Friday, November 28, 2008

Black Friday Alternatives

Take some time away from your shopping (or from contemplating the horrors of consumerist America) with some quality entertainment tonight. Here are a few suggestions.

1. The Psych 2008 Christmas Special

The clearly-superior-to-CBS-rip-off-The-Mentalist fake psychic / real detective show is back with a Christmas special tonight on USA. I’m sure it will air a few dozen times between now and Christmas so there’s technically no rush to go see it, but all the cool kids are gonna watch it tonight, and you want to be one of the cool kids, don’t you?

2. Australia

I’ll do a full review this weekend, but I went to go see it this afternoon and holy crap is it fantastic. Normally, anything resembling a Western makes me break out into hives, but never fear, this is a big, lush, sweeping romantic epic that’s sure to please any fans of Baz’s other movies (Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet), as well as anyone with a still-beating heart in their chest.

3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and The Namesake

Thanksgiving’s all about celebrating immigration (and the slaughter of indigenous people...with pie). In that vein (immigration, not slaughter), why not pick up two great books exploring recent immigration experiences, The Brief Life of Oscar Wao by Dominican author Junot Diaz and The Namesake by Indian author Jhumpa Lahiri.

Or just watch this hilarious clip from yesterday's Thanksgiving Day Parade:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Twilight: The Movie

Despite having been a shrieky, obnoxious teenage girl myself only six years ago, I have limited patience for large packs of squealing hormone bombs, so I waited for a 10 p.m. Sunday night showing before venturing out to see Twilight. The theatre was pretty empty. Two or three clumps of giddy but well-behaved young girls, two couples on a double date, and one older woman who I initially thought was saving seats for three of her friends, but who I realized later just brings a boatload of crap along to the movies and spreads it out among the empty seats around her. (Don’t take this to mean that Twilight will see an inevitable audience drop-off in the coming weeks – while it certainly might, my movie theatre is almost always that empty at shows that are before 4 p.m. and after 10 p.m., which is why I usually go before 4 p.m. and after 10 p.m.) I mention all of this only because I didn’t get the Mystery Science Theatre treatment that other filmgoers got when watching this. All the line readings were allowed to ring earnest unaccompanied by laughter, which was sometimes painful, sometimes less painful than I expected.

By now, you probably know more about Twilight than you ever wanted to, but in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past two weeks, a recap: Bella, age 17, moves from Arizona to Washington. There she meets Edward, age 17 (give or take a century), and his family of “vegetarian” vampires, who feed only on cuddly woodland animals. These vampires are more in name only than full-out Nosferatu – they don’t sleep in coffins (they don’t sleep at all), garlic doesn’t repel them (but they’re no more inclined to eat it than they are any other human food), and sunlight doesn’t harm them but they have to stick to shadows anyway because their non-human status will be given away by how their skin sparkles in the sunlight (more on that later). Bella and Edward fall in love because Edward is super dreamy and Bella smells inexplicably extra-tasty compared to other humans. Which is all fine and well until they run into a trio of less progressive (Republican) vamps who see Bella as more of a snack than a romantic interest, and so it goes. That book spawned three sequels, with ever-increasingly-complicated mythologies, half-hearted romantic rivalries, and a fanbase of squealing hormone bombs and their daughters. So how does the series fare in its first big screen outing?

Twilight as a book-to-film adaptation succeeds because it manages to stay true to its source material while still making concessions that allow it to work as a film in its own right. The trio of non-“vegetarian” vamps who scuffle with the main characters in the film’s climax appear only at the end of the book as almost an afterthought when the author realized she needed more conflict than Edward’s feeble attempts to stay away from Bella. Melissa Rosenberg wisely weaves the baddie vamps more throughout the entire plot, giving the story a firmer trajectory. Scenes and characters are artfully collapsed in such a delicate manner that will prevent both devoted fangirls and off-the-street newbies from having aneurysms, as enough of the source is protected while still streamlining it for the masses.

The casting is spot-on (although I may be biased as I read the books very recently, long after having seen countless trailers and read an interminable number of articles, so I certainly read it with these actors already in mind). It was well-acted throughout, and the chemistry between Robert Pattinson as Edward and Kristen Stewart as Bella sizzles and carries the movie nearly entirely. Pattinson said in an Entertainment Weekly article that he played the part of Edward as manic depressive despite attempts to make the film more comedic. I was worried that this clash would give the movie a weird tone, but it works surprisingly well. The movie earns a few laughs on its own terms (and not just at the expense of the cheesy effects and turgid romantic lines) while Pattinson’s performance lends it more gravitas than it rightly deserves. Kristen Stewart’s Bella is appealing, whip smart, sarcastic, and vulnerable, even if she is seemingly incapable of ever closing her mouth. The supporting cast of Bella’s high school classmates and Edward’s vamp fam are all very engaging, though none of them get nearly enough screentime. It’s hard to fault writer Melissa Rosenberg and director Catherine Hardwicke for making the movie so Bella-and-Edward centric, as they are the core that the rest of the series will be built upon, but some more balance might have been found. Luckily, the sequel has already been greenlit so they’ll get another crack at giving the audience more exposure to the other characters. (The movie is a major win for the relatively new Summit Pictures – it was made for about $37M and grossed $20M this weekend, the highest gross for a solo female-directed film to date, making it a win for those who want to see more female-helmed movies do well, too.)

