Thursday, July 10, 2008

Day 10: Steel Trap

The first thing I was thinking upon watching the recently released straight-to-DVD flick Steel Trap was that the cast looked so old. After that, I realized that they just looked old for a horror movie, as the typical cast of a typical horror movie are about 21 years old. Steel Trap sets itself apart by having a cast of real adults instead of overgrown teens. Unfortunately, this is the best thing I can say about this stinking pile of crap.

Steel Trap starts us off with an entertainment industry New Years Eve party on the top floor of an abandoned office building. Apparently, wealthy studio executives can’t afford a decent hotel or club. It’s at this party that we meet our protagonists. We have Adam the Arrogant Suit with Party Girl Melanie, Nicole the Advice Columnist and her boyfriend Robert, Kathy the Celebrity Chef, Pam the TV Exec, and Wade the Rock Star who has “fucked so many skanks it’s gotten old”. You now know everything about the characters.

After the new year has been rung in, the Scooby gang each get a text message inviting them to another party on a different floor. Of course, they go and find a series of nursery rhyme clues to follow. Only after finding a severed pig’s head do they think that maybe something is wrong.

And wrong it is. The gang find themselves trapped on the floor with low-tech booby traps and a masked killer stalking them. As you may have guessed, they die off one by one until the killer is revealed. (At one point, Nicole misspeaks a line giving a clue to the killer’s identity.)

People who know me know that I love horror movies. I even love bad horror movies. As Steel Trap goes, it’s pretty generic. It’s basically a horror-by-numbers kind of flick. The characters fall into their distinct types: the pompous jerk, the scaredy-cat, the brassy chick, etc. Even that I could’ve dealt with if the characters hadn’t been so goddamned annoying.

The most annoying trait we can assign to Gen Xers was the overuse of sarcasm. Like garlic, a little sarcasm can spice up a scene quite a bit, but with too much of it, the whole thing reeks. And brother, let me tell you, these characters never stop being sarcastic for one second. Even as a MASKED PSYCHO is stalking them, they keep on making sarcastic remarks at each other. I think the screenwriters thought it would make us think that the characters are witty and cool. Instead, it just made me happier when they inevitably got killed off. The camp counselors at Camp Blood weren’t this annoying.

By the ending, when the killer and motive has been revealed, I didn’t care. Even worse, the revelation was done in an even more sarcastic way that resembled a bad stand-up act more than what could have been a chilling scene about grudges and revenge. I honestly wished I had used the time watching this movie for something more productive.

My recommendation is that you pass on seeing Steel Trap. If you want a good horror flick about people trapped on a floor of a building, check out the far funnier and quirkier, but no less bloody film, Botched, starring Stephen Dorff.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Day 9: The Birthday

You ever have one of those horrible days where every little thing goes wrong and you feel like you’re totally out of sync with the world? Well, that’s the kind of day that Norman Forrester (Corey Feldman) is having in the stylish, quirky-as-hell 2004 film, The Birthday by Spanish director Eugenio Mira.

Norman Forrester is a nebbish man who is totally in love with his domineering, neglectful girlfriend, Alison Fulton (Erica Prior). This night being the first time he’s seen her since her trip to Europe, he has a special gift he wants to give her, but she’s so preoccupied with everything being perfect for her father’s birthday party, she never takes a spare moment to listen to Norman stammer his way through what he wants to say. Instead, she pushes him out of her hotel room and sends him downstairs to wait for her.

At the party, Norman is constantly pushed around by Alison’s highly eccentric family. While all of this is going on, the waitstaff are ominously going about their duties, pushing large boxes from room to room and “accidentally” keeping the hotel at a chilly temperature. After Norman suffers through a conversation about dolphins and pamphlets, he decides to leave for a bit and soon finds himself embroiled in some secret plot to foil a dangerous cult that’s trying to bring their evil god to life in the physical world.

Throughout the whole film, Feldman nervously stumbles from one bizarre situation to the next, all the while freaking out about how to stop the end of the world. He speaks in such a strange Jerry-Lewis-meets-NYC-Cabbie voice that no one ever listens to him. I have to say, I was actually impressed with Feldman in this movie. If only he could get some decent roles, maybe he could shed himself of that cheesy image from his youth. I don’t think doing a role in the new Lost Boys movie will help on that front.

