Thursday, April 27, 2006

Yesterday's news, today!

If I had a brain, I’d be in bed, resting off this cold. But I don’t have a brain, and it’s not that late, and I’m strangely driven to follow through on the brief movie reviews I promised last night (adding two more from tonight to the list) if only because this cold has left me with a strange absence of creative energy. Perhaps I’m looking for evidence that it’s still flickering inside of me somewhere. Or perhaps I’m looking for someway to inspire its reappearance.

Whatever the case, I’ve watched five movies in the last two days, because I haven’t had the energy or motivation to do much of anything except lie on the sofa and have entertainment spoon-fed to me. This is the only time in my life that I kind of regret not having cable, but really, in the long run, five movie rentals (plus maybe two more tomorrow, if I still feel this crappy) is still a whole lot cheaper than the year’s worth of cable I’d be paying for, and not using, in between bouts of sickness.

Some movies were good, some movies were bad, and some were just wild, mindless entertainment – a fine selection to choose from, if I may say so myself. Shall we begin?


I started last night with “Hostel,” a horror film from director Eli Roth that had come recommended by someone who, well, has a taste for horror films. As do I, for the most part, though to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much, as most horror films these days seem to either be remakes of 1970s American horror films (mostly bad) or remakes of modern Japanese horror films (mostly…well, at least interesting, if not always good)

“Hostel” was different. It was a brand new script, from a relatively new filmmaker. And for the most part, it was effective.

The spent a little too much time focused on the setup for the story – a trio of 20-somethings backpacking through Europe, looking for a little lovin’ – but by the 30 minute mark, the creepiness started to work its way in. For the most part, the gore was understated, and the film went with the old-school “what you don’t see is even more effective” route (except for a few notable scenes, one of which actually made me leave the room – eyeball torture, bleargh…)

Part of what makes the film work is the not knowing. I hadn’t read much about the film prior to seeing it, and I don’t know how much of the plot details are given away in trailers and other marketing, because quite frankly, I didn’t see much of the marketing. But it’s a film that is well served by going into it not knowing what’s going on. Some of the film is obvious and predictable, but there are a few interesting bumps on the roller coaster ride nonetheless.

Final Grade: C+


In a way, it seems simultaneously strange and fitting that a film about violence, set against a very American back-drop, would come from a Canadian filmmaker. What seems strange about it is that it comes from Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, who, while always interesting, has never been known for delivering…let’s say accessible films.

But “A History of Violence” is accessible – probably in part because it’s adapted from a graphic novel (or comic book, if you’re not afraid of looking like a geek for saying so) – while also being provocative and engaging. It’s not an easy film, by any stretch, and it occasionally punches you in the stomach. But as a film that seems to ultimately be a rumination of violence, it shouldn’t get away without punching you in the stomach at least once or twice.

And “rumination” is probably the best word. Like I said, it’s not an easy film, and it doesn’t exist to spoon-feed easy answers to the audience. Instead, it asks questions, and then turns its back on you, leaving the answers in your hands. Which, I happen to think, is exactly what all good art should do.

Final Grade: B+


What good can be said about a film whose entire plot appears to be: “After watching millions of people die, Tom Cruise finally learns that he’s kind of a crappy father.”

Here’s the problem with “War of the Worlds.” As much as Stephen Spielberg wants to create a relentless sense terror and dread right from the get go, he fails completely, because there are only four characters in this film. 1. Tom Cruise; 2. Tom Cruise’s daughter; 3. Tom Cruise’s son, 4. Millions of expendable other people (also known as “every body else.”)

In order to create a sense of dread, the audience must be able to believe that something dreadful might happen to the characters that they care about. At no point in this film is there that sense.

How do you create a sense of dread? Introduce characters. Make us like them. Make us care about them. Make us want to see them live. Then kill them. Ideally, do that in the first 30 minutes (though it’s tough to make us like and care about them in that much time, it’s not impossible). Once you’ve done that, you’ve at least taught us that bad things can happen to people we like. Maybe we’re still fairly sure that Tom Cruise will survive, because, you know, he’s Tom Cruise. And maybe we’re still fairly sure that the daughter will survive, because, you know, she’s young and cute. But the son, who’s kind of a dink? Well, him we might not be so sure about.

But without convincing us that anything can happen, we simply won’t believe it. So that even when the son appears to have gotten himself into a situation where his death is assured, we can all sit back and know that he’ll somehow be magically waiting for them in Boston. Because the lesson in Stephen Spielberg films is that bad things don’t happen to the people we care about. Particularly when there’s only three of them.

On the bright side, interesting cinematography…

Final Grade: D


I have a sort of romanticized view of journalism, which stems from years spent in the newspaper industry. Which is funny, because the years I spent in the newspaper industry happened entirely by accident, and the romanticized idealism I have evolved out of that accident.

“Good Night and Good Luck” works for me – and works very, very, very well – because it plays on that idealism. By showing us what CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow was willing to do in the 1950s to stand up to Senator McCarthy, specifically, and the “Communist Scare” in general, it’s a reminder of what journalists in both print and television can – and should – be doing today.

In my traditional post-film-watching Internet trivia searching, I stumbled upon a review of the film from someone who enjoyed it, but thought that it fell flat. That it didn’t give as much background to the story, that it didn’t give a strong enough backdrop to the era of McCarthyism, didn’t give Murrow enough motivation for the actions he takes. And if the film was meant as a historical lesson, I’d be inclined to agree. But I don’t think that was the point.

The point, I think, was to send a message to journalists. And I think the message was this: “Do your fucking job.”

The United States has been falling apart under the leadership of George W. Bush, but for the most part, the media has refused to hold him accountable. The media has refused to ask tough question. The media has refused to try to skewer him. Meanwhile, it’s spin here, and propaganda there, and the average American citizen sits back in their chairs not knowing what’s going on. Because the media there isn’t doing its job.

I have no idea how effective the message of “Good Night and Good Luck” was. I suppose the bottom line is that something is better than nothing. And for their attempts to spread that message, I tip my hat.

Final Grade: B+


Fun, cheese-ball, sci-fi, action, horror film. Everything I thought it was going to be going into it, so I was hardly disappointed.

I wasn’t driven to see this film by any stretch of the imagination, but it had been nagging at the back of my mind for awhile, because I do have a bit of the computer gamer in me, and the film was adapted from a computer game. Loosely, mind you, but I don’t think that was entirely a disservice. The biggest problem with adapting a film from any medium – book, graphic novel, video game – is figuring out what to keep, and what to throw away. I think, for the most part, they found a decent balance in “Doom.”

Strangely enough, the film is actually more successful at creating a sense of dread than “War of the Worlds” was – simply because of the style of film it is. You know this is a cheese-ball, sci-fi, action, horror film, so you also know that everyone on the screen has an equal chance of winding up dead before the credits roll. Well, everyone except for the young marine who was recently reunited with his twin sister. But if a film like this can’t be obvious in its plotting now and then, what film can?

Final Grade: C+

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