Thursday, December 29, 2005

Not Coming to a Theatre Near Me

Some of my friends, aquaintances and frequent readers think that I see every movie that comes out--or that I want to.

Not true. Every year, just as there are movies I simply have to see, there are movies that provoke my gag reflex and, when I see the preview, I say, "Aw, hells no!"

Here are just a few of the films I decided I could live without in 2005:

Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith--When I first saw the original Star Wars on the big screen back in 1977, I loved it for what it was: a popcorn-chompin', bubblegum-poppin' whiz-bang of a movie. That was, of course, before it became the cornerstone of a "mythology" that would spawn five more movies feeding a fanbase with a devotion of frightening proportions. I liked The Empire Strikes Back, even though I yelled at the screen when it didn't actually come to an end, but just...stopped: " mean I have to wait three more years to find out how this fucker ends?" Yes, I did. And what did I get for my wait? Revenge, Return of the Jedi--or, as I not-so-affectionately call it, "Muppets in Space." When George Lucas revived the series with three prequels designed to tell the story of how we got to the events of that first movie, I declared The Phantom Menace to be "the best-looking bad movie I've ever seen." That was, of course, until I saw Attack of the Clones, which was even worse (in spite of the presence of the awesome Christopher Lee) due to leaden storytelling and acting so awful that to call it wooden would be to insult wood. So when Revenge of the Sith, the last movie in the series, was released earlier this year, in spite of some positive reviews and friends who kept asking me, "So, have you seen it yet?" there was no way in hell I was giving George Lucas even one more penny of my money--he'd long since scorched away every last molecule of my good will for him. And with so many other movies out there, why wait in a line snaking around the block for a movie I didn't want to see?

War of the Worlds--I wanted to see this. I really did. It was a Steven Spielberg movie, which meant it would be well crafted, if nothing else, and even though I wasn't a big Tom Cruise fan, his presence in Spielberg's Minority Report didn't hurt that movie. So I was willing. And able. But then? Cruise. Would. Not. Shut. Up. He bounced on Oprah's couch like a kid who'd just downed a candy aisle's worth of Three Musketeer bars. He attacked Brooke Shields and her book, Down Came the Rain, which detailed her struggle with postpartum depression and the treatment she received for it, antidepressants and therapy. He was condescending and belligerent in a highly contentious interview in which Cruise told Matt Lauer, "You don't know the history of psychiatry--I do" and calling Lauer "glib." (I wish Lauer had had the presence of mind to ask Cruise which books he'd read about "the history of psychiarty"; I'll bet every dollar in my wallet--which, granted, isn't much--that they were approved by, if not actually published by, the Church of Scientology, and thus probably not the most objective texts one could study.) And he and his Stepford-Wife-to-be, Katie Holmes, jammed their relationship and her pregnancy and lovelovelovelovebarflovelove down our collective throat, so when War of the Worlds finally hit theatres, the idea of sitting through a two-hour long movie with Tom Cruise in virtually every scene was about as appealing as emptying a nailgun into my feet--which is about what it would have taken to get me to stay in a theatre where War of the Worlds was playing.

The Dukes of Hazzard--Though I will confess that I watched this show as a teenager and had a world-class crush on Catherine Bach's fine, fine ass, I refused to see this movie, even though I think Jessica Simpson is adorable. (Jessica? When you're done divorcing Nick, give me a call!) For every movie adapted from a TV show that's a success--Star Trek, The Blues Brothers, Charlie's Angels, The Brady Bunch--there are ten that fail horribly--McHale's Navy, The Honeymooners, Car 54, Where Are You?. And this show wasn't good to begin with. Also? It made me sad that Burt Reynolds, who helped inspire the original series with his Smokey and the Bandit movies, was reduced to playing Boss Hogg in this big-screen remake. That's gotta be a career low.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin--There is nothing wrong with displaying action figures in your living room. Nothing.

Aeon Flux--Turning cartoons into live-action movies has never been a good idea. (Anybody remember Popeye? How 'bout The Flintstones? Or Scooby-Doo?) So it's a bit of a mystery as to why anyone would bother making a live-action version of Aeon Flux, an avant-garde animated series that aired on MTV a decade ago. It's even more of a mystery why Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron would star in a movie that required her to wear a skin-tight leather outfit (not that she didn't look fabulous on the posters). Did she learn nothing from Halle Berry's disasterous turn in Catwoman? Obviously not--Aeon Flux wasn't previewed for critics, was mostly dismissed when they did get around to seeing it (although The Onion gave it a positive notice, but was much more enthusiastic about the original series being released on DVD), and has just about vanished from theatres.

Fun with Dick and Jane--I've seen enough crap remakes this year. The thought of seeing yet another crap remake, this time starring Jim Carrey, is enough to make me want to go on retreat to the Scientology Celebrity Center (hey, that's what they call it) with Tom and Katie. (Except...not.)

