Cinema Psycho

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Archive for August, 2005

Oldboy (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 26, 2005

Directed by Park Chan-Wook/screenplay by Hwang Jo-Yun, Lim Joon-Hyung, Park Chan-Wook/starring Choi Min-Sik, Yoo Ji-Tae, Gang Hye-Jung/Tartan Asia Extreme

An ordinary man is imprisoned for 15 years, then released to take his revenge.

It sometimes seems like I’m the last person on Earth to see certain films that everyone is going nuts over. I certainly feel like the last movie critic to get a look at this little Korean film that has become a cult sensation mostly due to Internet sites that raved about it, and other films by its director, long before it was even picked up for release in America. Chan-Wook has become the latest film-geek craze – a few years ago it was Takashi Miike, after that it was Kim Ki-Duk, next year it’ll probably be somebody else.

This is all good in my book. Anything that generates interest in cool foreign films by talented directors – and helps get those films released over here – is awesome. But while I’ve been dying to check out Oldboy for months now, and I was extremely pleased when the good folks at Tartan offered me a copy of the DVD for review (as well as Chan-Wook’s current US theatrical release Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which I’ll get to soon), I couldn’t help but be a bit hesitant to actually watch the thing. Would it live up to my expectations? Would that even be possible at this point? How many times have we been psyched up for months to see a film by massive Net hype, only to be let down when the actual product was merely decent?

Well, I’m happy to say that not only did Oldboy surpass my expectations, it ripped them out of my cranium, threw them on the ground and stomped on them with a big heavy work shoe. All those months of anticipation simply did not prepare me for this. I don’t think I’ve seen anything this genuinely surprising and emotionally devastating since, well, the Veronica Mars season finale. But don’t get me started on that.

For the 5 people on the Internet who haven’t seen this on a foreign bootleg by now… Oldboy is the story of Oh Dae-Su (Min-Sik), a married businessman who we meet acting like a drunken idiot in a police station after a bar brawl. Our impression of him is one of a middle-class buffoon who needs to ease up on the alcohol. The film then cuts to a prison cell decorated like a cheap hotel room, where Dae-Su is inexplicably held captive for the next 15 years. When he’s finally released, he sets out on a mission to find out who put him there and why…and to kill whoever’s responsible.

Revealing any more than that would simply be unfair, as the pleasures of watching this incredible film are derived primarily from the various twists and turns, and the completely unexpected places the story takes us. The crazier it all seems, the more engrossing it becomes, until it reaches a fever pitch of disturbing violence and desperation. Even when we know who Dae-Su’s adversary is and what his motives are, Chan-Wook still has even more tricks up his sleeve. It’s just insanely intricate and brilliantly detailed.

Oldboy is the second film in Chan-Wook’s “revenge trilogy” (the first being the previously mentioned Mr. Vengeance) but to dismiss it as a simple “don’t get mad, get even” action flick would be a mistake. The director takes an intellectual approach to his subject matter, dissecting the nature of violence and the emotional need for revenge, while at the same time staging some amazing set pieces like the notorious hallway fight. While Dae-Su’s quest to settle the score naturally drives the plot, its morality is called into question several times, especially by young love interest Mi-Do (Hye-Jung), who reminds him that he could easily drop the whole thing and just enjoy his freedom now that he has it. By the end, it remains to be seen exactly who has taken their revenge out on whom, and both protagonist and antagonist display deep wellsprings of heartbreak, despair and regret. Both parties are so fueled by their hatred that each has nothing left to live for besides their mutual grudge. I wouldn’t be shocked to find that the film is actually a political allegory about the tensions between North and South Korea, but the film works incredibly well even without that subtext.

The funny thing is that I was somehow expecting a spare, minimalist film that reflected Dae-Su’s imprisonment, but Oldboy is the complete opposite of that. Instead, Chan-Wook has crafted a stylish masterwork here, a spellbinding array of sights and sounds that demonstrates exactly what Dae-Su has been missing out on all this time – the outside world. I particularly liked the way he depicted the passage of time, using split-screen and a series of TV news clips to show us what’s going on in Korea during his incarceration and slow descent into madness. The “hotel room” is dingy and sickly-looking, with lots of dyspeptic greens and browns. Once he’s released, though, the world seems to open up with breathtaking color and a sense of vivid hyper-reality, which only makes Dae-Su’s loss of a decade and a half seem even sadder.

It’s a rare film that can be both massively entertaining and intellectually stimulating (at least lately, unfortunately), and Oldboy simply kicks ass on both counts. It really seems like Asian filmmakers have it all over Hollywood these days when it comes to creating original stories and telling them with superior skill. It’s no wonder that Hollywood has been pillaging the recent crop of Asian cinema for remakes – last I heard, they were working on this one as a potential vehicle for Nicolas Cage. Well, that might turn out to be interesting too, but I’d highly recommend checking out the original. There’s nothing like a great story told incredibly well, and that’s reason enough to see Oldboy.

