Sunday, August 31, 2008

For Your Ears Only: three from Play It By Ear

Not too long ago (though perhaps longer than he expected), Lance Roger Axt, whom I met at last year’s National Audio Theatre Workshop sent me an e-mail telling me about a few more plays he and his group, Play It By Ear (duly listed on the blogroll to your left) have produced. He was kind enough to send me a few of ‘em, and I finally had a listen. Obviously I’m not an unbiased source, I know some of these people, but with that in mind, the three short plays I’ve been handed are all good listening.

First up is “The Field”, written by Elizabeth Martin and directed by Elizabeth Gottlieb and Nathan Dean. The longest of the plays, it’s a one-act centered around a house built near Lakota lands, where some tribal archaeologists have discovered the remains of a massacre. Needless to say this event may have supernatural repercussions, but the emphasis is on the conflict between the young couple who own the house; the husband is wary of the Lakota trying to reclaim the house he bought, but the wife thinks something genuinely strange is taking place. In some ways this play takes the familiar horror concept of “a house built on an Indian burial ground” and spins it into low-key drama. The portrayal of the Lakota is low-key and unsensationalized, though there’s really only one native character and not much time to develop him. It’s a solid story with a particularly good ending, and a strong atmosphere throughout. Not quite horror, more of a mystery. B+

“Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Chazz”, written and directed by Robert Grady, is the shortest piece and also the lightest, as its title suggests. It’s the story of the four authors of the Gospels, trying to work out just what they’re going to write. There’s substantial debate over whether to include material as provocative as Jesus’ “eye of a needle” speech (and whether a camel is really the best image), to say nothing of how many loaves and fishes there were. To complicate matters, John, now Chazz to avoid confusion with another local author putting together a Mithras story, has been spending much more time hyping up the Jesus story than actually writing it down, and the meeting between the four takes on the air of a dysfunctional story conference. It’s simple but exceedingly funny, with some terrific gags. A-

“The Love Song of...” by Lynn Rosen rounds out the trilogy, directed by Eileen Myers. Set in New York on a rainy day, it concerns a young woman and her mother going to the grandmother’s birthday party. There’s obviously more to it than that; the grandmother isn’t all there anymore, and there have been troubles between mother and father which slowly come out over the course of conversation. This one goes on for a bit longer than it needs to, and the mother fits a bit too well into the stereotypical Jewish matriarch mold, and while I’m sure there are Jewish mothers who are like that, she sometimes comes off more as a “type” than a character. The title is a reference to T. S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, which gets quoted extensively (perhaps too much- in the course of an audio drama, reciting someone else’s poetry can be a distraction from the present action.) Despite the obvious character beats and a bit of fat around the edges, I do like this in the end; the atmosphere is very strong, we get some more depth from the characters as the story progresses, and it resolves in a nicely ambiguous fashion. At a little under 20 minutes it’s an effective vignette, and even though I said it’s on the long side I would be interested to see if more time could be spent with these characters. B-

All of these productions (available here) were done in 2003 as part of the “We Have Ignition” series, featuring new writers and new talent, and in that respect they’re particularly successful; everyone comes across as knowing how to use the medium, how to tell a story in a short amount of time, and how to hold the listener’s attention. After five years I’m sure they’ve already developed even further, so keep your ears perked.

Random Who Report: The Web Planet (1965)

ZARBI! Order the Web Planet from Amazon here!
DOCTOR WHO’s early black-and-white years hold a unique fascination; in some ways it’s the most fantastical that the show ever was, with a surreal quality only emphasized by the uneven production values and cramped sets. Nowhere is this more evident than in THE WEB PLANET, an ambitious conceptual experiment for the series that, though it doesn’t work, has more than a few treasures. This six-part epic is one I can’t quite recommend to non-fans (and its reception at the time was less-than-kind), but if you’re willing to tough your way through the slower bits, it’s kind of fascinating.

