Sunday, July 30, 2006

Scoopin' Down in Miami

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Among the many duties of good film critics is the duty of putting a particular film under review in some kind of context. A typical context would be to consider a film as part of a filmmaker's entire body of work: how a certain theme of a film, for instance, jibes with that of his other works. (In many cases, it might jibe pretty well.)

Of course, it helps if a film critic---or a wannabe like myself---has actually seen most of a director's other work before trying to place it in that particular context.

Consider two directors---Michael Mann and Woody Allen (savor that, 'cause that's probably the last time anyone will ever mention those two disparate directors in the same breath)---who've recently released new films into theaters: Michael Mann with Miami Vice (**½ out of ****) and Woody Allen with Scoop (** out of ****). To be honest, I haven't really explored the work of both of these directors in much depth, other than a few stray movies of theirs here and there. So my ensuing attempt at an auteurist analysis will probably come off as just that---an attempt. Bear with me...

I had a fairly interesting experience with Miami Vice. For its first hour, I found myself frustrated like mad at the way Michael Mann---who wrote the script in addition to directing the film---tried to complicate the hell out of what is essentially your usual drug-running crime story. As each scene ended and the next one began, I, for the life of me, couldn't figure out who Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) were going after, how certain action scenes were related to the main storyline, etc. Frankly, after a while it became rather excruciating. (A friend of mine took a charitable view and suggested Mann was just trying to take the Stephen Gaghan Traffic approach to storytelling. But then no one would mistake Miami Vice for an important message movie, as Traffic attempted to be, in its multiple-plotline, overreaching manner.)

But somehow, it got better for me until, by the end, I was actually rather moved by its ending. Once you get past its first hour and stop trying to figure out how all the plot details fit in together, Miami Vice begins to gradually gain an operatic kind of emotional power, until it almost seems to explode, both literally and figuratively, in its last half-hour or so. I still don't know if I'd call Miami Vice a good movie---its storytelling still strikes me as needlessly complicated and incoherent, and its characters generally remain one-dimensional from start to finish, as if Mann decided simply to drop us in the middle of a modern version of the old '80s Miami Vice TV series, which was co-created by Mann. But overall, it's a little better than you'd expect from what might look like yet another big-budget old-TV-show nostalgia trip from Hollywood.

Most of that is because there really isn't anything nostalgic about Miami Vice. The film is set squarely in our troubled time---and it certainly looks it too, the way it's been shot. Mann once again decided to shoot in high-definition video, following the lead of his previous film Collateral, and once again the results---courtesy of director of photography Dion Beebe---look slick, shimmery and marvelously moody, especially in night scenes (although the heavy grain does intrude on the underlit night scenes). I've always been a little suspicious of digital video as opposed to film: there's just something about the hard, cold reality of shooting on video that clashes with the more dreamlike possibilities of shooting on film. But Mann seems to be one of the few filmmakers today who can get a lot out of video. Collateral, especially, managed to render Los Angeles in oddly beautiful, mysterious nighttime hues---perfect for a film that was itself a nighttime odyssey through both a physical and psychological heart of darkness for some of its characters. Many of the same virtues are present in Miami Vice, but if ultimately I find the visual results a little less impressive here, it's not really the fault of Mann or Beebe: this film just doesn't have quite the same impact as Collateral.

I haven't seen Mann's 1995 crime epic Heat, but, from what I've heard about its subject matter, it has something to do with how the work of a policeman (Al Pacino) and a thief (Robert De Niro) seriously affect the personal lives of those around them. Miami Vice seems to be trying to evoke the same theme, but I found it hard to really care much about Crockett and Tubbs: they're possibly so devoted to their work that Mann doesn't really bother to develop them much as characters. And without relatable protagonists in this case, the poignancy of the way their attempts at having relationships outside their work fall apart in the end is sadly muffled.

Still, the filmmaking occasionally picks up the slack where the writing seems lacking. There is one scene where drugrunner José Yero (John Ortiz) looks on as he notices his right-hand lady Isabella (Gong Li) is dancing sexily with Crockett: somehow, the mood of the moment engendered by the lighting and even the background disco music suggests the jealousy Yero feels at that moment more than even the actor's expression. In other scenes, Mann indulges in a lot of close-ups of bodies and faces to emphasize particularly erotic moments: it might strike some people as typically TV-ish editing (it's like shots out of a shampoo commercial or something), but it achieves its stylistically intense effect. Even if Mann seems more interested in achieving effects rather than creating a drama of genuine dramatic substance in Miami Vice, it's nice to see that he's still flexing his technical muscles here (even if some of the action sequences are as incoherently edited as the nightclub shootout in Collateral).

There's one other slight disappointment: Gong Li. Look, she is one of the most beautiful actresses in international cinema, and she has proven herself a powerful actress in her Asian films. Of course, we all know about her collaborations with Zhang Yimou (Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, and others). But look at that extended kiss she shares with Tony Leung in Wong Kar-Wai's 2046: thirty seconds worth of flaming passion. If she shows a similar kind of physical passion in Miami Vice around Colin Farrell, it still doesn't quite suppress the fact that she can barely speak English! Somehow that didn't really matter when Gong played the villainous Hatsumomo in Memoirs of a Geisha---probably because practically everyone was speaking in the same awkward, halting English as she was. But here, she's stuck not only speaking a rather embarrassing phonetic English, but also phonetic Spanish too (a little less embarrassing, I guess). Seriously, why did they bother to cast her in this part? Couldn't they have tried to get someone that actually spoke Spanish? Because it's not like the movie ever explains how this Asian woman somehow became second fiddle to Cuban drugrunners. Still, Gong does look ravishing throughout, and, to be fair, she does have moments of real emotional intensity. But still...

I said that I found myself rather moved by the ending of the film. In the last half-hour (possible spoiler alert), the girlfriends of both Crockett and Tubbs find themselves in the middle of danger. Tubbs' girlfriend Trudy (Naomie Harris) is abducted by a gang of white supremacists, and is seriously burned by an explosion. This leads to a brief monologue delivered by Foxx in which he discusses his regretful feelings about the danger in which his undercover policework puts her. At last, the film's major theme emerges from the ashes of the muddled plot: the anguish of trying to maintain a semblance of passion and normality in a particularly dangerous, social life-consuming line of work. That anguish, as it turns out, leads to failure in Crockett's case, as he's forced to abandon his great love, Isabella, and send her away.

The final few shots are wonderfully expressive: Farrell looking regretfully at a departing-by-boat Gong; Gong looking back longingly at Farrell; and then Farrell seen in a long shot outdoors walking into the hospital where Tubbs is at. His policework once again beckons. It's a perfect closing shot, summing up the most appealing thing about Miami Vice.

Unfortunately, it's too little, too late. Maybe I'd have to watch the film again to see if there's more to the way the film explores its main theme than I suspect. Still, at this point, thinking about it based on a single viewing, Miami Vice strikes me as fitfully brilliant but overall rather superficial. As much as I found myself feeling something genuine at the end of the film, overall I'm not sure if the movie gave me all that much to care about, especially regarding its wafer-thinly-sketched main characters.