Tartan has done their usual bang-up job on the DVD release, with a veritable plethora of special features including commentary from Chan-Wook and cinematographer Chung Chung-Hoon (subtitled in English, obviously), several deleted and alternate scenes, and an enlightening interview with Chan-Wook. There’s also an English dubbed version on the disc for all you heathens out there. Those of you who already own bootleg or Region 0 copies of the film would be well-served to pick this one up anyway. It’s a very good package for an extremely deserving film.

**** 8/26/05

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The Wedding Date (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 24, 2005

Directed by Clare Kilner/screenplay by Dana Fox, based on the book “Asking for Trouble” by Elizabeth Young/starring Debra Messing, Dermot Mulroney, Amy Adams, Jack Davenport, Holland Taylor/Universal Home Video

Well, never let it be said that I won’t give a movie a chance. I mean, I recently watched Garfield: The Movie on HBO, for cryin’ out loud, and completely against my better judgment. Wow, is that awful. Bill, how could you? I know voice work is an easy paycheck, but man…the CGI is so bad that you’re just watching an orange blob that vaguely resembles a cat run around the screen for 80 minutes. Seriously, did anyone involved with that project actually think the jokes were funny at all? Man alive, not even Jennifer Love Hewitt’s cleavage could save that piece of crap. But I digress…

Anyway, so I’m sure you’re all wondering, why the hell is this guy reviewing a “chick flick” romantic comedy? It’s obviously not my thing, except when done extremely well. I generally try to avoid movies with the word “Wedding” in the title as much as I try to avoid actual weddings (though I must confess that I liked My Best Friend’s Wedding much more than any heterosexual male should admit to). So what possessed me to give this thing a shot? I’m just a whore for free DVDs, it’s that simple. You should see the stuff I turn down! Plus I thought it might be a nice challenge, kinda like trying to listen to an entire Celine Dion CD without cutting my wrists.

The good news is that The Wedding Date is nowhere near as terrible as I expected it to be. The bad news is that it’s not particularly good either, for reasons I’ll get into. But it’s not the insufferably sugary, flowery, ain’t-love-special piece of dreck that the ads made it look like when it came out theatrically. I wouldn’t exactly call it “edgy”, but it is a little sharper and slightly more cynical than your average fluff movie. It also helps that all the major characters are adults and are played by real actors and not, say, Hilary Duff or Mandy Moore or somebody else who wandered over from the Disney Channel. So for all of its faults, it could have been a lot worse.

The story goes something like this: Kat Ellis (Messing), an attractive yet neurotic woman who apparently works in an airport, has to attend her younger sister’s wedding. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? Well, of course in these movies it’s always a lot more complicated than it seems. The best man turns out to be Kat’s ex-fiancée, who apparently dumped her at the altar two years ago. Kat moved to New York after that and hasn’t seen her family since (who are these people who manage to stay away from their families that long? How do I get that deal?). Determined to show everyone that she’s moved on, Kat hires male escort Nick (Mulroney) to be her date. Because after all, that’s the only possible course of action for a single, attractive woman in New York City. Right.

Then it turns out that Kat’s sister (the phenomenally cute Amy Adams, who should really be a bigger star after Catch Me if You Can) has a secret of her own that may keep the wedding from happening if it gets out. Kat has to face her annoying family and obnoxious ex and somehow grow as a person in the process. And of course, Kat and Nick have to fall in love, for no other reason than the genre demands it. All the usual romantic-comedy ducks are lined up in a row, and all the movie has to do is shoot ‘em down.

The problem is, the entire film is so awkwardly written that very little of it plays out the way it’s supposed to (as romantic or funny or a combination of the two). It feels like a movie that went through extensive re-edits and/or reshoots – a 90-minute rush job that could’ve used a little more time to tell its story. As a result, crucial plot points and details are so vague and hurried that we’re left frustrated, trying to catch up with what really should be a simple, uncomplicated story.

For instance, it took me a good half-hour to figure out that the wedding was actually taking place in London and not some upscale American city. There’s a whole backstory about how Kat’s stepfather is British and they all moved there and so on, but they don’t bother to explain any of that until after they arrive in London! So Kat gets on a plane, and we’re thinking she’s probably going to Boston or the Hamptons or something. Then they arrive, and suddenly everyone’s speaking in a British accent. It’s like, “oh, OK, now we’re watching a completely different movie.” (In all fairness, there’s actually a deleted scene on the DVD that explains all of this while she’s on the plane, and does so rather succinctly. Too bad they didn’t leave it in the movie!) There doesn’t seem to be any particular point to setting the movie in England, except maybe to give it a whiff of that Four Weddings and a Funeral feel. But it’s all so damn convoluted – they could have avoided all of this nonsense by just making the family American, or making Kat a British woman who moved to America. Maybe Messing couldn’t pull off the accent.

