Monthly Archives: February 2005

Napoleon Dynamite

I saw Napoleon Dynamite yesterday afternoon. This is good, because now I only have one thing left to do before my trip. This is also good because I really, really liked it. It’s bad, though, because I have no clear idea how to express what about it I liked. I mean, even to myself. It has everything I don’t like in a movie. Deliberately framed shots that scream ‘look, I’m a movie over here!’ Characters in which I have no legitimate interest. Slice of life reality as the setting. A plot resolution that came essentially from nowhere. And yet, there’s some kind of perfect storm thing going on, because I thought that the combination of all the elements was great, such that none of them really even bothered me during the few times I wasn’t actively enjoying myself.

Perhaps it’s because everything touched by Mormons is pure gold.

Probably not, though. I know it was funny, but funny isn’t really enough to make me want to see it again and recommend it to people, by itself. Lots of things are funny. Most things don’t leave me with a goofy smile on my face just thinking about bits and pieces of it, or having a similarly goofy conversation last night with a friend who independently saw it for the first time the same day, with the whole ‘”Do you remember the cow?!” laugh of hilarity while everyone else stared at us’ thing going on. This did, though.

And, yeah, I eventually came to care what happened to a few of the characters. This is unusual, in movies where I don’t care during the first ten minutes or so.

You may note I haven’t described the plot. This is because I don’t even really know what that was, although I know a little better than I know why I liked it so much. In short, it’s about this kid in high school in Idaho, the template upon which high school geeks are drawn, and a snapshot of a few weeks in his life during which Things Change. Which still doesn’t say a lot, since that is (except for the character and duration being specified) that point at which any story should be told, if it expects to be even mildly interesting.

In short: Weird scenario, but funny. Mormons. Good, but I can’t say why exactly. Is this entry worthless? I think it is.

Bubba Ho-tep

Sure, there are lots of mummy movies. Like the one with Brendan Fraser and the one with Abbot & Costello. And there are lots of JFK movies, like the one with Martin Sheen and the one by Oliver Stone. And there are lots of Elvis movies, like, um… y’know, it’s weird that people don’t make Elvis movies, but I guess there’s still Jailhouse Rock and the one with the clambake.

My point is, this ground is well-trodden. What you don’t see very often is any two of them in the same place. And all three? Unheard of! Except, obviously, not anymore. That’d be pretty weird, if I was just blathering on about things that don’t go together, randomly. But I (unlike previously) digress. The point of all this is that a movie pitting the elderly and retirement-homed King of Rock & Roll and most recently assassinated President (or so they would have us believe, to the point of dying him black to further the cover-up) against a redneck mummy out to steal their souls was made a few years ago, receiving a limited theatrical release and the beginnings of a cult following on DVD.

The story is simple. Simple enough that what I started to write would be a restatement of what I already just said, so I’ll skip that. What makes it good is the mood and the leisurely pacing. It’s easy to get lost in the sad lives of these men, sad because they believe they’re really Elvis and Kennedy, sad because they believe they’re saving their fellow inmates from a soul-sucking mummy, and sadder by far if they really are who they say they are. I’m making it sound depressing, and it is, but it’s also not. It’s hilarious, at times a little scary, and the melancholy mood lends it enough gravitas that it doesn’t turn out to be the cheesy B-movie it so desperately wants you to believe it is. Instead, it’s a story about heroes who still have legitimate heroism left in them fighting against a villain who isn’t just robbing them of their souls, but of what little dignity they have left.

For a movie that is about, well, you know, it has a great deal of heart to it. On top of which, it’s very, very funny. I can’t really think of a reason for anyone not to watch it.

The Amber Spyglass

All things considered, I’d rather live in the parallel universe where Philip Pullman wrote a better conclusion to his fairly nifty parallel universe trilogy, His Dark Materials.

I suppose I’m obligated to say more.