The movie does have a few roadblocks that may stand in the way of it becoming a lasting mainstream hit. (Make no mistake, it will absolutely live on in the hearts of the current crop of young girls the same way Titanic and Baz L.’s Romeo + Juliet live on with my generation, and the way Pretty in Pink and Say Anything live on with the generation before mine.) The cheesy special effects, for starters. The movie was made on a limited budget, so much is forgivable, but it wasn’t necessary to have little jingle-jingle sounds accompanying the shots of Edward’s skin sparkling in the sun. Although I do have to give the movie credit for finally making the “vampires sparkle in the sun” thing make somewhat organic storytelling sense to me. When I read it in the books, it seemed utterly ridiculous and made me suspect the author had spent a little too much time out in the sun herself. “Hm, vampires bursting into flames in the sun is so cliché. Instead, my vampires will sparkle like diamonds!” Hey, I had a minor body glitter addiction in the summer of 1996, I can relate. But throughout the books the vampire skin is described as smooth, cold, and hard like stone, and sure enough, the movie effects did remind me of the way some polished marble and limestone can sparkle in the sunlight. So maybe there was actual rhyme to Stephenie Meyer’s reasoning in that detail. Or maybe she’s just a little loopy.

The movie also has a tendency to resemble a music video, which I’m sure is no problem for the target demographic but might frustrate older viewers. And I can’t say I agree with the reduction of key scenes depicting Edward and Bella falling for each other into montages of them talking, leaving us to infer that something deep is transpiring but not giving us any tangible proof of such. Granted, this is not something the book properly explored either – it’s a love-at-first-sight kind of deal for the pair, which I am not against as a rule in the star-crossed lover genre. Romeo and Juliet didn’t exactly have a heart to heart where they compared their politics, moral values, and life’s hopes and dreams before pledging undying fealty to each other, and that’s fine. But one semi-poignant conversation would go a lot further than hinting at conversations the audience can only infer are poignant. For all we know, Edward and Bella could be cooing “You’re so pretty!” “No, you’re so pretty!” “No, you’re so pretty!” to each other.

Finally, there are certain things that might seem swooningly romantic to the Clearasil set but might make older skin crawl, like when Edward confesses to breaking into Bella’s room for the past few months to watch her sleep. It’s a testament to Pattinson’s charm that I didn’t flee screaming from the theatre at that point, because I already have a paranoid streak and OCD urge to check and re-check all my windows before I go to bed each night.

Still, as with the book it’s based on, it’s easy to look past the cheesy or unsettling parts of Twilight and get sucked into the romance and adventure. There’s plenty to satisfy the ardent fans, from near-slavish devotion to preserving purple-yet-beloved lines from the book to little easter eggs like Edward recreating the iconic book cover and a cameo by the author in a diner scene. For everyone else, it’s a solid flick, entertaining and well-paced with a bevy of great actors inhabiting charming roles. It might not be The Second Coming of Potter – this fact is underscored by the trailer for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince that’s attached to Twilight, which took over Potter’s original release date when Potter got pushed back to next summer – but it’s worth parting with $10 to see, even in this economy.

Twilight: The Book

This weekend, I was at a rock concert, and the guy in front of me had a tee-shirt that read, “Hot Topic is not punk rock.” Which is, of course, true, and the message was clearly a poke at the younger, prone-to-screaming-hysterically contingent of the band’s female fanbase. Hot Topic promotes bands that are like the Sex Pistols defanged, punk rock watered down and made palatable to legions of swoony young girls who want to tack pictures of William Beckett and Pete Wentz all over their walls. So it’s unsurprising that Hot Topic sells scads of Twilight merchandise, since, as Fall Out Boy is to the Sex Pistols, Twilight is to, say, I Am Legend. (And I say that as a fan of all four of those things.) Twilight is vampires watered down, made palatable to the generation that’s too young to have seen Interview With A Vampire (the first emo vampire movie) in the theatres.

