Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Terminator: Resurrection

Last week, I went to a screening of "Terminator Salvation" hosted by Australians in Film. I've been welcomed as a guest to several of their movie 'n' mixer events and the Aussies always live up to their reputation as the friendliest folks on the planet. Though Australia's domestic film industry is a tiny one, the sparsely populated nation has exported an astonishing array of directors, crew members, and, of course, actors. (The Australian breakout in 2010 will be Chris Hemsworth, most recently the father of Captain Kirk in the new "Star Trek," and newly cast as the lead of Kenneth Branagh's "Thor" and the remake of "Red Dawn.") In the case of "Terminator Salvation," the Australian connection is the film's star, Sam Worthington. "Who?" I hear you ask. Already a star in Australia, Worthington will next be seen in the lead role in James Cameron's "Avatar." Christian Bale may have top billing in "Terminator Salvation," but it's Worthington's show.

I had low expectations for the movie. After all, the director is McG -- a man seemingly named after a Happy Meal -- who foisted "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" on the world. But this fourth installment in the series has much to commend to it amid one colossal flaw (more on that later). Essentially, it's a war movie set in a post-apocalyptic future and, while the look and feel of this grim 2018 isn't as nightmarish as that of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," the dustbowl environment isn't exactly a Disney theme park either.

I'll say this for McG, he certainly brings a distinctive vision to the whole enterprise and his action sequences likely won't be topped this summer. Indeed, the action film seems to be a lost art in Hollywood. So few directors seem able to replicate what Spielberg and Cameron do so well -- create action sequences that are storyboarded and shot so that the viewer knows exactly what is transpiring on screen. These days, action sequences tend to be a blur of ADD editing where it's difficult to follow the flow of movement. A bit like watching a movie on fast forward. McG, at least, does a fine job on the action front. In one notable sequence, he even provides a pilot's POV view of a helicopter crash.

Overall, I reckon this new film is the third best entry in the series. I wish it had a few more moments of the playfulness that characterized each of its predecessors, though it does offer up one such surprise near the end. That said, the fundamental flaw of "Terminator 4" is that its characters are only slightly more fleshed out than those of the machines. Christian Bale does little more than bark his lines and strike heroic poses. His stubble does all the acting. Worthington gets a stock redemption arc and a teeny bit of existential angst, but his character's evolution isn't explained in the least. At the outset, we're told that his character committed a brutal multiple murder but he has already decided to atone for what he did. We're not privvy to why he committed the crime, nor why he decides to reform himself.

The previous three Terminator films (especially the Cameron films) at least paused to develop its players a little bit. The only truly memorable characters here are the red-eyed machines.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What I'm reading, watching, and listening to

Here's what I've been reading, watching, and listening to over the past week.

READING: Shawn Levy's "Paul Newman: A Life," which I just reviewed for the books section of The Christian Science Monitor. The bottom line: Levy, a film critic for The Oregonian, has penned an eloquent and perceptive eulogy that chronicles Newman’s journey from movie stardom to American icon.

Levy’s exceptionally detailed research yields numerous amusing anecdotes about the actor who made movie studios glad they'd shifted over to color motion pictures. The biography includes dozens of stories about Newman’s effect on women. (One went fishing in a trash can for the actor’s discarded apple core.) Levy's insights as a movie critic make for a fascinating journey through the actor's filmography. Though Newman wasn't blessed with an innate chameleonic instinct, he diligently worked to incorporate method acting techniques to his craft. He thrived on the discovery process of rehearsals before each shoot and became the quintessential example of the actor who asks, “What’s my motivation in this scene?”

The biography also gains considerable mileage from various recollections of Newman's elaborate -- and expensive -- pranks on set. During the filming of Robert Altman's "Buffalo Bill" in Calgary, Levy recounts how Newman hired a helicopter to drop flyers in the area for a party at the house Altman was staying. And, later, he had a local disc jockey record a fake call for 2,500 extras to report to the set the next day -- with the promise of $155 for each actor. Newman then broadcast the tape on radios around the set, as if it was a local broadcast. "Bob just turned white," Newman said.

Clearly, Newman was the one guy who could have out Punk'd Ashton Kutcher.

