Thursday, February 18, 2010

Film Yap: Dennis Lehane and His Mysteries

Genre films always have a certain stigma next to them. Even if it a great science fiction film, it will always be labeled as a sci-fi film not just a film. Mysteries are the exact same way in film and literature. The only time mysteries tend to be generally accepted is when they “transcend the genre,” which is a bit condescending. It implies that mysteries can only be good when they are not mysteries. However, that is not always the case. Sometimes it just means the snobs like a mystery and need to figure out an explanation.

One of the major authors who keeps seeming to “transcend the genre” is Dennis Lehane. Throughout the 90s he became an unexpected powerhouse with his Kenzie-Gennaro series. From his very first novel, A Drink Before the War, his skill as a writer was very apparent. His second book, Darkness Take My Hand, was named one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century. Another one of his books was positively featured in the book Mystery Muses, which I may be biased but I believe it’s amazingly edited.

So he was popular among the mystery community, but in 2001 he became huge. His novel Mystic River shook everything up. This was his first stand-alone novel and it received an incredible amount of praise from beyond the genre. This is when Hollywood started to take an interest. Clint Eastwood adapted Mystic River to a critically acclaimed movie that was ultimately nominated for Best Picture. (It lost to some obscure movie about midgets and rings.) Four years later Tinsel Town returns to Lehane territory and adapted his novel Gone Baby Gone and once again it was nominated for an Academy Award.

This weekend yet another Lehane adaptation is being released and by none other than Martin Scorsese. In a town that doesn’t adapt enough mysteries, why are filmmakers constantly returning to Dennis Lehane? First off, he really is a great writer. How good? He wrote for The Wire, which is synonymous with the word “perfection.” However The Wire is not a film so I shall stop yapping about it. It seems like Hollywood also returns to Lehane’s work because the rich emotions and themes surrounding the mysteries.

With the success of these three films, there is the opportunity to look into more mystery series. I am shocked there hasn’t been a proper Harry Bosch novel on the silver screen. Michael Connelly is truly one of the best writers alive today. Not only is he critically drooled over, but also he’s always on the New York Times Bestseller list. There is an obvious audience there. (I do want to note that Eastwood adapted Connelly’s Blood Work but that was a failure.) In fact mysteries typically encompass the bestseller lists. Why is Ghost Rider or Elektra a safer property than Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series, Max Allan Collin’s Quarry series or literally anything by Laura Lippman. We can do this Hollywood; look at what works! Let 2011 be the year of mysteries!

MovieSet: Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Nope. No more, Chris Columbus. You are I are no longer cool. I was just indifferent to you for the longest time, but now we are enemies. Everybody mocked me for looking forward to Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, which wins the award for the most bloated title. The trailer had some cool shots and Greek mythology is always awesome. So where did it all go wrong?

I have not read the books, but I have heard a lot of critically positive things about it. Ultimately that is irrelevant considering adaptations have to stand on their own. If something doesn’t make sense in the movie, then it’s the movie’s fault. You must either fix the books or just properly tell their story. What is the story? Percy Jackson appears to be just a normal kid. As we all know, normal kids can sit at the bottom of a swimming pool for 7 minutes and mentally translates every line of English into Greek. It turns out he is a demigod which means his mother (the bored Catherine Keener) was intimate with the god Poseidon. I found this fact to be amazing. She is now hooked up with Joe Pantoliano who is the most exaggerated bad husband ever. We know this because almost all of his lines are “Get me a beer!” (I do not believe that Pantoliano knew the camera was rolling though.) Why doesn’t Catherine Keener’s character just occasionally scream “I had sex with a god! Get your own beer!” Clearly I would have written this character differently.

