Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008: A Year to Repress from Our Memories

Favorite to Least Favorite Movies I Saw That Were Released in 2008

Sure to be updated soon with all the movies I’d forgotten. So aside from the big blockbusters, why didn’t I go out to see cerebral movies that looked good, like Frost/Nixon and Slumdog Millionaire? Because I had to watch a lot of crappy ones for this blog.

The Dark Knight: There’s not enough space to discuss all the ways this movie is great. But I’ll just settle on this one statement, sure to be argued: To all those who think George W. Bush is a war criminal, yet loved this movie, you might want to watch this glorious epic of a movie again. You might be horrified at what kind of a subversive message just made a billion dollars worldwide. Political mode off.

Wall-E: As cynical as I can be, I’ll never outgrow the Pixar movies.

Iron Man: They’re running so low on comic book characters that Hollywood’s soon going to give us Thor. At least they saved one of the best for last.

Cloverfield: If The Dark Knight was the movie that lived up to 100% of my expectations, this was the movie that lived up to 80% of them. Whoever thought of making a first-person perspective giant monster movie deserves the Congressional Medal of Freedom. Although considering what I think of Congress, maybe it should be the Christopher Nolan Medal of Freedom instead.

Tropic Thunder: Only a few really BIG laughs, in my opinion, but very entertaining throughout. Never would have thought back in 2007 that two of the best comic performances (that I’ve seen) in 2008 would come from an ex-junkie and a madman. Well, actually that was always extremely believable.

Valkyrie: Apparently, Stauffenberg was the only Nazi in all of Germany without an English accent. Still, a fine effort.

The Incredible Hulk: You should be happy you got a real Hulk movie at all.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian: I prefer my fantasy movies to have elves casting spells like Greater Meteor Shower V, than to have talking messianic lions. Still, despite the tedious beginning and the failure to make the Christian themes make sense in the actual storyline, not bad.

Rambo (4): I’m not sure they should have spent a full 40 minutes with Rambo standing stationary and firing the minigun, but otherwise, not bad.

Vantage Point: If Cloverfield lived up to 80% of my expectations, this movie managed a full 30% of them. Not all that bad, and moderately entertaining throughout, but a poor follow-up to the BEST TRAILER EVER.

Quantum of Solace: At one time, Bond’s mission was to save the world. Now his job is to save the Bolivian government and save Bolivians from spending too much for fresh water. As a former Illinois resident, I can sympathize with paying too much for utilities, but if we don’t want the CIA messing with South American politics, why do we want MI-6 messing with Bolivian tap water? Thank you very much, environmental movement: you’ve made James Bond boring.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: Temple of Doom’s off the hook.

The Strangers: Nice. It makes for great drama when things start bad for the characters, get worse, and never change trajectory until they’re dead. This would be a contender for future consideration on this blog, but it’s hard to write 3,000 words about a movie where nothing interesting ever happens. Speaking of which...

The Happening: Cheer up, Night. The trees really liked it.

Other Worsts:

Worst Performance by a Public Official from a State I Once Lived In

Rod Blagojevich: They’ve arrested an Illinois governor for corruption. Now it’s time to arrest the sky for causing tornadoes.

Runner-Up -- Joe Biden: Thanks for making the election sporting.

Worst Lost Disappointment of the Year

The Freighter Bad Guys: So Season 3 ends with the promise of a huge battle for the Island, and the bad guys turn out to be six idiots with machine guns, who wind up getting their asses kicked by Season 2’s bad guys? Sorry, but as entertaining a villain as Mr. Hoarse-Voice Baby-Face was, I was expecting something a bit more spectacular this season.

Runner-Up -- The Women (Kate, Sun, Juliet, and Jack): Way to go, ladies. Your character-centric episodes were the three most awful episodes of the season. Although honorary member Jack’s episode might have bested you all. For a brief moment, during the absolute nadir of Season 4's worst episode, the one where Jack randomly needs his appendix replaced, Lost temporarily sank below the best episode of Heroes, Season 3 in terms of quality. That's sad.

Worst Airport

Chicago-O’Hare: There are basically two places I can make a connection for about 90% of my plane trips, which were quite numerous this year: Chicago or Detroit. Congratulations to Chicago for making me say in a public medium that I wish I had spent more time in Detroit.

Runner-Up -- Philadelphia International: Welcome to Philadelphia, where every gate, ticketing counter, and security checkpoint looks like the evacuation scenes from I am Legend.

Happy New Year and a belated Merry Christmas to everyone!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

REVIEW: The Day After Tomorrow

Manhattan Project? Meet the 'Minneapolis Project.'

So what, is this the sequel to the 1983 made-for-TV movie The Day After? That movie was a big budget, ensemble scare flick about the horrors of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia, best known for a nuclear explosion scene in which people in still photographs get skeletonized. Okay, it was 1983 and a TV movie, but really, I think they hired Terry Gilliam to do the special effects.

When he said he wanted to be woken up at the crack of dawn, nobody quite understood what he meant.

The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich's (Independence Day, The Patriot, Godzilla) 2004 summer blockbuster, is cut from the same cloth, hypothesizing a sudden catastrophe that annihilates most of the northern hemisphere, all of which is the fault of the Republicans. This time, however, it's not from nuclear brinksmanship, but from global warming. Now, in the interest of full disclosure about a touchy political subject, I'm personally agnostic on the global warming issue, one who supports environmental responsibility, but is highly doubtful that we're in any immediate or inevitable danger, and unwilling to completely stall the US (and world) economy out of environmental paranoia. Regardless of whether you agree with that assessment, you'd probably agree with the fact that while a nuclear war is something that can develop almost immediately, even the most exaggerated global warming scenarios say that any real threats will take decades or even generations to materialize. But don't let any thin thread of reality get in the way of Roland Emmerich's--this generation's Irwin Allen--landmark-smashing fun. In fact, this entire movie is basically a rehash of Independence Day, except without that film's stark realism. Although at least no one defeats global warming by uploading a devastating computer virus from a Macintosh into a hurricane.

