Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ninja Assassin and New Moon

I wanted to see Ninja Assassin, but my girlfriend wants to see New Moon. So we compromised and watched both of them. This is the sort of compromise that leaves both people cranky and exhausted. Although that's mostly because, while both movies are exceedingly dumb, we watched New Moon last. And at least Ninja Assassin had some entertainment to go with its stupidity.

Okay, Ninja Assassin. This is the Dumb Movie for Boys. It stars Korean pop star Rain as a renegade ninja named Raito, who escaped from the clan years ago and is now bring hunted down. There are, as you might have guessed, a lot of fight scenes.

One thing I liked was that they put a lot of effort into making the ninjas feel like the mythical unstoppable killers of legend. You know how a lot of movies have ninjas that couldn't threaten a fuzzy bunny rabbit? These ninjas aren't like that. The shuriken in particular feel even more dangerous than bullets. They're huge, fast, sharp, and come whizzing out of the darkness, shattering whatever gets in their way. It's probably too late to make ninjas cool again, but this movie does what it can. And it's got Sho Kosugi as the old master ninja, which is a role he's played a million times.

The movie's really about two things: crazy fight scenes (with weapons that vary from "real" to "obviously CGI") and Rain With His Shirt Off. He's covered in scars and blood, but he always has time to pose with his abdominal muscles flexing. One character complains that he looks like he belongs in a boy band, but that's just because he chose one of the rare moments when Rain's wearing a shirt.

And speaking of characters taking off their shirts for no reason, let's move on to The Twilight Saga: New Moon. This is a boring story of Bella, a boring girl who has the magical power of making everybody fall in love with her. I felt sorry for the few mortal kids who befriended her in the first movie, since Bella just blows them off in favor of mooning (ha!) over Dreamy Edward Cullen, a pasty-faced vampire of Clan Mope.

In this movie, Bella's extra-cranky because her beloved Edward has left her because he's afraid that it's bad for her to hang around vampires. So after pouting for three months, she makes friends with Jacob, who turns out to be a werewolf and then tells her to stay away from him because he's afraid that it's bad for her to hang around werewolves. At this point, I think it's perfectly understandable if Bella gets some sort of a complex, what with all the boys she likes suddenly turning out to be supernatural killers and shoving her away. Although all she cares about is being left alone; she never really seems worried about the part about vampires and werewolves.

It's still not clear why everyone falls in love with Bella instantly. Her main traits are "quiet" and "twitchy". Apparently she has blood that smells very tasty. But that doesn't explain why a pre-werewolf Jacob cheerfully spends months helping her rebuild motorcycles. Wait, that's not quite right -- Jacob spends months rebuilding motorcycles for her while she watches and occasionally hands him tools. Then she rides for about twenty feet and crashes (without wearing a helmet) and the motorcycles are never mentioned again. Even though she's always pining over Edward, Jacob is happy to wait for her.

I guess if I have to pick a side, I'm on Team Jacob. But that's only if he doesn't have to end up with Bella. I'm on Team Jacob Seems Like a Nice Guy So Why Doesn't He Ditch Bella and Go Get Himself Someone Cool? He deserves better.

Actually, I liked a couple of the tertiary characters more than any of the main ones. There's one vampire named Emmett who somehow managed to be entertaining and interesting in both Twilight movies even though he's had like four lines. And I kind of liked the jackass Backup Werewolves. The moral is that I like characters who appear to be the only cheerful people in a World of Mope.

Also, after watching these two movies I would like to see something where everyone keeps their damn shirts on.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Magic

People in movies love puppets. There's this pre-code Frank Capra movie called The Miracle Woman, in which Barbara Stanwyck is absolutely enraptured by the sight of a guy making a puppet dance. He does this for hours in her bedroom, which is why it was important that someone invent television.

Anyway, this is another movie where a ventriloquist's dummy causes people to go into raptures of delight. It turns Anthony Hopkins from an unsuccessful magician to a sensation. And that's hard to understand, because the dummy is creepy as all get-out. Plus, it looks kind of like Hopkins, except that it has an even bigger head. The hardest thing to accept in the movie is that everyone loves the puppet, even though it's incredibly creepy. As a result, Ann-Margret comes off as crazy, because she keeps giggling and shouting about the wonders of Anthony Hopkins and his simplistic magic tricks and his evil puppet.

