Friday, June 30, 2006

Adventures In Unemployment: Chapter 1

I’m going to try and get back in the habit of blogging, because it’s a good mental writing exercise. So if there is anyone out there who missed my posts, I’m here to serve you. For the rest of you out there, I’m sorry. I am going to have a lot of time on my hands in the next weeks, so you’ll be hearing from me a lot.

I signed up for unemployment tonight. My first check should be arriving in about ten days. It’s kind of a strange feeling, and one I’m hoping I don’t get too used to. I’ve basically spent most of June trying to get a script done for the Disney Writing Fellowship I am hoping to be chosen for (which is less than likely, but who knows?) and working on putting together hundreds of graduation DVDs for anxious private school parents. Every year since I was a junior in high school, I have filmed the graduation ceremonies at my former high school and middle school. I usually pull in a nice haul of cash, and this year was no exception. The only problem is that this year, the grad video money is not going to be additional fun money which I can blow in Vegas or, like last year, put directly into the budget of a film I am trying to make. This year, that grad video money is my whole net worth. So the government is gonna help me pay my bills for a bit.

Now that the grad DVDs are almost done and out the door, now that the spec script has been sent off to the Disney Writing Fellowship Judges, I’m just about free to start working on some other stuff.

If I am going to be getting unemployment, I’m going to make the most of it and try to have a nice period of productivity. I plan on starting work on a couple more spec TV scripts, putting together a few TV show pitch packets, both live action and animated, starting to fiddle around with a couple feature screenplay ideas I’ve been toying with for awhile, and finishing the cut of my damned film. Anybody who reads this blog who was involved in the film- which we shot over a year ago now- please don’t give up on it yet. July should be a good time to really get the editing finished, do a day or two of pick up shots, get a score laid down, and do a lot of work to improve the sound. If all goes as planned, I’ll have a finished film to send off to Sundance, which will kick off the movie’s round of festival submissions. All of this will be happening while I search for the right job, one that will actually point me in a good direction career-wise.

If I can keep my eye on the ball, hopefully I’ll be able to get some meetings and maybe, just maybe, find some sort of representation. The plan is to really stay focused, set schedules for myself for working on all these projects as they were a real paid job- that the government happens to be paying for.

That’s the somewhat ambitious plan for my the terrifying period of unemployment, which I am already a month into. The main problem, of course, is that I still have a TIVO, a PS2, and a stack of summer reading books piled high on my end table. All in all, a very dangerous group of potential distractions. Stay tuned to find out if I give into temptation or if I triumph and conquer Hollywood- actually, I think I set the TIVO to record a Quantam Leap marathon. And Project Runway starts in like a week.

This is gonna be hard.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

A Little Bit More About Me...

So I had to write an "autobiographical summary" for an application to a writing fellowhip program at Disney. There was very little direction as to what that meant, but since I have not been updating the ol' blog latley, cause I have been burning DVDs on my computer as well as playing too many video games, I figure I'd post the longer, unedited version for all the people out there who read this blog but don't know me...that being, well, probably nobody. Don't worry, the one I sent to the fellowship people was much shorter, after being edited by my girlfriend, who is much smarter than me.


My love of stories probably grew out of a desire to escape to a world better than the one I was living in as I grew up an awkward kid and teenager. The nerdy Jewish son of a Lesbian couple living in a redneck town in the Bay Area (the bullies who beat me up for having two moms up didn’t seem to care that we lived a mere half hour drive from progressive meccas of Berkeley and San Francisco,) I felt like I had a lot to escape from. Movies and books provided that escape. I remember sitting in a darkened theatre in 1993, watching Jurassic Park, and walking out changed. I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life- I wanted to dream up worlds that were as astonishing as the one I had just witnessed.

At the age of ten, I attempted to write my first novel, which was, unsurprisingly, a pastiche (or to put it more bluntly, a “rip-off”) of Jurassic Park. The story of hubristic scientists playing god by combining human and reptile DNA to create lizard-men and snake-beasts who (you never would have guessed it) escape and wreck havoc on humanity scared even me as I wrote it. I was sure that I was working on the next best selling hit, and confident that Hollywood was destined to come knocking on my door for the adaptation rights (a precocious kid with an unhealthy interest in the movie and television industry, I was reading the box office charts and Variety articles before my Bar Mitzvah.) Maybe all my dreams would have come true had I gotten past writing Chapter Three before I moved on to my next preoccupation, but somehow I doubt it. I began to make comic books (despite the fact that I could not draw,) write plays for my friends and I to perform, and shoot short movies on my parents’ camcorder. I was hooked on storytelling.

