Thursday, June 19, 2008

I For One Welcome Our New Musical Robot Overlords

Via Jeff at I'm Only Sleeping, we learn that the evil super-intelligent robots' plan for world domination somehow involves climbing the YouTube "Most Discussed" charts. (What type of music does a robot band play, you may ask? I'm guessing math rock. One...two...three...try to keep up.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Some Thoughts on Baby Brains

Leah and I, along with intreped producer Conrad Quilty-Harper and cameraman John Porter, went deep inside the 1-800-AUTOPSY compound in Downtown LA to bring you the following chilling Mahalo Daily.

I can honestly say it was the only interview I have ever conducted that was interrupted by the sentence: "I'm sorry, I have to go to children's hospital to remove a baby's brain." Well, okay, the second interview...but that's still pretty rare.

I think the episode's really entertaining and informative, but we couldn't really capture the ridiculous scope of this place in one 5 minute podcast. The company, in addition to performing autopsies, also rents out equipment and space to TV and film productions replicating autopsies. And they turn coffins into couches. The guy who owns it was a forensic investigator for decades, and is just kind of grimly fascinated in this stuff, so the whole place is something of an autopsy museum. There's one room that's a replica of a 1920s embalming room. It's seriously like walking into an Alan Moore story.

ATTENTION BOING BOING TV: I love experimental animation as much as the next guy, but you should mix it up more with some visits to peculiar, real-world locations. You all could get 2 weeks of shows out of the coffin couch factory. Maybe we can put some steampunk goggles with brass fittings on one of the skeletons, if it would make you more comfortable.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

I Said What What in the Mutt?

Seriously? Is there anyone out there that would pay money for a collectible Mutt Williams figure? Unlike some other people I know, I wouldn't say that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Interdimensional Blanchett Eaters was a bad movie, necessarily. But it's hardly the sort of thing I can see inspiring the level of enthusiasm necessary to invest in a statue, particularly the Shia LaBeouf character.

I know Mutt uses a sword in the movie, but he just looks extremely dippy holding it here. Like a rejected "Street Fighter" character, or a schizophrenic guy's Halloween costume.

So how much would you pay for this handsome LeBeouf semi-likeness, handcrafted from the finest Vietnamese sweat/plastics. $500,000? $28 billion? Can you believe Sideshow Collectibles will actually give you this thing for the low low price of $150? Get on it now, people. They're only making as many of these as nerds will buy! After that, they're gone forever.

Also, you've got to love their little blurb:

These outstanding 1:6 scale figures are of the highest quality and detail, ready to take life on your shelf in any dynamic pose that you desire. Medicom Toy's RAH body is one of the most articulated 12-inch figure bodies available, capable of nearly any pose that the human body can achieve.

"Any dynamic pose you desire"? "Any pose that the human body can achieve"? What the hell are people doing with these things? Before, I just thought it was hilarious and silly. Now I'm genuinely disturbed. If 12'' Mutt is anatomically collect (in perfect 1:6 scale!), I'm fully prepared to write my Congressman about this.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

With The Incredible Hulk, Marvel Studios have proven a few things comic book movie fans already knew, but perhaps studio executives did not:

(1) More is not always better.

I'm not saying this movies should be low-key or action-less. The Incredible Hulk gets rather outsized in the second half, to great effect. But it's not overloaded with tons of characters, constant computer-enhanced spectacle or a loud, booming soundtrack. Sometimes, taking your time, developing some tension and telling a simple story well is all it takes.

(2) Continuity matters.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of serialized comic book-style storytelling is the forging of connections between characters, creating an entire alternate reality, with its own rules. Marvel writers have spent decades fleshing out their's ridiculous that, in translating the stories to film, they have been unable to introduce it to audiences until now.

The Incredible Hulk
, even more so than this summer's triumphant Iron Man, really introduces the Marvel Universe on-screen, setting up not just a future Avengers film but a whole collection of potential connections and stories. The movie strikes just the right balance, including some references and nods to events going on outside the margins without getting too inside or complicated.

(3) The Incredible Hulk's backstory is not the stuff of high drama.

