Archive for February 2009

On the Oscars, 2009

February 23, 2009

450_ap_jackman2_oscars_090222Why do I watch the Oscars every year? They so seldom get it right; even when they slip up and actually nominate something original and intelligent, the award usually goes to something else. (Exception: last year’s trophies for No Country for Old Men.) But I watch anyway, out of habit, I guess. I didn’t have much of a rooting interest in this year’s ceremony, aside from Mickey Rourke and WALL•E. But I watched.

• I now have to live with the knowledge that Slumdog Millionaire, the year’s overrated ode to “destiny,” now has eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay. Notably absent from awards recognition: any of the actors. Indeed, aside from Resul Pookutty (one of three who won for Best Sound Mixing) and A.R. Rahman (Best Score and Song), the faces at the podium were all lily-white.

• Big disappointment of the night: Mickey Rourke’s loss. Nothing against Sean Penn; he did a fine job reanimating Harvey Milk. But Penn already has an Oscar, and this was probably Rourke’s last best shot at one. Also, I wanted to hear Rourke’s acceptance speech, since the one he gave at the Independent Film Channel Awards (here) was the funniest such speech ever given.

• Hugh Jackman acquitted himself well enough, though two musical numbers were probably one too many. Jackman didn’t do anything very embarrassing or inappropriate or, well, memorable. This means he’ll likely be asked back again next year.

• The Rodney Dangerfield “I Get No Respect” award goes to Best Cinematography, during which the nominees’ names were laughed over when Ben Stiller (in bearded Joaquin Phoenix drag) wandered the stage like John McCain. A better idea would’ve been to have Christian Bale hand out the award and then yell at the winner for five minutes.

• What crack-addled monkey was working the camera during the In Memoriam segment? Often, the camera pulled back so far we couldn’t see who was on the auditorium screen or read the names. Next year, just play the clips for those of us at home. (You can see it without the distracting camerawork here.) And where was George Carlin in the tribute? Last I checked, he had sixteen films to his credit. I mean, damn, they included Vampira (which, as a fan of ‘50s horror schlock, I did appreciate) and various publicists and studio executives, but no Carlin. I could fill this column with other omissions (Eartha Kitt, Sam Bottoms, Robert Prosky, Forrest J Ackerman, Paul Benedict — and that’s just from last December).

• Jerry Lewis’ acceptance of his humanitarian award was short and to the point, and he was looking fit, though the 82-year-old funnyman is beginning to show his mileage; he kept doing a weird thing with his jaw, which I don’t think was meant to be mugging. He seemed a bit pained.

• That new thing they’re doing with the acting awards — having five previous winners stand there and soliloquize about the current nominees — was a nice buffer for the losers, I guess, but it just added minutes to an already-overlong show. I would rather have seen a clip of each actor from the nominated performance, as before.

• Despite all the tweaking to attract more eyes to the show, after last year’s poor showing (lowest-rated Oscars ever), Oscar 2009 only showed a six-percent uptick from 2008. Hugh Jackman shouldn’t be blamed for this; nobody should, really. It’s just that hardly anyone saw any of the five Best Picture nominees (Jackman even sang about how he hadn’t seen The Reader yet; have you? I haven’t) — and though the Oscars shouldn’t turn into a completely populist event honoring only box-office titans, the sad fact is that if most Americans don’t have a favorite or two to win, there’s no drama and therefore no audience. Giving the nominated films a wider release would help, or even making them available for a limited time on-demand on cable — or streaming video online — for about $5 a pop. If the Oscars want to stay relevant, they’d better shake hands with technology.

Friday the 13th (2009)

February 15, 2009

In 2005, Peter M. Bracke’s gorgeous and obsessively detailed Crystal Lake Memories was published. A reverent tribute to the Friday the 13th films, it covered the whole series from the first one (1980) to Freddy Vs. Jason (2003). But that definitive tome is no longer definitive; there is now a new film, a “reboot” of the series. And if Bracke feels compelled to update his book to reflect the new entry, I won’t be buying the second edition.

Nor will I be adding this Friday the 13th to my shelf alongside the previous eleven films featuring hockey-masked slasher Jason Voorhees. For me, it’s an expensive fan film, best forgotten. And by “fan” I don’t mean fan of the series; I mean fan of the money this cheaply made rehash will rake in, both from kids too young to know it’s been done better and from nostalgic suckers like me. I mean, Jason X — which shot Jason out into space and turned him into a cyborg — took lots of critical lumps and some derision from the fans, but damn it, it was fun. This movie? Not fun.

