SD-6

Hot on the heels of my groundbreaking review of Jurassic Park, a scoop about this hot new television programme called “The Alias!”

All right, I avoided this show for as long as I could, partly because I had a feeling it would get me all sucked in, partly because I was working too much to watch much television, and partly because Jennifer Garner always struck me as nothing more than a slightly softer version of Hilary Swank, who gives me the heebie-jeebies something fierce.

But then I heard about the zombies, and everybody knows I’ve got a soft spot for zombies. [pause for obligatory brain joke] So I’m three episodes into it, and this is what escapist television is all about. Double, triple, and quadruple agents; ancient scrolls and prophecies; the basements and boiler rooms of exotic locales all around the world; TV-friendly techno music; duplicitous dads and soap opera drama — I am, of course, hooked. Plus the episodes I’m watching have Gina Torres, who rocks as hard as can be reasonably expected; and Carl Lumbly, who does the voice of J’onn J’onnz on “Justice League Unlimited,” which has got to count for something.

I’m still curious to see when, exactly, the show starts to go south. I’ve seen a couple of posts on Google and elsewhere lamenting that it’s already gone bad what with the “stupid zombies,” which of course baffles me, as I can’t imagine how zombies would do anything other than make a show better. These series inevitably let me down; I learned my lessons from “The X-Files” and “24” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and I won’t let myself get too close. But for now, I’m enjoying the edge-of-your-seat adventures of plucky grad student Sidney Bristow and her string of steely-eyed unshaven young love interests.

And then after that, I’ve heard mention of a television series about the criminal underworld called “Mr. Soprano” or some such that could shape up to be something big. You heard it here first!

It’s a UNIX system. I know this!

I found a copy of Jurassic Park for ten bucks today, so I picked it up, thinking what a great deal I’d gotten. What I’d forgotten, though, was: 1) the movie’s 12 years old at this point (it was released in 1993!), so it’s been relegated to “classics” pricing, and 2) it’s really not very good.

Maybe that’s not fair. I mean, there’s the fact that it was written by the evil Michael Crichton, and then there’s the blatant anti-dinosaur bias. And based on how much he delights in watching them suffer, it’s clear that Spielberg hates children almost much as he hates Dennis Weaver. But overall, it’s fine for what it is: a Steven Spielberg movie.

That’s not supposed to be as condescending as it sounds (as if Mr. Spielberg were all that upset about my opinion anyway) — dude made Raiders of the Lost Ark, after all. It just means that it has all the stuff he’s great at: pacing, tension, clear and understandable plots, incorporating effects without making them seem soulless, and memorable action sequences that are excellently choreographed.

It also means that it has all the stuff that he thinks he’s good at, but really just comes across as cloying and smarmy: interminably long and overdone reaction shots, obnoxiously swelling soundtracks, and plenty of scenes clearly intended to be clever, such as the T. Rex and the “When Dinosaurs Ruled the World” banner.

I’d forgotten about Spielberg ever since he tried to reinvent himself as a Serious Director with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (I have to admt I haven’t seen either), but there’s still something about the guy that bugs me. The scene with the T. Rex attacking the jeeps at night is just unqualified brilliance. Even if the whole rest of the movie consisted of nothing more than grandparents and kids giving warm, knowing glances at each other while using the magic of love and a child’s imagination to bring a dying dinosaur back to life to a heartwarming John Williams soundtrack, the T. Rex scene would be awesome. As I remember, even The Lost World, a much, much worse movie, had a pretty bad-ass scene with a Winnebago falling off a cliff or some such. So the man’s capable of stuff which is just flat-out great.

So how does one explain the rest of it? Or in other words: from whence Short Round? Does the man really and truly believe that wacky and heartwarming ethnic sidekicks, or racially diverse little girls doing gymnastics to fight off velociraptors, are what’s required to give an action movie “heart?” When he’s got the little girl contorting her face in ways that just aren’t natural, and he keeps directing her “More! Really really big dinosaur! It’s going to bite you in half! And your parents will abandon you because you’re ugly! You’re more scared!” does he sincerely believe that this is what’s necessary to convey genuine emotion on the screen? Or is he the most pandering and money-minded son of a bitch on the planet, hobbling his talent to make something that he knows will sell to Middle America and gross 200 million instead of just 50?

