Friday, June 27, 2008

You Go (American) Girl!

Though it doesn't get its wide release until next week, last Friday Kit Kittredge: An American Girl opened in 5 theaters, making $220,297. For the non-math types (and I include myself in that), that comes out to an average of $44,059 per theater.

While this doesn't place it anywhere near the top of best theater averages (The only list I could find shows just the Top 25.) it's still a damn good showing for a film that many people, men especially, know nothing about.

I have inside knowledge of the American Girl phenomenon because from April 2006 - May 2007, I worked at American Girl Place at The Grove in Los Angeles. Believe me, I learned more about these dolls and their stories than I ever thought possible. So much so that I picked a favorite doll (Molly) and disagreed with Abigail Breslin being cast as Kit because I didn't think she fit the character well. (The preview changed my mind. Glad to see her playing a non-shy type convincingly.)

This is the first American Girl film to be released in theaters. The previous three (Samantha, Felicity, and Molly) aired on television right before being available on DVD. The only one of these I saw was the Molly film, but it has the dubious honor of being the film I have seen the most times in my lifetime. (It played on a loop at a kiosk in the store's lobby. I've seen it at least 100 times.)

While it wasn't what I'd call a great film, it was well done and accomplished what it set out to do. My guess is that the Kit film is better, if for no other reason than the fact that Breslin is the star.

What I particularly like about American Girl as a company is its mission: "To celebrate girls." They don't just want to sell something; they want girls to feel special.

So I'm thrilled that the movie is doing so well and hope that its success continues upon its wide release. I don't expect it to battle WALL*E or Hancock for box office numbers, but don't be surprised if over the holiday weekend you see a bunch of excited girls carrying their dolls into the movies.

If nothing else, let's all hope that it kicks Bratz' ass.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Just Add Money: Pregnancy Pact

Here's another story that could easily be turned into a movie:

There's some other layers to the story as people have now come forward saying there was no pact. Luckily, movies aren't concerned with the truth, so we can do what we want with the story.

Erik Davis over at Cinematical wrote an article (based on a tip from a previous article) that the people at the school first blamed the rise of pregnancies on the film Juno before finding out about the pact.

While I'm not sure whether or not that really happened, I do agree with Erik that this film could be pitched as "the next Juno."

So here you have it:

Title: It would be more "indie" (not to mention avoid being stupid) to have a title that doesn't directly play off of a term associated pregnancy. However, I don't think it should just be the character's name. (Though I enjoy plenty of movies that are character names, I always wish they had better titles.)

I don't have the perfect answer, but Little Mamas ain't bad. And as a joke, I really love What To Suspect When They're Expecting.

Format: This is an indie-comedydrama, so let's keep it at a short running time. Anything close to two hours is pushing it.

Tone: A mixture of Juno and Brick. This means we'll create our own slang and phrases. Also, though it will be hilarious, it can still have some dramatic, heart-warming moments.

Story: In order to avoid being too distasteful, we'll change the location. For some reason, I like Texas. We can make up our own "Southern" terminology and most people won't know whether or not it's real. (We can throw some real ones in there just to keep it interesting.) Texas might be mad at us, but no one there watches independent films anyway, unless they live near a film festival. (According to Hollywood, at least.)

Our story will follow an intelligent-but-doesn't-apply-herself, could-be-a-cheerleader-but-chooses-not-to-be, doesn't-have-a-good-relationship-with-her-parents girl. She wants to be a reporter. An important reporter, not the anchor for the local news station, thank you very much.

We'll start with her trying to get to the bottom of the biggest story this school year. The number of pregnant girls has quadrupled, and no one knows why. The reporter girl wants to get at the bottom of it, so she spends time interviewing the pregnant girls. Everyone seems to be hiding something.

When spending time with her own boyfriend, he says very negative things about the other girls and their pregnancies. Surprisingly, our female reporter doesn't argue with him as much as we think she should based on her personality.

At some point, we see her secretly looking at a sonogram hidden in her room. She's pregnant too. But still, she doesn't know whatever it is these people know. But she's damn sure going to find out.