Things did not get much better for me socially in middle school- as they tend not to for most people. I still think that Junior High is one of the most awful times in anybody’s life. If you can survive sixth through eighth grade, you can survive almost anything. In sixth grade, I was beat up for my lunch money (an assault that felt like something out of a bad movie and made me ask my assailants, “are you actually beating me up for my lunch money?” Being sarcastic probably not wise when three guys are pushing you to the ground.) That incident was enough to motivate my over-protective Jewish mothers to enroll me in a private school that I attended from seventh grade through high school. Despite the school’s brochure, which promised a progressive “community,” the students at my new middle school were just as cruel as the students at my former public school.

But I survived middle school, as everyone does. I made it through by keeping my head down, reading tons of books and spending my weekends at movie theatres. By the time I was in high school, things began to change- the kids around me had grown up, and I grew a little more confident, a bit more comfortable in my own skin. I got more ambitious in my “pastiches” than I had been when I was ten. I co-wrote, co-directed, and co-starred in an epic length Indiana Jones movie with my best friend, complete with a car chase, an airplane, and seventeen year old kids running around with plastic guns and fake Nazi uniforms. We were lucky that the police only stopped us one time during our entire production. We premiered the movie in front of the whole school, wearing tuxedos and rolling out a red carpet. It was an indescribable feeling when we got a standing ovation from our whole school as a couple of seventeen year olds who had just spent two years of our lives making a rip off of another person’s hit movies.

I was accepted into the USC School of Cinema and Television in the production department, where I met a group of aspiring writer/ directors who had similar high school experiences to my own. I quickly realized I had gone from a big fish in a small pond and become a little fish in a very large pond. My four years in film school passed faster than I had ever expected. I’ve been out of school for a year and I’m still trying to take into account all that I learned and all that I wish I had learned. I did find out what the word “pastiche” means. The thing I regretted most about film school was that I didn’t get picked to make a “480” film, which was the production department’s highest honor. Almost every student attempts to make one, while ten filmmakers are picked to pitch to the faculty, who then select four students a semester to make a film. It’s a very competitive process, and I regretted missing the opportunity to make a 480 Film myself.

I had been working on a script for a year about a close friend from high school who had died recently in a freak car accident. The script I was writing was my attempt to make some sort of sense out of the tragedy. Just a month after graduating, I decided to stop complaining about not being chosen to make the film- and decided to make it myself. I directed the film last summer, right after I graduated. I’m still working on a final edit a year later. I’m afraid I made something a little too earnest and mopey (and a little bit too much like “Garden State,” a film I loathe for it’s dishonesty and pretentiousness.) Hopefully, I will finish it this summer and be at peace with it- and maybe get it into a few festivals.

A couple months after I finished shooting my film, I got an amazing job at Disney’s Video Game Division, Buena Vista Games. I was hired as a writer in a think tank, where I was paid to dream up ideas all day for new video games, to create worlds and characters for gamers to play with. I was elated- most people don’t get paid writing gigs right out of college. I was lucky enough to get a creative job instead of landing behind a desk, answering phones for an uncaring producer or executive. It was a lot of fun, and I am proud of everything I did during my time there, but it couldn’t last forever. It was an internship with a set timeline, and it just ended recently.

Now I’m back at square one, where I was right after graduation. It’s a frightening place to be, but I’m ready to face unemployment and try my best to keep writing until something sticks, and I’m able to do what I love for a living.

Summer Movie Olympics, Part 6: You Will (Almost) Believe A Man Can Fly

Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” is a movie that reaches out for greatness, but never quite achieves it. Where it should be soaring it remains earthbound. Ultimately, this is a movie that is more disappointing than a film like “X3-” that film was just a pure disaster that didn’t come close to telling the great story it was attempting to tell. “Superman” comes close enough that watching it fail is that much sadder. It was so close to greatness that seeing the places it fails are that much more distressing.

