Sunday, August 31, 2008

Summer Movies 10: Pineapple Express

After getting delayed in the glut of other movies released around the same time, I finally went to see Pineapple Express last night. I wanted to see this movie in the theatres for two reasons. One, I love dumb stoner movies (see also: Harold and Kumar). Two, I saw both The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up on DVD long after everyone else had seen them and deemed them the funniest movies ever, and I thought my “meh” reaction might have been explained by the movies having impossible hype they couldn’t live up to.

Well, no, it turns out my “meh” reaction was wholly my own. I think Apatow movies are funny but nothing really special. I enjoyed Pineapple Express as it was playing, laughed aloud many times, but the majority of the movie left my head before I hit the parking lot. And I don’t think it’s because the stoner genre is disposable, because my friend and I left Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay quoting the best lines from the movie as we walked, at my friend’s behest since I’m vegetarian, to the nearest White Castle. Months later, the line “Fuck you, donuts are awesome!” will pop into my head and I’ll giggle. So the medium isn’t to blame. Maybe nothing’s to blame and I just don’t “get it” but it’s really hard to say.

Pineapple Express is entertaining enough. James Franco and Seth Rogen are a great odd couple. Rogen plays pretty much the same role he always plays, but Franco is crackling. He clearly has a lot of fun with the role and he can act the hell out of anything he’s cast in.

Normally, I’m very attentive to a lack of female characters in movies, but here it works because I think 90% of the time Apatow is shit at writing women, so the lack of female characters in Pineapple Express actually minimized the damage. I mean, if well-written female characters are not an option, then I’d rather see no females at all. Let the boys do their thing and leave the writing of complex, nuanced female characters to the people who are up to the task.

It’s funny, though, because after I got home from Pineapple Express I was in the mood to watch another movie, so I finally put on my Netflixed copy of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a Romanian movie set in Communist Romania as two girls try to arrange an illegal abortion. Needless to say, it’s not an easy movie to watch or digest. I’d say it was far less “entertaining” than Pineapple Express by far, but while Pineapple Express had vacated my head as the credits were still rolling, I’ll be thinking about 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – which is a wonderful, moving, difficult film – for a very long time. I think if Apatow keeps making disposable movies, Hollywood will eventually come to view him as disposable, too. If he wants to stay relevant and stay inside my head for more than the allotted two hours it takes a movie to unspool, he needs to step it up a bit.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Television à la carte

Apparently, Entertainment Weekly is teaming up with Tivo to allow EW editors to pick the recording lists for lazy/trusting Tivo users. Gawker draws an apt comparison to Wall-E in this ultimate model of a convenience culture potentially gone awry. But I feel like there are probably two kinds of Tivo users, the ones (like me) who have it because they're TV obsessed and don't want to miss a single episode of anything. (Unless, also like me, their Tivo has been unreliable in channel changing for the past few months, only getting it right about 50% of the time despite hours spent on tech support calls.) Then there are the ones who enjoy TV but are very casual viewers who want to be able to, say, catch up with a backlog of three or four Desperate Housewives every couple of lazy Sundays. I assume this service is aimed more for them than the real fanatics. While I do fear a grim Wall-E future, in this case I think this service is a chance to get more eyeballs on overlooked shows, maybe some eyeballs that are normally too busy to seek out great, unappreciated series.

Because another thing I'm worried about is this upcoming TV season. It starts next week, you know. Believe it or not, September is almost here. Yet I'm oddly not that excited for the TV premiers. Which is weird because TV is my thing, my favorite pop culture medium, and if I'm this unexcited, how are the casual viewers feeling?

Last fall, I was all about Pushing Daisies, Dirty Sexy Money, and Heroes. But by January, they were all out of episodes and the strike was raging. Now, I'm dying for the PD premier, and thankfully I had the foresight to keep eight episodes on my Tivo to watch over the summer. But I can't for the life of me remember what's going on over at DSM, and in fact I forgot its existence entirely until I saw someone mention it elsewhere today, despite it being a top priority show less than a year ago. And not even the presence of Veronica Mars and Julian Sark made me care about Heroes season 2 so I'm not exactly jazzed about season 3. I'm just really afraid that the strike killed the momentum of new shows like PD and DSM and sucked my limited interest in borderline shows like Heroes. I'm not even sure what among the new crop of shows is worth checking out aside from Fringe and Dollhouse. Is Eleventh Hour gonna be any good? Is The Mentalist more than a rip-off of Psych? Normally I'd be all over this stuff. Hell, normally I'd have hunted down and downloaded the Fringe pilot like I did the Lost pilot months before it hit the airwaves. By now, I'd have my Tivo season passes set, I'd have a handwritten schedule of what airs when and what conflicts with what, etc. But I'm so out of practice this year since I haven't had more than two or three shows to follow simultaneously in almost nine months. At least I have a few more days to get into the swing of things.

