Justin Ellis (Portland Press Herald) & I take on the new releases for 1/26/10

On this day we do not just celebrate the release of another mediocre science fiction movie about humanity led astray by technology, no, we also celebrate the degredation of the dead (in the form of Michael Jackson) and the rejection of morals and shame (by Mr. Tucker Max.) Fortunately we’ve got a funky little music documentary spun from one of history’s greatest boxing matches and a roller derby comedy. Oh, wait, also, we’re celebrating my esteemed colleague’s BIRTHDAY! It is difficult to come across documentation of how old Videoport Jones is, or where he was born. Some say he was conceived by midichlorians and discovered on the steps of Videoport.

Either way, raise a pint to him today.

Surrogates

Videoport Jones: “‘It’s like AVATAR!’ Or so the filmmakers (and, perhaps, Videoport owner Bill) would like you to think, since that might bump up this one’s dismal box office/video rental grosses. It is sort of like ‘AVATAR’ (now that that thing’s passed the 500 kajillion dollar mark, I am legally required to use all caps), in that the people doing the things are actually not doing the things but use AVATARS (or the decidedly lower-case, in this case, ‘surrogates’) to do the derring for them, while the real people actually recline in crapulent comfort. Bruce Willis is in this one, playing both an appropriately-bald and grizzled real cop in an electronic barcalounger and his oddly also appropriately-waxy blonde robot dopplegager out on the streets trying to find out what’s causing people’s brains to explode when something bad happens to their own robot pals. It’s not a bad setup – science fiction is, at heart, a very sneaky vehicle for social satire – and the concept that humanity would only too happily renounce fresh air, physical effort, and chasing butterflies for a sedentary lifestyle where a physically-perfect version of yourself that you control with your mind gets to have superpowers and boink everything in sight without danger of repercussions ain’t bad either. The problem, of course, is that most science fiction writers (and especially movie and TV science fiction writers) suck, and feel the need to bask in their own cleverness (showing and overexplaining every idea they come up with) and to dumb down a potentially-evocative concept in order not to lose even the slowest among their viewers. So we get the requisite opening montage which lays out the premise in about three minutes, a kickoff aciton scene to illuminate the concept with cool ‘splosions, the requisite conflicted hero with a sad secret (which is explained quickly so as not to piss anybody off) and then some more action set-pieces so nobody goes to the bathroom. Along the way, the original idea and all of its potential satirical power is left congealing on the back burner until the loud blandness of the enterprise has numbed us out to the point where we don’t care anymore. The movie’s serviceable, as is Willis (although that waxy, mannequin Bruce seems a tad too comfortable a role for him at times), and it’s nice to see Ving Rhames, although I am hard-pressed to think of how they could have made him look sillier – I’ve seen better fake beards on fake Santas.”

Justin: “Maybe we should just get our own AVATARS to do the heavily lifting for this review while we sit back in our crapulence, drinking High Lifes. Inevitably Jonesy 2.0 and Justin 2.0 would grow thirsty for booze and their tolerance for B-list talent in D-list movies would wear thin. And then what? The urge to slaughter all mankind. This is how it happens people! And then who would save us? Ben Affleck? Gerald Butler? Bruce Willis (2009 edition)? We’re doomed. I think we can all generally agree that anytime humans muck around with clones, robots, virtual reality or cyborgs someone is bound to get blown up. Especially scientists. It’s always scientists. I don’t get why these movies end up being the equivalent of a warm beer, do you? It looks like a sure thing until you open it, get a taste and instantly want to throw it in the trash. We’re reasonable men, right? We like ‘splosions! We like sci if! We like Bruce Willis! I would watch the original ‘Die Hard’ once a week if I could, and sometimes do if it’s on TV. I think the problem is that the act of ‘mainstreaming’ anything is essentially like tweaking a menu for a dinner party because each of the guest has particular likes and dietary needs. No dairy? Sure! Everyone likes chicken? Right! The problem is that unlike comedy, horror or drama, sci fi almost by nature is supposed to be a little challenging, and apparently most of us don’t like to get challenged anymore. So you end up with ‘splody-McSex-chase with a dash of moral quandary. Tell me if any of these movies don’t fit that: ‘The Island,’ ‘I, Robot,’ ‘The Matrix Reloaded,’ ‘Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.’ Maybe I’ve just got this all backwards and we’re the ones who are out of touch. Maybe society wants its satire to go 10 feet from the edge, but not over, because if you start making movies about how obese, ignorant and shallow humanity is you may not break even on opening weekend.”

