Kids gone wild in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers

Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers was hotly buzzed about on release, but eventually settled down to a 63 on Metacritic and 3-stars-out-of-five on Letterboxd. Both of which aren’t great, but a lot higher than my personal estimation. This would be certainly not the first time my personal reaction to a movie has been against the consensus, but I am usually able to understand the other points of view. Spring Breakers is an extreme case where I just flat-out hated a movie to the extent that I can’t comprehend another reaction.

Is it the Gatsby-esque exposé of the essential hollowness of the American Dream? Is it the showboating performance by an unusually engaged James Franco? Is it Korine’s return to his wheelhouse subject matter of unsupervised youth gone astray? Or, as I strongly suspect, is it really just the teenage girls (including pop star Selena Gomez) in bikinis? Come on, admit it.

I myself never went anywhere on spring break, and the culture as portrayed here is totally alien to me (even accounting for any exaggeration). So it’s possible that of the certain percentage of American kids that do “go wild” on sprrrraaaanng break, a percentage of that percentage does get mixed up in criminal activity. Perhaps I grew up in a sheltered environment, predisposed to just not get it, man. But Spring Breakers feels like science fiction to me, even less relatable than actual science fiction. Or maybe an anthropological documentary film about an isolated culture in a rainforest.

Spring Breakers and Kids (Korine’s 1995 debut as a screenwriter) both masquerade as slice-of-life looks inside the teenage mind, cynically employing a cinéma vérité style to make everything feel real. They were both ostensibly marketed for teenage audiences, with the promise that their authentic experiences would be represented for the first time. The cynic in me worries these movies are actually cautionary tales intended for smotheringly overprotective older generations, indulging the darkest fantasies of a scolding right-wing puritanical mainstream culture.

I’m not kidding. Please, someone please explain to me how Spring Breakers is anything other than “Kids Redux: It’s 10PM, Do You Know Where Your Kids Are and Are You Sure They’re Not Doing Coke, Having Unprotected Sex, Binge Drinking, Playing With Guns, and Sassing Their Elders?”

one out of five stars

Battle Beyond the Stars is Star Wars gone wrong

Battle Beyond the Stars is the rare bad movie worth experiencing. How can you not be at least a little curious about a Roger Corman-produced Star Wars pastiche, starring John-Boy from The Waltons, Hannibal from The A-Team, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., with a screenplay by John Sayles and special effects by a young James Cameron?

Like Starcrash a few years earlier, Jimmy T. Murakami’s Battle Beyond the Stars crassly copies a number of superficial elements from Star Wars: sassy robots, radial wipes, exploding planets, severed arms, and heavy borrowing from Akira Kurosawa and John Sturges (Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven in this case). But it betrays a total cluelessness regarding the real feat George Lucas pulled off: iconic characters, mythic underpinnings, and a tantalizing sense of a larger world worth exploring. Its spaceships, lasers, and robots are all in service of the story, not the other way around — otherwise you wind up with Battle Beyond the Stars, essentially a special effects reel with cursory linking material. As much as Star Wars gets right, Battle Beyond the Stars gets wrong.

As for those aforementioned James Cameron special effects, there sure are a lot of them. The ratio of effects shots to live-action studio footage must be near-equal. There’s a tremendous discrepancy between the level of effort expended on the models and matte paintings, vs the dialogue, characterization, and story.

The performances certainly don’t commend it. Robert Vaughn sleepwalks through it, and George Peppard hambones as an Earth cowboy. Richard Thomas doesn’t seem to have a handle on his character, which I suspect is due to a lack of clarity in the writing & direction. Like Luke Skywalker, he’s an everyman farmboy with aspirations to be a pilot. What appears to make him unique among his people is his ability to pilot a A.I.-powered spaceship, but he later claims to not know anything about computers. He’s also an embittered jerk who seems resentful for the ragtag army that sacrifices everything for his world.

And it would be a waste of time to outline the ways in which it is ridiculously sexist. It’s only 3 years younger than Star Wars, but decades more retrograde.

People Are Vectors: George A. Romero’s The Crazies

George A. Romero practically invented the lucrative zombie subgenre with Night of the Living Dead in 1968, simultaneously trapping himself within it for most of his subsequent career. Romero’s zombies served him well enough for six films and counting, at least two of which transcended the genre and are still discussed in serious terms. His less famous later creations the “crazies” only appeared in one of his films, but their influence on popular culture is disproportionate to their fame. They are arguably thematically richer and — despite not technically being zombies, per se — exert a greater influence on most significant subsequent zombie films by other directors.

The Crazies (1973) may not belong to Romero’s official Living Dead cycle, but what sets it apart is mostly a matter of branding. Zombies had captured the popular imagination in a way that the more vaguely-defined crazies could not, at least at first. The classical Romero-style zombie is simply a reanimated corpse with an insatiable animal hunger in place of higher brain function — in effect a subtraction of the intangible human essence, or what a religious person would describe as a soul. In contrast, a crazy is exactly what it sounds like: a living person driven to unchecked violence and lust, while still remaining recognizably human.

A scene from George A. Romero's The Crazies
“People are vectors.”

The most significant innovation Romero introduced in The Crazies can be summed up in its most chilling line: “people are vectors.” In Night of the Living Dead, it was enough for Romero to vaguely drop hints of some sort of mysterious extraterrestrial radiation causing the dead to rise. The virus factor would preoccupy subsequent zombie auteurs for decades, particularly Danny Boyle with 28 Days Later. It’s a rich concept that touches on many sensitive themes: pollution, conspiracy theories, biological warfare, sexually transmitted diseases, and pandemics. While now virtually every non-Romero zombie movie defaults to a viral origin story, it seems that Romero himself is disinterested in the mechanics of either zombies or crazies. He’d much rather focus on randomly-selected bands of survivors, on the run in a world where society has broken down. Living humans are a greater danger than monsters, and death is no longer absolute.