And that, my friends, is why the internets is a great thing — blogs make it possible to bring you the freshest of movie reviews to the comfort of your home. Y’all may be saying to yourself, “Steven Spielberg movies can be cloying and pandering; yeah, thanks for the newsflash, Chuck.” But don’t think that the threat is over. War of the Worlds is coming out soon, and it’s got not only Tom Cruise but Dakota Fanning. Dakota Fanning, an up-and-coming child star who by all accounts can actually act. (And she’s from my hometown, by the way). And Jurassic Park IV is in the works!

Well, I suppose I could talk about Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but there’s not a whole lot to say. Angelina Jolie is incredibly hot, smart, funny, and just plain appealing, and I usually don’t like her. Brad Pitt is competent but basically a cipher. The movie is a lot smarter than it looks like from the ads, and it was a lot of fun to watch.

Haughty Melodic

I listened to Haughty Melodic, Mike Doughty’s new solo album, a lot on the drive from LA back to SF, and it’s great road trip music. Turns out it’s good sitting at the computer doing nothing music, as well. There’s nothing really “astounding” about it, like there is with a Soul Coughing album, because it’s more straightforward melodic (hence the title) instead of being all that experimental. Still, the guy’s a great songwriter — the lyrics are clever in places, and every one of the tracks is catchy at least. A couple of them, like “Unsingable Name” and “I Hear the Bells” are genuinely beautiful.

And the lyrics are predictable in places, and some of the tracks are more repetitive than catchy. So I’d say that it’s not brilliant, but still recommend it. Especially to Soul Coughing fans. (If you know El Oso, I’d say that his solo album is like an entire album of “Circles” and “So Far I Have Not Found the Science,” which isn’t bad unless you were expecting a whole album of “Rolling” and “I Miss the Girl.”)

Not if anything to say about it I have!

I saw Revenge of the Sith Monday night, so I guess Star Wars is officially over. And I guess it was a pretty good send-off. The theater was more crowded than you’d expect to see on a Monday night, if not as crowded as you’d expect to see on the week of a new Star Wars movie. The crowd clapped for the Lucasfilm logo and the opening crawl, and again for particularly satisfying deaths and fight scenes. It seemed as if they were clapping to build up their enthusiasm instead of out of genuine enthusiasm, but it’s the same idea.

I’ve got two big “event movie” memories: one was waiting in line for four or five hours to see The Empire Strikes Back at Phipps Plaza in Atlanta, the only theater that was showing it, on its opening night. All thoughout the movie, there was no question that this was A Major Event. During the opening crawl, during big fight scenes, whenever a main character appeared on-screen for the first time, there was applause and cheering. Whenever Vader made an appearance, there were jeers and booing. During the big revelation, there were genuine gasps from everyone. No one was thinking about Joseph Campbell, or the demise of the art film in favor of commercial summer blockbusters, or merchandising deals, or implied racism, or any of the layers of irony and distance we’re supposed to look at Star Wars with now. Everyone was just there to get caught up in the spectacle and melodrama and wonder of it all, and it all just worked.

The second memory was of seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark at the Tate Center student theater at UGA; it wasn’t released on video yet, so this was the first time any of us had seen it since its original release. The theater was packed, and you got the same reaction from all the self-important, jaded college students. People cheered for Indiana Jones, hissed at the villains, laughed, applauded, and just enjoyed the thrill of seeing a classic action movie. The audience was used to big summer blockbusters by that point, and knew the movie inside and out, and of course as a college crowd was watching it with some since of liberal over-analysis and ironic detachment. But it still just worked.

