Friday, August 31, 2007

Things I learnt today (Sept 1st, 2007)

1. Brian De Palma, having hammered what I thought was the final nail into the coffin of his career with the downright peculiar Black Dahlia, seems to have been working undercover on what can only be described as Casualties of the Blair Witch War Project. Redacted is a based-on-truth story of a group of US soldiers committing terrible atrocities in Iraq, while one of their group films it. And no, Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox aren't in it. I've heard very little about it until now, and I wonder how under-the-radar De Palma had to be to get it done. It sounds harrowing, and is getting rave notices, so I can't wait to see it, but mainly I'm interested for two reasons. 1) Nostalgic regard for De Palma, and then hope that he would surprise the film world once more, and 2) the word "redacted". I don't know why, but I love it. Redacted. Re. Dack. Ted. Hmmmm.

2. Sam Leith, Telegraph columnist, has always come across as a bit of a Tory Boy, and I'll admit that I came to that conclusion mostly because of the paper he writes for, as well as the byline photo and the occasional not-as-left-leaning-as-me comment piece. I've nothing against him, of course, and have even enjoyed many of his columns. I'd even go so far as to say he's my favourite writer on the paper, but that never changed my mental image of him as someone who spent his time at university punting down a canal, drinking lots of Pimms, getting jolly excited about the rugby, and being vaguely fearful of the modern world with all of its gidgets and Frankenwater and rocket-scooters, what what. Well, it shows what an ass I am. Turns out he's a huge World of Warcraft fan, something that even I'm not (though I'd like to be one). So I'm somehow more technophobic than a Telegraph columnist. This worries me greatly.

3. At last! Andrew Mueller has not written a bizarrely histrionic puff piece for the risible Studio 60. Huzzah! Perhaps he has seen sense. Or maybe he's just waiting to surprise everyone next week, as the very slender plot of the John Goodman two-parter gets stretched to breaking point after a first part that has every line of dialogue repeated twice to pad the damn thing out to 45 minutes. Or perhaps the TV preview writer in the Telegraph (Simon Horsford) has taken up the cause.

The more I watch Aaron Sorkin's series, the more I scratch my head and wonder why it was dropped by American network NBC after just one season. It's getting seriously good - and funny, too. When Tom is arrested on an assault charge and winds up in Nevada, he faces a judge (played by the brilliant John Goodman) who hates the show and everything it stands for.

I know I should let this drop, but dear God, only when the damn thing is over. Only about 18 weeks to go...

4. Following on from Canyon's recap of Walk The Line, the Daily Mail featured a piece on Johnny and June Carter Cash. It was one of their obnoxious revelatory articles dredged from the pages of a sleazy biography, though this one was by their son, John. However, in the opening paragraph, Glenys Roberts says that Johnny Cash had a "deep brown voice". Whuh? Is voice coloured? Can noise have a hue? Or does the Mail employ a lot of really shitty writers? I'll let you figure that one out yourself.

5. The Mercury Music Prize is this week, which has caught me out. Go Amy! Or should I be hoping she loses, for her sake? Oh, the moral quandary I am in. At least I don't have to worry about my feelings about the Arctic Monkeys. Lose, you little hoodie freaks. LOSE! LOSE A LOT!

6. The first season of Rome is being repeated on UKTV History this week. I believe the word is, "Score!"

Stalk the Line (Updated)

(Title courtesy of AdmiralNeck.)

Who doesn't love Johnny Cash? Besides his father? And who wouldn't want to see a movie about him, as played by Commodus from Gladiator? He's terribly vexed, you know! And he has a decent voice -- okay, he can't pull off Cash's voice, which is a bit of a hindrance, since he had the most distinctive drawl this side of Vincent Price, but though the tone is higher, he has the same resonant quality. It's not an impersonation, but he gets the spirit of it.

We decided to finally watch Walk the Line because Walk Hard is coming out soon, and we wanted to get the most out of the jokes. It wasn't a painful task -- it's a pretty standard biopic, charting Cash's poverty (spills!), rise (thrills!), and fall (pills!), complete with screaming harridan wife (Ginnifer Goodwin, before Big Love), screaming ungrateful children (Thing 1 and Thing 2), and enough barbiturates to make Steve Coogan cry like a little girl. Along the way, Cash bumps into notable figures like Sam Phillips and Elvis -- a bored-looking actor named Tyler Hilton (obviously David Morrisey was the man for the job, not this chump [this will make more sense after AdmiralNeck posts his Reaping review]).

But what's most notable about the movie is Johnny's approach to seduction: an unusual flirtation that I believe is commonly known as "stalking." He meets June Carter (ably played by Reese Witherspoon, who, surprisingly, has a great voice) when he's still in his miserable marriage to the wife from every movie about a man who's so obsessed with his career that he doesn't bother to learn his alternately sad-eyed and shrill (insert where appropriate) children's names. (Every time Johnny saw his children bounding up to him with demands for new shiny objects, I half-expected him to lean over and slur, "And just who the fuck are you? Talk to my manager, asshole.") Anyway, this wife is predictably horrible, using most of her screentime to find new ways to say, "Fuck you, Johnny Cash, with your layabout ways. Now where is my gold card..." Of course, June Carter, with her Pepsodent grin and plucky stage banter, looks like an angel comparatively. She is polite to Johnny and talks to him a few times, which he takes to mean that she is his soulmate (even though she's married to a succession of losers -- spoiler alert?).

