Friday, January 25, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War, or On Hot War

Robert McNamara summed it up best: “Cold war? Hell, it was a hot war!” If you want a visceral illustration of the disparities explored in Charlie Wilson’s War, you could do a lot worse than that gulf between cold – functional handshakes, photo-op smiles – and hot.

Because the hot in Charlie Wilson’s War is a killing heat. Bodies are torn apart, war machines downed in operatic fervour. Wacked out on sunstroke, nobody can seem to tell their loving and their vengeful Gods apart anymore. The action sequences, intercuts of grainy-as-guts archival and pristine staged footage, meld together, the realities on the ground conflating with the media feed until it’s all kinda lost in one deadly haze.

Walking straight down the middle of all these lines is our guy, the titular Mr. Wilson. This is where Aaron Sorkin’s careful blend of researched grounding and theatrical playfulness blends with Hanks’ unflagging affability to chuck Charlie into the realms of minor classic.

Hanks and Hoffman’s characters anchor the picture’s fluctuating perspectives – here, there, then, now, us, them – with a kind of playful Zen mastery of their own discrepancies. It’s not that Wilson is split between lecherous gadabout and Christian patriot, or Gust between hair-trigger insubordinate and dutiful spook: it’s that they somehow manage to leverage their own character flaws into serving their higher calling. If this sounds tricky on paper, just wait’ll you see it happening a half-dozen times per scene.

The most widely-viewed account of America’s covert incursion into the Afghan crisis was – ahem – Rambo III. That picture closes with a touchingly anachronistic title card: “This film is dedicated to the gallant people of Afghanistan”. Charlie Wilson’s War also ends with a title card: “We fucked it up in the endgame”.

Which brings you right back to “Strange” McNamara: ain’t hindsight a bitch?

[originally appeared on Flicks]

Monday, January 21, 2008

Lust, Caution, or On The Inherent Flaw In Unsimulated Sex Scenes

“If you pay close enough attention, nothing is trivial”, broods Tony Leung in an early scene. That might well be the best summation anyone’s ever given for Ang Lee’s films, and it’s certainly true for Lust, Caution. A director whose body of work is marked by careful attention to the fragile ground between public behaviour and private frustration, Lee here treads well-worn ground.

But the elephant in the room is always going to be the hardcore fucking.

Leung and Wei Tang are two immensely attractive people. His career is lined with memorably hangdog performances, an Asian Bogart with a touch more quirky irascibility. Her challenge, meanwhile, will be to top a remarkable performance in this breakout role. But their interplay in Lust, Caution feels somewhat forced, treading the line between “characters forced into uncomfortable behavioural contrivances” and “actors forced into clunky seduction scenes”.

The much-discussed sex sequences, then, aren’t unpleasant, just supremely disengaging. Confident onscreen sensuality is a rare feat – and there’s some fine examples here – but raw sexuality of the type Lust, Caution aims for is self-defeating in its very methodology. When confronted with sumptuously-shot footage of beautiful people engaged in unsimulated coitus, the first thought that pops into your head is always going to be, “shit, are they really doing it?”

And right there, that’s when you’ve lost the suspension of disbelief. Or, more succinctly: I am much more likely to buy your performance when it doesn’t involve familiarising myself with your bobbing scrotum.

As with Brokeback Mountain, this exaggerated passion works much better in hindsight: when all’s over, the lingering memory of those couplings is much easier to map onto the surviving characters’ melancholy. The actors’ bravery rightly fades into the background of the characters’ tragic undoing.

Which isn’t to say that it works.

[originally appeared on Flicks]

Friday, January 18, 2008

Cloverfield, or On Plot/Subplot

The marketing for Cloverfield was a beautiful piece of polarising, a super-savvy reversal in which the "clever" folks - the ones who knew when they were being marketed to, the ones who'd flick the channel at the first hint of hype or product-placement - missed most of the fun. It's as good a signpost as any for one of the delightful consequences of what we're calling the New Earnestness: the folk who were sick of being cleverer-than-thou and the guy on the street who hadn't even bothered with this whole "irony" tip got to share the fun, all holy fools giving themselves over to the breadcrumb-trail of clues and glimpses and character backstory dripfed into the fanbase. The only ones who missed out were the backward types who thought that as soon as they knew it was an advert, that was when it was time to stop watching.

