Friday, January 30, 2009

My Cheesy Valentine

A favorite word of my dad and I is “psychotronic,” a term that comes from Michael J. Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. Psychotronic, according to that bastion of scholarly integrity known as Wikipedia, means: “a genre made up of horror films, spaghetti westerns, low-budget independent features, exploitation films.” It’s all those rude and crude flicks that played in grindhouses or were discovered by thrill junkie viewers on video cassette (and now DVD). When I saw the trailer for My Bloody Valentine 3D I knew: this is psychotronic. Besides the fact that it’s *a 3D slasher film*, the trailer features the unforgettable tag line “Nothing says ‘date movie’… like a 3D ride to Hell!” So I was game for seeing it, knowing full well that it would be lame-brained and derivative—but hopefully fun. I wasn’t disappointed. My Bloody Valentine is a remake of an 80s slasher film (back when one was released virtually every week) that took its name from yet another holiday It’s hardly considered a classic, but given how many horror remakes (or “reimaginings,” as is now the term de jour), have been big hits lately, it was only a matter of time before this one got its own face lift. Indeed, the only reason it wasn’t released Valentine’s Day weekend is because Michael Bay’s Friday the 13th update comes out that week! The plot, what there is of one, centers on Harmony, “a small town slice of Norman Rockwell” (the screenwriter must’ve stayed up all night coming up with that one) still shaken by a series of brutal murders ten years earlier. See, Harmony’s a mining town, and one Valentine’s Day local Harry Warden, having been in a coma after surviving a deadly mine collapse years earlier (which he did only by slaughtering his fellow miners to preserve oxygen) reawakens. He wipes out the entire hospital staff, then heads back to the mine where a group of teens—including lovers Tom (Jensen Ackles) and Sarah (Jaime King)—are foolishly having a party. He murders most of them in mining gear, pick ax in hand, but Sarah escapes with some friends, while Tom comes within an inch of his life before Warden is shot down by the cops—or is he? A decade later, as we’re reminded on a near constant basis (“ten years ago” is uttered more in this movie than “Valentine’s Day” is), Tom returns to close down the mine left to him by his dead father, while also trying to reconnect with Sarah, now married to Axel (yes, Axel: it’s that kind of a movie). Axel is played, with “ten years later” mustache and hair reminiscent of Jake Gyllenhaal in the later scenes of Brokeback Mountain, by Dawson’s Creek alum Kerr Smith-- clearly not the winner of the post WB Network career sweepstackes. (Michelle Williams is an Oscar nominee. Smith is the irritating star of a 3D slasher remake. Even James Van Der Beek fared better than this.) He and Tom fight over Sarah with such an ardor that you start to wonder if something else is really going on here. (Sexual tension you could cut with a pick ax, perhaps?) Meanwhile, a killer in mining garb is at it again, but is it really Warden—or has someone else picked up his deadly mantle? The resolution came as a mild surprise, in a that-was-a-cheat kind of a way, but then I didn’t really come to this movie expecting startling originality. I wanted 3D blood and gore, and I got them often enough, along with bonuses like at-times howlingly awful dialogue and uniformly bad acting. Ackles’ tank top does more acting here than he does; ditto the rest of the cast, including John Carpenter vet Tom Atkins, who phones in his generic Grizzled Former Cop role like he’s signing DVDs at yet another convention (which I happen to know he does regularly). My favorite scenes were the opening hospital massacre, which is more gruesomely fun than anything that follows (loved the dripping hand hovering in the foreground), a wince-inducing spike-through-the-eye bit (we’re made to share the victim’s here-it-comes POV) and the horrible fate met by a cleaning lady in a dryer mysteriously large enough to house her entire body. (She’s Latina, and a midget also gets rammed into the ceiling, so clearly this movie is an Equal Opportunity Killer.) There’s also an inspired scene with a totally nude woman trying to fight off the killer, ensuring that the audience gets three-dimensional T&A to go with their stalk-‘n-slash. But by the time the 101 minute My Bloody Valentine 3D ends, it feels much too long; the admittedly well done “Real D Technology” has lost its novelty, and we’re reminded that when it comes to great horror, strong writing, direction, and acting are more powerful than a flying pick ax any day of the year.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

So underrated

“Underrated” might be one of my dad’s favorite movie terms. He loves plenty of classic films, like The Godfather or The Shining, but he has a soft spot in his heart for all manner of overlooked or forgotten gems. Here’s my rundown of some favorite underrated movies, including one that will forever be known in the Lockwood house as “the movie Mom made Dad walk out on.”
Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) This oddity from producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill had a lot working against it from the beginning, being a complete departure from the knife-wielding shenanigans of Halloweens I and II. Rather than bring back Michael Myers, who they’d attempted to kill off in II (he’d be resurrected six years later), the creators spun a whole new story in hopes of creating an annual anthology of Halloween related features. No dice: the movie met with lukewarm box office and scathing reviews, and was almost universally reviled by fans. I didn’t like it the first time I saw it, but on the recommendation of my friend Roman (this is actually his favorite of the series) I gave it another look and was pleasantly surprised by how dark, moody, and entertaining it is. Season of the Witch tells the tale of Dan Challis (Tom Atkins), who witnesses a patient’s bizarre death and tries to uncover the mystery behind it. With the deceased’s daughter Ellie at his side, Challis uncovers an unspeakable plot by the head of Silver Shamrock Novelties, a small-town toy company whose Halloween masks are almost as ubiquitous as their annoying commercials. (“Three more days till Halloween, Halloween, Halloween, three more days till Halloween, Silver Shamrock…”) Robots, gore, and a piece of Stone Henge (!) all come into play as our heroes race to save America’s children from a gruesome fate on All Hallow’s Eve. Because it’s written, filmed, and scored by the same team as the first two films, HIII actually feels a lot more like a Halloween movie than most of the subsequent sequels. It’s also intense and frightening, with a completely nihilistic ending that pays homage (like the rest of the movie) to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Two decades later, director Tommy Lee Wallace has reason to feel good about his misunderstood creation: at last fall’s Halloween convention in Pasadena, I was one of many fans who told him how much we love the movie.
Nightbreed (1990) Clive Barker’s follow-up to his Hellraiser movies was this adaptation of his novella Cabal. Reportedly the studio’s misguided attempt to market it as a slasher flick (which it definitely isn’t) contributed to its box office failure, though it seems to have gained newfound appreciation in the years since. Although it’s dark and frightening, Nightbreed is more of a fantasy than a straight-up horror film, with a clever twist: the monsters are the heroes, and the humans “the bad guys.” When troubled Boone (Craig Sheffer) is framed for a series of murders actually perpetrated by his therapist Decker (David Cronenberg, better known as a director but absolutely frightening here), he flees to Midian, a mythical city he’s heard is a haven for misfits and monsters. His arrival is initially met with opposition, though; the vicious Peloquin takes a bite out of his chest! (It was at this point that my mother forced my father to leave, an indignity that he’s never let her live down.) Soon, though, the vividly imagined denizens of Midian accept Boone as their own, and he discovers some beastly powers, too. With the help of faithful girlfriend Lori—who seems to subscribe to the philosophy that it doesn’t matter if a man’s a monster, so long as he’s *your* monster—Boone fends off Decker and the police in their attempt to destroy this secret community. With its saga of authorities persecuting what they don’t understand, Nightbreed works as a queer allegory (Barker is himself gay), but however you read it, this is a compelling and highly stylized adventure with unique characters and a lot of heart.
Loser (2000) Any movie with a title like this is tempting fate, since it’s all too easy for critics to trash it with “witty” puns. It didn’t help that writer-director Amy Heckerling was coming off the universally adored Clueless, a movie so funny and of-the-moment that it spawned its own lexicon. (“As if!”) But while Loser isn’t the equal of that modern classic, it deserved better than the largely scathing reviews it received. Jason Biggs puts his lovable loser persona to great use as Paul, a naïve Midwesterner who comes to New York City for college and gets a hostile reception from virtually everyone he meets. His roommates are hard-partying douche bags, Professor Alcott (a perfectly smarmy Greg Kinnear) is a dick, and even his attempt to give old ladies subway seats are foiled by rude commuters! The sole saving grace is fellow student Dora (Mena Suvari), an artsy chick who’s unbelievably sweet and adorable, yet unaware that she deserves much better than the vain Alcott (with whom she’s having an affair). Of course, we know these two kids are going to end up together, but the fun part is watching their friendship and romance unfold. The appealing leads have great chemistry, and as Paul stands up to the machinations of the roomies and Alcott, we get the satisfaction of watching a likable underdog come out on top. Loser’s attempts to jumpstart its own lingo fell flat (though I still like “skoach”), but it’s a movie worth checking out.
Bully (2001) Director Larry Clark has gotten a lot of flack over the years for his relentlessly downbeat stories and borderline pervy fixation on scantily clad adolescents. Bully certainly fits both assertions, with an attractive cast of barely dressed teenagers caught up in a naïve murder scheme that quickly spirals out of control. (The movie was adapted from Jim Schutze’s gripping Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge.) But while Bully isn’t easy to watch, I’d argue that it’s a fascinating and important look at the dangerous obsessions that pervade youth culture. Nick Stahl and the late, great Brad Renfro star as Bobby and Marty, two life-long “best friends” living in small town Florida. When Marty starts going out with shy, insecure Lisa (Rachel Miner), his new girlfriend soon realizes how physically and emotionally abusive the relationship is, with Bobby dominating and controlling his supposed pal. (He even whores his friend out to older gay men for phone sex and stripping, a subplot inspired by the pair’s real-life exploitation of gays.) After Bobby rapes Lisa’s best friend, she suggests that they kill him, and they enlist an ever-growing number of friends for this hopeless and deadly plot. As the teens joke and laugh about killing Bobby, we’re reminded that they’re just kids—and all too unaware of the very real consequences their actions will have. After Bobby is killed, the group begins to unravel and the weight of their guilt pushes them all towards exposure and persecution. Clark directs this dark drama with a savvy understanding of what drives his over-sexed, underworked protagonists. At one point one of their mothers lambasts them all for their aimless existence, little realizing just how far their “idle pursuits” will go. Great, naturalistic acting from the young cast makes Bully a devastating and affecting cautionary tale for parents and teens alike.