Then June makes the mistake of having sex with him, and after that, the stalking comes out in full force. A typical conversation:

Johnny: Marry me, June.
June: Leave me alone, I'm on the toilet!
Johnny: June, I gotta have you now.
June: Will you please get out of here? This is making me very uncomfortable.
Johnny: Just tell me you'll be my wife. I love you and you love me. I know it because you still talked to me after we had sex!
June: I don't love you. I'm married! Please stop licking my toothbrush and get out of the bathroom.
Johnny: You know you love me, June.
June: I really, really don't love you!
Johnny: ::snores::
June: Wake up! You're high again! This is embarrassing!
Johnny: Bzzt. Dad? I didn't kill my brother with a rotating saw, I swear!
June: Johnny...please get out.
Johnny: ::getting angry:: Fine! But not before I rip this sink out of the wall for no reason! BLLYYEARGH!
June: I'm calling the police.
Johnny: Don't worry about the sink, it's just resting. We'll talk about our engagement after you've flushed. Watch out for those giant swirly toads in the bathtub, though. I don't like the look of 'em.

Et cetera. I was really surprised that their, um, courtship was portrayed like that in the movie -- I'm no expert on Cash's life, though, so I don't know how accurate it is (for once I hope it is inaccurate). And their on-stage engagement is just as creepy! Look!

Her obvious distress and desperate attempts to change the subject are making me swoon! Apparently Cash did propose to June onstage, but could it have been that gross? How romantic -- love through belligerence! I know a lot of romcoms are based on this idea, that persistent stalking is actually really romantic, but it doesn't make it any less creepy (see also: latent-serial-killer Danny stalking Jordan on Studio 60, until he wins her over so completely that she forgets that she was ever annoyed or humiliated by his attention and thinks she always loved him).

Anyway, none of this is as important as the real reason for this post. I give you: WALK HARD!

ETA: AdmiralNeck reminded me of one of the more risible scenes in the movie that I forgot to mention: the scene in which June comes up with some lyrics. Sitting in a car, wrestling with her feeling(s?) for Johnny, she moans, "It burns!" Then we get a shot of her thinking, essentially, "Heeeeey, waaaaiittt a minute...burns like some kind of...ovoid...wait, I'm thinking of it...square of lead? Octagon of hate? Rhombus of cheese? I'll get it any minute now..." Ugh, it's awful.

Oh, and I've also updated the proposal scene to a longer clip -- one in which we see the full force of Joaquin Phoenix's scary laser eyes. He needs to play a serial killer before he becomes one.

An important message from Will Graham

From the case-log of FBI Special Agent Will Graham:

You got what you wanted, didn't you, Coogan. Became a big name in Hollywood. Big for someone who plays a useless old sports presenter on BBC2 with that stupid catchphrase, that is. Got to sleep with a big celebrity with a history of messed-up behaviour, lots of publicity for both of you. You didn't realise she was clean though, unlike you. You're still doing drugs, but she's stopped. She's got a kid growing up, and she doesn't want her to get messed up. But that wasn't enough. You had to take someone down. Cuz that's the way you think, that's what makes your mind tick. Like an evil clock ticking evilly.

So you work with Owen Wilson, and he falls into your trap. Cuz you're like a spider, a heartless spider sitting in a web of drugs and lies. You take drugs. He takes drugs. You lie and he believes you. His girlfriend leaves him, and things get bad. Real bad. And you don't care, do you. Because you feed off it. Like a vampire/spider hybrid sitting in a web of drugs, feeding on bad psychic energy, and ticking like an evil clock. With a stupid catchphrase.

It was you, wasn't it. It was you who pushed him to it, wasn't it you son-of-a-bitch! You got high, and he got high, and he paid the price, didn't he!!! DIDN'T HE, YOU SON-OF-A-BITCH!!!!!!

And now I'm stuck in your mindset, just like the time I took down that psycho Lecter. If I'm gonna get you out, I have to take you down. I tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to phone a friend of Owen's, someone you worked with once, in that stupid movie no one watched. You know, the Jules Verne film that everyone hated and made no money. This friend, he's going to be mad. You already know, you don't want to get this guy mad. Because he's Jackie Goddamn Chan.

Man, I loved those guys in that movie. The Singin' In The Rain fight scene, the eel-in-the-pants joke, the way Owen keeps being mean to Charlie Chaplin... I could watch that all day long.

[In background, voice heard asking if Graham is alright]

Yeah honey, everything's alright now. Everything's going to be just fine.

::Cue "Heartbeat" by Red 7::

The moral of this story is, don't mess with FBI Special Agent Will Graham. He always gets his man. Get well soon, Owen Wilson.

