Monday, November 30, 2009

A boring epiphanic glow

I love the feeling of having an epiphany after watching a great movie. I even find I can get an epiphanic glow from a really bad movie. But this weekend, I had an epiphany from a lackluster movie. The problem is, I'm not sure what the epiphany was all about. (So I guess it wasn't really an epiphany after all, eh?)

In Management, Steve Zahn plays a cute nebbishy guy who works at his parents' motel in a small Arizona town. He's drifting through life with no focus, no friends, and seeming to take no real joy in his life, though he doesn't feel bad enough to change things. One day, a woman who sells art to corporations (Jennifer Aniston) stops at the motel for a couple of nights. Zahn is immediately smitten and tries some nervous flirtatious moves on her. At first, she's dismissive of him, but nicely rather than rudely. This, of course, encourages him. On the morning of her departure, she impulsively has a quickie with him in the laundry room, which encourages him even more. He takes off to find her and make her fall in love with him, and the rest of the movie charts their relationship's ups and downs. Two main obstacles: his immaturity and her boyfriend, an "ex-punk" entrepreneur (Woody Harrelson).

From that summary, and the presence of Aniston, you might assume that this is a glossy, brightly-colored mainstream Hollywood romantic-comedy confection that spent a week at #1 at the box-office and pulled in at least 50 million during its run. But it's not that kind of movie. The presence of Steve Zahn might make you think this is a little indie film that got good buzz and slowly built a following, winning awards and critical respect. But it's not that kind of movie, either. Who knows what the hell the presence of Woody Harrelson made you think.

Instead, it tries to be a cross between the two. The low-budget style is indie all the way, a "Little Miss Sunshine" wannabe. The screenplay, however, would have worked better with a big budget, and Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds as the leads. The problem is that the plot contortions are so outrageous that I just couldn't buy the sincere Aniston and Zahn engaging in this weird back-and-forth dance of attraction and repulsion. I expect an indie film to be either more realistic or way more bizarre than a mainstream film, and this falls awkwardly in the middle.

Aniston gives a good performance; like in her earlier indie film The Good Girl, she tamps down the bouncy glow and creates a character, or at least tries to. As with the movie itself, she winds up falling between a realistic, somewhat sad character and a plastic Hollywood heroine. A couple of reviews referred to her character as "high powered" and "upwardly mobile," but that's not right--she's actually just a glorified salesperson, and it seems pretty clear that any career moves will be lateral. Still, I had a hard time buying that she'd ever give in to Zahn, even for a zipless quickie.

Zahn is appealing as usual, though he's losing his carefree boyish looks, and seems a bit long in the tooth to be playing a rootless character who should be in his mid-to-late 20's rather than his mid-30's (Zahn's actually over 40, though he doesn't quite look it yet). I'm not saying someone in his 30's or even 40's couldn't be rootless and floundering, but the character details (still with his parents, having no life or interests outside of his thankless job) seem to skew younger. The character is a fan of Bad Company, but that's a vague plot point that goes nowhere, or more specifically is wasted on a dumb, predictable serenading scene. I much preferred Zahn in this year's B-thriller sleeper Night Train.

Harrelson seems to be acting in a completely different movie--that's meant to be a fairly neutral observation and that's all I have to say about him. James Hiroyuki Liao has some good moments as a Chinese version of Zahn; a young guy working and living with his parents, who much too quickly becomes Zahn's best buddy.

Back to my epiphany: I guess it has to do with the fact that the cross between Hollywood cotton-candy plotting and Pacific Northwest indie style doesn't work. This would have been a far more enjoyable movie had it come down squarely in one camp or the other: either let Aniston wear make-up and get a good but funny crying-jag scene (or something like that) or let Zahn turn out to be a chronic masturbator who ends up alone in his dad's basement. (The real ending is happy but far less interesting.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Coming Around Again: Remakes and reinventions, Part 3

Oh, Carly. How did I love thee? Let me count the ways: your voice (especially in its husky register), your melodies ("Let the River Run," with its rises, falls, and swells, would make a great national anthem), your lyrics ("I had some dreams/They were clouds in my coffee, clouds in my coffee," from "You're So Vain; "Great ambition is all a dream/Let me drown my pride in the sea," from "Never Been Gone"), your accessible rich girl persona, and, gay as I am, your physical presence, especially on the covers of the 70's albums No Secrets and Playing Possum (see below). I kept buying your albums until the 90's when you fell off my radar, though I very much enjoyed your 2007 album of standards, Into White, which sounded like it was recorded among puffy clouds and twinkly stars (and I mean that as a compliment).