Note that I refer to the "evil puppet". This isn't a movie where the puppet has a life of its own, so we're not talking about Child's Play here. Unfortunately, this is a movie where Anthony Hopkins can't control what he has the puppet say or do. So he has arguments with it when he's alone in the room and ends up getting bullied by it, which represents him not being able to control that side of his personality. It's pretty silly, is what it is.

The movie is exceedingly artsy, sinc Richard Attenborough was only making it so he could get the money to make Gandhi, and it features Anthony Hopkins being an unhinged angry jerk. He gets hosed down with a lot of Angry Sweat in this movie. And then there's also the creepy puppet, which is enough for most people even without the story or acting.

Penn & Teller fans may be interested to know that there's a big scene in which the key card is the three of clubs.

Bonus line: I like the time when Burgess Meredith (as the slimy agent) says "My God, the IQs alone must go to a hundred!"

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

I loved this movie. But that's almost certainly because I loved the book and this was like watching George Clooney and Ewan McGregor acting out my favorite scenes. The scene in the hotel room where George Clooney is making all these outrageous claims is exactly how I picture that scene happening in real life. Because the people that Jon Ronson talked to when he was writing the book were seriously claiming all sorts of psychic powers with a straight face.

The book is really interesting. It starts with Ronson learning that some people claim to be ex-military psychic spies, and then it works backwards to the First Earth Battalion, which was an attempt to New Age up the army back in 1979. You get a lot of entertaining things during this segment, like the news that Uri Geller (the spoon-bending guy) was a psychic spy, but he can't talk about it because he might be on duty right now.

Then it turns out that some of the First Earth Battalion stuff has actually been put into effect, and that's where it gets relevant to today's military. Apparently those stories that came out about people in Guantanamo Bay being "tortured" with the Barney theme song are due to some sort of theory in the First Earth Battalion manual. It sounds wacky, but I've read the manual and it's surprisingly prescient. The techniques currently called "Neurolinguistic Programming" are in there, for example.

Anyway, the book was fascinating enough that I enjoyed seeing it dramatized. But if you haven't read the book, I'd recommend doing that first. Or instead.

Also, there are goats in this movie. I like goats.

Monday, November 16, 2009

This Is It

I thought This Is It was fascinating, and I'm not even a big Michael Jackson fan. I acknowledge that he had a large number of huge hits, and I've owned my share of Michael Jackson albums (my share was two: Thriller and Bad) but I've never really been personally invested in the guy.

But it turns out I find it more interesting to watch him dance at half-speed than when he's going all-out. This Is It is full of moments where he's sort of sketching his dance out, gesturing in the direction of the performance, and it's really cool. Part of it is that I know all his moves, so I can tell what the finished performance would look like, but it's also just that it's neat to watch him work out what the performance will be.

Early on, someone (Kenny Ortega, I think) says that the backup dancers are supposed to be "extensions of Michael", and I can really see what he meant. While Michael's moving around the stage showing what he could be doing, the dancers are hitting everything full-speed at all times. So when Michael decides to go all-out for a bit, everything is in sync and looks great. And when he pulls back, you realize that there really is a hole at the center of the stage waiting for Michael to fill it. This wasn't going to be one of those big shows where the "star" just wanders around between professional dancers. The movie makes it clear that every part of the show was designed to flow from Michael's performance. He's the focal point and everything else is designed to either amplify his movements or reflect focus back on him.

It's also made clear just how in-charge Michael was. There are times when he tells everyone that such-and-such a cue has to be given by him. No one else's judgment matters in the moment; just wait for MJ to point to you, then start up. He's very polite about these things (way more polite than, say, Madonna in Truth or Dare) but he's also very clearly a perfectionist who knows exactly what he wants. And since he's always right about these things, people shut up and do what he says.

The movie made me think about the history of stadium shows. The Michael Jackson "This Is It" tour would have been lavish, produced, and choreographed to within an inch of its life (the backup dancers never miss a step, as far as I could tell). But just a few decades ago, the Beatles hit Shea Stadium with a show that just consisted of the four of them standing on a tiny stage playing their songs. At some point, someone realized that if you're going to play to tens of thousands of people, you might want to add more than just a couple of go-go dancers.

I also liked seeing how excited everyone was to be working on this show. There are moments where Michael's working out some steps with the other musicians, and the dancers are down on the floor in front of the stage, giddy with delight that they're getting a private Michael Jackson concert. When he sings for real, some of them are actually jumping up and down, they're so happy. Then he complains that people shouldn't let him get carried away, because he was trying to save his voice for the performance.

