Monday, June 30, 2008

Scoop This Song Out Of My Brain...

...Using some form of futuristic metaphysical song-removal-scoop!

The last five days of my life have been plagued by the last two minutes of Ragged Wood by Fleet Foxes. I'm not as keen on the album as Pitchfork or AV Club, thinking the superb first half of the album is horribly let down by the shapeless medieval folk noodlings of the latter half, and yes, considering how much time I spent going on about Joanna Newsom's Ys (i.e. pretty much all of 2006), I appreciate those who were in my orbit during that period will think I'm taking the piss. But I'm not.

Ragged Wood is in the first half, and is one of the songs of the year, but the chord progressions of the almost ethereal surf lutes guitars in the latter half of the song have stuck in my brain like the head of a tick, and nothing do can shift them. Death Cab For Cutie, Stars of the Lid, Plaid; nothing has worked. It's a mathematical progression that I keep running through, as if it were a Buddhist mantra, but unlike that mantra, I am not achieving transcendental calm. I'm just going slowly mad. Sister Gaius Helen Mohiam said it best; Fleet Foxes, even though I love your song, you just did a Matthew and Son on me. And for that, I unleash this image at you for creating an earworm of mathematical perfection:

Stick that in your lute and smoke it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Mist Is Finally Coming To The UK, But Oobleck Is Already Here

I can't believe it's almost here at last; Frank Darabont's grueling, nasty, stunning horror classic The Mist is finally coming to UK cinemas, probably on a small release, and almost certainly as a sop to the later DVD release, which should see its reputation grow just as The Shawshank Redemption did (though, of course, for different reasons). I'm so glad it's getting a release at last (it opens on the fourth of July), as I feel like a crazy person raving about it when most people in the UK don't even realise it exists.

A quick look at the foreign box office shows we're one of the last countries to get it, which is nothing new, though I appreciate this is a different case than usual. With such a restricted budget it's been released gradually, and I can imagine a lot of US prints have been recycled and shipped around to keep costs down. That's shrewd, and also helps build that reputation as word gets out about it. There is no way a typical wide release onslaught would generate "boffo" box office for this film. You have to let the audience come to it. Much as I rail against the Weinsteins and their bully tactics, they've got the release of this absolutely right. It's a tough sell, one of the toughest ever, but it will eventually get the praise and love it deserves. Hell, it's already profitable (currently a $50m taking off an $18m investment; not bad), and will only become more notorious, more admired.

I urge anyone who wanders across this blog (and all those who read regularly) to seek the movie out. It's not for the faint-hearted, but it's well worth your attention. Canyon and I made a special effort to see it in the States last year, and it affected us profoundly. A recent second viewing, this time of the excellent US DVD release, confirmed my suspicions that it is a horror classic, though Canyon's reservations about the controversial ending grew. I agree with her suspicion of it, but on a gut level I still love it (apologies for not going into what happens, but I don't want to spoil it even though it's technically been available for a while).

Even if you forget about the ending (which is surely impossible), the rest of the movie is horrific and moving. It expertly ratchets up the emotion, mostly without even showing any monsters. The opening half an hour is a masterclass in generating tension, something I've only seen done really well a handful of times this century (I'd put Neil Marshall's The Descent and Balaguero/Plaza's [Rec] in that short list). I got misty eyed watching it, remembering the brilliantly directed opening scenes of John Carpenter's The Fog, which expertly crank up the fear using stillness and shadow (even if it falls apart later, I still think the first hour justifies a reappraisal of it).

Of course, the horror is not in the mist itself, but in the shop, as irrationality holds sway and turns good people crazy, driving them to murder and insanity. Though I have begun to rail against Guardian journalist John Patterson's obsession with political allegory in movies (he seems to think the primary purpose of art is to make glib comments about current affairs that will eventually fade from memory and date the movie), he makes some good points about The Mist in this interview with Frank Darabont, and even gets in a mention of the similarities to the thoroughly entertaining 1988 remake of The Blob, directed by Chuck "Charles" Russell and co-written with Darabont. And yes, I appreciate that I am putting my irritation with Patterson to one side just because he is giving a shout-out to a movie I love, but then that's the kind of passion The Mist inspires. If you go to that page, check out Phelim O'Neill's comments about the great Drew Struzan. I also have trouble with O'Neill's judgements on occasion, but it's all forgiven now. Wow, this article made me almost love the Guardian like I used to.

So yes, a low-on-content blog post, but I feel it necessary to proselytise on behalf of Mr. Darabont and his bleak, bleak vision. I urge everyone to see it the first chance they get, but take some SSRIs with them, because it will make you despair. In a good way! Imagine a 50s monster movie as directed by Professor Richard Dawkins, except ten times scarier, and featuring some top angsty acting from Thomas "Homeless Dad" Jane (with fine support from Toby Jones, Andre Braugher, Jeffrey DeMunn, William Sadler, Frances Sternhagen, and the astonishing Marcia Gay Harden).

Anyway, speaking of The Blob (which also featured DeMunn as the doomed sheriff of Blobtown, shocking death of the kinds of character you don't expect to see die in a movie, and a panicky siege scene that ends in bloody horror), apparently Blobs actually exist, and they have a name. Oobleck!

In the words of the immortal theme for the original Blob, it creeps, and leaps, and glides and slides across the floor. I have become obsessed with Oobleck. And I won't be properly happy until I have ruined a nice set of speakers with cornstarch and water. I love it so much I'm going to have to use it as a standard of excellence against with all other things will be compared. When experiencing things, this is how I will quantify them; is it as good as Oobleck?

Oobleck is my new favourite deity/non-Newtonian liquid/fourth dimensional apparition. Recognise.


Hey squid brains! Are you increasingly frustrated by unimaginative gunfights in movies? Has action cinema seemed rather uninspiring since John Woo went back to Hong Kong? Do you think the visual envelope hasn't been pushed far enough by opprobrium-magnet Michael Bay, a man who has nitroglycerin running through his veins? Well it's your lucky day, because Timur Bekmambetov has adapted eternal teenager Mark Millar's sleazy and oddly sentimental liberal-baiting comic Wanted, taking the eyeball-punching overstyle he perfected in his Russian vampire movies, and combined it with uncharacteristic, though very welcome, coherence. Yay, right? So why is the film so disappointing?

I was in two minds about Millar's original comic, in which the main character graduates from an underwhelming life stuck in a veal-fattening pen ((c) Douglas Coupland in Generation X) to become a supercool supervillain who kills, maims, swears, fucks, and sneers through six issues of overkill, with the odd bit of rape humour thrown in for good measure, because everyone loves rape humour, right? [Insert sarcasm tag here]. Like a brat kid throwing a urine-soaked breezeblock through a church window, Millar wilfully flings poop at society, creating a world where supervillains rule and do every amoral and forbidden thing you can think of, usually with much relish and faux-cool dialogue to point out to the slower readers just how fucking cool the whole thing is FUCK YEAH!

It's a typical wish-fulfilment fantasy, though hyper-accentuated, dripping with cynical attitood and aimed at the brats who make online gaming such a chore, and while I both resist the childishness and understand its appeal, the most charming thing about it is that at heart it it can be seen as a tribute to older, less gritty comics, which are often spoken of in hushed tones by comic fans horrified by the darker status quo established after the publication of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. While I'm quite happy reading light or dark comics, I liked that Millar was trying to say, "You want dark? I'll give you the darkest fucking comic you'll ever read," even while groaning at the obnoxious arrogance of much of his style. That's not to say I don't like his work; his Ultimates run remains one of my favourite things ever, and there were enough imaginative concepts in Wanted to mark it as a qualified success. I just feel like patting him on the head when he's trying to write tough guy dialogue, because it's funny hearing a nerdy white guy trying to create characters that are the Kings of Cool (see also: Quentin Tarantino).

----------Wanted spoilers follow-------------

The movie reigns in almost all of the overt offensiveness of the original, leaving only hints at its darkness, while retaining the wish-fulfilment premise and nihilistic finale (though it is more open than the comic, and doesn't have the famous "This is me fucking you in the ass!" last line). As I've moaned before, the movie revolves around a league of assassins, not supervillains, which is a shame, though it didn't bother me as much as I thought it would. What did bother me is that I couldn't care less about any of it. When something as wilfully bratty as Millar's comic contains more emotional charge than your big budget movie, something has gone very wrong.

One of the major problems with the movie is that very nearly every major WOW moment has been featured in the trailers, and as they have been around for months, all that could possibly seem new is the plot, and that runs along such predictable lines that the whole thing seemed cliched even with the visionary stylings of Bekmambetov littered throughout. I loved a lot of those visuals a while back, but now even the bullet curving and wacky car stunts look old hat. By the time the audience finally finds out that, ZOMG, Morgan Freeman is a total bad guy, fatigue will have set in.

