Friday, August 27, 2010

New on Blu: Dorian Gray

| by Allan Stackhouse |

I can't seem to pick any winners this week. Dorian Gray is another remade for modern audiences film whose story doesn't stand the test of time. Maybe in 1890, the story seemed fresh and shocking but today it is antiquated and boring. I chose to rent this and Repo Men and unfortunately neither could hold my interest.

Even if you enjoy period pieces, which I do not, I do not think you will enjoy this film. And if you're just interested in watching Ben Barnes for two hours, there isn't enough story to enjoy him in. The decay of Dorian's youth and character has no visual or narrative appeal. So this guy can't age, so f*cking what? The constant dialogue, which was not at all interesting, felt like I was watching the recording of a play. Conversation after conversation takes place over pretentious this and pretentious that.

The film attempts to break up the dialogue by over-sexualizing Dorian's character, one change to modernize the film. That doesn't aid the film in making it more interesting; if anything, it provides a momentary distraction to the fact that nothing is actually happening. The ambiguity of Dorian's sexuality might appear interesting on paper but it is not on film, especially for today's audiences. So he's making out with a guy, big deal. The orgy scenes make this nothing more than a stuffy soft core porn.

The curse on Dorian is far too ambiguous to establish itself as the main conflict of the film. That Lord Henry Watton inadvertently sold Dorian's soul while having a simple conversation with him is not believable in the least. This was one key opportunity for the screenwriter to give flesh to the key event that sets up the rest of the film. I'm sure it's a stretch in the book and for no one, in over one hundred years, to be able to flesh out this particular event that is supposed to set the pace for the rest of the film is absolutely ridiculous. For something like that to just slip through the cracks after rewrite after rewrite is incredibly frustrating.

The special effects in this film were abhorrent. The fake blood looked like red water. Call me an expert on blood but obviously fake blood is pathetic. It is the one thing in a film that can communicate horror and violence to the viewer and for it to look so awful is so substandard, especially today. I can walk to any Halloween store and buy a bottle of fake blood or I could just order some online.

I suppose one of the film's redeeming qualities is Ben Barnes' physical acting. When Dorian first arrives in London, Ben's shoulders are hunched forward, conveying his shyness and hesitancy to meet these interesting strangers. His body language is less noticeable in the scenes after Dorian sells his soul, relying on nudity to fill the gap left by the lack of story. Regarding the other elements in this film, the cinematography looked very direct-to-dvdish. The costumes were decent and the interior lighting could have used a lot of work.

After seeing this, I honestly don't know if gothic horror can work for today's audiences. If Dorian is an example of one that is supposed to work, I'd bet that it's over for gothic horror. My taste in horror doesn't sway to Jason or Freddy but I certainly did not find this film enjoyable in any respect. Perhaps it's fit for sixth graders learning about gothic horror but it is definitely not fit for wide audiences.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

New on Blu (but don't bother): Repo Men

| by Allan Stackhouse |

What is so hard about making a futuristic movie? Why I ever thought this was worth renting is absolutely mind boggling. If there ever were a film to deserve to flop this year it would be Repo Men. Jude Law stars as Remy, an employee of The Union, a company who appears good in their distribution of artificial organs. These artificial organs are very expensive so everyone must buy them on credit. Everyone ends up defaulting on their payments and Remy and his associates from The Union must go in and repossess them, effectively killing those people.

I don't want to sound too repetitive so I'll keep this one short...

The film's premise is to entertain the notion of a ton of people needing organ transplants in the future. Why? Medicine is constantly improving and to not explain why all of a sudden everyone's organs are failing is foolish. And despite this surge in organ failure, society is still in tact to the point of developing new technologies. That is fundamentally flawed and I do not buy it for one second. In theory, asking viewers to accept one far out idea isn't anything new but the idea must not have something in it that defeats itself. The concept of organ repossession has no feet to stand on without a reason why.

After the inherently flawed concept, the rest of the film completely falls apart. The characters in this film are worthless. Remy, having murdered a ton of people, having a change of heart, no pun intended? Give me a f*cking break. Him finding redemption in Beth only perpetuates the ridiculousness of his character. Were Remy simply a long distance killer by sniper rifle or bombs, I could see him rethinking his career but he was the kind to cut people open and leave them dying where they lay. I honestly could not have cared less for any of them.

If you insist on still watching this film, I assure you that the twist at the end provides no redemption. The revelation at the end that Jake rigged the defibrillator was predictable and not at all interesting.

This film cost $32 million to make and where that money went, I have no clue. I suppose I must admire Miguel Sapochnik's leap from storyboard artist to feature length film but this film is terrible. It felt like such a pathetic attempt to be an assassin movie in the guise of a half baked futuristic concept. What's even more infuriating is that this film apparently copied Darren Lynn Bousman's Repo! The Genetic Opera. Darren is no darling of the silver screen (Saw II, III, IV) but no one deserves to have their ideas bastardized. For something this awful and mainstream to have ripped off a peer's work is shameful but to not even have done anything to be proud of is utterly revolting.

I can't, in good conscience, further waste your time analyzing the rest of the worthless elements of this film. Go watch something else.

Monday, August 23, 2010

New on Blu: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

| by Allan Stackhouse |

For a while, I couldn't stop hearing about hearing about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Remake this, casting that, etc. Now, with its recent release to Blu-ray, I was able to see for what all the hoopla was. The title is a bit of a mouthful (try it in Swedish) and the tattoo doesn't really have anything to do with the film. The film's original title is translated to “Men Who Hate Women” which is largely telling of the sentiment of some of the characters in this film. Despite the essentially non-descriptive title, the film provides an exciting foray into the mystery of what happened to Harriet Vanger.

There are some very interesting characters in this film. First, Lisbeth Salander. She's one tough cookie – not only in her leather clad appearance but also in her mind and spirit. She takes on a whole group of thugs in a subway station all by herself. Quite unexpectedly, her probation officer forces her to perform fellatio on him so she can be given money for a new computer after the thugs broke her old one. I questioned her portrayal as a positive character based on her willingness to be attacked again by Bjurman. The writer tricks us into believing this but then reveals after the attack that she was filming the entire event the whole time. I absolutely adore this trick because there is nothing in the script that leads us to think she is going to set him up. This sequence truly shows her spirit and her will to survive. It may be to an extreme length but her strength visually manifests in the plot and the vengeance she brings down upon her attacker.

Mikael Blomkvist is also an interesting character. He's the other lead of the film and I'm tempted to say that he has more screen time than Lisbeth, which muddies the reason for the title. After being sentenced to jail for six months for libel, Mikael willingly agrees to help Henrik Vanger in his quest to find out who killed his niece, Harriet. I questioned this motivation because the character doesn't need any money. He is only proposed a curious offer, the rewards of which he doesn't appear to be desperate for since the conversation with his ex-wife makes no mention of financial consequences.

Further regarding the casting, I admire that this film casted its characters based solely on their acting skill. I'm not at all saying that it's better to cast normal looking people who can act but it certainly is a better option than casting Justin Timberlake.

The beginning of the third act occurs right on time at exactly the 1:49 mark. One of the film's best assets is its story with its major twists and turns and the ending delivers. In this act, we discover that Martin is the killer of the women whom Harriet wrote down. This is a wonderful narrative turn though because it reminds us, as the viewers, that we are not seeking the murderer of these women who Harriet identified, we are seeking Harriet.