Not only that, but the movie starts with Kat already having hired Nick, giving us no sense of what kind of desperation led her to a male escort. Apparently (notice how I use that word a lot regarding this movie) we’re just supposed to believe that Kat is still so in love with her ex that she never dated anyone in the sprawling metropolis of New York City. So, what, nobody even expressed the slightest bit of interest in her? Say what you will about Messing, but she ain’t ugly. What kind of life has she been living all this time? Does she not have any friends, co-workers, even the requisite handsome gay neighbor who might do her a favor for a free trip to London? I have no doubt that women hire male escorts for such events all the time, but Kat doesn’t exactly seem comfortable with the idea from the start. She seems like the type of person who would only do that if there were no other options, and we don’t see that. Kilner and Fox don’t have a handle on why – they just run with the premise and ignore any sense of reality. Might there not have been some potential for humor in her quest to find a suitable date for her sister’s wedding? That didn’t occur to them even once?

Any comic possibilities that might have been explored through the idea of a woman hiring a “man-whore” are extinguished pretty early on. There are a few quick one-liners, but everyone pretty much accepts Nick as Kat’s boyfriend from the start. Nick is a little too good at his job to really be amusing – he’s so smooth and charming, like the Zen master of male escorts. Fine, but that’s not particularly funny. What if the guy was like the world’s worst male escort? What if he did everything wrong, said all the wrong things to her upper-crust family, committed a lot of social gaffes, got drunk and hit on the bride, etc.? And yet Kat still had to pull it together and try to pass him off as her boyfriend, and then fell in love with him while making him shape up? See, that could have been a funny movie. Situations where everything goes right from the beginning don’t make for good comedy. Humor doesn’t come from perfection – it comes from mistakes, screw-ups, people saying and doing the wrong things at the wrong time. Avoiding slipping on a banana peel isn’t funny. Unless something worse happens after that.

Ah, but this is a romantic comedy, you say. That’s another problem – the so-called “romance” (something I like to put in quotes because it doesn’t really exist, at least not the way these movies portray it) between Kat and Nick isn’t very believable. I’ve liked Messing as a comic actress since her Ned and Stacey days (even if Will & Grace ran out of good gay jokes 5 years ago and has been coasting ever since), but she specializes in playing women so neurotic and insecure that Annie Hall would want to smack them in the mouth. A suave guy like Nick, who could probably have any woman on Earth, would no doubt run away screaming from Kat as soon as he possibly could. We don’t see any chink in his armor that would let us believe he would fall in love with her, much less give up his career to be with her. If he’s never fallen for a customer before, what would possibly make Kat so special? Maybe he has his reasons, but we don’t know what they are. They fall in love because they’re supposed to fall in love, and because it fulfills a bullshit wish-fulfillment fantasy for the female target audience. Well, if a dull, bland himbo is what you want, have at it, ladies. Good luck with those social diseases.

To give you an idea of how screwed-up Kat is, she spends the first half-hour bitching about how “crazy” her family is and how difficult they are to handle. Once we actually meet them, though…they honestly don’t seem that bad. Of course everybody thinks their own family is the worst, but she builds them up to be the Manson family here. Other than a couple of insensitive remarks from her clueless mother (Holland Taylor, who I swear has played the mother of literally everyone in Hollywood by now, and probably some of them more than once), we don’t get any indication that her family is anything more than slightly eccentric at worst. It would be nice if this had been something intentional – that Kat came to realize eventually that she could have done a lot worse genetically – but instead I think it’s just sloppy writing. This is the life she walked away from, just because some dickhead stood her up at the altar? A big house in the English countryside, lots of friends and a rich family? Where do I sign up?

Any way you slice it, none of this makes any damn sense. I actually thought the movie would have worked better as an ensemble film. They could have gone back and forth between characters and shown the wedding from each point of view – Kat and Nick, Kat’s sister and her husband-to-be, the womanizing best man, the eccentric parents, etc. I certainly think these actors had it in them to pull that off. There are times when it seems to be leaning in that direction, but then it shifts right back to Kat again just when the other characters start to seem interesting. Given the short running time and awkward storytelling, I have to wonder if maybe that was the original intention, and somewhere along the way the studio or producers decided just to make Kat and Nick the leads and throw everything else out.

Having said all that, The Wedding Date is not a terrible movie. Compared to most of these flicks, it’s relatively painless and not difficult to sit through. Messing and Mulroney are charming enough, Adams is cute enough, and…well, that’s pretty much it. It’s not completely intolerable – I’d even consider it a “nice try” rather than a complete disaster. It’s pretty lightweight stuff, no question, but if your wife or girlfriend wanted to watch it, you could do a lot worse. You might even get some later. Romantic comedies have to be good for something, right?

It’s funny – 15 years ago Pretty Woman told the women of the world that selling their asses on a street corner would lead to true love. Now it’s a new millennium, and movies like The Wedding Date show them that true love is only a phone call and a credit card away. In a perverse way, I guess that’s progress.

**   8/24/05

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The Skeleton Key

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 17, 2005

Directed and written by Stephen Chow/starring Chow, Vicki Zhao/Miramax Home Video

A kung-fu master assembles a ragtag group of his old buddies for a soccer team that applies the principles of Shaolin to the sport. Much ass is kicked.

I know this disc has been out for awhile, but I finally caught up with it recently and was very impressed. After sitting on Miramax’s shelf for what seems like eons, they finally gave it a limited theatrical release earlier this year in a truncated U.S. version. The DVD contains both the U.S. version and the original Chinese version.