All the usual Romero tropes are present, particularly institutional corruption and ineptitude. On the macro level, the U.S. government and military serve their own interests first, to the degree that they function at all. The government has secretly engineered and weaponized a virus with the innocuous codename Trixie and accidentally releases it into the water supply of small town Evans City, PA (a real town, where portions were actually filmed). As in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the action remains in the small burb for the entirety of the film. Forget Patient Zero; this is Town Zero.

George A. Romero's The Crazies
The military tries to clean up its own mess

The authorities swoop in and attempt to quarantine the bucolic burb until the virus burns itself out. We learn they were blithely aware of the risks in transporting the virus, and remain chillingly apathetic even after the beginnings of catastrophe. One especially coldblooded general casually munches sandwiches while discussing how to contain the epidemic. Romero’s usual sympathies are for the individual conscience hamstrung by soulless bureaucracies. Even in Day of the Dead, where the military was the primary source of conflict, some individuals remained sympathetic. In The Crazies, Major Ryder (Harry Spillman) and Colonel Peckam (Lloyd Hollar) struggle as much against their superiors’ counterproductive orders as they do trying to pacify the crazies on the battlefield and protect the uninfected.

Even the civilians have deep ties to the armed forces. David (Will MacMillan) and Clank (Harold Wayne Jones) are Vietnam War veterans who now find themselves in opposition to the institutions they once served. They spend most of the movie completely in the dark as to why their town is in chaos, and in fact come into violent conflict more frequently with the military than with their now-insane former friends and neighbors.

Romero also continues his tradition of foregrounding women and people of color. The ranks of Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead, Lori Cardille in Day of the Dead, and John Leguizombie Leguizamo in Land of the Dead are joined by Judy (Lane Carroll), a pregnant nurse who initially assists the military’s containment efforts. Her character is far more significant and integral to the plot than her equivalent in Breck Eisner’s mediocre 2010 remake, played by Radha Mitchell. It’s sad but perhaps unsurprising that a B-movie from 1973 would feature a stronger feminist character than one from the 21st century.

George A. Romero's The Crazies
Lynn Lowry inaugurates her career as a scream queen

But on the other hand (you knew that “but” was coming), the other primary female role is played by Lynn Lowry as an impossibly ethereal and willowy teen with a marked resemblance to Sissy Spacek. The character’s primary function is to look innocently gorgeous and be raped by her infected father. Lowry would go on to a long career as a scream queen in sexploitation films.

The Crazies is largely humorless in tone, save for ironic music cues throughout. A persistent martial snare drum plays under otherwise rather dull scenes of Ryder and Peckam arguing in a cheap office set, and “Johnny Comes Marching Home” accompanies sequences of desensitized soldiers summarily executing detainees.

The establishment of martial law and military occupation of a town on American soil raise the question: how do you tell the difference between genuine resistance and murderous rage, which is to say, just plain crazy plus capital-c Crazy? Is not killing and shooting other human beings by definition crazy, especially when systematically operated by the governmental and military organizations that are supposed to protect and serve life? In the movie’s most charged sequence, a priest immolates himself on his church steps. In 1973, it would have been an unmistakable visual allusion to the Buddhist monks that self-immolated to protest the Vietnam War. A soldier executes him. Was the priest protesting or Crazy? Was the soldier merciful or Crazy?

Rewind & Reboot: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Much of what’s wrong with X-Men Origins: Wolverine can be traced right back to its confused conception, indeed beginning with its clumsy title. The ungainly prefix is clumsily bolted on solely for it to alphabetize adjacent to the three previous X-Men films on Walmart shelves, iTunes, Pay-Per-View, and torrent trackers. The two halves split by a colon try to have it both ways: “X-Men Origins” brands it as part of a proposed series of prequels to the lucrative original trilogy (none else of which have yet to materialize, apparently discarded in favor of the complete reboot X-Men: First Class), while “Wolverine” promises a fresh new franchise in and of itself.

With the original trilogy still warm in its grave, barely a decade after it began, why rewind and start over again so soon? There’s no reason why a prequel featuring honest-to-goodness movie star Hugh Jackman as the fan-favorite icon couldn’t have stood on its own. One gets the feeling X-Men and X2: X-Men United were prematurely discarded. All of this is quite the pity, as director Bryan Singer’s interpretation was far superior than this and Brett Ratner’s weak X-Men 3: The Last Stand.

I can understand the desire to create a jumping-on point for new viewers, one that does not require a detailed memory of the events of the previous installments. But if what 20th Century Fox and Marvel Comics sought was a fresh start, this isn’t exactly it. The narrative contorts itself to slot into some of the established chronology, while simultaneously ignoring or contradicting many other significant elements of the canon.

Liev Schreiber and Hugh Jackman in X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Sabretooth and Wolverine demonstrate the proper protocol in executing a man hug

Danny Houston portrays a younger version of William Stryker, a role originated by Brian Cox in X2: X-Men United. We learn a little more of his villainous motivations and ties to Wolverine’s secret origin, none of which really surprise or illuminate. Fans might be pleased by superfluous cameos by a younger Cyclops (Tim Pocock) and Professor X (a digitally rejuvenated Patrick Stewart). Then there’s the matter of Sabretooth, whom we already met as Magneto’s henchman (Tyler Mane) in the original X-Men (2000), but now entirely recast and reconceived as Logan’s brother Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber).

A prologue set in Canada’s Northwest Territories in the mid 1800s reveals Logan’s damaged psychology to be the product of fratricide. He and brother Victor were doted upon by a wealthy adoptive father, but their superstitious biological father wanted to kill them. The best sequence immediately follows: an impressive montage of the brothers fighting side-by-side through the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World Wars I and II, and Vietnam. The wordless sequence succinctly illustrates the immortal warriors growing apart, as Victor becomes increasingly unstable while Logan slowly develops a moral code and distaste for killing.

