April 27, 2007

Movie Review: The Invisible

Posted in Movies at 10:01 pm by Calico Jack

It’s always a bad sign for a film when its distributor refuses to screen it for critics. This practice has become increasingly common as studios hope to stave off a wave of bad reviews opening weekend, thereby maximizing profits — at least, until word-of-mouth spreads and audiences abandon the film in droves. However, there have been a few films released over the past several years which would have been well-received critically had there been pre-screenings available.

The Invisible is not one of them. Although blessed with a strong cast pedigree (on paper, at least) and a gifted writer moonlighting as director, The Invisible is little more than a Life-Affirming Lesson for sullen emo kids who enjoy staying cooped up in their rooms all day, listening to the Bravery (excuse me while I stick pins in my eardrums) and writing sappy, narcissistic posts on their LiveJournals. What could have been an intriguing murder mystery with a fascinating concept quickly dissolves into an overwrought, emotionally strained picture which strikes false notes at nearly every opportunity.

Justin Chatwin, best known for his starring role in the painfully annoying The Chumscrubber, does little here to expand his acting range beyond two expressions worn throughout the entire film: “Life sucks and I’m mad at the world” and “Why isn’t anyone listening to me!” As Nick Powell, a ridiculously rich high school senior with a long-dead father and an emotionally absent mother (played with Razzie-worthy woodenness by Marcia Gay Harden), Nick is one of those kids who has everything going for him: intelligence, good looks, piles of money and the interest of the School Hottie. So naturally, of course, he spends his days withdrawn and sullen, hating the world and everything within. He spends much of his free time writing papers for fellow students and helping them cheat on exams for money, something which he surely has no need of.

After a supposed friend frames Nick for the cops’ busting of school delinquent Annie (job description: thief, bully and tough chick with a latent heart of gold), Annie and her stoner posse ambush Nick one night on his way home from a Hollywood Party — so-called because of its abundance of good-looking guys and girls splashing around in a pool and drinking beer. Nick is brutally attacked and left for dead in the woods, yet the next morning he appears at his high school looking none the worse for wear. Everything seems normal, until his half-hearted answer to a teacher’s question is completely ignored. No one in his class can hear or even see him; and with a sudden flash of Movie Insight, Nick realizes that he is actually dead — his body is still lying in a sewer somewhere back in the forest.

Nick isn’t truly dead, of course, or else this would be an awful copy of The Sixth Sense. At least audiences can breathe a sigh of relief and appreciate The Invisible‘s wretchedness on its own terms: Nick is merely dying, and he has only a few days to get the attention of someone, anyone to find his body and bring him back to life.

No, wait…are you sure?

Oh, right, sorry — I didn’t mean anyone. Apparently the only person who can save Nick from death is Annie (Margarita Levieva), the same girl who kicked his head against a rock.

And why is she the only person?

No idea.

Okay, how exactly can she save him?

I don’t have the slightest idea — and I saw the movie.

The Invisible makes the first of many missteps by having Nick be a self-absorbed rich kid with no interests outside of himself and few true friends. The audience is supposed to empathize with Nick and his struggles, yet I’m left wondering why exactly I should care about a whiny brat who goes through life masquerading as Captain Sullen. Unlike Shia LaBeouf’s character from Disturbia, Nick has absolutely no reason to hate the world. And once he finds out about his impending death, he acts in the stupidest way imaginable, following people for absolutely no reason and randomly yelling at them in a futile attempt to get their attention.

It is rather hard to believe, but Marcia Gay Harden is the weakest link in the entire movie — and that is saying quite a bit. She is supposed to play a grieving mother valiantly attempting to keep a straight face, but Harden gives a one-note performance: all stoicism, with no hint of the raw emotion supposedly bubbling beneath the surface. Her character is fashioned from a block of wood, and Harden embraces that description with gusto. Other actresses have done a marvelous job of balancing duty and grief (Helen Mirren in The Queen is a recent example), but having two dimensions is just a little bit out of reach for Harden. As a result, all of her scenes lack emotional resonance, a fatal flaw considering the amount of screen time she receives.

