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2 Stars Music

Scratching in the Dirt: Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back

As a Peter Gabriel fan for over two decades, it’s difficult to admit that I find myself struggling to appreciate his first new album in years.

There have always been three core things to love about Gabriel’s work: his literate songwriting, meticulous soundscapes, and emotionally expressive voice. Behind the creepily organic album art, Scratch My Back is an experiment in subtraction. It finds Gabriel covering other artists’ songs, accompanied only by solo piano or orchestra (the oddly defensive marketing pitch “No drums, no guitars” says it all). That leaves only the voice. Soulful and gravelly even as a teenage cofounder of Genesis in 1967, Gabriel’s voice should be more than enough to justify anything, so my pat reduction here is not totally fair. Gabriel and John Metcalfe clearly labored over these orchestral arrangements, but I miss the complex sonics of the rock and world music instrumentation that has characterized most of his music for over 40 years.

Gabriel did very nearly the opposite a decade ago, when his high-concept millennium project Ovo made a point of casting Paul Buchanan and The Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser to sing his songs. The most recent collection of his own songs was 2002’s Up, followed in 2009 by the collaborative project Big Blue Ball. Casual fans of his music might not be aware that Gabriel is an active humanitarian, particularly as cofounder of Witness and The Elders, so the temporal gap between his musical ventures is not entirely explained by chronic procrastination (although he would probably be the first to admit he’s easily distracted). Gabriel has stated that he hopes to work on more song-swap projects in the future, but first plans to work on some of his own songs. How long until he prepares a new album over which he can claim sole authorship?

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

Gabriel told the New York Times:

“I was trying to make a grown-up record […] This is treating people as if they can handle difficult music and words. Not that I’ve courted the lowest common denominator before, but there’s a playfulness and childishness in some of my older work that isn’t present on this record.”

He is presumably referring to the media satire of “Games Without Frontiers” and “The Barry Williams Show”, the randy sex romps “Sledgehammer” and “Kiss That Frog”, and the vaudeville silliness of “Excuse Me” and “Big Time”. Gabriel is one of the few musicians that I first listened to as a teenager, but whose music has aged with me. So I would have expected myself to appreciate an album of him covering many songs that I know and love well (particularly David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elbow, and Talking Heads), but I find that I don’t know what to make of Scratch my Back even after repeated listening.

Many songwriters lose their dark edge as they age (case in point: Pink Floyd’s once tortured, prickly Roger Waters is now a big smiley softie), and by all accounts Gabriel should have been following that track too. After leaving Genesis in 1975 to deal with family issues, his first four solo albums were increasingly dark and sinister. But 1986’s So marked a noticeable turnaround in tone and an apparent psychic healing. Now reportedly still pals with his old Genesis cohorts, aging gracefully into a potbelly and gnomish goatee, remarrying, fathering two new sons, and reconciling with his two daughters from a previous marriage, he seemed to be transforming into a cuddly grandfather figure. A trickle of releases over the past decade showed him favoring directly-worded songs for children, including the Oscar-nominated “That’ll Do” (from the movie Babe), the unsubtle “Animal Nation” (from The The Wild Thornberrys Movie), and “Down to Earth” (from Wall-E).

Suddenly, he appears to have reversed back into depressive territory. Nearly every song chosen for Scratch My Back has been transformed into a mournful dirge. Especially when listened to in one sitting, I find many of the interpretations to be too depressing, and I actually like depressing music. My favorite examples along these lines are Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ cry-your-guts-out cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” (from the movie Donnie Darko), and Elbow’s agonizingly heartrending version of U2’s “Running to Stand Still” (from the War Child benefit album Heroes).

Peter Gabriel Scratch My Back

Gabriel’s version of The Magnetic Fields’ “Book of Love” has apparently become something of a sensation on YouTube, licensed in television shows, and played at celebrity weddings. Perhaps I’m coldhearted, but it does absolutely nothing for me. Songwriter Stephin Merritt says his version was sarcastic, while Gabriel’s is deadly serious:

At first I thought, How hilarious, he’s got a completely different take on the song. But after a few listens I find it quite sweet. My version of the song focuses on the humor, and his focuses on the pathos. Of course, if I could sing like him I wouldn’t have to be a humorist.

Did Gabriel just plain miss Merritt’s point, or did he intentionally transform it into something sentimental, singing the same words but altering the instrumentation and delivery? All that said, something to cherish in Gabriel’s cover is the presence of his daughter Melanie on backing vocals.

Elbow’s “Mirrorball” is one of the most ravishing love songs I’ve heard. Elbow remixed Gabriel’s “More Than This” in 2002, providing a more organic rock structure to Gabriel’s perhaps over-processed studio original. But Gabriel does not return the favor here, turning their gorgeous love song into a depressive bummer.

The once case where Gabriel’s bummer-o-vision may have actually been appropriate is with Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble”, which actually does have very dark lyrics.

The original recording of David Bowie’s “Heroes” boasts an unforgettable lead guitar line from Robert Fripp, which by his own rules Gabriel must subtract. He sings Bowie’s Berlin-inspired lyrics in cracked, anguished tones, not an emotion I associate with the song.

The one song I liked immediately was “Listening Wind”. The original is one of the odder tracks on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, and Gabriel rather amazingly draws out a catchy melody embedded in the experimental song.

The Special Edition includes a second cd with four bonus tracks: a cover of The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” and alternate versions of “The Book of Love”, “My Body is a Cage”, and “Heroes”. It might have been interesting to also include some of Gabriel’s past covers, including The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields”, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, and Joseph Arthur’s “In the Sun”. I would have also very much liked to hear instrumental mixes of some of Metcalfe’s orchestral arrangements.

