Thursday, December 24, 2009

It's beginning to look a lot like... an opportunity to make up for neglecting your kid.

It's almost Christmas, and I just both started and finished my shopping. I don't dilly dally when I'm in a mall: it's a calculated attack. I know exactly what I need, I know exactly where to get it, I walk quickly while dodging all bad walkers and I was out of the mall less than an hour after I entered it. I imagine this is what Christmas shopping is like for Jack Bauer. It's possible to shop like this because there is nobody on my list asking for whatever unattainable Furby/Cabbage Patch Kid/ Tickle Me Elmo type thing is huge this year. However, I still got to go through the experience of trying to find that unattainable gift with a dear friend of mine named Howard, and we go through this experience annually when I watch my favourite Christmas movie.

Jingle All the Way is about Howard Langston (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who is some sort of carpet king in Minneapolis. But being the king of carpets comes at a price. Howard often ignores his family in favour of business, and they seem to be getting fed up with it. His son Jamie, played by the always loveable and talented method actor Jake Lloyd, has a karate class the night of December 23rd, and Howard has promised he will make it. But, as anybody who has ever seen a movie before can predict, Howard doesn't make it, sending the Langston family into a fit of Christmas disappointment.

Howard comes home to find his son sitting in front of the television watching a show about Turboman, Jamie's favourite superhero. Howard is getting worried about how he is going to mend this situation, and after going through a number of embarrassing attempts to win Jamie over, he comes up with the foolproof American solution. Howard asks Jamie what he wants for Christmas, which gets Jamie out of his chair and performing a live dramatic interpretation of a commercial for the Turboman action figure. When Howard essentially promises Jamie that he will get this toy for Christmas, everything is suddenly okay and the father and son share a heartwarming hug. And then I weep.

Jingle All the Way is a Christmas movie, yes, but it is about the worst aspects of Christmas and in a way that I don't think is meant to be ironic. Everybody knows that Christmas hasn't been about Jesus in a long time, but this movie flat out says that Christmas is exclusively about getting whatever material product you want. Everybody needs to buy a Turboman doll, because if they don't, their kid will hate them.

The rest of the movie takes place on Christmas Eve, and documents Howard's day trying to track down a Turboman doll. At the first toy store he goes to, he meets Myron (Sinbad, who is somehow really funny in this), a postal worker who is stuck in the same predicament as Howard. They end up battling as a sort of Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner duo who are in competition all day, and this is the other interesting/upsetting element of the movie. Howard represents the upper class, while Myron is the lower class. We know that Howard has an incredible house in the suburbs, and that money is not a big problem for his family. Myron, however, is a working class mailman who likely does not live as comfortably as Howard, but is in just the same holiday predicament.

Myron mentions how he has to carry around letters to Santa (while the movie never comes out and says it, it does kind of acknowledge that Santa doesn't exist), even those from poor children who will not be able to get what they want because of financial issues. Myron knows that Christmas is about the "rich and powerful toy cartels," and that North America has come to accept this about Christmas. I am in no way calling for a return to Christian values here, I'm just trying to point out that this is possibly the most accurate Christmas movie there is. Obviously, much of it is absurd, but this movie is great for capturing what the modern Christmas is like.

Howard's quest for the Turboman doll is something he undertakes solely because it's the only thing that will get Jamie to forgive him, and that alone says more about North American culture than most "serious" pieces of media can. Jamie is a spoiled rat who gets what he wants, and Howard knows he can't just stop spoiling him now. When Myron says he never got the toy he wanted for Christmas, but his neighbour got it and went on to become a billionaire, Howard is even more convinced that Jamie needs a Turboman. Howard had better get his kid that toy, for otherwise Jamie will be condemned to a lifetime stuck in the middle class.

Towards the end of the movie, Howard ends up at the Christmas Eve parade downtown in an attempt to meet up with his family. He accidentally stumbles into a building that is apparently used for parade float preparation, and due to his muscular physique, Howard is mistaken for the actor meant to be Turboman in the parade. Howard is then put in costume, complete with a functioning jet pack, and goes up to the float where he has the opportunity to give Jamie a special edition Turboman doll. Finally, Howard has provided for his child (unless you count keeping him warm and fed in a gorgeous house, in which case he was providing all along).

