Saturday, August 30, 2008

Babylon A. D. and Children of Men: an 8 point comparison

Now that the French director of Babylon A. D. Matthew Kassovitz has condemned his own work, blaming Fox’s studio intervention for the inferior product, many have gleefully starting savaging the movie. Yesterday, I saw one post already claiming that Babylon A. D. is the worst science fiction film ever made. Having seen the movie, I can safely say that there are worse, including last week’s Death Race. Babylon A. D. is badly flawed, but it keeps hinting at good intentions that went awry, and it suffers from the many comparisons it invites to Children of Men and Blade Runner. Ironically, I enjoyed Babylon because I could spend so much time spotting the influences of other better films.

Babylon A.D.
was adapted from a 2001 French science fiction novel entitled Babylon Babies by Maurice G. Dantec, in which Bosnian veteran Cornelius Toorop escorts Marie Zorn from Kazakhstan to Montreal in 2013. Dantec imagines a future dominated by the complications of genetic experimentation, so Toorop has to deal with cyborgs, drug experiments, cloning, and a large artificial biosphere program when he’s not setting off grenades and defending himself against enemies.

In the movie version, much of the genetic subtext falls away, and the viewer is greeted with Vin Diesel (Toorop) strutting around a grungy Kazakhstan slum to a rap song as various thugs threaten him with guns. When a bunch of soldiers busts into his apartment, Toorop coolly asks “Karl, is that you?” before allowing himself to be escorted to a tank where Gerard Depardieu waits inside with a big prosthetic scar on his face, augmenting his already large nose. Anyway, here’s a point by point comparison between Babylon A. D. and Children of Men:

1. Children of Men takes as its premise the fact that at some point mankind stopped reproducing. Everything in the story gains urgency due to this central problem, especially Theo’s need to get pregnant Kee to safety. She represents mankind’s last hope for renewal. Babylon A. D. depicts a very similar future in which something vague is going on concerning genetics, but there’s no central conceit to focus the action. Toorop, like Theo, still must escort Aurora across hostile terrain.

2. In Children of Men, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a handsome African-British woman, spends much of the movie deciding on the name for her baby. In Babylon , Kee’s equivalent Aurora (Melanie Thierry) looks like a younger Michelle Pfeiffer. She has psychic powers, the ability to mentally stop missiles from hitting her when they fly within inches of her head, and she seems to have learned 39 languages by the age of 2. Aurora also has an awkward tendency to say things like “We will all die in New York City” just when she, Toorop, and Rebeka start to bond as a family.

3. In both films, the young woman has an older female helper, a kind of female Virgil to guide her through her respective futuristic Inferno. Kee gets some frumpy middle-aged woman with dreadlocks. Lucky Aurora has Michelle Yeoh (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), who plays Sister Rebeka, a nun who can fight kung fu style when needed.

4. Children of Men keeps emphasizing how England has a major refugee problem where they are routinely rounded up, placed in cages, and transported to camps where they are tortured. Babylon A. D. has one refugee scene where a large crowd has difficulty fitting into a submarine. Some get crushed underneath the ice and Aurora feels their pain.

5. Children of Men plays with the complacencies of its audience by inserting terrorist kidnappings, bombings, and Abu Ghraib-like activities in England. In effect, the movie continually assaults the viewer when he or she expects bucolic nature scenes or a casual bus ride. Babylon A. D. has some guys throwing rocks at Toorop in a car, and thugs waving guns around, but they don’t seem as coherently menacing.

6. Children moves toward a grim refugee camp where Theo and Kee try to survive a major battle scene. In contrast, Babylon travels toward a New York City with 22.7 million people where the skyline looks much like the one in Blade Runner. In New York, a High Priestess (Charlotte Rampling) has her image moving around on screens and skyscrapers everywhere. I happen to like Rampling, but she wears lots of white pancake makeup that reminded me of Heath Ledger’s Joker. As she throws tantrums in front of her underlings, she has awkward lines like “I designed her! She is my miracle!” and so on.

7. Theo is a drab (but handsome) bureaucrat who can’t find any decent shoes, so he's obliged to perform some of his heroics in flip flops. Toorop is one tough dude with an Abercrombie and Fitch build and lots of tattoos. Vin Diesel conveys world-weary macho cool to the point where he hardly speaks, and when he does, he slurs things like “Life is simple. Kill or be killed.” I would imagine that he aspires to the level of Bruce Willis as an action star, but he often reminded me of a young Sylvester Stallone with an odd hint of Adam Sandler, perhaps due to his Bronx accent.

