Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Archive for March, 2005

The End of Fanboy Culture as We Know It…and I Feel Fine

Posted by CinemaPsycho on March 30, 2005

2005 is shaping up to be an interesting year for many reasons. One that seems to have attracted little notice, at least in the media, is the potential end of the two major sci-fi franchises.

Of course we all know that this year George Lucas will release what he claims is the final chapter in the trilogy of Star Wars prequels. Even though it’s long been rumored that Lucas originally intended there to be 9 movies in the series, Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith will be the last new Star Wars film. I don’t know if that’s really sunk in for a lot of people yet. In less than two months…it’s over. That’s it.

I’m sure the franchise will continue in various ancillary projects, such as the long-running series of novels and a proposed TV series (I can’t really see Star Wars working in that format, but I guess you never know). But as far as the movies go, Star Wars will officially end on May 20.

For someone like myself who grew up seeing the original films in theaters, and then several more times over the years on television and video, that’s kind of an odd thing to realize. Like most old-school fans, I have my issues with the prequels. I think they’re mediocre films at best, with the occasional impressive scene (I think watching Yoda fight Christopher Lee was the last time I officially “geeked out”). Lucas has said many times that the prequels are for the new generation of fans, not the fans of the original trilogy, and despite my disappointment in them, I can see his point. From the point of view of the younger audience, these are the Star Wars movies. The older films are ancient relics to today’s kids, as strange as that sounds. Then again, I doubt that many 12-year-old kids really give much of a shit about the inner workings of the Jedi Council, so a lot of the content of the prequels are quite baffling if that’s the audience Lucas and company are trying to appeal to. The political stuff must play like C-SPAN to them. But whatever – the prequels are what they are, and I’ve resigned myself to that. Even if Episode 3 turns out to be great, Star Wars will still never be what it once was. And maybe it never could have been.

At the same time, the Star Trek franchise seems to be winding down as well, with the seemingly early cancellation of the current Enterprise TV series, and no other Trek shows or movies in the immediate future. Again, I’m sure that Trek will continue in other formats, and will eventually return at some point in film and television. Trek is too big a cash cow for Paramount to let completely die. Even if they should.

Trek fans have responded to Enterprise’s cancellation with a surprising response, not only flooding Paramount and UPN with pleas to renew the show but even raising a substantial amount of money (around $3.1 million at last count) to fund a fifth season of the series. Hopefully that money will soon be turned over to aid tsunami victims or something else that might actually benefit people in the real world, because I don’t think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell of Enterprise coming back.

Here’s what baffles me about the whole situation. For the past four years, we’ve been hearing nothing but complaints about how lackluster a show Enterprise is. Especially from hard-core Trek fans. Now that the show’s been cancelled, suddenly they’re saying it’s the best show on TV and they can’t live without it. Where is this coming from? Yes, the show’s improved greatly this season, but do any of these people really think Enterprise is a great show, much less a great Star Trek show? I can think of a dozen current shows off the top of my head that are better and more deserving of this kind of fan response.

Here’s what I think the deal is: for the first time since 1987, there will not be a Star Trek show on the air this fall. The franchise is dead, at least for the time being. This is causing the hard-core geeks (a term I always use affectionately) to panic and come out of the woodwork to show that the “Trekkies” are still out there. It’s not so much that they want Enterprise back – they just don’t want Star Trek to die.

On one level, I can understand that kind of commitment and devotion. I even sort of perversely admire it. I’ve got nothing against Trek (although for me it pretty much died with Voyager and the last two movies), and it wouldn’t bother me at all if Enterprise came back. I just have to wonder if there isn’t a certain level of cultural myopia going on here.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying this is true of all sci-fi fans. I’ve never liked the stereotype of “the sci-fi geek who lives in his parents’ basement”. But lately, there does seem to be a certain contingent that just can’t let it go. I mean, the show is CANCELLED. It’s over. It’s not coming back. Enterprise is done. Why does this idea scare people so much? It is just a TV show…right?

I’m not knocking people for liking sci-fi. I’d be the last person to do that. But what I don’t understand is why they don’t seem to like anything else. There are people who won’t give anything a chance unless it’s set in outer space or some fantasy world! That’s just bizarre to me. It’s not too dissimilar from those old people we all know who constantly watch nothing but Matlock and Murder, She Wrote reruns. Aren’t the mindsets pretty much the same, when it comes down to it? They’re basically saying, “I like one thing, and only one thing, and I’m not interested in anything different.”

I’m sorry, that’s just weird to me. It’s like those people who will only listen to one specific subgenre of music, whether it be punk or metal or “indie rock” or electronic (whatever they’re calling it these days). Don’t they get bored? I know I would. I get restless if I listen to the same radio station for more than 15 minutes. Then again, there are millions of people who listen to Top 40 radio, and seem to prefer hearing the same 10 to 20 songs over and over and over and over again ad nauseum. I’ve never understood that. Then they complain that they’re hearing a certain song too much. Well, change the fucking channel! What exactly makes that a difficult thing to do?

My question is, when there’s so much out there to sample, why not give something a chance if it’s good? I don’t really cover TV here (though I think there’s a lot more value in it than a lot of what you find at the multiplex), but I do watch a fair amount. And I really don’t care what a show is about, as long as it’s good. I don’t care if a show is about cops, lawyers, doctors, gangsters, detectives, housewives, psychics, plastic surgeons, circus people, funeral home directors, an Old West mining town, people stranded on an island, or even a gorgeous five-foot blonde teenager with a knack for solving crimes (and a killer smile). If it’s got interesting characters and fascinating stories, fucking bring it on! I’ll watch it. As long as it’s not formula, and it’s not a goddamn reality show, I’m there.

