As far as Tom Cruise is concerned…

I’ve spent the last few weeks leading up to seeing “War of The Worlds” doing something I truly, deeply hate: Watching news about “wacky” celebrity behavior. I did so not by choice, as I am generally want to avoid entertainment “journalism” unless I’m trying to see the TV debut of a trailer. In this case, “celeb wackiness” journalism has crept into “mainstream” journalism based on the antics of Tom Cruise. For those luckier than me who HAVEN’T heard, apparently Mr. Cruise has a bit of an ego, a bit of a temper, a very public relationship with otherwise completely unnoteworthy starlet Katie Holmes, and that much of this has been amplified in one way or another by his adherence to the religion of Scientology.

Evidently, the fact that a popular movie star has turned out to be a bit of a nutter is more worth devoting news broadcasts to than the status of American soldiers in the ongoing Iraq conflict, or the slate of recent Supreme Court decisions, OR the overall notion that we’re still living in an age of worldwide terrorism. Who knew? In any case, watching Mr. Cruise’s endlessly-repeated blowup opposite Matt Lauer i.e. the science of psychiatry, it occured to me that someone was in need of an intervention. No, not who you think.

WE are in need of an intervention. What the hell is the matter with us? There’s a pretty good-sized war going on, we’re told it’s part of an even larger global conflict, there are health and financial crisis breaking out all over the world and how much did YOU pay for gas this week? Amid all this, the placement of any sort of entertainment “news” in a “front-page” setting is damn near vulgar. Even a serious, insightful, art-centric dissection of a film of major cultural importance would be too frivolous to devote major news time to in these circumstances; devoting it to the religious eccentricities of an actor still best known for a winning smile is damn near pornographic. And not the good kind of pornographic, either.

What I’m driving at, guys, is that it’s pathetic enough that the “Tom Cruise is a nut” story has unjustly overwhelmed the arrival of his and Steven Spielberg’s new movie “War of The Worlds,” but it’s almost a SIN that we’ve allowed it to overwhelm actual news. People, we need to get a collective grip here: Tom Cruise being a religious nut (“Dianetics-thumper?”) is not important or worth a massive public debate about. Hell, as movie-actor religious nuts go he doesn’t even measure up to Mel Gibson, having yet to have produced a feature length work of torture-porn propaganda for his respective daffy sect.

SO, then, we should all take a deep breath and ruminate on the following: Mr. Cruise is the star of “War of The Worlds,” which happens to be an excellently-mounted scifi feature that you should really check out. Stop giving this person’s public eccentricities more attention than they deserve (read: ANY attention) and put your minds to something worthy or at least not-as-unworthy as this. At the very least, let’s have more discussion about this fascinating new spin on the summer scifi blockbuster motif and less on any “wackiness” attributable to the guy who stars in it. My review of “War of The Worlds” appears below (if I’ve got this Blogger posting thing figured out.) I reccomend you check out the review, in which I reccomend that you check out the movie.

I’m glad we had this talk.

I’m also accutely aware of the irony at play in talking down cultural obsession with something by spending five paragraphs bitching about it, so no one needs to bring that up 🙂

REVIEW: War of The Worlds (2005)

Yadda yadda spoiler warning yadda yadda.

Setting Sarcasmatron to “stun”…

You might’ve missed it, but along with being a public eccentric Tom Cruise is also in a movie this week. Apparently there’s some sort of lack of information available on this topic this summer, so here’s the skinny: The celebrities, those people “exposed” doing “crazy” stuff on Access Hollywood? Many of them, in addition to behaving in societally-atypical ways for your amusement, are in a profession called acting. They do so in movies, which are kind of like TV but usually longer. These “movies” are then shown in “theaters” before making their way to a space on the DVD rack an apparently large number of you will pass by on your way to purchase the first season of “Desperate Housewives.” Yeah, I was surprised, too.

Sarcasmatron disengaged…

And so here it is. Steven Spielberg’s $130 million, ultra-restrained-shooting-schedule summer opus “War of The Worlds.” The last great hope, we’re told, of the studios to avoid dubbing 2005 “the summer of Slump.” It’s been more talked-about for the circumstances of it’s existance, it’s budget and the behavior of it’s star than it has for it’s actual merits for a year now, but here it is finally available for judgment on it’s own merits. So here goes…

If “War of The Worlds” cannot end the “slump,” then it does not deserve to be ended. If audiences are willing to pass on rousing, psychologically-intriguing and deftly executed works like this, then it may be time to give some credence to the idea that the “slump” is more evidence of a lack of taste in the audience than a lack of quality in Hollywood’s output.

This isn’t the first or even tenth review site on anyone’s rotation, so by now you know the score: The film updates H.G. Wells book, the patient-zero of alien invasion yarns, to present day New Jersey and updates the aliens from Martians to maybe-but-maybe-not-Martians. Cruise’s less-than-heroic dock worker Ray Ferrier has weekend custody of his kids Rachel and Bobby (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) when freakish worldwide lightning storms knock out most of Earth’s electricity. This presages the alien invasion, culminating in the baddies’ giant Tripod war machines erupting out of the ground and laying waste to the countryside. Rachel is panicked nearly to the point of a shock-coma, and Bobby is immediately jazzed to join the vengeful military counterattack on the invaders, but Ray is running on the only parental instinct he seems good at: Protect-and-survive.

