REVIEW: Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem

Hey, Hollywood genre-producer guys? If you are considering making a movie in which two warring teams of otherworldly creatures stage their conflict down here on Earth and get it in your heads to focus chiefly on the “human story;” speaking as one of your CORE demographics, allow me to paraphrase Mssrs. Simon and Garfunkle and ask that you hear my words that I might teach you: Nobody who’s going to see this movie GIVES A SHIT about the humans or their story. This kind of back-asswards overthinking already resulted in “Transformers,” the worst movie of 2007, and now results in “AVP:R,” an entirely worthy challenger for the title.

Oh, and directors “The Brothers Strause?” I appreciate your fine contributions to the industry as visual effects supervisors on some really wonderful movies. I also appreciate, more to the point, that you probably went to film school and know that framing practical-effects creatures in near-silhouette darkness makes for great production stills and lets you say your making a “classic”-style monster movie in interviews… but here’s the thing: EVERYBODY already knows what the Aliens and Predators look like. This is the SEVENTH installment of the now-combined franchise. You’re not being visually clever, your just making your movie SUCK MORE.

Here’s how we got here: More than a decade ago, an art designer or two on “Predator 2” thought it’d be a fun background gag to include the skull of the title monsters from the “Alien” movies among the alien big-game hunter’s trophy collection. The gag spawned a premise – “whoa, the Predator hunting the Alien? AWESOME!!!” – that begat a series of video games, comic books and fandom flights-of-fancy that made an actual FILM based on the idea innevitable as soon as the still-ongoing “Alien” series officially hit the wall; which happened in Part 4.

Enter well-meaning schlock-auteur Paul W.S. Anderson, who had won the hearts of genre fanboys with “Event Horizon” and lost it with “Resident Evil,” to step up (and get “it” back) with “Alien Vs. Predator,” a big blow-out B-movie epic which all-told was probably YARDS better than anyone should’ve reasonably expected: Tons of fun, tons of action, a plausible in-continuity reason to “officially” combine the plots of the two franchises and, most-importantly: Scene after scene of Aliens VERSUS Predators. Predators wailing on hordes of Aliens with high-tech hunting gear? Done. Predator infra-red vision to see who’s carrying a Chestburster? Done. Predators and Aliens slamming eachother around in bad-ass hand-to-hand brawls? Done. Predator versus a full-charging rampaging Queen Alien? Even THAT was done! All that plus Lance Henriksen and a fun re-visitation of “Chariots of The Gods” for no extra charge.

So, in the immortal words of William Hurt in “A History of Violence“…. “How do you fuck that up?”

The sequel opens immediately following the first film, as a Predator ship experiences a nasty Alien outbreak and crashes into a forest surrounding a rural American town. In response, a lone Predator makes tracks for Earth on a mission to eradicate the threat and cover up all evidence, bringing with him a helpful cache of weapons and a MORE helpful total disregard for how many humans he also has to slay in the course of his mission. A wrinkle is added in that the nominal “alpha male” of the rapidly-expanding Alien brood is “Predalien” – a hulking half-Predator/half-Alien bruiser borne of the Aliens’ habit of assimilating the characteristics of the species they symbiotically “hatch” from. The small-town Americana under monster-infestation setting is obviously supposed to put us in the mood of “Gremlins” or “Monster Squad,” but the execution almost-immediately reeks of lesser offerings like “Masters of The Universe” or “Pod People.”

You’d think this kind of setup would be a golden opportunity for an action movie to completely cut loose: The premise explains itself visually in an instant (monster with dreadlocks has to kill all the monsters with big phallic heads) and your instantly dynamic-looking lead characters are all FX creations TOTALLY maleable to filmmaker control (latex rubber doesn’t have a “bad skin day”) who don’t speak any recognizable language. In other words, a film with a perfectly plot-appropriate excuse for dialogue-free FX-spawned carnage. So, naturally, the first thing the film does is pile on the humans and the superfluous story points: Two deliquent brothers, two would-be girlfriends, a bunch of high-school bullies, some cops, etc. Getting the most attention are a little girl and her fresh-home-from-Iraq soldier mom, because it’s a franchise tradition that while a Predator will do in a pinch, the only REAL natural enemy of the Alien is a butch mother-figure in a tank top.

The “R” in “AVP:R” officially means “Requiem,” but it’s REAL reason for being is as a direct advertisement that this sequel hits theatres with an appropriate R-rating, one of the major complaints against the original PG-13 film. These are R-rated characters, yes, so this is very appropriate… but all the gore in the world can’t help when it’s so poorly photographed and so damned dark all the time. The only scene that honestly seems to earn this designation comes when the Predalien and his fellows make a “snack run” to a hospital Maternity Ward. Gruesome stuff, to be sure, but at this point the film has already lost all but the most undiscerning viewer’s interest. PG-13 or not, even the THEATRICAL CUT of the original movie had ten times the solid monster-vs-monster action of this sequel.

Everything is either shot in total darkness or total darkness with a silhouette-creating spotlight behind it, so we never get a good look at ANY of the title monsters or even the megahyped Predalien. Bad CGI, worse acting and a total lack of editorial coherence conspire to craft a film that isn’t interesting to look at at any point of it’s running time. It’s an absolute dud, no two ways about it, and a truly depressing dissapointment.