Back to the plot, Zeus is so angry. It turns out someone stole his lightning bolt and he instantly blames Percy Jackson. Why? Well…that’s a good question. He says that Percy has 14 days to get it back to him or he shall declare war against…everybody I think. Why 14 days? No matter. So everyone thinks Percy is the lightning thief which means various mythological creatures are after him. One murders his mother! Back to me for a second. I was the only one in the theatre who reacted to this. I looked around at all the kids, families, and my friends to make sure we all saw the same thing. The movie just acted like this was no big deal and so did everyone else. Percy is not even fazed. He immediately goes from the crime scene to Camp Hogwarts to play capture the flag. Why in the world would Columbus not want this to be a sympathetic moment? It’s simple: he does not care at all about characters or story. He’s just like Michael Bay except not obviously sexist and racist.

This entire movie is lazy and lifeless. That is aggravating because this could have been wonderful. The cast is awesome: Steve Coogan is Hades, Sean Bean is Zeus, Rosario Dawson is Persephone, Uma Thurman is Medusa, Kevin McKidd is Poseidon and Pierce Brosnan is a centaur! Even the kids have charisma. Their performances aren’t very good, but I blame Columbus for that too. Look at the Harry Potter films. He made the first two, which I consider to be bad films. Those leads were young, but once a real director came in they suddenly became really talented. Not a coincidence!

This film was ruined. The dialog is pathetic and there are way too many plot holes to comprehend. Clearly Columbus doesn’t care. He has no imagination. There is a scene when our leads are in a casino. (Just…don’t ask.) Guess what song is played when they drive into Vegas? Of course it’s Elvis’s “A Little Less Conversation” because we’ve never seen that connection before. Don’t worry, “Poker Face” showed up minutes later despite the fact the characters were playing craps. Why have a poker face for that? This movie is riddled with cliché after cliché. Any other director would have treated this with respect. If this was a first time offense, it may be acceptable. No more Columbus. We’re through.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

MovieSet: Crazy Heart

Everyone keeps calling Crazy Heart the “country Wrestler” and in many ways it is. Both films follow a 50 something that used to be more famous in their respected niche. As they got older, their popularity waned even though they still have talent worth noticing. Yet unlike The Wrestler, this movie is actually compelling. (Yeah, I said it.)

The story of Bad Blake may not be the most original, but it is worth seeing because it still manages to be unpredictable at times. Bad is country singer who can only get gigs at bowling alleys and his best friend’s bar, but he takes everything he can get. He drinks more than he should, especially during his performances. He has no personal ambition until he meets Jean, a younger reporter living in Texas. She is different from the other women in his life. Simply, she’s not a groupie hillbilly who just wants to sleep with him for the story.

I repeat, this is a familiar story but what makes this worthwhile are all of the little things. In these types of character studies, usually only the main character are fully fledged, but this world felt richer. They never spelled out what happened with Jane’s first marriage, but from her actions and some nuances clues are apparent. None of the characters are simply archetypes only there to serve Bad’s arc. His protégé could have easily been a clichéd antagonist who doesn’t “get” the music. Instead you can understand why there was a falling out between these two artists, but it was comforting to see nothing was intentional.

It wasn’t just the secondary characters either, but even smaller things amused me. The writer/director, Scott Cooper, had a nice eye for detail. I liked the throwaway images of Bad’s cowboy had on an empty mic-stand. I liked Bad absent-mindedly play with the lock on the hotel door that doesn’t work. These could be taken as symbolic devices, but they worked because they didn’t have to be. The character and the movie are allowed to breathe for a few beats. Too many character studies race to each beat; the worst sprinters are usually biopics that try too desperately tell an entire life in a few hours.

As with any movies about artists, the art plays a major part in the story. If Bad’s music wasn’t any good then the entire movie changes. Then it isn’t about someone who needs one more chance, but about someone who needs to find a new job. I wouldn’t like this album if it wasn’t for the movie, I think. It’s like the movie Once; there is so much emotion behind the tracks because we know where the character was at that moment. They aren’t just songs, but Bad’s viewpoint at that moment.

