Archive for May, 2011

SIFF MOVIE: John Carpenter’s The Ward (2011)

May 30, 2011

I hadn’t heard anything about this film when I cracked open this year’s Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) catalog and found it in there.  Given the way Wes Craven’s films have been going over the last several years (i.e., downhill fast — I walked out on My Soul to Take last summer because it was boring the hell outta me), I was pretty sure this movie, the first in ten years from Carpenter (one of my all-time favorite horror/sci-fi directors, incidentally — The Thing, Halloween, They Live, Escape from New York, Starman, to name a few), was going to be pretty weak.  But I didn’t care.  You see, the great thing about seeing films you think/hope will be crappy at SIFF is that you’re seeing them with a room full of  other people who are likewise lovers of crap — the worse the movie is, the more fun the audience experience can be.  Last year, for example, we had a blast at the absolutely awful film Splice because by the half-way point, everybody in the sold-out audience had given up on the film ever getting good and started ripping it apart aloud together.  Awesomeness.

Surprise, surprise, though — this movie isn’t half-bad!  That is, it’s pretty bad — after all, it’s a ghost story set in a 1950s psychiatric hospital, which is about as far from unique a concept you can get in the genre — but it actually had a few nice twists, was decently acted, and held my attention throughout (despite the fact I was seeing it at 10:30pm, WAY past my bedtime!).

It’s about a young woman, Kristin (Amber Heard), who has just been committed to North Bend Mental Hospital after burning a farm-house down.  On the ward with her are four other girls about her age — one who’s just plain cuckoo (played by Mamie Gummer from the TV series Off the Map), one who cradles a stuffed animal and reacts to things like a little child, one who’s clearly a pathological narcissist, and one who is a lovely but very, very sad young lady.

Her first night on the ward, Kristin wakes to find someone — or something — has stolen her blanket in the night.  At first, she thinks it was one of the orderlies or the other girls, but when she starts seeing glimpses of a horribly disfigured girl over the next few days and then is attacked by that same girl in the shower, she becomes convinced the ward is haunted by the ghost of a past patient.

It soon becomes clear she’s right, and that the ghost’s goal is to prevent any of them from ever leaving the hospital, a goal she achieves by brutally murdering them one by one before they can be released.  Eventually, Kristin learns the ghost is a girl who was attacked and then killed by all the other girls one night, which explains her motive.  And the story progresses fairly predictably from there, though not without a few good scares.

What I liked about this film was that Carpenter clearly knew we were all going to groan and think, “Man, how many times have we seen THIS plot?” and that we’d thus have all kinds of expectations for it.  A few of those expectations were turned on their heads, though (they were minor elements, but I still appreciated it), and overall, I thought the story was decent and film itself well-made.  Sure, the concept is tired tired tired, but Carpenter somehow still managed to make this movie pretty engaging.

The ending, on the other hand, made me roll my eyes — it’s one of my biggest pet peeve endings of all time.  But it was handled well enough that I didn’t figure out that twist was coming until just a scene or two before it arrived — I appreciated that much of it, at least.  There were also several little elements that made no sense whatsoever (for example, the psychiatrist in a locked-ward loony bin keeps a sharp, metal letter-opener sitting on his desk??), but a lot of them were essentially taken care of by the ending.  Those incongruous bits alone should’ve gotten me suspicious much sooner that a twist was going to overturn a lot of what I was seeing, but I was so engrossed in the story I never got bored enough to start trying to work out where it was headed.  Props for that too, Mr. C.

Overall, I thought this was a really enjoyable horror flick.  Sure, it’s nowhere near as strong as the other Carpenter films I have known and loved, but it’s no Wes Craven namby-pamby snoozer either.  Maybe now that he’s back at work, his next picture will be even stronger?  Possible.  I’m game to find out, anyway.

I think The Ward gets nation-wide release in July, and I read it will be available on-demand as soon as early June.  Well worth the price of admission for fans of the genre, ghost stories in particular.