So, despite my continued enjoyment of the main characters and their struggles, most of what’s left went way, way downhill at the end. The Church badness got more cartoonish than ever. The climactic battle was barely a battle and in no way climactic (although it did have a satisfying Cost associated with it). Dangers to the characters were consistently resolved in deus ex machina ways, which is incredibly ironic in this particular plot. Several interesting things happened, but seemed to be only tenuously related to the previous two books of storyline. And even now, I have no clear idea who He is, nor what His Dark Materials are, or whether I should be concerned about them, happy, or something else entirely.

Could some of this be my problem and not the author’s? Sure, I suppose it could be. But I like my odds. I’m inclined to say that two books were squashed into one to achieve trilogy status. Which I suppose is a nice change from one book being extended to three, but ultimately, the reader suffers either way. One book in one book’s worth of pages, please.

I did like the titular amber spyglass and in fact the entire storyline associated with it. Except for the part at the end, where Lyra is supposed to be tempted like Eve was. I think I can cobble together a pretty good explanation of the temptation, the choice, the outcome, and all that, but I disapprove of the fact that it didn’t play out the way it was prophecied to earlier in the book, because it left me thinking that the point of the whole series had never actually occurred. There I was, waiting for event X, and event Y happens instead, the book ends, and I have to spend the next day or so working out that, no, that really was what he meant, he just forgot to write the part where it was in any way related to the characters I had been promised would be involved.

Looking up, I feel like I ought to include spoiler protection, except that if it never happened, how can it be a spoiler? And also except for the fact that the above is a jumbled, barely literate mish-mash of words that mean essentially nothing, and will probably even confuse people who have read the book, much less people who haven’t. If it helps any, this matches my own state of mind when I passed the climactic chapter and reached end-story land. Without the story, y’know, ending.

(Also, I was not particularly satisfied with how the story did end, but that is not the fault of the author and so falls outside the boundaries of this particular review. I can easily see how it could be satisfying to people who are not me.)

Alone in the Dark

The first good thing I can say about Alone in the Dark is that, not ever having played the games it’s rumored to be based on, I can only see the faint outlines of the travesty that has been visited on the series, rather than being forced to embrace it in all its horror.

The next good thing I can say about it is that it doesn’t have a whole lot of needless plot getting in the way of the story. In fact, whenever plot does crop up, it is handled by Exposition Lad, a spirit that roams freely throughout the movie, initially possessing a museum security guard but willing and able to leap into any warm body as needed. This leaves Christian Slater free to brood, Tara Reid free to pout and take off her sweater, and Stephen Dorff free to shoot at things which are, as you might expect, in the dark.

The final good thing I can say about the movie is that it was absolutely snarktastic. Exactly bad enough to make mocking easy for the whole family, while at the same time just engaging enough that it’s more fun to wait for the next snark than turn it off and go on about eating your popcorn in the dark.

Problems: The two lead males did fine, but the rest of the acting was terrible. Terrible. Laylah speculates that Slater only took the role for a free grope at Tara Reid, and… well, it would explain a lot. The directing was also bad. Uwe Boll, who brought you the absolute worst sequence I’ve seen on celluloid in his first video game adaptation, House of the Dead, … I need to pause and paint this picture.

The House of the Dead
is the first of a series of arcade and now console games where you have a gun instead of a joystick and shoot at zombies on the screen. You know the type, with the “reload” warning sound and you shoot off the screen to get more of an endless supply of bullets? So, there they are, the characters that haven’t had sex yet, shooting at all the zombies on the cursed island. This Boll guy, he thinks that, maybe in order to emphasize the game roots to his movie, he thinks that a good idea would be to edit in multiple animated screen shots from the game to intersperse with his actors woodenly marching forward and shooting at the camera. Seriously.

So, yeah. Mr. Boll has bettered his skills only by comparison here. The fact that he’s made a trademark out of blaring techno music while characters with guns shoot at hordes of evil things in incomprehensibly edited montages would be really funny, if he wasn’t listed for three more video gamemovies over the next two years.