BUT WAIT! Myron caught up, and is now in the costume of Turboman's arch-nemesis, Dementor! This leads to an incredible, over-the-top action sequence that features flying fists, flying discs, and flying people. After it's all over, Howard/Turboman has defeated Myron/Dementor, and Jamie has his Turboman doll. But, as Myron is being lead away by the police, Jamie realizes that this movie features no holiday spirit and makes a last ditch attempt to inject some by giving the action figure to Myron for his kid. Aw, how sweet. Myron says that it will make his son very happy, but I don't know how he'll give it to his son: by my count, Myron is going to be charged with attempted kidnapping, multiple counts of assault with a deadly weapon, and theft. His son might get his Turboman doll this year, but he certainly won't have his dad home for the next few Christmases, and his family will have to learn to adjust to life without a father figure and his paycheque.

There is one quick shot during Howard's Turboman jet pack scene that sums up this movie and the modern Christmas frenzy perfectly. Howard loses control of his jet pack and flies through the window of an apartment building before flying out through another window on the other side. While passing through the building, however, he flies right through a family's dining room as they pray over their Christmas Eve turkey dinner, destroying everything. Turboman, and consumerism in general, has lead to the destruction of the religious and familial elements of Christmas, and he doesn't even care enough to look back once.

The title for this post is courtesy of my good friend Emma... thanks pal!

A NOTE ABOUT YEAR/DECADE END STUFF: You are probably currently being bombarded by top 10 lists from every critic, blogger, and nerdy friend for both 2009 and the 2000s as a whole. People like reading quick hit lists, but the real reason so many people write them is because they're fun as shit! I probably won't post a top 10 movies of the decade, but I will post something both movie and music related sometime in January. I will also eventually make some sort of list about my favourite movies of 2009, but not for another couple of months (I don't live in a massive city, so often I have to wait a while for a lot of good stuff to make it to town). I do already know what my absolute favourite movie of 2009 will be when all is said and done though, and you can expect a post about that in the near future too. If Santa's pending visit wasn't already enough to keep you from sleeping, this news must be!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A few little things

I saw Brothers last week, which was pretty good. It was mostly well acted, NatPo was real cute, and there were some fun parallels between some characters... I'll warn you though: if you are like me, Tobey Maguire will always make you think of Spider-Man. If you're like me even more, any time you see him angry, you will want to make a dark symbiote joke. But I digress.

I like Jake Gyllenhall. I think he is a good actor (although I wish he would do a comedy every so often - the man is obviously funny), but Brothers features a couple of scenes that together form what I like to call "How to NOT Eat Food like a Regular Person.*" At the beginning of Brothers, Jake's character has just gotten out of jail, and we see him eat his mashed potatoes of freedom with a vigor matched only by... I can't even think of anything. He tears those potatoes up! I forgive this one... I mean, he did just get out of jail. I haven't been to jail, but I imagine that if I had, I would demolish my first post-jail meal too.

Later in the movie though, he eats again, and it is ridiculous: Jake's character apparently loves his pizza so much that he has to eat it UPSIDE DOWN. I'm serious. Over the course of this meal of upside down pizza, he smacks his lips, licks his fingers, and plays with his napkin constantly. Was he in jail for overacting? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure that at one point in this scene, Jamie Foxx (dressed in a tailored suit, of course) pops up over Jake's shoulder and winks at the camera before disappearing. Maybe Foxx was his lawyer and knows he will soon be getting more business? Who knows.
*now with an introduction by Jamie Foxx!

The poster for Christopher Nolan's next movie Inception exists now, and it gets me really excited. Yeah, the poster looks like that Dark Knight teaser poster with the Joker, but that one made me lose my shit, too. After the Dark Knight's success, I bet that Nolan can do pretty much whatever he wants with Inception, and I'm willing to bet it's going to be incredible. Nolan is probably the best working filmmaker today, so I'm really excited to see what he'll do with the creative freedom.