It seems to genuinely baffle some folks that shows that are not considered “genre” works can attract the same level of fanatical obsessiveness that their beloved sci-fi and horror-themed shows once did. But more and more, that’s what has been happening. Thanks largely to the Internet, the kind of devotion that was once restricted to shows like the original Star Trek, Dark Shadows, The X-Files and Buffy is now freely given to “mainstream” shows like 24, Alias, Lost, Desperate Housewives and of course my beloved Veronica. Fans pore over the minutia of each episode like scholars examine the works of Shakespeare. There are tons of fansites out there for these shows, and I honestly think that terrifies some people. “Geeking out” isn’t just for the self-proclaimed geeks anymore. Practically everybody’s a fanboy (or girl) now – they’re just not obsessive about the same things as the original geeks.

I honestly think this is a good thing. Seriously, aren’t we all a little tired of the old fanboy paradigm by now? If you’ve ever read the AICN talkbacks (and Jesus, what a viper’s nest that is), it’s the same old thing, year after year after year. Whenever Hollywood changes a comic-book character or announces an unnecessary remake of a classic, you hear the same old predictable cries of outrage. As if it’s going to make any difference…haven’t we reached a point where we’re beyond being pissed off about these things? I don’t know about anyone else, but I have. Not that Hollywood is always right, and that people’s voices shouldn’t be heard. But Jesus H. Christ, aren’t there more important things going on in the world than what a comic-book character’s costume looks like? Isn’t there a saturation point where people just get over it, and move on? Yes, Batman and Robin was a terrible movie, but for god’s sake, it was eight years ago. Are our lives really that empty that we can’t learn to let it go already? Does it really matter that much?

I was thinking about this when I was watching the recent Clone Wars cartoons on Cartoon Network. I thought they were pretty cool, but I honestly didn’t really care about what was happening in them. If I were 14, I would be all over this stuff like white on rice. It would be a monumental event. Now, I obviously care enough to record and watch them, but if they didn’t exist, it wouldn’t affect my life one way or the other. I love the Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings movies, but I love them exactly as that: movies. I could really care less how faithful they are to the source material. I loved that stuff when I was a kid, but it’s been years since I’ve read comic books or fantasy novels on a regular basis. It’s not important to me anymore. It’s not so much that I’ve grown up (god knows) as that I’ve moved on.

My point is, people’s tastes change as they get older. Thank god, or I’d still be watching Miami Vice reruns and listening to Dio and Night Ranger. Our interests diversify. We let go of old things and try new things. That isn’t necessarily bad. It can be positive. I loved Star Wars and Star Trek when I was younger. Now that they’re effectively coming to an end…it really doesn’t bother me that much. Is it because I’m an old codger who’s lost the ability to care about the things I loved in my childhood? Maybe. Or maybe I just love different things now.

Look, I’m as fanatical as anybody about the movies, music, TV and literature that I enjoy. What’s the name of this site again? But I also think there comes a time when you have to let go. Some people just don’t seem capable of doing that. I don’t know if it’s an unwillingness to let go, or just an inability to move on and try something new. But sometimes I wonder if that kind of obsessiveness hurts us in the real world. It’s one thing to enjoy visiting a fantasy world – it’s another thing to live there. I can totally understand the impulse to escape the real world, believe me. But how much is too much? Is there a point where it becomes detrimental to the way we function in society? And if so, do we only know where that line is when we’re already too far past it to remedy the situation? I don’t know the answers to those questions. But I do think about it. I guess that’s something.

I’ve made no secret of my obsessive love for Veronica Mars, both the show and the character. I’ve just slipped in references here and there, I haven’t written about it because frankly even I think it’s strange. I won’t attempt to explain it (except for my massive crush on Kristen Bell – really, can you blame me?), although I have to say it is a really excellent show. It’s probably not something I would have given a chance when I was younger – it probably would’ve hit “too close to home” (high school wasn’t exactly fun for me either). Even a few years ago I probably wouldn’t have been able to “deal” with the issues the show brings up for me. But now, there’s something about it that really moves me. Each new episode makes me giddy with anticipation. Go figure, right? Anyway, lately I’ve been visiting some Veronica fansites, more out of curiosity than anything. Some of them are really detailed and incredibly passionate, to the point where even I’m blown away by them. In a strange way, it’s kind of comforting to know that there are so many people out there that care about the same thing I do, as much as I do. It’s a relief to know I’m not the only one. I can relate to that feeling. The sci-fi geeks may not get this show, but I do. I’m sorry that they can’t appreciate it. And if being a fan of something like this damages my cred among those people…fuck ‘em. I’m not going to dislike something to please them. Life is too short. Honestly.

Will I be crushed and devastated if Veronica gets cancelled? Absolutely. I won’t lie to you or myself and pretend otherwise. That would really suck. But sooner or later…I’ll get over it. I’ll move on. And eventually, something else will come along that I’ll love just as much. Because that’s what happens. That’s part of life. As another great detective once said, “It’s all part of life’s rich pageant”. Maybe some people just aren’t capable of understanding that. More’s the pity.

