Monday, June 9, 2008

Sweatin' to the Not-So-Oldies

Like it or not, I'm still here, and after nearly a couple of weeks, you can bet I'm ready to ramble. Will I give you something meaningful, perhaps touching? Maybe something that'll move you on some personal level, or even just some stupid jokes to distract you for a bit? Yes, I know, you're all dying for me to get back to the kind of writing I did more regularly last fall and in the first two months of this year - all none-and-a-half of you reading this - but I'm just going to disappoint again. That kind of writing will return in time, I promise you that, but I'm keeping my focus on pouring that sort of thing into my novel - y'know, to make it as effective and meaningful as possible in and of itself. And being that this is a free form personal blog, I'm always looking for new subjects to expand into. Give me a few more years - watch me blossom into a best-selling and praiseworthy author (Or the exact opposite of that, either way I'm going to get arrogant, obnoxious, and grating. More so than I already am here. (Because I'm the greatest writer who's ever lived even though I'm not and to actually too hypercritical of myself to actually be an objective judge of my own work.) Whatever'll make this thing funny, substantive, and actually worth checking out.), and I'll eventually end up on expounding on the philosophical nature of atomic numbers in our universe. And I don't even particularly excel in scientific subjects. I've always been more of a liberal arts/writing/history/film kinda guy.

It's summertime, at any rate, and I'd say that this is my first real "summertime entry" of 2008, following this blog's really launching in summer 2007. (Let's disregard any remarks I may have made about it being summer in previous entries. Those were typos. All of them.) Naturally, this summer isn't too different from the last one. It's full of dogs barking and snapping at each other here since those two still don't know how to live together - and the older one's never really going to adapt anyway, knowing him, territorial as he is - so we're stuck dealing with the noise and generally going out of our way to keep them from hurting each other again. (Fortunately, this isn't too hard, as neither of them is particularly big. Even if the Scottie is technically quite large for his breed.) And it really isn't summer until half your house is swelteringly hot thanks to the air conditioning being rather uneven at best. At this point, we're dealing with 90+ degree weather and high humidity (Hooray living in the American southeast as global warming continues to bake this planet.), and while I can keep my room comfortable with the door cracked or closed with the air set to a decent level, leaving my room is like walking into an overwhelming wall of hot air. Admittedly, summer in the south is not something I'm going to miss when I finally get out of here and move up north. I thrive in cold air, but hot air saps me of all my energy and just leaves me feeling generally drained and miserable. At least I've got air conditioning, anyway - that's something many in the world can't exactly take for granted, so I try not to.

Of course, with every summer comes those much-hyped Summer Movies. Hollywood rolls out all its big blockbusters and commands the public, "Watch or die! Can you do any less!?" And every year less people bother because theaters are getting too expensive and mainstream Hollywood movies are getting worse all the time (Though it doesn't help that there's still an audience for the more insultingly stupid films that just keep coming. Did Meet the Spartans really need to be made?), and Netflix DVD rentals are getting far more cost effective and convenient as most people's cinematic consumption needs go.

Let's look at what's big right now:

Number one at the box office as of this past weekend is Dreamworks' Kung Fu Panda. Another star-studded animated family comedy led by Jack Black about animals and martial arts. Overall, the consensus seems to be that it's not half bad, considering Dreamworks' track record. But overall, it's still a film to take the kids to, and likely won't have a tremendous amount of staying power, especially with Pixar's releasing another animated movie of their own later this summer. I have to say though - the entire premise for this movie is cheesy as hell and doesn't exactly give off a vibe of inspired filmmaking.

Next up, we have You Don't Mess with the Zohan. Another summer popcorn Adam Sandler comedy. Yet again. That right there pretty much says it. You know what to expect going in, all the way down to Rob Schneider in a racist bit part - he's fallen far since his SNL Rich-the-office-guy days. Sandler's shown that he's certainly capable of more as an actor with films like Punch-Drunk Love, but as long as there's a quick buck to be made on this kind of comedy film, he'll keep starring in them. Personally, I found that the shtick really got to feeling tired sometime after Happy Gilmore.

