Thursday, July 31, 2014
This week on Saturday Night Jive, we look at the obscure Netflix gem (?) Crazy Enough, a movie starring not one but two Chris Kattans in a wacky switcheroo comedy, minus the wacky comedy. Its pretty bad, and if we weren't an episode ahead, I might suggest that its the worst one we've seen so far (stay tuned next week for the actual worst). Still, this is something to behold, and highly recommend you don't behold it, but listen to our podcast about it anyway.
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
This week on the Dirty Sons of Pitches, the above image is regrettably relevant. Also, we talk Purge pitches, Hercules without magic, Tammy without a script, and a This Meets That hat without any movies in it. It's episode 90, so we're basically free wheeling it at this point.
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Not a lot of people know that before he settled on the genre defining sci fi coming of age film E.T., Steven Spielberg's original concept was actually a horror movie called Night Skies, of which a cute alien befriending a young human was only one subplot. Almost thirty years later, J.J. Abrams took this idea and ran with it in Super 8, thinking he knew better than Spielberg even as he was trying to ape his style and cement himself as his heir apparent for a new generation. The result was a predictable and somewhat spectacular failure. In many ways, the new film Earth To Echo feels like the movie that Super 8 should have been, which isn't to say its anywhere near as good as E.T., though it may just be the best we're gonna get in an age so bereft of whimsy.
Earth To Echo is a found footage movie, which usually should be enough of a reason to skip it, except that right away it demonstrates a deliberate tack away from all the negative things we typically associate with the well worn faux-guerrilla format. For one thing, the special effects are of sufficient quality to suggest the shaky cam wasn't just a cost shaving measure, and right from the beginning, we get a solid and only slightly preposterous explanation for why everyone keeps making sure the camera is rolling, and just who edited all of this footage together in the first place. It doesn't reconcile all the logical flaws inherent to the gimmick, but at least it tries to justify itself more than most of them bother to do, and for someone who consistently rails against lazy found footage trash, the effort is much appreciated.
The story follows a group of kids who receive a series of mysterious instructions through their cell phones leading them to a diminutive alien robot they name Echo, who in typical E.T. fashion needs their help to get home. Its actually sort of a cross between E.T. and one of its better imitators, the 1985 film Explorers, sending the group on an adventure to build a mysterious device while dodging sinister government agents along the way. One nice twist is that Echo, clearly a child himself or at least childlike, has the ability to manipulate machines, combining commonplace technology into new forms and completely disassembling matter and controlling it technopathically. One scene shamelessly spoiled in the trailer has him tearing apart an entire truck and piecing it back together a few seconds later, representing only a few seconds that were more effective than the entire aforementioned Abrams film.
I bring up Super 8 because, as a fan of this somewhat esoteric subgenre of family-oriented science fiction, I find it especially disappointing to see this much better execution of a similar premise come and go with so little fanfare, shuffled between multiple studios, never quite finding an audience. In my review for Oz, The Great And Powerful, I lamented the loss of innocence and cinematic majesty that has been brought on by too much reliance on CGI, but Earth To Echo seems dead set on proving that magic and wonder can come out of a computer just as easily as Jim Henson's Creature Shop. It doesn't quite succeed, but it comes about as close as I think any movie is capable of getting in this day and age. Found footage is supposed to be more immersive, but all too often it only serves to highlight our separation from what's happening onscreen, and I can't help but wonder how much better this movie could have been if it had been filmed more traditionally, in a way that allowed for its world to be more warm and inviting.
Earth To Echo's biggest problem just so happens to be the one thing that makes it novel and interesting. Its stuck going in two different, diametrically opposed directions, tonally evoking the past but narratively dependant on modern technology and the shallow expectations of today's shaky cam loving younger generation. Its not quite old school, but has just enough of the right feel to let you forgive some of its flashier, cheesier elements, even as they undermine what should have been the heart of the thing. But it does have heart, which is so often lacking in today's family movies outside of the best of Disney that I still say its worth the struggle to dig it out under a mountain of cringe-worthy attempts to appeal to low attention span kids glued to their I-Pads. It may not be the kids movie I want it to be, but then I'm almost 30, so the fact that I'm as invested in that prospect as I am is starting to get pretty creepy anyway.
Sunday, July 27, 2014
At its best, science fiction has to be more than just crazy, high concept gimmickry. Literary sci-fi lives or dies by its intellectual acumen, but the visual medium has allowed science fiction cinema to all too often dispense with making its audience think in favor of flashy but shallow visceral entertainment. Even when this is done exceptionally well as in this year’s Edge of Tomorrow, it always feels like something is missing from the equation. The new film Snowpiercer, criminally consigned to a small theatrical run and VOD, sets out to prove that this divide between smart and entertaining need not be an either or proposition, effortlessly blending thought provoking and socially conscious ideas with some of the most engaging action and suspense you’re likely to see all year, resulting in a movie that is everything a great sci-fi film should be.