Some newspaper reports claim that Joanne Woodward is "furious" and "upset" about "Paul Newman: A Life" because it casts light on the actor's two year affair with a journalist. Take those stories with a pinch of salt since they quote unnamed sources. In any event, Woodward needn't fret. Rather than sensationalize the scandal, Levy refrains from offering up prurient details -- and, since he interviewed "the other woman," I imagine he has plenty of salacious fodder left in his notebook. Woodward couldn't have hoped for a more eloquent and respectful biography of her late husband.

I've also just picked up "For the Love of Vinyl: The Album Art of Hipgnosis" by Storm Thorgerson & Aubrey Powell at my local library. There are many distinctive album sleeve artists I've admired over the years such as Neon Park (Little Feat, Frank Zappa), Carl Glover (Marillion, Porcupine Tree, No-Man), Mark Wilkinson (Marillion, Fish), Roger Dean (Yes), and Hugh Syme (Rush). But Hipgnosis were the masters and innovators of vinyl art that was by turns surreal, cinematic, and open to endless interpretation. (My favorites: The art for Led Zeppelin's "Presence" and Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here.")

The book is more than a coffee table portfolio of the covers -- though it is that, too. It includes essays by Floyd's Nick Mason and artist Peter Blake as well as in-depth recollections by Thorgerson and Powell about they created unforgettable covers for records such as Wishbone Ash's "Argus," Bad Company's debut, Paul McCartney & Wings "Band on the Run," Peter Gabriel's "III," and many more. (To see some of those covers, check out this enjoyable 10-minute EPK interview with Powell.) I'm endlessly fascinated by one of their earliest images for the debut album by Toe Fat. (See it here, but prepare to be perplexed and mildly disturbed.)

Next up: Alain de Botton's "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work," but, before then, I'll try squeeze in a debut novel called "Woods Burner" by John Pipkin. My favorite book reviewer, Yvonne Zipp, tells me it's based on the true story of how Henry David Thoreau set fire to 300 acres of forest, though she tells me there's more to it than that.

WATCHING: At the cinema, Star Trek proved to be a great start to the blockbuster season. Character driven, exciting, a perfect length, and a wholly fresh take on the franchise.

I just watched the first episode of "The Bachelorette" on ABC. I'm hooked. But nothing compares to my current TV obsession: "Damages." I just started watching it 7 days ago and have raced through season 1. I'm kicking myself for not discovering it sooner. The end of episode 1 alone has so many twists that you'll be reeling and will immediately want to watch episode 2. Very stylishly filmed, brilliant plotting, and Glenn Close is riveting as a hard-ass, manipulative lawyer who, one suspects, could outwit even the scheming Benjamin Linus in "Lost." Close's character is evenly matched by the heroine (and moral center of the show) played by Rose Byrne. And who knew Ted Danson could play evil so convincingly and so humanly?

My wife, Kim, and I saw a magnificent concert by Doves this past weekend. I saw them on their very first tour (their support band back then were The Strokes!) and, while the band is hardly well-known, they've managed to build a sizable fanbase without much airplay over the years. Saturday's show at The Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles hosted over 2,000 concert goers, a loud and enthusiastic crowd that was matched by a loud and enthusiastic band. (Johnny Marr was in the audience, though I didn't spot him.)

All the new songs sounded even better live. The heavy bottom end of the drum sound gives the songs more weight. "Jetstream" was an incredible opener and even more dynamic the way it added layer upon layer to the song. Early highlight of the night was "Winter Hill," which oughta be a future single. "10:03" was more explosive than a discarded cigarette in a 1930's Zeppelin. "Greatest Denier" is definitely my top pick off the new album, "Kingdom of Rust."

Funniest moment of the night was when someone in the audience yelled to Jimi Goodwin, "Slap da bass," a reference from the recent comedy, "I Love You Man." The bassist/frontman didn't get the reference but responded, "Slap the bass? If do that I'd turn into James Brown and they'd @&$#ing fire me!"

Best song of the night was the jubilant "There Goes the Fear," which ended with Goodwin and Andy Williams bashing away at the same drum kit while Jez Williams played cowbell. (I turned to Kim and, in my best Christopher Walken imitation, said, "more cowbell.")

The annals of rock history are littered with ridiculous band names such as Prefab Sprout, Hoobastank, Spandau Ballet, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Chumbawumba, Mr. Mister, and Chickenfoot, the new supergroup comprised of Joe Satriani, Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony, and Chad Smith. (What, exactly, is a Hoobastank? Does it require a gas mask to handle it?)

