Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sequels Gone Bad: CTJ

Look For These Horrible Excuses for Film in a Theater Near You

By Chad T. Johnston
“Schindler’s List 2” – This time Oscar Schindler is going grocery shopping, and he left his list at home. Will he buy whole milk, or 2%? He cannot remember. As the remnants of the Nazi regime are being punished at the Nuremberg Trials, Schindler is plagued by forgetfulness, and his only salvation is the Jews he saved, who begin to show up with one item after the other: First asparagus, then Zwieback, then haggis. It’s a reunion that knocks the ball right out of the ballpark. Meryl Streep reprises her role from Sophie’s Choice, and this time she chooses canned yams over fresh ones.

"Lord of the Rings IV: Hollaback Frodo" – In the wake of Peter Jackson’s success with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Dre and Snoop decided to make a fourth film in the series, a lush, epic offering set in scenic Miami. This time, Frodo (a.k.a. Frizzle-b-dizzle, played by Ghostface Killa) has an evil ringtone on his cellphone, and he must throw it into the radiation-disposal vault at Yucca Mountain if he is to protect the world from it. Meanwhile, Dre and Snoop ride in their hoopties to knock the cellphone towers “outtie commih-SHUN, y’all BOOOOOYAH!”

“Trudy” – This sequel to feel-good football film Rudy is the feminist equivalent of its predecessor, with the leading role of Trudy played Keira Knightley. Despite the fact that she is so bony and birdlike, she is admitted to the Notre Dame football team because, to quote her Coach, “She could probably throw some ferocious elbow jabs with those sharp, pointy elbows of hers, which are as wiry as coat hangers and strong as steel pylons.” Knightley must overcome objections to her gender, and she must also overcome obstacles like doors, turnstyles, coffeetables, and rugs, all of which are difficult for her fragile, frail frame to encounter. In the final scene in the film, just after Knightley is brutally killed when a pair of cotton slippers fall off of an overhead shelf and onto her fragile, not-yet-fully-formed fontanels, the team celebrates the power of scarily thin women who make baklava seem like it is reinforced with concrete rebar.

"Ordinary People Again” – Mary Tyler Moore is back! This time she’s no cold-hearted Mama. She’s a detective who’s on the trail of a pet theft in Waukegan, MI. Between the original film directed by Robert Redford in 1980 and this sequel, directed by Michael Bay, Moore’s character’s son Buck threw himself into a wheat compactor and her husband, played by then-young Donald Sutherland, became an electronics salesman at Fek-Mart. Abe Vigoda costars as Lampy, a mop-topped comedic character who is Moore’s father.

“The Big Chill VI” – Kevin Costner is still laying dead in that coffin, only this time the director had to pay him $17,000,000. When the friends gather together again – for the 6th time for the funeral of a friend – they get understandably despondent and commit suicide en masse, drinking Gatorade that has been laced with ant-killer.

“Tron 2” – Those 80s computer graphics are BACK! This time when Jeff Bridges gets sucked into the computer he brings a bag of Doritos with him. Not content to compete in the LightCycle arena, Bridges’ character instead opts to exchange existential banter with a RAM chip and the Mario Bros., who have given up plumbing in favor of becoming celebrity trout fishermen. Commenting on the film, George Lucas says, “Geez, man. I think they actually made this sequel on the same computer as the original. My sense of innovation and progress has been violated. I am now going to feed myself to the nearest Bantha.”

“Star Wars VII: Lookee Go Bye-Bye” – As Lucas’ scriptwriting abilities become increasingly elementary, Luke, Leia, Han, and friends also become increasingly two-dimensional. As Han Solo says in one scene, “Me gots dookie in bafroom. Da da googie?” When primary-colored building blocks begin to attack the merry band of interstellar friends, they are saved by a baby and a troop of kittens and puppies who are armed with musicboxes, Lunchables, and construction-paper origami swans. Shot on location in a blue-screen room in Deluth, ND, the whole production has all the warmth of an industrial freezer.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

DJG / Sex & The City (Series and Movie)

Sex & The City (The Complete Series) * * * * *
Sex & The City (The Movie) * * * *