[Inspired by absurd and scurrilous gossip, Thomas Harris' Red Dragon, Michael Mann's Manhunter, and the ravings of Masticator and Canyon]

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Movie Face/Off! Biblical Horror Edition (Round One)

In a not-really-very-odd coincidence, over the past couple of weeks we watched both The Omen remake and The Reaping, two low-wattage horror movies tapping into the religious paranoia fad currently sweeping the world. Of course, this being the real world, that semi-coincidence did not signal the imminent birth of the Anti-Christ, or bring about a series of plagues that range in severity from mildly inconvenient to just plain deadly. Which is good, I guess. However, it begs the question, if The All-New-No-Actually-Pretty-Much-The-Same-Omen and The Swankening were downloaded into the bodies of giant robots and then sent to battle it out inside an enormous futuristic arena, which flavour of film-inspired Fightbot would triumph?

The original Omen isn't that great a movie, but it is a lot of fun, and was directed with an entertaining OTT conviction by Richard Donner. The remake, on the other hand, is utterly flavourless and pointless. Other than the rubbernecking attraction of seeing Mia Farrow play a crazy nanny (she's very convincing), there is nothing to recommend. It doesn't help that it features the two most adenoidal actors on the big screen, Liev Schrieber and David Thewlis. Their scenes together sounded less like exposition-heavy blithering about Revelations and more like two adjacent hornet's nests exchanging hostilities.

I'm not a fan of either actor, finding them to be deeply unwatchable, what with their numerous acting tics, relentless nasality, and humourless approach to their craft (though Schreiber did a lot to erase that image with a brilliant appearance on Conan O'Brien taking the piss out of Studio 60. I'd link to it but Satan himself took it off YouTube). The film also erased any good will The Bourne Ultimatum had generated towards Julia Stiles. Perhaps that's a little harsh. After all, it can't be much fun playing that most unpleasantly misogynistic of bibli-horror staples; the mother whose womb and maternal instincts are used as a battleground and weapon in the war between God and the Devil. Still, like Schreiber and Thewlis, she looks like she's counting the money in her head for long periods.

However, it's all well and good seeing actors you don't give a crap about turning up in dreary biblical horror movies, but when it's someone who you think is an acting hero, i.e. Michael Gambon, it gets less funny. Thankfully he's only in one scene, as the memorably named Bugenhagen. The name is whispered dramatically throughout the movie, usually by deformed or insane priests, often during thunderstorms. The dramatic effect this should achieve is undermined by the fact that Bugenhagen sounds like the creator of a popular ice-cream brand. Gambon gives it his all, bellowing various expositionary ravings with a conviction the movie doesn't deserve.

It was also a shame to see Pete Postlethwaite turn up as a priest who tries to encourage Schreiber to kill his kid. Quick pointer; telling someone their adopted child is borne of a jackal is a quick way to alienate them. I mean, I assume so. It's not like I've ever done it. Second thing to remember; if the hounds of Hell and all of Satan's minions are trying to stop you from killing Damien the demon child and will use the weather, twisted probability, and various possessed animals to do it, get to the point. Starting conversations with such information-lite ravings as, "When the Jews return to Zion, and a comet fills the sky, and the holy Roman Empire rises, then you and I must die. From the eternal sea he rises, creating armies on either shore, turning man against his brother, until man exists no more," just obscures the important facts. A simple, "Kill your jackal child with a bunch of daggers owned by Fred Bugenhagen of Megiddo City or we're all screwed," should suffice.

The most frustrating thing about it is that, as has been commented upon by many, the film was rushed out to capitalise on the date 6.06.06. Knowing that, and sadly without the ability to verify this, I was unable to determine any difference between David Seltzer's script for the new movie and the original. Is it the same movie with contemporary references? It certainly seems like it, with only a couple of the death sequences altered, seemingly just to punch them up. Patrick Troughton got impaled by a church spire in the original, but Pete Postlethwaite gets impaled to the power of eleventy by a church spire and multiple shards of stained glass. A damaged sign swings down and clips off Thewlis' head in a shot that is probably less dramatic than David Warner's outrageous death by sheet-of-glass, but is maybe a touch more elegant, if you can call demonically-inspired decapitation powered by mystical contrivance elegant. Whatever. It was the only moment of the film that entertained me, and not just because it meant no more Thewlis, so it gets bonus points.

But I cruelly take those points away for the worst crime in modern cinema; misuse of London landmarks! It's a stupid thing to be pissed about, and I'm sure it happens in movies set in all the major cities, but having the US Embassy downriver from the London Eye is nonsense. Plus, where is the Saatchi Gallery? And the Aquarium? And the Royal Festival Hall? There is nothing. Just a landmark digitally patched into the background. Later, there are several scenes with Stiles and Schreiber driving miles out of London to get to their enormous estate, and yet over the tops of the trees you can still see the Eye. Perhaps it's possessed by Satan, and is following them around. In the final breathlessly boring chase sequence you can see Czech signs on shops in the city centre. I know the movie is a half-hearted, cynical exercise in cashing in on a frigging date, of all things, but surely someone somewhere could have made a bit of effort. I guess if effort's what you want, director John Moore is not your man.

So, in a Face/Off between this and The Reapening, surely the latter will triumph. Have I ruined the suspense by slating this movie so badly? Well, anyone who has seen Swank battle evil plagues with little more than science and not-science will know it's probably going to be a photo finish.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sustainable Curitiba

I came to Curitiba because of its former Mayor and State Governor, an architect named Jaime Lerner. I heard him speak on three different occasions in Vancouver and Toronto, and was impressed with his ideas and accomplishments. For the past 4 decades, he has been trying to make Curitiba a model of sustainability. Unfortunately, he was out of town when we arrived, but I could feel his presence as we toured around the city.