Advertisements

Posted in Psycho Therapy | Leave a Comment »

The Ring Two

Posted by CinemaPsycho on March 23, 2005

Directed by Hideo Nakata/written by Ehren Kruger/starring Naomi Watts, Simon Baker, David Dorfman, Elizabeth Perkins, Emily van Camp, Sissy Spacek/Dreamworks SKG

Ghost girl Samara is back to menace original survivors Rachel and Aidan.

The Ring Two is one of those sequels that make you wonder why you liked the original so much in the first place. Most of the same elements are there, but they’re reconfigured in a way that’s so much less effective. It’s kind of surprising that they made it work so well the first time.

The sequel basically picks up six months after the original left off. Rachel (Watts) has left Seattle to work at a small newspaper in Astoria, Oregon in an attempt to leave the past behind her and start over. Her son Aidan (Dorfman) is there but, if anything, he seems weirder than he did before. They briefly discuss what they did to save themselves at the end of the first movie, but otherwise they seem fine.

Then, wouldn’t you know it, a copy of that darned videotape shows up in Astoria, leading Rachel to find and destroy it. But it turns out that Samara is after something bigger than random revenge – she wants to possess Aidan. It might have been funny if Aidan was already possessed by someone else, as creepy as he normally acts. But alas, I guess they’ll have to save that joke for Scary Movie 4.

I understand and appreciate that they were trying to do something a little different this time around, and not simply rehash the original. But for me, this is where the movie went completely wrong. After an effective opening sequence that indicates how the “Ring” video phenomenon has spread to the boonies (it must be everywhere by now), Kruger completely throws out the whole videotape gimmick that made the original movie work. You remember – people watch the video, then get a mysterious phone call telling them that they will die in 7 days. If they don’t get someone else to watch it, they’re screwed.

Well, forget all that, because once Rachel destroys that particular copy of the tape, the movie goes in a completely different direction and essentially becomes Ring II: The Possession. Which frankly isn’t the movie I paid to see. In order to stop Samara from possessing Aidan, Rachel has to go back to Seattle (leaving the kid alone at home – is that a good idea?) and dig up more dirt on Samara’s history. Then she comes back and, you know, tries to cast the demon out.

I’m sure Kruger and company needed to find some way to bring back Rachel and Aidan to the franchise, especially for Watts’ newfound marquee power. But I wish they had found a more interesting way to go with the characters than this. It’s such a cheap, obvious horror-sequel ploy – when in doubt, have the killer take over someone’s body. It didn’t work for Freddy or Jason, so there’s no particular reason why it should work here. And it doesn’t. Come on, this is a PG-13 movie – are we really supposed to think that the kid’s in any real danger? Or that supermom Rachel is going to somehow fail in her investigative efforts, and not learn what to do when the big showdown comes? That might have made for a more interesting movie, but not one that will please the soccer moms in the audience.

Part of what made the original such a startling kick was that we really didn’t know what was going to happen next. We learned the “rules” along with Rachel, and we only knew as much as she did. At the time, most American audiences weren’t really familiar with Asian horror films (myself included), and the original Japanese version hadn’t been officially released here. So The Ring was that rarest of things for us jaded moviegoers – a fresh experience. This was new territory, and it was a genuine thrill to see a horror film that wasn’t simply a regurgitation of what we’ve seen a million times before. The minimalist sense of style, the use of iconographic imagery, and yes, that brilliant gimmick made The Ring a sensation just because…it was something new.

Now, of course, most die-hard American film geeks have seen several Asian horror films (some at film festivals, but mostly on DVD – you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a dozen of these movies at the video store) and a few American remakes, with more on the way. And while I love a good Asian film, I’m pretty much bored with the whole Asian horror thing at this point. It seems that Hollywood doesn’t have the market cornered on knockoffs after all – the prevailing attitude seems to be that if something worked once, it’s worth copying a few hundred times until everyone gets sick of it. Honestly, if I see one more movie with a young girl ghost with hair in her face, I think I will literally be bored to death.

Kruger obviously knows that we’re being oversaturated with this stuff now, so his choice apparently was to throw out the “rules” of the original altogether and turn the sequel into a standard mother-saving-her-child melodrama. OK, that’s not what we expected. But it’s also not what we wanted either. Once the whole videotape scenario is tossed out the window, the movie loses all sense of momentum. Imagine if someone tried to make a sequel to Alien by keeping Ripley, but getting rid of all the aliens after the first 15 minutes. What would they be left with? Yeah, Ripley’s an important character, but the movie’s called Alien for god’s sake!

Yes, we do have Samara here, but if anything the movie gives her too much power, and in the wrong ways. She was the force behind the videotape in the original – and she could only act through its use. In the sequel, she can pretty much do anything she wants, whenever she wants. Somehow that’s actually less interesting. If she has the power to be anywhere she wants, to possess people at will and kill people whenever she feels like it, why did she bother with the whole video gimmick in the first place? And if she just gained those powers recently, why continue the spreading video phenomenon? Just for something to do?

It’s true that Asian horror films are not known for their sense of logic. It could be argued that The Ring Two fits in perfectly with that tradition. But you can’t set up even a vague set of rules and then completely ignore them. There’s even a scene where a character watches the tape, and is then killed immediately! What? What happened to the seven days deal? Did somebody forget something? Come on, that’s just sloppy writing.