Speaking of the Fringe pilot, Fox is being kind of smart for once and streaming the Fringe and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles premiers online for students simultaneous to the regular airing. Not sure how successful this will be since I'm not sure many college students make the time / have the access to televisions to make TV a regular part of their life. When I was on the newspaper staff, I did a few articles on television, including one on Nielsen ratings and one on marketing the CW, and I had a hell of a time finding students who gave any kind of damn about television. But my school also had a high nerd quotient (when Adderall is the campus drug of choice, you know you're in trouble) so take that as you will. More laid back student bodies might find more time to follow shows other than Gossip Girl. Still, Fox gets major points for effort. Now I just wish they'd add Dollhouse to that list.

If you're as addled as I am with regards to what's premiering when, AICN has a pretty good guide to premier dates, and The Futon Critic has a good grid layout of the schedule so far. Hopefully we'll be able to jump right in next week and forget all about the strike and the long dry spell we've been experiencing. Seriously, though, what the hell is happening on Dirty Sexy Money?

Monday, August 25, 2008

It's Chotime!

I like to think that I don’t watch a lot of the television equivalent of junk food. I only watch procedurals where characters come first (Psych, House, Bones, Law and Order: SVU). I don’t watch any sitcom that features a schlubby guy and a hot wife, or anything featuring bland, sudsy characters (Private Cashmere Jungle). The only E! show I watch is The Soup. The reality shows I follow tend to be more about people competing and fucking with each other (Big Brother, Survivor, The Mole) than full-out humiliation (The Littlest Groom). I do watch America’s Next Top Model, but in my defense, I only got sucked in via MTV repeats during the long, cold months when the writer’s strike left us without a lot of options. I’d successfully avoided watching the first 9 cycles, and then bam, suddenly I’m watching hour after hour of past cycles, my poor Tivo is crying out for mercy, and then I watch season 10 and Dominique teaches me what it is to hate, really hate, a reality show contestant….

Anyway. It’s not like I’m a television snob. When your favorite TV show of all time is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to snobbery. But I try to avoid the stuff that I think will actively destroy my brain cells, which is why I generally give VH1’s celebreality a wide berth. (With the exception of one shameful daylong marathon of a season of Flavor of Love, also during the writer’s strike. Please, writers, don’t ever leave us ever again, okay?) But I love Margaret Cho, so when I heard she was getting her own reality show, I knew I had to tune in. I’d previously tried watching Kathy Griffin’s reality show, but I discovered I only like KG in small doses. I have yet, however, to hit a wall when it comes with Margaret Cho. The woman is frigging fantastic, funny and ballsy and I admire the hell out of her. Still, I was scared the show wouldn’t do her justice. Worse, that it would make her look pathetic.

Well, I should have known better than to doubt Ms. Cho. It helps that it’s not totally candid camera. Cho tells ex-Gawkerite/current-Radarite Choire Sicha that the show is “is semi-scripted, all of the situations are scripted,” which means that “[i]t’s reality in a sense that this is my life and these are my real friends and family and Selena Luna is my real assistant, my real best friends. So it’s a sitcom starring real people. So things that happen are based in truth.” Which I can respect. I’ll take semi-scripted and funny over totally unscripted and dull as hell any day. (There is a third option, which is semi-scripted and dull as hell, and we call it The Hills.) And The Cho Show is indeed funny as hell. You know that a pistol like Margaret Cho is gonna have an equally wacky menagerie of friends and assistants, and the band does not disappoint. From wee, patient, and hilarious Selena Luna to bitchy catfighting stylists, the supporting cast of characters are as entertaining as the main event herself. Cho’s infamous parents make an appearance. They are, of course, not quite as wacky as Cho makes them out to be in her standup act – it’s called artistic license – but it’s easy to see that she hasn’t had to exaggerate that much. The show even leaves room for some sober, touching moments that show Cho’s all too real humanity.

If you don’t like Margaret Cho’s standup act, then you probably won’t like her show, either. But if you have a pulse and a functioning sense of humor, you should definitely tune in.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Summer Movies 9: Mirrors

I’ve been lax in updating. August Ennui is partially to blame. Most of the good summer TV shows are wrapped and we’re still weeks away from finding out which romantic partners Serena, Betty, and Luke will choose. (If any. My unspoiled-but-I-watch-a-lot-of-TV guess is that Betty will pull an “I choose me” and OTH will be a fakeout with Lucas marrying Brooke for wacky legal reasons.) As for movies, we’re in the lull between the summer blockbusters and the fall thrillers. For pop culture, August blows. But another factor is that I just started a new temp job with Draconian internet rules. They also indulge in keystroke monitoring, meaning that when covertly I log into my Gmail account during the day, I feel compelled to assemble the password via cutting and pasting letters from random documents I’m working on – the internet equivalent of snipping letters out of magazines for a ransom note, though in this instance someone’s life isn’t at stake, just my sanity. At any rate, at least one of these issues will be resolved in a couple of weeks. September will herald the return of pop culture, and if I’m lucky, I’ll finally land a real job and be able to stop with the brain-liquifying temping.