The two previous examples are only scratching the surface of the problems with The Invisible. I could go on about the inconsistency of Annie’s character, and the laughably gauche way in which the movie decides to show her transformation from Witch to Princess (hint: it involves a beanie). I could describe the abundant plot holes and the presence of the always annoying Idiotic Cop Syndrome, or ridicule the Tearjerker Ending™. But why waste the reader’s time? The Invisible will surely find some fans amongst disaffected youth; but for the rest of us, it’s a gloomy exercise in inspidity.


April 21, 2007

Memoir ’44

Posted in Games at 11:57 pm by Calico Jack

My brother recently purchased Memoir ’44, and since I’m a big fan of Battlelore I agreed to give his new game a shot. We started out by playing the Sword Beach D-Day invasion of June 6th. My brother, after assigning me to play the Axis, assured me that this was a balanced scenario; but after setting up our infantry, armored units and artillery I wasn’t so sure. Yes, I had several squads of men embedded in bunkers, ready to repel any invading forces the Allies could muster against me. But my rearguard units were rather thinned out, and my only armored unit was surrounded on all sides by forests and a small village, the Riva Bella. So much for bringing the weight of German mechanized forces to bear early in the battle. Facing three Allied armored units and several special forces brigades didn’t do much to ease my fears that this would be a slaughter.

The Allied commander launched his attack with a heavy offensive by moving four of his infantry units onto the beach and into hedgehogs. Fortunately, they were too far away to effectively attack my forces, giving me a small window of time to marshal my defenses before I was overrun. My bunker squads were able to pick off a few of the invaders, but little damage was done otherwise.

The enemy became rather upset at my early initiative, and decided to launch his most powerful weapon against me — he called in an air strike. Bombs exploded all around the beachfront, and several of my squads lost half of their soldiers. It was a defensive catastrophe, but I could still attack with full strength. It was time for payback.

Unfortunately, my options at the time were rather limited. I knew that if I didn’t bring reinforcements to the front soon, my bunkers would be overrun with hordes of Allied soldiers. I sent an order to my lone armored unit to begin its slow march forward through the forest, and commanded a solitary infantry unit to provide backup for my increasingly desperate bunker squads. If only I could lure the Allies into coming within range of my two powerful artillery cannon…

The Allies were rather leery of my defensive centerpiece, and refused to give me the opportunity to demolish their forces. Instead, they swarmed onto the beach from all sides and took up positions behind barbed wire. One volley of rifle fire killed everyone in one of my bunkers. Battle lines had been drawn across the beach, and close-range attacks were going to inflict heavy casualties on both sides.

I needed to keep the Allies from reaching my towns, so I dug into the positions I already held, building rows of sandbags to further protect my troops from damage while giving them clear lines of fire to Allied forces. Two infantry squads launched a simultaneous attack against an Allied infantry unit, ripping it to shreds and leaving no survivors. The Axis forces were holding their ground against a massive Allied advance — something that seemed impossible only a few short minutes earlier.

© Days of Wonder

Flustered, the Allied commander made a grave mistake: he kept his British commandos in troop landers at the beach instead of bringing them up to the front lines as reinforcements. Four Allied tanks rolled forward to destroy the barbed wire that was holding their beleaguered infantry back, but fortunately my bunker squad was able to protect themselves from being overrun.

Now that the Allied tanks had joined the front lines, my artillery could finally go to work. Two thunderous booms shook the ground, and within a second or two an entire armored unit had been ravaged beyond description. Cheered by this heartening sight, the bunker squad launched a volley against a small Allied unit, pouring bullets into the enemy until no movement was seen.

The Allies had been severely shaken by the utter destruction of a full-strength armored unit. For the first time, their commander realized that perhaps he would be unable to reach the quiet French towns needed to achieve his objective. He ordered several units to take out my last infantry bunker, and this time my forces were unable to repel the advance. The Allies now had a clear shot to the town of Lion sur Mer, but they still faced an embedded artillery unit eagerly awaiting its chance to rain fire on anything that dared venture too close. With his attention on the cannon in front of him, the Allied commander missed my secret weapon that I was now ready to launch…

My lone armored unit had been making its way through the trees for quite a while, but was unable to advance any farther than the edge of the forest. Now, however, I could take full advantage of its long range. Gleefully, I ordered the tanks to move forward at full speed. They roared onto the beach and ground to a halt right in front of a half-strength Allied infantry unit.