[Prequeue it at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: Horror
Cast: Amber Heard, Danielle Panabaker, Mamie Gummer, Lyndsy Fonseca, Jared Harris

SIFF MOVIE: Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times (2011)

May 29, 2011

This documentary, my first Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) film of the year (reviews of more coming soon!) covers a lot of ground — everything from WikiLeaks to the sex scandal with Sam Zell, the previous business owner of the Tribune, who, in one clip, argues that newspapers ought to consider offering porn in order to increase sales (great idea, Sam!  NOT!) — and this wide range of topics was, in my opinion, the sign of a lack of focus and organization to the film overall.  That said, despite the fact it’s sort of all over the place, this movie is absolutely fascinating and completely engaging, thanks in large part to its overall theme and its star player, New York Times media columnist David Carr.  Those are the two elements I’ll be focusing on in this review.

The theme of  Page One is that, despite the increase in news blogs and other technology, we still desperately need traditional newspapers.  Maybe not in print, but fully financed and supported, read, and respected.  In that regard, the movie was completely preaching to the choir for me — not only am I married to a newspaper reporter myself, but I’m also a research librarian, frequently tasked with the daunting, difficult chore of weeding out all the garbage one finds online to find the few trustworthy, dependable sources.  The quest for accurate information is getting harder and harder as the web gets bigger and everybody with a WordPress account decides their opinions are the ones the world needs to hear about (ha ha, get it?  I kill me!).

More importantly, though, people need to realize that solid, vetted reporting costs money.  It costs money and it’s worth paying for.  Listen up.

For the most part, the arguments made in this film, which features interviews with a variety of reporters and writers, were ones I’ve heard a million times before — arguments for traditional newspapers involving concepts like fact-checking, ethical codes, and a striving for bias-free presentation of facts (as opposed to, the film points out, the plainly biased “reporting” at HuffPo and WikiLeaks — it has a lengthy segment about a film clip released by WikiLeaks, for example, that was edited heavily to present their point-of-view.  The New York Times has published a lot of WikiLeaks content, but it vets it all stringently itself before printing, considering Assange to be a “source,” not a “journalist” himself).

But there were a few new ideas (to me, anyway) included here as well.  One of the ones that really struck me was the question: if all we have are news bloggers — amateur or even professional journalists predominantly writing singly or for news groups that are giving that information away freely (and thus, not making any significant money off it)  — who goes overseas to cover wars?  Who pays for that?  Who volunteers to do it?  Who creates the smooth transition between one reporter’s tour overseas and the next’s?

Along the same lines:  how do you cover the President of the United States on the cheap?  Who pays for all those flights to follow him around?  All those hotel rooms?

On a less dramatic, but equally important scale, who covers all those insanely boring city government meetings and tells us about the one important nugget that came out of three hours of tedious torture?  I mean, according to my husband, it’s already hard enough to get “real” reporters to those meetings because newspapers are so understaffed nowadays due to cut-backs and lay-offs.  And when governments, local or national, get to do whatever they want to do without anybody paying attention and telling everybody else what’s going on, BAD SHIT HAPPENS.

David Carr, a long-time reporter and columnist at the Times, stood out in this film not only as a man with an interesting history (he was a cocaine addict for most of his young adult life, and even served time in prison for possession — what he describes as his “textured” youth), but also because he’s smart, funny, and holds no punches when it comes to defending his profession.

For example, in a delightful clip from an episode of Intelligence Squared, Michael Wolff from the web site Newser argued that we don’t need newspapers anymore because sites like his are taking care of the work and offering it to people for free.  Brilliantly, Carr responded by holding up a print-out of Newser’s home page, covered in icons representing about 20 stories.  Then he held up  another copy of the same thing, this time with all the pieces on the page taken from newspapers like the Times cut out — only about two stories remained on a page now full of holes (pretty striking visual aid, if you ask me).