"And in addition to the sign language translator, you'll be glad to know that my speech is being simulcast in night vision for the visually impaired."

After the 20th Century Fox logo swings by, surrounded by nasty weather, we get an actual opening credits sequence. It's not often that they run through the entire list of credits at the outset of the movie nowadays, with nothing else to entertain us beyond the viewpoint of a helicopter as it sweeps through icebergs in the Arctic/Antarctic (sorry, I didn't bother to take note and I don't care), accompanied by Generic Non-Military Epic Movie Score #69287B. Pretty soon, though, Dennis Quaid's scientific expedition runs into a problem when the iceberg starts to crack around them. There's some shouting and a green screen-assisted leap across a widening chasm as the ice shelf breaks apart, and this tells us two things: 1) Either that damn rodent with the acorn from Ice Age is up to something, or something's making the ice all fragile. 2) This movie can only get better.

Back to civilization, and Quaid's a paleoclimatologist (wacky weatherman who guesses about prehistoric weather instead of guessing about tomorrow's weather) giving a lecture to some UN-like council in New Delhi (where protesters are chanting 'Stop global warming!' outside, in English no less). He warns that global warming will cause the North Atlantic current to shut down, which is apparently all we need to understand on the subject to make international policy decisions, and considering that this entire concept is explained in about 20 seconds, I can only assume that Quaid's speech opened with a lot of Paris Hilton jokes. Too bad the Vice President's there, apparently lacking anything better to do on his weekend, and he's such an oil industry stooge that he refuses to spend hundreds of billions complying with the Kyoto Accord (putting him in line with every member of the US Senate, incidentally) in response to Dennis's confident tone and proof-positive computer models. Personally, I feel that if computer models projected Eric Gagne to have a 3.60 earned run average in 2008, I'd avoid eviscerating the Western economy based on computer models.

Bilbo's love of the One Ring began to reach some... unhealthy extremes.

Taking an interest in Quaid's work is Ian Holm, also a scientist of some kind. He and his fellow researchers back in Scotland (who, of course, include a soccer lunatic and guy who keeps talking about his newborn baby back home) are detecting temperature anomalies from buoys in the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile, other weird stuff is happening all over the globe: ginormous hail is falling in some back alley made up to look like Tokyo, massive hurricanes are tearing apart the Caribbean, birds are flying south in massive flocks, dogs and cats are living together... mass hysteria! And the foolish TV reporters, who are never ones to promote the Greenhouse Effect alarmism perspective, blame all of this on sunspot activity, which is... actually a legitimate theory, one that appears to have more of a correlation to historical world temperatures than Al Gore's ice cores.


And of course, in the great natural disaster movie tradition, Dennis Quaid has an estranged wife, Sela Ward, and son, Jake Gyllenhaal. Naturally, Dad's months apart from his family is causing strain, but while Jake's a nerd, he's actually doing okay for himself. He's a straight-A student, he's got a best friend who's black and straddles the line between nerdy super-genius and nerdy comic relief, and he's chasing Emmy Rossum (Way to go, Donnie Darko!) by joining a Quiz Bowl-type competitive trivia team at his school. I was on one of those things in high school, and it was a lot of fun, but I don't remember getting flown from Philadelphia to a swanky prep school in New York City to participate. In New York, Jake is alarmed by a rich prep school kid moving in on Emmy, but he turns out to be a nice guy who encourages Jake to express his love to his kewpie doll object of affection. The four of them buddy up, and in a spectacularly unsubtle bit of foreshadowing, they visit the Museum of Natural History and are shocked--SHOCKED!-- to learn that there were woolly mammoths found perfectly preserved in the ice. Dudes, did all of you guys skip that day during first-grade science class? Isn't this supposed to be a competitive trivia team?

"Thank you for calling Age of Conan technical support. Your call is very important to us. A customer representative will be with you as soon... Mwa-ha-ha-ha! Oh, I'm sorry, I just couldn't quite make it through the whole thing."

Meanwhile, that little weather problem starts to actually get noticed when it's Americans being annihilated, not the Japanese or Central Americans. Tornadoes start to rip through Los Angeles, killing off the usual slew of stock Roland Emmerich characters: the horny guy in the Hawaiian shirt, the blonde ditz, the nerdy administrative type, the preening reporter. The National Weather Service in Washington, DC springs into action, calling together a group of scientific nerds so nerdy that there are audible gasps in the room when Dennis Quaid solemnly announces, "I think we've hit a critical desalinization point." They want to work on getting Quaid's computer model of prehistoric climate change fed with modern data, so that they can forecast what's about to happen. As someone who works at a software company, I'm grateful that they left the process of entering data, writing macros, and converting file formats mostly off-screen. But it's not like Quaid's wife, Sela Ward, has nothing to do either. She's apparently a doctor, and is taking close personal care of a hospitalized child who has cancer, but apparently no parents. And in yet another subplot, a bunch of wolves at the Bronx Zoo have escaped their cages. Huh?

His wife suddenly hung up, and Dennis was left wondering if she had misinterpreted his mention that he was "watering the Devil's Ivy."

Finally, things start to get a bit serious when a massive tidal wave sweeps through Manhattan, drowning thousands of people and forcing Jake and Emmy and their friends to take cover in the New York Public Library. Fortunately, Jake and his friends are able to stay safe and warm inside, and the building holds up just fine even while submerged in 40 or so feet of water. Hell, they must be doing GREAT, because they're sufficiently warm even as blizzards pound the US and all the water outside freezes solid. So just how cold does it have to be for billions of gallons of seawater to freeze in a matter of hours? I'm sure it could happen. If the sun were to suddenly burn out. But regardless, the gang manages to survive by fueling the fireplace with books, which are apparently the only things flammable in an enormous old building. But not everybody's going to make it: an idiotic policeman decides that with the world ending, it's best to lead dozens of unprepared men, women, and children through the freezing cold, walking across the ice to some nebulous idea of safety. Fortunately, neither Jake nor his friends go with them, and nor does a wise-cracking homeless guy with his dog. I like the world Roland Emmerich lives in, where the typical homeless people are eccentric, but perfectly sane, and in fact have oodles of street wisdom to share with us. Although even he probably couldn't explain how a Russian cargo freighter (completely uninhabited for some reason) has managed to drift its way into downtown Manhattan and freeze in place just outside the library, apparently avoiding getting stuck on any of the buildings in its way.