There we have the film’s first stroke of brilliance: Ray Ferrier is not a heroic, admirable or even especially likable guy. It’s immediately easy to understand why he’s divorced and why neither of his children seem thrilled to be staying with him. He and Bobby fight like a pair of perpetual adolescents despite only one of them having an excuse for such, while wise-beyond-her-years Rachel sits idly by losing faith in the male gender. When the invasion goes down, his strategy is to hijack a working car and get as far away from the aliens as he can.

It’s Bobby who’s the “heroic” one, risking his life to save fellow escapees dangling from a gangplank in one scene, and eventually heading off to join what he percieves to be the Charge of the Light Brigade, but he’s also shown to be rash and self-endangering in his grand gestures. Likewise, Tim Robbins turns up as a weapons-hording redneck survivalist (fuuuuuunny) named Oglivy who plans for La Resistance but turns out to be unbalanced and a danger to the safety of those around him, leading to probably the darkest moment involving the “hero” of any film this summer.

Making Ray an antiheroic, only gradually less-unpleasant jerk also gives Spielberg the necessary alternative-perspective to differentiate his film from any other big-scale alien invasion films: Like the novel and the famous Orson Welles’ radio broadcast, this “War” is seen through the eyes of people who spend most of their time fleeing or hiding from it. Save for the instances wherein the Ferriers are unable to avoid coming face-to-“face” with the invaders, we mainly see the Tripods and the havoc they wreak in powerfully composed longshots. Up until the third act, the main “human-level” menace to the heroes are a creepy serpentine probe snaking around a basement shelter and, briefly, the invaders themselves whom I’m happy to report are basically old-school Bug-Eyed Monsters and not the usual Geigeresque knockoffs.

In fact, there we have the OTHER masterstroke, one which I think will form the basis of most complaints about this film but at the same time makes me love it all the more. My favorite “style” of fantasy/sf filmmaking is that in which the silliest and most impractical genre concepts are treated with absolute unblinking sincerity and realism, and this is the motif Spielberg is working for all it’s worth here. “WOTW” determinedly throws out ALL the “modern” tropes of alien movies and mythos, from Roswell to Groom Lake to “X-Files” to “ID4” to Spielberg’s own “Close Encounters” and goes way, way, WAY back to basics of Welles’ novel and the generations of pulp, pop-art and B-movies it inspired: Bug-Eyed Monsters with creepy suction-tipped fingers stomping across the cityscapes in clunking mechanical horrors walking on skyscraper-sized spindly legs and blasting indiscriminately at fleeing humans with Death Rays. Later, said Tripods take to scooping up human victims with long tendrils and depositing them in (really) big bird cages hanging down from their chasis.

This kind of retro-fetishisim is either going to rub you the right way or turn you off. Me, I adore it. Roger Ebert, on the other hand, awards the film a paltry 2 stars based almost entirely on his unwillingness to accept the inherent impracticality of the Tripods. He will not be the only person to have this reaction.

What works for me, wonderfully so, is that Spielberg elects to play all of this 100% straight. As far as the tone of the film and it’s characters are concerned, there’s nothing impractical or silly and everything terrifying about the Tripods and their operators, and he’s a good enough filmmaker to actually pull it off: The large-scale destruction and scenes of society tearing itself apart in panic are the stuff of disaster movie legend, but he really excells when the Death Rays are unveiled. Here is one of scifi’s oldest and generally goofiest tropes, a beam of light that vaporizes it’s victims instantly, but the film dwells on the ickier aspects to startling effect. Death Ray-blasted humans explode into clouds of instantly-cremated ash (leading to a great shock scene in which Cruise realizes he’s literally covered in the cremains of his neighbors) leaving their empty clothing to flutter down to Earth in grim tableaus that bear impossible-to-be-accidental similarity to 9/11’s eerie shower of office paperwork. (“Is it the terrorists!!??” screams Rachel as they flee the initial destruction of New Jersey.) Come the third act, we also get the most unnerving explaination yet for the strange red weeds that Wells’ martians seemed to be terraforming the planet with.

This is big stuff, exciting stuff, smart stuff and just plain awesome stuff. It’ll be worth seeing how people react to this, especially the decision to stick with the less outwardly crowd-pleaser aspects of the original story, and whether or not people are yet ready to see the still-smoldering visual touchstones of the national 9/11 experience so broadly transposed onto a fictional scifi tale. But right now go see it, so the discussion points can begin.


REVIEW: Bewitched (2005)

Such an enigma is Nicole Kidman. Born in Australia, yet posessed of what can accurately be called a natural “classically-Hollywood” beauty and effortlessly able to affect a pan-European “cool” native to neither land. Gorgeous enough to coast the length of a career on sex-appeal alone, but instead driven to consistently appear in good, challenging roles in successively better films with relatively few missteps. When the history of this era of filmmaking is written, Kidman will be remembered as one of the most enduringly talented “movie stars” of her time.

So… what the hell is she doing in a Nora Ephron movie?

Ephron, you may be unlucky enough to remember, in 1989 had the great fortune to preside as writer over “When Harry Met Sally,” which should have been the LAST word on the modern Romantic Comedy. The unlucky-for-us part is, she wouldn’t LET it be the last word and instead kept that most quality-resistent of Hollywood genre films going as a director of “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.” Ephron’s films as a director seldom, if truly ever, have occasion to rise above the level of extended sitcoms, so in fairness there were probably WORSE choices to direct a feature-length retooling of the TV classic “Bewitched.”

The resulting film, on the other hand, is exhibit-A that there could hardly have been a worse choice to write the film than Ephron and her sister Delia, who have delivered just about the most awful, unfocused and unfunnily-written film of the entire Summer so far: The only thing that keeps this from sinking to “Monster In-Law” depths is that the cast is talented enough to salvage what they can from a truly hopeless venture.