The last time I wrote about vampires, I had nothing to say about Twilight because the movie wasn’t out yet and I hadn’t read the book. (My friend Lindsay had read it, however, and came down firmly on the side of "YOU SHOULD NOT READ IT.") I had the book sitting around for a while, because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, plus it was recommended to me a couple of years ago by a beloved professor who had never steered me wrong when it came to reading recommendations, so I figured it had to either have some kind of merit on its own, or in the very least had to be the kind of thing that generally appeals to me, since this professor knows my taste (and occasional lack thereof) pretty well. Still, I was reluctant to dive in because it seemed like it would be unbearably cheesy, but then I read the second Entertainment Weekly cover story and saw this:

The author loves the movie, though she had her disagreements with Hardwicke. ''I mostly stepped in on the script level,'' she says. ''You know the line 'So the lion fell in love with the lamb'? It's a bit of a cheesy line, I have to say. They had changed the wording on that, to downplay it a little. And I said, 'I really like how you've changed this, but this line is tattooed on people's ankles. I think you're going to have a problem if you don't do it exactly right.' And they listened to me — and saved themselves the outrage of the people who know these books.''

I kind of liked that acknowledgment of both sides of the coin – the cheesiness of the source material, the devotion of the fans. It made me think that maybe the people involved in this juggernaut had their heads screwed on straight.

So I finally cracked open Twilight, and I didn’t put it back down until I was done several hours later. Suffice to say, it was a lot better than I expected. Granted, after taking something like ten or eleven writing workshops in college, I have a nearly endless capacity to tolerate crap writing and find the merit in nearly everything I read. After some of the exorable sadsack excuses for student writing I had to slog through on a weekly basis for several years on end, something has to be really atrocious to even ping my radar of bad writing. I think I’ve got the literary equivalent of PTSD, I’m the dead-around-the-eyes reading equivalent a war vet who can walk past a nasty car wreck and not even flinch because I’ve seen real horror. You think a little purple prosey vampire melodrama can compare to reading a novel-in-progress, written partially in a hokey southern dialect, that regularly waxes rhapsodic about the massive torso of the psychotically unhinged narrator who is really just a thinly veiled version of the douchebag writer? And then having to find nice things to say about said exorable piece of dung in workshop because if you don’t, the unhinged writer/narrator might follow you home after class, chop off your head, and add it to the trophy case of heads you’re convinced he has stashed under his bed? Jesus, people, I’ve been in the shit, okay? Those who complain about the quality of Stephenie Meyer’s writing need to live inside my head for a moment and see just how much worse it could be.

Um. Sorry. Like I said, literary PTSD. Anyway, I found a lot of the book surprisingly charming. If you can get past the purple prose, the narrator’s unflagging low self-esteem, and the ten thousand exclamations of Edward’s immortal hotassness, there’s actually a pretty good book in there. It needed a more brutal edit, to be sure, and I’ve no doubt it would have gotten one had they known how much it was gonna blow up. Twilight is surprisingly funny, the characters are all pretty likeable, and the story moves along at a decent clip. I read the other three books in the series over the course of the week. It was interesting to see Meyer’s prose fade from vivid purple to a pale lilac as the series progressed and she honed her writing (albeit on a very public stage). Alas, her plotting skills do leave something to be desired. The books build towards big, climactic battles that are either fought off-page and described later because the narrator was not present mentally or physically, or are resolved with lame truces. And the fourth book, Breaking Dawn, rather famously went off the rails and into wackadooland plotwise, though I still enjoyed much of it. It probably helps that I was already spoiled for the la-la-lunacy so I knew what I was getting into before reading page one of book one.

It’s easy enough to see why the books are so popular. For the teen set, well, come on. When I was the age of the Twilight target demo, my friends and I were addicted to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. We saw it over and over in the theatre, clipped pictures out of magazines, memorized the soundtrack, all that good stuff. There will always be something like this for teen girls to rally around. Of course, it wasn’t as big a media story back then because we weren’t in the midst of a major economic depression that’s left the oh-so-very-doomed media (who are all sick of writing about the major economic depression at this point) grasping at any straw of what might be a viable story in vain hopes of proving its continued relevancy.

And the books work even for those of us whose hormones are finally mostly in check, because they tap into the two most primal driving forces of human nature: sex and death. Sex and death are the only things worth writing about because they’re the twin codes of our entire existence. We are programmed to avoid death at all costs, both on a personal level by, you know, breathing and eating and sleeping and not stepping into oncoming traffic, and on a species level by mating and procreating. It’s the reason naval-gazing literary outings don’t fare well outside of the MFA incubator while mysteries and romances clog up Bookscan’s top spots, because sex and death will always trump artistic merit when it comes to mass appeal. And star-crossed romance has been popular since Shakespeare wrote about Romeo and Juliet, since Ovid wrote of Pyramus and Thisbe, since ancient Greeks sat around telling the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The archetype has endured for over two millennia because there’s something about that dynamic that appeals to us on a really primal level. Bella and Edward are merely the newest iteration of something very old and enduringly popular.