Snowpiercer follows the last of humanity after an ill-fated attempt to prevent global warming freezes the Earth. The rest of us remain on a high tech super train, the Snowpiercer of the title, endlessly circling the planet, its people segmented into a class system where social status is aligned geographically. Those in the front represent the rich and sophisticated (the top 1%), while those in the back represent the rabble, left in squalor and only kept around for those few, mostly children, who are regularly taken for mysterious purposes. A revolt led by a reluctant anti-hero leads to an escalating war of attrition as an increasingly smaller group of rebels travel car by car in the hopes of seizing control of the engine, learning dark secrets about their tiny encapsulated world with each level of advancement.
The film is the English language debut of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, best known to American audiences for redefining the Giant Monster movie years before Gareth Edwards with The Host (not to be confused with the terrible Stephenie Meyer movie of the same name). What The Host did for its genre, Snowpiercer does for post-apocalyptic fiction, instantly ranking as a modern classic alongside the best of the canon. It uses its dark futuristic setting not just to provide an interesting set-piece for its many action sequences, but to actually say something about the present, which sounds almost too obvious until you think about how many sci-fi movies waste perfectly good opportunities to do so. Leave it to someone from a whole different country to perfectly encapsulate our nihilistic class war politics and Randian social darwinism as public policy.
But if you’re not interested in the politics or social commentary, Snowpiercer still delivers as a dystopian action adventure piece even if you ignore all of the substance. Structurally, the film feels like a live action anime in the best sense of that comparison, its world implausible but completely believable, and its characters ranging from deadly serious to absolutely cartoonish with no disconnect from the reality the movie creates. The tone it establishes is so engaging from the start that there is no plot turn too insane or too depressing to take you out of it or stop you from having fun. The reveal of what their food is made of would just in itself be the final twist to an M. Night Shyamalan movie, but Snowpiercer is the kind of trip that throws it out at the end of act one and just keeps going.
2014 has been a particularly good year for science fiction and the slate of upcoming movies in the second half only looks better and better, but as of now at least, Snowpiercer is the one to beat, and its hard for me to conceive of what might do it. It is unlike anything you are going to see this year or likely in many years to come, wholly original and yet instantly relatable. Nothing about the narrative is predictable and the payoffs are many and uniformly satisfying. Rarely is there a movie that I might deign to call perfect, the closest in recent memory being my favorite movies of the past two years, The World’s End and Pirates: Band Of Misfits respectively, but I have absolutely no problem placing Snowpiercer in that category. Its a cliche, but there’s nothing else to say except that if you see no other movie this year, make it this one.
Friday, July 25, 2014
The new documentary Jodorowsky's Dune chronicles the famously failed attempt by an eccentric Chilean filmmaker to adapt the classic science fiction novel by Frank Herbert into a surrealist epic nearly a decade prior to the David Lynch version. As a film about film, it is a fascinating look at what might have been, and like many documentaries about something as subjective as art, it manages to succeed in spite of its skewed perspective. I do not refer to the obviously skewed mind of its star the director himself, though he is certainly a lovably odd personality. Rather, I refer to the entire premise of the movie, which proves even more insightful than it thinks it is by either not realizing or deliberately ignoring the fact that everyone in the movie is bat shit crazy and wrong.
The point of view of the doc is quite evident throughout and obviously propelled by the personal biases of its interview subjects, many of whom directly worked on the original project and naturally assume it would have been nothing short of a masterpiece if only it had been fully realized. That the first person to express this assumption is Jodorowsky fan Nicholas Winding Refn should be your first sign that maybe you should question it. If the director of the unbearable soul raping that is Only God Forgives thinks an idea is great, that’s a pretty blaring warning sign right off the bat. Not that you’d need it, as a majority of the film is devoted to showing us just how much we dodged a bullet by not having this movie debut when it was intended to.
This might sound odd considering all the things the proposed film had going for it on paper, which the doc details extensively. A committed cast including Mick Jagger, Orson Wells, and Salvador Dali, a soundtrack by Pink Floyd in their prime, and conceptual design work from luminaries like Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger, where could it go wrong? Well, for the answer to that you have to go back to the ringleader of the whole thing Jodorowsky himself, a surrealist director most well known for the films El Topo and Holy Mountain, who notes that at least prior to pursuing the project he had not even bothered to read the book, and gives no indication throughout his interview that he ever did so after the fact. The production basically gave us the people who would later bring us Alien, and a montage towards the end shows all the elements from his treatment that have been used in other films, but these examples only prove to make it more conspicuous that the only part of this failed film that didn’t go on to greater success was the man himself.
Beyond the explicit descriptions of what the film would have been, there are two moments in the doc that perfectly encapsulate how misguided this whole enterprise was. The first is one of the artists working on ship designs, who talks about his introduction to Jodorowsky’s work as being the movie Holy Mountain. He watches a scene where Jesus Christ shits out a turd made of solid gold and says “I need to work with that guy,” clearly not seeing the obvious unintended metaphor. Later on in the doc, Jodorowsky himself talks about how he strayed from the source material in his script, comparing it to how one should treat a bride on their wedding night. Specifically, he says that one must rape the original story just like one must rape their new wife, as respecting them too much will ruin the fun of it. You might be thinking that his tenuous grasp of English is to blame for this, but trust me, he goes on this track way too long to excuse it as a mistranslation.
