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Monday, July 28, 2008

Redbox Review: Half-Cocked

I don't know what film-school genius is teaching his students to use handheld cameras in lieu of stationary shots, but once the dizziness fades I'm going to track him down and beat him to death with his seldom-used tripod. The litany of errors that ultimately makes Hancock a disappointment includes the apparent employment of someone's drunken cousin as cameraman, but this proves to be a relatively small sin. I suppose this fact doesn't mitigate in the movie's favor.

Perhaps the reason I am so hostile to this film is that, once I popped an extra Claritin and vomited into my popcorn container, I was able to see past the shaky-Jake filming to enjoy the characters. This wanted to be a modern all-American story. For the first hour, in fact, it was exactly that. Here we have the likeable Will Smith playing a sullen, misunderstood, reluctant superhero. Antics ensue. He crosses paths with a likeable, sweet-faced Jason Bateman, in the role of an idealistic P.R. specialist. (This is fiction, remember. One suspends disbelief upon entering the theater. More on that in a moment.)

Bateman has a lovely wife, played by Charlize Theron, and an adorable son. You know where this is going. Our reluctant superhero, with help from his kind-hearted sidekick, is going to overcome his demons, discover the Inner Hero that we all want to believe is inside us, and save the day. Some Lex Luthor figure will emerge to challenge our hero, perhaps possessing knowledge of his secret weakness. We know that our hero will triumph nonetheless, no doubt with some unlikely, fully expected bravery from his loveable sidekick.

This is the story we expect when we plunk down our money and willfully suspend disbelief in people who can fly. Yes, it is as old as apple pie, but you know what? People like apple pie. This isn't to say that you can't experiment with some rhubarb pie, perhaps even a chocolate-lemon mousse cake. But don't serve your customer a warm slice of apple pie with vanilla ice cream on the side, and then yank it away from him in mid-bite and replace it with some kind of funky low-carb mango-coconut bubble tea.

This is what the writers of Hancock have done. To be clear, I have no problem with twists in a movie. Norman Bates keeps his mommy in the basement. Darth is Luke's father. Soylent Green is made from people. The Crying Game changed the calculus of dating forever. And since we've invoked Christopher Reeve's greatest work, who can forget his surprising, albeit creepily enthusiastic, kiss with Michael Caine in Deathtrap?

The problem with Hancock's writers is not that they introduce a game-changing shift halfway through the movie. The problem is that they forget a fundamental rule of fiction, which is that while we viewers are willing to suspend our disbelief, most of us in possession of it are not able to suspend our common sense. Thus when a circumstance emerges to eliminate Hancock's superpowers we accept it, until we see that a moment later his powers have inexplicable returned. Suspension of disbelief can't help one make sense of this movie's ending, one needs a suspension of observational powers as well. Perhaps that's the reason for all the camera-yanking. Bullets can suddenly penetrate our hero's skin, and lay him on a deathbed, except when he needs to get up and be a superhero again. Only he is a weak superhero, so he is vulnerable to bullets. Yet he still has superstrength. But not really. Except for when he does.

Compounding this problem is the fact that we invest our imagination in characters only to watch the active become passive, the loyal and loving become alien, and the idiotic suddenly acquire brains without visiting the Wizard. We need compelling reasons to abandon the work we have put into forming attachments to these characters, which Hancock's writers don't provide. This is a Hollywood movie, they must have been thinking. Jerk that camera around some more and our woozy audience will take whatever we dish out. Let's just remember to blow up a lot of stuff at the end.

The net result is that as we approach the final scene, Jason Bateman and his son have become emotionally non-existent, Will Smith has regressed in humanity, and Charlize Theron has gone from beautiful to just plain irritating. It takes a lot of explosions to make up for that sort of destruction. Pile on top of it the nonsensical fluctuation in Hancock's superpowers, and you've got yourself rice pudding when you thought you were paying for apple pie. And that's plain un-American.

I know it's not available at the McDonald's Redbox yet, but I'm going to give Hancock a nugget rating nonetheless, because I think it will serve better as rental entertainment, plus you are less likely to get brain damage watching the herky-jerky camera movement on a little screen. I'm giving this film three nuggets, all of which should be eaten in the first half.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Redbox Review: Anti-Morality Play

The opposition that fussy Christians voice toward Juno seems to boil down to the fact that it is filled with sinful people who live, think, and speak like sinners. Then again, this used to be true of the Church, at least until recent times. The fussy Christians seem to want morality plays in place of films, which is ironic, given that it was their fussy Puritan forbears who outlawed plays in the first place.