Superman is not my favorite superhero by any means. I am a much bigger devotee of Spiderman, Batman, and the X-Men. Those are all characters who are flawed, vulnerable, and human. I have a lot more admiration for the Superman mythos than I have love for it. But in a way, more than any other story produced by this country, I believe Superman is our American myth. Superman is how we see ourselves- powerful yet incorruptible, always out to the right thing, no matter what the odds are. In this way, what makes Superman interesting is also what makes him boring- he’s so perfect and flawless that it’s hard to find him compelling as a character. Superman is also the classic story of the immigrant, in a country made up entirely of immigrants or the ancestors of immigrants. Superman came to America from an alien place, found himself a home here, and thrived, becoming our greatest hero, while remaining an outcast and outsider at the same time.

These are all themes that Bryan Singer has on his mind in “Superman Returns.” Here’s another one that is easy to find if you look for it: 9/11. I’m throwing down the gauntlet and saying it- this is a post 9/11 Superman.

The premise of the movie is that Superman left us five years ago- easy math will deduce this would be a few months before the twin towers tumbled. When he comes back. Lois Lane has won a Pulitzer for an article entitled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman,” and when she sees him again, she tells him “the world doesn’t need a savior.” Later, Superman tells her “you say the world doesn’t need a savior…but every night, I hear millions of people crying out for one…” (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist.) These are the moments in the movie that really, truly work. When Singer explores these ideas, he really nails why Superman is our most enduring pop icon. We love the idea of Superman, the unbeatable hero who won’t let anything bad happen to us. He is a beautiful dream, the dream we lost in September of 2001- and the idea of that dream’s “Return” is very appealing.

Even more ambitious is when Singer attempts to explore how it must feel to be Superman, to have that kind of burden placed upon your shoulders. Superman is an alien who can never truly be one of us- he uses his power to constantly save us, to keep us out of danger, but he can’t fit in as one of us. When he dresses up as Clark Kent, he is trying to pretend to be a man and live as we do. But he stumbles awkwardly in his vain hopes of fitting in- he is a god living among mortals and can never fit in amongst us. His burden is to save us and never truly be one of us. There are some heartbreakingly lonely moments throughout the film- the scene in which he flies to Lois Lane’s home, and sees her with her new family, then flies above the Earth, alone, is breathtaking.

But that same scene transitions awkwardly into an okay bank robbery scene with a bit too much slow motion action. And that awkward transition really illustrates the movie’s main problems and weaknesses. Singer and his screenwriters have a tough time juggling their ambitions to tell an epic love story, explore the themes of our greatest, Christ like pop-hero’s return to a troubled world, and to manufacture a thrilling adventure spectacle all in the same two and a half hours. “Superman Returns,” for it’s immense budget (they’ve called it the most expensive movie of all time,) is not very exciting in the action/ adventure department. The best action sequence- Superman desperately racing to save a plane from crashing that was unable to detach from a space shuttle that was supposed to launch off of it- is contrived at best. The whole situation makes no sense other than as a crisis cooked up by screenwriter’s for Superman to deal with. Despite the bizarre logic of the sequence, it is well executed and exciting. But the movie’s action peaks with that scene- no sequence later in the film lives up to it.

The struggle with any Superman story is to give him an enemy that can really create any sort of threat to him- he is so powerful, afterall, that it takes a very clever writer to come up with a villain that can even make Superman break a sweat. Singer’s solution to this problem is to basically sidestep it for the whole movie. Superman and Lex Luthor are only in ONE SEQUENCE together. Yes, Lex wields the dreaded Krytonite, and when he comes face to face with Superman, his actions are rather brutal- in fact, the scene becomes akin to a bloodless “Passion of the Christ.”

But after Lex leaves Superman for dead, that’s it. Superman does not come back and defeat Lex- since all he has in his bag of tricks against Superman is Kryptonite, once he uses it, there is not much Lex could do to deal with Superman. SO THEY JUST DON’T DEAL WITH EACHOTHER AGAIN. It’s a huge letdown, but so is the entire film’s treatment of Luthor- Kevin Spacey is perfectly cast, and does what he can with the role. But there is simply not enough for him to do for him to become a classic villain. His entire evil plan- grow a new continent near North America using crystal technology from Superman’s home planet- is pretty damn lame and nonsensical as well.

