August 29, 2012

Everybody Loves Lists!

Due to my recent relocation, I've been unable to finish this week's Twilight update. So, in the meantime, I thought, well, everybody loves lists! They're meaningless and people always think they're wrong, but we keep making them anyway. They generate discussion, at least, and if there's one thing this blog needs, it's decent writing and something insightful to say. Sorry, that's two things. Well, amongst the things this blog needs is discussion, so I'm putting forward a number of my own personal top five lists. You'll note that, with the rare exception, all choices are mainstream with (allegedly) A-list talent. The obvious reason for this is it's hard to get discussion going when I'm tossing out people and films no-one's heard of. The less obvious reason is that, especially for the "worst of" lists, it's no fun beating up on small fry with no money and lots of heart. I mean, if I didn't have this rule, the Five Worst Movies could be any random sample of Uwe Boll films. I thought it would be more interesting to take the piss out of films with millions of dollars made by people from whom, rightly or wrongly, we expect better. So here goes:

Best Movies of All Time, Ever, Objectively True and Correct:
5. Blade Runner--Possibly the most visually influential film of all time. (Yes, I've seen Citizen Kane.) Also has the dubious honor of popularizing the "director's cut".
4. The Road Warrior--The template for seemingly every post-apocalyptic genre film of the last 40 years. Only The Road Warrior's apocalypse looks more likely with each passing decade.
3. Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb--For years, I heard this was the greatest satire of all time. It is.
2. The Godfather--The Mafia never looked so cool. Brando gives the greatest performance of his career, and his isn't even the strongest in the film.
1. Memento--Great acting, great mystery, and a twist ending that's both shocking and unexpected and completely believable and in keeping with the rest of the film. Seen it eight times, and every time I caught new nuance. Even the Gap-Toothed Woman of CSI fame can't ruin this movie.

The Worst Movies of All Time:
5. Wanted--An adolescent male fantasy for sociopaths. Forces Morgan Freeman to share the screen with Angelina Jolie's lips.
4. Princess Aurora--If your child is murdered as a result of your neglect, you're perfectly justified in killing everyone the child encountered that day to assuage your own guilt.
3. The Constant Gardener--A morality play about how if your politics are right, you can't do anything immoral.
2. Goodfellas--Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci playing gangsters? You don't say! I wanted the main character to die throughout the film. He never does.
1. Southland Tales--See my review here.

The Worst Movies I Had the Best Time Watching:
5. Lady Terminator--A blurry photocopy of The Terminator, only the Terminator is an Indonesian sex demon who humps men to death with her serrated sawblade-vagina. Or shoots them. Both methods work.
4. The Room--You're tearing me apart, intarwebs!
3. Dragonball: Evolution--Definitive proof that crappy anime should never be done in live-action. Shockingly offensive example of Lead Actors are White. I laughed at the villain's bad make-up job every single time he appeared onscreen.
2. Birdemic: Shock and Terror--Hands down, the worst acting you've ever seen. And special effects. And everything else. Deserves to make the next list, but it's just too funny.
1. The Happening--Who knew tree-induced suicide could be so hilarious?

The Most Incompetent Excuses for Movies That Hardly Deserve to be Called Movies:
5. The Last Airbender--See my review here.
4. Any of those Resident Evil things--The only entertainment to be had from this abominable series is figuring out which real movie each entry is ripping off. Subsists entirely on young boys obsessed with somewhat-attractive women in tight black leather shooting machine guns. (See also the Underworld series. Better yet, don't.)
3. Redline--Made me appreciate the care and craft that went into The Fast and the Furious films. Yes, I'm fully aware of what that statement entails.
2. Jack and Jill--Less a movie than a scam to bilk investors out of $70 million. More product placement than The Price is Right. A worse Adam Sandler movie than Going Overboard.
1. Disaster Movie--I only intended to watch maybe 15 minutes of this but resolved to continue until I saw a scene that wasn't worse than the previous one. I finished the whole movie.

The Most Overrated Directors:
5. Quentin Tarantino--A screenwriter of talent, if limited range. Would love to see a screenplay of his directed by anyone but himself. Wait, that was True Romance. Never mind.
4. David Fincher--Disowned Alien 3, easily the best film he made. Yeah, I went there.
3. Oliver Stone--Revealed by the films he makes to be insane. Allowed Kevin Costner to be in his film.
2. Peter Jackson--The Frighteners was decent, but everything else he's made has been the worst piece of crap ever produced (Bad Taste) or unbelievably dull (Lord of the Rings) or that godawful King Kong remake (Godawful King Kong Remake).
1. Martin Scorsese--Making films dirty does not make them good. Michael Mann does everything people keep telling me Scorsese does, only Mann doesn't suck. Best work of his career: Michael Jackson's "Bad" video.

Three-Name Actors Who Earn the Right to Use Three Names:
5. HBC--The best there is at playing the role of HBC.
4. Jada Pinkett-Smith--I have three words, one for each of your names: Fire your agent.
3. James Earl Jones--I'm a big fan, even if he did assassinate Martin Luther King, Jr. Makes even a Tennessee Williams play watchable.
2. Tommy Lee Jones--Is there anything the man can't do? (Answer: He can't be bad in a role, even when directed by Joel Shootmenowmacher.)
1. Edward James Olmos--God walks among us.

Three-Name Actors Who Haven't Earned the Right to Use Three Names:
5. Sarah Gellar--Even fans tell me she's the weakest part of Buffy. (What? Like I'd watch that.)
4. Catherine Jones--Gives a good performance as an elitist socialite who isn't half as brilliant or witty as she thinks she is. But any actor can play herself.
3. Richard Anderson--Who needs charisma to headline not one but two TV dramas?
2. Stiffler--This is the only role he plays, so why not credit him as such?
1. Jennifer Hewitt--"Love" isn't the four-letter "L" word that explains her career.