Carr’s point: Yeah, YOU can do this for no charge because WE’RE the ones doing all the work!  This is something a lot of news consumers take for granted these days — because they CAN get information for free, they think they OUGHT to get information for free (something true in the library world as well, with the increasing availability of online journals and books).  But there’s no such thing as a news story that is truly free.  The question is, will people figure that out before newspapers die?  Do we really want to reduce the information we’re able to access to two stories on a site like Newser, written by people with no real oversight, training, or journalistic ethics?

So, what’s the future?  Sites like ProPublica, which does some of its own investigative reporting and also frequently joins forces with mainstream, “legacy” media sources like the Times and CNN to cover larger stories, is one direction we might be heading in — a hybrid model that combines the new ideas of the more “citizen journalism” approach (though most ProPublica reporters are ex-newspaper editors and reporters) and technologies while also maintaining the ethics, methods, and vetting that are the backbone of traditional papers (though Carr would argue here that the Times is already blogging, Tweeting, and more — what the hell else do you want from it, people?).

Who knows — it’s a difficult question, and a challenging time; “a revolution, not a transition,” one reporter in the film says.  All I know is that I fear living in a world where rookies are in charge of reporting the news.  Reporters don’t always get it right, of course, and the film talks in some detail about the impact on public trust when reporters get it really, really wrong (Judith Miller, for example).  But they still work harder, do more, and do it more carefully than bloggers.

The process by which a story makes it onto the front page of the Times is also described in the film, and it’s laboriousness, with editors from every department meeting twice a day to ask questions, check for reliability, double-check sources, and more, ought to be all the proof you need to that real reporting is a valuable public service in a way amateur reporting never will be.  A front page Times story is vetted multiple times before it goes to print, by multiple people.  It’s obviously still not fool-proof, but that doesn’t mean that lengthy vetting process is unnecessary.

We need newspapers.  We need reporters.  Without them, without someone keeping a diligent eye on things who’s trained to explain those things to the rest of us so we can stay informed too, we’re totally sunk as a nation and as a society.  I believe it.  You should believe it too.

Page One’s last showing at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) is tomorrow at 3:30pm (May 30th) in Everett — go buy a ticket and check it out!

When it’s over, you can subscribe to the New York Times here:  http://nytimesathome.com/hd/142?MediaCode=W47AF&CMP=3847F.  I hope you’ll want to.

Now, somebody go get me David Carr’s number.  I need to buy that man a beer.

[Prequeue it at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: Documentary
Director: Andrew Rossi

BOOK: Blackout by Connie Willis (2010)

May 23, 2011

I’ve long been a fan of Connie Willis and her intelligent, well-written sci-fi novels.  So much a fan, in fact, that when this book came out, I didn’t read it.  Instead, I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  She doesn’t write very often, you see, and I didn’t want to just gobble it up and then be done.

AND THEN.  I heard there was a sequel!  Yahoo!  So, you know — I waited some more, next thinking I’d wait until they were both in paperback and then I could devour them in a single, glorious weekend.  But man, the sequel isn’t out in paperback until October!  And I needed Connie Willis last week.  I needed her bad!  So, I caved.  Naturally, when I got to the end of this one I let out the “Arrrrrrgh!” of a truly tortured soul.  TALK ABOUT CLIFFHANGERS, MY GOD.

OCTOBER?!  No can do.  I’m going to have to see how long the hold line is at the local public library instead, fo’schizz.

This wonderfully written, totally inventive novel is set both in the future and during WWII.  In the future, time travel has become possible, but is restricted to use by historians, guided by a set of carefully-drafted rules, as well as restrictions established by what I took to understand was the nature of time travel itself (though I confess I didn’t quite get that part and am hoping we get more science with our fiction in book two, All Clear).

The historians get to go back in time to various important events, but before they go, they are required to study the period’s customs, clothing, language, and more.  Then they are sent back, with time travel itself somehow making it impossible for them to appear in the past at any time or place that could impact what happens — a “divergence point” (which we were just all recently hypothesizing about on the comments about my recent review of Source Code, if you’re interested in this stuff).  They can’t enter or exit the past in a location where they can be seen coming or going, nor are they able to carry out any action that might change the already-happened timeline.  It’s not just against the rules, it’s impossible.