But all is not dead in pop culture land. Last week, I went to go see Mirrors, Splat Packer Alex Aja’s latest horror flick. I love horror movies, but I’m not really a fan of the torture porn genre. I thought the first Saw was okay, the second one was brilliant, and the rest are just weird. And Hostel, whatever. Gruesome death and torture scenes don’t scare me, though I do have to admit that eye-gouging does majorly squick me out. The only scary movies that really get under my skin are ghost stories. Because every other monster can be killed, outrun, hidden from, but ghosts? Not so much. It’s the Freddy vs. Jason syndrome. If you really put your mind to it, you can get away from Jason – hop a plane, hole up in a panic room, learn to run in a straight line without looking back every two seconds and tripping over your own feet as he lumbers behind you. But Freddy will fuck your shit up the instant you go beddy-bye. Which is why I think Splat Pack movies that incorporate the supernatural, like James Wan’s Dead Silence, work better than movies like Aja’s earlier remake of The Hills Have Eyes. So I was excited for Mirrors, and for the most part it didn’t disappoint.

Okay, the torture porn components were somewhat present. Old habits and all. But mostly, Mirrors is a solid, classic spooker. Kiefer does what Kiefer does best, playing Badass Family Man With Issues. There’s a ton of jump moments that got most of our (surprisingly not crowded for a Friday) theatre screaming. And for Bechdel watchers, there are four solid female characters. And okay, Amy Smart’s character is pretty much only there for the bathroom scene and to light a fire under Kiefer’s ass when it comes time to vanquish the baddies, but she’s actually a well-rounded character, not stupid or shrewish or slutty in the way cannon fodder female characters are sometimes depicted in horror movies.

As for the plot, it’s pretty tight. Standard horror movie fare well done, predictable in some places, but it does pull a few surprises out of the dark. And the visuals are spectacular. Most of the film is set in the burned out ruins of a department store, all that’s left of a fire that killed a couple dozen innocent shoppers. Singed mannequins lurk around the miraculously-untouched mirrors – the setting feels unsettlingly alive well before the first “boo!” moment. The final fight is tonally weird compared to the rest of the movie, but the ending itself is quite clever. Mirrors isn’t necessarily a Must See in the Theatres movie unless you’re a horror flick freak, but it’s absolutely worth catching when it comes out on DVD. After all, anyone who’s ever played Bloody Mary at a slumber party knows how effing creepy mirrors can be.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Why Hollywood Is Like A Petulant Teenager

Jennifer Kesler of The Hathor Legacy did a link roundup of discussions spurred by her earlier post on why film schools teach their students to epically fail the Bechdel test. She was kind enough to include a link to my earlier post, along with a passel of other fascinating posts, which again has me thinking about why most mainstream films can’t get their shit together when it comes to strong female characters.

Well, first of all, as I’m writing this I’m watching a repeat of The Sarah Connor Chronicles on FOX and, hey, look at that – awesome female characters. Television is so insanely far ahead of movies in that respect. I mean, yeah, there’s Supernatural, which is oh so very wrongheaded when it comes to women, but that’s also probably the reason I’ve never been able to get into the show despite usually loving that kind of monster fighting thing. I even have a Tivo season pass for the show and I end up deleting 98% of the episodes unwatched. Almost every TV show I love features women who kick ass and who have strong relationships with other women. The latter is especially important to me in fiction because it’s important to me in real life. I have a personal rule, you see – don’t trust a woman who can’t get along with other women. Every time I’ve gotten completely hosed by a female friend, it’s always been one of those women who go around saying “I normally don’t get along with other women, but you’re cool and laid back, you’re different!” Hear me when I say this, if you are a woman and are ever in the same situation? You are not the exception, trust me. Whatever makes that woman hate herself and her own gender that much will eventually make her turn on you, too. My most satisfying and lasting friendships have always been with men and women who can sustain platonic relationships with both genders. I love my guy friends, too, and I admit that sometimes my friendships with guys can be easier than my friendships with women, which can be tricky and need work, but if it’s worth having, it’s worth working for. I would be nothing without my girls. So when I see a female character on a television show who prides herself on being one of the boys and has no time for “silly, superficial girls,” I get nervous. If I’m gonna devote an hour a week for a few years of my life to following the trials and tribulations of a few characters, they’ve usually gotta be characters I would want to be friends with in real life, and I have no patience for guys or girls who are dismissive of the entire female gender.