A Wolverine film seemed like a promising idea when I first heard of it; it could have provided a neat way to shake off the detritus that had accumulated by the end of the original trilogy. Each subsequent installment added too many additional characters drawn from decades of Marvel Comics history, and quickly snowballed to the point where the ensemble cast became comically unwieldy (pun intended). So, the notion of a fresh story focused around just one character sounded like a wise choice. But expecting a smart creative choice from 20th Century Fox was obviously too much. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is overstuffed with a tremendous number of X-Men b-listers, including The Blob (Kevin Durand), Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), The White Queen (Tahyna Tozzi), and Bolt (Dominic Monaghan). The latter, incidentally, features in one of the best scenes in the film, in a low-key confrontation with Victor that approaches real drama.

Taylor Kitsch, will.i.am, Liev Schreiber, Hugh Jackman, Tim Pocock, Ryan Reynolds, and Lynn Collins in X-Men Origins: Wolverine
The Amazing Adventures of the Uncanny C-List Characters, coming soon from Marvel Comics

Worse than the proliferation of supporting characters is its menagerie of villains. Like Spider-Man 3, the film features a muddled array of enemies when just one well-developed villain would have suited the story better. At least three mortal nemeses align themselves against our hero here: Stryker, Sabretooth, and Weapon XI. The best, most iconic comic book villains are flamboyant characters intricately tied in with the origins of the hero: Batman vs. The Joker (Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger), Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), and Superman vs. Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, Kevin Spacey). But Wolverine’s most serious foe here is the literally mute and expressionless Weapon XI, devoid of character or charisma. Worse, his moniker looks much better in print than spoken aloud; “Weapon Eleven” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is directed by Gavin Hood, of the critically respected film Tsotsi, making it unusually finely pedigreed for an escapist piece of entertainment based on kids’ comic books. Marvel Comics seems not to have learned its lesson from handing Hulk to Ang Lee and Thor to Kenneth Branagh. A good case study for Fox and Marvel would have been Warner Bros.’ disastrous Invasion, from Oliver Hirschbiegel, director of Downfall. Both Invasion and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are somehow fatally broken, to the point where they fail to make rudimentary sense (which ought to be a base requirement for popcorn special-effects-driven blockbusters). Is it too much to ask that films like this at least be internally logical?

Stryker’s scheme simply doesn’t add up. What exactly does he intend to do? Stryker is evidently dissatisfied with his creation Weapon X (who escaped and became Wolverine). After what he perceives as a failed beta test, Stryker moves on to Weapon XI, an ostensibly perfect soldier with superpowers extracted from other mutants. So why does he go to extreme lengths to keep Wolverine under observation by a fake girlfriend (Lynn Collins) for several years, when all he has to do is kill him and extract his powers with his super-syringe? Even more puzzling, if Stryker wants Logan dead, why does he trick him into signing up to become Weapon X? Stryker succeeds only in making an already near-indestructible man even more so.

Tahyna Tozzi and Lynn Collins in X-Men Origins: Wolverine
The White Queen and Silverfox look worried as they dash through some corridor or something, whatever, who am I kidding — Tahyna Tozzi and Lynn Collins are just in this movie to titillate the fanboys

The problem with comic book superhero stories is that there’s a point at which your powerful protagonist becomes literally inhuman, and thus difficult to find sympathetic or relatable. The best example is Superman, literally an alien who can do almost anything. What kinds of problems would such a creature have, and how can any viewer relate to him? Here, Logan and his nemesis Victor are both effectively immortal, so there is little at stake in their conflict. The most interesting comic book superheroes must reconcile superhuman powers with their deep flaws and anxieties, like Spider-Man’s insecurities and Daredevil’s disability, or are normal human beings with extraordinary drive, like Batman and Iron Man.

A pirated version of X-Men Origins: Wolverine infamously leaked online before its official theatrical release. It was roundly panned, and Fox attempted damage control by claiming it was an unfinished workprint with placeholder CGI, sound effects, and titles. According to the Los Angeles Times, the version finally released in theaters was reportedly almost identical, an embarrassment to say the least.

The special effects are rather shoddy, especially compared to the state of the art as seen in its contemporaries Star Trek and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. Wolverine’s claws and Sabretooth’s bounding and pouncing suffer especially from unconvincing cheapness. The only two genuinely impressive exceptions were wasted, to showcase supporting character Cyclops’ laser eye-beams slicing large structures into geometric chunks.

Stray Observations:

  • Two easter egg codas follow the credits. One is totally unnecessary (Stryker’s fate is better left to the imagination), but the other is enjoyably campy, with a kind of sick humor that could have enlivened the rest of the film.
  • The DVD features an anti-smoking Public Service Announcement, no doubt penance for Logan’s signature cigar-chomping. But where are the warnings against drinking alcohol, riding motorcycles without helmets, killing people with blades, and performing unethical medical atrocities?
  • The script is a nonstop barrage of clichés: if I had subtracted one star for every time somebody utters “Let’s do this” or “Look what the cat dragged in,” my rating would be, well, a lot of negative stars.

Apocalypse on Wheels: Death Race

Death Race evidences a cynical, shallow, indiscriminate outrage at… everything. In this future dystopia, the U.S. economy collapsed in 2012, followed by soaring unemployment, crime, and incarceration. Echoing Rollerball and Running Man, professional sport has merged with the penal system, providing both televised entertainment and a justice system in one neat, cost-saving package.

In the key incident that illustrates the extent of this fallen society, the government manufactures a riot by shutting down a manufacturing plant and laying off all its workers. The incited rioters make convenient scapegoats for society’s shortcomings, ultimately benefitting the government. One of these innocent blue-collar laborers is Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a former crook trying to make an honest living as a family man. Like his character Frank in the Transporter films, his criminal forte was driving. Driving very fast. Unjustly imprisoned at Terminal Island Penitentiary, he’s made an offer he can’t refuse; die or be drafted into the role of Frankenstein, a masked fictitious racer in the titular Death Race. As with professional wresting villains and the Yankees, Frankenstein is a villain perfectly designed for the public to root against, and they don’t need to know that the real Frankenstein died long ago.