The TARDIS is caught in a mysterious barrier that traps it on the planet of Vortis in a far-away galaxy. There, the Zarbi, near-mindless giant ants, have overrun the planet once dominated by the beautiful butterfly creatures known as the Menoptera. They do so under the direction of the Animus, a mysterious force from another world that has corrupted the land, turned the water into acid, and constructed a giant dome for itself and its Zarbi slaves. After some attempts by the Animus to possess the TARDIS crew, the Doctor (William Hartnell) and Vicky (Maureen O’ Brien) are captured by the Zarbi and taken to the dome structure, while Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) fall in with separate groups of a Menoptera reconquest force.

It takes a while for the full premise of this story to unfurl itself; the first couple of episodes try to preserve the same kind of mystery that accompanied the introduction of the Daleks, and though the Zarbi are seen early on, what precisely they’re doing is unclear for a time. Unfortunately this makes the early part of the story very slow indeed, as the exposition of what has happened is slowly doled out. Not helping matters are our main participants; the Zarbi cannot speak (instead communicating in ENDLESS electronic chirps), the Menoptera can but very slowly and with lots of hand gestures, and the Animus (voiced downright seductively by Catherine Fleming) is no faster.

The obtuseness of the story is also part of what it does very well; we are dealing with a truly alien environment with few obvious analogues to ours, and that’s the sort of thing that takes setting up. The Menoptera speak in very strange poetic tones, and are convincingly trained to move in a deliberate, insect-like fashion.

Of course, there are no two ways about it; these are very clearly men and women in suits. While the Daleks had been conceived and built to hide any suggestion of a human shape (no legs, no arms), the Menoptera have visibly human faces with large bug eyes and ears, the Zarbi have two human legs that do all the actual running, and the grub-like Optera, encountered later, also have human faces with some hilariously limp extra hands at their sides, clearly made of cloth. It’s rather like watching the stage version of THE LION KING; you have to imagine what the aliens are really meant to look like, but can admire the artistry at work.

The environment of Vortis is quite neatly realized. It’s a planet with thin air, seeming to hang in eternal night- the stars are always visible, and the surface resembles what we used to think the moon looked like before we actually landed there. The “web” element is underplayed, apparently for budgetary reasons, but there are some nice touches, like the Valley of Needles and a ruined temple.

The major problem of the story is just that it moves so sluggishly; six parters were often prone to this, and between the insect performers’ slow movements and the obtuse dialogue it takes a long time for this story to get where it needs to go. At heart it’s not much more than a straightforward good vs. evil story, which shouldn’t take as long as it does to tell. There’s a nice twist down the line involving the Doctor and Vicky “domesticating” one of the Zarbi, and the Optera do liven things up a bit, but counteracting that there’s a subtle somnambulistic tone which threatens to lull you into peaceful slumber. That they smeared vaseline at the camera lens at some points for no apparent reason doesn’t make things any easier.

This same dreamishness does work in the story’s favor, too, and in some ways this story epitomizes what DOCTOR WHO was like in its early years. The shaky effects force your own imagination to fill in the gaps, and the claustrophobia of the sets results in an almost theatrical intimacy. The performers work to sell it as amiably as ever; in its first couple of seasons, the show was an ensemble piece, with Ian and Barbara often being as vital to the story as the Doctor, to say nothing of the younger companion.

I remind you all, the grading system I’m using for this is a bit different from the one I use elsewhere. Overall, I think THE WEB PLANET is good television- it’s imaginative, atmospheric, and highly ambitious. But it’s also a bit of a drag, and you have to already love the show and know its shortcomings to put up with some of the needless corridor-running and truly shoddy effects to get to the good stuff. So it’s a middling grade by WHO standards, but bear in mind- that’s still pretty damn good.

Written by Bill Strutton
Produced by Verity Lambert
Directed by Richard Martin
Grade: C

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

In the Picture Business

Note that this link is for the Mac version of THE MOVIES. The PC version is linked below and on the sidebar.
I’ve been meaning to put this up for a bit. Late last year I purchased the computer game THE MOVIES from Lionhead Studios. It’s a sim game of sorts wherein you run a movie studio, from the twenties to the present and beyond. The game part is fun enough, though difficult, but the game is also a machinima tool; you can use the “Advanced Movie Maker” feature, either in the Standard game or a low-maintenance Sandbox mode, to plot out movies scene by scene, cast “actors” from your studios, set plots and set elements and juggle all sorts of things. You don’t have total control of everything the actors can do, but you can modify quite a bit, and the STUNTS AND EFFECTS expansion offers more options.