Let’s be direct about this: The only reason this film even exists is because Nicole Kidman looks similar enough to original series topliner Elizabeth Montgomery to be considered interesting casting. “Bewitched” is one of the enshrined “classic” cultural touchstones of early-60s television, dually revered as a better-than-average sitcom on the surface and as a hallmark of the pop-culture “find the hidden themes” passtime.

The TV premise (all-powerful witch Samantha marries mere-mortal Darrin, agreeing to hold her reality-reshaping powers largely in-check so that he can at least have the illusion of a traditionally in-charge husbandhood) may have been largely knocked-off from the James Stewart/Kim Novak vehicle “Bell, Book & Candle,” but the series’ 1960s milieu eventually turned it’s lead character into a kind of protofeminist icon: the Kennedy-era housewife as omnipotent Earth Goddess in disguise. In one of the most sublimely metatextual moments of my life, this past week a bronze statue of Montgomery-as-Samantha was installed right here in Salem, Massachusetts, where the onetime site of Puritan witch hunts has been “recclaimed” as a kind of American mecca for neo-pagan Witches, many of whom have a certain kitschy fondness in “Bewitched’s” rosy image of Witch-as-suburban-everymom.

This new film turns on the “clever” premise that a new version of “Bewitched” is being mounted, and the producers accidentally hire an ACTUAL witch-come-to-Earth to play Samantha. The witch in question, Isabelle Bigelow, (Kidman) is sadly no sharply self-confident Samantha Stevens: Instead, we’re faced with a perplexing, strange character I can best describe as Kidman attempting an improv routine of “what if Marilyn Monroe had played Leeloo, the alien/womanchild fetish doll from ‘The 5th Element?’” Isabelle is fleeing the suffocation of her “instant gratification” witchcraft lifestyle, as personified by her serial-philanderer father Nigel (Michael Caine, looking perpetually distracted by dreams of what brand of boat he’s going to purchase with the money it must have cost to get him onto this set every day.)

Unknown to Isabelle, the show is ACTUALLY a retooled Darrin-centric vision of the story, a career-saving last effort by failed movie star Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell.) When she does learn that her character is to be marginalized and, worse yet, that Jack doesn’t respect or like her, she unleashes Samantha-style unholy hell on the set. There’s probably a cute comedy in that premise, but the Sisters Ephron throw it out almost immediately in favor of an entirely new plotline: Isabelle is sexually aroused by Wyatt’s human hopelessness and attempts a love-connection, first through magic and later through the more human means of calling him out on all his character flaws which, in bad Romantic Comedies, always makes the recipient of the criticism fall head over heels for the critic. No sooner has THAT plotline died-on-arrival than we get yet another, as Wyatt discovers Isabelle’s true nature and takes it poorly in a series of breakdown scenes we assume were meant to be funny.

In among all the colliding plots, the film stretches the allowable limits of self-awareness past the breaking point: At least one other character in the film is a Witch in-disguise, and at least two characters from the original TV show pop up in the “real” world of the movie. I think. Aunt Clara shows up around the midpoint, seemingly Isabelle’s actual aunt only coincidentally a doppleganger for the Clara of the show. Later, Steve Carrell turns up in a scene-stealing, nearly movie-saving cameo playing Paul Lynde’s “Uncle Arthur” character. Arthur suggests that Isabelle’s constant mucking with time and space is (I think) causing reality and the TV show to get mixed up, an idea which would probably make a better movie than this one.

They’ll be talking about this one for awhile, I think. “Bewitched” is the biggest walking-disaster big star movie to arrive onscreen in some time. I’d advise you to avoid it.


REVIEW: Land of The Dead

By now it’s a custom for critics, especially web/blog-based critics, to open their reviews of “Land of The Dead” with a paragraph or more laying out how familiar they are with George Romero’s “dead” cycle as a way of establishing their respective “geek cred.” I think my geek cred is established enough already, so I’ll break with that custom to a degree. Bottom line: This is a you-do-or-you-don’t sort of thing. Either the name George A. Romero means something to you or it doesn’t. Either you’re excited by the prospect of Mr. Romero shooting another zombie movie, or you’re not.

Whichever camp you fall into, you still ought to give this a look regardless. Amid all of the niche-targeted hype that the genre’s “creator” has made “his ultimate zombie masterpiece,” and the pages and pages of digital debate over old-school slow zombies (used here) versus the newfangled running zombies (seen elsewhere,) is the simple fact that this is a sharp, funny, scary horror movie that’s also leagues smarter and more character driven than most any offering we get in the summertime from any genre.

To recap: In three prior, loosely-connected films (“Night of The Living Dead,” “Dawn of The Dead,” “Day of The Dead,”) Romero imagined a slow-burn apocalypse occuring as an unexplained zombie plague sweeps the planet. As “Land” opens, the end of the world “as we know it” has come and gone. The zombies have more or less overrun the globe, and all that remains of human civilization has walled itself up inside a secure, unspecified city. Here, most of the citizens live a harsh, impoverished existance, but there is still an elite upper-class that rules over the place in pre-armageddon oppulence from the skyscraper-ensconed “community” of Fiddler’s Green. The upper-class, in turn, are ruled over by Kaufman (Dennis Hopper.)