The thing about the Twilight series is, the author basically wrote it on a lark and sent it off to see if she could get published on a lark. Luck was on her side and she got published and it snowballed into this huge thing that’s put her – a young and unrefined author with definite potential but lacking polish – under a huge microscope. Now, I can’t exactly cry for her because she was certainly well-compensated for her troubles, but I still think she didn’t set out to write the Great American Novel, which is why I find the furor on both sides – she’s a genius! she’s everything wrong with the world! – to be frankly hilarious. Is it Mormon propaganda masquerading as vampire romance? No, it’s just a book written by someone too green to properly pull herself and her views out of her writing – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless you’re a Mormon or a Scientologist or a douchebag sociopath with an under-the-bed head collection and a massive torso. Taken at face value, stripped of all the hype, the Twilight series is a good yarn and an engaging read, no more or less.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Red Eye: A Bad Show, or the Worst Show?

I recently started an internship where my primary responsibility is to watch assigned television shows looking for (then pulling, editing, and uploading) newsworthy, interesting, or entertaining clips for the web. On my first day, I dutifully moved down the list of shows until I hit one I’d never heard of, a Fox News offering called Red Eye. (I’m not exactly Fox News’ target demographic.) I started to watch, and after about five minutes I turned to my editor, slightly alarmed. “Is this a real show?” I asked. Part of me suspected they were hazing the new girl by making me watch a compilation of terrible clips or something. My editor assured me that Red Eye is a real show that real people pay money to produce. So I watched. And after it was over, I told my editor that I was a worse person for having watched that.

Red Eye is, in theory, a funny look at the day’s news that airs on Fox News every morning at three a.m. It’s exactly like The Soup, if The Soup was daily, aired in the dead of night, focused on news instead of pop culture, was packed to the gunny walls with slanderously racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and homophobic remarks, and was painfully unfunny. Which I guess means it’s nothing like The Soup. Of course something like this would air on Fox News.

Fox News and I go way back. In 2006 there was an incident at my school that made a lot of national headlines, and Fox News picked up on it and held on like a monkey with a damned banana. They spent the rest of that semester and a good part of the next trolling for non-stories to make us look bad. For example, I wrote a completely innocuous newspaper article that had a section on our school’s S&M club. A few weeks later, Ann Coulter’s reporting on how depraved the student body is because we have an S&M club. Because I was the humor editor for our newspaper’s spin-off magazine at the time, it was my job to try and comment on all the insanity, but I found it oddly difficult to make fun of Fox News because they were insane on a level that seemed to exist outside the confines of reality. I do recall writing one spoof article that was so vitriolic and unambiguously offensive that my co-editor had to reverse our usual dynamic and tell me I’d gone too far – that was usually my role. The toned down version was still pretty terrible and I’m unbelievably relieved that the archives for that semester are not online.

So there I am on Friday, watching Red Eye, feeling far less alarmed than I was in my first outing. Somewhere along the way, the show kind of grew on me. That, or Stockholm Syndrome has set in. I’m now ashamed to admit I’ll occasionally flip it on at home when I have insomnia. It’s just so surreal to see that many racist/homophobic/misogynistic/anti-Semitic comments packed into one hour. Sometimes, a particularly crazy homeless person will come onto your subway car, ranting about the government and Jews or whatever, and you don’t want to stare because he might try to dash in your brains with a brick, and also he smells like pee. But with Red Eye, there’s a television set standing between you and the crazy ranting man! You can openly stare and not even feel guilty because, against all odds, the crazy ranting man is getting paid to do this! For all you know, Greg Gutfeld might not even smell like pee!

Anyway, after the show I wanted to see if any of the other episodes this week had covered a particular topic in the faux news alerts that kick off the show, so I went through the episodes I had on hand. I didn’t find what I was looking for, but I did find something else - a bizarre pattern of picking on Belgium. Belgium is not a country I’d ever given much thought to outside the confines of French class. I know they have good waffles and chocolate, and I sometimes confuse Belgium with Germany and Austria because I have an astoundingly terrible sense of geography and global politics, but that’s about it. But here were two clips in one week, picking on Belgium for no discernible reason. Still looking for the other topic I wanted, I hit up Hulu to see what they had, and the first thing I clicked on, an episode from September, featured more Belgium mockery. I found the arbitrariness of it hilarious – Belgium! Who in the world has a deathgrudge against Belgium? – so I compiled the clips and sent them off. The managing editor, Gabriel Snyder, picked it up and wrote a hilarious post about it. So if you go here, you can read his hilarious post and see video proof that someone at Red Eye has a grudge against Belgium. (Belgium! Really!)