Vanilla Sky (2001) These days, perhaps no other actor is as misunderstood (and underestimated) as Tom Cruise, whose bizarre personal life has overshadowed his once titanic career. The downward slide may’ve begun with this much-maligned Cameron Crowe drama; some viewers were so incensed that theaters offered refunds! I’ll never really understand why so many people trashed or passed over the film; in any case, its melancholy tale of lost love and shattered dreams appealed to my emotional state when it was released (I’d fallen hopelessly for a friend who never reciprocated my feelings). Adapted from the Spanish film Abre Los Ojos, Vanilla Sky tells the story of David Aames, a wealthy playboy whose hedonistic existence is interrupted by the arrival of Sofia (Penelope Cruz, reprising her role from the original film), a beguiling woman for whom he falls in love almost immediately. This doesn’t sit well with Julie (Cameron Diaz), David’s “friend with benefits” who is not-so-secretly in love with him. The day after his magical evening with Sofia, David makes the mistake of accepting a ride from Julie, who drives them both off of a bridge. She dies; his face is horribly mangled. Despite this, David is able to make his relationship with Sofia work; but bizarre and surreal events soon threaten his happiness, forcing him to question the very nature of reality. It’s this trippy aspect that confused and frustrated so many, although to me it was explained sufficiently by the ending (which I won’t reveal here). Then again, I enjoy even the mind-bendingly bizarre works of David Lynch, so I suppose my tolerance for inscrutable weirdness is higher than most. In any case, Vanilla Sky is a fascinating romantic mystery with nuanced performances and a killer soundtrack. It’s also one of my friend Josh’s very favorite films, so I’m not the only one who feels it’s unfairly denigrated.
The Rules of Attraction (2002) The works of Brett Easton Ellis have always been polarizing, inspiring admiration in some and seething protests from others. The gruesome satire American Psycho became a lightning rod for feminists, who felt it’s scenes of rape, torture, and murder celebrated violence against women. In 2000, Mary Harron pulled off the seemingly impossible task of adapting that book to the screen, to widespread acclaim; the time was ripe for another Ellis film, and Roger Avary’s spirited take on The Rules of Attraction was it. But if Psycho’s mix of social parody and bloody murder was off-putting to some, Attraction was even more bedeviling. The film starts with Lauren (Shannyn Sossamyn) getting raped, then goes backward to reveal how she, gay Paul (Ian Somerhalder) and drug-dealing Sean (James Van Der Beek) came together and eventually fell apart. Though the movie is chock full of sex and drugs, the story’s cynical tone negates any potential glamour, and the heart-breaking suicide scene and homoerotic content were sure to repel more mainstream viewers. But for those willing to endure its excesses, Rules is an endlessly engaging, detailed study of aimless youth and its consequences. The talented cast performs with humor and gusto, and Avary has lots of fun with filmmaking techniques, from a tour de force split-screen sequence leading up to Lauren and Sean’s first meeting to a dynamic European vacation montage compiling hundreds of hours of footage into three minutes. For all its darkness, this blackly comic film also includes one moment of pure joy: an inspired bedroom dance between Paul and old lover Richard (Russell Sams) set to George Michael’s “Faith.” That scene alone makes The Rules of Attraction worth checking out.

Twi-Hard With a Vengeance

What follows is an excerpt from Misty Evening, the worldwide bestseller about vampires, and undying love, and shit.


It was dawn, and Belle awoke to the sound of gentle rain tapping at her window. It was always raining in Spoons, the small town where she lived, but she didn’t mind it so much now that she had him. For a moment she thought, again, that she had simply imagined it, that her wondrous time with Edmund had been nothing more than a pleasant and exciting dream. But then she saw him standing there, gazing upon her with his big, expressive eyes, the retinas colored mauve (which she now knew indicated that he was happy, or was it constipated? She couldn’t quite recall) and she knew that it had all been as real as anything. Belle shuddered pleasurably.
“Oh, Edmund,” she sighed. “You didn’t leave me.”
“Of course not,” he replied with a dry chuckle. “Silly girl.”
“So, so silly,” Belle agreed. She frowned. “What are you doing with a silly girl like me, anyway?”
“I already told you,” Edmund said, crouching down beside her bed and stroking her shoulder with his cold, clammy hands (which still managed to make Belle feel warm as fire). “I adore you. You are everything to me, the sun, the moon, and the stars.”
“I know,” Belle said. “I know that you’ve said that before, and that you’ve followed me everywhere for the past eight months and watched me when I didn’t know you were watching—which could be seen as stalker-ish but with you I just think it’s romantic—and that you wrote me that poem, and painted me that mural, and gave me that mix CD…”
“Four mix CDs,” Edmund corrected. “And don’t forget the sonnet I wrote you.”