Juno is not a girl who would be welcomed into the Sinless Church. She's foul-mouthed, unvirginal, too clever by half, and possessing little respect for authority. Juno has been impregnated by a hapless friend, and she sets out to have an abortion, only to be dissuaded by a lone girl outside the clinic who notes that Juno's unborn baby has fingernails. So Juno finds adoptive parents, and carries the child to term. The film is a revelation of characters, as we see who Juno might become, as well as who the parents-to-be can become. Here we have broken people struggling to be made whole, which is the story of every one of God's people before he is fully God's. It's the story after you are God's as well, come to think of it.

From a "message" point of view, it seems to me that Juno will save more lives than 10,000 stern sermons from pulpits and street corners. It is, along with Knocked Up and Waitress, part of a current trend in films wherein very human, very fallible, very loving women explicitly choose to forego aborting their children. If this reflects (or portends) a concomitant change in the broader culture, then the largely inert pro-life crowd will either be dragged into caring for all these children it said it wanted to save, or be proven hypocrites. One likes to hope that the better instinct will prevail, though it may mean setting aside fancy church buildings and ubiquitous small-group Bible studies for orphanages and daycare. But we can always hope that even Christians can change.

As far as art, the ephemeral set of qualities that determine whether a film or book takes fruitful root in one's soul, Juno is far and above most modern fare. Ellen Page, who plays the title character, is enchanting. She is able to convey with facial expressions alone more feeling and thought than most modern actors seem to manage with a full range of motion, multiple script writers, and a host of special effects. Jennifer Garner also shines, metamorphosing from uptight control freak to yearning mother in a single, breathtaking scene that itself is worth the price of the rental. Jason Bateman manages a seamless yet substantial transformation of his own, and not in the direction one might expect. The supporting actors who play Juno's family and close friend likewise turn in believable, human performances. The only disappointment is Juno's sometime boyfriend, played by Michael Cera, who, between this film and his forgettable performance in Superbad, may well be autistic.

The characters don't all find Jesus in the end. In fact, they never mention Jesus at all, except in vain. But one gets the impression that these are precisely the kinds of people in whom Jesus takes an interest. Perhaps that means that the rest of us ought not look at them, when we encounter such people in real life, as something that must be scraped off our shoes. We could all stand to be reminded from time to time that sinners are humans too, and further, that the open sin can more easily be healed than that which lurks in the dour hearts of the ostensibly sinless.

On my McDonald's Redbox six-piece nugget scale, I give Juno five and a half nuggets, and that's with the fancy honey mustard dipping sauce, mind you. Throw in a large fry while you're at it, cooked extra-crispy, because there's a cameo by Rainn Wilson that may well make you wet your pants. And be sure to watch the outtakes.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Friday, July 18, 2008

Redbox Review: Disadvantaged

The mistake people make about modernism is thinking it's old-fashioned. Thus a movie like Vantage Point comes along, built around the premise that it will be clever to show the same events through several characters' eyes, and people call it "postmodern" because it's, well, so very different. We are accustomed to being omniscient observers, or to staying at the protagonist's side.

Vantage Point instead does a remarkable job of carrying us through the same short sequence of events five times, without growing tiresome. In part this is because the events — an assassination attempt on the U.S. president, combined with a terrorist attack — first catch our attention, and then become a mystery we want to solve. What, exactly, just happened? Who is responsible? As the scene repeatedly unfolds through different viewpoints, the viewer is transformed from onlooker to sleuth.

Anyone who thinks playing about with point of view qualifies a work of art as postmodern, however, ought to read Faulkner, or consider Hitchcock's films. Vantage Point certainly has a clever idea here, but it's not all that original.

The real question is: Does it work? The answer: Yes, until the last twenty minutes. The problem its writers work themselves into is that eventually they have to reveal their hand — they have to show us who the bad guys really are (the answer is predictable), and they have to bring the film to resolution. And this is where their cleverness seems to abandon them, leaving us with a weak ending that attempts to manipulate us with the cheapest of child-in-peril images. Viewers familiar with the far superior Crash will find how poorly Vantage Point performs in comparison.

A better tack might have been to suck us into the omniscient point-of-view in those final scenes, only to interpose some final individual viewpoint that reveals something important to the film's resolution. Instead the film ends with a tidy whimper.