At the risk of sounding like a screaming fanboy, let me just say that this movie is really awesome, super fun! I’m very happy to have finally seen this, as I don’t have a region-free player (blasphemy, I know) and it didn’t play anywhere near me theatrically. If you like HK martial-arts movies, consider this a must-see if you haven’t already. It’s not the greatest movie of its kind ever made or anything, but it’s so much goofball fun and so well-done, it’s well worth a rental.

This is the first of Chow’s movies I’ve seen (as it’s the first to reach the U.S. in any kind of “official” release) and I definitely want to see more. Apparently he’s considered some kind of comedy god in China. But what impressed me is how accomplished his work as director is here. I know a lot of HK stars direct their own features occasionally, but I wasn’t expecting him to knock it out of the park the way he does. This isn’t just a “funny movie”; it’s a GOOD movie that happens to be very funny.

And what’s even more surprising is that he gives most of the laughs to his supporting cast. I just can’t picture any American comedy star being quite that generous, especially in a movie they also wrote and directed. There are a lot of original and quite hilarious characters here that I don’t even want to describe, because you really ought to discover them on your own. There’s also a genuine sense of pathos that would seem labored in other hands, but feels completely effortless here. And frankly, sports-movie clichés haven’t seemed so fresh in a long, long time.

I took the opportunity to watch both versions of the film, just for the sake of comparison. Obviously, if you’re only going to watch one version, the original Chinese film is the way to go. No question. But surprisingly, the “U.S. Theatrical Version” really isn’t that bad. Clocking in at a brisk 89 minutes, it’s a breezy, fun little action movie, and much of the coolness of the original remains intact. It seems like most of the cuts that were made (a good 23 minutes) were trims from scenes that remain in the movie, but were cut mainly for pacing reasons. A couple of short scenes are noticeably gone, but for the most part it’s pretty much the same movie content-wise. It’s not like they re-edited the whole thing and made it a completely different movie, so that’s something. This is the version to show your ADD-suffering kids or nephews.

Still, some of the choices made are pretty bizarre. What killed me throughout was that they apparently digitized over all the Chinese writing in the film with English words. So whenever you see a sign or a piece of paper on screen, you read it in English, rather than just have the Chinese symbols with English subtitles. That’s just plain weird to me. Surely they couldn’t have been trying to trick people into thinking they were actually watching an American movie, right? There’s no question that the film is set in China. Not even the slowest audience member could fail to recognize that. I guess the thinking was that any subtitles at all would hurt the film with American audiences (though nowhere near as much as Miramax’s own handling of the release), and it would be easier to watch for little kids who can’t read subtitles. But it just feels wrong, and a waste of time and money to do such a thing.

Yet at the same time, you can watch the U.S. version of the film in Chinese on the DVD. Which makes me wonder why they bothered having a U.S. version in the first place. Who would want to watch the U.S. version in Chinese? The only possible reason to prefer the American version is because there are no subtitles (which is dumb, but a lot of people still hate subtitles, even if they like foreign films). If you wanted to watch the film in Chinese, why not just watch the Chinese version? It’s really strange to have the option of watching the edited version of a foreign film…in its original language.

Any references to Chinese culture seem to have been removed or replaced – but the original version really doesn’t have that many references to Chinese culture in the first place. So again, it seems like a wasted effort. There’s very little in the original that American audiences “wouldn’t get” or would go over our heads. So why bother? There’s one scene that really hurts in this regard – a spontaneous dance number that erupts in the street early in the film. In the Chinese version, it’s set to what sounds like an Asian techno-dance song, and it’s quite funny. In the U.S. version, it’s set to…”Celebration” by Kool and the Gang. Ugh. Not quite the same at all, now is it? Just baffling. Do they think Americans have never heard electronic dance music before?

So obviously, if you’re a purist, the original Chinese film is the one to watch, and kudos to Miramax for including it on the disc. (I’m sure they realized that a lot of people wouldn’t buy it otherwise – but even that’s progress.) Even though it’s essentially the same movie, this 112-minute version feels fuller, richer and more developed. The film’s sense of humor comes out a lot more, and scenes that seemed odd in the American version make perfect sense now. It’s less of an action film and more of a comedy, which is obviously what it was meant to be in the first place. And it’s even more fun to watch.

Unfortunately, putting both versions on the disc apparently meant there was no room for extras. Even a trailer would’ve been nice. But even though I’m against making alterations to a foreign film on general principle, I’m glad Miramax eventually saw the error of their ways and included the original version on the disc. Now the philistines can have their version, and us film geeks can have ours. Everybody’s happy, and there’s no reason not to recommend this disc. Even if you’re just a casual HK-movie fan, you’d be doing yourself a grave disservice by passing on this massively entertaining film.

Original Chinese version: ***1/2. U.S. Theatrical Version: **1/2. 11/30/04

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Applying Common Sense to Box-Office Analysis; or, Why Sometimes People Just Don’t Give a Damn

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 12, 2005

I’ve often thought that there should be a personals website for film geeks. It seems like such an obvious idea to me, but no one’s done it yet. I don’t know why I’m leading with that; maybe you can figure it out as the column goes on.

