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Subjective slants, and other things

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After posting the Cloverfield review, I looked around to see what others were saying, and I have since spoken to other friends who’ve seen the film, and I learned something interesting.

Not everyone agrees with my assessment of the film.

And that’s OK – I’m not so pretentious to believe my opinion is always the right one.  Opinions differ.  Christianity Today gave it 3 ½ starsLibertas only gave it one. I’d’ve probably given it two – on one or two levels, the film does succeed.  I shy away from rating films that way because it can be so subjective. 

The way I see it, a review is just my take, and in the case of Cloverfield, there was not a lot of time between watching the film and writing about it.  Sometimes art takes time to penetrate.  My opinion could change.  As of this writing, it still stands. 

One conversation at work this morning resembled an old Siskel and Ebert exchange.  My friend looked at the film as something in the vein of the old Gojira films – a simple concept running on simple execution. There’s a lot of merit to that perspective; the filmmakers themselves have said that was what they were shooting for. 

One of the challenges I have whenever I write a review is stepping outside of my own perspective and letting the work speak for itself.  Cloverfield tells a simple story set against a violent and gargantuan upheaval.  That the simpler aspects annoy me says more about me than the actual film, and perhaps I need to do a better job delineating the two when I write one of these. 

Reviews ought to dialog.  Disagreements will abound, and their validity or merit will depend on any number of factors.  Writing about art requires the writer to bring part of him(or her)self into the work.  So I’ve read, anyway.  My annoyance, then, does carry some weight.  The artists involved may have achieved the goal they set out to reach; it does not mean that I have to like it.  I do believe, however, that it warrants an acknowledgement at the very least. 

I still feel very green when it comes to writing reviews.  I look at some of the ones I wrote two, or even one, years ago, and I can see where I’ve grown.  I read Overstreet, Chattaway and Ebert, and I see I still have a long way to go. 

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Written by taj

April 24, 2008 at 12:57 pm

Smash Cut – “Cloverfield”

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It’s not easy to admit this. But they say confession starts the process of healing, so I’m just going to lay it out there. I ignored the reviews. I ignored my friends’ advice. I even ignored my own good sense. I was duped, see — caught up in the enthusiasm that anyone who can set up film so spectacularly has to deliver a terrific pay off. My pride’s only recourse is that no one can count me among the hapless many that shelled out full price for a ticket to see the disastrous train wreck that is Cloverfield.

It’s Robert Hawkins’s last night in Manhattan. His friends have all gathered to wish him well while one compadre totes a video camera around to capture everyone’s goodbyes—and the entire film happens through its lens.

A jolting earthquake brings everything to a halt. Everyone heads to the roof of this posh Manhattan apartment complex to see all the action, just in time to witness a cataclysmic explosion erupt in the city, spewing debris. Hawkins and his buddies evacuate the building, just in time (you’ll find yourself repeating this phrase a lot) to see the head of the Statue of Liberty crash into the streets of New York. A monster has invaded the city!

It’s a near-flawless logline; the perfect set up to a 90 minute disaster flick, and difficult to screw up. Somehow, the filmmakers actually manage to do just that. Thankfully, it only lasts about 73 minutes.

The marketing for this film was brilliant, releasing a quick trailer six months ahead revealing the premise, the creative minds attached, and a release date. No title. Audiences went crazy with speculation. Everyone started hoping to relive the Blair Witch phenomenon. The downfall started once we learned the title — an enigmatic name various web sites had floated from the beginning; a name with no relevance to anything in the film, implied or imagined, at all. And that’s just a precursor.

This near-flawless premise comes polluted with cookie-cutter iterations of any number of shallow personalities found on the WB’s line up. There’s the jilted lover, the lover’s hip brother, the brother’s endearing girlfriend, and the token slacker/best friend who just can’t keep his mouth shut. And they all have to find Hawkins’s girlfriend, trapped in her apartment. Conveniently located at the epicenter of the monster’s inexplicable wrath. On the 39th floor.

They have no choice, you see. Remember all those rescue workers, those heroes, that gave themselves and often their lives on 9-11? They’re conspicuously missing from this picture. Perhaps there is no emergency responder for convoluted plotlines.

