarity with the unfamiliar that it becomes a problem.

It may be that Human Traffic is cinema's most authentic depiction of college-aged ecstasy using night clubbers in late 90s Wales. I'm unable to say, because I've never taken drugs or even come within a thousand feet of a nightclub. Not that there's a restraining order requiring that distance due to some irrational unprovoked vendetta from the nightclub industry. I just dislike crowds and can't dance (instead of the standard two left feet, I was upgraded to the deluxe package, which functions as if the left and right are switched and that tethered to the feet are invisible marionette strings controlled by the nerve damaged hands of an energy drink addicted mad wizard who, for some arcane reason- we lesser beings ought not to attempt divining the thoughts and motives of those who have traversed the higher planes of existence- has the beat of one song piped in one ear and a completely different one into the other. It's not a matter of merely having no rhythm, but being so rhythm deficient that I could leisurely stroll the dunes of Arrakis for weeks without the slightest worry of attack from a sandworm drawn to the surface by the rhytmic vibrations of walking).

Besides being party-happy youth who look to drugs to escape weekday drudgery, there's not much to the five friends. That's probably why the filmmakers tried to address the depth they lacked in the story by opening with Jip, the lead, narrating character profiles over a montage of them.

Jip is an unhappy retail clothing clerk afflicted with impotency issues (possibly drug related). Nina hates her fast food job. Moff feels stifled living at home. Koop, a wannabe DJ, seems to genuinely enjoy working at a record store. Other than being there to help Jip overcome his impotency, Lulu just seems to be there. Their weekday situation is presented as dreary to garner sympathy for the need to cut loose on the weekend, but they didn't seem so unfortunate to me.
Not to sound too sanctimonious, but they would probably be more thankful if they had access to Mike Rowe's Dirty Jobs (2005- ) show. It's hard to watch a couple episodes of that and avoid thinking that things aren't so bad as long as your job isn't back-braking or dangerous or involve fecal matter of some kind.

A current of cynicism and angst runs through the movie, but I didn't agree with most of the complaints. Like when Jip fantasizes what he would say to an acquaintance he doesn't care for if he weren't bound by politeness. As long as another is willing to extend the courtesy, I have no problem reciprocating. It's in the face of belligerence that I find it physically impossible to hide the scowl on the vast Texas sized canvas that is my forehead (I don't care about the unbeatable aura of MMA fighter Jon Jones or my complete lack of training or cardiovascular conditioning or that I've never been in a fight in my adult life. If the UFC were to return to its old rules which allowed headbutting, Vegas would have me as a 2-1 favorite to take the champ's belt. Collisions with my Bonk-esque head have been known to tear open rifts to parallel worlds).

Despite their gripes, the first third of the movie was easily the most entertaining portion. Employees absorbing flak from their boss, even if they don't have the greatest attitude and the job's not coal-mining tough, are something to root for. There was a manic energy to the fantasy sequences which showed their wishes and impressions. Actions were grotesquely exaggerated, but not to the point where they became obnoxious eyesores that made you want to immediately
watch something else, a tightrope which Tim and Eric, Awesome Show, Great Job! (2007- ) falls from ninety-nine times out of a hundred (unflattering extreme close-ups of dishes of food and mouths chewing, accompanied by unappetizing sounds, relinquishes much of its potency to satirize modern consumer society when the mind has access to starvation images of emaciated people too weakened from malnutrition to swat away flies).

The movie loses its fun when the characters gain theirs. Gone are scenes of the somewhat downtrodden worker. In its place are people hanging out, taking ecstasy, and laughing at stuff which only an altered state of mind can find the funniest thing in the world.

Some of the downside of the drug is shown in the lethargy that follows when the high wears off, but overall it is presented as fairly innocuous. They are expected to outgrow it. Doubtless there are people who can handle their drugs and don't destroy themselves, but to the extent that the actions are presented as merely not-so-serious indiscretions of youth, it loses dramatic interest. Drug abuse television documentary program Intervention (2005- ) is so powerful, besides its dealing with real people, because it shows the damage to addicts and loved ones. Functional drug users don't have the same emotional punch. They might as well be seen enjoying a night of bowling.

I didn't buy into the movie's attempt to make ecstasy into something more than a cheap thrill. With a heavenly glowing white background serving as a backdrop, Jip narrated the blissful effects of an ecstasy high. It evidently produces a feeling of connectedness with everyone. I resent counterculture's traditional simultaneous embrace of recreational drug use with one arm while the other groin punches consumerism. Because buying electronics or jewelry or sports cars to feel good is materialistic and shallow, but purchasing drugs somehow transforms that desire into a quasi-spiritual experience. I'd wager that if it weren't accompanied by intense physical pleasure, the feeling of connection would be received as a suffocating overconnectivity instead of as a liberating tonic against alienation.

This could be nitpicking on my part, but the nightclub failed to live up to the grandeur I was led to expect from their fevered anticipation of it. It looked like a cheaply decorated soundstage. The posters which blanketed Moff's bedroom probably cost the production more. Maybe cheap looking interiors aren't that unusual for real nightclubs, but it's a letdown for the viewer. It's like in a cheesy 80s movie where there's a fictional rock band that all the characters are going on about how "They're the coolest!" and that "Everyone is just dying to get tickets to the big show!" and then the band plays at the end and it's so pitiful and lame that you feel embarrassed to watch it, even if no one else is around.

The one highlight from the drug fueled portion of the movie was a mildly amusing conversation between Moff and another party-goer about the supposed drug culture of the Star Wars (1977-1983) original trilogy (Human Traffic is set before the prequels). It's doubtful someone not a sucker for any kind of Star Wars reference would find this as entertaining.

The closest I can come to recommending it is as the movie about UK drugies which doesn't require subtitles (it was a good 25 minutes of listening to the accent in Trainspotting (1996) before I could make out more than every other word. I've often wondered if an American accent is as difficult for foreigners to understand. Based on the saturation of American media, I'm guessing it's not).

More familiarity with drug culture than what I have is probably needed to fully enjoy Human Traffic's characterizations. I don't see myself entering a vantage point of greater appreciation anytime soon. I could point to my liking the Epicurean notion of pleasure, that of being the absence of pain, as disqualifying drugs, with all its physical and emotional baggage. Or I could cite my desire to avoid stuff that screws with the mind (not that mine is some great national treasure, but, for good or bad, it is who I am). What clinches my unapologetically square lifestyle is my inability to imagine that, when I'm on my deathbed, thinking of the presumably many things I will have wished to have done differently, that abstaining from illicit drug use will come within light-years of my galaxy of regrets. Unless, of course, the previously mentioned wizard is powerful enough to manifest in the real world from the realm of metaphors and attaches his magical marionette strings to my mind to force the thought of "Oh, if only I'd done ecstasy." Jeez, what did I ever do to him?