8. Children of Men strikes me as genuinely prophetic. In contrast, Babylon A. D. helps me appreciate the brilliance of Children of Men.

Friday, August 29, 2008

2008 summer box office links

Now that school’s back in session, how was the 2008 summer box office? With domestic ticket sales reaching $3.9 billion, the film industry ended up earning slightly more than last year. For a recap, check out Rebecca Winters Keegan’s article in Time, where she characterizes the season as “good, not great,” with The Dark Knight grossing an unsurprisingly large percentage of the haul. Writing for Variety, Dave McNary claims that Mamma Mia!, Kung Fu Panda, and Sex and the City all “dazzled” in foreign markets, but overall the international box office did not do quite as well as last year. Writing for Los Angeles Times, John Horn ranks the major studios and finds that Paramount and Warner Brothers outperformed the rest, while Fox produced the most flops. Horn also notes that in spite of all the hype, “quality,” of all things, and good critical response determined the success of many of the films. Writing for Wired, Hugh Hart discusses how superheroes and Indiana Jones dominated the season, and how there are many more to come. New York Times critic, A. O. Scott may not be thrilled by that. Lastly Get the Big Picture ranks the top ten films of the summer and the top seven bombs.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Paul W. S. Anderson’s cinematic heritage: Event Horizon (1997)

Eleven years before he directed Death Race, Paul W. S. Anderson’s Event Horizon already hints at his love for video games, blood, and fetching navigators, as my review written at the time shows:

It’s 2047 or thereabouts. Mankind has been building a space colony on the moon and commercially mining Mars. A big spaceship shaped like a bulbous tennis racquet, Event Horizon, disappeared 7 years ago on the other side of Neptune on its way to the outer limits of space. Now it’s back, and 6 semi-military space people are sent on a top secret mission to investigate the ship’s chilly gravity-less innards.

What happened to the original crew? One of them floats around inside, a “corpsicle” with its skin cut to ribbons and its eyes missing. Our crew, which strongly resembles the gang in Alien, arrives and docks on the handle of the tennis racquet. Lt. Starck (Joely Richardson), the G. I. Jane blond navigator, can only find an elusive orange vapory life form all over the ship. They start to investigate the Event’s various passageways with the help of Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill), who designed the ship and explains to them how it bops to the ends of the universe by folding over a magazine centerfold and sticking his fountain pen through both ends.

We also can see a cool gyroscope room (Contact also has a gyroscope), the stargate where a giant encrusted sphere halves and displays a liquid entrance into another dimension. The rest of the rounded room has carbuncle-like metal spikes all over the walls and the whole thing lights up when it’s excited. It’s a regular gothic torture chamber for the nineties.

Then, predictably, things start to go wrong very fast as various members of the crew start to see their long lost loved ones—a child, a wife who committed suicide, a soldier left to burn in zero gravity—come back to haunt them and lead them to their individual colorful dooms.

Event Horizon is basically a Hellraiser horror film grafted onto a top-notch science fiction set design. The actors, especially Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill, do good work and the picture looks gorgeous, but director Paul Anderson’s only other feature was Mortal Kombat, and his video game aesthetics start to show in the lack of subtlety in the plot shifts and in the ruthless ways people start to die.

We learn that the original crew flew off to the “ultimate in chaos” in another dimension, a place that looks and sounds a lot like regular old hell—a Marilyn Mansonesque hangout where everyone shrieks in agony with blood streaked all over them and invisible demons pull their intestines out of their mouths. For those of you who like this sort of thing, there’s great photogenic roomfuls of blood, sick eyes-plucked-from-their-sockets scenes, and a gruesome take on what happens to you when you fly out into outer space without protection.

Doubtless, the film makes you tense (I was tense for hours afterwards), but I was ultimately disappointed by the limits of the horror genre when the look of the film and the quality of the acting led me to expect more. Event Horizon is all surface and not enough depth, but certain images—like an eyeless Sam Neill gradually getting sucked out of his command module into outer space—do linger on in the mind.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

15 reasons to steer clear of Death Race

Note: Death Race concerns ace racer Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a working class yob framed for murdering his wife in the year 2012. Once in the Terminal Island penitentiary, ice queen Warden Hennessy (Joan Allen) offers Ames his freedom if he will play the role of “Frankenstein,” a metal-masked goon in a lethal race loosely patterned after Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000 (1976). While Death Race 2000 had David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone satirically running over pedestrians for points across the US, Death Race largely sticks to the racers cruising round and round Terminal Island with dreary testosterone-filled seriousness. Even though a quote from Clueless comes to mind: Finding anything of interest to say about Death Race is “like trying to find meaning in a Pauly Shore movie,” I thought I would try anyway, if only to justify sitting through the 89 minutes of the movie in the midst of my brief vigil on this earth.