The movie also suffers from another typical horror-sequel problem – trying to overexplain the killer’s motivations to the point that said killer becomes less scary and less fascinating. Here we discover Samara’s “real” mother and get more insight into her whole water fixation. OK, fine, but we already found out enough about her the first time. Any more information isn’t really necessary. Rather than add to the “myth” of Samara, this stuff makes her less effective as a villain. The more we know about her, the less she seems like a scary monster hiding in the shadows. She’s just another screwed-up kid with a mommy fixation, who happens to be dead. Hey, we’ve all got problems, you know?

Clouding our sympathies doesn’t really help the movie much either. We’re supposed to root for Rachel to get rid of Samara, but they want us to feel for Samara too. Why? Are we so politically correct these days that even ghosts have to have their feelings considered too? Maybe Samara should just go on Dr. Phil. “Samara, I’m hearing that your mother tried to drown you, and you don’t feel validated. I think you need a hug.”

The movie’s opening sequence, in which one teenager tries to get another to watch the tape to save himself, is a clear indication of exactly where this movie should have gone. We get a real sense of dread and foreboding, that the Ring phenomenon is spreading far wider than before. What would have been really cool would be to have Rachel deal with that more widespread threat, and her own guilt about it (as she is technically partially responsible for it). Why not have her redeem herself by trying to save Astoria, her new home? Have Aidan make some new friends, then discover that they’re caught up in this Ring deal now. Let her try to save this new group of kids, as well as Aidan, and keep Samara from “invading” their adopted town. In the process of doing that, she could learn all this new info about her, and figure out how to get rid of her once and for all. Thus dealing with the ramifications of what she had done in the first film, and finally putting things right. Wouldn’t that be more interesting, as well as much cooler than the standard possession plot? And that’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are a thousand other scenarios they could have gone with that would have been better than what wound up on screen.

As I understand it, there’s a short film on the new Ring DVD that does explain how the videotape has spread, how it got to Astoria, and that it’s a much bigger problem than before. That’s the movie they should have made. I shouldn’t have to buy a DVD just to get the interesting parts that should be in the new movie.

Hiring Nakata, the director of the original Japanese Ringu films, to make the sequel may have seemed like a great idea on paper. But really, all his presence does is raise expectations that the film itself doesn’t really meet. Seriously, if the director of Mouse Hunt could make a creepy film out of the remake, then it stands to reason that there are lots of other directors out there who could have done the job. Nakata does a good job of building tension and suspense in individual scenes, but because the script is so far off the mark, it doesn’t really add up to much. And he doesn’t really add a whole lot to the imagery that’s already been established in the first film. We see a lot of the same stuff -the same videotape, the well, the girl in the mirror, etc. It’s just not as disturbing as it was the first time around. Remember how freaky it was when Samara climbed out of the TV set at the end of the original? They repeat that trick in the first few minutes of the new movie, and it just lies there. It makes no impact whatsoever. It’s been done. And there’s nothing new in the sequel that’s anywhere near as impressive as that was.

The Ring Two is not a horribly bad film. It’s just a disappointing one, because it could have been so much better and so much more. Supposedly the plan now is to make a prequel that deals with Samara and why she was drowned. Do we really need this? Hasn’t that ground been pretty well covered already? I can’t blame Nakata for taking the paycheck (if he does actually make that film), but I’d much rather see him trying something new at this point. And after this lackluster sequel, I think we’d all prefer it if the well remained closed.

** 3/23/05

Posted in Film Reviews | Leave a Comment »

Bad Girls from Valley High

Posted by CinemaPsycho on March 22, 2005

Directed by John T. Kretchmer/screenplay by Robert Locash and Andrew Lane, based on a novel by Paul Fleischman/starring Julie Benz, Monica Keena, Nicole Bilderback, Jonathan Brandis, Christopher Lloyd, Janet Leigh/Universal Home Video

Three popular high school girls plot the murder of a rival while suffering from a curse that causes them to age prematurely.

I got a screener copy of this recently, knowing virtually nothing about it beforehand. It didn’t sound like my kind of movie necessarily, but I’m always willing to give something a shot, especially when it’s free. And, well, it sounded like there were some young hotties in it. So sue me, I’m heterosexual. (Just kidding, don’t really sue me)

So I looked it up on the IMDb before watching it. It seems that it was actually filmed in 2000 under the title A Fate Totally Worse than Death, by a production company (the Bubble Factory) that apparently no longer exists. So it’s been sitting on the shelf for FIVE YEARS before finally being shuffled off to DVD. Surprisingly, this is not a Miramax release. And two of its co-stars (Brandis and Leigh) have since passed away (a nice way of saying they died). As if watching this relic wasn’t weird enough.

I often wonder why the studios bother to change titles when they send a movie straight to video. Does it really make that much difference? The original title, while not particularly great, at least somewhat fits the content of the movie. Bad Girls from Valley High sounds like a low-budget drive-in T&A movie from 1976, the kind of flick they’d sandwich in the middle of a triple bill between Satan’s Cheerleaders and Caged Heat. Maybe that’s the idea behind the deceptive marketing of this supposed “horror comedy”, because if people knew what it was really like, no one would want to rent it.

I appreciate the free copy and all, but man, this movie is just awful. I mean, it’s terrible! Is there any chance of putting it back on the shelf for the rest of the decade?