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

     I didn't have a lot of interest in seeing The Hunger Games (2012), largely because I all knew was that it was based on a book I've never read.  Yes, it stars Jennifer Lawrence, who I have been aware of since The Bill Engvall Show (2007-09) and took an interest in after seeing her in Winter's Bone (2010), but that certainly wasn't enough to motivate me to go out an see it.  Then there was all of this talk about it becoming a kind of cultural phenomenon, but I had to assume that the culture involved would be much younger and likely dominated by the female gender.  No, I got off my lazy ass and down to the theater to see The Hunger Games because my mother developed an inexplicable interest in seeing it and asked if I wanted to go with her.  Sure.  And that is how I saw this movie in somebody else's dime.
     Thanks Mom.
     Traditionally, I start any kind of review by listing things I didn't like or what disappointed me and then follow that up with more complaints and negative feelings.  I am going to try to do something different here, largely because I found myself enjoying The Hunger Games all the way through, even in the moments where there were things that would have bothered me in other movies.  This may be in part due to being influenced by how much my mother liked and was affected by the film, but I also think it would be interesting to see if I can find something nice to say when giving my thoughts about a film.
Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) showing off her hunting skills early in The Hunger Games.  For some reason, she loses a lot of her huntress instincts and becomes very reactionary when people are actively trying to kill her.
     The Hunger Games spans the time from just before the Reaping, when a pair of adolescents are conscripted to take part in the Hunger Games through the end of its 74th annual running.  For the most part this is done quite well, with the passage of time being constantly referenced (though not in a grating or condescending manner).  While I was watching it, I thought the introduction to the main character, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), and her family went on a little too long, but that was much more likely because I was eager for the movie to get to the teenaged gladiatorial combat rather than allow it to establish the emotional and economical realities of the characters thrown into the games.  And that is just bad on me.
     The movie makes some efforts – usually effectively – to reference back to the situation in Katniss' District 12, and these help give more weight to the scenes that establish the world before the two tributes are whisked off to the Capitol to get killed for the entertainment of...well, those who live in the Capitol.  There seems to be an innate sense of sadness and impending doom felt by those in the outlying districts, a reminder that punishment is an enduring legacy for a rebellion generations ago.  Indeed, it strikes at the youth in their formative years, breeding a very real fear in them while trying to give them an acceptance of the process as something that can be celebrated.
     There were thirteen rebellious districts, but only twelve send representatives.  Some quick internet research reveals why there are only twelve that send tributes, but it remains a mystery in the film.  Personally, I was more curious as whether the thirteen rebellious districts being treated harshly after being brought back into the fold was supposed to remind me of the Reconstruction Era.  Panem seems to be much more of a fascist state than a democratic republic with an axe to grind after attempted secession.  Still, Katniss and Peeta come from District 12, while looking more like West Virginia or Kentucky (not officially CSA states), has a Southern feel to it.  And that is where it ends up on the map I found online.
Sure, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has a skill set that could be put to great use, but apparently all interest in playing War or emulating Rambo have all been lost by the time the 74th Annual Hunger Games roll around.  My question about the character had more to do with how he got his skill set.  Who the hell in his District 12 home town is out splurging for fancy iced cakes?
     Katniss ends up in the Hunger Games in an effort to keep her younger sister from being slaughtered.  This is fine (I believe the Joss Whedon expression would be "noble as a grape"), but there doesn't seem to be much value in this harsh world in young Primrose Everdeen.  It makes me wonder if Katniss has some kind of supernatural sense of morality and individual human dignity that isn't reinforced (it is there, but not in the forefront) in their society in general.  Her fellow tribute, Peeta, is a luck of the draw victim.  He clearly comes from better circumstances than Katniss, and she directs her attention to some dude named Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but it is clear early on that Peeta has more than a casual interest in her.  Because this is done with both humor and a seemingly real understanding of the somewhat plastic nature of adolescent relationships, it plays as both fun and real.
     There are some odd instances of costuming going on.  Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) immediately reminded me of Volmae (Angie Miliken) from the Farscape episode "Thank God it's Friday...Again" (this was reinforced by having Peace Keepers in the story).  Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) gets to wear a stylized beard and suits that are always hinting at him being some sort of devil.  There is a parade of tributes – on chariots – where some are dressed to look vaguely like fish and others like raggedy ice dancing partners.  Katniss and Peeta get some stylish dark suits with blue flames, and it looks good.  Not even a tiny bit ridiculous. 
     There isn't much attention to developing the various tributes.  This is fine, largely because all but one are slated to die; such are the rules of the games.  But it is clear that several of them are supposed to have larger roles to play, and in the film version, they are almost all reduced to just being there. Yes, Rue (Amanda Stenberg) gets more definition than any of them outside the District 12 pair, but it is presented only in relation to Katniss.  I would have preferred trimming about five minutes off the home town build up to give more definition to the tributes, especially those who have the most impact during the Hunger Games.  More than that, it would mean something more when the tributes start dying if I had been given the chance to develop some investment in them.  The film doesn't glorify the killing of the children, but I think it could have (and should have) been more chilling, more shocking for the audience.
I have no idea of this is a more faithful rendering of the characters.  I do know the ones I saw in the film didn't look like this.
     Once director Gary Ross takes the story out of District 12, it moves at a steady and well measured pace. While there were a few dark and grainy shots, most of the film had a crisp (but never glossy) look.  If there were any glaring continuity errors, I didn't catch them.  Ross may have underplayed how scared Katniss was once the games began (there is a shot in a scene that does exist for this express purpose) and that she does not instinctively know to apply her skills as a hunter to the fine art of killing people, but I found that to be more accurate to a person – as opposed to trained soldier – thrown into the situation.  I could have done without the insert shots of Gale fretting about what he sees as Katniss and Peeta progress through the games, but as it is clearly important to the ongoing story, I understand why it was necessary.  And necessary will always triumph over what I want.
     I'm not really sure how this big screen adaptation will play to devotees of the book.  I assume there will be those who think that it dumbs down the more complex elements of the novels.  I likewise assume there will be those who simply like that it gets enough right and looks good to boot.  I hope that what I witnessed is not some Jurassic Park (1993) kind of butchering of a fun novel to quasi-watchable film (at least to those who read the book first), because I enjoyed the movie version of The Hunger Games.  I don't want to be part of the group destroying other people's enjoyment by embracing this version.
     Still, this did not make me want to pick up the novels.  Largely because I have a reading list over 30 books long now, several of which are well-regarded classics.  But also because I would have to start at the beginning, and I feel that would impinge on my current level of happiness with the film.  No, The Hunger Games is not some enduring classic of cinema.  Very few films are, and most of us don't watch them.  It is solid entertainment that clearly has a well meaning point.  It is well acted (hell, Lenny Kravitz managed to find a way to play his character that has me questioning my eternal hate of Lenny Kravitz) and well directed.  If you get a chance to see it, I say take the opportunity.
1) This really helps me better understand the geography of the story.  2) If the Districts are this large, why is the assembled crowd for the Reaping (in the film) so small?  I assume it is a function of budget, but it really felt as though there isn't much population in the Districts.  I have no idea if that is how the books present them.