I had another point, but in all the excitement about upside down pizza, I seem to have forgotten it. I saw the Blind Side last week too, which I would give a rating of "good, but exactly what you would expect." Sandra Bullock's physique, however, gets a rating of "DAMN!" Maybe even the coveted rating of a damn featuring both a Y and a U. If you don't know what I mean, just watch half an episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air... Will is sure to say it at least once.

Anyway, a real post will be forthcoming in the next couple of days, I just couldn't wait any longer to continue my crusade against poor eating in films. Shame on you, Jacob.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My thoughts on Avatar (before I see it)

MILD SPOILER ALERT: This post (obviously) won't spoil Avatar, but if you haven't seen the first two Terminator movies, this may hurt them for you. Also, I realize that my examination of the time travel in the Terminator is crude, but few discussions about time travel end up making sense anyway, so I just kept it brief.

I don’t hate James Cameron, although with the way I talk about him you might soon think that I do. However, I do hate how he seems to be perceived by the media, film critics, and most regular folk. For some reason, people just absolutely love this guy’s work. I have trouble seeing why he gets the love he does though, and it's not just because I constantly try to think the opposite of what mass society deems I should think (I suspect this explains why I often loudly claim my love for Steven Seagal movies, that the Lord of the Rings sucks, and that Annie is hotter than Britta), but because I actually don’t think his movies are much better than well-made action movies.

Anybody who says that the Terminator movies are expertly written is at least half-crazy. The plot of the first movie goes something like this: Kyle Reese is sent from the post-apocalypse 2029 to pre-apocalypse 1984 in order to stop a Terminator from killing Sarah Connor, a woman who will eventually give birth to a sort of Che Guevara who hates machines instead of America. Obviously good triumphs, with Sarah and Kyle defeating the Terminator and leaving it a scrap heap.

The second movie, however, takes place in 1995, as we are inching closer and closer to the apocalypse. Cyberdyne Systems found the remains of the Terminator from the first film, and was able to create a powerful microprocessor for weapons systems from it, which is eventually what leads to the development of Skynet, and then, you know, the apocalypse and stuff. A young John Connor with his mom and a modified, wisecracking T-1000 are trying to stop this, but the whole plot of the movie and the eventual apocalypse requires the existence of the remains of the first Terminator.

Kyle Reese is sent back to 1984 by John Connor himself in order to stop the Terminator, thusly allowing its remains to be found and for Cyberdyne to develop Skynet. Given that the means for time travel exist in 2029, Connor must know that by altering the past even in the slightest, you will change your present. Connor should have realized the risks of having a destroyed version of some pretty advanced technology being found by a tech company in 1984. He should have let the Terminator kill his mother and by extension himself, because then there wouldn’t have been any giant police station shootouts and the Terminator could leave 1984 without his remnants being found. Knowing what was at risk, Connor's death and his mother’s death would likely be seen as necessary for the greater good, the Terminator would be a 20-minute movie that did not spawn a franchise, and Edward Furlong never would have become a pop music sensation in Japan*.

The Terminator is an interesting movie, mostly because it’s so dated now that I don’t think I could qualify it as “good” anymore. It was made on a very low budget, and the special effects make that obvious to the casual modern viewer. While it was definitely very well-liked at the time, judging by the lengths of their respective Wikipedia pages, the sequel is far more beloved. James Cameron gets endless amounts of love from critics and film nerds just like me for writing and directing a cool action movie around a plot hole… and like John Connor, T2 unnecessarily ushered in a negative change in its respective environment.