It should be no surprise then that everything fans hate about the Dune film we actually got would have only been magnified in Jodorowsky’s version. Its easy and convenient to imagine the failed project as automatically better and infuse it with all the things you might want the perfect Dune movie to be, but there’s no reason to think it would have actually been better, and we now have documented evidence that it would have been so much worse. You don’t like the whole magic rain thing at the end? How about that plus Paul dying and his soul possessing every Fremen worshiper, who then magically compel the entire now verdant planet Arrakas to travel throughout space spreading the messiah’s message of peace throughout the galaxy? Kinda makes the whole Weirding Module and voice over thing seem kind of picayune by comparison.
One of the director’s fan’s ominously suggests that by debuting before George Lucas’ Star Wars series, that Jodorowsky’s Dune might have irrevocably altered the direction of science fiction away from mainstream Speilbergian entertainment and towards a more arty, intellectual paradigm. I very much doubt this, but the possibility is chilling. Sure, maybe we’d get less Michael Bays, but just imagine if every science fiction film were as heady, slow moving, and impenetrable as 2001. Like it or not (and I don’t), mainstream appeal is what keeps high concept genre fiction in business. A geek culture so high brow and esoteric that it completely refuses to let the outsider in is one that doesn’t get the acclaim and the resulting budgets for a Marvel Cinematic Universe or an annual slate of summer movies catering to our weird taste. Its a double edged sword, but I’m thankful to be cut on the shallow, flashy end of it.
Jodorowsky’s Dune misses the forest for the trees in its knee jerk acceptance of the premise that this batshit director’s vision was inherently superior to Lynch’s, but because the lie is so self-evident, it still serves a purpose of disabusing anyone of the notion that any of this was a good idea. Its sort of like America: Imagine A World Without Her in that sense, just for pretentious movie nerds with their heads too far up their asses instead of right wing conservatives with their heads too far up their asses. They’ll nod along no matter how much pressure it puts on their colons, but those of us in the real world, outside of the hipstery bubble, will understand just how flimsy the arguments are. Thankfully, this is much more well made and entertaining to watch than America, and if only as a rare glimpse into the mind of madness and an interesting examination of how one charismatic loon can amass so much talent around him for such a faulty purpose, I’d highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in film.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
I want to love Melissa McCarthy, I really do, but she’s not making it easy for me. With her latest film, she has officially burned through her remaining lifetime allotment of caveats lamenting her obvious talent in the wake of yet another terrible movie she’s chosen to be in. And at this point we have to assume that it’s her choice, right? It can’t just be typecasting and studio pressure, can it? McCarthy would seem to be at a point in her career where she could do pretty much whatever she wants, and of all the things she could have done, she’s regrettably decided to unleash Tammy upon the world. I just give up...I can't do this anymore.
This is usually the point where I would give a brief synopsis of the film, but to do so here would only be to disingenuously suggest that this movie had a plot. Now, I've called movies plot-less before, but evidently I have been ill-prepared for just how inconsequential a story could be and still qualify as a movie. You might think based on the advertising that Tammy is a simple road movie, a traditionally flimsy pretext that practically writes itself, and technically you'd be right, but even within that framework, Tammy doesn't even do the bare minimum of establishing a reason to care about any of it. Tommy Boy, for example, might just be a shameless riff on Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, but at least they took the time to throw in a central conflict. Hell, even Bad Grandpa had more reason to exist than this movie. Tammy begins with the title character about to give mouth to mouth to a dying deer on the highway, and I almost thought this was going to pan out into a Freddie Got Fingered style gross out fest, but even that was giving it too much credit.
In this way, Tammy is the quintessential Melissa McCarthy movie, stripped down to its very essence of that same character you've seen a dozen times now improvising her way through one arbitrary scenario after another. Tammy herself is simply a redressing of the obnoxious in your face lady from Bridesmaids, Identity Thief, The Heat, and so on, only now with a slightly dirtier shirt, driving cross country with her grandma with no need for a script and only the most routine and disposable character development possible. By the time the movie finally gets around to shooting for some substance in the third act, its almost insulting to watch what had been an endless stream of unfunny schtick turn into a weird dramatic piece about alcoholism and family dysfunction, after an hour or so of the thing deliberately keeping us from giving a shit about any of the people involved.
And most of those people are way too good for this movie by the way. Kathy Bates, Susan Sarandon, Mark Duplass, Gary Cole, Allison Janney, Nat Faxon, Toni Collette, Dan Aykroyd. This is a list of names that when brought together into one movie should have been something magical. To say that they are under-utilized doesn't even cover it. These are actors that can turn the dumbest material into gold, or at least one would have thought so before the challenge of doing so here proved too much for even their collectively awesome talent. I'd ask what they possibly could have seen in the script to this piece of shit, but there is no way in hell there ever was one, or rather if there was, it was one page that just read “Melissa McCarthy does that thing she always does for another 90 minutes. The End.” Excited yet?