1. Director, writer Paul W. S. Anderson made his mark with Shopping (1994), which concerns Jude Law playing a thief who jams his car into storefronts.

2. According to the film, the US economy has collapsed by 2012, leaving everyone with nothing to do but watch the “gladiators” of Death Race kill or be killed on the internet. Warden Hennessy points out how at times the race earns millions of hits, no doubt to make bloggers jealous.

3. Compared to the DayGlo colors of Speed Racer, Death Race is filmed in shades of penitential gray, with only occasional splashes of orange (explosions) or red (blood) to offset the visual monotony.

4. Death Race = Hot Rod Magazine + The Road Warrior only less so. I prefer the magazine.

5. For all of the major actors involved, Death Race constitutes an immense backward step in their careers. Jason Statham just starred in The Bank Job, a well-built film in which he actually acts. In Death Race, Statham mostly strains the skin around his bald head until his eyes bulge.

6. Jason Statham has a bunch of tattoos on his body so that the viewer can be reminded of the superior treatment of Viggo Mortenson’s Russian mafia tattoos in Eastern Promises.

7. In her high heels and power outfits, Joan Allen perhaps wishes to channel Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestley from The Devil Wears Prada, but any fans of her work from the Bourne series will be appalled and saddened by her presence here.

8. Allen has one good scene where she trains a hidden gun under her desk at Jensen’s crotch in case he gets out of hand. These kinds of scenes are extremely rare in Death Race.

9. Playing a long-term con/racing coach, Ian McShane crudely evokes Al Pacino on a bad hair day.

10. With his penchant for slow motion shots ogling “navigator” Natalie Martinez in tight jeans, Paul W. S. Anderson reminds me of the advertiser’s cinematic style of Michael Bay. Since portions of the film mimic television sports hype footage (complete with a skull logo and instant replays of deaths), Death Race advertises itself throughout. If a character dies in a particularly colorful way, you get to see it over and over.

11. Anderson designs Death Race to very closely resemble a video game, which makes sense since he also directed Resident Evil (2002) and Mortal Kombat (1995). In many ways, especially in terms of how the various tricked out vehicles (a Monster Mustang V8 Fastback!) can spew machine gun fire, napalm, and flames onto their opponents, Death Race resembles arcade racing games, only the arcade games are more fun, and visually more coherent.

12. Death Race gets most confusing during the actual races because Anderson likes to use a jerky moving camera style that zooms in and out amidst fast cuts. I found myself waiting for the next pause between stages of the race just so my eyes could focus on something. I very rarely had the sensation of actually watching a race.

13. Given rising gas prices and its picture of a near future of economic collapse, Death Race makes one wonder about how much longer Americans will enjoy their car culture. In The End of Suburbia (2004), out on DVD, and reviewed in The Chutry Experiment, Gregory Greene explores how demand for fossil fuels has already started to outstrip supply. What will Americans do in 2012 when they can no longer afford gas for their beloved cars? Of course, Paul W. S. Anderson does not explore this connection between the collapse of civilization and the lack of gas as George Miller does in The Road Warrior.

14. Death Race does remind one how the prison system is one of the fastest growing businesses in America.

15. It seems appropriate that much of Death Race is set in a penitentiary since the viewer feels imprisoned throughout.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ben Stiller's gross-out cinematic heritage: There's Something about Mary

Dave Itzkoff's article in today's New York Times meditates on the "refined art of tastelessness" when it comes to vulgar gross-out R-rated films that began in the late 70s with Kentucky Fried Movie and Animal House, and continues today with Superbad and Pineapple Express. In honor of that distinguished cinematic heritage, I dusted off my old review of There's Something about Mary released in 1998. Note the occasional similarity with Tropic Thunder. The review was entitled "Low end of the food chain":

I thought perhaps There’s Something About Mary might prove unreviewable. What is there to say about bottom feeder level delicate membranes-stuck -in-your-zipper jokes that make the 3 stooges look dignified, high class, and austere in contrast? How about a movie that routinely makes fun of mentally disabled men, cripples with palsied legs, overly sunburnt dowagers, and anyone with hives, acne, or fishing lures stuck through their cheeks? Much as I did laugh in spots, I mostly found the Farrelly brothers’ Dumb and Dumber concoction alarming. Geeky guys stalking Cameron Diaz en masse, a world of apemen spying on each other, each one more pathological, isolated, and deranged than the last. Is this what modern man has come to?