The main heroes of the piece are among the scavenger-soldiers Kaufman employs to trek out into the zombie-infested wilderness for the food, medicine and other supplies he uses to maintain order and power. When high-level soldier Cholo (John Leguizamo) sees his plan to join the ranks of Fiddler’s Green cut down by Kaufman, he hijacks the armored anti-zombie assault-vehicle Dead Reckoning and tries to hold the city for ransom. As this occurs during and eventually amplifies an uptick in zombie aggression, Kaufman sends a team of colorful rogues out to retrieve Dead Reckoning. To say that nothing goes exactly according to plan is a given, no?

Oh, and the zombies? In the film’s sharpest moment of inspiration, the zombies themselves are off on their own paralell story until the final act. Until then, Romero makes good at paying off the notion of “evolution” among the walking dead he’s been hinting at since “Dawn”: Having claimed much of the world for themselves, the zombies are now content to shamble about pantomiming crude approximations of the lingering memories of their prior existance. A turning point comes when one zombie, a lumbering one-time gas station attendant the film credits only as “Big Daddy,” apparently develops a sense of… well, anger at the Dead Reckoning crew’s slaughter of his “people.” Making like a half-rotted Spartacus, Big Daddy organizes his fellow zombies into a march on Fiddler’s Green, during the course of which they are able to re-learn the use of tools… And weapons. Including guns.

As you may surmise, much of the film follows the side-by-side stories of the human heroes seeking to avert Cholo’s “terrorist” threat and Big Daddy’s undead horde questing for vengeance. The two lines are, of course, set to collide as Cholo’s rash scheme allows Big Daddy an entry-point to his target city… but Romero takes his time getting there; prefering instead to focus on the strong suits of the franchise: Elaborate, endlessly-inventive gore, allegorical social commentary and development of colorful characters. In especially that last area, the film is easily the strongest of the series since “Dawn,” as the wide-scale surrealism of a “zombie planet” allows the human characters room to be drawn with broad eccentricity: Our good-guys include a one-eyed, mentally-retarded but super-accurate sniper, a plump Samoan tough guy named Pillsbury and Asia Argento as a prostitute rescued from being fed to zombies colloseum-style.

But the standout character, and the element that puts the film up over the top into horror movie greatness, is Big Daddy (played, for the record, by veteran character actor Eugene Clark.) The masterstroke here is that Romero has turned the idea of the zombies’ “simpleness” back over onto itself: While all of the human heroes are initially running on shifting, complex, semi-selfish impulses for situational-morality or self-preservation, Big Daddy’s “simple” instinct to rally his people in defense against outside plunderers eventually renders unto him a kind of classical heroic nobility: An undead Obi-Wan cast opposite a half-dozen human Han Solos. With an almost invisible subtlety, Romero uses Big Daddy to transform the “rules” of zombie behavior into a whole new paradigm: by simply changing the context, the zombie moans and grunts become roars of anguished defiance; while the slow, deliberate shuffling Romero’s undead hordes are famous for become here an image of determination.

On the gore side, the reliable KNB give their collective imaginations a work out. Without spoiling a thing, those of you who thought you’d seen zombies and humans tear one another apart in just about every way possible after nearly half a century of these films… think again. There’s at least two “no way!” kills on display here. And yes, continuity fans, a character from the prior installments makes a showpiece appearance. You’ll have to see it to see who.

“Smart horror movie” isn’t as much of an oxymoron as some would have you think, but they don’t come much smarter or as well-made as “Land of The Dead.” A longtime-coming love letter to the genre and it’s fans this may be, but it’s accessible and well worth your time whether you’re a diehard who can spot every cameo or a newcomer who doesn’t know George Romero from Ceasar Romero.


"Chronicles of Narnia" poster

I’m assuming most of the interested parties have seen this by now, but I wanted to try out Blogger’s new photo option so I figured this’d be as good a reason as any…

“Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe” finally has it’s one sheet, and as far as I’m concerned this is damn near the best poster for anything I’ve seen in years. But I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Ain’t it purty, though?

What I like about this is, it’s a massively eye-catching poster and it works on both levels: If you’re a fan, you’re getting a good solid look at the film versions of Aslan, Jadis, the children and even some of the monsters. If you’re not, I can’t imagine that seeing this on a movie theater wall between all the other posters mainly consisting of actor’s headshots wouldn’t make you pause and wonder just what it is you’re looking at.

A small note of controversy HAS been generated in the fandom, though: The poster is the first indication of any noteworthy changes from the text, in that it seems the Witch’s sleigh is here being pulled by polar bears as opposed to reindeer. My take: Polar bears are cooler 🙂

The REAL danger of the boxoffice slump

Entertainment-industry reporting is a strange thing, in as much as most of the “ordinary” people who are absorbing it have no real idea of what the news ever actually means. For example, many of you have probably heard that the movie industry is in a “slump” in terms of movie theater ticket sales. Almost no one ever bothers to go into what this “slump” is, or what it’s supposed to mean, but the idea catches on anyway: “Hollywood is in a slump” is now an article of gospel truth in the U.S. media.

First, a definition is in order. This “slump” actually refers to the following phenomenon: For 17 weeks straight, weekend movie-ticket sales totaled less than they did on the same day last year.

And thats it. All this bruhaha boils down to is that the Studio line-graph is not running as high as last year’s. There’s no steady, bottoming-off decline in ticket sales or some dramatic downturn of major proportions, it’s simply a matter of 2005 thus far not being as overall profitable as 2004.

In every other rational industry on Earth, i.e. those not prone to engineering their financial reports into narratives as entertaining as their products, this is simply known as “the way markets work.” Things go up, things go down, some times are more profitable than others. But in Hollywood, where entire studio dynasties can rise and fall in a matter of weeks based only on the fortunes of ONE movie, the failure to defy all known laws of economics and continue to perpetually rise in profitability MUST be viewed as a cataclysm worthy of profound concern.