Hollywood is like that kid that you see hopefully begat to other parents who are not yourself, precocious but not necessarily intelligent, who keys into something adults find momentarily amusing about them and proceeds to repeat it ad nauseum until you want to kill yourself. Worse than any Transformers movie or millionth remake/reboot, Tammy is the twisted bastard Omen child of that childish system, and like all children birthed by children, the result is riddled with deformities. I know this analogy has gotten away from me, but fuck it, that's how much this movie sucks, that even that strange stream of consciousness is the only thing that can adequately describe its awfulness. If it holds any distinction, it is only as the first movie of 2014 to be so unbearably bad that it knocks Ride Along off the top of my list of worst movies of the year (once again, for the record, Dinesh D'Souza's America doesn't count as a movie). I guess congratulations are in order. Excuse me while I vomit.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
New DSOP is up, this week talking Monkey movies with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and America: Imagine a World Without Her (a movie designed to appeal to the stupid money in all of us). We really monkey the crap out of this one folks.
Sunday, July 20, 2014
Sorry I keep disappearing, but last week's unexpected vacation gave way to this week's annual 48 hour film festival. My group of amateur filmmakers Edwin J Hill produced a sweet little short called Home Grown that I'll be posting as soon as it is available (have to wait until after the first public screening). Anyway, things should be back to normal this week, and in the meantime, here's the latest episode of my Saturday Night Jive podcast, all about the Anthony Michael Hall movie Out Of Bounds. Enjoy.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
The original Planet of the Apes famously began in medias res, throwing a human ostensibly like us into a strange topsy turvy world the beginnings of which were only hinted at in one of the most iconic twist endings in film history. Later sequels would employ time travel to fill in the gaps of just how human civilization would give way to an ape dominated world, but thanks largely to test audiences and studio interference, the series never fulfilled its promise of developing a truly cyclical, and thus utterly hopeless, narrative. The new series seems to be trying to tell more or less the same story in roughly chronological order, only updating the pseudoscience to exploit modern day fears of viral apocalypse that have superseded nuclear paranoia. The result is entertaining in the short term, but I can’t help but wonder if this approach may doom this franchise, ironically enough by forgetting that doom should always be the central conceit.
Dawn of the Planet Of The Apes should really have been called Rise of the Planet of the Apes in retrospect, with the first film in the reboot series bearing the new title. Of course, I say reboot, but then exactly what we should call this series has always been a bit confusing. Is it a reboot, a prequel, or some combination of both? Its certainly a different take on the story in its own universe, and yet similar enough that there are certain expectations tied to it. Whether it is fair to saddle this essentially original timeline with the standards of a completely different and much older series is a tough question, but then they shouldn’t have tried to play in the sandbox of such a well known property without allowing for this kind of analysis. As the modern series progresses, it becomes more important to ask just what it owes to the original films that inspired it, and how closely it must hue to what we know of the previous story in order to remain faithful to them.
Rise, for example, has often been compared to the fourth film in the original series Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and in many ways its sequel feels just as much like a remake of the fifth and final original film Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Both feature Caesar leading a more fledgling society of post-revolutionary apes struggling to maintain a fragile peace with what is left of the human population, only to find territorial conflict between the two groups to be inevitable. The problem is, Battle represented the end of a saga, while Dawn is only the beginning of a new one, and with its connection to the other series being so nebulous, its hard to see where this one can go from here that doesn’t either mire the story in stagnant ape on human warfare, or so radically change the setting and structure of the story in such a way that its core audience might not be prepared for the shift in tone or sense of realism. Its hard to explain exactly what I mean by this without excessive spoilers, but in effect, Dawn runs up against the need to expand this world from the experience of one small group of apes crossing a bridge to a whole civilization overtaking what was once the human world, and doesn’t quite know how far it wants to go.
The biggest problem with the movie is that it doesn’t really progress the story of Caesar and his ape army any further than where we left them at the end of the previous film. Assuming that you were as ready as I was for the inevitable coming war between apes and a virus addled human race, you might be forgiven for being somewhat underwhelmed upon discovering that Dawn does not represent that war in its entirety, as much as the first of what is implied will be many battles to come. In the end, the apes are still exactly where they were at the beginning, waiting for the war they started to escalate. A friend of mine who also saw the film defends this by describing the skirmish in Dawn as the proverbial shot heard round the world, that point of no return promising an escalating conflict to come, but here I kind of thought a bunch of monkeys taking over an entire forest and inadvertently reducing the world’s population to a frightened fraction of what it once was already did that. Sure, Caesar learns a valuable lesson about not assuming apes can’t be just as evil as humans, but did we really need a whole movie just for that when we could have been setting up time loops, psychic mutants, and hot monkey on astronaut romance?