It’s kind of annoying to have to write about box-office revenues yet again, because there should be something more interesting to discuss. But the Internet media seems so obsessed with this lately, and it seems to me that they get it completely wrong so often that it drives me crazy. I guess Net space is cheap, so people can spend their time dissecting the minutia of each success and failure. But everybody seems to be overcomplicating things, including the studios and filmmakers behind every flop. Sometimes you just want to say, “look, moron, it’s simple. You screwed up. Own up to it and try to do better next time.” Is it really that difficult?

The last few months have brought us several box-office disappointments that have had all the pundits running around like Chicken Little. “Horror films are dead! Action films are dead! Serious dramas are dead! Everything’s dead except comedies, which were dead last year but now they’re back!” Can these people just, you know, take a deep breath and relax for a minute? If you try to look at it with a little perspective and common sense, things are not that dire. There are plenty of things to worry about besides the future of Hollywood. Pick up a paper, and I don’t mean Variety or Hollywood Reporter.

Being a film geek (a term I use with nothing but affection) can be a strange thing in the so-called “real world” sometimes. A few days ago, I talked to somebody who had never heard of the movie Identity. This actually surprised me! OK, so we’re not talking about Titanic or something comparably huge, but it’s not like some obscure movie that maybe 5 people have seen. Identity was a relatively big hit from a major studio with some pretty well-known actors. And this person isn’t some invalid grandmother who’s completely unaware of the modern movie world either. It wasn’t until later that I realized that she probably had seen some ads for it on TV when it came out. It just didn’t register.

My younger sister is much the same way, to the point that it’s often puzzling to me. Some things show up on her radar screen, and many things just don’t. It’s not just that she’s unaware of most foreign or indie films that come out; most “normals” are the same way. I’ve come to expect that. But a lot of really mainstream things seem to just completely pass her by – not just movies but music, TV shows, etc. For instance, several months ago we were watching TV at our parents’ house and an ad for Lost came on. Now, Lost is a very popular show, with high ratings and millions of viewers. Few current TV shows have been as hyped as this one. I didn’t say anything about it at the time, but a short time later I casually mentioned the show in a general conversation about TV, and she said, “Lost? Never heard of it!” Now, I know for a fact that she saw that ad. I was right there in the room with her! But it didn’t register with her. It didn’t stick.

So what’s my point? My point is that many, many people are like this – probably the majority of people out there. They don’t follow the industry obsessively the way we do. They don’t even pay attention to most of what they do see or hear. For them, celebrity gossip is entertainment news, and Mary Hart is their Walter Cronkite. They don’t know anything about “the slump”, Sony taking over MGM, the Weinsteins leaving Miramax, or Universal possibly buying DreamWorks. And they really, truly don’t care.

These are the people that the media analysts don’t understand, but the studios are trying desperately to reach without really knowing how. As much as some of us complain about certain movies being overhyped (myself included), that’s really the only way to get through to the “normals”. If they don’t see the trailers, TV ads, posters and banner ads 65,000,000 times, they just don’t get motivated to get their asses to the movie theater. And sometimes even that doesn’t get through to them.

Quite often, these people will see an ad for a movie and think, “hey, that looks good. I’d like to see that sometime”. What they often don’t think is, “hey, that looks good – I need to see that on opening weekend!” Yet when a movie doesn’t do $50 million in its first 3 days, everyone calls that an “audience rejection”. That’s not a rejection – that’s more of a postponement. They don’t necessarily not want to see that movie; the attitude is more like “maybe I’ll see it in a theater, maybe I’ll wait for DVD or cable, but I’ll catch up with it eventually”. Maybe some people are busy on that weekend and plan to go on Monday night or something. Believe it or not, people actually do that. It’s not unheard of.

But Hollywood’s current self-fulfilling prophecy of failure dictates that if everybody doesn’t go on opening weekend, that means nobody wants to see it. Of course that’s completely absurd, but it starts a vicious cycle. The more people hear that a movie is a “failure” because it wasn’t #1 at the box-office, the fewer people go see it later, because who wants to go see what everyone perceives as a flop? By that time, you might as well wait for the DVD release in four months. The idea of letting word-of-mouth build is pretty much a dead concept at this point. If a movie doesn’t perform by Sunday night, the analysts are declaring last rites on it by Monday morning. Sometimes even earlier.

The studios are quick to blame audiences for not showing up to their latest offerings, without acknowledging the fact that a lot of their bombs are simply their own damn fault. Let’s face it, a successful movie is all about marketing these days, as much as the purists despise that idea. It’s an intangible combination of name recognition, the right actors and director, a sellable concept and, most importantly, an ad campaign that works. If you don’t have that, you’re dead in the water. Movies like Wedding Crashers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and even (shudder) The Dukes of Hazzard had those elements. They were aimed directly at the mainstream audience and they were sold well to that audience. Movies like The Island and Stealth, while also aimed at the mainstream audience, were not sold well to them, and therefore did poorly.