The whole movie is stylishly done. The sets are brilliant and beautiful, rendered in a lush 50’s Hollywood style as only a great production designer could do. Everything was shot on a sound stage, so the camera is able to make these lovely tracking shots and the lighting is incredible. Even if you think the story is dumb, you could lose yourself in the look and feel of the film.

Unfortunately, Mira’s filmography is very, very brief. I’m really interested in seeing what he brings us in the future.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Day 8: Death to Smoochy

Danny DeVito’s 2002 comedy-noir, Death to Smoochy, was panned heavily by the critics when it was released. Roger Ebert gave it only one star when he trashed it. You can read that review in his book, Your Movie Sucks. Ouch.

Personally, I think this movie deserves a second look. Sure, it’s a bit flawed, but it’s a pretty scathing satire of how the corporate nature of show business takes things that can be beneficial to people and twist it around to sell “sugar and cheap plastic.” Death to Smoochy is a film with a few flaws, but it’s not a horrible failure.

When popular kid’s show personality Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams) is busted by the feds for accepting bribes to put kids on camera, the network needs a replacement to fill the time slot who is squeaky-clean free of scandal. They find ubër-idealist Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton) who is Smoochy the Rhino.

Sheldon is the ultimate idealistic guy. He plays music at the local methadone clinic and tries to get people into soy-based organic food products. When he gets the time-slot, he constantly fights against the capitalist agenda of the network. He rejects the need for all the merchandising and whatnot.

However, the children’s entertainment business is a deadly, corrupt world. Sheldon soon finds himself involved with the Irish mob, threatened by a crooked charity scam, and stalked by Randolph. When Sheldon takes on Burke (Danny DeVito) as his agent, Burke’s first action is to give Sheldon a gun.

While this movie is funny and definitely worth the watching, it does have a few flaws. The first of which is that Sheldon’s conflicts seem to keep resolving themselves without him actually doing anything. Every time he’s in hot water, a few scenes later, everything gets sorted out by someone else. Sheldon also never has a crisis of character; he never really wonders if his idealism is a chased windmill. In fact, his motto is “You can’t change the world, but you can make a dit.”

The film also felt long. It’s only 109 minutes, but it felt like it was over two hours. I think part of the problem here was in the pacing and structure of the movie. There were so many crises solved by someone else, there was never a true build to something that could be called a climax. I think some more time I the rewriting stage and in the editing room would’ve made a tighter, better film.

All in all though, I’d say it was a funny film that hit on some of the right spots. Definitely not going to be a classic, but worth a rental.

Day 7: WALL-E

Almost every elementary screenwriting textbook says that the magic of story is that it serves as the candy coating for the message you’re getting the audience to take. Usually, the reason a movie may be considered bad is because the filmmaker isn’t sure what their message is (could be a result of the Hollywood practice of having multiple screenwriters doing revisions) or because the filmmaker is more about presenting a spectacle than a meaningful theme. (Think of a bad action movie like Ghost Rider. Did that have anything meaningful to contribute?)

WALL-E, the latest Pixar animated feature is brilliant because it presents a good story, brilliant spectacle, and actually has something to say, much to the dissatisfaction of Republican bloggers and pundits. (Honestly, to the Republicans just think everything is an attack on America?)

WALL-E is the last functioning robot on a ruined planet Earth. 700 years prior, all of human kind took a five year space cruise while the robots were left behind to clean up the massive mess on a highly toxic scale. Over time, the other robots broke down and our lone Wall-E dutifully continues his lone directive, takes care of his pet cockroach, and watches clips of My Fair Lady, dreaming of not being alone.

While out compacting and piling garbage into a skyscraper-high tower, a rocket ship shows up and drops of a sleeker-looking robot that resembles the next model of iPod. (In fact, most of the robots in this movie look like they were designed by Apple.) Named EV-A, it takes no time for Wall-E to develop a robot crush.

The plot progresses and soon Wall-E is on the cruise ship. The future is a scary one, my friends. People have developed over the centuries into obese blobs in hoverchairs. Everything they eat or drink is sucked out of a cup with straw. Their chairs function as iPhones and no one notices their surroundings. Children are raised and taught by robots touting the Buy ‘N’ Large brand. People do nothing more than consume; progress has halted. You have to wonder at this point if the human race is worth the effort.