In my opinion, the particular hysteria that has gripped The Biz this summer is largely fueled by the studio executives’ well-documented, near-pathological need to always be correct. In a business that turns on random variables of cultural taste, the only bosses that survive are those who can “prove” to be always right in their predicitions. So, of course, everyone will tell you that they are always right, no matter what.

So goes the logic, then, that most Hollywood business-types would prefer bad news that makes their predictions look right over good news that would make them look wrong. And for at least a year now, the majority of studio predictors have been big on the doom-and-gloom: Piracy will kill the boxoffice. Too many sequels/remakes will kill the boxoffice. Ticket prices will kill the boxoffice. DVD sales will kill the boxoffice. In my estimation, the wildfire-spreading of this “slump” concept is owed to this more than any rational concern: Faced with not-great financial news, the doomsayers are playing it up because it helps makes them look right.

Doomsayer: “Batman Begins’ ONLY made seventy-million!!! Y’see, I told you that illegal downloading was going to kill us!”

Yes, truly the sky is falling, huh? And hey, isn’t Disney’s big Summer family offering a feature-length version of “Chicken Little?” Spooky…

So yeah, eventually I’m concerned but not SUPER concerned about the “slump,” and really you oughtn’t be either. It doesn’t really immediately effect any of us. What SHOULD concern us, and what does concern me, is that Hollywood sees this “slump” as a physically real thing, a lumbering monster that MUST be destroyed. And whichever film eventually “breaks the slump,” i.e. “makes more money than some other movie the same weekend last year,” will be crowned “slump-slayer.”

And thats where my worry comes in: Whatever the “slump-slayer” is, all of those eternally-retroactively-correct studio prognosticators will arrive instantaneously at the same unanimous conclusion: That “what we were doing” (read: EVERY movie that is not slump-slayer) wasn’t getting the job done, and that THIS (read: whatever sort of movie slump-slayer is) is “what the people must have been waiting for.” Whatever characteristics distinguish slump-slayer from the pack will become the dominant paradigm of mainstream filmmaking no matter what it is. If a documentary about the political structures of sexual role-play among the migratory African albino-capabera comes out and manages to make more money that whatever came out in it’s approximate weekend slot last year, knock-offs of documentaries about the political structures of sexual role-play among the migratory African albino-capabera will be playing on every other screen for the forseeable future.

Does that scare you? It scares me. It scares me because of how easily something lousy could wind up the slump-slayer and spread it’s lousiness virus-like across the movie landscape. Yes, something GOOD could become slump-slayer and we’d have the possibility of good resulting from it’s arrival, but the negative could be far worse.

I dunno about you, but I more-or-less like the current situation of cinema: I like that we back up dumptrucks full of Oscars at the door of epic fantasy trilogies. I like that costumed superheroes and Zen kung-fu masters have overthrown surly muscleheads and cops “who don’t play by the rules” as the action heroes du jour. I like that “Miss Congeniality 2” vanished without a trace, and that I haven’t had to see a Meg Ryan movie lately. I love that “Batman Begins” crushed “The Perfect Man” under it’s big rubber boot. I adore that Tarantino poured every ounce of his considerable talents into a two-films-long kung-fu/samurai/horror/mystery/action/revenge/gore epic. I worship that Robert Rodriguez, Brian Singer and Christopher Nolan treat comic-adaptations as though they’ve been assigned to preserve holy relics. This is an immensely good time for filmmaking. If the slump-slayer is, say, a “Monster In-Law”-style romcom, would the return to top-tier prominence of such drivel be anything but a total disaster?

And it could get MUCH worse: The so-called “values” crowd, Bozell, Dobson, Falwell, Baer, etc., have been doing their own “reporting” on the “slump,” and wouldn’t you know that they’re pushing their own theory of what’s going on: Namely, that the new “moral” American public are rejecting “secular” (read: not extremist-fundamentalism) Hollywood fare; and that if only Hollywood would put it’s effort into their sort of films (like, say, Mel Gibson’s torture-porn “Passion,”) the slump would end. Hopefully, they’re as wrong about this as they are about most everything else, but this should be cause for concern nonetheless: If slump-slayer is anything even remotely “moral” or “family-friendly,” watch for this crew to spin like mad that it’s success is “proof” that Americans are “rejecting” movie sex and violence in favor or “traditional morality.”

Bottom line: “The Slump” is not something for most of us to be overly-worried about. Bad filmmaking trends taking advantage of the slump (intending to or not) and poisoning the movie landscape… as far as I’m concerned we can’t be concerned ENOUGH about that. Something will break the “slump.” Pray to whatever god one such as you may worship that it’s something we could stand to see more of.

The battle continues.

REVIEW: Batman Begins

WARNING: Review may contain plot spoilers, read at your own risk. This goes double for all of my comic-book devotee readers, who may infer things from this review that I assure you you’ll want to save for the theater. You have been warned.

Popular-culture mythology has long maintained that what killed Warner Bros. original “Batman” franchise was the hiring of director Joel Schumacher, who brought “camp,” bloat and silliness to the 3rd and 4th films. MovieBob, on the other hand, has long maintained that popular-culture mythology is wrong. In actuality, in spite of whatever virtues it did possess, the “Batman” franchise was broken from the start, and all of the much-lamented flaws in the Schumacher films (an underdeveloped lead character, more attention to art design than story structure and overhyped marquee-name actors mis-cast as villians) was present all the way back in the heralded Tim Burton entries. The series was going in the wrong direction from the moment Michael Keaton’s hollow rubber shell of a Batman first stepped onto the streets of a hellaciously overdesigned Gotham City to battle a Joker that was little more than Jack Nicholson doing his usual schtick under clown makeup.

