Thursday, September 25, 2008

'Lakeview ' is a failure as both commentary and thriller

“Lakeview Terrace” is the worst kind of bad movie. It is the sort of bad that makes you angry because it dangles the possibility of a truly engaging movie-going experience and then pulls it away at the last second.

There’s something far more frustrating about watching a movie with a potential for greatness, however buried it may be, than watching a movie that is straight-up awful. If a movie has terrible acting, writing, directing and no chance of ever approximating something of quality, it is easier to shrug off.

“Lakeview Terrace” was directed by Neil LaBute, a talented filmmaker and playwright who has lost his way, at least in the world of cinema. Following the laughable remake of “The Wicker Man,” this is LaBute’s second Hollywood film, and the edge he showed in earlier films such as “In the Company of Men,” “Your Friends and Neighbors” and “The Shape of the Things” is nowhere to be seen.

It is easy to see why LaBute, an incendiary voice that pushes audiences’ views on society, was drawn to “Lakeview Terrace.” The film focuses on an interracial couple (Patrick Wilson, “Hard Candy” and Kerry Washington, “I Think I Love My Wife”) that moves into a Los Angeles suburban community much to the dismay of their neighbor (Samuel L. Jackson), a widowed black cop attempting to raise two children.

LaBute could’ve made provocative and challenging statements about racism with this premise, but the problem is he didn’t write it. The script is by David Loughery and Howard Korder. Glancing at their resumes, Loughery is the heavy hitter with such shining credits as the 1993 remake of “The Three Musketeers” and “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.”

Loughery and Korder’s script thinks it is mature and serious because it is dealing with racism, but they don’t really have anything to say on the subject. The depth of their social critique is that being in an interracial relationship is difficult and that racism can end in violence. Both of these statements are true, but the screenplay only addresses these issues as devices for the plot with Jackson going to increasingly elaborate and dangerous extremes to force the couple out.

The movie is heavy-handed and obvious where it should by nuanced and complex. There’s a scene in which a drug dealer calls Jackson out for his racism that is insulting to the audience. A little subtleness would’ve gone a long way.

As if being cliché and familiar wasn’t bad enough, the film also throws pretentious into the mix. Throughout the film, the fires in California are referenced and wouldn’t you know that when things finally come to blows between Wilson and Jackson that the fires are right on top of Lakeview Terrace? You can almost hear the writers saying: “The fire represents the racial tensions, get it, aren’t we clever?” This attempt at a metaphor is more eye-rolling than profound.

On a base level it may sound as if there could be some cheap thrills in the battle of wills between the couple and Jackson, but the film feels like a wait for the inevitable final confrontation than a real tension-filled thriller. There is no suspense. It is clear exactly where this is going.

Jackson, who, granted, is good at being menacing, spends too much of the film glaring and glowering. Wilson and Washington are fine, but their performances are undermined by what the script forces them to say and do.

The film does have one great scene, in which Jackson delivers a monologue about how his wife died that reveals the root of his racism. It is the first time the film is truly compelling, but unfortunately it is at least an hour into the film before you get it. It is shortly after that the film goes completely off the rails into utter stupidity.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

10 song for your Halloween party

There are plenty of obvious choices for tunes for a Halloween party, but for those looking for something different than mashing monsters, purple people eaters, werewolves in London and dancers stuck in a time warp, here is a list of alternatives.

“Boris the Spider” – The Who (1966)
From The Who’s second album, this odd little song chronicles the life and death of the title arachnid. Its weird mix of menace and whimsy in a way makes it the perfect Halloween song. Is it a trick or a treat?

“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” – The Beatles (1969)
Join in the exploits of young Maxwell, a serial killer with a penchant for carpentry. Don’t be fooled by the upbeat carousal-like feel of the music or the cheery way in which Paul McCartney delivers the lyrics, this is perhaps The Beatles’ darkest song.

“Psycho Killer” – Talking Heads (1977)
This is another song about a killer, but one that seems to be fed up with society in lyrics like “We are vain and we are blind/I hate people when they're not polite.” The French language has never sounded more menacing than in David Bryne’s singing here.

