Friday, March 6, 2009

The Watchmen: Can you ever just be whelmed?

So I saw the midnight IMAX premiere of The Watchmen and wanted to know what others thought. I don't have a fully fleshes out review of the film at the moment and considering how it's still opening weekend I don't want to come down definitively on the film just yet until weighed in with some more friends. Then again, I saw the film with my brother, Alan, whose opinion I heartily respect and we were both somewhat disappointed.

Unlike The Dark Night, the IMAX experience wasn't much here. There are moments especially in the opening sequence where I was excited to experience the thrust and feel of altitude that the IMAX scope can provide but instead no such gasping feeling was elicited. My brother and I also had some of the best seats in the house as we were in the back and right smack in the center. So I don't think it's worth paying the extra money for IMAX just to see it projected larger than on a normal sized screen.

Also unlike The Dark Knight, I felt there was a certain amount of vision lacking in the execution of the film. Zach Snyder in visuals and script is as faithful to the graphic novel as he can be, but being a "visionary" does not just mean having the ability to see, or having the ability to represent or in this case to re-represent the visual. What was missing for me from the film was a lack of insight and and inability to set a tone or perspective to the material it was presenting. Alan Moore's Watchmen is a rich text that is definitely difficult to condense to the already long 2 hours and 43 minutes that the theatrical release was. Still in the almost 3 hours we were in the theater, I felt that some depth to the story and characters was missing. The film started out amazingly, faithfully recreating an opening action sequence and then having one of the best title credit sequences I've seen awhile. The film began knowing the epic nature of the novel it was trying to capture, and in turn that novel's desire to insert masked crime fighters into US history, mythology, and iconography. But somehow by the end of the film that epic nature is lost, what is left is something that doesn't take itself quite too seriously, but ironically relishes the violence it depicts by adding more bloodshed, though Moore's vision is already pretty grim. I think the film struggles with the tension to faithfully represent the novel and to be a Hollywood superhero movie. Though, it is definitely not a typical Hollywood superhero film, the ending left me feeling well, can you just be whelmed?

Ok, but I've got on long enough, and I really want to know what other people think. Also please let me know when people laugh during the movie, is it a "Joker effect" where people constantly laugh at grim violence, including the killing of Vietnamese people, because that was awkward and inappropriate and also My Lai and the war actually happened folks.

Finally, what did you think of the pop music use? I thought it was an interesting way to "audiolize"/"ensound" history and the period, but at times bordered on cliche.

I firmly recommend the book and I'm honestly looking forward to the DVD release, which will have accompanying comic inserts of Tales of the Black Freighter, which is featured in the novel, in addition to almost 2 more hours of footage.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Calling Riot Grrls of Cinema!

I might take a nibble here or there from the ladies' plates of He's Just Not That Into You, but I'll still take Meg Ryan's entire meal in When Harry Met Sally any day of the week. She's ballsy, opinionated, and proves the skillful ease of fake orgasms. Unlike her neurotic but independent character, He's Just Not That Into You presents women who need men to tell them what women think and how to overcome their blind devotion to archaically patriarchal relationship dynamics. Can I get a "WTF?"

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed myself quite a bit watching this, and even told friends I would return to it again with them (although I thankfully never did). But for a book that shouts from the rooftop, "you are NOT the exception!," the film had no problem cradling women (and men) everywhere with the false hope that we are.

As an adaptation of a self-help book on relationships, the film proves a good narrativization of the original material. But, like my fellow feminist jouster, I couldn't help but want all the women of the film to stand up for themselves a bit more, take charge. "Pounce or bounce!" I kept silently screaming. And thank goodness a couple of them do, otherwise this film would have fallen horribly flat for me.

The cast is rather stellar, particularly for the genre (save for the never acceptable Scarlett Johannson). Justin Long and Ginnifer Goodwin have been favorites of mine since they co-starred in the 1990s television show, Ed, and Kevin Connolly from HBO's Entourage was well suited for the "nice guy." And the script was well thought out structurally - pretty well balanced and edited so as not to let any story line get too much screentime. Unfortunately, this also meant none developed too much depth, save for Ms. Goodwin's abyss of desperation.