The Worst Actors to Pollute My Movie Screens:
5. Sam Worthington--See any of his films--Whatever of the Titans, Terminator: Enough Already, pick any one you want--and see if you can distinguish him from the CGI backgrounds. Ha-ha! I'm kidding, you can't.
4. Clooney--I refuse to use his full name. Plays the role of "smug, vaguely handsome jerk" in Every Film Clooney Has Been In. Thinks smiling and nodding constitutes acting. Is generally a horrible person.
3. Sean Penn--Someone tell this man that shouting your lines is not the same thing as giving a dramatic performance. Also generally a horrible person.
2. Kevin Costner--Will be remembered long after his death for delivering the worst Robin Hood of all time. Russell Crowe weeps nightly that his awful Robin Hood will be forgotten while Costner's lives on. "Because I'm a survivor" indeed.
1. William Hurt--This man won an Oscar. That sound you hear is the award's credibility going down the toilet.

The Bestest Actors Ever:
5. Guy Pearce--From action hero to insurance investigator to dopehead to Andy Warhol, he just oozes screen presence, sex appeal, and sensitive-guy machismo. American accent was so good I got the vapours when I found out he's Australian. Oy!
4. John Malkovich--He's weird, he speaks fluent French, and he starred in Being John Malkovich. Oh, and his surname is Malkovich. Come on, that's just evil-sounding and wicked.
3. Samuel L. Jackson--Known for shouting, obscenities, and shouting obscenities, yet he can deliver subtle performances in great films (Unbreakable) and terrible films (Sphere), no matter how badly directed he is. Well, okay, except by George Lucas.
2. Jack Nicholson--Yeah, I'm a sucker for Jack doing Jack. Still, for the haters, see Wolf or About Schmidt. He's capable of subtlety when he bothers to act. (See also Brando, Marlon.)
1. Christopher Walken--Does just fine giving a normal performance, but for my money, give me that old Walken Weird! How many times has he walked into an otherwise crap film and Walkenised, giving the audience a respite of awesome for that brief moment he's on screen? (Answer: Uncountable.)

Most Underrated Films:
5. Cube--An English-language Canadian film that's taut, suspenseful, chilling, and thought-provoking. Hey, where are you going? Yes, this is a real film! Oh, come on, get back here! It's got Ezri Dax not sucking!
4. Save the Green Planet!--Features a towering performance from Paek Yun-sik. Pays homage to a number of different films--both good and bad--yet still has its own voice. A truly subtle and fascinating ending.
3. The Ref--Stars Kevin Spacey as Kevin Spacey, Denis Leary as Denis Leary, and Judy Davis as HotSexyAwesome!!!. A funny black comedy about a couple that hate each other. (Alternate title: The Movie The War of the Roses Tried to be And Failed.)
2. Prophecy--Christopher Walken as the archangel Gabriel, lots of Bible-quoting, an almost-priest with a crisis of faith, and Amanda Plummer? How could I resist? (Hint: I couldn't.) I was happy to see this movie ripped off by that atrocious Ghost Rider sequel. Hey, it means somebody saw it besides me!
1. Demon Knight--Great performances from William Sadler, Billy Zane (stop laughing), and Jada Pinkett-Smith Pinkett. Also okay are Thomas Haden Church, Dick Miller, and CCH Pounder. The demons look good, the backstory is straightforward and clear, the villain's motivations are suitably nefarious and simple, and the final showdown shows some moxie from a sassy heroine.

Most Overrated Films:
5. Se7en--M0rg4n Fr33m4n i$ gr34t 4$ 4lway4$, but th3 r3$t i$ ju$t unr3m4rk4bl3. Oh, and the "twist" is as shocking as a closet homosexual Republican. Remember what I said about the twist in Memento? Yeah, this is nothing like that.
4. Equilibrium--Noteworthy if you've never encountered dystopia. For everyone who has, the only fun is figuring out the sources the film's pilfering from. Oh, and Sean Bean dies (by which I mean, Sean Bean is in this movie).
3. Jacob's Ladder--The ending not only renders the entire movie pointless, but it's cheap and derivative. Plus, Tim Robbins sucks.
2. The War of the Roses--Thinks it's a sharp, witty deconstruction of marriage, but it's really just a crass exercise in misogyny and unfunny. An utterly unbelievable exercise in ludicrous violence and Michael Douglas "acting".
1. Every film Martin Scorsese has ever made. Yes, including the ones I haven't seen (i.e., most of them).

There! I hope you enjoyed this installment of "Things I Like or Dislike Arranged into Groups of Five". If you agree with any of my choices--and God help you if you do--please leave a comment. If you don't, then I kindly invite you to leave a long, angry rant explaining that I'm fat and stupid and probably gay and/or a furry that in no way addresses anything I said. And for the one reader out there for whom making lists like this accounts for approximately 42.7% of our conversations--and you know who you are--I know you're thinking, "Alas! What will we bicker pointlessly about now?!" Fear not! Print a copy of these lists, along with your own annotations, and bring them to our next meeting for further pointless bickering.

August 22, 2012

EJO Review: Wolfen

Next up on our Edward James Olmos series is a real disappointment. There aren't many good werewolf films outside of Universal's Wolfman series, and Wolfen (1981) was supposed to be one of good ones. Sadly, not only does it not rank with An American Werewolf in London or The Howling, or even Wolf (werewolf Jack Nicholson!), but it's actually rather terrible. And it's not even a werewolf movie!