Jason Statham and Natalie Martinez in Death Race
This ain’t your daddy’s prison movie

Death Race was originally conceived as a higher-budgeted vehicle for co-producer/star Tom Cruise, but was gradually downgraded to this video game pastiche helmed by Paul W.S. Anderson. It’s a dubious choice of source material, considering that the original Death Race 2000 (1975), starring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, is one of the lesser-known apocalyptic sci-fis of its era. Peers Soylent Green, Rollerball, Logan’s Run, and The Ωmega Man) are all better-known and most were in line to be remade earlier. Carradine makes a voice cameo as the previous bearer of the Frankenstein mantle.

Since The Dork Report is never above pointing out the crushingly obvious, Death Race the film is only a few degrees removed from the “Death Race” it depicts: both are escapist entertainments built upon brutality, sexism, and shaky moral ambivalence. The ostensibly hellish Terminal Island Penitentiary actually appears rather chaste and peaceful, making the scenario less distasteful to audiences. Rape is never a worry, and racially motivated conflict is only faintly alluded to by the presence of ethnic gangs (white supremacists are obliquely referred to as “The Brotherhood”). The drivers’ copilots are “Navigators” recruited from the neighboring women’s prison. These stunning model-quality lovelies were cherry-picked to titillate by the Warden (Joan Allen), in service of greater ratings. Speaking of, Anderson misses an opportunity to satirize televised sporting events as well as The Wachowskis’ Speed Racer or even Dodgeball did.

Jason Statham and Joan Allen in Death Race
Gravitas or Botox?

Death Race is mindlessly entertaining enough, until we’re asked to forgive unrepentant murderer Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson) solely because he lends a hand to our hero Jensen. The logic is confused: given an unjust prison system that exploits the guilty and innocent alike, should the guilty also be allowed to walk free? If truly guilty prisoners like Machine Gun Joe are so plentiful, why does the warden have to go to the bother of framing innocent people in the first place?

Statham supplies his usual persona of buff, terse, reluctant hero who has no time for girls (seriously, what is up with that? Transporter 2 even flirts with the notion his character Frank might be gay). Attempts are made to class up the joint with the bizarre miscasting of Joan Allen, a fine actor that here seems wooden and inexpressive (literally so — a case of too much Botox?). Worse is the criminal waste of the powerfully imposing Ian McShane. He was nothing less than awesome in Deadwood, bringing to life a crime lord more interesting than even Tony Soprano. McShane also elevated the short-lived TV series Kings, playing his part like he was in Shakespeare while everyone else was trapped in an elementary school play. But even he can’t do anything to rescue this mess.

Lost: The End

I’ve always been a Lost apologist, at least liking the show even during its weak points. Six years of goodwill very nearly went out the window along with my television, thanks to its extremely frustrating final run of episodes. Close to the end, I attempted to resolve myself to the likely event that the finale would not answer every little niggling mystery. I hoped to shield myself from disappointment, and let the creators finish the story how they wished. Yet “The End” still failed to tell a simple story. A story is not a string of dei ex machina, and every character arc need not end with a sudden, brutal, arbitrary death.

Carlton Cuse told Wired Magazine:

The great mysteries of life fundamentally can’t be addressed. We just have to tell a good story and let the chips fall where they may. We don’t know whether the resolution between the two timelines is going to make people say, “Oh, that’s cool” or “Oh, fuck those guys, they belly-flopped at the end.”

The latter, pretty much. What follows is just a taste of my catalogue of complaints, with no concern for spoilers.

SPINNING (DONKEY) WHEELS

For a show built atop a perpetually compounding series of mysteries and conundrums, it failed to legitimately advance or resolve much of anything in the run-up to the polarizing finale. With so little time left, the penultimate episodes wasted time spinning wheels in classic Lost fashion. People getting locked in cages, escaping, getting locked up again. Groups splitting up, hiking to opposite ends of the island(s), splitting up into different groups and hiking back. Boarding watercraft and disembarking again. Meanwhile, the sheer number of abandoned mysteries filled its own wiki, and as usual, CollegeHumor said it best:

BOOM!

From the very beginning, one of Lost’s favorite conceits was the sudden death of characters. To be generous, death is rarely “meaningful” in real life, but these plot twists also laid bare the practicalities of serial television (actors quit, get fired, or age unconvincingly). After the tenth or twentieth fatality, I became sick of characters getting suddenly and arbitrarily killed off for cheap shock. Past victims included Eko, Libby, and Danielle, all violently exiting the show before their storylines reached any kind of resolution. In the final episodes, it happened to Ilyana, Widmore, Zoe, and (it seemed at first) Frank and Richard. We saw just enough of Zoe that I assumed she must be significant as something more than just cannon fodder, but apparently not. Sayid’s season-long arc (was he mystically reincarnated as a soulless killing machine, or was he merely convinced that he was essentially evil?) is short-circuited by his abrupt choice of self-sacrifice. How did he defeat his mystical brainwashing? Just killing off a character isn’t any kind of a resolution to a storyline.

A positive example from the show’s past would be Charlie, a character whose death figured into the mythology in a big way. It had ramifications, as opposed to: BOOM! Look, somebody just suddenly blew themselves up with dynamite, isn’t that HILARIOUS? Aren’t you SHOCKED? No? Well, let’s kill another character the same way!

I was never so sentimental for Lost that I felt the need for every character to live happily ever after. But didn’t these creations deserve a little better?