This isn’t a game review, though. Lionhead runs THE MOVIES ONLINE, which allows you to upload your films and have them reviewed, and I’ve used them as an outlet for the work of Global Film Company. My present movies are up there, but there’s limited space, so I started uploading the overflow to Youtube and, when TMO briefly went kablooey, to The Movies Underground, an alternative site. Included after the jump is a taste of what I’ve been doing, courtesy the Tube of You:

TO THE DEPTHS OF SPACE! (1930)- Space explorer Tara Flame journeys to Alpha Centauri to rescue a missing scientist. This is an expanded version of a film I made in the standard game, which had a brutally troubled production (including frequent tantrums by its director) and took a couple of years to finish, but ended up being a success and a nice metafiction story. The sequel is up at TMO, and I will be adding more adventures to the Tara Flame saga.

REPTILE WOMEN OF MARS (1953)- Another retro sci-fi-er, made in the standard game so it’s sort of compressed. This one still needs a little work.

THRILLKILLER JOHN (1955)- Anyone who watches this one, please tell me if you understood what was going on or if I should add subtitles. I’m genuinely curious.

ROAD TO DYSTOPIA (1972)- My tribute to seventies Dystopian science fiction.

If you want to try this yourself, here are the product links for the game and its expansion, for PC and Mac.

Lionhead’s got all its resources tied up in FABLE 2 so we may not see another expansion (which is a shame, since there aren’t many options for fantasy or historical epics), but there are plenty of modders working to add content on their own: the Director’s Cut Modding Foundry is where I’ve found my material so far. See you in the pictures.

In Theaters: Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Poster from
I didn’t go into THE CLONE WARS with high expectations, and for a while I wasn’t sure whether to see it at all. The reviews have been terrible, of course, but after filtering out the obvious “George Lucas is an Enemy of Fun” nonsense they’re more mediocre than catastrophic. And the fact is I am in the market for this kind of movie; I like STAR WARS, I like space opera in general, and the idea of a Star Wars movie that’s not really part of the saga and more just a simple adventure is appealing in its way. Essentially the first few episodes of a new Cartoon Network series blown up on the big screen, THE CLONE WARS isn’t really a good movie, but as a pilot it has some promise.

After an uncharacteristic opening lacking the traditional scrolling text, we are taken into the midst of the titular Clone Wars, the struggle between the Galactic Republic and a group of Separatists trying to secede. In the midst of the chaos, kidnappers have made off with the son of infamous crime lord Jabba the Hutt (yes, he has a kid, which raises more questions than it answers.) The Republic would like the cooperation of the Hutt gangsters in getting access to their space lanes, so they send a few Jedi to recover the child. Chosen for the task are, coincidentally enough, Anakin Skywalker (now voiced by Matt Lanter instead of that Christensen fellow) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Tanner). Also, Skywalker has been saddled with an apprentice, a young alien girl named Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein) who’s more than eager to prove her worth. But to find the Hutt child, the Jedi and their Clone Trooper allies have to fight their way through the now-familiar hordes of droid armies, and reckon with a double-cross being set up for them by the Separatists.

As some of my readers probably already know, this isn’t the first CLONE WARS cartoon; a 2-D series supervised by SAMURAI JACK creator Genndy Tartakovsky debuted between Episodes II and III of the theatrical saga to bridge the gap between them. For whatever reason he’s not on board this time, and the animation is now full 3-D and computer generated. It’s highly stylized and quite jarring at first, especially on the characters who all have very squarish features, but I got used to it. The backgrounds are sort of staticy, and it doesn’t have the kind of detail that the live action films did, but the colors and textures are enhanced by lovely brushstroke effects. It’s an interesting touch that I hope will survive to the TV series.