Anyway, on to movies. I think it’s as important to have well-written, fleshed out female characters as it is to have multiple female characters. As I pointed out in my last Bechdel post, 27 Dresses had more female characters than Iron Man did, but I’ll take one Pepper Potts over three bland rom-com characters anytime. What still has me scratching my head, though, is why, with the veritable superhero movie explosion, is Wonder Woman still stalled? Why no attempts to get a Birds of Prey franchise up and running to capitalize on the success of Nolan’s Bat franchise? Why are they making a movie about the Avenger Ant-Man (seriously? Ant-Man?) but no Wasp, a female Avenger who might not even appear in the Avengers movie in 2011? Sure, the producers can point fingers at Elektra and Catwoman as proof that female superhero movies don’t work. Of course those two didn’t work – they were crappy movies. I have probably an unreasonable and blinding love for Jen Garner and I could barely sit through Elektra. And you know, the first Hulk movie bombed due to crapitude, but a studio was still willing to give the character another go with a different actor/writer/director. But Catwoman only gets the one shot? Really? The whole thing just reminds me of what happens when you ask my surly teenage stepbrother to do anything resembling a chore. He does a spectacularly bad job - “See, I did it, happy now?” – to ensure that you never ask him to do it again. Ask him to take out the garbage? Hope you don’t mind finding the garbage can lid left open and the whole can infested with maggots and half the garbage strewn about the yard by wild animals. Eventually, you stop pestering him and just start doing it yourself. I can’t help but wonder if, even on a subconscious level, Hollywood puts out sub par female-driven movies so they can then point and say, “See, we gave you a female-driven movie and it bombed! Now can we go back to doing things the way we usually do?”

I mean, I just watched a commercial for The House Bunny. That’s definitely a female-driven movie, but it also looks potentially insulting to the female gender, if not the human race. If it bombs, I know they’ll blame the girl quotient. When a guy-driven movie bombs, they don’t turn around and say the penises caused it to fail, do they? It’s just depressing because it feels like there’s still so much work to do to make Hollywood more female friendly. We need more movies with prominent female characters, and more movies with prominent female characters that are also well written. For that to happen, we need more women working behind the scenes as writers and directors and producers. You know what happens when you let a woman run things behind the scenes? You get a television show like Weeds that is whip-smart, features complex female characters, and appeals to guys and girls. It’s an all around win. And yet Hollywood is still a boys’ club. It seems like so much to change, it's almost overwhelming, but even if the change comes incrementally it needs to come. The Women, which they have finally started promoting at least, doesn’t really look like my kind of movie, but I’m going to try to see it in the theatre anyway, to vote with my dollar.

Anyway, after I see Pineapple Express, I’ll do another 2008 Bechdel roundup. (Any guesses as to how PE will score? When even Apatow’s leading lady says his movies are sexist, you know you’re in trouble.) Later this week I’m also gonna write up a review of Mirrors, which I saw on Friday, and which, in addition to being a fun horror flick, had some solid female characters to boot.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Summer Movies 8: Tropic Thunder

In case you hadn’t noticed, Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller, and Jack Black have been tirelessly promoting Tropic Thunder for the past few weeks. The trio even appeared on BET’s 106 & Park, where RDJ revealed that he used to go to school at 110th and Amsterdam (which is only notable because that’s my old neighborhood – represent!), Ben Stiller did some Awkward White Guy Dancing, and Jack Black ripped his pants in half and had to spend the rest of the live broadcast making us all glad he’s not a commando kind of guy. They’re on the cover of this week’s Entertainment Weekly, Downey’s on this week’s Rolling Stone, and between them they’ve covered every talk outlet available on both coasts, with the wise exception of Wendy Williams. Which is why you really have to admire Brandon T. Jackson and Jay Baruchel. Because in the midst of all the Tropic sturm und drang centering around the big-name trio, those two stealth ninjas snuck in under the radar and stole the whole damned movie right out from under them.

But I’ll come back to them later. First, on a whole, the film is effing hilarious and has a great deal more heart than I ever could have guessed. Some industry outlets have wondered whether the humor is too “insider” to work on a mainstream level – the “movies about movies don’t do well at the box office” curse and all. While I don’t doubt that there were some jokes that would have been extra knee-slapping if I worked in the industry, it’s written in such a way that getting those jokes is just gravy poured atop all the easily accessible humor in the film. I think it’s as much of a send-up of the war movie genre, which we moviegoers are all familiar with to varying degrees, as it is the industry that makes them. I look at it like Animaniacs and the WB cartoons of yore, where parents would get the occasional sly joke that would fly over the heads of the kids, but the kids were still highly entertained by the rest of the antics.