The character of Bad is one worth following. Despite being in an undesirable state, he still has charisma and intelligence. This movie is not about the world giving him another chance, but him beginning to test his own limits in his life. The conclusions are satisfying but never profound enough to affect you months later.

Film Yap: Tragedy of the Wolf

Looking back at the classic monsters of Universal lore, only two have maintained popularity in today’s culture. They are vampires and werewolves. They have evolved from being supernatural terrors to brooding immortals. Ever since Anne Rice, vampires have been recategorized as “emo” but it is my belief that werewolves have always been more tragic.

When human beings become vampires, they seem to instantly feel a sense of ease. Their social norms evaporate and they are proud of their “creature of the night” status. When people become werewolves, they feel immense shame and self-loathing. Vampires have cognitive ability while they are slicing and drinking while werewolves lose all control. You don’t see Lon Chaney smile a lot even when he’s hanging out with Abbott and Costello, which is an impressive feat. As the wolf portion takes over, they become an unstoppable murdering bundle of rage and id. When the moon goes down, the cursed individual has to deal with the moral ramifications.

So much of the horror genre is about the innocent getting screwed over. Random attractive twentysomethings always seem to get killed by crazed serial killers in various locations. They never did anything that was murder worthy. No, being incompetent camp counselors isn’t grounds for mutilation. If that was the case then there would nobody ever working at McDonalds. Now werewolves have the worst card in the deck once again. No werewolf wanted to be a werewolf. Other tragic horror figures like Dr. Jeckyll and Dr. Frankenstein had a hand in their destiny. Their stories were about ill decisions, but at least they had decisions.

Ginger Fitzgerald, Scott Howard and Oz all became werewolves from a cruel bit of fate. Ever since that random moment, they spend the rest of their lives attempting (and often failing) to remove themselves from people in order not to cause carnage. Actually Scott Howard just danced on vans and won the big game. But he was still upset in the third act or something! Also you can’t easily become a werewolf. You have to be mauled or unless you’re Scott Howard you just go through puberty. Okay forget Scott Howard.

Their positions as lycanthropes are irreversible until death, which can only occur after being brutally pierced by silver. Kinda makes garlic seem rather tame, doesn’t it? Yes it does. So the bookends for the werewolf life are violent, but the horror doesn’t just happen there. The transformation process is depicted as insanely painful. It’s not short either; the famous scene from An American Werewolf in London lasts quite a long time. Bones are crunching, limbs are being mangled, hair is everywhere. It’s horrid. What do the vampires in True Blood have to do? Their fangs just pop out. It doesn’t hurt. In fact it looks kinda awesome. It’s like smoking. Yeah, it’s undeniably harmful to those around you, but you look cool doing it.

Every werewolf story has an overwhelming sense of tragedy. They’re constantly depressed, everyone wants to kill them, and at the end of the romantic triangle they somehow end up with the baby. It’s a disgusting lifestyle.

Film Yap: More Than a Game

2009 was a weaker year for documentaries, sadly. The previous year had provocative films like Man on Wire and Encounters at the End of the World. There was only one documentary last year that was worth becoming emotionally invested in and that was More Than a Game.

It is the story of five kids who were possibly the best high school basketball team of all time. They were kids who found each other by chance with a Salvation Army team who became best friends and decided to go to high school together in a smaller college in Ohio. They won an unprecedented amount of games and became nationally known. One of the players was LeBron James, who you may have heard of.

The movie succeeds for it tries to live up to its title and become more than just winning games. Real emotion comes from wanting these boys to succeed. It’s not because they are necessarily the underdogs, but because there was truly something special with them. The experts of basketball (Sports Illustrated, etc) are critically invested in this team but that means nothing if the audience isn’t. The jaw-dropping moments of the film are the raw footage of their games. Seeing the amazing dunks and the incredible passes sold me in realizing that they were unlike most teams.

