Eraserhead (1976)

There’s a scene in an episode of The Simpsons where Homer is watching Twin Peaks (also, directed by David Lynch) and he says, with inflection indicating he is making a profoundly intelligent comment, “I have no idea what’s going on.” That is roughly how I felt about Mr. Lynch’s Eraserhead.

I always wanted to take film classes as my elective, but my abortive attempt at Biology and my double major prevented me from doing so. Occasionally, I would cut class to go with Nicole to her film class, where the professor would let me watch what the film students watched. In that class I saw movies like Pink Flamingos (1972) and The Naked Kiss (1964), and Nicole introduced me to lots of other films that are too numerous to mention but expanded my limited knowledge of independent, cult film classics that are brain jarring.

I didn’t particularly like Eraserhead, not so much because, like Homer Simpson, I didn’t understand it completely, but more because it missed the mark in terms of my expectations of what it would be. I expect a movie, like a novel, or even a piece of short fiction, to create a world and transport me into that world. The world needn’t make sense, but I should feel like I am a part of it, or that I’ll never be a part of it. In this film, I couldn’t grasp the rules, and I wasn’t aware of the fact that there were no rules either. It had enough of the real interspersed to disrupt the surreal.

I have watched some great silent era films that toyed with the conventions of film making and employed creative techniques in order to dazzle, but I didn’t get the sense of that here. It’s a mood piece, at best, and at worst, a jumble of disjointed sequences that fail to connect.

Here’s what I can tell you that I liked about what I watched. Without a large knowledge base of film history, I’m guessing the brutally simplistic and unrelenting tonal soundtrack that builds to crescendos and creates a general uneasiness in the viewer was innovative at the time. What works for me is the juxtaposition of those sounds with lighthearted pipe organ pieces that will remind any Chicago reader of the pre-curtain performance experienced on a trip to the Music Box Theater.

I read on Wikipedia–and by the way, not to get all defensive, but I’ll assert my prerogative as a recreational reviewer in this context to use what I read on Wikipedia as a talking point in my analysis despite that fact that it’s a cop out for traditional film research. Anyway, I read on Wikipedia that Stanley Kubrick made the cast of The Shining (1980) watch Eraserhead to demonstrate the feel he wanted, and it doesn’t surprise me. There seems to me to be a give and take between the crescendo and the tonal punctuation sound methods used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (such as when the astronaut approaches Io in the light tunnel and the shot of the monolith at the foot of the bed, respectively) and Eraserhead; this give and take is further developed in the quick cuts paired with sharp tonal sounds in Eraserhead, which Kubrick also used in The Shining. Even if this is some crackpot analysis, the use of sound in Eraserhead certainly made a great pairing with the images.

To call this film a horror movie seemed at first to me over the top in the first thirty or so minutes. But looking at the jerky character movements (prefiguring the use of stop motion for the same effect) and the way that the sound, image, and lighting combine to sear imagery in your brain, it can’t be called anything else.

Technical prowess aside, the symbolism is paper thin, and I question if any images in this film are meant to have a meaning other than “this is some weird s*&t that I think will trip people out.” I had a professor who told me once that dreams in fiction shouldn’t make sense, and should have no meaning. Writers who include dream sequences often fail for use of overly symbolic interpretations that come off as desperate attempts to guide a character’s action by providing a convenient subliminal revelation in the form of a dream. However, if you interpret this film as a surreal nightmare of industrialization and the subtext for the dissolution of every fiber of civilization that holds rational meaning…you’d probably still be wrong.

The film has parts that must surely entice a film student, and I submit that this is a film student’s film, ripe for dissection of techniques and good for inspiring iconoclastic work. In terms of a Wednesday night Netflix watch, you might be hard pressed to make it through the first twenty minutes. If you do, beware, because I must have said in my head that I was turning it off every five minutes up until the credits, and you might want to psychologically prepare yourself for some unsettling imagery if you choose to stick it out through the end.