It was beautifully filmed, well written, and tightly directed, but let’s be honest – Tropic Thunder is all about the actors, both in plot and as a movie. So let’s talk about the actors. As for the big three stars, they all do stellar jobs. I’m not normally a fan of Stiller, I find him a little to smug and smirky most of the time, but as Tugg Speedman he showed a nice amount of vulnerability and heart that had me rooting for him from the instant he looked into Tyra Banks’s eyes and said, childishly hopefully, “Someone said they were close to me?” The usual smugness wasn’t anywhere to be seen, which is ironic, because in directing/writing such a knockout movie, he finally has good reason to be smug. Similarly, Jack Black occasionally grates on my nerves, but here he’s actually fairly subdued in his wackiness. The character is crazy but believable, and quite funny. The darker side of doofiness suits him well. And Robert Downey Jr. is, as usual, top notch. He disappears into each role within his role, he nails every line and was able to make the audience bust up with just a look or gesture.

And then there’s Brandon T. Jackson and Jay Baruchel. As funny as Downey, Stiller, and Black were, Jackson and Baruchel absolutely stole every scene they were in. They were the movie’s straight men, the voices of sanity among their more wackadoodle compatriots. But unlike other straight men, they were not humorless grumps, no, they actually got some of the best zingers in, usually at the expense of the above-the-title stars. Jackson and Baruchel provided the grounding needed to keep the movie from getting too pleased with itself. It won’t be long before they’re the above-the-title stars of their own movies.

Of course, by law, any review of Thunder has to mention Tom Cruise. His stuff was funny, yes. Very funny. But it was one note, and that note got diluted by the second or third appearance. Still, funny. Because I knew it was Cruise under the makeup, I felt it was obvious that it was him, but as the credits rolled, the group behind me exclaimed, “Holy shit, that was Tom Cruise?!”

Knowing that Matthew McConaughey’s role was originally going to be played by Owen Wilson was interesting, as I often found myself picturing Wilson playing it throughout the movie, and you know what? It’s a seamless transition. It’s a little scary, actually. Wilson’s a little blonder, his nose is a little crookeder, and his nipples chafe less easily (at least, I assume chafey nipples are the reason for McConaughey’s pathological aversion to shirts), but otherwise, I can’t see any real difference between the two actors. Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy their work – as a matter of fact, I actually do – but it’s still eerie.

Alas, the film doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel test. There’s nary a woman in sight, save brief cameo appearances by actresses playing themselves. Even three of the four fake trailers are completely devoid of women. (Alpa Chino’s Booty Sweat commercial features two shakin’ female booties - yay?) It’s actually a little alarming.

Also, I do feel the film suffered from the overexposure. Take, for example, Batterdämmerung. Sure, The Dark Knight was superhyped, but before I saw the movie I hadn’t been exposed to a ton of clips, so it actually exceeded my expectations. Tropic Thunder, on the other hand, simply met my expectations. Which is no small feat, mind, since my expectations for Thunder were near astronomically high, but a lot of impact was dulled through repetition. There really wasn’t a lot in the film that I hadn’t already seen pieces of or read about. One of the funniest reveals should have been towards the end, when Stiller’s running across a bridge with a small child stabbing him in the neck, but that scene was already featured in the red-band trailer, so as soon as the kid makes his first appearance in the film, you know how he’s gonna play out. That’s always a problem when films have multiple trailers that use footage from the whole of the film instead of the traditional first-third-only. By the time you’ve seen a few different trailers and TV spots, you can basically piece together the whole movie. (Also, oddly, there were a fair amount of changes from the final cuts of scenes (babies become pandas, Portnoy rants at reporters longer) and inclusion of totally-cut-from-the-movie scenes (Speedman being tortured) in the primary trailer – I wonder how long ago and with how rough a cut they started piecing together the ads?)

Not that all the advertising for Thunder was bad. The viral video stands on its own as a hilarious work of art. And fans of the viral will be happy to note that “Carl” (whoever the hell he is – really Stiller’s nephew? an actor?) makes a brief appearance in the movie as Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey)’s son, first seen in a photo on his desk and at the very end with Peck on a plane. (Speaking of the end, no need to stay through the credits, there’s no tag scene to be had, which is surprising since this seems like exactly the kind of movie to include something like that. The credits do roll over a rap song peppered with lines from the movie, though.)

