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Sunday
Nov292009

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)

Interlude with Some Glam-pires

If you’re considering going to see The Twilight Saga: New Moon because you’ve heard it’s better than the first film, I’d like to propose a brief, rather vulgar, mental exercise.

Consider the last time you were constipated. It was excruciating, wasn’t it? Lots of effort and groaning, perhaps some tears of agony—all followed by a result that probably wasn’t worth the effort.

That’s the first Twilight movie.

Now recall your last bout of diarrhea: likely a much smoother experience, with better pacing and far more colors.

That’s New Moon.

The lesson? No matter how drawn out or mercifully short the process, shit is shit, and shit stinks.

It’s hard to believe that, when this film franchise is complete, we will have four—maybe five—movies devoted to such a simple, bland story. After having endured the first two, I’m convinced they could have been condensed into one hour-and-a-half movie (much like the bloated Harry Potter series). Of course, this would mean taking out all of the extended pouting and longing shots, not to mention the gratuitous shirtless preening. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Taking place shortly after the events of Twilight, New Moon opens with Bella Swan’s (Kristen Stewart) 18th birthday party, which she celebrates with the Cullen family. They’re a tight-knit clan of undercover vampires who includes Edward (Robert Pattinson), Bella’s boyfriend and James Dean idolater. Bella slices her finger open on some wrapping paper and is attacked by one of the “younger” vampires, who hasn’t learned to control his blood lust. The Cullens leave town for Bella’s safety and she spends three months staring out her bedroom window; her policeman father allows her to do this because he apparently believes prolonged waking catatonia and violent, screaming nightmares to be acceptable teenage behavior.

Enter Jacob (Taylor Lautner), Bella’s platonic best friend. When Bella finally drags herself out of bed, he helps her restore a busted motorcycle. You see, she’s developed the ability to see a ghostly, Jedi-like vision of Edward whenever she is endangered, and figures that if she can get close enough to death she’ll be able to communicate with her beloved. Did I mention that the Twilight films are packed with great messages for teenage girls?

Over several weeks, Bella and Jacob bond over break fluid and she helps keep him out of trouble with the other kids from his Indian reservation high school: a pack of buff dudes who spend their free time roaming the woods, wrestling and diving off cliffs—wearing only cut-off shorts and eager smiles (I’ll leave the “recruiting” subtext to the scholars). Bella kind of falls for Jacob, but she can’t shake Edward, so she leaves him in the “friend zone”. Cut to several more weeks and a dozen un-returned phone calls later, and we find Bella driving out to Jacob’s house. He’s cut his long hair and forsaken the “shirt-and-pants” look for—you guessed it—cut-offs. He warns Bella to stay away from him and his new band of secretive, well-waxed friends; she ignores him and is attacked by the bronzed brotherhood who are—gasp!—werewolves.

I’ll fast-forward through the next hour of will-they/won’t-they drama (they won’t) and get to the semi-interesting stuff. We learn of an ancient vampire council called the Volturi. They live in Italy and maintain the laws of their culture; one of which is that vampires cannot reveal themselves to mankind—under penalty of death (never mind that Edward and Bella’s relationship has been going on for quite awhile and that a good number of vampires know their “secret”). Edward goes before the Volturi and asks to be killed (don’t ask); they deny his wish, so he decides to step out into the sunlight during an Italian festival; Bella shows up (seriously, don’t ask) and stops him. The vampire police are miffed and demand to see the lovesick teenagers; during this encounter, it is discovered that Bella is immune to the Volturi’s powers: they try to psychically inflict pain and it doesn’t work; they try to read her mind and find only a void (which I’ve known about Kristen Stewart ever since Adventureland). Several boring fight scenes later, Bella and Edward are released and head back to Forks, Washington, where they rekindle their relationship.

This leaves Jacob out in the cold, moping shirtlessly and rambling about some treaty between vampires and werewolves. I had serious deja vu during the last twenty minutes and realized that I was watching a re-run of the first film’s climax—though New Moon’s sets are cooler.