On arrival we were pleased to find HSBC advertising all over the airport. This meant we could avoid ATM fees! In keeping with the city’s spirit of sustainability, we took a bus from the airport into town. On the way we read the literature provided by the airport's tourist information centre. We were happy to see there was a hop-on hop-off bus. However, this one was operated by the local public transit operator, not a private company.

To the casual observer, Curitiba looks like another large South American city, with a skyline of large mediocre apartment blocks, and a broad mix of buildings along its downtown streets. But when you look closely, you start to see some differences. This is the self-proclaimed 'environmental capital of Brazil' and the greenest city in South America in terms of park space per resident.

The 25 stops along the two hour hop-on, hop-off tour offered further evidence this was not a typical Brazilian city. They included:

·A 24 hour street, initiated by city planners, to increase around the clock activity and safety in the downtown;

·Theatro Paiol, a powder depot recycled into an arena theatre;

·a combined bus, train and city market development, considered a landmark in transportation terminals in the country, when it opened 35 years ago;

·a memorial for Polish immigration,

·the Museu Oscar Niemeyer, the largest and most modern in Brazil;

·a tribute to German immigrants,

·the ‘free university of the environment’ that promotes public education on the environment, inaugurated with Jacques Cousteau;

·an old glue factory that was converted into a creativity centre;

·a glass and steel Opera Centre in a former quarry, where the trees surrounding the building are the 'walls' of the auditorium;

·a park which serves as a tribute to the natives who first inhabited the area,

·a Ukrainian memorial, in tribute to the many immigrants from the Ukraine,

·a gateway to the Italian neighbourhood.

I was particularly interested in seeing the city's relatively inexpensive rapid transit system that uses buses rather than trains or trams. They run primarily on dedicated lanes. A key feature is the raised tubular glass platforms that are the fare paid zone. They allow easy access onto the buses. Hydraulic platforms are available for those in wheelchairs. Lerner claims it works since it wasn’t designed by experts. It seemed like such a good idea, I was curious to know if other cities have copied it.

Curitiba is the opposite of Brasilia. In addition to its focus on transit, it is a city designed for walking, with many wide, decorated sidewalks, and a portion of the downtown restricted to pedestrians. It was the first pedestrian only street in Brazil, created in 72 hours over a long weekend in 1973.

Unfortunately, I couldn't see some of the other initiatives I had heard about from Lerner. These included a garbage pick up program in which residents of low income neighbourhoods were paid to collect their own garbage...with bus tickets! To make the program more interesting and effective, the bus tickets were also lottery tickets, with draws each week. In another project, park light fixtures were made from recycled local children

We did see the current recycling program operating around town. There are 5 containers instead of the typical three. One is for organic waste, and one is for ‘stico’ which I am hoping means chewing gum, since I hate seeing it on sidewalks around a city.

One of our best stops was the Oscar Niemeyer Museum. It’s the building with the large eye out front. There we saw some very unusual pieces and a display on Niemeyer’s work. There was also a filmed interview with him, explaining the rationale behind his different projects, (and he has done a lot of them in South America). While he didn’t convince Sally that there shouldn’t be trees in Brasilia’s major civic plaza, I was impressed with his approach. However, while I like many of his buildings, I too do not like his major urban design projects like the civic square in Brasilia.

While I would have like to have stayed on for another day or two to see a bit more of the city, Sally was eager to get to the Iguazu Falls and Buenos Aires. So, on Friday morning, I stopped off in the Canadian Travel Agency in Curitiba, where I purchased two tickets for Saturday’s flight to the falls. Although HSBC has a big presence in Curitiba, their credit card did not work for on-line bookings with the airlines. But when we got to the airport, we found a special airport lounge for HSBC premier members. Go figure.

Although Brasilia and Curitiba had not been typical tourist destinations, we were glad we had visited them. We had again seen different sides of life in Brazil, but now we were off to do some real site seeing. It’s a shame we couldn’t take Brasilia’s and Curitiba’s perfect sunny weather with us.

Brasilia: the country's bold capital

I first learned about Brasilia in 1965 when I started my studies in architecture. But I hadn't really planned on coming here until I started to exchange emails with my friend Jonathan Rubenstein, who spent quite a bit of time here putting together a mining project.

Brasilia is the modern capital city of Brazil. It was essentially carved out of the jungle over a four year period, and officially inaugurated in 1960. The driving force behind it was Juscelino Kubitschek, who was elected president of Brazil in 1956 on the promise that he would build the capital before the end of his term. It was originally planned for 500,000 people. Today it has a population of over 4 million and is still growing. It was master planned by Oscar Niemeyer, a student of Le Corbusier and Lucio Costa. Did I mention it was a master planned community?

While in many respects it was a difficult place to be a tourist, it was fascinating to see. It is a vivid case study on how planning has changed in 50 years.