Earlier in the day, I had pulled another hilarious clip off Fox and Friends, Fox News’ answer to the Today Show, which is only slightly (slightly) more PC than Red Eye. In the clip, Fox and Friends claimed that 81% of all “babes” were planning to see Twilight, and that most young girls were turned on to the book series by their mothers. (Which may have been true in the 80s/90s when I was a kid pilfering my mom’s V.C. Andrews, but I think it’s safe to say that nowadays, moms are following their daughters into the Twilight, not the other way around.) The clip was picked up by both Defamer with New 'Twilight' Report Affirms Fox News's Commitment to Cultural Tone-Deafness and Jezebel with 80% Of All Women Babes Plan To See Twilight. Fox News might in fact be my new favorite place to go for I’m-laughing-at-not-with-you hilarity.

As far as Red Eye, I can’t in good conscience recommend that you watch this show on TV. If everyone reading this blog tuned into Red Eye all at once, their audience would grow 1000% to a staggering twenty viewers, and that would send the producers the wrong message. But it’s worth pulling up some clips on YouTube and marveling at the insanity. Just make sure to cleanse your palate by tuning into The Soup on Friday.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Movies: Repo! The Genetic Opera

Repo! The Genetic Opera imagines a steampunk, noirish future where organ replacements are handily engineered by GeneCo, ensuring a long life for those who can afford it. Those who can’t afford it can get the goods on credit, but of course, if you default on your payment, said organs are handily repossessed by the Repo Man, making for a less long life. Oh, and it’s an opera. Co-starring Paris Hilton. These elements could be the recipe for something eye-bleedingly awful or something unbelievably brilliant. Repo! yo-yos between those two extremes.

The visuals of the film are phenomenal, full of dark, twisted, lush, steampunk imagery, like someone spilled out the brain of Edward Gorey, H.G. Wells, and Hieronymus Bosch onto the screen. And all the heavy lifting of world-building and background exposition is handily dispatched by flashes of a highly-stylized comic book, which both sets the mood and allows the film to cut right to the heart of things, i.e. graphic organ removal. The visuals alone might even be worth the full price of admission. If you’re going for the music, however, you might want to wait for a bargain matinee. Some of the opening songs (”Genetic Repo Man” and “21st Century Cure”) are catchy and mood-setting, but the next thirty or so minutes are filled with tuneless, meandering melodies that swing between bland and outright annoying. They so counteracted the great imagery, interesting characters, and imaginative story that I initially wondered if Repo! might not have been better off as a music-free movie rather than an opera. But after a while, standout songs started appearing, interspersed with the blander offerings, which led my final opinion to be that Repo! would have done better with a traditional book-and-music musical format than a sung-through rock opera.

The performances are hit or miss as well. As the Repo Man, Anthony Stewart Head is phenomenal, displaying savage ferocity and overprotective tenderness in equal measures. He’s also an accomplished singer, which comes as no surprise to those familiar with his collaboration with George Sarah, Music For Elevators, as well as his stint in Rocky Horror and his occasional musical performances as Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sarah Brightman, the original Christine in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and the West End, is quite good as Blind Mag, the opera diva with the creepy genetic eyes. And Alexa Vega (as Shilo, the Repo Man’s daughter) and Paris Hilton (as Amber Sweet, daughter of GeneCo’s founder Rotti) turn in solid performances, even if their singing voices are a bit anemic. Paris Hilton might not be the next Grace Kelly, but love her or hate her, you notice her, she has an undeniable charisma that makes her hard to ignore, and she is, if nothing else, interesting. Paul Sorvino as Rotti Largo - founder of GeneCo, employer of Repo Man, and jilted paramour of Shilo’s deceased mother who left Rotti for Nathan (Repo Man’s kinder, gentler, slightly-less-kill-happy alter ego) years ago – gives an interesting performance as a villain who is not really layered, but not entirely unsympathetic, either. Rotti also has two sons, brothers to Hilton's Amber Sweet: Ogre as Parvi Largo and Bill Moseley as Luigi Largo. Ogre is chilling and hilarious as a creepy dandy who wears women’s skinned faces over his own. Bill Mosely, however, is out-acted by Paris Hilton as the angry Luigi. His every line reading is convoluted and contorted. It’s lucky for him the scenery of Repo! is so expansive, allowing the film to retain its lush look after he’d chewed through half of it.

But the real standout is Terrance Zdunich as GraveRobber, the narrator who makes his living peddling a black market drug extracted from the brains of corpses. (And you thought jenkem was a disgusting idea.) He oozes sinuous charisma and lights up every scene he’s in. His singing and mannerisms are spot on, and he, more than any other component, holds the film together, serving as our Virgil on this hellish descent. Before the credits rolled, I wondered whether his performance stood out because he was the best or because he had been given the best materials to work with. The answer turned out to be a little bit of both, as Zdunich is the co-writer along with Darren Smith, who also has a small role in the film.