Now, the good news is that in the Hunger Games setting, I have survived the apocalyptic war that destroys the United States of America (though my citizenship doesn't go away, so I probably have some kind of resident alien status in Panem, which if I am stationed in the former British Columbia, I would need anyway), have mastered some limited kind of immortality, and have a job as a Systems Analyst (which I really wish I could list on the real world résumé, because it probably open a lot more doors).

Friday, March 23, 2012

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Season One (1993)

     For some reason, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-99) is inexplicably regarded as the least worthy of the Star Trek endeavors by many diehard Trekkers.  Not the animated series (1973-74), not Enterprise (2001-05), and not the downright heretical feature film helmed by J.J. Abrams (2009).  No, for some reason taking Star Trek off a ship is – or was – an unforgivable offense.
     It has taken me some time to get up the notion to rewatching DS9.  I last saw it when it enjoyed a brief late-night run on WGN shortly after going off the air, but what really peaked my interest was noting that I had actually read at least 10 of the DS9 novels.  Clearly I had some kind of emotional investment in the show, but my hindsight also makes me aware that reading these books was a way to reinforce my fanhood to myself.
     Even though I had not seen most of the episodes since the 1990s, I was surprised that there were only two where I did not clearly remember the major plot points and characters.  Yes, Season One was fraught with moments highlighting the strangeness of the Cardassian station or the mistrust of the Bajorans.  Worse, it didn't do much to develop the Bajorans (when does Sisko take the solar sailboat out?, because that would have been a nice story idea for the end of the first season).  But it kept the kiddie factor much lower than I remembered it being, and it did much to build up the Major Kira character, probably more than any other single main cast member.
     Most of the Star Trek shows did not have stellar first seasons.  Star Trek: The Next Generation (1988-1994)may have had some memorable moments from its first season, but it didn't find its voice until the third season (when the uniforms started looking good and Dr. Crusher returned).  Star Trek (1966-69) may have had some of its most iconic episodes in its first season, but there were far more clunkers (and little definition to the universe in which the U.S.S. Enterprise operated).  Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001) may be the lone exception, where its first season was probably stronger than the following two, but there was still a lot of work to be done.  No, the first season is where the rough patches are identified, but in the case of DS9 those rough patches were really just the delay in moving towards the overarching story.
     As I have recently seen the first season of some other syndicated shows of the era – I watched Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1994 for the TV movies, 1995-1999 for the series) back in 2010 as a way to wind down after studying, but more recently took in the first seasons of Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda (2000-01) and Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict (1997-98) in the last few months, the latter being far superior to the former – I can state without qualification that DS9 is a much better package as a show.  Hell, its first season makes Babylon 5 (1994-95) look quaint, though B5 did make an effort to get to the storyline much quicker.  The only real problem that DS9 has early on is in the premise that the Federation wouldn't garrison the mouth of the wormhole or construct their own space station there.  But that gets into the politics, and while the foundation for it is there, DS9 was just a little too slow to start working the inherent conflicts until the end the the first season.
     Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, like Voyager after it, attempted to have a meaningful story running through the length of the series.  In the case of Voyager, it was really just Lost in Space (1965-68) on a Federation star ship that eventually makes it home.  With DS9, it was an odd amalgam of destiny and religion, politics and vanity, greed and corruption, and how the enlightened Federation humanist viewpoint wasn't always the one that made the most sense.  Even with its slow start, there was more than enough promise in the first season of DS9 that Sci-Fi fans should have climbed aboard.  But I think that many felt that Paramount was overstepping their bounds by launching a Star Trek show while one was on the air, and just as many were ready for something much grimmer than TNG (they should have stuck around for the Dominion War) and claimed B5 as their own.
     As it stands, DS9 seems largely abandoned.  It deserves much more than that.  It deserves the kind of attention that critics stumbled over themselves to throw at the re-boot of Battlestar Galactica (2004-09), even if it still bore the shine of Roddenbery's optimism about the future.  And I am looking forward to making some slow progress through the rest of the series.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Caller (2011)

     Playing like an overlong and underfunded episode (specifically "Sorry, Right Number") of Tales from the Darkside (1983-88), Matthew Parkhill's The Caller (2011) manages to be mildly entertaining even as it strains whatever passes for credibility when the central premise is that a phone can connect callers separated more by years than miles.  Unfortunately, it cannot build or maintain any amount of tension, both of which are necessary for a story like this.
     Part of the problem may come from an inability to develop the story in a more nuanced manner.  Mary (Rachelle Leferve) is going through a divorce with a mildly abusive (more menacing and overbearing than anything else) mistake of a husband, Steven (Ed Quinn).  This is handled in a rather obvious, straightforward manner, which deprives any kind of slow build up of the level of threat Mary feels in her just walking around world.  As such, the would-be ex-husband never resonates as anything other than filler material.
     Another part of the problem is that Mary is not consistent in regards to temperament.  She has weird, seemingly random moods swings between being sweet, suspicious, skittish, and oblivious.  She also has no visible means of support or manner to kill time other than the one night class for which she signs up.  More than that, Mary isn't very bright.  In her few fits of being too trusting, she brings all too obvious ruin to her future past-self.
     While The Caller is set on Puerto Rico, in the town of Ceiba.  We mostly know this because Mary's father was stationed at the nearby naval air station Roosevelt Roads.  There is also an off-hand remarks about immigrants getting on the wrong boat and missing New York harbor by quite some distance.  What we don't see are many Puerto Ricans or people speaking Spanish.  While the territory is multilingual, the film makes no effort to make much of the setting.  I felt that not making the most of the setting robbed the movie of an opportunity to escape the generic city setting that many lower budget horror films effect.
     There isn't any gore or gratuitous violence in The Caller.  Indeed, Parkhill does try to make it a supernatural suspense thriller.  The problem is that neither he nor screenwriter Sergio Casci break far enough out of the mold to not have a succession of telegraphed scenes.  On the other hand, it is far more satisfying as a film than many of the larger budget horror/suspense films that have been trotted out over the past few years.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Robin Hood (2010)