Vantage Point features several well-knowns: Dennis Quaid, Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, and the currently popular Matthew Fox, of television's Lost. Only Whitaker shines, however, and his performance is proof that the best actors can overcome mediocre scripting and direction. Even though the film degenerates into an unexceptional vehicle chase, you will find yourself anxious for Whitaker's character, an estranged father trying to do the right thing in perilous circumstances.

Were you to hire a babysitter in order to take in dinner and catch Vantage Point at your local theater, this film would be a disappointment, unless you are one of those people who enjoys Hollywood's recent displacement of plot with dizzying camera zooms. For a $1 rental from your local McDonald's Redbox, however, the film is probably worth a view, especially if you have a well-salted bowl of popcorn and the kids don't get up half a dozen times while you're trying to watch it. So on a McDonald's six-piece scale, I give Vantage Point three and a half nuggets. But the dipping sauce runs out before you get to the end.

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Not Happening

Wife and I saw M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening last night, which when you factor in the price of gas and babysitting and popcorn, makes us more investors in Shyamalan's flick than viewers. Without giving anything away, I can tell you the movie continues Shyamalan's trend of coming up with fascinating ideas, drawing us in with haunting early scenes, and then dissipating our goodwill with clunky dialogue, moments that earnestly strive for importance only to yield inadvertent comedy, and, in an unfortunate twist for Shyamalan, violence that is frequently grotesque without being convincing. This movie is, in short, very much like pro wrestling.

He's made some stinkers before, but he also made The Sixth Sense, to which I'm sure he's tired of having his other films compared, but which remains the primary reason many of us keep coming, in hope, to his offerings. If you're wondering where this movie fits on the Shyamalan Scale of one to five, where The Sixth Sense is a seven and Lady in the Water is the cube root of pi, The Happening is a solid three. Not as good as Signs or even The Village, but better than Unbreakable, which itself was mostly forgiveable, except for Samuel L. Jackson's unfortunate hairdo.

Despite my disappointment, I keep rooting for Shyamalan. While the major motion picture studios seem at a loss to produce anything but big-budget interpretations of comic books, remakes of movies that were second-rate the first time around, gross-out vehicles posing as comedy, and the occasional quasi-indie film whose merit stands in inverse proportion to their influence over its production, Shyamalan is a visionary. He just can't seem to execute — on dialogue, plot, or direction (how does anyone make Zooey Deschanel irrelevant in nearly every scene but her last???), which means that ultimately his vision disappears.

I hope he continues making films, though. I'll keep coming to see them, plunking down my money and hoping that his vision, once again, is supported by his craftwork, rather than undone by it.

And now, my one-line take on the film, for those of you who want a good quip to explain it to your friends. This probably qualifies as a spoiler, however, so consider this your SPOILER ALERT, and avert your eyes if you want absolutely no hints about the movie's content.

The Happening is Maximum Overdrive with hydrangeas. You heard it here first.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Saturday, September 22, 2007


I watched it tonight, and 90 minutes in, I realized I've already seen it, when it was called "Sword of Gideon". They're both based on the same book, but then I found this article, which notes that Spielberg appears to have copied some elements from the earlier movie that weren't in the book.

And so I tell you that, chiefly because my laptop was already fired up, and I'm half-watching the rest of this movie I've already seen. Feel free to be incensed.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0) comments

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Amazing Grace

The wife and I had a date last night, and took the opportunity to see "Amazing Grace." It is a lovely movie, and in the spirit of supporting good work about things that matter, I urge you to see it, if you haven't already, assuming it's still playing somewhere in your city. The bad news is that it was soundly thumped at the box office by the likes of "Norbit," with predictable reviews from the usual chorus whose objections can be summed up in the sentence: It doesn't have enough self-actualizing blacks/skepticism of religion/moral ambiguity. The good news is that it was made at all. Albert Finney's performance alone, as an aging and repentant John Newton, is worth multiples of the price of admission.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Pride, Prejudice, and Girliness

We watched the 2005 version of "Pride and Prejudice" last night. I think I've mentioned my inadequate (read: typical) government-school education before; it should come as no surprise that I've never read the book. I had no inkling, therefore, what would happen. And I have a confession to make.

I loved it. Loved. It.

I was on pins and needles most of the movie, beside myself with fear that everything would work out for everyone but poor Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy, that the movie would end with them stealing furtive, longing glances across a ballroom, forever disunited by their own stubbornness and the pressures of a class-conscious society. By the time they finally kissed I was well-nigh aching for it to happen.