Overall, Tropic Thunder was a great movie, insanely well-acted, downright hilarious at times and surprisingly touching at other times. One of the better movies of 2008, definitely, and well worth your $10 as both a solid action movie and a solid comedy.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Summer Movies 7: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Originally, I was going to see Pineapple Express this week, but Tropic Thunder and Mirrors are must-see-on-opening-nighters for me, and three movies in one week seemed a bit excessive, so I decided to jettison Pineapple to next week since there’s nothing I’m dying to see opening then. (The House Bunny and Death Race fall under my category of “see in theatres if someone else is paying, otherwise rent” and I may put off Hamlet 2 simply to have something to go see in the long, dull period between this awesome week and September 26th’s Eagle Eye.) But then my family decided to go see The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which falls into the same category as The House Bunny and Death Race, so I figured what the hell.

I was apprehensive because my family’s taste in movies is very hit-or-miss. For every outing to see something like Iron Man, there are two picks akin to Wild Hogs and 27 Dresses. (Having no patience to cajole friends/family into seeing my erratic movie picks, and having little patience to weather people whose movie watching preferences don’t perfectly mesh with my own picky set – slouching down in sixth row center seats (sitting up straight okay but inadvisable that close up), no snacks (bottled water okay), absolutely no talking (previews okay) – I usually choose to go solo.) The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor fell somewhere between those two extremes.

It was certainly nowhere near as bad as I was expecting, given the reviews I’d read. My memory of the earlier Mummy films is a bit foggy as I only saw them once when they were first released seven and nine years ago, but I do remember finding them enjoyable in that doofy swashbuckling way that makes Sahara and the National Treasure films fun, if ultimately forgettable. The cast is stellar. Brendan Fraser does the same thing he always does, but he does it well so who cares. Maria Bello (replacing Rachel Weisz) was great as Evelyn, and Isabella Leong, Luke Ford, and Michelle Yeoh were all excellent. And I’m always happy to see John Hannah. There’s some solid action, some good humor (some of it even coming in the form of downright subtle sight gags), and the story’s not bad. I did a double-take at the credits – apparently it was written by the Smallville guys. That does explain the obsession over a powerful rock.

There were some logistical problems, where the Writers and their Writing suddenly overshadowed the Story. There were a lot of machinations to get all the members of the O’Connell family to Shanghai. Great for the plot of the movie, bad for the plot to resurrect the Dragon Emperor, since it put the people most likely to foil the plans in a convenient place to, you know, foil. And no good reason for this is ever given. It’s not as if Rick and Evelyn were needed for the resurrection. All that was needed was the mystical life diamond thingamajiggy, which the government was happy to fork over. The O’Connells didn't have to be the ones to deliver it. Listen, I know that there’s a certain amount of pipe laying necessary to get all the elements together for the plot to function, but it can be done so in a way that doesn’t insult the intelligence of the audience. (But not, I suppose, by the guys that bring us Smallville, the greatest drain on our country’s precious anvil resources.)

It suffered from some pacing problems, too. I had the same problem with Mummy that I did with Hellboy II – too many big action set pieces in the middle without any kind of real buffer. (It’s also worth noting that both movies feature armies comprised of various non-human elements – gold for Hellboy, and the much-less-imposing terracotta for Mummy.) By the time the never-ending Himalaya scene was rolling, my enthusiasm was starting to wane. And then the yetis made their appearance and my eyes started rolling.

Last year, I submitted a short story to my workshop. It was fantasy/sci-fi with gateways to other dimensions and haunted toasters and mutant birds and all that fun stuff. I included one throwaway line about zombies, because zombies are awesome. My professor tagged that as the one line where the universe became unbelievable. (The haunted toaster was okay, though.) Because there are certain things that just don’t mix, or sometimes you can only load up on so many fantastical elements before it tips. As he went on to explain, it’s why you don’t often see stories that feature vampires and werewolves and zombies. Vampires and werewolves, sure. Vampires and zombies, okay. But all three is pushing it. (At this point, one kid piped up, “Yeah, you don’t ever see, like, vampires and Nazis together”, and I refrained from pointing out that you do because my professor was too busy explaining that vampires and Nazis are in completely different categories that shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath, except by crazy people.) Anyway, my point is, the yetis were my tipping point. Mummies, sure, fine, I’m with you. But mummies and yetis and a three-headed dragon? You lost me.

Surprisingly, the film missed a few beats I was certain would be hit. After the narrative opening, there’s a scene of Fraser’s Rick O’Connell unsuccessfully fishing. He finally gets fed up trying to get the tackle into the water, as opposed to his neck and the nearby foliage, so he shoots the fish (in a stream, not a barrel). In most movies, that kind of scene comes back towards the end of the film, with the hero successfully performing a similar action as a means to taking out the bad guy. I suppose maybe it’s a good thing that the film…well, I was going to say subverted, but I guess more didn’t pander to my expectation. But it also made me wonder whether that scene was really necessary, as its only reason for being was to set up the funny (but predictable) scene of Evelyn biting the bullet (not figuratively) at dinner. As for the other missing beat, there was a great opportunity for a touching, mummified family reunion between Zi Juan, Lin, and General Yang that I felt was overlooked.