But there I go again, holding this new series to the standards of the previous one, when I should just be thanking my lucky stars that it was able to somewhat miraculously wash out the taste of Tim Burton’s terrible remake out of our mouths with seemingly little effort. Its just that the thing that made the original series so great is that it was actually about the Planet of the Apes, which is to say it was more important than any one protagonist. Heston is the hero, then a minor character, then Zira and Cornelius take over, only to be replaced by their son Caesar. This new series is far too married to Caesar as its focus, due in large part to Andy Serkis’ much heralded performance, and I question whether it can sustain a time jump refocusing on a different character. At the moment, it almost feels like they want to show us the evolution of apes from beasts to intelligent creatures in real time as if that will somehow make the idea more plausible, but at some point you have to just leap forward and show us their world in its full madhouse glory. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe we never have to see the crash of the ship hinted at in a quick scene in the first movie. Maybe we never have to expand outward at all, but then is it really the Planet of the Apes at that point, or just, like, the Town of the Apes? Doesn’t really have the same ring to it.
Then again, we do get monkeys on horseback wielding double machine guns and riding tanks, so on some level all of this is just nitpicking. Purely as an entertaining summer blockbuster, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is certainly satisfying and perhaps more thoughtful than most, even if the fourth Transformers movie managed to show more promise for future installments. Though we never quite move forward, its still fun just to watch this innocent forest dwelling society slowly develop a more complete and complex understanding of the world that came before and the world they will be helping to create (assuming we ever get there). For better and for worse, this is Caesar’s story, and you couldn’t ask for a better ape to latch onto for an emotional arc (though personally I found his second in command and would be antagonist Koba just a bit more interesting and dynamic, but then I’m a sucker for Judases, or Brutuses as the case may be). Here’s hoping the next movie manages to be at least as entertaining AND actually have a point to it. Or at least mind controlling subterranean mutants. They were awesome.
Monday, July 14, 2014
So...I'm not dead as it turns out. Had to go out of town on short notice, sorry for the lack of updates for anyone who cares. Anyway, here's the latest episode of my podcast, The Dirty Sons Of Pitches. This is a special Director's Cut episode devoted to the career of Stanley Kubrick. Enjoy.
Wednesday, July 9, 2014
Even though I actually took the time to see it, in theaters no less, I didn’t bother to review Dinesh D’Souza’s last feature, 2016: Obama’s America. It wasn’t that I didn’t have more than enough material to sift through, but rather, I didn’t write it for the same reason I was hesitant to write about his latest effort, America: Imagine A World Without Her. It’s the same reason I didn’t even include 2016 in by top and bottom films of that year, even though it would have certainly been at the bottom of the list had I done so. In short, I didn’t even want to dignify that garbage with the bare minimum qualification of considering it a film, and the same goes for its newly released spiritual successor.
America: Imagine A World Without Her, is disingenuous even before you find out that it doesn’t actually try to imagine a world where America doesn’t exist. More crucial even than that is that it dares to call itself a documentary. A documentary can have a point of view and even a bias, it can even be mostly polemic, but at its core, there has to be something more to it than that. The films of Michael Moore that D’Souza pathetically tries to counterbalance certainly present themselves with a liberal perspective, but they also present information as well as argument that would be of interest to the laymen walking in on the street. A documentary can’t just be preaching to a choir. That’s called propaganda. America is as much a documentary as Triumph of the Will, and not nearly as well made.
I will not waste time attempting to delve into the alternate reality of Conservative America the right wing has had to create in the post Bush II era to justify being so proudly wrong about everything, as that would require a level of intellectual engagement that even this “movie” is too lazy to summon up. I don’t just mean that it is intellectually bankrupt, which goes without saying. I mean that it doesn’t even establish the pretense of pseudo-intellectual debate that the previous “film” did. 2016: Obama’s America was all about providing really terrible but barely plausible sounding arguments to back up the craziest of crackpot right wing causes, but this new one doesn’t seem to have the energy even for that, and instead settles for an emotional ploy.
No, this movie isn’t about making you think (incorrectly), it’s about making you feel (stupidly). Specifically, its about making you feel proud to be an American in a very particular, immature way, and by American, I of course use the official conservative definition of that term, signifying white male Republicans at or above a certain comfortable level of wealth. You know, “Real Americans.” The first half is completely devoted to refuting the idea that America has ever done anything wrong ever, providing a comfy rationalized context for the slaughter of the Native Americans, the annexation of Mexican territory, and the institution of Slavery, not to mention American Imperialism and Laissez Faire Capitalism. Oh, and once he’s convinced you that all that stuff was okay, he throws in a reminder that Hillary Clinton partied with Saul Alinsky, so you better not think about doing anything crazy like electing her president should the opportunity happen to come up at some point.
That’s not to say he’s that convincing. Naturally, trying to justify slavery and genocide to make white people feel better would be a pretty steep task for anyone, but the most offensive thing about this attempt is that he has the balls to set out to make this sort of counter claim, and then almost stubbornly fails to argue his case. I don’t just mean that he makes bad arguments, though in many cases he does, but on the essential questions he poses to himself to answer, he literally doesn’t even try to make any arguments. He asks if Slavery represented a theft of labor from African Americans, then talks about a black guy who owned slaves, and mentions how before and during slavery, white indentured servants were used too. And then he moves on. He doesn’t even make the bullshit non-connection you would expect him to make, no doubt because he assumes like all dog whistling propagandists that his slack jawed audience has already made it for him in their heads. The closest he comes to an argument is his proposition that because Spaniards and disease killed a lot of Indians before we started, and other countries had slaves before we did, that somehow our part in those injustices weren’t so bad. Really?