Luthor is by far the biggest disappointment of the film- he just simply has nothing to do. When the movie cuts between Superman’s story and his, it doesn’t feel like the film is building to something- it almost feels like two separate films entirely. And that is the movie’s main problem- the film is aiming to be an epic story, but it just feels so disjointed. The individual moments that are so powerful, and so right, do not gel with the film as a whole.

The casting is problematic too- Kate Bosworth is a pretty Lois Lane, but she’s not terribly compelling. She’s not awful, but she doesn’t leave much of an impression. Brandon Routh, on the other hand seems like a good choice for Superman/ Clark Kent- but for some reason the movie never really lets us get close enough to really care about him or get to know him. As much as one of Singer’s themes was how disconnected Superman feels from humanity, he makes us as an audience feel too remote for him- I really never feel like I was ever able to get a good impression of how I felt about Routh’s performance. I hope I get to know him a bit better in the inevitable sequels.

There are a lot of great ideas in the film, and a few bad ideas, and some just really bizarre, what were they thinking ideas. I admire Singer’s ambitions and I think his heart was in the right place. But in the end, he didn’t quite nail the landing. The idea of doing a return story was a good notion- it would get rid of the origin story that hampers most first films in a superhero franchise (but did make “Batman Begins” that much more potent,) yet the movie still stumbles in the storytelling just as much as all those first films have in the past. I’d like to see what Singer can do if he returns for the sequel.

“Superman Returns” is a good movie that is frustrating because it’s not a great one. It’s definitely worth seeing for the great moments, because they soar in a way a story about America’s most enduring myth should soar. The problem is that those moments don’t come often enough during the film’s two and a half hour running time.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A Haunting Last Act

“A Prairie Home Companion” is a great companion piece to “Cars.” It may sound odd to compare master filmmaker Robert Altman’s latest masterpiece to a Disney/ Pixar animated film about talking cars, but hear me out.

These are both films about characters whom the modern world has passed by, who have become obsolete in the name of progress. Both films have a deep sense of loss at their core, a nostalgia for an America that no longer exists and may never have existed. Just as the town of Radiator Springs in “Cars” has been forgotten since a new road was built so that travelers could get wherever they are going faster, the title radio program of Altman’s film is being shut down by “the axeman,” even as it has miraculously existed far past it’s prime. These are both stories that, at their core, are about old men coming to terms with the fact that they have become obsolete- coming to terms with death. Okay, so maybe the animated car movie isn’t really about coming to terms with death, but it does have an old-timer played by Hollywood icon Paul Newman, who is as old as Hollywood icon Robert Altman. I bet Newman’s character, Doc, has the car afterlife on his mind more often than not.

Maybe you think the comparisons are a stretch, and maybe you’re right. But both these films resonated in a strange, similar way this past weekend, and felt somehow of a piece.

But enough about the talking cars- they’ve gotten enough media attention already. “A Prairie Home Companion” is a lovely film based on Garrison Keillor’s long running radio program of the same name. The real radio show airs on NPR, and despite being as anachronistic and from another era as it is in the film, it is no danger of being cancelled in reality. In fact, because there is nothing like it on the radio anymore is why it has large cult following on NPR- that is the show’s appeal. But the radio program of the film exists in a world without NPR and without NPR audiences- in the film, the show is only broadcast on a local station, which has been sold to a bigger corporation who sees no point in keeping it on the air. If that wasn’t postmodern enough, many of the radio show’s popular characters who are featured in stories told on the show are characters in the movie- who work for the show. It sounds confusing, but it all works very simply and beautifully in the film.