James Cameron is often noted as starting the advent of computer generated imagery in film, and he has received plenty of praise for it. CGI has allowed for a number of great films to exist, but I think that its use is more often than not a detriment to an action movie. Now it seems that whenever the choices are between CGI and trying a little harder and doing it for real, 90% of the time CGI will be used for a variety of reasons. Any big action scene generally requires a suspension of belief and an unbroken sense of tension in order for a viewer to be completely engrossed in it, but the second I see a computer generated image that is noticeably bad, I think about it instead of the scene, and that tension is lost. I think the best action movies of this past decade are the Bourne series, Collateral, Casino Royale, The Lookout, Public Enemies and others that are slipping my mind currently. What these movies all have in common is a decided focus on avoiding CGI whenever possible: while Public Enemies has one bad CGI shot towards the end, I can't think of any other notable uses of CGI in these movies. While there are some movies that use CGI flawlessly in their action scenes (the Transformers movies come to mind), you are still taking the viewer out of the action as they marvel at the technology.

Through the success of the first Terminator, Cameron was in a position to be hired to make Aliens. I would imagine that after Aliens’ box office success, Cameron could pretty much do what he wanted, which meant the Abyss, T2, True Lies and then Titanic, all featuring his baby CGI. When Cameron (kind of embarrassingly) claimed he was the king of the world at the Oscars, he was probably right if that world was confined to “Hollywood in the 1990s.” And then, he disappeared to his castle until 2005, when he announced Avatar, the film whose commercial is currently bombarding you whenever you watch professional football.

I am curious to see how Avatar does financially, just as I am curious to see whether or not the movie is actually good. I bet it will be a colossal hit, and I will probably classify it as “pretty badass.” But I want it to fail… horribly. I want it to be the new Cutthroat Island. I want it to be the new Waterworld. I want Avatar to "Ishtar," and then I want Avatar's name to be used as a verb for the poor performance of a future blockbuster. And it’s all because of one thing James Cameron said.

Cameron has mentioned multiple times that he cut back on the story element of Avatar in order to focus on the new stereoscopic 3D technology. While I concur that few blockbusters put the story over the action, most of these movies aren’t directed by people who are hailed as the saviour of the modern blockbuster. It seems like critics and movie nerds alike are expecting to see the world changed by Avatar, but it will probably only be a mediocre-to-good movie that has elements taken from it and put into countless other shitty blockbusters. It isn’t going to reinvigorate the modern blockbuster, it’s going to hurt it.

When Avatar inevitably does huge numbers, its success will likely be attributed to Cameron’s innovative use of technology, and probably deservedly so. By almost all accounts the effects are insanely cool: while one Guardian reviewer said the 3D effects made him nauseous, it seems that everybody else says "WHOOOOAAAA." The problem is that by sacrificing story, and also by making that sacrifice known, Cameron has given viewers few other reasons to cite for the movie’s success. This then leads future blockbuster filmmakers to (rightly) assume that the technology was the reason for the success, and then these filmmakers also ignore story in favour of messing with the new technology.

From what I can gather without having seen the movie, Avatar is about humanity's encroachment on a world that is living in harmony, populated by the Na'vi. Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a paralyzed U.S. Marine who is able to walk again through the development of the new Avatar technology, and he starts to explore the Na'vi world of Pandora. Through technology, Jake is able to do what he wants in this world that existed before him, but he quickly realizes that what the humans are doing is destroying a world that was more or less a utopia before they arrived. Cameron has mentioned that he sees the movie as a sort of warning, and that he wants viewers to think about how they interact with nature, and yet he doesn't seem to realize how big of a metaphor he is creating for himself. While Hollywood is far from a utopia, James Cameron was able to do what he wanted with the blockbuster due to the advent of filmmaking technology, and in doing so he forever altered the landscape of the world of filmmaking.

All of this makes me sound like a luddite who hates any sort of technological growth, but I think I have a point here. While James Cameron often uses his technological advancements well, many others that borrow them in the future just aren't using them as well. Despite the fact that it exists because of what I deem to be a plot hole, T2 has held up over time and is still a good action movie. Aliens is still good as well, and every time I see True Lies on television, I always find myself watching it until at least the next commercial break. The problem is that they are just that: good. They aren't great like many people claim, and Cameron is above all else trying to make some money. He is barely different from Michael Bay, the most reviled modern filmmaker of the past decade: the only real difference is that Bay is more honest about his ambitions. He wants to make money and knows he is making popcorn movies, whereas James Cameron seems to feel he is advancing the state of filmmaking, while most critics and movie fans seem to feel the same way. While Cameron has said that Avatar is for 14 year old boys, he knows nerds like me will think about it far more than we should, and he expects us to marvel at the technology and praise him for it. While I will likely marvel at the technology, I don't think it will add much to the future of filmmaking, and it will detract more from future action movies than it will help them. CGI is consistently used well by Cameron and Bay, but not many others. I worry that the same thing will happen with 3D in action movies.

