Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Review: Twilight (2008)

Math question: Is a vampire still a vampire if he 1) no longer feeds on humans, 2) is no longer killed by sunlight, 3) cannot shapeshift into any desired form, be it animal or swollen fog, 4) can still bite someone and not necessarily turn them into a vampire?

Twilight asks this question without ever asking it directly. It presents the term 'vampire' as a vague representation, a blanket that can cover whatever it wants, some of which are sexual aspects popularized by Anne Rice, others that are inventions of the author probably due to some unresolved and improperly tended fetishes.

In any art form, it is not a requirement for the material to conform to the formulas set by previous works. Isabella Swan, the main character played by Kristen Stewart who is for once not being terrorized in a house, arrives at a new school in the Pacific Northwest, pale, bulemic and smack dab in the middle of a painful 3-parent situation (how tragic). In spite of being crippled by what could be an obvious dramatic device, she has no problem making friends or attracting members of the opposite sex. She isn't bullied by teachers or her fellow students. Her father is the soulful, quiet chief of police, the furthest thing from an asshole or a creep. He buys Bella a truck and mostly leaves her alone, only attempting once or twice to connect with her.

Bella's first meeting with Edward (equally pale) is watching him rush out of class after she steps in front of a revolving fan. Other than this, there is no obvious indication that vampires are about to occur. The slow buildup to the revelation of a larger world underneath the normal one is actually (and surprisingly) well done. A rational, non-supernatural explanation is offered for every strange thing that Bella sees about and around Edward until he saves her from being crushed by a van. Then, it is only inevitable that she finds out: he is one of them 'pires.

It pretty much goes downhill from there.

Edward has heightened senses, super strength/speed, and a thirst for blood (which he sates by feeding on animals, calling the practice "vegetarian"). He sparkles in the sunlight like a Christmas ornament, but cannot shapeshift. He controls his filthy vampire urges enough to keep from biting his classmates. For fun, he plays vampire baseball with his family set to the inappropriate tune of Supermassive Black Hole by Muse.

It is exactly as stupid as it sounds.

Other than struggling with this relationship that is a poorly-concieved metaphor for relationships IN THE REAL WORLD, Bella spends much of her time fitting into her new life in the Pacific Northwest, which is still the most interesting part of the film but which is now a flaw due to the bullshit surrounding Edward, his family, and the arrival of some one-dimensional neck-feeders. When shit hits the fan and the third act kicks in, it is abrupt, awkward, and resolved in ten minutes. Then a couple of more scenes happen and the movie finally ends with a criminal misuse of Radiohead's 15 Step.

There is also promise of werewolves at some point, because the marriage of those two has always worked out so incredibly well.

The math equation above is a simple one to solve, like when the CDC suddenly discovered that zombies can run. The question is no longer "Is a vampire still a vampire?" but "Is a vampire still interesting?"

... No.


Review: CJ-7 (2008)

Stephen Chow's movies have an odd comedic sensibility that I didn't notice before seeing CJ-7. Sure, I squirmed at how tough it was for the team to triumph in Shaolin Soccer and I cringed as the hero's face was punched (literally) into the ground over and over again in Kung Fu Hustle, but I didn't give those feelings much thought. These moments of sudden, grisly violence were spread well over the course of the stories, and seemed natural in their setting. My unease only indicated that the scenes were effective.

The plot of CJ-7 is something out of The Fucking 1980's; a poor kid who lives in a junkyard with his father finds a cute alien lifeform, and whimsical wackiness ensues. As if Chow watched E.T. and thought "I can do that!" Upon hearing the plot, my own thoughts were "Okay... but how will he fit martial arts into the story?"

After much time is devoted to establishing how miserable father and son are at both school and work, the kid finally discovers the alien. For reasons not indicated, the kid decides to hide it from his father. The father (played by Chow himself, by the way) finds it, but thinking it is a toy, then decides to test how resilient it is by twisting it in every direction and then hitting it with a frying pan while the alien screams in obvious pain.

