X-Men: First Class: Rejecting Professor Hex’s Rejection

X-Men First Class Onesheet  Dear Professor Hex:

I am in receipt of your letter rejecting me for admission to the Xavier Institute (AKA Hex’s Home for Unwed Superfreaks), and I write to inform you that I reject your rejection, sir. I mean, who are you to judge me? Just what exactly are you a professor of, anyway? And what institution of higher learning would give you tenure? Or are you a “professor” in the same way that Octopus was a “Doctor”?

I found your letter to be insulting and appalling. It revealed just how empty that big brain of yours is. You and your costumed clown-children are no match for a true superhero such as myself. Can they spin a web any size? Catch thieves just like flies? Look out! Here comes the Spider-Man! Or not, if you have your way, because I guess, according to you, I’m an “anti-social” “accident-prone” “functional neurotic” with Oedipal issues. You’re telling me I’m too crazy to join your pack of psychotics? I’ve got news for you, friendo. I was in high school for longer than your talentless clods have been alive! Combined! That would make anyone neurotic, etc.

You’re missing out big-time, baldy. Think about it. You’ve got problems with Magneto? I’ve got a web just his size! Got a problem with the Cuban Missile Crisis? There’s a web for that! But no, you stick with that sycophantic freak show, which spends all its time showing off and preening in front of mirrors instead of busting crime. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and you don’t need spider-sense to know that your Famous Freak School adds up to a  big zero.

No? Won’t change your mind? OK. No biggie. Hmmm, what’s this? A letter from Sebastian Shaw. Wonder if he has a school with the good sense to admit me???

Telepath this, you mutant mother@!?#+%$!~

Sincerely Yours,

P. Parker

P.S. Show a brother a little love and text me Mystique’s digits, why don’t you?

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Super 8: Bugged

Super 8 OnesheetYou know the kind of movies I’m talking about, especially if you’re old enough to remember drive-ins or the Saturday-afternoon movies on TV back in the day. Spectaculars like Them! (1954), The Deadly Mantis (1957), The Black Scorpion (1957), The Fly (1958), and the best bug movie of all time, Alien (1979). The creatures lay waste to lots of desert acreage, whole towns, spaceships, and sometimes even planet Earth. They’re spawned by melting ice-caps, volcanoes, and most of all by nuclear radiation. The movies with the lowest production values are filmed in the desert, the least demanding of locations, and show a lot of screaming close-ups.

And yet somehow, despite ratcheting up the cheese factor, these movies still delight. This is partly because the best of them knew to keep the creature hidden as much as possible. Instead, we see characters gazing into the camera lens in rapt horror. We see crowds of people screaming and running away. We see a strange shadow on an alley wall. The less we saw of the creature, the more awful it was in our imaginations.

But as poet A.R. Ammons once said in another context, “People like to see the beast.” At some point, you have to show the creature. And that’s when we’d see the giant puppet bobbing at the end of piano wire (as in Them!) or the jittery stop-action figurine (as in The Black Scorpion) or the flying bug looking more like a Volkswagen Beetle covered with shag carpeting (The Deadly Mantis). All of the movies from the 50’s had a grade school science-project look to them. I guess because we hadn’t really seen such effects before, we were enthralled.

In many ways, we’ve returned to the 1950’s. 3-D is back. The new D-box vibrating seats are an update of the short-lived “Percepto” feature installed in some 1950’s theater seats, a buzzer that vibrated under the seat at dramatic moments during The Tingler. Even the title of the newest bug movie, Super 8 is a throwback. Though it’s set in the late 1970’s, it might as well be the 1950’s.

What you need to make a movie like Super 8:

  • an idyllic town, one that exudes all-American values
  • a collection of rag-tag kids, including the sensitive one, the dorky one, the fat one, and the whiner.
  • parents who ignore or just don’t understand their kids
  • a creature from another planet who’s just as misunderstood as the kids

If this sounds like ET or The Goonies, that’s because Super 8 has the same formula. Have I given too much away? I don’t think so. Every movie in Hollywood is written according to a formula. It’s whether that formula has been embodied well that determines whether the movie, well, moves us.