5/10: My vow to you: next time I see a woman with deformed cheeks singing and tap dancing in my radiator, I will definitely call a licensed repair worker immediately

The House of the Devil (2009)

The House of the Devil was promoted big time last year as the horror film to see. I heard comparisons to Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002) which I saw in theaters as a junior in college, and is possibly one of my favorite films of all time. I have to say, this film cashes in on the current (or, perhaps, ongoing for the last six to eight years) zeitgeist of 1980’s nostalgia. I buy into that fad a lot, despite being, as my wife continually reminds me, too young to really remember most of the 80’s. I was born in 1982, but I had two older brothers who were teenagers when I was a child, so I was probably exposed to more Def Leppard and die cast Ferrari models/A-Team episodes than the average 1980’s child.

THotD takes place on a wintry college campus which looks eerily deserted, and for land grant university alums the opening scene where the protagonist babysitter, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) drops a paper in an office mailbox will immediately evoke memories of turning in your last paper just before Christmas break. Samantha lives with a roommate that is much more concerned with some gym sock on the doorknob action with random dudes than washing any of her clothes or taking down messages, so she is hoping to find $300 quickly for her deposit on a new study pad free of roommate aggravation. Against the wishes of her best friend, she signs up for an odd type of babysitting gig for a creepy old man in the middle of nowhere. Sound hackneyed? It is. But the director, Ti West, is aware of this from the beginning and the tongue-in-cheek factor is off the charts. It’s not a reductive, play with the horror movie conventions in a meta way film like Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) for instance, but more like a carefully crafted tribute to the great B movies you rented from Dollar Video on Friday nights. I was hooked from the title scene of the movie, a freeze-frame, up-angle shot of Samantha with a smile on her face and ominous yellow title text in a typeface that looks like it was salvaged from a Vincent Price adaptation of a Poe story. Perfect.

Every detail of the film was carefully crafted to place you in the time period, while at once making you conscious that you are indulging in some period nostalgia along the way. The film is singular in execution, and definitely rates among the best that I have seen all summer. I’ll say no more about the plot and twists, but the film is far more entertaining than you would imagine from the first twenty or thirty minutes.

9/10: Fire up your jiffy pop and grab a 7Up Gold out of the fridge

Update: I read a great piece on this film in Scott Tobias’ “New Cult Cannon” which talks (with much more filmy expertise) on some of the conventions that Ti West is playing with in the film and the idea of nostalgia versus careful technique in crafting suspense in horror films.

Food Inc. (2010)

Food Inc. is probably one of the most highly regarded films that I have watched so far this summer, scoring an impressive 96% on RT and a 90 on Metacritic. I don’t think anyone would disagree with me if I said it takes 100% of it’s cues from An Inconvenient Truth (2006), aggressively forwarding a platform against an unpopular issue at the expense of big business, which never seems to learn that remaining silent on an issue is the worst possible decision.

The approach for all so called documentary films that adopt this rhetorical strategy is the same. You will be bombarded with images of human/animal/nature suffering: this makes you emotionally engaged with the issue (in Food Inc. a particularly disturbing image of yellow chicks being moved through a factory on a conveyor belt, getting their wings mechanically clipped, then being thrown down a metal chute by a worker).

Once you’re emotionally engaged, the film will hit you with some expert opinions that are framed in such a way that they seem irrefutable, or, at the very least, highly disturbing and suspicious: this puts you on the side of the filmmakers since no logically thinking person would hold the opposite opinion.

Along the way, industry will be asked to comment, but will likely refuse. Another possibility: the filmmaker will toss in a “punching bag” or “straw man” who is set up as the figurehead for the opposition only to be immediately knocked down (see Charlton Heston’s interview in Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002)).

The last step is to provide an outlet for the viewers to effect a change by listing steps that you, the consumer, can take to reverse the damage. Food Inc. does this by giving food procurement tips, e.g. “go buy from your local farmer.”