Keillor plays himself, or a version of himself, leading a large and brilliant cast as they perform the last broadcast of the show. Keillor is just as warm a screen presence as he is a radio personality; for him (and the film version of himself, and even though he is not strictly playing himself, what’s the difference?) all of life is a performance. When he is not in front of the microphone, narrating the show and singing, he is backstage telling rambling stories about how he got into radio. Highlights from the large ensemble cast (an Altman trademark) include Kevin Kline, hilarious as Guy Noir, a former PI who works for the show and speaks in film noir-isms (yes, he is one of the show’s characters come to life in the movie,) while Meryl Streep and Lilly Tomlin are wonderful as family singing duo (“we’re just like the Carter family- only they were famous.”) The musical performances are rambunctious and fun, and left me smiling broadly throughout most of the film. But there is a deep undercurrent of sadness running through “A Prairie Home Companion” as well, because the movie is about an end of an era, and everyone knows it- even if they don’t want to admit it. When some of the performers fuss about how this is their last show, Keillor tells them “every show is my last show; that’s my philosophy.” And it’s not just the show that’s ending- Virginia Madsen (lovely, and in the middle of a nice career boost along with the entire cast of “Sideways,”) plays an angel who watches the last broadcast while coming to the theatre to help an old performer on his final journey after his final performance. She tells an old woman, the man’s lover, that “an old man’s death is not a tragedy.” This is a film that is about seeing the end and accepting the inevitable. Robert Altman is 81 years old and recently went through major heart surgery. At the Academy Awards, he promised that the new heart meant he had another fifty years of films in him. I hope that he’s telling the truth, but the film is clearly not just about Keillor’s show- it’s about Altman’s show too, about his life and career in show business. Robert Altman knows the final curtain will fall for him in a time not too far in the future. With this film, he looks death straight in the face and coming to terms with it in his own way.

And he faces it with joy and without fear. Altman would probably be happy to die on a film set, just as the old performer died after singing his last song. “A Prairie Home Companion” is a film about looking towards death and knowing it will simply be another great, rambling story to tell.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Somtimes I Read Books. Somtimes I Wish I Hadn't.

Douglas Coupland’s “jPod” is an infuriating novel. An update of Coupland’s great, dot com era defining “Microserfs,” this is “postmodern” writing at it’s most annoying, self indulgent, and empty. A desperate stab at defining the zeitgeist of today, the book is more useful to analyze just how much of a pompous ass the once compelling author has become.

There is no story being told here. The book is a random series of events with a bunch of “outrageous” elements thrown in- gangsters, drug grow-ops, militant lesbians, murder, and ball-room dancing- all thrown in to mask the utter lack of a cohesive story, compelling characters, or interesting theme. None of the characters in the book care about anything, and I get it- that’s all part of Coupland’s point or theme or message- but who cares? They don’t care about anything and as readers, we don’t give two shits about them either. So why should we read this garbage?

The book centers on Ethan, a programmer at a big corporate video game company whose team is constantly being forced to make ill-conceived changes to the game they are working on by executives who know nothing about video games. As much as I could relate to this conflict after spending eight months in the BVG Think Tank, it just wasn’t compelling as a novel. I could nod along and (occasionally) laugh at some of Coupland’s observations, but I couldn’t get myself to give a shit about what was happening in the book. The main problem, again, is that the characters don’t seem to care much either, beyond rolling their eyes a bit. The series of events in this novel (I’m not going to compliment it with the term “plot,”) just feels like everyone is going through the motions. Even when Ethan ends up stranded in remote regions of China, it just makes you shrug. Nothing registers emotionally in this unimaginative, overly long book. What few clever moments of satire there are to be found throughout the book are not worth slogging through the entire brick of a novel to get to.

Most annoying of all are the “clever literary tricks” Coupland insists on including throughout the book. There are long passages of random numerals, just meant to illustrate the weird games Ethan and his co-workers play with eachother. Coupland used the same device in “Microserfs,” but to an end that had a point- and not over twenty pages of numerals at a time like he does in “jPod.” Worse yet, he writes himself into the novel, having his characters discuss his work at great length. I honestly don’t believe tech geeks read Coupland novels- it’s hipsters who are the only ones still dumb enough to fall for his tired tricks these days. If their constant discussions of Coupland’s novels (including a ludicrous scene in which they decide “Melrose Place” was a ripoff of his first novel, “Generation X,” a book that is notable mostly because it coined the title phrase,) were not narcissistic enough, he actually inserts himself into the novel. He plays Ethan’s foil and ultimate savior. In the end, it turns out the entire premise of the novel is that Coupland met Ethan and wrote the book based on his life. I hope he didn’t make up this drivel, because then he’d truly be damned.

An annoying, dull book. Coupland has been going through a weird period in his last few novels, growing more indulgent and depressing. In his return to “clever satire,” he fails again. I hope he bounces back and writes something great again. I think he has it in him, but he’s not going to find it with his head so far up his ass.