All of this raises a disturbing question: am I really a chick?

I'm shaken. My whole worldview is now called into question. Will I have to start watching French films? Are long evenings of eating peanut M&M's and sharing our feelings in store for me and the missus? Sweet mother of pearl, will I start getting pedicures and worrying about water retention?

My head is spinning. And yet my mind keeps returning to the notion that I ought to go to Amazon.com to check on the price of the DVD. Father's Day is just a day away, after all, and I deserve something nice.

Must . . . resist . . .

posted by Woodlief | link | (15) comments

Thursday, December 29, 2005

I Am Going to Hell

Something I've come to believe is that the only people who have never wondered about their salvation are those on the express train straight to damnation. And many of them go to church. As Graham Greene's whiskey priest wondered, can the sin of piety ever be overcome? Fornication and drunkenness, yes, but the cool blank face of the pious is an impenetrable fortress.

The corollary of this, it would seem, is that if you have worried over your salvation -- if you bear within you both a belief in the just God and a painful awareness of your own sin -- this is a good sign that you are saved, for the Almighty is, after all, both the just and the justifier.

But now I'm not so sure I have been right about this. The reason, you see, is that I saw "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" this weekend, and I . . . well . . .

I didn't like it.

I'm going to hell, I know. The people who applauded the movie, on the other hand, have crowns galore awaiting them beyond the pearly gates. But I am going to burn. There must be some great quality in this film that only the regenerate can see. I, however, am blind to it.

How can a God-fearing man not like this movie? It's about Jesus, after all. Plus there are children, and sensitive furry animals, and a happy ending. I am a very, very bad person.

I wanted to like it. I tried. But it seemed like a lot of special effects and no depth to the characters. Lewis's short book written for children did a finer job of developing its characters than this two and a half hour movie that found time to work in a scene of the bombing of London, but couldn't adequately portray Aslan's anguish on his long walk to execution.

But the good people in the movie applauded when it was over. They actually clapped. Further, the critics who have notably panned it are grubby little angry types still bitter over "The Passion." And here I am joining their ranks. I hope I don't have to sit next to them in purgatory. Not unless we are allowed to beat down fellow inmates, in which case there will be room to do the Lord's work even in Hell.

The worst part of all of it is, the only characters I found interesting and believable were Edmund and the Witch. The bad people.

Wicked, I am. Perhaps there is still time for redemption. Alms for the poor, ministry to the lost. If only works could buy us entrance to paradise. Then I would atone for this offense.

But alas, I cannot. I did not like "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe."

I am going to burn.

posted by Woodlief | link | (26) comments

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Return of the Movie Review

Warning If you've never read The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells, or just can't remember how it ends, and you plan to see the movie (my advice: donate the $15 ticket plus $875.43 for concessions to charity and rent it), then you may want to stop reading now. Plus there's a bit of sexual innuendo, which I think stems from the fact that movie critiquing inevitably leads to a discussion of the climax, which inspires 6th-grade thinking on my part (I still giggle when I say "Manassas"), along with the fact that with the July 4th weekend coming I'm looking forward to seeing my incredibly hot wife cavorting in the sunshine. My apologies.

Caught a late-night showing of War of the Worlds, which sure seemed like a good idea until the alarm clock rang this morning. If you know the original story, you understand the struggle Spielberg is up against, which is that it doesn't have a big, climactic, Independence Day ending, yet it's pitched as a come-see-the-awesome-special-effects movie. So it requires some appreciation for elegance, yet it's been constructed to attract teenagers who generally need the plot and scenes to hit them like a bat across the forehead in order to overcome a cultivated attention-deficit disorder and actually "get" the movie.

In general Americans of all ages like our big, climactic, wrap-up-the-loose-ends-get-the-bad-guy-win-the-girl-"you-had-me-at-hello" endings. They're an entitlement, like college educations, or trouble-free erections until you're 90, or nightly news with a weather fetish and no troubling stories about foreign events. So a movie where the indomitable evil beings die because they catch cold is a little off-putting to many, not the least of whom is the writer of this screen adaptation, because it puts more weight on dialogue and subplots. The writer fails to deliver, by the way, perhaps because with Spielberg's name on it, one can reasonably say: "Plots? We don't need no stinking plots!"