Woody Allen's new comedy Scoop may be a mildly diverting good time, but it didn't really give me much to care about either. After the trumpeting of a "return to form" for Allen with his previous film Match Point, Allen returns to trifle mode with this half-baked comic murder mystery in which an American journalism student (Scarlett Johansson) gets a tip from the ghost of a recently killed journalist (Ian McShane) about the possibility of the son of a British nobleman (Hugh Jackman) being the "Tarot Card Killer" targeting hookers.

Like Match Point, Scoop details the attempts by an "ordinary" person to try to attract the attention of someone higher-up in society. But Match Point actually carried some real bite in its cold, smug, misanthropic attacks on the rich and self-interested; Scoop shares a similar vision---though obviously tinted with comedy glasses---but is so lacking in any kind of venom that it bounces right off the screen and into oblivion.

Nevertheless, Scoop has a few good, funny lines---most of them delivered by Allen himself, here playing second-banana to a rather bland Scarlett Johansson (playing a pretty mediocre journalist if I've ever seen one). Allen makes for loose, pleasant, amusing comic relief, playing a magician who seems to harbor a few preconceived notions about the British among whom he's living. Scoop has a nice, harmless pleasant vibe to it, and it makes for a serviceable time-waster, but the whole thing is bound to dissolve right after you've left the theater. That seems to be the consensus about a lot of recent Woody Allen comedies (Anything Else, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending)...but I wouldn't know, because I haven't seen those pictures---or a lot of Woody Allen's comedies, for that matter...

Fujishimas' Best Friend

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - When I walked into my house after coming back from seeing Seussical at Plays in the Park, boy, was I surprised at seeing a dog greet my entrance by sniffing my legs!

Folks, apparently we have a new member of the family: a new dog, a shitsu. Yeah, my mom has apparently been thinking about getting a new dog for a while, but it looks like we finally decided to pull the trigger and do it. My younger brother Masao tells me that he used to be known as Dusty by a previous owner. Well, that might change...

More details on this in a future post, because I wasn't really there when they decided to buy the dog. But I'd like to say this (emo alert): I dunno, but the fact that I vaguely heard about my mother's plans to get a new pet, and then the fact that the whole family minus me went to get the pet, kinda emphasizes a rather disquieting feeling I've had over the past few weeks---namely, the feeling that I'm on the outside looking in with my own family. Certainly my parents don't really seem to bother to tell me much stuff about what's going on in the family anymore; mostly I have to either ask or have to get info from my younger brothers.

You know what? I wonder if I'm not getting what I deserve either. Perhaps I've always been rather remote from my family in recent years, not really giving much of a damn about what's going on with my parents and bros. Have I become too self-interested over the years, caring only about something if it matters to me in some way? Maybe my mother has finally caught on and is---possibly subconsciously---keeping me at a distance.

It's not like anyone ever asked me if I wanted to have a new pet in the house. I'm fairly certain I could get used to having a dog around the house, but I know that I've always felt a little awkward being around a pet whenever I've entered someone else's home and I'm treated to some big dog sniffing me around. Guess I'm not used to it; guess I could get used to it. It's not that I would have raised an objection to having a dog; it's just that it bothers me a little that no one seemed to ask me whether I did have a problem with it or not. But then, that sometimes seems to be Mom's way: when she has an idea, she presumes that everybody else is on board with it, whether or not that's the case. She seemed to assume I'd be willing to accept wasting away studying accounting in college without making serious attempts to ask me whether I agreed with it or not; somehow, I see a similar mechanism in this situation.

Maybe I shouldn't complain so much, though. If we're able to train this dog, it'd be nice if, on some lonely evening, when I'm sitting here in my room alone---as I am now---I could have a nice, quiet, obedient dog to keep me company. Heck, maybe I could complain about a lot of things to the dog. Dusty---or whatever name we decide upon---would never judge me like I feel a lot of other people judge me---especially my mother.


Seussical is a serviceable animated trifle with some inspired music (and some surprisingly dissonant harmonies and progressions in some of them), but, while it plays with the usual kiddie-show standby themes of using one's powers of imagination and working up the courage to stand up for your beliefs and all that, it's basically a pleasant, forgettable diversion. But it might appeal to adults with fond memories of reading Dr. Seuss as young kids. And who hasn't, right?


I mean, there are maybe one or two Dr. Seuss books I fondly remember as an adult: The Cat in the Hat, for instance, and Green Eggs and Ham. It's not only the rhymes and the inventive worlds Dr. Seuss creates, but also the pathos that I remember from those books. The two main characters of those two books---the Cat in the former, Sam-I-Am in the latter---simply want to share a little joy with others in the world, but they're rebuffed when they seem to go a little too far. But eventually the two characters redeem themselves in the eyes of others and they receive warmer welcomes. I dunno, I've always found it touching, the way those two books combine both a yearning for childlike innocence with a realization of certain real-world fears: the fear of getting in trouble with one's parents, for instance. Of course, innocence wins out in the end---hey, these are children's books after all.

Otherwise, though, the nostalgia trip offered by Seussical simply reminded me of how relatively sheltered my childhood actually was. When I hear friends of mine waxing poetically about their favorite Dr. Seuss books or their favorite Nickelodeon TV show or something like that, I just stand back and lament how little Dr. Seuss I actually read as a kid, or how I never even got Nickelodeon. I don't remember the first thing about Horton Hears a Who! or Yertle the Turtle (two Dr. Seuss books referenced in Seussical), for instance. It seems like, even as a younger lad, I was already thinking about adulthood, and thus perhaps not doing enough to live it up as a kid.

Another thing that reminds me of what I feel is kind of a lost childhood is the recent release of that old cartoon show Animaniacs on DVD. Even as a sixth-grader or so, I was already forming ideas---probably influenced by my parents---about how "dumb" cartoons were, how they were something to grow out of. Only in hindsight, of course, do I realize how intelligent some of these kiddie cartoons actually were: how rife with organic pop-culture references some of them were, even how much they might actually teach receptive young viewers (unlike myself). Remember that Animaniacs cartoon where Yakko rhymes all the countries of the world in song? To think that there was a time when I thought that that was just kid stuff... (Maybe I should get those Animaniacs DVDs from Netflix, just for nostalgia's sake.)

A couple years ago, that Johnny Depp movie Finding Neverland came out, and while I have said to others that I found the movie "bland" and "typical Oscar-bait" (both of which I more or less stand by today), I really should have been more honest about how much I identified with the film's idea of someone trying to hold on to his childhood, as Johnny Depp's James Barrie does, and as Barrie tries to instill in the children of the movie, particularly young Peter Davies (Freddie Highmore). Perhaps it's not a very challenging, "adult" notion, but it nevertheless appeals to the inner child in all of us---even a barely-existing inner child like myself.

Eh, I think I'm whining incoherently again. Not sure if I'm making much sense (even to myself); make of it what you will.

Friday, July 28, 2006

It's Over, Biotch!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Hey all! New Pulse article here.