"Houston, it's beginning to look like our planetary cataclysm is, in fact, an elaborate Walt Disney World advertisement."

Back in DC, Dennis Quaid gets a call from Jake, telling him where he is just before he's cut off. Considering how long it took before I could make a successful long-distance phone call back on 9/11, I think he should feel lucky to have gotten through at all after the annihilation of half the US. Dennis decides that it's time for him to be "there" for his son. Remember how he had that issue earlier in the movie? Oh yeah, I'll bet you weren't aware that might be a motivation later on in the movie. How's he going to help? By driving to New York, presumably with some supplies. Some of his paleoclimatologist buddies come with him out of loyalty, their services apparently no longer needed by the government, but the task ahead of them is great. The entire northern US is covered in a dozen feet of snow, and there's the perpetual threat that the troposphere will swoop down at some point, hitting some unlucky portion of the country with ultra-cold air that will freeze everything instantly.

But don't let reason get in the way of an emotional paleoclimatologist. Dennis and his buddies get on their merry way, but their car gets stuck in a snowbank just north of Philadelphia. And instead of getting their car UNstuck, they do the perfectly reasonable thing: walk from Philadelphia to New York City. In a blizzard, as if I needed to add emphasis. But really, considering that he's just pulled off the feat of predicting the weather, I don't find it at all difficult to believe that Dennis Quaid can bend time and space at will.

"You never lick me like that!"

Down south, millions of Americans are illegally pouring into Mexico. It's either because of the weather, or because they saw Babel and now know how lovely and charming things are down there. In exchange for forgiveness of all its national debt to the US--and likely the assurance that some global warming via thermonuclear explosion won't "accidentally" find its way down south--Mexico sets up refugee camps for the Americans. Even the entire US federal government is now headquartered in Mexico, because they apparently find Florida too tacky and Puerto Rico too ethnic, and because the President's ducking his neighbors at the Crawford Ranch in Texas. But the President himself doesn't even make it, having been killed when his helicopter was caught up in a storm. This news is delivered to Vice President Ignorant at his office in a tent at the refugee camp. So let me get this right: the Mexicans are willing to host the entire US populace for an indefinite period of time, but not to give the President of the United States an actual building to conduct affairs of state in? Honestly, I don't blame them for being a little confused and discombobulated. The movie can never seem to decide whether the really bad weather ends at the southern New York border, the southern US border, or if you're to believe some of the meteorological maps they flash on-screen, the southern tip of North America.

After Dennis Quaid loses one of his buddies in an accident--Yeah, it was a much better idea to drive/walk to Manhattan than to work a little harder to secure a helicopter.--a far more serious problem develops. Emmy Rossum got a nasty cut way back when the flooding started, and now she's sick and going to die if they don't get her some penicillin. Fortunately, there's that inexplicable Russian freighter out there, and the kids reason that just because it doesn't have any people on it doesn't mean it doesn't have any medicine in it.

"But residents around the 'S' in 'Los Angeles' can expect a clear and sunny day!"

When they head out to relieve the ship of its medicine, finding the sick bay with remarkable ease, it's finally time for one of the movie's more ridiculous subplots--yes, I said it--to pay off. Them darn wolves are up to no good! In fact, I believe that Roland Emmerich was originally going to call this movie Wolves on a Freighter, except that some producer decided to make it more relevant to the times by tacking some global warming pretext for this scene. And I believe that you're going to enjoy this movie far more watching it with that proposition in mind, because it's much easier to accept than the idea that a massive disaster movie suddenly decided to have a bunch of teenagers attacked by computer-generated wolves on an abandoned freighter.

All the guys actually get out of the ship alive, dragging the injured one among them in an inflatable raft, just in time to pay off yet another heavily foreshadowed threat, this time the descending troposphere with its instant-freezing air. If it weren't brain-meltingly absurd, this would actually be kind of a cool scene, no pun intended: tracing the descent of the troposphere as frost slinks down skyscrapers and watching waving American flags suddenly freeze is fairly exciting. Tension turns to laughter, however, when the kids get into the library and the air chases them at the rate of an amputated mummy. I guess that if it's possible to outrun an explosion, I shouldn't be too upset about someone being able to outrun air, but at least most people who outrun explosions do it at full speed; here, by necessity of having to drag their injured comrade by raft, they might as well be outrunning air while participating in a sack race.

"Let's hurry up with this scene. Roland needs to digitally capture this thing for his next movie when we're done."

But outrun it they do, as does Dennis Quaid, who's more than halfway through his 90-mile walk through the blizzard. When he and his remaining buddy arrive, they pass the Statue of Liberty, easily the most-abused landmark in film history, and there's a brief moment of despair when they think that the library is buried and all the kids are dead. And if this is the first movie you've ever seen in your life, you might briefly think that too. But they find the library, find the kids safe inside, and eventually have them all carried off to safety by the helicopters that they didn't try to procure in the first place. Given that the helicopters had to come to rescue them anyway, the sum total of Dennis Quaid's expedition was that his friend and colleague of many years had to die, but Dennis did get to prove to his son that he cares about him. I'm starting to see why we have these people spend most of their time digging out ice cores in the Arctic, safely away from the majority of the world's population.

Another Winterfresh Gum-related fatality.

And thankfully, most of the world's population is off the hook, because the great freeze is thawing already, ensuring that it will vanish as quickly as it arrived. All the displaced Americans are even starting to head home, unfazed by the fact that all the buildings are ruined, human bodies line the streets, all the crops and animals are dead, melting snow is causing massive floods, and the Chinese government is asking the question, "Whom do I want to conquer first?" If I were the screenwriters, I might have attempted a downbeat, but faintly hopeful ending, acknowledging that humanity is going to need to struggle to survive from here on out, and that all political boundaries are now ancient history. Instead, they give us the old, "Whew! We sure dodged a bullet there!" treatment.