As the story begins, a group of historians are heading out, despite some glitches in the system, to several different places in England during the time of The Blitz (1940-1941).  One is sent to London itself, another to an estate in the country where several London children were sent for safekeeping, and a third to Dunkirk.

As events unfold, however, all three begin to realize things aren’t working quite right.  The portals that let them return to their present aren’t working.  And they’re able to do things that MUST be impacting the course of history, like “accidentally” saving the lives of over 200 British soldiers.

Struggling to figure out what’s going on, the three eventually manage to find each other and regroup in London to come up with a plan.  And that’s when they realize things HAVE changed.  Things they knew happened at a specific date and time are happening late and differently.  Have they “broken” time?  Did they change something that’s now meant time travel wasn’t discovered  (e.g., did the Germans win the war)?  Did the machine just break — there was definitely something wonky going on when they left, after all —  and their boss will get it fixed it any day now and send a rescue team?  Or could it just be that the information they had, mostly reported by newspapers at the time, simply isn’t accurate?

Just when we think they might be getting close to figuring out what’s going on, BAM!  The book ends!

[Cue the aforementioned Arrrrrrgh!]

Masterfully written and incredibly well-researched, this book (and all of Willis’s novels, for that matter) are absolute MUST READS for all fans of quality sci-fi. Highly, HIGHLY recommended.  Watch for my review of the sequel just as soon as I can get my hands on a delicious, delicious copy.

[SCIENCE FICTION]

[Buy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews]

MOVIE: The Scenesters (2009)

May 16, 2011

I’d never even heard of this film when I came across it on hotel pay-per-view a week or so ago, but after having just sat through the utterly-awful The Next Three Days on PPV, I figured it could hardly be any worse.  The trailer made it look like a keen little murder mystery, for one thing, and that was exactly what I was in the mood for.  Plus, I’m getting ready for the upcoming Seattle International Film Festival (25 films I want to see, 9 I refuse to miss — watch for reviews to start rolling in after the holiday weekend!), so diving back into the world of independent film seemed appealing as well.

As it turned out, the mystery part of this film, about a serial killer in Los Angeles, was the least entertaining part of the whole entertaining shebang.  Even though it was the backbone of the story, by the time we got to the end and the killer’s identity was revealed, I’d practically forgotten we were looking for a killer; I was too busy laughing and loving all the kooky characters instead.  This is probably just as good, though, because had I been paying more attention, I’m sure I would’ve figured out whodunnit much sooner than I did (and I figured it out at least  a third of the way in — it’s a bit Scooby Doo, I’m afraid. (That’s a spoiler for anybody who’s ever had a conversation with me about Scooby Doo, but since I think that’s probably only my sister, I’m not too concerned I just blew the ending for most of you.)).

The story is about a broke indie filmmaker, Wallace Cotton (Todd Berger), who has just been hired as the LAPD’s murder scene videographer.  He shows up at the scene of the first crime and records what he sees, but when his producer buddy watches the tape the next day, he tells Wallace it was boring as hell and urges him to try to make his next crime scene recording more interesting.

Together, they end up hiring the local crime scene clean-up guy, Charlie Newton (Blaise Miller), to play the role of a detective in a film they start making using the real crimes as their plot.  But as it turns out, Charlie is actually really sharp, and the more the bodies pile up, the more he starts to notice connections between the various murders.  Soon the group is convinced there’s a serial killer at work, and while Charlie’s goal is to stop him, Wallace’s goal is to make an exciting film — two goals that start to clash, with dangerous impact, as the film progresses.

The frame for the story is set in a courtroom, clearly the trial for the killer.  As the DA (Sherilyn Fenn, looking pretty damn good here, I must say) asks Wallace and his friends questions about the murders, their involvement in the case, and why they didn’t report their suspicions to the cops, we watch the actual mystery unfold, intercut with scenes from Cotton’s film ABOUT the mystery, a hilariously cliché-ridden noir thing with several shots and lines that had me laughing out loud.