This one is about the recent so-called "lost episodes" of the late, lamented Chappelle's Show, an attempt by Comedy Central to burn off the sketches Dave Chappelle made before he famously disappeared to South Africa last year as he was working on a third season of his immensely popular sketch-comedy series. Apparently Chappelle didn't exactly sanction the release of these final sketches; nevertheless, they have been broadcast and now available on DVD, and in my article I try to make the case that these sketches seemed to uncannily (or, not so uncannily) foreshadow Dave's flight to South Africa. Some of the sketches in the three "lost" episodes were surprisingly rather dark and introspective, for all its lightness of touch and occasional stabs at gratuitous vulgarity. And yeah, most of the sketches weren't quite as funny as in previous seasons, but then, it's not like Chappelle had much time to refine them or even throw some of them out.

Anyway, at least this article was a nice change of pace from the usual old-movie article I've written in previous pieces. And I'm contemplating continuing to vary it up: perhaps I could tackle 9/11 in the movies as my next piece, in anticipation of Oliver Stone's upcoming World Trade Center. Connecting movies to the real world: that's what makes movies so great in the first place, at least in part.


Interesting day at work today: the power went out for about half-an-hour today, at least computers and projectors. It led to a whole group of people descending upon the West Box demanding refunds. But Megamovies apparently doesn't give out refunds; it gives "happy return" passes to people so they can see another movie with it for free at a later date. If you think about it, I suppose the policy has its own kind of logic; but obviously it didn't satisfy everybody, and I heard some people yelling at the manager on-duty as they stood on line to get these special passes.

People can be so rude sometimes. Take a chill pill!

Anyway, I don't think I committed any major screwups today, thank goodness.


EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Omigod! I think I just averted getting fired today at Megamovies.

At Megamovies, we have a policy in which everyone---and I mean everyone, including 3-month-old babies---must have a ticket after 6 p.m. I knew this...and yet, for some reason, when a lady come up to me and asked for two tickets to see a movie, I didn't ask her about the baby she was carrying around her...well, around her bosom, really...until after I started printing out a receipt for a credit card purchase. When I asked her about whether she was taking the baby into the theater too, she responded in the affirmative, and of course I had to tell her about our policy. She went nuts and made such a big stink about it that we had to get three managers on the scene---including the ranking manager---to try to discuss the problem with her.

Eventually, she ended up asking for a refund of the $18.50 I had already punched into the credit card machine. Obviously, we had to give it to her. But it could have easily been avoided if I had asked her about the damn baby she was lugging around her chest in the first place. Damn, what the hell's the matter with me?!! I knew the fuckin' policy; why didn't I say anything? Was I subconsciously afraid of causing her ire that I shied away from the question at first before being forced to spring it on her after printing the receipt? (If I have such subconscious fears, should I really be working at Megamovies, heh?)

It's one mistake, of course, and probably the biggest one I've made so far. (And I had to make it after I had gotten the shirt.) But a few days ago, a recently-hired employee got fired on the spot after forgetting about the same policy and allowing a bunch of people to get their babies in for free at 6 p.m. and then getting stopped by theater ushers. Fired! Because it was the ranking manager himself that had fired her, I was rather nervous that he might do the same to me, after seeing me screw up with the same policy (although at least I caught my mistake kinda in time). Turns out, he was rather nicer to me. As he left for the day, I apologized to him for the mess-up and he simply said, "That's okay. Hey, at least you learn."

But boy, that mistake made me nervous! It wasn't helped by the fact that my fellow cashier said to me, "You lucked out big time, man. You could have gotten fired for that!" Guess I must have gotten Mr. D. (the ranking manager) on a good day. I just hope he doesn't change his mind tomorrow or anything...

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Shirt

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Rite of passage: today I finally got---wait for it---the shirt. My official Megamovies T-shirt. No longer can I be considered a trainee now that I have the shirt, hehe.

Fitting, I guess, that I get it on this, the first Saturday evening I've worked, I believe. At the very least, it was the first time I flew solo in dealing with long lines, without having someone look over my shoulder and without me having to look over another's shoulder. I think I managed okay for the most part. It's really not that bad; as long as you don't get intimidated by the long lines, it's a cinch, really.

The thing is, of course: how long am I going to be needing the shirt, really? If I don't plan to work past the end of August, I'd be wearing the shirt for only about a little over a month.


My evening shift didn't exactly start out well, though. I was a little late; I tried to take a nap before work, but I woke up at exactly 5 p.m. and had to rush out of the house even as my brain was still trying to wake up. And, to make things worse, it started pouring out when I tried to get to my car to go to work. Whenever I wake up under such circumstances, I tend to feel rather aggressive, so I met this onslaught of rain with loud cries of "Shit!"


I wasn't planning to see Monster House (*** out of ****) today. This weekend I was actually planning to see either M. Night Shyamalan's new opus Lady in the Water or Kevin Smith's Clerks II. A friend of mine, however, expressed interest in Monster House---probably because the movie seems like it could be a Best Animated Picture Oscar contender, and he's really into Oscar stuff. Initially I resisted, but I noticed that it got some decent reviews from some of my favorite film critics---A.O. Scott of the New York Times seemed to like it a lot; so did David Edelstein, he of New York magazine. So I figured, eh, why not? It's not like I have to pay for a ticket anyway, since I went to see it at Megamovies. Huge perk for being an employee, heh. (My friend was able to get in for free too. See, this is the kind of connection I'd ideally like to maintain even during the school year.)

As it turns out, Monster House is actually not that bad. First good thing I noticed was the animation: it uses the same motion capture technology that Robert Zemeckis---who served as co-executive producer of this film with Steven Spielberg---used to so-so effect in The Polar Express a couple of years ago, and it actually seemed to work a little better here than it did in Polar Express. In the latter, the human characters seemed just a little lifeless and dead; here, the motion capture technology was able to capture nuances of facial expressions to startlingly convincing degrees.

But maybe it just seems that way because Monster House has such a snappy script, certainly much livelier than the silly power-of-belief-in-Santa-Claus solemnities of The Polar Express. What I found admirable in the film is that it actually seems to show an acute ear for how kids talk: the script---by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, and Pamela Pettler, from a story by Harmon and Schrab---dares to treat the children in the film as innocent yet intelligent people. And while a few of the adult characters are treated in the typical kids-movie manner---characterized as overly strict, misunderstanding, or just plain scary---the characterizations of the adults are also handled with intelligence and sensitivity. One of them---Mr. Nebbercracker, the owner of the haunted house of the title---turns out to be a rather touching figure with a moving little backstory to explain how he and the house are related. Nebbercracker is played by Steve Buscemi in the film, and he's so effective---mining a similar kind of pathos that made his performances in films like Trees Lounge and Ghost World so memorable---that I almost wish that the film had focused a bit more on him instead of on the three kids.

Of course the film has to end in a noisy big-bang climax. In spite of its title and its Halloween setting, Monster House is meant to be more of a thrill ride scare picture rather than a straight-up horror movie. (It might make for a good amusement park attraction someday---if, of course, it hasn't already been turned into one.) On that level, it basically works. But the many flashes of wit, sensitivity and humor make it certainly a lot more fun than the other current big-budget special-effects blockbuster, Pirates of the Caribbean 2.