Actually, maybe humanity really didn't lose much. Here's a summary of the damage in this movie:

-Los Angeles ends up in slightly better shape than it does at the end of the average season of 24.
-New York City ends up in slightly worse condition than it was at the end of the Mayor Koch administration.
-Floridians finally learn what sub-60 Fahrenheit temperatures feel like.
-One New Englander says to another one, "January sure came early this year."
-Western Europe finally gets to test its wonderful socialized medicine during a massive humanitarian crisis.

Oh, and the kid with cancer's all right too. Except for still having cancer.

Nah, the new Yankee Stadium doesn't need a retractible roof.

In all fairness, The Day After Tomorrow isn't really a bad movie except that it's absurd, which admittedly sounds like damning with faint praise. It's very formulaic and mostly predictable, but its characters are all likable (even Vice President Ignorant's heart grows three sizes in the end, and he becomes an environmentalist) and the whole thing is surprisingly pretty light and frothy for a movie in which billions of people die. Mostly importantly, the special effects are spectacular, all the way up to the cartoon wolves. And while the movie's science is insane, so is the science in most science-fiction movies. Furthermore, since the outrageous weather in this movie is supposed to be far more pronounced than even Dennis Quaid predicted, and this is the only way to make a huge action movie out of something as mundane and slow-to-transpire as global warming, I guess I'm supposed to give it a pass. After all, bashing a Roland Emmerich movie for its scientific inaccuracy is like bashing a James Bond movie for the unlikelihood of so many research scientists and fellow secret agents being female, gorgeous, late-twenties, and single. Furthermore, it seems harsh to bash a movie based on a book co-authored by Whitley Streiber. Come on, people: the man's already received enough ridicule in his life for writing a book about his experiences being abducted by aliens, so I don't think I should contribute to his public scorn.

The parking situation at Philadelphia International could use some improvement.

But there's a difference here with most fiction-heavy science fiction: The Day After Tomorrow was presented in its marketing as a film relevant to our age, one that's supposed to engender discussion about the very real threat about global warming. That's like saying Left Behind is just supposed to engender discussion about social issues. You can't have it both ways. You can't make a ludicrous movie that exaggerates a theoretical problem beyond anything even resembling rationality, and then say that it should be a legitimate way to promote discussion. If I were to make a movie in which the Nazis built a time machine to go back and convince FDR and Churchill's mothers to abort their babies, would that be a legitimate tool to promote discussion about the pro-life agenda? No, it wouldn't, and the same holds true for this movie. If you want to watch it as a fantasy movie, it's watchable. If you treat it as anything that should affect your life outside of the two hours it takes to watch it, you're delusional.

"It says very clearly that Bigby's Grasping Hand does not allow a Will save. Now, are you going to roll the d20 or not?"

But perhaps I don't have the credentials to bash this movie's science. After all, I don't like it when English professors use their liberal arts credentials to pretend that they're political scientists (I'm looking at you, Noam), so maybe I shouldn't pretend that I'm a meteorologist. So I'll just link to an actual meteorologist's very entertaining review, after he was paid $100 by a newsgroup's readers: http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.sf.written/msg/6e52157aaf63775f

It's so funny that I'm not really sure I should be linking to it, for fear of acknowledging that people who are accomplished in the natural sciences can write humorously as well or better than I can.

Peter (Falk), Paul (Weyrich), and Mary (Mother of God)

In summary, Roland Emmerich's message is to support alternative fuels (but not nuclear, as The Happening clearly tells us), ride a bike when possible, carpool when not, lower your thermostat, and move south of the Mason-Dixon. Oh, and buy Macintosh in case the aliens come. And just avoid New York City in general, because Godzilla might be around too.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

COMING SOON: The Day After Tomorrow

In honor of the Amy Winehouse-level of white stuff that's arrived recently. Interestingly, the original title was Two Days from Now, but producers decided that it wasn't dramatic enough, and 48 Hours was already taken.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

REVIEW: The Happening

At least they can reuse this cover art for The Day the Earth Stood Still.

I really did like M. Night Shyamalan at one point, my The Village review notwithstanding. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs were all interesting and clever films, even if they sometimes lent themselves to parody. But my opinion of The Village is well-documented, and I didn’t even bother to see Lady in the Water. A fairy tale directed by an increasingly pretentious and angry director? Pass. But when he came back with The Happening, a film notable as much for its R rating as for its miserable title, I wondered if Night could really just get back to what he did best and make a scary movie. He had pulled off paranoia on a massive scale very effectively with Signs, and while the source of the “Happening” was cloaked in secrecy--albeit a secret broken on the internet about a whole freakin’ YEAR before the film was released-- this did look like a similar venture.

(They're standing still.)

We open in Central Park, where a couple of women are reading books on a park bench. Almost immediately, one of the women notices that everyone else in the park has just frozen in place. She babbles on for a few seconds--”What’s that, Claire? Why isn’t anyone moving, Claire? Is something wrong, Claire? Tell me about the rabbits, Claire.”--while Claire herself gets all glassy-eyed for a moment before pulling out her hair pin and jamming it into her own neck. This would be very mysterious, except that she was reading Ethan Frome. Across town, at a construction site, a worker falls off the roof. As his fellow workers call for an ambulance, another guy falls. And another. And another. Are they all unsuccessful insurance salesmen? Hmmm…

"This is Maria Bartiromo, with the news from Wall Street..."

Cut to Philadelphia high school science teacher Mark Wahlberg’s classroom. He’s taking suggestions from the students as to why honey bees are disappearing all over the country. When one of the students suggests global warming, he ponders the idea: “Temperature goes up a fraction of a degree, it disorients them.” Uh, Mark, I’m sorry to inform you of this, but we have this thing called weather, and a couple more things called day and night. Put together, they make it fairly common for the temperature to go up and down by fractions of degrees. I’m pretty sure that Papa Evolution would have smacked around honey bees a long time ago if they turned into blithering idiots every time it got a bit warmer.