It’s pretty much impossible to get that from a Star Wars release anymore; it’s been ruined not just by George Lucas himself, but by decades of over-analysis, artificially high expectations, over-familiarity, accusations of plagiarism or shallowness or whatever else people want to throw at it, and just age. There wasn’t so much a sense of wonder out of seeing Revenge of the Sith as there was a sense of inevitability, or of closure. It was just a case of wrapping everything up. “We’ve got to end a war, start an empire, have a bunch of lightsaber battles, kill a bunch of Jedi, get this guy into a respirator suit, and get these babies off to their respective home planets, all in about 2 hours. Let’s move, people!”

Still, while it didn’t manage to have the resonance or wonder that the original trilogy did, it did deliver on the spectacle. It was better than the first two, by far. But at this point, that feels like describing lessening gallstone symptoms to a doctor. It sounds like damning with faint praise to say that “there was nothing in the movie that outright sucked,” but with the Star Wars movies, the quality of the effects and the depth of the world has never been in question. So not sucking is a pretty big achievement. I’d say that Revenge of the Sith is good enough that it’s not a closer to the first three episodes, but it stands as a good prequel to the original trilogy.

In fact, it makes me wish that Lucas had just made the one movie as a prologue, and left all the Clone Wars and Fall of the Republic stuff to other people, like Genndy Tartakovsky. Where Revenge of the Sith really excelled was where it was like the Clone Wars animated series — minimal dialogue, minimal back-story, quick cuts between action scenes all across the galaxy. And maybe most importantly, staying true to the nature of the old serials on which the whole thing is supposedly based, where heroes and villains became resonant not by virtue of what they say but by how they look and what they do. The coolest characters are the ones with the least back-story and the least dialogue, from Boba Fett to Darth Maul to Count Dooku and General Grievous. And Darth Vader was a more interesting character in the first 15 minutes of Star Wars than he was in any of the six hours of Episodes I, II, and III.

But you could spend hours talking about what Lucas could’ve done with the prequels, which is something people are doing all over the internet and will most likely keep doing to a depressing degree. So I’ll just write my one recommendation: if you start the opening crawl with “War!” then you really should follow it with “Huh! Good God!”

The Incredibles

I saw The Incredibles on Sunday (before going to a birthday party for a new friend and meeting some pretty cool new people in the city).

I’m kind of torn about the movie; I really, really wanted to love it, but I think I just liked it a lot. It’s a very well-done action movie, with some sequences that are spectacular. Technically, it’s flawless. The animation is perfect. The hair and cloth and water and lava and lighting effects are amazing. The set design is extremely imaginative — all inspired by 50’s and 60’s cool and James Bond movies. There’s so much to be impressed with; the movie really is the state of the art.

But overall, it just had this tone of bitterness and pettiness, smugness, a desperation to be cool. I kept being reminded of ShrekIncredibles is light years ahead of that movie in every respect, but what I found so repulsive about Shrek was that it had no soul. The Incredibles never seems to have any real love for its characters; it feels as if it’s more concerned with being cool and not being corny for long enough to care about anything that’s going on.

Disney movies have a reputation for being maudlin, treacly, and formulaic. But Pixar’s already found the antidote — movies like Finding Nemo and Toy Story that manage to be cool while still being sincere. They already broke from that formula, and it wasn’t just by dropping the songs and the wacky sidekicks, and it wasn’t by some fascination with being cool or letting characters die or any nonsense like that.

For that matter, The Iron Giant broke the formula, and it had a lot of heart and sincerity. I have to wonder what happened with this one. I’m probably going to see it again, and I’m all over the DVD, but I can’t help but feel a little bit disappointed.

The Peeve

Went to see The Grudge with Drella today up in Marin. To quote Crow T Robot: “This movie’s really not very good!”

It wasn’t awful, I guess, and there were some genuinely creepy things going on. Especially at the climax. And I did like that they kept it set in Tokyo, and explained adquately why there’d be so many Americans involved in the story. But it just didn’t hold together at all and just seemed silly. A bunch of horror movie scenes strung together with a bare minimum of real plot or sense at all.