The film opens with a monster attack sequence that the makers of Predator clearly saw. The wolfen-point-of-view shots were undoubtedly the inspiration for the Predator's infrared vision. Since I plan to rip this movie pretty hard, it's nice to start off with something good, and the film deserves credit for its pioneering monster POV. Thank you, Wolfen; Predator would've been slightly less awesome without you, so you weren't a complete waste of celluloid. The shots of run-down New York City are also effective, atmospheric, and creepy. I miss the New York that gave us films like this and Escape from New York. Where can we find a rotting cesspool of crime and decay to film now? Thank God there's still Detroit.

Anywho, after taking way too long stalking people (and getting so close to them that you can't believe it wouldn't be seen, or heard, or smelled, a recurring problem with the stalking sequences), the wolfen kills a rich, important muckety-muck and his wife, though not before killing their chauffeur, because the black guy always has to die first. Solving this murder is so important to the city of New York that they bring in a fat, lazy drunk specially to handle the case. Said fat, lazy drunk is played by Emmy-award winner Albert Finney, who does an excellent job playing a fat, lazy drunk, and not just because he's English. In fact, despite occasionally missing with his American accent, Finney gives the film's best performance (apart from God's own, natch), and I'm thankful he was chosen for this role rather than America's home-grown go-to guy for the role of fat, lazy drunk in the late '70s and early '80s, Joe Don Baker. The other performances range from adequate (Gregory Hines(!) as Finney's coroner pal, Tom Noonan as a zoologist whose obsession with wolves even I find unhealthy) to jaw-droppingly awful (Diane Venora as a psychologist assigned to assist Finney, though her assistance consists entirely of sleeping with him for no reason other than they're the two leads in the film). This is also the film debut of Reginald VelJohnson, notable because it's possibly his only appearance in front of a camera not playing a cop.

Edward James Olmos is cast in this film according to the Hollywood Ethnic Actor Rule as an American Indian(!), despite the fact that he doesn't look Indian at all. You'll remember from last week that this rule allows actors in the "not WASP or black" category to freely play any ethnicity in that category, since American audiences won't know any better. He plays Eddie Holt,* a militant Indian put away by Finney's Dewey Wilson (yes, really) for killing an apple. No, I don't mean he went to prison for wanton slaughter of innocent fruit. "Apple" is apparently the American Indian version of Uncle Tom (or, to the primary audience of this blog, "banana"), that is, a ethnic minority who's sold out to the Man. Holt is so obviously set up as the werewolf that you instantly know he's not the werewolf, though it takes Olmos running naked on the beach for Dewey to figure this out. Frankly, I would've preferred that Dewey make this determination without my having to see the little Eddie. The scene has Dewey, thinking Holt is going to turn into a werewolf (it's complicated), following him to the beach where he strips naked, licks up water from a puddle in the sand (wolves drink seawater?), and runs around making growling and howling noises. While all this is going on, to absolutely no one's surprise, someone is killed by the wolfen in another part of the city, sending Dewey back to the drawing board for suspects. I admired Olmos's dedication to his art in this scene, as it must have taken serious cajones to go on camera and do the scene rather than just punching the director in the face or smiting him with a thunderbolt, and it reminds me just how prudish our society has become over the lifetime of yours truly. Still, a grown man running around pretending to be a wolf just looks silly, no matter how much gravitas the actor has or how scary the music is. It's a goofy moment played straight but impossible to take seriously, like something out of The Exorcist. Actually, "goofy moment played straight but impossible to take seriously" describes the whole of The Exorcist.

As with the previous projects, I can see why Olmos took this role. Wolfen is firmly in the vein of 1970s Western-civilization-in-decline films that portray victims of European colonization and oppression as morally superior to their conquerors. The film sets up a dichotomy between the Noble Savages (guess who they are) and the White Man Dependent on, Like, Capitalism, Man, and comes down clearly on the side of the white liberal guilt. I mean, Indians. And this is the single biggest problem with the film. It is, in fact, the reason it's a truly bad film rather than a serviceable low-key, low-FX monster flick. There is essentially only one Indian character (Holt), and more than once he gets to wax morally superior to Dewey by ponderously speechifying about how corrupt White Society is. To give you an idea of how well the Indians emerge as characters, the only other Indian has any screentime at all is credited as "Old Indian". No name, just Old Indian. We don't even find out what tribe these Indians are a part of, or even if they're from the same tribe! They're just Indians, and Indians love nature and marijuana and hate capitalism and Whitey. And the ones who don't aren't real Indians ("apples") and deserve to be murdered. The filmmakers would undoubtedly be appalled to hear that this is the subtext of their film, as I'm sure they didn't intend to treat their Indian characters as shabbily as 1960s Westerns that portrayed them as a faceless horde of identical backward savages to be mowed down by heroic white cowboys. But to quote Ken Begg, "well, you can’t not see it. I’m absolutely sure that it’s unintentional, but still, it’s kind of there anyway."

The worst example of the one-dimensional nature of the Indian characters in this film is the excruciating exposition scene near the end, in which Dewey, rather than discovering the secret of the wolfen through the White Man's Science of his detective work, has the wolfen explained to him by the Indians (again, mostly by Olmos looking righteously angry). Dewey goes to a bar full of Indians, imaginatively named the Wigwam Bar (really?), and there the Indians painstakingly explain to him what the wolfen are, why they've done what they've done, and why the White Man deserves to have it done to him. (That the wolfen have killed a number of black characters at this point goes unaddressed. I guess they're collateral damage from the wolfen's carpet bombs of justice.) Why yes, the Indians are smoking peace pipes while generic Indian chanting plays on the soundtrack.** I'm so glad you asked!