“Dead Man’s Party” – Oingo Boingo (1985)
Cryptic lyrics combined with a danceable beat describe the coolest party thrown by the dead. Danny Elfman, the front man and songwriter for Oingo Boingo, went on to score many films and to write the songs for Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride.”

“Pet Sematary” – The Ramones (1989
The Ramones scored one of their last big hits with the theme song to the film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. The song features the creepy and yet completely silly chorus “I don’t want to be buried in a pet sematary/I don’t want to live my life again.”

“I’m Going Slightly Mad” – Queen (1991)
This is a goofy song about a descent into madness full of such lyrics as “I’m knitting with only one needle.” The laughs have a bittersweet under current when you realize that Queen front man Freddie Mercury was quite literally dying while recording what would be his final work.

“Season of the Witch” – Dr. John (1998)
Coming from the unlikely source of the “Blues Brothers 2000” soundtrack this more aggressive reworking of the Donovan original drenches the song in an ominous atmosphere. Dr. John’s gravelly voice just makes the proceeding all the more unsettling.

“Farewell Ride” – Beck (2005)
Beck takes on mortality in this chronicling of the ride to our final destination: our grave. The song, with its disjointed, twanging guitar and clanging, chain-rattling percussion, creates a sinister soundscape in which Beck lays his dark lyrics.

“The Boogie Monster”– Gnarls Barkley (2006)
The soulful pop group creates an eerie piano based story of a monster lingering in closets and under beds. The song seems like straightforward child’s fare, but throws in a lyrical twist: “I used to wonder why he looked so familiar /then I realized it was a mirror.”

“This is Halloween” – Marilyn Manson (2006)
The shock glam rocker’s cover of one of the songs from “Nightmare Before Christmas” works the quirky, murky lyrics for all they are worth. Marilyn Manson takes the song to a higher level of creepiness while keeping it all in good fun.

Coens leave the 'country' for big city espionage spoof

Leave it to the Coen Brothers, filmmakers who refuse to be pigeonholed, to follow up their Academy Award winning thriller “No Country for Old Men” with “Burn After Reading,” a goofy espionage farce.

The Coen’s seem to make two sorts of films. There are films like “Blood Simple,” “Fargo” and “No Country,” where their brilliance is immediately evident. Then there are movies like “The Big Lebowski,” “O Brother Where Art Thou” and “The Hudsucker Proxy,” where at the end they seem nothing more than a solid good. It isn’t until later, and with repeat viewings, that their appeal truly starts growing on you. “Burn After Reading” with its scatological, offbeat humor falls into the latter category.

The plot centers on a CD containing the memoirs of a recently fired CIA agent (John Malkovich) that ends up in the hands of two gym employees (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) who first attempt to black mail the agent and then to sell the disc.

Also in the mix are Tilda Swinton as Malkovich’s wife, Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”) as Pitt and McDormand’s boss, and George Clooney as a U.S. Marshal. Clooney’s character seems to spend more time sleeping around than doing any work for the government. Not only is he having an affair with Swinton, but he eventually works his way into McDormand’s bed as well. All these characters get involved in an increasingly tangled web.

In terms of style, the film is a dead ringer for modern political and spy thrillers like “Michael Clayton” and “Syriana.” The big difference here is that all the players involved are more or less idiots — and self-obsessed idiots no less. The escalating plot builds huge in each character’s mind, when in fact nothing of true import has transpired.

The screwball antics of the plot are made all the funnier because the Coens keep the look and tone completely straight. There is a nerve-rattling score drumming up suspense for the most mundane actions, and when there are occasional bursts of violence they aren’t sugar coated.

Everyone in the exceptional cast is in good form. Pitt is outrageously funny as Chad, a sweet-natured exercise nut, who in a cast of dimwits shines dimmest. As an actor, Pitt doesn’t get enough credit. He is a diverse performer who has played a wide assortment of unique characters and you’ve never seen him quite like this.