Now, with “Batman Begins,” we have Warner Bros. doing what many thought would never be possible: Re-starting the franchise from the ground up, with both eyes fixed on placing the Dark Knight back on top of the superhero-movie pantheon. They’ve been spurred to decision, doubtless, by the success of the Marvel comic-to-movie cycle of recent, and the increasingly permanent-looking mainstreaming of the superhero genre that has spun out of it, but make no mistake: WB is no mere visitor to the genre. With superhero movies the emerging standard of action filmmaking, and Warner Bros. being the only film studio to own an entire comic book company (DC Comics) and thusly the movie rights to over fifty-percent of the most popular characters in the medium… the idea of that they would finally “get” the material, place it in the hands of serious filmmakers, plan franchises long-term and (most importantly) show a profound respect for the properties and their fans… has been the big “what if?” of the so-called “comic book movie craze.”

As of June 15, 2005, that big “what if” is the big “what now?” I’m here today to tell you that “someday” has arrived. Warner Bros., formerly the film studio most maligned (and for good reason) by geek culture and comic fans especially, has gotten it. The same studio that, only eight years ago, all-but killed the superhero movie with stunt-casting, careless writing and outright disrespect for the medium, has handed director Christopher Nolan the keys to the kingdom and one of the best casts of any film this year and turned both loose on Batman. The result is the best action film of the summer so-far, and unquestionably the next great leap for the “comic book movie.”

Batman “himself” doesn’t appear in costume for almost an hour into the film. Instead, the film takes it’s time getting about creating a living world and populating it with characters and relationships that make it breathe. As the familiar beats of the Batman backstory are laid out, (Bruce Wayne watches his millionaire parents killed by a random mugger and grows into a brooding seeker of vengeance on the world of crime,) the story masterfully weaves the narrative around a half-dozen different threads to give us a clear picture of how this world functions: Gotham City’s underworld empire, it’s corporate titans, it’s corrupt police force and it’s international distinction as a symbol of collapsed metropolitan ideals, are all fleshed out in wonderful detail. By the time the grownup Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is honing his martial-arts skills with a cult of moralist Tibetan ninjas called The League of Shadows, the audience already has a working knowledge of what Batman must do and why once he “Begins” in the 2nd act.

To be certain, this all has a dual purpose: The extended fleshing-out of the Batman universe is designed to ease the process franchise-building just as much as it is to turn this initial offering into a fully-rounded film in it’s own right. Warner Bros., it appears, hasn’t just learned how to make great films out of comic books, they’ve gotten a degree in it. They aren’t just setting up a foundation for more Batman movies here, their digging in their heels for a major campaign of turning “their” superheroes into movies: Along with the innevitable Bat-sequels, “Superman” is on the way alongside Wonder Woman and others.

And thus, when Bruce turns up again in Gotham as a grown man on a mission, he slips into as astoundingly complex and intricate a world as has ever been rendered for a superhero franchise on it’s maiden voyage: Wayne Industries, once the financial arm of the late Mr. Wayne’s Gotham-centric altruism, has been usurped by a greedy tycoon (Rutger Hauer.) Former board member Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) has been exiled to the lower depths to catalogue discontinued military hardware (y’know, the kind a superhero might need.) Mafia boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) runs roughshod over a police force that is utterly corrupt save for the lone Sgt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman.) Arkham Asylum is overflowing with criminally-insane patients under the care of Dr. Johnathan Crane, (Cillian Murphy,) who likes to don a burlap mask and douse people with fear-inducing toxin as a would-be supervillian called The Scarecrow. There’s also the issue of the League of Shadows and it’s leaders Ras Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), with whom Wayne did not part on the best of terms.

In other words, it’s a situation in need of a superhero. What it gets instead is more like a creature. For the first time, a Batman film has understood that Batman’s main “ability” is to be scary. Bale’s Batman is, yes, costumed once again in a suit of rubber-like armor, but he moves and fights more like the title beasts of the “Alien” films than a costumed crimefighter: Bad guys are yanked into shadows, pulled through floors and tugged up into the air with fearsome speed, and somehow it becomes possible to be afraid of Batman even as you’re rooting for him to win.

And just wait until you see what Batman and his director have saved up for the final act, involving no less than full-scale riot-police deployment, car-to-train chases, ninjas warfare, mass-psychedelic hysteria, a prison break, a big twist and at least two “what to expect in #2” teases that’ll have comic fans spinning theories for months.

There’s just so much that works here, it’s almost hard to take it all in at once: Bale is the perfect Batman, the first actor able to convey a plausibly direct divide between Millionaire Playboy and Dark Knight. The way the film works the often-overlooked angle of Wayne using “bad” public behavior to divert attention from his “real” business. The way every major action scene, even the chaotic third act, is a direct result of the story and never an aside to it. Oldman’s instant “I-like-this-guy”-ness as the future Commissioner Gordon, an audience-p.o.v. character who for a change doesn’t come close to wearing out his welcome. The subtle visual nuances of Scarecrow’s chemically-induced hallucinations.

And still more… The way Neeson so eagerly chews into the meat a role that cleverer reviewers than myself have already dubbed “Qui-Gone Wrong.” The way the filmmakers, so obviously conscious of their prime-audience, turn what seemed like their biggest deviation from a character’s established history into their best story surprise instead. And let’s hear it for Michael Caine as wise butler Alfred Pennyworth, here concieved as the man charged with teaching Batman how to be Bruce Wayne.