If they weren't going to devote energy to an intelligent script (and really, why bother any more, when you can remake Godzilla, miraculously rendering it even more dreadful than the original, and still earn $136 million?), then perhaps they could have dreamt up an edge-of-the-seat ending. Or at least an ending that isn't the cinematic equivalent of coitus-fall-asleepus.

So here's a thought: the invaders die because they all catch cold, right? So why not have the hero realize this fatal vulnerability, sparking a desperate race to destroy the factory where Tylenol manufactures its Cold & Flu medicine before the aliens can get there with a great big straw? Likewise, he'd have to torch the plant where they make those nasal strip thingies, which I never found helpful but which might have saved the aliens.

Basically I'm talking Bridge Over the River Kwai meets E.T. Or Die Hard meets Predator. Something like that.

Plot aside, here's a message to Hollywood: avoid the Sam Malone Moment. Most of my readers know exactly what I'm referring to: those dreadful minutes when Ted Danson marred the otherwise wonderful Saving Private Ryan. Nothing against Mr. Danson, but when you collect a paycheck for eleven years as the main character in one of the most popular sitcoms of all time, you become your character. There we all were, totally absorbed in one of the most gripping portrayals of D-Day ever portrayed, and suddenly a bartender with a bad hairpiece comes strutting across the screen.

Not good.

Likewise in War of the Worlds. Now personally, I think Tim Robbins as a crazed, paranoid survivalist isn't much of a stretch, especially if you've ever seen him holding forth on current events. But it's distracting to have his mug materialize on the screen. I found myself expecting Susan Sarandon to pop out from a closet, wearing a "No More BuSh" t-shirt.

There are other minor irritations: a commercial jet crashes right beside a house where the protagonists are holed up, with nearly all its debris concentrated in a space smaller than a city block, and yet somehow manages to miss their minivan in the driveway, while conveniently leaving an avenue for them to drive through. Likewise, only the hero has figured out the simple trick to get a car started after the aliens immobilize them. Fortunately, everyone else on the eastern seaboard finds their vehicles stalled in a formation that allows the hero to drive for dozens of miles without ever coming to an impasse.

And another thing: why are aliens always naked? And if they get to run around naked, why are they always in such a bad mood? My kids love that. So do I, come to think of it.

So to sum up, go see Cinderella Man instead. And have a safe Fourth of July. God bless America, and good night.

posted by Woodlief | link | (9) comments

Thursday, May 19, 2005

On the Virtues of Hating Blockbuster

I know what some of you are thinking. He's lost his edge. You remember with fondness the days when I would bring the everloving smack to McDonald's for faulty pickle placement, or rain down barbs on smug, intolerant, self-anointed judges of what counts as real womanhood. That was the real Tony, you think. Back when he was a man.

If you find yourself mildly dismayed by the heavy doses of sentimentality of late, and missing the old, bitter Tony, then this one's for you. The topic today is Blockbuster, also known as the The Company That Robbed My Children of a College Education With Their *$!#%&!! Late Fees. One of the greatest moments of petty vengeance I have ever experienced came the day I signed up with Netflix. No late fees, excellent selection, no bloody late fees, don't have to leave the house, no freaking late fees, an online queue so you don't have to remember everything you want to see, no *$!#%&!! late fees. Life has been great ever since.

Well, the wife and I are nursing a 24 addiction, but it's manageable. I mean, we can quit any time we want. Really. I mention the addiction (and it's really more hers than mine) because it brought us back to Blockbuster. You see, I mismanaged my Netflix queue, and this weekend we found ourselves without the next 24 DVD. "Let's go get it at Blockbuster," said the wife. (See what I mean?)

"Absolutely not," I replied through clenched teeth.

"Just this once."

"Get behind me, Satan."

"Fine, then I'll watch it by myself, and tell you whether Jack Bauer survives the plane crash."

"You hussy!"

Since we were out anyway, I drove to Blockbuster. She was already committed, you see, and I didn't want her driving at night on her own. As we pulled into the parking lot of the Video Store We Don't Speak Of, I saw that its windows were covered with big red signs announcing that we no longer have to live in a world with late fees, because Blockbuster is taking a stand to eliminate them.

At times like this I wish my mother didn't read this blog, because to do justice to what went through my mind, I would have to lay out some really creative cursing, the kind you need a copy of Gray's Anatomy and a stint in the Navy to really appreciate. So let's suffice to say that I was nonplussed. Whatever "plussed" is, I was very much the opposite of that. Definitely without the plussing. These are the people, you see, who perfected the art of the bait and switch in the field of late fees.