Even in the revelation of the killer, the expected exposition is short. Martin is a frightening character because he does not linger in the moment of our hero's death, like in the original Batman series. Instead, he beats Mikael, explains his actions in a concise manner over scenes of him committing these acts, and proceeds to hoist Martin up by his neck to strangle him. In a film of lesser quality, Martin would have recited line after line of explanations and conclusions and reasons, etc. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not so sheepish; it gets to the point and moves on. It returns to the important conflict of the history: finding Harriet, which coincidentally is mentioned VERY briefly by Martin. The script does not point repeatedly point things out and expects us to be paying attention and not need reminders with all the lights of Las Vegas.

Regarding the American remake, I do understand the reason for its creation and I will give it my stamp of approval, unlike insert horror movie remake here. I'm sure the translator did an excellent job but the speed of speech did lose me at times. I found myself getting lost in the subtitles especially since I don't know any Swedish at all. An American remake will reach a much wider audience and will hopefully shave off some of the length of the unnecessary length of the film. Who knows if the film will actually be good but I understand the appeal ($$$) of bringing the story to a wider audience.

I've been hearing that Noomi Rapace has been catching everyone in Hollywood's attention. I cannot say from one film, despite her great performance, whether she is worthy of all this attention but I did like what she did her character.

As a film, I'd give this a four out of five. The story had some narrative twists that I'd normally expect to be lost or watered down from the change of medium. The film is somewhat indulgent with its 152 minute runtime (180 on the extended cut!) but I really enjoyed the film. I did have to take a break (or four) since the film was a heavier drama but this film really delivers in storytelling, characters, and heightened suspense. If there are fans of the book, I assume this length is to preserve as much of the 600 page book's events and structure as possible. I am thrilled to have seen this and am very excited to see the other two films in the series.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Not Much to Do in the Evening: Cool Hand Luke

| by Justin Thomas |

Saying Cool Hand Luke is a great movie is hardly a newsflash, is it.

It’s already been included in the National Film Registry. It includes the key performance of one of the key movie stars in the history of Hollywood. It’s been analyzed for fact on The History Channel and has been targeted by the Mythbusters to see whether a bloodhound can be thrown off a scent through the use of curry powder. In its 43 years of existence, Cool Hand Luke has been applauded just about as much as a film can be applauded not only in its filmmaking but as an example of the national mindset of the time in which it was made.

Cool Hand Luke isn’t just a great movie. Cool Hand Luke is a cinematic treasure.

If I may, Luke’s ascendency to mythological status within the prison more closely mirrors that of Brian’s ascendency in Life of Brian than it does to Jesus Christ. Brian just happens to be on the periphery of the action and, without it being a goal, winds up gaining a following. Luke becomes the prisoners’ proxy not because he wants to show them the way, show them the light, but because he was bored, the same conscious act that got him in trouble in the first place. They see him as showing them the light, the way, they desperately need him to not break in the prison yard while digging his grave, but Luke is not a messenger. He doesn’t see himself that way. Until the Captain unleashes the rebel in Luke, Luke did nothing other than try to find a way to pass the time.

Cool Hand Luke doesn’t hide its hand at all. When we first learn about Luke, we know he became a war hero and progressed through the ranks but left the Army the same rank as when he entered. Long before he decapitated authority by decapitating the parking meters, he fought back against the military authority enough to have them take steps against him. So a character with known problems with authority is put into a prison.

Where can that possibly go? He’s in the yard when the other prisoners first take him during the boxing match with Dragline. To help the audience along, Luke does his digging in the yard with the other prisoners watching. The Captain gives the “What we got here” line and then Luke gives it, too. If you can figure out the end of Barton Fink, I applaud your ability to comprehend a frustratingly difficult concept. Cool Hand Luke is more accessible.

Saying Paul Newman was a good actor is hardly a newsflash, is it.

He hides well what Luke is really after even though he puts it right on the table. Does he at any point in the movie see it as his responsibility to help set free the other prisoners minds and souls? Until his mother tells him he was boring the Hell out of everyone maybe, maybe not, but once he determines he should stop being boring there is no doubt he’s not there to start a revolution. He just wants to make the time slightly more enjoyable as it passes. Would he have gone through the escapes if the Captain hadn’t taken the preemptive step of putting him in the box? Maybe, maybe not, but once the Captain takes that step there is nothing short of escape or death that will allow Luke to function. Newman had the smile and the eyes to, well, make Dragline’s final lines about that cool smile plausible. But he could also suggest things going on behind both the smile and the eyes without using a sledgehammer to make the point. In this role, Newman’s ability to do things without doing things helps sell it and sell the idea that Newman had something few others had.

He wasn’t just a great actor. He should be included in any conversation where people try to determine the best ever.

“Way to step out on a limb there, jerk,” is how most people respond when I offer that idea.

This week I got a chance to watch Newman in three movies and two of the three are hardly stretches into his filmography. Cool Hand Luke is a necessary film to not only see but know and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a ton of fun. Newman’s parts in those movies are career-defining parts and it happens to be the career of Paul Newman. Now and again I’ll go back and go a little deeper into his body of work, but where I started is a good place to start. Nearly two years after his death I came to one conclusion over the past week: the world is a little less interesting without Paul Newman in it. He certainly wasn’t boring.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Sure, Sure: The Hudsucker Proxy

| by Justin Thomas |

On another day I might argue any movie with both Paul Newman and Bruce Campbell in the cast must be the Greatest Movie of All Time, but today is not that day.

If Joel Coen and Ethan Coen aren’t the most discussed filmmakers of their generation they certainly should be on the list. When they hit the mark, their films are dizzying in quality and sure-fire bets to be evidence as to why they’ll share lifetime achievement awards in twenty years or so. When they miss the mark, they miss it wide by miles and even though the Coen style and quality might remain, they ask too much of their audience to laugh at a joke it is not in on at all. But the point is, of all their films, there are precious few that can’t inspire discussion from joy to anger and every emotion in between.

Their films I divide into two categories – Normal Movies and Indulgent Movies – and while some might straddle the line between the body of work really shakes out that way. Normal Movies would be Blood Simple, Fargo, Intolerable Cruelty, No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man. Indulgent Movies include Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There and the contemptible The Ladykillers. Barton Fink I still haven’t figured out and for some reason can’t get through Miller’s Crossing but of the ones I can get my head around I slot them as such. When they decide to play with a genre rather than make a movie is when the Coens go places where it’s easy to cast them aside if they fail with the audience but, if the movie resonates, then it finds an audience that will defend it and them to the ends of the Earth.

In that filmography are two certifiable masterpieces, as good a cinematic debut as I’ve seen and a movie anchored by a White Russian swilling genius that could just as well be used as a gospel it’s so brilliant. But there are also dogs, truly awful movies that I scratch my head and argue about with others who find something to applaud in the Coens. The Ladykillers is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, a misfire on every level, one that could make the Star Wars Holiday Special look like freakin’ Gone with the Wind. Where a Coen film shakes out between Normal Movies and Indulgent Movies doesn’t indicate its quality but it does indicate the types of characters and performances will be featured.

It took a long time to get here, but Paul Newman as Sidney J. Mussburger in The Hudsucker Proxy illustrates well what’s necessary to ground the “eccentric” characters featured when Joel Coen and Ethan Coen decide to indulge themselves.

Newman plays Mussburger over-the-top as per the script and direction but he’s not playing Mussburger as aware of the fact that he’s an eccentric Coen character. Both Jennifer Jason Leigh and John Mahoney, as dependable an actor as there is, fall into that trap. They don’t only go for it, they go beyond it and don’t realize they somehow need to be grounded more than they are.
Newman absolutely gets it in every single frame. Yes, he gives the wide eyes and chomps on the cigar just enough to be big, but then he also knows there is such a thing as giving wide eyes the right way. When the explanation as to why the glass in the boardroom no longer shatters, another actor in that role might have gone bananas but Newman simply says what happened and helps sell the joke, which is quite funny. It’s not that Newman goes subtle because he doesn’t; it’s that Newman understands the difference between going over the top and going over the top the right way.