But, oh Carly, what you've done now... On your new album, Never Been Gone, you've taken some of the best-loved songs of your own back catalog and re-recorded them in new arrangements. This usually strikes me as a desperate marketing act (see Joni Mitchell), but the song selection was solid--in addition to the two songs quoted above, there's "Anticipation," "The Right Thing to Do," "Coming Around Again," and "Let the River Run"--so I bit. The first bad sign was the cover photo, a terrible close-up of you which I think you took with your cell phone. The second bad sign is the almost amateurish liner notes essay in which you tell us about the family and friends who helped you make the album; the third bad sign: it's been released on your son's own fledgling label.

There is some good news, Carly: a few of the re-arranged songs are just fine. The beautiful title song, a favorite of mine about escaping the hurlyburly of everyday life by going home to Martha's Vineyard, is arranged a little more loosely than the original but still sounds good; "Boys in the Trees" and "The Right Thing to Do" are just different enough from the originals to be interesting; "Coming Around Again" is burdened with some ill-advised improvisation near the end, but it's OK. The rest are a mixed bag, most of which aren't terrible but I can't imagine wanting to revisit them, either. "You're So Vain" is especially disappointing, with the wear and tear on your voice particularly noticeable here--oddly, it's in your lower voice that the problems arise; your higher notes sound fine to me. This is an album for die-hard Simon fans, and perhaps best obtained song by song on iTunes so the weak stuff can be avoided. I still love you, Carly, but next time, please, at the very least, get some pros to take pictures and do the art direction.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Coming Around Again: Remakes and reinventions, Part 2

Back in the day (1983), the mini-series V was what they call water-cooler TV; that is, something that everybody was talking about the next morning. With the advent of DVRs, streaming video, and DVDs, meaning not all viewers are watching a show at the same time, I'm not sure there is such a thing anymore (except for American Idol and cult shows like Lost). But I vividly remember everyone at work chatting about the shocking scene during the first night of V when the human-looking alien ate a mouse (in my memory, it was the woman, Diana, but research seems to suggest that she actually ate a guinea pig and a male alien ate the mouse). There was also the very hot Marc Singer (who, as the original Beastmaster, was probably a first crush for lots of gay boys of the era) and huge spaceships floating in the air.

The mini-series spawned a full series the next year which I didn't watch. I decided to try out the new series, but gave up after two episodes. Of course, the effects are better--not just the floating spaceships, but the very cool interiors of the ships. Everything else, including acting and writing, is worse. The basic plot remains the same: one day, alien spaceships appear over several major world cities. The aliens, who look just like humans, announce that they are here in peace, seeking our help and offering us in return miracle medicines, an end to crime, and other utopian possibilities. We accept them wholeheartedly except for a small resistance group, and of course the resisters are right, as the aliens turn out to be lizard-like beings who want to take over the earth.

The chief spokesalien is Anna, a creepily sexy--or sexily creepy--woman (Morena Baccarin, looking very different than she did as the cosmic hooker Inara in Firefly) and she's very good. Scott Wolf seems very uncomfortable playing a news anchor whom Anna latches onto to make her message palatable to earthlings, though he quickly realizes something's not right with the whole situation. There's a mother-son pair who are central to the narrative: Elizabeth Mitchell (from Lost) is fine as the federal agent who doesn't trust the Visitors (hence the "V"), but Logan Huffman is dull as dishwater as her son who is swept up in the excitement and joins a group of young people recruited to spread pro-alien propaganda (read: Hitler youth). A ruggedly handsome priest (Joel Gretsch, pictured) is on board with the resistance, despite his superior's faith in the Visitors. We discover there are sleeper cells of aliens who have been on the planet for years, and some, including Morris Chestnut, have decided to resist the invasion, but at what price?