It was here I noticed that something was very, very off.

Well anyway, with the ruse intact, the boy takes the thing to school to totally rock the socks off of everyone who has bullied him this far. The pins of Act I have been set up, and Act II is here to knock them down. Crazy, hilarious shit happens, the bullies get their comeuppance, the kid rights those who have wronged him, and finally gets a bit of happiness in his life.

And it's all a dream.

Oh, but not the alien part, mind you. The kid wakes up, happy and full of bushy-eyed hope, and actually takes the alien to school. This time, it goes horribly awry in such a way that is both highly predictable and palpatably painful. It is cruelty so harsh that it breaks free from the film and inflicts itself on anyone watching.

And suddenly it all makes sense. Chow in Shaolin Soccer trains like mad but cannot win until an element totally outside of his control comes in to save the day. Likewise, Chow in Kung Fu Hustle abandons a way of life that has caused him nothing but pain and misery... until the very end when it suddenly works. More than Chow's method of storytelling, this is his sensibility. So naturally a cute space alien is not the primary method for bringing happiness to a father and son. Happiness for Chow, it seems, only comes in the last five seconds, by something arbitrary or something that is taken for granted. The rest is rife with punching, squirting blood/shit, and pee jokes (and is thus hysterical). He didn't think "I can do that!" after watching E.T. He thought "Here's what would have happened if it were me." He must have had one fucked up childhood.

Things do ultimately work out for the best... sort of. The characters learn "valuable" lessons, but at dire costs to the cute, hapless schmoo, and not before father and son commit awful, despicable acts that aren't the least bit endearing. And one scene in particular, watching the son chase the alien around with the honest intent to kill, I couldn't help but want to do the same thing to Stephen Chow.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Review: Watchmen (2009)

How exactly does one adapt a complex, densly packed graphic novel from page to film while still retaining the themes that made it an incredible work, and at the same time pushing the limits of the medium in a similar fashion?

Zack Snyder's answer is: "By coldly transposing scenes directly into film form, inexplicably changing other details at random, awkwardly forcing in action scenes and highlighting them with gore that is inconsistent with the rest of the film, hiring a shitty actress to carry the crux of most of the dramatic dialogue scenes, and offering nothing of my own style other than the occassional speed-change and closeup of a broken bone. Did I get it right? Did I?"

Well, mission accomplished; Watchmen finally got made, after numerous failed attempts by more talented filmmakers (and Paul Greengrass). Snyder, still coming off of an exhaustless supply of adernaline from 300's near-constant stabbing and punching and never one to back down from an opportunity for a fistfight, begins the film with just that. An immediate problem occurs after it is over, when the subsequent scene goes over everything that just happened, containing no new information with characters who lack personality and only appear one more time, for two seconds. But who needs a concise film when you have an irrational sense of duty to the work you're stealing from?

There is no doubt in my mind that this is what the core issue is -- faithfulness to Alan Moore overrides the filmmaker's decisions (most, but not the decisions that involve making more action scenes). I understand the pressures of fitting so much into so small a container; almost three hours is the end result, and not much to consider or admire in that amount of time.

Watchmen suffers from a lack of clear focus. An opening credits montage does establish for newcomers that, yes, masked crime fighters did and do exist, and that what follows is a "what-if" scenario, where these heroes have been stripped of their nostalgia and outlawed in a world where their services are obsolete. Coming to this conclusion is work, however, as there is very little to be said about other masked heroes in this world. We know the fates of two. What happened to the rest? The flashbacks only provide a connection to The Comedian; they do not draw a coherent line to Present Day 1985. Too much is left unanswered.

Jackie Earle Haley, lovable psychopath extraordinaire, narrates passages of exposition from his journal, and after a seemingly brief investigation of the murder, disappears for a bit and is replaced by flashbacks of the surviving crime fighters that rarely illuminate much but contain one or two pieces of important information that could come at any time. In addition to being frustrating, it is exhausting to sit through, and coupled with inappropriate moments of slow-motion, the movie's pace grinds to a crawl, making the film less of a philosophical feast and more of an endurance test.