Is there a point to Monster House? I guess it's meant to express childlike fears of the unknown as well as suspicion or plain annoyance of authority figures (parents, babysitters, two bumbling cops played by Kevin James and Nick Cannon). But then, that's what a lot of kiddie movies do. I guess what I like about Monster House is that it doesn't beat you over the head with any kind of valuable "life lesson" or anything. The three kid characters don't necessarily grow in some deep way, although they perhaps do realize the onset of their puberty, and two of them do try to at least retain a hint of their old child habits by deciding to go trick-or-treating in the end, after saying to themselves "I'm getting too old for it." Both this and The Polar Express---not to mention that old classic of innocence, Peter Pan---seem to suggest that hey, it's not all that bad holding onto your inner child.

One last thing that struck me (spoiler warning): the "monster house" is eventually revealed to be possessed by the spirit of Mr. Nebbercracker's beloved wife, a fat woman named Constance whom Nebbercracker discovered at a sideshow and decided to set free. I dunno: how many other big-budget, high-profile movies have you seen that have dared to include a romance with an old guy and a fat woman---both usually considered the essence of "ugliness" in crowd-pleasing Hollywood terms---as part of its story, and, furthermore, taken that romance seriously? For me, that was probably the most touching thing of all.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Brief Life Update No. 5: Slacker

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - It's fitting that the beginning of my "work" week---Monday---began with a viewing---my first---of Richard Linklater's Slacker (good film), because, frankly, I was a slacker this week.

Yeah, it's been a pretty dull week. I haven't worked at Megamovies since Saturday, and this week I guess I didn't really feel like writing any new film piece for publication. (Maybe I'll make up for my laziness this week by writing two next week.) My younger brother Masao had planned on going to see the Mariners---and his favorite player, Ichiro Suzuki---face the Yankees this past Wednesday, but alas he couldn't find any consecutive seats for me, him, and a friend. And the tickets would probably have cost too much for my ever-frugal mother to allow us to go anyway. (I suspect that she wouldn't have given us her blessing even if the tickets were reasonably priced, though: she's always been suspicious of going to the Bronx. Must be those "dangerous black people"---that's what she thinks, not me.)

The weather, of course---hot as hell on Monday and Tuesday, especially---kept me mostly inside, and a strange lack of interest in picking up a book kept me bored in front of my computer. I don't know what's gotten into me this summer. Usually, in previous summers, I can't wait to catch up on great literature; this summer, I have trouble bringing myself to do so. Has my predilection for film crowded out my interest in reading? Gee, I hope not!

In short, it's been a pretty boring week. Perhaps it's fitting that the only valuable things I accomplished this week had to do with movies. In addition to Slacker, I caught up another slacker movie, Kevin Smith's 1994 debut Clerks (probably not nearly on the same level as Slacker, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit). I also caught up with the rest of M. Night Shyamalan's oeuvre that I hadn't yet seen: Unbreakable (so-so) and The Village (I guess conceptually interesting, but awfully stilted and occasionally boring in execution). I suppose in the near future I'll maybe check out his new film Lady in the Water---although, with the exception of The Sixth Sense, I'm pretty much an atheist in the Church of Shyamalan. He's talented, no doubt, and knows how to create moods and sustain tension; but I can't even begin to take him seriously as the intelligent thinker he seems to think he is. (Lady in the Water hasn't been getting great reviews anyway...but who reads critics anyway, hehehe?)

It's weird with me, as far as slacking off goes: I enjoy the feeling of not being stressed out, and yet I feel guilty about not feeling busy, as if I'm wasting my time. Blaise Pascal once pointed out that little paradox in his Pensées: how even when we try to relax after we've worked hard, many of us will still feel guilty about not being busier. What's wrong with us humans???

Jeez, I haven't even seriously started reading up on stuff for my senior thesis project. Lazy indeed.

Well, maybe this weekend will be more fruitful. Certainly I will be back at work tomorrow evening---my first weekend evening shift at the much busier West Box---and perhaps I'll catch a movie beforehand. And Sunday I might be visiting a friend in Princeton and helping him with a movie project he's been thinking of doing. Fun.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Stream of Consciousness No. 5: Language Inadequacy

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Forgive me, but I'll be in emo mode in this entry.

My grandmother from Taiwan is here again this summer---she arrived last night---and it leads me to once again reflect on how unfortunate it is that I never got a proper education in the Chinese or Japanese languages.

Actually, that's not entirely true. For about five years, I did go to a Chinese school when I was in elementary school---on Saturdays, East Brunswick's Churchill Junior High School doubled as the Mid-Jersey Chinese School. So I know a little bit---but not enough to be able to speak with anything close to fluency. I stopped going after a while, and, other than a few moments of flirting with picking it up again and a year of taking Elementary Chinese at Rutgers (during my sophomore year), I haven't really, seriously returned to it since.

This, of course, makes it difficult to have anything close to meaningful conversations with my grandmother, who can barely speak a word of English. Simple things like "Good morning" or "I'm going out" I can say, but I'll probably never be able to talk to her about, say, my future---and sometimes I feel like she'd be a lot more supportive of things than my mother sometimes is.

It's a shame. I think I've been too Americanized.

And of course Japanese. I guess my father was never all that interested in teaching us, and I guess I was too passive to take it up myself. I also took Elementary Japanese in my sophomore year at Rutgers, but while I was at least able to learn my hiragana and katakana (the Japanese equivalent of the ABCs), its grammar is just as complicated as any Romance language, if not more so. In short, I'm not sure I got much out of the course, and I'm still not much closer to knowing even a little Japanese than I was before my sophomore year started.

And don't even ask me about culture, either. Most people could probably tell me more about Asian cultures in general than I could tell anyone. My exposure to Asian cultures is limited to Asian film---Kurosawa, Ozu, Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-Wai, and others. Well, I guess that gets me somewhere, although there's nothing like visiting a culture for yourself to at least get a better idea.

All this stuff I usually like to keep to myself. Sometimes I feel something akin to shame for not knowing a lick of Japanese and barely knowing Chinese---a shame increased by people who assume I know the languages just because I'm Asian. I guess a lot of people I know don't make a big deal out of it, but it's always been a sore spot for me.

I wonder why my grandmother sometimes bothers to come here at all. I guess love makes you do crazy things, especially when you know---as I'm sure my grandmother knows---that you probably won't be able to communicate with your grandchildren all that much. (My father doesn't talk much to her either, even though she also knows Japanese pretty well. Wish I knew why this was; maybe he just doesn't care to have her around the house.) My mother has told me in the past that my grandmother took great care of me when I was a baby as she worked, so I guess she makes the trip nearly every summer to check up on me and, by extension, my brothers. I should be grateful, I suppose; if only it wasn't so awkward to be reminded almost every day that we can't really communicate meaningfully with each other.

I wonder how she feels sitting around the dinner table hearing my brothers and I talk in English all the time, barely connecting with her. I know how I'd feel.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I'm writing this post to commemorate two recent events: the heatwave that hit America the past two days, and the sudden increase in violence between Israel and Palestine, with the Israeli government reacting harshly to the capture of an Israeli corporal by members of Hamas.