Let’s start with the director, Marcus Nispel, who once got fired from his would-be Hollywood debut (End of Days) after attending a meeting and announcing to those present, “I am not interested in working with you guys if you don’t give me the same respect you would give a Coppola or a Kubrick.” Since then, Nispel has helmed such treasures as Pathfinder and the shitheaded 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, which like this film was produced under Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes shingle. (Neither, I would add, has endangered the status of The Godfather or 2001.) Whatever he might say in interviews, Nispel seems to hate the horror genre, and he seems hell-bent on throwing away everything that distinguished the movies he remakes and turning them into grim, suspenseless slogs.

Under the loving care of Tom Savini (who executed the special gore effects in the first and fourth Friday the 13ths) and those who succeeded him, the Friday series gained a reputation for its imaginative kills, even in the old days when all they had to work with was latex and Karo syrup. The new Friday, which theoretically could’ve benefited from advances in technology, offers nothing in the way of robust carnage whatsoever. Jason goes after his victims with a machete or an axe, and the results are obscured either by the antsy editing or by the murky photography. So not only is the violence dull, you can hardly make it out. For all I know, the next Tom Savini could’ve done the effects here, but you’d never know it from the onscreen evidence.

The plot finds a group of kids getting stoned at a cabin near Jason’s stomping grounds of Camp Crystal Lake, while a biker-loner (Jared Padalecki) wanders around searching for his missing sister, who disappeared during an earlier Jason rampage. One of the kids (Travis Van Winkle), whose rich dad owns the cabin, is such an elitist and arrogant prick that the audience audibly yearns for his protracted and preferably messy death. It’s such a simple audience-pleasing gambit: set up a profoundly loathsome character, sic Jason on him, and get us all giggling at the resulting fine red mist. And yet the movie fumbles this completely. Not to spoil anything, but all the filmmakers needed to do was have Jason spin the dude upside down before the truck took off, just to mess up that pretty-boy face.

I don’t know Peter M. Bracke, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t bother to add Friday the 13th MegaMix ‘09 to his book. All the elements are there — Jason, the woods, sex and drug use waiting to be sharply punished — but the soul is missing. I’d rather watch any of the old-school Friday flicks, even the weak fifth one that didn’t even have the real Jason in it, than sit through this dreary pretender. I can’t say the previous Jason outings were anything great; they’re junk food, sometimes tasty junk food. Sometimes you just want a pizza. But what if you’re served a pizza with no cheese and half the slices gone? This Friday the 13th fails at being even fun trash. There is no greater sin in movies.

Coraline

February 9, 2009

The little girl watching Coraline down the row from me was not comfortable with what she was seeing. “Mommy,” I heard her say, and not for the last time, “I want to go home.” Coraline is rated PG and is animated — stop-motion — but I’m not sure it’s for kids. It may not even be for some adults, because at certain points, it gets stubbornly, freakishly, nightmarishly weird. That little girl may, for all I know, grow up and look back fondly on this movie that scared her, the way some of my generation look back on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or even Yellow Submarine (yeah, the Blue Meanies freaked me out when I was little; shut up). Or she might not. Either way, parents should be informed.

Based on Neil Gaiman’s 2002 young-adult novel, Coraline is the long-overdue third stop-motion feature by Henry Selick, who made 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and 1996’s James and the Giant Peach. (He also directed the live-action flop Monkeybone, but we shall not speak of that.) In a computer-animated world, stop-motion puppeteers are few and far between; it’s basically just Selick and Nick Park (of Wallace & Gromit), and both men lavish years of work on each project. Park wants to make you laugh; Selick wants to make you gasp and shudder. There is something uncompromisingly not-human, and not-nice, about Selick’s characters. Sentimentality is as alien to him as his worlds are to us.

Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) is disappointed in her workaholic parents and depressed because of a recent move that has left her friends back in Michigan. In a disused room in the house she finds a mysterious door, which leads to an alternate reality in which her parents are unfailingly attentive and fun. They also have black buttons for eyes. And if Coraline wishes to stay in this strange but suspiciously comforting new world, she, too, must give up her eyes for black buttons. That barely scratches the surface; there are also performing mice, scantily clad former film actresses singing for an audience of Scottish terriers, ghost children, and many other things alarming and bizarre.