Writers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (who were joined this time out by Chris Morgan) may have been responsible for the eminently forgettable The Fast and the Furious, but they also scripted James Mangold's excellent remake of 3:10 To Yuma (a Shades of Caruso favourite), which effortlessly mixed emotional power, convincing character arcs, and kick-ass showdowns into a resonant, moving tale of redemption and the human condition. Wanted fails to generate any empathic connection with the viewer (at least, I should say, this viewer) as the beats are ticked off with depressingly mechanical precision, despite the appeal of the wish-fulfilment premise potentially mitigating that. There are obvious holes left throughout the narrative that can only be filled by assuming the true villain of the piece is Sloan (Freeman, and not Ron Rifkin, which would be apt considering the slight similarities between this and the first couple of seasons of Alias). Also, the trailer shot of McAvoy bursting through the textile factory window gives away the bullet-strewn vengeance-powered rampage he is inevitably going to go on in the final act.

In addition to that, the film backs away from the gleeful naughtiness of the comic by having him turn his back on both good and evil, choosing to be a free agent instead. Having Wesley's arc end with him gaining the freedom to be who he wants to be is fine, and touches on a theme from the comic, but it's underdeveloped here, as are all the plotlines about fate and destiny, while Bekmambetov concentrates more on the wacky visuals and 'splodey and Angelina's nekkid buttox.

Plus, as much as the comic's nastiness grated on me, I did like the sheer amorality of Wesley's acceptance of evil. I can understand why the movie avoids that outcome, and am not so crazy as to assume any studio would allow the release of a movie where the "hero" is even more unrepentently anti-society than Tyler Durden, but it would have been nice to see it. McAvoy's final address to the camera loses some of its power because the writers and/or studio are obviously eager not to have the film end on a note advocating sociopathic non-engagement with the world. Though hey, no rape humour, which is a very wise decision.

Perhaps the film will work better once the memory of the oversaturated trailer onslaught fades, but I can't really see it. There's a lot that isn't actually wrong with the movie, but isn't quite right either. Much as I like James McAvoy (he was great in Shameless, charming on a recent Daily Show, and the only memorable actor in Atonement), he drove me to distraction for a long section of the movie, as he freaks out at all of the carnage and insanity around him. Understandable reactions to being abducted by Angelina Jolie and being repeatedly (and pointlessly) beaten up by both Marc Warren and a knife-wielding jerk who looks like Peter Jackson, but his babbling, high-pitched yelps of teror went right through me like a violin bow being drawn across my nerves. When he finally accepts his abilities, I found his performance much more tolerable as he shuts up and gets on with it, but for the first half of the film, it's hard-going. Still, though I might not be crazy about the film, I hope it does well just for his sake. He's an appealing actor, and it would be great to see him go far.

As for Jolie, her role as Alpha Female is totally phoned in, requiring her to do nothing more than pout, pose, and look terribly bored. The only reason to have her in that I can see (other than that her celebrity might get more bums no seats) is as a further example of wish-fulfilment, as Wesley gets to move from his evil ex-girlfriend to The Hottest Woman On The Planet, but as the romance sub-plot hinted at in the trailers seems to have been edited out (it probably tested badly, considering how the movie ends with her sacrifice), she doesn't get to do anything interesting. She does mack on McAvoy in one scene, where she kisses Wesley just to make his ex-girlfriend feel bad, and I can imagine any jilted guy watching Wanted would really really connect with it, but otherwise she's just wandering around, blank-faced and seemingly counting money in her head. It's a very disappointing performance. Anyway, hasn't Tina Fey been crowned Hottest Woman On The Planet by now? I reckon Wanted would have been an even more gratifyingly weird movie with Fey doing all the bullet-curving. Am I right, people?

No one else gets time to register much, with the movie focusing almost exclusively on McAvoy. Poor Thomas Kretschmann gets to be blank and then tragic, Common looks relentlessly angry to the point of getting frown fatigue, and Morgan Freeman does his now-patented father-figure-with-a-bad-secret role without expending much visible energy. It was nice to see Chris Pratt, aka Ché from The O.C. as Wesley's shithead best friend, as he is very funny, and he features in some of the best moments in the film, especially the wonderful visual when Wesley wreaks revenge on him with an ergonomic keyboard. It's immensely satisfying and precisely the kind of WTF idea that Bekmambetov does so well.

There were other things to like about it, even if the whole left me cold. The concept of The Loom of Fate is so bizarre and out of left-field I couldn't help but be impressed, though I'm frustrated at how half-hearted the movie's exploration of what fate and purpose are. Perhaps that's mostly because I can't help but compare the film to The Matrix, another wish-fulfilment fantasy that deals with the problem of free will and determinism, with the Wachowskis picking the quandary apart to such an extent that audiences the world over got bored and forgot about it (not this nerd, though!). Also great was the "I'm sorry" running joke, a fantastic set-piece on a train, and the staggeringly nasty death of Marc Warren, a scene so gratuitously unpleasant I barked gales of laughter around the crowded auditorium (sorry, fellow movie-goers). I'd give the movie an extra star or thumbs up or whatever just for that insane moment alone.

Even taking that into account, it's still half-baked. By the time the final showdown comes along, with McAvoy reduced to wandering around a shattered factory bellowing, "Slooooooooooan!!!!" over and over and over again, I was waiting for the wrap-up. I'd had enough of cool pouting Angie, and shakily-shot action scenes, and McAvoy spitting up blood (really, did we need to see him getting beaten up for so long when there really isn't much reason for it?), and telegraphed plot twists, and the endless, seriously endless shots of trains. Does Bekmambetov have a train fetish? They should have changed the name of the movie to Bullet Train, or Off The Rails, or Buffet Carnage. Because, I'm not kidding, there are a lot of trains in this movie.

Not that I've got anything against trains, of course, and I'm not just saying that because in a couple of days I will be spending a lot of time on one, and don't want to offend them.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Kanye West, Like, Totally Gives It His All

I gather some people find Kanye West's confidence a bit much, but he gets a coveted Shades of Caruso Free Pass for dissing George Bush and embarrassing Mike Myers at the same time, and for the majestic Late Registration, with special love for the tracks Touch The Sky and We Major, the latter a marathon exercise in uplift that works despite sounding almost sarcastic. I don't know how he managed to create that in-song contradiction, but I love it with the full force of my green aura. That said, is Kanye racialist against cephalopods? In the middle of his must-read blog response to criticisms of his Bonnaroo set (and when I say must-read, I really really mean must-read), he has this to say of the festival organisers, in extra-special Kanye-approved all-caps, as typed on his Mac Book Air (TM):


Unfortunate comment there. Senior squid-brained spokesman Davy Jones had this to say in response:

I say, without a trace of hyperbole, that this is a public relations nightmare the likes of which the pop-culture world has never seen! Kanye's army of PR shlubs need to put a statement out about this immediately immediately immediately harrumph harrumph harrumph. While my eyes recover from reading his angry, wonderful, punctuation-free screed, here is Kanye in happier times.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Gaia Preserve Us, It's Still Happening!

Thanks to the miraculous nature of the internet, with its digital doohickeys and quantum doodads that I have no way of understanding due to being about 89 years old, a copy of the original draft of M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening (at that time called The Green Effect) has fallen into my hands. I was looking for clarification on a line of dialogue from the film that I have been making fun of, otherwise I wouldn't have bothered, having heard that they were very similar and therefore there would be very little point in reading something that has already appalled and amused me earlier this week. However, I was in for a shock. The original script, and original vision of Shyamalan's, is simultaneously even more silly and yet more coherent from a storytelling standpoint, and therefore a far more satisfying project. However, instead of cheering me up, knowing that my suspicions that there was a potentially interesting approach to the story were well-founded, I'm actually angry. We were sold a lemon from a guy who had promised us a sleek supercar, and yet actually had that supercar lying around spare and ready to give us but figured we would prefer the lemon instead. No, Mr. Shyamalan, I wanted the supercar! You can keep your citrus fruits, thank you very much. Anyway, here is a description of the supercar, and why it is better than the lemon. (I'll stop with that stretched metaphor now.)

-------------More spoilers right here-----------------

In my previous post I railed against a lot of things, such as the weird negativity of some of the characters, the cutesy character quirks, the unsatisfying ending, etc. etc. I'm not kidding when I say the film just seems to stop, with the Happening coming to an end at a specific time, just as Elliot (Wahlberg) and Alma (Deschanel) walk out into a field with an innocent young girl just so they can get a hug. Such nonsense. In the sense that Shyamalan seems to be mimicking Spielberg's War of the Worlds, with global events being shown through the eyes of a bystander who gets lucky (though Tom Cruise's character still gets to be a hero at the end, one of the many things I don't like about the final act of that film), I get that ending, but it still feels like a cop-out.