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2 Stars Movies

This’ll Ruin My Day: James Cameron Goes Down the Digital Rabbit Hole in Avatar

Avatar is the perfect distillation of all of James Cameron’s worst tendencies: an obsession with marines (while trying to have it both ways: worshipping the hardware and lingo, but casting them as villains), embarrassingly heinous dialogue (undercutting every dramatic moment with somebody droning flat one-liners like “oh shit” or “this’ll ruin my day”), a token wise Latina available for cleavage and wisecracks (Michelle Rodriguez, more wise than most of the white and/or blue people, anyway), a greater interest in technology over people (both on screen and behind the scenes), and a core anti-war message contradicted by glorified slaughter and explosions.

If Cameron had a purpose in mind for Avatar other than as a showreel of the latest technological breakthroughs, it seems to be an endorsement of violent protest. If so, the civilian population of Iran might find something of interest here. More the pity the Na’vi didn’t happen to be green, in which case critics might be discussing the film in terms of current events instead of being distracted by the shiny special effects masking the soulless narrative and blank acting (with the significant exception of a very funny Giovanni Ribisi and especially Zoe Saldaña, who manages to make an impression despite not technically appearing on screen — as a conventional photograph, anyway).

Yes YesStory Roger Dean Avatar
Detail from Roger Dean’s sleeve for Yes’ YesStory on the left, scene from Avatar on the right.

The official Avatar talking points require mention of the sundry technological breakthroughs that come tethered to every Cameron film, mostly having to do with computers. The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986) were relatively quaint in their utilization of models and stop-motion animation, but The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and Titanic (1997) each debuted incrementally advanced computer animation techniques, for the first time fully integrated with live action photography. I clearly recall watching T2 with an audience gasping and applauding in amazement during a shot in which the liquid metal robot T-1000 (Robert Patrick) literally turned itself inside out. There’s nothing in Avatar to compare to that communal moment of delighted awe in 1991; my 2010 Avatar audience oohed and aahed during the first 3D effects visible in the attached trailers (mostly for disposable kiddie movies like Despicable Me), but our eyeballs were already beaten into submission by the time the main feature rolled, and the packed house sat silently through the 162 minute-long barrage of computer-processed flim-flam.

I’ll spend a paragraph on the positive: Steven Soderbergh, who previously collaborated with Cameron on Solaris, reportedly said after seeing the film that “There’s gonna be before that movie and after“. It is inarguable that Avatar marks the tipping point in at least two key filmmaking techniques we’re certain to see even more of in the immediate future: 3D photography and virtual filmmaking (the congruence of photorealistic CGI with motion capture, basically a turbocharged update to the old practice of rotoscoping). The superlative 3D is applied equally well to both the live-action and animated sequences (indeed, most of the film is a melding of the two). It’s more refined and subtle than any 3D film I’ve seen before, including U23D, Beowulf, and Coraline, all of which resorted to in-your-face showing off common since the early days of The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and Dial M for Murder (1954). Meanwhile, the motion-captured CGI characters are even more smoothly integrated with live-action photography than previous high-water marks like the T-1000 in T2, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy, and Gollum (Andy Serkis) in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And that’s not even to mention the startlingly detailed and immersive computer-generated backgrounds and environments.

Yes Keys to Ascension Roger Dean Avatar
Detail from Roger Dean’s cover for Yes’ Keys to Ascension on the left, Avatar on the right. As artist & filmmaker Dave McKean rightly opined on Twitter, “Roger Dean should sue!”

The other big talking point is of course its staggering expense. It’s hard to remember now, years after Titanic’s box office receipts broke records worldwide, but its $200 million budget was originally an object of ridicule and put the very existence of two vast corporations at stake (20th Century Fox and Paramount). Avatar inflates the accountants’ calculations to the insane level of circa $237 million, but Cameron’s instincts appear again to have been right; Avatar has already (at this time of writing) earned a billion dollars worldwide, a mere two weeks after release.

As guest Dork Reporter Snarkbait wisely predicts, 10 years from now Avatar’s special effects will be laughable, and all that will be left is the story. And when that story is a warmed-over retelling of the European conquest of America (more recently retold in Terrence Malick’s The New World and as SlashFilm notes, Disney’s Pocahontas) set in a sci-fi world seemingly stolen from the paintings of Roger Dean, isn’t the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of technology and years of production all for naught? It’s impossible not to compare this folly to the Star Wars prequels, made long after Lucas fell down the rabbit hole of obsession with filmmaking technology and no longer had anyone around him willing or capable to say no. This Dork Reporter happened to watch (500) Days of Summer and Up in the Air right before and after Avatar, and can attest that there is no substitute for good writing and acting. People will still be rewatching films like those long after Avatar is forgotten.


Must read: The blog Papyrus Watch catches the use of the cliched font in the movie logo and subtitles. Papyrus was designed in 1982 and is now commonly found preinstalled on most computers.

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2 Stars Movies

The Pod People Film Festival: Body Snatchers (1993)

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)

Yet another remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers might seem an odd project for iconoclast director Abel Ferrara, known for gritty urban crime sagas centered around profoundly compromised protagonists. In stark contrast, the lead in Ferrara’s most conventional movie is a good-natured teenage girl, a world apart from the crazed Harvey Keitel of Bad Lieutenant or Christopher Walken of King of New York. Marti’s (Gabrielle Anwar) biggest problems are a nomadic lifestyle, a moody little brother, and a new stepmother.

This version of the bodysnatchers story sheds “Invasion” from the title, which is strange considering it ought to be the key word for a movie focused on the U.S. military, at home not long after the first Gulf War (a conflict thought to be resolved at the time). With America at peace and a Democrat in office, Body Snatchers was probably one of the first mainstream feature films to directly mention the conflict, along with Courage Under Fire (1996) — David O. Russell’s ruthless satire Three Kings being still some ways off. Abbreviating the title was a missed opportunity to play with the ambiguity between a military confirmed as professional, government-sanctioned invaders, and an extraterrestrial force that easily infiltrates them. But don’t worry, the word “Invasion” would be picked up again for Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2007 abomination starring Nicole Kidman.