“Oh, right,” Belle amended. “But still, I just can’t believe that you, who are so gorgeous and magnificent, so strong and alluring, would fall in love with someone as painfully ordinary as me.”
“Shh,” Edmund said. “I want to just smell you for a moment.” He began to inhale deeply as he hovered over Belle’s face, moving down the length of her body gradually and closing his eyes as if to better lose himself in her scent.
“Again, that could be creepy but with you it’s… um, not,” Belle said.
“Shh,” Edmund repeated. “You smell like lilacs. You smell of freshly fallen rain and of… calf brains.”
“What?” Bella asked, looking down.
“It’s a compliment,” Edmund said. “I enjoy slaughtering cows and devouring them alive, remember?”
“Oh, right,” Bella answered. “Of course.” There were times when she forgot that Edmund was more than just a man—albeit a very beautiful and intelligent one with great taste in clothes and a mean two step. He was also an immortal vampire. Who drank blood and stuff.
“Thank you,” Edmund said, evidently done inhaling her aroma. “That was quite wonderful for me. Was it good for you?”
“It was,” Belle answered. “Do you know what I think would be even better?”
Edmund looked at her expectantly, turning his head to the side and letting his luscious brown locks fall across his creamy white forehead. It took everything she had to breathe normally and continue with her train of thought. God, he was a hottie.
“If you and I were to share a hot, steamy…” Belle began.
“Belle,” Edmund interrupted. “We made a pledge, remember? At school. No copulation until after marriage or, failing that, death. Though in my case it’s too late for that…”
“Oh!” Belle exclaimed. “I didn’t mean to suggest that. I meant a hot steamy cup of cocoa.”
“Of course,” Edmund said. “I should never have thought you’d be proposing otherwise. Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Belle said.
“You wouldn’t ever propose that—would you?” Edmund asked.
“Oh no,” Belle replied. “No way. No way, Jose. You wouldn’t ever propose that… right?”
“Me?” Edmund asked. “Goodness no. Not at all. Nope. I’d never propose anything of the sort. Crazy talk.”
“Right, crazy talk,” Belle said. They both giggled nervously. Of course, Edmund’s giggle was far more rapturous and refined to Bella’s ears. And the way he threw his head back, and thumped his smooth, gentle hand across his tight, muscled chest… It was so utterly exquisite. Bella tried not to dwell on it so as not to faint again. She’d already had seven fainting spells the previous day alone, just from him rubbing her back in a circular motion and helping her take off her snow boots.
“Well,” Belle said finally, breaking the silence. “I should take a shower before I go downstairs.”
“Right, of course,” Edmund answered.
They stared at each other for a moment.
“Um, so I’ll need to… um… yeah.”
“Un… dress?” Edmund asked.
“Uh, yeah, that,” Belle agreed.
“Right,” Edmund said. “So I’ll just be right outside, um, waiting.”
“Okay,” Belle said. “Yes, yes, you do that while I… uh… remove my—you know. And stuff.”
“Okay, yeah,” Edmund said. In an instant he was out of the room. Belle undressed and slipped into her powder blue bathrobe, then walked into the hall to find Edmund waiting.
“Well, I’ll just be going into the shower now.”
“Right, yes,” Edmund stammered. “You go take your shower, um, with the nakedness and the hot, hot water, and I’ll just be right here, waiting.”
“Okay,” Belle said. After a moment she turned and walked into the bathroom. She slammed the door shut with unusual force.
“You okay?” Edmund called.
“What? Oh, I’m fine,” Belle answered. “Sorry I just—closed it a little too hard, I guess.” Belle fidgeted with the knob, pressing the lock in. But it just popped out again. She cursed under her breath, then made a mental note to add a quarter to her swear jar later.
“Everything alright?” Edmund asked from the other side.
“Yes, yes,” Belle said. “I’m just having trouble, um… locking the door.”
“But it’s fine, because it’s just you and me here, and you’re not going to come in, obviously.”
A beat.
“Unless you… want me to?”
They both stood frozen.
“Okay, well, you enjoy your shower!” Edmund called, and then ran down the stairs.
“You okay?” Belle called.
“Yes!” he replied, now sounding much farther away. “I’m just going to take out your trash for you and then maybe get the cocoa started!”
“Oh-okay,” Belle answered. “Thanks!”
“Don’t mention it!”

When Belle came downstairs later, Edmund was nowhere to be found. She called his name but heard no answer; then she noticed with a start that two steaming cups of cocoa were set on the table. Neither one seemed to have been touched.
Belle didn’t have much time to think about this, however—the phone rang an instant later.
“Oh, hi, Jen,” Belle said, yawning loudly.
“It’s Jan,” Jan answered, irritated.
“Whatever,” Belle replied. “You’re not a vampire.”
“Uh, nothing,” Belle said quickly. “What’s up?”
“Omigod Omigod Omigod,” Jan said. “You will not believe who asked me to the semi-formal.”
“Who?” Belle said, twirling her hair and wondering where Edmund was.
Belle didn’t answer. She glanced at the mirror in the hall. Should she get highlights?