Bat for Lashes (l.) belongs in the ridiculous name category. Bat for Lashes isn't actually a band, it's the name adopted by British singer Natascha Kahn. Daffy name aside, she's a very exciting artist whose two primary influences are Kate Bush and Bjork, my two favorite female vocalists. As such, Khan's music is otherworldly, slightly avant garde, and infectiously melodic. Like those two vocalists, Khan has her own unique voice that is wonderfully expressive. Alas, Khan doesn't have Bush's literary talents and so her lyrics
share Bjork's penchant for fantastical gobbledigook with lines such as, "When I get hurt / been in the jungle / where's my bear to lick me clean." I'll be she has interesting dreams.

Khan's second album, "Two Suns," expands on the sparse dynamics of her debut, "Fur and Gold." Plug in your headphones and check out the three tunes on her MySpace pag
e -- "Glass" is one of the greatest songs I've heard this year and "Daniel," an ode to "The Karate Kid," has been widely hailed as one of the year's best singles. (See it performed on Letterman here.)

My current playlist also includes David Bowie's "Diamond Dogs," Elbow's live performance of "The Seldom Seen Kid" with the BBC Concert Orchestra, Joni Mitchell's "Heijira," No-Man's new EP, "Wherever There is Light."

I've also been delving deeper into the back cataloge of Shearwater, the greatest band of this decade on the strength of the past two albums alone. Truly special. (Not heard of of this band from Austin? Here, as an introduction, is my review of their 2008 masterpiece, "Rook." )

Before Shearwater fully channeled its Talk Talk influences on its past two albums, "Palo Santo" and "Rook," the band was still honing its sound. Shearwater started as a sort of splinter offshoot from Okkervil River and that band's leader, Will Sheff, was a member of Shearwater just as Shearwater's leader, Jonathan Meiburg, was a member of his. The two have now amicably parted ways. But Shearwater's early records, "Thieves" and "Winged Life," are a compromise of Meiburg and Sheff's very different writing styles.

Even though Meiburg (r.) hadn't yet asserted his own vision, there are many hints of what was to come on "Winged Life." The opener, titled "A Hush," is a forefather of the lush Shearwater sound of today. "Sealed" is another such track, its mellotron as moody as Meiberg's vocal. Midway through, the song suddenly unfurls its sails and the effect is utterly glorious and then, just when you think that was the climax of the piece, it violently shifts gears for a wrecked, yet melodic, coda. Again, a classic example of the direction the band was heading in. Another fave: "The Kind" floats on a current of mellotron. But the track I can't get enough of is "Whipping Boy," which is as a groovy, banjo-led song with great drumming by Thor Harris. It ends with Thor trying his patented violin bow between the xylophone feedback effect.

I'm also listening to the band's "Thieves" EP, which opens with "I Can't Wait," a genteel acoustic folk song that bursts into an impassioned chorus. "Mountain Laurel," a soft banjo track, is still a worthy regular on the band's set lists.

First, though, you really need to go check out "Rooks" or "Palo Santo." Don't just take it from me - see this review, and this one, and also this one.

You'll thank me later.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Remember when sharks were scary?

First, take a moment to watch the above trailer for "Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus." Gotta hand it to the movie -- which should be renamed "Sharks on a Plane" or "Jump the Shark" -- for achieving the impossible. And I'm not talking about a shark taking a chunk out of the Golden Gate bridge. Or the fact that it manages to be the worst thing that's happened to Debbie Gibson since the '90s. Or even its status as the worst movie release since "Manos: Hands of Fate". No, I'm referring to the fact that it makes a Great White shark seem about as scary as "Free Willy."

I remember when sharks were cinema's scariest creature. At the age of 5 or 6, I first became aware of "Jaws." It was the late 1970s and, growing up in South Africa (which rivals Australia as shark-attack central), my childhood visits to the ocean where already fraught with anxiety. As much as I loved to swim (still do), I felt trepidation every time I went out into the waves (still do). But the poster for Spielberg's film -- an impossibly large great white surging from the depths toward an unsuspecting bikini babe swimming on the surface -- made an indelible impression on my young, impressionable mind. Adding to the terror of the image: the cruel serrations in the beast's cavernous mouth. It even managed to surpass the visceral depiction of an actual shark attack of 14-year-old Brook Watson in John Singleton Copley's 1778 painting, "Watson and the Shark."