That’s a lot of summary, huh? I’m sad to say that I’ve left out several sub-plots because A) I don’t care and chances are, neither will you, and B) they are filler that serve only to pad out this weak story and give it the illusion of depth. New Moon is not without its charms, but every two- or three-minute scene of nice character touches is cut short by poorly choreographed action or drastic personality shifts that come off as bad rehearsal footage. These movies have a rabid fan base and it’s cute that the screenwriter and director attempt to stuff as much of the books into the film to give it an air of legitimacy, but the real reason these pictures are so popular is because of the goddamned beefcake. Pattinson and Lautner strike so many poses in this movie that a number of times I swear they were replaced by cardboard standees. If—as the Twi-hards claim—the books are amazing, great literature, then the filmmakers have utterly failed to bear this out. Watching these movies, I’m not at all compelled to read the source material; if anything, I’m inspired to start some Fight-Club-style book-burning franchises.

New Moon is actually very entertaining, if you’re up for a good laugh. The actors are forced to recite lines that one can picure scribbled inside squiggly hearts on the back of Stephenie Meyer's sophomore English Lit notebook; but they can't even do it convincingly. Kristen Stewart once again demonstrates that she has some kind of respiratory disorder (she huffs before, during and after almost every line, and occasionally launches into these weird limb-flailing spasms). Robert Pattinson continues to perfect Method Sulking. Only Taylor Lautner fares well here; his unforced sincerity suggests that he may have squeezed an acting class into his rigorous workout routine. But all of the leads are upstaged by Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning (you read that right) as members of the Volturi. Their fifteen minutes of screen time almost make up for the other hundred-plus, and they (briefly) turn New Moon into something interesting, something adult. Unfortunately, they come and go, and leave us with a love triangle that is destined to become this generation’s guilty, dated embarrassment (like the original 90210 or a prom night abortion).

Note: I’m not the audience for this movie, as I’ve neither read the books nor had a period (sorry, if there’s a definition of a “chick flick”, New Moon is it; the irony-free gender cross-over potential for this franchise is zero). I do appreciate entertainment aimed at different audiences, but I’ve seen more honest storylines about love, loss, and longing on Gossip Girl. For all the cheesy glamour and stigma of it being a network teen drama, it does well with archetypes and features actors who at least have life to breathe into the material.

Monday
Nov232009

2012 (2009)

(In)Credibility Gap

When I first saw the trailer for 2012 a few months ago, it profoundly depressed me. Through spectacular displays of global catastrophe and urban destruction, the previews promised two hours of unapologetic disaster porn. I watched as buildings tumbled and exploded; cars and people were sucked up into hellish cracks in the earth; and all the while, John Cusack tried to outrun mother nature via limo, camper and small plane—succeeding every time. Nothing about these scenes made me want to see 2012, but I’m essentially a film whore so there was little doubt that I’d catch it on the big screen.

Guess what? I thought it was great. Not a great film, mind you, but a great disaster movie. And since it comes from Roland “Independence Day” Emmerich, there was a forty percent chance of it being at least watchable (those odds would’ve been higher had he not also made The Day After Tomorrow). In a lot of ways, 2012 plays like the greatest hits of Independence Day, TDAT, and The Core—with a dash of dueling asteroid epics Armageddon and Deep Impact thrown in. What sets this new film apart is that—much like a frustrated artist sketching and sketching and sketching, Emmerich has finally gotten just about everything right.

Look, I know some of you are rolling your eyes right now; others have probably stopped reading. But bear with me for a few more moments, please.

I think the reason 2012 didn’t come out in the summer was not because it would have clashed with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but because it is a much smarter, more compelling kind of blockbuster. This is Oscar season, after all; and while I don’t expect this movie to take home anything other than awards for sound and special effects, the fact remains that a good amount of its 158-minute run-time is devoted to solid actors giving solid performances. There’s no slumming here, no overt mugging from the main players; the careers of John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oliver Platt, and Thandie Newton are all very much intact (Amanda Peet may be in trouble, but I think her part was just under-written), and I love that everyone treated the material as A-level stuff.

It just occurred to me that I’ve devoted not a single word to 2012’s plot. That’s probably for the best. This is a movie that needs to be experienced on the big screen, so I urge you to go check it out (even if you wait to see it on the $5 or $1 circuit). I will say that there are several elements that surprised me, which was itself a grand revelation. Unlike most action spectacles, you can’t tell right off the bat who will live and who will die in 2012; characters you’re certain will be cute one-offs become very important; characters you assume will follow their archetype into stereotype take roads less traveled (except for Woody Harrelson, whose doom-and-gloom survivalist character’s only surprise was not speaking in a hick drawl—which I found very distracting). The movie’s biggest twist involves the massive ships that have been constructed to save mankind from extinction—it’s not an out-of-the-blue contrivance, but rather a cool way of playing with audience expectations.