“Isn’t that amazing?” Jan asked.
“Who’s Matt again?”
“Um, like, one of your best friends and the guy I’ve been crushing on for a year.”
“Oh, right,” Belle said, with no trace of enthusiasm. “The one who was into me but then I sent him your way because I only like dead guys.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Hey Jan, really sorry but I gotta go. I don’t know where my boyfriend is and he and his vampire family are way more interesting than any of you boring ‘normal’ kids.”
Jan was still talking when Belle hang up. Now, where could Edmund be? Belle wondered. A moment later the door flew open.
“Belle!” Edmund exclaimed. “Thank God you’re safe!” He embraced her tightly and covered her with kisses. Cold, sexy, undead kisses. Mmmm.
“Of course I am,” Belle stammered, trying not to faint from the sheer excitement of Edmund’s lips on her face.
“Oh, Belle,” Edmund sighed. “I was so afraid one of the others had gotten to you.”
“The others?” Belle asked.
“Yes, the bad vampires,” Edmund said. “The ones that actually kill people and whatnot. I just had a spectacular battle with their leader, Jamie.”
“Oh no!” Belle cried. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Edmund said. “But barely. That fight took every ounce of my strength. It was really quite spectacular.”
“Was it?” Belle asked.
“Oh yes,” Edmund said. “There were exploding cars and breaking glass. A lot of blood, too. When his head came off, it was just like a fountain—but anyway, none of that matters now. You’re safe.”
“Still, I’m kinda bummed I missed it,” Bella said. “It sounds really exciting, especially after spending the last few months not doing much of anything besides thinking about you and frying fish for my dad.”
“Nonsense,” Edmund said. “You wouldn’t want to see any of that extreme fighting or fiery destruction. All you need to worry about is being right here with me, drinking cocoa. A woman’s place is at home, with her vampire by her side.”
“Mmm,” Belle murmured as Edmund started kissing her again. “I love the patriarchy.” That night they had a very passionate evening of Scrabble and lukewarm cocoa. It was like a dream. A sexy, teenage wish-fulfillment dream. With vampires.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


A brilliant fusion of horror fantasy and teen angst. A depiction of star crossed romance embodied by a vampire and a human girl. An imaginative series that’s captured the imaginations of millions of fans the world over. I’m talking, of course, about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon’s cult classic television show about an ordinary 16-year-old girl entrusted with an extraordinary mission. The show was by turns scary, funny, and moving, and imagined the strained experience of high school as a kind of literal hell. As for that other recent vampire phenomenon, Twilight—the book series and hit movie that have inspired a legion of “Twi-hards”? After reading the original book, I’d have to say that it has (if you’ll pardon the pun) considerably less bite.
Written by Mormon author Stephanie Meyer, these best-selling young adult novels are the kind of out-of-nowhere phenomenon the media just loves to celebrate (especially with J.K. Rowling’s vastly superior Harry Potter books now only a memory). From reviews of the movie, I knew that Twilight was less about bloody carnage and more about wistful gazes, with young Bella’s romance with “good” vampire Edward taking center stage. But as I read the novel, I was surprised by just how much of it was given over to hokey romance novel prose, and by how glacially paced it turned out to be.
Twilight is told from the perspective of Bella Swan, your average insecure teen girl, who’s just made the unhappy transition from life with her mom in Phoenix to life with her father, Charlie, in perpetually overcast Forks, WA. (Why she forced herself to do this is never made explicitly clear, especially since she seems so miserable about it.) Her thoughts as she enters her new school are much like any teen’s: all she wants to do is fit in, have friends, and not stand out. Anyone can relate to these feelings, so I started to understand why teen girls became enamored with the story. Of course, everyone loves a bad boy, too, and that’s exactly what Bella finds in the form of Edward Cullen, a pale, impossibly beautiful young man whose family is met with confusion and awe by the town. (All of them are described as runway model gorgeous, including their adopted father Dr. Cullen.) After initially thinking he despises her (he casts her death stares the first day in class), she soon learns that he’s both incredibly enamored with her and hiding a big secret: he’s an immortal vampire, and though he’s sworn himself to a life of non-violence against humans (feeding only on animals) his affection for her is tempered with bloodlust.