Wolfen's pacing is slow, its acting is hit (Finney, Olmos)-or-miss (Venora, the non-Finney cops and investigators), its story is a little scattershot, its kills are telegraphed (maybe they were slightly more surprising in 1981, but I doubt it), and its central monster not being a werewolf is a cheat. But all of these things could be forgiven if not for the ham-handed "message" of the film and its treatment of Indian characters as positive stereotypes every bit as offensive as the negative stereotypes it's reacting against. And then there's the ending. And I said, you find out what the wolfen are and why they're doing what they're doing, and the film clearly agrees that they have some justification. But the ending torpedoes any final hope the film had. Not because it has the wolfen offscreen teleporting from ground level to the penthouse balcony of a skyscraper, but because Dewey realises that the wise Indians are wise and that the wolfen are morally correct, and he decides they should be left to continue to murder people as they see fit. I'm serious, that's really the implication of the ending. Dewey agrees that the wolfen are right to eat the people they've chosen to eat. I can't explain to you how little sense this makes in the context of the film. It's bad enough that the makers of the film thought this, given the situation they've set up, but why does Dewey accept it? There's nothing about the character, either before or after his experiences with the wolfen, that in any way suggests he'd be okay with this. The wolfen even eat one of his friends in the movie! Dewey must've smoked some of whatever they put in those peace pipes to just accept that the wolfen have killed (including, again, a good friend of his) and will continue to kill. That, or the filmmakers allowed their own belief that the wolfen are right to impose itself on their character, regardless of whether or not the character and his experiences support that view. I'm betting on the latter.

I haven't mentioned the subplot of another entire group of investigators trying to link the murder of the rich muckety-muck to a vague, ill-defined "terrorist" group, using some kind of truth-machine that looks like whatever Egon was imaging Dana's face with in the original Ghostbusters. But that's okay, because this storyline has impact on exactly nothing, and I can't for the life of me figure out why it was included. But as I've noted, it's the film's moral failings that truly made me angry and frustrated with it. Like The Constant Gardener, the film makes its creators appears to be of the "if your cause is just, anything you do in furtherance of that cause is just" school of evil. Ends alone do not justify any and all means.

Unless the goal is to make sure there are no more Adam Sandler movies. In that case, use any means necessary.

* How they resisted naming the character Eddie Two-Bears or something equally "Indian" I'll never know, but kudos to the filmmakers for at least avoiding this stereotype.
** Actually, the Indians give two completely different explanations for why the wolfen are killing people, but nobody ever seems to notice this.

August 19, 2012

Twilight: Blood Appeal

Twilight, pp. 85-90.

The rest of the morning passed in a blur. It was difficult to believe that I hadn't just imagined what Edward had said, and the way his eyes had looked. Maybe it was just a very convincing dream that I'd confused with reality. That seemed more probable than that I really appealed to him on any level.

We open this week with another piece of unintentional irony. Once again, Stephenie [sic] Meyer manages to get both aspects of a particular situation wrong at the same time. She has even odds to get at least one right, but Twilight is such a masterpiece of suck that it's consistently wrong at a number of levels simultaneously.

It is true, of course, that Bella shouldn't appeal to Edward "on any level". First among these, of course, is that vampires eat people. Edward's attraction to Bella is like a person falling in love with a deer. Would you feel anything approaching romantic love for something that you hunt, kill, and eat? Now, to make the vampire mythos as sexually neutered as possible in this story, we'll eventually find out that the Cullen clan don't eat people anymore. (Come on, not even a Dexter or Morpheus the Living Vampire we-only-prey-on-bad-people thing? No. The vampires must be as nonthreatening as possible for maximum faux-bad boyness.) But as we'll discover, this doesn't in any way decrease their desire to eat humans. It's just that these are Zen vampires that hold their desires in check. So the point still stands. Edward has eaten lots of people, and he'd still eat people now if he didn't practice safe feeding. The notion that he'd have true romantic feelings toward a person is unthinkable. (Again, the Edward-as-villain plotline is just straining to come out here.)

That the prey animal Edward has a totally unbelievable fixation on is Bella makes it even more ludicrous. In all his decades of unlife, he's never come across anyone as enchanting as a 17-year-old girl he's shared probably four minutes of conversation with? I guess her high school-level command of the process of cell mitosis is pretty impressive stuff where Edward comes from! We'll be told later that Edward is drawn to Bella primarily because he can't read her mind. (Because Edward does that, you know.) Now I know I'm hardly the first to make this observation, but really, it's too easy:

Maybe he can't read her mind because there isn't anything to read.

But Meyer can't just get this wrong. No, a rich, powerful, dark, and mysterious man falling in love with the heroine for no discernable reason is part and parcel of hack romance novels. (Novels of this type written by good authors provide female protagonists who are believably irresistable to such men.) Any old crap writer can be not bothered to craft a plausible scenario in which two characters in a romantic story could actually fall in love with each other. It takes someone as monumentally untalented as Meyer to both do that and have an unbelievable scene in which the heroine recognises this fact, but for no reason at all! As noted, if you know Edward is a 100-year-old vampire, you can't believe his attraction to Bella. But Bella doesn't know this. All she knows is that Edward is a year ahead of her in school, is hot, and is kind of a creepy jerk. Why wouldn't she appeal to him? So far, every boy at the entire school has been asking her out! The most popular girl in school has made her her best galpal. And if that isn't enough, she's new to this tiny, isolated town that probably hasn't had any new blood since the Carter administration.