Really, though, without that two minute sequence, the rest of the movie was about as good as any other generic horror, not good enough to convince people to see who wouldn’t have gone anyway, bad enough to be fun without being depressing. My remaining complaint may be a spoiler, but it’s the kind of spoiler that people need to know when making up their minds, so here it is.

At no point in the film (and believe me, I was watching for it) was Christian Slater alone in the dark. It was a middle finger raised to the genre. Like setting Deep Blue Sea in the pool at the YMCA or Halloween in mid-April. Uwe Boll is fired.

P.S. If anyone actually sees it after reading this, a couple of things to watch for: The broken generator scene that was clearly put in as an example to film students of when a sequence serves absolutely no purpose, and the big scary payoff scene where the much-scarier-than-what-we’ve-been-fighting-all-along monster is revealed to be… well, I shouldn’t ruin it completely.

Half-Life: Blue Shift

Last night, I got around to hooking up my new computer speakers. Once you have an upgrade like that, your only choice is to dig out a new game. Conveniently, I had an old new game laying around, in the form of Half-Life: Blue Shift, the second and final expansion of the original game.

In the third perspective of the Black Mesa incident, security guard Barney Calhoun finds himself surrounded by a collapsing experimental facility, terrified scientists, impersonal military clean-up crews, and hideous alien monstrosities. In other words, if you’re looking for something new and different, pick up Half-Life 2 instead.

The game is short in a way that I haven’t experienced since Luigi’s Mansion. It doesn’t have any new monsters or weapons, or even all the monsters or weapons from either of the previous two games. It does have the same Half-Life charm, though. Puzzle-solving at its finest in a shooter, occasional scares, a well-realized world, and people to save who, unlike in previous episodes, you actually have a chance of saving. The only thing that makes it hard to recommend is that the G-Man has far too light a touch. But that’s okay. That’s what Half-Life 2 is for.

Kushiel’s Avatar

One of the unfortunate things I’ve run into while doing this is just how many series of books I’m in the middle of. It seems like every other book I review, I have to go back and review the rest of the series, too. It’s not like I can assume that just because I’ve read the earlier books, everyone has (although I only do this with the first book I review of a series, which implies I assume that any reader is intimately familiar with the contents of my endeavour here, and what does that say about me?), and so I have to review the series at the same time as the book. (Note to authors: this is not a valid excuse to recap your entire series in the process of writing each new book. Assume we’ve read the earlier ones. Please.) Still, the number of series I’m in the middle of with no review yet is shrinking, so that’s nice.

Case in point: I’ve just finished the Kushiel’s Legacy series. Set against the backdrop of a medieval-era Europe-that-might-have-been, Phèdre, unwanted whore’s get (as she’ll tell you herself, early and often), has learned well the arts of covertcy and love as well as many languages, she has faced down the military invasion of her homeland and machinations to steal its throne, she has found love coupled with understanding, and is now ready to set out on her greatest adventure: to prevent a horror from sweeping across her world, at the behest of Kushiel, God’s angel of punishment who has marked her as his own to experience pain as pleasure, and to learn the Name of God in order to save her oldest friend from a fate worse than death. (You may be thinking to yourself, wow, that’s quite a sentence there, chump. I make no apologies. Onward!)

As usual, the bare plot of Kushiel’s Avatar is romance novel simple, but what Jacqueline Carey fills it with is sheer delight. A protagonist with a compelling voice, intrigues galore, a map full of new places to visit, and a cast of interesting characters. Sure, the travelogue has been done before, and really a lot, but as long as you don’t hate it just for the sake of itself, this is one of the good ones.

Contrary to previous episodes, the sex felt a little more frequent and graphic. At times unnecessarily so, which had not previously happened. The plot, though simple, is a little bit overlarge. I felt like there were two books in there, each a bit too small to work for the publisher in these days of doorstop publishing, but the total a little large to be contained in one story. Still, it was entertaining, just not quite as tight as the previous two books.

