Saturday, October 24, 2009

Law Abiding Citizen

Law Abiding Citizen is a trashy and objectively bad thriller, and I won't for a second fault Rotten Tomatoes for their aggregate score of 25%. Actually, that sounds about right. But I will object to their explanation for the poor score being that it's "unnecessarily violent," hell, where I come from, that's a five-star recommendation! There's definitely a sort of rough, idiotic charm buried in Law Abiding Citizen's madness, and for the perhaps first time in my life I find myself at a loss as to whether it's "so bad it's good" or the movie in fact came out exactly like the director intended. But I can at least recommend a Netflixing for other people as rabid for thrillers as I am.

The film opens with Gerard Butler's whole family getting raped and murdered by two thugs. In order to get a death row conviction for one thug, the court allows the other thug to plead guilty in exchange for a five-year sentence. Gerard Butler loses his shit and decides he wants to creatively kill not only the surviving thug but all the lawyers, the judge, law clerks, the District Attorney, and everyone all the way up to the mayor in what he sees as a corrupt system. He gets put in jail after the first couple killings but the deaths mysteriously continue even while he's behind bars, making the character feel sort of like an attempt at fusing Hannibal Lecter and Jigsaw from the Saw movies.

While the character is, unlike most cinematic vigilantes with murdered daughters, technically the antagonist (the protagonist being a lawyer played by Jamie Foxx), he's pretty much depicted as being the wise one and it's clear that we're meant to sympathize with at least a few of his murders. The movie is taken as a whole probably the most Republican-friendly film I've seen in a long, long time, or at least since Taken, with an actual, stated-out-loud end moral of "fuck civil rights," positing that the justice system is a failure because we don't immediately execute anyone and everyone suspected for a crime and instead waste time with farces like "trials" and "habeas corpus." This film won't set the box office aflame but I suspect it will become a major cult classic among the right wing for years to come.

Every character beyond Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx is either a warm body to be killed or a useless stereotype (Jamie Foxx's wife is the prototypical "shrill wife furious that her husband has a job and can't come to the kid's dance recital" character) and the plot gets shakier and shakier as the film progresses until near the end you could drive double-decker buses through its gaping holes, but it's decently tense and definitely very violent. It has an enormous body count percentage-wise, and it actually is pretty tricky to predict exactly who's going to live and who's going to die. And those who do die often do so with a degree of gore that will satisfy any horror fanatic, blood and bones and brains all featured. So all in all, it's pretty entertaining for what boils down to a piece of anti-Constitution propaganda.

2 Stars out of 5

Friday, October 23, 2009

HankWatch, Day 4

One of the funny little ironies of Hank (and trust me, that's the only time you'll ever hear the word "funny" applied in the direction of this sitcom-colored abomination) is that Kelsey Grammer's real-life daughter Spencer Grammer is herself the lead in the the college comedy Greek, a show with much stronger writing and characters and much, much, much, MUCH higher production values than the pile of steaming diarrhea her old man stars in. I mean, don't get me wrong, Greek is hardly great television and it's really a guilty pleasure at best, but compared to Hank, it might as well be fucking Arrested Development. Yet Greek is segregated to the ghetto side channel of ABC Family while Hank gets to infect full-blown ABC with its full-blown wretchedness week after week. Where's the justice in that?

But President Obama continues to ignore my pleas that America be placed into an official state of emergency until Hank's cancellation, so the fourth episode is here, inevitable and soul-crushing as death itself, to sap another year of my life away. This week Hank Pryor learns to "do nothing" (because there's nothing more riveting than watching a man do nothing), but in a first for Hank we actually have a B-plot as two repairmen try to fix the stairs in the Pryor household and aren't able to finish the job in one day. Holy shit, how many top TV writers do you think it took to come up with that scintillating fucking masterpiece of a storyline? You see, Hank and Tilly thought the stair repair would be finished in this one day, but it had to be put off to the next day. Comic genius! A masterpiece storyline of joyous laughter! FUCK YOU.

There's this really wretched joke (I use the word "joke" in the same way that I guess a spoonful of microwaved vomit ladled onto your plate would technically be a "meal") a couple minutes into the episode where Hank's piece of shit son explains the plot of his made-up videogame to Hank and Hank says "I don't understand any of the words you just said" to gales of mirth from the laugh track. Yes, those darn hootin' kids and their newfangled whatsit videogamin' doohickies! It was then that it occurred to me that Hank is created for and in all likelihood by old people whose minds and cultural frames of reference are stuck permanently in the 1980s. Videogames are newfangled and weird, the daughter's tiny, G-rated protests against her father make her a little hellion, and the laugh track is always there to guide you on your way.

I will confess though that something strange happened during this latest Hank — I, myself, laughed out loud! No joke! I can identify the exact second when it happened, at the 12:30 mark. Hank and his brother-in-law are sitting in a really cheap set that they built so that they wouldn't actually have to shoot in the woods and Hank is giving a clumsily-written and poorly-delivered monologue about his drive and ambition, which ends with him sadly whispering "look where it got me," and it's supposed to be like this dramatic and deep moment for the character.

It was then that it occurred to me that Hank is not a fever dream of mine in the final moments before my death but actually a show that exists. There is actually a man somewhere out there who spent months (maybe years?) of his life lovingly sketching out the awful plot and five moronic characters of Hank. Writers spent hours around a table writing this unfunny episode one putrid line at a time and this is seriously what they came up with. The sheer absurdity of it took me all at once and bellowing laughter exploded from my gut and just kept going and going and going for like half a minute. Jesus god, I can't believe this fucking show exists.

Hank episode four analysis:

Number of times I laughed: 1 (series total 1)

Number of times I chuckled: 0 (series total 0)

Number of times I smiled: 0 (series total 1)

Number of times I said "ugh" out loud: 2 (series total 8)

Worst Character of the Episode Award: Hank fuckin' Pryor. Hank is by the most fundamental plot synopsis of the series a former CEO who built a Fortune 500 company from the ground up, which I imagine takes some degree of brains and savvy. Why, then, does Hank run out into his yard six minutes into the episode and start screaming at the birds in sky that he's going to kill them in a display that would make Norman Bates go "whoa, man, you're fucking crazy!" I'm not kidding. Hank actually does this. I guess it's supposed to be funny or something, but it's really just retarded.

Worst Use of the Laugh Track Award: This is always really arbitrary, because every use of the laugh track is horrible, but at exactly 3:00, Hank tells his trophy wife that he doesn't like swings because "look, I'm getting somewhere! No I'm not," and the laugh track explodes like it's the funniest fucking thing any human being has ever said in the history of the world. I can't live in a world where Hank exists. Someone, please put out a hit on me. I'm deadly serious.

I've had it up to fucking here, so I'm giving Hank's fourth episode a 0.000 / 10

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Top 11 Faux-Friendly Bond Villain Encounters

Joseph Wiseman, the actor best known as the first James Bond villain, Dr. No, passed away yesterday at the age of 91. The film Dr. No is in many respects of a rough draft of the twenty-one (and counting) films that would follow, particularly its action scenes, which are very simple and understated compared to the massive, spectacular set pieces the series would rapidly become known for, but certain elements emerge startlingly fully-formed right out of the gate: James Bond 007 as embodied by Sean Connery has his gambling, womanizing, "Bond, James Bond" catchphrase, and supernatural cool established within thirty seconds of appearing onscreen. M and Moneypenny appear exactly as they would for decades to come. The opening gunbarrel and classic James Bond theme song are fully intact. And perhaps almost as important as Agent 007 himself we have the Bond villain, Wiseman's Dr. No — an insidious mastermind, flamboyant yet well-spoken and impeccably dressed, with a bizarre deformity (Dr. No lost his hands to radiation and had them replaced with new steel hands) and a dastardly plot.

All that may sound eye-rollingly cliché circa 2009, but that's only because the James Bond movies created a new villainous archetype powerful enough to become iconic. Bond's first meeting with Dr. No is the ultimate, prototypical "Welcome, Mr. Bond! I've been expecting you. Join me for dinner as I give a villainous monologue about my plans" scene, a scene which no filmmaker would ever, ever attempt to pull off today except in a straight-to-DVD B movie or a spoof. But in 1962? It was brilliant. Like many great films, Dr. No was lightning in a bottle, and one of a hundred things could have gone wrong and halted the best franchise ever right there with movie number one, and a lesser villain is definitely high on that list. But Dr. No was awesome, the movie was awesome, and the series is still alive and kicking a half-century later, so Joseph Wiseman, I salute you.