Regarding my earlier reservations about the glorification of death, carnage and mayhem, I was relieved to find that those elements—while certainly evident—did not overpower the movie. In fact, 45 minutes into 2012, I began to wonder if I’d even see a catastrophic event. All of the tragedy unfolds naturally, and we’re given a chance to experience it as the main characters do: both in flashes and in rubbernecking horror, depending on how close to the danger they happen to be at a given point. The whole three-steps-ahead-of-the-fireball/crumbling earth thing did become ridiculous after awhile, but by then, I really wanted the characters to escape so I could find out where they were headed.

I can only assume that at least some of the people who’ve read this far are snickering at my poor taste and naiveté. If you’re one of them, let me assure you that I walked into 2012 sure that I would leave an angry, tired mess. But I didn’t. And I didn’t have to “turn off my brain” to enjoy it, either. Some of the movie is silly; some parts are too drawn out; and, yes, a lot of the plot is awfully convenient. Then again, it is a movie. If all you want out of this kind of entertainment are plausible disaster scenarios and moments of genuine emotional tragedy, type “Afghan war footage” into the YouTube search field and have a great afternoon.

Tuesday
Nov172009

Bubble (2005)

When the Walls Come Tumblin' Down...

There’s a Henry Rollins joke from the late 90’s that predicted the rise of reality television. While riffing on inauthentic sitcoms like Friends, he posited that perhaps audiences really did need ridiculous escapism; after all, he wondered, who would want to watch a show called, Your Shitty Job, or Factory!? A decade later, programs about average people dot the TV landscape; Hollywood has found a way to sensationalize the unglamorous, to monetize the mundane. From scripted sitcoms about office life to series that purport to document the perils of raising eight kids, reality is the new escapism. Rollins, I think, would have been a big fan of Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble.

I love Bubble. It’s a captivating short film about life in an impoverished Ohio town that exudes authenticity in every respect, from casting to shooting style. The fact that it was made on a shoestring budget by the high-powered director/producer of Ocean’s Thirteen is a sign of both true artistry and integrity. The movie is almost perfect.

Bubble tells the story of two friends, Kyle (Dustin Ashley) and Martha (Debbie Doebereiner). They both work at a doll manufacturing plant; Kyle pours rubber into the molds that produce hands, feet, and creepy, empty baby faces, and Martha paints their cheeks with spray-on blush and sews their Sunday-best dresses. Kyle’s a soft-spoken twenty-year-old waif and Martha is heavy-set, middle-aged, and single; they’re best friends, bound by an utter lack of prospects and united in a love of small-town gossip. Martha’s world is shattered one morning when the plant manager introduces a new employee, Rose (Misty Wilkins), whose youth and beauty immediately draw Kyle’s attention.

I won’t delve further into the story because to spoil the late-film plot development would be a sin. Bubble thrives on the documentary quality of its presentation, and is an utter joy to watch; if you’ve seen the film, you no doubt find this a puzzling statement. This is not a joyous movie—it’s actually rather depressing—but you can tell by the attention to detail and the refusal to rely on cliche that Soderbergh and screenwriter Coleman Hough set out to prove that a movie could be utterly convincing and entertaining.

All of the performers in Bubble are non-actors with no previous film experience. Ashley and Wilkins come across as the real deal, directionless underachievers whose greatest ambitions involve weed and a steady paycheck. I don’t know if they needed training beyond tips on memorizing lines; I wouldn’t be surprised if they just played versions of themselves. The real find of the movie is Debbie Doebereiner. She’s a natural, and the only one of the performers who creates a complete character; granted, that’s partially by the script’s design. I was moved by her jealousy, frustration, and compassion—and, in the end, her tragic madness. It’s fitting that she hasn’t acted in anything since Bubble; she’s frozen in time here, like the Mona Lisa.