Tedious and predictable, I know – and for a change I’m not talking about “Transformers.” No, it’s list time. No big difference from everyone else here, my 2007 Top Ten, organized last to first, with the usual disclaimer that as I’m not a professional film critic nor located in France, Los Angeles, New York or Austin there are certain “big” entries I haven’t gotten to see yet: Principally “Kite Runner” and “There Will Be Blood.”

One additional disclaimer: The ACTUAL best film I saw in 07, in addition to being easily my favorite of the year, was Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book.” However, as it was technically released and Oscar-submitted in 2006 I did not officially include it. You, however, should still see it as it’s a future classic and the best movie The Mad Dutchman has made since “Robocop,” which incidentally is indeed my favorite movie ever.

So, on with it:

Around here, movies are graded by how they PLAY, not on their intentions. Hyung Rae-Shim apparently intended his megabudget, nine-years-in-production “Dragon Wars” as South Korea’s foray into the realm of global “tentpole” blockbusters, but the end result is something else entirely: Cheezy-as-hell, bafflingly-silly and, well.. something simply beautiful to behold – a real, honest-to-god, no-irony-about-it Asian Giant Monster Movie with all the outsized imagination, near-surreal incoherence and seemingly-shanghai’d actors any genre entry worth it’s salt could ever want. Giant snakes constrict skyscrapers, dinosaurian behemoths launch shoulder-mounted missiles, winged reptiles dogfight with attack choppers and armored Feudal Korean demon knights march through hails of US Army bullets. It’s the visual poetry that monster-loving boys devour, the stuff of which Movie Geeks are born.

In a year where the American political scene tore itself apart as Left and Right battled to see who could make a more astonishing asshole of themselves preening and posturing about the meaning of “patriotism” and what it “really” means to love their country; a German fringe-film icon and a British actor teamed up to release the most honest, simple (but not simplistic) and genuine ode to The American Spirit in years… in a fact-based Vietnam movie, no less! Shooting a man-vs-wild epic of psychological breakdown and physical triumph smack dab in the Forest Primeval with a star who lives and breathes physical transformation, Werner Herzog is in his element; while Christian Bale may finally have met the director who’s intensity can match his own.

David Croneberg cuts every single shred of fat from the Gangster Movie formula and hands us the leanest, sharpest and most efficiently-satisfying “crime-picture” in years. Not a frame, line, scene or idea is wasted in this narrative Blitzkreig of a Russian Mob drama, with Viggo Mortensen topping himself yet again, Naomi Watts oozing sex and sympathy and Armin Muehler-Stahl in an Oscar-worthy bad guy turn for the ages.

Barbarian Fantasy finally came roaring back to life in the wake of Zack Snyder’s super-fun “300,” but Robert Zemeckis’ bawdy 3D animation-for-adults epic was the more satisfying mind-bender; with awesome action scenes, a slick script from Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman and a vision so grandly realized that jaw-dropper monster battles can compete with a near-naked Angelina Jolie for arousal-inducing spectacle.

After changing television, the sitcom, animation and pop-culture history forever over the course of 20-and-counting brilliant seasons, “The Simpsons” finally manage to hit theatres big time by going back to basics: Comical eco-disaster in Springfield, recklessly-impulsive nuttiness from Homer, smart-alecky antics from Bart and Lisa, put-upon stoicism from Marge. Took long enough, and every bit worth the extra polish.

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez turned the IV-drip off and finally gave their exploitation-film creative power source to audiences straight-up. The result? A work of Movie Geek nirvana the re-drew the line between Those Who “Get It” and Everyone Else. Zombies, car chases, babes, blood and beasts pack 200 movies worth of memorable moments into 2 movies worth of running time.

Mike Binder at last crafts a movie that lives up to his ambitions and unique view of the world; a heart-rending examination of the personal crisis that must be solved and the personal problems that probably can’t be amid the most affecting vision yet of Post-911 New York existance. Adam Sandler sheds every scrap of armor and irony as a man slowly killing himself in an attempted descent into madness, while Don Cheadle re-establishes his considerable dramatic credibility as the only man who may be able to bring him back… or at least help him learn to exist where he is.

David Fincher makes his best film, and possibly the best Serial Killer mystery ever, breaking down in mezmerizing detail the maze-like history of the hunt for the Zodiac Killer. Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllehaal give some of their best work ever amid flawless period detail and some of the year’s most intense moments. A total package from top to bottom.

It’s Frank Darabont doing John Carpenter doing Stephen King doing H.P. Lovecraft, and it’s a top-flight creature feature masquerading as a pitch-black human drama… or maybe thats the other way around. Whatever else it may be, “The Mist” is dynamite moviemaking no two ways about it. Thomas Jane leads the good guys as they battle a monster-concealing weather anomally that comes complete with land-squids, giant bugs, flying lizards… and a rapidly-unraveling religious nutcase who might be more dangerous than all of them.

All is forgiven for Ben Affleck, onetime punchline and current maker of the Best Movie of 2007. An authentic, grim and harshly-realistic vision of Boston crime and punishment; framed around a private detective (Casey Affleck) who’s moral sturdiness gets put to an ultimate test investigating the conspiracies that spin out of a little girl’s kidnapping. Featuring stellar work from all involved, and a breakout turn from Amy Ryan as an unlikable yet human mother at the center of the storm.