The way he presents the indictments against American history, or rather the simple historical facts that complicate his suggested child-like view of it, you would be hard pressed to come away thinking he made his case unless you already agreed with him. I know, that sounds obvious, as all conservative media is just more howling in the echo chamber, but the whole point of creating straw men is so you can easily beat them, and here, he builds them, can’t find the strength to shoot them down, and then skips on to the next thing, pretending he won. Often he will present a point of view the film obviously disagrees with, and then just lets it go as if we’re meant to actually take stock in it, like Noam Chomsky’s unchallenged assertion of America’s coups against other countries or Elizabeth Warren’s famous speech on the common good aiding entrepreneurship, and you almost want to think this might be some sort of balance, until you realize that he doesn’t need to argue anymore, because the people he’s playing to have already heard the bullshit a million times and accept it without question.
D’Souza’s greatest skill and his greatest asset as a charlatan is his ability to feign a sort of “awe shucks” naïve optimism even while catering to some of the worst, most paranoid, bigoted, and jingoistic impulses of the modern American right. He uses his own history as an immigrant to talk about how wonderful it is that we are a nation of immigrants in the same week that members of his target audience shouted at a busload of impoverished Mexican children to go back to where they came from. He argues that the abolition of slavery rather than its ahistorical expansion is what we should focus on, that the Civil War to end the practice is a hallmark of our moral character, conveniently forgetting that most of his fans believe that war ended with the wrong side winning, or is just in intermission as they say in the South. By attempting to absolve America of its past sins, D’Souza is not simply combating shame as his screed asserts, but instead seeking to justify further sins, validating a worldview that we’d all be better off back in some imaginary version of the Leave It To Beaver 1950’s where everything was great as long as women stayed in the kitchen, gays stayed in the closet, Mexicans stayed in Mexico, and blacks stayed at the back of the bus.
And do I even have to say that on top of everything else, it’s extremely bad on a technical production level? Every scene that isn’t D’Souza looking ponderously at something patriotic or ominously unpatriotic is an incredibly silly re-enactment of history performed by some of the worst actors I’ve ever seen. He can’t even settle down long enough to create a narrative that connects anything he’s talking about. As craven and deceitful as 2016 was, at least it told a story, a lie supported by many other lies, sure, but a cohesive series of them nonetheless. America begins by asking an interesting question – what would the world be like without America, and then completely forgets about it. It then bounces around the historical revisionism for a while, only to lead into an unrelated diatribe against right wing boogey man Saul Alinsky. By the end, we finally get to what I highly suspect is D’Souza’s main point, where he has the gall to bring in his own recent legal troubles, placing them in the context of the now thoroughly debunked IRS scandal as if to imply that his looming prison sentence for campaign finance fraud is the result of a tyrannical administration punishing dissent, and not the fact that he, you know, fucking knowingly broke the law!
Al Franken once observed that, while liberals and conservatives both love America, they love it in different ways. Liberals love America like an adult loves their parents, seeing them not just as mom and dad, but as complex individuals with strengths and flaws. Conservatives love America like a baby loves his mommy, who in the child’s eyes can do no wrong, and anyone who says so is a lying bastard. Of course, he made this observation long before Obama took office, after which the American right dropped the entire pretense that their love of our country wasn’t conditioned on their running it. Still, when did Patriotism become synonymous with pretending America is perfect? The right always talks about personal responsibility, but what about national responsibility, or historical responsibility? The only reason one would have to mitigate the evils of the past is that these people don’t actually think genocide, slavery, and conquest are in fact evil, and if that’s the case, just say that. Please, say it over and over again, right up until Election Day. And don’t forget to tell us all what you really think about contraception and the legitimacy of rape as well. Cause that always works out.
If there’s any saving grace in all this, it’s that if the average age of my audience is any indication, what we used to call the Culture War, now escalated into a conflict over the terms of rationality itself, has officially become a war of attrition. Eventually, enough of these morons will die off, with smarter, more tolerant young people rising up to take their place in greater number than the next generation of dullards. This demographic edge that will one day decapitate the beast of modern American conservatism will not sharpen overnight, so we probably have at least one more D’Souza joint in our future. I look forward to his first post jail time movie, all about what it’s like for an ex con living in a world created by Hillary Clinton after she resoundly trounces whichever drooling troglodyte and/or Randian sociopath they manage to put up against her in 2016. No doubt by then, the right wing will have degenerated even further, perhaps far enough that he will be making the case for why we shouldn’t be too hard on that delightful German fellow with the little mustache. Now that’s a re-enactment I want to see.
Monday, July 7, 2014
This week on Saturday Night Jive, George and I talk about a movie with five SNL alums, The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle. I honestly don't remember what we talked about, because this movie was so terrible, it burned a hole in my brain where my memories of it used to be. Enjoy.