It happened to me…something I never dreamed would. This something involved something that since the late '90s I'd rolled my eyes and cringed my brain towards, and the same to those who rode along with it or those who personified and glorified it. I was wrong and I now admit it. A year ago I fell for something on syndicated television and it was love at first bite. It was one of those after-work experiences that had me feeling vulnerable from the blows of the exhausting work day. I couch-plopped down and caught "Sex & The City" after the opening titles had splashed and it took me only fifteen seconds to figure out what I was watching and yet I was hooked out of water. I fell hard and on down a slippery slope. I gave into everything that had held me back before from such a show. I think I even made sure all the blinds were closed and the T.V. volume was low just to make sure word wouldn't get out. It was everything that I was not and against, yet it felt so right. In some ways, I was liberated and the next night I did it again. This may sound like a first-time testimonial for a topic on the popular HBO show (as my old minister would call it, "Hell's Box Office"!), but it's true. And couldn’t be more true as I finished up six seasons and a movie, “Sex & The City” is now sitting near the top of my favorite all-time, fully-realized shows.

Even though I celebrate most all forms of "vegging out" when it comes to television and movies, “Sex & The City” is still not me at all, but yet it kind of is. It’s hard to find an explanation and I don’t really think it needs one. If anything, my tastes, tolerations, moral boundaries and beliefs are the exact opposite of the show. Nor, am I for the character's self-centered consumerism of all things of-the-moment fashion, parties and night-caps, debaucheries and at times no-rules/no-nonsense way of living. But, I've officially somehow found maturity through "Sex & The City", trading in my once love for Woody Allen's tales of existential anxiety and neurosis in NYC for a blend of girl power that feels more lived-in and free-forming.

There is a jungle of tall buildings, long legs, and voluminous cosmopolitans in "Sex & The City". It's a land where every other successful lawyer, banker, stock broker, fashionista, bar tender, successful writer or artist or actor succeeds in getting into the beds of a tag team of four Uptown Girls. It's the Olympic games of sex and quarterbacking the home team (like a slightly better looking Terry Bradshaw), is Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her gal gang of “of-the-moment-will-I-score-again” worry. And these girls worry about everything to the point of exhaustion. But, I love it and can relate to it (at least the worry part!). The plays are observed, made and marked in Carrie’s trusty Macintosh lap-top (I saw it on display in the Smithsonian in 2007!) for a weekly column on sex. Sex is her work. Research is the bedroom and pork-you-pine concubines and every day observation. Every episode serves up a question for Carrie's column where the girls help do the answering as they prey hostess at trying on the guys of New York City. Her comrades in girl power, promiscuality, one night stands, raunchy verbage, over-priced meals, bad art, obnoxious parties, thousand dollar bed sheets, ex-boyfriend run-ins, half-thousand-dollar shoe obsessions and terrible with a capital "T" wardrobes of a designer's dozen outfit changes per each episode shoot through my roof of toleration extravagance. But, I can't stop spending time with these gals.

Other than just pure enjoyment, what makes a show like "Sex & The City" truly work for me is that under all the sheets the show feels very lived-in and exposes that there is more to life than what one might pull from the title. It's a testament to friendship through the thick and thin, and all the men. There is also growth in the characters’ journeys. The show is smart, clever, charming and laugh-out-loud funny. It has extremely tight characters and plot arcs that are well-played and thoroughly detailed. Casting for shows similar is typically disastrous, but "Sex & The City" pulls it off to perfection. Each and every character couldn't work without the other, even those who are one-night stands. Simply put, the television series is genius.

And the movie…well, it’s bloated worse than some women who are "with child"…and I still love it. In what would take an entire television season to introduce and develop, the movie packs a year's span of time into two hours. Nothing-new plots are boiled over and then new ones are introduced as I'm still left with old ones nearly 6 years old mysteriously extinguished from the screen version. Brand new characters are even thrown in that feel like unrealized filler for market research fulfillment. Undoubtedly, every "Sex & The City" cliche is exhausted and everybody cries and spills their purses and then hugs and laughs it off. Heck, there is even some bathroom humor. But, I absolutely LOVE it. "Sex & The City: The Movie" is two fabulous hours of pure delight, and not just in a Mary J. Blige’s music pumpin’ feminine hygienic product commercial. Beneath all the ruffles of ridiculously hideous outfits (even more wardrobe changes than the entire series!), extra terrible corny music, sexually-explicit cheese, girl power, girl worry, gays and queens, backstabbing men, and a closet so big it could house a pair of Buicks on steroids and a trailer home, these four restless 40-somethings bind together with the power of love and laughter to overpower heartbreak as they run over the hill towards their golden girl years. I want another please…preferably someday, "Sex & The City: The Nursing Home".