Picking the right release date is also extremely important. Cinderella Man was a financial disappointment mainly because, in my estimation, it was an Oscar-bait movie released in early June, a time when the audience is hungry for summer blockbusters. Would it have done better business in November or December? Do you even have to ask? While the producers and studio ran around blaming everything from the title to the concept to the catering service, they seem to have completely missed the obvious – “you picked the wrong fucking time of year, stupid!” Seriously, how dumb can they be? Yes, Seabiscuit did well in a summer slot – but it was released in late July, a time when the audience is tired of the big blockbusters and is looking for something different. Exactly the kind of slot where The Island and Stealth tanked! Hello, McFly? Why did more people go to Charlie and Wedding Crashers in late July? Because they were looking for something different. This ain’t exactly rocket science, folks.

When you release the wrong movie at the wrong time, it’s only natural that the results will be disastrous. It also helps if the ad campaign gives people a clear idea of what exactly the movie is about. I had to laugh recently when DreamWorks head Walter Parkes actually blamed Scarlett Johansson’s “lack of star power among young people” for The Island’s misfortunes. Dude, are you fucking serious? You had an ad campaign that was all over the map, gave away the entire movie (the same thing you’re doing with Red Eye, by the way) and made the movie look dumber than it actually was, and you think she’s the problem? Oh yeah, because it’s not like many people actually liked Lost in Translation or anything. Guys don’t think she’s hot, oh no, we find her very physically unattractive. Jesus Christ…if you honestly think you would’ve sold more tickets with, say, Julia Stiles or Mandy Moore, you need your freakin’ head examined. You want to blame somebody, start by looking in the mirror. Maybe you guys deserve to be sold off.

As for Stealth, there were a myriad of reasons not to see that thing, starting with its ludicrous “Top Gun meets WarGames” premise. I personally wasn’t that interested because I’m not a big fan of Rob Cohen’s recent films (and it’s nice to see that “from the director of The Fast and the Furious” has finally stopped working), and because it looked like a Nu Image straight-to-video action flick starring Dolph Lundgren and stock footage from a half-dozen other airplane movies. It’s also occurred to me that, with a war going on and all, the idea of a “fun” military action movie probably didn’t appeal to many people, either consciously or subconsciously. Way to capture the zeitgeist, guys. Whether you’re for the war or against it, I think we can agree that none of the soldiers are running around having goofy hijinks with Jessica Biel in a bikini. I could be wrong. But I don’t think so.

Then there’s the “horror slump”, which is extremely exaggerated to say the least. I’ve already written about how High Tension, Dark Water and Land of the Dead suffered greatly from being thrust into the crowded summer marketplace. Now we have The Devil’s Rejects, another film I really admired (not sure “enjoyed” is the right word) that failed to reach the mainstream audience. But here’s the thing: I don’t think Rob Zombie was even aiming for that audience in the first place! From its extremely brutal violence to its eclectic cast to its semi-obscure stylistic influences (mostly Peckinpah and ‘70’s redneck drive-in movies), Devil’s Rejects had “cult film” written all over it. It’s a movie made for a specific audience (mainly hardcore horror and cult cinema fanatics), and I think that audience showed up. But nobody else did. It was Lions Gate’s kamikaze move to release it in the summer that brought unfair expectations that this kind of movie couldn’t possibly live up to. There was no way this movie was going to capture the Wedding Crashers audience, and no one should have expected it to. Let’s get real. People forget that House of 1000 Corpses only made $12 million during its entire theatrical run. Given that, a $7 million opening weekend isn’t particularly bad. But to claim that the movie was “rejected” by an audience it was never intended for is just insane. I’ll bet if you stopped 10 “normal people” on the street and asked them what they thought of Devil’s Rejects, 9 of them would say “never heard of it” (the “normals” mantra) and the tenth would say, “ewww, that movie looks gross!”

Think about it – when do horror movies generally do well? In the fall (particularly October) and the spring, when there’s usually not much competition. I think it’s pretty clear by now that they don’t do well in the summer. Sometimes August works, when most of the blockbusters have cleared out, but not before then. You can’t blame the films or their makers for this – it was the studios’ bonehead call to release them smack in the middle of a very competitive summer. Horror is not “dead”, any more than action movies are “dead” – the hardcore fans are still there, and they still show up (otherwise these movies wouldn’t make any money at all). The point is, you have to reach beyond the die-hards to get the mainstream audience. The studios failed to do that with these films, and that’s their fault. They have nobody to blame but themselves.

Again, the right release date is crucial. One studio that’s been particularly bad at picking the right dates in the last few years is good old Miramax (Darkness at Xmas? Mindhunters in the middle of May?), and now that the brothers Weinstein are vacating the premises and releasing virtually everything on their shelves in the next few months (“Clearance sale! Everything Must Go!!!”), their instincts just seem to have gotten worse. They’ve got would-be Oscar contenders (from last year) coming out in September, horror films everywhere but October, and films that possibly could have been breakout hits buried in unworkable dates, like Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm stuck in the dog days of late August. Sometimes I’m amazed that these guys are actually still in business at all. Just watch as each and every one of these films gets picked off, one by one, like ducks at a shooting gallery. Tons of articles will be written about this, I assure you. And I’ll just shake my head and laugh. It’s all about common sense, people. Common sense.