This is obviously much more for the kids than any previous STAR WARS adventure; the stakes are lower, the violence muted, and there’s a lot more comedy. Some of this involves my old favorites, the battle droids, acting as doomed and twitchy as they ever were, and you’ve got a cute but also goofy Hutt baby whom Ahsoka and Anakin quickly dub “Stinky.” Some of this works, and there’s even some nice banter and a few small jokes on the sides (most notably a World War II style pinup on the side of one of the Clone Trooper attack transports.)

What really hurts this film is the structure. It’s all too obvious that these are individual episodes of a television series stitched together (so far only FUTURAMA has managed to pull that off.) Even at their slowest, the STAR WARS movies have had a nice momentum; they’re always moving forward at some speed or another. Here, however, we spend the entire first quarter of the film on a big battle that isn’t even related to the main plotline, but just serves to establish the Clone Wars and the main characters. Fine for a pilot episode, not so much for a feature. Even after the mission gets underway, it moves in fits and starts, and the required battle sequences actually serve to slow the story down. The film doesn’t have the kind of freewheeling dexterity that STAR WARS does so well; there should be more planet hopping, more sudden detours, more reversals and serial chapter craziness.

Finally, the introductory plot is pretty slight and inconsequential, which much of the time is okay, but it results in a weak climax. There isn’t the kind of buildup to a big showdown that the live action films always had, so instead the plot just reaches its natural endpoint and the credits roll. Again, fine for television, but a feature film needs a good showstopper at the end.

I will give one more positive point; the character of Ahsoka is a welcome addition. She’s brash and energetic without being too petulant, and since her favorite pasttime is backtalking Anakin Skywaker (who, as much as I enjoyed the prequel trilogy, has had it coming), she can’t help but be likable. And it’s nice to have a female Jedi play a prominent role in this series.

On the downside, I actually think it may have been a mistake to involve Anakin and Obi-Wan in this series to start with. As characters, their trajectory is already set, and nothing too important can happen to them in the course of this film or, likely, the show. The most successful STAR WARS spinoffs (like the KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC games and comics) have had enough distance from the principal characters of the films to forge their own stories, to recreate that epic feel without stepping on any toes. This is a less comfortable fit, and though the main characters aren’t exactly unwelcome, there isn’t too much to be done with them.

As space opera goes, THE CLONE WARS is strictly average. Fortunately for me, I like space opera, so I enjoyed myself. I can’t give it a good grade as a movie, but it might have promise as a cartoon series, and I’ll keep an eye out for that. You probably won’t want to spend movie theatre prices to see this, but it’s by no means bad, just okay. Your kids might like it.

Based on characters, etc. created by George Lucas
Written by Henry Gilroy, Stephen Melching, and Scott Murphy
Directed by Dave Filoni

Grade: C+

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Empire Strikes Back Fallacy: An Introduction

Posters from, as per usual
A recent announcement by Warner Bros. and DC got me thinking. Based on the success of THE DARK KNIGHT and the underperformance of SUPERMAN RETURNS, they’re going to try and apply the dark tones of the former to a kind of revamp of the Superman franchise. (They never actually said the word “reboot”, and there’s no word on whether or not Bryan Singer will still be involved.) I’m saddened by this in a way, as I think SUPERMAN RETURNS was utterly magnificent, but that’s on the record already. Instead I’d like to point out a concept I’ve been developing over time, looking at genre fiction, fandom, and media in general.

Now bear with me on this...
I call it The Empire Strikes Back Fallacy. Let’s break it down logically:

1. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is the best/most well regarded of the STAR WARS films.

Granted, this is partly a matter of opinion, but the general consensus holds it up as the highest. It’s got the best RottenTomatoes score, the highest IMDB rating, and fans always think of it as the best.

2. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is the darkest of the STAR WARS films.

In regards to the original trilogy, this is close to objective fact, and though maybe REVENGE OF THE SITH is a little darker, it’s dark in a different way (and, in any case, the best/most well regarded of the prequel trilogy.)

3. Therefore, the darker a work is (or from the creator’s perspective, the darker we can make it), the better.

You see this put into play in most serial fiction, usually movie series but also in television and comics. Writers and directors love to talk about how this newest installment of the series is “the darkest yet” and how they’re ratcheting up the peril and the danger. Part of this seems to be for show- you always want to tell your audience that our heroes are in more danger now than they’ve ever been- but a lot of times they seem to believe it.