There’s only ONE element that just doesn’t work, and it’s Katie Holmes. Quite simply, this is a serious, complex bit of moviemaking, and she just doesn’t prove up to it. Her character is chronically out-of-place throughout the film, and it doesn’t help matters that Mrs. Holmes is an emerging actress of (thus far) average range, and she’s surrounded by a collection of the finest character actors in the business. (Seriously: Freeman, Neeson, Hauer, Caine, Watanabe, Oldman, Wilkinson, Murphy, Bale… comic-book movies are becoming talent magnets of the Shakespeare-movie level.)

More problematic is that Holmes’ character, District Attorney Rachel Dawes, seems to have been ordered into the film solely on the basis of a lack of any other strong female characters, and it’s a bad fit: As an unnecessary secondary law-enforcement ally to Batman, the character detracts from Jim Gordon’s development, and as an unnecessary moral-foil to Bruce she detracts from Alfred. The most frequent complaint you will hear from the “fanboy” set about this film will be that this character should have been scrapped in favor of the Batman-saga’s usual D.A. (and future “Two-Face”) Harvey Dent, and I don’t disagree with them.

So Holmes’ role and her turn in it are bad enough missteps to render the film JUST shy of perfection, yes. But don’t let that discourage you from seeing this if you’ve got any inkling to whatsoever. This is the summer’s best action offering so far, featuring the best cast assembled this year so far. The superhero movie genre has a whole new player in the re-focused Warner Bros., and with “Batman Begins” they’ve now set the bar several spaces higher.


Brent Bozell vs. Grover Norquist

If you ask me, one of the BIG reasons that the Democrats have become so sidelined as a political force is because, within the two-party system, the Republicans are currently stuck in the midst of a continuing split into two parties in it’s own right: Old-guard, small government, low-tax conservatives on one side; and the so-called “Religious Right,” who’s leaders actually support big-government intervention so long as it’s enforcing their fundamentalist ideals on the American public, which has all but declared “ownership” of the party after the exit polls claimed that “moral values” voters saved Bush’s tush in the last election, on the other side.

Now, two of the most visible and extreme proponents on these two-sides-of-the-same-side have declared open conflict on one another: L. Brent Bozell, leader of the Parent’s Television Council; and Grover Norquist, the famed archconservative and top-dog of Americans for Tax Reform. At issue is TV Watch, an anti-censorship lobbying group fronted by a patchwork of television industry bosses to fight against the expansion of powers by the FCC to “police” the airwaves. Bozell’s PTC rightly views TV Watch as a direct enemy of their agenda, and they’ve been knocked for a loop by TV Watch’s public relations coup of getting Norquist to speak out on their behalf to Newsweek magazine.

Here’s Norquist on the matter:
“People are saying, ‘This is puritanical Puritanism.’ No, it’s still socialism, dressing it up and getting a minister to say it doesn’t change that.”

Now, Grover stands far more to the right than I do for the most part, but when the man is right the man is right, and he’s totally right.

And here’s Bozell’s typically-hysterical response (scroll down to “Norquist vs. Public Opinion”):

Bozell is so upset because Norquist marks the first major dissenter from the “moral values” party-line. Norquist is approaching this as a pro-business advocate, arguing for the TV nets to have the right to live without government interference in their business. If it catches on, it’s going to spark a major battle for which “side” is really running the show: REAL conservatives of the pro-business side, or the anti-freedom “religious” crowd represented by the PTC. And guess what: Bozell KNOWS this is a fight he might not win, and that news is as BAD for him as it is GOOD for the United States.

If you’ve read this blog frequently, you already know my position: ALL government regulation of television, radio or film content is un-Constitutional, a violation of the First Ammendment and thusly wrong. The FCC has no authority to do anything other than make sure broadcasters conduct ethical business practices, they were NEVER meant to become arbiters of public taste. All government regulation of arts or entertainment should be stripped from federal and state law, and content “policing” should be returned to the private businessmen who operate the TV nets, radio stations and movie theaters.

To those of us who still value freedom, conservative, liberal or otherwise, this is all a good thing: It’s time that American businesses stood up to the FCC for their rights to make and sell their products without interference by the government or puritan busybodies like the PTC, and it’s about time for the “conservatives” to stand up alongside their traditional businessman allies and do the right thing for America.

The battle continues.

REVIEW: The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl

Most films for children, even the good ones, are concieved and made almost-exclusively by grownups, and often grownups in committee at that. For good or ill, thats the truth. Always one to go against the grain, Robert Rodriguez here offers something just slightly different: A movie for kids that plays on a kid’s general level of pace a logic, features an almost-exclusively child cast (all but one of the grownups are secondary characters) and which was thought up by a kid.

The story goes that Rodgriguez, modern Hollywood’s ultimate champion of do-it-yourself filmmaking late of “Sin City,” was so impressed by the creativity of his son Racer (brothers’ names: Rocket and Rebel, really) in the imagining of a pair of made-up pre-teen superheroes that he encouraged the boy to expand their adventures into a feature-length story. Rodriguez then adapted Racer’s imaginings into this film, made on the quick using the director’s beloved digital cameras, greenscreen-sets and homemade special effects. He’s also elected to release it in 3D, that reliably gimmicky technology that Rodriguez is still much more fond of than me (though it’s more pleasant here than in his prior outing, “Spy Kids 3D.”

