Inception

By , August 31, 2010 7:39 pm

Clay Chastain's plan to revitalize downtown Kansas City.

I’m not going to try to top the already lengthy interwebs discussion on this movie, but this argument that “Inception” is flawed dream logic is dumb.  Paging Dr. Freud, not all dreams are nonsensical free associations revolving around Jungian archetypes.  If we understand dreams more simply, the processing of subconscious ideas, then Christopher Nolan is onto something very potent here.

As the movie explains it, “inception” is planting of an idea deep in the subconscious.  Eventually, that idea worms its way to surface and manifests itself in the real world.  Jung would agree.  Modern neuroscience would too.  To some, dreams manifest themselves in a kind of freeform, what we might call “dreamscapes.”  Think Michel Gondry and “The Science of Sleep,” for example.  Others are more left-brain thinkers; we manifest dreams in very organized patterns. 

“Inception” seems like Nolan’s response to the nonsensical cinema in which random stuff is thrown together with lots of color and called “dreamscape” or “dream logic” or something of the sort.  Nolan argues that dreaming also manifests itself in logical, organized patterns:  Architecture is its own organized dreamscape.  Nolan then merges science and art—the metaphorical left and right brain, if you will—in a scene where a dream of a city is turned into MC Escher’s “Relativity.”  The plot revolves around an evil corporation, which in itself is the real-world manifestation of an entrepreneurial idea—in law, a corporation is referred to as a “legal fiction” because it’s not real; it’s an invention of the courts. 

Once we make this leap, the movie becomes much more complex—perhaps even a statement about filmmaking itself.  The point is that dreams don’t have to not make sense to make sense.  Dreams can and do make sense, especially when unconscious ideas are folded out in the real world.  That Nolan creates a coherent narrative out of the five levels of “Inception” is not cinematic trickery—it’s the entire point.

The Pitch:

2 1/2 Memento

2 1/2 Memento

2 1/2 Memento

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

2 M.C. Escher's "Relativity"

2 M.C. Escher's "Relativity"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

4 1/2 Inception 4 1/2 Inception

4 1/2 Inception

4 1/2 Inception

4 1/2 Inception

Expendables, The

By , August 28, 2010 4:27 pm

There used to be two Planet Hollywoods over there.

Reviewed by James Owen

It’s clear that director/star/ co-writer Sylvester Stallone was torn between tones with “The Expendables”: On one hand, he wants a “The Wild Bunch” feel of old warriors facing tests of loyalty despite the selfish desire to continue riding off into the sunset. On the other, Stallone wants an ironic, detached homage to the action films that made him so popular in the 1980’s.

But what does the audience want?  Old school Stallone fans want something out of the glory days (?) of “Rambo III” and “Cobra.”  Younger fans want the limits pushed, whatever that means these days.

The problem is that Stallone can’t do all of this at the same time.  His effort to throwback to those Cold War flicks lacks perspective—he doesn’t show us how the world, or Stallone himself, has changed. The result is Stallone, rather than trying to maturely redefine himself, comes off like the middle-aged guy throwing a couple extra ten pound plates on his bench bar at the gym.

A pity, because Stallone’s story (co-written with Dave Callaham) has serious contemporary implications. “The Expendables” follows a group of globe-trotting rogue mercenaries, doing the dirty biddings of the rich and shadowy. Have some Somali pirates raided your cargo ship and demanded money in exchange for the crew? The Expendables will be there…just don’t expect them to have anything interesting to say about the corporate politics involved. Are you a shady CIA operative (Bruce Willis) who needs a group of reckless malcontents to overthrow a drug-funded army in some weird island country? A little crazy, but hey, throw some money toward The Expendables and you’re good to go. I am sure you would be shocked to learn the CIA might have some non-policy reasons for sending private killers on this mission.

See where this is going? Stallone’s soldiers-of-fortune in the modern era of capitalistic-driven conflict would make “Bourne” director Paul Greengrass salivate.

But the set-up never pays off. Even when The Expendables learn the CIA’s motives in this banana republic dispute are “surprisingly” unclean (c’mon, they’re led by Eric Roberts), there’s no response. Stallone simply doesn’t go there, as if he doesn’t trust his story. Instead, the movie becomes about his infatuation with the daughter of the island’s general. She’s played by Giselle Itié, who no one’s going to throw out of bed for causing a revolution.

This becomes the reason Stallone’s character risks not only his life, but also his team’s. This turn whiffs of desperation, suggesting Stallone just wanted to prove his cinematic virility rather than go for something a bit more substantial. C’mon Sly, you even give us a waterboarding scene! But, again, there’s no consequences, no discussion, nothing. Like every other moment in “The Expendables”, it simply sits there hoping to speak for itself. The “Rambo” films always seemed to have an agenda about Vietnam or the Contras or Myanmar. Even Rocky was about the legacy of the great blue collar cities.  To be fair, I don’t expect Sylvester Stallone to have a Michael Mann-style political agenda, but I also want more than the lazy crutch of the damsel in distress.