To her credit, Carey has kept each story self-contained, which goes a long way to forgiving books of that size. Self-contained, yes, but with excellent hooks between novels. As such, the hooks at the end of this volume left me with intrigued questions. Whether there’s not ever another book and the answers are up to me, or whether another book of Phèdre’s exploits will be coming along in a few years, or whether (this is my personal bet) another book set in the same world with a new protagonist will be coming along in a few years: however it turns out, I’m satisfied with both the ending and the questions. That’s a rare treat. (Well, it used to be, but I’m reading better books these days. In any case, it’s a rare treat among the vast majority of stories that get published.)

Monsturd: revisited

Friday marked an unprecedented occurrence, which probably went unremarked by people who aren’t me, but it bears scrutiny. I received a slightly misplaced comment from Rick Popko, the writer and director of the recently un-reviewed indie flick Monsturd. I present that comment here, in its entirety.

I guess you didn’t like Monsturd, then, eh? Sorry about that. We did the best we could for our $3,000 production budget. We’re making the sequel now called RetarDEAD. You can see a teaser trailer of the movie on our site www.4321films.com (click on the poster).

-Rick

In light of this new information, I feel obliged to provide an actual review instead of an overly snarky dismissal. My lesson has been learned, even if the odds of any other creator stumbling upon my modest endeavor are, well, awfully low.

Monsturd was formulaic, yes, but in the good way. Sure, the serial killer was going to fall into a vat of toxic chemicals and become an unspeakable monster. And the title gives away fairly well what kind of monster. And naturally there’s only one person who can stop him, the wholly adequate town sheriff. But it has things you wouldn’t expect, too. The obsessed FBI agent and the insane biochemist at odds with each other who, I’m told, will be back for the sequel. And of course the entomologist who presents one of the best film metaphors in ages, his collection of a million flies. (Of nearly equal amusement value is the part where he keeps them in a wire cage, and they still only come out when he opens the door.) And am I a big fan of the Pepto-Bismol-filled waterguns? You bet!

But that’s my real problem with the movie. It had ten pretty good opening minutes, ten excellent closing minutes, and about ten other good minutes scattered through the middle. And severals tens of minutes that alternate between unnecessary and downright disappointing. Sure, it’s my taste talking here, but I don’t really need to see the ten minute vomiting scene anymore. It’s been done often enough.

And while on the one hand, I can’t expect the movie to get from point A to point B without a reasonable discovery of what the hell is going on transition, on the other hand, I could have asked for a little more than the same treks through sewers with a piece of the puzzle revealed at the end of each otherwise identical trek, and for better dialogue in the sewers. Because, the townsfolk interactions, the police station scenes, all of those were fine. The sewers flat-out bored me, and your tension area can’t be boring. It breaks the rules, badly. I can handle the bad acting. It’s part of a $3000 budget. And speaking of that, the special effects surpassed the budget in every way. It gives one hope for one’s dream of making a lesbian zombie softcore/polemic. But if I’m bored when I’m supposed to be (even if only a little bit) scared, that I can’t take.

So, did I like Monsturd? Well, okay, not really. Would I have liked it with other people in the room? A lot moreso, at the least. But it had promise, enough so that I want to see the sequel advertised above, which is much more up my alley. Special-needs adults transformed into zombies by an insane biochemist, and the town must figure out a way to survive. Seriously, I’m there. So, in deference to my admitted tastes, and at least as much so to the fact that I sold Rick short a couple of weeks ago, I present the link to his next opus. And, if he wants to send me an advanced copy, well, I wouldn’t bitch about it.

The Phantom of the Opera

Musicals: sometimes I like them. It helps if the entire world doesn’t join in randomly and without feeling the slightest bit self-conscious about it (see South Pacific, although there are exceptions that can make this work, such as if it’s happening due to demonic interference). And it probably makes me overly trendy and without taste that I like Andrew Lloyd Webber better than the generic musicalisician, but nevertheless I do, and it’s too late to do anything about it now. Although in my defense, I hate Cats, as is good and proper.

