Cynically Sentimental
"Rockets were bursting loose in my blood!"  So, apparently…kissing is important to women?  Who knew? Don’t be a “blank wall,” fellows! (Love Letters 38, Perfect Love 10, and All True Romance 19). 

"Rockets were bursting loose in my blood!"  So, apparently…kissing is important to women?  Who knew? Don’t be a “blank wall,” fellows! (Love Letters 38, Perfect Love 10, and All True Romance 19). 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) review

  Contrarian though I may be at times, I know when to join the masses: I agree with just about everyone—Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a darn good movie.  It didn’t change my life, and I shan’t go as far as to declare it a “great” film, but it’s superior to its predecessor in many ways, is consistently entertaining, technically accomplished, fast-paced, and has a (very minor, hackneyed, but still admirable) social message (“can’t we all just get along?”).

            The plot is essentially a rehash of numerous films about oppressed Native Americans in the Old West (and for all I know, may very well share a premise with movies about oppressed aboriginal people in Australia, oppressed native peoples in South America, and oppressed indigenous populations everywhere).  Seriously, just watch films such as Broken Arrow (1950), Devil’s Doorway (1950), Apache (1954), Drum Beat (1954), etc., and the parallels between these Westerns and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes will be obvious.  A heroic figure (Caesar) who’s the leader of his people; with a wife and children; distrusts the outsiders who want to exploit (colonise, extract gold, herd sheep & cattle, and so on) the land where his people live. This hero is willing to defend himself but only wants to live in peace; he reaches an accomodation with a reasonable, open-minded member of  the opposition (Malcolm), but one or more third parties (usually unscrupulous whites—Dreyfus—and/or angry, war-like Native Americans—Koba) precipitate a confrontation which ends tragically.  Additional standard elements include good white people providing medical attention to the “natives” (White Man’s Medicine Saves Life of Chief’s Son!), the indigenous hero saving (or sparing) the life of the principal white character (Pocahontas, anyone?), a bit of culture-clash irony and/or humour.  Yep, it’s all there in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

            In fact, there is very little in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes which is not a pastiche of these earlier films—even the final, physical confrontation between hero and villain is traditional.  Of course, previous Hollywood versions of the same basic story sometimes beefed up the “good white man” part (two of the above-cited Westerns have Native American protagonists, two have “white” characters as the hero), while Dawn… makes Malcolm somewhat subsidiary to Caesar.  This is understandable: this isn’t a post-apocalypse survival tale so much as a clash of different cultures story.  The racist elements of earlier movies are easily translated to “species-ist” comments, with Dreyfus repeatedly saying “they’re just animals!”  So…not much new here, aside from the superficial trappings.

            Surprisingly, the basic lack of originality of the plot of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t harm the film in any major way, because the embellishment of the script, the production values, the acting (real, motion-captured and CGI), and the direction, pacing, etc., are all quite fine.  This picture has a beginning, middle, and end, characters have arcs, there are clearly stated goals, spectacle is withheld until the final sections when it has greater impact, and even the conclusion—while vague and obviously open-ended—provides a satisfactory degree of closure.

            Oh, alright, I will comment about a few things which irritated me.  (No film is perfect, not even Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein)  To wit: (a) the apes learn to handle automatic weapons awfully darn fast.  Even though they’re intelligent creatures and have previously been shown to use spears and other tools, mastering a machine gun isn’t something one picks up instinctively.  (b) in several scenes, Koba plays the fool to lure several humans (portrayed as redneck goobers) into a false sense of security.  This is a variation on the “shuck and jive” method allegedly used by slaves to fool their overseers into thinking they were harmless simpletons rather than rational human beings.  However, how does Koba know how to act?  In other words, he pretends to be a  “playful chimp,” but why did he choose this particular set of actions and where did he learn about this stereotype?  Koba had been a prisoner of humans ten years earlier, so perhaps he developed this coping mechanism at that time, but it still comes out of nowhere rather too conveniently (both to move the plot along and to generate laughs from the audience). (c) Dawn… takes place, as noted earlier, 10 years after the events of the previous film.  The human survivors in San Francisco have been using various (now depleted) energy sources, but the motivating factor behind their incursion into Ape Territory is the desire to reactivate the hydroelectric power plant attached to a dam.  After a few days of work by a handful of people (only one of whom is really knowledgeable about the technical aspects), the plant is put back online.  Miraculously, a huge number of lights and other electrical devices, unused for years, are in perfect working condition!  What’re the odds of that?  (Also, the transmission lines between the dam and the city are still operating, thank goodness.)

            Despite my iconoclastic bent, I really don’t go through films and try to find flaws about which to write.  In the case of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the issues described in the previous paragraph stood out to me as I was watching the movie.  That’s not good, it means they were egregious enough to “take me out of the drama” and make me think about the filmmaking (more specifically, the screenwriting) process.  Since I still liked Dawn… a lot, this distancing effect wasn’t terribly deleterious, but it was…annoying.

            A word or two about the “performances” and the effects is in order.  There is currently a fair amount of discussion about motion-capture “acting”—how much credit should be given to the physical performer, how much to the special effects crew, and how much to the voice actor (assuming different people do the physical work and voice work, which isn’t always the case)?  Don’t look at me for a definitive opinion (heck, I’m still conflicted about how to judge “acting” when the on-screen performer is dubbed by someone else), but in the case of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, there were only one or two moments when I was consciously aware of the unreal nature of the apes.  Otherwise, I accepted them as “real” beings who were inter-acting with each other and the “live” performers on the screen.  Caesar and Koba have the largest roles among the apes, and are distinct characters, one heroic and noble and “human” (in that he has emotions and an intellect above what we would assign to a “normal” ape), and the other somewhat conflicted but not truly “evil” until the latter portions of the film (so he’s got a character arc, albeit one that’s not entirely clear—does he truly believe he’s doing the best thing for ape-dom, or is he selfishly motivated, like a standard villain?).  The other ape roles are less developed, at least partially because they’re not given any dialogue, communicating mostly via sign-language (helpfully translated for us via sub-titles). 