The slow pacing is meant to develop a rich romance between the two, but the characterization Meyer should be giving us is oddly stilted. Bella is relatively well developed, but she’s maddeningly insecure and neurotic; no matter how many times Edward tells her she’s desirable she refuses to accept it. Edward is compelling, yes, but in some ways he’s a one-dimensional and smug figure: he’s said to smirk so often and to treat Bella in such a borderline-condescending manner that I started to think he was kind of a prick. The entire book is sorely lacking in fully realized characters. Bella’s normal “friends” at high school are so bland it’s hard to believe she cares about them at all. The only truly likable character is Jacob Black, a Native American boy who reveals that his tribe has forbidden the Cullens to set foot on their reservation because of their supposed vampirism. (He doesn’t believe it, but Bella does.) He’s sweet, friendly, and exactly the kind of teen boy Bella probably should be involved with. (In later books they apparently develop a romance—never mind that he turns out to be a werewolf.) Bella’s fascination with Edward, meanwhile, is ludicrously over-the-top; though I like a hot vampire as much as the next guy, I doubt I’d ever lavish such soppy, relentlessly effusive sentiments on one. Bella is so thoroughly infatuated with Edward that the relationship begins to feel distinctly unhealthy. It’s clear that Bella has yet to develop a fully realized sense of self; by subsuming herself so completely in Edward, she loses all sense of her own identity. The other odd thing about Meyer’s depiction of the lovers is how “chaste” and yet relentlessly sexual it is. Sex is never explicitly discussed in the book (though I hear that later installments deal with it more directly) but it’s all over the descriptions of Edward and his interactions with Bella. Bella goes on and on about his beautiful face and gorgeous muscular chest; she denies that he elicits any fear from her but admits that he stirs up “other feelings.” The closest we come to talk of sex is what’s unsaid. When Edward spends the night with Bella, she tells him she won’t be able to sleep with him around and he asks “what else” they should do. She of course suggests another round of questions. Never mind what I would suggest if there was an undead Adonis in my bedroom. Given Meyer’s Mormon background, and staunch refusal to give her characters a sex life despite pressure from the publisher, some have suggested that the books are veiled abstinence propaganda. I don’t know that I’d go that far, but given all of the heavy breathing and nuzzling and caressing that transpires between these two, it’s hard to see why they never succumb to their baser urges. (Did Meyer leave out the part about the Forks High School Celibacy Club?)
About three quarters of the way into the book, we finally get some real conflict. A trio of vampire outsiders comes into town, and one of them, James, immediately sets his sights on Bella. Edward’s obvious urge to protect her provides the perfect challenge for this “tracker,” and he’ll stop at nothing to attack her. A chase ensues, with Edward’s siblings Alice and Jasper spiriting Bella away to Phoenix while Edward and his brother Emmet try to head off James. Action is minimal, though, and none of the supporting cast is ever really fleshed out, including our villain, who’s menacing enough but amounts to little more than a stock figure. Bella’s meant-to-be-heartbreaking bluffing of her dad (she tells him she hates life in Forks and is leaving, so that he won’t come after her) would be more resonant if their relationship had been better established; all we really know is that they like each other, she cooks for him, and he’s still in love with her mom. At the climax (which comes with an admittedly clever ruse courtesy of James), Bella is rendered barely conscious, and since we’re limited to her point of view, we get scarcely any details about the vampires’ battle. I suppose it’s not giving away much that Bella survives (after all, this book has three sequels), waking up days later. Edward tells her that Alive and Emmett had to kill James, which we know from his explanation earlier means tearing the vampire apart completely. But guess what? Bella slept through all that. Thanks for the letdown, Meyer. The book closes with an epilogue at the prom, which Edward has “tricked” Bella into going to. (Because she’s such a klutz, she never goes to dances; somehow, Alice’s doing her hair and makeup and putting her in a lavish dress, with Edward showing up in a tux, didn’t tip her off to where they were going. You’re not too quick Bella, are you?) After a brief interlude with Jacob, who’s come to warn Bella about Edward and his family on behalf of his dad (and who clearly carries a torch for her), the couple pledges their undying love for each other and yada yada yada. It’s all-too-obviously setting up another book, and as such feels distinctly unsatisfying and un-final. However, after slogging through this mess of flowery prose, repressive sexuality, and cardboard characterization, I think I’ll pass on the rest of this “saga.” When it comes to angsty vampire tales, I’ll take Buffy Summers over Bella Swan any day.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Kiss My Bass

This week could have been a real downer, marking the end of the holidays and the beginning of the great gray beast known as January. But luckily TV was there to cushion the blow: Gossip Girl and Nip/Tuck both returned! (Gossip Girl’s only been off the air since just before Christmas, but Nip/Tuck was MIA for nearly a year! Stupid writer’s strike.) Neither debut was particularly exciting, but it’s good to see both series back on the air. After all the drama of the last GG, it was perhaps inevitable that this one would feel anticlimactic. Dan and Serena *finally* got back together, but more importantly—Rat Boy is gone! Greasy grimey Aaron will never be seen again. (Huge sigh of relief.) Apparently the producers didn’t like the character any more than we did, so they decided to ax him after the last ep. Of course, we all knew Serena was ready to ditch him for Dan anyway, and it’s nice that they just embraced and resumed their coupling rather than put us through any more will-they-or-won’t-they bullshit. Not that the obstacles are over for the twosome: Rufus scolds Dan for being alone in the apartment with Serena (?!) and Dan suspects his ire at Lily is at the heart of it. The two snoop around seeking answers, only to uncover a map of Boston and a 617 number (yeah 617—represent!). Turns out Rufus hasn’t been looking for “an artist”—he’s been calling adoption agencies. Of course we all know why, but Rufus is forced to tell Dan the truth—that he has a half brother he’s never known. (And yes, we now know that it’s a boy after Lily let the pronoun slip.) Which means: More Ickiness For Them. They share a half sibling! It’s bad enough that their parents are locked in a deathless star crossed romance, but this one could be a real buzz killer. Dan nearly tells Serena, but Rufus calls him last minute and asks him not to, declaring, “It’s not your secret to tell.” Still, Serena’s not likely to stay in the dark for long, not in this gossipy crowd, anyway.