Repo! knows its roots. The anarchic feel shared by similar cultish rock stage musicals (the arena where Repo! got its start) such as Bat Boy the Musical, Reefer Madness, and Evil Dead: The Musical, and off-screen musical performances by goth-rock staples Poe and Melora Creager of Rasputina, help ground this work with its spirited predecessors. Repo! also manages to layer in some nice themes that elevate genetics to more than just replacement kidneys. When Rotti is diagnosed with an illness even he can’t cure, he has to decide which of his three children is least unfit to inherit his legacy. Meanwhile, Shilo is kept prisoner by the blood disease she inherited from her mother, and she voices the thesis of the film with “Infected”: “How much is it genetics, how much of it is fate, how much of it depends on the choices that we make?” Frankly, I went to Repo! for the gore, camp, and rock, so finding an actual story with themes and imagery and symbolism and all was just gravy.

Repo! The Genetic Opera isn’t for the squeamish – it is, after all, by Twisted Pictures, best known for the Saw franchise. If the phrase “Repo Man sings a song using a corpse as a puppet” makes you go “Awesome!” rather than vomit slightly, then Repo! is definitely for you, and make no mistake, I am definitely in the “Awesome!” camp. The movie has its flaws, there are some moments that are cringe-inducing and some performances that are a crime against humanity. There’s also some unresolved business where a character dies before receiving an important piece of information that would absolve them of much past angst, which is unsatisfying and frustrating for the viewer who knows this information. But these low lows are coupled with some of the highest highs I’ve seen in cinema in years. Repo! is exciting as hell, something new that doesn’t color within the usual Hollywood lines, and I’d gladly sit through another performance of the disjointed rock number “Seventeen” to see something as thrilling as GraveRobber’s “Zydrate Anatomy” (which you can watch below) or Blind Mag’s high-flying operatic swan song. If you’re not lucky enough to live in one of the handful of cities where Repo! is playing now, it’s due out on DVD in January, and I highly recommend you rent it – hell, buy it – as soon as it hits stores. Just try to pay cash instead of credit.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Movies: Rachel Getting Married and The Duchess

Happy day, the apocalypse has been averted and we no longer are at risk of having a zombie puttering around the White House for the next four years, which means I can get back to worrying about more frivolously important things, like the Oscars. The Oscar race for Best Leading Actress is often the most interesting category each year. While Hollywood might not excel at putting multiple women on the screen together, it does seem to do a good job of pairing amazing women up with amazing material. And I suspect two recent releases are going to get that category off to a good start.

Anyone who’s been lucky enough to be around a recovering addict knows what special hell they can bring into your life. All of the self-absorption that comes from being an addict gets redirected into being a recovering addict. Instead of funneling all of their energy into chasing the next high, they’ll funnel all of their energy into self-righteously patting themselves on the back for not chasing the next high. I’ve run into some recovering alcoholics who felt the need to condescendingly explain why they’re morally superior to me since they no longer drink but I still do. The fact that I have a couple of drinks tops every few weeks tops with friends and never had an incident involving my car making furious love to an embankment of trees is apparently irrelevant. Look, I’m Irish-American with a once-large-now-mostly-deceased Catholic family, I know from alcoholism, okay? So it’s a testament to Anne Hathaway’s acting prowess that she could deliver such a nuanced turn in Rachel Getting Married and make it pleasant to be around a recovering addict for once.

In Rachel Getting Married, Kym (Anne Hathaway) leaves rehab for a weekend to come home for her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt)’s wedding. While home, she has a fling with a groomsman and fellow recovering addict (Mather Zickel), makes an awkward toast to Rachel and her fiancé (TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe), crashes a car, and has moments both tender and volatile with her family. Rachel is a quiet film – sometimes literally, as music is used sparingly – that offers only a few emotional explosions, though when they come they’re quite compelling. The one thing Rachel Getting Married excels in is avoiding easy answers. When The Great Family Tragedy is revealed, we learn that it was not the event that drove Kym to drugs but rather that it was Kym’s drug use that caused the tragedy. In fact, no explanation is ever given for why Kym got to where she is, which is what keeps this from being a Lifetime movie. Sometimes smart people make stupid decisions for no good reason and hugging it out won’t magically fix everything. When Kym returns to rehab after her weekend at home, it’s not with any great revelation into the meaning of life, she’s just taking one of the many steps she’ll have to take towards recovery. Like a lot of indie movies, Rachel Getting Married does suffer from a few problems common to the genre. The steadicam shots are occasionally too precious in trying to mimic reality, and the wedding scene goes on far, far too long – there’s verisimilitude and then there’s flat out annoying. But with strong performances across the board and Anne Hathway as the spitfire center, this is one wedding you won’t want to miss.