Then there's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The only one of these summer movies I've seen so far this year. And after the 19-year wait and all the hype around the return of the Indiana Jones we know and love? To call it a letdown would be kind. The entire film feels like bad fanfiction. The best Spielberg seemed to be capable of doing with it was holding Lucas back from wrecking it as much as he did the new Star Wars trilogy. (And I'd say that's about the nicest thing one can say about this movie - that in the least, it's better than the Star Wars prequel trilogy.) Rather than giving us a more complicated, compelling adventure with clever writing like in years past, we got what felt like a string of odd events they thought would be cool to string together (Many of which serve no other purpose but to remind us that it's the '50s now.) that ultimately barely hangs together as a plot. The entire opening scene is one big plot hole, the majority of the story is incredibly cheesy and straightforward (And many of the one-liners are cringeworthy, as are all the scenes with heavy use of CGI animals endearing themselves to the audience. And I saw the whole "cradle"/"resting place" translation twist coming five minutes before it happened. Scenes like the atomic bomb test just seemed to be there for the sake of being there and added nothing to the film.) and ultimately unsatisfying, while the later twists behind the plastic skull everyone's after just feel horribly out of place for an Indy movie. The whole experience just felt hollow. It was nice to see Ford back in character, but he didn't seem to have as much passion for it as he used to - as though he were more or less going through the motions, knowing how weak the script was. Though in the least, the more direct fight and chase scenes had echoes of what made the original trilogy fun. John Hurt was a lot of fun as Professor Oxley as well, and Cate Blanchett made an enjoyable villain, though she seemed to struggle at maintaining her accent at times, and the role really could've used a little more depth. Shia LaBeouf's character just felt like he didn't belong (And really makes you wish that Sean Connery hadn't turned down doing the movie in their looking for someone to adventure with Indy.), as though he were ripped out of contrived fanfiction. He seems to be in every other major Hollywood blockbuster lately, and with as little versatility as he's shown - as much as young people seem to love him, which I don't get - this is not a good thing. He basically tries to do Brando and can't pull it off. And even bringing Marion Ravenwood back into the story felt like it was shoehorned in with her kid, just to give us the groanworthy ending they did and tie up a bunch of loose ends. As Indy's last hurrah, it's hard not to feel that they just shouldn't have made the movie - especially after waiting so long. Instead of giving us another of the fairly elaborate, enthralling adventures with a witty script that we came to love, we got an extremely dumbed-down Hollywood blockbuster that reminded us how in love with special effects George Lucas is, at the expense of real soul in LucasFilm productions. Also, in closing, it has to be said - as those who've seen it know from the monkey scene, Shia LaBeouf fails at being Donkey Kong. It had to be said.

Coming in fourth, we've got the Sex and the City movie. In simplest terms, a TV movie on the big screen. Not something you see every day, but as far as its content goes, I've never watched the show and I'm not in its target demographic, so I'm not really confident in that I could accurately comment on it. I'm not really inclined to go the seemingly near-misogynistic route that many men go when looking at the movie and show and rip on it simply because it's more oriented towards women. (But some of us have a hard time dealing with that successful movies can be made without catering to the 18-35 male demographic - the demographic that gets far more garbage than quality targeting them to begin with.) In the least, it's an accomplishment that it's done as well as it has in the box office when you consider the target demographic. Women alone can indeed make a movie a hit. And to think, it took until 2008 for Hollywood to finally get that. (Obviously not counting the countless "chick flicks"/"date movies" given how many men are routinely dragged to those and can often even get some enjoyment out of them - whether or not many would want to admit to that out of fear of emasculation.)

In fifth, we've got The Strangers. Masked assailants scare Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman for an hour and a half. Sound amazing? Of course not. But apparently it's a horror film that relies on building suspense rather than buckets of blood and gore like the slasher flicks America loves that tend to dominate the genre now. And that deserves some applause, at least. You'd think that after all this time, we'd be able to look back and recall the valuable lessons about the power of suspense in cinema taught to us by Alfred Hitchcock.