Furthermore, Stallone doesn’t do very much with his cast.  I have no reason to be excited about Jason Statham, Jet Li, “Cone Stold” Steve Austin (thank you, Mike Tyson), or Dolph Lundgren individually. Together could be a real thrill, but Stallone miscalculates:  When you’ve got AK-47s and hand grenades aplenty in the action scenes, it doesn’t matter who’s in the film. The only one he gives anything important to is Oscar nominee Mickey Rourke. His precious few scenes offer a glimpse of what “The Expendables” could have been: Rourke’s character speaks of hard-swallowed regret and fighting for things no longer worth the fight. These are strong moments, just long enough to make you wish there were more of them. Mickey Rourke has something close to gravitas.

Beyond Rourke, Stallone is intent on giving Statham as much screen time as possible, as though Statham is the Next Big Thing and Stallone is Passing the Torch. Maybe I’m misreading this excessive screen time, but Guy Ritchie “made” Statham twelve years ago and that torch isn’t Stallone’s to pass anymore.  Better was Ah-nuld’s quick advice to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in “The Rundown”:  Schwarzenegger bumped Johnson and told him to “have fun in there” while The Rock walked toward an impending bar fight.  Then Arnold walked away from movies to terminate Gray Davis in the fall of 2003.  Statham is a fantastically fun action star who has carried movies far better than this, but his screen time precludes other interesting but unexplored possibilities here.

Speaking of Arnold, I must address the cameos by Willis and Schwarzenegger. Early in the film, the Mt. Rushmore of Action Heroes meet in a church, as if Stallone wants to solemnize the moment. Willis is at the pulpit, Ah-nuld bursts through a heavenly shaft of light. It’s a show-off moment, but Willis looks confused and Arnold and Stallone’s banter seems awkward at best, pitiful at worst. Each actor tries to one-up the other with insults and smackdown, and Stallone eventually gives himself the win. But Arnold looks uncomfortable and stilted, like he’s got some crisis affecting the world’s fifth-largest economy on his mind. Knowing that, Stallone’s little verbal victory comes off as extremely hollow.

Inadvertently, the moment hints that Schwarzenegger “will be back” when his political foray is over, and perhaps Arnold will create something “The Expendables” is not: A film with gravitas, weaving the themes of legacy, loyalty, mortality, and, yes, politics.  Stallone had better watch out; he might not even get a cameo. As for “The Expendables,” Stallone has no one else to blame.  

The Pitch:

1 The A-Team

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Space Cowboys

 

 

 

 

Equals

2 The Expendables

2 The Expendables

Piranha 3-D

By , August 25, 2010 8:43 pm

Aren't You Glad You Use Dial? Don't You Wish Ving Rhames Did?

By James Owen

Alexandre Aja’s “Piranha 3-D” is a throwback to the classic “slasher” films in the best way possible. Over the past ten years, American horror has wallowed in a post-9/11 victim mentality. The basic formula we’ve had to endure week after week includes some innocent Anglos minding their own business when evil forces snatch them up, then torture/abuse them gruesomely over an extended period of time. “Why is this happening to ME?!?!?!” moans our tormented hero.

Of course, the only way anyone survives is to become as cruel, if not crueler, than the terrorist. Not only did this reflect the repulsive politics of last decade (a cluelessness about terrorism’s irrational and revenge-driven responses), it also reflected a senselessness.  The post 9/11 torture film has a random structure lacking the traditional rules of cinema, seemingly to justify itself to an audience that no longer believes codes of behavior apply in real life. 

 “Piranha 3-D” wants to be a crudely slick morality play from the late 70’s and early 80’s: Values-compromised victims (sex-fueled teenagers, pot smokers, greedy plunderers) find themselves at the wrath of a masked killer (the repressed moral nature of our nation, Nixon’s “Silent Majority”) or some version of Mother Nature (the shark, the orca). The Masked Killer was best-represented by Michael Myers, the Oedipal-driven killer fixated on taking that phallic knife to his virginal sister, but was satisfied with any neglectful child caregiver in his way which was closely aped by Jason Voorhees a few years later (Rob Zombie misfired in his recent remakes by making Myers obsessed with Mommy issues). When faced with semi-naked, drug-using teenagers, the killer might have very well been Jerry Falwell, whose murderous impulses were endorsed by the Family Research Council.

Subjecting questionable victims to the whims of nature was a tad more complicated, as if God was unleashing His displeasure at His weaker mortals. Certainly the greed that kept the beaches open in “Jaws,” or the infidelity of the suburbanite in “Cujo,” did nothing to prevent the havoc.