Summer Movie Olympics, Part 5: Revving Up

“Cars” is probably Pixar’s worst film. Which makes it better than 99% of what Hollywood produces on a regular basis.

The animation is absolutely stunningly gorgeous. The craftsmen-and-women who slave away behind computer monitors for countless hours at Pixar just cannot be praised enough. The way they dealt with light in the movie, how it reflects off the metallic surfaces of the cars- all of it is amazingly beautiful. The voice acting is excellent as always, with the great Paul Newman turning in the movie’s best performance as a wizened old timer. The story is straightforward and simple, while the storytelling and pacing is as solid as ever. The film’s message, while clichéd and almost as old as storytelling itself, is still nice and positive for the millions of kids who will line up for the movie. There were moments of greatness throughout, moments that made me laugh out loud, moments that made me almost cry, and moments that made me applaud and cheer.

But I had a couple reservations for the first half of the movie. The main problem with this movie about talking cars is that it’s a bit hard to really buy into...talking cars. The movie really puts us in a strange, unfamiliar world. Everything alive in the world of the movie is also a machine (including the bugs, which are…VW Bugs.) A movie about talking, living machines is a bit strange, especially considering the fact that the movie is almost worshipfully nostalgic for the simpler, good ol’ days.

I mean, this world really raises a lot of major questions that do not immediately come to mind in any other Pixar movie. Questions like- “where do baby cars come from?” I mean, maybe that’s an un-creative question, but how are parents going to answer that one? There are no children in the entire movie, which is an interesting choice considering the film’s main target demographic, but how are parents supposed to answer such questions by members of said demographic? Do they tell their kids “the cars were made in a factory?” And if this is the answer, what came first- the factory or the cars? To be even more crass about it, how do cars, y’know, do it? When our hero falls for the sexy Porsche, what does he stick in and where? See, now I’m getting really gross.

But beyond the whole reproduction and sex question, there is a whole lot more I want to know. In the movie we see that our hero, Lightning McQueen (voiced charmingly by Owen Wilson,) is a super-star racing car. So car racing is as popular in the America of the movie as it is (apparently) in our America- but do these cars follow other sports? Do cars play Car-Football? How awesome a sport would that be- two lines of cars facing each other, smashing into eachother while another car tries to drive backward fast enough to get off a pass- but how would they pass? In fact, this idea is cool enough that I might try to patent it as a real sport- so if anybody on the internet tries to steal it, you heard the idea here first.

How would they catch? How do the cars operate the many cameras we see throughout the movie? We see the cameras are attached to the cars- but who attaches them?

We see that there are animals in this world- tractors are like cows. But which kinds of vehicles are akin to humans and which are akin to animals, and who makes such judgments and classifications? Is there an equivalent of PETA, advocating the prevention of cruelty to animal-vehicles?

Do cars go to war? They must, considering the character of Sarge (Paul Dooley,) who runs an army surplus shop. Do they kill eachother with mounted guns? Do cars ride in tanks big enough to fit them in battle, or do they just follow talking, breathing tanks? What do cars go to war over- oil prices?

Without humans to drive them, do cars ever wonder their purpose in life is? What do most cars do for a living? The small town where most of the movie takes place has a few small businesses, most of them catering to car maintenance. But what other types of jobs are there in their world?

What are the implications of a world of cars living as the dominant species to the environment? Are they as worried about global warming as Al Gore is? What is the social hierarchy of the Cars? What does the economy rely on (once again, I’ll guess oil prices.) What is their political system like? Do cars evolve? Do they have organized religion?

And seriously, how do they build things without arms?

As I watched the first half of the movie, I began to hypothesize on the origins of the world of cars. My “Lost” conspiracy theory? I believe the cars are part of some dystopian future experiment involving a Dharma Initiative-like organization made up of the last humans on Earth, who created these living, sentient cars as some sort of elaborate experiment they were unwilling participants in. But the humans have long since died and the cars have continued to exist, repeating the triumphs and mistakes of the men who created them.

I still haven’t figured out where baby cars come from.

So like I said- the world was a wee bit distracting and distancing, unlike all previous six Pixar classics- which immediately pulled you into their fantastical worlds of living Toys, brave bugs, professionally-scary Monsters, neurotic fish, and super heroic families. The whole thing was just a bit hard to swallow at first.