I can only imagine what sort of impact "Jaws" must have had at the time of its release. So, I'm keen to see the new documentary The Shark is Still Working, which examines the movie's legacy in popular culture. Remember, there was no such thing as "Shark Week" on the Discovery Channel back in 1975. People's impressions of the rulers of the deep were likely shaped by lurid reports in newspapers -- not to mention the Peter Benchley bestseller that spawned Spielberg's film -- rather than genteel Jacques Cousteau nature documentaries.

Of course, sharks had popped up in film before. "Thunderball" includes this sequence as well as James Bond's memorable escape from the villain's shark tank. (Sean Connery's expression of terror in the film is real: a shark managed to escape the transparent divider in the pool while the scene was being shot.) But Spielberg's film, for the first time, vividly depicted what a shark attack might look like on film. Or, at least, it made viewers imagine what a Great White's lunch routine might look like. Spielberg smartly left the mechanical shark -- nicknamed "Bruce" -- off screen for much of the film because a) it failed to work b) it looked absurdly fake.

The less-is-more approach made audiences afraid to dangle their legs in the water ever again. "Jaws" was such a megahit -- in retrospect, the first summer blockbuster -- that other studios tried to emulate its formula with films such as "Jaws of Death," "Piranha" and "Orca: The Killer Whale."

I never did see "Jaws" until many years later, but the poster did enough damage to my young psyche on its own. Passing by the backyard swimming pool at night, I'd furtively cast at wary glance at its shadowed depths for signs of a fin even though I knew that was ridiculous. When a babysitter took my brother and I to see "Jaws 3" at a drive-in, she made us duck our heads under the dashboard every time the shark appeared. Oddly, I think that made the movie seem more terrifying than it actually was.

When we were finally old enough to go see "Jaws 4: The Revenge" on our own, it turned out to be a comedy. The shark roars, for starters! Worse, the shark is hellbent on payback -- this time it's personal! -- against the Brody family from the original two movies and so it somehow manages to figure out that the Brody family from Amityville, New England, is off to the Bahamas for a vacation. The shark follows the plane! Michael Caine, the film's star (the human one, at least), once told an interviewer, "I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific."

Understandably, movie studios swore off shark movies for a while. No one wanted the hassle of making mechanical sharks, let alone filming in water. Until, that is, Samuel L. Jackson's craptastic "Deep Blue Sea" ushered in the digital shark. Suddenly, cheap special effects led to dozens of straight-to-DVD (or straight to the Sci-fi Channel) releases such as -- deep breath -- "Megalodon," "Red Water," "Spring Break Shark Attack," 'Shark Swarm," "Blue Demon," and the "Shark Attack" series. The nadir of the genre (well, until "Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus") was 2007's "Sharks in Venice," in which schools of great whites patrolled Italy's famous canals to feast on Italian extras and several American film stars.

In short, Hollywood reduced the ocean's most formidable predators -- and cinema's most feared monster -- to villains that are about as menacing as Dr. Evil's sharks with lasers.* And I, for one, don't mind. I've dived with sharks and they're actually beautiful fish. (I feel safe underwater, though I swear I'd become the second man to walk on water if I ever spotted a Great White, Bull Shark, or Tiger Shark during a dive.) They're still depicted as ruthless killers in film, alas, but at least these cinematic stars don't affect us the way Spielberg's creation did. The less we fear these over-hunted creatures, the more we might come to respect them.

* (Honorable exceptions: "Open Water," the docu-style indie film about two divers stranded in the ocean, and the grisly attack sequence in Danny Boyle's lamentable "The Beach" -- y'know, the one in which Leonardo DiCaprio goes all Captain Kurtz to unintended comedic effect.)

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Nah, it's a turkey...

If you ever wondered why Hollywood serves up formulaic blockbuster crap like "Wolverine," watch this video of Kevin Smith's dealings with big movie producers on "Superman Reborn," a script that -- thankfully -- never saw the light of day. (If it had, it would have been derisively dubbed "Superman Stillborn.") This video is from one of Kevin Smith's lecture tours on the college circuit and you'll see why he's the Ricky Gervais of movie directors -- he'll have you howling with laughter.