REVIEW: Charlie Wilson’s War

In the opening credits of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” an Afghan Muslim in traditional robes recites prayerss on his knees in stark black sillhouette against a picture-book starry sky, the moon framed in the upper left-hand corner in the perfect crescent shape of the traditional Islamic holy symbol. The figure then stands, revealing in his hands a shoulder-mounted rocket-launcher which he arms, aims and fires… straight at the audience.

It’s probably the most jarring, politically-incorrect Title Sequence since James Bond starting projecting his credits onto reclining, gun-toting nude models; but it sets the tone of the piece perfectly: Here’s a politically-saavy “dramedy” that approaches Cold War skullduggery, covert wars and the rise of terrorism with all the same martini-lubricated flippancy with which “The Thin Man” series once treated murder-solving. It’s three main characters start off as, respectively, a booze-guzzling, skirt-chasing, favor-trading Congressman (Tom Hanks,) a blunt, bitter, bullheaded spy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and an ice-blooded, manipulative, hypocritical religious zealot (Julia Roberts) and more-or-less remain that way – the tale isn’t so much about their growth (or lack thereof) as it is about them finding a situation where their eclectic skill-sets were actually useful in the doing – or at least attempting – of a genuine good.

Hanks is Charlie Wilson, a Reagan-era Texas Congressman who lives to indulge the benefits of representing a district small and well-off enough to not need anything of him: He goes to the best parties, sits on the most important committees, has the most important friends. His office is staffed entirely by alarmingly beautiful secretaries who could each easily be mistaken for the strippers and Playmates he staffs the REST of his life with. Roberts is Joanna Harring, a Texas billionairess who’s “found Jesus” and committed her fortune to the cause of beating back The Godless Commies at any cost – including breaking the odd Commandment, circumventing the odd international law and sleeping with the odd Texas Congressman. Hoffman is Gust Avrakatos, a world-weary CIA sad-sack who can’t quite believe that THESE two people are the magic-ingredients needed for the operation he’s been DYING to launch, but he’s willing to try it.

The problem with the Cold War is that Americans, now more than ever, prefer their history to A.) have a narrative and B.) have a SIMPLE narrative. We like clear wins over unambiguous evil decided by grand, heroic gestures. Well, the Cold War didn’t work that way, it worked this way: Two superpowers stood across from one another, fists balled up, sneering and eyes ablaze like mortal enemies at the midpoint of “Dragonball Z” season, until the side that didn’t believe in money, er… ran out of money and had to give up. That just won’t do. So ever since, dwellers of the political “Right” have been telling themselves (and anyone else who’ll listen) a reassuring bedtime story about how Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and The Pope beat down The Eeeeevil Empire all by themselves. To an extent, “Charlie Wilson’s War” represents a late-in-coming attempt by dwellers of the political “Left” (screenplay by Aaron Sorkin!) to get a bedtime story of their own out of it – one in which a girl-crazy, super-slick Southern Democrat (hmm… who’s THAT supposed to remind us of?) used his Austin Powers-style diplomacy to turn the Afghan Invasion into Gorby’s Waterloo. Both versions are, of course, staggeringly-simplified history-as-mythology, and so long as the movie is entertaining there’s really nothing wrong with it.

The film imagines Wilson as a good-time party boy who undergoes a gradual shift-of-focus as the images of Soviet-overrun Afghanistan start to trickle across his radar. Soon enough, he’s realizing that his cushy seats and well-made friends on precisely every committee one would need to run a covert war; right around the time that Roberts’ Harring starts asking him to do just that. Gust fills in the final piece of the puzzle, providing the services of himself and a small cadre of fellow action-hungry CIA vets looking to actually do something about the Russians. It’s Shadow Government cloak-and-dagger warmaking as bachelor party planning, with Charlie as the sly-dog host who’s sentimental enough to wrangle the vote of a key legislator by flying him to visit a blighted Afghan refugee camp; but worldly enough to know that nothing beats a talented bellydancer to break the ice during a tense meeting between Israeli, Pakistani and Egyptian arms dealers.

Given that it’s a politically-themed film about the Middle East primarly made by famous Democrat supporters, there’s been the usual predictable outcry from “conservatives” about the film – apparently, only THEY wish to be allowed the privilige of cherry-picking Cold War history for self-affirmation – coming with the usual claim that it’s “propaganda” (which is sorta true, but I don’t need to hear that from the folks who’ve been hyping “In The Face of Evil” for two damn years) and that it ultimately “blames America for terrorism.”

That last part is especially false, and in a way the fact that it never ONCE comes anywhere CLOSE to doing that is something close to a problem with the final film: It’s third act seems marginally truncated, as though it’s building toward a definitive “oh by the way” about what some Afghanis may or may not have gone on to do with all those shiny new guns they still had once the Russians had been expelled that never really arrives. In fact, there’s only ONE reference to you-know-what-future-date, a subtle but chilling aural detail that drifts by in the background noise of a single key scene.

Still, a just-this-short-of-great third act doesn’t keep the rest of the film from great entertainment, the sort of grand smart-dialogue-for-everybody ideal that Sorkin excells in when he keeps the moralizing under control. Mike Nichols is a veteran who knows his way around a movie and manages the trick of making Sorkin-specialty walk-n-talks, cigars-and-brandy scheming, big-scale Afghan action scenes and the verbal slapstick of Charlie’s secretary-squad all seem like parts of the same tonal piece.