As an added bonus, the film opens with a fake trailer for Cotton’s latest movie, which features three hipsters with bad skin sitting in an empty wading pool talking about nothing interesting, and includes pull quotes from reviews that say things like, “Three people talking. . . FOR TWO HOURS!”  in a delightful spoof of the “mumblecore” genre.  It was so mumblecorey, in fact, it took me a while to realize it was part of the joke.  It wouldn’t have surprised me one bit if it had been authentic — that’s how many really crappy films of THAT genre I’ve seen.  Brilliant.

The film definitely feels like exactly what it is– the first film this group has ever made together (the actors/writers are all part of an improv group in LA called “The Vacationers“).  It’s very clumsy at times, to the point of feeling somewhat like a really good student film, and could’ve been a lot more tightly and creatively written (especially the actual crime elements).  But overall, I enjoyed this one a lot and am greatly looking forward to seeing whatever it is these guys do next.

Recommended!

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Mystery, Comedy, Independent
Cast:  Sherilyn Fenn, Blaise Miller, Suzanne May, Jeff Grace, Kevin Brennan, Todd Berger

MOVIE: The Next Three Days (2010)

May 9, 2011
NOTE:  THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS A SPOILER, BUT THIS MOVIE IS SO CRAPPY YOU SHOULD CONSIDER IT A FAVOR.

I confess it wasn’t until the closing credits rolled on this flick and I saw Paul Haggis’s name that I thought to myself, “Huh, I probably should’ve paid more attention to that.”  Haggis is, after all, the MASTERMIND behind the BRILLIANT television series Due South (you know, among other Oscar-winning things).

But that Paul Haggis?  Of the complex and clever mind?  Nowhere to be found in this snoozaroo, and I doubt paying closer attention would’ve helped much.  Besides, I watched this on pay-per-view in a hotel room, which means there was absolutely nothing around to distract me in the slightest, and I still had a hard time focusing on it.  The beginning didn’t grab my attention at all and the story was about as predictable as they come (not to mention utterly ridiculous).  What the heck, Hags?  Where is your mind?

The Next Three Days is about a family — husband John (Russell Crowe), wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks), and their young son — whose lives are flipped on end when Lara is suddenly arrested for the murder of her boss.  All the evidence points to her — her car was spotted leaving the scene, the victim’s blood was on her jacket, and she’d spent the previous evening ranting about how much she hated her job to friends.  Motive, means, and opportunity, all lined up perfectly; the trial moves quickly and ends with a guilty verdict, bing bang boom.

At first, the promise of a successful appeal keeps the family going, but as the years pass, it becomes clear Lara is never getting out.  When John learns she’s only got three more days before she’ll finally be moved to the state pen, he’s had it.  He’s gonna bust her out.

And so he does.  And it’s pretty easy.  Roll credits.

YAWN.

I have no idea what the point of this film was.  Everything about it was mediocre, from the acting, to the story, to the lamely forced action scenes.  The only nice thing I can say about it is that it only cost me $4.99, instead of the usual pay-per-view fees of more like $15, which left me feeling free to watch something better when it was over.  Thankfully, what I watched next (review coming soon!) helped clear the bad taste that’s always left in my mouth when I see a completely worthless movie that cost bazillions of dollars to make — bazillions of dollars that could’ve been spent making five independent films that would’ve been fifteen times better.  Man, I hate it when that happens.

SKIP!  NEXT!  BOO!

[Netflix it, if you still don't believe me, you fool, you fool.]

Genre: Action (dubious)
Cast: Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Ty Simpkins, Olivia Wilde, Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy, Jason Beghe, Aisha Hinds, Daniel Stern

MOVIE: Insidious (2011)

May 2, 2011

One part Poltergeist, one part The Exorcist, one part The Entity (well, you know, Barbara Hershey, anyway), one part The Lone Gunmen, and three parts “I’ll be leaving the light on at night for weeks, I AM NOT EVEN KIDDING.”