So, without further ado, here’s a quick roundup of the movies I haven’t found time to write full reviews for:

The Devil’s Rejects – well Rob, this is one movie critic who’s on your side. I thought it was pretty incredible filmmaking, a huge step forward from Corpses (which I liked) and an effective homage to the ‘70’s films that Zombie obviously loves with a passion. Yes, it’s extremely violent, derivative, twisted and perverse. So were Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, and the critics creamed all over those. Why is this any different? The cast is amazing, from total badass William Forsythe to the fantastic Priscilla Barnes (who knew?) to the revelatory Ken Foree. Nice to know that EG Daily is still as cute as ever! Concerning the criticism that Zombie is glamorizing his psychotic, sadistic killers, well, he could’ve let them ride off into the sunset (and more sequels). The fact that he chose not to do so speaks volumes. This is what happens to the killers when the horror movie’s over, and it ain’t pretty. Hugely underappreciated and misunderstood, and easily one of my favorite films of the year so far. ****

The Island – yes, I’m in the minority here, but I had fun with it. It’s Michael Bay’s THX-1138, and I thought it was a rollicking good time. Sue me. Those of you who are convinced that Bay is the Antichrist (sorry, that’s Catherine Breillat) won’t be converted, and I can understand that. But I went to it expecting a fun, goofy, well-made chase movie, and that’s what I got. You want something else, go to a different movie. Bay’s universe is one where a guy who looks like Steve Buscemi can land a Shawnee Smith, and I’m all for that. Logic be damned. And yes, Scarlett’s the best thing in the movie. So there. ***

March of the Penguins – I’m really kind of amazed that this G-rated French documentary is becoming such a minor phenomenon (remember what I said about people wanting something different towards the end of summer?). I’m even more amazed that this is being sold as a “family movie”. The little ones might be a bit upset when some of the penguins die on camera (at least one little girl at the screening I attended had to be carried out by her father) – nature can be brutal, but some kids just can’t handle that. And I’m waiting for the conservative watchdogs to come out against this wanton display of animal instinct – “these beasts are fornicating and reproducing outside of wedlock! They’re terrible role models for our children!” As absurd as that may sound, it wouldn’t surprise me. Really, the entire movie is a testament to how far God’s creatures will go to get some. Yeah, it’s all just good clean family fun. The movie itself isn’t bad, it’s a documentary about penguins, what you see is what you get. I thought it could’ve premiered on the Discovery Channel without losing much of its appeal. The kids I brought got restless after about 10 minutes, so take that for what you will. But it’s very well done, and Morgan Freeman does fantastic narration. I definitely learned a lot about penguins that I didn’t know before, that’s for sure. And I’d rather watch penguins than cartoonish rednecks any day. ***

That about covers it for now. Look for more reviews in the coming weeks!

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Sky High

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 3, 2005

Directed by Mike Mitchell/written by Paul Hernandez, Robert Schooley & Mark McCorkle/starring Kurt Russell, Kelly Preston, Michael Angarano, Bruce Campbell, Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Lynda Carter/Walt Disney Pictures

The offspring of superheroes attend a special high school that trains them to use their genetically inherited powers to save the world.

Sky High is one of those “almost” movies for me; it’s a movie that I wanted to really like and just couldn’t quite get there. I can honestly say that I was mildly entertained by parts of it. Unfortunately, that’s the best thing I can say about it, and that’s just not good enough to fully recommend it.

I do understand that it’s a Disney movie for kids, and if you’re looking for something to take your kids (or in my case, nephew) to, you could certainly do a lot worse. It’s not a horribly bad movie, and it does have its inspired moments. But given the premise and the cast, I guess I just expected more than what I got from it. But you don’t go to McDonalds to get filet mignon, right?

The movie is basically set in a world where superheroes not only exist, they’re all over the place. Apparently super powers are passed down genetically (no mention of evolution or mutation here, though – this is a Disney movie) and the kids of superheroes naturally develop powers of their own, around the time they hit puberty. So they’re whisked off to Sky High, a school for would-be superheroes so they can learn how to use and control their powers. We follow our protagonist, Will Stronghold (Angarano), the son of “the world’s greatest superheroes” The Commander (Russell) and the vaguely porn-star sounding Josie Jetstream (Preston). Naturally, there are big expectations for Will, which makes it all the more difficult for him to reveal that he (gulp) doesn’t have any powers.