We nearly didn't come. When we tried to book a hotel, only two had space, and we didn’t want to stay at a Brazilian Comfort Inn. When we tried to book flights, the airlines wouldn’t accept our international credit cards. So we did something we have never done before. We went to the airport with no reservations and no tickets. When the taxi driver asked which terminal, we had no idea. As it turned out, we were lucky. TAM, the Brazilian airline in Terminal 1, (or was it 2?) had a flight in an hour. We bought a ticket, checked in, and it was all too good to be true. And it was. The flight was delayed two hours! But we eventually got there, although I missed seeing the city, whose site plan is based on the shape of a bird or plane, from the air in daylight.

As it turned out the hotel was just fine. We had a great room, free internet, in a good location, if you consider ‘the hotel zone’ a good location! That’s right. In the plan prepared by Niemeyer and Costa, all the hotels are located together in hotel zones, with little else around them; no small shops to buy snacks and water; no apartments; few restaurants; just lots of hotels, and a large nearby shopping centre.

In fact, the entire city is planned that way. Elsewhere are the government precincts; the embassy precincts; the 4 storey residential precincts; the 6 storey residential precincts; the high rise residential precincts; the sports and leisure precincts; and so on, all separated by very wide arterial roads.

The concept for the neighbourhoods is similar to that of Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier. Each has its own neighbourhood retail. However, what the planners didn’t understand is that in Brazil, retailers want to be near other similar retailers. As a result, the residents still have to leave their neighbourhood by car to buy most things.

The character of the place is best exemplified by the street addresses. Most people live in ‘superquadras’ such as SQS 105, Bloco A-501, 70344 Brasilia, which means superquadra south no 105, building A, apartment 501 postcode 70344. The three digit superquadra number gives the location; the first digit represents the position east or west of the main axis; (with odd numbers to the west, evens to the east), increasing the further away form the centre you get. The last two digits represent the distance north or south of the other axis. A similar logic applies to the main roads. Once you get the hang of it, it’s actually very functional, and makes it easy to find a location, as long as you can figure out the road system.

Each sector is separated by wide arterial roads, with grade separated intersections, and lots of cloverleaves. To illustrate the situation, on our first evening we wanted to go to a restaurant we could see from our hotel. However, we had to take a taxi since it was across a major boulevard street, with no traffic lights or pedestrian crossings. The road system was so contorted the taxi cost 30 percent more coming than going!

We should have taken some organized tours, but since there were few if any other tourists, we would have been on our own in a little van. We considered renting a car, but Sally was concerned we would always be lost. I told her we can’t get lost if we don’t know where we are going, but she wasn’t convinced. So we decided to tour by public bus routes suggested by our guide book. At first, we had little success. However, everyone was extremely friendly and helpful. At one point, a fellow passenger who couldn't speak English handed me his cell phone. It turned out he had dialed a friend who could speak English, to give us directions!

We toured most of Niemeyer’s major buildings which really are quite extraordinary. We also walked by the 17 identical government office buildings. At one point, we couldn’t get from the congress to the street above, so we did what other people did, and used the steps that had been carved into the side of the grass slope.

We were both disturbed by some of the major civic spaces that were completely devoid of trees and street furniture of any kind. Many of the buildings were much too sculptural to be functional, which reminded us of a famous Canadian architect.

We took the bus over a new bridge that was voted the best bridge in the world in 2003. En route we met a young lady who told us it wasn’t often she met foreigners on a bus in Brasilia.

The second evening, we took the advice of Jon’s friends Carlos and Tina, who live in Brasilia, and went to Zuu, a fusion restaurant owned by his friend. It offered a mix of Brazilian and Japanese influences and was very good; one of the best meals of the trip.

On the third evening we went for dinner with Carlos and Tina to a wine shop that served meals in the evening. A very interesting concept. I was a bit disappointed that after a very good Brazilian champagne, the sommelier proposed an Australian white and Spanish red. In fact, there are some very good Brazilian wines. But we had a very good evening together, and enjoyed experiencing their very sophisticated approach to life in Brazil. However, when they come to Canada, we’re serving BC wines.

After three days, it was time to again move on. We decided our next stop would be Curitiba, another city I wanted to see for planning reasons. Unfortunately, the director of planning who I had met in Vancouver had not responded to my email, and I hadn’t bothered to contact the former Mayor who inspired me to come. But at noon we boarded another TAM flight and were on our way. This time we had a ticket and a reservation before getting to the airport.

Brasilia, like the art gallery in Balbao, was intended to put the country on the world map. It cost a lot of money, and put many governments in debt. But the consensus is that it is now a great success in terms of having opened up a major part of the country. I would just like to see some changes to make it a bit friendlier to pedestrians. But Carlos mentioned that certain things can’t be changed in order to keep the UNESCO designation intact. Hopefully one day, the UN will allow some small shops in the hotel zones.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

And you thought Ghost Rider was bad

Yes, as I was saying. Brett Leonard. Director of The Lawnmower Man, which was famously Flowers for Algernon with unpleasant cyber-rape, Pierce Brosnan in a tight bodysuit, and a sequel that would get on any bottom 10 movies list. Adapter of Dean Koontz' Hideaway, with Jeff Goldblum dying, coming back to life, chasing a serial killer, and ending up psychically battling with said killer in an outrageous FX blow-out for no other reason than that Leonard was the "Lawnmower Man guy" and it was kind of expected of him. Helmer of Virtuosity, with Denzel Washington as a disgraced cop with a robotic arm, and Russell "Le Roq" Crowe as a living serial-killer-program made flesh by something to do with very silly non-science. I think the word "nanobots" was bandied around at one point. Seems I don't remember much of it, except that I liked it more than I should have. Denzel! Le Roq! Come on! Bear in mind I have very low standards.