But the relationship of James Bond and Dr. No is missing one thing that wouldn't become a regular part of the series until the third film, Goldfinger, and that thing is what I like to call the "faux-friendly Bond villain encounter." You see, with a few exceptions (Dr. No being one of them), Bond villains generally aren't full-time evil masterminds or criminal overlords, or at least not openly. No, a Bond villain hides behind his public persona as a captain of industry and humanitarian — he may head a gold empire, a media empire, a microchip empire, a space program empire, or an oil empire, but you know he's the head of an empire that's made him rich beyond measure. And in many films, in order to get close to and learn more about the bad guy, James Bond poses as someone friendly to the antagonist's public face and has a tensely cordial meeting with them at some kind of party or function or casino. Ergo, the faux-friendly Bond villain encounter.

This is one my favorite scenes and one rarely seen outside of Bond movies (it has no real analogue in any Star Wars or Die Hard or Lord of the Rings or Pirates of the Caribbean or Harry Potter or Star Trek or Matrix or Terminator or Indiana Jones or horror or superhero or Disney movie I can think of, anyway), and I always look forward to it and am disappointed if it doesn't happen in a new Bond flick. One of the things that makes it entertaining is that, despite being a perfect shot and impossibly good driver and able to seduce any women within two sentences, James Bond appears to be absolutely terrible at this part of his job. The villain almost always sees through Bond's charade instantaneously and almost without exception orders Bond to be killed immediately after (or even during!) the friendly encounter. It's nice to know that even Agent 007 has a few flaws.

So in honor of Bond villainy, I thought that I would go through the series and list my top eleven faux-friendly Bond villain encounters. Why eleven? Well, because that's how many times it happens in the series, and I would feel like a fucking idiot doing a top ten and leaving off just one. Note that this list only includes instances where Bond is the one impersonating a friendly, not films where the bad guy pretends to be good to get close to Bond (From Russia With Love, For Your Eyes Only, The Living Daylights, The World Is Not Enough), although it is humorous to note that unlike the villains, Bond is without exception fooled when this trick gets pulled on him. Maybe M needs to reconsider who his / her best agent is.

11. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, On Her Majesty's Secret Service

The faux-friendly encounter: Bond's nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of SPECTRE, has taken over a clinical research facility atop a snowy mountain the Swiss alps, from which he plans to distribute bacteriological warfare agents across the Western world. That last part is secret, of course. Bond disguises himself as genealogist Sir Hilary Bray, Blofeld's contact at the London College of Arms, to visit Blofeld's clinic and try to uncover his plot.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Surprisingly (for reasons we'll get to in just a second), yes, at first. But Blofeld figures out Bond is a fake and orders him killed after Bond makes a slip-up, and I'm just gonna quote this straight from Wikipedia: "Bond had explained to Blofeld that the de Bleuchamp tombs are in the Augsburg Cathedral, which are actually located in the St. Anna Kirsche." Okay, I'm actually gonna let Bond slide on that one, because fuck if I would have picked up on that.

Why 11th? Despite my love for the faux-friendly encounter, I admit that this is the one I don't like, and which always gives me pause when Bond fans declare On Her Majesty's Secret Service to be one of their favorites. For one, the depiction of Bond impersonating Sir Hilary Bray is truly idiotic. He wears a kilt and a frilly shirt (because that's a disguise, apparently), and they dub over George Lazenby with another actor when he's talking as Bray. That's just awful. But worse, while On Her Majesty's Secret Service is indeed the first time Bond and Blofeld meet face-to-face in the novels, in the film series they had met one movie earlier in You Only Live Twice, and now, for some magical fucking reason, Blofeld doesn't recognize his archnemesis standing two feet from him! I guess they were trying to do a soft reboot for the new actor, but it doesn't work.

10. Emilio Largo, Thunderball

The faux-friendly encounter: Emilio Largo has stolen two NATO warheads and is holding the world ransom under threat of nuclear annihilation. Bond, meanwhile, has followed the clues and corpses to the Bahamas, where he flirts with Largo's mistress Domino Derval who in turn introduces him to Largo. The two have a tense conversation by a pool trying to feel each other out and Largo introduces Bond to his crew and his shark pit (which he will soon throw Bond into).

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Not a chance! While Largo lets Bond walk away from the encounter, he attempts to have him killed via sharks, grenades, and general assassination soon afterwards.

Why 10th? No particular reason, there just isn't a huge amount of color to the scene and Thunderball is in general one of my least favorite Bond movies.

9. Elliot Carver, Tomorrow Never Dies

The faux-friendly encounter: Media baron Elliot Carver has sunk a British frigate and framed the Chinese for it and shot down a Chinese plane and framed the British for it and plans to start World War III for ratings. He's not doing the best job of it though, because he puts out a news release about the attacks hours before any other media network even becomes aware of them with details he shouldn't know, so M sends Bond to a party Carver is holding in Hamburg celebrating the expansion of his television empire. Bond antagonizes Carver by basically saying "we know you did it!" with thinly veiled quips and then fucks his wife.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Not so much, thanks to Bond's ludicrously blatant hints. Carver doesn't even wait until the party is over, luring Bond to a side room with a supposed telephone call with instructions for his goons to detain him and rub him out. Bond escapes so Carver sends an assassin to his hotel room. Let that be a lesson to you, kids: if you've figured out an evil mastermind's plot, don't be an asshole about it.

Why 9th? Unlike some Bond fans, I actually love Elliot Carver and Tomorrow Never Dies. He's wildly over-the-top, almost a caricature, but like the movie itself he's pure goofy fun (and this is off topic, but Tomorrow Never Dies also has the best post-80s Bond soundtrack). But despite this, this encounter gets ranked low for two reasons: one, it stretches my liberal suspension of disbelief that a media baron would spend years and billions of dollars planning every minute detail of starting World War III only to rapidly incriminate himself by releasing news of his terrorist attacks hours ahead of schedule. That's just sloppy. And two, Bond's "tee hee! I know it was you, Elliot!" hints during their conversation stretch my belief in the other direction. What the hell kind of spy does that??

8. Karl Stromberg, The Spy Who Loved Me

The faux-friendly encounter: Shipping tycoon and marine biology aficionado Karl Stromberg has secretly captured two nuclear submarines and plans to obliterate New York City and Moscow, triggering a global nuclear apocalypse that will leave him ruling over the undersea empire of what remains of humanity. Bond smells something fishy (pun?) so he and sexy Soviet agent XXX pose as a marine biologist and his wife and visit Stromberg's undersea base of Atlantis to chat about, well, fish, I guess.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Stromberg's henchman Jaws has already encountered Bond and XXX in Egypt, so not even a little bit. Upon Bond and XXX leaving his quarters Stromberg instantaneously says into his ambiguous henchman-contacting microphone, "let them get ashore, and then kill them."

Why 8th? The Spy Who Loved Me is one of my very favorite movies of all time and rocks in basically every way a movie can rock. That said, in more viewings than I care to admit I've never quite fully put together what Bond's public excuse for visiting Stromberg is, in his marine biologist guise, I mean. As Agent 007 he's there to get a look at Stromberg's lair and submarines, but when they meet all they do is talk about fish for like three minutes. Not much of a show, Bond, no wonder you got figured out like a little bitch.

7. Gustav Graves, Die Another Day

The faux-friendly encounter: Bond finds some African conflict diamonds bearing the laser signature of British billionaire Gustav Graves, so he goes to visit Graves at his fencing club, where they have a fencing match that explodes into a full-blown sword fight and Graves actually utters the line "since we're upping the wager, let's up the weapons, shall we?!" Graves then invites Bond to the unveiling of his scientific project (a giant mirror satellite that's secretly a superweapon) at his Final Fantasy-style ice palace in Iceland, where they sneer at each other at Graves's party.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Gustav Graves is secretly (and unbeknownst to Bond) a North Korean arms dealer named Colonel Moon who James Bond has encountered and tried to kill before and has since undergone gene therapy to turn himself white. So, basically, no! (And we're one for five in even semi-successful deception, for those of you keeping track.)