Here's your movie Mr. Woodlief. It's due back on Tuesday unless you bring it back on Monday, in which case it's really due yesterday. In fact, it's already late. That'll be $73.47. Thanks for shopping at Blockbuster.

And now they're making it sound like the world was awash in complex late fee arrangements before they stepped into the breach. Of course their "no late fee" policy really isn't; now if you keep it too long they don't charge you a late fee, they charge you the price of the entire fricking movie.

These aren't late fees, Mr. Woodlief, they're Inadequate Timeliness Assessments.

I confess a fiery burning hatred for firms that behave like an East German water utility, and only modify their practices once they are threatened by upstart competition. I like companies that are constantly innovating and finding better, cheaper ways to suck up to me while selling me schlock I don't need at a ridiculously low price. And I like companies that strike at the very heart of a big, slow, stupid behemoth. Hence my love affair with Netflix. It even sends me DVD's in pretty red envelopes, like Valentines.

I'm not obsessed, mind you. Just mildly infatuated. And irritated. So a pox on your house, Blockbuster. You with your movies that don't stretch back past 1997, your endless supply of video games, your bright cheery interior hiding your dark, cold accountant's soul. One day I will set up my portable DVD player and watch Godfather on your freshly tilled grave. Maybe even Godfather II. Definitely not Godfather III, of course. Even my vindictiveness has limits.

posted by Woodlief | link | (15) comments

Monday, November 25, 2002

Witness and False Witness

I used to have a dentist, by the name of (I am not making this up) Dr. Payne. He was an entertainer, as are many dentists, perhaps because the field is less regulated (i.e., the competition is more intense). During our first appointment, as his assistant got my head and mouth into a vulnerable position, he loomed over me to block out the bright lights, and asked, "Is it safe?"

He was alluding, of course, to that 1976 movie, "The Marathon Man," starring Dustin Hoffman, whose character is tortured by a former Nazi dentist who repeatedly asks this question. I recently re-watched this movie, and noticed something that I missed years ago. Hoffman plays a history graduate student who is writing a book on (of course) the reign of tyranny that was McCarthyism, and who has a special interest in it because his father was driven to suicide as a result of being hounded by the red-baiting totalitarians. There is a scene in which a U.S. government agent (of course) rifles through Hoffman's research work, and tosses aside a book titled False Witness.

Though I had never read Whittaker Chambers' Witness, I think I got the point. I decided to read the book. For those of you not familiar with the story, Chambers was a devoted communist spying for the Soviets in Washington, D.C. who became, in his own words, "an involuntary witness to God's grace and to the fortifying power of faith." Chambers was transformed like the unnamed Soviet he mentions in his introduction, whose daughter explained once to Chambers that her father abandoned the cause because "one night he heard screams." Chambers also heard the screams, which led him to realize that man has a soul, which led him to God, which led him to the conviction that communism is not only evil, but that it should be opposed, even unto calumny and death.

And so he named names, and one of those he identified was the spy and traitor Alger Hiss, a high-level State Department official and eventual head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Hiss was part of the better half of Washington -- genteel, respected, progressive. Chambers was dumpy, of no particular breeding, and -- trés gauche -- a newly confirmed Christian. The dispute ranged through Congressional hearings, a perjury trial for Hiss, and a libel trial for Chambers. You needn't guess whose side the press, the President, the Washington establishment, and, of course, Hollywood, chose.

Over time Chambers was proven right, which means he has been unduly overlooked. The dedicated Left still thinks he lied, however, such that the few doubters find themselves in league with the likes of The Nation (recently noteworthy for the extent it is willing to excuse terrorism so long as the victims are American and/or Jewish).

The Nation and (of course) Hollywood. This is true in both large and small detail: anti-communism as entirely unfounded marks the changeless backdrop of any movie touching on the fifties, and anti-communists are usually murderous militarists. In 1964, for example, -- the year noted peace activist Lyndon Johnson opposed Barry Goldwater with his infamous "Daisy" ad -- there were no less than three Hollywood movies about nuclear war, and in two of these conservative anti-communists are the cause. (Anyone who thinks campaign finance reform will remove the adverse influence of the moneyed on U.S. public opinion should consider the net assets of major Hollywood filmmakers.) One might also consider on this topic Kenneth Billingsley's excoriation of Hollywood for failing to portray with accuracy the consequences of communism. And then there is this little detail from "The Marathon Man." I suspect there are others like it.