Ending: Finally, she gets someone to admit the truth. The girls all decided together to purposefully get pregnant and help each other raise their babies because they wanted someone who would love them. The reporter chastises this girl (and the rest of them) for being so stupid.

Later she talks to her boyfriend and says she feels bad for saying that. After all, she slept with him because she wanted someone to love her. He says that he does love her. So she asks him, "What if I told you I was pregnant?"

He goes off on her and reveals himself as a real dick, blaming her and refusing to take any responsibility. Then she drops the bombshell. She was pregnant. She's not anymore.

When he tries to take it all back, she rips him a new one before storming out.

She goes home and finally connects with her parents, telling them everything. It's an emotional moment because we've seen how disconnected they are. She finally realizes that she does have people who love her.

Cut to a few months into the future when the young single mothers are having a hell of a time tending to their kids. The reporter girl helps them out, both apologizing to them and enjoying herself with the kids.. Plus she's written a book about the whole ordeal or something cool that gets her into a kick-ass college.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Acceptable Hulk

Saturday my roommate and I watched two films in the theaters simply to escape our hot apartment. I had been briefly interested in The Incredible Hulk, but once opening weekend passed without my seeing it, I figured I wouldn't catch it in theaters. So Universal & Marvel can thank the sun for my patronage.

I've yet to see Ang Lee's version, but I've read/heard that the majority of it deals with how Bruce Banner becomes the Hulk. I have to say, that sounds kind of boring. Hulk is different from other superheroes. While other heroes have to learn their powers and what they can do with them, the Hulk just turns into the Hulk and that's that. He automatically is able to kick ass. Thus, he doesn't need as much time focused on his origin.

Thankfully this reboot avoids repeating everything from the last film, instead showing a quick montage over the opening credits that explains what happened to Bruce Banner (Edward Norton). (It also changes exactly WHAT happened, perhaps to make it moreplausible that his condition could actually be cured.)

The plot follows Banner as he attempts to find a cure, which forces him to revisit his past that he's been hiding from. Meanwhile, General Ross (William Hurt), the man responsible for Banner's condition, attempts to hunt him down, ultimately experimenting with Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to make him bigger, stronger, faster. It becomes a drug to him, so when he's given the chance to inject Banner's blood into himself, he does, thus becoming Abomination. Then he and Hulk have a big fight through all of New York City.

Banner's journey makes sense, as does Blonsky's. What did not make sense were the numerous COMPLETELY IDIOTIC decisions by the military, most of which were carried out by General Ross.


Witness the following examples:

-The first attempt to capture Banner occurs in South America, where he has been hiding. All of the soldiers are equipped with heavy tranquilizer guns and told to shoot upon sight. This sounds like a good plan.

Except not ALL of the soldiers have guns. Just the ones chasing him on foot. Ross and a few other soldiers are in a military van monitoring things. He happens to get out right as Banner turns the corner, and they stare at each other before Banner runs off and Ross informs the armed soldiers which way he went.

Hmm, might it have been a good idea for EVERYONE to have a tranquilizer gun? You know, just in case.

Anyway, Banner eventually turns into the Hulk. And then the tranquilizer darts bounce right off his skin.

This is the first sign of Ross' stupidity. We saw during the opening montage that they tried shooting the Hulk, and the bullets bounced right off. So if bullets don't hurt him, normal darts aren't even going to break the skin.

Now, it's possible that these were enhanced darts with stronger needles. But there's no indication of that. A simple cut to General Ross yelling over the radio, "But these were supposed to work!" would have satisfied me.

Another way to do it, which would have also been nice foreshadowing, would have been for each soldier to have regular tranquilizers and then back-up ones. Blonsky could say something like, "But these things could kill a rhino." And Ross would respond, with a knowing smile, "Trust me."

When the darts don't work, they of course switch to...regular bullets. A logical decision on the soldiers' parts, but maybe Ross should have told them just to get the hell out of there.

If this had been the only military mistake, it wouldn't have bothered me so much. But here's what happened the next time they tried to capture him.

-They're tipped off that he's on the old campus where he used to do research. Someone jumps the gun before the snipers are in position, and a chase ensues. Banner gets locked in a walkway between two buildings, with soldiers on each side. (Take note that the gates locking him in would be easy to shoot through.)

