Dude, where’s my puppet?

I finally broke through the blockage in my Netflix queue and watched the two movies that I’ve had for over a month now: Dude, Where’s My Car? and Team America: World Police. Considering the Netflix fees and how long I had them out, I figure they cost me about $12 each.

Which makes me a lot less charitable of them than I probably would be normally. Both were in the “no really, they’re better than they look” category, based on what I’d heard from reviewers and friends. So I had low expectations but was willing to be pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t.

Dude, Where’s My Car? I moved up in the queue because it has Jennifer Garner in it, but she’s no reason to see it, even if you’re not already bored with “Alias.” I’m fine with stoner movies; in fact, I liked Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle and I actually bought Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. But I thought the whole point of stoner movies was to make something that you react to basically like you would to a stoner person — they’re harmless and mildly entertaining normally, and really hilarious if you’re high. Considering that this one wasn’t harmless and mildly entertaining when I saw it, I’m not all that inclined to try it again the second way. I’d been expecting it to be gleefully absurd and dumb, but it was just dumb and kind of sad.

And I say we all start a fund, where we each contribute $1 a month, and all the money goes to Andy Dick. The stipulation is that he can never work again.

Team America was just bullshit. It seems like they’re just not aware they’ve obsoleted themselves. They’re stuck in the same thing that was subversive back when they did the first “South Park” short, even though the rest of us have all moved on. (And we moved on partly because “South Park” is so ubiquitous).

Violently cutting up puppets and making them have sex and make dick jokes just isn’t at all subversive anymore. And Parker and Stone just aren’t all that subversive anymore — they make the big joke about pretentious Hollywood needing to be put in its place, without seeming to realize that they’re pretentious Hollywood now. Yeah, there are plenty of pompous blowhards who have no business sticking their noses and money into politics, but at least they’re saying something. It’s easy just to say nothing more than “you’re stupid!”

The only reason I didn’t completely dismiss it is the same reason I can’t completely dismiss “South Park.” When they drop the BS about being adolescent and edgy and just let themselves get absurd, they’re actually funny. There were occasional bits in Team America that are funny just for the sake of being funny, because the characters are puppets. Like the panther attack that’s actually just a couple of house cats with sound effects. And the special emergency signal Gary has to make when he’s undercover. And any of the fist-fight scenes where it’s just two puppets flailing at each other.

They should just learn to drop the pretense of how they’re not pretentious, and just make something funny. Every once in a while, “South Park” manages to actually have a message that makes sense, and while those aren’t the episodes that sell T-shirts and catch phrases, those are the ones that actually work.

Kong

King Kong is frickin’ awesome. I think from now on, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens should make every movie. Except for the ones by Wes Anderson and the Coen Brothers.

Sure, it’s three hours long, and I could tell it was three hours. Not that I was wanting it to be over, just that I was aware of how long it was taking. That’s the closest I can get to a criticism of it — there was nothing in the movie that was bad or completely superfluous, but it still felt like a lot of stuff. I wish they’d spent more time on the island and less with acts 1 and 2. Just about everything that happens on the island is just spectacular, the Tyrannosaurus fight in particular, so I wish there’d been more of that.

I don’t have much to say other than that it’s a damn fine movie, the best I’ve seen this year. I’d heard reports that it was very moving, so I was expecting to get all caught up in that. I didn’t, really; I cared what was happening, but wasn’t particularly moved by it except for the action sequences.

One of the things that impressed me about the Lord of the Rings movies was how Jackson made them as movies, that is, combining elments of horror B-movies, science fiction, fantasy, genuine horror movies, melodrama, pirate movies, battle scenes, etc. to tell what could be a pretty dry fantasy story. King Kong isn’t quite as epic, but it’s definitely a movie made by someone who loves movies and hates pretension. Of course there are all the B-movie elements, but there’s also a sense throughout that it’s all charming and funny. The T. Rex scene isn’t just spectacular, but it’s genuinely funny in how it just keeps building. All the bug scenes are intended for the schock value gross-out, and they’re just fun. And Ann and Kong’s scenes are designed around vaudeville slapstick and a child’s tantrum, and it just works, and it’s just charming. Never too corny to work, and never too absorbed in irony or self-reference. It’s just designed to be enjoyed.

I knew going in that I was going to like Naomi Watts, because I think she’s just great in everything I’ve seen her do. I was surprised that I liked Adrian Brody — he’s pretty much useless to the movie, in retrospect, but while it’s going on you always get the sense that he’s just supposed to be there. What really surprised me was Jack Black; his character is supposed to be smarmy and unethical, but genuinely passionate about what he’s doing, and undeniably charismatic. So it turned out to be perfect casting, and he did a good job with it. He’s actually got more of a character arc than anyone else, including Ann.