Gabrielle Anwar in Body Snatchers
Gabrielle, sweetie, you should know better than to take a bath during a horror movie…

On home soil, an Alabama army base under the command of General Platt (who else but R. Lee Ermey?) must suffer the indignity of bending over for The Environmental Protection Agency as it investigates the army’s storage of chemical weapons. The sympathetic Major Collins (Forest Whitaker) reports increasing cases of mental illness in his infirmary (paranoia, fear of sleep, etc.). He suspects the toxic chemicals, making it impossible to miss the allusion to the controversial Gulf War Syndrome.

Marti falls in love with helicopter pilot Tim (Billy Wirth), so bland and flat that it’s hard to tell if he’s a pod person (to be charitable, maybe this was a deliberate casting call, meant to keep the audience guessing). She is befriended by Platt’s punk daughter Jenn (Christine Elise), a refreshing dose of nonconformism among the rank and file – indeed her rebelliousness serves as a canary in the coal mine to measure the progress of the invasion. We genuinely feel for Marti’s little brother Andy (Reilly Murphy, a rare child actor that does not annoy) as he senses his school playmates are “bad” and witnesses his stepmother (Meg Tilly) die firsthand. Incidentally, Tilly’s performance as the pod-stepmother is excellently weird.

Meg Tilly in Body Snatchers
“Where you gonna go, where you gonna run, where you gonna hide? Nowhere… ’cause there’s no one like you left.”

Like Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version of the same material, Ferrara indulges in the gore and female nudity de rigueur to the horror genre. Marti disrobes for a very close encounter with groping alien tendrils in a bathtub, and later runs through an infirmary full of gross, half-formed pod people. The very pretty Anwar is so convincingly young-looking that her unexpected nude scenes make one feel decidedly uncomfortable.

In all three versions of the story so far, a pod person delivers some variation of the following warning to human resistors: there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and there’s no one else left like you. So why do the pod people always work so hard to chase down the few remaining humans? On the evidence of Body Snatchers, they’re still very easily defeated, and the climactic ending is something of a dud.

The infected army base plots to distributes pods to other bases, and eventually amass an armed force capable to taking over the world. But Marti and Tim manage to blow up the base and as entire convoy with just one helicopter. Why was it fully armed during peacetime, anyway? The first film ended with humans just beginning to mobilize against the invaders. The second ended with humanity totally overswept. Now the third ends with us winning. How will Nicole Kidman fare in Invasion? Tune in after our next review, an interlude to look at Robert Rodríguez’ enjoyable homage The Faculty, to find out…

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2 Stars Movies

The Pod People Film Festival: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

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)

For a pulpy 1950s horror flick relating the strange tale of an invasion of giant brussels sprouts, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a startlingly gory, paranoid nightmare positively loaded with political subtext. Its themes of identity, mistrust, and subversion have remained relevant and influential for decades, inspiring three official remakes and even left-field homages like Robert Rodríguez’ high school melodrama The Faculty. Not only has “pod people” entered the lexicon, its screenplay is highly quotable (“They’re here already! You’re next!”) and sometimes even rather poetic: “There’ll be no more tears.”

The movie can be a bit frustrating to modern science fiction aficionados used to high pseudo-scientific detail. The aliens’ life cycle seems illogical and not fully thought-through, to the extent that it harms the plot. It seems a victim simply must be in proximity to an alien pod for it to begin to grow into your shape. We also learn that a pod absorbs its host’s memories when it sleeps, but we see Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) duplicated after falling asleep alone in a cave devoid of any visible pods. What happens to the original bodies? How do the pod-born duplicates wind up wearing the host’s clothes? Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake is more clear on the process, with the added benefit of allowing for more explicit gore and female nudity to tart things up a bit. The 2007 remake Invasion solves these problems by sidestepping the issue entirely, featuring a breed of aliens that literally invade your body – a mild condition which is, it turns out, curable. Ask your doctor, or better yet, date one!

Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter in Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Eat your brussels sprouts! Or you’re next!

As Matthew Dessem points out in his analysis of The Blob for the Criterion Contraption, certain 1950s horror and sci-fi movies beg to be interpreted as metaphors for key atomic age issues: Godzilla, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Blob among them. But these monsters look just like us. So let’s give it a shot. Interpretation one: the movie manifests a generalized fear of a homogenized American culture. A pod person is discovered in an intermediary state, totally devoid of individual characteristics like a mannequin. Perhaps America’s fabled melting pot, brought to an absurd conclusion, could result in a dead-end monoculture of of uniform religion, politics, and behavior. Interpretation two: the story is a thinly veiled metaphor for McCarthyism, the contemporary Red Scare that envisaged insidious Communist sleeper cells already among us, threatening to undo American churches, families, private wealth, and government. In either interpretation, the invaders are convinced their systems of belief are correct, and honestly believe they are helping us by absorbing us into their ranks.

Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter in Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Pod person in the corner pocket.

The premise may be deliciously cynical, but the movie does end on a possible note of hope. Our hero Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) manages to reach some uninfected human authority figures, and corroborating evidence helps him convince them to mobilize against the threat. But does this call to action come too late? From the perspective of 2009, America looks increasingly polarized and partisan. If the pod people are already here, which side are they on? As Sarah Palin might say, the Real America? I’m sure they only want to help.

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2 Stars Movies

George Lucas Cedes Control: Star Wars: The Clone Wars

After writing and directing three Star Wars prequels between 1999-2005, it’s easy to forget that back in the 1980s, series godfather George Lucas opted out of directing Episodes IV: The Empire Strikes Back and V: Return of the Jedi. Now Lucas appears once again to be ceding control over his most famous baby. He’s back to shepherding along splinter projects like The Clone Wars from the more aloof role of Executive Producer.