ACROSS THE SEA

Little of the mythology Jacob finally revealed in the episode “Across the Sea” made any sense, and often directly contradicted my memories of what went before. He tells Kate he scratched her off the list because she became a mother, but the job could still be hers if she wanted it. Does that mean his list is arbitrary? It doesn’t matter which of these last few surviving candidates will do it? And, for whatever reason Jacob disqualifies moms, is it related to why all women on the island die? Were all the other mothers also candidates, for whom disqualification means death? If so, why didn’t he kill Kate? Because she assumed custody of Claire’s baby rather than having her own biological child, I suppose. But if the audience is asked to make too many strained suppositions like this, based on little evidence in the text of the show, we’ll begin to wonder if the writers have any idea themselves.

In the earlier episode “Ab Aeterno”, Jacob told the Man in Black that he brings people to the island to prove a point to him about humanity. But now he tells Jack & co. that he simply wants to find a replacement. Which is it? Both?

Jacob’s list of several hundred names eventually narrowed to a mere handful of survivors. Did he know he had to rule them all out until he got to the last name? And that the Man in Black would happen to be very near escape at that point in time? If so, why didn’t he just scratch all but one name off the list? And now that Jack has volunteered, does that mean that the other few have to die?

NARRATIVE CHEATING

It’s cheap to resolve a plot thread by introducing a totally new element, like the adoptive mother of Jacob & The Man in Black (an unnamed character played by Allison Janney). Imagine a murder mystery, in which the murderer turns out to be… oh this guy right here, whom you’ve never seen before now. The answer to the mystery of Jacob and The Man in Black needed to already be there, in the form of shuffled puzzle pieces the audience hasn’t seen the solution to yet. Not in a single-episode guest star.

Which brings me to the glowing cave. If it’s really the key motivating force for Jacob and The Man in Black, it’s the ultimate MacGuffin of the entire series. To not even so much as mention it until near the very end of a six-year long series is cheating to say the least.

Let me go back even further: I’m irritated altogether by the injection of Jacob and the Man in Black into the story. I know that the Man in Black technically appeared in the very first episode (as the sound effect we would later associate with the Smoke Monster), and we’ve been hearing the name Jacob for a few years now. But it does not feel organic at all that the core mystery of the show came down to a mystical struggle between two characters that have barely featured on the show at all. It should be about the characters already on the stage from the very beginning, not two cyphers introduced so late in the game.

And the final, capping atrocity that would get any kid kicked out of high school creative writing class is, of course, the revelation that the final season’s mysterious “sideways timeline” was actually a kind of Limbo or Purgatory. That this is wildly unsatisfactory (the only thing worse could have been an ending in which it is revealed to be someone’s dream, a la St. Elsewhere or Newhart) is overshadowed by the true crime: it’s explained via exposition by a minor character we hadn’t seen for months (Jack’s father Christian). Exposition! “Show don’t tell” is a clichéd rule, and rules ought to be broken, but this case of telling not showing is evidence of contempt for the audience.

Compare and contrast with the truly mind-blowing conclusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its wordlessness is a sublime virtue, and its mysteries linger to provoke discussion and fascination decades later.

BEN: A COMPLICATED GUY, OR LAZY WRITING?

I’m puzzled by Ben’s apparent boomerang switcher from defeated and sort-of redeemed, to pure evil, and then back again. We’re left to suppose he realized something in the penultimate episode that the audience just didn’t know yet. We naturally expect to share his realization in the final episode, but there doesn’t seem to be anything there to find. After the Man in Black is defeated, he’s not only forgiven for his crimes (remember, he is a mass murderer), but given a leadership role on the island. And, he gets to stay behind in Limbo and shag Rousseau (Mira Furlan, who, incidentally, cleans up good, am I right?).

It bugs me that I had to repeatedly ask this question at each plot turn: was it lazy writing, or part of the mystery?

THE DESMOND ZAP

I’m very confused about how much the sideways characters remember about their alternate timelines on the island after Desmond zaps them. Locke and Ben only seem to get a vague sense of deja vu, but Hurley seems to have complete recall (for instance, he seems to know exactly who Ana Lucia is). By the finale, characters need only touch each other for complete memories to come flooding back. So why didn’t Jack & Juliet spark each other’s memories during all the years were married, and not to put to fine a point on it, had sex and conceived a son? Again, part of the mystery, or sloppy writing?

CITING SOURCES

Some of the above is derived from a morning-after rant I shared with guest Dork Reporter Snarkbait.


Must read: Jason Kottke’s Lost finale roundup

The Pod People Film Festival: The Invasion

Welcome to The Pod People Film Festival, The Dork Report’s third mini movie retrospective. After catching up with Ridley Scott and George A. Romero, we now take a look at four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, plus one unofficial homage / satire.

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
  2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
  3. Body Snatchers (1993)
  4. The Faculty (1998)
  5. The Invasion (2007)

Nicole Kidman must be one of the unluckiest stars in Hollywood, having recently starred in at least two big-budget catastrophes. Frank Oz’ The Stepford Wives (2004) was sabotaged by cast members dropping out, extensive reshoots, and competing script revisions that left significant logical plot holes in the finished film. Similarly, Invasion is best described as quite simply a broken movie. One full year after the completion of principal photography under director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall), producer Joel Silver contracted Andy and Larry Wachowski (The Matrix, Speed Racer) to write new scenes to be directed by their protégé James McTeigue (V for Vendetta). Warner Bros. expended $10 million on 17 extra days of shooting in an attempt to reshape what was reportedly a more internal, psychological suspense piece into more commercial thriller.

Nicole Kidman in The Invasion
Do you ever get the feeling that you’re in a terrible movie…?

After a brief, promising opening scene (a flash-forward, we later learn, to a world almost fallen to an alien attack), Invasion quickly descends into full-on sci-fi action cliché. A space shuttle disintegrates on re-entry, carrying a payload of virulent spores bent on world domination. After the real-life loss of the crews of the shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003), this spectacular special effects sequence is about as tasteful as watching CGI skyscrapers crumble.