Michael Jackson: This Is It!

VPJ: “I am hard-pressed to decide what the titular ‘it’ refers to. Unless ‘it’ refers to ‘a cynical cash-in on Jackson’s death by releasing a cobbled together hodge-podge of incomplete musical numbers culled from substandard rehearsal footage of the mammoth concert series aborted when Jackson died, probably at least in part due to the obvious stress he was putting himself through in order to prepare for it.’ I wanna take my man Conan O’Brien’s farewell advice to heart and not be cynical, but this whole endeavor just screams words like ‘creepy,’ ‘cash grab,’ and ‘plundering the dead,’ and the film (so-called) is bound to disappoint anyone not interested in seeing incomplete versions of songs they’ve heard a million times. Jackson was, well, let’s just say a complicated figure whose life was largely defined by others’ wanton exploitation of him. And it continues from beyond the grave.”

JE: “Whoa, whoa, whoa Jonesy! Careful! Give the people what they want! Now that the gloved one is dead we cannot speak ill of him. What if Jermaine and Tito come for us? Look, you’re talking to someone who was on the ‘stop the spectacle-go-round, I’d like to get off’ campaign months ago. I had enough of the speculation, I had enough of the exploitation of the kids, I had enough of the so-called ‘funeral’ 3 minutes after it began. I am not a heartless man, I understand the public wanting just one more piece of him, or wanting to say goodbye. I know that he was many things to many people, all of which, like you said, more than likely contributed to Jackson’s state of mind. As poor as this movie is, it undoubtedly will provide people with that last peek behind the curtain, giving them what they think is insight into the man and his incredible talents. But it is a creeptastic cash grab and there is no other way to say that. And it was only the advance man, because in a matter of months there’ll be a parade of books, tributes, documentaries and more. As someone who loves Michael Jackson’s music I can’t deny that I’d love to know more about him (come on people, we all watched that made-for-TV mini series about the Jacksons from the 90s), but I think there will never be a clear, definitive picture of him. That’s why I’ll stick to the albums and music videos on YouTube.”

Soul Power

VPJ: “Now here’s some musical exploitation I can fully get behind! Remember the awesome-looking music festival playing in snatches behind the action in the equally-awesome Mohammed Ali- George Foreman documentary ‘When We Were Kings?’ Well this is the companion documentary where that musical extravaganza (co-created by co-champion creepy guys Don King and Zaire’s dictator Mobutu) featuring performances from James Brown, BB King, The Spinners, Bill Withers, Celia Cruz and more takes center stage. Sure, it’s a little rough, and the African musicians on the bill get short shrift, but it was clearly a labor of love from the filmmakers and there’s some great stuff here.”

JE: “So, so, so very funky. I am a sucker for old school music documentaries or performance flicks like ‘Wattstax’ and ‘The Song Remains the Same.’ I could watch these for hours on end. It helps of course that it’s often music I love. What makes this a remarkable documentary and not just a performance pic, is all the behind the scenes wrangling and anxiety that led up to the event. If putting together the Rumble in the Jungle was an epic task, seeing to it that a handful of America’s most dynamic performers get to Zaire on time must have felt like moving a mountain. It’s movies like this that just make you feel a little electric when watching a documentary, largely because of the fact that this was footage that the crew sat on for years. Can you imagine if no one ever proposed giving it new life and putting together a film? It makes you wonder how many other people out there are sitting on ridiculous footage from concerts and festivals. Rent this.”

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell

VPJ: “Ever heard of Tucker Max? No? Well, that’s probably for the best. A lousy writer and a seemingly hateful little toad, Max is a shockingly-successful blogger (and NYT best selling author?!) who turned his sexist, juvenile scribblings into a thinly-fictionalized novel (about some hateful creeps going to a bachelor party at a strip club) and now into this film which is – surprise! – hateful, juvenile, sexist, and badly-written. Glib, snarky, woefully-shot and acted, and willfully-misogynist and awful, this movie is tailor-made for the date rapist fratboy on your shopping list. Enjoy!”