The "Hitler" and "resistance" references aren't far-fetched; the original series was created as a WWII resistance drama and became a sci-fi show, and I imagine the resistance aspect will become central here. However, I wasn't very taken with the first two episodes; the first was OK, but the second was slow-moving and predictable. And worst of all, there was no rodent-eating at all, just a couple of scenes of split-open human flesh showing lizard skin beneath. I don't see myself sticking with this, but if you hear of any good unnatural eating scenes, let me know.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Coming Around Again: Remakes and reinventions, Part 1

The great 60's cult TV series The Prisoner has been "re-invented" for the new century. The original British series, from 1967, ran for 17 episodes and was notorious for its surreal tone, ambiguous situations, and lack of concrete closure (though many opinions about the show's meaning and ending are floating around out there in the Internet ether). Patrick McGoohan (pictured below) played a spy who left his agency, was gassed in his apartment, and woke up in an isolated place called simply the Village. Instead of a name he had a number (Number 6); his nemesis was the nominal leader of the Village (Number 2), usually played by a different actor in each episode; #6 would keep trying to escape the Village but no matter how far he got--and in one episode he seemed to get as far as London--he would always wind up back in the Village.

The new version, airing on AMC, is much less ambitious than the original: it's a 6-episode mini-series being presented over 3 nights, which kind of makes it feel like they don't really hold out much hope for a positive reception in the long run and are burning it off as a sweeps event. I've only seen the first 2 shows, but they don't seem terribly promising. Anyone who has seen the original will be making comparisons; unfair, perhaps, but inevitable. The bad news is that this show suffers in that realm. Jim Caviezel cuts a handsome sturdy figure as 6 (they don't use the word "number" in addressing each other), but he lacks McGoohan's charisma, or anti-charisma--in the show, he came across as rather cold, but you could tell there was lots of stuff boiling underneath. Ian McKellan, who has become almost as legendary a figure as Olivier or Gielgud, is the mysterious 2, though here he's been given almost too much background (a sick wife, a teenage son who seems to be being groomed to take over in his dad's footsteps). I like McKellan a lot--he made The Lord of the Rings worth sitting through--but so far, he hasn't had much to do, and what he's done has been forgettable.

The atmosphere is strange but not as surreal as in the original--in the 60's the setting was a seaside village with a bunch of quaint but strange looking small houses; here, it's in the middle of a desert with ordinary-looking A-frame houses and huge glimmering towers at the edge of the dunes. Caviezel is not a former spy, but an employee of some kind of multinational corporation. The character can remember some things from his past (most of the villagers have memory loss problems, having only rudimentary dream-like images of an outside world surfacing in dreams), and seems to be slowly regaining more memories as the show goes on. The supporting cast so far has been unremarkable except for Lennie James (the mysterious outsider in Jericho, pictured) as a friendly cab driver. Apparently the new series will end with all mysteries explained, something antithetical to the letter and spirit of the original. I'll keep watching for the heck of it, but I'm not feeling especially drawn into this.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Have a very dysfunctional Christmas

While I was growing up, my mother was notoriously crazy about Christmas, a trait she passed on to me (so, no, November 12th is not too early to review a holiday book); however, my dad was an alcoholic, so I know a little something about dysfunctional holidays. Augusten Burroughs' new book, You Better Not Cry, is a collection of short essays about some of his more memorable Christmases, mostly of the dysfunctional type. I should point out that I have never read anything by Burroughs before, though I know two things about him: he writes, with dark humor and edginess, about his crazy family, and he's gay. So of course, I was expecting another David Sedaris. That may not be fair to Burroughs, but my expectations definitely affected my experience of reading this book.

These essays do in fact sound like stabs at Sedaris-like true stories, and most work well enough. The first three are written from the viewpoint of the author as a child and they make his family sound quaintly nutty rather than downright crazy; any of them could be adapted into a family TV special, though the title story, the funniest one in the book, is about little Augusten's conflation of Santa with Jesus and is perhaps a bit too edgy for prime-time--it ends with him kissing a wax Santa figure a little too enthusiastically and turns suddenly into a scene out of a George Romero movie.

The tone changes dramatically with the 4th story, in which an adult Burroughs, prone to alcoholic blackouts, wakes up in bed one morning with a naked Santa Claus, or more precisely an old man with "a small WWII-era erection" who wears a Santa suit. The two best stories follow: "Why Do You Reward Me Thus?" a beautifully written tale about the Christmas he spent in an alcoholic daze with a group of homeless people, and "The Best and Only Everything," equal parts wrenching and touching, about Christmases spent with an HIV-positive boyfriend. The last essay, a relatively happy though not necessarily funny story about his current partner, is closer in spirit to Sedaris' latest work but is the weakest tale in the book.