As a date movie, I second my fellow jouster, Charley, in supporting it as a good 'cuddle up and watch other people's relationship issues and imagine you are protected from the drama of Hollywood.'

But I'll have to put a more solid foot in Linde's corner and question why in this age we couldn't have a He's Just Not That Into You where women say "F*%! this! I'm more important than a man's affection!"... whether he's into you or not.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I'll Have What She's Having?

"The women of "He's Just Not That Into You" probably have never seen "Thelma and Louise," but they've seen "When Harry Met Sally" a few times," writes William C. McLean. While I agree to a certain degree, I keep asking myself, did feminism even happen?
I definitely enjoy a good rom-com and would never identify Thelma and Louise as belonging to that genre, though I do love it as an empowering, albeit tragic, women's buddy film. When Harry Met Sally, though not as kickass, still offers more empowering moments for Meg Ryan's oh-so-cute Sally, than many of the women in get in He's Just Not That Into You. Granted, a rom-com should not be judged by how empowered the female characters are, but if the women in rom-coms are constantly preoccupied with figuring out what men want and seeking their affirmation, what does that say about the women in the audience, like myself, who watch this stuff. Ok, so it's not ONLY women in the audience, but still, I would like to think me and other women are not only obsessed with figuring out men and seeking their affirmation. Because for one thing, that's assuming a lot of straightness about my sexuality.

Movies aren't life. They may reflect it sometimes but I hate it when I leave the theater and a pack of girlfriends go on and on about how this rom-com is exactly like their life. Yeah, some awkward moments that the adorable Ginnifer Goodwin had ring painfully true with the trials and tribulations of my love life, but I really need to believe that I and other women are not that insecure.

For one thing, aren't the post-feminist women in the audience and on screen presumably fans of Sex and the City and therefore realize the importance of female sexual pleasure? The film is PG-13, therefore it lacks the full-frontal fun, but is made readily available for every girl and woman's adolescent (minus the raging hormones) fantasies. Sex is removed from relationship dynamics, and when shown or hinted at are acts of desperation and usually show the male, actually just Bradley Cooper as douchebag extraordinaire, in the dominant role. If this film is supposed to be considered THE relationship/chick-flick film, which I don't think it is, shouldn't depicting a woman's sexual experience be part of what gives this rom-com preeminent status? The film is definitely engrossing and will make you laugh and maybe even tear up a bit, but I'm left wondering do I really want what she's having?

Measuring a Film's Success

For about a month I waited for the release of "He's Just Not That Into You."  A primary reason for my media diet is to escape into the fictional worlds provided.  Why escape?  These worlds are easily (a return phone call) or sometimes not-so-easily solvable (flying into an alien ship planting a virus).  But the point is that they are solvable - generally leading to a better (the scholar in me might say naive?) world.

For the past three months, local theaters put forth the Oscar bait which typically involves the melodramatic and emotionally involving.  These films strive for gold on Oscar night.  This is their goal - a ridiculously high standard.

But what about the film's that have absolutely no interest in these awards.  Some of them strive for box office clout.  I have not seen "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," but after spending two weeks at the top, something very positive for Columbia Pictures.  If you're game is comedy and reaping the rewards, then Paul Blart is a great success.  This is all it wanted.  I wonder if this means if it is a good movie.  Paul Blart made more money than Pineapple Express.

But I don't want this to turn into a box office business versus critical acclaim debate.  It's tired.  No, this is more subjective.  My subject is "He's Just Not That Into You."  I tired of the depressing Oscar fodder that made me want to guzzle whiskey (choose your vice accordingly) to feel something else.  I wanted to feel something else in the darkened theater.  "He's Just Not That Into You" provided such an experience.  With Oscar/Depressing season still in full swing, this film provided the feel-good adventure.  Manohla Dargis of the New York Times chastised "He's Just Not That Into You" by comparing its heroines to Thelma and Louise (characters in a well-received film).