I think the reason movies like Super 8 and ET do move us is that the kid at the center of each is a misunderstood outsider who makes an amazing discovery but can’t get anyone to believe him. You see this pattern as early as 1959’s The Blob, where no one will listen to young Steve McQueen as he tries to tell the townspeople about what’s invading their town. The new twist that ET added to the mix is to make the alien just as much a misunderstood outsider as the boy.

The adult actors all do a serviceable job, but they’re about as important as the parents in Peanuts. The kids are the center of this movie. And they are all by turns charming and amusing as needed. The best of them are Joel Courtney, who plays the Henry Thomas role, and Elle Fanning as his love interest. Courtney plays Joe Lamb, who’s been unable to get over the death of his mother. “She used to look at me,” he says, “like really look at me. And I knew I existed.” In many ways, this is a movie about looking, really looking. It’s about seeing and understanding, and about the need to be seen, to have your existence validated (that most Spielbergian of themes).

Of course, the other item Super 8 adds to the mix is a boat-load of special effects. Director J.J. Abrams proved with the Star Trek reboot that he can dish out the CGI with the best of them. Here, among other things, he creates a massive, physics-defying train wreck. A pickup truck runs at full speed into the front of an oncoming freight train. The impact is enough not only to create a huge explosion and not only to derail the train but to send boxcars flying in all directions. And yet, when our heroes run to the pickup after the accident, it’s just banged up a bit, and the driver, mirabile dictu, is still alive. I got to get me one of them pickups! But I suppose if the crash had gone as it actually would have gone—a flattened pickup and a few seconds delay in the train’s schedule—the movie wouldn’t have been half so engrossing.

Because the movie is engrossing. It works the way a good thrill ride works. It shakes you up, knocks you around, blows your hair back, and sucks all the change out of your pocket without doing any permanent damage. It works on the level of exciting bug movie and on the level of touching story about young love and friendship.

Plus it’s loud.

Plus it’s a movie about movie-making. Throughout, the friends keep trying to finish shooting their zombie movie. Don’t miss the credits, where you finally get to see their finished product. It’s one of the highlights of a movie with highlights to spare.

P.S. The Sleeper was awake for every one of the movie’s 112 minutes.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: Just Say No to Sequels

On Stranger Tides OnesheetWhen I was about to write my dissertation, I was told to make sure my title had a colon. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be taken seriously. While watching Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, I realized the practice has hit movie sequels. Is it an effort to make us take the sequel more seriously?

The question of sequels is interesting, especially as we enter a period of movie-making that will be dominated by sequels and remakes. That’s right: Hollywood’s all out of fresh ideas. The conventional wisdom is that almost no sequel is as good as, or better than, the original. Godfather II is at the top of the list of exceptions. In fact, it’s the only movie on the list.

Why are sequels such pale imitations of the originals? I wondered about this as I watched Pirates, which has all the elements of the original: the charming and roguish Johnny Depp, dastardly pirate villains, high-seas hi-jinks, a dash of the supernatural, a beautiful woman, etc. And Geoffrey Rush nicely reprises his hardy-har-har role of Barbossa. Ian McShane makes an excellent Blackbeard, so excellent he takes the movie away from Depp. And Penélope Cruz brings real dimension to her role as Captain Jack Sparrow’s rival and would-be paramour.

So why didn’t the movie carry me away? I didn’t feel drawn into it, captivated by it, awash in it. Instead, I saw it as more of an artifact than as an experience.

And I think I know why.

It has to do with what’s come to be known as the “decline effect,” which I heard about on NPR’s “On the Media.” The idea is that efforts to duplicate the findings of an experiment may confirm the results, but often to a lesser and lesser degree. Subjects were shown a video in which a man robs a bank, his face clearly visible. Later, half the subjects were asked to write down a description of the robber; the other half were not. Then all the subjects were asked to pick the robber out of a lineup. Oddly, those who wrote down the description—the ones you’d expect to have a sharper memory of the robber’s features—were 30% less successful in identifying the robber than the other group. Stunning, right? But even more stunning was the finding that efforts to duplicate the study showed, yes, the same result, but to a smaller and smaller degree, as if the validity of the experiment were slowly fading away.

Is it possible that Pirates has the same elements as the original, but the “decline effect” is at play, causing each sequel to be less and less effective, no matter how faithfully the original has been reproduced? That’s certainly the case with the Harry Potter and Twilight sequels.