            The human performances are all fine: the back-stories are sort of standard stuff, but they’re not hammered home too bluntly, and the various actors are good enough.  Jason Clarke looked awfully familiar—when I checked, turns out I’ve seen him in 5 fairly recent movies—and does a decent job, as do Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, etc., but this is really the apes’ film (as opposed to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which was more of a human story).

            Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not exactly a historic achievement in filmmaking, but it is most certainly a highly entertaining, well-crafted film.  I am slightly surprised I liked it as much as I did. Am I becoming…mainstream? 

"You can have no friends but me!" Who’s the boss? "I’m the boss!” (Love Letters 37, 1954 & Range Romances 1, 1949). Ironically, one of these stories portrays the control-freak male as bad, and the other depicts him as good.

"You can have no friends but me!" Who’s the boss? "I’m the boss!” (Love Letters 37, 1954 & Range Romances 1, 1949). Ironically, one of these stories portrays the control-freak male as bad, and the other depicts him as good.

"The pretty package was empty!" (Thrilling Romances 26, 1954).  If you can’t discuss “that new movie technique,” you’re not the woman for me, that’s for darn sure!  

"The pretty package was empty!" (Thrilling Romances 26, 1954).  If you can’t discuss “that new movie technique,” you’re not the woman for me, that’s for darn sure!  

"I don’t know how to do the thing, Marsha."  Yes, in the days before the Internet, learning about sex was difficult for young women. (Great Lover Romances 6, 1952).  (btw, they were actually talking about a new dance)

"I don’t know how to do the thing, Marsha."  Yes, in the days before the Internet, learning about sex was difficult for young women. (Great Lover Romances 6, 1952).  (btw, they were actually talking about a new dance)

Snowpiercer (2013) review

Watching this film was an unusual experience.  You’re sitting there, enjoying the story and action and settings, and suddenly—Bam!  Something illogical smacks you in the face.  This kept happening.  It wasn’t horrible…it was more like getting hit with a fluffy pillow than taking repeated blows from a hammer, but it was definitely distracting.

            Snowpiercer, for those unfamiliar with the premise (the source work was a French graphic novel), is a post-apocalyptic film set in the near future, after a botched attempt to reverse global warming results in new Ice Age (damn you, Al Gore!).  Luckily, Wilford (Ed Harris, who doesn’t appear until the very end—thus, all through the movie, every time someone mentioned “Wilford,” I kept imagining Wilford Brimley in the role) had previously invented a perpetual-motion super-train which circumnavigates the globe in a year, and—coincidentally enough—has facilities on board which allow it to function as a closed eco-system, requiring nothing from the (now-frozen) outside world.  No one else survived in the whole world, because…a train is more efficient at keeping out the cold than a house?  No one else was prepared for the Ice Age?  Also, for very fuzzy reasons, the train is not populated solely by the rich and famous, but also by a horde of scruffy mendicants, who are restricted to the caboose area of Supertrain…I mean, Snowpiercer.  After nearly two decades, these steerage-class passengers, led by Curtis (Chris Evans), go loco and get in motion, heading for the front of the train. 

            Thus, we have a premise which seems like a combination of Murder on the Orient Express, Horror Express (films restricted to trains), Game of Death (different “levels” of difficulty to be conquered by the protagonist), and Metropolis and Elysium (the oppressed confined to crappy quarters, the rich living in luxury). 

            The first head-bonking realisation comes when we figure out the whole movie is set on a train.  This might work for certain plots, but it’s completely unsatisfactory here.  Doesn’t matter how big and elaborate Supertrain is, it’s still a train, a sequentially-linked series of railroad cars, each with a door at each end.  This means that to get to any car, you have to pass through all of the intervening cars.  Want to take a dip in the pool?  You’ve got to walk through the dining car, the aquarium car, the chicken coop car, the schoolroom car, the disco car, and so forth.  While it seems Wilford was smart enough to arrange the cars in a reasonably logical order (the prison car is close to the end, near the poor-people car), it is still quite inconvenient to get around.  Especially if you’re living in the train for 17 years, without it ever stopping.

            But, we can get past this, mostly.  That is, until the revolt of the (literally) unwashed begins, when it becomes painfully clear that no one has bothered to tell the people in the “front” cars that an uprising has begun (I suppose they weren’t observant enough to figure out why there were armed guards passing through, headed towards the back of the train).  Every single time the rebels enter a new car, the people inside are surprised to see them!  And the rebels aren’t exactly racing forward, either, so there would have been plenty of time to warn the women getting their hair done, the children in the schoolroom, the sushi chef, and so forth.  But nooo…they’re all just sitting there, minding their own business, when the roused rabble come marching in.

            None of this even begins to address the basic fallacy of the premise, i.e., logistics.  How many people are in the train, how is it possible to have a “closed” eco-system to support them (and not a “we’re all eating tub-grown plankton” diet, either), and so forth.  You have to willingly suspend your disbelief, as almost literally impossible as that seems to be.  The major problem with this blinkers-on/brain-off viewing method is that Snowpiercer doesn’t gloss over its illogical and unbelievable aspects, it almost deliberately highlights them, perversely daring the audience to accept something patently absurd, if they want to continue watching the film.

            Frankly, the story would have been much more acceptable—in logical terms—if it’d been set underground, with the poor people at the lowest level, and each higher level representing an improvement in the quality of life (again, sort of like Metropolis and Elysium), but then we wouldn’t have the cool Supertrain and the advantages that this setting provides (and there are a few, although the disadvantages far outnumber them). 

            As noted above, the not-infrequent realisation that “dumb things are happening” affects the viewing experience, but Snowpiercer is far from a bad or unenjoyable film.  In addition to the generally entertaining action and performances and production design, there are actually some deeper issues addressed—rights of the individual vs. the greater good, social class, survival of the fittest, organised religion, education, do polar bears think (alright, I made up that last one)—and while there is a longish, didactic confrontation between Wilford and Curtis at the end, it’s not terribly heavy-handed and what’s gone before is a bit more subtle (but only a bit).  Still, this isn’t an empty-headed film at its core, and some thoughts will be provoked.