I love Manohla.  She actually liked Tony Scott's "Domino" - an under-appreciated film starring Mickey Rourke for all you "Wrestler" fans.  Keira Knightley is also in it, but you knew that.  My problem with Manohla's comparison is that "He's Just Not That Into You" wants no part of Thelma or Louise.  The women in this film only want to be liked in the cutesy, call me back sort of way.  How do rom-com fans feel about the film?  I think they like it.  Ginnifer Goodwin is cuter than a button.  Justin Long works in a restaurant I want to eat in - actually I am hungry.

Soderbergh's "Ocean's Eleven" occupies the same territory.  In some respects, this is a perfect film (no scene wasted, no extra scene needed, well-executed).  Do I think Scorsese's "Casino" is better than "Ocean's Eleven?" Yes.  Do I think Mann's "Heat" is better than "Ocean's Eleven"  But the film doesn't care.  All this film wants is to be a heist movie in Las Vegas.  Cinema historians will probably tell me that I think of movies in too much of a vacuum - without any consideration for a film's potential family tree.  A deficiency? Perhaps.  An asset? Sometimes yes.

"He's Just Not That Into You" isn't trying for anything like an Academy Award.  It's a date movie.  With this is mind, it is quite successful.  Look at what a movie is trying to accomplish and then look at it.  Don't try and compare an apple with an orange.  The women of "He's Just Not That Into You" probably have never seen "Thelma and Louise," but they've seen "When Harry Met Sally" a few times.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Beef. It's the Oscar Roundup Special.

Just in time for Oscar Night, February 22, 2009, check out the Media Joust Podcast, as we go through the Academy's nominees for Best Supporting and Lead Actors and Actresses in addition to Best Director and Best Picture. We have some beef, plus a few atta-boy/girl/films. Also, make sure to check out the films that were nominated for Best Foreign Language Feature as well as Best Documentary.

Though we are incredibly affirmative of Slumdog Millionaire as a thoroughly enjoyable film, I have some hangups after learning more about how the young actors were not paid enough.

Please leave your comments, beef, rants, raves, and predictions, to the podcast below, and forgive us for a few technical difficulties as we modify the old Screen Junkies podcasts to the Media Joust name.

Have a Happy Oscar Night!

- Linde

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Review: Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, 2008)

There is a moment in the new Sam Mendes picture where it turns into a horror film.  It's a moment that you'll miss if your ears are not completely tuned in.  April (Kate Winslet) senses her husband Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio), coming down for breakfast.  They have had countless verbally violent altercations throughout the film and their previous one was the most heated. April faces the counter and Frank waits, knowing that she will turn and face him eventually.  

She turns, and its one of those situations where if this were a horror film, April's eyes would be poked out.  Instead, she turns and glows more than she has in the film.  She says, "Good morning."

It's uncomfortable for the audience.  Winslet noticeably deepens her voice for this line.  Not out of character, just an attempt at gross sincerity.  It's the eeriest, hardest-hitting, and best line in the film.  This moment is actually a microcosm of the film.  April and Frank are coming out of a fight and reconcile for who knows how long - a week, two days, five minutes.

To say this is my kind of movie is an understatement.  I loved this film - a dialogue and character-driven picture featuring subtle cinematography and the simple yet completely absorbing score from Thomas Newman (a Sam Mendes regular).  Those in the know, are already aware that Mendes and Winslet are married with children.  Yes, this is Mendes' picture to own but for the viewer, Winslet absolutely carries the film.  She is becoming an actor you can't help but watch.  Remember how Ian McKellen lifted the material in "Gods and Monsters" (Bill Condon, 1998)?  That film, on a good day, probably scores no better than an average grade, but McKellen makes people care.  To be sure, "Revolutionary Road" is a far better film, but Winslet carries this picture in a similar way.  DiCaprio's work, while very good, can only come off slighted when directly compared to Winslet.  It's her film through and through.