There are more examples of what Newman does across the other films by the Coens. In other hands all three main characters in The Big Lebowski – The Dude, Walter and Maude – would be Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy, all weirded up for no reason other than to be weirded up. But Bridges, Goodman and Moore absolutely nailed their parts just as Newman nailed Mussburger. Frances McDormand could have taken Marge Gunderson somewhere else but didn’t and was rewarded, rightfully, for the effort. George Clooney’s Everett in O Brother goes just about as far with a weird character without going too far as humanly possible. Tom Hanks pulls a Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Ladykillers and completely botches it; if it’s not the worst performance of his career it has to be close.

Not even Paul Newman or the incomparable Bruce Campbell, but specifically Paul Newman, can save The Hudsucker Proxy. The film fails because the Coens made a self-aware screwball comedy; they made one that tries to be a screwball comedy rather than understand the things that made the screwball comedy work in the 1930s, the mindsets, the people, the era itself, didn’t translate sixty years later. A screwball comedy could have been made in 1994 in The Hudsucker Proxy but it couldn’t be a 1930s screwball comedy in 1994. It’s the same thing that torpedoed The Happening because it was made “bad” like the old B Movies and the same thing that prevents any modern movie attempting to be film noir to be anything other than an imposter.

Twice in their careers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen didn’t make movies they are capable of making and at the time I might have agreed with Moriarty at Ain’t It Cool when he suggested they take a break from making movies after The Ladykillers. The Hudsucker Proxy was the first time they bombed. Of course, they also followed The Hudsucker Proxy with Fargo and The Ladykillers with No Country for Old Men, so thankfully, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen ignored Moriarty. It’s good advice to ignore the insane ramblings of an Internet movie writer and it comes straight from the Coen Brothers.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Greek Gods Redux: Clash of the Titans

| by Allan Stackhouse |

Clash of the Titans makes two new films I've seen this year about the Greek gods. Both, rated PG-13 or less, provide moderately entertaining viewing experiences. The film came out in April of this year, well into the time when everyone was still raving about Avatar. This overexposure of Sam Worthington, who I actually like, turned me off from both films. But Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson in one film? I can barely remember these two people are in fact TWO different people so watching both in one was a bit of a challenge. Regardless of the challenges and preconceptions I may have had, the film was decent and worth catching.

I'm a fan of Sam Worthington. Ever since the Australian crocodile film Rogue in 2007 and Terminator: Salvation in 2009, I've grown to admire Sam's dramatic prowess. In Clash of the Titans, he plays Perseus, another character who needs to save the future, humankind, alienkind, you know the drill. The similarities in characters must have made the performances easier for him which is quite obviously a bit of typecasting. Typecasting can be looked at as a good thing or a bad thing; it all really depends on your feelings toward the actor. As far as Sam, I enjoy his heroic performances. For Sandra Bullock, I do not enjoy her endless bag of pathetic characters seeking redemption through the procurement of a male suitor. Thus, Sam's casting in this film provided a heroic portrayal of Perseus. Perhaps it was not as ethnically correct as Harry Hamlin with his beach tanned skin and buzzed hair but he still gave a good portrayal and performance nonetheless.

I suppose from the trailer, I was given the impression that the entirety of the film would be shot on a green screen. To my surprise, the majority of the film was shot on elaborate sets and locations such as the Maspalomas dunes, the Canary Islands, and Wales. The majority of the locations weren't particularly impressive or expansive but they served the story in helping to convey some sort of journey. The pillar upon which Andromeda was to be sacrificed was impressive. The exterior and interiors of Argos were all designed very well too yet they were lit so poorly. I was not at all taken by it. Every scene looked like the inside of a Sears.

The fight scenes, thankfully were kept in wide shots, which Louis Letterier thankfully knows how to do. I think he's trying to break out of the fill-in director image and I don't know if he's done it yet with this film (especially since The Incredible Hulk was a let down) but he's done a decent job in this film. The film is somewhat a revenge story. Normally, I like these films to be rated R and extremely violent but the film does what it can. It had some throwbacks to old American action films and I appreciated them. The stereotypical camaraderie speech made me laugh. And you can't have an American action film without one liners. Having waited to screen this film at home, I avoided the 3D conversion which, according to Louis, was made to improve the experience yet still comes off as gimmicky since it clearly sought to ride Avatar's coat tails.

The stakes in this remake were raised with newer technology. CGI may still not be the greatest but at least Louis was smart enough to keep the shots short during the action. I suppose the CGI scorpions were lightyears ahead of whatever form of technology used in the original. In the dessert sequence where the scorpions were attacking Perseus and his group, the scorpions perform a wide variety of actions and angles but the obvious blend of CGI and live action was at least skirted around with shorter cuts. This is instantly appreciated because I cannot stand being taken out of a movie at any point point, especially its action sequences. Bad CGI is a major culprit of that. (See Blade 3 for examples.)

There's a nice bit of odds and ends that give the film some sparks. Nicholas Hoult's natural speaking voice and skin color are preferable to the fake and bake and atrocious American accent in A Single Man. The film also reunites Tony and Effie from the UK series Skins. The cute mechanical owl from the original film makes a nice cameo. As far as the battle of the “Release the Kraken," I'm going to have to give it to Bill Nighy. It was a pretty blah line delivery from Zeus.

Having a slight aversion to things that look terrible, I did not care to watch the original Clash of the Titans. Even without more recent memories of the original, I prefer its newest incarnation. While not a marvel in modern filmmaking, the film is far from terrible. I think these stories deserve the rated R treatment. However, this one might be good for some kids. Maybe a little on the forgettable side but it's at least entertaining. Nothing truly spectacular happens in the film but this is not necessarily a completely bad thing. I don't know how good I would have felt paying to see this but watching it at home was a nice way to spend a couple of hours of my weekend.

Who Are Those Guys: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

| by Justin Thomas |

Parts of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid haven’t aged well, which isn’t surprising when the most-recognizable sequence features a song penned by Burt Bacharach sung by B.J. Thomas. The ham chop sideburns that defined the 1970s, visible in the movie from 1969, date it too. The middle montage, after they’ve decided to head off to Bolivia, wherever that might be, probably shouldn’t be stills because we’re missing too much of Butch and the Kid but it’s “edgy filmmaking” for 1969.

Some parts of it hold up just fine, parts that could be called timeless, which is what happens when a timeless actor such as Paul Newman performs a role like Butch Cassidy.

Who else could have pulled off Butch and had it work? Who else has a smile so instantly recognizable and defining that all the camera needs to do is catch it for a moment to have it work completely and utterly? Who else could talk smack to a bicycle and have it not only add plausibility to the ridiculousness of it but make the audience say, “Well, that’s what Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy would say?” Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid would be nothing more than a cute little safe Western from 1969 had anyone else been cast as Butch.

If Butch didn’t know he was the poster boy for the end of the outlaw era then he certainly did know it after Sheriff Bledsoe informs him of as much when Butch and the Kid try to get amnesty. We already heard from Butch that he once wanted to be a hero, and he’s as affable an outlaw as there was, but he didn’t know the curtain was about to drop and his death would be the final act. Rather than adjust his behavior and go straight, the idea is to head off to a place where the era might live on for just a little while longer. He didn’t want the future, the lousy bicycle could have it, so the only thing left to do was go where he wouldn’t have to acknowledge it.