Now I find that for some inexplicable reason, Shyamalan has ditched the original ending, which might have made audiences laugh, but would have at least been coherent. In The Green Effect, Elliot's ruminations on the mood ring that connects him and his wife are absent for the majority of the film, though he throws it out at the end, while talking to her through the slavepipe (I don't know what else to call it). Again they are hiding from the Gaia-toxins, but in this version of the film, in addition to the plants being triggered at first by huge groups of humans and then by smaller and smaller groups as the film progresses, it now gets triggered by other things. At one point it seems that Gaia might be angry at someone for using an electric saw, though it's unclear what Shyamalan is getting at; a shame as otherwise it's a very well-written piece of work.

Trapped in separate houses, Elliot re-woos his wife, who has been trying to divorce him throughout the film (because he feels too much and seems to be reckless whereas she is panicky and unable to open herself up), and upon mentioning the mood ring and how he can't remember the colour of love, he realises that the last trigger for the toxins is individual moods. The crazy lady - who is not as batshit in this version, sadly, though she does have a cool-sounding Room of Crazy filled with Revelations-style nonsense - has just been affected and is wandering around stabbing herself with a crucifix (seriously), and Elliot realises she was targeted as she is filled with negative energy, whereas he is filled with love, and would therefore not be targeted by the plants. He gambles on this by walking out, and Alma, now convinced by his display, walks out as well, and is not killed either. There is a suspenseful moment where Elliot seems to walk backwards, but he is just thinking, apparently, which makes me think the whole walking backwards thing is just there to make this moment work as a shock event. Unfortunately, any horror created by this moment would be utterly destroyed by the big reveal moments later, as he realises what the mood ring colour of love is; green! Gaia is love! ::hugs tree::

Okay, so that sounds increeeeedibly goofy, but if that had been included in the final film, it would explain the inclusion of a lot of weird stuff that makes no sense. The random hostility of some of the characters, Alma's isolation, Elliot's optimism, the insertion of a really horrible woman at the end, that bloody mood ring; it's all there to justify the final scene, with Elliot and Alma becoming reconciled, and that reconciliation being the thing that saves their lives. While I can imagine audiences all over the world throwing their hands up and screaming, "You've got to be kidding!", at least it's an ending. The one that got filmed is utterly unsatisfying. We get to see Alma and Elliot reconciled, but we get no idea why. Because they got lucky and she thinks they have a second chance? It just isn't convincing. The original ending, for all of its outrageous wishy-washy New Age sentiment, at least makes sense thematically. It was a huge mistake taking it out. Though really, all you need is love? That shit only passes muster in Ghostbusters II, and that's only because the Statue of Liberty walks around after being filled with Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis' lovegoop (if you'll forgive the confusing visual that conjures up). Otherwise, having your heroes prevail because Gaia likes the colour of their auras and is a bit sentimental about wuv (despite killing nearly six billion people) is pretty hard to take.

To make things worse, there are other changes that ruin the film, and suggest that despite Shyamalan's insistence on final cut, his vision was altered due to pressure from the studio. As the final budget was something like $60m, I get the sense that he had to take a big cut from what he originally wanted to spend, which would account for the localised nature of the Happening. In the original script, it happens globally, at the same time, which is far scarier. As some of the lines hinting at this are left in the film, it makes me wonder if those awful TV inserts of newscasters ineptly discussing the Happening were done later, as they are not well made and contradict some of the dialogue about the march of events (especially the train driver saying he can't contact anyone).

That also makes the finale more effective. In The Green Effect Elliot is seemingly a history teacher (or anthropology teacher; I was unsure) instead of a science teacher, but has read a paper on plants responding to the threat of nearby ant populations by releasing ant-killing toxins, which seems to be the inspiration for the whole movie. The plants stopped once the ants population had shrunk to .00006% of its original size, which suggests that the shots at the end of The Green Effect, of shiny happy people around the world venturing out into a now toxin-free environment, means that Gaia feels it is no longer threatened by humans. I guess that means there's only about a million people left on the planet. That makes a sobering kind of sense, not the vague ending with the first Happening being a warning that humans happily ignore, prior to Paris getting targeted, which leads to all sorts of confused guesses about the messgae of the movie. Perhaps Gaia thought Europeans would be more receptive to large-scale death; a comment on America being more steadfast in the face of threats, as opposed to France being more likely to surrender, according to silly insulting beliefs? I hope not. Stay classy, Shyamalan.

The Green Effect is also much more straightforward than the filmed script. No hotdogs, no "Use science, douchebag!" or whatever the line was, no calculus calculus calculus. I'm on the fence about whether that's a good thing or not. I've got nothing against quirk, but this stuff, when delivered in the super-serious Shyamalan style, just seems risible. The only real character quirks featured in the original script make the main couple more likeable, such as Elliot's insistence on carrying a guitar everywhere so he can chase his dream of becoming a musician, even though Alma thinks he's being silly (Shyamalan makes sure to paint him as a pretty bad songwriter, a touch I respected). In The Green Effect, motivations that were mysterious now make sense, such as Julian's (Leguizamo's) bitchy comments to Alma, and if it had been filmed like that, it might still have been utterly goofy, but it would have been consistent. I just cannot imagine why the finished version had to be made the way it did, removing motivation and logic and replacing it with whimsy, obfuscation, exposition, and happenstance.

I guess Shyamalan was trying to make a movie that had a mystery to it, that didn't hew so closely to potentially nuance-free McKee-style story mechanics, but what he created wasn't a 2001-style curio that inspires reappraisal and alternate interpretations. It's still pretty straightforward, but just has bits missing, bits that would add to the power of the story, not detract from it. It's bad storytelling, and the only reasons for these odd decisions that I can think of are that Shyamalan was annoyed at executive suggestions aimed at him and his vision, and decided to arbitrarily excise relevant scenes and neuter the script in order to wreck his film as a fuck you, which really doesn't sound like him, or he doesn't have a good sense of what he is doing anymore, and got too close to the film to see the error of his ways. Either suggestion saddens me.

I'm not saying The Green Effect would definitely have been a better movie than The Happening, as we would probably still have had the bizarre performances of the leads, performances so odd that I wondered if they had been hypnotised the way Bernard Rose hypnotised Virginia Madsen on the set of Candyman (as shown on the excellent documentary included on the DVD). We would still have had the unscary shots of grass swaying; the script features funny directions such as "THE GRASS OBSERVES THE HOUSE", which you just can't film without it looking like you're just filming a house in a field. We would still have the occasional outbreak of clumsy exposition. We would still have had the perplexing inability to generate suspense from a man who once seemed to be able to do it without effort. We would still have the awkward hypothesising of Elliot, which is awfully accurate considering he doesn't really have any way to evaluate his suspicions. We would still have the walking backwards, which looks dopey. We would probably not have any gore. The original script is much harsher than the finished film, with more death, and more cinematic and brutal death at that (people packing their mouths and noses with dirt, or crashing their cars on a busy expressway, for example). The original vision for the movie was obviously one of a really gruelling emotional experience, one that would really hammer home the crisis facing humanity, thus strengthening Shyamalan's message, but for some inexplicable reason he backed away from that. Studio interference? Or loss of nerve? Will we ever know?

Even after pondering it today I'm still not sure if reading the original script makes me feel better or worse about Shyamalan. I kinda liked it, and the movie that played out in my head could have been good, though with an ending that would have polarised the audience in much the same way as the end of Signs. I also don't know if I would rather have had the possibly merely average and forgettable Green Effect, or the accidentally entertaining failure that was The Happening. I'd like to think I can get more pleasure from an average movie than a ridiculous disaster, but then I think about calculus, and about hotdogs, and about Betty Buckley losing her shit right into the camera, and I think, you know, pleasure is pleasure. I'm glad The Happening exists, and I'm glad that I've seen it.

And anyway, it's not like it's the worst film of the year. Cassandra's Dream wins that particular award. Compared to that, The Happening is just fine. What's more worrying is that Shyamalan had something promising in his hands, and squandered it. Will there ever be a moment where he takes stock of himself, listens to the advice of those around him, and sees that perhaps he can profit from the experience of others? I truly hope so, and look forward to a great Shyamalan movie further down the line or something even more bonkers and misjudged, just to be a dick.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Did You See That? That. Just. Happened.(ing)

On Saturday a group of intrepid cinemagoers, comprising myself, Canyon, baggylettuce and decca (these are all our real names, btw), risked brain death by seeing The Happening, the last installment in M. Night Shyamalan's Career Destruction trilogy. If I had to judge between them, it was not as horrible as Lady In The Water, which was deranged and mean and vindictive and crushingly stupid, whereas The Happening was just bad and silly. As a former fan of Shyamalan, it was kinda bittersweet to see this nonsense play out in such an insipid, half-hearted fashion, and I have to admit I'm worried that my feelings about it have been coloured by the outpouring of negative reviews since its release (I gather press screenings were rare to non-existent). I mean, I really liked the premise, and remember getting excited about it a while back even though I had recently seen Lady In The Water and had been appalled. Sadly, that premise might be great, but really it's only as good as the execution, and that is where the pain comes in. Pain like this.