Such is where we find ourselves with the piranha. Just to make sure, Aja gives us Richard Dreyfuss puttering around fictional Lake Victoria looking like Matt Hooper (Oh Lord, that’s what he’s called in the credits!), when his sunken beer bottle awakens a swarm of prehistorical chompers who have developed quite an appetite over the past couple of million of years. Normally, a move like this would be cinematic sacrilege, but Aja deserves credit for audacity.   

Of course, the piranha do not unleash their ultimate fury until we learn a little bit about our heroes. There’s the local law enforcement, led by Elizabeth Shue and Ving Rhames (think about those two in a movie like this…for a bit). We also have Shue’s children (Steven R. McQueen, Brooklyn Proulx, and Sage Ryan) who will be sacrificed at some point or another.  There’s also Adam Scott as the sensitive geologist, and crazy Christopher Lloyd as the local pet shop owner who conveniently knows A LOT about prehistoric piranhas.

It’s good “Piranha 3-D” has lots of great actors (this cast is a lot better than expected) to fill in the characters because it doesn’t care far more about the sinners spending Spring Break at the lake. Yes, they drink and snort cocaine and get naked and perform all sorts of awful things with each other and themselves. In fact, there’s nude scenes that almost forget there’s a film surrounding them, a particular underwater sequence feels like a musical number from a Busby Berkeley film. While I kept expecting these scenes to end in something horrific, they just kept going. It would almost be breathtaking if it weren’t so excessively pointless. 

To wit, the highlighted offender is “Girls Gone Wild”’s Joe Francis….oh….no…I mean, there’s Derrick Jones (Jerry O’Connell) who’s there to film a new installment of “Wild Wild Girls.” Right, this deplorable, amoral, scumbag is not based on anyone. But, oh boy, don’t you want to see what a razor-toothed fish would do to him? Oh wait, is that “Hostel” director and torture porn auteur Eli Roth as “Wet T-Shirt Contest Host”? Can’t wait to see what happens to him! This is the ultimate hook of “Piranha 3-D”: the victims are not absolved of any guilt and get what’s coming to them.

The gory blood-orgy that follows might be too much for some. I am a tough customer and found myself relieved that I’d skipped dinner before the screening. I will just say that, while 3-D technology does nothing for me, the advances in make-up certainly creates a more anatomically-correct level of carnage. On a technical level, it is incredible and unpleasant all at once. On a substantive level, it struck me at the center of my Puritan soul—as if, you know, this endless parade of sex-craved, alcohol-fueled victims represented my own shame and their fate represented my guilt.  

Or it could be that Aja just wanted to get a sick thrill from showing scantily-clad teenagers getting ripped to shreds. Indeed, Aja has been a nasty offender of the New Wave of horror punks (The amount of children and family pets he’s dispatched with since “High Tension” is infuriating). But “Piranha 3-D” seems a more advanced form of horror, the likes of Joe Dante and James Cameron aimed for in the first two piranha flicks. Maybe this is an uneasy set of rules, but ones that should dictate any great horror film.

The Pitch:

2 Snakes on a Plane

2 Snakes on a Plane

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 1/2 Virgin Spring

1 1/2 Virgin Spring

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 1/2 Piranha 3-D

3 1/2 Piranha 3-D

3 1/2 Piranha 3-D

3 1/2 Piranha 3-D

Other Guys, The

By , August 24, 2010 7:01 pm

Do you muthaf*#kas smell what the muthaf#@kin Rock is cookin, muthaf#kas?

Adam McKay is not your average comedy director hack with a knack for creating comic chaos around his star muse—he’s not Jay Roach, or worse yet, Dennis Dugan.  He and Will Ferrell resuscitated the fourth great cast of Saturday Night Live (McKay begged Lorne Michaels to hire Tina Fey to replace him as head writer), created the must-stream Funny or Die.com, and have created and produced some of this generation’s great comic films (think Harold Ramis, Ivan Reitman, and Bill Murray).  Where Ramis/Reitman  and Murray aimed their barbs at the middle class aspiration for elitism, McKay and Ferrell’s movies take on the great bourgeois threat: white male panic.

“Anchorman” is a millennial man’s romantic vision of the 70s, when men wore wooly mustaches, musky cologne, and stark blazers. In the world of “Anchorman,” men grabbed ass at the office, not text about soccer. If season eight of Mad Men follows Sterling Cooper Draper Price’s opening of a San Diego branch, one can see Ron Burgundy and Don Draper sharing scotch amongst many leather bound books. Today’s man—precisely the guy whose wife doesn’t care to on-demand yet another stupid Will Ferrell movie—makes that world up in his mind, usually after his Banana Republic polo gets stained with microbrew during the couples dog party.  There’s a reason why the Kansas City Club (former members: Harry Truman, Ewing Kauffman) keeps a picture of Ron Burgundy on its rich mahogany bookshelves.