When the performances captured in the trailers look and sound more natural than those used in the final cut, something’s amiss. Running on the premise that everything you see was supposedly culled from home video footage, spontaneity becomes a key selling point. Everything about this picture feels forced or manufactured.

Critics have drawn numerous parallels between this movie and the other “home video” thriller – The Blair Witch Project – and comparisons should end with the inclusion of the video camera. The terror of Blair Witch was elemental; it played on base fears, building on that oft ignored rule that what you can’t see is much scarier than what you can. Where Blair Witch terrifies, Cloverfield only inspires guffaws. So many scares spurn utterances of “I-seen-that-one-coming” that you wonder why the movie bothers to take itself so seriously. One particular scene might have earned a place among the more chilling moments to come out of the genre in recent years, were it not so delimited by cliché.

I really wanted to like this picture, yet every time I find a compliment, a qualifier has to follow. For instance, the film possesses some amazing visuals, but nothing that surpasses anything seen all the other times Hollywood has blown up New York. The filmmakers involved in this project – Drew Goddard, J.J. Abrams, etc. – have earned numerous accolades for their work on television for years. Not quite sure what happened here, but for all its marketing innovation, Cloverfield falls well short of what should have been a slam dunk.

(photo (c) Paramount Pictures)

Written by taj

April 22, 2008 at 10:12 pm

Smash Cut – “The Forbidden Kingdom”

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Folklore follows a particular template, as most stories within a genre will do from time to time. The Forbidden Kingdom follows that template almost to the letter, and in many respects, it actually works in favor of the film. It’s the surprises that elevate it from just another mediocre kung-fu movie into an enjoyable little ride that doesn’t require a lot of effort.

Teenage kung-fu junkie Jason Tripitakus (Michael Arangano, Seabiscuit) buys bootleg martial arts DVDs off an old Chinese shop owner when he isn’t at home watching them, or asleep, dreaming about them. His dreams take him into a tale of the Monkey King — the ancient character of Chinese folklore, originally conceived four hundred years ago as an allegory for the fabled monk, Xi You Ji.

The film borrows particular elements of the legend — the king’s rebellious nature, and his defiance of authority — but twists them to suit its plot. Instead of earning the wrath of the Jade Emperor, the Monkey King’s pluck gains him favor among the powers on high, until he is betrayed by the Jade Warlord, and cast into stone. Upon his imprisonment, he flings his magical staff far from the kingdom, to await its return by a prophesied warrior.

Naturally, upon visiting the shop for more DVDs, Jason stumbles on to the old bo staff. On his way to school, some punks rough him up and discover his haul of illicit media. They force Jason to let them into the shop, where they proceed to search for cash, trash the store, and shoot the owner. As the owner struggles, he pushes the staff into Jason’s hands, and breathes an order — return this to its rightful master. As he escapes the pursuant punks, Jason falls, and somehow plummets into ancient China.

Once in China, Jason quickly meets the rest of his fellowship, intercut with ample opportunities to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li work their own fun and fabled magic. Fight choreographer Wu-Ping Yuen delivers, as usual, though he does recall in places the tired duels of Neo and Smith.

Themes of revenge, courage and immortality rear their familiar heads, but the filmmakers wisely avoid the temptation to force feed their points. Plenty of fighting, plenty of war, and the plot sticks to stock development. In a few places, it even recalls The NeverEnding Story. Fifteen minutes in, a discerning viewer can probably piece together most of the plot, and its resolution. The script doesn’t ever reach a significant level of depth, but it never aspires to. It manages to land a couple successful twists, if one were not so inclined to check out IMDB before heading to the theater, that is. Otherwise, even those secrets are easily spoiled.

Its one gaffe might rest on the lazy inclusion of a crucifix, which hangs around the neck of — you guessed it — the greasy punk who likes to beat up our hero. Yet, considering hoodlum and gang iconography, one could argue for its accuracy. Kingdom treads comfortable waters. It neither challenges, nor instructs, but it does provide an escape, at least worth the price of a matinée if you’ve got a couple hours to kill. Folklore nerds and kung-fu geeks will likely get the most out of this one. Everyone else be sure to check your brain at the door.