I'll be going into spoiler territory from now on, so back away if you don't want to know what happens, but believe me, the movie doesn't actually go anywhere. Here's a quick unspoilery wrap up. The principals are all terrible. There's less blood than in most 12/PG-rated movies. It's short but feels long. Nothing much happens. Tak Fujimoto takes some nice shots of trees under an oppressive pale sky. Respected Broadway actress Betty Buckley turns up in the final couple of reels and gives a memorable performance with almost Fiona-Shaw-in-The-Black-Dahlia levels of WTF. It's great. Nothing else is. It just sort of runs out of energy at about the 80 minute mark, and wraps up not long after that.

---------Here be spoilers------------

So why does it go wrong? It's mostly the direction, though the script squanders that terrific premise at every opportunity. I'm not a knee-jerk hater of Shyamalan, though. I have greatly enjoyed some of his movies, and even his failures often have something to like (Lady In The Water's photography by Christopher Doyle is stunning, and Shyamalan's compositions are lovely). He can do mood very well, and he can do suspense, and he can do dread. In fact, at some points of The Sixth Sense, Signs, and Unbreakable (my personal favourite Shyamalan movie, a film I absolutely adore), there are moments that are as creepy and unsettling as anything Hideo Nakata has put on film.

I think even The Village approached that kind of calm fear, but sadly by then he has begun to drag the timing of those moments out too far. It's all in the amount of time you leave the audience dangling, and while comic timing relies on microseconds of pause, horror deals in seconds approaching minutes, and Shyamalan started making the audience wait way too long for release. The longer you have to look at people standing stock still with a goofy look on their face while a man in a red cloak with twigs for fingers wanders around in the background (for example), the fear turns to laughter, and by now Shyamalan has accidentally reset the timer in his head so that he can't judge where the horror/accidental humour line is.

In The Happening, nothing is scary. The timing is utterly haywire, and even if it was working, the scary elements are already too dumb to work with. I salute the man for being willing to risk ridicule to create his weird vision, but sadly it can go horribly wrong. The doofy looking alien getting killed with water and baseball bats at the end of Signs, the Menacing Cloakman from The Village, and my favourite of all, Freddy Rodriguez With A Rubber Arm in Lady In The Water; they all go just a little too far and end up looking silly. Add to that the unfortunate slow pace, which also makes Shyamalan's movies look pretentious and self-important, and it's impossible to take them seriously, especially when he seems to give his characters Stephen-King-style mannerisms and phrases, of which the best has to be Wahlberg's self-immolating "Be scientific, douchebag!"

While Lady In The Water is worse because it is also a temper-tantrum disguised as a kid's movie, The Happening is sillier and funnier because Shyamalan has created a movie where the characters are scared of the wind, and where 20% of the movie is shots of trees being as threatening as, well, trees. And not even creepy trees, just normal trees. It's just not scary. I live near trees and a large patch of grass (which is apparently endangered, so we're talking about potentially angry grass), and yesterday it was windy. I walked to the shops yesterday, and did I suddenly think, "Oh God, please don't kill me, foliage!"? Nope. Litmus test failed.

Yes, if you've not heard already, the central idea is that Gaia is pissed at humans, and its minions, aka plants, are trying to send a warning to us to straighten-up and fly right by using deadly suicide-inducing toxins to kill off large groups of people in order to make us think twice about polluting the planet. Or something. As the toxins only appear on the US East Coast and, at the end of the movie, Paris, it's possible they also hate liberals, museum-goers, and people who eat croissants. Does this mean that people living in desert countries are safe? Considering how bad the pollution in Texas is, it's not the most verdant of states, and so it might be left off the hook. And what if Al Gore was visiting New York? Stupid plants!

As we're talking about a completely different species here, one that cannot communicate with us, the motivations are unclear, which works on one level, and fails on another, namely that the film seems to think that because science cannot answer everything, it's not really the answer to our problems, that some things are bigger than us. I'm not sure that was Shyamalan's goal, though his reliance on wishy-washy spiritualism tends to suggest he does. The finale, which features a scientist on TV having his theories of deadly plants dismissed by some gobshite pundit, was especially annoying. It's fair to say that it would be pretty easy to prove plants did it, but instead Shyamalan has a heavy-handed point to be make about post-9/11 paranoia and how it is making people irrational (a point made with much greater effect in The Mist).

So, that's silly, but what about the chilling effects of the toxin? There was real potential there for some creepy moments, but they only work once or twice (the weird headbutting attacks of the crazy old lady at the end of the film were half-horrible, half-hilarious). Some have asked why the toxins make people kill themselves and not just go on a rampage, which is more dramatic, but Shyamalan has to maintain that deathly pace, and 28 Days Later-style chaos would not work (plus we've seen stuff like that before, as far back as early Cronenberg and Romero films). The very very slow suicides we see here are in keeping with his usual style, even though his much-vaunted R-rated horror events translate into a bit of blood-spurting and quick cuts away from the actual moment of death, just in case we get mortally upset by the sight of nasty things. While I'm not saying the movie would have been improved by gore dripping from the lens, the cowardice of it seems to hint that Shyamalan has lost the ability to deal with adults and adult themes.

Compare the squeamishness here with Unbreakable, which featured a violent, murdering sadist, as well as a nausea-inducing scene with Samuel L. Jackson breaking most of his bones as he falls down a flight of stairs. That moment, with the brittle-boned Mr. Glass tumbling down an endlessly long staircase, was preceded by a shot of his glass cane hitting the floor and breaking into hundreds of pieces, and I suspect the current Shyamalan would have just shown that. An admittedly elegant way to avoid nastiness, but the original scene is incredible, horrifying, utterly visceral. Going with the single shot of his cane might let the scene work on the nerves of the audience by making them imagine it, but could they come up with anything as horrifying as what actually happens in the scene? It's something that critics agonise about, whether it's right to show the horror or not, but certainly in the case of The Happening, it really needs something more than the vanilla violence we get. Without a frisson of menace in the movie, a sense of the scale of what is happening and the toll it is taking on everyone, there is no movie there. The odd shot of corpses dangling from trees aside, it's devoid of power. Plus, the sight of groups of people walking slowly backwards would destroy even Hitchcock-level suspense.

Unbreakable also featured moments of relationship drama that seemed kinda stilted (in the way that Shyamalan's conversation scenes often do) and yet still real, as Bruce Willis' superheroic character tries to reconnect with his son and wife. The new Shyamalan now has Zooey Deschanel inexplicably being seemingly autistic, and having a torrid affair behind Mark Wahlberg's back with someone called Joey that drives her almost insane with guilt. Well, I say "torrid affair", when actually I mean "innocent meeting which involved eating some tiramisu". That's the extent of her infidelity. Oh, and who plays Joey? His one word of dialogue, on the phone, is spoken by Shyamalan himself. So, not only is he the most important writer who ever lived in Lady In The Water, he's also hott enough to make Zooey "Blank" Deschanel consider straying from Mark Wahlberg. Mark Wahlberg, people! That's some hottness Shyamalan's got right there.

So it's bad. It's really really bad. But I still like that central idea, and think it could, somehow, have been turned into a better movie if not held back by the hubris and self-regarding idiocy of its creator. After seeing it, we ate some sausage and mash and came up with some ways in which it would have been a better movie, and this is what we reckon.