And the more I think about it, I guess I have to change my story about not being moved. The best scenes are still the action sequences, but the one that really got me on an emotional level is when they’re back in New York and do the Kong show at the theater. The combination of the ape chained up, and the dancers in black-face, all just hit me as “this is the most depressing thing I’ve ever seen.” Even more than the ending. (Which I won’t ruin here.)

God Speed, Screw-On Head

My favorite comic book of all time in the history of the world ever is The Amazing Screw-On Head by Mike Mignola. It’s just brilliant; the art is Mignola’s usual Hellboy style, which is to say awesome, and then the concept and the writing is dead-on perfect absurd humor.

It’s all old news at this point, but to keep up the hype and because I’m excited: An animated series based on the comic for the Sci Fi channel is in production and scheduled to air in 2006. Mignola was described as “art director” in one of the previews for the series.

The show’s going to be directed by Bryan Fuller of “Wonderfalls,” which I haven’t seen but is another one of the series that geeks are yelling at Fox for cancelling. This old article from SciFi.com has an interview with Fuller where he describes the concept:

“We took [the] concept of the comic book — which is a robot head that screws into a variety of robot bodies and fights crime with President Lincoln in the late 1800s — and decided to tell the ‘real’ story of the history that we read in books, like what would be between the pages of the history books.”

Fuller, who discussed Amazing Screw-On Head while promoting the DVD release of his acclaimed but short-lived Fox TV series Wonderfalls, added: “That gives you the opportunity to tell these outlandish stories that are grounded in historical fact. For instance, President Harrison died of pneumonia after 30 days in office. But you discover it wasn’t pneumonia, and it wasn’t fluid in his lungs, but some sort of agent that he was using to get everlasting life because he wanted to be the president of the United States forever. But what it did was turn him into a frog-man, and now he lives at the bottom of the Mississippi, and he’s about to launch an attack on the Capitol. So it’s those kinds of stories.”

I hadn’t heard about the casting, so that was a nice surprise. Paul Giamatti as Screw-On Head, David Hyde-Pierce as Emperor Zombie, Molly Shannon as Patience the Vampire, and Patton Oswalt as Mr. Groin. The only way it could be any better would be to cast Patrick Warburton and Gary Cole.

So far, it sounds like everybody involved gets it and understands what makes it cool. I can’t wait to see how it turns out. One of the things that was neat about the comic was that it was a total one-shot: it came out of nowhere (for me, anyway), and stood on its own as just 20 pages of concentrated genius. I’m wondering if it’ll work as well extended into a full series, but I remain cautiously optimistic.

And in other somewhat belated news: the trailer for the third X-Men movie is up on Apple’s trailers site. Looks great. Fans are bitching (no, really — comic book fans are actually complaining about something on the internet) that it’s directed by Brett Ratner instead of Bryan Singer, but I remain optimistic. The series is in full-on franchise mode at this point, so you’d have to be colossally incompetent to break the momentum now. And I actually kind of liked Rush Hour, which considering it had Chris Tucker in it, is saying a lot.

I’m not sure what gut level these X-Men movies are working on, though. I never a fan of the comics, and my exposure to it was limited to reading (and not liking) one or two issues, and seeing the old animated series and the more recent “X-Men Generations” series. But I loved the first two movies, and even just watching that trailer I kept having moments like, “Is that Kitty Pride?” and “Whoa, that’s Angel!” and “Beast looks bad-ass” and then wondering where the hell that all came from.

Are not all of us, in a sense, merely aspects of Jar-Jar?

Jackson West’s post on SFist mentions this article on Slate which calls the Star Wars series a masterwork of post-modern cinema, and one very angry blogger’s rebuttal.

Okay, simmer down, Poindexters. Yes, the Slate article is a bunch of ridiculous garbage. But calling it the silliest thing they’ve ever published is just ridiculous over-the-top hyperbole. It’s Slate, the poor man’s Salon. And yes, the article is astoundingly pompous and pretentious. But then, so is writing a blog post that uses the word “pomo” about a thousand times, mixed in with liberal use of the f-bomb.

(And while I’m thinking of it: screw you, Kevin Smith! Since you came along, you’ve given a million nerdy white guy imitators free license to write this same type of garbage all over the internets. Suddenly it’s okay to pontificate about the most inane of topics using the most pompous and over-blown speech imaginable, as long as you throw in enough swears to make it clear that you’re down. Stupid topic + a thesaurus + expletives = insightful pop culture commentary.)