After they’ve finally given the posse the slip, Butch says, “If he’d just pay me what he’s spending to make me stop robbing him, I’d stop robbing him,” and that line gives everything necessary to know Butch because Butch believes it. Not only does he believe it, but in his mind it makes complete sense. None of Butch’s ideas seem ridiculous to him or to the Kid, who gives lip service to them being ridiculous but always follows along and would have been on the boat to Australia if not for the army waiting to butcher them. If they ever would have put his ideas to serious scrutiny they probably still wouldn’t have seen them to be ridiculous because Butch just couldn’t think that way.

Butch might not have been much of a stretch for Paul Newman, which is a polite way of saying he might not have done much acting in the movie, but it works. The lines don’t need to be said with conviction but with a wink indicating thought’s been given. The right course of action is to try to apply rules to a knife fight in order to win the knife fight. Newman could deliver that wink and not have it be detrimental to the movie.

There isn’t a case to be made that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the “best” anything type of movie. It’s a good movie to put in with a friend or two when things aren’t going smoothly. It’s a good movie when you want to spend an hour or two in the company of bona fide movie stars.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Tom Ford's Newest Line: A Single Man

| by Allan Stackhouse |

I had a feeling that I should have just went ahead and bought A Single Man but no, I played it safe and clogged my Blockbuster queue. Tom Ford, who hasn’t even done a short film, has just schooled every gay director that made a film about his or her own kind.

Much unlike The Wolfman and Eclipse, there is an intelligent use of color. Upon finding something that triggers a memory of Jim in George, the picture is flooded with color. The gray and washed out pallets that are representative of George's despair blooms with warm flesh tones and a brilliant scheme. When Jennifer, the little girl, approaches George at the bank, the camera slowly pans up to reveal Jennifer's bright blue dress, ribbons, and eyes. The lead-in to this particular sequence is also visually captivating: an overhead shot of George going through his bag to find his identification while his gun clearly protrudes in the bag's side pocket. The gun is clean so even with the dark brown case over a bland bank's scheme, it stands out. And for the reverse shot to Jennifer, the pigment in George's face becomes so rich and alive. Dialogue is the default indicator of emotion but color can serve the same purpose. It is so rarely intelligently used at the level of this film.

The film was not so bold as to make sad scenes black and white. Tom Ford knows this too well. This attention to color and knowledge of its importance in human expression stems no doubt from Tom's longstanding career in high fashion. Instead of tailoring, fabrics, and dyes, Tom designs with angles, focuses, and color.

Not as pleasing to my senses is Nicholas Hoult's American accent. Nicholas is an amazing actor with his own natural accent but with his California accent, the emphasis on certain syllables made his performance less than believable. Perhaps Tom saw something in Nicholas as a director that I do not but an actual American actor or at least an actor who could more accurately speak with any American accent would have provided a much better scene partner to Colin Firth. In comparison to Matthew Goode's solid lack of any of his own English accent as Jim, I found the character of Kenny (Nicholas) very protrusive. Another unpleasant accent was that of Julianne Moore. This woman just was not born to do accents. She might look nice in a silk or satin gowns but her accents are simply atrocious. She mixes up the different kinds of English and Australian accents. Do not get me started on her Boston accents from 30 Rock. If I were from any place where she is drawing the accent from, I would be either embarassed or bowled over in laughter.

Just as unpleasing to my senses are the fake tans on Colin Firth and Nicholas Hoult. Their fair English skin looks absolutely ridiculous in the orange hues made by spray tans. Perhaps bed tanning would have been a more time consuming option but it was awful to the point that it took me out of the movie for a bit. As Kenny strips to convince George to swim in the ocean with him, even in the darkness the fakeness of the appearance of their skin color was very distracting. In all the day scenes where Kenny is speaking to George, I was just as equally distracted.

Among the wonderful things in A Single Man is its conflict. George is grief stricken from the death of his boyfriend Jim. In a hauntingly beautiful scene, George removes the gun from his wardrobe, examines it, and brings it to work with him. The conflict at that point could be called soft but if we’re really paying attention, we as viewers know that George is still planning to kill himself. Just to fully make the audience aware of his intentions, the gun makes a second appearance when George begins to remove it from his bag while in his car. Sadness from the loss of a spouse is communicable in any language and the fact that this particular relationship is between two men makes no difference in the story. Jim and could have easily been female characters and the story would not have been any less good. The fact that Jim and Kenny were men does add a certain element to the film since there are so few films that will feature these types of relationships.

The cinematography in this film is so enveloping in even just the simplest of shots. As George sits in his chair after being informed of Jim’s death, the camera picks up the red in Colin Firth’s face. His skin, in such a close shot, manages to provide a soft contrast from the fabric of the chair. Returning to the gun scene, these objects are treated as things of beauty. It’s not enough that we just see these objects. They are shot in a fashion that takes note of the detail and importance of these objects, people, location, etc.

Those who don't recognize Carlos, the prostitute at the liquor store, might not think anything of him but this is a nice bit of reverse sexism. Female super models have been cast in films just for their faces for many years and I'm sure it was a purposeful wink at women and gay men to have a male super model simply there to be pleasing to the eye. He, oddly enough, said some of the most memorable lines in the film: Sometimes awful things have their own kind of beauty. and Lovers are like buses, you just have to wait a little while and another one comes along.

Besides nice lines and use of color, the film has nice visual storytelling. After going to the bank, George returns home and neatly lays his affairs out. His instruction on a piece of paper reads, “Tie in a windsor knot.” That is significant in that it pokes fun of the pretense in fashion but also visually telling of this man's despair from Jim's death and desire to end his life.

The single (ha) flaw of A Single Man is the ending; unfortunately, that's a big deal. To make it worse, it's not a small flaw. The ending manifests itself in a horrible exposition. Had the film ended just two minutes prior, it would have been amazing. I know this is a flaw because having gone to film school, this was a common thing that students, including myself, made. It was an amateur mistake, one that I was not expecting Tom to make. Everything before this travesty of an expository ending was brilliant in terms of color, cinematography, and story. This providing the last taste in my mouth is tragic. George's voice overed speech was a cop out. The drama was never heightened to any particular point and if you're going to end a dramatic movie like that, which is not uncommon, you do not cheat the audience by telling them the signifance of the scene. Instead, why not challenge them with a cliffhanger or an open ending that would leave the audience to make an ending in our own minds. The end did provide some irony in that just upon his decision to not kill himself, he has a heart attack. Perhaps narratively, this worked out. In the book, it might have worked extremely well for the last chapter or two to have page after page of George's last thoughts but that does not work in this film.

Tom Ford, in an absolutely brilliant first venture in the world of film, has succeeded with A Single Man. I am crushed that the ending was such a blatant display of amateurism. What saves the film is the brilliant use of color, cinematography, and story. I highly recommend this film to anyone who is a fan of cinematography or tragedies. If you can look past the ending, which I am growing to do, you may enjoy the film even more than I have.

Let’s All Go to the Movies: Matinee

| by Justin Thomas |

The theory is known: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg did nothing more than make exceptional B Movies early in their careers. That would be the worst type of Wikipedia entry because I can’t attribute it to anyone, but if someone wanted to theorize as to what Lucas and Spielberg did, makers of exceptional B Movies would be a good theory.