So you have Banner trapped, a sitting target for the military. Now's the time you pump him full of tranquilizers, right?

Not if you're General Ross. Instead, you fire two canisters into the walkway (from outside and through the glass, no less, as opposed to having the soldiers next to the openings do it). I'm assuming it was tear gas, which is NOT A TRANQUILIZER.

(For those that argue that it might have been some sort of tranquilizer, that seems unlikely based on what happens next and on the fact that the tranquilizer they do eventually use on him is in dart form.)

General Ross's estranged daughter, Betty (Liv Tyler) who is also Bruce's ex, rushes forward, concerned for her lover. Ross half-heartedly tells soldiers to restrain her, saying that now she'll "finally see." In other words, now she'll see what a monster the Hulk is. I guess parenting books don't cover "don't put your daughter in the path of an indestructible beast simply to prove a point."

Of course the Hulk easily breaks out of the walkway and all hell breaks loose. Bullets are used on him for awhile, and though more powerful guns are brought in, it's clear that these are only being used to lead up to the ultimate plan. But they put a lot of people in harm's way before unleashing it.

The plan involves two...I guess you'd call them sonic boom cannons. They pulsate waves of sound that immobilize the Hulk for awhile. But there's no follow up plan. Were they hoping it would knock him out, or were they just planning to keep the cannons blasting on him forever?

The Hulk eventually fights through the pain and destroys the cannons. At this point, General Ross calls in the attack helicopter. (Perhaps you could have called that in while he was immobilized? No? Okay then.)

Betty wanders out toward the Hulk, trying to see the man she loves in him. Apparently NO ONE notices this until AFTER the helicopter starts firing and General Ross orders it to stop. Thankfully Hulk protected her from the danger. Then he destroys the helicopter.

And then the scene just ends. No escape is shown. You'd figure the military would have followed him or...well, done something. But it just cuts to the Hulk and Betty in a cave.

At least they learned some lessons, right? Well, not judging from their next encounter.

-They eventually capture Banner when he visits Doctor Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), who he's been corresponding with, a man that says he might be able to cure him. A sniper (Finally! They were in position!) hits Banner with a tranquilizer.

Of course, it's not really clear whether this would have knocked him out quickly enough were it not for the fact that he had nearly transformed into the Hulk moments ago only to have it suppressed by Sterns. It seems that it's still having an effect, thus preventing him from transforming.

They have him locked up, but I highly doubt those bonds would hold him if he changed. If I were in charge, I'd keep Banner in a deep coma as much as possible.

Meanwhile, Blonsky is left with two other soldiers that are guarding Sterns. It's not really clear why they didn't just arrest him too. He has research that they would definitely want.

Blonsky takes out the other soldiers and then forces Sterns to inject him with Banner's blood. Then he turns into Abomination.

What summed up the incompetence of the military for me was the moment when Abomination bursts out of the building and runs down the alley. A soldier chases him, and we CLEARLY SEE Abomination turn left. But when the soldier gets there, he inexplicably turns right, seeming for no other reason than to allow that Abomination to be out of frame by the time he turns and looks the other way.

That was nice of him.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

In Defense of Eli Roth

Having recently watched both Hostel and Hostel: Part II (which were both written & directed by Eli Roth), I found that I did not agree with a lot of the criticism directed at them. While they definitely aren't for everyone, they don't deserve to be attacked like they have been. Here's my defense of the films, so THERE BE SPOILERS!

Between the time that these two films were released, there were a number of imitators that flooded the market, which eventually led to some chap who thought he was particularly creative dubbing them “torture porn.”

So let’s break this label down into its two words. First, there’s “torture.” There’s absolutely no arguing that there is torture aplenty (and quite creative, sick, twisted torture) in the Hostel films. It’s even in the plot summary.

Then there’s “porn.” I’m sure countless people have done thesis papers on what is and isn’t porn, so I can’t be expected to fully explain it here. But I think I can safely say two things about it. One, people that argue against it say it’s exploitative. (That’s more an argument about whether or not porn has that characteristic and not a qualifier as to what does or does not constitute porn.)