The flaws of the movie come from it being too ambitious. There are six men in focus: The “Fab Five” players and their coach, Dru Joyce II. The movie tries to let the audience get to know each of them, but I only felt I understood four of the six. LeBron James was a fascinating subject because he’s perceived as the “Chosen One,” but still seemed like a likable guy who was never full of himself. Dru Joyce III and his father were great character studies as the unlikely basketball star and the passionate coach. Romeo Travis had a bit of coverage, but they never broke through her personal barrier. Unfortunately Sian Cotton and Willie McGee got the short stick because they were only able to be seen as good friends, not individuals.

For a first time documentarian Kristopher Belman does a good job using a lot of techniques to tell a story. Belman often uses still photographs in original, flashy ways. The real gem is all of the footage he was able to find. As alluded to earlier, seeing the footage of their games made me excited to watch basketball, which never happens. The glossy recreations are reminiscent of ESPN documentaries, but that is no way an insult. Belman takes the emotion of those shorts and expands them into a proper big-screen coverage.

There aren’t many bonus features, but they are worth watching. The best of the three featurettes is entitled “More Than a Film,” which is the sort of short that should be on every documentary DVD. Often while I’m watching documentaries, I start to wonder how did the documentarian became part of these stories. More Than a Film” answers the origin stories of the movie and shows how certain coverage was captured. The other two shorts examined the importance of basketball philosophy and highlight the uniqueness of the score of the film.

More Than a Film is one easily worth renting for it is not the “LeBron James Story” and it is not necessarily a tribute to basketball. It is a story that a lot of people can relate to and is a remarkable story worth telling.

Movie: 4 Yaps

Extras: 3 Yaps

Words Words Words: Whatever Happened to Walking?

Whatever happened to walking? I don’t mean to get nostalgic, but walking used to mean something! People say they walk, but they don’t really walk. It’s like reading; reading a stop sign does not count as “reading.” Nowadays people walk for exercise or to appreciate nature. That’s stupid. I walk to get somewhere. Being a college student, I walk all over campus in order to get to class. Since it seems that I will never get a parking spot next to the building I live in, I actually have to walk ten minutes to get to my car in order to drive five more minutes to get to work.

It didn’t used to be this way. When I was a sophomore in high school, I didn’t have a car. Or a license. Or a simple understanding of how global economics works. Now I have two of those, I can look back with appreciation. I worked to a bookstore called The Mystery Company, which used to be located two miles from my high school. Sometimes I got a ride from a reluctant friend, but most of the time I walked that perilous journey alone. This is what I discovered during these months of walking: Nobody actually does it. Yes, there are sidewalks and, yes, there are traffic signals but most people forget it’s there like parsley. I received so many strange looks from passing cars. “Look at that boy. Is he homeless? I didn’t know sidewalks were open this late. Oh dear, he doesn’t even have an iPod. Honey, do we have any change to throw at him?”

I enjoy walking. It’s simple and relaxing. I have time to listen to various podcasts. No, I don’t like running. Running is pretentious. Running to get somewhere is like making business decisions on a cell phone loudly in an elevator. We get it! You’re important! This goes for exercisers too. Stop making me look bad.

Walking can also be an adventure. Oh yes, you doubting hypothetical readers.
As a youth walking to The Mystery Company, I walked through a blizzard and a thunderstorm, which according to the weather reports was the very tail end of Hurricane Katrina. (My kids are going to hate me.) Those were all fine and dandy, but didn’t properly prepare me for Ball State. I was under the impression that when it rains while cold, institutions would put salt on the ground to avoid icy paths. I am a fool. Today, the hike to my car was a bit hysterical. The entire campus was one giant sheet of ice. Everyone was slipping and sliding, but not in the fun summertime way. I tried to walk on the mulch to experience some traction, but even that was iced over. Ultimately I couldn’t even use my car because I couldn’t get out of the parking lot. There was a cop stationed in the parking lot writing up people who were accidently playing bumper car. Sure the campus could have used its resources to prevent accidents instead of reporting them, but we all know that’s silly.