Despite the title, the film is really centered on gradeschool-age Max, (Racer’s middle name), a hyper-imaginative introvert who’s detailed yarns about the titular dreamed-up superhero duo have earned him the scorn of the bully Linus and grave prodding to get “real friends” by his teacher Mr. Electricidad (George Lopez, in one of four roles in the film.) At home, his parents are on the cusp of the cusp of divorce (Mom’s too much the businesswoman, Dad’s too much the dreamer) and Max just wants to run off to his made-up escapist fantasy of Planet Drool rather than face another day of it.

Which, you’ll have guessed, is exactly what happens. Shark Boy and Lava Girl come crashing (literally) into Max’s school and spirit him off to Planet Drool, where he’s needed to lead the kid resistance against evil Mr. Electric (Lopez, morphed into a digital monstrosity that looks too much like Modok to be an accident) and a mysterious supervillian who’s turning Max’s dreamscape from good to evil. Much chasing, fighting, bad-guy outwitting and magical-object hunting follows; the young heroes battle monsters made out of giant electrical plugs, rescue captives from a non-stopping rollercoaster and cross a river of milk running through a landscape of cookies.

The reason this all works in spite of.. nay, because of it’s silliness is because everyone involved appears to be taking it all with total sincerity. The film isn’t trying to be self-aware or ironic about how it unfolds, it plays like a narrative dreamed up by a little boy which is precisely what it is. The film gives it’s target audience heroes their own age, drops them into a youthful dreamscape and lets things play out without a hint of grownup irony: Baddies are throttled and traps are escaped to a soaring action-epic score, and the young actors solemnly intone their Roy Thomas-esque heroic declarations with straight-faced gravity.

Let it also be said that young Racer has a keen mind for the invention of superheroes, his creations (an amphibious, anti-hero orphan raised by Great Whites and a morphing, magma-throwing alien respectively) are a lot of fun as characters. 13 year-old martial-artist Taylor Lautner, especially, seems to be having an insane amount of fun as Shark Boy, to the extent that he may end up the film’s breakout star (which would make this the youngest an action star has debuted in a long time.)

This movie is fun, but it’s really not made for me or anyone over the age of the main cast. Not really. Adults may tolerate it, and I enjoyed it… but this is one for the kids in the purest sense of the idea. And the kids it’s made for should have a blast with it.


REVIEW: Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Note: The following may be considered a spoiler to people who have not seen any trailers for this movie yet. You have been warned.

The big scene that “everyone will be talking about” from “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” comes a little over an hour in, and goes something like this: John and Jane Smith, an upscale suburban couple who’s marriage zipped through the intersection of Boring and Distant years ago, have just discovered that each is (unbeknownst to the other) a top-secret asassin working for a competing agency, find themselves alone together at home. Each acting under a “kill or be killed” order from their respective Shadowy Employers, they trade fire in a John Woo-reminiscient gunbattle that tears their Ikea showroom of a house to pieces. When the ammo runs out, they break out the martial-arts, exchange beatings that Danny the Dog might gladly skip, arrive at a stalemate and… drop the weapons, tear off their clothes and have the best sex of their marriage (best sex of anyone’s marriage, from the looks of it.)

I’m not kidding.

So, then… now that everything that ever need be said about the psychology of the Hollywood action-scene has been said… where do we go from here?

The big story surrounding the release of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” has been that, for the first time in many moons, a studio has been openly concerned about the potential for a rumored offscreen cast dalliance to harm the boxoffice grosses: i.e. the notion of celeb-o-philes “boycotting” the release in protest of Brad Pitt divorcing actual-wife Jennifer Anniston for movie-wife Angelina Jolie. I have a hard time believing that there are enough people that broken up about this to matter, but in case you DO exist please put that issue of “Us” down slowly and repeat after me: It was only a TV show. Jennifer Anniston is not REALLY a “Friend” to whom you owe some kind of personal loyalty. You don’t “know” ANY of these people. Their lives have no actual relevance to you. Please, please, please seek help.

At this point, boxoffice or not, all this “Access Hollywood” nonsense has managed to shift the focus away from the actual merits of the film itself. (And why not? Since it’s such a mystery why a wealthy and powerful superstar would run off with a globe-hopping sexual-decathlete, after all…) Which is a real shame because the film itself is actually quite good. It’s a big self-conscious lark, of course, a knowing farce that coasts along on star chemistry and the structural conciet of merging the stock-scenes of a romantic comedy with the stock-scenes of an action shoot-em-up: The Smiths argue over the proper operation of a mini-van… in the middle of a car chase. They engage the various troops sent to kill them… in a department store. Get it?

None of this adds up to, or is meant to add up to, a tremendous amount. It’s a silly star-vehicle that bleeds it’s premise for all it’s worth and doesn’t aim for any kind of higher purpose: The only time it even steps outside it’s own central joke comes way into the 3rd act, and it’s for a background gag involving a bit-player’s T-shirt. Director Doug Liman has, yes, more good-movie street cred than you’d expect from someone helming so proudly commercial an enterprise as this, but that’s sort of the point: Liman’s auteur-instinct makes it all look far too good to be a fluff movie, the same way Pitt and Jolie look far to good to be just another bored married couple. (Jolie, in particular, looks once-again impossibly beautiful to the extent that, were there a complex plot to be distracted from, no one would be able to recall it.)

This is a studio cash-magnet movie, no two ways about it. It exists for no other reason than to draw as much of your money onto itself between now and this Wednesday when “Batman Begins” comes out. But it’s a topscale action pic, the comedy works and yeah, the leads do have a certain remarkable chemistry, and did I mention Jolie turns up in a rubber dominatrix bodice? It’s filmmaking-as-product, but I got what I paid for.