  • At several stages throughout the movie, Mark Wahlberg rattles on and on about his mood ring, which is what he used to woo Zooey all those years before. It goes nowhere, except to give them something to talk about later when reconciling. Instead, considering the plants are silently trying to kill humanity, Wahlberg could try to communicate with them by putting the ring on a tree branch and asking it what it wants, with the colours of the ring being the responses. (I actually thought this would happen, so clearly was it telegraphed).
  • When people get encrazied by the toxins, they sometimes repeat things or say nonsensical phrases, of which my favourite was, "Calculus! Calculus!" At the end, I was really hoping the French crazies would refer to, "Le Calculus!" Instead, Shyamalan uses his first grade French to have the guy say, "Mon bicyclette", which is not as surreal, and not in keeping with the film's peculiar anti-science slant (ironic considering Wahlberg saves everyone by using science, the douchebag).
  • Only one plant wants to help humanity; marijuana! The crazy old lady is growing it under hot lamps in her basement, and our heroes smoke up a big bag of it, thus making them immune to the toxins.
  • The weird hotdog man has hotdog trees in his greenhouse, like in Pee-Wee's Big Top.
  • Change the title to "Did Gaia Just Fart On My Face?"
  • As soon as Wahlberg has decided it really is the plants killing humans with deathcooties, he should liberally use the word "Grassassins".
  • Trees and shrubs = boring. Ents and triffids = awesome. More of that, please.
  • Zooey Deschanel's reveal of her "torrid affair" with Joey and his elaborate desserts is obviously meant to be a big deal, though all it does show is that our heroes have the emotional maturity of Smurfs. Wahlberg's response to her reveal, that he had recently bought cough syrup from an attractive woman in a pharmacy even though he didn't even have a cough, is cloyingly vanilla (certainly in the middle of a ZOMG R-Rated movie!!!), so it might have worked better if, when Zooey Deschanel asks, "Is that true?" Wahlberg said, "No. Actually I went back behind the counter and banged the shit out of her for three hours straight, and it was awesome, and then we covered ourselves with cough syrup, and we was humping and just rollin' around in 'Tussin! It was so much better than all that cuddling we do. However, ironically, I've had a cough ever since."
  • Most importantly, what about explaining why John Lequizamo hates Zooey Deschanel so much. He's relentlessly nasty and hostile just because she's a bit distant? I can agree, it annoyed us a lot, but still, we wouldn't be nasty to her. She has such a lovely singing voice, after all.
  • That said, why were her pupils so small? Canyon wondered if she has glaucoma or something. Hopefully she'll have that seen to.
  • The actual Happening itself ends with the plants deciding to stop being deadly at a specific time, thus making the events of the movie nothing more than a warning, a prelude to another, deadlier attack. That only even slightly works because our heroes, who are separated from each other in different buildings but able to communicate thanks to a tube running between them (a tube that is mentioned earlier with the clumsiest exposition of the year), decide to end it all by walking out into the deadly grass, even though they have an innocent child with them, only for the Happening to stop happening, thus saving them at the last second. Bullshit. If I'd made this movie, an enormous rock head would have risen from the ground, a manifestation of Gaia that just happens to look exactly like James Lovelock, and as our heroes watch, terrified, its huge stony mouth opens, and says, "Don't tread on me, man!' Whoa.

  • I also thought about creating a Happening drinking game, but it seems Film School Rejects has beaten me to it, but there is scope to expand it a bit. Take a gulp of booze whenever:
  • Tree moves (two gulps if it is plastic and inside a house with no visible draft).
  • Someone is improbably mean to someone else for no reason (two gulps if no one does anything about it). This includes Deschanel's relentless snippiness towards Wahlberg.
  • A vaguely scary moment gets dragged out too long and ruins the suspense (two gulps if someone half opens a door and waits to open it the rest of the way, just to drag it out longer).
  • Someone unleashes a stream of ugly exposition because the writer/director has forgotten how to tell a story visually.
  • Mark Wahlberg uses science like a douchebag (two gulps if no one listens to him).
  • Someone is about to die horribly, and the shot cuts away right at the last second (four gulps if you actually see something unpleasant).
  • Someone says they can't contact anyone anywhere, which is a great trailer shot that makes it seem like the world is ending, but in actual fact the majority of the world is just fine and contact is re-established in the next scene.
  • Mark Wahlberg says, "Event," or, "Happening" in a sentence (this might actually overload your liver).

  • Three gulps if:
  • Mark Wahlberg's voice goes weirdly high for no reason.
  • Hotdogs are mentioned.
  • John Leguizamo uses math, douchebag.
  • A child talks like an adult.
  • Someone on TV overacts terribly.

  • Finish your drink if:
  • Someone screams at the camera and waves their fist at it.
  • You realise you could be watching The Birds or Spielberg's War of the Worlds instead, as this is practically the same film, except neutered and stupid.
  • A character, who knows plants are deadly, has plants in her house just so there can be some contrived tension in the final scene.
  • You realise Stephen King has written a dozen books that are just like this, but you enjoyed those even with his weird authorial quirks.
  • You expect that the negativity surrounding this film severely dents the chances of Fernando Meirelles' adaptation of the novel Blindness making money in the US as it's kinda similar.

  • Finish all the drinks in your house if:
  • You find out that even though it has a terrible reputation, and people thought it would fail horribly, it's actually well on its way to becoming profitable, mostly because it's relatively cheap for a summer film and groups of people are going to see it because they heard it was this year's Wicker Man. Which it almost is. Though there are a notable absence of BEES! BEES IN MY EYES! GRARGLE BLURG FLUMF!

  • That's right, people. Looks like we'll still be getting a very very slow-moving version of Avatar: The Last Airbender after all.

    Saturday, June 21, 2008

    Insert Predictable DC Crisis Joke Here

    If I had to make a choice of which comics company I liked the most, I'd probably, after much agonising (as I love them both), pick DC over Marvel (sorry Fantagraphics, Dark Horse, Oni Press, etc.), simply because I seemed to have more luck finding original DC comics and nifty paperback size reprints of Justice League comics when I was young than I did Marvel stuff. Yeah, Marvel did this thing where they would reprint their US comics in UK formats, such as Rampage or Star Wars Weekly, but those reprints would manage to drag the 22 pages of a normal comic out over two to four normal issues, mixed in with other stuff. With Rampage it took about two years to get from Giant Size X-Men #1 to Phoenix's birth, which wasn't good enough. With DC, I seemed to get a better idea of what was going on there. Plus, I was crazy about Green Lantern, and even perennial childhood favourite Spider-Man couldn't compete with someone flying around with a wish-fulfilling ring. Truth.

    So it is with great sadness that I see DC getting its ass handed to it by Marvel, according to these comic sales figures. What's worse, the big DC event, Final Crisis #1, seems to have been outsold by the second issue of Secret Invasion, Marvel's summer "blockbuster", by about 41,000 issues. Much has been made of Final Crisis writer Grant Morrison's interview with Newsarama where he confirms that his grand plan for the title was partially ruined by other writers not seeding his plans properly, which has been seen to be a failure of nerve on the part of Dan DiDio, current DC editor-in-chief, but then Morrison has had this problem before, coming up with a revolutionary set of plot-threads for the troubled X-Men line when he was at Marvel, only for Joe Quesada to stick Chuck Austen on his titles and clumsily retcon a lot of it. I mean, what the hell was Xorn still doing around? Didn't he turn out to be the brother of a character that had never existed? Or was he a figment of the Scarlet Witch's imagination? Sorry, when Morrison left the title I kinda lost track of it all, because zzzzzzzzzzz.

    So is the failure of Final Crisis attributable to what seems to be a weak editorial line from the top, which might have put readers off? Certainly Marvel's editors (and star writer Brian Michael Bendis) have been strongly pushing controversial storylines and sticking to their guns, which pissed a lot of people off, what with Iron Man became a fascist, Peter Parker signed a deal with the devil that saved his aunt and retconned his marriage, and Tigra got beaten up a lot while wearing very little or nothing at all. Even when J. Michael Straczynski spoke out about the One More Day/Brand New Day changes in Spider-Man, the editors didn't seem to care. Of course, this now seems to have been more about keeping the Marvel Universe going long enough to bring about Secret Invasion, which has already dealt with some of the recent poor choices (the return of Captain Marvel, who is actually a Skrull who has Mar-Vell's memories and heroism) and amusingly clouded others (is Tony Stark an asshole or not?!?!?). So perhaps the last couple of years of reader baiting was just Marvel plotting something all along and keeping readers in the dark with glib statements designed to provoke. Or Marvel is run by obnoxious bullies and this was seen as a way to retcon both the Marvel Universe and the actual universe all at the same time. "See? When we were being rude to you all, it was because we were planning a big story for ages! Now please stop calling us misogynist idiots."

    That might be one of the reasons why Secret Invasion is a big hit, the other reason being that it is filled with fightypunchboom from the get-go. I've not yet had a chance to read Final Crisis yet, but knowing Morrison's need to tell a million stories at once, and considering how complicated DC continuity has become, it's bound to be a lot less appealing a prospect to the casual reader. Hell, I'm a DC fan, but even so I still read the odd issue of DC comics and get to the final page reveal of a bad guy, and go, "Who's this jerk in a hoodie?" To someone who is soaked in DC trivia, it's a big deal, but I often feel lost. To anyone else, and certainly to some of the DC haters I know, Final Crisis is just not a priority. In contrast, Secret Invasion is all splash pages of characters hitting Skrulls. There is a universal appeal in that, along with the mystery of who is a shape-changing alien and who is just now an asshole, according to Marvel editorial (please not Reed Richards! His encrappening really annoyed me).