This is a light, breezy, sharp-witted and whip-smart comedy that manages to encompass the realm of politics without being either too much of an attack OR too much self-congratulation. Oh, there’s a little of both to be sure; but it’s prodding with elbows – not daggers. If you come out of “Charlie Wilson’s War” feeling either like you’ve been “attacked” or like patting yourself on the back; chances are you need to get over yourself.


REVIEW: Sweeny Todd (2007)

That Tim Burton is easily the mainstream Hollywood filmmaker most doggedly devoted to artifice is really saying something when you consider how much of the blockbuster game is now inhabited by folks like McG, Brett Ratner and (of course) Michael Bay who pump out astonishingly flat, empty, wholly unreal material with the efficiency of a Terminator going down the “Connor” section of the Yellow Pages. And yet he is, and the difference is that he does it WELL, with real purpose and is often willing to go all the way. He continues to have a visual fondness… well, fetish really… for expressionistic sets that look like sets, slathered-on makeup that looks like makeup and elaborate compositions that look like compositions. The characters in “Sweeny Todd” don’t wear clothing, they wear costumes. They wield weaponry and own knick-knacks that weren’t manufactured, they were art designed. And when they’re cut, they bleed not blood or even “FX blood” but rather gushing torrents of Fire Engine Red paint.

Given that, it’s somewhat surprising that he’s taken this long to direct a full-on musical, a genre so obviously suited to his above-described talents and fascinations. It becomes easier to understand when one keeps in mind the scarcity of musicals grounded in the realm of gothic horror, particularly the realm of gothic horror movies that informs so much of Burton’s cinematic persona. “Sweeny” does, and so here we have the kind of tremendously wonderful movie that results when a filmmaker and project seem almost frighteningly perfect for one another.

There probably was no “real” Sweeny Todd, but the character (short version: mid-1900s serial-killer London barber) is one of those creations of popular fiction so indelible that no one can really pinpoint exactly where he originated – in print, urban myth or otherwise. Stephen Sondheim based his 1979 musical version around one of the more romanticized variations on the story, casting the Demon Barber as the new alias of one Benjamin Barker, a simple man who was wrongly imprisoned so that a corrupt judge could ensnare and rape his wife. He returns to London 15 years later with his new name, a fully-formed psychopathy and a revenge plan that soon branches out into a murder spree: He slashes the throats of his wealthy customers, then drops the bodies through a trap door so that his accomplice Mrs. Lovett can bake the evidence into meat pies to feed her poverty-class customers.

It’s a “slasher musical,” really, but without the level of smug self-awareness that you’d think would be both inherent and ultimately fatal to it. What it has instead is a sense of self-acknowledgment, an altogether different thing. What ultimately killed, say, “Rent” for me isn’t simply the prospect of a jaunty, dancey musical about faux-hemian transients slowly dying of AIDS, but the fact that it refuses to even slightly acknowledge the incongruity of that description: It actually wants to be taken as seriously as a heart-attack, lisping transvestite in a Santa costume and all. “Sweeny Todd,” on the other hand, suffers no such delusions. It’s infused with understanding and acknowledgement, right down to it’s core, that the staging of a big showy Broadway song and dance show about murder and cannibalism is essentially a big, long morbid JOKE; and the comfortable honesty it has about this bleeds (you’ll pardon the pun) into the characters and story arcs allowing them to have depth and emotion that’s real, affecting and honest… even if it IS all part of the joke.

Having good actors helps, having good actors “in-synch” with their director helps more: Johnny Depp has been Tim Burton’s (human) muse since Edward Scissorhands, and while he’s not quite working at “Ed Wood” levels as Todd he’s about as perfectly matched to Burton’s vision of the material as you could ask anyone to be – he’s not afraid to be scary and largely unsympathetic, which is the key to a role like this. It’s a diffcult trick, finding a way around a lead character who enters the film as a revenge-haunted spectre looking only to slay the Judge (Alan Rickman) who made him what he is but then turns to mass-murder mostly out of impotent rage at his innability to do so… but Depp goes at it with both barrells, giving us a Sweeny Todd who – despite all the singing – comes off a lot closer to Freddy Krueger or Dr. Phibes than the Phantom of The Opera.

Helena Bonham Carter gets Mrs. Lovett, and while it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at Burton once more putting his girlfriend in a lead role the plain fact of the matter is that she’s a fine actress and really well suited to the part. It’s at first jarring to see the character, usually imagined as kind of a worn-down Dickensian “fishwife” type, looking more like a Goth pinup fallen on hard times, but it turns out to be the right move for a movie adaptation: Mrs. Lovett may be, ultimately, every bit the monster than Sweeny Todd is, but her evil carries more tragedy in that she doesn’t share his eyes-wide-open self-awareness – she tempers her insanity with her pathetic schoolgirl crush on Todd, all the way to the ludicrous fantasy that they could form some sort of working family unit along with the orphan waif (newcomer Ed Sanders, and what a find he turns out to be!) they’ve taken in to help with the booming pie business. If ever there was a screen role ideally suited to Carter’s porceline doll features, big haunted eyes and natural skill at filling out the expected corset, this is the one.

Neither Depp or Carter are singers by profession, and it shows, and they don’t try to hide it. It becomes a sort of extra-level of stylization. The film boils Sondheim’s thundering big-stage ballads down to angry, rapid-fire spoken-word essays set to music. Depp’s Sweeny doesn’t croon, he howls; while Carter’s Lovett has a voice that must’ve been lovely before life beat it into submission, much like her. On the other hand, Sanders has such a strong singing voice that when he actually uses it it’s a little bit jarring – adding the perfect punctuation of “there’s more to this one than meets the eye” to his key scene: Serenading Mrs. Lovett with the closest thing she’s probably going to get to the devotion she wants. It’s essential that this moment turn the boy into the lone member of the principal cast unambiguously worth rooting for, and he makes it happen.