Still, I'm happy to have read this, and it makes me want to go read his first memoir, Running with Scissors, to help complete the picture I have Burroughs from these stories. Occasionally, especially early on when he's writing in the persona of his younger self, his writing seems a little too crafted, like he's set a goal to try and write a laugh-out-loud line every five paragraphs or so. Like Sedaris, he takes a winding, sidetracking route through his memories which sometimes works (the naked Santa) and sometimes doesn't--he begins "Claus and Effect" talking about a boy he knew whose birthday fell right after Christmas, but this feels like a tacked-on part of the story rather than being integral to it. Still, I gotta love a guy who can write a sentence like this about Hannukah: "I'd stop forcing the poor Jews to tart up their humble little temple dedication anniversary into some corn-fed whore of a holiday to compete with our super-slut, three-titted Christmas." Much as I love my multi-breasted holiday, I almost fell out of bed laughing.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Things that go bump (or just stand there and stare at you) in the night

Paranormal Activity, according to the buzz, is the new Blair Witch Project: a scary movie made on a very low budget by non-Hollywood indie filmmakers which is supposed to make you scream and jump out of your seat using just a creepy mood and old-fashioned scare tactics with virtually no special effects. Both movies purport to be compilations of found footage, taken by amateurs who wind up the victims of some supernatural force. And both were cleverly marketed over the Internet and through film festival showings. I loved The Blair Witch Project, but was disappointed in Paranormal Activity, perhaps because my expectations were too high. But I also think that this new movie, while clearly inspired by the earlier film, didn't improve on it or do anything to fix its flaws.

A young unmarried suburban couple, Micah Sloat and Katie Featherstone (pictured in a rare light moment at right), have been bothered by strange bumps and sounds in the night and have bought a video camera which they set up in their bedroom, hoping to catch footage of whatever is causing the disturbances. At first, very little is captured on film, but soon, doors start slamming shut and sheets are being lifted up on their own. As we see more strange occurrences (some even in the daytime), we become privy to their deteriorating home life: she's pissed off that he's become obsessed with the camera, and he's pissed off that she hadn't told him that this kind of haunting has happened to her before.

And that's really about it. The visitations become a bit more graphic, though there is no gore and, as far as I could tell, almost no camera tricks until (possibly) the last minute of the film—the very last shot looks like it was CGI-enhanced. The creepiest stuff is the simplest; a couple of times, Katie gets up in the middle of the night and just stands there in the bedroom, stock still, for hours at a time, staring at her sleeping boyfriend. My biggest gasp came when a light flicks on downstairs (where no one is supposed to be). There is a loud bass rumble whenever the invisible force is present (shades of the Jaws theme music), but Micah and Katie don't seem to hear it, which leads me to believe that it was added in post-production.

The pluses: as I noted above, much hair-raising creepiness is produced with just old-fashioned atmosphere; the leads are not as irritating as some of the characters in Blair Witch Project (although Katie's whining starts to get a bit old); Micah looks good in a t-shirt. The minuses: there is no context (very little background for the characters is given) and no real narrative drive—once the basic story is established, events and characters don't develop or deepen. A ghost-hunter is brought in for a couple of scenes; he tells them it's a demon, not a ghost, that is responsible and gives them the name of a demonology expert, but nothing comes of that at all. There is no rhyme or reason for the ending; the film doesn't have a climax so much as a stopping point, as if the director said, we gotta stop this at 90 minutes no matter what. Its shortness is a plus, but I was left not caring about either character, and what little ambiguity is left at the end is uninteresting, unlike Blair Witch Project in which the ambiguous ending was genuinely startling and haunting.

It may not be fair to keep comparing this film to Blair Witch, but it brings on these comparisons itself: the found footage basis, the rough style of shooting, the ever-moving hand-held camera, lack of gore or effects, lack of background music, unknown actors whose real first names are used for their characters, and an ending that doesn’t explain things. For me, the biggest flaw in Blair Witch is the lack of a script; while that may have kept things fresh, it also led to long pointless stretches of people yelling and cursing at each other. This movie also seems to have been minimally scripted, and though the long pointless stretches aren't as long here, I wish we had gotten to know the characters better. For me, I guess it came down to expectations; it just didn’t match up to the buzz and reviews. Had I seen it opening night, or in a packed auditorium, my experience might have been different.