The new, big-budget reboot of the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood franchise.

His school quickly sends everyone home when word of the Central Park incident arrives, which everyone naturally thinks is a terrorist nerve gas attack. Mark decides to bring his estranged wife (Zooey Deschanel) along and join a fellow math teacher (John Leguizamo) in skipping town via train. Throughout the movie, Zooey keeps telling us that she doesn’t like to show her emotions, which gives her a convenient excuse to give a flat, embarrassed performance. Zooey’s introduced by the biggest shot of her worried face imaginable, which I’m sure she wasn’t happy about.
Looks like they already got Zooey.

And why should she be happy? She’s watching news coverage of the terrorist attack, and her Philadelphia Inquirer has the headline ‘Killadelphia,’ which is far more of an atrocity than anything else in the movie so far. Plus, she’s trying to cover up an affair with a guy named Joey by comically avoiding his cell phone calls, making this film a weird combination of 24, The Bell Jar, and I Love Lucy at this point.

"This is the last time we make our connection in O'Hare."

They get on a train bound for Harrisburg just in time, because in downtown Philadelphia, near a park, people do the whole freeze-then-emotionlessly-kill-themselves routine. They shoot themselves. They drive into poles. They walk into lion pens at the zoo and let the lions rip their arms off, which appear to have been very loosely affixed to their shoulders to begin with. The train carrying our intrepid heroes lets off in Middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania because, supposedly, the conductors can’t establish contact with anyone. I’m surprised no one called them on this, considering that we quickly see that TV broadcasts are continuing uninterrupted, and that the whole phenomenon is limited to the Northeastern US, although it‘s spreading from the cities into smaller and smaller towns.

"Damn, felt like I hit a squirrel or something!"

John Leguizamo leaves his little daughter, Jess, with Mark and Zooey so he can drive to Princeton to find his wife (bad idea), while Mark and Zooey get a ride from Uncle Rico, who’s heading into the country, where it’s presumably safer. Even more convenient, Uncle Rico is a wise old ex-hippie horticulturalist, so he can provide the explanation to the movie.

Better sit down for this one.

It’s trees. Trees are killing everyone, which explains why the gas attacks start in parks. You see, the trees are pissed off at the human race for polluting, and apparently they’re most pissed off at the Northeastern US for having a high density of nuclear power plants. So according to some highly dubious scientific theories that crazy Uncle Rico tries to slip by us quickly, the trees can communicate with each other, and have decided to release a gas that kills humans. I imagine their planning meetings went a little something like this:

With Andre Braugher as Mr. McFeely!

Birch: We gotta do something about all of these damned humans with their nuclear power.

Maple: Oh, I don’t know. Nuclear power is just about the safest and cleanest source of power in the world. It’s efficient, it's is almost impossible to experience a meltdown with modern core designs, it gives off hardly any carbon emissions (even though we love to eat sweet, sweet carbon dioxide ourselves), and all of the United States’ waste in fifty years of nuclear power is small enough to safely fit on a football field. Hell, the humans are even learning how to recycle that waste. We should probably encourage them to build more nuclear plants instead of environmentally destructive solutions like ethanol.
(prolonged silence)

Birch: Hey Maple, why don’t you make like one of us and get out of here.

Maple: Hmph.

Birch: How do we get rid of these people, everyone? Put your trunks together and think.

Elm: Can we walk around and smash people like in that movie?

Ash: I don’t trust Cedar to not take my spot if I get up to crush puny humans for a while. We need to think of a solution where we don’t have to get off our lazy roots.

Pine: I know! Let’s release a nerve gas that kills humans but no other animal!

Birch: Can we really do that?

Pine: Of course we can! Uncle Rico in that movie about that thing we’re about to do said we could do it.

Elm: Don’t we need to test it out for a while? I mean, we have no way of studying a human or even knowing what they look like. Hell, I don’t even know how we know what a human is since we lack eyes or ears. Isn’t coming up with a gas to kill just them going to be complicated?

Pine: Are you questioning Uncle Rico? The man who raised Napoleon Dynamite? The man who gave birth to Benjamin Linus, the most awesome character in TV history?

Birch: I get it! We’ll do it!

Maple: Great, kill all the humans so they actually WILL be forced to let their nuclear plants melt down, so we’ll all die anyway. Good plan.

Birch: Shut up!

Maple: You know, the French use a ton more nuclear power than the US does. Why aren’t the Euro-trees mad?

Birch: SHUT UP!

"Christian? You've changed."

Mark and Zooey discover that they need to keep to ultra-small groups, because the trees don’t see humans as a threat when they’re in small groups, and won’t release the gas. Please ignore the fact that Mark, Zooey, Jess, and the two boys they’re traveling with make up five people, and that we’ve several times seen instances of isolated groups of five or fewer people getting killed off. Our heroes arrive at an empty country house, and knowing that the trees kill people in big groups, they decide to go to a town that’s lightly populated. Wait a minute. They’re alone. In a house in the country. And their goal is to avoid being around more people. So they’re going. To a place. With more people. Head. Exploding.


After they accidentally allow the two boys to get blown away by survivalist wackos in a boarded-up house, Mark and Zooey take Jess to somewhere much safer: a house with a crazy old lady. Here, the movie realizes that it’s actually moved far too fast, filling its time with action, even if most of that action was stupid. So it’s time to put an end to that! If Night is going to borrow heavily from the Spielberg version of War of the Worlds, he might as well imitate the Tim Robbins character while he’s at it. Mark and Zooey accept the woman’s hospitality/verbal abuse and spend the night, but in the morning, crazy old lady goes out into her garden and gets gassed. Mark boards up in the main house, while Zooey and Jess board up in a shed, realizing that now as few as one person can trigger the trees’ Human Detector. Realizing they‘re trapped, and giving up hope after a whopping two minutes, Mark and Zooey spit on John Leguizamo’s grave by taking his daughter outside with them so they can be physically together at the end of their lives. But nope. For all of Night’s gleeful grim carnage and radical environmentalist moralizing, he can’t bring himself to kill off our last three characters. In the three minutes between the time that the trees gassed the crazy old lady and the time that Mark and Zooey walk outside, the Photosynthian Liberation Organization pulled the plug on the whole gassing operation, deciding that it’s made enough of a point.