There’s also a more conventional love story going on between a young Sailor and Joanna, Todd’s now-grown daughter currently being kept as the ward/prisoner of the Judge. This is the least interesting part of the show, and the show knows it: The two generic lovebirds aren’t aware that they’re situation only exists to ramp up the stakes and provide deus-ex-machina for the more interesting pack of nutcases at the center of storm – but WE are, which lends the appropriate level of sadism to their otherwise excruciatingly sentimental scenes together. Oh, and Timothy Spall is here too. Because, really, it’d be MORE surprising if he weren’t.

Who knows if this bold experiment in Burton Unbound will actually work as a cinematic success. After all, gorehounds and musical theatre buffs aren’t exactly common bedfellows. It’s easily the most jagged genre-mix since “Fight Club” announced itself as a combination of existential philosophy and pit-fighting, but hopefully it’ll find more immediate fans instead of having to wait for DVD. But, instant-classic or cult-classic-to-be, the point is it’s a major achievement: Tim Burton’s most fully-formed movie since “Ed Wood” and one of the best films of the year.


HEADLINE: Near Future to Feature Political-Posturing, Suck

Hat-tip: Kotaku, Denver Post

Want to see the future? Want to know now what will be on the lips of every Democrat presidential candidate, along with the whole of the GOP pack except Ron Paul and maybe Giuliani? Read:

Short-version: An unsupervised, dumb-shit 16 year-old girl and her dumb-shit 17 year-old boyfriend got drunk while babysitting her younger siblings and beat 7 year-old sister to death. The 17 year-old, who apparently tried to revive by “breaking an egg into her mouth” (?) claims they were acting out “Mortal Kombat,” a video game which you may recall being (baselessly) blamed for something like 90% of dumb-shit related beating deaths of children over the last decade or so.

Absolutely tragic, horrifying news. The sort of evil that makes me say, “Death Penalty: GOOD Thing.” Not that either of these worthless wastes of carbon are going to get it: They didn’t do it, right? No, a sixteen year-old arcade game is to blame… NOT these two poor souls – who I’m sure were both honor-student paragons of virtue and pillars of their community and most certainly NOT empty, useless, mentally-deficient societal leeches up until the moment the drop of a quarter and push of a button turned them into child-murdering maniacs.

Now, I’m assuming that since everyone here is capable of both reading and operating a computer, they’re intelligent enough to know that this is basically bullshit, right? That it’s highly unlikely that this occured as a result of a dumb-shit “acting out” a video game that’s damn near older than HE is? What happened here is one or both of two things: A.) The girl was killed by them doing something much, MUCH worse and this was the first “don’t shoot my derranged ass on sight” excuse he could come up with, or B.) Their lawyers know that “Sub-Zero made me do it!” is still a prime way to deflect the attention from their clients.

But none of that will matter. We’ll hear about this from the cynical, posturing, power-hungry slime of both “sides” soon enough. “Conservative” politicos (looking at YOU, Huckabee) love these stories because it plays to their paranoid, superstitious religious base; and “Liberals” love them because “fighting obscene entertainment” is the only ‘values voter’ angle they can pander to that won’t piss off one of their OTHER constituencies.

It’s a given that if there’s a Hell, these two kids will be burning in it (hopefully real, real soon and after some serious torment here in the real world first) but if there’s any real cosmic justice to these things, every single scumball “public figure” who tries to use this to push their censorship agenda will be burning right next to them.

Christmas Comes Early For Me

Unexpected gifts are nice, particularly when they just seem to happen without a lot of forced impetus. Case in point, thanks largely to “The Golden Compass” tanking New Line Cinema is suddenly all humble and eager to make nice with Peter Jackson, meaning that a Jackson-produced (and potentially Sam Raimi directed?) movie of “The Hobbit” is finally a go deal:

Meanwhile, thanks largely to my studious recordkeeping in the matters of trivial cash bets made about popular culture over the years, Jodie Foster recently made me about forty-two dollars and change wealthier a few days ago:

God bless us, everyone.

"The Dark Knight" Trailer #2

Posting a trailer for the “Batman Begins” sequel on the INTERNET, you say? Yeah, I know. Craaaaaaazy idea, but who knows – maybe it’ll catch on…

So, by now we’ve all seen this, yes? By now probably has more hits than a banner ad for custom Foil Hats at the top of a Ron Paul fundraising page (I kid, guys! I kid. No need for the angry emails.)

And if not, was nice enough to toss an embedable version up on their video site – gracias, fellows. It’s a great trailer, so raving about it is easy… and also a little boring. The raving-about-it, that is, not the trailer itself. Fact is, everything that we already KNOW was awesome about “Begins” is just about everything that seems to STILL be awesome about this trailer – with the possible exception of Heath Ledger’s “holy SHIT”-inducing turn as The Joker, which will be new to you if this is your first day ever accessing the World Wide Web. In other words, let’s get the big broad “yippee!” out of the way – great cast, great score, great look, great trailer – and move on to Movie Geek Ambrosia: Frame-by-frame minutia hunting!!!!
NOTE: You’ve gotta keep hitting the “start over” button on this particular player to start the actual trailer as opposed to JoBlo’s intro animation.