One of the Wachowski’s late additions was a ridiculously long car chase through the streets of Washington DC (filmed in Baltimore), with psychiatrist Carol (Kidman) behind the wheel of a literally burning Mustang. It’s beyond implausible that a shrink would have the driving skills of a modern-day Bullet (Steve McQueen) or Popeye O’Doyle (Gene Hackman in The French Connection). In fact, Kidman damaged more than her career: she broke several ribs during an accident incurred while shooting the sequence.

The biggest problem is not the clumsily grafted-on action spectacle but the choppy screenplay. It’s painfully obvious to spot the seams between Dave Kajganich’s original script, which one can infer would have made for a more subtle horror story about an alien invasion accomplished without bullets or the exploding of infrastructure, and The Wachowski Brothers’ reduction to the lowest common denominator. The movie is at its best when Carol senses the subtle changes of her city’s daily routine as the invasion spreads. It’s also interesting as she encounters other uninfected survivors that have learned to hide in plain sight. Veronica Cartwright, who appeared in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version, appears as one of Carol’s patients who is apparently naturally immune. She counsels her to pretend to be a Stepford Wife in order to avoid detection by the dispassionate alien intelligences that have taken over most of the population. But these moody sequences are all too brief in-between the car chases and explosions.

Nicole Kidman in The Invasion
“Our world is a better world”

A huge chunk feels missing from the middle; the second act should be a slow discovery of the details of the invasion and a gradual escalation of the conflict. But Carol and her doctor paramour Ben (Daniel Craig) leap to the accurate conclusion of an alien invasion based on only a few observed cases of mild weirdness around them, clearing the rest of the movie’s running time for a series of chase sequences. Worst of all is yet another criminal misuse of poor Jeffrey Wright (reunited with 007 co-star Daniel Craig), a brilliant actor saddled with most of the script’s laughable technobabble that leaves no room to the imagination (the original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers was arguably not specific enough, but the 1978 version found just the right level of gory detail without getting bogged down in tedious pseudoscience).

Jack Finney’s classic sci-fi novel The Body Snatchers has been adapted over and over into movies that illuminate the concerns of the times. Don Siegel’s 1956 original was a thinly-veiled critique of McCarthyism. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake also made sense in a post-Vietnam and Watergate era. Abel Ferrara applied the metaphor to blind obedience and conformity in the military in his 1993 Body Snatchers. Robert Rodríguez found the most perfect setting yet, as he satirized teen peer pressure in high school in The Faculty (1998). What does the oft-told Body Snatchers tale mean today? Invasion is the fourth version of novel, and the second to ditch the notion of replacement bodies. As in The Faculty: the aliens are puppetmaster-like parasites that take over human bodies without permanently harming them. Invasion makes a fleeting reference to other nations publicly combating the alien insurgents. The US is the only one to hide behind a cover story that has the opposite intended effect, only further enabling the invasion to succeed. Invasion might have been a better film if it had focused more on this glimmer of political satire than on Shuttle disasters and burning Mustangs.

Lean, Tailored, and Ferociously Fit: Jason Statham in Transporter 3

Transporter 3, produced by Luc Besson and directed by Olivier Megaton, is an international product tailored for the American market. Despite its French locales, German cars, and adorably freckled Ukrainian hottie, the hero and villain are both quite American. The titular Transporter is Frank Martin (Jason Statham), a fighter and driver par excellence who earns a luxurious but lonely existence as an ask-no-questions courier. The events of his two previous misadventures have reformed his amoral ways and loner habits, as evidenced by his collaborative friendship with former nemesis Inspector Tarconi (François Berléand).

So in order for there to even be a Transporter 3, its plot must corral this reformed man into a caper full of opportunities for carnage and lawbreaking. The villainous American Johnson (Robert Knepper) is conceived as Martin’s evil, less evolved twin: a mercenary like him, but unleavened by conscience. His ill-defined plan involves blackmailing Ukranian politician Leonid Vasilev (Jeroen Krabbe) into allowing a giant corporation to import a tanker full of barrels of toxic waste. At one point Martin is menaced by a truck full of the stuff on land, but the tanker hasn’t docked yet. Confusing.

Natalya Rudakova in Transporter 3
Natalya Rudakova in Transporter 3

Statham is this generation’s Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Segal. He’s already been typecast as the tough loner in a constant series of b-movies (some more B than others, but The Bank Job is a step up), but usually lightens things up with a hint of Jackie Chan-esque self-deprecation. He’s impeccably tailored, lean, and ferociously fit, looking and moving more like a gymnast than the previous generation of slow-moving bodybuilder action heroes. A good drinking game for any Statham film is to drink a shot every time his shirt comes off. You’re likely to get alcohol poisoning in this case.

One of the reasons I enjoy producer Luc Besson’s Transporter franchise is that I dislike being expected to applaud the typical movie action hero that stands back and shoots bad guys from afar. This applies to pretty much any Stallone and Schwarzenegger film, but is also true of even James Bond (in which his fabled license to kill often translates into mowing down rooms full of extras with machine gun fire – or in the case of Moonraker, laser pistols) and Indiana Jones (audiences applaud him for shooting a scimitar-wielding baddie in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but really, is that fair?). In stark contrast, Martin almost never uses any weapon other than his own physicality. Most of the violence in the Transporter films is in the acrobatic, bloodless rock ’em sock ’em style of kung-fu flicks, liberally seasoned with impressive automobile carnage. The first few minutes of Transporter 3 feature a signature sequence in which Martin dispatches a room full of armed baddies using no tools save his own suit jacket. But I was startled to see Martin actually execute a few evildoers later in the film, something I don’t recall him doing in the previous two. It’s wholly out of character, and spoils the fun.