There are many reasons the public will spend their money to see this film.  It has Oscar buzz in all the major categories.  Winslet and DiCaprio give great performances.  Auteur fanatics will flock to see Sam Mendes.  There may not be many Thomas Newman fans, but perhaps he could garner a few box office tickets.  However, being a child in the late 90s makes this perhaps the can't miss film of the last decade.

"Titanic" (James Cameron, 1997) majestically sailed into cinematic immortality with relatively two new and young actors: the same Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.  Winslet seems hardly unchanged, but DiCaprio has filled out - in a good way.  His face is fuller, leaving the boyish porcelain looks of E Deck behind.  He has grown into one of the most bankable stars in the business and pairing him with longtime friend Winslet cements the overwhelming appeal of "Revolutionary Road."  The setting of this film is interesting - the 50s.  It's almost as if Jack and Rose survived the Titanic, and carved out a charming life for themselves, almost.  Close enough, that it works.  Their love thrives on the doomed ocean liner.  Their love is nothing short of destructive when on solid and comfortable dry land.

The film's structure does raise an interesting question.  I must credit my viewing partner LP for recognizing this.  "Revolutionary Road" feels like many scenes strewn together artfully and with great impact.  There is flow and the audience is always left wanting more.  However, the characters come off as if they only exist in these scenes.  "I cannot imagine what these characters do when they are not onscreen."  On the surface, this seems like a detriment.  In general, audiences want characters that stick with them.  While I think I agree with LP, my love for this film is not diminished.

So, it here that I ask you fellow JOUSTERS to chime in.  First, do you agree with this assessment of "Revolutionary Road?"  Do you think a film NEEDS to create characters that can exist beyond the screen itself?  Does an audience need to imagine these people at the soda fountain? At the library?  Trimming the hedges?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

JOUST: The Unconventional Crime Solver

Linde and Charley have covered their bases rather thoroughly in this expose of crime solving-gone-public, but I need to chime in and throw a couple jabs. Once NBC proved Law and Order spin-offs could be just as successful as the original, and CBS followed with CSI and its franchise, there was no stopping the explosion of investigative television into every type of programming possible. And while I tend to agree with Ms. Murugan that unconventional crimesolver television is not quite a genre just yet, it is without a doubt a solid subgenre, or perhaps trope, of an established genre.

It is not a mystery that I myself am addicted to FOX's Bones that is not so unconventional as Veronica Mars or The Mentalist, but it does use scientists and artists in a fictional Smithsonian Institute, known on the show as the Jeffersonian Institute, to assist the FBI through an analysis of bones, bugs, dirt, chemicals, art renderings, and genius-level 'quantum leaps.' More than this, the show's characters lend to an on-going narrative of objective science versus subjective humanity.

Two shows that have yet to be mentioned in this discussion that have done well enough to give this convention some weight are CBS's Numb3rs and FOX's House. In the first, An FBI agent calls on his genius mathmatician brother to solve crimes through formulas, graphs, chalkboards, and math so difficult nobody can question it. Not the greatest show, although featuring David Krumholtz as math whiz Charlie Eppes and Peter MacNicol as his university colleague, Numb3rs is in its fifth season and sould be used by math teachers everywhere to answer the infamous question, "when will I ever need to know this?!"

House, the Emmy and Golden Globe nominated and winning program, is FOX's fantastic medical drama that I include in this crime solving programming because of the episode narrative structure: patient with mystery ailment comes to the ultimate doctor-meets-detective, Dr. House, along with his team of interns and doctors, who investigate not just the body, but the home, personal, interpersonal, and professional history of the patient to solve the case within the last ten minutes of the hour-long program.

While there is no crime per-se in House, the crime-solving structure on a medical program and the doctor as detective are great techniques that allowed the show to last so long. These, and of course, great writing and Hugh Laurie's incredible acting.

As an addict of these programs, I hope there is a future for the structure. With the success of The Mentalist, I am certainly not alone. But with the cancellation of Pushing Daisies, Veronica Mars, and a show you may not even know existed - New Amsterdam, from last season - about an immortal cop who uses his experiences from past ages to help solve contemporary crimes, there is a delicate balance of convention and unconventionality, style and narrative needed for theses shows to succeed.

