Jonathan Poritsky

The Shyamalan Groan

Last night, at a mid­night screen­ing of Inception in NYC, the new trailer for Devil came up. The audi­ence, obvi­ously the tar­get demo­graphic, was wrapped up in it, very excited at the prospect of an enclosed hor­ror film (strangers stuck in an ele­va­tor with some sort of super­nat­ural ele­ment). That is, until the fol­low­ing title card came up: From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan. The house erupted into a load moan, very close to a boo. Then they all laughed off their unan­i­mous dis­dain. Then they applauded once the trailer wrapped.

Had they paid bet­ter atten­tion, they would see that M. Night penned the story, not even the script, while direct­ing cred­its go to Quarantine broth­ers John Erick and Drew Dowdle. It is clear that peo­ple are fed up with Shyamalan, espe­cially after the unfor­giv­able The Last Airbender, how­ever I think we can learn a lot about this reaction.

First off, the whole celebrity attach­ment thing is get­ting to be a bit much, espe­cially when even the press isn’t always tak­ing the time to look at who directed a film. I saw a great deal of mis­re­portage — no, not on blogs — about Robert Rodriguez direct­ing Predators, which is entirely untrue. Nimród Antal worked closely with Rodriguez to be sure, but the buck ulti­mately stops with the director.

Of course, Rodriguez is a name you want attached to a film like that. Viewers are clearly over M. Night’s trick­ery, but peo­ple should remem­ber his begin­nings. Shyamalan is a man of many tal­ents who, most would argue, has been cor­rupted by his fame. He started as a writer and is an extremely gifted sto­ry­teller, so I think the move to bring­ing his story to another direc­tor is per­fect. Perhaps we will even see him move away from the cam­era on more projects so he can slowly win back the hearts and minds of the hor­ror and thriller fans he has (not really) betrayed.

That being said, an entire film that takes place in an ele­va­tor is very easy to screw up. So we’ll just have to wait and see. The trailer itself looks pretty wonderful.

Sex, Sight Unseen

I don’t make much secret about being an avid reader of the New York Times movie reviews. Though my blog­ging brethren (and sistren) offer prime insight, I came of age as a critic read­ing A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, oscil­lat­ing between lov­ing and hat­ing them as my alle­giances and beliefs have grown over the years. This week, Manohla added to the con­ver­sa­tion sur­round­ing Sex and the City 2, which was reviewed for the Times by Mr. Scott. We rarely get to see the opin­ion of both crit­ics save for year-end roundups, so this is an extra treat so close to release.

I haven’t seen SATC2 yet, so one really ought to take my thoughts with a grain of salt. I’ve enjoyed the smat­ter­ing of episodes of the series that I’ve seen and I found the first film funny, if grat­ing. New York on film holds a place dear to my heart. It seems even its most gifted cel­lu­loid sculp­tors have had trou­ble repro­duc­ing it in the last decade (I’m talk­ing to you, Woody Allen). The dia­logue around this lat­est fan­ta­sia, as Ms. Dargis points out, is largely related to ques­tions of eth­no­cen­tric­ity and racial sensitivities:

To bor­row a tac­tic from the TV show, which invari­ably fea­tured Carrie pos­ing the week’s Big Question to her read­ers: Was “Sex” actu­ally 50 per­cent worse the sec­ond time around? Not from where I was seated, though I hap­pily con­cede that the sequel is about as bad as the orig­i­nal. They’re just lousy in dif­fer­ent ways. The new sex puns (“Lawrence of my labia”) are as wince induc­ing as the old, and Mr. King’s direc­tion remains strictly small screen. What has changed are the loca­tions: in the first film, the friends visit Mexico (funny!), but this time, they yuk it up in the Middle East (not funny!). But what has really changed? The char­ac­ters, the crit­ics, the con­text: how quickly yesterday’s plea­sure can pop, just like an eco­nomic bubble.

I have to agree with her. Like Michael Bay’s Transformers 2 before it, this film makes the per­fect tar­get for any num­ber of deri­sions. Mexico is funny because we don’t mind get­ting a lit­tle racist when it comes to our neigh­bors to the south. When it comes to the Middle East, we tread softly because of national ten­sions and, hon­estly, per­sonal fears. So I’ll give Manohla, and this film, that much.

Where I get annoyed, how­ever, is in her closing:

This and other scenes of the women with Muslims are often awk­ward, though that’s partly a func­tion of Mr. King’s direc­tion. Yet there’s also some­thing touch­ing about a few of these encoun­ters, as when the women won­der how you eat fries when you’re wear­ing a veil, a ques­tion that strikes me as an unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cally hon­est admis­sion of dif­fer­ence in a main­stream American movie. Too bad the women weren’t guys and went to Las Vegas, where they could have indulged in the kind of crit­i­cally sanc­tioned mas­cu­line polit­i­cal incor­rect­ness that made “The Hangover” such a darling.

I did not like The Hangover all that much, and I com­pletely agree with her sen­ti­ment that mas­cu­line stu­pid­ity often goes unques­tioned onscreen. However, that doesn’t exactly make for much of an excuse. The first Sex and the City film was lauded for its abil­ity to rake in mil­lions while boast­ing a cast of female leads, a rar­ity in this busi­ness. The same goes for the show, though it should be noted that today (not in 1998 when the show first aired) women are in con­trol of tele­vi­sion pro­gram­ming in a big way. Phenomena like Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives are a tes­ta­ment to this shift.