I hope that 2006 is a much better year all the way around, of course--having a job, spending even more time with loved ones, finding somebody to pay me to write this nonsense--but in this context, I hope 2006 has fewer remakes and sequels, and more movies I will want to run out and spend my available dollars on--not run in the opposite direction from.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Popcorn Kernals 2005

When I revived this site at the beginning of this year, my first entry back covered all of the movies I saw on the big screen in 2004 (even though I managed to forget a couple--woopsie). So it seemed like a good idea to end the year with an entry covering the cinematic treasures and atrocities I bore witness to in 2005.

There isn't as much to write about this year--partly because I didn't see as many movies this year, partly since I was let go from my job back in August, also because wrote more full reviews of new movies I saw than ever before. Some of them were good, like Batman Begins and Walk the Line; some of them were bad, like the remakes of The Fog and The Amityville Horror; and some more landed somewhere in between, like Frank Miller's Sin City and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I may yet catch a movie or two before this year officially ends on Saturday, and I'll probably get one or two more updates--most likely looking back on this broke-ass year in one way or another--up before then, but here are the movies that, for one reason or another, I never got around to writing reviews for:

Million Dollar Baby--The somber, shadow-filled cinematography by Tom Stern (who handled the same duties for Clint Eastwood on Mystic River and Blood Work, and has worked on Eastwoods movies in one capacity or another for more than 20 years) makes this a gorgeous film to look at, with outstanding performances from Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, both of whom deserved their Academy Awards. Too bad once this movie reveals its "big twist" (which most of you probably know by now, but on the off chance some of you don't, I won't tip it here), it becomes predictable, illogical and very aggravating. Just goes to show how a good movie can be almost entirely ruined by a bad ending--you remember the last taste in your mouth, and when it's a bad one, you forget all of the good ones before it.

The Ring Two--Sequels are tricky things, to be sure, but when you snag the screenwriter (Ehren Kruger) and star (Naomi Watts) of the previous film, an Oscar-winning actress slipping in a cameo (Sissy Spacek?) and the director (Hideo Nakata) of Ringu, the Japanese movie The Ring was based on, your expectations are reasonably high. Instead? You get a story not about a creepy ghost girl, but possession of the creepy little boy--kind of like Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (you know, the one everyone tries to forget?) with lots more water. And what the fuck was up with the deer? Were they pissed off about the basement full of antlers?

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room--Want to get seriously angry at corporate America? Watch this movie. The suits running Enron screwed the public in general, and their workers in particular, exorting them to continue buying stock in the company even as the house of cards was starting to fall. Those workers all lost their pensions, while Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling (brother of WGN weather god Tom Skilling) are still multimillionaires and have pleaded not guilty to all charges. And even if they go to prison, they'll be better off than the many thousands of people who put their faith in them.

House of Wax--Not so much a remake of the 1953 fan favorite starring Vincent Price (itself a remake of 1933's Mystery of the Wax Museum) as a retelling of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with a wax museum motif, this wasn't as bad as you'd expect, even with a cast mostly made up of pretty, pretty faces from TV shows, perhaps because of the oddly poetic touches sprinkled throughout, like a cigrette stubbed out on the staircase of a church where many more cigarette butts still linger, underscoring how many times this man has killed; or a tear streaming down the cheek of a victim enbalmed in wax. And arguably the most sympathetic/intelligent character in the movie is played by...Paris Hilton? Nope. Didn't see that one coming, either.

Cursed--Okay, I must admit it: this one was my suggestion to the group. I thought, "It's from Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson, who made Scream, and it stars Christina Ricci--how bad can it be?" The answer? There were reasons why it sat on a shelf for a couple of years and wasn't previewed for critics: it was Bad. With a capital "B." Bad script. Badly CGI'd werewolves. Bad continuity due to its much-delayed release (Ricci's character works for The Late Late Show with Craig Kilbourn--even though Kilbourn had left the show by the time the movie finally made theaters). Bad weight loss by Ricci, who now looks like a Bobblehead. Bad all the way around.

The Thin Man--Ah, for the days when movie characters could drink and smoke and be witty. The murder mystery doesn't matter a damn--it's the chemistry and banter between William Powell and Myrna Loy that makes this a classic. And there's nothing better than seeing a classic black-and-white film in a vintage movie house like the Music Box.

Fantastic Four--A sloppy, inconsistent, lumbering mess that nonetheless has entertaining aspects, like Chris Evans's cockiness as the Human Torch, Michael Chiklis's ability to give a touching performance as the Thing while under lots of foam rubber, and the presence of Jessica Alba in a form-fitting jump suit. It did very well at the box office, though, so expect a sequel in a couple of years.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe--This year's winner for the longest, most ungainly title is also the winner of the "Most Likely Franchise in the Making" award. You knew that, with the massive success of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies, somebody would get around to C.S. Lewis's beloved series of fantasy novels. Fortunately, director Andrew Adamson (who co-directed both Shrek films) and everyone else involved do a first-class job job of adapting Lewis's prose without losing either the excitement of the narrative or the Christian allegories embedded within it, but also without proselytizing. The result is a fine adventure yarn that makes me look forward to the second movie in the series. And if I'm wrong for thinking Tilda Swinton is dead-sexy as the White Witch, I don't want to be right.

