Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Top Ten at the Box Office This Month

1. "X-Men Origins: Wolverine". A character whose appeal is based in part on his mysterious origins has his origins revealed in a late-term cinematic abortion. I saw this out of a perverse need to punish myself for having good feelings about humanity recently, and I was not disappointed. The dialog is atrociously bad and the only thing the characters have over cardboard cut-outs is a wider range of movement. The action is so laughably absurd that you wonder if anyone involved in this film has ever seen a good action movie, or is even aware of the existence of concepts such as "quality" or "the laws of physical motion" The film only looks good when compared to some of the other comic-book films of recent years, which is like saying Idi Amin looks like a stand-up guy when compared to Stalin.

2. "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past." Matthew McConaughey plays a man attending his brother's wedding who is haunted by his romantic encounters from the past. To me the question becomes not "will he learn from his errors?" but "why are so many of this man's former girlfriends currently inhabiting the spirit world? Is he some kind of serial killer?"

3. "Obsession, Which is a 'Fatal Attraction' Remake, Only Even More Depressingly Mediocre"

4. "17 Again." Do I even need to tell you what the plot is? It stars Zac Efron and Matthew Perry as the younger and older versions of the same man. If you can make a sound, rational argument for why the money used to make this film would not have been better spent if it had just been dumped in a hole, then you deserve some kind of award.

5. "Monsters vs. Aliens." This is an investment opportunity, not a film. Dreamworks seems to come up with most of its animated features by seeing what would make the best toy lines and what has the most sequel potential. Any entertainment gained from the product is purely incidental, not to mention fleeting and cheap.

6. "The Soloist." Jamie Foxx is a serious actor. See? Look how serious he is. Standing next to Robert Downey Jr. and everything. Being all dramatic, pretending to have musical talent like in every other film he's in?

7. "Earth." Also known as "Cute Animals: The Movie, as Narrated by the Bald 'Star Trek' Guy."

8. "Hannah Montana: The Walking Entertainment Product Unit"

9. "Fighting." I think it's hilarious when major Hollywood movies show the "underground" street fighting, auto racing, whatever circuit and the "shady" characters who inhabit them. They always seem to play it as if the people involved in these things are "keeping it real" and not selling out by going pro, when in fact these are amateur tournaments. So what you're really watching a movie about is guys who fight as a hobby when they're not at their day-jobs. If you think about it, it's kind of like making a movie about a guy who makes birdhouses in his garage on his weekends, instead of a film about a professional carpenter. But I guess "Punching Enthusiast" doesn't sound as tough.

10. "State of Play." Despite the fact that the two lead male roles are cast with two of the biggest assholes currently available, this actually looks like a decent enough thriller. Unfortunately, "decent enough" doesn't get me to go see thrillers the way it used to.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Dr. Feelgood Should Pull The Plug

There has been a recent spat of coverage concerning a woman named Susan Boyle, a Glaswegian who appeared across the pond on ITV's "Britain's Got Talent." With 14 million hits and climbing, you've probably seen the clip of her performance on YouTube, where she some how manages to have a singing voice despite having a bulldog-like facial structure and frizzy, unkempt hair. The whole thing has been played, both here and back in Britain, as a rousing human interest story that teaches a moral lesson about how "we shouldn't judge a book by its cover" or some such cliched bilge.

Now, I'll start off by saying the clip is pretty impressive. It's set up like a joke, the whole thing aimed at making you think Boyle is another of the over-confident losers that shows such as this thrive on. Her above-standard performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" from "Les Miserable" is the punchline, pulling the rug out from the expectations that have been set for you. It's a perfectly orchestrated rousing moment, the kind that would be right at home as the conclusion of your common "Mr. Holland's Opus"-style bit of saccharine cinematic melodrama. It's entertaining.

But I have reservations about this whole happy-slappy-arch-humanity clusterfuck of feelgoodness. The performance is just entertaining for what it is, but people are trying to throw the veneer of meaning over the thing, as if this is some kind of triumph of the human spirit we should all be celebrating. It's not. It's a highly manipulative piece of television product, an example of "documentary reality" that plays on its audience's emotions the way a pianist plays a piano.

It's not an original observation to say that "reality" shows are the most inaptly named television genre since MTV stopped playing all those pesky music videos. These competitions are intensely organized, with the "reality" edited together from hours and hours of video to tell a narrative that bears only a blurry-eyed resemblance to the truth. The producers of "Britain's Got Talent" knew what they had when Boyle auditioned for them, long before she ever appeared in front of their audience. They edited the whole performance together, from the dialog they chose to show before she came on stage to the music they played as she came before the judges, to set a certain expectation with the audience that they would not have had with a different presentation. An honest producer could have chosen more dignified music on her entering, had the judges treat her less condescendingly, chosen dialog clips from before she came on stage that make her look less buffoonish and generally set a more reasonable expectation for what kind of abilities the woman has. But that wouldn't have been as exciting of television, so instead they essential lied and led the audience to view her a certain way before hitting them over the head with a cheap moral.

Because it's not like it's shocking news that unattractive people can sing. If Susan Boyle had come out claiming she was going to perform a intricate gymnastic performance to the song "I Touch Myself " by the Divinyls then no amount of gimmickry would have changed the audience's dubious attitude, since Boyle looks like she would be more comfortable around a pan of Scotch eggs than any form of exercise equipment (I know the feeling). But she came out to sing, and no one really things ugly people can't sing. If we got rid of all the dumpy, unattractive singers, operas would have a fuck of a time finding a decent tenor. Yet the show and the news coverage surrounding this whole mock event has been pointing fingers around saying, "See? We should all be less judgemental!" It reeks of condencension, because if the show hadn't endeavored to make her look like a loser people would have only been mildly surprised that she could perform as well as she did and none of this hoopla would be going on. It's no fucking miracle that this woman can sing and pretending like this is such a shocking development is dishonest.

The only person who comes out of this pretty well is Susan Boyle, who is finally getting the fame and attention she wanted. All she has to do is sit politely and live with news announcers and talk show hosts patting her on the head and treating her like an autistic child that just learned how not to shit all over the furniture. If you think that this is going to represent some kind of sea change and that less-than-perfect people will start appearing on television and being treated with some respect, you're wrong. As some other commentators have pointed out, this is just becoming an exception that will reinforce the rule, an excuse to fill the "ugly quota" so that everyone can make themselves feel better for a minute or two before going back to exaclty how they were before.