    Of course the irony of this is that I love complex continuity, but even so we're talking about decades of it, and even I have limits. That's not to say I won't read it. I love Grant Morrison (or perhaps the right word is "worship") and am looking forward to it. I'm just saying it was never going to be a big success. It's kind like the Bhagavad Gita, while Secret Invasion is more like an episode of 24. Both are great, but only one is going to have mass appeal. So even though Morrison's plans seem to have been tainted by loss of nerve and/or jealous tinkering from other writers (who have previously been annoyed with his plans, such as when he came up with the DC One Million event), it's good that DiDio still gave it the go-ahead long ago. And yet, even though this could just be a bad week for DC that will change over time, following John Nee's resignation from Wildstorm, rumours of DiDio's imminent resignation (perhaps really imminent) still abound. Guess we'll have to wait and see.

    (Apologies for inaccuracies; I'm in a hurry and will go over this again later. Oh, the pressures of blogging!)

    Friday, June 20, 2008

    Someone Loves A Hut More Than Keamy The Evil Merc?

    The Lost poll, the one I dragged out until the very last possibility of seeing the season four finale had passed, is now over, and the voting went as follows:

  • Daniel Faraday - 5 (38%)
  • Miles Straume - 4 (30%)
  • Frank Lapidus - 3 (23%)
  • CS Lewis - 2 (15%)
  • Matthew Abaddon, as played by Lance "Intensity" Reddick - 1 (7%)
  • The Economist, whoever he or she turns out to be - 1 (7%)
  • Jacob's Moving Shack - 1 (7%)
  • Keamy and Omar the Sailor Men - 0 (0%)
  • George Minkowski - 0 (0%)
  • Regina, who will become corporeal soon, right? - 0 (0%)
  • Erm, Kevin Johnson? - 0 (0%)

  • A win for Daniel Faraday, played by the previously much-hated (in my head) Jeremy Davies. Knowing he was going to be in the show this season my heart sank, with memories of his quirks polluting Saving Private Ryan From The Nazis and George Clooney's Butt Orbiting Solaris, but boy howdy, the rat-bearded man has really surprised me. Faraday may not be my favourite new character (Canyon, on the other hand, loves him), but I do like him a lot, and hope that his mid-sea position at the end of the episode doesn't mean he has been vapourised or lost as a result of the disappearance of the island.

    Next up is Miles Straume, the bitchy psychic. He is Canyon's joint favourite new character, and he is indeed wonderful. Hurley's comment about the island gaining another Sawyer is telling; with Original Flavour Sawyer now all moody and heroic, there's room for a total bitch on the cast, and as he is also a ghostbuster and possibly mind-reader, he's even more interesting. Sadly his flashback has been postponed due to the writers' strike, but I get the feeling his time on the now-relocated island will be as interesting as his time off-island, so his forthcoming all-Miles-all-the-time episode cold be much much more than the filler that I thought it would be, with many new questions to be answered. First on my list, if he has all these powers, has he been approached by the Dharma Initiative before? Considering he started the season shaking down old ladies, it's fair to say he's not doing too well financially. Maybe a falling out with those stupid hippies put him in an untenable position?

    Yay Frank! His innate likeability, can-do attitude, and concern for the Oceanic survivors won me over almost instantly. As I said a while back, he really reminded me of the kind of pragmatic working-class character Stephen King writes so well, which the show really needed, what with the main cast being made up of academics, criminals, and fuck-ups. His final scene in the finale, saying goodbye to Jack, seemed to hint that he was not coming back to the show, but seeing as Ben said they all had to go back to the island, surely that means Frank and Desmond as well, not to mention Walt, Aaron and Ji Yeon.

    A shock two votes for CS Lewis, who had annoyed me with her crappy expressions throughout the season, only to surprise me in the final stretch. Humanising her by showing her affection for Daniel was a masterstroke, and hell, the reveal that she might have been on the island before (and might even have been born on it, which is obviously very significant) made her even more interesting. That particular surprise moment might have been my favourite shock of the entire episode. The possibilities it throws up are huge. So, I take it all back, CS Lewis. You sorta kinda rock. A bit.

    But come on, I'm the only person voting for Matthew Abaddon? But he's so terrifying! And intense! His appearance before Locke in the hospital was another great WTF moment, and was responsible for me really throwing my weight behind my Sirens of Titan theory. He is directly responsible for making Locke get on Oceanic 815, an act that apparently puts Locke right in his pocket, a particularly worrying development now we know Locke left the island at some point. Did Abaddon ever get there? Did he even want to? That's an even bigger mystery than who The Economist is, which seems to be Widmore, seen above with weird beard. But is he an economist? And if it is him, does that mean Ben intends to have him killed by Angel of Vengeance and Wavy Hair Sayid? Didn't Ben say that couldn't happen?

    Even more shocking, while a moving, ghostly shack containing dead people certainly deserves at least one vote, nothing for Keamy and Omar the sailor men? Nothing for hot, evil Keamy at all, except for several knife wounds? Perhaps I shouldn't have mixed him up with Omar, who did very little overall, except for be in the wrong place at the wrong time when a grenade came sailing past him. I'll go into Keamy's effect on me when I finally get around to talking about the finale in depth (yes, I've been working on it all week and things kept getting in the way), but let's just say the poor evil bastard wuz robbed, though perhaps not as much as "Kevin Johnson" aka Michael (ninety minutes of screentime and then 'splodey), Minkowski (about half an hour of screentime and then brainsplat), and poor Regina (four minutes of screentime and then kersploosh). I think no votes for them makes a kind of sense.

    Wednesday, June 18, 2008

    Adventures In Awesome: Local by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly

    Another small post, not amounting to much, but I wanted to commemorate the closing chapter of one of the very best comics released this decade; Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly's Local. Following a young woman around America over the course of several years in a series of bittersweet vignettes, Wood and Kelly have created an emotionally honest, episodic tale touching on familial bonds, adolescent mistakes, personal growth, loneliness, isolation, and love. It's absolutely essential reading for everyone. Canyon does not often read comics (other than Dan Slott's She-Hulk and Buffy season eight), but upon reading the eleventh issue of Local (which I had left in the water closet like a sort of mind-trap), she was pretty much hooked.

    The last issue was released today in the US, tomorrow in the UK, and I'll be making a special trip to Orbital Comics to find out what happens to Megan McKeenan when she finally returns home. Though it's not awesome that it is over, it is awesome that it is being released in hardcover in September (hopefully with all of the supplemental material printed at the end of each issue), giving everyone plenty of time to save up so that they can buy it. If you love great storytelling, this is an absolutely essential purchase. It will make your life 100% better, I promise. Those aches and pains you suffer from? Gone, in a flash. The asshole at work who keeps making fun of you? Deported. Your home? Suddenly free from dirt and dust as if by magic. It can cure the afflicted! It's made of pure pheromones and diamond dust! I'm serious, you have to buy it.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008

    Yet Another Sad Day, This Time For Nerds And Film Buffs

    The first bit of news I heard today was that Stan Winston, animatronics pioneer and monster/alien design genius, has sadly passed away. While yesterday's sad news about Esbjörn Svensson upset me as I had only just discovered his music, this hits me differently. There is no way I could accurately quantify the effect Winston's incomparable work has affected my psyche, as his golden period covered my adolescence, during which time my mind was boggled by Aliens, Predator, Terminator, and many others. My God, I even went to see George P. Cosmatos' risible Leviathan just because I knew he had worked on it.

    Like many people, my bedroom wall was covered with posters and movie stills when I was younger, and my favourites were the ones showing his designs. The Predator, possibly his most imaginative creation, burned a hole into my head, though credit should be given to John McTiernan for leaving the final reveal of the alien's hideous visage until the end of the movie. Those tiny glimpses of the creature's real face, followed by a slow unveiling of the actual face, are hilariously retained in later Predator movies, even though we now all know what it looks like. Still, familiarity has not made that design any less impressive, a real classic fit to stand alongside H.R. Giger's nightmarish Alien design. Speaking of which, further kudos are due Winston, for managing to adapt that biomorphic image and create the Queen from James Cameron's Aliens. Not only is it a beautiful adaptation of the original design, but the animatronic realisation of it is even more impressive. The final fight with Ripley in the powerloader is utterly convincing. When I was a teenager, that scene fried my mind to a charred crisp. Look at the damn thing! BTW, the image on the right is of the evil Sarris from Galaxy Quest, a hugely complicated combination of costume and animatronics. Can you believe that underneath all of that is Robin Sachs, aka Ethan Rayne from Buffy?

