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 rottentomatoes.com), 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):

BADDIE

That hurt

KEIRA KNIGHTLY

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

Pet Sematary II (1992)

Why do I torture myself? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that AMC Cinemas purchased my beloved Kerasotes theater chain, and promptly discontinued the Five Buck Club, my only source of entertainment outside of TiVo and reading. Given this disturbing development, I will probably be limited to reviewing movies that are available on my limited cable package and Redbox (apart from some Shakespeare adaptations to be reviewed later in July/August).

The first question must be with the tite: why “Sematary” with an “S”? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, that spelling is f^&*ed up (actual quote). I guess you have to read the book by Steven King to know the answer, and that ain’t happenin'(maybe something to do with children creating the place, crafty children with the ability to fashion weird wooden representations of their pets that never decay over time, but not spell correctly).

Secondly, why a second movie? The first movie was all about a father’s desperate attempts to cheat death through unnatural means, against all kinds of ominous warnings to the contrary (the most potent being the old guy who tried to revive his son, only to create a monster). Believing that was enough of a stretch. But of course, in PSII they have to outdo the previous movie with more bodies and more gruesome fatalities, so we get an even more thinly stretched storyline.

Edward Furlong, notable for Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) reprises his role as a renegade, sullen teenager from a broken home for PSII. Anthony Edwards plays his father, estranged husband to a recently killed actress (Darlanne Fluegel) who achieves temporary rest after being electrocuted on the set of her new horror film. The survivors move to Ludlow, Maine, a city full of people without New England accents. I’m no linguist, but why would the Sheriff who was born and raised in Ludlow, Maine have an accent similar to this famous cartoon rooster? Keynote speech at Linguistic Society of America 2011 here I come!

My amazing discovery aside, Furlong and the Sheriff’s son bury a dog at the cursed Indian burial grounds after the overly sleazy Sheriff murders the poor animal for disrupting his sleazy, drunken tryst with the boy’s mother; did I mention the Sheriff character is sleazy, and he’s an evil stepfather to boot (weirdly enough, he’s played by comic book animation voice actor Clancy Brown).

When doing some lite research (Wikipedia) I discovered that a graveyard is a confined area next to a building of worship, while a pastoral cemetery (or sematary, if you will) as we know it is usually outside of city limits thus preventing disease from decaying corpses. This Semetary is in a salt flat, which certainly makes it isolated, but seems slightly unusual for Maine (but I’ve never been there so what do I know).

*Spoiler Alert* Needless to say the dog comes back as a cheap Cujo knockoff, kills the hated Sheriff, who the boys inexplicably bring back using the Semetary. The Sheriff kills his family, digs up Edward’s wife/Furlong’s mother, somehow deposits her and the town bully (who the Sheriff also kills) into the Indian burial ground at Furlong’s request (like a traditional Caribbean work-slave zombie I might add) and there is a bloody confrontation in Furlong/Edward’s attic in which the bully and mom are electrocuted and burned to death, respectively.

Now when experimenting with an Indian burial ground corpse revival goes wrong the first time, why try it again? Sadly, this movie only gives us the thinnest attempt at an answer to the tune of “maybe it’ll work better this time!” I guess having your former mom scream “Dead is better! Dead is better!” while being burned to death would sour your optimism, but you never know, Pet Sematary III might just be a pitch away…now that’s scary stuff.

In any case:

1/10: Sometimes, the death of a storyline is better

The Taming of the Shrew, as performed at The Chicago Shakespeare Theater


As the daunting task of teaching and interpreting Shakespeare approacheth, I figured I better start revisiting most plays sooner rather than later. Being a newly freed letharge, I only managed to see the performance of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. However, TOTS being one of the texts I was responsible for in my MA comprehensive exam of a couple years ago, I feel reasonably confident in reviewing this play without a thorough rereading.

The plot: a student (Lucentio) trades places with his servant in order to get up close and personal with the beautiful Bianca, daughter to Baptista who will only allow her marriage when his oldest daughter, the shrewish scold Katharine, is married off. A fortune seeking adventurer (Petruchio) forcibly marries Katherine to secure a large inheritance, thereby opening the three-way courting contest for Bianca, which Lucentio and ultimately wins through some additional deceptions. Petruchio seemingly succeeds in breaking the strong willed Katharine into submission with relentless verbal abuse and starvation/sleep deprivation, thereby once again proving that verbal and physical abuse is the tried and true method to put women into their place, as slaves to men, men who built the Eiffel tower out of steel…and bronze. Oh, and there’s a lot of sexual innuendos and double entendres along the way.