     As someone who has never been much of a Russell Crowe fan – I fell asleep during Gladiator (2000), only in part because I was not entertained – I sure seem to see a fair number of his films.  Not right away, not in theaters of course.  But as Crowe seldom stretches his acting muscles to give much in the way of range, there is something comforting in the known quantity he'll be.  When it came to Robin Hood (2010), Ridley Scott's unfunny and historically nightmarish depiction of the legend of the English outlaw, I figured Crowe would at least add some warmth to the role.
     Unfortunately, no amount of skilled actors can save a dreadfully written script.  It doesn't help, either, when the director manages to have all of the humor fall flat or run counter to the mood of the scene.  I cannot say that I have ever seen a professionally done project that was as unfriendly to the humor it tried to impose on scenes.  More than anything I feel bad the actors involved, but there had to be some sense on-set that the jokes were not working.  And while some humor can be saved in editing, it cannot be created there.
     Crowe's Robin Hood is one who is the descendant of a laborer who preached equality.  Fantastic.  So, much like Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995), the is some intense desire to interject the notion of democratic reform into British history a few centuries too early.  Yes, there is the idea of standing up to tyranny and that egalitarianism being laudable, but not to the degree of not honoring the hierarchical structure of society.  Simply wanting the British to have been more Athenian isn't reason enough to fuck up the history and legends of the island.
     King John – who actually wasn't a horrible monarch until he was forced into granting rights to the English barons – is once again trotted out as some kind of sniveling incompetent. Oscar Isaac is no Nigel Terry (and certainly no Peter Ustinov) when it comes to making Prince John both a character and a caricature.  But John isn't a bad guy until he needs to become one to set the fable into motion, and by that point the movie is over.  At least he is still allowed to romp around with his father's former lover (his mother watches in this version).
     While not so bad as to be unwatchable, I certainly wouldn't recommend that anyone clear the two hours needed to get through this film.  It is an effort.  And it doesn't allow the actors to do much in terms of connecting with the audience or each other.  Why this was made, I'm not sure.  Maybe Scott thought that the movies from the 1990s were to dated, but this one already feels old.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Real Steel (2011)

     Against my better judgment, I think, I really enjoyed Real Steel (2011).  It took some doing, as Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a thoroughly unlikeable bum when divorced from the charm and good looks of the actor portraying him.  I cannot recall a film that has overindulged more in terms of painting its protagonist in such a negative light (even if it is mildly, family friendly negativity) that was attempting to do something other than shock the audience.
     I don't know where to start with my complaints about Max Kenton (Dakota Goyo).  Okay, why does the child have his father's last name?  How did he manage to become so spoiled?  Why does he have any affection for a father he has never met and knows nothing about?  And why did I want him to be viciously beaten by any of the various characters who exist to lend credibility to the idea that there are people who wish to viciously beat those who have aggrieved them in some minor manner?  I just hated the character and found him to be a poor element to draw out a more human side of Charlie.  Why not just write a more human side?  Do children need to see a child in a film to like it?  That wasn't the case when I was little.
     Anyway, I did like this movie.  Despite the fact that is seemed to borrow a location and its inhabitants straight out of Police Academty 2: Their First Assignment (1985).  Despite the fact that it posits a world where bulls are impervious to any damage and professional robot bowing operators spend no time learning anything about their 'bots before throwing them into combat.  Or that these robots would become well known when all the audience is shown is that one invariably gets destroyed in the action; not every robot could have a long run of winning every match.  Oh, and the fact that the desire for more carnage spawned robot boxing (let's never explain why the one main event is called "Real Steel", okay) and not some kind of underground bloodsport – and there are plenty of films that suppose that while boxing and MMA events exist – is quite ridiculous.
     But Real Steel does hit enough notes to get past all of these problems.  There is enough kinetic action in the boxing sequences to draw the audience in, and the humor in those scenes is almost well (and sparsely) paced.  Jackman (and to some degree, Goyo) play well off the salvaged robot at the heart of their story.  Sure, there are more than a few holes in the story that grated at me, but it met my relatively low threshold for internal consistency.  I was able to sit back and let the predictable – except for Charlie being an ass – story play out.  I may have preferred for Max to have been taught a few hard lessons, but the more cheerful version that director Shawn Levy crafted worked fine.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature (2002)

     I may owe Crawford Kilian an apology.  While I found little in his Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy (1998) to be full of worthless and severely out-of-date information, there was at least some consistency in it.  I may have found Kilian's tastes to be counter to my own, but he was trying to give some advice on the subject of writing.  That is not the case with The Writers Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest (How to Write Fantasy Stories of Lasting Value) (2002), edited by Philip Martin.
     Martin is largely the author, but he fills in much of the meager 228 pages (the rest are appendices on resources for writers) with snippets and interviews from selected authors.  This is problematic for two reasons.  First, it interrupts any attempt at a narrative flow.  The examples are meaningless because it is never truly established what the exemplar is supposed to be.  Second, and worse, most of the selected text sections read as meaningless when divorced from their source material (or at least enough of it to give it context and weight).  It gives the impression that lasting fantasy literature is rather bland and unengaging.
     That is not to say that I could not stand to learn a lesson from this book.  Indeed, it served to reinforce how unfamiliar I am with the breadth and scope of authors of 'speculative fiction' that Martin considers to have contributed something beyond the momentary blip on the radar.  Granted, this is a lesson better illustrated by my meager library of read books as noted on Goodreads.com (where each title and author can be tracked), but it is one that can be learned again and again.  The list of authors I have not read is somewhat staggering:
✦ J.K. Rowling (I have, however, seen the third Harry Potter film and know the story from commercials for the other movies)
Lloyd Alexander
Susan Cooper
Diana Wynne Jones
✦ C.S. Lewis (I have seen the three 'live-action' Chronicles of Narnia films, and remain scarred by animated version of The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe)
Beatrix Potter
Madeline L'Engle
George MacDonald
Charles Williams
Peter S. Beagle
Mary Stewart
✦ T.H. White (that's right, I never read The Once and Future King, a book that was required in my Freshman Honors English class...in part because I thought we should have been reading actual Medieval literature instead of pretend Medieval literature)
✦Fritz Lieber (though I am familiar with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser as characters)
Michael Moorcock
Brian Jacques
Patricia A. McKillip
Donna Jo Napoli
Midori Snyder
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Laura Esquivel
Louise Erdrich
✦ Anne Rice (and I have no interest in reading her)
John Marco
Elizabeth Hand
Richard Adams
Kenneth Grahame
Graham Joyce
✦ Terry Prachett (who Martin adores, but Kilian execrates in his book on writing)
Orson Scott Card
Neil Gaiman
Alice Hoffman
Franny Billingsley
Kij Johnson
L. Frank Baum
✦ Ursula K. Le Guin (I read a little booklet that she wrote about designing the maps for Earthsea, but I'm not going to count that)
Lord Dunsany
Eva Ibbotson
Robert Jordan
Terry Brooks
     Okay, that is a lengthy list.  And it highlights that my exposure to fiction is not weighted towards the British end of things or the well-received books that had no cultural impact among my age group (which makes me question the "lasting" quality of the works, but since I am wholly ignorant of them I should probably just shut up).  But I think it also speaks to how large the field really is.  If one were to be a dedicated reader of fantasy fiction, chances are that the best he or she could do would be to read about 5% of the published titles in any given year. 
     Back to the book.  The last two sections finally get around to some kind of discussion on actual writing, but that serves to highlight that the majority of the book is dedicated to a stand-offish, shallow review of the nature of speculative fiction.  Had it been an academic review of fantasy literature, dense as that would be, it would have been much more rewarding.  Instead, it was just sort of there to be slogged through, offering almost nothing in terms of insight as to what makes for good or meaningful fantasy literature (or even what elevates fantasy writing to the level of literature).
     If I had only spent two days on this book, I'm positive I'd be less upset with it.  But it took a full week of slow progress and stepping away from it again and again to get to the end.  That didn't feel helpful, and I don't know that there is anything I will keep with me from this.  The only upside is that it costs nothing to check a book out from the library.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Community Lives!