I fear we only have a little bit of time left to walk. If Back to the Future Part II is as accurate as it seems, it’ll only be a few more years until we all have hoverboards. Then a few years later we’ll have the WALL-E hoverchairs. So you better walk now, while walking is what it is: uninviting and unpopular.

Live Muncie

So I'm now writing for another publication. I know, I know. I'm repetitive. This is a really cool thing, though. It's called Live Muncie. It's a new magazine of sorts that is about to print its first edition. A lot of articles are available on its website right now ( It's full of articles showing the value of life and the opportunities around us. So many of them are really fascinating and inspiration. Just take a look at the very well written article by Jama Kehoe Bigger entitled "A Desire to Be Happy":

So every once in awhile I'll be posting an article I've written. They won't be reviews but just fun comedy pieces about random topics. The name of my column will be called Words Words Words, because I am a nerd. I hope you enjoy them.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

MovieSet: A Single Man

True actors love having a role that is the complete driving force of the movie. We’ve seen that last year with Up in the Air and Crazy Heart, but also with more classic films like Secret Honor and Taxi Driver. I also love these chances for the same reason as the actors. It’s a challenge that has the opportunity to be really brilliant.

In this tale, Colin Firth plays George, an English professor living in the 1960s. His boyfriend abruptly died in a car crash and George finds the grieving unbearable. Literally the color in his life faded into a cruel gray. He has decided that today will be the last day of his life. He goes through his day, not expecting to see tests towards his decision.

One of the major reasons the film is effective is that his day flows by beautifully. With this fatalistic mindset, his decisions towards human interaction are slightly different. He is able to admire the natural beauty of his secretary, for example. The camera and editing match his perspective as he hones in on what he finds stunning. Color sneaks back into his palate before it can be corrupted once more. He also allows himself to be slightly more truthful to the people around him without fear of long-term consequences. However, his day evolves through these decisions towards an unpredicted path. The character is an intelligent one but he keeps trying to battle emotions with logic. One of the best scenes in the movie is where he tries to plot out his suicide. All of his possessions are delicately laid out and identified for someone to find him. He silent searches for the cleanest way to shoot himself in the head, which is considerate and absurd at the same time.

Firth is wonderful as he tries to maintain a solid persona even though his peers are seeing through the cracks. With this premise, his performance requires many layers with every frame of the film. Through flashbacks, his talent is shown again when he plays another variation of the character. This is George in a state of bliss when his former lover was alive. Since this movie is entirely his narrative, it is possible that these flashbacks are tainted with bias. I believe they are. We are not seeing how the world was on this day, but how George’s world was that day. That is a world I am now much more interested in. This movie is so concise and fully realized that it is a shock this is Tom Ford’s first film. This is a treat.

Monday, February 1, 2010

MovieSet: Legion

Movies have to make sense. They don’t have to play by the rules of our reality, but they have play fair within its own world. A great movie leaves you without any questions about its plot. A good movie could have you questioning a few things, but you allow it. A bad movie leaves you in a confused ramble as you leave the theatre. Legion is a bad movie.

In a terrible voice-over that is way too similar to the Terminator series, Charlie (Friday Night Light’s Adrianne Palicki) gives an anecdote her mother told her. It’s about how God will end it all because he’s tired of the bullshit. Okay that has the potential to be pretty cool. Then Michael (Paul Bettany) comes down from heaven and he has a collar! Wait, angels have collars? Then he painfully cuts off his wings and then his collar falls off! Wait, what did the collar prevent him from doing? Before that reasonable question could be answered, Michael gets an insane amount of guns. There is stopped by some cops who get possessed…by angels? Wait, angels can possess people and make them look like doped up sharks? Okay…