And the thing about it is, it almost seems true. A darker story is one with higher stakes, one where you can kill characters and hand the bad guys victories and genuinely make the audience uncertain how things will turn out. That’s got to be better than watching invincible protagonists inevitably triumph over their foes, right? You’re writing drama, why not make the drama as dramatic as possible?

Indeed, I would add a supporting argument to this fallacy, known as the STAR TREK: VOYAGER element. This spinoff of the popular franchise was particularly poorly regarded, because it had a fairly dramatic premise (a spaceship marooned far from home) but was plagued by cozy familiarity and lack of actual suspense. Just about everything got solved by the end of an episode, the main characters had script immunity up the wazoo, and things like food supply or keeping the ship working or everyone not going crazy seemed never to crop up. Nobody fought, even though a portion of the crew were actually members of a rebel faction in conflict with the Federation. They just forgot about it. It was a bit weak.

So why is this a fallacy? The first answer is that it doesn’t always work. SPIDER-MAN 3 attempted to take the series in a particularly grim direction, and though I enjoyed the film quite a bit (not sure about the grade I gave it, but I’ll have to see it again), generally people thought it had gone too far with the so-called “emo” material. (And I’ll take them at their word that it was emo, since I have a hard time recognizing it.) The attempts at bleakening things in the PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN sequels never felt quite right either, though obviously they did boffo business.

Not even video games are safe.

Most famously, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER had a really controversial sixth season in which just about everything bad happened to every character you could name. Buffy, back from the dead, suffered a near-suicidal ennui leading to a profoundly dysfunctional relationship with not-really-reformed vampire Spike, culminating in his attempting to rape her. Xander, fearful of his future, left Anya at the altar. Dawn struggled with kleptomania for some reason. Willow struggled with a perhaps-overly-literal addiction to magic, and went over to the dark side completely when her girlfriend Tara was murdered. A lot of fans were turned off by the sheer grimness and high melodrama, and much of the publicity for season seven emphasized that they were lightening up and going back to basics. I enjoyed season six, but they definitely went overboard. When you pile too much angst and horror on viewers, you risk making them feel detached- they don’t trust the storyteller anymore and they don’t want to risk being jerked around further.

This woman's husband was missing, presumed dead, and she didn't even brood.
There are also counterexamples. The TV series THE AVENGERS actually started in a dark place, with Dr. David Keel seeking vengeance for the death of his fiancee at the hands of drug runners, and working with a shadowy operative named John Steed to accomplish it. In following seasons, Steed, now the star, had a prickly relationship with partner Cathy Gale, and there was a lot of intrigue and distrust. However, what everyone remembers are the episodes in which Steed and the unflappable Emma Peel battle diabolical masterminds with bizarre schemes for money, power, and sometimes world domination. The main characters never seem like they’re in any true danger, and there’s so much humor and innuendo it makes James Bond look like one of Smiley’s people. Much of it is incredibly inconsequential in dramatic terms, but it’s undeniably fine television. More recently, and again on British TV, the reborn DOCTOR WHO is an upbeat, energetic, and joyful sci-fi adventure series which, though not averse to doing dark episodes, is never really bleak. Tragic things happen, but in carefully measured intervals.

But specific examples notwithstanding, what makes The Empire Strikes Back Fallacy a fallacy is that it’s too easy. It’s not really a great challenge to make a story darker, just as it’s not much of a challenge to make a story lighter. What is a challenge is finding the right tone for the story you are telling, and every television show, film series, book series, comic book, etc., has its own range. Moreover, you can’t be the darkest you can be all the time for the same reason that a rollercoaster can’t always go downhill; there have to be peaks and valleys, a rhythm that the audience can enter into. The reason that the ultra-dark BATTLESTAR GALACTICA is watchable and not an endless death march is because it has its up moments, as well as developments that aren’t so much “up” or “down” as they are just plain bizarre. Without those breaks in the tension, you wouldn't feel it when they really jam the knife in.