So the article — apparently written by a teacher at my alma mater, as if I didn’t need enough shame in my past — is ludicrous, even for cinema studies. But so is the rebuttal; for once it’d be nice to see some self-proclaimed intellectual talk about Star Wars without feeling the need to completely dismiss it. Bitch about summer blockbusters and space operas and Joseph Campbell and The Hidden Fortress and Muppets and bad dialogue and acting all you want; that doesn’t change the fact that there’s a lot the series does exactly right.

Like directly paying homage to the old serials without turning them into camp or parody. And creating a huge world that’s both alien and accessible without having read 10,000 pages of the history of the Freemen, or The Simarillion. And taking a space action story and giving it all a sense of grandeur and history just by making everything look old and using the right music. And, at least at the beginning, telling a classic fantasy story about good vs. evil, when everyone else was going for realism — they’re the ones that seem dated now, while Star Wars, even with the haircuts, still has a timeless quality about it.

And the bit about how the shaky-zoom camera thing in Attack of the Clones was just an attempt to outdo Firefly? Please.

Four of the six Star Wars movies are still pretty damn good, and two of them are still brilliant. They don’t deserve the reverence that a lot of the fans give them, but that’s what sci-fans do. It’s their thing. They don’t deserve to be completely dismissed, either. You can still keep whatever cinematic legitimacy is important to you while acknowledging that they’re good movies. You don’t have to compare them to Prospero’s Books or anything. For starters, the Star Wars movies have the definite advantage of not featuring a naked John Gielgud.

Too Much Sisterhood, Not Enough Ya-Ya

My favorite review of DOOM is from Statler and Waldorf.

The Muppets have a new movie review show online at movies.com, and it’s about the best thing ever. The latest episode talks about DOOM, Elizabethtown, and has a hilarious bit with Animal and Dr. Teeth explaining Shopgirl. I hope they keep doing it; I wonder if they’re going to be allowed to be as brutal about Disney movies as they are with everyone else’s.

At the moment, at least, it’s the only movie-review site you need.

Knee Deep in the Dull

Man, I’m disappointed. Even with the reviews, I was still holding out hope that they got it right with DOOM. But they did everything wrong. It ended up being neither good, nor so bad it’s good; it’s just there. Boring and completely uninspired.

The reviews I’ve read still miss the point; they warn how it’s based on a videogame, and so it’s supposed to be big dumb mindless action. But that could make you think, “Well damn, I’m in the mood for some big dumb mindless action, so I’m going to lower my expectations and check that sumbitch out!” The problem is that it’s got big and dumb, but no action. It’s not a good horror movie, or a good action movie, or a good videogame movie, but it thinks it’s all three.

And remember how I said that from the trailer, it looked like they didn’t make the mistake of treating it like they were making a horror movie? I was wrong. For most of the movie, they either don’t show the monster at all (see, because that’s suspenseful), or they have a showdown with one of the monsters just decimating a space marine. DOOM the game isn’t about suspense; it’s about shooting a ton of monsters and finding keys that lead to more monsters. At the beginning of the movie, they say that there are six scientists involved. Six. I was wondering if maybe the movie’s CPU wasn’t powerful enough to show more monsters.

The Rock let me down, is the worst part. He was going on interviews and such saying how the movie gets it, that DOOM is a balls-out action movie for fans of the game. And the only thing sadder than somebody who just doesn’t get it, is someone who doesn’t get it but thinks that he does. His dialog was bad, but it wasn’t interesting bad, just dumb bad. And he didn’t do anything to knock it over the top. Plus, I suspect his involvement is what turned the finale into a wrestling match instead of a shoot-out.

Oh yeah, that’s right — the DOOM movie, the movie about the world’s best-known first person shooter, ends with a wrestling match. He fires the BFG once, he misses, and then starts camping against the Lord of the Rings guy until he jumps out and it turns into the WWF.

They should’ve ditched the zombies, first. Sounds like sacrilege, but DOOM is sad proof that zombies don’t automatically make everything better. No aliens either; they should’ve kept it a portal to Hell. If they didn’t want to have all the cheesy high school goth kid pentagrams and flaming skulls and such, they could’ve just called it a portal to “some mysterious other dimension.”

They should’ve ditched the space marines. I know it’s hard thinking up new ideas, especially when so many other movies use a team of space marines. But DOOM isn’t about a team; it’s about being one guy against a ton of monsters. Keep Eomer and The Rock, lose the rest. Keep Eomer’s sister as Doctor Exposition if you want, but don’t waste time trying to make her a character. Either give her a gun and a callsign, or leave her alone until it’s time for her to explain something.