JE: “Can I just go on the record for one quick second with what I feel is my duty as a writer: How the HELL does this repugnant scum trader get book and movie deals, and I don’t? Do I need to sellout completely? Do I need to give up on my morals? Seriously, is there just something wrong with the entertainment industry in this country, or is it me? Even as a flop of a movie, it’s still a movie, and a paycheck. End Rant. ANYWAY, onto the review: Oh, what’s that, you have taste, self-resepct and a shred of decency America? Well-done. Then this is not for you. Well, most of you. For the 1.3 percent of the population that considers this their cup of Miller Light, well, just stay in the shadows until we’re looking away and then rent this thing. And guess what? Even you’ll feel embarrassed about renting it! You’ll discover an oily, stomach-churning sensation followed by chills and vomiting. It’s your soul, trying desperately to escape. Let it. Next time just watch a snuff film.”

Whip It

VPJ: “Drew Barrymore directs this girl-power-through-sports roller derby flick, which Videoport has stocked up on in a big way, at least partly due to the popularity of the Maine Roller Derby (at least two of whose members Killer Quick and Punchy O’Guts are Videoport members). Haven’t seen it yet, but Videoport’s JackieO (a huge MRD fan) says, ‘It was actually pretty good, although the sheer number of uncalled fouls was very unrealistic.’ Co-starring some cool tough chicks like Kristin Wiig, Zoe Bell, Alia Shawkat, Barrymore herself, and Eve. Also, that girl from Juno.”

JE: “Chick-fight! Chick-fight! CHICK-FIGHT! Ah-WOOOOOOOOO! Sorry, I was still stuck in the Tucker Max zone. Never let me fall there again Jonesy. Please. Ah yes, ‘Whip It.’ For fear of running afoul of the MRD, I will have nothing but praise for this fine, female-powered flick. They’re like the lady mob, utter a bad word and a skate with a note attached to it comes flying through your window. Part small-town escape, part coming-of-age, part ‘Kansas City Bomber,’ ‘Whip It’ may qualify as ‘cute,’ (i.e., parents it’s OK to let the kids see it) plus it features two ladies I think are funny and a little underrated, Ms. Ellen Page and Ms. Alia ‘Maeby Funke’ Shawkat. If we could get them in some sort of buddy movie along the lines of ‘Superbad,’ I would very much appreciate that.”

Little Ashes

VPJ: “I know – lets make a movie about the friendship and contentious artistic relationship among semi-legendary artists Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel, and Frederico Garcia Lorca! Well, I dunno…it doesn’t sound very commercial… Well, why don’t we get that little guy from the teen vampire movie to play Dali! Um, won’t people just point at him and laugh? Who cares, we’ll have their money by then! (A brief playlet outlining the birth of ‘Little Ashes.’) Well, he doesn’t exactly embarrass himself, does Robert Pattinson, but this strikes me as one of those ‘my agent thinks I need to broaden my appeal to make people take me seriously’ projects which makes people take an actor actually less seriously. It happened (before Scorcese resurrected him) to Leonardo DiCaprio when he played poet Arthur Rimbaud in 1995’s misbegotten ‘Total Eclipse,’ and it happens here, with the teen hunklet sporting Dali’s signature kooky mustache with all the authority of a kid in a Groucho nose. Oh, and please feel free to rent Luis Bunuel’s actual (brilliant, maddening) films; we’ve got ’em all at Videoport.”

JE: “Salvador Dali was a vampire? Seriously? Cause that would explain a lot. Look, let’s be honest, I have nothing to add here because I got no time for the hunklet of the moment and I always paid more attention to Dutch painters in art history class. But since it’s your birthday I thought I’d just throw in this quote, which I think sums up Mr. Pattinson: ‘Angel’s lame. His hair goes straight up, and he’s bloody stupid.’ Happy birthday old chum.”

LIGHTENING ROUND! And the rest: The Boys Are Back (Clive Owen stars in this weepie about a sportswriter dad turned single father after something horrible happens; directed by the guy who did “Shine”), Act of God (An oddball documentary explores the experiences of several people who have been struck by lightning, including some who feel that God had something to do with it. Presumably because they were saying something like, “…and may God strike me dead if…” at the time), St. Trinian’s (A wacky British comedy about an all-girls school’s students’ attempts to save the place from closing down), Outrage (Documentarian Kirby Dick, “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” brings his tenacious investigative method – some might call it stalking – to this film exposing gay-bashing, conservative Republican politicians who are, shocker!, secretly-gay, self-hating hypocrites!)

PARTING SHOTS!

– Seen a science fiction movie recently that doesn’t pass Justin’s “splody-McSex-chase” test?

– Is “Michael Jackson: This Is It” a worthy tribute or creeptastic cash-grab?

– Would you rather watch ‘I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell,” or the Maine Roller Derby hunt Tucker Max for sport?

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Published in: on January 27, 2010 at 8:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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