The Fab Four are a hair highlight film of ridiculous, the type of group you'd hate to brunch next to as every other word is a four letter one and with icing on cake that most adults wouldn't find very sweet. But, there is something to heart buried beneath…it is something that IS wonderfully sweet. There is a comraderie here with these ladies that everyone should have with friends and loved ones. And again, I can't take my eyes and ears off the sex-capades of Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha and I'm not ashamed to say it. I used to keep items similar to "Sex & The City" in the back of my pop-culture closet, labeling them in the "Guilty Pleasure" department and not wearing them out for anybody else but my own secure runway. But, ever since a year ago's early evening of syndicated television and recently spending a month devouring every episode in order on DVD (and even a movie!), with every bruise and laugh with the gals, I cut-off the term "Guilty Pleasure" from my vocabulary. I have come out of the closet and have given into the pleasures of quality programming. Even if that means unrobing my morals and letting my hair down, as I sit and type at my Carrie Bradshaw-like, late '90s Macintosh lap-top.


DJG's Movie Morning Monday

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer * *
Directed by: John McNaughton / 1986

Some bits of entertainment and art are born breaking new ground in their respective field(s) and/or making major splashes in the pool halls of popularity and culture. However, few rarely keep their cool and crisp freshness after their immediate impact, at least to me. I respect the classics and I honor those that tread new water and open new doors, and some things do indeed remain masterpieces decades later. However, I can’t help but think that some things need to halt from the hype after their 15 minutes of fame (or is it seconds now?) is up. An example is to paraphrase critical praise from 1986 of the movie I watched yesterday morning, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a masterpiece of modern horror…” Even though I usually know better, especially when it comes to movies or culture that I’ve never even heard a mention of before (and I tend to think that I’m fairly in-the-geeky-know?), I was lured into this simplistic marketing trick quickly and thus resulted in school boy expectations turn disappointment even quicker. I can’t help but think that “Henry…” might have opened some doors for wowing people for its disturbing ideas and imagery over 20 years ago, but it’s no more disturbing as films before it, nor did I find it to be a masterpiece. I did find that it’s use of technology of incorporating film within the film may have been pretty groundbreaking in its ideas for such use in horror topics at the time. For the most part, “Henry…” felt very dated and was nothing more than a dud of movie making cheese for me with bumbled acting that went over and under the bar and a plot that could have really been something as a device for tinkering into the mind and actions of a serial killer. In the end it fell short for me, or do I not get it? Maybe it’s better in tune to that of Cult Classic than Masterpiece? I don’t know, but I just trust my gut. Although, I do give it credit for making me feel disturbed and it was rather humorous at times. Mostly, I am left with curiosity (well, other than the knowledge of marketing gimmicks) as to why it is still honored to be a “masterpiece of modern horror”, unless the word “modern” expands to the last 20-some years or more? Even still, I would find it scraping the bottom of the pool as dead weight.


Monday, November 10, 2008

DJG's Movie Morning Monday

Election * * * * 1/2
Directed by: Alexander Payne / 1999

Movie lovers and critics tend to agree that 1999 was a banner year at the movies, a changing of the tide, if you will. If you keep up, a few titles such as “Magnolia”, “Being John Malkovich”, “Fight Club”, “Three Kings”, “The Sixth Sense”, “American Beauty” and “The Matrix” stick out as rattling the halls of film and they still do in the way we experience film nearly a decade later. These films also cemented the arrivals of a new crop of creative pants wearing generation in Hollywood, gifted and smart young directing rebels who fought for the rights to make the art that they wanted to make. However, one such director and movie tends to disappear from the talk of 1999. That being, Alexander Payne and his darling little high school story on ethics and morals (and original comedy) titled, “Election”. It wasn’t the powerhouse like the aforementioned, but this gem has aged well and in many ways is more watchable and a heck of a lot more grounded in reality.