But there is good news for Bechdel fans! The film features three girls who kick ass, even more than the men of the movie. Sure, Brendan Fraser gets to do the actual mummy dispatching because he’s the star and that’s how it goes, but the women are the ones who save his ass (and his life) and give him the tools (literal and figurative) to save the day. There’s even a minor female baddie, though she meets a gruesome fate that can either be viewed as romantic or disturbing, depending on how easily your feminist hackles are raised. It’s also nice to see that Evelyn is not reluctantly dragged back into the adventuring life from humdrum retirement, no, she’s as excited to jump back in as is Rick. It was refreshing to see that level of go-go-girl-power in a flick I assumed was gonna be totally guycentric.

Ultimately, though, I have to stand by my preemptive categorization of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor – go see it if someone else is paying, otherwise wait for the DVD.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Lionsgate, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?

There are too many Hollywood studios for me to really keep them all straight and know what they all specialize in. I pick up on drips and drabs through loosely following the trades, I know about the whole Miramax/Weinstein debacle, I know that Marvel is the stock you wanna buy at the moment, and I can usually tell the difference between a Disney film and a Fox film. I pick some things up, but I admit I usually can’t tell you who produced what. Film companies only distinguish themselves to me when I start to notice a certain logo often appearing before movies I end up enjoying. This happened to me with books, when Vintage became the only Random House imprint I could pick out of a lineup when I realized half their backlist was sitting on my bookshelf. With movies, I noticed that the New Line and Lionsgate logos started getting positive associations in my mind. It helps that they’re responsible for some of the best horror films of the past two decades, since I am a horror movie fan.

Then New Line got hacked to pieces, which wasn’t a good sign. But at least Lionsgate was going strong and my horror fix didn’t seem in any danger of drying up. Until now.

I’d been looking forward to Midnight Meat Train for a while. I first heard about it via checking IMDB to see what projects one of my favorite actors, Bradley Cooper, had coming up. A horror movie, set in NYC, starring one of my fave actors? Sounded like a win to me. As the release date crept closer, I didn’t see anything in the way of promos, but I figured it was just a limited release.

Boy, was it.

After the release date, I pulled up the movie listings for midtown NYC. On 42nd Street, I could still see Sex and the City and The Incredible Hulk, but no Midnight Meat Train. I expanded my search to all of the city. Up in Harlem, at the AMC Magic Johnson Harlem 9, I could see TMNT, which was released in March 2007, but no Midnight Meat Train. It wasn’t playing anywhere in the city, which is weird as hell. This is a major, major city, we usually get all kinds of films here. I finally expanded the search and found that I could only see the movie if I was willing to drive 140 miles to Palmyra, PA, which, hey, I love horror movies, but not that much.

I’m not the only one a little miffed by this dumping of Midnight Meat Train into weird second-market theatres. It’s not that I’m that adamant that it be released into theatres. In fact, 95% of the horror movies I have ever seen have been in the comfort of my own living room, and it doesn’t bother me any. But it just makes me worry about the direction the company may be going in. A direction more geared towards mainstream “comedy” than horror. It also makes me worry they’ll dump Repo! The Genetic Opera into similar, odd markets like Kalamazoo. I mean, it’s like they’re actively trying to lose money on Midnight Meat Train.

Which sucks, ‘cause I think horror movies are more important now than they’ve ever been. When the going gets tough, I wanna see monsters and ghosts and vampires. Horror is a great escape for me. Recently, my dad was baffled when I told him that me and my friends like to sit around coming up with zombie contingency plans. “Wouldn’t your time be better spent making contingency plans for things that might actually happen? Have you thought about what will happen if they try to blow up New York again while you’re in it?” Which is missing the entire point. Figuring out how we’d outsmart the legions of undead is a way to cope with those other fears we don’t like to think about too much. (Also, our ZCPs are easily adaptable for most terror/natural disaster situations. “Stockpile firearms, food and water, and medical supplies, get into a basement, and barricade yourself in” is a pretty catchall plan.) I’m a very fretful person by nature. I worry about 9/11 Part 2, World War Three, and getting stabbed by random weirdos on the street all of the time. Horror movies are morbidly comforting, for two reasons. One, if at least one character makes it out alive, I can say, “See? It's possible to survive all that.” Two, even if it’s an Everyone’s Dead! ending, I can comfort myself by saying, “Okay, gas prices suck, I’m unemployed and cranky, and there’s a lot of bad in the world, but at least I’m not fighting off a pack of werewolves or being stalked by cannibals or haunted by vengeful ghosts.” That cheers me up a lot more than a feel-good movie where I have to watch happy frolicking people who are happier and more frolickful than I am.