As I mentioned earlier, the Republican bloggers and pundits are vilifying this movie for its depiction of a polluted world and harsh criticism of the culture of over-consumption. They proclaim that the film is pessimistic and un—American. I, however, actually watched the film and found that this film may have been a cautionary tale of a possible future we’re heading for, but in the end, the main message was one of hope. Yes, things may be bleak, but they can be changed. If you see this movie, make sure to watch the animated sequence during the ending credits. It is the true epilogue of the film.

One final thing: while in the theater, I was surprised to see that the majority of the audience were adults. Usually a G-rated screening is filled with kids who can’t keep their attention focused and stroller-pushers who talk to each other. Wall-E’s screening was way different than I had expected.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Day 6: Hancock

Day 6: Hancock

I’ve always thought that Highlander was a great movie. One of the reasons for this is that there’s no Perfectly-Plausible-Explanation (or PPE for short) for why people like the Highlander are immortal. They’re just born that way. So of course, I absolutely hated Highlander 2 when the screenwriter decided to offer the PPE of the immortals being some sort of exiled space alien. Had they not bothered with the lame need for an origin, we might have had something better.

Hancock is like Highlander in that the movie is a fun popcorn flick until it decides to get into the origin story. Once it reaches that point (which just so happens to be the Hollywood-standard halfway turning point) the movie goes south.

Will Smith plays the title character, John Hancock, an alcoholic with super powers who fights crime, but does it pretty sloppy. While stopping a high speed chase, he causes 9 million dollars worth of property damage. While that might look cool in movies and comic books, LA taxpayers aren’t too thrilled.

Hancock later saves the life of Ray Embrey (Justin Bateman) who is a PR guy trying to sign corporations onto a charitable cause, but has no luck. Ray offers to remake Hancock’s public image so he’ll be loved by the people. This leads to Hancock doing time for past transgressions in hopes that when the crime rates rise, the city will miss him and release him early. This is exactly what happens.

Enter the newly refashioned Hancock, complete in X-Man style uniform, to stop a preposterous bank robbery scheme in which the robbers have military style weaponry and high explosives strapped to every hostage. I guess they need to rob banks to fun their bank robbing.

Now, had the movie stayed in the realm of being about a superhero trying to make himself over to be welcomed by the public, we could’ve had a good movie. There was a lot to work with. Unfortunately, execs in story meetings had other ideas. Without saying too much, let’s just say that they really screw the pooch with a convoluted story about immortals with more than a few plot holes about the mechanics of Hancock’s powers.

I really, really wish I could understand the mind of the Hollywood screenwriter. I mean, how is it that they constantly have a theme to delve into only to avoid it in favor of some stupid plot twist? Do they just think that the public will fall for the shallow gimmick? It baffles the mind.

Choke trailer

Oh man, I can't wait!

Day 5: The Ruins

I’m one of those curmudgeonly people that always seems to get annoyed by others. I know I’m just too high-strung, but when I’m out in public, I’m constantly ticked off by people who seem like they were taught how to socialize with others by a drunk NASCAR fan. One group in particular that annoys me are young, arrogant white college kids of privilege.

It’s been said that films work because of their closeness to dreams. Freud even said that dreams were mainly wish-fulfillment. In that case, The Ruins, the 2008 film directed by Carter Smith and starring Jena Malone (who was in Donnie Darko) is the wish-fulfilling dream for me.

Our story starts with four college kids in Mexico for vacation. We have Amy (Jena Malone) who seems to pop on glasses when she needs to look smart for something, Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) the pre-med student, Stacy (Laura Ramsay) who is there to show the required gratuitous boobs, and Eric (Shawn Ashmore) because you need one guy who looks like a stoner. I’d offer more description if I could, but these characters have nothing unique about them worth describing. We never get to know anything deeper about them other than Amy and Stacy are, like totally, BFFs and that Jeff is a pre-med student.

Our over-worked and stressed college kids of privilege are relaxing by a hotel pool when they meet Methias (Joe Anderson), a German who just happens to be visiting his archeologist brother at this Aztec pyramid that’s, get this… NOT ON THE MAP! After having only known each other 30 seconds, Methias invites the four to join him. Well, it turns out that the kids didn’t want to do anything touristy while in Mexico (apparently lounging by a hotel pool, ordering room service, and drinking on the beach isn’t touristy) but since this ruin ISN’T ON THE MAP, what the hell.