I’m not sure a “darker” Superman can’t work, but when you think about it SUPERMAN RETURNS was already a down movement from previous entries in the series, with a grimmer look, macabre humor, and Superman feeling alienated from the people he has sworn to protect. It’s possible to go darker, but it’s also a risk, and whoever ends up in charge of this is going to have to look closely at the precise tone they want. You can’t make a Superman film that feels like THE DARK KNIGHT and expect much of a positive response, after all.

It’s tempting to try and press as far as you can and spam the tragedy button in the fighting game that is dramatic writing, but eventually the audience will learn how to block. (Witness the backlash against Joss Whedon’s tendency to break up anything that looks like a happy relationship- I love the guy, but honestly, we can see it coming.) You must vary your attacks, and weave your moves together into a compelling and unpredictable pattern. I don’t think I can stretch that metaphor any further, but to conclude: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is a great film NOT because it’s dark, but because that darkness helps throw the overall bright adventurous idealism of the STAR WARS series into relief, and ultimately affirm its values even after testing them. The darkness is there to advance the story and not for its own sake, and the true lesson to take is not that darker is better, but that the audience responds best when their guard is down.

Next week, I’ll use differential equations to explain why comparisons to video games do not work as film criticism. Unless I’m distracted by something shiny.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

In Theaters: Pineapple Express

Poster found at
The roots of PINEAPPLE EXPRESS are familiar; it’s a stoner comedy in the vein of Cheech and Chong, adding in a general eighties buddy movie vibe complete with mindless action and male bonding. But the blend of its influences is so unusual that you end up with one of the weirdest movies of the summer season, a mix of pot humor, stupidity, and brutal carnage. And it’s all done very well, written and directed by smart and skilled people who are totally dedicated to making their twisted homage work. PINEAPPLE EXPRESS is a labor of love, and the enthusiasm is catching.

Seth Rogen is Dale Denton, a process server and stoner dating a high school senior (Amber Heard.) He buys pot from a very pleasant but perhaps overly friendly dealer named Saul (James Franco), who is most certainly getting high on his own supply. One day Saul introduces Dale to a new blend, Pineapple Express, possibly the most powerful weed ever bred. It is so good it feels bad to smoke it; it’s not so much a narcotic as a work of art. But smoke it Dale does, on his way to serve papers to Ted Jones (Gary Cole), who as it happens is at the top of Saul’s supply chain. Sitting outside Ted’s house, Saul sees him and an attractive lady cop (Rosie Perez) execute an asian man (who, unbeknownst to him, is a member of a rival mob); he freaks out and drives away, leaving his joint on the street. Ted, of course, recognizes the blend, and knows who must have sold it, and so puts out a hit on Saul and whoever it was that he sold to. Dale is just lucid enough to put two and two together, and after explaining it as best he can to Saul, heads out to try and hide and/or find a way to get out of this mess. Also, he’s got to meet his girlfriend’s parents for dinner.

One of the advantages of doing a stoner comedy is that you’ve got a very good reason for your characters to act stupid. Dale is a smart guy, but every hit he takes tends to obscure that. Saul may theoretically have some intelligence, but he’s reached that state of perpetual stonerhood which makes ever recovering it unlikely. Very few people in this movie, possibly none, know what they are doing. That does not stop them trying.

The level of action in the film is higher than you’d expect from its low-key beginnings, and the fact that the people doing the action have no business doing so is the basis of much of the humor. There’s a scene at Saul’s dealer’s house that escalates into one of the most ludicrously inept brawls I’ve ever seen, a sloppy and ugly affair that becomes funny in its desperation. (I was reminded of Scorcese’s MEAN STREETS, but without the grace.) At times everyone’s ineptitude and tendency to talk over each other is grating, and it’s the kind of thing that’s easy to overdo, but it’s funny more than it is annoying. As with a lot of films from this writing team- Rogen himself, Evan Goldberg, and Judd Apatow, who’s credited with part of the story but not the screenplay- the dialogue is natural and the characterizations strong enough to hold us for what is basically two hours of pot jokes and violence. Director David Gordon Green, known mostly for sedate and earnest films like ALL THE REAL GIRLS, is surprisingly at ease in this environment.