Perhaps I am wrong about the intent behind positioning False Witness on the desk of a hero researching McCarthyism, but I doubt it. Witness was a beacon for anti-communists, and hence the book -- and its author -- were the target of the anti-anti-communists, which included a large chunk of the creative talent in Hollywood. So I think the choice of titles was intentional. It is offensive to see people with little courage mock someone with Chambers' moral courage. This seems a fair description of the man who told his wife as he made his choice to speak out, "You know, we are leaving the winning world for the losing world," and who through years of vituperation and isolation could tell his children:

"True wisdom comes from the overcoming of suffering and sin. All true wisdom is therefore touched with sadness."

It seems strange that a man who was forced to write his story in a secluded farmhouse, with a gun on his desk, should be judged by people who write their meaningless stories in coffee shops and Hollywood beach houses, usually poorly at that, and who have never faced censorship beyond the overly minimal selectivity of the popular marketplace.

But things are what they are, and so perhaps I should not have been surprised to see the likes of Dustin Hoffman helping to deliver a little jab from the safe confines of Left-mindedness. Hoffman, who will most likely find that his enduring claim to fame is playing the part of an idiot (albeit a useful one, if I remember the plot of "Rainman"). Perhaps this is not the end that an objective viewing of Hoffman's oeuvre would dictate, but it certainly seems a just one.

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Thursday, June 13, 2002

Spiderman Bites: A Disquisition

I'm disturbed by the defense of "Spiderman," in response to my last post, by otherwise intelligent people. A common theme, expressed kindly by most, goes something like: "hey, it's Spiderman for crying out loud; it's supposed to be mindless entertainment."

Unfortunately, it is neither. It's actually not so easy to create mindless entertainment. Something has to serve the function of engaging the viewer, and fostering in him a willingness to forego logic, or explanation, or belief in physical limits. Usually, this something is either the characters (and their interaction), the plot, or the special effects. Since some of you have raised the fair point that "Spiderman" doesn't aspire to be, say, "The Godfather," let's compare it to some other comic-inspired movies.

Characters: "Superman" and "Batman" were both driven by interesting supporting characters. The most memorable are Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, but there were many others -- "Superman" relied on Lex Luthor's bumbling assistant and pampered girlfriend for comic relief, "Batman" featured the seedy, double-crossing police detective, and the wisecracking photographer. "Spiderman's" only interesting character was the newspaper publisher, who inexplicably disappeared too quickly from the film. The others were either constrained by an apparent lack of talent (Tobey Maguire), poor writing (Willem Dafoe), or both (Kirsten Dunst, James Franco).

In fact, to fall back on the excuse that "it's only a comic book" is to insult comic book writers. The villains in the Spiderman comic series were more entertaining than Willem Dafoe's character, while Peter Parker was always more complex than what we get in the movie adaptation. In Tobey Maguire's hands he becomes a librarian on sedatives.

Plot: A good story is like a good dancer; it moves with a purpose. "Spiderman" moved like I dance -- the tasteful viewer is horrified, but strangely unable to look away. Once it begins you hope that it's farce, and once you realize it's not, you just pray that it's over soon. It tried, like all superhero stories, to build a hero-villain conflict, but failed, if not from bad acting, then simply due to the fact that the conflict between Spiderman and the Goblin is incidental: Peter Parker just happens to be at yet another crime scene, and even though he fails to stop the Goblin from achieving his objective, he somehow becomes the latter's mortal enemy. They have one short subsequent conversation, and the remainder is the usual trash talk common to most movie fight scenes these days.

"Superman" and "Batman" do a far better job of building the intensity of hatred between hero and villain. Lex Luthor and Superman have extended conversations to foster the existence of a conflict in the mind of the viewer, while Batman first causes the Joker's crippling injuries, then realizes that the Joker is the murderer of his parents. And because the villains in both movies have interesting personalities, their conflict with the one-dimensional main characters is made all the more engaging.

Special Effects: Different movies use special effects with different ends in mind. Some make a full frontal assault, pulling out every visual and auditory stop in an effort to convince you that something cool just happened, even though you don't quite know what the hell it was, or what it has to do with the story. The most recent "Star Wars" debacle is a prime example. Other movies focus on realism, usually to make you feel as if you are in the middle of the action. Commendable examples include "Saving Private Ryan," the HBO "Band of Brothers" series, and "The Patriot." Still other movies use special effects as an ace in the hole, to push you deep into a frightening or exotic place to which they've brought you largely with dialogue and plot. Two good examples are "The Sixth Sense" and "Stir of Echoes." Finally, there are movies like "The Lord of the Rings," "Willow," "The Matrix," "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory", "The Wizard of Oz", and "Legend," which use special effects to create a magical world for their characters, and therefore for the viewer.