Bad Girls from Valley High is the story of three unimaginatively named popular girls who “rule the school” (you know, just like in Heathers, Clueless, Jawbreaker, Mean Girls, etc). Why there always has to be three, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a union thing. There’s Danielle (Benz), the devious, scheming leader of the group; vacant, superficial Tiffany (Bilderback) and sensitive pushover Brooke (Keena). I think I just gave more thought to these characters in writing that description than the writers did in the entire script. The threesome are known as the “Huns” because they live in an upscale neighborhood called Hunter’s Pines. Don’t worry, this information will not be important later.

It seems that our heroines are responsible for the death of a classmate named Charity who was dating Drew (Brandis), a jock that Danielle has the hots for. (Do people still say that? I’ll just assume that they do.) When Drew expresses interest in an attractive foreign exchange student, naturally she’s next on the hit list. But the Huns get sidetracked when they’re hit with a curse that causes them to age prematurely – you can imagine how this might slow them down a bit. Even though it’s pretty obvious early on where the curse came from, for some reason the girls think Drew’s new girlfriend is behind it, and also must be Charity’s ghost. But of course they still plan to kill her anyway, along with anyone who might get in their way, even if that includes Drew himself. Logic is not this movie’s strong point. Then again, this movie has no strong points.

This is one of those movies that aims extremely low, and still manages to fail on every single level possible. To start with, it’s not the least bit funny at all. If there was any comic potential to be found in watching teenage girls fart, piss themselves and drive badly, the writers somehow missed it completely. This movie’s idea of humor is to have Christopher Lloyd, playing a suspicious teacher spying on the Huns, constantly get into varied accidents that cause him painful injuries. It’s not even as funny as that sounds. While the DVD cover wants to entice thoughts of a darker Mean Girls, the actual movie reminded me more of lame early-‘80’s “slasher comedies” like Student Bodies and Pandemonium. Except those movies were actually sporadically funny, while still being incredibly stupid. Bad Girls actually thinks it’s smart, which is just scary. It’s incredibly difficult to believe that the people who made this movie actually thought it was funny at the time. It’s not so much a case of “what were they thinking?” as it is “what kind of drugs were they on?”

It certainly doesn’t help that the Huns are incredibly unlikable and uninteresting characters. Of course it’s a black comedy, but even black comedies need some sort of recognizable human behavior to make us relate. These girls are just horrible bitches for the sake of being horrible bitches. There’s nothing particularly interesting about that. They have no real motives for all the rotten things they do – we’re just supposed to take it for granted that being attractive and popular makes them act like hellaciously evil bitch monsters. Watching them mistreat an elderly coma victim (the great Janet Leigh, wasted but still outacting the rest of the cast) isn’t even funny in a twisted, misanthropic way. It just seems needlessly cruel and stupid, the kind of behavior you’d expect from glue-sniffing juvenile delinquents, or on Guantanamo Bay. We’re supposed to care about what happens to these snotty little shitheads? Screw that. Even when Brooke (the super-cute Keena, the only one of the three I’d consider “hot”, and she’s supposed to be the least attractive) reveals a sympathetic side, it’s too little, too late. They deserve whatever bad things happen to them, but we don’t even care enough to relish it.

Nor is Bad Girls from Valley High a believable portrait of high school life. Yes, this is yet another high-school movie where most of the cast appear to be around 29 (except for Benz, who could be pushing 40 based on the photographic evidence here). But even putting that aside, there’s no sense of realism at all to the setting. The Huns don’t seem to “rule the school” at all – we rarely see them even interact with the other students, except a dim, horny jock and a (stereotypically) geeky guy who inexplicably worships Danielle. No one else seems to even acknowledge their existence. If they’re idolized, hated and feared by the general populace, you sure wouldn’t know it. The movie’s vision of high school seems to be more like a country club that people wander in and out of, depending on the demands of the plot. Maybe that was the idea, but it’s not at all convincing. It’s all so cardboard-cutout, like a screenwriter’s version of what high school is like gained mostly from watching other high-school movies. Even a foreign exchange student could have done a better job.

By the time we finally reach the end of this mess (and at only 84 minutes, it feels a lot longer than it should), the girls have suffered through a ton of unconvincing old-age makeup, and the audience has suffered right along with them. The Huns conveniently don’t seem to have any parents, and strangely enough no one around them seems to notice how they’re progressively aging and falling apart. Odd, for such popular girls you’d think someone would realize that they suddenly appear to be a good 60 years older. They do attend a Halloween party at one point, so they could have just told everyone who saw them in the other scenes that they were in costume. But that would have required a minimal amount of thought and effort on the part of the writers. Instead we’re just supposed to buy it when the three “hottest” girls in school age rapidly, make very little attempt to hide it, and no one can tell that anything’s wrong. Right…

Overall, Bad Girls from Valley High is pretty much a complete disaster, owing mainly to the fact that it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Is it a dark and edgy teenage murder comedy? Is it a revenge fantasy about getting even with the popular kids? Is it a moralistic tale about the bad karma that comes from abusing your elders? Or is it a slapstick teen comedy full of “wacky hijinks”? The writers don’t seem to know what they’re shooting for here, so they try a little bit of everything and wind up achieving nothing. Director Kretchmer has mostly TV and assistant-director credits (although he did direct an episode of Veronica Mars, so he can’t be all bad), but I doubt this will do much for his career when it finally gets out there. It’s not so much that it’s badly directed; it’s just a pointless and incredibly stupid movie that’s directed in workmanlike fashion. It was a bad idea from the start, and probably would’ve stayed that way no matter who made it.