To cut Meyer as much slack as possible, this could possibly work if Bella were sheltered, naive, and socially inept, the way good Mormon parents like to think their good Mormon girls are. (They aren't.) In short, maybe if Bella had actually lived in Forks her whole life and been raised by Charlie, maybe I could buy that she reached age seventeen without seeing herself as attractive. But Bella grew up in Phoenix, raised by her pseudo-hippie New Age mother whose first question when she hears Bella likes a boy is, "Are you being safe?" I can't believe I'm saying this, but "he really likes me?"  is immature for high school. Think about what that means.

Even if Bella consciously rejects relationships, dating, and the high school social scene, it's not credible that she has no understanding of how it works, and since her arrival in Forks, she has shown she does know how the game is played. Once again Meyer wants to have her cake and eat it, too. She wants Bella to be popular and liked and desired even as she's standoff-ish, tragically hip, and withdrawn. She's written Bella as both naive and jaded, narcissitic and empathetic, passive-aggressive and...well, she got that one consistent. Bella has belief and understanding that she could never have formed without going through experiences that can't possibly have left her as innocent as she has to be to keep this "I don't know know why boys like me" foolishness going.

At this point Meyer informs us that Bella's mooning over whether or not Edward really said he wasn't going to talk to her because they shouldn't be friends hasn't been taking place in solitude. No, she's been doing this while--and I hope you're sitting down as you read this--ignoring the person she's with. That isn't my judgement; Bella tells us so. It's poor Jessica she's ignoring, again. Jessica, who apparently has no friends other than Bella, despite Bella's never once so far listening to anything Jessica had to say that wasn't about Edward. This time "Jessica babbled on and on about her dance plans...completely unaware of my inattention." That's our Bella!

Jessica finally stops "babbling" when she mentions Edward (because all talk that isn't about Edward is babble by definition), who's sitting alone instead of with the rest of the Cullen clan. He motions for Bella to come over, and Jessica reacts to this with "insulting astonishment", even though Bella is "star[ing] in disbelief". Right, so Jessica's disbelief that Edward would want to see Bella is insulting, while Bella's disbelief of the exact same thing at the exact same time is not. That's our Bella: She's right and everyone else is wrong, even when they have identical thoughts. I mean, I can't think of a more naked sign of authorial favour. When you're wrong, I'm right, and when you're right, I'm right. Isn't this the same person who earlier on this very page declared it more likely that she hallucinated an entire conversation than that Edward would find her appealing "in any way"? Yet Jessica's "astonishment" at this very thing is "insulting"?

Edward wants to see her because he "decided as long as I was going to hell, I might as well do it thoroughly". When Bella rightly points out that he's not making sense, he says, "I know[!]" and leaves it at that. Then why did he say it in the first place? Because he's the kind of person we here in normal-people land call something that rhymes with "brass pole". He eventually says he's "giving up" on trying to stay away from her. The two then descend into a bottomlessly silly exchange in which he says it's a problem that he says too much around her, so he says it so that she doesn't understand what it means. So why is it a problem? And how can he accidentally say "too much" if it's nonsensical? Then we go over the "I'm warning you, I'm dangerous" rigamorole all over again, because we readers are too dumb to get it the first 37 times.

Or maybe Meyer thinks that if she keeps saying it, we'll believe Edward really is dangerous.

*Okay, I know I've said that attending high school for eternity would be a horrible fate. I mean, listening to teen-agers prattle on about nothing day after day as year after year slips past....So, Edward doesn't do that. I get it. But what exactly does he do? He doesn't talk to anyone, doesn't appear to study (he just reads the teachers' minds to find out what the answers they want)...what does he do in school for seven hours a day?

August 17, 2012

EJO Review: American Me

Continuing our series on Edward James Olmos, we come to American Me (1992), a crime drama inspired by the life and death of the founder of La eMe, popularly known as the Mexican Mafia. American Me has been aptly described as a Chicano Godfather, and the influence of the finest gangster film of all time is obvious upon even a cursory viewing of the film. But Me is also a product of the early 90s, and it reminded me less of The Godfather and more of Abel Ferrara's King of New York (1990). Both films feature a crime lord being released from prison, becoming disgusted with the escalating violence on the outside, and attempting to go straight (or at least to mitigate the violence), and both also end darkly in terms of the main character's fate, with the suggestion that escape is hopeless and will lead to disaster for anyone attempting to do so. Each is well directed and features a strong lead performance that elevates otherwise rather pedestrian material. In the case of Me, Edward James Olmos directs himself in the lead performance, his debut as a feature director. His direction is sure-handed and confident without being overblown or preachy, including a great shot from the perspective of a man being carried away to be beaten. The choice to direct himself is a good one, since the quiet, low-key performance of Olmos the actor well complements the quiet, low-key style of Olmos the director. There is a well-cut sequence of the main character having sex with a woman (for the first time, as he has been in prison since he was a teen-ager) inter-cut with the brutal sexual assault of the son of a mob boss as a statement of La eMe's power. The love interest is mostly believable in the role; rather than being a typical Hollywood beauty, she has the look and affect of a woman who might be drawn to the social ineptness and strange sort of innocence one might find in a man who's been locked up his whole life.