So far, so good. But then when they get to Sky High, the freshmen discover that it’s not too different from regular high school; there’s a pecking order in which the kids are divided up (by the faculty, no less) into groups of “heroes” (jocks) and “sidekicks” (geeks). Somewhere in Illinois, John Hughes is wondering why he never thought of this. Things get more complicated when Will falls for the popular senior Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, from the short-lived Wolf Lake TV series that me and 3 other people remember) and begins ignoring his sidekick friends, including his gorgeous pal Layla (Danielle Panabaker) who just so happens to be secretly in love with him (gasp!), which everybody knows but Will. I think they call this the Some Kind of Wonderful maneuver. I call it a cliché, and a stupid one at that (what teenage boy is constantly around any girl and doesn’t think of her “that way”? What reasonably attractive girl pines for the class geek? I don’t know what Bizarro universe these movies take place in. Trust me, there’s never a Mary Stuart Masterson around to tell Lea Thompson, “you break his heart, I break your face”. It just doesn’t happen. Life is cruel that way).

This is where the movie, for me at least, goes terribly wrong. The writers trot out all the standard clichés of high-school movies that probably date back to the Andy Hardy movies, and just because the kids have super powers, that’s supposed to be a “new twist”. But when it all plays out exactly the same way, it’s really not new – it’s just the same old clichés in different clothing. There’s the obnoxious school bullies, the geeky boy who gets his head flushed in the toilet, the scary loner who instantly becomes Will’s enemy (but is later revealed to be a sensitive guy after all), the horndog kid (watered down Disney-style, of course), so on and so on. Gwen pressures Will into throwing a party while his parents are away…yawn. And of course, the big climax takes place at a school dance (not like the one in Carrie, unfortunately) with all the students, faculty and chaperoning parents attending. As if to drive home the point that we’ve seen all this before, the soundtrack is full of lackluster covers of ‘80’s songs, which only begs the question, “why would these kids be constantly listening to shitty covers of ‘80’s songs?” Maybe it’s supposed to help keep the parents awake.

I know what you’re thinking – it’s a high school movie, what else are they supposed to do? Well, given the idea that Sky High is supposed to be unlike any regular school – a “special” learning facility for preternaturally gifted kids – they could have gone any number of ways. I was especially disappointed that the writers chose to reinforce the same tired old stereotypes that we’ve seen in 4,780,000 teen movies by now. I know, it’s supposed to be about transcending those stereotypes and showing that even “sidekicks” can be “heroes”. Yes, the sidekicks save the school – but by that time, I was wondering why they even wanted to. It’s not like Sky High, in both practice and philosophy, is much more morally correct than the villains’ evil plan (in fact, when the villains reveal their motivation, you can’t help but think that they kinda have a point).

Actually, the whole concept behind Sky High isn’t particularly well developed. All of the kids seem to be from the same area – so does this mean all the superheroes live in the same region in America? Are there other Sky High schools, all over the world? Who pays for the school’s funding? Do the kids graduate and move on to a superhero college? If the kids of superheroes almost always develop super powers, wouldn’t the bad guys target them at birth and wipe them out early? If the villains knew where Sky High was the whole time, why wouldn’t they just blow it up when all the kids are inside? (I know, too many Columbine echoes. But still…) Nothing appears to have been thought out logically at all, which leaves the film with about as much depth as your average Nickelodeon show. Actually, most of those shows probably have more depth than this.

That’s not to say there isn’t some fun to be had here – but most of it has to do with the adult characters, who aren’t given enough screen time to really save the movie. The kids are likable enough, but they’re not particularly interesting. Whoever’s responsible for casting actors like Russell, Preston, Campbell and not one but two Kids in the Hall members (Foley and McDonald) have delivered the film both a blessing and a curse. These actors are a blessing, because they seem to be relishing their roles and they make the movie much more fun than it would have been otherwise. They’re also a curse because they’re much more watchable and interesting than the kids, but they’re used only sporadically and aren’t really allowed to live up to their potential. They’re funny when they’re on screen, but it isn’t nearly enough, and you wind up wishing the whole damn movie was about them.

Russell particularly seems to enjoy returning to his cheesy Disney-movie roots (how could anyone forget that timeless classic, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes?) and gives an amusing performance as the square-jawed Commander that’s just this side of knowingly campy. Campbell could have been a riot as the literally loud-mouthed Coach Boomer, but he’s not given much of a character to play besides the prototypical “Gym Teacher Guy”, as he’s referred to in the film. I mean, kudos for casting Bruce Campbell in a mainstream movie, but give the guy something to do! Foley and McDonald fare a little better – I particularly liked Foley’s work as the vaguely pathetic ex-sidekick teacher “All-American Boy” – but again, there just aren’t enough of them to be really satisfying. Is it so wrong to want more of the funny characters in a supposed comedy? Lynda Carter, on the other hand, seems to have been cast as the principal only so the writers could make an obvious, groan-worthy Wonder Woman joke. Sorry guys, you didn’t earn that one.

So overall, I’d have to say that Sky High is definitely a mixed bag. It’s not hard to sit through, and it does have some funny moments here and there. It’s just frustrating that it could have been so much more than it is. Maybe a more accomplished director than Mitchell (the man responsible for such masterworks as Deuce Bigalow and Surviving Christmas) could have pulled it together and made something special out of it. As it stands, it’s an OK piece of work that, sadly enough, will fit right in at its eventual home on the Disney Channel.

**1/2 8/3/05

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