B Movies weren’t very good. Matinee and the Mant! movie-within-the-movie show how bad B Movies were and why they worked. The brilliance of Lucas and Spielberg isn’t that they made B Movies as they were but B Movies as they remembered them because if they’d made B Movies as they were, we wouldn’t know their names. It’s the fundamental flaw of Shyamalan’s The Happening because he made a movie based on the quality of the B Movies and not how they were viewed by audiences at the time. Mant! enjoys of having the luxury of making a B Movie of B Movie quality because it’s necessary to tell the story of Matinee so Mant! can have the ridiculous exposition, the terrible acting and the ludicrous idea and have it work. There’s simply no way Mant! could be a standalone “real” movie today, which is one reason why The Happening failed.

What Matinee wants to do is show a part of the movies that no longer exists where showmanship played a key role. John Goodman’s Lawrence Woolsey not only wants to be Alfred Hitchcock, straight down to the silhouette and introduction of his movies to their audiences, but he also gets Hitchcock because he thinks about the audience. A lot. To the point of putting buzzers beneath their seats. This existed but it does so no longer, and if you wonder if it might still be around, ask yourself when you last saw a trailer where the director introduces his movie.

The Cuban Missile Crisis serves a backdrop to Woolsey bringing Mant! and his version of 3D to Key West and he uses the heightened state of tension to his advantage. Should he be concerned about showing an atomic bomb blast complete with manufactured heat and smoke to an audience viewing it 90 miles from Cuba in October 1962? Nope. It’ll help sell the experience, which is what he needs because he has the next big idea in movie showmanship. It’s not a lack of concern for his fellow man but a prioritization of his needs slightly above concern for his fellow man, which Woolsey shows he can reprioritize when necessary when he gives up the gate money to save his girl from a knife-wielding, ant-costume-wearing JD.

Goodman is good as Woolsey but it’s not much more than John Goodman as a character named Lawrence Woolsey. It doesn’t seem as though there’s much acting going on, but Goodman is so likeable he doesn’t need to really act. Goodman as Woolsey works just fine. He has the ability to act, which he’s shown on occasion, but Goodman on screen just being John Goodman is sometimes worth the price of admission. Walter Sobchak is just John Goodman written with a lot of caffeine in his system and weird personal experience stories in his background. The point: he might not be of the order of Daniel Day Lewis but John Goodman has a place in the movies and one need only see Matinee once to know why.

Does Matinee work as a movie? Yes, in the same way A Christmas Story works but without the backbreaking laughs. Matinee is also 10% better than it would have otherwise been because it includes John Sayles in the cast. I first saw it in 1994 and remember loving it to the point of always mentioning it and my affinity for it during conversations about movies. Then I watched the movie again but didn’t love it as much. It didn’t work as well, or I’d changed, or something happened and it wasn’t as good as it was in my memory, which is interesting given Matinee is about B Movies. There’s a joke in there somewhere.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Boston: Game 6

| by Justin Thomas |

I don’t believe in God. I believe in Thomas Jefferson.

Michael Hoffman's Game 6 needs the viewer to either believe in God or at least know about the concept for the pivotal scene to work. Wrapping baseball into the mix, particularly that Game 6, helps bring the notion of God, or a god, into a place where God, or a god, seems to function well. Baseball, baseball players and baseball fans are weird people and the game is so wrapped into the psyche of those involved at any level it’s difficult to allow it in and not believe in something more powerful controlling things.

Nicky sits in a New York bar on the night in 1986 when the Mets came from behind to defeat the Red Sox and force a Game 7. Prior to 2004, that night is the night Red Sox fans can point to when needing to explain the cross they carried, and Nicky explains at length over the course of the film why that’s the case. He doesn’t mention curses or baseball gods working against Red Sox Nation, but the idea of the higher power enters into the conversation as the innings wane and the Red Sox near what Nicky knows will be the collapse. In a stunning piece of authenticity, not a hindsight wink at a fanbase, Nicky knew they’d blow it. It was just a matter of how and how excruciating it would be when it happened.

But then Toyota, his cabbie and his guest for the drama of Game 6, asks Nicky to start believing in something. Hesitantly he does so. Maybe this isn’t the one that’ll crush him. Maybe this is the one that will work. She tells him to start believing in his team. He starts believing in his team. Mookie Wilson hits the dribbler down the first base line. Bill Buckner moves over, grabs the ball and Nicky sees him tag the base, ending the threat. The game continues and Nicky is unaware of what’s happened, what’s really happened, until later when two Mets fans help explain things to him in a way only Mets fans can do.

What did the kind and merciful God do for Nicky that night? The Red Sox didn’t win; the outcome remained the same. The kind and merciful deity, whomever that might be, spared him the moment of watching Buckner botch the play, yet another moment in Red Sox history in a long, long line of moments in Red Sox history that weighs down a fan. He won’t be able to discuss with other Red Sox fans what his heart did at that moment, when he watched Ray Knight cross the plate to force Game 7, and it will be his one missing piece to the puzzle of being a Red Sox fan.

I don’t know how to discuss an independent film, one that strays not from the formula of a movie but from the form of a movie. Nicky bothered me because every line of dialogue was so writer-y which fits because he’s a writer but it gets old. Michael Keaton shows, as he frequently shows, he’s capable of more than Multiplicity (as is Harold Ramis but that’s a rant better saved for another time). I know there are themes to be found, things to be discussed and ideas to be pondered, but I got hung up on that one moment and how it affects Nicky’s showdown with the Phantom of Broadway. See, Red Sox Nation didn’t hold a monopoly on baseball frustration before 2004 and it certainly doesn’t now.

Why should someone see Game 6? Red Sox fans don’t need to because what happened and that mindset is no longer applicable; enjoy the two titles, forgive Buckner and head to Fenway if for no other reason than the greater glory of the Fenway Frank. Baseball fans on the North Side don’t need to see it because being a baseball fan on the North Side means beer and broads, not baseball. Maybe I’m recommending it to Michael Keaton fans. You know you’re really talking to a Liam Neeson fan if that person has seen Seraphim Falls, or a Tony Curtis fan if they’ve seen Sweet Smell of Success. Keaton is a fine performer and this is one of those hidden nuggets of gold in his filmography. So get thee to a video store quickly, you Michael Keaton Nation, and see this for what he does with Nicky.

And for anyone who gets angry at losing a Game 6 and allowing that to dominate how one remembers a series? Losing Game 6 always, always, always means Game 7 can still be won. Boston had a 3-0 lead in Game 7 until the bottom of the sixth inning.
Buckner wasn’t the only one at fault.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

You’re No Daisy: Tombstone

| by Justin Thomas |

Lora Kennedy either had a tremendous grudge against the Tombstone production or was told to go cast as many bad actors as humanly possible. If the direction were the latter, then she pulled a Hank Aaron and knocked the ball clean out of Milwaukee County Stadium because it’s a veritable Who’s Who of absolutely crap actors.

Here’s the list of garbage: Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Stephen Lang and Thomas Haden Church. I didn’t include Sam Elliott and Charlton Heston in the list of trash only to keep from getting torched but let me tell you, they nearly made it.

Tombstone desperately wants to be a good, old timey Western, and it succeeds. After the opening narration by the Bad Ass To End All Bad Asses Robert Mitchum (look it up, that’s his official title), it goes right into the Cowboys laying waste to a wedding in which Johnny Ringo takes aim and helps a priest pass along to eternal bliss. There is no gray in Tombstone: you’re either good or you’re bad and the end of your story will be written accordingly. Doc isn’t gray although the movie might want you to think he is; he’s there for Wyatt far too often to truly believe in his hypocrisy. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and anyone wearing a red sash is going to die.