The upshot of all this is that it was inevitable that I’d go see The Phantom of the Opera as a movie, despite the near universal panning it took. And here’s the thing. It didn’t only not suck, but was, with just a few exceptions, really good. In some aspects better than I’ve ever seen it onstage.

Problems: Too melodramatic. This went away after the first few scenes, which is good. Because that kind of thing works on stage, but makes a movie feel goofy. I’m not sure why there should be such a difference here, but there is. Also: too musical. Like I said, the singing randomly thing, it grates in a cinematic experience. I think it bugged me this time because I was prepared for all the singing, but then they did some of the scenes straight, speaking where I was expecting music. Thusly was the illusion broken, so that when they did sing, some of that failed to fit after all. And, too much naked statuary. Yes, it was in the time before Victorian England took over the social mores of the western world. And it’s not like exquisite (and I should think frightfully expensive) gold statues of women quarter-dressed in sheets bothers me, either aesthetically or pruriently, in an opera house. But the equally detailed granite naked statuary in the cemetary seemed, well, out of place. I’m just saying.

Now, the good stuff. I’m not going to worry about spoilers, a) because if you don’t know the basic story by now, it was by choice and so why should you care about being spoiled, and b) because for a movie like this, the comparison with forebears is the only really important thing to review.

In no particular order, things I liked: The gradual reveal of the Phantom’s madness, via the skew between his perceptions of himself and his world, and external perceptions of the way his world really was. Emmy Rossum‘s portrayal of Christine as a sympathetic character, which is the first I’ve ever seen. (I’ll come back to that.) The chandelier scene, which was greatly improved over past productions (and I’m not talking about the limitations of a movie vs. the stage here, so don’t start). Oh, and the opera house itself, although clearly too large to fit in the external structure they showed, was just really cool in every room.

The random over-exposition scenes were a wash, because on the one hand, blatant exposition makes for a bad film, but on the other, it was (mostly, and here I do not include the cringeworthy Little Lotte lines) interesting and depth-adding exposition.

Cutting here, as the rest contains spoilers for the movie only. Still, they’re the reasons to see the movie, so you should click through anyway.
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Hide and Seek

The thing is, this was a good movie. Several inevitable games of Hide and Seek, of course, but even those managed (for the most part) to be tense and creepy, rather than like the lame repetitive device they could have been.

Anyway, plot: Robert De Niro’s wife thinks their marriage is irreconcilable, and then suicides herself in the bathtub. Daughter Dakota Fanning (who is a beautiful little girl; just ask anyone in the script) goes a little bit insane. After a poorly defined period of time, De Niro takes his daughter to a gigantic house in upstate New York, so that she’s not surrounded by memories. Instead, she’s surrounded by an empty house, a creepy-looking cave in the woods, and De Niro’s hands off parenting approach, learned, apparently, through years of careful psychologist-being.

Naturally, she has no choice but to invent an imaginary friend. Except, the friend starts creating lots of scary mayhem, leading the audience to wonder: is the little girl doing all the stuff she blames on Charlie? Or is it the creepy neighbor? The meddling real-estate agent? A giant lovable-but-without-social-graces bear who lives in the cave? A hillbilly with only three teeth, who lives in the cave? Whoever it is, good camera work and acceptable child-acting keep the tension and the mysteriousness high, so I’ll say no more lest I give it away. (It’s not the bear, though.)

I think it’s because it worked so well that the flaws grate on me. Elisabeth Shue wanders in and out of the movie as the aunt of young Dakota’s would-be local townie friend, who seems to maybe want to date De Niro. And he seems maybe to want to date her too. It’s played too low key to understand, and it doesn’t help that it feel like his wife has been dead just a handful of months.

The final act drags on for an eternity beyond the (very-well played) climax, removing a lot of the goodwill I had toward the film. And then, even worse, the final two scenes both contained pointless groaners that could easily have been avoided. My recommendation: See it. Good mood piece, decent creep factor and the thing where they make you want to know what’s actually going on. But after the climax (you’ll know it when it happens), move on to something else. Whatever ending you make up in your own mind will be superior.