And there were some scenes that were just laughable. In particular the one where Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character does a web search for stories with the name “Tohio” occuring in the year 2001, and instantly comes up with not just one but both of the stories that are relevant to what she needs. The bit where a woman’s in the elevator and sees the ghosts of Tohio and his mother on every single floor was pretty silly too — I kept expecting them to go, “Um, lady, could we just… okay and the… could you stop the elevat… okay, but…”

When we were out in the mall waiting for Drella’s ride to come, a young Asian boy came crawling past us on the floor. (We’d been standing next to the kids’ play area). He stopped, turned and looked directly at both of us. We both got kind of a panicked look on our faces and backed away slowly; hope we didn’t traumatize the poor kid.

Free at Last?

This is the first weekend I’ve had that I can remember where I wasn’t either at work or feeling like I was supposed to be at work. It seems that this entire year has been one long crunch mode. Over and over again I’ve turned down offers to go out and do stuff, because I just didn’t have the time. My Tivo is hemmoraging perfectly fine programming that I just don’t have time to watch. I’ve got a stack of videogames that I said I’d check out when I got time, a stack of DVDs I’ve bought and haven’t yet unwrapped, and (most daunting) a stack of books that I’m determined to read to make myself more literate.

And this weekend I did nothing. Yes, I spent a lot of it just sitting and staring. Everything seems like too much effort; even watching a movie. I just wanted to be. I’ve been in that weird state of hyper-boredom — plenty of stuff to do, but not wanting a part of any of it, and still desperate for something to happen.

I did finally go see Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and I thought that it was just amazing. Except for Gwyneth Paltrow, but she gave it her best shot. There was just so much that the movie got dead-on right, that it seemed like it came directly out of my subconscious — that is exactly what a ray-gun is supposed to look and sound like!

Other than that, though, nothing. And it’s been driving me nuts. Maybe I’m still just decompressing. I hope it’s over with soon.

No hay venda

Another night, another long-winded movie review. I watched Mulholland Drive last night, even though it was way way too late. I kept thinking I should cut it off, but it was so compelling I had to keep watching.

I’ve been hearing about the movie for years, but all I’d heard was that it was “long, obtuse, and nonsensical, but it had two chicks totally making out with each other.” I wish I hadn’t dismissed it so quickly, and I’d seen it sooner. Granted, I’m not the target audience, but the sex scenes weren’t all that spectacular, and definitely not the most memorable thing about the movie. And maybe it was just the sleeping pills talking, but it all made perfect sense to me.

This has turned into something of an unintentional movie festival, since the last few movies I’ve watched have all had similar themes: passion, obsession, desire vs. reality. The story, such as it is, has already been told hundreds of times before, but where Lynch’s genius comes in is making it relevant to anyone, instead of just another True Hollywood Story. Not everyone has had a dream of going to Hollywood and becoming a Big Star in the movies, but everyone knows what it feels like to have a dream deferred. It’s never a slow, inevitable decline into disappointment — you wake up and suddenly realize that you’ve been crushed. You’ve lost everything, to the point where you’re not even the same person you once were. And Lynch tells the whole story like a dream, “distilled movie,” where you’re not bogged down in a predictable story but having images implanted directly into your brain.

This movie made me realize that for all the artifice and obscurity, David Lynch is surprisingly sentimental and traditionalist. He does innocent characters better than anyone. Never mocking them, never reducing them to caricature, but genuinely following along with excitement as they start out on a new adventure and get wrapped up in the intrigue. They’re completely earnest. They’re naive, but not stupid. And when they lose that innocence, it’s always sad, never an inevitable part of growing up (although Audrey Horne from “Twin Peaks” might be a case of that). His stories have a clear delineation between good and evil — his villains are compelling but never sympathetic; they’re cold and inscrutable, or petty and venal. They are the ones who are caricatures.

When Betty and Rita are listening to the singer perform “Crying” at the theater, they’re genuinely moved. Their emotions are completely real. Even though they’ve just been told by the MC that none of this is real, it’s all artifice, it’s all a recording. It’s all real to them. And when the singer collapses but the song continues, it’s genuinely tragic. It’s not a case of “well, we warned you not to get too wrapped up in it.” It’s an incredibly powerful scene and an amazing message: don’t limit yourself, don’t hold back, don’t be afraid to really feel something.