So when we got to the locus of this whole nu-media blitz, the movie itself, we knew what was coming, and they knew we knew, and we knew they knew we knew. And it was part of the fun.

So often in movies the problem is not suspension of disbelief, so much as suspension of foreknowledge: we know that (say) Collateral is about a guy (Jamie Foxx) who has to drive a hitman (Tom Cruise) around for a night, so when Tom Cruise gets in the cab, we know, "ah yes, here's the hitman", and have to sit while the movie respects our notions of story by building up the character. We have to place ourselves in the shoes of the cabbie, and in a well-done movie - like, say, Collateral - it's not a huge task; but when everyone knows everything about everything, it's still an odd ask, being asked to forget everything you've learned about the movie as soon as the opening credits roll.

Well, there's precious little of that in Cloverfield. Everything we know, we're allowed to know, supposed to know. The more "promotional" material we've absorbed, the more we know about the characters, the larger context in which deep-sea rigs have been attacked and mysterious destructive forces are approaching New York. We even, by virtue of title cards at movie's opening, know that New York is about to be destroyed.

And it's mighty refreshing, innovative, clever, to see a movie that plays directly on our savvy in this particular manner. It's not afraid to speak directly to our awareness that we're watching a movie (indeed, by making the cameraman the direct personification of the film's target audience - a lovably dorky, not-particularly-attractive geek-boy - it's openly acknowledging us), but this never scuppers the film's aims. An example: when we're in the subway with the protagonists, seeing five feet in front of our faces, well aware that something's out there, it's not grating to see the characters slowly fumbling with the camera's night-vision. They don't know that as soon as the UV comes on, that the monster will be revealed about to gobble them up: why would they? We know it because it's a cinematic staple, but they don't, because it's not an everyday-life staple.

But this playful adherence to concept - the entire film is shot in one camera, carried by one band of survivors of the initial attack - also begets the film's biggest flaw: because it's so subjective, it only lasts as long as the protagonists' journey. Which ends somewhere around two-thirds of the way through the monster story.

Cloverfield has no catharsis, no "ending" either way as far as the monster attack story goes. As a document of the rocky dynamics between the five likable twentysomethings it follows, it's very, very skillful - utilising clever, compassionate craft to tread the balance between humour and terror, intimacy and voyeurism. But when all of these guys are either dead or escaped, the film's narrative just-- ends, leaving a great big gaping lack of resolution for the story itself.

Your correspondent will not for a second insult your powers of perception by pretending like it's some sort of clever revelation that this is a movie about 9/11. However, it's important to be clear that this isn't a movie that references 9/11, or a movie that's an analogy for 9/11: this is a movie that, it's fairly likely, could have been set on 9/11, until someone said, hang on, no, you can't have a shitkickin' action extravaganza with an emotional core about fictional people on 9/11.

But what we lose in the transition is that everybody knows what 9/11 is: you can do United 93 because the larger context is a matter of mass consciousness. With a movie like this, that invents a large-scale event to serve as the backdrop for intimate personal drama, the tension is in how much time needs to be given to what is to all intents the subplot: the monster attack on New York. And the answer, pragmatically, is: none whatsoever, unless it directly impacts on the main plotline, which is Rob's search for his best friend, with whom he is in love. We've got our pre-show baggage, conveyed by the viral-marketing blitz, but once the monster surfaces, we know as little as the characters do.

Of that monster, we see enough to see that, in fact, we don't really need to know or care what it is: vaguely alien, vaguely demonic, somewhat deep sea-looking, it's a perfect canvas onto which to map Godzilla or Cthulhu or whichever similarly-mythologised beastie you were hoping it would be. We don't really need to see any more of the beast than we do, and we certainly don't need its origins laboriously explained to us in a third-reel unraveling. But between it and its massed military counterpoint, there's a fairly hefty amount of narrative weight that's never really lifted. You walk away feeling unrelieved.

Cloverfield is marketed as a monster movie because it's a movie with a huge fucking monster that destroys New York. But in sneak-attacking us with a rather charming, ingeniously conveyed love story, it takes a hell of a risky gamble. It's hard not to feel gypped when there's a huge monster chasing you through Central Park, a ticking clock counting down to the military obliteration of Manhattan, and the movie's climax is a couple of fairly unengaging pieces-to-camera that tell us absolutely nothing we don't already know. Some sense of resolution needs to be reached, whether it's the Appolonian restoration of order with the monster's downfall, or the Dionysian destruction of the cultural centre of the West.