For anyone else confused, as I certainly was, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a feature-film sequel to the 2003-2005 Cartoon Network television series “Star Wars: Clone Wars,” in turn followed by a second series with the same name as the movie. Got that? There are much bigger differences than swapping a colon for a definitive article, starting with the visual look itself. The best thing about the original series was its bold, striking visual style, realized in a hand-drawn line-art look similar to Genndy Tartakovsky’s previous show Samurai Jack. From what little I understand of the process, CGI animation created in 3D can still be rendered in a flat 2D style, giving it the look of traditional hand-drawn cell animation. So the characters in the original at least appeared hand-drawn even though they almost certainly weren’t.

Ashley Eckstein and Matt Lanter in Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Anakin trains a young propellerhead

However, the feature film sequel looks like director Dave Filoni opted to skip that step and render the characters with full 3D shading. The result resembles a rough animatic or a throwaway videogame cut scene. Filoni gets kudos for not aiming for photorealism, which becomes very creepy when approaching the uncanny valley – the point where animated characters look almost, but not quite, like real humans. Look with fear upon the nightmarish zombie horrorshows Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, and Beowulf (the latter being a huge step forward, but still not quite there yet). But The Clone Wars’ particular brand of stylization just seems cheap to me; I would have preferred the cool-looking 2D characters as they appeared in the TV series.

The Clone Wars is canon within the Star Wars universe, but no one (probably not even Lucas himself) would ever consider it as primary as its six older siblings. One advantage to being relegated to the second tier is a freedom to violate venerable Star Wars traditions. The classic opening crawl is gone, replaced with a Citizen Kane-style newsreel catching the audience up with the key facts needed to make sense of what’s going on in between all the ‘splosions. That particular change is a shame, but brace yourself for some heresy when I admit I find another change rather welcome: Kevin Kiner’s very non-John Williams-esque score. As much as Williams’ music was the soundtrack of my childhood (my entire generation can sing the Star Wars, Jaws, and Indiana Jones themes a cappella, on cue), I had long since tired of him. The point at which I lost it was the wall-to-wall blanket of redundant music that threatened to drown out the already almost overwhelming Saving Private Ryan.

The Clone Wars series and movie are both set chronologically between the events of Episodes II: Attack of the Clones and III: Revenge of the Sith, a razor-thin slice of time in which nothing of import really happened in Star Wars continuity. The movies already showed us how the war began and ended, so The Clone Wars movie and series are basically war stories. This is actually a good thing in light of how the prequel trilogy often became bogged down in tedious political procedure involving interplanetary trade routes. The series was by its nature a string of vignettes, but the feature film still feels like an episodic tour through a number of spectacular battles. A particularly gripping and exciting battle takes place on a vertical cliff face, “shot” with a hand-held “camera.” Lucas was sure to conceive of his two armies as droids and masked clones, allowing for carnage and huge body counts without a drop of blood (not to mention the economical reuse of costumes, and now, digital models). I remain puzzled, however, how clones and droids can have names, ranks, and varying skill sets. This writer grew up with the original trilogy, and still has trouble accepting stormtroopers being on the side of the good guys.

Tom Kane in Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Yoda’s looking more “kitten” than “turtle” today

The TV series focused mostly on the battles, but the movie squeezes a fragment of a plot in between the action set pieces. Anakin Skywalker is inconveniently charged with training Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), an annoying teen “padawan learner” (a Lucasism for “apprentice” that still sounds very much like a George W. Bush malapropism). I still find it difficult to accept that the Anakin we see here and in Episode III is so close to the tipping point to absolute corruption that he will soon betray the Rebels and become the embodiment of evil, Darth Vader. At this point, he still seems a merely moody and impetuous kid horny for the girlfriend he left behind on Naboo. Being responsible for the spunky, goodhearted Ahsoka certainly does little to help him attain the state of emotional detachment Lucas equates with goodness.

Even though there’s no doubt a great deal of very expensive technology behind this kind of animation, it’s still cheaper than mounting a live-action production. Animation, where anything is possible, is also the best way for the Star Wars franchise to expand the stories of its existing characters, when the original actors have aged, become too expensive, disinterested, or passed away. So why focus only on the prequel characters? Why not tell more tales starring the trinity that everybody really loves: Luke, Leia, and Han? Is Lucas afraid that messing with the canonical heroes generations of fans have taken to heart is to risk fatally wounding their deep emotional connection to the mythos? Or to be cynical, he may always utilize the various masked characters (Chewbacca, Boba Fett, Jabba the Hut, Darth Vader, C-3PO, R2-D2) in anything at any time without clearing actors’ likenesses. That said, some of the original cast do lend their voices to The Clone Wars, including Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Daniels, and Christopher Lee. James Arnold Taylor does an excellent impression of Ewan McGregor’s excellent (in turn) impression of Alec Guinness.

One last thing: it wouldn’t be Star Wars without at least one offensively characterized alien. Jabba’s uncle Ziro the Hutt (Corey Burton) is inexplicably voiced as an old Southern queen.

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2 Stars Movies

I Came to Save the World: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

If the least one expects of the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still is that it merely fulfill the promise of its title, then please move right along, for the earth stands still only a few moments. It is, however, a far bigger production than the 1951 original directed by Robert Wise (read The Dork Report review), even accounting for the inflation of filmmaking technology and audience expectation for spectacle. As if to overcompensate for the original’s now admittedly amusing implausibilities and the silly giant robot and flying saucer, it tries too hard to impress with too many unconnected ideas and excessive hustle and bustle. It’s even rather inappropriately macho, with more unconvincing digital helicopters and military hardware than a typical Michael Bay movie. At least it’s much, much better than the disastrous Invasion (the third official remake of The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers).