At least intact are Moore's characters, each representing a philosophical-political archetype wrapped in different forms of neurosis. Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II want normal lives, ones where they don't want or need to police an unstable populace, but cannot help but do so. Dr. Manhattan, like the universe itself, is largely indifferent and follows a path lived moment to moment; he does not understand or agree with human motivations/emotions. The Comedian is similar, but embraces his whims and instincts unquestioningly, finding nature's apparent amorality hilarious. Veidt and Rorschach each have a strict moral code, but differ in that Veidt is willing to sacrifice the few to save many, where common good is equal to how many of us survive. Rorschach's sense of justice extends past a threshold of what he views as evil, and deals with those evils in one manner: execution, on an individual basis.

It is enough that these nuances are visible. In these characters, one is asked to examine policies and how far to run with them, to find someone to agree with, or at the very least, relate to. Snyder and the screenwriters recognized this, I'm sure, but do little to provide a reality for them. The skeleton is visible, the vital organs are there, but there is no life to support. A larger world is implied but not created.

In 2005, there was another Alan Moore adaptation, V for Vendetta. A lot was different, a lot was changed by McTeigue and the Wachowksis, but nothing was missing. The theme is clear and beautifully stated, and like the graphic novel, it challenges the medium it presides in, with a clear, creative vision gleaned from an already creatively-executed work, and extending it far beyond and elimating much of the flaws and making it (crucify me) better than the graphic novel it was based on.

That is the primary reason for any adaptation. The idea that a movie that cannot stand on its own without in-depth knowledge of its source material is a flaw, and a major one, plain and simple. Nothing has been accomplished if what plays is a mirror, a mere companion piece to what one can watch and murmur "Hey, I recognize these scenes," and remember more meaning in them the first time around.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Review: My Bloody Valentine (2009)

There are films that attempt either greatness or the emulation of greatness, and there are films that rely on a tornado's ability to construct an airplane in the middle of a junkyard. There is a clear choice that needs to be made about this distinction. Is it worse if a film tries and fails? Is it better if one succeeds through no fault of its own? Such questions cannot thrive outside of speculation -- I don't care what the filmmakers themselves claim to have been "intending." The decision lies at ground zero.

My Bloody Valentine is one, by my reckoning, that does try. It unfortunately ends up failing quite miserably, but oh how I cannot help but admire the effort.

More shocking than the pick-axe to the back of the head that caused that one kid's eye to pop out of his socket is that there is some meat to chew here. There is a (mostly) logical progression of events. There are characters with actual motivations, personalities -- dare I say it --density. There is compelling character development. There are even some genuinely gruesome kill-shots, something I haven't seen in a horror film for half a decade. I'm even considering dressing up like the killer for Halloween and breaking lightbulbs with a giant pick-axe. WHAT ARE THESE FEELINGS?!!

Whew... got those out of the way. Now let's rattle off some flaws!

Firstly, the film isn't scary on any level. At best, it is as suspenseful as Ron Howard directing a thriller that isn't Ransom (i.e. not very). Secondly, the acting of just about everyone is horrendous. I mean it. It's like watching a bad stage production and squinting your eyes in embarassment, watching anything but the stage until whoever is speaking just stops. The dialogue, terrible but gasping for air, definately cannot survive. There are also moments of unforgivable horror cliches: namely, get the hot bitch naked moments before she is iced. Or characters making dumb dumb dumb decisions on where to run, what noise to investigate, how late in the game to alert authorities, etc. Worst of all, the mystery surrounding the identity of the killer (I won't ruin it, but it's easy to figure it out) is handicapped by a trump that doesn't make any sense whatsoever (think of the "I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano" episode of The Sopranos... perhaps I have said too much...). Basically, shit that has been present in the horror genre since its incept date, and shit that has, for some reason, refused to evolve.