The movie begins cutely enough with a band playing a love song in a tree. A kind of chorus, they show up on occasion to sing of Ted’s (Ben Stiller’s) 13-year unrequited love for Mary. Sporting a classic early 80’s shaggy long hair style and braces, Ted defends Mary’s retarded brother from some bully. Consequently, she asks him out to the senior prom. When he arrives at her house to pick her up, he accidentally glimpses Mary getting dressed outside a bathroom window and in his nervousness zips up his pants on his manhood. In a scene structured much like Dorothy’s homecoming in The Wizard of Oz, everyone comes in to exclaim over his condition, a policeman arrives at the window, and soon enough Ted goes to the hospital for several weeks of healing instead of the prom.

Cut to 13 years later. Ted hires a private detective, Pat Healy (Matt Dillon) to search for Mary, who now, as it turns out, works as a surgeon in Miami. Pat falls for her instead, and pretty soon there are around 5 dumb and dumber guys circling Mary. Most of them lie about their identity, use fancy surveillance techniques to spy on her, and fetishize over her when they’re not after each other in the hazy lighting of sleazy Miami.

Matt Dillon appears to have a good time parodying his handsome charm, flashing huge fake teeth for an easy gag. In her turn Mary gamely takes care of a Benji-like dog who wigs out on amphetamines. I imagine Diaz picked this film to stretch her comedic abilities after her celebrated karaoke scene in My Best Friend’s Wedding, but she comes off as one human character in a world full of grotesque hunchbacks. She’s the only blonde in this planet of the apes.

Perhaps I’m not looking at this movie in the right way. I should just learn to yuck yuck yuck along with all of the adolescent guys who eat this up, but it smells of the increasing devolution of young men in the Darwinian celebrity sweepstakes. Cameron Diaz can walk off the set and go star in another movie. Peeping Toms, stalkers, and drooling creeps can return, I guess, to their troglodyte worlds.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tropic Thunder, Apocalypse Now, and the debate over who’s offending whom

I confess at the outset that I enjoyed much of Tropic Thunder before it largely boiled down to an extended fight scene (as Pineapple Express did) towards the end. I can also see why many critics liked the film, since it starts off with several ads that mock Hollywood’s pretensions, its bad case of sequelitis, and its tendency to profit off of mindless fat jokes and scatological humor. For film buffs oppressed by a long summer of cinematic calculation, Tropic Thunder’s satire is a delightful acknowledgement of a cynical world we know too well. The fake trailers, complete with studio logos, leave one wondering if the actual Dream Works movie is another joke. When the film opens with some helicopters moving through the jungle in formation to attack, I was cheerfully reminded of Apocalypse Now’s famous cavalry scene where Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore uses Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” to blitzkrieg a peaceful Vietnam village so that his men can surf.

In the beginning of Tropic Thunder, the platoon attempts to save the hero Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), who majestically appears in slow motion as he's riddled with gunfire, causing him to convulse ludicrously. He raises his arms to look properly crucified, and then Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr. in blackface) runs over to save him. Tugg says he can’t feel his legs. He then asks Kirk to take his hands, but Kirk notices that his hands have been strafed to silly-looking ribbons. Kirk starts to cry. Tugg flubs his next line, and the point of view shifts across 180 degrees so we can see the director (Steve Coogan) and the entire film crew trying to shoot the scene. When Kirk realizes that Tugg is not cooperating, he stomps off in a huff to a porta-potty just when several jet fighters napalm a gigantic swath of jungle nearby. The napalm also refers to a similar moment back in the Ride of the Valkyries scene of Apocalypse Now, but now I could revel in the way the film crew evokes Hearts of Darkness: a Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, the documentary of the many years of difficulty Coppola went through to make the war film.