The film exposes a problem with the way food is produced and highlights our collective ignorance of the ingredients in the food we eat. The most salient point is probably that we have been buying food for much cheaper than it should be, and the losers are the undocumented workers who work in the meat assembly lines and factory farms as well as the local growers who are kept in wage slavery by the major corporations that have a stranglehold on food production in our country. I was sickened when someone suggested that immigration officials deport only a quota of unlucky individuals in the shanty town around a food factory since the large food corporation that employs them puts pressure on the government not to deplete their workforce; basically it’s a quid pro quo which allows the government to save face at the expense of the workers they’re deporting. Disgusting.

However, at the same time, I’m angry at films like this for showing me something that I have very little power to change. “Go buy from your local farmer.” What a revelation! Unfortunately, I can’t afford to spend $10/lb. on meat. Tell someone living below the poverty line that they should buy organic, small-farm grown vegetables for twice the price of corporately grown produce. The film addresses these problems, but provides no realistic outlets for change. At least now I can feel terrible every time I go to the grocery store and buy something, which I guess I should have felt for a long time now. It’s doubly bad when I drive there. Thanks a lot.

The film intimates that industry is wrong, but stops short of denouncing capitalism as the beast which created the food corporations. I’ll give the filmmakers credit for even going as far as they did. It’s definitely worth watching if you want to feel bad about eating anything you can buy in your local supermarket, but if you enjoy living in the Matrix, I would recommend avoiding this film.

8/10: Even this review probably contains some corn products

Interesting note: Magnolia Pictures released this film, and is owned in part by Mark Cuban, who also owns the Dallas Mavericks.

Classic: Batman Returns (1992)

I caught part of Edward Scissorhands (1990) the other day, and it reminded me that Tim Burton made some really great films in the 90’s. On a whim, I decided to roll out an old favorite from Netflix instawatch.

The summer that Batman Returns came out I definitely had Batman fever. I was a little too young for Batman (1989) (seven years old) to fully grasp how awesome Batman was, but at age ten I was fully able, and willing, to consume any and all Batman related products, including: Batman action figures, collectible Batman cups from McDonald’s, a Batman t-shirt and Batman pajamas, and some kind of Batman bath foam which probably was at least partially toxic to humans.

As a twelve year old, I was barely aware of the dialogue, plot, acting, or anything that I now overanalyze. Watching the film again, the acting is pretty over the top, with Christopher Walken and Danny DeVito practically twisting their mustaches at points. Michelle Phiffer’s Catwoman is needlessly killed and brought back (the character never appears and, to my knowledge, is never mentioned again in any films).

One aspect that I never really noticed: Michael Keaton’s Batman is not only kind of wimpy, but he’s not ever really the main focus for action within the plot of the film. He’s almost like a side note, only brought in to advance or complicate the dual narratives of Catwoman and the Penguin. At the time, the film might have served as more of a set piece for the big name actors inhabiting their roles, but it generally served to take away from the foreboding personal struggle that is Batman. Ebert speculates in his review that the movie is too much about the curse of being Batman and that the action is too herky jerky to provide much continuity to the plot. I agree partially. The subplots are mostly unnecessary, and this movie started us down the path of three plus villains where two might easily do. As far as the curse of Batman is concerned, he has practically passed into martyrdom in recent films.

As anyone would say, this was the finale for 90’s Batman in all respects as the final two films in this run, directed by Joel Shumacher (see the credits for St. Elmo’s Fire, ha ha ha ha) were essentially shameless cash grabs designed to capitalize on earlier franchise success (look no further than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze). In any case, if you have nieces or nephews who are of the movie watching age, this movie and the original Burton classic is something that should be shown proudly as the precursor to what hopefully will continue to be a great series of films. Also, the villainy is a little less disturbing than recent films, so you won’t have to read six bedtime stories to a frightened child after a viewing.