(photo (c) Lionsgate)

Written by taj

April 20, 2008 at 1:15 am

Smash Cut – Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

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Back in November, I had the opportunity to screen an early cut of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed — Ben Stein’s documentary examining the issue of Intelligent Design, its relation to academia, and of the embargoes placed on the careers of educators who raise any questions regarding the strengths of Darwin’s popular theory.

At the time, everyone at the screening was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, so I put any hope of posting a review out of my head for the time being. In January, I was fortunate enough to see the film again — a new cut this time, albeit still covered under the aforementioned NDA.

The NDA lifted several weeks ago, and by that time, the pages of notes I had taken at the second screening didn’t jive as well as they would have had I bothered to go ahead and write a review then. So, here are my thoughts, many weeks delayed…

Most people familiar with Ben Stein know of his erudite wit and expansive writing and teaching careers. He has, in his vast library of accomplishments, served as a lawyer, professor of economics, and as a presidential speech writer. But one of Stein’s lesser known attributes includes his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. His deep respect and admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. continues to compel him in every manner of his professional acumen, including this documentary, due in theaters this April.

The film’s thesis rests on one of the core foundational aspects of what Dr. King often called the “dream” of America. Part of the glory of America, the film states, is the freedom for anyone to believe anything he or she wishes without fear of reciprocation. Whenever the tenets of Darwinism have faced any significant challenge within the academic community, the film contends, voices of dissent find their mouths duct-taped shut.

Stein begins the film in a lecture hall, his trademark voice setting up the premise, intercut between various statements from personalities you come to know quite well over the next 90 minutes or so. The narrative launch pad picks up the story of Dr. Richard Von Sternberg, who in 2004 endured various kinds of persecution after publishing a paper for the Smithsonian Institution written by noted scientist Stephen Meyer.

Meyer’s paper essentially took a look under the hood of Darwinism, and suggested that the study of Intelligent Design (ID) had raised some very important questions. After its publication, Sternberg, having now earned the moniker of “intellectual terrorist” from some of his peers, eventually resigned his post, stating that he was told the Smithsonian would not seek to renew its relationship with him.

To address the assumption that this story represents a singular incident within scientific academia, the film spends some time with and lists name after name of highly credentialed scholars and scientists whose academic careers have faced significant obstacles for even mentioning that ID raises questions that Darwin’s theory has been unable, or is ill-equipped, to answer.

The majority of the narrative follows the news magazine/feature approach. Stein works fast through the material with enough good humor to make all of the science accessible to a general audience. The film’s use of metaphor and juxtaposition paint a clever presentation. Old archival footage of the 1961 construction of the Berlin Wall sets up some of the more ominous pay offs later on. But Stein keeps the tone light at first, punctuating his points with quick anecdotes, old film clips and cheap animation. The effect works — one assertive visual involves popular scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins, and several million slot machines — and friends, Vegas never looked so good.

As the film throttles into its second act, the cultural implications of Darwin’s theory come under Stein’s radar, and the film takes a sharp turn toward the realm of the truly serious. The connection between Darwinism and Nazism — of particular interest to Stein, an orthodox Jew — brings this issue out from the walls of high science and into the pages of humanity’s recent photo albums.

The switch in tone here might turn some away; the implications presented are certainly worth exploring, and only a piece of a gargantuan puzzle. The segment, however, sets up an intentional reveal, demonstrated in the later comments of noted biologist P.Z. Myers. Here, Stein renders a haunting rhetorical correlation between the dark pasts of Germany’s Nazism, America’s own eugenics movement in the 1920s, and the ideological wall that separates the study of ID and Darwinism today.

In the closing acts, we’re led to a meeting between Stein, and one man who would personify the intensity, passion and determination of the scientific community’s assertion that Darwin’s theory marks the scientific and cultural benchmark for the belief of life’s origins: Richard Dawkins. And the resultant conversation becomes one of those rare remarkable moments that makes going to the movies special. I can’t give it away — it’s just best to let Dawkins explain it to you himself.

Stein’s film covers a wide breadth of scientific and cultural anthropology, centered on its central thesis that an ideological wall prevents scientists from questioning the status quo. The questioning of popular authority, the film concludes, finds allowance in every other sector of American dialog and exchange, except in the realm of science and academia.