But slowly, I let my guard down and just let the tale of the egotistical Lightning McQueen learning to care about other people…er, cars…began to work it’s magic on me. As the hotshot racer is forced to stick around in the sleepy town of Radiator Springs after getting lost en route to a championship race and slowly learns to love the town and it’s quirky inhabitants- so do we as an audience. As Lightning is forced to slow down, he is able to figure out what really matters in life, and damnit if those corny old lessons aren’t still effective when done as well as they are here. The filmmakers clearly have a genuine love for the small towns off the main highways of America, and it really shows throughout the film. Movies about sleepy little American ghost towns always haunt me in a weird way, and this one worked for me that way too- even if the ghost town is inhabited by cars.

By the time he has redeemed himself, helped out everyone in town in the large and loveable supporting cast (which features amusing turns by George Carlin as a hippy VW bus advocating natural, clean burning gas, Cheech Marin as a tricked out car always sporting a new paint job, and the incomparable Tony Shalhoub as a Ferrari-worshiping Italian tire salesman,) learned a few life lessons from the gruff yet loveable Doc (Newman,) found a best friend in rusty old tow-truck Mater (a shockingly excellent Larry the Cable Guy, playing an enthusiastic and loveable doofus,) and fallen in love with Sally, the sexy Porsche (the always wonderful Bonnie Hunt,) we are really rooting for our hero to win his climactic race. The middle of the film might be a bit slow, but it’s a necessary part of the journey to get us to care and love the world of the movie. It makes the big race that much more exciting, satisfying, and by the end, honestly moving.

Funny that a movie about talking cars, even as it stalls a bit in the beginning, can end up moving you, making you laugh, making you cheer, and making you fall in love with it’s characters. Machines or not, John Lassetter and his crew reveal their souls to us. Is this the worst movie Pixar has made so far? Maybe so, but if all movies could have such an excess of magic in them as this wonderful studio’s low-point, we’d be living in a much better world.

But I still want to know where baby cars come from.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Summer Movie Olympics, Part 4: That Sinking Feeling...

I’ve been less than on top of things as far as updating the ol’ blog for the last week. I was up in the Bay Area, visiting my family and friends and staying busy in an attempt to forget just how unemployed I am. But I did manage to get in a few summer movies, including the long promised “Poseidon.” So here’s three new reviews:

Dreamworks should be proud. They’ve finally managed to make a mediocre animated film, as opposed to the god-awful drivel they usually unleash on the masses, further contributing to the dumbing down of the youth of America. This is probably the first Dreamworks animated movie since “Antz” to have an actual storyline (unless you count “The Prince of Egypt,” which was based on a story that has sold even more copies than Dan Brown’s books.)

So to start with the bad…the animation is nothing compared to the work of Pixar and the casting is ill-conceived as usual, with Bruce Willis and Gary Shandling doing barley passable jobs as a raccoon and a turtle at odds with each other, while the talents of William Shatner, Eugene Levy, Steve Carrell, Thomas Haden Church, and…Avril Lavigne are all wasted. Worst of all, Ben Folds contributes some truly awful songs, including an appalling cover of The Clash classic “Lost in the Supermarket.”

Despite the numerous problems, there are a few positives here. The movie does have an environment friendly message that the kids will understand, while a lot of the satire comes from cute animals skewering the consumer culture of humans, (and yes, blah blah blah, you can argue that a movie like this is contributing to that consumer culture, that the characters are all over TV ads pimping toys and sugary drinks, so the movie’s message is hypocritical- but let’s take what we can get from the people who brought us “Shark Tale,” shall we?) Surprisingly, the movie does not rely on stale pop-culture gags at all…there was not one “Matrix” reference during the entire running time. And there are a few genuinely funny sequences- I particularly enjoyed the scene when the hyper-active squirrel finally is allowed to drink a caffeinated beverage, and we see everything from his perspective...very slowly.

So the movie is not good per se, but it is solidly and compently average. And for Dreamworks Animation, that’s a step forward. Maybe if they continue in this fashion, we’ll actually see something as clever and different as “Antz” was when they first launched their ‘toon division. But let’s not get our hopes up- scheduled for release next summer, Dreamworks is hard at work on “Shrek 3.”