In many ways this is an opening salvo: a statement of purpose for new, interesting paradigms of storytelling, a demonstration of the much-hyped "new media" environment for telling engaging stories. And if part of that statement is that human drama should be emphasised to a fault, well, so be it. No arguments there: this would be so much worse if the characters' stories had been abandoned in favour of porny fixation on the movie's effects, which are at once masterful and just-adequate.

It's just hard not to feel that the Tagruato Corporation must resume its ethically-dubious deep-sea operations asap, because there's ridiculous amounts of unmined ground in this whole endeavour.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Misfires, Disappointments and Just Plain Shit: Ten of 07's Worst

1. The Fountain: It feels low to pick on a movie that aimed high, that really thought it had a shot at changing the world. But listen, kid: so did Showgirls. Aronovsky’s films have long divided audiences into the cognoscenti and the unappreciative: in the case of The Fountain’s grating, juvenile pop-philosophising, maybe we were united in that we all got it - we just didn’t give a shit.

2. Perfect Creature: Does anything happen in this movie? Anything at all? It’s a mercifully short exercise in one-note style-servitude, one that doesn’t care about actors or dialogue or anything that’s not its Unique Vision. This isn’t actually that unique, but it’s better than the story, a nonsensical hodgepodge of every mediocre vampires-in-latex actioner you’ve ever seen (shamefully, they’re all superior).

3. Hitman: If a person were a clever hipster, one who secretly rather liked irony and sarcasm and revelling in movies “so bad” they were in fact “good”… Well, that person should admit that the 1990s are over, get with the program and enjoy some of today’s earnestly fine cinema. But before doing so, they’d do well to rush to Hitman, which is so fucking terrible it’s awesome.

4. Beowulf: What Beowulf doesn’t seem to realise is that its big story gambit – Grendel’s mum’s a slut and the king’s his dad! – was already done in the eminently forgettable 1999 version, and it sucked there too. What Beowulf also doesn’t realise is that two hours of waxen-skinned, dead-eyed, naked Thunderbirds puppets flying at the screen does not a good movie make.

5. The Invasion: You have to feel bad for this one: originally intended as Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s English debut, the reins were handed to the increasingly hacky Wachowski siblings, who proceeded to turn out an unpalatable concoction of ridiculous retoolings and heavy-handed thematic proselytising. And Daniel Craig in an hilarious hat.

6. The Last King of Scotland: The downside of our politically-charged age is that every once in a while someone tries to sneak crap like this past. Fact is, this is facile, lazy, Hollywood-on-a-bad-day rubbish, a portrait of one of the c20th’s most fascinating tyrants that can’t think of anything more interesting to say about said tyrant than, “now there’s a guy whose wife you shouldn’t bang!”

7. Surveillance: A tiny release at this year’s Queer Film Festival ensured hardly anyone saw this textbook tutorial in how not to make a film on a small budget. Tugging its tres-topical central conceit raw, it’s amazingly poorly made, sacrificing character for nonsensical plot and plot for heavy-handed sermonising. The Crying Game this ain’t.

8. 1408: You could make the argument that a tiny Sam Jackson in the fridge, an illusory hobo with a claw hammer, and a painting that wants to drown you are no inherently stupider than, say, mysterious twins, psychosis expressed through typewriter abuse, and menacing snow animals. You could make that argument, but if you’d seen 1408, you would never even try.

9. Pan’s Labyrinth: Usually, it’s churlish in the extreme to judge a movie on the basis of its reception. However everything about Pan’s Labyrinth seems calculated to persuade audiences that they’re witnessing magic - the pic’s so busy blowing its own horn that it never actually makes time for the usual business of films: you know, telling a story, buyable effects, any kind of real enchantment.

10. Death Proof: A half-hour of perfectly good action movie (and very little else), preceded by 90 minutes of over-the-shark onanism from the increasingly trying Tarantino. And that’s 90 minutes that could’ve been spent watching flights of fancy from Wright, Rodriguez and Roth. Thanks, international distributors – you’re a peach!