Following that, we have Iron Man. Multimillionaire military weapons and all-around asshole Tony Stark becomes the titular superhero in this Marvel comics adaptation. I was pretty skeptical when I saw the initial trailer (It was hard not to feel like the early build-up they showed in the Middle East was more than a little cheesy, but they seem to have pulled off being more current and topical there, at least. And as soon as Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" started playing, the trailer definitely elicited some eye rolling.), but apparently it's ended up being one of the better Marvel comics adaptations in a while, so I'm sure I'll see it eventually.

Grab your bibles, kids! Next up is The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian! I laughed and cringed my way through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when it hit DVD, in all of its Jesus-lion and Santa-giving-kids-weapons glory. I read at least some of the Narnia books as a kid, so I admit, the story has some modicum of nostalgia for me. But as a kid, while not exactly religious, it took me years to grow into and really come to understand my own atheism - and never having taken the bible to heart (It was pretty much in one ear and out the other, as I found it to be dry, uncompelling, and way too preachy and irrelevant for my blood, even as a child. Though back then, I just saw it as that it didn't hook me in and I couldn't bring myself to care - when I'd go to church, I felt like I was surrounded by a bunch of people just playing pretend. I even felt guilty that I couldn't make myself believe and care about everything everyone else was so passionate about. These days? Not so much.), the sheer cheesiness of all the blatant biblical allegories didn't really hit me. I'm sure I'll check Prince Caspian out and see it at least once on DVD eventually, but I'm expecting more of the same after the previous adaptation - some really cringeworthy preachy Christian imagery mixed in with some otherwise entertaining enough fantasy. I still laughed at how epic and over the top the trailer was when I first saw it at The Golden Compass back in January, though, for still being a PG-rated uber-Christian movie. And they tried desperately to pick up the Lord of the Rings crowd... FOR JESUS!

After that comes the incredibly painful-looking What Happens in Vegas... Apparently, Dennis Miller, as a judge, had to sentence Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz to "six months hard marriage." That line alone makes me want to personally throttle everybody involved with this movie. It's an excellent reminder of how truly bad movies can thrive at the box office in the summer when no matter how you look at them, there's nothing redeeming there. This is what's wrong with cinema. If you can't even pull off a halfway-decent comedy with even a little redeeming value, you may as well pack up and go home. Movies like What Happens in Vegas... are obnoxious exercises in Hollywood masturbation.

In ninth falls Baby Mama. Another largely female-audience-oriented comedy about an infertile businesswoman hiring a surrogate mother for her future child, starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. I like these two, I really do. And there's a lot of good people in this movie, just looking at the first few names on the IMDB cast listing alone - Greg Kinnear, Dax Shepard, Romany Malco (Who I'm looking forward to seeing more of again in Weeds season 3, now that that's finally out on DVD.), Sigourney Weaver, Steve Martin, and Maura Tierney. But all these people could do better. Like the Sex and the City movie, its IMDB board is full of guys unloading all sorts of misogyny on the film simply because of its leads and target audience. The trailers in general make the film look pretty outright terrible. But the overall consensus seems to be that it isn't abysmal, but isn't great, either. Maybe I'll check it out at some point, but at this point, in general, the moviegoing masses weren't really about to buy into a Tina Fey/Amy Poehler movie. 30 Rock's a fun show, and I need to watch more of it at some point, but Fey never particularly impressed me on SNL, though she was likable enough, certainly. Amy Poehler's been making me sad for some time now, though. I was excited to see her join the SNL cast years ago (Before I finally had to quit watching when it simply got too terrible. The Jeff Gordon/Avril Lavgine show was the last straw.), but thoroughly disappointed with how ultimately untapped she's been for some time with the incredibly poor writing on that show. She was absolutely brilliant on the Upright Citizens Brigade TV series. She, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, and Ian Roberts are still one of the greatest combined forces of comedy out there.

And at last in tenth place, we have Made of Honor. A seemingly forgettable "chick flick" starring Patrick Dempsey and Michelle Monaghan. I don't think I've ever seen anything with either of them, and the film's made no real impression on me beyond that "I couldn't see caring about this even remotely enough to bother seeing it." And that's pretty much it right there.