I knew Seth Rogen was good in this kind of part thanks to KNOCKED UP and so on, but James Franco’s performance is a genuine surprise. You may remember him as Harry Osborn from the SPIDER-MAN movies, or not, depending on how much attention you were paying. You may also remember him from FREAKS AND GEEKS, or possibly his role as “Bar Guy #1” in the WICKER MAN remake. In any case, he’s great here, revealing hitherto unknown comic talents. Rosie Perez is also a nice surprise, and Ed Begley, Jr. has a magnificent cameo role. There are a lot of good performances here, in big and small roles alike; just about everyone gets a chance to shine.

If there’s one problem I have with the film, it’s that I’m not sure just how necessary Dale’s girlfriend is to the picture. The dinner scene is priceless, to be sure, but the character sort of gets forgotten by the third act, and since this is at heart a male bonding film the poor girl’s kind of superfluous from the start. There’s also the whole plot element of her being 18 and Dale being, well, not, which isn’t necessarily appalling but seems to be raised without leading to much. Judd Apatow has been accused of perhaps being too male-centric in his work and relegating the female characters to the sidelines, and it would be nice to see him apply the sort of amoral wisdom to a woman’s story as a man’s, but I digress (this isn’t really his movie anyway). The girlfriend here seems slightly extraneous, though she provides a couple of good scenes so I don’t know.

Anyway, if you enjoy watching people act much stupider than they would normally be, and don’t mind a bit of gritty violence thrown in the mix, you could do a lot worse than this. There’s even a bit of commentary on American drug policy mixed in, in that nothing in this film would happen if Dale didn’t have to buy pot from some guy he barely knew with vague connections to organized crime. PINEAPPLE EXPRESS put me in mind of last year’s HOT FUZZ, and though it’s not as well-crafted it creates the same good vibes.

Story by Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Screenplay by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Directed by David Gordon Green
Grade: A-

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Avengers: 10 Years Later

So, a couple of days ago, THE AVENGERS passed its ten year anniversary. I would have put something up then but I’ve been off my Concerta for a bit. (Note to the people abusing Ritalin and derivatives- you do realize you’re just making it harder for the rest of us, right?) Anyway, as I’ve already made my definitive review, there’s not a lot left to say, but I’ve got a couple of thoughts.

It is dismaying that ten years on, there’s still no sign that we may ever see a properly restored version of the film from before the fatal test screening. I’m actually not down on the test screening process, but it’s best used to get some perspectives from an audience’s point of view, not as a scientific measure of what absolutely needs to be changed and certainly not as an excuse for the studio to take over the editing process. Above, though, you can see a nice amateur reconstruction of the opening action sequence, using the trailer and other materials. It’s good to keep hope alive, and maybe the transition to Blu-Ray will give Warner Bros. an excuse to do something with this. I’d have figured that we’d at least have seen an alternate cut on basic cable by now.

Still, the film itself holds up. Every time I watch it I wonder if this is the time where I’ll finally see what’s so horrible about it, the scales will fall away and I’ll have to reverse myself. So far no sign of that, and I even found new stuff watching it this evening:

- Though this is a very lush and colorful film at times, I’d not noticed how monochromatic it can be at others. The use of stark blacks and whites, especially in relation to the baddies (Bailey’s car, the Wonderland Weather center, etc.,) is an interesting touch, possibly a call back to the show’s black-and-white years.

- The chess sequence and the croquet match are nicely juxtaposed, and the latter is yet another ALICE IN WONDERLAND allusion.

- Even though this is a film based on a Sixties spy show with Sean Connery playing a villain, I found no references or in-jokes referring to his having played James Bond, and considering how many inside gags there are this is surprising. Maybe Connery had it in his contract.

If Warner Bros. ever does deign to soup up a future release of the film, I am willing to do a commentary track. Until then, Happy Birthday, Fiennes/Steed and Uma Peel. Sorry I was late.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Academy of the Underrated: Equilibrium

Order Equilibrium from Amazon here
This is one of those movies that passed me by for a while, and somehow I let myself ignore the good things I heard for many years. EQUILIBRIUM is two parts thoughtful dystopian sci-fi and one part Hong Kong gunplay film (though perhaps the ratio’s more like 3:2), and though THE MATRIX rode this kind of genre-blending to box office gold, this one kinda fell into a niche between its two target audiences. It’s got a cult audience, though, and I seem to fit into that very small shaded area on the Venn diagram of Gun Fu enthusiasts and admirers of Huxley. I liked EQUILIBRIUM quite a bit, and though it’s not developed enough to reach a level of true greatness, it’s surprisingly entertaining.