Why 7th? The existence of Die Another Day is why I can't with any conviction call Tomorrow Never Dies a "guilty pleasure" — Tomorrow Never Dies may not be an objectively great film, but it sure as shit is next to Die Another Day! But I still like Die Another Day in spite of all logic; it's so goddamn hilarious and over-the-top that I can't help but have a good time with it. Bond and Graves's sword fight is as awesome as it is goofy and I enjoy it as a sort of bizarro version of Bond and Goldfinger's golf match in Goldfinger, after all, "it's just a bit of sport!" But don't get me wrong, I freely acknowledge the stupidity of it.

6. Hugo Drax, Moonraker

The faux-friendly encounter: A Drax Industries Moonraker shuttle (shuttles that can take off into space and land again on earth like airplanes, which was science fiction back when this movie came out) has been stolen, so James Bond goes to Drax Industries in California to investigate, where Hugo Drax generously shows him around and provides him fine food and lodging. Unbeknownst to Bond, Drax stole his own company's shuttle since one of his malfunctioned and he needs a complete fleet to take his master race safely into the outer atmosphere while he gasses and eliminates the rest of the humanity.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? He attempts to have Bond killed within hours of his arrival with a centrifuge chamber "malfunction," and then again the next morning with a good old-fashioned sniper assassin, so I'm gonna go with no. Ironically, if I'm reading the movie correctly, these botched assassination attempts are a big part of why Bond's suspicions shift squarely towards Drax.

Why 6th? Moonraker is, in virtually every way, The Spy Who Loved Me remade two years later with the ocean switched out for space and not even close to as good. Both movies are about one of the richest men in the world with a fixation on the sea / outer space and Jaws as a henchman deciding that they want to eliminate 99% of humanity and rule over a new master race from their throne in their undersea lair / space station. Both films even share a director, Lewis Gilbert. But despite the clear superiority of The Spy Who Loved Me it is Moonraker that has the greater villain in the awesomely smug, snooty, superior Hugo Drax. He's just such a glorious asshole, and fittingly, the time Bond spends with him is actually a lot more entertaining (and a lot lengthier) than the few minutes Bond spends chatting with Stromberg in Spy. They have delightfully barbed yet outwardly cordial conversations and the attempts on Bond's life are both pretty awesome. Big fan of this one.

5. Max Zorin, A View to a Kill

The faux-friendly encounter: James Bond finds a microchip on the corpse of Agent 003 which analysis shows was produced by Zorin Industries ("[Villain's Last Name] Industries" seems to be a hit with Bond villains). Max Zorin is fortuitously holding some sort of horse racing / breeding event at his villa in Chantilly, France, so off Bond goes to join the party under the alias of James St. John Smythe. Of course Zorin plans to create an earthquake that will destroy Silicon Valley, giving him a monopoly on microchips, but 007 doesn't know that and Zorin and Bond have plenty of pleasant chats. Zorin is even kind enough to send his ultra-masculine henchwoman May Day to Bond's room at night, leading to the one scene in any Bond film that most straightforwardly resembles gay sex.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? This one is just humiliating. Max Zorin takes "Smythe" into his office and, while outwardly chatting about horses, secretly takes Bond's photo, uploads it to his computer, does some sort of 1985 version of an Internet search, and turns up Bond's name and 00 status within about a minute... while Bond is sitting right there in front of him gabbing about horses. I mean... jeez, Bond. Sloppy much? Wow. Zorin then locks Bond in his car and throws the car into a lake.

Why 5th? A View to a Kill is almost universally reviled among both the mainstream and Bond community. Siskel & Ebert put it on their list of the top ten worst films of 1985. It also happens to be my all-time number two guilty pleasure (behind only Dungeons & Dragons). Sure, I'll talk a big game about my critically astute tastes, but if you got me drunk enough I'd probably identify A View to a Kill as one of my ten favorite movies ever made. I love every godforsaken minute of it and I especially love Christopher Walken's Max Zorin. Ergo, I basically love all the scenes where Roger Moore and Chris Walken interact by default. Shit, this movie rules!

4. Franz Sanchez, Licence to Kill

The faux-friendly encounter: Bond is trying to bring down the empire of Latin American drug lord Franz Sanchez, who fed Bond's best friend Felix Leiter to a shark (Felix survived but lost a leg) and had Felix's wife killed. Bond's assassination attempt on Sanchez is halted by Hong Kong narcotics agents who need Sanchez alive and prepare to kill Bond, but just then, Sanchez and his men raid the building, kill the agents, ironically misidentify the narcs as assassins and Bond as being on their side, and Bond becomes part of Sanchez's inner circle, sleeping in his exotic Latin villa, banging his girlfriend, led on tours of his cocaine factory. Bond then tricks Sanchez into killing off his own lieutenants by framing them for theft or for hiring assassins to kill Sanchez.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Are you ready for this shocker? YES. James Bond tricks Franz Sanchez into believing he is on his side! I can't goddamn believe it! Too bad Timothy Dalton couldn't have attempted the faux-friendly encounter again, because he seems to be the only James Bond who has the skills to pull it off. Bond is eventually uncovered near the end of the film when Sanchez's knife-wielding henchman Dario recognizes him from an earlier encounter, but for James Bond's standards the deception lasts a long time, well over half an hour of screen time if I remember right. Nice going, 007!

Why 4th? Because it worked!

3. Kamal Khan, Octopussy

The faux-friendly encounter: Exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan is plotting with a mad Soviet general to smuggle an atomic bomb into an American air force base which will then be detonated. Just another day's villainy, right? Anyway, Bond sits down for a game of backgammon with Khan at a casino in Delhi, India, where they exchange poisoned barbs before the gathered crowd while gambling at high stakes. Khan, however, is cheating with loaded dice that roll a double six upon being squeezed. At the pivotal moment, Khan tells Bond, "You can only win with a double six. The stake is two-hundred thousand rupees. Do you have cash?" Bond tells Khan before the crowd that if Khan doesn't mind he'll use Khan's "lucky" dice, and of course rolls a double six. "Double sixes. Fancy that. Two-hundred thousand rupees... l prefer cash."

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? Ha! Of course not. The encounter is just barely "friendly" anyway. Khan sends a henchman to kill Bond almost immediately afterwards.

Why 3rd? Because it's goddamn hilarious, that's why! Octopussy is probably the most underrated film in the entire Bond canon, and this, along with Dr. No's first scene with Bond, GoldenEye, and another obvious movie that will come up again in just a moment, is one of the best casino scenes in the series. Bond's snooty "I prefer cash" followed by Kamal Khan's glaring daggers of death make me laugh quite hard.

2. Auric Goldfinger, Goldfinger

The faux-friendly encounter: Bond is investigating Auric Goldfinger, both under assignment from MI6 to find out how Goldfinger transports gold internationally and because Goldfinger smelted Bond's girlfriend to death (Goldfinger's actual plan is to nuke Fort Knox, increasing the value of his own gold ten times). So Bond and Goldfinger arrange a friendly game of golf together.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? It seems like he is, but upon completion of the final hole (Bond wins) and settling of the stakes, Goldfinger calmly tells Bond he knows exactly who he is and he'll have him killed if he continues his investigation. This one is a curious, unique case, because Goldfinger seems to mean it and doesn't send anyone to assassinate Bond or even have him followed; he genuinely leaves and intends never to see or think about Bond again. 007 however can't leave well enough alone and continues the pursuit, so when he's caught this time Goldfinger keeps him captive before chaining him to the ticking atomic bomb in the belly of Fort Knox.

Why 2nd? Despite a lack of any gadgets or assassination attempts, this one is the gold standard (PUN MASTERSTROKE) for faux-friendly Bond villain encounters; it strikes the absolutely perfect balance of outward friendliness with an icy cold, threatening cord running just underneath the surface. It's funny, entertaining, and tense all at once and my favorite golf match in cinema by a hundred million fucking miles; there isn't another in the same remote ballpark. It helps that Goldfinger is arguably the best villain and Goldfinger arguably the best film in the history of the franchise.

1. Le Chiffre, Casino Royale

The faux-friendly encounter: Terrorist banker Le Chiffre blew his client's money trying to play the stock market with it, and if there's any bad idea on earth, it's throwing away a hundred million dollars worth of pissed-off Ugandan terrorist money (in the 1953 novel, it was Soviet Union money and he blew it investing in a brothel). He attempts to recoup it in a high-stakes poker game at Casino Royale in Montenegro, so M sends Bond, the best player in the service, to win the poker tournament so Le Chiffre has no choice but to seek refuge with the British government and tell them everything he knows about the terrorist operation in exchange for immunity. Bond and Le Chiffre proceed to play them lots of poker together.