2007's Top Ten Films

(In what laughingly attempts to pass as order of merit)

1. The Dead Girl: A minimum of fanfare greeted this perfectly-cast, deftly written, passionately subdued collection of fables about Missing White Women. That’s a shame, because beneath all the meticulous grime and alt-country angst lies a lasting, poignant set of vignettes about loss, grief, the ugly side of love, and why it might all be worth it.

2. 28 Weeks Later: Purists went in with dismissive scoffs nigh-itching in their throats: Boyle’s no-zombies genre-buster, given a sequel? With Americans?? Where the picture trumps its illustrious peer, though, is in skipping past the wanton destruction and fleshy contagion-angst and being a whole movie of human weakness arsing the whole thing up – which is where every zombie pic since Living Dead has wound up anyway. As such, it succeeds in areas the socio-political nightmare its genre stablemates only ever manage to pay groaning, jaw-torn-off lip-service to.

3. The Brave One: Vigilante dramas will always seem timely, urgent, ready to be lauded as “ripped-from-the-headlines”©. So let’s skip any of the musings about setting a revenge drama in contemporary New York and cut to the good stuff: This is not a particularly well-written story, and it’s only clever on paper inasmuch as it’s Death Wish with boobies. However. As a knowing work of genre, lent gravitas by Foster and made sublime by Jordan, it’s an ingenious condemnation of everything for which it seems to stand. You’ve heard the songs before – but just wait till these guys play ‘em.

4. Sunshine: Do sci-fi onscreen, don’t skimp on the ideas, make it as cinematic as it can be without losing the deep plot and character, and you’ll always have a hit, be it box-office gold or cult treasure. Easy, right? Sure, that’s why nobody’s got it this right since the original Matrix. Sunshine is beautiful, it’s scary (profoundly, not just in a boogedy-boo space-monster kind of way); and most exhilarating of all, the pic genuinely feels new and adventurous. How often can you say that?

5. Breach: Slotting between Casino Royale’s real-spies-are-cunts angst and The Bourne Ultimatum’s real-spies-are-tortured-Superman psychodrama, Breach posits that real spies, real turncoats and double-agents and world-weary fighters for good, are basically office drones for whom the KPIs just happen to involve the safety of the free world. Off the back of the superb Shattered Glass, director Billy Ray crafts another story where truth is given its due weight, once again centred around a nominal villain who, by pic’s end, you can’t help wishing could come out ok.

6. Black Snake Moan: You could sit through a million pitch meetings and never arrive at a notion like this one. Reeling you in with sexy Southern Gothic weirdness, the pic’s beating heart is one of compassion, grace, victory through endurance. Oh, and check it out – turns out Sam Jackson can still act. Like a motherfucker.

7. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: A title so good that Brad Pitt’s contract forbade its alteration, you can almost read the whole movie in its rhythm: Starting out violent and brash, the picture crafts legendry around Pitt’s well-turned down-home realness, becoming increasingly melancholy as James’ destiny becomes manifest. Affleck’s bravery is in realising that his best features are brought out under Pitt’s shadow, so that when James exits the stage, Ford becomes a haunted wanderer, cinema’s most tragic coulda-been since Rupert Pupkin.

8. Zodiac: True to career form, David Fincher follows up a mediocre exercise in stylistic wankery (Panic Room) with another movie that redefines our expectations of what to expect from him – and from cinema. If the brilliant Se7en’s main legacy is a sad succession of grimy exploitation pics claiming a basis in fact, what better way to put the whole tired genre in an unmarked grave?

9. Hot Fuzz: Ladcore mischief-makers Pegg, Frost and Wright’s pastiche of the big-dick-cop action genre isn’t as pitch-perfect as Shaun of the Dead or Spaced – but then, maybe that’s why “cops” is such an under-tilled field next to “flatmates” and “zombies”. As the weakest of their works, that makes it merely the coolest police-procedural comedy since Beverly Hills Cop – punch that shit!

10. The Bourne Ultimatum: After the grim misfires of Supremacy, Greengrass and Damon regrouped to turn in the smartest tent-peg blockbuster of the year – which also happens to be the finest of 07’s considerable crop of trilogy-conclusion pics. Smartly plotted, sublimely cast, and presented with such panache you could almost forget that the script played like a Seagal movie…

[Parts of this article due to appear on Flicks]

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Daily Woes of Frid Of Flint-And-Stone

I cave am dark. I cave am dark and it am cold. Wrap I beast fur tighter around I but still I get shake-of-cold.