            Technically, Snowpiercer is very good.  The production design is excellent, the editing, photography, etc., are fine.  Although the running time is just over 2 hours, the pacing makes the film seem shorter: there aren’t any really slow spots until the end when Curtis and Wilford have to verbally sum up the plot and elucidate the moral and philosophical underpinnings of the story (and even this isn’t boring). The special effects of the train rushing along the tracks through snow-covered landscapes are impressive.  The cast of characters is varied and while Chris Evans gets the only real back-story and revelatory soliloquy, interesting performances come from Tilda Swinton (grotesque as Wilford’s main minion), John Hurt (leader of the caboose-dwellers), Ed Harris (Wilford himself), Octavia Spencer, Kang-ho Song, Ah-sung Ko, and so on. 

            The latter two names point out that Snowpiercer is an international co-production (USA, Korea, Czech Republic, and France, says IMDB).  It was released in Korea in August 2013 and did extremely well in cinemas there, but only got brief “limited” theatrical bookings in the USA before going the video-on-demand route (it’s also out on DVD, apparently).  The Weinstein Company, owners of the U.S. distribution rights, gave some thought to trimming the movie so we dumb Americans could sit through it, but seem to have acquiesced to releasing a “full” version here.

            Snowpiercer takes an epic subject (the destruction of the world as we know it) and shrinks it to a small(er) scale: not a “one family or group of friends confronts the post-apocalyptic world,” but rather a “microcosm of society in a limited time/space” view.  It’s entertaining and interesting enough, if you’re strong enough to withstand those periodic “here’s another dumb thing!” (figurative) bonks on the head.

She-cat, Hellcat, whatever—just kiss her! (Great Lover Romances 11, 1953 and Range Romances 1, 1949).  Also, do women always say “Mmmf-bmm!” when they’re kissed?  Asking for a friend…

She-cat, Hellcat, whatever—just kiss her! (Great Lover Romances 11, 1953 and Range Romances 1, 1949).  Also, do women always say “Mmmf-bmm!” when they’re kissed?  Asking for a friend…

The Cruelest Spam?

 [A brief digression from the usual film reviews and snarky out-of-context comic book panels.]  I spend a lot of time online for my work as well as for pleasure, and consider myself a reasonably savvy computer user.  Admittedly, I’ve been caught in viral traps a few times, but I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck: I don’t blithely walk into simple snares.  Fortunately, my primary e-mail system defends against most spam, although a few pieces of junk jump the cyber-fence daily and have to be dispatched (to hell!) by me, personally.

            The other day I received an e-mail which, although I readily identified it as bogus, piqued my interest about its nature and creation.  It wasn’t one of those mass-mailings promoting a generic product or service to millions, it wasn’t even one of the more narrowly-construed spams (obviously targeted in some way to my affiliation with an educational institution, a still huge target audience but certainly smaller than the generic messages sent to the whole online world). 

             No, this one was not only sent to my e-mail address, but the subject line read “page for David.”  That’s pretty specific—there are 3.7 million people in the USA whose first name is David, which seems like a lot, but that’s less than 10 percent of the total population, so the odds of me randomly receiving a spam e-mail labeled “page for David” don’t seem that great.  But, since my name and e-mail address are publicly available on the Web, it wouldn’t be impossible for a spam-mail program to insert my first name into the subject line.  It happens all the time with direct-mail marketing via snail-mail, so obviously e-mailers can do it.

            However, the matter gets more complicated.  The “sender’s” name was someone I actually know.  Someone with whom I am no longer in touch, really, and who would never send me an unsolicited e-mail, but still…it was a shock to see that name.  Even though I knew this was a spam message, when I first saw it, it elicited a frisson of…excitement?  Fear?  Pleasure?  There’s that split-second where you think “maybe, just maybe, this person really did send me a message?”  And even though that hope is almost-instantly shattered by one’s rational brain (even before opening the actual e-mail), the emotional damage has been done.  Infernal Spammer, how dare you remind me of this person who at one time meant a lot to me?! 

            A couple of additional points.  The “sent from” e-mail address (bogus, of course), had a  “” suffix, identifying the sender as affiliated with the University of Mary Washington, located in Fredericksburg, Virginia (not too terribly far from where I live).  I don’t know anyone there, I have no connection with that school, and the person whose name was falsely attached to the e-mail isn’t even in the USA, so there’s no clear, direct connection at all.  I’ve seen this before: sometimes I get spams with fake sender addresses containing “k-12,” a public school identifier.  These are just harvested or ginned up somehow, I understand.  

            The actual spam e-mail originated in Romania (looking at the full e-mail header and tracing the I.P. address), although the suffix on the link included in the email itself (that’s all that was there, a link that I didn’t click on because…I’m not an idiot) was “.ru” (the Russian Federation). 

            So how did this all come together?  I have literally never gotten a spam email like this, allegedly sent from a person known to me but not obviously from a hacked account.  [I’ve occasionally received e-mails supposedly from individuals I know, whose computers were apparently hacked in some fashion—while the contents of the messages were clearly spam, the sender, sender’s address, and (in several cases) the list of additional recipients were legit.] 

Somehow, the spammers assembled various pieces of information:

a)     my e-mail address

b)     my first name (in the subject line)—btw, my full first name is not part of my e-mail address 

c)     the real name of someone I actually know (as “sender”)—exactly how they did this, I have no idea, particularly if neither my nor this person’s account was hacked (as they don’t appear to have been).  Our names aren’t linked anywhere else on the Internet, as far as I know. 

d)     a completely different (and bogus) sender’s e-mail address (which, perhaps coincidentally, is linked to a university in a neighbouring state)

         One has to grudgingly admire the technical ingenuity of spammers, who harvest information from multiple places and create a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of an e-mail, and…for what?  On the outside chance that I’d click on a mysterious and almost definitely harmful link?  (Seriously, they didn’t even bother to add any text to try and lure me into clicking it.)  I realise it’s all automated data-harvesting and spam-generating programs that are doing this, but it’s still…weird. 

            Look, I get e-mail and snail-mail addressed to my parents (both of whom are deceased), and I shrug it off (in several cases it’s my fault, since I didn’t bother to change the names on the accounts).  If I received an e-mail allegedly from them, that would be odd and mildly offensive but I wouldn’t be incensed.  I’d know that this was a fake, and…spammers gonna spam, right? 