As soon as he saw the sneak attack, my opponent hung his head in defeat. He could barely watch as my tanks fired at point-blank range into a ragged group of undefended soldiers. This display of carnage terrified many Allied soldiers, and one by one they threw down their weapons and surrendered.

The Axis forces had successfully repelled the invasion of Sword Beach. But there was no time for celebrating victory — much havoc was still raging up and down the coast. The Battle of Normandy was far from over…

April 20, 2007

Movie Review: Hot Fuzz

Posted in Movies at 11:50 pm by Calico Jack

Too many comedies today go for the cheap and easy laughs instead of working hard to build up a joke with a much bigger payoff for the audience. Hot Fuzz, from the team that created the critically-acclaimed Shaun of the Dead, is essentially a movie-length version of a joke that spends its first two-thirds leading up to one gigantically hilarious third act. This isn’t a slight against the film at all, because Hot Fuzz has both a coherent plot (albeit ridiculous) and more laughs per minute than any film released in the past four or five years — and I’m including Borat.

Simon Pegg plays Sergeant Nicholas Angel, a highly skilled Metropolitan Police officer who hasn’t yet met a record he can’t break, much to the underachieving embarrassment of his coworkers and superiors. In order to save the Force’s reputation, Angel is transferred to the sleepy countryside village of Sandford, where escaping swans and neighboring farmers fighting over hedges are the most he has to worry about. Due to the lack of crime in Sandford the small police force has whittled away its skills and now acts as a rather incompetent unit, most shown in Angel’s new partner Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), son of the Sandford police chief and action movie buff who must bring treats for the department every time he arrives at the police station drunk. Angel and Butterman’s relationship starts off rather prickly, but when a number of townspeople fall prey to a series of gruesome accidents, Angel enlists Butterman’s help to determine if these accidents could really be the work of a serial killer.

That’s the plot in a nutshell — anything more would ruin too much of the story. Hot Fuzz is neither a buddy cop movie nor a satire of one; instead, it falls somewhere in between. Shaun of the Dead spoofed zombie flicks and British pub culture while throwing in serious drama, but Hot Fuzz takes more of a lighthearted tone throughout while never degenerating into parody. What it does do, however, is poke fun at all of the excesses so often seen in action dramas, from the over-the-top shootouts to the pretentious speeches given by the criminal masterminds after they have trapped the hero in an impossible situation. Every scene in Hot Fuzz pays hilarious homage to some action movie cliché, yet ironically enough, the plot is far better than the movies it pays tribute to.

However strong the story may be, what really holds Hot Fuzz together it its sense of humor. Every single scene induces at least a grin, if not an outright laugh. Director Edgar Wright has a perfect sense of comedic timing: punchlines come at exactly the right moment, and few jokes ever seem forced or drawn out. Even Borat, which was the funniest movie of 2006, ran too long in some of its sketches; Hot Fuzz does no such thing. However, there are no rolling-on-the-floor scenes, just a consistently high level of humor throughout. The one potential flaw that Hot Fuzz has is that the first hour or so of the film is pretty much devoid of the “action” part of “action comedy.” Because Hot Fuzz has a plot, it takes the time to set everything up properly…but when it does kick into high gear, the results are unbelievable.

Hot Fuzz is the early lead for funniest film of 2007, and it may well end up on my top-10 list for the year. There are so many asides and subtle jokes that it would well reward a repeat viewing. Few movies are able to keep their audience laughing as much as this one, and I hope that American audiences embrace Hot Fuzz. British humor can be a tough sell on this side of the pond, but Hot Fuzz‘s humor is broad enough that us Yanks will get the vast majority of jokes — which makes it ten times funnier than most American comedies.


April 13, 2007

Movie Review: Disturbia

Posted in Movies at 10:34 pm by Calico Jack

When I was a kid, my brothers and I used to perch ourselves in the branches of our front-yard juniper tree. Safely hidden from wandering eyes, we would peer at our street through our binoculars and spy on our neighbors’ activities. The brother and sister across the street whose parents pushed them to practice their tennis skills until late in the afternoon; the slightly mysterious older couple who had cars pulling in and out of their driveway at odd hours of the night; the awfully cute girl two doors down with an interest in skateboarding — we watched everybody through the branches of that juniper tree.