The always reliable McDormand, who was so charming earlier in the year in “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” is effortlessly funny and likable. Her desire to get plastic surgery is the driving force of the plot. The CD is her means to an end.

Clooney brings the same wide-eyed bewilderment that he showed in “O Brother Where Art Thou” and scores perhaps the film’s biggest laugh with the unveiling of the secret project he has been building in his basement.

Malkovich basically does what he always does, but he does it so well. A few do eloquently vulgar and violent as well as Malkovich. The scene Pitt and Malkovich share as Pitt attempts to blackmail him is just about perfect, with each actor giving precisely timed and measured performances.

Swinton, alas, is playing a variation of the cold witch that she’s been playing in such films as “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “Michael Clayton.” She does it extremely well, but she has more range and it would be nice to see her break out of this current typecasting.

The film also features brief but hilarious turns by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons (“Juno”) as CIA men trying to figure out the mess “the league of morons” have gotten themselves into.

Coming off of “No Country,” this may be seen as a let down, and it is true this is not of the same caliber, but then it isn’t trying to be. The Coens have an absurdist, dark sense of humor and, like “Raising Arizona” or “The Big Lebowski,” this is film that showcases that sensibility.

Above all else, this is an exceptionally well-crafted film that will have those who possess a quirky sense of humor laughing hard consistently — and that’s an achievement in itself.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

'Dangerous'ly dull

Foreign directors remaking their own film in Hollywood is an exercise in futility. It is a feeble attempt to get a wider audience by playing off the cynical assumption that most Americans are too lazy to watch a subtitled film, even an action based one. They’re probably right.

“Bangkok Dangerous” is the latest foreign film to get made over for American audiences. The Pang Brothers of Hong Kong were brought into retool their 1999 film of the same name. The original centered on a deaf-mute assassin, but in an effort to pander to the masses the new version stars Nicholas Cage hearing just fine and talking up a storm through a cliché laden narration.

The Pangs' first Hollywood film was the uninspired “The Messengers,” which, while not a remake of an Asian horror film, was so derivative it might as well have been. Now the Pangs are dumbing their own work down. What’s the point in coming to Hollywood to simply make conventional junk? Hopefully they’re taking their paychecks and making more interesting films back home.

Cage is a good actor with a terrible eye for scripts. With the right material he is very good as can be evidenced in “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Adaptation,” “Matchstick Men” and “Lord of War.” With bad material he can be just plain dreadful as was the case in 2006’s “The Wicker Man,” one of the most unintentionally hilarious films of recent years.

Sometimes Cage’s quirky way of delivering lines and his oddly dynamic screen presence is just enough to make a bad or mediocre film watchable. Such is the case with “Bangkok Dangerous,” at least for awhile. Cage is just fine as Joe, a lone assassin who grows a conscious when he breaks one of his cardinal rules of not making any human connections.

The film opens promisingly with a prologue in Prague that reveals Joe’s methods. Soon Joe arrives in Bangkok for a series of hits that will take place over the span of a month. He hires an errand boy (Shahkrit Yamnarm), who becomes his student, and falls in love with a mute girl who works at a pharmacy (Charlie Young).

The dynamic between Yamnarm and Cage, though awfully familiar and not presented with any freshness, works in spite of itself, but any of the scenes with Young bring the film to a halt. The love story is boring at best and completely extraneous at worst. Young is meant to help Cage see the error of his ways, but Yamnarm serves the same purpose more effectively.

This is an action movie, so at the very least it should deliver the goods in that regard. The assassinations are well-staged and paced. One set underwater in a pool is particularly interesting. Another leads into an elaborate chase that wears out its welcome but has a jaw-droppingly unexpected outcome.

The film barely gets by for awhile on its stylish direction and muted cinematography that utilizes its Bangkok locations well. Things completely unravel, though, in a laughably bad final sequence in which Cage essentially becomes Rambo. These final scenes are set in the most over-used, unimaginative action setting: the abandoned factory.