Maybe it’s just that all those elements were fresh the first time. And now, as each sequel drags out the same bag of tricks, they’re just not as effective. Remember that wild aerial fight in the ship’s rigging from the first Pirates movie? A similar attempt is made in this one, this time in the jungle, but it’s a lame imitation of the original. And there’s the usual swash-buckling over rickety timbers. Nothing new here. On the other hand, what about the scene in the second movie where Captain Jack escapes by running inside a paddle-wheel like a hamster as the thing crashes and careens through the jungle? That was new, wasn’t it? But it also seemed more like a stunt dreamed up by the Cirque du Soleil team than like something that arose out of the story.

The decline effect suggests that the sequel can never be as interesting or effective as the original. So why try? The corporate (or corp-pirate) answer, of course, is that no matter how bad the sequel, it will make money. But the profit shrinks a little bit with each sequel. And so does your soul.

Hollywood, are you listening? Just say no to sequels.

P.S. The theater had a D-box seat set up in the lobby, so I tried it out. The D-box is a motion-controlled theater seat that shudders, dips, swoops, and rolls in time with the movie’s effects. It was set in front of a screen that showed the Pirates trailer. I’m sorry. To me it felt as though someone were kicking the back of my seat the whole time.

Hangover Part II: The Funny Fell Off

The Hangover II Onesheet  The Hangover II is about a group of friends who go to Thailand to help one of them get married. They have a few drinks. Before they know it, they wake up in a hotel room with no memory of what happened the day before. It turns out they’re implicated in a murder, conspiring to hide the body; one friend gets shot; another’s face is tattooed and he’s taken advantage of sexually; and yet another seems to have lost a finger and been kidnapped, maybe killed, by Russian mobsters.

That’s right–it’s a comedy. A very bad comedy.

Before I go any further, let me assure you that I know the movie is making a gazilliion dollars at the box office, which means many people are enjoying it, right? Well, actually it means many people have succumbed to the hype and paid to see it. Not the same thing as enjoying it. I heard no laughter in the half-crowded theater, only a few expressions of good-natured revulsion.at some of the movie’s more blatant attempts to shock the audience. This movie is no more than a lame haunted house in a seedy amusement park.

But maybe I’m just too sensitive to edgy comedies? Listen. I came of age in the Sixties. My generation invented sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. I ain’t shocked by anything. What I am is over-sensitive to bad comedies, to movies that will do anything to assault you at the expense of story, characters, and even laughs.

On top of that, The Hangover II, llike Sex and the City II, is overwhelmed by its exotic setting. The movie takes place in Thailand, encouraging every bad stereotype about the place as a den of thieves, drug dealers, and sex-workers. Even the Buddhist monks delight in beating people up. Message to the Thai tourism board: if you paid anything to the film company to promote the image of Thailand around the world, you need to ask for your money back.

One of the rules of comedy is that the actors should play their parts as if they were in a drama, no matter how ridiculous the situations in which they find themselves. No winking and nodding to the audience. (Are you listening, Jim Carrey, Russell Brand, etc.?) That’s pretty much what the actors do here. The trouble is that the situations are not ridiculous. They’re scary and violent, the stuff of crime stories and thrillers. The Hangover II is a gross-out comedy without the comedy. Over and over, it seemed, the characters took turns crying out, “How’s any of this possible?” and “What are we going to do?” Two good questions. The Hangover II was made possible because you went for the short-end money, probably signing on before you even read the script. What am I saying?–before the script was even written. And what are you going to do? You’ll probably buy bigger houses and go on to make bigger travesties. And here’s another question you might have asked: “What happened to the funny?” Here’s what I think: at some point in the filming, the funny accidentally got lopped off the movie like that finger and rolled under the couch. Apparently, no one even noticed it was gone.

P.S. Hard to keep track of how many times The Sleeper nodded off, since I kept nodding off myself.

P.P.S. Message to Crystal, the monkey: Loved you in Night at the Museum, and is that you in Pirates? Great work! But Crystal, The Hangover II? Did Pacino do Dog Day Afternoon II? Did DeNiro do Godfather II II? You’re better than the room, babe.