But not so low that I could find anything good to say about Man-Thing, his adaptation of the Marvel comic. To clarify, Man-Thing is not a euphemism for penis. He's an ecological, mystical, gooey being living in the Florida Everglades which doubles as the Nexus of All Realities. His full history is available on Wikipedia, and is more interesting than any attempt of mine to recap it. I have so little interest in the character, even though it was often written by Steve Gerber, the writer behind the magnificent Howard the Duck. I've not read Swamp Thing either. Not even Alan Moore's legendary run. I guess I just don't like reading about non-communicative magical swamp dwelling half-men, even when it's well-written.

the movie is not well-written. It doesn't seem to be written at all. I certainly couldn't tell what was going on. There's a town called Bywater with a new sheriff who investigates a bunch of disappearances, and there's an evil oil baron who has built his rig in the middle of the Nexus, and Man-Thing is pissed, and a shaman is pissed too, and Man-Thing kills everyone except for the sheriff and his hott new eco-warrior girlfriend, even though he had the chance and I was wishing for it really a lot, and then Man-Thing disappears in a swamp-tornado thing. Oh, sorry. Spoiler alert!

I could fart a more imaginative and coherent plot. It was written by Hans Rodionoff, who also wrote an excellent horror comic for Vertigo called Mnemovore. It was original, and creepy, and intelligent. If it were adapted as a film, I'd be first in line. So why is Man-Thing such an abomination? Was it the budgetary constraints? Its genesis was amusing. Marvel announced an alliance with Lionsgate Films, supposedly for a series of low-budget adaptations of Marvel properties, and promised they would all get a cinema release. So far, we've had the disappointing but entertaining Punisher, with Tom "Homeless Dad" Jane and John "Hairpiece" Travolta, and Man-Thing, which ended up being a Sci-Fi Channel TV movie. Avi Arad's expensive pants are on fire right now.

Anyway, Marvel are getting flack for the recent drop in quality of their films. I loved the first two X-Men movies and liked the first two Spideys, but other than that their output is disappointing. I admit, with great reluctance, to a fondness for the Fantastic Four movies. They're awful, but they're light and fun. And, contrary to the beliefs of a few unhinged individuals on the internet, they are better than the astonishingly bad Olle Sassone / Roger Corman version, which featured a frantically gesticulating Doom...

...making up for the fact that you couldn't see his face by voguing in the middle of every line, and ended with Reed Richards' bendy arm...

...played by a rubber pole with a glove on it, waving out of the top of a limousine. Daredevil was okayish, Elektra was very bad, Ghost Rider was appalling (yet my love for lean slices of Nicolas Cage ham saved it. Just). However, compared to Man-Thing, they are all masterpieces. Well, not Ghost Rider, but you get my point.

First strike against it, filming it in Australia with a bunch of actors who can't be bothered to master a Louisiana accent (yes, not only is it set in the wrong state, it's filmed in the wrong country). Worst of all is the lead, "hunky" Matthew Le Nevez as the new sheriff who arrives to clean up this one-monster town, dagnabbit.

There's laconic (which is good), and there's lifeless (more of a problem). Le Nevez crushes each cliched line under a mortis-like monotone that would make Zooey Deschanel jealous, if she could be bothered to muster the energy. When he's not doing that he walks around like a Gerry Anderson puppet, arms and legs wobbling away. I really wish I could find his walk on YouTube. Trey Parker and Matt Stone could have saved a fortune if they'd hired him for Team America: World Police.

The rest of the cast are dreadful too, but for the opposite reason, as if attending an all-you-can-eat scenery buffet. The main villain, Frederick Schist, is played by character actor Jack Thompson, who is usually much better than this. I'll blame Brett Leonard for leading him astray. The love interest is played by Transformers "hottie" Rachael Taylor. I'm still pissed at her for taking screentime away from Buffy and Angel vet Tom Lenk in Transformers. He was cast as a nerdy IT tech who is significantly less hott than Taylor (though significantly more talented), and so is deemed surplus to requirements 15 minutes into the movie. Damn you Michael Bay!

The chemistry between Taylor and Le Nevez is blistering! Well, actually it's barely recognisable as such, mostly because both actors seem unaware of each other for most of the movie, until Leonard randomly screams out, "Mack on each other, craven acting dogs!" and they suddenly start kissing on each other's face parts for no apparent reason. It's as if two strangers on a bus started getting busy right in front of you, and equally as discombobulating.

Of course, all of this is mere window dressing. We watched the damn thing for some Man-Thing action, and we sure got a couple of minutes of it. Luckily for our titular non-hero, various characters like to enter the swamp for very little reason other than to get killed. Again, we could see no reason for this. For all we knew, Man-Thing was phoning Bywater for takeout, and the townsfolk were all moonlighting as delivery men because of the high turnover. After many hints as to what he looks like, we finally see

Oh great, an Ent with tentacles and red contacts. Worth every penny. Still, it's good news for Stephen Hopkins' The Reaping. Watching Man-Thing a couple of days earlier meant that The Reaping wasn't the worst film set in a Louisiana swamp that we've seen this week.