Where Tombstone runs off the tracks is in the performances from the aforementioned Big Five of Shite: Paxton, Boothe, Biehn, Lang and Church. They’re given lines such as “I want your blood, and I want your souls, and I want them both right now,” and “Listen, Mr. Kansas Law Dog, law don’t go around here, savvy?” Those hyper-macho lines, which have a place in a Western actually attempting to be a Western, are dangerous lines when put in the hands of people who can’t handle them because they think they’re a joke. There’s something behind the eyes, and in the smirk, that says Biehn and Lang both understand just how ridiculous they sound, and rather than do anything to try to sell them, they wink at the camera through the entire movie.

So then enters two honest-to-goodness Movie Stars. Capital letters. Guys who would have done just fine in the 1940s or 1950s heading up studio picture after studio picture. Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer also know they’re in a movie where the testosterone needs to be visible and they’re both given equally if not more ridiculous lines to say, but what separates them from the rest of the production is they know how to do it. They don’t wink at the camera. They don’t acknowledge through a smirk how they aren’t necessarily being asked to play Hamlet.

In Russell’s key scene, Earp sees his family off at the train station. He knows the Cowboys will be there to end the conflict. He intends to send a message. He’s given lines where he has to put the fear of God into Ike which crescendos from “So run, you cur, run, tell all the other curs the law’s comin’,” to “And Hell’s comin’ with me, you hear, Hell’s comin’ with me!” Under no circumstances would that win an Academy Award for Best Writing, but Russell pulls it off. There’s no rolling of the eyes or “Gimme a break” from it. Nope. It’s just Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp preparing to bring a reckoning to those who wronged him, and he gives the line in such a way there is little doubt he means to accomplish it. A nuanced performance it is not. It’s simply what a Movie Star does when he’s given a part he wants to sink his teeth into.

As for Kilmer? He disappears into Doc. He’s easy going, intelligent, devil-may-care unless it’s time to throw down then there’s little hope for the guy on the other side, and he’ll oblige you with a learned quote as you pass along to the other side. His lines aren’t as questionable as “You skin that smoke wagon and we’ll see what happens,” but they also aren’t in the realm of authentic to anything Kilmer could possibly know.

Tombstone isn’t a particularly good movie as measured by being anything other than being a two-hour amusement park ride. It’s probably best viewed in the television room of a frat house with rules established as to when one takes a drink or when someone needs a Dana Delany fix and is upset Netflix doesn’t have China Beach or Exit to Eden on instant download. It’s best suited to illustrate the difference between Movie Stars and guys who stand in front of a camera. How I hate, hate, hate Bill Paxton.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Remake v. Remade: Dawn of the Dead

| by Justin Thomas |

MTV did more than kill the radio star when it debuted in 1981. MTV also started editing on its path to the seizure-inducing 0.05-second cuts currently masquerading as style. Gregg Toland had style. People wishing to make long-form cinematic works would have been better served watching TCM than MTV.

The two Dawn of the Dead films, the original by George A. Romero and the remake by Zack Snyder, show the dramatic difference between filmmaking in 1978 and filmmaking in 2004. Romero lets his cuts and sequences run long, which wouldn’t have felt out of place upon release but seems slow today. Snyder has a bit of Bay in him and he also goes the handheld route during intense action sequences that, even only six years post-Saving Private Ryan, was overused.

Both films have essentially the same stories: survivors of the zombie apocalypse seek shelter in a mall. They feature characters of the respective eras. In the original, Francine sits in a room separated from the men while they discuss her pregnancy and what to do before she later tells the father she wants to have a say in it. The remake has Ana as a tough-as-nails nurse who screams at CJ, “Get that fucking gun out of my face.” They both have A-Team sequences where they must build things to stop the zombie attacks be it a false wall to keep secret their hideout in the original or A-Team vans designed to get the survivors from the mall to the marina. There’s enough in Snyder’s film to look at it as taking the original and making it applicable to the era in which it was made while leaving just enough to see they both sprang from the same source.

Romero’s film is slow. Once the survivors lockdown the mall and even go so far as to put the corpses in a freezer, the film moves into character development mode. For what seems like an hour, they build a nice little apartment in their hideout, ice skate, have a date or two and Francine even learns how to fly a helicopter, but with the zombies outside all but neutralized, it fizzles. There’s no urgency driving the movie forward until the biker gang finds the mall. From the end of securing the mall until the bikers show up, the film is in “let’s play house” mode and it’s long, long, long.

Snyder’s film sacrifices time to round out the characters to keep things moving. They lock down the mall and then have the obligatory shopping scenes, but there are other things to do. A second group of survivors forces them to understand how the bite works and how even a dad needs to be put down if he’s been bitten. There’s not just a pregnancy but a birth. There’s a friend across the parking lot stranded alone in a building who needs help. There are things to do and Snyder’s film can’t be asked to wait around.

They’re products of their times, but if an entire world populating having turned into the living dead is what they share then Snyder’s film makes better use of the situation by not allowing for much time to breathe. The situation that drives the breach in the mall that forces the survivors out is less contrived in Snyder’s film. Romero has the satire down pat, which is completely abandoned by Snyder, but if constructing a plot in such a way to keep the audience’s interest is the measuring stick, then Snyder has a leg up on the original. It’s not blasphemous to suggest Snyder did something better in the remake of an all-time classic because the original has issues. The remake also has issues but improvements in certain aspects were made.

Every single aspect of Romero’s film is dated. There isn’t a single thing, straight down to the Penney’s logo, cripes, even it being called Penney’s and not JCPenney, that isn’t locked down in the late 1970s. Snyder’s film will one day be just as dated based on how he uses the camera and maybe it will be just as unsettling and foreign thirty years from now as Romero’s film is to watch now.

So there you have it: you can tell MTV launched and completely destroyed Western Civilization between Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Snyder’s remake.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Don't Bother: The Wolfman

| by Allan Stackhouse |

Before you read this, please note that I watched the Unrated Version of the film as opposed to the Theater Version. What can I say, more blood and more guts is a selling point for me.

Upon seeing the trailer on TV, I remember being awestruck by the cast of Joe Johnston: Sir Anthony Hopkins, the Canadian marvel Christopher Plummer, and the versatile Benicio del Toro. Unfortunately, I was almost immediately let down by the film. Christopher Plummer appears in one scene (for which he is apparently not credited). Despite the name draw, none of the actors' performances provide enough to compensate for such a blatant lack of story.

Benicio plays Lawrence Talbot, a successful theater actor, who returns to his father's house upon the death of his brother. He is traumatized from his mother's suicide. At the start of the film, we can tell that something is amiss with his father, John Talbot. There are some nice bits of visual storytelling that reveal his character: his eyes staying bright while retreating into darkness. In the ambush scene in the first act, people are being decapitated left and right with no sight or sound of their attacker. Lawrence is attacked, bit by the werewolf and making him a werewolf.

I am utterly disappointed by the washed out pallet. Why are the default choices to make something old washing it out? After Effects. I have been to a handful of foreign countries and I'm . Washed out pallets do not work for these supernatural films. They don't work for films as fluffy as Eclipse and they don't work in what was supposed to have been a horror epic.

Hugo Weaving's initial appearance is commanding. I thought the movie was setting up Inspector Abberline as another protagonist, which would have proved an interesting narrative tool. He, himself, is displayed as flawed, not totally welcome by the townspeople for his by-the-book pursuit of the wolf. Yet again, his presence is wasted on a character whom I could care less about. It's quite unfortunate that these wasted characters become a recurring theme for the film: fantastic actor but very little character to act out. The only mildly impressive performance is Sir Anthony Hopkins as John Talbot. In the cell that holds Lawrence, he reveals that he killed Lawrence's mother. Unfortunately, this impressive bit of memorization is the epitome of exposition in the film. This movie simply tells us how to feel at every opportunity it gets.