"Oh my God! It's that man again! The one with the heavy breathing, asking me if I can hear him now!"

Apparently not, considering that we flash forward to three months later and life in Philly has returned to normal, albeit with considerably fewer people. People are still driving cars and watching TV, so I guess we haven’t made a whole lot of concessions to the tree folk. The most we see to even indicate that millions of people died a few months ago is some cable talk show where an idiot professor is being interviewed to wrap up what Uncle Rico already told us forty minutes ago. As for our characters, Mark and Zooey have adopted Jess, and Zooey’s pregnant, so I guess their marriage problems are over. Awww. Mark also appears to be unemployed, though, since he drops her off at the school bus (the short bus, Night’s cute little way of reminding us that most of the innocent children DIED). And as an epilogue, we cut to a park in Paris where the Happening is starting all over again. Well, at least Night managed to account for my earlier crack about France having lots of nuclear power plants. Nice job.

Well, Night, I guess your message is that we should all just stop using power. Sure, modern technology and mass industralization is what allows us to have a film industry in the first place and to have the wealth to pay idiot directors millions for schlocky movies nobody wants to see. Maybe we can start saving power by not watching your movies on DVD. Them things don’t run on imagination, after all.

"You know, I'm starting to see why Mel wanted out."

But I think Night’s message is broader than that: perhaps he’s just trying to tell us that trees are f***ing a**h***s. Which is a pretty original message, but one that does not save this movie. Are we supposed to cringe or laugh when the movie draws tension from a little girl on a swingset hanging from the tree, one that we’re afraid is going to “go off”? The Happening doesn’t even rank well in the very limited pantheon of killer tree movies:

Maximum Underdrive

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
2. Evil Dead series
3. The Wizard of Oz
4. Poltergeist
5. The Happening
6. From Hell It Came

"Maude, I don't think we're wearing these 3D glasses correctly."

But if the whole message is that we should stop planting trees in our cities, because they’re ungrateful bastards, more powerful to you, M. Night Shyamalan. So whenever you chop down a tree for firewood, carve your initials into bark, or even just toss a crumpled-up piece of paper into the trash instead of the recycling bin, remember to flip it the bird and say, “What’s happening now, you son of a bitch?”

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

COMING SOON: The Happening

There is no curse in Elvish, Entish, or the tongues of Men for this stupidity.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

REVIEW: Underworld

Kate Beckinsale's shadow puppet shows were impressive, but surprisingly grim.

I have a theory as to why Hollywood loves vampires so much: they’re cheap. You clamp a couple of fake teeth into the mouth of a TV actor and you’ve suddenly got a decadent, angsty immortal that lonely housewives and unpopular teenage girls find sexy and sad. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but I’m just reporting the facts. Hollywood likes vampires even better than zombies for the most part, because even though zombies require even less acting, there’s more of an expectation that there’ll be gut-ripping special effects in their movies, which cost money and limit your cable TV options somewhat. Vampires generally don’t require a lot of gore, just a lot of self-indulgence and general pissiness, which means that they can get the attention of not only the horror crowd, but also the reality TV and cable news crowds.

"Don't do it, Selene! You have so much to un-live for!"

Werewolves, on the other hand, are really on the outs. There’s not a whole lot of sexiness to the idea of a person who turns into a smelly, furry woodland animal, whatever the makers of The Howling seem to think, and you actually have to put some honest effort into the makeup. Plus, it’s a bit harder to structure a plot where bad stuff only happens once per lunar cycle. Although I imagine a lot of the female viewers can sympathize with the werewolves‘ plight, at least.

Get Rich or Undie Trying

But werewolves, unlike zombies, mummies, gill men, invisible men, Red Sox fans, and poltergeists, are a pretty natural enemy for vampires, since they seem to originate from the same general region of the world and share a “woe is me” attitude about themselves. So in comes Underworld, a movie that takes place in an unnamed Eastern European city somewhere in the United States, where vampires are essentially Sicilian mobsters and werewolves are street-level gangsters. They don’t like each other. They’ve been fighting each other for a while. And since in the whole movie, we see about thirty vampires and twenty werewolves, they’ve apparently either been very good at killing each other or very bad at recruiting new vampires and werewolves out of the general population. Though the fact that we almost never see actual regular human beings anywhere might explain it. Both the werewolves and the vampires must really hate each other, since they clearly originated in Europe (the flashbacks confirm that, unless the Native Americans built big European buildings that I was unaware of), but are now living in a city that’s clearly American, due to the fact that the few scattered non-monsters who live in it are American. So one of the races must have jumped continents, and the other side decided they couldn’t just stay where they were or find some other massive population center to call home.

I could have sworn I reviewed a movie like this before... Clearly my imagination. A dreamworld...

Before we start, it’s important to lay down the rules for the two species. These vampires don’t turn into mists or bats or wolves. They’re not vulnerable to garlic, silver, or crucifixes (even though I was going to make a joke about atheist vampires, I actually appreciate the last point since I can do without the werewolves taping together two tongue depressors to make a weapon against the unstoppable undead). They are vulnerable to sunlight, but since it’s never once daylight in the entire movie, they don’t run into a problem with that; however, the werewolves have developed bullets that house ultraviolet light capsules--hey, I’m just reporting what the movie tells me. And it’s a good thing they’re not vulnerable to water, because it never stops raining either. They don’t even need to prey on humans anymore, because they’ve got synthetic blood made for them by some corporation they secretly control; don’t want to have any moral complications for the good vampires, after all, because preying on humans is significant to the reason why we generally frown upon vampirism as a lifestyle. But then again, since drinking human blood is more or less the core feature of any vampire, I have to wonder what makes these people ‘vampires’ and not just albino Calvin Klein models.
Weretapeworms: Warded off by crucifixes, silver, and bringing your own bottled water with you when you travel.