     It has been too long since the Greendale Human Beings had a presence on NBC's Comedy Night (which is a questionable description so long as Whitney or Up All Night are located in that scheduling block).  An aggressively absurdist show that finds most of its humor in between discomfort and conformity, Community (2009-present) has somehow failed to resonate with audiences.  Maybe it is the era.  When sitcoms that endlessly repeat the same situations – a winning formula established as early as the mid-1950s – are the most popular on the air, the risks Community takes may make it look strange and alien.
     For reasons that must relate to NBC's desire to stop being a major broadcast network, the best comedy currently in production has been treated like the ugly step-sister, somehow not as worthy of praise as The Office (2005-present, a show well past its prime) or the consistently overrated 30 Rock (2006-present).  Granted, Community took some time to become what it is, and what it is does not seem to be exactly the same thing from season to season.  Unlike Chuck Lorre's wildly popular shows, it doesn't hate its own characters (well, it may actually hate two of them, but I'd like to think it is more of a problem of knowing what to do with them in Season Three).
     I would have preferred that Community had come back with an episode that was stronger and friendlier to potential new viewers than "Urban Matrimony and the Sandwich Arts".  While it does a decent job keeping the energy and mood at the right level for the show, it felt rushed and a little contrived.  Part of the problem may be the ongoing problem on not knowing how to use Chevy Chase's character in Season 3, but I think it was much more likely that the show needed to be more about Shirley than the other characters reactions to her getting married to her once-and-future husband, Andre.
     Whatever complaints I may have, I tend to enjoy Community more than any other show that is currently on TV.  It will break my heart when it is cancelled at the end of the year, living on only in a short run at Comedy Central and in the DVD or Blu-ray sets die-hard fans purchase.  It isn't setting out to be easy.  It isn't as cheery as Parks and Recreation (2009-present), nor does it have an easily identifiable character around which to structure the shows. We'll see if the show can find some way to finish stronger than this last episode, but even the worst episode of Community is better than the crap NBC rolled out this year in a desperate attempt to keep viewers interested.
The characters, as a D&D nerd would understand them.  Except that Pierce should be announcing his victory in Dungeons & Dragons.  You know, the advanced kind.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Shunning (2011)

     Okay.  The worst thing – for me – about this DVD was the (seemingly) 20 trailers for faith-themed movies that seem to insult religious convictions and film-making, or at least a reminder that some actors don't get much work these days.  Or, in one instance, that Doris Roberts is a more bankable star than Jewel Staite.  That may be true, but I'll forever hold out hope that Staite finally breaks through in a TV show co-starring fellow BC native Katharine Isabelle (they've worked together plenty of times in the past, but never on anything very good).  Enough about Jewel Staite.
      The Shunning (2011) isn't really in my wheelhouse.  Actually, if former co-worker and irregular contributor to this blog Silence Do Nothing hadn't shown an odd fascination with the Amish, I'm certain I would have never considered watching this.  Now, if Danielle Panabaker had become the live action Kim Possible [as was rumored around the time she did Sky High (2005)], I'm sure I would more interest in following her career.  But since I tend to think of her as the girl who gets a rather ignominious death in The Crazies (2010), she just doesn't stir much interest for me.  Nor is seeing Sherry Stringfield, who I really must assume regrets walking away from ER (1994-2009) in 1996 when she was one of the stars and culturally relevant.
     What does that leave me?  With a moderately well produced (if we accept that only one movie has ever done the Amish beard justice, and this isn't it) TV movie that doesn't feel the need to faithfully represent Amish culture or faith.  That is probably just as well, because it isn't like the Amish are going to see it and complain.  But with all of the clearly 'Christian' themed movies previewed on the disk, it struck me as odd that the faith an customs of the Amish were things to be overcome with singing and shopping.  I would like to think that these were handled better in the book, but again, it isn't like the Amish are going to fact check it.
     To go ahead and spoil this (seriously, if you've read my blog, you aren't going to watch The Shunning), the actual shunning gets ignored by the multiple members of the Amish community because, sometimes, there are problems that are just too big for the old ways.  I'd like to think that attitude would bring electricity in to a shared building so that dairy could bet kept from spoiling, but the movie wants it to be an excuse to love an adopted child and member of the community so much that they'll forgo their faith for her.  And apparently the Amish community is rife with secrets.  Because they are, at heart, a strange and devious people, right?
     As much as I was offended by how The Shunning dealt with the Amish, I still enjoyed it more than The Road (2009).  There is something to be said for having a story that at least goes somewhere.  And that ends much sooner.
    