The ability to nail in his every-man characters the up and down gains and pains of life must be found in Payne’s mid-western background. He’s proven and even perfected his skills several times over from full-length to short films, even earning an Academy Award for his writing. For his first feature film, “Election”, Payne chose to stick to his hometown of Omaha, NE. This donated to the film a very real texture from the people to the clothing, dialogue, vehicles, locations, weather and scenery. I feel that because of his sensitivity to the details, that when Payne’s characters and situations do lean a bit off of center, they still feel a sense of grounded and very lived-in. Payne handles his first film masterfully and he lets his actors have their cupcakes and eat them too. Taking a role reversal to the one that made him every high schooler’s idol in “Ferris Buller’s Day Off”, Matthew Broderick stars as Mr. McAllister a role model teacher trying to make ends meet at home, but finding his feet in the classroom and in helping his students succeed. That is, until an over-achieving student named Tracy Flick (my favorite Reese Witherspoon role) shakes his ethical and moral foundation in the midst of an electrified, and at times bitter and sweet, student body election campaign.

Nearly ten years later, “Election” still has a fresh immediacy, depth and urgency to it that most movies about high school seem to lose by the end of their first semester. It’s the type of movie that after five times viewing, I can still find new little things, bitter and sweet, beneath its many layers. Layers that come surprisingly behind the mature hands and head of a first-time director tackling the immaturities and vulnerabilities of not only high school students, but human beings and life in general. Alexander Payne has yet to miss a mark on my ballot and he announces that he is here to stay…and play…with his wonderful “Election”.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

DJG's Movie Morning Monday

Somebody Up There Likes Me * * * *
Directed by: Robert Wise / 1956

You can't beat a great boxer. You can't beat a great boxer's story without the boxer beating himself. The sport of boxing is a topic that Hollywood never seems to run out of steam or stories with. For such a senseless, tough-guy sport, a lot of boxers on screen come across as the biggest drama queens…and I can't get enough of it. I believe it definitely takes a certain kind of character to want to be a human punching bag. Great boxers tend to be born out of rags-or-ruffians to riches stories and even when they come across as just another slice of meathead idiocy there is a startling complexity and vulnerability underneath the silly putty of gnarled faces, cuts and bruises.

In 1956 Paul Newman was still in training to be the next acting heavy weight as he was opted at the last minute for the part of middleweight boxing champion Rocky Graziano in what became one of his first major performances on screen. Newman definitely captures something with Graziano by way of a James Dean-meets-Marlon Brando look and persona (coincidentally he studied acting with both). There is also an odd pinch of Hannah-Barbara cartoon character found in his Brooklyn accent. I wouldn’t say that Newman completely disappears into character, but it was a bold move to hide his looks and charm under early-on, and a solid start to a career of playing likeable rebels.

At times Graziano’s colorful story is translated to the screen in a little too much black and white. Though, one has to keep in mind that for a film made in 1956, there was still a lot of ribbon cutting made by director Robert Wise's film. He might be better known as editor of “Citizen Kane” and captain of musical darlings like “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music”, but Wise still comes out ahead for his “Somebody Up There Likes Me” directing and choice of Oscar winning cinematography. In fact, you can sense the influences this older brother movie played on boxing stories to follow. Something I noticed was that Rocky Graziano’s real name, Rocky Barbella, is very similar to the hero’s name that Sylvester Stallone made a household name with on a boxer’s dozen films. But, the film most notable is Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”, another artful boxing story, and one of the finest films crafted, about a hardheaded champ with emotional scar tissue on full exposure. It’s no coincidence that Scorsese offers his own hand and head at commentary on the DVD. However, with all the boxing stories treading similar ring-side seating, it’s a wonder how these films don’t serve as constructive commentary for the continual line of troublesome boxers who continue to come around, punching their own clocks in and out of the ring. I guess it just means that Hollywood will never run out of great boxing stories.