Justin Ellis (Portland Press Herald) and I on the new releases for 12/1/09

Around these parts we burn franchises to the ground and punch kittens. Sounds like we should get a TV/film development deal, right? OK, all will be explained later. For now just know that when new DVDs are released, Videoport Jones and I do the dirty work so you don’t have to.

Terminator: Salvation

Videoport Jones: “This seems like an overly-dismissive review of this week’s tentpole release, but…nope, not interested. I mean, who was interested in Terminator 3? Calculate that, and then subtract another 25% of my interest for this one. Look, the original ‘Terminator’ is great, at least partially by virtue of its low-budget grubbiness (seriously, look at the effects there – they are, especially in the end, endearingly dopey), and the second skates by on spectacle (it was the first film to surpass a $100,000,000 budget, so James Cameron had lots of toys to play with). But the third – I mean, who actually cared? And now the fourth, apart from the YouTube-aided dimwit scandal that only ridiculous no-life-having people cared about, hits the DVD, and, it’s just not on my radar. Following the trend of, oh, every movie series ever, the Terminator franchise is less and less rewarding as it goes on. As for star Christian Bale, well, I’m gonna go off on a small tangent. I like Bale, and admire his willingness to transform himself for a role, but I find my inability to picture a Bale performance in my head for any sustained period as indicative less of Bale’s chameleon-like abilities than his slight deficiency of charisma. It’s not crippling – he’s the best screen Batman (although, like all screen Batmen, he’s second banana to his villains), but part of the reason why he’s so effective in ‘American Psycho’ is that the joke that he’s indistinguishable from the rest of the 80’s Wall Street prettyboys hinges on that very fact. As for this movie itself – eh.”

Justin: “You know it’s a bad sign when a movie franchise is literally put up for sale. When even the most money-hungry and creativity-starved studio throws up their hands and says ‘We got NOTHING, sell it!’ And yet that is what’s happened with The Terminator. I’ll fess up: The ‘splosion, robot, car-chase loving dude in me liked these films (though never saw 3, so your hypothesis holds up for now.). The first two were solid enough in a ‘keep the chase moving and don’t stop to think’ sort of way. And of course the awesomeness was upped in ‘Judgment Day’ by a butt-kicking Linda Hamilton and the creepy liquid Terminator (will Robert Patrick ever be anything other than the T-1000?). But this time around, with Terminator: Salvation they were looking to do too many things at the same time. Reboot (and revitalize) the franchise, give the story a new significance and weight and graft some star-power onto the whole affair with Mr. Bale. Unlike the others, this one takes place in John Connor’s future, introduces a bunch of characters we’re suppose to care about and while not using time-travel, nods to it as part of the plot. And oh, they brought in McG to run the ship. OK, there is nothing wrong with McG (well, his name is silly) in moderate, controlled doses, but it looks like they just cut him loose here. There’s NO SALVATION for this Terminator! Ha. OK, but seriously, this one does too much work for what should just be bang-splodey ridiculous. More Batman please Mr. Bale.”

A Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian

VPJ: “In lieu of reviewing this movie (a loud, dumb, moderately-amusing-in-small-patches sequel to its identically-mediocre forebear), I’d just like to say a few words in defense of its writers. Tom Lennon and Ben Garant have written these two movies, the Lindsay Lohan Herbie movie, ‘The Pacifier’ (or Vin Diesel’s own ‘Kindergarten Cop’), ‘Taxi’ (the Jimmy Fallon one), and ‘Balls of Fury’ (which had a few laughs in it). Obviously, that’s not the defense part; these movies are obviously indefensible. No, what I’d point out, and what will make me go to bat for these guys until the end of time (although if The Pacifier 2: Mr. Stinkypants ever comes out, I may have to reevaluate) is their other resume. Let’s talk founding members of the sketch comedy troupe ‘The State,’ founding members and stars of the improv-y greatness that was ‘Reno: 911,’ and the hit-or-miss loony weirdness that was ‘Viva Variety’. These are – clearly – hilarious, inventive, original comic thinkers (and brilliant comic performers) who have to pay the plumber. And don’t we all have to pay the plumber? So please, when you think of Tom and Ben, remember ‘The State’ and ‘Reno:911,’ and remember the plumber. Thank you. (Ben Stiller is also in this film, I believe).”