Regardless, does the sta­tus of Carrie and pals offer lee­way on their level of polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness? For my part, no. Nor should it let The Hangover guys off the hook, but the dif­fer­ence there seems to be that that film knew exactly what it wanted to be. If SATC2 actu­ally is a bad film, then hope­fully it is a bad film on merit alone. We should not for­get that we now live in a world where a woman has won an Oscar for Best Director, and for a film with no female leads. I think it is short sighted to chalk neg­a­tive reac­tions up to crit­i­cal sexism.

But I haven’t seen the film and I’m a dude, so what do I know?

Review: Star Trek

Live long and pros­per” is the least that one could say about the Star Trek fran­chise. Over four decades have passed since the first incar­na­tion of Gene Roddenberry’s brain­child. The orig­i­nal series, known for it’s cheese and moral pomp, ran a mere three sea­sons, but nonethe­less inspired eleven movies, five tele­vi­sion series, count­less books, toys, videogames and, above all, gen­er­a­tions of space enthu­saists and geeks. Daunting, then, is the task of re-introducing the clas­sic char­ac­ters onto the big screen. Thankfully, direc­tor and tele­vi­sion impre­sario J.J. Abrams rises to the occa­sion to make Star Trek (it’s actu­ally the first film to bear that name alone) not only a wel­come addi­tion, but an inspired thrill-ride which really kicks sum­mer 2009 into gear.

Unlike some other 2009 block­buster, screen­writ­ers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have crafted a legit­i­mate ori­gin story for the fran­chise. The film opens with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock as chil­dren on their respec­tive plan­ets show­ing a dis­tinct promise of great­ness. Over the years, the Star Trek galaxy has become so vast that the char­ac­ters within it seem to have shrunk in stature, con­sid­ered more to be model cit­i­zens of the Federation than any­thing more. By focus­ing on the early years of these two ship­mates, Mr. Abrams is empha­siz­ing that Kirk, Spock and their cohorts are not the norm; they are extra­or­di­nary; they are super­heroes. Continue read­ing at the can­dler blog.

Review: Next Day Air

Next Day Air Still

Drugs, guns, vul­gar­ity and rims are just the tip of the pigeon­holed ice­berg that is Benny Boom’s fea­ture debut, Next Day Air; but what this lit­tle caper has that so many other films of a sim­i­lar ilk lack is heart, and lots of it.

The improb­a­ble story fol­lows ten bricks of cocaine from a for­mi­da­ble drug dealer in Calexico, California to his dis­patcher in Philadelphia by way of an overnight deliv­ery ser­vice, Next Day Air. Donald Faison, of Scrubs fame, plays Leo Jackson, a chron­i­cally stoned deliv­ery man for the fic­ti­tious com­pany, whose mind is so clouded on the job that he deliv­ers the coke to apart­ment 302 instead of 303, set­ting events in motion. The drugs end up in the hands of fledg­ling crim­i­nals Guch, Brody and Hassie instead of the diminu­tive yet feisty Jesus, who prefers to be called “Gee-sus” rather than “Hay-zoos”. While Hassie is sleep­ing on the couch, as he is for the most of the film, Guch and Brody, played with an incred­i­ble bal­ance of humor and charisma by Wood Harris and Mike Epps, respec­tively, hatch a plan to sell the dope to Brody’s cousin, Shavoo, before the right­ful own­ers get wise to the mis­take. Think of it like True Romance but with­out white peo­ple and set in Philly. Continue read­ing at the can­dler blog.

Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Sitting down to con­sider an entire series of X-Men (X-People?) Origins films, I am reminded of Chaucer, the Middle English scribe whose death kept him from com­plet­ing nearly 100 promised sto­ries in The Canterbury Tales. With any luck, I’ll be long dead before any­one tries to make another install­ment in this fran­chise with the same fool­hardy bravado that direc­tor Gavin Hood and his team have brought to X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

The film opens with a hint of promise in north­west­ern Canada in 1845. A sickly young James Logan, who is to become our Wolverine, acci­den­tally kills his bio­log­i­cal father (who had just killed his adopted father!) with his newly dis­cov­ered retractable bone claws and runs off to the woods. There, another boy, Victor, who we just learned is in fact James’s brother, is wait­ing. They run off together, promis­ing never to sep­a­rate and to never go back.

As it turns out, Victor is a mutant just like James. He will grow up to become who X-heads will rec­og­nize as Sabretooth, though film­go­ers will never know that as he is never bestowed a fab­u­lous nom de guerre as our hunky Logan is (Wolverine, rawr). Since their main power is the abil­ity to cheat death, they live on through his­tory, though oddly, United States his­tory. For what­ever rea­son, these two mutant Canucks fight in every major U.S. war of the last two cen­turies. This con­fu­sion is com­pounded by the ques­tion: if they are immor­tal, why did they choose to stay thirty-five for­ever? Normally I might gloss over these nig­gles, but this is an ori­gin story after all; these are the ques­tions we need answers to. Continue read­ing at the can­dler blog.