Now I appreciate both subtle acting and subtle direction, and I'll take those before over-acting and overly busy, trick-shot directing every time, but the film could have used a little more energy, and none of the other characters really emerges from the background of various gang-bangers calling each other ese (including Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa, here exemplifying the Hollywood Ethnic Actor Rule* playing a Mexican(!) gangster). The story of the godfather of the Mexican Mafia is never quite as compelling as it should be. Olmos's performance is too subtle to overcome the weaknesses of the script, and no one else in the cast steps up to lend some fire to a story that could use a little heat. (A young John Leguizamo would've livened things up a bit.) The language and rhythm of the film is initially appealing and (to this untrained ear) reasonably authentic--I particularly appreciated the mixed patois of Spanish and English, often even in the same sentence--but after hearing the words ese, homes, and vato about 300 times, it becomes a little tiresome. There's even one Chicano character who, upon taking a hit of his illegal drug of choice, declares it "good shit, man". One wonders what Olmos, trying to make a film in which Mexican-Americans emerge as real people and not caricatures, thought when he came across this moldy Hollywood stereotype in the script.

The best scenes are those inside the prison, showing how a person can run a multi-million dollar drug business from inside the walls. Things are much less interesting outside prison, and the movie seems to realize this as the Olmos character, after spending almost half the movie in prison before being released, ends up back in prison for the final fifteen minutes or so. The film contains many of the themes and ideas characteristic of Olmos's work: white racism against Chicanos, the hopelessness and despair brought on by the poverty and disempowerment of the barrio, a respected leader's attempt to reform a corrupt subset of society and the futility of such attempts, and the lack of vision of the oppressed to try for something better. The female lead, after ending her relationship with the Olmos character, declares that there's no hope for the children of the barrios as long as people like him exist. Olmos's work, while acknowledging and criticizing the enormous barriers to Chicano progress, refuses to apologize for or elide the horrors wrought by the gangs. It may be understandable that they do what they do, but it is not excusable or acceptable. If it seems that Olmos's message is contradictory--that the conditions in the barrios make life outside of criminality impossible for young Chicano men while still holding them responsible for their criminal behavior--it is a reflection of the reality of life in the barrios. This is not a weakness of his work, but a strength.

And that's probably part of why I appreciated this film, even if I'm not especially fond of it. Overall, it's a serviceable early 1990s gritty crime drama, well directed and acted but not especially exciting or memorable. Unlike its inspiration The Godfather, this is not the sort of film you can show to anyone. Recommended for fans of gangster films and Edward James Olmos fans only.**

* This is the rule based on the understanding that American audiences classify people into three ethnic groups: WASP, black, and neither WASP nor black. Actors can freely play any role within their group. This rule allows Chinese actress Joan Chen to play an American Indian in On Deadly Ground, Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán to play Sikh Indian Khan in Star Trek (look it up!), and Jewish actress Jenette Goldstein to play Vasquez(!) in Aliens. (To be fair, Vasquez will inevitably be played by Michelle Rodriguez, whose agent you call when you're casting the role of "macho angry Hispanic babe", in an upcoming remake of Aliens. Now that Alien has been remade (inexplicably named Prometheus), I assume an Aliens remake is already in the works.) Related rules: The Black Character Must Die First; Lead Actors Are White
** Fortunately, I happen to be both.

August 12, 2012

Twilight: The Abuser's Handbook

Twilight, pp. 74-84.

I know what you've been missing: Edward's controlling mind games and Bella's humiliation of romantic rivals. Well, your prayers are answered by the little spread of pages we have for this week. We've got plenty of both coming at us!

Back in biology class, E and B play peekaboo with each other, some more Bella's heart in palpitations that the creepy stalker is looking at her "for the first time in a half-dozen weeks" (half-dozen?).

I couldn't allow him to have this level of influence over me. It was pathetic. More than pathetic, it was unhealthy.

Occasional flashes of seeming self-awareness creep through in this section of the book. This is the sort of thing that I used to think indicated the author was intentionally portraying an emotionally disturbed young girl being tormented by an expert manipulator. Out of the context of the novel as a whole, you too, my little droogies, might think the same thing upon reading such lines. By the time we get much farther, though, it will become clear this is not the case. We are meant to be (mildly) frustrated that Bella doesn't see that only a man who truly loves you controls you. Rather than "unhealthy" or "pathetic", it's supposed to be romantic.

It's not.

Now as noted, Edward hasn't so much as looked at Bella for "a half-dozen weeks" (half-dozen?). Of course, after giving her the silent treatment for a while (Abuser's Handbook p. 121), he realises she's too passive to initiate contact herself (Handbook p. 124) and so he has to do even that for her (p. 127, sub-paragraph c). He does this by addressing her by name, which author Stephenie [sic] Meyer follows with two paragraphs of Bella mooning over how handsome he is. She then manages to say:

"What? Are you speaking to me again?" I finally asked, an unintentional note of petulance in my voice.

His lips twitched, fighting a smile. "No, not really [!]," he admitted.

I closed my eyes and inhaled slowly through my nose, aware that I was gritting my teeth. He waited.

"Then what do you want, Edward?" I asked, keeping my eyes closed; it was easier to talk to him coherently that way.

"I'm sorry." He sounded sincere. "I'm being very rude, I know. But it's better this way, really."

I opened my eyes. His face was very serious. "I don't know what you mean," I said, my voice guarded.

"It's better if we're not friends," he explained. "Trust me."

My eyes narrowed. I'd heard that before.

"It's better if we're not friends", even though I'm talking to you again for no reason other than to tell you we won't be talking. Which we haven't been talking for a half-dozen weeks (half-dozen?). But now that we're talking, I want you to know that we won't be talking. Again. You know, after this.

Mixed message much?

I also can't figure out any way to picture Bella carrying on half of this exchange with her eyes closed the entire time that isn't hilarious. Especially when she could simply look toward the front of the room where the teacher is.