Once at the titular ruins, things go wrong as locals sequester the Scooby gang to the pyramid. You see, the ruins are covered in the vines of a man-eating plant that exhibits some major intelligence. The vines attack and confuse our heroes, picking them off as the movie progresses.

The arrogance I mentioned earlier is manifested most clearly in the character of pre—med Jeff. Being Mr. Future Doctor, his interactions with everyone is that of a smug superiority, When trying to hire a ride out to the ruins, the Mexican (with grumpy dog and beat-up pick-up truck) says “That place is no good.’ Instead of even asking what he means, he just shrugs and smugly offers the guy more money. He tries the same tactic later when the locals start enforcing the quarantine on the kids. It doesn’t work, but he’s not worried because this “doesn’t happen to Americans.”

After having watched this, I can’t see how the vines are really all that scary. The characters do worse horror to each other than the vines ever do. In fact, the vines are more like natural predators, picking off the weak and the sick. Throughout the film, all I kept asking was, “Why haven’t the locals just covered the damn things with a ton of herbicide if they’re such a threat?” Unfortunately, the plot needs the vines, so no herbicide.

This movie could’ve been better if the characters had actually had more personality other than “partygoer”. Other than that, it was an okay flick.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Day 4: 24 Hrs. on Craigslist

I didn't feel like watching a long movie today, so I settled down with the short (80 min.) documentary, 24 Hours on Craigslist. It was released in 2005 and directed by Michael Ferris Gibson, who was an executive producer on the highly boring horror film, The Hamiltons.

24 Hours is a pretty basic documentary. People who used Craigslist in San Francisco (where CL started) had the option to be part of the film, allowing a crew to come out and interview them about their posting, what CL is all about, etc. For the most part, it's a lot of talking heads, but it keeps moving quick enough to not get boring.

The main focus of the doc seems to be the diverse range of people who use the site. You have the drag queen who wants to front a 70's rock-style band as Ethel Merman. You have the masseuse who also stars in gay porn. You have a Vietnam Vet with redneck sensibilities looking for a 270 lb woman to love. Some of the people are interesting, such as the "Metal Chef" who names all of his dishes after Slayer songs, and some of them are highly annoying, such as the female Chinese painter whose idea of high art is painting sexual innuendos into copies of religious Renaissance works. (Yawn.)

Thankfully, Gibson doesn't make the whole film into a sideshow attraction. I think that he's mainly interested in showing how technology has made it easier for people to connect and get things done or help each other out. Thanks to a service such as CL, people find work, trade consumer goods (instead of filling landfills), form bands, find housing, find love, etc. At one point, a new age spiritualist talks about how the internet and something like CL is a modern miracle that we just think of as an everyday life thing. (He likened it to a modern day Tower of Babel.)

My only real critique of the film is that it presents us with some good themes, but never delves deeply into any of them. Of course, over the span of 80 minutes, you can't delve much time into a lot of subjects, but I think if the film had been a little less "Hey, Look at these oddballs!" we could've had a better documentary that actually said something poignant.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Day 3: Nothing

Wow, I just watched another incredible movie. Today's entry is the 2003 film, Nothing, by Canadian filmmaker Vincenzo Natali, who made the also brilliant Cube.

Nothing is an absurdist comedy about two friends since childhood. You have Dave (Dave Hewlitt) and Andrew (Andrew Miller). Both friends are having one of the worst days of their lives when they realize that the problem isn't with themselves, but with them; that is, the outside world. As the outside world is threatening to crash in on their lives yet again and destroy all that they have, they "hate" away the world.

Suddenly, their house is floating in a totally white void. There is literally nothing. They only have each other, the house and whatever was in the house when the world disappeared.

While for most people, this would be a horrible nightmare, for Dave and Andrew, this is paradise. In this nothingness, they are completely free to do whatever they wish. The expectations and rules of the outside world no longer apply and out heroes are no longer the butts of life's cosmic joke.

I know I've harped on Hollywood flicks on the last two days' movies. I don't mean to keep criticizing, but Nothing's ending took me by surprise because it didn't have the conventional Hollywood ending you would expect. In it's own way, the ending presented in this movie is more authentic to the idea of the movie. I'd go into more detail, but I'd rather not spoil it.