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Road (2009)

     Seeing as how I stopped reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006) on page 82 – the bookmark is still in it – I wasn't expecting to be drawn in to the movie adaptation of the story.  I knew that it had some elements that I would like, but it is extremely hard to do the end of the world justice on film.  So much of it would be neglected refuse, which as the Fukushim Daiichi mishap has shown us is thoroughly depressing, but not overwhelming.  It makes it look like the end of the world is something that could be cleaned up. 
     Also insanely hard to do on film is conveying how repulsive and paradigm shifting cannibalism – and even more, the threat of cannibalism – should be.  The Road (2009) presents it as just the threat of other people, and while that may be a fine commentary on just how removed from society the Man and the Boy have become, it does little to engage the viewer.  Because they are removed, it makes little sense to have the Man giving a tiresome, droning voice over narration.  It also doesn't help that the Man has nearly nothing to say that isn't shown or implied by the action of the film.
     I mostly feel bad for the actors involved in this project.  Viggo Mortensen is never going to top his Lord of the Rings (2001-03) role – because Aragorn really is the shit when it comes to fantasy characters – but he isn't given much to do here rather than look weary.  Kodi Smit-McPhee, who is much better in Let Me In (2010), never manages to capture the tone of a child who was raised in the ruined world.  He seems like he was dropped off from a normal suburb to spend time with destitute, homeless dad in the land of burned forests.  Robert Duvall gets a scene, as does Guy Pearce, but given their big screen credentials, I have to wonder if they were eager to be in a McCarthy story and didn't spend enough time on set to realize that nothing was materializing.
     The destroyed world is inconsistent.  The blackened, dying forests look imposing, as do the gray, lifeless rivers and sicker looking sea.  But the houses and buildings seem to have no ash or signs of the fire that destroyed everything (maybe it had all been washed into the rivers with the last of the water pressure?).  There isn't much of a sense of distance imparted, or insight on the techniques that have kept the duo alive so long.  Having the Man explain it as they travel again reinforces the notion that the Boy is on the worst field trip ever.
     Some day I may get around to trying to read the book again.  But I know that I have no need to watch the movie a second time.  I think – and I could be wrong – that the mistake here was in trying to be too faithful scenes from the book while abandoning the spirit of the book.  This isn't about a man keeping his son alive; it is about a man not knowing what to do with the time between the end of the world and his death, and keeping he and his son alive because it seems like the right option.  It feels hollow and simplistic, and that is never a good thing for a film that aspires to be art.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Dark (2005)

     John Fawcett directed one of my favorite movies.  Actually, it is the only movie that I wish I had directed (and I am not a director, nor am I anywhere near being a director), flaws and all.  That movie is not The Dark (2005).
     Not that I can entirely fault Fawcett for the problems I had with the movie, but his use of some of the camera techniques – and I am going to presume his hand is at work with some of the editing – that have been ruining modern horror films draws much of the moodiness and all of the etherealness from the film.  John Carpenter noted that he fucked up his version of The Fog (1980) by having it feel too grounded and solid.  The Dark may not be either of those, but instead of ghostly or dreamlike, it goes for washed-out color and moldy-looking.  Maybe that is Welsh Hell, but it isn't scary.  Worse, it isn't particularly engaging.
     No, the real problem comes from having a victim who just sort of is – Sarah (Sophie Stuckey) is both underdeveloped and unlikeable – and a mother (Maria Bello) who needs absolutely no nudging to full-on acceptance of the supernatural events.  That could work for me, but it would require setting the story around the beginning of the 20th Century, not the 21st.  There is no development of the mythology driving the supernatural forces.  Oh, and there is a prime assumption that sheep are scary.
     I do remember when this film was in theaters and how much I wanted to see it.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe it was because I hadn't learned that Sean Bean isn't given much to do in movies (at least not in the ones I've seen).  Maybe I thought it would be a slow, moody, psychological examination of a parent descending into madness because of the loss of a child (I think this is what the ads promised).  Instead, it comes across as a film that spent its budget in an odd fashion – those boat searching scenes probably cost more than any special effects sequence – with an obligatory unhappy ending.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968)

     I am not going to pretend that I have any level of familiarity with Philip K. Dick, other than from the adaptations of a few of his stories for the big screen.  But to assume that those are an accurate representation of Dick's work would be like assuming that Pat Robertson has an honest take on Christianity.  Borrowing from the source material to spin a different story isn't the same as the original material itself.  And so I found myself giving Dick a chance with the quite accessible Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968).
     Actually, I had the misfortune of first being exposed to the Boom! Studios graphic novel series first.  While it is entirely faithful to Dick's text, it ruins the rhythm of the writing.  If Dick has one strength in the novel, it is his pacing and rhythm.  As such, the graphic novels ruin the experience.  Worse than that, the illustrations do not feel particularly evocative of the story (though Dick is very sparse with his descriptions) and fall well short of the not-at-all-faithful big screen adaptation, Blade Runner (1982).  Rather than take three times as long reading the graphic novel series, I quickly switched over to the novel and started all over again.
     There are two interesting elements at play in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  The first – and far more interesting – is Dick's meditation on the nature of religion.  His Mercerism is easily identified as a form of Christianity (or, at the very least, borrows its imagery and central message from Christianity), but one that can be decried as a lie, one that is known to have been manufactured as a result of World War Terminus.  The linkage of humanity, the idea that empathy is the central tenet of life – these are the concepts that Mercerism brings into play, and they are meaningful in a way that expands beyond the story. 
     The other element at play is the unsteady nature of reality.  Dick crafts his world and the experiences of the inhabitants as a long, mostly coherent drug-induced fever dream.  Even setting aside the clearly dream-like shifts, there is a duality to the reality the characters experience.  There are fake animals and fake people.  The ersatz animals are still beings that engender love and require attention – and thus prove the empathy of the humans involved in caring for them – but the fake people, the androids, need to be eliminated on earth because they have no empathy.  It is an obvious double standard, but one that the androids cannot understand on the human level.  The andys are doomed to a series of self-generated betrayals and lack of greater community, making their superior intelligence (and perhaps physical abilities, as indicated by the opera singer) ultimately meaningless.  They are a people without a history and unable to form a collective purpose.  They are the ultimate argument against unrestrained individualism.
     Having written all of that, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is not as rewarding as the ideas that float around inside of it.  It isn't hard science fiction.  Instead, it seems to have a Sci-Fi setting so as to be able to let Dick range in terms of personal horrors and fears and place them amongst his musings on the nature of humanity and society.  There is something unsettling about personal greed and desire to be seen as superior to one's neighbors being shown in the terms of animal ownership and maintenance.  The idea that a woman desired could be repeated ad infinitum, and that all of them represent a very real threat to one's world may only make sense when understood as a dream, but that is one of the things that Dick's style does accomplish.  Unfortunately, he both goes to far and not far enough with that element to satisfy, and it doesn't have the impact that it should.
     This novel is not going to make me rush out and read more Dick (never mind that my list of books to read for the rest of this year's Reading Project is already overfull).  It may be because I find Blade Runner to have more to say about the human condition – though on a smaller scale than Dick attempts in his novel – or because I have encountered quite a few novels and short stories where the once novel idea has been better developed in later works, but Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep did not do much to excite me.  I had to go looking for a deeper meaning, and ignore Dick's ability to completely forget about characters and part of the story that seemed to have some importance (and not just to serve as filler) in order to enjoy the novel.  And I didn't enjoy it enough for me to want to engage in a steady diet of this kind of work.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Knight and Day (2010)