Monday and Tuesday saw the metropolitan area---heck, most of the country---covered in heat and humidity. I had to go out on Monday---an appointment with my counselor at Rutgers, a trip to Shoprite---and the car I drive hasn't had working air conditioning for months now. But it was either drive that car or risk driving the other car, which has had kind of a stalling problem since, oh, last year. (I couldn't drive the other car anyway, since my mother had driven it to work.) It wasn't pleasant, and I was sweating quite a bit, but I survived it. Yesterday, I didn't go out---didn't have to, because Megamovies didn't need me to come in on my optional "rain" shift---so I kept cool inside my thankfully air-conditioned house.

The only thing I missed in staying home all day? Well, forgive me for being crass and perhaps coming off as sexist, but I missed the opportunity to gawk at the exposed female flesh that is inevitably displayed on such a hot day. In other words, I missed those tight-fitting tank tops. (Sorry; I'm perverted and horny like that.)

But the heat that hit this area on Monday and Tuesday apparently have nothing on the heat that's currently overtaking Lebanon as Israel pretty much air-struck the shit out of the country in what has, according to TIME magazine's article about the fighting in the most recent issue, been "the worst Arab-Israeli cross-border conflict since Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982." After some years of an uneasay peace, it looks as if all that has been burned down to the ground. Maybe this should have been expected, with the militarist Palestinian group Hamas being voted into office.

I was watching CNN yesterday, and a reporter was following a Palestinian living in a village in Beirut as he was showing him around the messed-up area. One of the things he said struck me: something to the effect of "my people will not lose their dignity in this; if they continue to do this to us, we'll keep fighting back." I hope I didn't misrepresent the man's opinion---he sounded like he knew what he was talking about. The only thing I could do when I heard that was wince: sir, it seems to me that there is no dignity at all in war in general. With everyone reverting to their animal instincts and maiming and killing like that, allowing civilians to be killed, I don't see much dignity in it, at least on a personal level. Do you? Of course, if you're thinking solely about some larger cause and not about your own skin, maybe that reasoning would sound appealing. It sounds to me like the kind of attitude---eye for an eye---that keeps this endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict going. Even with moments of peace, one can't help but think, when's the next burst of violence going to happen?

Where is the United States in all of this, some have asked? Apparently, the U.S. is biding its time, according to a New York Times front page article today which suggests that the U.S. is allowing Israel to bomb Lebanon some more---"to degrade the capabilities of the Hezbollah militia, officials of the two countries [Israel and the U.S., I assume]---before sending Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to try to create some kind of buffer zone to curb Hezbollah's ability to obtain more rockets with which to bomb Israel. Sounds like a risky move, allowing the bombing to go on for another week before making its move. How many people in the international community will allow the U.S. to just sit on the situation like that, as more innocent Lebanese civilians die?

But then, the U.S. hasn't really done much intervening in this Israeli-Palestinian mess; it's been too busy with dealing with the Iraq situation and the Iran and North Korea threats. Certainly the latter two may be legitimate threats that must be dealt with, but the conflict between Israel and Palestine has been just as prominent in the world. President Bush's approach to the situation has basically been the same as his approach to other foreign situations: we don't negotiate with terrorists. Has that approach really worked, though, so far? It looks as if all sanctioning and isolation has done is to cause more violence against innocents.

When I hear news like this, I fight the urge to be cynical---cynicism comes too easily for me, and seems too easy a reaction. Sometimes I can't help it, though. All I can say is, hopefully something will be done to curb the violence soon.

Monday, July 17, 2006

You Shouldn't Do Drugs...Because They're Bad

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I don't think Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly (*** out of ****) is a great film, but it's still an intriguing, deeply personal, darkly (heh, darkly) funny and occasionally moving exploration into the effects of drug abuse on the mind and even in society as a whole.

I haven't read the Philip K. Dick sci-fi novel on which this film was based, but I've heard that it is one of Dick's most personal works, conceived in response to his own abuse of drugs and the effects it had on him as well as on his friends. That personal element thankfully survives in Linklater's film adaptation, which friends have told me is pretty faithful to the book. But the feeling behind the production also has a distinctly Linklaterian depth to it. Ever since his 1991 indie breakthrough Slacker, Linklater has always been interested in slacker characters who act in a way that could be seen as rebelling against societal norms, and some of that fascination makes its way into A Scanner Darkly---especially its first hour, which is perhaps the most Linklaterish in its emphasis on verbose dialogue (most of it, I assume, from Dick's novel). Characters like Robert Arctor (Keanu Reeves), Barris (Robert Downey, Jr.), Luckman (Woody Harrelson) and Donna (Winona Ryder) feel like quintessential Gen-X Linklater characters, the difference in this case being that most of them walk through this film in a drug-induced haze, always questioning what they see and what they know. Much of the dialogue in the film's first hour is funny in a black comic way, seething with undertones and forebodings of the tragedy to come.

A Scanner Darkly is a vision of the future as a police state, in which an epidemic of abuse of the drug Substance D has gripped the nation and caused the police to crack down on it and encourage everyone to rat each other out if anyone is suspected of using it. Integral to that vision is Linklater's use of rotoscoping animation---first used by the director in his 2001 film Waking Life---to render what might have seemed like the ordinary present in a hyper-stylized, hallucinatory manner that expresses not only the alienation of the characters within this society, but also puts the film at an ironic distance from the characters, and from us. Its main character is Robert Arctor, a guinea pig who was tapped long ago by the police---who know him as Fred---to root out Substance D pushers, but who has himself become addicted on the stuff. The film follows his decline, as his reality starts crashing down on him and he begins to question who exactly he's working for.

For me, the most powerful passages of A Scanner Darkly relate to the powerful sense of the walls tumbling down on Robert Arctor that fuels its second hour. As Fred is called upon to spy on Robert Arctor---in essence, to spy on himself---the film's plot becomes ever more complicated and Arctor becomes ever more isolated and despairing. When the film ends, you're left with a profound sense of a life wasted---which is, I suppose, as it should be when it turns out that Arctor himself has been used by someone else.

As I've said before, I don't think A Scanner Darkly is a great film. As storytelling, it's rather incoherent. One scene tends to jump into another without much rhyme or reason, and sometimes we enter into a subsequent scene wondering how it relates to the previous one. (Perhaps it's not meant to, after all; perhaps it's meant to contribute to the film's sense of disorientation.) While the look of the film is interesting, it isn't as consistently inventive as the rotoscoping work in Waking Life. (But then Waking Life is a much different type of film: a near-plotless philosophical musing on our existence. In terms of what A Scanner Darkly tries to portray, the animation serves its purpose, and is often intriguing to look at, what with its jelly-like feel to the actors' movements.) And, as a whole, the film perhaps doesn't go far enough in unearthing the emotions underlying the sci-fi drama; the whole thing is emotionally rather remote, and the ending, while moving, is maybe not as devastating as it could have been.

But A Scanner Darkly is still a fascinating and powerful experience all the same. Though it deals with the effects of drug abuse, it's not really meant to be a "message" movie. It not only deals with the drug abusers, but it also implicates the police as users themselves: users of people to meet their own ends. This is one that I'd certainly like to see again, either in the theater or on DVD.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Arrr, What a Mess!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - The only reason I decided to check out Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (** out of ****) tonight is that I was trying to keep up my one-movie-a-week quota, and I had missed this past weekened, what with work and The Scarlet Pimpernel keeping me busy. That and a film that I actually did want to see---Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly---wasn't playing in any nearby New Jersey theater. (This weekend Linklater's film is scheduled to come to Montgomery Cinemas; perhaps I should consider making the long trip.)