Is the villain fooled by Bond's deception? No. I mean, really, who is? Le Chiffre can't well pull out a glock and put one in Bond's head right there at the table, so he poisons Bond's drink instead. In all fairness, Bond isn't really trying to befriend Le Chiffre here, but still, it hurts when your poker buddies try to execute you, you know? So Bond's final tally out of eleven attempted faux-friendly performances is one successful (Licence to Kill), one semi-successful (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), and nine failures. Ouch.

Why 1st? It was a pretty close call between this and Goldfinger, but while Goldfinger probably fits the "faux-friendly" description a lot better (Bond and Le Chiffre, while as outwardly civil as you need to be at a table with ten other players as well as bystanders, are pretty goddamn prickly), the showdown at Casino Royale is lengthier, more tense, and more fun, with plenty of cutting one-liners and Le Chiffre's bad eye bleeding like it's on its period and assassination attempts and the Ugandan terrorists showing up and threatening to hack Le Chiffre with a machete unless he wins. Bond then gets into a fight with and kills two of them on a trip away from the table. Tight! Casino Royale is one of my favorite movies of the decade and in addition to the great action, great performances, great cinematography, and great music, I think the fact that Bond and the Bond villain get an usually large amount of face time together is a big, big part of that.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

So I pretty much loved this movie. I was unsure walking out whether I fell on the side of "really liked" or "loved," but after twenty-four hours of introspection, I think I'm gonna have to side with gooey love. And the reason I love Where the Wild Things Are is because it's bold. It's audacious. It's experimental. If the time-traveling man were to have emerged from a wormhole five years ago to tell me that 2009 was going to see a big-budget film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, my first thought would be, "Holy shit! It's the time-traveling man!" But my second thought would be, "Well, obviously, that's going to be some juvenile joke-a-minute DreamWorks bullshit for five-year-olds."

But how wrong young me would be. Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are is pretty much the ballsiest and most interesting adaptation of the source book I can imagine, a raw and melancholy ode to the childhood condition that isn't entirely without warmth or humor, but leans much more towards a vaguely painful sort of nostalgia. It's one of a scant handful of films (or TV shows, or books, or anything) I've seen that does a damn near perfect job externalizing and visualizing the intense, volatile emotions and vivid imagination of childhood.

It's not a huge shock that a lot of critics and viewers don't quite seem to get it — this is, after all, the glorious nation that made Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen the highest-grossing film of the year. But while I usually try to avoid falling into the "critiquing the critics" trap, I feel compelled to offer a few retorts. Most annoying has to be the "kids won't like it!" criticism. Okay, one, who gives a shit? Kids won't like Gangs of New York either, that doesn't make it a bad movie. And two, as someone who spent my childhood hale and hearty on a cinematic diet of Star Wars, Back to the Future, Indiana Jones, and James Bond, I retroactively resent the notion that kids are fucking idiots who have to have cinematic shit shoveled down their throats to keep them quiet. But whatever; some people wanted a cheesy pop culture reference-infused adventure movie with a stock villain and maybe a fish voiced by Will Smith. That's fine, there were about a dozen DreamWorks trailers before the movie started much more in line with mainstream expectations and mental capacity.

There's also people aggressively missing the point by arguing that Max and some of his Wild Things are assholes. And, well, no shit! It's been a while since I was nine myself, but I still know full well that nine-year-olds more or less tend to be self-centered and awkward and ruled by the id, not because any given nine-year-old is a bad person, but because you're just not grown up yet. The whole "children as saints who speak like witty adults" thing is a bullshit Hollywood construct giving kids the exact same condescending treatment they give to the retarded and Alzheimer's patients. One of the great things about Where the Wild Things Are is the sheer volatility of Max's emotions, swinging from laughing one minute to red-faced and quaking with impotent rage the next (also reflected in a couple of the Wild Things, especially the James Gandolfini-voiced Carol). It's pretty much brilliant.

Being basically an art film, the technical artistry can't be ignored, and man is this movie gorgeous. In fact, I might go so far as to say that it has my favorite cinematography of the year, taking advantage of a lot of very wide, very long shots of epic natural locations (at least in the Wild Things' country, the real world is intentionally shot in a more straightforward style). The Wild Things themselves, a combination of costumed actors and puppetry with the mouths and eyes animated with CGI, would be hands-down the best visual cinematic creations of the year if not for stiff competition from District 9's prawns. They look amazing, and it's so great that Spike Jonze chose to bring them down to earth with organic effects (and I honestly never even thought about the CGI faces they looked so damn good).

It's an extremely narratively thin movie, with the plot (kid has daydream about monsters) being a mere skeleton to hang mood and character on, so I won't go in depth with a play-by-play or anything, nor will I become the thousandth critic to act like I'm a beautiful, perceptive snowflake for realizing that the various Wild Things represent various facets of Max's personality. Instead, I want to reiterate my love for the pure boldness of giving a classic children's story this treatment. That's by far my favorite thing about the film. It's like if Christopher Nolan wrote and directed an Encyclopedia Brown movie or we got Darren Aronofsky's Goodnight Moon or something. In 2009, I never would have expected this. But it's here and it's great and while it could never be as iconic to the medium of film as the book is to children's literature I think it's a minor instant classic.

4 Stars out of 5

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Final Destination

I don't think I'm violently throat-fucking anyone's worldview by reporting that The Final Destination, the bafflingly-named fourth installment in the increasingly tired Final Destination gore franchise, is one of the worst movies of the year. Once again, the premise involves some pretty teenagers escaping a catastrophe thanks to a psychic vision by the protagonist, only be mutilated one at a time with Rube Goldberg death traps arranged by the vengeful hand of the Reaper... except this time it's in goddamn 3D! I'm not a big fan of this new glut of 3D movies, but if it must be done, bullshit schlock horror is the right place for it, and it transforms The Final Destination into glorious kitsch. It's hard to say whether this movie or Final Destination 3 is worse — both are tired, predictable, horribly written, and only funny in the most ironic sense, but whereas this one has the 3D gimmickry, Final Destination 3 actually had a semi-capable lead actress in Mary Elizabeth Winstead. All The Final Destination has is a bunch of vapid Abercrombie & Fitch models running around giving performances so bland a junior high theater director would be forgiven for shouting "Cut! You're fired."

But whatever. No one goes to see these movies for a new plot or rich characters; the madding crowd wants five or six gory death scenes and the inevitable promise of gratuitous boobs at least once per picture, and that's it, and The Final Destination delivers. And frankly, I think the fact that this lowest common denominator shit makes bank is a real shame. If I was a filmmaker, with full knowledge that my movie will exist for the rest of recorded human history on DVD and the Internet, I would want to take some iota of pride in my work and try to do a good job. And I know that a good Final Destination movie can be made. How do I know? Because they made one in 2000; it was called Final Destination, and it was fresh, interesting, tense, gory, and funny. If a top genre filmmaker like Christopher Nolan or J.J. Abrams or Steven Spielberg was told they had to make a good Final Destination 5 or face exile in Egypt for the rest of their lives, I bet they could pull it off.

But I'm not just all talk and no action. I've compiled a few ideas that I think could shake up the formula and actually make the hypothetical (and inevitable) fifth Final Destination not an abominable piece of shit, or maybe, just maybe, even worth watching:

1. In each movie, the protagonist's prophetic vision leads to him or her saving a handful of people from a massive disaster (a plane crash in the first, a freeway pileup in the second, a roller coaster malfunction in the third, a NASCAR track explosion this time around). Each survivor is then killed in the order they would have died in the disaster, and each time the protagonist becomes aware of what's happening after the first few deaths... but the world at large never catches on.

So why not have the protagonist stop the entire opening disaster from happening next time around, only to have the hundreds of people saved getting offed by the Reaper en masse over the next several weeks? Suddenly, the world wouldn't be able to deny the sentience of Death any longer (a newspaper front page with "THE GRIM REAPER IS REAL" in huge letters would be hilarious), and there would be worldwide religious panic and fervor. The media would hound the remaining survivors and the public would begin making death pools as they whittle down to the last few. This would be a lot more epic, and more importantly, more fresh than the process we've repeated so many times now.