    Knight and Day (2010)  is one of those movies that can be described rather easily, specifically that it has something missing.  Seriously.  There is a jump from a confrontation between Cameron Diaz's character, June, and Tom Cruise's Roy Miller, in Europe, and then suddenly, inexplicably, June is back home in suburban Boston leading her life.  What?  Something happened, right?  The characters act like something happened in the missing in-between, but what?
     Other than that, the film struggles to find a consistent tone.  Cruise clearly wants it to be tongue in cheek, but the action too often tries to abandon the campy feel.  And there is no reason, other than pure ridiculousness, why his super-duper secret agent would keep dragging the civilian woman along with him.  None.  Other than the fact that Diaz was contracted to be the film and they figured they should keep putting her in scenes since she was on-set.
     Yes, Knight and Day is bad, but mostly because it doesn't want to embrace the fact that it is having fun with how bad movies like these can be.  In that regard, nobody seemed to be in on the joke that I am positive was implied on the written page.  At some point, Cruise is going to have to admit that he can't handle an action film that demands he do most of his own stunts.  What will he do then?  I don't think he has much interest in acting that doesn't give him an opportunity to do stunt work, so expect more things like this and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) before he packs up his bags for good.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Faster (2010)

     I no longer need to wonder what an urban Western would look like, but I can continue to search for such a blend that believes in character development.  Clearly, Faster (2010) isn't interested in this.  It wants iconic character archetypes, fast cars, and loud – but largely bloodless – shoot-outs between different types of criminals.  This isn't necessarily problematic; Faster isn't concerned with what may make a thinking man's modernized Western.  It wants to be about as easy as it can be, delving into something deeper only to find a way to graft the familiar wages of sin concept into a film that doesn't believe that dialogue is essential.
     There isn't much of a reason for this to be a Dwayne Johnson vehicle.  His burly bulk – often accentuated by his flexing his chest and shoulder muscles – does not speak to a man who is a driver and does his fighting with a gun.  But those seem to be there because Johnson's unnamed character (he is credited as Driver, I guess because Blondie wouldn't work) is a darker version of an old Eastwood cowboy shootist.  He even uses a stylish, snub-nosed large caliber revolver in an age when action films seem to have forgotten that there are non-automatic weapons, and pursues his enemies with a zeal that makes Three Hours to Kill (1954) look like a man on his way to a friendly church social.
     The rest of the cast seems a little lost, or maybe director George Tillman, Jr. just didn't have the same level of focus with them as he did with Johnson.  Oliver Jackson-Cohen (another unnamed character known only by a moniker, in this case Killer) is part hired gun – familiar to the Western genre – and part conflicted hit-man, drawn straight out of Grosse Pointe Blank (1997).  Other than his character allowing for the audience to see girlfriend Lily's (Maggie Grace) naked hip, not much is added with him.  If I were smarter, maybe I would think that writers Tony Gayton and Joe Gayton were trying to show how to men set to killing, but coming from different motivations, deal with their drives.  I didn't get that from Faster, seeing only some padding to the running time by putting an attractive English guy with an attractive American girl and showing the audience how ridiculous the idea of expecting a significant other to be okay with the career trajectory of professional killer.
     Billy Bob Thorton is fine, but plays his role a little too slightly.  For as much as should be going on inside his detective (keeping up with men with no names, he is simply Cop), he seems to be an unconflicted open book.  In fact, it is a little too easy to see where the story arc with Cop and his wife (or ex-wife) Marina is headed, a fact that makes Cicero (Carl Gugino) nothing more than a device to give information to the audience.  No of the police officers appear to act like real police officers, but for stand-ins for ineffective lawmen of typical Westerns, they do a fine job.
     My only real complaint with Faster is that it has the worst car chase scene ever committed to film.  No?  Okay, it does have a supremely disappointing one that creates no tension (because it is repetitive in the shots used) and hides both the cool looking cars and supposed danger with over-saturated darkness.  I can live with the simple revenge plot, underdeveloped characters (with no explanation of how the team of bad guys would have ever worked together, never mind the why being laughable), and heavy reliance on the desert terrain between Bakersfield and Nevada to hammer home the fact that Faster is a Western.  But if you are going to put cool cars in a movie car chase, don't hide the cars or the action.  And have the action matter.
     This isn't high art.  It really isn't art at all.  But it is an interesting reworking of the Western in a more modern setting,  I think it would have worked much better if it were set in the late 1970s, but that is a personal preference.  In terms of action, Faster isn't saturated with it, but it does try to make the sequences meaningful – at least as far as they would have analogues in a Western.  But it could have relied on more than Johnson's big, soulful eyes to convey its emotional content.  Maybe the next modern, urbanized Western will be better, but this one is okay.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Patient Zero (2009)

     Before I spent two weeks reading books on the do's and don'ts of writing fiction, I would have merely found Jonathan Maberry's Patient Zero (2009) to be tiresome and poorly written.  Having read those books, however, I can point to Maberry's novel as a prime example of bad writing in nearly every form, though not always to a disastrous level.  Not always, but when Maberry insists on having the least likeable protagonist – ever – narrate about ¾ of the story, which only made me wish that somebody would kill that character so that the middle-of-the-road zombie-plague story could go on without me hating the story because of who was telling it.
     Why have most of the novel narrated in the first person while the rest is told in a more traditional third person?  Maybe because Maberry doesn't believe in writing conventions, and maybe because he thought it  clever.  Whatever his reasoning, it is largely an effort that shouldn't have been made. 
     The bigger question should have been why is the protagonist, Joe Ledger, the best at everything?  He is the smartest cop (though he does no kind of police-like investigations – maybe Maberry didn't want to do the research into finding out how that worked), the best shot (better than the Delta Force guys), the best Martial Artist (even though he doesn't understand how the character's form works), the best judge of character, the guys who makes all of the connections with little help (other than to have people to supply expository information) from the other characters, and, of course, he has the biggest cock in the world.  That last bit may be an exaggeration, but Maberry does let the reader know that Ledger has a big dick, and the character knows it, too.
     Overlong, full of points that go nowhere (a bad guy disfigures his face for seemingly no reason, just as this characters need to be where he disfigured his face ends up being ridiculous because he could have gotten from A to C without every needing to go to B, and B is never explored other than to have the character cut a huge gash in his face), and celebrating an adolescent's view of ultra-masculinity, Patient Zero is a prime example of a book to avoid.  That is disappointing, because the basic story is one that would make a fine supernatural (though Maberry makes it a medical issue) thriller if the author and his main character didn't get in the way.  If scenes were not consistently indescribable or characters perpetually at a loss for words, I wouldn't be convinced that Maberry is a bad writer (I may have just thought that this one book was poorly written).
     Whatever the cause for the many faults in this book, they are more than enough for me to warn everyone I can to stay away from it.  It is beyond bad.  It is a waste of time.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Devil's Double (2011)