    In much the same way that the Universal monster movies inspired a generation of filmmakers, Winston's creations seemed to appear in almost every significant movie of my childhood, existing as an alternate universe supergroup of monsters, aliens, robots, undead serial killers, and demons. His monsters either enhanced good movies (Terminator, Predator), or were the best thing about bad movies (his bizarre brain creature and backwards walking Martians from Tobe Hooper's Invaders From Mars remake were way better than everything else in it). I always thought of those creatures (or should I say characters) existing in parallel in much the same way Dracula, Wolfman and Frankenstein's monster did years before. Considering the proliferation of material written since then, with those characters facing off against each other, I know I'm not the only one. Of course, Winston also got a crack at paying homage to those Universal monsters with Fred Dekker and Shane Black's hugely entertaining Monster Squad, which was nicely circular. Check out the amazing Gillman design (on the left, with the Martian Intelligence from Invaders From Mars on the right). Just gorgeous.

    While some of his work was dramatic and vivid, he could also be more subtle. He did animatronic animals that were utterly convincing (the lions in The Ghost and The Darkness, as well as the apes in Congo and Instinct) or playful (the mischievous mouse in Mousehunt). That of course led to his studio making the incredible dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park movies, which are often sadly overlooked when people discuss the admittedly impressive CGI FX in that trilogy. How cool would it have been to see his work on the long-rumoured Jurassic Park Meets The Dirty Dozen, with humans interacting with commando-saurs? He was also responsible for one of the most affecting non-monster images of recent times; poor Edward Scissorhands, the Emo King, with his bladey hands and scarred face. So basically, Stan Winston has made me laugh, cringe, hide behind my hands, put me on the edge of my seat, and also made me cry. That's good going. (Eddie Scissormitts is seen here with the nasty Pumpkinhead, who appeared in Winston's directorial debut.)

    With CGI now almost ubiquitous and demand for animatronic creatures seemingly dropping, Winston Studios has had to branch out into producing, though he was still working on set even while suffering from myeloma. His recent Iron Man suit (designed, if I recall correctly, with Adi Granov) was so lovely I have lost probably hours of my life just staring at it. He has also done some work on James Cameron's Avatar, so we still have that to look forward to. I can imagine his team of FX experts (some of whom have been working with him for twenty five years now) will be able to carry on his legacy, as long as there is a call for real world effects or character designs, but that doesn't remove the sadness. Ain't It Cool News is receiving tributes from some of Winston's colleagues, including one from James Cameron that deeply upset me this morning. Forgive me for seemingly losing my sense of perspective, but as a film buff, and a nerd, and as someone who once was lifted out of himself by the incredible vision of the man, Winston's death is a hugely significant and upsetting event. He will truly be missed.

    Monday, June 16, 2008

    A Sad Day For Jazz Lovers

    It's been one of those days where nothing much happens, when everything gets swallowed up with chores and work and flagellating yourself on a treadmill just to lose a few stone here and there. Oh, and I've said it before, and I'll say it again, working out is never a good idea while watching someone as odious as George W. Bush talks about world events like a kid who hasn't done his homework, and then being pressured by teachers to explain what he knows about a subject and relying on repetition of a single word over and over again as if that gets him off the hook. His brand of idiotic belligerence and barely concealed hysteria made me do three kilometers more than I expected, and I spent the rest of the day in an exhausted and miserable fugue state.

    Anyway, the one thing that did happen today was not welcome at all. One of the music world's most innovative composers, Swedish jazz pianist Esbjörn Svensson, died today in a tragic diving accident, at the age of 44. I was recently introduced to his music by a colleague, and was beginning to grow enormously fond of his work, which was jazz if played by very aggressive avant-garde hipsters. That sounds like I'm making fun of his work, but I'm definitely not. The album I've spent the most time with, EST plays Monk, is exhilarating stuff, using not only Svensson's piano to adapt Thelonious Monk's uniquely percussive keyboards, but also attacking Monk's work with the double bass and drums of Esbjörn Svensson Trio cohorts Dan Berglund and Magnus Öström. It's a strange way to rework those classic Monk tunes, but it works beautifully.

    I'm sad I've only just learned of his talent, just as he has passed on, but for now I can enjoy what he has left us. Here is a Last FM page with some Esbjörn Svensson Trio tunes, and here is a live performance of Dodge The Dodo from the album From Gagarin's Point of View.

    My condolences to his family, friends, and fellow musicians.

    Saturday, June 14, 2008

    Everyone Should Drink The Gamma-Irradiated Kool-Aid

    While being a comic nerd can be way more fun than the cool kids will admit (those assholes!), it also has its share of frustrations. Loving lists as much as I do, I was recently inspired by a Comic Book Resources feature to compile a tally of my favourite Marvel and DC comic characters, and the first list featured a bunch of cool villains (Magneto, Thanos, Kang), some obvious ones (The Thing, Spider-Man, though only in his Ultimate incarnation, and not the much-compromised 616 version), and the less popular ones (She-Hulk, Adam Warlock).

    Most of those characters are still turning up in current continuity, so I still get to enjoy their adventures, but when it comes to movies, I suffer grievously. We get Elektra, three Punishers, and two Hulk movies, but no Adam Warlock? Gah! The movie world would be improved immensely by 70s-era Jim Starlin-esque madness, with Pip, Gamorra, and the faux-Elric Warlock flitting around the cosmos and getting into brain-bending fights with The In-Betweener. Why can no one else see this? I should adapt the damn thing myself and get some of that sweet Marvel/Merrill Lynch bank for myself.

    So yeah, instead of getting the long-discussed Captain America or Thor, we get another Hulk movie. I'll be honest, I'm not a fan of the green lump, preferring the post-modern silliness of his endearing and inspiring cousin, She-Hulk, to his ponderous adventures. There's a place for mega-strong characters, and for anti-heroes, and characters with a light and dark side battling within them, and yet even though he has all three characteristics I still don't find Hulk compelling, except in rare circumstances. Greg Pak's recent Planet Hulk series was terrific (and World War Hulk was okay too, though perhaps not as impressive overall), but that was as much because of the interesting supporting cast and peculiar scope of it than because it gave the main character something more interesting to do than merely evade capture and then get into repetitive scrapes.

    I look forward to reading Peter David's run on it, expecting a lot after hearing so much praise for it, but I doubt I will be converted by the end of it, especially knowing it was truncated against his wishes. As for the TV show, sorry, but if you're going to have to restrict the adventures of an enormous, superstrong green giant to defending the rights of factory workers who have been exploited by greedy managers on a weekly basis, even as a kid with even lower standards than I do now, I'm going to be unimpressed. Late appearances by Thor and Daredevil didn't help either, especially when Daredevil is played by the guy from StreetHawk. StreetHawk, people! Bearing that in mind, will you now please give The Man Affleck a break? Please?

    So I don't like Hulk, but then I was never crazy about Iron Man, and I went nuts with anticipation about that movie, mostly because I love the four main cast members (and again, I won't apologise for thinking Gwynnie Paltrow is a very talented woman), and the director, and director of photography Matthew Libatique, whose work on The Fountain featured some of my favourite lighting of the decade so far. The Incredible Hulk couldn't hope to match up to that. As I've said before, I'm not a big fan of Edward Norton, though he is obviously a very talented actor. As are William Hurt and Tim Roth, but I've never warmed to them either. Their involvement did not excite me, even though it was nice to see character actors getting cast instead of giving the roles to whatever hott young actor is seen as bankable nowadays. I'll give Hurt a break for starring in Altered States, one of my all-time favourite films. Plus, even Roth gave one of the worst performances in film history (his "comedy" turn in Four Rooms, which almost put me off him for life), I did think he was so good in Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes that I've actually recommended the silly lumpen thing to people just on the strength of his work alone. He really was amazing in it, way better than the movie deserved.

    To make things worse, Betty Ross was to be played by Liv Tyler, an actress whose appeal utterly eludes me. She is referred to as a great beauty, but that's in the eye of the beholder, and this beholder don't see it. Sorry, Liv. (Canyon pointed out to me during the film that she looks like she should be a Simpsons character, and I can't argue with that.) Beyond that, I've never been convinced by her performances, except for maybe Lord of the Rings, though even then she seemed to give the least interesting performance in the trilogy. It gives me no pleasure to diss her, but this is how down I was on the new Hulk project. And who was writing it? Zak Penn, who has writing credits on X-Men 3, Elektra, Behind Enemy Lines, and Inspector Gadget. That he appears to be Marvel Studios' go-to guy with scripts annoys me almost as much as the news that exec David Maisel won't pay Jon Favreau a proper wage for Iron Man 2. Dude, Favreau is a brother to all nerds, who you rely on. Better play nice, or it won't just be Ed Norton avoiding your movies. And I'm not counting this jokey Jimmy Kimmel movie as Norton doing proper publicity for the movie, the primadonna dope.