Nothing is a fine film and I can't wait to see what Vincenzo Natali gives us next.

Saw 5...meh.

As you may have heard, Saw 5 is planned for release for this coming Halloween season. Now, I actually dug the first two movies of the (unbelievably) successful franchise, but the last two flicks sucked barnyard scrotum and I'm sure that this next one will be no different.

Honestly, just watching the series is like a lesson in the law of diminishing returns. The first movie was great, the second was good, the third was passable, and the fourth was tedious. At this rate, the fifth flick should be like a cinematic root canal.

I'm hoping that this movie bombs. That way, we'll only have to deal with a few direct-to-DVD sequels before the series fizzles out.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

CeltX 1.0

I've recently started scripting the pilot episode to an animated project I've been wanting to do for a few months now. In the past, I've used Final Draft or Montage for my screenwriting. Both are great programs, but I'm one of those guys who has a hard as hell time just opening up a blank screen and hitting the keys.

Enter CeltX, a free open-source screenwriting program that also handles a lot of preproduction paperwork. (It had me at Hello.) Not only can you write your script on this thing, CeltX will also:

  • Keep info on attached cast & crew
  • Breakdown your scripts
  • Keep a list of needed props, effects, sets, locations, music, etc.
  • Provide shoot scheduling features
  • Create call sheets
  • Let you put together a full storyboard
  • Reformat your script to AV style and back
  • Collaborate with others via the web

Since I'm writing my pilot episode right now, I'm digging the development features that CeltX provides. For every character, you can use a contained form for description and motivations of the character. If you have an actor already cast for the role, you can link up that actor's information. For every scene, there's a provided section where you detail the nature and conflict of the scene as well as the opposing characters' wants and plans to achieve that want.

For the screenwriter that likes to use the Index Card method of plotting the story, CeltX lets you organize your scenes with virtual index cards. You can name the scene and add a description on one side, and on the reverse you can have the slug line with the first few lines of the scene. You can also drag and drop the index cards around to change the scene order and CeltX will update your script to match. Awesome!

One thing I'd like to see on future releases is the ability to import/export your script for other screenwriting programs. The best you can do right now is exporting as either a PDF or a text file.

Finally, as a nice touch, you can add different media files for whatever reason. In my current project, I included a short mp3 that I thought set the mood of the piece. Who knows, it could be used for the theme.

Did I mention that CeltX is totally free? Download it at

Day 2: Unagi (The Eel)

Day two’s movie is Unagi (The Eel). It’s a Japanese film directed by Shohei Imamura in 1997 and doesn’t feature any Yakuza, giant robots, cyborg samurai, or penis-tentacle monsters. If you can get around these serious deficiencies, you’ll be enjoying an otherwise fine film about a man dealing with the demons of his past.

Takuro Yamashita (Koji Yakusho) is a white-collar office drone who likes to take all-night fishing trips. On his way home, he reads a letter detailing that his wife is seeing another man when he’s out fishing. That night, he decides to return home from fishing quite early and finds his wife entwined with another man. In a fit of passion, Yamashita takes a kitchen knife to his wife and then turns himself in to the police.

Eight years later, Yamashita is out on parole. He starts life anew as a barber in a small village under the guidance of his parole officer/reverend. He spends his time quietly cutting hair during the day and fishing at night. He also keeps an eel he caught while in prison as a pet. “They know how to listen,” he says when asked why he prefers the eel’s company.

One day while out fishing, he finds an unconscious woman named Keiko Hattori (Misa Shimizu). It turns out she was attempting suicide. She comes to live at the temple and help out around the barber shop. Of course, this brings up the past that Yamashita has been trying to forget and put behind him. Let’s not forget also Keiko’s demons that drove her to suicide.

Unagi is a well crafted film that builds slowly to its climax. This seems to be the usual case for films from the East. You don’t find so much of the typical Hollywood three-act structure inherent in mainstream Western fare. In fact, Yamashita doesn’t really do much in the way of making the choices; he’s pretty passive for the most part. It’s the outside world that forces him to confront his past and move on.

Eventually, we all must come to terms with who we are and what we’ve done. Some of us won’t be able to accept what we find, but as Unagi shows, it doesn’t matter where we come from, we’re all magnificent eels.