Jason Statham in Transporter 3
It’s never long until Jason Statham’s shirt comes off

What dooms Transporter 3 to be the worst of the franchise is that there are simply not enough action sequences, and what few there are are uninspired. I recall only two more notable action sequences: in one, Martin is tethered to his car by an explosive device (just roll with it), and must catch up to it on foot after it is stolen. Later, he launches it off a bridge onto the top of a speeding train, and then from there smashes it into the body of a detached passenger car. For a movie so concerned with car chases, product it doesn’t help the audience when most of the vehicles are dictated by product placement to be the same brand (Audi) and color (black with tinted windows).

The awkward, eyebrow-raising ending to Transporter 2 left it up in the air as to whether Martin is gay or just an extreme loner. Surprisingly, Transporter 3 actually revives that question and makes it its key subject. When Vasilev’s hot freckled daughter Valentina (Natalya Rudakova) comes on to him, Martin protests he’s “not in the mood” but certainly, absolutely, positively, no way no how, definitely not gay, how could you even ask, good grief. Well, that settles that question, in an rather disappointingly conventional manner. So the end of the film finds Martin not only reconfirmed as a good guy, but also in a steady heterosexual relationship. A key component of both the James Bond and Jason Bourne characters is that their greatest loves were murdered, so they choose to be emphatically alone. Where can Besson take Frank Martin in another sequel? Don’t expect Valentina to last long into Transporter 4.

There’s a Corruption in the Force in Gavin O’Connor’s Pride and Glory

Pride and Glory was one of the last New Line Cinema productions made while still a semi-autonomous company, before being eviscerated by parent company Warner Bros. in 2008. For the morbidly curious, Vanity Fair recently related the sad tale in its latest Hollywood issue. Disclaimer: I worked for New Line Cinema through its end times, but had absolutely nothing to do with actually making or marketing its movies, and nobody there cared what rank-and-file employees thought about the artistic merit of their product anyway.

For still undisclosed reasons, Pride and Glory was completed in 2006, but sat on the shelf for almost two years. Director Gavin O’Connor (Tumbleweeds) publicly blamed New Line (and co-head Bob Shaye in particular) for burying his movie. Stars Edward Norton and Colin Farrel also spoke out about it in the press, clearly disappointed but yet more understanding (perhaps these seasoned actors were more jaded, and unsurprised by studio machinations). New Line countered that the sliding release date was intended to avoid the lead actors’ competing projects from different studios. It was eventually scheduled for March 2008, but not actually released until late 2008.

Colin Farrel and Ed Norton in Pride and Glory
Ed Norton and Colin Farrel as a bent copper in Pride and Glory

This attention helped it become a minor cause célèbre among online movie aficionados that couldn’t resist the bait: a scandalous tale of a suppressed masterpiece. But the sad truth is that Pride and Glory is a god-awful, depressing, pointless mess of a movie. Actually, that’s not fair; it’s not poorly made from a technical standpoint. Not to go out of my way to defend the studio, but it now seems likely there was no actual conspiracy to bury a misunderstood masterpiece. Perhaps New Line simply couldn’t slot the film into its slate, figure out how to market it, or was forced to shunt some projects aside during the stress of the imminent destruction of the entire company. Or maybe even, most unlikely of all, New Line had the sense to realize Pride and Glory just wasn’t a very good movie.

Also contributing to the aura of controversy was the bungled filming of a police funeral scene at the actual ceremony for New York City officer Eric Hernandez, accidentally killed by friendly fire in 2006. The production reportedly promised the family they would be respectful and stay out of their way, but reneged and clumsily intruded on the sensitive affair. Having seen the completed scene, I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t have been effectively staged with a complement of extras in full dress uniform.

Pride and Glory was written by brothers Gavin and Gregory O’Connor. As the sons of a police officer, they had unusual access to the New York Police Department. If their film is supposed to be a tribute to honest cops, its corruption plot must feel like a slap in the face. The movie’s fictional corrupt cops are wholly, utterly evil, with no gradations of character or motivation. Jimmy Egan (Farrel) and a clutch of fellow cops have been skimming money off drug busts for years, and have graduated to murder and selling drugs themselves. Egan’s brother-in-law Ray Tierney (Norton) finds himself in a position where he could turn Egan in. Complicating matters, Tierney’s pop Francis Sr. (John Voight) and brother Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich, brother to New Line executive Toby Emmerich, and typecast as a cop after his role in Little Children) are also in the force. Francis Jr. also knows about the corruption, but doesn’t have the courage to man up. If Ray does the right thing, it will not only tear up his family but the New York Police Department itself. But events conspire such that the good guys don’t have to act; three crooked cops self-destruct of their own accord, and the story reveals itself to the press. Jimmy and Ray are freed to settle their personal grievances as two stereotypical movie Irish cops ought: fisticuffs in a pub.

John Voight in Pride and Glory
John Voight in Pride and Glory. Cheese it, it’s the fuzz!

I suspect O’Connor had pretensions to making another L.A. Confidential, but his result doesn’t measure up to the standards of such a superior film noir. Note the superficial resemblances: police corruption, drugs, family pride. Pride and Glory’s plot only seems complex, but is actually stupid-simple. Exposition scenes basically lay out the plot quite early, draining any sense of mystery or suspense. The dialogue is peppered with a torrent of names that are challenging for the audience to connect with faces, a technique that provides only a superficial complexity to a simple plot.

The tone is absurdly grim and totally humorless, and devoid of any human emotion beyond Ray’s grim sense of duty. The classic film noir element most notably lacking in this boy’s club production is any hint of women or sex. What few women there are in the cast barely figure into the plot. The most significant female character is cancer-stricken Abby (Jennifer Ehle), whose sole purpose in the plot seems to be to humanize husband Francis Jr. Pride and Glory utterly lacks the sense of verisimilitude of the television series The Wire, similarly set in the worlds of inner city drug and police cultures. Now is as good a time as any to state that this blog does not apologize for taking advantage of any opportunity whatsoever to evangelize The Wire.