ADDENDUM: Not included partly because it is not American and mostly becuase I forgot about it while writing this, The amazingly hilarious BBC program, Dr. Who, that combines science fiction and crime solving is one of the longest surviving unconventional crime solving programs and should get an American rip-off soon if it's not already in the works. Catch it on BBC-America for now, and fall in love with ridiculous special effects and over-the-top everything.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Review: The Spirit (Frank Miller, 2008)

The Spirit is not a good film. It's one of the worst of the year, or perhaps any year. In most throwaway films, I tend to be pretty generous: "It was like a roller coaster. Fun while you're on it, but no lasting effects." I can't even say that about The Spirit.

But I have a problem. I like Frank Miller. I like comic book movies. While I cannot recommend this film to just any member of the general public, I can highly recommend it to those studying comic book film adaptations. Fortunately for The Spirit, I fit into that category.

The story is ridiculous. I'll do my best. A man called The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) wants immortality. But to do this he needs the blood of Heracles which is located in a vase held by Sand Serif (Eva Mendes). The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) protects the Central City metropolis and therefore must fight against Octopus' scheme. This is the roughest of outlines.

The only reasons for liking The Spirit lie in its construction - literally, how the film is made. Films based on graphic storytelling (comics, graphic novels) have existed for awhile. Tim Burton's Batman is a great favorite of mine. But the construction of the film is traditional. In the end, it looks like a regular action movie, based on a comic book series.

Frank Miller has had two of his own graphic novels adapted to film: 300 and Sin City. Miller's directorial debut, The Spirit owes itself to these two films in terms of its visual style. Almost all scenes were filmed against a green screen. In a sense these films are more like animated films than live-action. I see this as new filmmaking aesthetic: "Comic book filmmaking." I am not familiar with the source material for The Spirit, but the stories for 300 and Sin City follow their source material quite closely in both story and visuals. Indeed, the films look like translations of page to the screen. This is the essence of what I call "comic book filmmaking." Translation versus adaptation - making the film look as much like the comic book as possible.

So, when I say The Spirit is bad film, you can believe me. Is the dialogue campy and wooden? Absolutely. Can I see these same words appearing in a speech bubble? Absolutely. The visuals look much like storyboards and indeed, Miller drew the storyboards for the film himself. Adaptations tend to send cinephiles into a frenzy. "They got rid of this character! Why!" They complain when things are added, subtracted or perhaps worse, diluted. At least with Sin City and 300, they are faithful to their material. My big assumption here is that The Spirit follows suit. My response to those clamoring for faithful adaptations: Be careful what you wish for!

In the end, what The Spirit makes is three of a kind - Sin City, 300 and The Spirit. What do you get with three of a kind? Trend!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

JOUST: The Unconventional Crime Solver on TV

This genre definitely is gaining some ground with The Mentalist (CBS), yet as the unfortunate cancellations of both Veronica Mars (CW) and Pushing Daisies (ABC) have shown, maybe this "genre" has its limits. Along the same lines of The Mentalist, Psych (USA) also deals with a highly observant Shawn Spencer that has to pretend to be psychic in order to make his deductions viable to the Santa Barbara Police Department. He then not only becomes the police's psychic consultant, but along with his best friend Burton "Gus" Guster, starts a psychically informed private investigation practice. 

If Simon Baker is a "hunk" in the "unconventional crime solver" world, let us not forget the formidable Tony Shalhoub as Monk. Though technically Monk was originally a member of the police force, his OCD brought on the by the traumatic murder of his wife, slowly led him to the position of a private investigator. Now here, the big difference between USA's Psych and Monk and CBS's The Mentalist, is comedy as opposed to drama. Though I have not fully gotten into The Mentalist, I love Psych, not as much for the crazy ways the mysteries are solved but for the 1980s and 1990s pop culture-filled banter of Shawn and Gus. Monk, on the other hand, though funny, is particularly brilliant in how he solves the crime. 