She then ludicrously accuses him of regretting his decision to Superman the van away from her, at which point it's his turn to be petulant with a "You don't know anything" that, well, I guess a real seventeen-year-old might come up with. Bella drops her books (endearing clumsiness, her humanising flaw!*), and Edward uses his vampiric speed to stack them and hand them to her before she even decides to bend down to pick them up. This use of vampire powers to complete mundane tasks will be a recurring motif of this book, and it just gets more infuriating every time. I'm continuously amazed by how wrong Meyer gets everything in this book. She's somehow able both to make vampirism more appealing (by removing all the drawbacks associated with it, like drinking human blood, dying in sunlight, and oh yeah, eternal damnation of your immortal soul) and simultaneously less appealing (by making it prosaic and banal). Instead of living in castles, hiding in shadows, swooping down on unsuspecting humans to feed on, and seducing people with their mysterious powers, Twilight vampires go to high school, show up to work, commute by car, and use their powers to stack books, play baseball, and watch young girls sleep in their rooms.

After mutual icy retorts, we're thankfully spared further interaction between our main characters for a little while. Sadly, this is only for poor Eric to ask Bella to the Not Sadie Hawkins Day dance. She of course rejects him, causing him to "slouch" off, no doubt to contemplate suicide. Either that or just to accept one of the invitations from the nicer and likely cuter girls who've already asked him. For added hatred, Edward, somehow there, laughs at the poor kid, knowing that his vampiric powers (I guess?) have already made Bella his. The book is maddeningly vague on whether or not the vampires have the power of hypnotism. Considering they're described as perfectly beautiful and lacking any putrid stench of the grave or icy touch of a body with no hot blood running through it, it seems they would hardly need such a power. Bella has described herself as "unable" not to look at him, but this comes across more as inept "romance" than vampiric power. [Future Carl Eusebius: Plus, Bella will turn out to be immune to all vampiric powers.] Still, I don't know why else Edward would be amused that she turned down the invitation of one guy that she never showed any interest in to a dance she's never expressed any desire to go to. Whatever his reason, though, it doesn't seem anything other than mean-spirited and petty. Which describes, I suppose, the only reasons Edward ever does anything in this story.

Edward uses his Volvo (really?) to block Bella into the car park. She briefly considers ramming his car with her 100% red-blooded American truck--raising the tantalising possibility of making the Volvo "the foreign car it had destroyed" back on page 8--but decides not to. Then Tyler Crowley (the fellow whose van Edward Superman-pushed away from Bella, you'll remember) chooses this moment to leave his vehicle (running) behind hers to approach her truck in the middle of the car park lane I even need to say it?

"Will you ask me to the spring dance?"

Quickly shut down, Tyler promises that "We still have prom" and returns to his vehicle. (Bella has now been asked to this dance by every male in the book so far except Edward, her father, and the biology teacher!) Edward is looking at Bella in his rearview mirror (but vampires don't--oh, forget it!) and "shaking with laughter". Okay, I give up, my droogies. What's so funny about a girl rejecting guys? Why is this so hilarious? A century-old vampire is amused by a couple of guys failing to take a particular girl to a particular high school dance? I know I keep banging on about this high school thing, but really, it boggles the mind. How can you live for a century and then go back to high school even for a month, much less however long Edward Cullen has been doing it? How can you take any interest in anything that happens or anyone you encounter? Maybe I was wrong about Meyer's softening of vampirism. Attend high school for the rest of eternity? These vampires truly are damned.

I can't think of any way "century-old vampire going to high school" can work that doesn't make Edward the villain. Imagine: All his vampiric powers plus one hundred years of experience manipulating people, running amok amongst a bunch of teen-agers with raging hormones, a measure of freedom, and no brains. But Twilight isn't interested in any kind of real danger, because it's born of adolescent fear of maturity: responsibility, committed love, and (ewwwww!) sex.

So its vampire is neutered, its heroine is passive, and its narrative is toothless.

The chapter ends with E and B meeting in the school car park again that next morning. E declares he wants to be B's friend, even though it's "more prudent" for Bella not to agree to this. (Spoiler: She does agree to it.)

"You really should stay away from me," he warned.

I bet Ted Bundy used that line. Of course, in his case, unlike Edward's, it's actually true.

* Flaws not guaranteed to be genuine. Void where prohibited.

August 5, 2012

EJO Review: CSI Miami, Episode 7.4 "Sangre por sangre"

The first piece in my series on Edward James Olmos talked about his baffling appearance in the cinematic train wreck The Green Hornet. Shifting gears, let's talk about a television disaster: the lumbering behemoth of suck that is the inexplicably successful CSI franchise.

Now, television dramas on the Big Three networks have long been the bottom of the entertainment barrel. Anything interesting on television has been on cable for at least the past fifteen years. But really, this CSI thing represents a new low. I find myself mesmerized by the sheer ineptitude. The original series has been on for thirteen years despite being badly written and acted, and lacking anything resembling tension or drama. It's hard to decide what's worse--the writing or the cast. The cold open--usually a bloody crime scene--often does a fair job of getting the viewer interested in the mystery, but without exception the reveal of who did the crime and how is disappointing, and it's usually simultaneously absurd and lame to boot. Far too often, the death is accidental or a suicide or attempted suicide, which just feels like a cheat after it happens seven times in a row. The cast are somehow both one-dimensional and thoroughly unlikeable, played by shockingly unappealing actors (including that horrible gap-toothed woman with the pinched-in face and the giant-chinned palooka on the original show). I remember one show the alcoholic gap-toothed woman was pulled over for DUI but the cop let her off because she's a CSI. Now I'm sure this sort of corruption is commonplace in police departments throughout the world, but the CSI people don't raise an eyebrow at it. Aren't they supposed to be the good guys? And here's a chance for some real drama, with one or more characters struggling with whether to do the right thing and report this abuse of police power, but no, the characters are so unlikeable that they're all completely fine with police corruption as long as it protects their alcoholic friend. That's entertainment!