To quote Stein, “people that are confident in their ideas are not afraid of criticism.” If Stein’s objective is merely to cast a light on a frightening facet of freedom’s suppression, then his success may have preceded the film’s release. Judging by the enormous, vitriolic response the film has already received — and demonstrated well in the comments of this post over at Looking Closer — the prospect of cracking this wall appears to riddle some with terrible dread. And that’s really too bad. Because the implications involved in denying freedom have only ever led to one end. Revolution.

(photo (c) Premise Media Group)

Written by taj

March 25, 2008 at 5:39 pm

TV Review – Knight Rider

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Some friends have asked my opinion, so I’m gonna make this real quick:

The plot tries hard to look original while playing with too many clichés; the car looks cool, but only amounts to flashy product placement considering how many times the camera zeroes in on the Cobra emblem; and each character (save for Bruce Davison — wasted here) looks like a perfect candidate for Stephen J. Cannell should he ever decide to resurrect 21 Jump Street

Just plain awful. 

Written by taj

February 27, 2008 at 5:42 pm

Smash Cut – Juno

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UPDATE: Diablo Cody just won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

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Comedies tend to fair well when they can find that just-right blend of sincerity and irreverence, the kind that affects without offense, and gives without insult. This is, by no means, a cut and dry formula—sometimes, insults are called for. Irreverence can reach too far, or it can hit just the right note, and almost no creative effort gets it exactly right. Almost. Director Jason Reitman (son of the great Ivan Reitman), however, strikes it pretty close to the bull’s eye with Juno. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by taj

February 23, 2008 at 10:38 pm

Smash Cut – One Missed Call

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(originally posted at Infuze Magazine – 01/11/2008)

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The horror/scary movie genre has seen better times. Hollywood still likes to pop a few out every year, and the draw of the genre remains an argumentative topic. Cheap thrills always score high, whether they’re found in amusement parks or captured on celluloid. Once in a while, the genre allows for a terse and sometimes profound examination of deeper matters. But there are few remaining original scares among the current crop, many of which amount to poor remakes billed solely on the gross-out factor. Others, however, have turned toward the assortment of material popular in Japan, like One Missed Call.

As Beth Raymond (Shannyn Sossamon, The Holiday, Dirt) counsels her friend Leann through a recent break-up, an odd ring tone chirps from the Leann’s cell phone. “One missed call,” the phone’s display reads, bearing the next day’s date. They listen to the message, and hear the eerie sounds of the Leann’s final words just before she dies. The next evening, creeped out by odd visions of bugs and distorted faces, Leann dials Beth, who races to meet her friend and walk her home. But Beth is too late — and over the phone, she hears the very same events heard on the voicemail from the previous night.

Connected to these events is Detective Jack Andrews (Edward Burns, The Holiday), whose sister recently died in a similar “accident.” As the ring tone haunts more of Beth’s friends, she and Jack trace the call’s origins.

The film opens with a decent hook, though awkward dialog (pinched a little by worse delivery) plagues the first act and nearly kills the building suspense. Things start to roll as the second act opens, however, and the filmmakers land a solid scare. Beth and Jack begin to back track the victims, digging up the secrets of a family recently involved in a horrific tragedy, and the film skirts ever so closely to real depth here.

This is a lean film, though, running just shy of 90 minutes. The plot tantalizes and moves along pretty fast, but before it’s through, starts to fall into some of the same traps that Scream satirized so well.

A couple of hang-ups include a televangelist/reality show host interested in the story, allowing for some religious iconography to add to the tepid eeriness (for more conservative viewers, this might come off as slightly offensive, though it is refreshing to see that the odd religious guys are not the ones responsible for all the doom). An opportunity for a strong subplot fizzles thereabouts, and the scares become increasingly dependent on synthesized sound effects and loud bangs instead of character nuances.

Based on Takashi Miike’s film Chakushin Ari (2003), One Missed Call‘s resolution pays solid homage to the country’s inspired storytelling trend: ambiguity. Audiences in Japan enjoy open-ended resolutions, a facet that hasn’t really caught on here in the States, but those familiar with the trend ought not to have a problem.

Given the right story, such resolutions can punctuate a film quite well (consider Katsuhiro Otomo’s brilliant anime classic, Akira), though the effect here doesn’t land quite so well, and will leave some people scratching their heads.

(edited by Sam Gaines)

Written by taj

February 7, 2008 at 8:36 am