The movie would make a good trippy double feature with MirrorMask, also written by Gaiman, in which another girl tires of her family and enters a disturbing fantasy world. Gaiman, I guess, is trying to tell young girls (he has two daughters) to be satisfied with their lot, since fantasy turns out to be darker and more frightening than the reality they wish to escape. These movies are actually anti-fantasy films, though Coraline is much more rigorously structured than MirrorMask; the flights of oddity are usually rooted in some identifiable goal or reality.

Many will cherish Coraline and set it on a rarefied personal shelf alongside Nightmare Before Christmas and other goth-inflected fantasias. I found it easy to admire but hard to love. The movie is — there’s really no other way to put it — gorgeously off-putting, especially when Coraline’s Other-Mother gets taller and thinner and turns into a sort of hybrid praying mantis and spider with sharp metal claws. Coraline is a considerable achievement of visual dread; even when things look sunny, a part of you waits for something equivalent to the shot in Blue Velvet of a robin with a bug in its mouth. (The blue tunnel between worlds in Coraline undulates like the blue curtains at the start of the David Lynch film.) Selick’s vision of darkness here is so convincing that we don’t believe the nightmare world of button-eyed ghouls is really gone. The movie works brilliantly on its own ghastly terms, but I can’t say I’d want to see it again.

Taken

February 1, 2009

At age 56, Liam Neeson still looks like a formidable slab of muscle looped over steel. In the new action-thriller Taken, Neeson could probably beat his adversaries into submission with his vast stony forehead, but unless I misremember, he doesn’t use that particular lethal weapon. He kicks, punches, chops, slashes, shoots, and slams more than one face into more than one wall or door. We almost feel sorry for the poor Armenian scum who have unwisely chosen to kidnap Neeson’s daughter to sell her as a sex slave. They’re well-armed and well-connected, but they’re up against all six feet and four inches of Liam Neeson in all his righteous wrath. It doesn’t seem fair, really.

Neeson’s character, Bryan Mills, used to work for the government as a “preventer” of “bad things.” He has retired in order to spend more time with wide-eyed teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), though he also has to weather the disapproving scowl of ex-wife Famke Janssen; Bryan probably likes his chances better against the Armenians. Kim and a friend get kidnapped in Paris, and Bryan swings into action. He looms over his ex’s current rich husband (Xander Berkeley) and demands a private flight to France — it’s every ex-husband’s dream moment.

Taken is a standard give-me-back-my-spawn thriller, but as written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen it’s admirably stripped down — less the credits, you’re out of there in under 90 minutes — and it shares Bryan’s unearthly focus. It’s good that the first act shows off Neeson’s warm side — Bryan’s daughter is his only weakness, and he’s blissful when he’s around her. He doesn’t need a big speech about how Kim represents the innocence that he wants to preserve in such a cold, corrupt world — we get that when he looks at her, and also when he frets about every step she proposes to take on her Eurotrip. Neeson has been a sorely underrated actor, a solid and somber presence but, despite appearing in box-office hits, never quite a star. But Taken proves his star quality in a way no film has since Neeson’s early-’90s salad days in Schindler’s List and, yes, Darkman.

Bryan’s odyssey through the slime, with frequent concussive scenes in which various Euro-scum are the bowling pins and Bryan is the bowling ball, is on some level Hardcore meets Die Hard. But there’s undeniable pleasure in watching a man of Neeson’s power and intelligence unleashing both on scruffy anonymous lowlifes. What could be simplistic and cheesy in other hands becomes iconic. Luc Besson has a knack for pure-cinema adrenaline rides (his protege Pierre Morel directed) that do away with anything inessential — that take red meat and boil it down to the bone. Despite its grim emphasis, Taken is not without humor; I particularly enjoyed Bryan’s visit to an old colleague turned Paris police desk jockey, whose oblivious wife serves dinner to the two mutually wary men — the way she chirps “Carrots?” to the brooding Neeson is the funniest offer of food in a movie since Marlon Brando proffered biscuits in The Island of Dr. Moreau.

You may be forgiven for looking askance at Taken, which bounced around global theaters for a while before 20th Century-Fox dumped it into a no-confidence late-January slot. But there is a place for pulp done properly and well; the movie displays little art, but it doesn’t have to. Its furious sense of purpose — get in, find the girl, get out — matches Liam Neeson’s. And, come to think of it, there is a kind of artistry in the sheer craft and intensity on display. But don’t let that stop you.


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