The werewolves are vulnerable to silver, but they can turn into wolf form whenever they want, and it’s not mandatory that they transform during the full moon. Oh, and you’re not supposed to call them werewolves; they’re Lycans, because “werewolf” doesn’t sound like a name that’s dripping with enough history and importance and gothness to it (don’t worry, you can call the vampires vampires, not the Kindred or the Forsaken or the Immortals or something equally nauseating). Considering that the Lycans don’t need to turn into wolves and presumably just need meat, not necessarily human meat, I don’t really know why they feel compelled to stick together and fight vampires, rather than just live normally and get friggin‘ jobs. The net result of this is that you’re left with is two warring supernatural races with almost no distinctive features. In fact, if it weren’t for the werewolves occasionally turning into their wolf forms and biting vampires in combat, these would just be a bunch of decadent Goths trading bullets with a bunch of street trash. And since the werewolves are completely vulnerable to vampire bullets and can’t use their own guns in wolf form, they have no advantage in transforming at all.

"Oh yeah? Well, if I bite you, it'll HURT! You'll need Neosporin!" (Ed. Please don't mention Neo. It upsets Len Wiseman.)

The heroine of the movie is Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a slinky vampire assassin in a tight leather outfit who wields a gun in each hand, performs CGI-assisted stunts, shows almost no emotion, speaks flatly, and bears no resemblance a certain other action movie heroine whatsoever. The name for her role among the vampires is Death Dealer, which sounds more like a weapon in an X-Box video game than an official title that 1,000-year-old vampires would bestow upon people very important to them. The movie opens with her and a few other Death Dealers trying to kill a couple of werewolves in a subway station, but it quickly winds up being a small arms shootout where pillars wind up getting hit a lot more than actual combatants. I have not seen an action sequence of this nature in any other movie made since 1999 or so, I can assure you. Selene gets to show her awesome combat prowess by throwing herself out from behind cover in slow motion, spinning around, and firing straight ahead of her while walking forward. She’s so good that she doesn’t even need to go back behind cover to reload, and can do it right out in the open without getting hit. Very impressive. And when the werewolves do shoot at her with rapid-firing machine guns, she avoids getting hit by backpedaling slowly and continuing to shoot. The two sides eventually break off the fight because they’ve lost far too many bullets without killing enough people, and it would just be financially unviable for both sides (especially since neither has a plausible source of income) to keep going.

Winner of the International Ritalin Society Award for Best Actress

Selene returns back to the mansion where all the vamps hang out. The leader of the vampires is Kraven (Shane Brolly), who is the interim leader of the vampires and at no point in this movie fights Spider-Man. He’s got three emotions, pissy, irritated, and grumpy, which he rotates between frequently. He supposedly killed the werwolves‘ leader, Lucian, hundreds of years ago, which is why he is in charge until the vampires’ real leader, Viktor (Bill Nighy), wakes up from hibernation a few days from now. There’s also another vampire leader hibernating between the mansion, but I don’t understand this part of the story at all, so ignore it. Selene reviews some photographs she took of the werewolves and discovers that they were following a human, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). She wants to know why the werewolves were so interested in him, but Kraven’s very dismissive, and thinks it’s just general werewolf tomfoolery. But Selene goes after Michael at his apartment just in time to save him from a werewolf attack, led by the supposedly-dead Lucian (Michael Sheen). Wow, the werewolves sure did a good job of keeping that under wraps for the 400-whatever years that he’s supposedly dead. He must have gone to the Milford Academy. When cornered at the end of a hallway, with four werewolves crawling down the walls after her, Selene shoots two of them dead. Apparently deciding that she has no hope of killing the two remaining wolves in the exact same manner, she instead uses her fully-loaded pistols to shoot through the floor and carve out a hole she can fall through. In response, the floor says, “What is this mild itching sensation?” Fortunately for Selene, director Len Wiseman steps in and instructs this thick, load-bearing floor to let itself get completely sawed through by 9 mm bullets, and it does so, allowing Selene to escape to the ground floor of the building.

"A toast! To the Voldemort family reunion!"

Unfortunately, Michael gets bitten by a werewolf before he and Selene escape back to the mansion, so he’s cursed to become a werewolf. Selene tends to him anyway, and Kraven is outraged by the fact that she’s harboring a werewolf, and worse, in love with him! He’s most angry about this because he really wants to get into her pants (all three electrons of room that’s left in there), and he hasn’t been able to get her attention in 400 years, but this new guy has taken about 45 seconds of interaction and not a single line of personal or emotional dialogue to completely win her heart. Michael flees the mansion before they can kill him, though.

I want to terminate all notions that this movie is unoriginal.

Down in the werewolves’ far grimier lair, we get a better sense of what they’re up to. They’re doing extensive genetic research, which amounts to, “Hey, if we get the right guy bitten by both a vampire and a werewolf, we’ll get a vampiwolf! And it’ll be awesome!” Michael is the direct descendent of some important guy named Corvinus from way back when, and for some reason I wasn’t able to follow--hey, I had to get my pizza out of the oven, and the remote was all the way on top of the TV--he’s the only person alive who can survive being both a werewolf and a vampire. You might have thought that after 400 years, Corvinus would have accumulated a bunch of descendents by now, and that Michael might have a family member somewhere in the world. But no, it must be Michael. The werewolves want his blood to mix with vampire blood and make an injection that (I think) will turn them all into vampiwolves, and apparently they’re all cool with this idea, despite the fact that they only live for raw hatred of vampires.

"Well, we've exhausted all the Vampire: The Masquerade books. Hey, maybe there's something in this Warhammer game book we can use in this completely original movie!"