Maybe Cameron wrote the character of Jake intentionally as a metaphor for himself, and that Jake will use technology to achieve his goals without care for what is going on around him… or maybe it's just a coincidence. It appears from the trailer that Jake has a crisis about how humans are treating Pandora at some point, and the ending of the movie will likely feature a "we need to treat nature and our fellow man better" type of message. However, I think it would be far more appropriate if Jake and the rest of the humans used their technology to do whatever they desired within Pandora, because that's what James Cameron is doing in Hollywood. And like John Connor's decision to send Kyle Reese to 1984, Cameron's work is going to affect the future of his environment in a negative way, not a positive one.

*according to Furlong's IMDB trivia page, this happened. I would have looked into it more, but honestly I just didn't want to find out that it wasn't true.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

I apparently might also love Ben Affleck...

I'm changing some stuff around here. I will no longer be posting every Monday, instead I will be posting whenever something is finished. I've rushed a couple of my last posts, and I don't like that. This isn't a job, I have no real deadline to make, so I'm going to take some extra time and do a better job.

I originally put that "posting every Monday" thing into play because I was worried I would just stop writing, but that has not been a problem. Finding a satisfactory conclusion has been, and hopefully more time and thought will fix that. So, I will (hopefully) post at least four things a month, but there won't necessarily be a post every Monday.

Since I am desperate to keep the few readers I have, if you don't have Google reader and want me to notify you when I post something new, I will gladly do so. I'm not going to post my e-mail here, but comment if you want notifications and we'll figure something out.

And now onto the real reason you should be here:

"Stop giving Ben Affleck such a hard time. He occasionally shows that he's really talented, he just makes poor choices with the movies he chooses to be in."
-my oft-repeated argument/apology for Ben Affleck

"It's really cool, I liked it a lot... But I don't think it will age well."
-my description of Gone Baby Gone, November 2007

"I don't know what the fuck I was thinking in November 2007... this is a great, great movie that will absolutely hold up over time. And I was right about Ben Affleck! SUCK IT!"
-my thoughts about my description of Gone Baby Gone from November 2007, November 2009
I won't lie, I'm a big fan of the brothers Affleck. I've been an apologist for Ben for longer than I can remember, and if you read my post about the Assassination of Jesse James, you know how I feel about Casey. It seems that every review of this movie (like, ever) has to mention that they are brothers, and just how bad of an actor Ben Affleck is, and how surprised people are that he made a good movie. This is me fulfilling that obligation.

I also feel that I should explain why I have defended Ben Affleck for so long. I think that reason is a combination of Chasing Amy, and a couple of scenes in Good Will Hunting. He is really good in Chasing Amy in general (I haven't watched the movie since high school and realize it is probably the most dated movie ever by now, but I'm sure he's still good), and there are those two scenes towards the end of Good Will Hunting.

SPOILER ALERT: This next paragraph will potentially ruin Good Will Hunting if you haven't seen it. Skip ahead if you want, but the movie as a whole isn't very good so you won't be missing out on much if I spoil it. Plus, I'm saving you from having to watch Minnie Driver act.

I don't like Good Will Hunting very much: I think it's far too Hollywoodized, Minnie Driver's head is fucking HUGE, and when you think about it, very little of the movie actually makes sense. What does make sense, and what are clearly the best scenes in the movie, are the ones between Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Their last scene together at the construction yard is one of my favourite scenes ever, and that it sums up everything that's good about a friend you are really close with. There is one line especially where Affleck's voice wavers just the tiniest bit, and it's absolutely perfect. Later, in Affleck's final scene, the expression he makes when walking back to the car is just as perfect. I don't like the movie, but I've watched it about 5 times just to see those scenes in context… Even if every other scene he was ever in was absolute trash, I would defend Affleck to the death for these moments alone.