            But when they start toying with my emotions, stirring up long-dormant feelings, sending might-possibly-be-true-no-wait-of-course-it’s-not-awww-sad-feeling e-mails, those Russian-Romanian hackers have gone too far!  I might just remind them of another group of Eastern Europeans who stirred up trouble and got this message for their trouble:

 I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.

[Back to film reviews and amusing comic-book panels and other such diversions soon.]

They Came Together (2014) review

    Although I have a romantic soul, I don’t watch rom-coms. Don’t have the slightest interest in them. One might even say I’d go out of my way to avoid them. Consequently, I might not have been the ideal audience for a satire of the rom-com genre, e.g., They Came Together. But life is full of little surprises—mirabile dictu, despite my antipathy for the genre being parodied, I was mildly amused and entertained by the parody itself!

           Over dinner with two friends, Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) tell the story of how they met. Joel worked for a huge corporation and had a beautiful but unfaithful girlfriend; Molly ran a “quirky” candy shop and had just broken up with her philandering boyfriend. There’s a “meet cute,” initial hostility despite instant attraction, the usual ups and downs, a break-up, Molly gets engaged to someone she doesn’t love, Joel reunites with his sexy but bitchy girlfriend, and so on and so forth.

          Director David Wain (who also co-wrote, with Michael Showalter), gives the audience a virtual catalog of rom-com tropes in They Came Together, and this is a big part of the joke—look, Joel has a rival at work, a mean boss, a lazy younger brother! Molly has an ethnic best-friend (somehow Sassy Gay Friend was left out, though), she’s a single mother of a cute kid, and her parents are eccentric too! There are montages of Joel and Molly doing “couple” things, set to a Norah Jones song! Even someone like myself who refuses to watch rom-coms knows about these formal and narrative conventions.

          However, this film isn’t merely a “straight” parody of rom-com characters and plots. One curious and rather off-putting aspect of They Came Together is the film’s stylistic eclecticism: there are at least 3 or 4 different modes of humour on display, and this is jarring and not especially to my personal taste, although I’ll concede that not all audiences will necessarily share my feelings.

          First is the rom-com spoof aspect, mentioned above, and even this is split into two styles. Much of the film is simply exaggerated recreations of rom-com clichés, which are funny because the tropes are so familiar and this movie crams all of them into a single plot. But there is also some meta-humour, in which characters say things such as “this is just like one of those romantic comedies,” or make overt observations about the genre’s tropes. For instance, Joel plays basketball with a diverse group of friends, each of whom has a different opinion about love and romance. To ram home the point, the script has a character actually call Joel “Mr. Combines-Traits-That-Each-of-Us-Represents-and-All-You-Have-to-Do-Is-Put-It-All-Together-and-You’ll-Do-Just-Fine Guy.” Later, the fourth wall is broken again when the Norah Jones song becomes part of a music video/promo in the middle of the “lyrical montage” scene. This sort of heavy-handed “selling” of the film’s premise is not especially successful—we don’t need to have jokes explained in such detail, because if we didn’t get it in the first place, an explanation isn’t going to help.

          They Came Together also includes some physical humour, slapstick, and visual humour. This ranges from exaggeration of clichés (Joel and Molly knock over numerous pieces of furniture—including three or four identical shelving units—as they passionately embrace in her apartment) to outright surrealistic and absurdist Airplane!-style jokes. Joel visits Molly’s store and she tells her friend she has to change clothes because “I look like a chimney sweep.” And yes, she is dressed like a chimney sweep; a montage depicts her changing into a variety of costumes, ranging from normal to outlandish, before she finally emerges in a suit of armour (only to discover Joel’s left the shop). This isn’t realistic-but-exaggerated, it is surrealistic, and frankly clashes with the tone of the film up to that point. In another scene, two of Joel’s friends exchange significant “looks,” which are interpreted by on-screen sub-titles. OK, this is mildly amusing. Then one of the characters sneezes and the letters of the sub-title become physically real and fall onto the table in front of him, an animated-cartoon type of joke.  Joel and Molly frolic in a pile of autumn leaves, not noticing they’ve uncovered a dead body.  And so on… This bizarre, unrealistic type of humour escalates as the movie continues (to avoid spoilers, I won’t describe one of the most outrageous, which involves Judge Judy), and isn’t really very funny, nor does it mesh with the rom-com parody style.

          There is also a fair amount of humour which is not dependent on the rom-com spoof premise at all. Some of it falls into the previous category of physical humour, but there are also genuinely amusing lines and situations, which would be just as funny in a film of any genre. Even here the “type” of humour varies considerably. In one scene, Joel and a bartender have a repetitive conversation which involves wordplay and goes on to an absurdly exaggerated length. There is a hilarious, albeit off-colour dialogue scene at a Halloween party (it is literally bathroom humour). Late in the film, Molly’s ex-boyfriend shows up, and when she asks about his new girlfriend, he replies “She died, so that’s over.” (I had to laugh at that one) There’s also a jaw-dropping cameo by Michael Shannon as Molly’s ex-husband, who wields a samurai sword—an homage to My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, a 2009 film directed by Werner Herzog! A film that borrows from Airplane! and The Naked Gun movies and references a relatively obscure Werner Herzog picture? *mind officially blown*

          Not everything works, of course. As previously noted, the clash of humour styles is noticeable. I prefer a consistency in tone: pick one or two types of joke and stick with them, don’t go from Noel Coward to Benny Hill in the same sequence. There are also a handful (alright, a double handful) of “dirty talk is funny” jokes (beginning with the film’s title). These are almost never inherently funny, although I’ll confess the Halloween party bit is amusing (thanks to the dialogue and performances, not the premise) and Joel and Molly’s friends’ stunned reaction to another off-colour bit in their flashback (involving Joel’s grandmother) is much funnier than the “joke” itself.

          But when They Came Together is “on,” it is really quite pleasant. Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler are satisfactory as the leads (both overact a bit, but that comes with the parody format), while most of the supporting cast is fine. Michael Ian Black is excellent as Joel’s office rival (possibly because he seems to be channeling Bruce McCulloch of “Kids in the Hall” fame) and Cobie Smulders is also quite good as Joel’s admittedly untrustworthy but definitely attractive girlfriend. Comedy “names” like Bill Hader, Ed Helms, and Kenan Thompson also appear in support. Production values are fine—this is a contemporary film set in New York City and doesn’t have any elaborate special effects requirements, so it’d be surprising if it didn’t look slick and professional overall.