So, yes, Tropic Thunder ridicules the movie industry gleefully, and yet it has also offended enough people to picket the film, and even boycott other studio releases of Dream Works studio, mostly due to the jokes relating to Tugg Speedman’s previous “film” called Happy Jack wherein he plays a retarded young man. Critics have split into various camps on the issue. In one, Jim Emerson cannot understand the protests because Tropic Thunder makes it clear that the jokes are meant to mock action star Tugg Speedman’s attempt to gain legitimacy (and an Oscar) as an actor by playing such a role as Jack, not mentally disabled people per se. Emerson makes a strong, valid point. He and other mystified critics such as Bill Wyman even wonder if all of the controversy is in part a cynical way for the film’s promoters to stir up more attention, and therefore sell more tickets.

On the other hand, if one reads the posts of those who are offended, they can be persuasive too. I was struck by Steve Gorelick’s article “Bravo Dreamworks! What courage it must have taken to make fun of `retards.’” He ends his grievance by saying: “But never, ever — if you claim to have even a minimum of guts or decency — mess with people who cannot speak back.” Also Patricia E. Bauer, writer for Disability News, neatly summarizes the debate about Tropic Thunder, and she makes her point clear about how viewers will take mockery of the disabled and continue to use it on victims outside the theater.

I was intrigued by how both sides have their compelling points. The issue boils down to different levels of perception. If everyone in America’s cineplexes got the nuanced mockery of pretentious actors, as Emerson understands was Ben Stiller’s original intention, then there would be no debate. But, others may miss the satire and focus on the rude treatment of the mentally disabled alone, and thereby justify the indignation of those who feel that the film is a larger campaign to negatively skew the perceptions of the disabled. As a teacher, I once was confronted by a student who took offense at students in class using the word “retarded.” He went on the write a persuasive argumentative paper about his younger brother who has downs syndrome. He found his brother to be one of the sweetest and most amazing people he has ever known, and he did not like the way he was characterized with that word. After getting the paper, I remember being struck with the force of his case.

Robert Downey Jr.’s blackface routine could also offend, of course, but Tropic Thunder is much more sensitive to the implications of his performance. I was reminded of Jack Black’s character attempting to wear blackface in Be Kind Rewind and then getting a stern lecture from Danny Glover’s character. In this case, an African American, Brandon T. Jackson (as rapper Alpa Chino) does respond at length to Downey’s impersonation by mocking it and calling it into question. Kirk even apologizes to Alpa at one point, and asks him if it’s okay. Alpa does not give him the satisfaction. Thus, as viewers we can laugh at Downey’s performance but also feel exonerated from the uneasy implications of his act.

One could compare the various perceptions of the mentally disabled to the perception of Tugg Speedman himself. On one level, Ben Stiller’s character is a joking variation on Sylvester Stallone in Rambo and any attempt Stallone has since made to gain greater legitimacy as an actor. Tugg is a vain buffoon who stubbornly heads off into the jungle by himself because he thinks that it is rigged with cameras. He thinks he’s really still in the picture (even though he isn’t, at least within the film’s story framework). So, the more sophisticated film critics can laugh at him, but on another level, Stiller knows that he looks “ripped,” that his body-building has made him action-star handsome, and therefore his audience can appreciate and identify with his machismo too. At one point, he bravely shoots machine gun fire into the jungle as some stereotypical enemy Asians look on in amazement and say to themselves “He does not fear death!” On one level, we can laugh at his stupidity, but on another Stiller builds for himself a nicely congratulatory role that has little in common with the fat jokes of Jack Black. And as the movie stars make their way into the jungle, they can evoke comparisons to the boat crew in Apocalypse Now (with Brandon T. Jackson channeling a young Laurence Fishburne) even as they are also play ridiculously spoiled and self-absorbed actors. The point is, Stiller knows that his character deserves scorn, but he also knows he can still look good. When it comes to his treatment of the mentally disabled, they have no such luck.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Inglorious Bastards links

Still not sure if my review was not a bit harsh on the original 1978 version of Inglorious Bastards, I’ve assembled a few links to further hash out the pros and cons:

First, Cinematical liked the film as “an entertaining, stylish adventure.”

The Playlist found the film a “sub par B movie,” and a “Dirty Dozen knock-off.”

Dave Kehr of The New York Times decided the DVD version is “slapdash but appealing.”

New York magazine celebrated the insanity of Tarantino's version of the script.