00:12 – Yeah, it’s in there a little bit but I don’t think you can really call Ledger’s “Joker Voice” a full-on Nicholson impression.

00:20 – I can’t wait to find out the context of THIS shot. Bruce Wayne spends Rao-knows-how-much money setting up a super-secret underground lair to hide all his bat-gear in… but he’ll just chill out in his office, surrounded by windows, wearing his costume?

00:25 – Batman, framed as an unmistakable silhouette, standing on the edge of a skyscraper surveying the city through binoculars. Perfect. Gandalf-vs.-Balrog-perfect. Last-two-minutes-of-“The-Mist”-perfect. Threesome-with-Korean-twins-perfect. Moments like this are why I forgave “Begins” for going the armored-costume route and doing that damn Jason Bourne shit with the combat cinematography.

00:30 – Homage to the Burton/Nicholson Joker’s most famous pose?

00:47 – The Joker’s important identifying characteristics (white face, green hair, smile) are so basic that it’s easy to miss just how major of a revamp TDK’s version seems to be, but here’s what looks like the first BIG difference: His hands are the color of normal flesh, seeming to confirm that this version of the Joker is simply wearing makeup. This’d be, unless I’m mistaken, a first – the “canonical” Joker has had “bleached” skin all over since his earliest appearances (though there wasn’t an explanation for it until much later) and nearly every other version has followed suit if it’s brought it up at all. Not sure I’m digging that or not, but it’s interesting.

00:56 – There y’go, the first “official” trailer-closeup of The Joker. Like I said, in the details it’s a pretty radical departure from the Conrad Veidt “Man Who Laughs” design that’s been the standard model for decades, but I like it. Still not clear how pronounced the “smile slits” at the far sides of his mouth actually are, but if he CAN unhinge his jaw like “Ichii The Killer’s” Kakihara (an early rumored inspiration) it’ll be inhumanly awesome.

01:05 – There’s the “Batpod,” aka “Hey! You’d BETTER not call it the Bat-Cycle! Whaddaya think we’re makin’, a comic book movie!??” Dopey name, fun looking vehicle… except those big protrusions on the front had better NOT be guns.

01:09 – Another “official” reveal, another guy in a clown mask standing behind Joker. Confirmation: Joker has some sort of henchmen. So far, they all seem to be guys, so all you guys with the kinky fixation on Harley Quinn, probably time to lower that particular expectation. (all you gals with the kinky fixation on Harley Quinn? Hi, I’m Bob. We should hang out some time.)

01:14 – no (so far) visible changes to The Batmobile… er, Tumbler. TUMBLER! I meant to say Tumbler, honest! Sorry, sorry, don’t be angry, producer guys. I won’t forget again. I swear!

01:16 – Bet that’s important…

01:18 – Bat …sigh, POD again, better look at what had STILL better not be big-ass guns.

01:21 – By Odin, Maggie Gyllenhaal is sexier fully-clothed from the neck-up then most women are buck-naked and fresh out of the tub. 100% improvement as a replacement for Katie Holmes.

01:26 – SMACK! See, if I was playing Joker in this scene, that shot right there would’ve taken about fifty-two takes – assuming she actually slapped him, I mean. I’d be inventing new ways of just-slightly missing my mark. Yes, I have problems, nobody needs to go pointing that out.

01:36 – Crap. Batpod’s frontal offensive weaponry does pretty clearly seem to be guns in this shot. Bloody fucking hell. By no means a deal-breaker, but still… Batman doesn’t use guns. That’s hugely important, and not just in a “thats how it is in the comics” respect – there’s a huge suspension of disbelief element that comes into play here: “Batman abhors firearms” is the only workable answer to the obvious question of why a non-powered superhero operating in a city rampant with traditional street-level crime doesn’t carry a gun. Yes, we know, it’s REALLY because shooting crooks isn’t as cool as taking them out with a Batarang… er, I mean unnamed-bat-shaped-throwing-knife, sorry producer guys… but still, it’s important. Here, if he’s got NO issue mounting a gun on his bike, why wouldn’t he just keep a Bat-Glock in his belt?

01:37 – Hm. Okay, reflected in Joker’s window here we see some flared object going by, preceded by the “firing” shot of the Batpod and followed by explosions. MAYBE the “guns” are some kind of rocket/explosive launcher? Maybe. Hopefully. Live-with-able, at least, and certainly anything is better than the damn machine guns that kept popping out of the Batmobile and Batwing in the Burton film.

01:39 – Money shot, is what that’s called.

01:55 – Ledger doing his take on the mandatory Joker Cackle. Damn good. Yes, we know, EVERYONE is second-best to Mark Hammill’s version, but that’s still damn good.

01:59 – Wish I knew the first damn thing about musical terminology so I could say “that part of the score right there where the horn-type instruments start slowly rising” is a clear callback to Danny Elfman’s “Batman” score, ultimately still the most valuable and lasting contribution to the character and franchise from the Tim Burton era.

This really is, notably, much more a trailer about Joker than it is about Batman. Not surprising, since we’ve already seen Bale’s Batman and know that he owns in the part, but you get a sense of how clearly the marketers understand the need to REALLY hard-sell Ledger in the role. Hardcore fans may scoff at the idea, but it’s a fact that to the mainstream audience the idea of a “serious/scary Joker” being played by ANYONE other than Jack Nicholson is going to be a pretty big initial moment of resistance.