          Despite (or perhaps because of) the “let’s throw in everything but the kitchen sink” approach to comedy, They Came Together hits the mark more often than it misses.

"No boy will date a girl who never kisses!"  (Thrilling Romances 13, 1951).  Luckily, “sissy gentleman” Randy is always available!

"No boy will date a girl who never kisses!"  (Thrilling Romances 13, 1951).  Luckily, “sissy gentleman” Randy is always available!

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) review

 Despite three major hurdles—this film’s excessive length, its flawed premise, and my own self-respect—I sort of enjoyed Transformers: Age of Extinction.  It’s noisy, frantic, dumb, pointless, confusing, and sprawling, but I wasn’t bored and after the first half-hour or so I stopped shouting “that’s stupid!” at the screen.  I guess you could say the film grew on me.  Or wore me down, whatever.

            Recapping the plot in detail would be a waste of time, so I’ll simply give you an ultra-condensed synopsis to demonstrate how much…stuff…has been crammed into nearly three hours of motion picture:  3 years after the near-apocalyptic events of the previous movie, historical revisionists have forgotten that the alien Autobots saved Earth from the alien Decepticons, and instead express their dislike of all “aliens” equally.  Government official Attinger (Kelsey Grammer, pretty good in the role) urges industrialist Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci, also fine) to build lots of loyal American giant-robots (despite the fact that Joyce’s major manufacturing plant is in China) to combat the supposed alien menace; Attinger is also collaborating with alien bounty hunter Lockdown, who’ll take the pesky Autobots and Decepticons off our hands.  Wouldn’t you know it, boss Autobot Optimus Prime is hiding out—injured—in Texas, where he just happens to be uncovered and repaired by crackpot failed-inventor Cade Yeager.  This brings down the wrath of Attinger’s death squad on Cade, his teenage daughter Tessa, her Irish boyfriend Shane, and (briefly) Cade’s partner Lucas (briefly, because Lucas dies in a horribly graphic fashion fairly early, which is too bad, because he was a funny guy).  Eventually, a gigantic three-way battle erupts between the Autobots, Joyce’s reverse-engineered robots (who’ve been infected by Decepticon DNA or some such crap), and Lockdown and his minions, with Attinger’s human killers and a bunch of Dinobots popping in with occasional contributions to the mass mayhem.

            So…never a dull moment, trust me.  Futile though they may be, a comment or two on the inherent quality of Transformers: Age of Extinction is perhaps warranted.  The plot?  Confusing.  Too many parties involved: Cade and his group, Attinger and his CIA death squads, Joshua and his robots, representatives of the Chinese government (oh, did I forget to mention them?), Lockdown (who’s working for the unspecified “creators” of the Autobots & Decepticons, who’ve apparently issued a galactic recall of their war machines), the Dinobots (freed from captivity on Lockdown’s spaceship), etc.  The final battle sequence tosses just about all of these players into one big honkin’ furball dog fight melee brouhaha.  Hard to follow and keep score, honestly. 

            There is an almost equal number of competing sub-plots.  Attinger wants to wipe out all of the Autobots and Decepticons, Joyce is making his own knockoffs, the Chinese want to get some of that, Joyce’s robots are turning into rogue Decepticons, Cade is freaking out because his high school senior daughter has a boyfriend (seriously?) plus his business is going broke (until it’s blown up by the CIA), Lockbox is treating the Autobots and Decepticons like Pokemon, gotta catch ‘em all, and there’s some gibberish about a “seed” (a super-powerful alien bomb or something) and the sub-sub-plot about the mysterious “creators” who’ve hired Lockbox.  Jeez, pick a story and stick with it, why don’t you?  You’ll have plenty of sequels to deal with these other things.

            Alright, that’s it for this level of criticism: I’m not going to quibble about minor stupidities, illogical aspects, or other flaws, life’s too short. However, that also means I won’t spend any time giving credit to the filmmakers for the entertaining aspects of the movie, of which there were a decent number (including a handful of genuinely amusing lines of dialogue).  Instead,  I’ll reserve the rest of this review for complaints about the ridiculously idiotic foundation upon which this series is built, and a bit of socio-political commentary for afters.

            Everyone knows the “Transformers” films originated in a television cartoon series intended to sell the eponymous toys.  Merchandising creating content (as opposed to the norm, which was merchandising following content) was not unusual in the 1980s.  Subsequently translating these toy-based animated cartoons to live-action cinema required certain adjustments, no one would dispute that—the stakes are higher, the medium is different, the audience is broader, and the purpose is no longer just to sell toys to children.  A fair number of screen franchises made the transition successfuly, but the “Transformers” films stubbornly refuse to alter the (admittedly central) tenets of the premise—which also happen to be the dumbest parts of the whole idea.

            And by “tenets” I mean two things: the “transforming into motor vehicles” shtick (let’s not get nerdy here, I realise the Decepticons transform into other things), and the Earth-centric anthropomorphism of the Autobots and Decepticons.   First, the automobile-morphing is just plain stupid.  If it ever served an even vaguely-reasonable plot point, it sure doesn’t now. The idea that giant super-robot beings from outer space periodically transform into slick cars and trucks and race up and down the street with their human friends inside is mind-boggling and excruciatingly awkward in terms of narrative flow.  On general principles, the concept is super-dumb, but it sold toys then and allows for lots of car chases in the movies now, however it remains a gimmick, nothing else.

            Transformers: Age of Extinction provides numerous excellent examples of the second I.Q.-reducing aspect of the series, the “let’s make these alien robots sound and look like pop culture stereotypes.”  Optimus Prime has a generic voice/personality (although in this film he sounds a bit like Adam West, which made me snicker), but we’ve got Brains, a little robot with wild “hair” and a smart-aleck “urban” (i.e., African-American) voice and attitude; Hound, a burly, bearded (?), cigar-smoking (?) robot voiced by John Goodman who is the “gruff combat sergeant” type; Drift, a samurai-looking, Asian-accented Autobot (Ken Watanabe—he and Ken Jeong are obviously the only two Asian actors in Hollywood today); and another Autobot (Crosshairs) who has an Australian accent and wears a green raincoat.  Huh? 