The only extra on the DVD is a couple of deleted scenes, neither of which is particularly good, but no worse than anything in the movie itself. One of the scenes is just an extended version of a scene that’s in the film, and cutting it didn’t seem to improve it that much. While the movie is rated R for “some sexual content”, I’ll be damned if I saw anything of the kind here, other than an incredibly tame dream sequence that wouldn’t be considered titillating on network television. So if you’re the kind of person who rents movies based solely on the potential for nudity, you will be extremely disappointed, despite what the cover wants you to think. Not that nudity would have helped – even if the entire female cast got naked, this still wouldn’t be worth watching. The only conceivable motivation to watch this movie would be if you consider old-age makeup on teenage girls (who already look older anyway) a turn-on. And if you’re that guy, seek professional help immediately.

Everyone else should stay away. I honestly can’t imagine anyone watching this and actually liking it, not even the undiscriminating 12-year-old boys it’s apparently aimed at. In fact, if you find yourself in the proximity of this movie at any time, you should run away screaming and write your Congressman. Unless you happen to be in dire need of a drink coaster. But not even then – you’ll probably cut your hand on it. It’s that bad.

* 3/22/05

Posted in Film Reviews | Leave a Comment »

Robots

Posted by CinemaPsycho on March 16, 2005

Directed by Chris Wedge/co-directed by Carlos Saldanha/written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel/starring the voices of Ewan McGregor, Halle Berry, Greg Kinnear, Mel Brooks, Drew Carey, Robin Williams/20th Century Fox – Blue Sky Animation

A young robot ventures into the big city to make his name as an inventor and winds up leading a literal industrial revolution.

Robots is one of those computer-animated movies that don’t really look like cartoons and don’t really look like live-action. It takes place in a kind of bizarre retro-futuristic netherworld that may be the future, may be a parallel universe, who knows. They make no attempt to explain anything, and the kids in the audience probably don’t care.

But for those of us over the age of 12, we can’t help but wonder about these things. I’m still trying to get all this straight as I write this. The movie is set in a world full of robots. There are no humans. New robots are made by the old robots. So who made the original robots? Am I the only one who thinks about this stuff?

And the robots don’t really act like robots – they act like humans. So why bother to make them robots in the first place? Just because no one’s done it yet? I’ve never understood this need to anthropomorphize everything – animals, toys, cars, pencils, vibrators, what have you. I can only imagine what’s next – “Genitals! Coming in 2008!” I just don’t understand what the point is. Why make a movie about, say, sharks just to have them act as much like humans as possible? Why can’t sharks act like sharks, and robots act like robots? Wouldn’t that be more interesting? Sure, let them speak English and everything, but give them appropriate behavior. If I wanted to watch robots try to act human, I’d tune into America’s Next Top Model. (Just kidding, UPN – don’t cancel Veronica!)

In spite of all this, Robots is actually a pretty decent little movie. I wouldn’t say it’s a great piece of work, but for the kind of movie it is, it’s not bad. It’s the kind of animated movie that never really “wows” you, never makes you laugh hard, but it’s just visually impressive enough and just clever enough that you kind of enjoy it. At the very least, you can take your kids (or in my case, my nephew) to it and not regret sitting through it.

The whole thing starts with the “birth” of Rodney Copperbottom (McGregor), a likable young robot with a knack for inventing other robots. (Would that make him a God?) Actually, it starts with an extended clip from Ice Age 2: The Quickening or whatever they’re going to call it, but that’s neither here nor there. We watch Rodney grow up the way a human boy would – each year, he gets new body parts to fit his progressing age. It sorta makes sense in context (unlike that show My Life as a Teenage Robot, where I never understood why the robot had to be a teenager in the first place). The jokes here could have been cutesy and fallen flat, but they’re actually quite charming. We’re off to a good start.

Rodney lives in a small town, so wouldn’t you know it he decides to take off for the big city when he comes of age, because gosh darn it, that’s what enterprising young robots do. He wants to work for Bigweld (Brooks), a businessman (businessbot?) who owns like the biggest robot company in the world. But instead of being a Donald Trump-like rich asshole, Bigweld is a swell guy who has his own TV show and invites smart robots to come and pitch him ideas (which I presume he doesn’t steal the copyrights for).

When Rodney gets to the city, surprisingly he doesn’t encounter robot crack whores and a corrupt robot police force. He does discover that Bigweld Industries has been taken over by Ratchet (Kinnear), a yuppie-bot dickhead whose plans include the extermination of all “outmoded” robots. He intends to stop making replacement parts, forcing all robots in need of service to “upgrade” to an expensive new chassis. If you can’t afford the upgrade, you get tossed in the quite literal scrap heap.

Rodney is barred from admittance to Bigweld (by a hilariously high-voiced creature that looks like that hand puppet from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, voiced by Paul Giamatti) and, instead of giving up and going home, dejected and depressed, sticks around Robot City and makes some new friends. They include Fender (Williams), a wisecracking con artist, his little sister Piper (voiced by former jailbait star Amanda Bynes) and Crank (Carey), who doesn’t really have any distinguishing characteristics other than the voice of Drew Carey. They all stay at the flophouse of Aunt Fanny (Jennifer Coolidge), whose name pretty much gives away the whole joke. Thankfully, they don’t wear it out too much.