So that's that. Beyond what is obviously bad and oddly worth paying attention to, the film is pretty forgettable. And while I do believe that it is better to try and fail, I admit that it is far more aggravating when that is the case. And for something that isn't good, in fact sucks, in fact that I hate, merits slide out of my face with ease. GRAAAAAAAAAAH.


[Yes, I saw it in 3-D. No, it did not help.]

Monday, March 2, 2009

Review: Friday the 13th (2009)

Michael Bay's Creatively Bankrupt Productions* strikes again with another remake/requel/restart/resurefire-way-to-make-money-by-swindling-newcomers-and-old-school-fans-alike, dropping into theatres like a lobbed sack of sweaty assholes.

The premise: teenagers arrive at the camp, Jason Voorhees kills them. That is all that anyone needs for a movie, right? Well, to complicate matters, one could begin by asking: Why do the teenagers go to the camp? They're growing weed there. Why does Jason kill? His mom told him to before she died. Why did she do that? The counselors were negligent and let him drown. Wait, Jason is dead? How did he come back to life? Uh... the mom might have been a witch or something. A witch? You have a prologue explaining their motivations but not the details behind their very existence? If you were a fan of the series, you would know the details. Yet... you created a prologue. Furthermore, you give the same information a second time through dialogue. The characters have to talk about something. Besides weed and fucking? I agree. Look, we wanted to put the title twenty-five minutes into the film. It's funny. If funny is a synonym for stupid. Hey, what's with all the questions, anyhow? I'm just trying to understand the rules of your fucking movie is all. So what happens next? Six weeks later, another group of kids go to the lake by the camp. To do what? Party. In the woods? In a country home. What's with the lulls in Jason's killing spree? If people can build houses and plant seeds for weed and not get killed, what makes the return trips so dangerous? Perhaps... Jason was sleeping sometimes. He's undead. Okay, then, sex is what gets his ire up. But Jason killed that one kid who was by himself, before anyone was even having sex. Then he doesn't have a motivation. He just kills. Whatever. These new kids, six weeks later, they're partying? With marijuana, I imagine... Yeah. And there's another one looking for his missing sister. She was with the previous group. Oh. So, do they help him? No way. Well, one does. But the leader of the group is an asshole, and the rest are so stoned that they don't bother helping. Why? Why what? Why is the guy an asshole? Uh... when they first meet, the one looking for his sister takes a long time at the register at a convenience store. Kind of a thin reason for the other guy to be a douchebag. Does this asshole die first? No. An inbred hick who masturbates, fucks mannequins, and grows weed dies first. That's where Jason gets the hockey mask. Is the douchebag the second one to die? No, his friend is. And then his girlfriend dies after water-skiing. Topless. You do realize that, since Jason kills indiscriminately, any scenes with nudity or sex are now pointless? So? Jesus... okay, they die, and then the douchebag finally dies? No. Good god, man, how long are you going to keep that piece of shit alive?! Almost to the end. We're killing off the comic-relief characters first. It's more dramatic that way. So, including the five kills at the beginning, there are a total of thirteen kills. That's kind of clever. Actually, there are twelve kills. The sister isn't dead. What?! How?! Jason keeps her alive. I'll think of some reason later. It doesn't matter. One more question. Who is the main character of this movie: the guy looking for his sister, or Jason? Hmmm... Don't strain yourself. If it's who I think it is, then there is no reason you need to devote so much time to these characters, most of whom go beyond being unlikable. And how long is this fucking thing? An hour and thirty-seven minutes. Basically, you wanted this film to be like torture. Nobody says anything interesting or intelligent, there is no clear reason for the things that are happening, the kills aren't creative and aren't even effective from a horror standpoint, and as a result of inept writing and filmmaking, there is no suspense and every second I spend watching this garbage is me wishing for Jason to slaughter everyone, and quickly. Welcome to Friday the 13th. You'd be a lot happier if you stopped asking questions. Go fuck yourself, I hate you.

It was god-awful.


*stolen from Kernunrex