King Kong--Peter Jackson's respectful and respectible remake holds close to the storyline of the 1933 original while adopting the closer relationship between Kong and the blonde he fatally falls for from the painfully bad 1976 remake (which had an exquiste Jessica Lange and Charles Grodin getting stomped like a grape and nothing but nothing else to recommend it). Too bad nobody could explain to Mr. Jackson that his remake would have been a better film if somebody else--anybody else--could have made the editorial decisions on the movie. Jackson's Kong looks great (the skies looked like they drifted in from a Maxfield Parrish painting) and is more faithful than one could have hoped (even returning a squick-inducing scene in a pit that had been cut from the original), but he clearly couldn't bear to take much out of his baby, so what should have been a two-hour thrill ride is a three-hour endurance test almost twice the length of the original. If a scene took five minutes in the 1933 Kong, it takes ten minutes here.

Brokeback Mountain--A tragic love story, controvesial because it happens between two cowboys (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall), even though homoeroticism has long been a subtext in westerns, like Red River and The Wild Bunch, and is made text here. But it's not so much about societal pressure keeping these men apart (although that's certainly addressed) as much as it's about how one of them men wants to take the risk of comitting to both the man he loves and to his sexuality, but the other can't or won't. Also, as Ann Marie points out on her LiveJournal, this story is as much a tragedy for the women who marry them (Michelle Williams and Ann Hathaway, both of whom show more depth and subtlety than Dawson's Creek or The Princess Dairies might have suggested). They marry and have children with these men, whom they reasonably assume are dedicated and faithful and interested in women, only to be wounded deeply when they find out how just wrong they are. It's a tragedy for everyone involved, wrought by decisions made and not made--one that's worth going out of your way to see.

So there they are--the movies I saw this year. There were other movies, though, that I studiously avoided seeing. More on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

"O Holiday Tree, O Holiday Tree..."

Last week, one of my regular readers--yes, I have more than one, smartass--asked me whether or not I intended to say anything here about the controversy over whether to say "Holiday Tree" or "Christmas Tree"--a controversy fueled by the tree at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., which, apparently, had been known as a "Holiday Tree" for the past few years, but was re-renamed a "Christmas Tree" this year (even though I didn't know its name had been changed to "Holiday Tree" in the first place).

Honestly? It hadn't even occurred to me to address the controversy here. After all, as I've mentioned here before, I haven't put up a tree for the past couple of years, though I have decorated La Casa del Terror a bit, with a plush Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a small white bear in a red cap (which I truly don't remember ever buying or finding or getting as a present--maybe Santa dropped him off last year?), Christmas Cthulhu (bringing "tidings of despair) and, most appropriately for me, the Grinch, all lined up on the edge of one of the loveseats.

I've also got scented candles here and there--Cinnamon for the living room, Vanilla Sugar Cookie for the bathroom, Pine for the kitchen--and my oldest, most treasured ornament, Angelique, sits atop the living room lamp. Seeing her looking down on me almost pushes my worries to the back of my mind and out of my heart for a while. Almost.

But when I did put up a tree--whether one of the faux evergreens bought at a long-closed Goldblatts or the aluminum job I picked up at a now-defunct resale shop in Wicker Park, I didn't call it anything but what it was: A Christmas tree.

I understand the need to say "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" rather than "Merry Christmas" in advertisements and on cards, because not everyone celebrates the birthday of Jesus, who probably wasn't even born in wintertime (the Bible makes no mention of what time of year it is). Some friends light candles for Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, while others dance naked to herald the arrival of the Winter Solstice, and still others could not possibly care less about any of it. And I noted that George W. Bush took flak from the right wing of his own party (not for the first time this year) because the cards sent out by the White House didn't mention Christmas specifically, but put forth a more generic message--as if all the Jews, Muslims, Hindus and everyone on the President's mailing list who isn't a Christian should just suck it up and deal.

But to me, an evergreen with tinsel and beads and ornaments and lights and stars is a Christmas tree. It's specific to one holiday, to one segment of the world population inclined toward religion, even though many agnostics (like myself) and even a few athiests exchange gifts and good wishes sometime around the end of December. And it's not like that tree at the Capitol Building is is covered with Stars of David and colored glass ornaments celebrating the Seven Guiding Principles; there's nothing about it that makes it multicultural. It's a Christmas tree, an evergreen meant to represent and celebrate the everlasting of "our savior"--a tradition we appropriated from the British, who copped it from the Germans in the 19th century, who nicked it from the pagans, who associated it with rebirth and immortality.

Calling it a "Holiday Tree" rather than a "Christmas Tree" makes as much sense as calling a menorah a "Holiday Candle Holder." So unless you're a pagan who's pissed off about all the Christians who've ripped off your fertility bush, you don't have much to bitch about.

But whatever you choose to call your tree--if you have any kind of decorated tree at all--I hope this season, no matter what you call it or how you celebrate it, brings you much joy, warmth and happiness.