Among the cancelled shows, though Pushing Daisies features the unconventional crime solving team of Emerson Cod, Ned, Chuck, and Olive, the real pleasure in watching the show, especially in the latest episodes has been learning more about the characters' pasts, families, and romantic relationships.  Even though Veronica Mars is a teen-centered, surprisingly, as opposed to Pushing Daisies, the romantic entanglements, though definitely producing some girlish screams at the sight of Veronica and Logan (Again?! OMG!), really managed to make the cases interesting. Even the cases that were solved in one episode, proved to have enough twists and turns in the narrative to make her "unconventional crime solver" status prominent. Still, ultimately, the most interesting cases, which were usually carried through each season's arc, were the ones that led back to Veronica's past.

I think the emphasis on slowly revealing more about the investigator throughout a series is an interesting narrative trope to take note of. This trope is not exclusive to the purview of the "unconventional crime solver," as even the most generic police procedural shows, such as the CSI and Law & Order franchises, have over the years devoted more episodes that reveal the investigators' personal histories. At the heart of this preoccupation is a desire to dismantle or slowly reveal what is behind the facade of professionalism and objectivism, to find where someone's humanity rests. This is made strongly evident in Bones (FOX) and Life (NBC), which are both investigative procedural programs that are strongly invested in discovering more about their respective leading partners' pasts.

Though this narrative concern is by no means a genre, I think the concern with a humanity and a personal history behind one's training, efficiency, and knowledge, demonstrate why the "unconventional crime solver," is a popular character. Though I don't think this character can necessarily constitute a genre just yet, since the livelihood of some of the shows is questionable, I think ultimately what many crime shows seek to show is that we all have the potential to be brilliant and that behind every objective scientist or detective usually lies a rough love life and a damaged childhood.

Still, I have to give it up to Charley for noting a significant trend that might show more promise. After all, though Chuck (NBC) is more of a spy than a private investigator, he plays an unconventional James Bond, with his dorky good looks and his mind that now stores all the government's secrets. The show definitely shows promise as it has some great Unresolved Sexual Tension, which totally keeps me watching. 

In 2009, also look out for Castle (ABC), about Rick Castle, a crime writer like Temperance Brennan from Bones, who helps the NYPD. Tim Roth will also be on television as Dr. Cal Lightman in Lie to Me (FOX), who studies people's body languages and voices to solve crimes. NBC will also give the unconventional crime solver a go with The Listener about a young paramedic who tries to solve crimes using his secret ability to read people's minds. Maybe ABC, FOX, and NBC will have as good of luck with the genre as CBS and USA have, in any case I think William McLean is on to something that could very well be a genre with some sustenance.


TV: The Amateur/Unconventional Crime Solver

The CBS network is now famous for saturating the market with police procedurals. CSI is still running strong. I had no idea that NCIS does really well. Perhaps most surprising is the success of The Mentalist.

The Mentalist stars hunky Simon Baker from past films like L.A. Confidential and more recently, The Devil Wears Prada. He plays someone skilled in the art of...observation...huh? I'll explain. He has an uncanny ability to “read” people’s gestures and body language and uses this ability to solve crimes in California. The Mentalist is not a traditional police procedural in that solving the case requires unconventional means.

But this is not a new phenomena. Let’s take roll of previous television shows:

Veronica Mars featured an amateur crime solver, Kristen Bell herself. She may have solved crime or mysteries using typical P.I. tactics, but her status as high school senior makes her eligible for such a distinction.

A more recent show is the now late Pushing Daisies starring Lee Pace and his eyebrows. He also teams up with a P.I. to solve crimes. But his ability is different – he can revive the dead with a touch of a finger. However, he must touch them again within 60 seconds or someone else dies.

Now, how viable is such a genre? Veronica Mars and Pushing Daisies are both now defunct despite receiving high critical marks. The Mentalist appears to have solidified its place on network television and perhaps its success can spurn new series with similar narrative tropes.

I ask you fellow jousters, is this trend of the “amateur/unconventional crime solver” something to be on the lookout for? Why has it not worked before? Are there other shows that I overlooked? JOUST!