Eventually our hero discovers that Bigweld is missing, as well as a knack for repairing robots (would this make him a doctor?). Ratchet gets wind of this and is none too thrilled – his evil plan pretty much hinges on all of the robots naturally falling apart, after all. With the help of Cappy (Berry, in what’s sadly her best performance since winning that Oscar), a disillusioned Ratchet employee and requisite love interest, Rodney leads his friends to fight back against the system and revolt against the ruling class. This leads to the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and…whoops, wrong movie.

Seriously though, there’s a real anti-corporate vibe going on here, which is odd coming from people who work for Rupert Murdoch. It occurred to me during the movie that I was actually watching a Disney allegory here, with Bigweld the beloved, benevolent founder a la Walt Disney, and Ratchet the ruthless corporate tyrant along the lines of Michael Eisner. Rodney could easily stand in for the animators, who were probably inspired to get into their line of work by the wonders of classic Disney animation (Walt had a TV show too), only to find themselves confronted with the cold, modern Disney that is more concerned with the bottom line than in creating great animated films (Walt made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia, while Eisner made The Emperor’s New Groove and Treasure Planet). I don’t know if that was the intention, but you can definitely read the movie that way. Nice one, guys.

It’s also interesting that Bigweld Industries seems to run everything in the film’s universe. There doesn’t seem to be any form of government, justice system or even law enforcement. Big business runs rampant, and the people are pretty much left on their own to survive as best they can. This may have been an intentional political statement on the filmmakers’ part, or I might just be reading into things a little too deeply. But considering how much work it takes to make one of these movies, it’s kinda difficult to believe that anything winds up in them by accident. At least they gave us adults something to ponder.

Anyway, what’s surprising about Robots is just how effortlessly charming it all seems, almost in spite of itself at times. After suffering through the cringe-worthy Shark Tale, with its “modern sensibility” and its endless fish puns, it’s nice to see a kids’ movie that (mostly) sticks to being a rollicking adventure without catering too much to the MTV attention span. Williams gets to do his usual manic riffing, but it’s almost always in character and without being insufferable (I could’ve done without the Britney Spears reference though). I only counted a few instances where I felt the movie might become dated sooner than it should (including the use of recent pop songs to punctuate some of the scenes). But these are only occasional lapses, and Robots never becomes obnoxious about them. There’s no sense of “we’re making robot puns – see how clever we are?”

In fact, Robots is mostly sweet and well intentioned, even if its message ultimately sounds like a bumper sticker. I would’ve liked to hear more personality in some of the voice acting – sometimes I think they cast these all-star animated films at random, based on who the biggest name they can get happens to be. Mostly the voices are fine, but when you have comedy legend Mel Brooks at your disposal (Mel, it’s been too long) and you don’t give him anything funny to say or do, it’s kind of a wasted opportunity. His character isn’t necessarily supposed to be a laugh riot, but then why cast Brooks in the part? It’s a little odd when someone like Giamatti (great actor, but not necessarily known for bringing the funny) makes more of an impression in a few brief minutes of screen time than Brooks does.

Still, despite my gripes, Robots is a difficult movie to dislike. It may not be the absolute pinnacle of achievement in recent animation, but it’s a damn sight more enjoyable than a lot of what’s out there. It’s a decent afternoon for the kids, and adults won’t wish they could swallow their tongue rather than sit through the whole thing. That’s something.

*** 3/16/05

Posted in Film Reviews | Leave a Comment »

End of the Century (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on March 15, 2005

Directed by Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia/starring the Ramones/Rhino Home Video

A documentary about the influential punk rock band The Ramones.

All right, my very first screener copy! I have arrived! And what an awesome movie to get for my screener debut. This is a film that I would gladly have paid to see, so my recommendation is completely sincere. If I really didn’t like it, believe me, I’d tell you.

I think it’s important to note that this review is coming from a longtime Ramones fan. I can’t claim to have been a fan of the band during their late-‘70’s heyday, because punk rock didn’t really reach us where I live until maybe the mid-‘80’s. Me and my pre-teen suburban mallrat friends worshipped the likes of KISS, Van Halen and AC/DC at the time, and we really didn’t know from punk rock in the outskirts of nowhere. It seems strange now, but this was before MTV and other music video channels, Internet radio, satellite radio, digital cable music channels, and even “alternative rock radio” for the most part. Everything wasn’t easily accessed the way it is now. What was going on in New York and London might as well have been happening on Neptune.

It wasn’t until 1985, when I happened to see the band’s video for “Something to Believe In” on MTV (yes kids, once upon a time MTV actually played videos, and they even played the Ramones, once or twice) that I got turned on to them. I was in high school at the time, and was living on a steady diet of Def Leppard, Ratt and Motley Crue, so you can imagine how unhappy I was. Nothing against those bands, but I wasn’t exactly living the party-hearty “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” lifestyle. I liked the music, but I couldn’t really relate to it. So imagine my surprise when I saw these four grungy guys in black T-shirts and black leather jackets. If you remember the video, it’s the one that spoofs the “charity” musical events of the time with an “all-star” lineup of celebrities asking the viewer to pledge their support to Ramones Aid (the band themselves were the worthy cause!). I had only vaguely heard of the Ramones, I had no idea who most of the people in the video were, and I didn’t even really comprehend the joke at first. But the song was so insanely catchy, the video so sloppily goofy and the lyrics so plain-spoken and down to earth, that it made me insanely curious: who the hell were these freaky guys??? And why were they doing everything wrong, yet it seemed so…right?