I confess I'm completely baffled by the notion that one hour a week of this schlock isn't enough for people so that this show has not one but two spin-offs. Actually, they're not spin-offs because they're exactly the same show. They all center on a moody, mysterious but brilliant forensic scientist who has unspoken and unexpressed sexual tension with the sexy older female who serves as his right-hand woman, the two of them surrounded by a series of much younger interchangeable nobodies from Central Casting who do the grunt work that allows the male lead to make the scene and intuit the solution to the case.

Thus, the tolerance factor of each series depends entirely on who is cast as the male lead. It's hardly any surprise then that the least terrible of the franchise by far is CSI:NY, blessed as it is with a fine lead actor in Gary Sinise. I have to wonder how much influence Sinise has over the portrayal of the character, since his "Mac" (really?) is the only one of the CSI male leads that doesn't come off as an insufferable prick. This can't be due entirely to Sinise's performance. It must owe something to the writing, so I can't help but think that behind the scenes he is also reining in the writers' genetic programming to make the male lead an insufferable prick. Which is the perfect phrase to describe Gil Grissom, the lead of the original show. Now I've seen actor William Peterson give a decent performance (in the 1996 film The Skulls, about the only thing decent about it in fact), so the fault isn't all his. Grissom is so arrogant and irritating that it would be a challenge for Morgan Freeman to make him sympathetic. Still, the Grissom character isn't done any favors by Peterson's lack of charisma and appeal in the role. He seems better suited for character work rather than lead roles, particularly when the role demands a level of charisma to overcome the character's personality flaws. (The problem, I think, is that the writers don't see Grissom's insufferable arrogance and condescension as flaws.) At the bottom, naturally, is CSI:Miami, which is saddled with the boat anchor of David Caruso(!) as its lead. Here is a man who never should've been given an acting job. I laugh heartily to know that Caruso, after the (undeserved) success of NYPD Blue, got it into his head that he was a real actor and quit that show at the height of its popularity to pursue a career in the movies. After starring in a few crap films--including Jade, the worst Basic Instinct rip-off that doesn't star Madonna--he realized he was a complete and utter failure, tucked his tail between his legs, and went back to shitty TV dramas. And here he is in the lead of another terrible cop show. With his forced gravelly whisper and silly head tilt--entirely failed attempts to make him look tough--he is a charismatic void. He's so bored and uninterested in his role that every time he stops talking you wonder if he might have slipped into a coma. (I don't want to shock you or anything, but at the time of this writing, Miami is the only CSI series that's been cancelled.)

I remember watching an episode of the original show in which some of the jokes were actually funny, the main cast was mostly sidelined to setting up punchlines for the likeable and talented guest stars, and the resolution wasn't as lame and stupid as, well, every other CSI resolution. I immediately knew something was up. I mean, an episode of CSI that was watchable--perhaps even, dare I say it, decent? There had to be an explanation. Sure enough, a few minutes of Internet "research" turned up the answer: This episode ("Two and a Half Deaths", if you must know) wasn't written by the CSI writers but by the writers of Two and a Half Men. Now Men is itself hardly an example of fine programming, but one of the writers is Chuck Lorre, co-creator of The Big Bang Theory (the only funny sit-com made in the last twenty-five years), so with a couple of Lorre regulars added to the charisma-free main CSI cast, it was an enjoyable waste of forty minutes.

This long digression about the massive suckitude of CSI is a result of my not having much to say about Edward James Olmos's appearance on CSI:NY (2010). I'm sure he picked up a nice fat paycheck, and in his wisdom he appears on the least crappy of the CSIs. Unlike his appearance in a nothing role in The Green Hornet, I can see what drew him to this material. Olmos plays Luther Devarro, founder of the (I presume) fictional Puerto Rican gang El Puño. Shortly after Devarro's release from prison, several members of El Puño are murdered. Mac, seeking to avoid a gang war, goes to Devarro to get his guarantee that El Puño will not retaliate but instead allow the police to investigate the murders. Devarro is an old school gangster and doesn't truck with all this a-shootin' and a-killin', so he gives his word that he will at least give the cops a window to act before he brings the pain himself. The violence continues, though, despite this promise. Is Devarro breaking his promise to Mac? Or is he perhaps no longer in control of El Puño? Or is it something else? (Spoiler: It's something else, something that thankfully keeps up the CSI tradition of being both utterly lame and titanically stupid.)

There isn't much more to say. The CSIing of the CSIs in this episode doesn't really figure into solving the case. The CSIs come to entirely the wrong conclusion and only understand what's happening when the person responsible for fomenting the gang war explains everything to Mac before Mac fatally shoots him. The only scenes that work at all are the conversations with Devarro and Mac discussing the generation gap between Devarro's term as leader of El Puño and what has become of the gang since his incarceration. In these scenes, Sinise and Olmos are allowed to strut their stuff, and they're fun to watch even if these scenes don't really have much impact on the story. These scenes are also undoubtedly what drew Olmos to the role, as Devarro defends the gang, at least in his day, as a necessary community to protect his poor Hispanic neighbourhood. As in the only other watchable episode of CSI I've seen, the main cast is kept largely off-stage in favour of a talented guest star. Since the main cast boasts a fine actor in Sinise, CSI:NY can successfully pull off a watchable episode by hiring a decent guest actor to go toe-to-toe with Mac, but the rigid format of the show pretty much hoses any chance of creating even a solid episode. All things considered, "Sangre por sangre" is a pretty unremarkable forty minutes of television, a effort more to be appreciated than loved.