It does get off to a good start with a prologue in which a lone mountain climber (Keanu Reeves) discovers a glowing orb in 1928 India. The sequence is mysterious and interesting, but ultimately unimportant to the plot. We later learn that the orb was an alien probe that copied the climber’s DNA, from which to grow a surrogate body for the alien Klaatu (Reeves again) decades later. Even the most basic plausibility is violated as humans dissect his alien body without biosuits or any kind of quarantine at all. One wonders if earlier drafts of the screenplay involved Klaatu’s captors initially misidentifying him as a missing person from 1928. A missed opportunity would be a scene in which the aged original adventurer comes face-to-face with an alien mimicking his youthful self. But as it stands, this whole subplot acts as a distraction. The original movie simply presented the alien as humanoid (if a little unusually tall and angular) and that was enough. The notion of a alien being reborn in a new body is interesting but an unnecessary complication, one that only raises questions unrelated to the central themes. Klaatu is lucky his template was the handsome Reeves (at one point, he steals a schlumpy guy’s suit and it fits as if it were tailored for him). Supposedly this body is human, but he exerts superpowers including the transmutation of electricity into some kind of sketchily-described life force. In this respect, the original is better; Klaatu outwardly looks like us, period, end of story. Isn’t that enough? Another extraneous idea, superfluous to the core story: Klaatu’s giant omnipotent robot companion Gort is now comprised of a swarm of nanobots. Why have both a giant robot and itsy-bitsy nanobots? Pick one idea and run with it.

Keanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood Still
Keanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood Still

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; first we must fulfill another genre cliche. The Day the Earth Stood Still lines up after the likes of The Happening, The Day After Tomorrow, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Deep Impact, Watchmen, and Cloverfield (the list goes on, and on…) to take another stab at decimating poor New York City. When humanity detects an unidentified object set to strike Manhattan, Dr. Michael Grainer (Man Men’s Jon Hamm) assembles a crack team of diverse experts including astrobiologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) to fly around in black helicopters and gawp helplessly at all the special effects. Luckily, for the moment at least, the object turns about to be a spacecraft. In 1951, alien emissary Klaatu (Michael Rennie) went to Washington like Mr. Smith. In 2008, this Klaatu figures the place to make a grand entrance is Manhattan’s Central Park (never mind that the United Nations headquarters is on the East Side). Fans of computer-generated destruction of the sort in which Roland Emmerich traffics will be pleased to see Central Park forcibly landscaped before the movie is over. During the final climax in the Park, I’m pretty sure the principals hide under the exact same bridge as the survivors at the end of Cloverfield.

Like the original, it’s credited as being based on the 1940 short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates. Its cinematic touchstones include The Brother From Another Planet and The Man Who Fell to Earth. But it shares a critically flawed plot element with the more recent Watchmen (read The Dork Report review). In the latter, mortal heroine Silk Spectre must convince Dr. Manhattan, an ambivalent nonhuman that couldn’t care less, to save the world. Klaatu arrives on Earth to receive the report of an earlier agent, who confirms humans are self destructive by nature. That’s enough for Klaatu to begin to purge the planet, but the agent goes on and tries to impress upon him human’s complexity. Klaatu is unswayed. Helen and her son Jacob (Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith) try to do the same and succeed just as Silk Spectre did, but in both cases the audience can’t quite understand how their arguments go through to superior beings one step away from godhood. Because she’s pretty, and her kid whines so much that Klaatu caved in just to shut him the hell up? Personally, if I was an alien judging humanity, and I met such an insanely annoying kid, I would purge the planet too. The movie would merit at least one more Dork Report star if the kid hadn’t been in it.

Jennifer Connelly in The Day the Earth Stood Still
Jennifer Connelly in The Day the Earth Stood Still

Jennifer Connelly is sadly wasted, again. As in Ang Lee’s otherwise underrated Hulk, she’s relegated to second-billing below the computer effects. The great Kathy Bates fares even worse in a role anyone could have played. As for the legendary John Cleese’s cameo as a mad scientist, I assume the idea was to cast a slightly kooky personality with a British accent to project intelligence to dumb American audiences. But the formerly manic Cleese has mellowed out so much in his later years that they could have just cast any old Brit.

The original Day the Earth Stood Still was quite obviously a Cold War parable, if a little muddled in its particulars. This version skirts the politics of war, choosing instead to recast the basic premise as an eco-parable. Much like M. Night Shyamalan’s Happening (read The Dork Report review), New York’s Central Park is ground zero for an ecological catastrophe. Part of Klaatu’s mission is to save samples of the Earth’s biosphere, which the Secretary of Defense (Bates) explicitly equates to the Biblical tale of Noah’s Ark.

Wikipedia notes the film was a largely green production, in which the crew recycled or donated props and costumes, and utilized a central intranet to reduce paper waste. But within the story itself, for an alien concerned about cleaning up the Earth, Klaatu is quite content to ride back and forth from Manhattan to New Jersey in a gas-guzzling SUV (the manufacturer of which no doubt provided product placement).

Finally, some questions: exactly how much of the world is decimated in the end? How does Klaatu expect humanity to clean up the planet when he’s already destroyed most of the infrastructure? Imagine all the homelessness, starvation, chaos, rioting, and looting that must be dealt with before any government could even begin to think about ozone holes or carbon collection. Also, Klaatu’s species has the technology to disintegrate all manmade materials on an entire planet, but he totally dismisses out of hand the idea of cleaning up our pollution for us, or at least lending us the technology? The original Klaatu had more faith in humanity.