If “Anchorman” is about yuppies yearning for the world of Old Spice commercials, then McKay and Ferrell’s next film, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” is about the rural and suburban conservative masculine panic that manifests itself in Nascar fandom, Bush voting, and truck nutz.  “Talladega Nights” isn’t as fully a realized vision as “Anchorman,” but it still lands some blows: Sasha Baron Cohen’s threatened French dominance of NASCAR as a metaphor for the Freedom Fries era jingoism that pushed us to the Iraq War; the braindead sloganeering of NASCAR (“Shake and Bake, baby!”)  as the rhetoric of Republican politics (Mushroom clouds! Death panels! Socialism!). Conceived when Karl Rove could still see permanent Republican majorities, Ricky Bobby is the epitome of pseudo-macho posturing of get-tough conservatives who haven’t ever had to get-tough about anything other than protecting their white American privilege.

“The Other Guys” is McKay and Ferrell’s satire of white panic in the age of Obama—specifically, white urbanites in the postracial age. Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson open the film as Detectives Highsmith and Danner, in a ridiculous only-in-the-movies cop chase sequence through the streets of New York to nab a dealer with a quarter-pound of weed.  They are worshipped, of course, saluting the “little guys” doing paperwork that make it possible for them to “have the sex we don’t want to have.”

Enter Mark Wahlberg as Terry Hoitz, the put-out workaday cop stuck at his desk while the cool cops get all the glory. Wahlberg is the straight man, basically playing the Irish cop in every gritty Boston thriller from “Mystic River” to “Gone Baby Gone” to Wahlberg’s Oscar-nominated turn in “The Departed.” Wahlberg’s impotence in the face of black urban cool is not only funny (“I’m a peacock!  Let me spread my wings!”), but a portrait of the fallen Irish and Italians political machines in America’s big cities.  As The Sopranos documented, today’s mafia is fighting for scraps at the end of the empire.  As the Boston Irish movies tell us, all that’s left of the old Irish glory are hollowed out working class neighborhoods full of drugs and abuse.  Guys like Terry Hoitz missed out by at least two generations. 

His partner is desk jockey Allen Gamble, playing the schlubby accountant turned detective.  There’s no need to ruin any of the buddy cop gags, but there is one point worth mentioning here.  McKay finishes the movie with a credits sequence outlining the fraud of Wall Street, and size of the bailout, etc.  And there’s a sideplot involving the SEC, where the boys have to turn over some evidence, and Allen observes, “These guys are the best of the best…except they missed AIG.  And Lehman Brothers…”  Allen lists about ten major SEC screw ups—maybe the best joke in the movie. 

The point should be—not to downplay the danger of street crime—that the most damaging criminals in this country are white collar.  And to catch those guys, we need nerds like Allen on the beat.  Big city cops like Terry just end up like Detective McNulty, chasing cocaine-powered windmills in a futile drug war.  Highsmith and Danner are pure Hollywood.  A more potent buddy cop satire would make this point by turning the chubby wuss Allen into the only effectual cop on the force. 

Instead, MINOR SPOILER ALERT!

McKay kills off Highsmith and Danner twenty minutes into the movie.  Not only does this limit the comedic choices (Samuel L. Jackson and The Rock intimidating beta males is funny), but there’s a whiff of…not racism, but a kind of artistic fear.  The plot revolves around Terry and Allen (and rival beta partners, played by Damon Wayans, Jr. and Rob Riggle) aspiring to be kick-ass urban-cool cops.  Again, if the underlying satire is about how these beta males are intimidated by urban masculinity, McKay himself seems to suffer from his own white male panic:  He kills off a great joke as if he doesn’t have any idea how to handle two awesomely funny black actors. 

The answer is easy:  Just do what you do with Steve Carrell and John C. Reilly—send SLJ and The Rock into the scene and see what happens.  But for the life of me, I can’t figure out why McKay kills these guys off.  Yes, their death scene is funny, but you could have easily moved it to the end of the movie and merged it with the SEC satire.  That joke would have been about the irrelevance of these characters to the actual work of fighting crime.  Instead, the movie devolves into a really funny version of “Cop Out.” If only Ron Burgundy had been at Highsmith and Danner’s press conference, then we’d be on to something.