In the final moments, the film nearly redeems itself with a surprisingly unconventional end, but even that is undermined by lingering too long on a critical moment. Cage can do better. And so can the Pangs.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

10 fave teen movies

This week students headed back to school. In their honor, let’s look at that hallowed genre: the teen movie. Such films are typically coming-of-age stories centered on first love and/or the pursuit of a good time. Here are 10 teen favorites.

“American Graffiti” (1973)
A group of high school graduates enjoys one last night of cruising before heading off to college in perhaps the first modern teen film. The film was co-written and directed by a pre-“Star Wars” George Lucas and starred such soon-to-big names as Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford and Ron Howard. Set 10 years earlier, the film was already a nostalgic piece when released, but its portrayal of that nebulous time between high school and college remains funny and relevant.

“Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” (1979)
Riff Randell (P.J. Sole) loves The Ramones. Her life will be complete if she can see them in concert and hear them perform the song she’s written for them. Not only does she get her wish, she also convinces the band to take over her school in true punk rock fashion. This rock musical has a loopy, kitsch sense of humor and is actually quite education. Did you know that rock music can make mice explode? You learn something new everyday.

“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982)
Cameron Crowe, at the time a writer for Rolling Stone, went undercover as a high school student to write an expose on teen life. Crowe’s screenplay would provide plenty of crude laughs, but it also addressed serious issues such as abortion in a realistic manner, making it a cut above most of its kind. All that aside, it is Sean Penn as the definitive stoner Jeff Spicoli and the notorious Phoebe Cates pool scene that makes this a classic.

“The Breakfast Club” (1985)
This John Hughes film is the perennial teen movie. It should probably be required viewing for every high school freshman. Five students from different cliques are forced to spend Saturday detention together and in the process learn that they were “brainwashed” into hating each other. The film is hilarious and perceptive with iconic performances from Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall, Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy.

“Ferris Buller's Day Off” (1986)
Another Hughes mainstay with a never-more-charming Matthew Broderick skipping school with his best friend (Alan Ruck) and girlfriend (Mia Sara) for a day of adventure in Chicago. Full of classic bits from the keyboard that plays coughs, to Ben Stein’s economic teacher, to the “Twist and Shout” parade scene. And of course there’s that Ferrari. Oh yeah.

“Say Anything…” (1989)
After the success of “Fast Times,” Crowe returned as writer and director to the teen genre and came up with one of the sweetest, most genuine film romances ever. John Cusack stars as the ultimate nice guy, who asks out the valedictorian of his class. The film is remembered most for the infamous “In Your Eyes” boom box serenade, but it has so much more to offer. Crowe’s dialogue is full of knowing laughs and feels honest, natural and smart.

“Clueless” (1995)
This loose teen updating of Jane Austin’s “Emma,” shifts the setting to Los Angeles and puts the reins of the story in the hands of cheery, fashion savvy rich girl Cher (Alicia Silverstone). Writer/director Amy Heckerling, helmed Crowe’s script for “Fast Times,” but her own writing proves to be just as perceptive about teens. Silverstone, who never matched her work here again, is spot on, as is the rest of the cast which includes Paul Rudd, Brittney Murphy and Donald Faison (“Scrubs”).

“American Pie” (1999)
The premise of a group of high school guys making a pledge to lose their virginity by prom is hardly original and has spawned too many bad so called comedies to count. But This wasn’t just another “Porky’s,” in spite of the very crude humor — you’ll have a hard time thinking of apple pie and band camp the same way — there was a lot of surprising heart. Plus Eugene Levy is fantastically awkward as Jason Bigg’s well-intentioned father.

“Mean Girls” (2004)
In many respects this a PG-13 version of 1989’s similarly themed “Heathers,” but that doesn’t make this film any less sharp with its satire of high school cliques. Tina Fey’s script is full of pointed observations that add an extra sting to the laughs. Lindsey Lohan is sent into the vapid “Plastics” clique as a mole only to become one herself. Everyone in the cast is excellent, especially Lohan, Rachel McAdams as the head Plastic, Fey as a math teacher and Tim Meadows as the principal.