The rest of summer seems to be a predictably mixed bag. I'm expecting the new movie to feel more like a Marvel comics adaptation than Ang Lee's so-so film years bad did, but I'll probably wait for it to hit DVD.Incredible Hulk

The Happening
looks to be M. Night Shyamalan hitting a new desperate low in finally making an R-rated horror movie, as his career continues to slide downwards as a result of his pretty much falling in love with himself and his own filmmaking - truly seemingly believing that he's some sort of genius auteur - after everyone gave him way too much credit for The Sixth Sense, which wasn't even particularly great to begin with. Perhaps if Shyamalan ever gets over himself and rethinks his approach to cinema, he'll have a shot at being worth noting. It kind of makes me sad to see Zooey Deschanel in a film like that though - but then, Shyamalan has certainly gotten some talented people for even his messiest films. (Case in point, Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard in Lady in the Water.)

Then we've got Get Smart, a remake of an old classic TV series starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway. There's a number of really talented people involved, so it's hard not to hope that they manage to do the original series justice - in the least, here's hoping it's better than Bewitched, considering how terrible that ended up being.

The Love Guru mostly looks like a sad retread of Mike Myers humor from the Austin Powers movies that's rather stale at this point, and I'm beginning to wonder who they won't pair Jessica Alba with at this point. In the least, they get points for casting Stephen Colbert and Jim Gaffigan as hockey commentators.

Pixar's big summer flick, Wall-E, is hard to judge at this point, but Pixar does tend to make quality animated family movies. Though I have to say it - the original trailer for it in which they went on and on about what a big deal it was that they were finally making this one after making all the others they'd come up with was one of the most pretentious film trailers I've ever seen. It kind of made me want to sock somebody at Pixar. Sell me on the movie, don't go on about how big everything you do is! You have to give me something more to go on if you're going to get me interested.

's commercials are already making me laugh at how ridiculous they look with all the bullet-curving. I have low expectations for that one.

looks like a fun parody of the usual superhero cliches, though. It's been a long time since I last saw Will Smith in anything I particularly wanted to see.

I'm looking forward to Hellboy II: The Golden Army. The original was a very fun, unconventional sort of comic book movie with tons of imagination and strong performances. This one looks to be more of the same.

I'm not so psyched for The Dark Knight, though. I'm not going to be blinded by the hype or the unfortunate circumstances of Heath Ledger's demise. I wasn't particularly impressed by Batman Begins. It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't really remarkable either, and I felt that it lacked a lot that would make a good Batman movie - it couldn't decide if it wanted to be serious or a popcorn comic book superhero flick. The writing was all over the map, the direction of the action was fairly mediocre at best, I couldn't sympathize with Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne at all, and it started this trend of effectively ruining Batman villains. Scarecrow was a joke. And as much hype as Ledger's final performance is getting, they took the criminal genius of the Joker we all know and love and turned him into a more dramatic scary psycho clown. While I won't deny the quality of the performance Ledger gives, from what I've seen in the trailers, Nolan's taking us too far away from the source material and in general his envisioning of things feels very uneven at best. At least they got Maggie Gyllenhaal to replace Katie Holmes, that's certainly a a good choice right there.

Step Brothers
should be a fun, dumb break in the Mediocre Man Trilogy for Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, and given McKay's track record with Ferrell and John C. Reilly, it should be an entertaining film that gets dumb comedy right, like their previous ones.

As for The X-Files: I Want to Believe, I'm just not sure what to think. I didn't watch the last season, despite having been a fan for so long, simply because the show really seemed to go in some bad directions then - losing David Duchovny and introducing Agent Doggett drove me off, as the real stars of that series were Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. But in being reunited again for this movie, it'll be interesting to see how Chris Carter pulls off their first new story since the show ended 6 years ago, with the first movie having come out a decade ago now.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor simply sounds like another franchise that should have been buried years ago being unearthed yet again.

Given Judd Apatow's (And the usual group around him) consistent track record of delivering, though, Pineapple Express should be a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to seeing even more of the Freaks and Geeks cast reunited.

And this entry has gone on for way too long again now. Once I start rambling about something that interests me, I never shut up. How's this for an epic beginning to my summer entries here?