I had absolutely no emotional attachment to any of these characters. I didn't care about anyone's survival. Not even the damsel in distress, Gwen Confliffe, played by Emily Blunt, another actress for whom I couldn't care less. Granted, she, like the other characters, had very little character to work with but she brings nothing to the table other than her face.

The movie, set in old England, was full of pompous old men. There's something so hilarious about watching pompous old men getting slaughtered that entirely works for this film. Lawrence, upon his first transformation, falls into the trap set by the townspeople but lays waste to their naievite. Twice in the film, they ended up killing another man. This didn't get to the point where it was hokey but it certainly made me chuckle a bit.

The double scare. If you're going to use them, use them sparingly. At first, I found the double scares to be a little lackluster but I found them funny after the second one. They only appeared at the dreams within dreams sequence and it would have been nice for the director to include these in the natural scape of the film but the fact that they put a smile on my face is a major plus.

I did not find the transformation scenes particularly good. The transformations relied entirely on CGI and it wasn't impressive in the least. If you're going to start out with great transformation scenes in 1981's An American Werewolf in London and a near-seamless blend of skin bursting special effects and body crunching visual effects in the Underworld series, you should be able to take it to next level. Especially after the bar was set almost twenty years ago. In Lawrence's first transformation, he writhes off screen and we can barely tell what is going on. The whole fear of the unknown thing does not work here because it's never presented as such. You cannot rely on a tool if you don't know how to use it.

Exposition, exposition, exposition. It's incomprehensible to me that a subject as interesting and scary as lycanthropy is shaved down to irritating dialogue about it. I don't mean to so harshly destroy Joe Johnston but this is the guy that Hollywood goes to when they can't get Spielberg. Spielberg directed both Jurassic Park and the Lost World but passed on Jurassic Park III. Who gets it? Joe Johnston of course. He's also done The Pagemaster and Hidalgo. He did direct October Sky, which I haven't seen, so maybe that's a good sign. His style reaks of the smell of someone filling in for someone else and the unfortunate thing is that it shows. Joe has done wonderful things in the world of art direction - The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi - but how he ever landed Captain America, I probably don't even want to know. I don't think he's fit to direct action especially after watching The Wolfman.

All Things Must Pass: Spencer’s Theater

| by Justin Thomas |

In 1996 I traveled from the little cow town in Missouri in which I found myself to the Big City of Kansas City? Ever been to KC? It isn’t really a Big City like New York is a Big City, but when twenty years of life had been lived in towns with populations ranging from twelve to seventeen thousand, even something as “big” as Kansas City is a Big City.

I digress.

In 1996 I traveled to KC and did the entire KC thing. The Plaza? Cool. Did you know KC has incredible BBQ? I wouldn’t because the guy with whom I was staying insisted on giving me my first taste of Chinese food. Arrowhead Stadium? It’s about as good a place to see a game as there is. But that wasn’t what got me uber jazzed for the trip. I was going to get to go to the AMC 20 in Independence, Missouri and I’d never seen a place with twenty screens! I’d never seen a town with twenty houses so you can imagine how my mind had difficulty comprehending the bigness of that Big City with its twenty screens. In my little hometown we had a little theater with three screens. Three! Add seventeen to that and asking me to comprehend it would be akin to asking me to explain quantum mechanics.

(Want to hear the best part of the trip to the AMC 20? I got carded for The Frighteners, didn’t have my ID and was turned away. At the time I was twenty but couldn’t convince the pimply face behind the counter I could handle the show.)

So we had a little theater with three screens, but it’s past tense, “had” now. The theater, which was the first thing rebuilt after a massive fire destroyed the town in 1931, closed its doors on Sunday night and is no more. The marquee now reads, “Thank you for the memories” and for the next week or so people will reminisce. They’ll drive past and shake their heads lamenting its passing. Maybe one or two will say, “It’s a damn shame,” but it’ll be forgotten by the time Hawkeye football rolls around.

It is indeed a damn shame.

There’s no way I’d be able to calculate how much time I spent in that theater. In 1978 or 1979 my mom took me there to see Superman: The Movie and I can even now see the destruction of Krypton and remember wondering why the people in white weren’t Storm Troopers. I can remember the lobby, which at that point was then newly remodeled. I can remember going to the bathroom, which looked the same then as it did when the theater closed. Maybe I’m forcing different memories into that first one but, as far back as I can remember, Spencer’s theater is there and part of my life.

My best friend and I would see E.T. each summer when the cheap matinee was shown during the town’s Crazy Days. I frequently went there to see a movie to escape from the Midwestern heat to the comfort of the air conditioning. In 1993 I saw The Sandlot by myself and saw Jenny there with her boyfriend knowing my love would be unrequited that night but not knowing it would be eternally unrequited. I saw Jurassic Park there five times, all alone, marveling at the CGI, thinking I might be seeing the thing that would make the best movies of all time not knowing it would be the downfall of the medium. The night after my last day at high school was spent not huddled around a keg with the rest of my class but at the theater watching Maverick. I saw The Phantom Menace there four times including a 9 p.m. Wednesday show in which I was the only soul in the joint; the only time that’s ever happened. Those are the big ones, the ones I remember.

That little theater made me love movies. It provided an escape from a place where there was a cornfield eight blocks from my front door and made me wonder. It made me think I could write something that might one day appear on screen, and it still might happen because there are still two scripts I cowrote out there with people trying to make them into movies. If not for that rinky-dink little movie theater, I’d have chosen to waste my life in marketing and never wonder about whether I could write a story worth reading.


A trip home over Memorial Day allowed me to see one more movie at Spencer’s theater: Iron Man 2. It will be my last so superhero movies opened and closed my experience with the theater. Superman is the vastly superior movie based on the short Smallville sequences alone but I’m not disappointed Iron Man 2 is the last. This week I got a chance to step inside to see the smallest screen completely demolished and the woman who’d worked there for thirty years, one who would have worked the day my mom took me took my first show, didn’t even try to keep from crying.

No one will rally ‘round the marquee to save it, and the marquee with its simple “Spencer” will be replaced by a Verizon sign or something similar before year’s end. Sadly, this is reality and not a movie, so the city fathers and farmers have sold their soul for the sake of getting the newest Android phone on release day. Change is inevitable, I guess, like death, some divorces and the Taxman, who cometh and that right soon; but I wish this change hadn’t occurred. The marquee is dark, soon it will be gone and Hawkeye football is only weeks away. I hear they have good tailbacks this year.

There will be no “Save Spencer’s Theater” campaign unless you or someone you know is a billionaire industrialist looking for a million-dollar toy smack dab in the middle of nowhere. Then I know of a project that can be turned into a money pit for the sake of me one day showing something I wrote to my fourth-grade teacher.

Please, think of Mrs. Keck, open your huge wallet and save the damn theater.

Spencer’s theater reopened seven years before Hitler invaded Poland and this is what the marquee looked like. This is what the marquee looked like on what is to date my saddest day of 2010 (and 2010 is nowhere near over):

Marquee 2010

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

True Blood Season 3 - A Midseason Review

| by Allan Stackhouse |

How highly can I speak of True Blood? I cannot say. Actually, that's a lie. I was super excited during season 3's buzz campaign but I found myself nervous going into the actual episodes. I wondered if the show could even come close to the magnitude of season 2. Maryann's near infinite power was so delicious, even up until its ravaged end. I was shaken out of this wonder at the last scene of It Hurts Me Too, episode 3. Or should I say my head was twisted all the way around? Too much? In any case, the show proves to be at the level set in season 2.