Was I surprised that Ben Affleck directed a good movie? No, not at all… especially since he has never really come across as an idiot to me. Maybe dating J-Lo was a poor idea, but don't act like you wouldn't have if given the chance.

FINE, alright, he shouldn't have been in so many shitty, shitty action movies. Yes, Paycheck and Pearl Harbor are two of the worst movies I've ever seen. But, check out these movies:
  • Mallrats (I'm not a big fan from what I recall, but people love this movie)
  • Chasing Amy (assuming his performance has aged well)
  • Dogma (again, not a fan of the movie, but him and Matt Damon were great)
  • Reindeer Games (honestly, all I remember about this one are Charlize Theron's boobs, but isn't that enough to make it a great, timeless film?)
  • Boiler Room (a very cool movie)
  • Changing Lanes (this is a really good movie)
  • Dazed and Confused (IT'S DAZED AND CONFUSED!)
Boom. Chances are you like John Cusack, and he's been in a much smaller number of good movies, ergo your Affleck hate is completely unjustified. Now that my Affleck discussion obligation has been excessively fulfilled, I can move on to the actual movie.

Like I mentioned in the post about the Savages, 2007 was a great year, and Gone Baby Gone is one of the reasons. It is a neo-noir about a child kidnapping, yes, but that doesn't even begin to do justice to the number of good questions posed by this movie.

The movie starts off with a voiceover monologue about what home is, and the effect it has on a person, setting the theme for the movie. We quickly get some criticism of the mass media, and then we're onto the plot which opens up a whole slew of ethical questions:
  • Who has the right to be a parent? Who doesn't? Who gets to decide what a good parent is?
  • What is a home? How does your own home affect your growth as a person?
  • Do child molesters have the right to a fair trial? Should they just be killed?
  • What constitutes proof? Can we trust the people we're told are to be trusted?
  • Does the media do more bad than good?
  • Why are some people posing for the camera when their goddamn kid got kidnapped?!!?
And all of this is done without ever getting too heavy-handed, and without any actor slipping for even a second. Casey Affleck is (obviously) perfect, Amy Ryan is perfect, Ed Harris is Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman, and Michelle Monaghan is really good too. The cinematography is gorgeous as well for a movie that is almost exclusively shot handheld, and the movie moves along quickly without rushing anything.

I could get more in-depth about why this movie is so good, but I think this post has turned out to be more about Ben Affleck than anything, so I'm going to continue with that. As a study of celebrity, the star as director is fascinating to me: in Gone Baby Gone, we get to see that Affleck has some issues with the media, which is no surprise given that he was a favourite target of theirs during his J-Lo phase. It also might even be a bit of self-criticism: Bennifer never really ran from the media, and in the movie neither does Helene.

Knowing that Affleck is from Boston is also key, because it might appear to be kind of an anti-Boston movie without having known that. I would imagine that all of the questions about raising kids, and who deserves to be able to raise kids, likely come out of the fact that Affleck himself has become a father since fading a bit from the spotlight. Watching Gone Baby Gone, I see the way Helene treats her kid Amanda and think of the Chris Rock joke "that kid is going to rob me in ten years." We see many grown up versions of Amanda in Gone Baby Gone, and it's not pretty.

Then what is it about Gone Baby Gone that I like so much? Is it that it is the first movie I've seen directed by a celebrity I like that backs up my own thoughts about said celebrity? Partially. But apart from Ben Affleck's attachment, this movie is just really, really good. As a thriller, it works. As a series of ethical questions, it works. And yes, as a vague examination of a celebrity, it works. But there is nothing about the movie that isn't intriguing, and I think it definitely belongs in that illustrious "Top 5 of 07." Step aside, Michael Clayton, I'm rejigging this list.