Lastly, just announced that Brad Pitt, Eli Roth, Simon Pegg, B. J. Novak, and Natassja Kinski are "all in talks or final agreements to join" the Tarantino remake.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Inglorious Bastards and Tarantino’s youthful enthusiasm

One of the most striking things about the new DVD of the original 1977 version of The Inglorious Bastards is Tarantino’s interview with the director Enzo G. Castellari. Castellari looks thrilled to be there, but Tarantino does not interview so much as rave about how as a kid the obscurity of The Inglorious Bastards kept him from watching it except very occasionally on television. Now that Tarantino seems to have signed on Brad Pitt for his new version due to be released by 2009, it's fascinating to look at this action film as a classic case of the pulp roots of Tarantino’s genius.

After watching the DVD, I can only ask—this movie? During World War II, a band of thieves, deserters, murderers, and general scoundrels are in the midst of being shipped off by truck to military prison when a German air attack sets them free. Surrounded on all sides by the war, they try to get to Switzerland. Along the way, they shoot massive numbers of Germans and get into various scraps until the French Resistance persuades them to try to steal a German V2 warhead from a train.

The film has lots of fun scenes, but it is not very plausible. Blending together spaghetti western machismo with a massive body count, the inglorious bastards mow down Germans, switch sides, and get out of German imprisonment with Indiana Jones-like ease. After awhile, one gets used to Germans throwing their arms up in the air as they easily fall over. There’s one scene where the bastards serenely take on a German military castle with a slingshot, knives, and even a crossbow in part because the Italian production ran out of guns. The director Castellari obviously takes a playful joy in all of these Hogan’s Heroes hi-jinks. Fred Williamson as Private Fred Canfield channels a kind of Superfly toughness that suited the blaxploitation of the 1970s (one of the Americanized video versions of the movie was called G. I. Bro), and another cheeky fellow acts just like an Italian variation on Paul Newman.

Perhaps it was the cheesy dubbing. Perhaps it was the ballet-like slow motion shots of soldiers flying in the air, but I had a hard time getting into the spirit of The Inglorious Bastards with the amount of enthusiasm Tarantino clearly has. Perhaps, Tarantino is right to try to look beyond what he calls the “horrors of war” of other films like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, but The Inglorious Bastards still comes off as a relatively crude youthful fantasy. Perhaps that is what Tarantino has always done—transmute 70s pulp into gleefully ironic and iconic movies, but his strength often lies in dialogue, especially in his glory period of Pulp Fiction, and as source material The Inglorious Bastards favors cheesy action to dialogue. To update this material for sophisticated modern audiences, Tarantino will have his work cut out for him.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Pineapple Express and California’s Proposition 215

Pineapple Express impressed me in three ways: 1) as a piece of pro-marijuana propaganda that reflects recent changes in California’s drug laws, 2) as another example of Judd Apatow’s and Seth Rogan’s skills in comedy screenwriting, and 3) as a good reason for Apatow to never produce another action film.

I was surprised by the virulence of the film’s pro-marijuana ideological slant. It begins back in the 1930s in black and white with two men descending into a bunker hidden underneath a field. Down below, they come upon a young soldier cheerfully smoking dope under observation. Officers try to ask him questions about the symptoms, but the soldier keeps humming songs and goofing off until a disgusted Colonel Klink-like heavy with an eye-patch loudly pronounces marijuana “ILLEGAL” before the film cuts to a contemporary Dale Denton (Seth Rogan) cheerfully puffing away as he drives through LA. When Dale meets up with his dealer Saul (James Franco) to buy some pineapple express, a designer herb that smells like “God’s vagina,” the film revels in their silly stoned repartee.

With curiously good timing, the July 28th issue of The New Yorker featured an article by David Samuels about the blossoming pot industry in California. Back in 1996, California voters passed a referendum called Proposition 215 that legalized marijuana growth and sales for medical reasons. Now, pot has become America’s leading cash crop, earning more than corn. Samuel’s essay details the various ways in which Californians get doctors to sign recommendations that allow them to smoke. Anxiety, nausea, and depression often work, and Samuels includes lots of colorful portraits of Tibetan prayer flag-waving aging hippie dealers growing designer ganja with names like Purple Urkel, Sour Diesel, Bubba Kush, and L.A. Confidential. Perhaps this culture could explain Pineapple Express’s strong pro-marijuana slant. There’s even a scene in the film where Dale gets busted by a policewoman for dealing. When she’s frisking him, he uses the excuse that he’s smoking for medical reasons in his attempt to go free.