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2 Stars Movies

Circumnavigating The Guggenheim in Tom Twyker’s The International

The International is a disappointment coming from Tom Tykwer, director of the kinetic classic Run Lola Run, the mystical The Princess & The Warrior, and the lunatic, perverse Perfume. The International is by far his most conventional in subject matter, and lacking his energy and spirit. It especially suffers in comparison to its closest contemporary rivals in the globe-trotting action/suspense field, Jason Bourne and James Bond.

Eric Singer’s original screenplay unravels the sort of paranoid conspiracy theory that only exists in fiction, but in fact is based on an actual scandal involving the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), which collapsed in 1991. But the fictionalized story makes use of ridiculous contrivances that reduce a massive international investigation down to a two-handed operation involving disgraced Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and Manhattan District Attorney (and MILF) Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts).

Clive Owen and Naomi Watts in The International
For the love of God, will somebody please tell me where Tykwer hid the camera?!

Speaking of, The International is a true waste of Watts’ talent (watch Mulholland Drive and Funny Games for a primer). A potentially shocking moment comes when her character is hit by a car. Not to sound bloodthirsty, but it might have been very interesting for her character to make an untimely exit from the movie, a la Julianne Moore in Children of Men) and Janet Leigh in Psycho. But she escapes with just an arm brace, with as little impact on the plot as on her body.

Clive Owen in The International
Circumnavigating The Guggenheim

The International’s best purpose is perhaps as porn for those with an architectural fetish. Much has been made of the production’s recreation of New York’s Guggenheim Museum interior on a European soundstage. But the extended firefight sequence is disappointing and clumsy. Michael Mann is often credited for being the master of such sequences, and for good reason. He utilizes his total command of space in Heat’s street shootout and Collateral’s nightclub battle. You never forget where all the characters are in relation to each other and the surrounding architecture. Likewise Paul Greengrass’ work in The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum. But The International’s grand shootout is a senseless jumble, and even the total number of assailants seems to wildly fluctuate. First there are two… no, four… no, eight! And the last two are right above you… no, wait, they’re loitering on the ground floor. A mess.

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2 Stars Movies

John Erick Dowdle’s Zombie Fauxmentary Quarantine

Quarantine, remade by director John Erick Dowdle (co-written with brother Drew) from the Spanish movie REC (2007), follows in the now-firmly established horror fauxmentary tradition. Previous entries Blair Witch Project, Diary of the Dead, and Cloverfield are all ostensibly comprised of found footage recovered from cameras found at the scenes of horrific disasters. Quarantine’s only wrinkle is that, unlike its predecessors, this pretense is not explained as such on screen. Quarantine’s conceit is that we’re watching raw footage, edited in-camera, abandoned by the late characters themselves. There are no implied, unseen survivors that picked up the pieces.

Cloverfield never provided a convincing psychological motivation to explain why its cinematographer would keep his camcorder running throughout his desperate flight from toxic alien creatures swarming across Manhattan. A much more intelligent examination of an obsession to capture everything on video came from the less expected source of none other than the zombie godfather himself, George A. Romero. His underrated Diary of the Dead features a group of young film students with pretensions to becoming great documentarian filmmakers, and what better subject to document than their own first-hand experiences during a zombie outbreak? Although Cloverfield had significantly greater budgetary resources at its disposal to create eerily realistic images of Manhattan crumbling beneath the feet of a Godzilla-like monster, Quarantine follows in the more modest footsteps of Diary of the Dead in striving for greater psychological realism.

In story terms, the justifications for Quarantine’s characters to keep filming continually evolve as their circumstances worsen. Like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Quarantine features members of the press as main characters. The first full 12 minutes are devoted to reporter Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter) and cameraman Scott Percival (Steve Harris) shooting a television news segment on a local fire department. By the time an emergency finally arrives and the duo hitches a ride along to the scene, we’ve become fully endeared to the bubbly, spunky reporter and the charmingly filthy firefighters. As the routine investigation turns into a confrontation with a feral-seeming elderly woman, Angela senses the opportunity to score some sensational footage. It’s clear she fancies herself a more serious reporter.

Jennifer Carpenter in Quarantine
In true horror movie fashion, Angela (Jennifer Carpenter) sheds layers of clothing throughout her ordeal

Later, as the elderly woman is revealed to be patient zero for a new highly contagious disease, the Los Angeles Center for Communicable Disease quickly quarantines the building, cutting off all their communications and falsely reporting to the public that it has been evacuated. The trapped tenants are a random assortment of Los Angelans: an opera tutor and his hot young live-in protégé, a veterinarian, a cleaning woman, a mom and her baby (whom we meet again near the end of the film, in horrifying transformed fashion), toy dogs, an immigrant couple, and… what’s missing? That’s right! If this is L.A., where are all the unemployed actors?

Building manager Yuri (Rade Serbedzija) keeps conveniently remembering exits (including a back door and a basement entry to a sewer), but all are blocked. By this point, Angela has morphed into a righteous crusader wanting more footage as proof of the city’s outrage against justice and human rights. But when the virus spreads to most of the people trapped in the building, the power goes off, and panic truly sets in, Angela’s motivations switch to pure survival. The camera now only proves useful as a source of light, and anything captured on video happens by chance as they frantically navigate through the corridors. Then, in true horror movie fashion, things get even worse. In a scene rivaling the nail-biting basement sequence in Silence of the Lambs, Angela and Scott find themselves barricaded in a pitch-black attic with their camera’s lamp broken. The remainder of the movie is seen through the greenish haze of their night-vision filter.

While Quarantine may seem to tip its hat to horror tradition as protagonist Angela sheds layers of clothing over the course of her ordeal, the movie is actually quite subversive in showing her lose her spirit. Atypically for a horror movie protagonist, she is no plucky survivor that defeats the menace. She pretty much just breaks down.