2. In all four movies thus far, we've had a traditionally heroic protagonist who goes out of his or her way to try to save everyone. Also, in each movie, they've had the theory that if there's a break in the order the survivors are supposed to die in, everyone after that break will be saved. So why not have an evil protagonist next time around, or at the very least a human antagonist, who tries to twist the situation to his advantage and create his own break in the chain by killing people ahead of him in death order? Slasher flicks on their own are pretty rote and predictable, but introducing a slasher component into the Final Destination formula on the other hand might shake things up nicely.

3. I've never read any of the Final Destination novels (I'd never claim that I only read high literature, but even I have something resembling standards), but I understand that in one of them it's actually explained in depth that the personification of Life is in fact the one giving these protagonists their psychic visions to try to save them from Death, and Life and Death are locked in an eternal chess match with humanity as their pieces. Why not actually have this discovered or explained onscreen in the next film? Hell, why not just go all out and have actors playing Life and Death show up? The series is already supernatural (and really, really bad), it's not like there's a shark to jump here.

Or, for that matter, why not do two of the things I've listed above? Why not go all out and do all three and try to make something completely different? The answer, of course, is because The Final Destination made $151.6 million worldwide on a $40 million budget, approximately $7 of which was personally contributed by me. So I guess I'm the asshole here, for thinking that filmmakers could actually dare to try to make good films. Someone kill me.

1 Star out of 5

Thursday, October 15, 2009

HankWatch, Day 3

As the day dawned deceptively clear and blue, a fell wind swept east across the land, and it stank of death. The people will put on their genial grins and exchange pleasantries and go about the day as if everything is alright, because the truth is too horrible to even imagine, let alone acknowledge, yet we all feel it — a crime has been committed against humanity itself, an atrocity beyond reckoning, and we may never know joy again. Yes, that's right, the third episode of ABC's Hank has aired.

This week on Kelsey Grammer's black hole of comedy that sucks all warmth and humor from your very soul and makes you forget that the word "funny" actually has real-world application, Hank Pryor and his daughter Maddie get jobs at the mall's ice cream shop. Thankfully, in the more interesting B-plot, oh, wait, there is no fucking B-plot, or followup on or dialogue reference to the job Tilly got last week whatsoever, because the producers of Hank probably rightfully conclude that anyone who watches Hank is much, much too dumb to hold on to any scrap of information for seven whole days. Hank's shitty son only makes a cameo appearance. It's true that in some of the other shows I watch characters might only make cameos or not even appear in a given episode, but then again, all of the other shows I watch have more than five goddamn characters.

Look at that dead-eyed "help me" look behind the vacuous grin of the actress who plays the wife in the final shot of the opening theme song. Chilling. If episode five concludes with Tilly murder-suiciding the entire Pryor household and then the series abruptly ends I'll take back everything I said about Hank and declare it the avant-garde television masterpiece of the twenty-first century.

The mall set is one of the most jaw-droppingly shitty and amateurish sets I've seen in film or television this decade and makes me wonder if Hank's budget is more than $100 an episode, because there are no fucking extras. This is supposed to be a bustling mall (Hank complains to his wife about the massive volume of ice cream customers, which is patently false), but there are about two people visible at any given point in the entire goddamn building. Why in the fuck did they use a big mall hallway backdrop with store fronts only to have the whole thing eerily empty and silent? Listen, Hank producers, I know you're lazy, cheap, and utterly devoid of talent, but this is a goddamn nationally broadcast prime time television show. Do you think you could maybe pony up a thousand dollars to hire a dozen extras to wander around the background pretending to look in store fronts, you pieces of shit?

In the interest of fairness, I do have to admit that Hank got its first-ever halfway smile from me this week, when I saw the manager of the mall ice cream shop. Not because the character has any good (or, for that matter, non-awful) dialogue, but because he's played by Samm Levine of Freaks & Geeks fame. It was a fleeting flicker of a grin, but I'll count it. And man oh man does it bode well when the most entertaining moment of three episodes is recognizing an actor from another series that's been cancelled for a decade. Please, cruel world, put Hank out of its misery. I can't believe that over an hour of this show now exists in the world. I feel ill.

Hank episode three analysis:

Number of times I laughed: 0 (series total 0)

Number of times I chuckled: 0 (series total 0)

Number of times I smiled: 1 (series total 1)

Number of times I said "ugh" out loud: 1 (series total 6)

Worst Character of the Episode Award: I'm gonna have to go with Maddie Pryor this week, not because her dialogue is any worse than her father's, but because the character concept of a fifteen-year-old girl accustomed to Manhattan penthouses and millions of dollars suddenly reduced to a middle class living isn't wholly without merit, yet they've managed to make it impossibly bland and boring even by the lax standards of American broadcast television. "Fish out of water" stories don't work if you fail to establish any difference between the water and the dry land, assholes.

Worst Use of the Laugh Track Award: This one is always a tough call, because the asinine laugh track won't shut the fuck up for more than ten seconds and nothing it cackles at is remotely amusing. But I'll have to tentatively go with the 11:26 mark, when Hank's wife suggests he quit his ice cream job and he responds "Quit is not in Hank Pryor's vocabulary" to the absolutely fucking inexplicable mirth of the laugh track. I would love if Hank's laugh track could follow me around for a day, because then I could do things like order a burger and ask someone what time it is to the chorus of explosive hysteria.

All in all, Hank's third outing is funny on a scale somewhere between a kitten dying of starvation and an ordinary, static door, and gets a 0.003 / 10

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Invention of Lying

Ricky Gervais's new comedy The Invention of Lying is a strange, unwieldy beast — a film simultaneously too overambitious and underambitious for its premise. As the trailers suggest, the movie is about an alternate earth where mankind hasn't developed the ability to lie; no matter how embarrassing, incriminating, vile, or unfortunate your private thoughts may be, if prompted, out they come. Fiction, exaggeration, literature, mythology, and (this one is important) religion don't exist, and men are tragically open about their desire to sleep with every attractive woman they see. When Ricky Gervais (he has a character name, but outside of David Brent from The Office, when has Ricky Gervias really ever played anyone except exasperated, dryly wisecracking Ricky Gervais?) is faced with the prospect of being evicted for lack of rent, he has a revelation and lies about his bank account, and our story begins.

The first act of the film is strong and fairly amusing as we watch Gervais use his new lying skills to make money, get ahead in his job, and do good deeds (feeding the homeless, talking people out of suicide, etc.). The little touches of the film's truth-saturated world are probably the best part, such as a Coke commercial ("It's basically just brown sugar water. It's very famous.") and an old people's home named with brutal honesty. But it's in this old people's home where things go awry, as Gervais gives peace to a dying woman by weaving a colorful, comforting tale of a land you go to after death (which is all taken at face value, this being the land of truth). Suddenly, everyone in the world rallies behind Gervais, who invents a man in the sky who judges you after death, a version of the Ten Commandments, and begins dressing like Jesus and being worshipped by the people in newly-invented churches. Using god and religion, Gervais exercises social control over the masses and tries to remake the world into his envisioned utopia.

Yes, this is the part the trailer didn't suggest: The Invention of Lying is a full-blown satire of religion, quite possibly the most openly and aggressively atheist mainstream release I've ever seen. And don't get me wrong, I'm as atheist as the next guy — have been my whole life and I have no qualms or uncertainty on the matter whatsoever — but one of the nice things about atheism is that it's an incredibly simple and constant philosophy that requires no validation, so I certainly won't laud the film on that account alone. On the contrary, I was kind of like "whoa, easy there!" I would have liked to see more of the social benefits and consequences of being able to lie in a world of truth rather than launching into a critique of all humanity. Okay, it was interesting, sure, but it wasn't particularly funny.

Then, as if Gervais realizes he's reaching a bit too far, the final act of the film suddenly collapses into something ludicrously underambitious, a super-generic romantic comedy that barely takes advantage of story's possibilities at all. You see, Ricky Gervais loves Jennifer Garner, but she's with Rob Lowe, who, hewing with no deviation from one of cinema's most tired, overworn clichés, is such a condescending, smug, slimy, unlikeable flaming asshole that even in the land of truth it defies any suspension of disbelief that any woman would ever desire him. Seriously, filmmakers? Can we just get rid of the "love triangle where our protagonist is a saint and the other guy is Hitler" trope forever? It's been done well a few times (hell, I'll admit it, I like 10 Things I Hate About You), but it's so cheap and easy. This trope was permanently demolished for me by Freaks & Geeks, when school nerd Sam Weir decided that by default the jock dating his crush Cindy Sanders had to be a jerk, only to have his worldview fucked sideways when he found out the guy was pleasant and humble and probably a better match for Cindy than he was. Since then, I no longer have any use for this cliché, and I cringe every time it rears its ugly head... as it does, full force, in The Invention of Lying.