By the last third of the film, screenwriters Rogan and Apatow throw in enough Asian drug dealers, corrupt cops (including, sadly, Rosie Perez), and pistol-packing action scenes to parody last year’s War. As the main drug lord Ted Jones, Cole mostly stands around making generic villainous gestures like cursing out Asian drug lords on the phone. Pineapple Express succeeds much better with its willingness to win over the audience with charm. James Franco’s disarmingly sweet grinning performance reminded me of Sean Penn’s seminal work as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). Franco gets to show more range than he did as the perpetually annoying Harry Osburn trying to avenge his father’s murder in the Spiderman series. In his turn, Seth Rogan has a teddy bear delinquent appeal. He’s the schlub of the new millennium, and he comes off as more articulate and intelligent than Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell.

So, if you happen to see the film, watch for signs of a new California marijuana culture in the making. When it isn’t reverting to B movie shoot-outs, Pineapple Express sometimes attains a blissed-out karma that would make Cheech and Chong proud.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

More links about the on-going shift from traditional media to blogs

As a former newspaper critic, I continue to find the rapid changes in media fascinating. What are the pros and cons of posting on a blog versus writing for more traditional media? In Hermeneutic Circle Blog, DrMabuse discusses the relative merits of printed literary criticism and litblogs. He notes how The Atlantic’s ad sales have declined 11% in the past month.

Writing for The Huffington Post, Lissa Warren wonders "Will Blogs Save Books" with some doubts about the quality and length of blog book reviews.

Hyperkinesis examines how arts critics of traditional media are disappearing and being replaced by social networks and bloggers.

Most impressively, William Lobdell gave 42 reasons for leaving the Los Angeles Times. He makes lots of cogent points about the reluctance of newspaper editors to face the rapid changes in the way we get the news. For instance, he points out “The idea that your daily news is collected, written, edited, paginated, printed on dead trees, put in a series of trucks and cars and delivered on your driveway — at least 12 hours stale — is anachronistic in 2008.”

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

How big a deal were the X-Files ten years ago?: The X-Files: Fight the Future

Note: this review was written on June 25, 1998.

It’s that hazy midsummer time when a young moviegoer’s thoughts lightly turn to paranormal phenomena. In 25,000 BC, down in a torchlit ice tunnel, an apeman stabs an alien only to find his black blood moves around of its own volition much like it does in Species 2.

Cut to modern-day Texas. A band of boys stumbles upon the same cave at the edge of a new housing development. Falling inside, one boy finds a skull and starts to brag about it to his friends. Unfortunately, that same black blood, waiting for new meat all of this time, starts to ooze its way like little worms inside his skin up through his legs and body until his eyes turn black. [Note: the defrocked priest also suffers from blackened eyes in one scene in The X-Files: I Want to Believe.] The boy dies, but still the alien growth feeds on its host, dissolving his bones, turning his flesh into jelly.

So begins The X-Files: Fight the Future, producer Chris Carter’s largely successful attempt to turn his hit Fox show into a summer blockbuster. Very much an old-fashioned blend of Alien and Dragnet, The X-Files has its requisite 4.5 large explosions, expensive sets, and unlikely two-people-against- an-entire-government-agency heroics, but it also has a nicely clinical, subcutaneous sense of menace.

There’s a parallel infection in the bodies of those exposed to the alien virus and in the body politic itself. Filled with morgues, needles, and germ-proof frozen tunnels where men get buried alive for security reasons, the movie has its concomitant government cover-ups, secret agencies, disasters like Waco, and senseless bombings like the one in Oklahoma City.

It took me awhile to get used to the idea of FBI heroes, but Mulder and Scully are renegades within a larger organization that’s intent upon whitewashing its own complicity with evil. As one agent says, “Trust no one.”

In the midst of all these layers of infection, David Duchovny (Mulder) and Gillian Anderson (Scully) diagnose various diseases, sift through bones, and chase after white tanker trucks. As those familiar with the TV show already know, Mulder, the intuitive impulsive one, tends to underact, but here he makes fun of his expressionless pretty boy style. Scully, the scientific objective one, appeals to geeks everywhere because she talks like a nerd. Infected by the virus, she rattles off a bunch of her symptoms dispassionately as she passes out on the floor (“loss of motor control, constriction in the back of the throat,” etc.) . She also dresses like a 1950s Hitchcock heroine in prim dark suits. Scully’s red hair might get a little mussed and her white shirt a little disheveled as she runs from attack helicopters in the night, but she seems more comfortable with a microscope or an autopsy than with a gun or a love interest.