The Pitch:

2 Shake and Bake

2 Shake and Bake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Gone Baby Gone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 The Other Guys

3 The Other Guys

3 The Other Guys

The First Citywide Change Bank Economy

By , August 23, 2010 8:17 pm

 

You may remember this commercial parody from the third great cast of SNL, the Dana Carvey/Phil Hartman/Jon Lovitz/ Kevin Nealon, et al years.  I ran across this the other day, and it got me to thinking about the recession.  I’m not trained as an economist, but I have enough professional and academic experience in related fields that I get the basics.  So here’s what I think I’ve figure out about the American economy.  Since we’re no longer exporting things (not just manufacturing goods, but also intellectual capital), basically we’ve devolved into a service economy. Now, we’re still the top consumer market in the world, but we’re not growing at a rate to sustain a marked increase in our quality of life.  We’re just passing around the wealth we’ve already amassed.

So why haven’t we defaulted in totally bankruptcy yet?  Why were we able to avoid a second Great Depression?  Keynesian thinkers like President Obama and, yes, George W. Bush leveraged government power to become the spender of last resort, propping up the job, consumer, and credit markets while the economy corrects itself.  Turns out, our debt is worth owning because still pretty good in the creative and entrepreneurial sectors, but mostly because we’re still the wealthiest country in the world.  Hey, we’re good for it!

But because we’re no longer exporting mass amounts of goods and intellectual capital, this “jobless recovery” may mean that the market correction has settled on an employment rate of around 9% to 10%.  In the meanwhile, we’re going to just keep passing around the money we already have to keep everybody employed. 

 

All the time, our customers (mostly the Chinese) ask us:  How do you make money doing this?

The answer’s simple:

Volume.

I give you, America in the Twenty-First Century:  The First Citywide Change Bank Economy

That America won’t give you two thousand nickels, unless two thousand nickels meets your particular change needs.

That’s what we do.

Cyrus

By , August 19, 2010 7:12 pm

Can I take a picture of you, Carl Naughton, Jr.?! Shake and Bake for the camera!

Billed as a comedy, “Cyrus” aspires to Gervaisian levels of discomfort.  In fact, directors Mark and Jay Duplass direct the film as if they learned cinematography from “The Office,” with lots of timed close-ups of reaction shots.  But unlike Steve Carrell’s “Office” or his socially inept “Dinner with Schmucks” role, “Cyrus” doesn’t want your laughs.  It wants you to feel the awkwardness of an unwanted step-dad.

John (John C. Reilly), as usual, is The Schlub, divorced from but friends with Jamie (Catherine Keener, in her usual role as the world-weary middle aged single woman).  She urges him to go to a dinner party and, you know, “be yourself, be honest.”  John takes this too far with an “I’m lonely” speech to a stranger on the couch, and after a few too many, he grabs the karoke mic and belts out “Don’t You Want Me.”  He’s rescued, quite literally, by too-hot-for-him Molly (Marisa Tomei), and the relationship begins.

So why is a hot ticket like Molly still on the market?  Well, she’s a new age weirdo with an obese twenty-something son who stays home and creates electronic music all day, after morning painting sessions in the park.  The rest of the movie is John’s struggle to separate the Oedipal couple without offending either.  A film that cared about its box office would turn this into a “Step Brothers”-esque series of comic set pieces. 

“Cyrus” is not that movie.  Here, Reilly’s character fights the infantilism that “Step Brothers” embraced, even if that means losing the first woman to make him happy in a decade.  There are some comic set pieces, including a fat guy fight with rolling around in cake, but the movie respects John and Molly enough to take itself seriously.  Beyond the clunky camerawork, there’s craftsmanship here:  The claustrophobic 60’s era apartment mirrors the relationships, and there are plenty of scenes that demonstrate why Molly loves John, rather than forcing the audience to buy yet another schlub/hottie non sequitur. 

In the end, “Cyrus” would rather you respect it than love it.  That may be the best some stepdads can hope for.

The Pitch:

2 Lovely and Amazing

2 Lovely and Amazing

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Step Brothers

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 Cyrus

3 Cyrus

3 Cyrus

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

By , August 17, 2010 6:07 pm

Cera's Reaction to Harold Ramis After a Screening of "Year One"

By James Owen

There have been lots of films (“The Beach”, “Elephant”, and “The Inside Man” come to mind) that “made a statement” with video game imagery. The problem is the respective filmmakers (Boyle, Van Sant, and Spike Lee) have an ironic disdain for the 64-bit entertainment, which they use to punctuate some statement on the vapid nature of modern life. Their intent is clear: Video games are nasty and pointless, so whatever the filmmaker associates with video games must as well.

Edgar Wright is a stark exception. His work—the BBC series Spaced, “Shaun of the Dead” and now “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”—embraces the storytelling and imagery of video games the same way some filmmakers employ literary techniques and historical artistic flourishes. Wright also embraces other quirks of modern pop culture, using familiar icons as a filter for his story rather than make some “statement”. 