    In fact, the only thing that made me interested in seeing The Incredible Hulk was the presence of Louis Leterrier behind the camera. A lot of fanboys were upset about that, mostly because The Transporter movies are kinda cheap Euro-actioners that didn't set the world on fire, but hell, I like them enough (I love that the hero has such high-functioning OCD that it becomes a benefit to him), and besides, Unleashed (aka Danny The Dog) is fantastic, so I was interested to see him do something outside his normal boundaries.

    We caught it yesterday, and though it unfortunately stands in the shadows of the far superior Iron Man, it is certainly deserving of more attention from the nerd massive, and hopefully from a wider audience than that, and yes, I'm saying this because I want Marvel to do well enough to get me that damn Avengers movie I'm looking forward to so much (the Thursday/Friday gross is estimated at about $21m, which is not that bad, seeing as how even Iron Man's Thursday gross was only $5m). It's got nerd cachet (even Rick Jones gets a mention if you watch the opening credits closely enough), it's got romance and action and even a couple of jokes, and Leterrier pulls off some memorable setpieces, especially an early scene in a darkened factory, with Hulk striking from the shadows. It's beautifully lit and choreographed, and comes after a crisply edited chase scene through a breathtakingly shot favela of seemingly infinite size.

    Though the second half of the film drags compared to the opening hour, there are still memorable moments. Though I don't like Tim Blake Nelson's form of quirk, his final fate in the movie made me very very happy in a nerdy way, and actually eager for further appearances of Dr. Samuel Sterns in future Marvel movies. Even better, the final battle between the mutated Emil Blonsky and Hulk is totally thrilling, sending the audience we saw it with into paroxysms of joy. We were both very enhappied by the big finale, not to mention the much-vaunted appearance by Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark (obviously dragged out of its logical place after the credits to sit right after what would be the natural final shot of the movie). Though she seemed to enjoy the big action ending, Canyon pointed out something after we came out, that much of the cool Hulk moments during the finale bore a similarity to my favourite Hulk-related item, the hugely underrated Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, which remains possibly the best superhero-related game yet devised.

    Though superhero games often find it hard to balance the challenge of the gaming experience and the potentially overpowerful superhero, with most games artificially hobbling the main character in silly ways (such as the Nintendo 64 Superman game that took place in a virtual reality universe, with Superman's powers relying on collecting power-ups), IH:UD did a great job of matching the threat with your immense powers. The sandbox element of the game wasn't perfect, but the thrill of leaping around the city and dealing out vast amounts of damage was just right. The finale of the movie features some moments that come straight out of the game, with Hulk leaping up the sides of buildings, Abomination jumping onto a helicopter, and Hulk doing one of his signature attacks (also featured in the comics) in order to save Betty. I won't spoil it, but it involves fire, and got a "WOW!" from both of us.

    Unfortunately, while there are many pleasures to the movie, the pacing is awful, with many non-action scenes running on for way too long. Though Zak Penn does a better job here than on any movie he has been involved with before, the plot is anything but propulsive unless Hulk is onscreen, with Ed Norton's Banner not being interesting enough to care about, which is a problem that resides in the character, and not in Norton's professional but cold performance. It defeated Eric Bana too, remember. As Banner is all about avoiding passion, the time spent with William Hurt's furious General Ross resonates far more, as his guilt and anger is much more cinematic than Norton's panic. At first Hurt is a bit one note, but eventually he manifests the ethical battle at the heart of the character better than Sam Elliott, who is simply too likeable to play someone with the ambiguous motivation of Thunderbolt Ross. You can hiss at Hurt, but also appreciate why he is the man he is. With Elliott, you just wanted to stroke his amazing mustache.

    Even better, Roth is on excellent form as the weaselly Blonsky, driven by what seems to be self-hatred and ambition to endure an agonising series of Super-Soldier Serum injections (and yes, the stage is set for the Captain America movie with great skill). He is as much an unstoppable force as Hulk himself, even before he goes too far and becomes The Abomination. He also has the most shocking moment of the movie to himself, as Hulk dispatches him during the university battle scene with brutal efficiency. It's quick, shocking, and blackly funny.

    All of that is for naught when Liv Tyler appears, her line readings unintentionally hilarious, ruining any emotional power in her scenes with breathy, melodramatic misinterpratations of the film's tone. One awful scene, with her in conversation with Bruce Banner on the night he shows up in her life again, made both of us cringe. Even in a small scene like that, featuring some really flat dialogue, Norton manages to bring to it a variety of emotions; intensity, pain, shyness, love. Tyler just intones her lines with little feel for how to bring them to life, and our hearts went out to Norton. It was embarrassing seeing him effortlessly bring depth to the emptiest of moments, while she could barely even be convincing holding a pile of pyjamas.

    The big emotional scene in the film, with Hulk and Betty hiding from the Army in a cave, is obviously meant to have an epic King-Kong-esque sweep to it, but it is ruined by both the performances of Tyler, hooting her dialogue at a tennis ball on the end of a stick held by an AD with all of the emotional intensity of a woman pouring her heart out to a tennis ball on the end of a stick held by an AD, and the CGI Hulk, which never really convinces.

    That's not to say it's a bad effect; it's about as good as it gets on a rushed big-budget movie like this (notably the Transformatrons in Michael Bay's Transformatronicers are far more interesting to look at than Hulk, and better integrated into the real world imagery). People will carp at the FX (and some already have), but it never really bothered me on a technical level. What did annoy me is that even though I preferred most of the casting on Leterrier's Hulk over Lee's (with the exception of Tyler as Betty, though I didn't like Jennifer Connelly that much either), I really loved Lee's Hulk performance, and thought this was a huge step down.

    While fanboys and critics agonise over the use of CGI in superhero movies, and bitch about how both Hulks are not photo-realistic (what. EVER!), Lee's decision to don a motion capture suit and act out Hulk's movements was inspired. Instead of the repetitive and generic throw-arms-back-and-roar performance in the new Hulk movie, with Lee in the skintight black mo-cap costume we got real character, real quirkiness, almost realistic movements. Hulk falls over, fails to grab things, reacts with frustration at his surroundings; it's a fascinating and entertaining choice.

    The facial work is fantastic too. Possibly my favourite scene in the whole film comes when Hulk lands in a desert oasis and stops to look at his surroundings, finally finding a kind of peace. His eyes flicker from object to object, and his face relaxes. It's such a perfect, and weird, moment, in the middle of all that hectic editing and action. In the second Hulk movie, all the green shoutyman does is roar, though at the end he manages to express tetchiness tinged with regret whenever his facetime with Betty gets interrupted by hi-tech weaponry trying to kill him. Though I'm glad the FX guys and Leterrier managed to get around to adding that reaction, it's nowhere near as interesting a CGI performance than that of the Lee original.

    That said, I did enjoy this version of the Hulk more than the Lee original, which was hard to take seriously, but even though I anticipate watching this conventional version of the character more often, and think the Lee version was way too sure of its own profundity and importance when in fact that portentousness kept tripping the movie up, at least that version had some beauty and weirdness, existing as an original exploration of a familiar character, while this new version feels like everything we have seen before and expected from a Hulk movie with little to surprise us. While we gain coherence and enjoyable spectacle, we lose oddness, eccentricity, originality. I got a huge kick out of seeing Hulk use a police car as boxing gloves, but I also liked seeing bombs silently exploding in the air above Hulk, and watching him earning some peace while leaping across the desert, and blasting through a cloud in freezeframes, carried by the electrified essence of his insane father, prior to overloading that man with the infinite rage that powers him. Yes, that ending was inherently silly, but it was bold and breathtaking. Even though the big fight with The Abomination was awesome, it was never going to be as peculiar as that madness, with Nick Nolte eating the scenery (literally).

    Perhaps that's the best thing I've gained from watching the Leterrier Hulk. It gave me the movie I (naively) thought I would be seeing when I watched the Lee Hulk, and though I still enjoyed it a lot, it also made me look back at that original version with new eyes. It was a film I wavered on for a long time, before realising I didn't think it was all that, and now I can go back to it with a calmer outlook. Now we have had another chance to see a smash-filled Hulk movie just like the ones we saw in our heads when reading comics during our childhoods, maybe now we can be grateful to Ang Lee, James Schamus, and the rest of the original Hulk team for giving us a cinematic experience unlike anything else that ever existed before and ever will again, instead of thinking that we've forever missed our shot to see a big green monster fending off StarkTech sonic beams using big sheets of metal. Now we have both versions, and finally I see why Marvel Studios decided to film this instead of Adam Warlock: Elric in Space. And, despite my initial reservations, I am grateful.