Back in Vampville, Selene’s woken up Viktor prematurely to ask his advice about what to do with Michael, doing so through a ceremony in which she feeds blood to his dried husk of a body and telepathically transfers her memories to him so that he‘s caught up on what‘s happened while he‘s been asleep. He’s none too happy about it, because she hasn’t done a very good job of transferring her memories to him, meaning that he has to catch up on 200-whatever years of technology the old-fashioned way. D’oh! I guess he’ll have to start at the cotton gin and work his way up to Photoshop. But more importantly than suddenly needing to lead the vampires in an epic war without the advantage of a proper briefing on modern weapons, finance, or culture, he’s pissed that she’s softening on the Kill All Werewolves platform.

Winner of the International Rectal Stick Society Award for Best Actor

Not getting the kind of support she’d hoped from her mentor, Selene finds Michael and takes him to a place where the other vampires will never find them, a building where the vampires often do their brutal interrogations of werewolves; she must have reset the favorite places on the vampires’ TomTom, which would explain why a place the vampires know well and use frequently is a safe place to store a guy they’re trying to find and kill. Now that they’re completely in love with each other, this is a good time for Selene and Michael to have their first vaguely emotional conversation. Selene talks about how werewolves murdered her family 400 years ago, and how Viktor made her into a vampire so she could get revenge. Very original story, Selene; I’ve heard that in the theatrical run, a big clock flashed on the screen saying how long the audience had left to go to the bathroom and buy new snacks before the movie got going again.

"Would you please explain to me why Keith Bloody Richards gets a bigger hotel room than I do?"

They’re ambushed; not by the vampires, but by the werewolves, but considering that either way it’s guys in trench coats bearing automatic weapons, I’m glad Selene knew, because I sure wouldn‘t have. She sees them running up a square stairwell, viewed from an overhead perspective, in a shot that is not remotely reminiscent of a certain other action movie from a few years earlier. And I’d like to remind you that the earlier overhead shots of rain pouring down on people in a dark alley wasn’t remotely similar to that movie either. Now that we’ve clarified that Underworld is a completely original movie and that director Len Wiseman has his own unique visual style, I can tell you that Selene fends off the werewolves, killing all but one of them, but loses Michael in the process after he jumps out of the window and gets taken prisoner by the cops, who are apparently working for the werewolves. Selene gets briefed on the werewolves’ plan by her prisoner, as well as the fact that Kraven was conspiring with Lucian to move this forward. Apparently, Kraven’s goal was to let the werewolves build their hybrids, kill the vampire elders, then sign a peace treaty between the two races, which sounds fine with me. But apparently Selene’s still on Viktor’s side, so she tells him of this, and he’s pretty ticked, killing the prisoner and declaring his shock at the fact that he can’t trust a man with a name as trustworthy as Kraven. They lead a team of Death Dealers on a massive assault of the werewolf stronghold, where Kraven and Lucian are holding Michael prisoner and collecting samples of his blood. Oh, and the vampires apparently now know where this place is, which would be a prerequisite to attacking it.

And the origins of Joaquin Phoenix's upper lip scar are revealed.

During the attack, vampires and werewolves continue to do what vampires and werewolves do: fire automatic weapons at each other. The few werewolves stupid enough to actually turn into wolves discover very quickly that charging at an enemy able to shoot you dead with a single shot isn’t particularly effective, no matter how scary and computer-animated they are. With the big showdown having arrived, Kraven decides he’d rather be on nobody’s side than a side that has somewhat of a chance of winning, and shoots Lucian in the back. He also shoots Michael before scampering off, and with Selene devastated by the fact that this man she adores, who has shown so much courage after the tragedy of being born without a personality, is dying in her arms, the dying Lucian suggests that she bite him, completing the job of turning him into a vampiwolf, which Lucian never got around to doing.

"I'm sorry, but I refuse to act surprised on my 874th consecutive surprise birthday party."

Apparently, a vampiwolf is a dark purple guy with fangs. Well, then. Mystery solved. Viktor arrives and isn’t too happy about this development. It’s also revealed that Viktor actually killed Selene’s family, not the werewolves. Okay. I guess that makes it easier for the audience to hate Viktor now that circumstances have made him into the villain and the now-dead Lucian a good guy, so I’m all for it. Viktor knocks out Selene, then takes to fighting the transformed Michael, wanting to kill this guy whose combined bloodline could give them an easy excuse to end this conflict that benefits neither side whatsoever. So Ubermichael and Viktor go at it, with Michael employing the dark arts of rapid editing and Viktor deploying the ancient secret of Nighy Fu. Mike gives him a pretty good fight, but the cagey old stage actor is too much for him, knocking him out and preparing to finish him off with his sword. But Selene springs back into action, slicing through Viktor’s head with a sword, then preparing to engage in a final battle with him. Viktor pulls out a couple of extra swords, and stands ready to engage his protégé in one final battle for the fate of vampire-kind and werewolf-kind for all of eternity. And then they… Oh wait, didn’t she just slice through his head with a sword? Indeed she did, but her sword must have been one quantum thick, since it takes several moments for blood to first appear on Viktor’s wound, and several more for the molecular bonds to loosen and the top half of his head to slip off and pronounce that he is, in fact, dead. Because just like how Wile E. Coyote only falls once he realizes he’s run off a cliff, vampires only lose half of their heads once they become cognizant of the fact that a huge chunk of steel has cleft them in twain.

"Oh, yes, these are clearly much better to have than a gun. At least I'm well-prepared if any lions come along and I have to entertain guests."

So ultimately, I guess, the werewolves won, or they’ve just stopped fighting or something. And Selene and Michael are going to procreate once they manage to get the Jaws of Life and extract her from her uniform. And the remaining vampire elder, Marcus, is going to wake up because the blood of the werewolf prisoner they killed earlier has seeped down into his coffin. And the movie ends. Watch the sequel, Underworld: Evolution. I’ll be sure to do so once I die and I get down to the “U”s in Hell’s video store.

"Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck!"

This movie does have one redeeming quality: Kate Beckinsale is attractive. Clearly in the top 30% of Hollywood leading actresses. Which was enough to redeem Underworld: Evolution, Pearl Harbor, Vacancy, and Van Helsing. Oh, wait…