But that's what made me enjoy this movie so much; knowing that he was holding back made the whole thing much more real for me. I already knew what it looked like when Michael Jackson is on stage before 50,000 people and he's doing his polished dance routine. Now I know what he looked like when he was just messing around in the middle of a song, too.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Missed Touchstones Week: Female Trouble

Wait a minute! This isn't a cultural touchstone for my generation! This is John Waters back before he had a budget and had to pretend to be classy! What the hell is going on here?

Actually, I guess this fits in well with the secret sub-theme of this week, which is "movies featuring characters who are treated as being more attractive or interesting than they actually are." Except where There's Something About Mary and Almost Famous are doing it accidentally, John Waters is gleefully shoving Divine in your face while filling the movie with people swearing up and down that Divine is the most beautiful thing in the world. Actually, with this many ludicrously ugly creations running around, Divine might actually count as one of the Beautiful People in this world.

To be fair, though, although Divine isn't classically beautiful (cough cough), she's got incredible screen magnetism. Even when Divine is shoved all the way over to side of the screen and 80% of the viewing area is taken up by Mink Stole in a gold lame ballerina outfit, you can't take your eyes off Divine. This movie also features the peculiar sight of man-Divine raping woman-Divine. There's something you don't see every day. I hope.

Oh, and there's a plot of some sort, I guess. It involves crazy people doing crazy things all over the place. John Waters had a vision, that's for sure.

Come to think of it, there's something else this movie has in common with There's Something About Mary: it's full of absurd things designed to shock and horrify. The difference is, 35 years later, this movie still gets the job done. And the nakedness isn't achieved by special effects, either!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Missed Touchstones Week: Good Will Hunting

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Academy Award winners.

Not for acting, of course. Although Matt's gotten some praise from his acting in recent years, I guess. He and Ben are basically perfectly adequate big-name actors these days. And they get to have "Academy Award-winning" before their names in commercials for, um, "Untitled Jason Bourne Project (2011)" and "Whatever Ben Affleck is doing to follow up on Daredevil and Smokin' Aces".

This is the movie that made them famous. It raised them up from "Wasn't he in Dazed and Confused?" to "Ben and Matt on the cover of Vanity Fair". I didn't see it at the time because I don't really dig on Gus Van Sant movies. The most straightforward movie he'd made at the time was My Own Private Idaho, starring River Phoenix as a narcoleptic street hustler. And I'm always leery of movies in which Robin Williams is a kindly father figure. He got lucky once in Dead Poets Society, but I usually find him insufferable in movies like that.

Speaking of the Academy Awards, did you know that Robin Williams has an Oscar for this movie? And three other nominations? Doesn't that seem like a lot?

Okay, anyway. Good Will Hunting is obsessed with class struggle, I think. Matt Damon's character ("Will Hunting", ho ho ho, and that's another reason I never got around to watching it) is supposedly a genius. Except I never really buy it. He's memorized a lot of books and is brilliant at math, but when he's not spouting theorems, he's not acting like a genius. The movie saw that objection coming, though, because Will is a huge jerk most of the time and it's hard to tell what he'd be like if he calmed down.

I didn't really identify with this movies "Harvard vs. Townies" angle, because I went to college in the city I grew up in. And I guess UCSD students aren't as snooty as they are at Harvard and people in San Diego generally aren't as angry and edgy as people in Boston. My theory is that this is because San Diego is a nice place to live, which creates a calmness not available in places that have snow.

I was surprised that Will was the instigator of the fights. I always figured there would be some scenes of college kids sneering at the townies first, but instead, Will and his buddies apparently just cruise around town looking for "smart kids" to beat up. That's an interesting move, because it practically dares the audience to sympathize with Will. And I think Damon pulls it off. So good for him. I was less impressed by Affleck, who has a big endless monologue-slash-joke that I tuned out. Incidentally, I think it's cheating to fill out your Oscar-winning screenplay with characters telling jokes. That's why The Aristocrats didn't win.

Anyway, I liked it okay. I still think Matt and Ben shouldn't be allowed to call themselves "Academy Award Winners" in ads for movies where they're just acting. I'm even going to accept William Goldman's word that he didn't write the script for them. I'm open-minded!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Missed Touchstones Week: Zombie

Okay, so not everyone has seen Lucio Fulci's Zombie (or, as it is sometimes confusingly known, Zombi 2). But I've reached the point in my movie-going career that it's frankly embarrassing that I haven't seen any Lucio Fulci. And it's time that changed.