Like Soderbergh’s other recent short-form experiment, The Girlfriend Experience, Bubble takes a cinematic snapshot of a small group of characters (this film is actually shorter, clocking in at just 73 minutes). Unlike the other movie, Bubble has no fat. Soderbergh spins his story quickly through everyday dialogue and many scenes of people assembling dolls and slinking from the factory to their tract homes and back again. He packs the front end of the movie with just enough quiet, drawn out scenes to give a feel for the interminability of his characters’ existence without alienating us, and then plows full boar into the plot.

Depending on how many police procedurals you’ve seen, you may or may not think Bubble has a “twist” ending. It’s unclear what Soderbergh and Hough’s intent was with the film’s climax. Are we meant to be shocked, or is the film just meant to be appreciated as a character study? I wasn’t surprised by the revelation, but I was surprised by one character’s awakening, in the scene that closes the movie (Hint: “Oh my God.”).

I hope Steven Soderbergh makes more films like Bubble, or at least inspires other filmmakers to take up the mantle. This is the movie of a young, ambitious artist, and the fact that it comes from someone who could have long ago put that aspect of his creativity away is amazing to me. The director has brought us full circle now. From stand-up joke to mass-marketed faux “reality”, and now back to a more authentic reality (that is still a construct) produced outside the studio system, entertainment has officially eaten itself. Whatever comes next will be awesomely awful, I’m sure, but we can count on Soderbergh to keep things interesting.

Note: If anyone has seen this movie and can clue me in on the white cross motif, I’d greatly appreciate it. For the uninitiated, look for four white crosses in the early part of the film, in four different scenes. It may be a coincidence, but I’m happy to entertain any theories you might have...

Monday
Nov162009

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

Blown Job

Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience is a fascinating sketch of a movie. It appears the director had an idea for a picture about a call girl who serves high-class clients during hard economic times, but that he either didn’t have the time or the focus to create a feature-length film. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Much of the buzz surrounding The Girlfriend Experience came from its star, Sasha Grey, a young porn sensation staking her claim in legitimate showbiz. I’m happy to report that she does just fine as Chelsea, the closed-book New York prostitute who juggles sleeping with day-traders and carrying on a committed relationship with her boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos). Grey will not likely win any awards for this role; her detached monotone is believable as an affected, necessary professional wall, but it could also be construed as the actress just running lines. She has a natural confidence and power over the men she acts against that works to her advantage. And in case you’re wondering, no, this movie is not an art house porn flick: Soderbergh rightly focuses on the drama and leaves Grey’s other career on Cliphunter, where it belongs.

The screenplay by David Levien and Brian Koppelman barely fills out the lean 77-minute run-time, and Soderbergh does his best to pad the film with neat tricks like lingering on out-of-focus scenery and leaving in voiceover mistakes by Grey. These give the movie what could be called a “raw quality” by pretentious assholes, but they are designed to distract from the incomplete narrative and confounding thesis (these flaws are also aided by non-linear storytelling, the crutch of any screenwriter who is not Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan).

The story bounces between Chelsea’s gigs servicing whiny Wall Street players and Chris’s attempts to quit his job as a personal trainer at a gym in order to work at another, higher profile one. He also gets invited by one of his clients to fly on a private jet to Vegas for a weekend—which he does—but we never learn why it was so important that he go. Throw in another sub-plot about Chelsea kind of falling for one of her Johns and (maybe) breaking up with Chris, and you have a half-season of CW drama shoe-horned into a movie that tries to be about many things and risks adding up to nothing.

Despite all that, I recommend watching this movie. Like 2005’s Bubble, Steven Soderbergh took a break from big-budget, high profile labors and invested $2 million dollars and two weeks of shooting into a neat idea that he was clearly passionate about—for awhile. The Girlfriend Experience is timely in its message about global economic disaster chipping away at the luxuries of the privileged; it is also timely in its style of delivery: it’s like an elaborate Tweet that ran out of characters before getting to the point.

Sunday
Nov082009

Dead Air, 2009 (Home Video Review)

Talk Until You Drop

Throughout the movie Gremlins we hear a corny disc jockey named Rockin’ Ricky Rialto. At first he’s just ambient noise playing on people’s radios, but as the film progresses and the town of Kingston Falls is besieged by little green monsters, the DJ’s broadcasts become more sporadic and panicked. Though we never see Ricky or his studio, these intermittent audio accounts painted a vivid picture in my eight-year-old mind; they helped broaden the scope of the movie in ways that I wouldn’t appreciate until years later. I was reminded of Gremlins while watching Corbin Bernsen’s surprisingly good new zombie movie, Dead Air.