REVIEW: Atonement

Possible Spoilers

It goes without saying that every movie deserves to be watched all the way to the end for a proper apraisal, but only a few actually require it. If you saw even the trailer for “Transformers” (or to use an example that DIDN’T suck, “300,”) you essentially saw the movie, and no real profound surprises were going to be had. “Atonement,” on the other hand, DEMANDS that you get all the way to the very end and then chew on it for awhile; as it’s eventual “wrapup” serves as a form of highly-literate “gotcha!” as to why the film starts out so seemingly startlingly typical and derrivative.

A period costume drama, the first act occupies the innevitable Sprawling British Country Estate, occupied by the innevitable Stuffy Rich Folks and their innevitable Jolly Lower-Class Servants. Kiera Knightley is, innevitably, the Eldest Unmarried Daughter of the house; innevitably lusted-after in secret by James McAvoy’s handsome but cut-off-from-her-by-the-class-system Servant Boy (how’d you guess???) Also on hand are Saoirse Ronan as Briony, the thirteen year old younger sister of the house who is, innevitably, a spooky, introverted troublemaker because… well, because in movies like this Sprawling British Country Estates all come equipped with snooping, scheming Spooky Kids to serve as walking symbols of how the pastel faux-innocence of the time concealed dark truths made darker by The Repressions Of The Time.

“Modern” films (and books) seeking to adopt the style of genuine period melodrama innevitably (okay, I’ll stop it with that, you get the point by now) grab some sort of seemingly incongruous “attention-getter” story detail in order to “say something” about our pop-cultural learned-memories of the time. Post-modern racial awareness or 20/20 historical hindsight are the old standbys, but here it comes down to naughty language: Servant Boy fires off a suitably drippy mash note to Eldest Unmarried Daughter, only to realize too late that he’s accidentally sent her another bit of writing – a rather to-the-point celebration of her more… “tangible” attributes – “And THAT’S how Instant Messenger Flirting was invented!” would make a great alternate ending – that was supposed to be just for him. Do-it-yourself pornography? My, but isn’t he resourceful…

Lucky for Servant Boy, it turns out Eldest Unmarried Daughter is way into that sort of thing, and the two of them are promptly going at it in that very proper Costume Melodrama way where they could either be very discreetly making love or very aggressively alinging furniture with the wall. Unlucky for Servant Boy, Briony both reads the note and sees the act, leading her to flip her lid and (following an unrelated bit of profound unpleasantness) accuse Servant Boy of a heinous act that gets him bounced from the scene in a dramatic (and, yes, innevitable) Harsh Realization Of The Realities Of The Class System – because after all what’s a walking-symbol-of-how-the-pastel-faux-innocence-of the-time-concealed-dark-truths-made darker-by-The-Repressions-Of-The-Time SUPPOSED to do?

Semi-lucky(er) for Servant Boy, he’s doing his time in a “modern” period costume drama, which can only mean that World War II breaks out not long after and soon he’s trekking across battle-scarred France trying to get back to Eldest Unmarried Daughter. Meanwhile, Briony has reached adulthood and, just now figuring out that she really screwed the pooch on this one, is seeking the Atonement of the title.

So, basically, there’s a lot of the expected Masterpiece Theater/Merchant-Ivory schlock to wade through – none of it unpleasant but none of it especially unique – en-route to a couple of last minute reality-warping shifts that serve to explain WHY everything has seemed so maddeningly akin to a cliche-ridden Book Club offering… and will be regarded by audiences either as brilliantly devious or inexplicably cruel. I won’t give the reveal away (only those with a really keen eye and ear will be able to figure it out ahead of time) but it’s quite a thing. And while it doesn’t explain away every little narrative sin onhand (at least one major surprise is telegraphed embarassingly early) it’s probably the cleverest way for a period piece to write itself a license to indulge in near-camp melodramatics.

Coming to the rescue otherwise is the cast, the expected mix of seasoned British character players (hey, look! Brenda Blethyn!) and rising stars chasing period-piece street-cred (next up for McAvoy: Big Matrix-ish actioner “Wanted” with Angelina Jolie, right on schedule.) For what it’s worth, Knightley is better here than she was in “Pride & Prejudice,” but I still think she’s being incorrectly typecast in these films because of her look and accent. Her most interesting turn so far was in “Domino,” though given how hugely misunderstood THAT was it’s unsuprising she’s not doing more like it.


Japan Loves Me

(hat-tip: JoBlo, TwitchFilm)

Y’know how I know? Because they just made THIS movie:

Title: “The Machine Girl.” Premise: After a Japanese Schoolgirl sees her boyfriend murdered and gets her arm hacked off by a family of Yakuza Ninjas (!!!), she embarks on an ultra-violent revenge killing-spree using a high-powered machine gun mounted in place of her missing arm.

I live for this stuff.

REVIEW: The Golden Compass

If you’re adapting any sort of previously-created material into a movie and you want to do it properly, you’ve basically got to be beholden to TWO things: You’re vision as a filmmaker and the vision of the original-material’s creator, and not necessarily in that order. Compromising to anyone else will, generally, leave you with a lesser product. Bottom line.