Speaking of Serena, why do I get the feeling that everyone around her is secretly standing on milk crates so that she won’t look so freakishly tall? Watch carefully and you’ll note that while Blake Lively is often seen walking away or towards other characters, they’re never seen full length beside her. Guess the producers don’t want the cast looking like Cousin Itt next to Lurch. (Not to compare Lively’s looks to Lurch’s—the girl’s a regulation hottie.)
Meanwhile, Little J was saddled with a pretty lame B plot—a vain attempt to save dorky Nelly from the hands of her heartless Mean Girl “friends,” particularly Queen B Penelope. (Side note: this show really needs to diversify. The only two characters of color are Asian doormat Nelly and black—and usually silent—bitch Isabel. Two of the biggest Gossip Girl fans I know are black women—so get a clue, Josh Schwartz and co.!) After witnessing Nelly being forced to wipe yogurt off of Penelope’s shoe at Pinkberry (and don’t even get my roommate Patrick started on the inclusion of Pinkberry), Jenny intervenes, using Nelly’s Gretchen Weiner-like knowledge of the clique to win her better treatment. After threatening to text Gossip Girl sordid deets (i.e. Penelope’s affair with one of her daddy’s colleagues), Jenny is offered the chance to lead the group—but flatly turns it down. Her efforts are lost on Nelly, though—the little wuss still wants to be one of the club! She rushes off to be Penelope’s slave again, while Eric congratulates Jenny on her newfound strength and integrity. The best parts of this mostly forgettable arc: Blair dismissing the girls’ high school squabbles as beneath her and Jenny’s transformation out of those horrid bangs and raccoon eyes. She’s also re-enrolled at school, which means her wayward rebellion phase has officially passed.
In Chuck and Blair Land, we first see Chuck in—an opium den! Patrick wondered if opium dens even exist anymore, but I can’t think of a more appropriate place for him to be. (Complete with geishas, of course.) He’s been AWOL since leaving Blair that note last episode, but his uncle, Jack Bass, finds and brings him back to Manhattan. The actor playing Jack—sexy in that older man way—looked so much like Bart that I thought the two actors must be related, but apparently the resemblance is just casting serendipity. He seems like a charming, fun character—like Chuck without the standoffish vibe. Good thing he’s around, because he and Blair add backup when Chuck’s dragged before the dean for smoking pot (!). Of course, Chuck calmly torpedoes their efforts to save him with his all-too-glib attitude, though he does score a lot of sympathy for the whole mourning thing. Meanwhile, Blair's all concerned about being admitted to a ritzy women's org (ergo her lack of concern over the Mean Girls' kerfuffle) but realizes almost as soon as we are that they're unforgivably lame biotches. For one thing, these middle-aged chicks are all wearing ARGYLE! Every single one of them! The only one who can get away with that kind of wardrobe is Chuck. For another, it's not long before they're trading pithy bon mots about Serena and especially Chuck. Blair finally stands up and tells them all that her friends are great people and that she loves Chuck-- then races off to his side! Go Blair. Whatever you can say about her, the girl's got integrity these days. Near episode’s end, though, Blair makes a doozy of a revelation, asking Jack not to tell Chuck anything about “what happened between us.” Say what? In the latest incident of Gossip Girl incest, she and Chuck’s uncle hooked up! Which makes sense, in a weird way: Chuck wasn’t available, Jack was, and the whole thing has that quasi-comforting Next Best Thing vibe. Of course, Chuck—who nearly falls off a roof before being coaxed down by Blair’s tearful declaration of love for him—probably won’t take too well to all of this. “I’m Chuck Bass!” he shouts on the roof, before adding, “Nobody cares.” (Honestly, the line didn’t really work for me. It seems like they only did it because it would look good in promos.)
At episode’s end, Rufus has finally convinced Lily to join him in a search for their long lost son; Lily had explained earlier that the adoption was closed, so they’ve got an uphill battle finding the kid. Lily joins him in a car with only one suitcase, as compared to the eight or so she brought for their ill-fated weekend getaway; “That was a fun trip,” Richard explained. “This is business.” Still, Lily wore heels; have fun clomping around Beacon Hill’s cobblestone streets in those, Van Der Woodsen! Next week’s installment looks promising, with plenty of drama involving Blair’s dalliance with Uncle Jack.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Films of 2008: My Favorites

Sorry this list is a little late, but New Year’s week was a bit hectic for me. (Jacob came into town; much merriment—and a touch of drama—ensued.)