I missed the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie in theaters, but when I watched it on DVD recently, I felt that, even with an ending that allows Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to sail away and thus leave it open for further adventures, The Curse of the Black Pearl could probably stand alone just fine by itself. But money, of course, is power, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer decided to spare no expense on the special effects in this second money-grab go-round. Sea creature pirates, a giant octopus, and other CGI effects populate Dead Man's Chest, but the sad effect is that, this time around, the hardware outdoes the humanity, as so happens with many a big-budget action "epic." Individual sequences dazzle, of course---a three-way swordfight that somehow develops into a three-way chase sequence on an island is a well-coordinated wow, for instance. But by the end, as the film ends with a cliffhanger promising more---this film and the third film were shot back-to-back---initial mild interest may give way to mere indifference. How will they rescue a main character in the third film? Frankly, who cares?

The Curse of the Black Pearl may have been rather bloated itself, but at least it had a sense of fun, some fine swashbuckling, and that terrifically funny performance from Johnny Depp, which works so well just because it's so damn unexpected. A pirate as a drunken drag queen type? Who would have thought of it? The danger for Depp was that his mannerisms would perhaps become old-hat and tiresome in the sequel, but miraculously he manages to be just as irresistably watchable in Dead Man's Chest---perhaps even more so, because his gloriously mannered performance actually provide some genuine moments of relief amid its noisy, bombastic special-effects spectacle.

Depp's still funny in this one, and this sequel works well enough when it recalls some of the genuine pleasures of the original. But those pleasures are fleeting in this film: Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski have basically turned this into the usual blockbuster thrill ride, sacrificing narrative coherence for the sake of increasingly meaningless thrills. After a while, honestly, I just got bored, for the most part.

A few years ago, the Wachowski Brothers saw the huge success of their film The Matrix and decided to try to turn it into a franchise by extending its mythology to two more films. The Matrix Reloaded and ...Revolutions certainly raked in the cash, but the artistic returns were arguably diminishing, as each film got progressively heavier and more bombastic and pretentious. These filmmakers and producers seem to think that trying to outdo themselves in the special-effects and action department is the way to give audiences more bang for the buck. Soullessness is the result instead. Parts of Dead Man's Chest are boring in the same way that most of The Matrix Revolutions was boring: a lot of nonstop noisy action for very little purpose, and barely a hint of emotion or intellect to support it. There's no vision in those films, really: only the desire to make more money. (Well, I guess the case is a little more complicated in the case of the Matrix sequels, especially Reloaded, which had its moments of brilliance.)

Thank goodness I was able to see it for free at Megamovies. Why support such blatantly capitalistic cinematic efforts monetarily?

Oh, but I better watch what I say. I may end up having to eat those words next summer if I actually decide to see Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Hypocrisy? Well, maybe. Consider it me trying to get into some kind of film-critic-like swing of things, seeing things that interest me alongside things that may not. If you are devoted to your favorite art, you take the good with the bad. And Dead Man's Chest, though not awful, was kinda on the bad side.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Brief Life Update No. 4: Work Work Work

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - So I haven't updated much this past week, partly because I've been getting more matinee (day) shifts at Megamovies, partly because I've tried to catch up with movie-watching at nights, and partly because I haven't been much in the mood to update. Strangely enough, I have a very light schedule---too light for my liking; I'll get to that in a bit---coming up this coming week, so I might be updating a bit more...if I feel like it.

Today I had a matinee shift, but they put me at the much less busy East Box Office. And after about three hours of occasional bits of business followed by long dull stretches, the manager on duty today decided to spare me and send me home early.

This is not the first time this has happened; this usually happens to me whenever I'm placed at the East Box Office during the day. I guess I should be happy about going home early, but at the same time...I wanna earn money, you know.

The manager told me that he would talk to Mr. Brady, the guy who does the scheduling, and suggest that anyone he decides to put at the East Box Office in the future should perhaps come in at, say, 2 p.m. instead of the morning and let that person stick around until around 9:30 or 10 p.m., when the Brunswick Square Mall closes. It sounds like a good idea to me, and hopefully Mr. Brady will be receptive to the idea, although, since I guess a 2-10 p.m. shift straddles both matinee and evening hours, I wonder if it would pose a problem for him scheduling-wise somehow.

By the way, it's $6.50/hr. like I originally thought. It's less---rock-bottom minimum wage, $6.15 an hour. Whoopee.

I'm also considering whether I should consider continuing this during the school year somehow. I know someone at Megamovies who only works one or two days on the weekend. I wonder if Mr. Brady would allow me to do something like that in the future. That said, because of my projected new duties as Inside Beat film editor, I'd probably not be able to work Sundays, at least during the day. And what about future movie reviews? I'd need the Saturday to see a film and then write about it. So I'm not sure how flexible I could actually be during school weekends. Well, I still have time to figure that shit out.


New Pulse article here! It's ostensibly about this series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), but actually it's more about Alfred Hitchcock's eternal classic Psycho and what makes it not just an effective horror thriller, but a deeply disturbing look into the madmen in all of us. I saw the film again on DVD recently in preparation for the article, and I really noticed a lot of new things this time around, especially Hitchcock's framing. In the scene where Norman Bates talks to Marion Crane just before she steps into that fateful motel shower, I couldn't help but notice the way the stuffed birds in the room were framed to look as if they were looking directly at Norman, wings spread, ready to swoop in at any moment. (Those stuffed birds certainly don't look harmless to me!) Many of the shots in that one scene are framed with a bird either right behind a character or to the right of the character, I think often out of focus. (Notice Marion's last name, too---"crane." Not sure if I've figured out how that fits in with Hitchcock's scheme of things, but it's an interesting touch.) Alfred Hitchcock really was more than merely the "Master of Suspense," and it'd be a great disservice to his art if people simply looked at his films from a technical standpoint, because classics like Psycho, Rear Window and especially Vertigo have a lot more to offer than mere skillful suspense craftsmanship.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Stream of Consciousness No. 4: Let's Put On a Show

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - These days, Broadway musical theater just doesn't excite me as much as it used to. The "let's-put-on-a-show" enthusiasm of a lot of famous Broadway musicals often strikes me as energetic trivialities, and I'd be hardpressed to remember the content or even the songs of many of the ones I've seen (although, that said, compared to how many films I've seen over the years, the number of musicals I've seen is relatively few). Sorry if that makes me sound like a grinch, but honestly: film simply intrigues and excites me more than Broadway musical theater, which, to be honest, seems less and less relevant by the year---except, perhaps, as a New York City tourist attraction for myself, I guess.

Still, I suppose I'm not immune to the possibility of at least having a good time at a Broadway musical, and so sometimes I will go see one, whether or not it's on Broadway or simply being put on by a community group. Which is why I suppose I decided to go see Plays in the Park's most recent production of The Scarlet Pimpernel tonight. Heck, I had nothing better to do anyway, since I took a day off from Megamovies.