Scott Percival in Quarantine
ground floor, coming up

Quarantine may be yet another in a long line of zombie flicks, but I would argue its true genre identity is as an urban nightmare. Cloverfield relived 9/11 in the form of another Godzilla and its highly toxic babies, and Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic envisioned swarms of giant cockroaches breeding in abandoned subway stations. Quarantine touches on another deep anxiety of urban dwellers: a viral contagion born of city filth. The entire outbreak plays out in the confines of an aging tenement building (with what seems to be a clothing sweatshop hidden in the back), a place many city slickers might recognize as home.

What made Quarantine the most frightening for me in particular was not the gore or the booga-booga scare factor, but rather the disturbing plausibility of its fictional disease. In reality, all we hear about are the dangers of diseases like HIV jumping from bushmeat to humans, and the avian or swine flu incubating in impoverished nations where people live in close quarters with animals. What about those of us living in developed, supposedly civilized cites, full of dogs, roaches, rats, and yes, a certain number of crazy nutjobs?

A hyper-evolved form of the rabies virus is the most plausible pseudo-scientific explanation I’ve yet heard for zombies, especially compared to the vaguely described Venusian radiation in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Like the “superflu” in Stephen King’s The Stand and the distilled “rage” virus in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, this strain of rabies was genetically engineered by a lone terrorist holed up in the attic of the tenement. An ominous clue is dropped halfway through the film about an unaccounted-for tenant living in the attic. When we finally meet him, he appears to have been infected for quite some time. Blind and emaciated, he scrambles around in the total darkness of his former home and laboratory (scattered with disgusting medical photos and newspaper clippings about Doomsday Cults). The creepy figure is played by the unusually tall and slender Doug Jones, most recently seen as the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four and Abe Sapien in Hellboy. I worked on the official website for Guillermo Del Toro’s marvelous Pan’s Labyrinth, for which Jones was interviewed about his experiences playing The Faun and The Pale Man; for someone that so typically plays monsters, he’s a super-nice, funny, and charming dude. I skimmed through the bonus features on the Quarantine DVD, and it’s a crying shame that he apparently wasn’t interviewed.

In place of a musical score, Quarantine features a complex sound design built around an eerily creaking, groaning old building. It also forgoes other standard movie pleasures, being a gruesome, depressing, and punishing experience. In that respect, it’s similar to how the nauseatingly (literally) bleak Blindness. In contrast, the sublime Children of Men is the rare movie nightmare set at the brink of the end of humanity that nevertheless carries a spark of uplift and hope.

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2 Stars Movies

Bill Maher Preaches to the Converted in Larry Charles’ Religulous

Standup comedian and occasional b-movie star Bill Maher remade himself into a satirical political pundit on the cable TV shows Politically Incorrect and Real Time. He most famously spoke truth to power when he defied the conventional wisdom after 9/11 and correctly stated that one thing the perpetrators were not were cowards. Not surprisingly, he was swiftly fired by Comedy Central. Had he stopped there, his arguable legacy would have been to blaze the trail for the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to crossover from the gutter of comedy to mainstream political punditry. Maher’s peer Al Franken went even further, from heckler to actual political participant.

But Maher was not content to stop there. His latest incarnation is, for better or worse, the popular face of a growing movement against organized religion. Unlike the rational scientist Richard Dawkins (mostly rational, that is; his recent statements against children’s fantasy literature like Harry Potter reveal him to be at best a killjoy and at worst a censor) and the even more strident Christopher Hitchens, Maher uses comedy and outright mockery to advance the cause of atheism in the sometimes disturbingly theocratic American society. This Dork Reporter is on his side, but isn’t sure Maher and his movie Religulous is really what atheists need to combat the encroachment of church upon state. As Michael Moore is to liberals, so too may Maher be to atheists everywhere: is he really the best spokesperson?

Bill Maher in Religulous
A Jew and a talk show host walk into a bar… oh, you’ve heard this one?

Religulous teams Maher with director Larry Charles, also responsible for the high-concept low art Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) and Brüno (2009). While Borat and Bruno fall on the fauxmentary end of the continuum, Religulous skirts with being an actual documentary but stops short of pretensions to impartiality. Maher and Charles talk their way into enemy territory like the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, the Creation Museum in Kentucky (a temple to the denial of basic science that would be hilarious were it not such an astounding celebration of willful ignorance), and the Truckers’ Chapel in Raleigh. Maher and Charles may have used subterfuge to gain access, but the finished film is open about their deception. The filmmakers openly brag over such stunts by proudly including footage of the Holy Land Experience’s publicist freaking out at the presence of a bunch of godless liberals armed with a camera. All of this attitude is actually not necessary; the film is at its best when Maher allows his interviewees to simply talk their way into deep graves (which most of these intolerant ignoramuses do with great gusto).

My biggest issue with the movie is its use of satirical editorial juxtaposition that on at least one occasion is outright racist. I agree it’s fun to snicker at clips of cheesy old biblical movies, easy to mock the nauseatingly confused “former homosexual” Pastor John Wescott of Exchange Ministries with snippets of gay porn, and chuckle at the bald scam being run by José Luis de Jesús Miranda, a Puerto Rican claiming to be the direct descendent of Jesus Christ. But Maher refers to African American preacher Pastor Jeremiah Cummings’ gold jewelry as “bling” and intercuts footage of a comically stereotypical pimp. Wescott is obviously in deep denial, and Cummings and Miranda are despicable crooks out for nothing but their own profit, but such cheapshots are uncalled for.

Bill Maher in Religulous
And on the third day, Jesus went to Orlando

In the midst of all this fervent madness, it’s somewhat surprising that the Catholic Church and even the Vatican itself come across as the most enlightened. Maher is kicked out of the Vatican proper, but meets with the supremely sane and rational Father George Coyne, head of the Vatican observatory. Coyne is one man of the cloth, at least, that does not deny science or celebrate ignorance. Maher also strikes interview gold with the hilariously outspoken former Vatican scholar Father Reginald Foster.