With all the shallow, faux-cynical, and self-consciously ironic movies we’re drowning in, it’s refreshing to realize that the most sincere-yet-not-maudlin filmmaker we have nowadays, is the one who has scenes of violent masturbation, fatal auto accidents, severed ears, and dancing midgets.

Now I’m going to have to buy the soundtrack, just for “Llorando.” And Naomi Watts was absolutely amazing. It’s so cool to see an actress who just “gets” it. She had to be all over the place in the movie, from wide-eyed innocent to spent and embittered, and she played every scene perfectly. My friend Alex tells me that in real life she’s as dumb as a bag of hammers, but I have a hard time believing that. I suspect he’s just jealous because she can do a better American accent than he can.

Go Team Venture!

“I dunno. They just do that.”

Cool things seen tonight: The Venture Brothers, which didn’t get me at first, but now I think it rocks all kinds of ways. Granted, anything with Patrick Warburton in it is guaranteed to be at least entertaining, because he’s just the coolest. At first, I’d dismissed this series as just another “Jonny Quest” parody with the prerequisite “Dr. Quest and Race Bannon were totally gay!” jokes. But it’s a level higher, and it’s hip and just plain funny. It’ll be interesting to see how long it can keep it up. For now, it rocks.

Last week’s episode, Dr. Venture was given a truth serum and when asked his name, he traipsed around the room turning on lamps and saying, “Reading from the top: Lisa Carol Fremont.” Genius.

Another thing seen: Resident Evil: Apocalypse. I liked the first movie better. It wasn’t “good,” but at least it knew what it wanted to do: kill people in ingenious ways, all set to techno music, while showing as much of Milla Jovovich as possible. And yes, she’s wicked hot. So hot and so comfortable in her hotness that she’s game for anything and is willing to go into movies and get all bloody and dirtied up. And indeed, she does kick much ass in the new movie. And yes, you do get to see her naked; I was thinking that they wouldn’t show it since we’d already seen topless zombie hookers earlier. After the two Resident Evil movies and Zoolander, I’m liking Milla Jovovich so much I’m almost willing to watch The Fifth Element again.

But there’s just something missing. They went more cheesy action movie than cheesy horror movie. And so much of it was just by the numbers. And while it was a nice nod to the videogame that they included Jill Valentine, they just made her nothing more than Sultry Look Cop. I wished they had just gone ahead and cast Parker Posey in the role and let her have fun with it. Still, these are probably the best videogame-to-movie adaptations that have been done yet.

And I just saw on Yahoo! that there was a blast and mushroom cloud reported over North Korea. Kind of makes cartoons and zombies seem insignificant. Mercy. I thought we were allowed not to be scared of the bomb anymore, and we just had to be scared of jet planes, sarin gas, anthrax, assault weapons, genocide, xenophobia, and the Patriot Act.

When the Child was a Child…

On the drive into work this morning, I kept thinking about Wings of Desire for some reason. It’s really a beautiful movie overall — very European in that it has absolutely stunning sequences but kind of meanders and doesn’t hold together all that well, plus it has an American TV personality (Peter Falk) playing himself (more or less).

Still, while I like the central love story and the theme of angels wanting to live as humans, what really got me was the opening. There are scenes of people all over Berlin living lives of “quiet desperation;” we hear their worry and their stress in voice-over. And then, we see strangers walking up and putting a hand on their shoulder, and their thoughts turn to hope and peace. And we see that there are angels all over the place, watching over us all. It’s just a beautiful segment, both in concept and in the way it’s presented.

I think the reason I was reminded of it is because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I’ve always had someone appear for me at the moment I needed them the most. Every time I’ve hit a low point, I’ve had someone come along and pull me out. Every time I’ve been lonely, or hopeless, or just hating myself, someone has appeared and talked me through it, or took my mind off of it, or just said, “You know what? You are who you are, and that’s fine. It’s no big deal. Everything’s going to be okay.” And most of the time, they didn’t even realize what they were doing at the time; how significant it was.

No, I haven’t been drinking tonight. Why do you ask?