Well, it wasn’t until several years later, when my tastes in rock music began to diversify a bit, that I actually bought a Ramones album (the compilation Ramones Mania, a great place to start). I couldn’t let my Whitesnake-lovin’ high school buddies know that I was listening to something…different, right? But at that moment, I was completely hooked. And when I finally got to see them live (on their very last tour, Lollapalooza ’96), it was an incredible experience. They played about 20 songs in around 25 minutes. It was exhilarating. Even though the band broke up not long after, they’ve held a special place in my heart ever since. I may have been late to the party, but the devotion they inspired in their legions of fans is not foreign to me. And yes, one of their songs inspired the name of the main-page column on my site. Their legacy still lives on, where you least expect it.

End of the Century is pretty much a straightforward documentary about the band’s career, their music and their influence. It hits all the Behind the Music notes you’d expect from a traditional music doc: the band’s origins, early club performances (complete with rare footage), managers, record labels, power struggles and member flameouts. Die-hard fans already know a lot of the information revealed here, from the band’s frustrating lack of mainstream acceptance to their eventual deification as “the godfathers of punk”. There are also the requisite testimonials from contemporaries like The Clash’s Joe Strummer and Blondie’s Deborah Harry and Chris Stein, as well as the fans that were inspired by them to start their own bands, ranging from Eddie Vedder to Rob Zombie to Metallica’s Kirk Hammett.

What makes End of the Century such a fascinating, essential document is the interview footage from the band members themselves. With 3 out of 4 of the original members now deceased, hearing the story of the Ramones from their own mouths is an experience well worth having. In the light of the band’s dogged, never-say-die determinism having been punctured by such deflating tragedy in recent years, it’s almost uplifting in a strange way to see these icons rejuvenated on film. The movie winds up being more than just a tribute to an influential band’s past glories – for 110 minutes, the Ramones are back, as loud, defiant and powerful as ever.

It’s interesting to note the differences between the various members’ points of view on well-known stories, such as their misadventures with legendary producer Phil Spector and the long-running rift caused by Johnny stealing Joey’s girlfriend. But what’s even more worthwhile is the way the movie debunks various long-held myths about the band as well. For years, music critics looked at the Ramones’ music as an intentional rebuke to the pretentiousness of the “progressive rock” bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer that were popular in the ‘70’s. Where those groups were artistically inclined to the point of being pompous and overblown (some would say unlistenable), the Ramones were purposely loud, sloppy, and simplistic. Critics have credited them with taking rock music “back to its roots” of three-chord melodies and basic, unadorned songs about love and ordinary life. But as the movie shows, the band was simply doing what they knew how to do. They played three chords because they only knew three chords. They wrote songs about what they liked and cared about. Their brilliance came from the fact that they didn’t really know any better. They simply didn’t know how to do things any other way. And somehow, by some miracle, they made it work for them.

What also separates their story from most typical music docs is that there really wasn’t a “rise and fall” arc. Since they were never really fully accepted by the mainstream music industry, their cult success came through sheer persistence. Even when they knew they would never “make it” commercially, they just kept plugging away, for themselves and for the fans. That’s ultimately what inspired so many of their fans to start bands of their own – the idea that ordinary people could start a band and carve out a long career based on loyalty and integrity. They were one of the first bands who didn’t thrive because they had “hits” or because they sold out stadiums – they thrived because they believed in what they were doing, and did it well. If four self-proclaimed “freaks” from the streets of New York City could do it, so could anyone else.

It’s really a pretty incredible story, and End of the Century does a remarkably good job in telling it. However, I almost wish it went a little farther than it does. The film essentially ends with the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, an ironic, bittersweet high point (followed by Dee Dee Ramone’s overdose two months later). But as a fan, I really wished they had spent a little time on things like the making of their Roger Corman-produced musical Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, which is still a cult favorite (there’s a brief clip from it, but it’s never really discussed) and the moderate success of Joey’s posthumously released solo album Don’t Worry About Me.

Although it’s touched on early in the film, it would’ve been nice to wrap up by summarizing how, since the band’s breakup and the subsequent deaths of most of the members, the Ramones have essentially conquered the world by default! If anything, their following now is stronger and more devoted than ever. Their influence on the current rock music scene is inescapable, from young indie bands to multiplatinum-selling artists like U2 and Green Day. And their songs are, of all ironies, now being used in commercials to sell cars and computers! Could anyone have imagined any of this happening in 1977? I don’t think so. While I’m normally against the commercialization of “classic” rock songs (which I guess the Ramones now qualify, as strange as it sounds), in a way I think it’s kinda cool that my 8-year-old nephew knows the chorus to “Blitzkrieg Bop”. He may not know who the Ramones are (yet), but the fact that he knows their music at all is nothing short of a miracle. They may not have known it, but the Ramones had the last laugh after all.

I don’t imagine that a lot of non-fans will want to watch End of the Century (though younger fans of current “pop punk” bands like Blink 182, Good Charlotte and Simple Plan really should see it, to get a taste of where it all came from), but if you’re even a casual fan, I think it’s a must-see. And anyone who’s even slightly curious about the band and their history will find an informative and damn near comprehensive resource in this film. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see any of the DVD extras on my screener disc, but based on the movie alone, I can strongly recommend it for a rental or even a purchase if you’re so inclined. This is the good stuff, even if you don’t care about history…

***1/2 3/15/05

Posted in Film Reviews | Leave a Comment »