The setting is a version of New York City that may or may not actually exist. In fact, there’s an unusual disclaimer before the end credits stating its characters and events are totally fictional. Obviously, if there was an actual case of such massive corruption in the NYPD, we’d have heard about it. After the credits, there’s yet another disclaimer I’ve never seen before, stating that no one connected with the production took any money to promote the use of tobacco products. This Dork Reporter don’t smoke, and never has, but is offended by the notion that movies are influential in this way. Granted, movies are a powerful artform, and can affect people’s hearts and minds. The ills of society are real problems that require complex solutions, but censoring movies is not one of them. It’s a cheap and easy way for righteous fools to believe they are combating a problem. Where’s the corresponding worry that little kids will watch this movie and be inspired to grow up to be corrupt cops?

The George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Part 4: Land of the Dead

George A. Romero’s sporadic zombie flicks are sometimes decades apart in production, but nevertheless form a chronological sequence telling the story of the downfall of society from every angle. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is set in the early days, with a few random civilians trapped in a farmhouse. Dawn of the Dead (1979) zooms out a little to see what’s going on in cities and suburbia, and Day of the Dead (1985) examines a final remaining pocket of survivors months into the plague. Land of the Dead opens some time after the zombie epidemic has swept the world, and the surviving dregs of humanity have retreated behind the fortified walls of the ultimate gated community, a city dubbed Fiddler’s Green. Romero has used each of his zombie films to satirically articulate some social commentary, and here his targets seem to be big business and class warfare. Another possible allegorical target is the Israel / Palestine conflict. Have humans walled the zombies out, or walled themselves in?

A man named Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) has set himself up as mayor/president/king of Fiddler’s Green. Kaufman is very much a businessman along the lines of Donald Trump or Michael Bloomberg, so here Romero seems to equate big business with totalitarianism. Kaufman’s machinations ensure that his supposed safe haven is actually a highly tiered class society. The rich live in high-rise comfort while the underclasses starve in skeezy street-level slums. We know society is truly depraved when caged go-go dancers are the only form of entertainment.

Eugene Clark in George A. Romero's Land of the Dead
Wet zombies smell like wet, uh, zombies.

In the world outside, the zombies have long since eaten all humans within reach, and have nothing left to do but stand around. Despite the big budget, there only seem to be about a dozen of them. Some have returned to old routines: working gas stations, pushing shopping carts, and banging tambourines. Dawn of the Dead showed zombies instinctually drawn to the shopping mall (a new American innovation at the time) like pilgrims to Mecca. But Land of the Dead Goes further and suggests they have even greater powers of logic, and can feel actual emotions such as victimization. Their leader Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) is soulful and sympathetic like Bub the zombie from Day of the Dead.

Kaufman sends minions Riley (Nathan Fillon) and Cholo (John Leguizamo) out into the infested wastelands, in caravans of heavily armored vehicles. They distract the “stench” (the derogatory term of choice for the undead) with fireworks as they loot for food and valuables to cart back to stock Kaufman’s larders in Fiddler’s Green. Riley and Cholo are old friends since fallen out, and their relationship provides the one genuinely funny bit of dialogue: happy-go-lucky Cholo tells the perpetually dour Riley: “Didn’t I tell you not to bang chicks with worse problems than you?” That’s not bad advice, actually.

The intelligent zombies, apparently feeling disenfranchised, organize and mount an attack on the city. Anyway, Riley and Cholo finally become disillusioned about Kaufman’s utopia. Together with Slack (Asia Argento, daughter of Dario Argento, who collaborated with Romero on Dawn of the Dead), they try to escape for the imagined safe haven of Canada (as if they think they are merely dodging the draft and not the twin threats of plague and humanity’s own venal overlords). In true Romero fashion, the villainous Kaufman also happens to be a racist, shouting epithets at the zombified Cholo (John Leguizombie?) as he comes to kill him. If there ever were a point in human history when race will have truly become irrelevant, this ought to be it.

Dennis Hopper in George A. Romeros' Land of the Dead
Dennis Hopper as the mayor from hell, or is that the mayor OF hell?

I don’t think Romero and his zombie films would be remembered without the racially charged ending of Night of the Living Dead and the pointed satire of consumerism found in Dawn of the Dead. But if he had started out with something as unfocused as Land of the Dead, he probably wouldn’t have been. Romero admits to Parallax view he didn’t fully work out the analogy: “I have to tell you that even when we started to shoot, I was worried that this isn’t quite clear. Who are the terrorists, is it Cholo and his gang or the zombies? And it gave me a little pause, but we had to start shooting because we had the money. I’m being perfectly honest, I have to sit down and re-analyze it and figure it out. Sometimes you just run on instinct.” Even the roundtable of horror aficionados on InternalBleeding.net agree that the movie is “not scary, but really gross.”

Land of the Dead obviously has the biggest budget of all of Romero’s zombie cycle so far, and remains the only one with well-known stars. But it is only superficially “better” than its predecessors, featuring bigger names and more technological polish. As is the case with many a Hollywood production, raised financial stakes bring a lowering of standards and diminishing returns: more money in, more shit out. A “some time ago…” prologue montage illustrates for the slower members of the audience what zombies are all about. Perhaps the movie studio executives were pitching the film to audiences beyond the usual horror genre ghetto already versed with the zombie genre.



Must read: Homepageofthedead.com’s extensive archive of Land of the Dead info

Must read: The Light That Failed: George Romero’s Dead Rock On by Kathleen Murphy; and George Romero Surveys the Dead by Sean Axmaker, both on Parallax View

You’ve been reading an entry in our George A. Romero Zombie Cycle Film Festival. Join us in revisiting all five canonical episodes in the original epic zombie saga: