Monday, November 30, 2009

Not with a whimper, but with a bang

I'm not gonna lie: I enjoyed the hell out of Roland Emmerich's "2012," the latest bit of disaster porn from the same man who brought us "Independence Day," "The Day After Tomorrow" and the execrable 1998 remake of "Godzilla." Emmerich has become a bit of a joke amongst film buffs -- he probably rates thismuchlower than Michael Bay on the hate-o-meter -- but the movie lover in me has to admire his seemingly endless quest to perfect a formula that Irwin Allen probably thought he perfected back in the 1970s. (Mick LaSalle from the San Francisco Chronicle says it better than I can.)

What sets "2012" apart, aside from its downright brilliant CGI sequences, is the sense that everyone in the movie is in on the joke. Emmerich knows how ridiculous it is for him to make another disaster movie, so he pushes the genre as far as it can go by destroying the entire goddamn world. You get the airplane escape and the White House destruction from "Independence Day"; the shadowy government plan from "Deep Impact"; Michael Bay's casual attitude toward the killing of millions of people; seafaring and underwater adventures from "Titanic" and "Poseidon"; the towering fireballs of "Dante's Peak"; and the ham-handed racial harmony message from "Volcano."

And it works because Emmerich has populated his film with really good actors who all understand the mission at hand. It's an entire movie full of people winking at the audience while they're winking at the audience -- the one-liners are so corny, they parody themselves.

Consider the scene inside the supermarket, where Tom McCarthy's doctor tells his would-be wife, Amanda Peet, that he feels like "something is coming between us." Just then, a crack opens up in the supermarket floor right between the couple while they hold hands. Emmerich and his co-writer (and composer), Harald Kloser, couldn't have thought that was a genuinely funny line, and neither can Peet and McCarthy. But we laugh anyway, because it's so clearly not funny that it becomes funny again.

The whole movie is like that, a cheerful send-up of an entire genre. We should be horrified by a lot of the images in "2012," but we're so astounded by their audacity that all we can do is giggle. The sequence made famous in the commercials, in which limo driver Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) outruns a series of earthquakes in Los Angeles, is awe-inspiring on the big screen. Ten minutes race by in a blink, and look as if they must have cost about a billion dollars to achieve.

The full cut of this sequence, seen in the theater, is as exciting as anything I've seen all year.

But somehow the actors win the battle against the visual effects. Cusack, whom you could reasonably assume would phone it in for a movie like this, is as engaging as ever, particularly in the few scenes he shares with Woody Harrelson.

Ah, Woody Harrelson. It's so easy to forget about him! But then he shows up and hit another home run, first in "Zombieland" and again in "2012," where he rehashes Randy Quaid's conspiracy nut from "ID4," only with a bigger helping of crazy. I defy anyone to see Harrelson's performance here and tell me "2012" takes itself seriously.

This scene is a clever nod to "Titanic," in which old Rose is shown an animated simulation of the boat's sinking.

Is "2012" better than "Independence Day"? Oh, surely not. Few popcorn movies could ever hope to be as fun and funny as that, and no one here has the star power of Will Smith or Jeff Goldblum. But it does feel like the nail in a genre's demise; what else is there left for Emmerich to destroy? Heaven and Hell?!??

Monday, November 16, 2009

I Heart Peyton Manning

Who am I? I'm Sean Stangland. And some days I have a man-crush on Peyton Manning.

Sunday was one of those days, for reasons obvious to any NFL fan. Sure, we could say that Patriots coach Bill Belichick was the true MVP of that game for deciding to go for it on 4th and 2 with a 6-point lead, but Peyton still had to drive the ball into the endzone -- which he did, with more than a little help from Reggie Wayne. If Peyton is Football Jesus, Reggie is Assistant Football Jesus. (Or is that Assistant to the Football Jesus?

But even before Indianapolis cemented a 35-34 victory over New England, Peyton was all over our TV, pitching Sony products with a cartoon-eyed Justin Timberlake and the virtual cast of "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs." He's always entertaining in commercials, which is probably why he does so damn many of them. That Oreo campaign with him and brother Eli was hilarious.

Then of course there was his excellent stint on "SNL" a few years ago:

Peyton outclassed every sports hero that ever hosted "SNL," from Joe Montana to Derek Jeter to Michael Phelps. I'd even say he was a better host than "SNL" favorite Dwayne "The Rock" Johnston, who may not exactly qualify as a sports figure.

Peyton Manning strikes me as one of those people who would excel at anything. Would you be surprised if he had a good singing voice, too? (Well ... yeah.) I am interested to see what he'll do when his playing days are over; he is far too talented and likable to be relegated to the broadcast booth or the ESPN "analyst" chair -- unless, of course, he would insist on actually analyzing the game and not just parroting the company lines. (What a concept!) He's a natural in front of the camera, and I could see him having a successful acting career on television. Could he be a movie star? Probably not, but crazier things have happened.

Of course, the NFL would probably be best served by Manning becoming a head coach. He's practically a player-coach right now, isn't he? Tom Brady may have the GQ looks, the supermodel girlfriend and the championship dynasty, but I defy you to find me a better leader in all of sports than Peyton Manning. The way things are looking so far this season, a dynasty of his own is only a few big wins away.

You think the Colts will take Cutler for him, straight up?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

For Your Consideration: "Star Trek"

The plot is rubbish, and seems strangely incomplete, as if certain problems couldn't be fixed because of the writers strike. Some of the jokes just plain don't work. The villain is woefully underdeveloped, and the actor playing him seems to be giving at least three different performances. And those lens flares, while cool-looking, do get to be a bit much.

But despite all that, "Star Trek" is one of the year's best movies.