I don't really have much to say about the musical itself---technically, it was a well-mounted production, although some of the humor seemed labored, and Billy Piscopo's central performance as the British nobleman who becomes known as the Scarlet Pimpernel struck me as wildly uneven (conceptually interesting at best, garishly unfunny and irritating at worst). But, as I watched The Scarlet Pimpernel, I found myself concentrating less on the music and lyrics, and more on the themes and satiric undertones of the show. It seems that my habit of looking out for such things while watching films has a tendency to translate to the way I look at other art forms, even if I suspect I probably should be looking at something different for a theater production as opposed to a film.

The most interesting thing I picked up about The Scarlet Pimpernel is its connection of actors to the outward images we project towards people. At least two of the main characters in Pimpernel---the main character and his French actress wife---are keeping identity secrets from each other, and in order to cover up their identites---as a do-gooder rogue in Sir Percy Blakeney's case, as a French spy in his French wife's case---they put on facades...facades that hurt each other in the process. I haven't read the original novel by Baroness Orczy, but I wonder if she was suggesting something about how people believing in outward images led France into the Reign of Terror in the first place: using the ideals of the French Revolution to justify mass slaughter.

That's the kind of stuff I thought about as I watched the stage musical adaptation. Not about how catchy the tunes were (although I think "Into the Fire" is probably the most memorable tune, in my mind), or how fancy the costumes were or how convincing the sets were. Instead, I thought more about the kind of stuff I'd think about at a movie: if there are any consistent themes to the film, and how those themes are expressed. I'll probably never have much of an intellectual capacity for writing authoritatively about plays and musicals as I believe I can about film. (But heck, if a newspaper or web publication is willing to grant me to space to give it a try, I'll do it. Freelance writer Stephen Metcalf was allowed to rant about how overrated The Searchers was over at the online magazine Slate, even though his deliberate attack on us "film geeks" simply exposes how little he understands film as an art. I wonder if the piece was actually meant to be taken seriously, or if it's just Metcalf's attempt at getting a cheap rise out of people.)

Dunno if there was a real point to this post, but make of it what you will, heh.

Oh, and for the record: the best musical I've seen is probably a Livingston Theater Company production of A Chorus Line. A Chorus Line is probably the most brilliant and moving musical I've seen, less memorable for its tunes (I guess "One" is its signature number, although I've always thought it was a terribly awkward fit at the end of the musical, giving it a false sense of Broadway-style uplift) than for its seemingly honest and sensitive take on the hard life backstage.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Yippee-kayyay, motherfucker!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - New contribution to Matt Zoller Seitz's "House Next Door" blog here: an appreciation of one of the best action films I've seen, Die Hard. Hey, it's not a particularly deep movie, but it offers much more than the usual action genre film, and that's what I try to explore in the piece. Enjoy!


Today, for some reason, we received a copy of the Daily News even though we don't subscribe to that paper at all.

Remember that today they had an exclusive story about a terrorist plot to bomb the Holland Tunnel in order to flood lower Manhattan that was foiled.

Perhaps this is their way of boasting?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Comic Book Jesus

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I've been meaning to pool more extensive thoughts on Bryan Singer's Superman Returns (**½ out of ****), which I saw a couple of days ago, but, with the 4th of July, work at Megamovies, and an essay about Die Hard---yes, you heard right---that I've been working on since yesterday for Matt Zoller Seitz's "House Next Door" blog, I haven't had the time (or, to be honest, the will) to sit down and write my usual long, detailed take on the film.

But I want to say at least a little something about this film, because Superman Returns is not like any comic-book movie I've seen. Seriously.

In my experience watching comic-book movie adaptations---from Richard Donner's 1978 Superman and Tim Burton's two Batman films to more recent fare like Sam Raimi's Spiderman films; Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's (vastly overrated) Sin City; and last year's revival of the Batman franchise, Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins---I've never seen a comic-book movie that actually got me examining my own religious beliefs like Superman Returns did after I walked out of the movie theater.

Because, as it turns out, religious fervor plays a big role in explaining why, in spite of my mostly secular self, I found myself entranced by the imagery of the film even as I found myself less than fully exhilarated by the special effects and performances.

In Superman Returns, Bryan Singer seems to be trying to give the Superman legend the feel of an American myth. This is Superman as a Christ figure for a people who need a hero, need the defender of truth, justice, and the American way. Not everyone responds to this collective need, of course: obviously, Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) doesn't believe in Superman, preferring to pursue his own selfish desires; and, for a while, intrepid Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) believes that a world without Superman is a better place. In a way, Superman Returns is about---among many other things---Lois' eventual conversion back into the ranks of Superman worshippers, and about Luthor's eventual comeuppance for his lack of belief.

In other words, it is about the typical conflict between good and evil, but in a passionately religious manner that dares to take good-versus-evil seriously---more than you can say for a lot of Hollywood action films, which basically take good versus evil for granted, as a springboard for whatever fancy special effects and brutal violence a filmmaker can dream up. Good, of course, eventually wins out, but when it does, it doesn't feel like simply Hollywood cliche---good winning out just because, by the requirements of Hollywood formula, it has to---but a genuine hard-won triumph, an affirmation of the goodness of people.

And damned if I wasn't at least a little moved by Singer's conviction, which spills over into some of the beautiful imagery in this film. Superman, eyes closed, hovering above the earth and trying to listen to all the voices; Superman hoisting the Daily Planet globe in what looks like a recreation of the famous cover illustration adorning Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged; Superman getting beaten up like a tortured Christ by Luthor's goons before he is pushed off a cliff---there are countless other examples of the kind of expressive visual poetry that Singer uses to basically tell his story, which eventually turns into a kind of Passion play in which Superman has to suffer before he reawakens, with a nation once again grateful for his reemergence into the landscape. I guess Singer's innocence and belief in this mythical story is what dazzled me more and more after I saw the film; it tells in every shiny, wondrous frame of this film.

Superman Returns , admittedly isn't as great a film as it could have been. At 2½ hours, it probably is a bit too long and sluggishly paced for its own good. Another problem is with what I perceive as a lack of involvement in the big action sequences. I suppose, being that this is a Hollywood blockbuster production after all, the film had to deliver the kind of special effects and action fireworks that most moviegoers expect from the genre. The special effects are generally impressive; really, they make the effects in the 1978 Superman---impressive in its day---look almost amateurish by comparison. But honestly, I found myself almost bored as I watched some of the major setpieces. Maybe it's simply because Superman's super-strength inherently drains the suspense out of the rescue scenes: as much as Singer tries to keep you guessing as to whether Superman will save the day, it's obvious that he (or "He"?) will; he's Superman, of course! But overall, the impression I get is that Singer is employing these special effects and focusing on Lex Luthor's evil plans simply out of duty: marking time (however impressively) before he's able to unleash his inner graphic artist and let rip with all the Jesus-like imagery he can muster in the final act.