9/10: Watch for the part where Bruce Wayne scratches and spins a CD/R like a vinyl record–solid gold

Crime and Punishment — Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)

When I purchased this book, the cashier said, sarcastically, “Nothing like some light summer reading.” She was right. There’s nothing light about Crime and Punishment in terms of plots or ideological conflicts. The book is the equivalent of eating a brick.

However, I never expect to pick up anything written in the nineteenth century and find it to be light and airy. As my mother would say, C&P reads “like a Russian novel,” meaning there are too many characters and too many lines of action to conveniently follow. Originally, Crime and Punishment appeared as a serial in a periodical, as was the style for nineteenth century novels. I was unable to find a visual of the original serialized edition, but a lot of serials had pictures and even recaps to get you back into the story or help you out if you missed an issue and, consequently, a segment of the plot. Hence, reading works like C&P in novelized form (or in my case, the $6.99 “Bantam Classic” edition with small print and no margins) is not how contemporary audiences consumed them originally.

As Poe put it, a novel is of “undue” length and excites the readers for “too prolonged” a period [paraphrased]. Both are true of this novel, but it doesn’t necessarily ruin the experience. The so called climax comes in the first act, where Raskolnikov, our anti-hero protagonist, murders an old pawnbroker and her peddler sister (who walks in unexpectedly during the murder) with a stolen axe. He’s able to escape, despite being detected, and retreat back to his apartment. His panic, which he was sure would be controllable due to his extensive preparation for the crime, not only causes him to flee without stealing the lion’s share of the pawnbroker’s wealth, but also puts him into a state of delirium after the crime which nearly causes his arrest.

By chance, his crime is not discovered, and he is not immediately suspected. There in lies the surprise of the novel. This will not be a detective story so much as a deep introspection into the workings of a criminal’s mind. The reader will be teased with variations on motives, and will try to understand why the criminal did what he did as opposed to discovering the criminal and ending the story with an execution. The storyline suggests a shift in opinion as to nineteenth century thinking: now that reason dominates over divinity, how can we explain how the world works and what motivates men’s actions? The introduction by Joseph Frank tackles the theoretical workings of the novel by analyzing Dostoevsky’s life and circumstances when authoring the text, but leaves untouched the radical shift from the divine to the secular explanation of society and individual actions. No longer are people tried by a priest or accused of demonic possession: corporeal motives are the root of men’s transgressions against authority.

The atmosphere of C&P is deeply introspective and psychological in nature. As Frank points out, despite the third person narration the book delivers intimate details of Raskolnikov’s thought process, even including (seemingly as an extension) other characters’ perspectives on Raskolnikov’s state of mind, and making excellent use of aposiopesis which results in poignant pauses that allow the reader to mime the thought process of the characters, essentially having the reader think what the characters’ considered unthinkable, all the way to the book’s chilling final conclusions on motivations and actions–the work of a skilled author.

There are political and social implications as well, which a historical analysis would illuminate, but this is summer, and I am not interested in doing that right now; Frank’s introduction to the Bantam Classic edition also discusses these aspects at lenght. I will say that having read very few Russian authors, this book inspired me to take another look at Tolstoy or Turgenev. Due to the heavy nature of this book and the amount of time it took me to read and jump back into the plot (having put it down for days at a time) I am going to try to hit up some lighter works with my remaining pleasure reading season.

Highly recommended

Note: For books and longer readings, I feel the 0-10 point rating system is a little reductive, especially since the time commitment is much higher. I am going to, therefore, use the following pompous scale: not recommended, highly recommended, required reading.

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009)

Vampire films are all allusions to the original: Dracula by Bram Stoker. As an English major undergraduate at UIUC, I was required to take a class called “Major Authors.” I had my choice of Bram Stoker/Oscar Wilde, or George Elliot (who, like Dave Eggers, I probably thought was a man at the time). I’m not sure what I missed out on, but judging by some of my friends who had to read Middlemarch, I think I made the correct call.

With the explosion of interest in serialized vampire novels kicked off by The Vampire Chronicles and Interview with the Vampire by Ann Rice, vampires appear much less like the demonic cavern dwellers of Nosferatu (1922) and much more like various superhero incarnations, each new series having to set out the rules, or as they should now be called, the super powers that vampires possess over us blood banks. In the Twilight chronicles for instance, male vampires must unbutton their shirts halfway and pretend to be James Dean.

Cirque du Freak is no different. Vampires in this world can move super fast, slash things with their fingernail claws, and emit a noxious gas that incapacitates humans (with a deliberately open ended line of dialogue that leaves the possibility open for even more super powers).

As the title suggests, a boy has a “chance” encounter with a vampire (John C. Riley) who is a major player in one camp of vampires along with a character played by Willem Defoe. They are the retired leaders of the anti-killing humans camp, or “vampires.” Then there are the “vampaneese” who still kill humans when feeding, and quarell with the vampires, but are currently kept at bay by a tenuous truce which the Cirque, a traveling freak show, somehow (inexplicably) maintains.

The movie plays around this central tension and develops characters quite well, but ultimately comes across as a sequel delivery system. It took until a few minutes into the climactic fight sequence at the end of the film for me to realize that this was the climactic fight sequence. I don’t think it was the fault of the writer/director Paul Weitz, so much as it was the fact that this is poised as an opening chapter in a series from the first five minutes of the film. The voice-over delivered by the protagonist (Chris Massoglia) reminded me a great deal of the first Spiderman movie for some reason, and it eventually drops off to give way to the action of the plot.

Of course, a good versus evil binary emerges that will no doubt play out in a sequel, if there ever is one. This film scored low on RT and Metacritic, so who knows if it will ever see another incarnation. It seems that a lot of films are made on the assumption that a sequel will resolve the plot and tie up any loose ends. That might work for adaptations with a huge fan base (Harry Potter), but this film feels like a television pilot that may never get picked up. Not only that, the story seemed so rushed and condensed that I feel like it must have hardly done justice to the first book in the series. Seeing as this is a twelve book saga, I doubt that the collective capitalistic dream of making twelve movies to go along with the books will ever come true.

6/10: one, two, three, four, five, six…six vampires, bwah ha ha ha

Note: If you are looking for a better performance as a vampire by Willem Dafoe, and generally a much better vampire film, check out Daybreakers (2009).

Note 2: I’m switching to using Google Draw for future illustrations

Bad action movie roundup

Hi all. As you probably know by now, in between wasting time on the internet and watching Blackhawks/Cubs/World Cup related programming, I watch any number of bad movies that are not really worthy of a full review. If you know Nicole, you know that she is in love with bad movies, and we kind of push each other to watch ultra terrible films. Here are some of the stink bombs that I watched recently that I felt you might enjoy mini-reviews for:

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

My students begged me to watch First Blood (1982) when we discussed the Vietnam War last semester, but I made them watch Platoon (1986) which I should not even mention in the same sentence together.

Psychologically damaged vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) reprises his prior role, except this time he’s going back to ‘Nam. Why they couldn’t find a soldier who didn’t freak out and murder an entire small town Sheriff’s department, who can say? The U.S. army needs Rambo to rescue some POW’s. The only problem: some pencil pushing bureaucrat doesn’t want to start another war by murdering a whole bunch of Vietnameese national troops in their own country. Can’t those liberals in government ever get anything right?

After kicking ass for a while and firing what seems like three hundred rockets from an attack chopper, Rambo saves the day, telling that Washington bureaucrat to “find them [POW’s], or I’ll find you.” And do what, John Rambo, exactly? I know, let’s kill the whole government, that’s the answer! John Rambo for president.

If you can make it through the 80’s style patriotism and horrible Asian stereotypes, there are a few cheesy action shot payoffs. Better pick up a case of beer with this movie though.


Alien Hunter (2003)

At first, I thought this was some kind of SciFi Channel original, but it seems like a theatrical release, though I couldn’t find evidence of that either. It scored an ominous “N/A” on, something I have never seen in my life. That would seem to suggest that it was never reviewed, which leads me to the conclusion that this was a case of direct to DVD.

Julian Rome (James Spader, whoa, bad move my friend) is an ex-SETI member who gets called to the South Pole to investigate an alien ship that got hauled into a hydroponic corn experimentation facility (why grow corn at the South Pole? Why the hell not I guess). To make a long plot short, the aliens have a virus that will kill all life on earth, even the super corn, if it ever escapes. How do we know this? Somehow the Roswell conspiracy and a crazy bananas theory about how these aliens wiped out a civilization on Mars eons ago (how this is known by the humans is never mentioned, surprise surprise) are forwarded as reasons to nuke the whole facility. The rest of the movie is not worth mentioning, as it just gets stupider.

Oh, and I might point out that I was expecting some battle scenes between warrior aliens and soldiers (as the title would suggest) but the alien turns out to be peaceful and some dick shoots him dead while he’s trying to give James Spader the ultimate knowledge of the universe. Whoopsie daisy!


The Condemned (2007)

Stone Cold Steve Austin is on death row for a black ops mission gone wrong, abandoned by those jerks in government (he and Rambo should start a support group). Just let the military run things already. If history has taught us anything it’s that handing control of all foreign and domestic affairs over to a military despot is the only logical solution.

Anyway, this is basically the Richard Connell story “The Most Dangerous Game” done up again as a live webcast where people can watch violent criminals kill each other for sport. Last one alive wins freedom and some cash, only the whole thing is basically rigged and the U.S. law enforcement system is too locked up in bureaucratics to do anything to stop it. The manhunting plot has been done to death, and once something is spoofed by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, it should be dead, but it wasn’t, and the movie exists. By the way, Austin cannot act at all. He did a much better job in the squared circle than this movie, by far.


The Scorpion King (2002)

Dwane Johnson plays the title role of an assassin for hire that gets involved in a simplistic plot that is almost a direct copy of Conan the Barbarian (1982). I’m not sure if the writers or directors did that on purpose as a kind of tongue and cheek allusion. One would hope so, as it cuts a little to close to the bone to be a coincidence.

The movie is solid action wise, with a lot of Sam Raimi style fight sequences that fans of cheese will enjoy. The plot and acting, both terrible as you might expect. There are the typical pre-civilization action characters: a thief/trickster, a crackpot inventor (who invents gunpowder, WTF!?! come on, really?? in B.C.E. Egypt, ugh…), some women warriors in various bikini outfits, and a delightful young scamp who gets into the darnedest of situations. The antagonist is basically the Sheriff of Nottingham in Egyptian clothes. Oh, and I forgot Michael Clarke Duncan, who cracks some skulls. I’m sorry, but he is just awesome, no matter what anyone says.

The special effects get worse as the story progresses, so don’t look for a knockout final battle. The movie as whole just fizzles slowly out of existence, but I think it’s on cable fifty or so times a week so you can catch it then if you’re desperate to know which side wins the ultimate battle for the non-existent, anachronistic Egyptian civilization.


Well, that’s it for the bad action movie roundup. For future movies, I will try to avoid any titles that star former wrestlers. I had some out of town obligations, but I will hopefully be up for writing a review of Crime and Punishment this week so as to try to get some classy material up on this blog.

Next up in the film department: Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant

The Karate Kid (2010)

What sets this remake apart from The Karate Kid (1984) is the homage to past moviegoers who watched the original film.

I can recall watching the original Karate Kid numerous times in my house, my basement, my friends’ basements, etc. Not to mention the reenactments, and definitely not to mention the Nintendo game of the same name.

Apart from Goonies, ET, and Jaws, I can’t think of a more 80’s film than The Karate Kid.

I went to see the remake with a negative attitude as I usually approach any remake. However, I must have been softened by the enthusiasm of children. I am a hard, hard man after years of post-secondary education, harder than I would like to admit. I approach every source of enjoyment (TV, movies, books, magazines, the county fair, etc.) with a calloused, angered sense of criticism toward it’s underlying capitalist motives. However, a curious thing happened to me when I was watching this film: there were children in the audience who were loving it.

I admittedly have a heart of stone, but when my lovely niece is in the room, I abandon any sense of reason and enjoy trivial endeavors that I would never indulge in otherwise (such as building a Lego locomotive, or tossing a ball endlessly to a person with no hope of ever catching it). Such was the case with The Karate Kid.

There is no good reason to like this movie over the original, but the enthusiasm in the theater reminded me so much of my enthusiasm for the original that I couldn’t help but be engrossed. Yes, there are absurdities like the jumbotron at the finale of the karate tournament, and the laughable delivery by Jaden Smith (in Ralph Macchio’s character) which mimics his father much too closely; but I myself was moved by Jackie Chan’s performance as Pat Morita’s analogue. I’ll go beyond other reviews I’ve read and say that this is a breakout performance for the previous clown of martial arts films. A tour de force by Chan.

His performance was helped not in a small part by young Mr. Smith’s enthusiasm and (I suspect) stunt work and dedication to the physical aspects of the role, not to mention the fabulous settings in China (which I want to visit all the more) and the great work of the Chinese actors who played ancillary roles.

A criticism would be that Smith’s young love interest’s (Wenwen Han??….sorry, but IMDB does not have pics, and I saw the film yesterday, so I am guessing) subplot is never resolved. This is minor, but the engagement with Chinese culture could have surpassed just their kick ass martial arts skills.

If you have seen the original, I must recommend this film simply because the story is updated such that you will enjoy it again even though the outcome is obviously the same. As a rule, I roughly judge remakes, but this movie not only updated a classic story for a new generation but threw the savvy watcher enough bones to last through a theater of kids screaming over the sensational young actors in the film. I must say, I look forward to Jaden Smith’s career as an action star, so long as he is able to shake the obvious paternal acting tics he has acquired from his father.

8/10: catch it in your chopsticks!!

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Much like Hook (1991), Alice in Wonderland sends an aged protagonist back to a fantasy land in an amnesiac state to resolve an unfinished conflict from his and her first visit, respectively. Hook by all critics’ accounts was an abomination of a classic fairytale (22% on, but damn it I liked it. There was tension between a middle class, overworked family man and his neglected children, who Robin Williams (the perennial man-child) must reconcile with through a reversion to childlike innocence that he lost in the damnable workaday world.

Alice in Wonderland offers us nothing close to this level of complexity, other than the tomboyish Alice living a century in the future in her ideals, which all live action Disney protagonists seem to do as a repentance for the widespread misogyny of the corporation’s animated features. The line “I don’t believe in corsets” reminds me all too much of Keira Knightly’s line in Pirates of the Caribbean (2003):


That hurt


With a defiant look on her face

Try wearing a corset!

In short, there is no pretext for a revisit to Wonderland, much like there was no pretext for other Tim Burton remakes (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)). Mr. Burton has shown his penchant for remaking pop culture mythology (see his fabulous Batman and Batman Returns) but he perhaps relies too much on his writers to deliver him a script worth following, and there is no question about his over-reliance on CGI in this film. There was once a day, that is embedded in our collective nostalgia, where real actors were called upon to gesticulate, emote, and suffer ludicrous makeup and wardrobes in order to present an otherworldly image of fantastic brilliance which captivated our attention for two hours. In a sentence, the death of such an era in this film may be summed up as follows: “one of the best performances was Helena Bonham Carter’s voice.”