I’ll be up front in acknowledging my three strikes against the film before even having watched it. First, it was another zombie movie; I love them, but it seems we’re drowning in an undead pop cultural glut right now, with so much easy, bad media that it’s easy to forget the good stuff. From comics to movies to punk bands who take the stage with half-eaten-face makeup, I often find myself wishing this sub-genre would take a powerful shotgun blast to the face (a double-tap, in fact, for good measure). My second trepidation was Bill Moseley; I’ve been doing a lot of homework in preparation for the Crypticon Celebrity Dinner, and while I generally like Bill Moseley’s performances, he tends to be the best thing about the movies in which he appears (Repo! The Genetic Opera has the distinction of being one of The Worst Movies I’ve Ever Seen). Strike three: Dead Air went direct to DVD; not a confidence booster. Fortunately, none of these strikes mattered by film’s end.

A giddy mash-up of Talk Radio, 28 Days Later, and the television show 24, Dead Air is the story of late-night L.A. shock jock Logan Bernhardt (Moseley) who has the misfortune of being on the air during the zombie apocalypse. The film opens with a group of terrorists planting toxic canisters in the air ducts of a sports arena; as with any bona fide zombie picture, something goes wrong and the canisters are prematurely opened, gassing not only the intended target but also the terrorists. The victims experience a sickness that builds into feral rage, which keeps their bodies animated and hungry even after death. Many in the panicked populace call in to Logan’s radio show, the only one in town that hasn’t switched to the Emergency Broadcast System.

This movie has a number of things going for it. The first being that it partially updates Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio for the modern age; both films featured broken men talking about paranoia to a broken audience in uncertain times. Eric Bogosian’s performance is a tough to beat, but Moseley brings a nice interpretation to the archetype. He’s a laid back version of the ratings-mad conspiracy junky, his energy is more curious than accusatory. Another thing I like about Dead Air is that it doesn’t focus on gore effects; too many zombie stories are excuses to show people getting ripped apart in ways that out-splatter previous attempts, but Corbin Bernsen rightly ignores the rubbernecker impulse and keeps things moving. It was more shocking to me, a jaded film watcher, to not see gratuitous evisceration.

I don’t want to put this movie over too much; it’s not perfect. My main gripe is that I wish it had maintained the intimacy of its premise. We leave the studio too often, following Logan’s radio sidekick (David Moscow) as he races through town on a motorbike in search of Logan’s family. There’s also a lot of unnecessary business involving the terrorists, with Delta Force-level dialogue about honor and sacrifice. There’s a nice development where the main perpetrator breaks into Logan’s studio and demands that the DJ say something unconscionable on the air, but that’s a faint glimmer in an otherwise very broad characterization. Had Dead Air been a bit ballsier and hedged closer to the one-act play feel of Talk Radio, it might have been truly special instead of a pleasantly engaging novelty; it’s much more interesting to hear the callers go from gabbing about nothing to reaching out to the lone voice in the night who can offer comfort at the end of the world than it is to watch another monster home invasion scene.

I highly recommend Dead Air for fans of the genre that are looking for a fresh take. I’ve spent a good deal of time comparing this to other films, but it becomes unique by combining the best elements of those movies in ways you may not expect. Like Quentin Tarantino’s look into the world of hit men’s off-hours in Pulp Fiction, Dead Air answers questions about how people in the media might react to an undead uprising; it’s the flip side of the typical zombie movie trope where people are holed up in a house, trying to get news on the attacks, and believing that whoever is broadcasting it is in a safer place than they are.

Note: Over dinner last night, I asked Bill Moseley about Dead Air’s origins, and he shared a fascinating bit of trivia regarding casting. His friend, Reggie Bannister (Phantasm), referred him to the project, and Moseley initially read for the role of Gil, the DJ sidekick. Corbin Bernsen, the director, was slated to play Logan Bernhardt, but the producers thought that having a name genre actor as the star would be a much savvier move than giving the part to someone whose biggest horror credit was The Dentist. This apparently caused some tension on the set, but Moseley said he channeled that energy into his performance. It worked.