“Superbad” (2007)
A couple of friends (Jonah Hill and Michael Cera) spend one of their last nights together before going off to college desperately trying to score alcohol in hopes of maybe getting lucky. Like “American Pie,” the film avoids having its material turn sour, because the raunchy script by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg allows for an unexpected sweetness to seep in. You genuinely care about these characters by the film’s end. Of course there’s also Christopher Mintz-Plasse's instant classic portrayal of Fogell AKA McLovin.

'Clone Wars' fails to replicate the 'Star Wars' magic

When the original “Star Wars” came out in 1977, people lined up around the block to see it again and again. Oh, how things have changed. A theatrical release of a “Star Wars” film use to be an event, but the cheapy computer animated feature “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” is nothing more than a shameless cash in.

The original “Star Wars” trilogy had a sense of wonder and excitement, and yet, in addition to their visual splendor, the films were character-driven. The new trilogy lost most of that magic. The snappy dialogue that marked the earlier series was replaced with seemingly endless exposition of some of the most boring political intrigue put to celluloid.

Now we have “Clone Wars,” which is set between “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith.” The release is basically an extended episode of the Cartoon Network’s forthcoming series of the same name. Based on what’s on display here, it is not something to look forward to. This is a sub-par Saturday morning cartoon at best.

The Cartoon Network already covered this material in an award-winning hand-drawn animated series also entitled “The Clone Wars.” That series, while not perfect, had imagination and style to spare and in many respects was more entertaining than the new trilogy. So why does this new film and series exist? Because there’s more money to be made even if the “Star Wars” soil is not nearly as fertile as it once was.

There’s no point in getting into the details of the plot which centers on Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker and his new pupil trying to rescue Jabba the Hutt’s kidnapped baby son. The movie is just an excuse for a series of monotonous battles that are never exciting. The movie’s 98-minute run time feels much longer.

“Star Wars” appeals to both kids and adults because George Lucas reworked the motifs of legends and fairy tales to create a fresh story of princesses and knights in a timeless struggle between light and dark. So it is rather odd that “Clone Wars” is targeted squarely at very young children. It is safe to say no one over the age of 10 — and I am being generous with that number — will get anything out of this. Not even “Stars Wars" fans.

Here’s the quality of writing that managed to get by: Anakin and his student give each other nicknames. He’s Sky Guy and she’s Snips because she’s snippy. They give a nickname to Jabba’s kid too: Stinky.

You know things are amiss from the start when the iconic words that scroll up the screen setting up each “Star Wars” film are replaced with a laughably bad voiceover. They are clearly removed because really little kids can’t read — further evidence of who the true audience of this is.

The sweeping, majestic John Williams score is also largely missing accept for briefly at the beginning and near the end. In its place is a generic action score that adds nothing to the lifeless proceedings.

And then there is the animation. Computer animation has come along way in the last decade, so the only excuse for the inconsistent and second-rate animation on display here is money. This was done on the cheap, which might get by on the small screen, but doesn’t cut it theatrically.

Spaceships and foregrounds look fine and have the same clarity as in the films, but the characters look blocky and as if sculpted out of Play-Doh. The character designs are often ugly with lines too sharp and angular.

In a summer with the beautifully animated “WALL-E” and the excitingly rendered “Kung-Fu Panda,” “Clone Wars” looks embarrassingly bad. Both “WALL-E” and “Kung-Fu Panda” played well to kids and adults alike, but “The Clone Wars” ignores adults and condescends to children viewers.

The voice work is unremarkable with only Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee and Anthony Daniels as C3PO returning from the live action movies. I’m still deeply confused by the fact that Jabba’s cousin Zero the Hutt was given an effeminate Southern accent.

On all fronts “Clone Wars” is drenched in mediocrity as Lucas continues to tarnish his legacy. Whatever magic Lucas had is gone. In other words: By George, I think he’s not got it.