So Ricky Gervais decides that he can't just lie to get Jennifer Garner to fall in love with him, because that would be cheating and would actually make use of the film's premise, so he tells her the absolute truth about how he feels to try to get chicks in the audience to coo "aww!" If you'll believe this, the film actually climaxes at a goddamned wedding. Does it get any more tired than that?

The Invention of Lying certainly has its strengths, the foremost of which is its basic premise, but it's a strange fusion of extremely broad, largely unprompted satire and a romantic comedy so stale it could be starring Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant or Matthew McConaughey. I'm not saying Ricky Gervais should get out of the feature film business, but if he tries again I'd like to see him get back to the awkward roots he showed absolute mastery of in The Office and Extras. He seems to struggle with anything else.

1 Star out of 5

Thursday, October 8, 2009

HankWatch, Day 2

As I sat watching the excrementitious second episode of ABC's Hank, it occurred to me that the nagging thing that I had felt was "off" from the beginning of the pilot wasn't, in fact, the vile, lowest-common-denominator comedy and characters, but the house. You see, Hank is about a Fortune 500 executive who has lost his job and fortune and been reduced to nothing along with his wife and children who had grown accustomed to living in a fancy Manhattan penthouse. So if that's your premise why not actually show them in lower-middle class or at least middle-class settings? You know, some kind of actual, bona fide conflict or difficulty?

Judging from both the interior and exterior shots, the new Pryor household is an exceptionally nice home containing a large living room with a nice hardwood floor, a spacious kitchen, rooms for everyone, a second story, a brick fireplace, a backyard, and a front yard. In this economic climate, bitching and whining about your comfortable, secure upper-middle class home like you've been reduced to eating sawdust just makes you look like an insufferable fucking piece of shit. And it's fine if you want your show to be about insufferable pieces of shit (like, to give an actual good example, Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development), but I get the tragic impression we're supposed to find Hank and his awful wife and children sympathetic.

Of course, anyone who actually watches Hank because they enjoy it will be too busy thinking about whether to get Burger King or Taco Bell for dinner tomorrow night and how brilliant Dan Brown's new thriller is and how angry they are to have a Muslim Kenyan in the White House for any of this to occur to them, so let's get past inconsequential things like "having a good premise" and plunge right into the show. This week the Pryors hold a yard sale, during which Hank's wife Tilly gets a job and his daughter wants to drink coffee, both of which Hank initially forbids but gradually comes to accept.

First off, I made no typo: that's not the premise for one two-minute scene, that's actually the brilliant premise for an entire agonizingly, apocalyptically awful twenty-two minute episode. Who? Who the fuck got paid to write this fucking tripe?! UGH.

Beyond that, Hank's entire characterization in the pilot episode was that he was a detached husband and father who never saw his family and cared so little about what they were doing that he didn't even understand his son and daughter's basic personalities and likes or dislikes. Hank didn't care about his family, okay, fine. Now all of a sudden he's such a blustering, overprotective father cliché that he gets upset when he sees his fifteen-year-old daughter drinking coffee? Way to be consistent with the fundamentals of your protagonist over two fucking episodes, you talentless fucking dipshits. Fuck you, fuck this show. Why is this on television? GOD DAMN IT.

I know that Kelsey Grammer is supposed to be a good sitcom actor or whatever, but how incredibly jarring and bizarre is his line delivery in this show? He doesn't "say" any of his lines, let alone actually "speak" to the other characters; he announces every single line towards the audience in the broadest, most cringe-inducing fashion imaginable. I mean, what the hell is he doing? It's like high school theater. Also, I recently realized that Tilly is Commissioner Gordon's wife from The Dark Knight, which will ruin the movie for me, because now every time Harvey Dent is threatening her son I'll be cheering him on with roaring approval to go through with it, as punishment for Hank.

Hank episode two analysis:

Number of times I laughed: 0 (series total 0)

Number of times I chuckled: 0 (series total 0)

Number of times I smiled: 0 (series total 0)

Number of times I said "ugh" out loud: 3 (series total 5)

Worst Character of the Episode Award: It's gotta be Hank Pryor himself, for inconsistent characterization, an awful, played-out character arc, giving in to ancient and dreadfully unfunny "overprotective father" tropes, and terrible, sitcomy acting.

Worst Use of the Laugh Track Award: This is a tough one. I initially leaned towards Hank's disgusting son's little monologue around the 2:45 mark, because if there's anything worse than a little kid trying to be funny, it's a little kid trying to be funny with the worst dialogue to be aired on television this decade. The laugh track doesn't see it that way though, it thinks the little shit is hysterical.

But no, that's only the bronze medal. Worse still is the neighbor's wife's stupid pickle jar line at 14:50, only because of the sheer disconnect of my real-life groan of disgust and agonizing pain and the laugh track going fucking apeshit. I began to question whether or not I was living in the Twilight Zone, stared hatefully at myself in the mirror for several minutes, and retched over the toilet, but ended up just spitting a few times.

But no. Those may be the worst jokes, but the worst use of the laugh track has to be a mere ten seconds into the episode, when Hank shouts upstairs, "Tilly, kids! Get down here, you gotta see this!", and the laugh tracks thinks it's goddamn great! Why? Why is that funny?! KILL YOURSELF.

Still though, the second episode of Hank is marginally better than the pilot, and gets my highest Hank score to date: 0.004 / 10

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

I Do Not Care About Superman

You may have heard that the film rights to Superman are up in the air. Or you may be one of those people who reads the real news instead of the entertainment news, you smug prick. Either way, Warner Bros still owns the Man of Steel for the time being but will probably lose the rights unless they develop another Superman film by 2011, which, considering the time it takes to get a big summer Blockbuster through scripting and preproduction, doesn't seem terribly likely. Well, okay, Warner Bros is able to get a Harry Potter out every eighteen months or so, but remember, with Superman they would have to come up with a whole story; with Harry Potter all they need to do is go through the book and carefully delete any wizard battles or villain backstory or anything that might accidentally be interesting onscreen.

As with any news story about lost rights and delayed films and general chaos, my initial thought was "that sucks!" I then paused (both my mind and my porn) and thought for a few moments and it occurred to me that I don't really care if another Superman film is never made in my lifetime. I'm not trying to be controversial here, I really don't care. Yes, the original Superman with Christopher Reeve was great back in 1978, and even Superman II has some goofy appeal, but it's done. It's finished. Superman was an incredible character with an innovative mythology when he was first created seventy years ago, but like many things nearly as old as the state of Arizona, he's no longer relevant, interesting, or entertaining in the modern world, for many reasons:

1. He's too goddamn powerful. Yeah, it's pretty cool to see Superman deflect bullets off his hands and chest the first few dozen times, and it's neat to see him lift cars and buildings and airplanes and (in Superman Returns) small planetoids. But a big part of making an interesting superhero movie (or action or adventure or thriller or horror movie, for that matter) is presenting some kind of viable threat to your hero, and nothing can viably threaten Superman. And knowing Superman, if someone did formulate a viable threat for him, Superman would develop a new viable-threat-to-Superman-destroying power. Not to mention that like any comic book character all his "deaths" result in swift resurrection.

A lot of power does not a good character make. To prove it, I just made up a character in my head right now named Badass Man. He can destroy the entire space-time continuum with his pinkie. Now, if you think Superman is great because he's so powerful, then by default my new hero Badass Man is your new favorite character. I expect you to purchase all the merchandise.

2. He's too morally perfect. Some may feel that Spider-Man is too teenage and angsty and Batman is too dark and brooding, but there's a happy medium here, people. Superman is a fucking boy scout, plain and simple, without the faintest iota of anything resembling a character flaw or personality defect, let alone a dark side. There's nothing wrong with being good — hell, Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker and James Bond are all good, but they also all have quirks and foibles and weaknesses, and at a certain point the all-American helping old ladies cross the street and saving cats from trees and telling a kid not to smoke just makes me want to projectile vomit and makes the character a distant paragon utterly impossible to relate to.