But what if one of our neighbors had turned out to be a killer? That is the premise of Disturbia, a teen-oriented thriller directed surprisingly well by D.J. Caruso, who keeps the story briskly focused and never stretches audience incredulity too far. Shia LaBeouf plays Kale, an apathetic juvenile delinquent still suffering from a family tragedy a year prior. After assaulting a teacher who rudely references that tragedy, Kale is sentenced to three months’ house arrest: his entire summer will be spent in the hundred-foot radius of a house monitor. Cross that invisible line, and he will have the cops at his doorstep in short order.

After running through most of his entertainment activities in a single day, Kale enlists the help of his wisecracking best friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) to watch the goings-on of their quiet suburban street. The boys quickly realize that there is more than meets the eye, especially with Kale’s neighbor Mr. Turner (David Morse), a reclusive man who seems to fit the profile of a suspected killer. Unfortunately for the boys’ fledgling detective skills, distraction soon arrives in the shape of new neighbor Ashley (Sarah Roemer), a flirty and sexy archetypal girl next door who seems to enjoy doing little more than swimming in her backyard pool, shopping in her BMW, and doing all of the other things that every teenage boy wishes the cute girl on his street would do. Nevertheless, Ashley soon becomes the second recruit in Kale’s spying posse; and the three teenagers set up a rather impressive surveillance system. What exactly is Mr. Turner doing in his house, and how can Kale prove that he’s living next door to a murderer when he can’t cross his front yard?

No one is ever going to claim that Disturbia is an original concept; much of its inspiration comes from Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window. But Disturbia takes what could have been a laughably derivative film and adds enough of its own elements to stand on its own. It also does several things right which many other thrillers (especially those aimed at a younger crowd) do wrong, never realizing that they lose audience believability rather quickly. First, the technology used in Disturbia feels organically authentic. Kale struggles to log into his iTunes account, Ashley uses her cell phone to surreptitiously take pictures of Mr. Turner, and Ronnie carries a video camera with him as he goes out on a reconnaissance mission. The use of real technology, instead of the highly fantasized gadgets that are shown in many movies and TV shows, works well in maintaining plausibility. I practically cheered when Kale was playing his XBox; instead of mashing buttons and twisting his controller like a spastic monkey, he calmly and methodically moved his analog stick and pushed buttons one at a time. Little touches like that are essential for today’s tech-savvy teens, who know exactly how much cell phones and iPods are capable of.

The second thing that Disturbia does well is letting its characters act like teenagers instead of either miniaturized adults or brainless twerps, since writers often have a hard time getting into the teenage mindset. The teens in Disturbia are neither shallow nor unintelligent, and most of the time they actually make sensible, levelheaded decisions instead of falling prey to the Lemming Syndrome. Being teenagers, they are subject to a fair amount of cockiness and belief that they can handle potential problems by themselves; but to the writers’ credit, Kale, Ashley, and Ronnie behave like real teens. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that the three leads are only two or three years older than the characters they portray.

As with most thrillers, there are one or two plot holes, but none are serious enough to warrant an eye-rolling. And while the first two acts of the film are quite engrossing and tightly plotted, the third act starts to unravel a bit under its need to provide the standard thriller fare that had been largely absent in the first hour (much to the film’s credit). Nevertheless, Disturbia is a well-made thriller with more than enough suspense, tension, and even a little bit of humor and romance to hold its audience’s interest. It has been a while since teens have had a decent movie aimed at them, but they should be quite pleased with this one.