So, here’s how we got here: About seven years ago, the film world got rocked hard by the one-two punch of “Harry Potter” and “Lord of The Rings” being both massively-successful and massively-excellent. Actually making a fortune off something that you’re NOT ashamed to admit you took part is an increasingly rare development in Hollywood (see: “Bay, Michael – career-of”) and everyone wanted in on the party, which amounted to the entire Barnes & Noble Young Adult Fantasy section getting bought up and filed under “greenlight.” Unlike most “me-too!” aquisition frenzies, a fair amount of these projects have actually made it to the screen; some of it good (“Lemony Snicket,”) some of it grand (“Narnia,”) some of it problematic (“Eragon”) and some of it ghastly (“The Dark is Rising.”) And somewhere, among all this, someone either clueless or amazingly optimistic snuck Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy onto the list.

A walking answer to the question “What if Richard Dawkins and Terry Brooks made a baby, and he was a bit of a humorless twit?,” Pullman fancies himself the Bizarro World C.S. Lewis. To that end, he conjured up the “Materials” kid-lit cycle as a kind of atheist/humanist counterpunch to Christian allegory of Lewis’ “Narnia.” The key difference between the two works (aside from, of course, the whole “entire worldview” thing) comes down to that word, allegory: The “Narnia” cycle remains (though not without it’s hiccups) merely evocative of it’s authors beliefs most of the way through, while Pullman opts to toss the “juicy parts” right up front with his narrative of a multiverse-spanning war between free-thinkers, scientists and (just for good measure) psuedo-pagan “witches” and the sinister despotic forces of, well… God. As in specifically the Christian God. As in I-Am-Who-Am. That God. Yes, irony of ironies: For all that time that the Christian Right spent turning itself into a pretzel trying to convince their followers that the much more popular Mr. Potter and his friends were part of a covert assault on fundamentalism; the stuff of their literal nightmares was sitting quietly by itself just a few rows down the bookshelf. Oops.

So, not only are the filmmakers saddled with material that’s (literally) BEGGING for an angry protest, it’s also a profoundly strange creature even without all the “topical” stuff: Starting out in a “steampunk” Victorian fantasy-land of airborne Witches and talking, armor-clad Polar Bears – where everyone’s soul lives outside their body as a shape-shifting animal spirit “daemon” – and getting progessively more bizzare as it starts dimension-hopping in the second two installments. This is the sort of material that requires the sort of uncompromising boldness described above. To work properly, it would need both a genre-appropriate mini-epic running time and a total commitment for better or for worse to the actual themes at play. “The Golden Compass,” unfortunately, has neither of these things… so it’s a wonder it doesn’t completely come apart. This isn’t a bad film at all, in fact for it’s often-problematic genre it’s actually pretty excellent in parts. It just never really works as a whole.

Hoping to head-off the innevitable (and, for a change, not-entirely nonsensical) ire of religious groups, the filmmakers have attempted to cut the “specifics” out of the mythos. Thus, the fascist, heretic-oppressing Magesterium is merely “suggestive” of The Vatican, while The Authority is never explicitly identified as God. Nice effort (though how they’re going to work out the second two volumes where the theology gets REALLY explicit is beyond me) but ultimately a waste: It’s done them no good, as the expected protesters and rabble-rousers are having a cow anyway; and more immediately it’s given them even MORE stuff to have to explain in a movie that’s already way, way too front-loaded with exposition.

At least 2/3rds of the film is taken up just nailing down who all the characters, groups, sides, places and gizmos are; and when it finally DOES pick up real speed in the third act it’s just a bit too brief. Indeed, a pair of climactic battle scenes (a shockingly cover-the-kiddie’s-eyes violent fistfight between two Polar Bear knights and the obligatory “everybody versus everybody else” open-field melee) are gloriously realized… but it’s all too little, too late. Unable to flesh Pullman’s narrative out to it’s needed pace and seemingly unwilling to do a heavy “make this work in the time we have” rewrite, they’ve settled for a bullet-points recap of the book with the big moments all accounted for but no great ressonance connecting them.

It’s all very well-cast, with newcomer Dakota Blue Richards proving herself a tremendous find in the lead role of Lyra. Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig have the main “name” adult roles as Miss Coulter, an icy villianess kidnapping poor children for horrific Magesterium experiments and Lord Asriel, a Magesterium-defying scholar with his own agenda; while the expected who’s-who of stalwart British character talent dutifully fill out the margins as the various kings, scholars, doctors, “Gyptians” and witches needed to deliver heavily-accented chunks of expository revelation every ten minutes or so. Christopher Lee turns up for about 30 seconds, while Ian McKellan has the Bruce-Lee-as-Kato role as Iorek Byrnison, an “Armored Bear” who becomes Lyra’s right-hand ass-kicker.

When it comes down to it, I was never expecting this to be the equal of “Rings,” “Potter” or “Narnia,” chiefly because the material just isn’t quite as good starting out (Pullman IS a fine talent in the genre, make no mistake, but take out the look-at-me Catholic-baiting and this particular series is strictly second-tier) but there’s no getting around the fact that this film just isn’t anywhere near as good as it could have been if they’d just had a little more (sorry, Mr. Pullman) faith in the material. There’s a great cast here, occupying a fascinating and splendidly-realized otherworld and participating in a genuinely intriguing story. But it’s rushing through everything much too fast, and kid-gloving it’s way through it’s most interesting ideas. It’s afraid of it’s own shadow, and thats not where any fantasy movie wants to be.