And I wasn't very thrilled by the acting, either. Brandon Routh isn't bad, I suppose, but he lacks Christopher Reeve's personality. Yeah, Clark Kent is meant to give off a deceptive ordinary-Joe image, but Reeve never came off as merely bland, as Routh does. The Lois Lane of Superman Returns is, I guess, meant to be seen as domesticated compared to the Lois Lane of the first two Superman films; and, by that standard, Kate Bosworth does fairly well here. But I admit that I miss Margot Kidder's faintly Katharine Hepburn-ish style. And, as Luthor, I found Kevin Spacey a bit of a disappointment, lacking the juice and evil relish one would expect from an actor who so memorably portrayed the essence of Hollywood egomania in Swimming With Sharks. (And yeah, I did miss Gene Hackman in the role.)

Despite all its flaws, however, Superman Returns somehow manages to get to you in the end. Any movie that manages to find some kind of fresh angle to the typical action-movie conflict between good and evil deserves some kind of recognition in my book, especially if it is as eloquently done as it is in passages of this film.

Whether or not any of the film's religious aspirations will resonate with anyone is up to individual taste. I wavered back and forth as I watched the film: I was tempted to snicker at its pretensions at first, but then I found myself awed at Singer's visual invention in the third act. In the end, I respect Singer's sincerity and full commitment to his material, even as I remain a little skeptical as to whether his attempt at a kind of religious allegory ultimately means anything other than providing an unusual gloss on yet another cinematic comic book. But if you're looking for one of the most visually transcendent comic book movies to come out of Hollywood this summer, look no further.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

A Rather Moving Surprise

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - As I await the return of a friend of mine so we can go see Superman Returns together, yesterday I decided to catch up on a movie that I had missed last weekend.

So I decided to check out, of all things, Click (**½ out of ****), the high-tech high-concept comedy starring Adam Sandler. And you know what? It was a little better---certainly more moving---than I had thought it would be.

Last week, I had made some statements in a blog entry about how I thought Click, based on the trailer, looked like a return to form for Sandler as a popular comedian: sophomoric humor based on adolescent rage and aggression that tries to turn sappy and "adult" at the end by showing Sandler's usual persona trying to grow up. I could tell Click was going to attempt more dramatic territory by the end. What I didn't expect was that it would turn into a variation on Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (recently crowned the most inspirational movie ever made by the American Film Institute)---and that, for most of the time, it would actually work.

I'll admit: I was mildly interested in seeing Adam Sandler's newest film. Over the years, I've basically fallen in line with all of the professional critics who bash his films, who give off the impression that they are above his adolescent humor and macho aggression. And, being that I certainly want people to think of me as "highbrow," I've usually fallen in line with the critical hype against him, dismissing comedies like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore as simply childish entertainments that no "thoughtful" viewer would dare enjoy (although I did enjoy The Waterboy). So I suppose I was interested in Click to see if my more intelligent, free-thinking current self would somehow think differently of Sandler and his brand of humor.

On the basis of Click, I think I can understand where his popularity comes from. Yes, the humor in the film's first hour is sophomoric and vulgar, but buried underneath the gross-out gags and broad sex jokes is a distinct sensibility: that of a perverse Everyman male adolescent who likes to secretly lash out at those above him as far as income and class go. For that reason, Click features a running gag with Sandler's harried architect father Michael Newman showing his resentment towards a neighboring kid whose family seems to have everything---a new bike, a new RV---that Michael wants. In a way, it's the kind of anti-establishment fratboy humor that made National Lampoon's Animal House immensely popular in the late 1970s.

Click adds a bit more to Sandler's usual persona, though, with its high-concept gimmick: the idea of a remote control that can control a man's universe (thus, universe-al remote control---get it?). When Morty (Christopher Walken, playing yet another one of his endearing flakes) gives Michael the remote, Michael uses it for his own selfish ends: fast-forwarding through arguments and family dinners, trying to go back to the past to dish out old forgotten memories, etc. The elaborations on the one-joke premise are often funny and sometimes inventive, but on a deeper level, it's a little sad---how Michael seems to want everything without really working for it---in a way that the movie itself doesn't seem willing to explore...

...until its second hour, that is. This is when Click, surprisingly, becomes a comic nightmare in the vein of the Clarence sequences in It's a Wonderful Life, as the remote begins to fast-forward through years of his life and he begins to slowly realize what he's truly missing in his current lifestyle. Years of going through his life on autopilot has caused his wife (Kate Beckinsale) to leave him, caused his father (Henry Winkler) to leave this earth without knowing how much Michael truly loved him, and so on. Click might have settled for a comforting lesson at the end of the film, but this isn't Big Daddy, and the writers, Steven Koren and Mark O'Keefe (who also wrote Bruce Almighty), goes into progressively darker waters before it climaxes with a scene where Michael runs out in the rain---attempting to impart a lesson to his son---falls on the ground, and seemingly dies.

All of this should feel sappy and corny and even a little ruthless and manipulative. And granted, there are a few small moments when you might feel that Sandler and director Frank Coraci are pushing the boundaries of good taste in their tearjerking. (At one point, Michael uses the remote to go back to the moment he saw his father before he died, and he's so disappointed at the careless way he treated his father that he can't help but cue back the moment when his father selflessly says to him that he loves him; he repeats it so often that I was almost tempted to cry out, "Yeah, we get the point; Michael treated him like nothing and he regrets it!") But, remarkably, those missteps are few and far between: instead, I found myself rather moved by the filmmakers' conviction in carrying off these Capra-esque scenes. Call me naive or a sap, but I found myself touched by Click.

Not to suggest that this is some kind of comic masterpiece, mind you. It doesn't quite go the distance in deconstructing the Sandler persona as Paul Thomas Anderson tried to do in the absurdist (and awfully mannered and precious) Punch-Drunk Love: it doesn't reveal the deeper layers underneath Sandler's surface hostility and sexism as much as it seems like Sandler wants to. The puerility still remains, and while some of it is amusing, some of it simply seems like Sandler himself on autopilot. (I could have done without Rachel Dratch's Alice, for instance, a secretary at Michael's workplace who always asks Michael if she can go to the bathroom.) But I appreciated the film's attempt, and I thought it worked more often than it failed.

As for Sandler himself: well, he's still not an actor of a wide range, and he's not intelligent enough to convince us that a person like Michael Newman could actually become a big-shot architect at any business. But I think his sincerity and innocent charm as an actor makes up for quite a bit in Click: at the end, you believe that Michael Newman wholeheartedly wants to change. He's far from a great actor, but he has proved that he can be a sensitive one before: his performance in James L. Brooks' underrated Spanglish---maybe his finest to date, Punch-Drunk lovers be damned---had an emotional authenticity and thoughtfulness that he occasionally shows here.

Most of the professional critics have pretty much conformed to tradition in bashing Click (the last time I checked, it's rating was 30%), and maybe they're not wrong in being offended at what they consider its emotional vulgarity in daring to ape It's a Wonderful Life and risk sentimentality. Maybe, at my young age, I simply have a weakness for sentimentality that will eventually harden into cynicism as I grow older. But if it isn't overly insistent, and if it's done with integrity and feeling, as I think it is in Click, I'll have no trouble falling for it without apology. Certainly, a movie like Click---a movie that's a little more ambitious than it at first seems---deserves more than a pan on autopilot from most critics.