Lost Island is getting more crowded

My beloved Lost, IMO the greatest TV show in the history of the medium (that isn't created by Joss Whedon), is adding more cast members than you can shake a stick at, even if that stick has Biblical markings on it. Until today, the ones announced were Ken Leung, Lance "Intensity" Reddick, Rebecca Mader (presumably in the role that fandom wanted to go to Kristen Bell), and the Solaris-wrecking Jeremy Davies (no hyperlink for him. That's punishment for that awful mannered performance, Davies!).

As of today, Jeff Jensen reports that Jeff Fahey is going to be landing soon. Or is he landing? From the photo included in the article, he could conceivably be everyone's favourite angry time-traveller / universe-jumper / ghost / imagination figment Jacob. Or maybe Jensen wants us to think that! [Cue traditional Lost-inspired mental moebius-loop of second-guessing and paranoia.] Logic suggests he is in charge of The Boat, so capitalised because one of the special powers of Lost Island is to make everything near it go all portentous.

Weird that I spent this weekend thinking about Old Man Fahey and The Lawnmower Man*, the closest he's ever come to a big mainstream hit. He's a good enough actor to not be stuck in the straight-to-DVD hell he's been in. Not that he's Sir Anthony Hopkins of Hammingtonshire, but he's not Kevin Sorbo either. It mystifies me.

* We were watching a Brett Leonard movie yesterday, one that I will hopefully come back to in the near future.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Okkervil River Is My New Favorite Band (And A Rant About Studio 60)

The A.V. Club did an interview with Will Sheff, who, despite looking a bit (oh, how do I say this without being offensive? No chance, I’m going for it) special, seemed like an intelligent and interesting person (he used the word “quixotic”! And said he liked movies! That’s generally enough for me). I’d never heard of the band, but we promptly downloaded* their latest album, The Stage Names. It is excellent. Filled with references to pop culture and its effects on people’s lives, it’s incredibly catchy, melodic, mostly deceptively-upbeat-sounding stuff, indie folk/pop/rock done with intelligence and wit and a real ear for hooks that get stuck in your head. Of course, I wouldn’t be a real critic unless I dubbed it a new ridiculous sub-genre – let’s call it “meta-rock.”

That’s a crappy-sounding version of the first single, “Our Life Is Not a Movie Or Maybe” – the sweeping sound references 80s pop songs with a discordant, desperate twist, though the genius of it is the racing heartbeat of the drum (though you can't hear it very well on that version) and the song’s frantic crescendo. The second track, “Unless It’s Kicks”, may be even better – a rollicking, uptempo kick in the gut. The lyrics again deal with the influence of pop culture on the characters’ lives – in this song, the narrator asserts, “What gives this mess some grace unless it’s kicks, man / unless it’s fiction / unless it’s sweat or it’s songs?” And later:

And on a seven-day high, that heavenly song
punches right through my mind
and just hums through my blood.
And I know it's a lie, but I'll still give it my love.

Ouch. But Sheff isn’t simply condemning the fact that we tend to view our lives as if they were movies or songs; he hits on the feeling of hearing a song you love and instantly feeling like the world has expanded into something joyful and glorious (even though it takes a song to [perhaps artificially] create that feeling, and it only lasts for four minutes). It’s incredibly odd to hear a song that talks about that feeling while actually giving you that feeling, and it makes my brain hurt, so I’m going to stop talking about it for the moment.

I suppose unsurprisingly, it turns out Sheff used to be a critic – this page has links to a bunch of his old articles. Looks like he’s got pretty good, if slightly pretentious, taste, though his attack on soft rock is a bit harsh – poor old Peter Cetera. Why pick on such an easy target? Does he have something against bouffants and soft-focus lenses? (And I’m sorry, but some of his songs are great, and I don’t mean that ironically – I get genuine pleasure from them, partly because they remind me of my childhood and how much I loved them then. “I am a knight who will fight for your honor”? How much of a curmudgeon do you have to be not to find that strangely wonderful? [And with that I realize I’ve now become a character in an Okkervil River song.])

I do find it a little disconcerting to read Sheff’s articles, though. When’s the last time you saw a critic rocking out on stage? It’s not right – they’re supposed to be detached and thoughtful, with their pipes and their monocles and their big books full of words, not hot-blooded and full of ketamine (with the exception of Michiko Kakutani, obviously). It’s a little embarrassing – like watching one of your teachers sing Grateful Dead songs on an acoustic guitar. I suppose I’ll have to get over it, though, because they’re playing in London in December and we’ve got tickets. I suppose to be really obnoxious, whenever they finish a song, I could shout out, “B plus! What it lacked in precision it made up for in enthusiasm! WOOOOOO!!”

*While trolling YouTube, I found a clip of Sheff talking about deciding to be a musician and saying that it was worth it even though he doesn’t have health insurance (!) and last year he didn’t have a place to live (!!!). Oh god, the guilt. I’m really tempted to go out and buy the album, though I will probably end up rationalizing the guilt away by convincing myself that buying the tickets gave them more money anyway (okay, 20 pounds, but, um, the exchange rate is really good). Usually, like any music fan, I’m happy for bands I like to stay obscure, but in this case I really hope they start getting more famous. They certainly deserve to.