3. A weak lineup of villains. Now, I never read any comic books or watched superhero cartoons with any meaningful frequency growing up. My exposure to DC and Marvel mythology all comes from the films and general pop culture osmosis, but despite these limitations I can name tons of Batman villains and tons of Spider-Man villains and tons of X-Men villains (and even a smattering of Hulk and Iron Man and Fantastic Four villains), because they are cool and memorable characters. Superman? I got Lex Luthor. Oh, and General Zod, I guess, whose entire motivation and personality is "I'm evil." And that's it. If there's any I'm forgetting it's because they're too dull to remember, which doesn't bode well for them being the primary antagonist in a giant summer movie, does it?

And as for Lex Luthor, I'm as sick of him as I am of his nemesis. All his dumb plots blur together and it helps with what I like to call "tension" when a hero's main villain isn't as weak next to the hero as a gnat is next to you or me. I know, it's silly of me, obviously The Dark Knight would be more entertaining if the Joker had brittle bone disease and hemophilia, and No Country for Old Men would be better if Anton Chigurh had no arms. There is, however, one way Luthor can hurt Superman...

4. Kryptonite. Kryptonite is a clever idea at first, until it occurs to you how stupid it is that Superman can only alternate between invincible living god and writhing-in-pain weak little child with absolutely no middle ground whatsoever. The fact that it's Superman's only weakness also means that plots inevitably have to come back around to it again and again and again and again.

5. I don't give a shit about Lois Lane. Okay, admittedly, Superman is far from alone in having a dull love interest; Mary-Jane Watson is hardly a scintillating character in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies (personally, I think Peter should dump her for Gwen Stacy, because yowza). But that doesn't change the fact that I'm utterly done with Lois Lane. I have no interest in seeing her and Superman angst in each other's directions ever again. And I don't give a damn if they ever get together or not, because (at least when played by Kate Bosworth) she somehow has even less personality than Superman / Clark Kent, perhaps the only time Superman has ever been defeated at anything.

6. The other side characters are varying shades of boring. What do the names Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, and Martha Kent all have in common? That's right, they all induce immediate yawning. Perry White in particular seems a joke next to the similar but way, way more entertaining J. Jonah Jameson from Spider-Man. Not to mention that since the supporting cast is so small and tepidly iconic there's absolutely no chance whatsoever of any of them getting killed off. No one onscreen need feel threatened in any future Superman film besides innocent bystanders; if you have a name and are a character from the comics you're just as immune as Supes himself (okay, okay, unless your name is Jor-El or Jonathan Kent).

7. Metropolis is boring. Seriously. Who cares about Metropolis? Not only is Gotham about a million times more interesting, but the real-life New York City is too. When your fictional city with all the limitless potential of your imagination can't measure up to actual, physical steel-and-concrete cities in the real world, it's time to give up and raze the motherfucker down.

8. His dumbass "disguise." I know we've just asked to accept this and move on for decades now, but give me a goddamn break. He wears no mask. All he does is take off his glasses and slick his hair a little different. He's not in fucking disguise. If in Christopher Nolan's third Batman movie Batman took off his mask in front of Jim Gordon to reveal Bruce Wayne with his hair slicked slightly differently and Jim Gordon didn't recognize him the movie would be rightly eviscerated, but for some reason everyone happily gobbles this shit up when it comes to Superman and tells you to stop overthinking things if you question this universe-sized plot hole.

Hasn't Lois Lane, like, done it with him? And spent thousands of hours with Clark at the Daily Planet? She should have recognized him a million of times over, especially in the dumb scene near the end of every movie where someone says "lol isn't that weird how Clark is never here when Superman is here!" and Lois always squints at Clark and goes "hmmmm..." but never quite puts the pieces together. I hate to break this to the Daily Planet, but I'm fairly certain their star reporter is retarded.

9. If I have to sit through Superman's origin story one more time I'll kill myself. Yes, Superman, I get it, I fuckin' get it. Marlon Brando put you in a basket and put the basket in a rocket and sent you to earth. Never again do I need to see any version of this.

10. Superman Jr. They can pretend this never happened, but if Superman and Lois's superpowered toddler from Superman Returns shows up in any future Superman film, then fuck that noise.

In the interest of fairness, I will also list the good things about the prospect of a future Superman movie:

1. John Williams' theme song. Hell yeah!

That's all.

I look forward to future Spider-Man and Iron Man films, and I sure as hell hope to see more Batman movies if they're on par with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but Superman is at this point basically a perfect storm of uninteresting elements; boring powers, personality, villains, love interest, side characters, and settings. Every single plot proposal I hear for a hypothetical new film (whether a sequel to Superman Returns or another goddamn reboot, with presumably another goddamn origin story) sounds duller than the last. Oh, you mean to say that Lex Luthor is going to come up with a nefarious plan while Superman angsts over Lois Lane? Oh man, do I wanna see that!

I can no longer motivate myself to care. I mean, Warner Bros has Harry Potter and Batman, it's not like they're hurting for intellectual property. It's time to wrap a two-ton chain made of Kryptonite around the last son of Krypton and throw him in the bay.

Capitalism: A Love Story

Whatever else you may feel about him, you cannot accuse Michael Moore of pulling his punches. In Capitalism: A Love Story, the fat man comes right out and states his stance in the bluntest terms: "capitalism is evil," direct quote, and it must be eliminated for the good of humanity. Come on, Mike, tell us how you really feel!

Well, he does actually clarify a bit beyond that: post-Reagan capitalism. He speaks rather optimistically of American capitalism from the end of World War II up through 1980, with much of his praise actually seeming to gravitate towards another Republican president's America, namely the highways and infrastructure built in the 1950s under Eisenhower. Then, he argues, corporate America, fed up with taxes and regulations and having to contribute to the good of society, all-but-hired a vapid spokesmodel named Ronald Reagan to be a genial icon for their greed and corruption and callousness and attempts to dismantle all that once made America great, and capitalism plunged off the deep end.

That all seems obvious enough, although I'm not sure I'd fully agree with labeling capitalism "evil." Flawed, yes. Risen in American consciousness to an uncriticizable-sacred-cow pedestal it hasn't come even close to earning, indisputably. "Evil" seems a little harsh, not to mention overly simplistic. Using "evil" as a synonym for "I don't like it!" really reminds me more of Republicans and the Tea Party crew than anything else. But Moore gives a few pretty damning examples of "socialist" systems working far better than the free market, with a disastrous, failed, instantly corrupt attempt at a privatized juvenile detention facility in Pennsylvania being one of the most simultaneously amusing and disturbing case studies (albeit maybe not amusing to the indignant liberal behind me in the theater who kept angrily whisper-shouting "Jesus!" every five minutes).

The most "evil" thing we see in the movie is probably so-called "dead peasant insurance," where companies take out life insurance on low-level employees, usually without the employee's knowledge, and in the event of the employee's death enjoy a large payout (potentially in the millions of dollars for employees who make little over minimum wage) without sharing any with the deceased's family. Moore highlights several instances of such in the film, with one of the companies in question being, shock of shocks, Wal-Mart. And the "dead peasant" moniker is made up by the corporations themselves, for maximum over-the-top villainy.

Thankfully, Moore's antics (running around trying to citizen's arrest CEOs, going to banks and demanding America's money back, etc.) are at a relatively low level here. The antic-heavy trailer had me pretty damn concerned on this count, but the trailer fortunately contains nearly every goofy stunt in the entire film. I generally find that Moore's movies are stronger the less he's onscreen (Sicko in particular was very, very strong almost until the exact second that Moore's jowls waggled into the frame), and that mostly stands here, with him wandering around the Capitol looking for Congresspeople to talk to being the exception since he actually gets a couple pretty good interviews out of it.

If the film has a weakness (outside of an overreliance on close-ups of crying poor people), it's definitely the overly-fawning-of-Obama ending sequence. I mean, don't get me wrong, I campaigned and voted for Obama and I'm going to campaign and vote for him again in three years and it doesn't take a fucking genius to see that he's better than George Bush, but Barack Obama is still a carefully-vetted representative of the exact same right-wing, pro-business, hyper-capitalist institution that has produced every president since 1980. One that doesn't fear science and won't stick sociopaths on the Supreme Court, but still. Capitalism: A Love Story ends with this swelling, inspirational montage that keeps asking if with Obama America has finally turned the corner from corrupt capitalism, and I kept waiting for the giant "NO!" punchline that never came. The right-wing hordes that think Obama is a Marxist are stupid, sure, but somehow a starry-eyed socialist who thinks Obama is one of us comes off as even stupider, or at least more naive.