Perhaps this is a de-evolution in the language of filmmaking. Or perhaps  this is an astute filmmaker who knows what his audience will follow—a love affair punctuated by fight scenes replicated from “Mortal Kombat” or pieces of dialogue bouncing along to the Seinfeld theme.

So goes “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”, a film which makes the search for love seem as epic and grandiose as Link outwitting dozens of dungeon bosses to rescue Zelda. “Pilgrim” is the sprawling tale of thin, vapid Toronto rocker Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) who, despite his meek features and rather indifferent view towards women, has never had to work very hard for romance. But he sees a vision in a dream of a pink-haired angel leading him to a doorway that could lead to….well we never quite find that out. We do find out the specter is real, in the form of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).  The spark either characters sees in the other another is elusive (more on that later), but Scott learns he can only win her heart by battling Ramona’s seven evil exes—all of whom represent some sort of insecurity possessed by our hero. He must not only battle them, but make them explode into a pile of coins like a bonked-out Koopa.  Each ex is either more successful, more hip, more dashing. You know there’s a fight on your hands when a competitor walks on camera and the Universal Studio theme swells over the soundtrack. 

There’s a lot of fighting in “Scott Pilgrim” (though not necessarily seven fights), and many critics have bemoaned the repetitiveness of these scenes. But I think they are missing the point. All of these fight scenes occupy a separate tone and visual style from the rest of the film. They are like dance numbers in a musical, an expression of ideas that cannot be told in simple narrative form. Each scene uses various pop culture hallmarks (the “BAM POW” from comic books, for instance), the super human strength of characters evaporates immediately after the fight, exaggerations highlight the characteristic Scott is really fighting. Why simply make Brandon Routh perfect when you can make his particular superpower come from a pretentious vegan diet? I mean, who on a vegan diet doesn’t make you want to punch them in the face?

All of this is very clever and visually pleasing. What it’s not is the laugh-out-loud funny. Wright’s genre-bending “Shaun” and “Hot Fuzz” are funny, but “Scott Pilgrim” has a lot of scenes where I thought, “That was funny” without cracking a smile. This is the failure of the two leads. Not only is Cera’s Scott Pilgrim a meek weirdo, but he’s also kind of a mean guy. His character makes several unpleasant decisions at the beginning of the film, seemingly designed to make Pilgrim’s journey (A pilgrimage perhaps?) pay off for the audience.  But, the film botches it, and presents the audience with a Catch-22: Scott Pilgrim is to unlikeable to cheer for.

If Cera were able to break away from his awkward man-child act, he could have brought the audience along with him. Winstead’s Ramona has the same problem: She’s cool and aloof; you would too if you had dated this motley crew of bad guys. But, does it make for a woman for whom you would risk a mortal soul? I don’t know…although the dyed hair is awfully appealing.  Perhaps Wright’s writing partner Simon Pegg is the portion of the duo responsible for fleshing out the humanity in their stories. If that is the case, his absence here is palpable.

Still, working solo, Wright does show a knack for weaving unlikely visuals sources into his story to make it crackle and pop. Perhaps the Smashing Pumpkins and Pac-Man references are a little dated for the film’s target audience (who stayed away in droves), but not enough for the 36-year-old Wright or for me as a…however old I am.  While Roger Ebert may still deny that video games are art (Huck Finn lost this twitter poll), “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” screams out a defiant “yes”. Whether this makes for compelling storytelling is still up for grabs.

The Pitch:

2 Spaced

2 Spaced

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 "The Heart of the Rose"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

3 Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

3 Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

This Giant Rusted Out Trailer is Everything You Need to Know About the Tea Party

By , August 16, 2010 5:36 pm

 

This is David Jungerman.  David lives in Raytown, an old inner ring suburb of Kansas City.  “Mama’s Family” is set in Raytown, and when you drive down Highway 350, that feels about right. Raytown isn’t nearly as rough as east Kansas City, but it has problems.  Raytown’s glory days were the baby boom years.  But the jobs have left, white and black middle class families have sprawled farther away from the city center, and Raytown has become a rough mix of settled whites who can’t afford to move, lower middle class minorities fleeing the ‘hood, and low income hispanic immigrants.  Think of Clint Eastwood’s rusting suburb in Gran Torino

David owns some land out in Bates County, a rural county bordering Kansas.  Bates County is where you can go to get a coupon for a free AK-47 with the test drive of a new American automobile. Bates County has a meth problem.  It’s just like any other rural county in the Midwest, but a bit rougher. It’s 97% white with a per capita income of around $15,000.

David is mad as hell at Barack Obama, so he pulls a rusted out semi to the side of Highway 71 and paints, “Are you a producer or a parasite? Democrats…party of parasites.” 