I personally think that Hulk, and his Bruce Banner side in particular, is among the least interesting mainstream comic book characters. Banner's just this kind of meek guy who's afraid of his powers. And while it's tremendous fun to see The Hulk smash things, he's basically just a buff monster. We're not talking a character the way Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne are characters. We're talking about a cipher.

Ang Lee tried to make an entire movie out of Hulk's origin, turning it into a Shakeapearean story about Fathers and Sons, when it's really just a bunch of silly nonsense about gamma rays and then a riff on Jekyll and Hyde. This new film wisely dispenses with it during the opening credits.

Though the new movie represents a complete break from Ang Lee's dull, plodding, nearly-Hulkless 2003 version, it nonetheless picks up pretty much right where that film left off. Bruce Banner (Ed Norton), doomed to transform into the out-of-control, violent Hulk whenever he gets angry, has fled to Brazil in the hopes of finding a rare flower that might cure his condition. Back in the U.S., Banner's girlfriend Betty (Liv Tyler) has moved on with her life. Her father, General Ross (William Hurt), has enlisted the aid of a notorious British soldier, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), to help him find the Hulk. (Ross wants to capture Banner, naturally, in the hopes of turning his Hulkness into a weapon).

Most of the film is taken up with this chase, with Ross and Blonsky pursuing Banner across the globe. A variety of not-particularly-convincing circumstances will slowly turn Blonsky from a normal man into the monstrous Abomination, leading to an epic final showdown in the streets of Harlem.

The film's major strength is in its simplicity. None of the technology or science is ever explained, because that stuff doesn't matter. "This machine will cure you from Hulking Out, or maybe it wont. Let's find out!" And because Incredible Hulk doesn't bother with an origin story, and keeps the narrative strongly focused on the chase, and the larger relationship between Banner and the Rosses, there's plenty of time for (1) large-scale, extended action scenes and (2) development of the Hulk's world and environment without rushing everything.

The decision to open the action in South America, in particular, really pays off. The movie's just visually interesting, even when there's no Hulk or explosions. Banner himself can be something of a blank (though Norton does a nice job of expressing his inner angst without getting too emo), but the world he occupies is very inviting and compelling on its own terms. Director Louis Leterrier has a tendency to show off a bit, throwing in a lot of visual noise and flair unnecessarily, but he nevertheless has made a good-looking, fast-paced film, and knows how to put an action scene together.

The only time things really slow down is when Tyler's Betty Ross takes center-stage. Zak Penn's script pretty much lets her down here, setting her up as a brilliant scientist and then giving her essentially nothing to solve and even less to do. It's essentially the same part Tyler played in Armageddon - the girl who really really loves the hero - and her boredom with the part is palpable at times. (Her one real bonding scene with the Hulk reminded me of some of Naomi Watts' work in King Kong, only I actually think this film plays slightly less ridiculous.)

The Happening

I'm not sure if writer/director M. Night Shyamalan meant this film's title ironically. It seems unlikely, but then again, it also seems unlikely that a man who has made so many other films would produce anything this hacky and amateurish. Yet here we are.

Nothing happens in The Happening. Absolutely nothing happens. This is a premise, not a story. In fact, The Happening lacks even the barest bones of a story. There is no beginning, middle or end. There is no inciting incident. Characters do not change, grow nor develop. Events do not progress in a logical manner. People are introduced and then discarded thoughtlessly.

I think it might be time for us to become seriously concerned about M. Night Shyamalan. Not for his career, but simply his mental health and well-being. It's not normal for a person who had, only a few years before, mastered the craft of screenwriting and directing to suddenly and without cause forget, on the most basic level, how to put a movie together. We're not talking about a dip in quality here; The Happening is like the work of a completely different man than The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, hell even Signs. Has Manoj suffered some sort of head trauma? Has he become hooked on oxycontin? Should we start considering a nationwide cinematic intervention?

Because his last two efforts - The Village and Lady in the Water - were themselves so dreadful, much of the discussion about The Happening and its complete failure to entertain or enlighten will naturally focus on relative comparisons. Though I still maintain that Lady in the Water remains Shyamalan's most delusional and embarrassing work to date, overall, it does have a few things going for it that Happening does not. Like, you know, a story to tell. Not a good story, mind you. But a story nonetheless. The Village has a reasonably watchable story; it just relies on a nonsensical twist ending.