"Spiderman" attempts to fit into the first category, and in doing so it subjects itself to a merciless technological arms race. Once you've seen the last two "Star Wars" movies, or even the mediocre "X-Men," "Spiderman" is nothing special. Granted, the effects are necessary to tell the story, but they are at a level where they can only serve as enhancement for a character-driven plot, much as the effects in "Superman" and "Batman" served to do. In the absence of that, they are paint for walls that simply don't exist.

These criticisms aside, "Spiderman" is just plain sloppy. "Superman" could get away with Clark Kent's stilted dialogue because he was surrounded by characters with interesting lines, and because it fostered his nerd/All-American hero image. The "Spiderman" script reads as if it were a collaborative high school drama project; nobody talks like a real human, except the newspaper publisher. Like "Attack of the Clones," it throws out all pretense of tailoring action scenes to the constraints of physics, with the result that many of these scenes end up being distracting and cartoonish. It whipsaws its characters about so that their actions are unpredictable, thereby ruining any character development it manages to scrape together in preceding scenes. In short, rather than serving as mindless entertainment, its gaping flaws distract the viewer from just sitting back and enjoying the flick.

That, in a nutshell, is why I conclude that "Spiderman" fails miserably even within the tight confines of the comic-book movie genre. None of this is to say, of course, that you should feel guilty if you enjoyed it. I'll not be one to hold my friends' handicaps against them.

posted by Woodlief | link | (12) comments

Tuesday, June 11, 2002

Spiderman Bites

A little note for those of you who recommended "Spiderman." You know who you are. Please stand up. Place both hands behind your head. Now, slam it as hard as you can onto your desk.



And, repeat.

That's what you've got coming from me, unless I get $107 deposited in my PayPal account, which will reimburse me for my time and the cost of my ticket. You are also forbidden from recommending any more movies to your fellow Americans. Ever. You ever sit in church, or in your school choir, and hear that one person who is so out of tune, but who doesn't know it, and who keeps singing at the top of his lungs, oblivious to the painful cries of infants and small children? I don't know what in movie appreciation corresponds to tone deafness, but my Spidey-loving friends, you've got it. The rest of us are hitting a C, and you're way down on A-minor. Close your yap. When the subject of movies comes up, just nod your heads, smile, and learn from your betters.

Case in point -- "Spiderman." Not since "Electric Boogaloo" has a movie extruded such insipid dialogue, combined it with mindless, seemingly random events posing as plot development, swaddled it in choreography reminiscent of epileptic fits, and vomited it onto a screen at such toxic levels that the intelligent viewer is left emotionally drained from grief over the decline of American storytelling.

I sat webbed to my seat, thinking that either the movie would get better, or Kirsten Dunst would get naked. If you haven't gone, save your money, because NEITHER HAPPENS.

If any of your friends recommend this movie, remove them from your lives. They are hopelessly estranged from their senses, and very likely a danger to themselves and others, if only because the odds are high that the next time it's their turn to rent a movie for the gang, they'll show up on your doorstep with "Sister Act II," which is almost as likely as "Electric Boogaloo" to inspire a cry of Oh-My-God-My-Eyes! from its viewers. I'm not an advocate of divorce, but if your spouse liked this movie, serve him with papers, take the kids, and move to Canada. Sure, they're hopelessly paranoid about the encroachment of American culture, but, really, maybe they're on to something. Oh, and if your kids liked this movie, then you are a miserable failure as a parent, and deserve the third-rate cattle-pen retirement home they're liable to stick you in the first time you get dizzy on the shuffleboard court.

And finally, Willem Dafoe. Dude, what were you thinking? Do you realize how razor-thin close you are to taking Christopher Walken's place as the most underachieving (and freakiest cheek-boned) actor in modern American cinema? Is that really what you aspire to? For God's sake man, pull yourself together. Fire your agent. Get on the wagon, or off it, or something to shake the old career up.

I'd say more, but I have to go drink several shots of bourbon, pour bleach into my eyes, and pray that memory loss comes quickly.

posted by Woodlief | link | (17) comments