Dear Leigh Whannel (writer of both this film and the original Saw) :

You are mother-f*cking HIRED, sir.  I was all, “Aw, MAN!” at the end and then I was all, “HELLS YES, GENTLEMEN!”  And now I would like to buy you a beer.

Sincerely, Meg.

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror, Ghosts
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Ty Simpkins, Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Barbara Hershey

BOOK: Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer (2009)

May 1, 2011

I’ve had this book on my to-read pile for at least a year now and just wasn’t sure I wanted to read it.  Though I’m a huge fan of Krakauer’s work, the story I knew about Pat Tillman was depressing enough already — did I really want to know more?  Ultimately, my curiosity got the best of me, though; if there was more to know, I found myself wanting to know it.  Because while in many ways, I felt I understood why things went down the way they did, the events of the years since the incident left growing doubts in my mind about the various justifications I’d taken for granted at the time.

As it turns out, those doubts were spot-on.  The things I learned from this book, especially about the Army and Bush administration-led cover-up, are pretty horrifying, insulting, and unforgivable.  (Surprise, surprise.)

For those who don’t know or don’t remember, Pat Tillman was an NFL player who gave up a multi-million dollar contract after 9/11 to enlist in the Army and fight the Taliban.  Excerpts from his journals, included in the book, as well as interviews with those who knew and served with him reveal Tillman to have been a highly intelligent, gentle man with a strong sense of loyalty and patriotism.

When Tillman was sent to Iraq instead of Afghanistan, he was pretty unhappy — he believed the Iraq war was a fraud and he’d enlisted to fight those responsible for 9/11, not these other guys.  He was also constantly frustrated by the immaturity of many of the soldiers around him, most of whom were only 19 or 20 years old, and frequently complained about what he perceived as a lack of solid leadership from the officers above him.

Having survived his Iraq tour, Tillman was offered numerous chances to get out of his Army contract and return to football, something he was desperate to do.  But he turned every offer down, believing it was his duty to serve all three of the years he’d signed up for, and before long, he was sent to war again, this time to Afghanistan.  In his platoon with him was his younger brother, Kevin, and the two were very, very close.  (This relationship played a bit of a role in his death, in fact, and I’ve wondered since reading this book if having brothers serve so closely together is maybe not a great idea.)

One day, the Tillman brothers set out on a mission that consisted of several soldiers in several Humvees.  This was the mission during which Pat was killed, and it was later revealed he’d been shot by his own platoon-mates accidentally.  I’ll leave the story of what happened for you to discover, but the short version is that bad leadership, stupid decisions made by higher-ups who weren’t on the scene and weren’t listening to the objections of those who were, and too many anxious, scared kids with automatic weapons were to blame.

Initially, I believed that the “cover-up” was understandable for morale reasons, and also because the Army was investigating the incident and trying to be thorough before releasing details.  But, man, how naive I was.  The real problem was that Tillman had, since enlisting, become Bush’s poster child for patriotism (something Pat himself resented, which is why he never gave a single interview about his decision to enlist).  Your poster child killed by friendly fire?  Damn, talk about a PR nightmare!  And so began a years-long, massively complex conspiracy to keep the truth both from the public and from the Tillman family themselves.  Dozens of rules were broken, terrible lies were told, and when the full story finally came out, only one man ended up being formally and seriously sanctioned by the Army — a guy who’d long since retired from service and whose sanction would, in that case, have no real impact on his life whatsoever.

This book, excellently and accessibly written, as Krakauer’s work always is, tells three stories — the story of the incident, the story of the cover-up, and, perhaps most fascinating, the story of Pat Tillman himself, a man I confess I mostly thought of as a dumb jock until I read this book, and who I now respect immeasurably.

This is definitely a must-read for anyone interested in the Bush wars, war-time politics, or heroes.  Gripping, thought-provoking, infuriating, and tragic, this is one of the most affecting non-fiction books I’ve read in a while.  Very likely to show up on my Top Ten list for 2011.  Recommended!

[NON-FICTION]

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