You know where this is going.                                               

David Jungerman is one of the biggest recipients of federal farm aid in western Missouri.  Oh, and he used to scam expecting mothers into attending “safety seminars” so he could sell them cribs.  The fun part: The fraud was that he made his fake seminars look like they were sponsored by the government to give them credibility.

David says there is no hypocrisy here because that’s just money “coming back” to him.  Or, he’s in a business that can’t make money and is propped up by the government.  Or that.

We could have the argument about the insanity of farm subsidies and how they’re an unfortunate and stupid consequence of the Iowa caucuses.  But I’d rather take this moment to think of the rusted out hulk of the trailer as a metaphor for the rural Midwestern Tea Party.  These are the same people who want the guvment to get out of their Medicare.  There’s no center to the Tea Party’s political ideas, only the ugly remnants of an increasingly resentful blue collar America willfully misunderstanding the modern world.

Twilight Eclipse

By , August 15, 2010 9:21 pm

Look, dude, you can't be Emo with your shirt off. That's not how this works.

This film understands Twilight better than Stephanie Meyer does.  In Meyer’s interminable books, Bella Swan whines so much that the reader should simply turn on her—yes, you’re tortured, we get it.  And the book clearly steers your toward Team Edward to take her away from Forks.  Jacob is such a jealous meathead that he’s not a worthy suitor, merely a plot device.  Without a real dilemma, Twilight fills its space with purple brooding.  To this end, Stephanie Meyer may understand teenage girls, but she doesn’t get small towns.

“Eclipse” does.  Which is an odd thing to say, but about halfway through the movie, you get the sneaking, creepy suspicion that the “Twilight” movie might actually be…good.  Compelling, even.    Without Bella’s woe-is-me monologues, Kristen Stewart’s Bella is much more sympathetic.  Her virginity confusion becomes a more natural part of the plot, rather than overwrought teenage drama.  And screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (writer for “Dexter”) and director David Slade (“30 Days of Night”) create a more fully realized choice for Bella.  Jacob is the small town Forks-for-lifer, a very capable provider and protector who would give Bella a comfortable, even good life at home.  One can easily imagine Jacob as the president of the Forks Booster Club (in the werewolf off-season) while Bella cooks dinners for the team.  Edward is the melancholy emo-lover who represents a way to a more exciting, more exotic urban life. 

“Eclipse” dramatizes the choice many smart small town girls face:  Not between guys, but between lifestyle choices.  Bella is too distracted by divorce to get Jessica’s grades, so she has to choose between moving away to college or “taking a few years off.”  To this end, Rosenberg and Slade have created a far more interesting world than the books.  Forks is damp, beer-soaked collection of rusty trucks and paint chipping off clapboard houses.  This is Bella’s world, and to join Team Edward, she literally has to change to become one of “them”—in other words, become “too good” for where she’s from.  Just like vampire-dom, you can never go back.  She wouldn’t have to change a thing for Jacob.

Ok, not to make too much of this, but Rosenberg and Slade have sorted this whole Twilight thing out.  The werewolf and vampire metaphors make sense, Bella’s virginity confusion is given some depth, and the story now has a clear social element.  Plus, this movie doesn’t make George Lucas’ mistake with the Star Wars prequels or Ron Howard’s “The Da Vinci Code”:  “Twilight Eclipse” is not treated as sacred material.  You simply can’t get around some of this dumb dialogue, so you can either pretend it’s not stupid (“I don’t know you anymore. Anakin, you’re breaking my heart!”) or play it campy and kill the mood.  “Eclipse”’s strategy is to face the dialogue straight-on, with the characters playing the dialogue as digs at each other.  When Jacob has to warm Bella in a tent (vampire have no body heat), Jacob, looks at Edward and sneers, “Well, I am hotter with you.”  Later, Edwards wants to know if “He even owns a shirt.” 

Look, I know this is getting weird, but I’m as surprised as you are.  “Twilight Eclipse” is actually good, not ironic good.  Rosenberg has transported that creepy, between-the-lines feel of “Dexter” to this series, and I can’t wait to see what “Kinsey” and “Gods and Monsters” director Bill Condon has in store next.   Remember how much better the Harry Potter movies got after they turned the third one over to an indie Mexican director

The Pitch:

2 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

2 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plus

1 Bill Compton

 

 

 

 

 

Equals

3 Twilight Eclipse

3 Twilight Eclipse

3 Twilight Eclipse

Did Clarence Thomas Deny Legal Aliens a Constitutional Right to Bear Arms?