Leave I cave. See Birni Of Broken Stone. Him am whip beast of tooth, make beast of tooth to cut grass front of him cave. Not cut grass beast of poison hide in grass, bite and kill. So beast of tooth cut grass.

I say Of day, Birni! Birni smile and say Of day, Frid! I ask Birni Birni, hear you story-man tale last firelight-time?

Birni him hear story-man tale last firelight-time. Birni wonder if story-man him trancewander less wide these moon. Birni say Story-man, him not so fanciful. Birni say Story-man, him just yap him jaw hope we enjoy. Story-man say Birni, him not trancewander skilful.

No I say Birni, No story-man him still trancewander skilful. I say Usual for moons of cold, story-man copy story-man story little. Story-man not trancewander realm of Gods all moon round. Some story-man he just trancewander next valley. Story-man I say, Him got plan for saga. Him know where saga headed. I say When story-man tie saga together, Birni be happy he keep come firelight-time. Birni say him, Hope so. Birni say him, Him like go firelight-time but hate when story-man not make firelight-time glow. Half-dozen story-man and nothing to hear, lament Birni. Laugh I. Half-dozen story-man and nothing to hear.

Tx Of Hardened-Stone, him join us yawp. Say he, Who is story-man you talk of? Say he, Am Tx meant to recognise story-man tales? Sorry, say Tx, But he do not! Say I Yes, Tx, everyone know you not come firelight-time. Tx interrupt me. Not come firelight-time, he ask? Him not even know where firelight-time AM!

Wonder I why folk not come firelight-time think it make they so clever. Tx not even know who Mighty Gzo Slay Of Urken am. It embarrass. Make clever cultural reference to Mighty Gzo Slay Of Urken, Tx don't get; have to yawp on DON'T KNOW WHO THIS GZO SLAY OF URKEN AM! Just admit you Tx, no good at keep up with firelight-time. No need try make out like you sooth-man or nothing.

I kin Pibble, her get in fight with Birni kin Bm-Bm. Say her Bm-Bm, stick am mighty playtoy! No such say Bm-Bm, Rock am mighty playtoy much great. Pibble heft rock some, say No fun rock. Bm-Bm call she Frond-Churl, tell she Just jealous cause all good game am play with rock. Her tell Bm-Bm Tree wisdom make better stick, work out mighty game of stick, then maybe Bm-Bm be Frond-Churl. Bm-Bm tell she Pibble just poor, can't afford get rock for self. Bm-Bm say he Stick am casual playtoy, rock am hardened-core playtoy. Maybe them both Frond-Churl.

Slate-Rock Man, him tell me Sun am high, toiling-time am ready! Slate-Rock Man him get argue with Inild. Inild say New ways Slate-Rock Man
not see. Inild say he Many little slate-rocks, make equal good rock-tool. Say he Each man be own slate-rock man. Ask all to give Inild little piece here and there, be part of new slate-rock age. People give Inild little thing here, little thing there, wonder Inild going make many slate-rocks now? But Inild use all little bits make big painting of Inild with many little slate-rock. People they get angry, stone Inild dead. Now Slate-Rock Man him boss again.

Sun am high, toiling-time am ready! Until next moon-time, Of day from strange modern age!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Aliens vs Predator: Requiem, or On Another Clip Show

There are three things that unify all fans of movies of this ilk.

(1) When movies they like invariably get bad reviews, they will go online and spew vitriol about how little regard they have for critics and why can't people just enjoy a good kickass movie it doesn't have to be Oscar bait blah blah blah.

(2) They are utterly incapable of refraining from talking loudly for the duration of a movie, even a short, max-session-times, palatable-runtime movie such as this.

(3) A mocking irony of movies such as
Aliens vs Predator is that movies with "versus" in the title - having done time in both the video rental and video game retail sectors, I can say this with absolute certainty - is that movies with "versus" in the title are made pretty much exclusively for people who can't pronounce the word "versus".

In short, nobody who has any chance of honestly enjoying
Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem (or, as they would have it, Aliens Verse Predda: Requirum) has any chance whatsoever of reading this review. So fuck those idiots. On with the show.

Welcome to Make It Yourself!, the super-fun rainy-day activity guide. This week, we’ll be showing you how to make Aliens VS Predator: Requiem. You will need: a blender; cellulose tape; VHS copies of the original Alien and Predator movies.