Sunday, July 6, 2014
In all honesty, I wasn't the biggest fan of the original 21 Jump Street, and that goes for the original show as well as the first comedy remake. The show was always cheesy, but the movie was just a bit too self referential and meta for its own good, winking too often at the camera, and even worse, relying way too much on improvised dialogue hinging on the overrated charisma of its two stars. Overrated is actually a good word for it, not terrible, just not nearly as funny or well written as it was purported to be. The new sequel only places greater emphasis on many of the qualities that put me off about the first one, and yet paradoxically, the result is much more entertaining.
22 Jump Street finds the odd couple undercover cops from the first movie graduating to an assignment in college, where we are reminded incessantly that they will be expected to do the same exact thing they did last time, so as to get the same result that everybody liked. Get it? They’re in a sequel, and their real life goals are proxies for the goals of the film itself. Sorry, I know it ruins a joke when you explain it, but the problem with meta humor is that you almost explain the joke as you tell it, and the more obvious it is (extremely so in this case), the more condescending it comes across. It can be done right, but once you get to the point where a character literally has a red herring tattoo (a joke I’m pretty sure they stole from A Pup Named Scooby Doo), you know you’re not exactly in Dan Harmon territory.
And yet, the increased reliance on meta jokes turns out to be a double edged sword, as it seems to have forced the writing process to be a little more disciplined. Apart from an opening scene of the guys just voguing for the camera, it doesn't seem like they’re just goofing off and making things up as they go along. The structure is a little more clear, the set ups and payoffs more well constructed and as a result more satisfying. I actually get the sense that someone wrote this movie, and then the thing they wrote was valued in some way beyond a template for Jonah Hill’s nebbishy riffing and whatever Channing Tatum is doing that he thinks is comedy. In short, I don’t feel like I’m being insulted by off the cuff laziness, so its easier to get in the right mood to laugh along with a dumb comedy like this.
All around, the setting and expanded cast of characters is superior to the original. A friend and fellow critic who actually enjoyed the first film was disappointed that once the pair got to college there wasn’t a role reversal twist as in the original, but for me, that never really added much to the original, and having the nerdy guy fit in with the nerds and the jock fit in with the jocks just streamlines the whole thing and gets us past a story element that really isn't all that important anyway. Peter Stormare might not be as well utilized as Rob Riggle (who still gets a cameo), but Jillian Bell’s deadpan roommate is easily an improvement on Dave Franco, even if he is by far the superior Franco.
In the end, 22 Jump Street is still probably not quite as good as its box office numbers might suggest, but at least it crosses a threshold of entertainment to where I could sit through it without feeling bad for the collective tastes of my country. No, there will be no Edge of Tomorrow style “Pearls before Swine” diatribe here, though for the record you should still be spending your comedy dollar on the much better written A Million Ways To Die In The West. If you liked the first one, this new installment doesn't deviate so much from what you probably liked to turn you off, and if like me you were among the minority who disliked the original, the sequel might have improved just enough to sway you. (Also, be sure to stick around for the credits, which take the meta commentary so far that it goes from annoying to brilliant, providing the funniest coda to a film since The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.)
Saturday, July 5, 2014
When I started this Book Learnin’ series largely by accident, I hadn’t fully considered just how many movies there were based on the works of Stephen King. I’ve already talked about two of them (It and The Shining), and going forward I plan to dole them out in every even numbered installment. The odds will usually be more random, but this time around, I went out of my way to focus on the author that, even more so than Clive Barker, has been considered by many readers to be the next best thing to King, or at least his dimestore equivalent, Dean Koontz. And because I have it on good authority that Ben Affleck is the bomb in the movie, I thought I would start with perhaps his most famous work, Phantoms.
I had almost no history, and thus no preconceived notions surrounding this book or this movie going into it. I’d never read the novel, and while I had seen the film once, back when it first came out, I discovered upon second viewing that I had virtually no recollection of it whatsoever. Its rare that a movie can have so little effect on me, one way or the other, that I would just completely forget it, making me wonder if I was even paying attention the first time, or if I maybe just had it on in the background and thought I had actually seen the movie all this time, when I really hadn’t. In any case, I’ve now seen the thing properly at least once, with the benefit of the original source material for comparison, and in retrospect, I wish I hadn’t bothered.
This is the first Book Learnin’ where I picked a book/film combination somewhat arbitrarily, without any particular passion, positive or negative, for either one, and while I will almost certainly do it again as I begin to explore books and movies I am completely unfamiliar with, the results this time almost derailed the project completely. This is not the first attempt at a comparison review of this story, but rather only the latest of many drafts where a blank page with nothing to say forced me to start over, even though I technically hadn’t even written anything yet. You may have already noticed that I’m already three paragraphs in and haven’t actually talked about the book or the movie yet, and that’s because I’m still dreading the prospect of doing so.