The Happening is Cinema of the Inert, the introduction of a concept in the opening 5 minutes of a movie that is meant to sustain an audience's attention for 100 minutes. I'm noticing this about Shyamalan's work more and more. His initial films - The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable - certainly had high-concept premises, but they developed them into narratives that were themselves compelling. With stuff like Lady in the Water and The Happening, it's as if he no longer feels the need to tell stories. He thinks a single one of his ideas, alone and unencumbered, should be enough to sustain an audience's attention. He's mistaken.

About 3/4 of the movie is composed of shots just like this one, in which Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and a young girl run away from nothing through the Pennsylvania countryside. Print this still out 300 times, turn it into a flip book and save yourself $10 ($20 with popcorn and parking!)

We open in Central Park, where a large crowd of people suddenly stop what they are doing, freeze in place for a moment, and then kill themselves in the quickest and most convenient method possible. News reports inform us that the phenomenon is sweeping through the city.

Cut to Philadelphia, where the school of science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is being evacuated in response to what is perceived as a terrorist threat in NYC. Moore and a co-worker, Julian (John Leguizamo), plot to get their families out of Philadelphia and into the countryside, to wait out this weird suicide thing.

THAT'S IT, FOLKS. That's all that happens. The rest of the film follows Elliott, his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), Julian and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) as they wander around central Pennsylvania in a confused daze. They meet no one of consequence. They find out small details about what's going on via listening to radios or watching TV's, or from meeting random helpful strangers who introduce new information and then disappear.

I can't really express to you how many basic, fundamental errors Shyamalan makes here, strictly in terms of the screenplay and structure. Movies are driven by conflict. This is the single guiding principle for pretty much all drama - you introduce characters and set them at opposing goals. It's not really that hard. Everyone from Uwe Boll to the writers of "Two and a Half Men" have managed it.

Not only does The Happening lack any kind of tangible antagonist or enemy, it lacks any kind of conflict whatsoever. There are two types of scenes - scenes in which Wahlberg finds out something about the "happening" second-hand and scenes in which Wahlberg watches people in the middle distance kill themselves in increasingly laughable ways. You may notice, neither of those scenes involves any kind of conflict.

So you get a lot - A LOT - of shots of newscasters announcing that the plot is developing somewhere off-screen. And a lot of statements like this:

"Hey, everyone! I'm a stranger who has just walked here from 10 miles down the road. Everyone's dead down there! We're going to have to go some other way!"

(At one point, I shit you not, a random stranger shows Elliott a grisly death scene that apparently happened hours before on her iPhone! Are you fucking kidding me? He couldn't come up with a way to actually have anything happen on screen in his own fucking movie? Shyamalan's reduced to inserting footage into his own movie via YouTube?!)

It's also clear that the complete lack of conflict has confused and frustrated the actors. Deschanel has just given up on giving a performance, sleepwalking through the film. Wahlberg seems to be playing the character as a likable goofball, even though there's only one or two jokes and he should by all rights be traumatized. The most compelling bit of dialogue in the entire film is played between Wahlberg and a potted plant.

At a random point, the film just ends, without purpose or explanation or any kind of pay-off or showdown or denouement whatsoever. The last scene is meant to be chilling, but it's so obvious what's coming and so silly by that point that it actually plays like a joke. And that first credit - "A Film By M. Night Shyamalan" - is the punchline.


One final note on this film, because I think you all get the idea at this point. Unless Shyamalan is just playing dumb because it's easier, his understanding of the Theory of Evolution is seriously lacking. The way evolution is discussed in this film, by characters presented as scientists, is not only wrong but egregiously so, misleading in the extreme. I have read critics suggest that the film is an argument for Intelligent Design, but I think this is just a reaction to the fact that Shyamalan's misrepresentation of evolution and biology resembles the fabrications of ID proponents. Shyamalan's ignorance about evolution resembles Ben Stein's, but I'm not sure if they're working towards the same goal.

Suffice it to say, individual living things cannot spontaneously evolve in response to a predator. When biologists use a term like "rapid evolution," they're using the word "rapid" in the relative sense. It's like "taking fewer than several million years," not "by Wednesday." It's almost irresponsible to be this cavalier about representing bonafide scientific information, even in a silly fictional movie.