Using a screwdriver (get an adult to help), take apart the cassettes. Unthread the tape, and place it in the blender. Activate the blender so that the tape becomes a mess of variously-sized bits of movie, and stick them back together using the cellulose tape. Doesn’t matter what goes where!

Give your movie a name! You can go with Requiem if you like, but as this word has absolutely zero relevance to the goings-on in the picture, any word in the English language will do equally well.

Thread the reassembled melange of scenes, shots and sounds back onto a videocassette. Placing the cassette in your VCR machine, enjoy your handiwork. Play some CDs of the soundtracks from the original movies in the background as you watch.

If your cutting-and-pasting isn’t perfect, you may find the picture somewhat jarring, the edits incomprehensible, the screen sometimes filled with ugly, nauseating noise. We in the film business refer to this as stylishness.

You may also notice that some scenes, while pretty much shot-for-shot as they appeared in the original movies, now make no sense out of context, and appear to have been placed within the movie solely to remind you of what it’s like to watch an Alien or Predator movie. This dull, soulless sense that your nostalgia is being cynically preyed on – together with an ugly awareness that the only real innovation in your new Aliens VS Predator movie is that some torture-porn has slipped into the mix – is a sensation commonly referred to by psychiatrists as “living in the 21st century”.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Kite Runner, or On Something Nice For The Old Folks

Remember when “arthouse” was an attitude, rather than a colour palette?

Disclosure: your correspondent has not read The Kite Runner. He is aware it has been passed up by many notable awards committees, and a quick Googling reveals that of those who bought it in airport bookstores, the majority were happy with their purchase. But even très-topical holiday-reads don’t get onto bestseller lists (third place, mind!) by being this mediocre.

So, fine: The Kite Runner is not a terrible film. Oh, the first act is assuredly terrible – all mawkish truisms and adorable foreign kids doing adorably foreign stuff like flying kites and prison-raping each other – and the second act is a bit plodding, providing exactly the sort of blandness you’d expect if a bunch of Hollywood execs made a movie about what it’s like to move to the West. But the third act, while scarcely credible, at least has a little bit of meat to it, somewhere between the easy-answer resolutions and glossed-over pathos.

(Here’s the extent of that glossing: one character was changed from a blond-haired neo-Nazi in the book to a vaguely racist Taliban in the movie, presumably because Nazism is like, a total downer, man. Can’t you see? We’re all people underneath it all, apart from the Taliban, who’re just cartoon monsters, and Nazis, who don’t exist).

As your correspondent still has not read the book, he can’t tell you how much of the cloying, aren’t-their-backward-ways-delightful tone is a carry-over therefrom, and how much is Forster’s middling direction (guy can do character like nobody’s business; too bad it all falls apart as soon as it becomes characters). But being as the film’s entire purpose seems to be to provide middle-aged white folks with some subtitles to read so’s they feel worldly, such hardcore half-assedness just kind of – meh – blends right in.

[originally appeared on Flicks]

Alvin and the Chipmunks, or On Awfulness

Glides effortlessly past bad, sashays gleefully through terrible and passes through the other side of awful to emerge as utterly reprehensible.

The titular three malformed, hypersexual, anally-fixated, scatologically-obsessed affronts to God’s creation wreak their havoc across a variety of mortifying setpieces with the aid of poor patsy Jason Lee. A closet Scientologist, Lee now has his own travesty to place on his mantel aside Battlefield Earth and the entire offscreen life of Tom Cruise.

The story is perfectly acceptable, provided that this is the first work of narrative entertainment one has ever encountered; anyone who has ever seen or read or heard anything else in the world, however, will quickly grow tired of the woeful deficiencies in plot, character, internal logic, possibility on this world or any other. (The central conceit – talking chipmunks! - we will allow by virtue of the standard filmic device of the One Implausible Object, or, if you are of a spiritual bent, as proof of the physical presence of evil in the world).

This wide-eyed disbelief will compete with one’s groaning disgust at the story itself, which is probably the single most wilfully clichéd thing ever written. Again, if entirely unversed in narrative, one could almost miss this; however, if this were the case, the movie would be utterly incomprehensible, revolving as it does around incredibly lame digs at the music industry circa whenever Alvin and the Chipmunks could last be seen on syndicated television. (Breaking point reached through ethical umbrage at the notion of lipsynching? Fucking seriously??)