            In addition to being lazy and possibly racist, this convention is supremely annoying and illogical.  Why does “Crosshairs” talk like an Aussie?  No reason.  Why does “Drift” use Charlie Chan-isms when he talks?  No reason.  Sure, Hound and Brains are fitfully amusing, but why in the world do they look/talk/act like characters from old movies/TV programs/comic books?

            Oh well, I suppose I’m over-thinking this again.  The answer may be as simple as “audiences find them funny and relatable, and it’s too much trouble to create ‘alien’ personalities when you can just cobble together something out of existing pop culture.”

            Final point: I read an online review before I watched Transformers: Age of Extinction (will I never learn?) which implied that the socio-political content of this entry was significantly different (possibly more pronounced) than its predecessors.  Frankly, I didn’t see that…much (perhaps it was because I missed the first two “Transformers” movies—well, I didn’t see them, but I wouldn’t say I actually missed them, ha ha.  The third one wasn’t terrible, however).  There is a fair amount of political content on display, but it is so muddled and contradictory that one couldn’t truly say the film has a “point of view.”  To wit:

            Attinger is a career CIA employee who has an anti-“alien” point of view.  He sends government death squads out to locate fugitive Autobots and Decepticons.  There are billboards urging citizens to report “suspicious” alien activity.  Attinger’s men attack salt-of-the-earth, small-business-owner, single-dad Cade Yeager’s home in Texas and destroy it—despite the American flag prominently flying on the front porch!—in a  Waco and/or Ruby Ridge-like assault. 

           But…since Attinger is clearly the villain of the piece (well, one of them), his hyper-patriotism is thus tainted for us.  He also has a secret side agreement with Lockdown, although he justifies this with the old “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” argument.  You don’t see American armed forces in action at all (whereas in previous films they were around), and the representative of the Executive Branch (comedically depicted) does express mild worry about Attinger’s unleashed violence on the streets of large American cities, which reinforces the image of Attinger as a rogue operator.  So technically this is a draw, with the U.S. government neither vilified nor praised excessively, although to be sure what we see on screen is the “government” trampling on individual rights, destroying private property, and unleashing robotic death-machines irresponsibly. 

           A  fair amount of attention has been paid to China’s involvement in Transformers: Age of Extinction, with some sources even claiming this as a co-production (of which I can find no confirmation, at least on IMDB).  The Chinese cinema audience is increasingly valuable to international filmmakers, resulting in…accomodations.  However, the Chinese presence in the movie itself is rather peripheral to the plot—Joshua Joyce has a manufacturing plant in China, and a Chinese “company” (but not the Chinese government, of course) is involved in his giant battle-robot project, and the last third of the film takes place in China (Hong Kong and China proper), but the Chinese are neither demonised nor lionised nor even especially important in the grand scheme of things.  The fact that they’re Chinese rather than Canadian or Czech is a function of economy rather than ideology.

          The film’s production values are fine, the performances variable but generally acceptable: as noted, Grammer and Tucci stand out, while Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, and “Jack Reynor” (which sounds like a made-up name, but apparently isn’t) are mildly handicapped by the feckless characters and lame dialogue handed to them by the script.  The pacing is brisk—although Transformers:Age of Extinction has an obscene running time upwards of 150 minutes, my objections to this length are largely on principle: there’s a lot of padding but even the padding unreels at a breakneck speed.  Could it have been cut by an hour?  Sure, why not.

            Why critics have savaged Transformers: Age of Extinction so severely is a mystery to me.  I wouldn’t see it again, but I don’t regret having watched it.  There are definitely better films to be seen out there, but…there are definitely worse ones as well.

Under the Skin (2013) review

Although actually quite fascinating, Under the Skin is also baffling on so many levels, from conception to execution.  It may prove more frustrating than entertaining to some viewers, while others may find it intriguing yet still, ultimately, lacking that je ne se quois that distinguishes a pleasurable viewing experience from an…interesting one.  It’s a matter of personal taste.

            One of the curious aspects of Under the Skin is how exploitative it sounds when one summarises the basic plot and a few other aspects: it’s a science fiction film about a sexy alien woman who comes to Earth and abducts single men, who are then (apparently) transported back to her planet (in the form of reddish sludge).  It stars Scarlett Johansson (e.g.,  big-name Hollywood performer) who appears nude!  Talk about a sure-fire combination of saleable elements…

            While all of the statements in the previous paragraph are absolutely true, (a) they don’t really accurately describe what the film is like, and (b) the film (to the distributors’ credit) isn’t advertised that way at all.  In fact, in the USA it doesn’t appear to have been advertised or shown widely, appearing on over 100 screens (usually many fewer) for only 3 weeks of its 12-week run to date, and earning just over $2.5 million so far.  Perhaps a few people rushed out to watch Under the Skin to see naked ScarJo (“the heck with under the skin, show me her bare skin!”), but frankly, if this would be enough to entice you to pay $14 for a movie ticket, you are a moron.

            I wish I hadn’t read a synopsis of the original novel upon which Under the Skin is based before I watched the film, because it would have been instructive to see how my “plot synopsis” would have differed if I didn’t have preconceived notions of what was happening.  I guess I’d have figured out what was going on, mostly… While the basic premise is the same, the plot is considerably different, and the novel apparently goes into much more detail about the aliens’ presence on Earth, what they do with the abductees, and also provides insight into the thought processes and emotions of the ScarJo character (named Isserley in the book, unnamed in the film).    (I do intend to read the novel, soon—have a copy of it on my desk right now.)

            Although the film version of Under the Skin pares down the story to the merest essentials, it’s still rather obvious that we’re dealing with aliens rather than run-of-the-mill serial killers or supernatural beings.  The premise of alien abductions is not unfamiliar cinematic ground: Not of This Earth  (1957), Night Caller from Outer Space (1964), and El Hijo de Alma Grande (1974), for instance.  Under the Skin doesn’t provide us with any extra information about what’s going on and why—we’re shown what happens, that’s it.  Interpretation is for the each viewer to supply for himself or herself (or to argue about with friends, afterwards). 