By , August 14, 2010 5:07 pm

Ok, just hear me out on this one.  One of the blockbuster cases of last term,  McDonald v. City of Chicago is the NRA’s big case against Chicago’s ban on handguns, the follow up to 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, where the Court first found an individual right to bear arms in the text of the Second Amendment.  To get there, Justice Scalia used a self-defense rationale to buttress his textual reading of the Amendment—which, to be frank, is so grammatically confusing that it’s essentially a Rorschach Test.  The controlling opinion, concurring opinions, and dissents in Heller were basically a grammar nerd fight over the syntactical meaning of commas, the difference between operative and prefatory clauses, and whether commas within absolute clauses determine which descriptors govern nominatives.   Hell, the Second Amendment signed by Congress is not the one ratified by the states.  Nonetheless, Scalia’s controlling opinion held that in federal enclaves, like the District of Columbia, there is an individual right to bear arms.  But not an absolute right, meaning that guns can be regulated but not banned.

Notice that Heller only applies to federal enclaves.  This is because in an 1833 decision, the Court held the Bill of Rights pertains to the federal government but not state governments—so the Constitution may forbid federal encroachment on the Bill of Rights, but the states were still free to.  Then in the 1890s, the Court reversed track and developed the doctrine of incorporation to apply certain amendments to the states.   In other words, the Court found that the newly-passed Fourteenth Amendment says the states can’t abridge certain rights found in the Bill of Rights. But not all rights—the rights incorporated against the states are decided on a right-by-right basis. 

There are two ways to incorporate rights against the states, both of which are found in the Fourteenth Amendment.  One is the Privileges or Immunities Clause, which says, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” In other words, a state can’t take away fundamental rights guaranteed to all U.S. citizens. 

The other is the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The DPC says that a state cannot “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  Basically, this means the same thing as the PoI clause—a state can’t take away fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution. Since 1873, the Court has incorporated rights through the Due Process of Clause of the 14th Amendment (the famous Slaughter-House cases).

So, what’s the difference, as long as fundamental rights are incorporated against the states?  Well, the Privileges or Immunities Clause applies to “citizens,” whereas the Due Process Clause applies to “persons.”  Even John “Torture Memo” Yoo agrees that Due Process gives noncitizens many of the same rights as U.S. citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment.   

Why is this important to the NRA gun case? Well, in McDonald, a five justice majority agreed that the Second Amendment is incorporated against the states.  However, only a four justice minority agreed that the Second Amendment is incorporated through the Due Process Clause.  Justice Thomas applied the Privileges or Immunities Clause—which no other justice has done in 137 years!  Thus, there’s no controlling majority that says the Right to Bear Arms is guaranteed to persons. There’s only a majority that says the Right to Bear Arms is guaranteed to citizens.

The upshot is this:  Had Justice Thomas just applied Due Process like every other justice in the last century and a half, the Court would have likely guaranteed Second Amendment rights to persons—including, based on precedent in other incorporation cases, illegal and legal aliens. (Caveat: there’s some dicta in Justice Alito’s opinion suggesting the Right to Bear Arms is less than a fundamental right, and nobody is exactly sure what’s going on there).  So, hypothetically, if, say, Arizona wanted to pass a law that legal aliens can’t have handguns, legal aliens would have a pretty good argument that such a law is unconstitutional.

But it looks like Justice Thomas’ zombiefication of the Privileges or Immunities Clause stopped that.  Personally, I like Thomas’ jurisprudence.  I don’t agree with very many of his outcomes, and I find his personal story of racial resentment quite disgusting.  But, he’s the only truly iconoclastic thinker on the Court. He’s not afraid to stop splitting hairs and completely rethink constitutional interpretations and tests that just aren’t working. 

Still, I can’t say I’m onboard with Justice Thomas here, though.  I’d like to see the broadest interpretation of the Bill of Rights possible.  If the Constitution is a document of inalienable rights that we want other nations to aspire to, then the Constitution is a human rights document as much as a legal document.  This means that we should not be afraid to apply the Bill of Rights to all people falling under our laws, not just as “special privileges” for Americans.  The Bill of Rights are not some legal technicalities to be exploited by greasy haired defense lawyers; they create a system of fairness that, hopefully, convicts the guilty, frees the innocent, and keeps the police state in check. 

So, by my estimation, if Governor Brewer and Sheriff Joe want Arizona police to pull over American citizens and legal aliens for Driving While Brown (excuse me, “reasonable suspicion of being illegal”), then the well-pigmented of Arizona should be able to stand up for their freedom.   In fact, if the Minutemen and other “citizen militias” have the right to secure our borders with their God-given constitutional right to bear arms, then it’s only fair and just that brown-skinned people have the right to protect themselves with glocks in their gloveboxes, just like the NRA wants for its membership.  As Justice Scalia reasoned, self-protection is what this is about, right?  Somebody get Val Kilmer on P90X, because I see a modern-day adaptation of Tombstone in the making.

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