Children, who the film addresses as sexually precocious little brand-junkies, deserve better. Adults will invariably feel a subtle, unshakeable malaise. If you, out there in Internet-Land, are contemplating having children, you would do well to bring them into the world, for the specific purpose of forbidding them to witness this monstrosity.

[originally appeared on Flicks]

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Things I Didn't Get in 2007

Not Liking Spiderman 3. How exactly, in a year that included the indecipherably un-fun Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and the business-as-usual Ocean's 13, did Spiderman 3 become the catchall reference for shitty threequels? (Have you people even seen Star Wars III?) So fars as I can see, nerds (ie the people who movies are made for now) hate Spiderman 3 because it dares to have fun with the formula, pointing out that their gawky Mary-Sue is actually a self-obsessed poseur waiting to happen, and bringing this unpleasant eventuality to the fore via the unforgivable crime of emo-referencing stylishness. (But then, I don't get the development of "emo" as perjorative shorthand for "the kids are getting it all wrong" either).

Spiderman 3 kicks it off early with the de rigeur superhero motif of "out of control train as metaphor for inescapable destiny" (which, for the love of God, is what the unwatchably self-important second movie's notable for already), but quickly redeems itself by dodging the usual soap-opera histrionics and expressing the hero's struggle with his own darkness not through gritty psychological sturm und drang but via self-deprecating dorkiness. And surely what we're supposed to like about this guy from the get is that he's kind of a self-deprecating dork anyway, yes? Anyway, the movie then ends this act by - what more do you people need?? - having Topher Grace walk into a church, kneel before Jesus Christ, and plaintively ask Him to kill Spiderman, by which point it's inescapably obvious that this movie is actually fucking great.

Pan's Labyrinth. It was one of the least engaging, most overbearingly slick and soulless pictures of the year, and because it had fucking subtitles it was just as ceaselessly lauded from all quarters as the even-worse Night Watch. If this shit was in English and not set during a period in history that nobody knows about because there aren't any FPSes set during it, everyone would be rightly pointing out that the story was a trite mess cribbed wholesale from The Diamond Age and the production values were about the standard of a direct-to-dvd adaptation of a Vertigo comic. Not the good ones, the every-second-panel-is-someone-getting-shot-in-the-head ones.

Flight of the Conchords. Look, before you have me exiled, yes, they're lovely young folks and the songs are oh so funny because they mix prock braggadocio with unremarkable-ordinariness lyrics; I get that. And if you're liking it, that's just great, because Rhys Darby has some very crawly scenes and the non-actors hold their own in their scenes with him because they just have to play unremarkable fellows and that's their schtick, and besides which, they're lovely young folks and basically good, and yes, the show could be a lot worse-made, as evidenced by pretty much every other NZ television show, which is worse-made. (Of course, there's always the fact that it's American money and HBO production staff overseeing it, but seeings as the band produced and Two Cars One Night wrote and directed it, let's let that slide). Flight of the Conchords is basically good.

My thing is I just can't stand comedians with guitars. I just don't see why songs and comedy are meant to be intrinsically linked. If I wanted to listen to a song, why would I listen to one with jokes I'd already heard when I could just listen to a good song? It's not that the Conchords have bad songs; it's just that their entire schtick is predicated on their music being a perfectly adequate pastiche of proper music. Which means that if I tell you the Conchords have a song that's a perfectly adequate pastiche of, say, Barry White, but with lyrics about an abstractly recognisable suburban mundanity that's not particularly sexy... well, isn't that the entire joke? Why would you then need to listen to the song more than once (if at all)? And then set this to video and force the band to mug and leer at the camera and be constantly jabbing us in the ribs with their "isn't it HILARIOUS how CHEESY we're being!" tone, and you're left with a far above-average NZ comedy that is unfortunately peppered with very, very grating musical interludes.

Halo 3. Gears of War. Bioshock. If you started your series by announcing that your hero would be a nameless, faceless everygrunt and the content would be pretty much nonstop blowing shit up real good, it beats the hell out of me why you'd think the third instalment should be a mythically-charged epic, a WWI war-poem with plasma rifles, in which we're treated to lengthy story sequences about the charged destiny of the (still nameless, faceless) protagonist.