Cloverfield—The first film I saw last year is still my favorite. Yes, it’s high concept, but more importantly it’s ferociously entertaining, using special effects sparingly and generating gargantuan amounts of suspense and terror. By depicting a monster movie scenario via shaky camera work and naturalistic performances, Cloverfield accomplishes the difficult feat of making its Godzilla-esque premise believable. Some criticized producer J.J. Abrams and co. for exploiting 9/11 imagery to unnerve their audience, but the best horror filmmakers have always used real fears to underlie fanciful stories.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall—Hands down, my favorite comedy of the year. Writer director Jason Segel established himself as a rising talent to watch with this hilarious and relatable film. All the pain of breakups is made as real as it is hysterical, as hapless Peter (Segel) tries to escape to Hawaii, only to run into ex Sarah (Kristen Bell, always perfection) and her vain new rock star beau (Russell Brand). Luckily, adorable and caring hotel clerk Rachel (Mila Kunis) is there for support—and maybe more. By now, we all know the raunchy/sweet, improvisational MO of the Judd Apatow gang movies (he produced this), but Forgetting Sarah Marshall distinguishes itself with strong storytelling and vivid characterizations that go just far enough to amuse without devolving into Cartoon Land.
Iron Man—If not for a Certain Acclaimed Blockbuster, this would easily be 2008’s best superhero film. As is, it’s a fantastic film that delivers the action goods without sacrificing story or character. Robert Downey, Jr. brought his career roaring to new heights as the funny, evolving Tony Stark, who has a traumatic experience in Afghanistan and decides to change from weapons magnate to advocate for peace. The scenes with Stark developing his super suit have the same sense of wonder and discovery that made Spider-man such a delight. Meanwhile, Gwyneth Paltrow imbues Stark’s long-suffering (and smitten) assistant Pepper Potts with enough depth and likability to remind us why she became a movie star in the first place.
Sex and the City—No, I’m not one of those gays who gathered around the television for each week’s installment of the HBO megahit. But I was game to see the big screen version with my friend Elon (a devoted fan) and was pleasantly surprised by just how good this movie is. Yes, it’s an entertaining and often witty romp filled with glitzy fashions. (This has to be the biggest ode to conspicuous consumption since The Devil Wears Prada pretended to condemn materialism while celebrating it in every frame.) But it’s also a surprisingly dark and affecting look at broken hearts and the enduring power of love and forgiveness. Besides, the cast’s lived-in chemistry with each other is an alluring entertainment in its own right.
The Strangers—The horror genre is in a weird place right now. We’ve got torture porn, a trend that mercifully seems to be on its way out (though I anticipate annual Saw sequels through 2015). We’ve got a seemingly endless stream of remakes, most of which are as bland as they are unnecessary. But here’s a movie that’s simple, stark, and incredibly effective. The best elements of Halloween—from the shadowy camerawork to the masked killers and spooky sound design—combine into a power house scare show that knocked this horror junkie off his feet. Liv Tyler’s vividly emotional performance as the victimized Kristen helps sell the harrowing this-could-happen-to-you-scenario. Why’d the killers pick them? “Because you were home.” That lack of rhyme or reason may be The Strangers’ biggest scare of all.
The Dark Knight—What can I say about this massively popular, tremendously lauded film that hasn’t already been said? That it’s deftly plotted? Politically relevant? Fabulously acted—especially by Heath Ledger as an indelibly vivid Joker? Said, said, and said. Aaron Eckhart probably hasn’t received enough attention for his complex and sympathetic portrayal of Harvey/Two Face, though, and I will say that the action sequences are killer—just because a movie is deep and dark doesn’t mean it can’t have bad-ass set pieces.
The Pineapple Express—Compared to the humanistic Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Pineapple Express is business as usual for Judd Apatow: broad characters, wackiness, and a secondary plot. It’s a 21st century stoner movie with an action template: Dale (Seth Rogen) and his dealer Saul (James Franco), two sorta-buddies, are forced to go on the run after Dale inadvertently witnesses a murder. What elevates this farce beyond being merely entertaining is Franco’s outstanding performance (he inhabits this lovable flake in the deepest way possible) and that trademark dash of sweetness that balances out all the drug and sex jokes. By the end, Dale’s come to see Saul as more than the “loser” who supplies him his weed—he respects and cares for him as a friend. Altogether now: awww.
Milk—It took years of development and half a dozen false starts, but the wait was worth it for this biopic of legendary gay activist Harvey Milk. Sean Penn gives a bravura performance as the charismatic Milk, who overcame the odds to become America’s first openly gay man in office; the film tells the story of his years in San Francisco, where he became “the Mayor of Castro Street” and helped mobilize an entire generation to fight for gay rights before his tragic assassination by a disgruntled colleague. None of the criticisms that have been lodged at this film—that it’s built on biopic clichés and is occasionally preachy (both of which are more or less true)—have diminished my tremendous affection and respect for it. It’s a hopeful and inspiring tale, full of detail and brilliant acting—standouts in the latter category include Emile Hirsch as queer spitfire (and future AIDS Quilt creator) Cleve Jones and Josh Brolin as the conflicted and murderous Dan White. As Milk says in the movie, “You gotta give ‘em hope”—and that’s exactly what this beautifully rendered film does, at a time when the gay community (youth especially) needs it more than ever.