It’s not even that either version of Phantoms is necessarily bad, but then if either of them were particularly bad, I might have something to talk about. The premise is interesting enough, a town obliterated by a preternatural creature able to assume the form and knowledge of anything it eats, terrorizing the people who discover the aftermath under the assumed belief that it is the Devil all of its victims thought it was as it was eating them. The problem is, that’s really all it has going for it, a cool monster. Say what you will about the often crushing self-indulgence of King, at least he knows that the monster itself should always be secondary to the human characters facing off against it. You can have the creepiest evil imaginable, but if you don’t care about the people its creeping out, it doesn’t really matter.
Most of this fault lies with the book, which presents its characters less like real people and more like cyphers for the author’s need to get as much exposition out as possible through dialogue instead of some more interesting or organic way. We get perfunctory backstories, a son in a coma, unresolved issues with the female protagonist’s mother, but really, all these people are here to do is observe the supernatural stuff after the fact and present theories as to what it might be, eventually cobbling together an idea of what it actually is, whether or not these specific characters should or would posit these particular notions based on what little you know about them.
The easiest solution, it seems to me, would have been to tell this story, or at least the parts of it where information about the creature was revealed, from the point of view of the creature itself. It has a voice, and given its religious view of itself this might have been a fascinating psyche to explore, but instead we get two sisters, a British guy, and a bunch of rube sheriffs stumbling around trying to figure it all out with deductive reasoning. The creature eventually settles on one character to write his gospel anyway, so why not have half the book be that, straight from the demon’s mouth? Or better yet, leave something up to mystery and don’t bother to explain it so much at all, instead of having characters puke out midichlorians at every opportunity.
This wouldn’t be so lame if the effects of the creature weren’t so all over the place. Some victims are disappeared completely, reduced to water and piles of indigestible matter, while others are left as purple, semi rotten corpses. But then others are decapitated or left presented as if to scare the people who find them, like this creature who thinks he’s the Devil assumes that means he’s the curator of a town-wide haunted hootchie. Even the titular phantoms, appearances of the creature shapeshifted into the dead things it has eaten, aren’t really used all that often or to that great effect. Setting up a mystery like this with clues the reader is meant to solve along with the characters only works if those clues come together in the end and make sense, but in this case, they are merely forced together, only making sense after the explanation is hammered into your head.
By contrast, the movie is actually considerably better, though not by enough to really justify the adaptation, and not enough to look back on it as a classic in its own right. Surprisingly, Dean Koontz is credited with the screenplay as well, and considering how many of the changes and omissions improve upon the story, either this means he understood what didn’t work in his book in time to write the film version, or his credit masks a number of re-writes by uncredited screenwriters. The exposition is streamlined to only what is absolutely necessary, which means there’s not as much clunky dialogue, and as a result the characters feel a lot more relatable. Entire subplots are removed without any overall effect on the story, most notably a serial killer teaming up with a Satan worshiping biker, which in the novel feels pointless as its happening and only insults you with its pointlessness by the end of it.
And you simply can’t argue with the cast. Rose McGowan aside, you couldn’t ask for a better group of people to elevate these otherwise shallow characters. Peter O’Toole is of course the highlight, a man who I don’t believe understood the concept of phoning it in for a paycheck. He does everything he can to bring class to this hollow mess, and with the help of an incredibly young looking Affleck and the always intriguingly menacing Liev Schreiber in an early villainous role, its largely a successful effort. Affleck might have been, or at least might have looked a bit too young for the role of a sheriff implied to be somewhat older and more grizzled in the book, but his natural Armageddon era charisma shines through, and Schreiber’s creepy rednecky monster deserves a spin-off of his own.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the film is that despite the fact that it was made in 1998 during that period where CGI was just starting to be seriously exploited, but before it was really ready to be, the special effects actually hold up pretty well. Its actually a mix of practical effects and CGI, and there was nothing that in hindsight looks particularly dated on a technical level, except those moments that feel like deliberate nods to 80’s movies, most obviously John Carpenter’s The Thing. A scene with a mutated dog (naturally), and a climactic attack by Schreiber using his own intestines as tentacle-like weapons are clear homages, and you get the sense that adapting this book might just have been an excuse to do a thematic sequel, imagining what might happen if the Thing had reached land.
Its not quite good enough to live up to that legacy, but it's entertaining enough that I might suggest giving it a re-watch, but only if you have nothing better to do that day. As for the book, I don’t know enough about Koontz’ other writing to speculate about whether or not this stilted, expository style is common for him, though it only makes me more curious to read Odd Thomas, which was recently adapted into a movie and seems like a story that would be absolutely ruined by this kind of robotic characterization. Then again, I don’t know if I could actually bring myself to spend the time it would take actually reading another Koontz novel to find out. Maybe this one is the exception and the majority of them are much better, good enough to justify the success he has had, but if I didn’t have a blog to write, I doubt I would have any reason to find out.
(Note: It should also be mentioned that, at least according to Wikipedia, the movie version was one of the primary inspirations for the setting of the classic survival horror video game series Silent Hill, which sort of makes sense, and kind of makes me want to break out my old PS1 to catch all the similarities. But then, I suppose that would require me to start a whole new comparison series, and after eleven paragraphs of this, I don’t know if I have the strength.)