By comparison, if someone said you should make yet another videogame about staunch grunty white dudes who were like a parody of any already-parodised action movie hero you could think of, and what's more you should make the controls unfathomable and overreliant on context-sensitive scripts (for those with girlfriends, what this basically means is that you walk the hero from one space to another, then a large red glyph flashes onscreen, and you press the corresponding large red button, and the little man onscreen does something cool that you have no control over and it makes you feel good), surely you'd say, "no, instead I'd like to make an interesting game, there's more market for interesting games"? One would think.

But then, if you did try to make an interesting game, you might just end up making the world's okayest video game, which is called Bioshock. Are you familiar with games where the action is viewed from behind the eyes of the (often somewhat nominal) protagonist, and the plot basically consists of shooting people until it's time to watch someone make a speech? Yes, I like them too (what's not to like, right?), but why does this one have such a high opinion of itself? Isn't it just another game with a patchy story and a few neat acquirable special moves? I mean, yeah, sure, great, but ludologically speaking, that's basically Ghouls and Ghosts on the Sega Master System we're describing here.

Is it really all that clever to have all your characters named after clunky puns on the works of Ayn Rand? Why? Is it saying something amazing and hitherto-undiscovered about the first-person shooter genre that you (the character) are made to follow arbitrary objectives even while you (the player) are being bombarded with arguments against the ethical/philosophical soundness of those objectives? (I feel I've actually made Bioshock sound more deeply interesting than it in fact is there). Why? Narratologically, Bioshock is at least as impressive as many sci-fi paperbacks from the 1970s (drugs as metaphor for human weakness? You don't say!), but the cover art isn't as engaging.

OverCapitalising EveryFucking GroupOfWords. I'm not sure why, but this actually makes me feel physically ill. It's just so vogue and unnecessary. We're at the point now where not only does everything new have to be CamelCapped (this is the DeRigeur name for it), but we're even retroactively CamelCapping things that weren't made after 2005 and hence never ought to have been written like this. MotherFucker, I saw RoboCop and The NeverEnding Story back when dvds only came on cassette, and lemme tell you, they only had one capital letter per word back then! If God had wanted us to have six capital letters in every three-word title, He'd have put twelve Shift keys on our keyboards.

Tangentally, for the love of everything that is right in the world: Web 2.0, learn to fucking spell.

Billy Corgan thinking he could get away with it. People put out bad records all the time. People do pompous shit all the time. Even allowing for this level of common-or-garden misguided behaviour, though, 2007 was an embarrassing time to be a fan of the Smashing Pumpkins. It's not that their music was particularly bad (though it certainly wasn't particularly good), so much as the shameful, half-assed pursuit of this Interntube 2.0 audience that someone at Smashing Pumpkins Marketing HQ has heard tell of. The high-water mark for embarrassing attempts at hipness would be Corgan and Chamberlin's confused, befuddled-old-men routine on their much-hyped Youtube Q&A sessions: sitting awkwardly, shifting-eyed and embarrassed, the two rock 'n' roll grandpappies mumbled their way through a half-dozen stupid answers to even stupider questions, using the preparation time afforded by a good month's lead-in time to come up with answers that proved they have no idea what is happening in this crazy old world with its roll-and-shake music and tippitty-tap computers.

This would be the most embarrassing thing about liking the Smashing Pumpkins in 2007, except that they closed the year by announcing the Itunes-only release of "American Gothic, the title of which is 'continued comment on the state of our country'". Whatever the hell that means. Yes indeed, about the best way to be a Smashing Pumpkins fan in 2007 was to ignore the Smashing Pumpkins and listen to lots of My Chemical Romance.

Youtube. Some way through typing the above, I realised that my description of a sucky Youtube Q&A session about a rock band from the mid-90s was actually a better description of the much-hyped, much-maligned, much-unwatched Youtube Presidential Debates. (And yet, to show where my priorities seem to lie, no editing was undertaken).

Who decided that it was a sensible idea to have webcam enthusiasts quiz the world's next Presidents on their stand on the issues of the day? Have they met the Internet? About the most lasting impression formed by Youtube in 2007 was that Chris Crocker is a shrewd, sharp little meta-savvy post-human bundle of intriguingness, which pretty much sums up how consequential Youtube managed to be. How long before we get video that's of a watchable quality on the Internet? And how long after that before we start taking it for granted and go back to, you know, writing things down? Because if the only way out of this New Media revolution is through, can we hurry it up?