They get points for including the first-person sequence at all, but there was a lot wrong with that. It was their big showpiece and you could tell, but after the build-up, it was a huge disappointment. I’m not even that good at shooters, and I’ve had sequences in DOOM the game that were much more exciting than DOOM the movie. What’s in the movie is more like a cheesy carnival haunted house, done up in CGI.

The heartbreaking thing is they were so close to getting it right with that. They had a guy in a control center who was watching all the video feeds from the different marines. They should’ve had the movie frequently switch to POV from the marines, showing their decreasing health and ammo counts on-screen. Not only would it have been true to the game, it would’ve been a better horror-suspense movie. None of the marines in DOOM the movie were killed in interesting ways, but if they’d just switched to their POV and showed them walking down a dark creepy hallway with dwindling health, that would’ve added something original to the whole mix.

Maybe they’ll learn how to get it right by the time of Daikatana: The Motion Picture.

I remain indifferent to the boogie

Another SFist post is up today, about the robotics convention I went to last weekend. I have to say it was kind of a disappointment (the convention, and the column), probably because I’ve been jaded by all the money that gets poured into E3 shows. I’d expected to see more ASIMO and AIBO and less Lego Mindstorms and circuit boards.

In other news, the Wallace and Gromit movie is just awesome, probably my favorite movie of the year. I was thinking there’d be no way they could keep up the level of the shorts in a feature film, but they did. I also saw Serenity a second time, and it was still good, but I don’t have much desire to see it again. Now the wait’s on until DOOM.

And apart from that excitement, I’ve been playing a lot of DOOM 3 (because I’d been feeling guilty I hadn’t given it enough chance, when it turns out I had), waiting to get into a Battleground in World of Warcraft (I’m not yet convinced they actually exist), and playing the Sims 2 expansion pack, “Nightlife.”

They did a good job with it; in fact, I think that this is the expansion pack they should’ve released first. I still believe that the “University” expansion is too separate from the main game; when most of us were still just looking for more content for the main game. One of the things that always impressed me about the Sims franchise and kept me from getting totally burned out on it was that they were really committed to making the expansion packs have real content instead of just being shovelware. But with “University,” they went too far in that direction; just an updated “Livin’ Large” pack would’ve been welcomed.

“Nightlife” is the right balance — it’s the same theme as the old “Hot Date” pack but adds a lot more, and it’s all well-integrated into the main game. All the new interactions and locations are welcome, and there’s just a lot more to do. I’m one of the sad little people who plays it like a soap opera, setting up families to watch them intermingle and fall in and out of love and make each other’s lives miserable, so I appreciate all the new features making it easier to get your computer people to get other computer people into bed with them. It’s still frustrating in places, and the pack introduces a whole bunch of new bugs, but on the whole it’s engaging. Probably not enough to draw in somebody who’s not already interested in the Sims, but good for those of us who are.

Currently I’ve got the Gordon family moved in with the Wayne and Prince families; I’m hoping that Bruce Wayne will make the moves on Diana Prince and kick his current wife Selina out to the curb. I think the only thing geekier than having comic book families in the Sims would be Lord of the Rings families, but I never claimed to be highbrow. As an example: because the Sims 2 doesn’t have a “young ward” option, I had to make Dick Grayson Bruce Wayne’s son. None of the game’s built-in aspirations are really suited to the Batman, so I just figured he was obsessed with family and should have the family aspiration. So now all his wants are “Tickle Dick” and “Play with Dick.” Which is high comedy.

Can you smell what The Rock is cutting up with a chainsaw?

What was almost as good as Serenity was seeing the trailer for the new DOOM movie which is going to be out at the end of the month. Hot damn, I can’t wait.

As much as I love the Resident Evil movies (no, really), they still cling to this idea that they’re somehow real movies. They think that deep down, they’re still horror movies using a videogame franchise as the basis for their stories. This is a mistake. And if the trailer is any indication, the braintrust behind DOOM has escaped that trap and made the first true videogame movie that is going to kick so much ass. They’ve got The Rock, who’s awesome; they’ve got the chainsaw, which is awesome; and they sure as hell better have the first-person sequences in the movie, and not make that just a gimmick for the trailer. Because that’s what’ll make this not just another cheesy sci-fi action flick, but a truly transcendently cheesy sci-fi videogame movie.