As with most of my man WS’s plays, this is an amalgamation of previous written accounts (in this case, of shrew taming) and cultural artifacts, if not a direct rip off of another play. The questionable nature of authorage aside, shrew taming speaks to a rather bleak interpretation of spousal relations in 16 c. England, namely that women must be broken down into obedient servants. The close reader will note subtle opportunities where a director may take creative license and empower Katharina (aka Katherine, Kate), but subtlety is not the direction Ms. Rourke (the director) chose to take.

The text of the play includes a built-in framing device, whereby Christopher Sly (a beggar) is the subject of a cruel place-switching rouse put on by a rich guy looking for a laugh. Sly wakes up after a night of drinking and is fooled into thinking that his life as a beggar was a horrible dream and that he is a wealthy lord, who has players to perform TOTS for him. This framing device is dispensed with, and is replaced with a questionable update.

The players in the CST update are represented as actors in a production riddled with technical problems and personal disputes, but really it is just ham-handed commentary about the misogynistic nature of the play itself. Also, as a literature snob, I would like to point out the difference between a framing device and a subplot. A framing device, much like a frame around a fine piece of art, gives the story a space to occupy and a purported reason for existence. This is a relatively old concept mastered by authors centuries ago. Like any frame on a piece of artwork, it should draw the eye to the art itself, or complement the art it encases. A subplot is a thread of action that occurs beneath the surface of a piece of literature and is referenced and updated in between the main action, and resolves itself or coalesces with the main plot by the end of the story.

In the case of the CST TOTS, the “framing device” consists of a preface to the opening scene which frames the story, but it goes on to appear as an interlude following the third act prior to intermission, a second interlude upon returning from intermission preceding the fourth act, and coalesces with the finale in the fifth act, not to mention some references within the action of WS’s play itself. It is, without a doubt, a subplot, that the audience must constantly have at the back of their minds during the play, in addition to the concurrent plots within the play.

In any case, gendered representations in the subplot may be summarized as follows: all female actors are firery, vindictive lesbians, and all male actors are either boorish, hyper-masculine asses or, as Dan Savage would articulate, complete swishes needing only a dyed pink poodle to cement the role. The subplot plays to the lowest common denominator in gender and sexual politics, beating the audience over the head with commentary that one would think a 21st c. audience need not hear to understand misogynistic elements in WS’s play (an unusual development for the CST as I have never once felt their performances to be anything less than an intelligent reading of WS). Oh, and one more thing I HATE!! before I go on to the best parts: people, no matter how dramatic the situation, will at most walk away from an argument once or twice, not seventeen times. If you’re leaving the stage, get the hell off. If you’re staying to argue, stop pretending like your going to leave: you’re not fooling anyone.

Whew…I must have had too much afternoon coffee just now. Ah, but there were too many good moments in the play itself to end this review on bashing the banal subplot. Petruchio (Ian Bedford) and Katharine (Bianca Amato) spar verbally with passionate intensity, and the bit players, as always in a CST show, glue the production together (most notable was Steven Pringle as the Pedant who has perhaps the fewest lines in the play, but makes them among the most memorable). While the physical comedy was overdone at some points (the peril of The Three Stooges effect), there was still enough really great humor to recommend the play as worthwhile. I was exceedingly happy that pelvic thrusts were kept to a minimum after being traumatized years ago by a college performance of the feminist rebuttal play The Tamer Tamed , however the ridiculous codpieces more than make up for that I suppose.

I’m a bit sore that I paid full price for it, but overall it was yet another worthwhile comedy from the CST. However, I must say that it left me wanting a repeat of the absolutely hilarious performance of A Comedy of Errors four or so years back. As such, I am looking forward to As You Like It next year. With that in mind, I’ll rate TOTS as:

7/10: Seeketh thee a discounted ticket

Sherlock Holmes (2010)

First of all, those who know me know that I regularly promise more social media output than I can actually deliver. However, with the Computers and Writing 2010 conference over, I can now return to idle pursuits.

This one is kind of a cheat, since I saw Sherlock Holmes (2009) on the big screen when it came out, but I just recently Redboxed it on a whim (and because my wife is obsessed with all things Robert Downey Jr.). I was reasonably pleased on my first viewing, but Oh, how I found the opportunity to sour…

Let me start with my hatred for detective pieces. Usually, to the attentive reader/listener/viewer, the case is solved in the first or second act, or at least the most likely suspect is identified, and then, in increasingly common instances, replaced by the second or third least likely villain in the final act. Most of the time, I turn off any brain functions that try to puzzle out the story in an attempt to actually enjoy something in my life without analyzing it to the grave. I do this frequently with music, although some inane tripe is beyond any effort.

Few people know that Edgar Allan Poe popularized or (perhaps, and this is a big perhaps) invented detective fiction for U.S. audiences, an example being “Murders in the Rue Morgue” which you can watch, if you love stupid television movies and men in ape suits: repeat…stupid.