3 Stars out of 5

Sunday, October 4, 2009

ABC's Hank

I can't believe this. I just can't fucking believe this. I don't usually review TV shows here, and I apologize for this break in tradition, but I'm shocked and disgusted and require an outlet. You see, I'm a believer, especially with the rise of Hulu's remarkable convenience, in giving every new show a chance. Of course, TV is pretty bad, so I turn most off before finishing the first episode and fewer still do I ever bother with the second, but ever since seeing the first episode of my current favorite show Friday Night Lights over a year after its premiere and kicking myself for dismissing it without watching when it first aired, I've been a believer that shows can pleasantly surprise you.

And then there's ABC's new "comedy," Hank, the pilot of which is now watchable viewable on Hulu. Holy. Fucking. Shit. Oh my fucking god.

What an embarrassment. What a grotesquerie. What a farce. It's wayyy too generous to settle for calling this inert, ghastly, moronic abomination a "bad sitcom," because that seems to imply that it's a bad sitcom circa 2009, when in fact it feels like the 1992 fall TV season's shittiest new show somehow fallen through a wormhole to infect our televisions across the ages. How could all the pitching and honing and casting and writing and rewriting and workshopping and test screening and general overproduction that goes into creating a television program — months and months and months of work by dozens of people — create this? This horrific thing? How is it possible? How could a writer put their name on this and show their face in public again? I mean, what the fuck?

I confess that I only made it twelve morbidly curious minutes into the bloody affair before switching it off in disgust (and I made to exactly the 2:16 mark before emitting a totally involuntary out-loud "ugh," the sort I usually reserve for opening an elevator to find vomit on the floor), but that was well enough. Typical Hollywood "small town life will make you a better man" horseshit, infuriatingly stock common sense wife and geeky son and spoiled daughter and overbearing neighbor archetypes, awkward, stilted, lifeless dialogue delivered in a way that doesn't feel remotely like the (rightfully) embarrassed actors are speaking to each other rather than towards the audience (with every single fucking line!), hilariously clunky exposition (the closest thing to "hilarious" in this horrific show), and as the cherry on top, that fucking laugh track braying idiotically at every single cringe-inducing, telegraphed "joke" as if to trick you into joining along with it.

Hank must be cancelled immediately, and everyone involved in any aspect of its production should be deeply and truly ashamed, down to and including the boom operator. I've made fun of Two and a Half Men and Everybody Loves Raymond plenty, and rightfully, because they're pieces of shit, but Hank, wow, it's something fucking else. God damn.

But the worst part is that you know — you fucking know — that there's millions of doughy, white bread, middle-American missing links in the evolutionary chain who detest intellectuals, think Sarah Palin is a nice lady, classify Chinese and Mexican food as foreign and gross, and just hate this new trend of weird, confusing TV comedies like The Office and 30 Rock without laugh tracks to help them figure out when they're supposed to laugh, and they think Hank hits the fucking spot. A great comedy! Put it right up on the TiVo with CSI, American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, and The Jay Leno Show, yeehaw! Fuck this gay earth.

Now seems as a good a time as any to discuss the laugh track in general. I detest the laugh track with every fiber of my being. Not to say that a few good shows haven't made use of it — Seinfeld is of course classic, NewsRadio is one of the best semi-underground sitcoms of the 1990s, and I enjoyed Friends back in its day. But after Arrested Development, The Office, 30 Rock, and basically every good comedy created this decade, it can no longer be suffered.

It's a shame, because many, many people whose opinions I trust have recommended that I watch How I Met Your Mother, and since the show is starring Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Segel, and Alyson Hannigan, I have no reason to believe them dishonest. But I just can't watch it with a laugh track. That's not me trying to be snooty and superior, I mean that I literally can't, any more than I could watch a show at the wrong aspect ratio or with the colors inverted or without sound. Every time the stupid laugh track goes off it makes me cringe and ruins the joke and reminds me I'm watching a fictional TV show and forcibly ejects me from any immersion in the story or characters. I just can't enjoy it, no matter how much I'd like to.

People like to say that contemporary culture is in decay, and perhaps with the rise of reality TV and Michael Bay movies and Dane Cook and Twilight and shitty Disney tween idols there's some truth to that, but at the very least I can say that the duel over the laugh track is one of the few cultural battles I seem to be on the winning side of. A decade ago (and even five or six years ago) is was a rare novelty to have a single-camera, laugh track-free sitcom, but today, every new TV season sees fewer and fewer new shows employing one. Hank is just about it for this season as far as I know, and I don't see Hank lasting more than a year. There'll always be an orgy of shit reality shows and generic cop / doctor / lawyer dramas to ignore, but despite my tone for the rest of this post, I'm actually fairly optimistic about the future of television.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


In any zombie movie, there's an invisible but important sliding scale that determines where exactly in between "terrifying and tragic" and "wish-fulfillment playground" the film's post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland will lie. On the furthest end of horrible, you have the 28 Days Later universe and George A. Romero's original Night of the Living Dead, lands where there's no fun to be had and everything is pain and dread and having your entrails feasted upon. Towards the other end you'll find Shaun of the Dead and The Evil Dead and Planet Terror, but to date, no zombie film that I've ever seen has dismissed with grimness to leave only goofiness to the same degree as Zombieland, where zombie-killing is a sport and abandoned shops and mansions and theme parks now exist unburdened by rules or tact. It's a wickedly fun, manic, energetic thrill ride and definitely one of my favorite horror-comedies in some time.

In the standard zombie flick, you have a large group of survivors who unite with epic goals like escaping the city or saving what's left of humanity. But although Zombieland revels in nonstop blood and gore as a zombie movie must, it happily sheds most of the subgenre's narrative conventions in favor only four major characters — Jesse Eisenberg's Columbus, Woody Harrelson's Tallahassee, Emma Stone's Wichita, and Abigail Breslin's Little Rock — who have much more modest goals in mind, like reaching the last Twinkie left on earth (Tallahassee), finding a safe place to take a shit (Columbus), and visisting a now line-free amusement park (Wichita, Little Rock). The decidedly non-epic scope of the character's plans makes for a highly refreshing change of pace.

As tends to be the case with male-scripted, male-directed action movies with male protagonists, the female characters are a bit more generic and shallowly-defined than the male leads (especially in the final act, where they seem to go out of their way to become damsels in distress), but they do a good deadpan and Emma Stone is mega-hot. I've said before and I'll say again that she would make a good lead in something. But the real comedy comes from the tension and stark contrast between Columbus, who is phobic and awkward and shy (Michael Cera-type) and subscribes to a zombie philosophy of running, avoidance, and not being a hero, and Tallahassee, your archetypical cowboy alpha male who loves luring and hunting and killing zombies en masse. Watching them get on each other's nerves over petty minutiae even as the dead rise to hunt them in the night is hysterical.

It's Columbus who provides the film's clever motif in the form of his thirty-one (and expanding) rules for surviving Zombieland, rules such as cardio, remaining limber, not being a hero, always checking the back seat for undead, and double-tapping each "killed" zombie for guaranteed "death." He explains his rules in nearly constant voice-over narration and is assisted by helpful onscreen graphics that appear to remind you of each rule every time it's applied. It's very clever and funny and has great payoff at the end, and even though his voice-over is arguably a bit too constant in the film's first act (where he tends to outline what's going on onscreen even though it's pretty clear), it's still one of the better uses of voice-over in some time, with plenty of great one-liners.

Zombieland isn't great cinema, nor does it aspire to be, but it seems destined for cult classic status and a lot of what makes it so entertaining lies in it being one of the most streamlined movies in ages, with a lightning runtime (81 minutes, including end credits) and a smaller cast (seven credited actors) than the vast majority of TV episodes, let alone feature films. Always moving, the film is at any given point either introducing a character, outlining a new rule for surviving Zombieland, plunged into a goofy comedy sequence, or battling the undead with gory results. It's a very slight movie with a few flaws, but one that it's not physically possible to become in any way bored or antsy during. I'd recommend it to basically anyone who's a fan of fun movies, whether you care for horror or not.

4 Stars out of 5