A well intentioned snooze-fest, “The Break Up” aims for something different in the romantic comedy genre, but doesn’t really achieve it.

In the first scene, Gary (Vince Vaughn) bullies his way into a date with Brooke (Jennifer Aniston.) As the credits roll, we see snapshots of their relationship. We find out that Gary and Brooke are living together in a great condo in Chicago. After a disastrous dinner party in which Gary and Brooke’s families both attend, the couple has a huge fight because Brooke can’t make Gary understand that she doesn’t just want him to do the dishes; she wants him to “want to do the dishes.” The fight ends in a break up in which neither of them want to move out of their amazing condo.

What follows is a lot bickering and the two leads acting increasingly mean in attempts to make the other jealous. Brooke goes out on a series of bad dates, parading them in front of Gary. In turn, Gary invites strippers over for strip poker night. Brooke invites her closeted brother over to practice with his men’s choir, annoying her ex. Gary buys a pool table and puts it in the dining room, something Brooke would never let him do when they were together. The game of one-upmanship is just mean and hurtful, but is also not interesting enough cinematically to make for a compelling movie. I’ve had passive aggressive roommates in my life before; it’s uncomfortable and never a fun situation, and I certainly don’t need to see a movie about it. If the filmmakers were going for a “War of the Roses” style dark comedy, they needed to go much further. As it stands, the movie is not very funny or entertaining, the lead characters don’t ever seem to like each other in the first place, the large supporting cast doesn’t add much, and the entire thing is just not all that compelling. The end works and doesn’t cheat us with a fake happy ending (even in the tacked on, forced final scene) but it also doesn’t give you a reason to care whether these people get back together or not.

Now this is what I’m talking about. This is a summer movie; silly, exciting, fast moving and fun. It’s exactly how I want to spend two hours on a June evening.

It takes barley twenty minutes of character introductions before a rogue wave comes out of nowhere and flips the massive, titular ocean liner. Our brave group of main characters, including Kurt Russel as a former mayor of New York and ex-firefighter (his characters name should have just been “Mr. 9/11,”) his daughter (Emmy Rossum, the dead daughter from “Mystic River,”) her secret fiancée whom the mayor doesn’t approve of (an actor so bland I won’t even look up his name on IMDB,) a maverick professional gambler (Josh Lucas,) a hottie single mother (Jacinda Barrett,) and her cute son (Jimmy Bennett,) who are in the movie so Lucas can learn to care about people other than himself, a stowaway immigrant on her way home to see her sick brother (Mia Mastro,) a nervous cook who guides our heroes through the ship (“Six Feet Under’s” likeable Freddy Rodriguez,) Kevin Dillon as Lucky Larry, whose entire character is motivation is that he is a loud and obnoxious jerk (I liked thinking of Dillon playing his character from Entourage playing the role of Lucky Larry- it makes it funier. And if you’re surprised when he dies, I’ve got a bridge in San Francisco I’d like to sell you, which has been moved to Alcatraz by Magneto recently,) and, as promised in a previous post- Richard Dreyfuss as a gay architect.

If you need a reason to see any movie this summer, let Richard Dreyfuss as a gay architect be your motivation.

The movie moves swiftly and efficiently- director Wolfgang Petersen is a pro at big summer movies, and the veteran schools hack supreme Brett Ratner and newbie JJ Abrams in terms of how these things work. “Poseidon” delivers on all fronts that I’d hope from it, which means it was totally ridiculous and goofy but in all the right ways. The movie alternated between silly and ridiculous and edge of your seat suspenseful, making me laugh at the goofiness of the entire affair when I wasn’t biting my nails.

I really can’t ask for much more from a summer movie- an upside down ship, a cast of B-Listers dying random (and horrifyingly violent yet non graphic PG-13) deaths, lots of extras playing rich people getting crushed under debris, Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas as the ship’s onboard entertainment hugging Andre Braugher, as the ship’s captain bravely just before a wall of water breaks through a window, falling elevators, and RICHARD DREYFUSS AS A GAY ARCHITECT.

I’d rather spend two hours on this capsized ship, clichéd and predictable as it is, then watch Tom Cruise masturbate all over his self indulgent vanity project any day. So far, “Poseidon” is the guilty pleasure of the summer. Too bad it will have to contend with the likes of “Snakes on a Plane” to maintain that title.