The plot thickens! Maher does not actually self-identify as an atheist. As he told The Onion’s A.V. Club,

I’m not an atheist. There’s a really big difference between an atheist and someone who just doesn’t believe in religion. Religion to me is a bureaucracy between man and God that I don’t need. But I’m not an atheist, no. I believe there’s some force. If you want to call it God… I don’t believe God is a single parent who writes books.

Whether Maher positions himself as an atheist or merely a crusader against oppressive organized religion, he takes a kind of gleeful pride in it. Smug atheists can be just as insufferable as holier-than-thou theists. Even before becoming a self-appointed voice against religion, Maher had become somewhat infamous for louche behavior (dating and sometimes marrying strippers, frequenting the Playboy Mansion, etc.). His outspoken opinions and tabloid-ready behavior probably don’t help theists take him seriously. I imagine most fundamentalists picture atheists as being like Maher: proud, condescending, and shirking of the responsibility of religious-derived morals (in other words, not having hell to motivate them to not sin). What I think believers need to understand is many people arrive at atheism only after protracted periods of difficult soul searching, and aren’t necessarily smug about it.

Religulous may be preaching to the converted, but it can’t ever hurt to keep the pressure on those that would oppress and exploit others by claiming to have the ear of God.

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2 Stars Movies Music

Orifices in Place of Faces: The Flaming Lips: Christmas on Mars

The Flaming Lips are an odd band to have achieved mainstream success. After years of noncommercial psychedelic art-rock experimentation like the four-disc Zaireeka (1997), they broke through to mass appeal with The Soft Bulletin (1999) and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002). The latter features the finest existential love song to ever become the official rock song of Oklahoma:

Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round
     — Do You Realize??

Wayne Coyne in Christmas on Mars
The Alien Super-Being gets great reception

The Lips also have more ambition than most of their contemporaries when it comes to the audiovisual aspects of a rock group’s responsibilities. They were inspired by how some of their forebears did more than contract third parties to film them live in concert or to direct hagiographic documentaries. The Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Yellow Submarine), The Who (Tommy, Quadrophenia), and Pink Floyd (The Wall) all made feature films that deserve to be considered among their canonical audio-only discography. As Lips frontman Wayne Coyne told Pitchfork:

we’d always talked about how the Flaming Lips should have a movie, like the Ramones have a movie, or the Beatles. Not in a pretentious way, just like, “Yeah! We should have a movie!” We thought, “Well, why not? We’ll just sort of make one and see what happens.”

They began talking up Christmas of Mars years ago, and the longer the delay, the greater the legend. It was rumored to be either an expensive folly on the scale of Axl Rose’s album Chinese Democracy (in production for 14 years for a budget of $13 million) or an elaborate meta joke. But in fact, the Lips did in all seriousness work on the project off and on for about seven years. They produced the whole thing in their stomping grounds of Oklahoma City, mostly around Coyne’s own home. For better or for worse, it’s entirely their vision, written and co-directed by Coyne, with Bradley Beesley (who directed several of the band’s music videos) and George Salisbury.

Surely Coyne & co. must have been familiar with the infamous b-movie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) (in the public domain and a free download). The spectacularly awful movie was hilariously massacred on both Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1991 and by Cinematic Titanic in 2008. Like this ignoble predecessor, Christmas on Mars is saddled with long sequences of bad dialogue delivered poorly by amateur actors. Even cameos by the Lips’ pals Fred Armisen and Adam Goldberg are really awkward.

Partly inspired by the psychedelia of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Christmas on Mars actually owes more to the blue-collar atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s Alien. The humans in Christmas on Mars are ordinary people in an extraordinary locale, struggling to survive. One year prior, humanity has established a dilapidated space station on Mars. Worse, the crew members are slowly going mad and suffering hallucinations. As they conclude, man is not meant to live in space. The sole purpose of the colony, other than constantly repairing its decaying infrastructure, seems to be to support a test-tube baby due on midnight, Christmas Eve. The only woman on the station lives in a bubble, feeding the baby through a tube grafted into her belly.

Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd in Christmas on Mars
The Lips discretely invite you to enhance your viewing experience in whatever manner you choose

Major Syrtis (Lips member Steven Drozd) has taken it upon himself to organize a Christmas Pageant to raise morale. He is in fact partially responsible for their current predicament, as he apparently sacrificed storage space to cart some Christmas accoutrements to Mars, a decision that has near-fatal consequences for the colony. The colony’s only source for happiness is very nearly ruined when his chosen Santa commits suicide. The Alien Super-Being (Coyne) lands nearby in a spherical spacecraft, which conveniently shrinks to a size suitable to be swallowed until he needs it again. Even though Coyne wrote the script, and is quite a talker if the DVD’s bonus interviews are to be judged, the role he assigned himself has no dialogue. He fills Santa’s shoes and repairs both Syrtis’s busted snow machine and the colony itself. He saves Christmas and allows the baby to be born.

Far more interesting are the beautiful optical special effects (at least, I assume they’re optical – if they actually are digital, they’re uncommonly beautiful). Some of the abstract psychedelia was so freaky I feared it might burn out my aging television. Most curious is the strange preoccupation with vaginal imagery. The Alien Super-Being passes in and out of his spaceship through a vaginal portal. Syrtis hallucinates a visiting spaceman with a pulsating vagina for a face, and later dreams of an entire marching band with similar orifices in place of faces (say that ten times quickly).

A pre-movie sequence advises viewers to have sex, smoke pot, or just do whatever they like while watching the movie. This boring Dork Reporter dared to disobey these instructions and simply watched it alone at home, stone cold sober. Not to put too fine a point on it, I suspect Christmas on Mars is one of those things best experienced in an altered state.