In closing, at least, a few movies I've watched recently that I recommend checking out, whether by Netflix or otherwise:

Wristcutters: A Love Story - An odd, surreal road movie starring Patrick Fugit and Shannyn Sossamon set in an afterlife reserved for people who commit suicide. It's a good film overall that succeeds at everything except roughly its last twenty minutes - it doesn't sell you on its love story, and its ending doesn't work. But beyond that, it's still an enjoyable little art house film, and Tom Waits shows up and turns a particularly show-stealing performance.

Love and Death - A late '70s Woody Allen classic starring Allen himself and Diane Keaton. A wonderfully absurd send-up of classical Russian literature - particularly Dostoyevsky. Definitely one of Allen's funniest movies. He and Keaton shined in this one, as they did in a number of his films back then.

Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical - I'm not a big musical fan, but I definitely recommend checking this one out. Led by Alan Cumming and Kristen Bell, among others, the music is catchy, the performances are strong, and the content is completely over the top and very funny.

Allegro - A very strange Danish science fiction drama about a fairly mechanical pianist who throws away his past, creating a sort of alternate reality in Copenhagen. A resident of this otherworldly neighborhood calls him back, forcing the pianist to face his past and mistakes.

Margot at the Wedding - After The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach delivers another wonderfully complicated and detailed character study/drama with a sharp, witty edge to the dialogue about dysfunctional family. Jack Black actually shows the world that he can act in this one, and Nicole Kidman turns easily one of her best performances. Jennifer Jason Leigh impresses as well. It's not exactly a happy film, as this and Squid are effectively the anti-heartwarming family films, but they're very good.

If you made it all the way through this entry and understood even half of my babbling, pat yourself on the back. I'll be back to post again sometime this month, no doubt, anyway. But movies are one of my passions, what can I say?


8bitcity said...

Holy crap that's a long post.

But, living in Louisiana, I definitely feel your summertime heat pain. It's been getting up into the 90s with (what I'm sure is) 110 heat index via humidity. Iron Man has been my favorite movie of the year, by far, but I'm pumped about seeing the Hulk on Friday.

Indiana Jones wasn't terrible :) And I liked the Donkey Kong reference. Speaking of which, isn't it crazy the amount of publicity King of Kong has been receiving? There is a behind the scenes special on Friday as well on G4.

Benjamin Fennell said...

Yeah, this is what happens when I focus on other things for a while and try to find something to write about here. I figure if I can make it as a novelist, my less-than-regular writing schedule here'd be more forgivable, but ah well. I try to make my rambling entertaining, at least.

Yeah, the heat's just brutal down here. And I know it's bad up north too, they've been hit with weather in the 90s up in New York and New England, the whole general area of the country I'm hoping to move up to, but at least they have cold winters up there and actually get a good amount of snow - especially these past few years. As someone who grew up with a couple of feet of snow every year in Ohio, I really envy that kind of weather now. Not so much the driving through it or anything, but actually getting it is pretty damn fantastic. I'll definitely have to check out Iron Man at some point, probably on DVD. No doubt the same with the Hulk. I didn't hate the Ang Lee one as much as most seemed to, but it definitely wasn't spectacular cinema. Just very un-comic-booky for a comic book movie. But the Hulk's smashing in general was fun to watch. (On which note, I'll be disappointed if they don't have him shout "Hulk smash!" at some point in this new movie.)

As a writer, I have a harder time forgiving weak scripts. Indiana Jones entertained me, and I did enjoy watching it, there's no denying that. It wasn't the agony that the new Star Wars movies - especially Revenge of the Sith - amounted to. Just popcorn fun. But as a writer, after the writing I'd come to expect in the originals, it was impossible not to pretty much pick a lot of parts of the script apart. Though I'm not exactly about to stand up for Temple of Doom. Raiders and Last Crusade were definitely the best of the original movies. (I still wish Connery had agreed to do this new one.) But yeah, I haven't seen King of Kong yet, but I've been meaning to. Maybe I'll tune in then. I haven't been watching anything other than Code Monkeys on G4 as is, since I find pretty much all their other programming to be obnoxious. (Not that Code Monkeys isn't, but it is in a GOOD way. Always nice when there's animated comedies worth watching on.)