            This is tantalising and fun, yet undoubtedly distancing and possibly annoying for some.  There is no filmic voice, no informed narration, no gradual revelation…not even cryptic hints or coded messages.  I’m not asking for detailed expository monologues, interior or verbal, telling us what the alien-woman is thinking or feeling, or long conversations between characters, or voiceovers, but we don’t get any real “privileged” point of view.  We’re simply observers.

            Under the Skin is like watching through a plate glass window as a couple of strangers argue: you don’t know them, you can’t hear what they’re saying, maybe you’ve got a vague idea of what’s happening but you don’t have any details.  Many years ago, I purchased some un-subtitled Japanese anime at a convention.  This was prior to the Internet, prior to the anime boom, and I don’t speak Japanese, so I literally had to make up a plot to match what I was watching.  Under the Skin feels a little like that.  It’s…different, but not uninvolving.

            I’m not suggesting Under the Skin is incomprehensible.  Alien-woman picks up men in her van, takes them to her hideout where they sink into a black “pool” and are dissolved.  After a series of such encounters, she lures a man with facial deformities into her lair, then changes her mind and frees him (in stark contrast to an earlier sequence where she ignores a wailing baby on a deserted beach, leaving it to die)—she then has an epiphany or something, abandoning her career as a man-hunter, wandering off with no particular destination (this doesn’t end well). 

          None of this is actually confusing—it’s not explained to death (in fact, alien-woman seems to have lost her ability to speak English, although previously she delivered a rather good line of patter to potential victims, in a Received Pronunciation accent) but the audience understands what’s going on.  In one nice bit, alien-woman stares at her face in a dirty, mottled mirror, as if to compare it to the distorted face of her last conquest.  What she’s thinking isn’t force-fed to us, but…we get it.  Later, given shelter by a good Samaritan, she undresses and admires her nude body in a full-length mirror, a companion shot to the previous mirror scene, albeit one with an entirely different impact.

            So Under the Skin isn’t plotless or confusing, it simply chooses not to fill in the blanks in a conventional manner.  Where are these aliens from?  Why are they abducting humans, and why only men?  What becomes of the victims?  (We see they’re converted into collapsed bags of skin and a kind of reddish slurry, but for what?)  Is the alien-woman a recent arrival?  (The opening sequence suggests this, as she “assumes” a new identity.)  Her approaches to men aren’t always successful, but she appears practiced and smooth as she chats them up.  (For example, she strikes exactly the correct tone when dealing with the facially-deformed man, and isn’t merely using a canned script to convince him to accompany her.)

            [Johansson supplies some information about her character via her actions and her acting: her dialogue is sparse and not very revealing, but she makes good use of facial expressions and body language, particularly in the latter half of the film.  Ironically, for a performer not universally credited with being a good actor, in Her (2013) and Under the Skin Johansson is quite effective even when allowed to utilise only certain sub-sets of her acting tools.]

            A number of previous films depicted sex-specific alien abductions (Night Caller from Outer Space, Mars Needs Women, etc.).  Under the Skin doesn’t explain (of course it doesn’t) if the alien-woman is the only “hunter,” or why she abducts only men.  Yes, she’s attractive “bait” for male victims, but it’s not beyond belief that she could also lure women and children into her van.  And, as we later see, the aliens are not above using brute force on people when necessary, so it’s not as if victims had to be “seduced,” sexually—although who knows, maybe there are some alien arcane rules that the victims must be nude males who voluntarily walk across the mysterious black floor…

            However, because the alien-woman is a woman (or, to be more accurate, looks like one), and her victims are all male, Under the Skin has a sexual-politics aspect to it.  Surprisingly, this is not as overt as one might expect.  The men accosted by alien-woman are physically rather similar—young, slim, Caucasian (although how many non-Caucasians are strolling the streets of Glasgow?  I don’t have any idea)—but their personalities vary from inhibited to extroverted.  Some don’t take the bait, but even those who are openly interested in the attractive young woman aren’t portrayed as lustful louts on the prowl.  After her breakdown, the alien-woman is befriended by a man who takes her to his home and doesn’t make advances, giving her a separate bedroom for the night.  After a day of idyllic rambling through the countryside, he does attempt to make love to the alien-woman—with her implicit if unspoken agreement—and although the act doesn’t go well, it’s not because he was forcing himself on her.  The final sequence of the film contains the only instance of a true human predator.  This is horrifying and brutal (as opposed to the peaceful manner in which the aliens take their prey) and because the alien-woman has become a much more sympathetic character in the second half of the movie, it’s even more affecting when she becomes a victim, but this is almost the only instance of negatively-portrayed men in Under the Skin (there is a brief, frightening scene earlier in which a group of hooligans attack her van).

            Perhaps a feminist spin could be put on this.  After all, the alien-woman is apparently subordinate to alien-motorcycle guy (in the novel Isserley does have a “man” as a supervisor).  There’s an amusing scene where alien-woman is strolling down the street in her whorish outfit (honestly, her spike-heel boots and waist-length fur coat are stereotypical streetwalker garb, it’s not just a value judgement on my part) and is suddenly enveloped in a gaggle of young Glaswegian women out for a night at the disco: they adopt her and compel her to accompany them in a parody (or is it?) of sisterhood—this is the only scene in which the alien-woman has significant interaction with human females, and might be interpreted as meaningful or at least symbolic…(everything in a film has some meaning, after all, or it wouldn’t be there)

            In fact, the general image of humanity in Under the Skin is positive.  Most people are helpful and kind: passersby willingly give alien-woman directions, a swimmer tries to save a man (who’s trying to save his wife, who’s trying to save their dog), the coatless alien-woman is befriended by a bus driver and by the aforementioned Good Samaritan, and even the logger-rapist at first seems nice (and that he later turns out to be evil is in fact an exaggerated reflection of  the alien-woman’s earlier self: someone who appears to be harmless and even friendly on the surface but is harbouring sinister intent).  So what are we to make of this?  That all beings, everywhere, have both good and bad aspects?  Now that’s profound.  But at least the message isn’t blatantly “humans are bad and deserve to be hunted,” or “alien monsters are killing humans,” or “men prey on women, so isn’t it ironic that this time it’s women preying on men?”  In fact, pick your own meaning for Under the Skin, I’m sure the filmmakers won’t mind.  “Thought-provoking” isn’t a pejorative term.