So I’m hoping this Lionsgate Midnight Meat Train dump is a one time glitch and not a rumbling of changes in their market. Because they have come out with some damned fine horror movies in the past few years, which has done wonders for my mood. Ah well, at least I still have Mirrors to look forward to.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Music Rec: Ludo

I’ve got an embarrassing confession to make. It seems like I discover well over half of my favorite new bands via television shows/commercials and as opening acts for other bands. I’ll write more about the latter down the road, but right now I’m too addicted to Ludo’s You’re Awful, I Love You to think about any other music for the moment. I first heard the title-spawning track, “Love Me Dead”, in the House season 5 promo. I was intrigued enough to download said track from iTunes, and shortly after I was downloading the rest of the album.

This album serves up pop punk with a sadistic, giddy edge. A lot of the tracks have a positively dread-inducing, frenetic, addictive energy that just pulls you along. The House-inspiring track that started it all for me, of course, is “Love Me Dead”. (Hey, look, a second version, that involves the bang brushing their teeth for four minutes.) The song is kind of the bastard child of “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and OK Go’s “A Million Ways” with even more imaginative imagery.

Then there’s “Lake Pontchartrain” which is that increasingly rare of creatures, a full-stop story song. A modern folk ballad that just wants to tell you a really awesome, really creepy story. “Go-Getter Greg” is another uncommon kind of song, a satirical character study/monologue that paints a sad, overbearing picture of a guy we’ve all met before, unfortunately.

And then there’s “The Horror of our Love”. It takes an impressive passel of talent to make lyrics like “I've murdered half the town/ Left you love notes on their headstones/ I'll fill the graveyards/ Until I have you” and “I'll grind against your bones/ Until our marrows mix/ I will eat you slowly/ Oh/ The horror of our love” sound appealing and kind of sweet. This is actually kind of a great song because you can probably slip it into a mix CD and give it to a friend, and it may take them a few listens to really absorb the lyrics and get that great double-take “oh, shit, that’s what the song’s about?” moment. (I had that about a decade ago with Tom Petty’s “Last Dance With Mary Jane” – “You mean it’s not about a girl named Mary Jane?”)

Of course, not every song on You’re Awful, I Love You pushes the boundaries of material usually explored in music. “Scream, Scream, Scream”, “Mutiny Below”, and “Topeka” are standard pop punk fare, wonderful melodies and clever lyrics and no dismemberment or hatefucking. But they’re no less dazzling than the splashier tracks. In fact, “Topeka” is probably my favorite track on the whole album.

I usually download three tracks from iTunes if I want to check out an artist. Three’s a good number, tells you whether you’ll actually like the whole album or whether they’re a single-only band for you. So with that in mind, I suggest you download “Love Me Dead”, “Topeka”, and “Lake Pontchartrain”. Though I’m not sure discovering new bands via a blog is any less lame than doing so via television commercials, both trump discovery via Pitchfork, so at least we’ve got that going for us, right?

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Psych's Out

I’ve been remiss in commenting on the return of USA’s Psych. But if you haven’t been watching (Fridays at 10), then you’ve been remiss, too, so we’ll call it even.

I love this show. I think it works better for me than that other USA staple, Monk, because I love seeing characters having fun, and Monk ain’t exactly Mr. Fun. Don’t get me wrong, angst definitely has a place in television, with shows like Lost bringing it on regularly. But every once in a while, it’s great to kick back and watch people running around enjoying life. Getting into trouble, sure, but having fun while doing it. Part of what makes House so watchable is that, for all of his ornery, miserable crankiness, House has a great sense of humor and has a great deal of fun (albeit always at someone else’s expense).

Psych this season’s been antics as usual. Cybil Shepard has been introduced as Sean’s long-absent mom, but as always, the case-of-the-week wacky hijinks take precedence, keeping angst to a minimum. There’s definitely something to be said for shows that allow you to drop in and out as viewing habits allow without getting too mired in mythology and canon. And above all else, Psych is great fun, and really well written. And if you need a more shallow reason to watch, James Roday and Dulé Hill are totally hot. Maggie Lawson provides spunky feminine eyecandy if that’s more your style. And she and co-star/boyfriend Roday did an episode of Fear, Itself, “In Sickness and in Health”, that sadly isn’t available on Hulu. But you can watch “New Year’s Day”, a decent zombie yarn with a fun twist.

Speaking of zombies, you should also watch “I Love Sarah Jane”, a great Aussie short film. It’s Dawn of the Dead meets Lord of the Flies with a sweet, puppylove core. And zombies.

I know, I started out talking about Psych and ended up talking about zombies. That happens to me more than I care to admit.