Both Scully and Mulder are weary of their thankless hushed-up researches week in and week out on TV. Scully would like to quit except for the pesky possibility that this last case may determine the fate of all humanity.

The film gets more derivative towards the end, with director Rob Bowman perhaps feeling market pressure to wow the popcorn-crunching crowd with a fancier, more spectacular set. Sadly, Scully becomes a maiden in distress yet again, and this violates the balance between the two leads established earlier. Duchovny by himself comes off as a blank hunk, the kind of fellow that might star in The Red Shoe Diaries. He needs Anderson’s quiet intensity to bounce off of.

Still, for those who like their vision of government-complicity-with-the-aliens neat and their conspiracies well-stirred, The X-Files serves up apocalyptic dread with style. You can even find Mulder and Scully on the cover of Newsweek. Is that because of the quality of the movie warrants it, or does the same parent corporation own both the magazine and Twentieth Century Fox? As they say, “Trust no one.”

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The cinematic dream logic of Dark City

Now released as a director’s cut DVD, Dark City (1998) evokes with its dream logic the greatest hits of the darker recesses of cinema, especially the peak of German Expressionism and 1940s film noir. After the opening scene conjures a version of the cityscape of Metropolis, the viewer encounters a nameless man, suffering from amnesia, who wakes up in a bathtub. The overhead light swings back and forth much like the lighting in the climactic scene in the cellar of Psycho. The man finds blood on his forehead. While he tries to get his bearings in the apartment (not to mention some clothes), a doctor telephones to tell him that he needs to leave quickly because men are after him. He also discovers a dead prostitute on the floor with spirals of blood drawn on her chest, and evades three sickly pale creatures of various ages (including a child) who all evoke Nosferatu with their long coats, fedoras, and bald heads.

Soon enough we see Dr. Shreber (Kiefer Sutherland playing a more youthful Dr. Caligari) standing over a maze with a mouse, and this suggests a Kafkaesque Modernist image—the labyrinth. The film viewer and the man who may be John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) must maneuver through a kind of maze as he tries to learn who he is, why he’s wanted for murder, and what do all of these bald men want him for. By the time the film plunges us into a large arena where bald pale men all dressed in leather bondage gear stand around like interns viewing a medical experiment, one would really like to know what’s going on. The film’s troubled release back in 1998 involved just that question. Should the filmmakers add a voiceover narration at the beginning to explain things, or just let the dream logic work itself out? Studio pressures obliged director Alex Proyas to reluctantly go with the narration, but as the excellent new director’s cut on DVD shows, the film intrigues far more when it doesn’t explain itself too closely.

Dark City mixes and matches nightmarish images as it pleases. The prostitute murders suggest Jack the Ripper. Sutherland’s Dr. Shreber likes to hang out in the pool because the Strangers don’t like water. With all of the shadows of the dark pool, could director Alex Proyas have the famous pool scene in Cat People in mind? As befits 1940s and 1950s film noir, Inspector Frank Bumstead (William Hurt) investigates the killings cynically enough, but he’s bothered by Murdoch’s reasonable questions, such as when did you last see the sunlight? And do you know how to get to Shell Beach? Every night, at midnight, the Strangers shut down the city. Everyone falls asleep so the Strangers can make changes in the architecture that grows and shifts around like gigantic surrealist tumors. The Strangers also shift people’s identities, so that the man who works at the hotel becomes a newspaper vendor without knowing it. Murdoch suffers the dream-like dislocation of seeing him in both places, although the man calmly explains with a kind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers creepiness that he has been working the newspaper kiosk for 20 years.

The lost paradise image of Shell Beach evokes many Hitchcock themes and Brazil. I liked the way the image of the beach evolves from a postcard to a billboard (where Murdoch fights with the Strangers), to a child’s book of drawings, and finally a large poster over a wall. Each manifestation of the beach further emphasizes the darkness of the nightscape of the city, and since there’s always an illustration of a woman waving from the beach, one can associate her with with the torch singer Emma Murdoch (Jennifer Connolly). Murdoch eventually discovers that her memory of their marriage may be just a fiction inserted into her brain by the Strangers. Still, she stands by her love for him, implying that her love is stronger than any nocturnal tampering of their reality.

So, what does Dark City imply? The film works best when one can’t figure that out, but I like the way it suggests that our world is a construct that can shift about just underneath our consciousness, and how we are too wrapped up in our everyday activities to see the slipperiness of identity, the depreciations of memory, and our nearness to insanity.