But I think all sides can agree that something is pornographic if it has no artistic merit. Of course, whether or not something constitutes art can (and has been) endlessly debated.
I’m more inclined to give something the benefit of the doubt and call it art, even if it’s art that I don’t care for or agree with.

Before I break things down further, I want to address a key issue that the people railing against these kinds of movies seem to take for granted. This specific type of film is signaled out from slasher films or gory zombie films or the like because the argument is that the viewer is watching simply to see people get tortured and killed and not in the hopes that, like that buxom blonde running from the masked guy with the big knife, they will somehow escape their fate.

I don’t think this argument is vocalized often, but if it’s not intrinsic to their case, then the critics' whole rationale makes no sense. If the audience is watching with a hope that the characters will get away, even if that feeling is mixed with a desire to see twisted, graphic violence, then there is at least one other aspect to their viewing experience. The hope is there; it’s the viewer’s choice whether he or she wants to run with it.

We only focus on three tortures in each of the films. In the first film, all three have that hope of escape. So there’s more to these tortures than just the torture. There’s the suspense of whether or not they will escape.

The only fault I find in this system is in the second film when the first victim is presented. It’s early enough that we know she likely won’t escape. Combine that with our knowledge of the structure of the first film and the fact that there are still two other characters left, and we know she’s a goner.

And this torture is focused on a bit too much and is pretty ridiculous, really. And the worst part is that of the three main characters, she was the most likable. Granted, she made a dumb (but still believable) decision that allowed her to be captured.

(On a side note, I’d like to point out that unlike a majority of horror movies out there, I generally think all of the character’s decisions in these films are pretty rational. By the time the potential victims realize something isn’t quite right, they are tied up. In most other horror movies where people aren’t stranded somewhere, you have to wonder why they don’t just leave.)

The next question is: Are the films exploitative? In terms of graphic violence, undoubtedly yes, and I think this hurts the films in a way most people don’t realize. There’s only so much intense depictions of gore that you can take before you start to disregard it. This isn’t to say that it’s comical necessarily (though showing decapitated heads IS comical is probably 9 out of 10 films), but it’s hard to take the film seriously at times, which is a shame because it explores some pretty interesting themes.

So this brings us to the big question: Are these films about more than just torture? And to that, I answer with a resounding YES.

In addition to a plot with suspense and the other general horror movie fare, each film actually explores ideas about humanity and society. The only way to really explain what I mean is to give some brief summaries of the films.

The first follows a couple of guys on vacation in Europe looking for good drinks, good drugs, and good women. (Okay, slutty women.) Not exactly your prototypical heroes, but also nothing deserving of tortuous death. The film spends a surprising long amount of time with these characters before anything horrific happens. And in my opinion it does a far better job of making us like the main characters than other recent films (Cloverfield for example) have done.

This isn’t to say that it’s all happy-go-lucky before the first victim is tortured. In addition to a great ominous opening featuring a man whistling while cleaning one of the torture rooms, there are other ominous moments throughout the film. At times it’s even (I’m going to dare to say it) Hitchcockian.

Our main guys check into a hostel that works for the bad guys. They’re given a room and are disappointed to learn that they have to share with other travelers. But then they enter to find some women undressing. The women don’t bother covering up and are in fact quite comfortable with them being there, inviting them to join them in the hot springs.

As it turns out, this is all a ploy get the boys to a party where they will be kidnapped. But one of the characters avoids this fate by accidentally locking himself in a storage room and passing out.

The next morning he can’t find his friend, so he returns to the hostel and is told that he checked out. When he goes to the room to see, he apologizes upon finding different girls undressing. But they react in the same way as the previous girls. In fact, they say the exact same rehearsed lines that he heard the first time. It’s quite creepy.

Another interesting commentary comes out of the similarity between a sex place the guys visit early in the film (which feature a long hallway and lots of rooms with all sorts of noises coming from them) and the torture facility, which is set up the same way. It’s an interesting look at depravity and what one is willing to pay for. If someone will pay for sex, drugs, and the like, would they pay for the chance to kill?

And ultimately, that is the most interesting topic explored in the films. The killers are exponentially more interesting than the victims.