April 9, 2007

Jack in the Bathroom

Posted in Health and Fitness at 9:07 pm by Calico Jack

I’ve found it relatively difficult to find decent personal grooming products that aren’t either overloaded with chemicals or smell worse than the inside of a mortuary. Enter Target’s new line called Every Man Jack, which hits stores next week. Every Man Jack products — which include shampoo, body wash, face lotion, pomade, and shaving gel — use natural ingredients instead of chemicals, and come in either mint, tea tree, cedarwood, or fragrance-free scents (which is an oxymoron, I guess.) And best of all, each item costs $4.99 or less. According to Men.Style.com, Every Man Jack aims to be “The H&M of grooming products.” For five bucks, I’ll definitely be picking up the fragrance-free body wash and shaving gel: no more worrying about scents clashing with my cologne. Now if only I could find a good fragrance- and aluminum-free deodorant…

April 6, 2007

Movie Review: Grindhouse

Posted in Movies at 7:49 pm by Calico Jack

You know you’re in for an experience when the pre-film theater credits play upside down and backwards, as if a lazy projectionist attached the reel without looking at which way it went — and at a digital screen theater, no less. Such seemingly accidental goofs set the stage for Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s loving homage to ’70s exploitation films in their double feature Grindhouse. Taken together, the running time for Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Tarantino’s Death Proof hovers somewhere around three hours, but any sense of time is beaten out of the audience’s collective skulls through an on-screen overabundance of exhilarating violence and sleaze. And yes, those words are purposeful.

Rodriguez and Tarantino know exactly which target they’re aiming for in these two pics; and even if they don’t always hit the bulls-eye, they’re close enough to the center to forgive whatever flaws occasionally pop up. These two men have made a film which gleefully recreates a movie experience that no longer occurs in the ultra-comfy, sometimes hushed theaters where everything is supposed to be so new it gleams. The “print” for Grindhouse is full of scratches and rips and even missing reels which perfectly complement the shlocky plots and heavy-handed acting that were a staple of B- movies a few decades prior, and now can be found in A-list pictures throughout the year.

Rodriguez starts things off with Planet Terror, an apocalyptic zombie flick that manages to include every single horror film cliché known to man — and yet on some ridiculous level, it works. Rose McGowan stars as Cherry Darling, a go-go dancer (“not the same thing as a stripper!” she helpfully reminds everyone) in a seedy joint in Texas who gets caught up in an archetypal “government experiment gone wrong” plot. Naveen Andrews of Lost fame plays a scientist who sells biochemical weapons to an Army unit formerly stationed in the Middle East which captured Osama Bin Laden, but was then injected with a zombie drug…is this making any sense to you? It didn’t to me either, but that isn’t really the point of Planet Terror. After meeting her truck-driver-with-a-hidden-past ex-lover (Freddy Rodriguez), Cherry assembles a ragtag group of freedom fighters (Suspicious sheriff? Check. Barbecue joint owner? Check. Hot policewoman with exposed midriff? Check. Sexy doctor with a penchant for needles? Check. And so on…) willing to kill everything in sight in order to escape to some remote region of the world where they can hide out and save the human race. Cherry quickly runs afoul of these soldiers-turned-zombies and loses her leg, which gives Planet Terror its most entertainingly ludicrous plot twist one could imagine: instead of a prosthetic limb, why not attach an assault rifle to the stump for some old-fashioned zombie killing? Like this:

Really, not much more needs to be said about Planet Terror: that picture pretty much sums up what the movie is all about. It’s trash, but it knows it’s trash — and it revels in its own gratuitousness. It’s also far, far more entertaining than it has any right to be. Rodriguez pulls out all of the stops in making a film that never degenerates into outright parody, but has enough self-winking to let the audience know that hey, we’re all along for this ride together.

There is no intermission in Grindhouse; instead, the audience is treated to several faux trailers for more B- movies, from directors Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie and Eli Roth. With such titles as Werewolf Women of the S.S. and Thanksgiving (tagline: “White meat, dark meat: all will be carved!”), the trailers are both hilarious and gruesome; one particular scene elicited horrified gasps from almost everyone in the theater.

Rounding out the second half of the double feature is Tarantino’s Death Proof. Where Rodriguez paid tribute through gritty grandiosity, Tarantino prefers to play his film straight up — and it almost works as a movie in its own right. Instead of jumping into the action, Tarantino has an extended setup as a group of vacationing women in uniformly short shorts sit in a bar and talk about relationships, men and life in general — all in Tarantino’s trademark pop-culture-infused style that starts off strongly, but wears a bit thin before the suspense kicks into high gear. They meet Kurt Russell, an ex-stunt driver named, appropriately enough, Stuntman Mike. He seems charming, but he drives a menacing ex-stunt muscle car –and his real love is death. And what better way is there to celebrate his two passions than by targeting this group of nubile young women with his car? Tarantino knows the audience is anticipating a certain progression of events, but he plays around with the audience’s expectations and delivers a film that builds tension to a climactic road chase that is more exhilarating and thrilling than anything seen on film since Spielberg’s Duel. The last thirty minutes of Death Proof are worth the price of admission alone; everything else that comes before is a bonus.