Ding dong the b*tch is dead. Which old b*tch? Lorena is dead! I've never wanted someone to die so badly since Lorena. She's been a thorn in my side for three seasons but the show did not let me down. Not only did just this one event deliver but the story, acting, and gore all delivered just like the best show on TV is supposed to do. New relationships are formed, old ones are tested, a wide array of villains seek to have their way at the expense of our favorite Bon Temps residents, and of course there's more sex and violence.

Let my hatred for for Lorena not detract from Mariana Klaveno's acting prowess. The control she wields over Lorena's voice and body language is truly astounding. She commands the attention of viewers and this is entirely one of the reasons why she invoked such a strong reaction out of viewers. This bitter hatred I felt was one that I had not felt since Lauren in the third season of JJ Abrams' Alias. Hey, they kind of have the same name. Viewer beware: the Lorena/Laurens of the world will do your favorite TV protagonists harm. They both met their ultimately satisfying end (for the viewers, definitely not them). Whereas Lauren was destroyed in a beautiful hail of bullets, Lorena, held back by Bill with a silver chain that ironically was holding him, is staked by Sookie. A fountain of blood erupts from her mouth and she explodes like a water balloon. A beautiful end worthy of a formidable villain.

Remaining as high as it was, the writing carries us into supernatural ecstasy. We are finding out what Sookie is, a mystery set up in the very first episode of the show. The manifestation of Sookie's powers in the second season and again in the third drew fascination to her. As Sookie recovers in the waiting room, her consciousness is transported to an ethereal realm where other mindreaders reside. The cliffhangers posed at the end of each episode continuously prove to be both amazing and maddening.

New faces to the world of True Blood are the enormously terrifying Russell Edgington, the King of Mississippi. His grip may not reach as far as Maryann's but through his henchman, his influence seems limitless. From Eric's flashback, we (or at least the smarter of the viewers) know that Russell and his pack of werewolves destroyed Eric's royal family. Russell kept this crown as a token of his destruction but to Eric, the crown's value has only grown for about nine hundred seventy-two years. The destruction that Russell so easily casts brings about the emotional side of Eric that we saw in last season. Perhaps not to the point where he cries blood but maybe this crown means even more than that.

Tommy Mickens. The air of mystery was drawn around Tommy and the Mickens family. Episode 6 revealed that he apparently is a contestant in the abhorrent world of dogfights. Honestly, I find this a little silly but this is providing Sam with a sense of family that he did not know he was looking for. Joe Lee and Melinda both turn out to be disgusting people. We know that Sam is capable of caring a lot about his love interests but the care Sam has for his brother is a nice contrast to sex and violence in the show.

The King may be the main villain but Franklin Mott is the character of whom I find myself the most afraid. Lorena might be relentless in her pursuit of Bill but Franklin is absolutely insane. Franklin's tree of insanity does bear fruit though; it comes in the form of Tara's character development. She has had her moments of sadness after Eggs' death but Franklin's pursuit of her leaves Tara no time to worry about that. She's in the fight of her life. The lengths that she's forced to go through surprised me at her ability to rise to the occasion of saving her own and Sookie's lives.

The breakout character this season is not a new one; it's actually Tara Thornton. The growth in her character this season was further than I could have imagined. Despite wanting to die and having been bound and gagged in the earlier episodes, Tara finds the will to survive. And survive she does. Some of the few amazing things she does: bites into Russell's neck and drinks his blood, she smashes Franklin's head into a mess of bone and brain bits, she almost outruns a werewolf, she takes a female werewolf on with her own bare hands, she lifts Bill's body like it's a rag doll, and she kicks Bill out into daylight for nearly killing Sookie.

I read an interview with Alan Ball in which he said the theme of this season was politics whereas the season before had the theme of religion. Alan and everyone involved created another brilliant chess game where, as is usually the case with politics, someone is trying to usurp power. The black king seeks to marry the white queen in order to control not only their respective states but soon the vampire way of life. Franklin is intolerant of of the oppression he feels the Authority over him, having lived in ages when there was no force that made their kind combine with humans.

In retrospect, I don't know if it's fair to say that any of these episodes are better than the other. There's certainly higher stakes in certain episodes, which obviously leads to preference but the theme of politics this season requires a different amount of setup. The results, luckily for us, remain the same: phenomenal characters. We're definitely set up to have an exciting second half of the season. Debbie, as can be told by her screaming, will go to Bon Temps to seek vengeance for Alcide killing Cooter. Franklin is going to pay Tara a visit. And King Russell? His power may continue to grow but I don't think Eric will allow his majesty's reign to go past season 3. 'Til next time, kids!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Month 3 @ Cosmic Toast Studios

| by Allan Stackhouse |

The work seems to have really amped up here at Cosmic Toast Studios. The entire studio is busy with a fun new project. On the sound side, we've got some amazing talent for the voices. I don't know if I'm allowed to say exactly who one actor is but let's just say that his pants are of a certain equally sided shape. Jen, our producing intern, has been doing a great job as script supervisor for the recordings. The animation work we've been producing for it is looking fantastic.

If you haven't noticed, I've started incorporating reviews for new movie releases to theaters instead of solely new Blu-ray releases. My first was Eclipse, which I didn't enjoy as much as New Moon. The fight scene was well worth the price of admission though. It's such a shame that the lengths in cinematography that New Moon went to were erased in favor of the washed out look from Twilight. My second new movie review was Inception. The trailer was stunning but the movie as a whole did not work for me. Great score though.

Unrelated to the studio, I was invited to attend a screening of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World which ended up being my third new movie review. I haven't been to one of these in a while so the process was a little anxiety-inducing but the movie was phenomenal! And I got to see it for free! I absolutely recommend it to everyone. Literally everyone. Michael Cera and all of the cast were great. The visual effects additions to all of the scenes made it seem more like a video game thus providing a more immersive viewing experience.

A few of the Cosmic Toasters made it down to Comic-Con and I reveled in their stories. Not so much with the one about somebody's eye area getting stabbed but just about all the others. Our Jesse Scully was on hand for the Resident Evil and Marvel panels. The vuvuzela story was absolutely hilarious. How cute was the little kid that asked Ryan Reynolds to recite the Green Lantern oath.

Marissa, one of our animation interns, attended the SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on GRAPHics and Interactive Techniques) annual conference on computer graphics. She met some amazing people. 3DS Max was celebrating its 20th anniversary. She didn't win any of the raffled prizes but she did get a blue AND red RenderMan walking teapot.

Colin, one of our animators, had Max Neptune and the Menacing Squid played at the Action on Film Festival in Pasadena. I was there the first night, Friday the 23rd. Due to popularity, Max Neptune was granted a second screening the following Sunday. Thursday, the day of the awards ceremony, came around and I unsuccessfully aided Colin with his tie. This was of no matter because Max Neptune won for Best Visual Effects Short. In his modesty, Colin didn't post anything about his win but I immediately updated the Cosmic Toast Studios and my personal Facebook pages to announce his win.


As the month winded down, the work seemed to ramp up. I was assigned my first screenwriting project and I was overjoyed. After a rewrite, my treatment was sent off so we'll see if the clients are happy with it. Kristin and Mike, of LA Music Blog, graciously offered me a writing opportunity for the site and of course I accepted. I will be covering the realms of mainstream pop and hip hop. Check out my first post!

Brandon celebrated his 8th birthday and he was gifted with a shiny new bicycle and a puppy. His name is Buster and he's adored by the kids... and everyone here. So much so that it was eye opening for me to see how hard little kids can fall in love for something.


We had a big pitch day last week and more pitches as August begins. This month is shaping up to be very productive here. Expect more movie reviews and now music news from me.