I didn’t even like Doom 3 that much and lost interest after about a half hour. Looking back on it, they had the reverse problem — it’s a mindless videogame that thought that deep down, it was a sci-fi horror movie. Some games — Half-Life 2 for one — can pull that off, but the Doom guys couldn’t. So the whole thing came across as bland and uninspired. And really, really dark.

In other Martian news, The Pixies Sell Out is coming out on DVD tomorrow. It’s a DVD of last year’s tour with, I’m assuming and hoping, brief interviews and such. There’s a clip from the DVD on ifilm.com which rates a big “meh.” But it was still a good show.

My Entertainment Dollar

At the beginning of the show, Doughty promised we’d all get big value from our entertainment dollar, and I got that this weekend.

First was Serenity on Friday night at the Northgate. It was awesome. Sure, I’d been looking forward to it, but once I actually got there, I was going into it as critical as I get. I wanted to find stuff to complain about, if only to talk about on the internets. And I had nothing to criticize.

The closest I can get to a criticism of the movie is that it’s pretty much all science fiction — the western element of the setting gets a little bit of attention at the beginning, but is quickly lost in everything but the clothes. When you lose the “Western in Space” angle, the characters lose a little bit of their depth, because you can’t see that they’re all twists on archetypes — the embittered war vet who becomes an outlaw, the hooker with the heart of gold, the preacher, the citified doctor, the optimistic prairie girl, the untrustworthy hired gun (Jayne is supposed to be “the Bad,” I think), and the genius psychic girl with superhuman fighting abilities. (All right, that’s not Western, but it’s still a Joss Whedon production.) And the Reavers, who are central to the plot of the movie, stop being “The Injuns.”

All the characters still work, and I think they work well — except for Wash and Inara, who are left a little underdeveloped — but they’re just not as strong as they were in the series. Which is perfectly understandable, because there’s stuff you can do in even 15 hours of a prematurely cancelled TV series that you just can’t do in a 2-hour movie.

And the movie is just great. Not only did it stand up as a movie, but it tied up elements of the series. And the most impressive part about that is that it ties them up without feeling either too pat, too forced, or too final, and it leaves plenty of room to grow. I read a review that said that it felt like an expanded episode of a TV show, which is just bullshit — not only does the movie have a complete arc, but really big, significant stuff happens in it. Not significant in the sense of a series, like the “Star Trek” movies, where they blow up the ship or kill off a character just because they can’t do that on the show but can in a big-budget movie. Significant in the sense of the overall story. I loved that. We got answers to some major elements of the series, but not everything was answered, and there’s no sense of its being over. Just this part of the story is over.

Also, I never would’ve expected a large-scale space battle, and it delivers on that. Until now, the most impressive space battle I’d ever seen in a movie was in Return of the Jedi, and the one in Serenity tops that, not only in the scale and quality of the effects, but in that you actually give a damn what’s going on. It fits in with the plot and it doesn’t feel like a big battle for its own sake because they’ve finally got the budget for it. And it doesn’t suffer from car chase syndrome — usually, when a movie has an action sequence like a car chase, the story just pauses for a while to let you watch a bunch of crashes or explosions or stunts, then picks up again when they’re done.

Now I just have to figure out when to see it again. And maybe a third time.

Saturday was the aforementioned Mike Doughty concert at the Independent in San Francisco. Great show, in particular the stuff he did from Skittish and Rockity Roll was better than on the albums. He did my two favorite songs from Haughty Melodic (“Unsingable Name” and “I Hear the Bells,” in case anyone’s curious), plus his cover of “The Gambler.” Other covers were “Hungry Like the Wolf” and a little bit of “It’s Raining Men” (dude knows how to play a San Francisco crowd, I guess). The only Soul Coughing song he did was “St. Louise is Listening,” which I like better than the original but is still one of my least favorite Soul Coughing songs.

We were noticing that the whole crowd was made up of the people who are usually standing at the back of other concerts. “Lots of people dancing with their hands in their pockets,” said Mac, “and the reflection off all the horn-rimmed glasses must’ve been blinding.”

Meet Jack Torrance

I first heard about it from Rain’s blog, but some people on the Straight Dope did some digging to find out more about it. Apparently it’s been going around the internets and has made an impression.

What it is is a new trailer for The Shining, using clips from the movie (except for one cheat piece of dialog). And it’s genius, one of the best things I’ve ever seen on the internet. Bonus points for including the kiss and the choice of music. I can’t stop watching it.

The New York Times did an article about it with more info and an interview with the guy who made it.

On the same site, there’s a trailer for West Side Story as a horror film, but it’s not as good.