First of all, the title. It was released in Italy in 1979 as Zombi 2 so it could pretend to be a sequel to Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which was called Zombi. In Italy. So when this movie came to the USA, they just bumped the number off the title and called it "Zombie". In 1988, Fulci made Zombi 3, but it's not as iconic as this movie and I don't want to deal with it right now.

It's kind of weird at this point in America's zombie-fascination to watch a 100% sincere zombie movie. There's no winking at the audience here. There's not even any assumption that everyone knows how zombies work. This is one of the movies that defined the genre. And I would like to point out that they don't eat brains here. They're only interested in the flesh of the living. And hopefully causing big gouts of bright red blood. The point is that it takes a long time for them to really make their presence known in this movie. This isn't one of your post-Zombie deals like Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland (or even World War Z) where you can jump right into the zombie hordes. One zombie is a terrifying and mysterious creature in this movie.

Also, this movie's zombies appear to actually be voodoo-related in some way, which is practically unique in zombie movies. The Romero zombies are really just ghouls, if you ask me. Even if he started calling them zombies in Dawn of the Dead (you remember, "Zombi"?).

One fun thing about this movie is that half of the cast is speaking Italian, and half are speaking English. Everyone's dubbed over anyway, but it's still a little weird to have only some of the characters' mouths match the sounds. Well, to be fair, none of the characters are exactly in sync, so it's actually distracting when someone does match up for a scene. You have to learn not to look at their lips.

Incidentally, I don't know why all the clips I've seen of this movie have been grainy and terrible. The DVD I was watching looked fantastic, even in the legendary Zombie-vs.-Shark scene. And of course it's full of iconic shots, although I personally prefer the eye-gouging scene from The Wizard of Gore. Um, the original, not the weird remake from a couple years ago.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Missed Touchstones Week: There's Something About Mary

The problem with the idea of spending a week watching movies I've never seen is that sometimes, there's a reason I didn't watch these movies. This is one of those cases. I knew perfectly well I wasn't going to like There's Something About Mary. And I didn't. Frankly, that wasn't that interesting.

This is the movie that makes everyone think Cameron Diaz is hot, right? Because she isn't, really. She seems very nice, and she has a very pleasant smile. But in later movies, I've come to the conclusion that she's kind of weirdly shaped. Sorry about that. I admit she looks fantastic here, though.

I continue to like about a third of Ben Stiller movies. I like your Zoolanders and Mystery Men, and I'm surprisingly fond of Reality Bites. But this feels more like the Meet the Parents/Fockers Ben. I guess I like Angry Ben more than Frustrated, Stammering Ben.

Anyway, as far as I'm concerned this movie is really quite unpleasant. Unpleasant things happen to unpleasant people for no reason other than that people laugh when they're startled. And I'd already heard about all the "shocking moments", so they weren't even all that shocking. It didn't work for me at all. Blah.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Missed Touchstones Week: Almost Famous

This week, I'm watching movies that everyone else my age has seen and loves. Okay, I may never have seen Almost Famous, but at least I've seen a lot of musicals from the first year of talkies. And a pretty good selection of rotten horror flicks that are only available on VHS. So there!

Anyway, everybody loves Almost Famous, right? I understand there's a scene where a number of people sing an Elton John song on a bus, and it's very emotionally affecting. Going into the movie, I really only know "Tiny Dancer" as the theme song to my old Bar Trivia team. Good times.

Your first question is why I never saw it. Well, I don't know. I like Cameron Crowe okay. I even like Lester Bangs, although I think his writing was a bad influence on generations of pop culture writers who confused attitude with talent. Also, I'm pretty sure he thought it was funny to take some terrible piece of crap band and make them sound like the coolest thing in the world just to see if he could make people buy the record. Don't get me wrong; he was a great writer, it's just that -- actually, I could go on for quite some time about Lester Bangs, and this is about Almost Famous. Which I've never seen. Until today.

I did try watching the DVD once a couple of years ago, but I only got about twenty minutes in before I got bored and antsy and turned it off. It was when Kate Hudson first showed up. I remember I found her first couple of lines as the groupie to be intensely annoying.

This turns out not to have been a fluke: I still find her insufferably obnoxious. I could do with a good deal less of her. She's trying way too hard. She's completely fake. And maybe it's the character that's trying too hard, not the actress. That happens sometimes. But everyone in the movie finds her adorable and magnetic and fantastic, which does not match my personal reaction, which is basically "Why would anyone spend time with this person?" Frankly, I did not find her to be a blithe free spirit, flitting hither and yon and bestowing magical fairy dust on every scene. Or whatever it is people see in her. Even in her big scenes, she doesn't work for me.