      How crazy can a character be without even meaningfully touching on the horrific things the real person did before he was killed?
     Perhaps because The Devil's Double (2011) does not want to be so aggressively unpleasant, it shies away from more graphic and honest representations of Uday Hussein's many crimes against humanity.  Sure, he talks about them and there is some idea as to what the aftermath, but the end result is that baby Hussein feels more like a comic book villain than real-life terror.  Maybe that has something to do with the less than sinister giggle that Dominic Cooper gives him.
     Whatever its faults, The Devil's Double at least looks crisp, almost slick, when it delves into Uday's world.  It feels a little false that Baghdad has Beruit-like discotheques, or that cocaine is the drug of choice, but it is entirely possible that both represent an approximation of reality.  More to the point, those scenes seemed to be included to make The Devil's Double more analogous to Scarface (1983).  While those scenes look good, they take away much of the urgency that should be at the heart of the story.
     What is a man supposed to do when there is no appeal to justice, or even sanity?  That is what should be moving The Devil's Double forward, but occasionally the film seems to forget this.  The film's Iraq is run as a criminal enterprise, and Uday has little to do but abduct underage girls (to rape and have killed), drink and do drugs, and force a former classmate to both bear witness to his many crimes and act as a stand-in for the baby Hussein.  Latif (also Cooper) is given no choice but to become the property of Uday.  He has no one to trust and nowhere that can be a safe escape.
     It is also odd that Saddam Hussein is portrayed as a man who absolutely forbids anyone from harming his sons, is more than willing to brutalize Uday himself, but is largely restrained and disaffected.  While this adds to the feeling of him as a crime boss, it does not sell him as the murderous leader of a nation.  It is not clear how some of the people who work for the Husseins – both the quasi-virtuous and downright worthless – come to their positions because Saddam in never really shown doing or supervising anything.  His diminished presence makes the film feel too light.
     I would have liked for the movie to have been a little grittier and involved in the insanity of Uday.  Or even the toll Latif takes on just witnessing the events.  But The Devil's Double cannot find a satisfactory tone or consistent primary angle, and it ends up being an interesting disappointment.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Long Day's Journey into Night (1956*)

     I feel somewhat dirty when I'm hypercritical of Long Day's Journey into Night (published in 1956, but written in 1941-42).  I like the idea of an obtuse, intensely personal story being told in play format being a masterpiece.  Sure, mine isn't (and not just because it is in a sloppy screenplay format).  The problem that O'Neill has is that his play has not aged well.  More than that, because it was considered groundbreaking, many other authors have tackled similar stories and done so with much more ambition and clarity.  Compare Shepard's Buried Child to Long Day's Journey into Night and ask yourself which one has an element that better encapsulates the breakdown of family harmony in light of a secret.  O'Neill's work feels dated by the time it is published.
     Maybe that is exactly the problem.  The idea that a mother who has a morphine/heroin addiction is some kind of unbearable, unfaceable truth feels so suburban, so white middle-class.  It speaks of a lack of awareness of the world of the late 19th Century America; Sear & Roebuck used to sell heroin kits through the mail, legally, as a means to help people get off of morphine.  Clearly there was no shortage of usage.  So the entire crux becomes one of a reluctance to talk about what is actually wrong with Mary (and I'm sympathetic, because I did something similar – though much more awkwardly – in Without Distinction).  Well, that and how the Irish-American family of the era (there are no daughters, so we don't get to see them devalued as people) is not a particularly supportive unit.
     I saw this performed in 2002, though most of the cast was replaced when the production finally made it to Broadway.  At the time, the inconsistencies in the performance really bothered me.  Only Brian Dennehy failed to disappoint, and if he didn't look like he wanted to strangle his cast-mates, I would have tried to make it to the stage and ask him what the hell happened to make everything fall apart.  The rest of that cast was Pamela Payton-Wright as Mary (she was beyond awful, downright cringe-worthy), Steve Pickering as older brother Jamie (he was fine until the final act when he actually needed to be prompted for a line and nearly walked into another actor trying to hit his mark), David Cromer as younger brother Edmund (bad throughout, but consistent in that he wasn't so bad as to steal focus from Payton-Wright's disaster on stage), and Susan Bennett as a completely forgettable maid (so much so that I had almost no recollection of the scene where she has a fair amount of dialogue).  Really, the worst live show I've ever seen.  And I didn't know why.
     I think I do, now.  Long Day's Journey into Night isn't just reluctant to be about what it really is about, it is horribly overwritten when it comes to the directions for the characters.  All of them are in a constant, unflagging conflict with themselves.  While O'Neill was trying to show that there is an inner turmoil they cannot share (because of fear or pride?), the hurt always slips through and poisons the relationships with each other.  That is a powerful message utterly ruined when every other line a character has is there to show the duality.  It feels like watching a clan of supremely functional schizophreniacs who have to navigate a shared reality while beset with their own personal hells.  And not in an interesting way.
     What bothers me most about the play is that it has no sense of timelessness, which it should.  It is about the tensions that can destroy a family, how withholding love is more dangerous than any active hurt one can dish out.  But O'Neill has a need to make it so personal that it defies the audience (or in this instance, the reader) to give a damn.  Most of the plays I read last year were over 2300 years old and spoke to the human condition in an enduring manner.  O'Neill's play is less than 100 and is essentially a relic, and not a pleasant or fun one.  There may be something meaningful happening to the characters in the story, but O'Neill demands that the audience make all of the connections themselves, and dares them to give a damn in the end.  Quite frankly, I didn't.  And that is how I felt in 2002 as well.