It arrives on Blu-ray and DVD this week, and I plan on watching it approximately 11 billion times in the next few weeks. And mind you, this is a film I've already seen seven times in the theater and once through ... alternative channels. My initial review was very positive, but not over the moon.

Well, I'm over the moon now.

So much of "Star Trek" works so well that you can forgive its shortcomings, even if those include the plot itself. It seems like so few entertainments this year have actually entertained -- "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" left me numb, "Up" and "Where the Wild Things Are" were surprisingly melancholy, and "Terminator: Salvation" was depressing in so many ways. But "Star Trek" just puts a big damn smile on my face.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about "Star Trek" is that no one came out of it talking about the visual effects -- they talked about how much they liked the characters and, by association, the actors. They talked about how funny it was. They talked about how much fun they had while watching it.

Those actors were perfectly chosen by director J.J. Abrams and pals. Even Karl Urban and Anton Yelchin, whose takes on Bones and Chekhov seemed too jokey and imitative the first time around, won me over on subsequent viewing.

But Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto so perfectly embody their characters that one is inclined to say they are better than the originals. Pine's Capt. Kirk is far more playful than William Shatner's incarnation, and Quinto's Spock brings a brooding danger that Leonard Nimoy never had. Part of this can be obviously attributed to the fact that Pine and Quinto are playing younger versions of these icons than Shatner and Nimoy did, but these new versions seem so much fuller, and more real.

The whole world created in Abrams' "Trek" feels real, so real that seeing the actors break character on the gag reel that's been making the rounds online is truly jarring. "Star Trek" draws you in completely -- you do not see actors on a set, you see Starfleet officers on a starship.

So perhaps people not talking about the visual effects is the highest compliment that could ever be paid to the film's VFX team; they are so seamless that you never bother to look for the strings, in a manner of speaking. Even the falling effects in the space jump sequence -- the hardest thing to fake, if you ask me -- look great.

And then there's the music. Regular readers must be tired of me gabbing on and on about Michael Giacchino, so all I'll say is this: listen to the cues called "Enterprising Young Men" and "Labor of Love".

With ten best picture nominees on Oscar's slate this year, there is a real chance "Star Trek" could sneak in. Can it beat "The Hurt Locker," "Invictus" or "Up in the Air"? Um, no. But a film this universally loved deserves a spot on the not-so-short list.

So, though no one who actually votes for the Oscars is reading this, I submit "Star Trek" for your consideration in the following categories:

Best Picture
Best Original Score
Best Actor (Zachary Quinto)
Best Visual Effects
Best Sound
Best Sound Effects Editing
Best Happy Fun Time At The Theater
Best Green-Skinned Babe
Best First Ten Minutes of Any Movie, Ever

Friday, November 13, 2009

Caught in a bad romance

As my Facebook and Twitter feeds can attest, I love the new Lady Gaga video, "Bad Romance." I've watched the video, directed by Francis Lawrence, at least 20 times since it debuted online Tuesday. Whenever I do watch it, I can't watch it just once. It is one of the most exciting pieces of filmmaking I've seen all year, for reasons both intellectual and primitive.

It utilizes only one set: a completely white room with a grid ceiling. One immediately thinks of the room Dave finds himself in at the end of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," and the Kubrickian imagery doesn't end there. (One could reasonably assume that the orgy scene from "Eyes Wide Shut" has inspired half of Gaga's eccentric wardrobe.) The song itself references another great director, Hitchcock, with lyrics ol' Alfred certainly never dreamed of. ("I want your Psycho / Your Vertigo stick / When your in my Rear Window, baby it's sick")

The number of cultural references I see (or at least think I see) in this five-minute clip is astounding. Gaga herself is like some otherworldly amalgam of Madonna, Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Prince and Grace Jones, and the video contains images that remind us of "Alien," "Where the Wild Things Are," the "Thriller" video, the "Black Hole Sun" video, "The Fifth Element," Amy Winehouse, "Taken," and even the old Sega game "Space Channel 5." (Check out the outfit at 3:32.) Then there are the product placements so obvious that one has to laugh: Heartbeats earbuds, Parrot sound systems, Nemiroff vodka, and even the Nintendo Wii (2:43). Gaga herself becomes some kind of faux product placement, between the "Bath Haus of Gaga" (0:28) and the symbol for her new album stenciled on her cryogenic coffin -- or whatever that is. Throw in a hairless cat and a bat headdress for good measure, and hang all of this on a non-linear plot in which Gaga's beauty apparently causes a Russian gangster to burst into flames.

But of course none of this visual stimulation works without the woman herself. Many can't accept Gaga as a sexual being: She looks odd, and she wears weird outfits, so she must have a penis. Anyone who says that and means it is either hopelessly juvenile or happy to go along with the joke for the sake of conversation. All I know is that, in this video, Gaga acts as if she is the end-all, be-all of the female gender, and who am I to argue with her? She is stunning in "Bad Romance," particularly in her tearful close-ups, and in the Leeloo Dallas-meets-Victoria's Secret get-up she wears in the final dance sequence. The choreography ranges from elegant to ridiculous, which serves Gaga perfectly; she seems to be leading a dirty, sexy, dangerous army at 2:46, and writhes like a newborn animal at 0:49. In an era when we've all been desensitized to suggestive music videos, Gaga makes us stand at attention.

Who can remember the last time I (or anyone else, for that matter) paid this much attention, this much reverence to a music video? Was it Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt"? A Spike Jonze/Bjork collaboration? Either way, it's nice that the medium has found a small bit of relevance again, thanks to pop music's indisputable champion; if there's a more fascinating figure in pop right now, I'd like to know who it is.

Man, am I gonna embarrass myself at this concert in January.