Motion capture when combined with CGI may prove a valuable tool for filmmakers (see my review of Avatar), but it is far from perfected. In general, acting performances were lukewarm with no real convincing or endearing charcters, John Depp’s Mad Hatter least of all. No amount of sashaying or, regrettably, break dancing, can make the screenwriting any better than it is.

I won’t go so far as to point out the historical inaccuracies in gender politics (you can ask me in person if you care), but it seems like no thought at all was put into the framing device for Alice’s journey. At best, giving the writer (Linda Woolverton) the benefit of the doubt as she wrote for classics such as Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994), there may have been an editor who chopped this segment of the movie to hell; however, the writing is unforgiving and the lines are delivered in the modern style of “sponge in mouth” a.k.a. “mouthful of cookies” so that half the movie is unintelligible. A disappointment to be sure:

3/10: Redbox/Netflix only, and only during summer

Avatar (2009)

Well, I have no real excuse for not seeing Avatar when it first came out this past year, but I’ll give you two. First, 3D films make me sick, literally; I’m unable to watch them, and someone told me not to see this film in 2D. Second, I was busy, or something, who can remember.

It was worth the wait for DVD and well worth watching in 2D despite what anyone says. The visuals are amazing, even if I don’t have a spear jutting out into my face or some flying projectile whizzing past my head. The CGI in this film is quite possibly the best I have seen. I am a huge detractor of CGI in most cases, as it’s sooo easily spotted and snaps the watcher out of the world that the film is trying to create. Models, set pieces, huge set paintings and the like, in my opinion, succeeded for decades because no discriminating eye could (or wanted to) pick them apart from the reality of the environment in the film. You just accepted what you saw as real. The CGI in this movie had the same effect on me. I stopped picking it apart and just enjoyed it.

Roger Ebert, in his review, likened the experience of watching Avatar to that of watching Star Wars (1977) for the first time. I agree. The storyline is complex enough (despite a few plot holes) to engage you and invest you in the characters in such a way that you actually care about the outcome and want to see a sequel. Due to the archetypal nature of the characters (see Joseph Campbell–>George Lucas) it’s impossible not to draw connections between this movie as a myth and Star Wars: they share too much. There are even meta myth moments within the film where the hero learns the pathway to integrating himself (predominantly male) into a larger mythology. It was only fitting that I happened by chance to watch a Law and Order episode which addresses (poorly) Carl Jung right after watching this movie.

Drawbacks? Yes. For better or worse I kept thinking Aliens (1986) the whole time. Casting Sigourney Weaver in the movie probably didn’t help. It’s probably just me, but characters in similar roles in separate movies always elicit this problem for me, most often with Johnny Depp in Tim Burton films.

Also, the Native American references go beyond heavy handed to just embarrassing. I was telling my wife that I felt like this turned into a white man’s wish fulfillment for how history could be rewritten with a powerful indigenous population that gives the colonizers their just deserts. Yet, as we both noticed, it is the “white man” who becomes the ultimate warrior and leader figure. I could write all day about the post-colonial nightmare this film induces, but I’ll save it. We obviously have a long way to go to get past the shadow of The Lone Ranger’s Tonto in our depictions of Native Americans. And please, let’s be honest, that’s exactly what the Na’vi are, despite being light years away; there is not a veil thin enough to fit the expression “thinly veiled.”

Anyway, if you can overcome your outrage and watch the movie for what it is, you’d see that the film does address such issues as sustainability and humanitarianism through character interactions, but not in any complex ways. A lot of old Star Trek episodes put Native Americans on alien planets; one episode comes to mind where Kirk goes native like the protagonist in this movie and becomes the tribal leader preventing an asteroid from hitting the planet (or something to that effect). Avatar barely surpasses simplistic representations such as these, but the movie was not written for anthropologists and can only be judged for what it is, an excellent action film with incredible special effects that is definitely worth seeing:

9/10: no 3D glasses required