In the first film, as one of the killers prepares to begin torturing our main character, he speaks to him in unsubtitled German. Thinking him to be an uneducated American (and don’t think it’s just a coincidence that the killers have to pay more for Americans), he can say whatever he wants to this thing to prepare himself for the kill. But to his surprise (and ours), the main character speaks to him in German, also unsubtitled.

Though we never know what’s said, it’s clear what has just happened. The victim has transformed in the killer's eyes, from just a thing to an actual human being, and he almost abandons the torture altogether. It’s not until he retrieves a ball-gag from a guard and cuts off that communication that he’s able to continue. (And this is a moment where I honestly have to admire the way this film is written. Not only is this a powerful scene with a lot of ideas behind it, but the use of the ball-gag actually leads to the main character’s escape. Very well structured.)

While searching for a way out, the main character stumbles upon the “locker room,” where the killers change into their standard attire before entering the rooms. He is just about to leave when another killer enters and, thinking him to be one too, talks to him. This is the scariest, creepiest scene in the entire film. The guy talks about how this is his first time and why he wants to do it and how he plans to do it. And he’s so casual and excited about it. It’s pretty harrowing.

I’m sure Roth realized that this aspect of the film was the most interesting because there’s more of it in part two.

We follow three girls studying abroad and about to take a trip. Once they check into the hostel, their passports are scanned and uploaded to a website. There’s a full-scale AUCTION for the victims now. And we see a variety of seemingly normally people bidding on them. It really gets you thinking.

The winner is a rough and tough looking businessman who then calls his meek buddy to tell him the good news. Apparently they have been planning to do this together for awhile now, but the tough guy is MUCH MORE into it than the other one. It seems the only way he was able to convince his friend was to wait for a girl that resembled the meek man’s wife. (More interesting commentary.)

We follow both the two killers and the girls, and it’s fascinating to watch these two men as they wait for the word that their victims are ready. The tough guy is so ready to kill that you worry about the safety of the meek guy, who seems to be having doubts. And he seems so fragile that you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for him.

They go to separate torture rooms, and when the macho tough guy first inflicts pain (and pretty severe pain, though it doesn’t kill his victim), he makes a complete 180 and realizes what a horrible thing this is. He can’t go through with it. And to watch his realization of what he was going to do and who he is deep inside is a painful endeavor indeed. Since you can’t leave without paying AND killing, he’s killed. (Unfortunately, it's in a somewhat comical way, which kind of ruins some of the impact.)

Meanwhile, the meek guy has a change of heart. After first seeming like he’s going to help his victim escape, she does something to remind him of his wife. So he knocks her out and ties her back up.

She convinces him that she isn’t his wife and sees the strength that she doesn’t see. Basically, she seduces him and then gets advantage, tying him up in the chair. But unlike the first film, we know her escape won’t be so easy because there are now security cameras and remote controlled gates. So we wonder how she’ll get away.

She basically takes the meek guy as hostage, which brings a lot of guards and dogs and the owner of the whole ordeal. He’s fine with letting them both die, but she offers to buy her way out. (It’s been set-up that she inherited all of her mother’s money and is super rich.)

He scoffs, but she’s adamant and says all he has to do is name a price. But there is another part of the contract. She has to kill someone before she leaves.

This could have been interesting and harrowing. Would she be able to do it? Is it still wrong if it's to save her own life AND it's to a guy that was going to kill her? Again, this potential powerful moment is ruined when she kills him without hesitation in such an over-the-top way that it’s impossible to take seriously.

Some would say that the fact that she uses money to escape is a total cop-out. I say it’s sadly very realistic. Not only does it not have her miraculously escaping after showing us how damned near impossible it would be but also it leaves us with the message that money trumps everything, even human life. You can’t argue that, even though you want to.

So in conclusion, I think the “torture porn” label is unfair considering the issues that are explored in these films. The sensational gore prevents them from being taken as seriously as they could have been. And while Eli Roth might have enjoyed coming up with elaborate torture sequences, (as a writer, I have to admit such things can be fun to create) I don’t think he just dreamed them up to get himself off. He put a lot of thought behind it and gave us some commentary that, while extremely dark, is fairly accurate.