            The production values and special effects are fine.  Much of the film was shot on location in Glasgow and other parts of Scotland: the cinematography is excellent, particularly in the rural sequences (there’s not much to be done with what is essentially “hidden camera” footage shot on city streets).  The score is unobtrusive and appropriately other-worldly.  Scarlett Johansson is not the only “professional” performer in the film, but certainly few of the others are household names.  However, everyone performs in a satisfactory manner, and the very unfamiliarity of their faces helps establish a mood: not exactly cinema verité, not faux-documentary, but not your standard “it’s a motion picture!” feel, either. 

            Director Jonathan Glazer’s only made 3 feature films since 2000.  His first was Sexy Beast, followed by Birth (2004).  Have seen neither of these, I can’t compare their style with Under the Skin, although Birth apparently has certain elements in common with Glazer’s latest effort, including longish takes, sparse dialogue, muted emotions, and an open-ended narrative. 

            Under the Skin has a very deliberate pace, and yet I wouldn’t characterise it as a “slow” film.  Things happen.  It just takes a while.  Be patient.  While I wouldn’t want all films to be like Under the Skin, in this case…I liked it. Quite a bit.  

Joe Palooka loses his sh*t.  (Big Shot 58, 1945).  ”Sores on the flesh of humanity,” indeed!  (btw, he’s referring to “Japs—Nazis—Fascists” during World War II)

Joe Palooka loses his sh*t.  (Big Shot 58, 1945).  ”Sores on the flesh of humanity,” indeed!  (btw, he’s referring to “Japs—Nazis—Fascists” during World War II)

"Marriage is not a cage, pals!"  (Thrilling Romances 9, 1950). “It’s sort of like admiring a work of art…” What? Women look at men?  Now I’ve heard everything!

"Marriage is not a cage, pals!"  (Thrilling Romances 9, 1950). “It’s sort of like admiring a work of art…” What? Women look at men?  Now I’ve heard everything!

22 Jump Street (2014) review

A running gag in 22 Jump Street has different characters repeatedly telling the protagonists to “do exactly what you did last time” in order to be successful.  It’s mildly amusing (the first time it happens) to have the filmmakers acknowledge the Golden Rule of Sequels, and although slavishly following this policy did result in a moderately entertaining comedy (which has been quite successful at the box-office), the novelty and freshness of the original are considerably diminished.

            After failing as “regular” undercover cops, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are reassigned to the “Jump Street” squad (now located across the street from the previous address) and told by Angry Black Police Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) to solve a virtually identical case (referring to the previous film) by going undercover at a school to identify the suppliers of a new designer drug.  This time, it’s “MC State” rather than a high school.  Schmidt and Jenko become dorm roommates, and plunge into campus life.  Naturally (as happened before, what a surprise) the two partners are separated: Jenko makes friends with frat-boy/jock Zook and joins the football team, while Schmidt (briefly) gravitates to a more intellectual group and finds a girlfriend of sorts, Maya (who, shockingly, is Captain Dickson’s daughter). 

            Jenko fears his pal Zook is involved in the trafficking of the drug WHYPHY, and tries to deflect the investigation away from him.  He enjoys the fraternity/athletic life so much that he considers dropping his police career to become an actual college student.  Schmidt and Jenko agree to “investigate other people,” an amusing “break-up” bit.  When one of the professors at MC State is arrested for distributing WHYPHY, the case is considered closed, but…didn’t you see the first movie?  The faculty member wasn’t the big boss in that one, so there must also be a higher-up in this picture.  Schmidt and Jenko reunite for a big Spring Break action finale, and once again overcome their basic ineptitude to solve the mystery.

            22 Jump Street contains a handful of reasonably clever and amusing bits, which unfortunately alternate with an equal or greater number of lackluster or overly-familiar sections.  Make no mistake about it, the film is still entertaining—although the most it elicited from me was a snicker or two and a handful of smiles, other people were laughing (I can’t vouch for their senses of humour, though—perhaps they laugh at everything).  Schmidt’s participation in a slam poetry contest?  Yawn.  Captain Dickson angrily trashing a fancy luncheon? Meh.  Jenko hyperactively reacting to the news that Schmidt slept with Dickson’s daughter?  Not bad.  Jenko and Zook making a “highlights” video of their athletic careers?  Nice, if too short.  Jenko and Zook just hanging out, going to their frat parties, and so forth?  Blah.  Jenko and Schmidt visiting Rob Riggle and Dave Franco’s characters (from the first film) in prison?  Quite funny, if logically weak.   The three major stunt-comedy sequences—Schmidt and Jenko climbing all over a speeding tractor trailer, Schmidt and Jenko driving a football-helmeted golf cart while criminals pursue them, Schmidt and Jenko dangling from the struts of a helicopeter—are well-executed but none are really hilarious or pulse-pounding.

            There are stray bits of funny dialogue, some meta-humour (welcome, albeit not very envelope-pushing), and some nice bits by performers in supporting or in cameo roles (the Lucas Brothers, Nick Offerman, Patton Oswalt).  Hill and Tatum are fine, with decent chemistry between them; Amber Stevens is also satisfactory in her role, although she doesn’t have a whole lot to do.  Peter Stormare is adequate as a villain, but I have to say that in the 3 recent films I’ve seen him in (this one, The Last Stand, and Pain & Gain) he has made almost no impression on me, for good or ill.  His character is called “The Ghost” here, and he might as well have been one.  He’s certainly not bad, but wow is he…ordinary.

            I might have enjoyed 22 Jump Street more if I hadn’t seen 21 Jump Street.  It’s OK, but—unlike the producers and writers who diligently did “the exact same thing”—I’d have preferred a few differences, at least.  [The post-credits faux­-sequels actually looked pretty good, admittedly.]  Call me radical if you must.