And Now, A Rant

By now we all know that Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip was poo. Where Aaron Sorkin was once clever and inspiring, writing fiercely intelligent and funny characters, he became hackneyed and insipid, recycling plotlines from his better days (badly, I might add) and writing characters who were either thinly-veiled versions of his crazy-for-Jesus ex-girlfriend (Harriet Hayes), supposedly ridiculously smart while never actually demonstrating this beyond being able to rattle off obscure statistics (um, everyone), or versions of himself (Matt Albie – I would say “slimy, massively arrogant, ridiculously unlikeable versions of himself,” but it appears this would be redundant) or his partner in crime, Tommy Schlamme (the absolutely odious Danny Tripp – and I cannot mention this without giving a shout-out to Television Without Pity, who said they were disappointed he hadn’t named the character Danny Schlanny, which made me laugh for half an hour [btw, Joe R.’s recaps were often the only reason we even bothered to watch, besides horrified fascination]). But I’m going to stop criticizing it now, because if I don’t, I will run out of internet.

Unfortunately for denizens of the UK, it’s time for them to be endlessly patronized about commedia dell’arte and Bush’s bad behavior during 9/11 (yes, the show actually goes back in time to lecture us. Thank god it didn’t get a second season, in which Matt and Danny would time-travel to Nazi Germany learn how evil Hitler was). It just started showing here a few weeks ago, to massive, slavish adoration from the journalists here, who apparently have never gone on the internet, because they are completely perplexed about why such a stunning example of show from infallible genius Aaron Sorkin would get cancelled by those awful money-hungry studios! They just didn’t understand his brilliance! To which I say, You lazy, incompetent little shits – it would take you two seconds of googling to find out exactly why it was cancelled – because it was shit.

It made me angry to read those articles, with their willful ignorance and their slavish devotion to Sorkin (they didn’t even bother to get anyone’s opinion other than his about why it was cancelled – I wonder if maybe he would be, I don’t know, biased?). This leads off into a subject for another day – the UK media’s shoddy reporting on American shows and movies, their simultaneous disdain for American media and the fact that they have to admit that it’s often better than what’s created here (at least in terms of TV shows and movies – though it will usually be with the tag “it’s good…in an American way”), and their love of anything coming out of it perceived to be intelligent (like Sorkin, which is why he is so ridiculously overpraised – he’s not like most Americans, because his show is about how bad American TV is!).

Aaaaanyway, I came downstairs this morning to find that the Admiral had scrawled a furious note in the Guardian Guide – the weekly TV guide from the Guardian, arguably the best paper in England (though notably filled with snobbery about American culture). Andrew Mueller, one of the reviewers, has been reviewing Studio 60 since it began six weeks ago – he praised the pilot, but foolishly we laughed and said that it would be funny to see his assessments get more negative as the show went on. Three episodes in and they were not – instead he was rambling about how mobs with pitchforks should have been storming the studios demanding that the show not be cancelled. Okay, we thought, well, the third episode wasn’t that bad, though alarm bells were starting to go off (notably with Danny’s rant about how cocaine addicts don’t hurt people [he was a former cocaine addict himself – I know, eerie coincidence!! Another eerie coincidence? Aaron Sorkin was a cocaine addict! OMG, this is freaky!] – no, only drunk drivers do that, and of course cocaine addicts are sedentary because we all know cocaine is a depressant).

We decided that the show didn’t become truly awful until the sixth episode – which has plotlines where the cast learns about how awful the blacklist was (really awful!), where we learn that the only black character on the show had a childhood straight out of Boyz N the Hood (this is after he rails against stereotypical “black people versus white people” comedy), and we learn that another character’s Midwestern parents are so ignorant of culture that they don’t even know who Abbott and Costello were (since when has the Midwest not been hooked up to electricity?), but they do know that their son is wasting his life on frivolous comedy while his brother, the war hero, is – get ready for it – STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF AFGHANISTAN! It’s so incomprehensibly awful I can’t even express it.

But guess what Andrew Mueller’s reaction is?

The more of this we [we?? I sincerely hope he’s using the royal we] see, the more it seems appropriate to disdain from summarising the spectacular virtues of Studio 60 in favour of suggesting imaginative punishments to be visited on its American proprietors, who canned it. This week: feed them to hippopotamuses. [My suggestion: feed Andrew Mueller to Hiphopopotamus from Flight of the Conchords.] Anyway, tonight’s episode, with an Eli Wallach cameo, is another eruption of auteur Aaron Sorkin’s singular genius. In between adroitly perpetuating the internal soap operas, this thrillingly tours Sorkin’s signature obsessions [i.e., the things he writes about in a TV series about a COMEDY SKETCH SHOW]: American political, cultural and military history, and the clash between the country’s liberal and conservative impulses.

RAGE!!! And you thought I was exaggerating about the media’s circle-jerk of praise! I think the Admiral’s reaction sums it up best: he circled the review in pen and then wrote “FUCKING ANDREW MUELLER!!”

That’s about right.