However, serialized accounts of grizzly murders were commonplace prior to Poe, in the form of “penny dreadfuls”: lightly fictionalized accounts of actual crimes (and the subsequent investigations) written for young men who could scarcely afford the asking price, introduced to me by Dr. Cameron at DePaul (who rocks–no website available).

By the time of Sir A. C. Dizzoyle (as I like to call him), public demand for tales of maniacal, outcast urban knife wielders/poisoners/pistol-dischargers was at a peak. The rising problem of urban migration, poverty-related crime, and “moral corruption problems” of the late Victorian era (fin de siecle for snobs)/early 20th century also called for a super detective of sorts who could maintain the social reformation spirit and enhance the perception that a vigilante intellectual could, if not protect people, hold the killer who shot you in the back responsible via burgeoning forensic evidence, and send that asshole to the gallows.

Then we get Sherlock Holmes (2009), which automatically elicits memories of Wild Wild West (tWWW) for me. The problem with period action pieces, in my uneducated and unsupported Andy Rooney style opinion, is that jamming a bunch of futuristic technology (SPOILER ALERT) like chemical weapons and remote control devices into a movie provides a popcorn-kernel-under-the-gum type distraction for those of us trying to deactivate the critical lobe of the brain: you can’t stop thinking about it and trying to resolve it despite your best efforts. I would give an example from tWWW, but I long ago underwent an experimental procedure to remove any memory of that god awful movie from my brain, along with Godzilla (1998).

Apart from the foolishness of anachronistic technology, the film is actually enjoyable. Downey Jr., as an aging action hero, need not pull a Sean Connery, Harrison Ford, or Danny Glover move (“I’m too old for this shit”) until his glistening, ripped body is no longer able to be supported by CGI and makeup effects. British accents: on a scale of believable cockney to me saying “fish un chips, govenaahhhhh” are actually somewhat believable. Rachel McAdams sounds stupid, but that has nothing to do with accents: this is just her normal delivery. Watson comes across a little to un-emasculated, but I doubt Jude Law, nor his audiences, would appreciate him as a bookwormish recorder of deeds. He turns out to be a still potent Crimean War (?) veteran who can shoot shit up and sword fight.

I enjoyed the plot, despite it’s predictability and sequel set up. I have to say, I don’t really mind the sequel setup when I may possibly enjoy the sequel. Despite critical semi-love and my neurotic deconstruction of the detective genre, I have to say that this film is a:

7/10 Tasty when deep fried and served with a lemon wedge and tartar sauce

Up Next Week: A YouTube available movie (or two), “The Taming of The Shrew” by Mr. Shakespeare, and possibly Crime and Punishment if I can get through it by then…

Shattered Glass (2003)


Many of the movies I’ll be reviewing this summer will be from IFC, which I believe is possibly one of the best channels ever, and is partially the reason I live with the inadequacies of Comcast.

Those of you who are educators might have encountered fabricated writings, and felt the anger associated with such. Others may have read a fabricated memoir, or at least watched a reality show which you later found out was fabricated (all of them).

I am no journalist, and, as you can see from this blog, never will be. However, I have always been intrigued with the idea of journalistic integrity as a kind of code of honor, never to be betrayed under any circumstances. The classic idea of journalism being seldom rewarded hard work, long hours, and the occasional, improbable rendezvous with a high-profile insider or whistle blower has always been something that I’ll enjoy without reservation in a movie.

Shattered Glass is no exception to that, but for one problem: Hayden Christensen. Something about his line delivery just ruins it for me. Okay, I get it, he’s supposed to be an attention grubbing people-pleaser who uses his knack for noticing finite details to fabricate his stories, but must he deliver every line with a whiny, adolescent inflection? Apparently, yes.

Luckily, his performance is balanced out by the editor types of Perter Sarsgaard and Hank Azaria. Azaria comes across perfectly as the much beloved father figure holding the writing staff of The New Republic magazine together, while other actors just kind of flatline in the movie. Early tension (which looks like plot driving filler until the pieces come together in the end) revolves around the domineering owner of the magazine overworking the writers and the resulting staff shake up. Sarsgaard, who comes out on top of the whole mess, gets much better as the movie goes on, and his transformation in the movie is probably the best thing I can recommend about the film.

A big source of tension which I suppose is meant to heighten the eventual revelation of Stephen Glass’ fabrications is the prestige of the magazine, with characters mentioning more than once that it is the “In-Flight Magazine of Air Force One.” It didn’t do much for me, however, as I’ve never been on Air Force One. Perhaps a sample of an article that actually influenced national policy decisions would have been useful instead of constantly hinting at it. Maybe the writers felt we were too dumb, who can say?