Grindhouse is most definitely not a movie for everyone. The audience has to be willing to accept a certain set of presuppositions — mainly, that these films are meant as a homage to other movies, and that the purpose of Grindhouse is to give its audience a hefty dose of thrills and excitement, nothing more. It’s impossible to fault Grindhouse for its gaps in logic, plot holes, inconsistencies and hammy acting, because those are all placed quite deliberately; Rodriguez and Tarantino want the audience to notice and laugh along with them. Grindhouse works quite well in recreating a time when movies weren’t run through an endless number of focus groups and marketing committees, but instead were made for the sheer enjoyment of it all. And oh boy, is it ever entertaining.


April 3, 2007

On Procreation

Posted in Politics at 9:50 pm by Calico Jack

Once in a while, I get to read an op-ed which practically shrieks in fright at the perceived troubles — nay, horrors! — at which its author is facing in the world every day. Now, courtesy of the SFGate, Mark Morford tackles that desperately pressing issue which could end civilization as we know it: Even as fewer people identify themselves with the GOP, especially young voters, Republicans are having more babies. Here are several selected histrionic snippets for your reading pleasure:

One theory goes like this: Libs are generally more socially conscious and hence tend to actually give a modicum of thought to what it means to pop out a brood of children in this modern overstuffed age. Also, many other liberal bohos are (admittedly) happy selfish suckwads who want all the modern booty for themselves and won’t want to give up the Ducati and the plasma and the biannual trip to Cinque Terre for the sake of a pod of rug rats and 15 grand a year (each) for private kindergarten. Translation: Libs just aren’t procreating like they could/should be.

Conservative Christians, of course, have no such conscience. Among the right-wing God-lovin’ set, there is often little real awareness of planetary health or resource abuse or the notion that birth control is actually a very, very good idea indeed, and therefore it’s completely natural to worship at the altar of minivans and SUVs and megachurches and massive all-American entitlement and have little qualm about popping out six, seven, 19 gloopy tots to populate the world with frat boys and Ford F-150 buyers and food court managers….

Apparently, according to the research, four out of five kids actually stick with the political affiliation of their parents, generation after generation, with religious conservatives far more unlikely than their liberal brethren to allow their kids to develop the capacity for independent thought (given how it’s so, you know, dangerous to America). Also, one word: homeschooling. I’m just sayin’…

Either we are we headed toward a new dawn full of smart social liberalism, perhaps leading to concomitant ideas of peace and tolerance and a newly evolved American identity, or there is another massive group lurking in the shadows, entirely overlooked by Pew Research, a seething army of religious conservatives who are working like a spiritual STD to force us backward once again, much the way the Bush regime brutally reversed decades of social, environmental, fiscal and international progress and made war and isolationism and megachurch evangelicals the lords of the playground for a shocklingly painful blip of time.

Okay, I’ll grudgingly admit that I laughed rather hard at the article, even as I marveled at the vitriol spewing forth from its “Superiority complex? Who, me?” author. Yet here I am, having been homeschooled all of the way from preschool through my senior year of high school; and with three or four years’ passage of time afterwards, can now look back on my formative years and declare that I am quite capable of analyzing issues carefully and weighing opposing views before coming to my own conclusions — something which, regretfully, many of my peers seem to be incapable of doing. My mom, if asked, can recount thousands of hours spent discussing and debating politics and philosophy and religion with me; and even today there is nothing quite so satisfying as spending an hour with my parents as we tackle all sides of a divisive political issue.

It also strikes me as remarkable that the author’s liberal utopia includes peace, tolerance, and a new American identity; yet he displays a shockingly condescending attitude towards those whose political and religious views differ from his own. There is nothing I despise more than hypocrisy. Is that included in his utopia as well?