JE: “Wow. I don’t know if you were trying to convince the public this was OK, or yourself. It sounds like some serious over-justification there my friend. And that’s OK, whatever helps you sleep at night. As it stands those guys can’t seem to catch a break as their other projects seem to get submarined as soon as they’re green-lit (though Reno did last for 6 seasons of goodness.). The dirty little secret is that Lennon and Garant are not alone in their writing work on less-than-stellar movies. This is what comedy writers – all screenwriters really – have to do to get by. While I’m sure you can try and get by punching out what you consider your ‘best work,’ the reality is a pay day is always a nice thing. So if that means writing ‘The Pacifier,’ then go ahead. As for this sequel to ‘A Night at the Museum,’ we pick up (presumably) where we left off with Mr. Stiller, now at, as the title suggests, The Smithsonian. Wacky hijincks! Cameos! Icons of American history and pop culture! I’m sure there are worse things to watch with the family, but this one does have Bill Hader and Hank Azaria, so that’s a few pluses in my book. It gets a stay of execution…just don’t expect me to watch it.”

The Cove

VPJ: “I swear I’m not trying to turn this lighthearted, hip, edgy, cool guy movie column into an environmentalist, left-wing kook-fest, but it’s just that, well, people keep on raping the world and its creatures and other, nicer people keep making searing, outraged documentaries about said rape. This time, it’s our finny friends the dolphins who’re getting rogered but good, annually in a remote Japanese villiage’s dedicated dolphin slaughtering festival. The filmmakers, having to circumvent the security and secrecy, employed some seriously-manly, secret agent-type methods, risking life, limb, and a boatload of expensive equipment. It’s a really gripping hybrid of real-life adventure film and furious, do-gooder polemic, and therefore more exciting than the average documentary. Sure, there is – as ever – more complexity to the issues than perhaps the filmmakers are willing to admit. But, well, it’s tough to argue with the actual facts presented here.”

JE: “Dammit Jonesy what did I tell you about your left-wing propaganda! Another crack pot documentary like this and YOU’RE OFF THE CASE! OK, but jokes aside, I don’t know if I can watch this one if it skates too close to dolphin torture porn for the sake of making a point. In terms of cute Animals humans love,a movie about brutality towards dolphins might fare as well be as a documentary on punching kittens in the face. (BTW, I’ll be taking ‘Kitten Punchers’ to Sundance next year.) As horrifying as this film sounds at first glance there is a very touching story in it about Ric O’Barry, a one-time dolphin trainer who makes a 180 degree change of heart on the plight of the squeakers. If I have one quibble with documentaries like this (and I’ve said this many times before) it’s when filmmakers insert themselves too much into a story. There can be a tendancy to glamorize the director or their process, and I’m not interested in that. Unless a doc is about the filmmaker I don’t necessarily want their presence in front of the camera. But in this case the act of telling the story, the big how, is integral to the film. Seeing the depths of the subterfuge, misdirection and cunning it takes to just show the world this awful event makes the story that much more powerful.”

Paper Heart

VPJ: “Charlyne Yi is an indie hipster cutie pie. You might remember her, being an indie hipster cutie pie, in a small role in ‘Knocked Up.’ Well, here, she’s teaming up with perhaps the only person more of an indie hipster cutie pie than she, Michael Cera, in a deliberately-unclassifiable sort of romantic comedy/documentary/metatextual audience put on. ‘Paper Heart’ starts off as a documentary, with Yi being extra adorable, giggling her way through awkward cupie-doll-on-the-street interviews with people about the nature of love. As the film goes on, Yi finds herself at a party with ‘Arrested Development’s’ Cera, and they have one of the most painfully-adorable courting scenes ever. Sure, it sounds sort of predictable, but wait-and-see. In addition to being an indie scene-stealer, Yi’s also a standup comic and performance artist, and she and Cera were already together when they made the film. Or were they? See, when they started doing publicity for the movie, it was revealed that Cera had broken up with Yi. Or had he? Oh, and the on screen director of the film is named after a real-life friend and partner of Yi’s, but he’s played by someone else, while that real-life friend plays another character. It’s all a bit hazy, but it seems like there’s some sort of public-satirizing going on here, along with some Andy Kaufman-esque gamesmanship, and some actual, if adorable, exploration of what it means to be in love. And Yi and Cera do make a cute couple, their blush-y reticence ever bordering on twee, but staying on the right side. A weird little doodle that I enjoyed quite a bit.”