The film takes place some time after World War III, which the remnants of humanity decided was the product of mankind’s innate passions. A bunch of them have gotten together and reshaped civilization into a monochromatic authoritarian land where all manifestations of emotion are banned. Everyone takes regular drug injections to keep their mood stable, and the needlessly overnamed Tetragrammaton Council sends “clerics”- highly trained killers skilled in the art of “gun kata”- to arrest and usually kill people who insist on clinging to emotions and works of art from the old times. (Amusingly, the board of censorship regularly bans works by classing them “EC-10”, for emotional content, and I’m sure the resemblance to the MPAA ratings system is just a coincidence.)

Joseph Preston (Christian Bale) is a cleric, one of the best, but his faith is first shaken when he has to execute his longtime partner Errol Partridge (Sean Bean, dying even more quickly than usual this time around), who has been sneaking books of poetry on the side. Soon after, he accidentally misses his morning dose, and when he arrests an undrugged woman named Mary O’ Brien (Emily Watson), she gets him thinking what the point is of living without feeling. Preston starts missing dose after dose. He manages to sneak back a puppy from a resistance compound on the grounds that it might need to be tested for disease. Somehow his new partner (Taye Diggs) doesn’t seem to notice his behavior. Preston isn’t sure what he wants to do, but he does know there’s an organized underground out there somewhere.

The plot is very twisty; at any moment I expected a full-on LOGAN’S RUN scenario, with Preston being exposed as a “sense offender” and having to run to join the underground etc. Instead the film takes a more subtle approach, with Preston apparently able to conceal his emotions enough to genuinely see how he now relates to society. There are a couple of scenes where you think he’s going to pass the point of no return, but both times he’s kept back. It slows the action somewhat, but also keeps it unpredictable.

Speaking of action, much of the film’s cult reputation stems not from its intellectual ambition but from its characters’ kicking of asses and taking of names. The “gun kata” the clerics master is a particularly wild form of gunplay in which they generally stand still in the thick of fire while swiveling their guns into various positions to take advantage of optimum kill zones or something- basically it’s kung fu with pistols, and that’s awesome. Director (and writer) Kurt Wimmer doesn’t do the kind of quick-cut editing that so many other action directors fall prey to, and generally lets the action speak for itself. The fights are all visceral and just over-the-top enough to keep surprising you, and they’re a high point of the movie.

Which brings us to a weird problem. If you rent the film for the gun kata and general asskicking, you may bristle at sitting through the 66% or so of the film which deals with the philosophical problems of a world without emotion. And if you rent it for the heady intellectualism, you might bristle at the improbable kung fu sequences. It’s hard to be in quite the right frame of mind to appreciate a film which veers from high-octane action to slow contemplation. There’s a certain rhythm the picture has that does draw you in, but preconceptions can get in the way.

The tropes of dystopian fiction can get familiar if you’ve seen and/or read enough of them, and I don’t think EQUILIBRIUM can be accused of originality in this regard. You will recognize a piece here from FAHRENHEIT 451, another there from 1984 (though surveillance in this society is surprisingly low), traces of BRAVE NEW WORLD, hints of BRAZIL, a surprising amount of LOGAN’S RUN, etc. The film wears its influences on its sleeve, and to be fair I don’t think the movie is actually claiming any kind of novelty. It’s a pastiche, and the blend is just kind of lumpy.

Though parts of the film here and there are undeveloped- in particular, Emily Watson has something of a thankless and passive role- it’s a standout in a number of ways. It tells a nice dark story without getting bogged down in pretension, the performances are good, the action is thrilling, the cinematography is amazing, and on the whole it’s a nice little film that not enough people saw for some reason. I’d give it another look.

Written and directed by Kurt Wimmer
Grade: B+