So Michael races to this diner in the middle of nowhere to protect pregnant Charlie because her baby will save mankind. So God was tired of the bullshit but He has this savior back up plan? A back up plan that, once again, sounds very similar to The Terminator? Whatever. The rest of the movie is about the characters trying to survive at the diner as hoards and hoards of possessed people attack. Of course none of the 2-D characters at the diner become possessed because…actually they never explained that. Nor did they explain how that kid will save humanity from God. Nor did they explain why the possessed people didn’t just all attack at once. Let’s focus on that one. Why in the world would the angels send waves against the diner? The best scene in the movie is one staring the wonderful Doug Jones. An Ice Cream Truck drives up creepily to the diner and then the man inside (Jones) morphs into a creeper spider hybrid. It’s creepy and cool but why did it occur? It’s insanely impractical!

This movie is all over the place in terms of tone. It wants to have silly Evil Dead-esque moments, but then has terrible monologues that beg you to care about these dull characters. Even if you try to turn your brain off, which seems like a dangerous task, the movie doesn’t work. The action is hard to decipher at times and they keep building everything up to one awesome fight. Not to spoil anything, they completely and utterly dropped the ball. In fact the whole last act is full of twists so contradicting that it could give you an aneurism. I’m not saying seeing this movie can be dangerous to your health, but do you really want to risk it?

Film Yap: When In Rome

All right. Let’s just get through this. Kirsten Bell plays Beth who is a workaholic and afraid of love. None of this evident by the viewer, but luckily all the characters tell her this over and over again so that’s helpful. She goes to Rome for her sister’s wedding. She only met him two weeks ago but they planned a well-developed wedding. This is obviously foreshadowing the magic to come. Beth meets Some Guy who is klutzy and charming. But plot twist! Some Guy kissed someone else and Beth saw it out of context! Deciding not to interpret it as an obvious drunken stumble, Beth decides to denounce love and take five coins out of the Fontana D’Amore in order to save them from pain. As any sane person would do. Blah, blah, blah. Those five guys are now under a spell and are magically in love with her one of which is Some Guy. Of course.

This movie is very dull because everything that you think will happen happens. So I spent the movie amusing myself in my own way. The first was a mental game show called Guess What Awesome B-List Actor Will Appear Next? All hail the casting director because they gave us Wonderfalls’s Lee Pace, The Daily Show’s Kristen Schaal, Saturday Night Live’s Bobby Moynihan, Arrested Development’s Will Arnett, “Garfunkle and Oates”’s Kate Micucci, the wonderful Anjelica Huston, and the effective creeper Danny DeVito. It also had the naked chick from Broken Flowers and Clarie’s ex-boyfriend from LOST. However due to their roles on Entourage and Paul Blart: Mall Cop puts their awesome status on probation.

Since this whole plot is incredibly predictable, it also became fun to imagine it detracting from the norm. For example, during the early party scene with Bell and Pace, I grew weary of the dull back-story of them being exes so I combined their amazing but thematically different TV shows: Veronica Mars and Pushing Daisies. The DJ gets murdered for too many clichéd record scratches in one scene. Bell, as Veronica, lies and says she is a stupid curator named Beth and gains access to the internal files of the museum to look up who hired the DJ. All with a cold and sultry voice over, of course. Pace will be Ned who neurotically makes his way to the corpse and temporarily revive the DJ to question him. After about 42 minutes of word play subplots they discover that is was Austin, the cynical critic! He almost got away with it too…

I should give the movie credit. There was one scene that went against the norm, but it was so bonkers. For their first real date, Some Guy and Beth go to a restaurant in New York City. Not just any restaurant! This is one that has absolutely no lights in the place and all of the waiters wear night vision goggles. So Beth and Some Guy are bumping into everything and everyone and their waiter (The hilarious Schaal) just keeps mocking them and eavesdropping on them. None of this should work, because it’s incredibly stupid but I was heavily amused. All of the jokes in this scene were really easy and illogical, but…I have no excuse. The rest of the movie was like that for the rest of my audience. The movie is never aggravating, but boy is it stupid.