JE: “I may have to just push away from the table on this one. While it has all the hallmarks of a surprising little wonder (and who among us hasn’t described Michael Cera that way?), I think it would make my brain hurt just a little bit. The premise (on its face) is cute: what is love? I heard an interview with Yi where she talked about making the movie and how it sprung from her own thoughts and feelings on relationships and romantic love. This sounds interesting, no? Movies about personal questions and self discovery can be fun (or painful. or painfully fun.). But the more I heard about this, from the maybe/maybe not real relationship with Cera and the real character/fake character/real character thing, it just seemed too confusion. It’s not that I don’t mind a little meta-mind games from my movies. If I wanted that I’d hire Charlie Kaufman to make a documentary on cake-making.  But I don’t appreciate mind games if they feel sloppily put together. Maybe watching it will change my mind (most likely because it’s hard not to be won over by Cera’s hoodie-wearing charm).”

A Christmas Tale

VPJ: “Oh great, another holiday movie. Except, this time, it’s French (from director Arnaud Desplechin, maker of ‘My Sex Life, Or How I Got Into an Argument’), so instead of wacky in-laws and cute pets doing tricks, we get family dysfunction, dead children, long-buried resentment, and, oh yeah, cancer! Yup, it’s a French cinematic Christmas, with the legendary (and still stunning Catherine Deneuve) and ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’s’ Mathieu Amalric among others, a generous helping of familial misery, and an ‘Amelie’-style side dish of magical whimsy. Sounds like Christmas to me, and it’s pretty darned moving, and less of a downer (slightly) than the description makes it sound. A rare current release presented by the Criterion Collection, who invariably know what they’re talking about.”

JE: “Could it be? Is this? A Christmas movie that doesn’t make us violently angry or depressed? OK, well the family drama may get us depressed, but the filmmaking may not! Now, before I go on to say rent this, I feel like I should say that this is not for everyone. In fact it may not be for most people. The common denominator between and good and bad holiday movies is family dysfunction, which is tolerable in a funny movie and unbearable in a bad one. This on the other hand is a good one, but may cut a little too close to the bone. We’re talking deep-seeded conflict and anger that doesn’t get easily resolved through a zany scheme or comical misunderstanding. This is what you are getting with ‘A Christmas Tale.’ ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’ it ain’t. And that is not a bad thing. See, sometimes what you get for all that emotional trauma is a more satisfying ending. It’s like a well-deserved payoff, or, since this is the season, a gift. And let me second my esteemed colleague here: Do NOT mess with the Criterion Collection.”

Lightning Round! Also this week: Five Minutes of Heaven (The ever-dependable Liam Neeson in a drama about an IRA murderer confronted by the brother of a victime some decades after the fact), Better Off Ted – Season 1 (“Arrested Development’s” Portia de Rossi stars in this satirical workplace comedy), I Sell the Dead (“Lost’s” favorite hobbit Dominic Monaghan stars in this dark comedy horror film about a condemned grave robber looking back on the grisly details of his life), Seraphine (A biopic about the life of French painter Seraphine de Senlis).

Parting shots:

– Where did the Terminator franchise go off the rails? Is it salvageable?
– Are we over-justifying (and condoning) bad movies because we like the writers?
– Is Michael Cera’s “hoodie-wearing charm” enough for you to see “Paper Heart?”

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