Anne won’t be without competition when it comes to Oscar nominations, as Keira Knightly is deserving of consideration for her turn as Georgiana Cavendish (née Spencer), Duchess of Devonshire, in The Duchess. Just as Rachel Getting Married avoids devolving into standard Lifetime fare, The Duchess avoids turning into a typical bodice ripper. Mostly, anyway. The story follows Georgiana through her first decade of marriage to the Duke (Ralph Fiennes), when the primary concern (as it always seems to be with these royals) is producing a male heir. The Duke is abusive and neglectful, and Georgiana ends up conducting an affair with Charles Grey (Dominic Cooper) that results in a child. When she is forced to give the child away, it’s hard not to be moved by the situation and by Knightley’s stellar performance.

But all those relationships pale in comparison to Georgiana’s relationship with Elizabeth “Bess” Foster (Hayley Atwell). To say this is a complicated relationship is a slight understatement. Bess and Georgiana meet while on vacation in Bath and strike up so close a friendship that Georgiana invites Bess, recently separated from her husband who denies her visitation with their children, to move in with her and the Duke. She comes to regret this situation when Bess and the Duke begin a rather open affair. This comes as little surprise, of course, since the Duke is a philanderer and Bess is a woman desperate to curry favor with anyone who might be able to reunite her with her children. Georgiana’s dismay is, of course, of little surprise as well, but what keeps The Duchess interesting is the way that it keeps from devolving into a catfight for a cad’s affections, The Other Boleyn Girl revisited. Bess stays with Georgiana during her exile to secretly birth Charles Grey’s child and the two manage to rebuild their relationship despite the awkward Duke-sharing. It’s a complicated and compelling storyline. The only downside is that this storyline is not given as much time as the Georgiana/Duke and Georgiana/Charles Grey drama. In fact, that is one failing of The Duchess. There is a lot of meaty material – Georgiana’s political work, her incessant gambling, her complicated relationship with Bess – that is minimized in favor of the soapy aspects of the story. Still, those elements are present and do happily distinguish The Duchess from similar historical movies. Another quibble, though, when the political aspects are mentioned, they’re not given much context. I suppose I can’t fault the filmmakers for assuming everyone paid attention in history class, but I had to hit the books (or, well, let’s be honest – Wikipedia) when I got home. Still, I really enjoyed The Duchess, and I’m a tough sell as I avoid most costume dramas and historical movies like the plague. I recommend seeing it to give yourself a leg up in the office Oscar pool come 2009.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Comic Domination

A bit of media round-up for a potentially pre-apocalyptic election eve, since lots of comic book-inspired movies and TV shows are in the news this week.

First, Ain’t It Cool News has managed to get ahold of some on-set pictures of the new Sherlock Holmes adaptation starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Defamer also has a cool picture of Downey in flight. But Monsters and Critics takes the cake with this sizzling report that begins with, “Robert Downey Jr. set his crotch on fire while shooting his new film.” Which is possibly the best lede I have ever read. I’m really excited for this movie. I always liked the idea of Holmes more than the adaptations I’ve seen, and I’m hoping this new one will change that.

Second, Marvel recently announced they would be replacing Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle as Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes for Iron Man 2 and the Avengers movie that will follow Iron Man 2 and will (hopefully) pay off that Samuel L. Jackson cameo in the post-credits of Iron Man. Iron Man’s core fanbase reacted, well, about as well as you’d expect. This news came as a bit of surprise to most of the non-fanboy industry as well, because when your movie grosses over $300 million, you usually try not to mess with the winning formula in the sequels. Remember how well that worked for New Coke? This affects more than who Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark will snark at on-screen for two and a half hours, as the Rhodey character will logically take on more importance in the ensuing movies, assuming they follow the comics, where Rhodes dons his own metal suit to become Iron Man’s sidekick War Machine. Marvel, being a movie studio, didn’t come right out and explain their decision, though a few interesting reports have surfaced. Of course, there is no good reason for getting fired when you’re the one on the receiving end of the pink slip, so I doubt anything’s gonna make Howard feel better when the trailers for Iron Man 2, The Avengers, and maybe even War Machine start rolling out in the next few years. The latter movie would be my pick for the reason behind the cast change, though. Howard was good in Iron Man, certainly, but he was on the bland side and didn’t rise to the great heights of Downey, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges, which was fine for the first movie because all you really had to do in that movie was not completely suck and those other three could carry you. But with a potential spin-off franchise in the works, it makes sense to get someone with a little more oomph. Is Cheadle the man for the job? I don’t know. My first reaction was “Really? Hm...” But I’ve since been unable to think of anyone else I could see more in the role, so I suppose it’s worth waiting to see how this shakes out.

Terrence Howard isn’t the only one out of a job. NBC axed the two top Heroes producers, Jeph Loeb and Jesse Alexander, who had been with the show since its earlier, happier days of cultural relevance. E! managed to dig up some dirt and found an interesting place to point fingers:

"Someone had to take the fall." This is what a reliable inside source on Heroes tells me of the firings of Loeb and Alexander. "NBC is not happy with the current status of the show, and there had to be a visual and tangible change in the course of action."