You know what she's like? Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The Aaron Sorkin show that wasn't anywhere near as interesting as 30 Rock? Everyone on that show acted like the show-within-a-show was brilliant and groundbreaking, but we could clearly tell that it was awful, because it turns out that while Aaron Sorkin can write dialogue like nobody's business, he can't write a convincing sketch comedy show. Penny Lane is like that. The character I see and the character the rest of the movie sees are severely at odds. And I don't think it's on purpose.

I did enjoy the movie as a whole, though. The non-groupie parts of it. It's fun to have a movie that hides everyone under silly Seventies wigs and facial hair so every new character comes with thirty seconds of "...that guy sounds really familiar. Who is that? Is that ... Jimmy Fallon? I think it is!" And it's just enough of a period piece that parts of it feel quaint. Like, remember when bands didn't get their first T-shirt until after they'd already opened for Black Sabbath and went on a tour? These days, you print up your first shirts on CafePress five minutes after you settle on a band name.

Incidentally, almost the first shot is in Balboa Park, driving past the Museum of Man. I approve of movies that feature Balboa Park. Although the only other one I can think of is Citizen Kane, which uses it for the exteriors of Xanadu (the stately home of Charles Foster Kane) in the newsreel at the beginning.

Oh: The "Tiny Dancer" scene works. Darned if I know why, though. Cameron Crowe's good at putting songs to scenes, is my theory.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Saturday Schlock

What's better on a Saturday afternoon and evening than curling up on the couch with your loved one and watching a bunch of terrible movies? Nothing! So here's what we watched:

Escape 2000

This movie is really called “Turkey Shoot”. That’s the name it was originally shown under in Australia, and it’s the name in the movie when you watch the DVD. But it was released in the US as “Escape 2000”, and that’s a more Postapocalytipcal title. Seriously, there are like ten movies set “after the apocalypse” that have “2000” in the title.

It’s a prime example of Ozsploitation, which means that it’s full of things that people in 1980s Australia thought of. Like, it’s mostly a story of people stuck in a futuristic reeducation camp, but for some reason there’s a werewolf-mutant guy. He seems pretty well-mannered, though. His name is Alf. His presence doesn’t make any sense.

About half of the movie is the “turkey shoot” of the title. Well, one of the titles. The main four prisoners are set free to get chased by the sadistic weirdoes that run the camp, and a couple of them manage to kill their pursuers and get back to the camp. Then they kill about a hundred and fifty guards with machine guns and bazookas, which should certainly prove that they shouldn’t have been put in a prison for antisocial behavior. Then that Australian army bombs the whole camp, I guess.

Slithis

Okay. It’s sort of like The Host, in that it’s about a monster created by toxic waste. Except that it’s made incredibly amateurishly and contains approximately zero actors. Some of them, like this one policeman in a house, sound like they’ve learned their lines phonetically. And this other guy, who plays the chief of police (I think; I wasn’t paying that much attention until he showed up) puts in the most over-the-top performance in the history of “Trolls Under the Bridge: The Troll Story”. He’s got some sort of fake British accent going on, but it’s a lot like the Wayne’s World imitation of Leprechaun.

Slaughterhouse Rock

This starts with two “Omigosh it was only a dream!” scenes in a row. Awesome. And then it fills the rest of the movie with Horrible Visions by the main character. These Visions are accompanied by extremely shrill noises that require the television to be turned down. Anyway, they eventually lead Dull Main Guy and his pals Fratboy Jerks 1-3 and Vapid Screaming Girls 1-4 to sneak into Alcatraz and battle demons with the help of the ghost of a murdered heavy metal singer played by Toni Basil.

We got bored and didn’t finish watching it. Sorry.

The Terrornauts

This had a terrific trailer on the latest 42nd Street Forever collection. You know, the Alamo Drafthouse one. So we watched the movie, and it turns out not to be worth it. It’s one of those really boring British science fiction movies from the late sixties where a bunch of stodgy scientists stand around on one set for an hour talking about what it might look like if they actually travelled to another planet. When it eventually happens, the highlights are:

A) A crudely constructed robot covered in about twenty heating vents, and
B) A ridiculous alien that turns out to be an illusion.

Aside from that, strictly boresville, Daddy-O.