Another lost opportunity was the the print v. internet journalism tension, which was completely lost in a post-paper journalism era. This movie had the chance to create a really cool cultural artifact, and while the discussions about early 2000’s technology were pretty good, they only elicited a vague sense of nostalgia for things like AOL Member Pages and the once dominant Yahoo! search engine as opposed to documenting a boiling point in the news industry. I wish I had watched this seven years ago when it came out, so I will rate it:

6/10 (not safe if drowsy)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)


Those of you who know me (which, presumably, is anyone reading this right now) will know that I am lukewarm on horror films. When I saw The Ring (2002) in college, I couldn’t really sleep for three nights, and even afterward I was haunted by a parade of disturbing imagery, this being a really tame example. As such, I pretty much stayed away from horror movies for a long time.

Enter my wife who, in an excellent example of situational irony, had the same reaction to The Ring, but the exact opposite response: she loves horror films, always did, and loves watching them with me. As part of her birthday party, we were supposed to go see A Nightmare on Elm Street, but spurred by an overwhelming majority of hockey lovers (including my wife), we ended up watching the Blackhawks get destroyed by Vancouver in the first game of that series (I think we know how that turned out). But enough back story.

So here we go, two weeks later, in theaters, A Nightmare on Elm Street, a movie that this is to be the film series opener, redux and refreshed (i.e. with cell phones and the internet), in the vein of recent remakes of Halloween, James Bond, Batman, The Karate Kid, etc. etc. etc.

I understand the theory behind a remake, in that it updates the movie for a new generation of ticket buyers, er, I mean, “movie goers.” For those of us old enough to have watched the original, or rented the VHS of the original from the now dead local film rental store, the danger is that there will not be enough new material to interest a repeat viewer. If you have seen the remakes of The Omen, or The Manchurian Candidate, or really any recent remake, you know what I mean.

The other danger that series-opener remakes must contend with is the pointless repetition of elements which are smartly condensed or re-purposed in sequels to the original.

There are a few basic premises behind every NMoES movie: 1) The Threat: A pedophile is burned to death by angry townsfolk and returns to take his revenge on the children where the parents can’t protect them…IN THEIR DREAMS, HA HA AHAHAH; 2) Despite said threat, no adult believes it when it actually happens; 3) Everyone in town is hiding the pedophile BBQ from the children, hoping (paradoxically) that somehow collectively repressing their memories will be better than the children connecting the dots and figuring out some way to deal with the problem, cause children are helpless, and adults know best, so go to your goddamn room, hmph. The solution: somehow get Freddy into our world where his powers are limited, then dispose of him in the goriest way possible.

Not only do we get the agonizing repetition of these concepts, slowly developed over the film’s first hour plus, but also the overacted revelation scenes by the actors portraying female art-student-working-as-a-waitress teen and macho-yet-senstative-Joy Division-T-shirt-wearing-love-interest male teen (actor names not worth mentioning).

Unlike The Ring, this movie has nothing in the way of disturbing imagery, and uses every cliche jump scene that you’ve been watching parodied for the last decade (looking away from a mirror…then back, looking through a parted closet shutter slat/window blind…then having the killer right beside you!). Freddy (Jackie Earle Haley), now a huge hard ass take-no-prisoners type, has been robbed of the smarmyness and camp coined by Robert Englund in his performances, and is forgettable.

To boot, as my wife pointed out on the car ride home, much of the plot for this movie and even several lines (“Welcome to my world, Bitch”) are stolen directly from Freddy vs. Jason (2003), which I have to say was a far better movie.

Had I known the dreaded Bay was involved prior to the opening credits, I may have steered clear all together, but I watched it, and committed to starting my reviews yesterday, so I must reluctantly rate my first summer movie:

2/10 (worse than a broken toe)

Follow up: “I’m glad someone finally chopped his hand off…that’s all you really need to do” -my wife

Up Next: Shattered Glass starring that whiny dude from Star Wars eps. Two and Three.

Intro to 50/50

When I was a kid, 50/50 was pretty much my favorite drink in the whole world. I still love it, possibly too much, as it somehow crept into my subconscious when I was thinking about a fun blog project this summer.

Originally, I had planned to write about fifty films and fifty books, but a few people mentioned that reading fifty books would be impossible before school starts, and I agree. Hence, I have relinquished that dream and hope to review fifty films and fifty “pieces of writing” or something like that.

I’m going to try to add some content every day, and I’ll update FB and Twitter when I add film reviews or other interesting reviews.

I’m thinking about keeping some kind of review blog going after this, so hit me with some comments if you’re interested in joining up as an author at some point or you have ideas for a blog.