The final blow came from last week's Entertainment Weekly cover, which I'm told was reported on under the ruse of a promotional story for the series. The surprise—a cover story pointing out Heroes' third-season flaws and fan discontent—did not go over well with higher-ups.

Oh, silly execs, you can’t trust journalists! (Except me, because I always weenie out of going in for the kill on my stories, which is why I stick with puff pieces whenever possible. I’d rather forfeit a Pulitzer than be universally reviled. Because I am a weenie.) Seriously, your show is floundering, bleeding audience members and getting slammed by critics, and you think Entertainment Weekly, one of the few pop culture-based media outlets to weave actual hard-nosed pieces in among the usual softball stories, is gonna write a little hot air piece for you?

At any rate, I’m sure the higher-ups think this movie will reinvigorate the failing show, but I see it more like writing DOOM! on the wall. I finally watched the first few episodes of Heroes this season, and I was struck by overwhelming apathy. I just don’t care anymore. It’s not awful, it’s not even all that different from the first season, I just...can’t bring myself to care anymore. I suspect the show was always fated to have a great first season then fizzle out. Maybe it should have been a really cool movie trilogy instead of a television show.

There are some more great-sounding comic book movies on the horizon. reports that David Lindsay-Abaire, the playwright responsible for some amazing plays like Fuddy Meers, Kimberly Akimbo, and the Pulitzer-winning Rabbit Hole, is in negotiations to write Spider-Man 4. After the sticky mess that was Spider-Man 3, this is a welcome bit of good news. I was lucky enough to have Mr. Lindsay-Abaire speak to my playwriting class last year, where he proved himself to be very thoughtful about the nature of human interactions and confronting one’s own fears. It gives me hope for a more character-driven Spidey movie with crackling dialogue and imaginative plot...not unlike Lindsay-Abaire’s plays.

Finally, Variety says that Sam Mendes will be directing a feature version of the comic book Preacher. Though I won’t get my hopes up until the cameras start rolling, considering a television series was in development by HBO until it suddenly wasn’t and this isn’t the first time a feature adaptation has tried to get off the ground, if this does in fact materialize it will be great news for both comic and movie fans. The Preacher series is fantastic, rife with wit and moral dilemmas, and I can’t wait to see who would be cast as the alcoholic Irish vampire Cassidy, as well as erstwhile-hitwoman-slash-love-interest Tulip O’Hare and of course the Preacher himself, Jesse Custer, who is accidentally possessed by the offspring of a demon and an angel and might have more power than God himself who, by the way, is missing. Of course, when I think “comic book movie”, the first name that comes to mind isn’t exactly Sam Mendes, who is better known for his thoughtful meditations and closet of Oscar hardware, but he might be just the person to lend more gravitas to a genre that, even after The Dark Knight’s success, is still marginalized by the industry if not audiences.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Ebs Just Gave Me the Heebs

No matter how dreadful a movie seems at the outset, I usually try to tough it out to the end. Best case scenario, it picks up a bit and I’m pleasantly surprised. Worst case scenario, at least I’ll be able to cogently state my case when I tell everyone it blows. For example, earlier tonight I was watching The Abandoned, and had I been watching alone I would have shut it off after eight minutes because the opening was slow like honey and poorly filmed. But I wasn’t alone, and I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be a pretty good movie once it got rolling. And on the flipside, because I sat through all one hundred and five excruciating minutes of Doomsday, I feel comfortable saying it’s the worst movie I’ve seen in 2008.

This seems like a solid method to movie reviewing, which is why there was a minor shitstorm when Roger Ebert recently posted a negative review of the indie movie Tru Loved after having seen only the first eight minutes. That he disclaimed this fact at the end of his review did not stop said shit from storming.

So Ebert did the old mea culpa schpiel acknowledging his error. Then he watched the rest of the movie and issued forth a longer and even more brutal review of the movie. And the filmmakers can’t be the only ones now wishing he’d stopped after those eight minutes, because the new, extended review (available here, along with the original missive) contains the following, disturbing view into Roger Ebert’s libido:

I've kissed a fair number of girls and you could never hear us smacking. I've seen a fair number of kisses in the movies, and can't remember anyone smacking. After 15 seconds, Tru pulls away: "I'm thrilled you're hetero, but you don't need to prove it on your first date." Said in real life? Not often. He presses his case: "Can I please just feel you up?" This is a question that is usually asked in body language, not words. Your ol' dad here has copped a fair number of feels in his lifetime, and he never asked first. Sometimes he sure shoulda, but you live and learn.

Yup, I’m not gonna sleep well again until I drink enough to erode those words from my memory.