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The Good Dr.’s Reasons Why Not: True Stories

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 4, 2008

I got somethin’ new to tell ya

I love the Talking Heads. Not a hardcore fan by any means, especially considering that I’m not even particularly big on their most beloved album (Remain in Light), and that might be the only Heads album I’ve even heard from top to bottom. But they notch all-time top tenners for me in songs (“Once in a Lifetime,” which astounds me more the 137th time I hear it than the 136th), live albums (The Name of This Band is Talking Heads, the two-disc edition especially) and music films (Stop Making Sense, which manages to do a better job at visually capturing the band’s appeal than all of their classic music videos). Add to that another dozen New Wave classics or so, and you’ve got a band that would be an IITS first-ballot Hall of Famer, easy.

So when I say that True Stories is quite arguably my least favorite movie of all-time, rivalled only by Brazil, understand I mean the band no disrespect. Frankly, I can barely comprehend how a band I otherwise have such fondness for can be involved in a movie that feels so unbelievably wrong to me. The only explanation I really have is that while I am a Heads fan, I’m not so much a fan of David Byrne on his own–once the band gets to around the Little Creatures era and start feeling less like a cohesive unit and more like David Byrne and His Fabulous Flames, I sort of check out interest-wise, and I’ve never heard anything of his solo work to make me think like I’m missing much there. Without the band’s nervy, rubbery energy to provide context for his semi-maniacal ravings, Byrne’s eccentricities don’t excite me all that much.

Still, as I watched True Stories for the second time tonight–one of my experimental poet roommate’s favorite movies, and surprisingly big among his circle of female acolytes as well–it continued to stun me just how much I hated this fucking movie. And I’m not even saying it’s a bad movie, per se, and God knows enough smart people seem to love it that there’s clearly something there. But it’s just on a completely different wavelength than I am. Part of it is the movie’s tone, which I still can’t get a read on at all. Is it supposed to be meant as satire? Slice of life? Docudrama? Vorshtein? It seems like a mix of all of these, but isn’t satisfying in any of them–it just makes for an exceedingly awkward mixture that leaves my jaw agape in incomprehension.

The visual feel of the movie is even weirder. For a movie that seems like it wants to be about good ol’ folks and old-fashioned charm and down-hominess, it feels muted, distant, and somewhat surreal–like a David Lynch movie that never gets to the really disturbing parts, and is somehow even more disturbing as a result. Meanwhile, the cinematography is positively creepy–the way it moves, subtle and silent, to keep tabs on the characters and sets as they’re on the move, feels shadowy and almost voyeuristic. More than anything, the movie feels like a later Stanley Kubrick movie, the way his camera used to feel like it was monitoring the events of his movies more than simply capturing them. And that’s pretty weird for a movie that usually seems to get billed as a comedy.

And then there’s the acting. Nobody in this movie acts even remotely human–John Goodman comes the closest, but he’s already a cartoon character to begin with, and he projects accordingly. It’s unbelievably hard for me to tell what Byrne is trying to show with these characters’ ridiculousness–if he’s trying to show empathy for them, if he’s making some sort of value statement about them, or if he’s just trying to say “hey, look at all these kooky people”! It’s possible the ambiguity is purposeful, but since I certainly don’t enjoy the movie at face value, I need some sort of guidance to help guide me through it, and it doesn’t provide that for me at all. Meanwhile, Byrne helps matters little by doing his narrator “I’m talking slowly and dispassionately, so you’ll never be able to tell how sincere I’m being” thing. It just feels sort of patronizing to me–either to its subjuects or to its audiences, I’m not quite sure.

Did you ever have a dream that disturbed you in its otherworldly banality? I had a dream the other night that centered around the announcement of the retirement of Gary Payton, star point guard for the Seattle SuperSonics in the 90s. Never mind that I have no memory of Gary Payton’s years playing, that I have absolutely no conception of what he even looks like, or that he actually already retired a year or two ago–something about him stuck in my subconscious that night, and I apparently considered this a dream-worthy subject. When I woke up I was furious with myself for wasting a dream on this. After all, with a good dream, you wake up with a positive feeling for the day, with a nightmare, you wake up feeling safe and life-affirmed, but with one of these surreally pointless dreams–ones that almost feel logical, but actually lack any sort of sense or meaning–all you can do is hope that your brain forgets about having it as soon as possible.

And that’s True Stories for me–a surreally pointless dream of a movie. You can say that I just don’t get it, and you’d be absolutely right. But I’m not wasting any more of my conscious hours trying to understand it. Rather, I’m just going to hope that my brain can forget about seeing it again as soon as possible.

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The Good Dr.’s Reasons Why Not: Iron Man

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 25, 2008

“The truth is…”

First, let me square with you guys here: 24 hours ago, I didn’t know a single fucking thing about Iron Man at all outside of what I saw in the previews for this movie. In general, I don’t know squat about anything comics-related outside of ways they might be represented in other mediums–in other words, unless they made a movie or TV show about it, comics are up there with geography, carpentry and love in terms of the subjects on which I feel the least qualified to express opinions. So all I had to go on going into Iron Man was the Black Sabbath song, the Ghostface Killah alias (which is actually “Tony StarkS,” which confused me greatly for the first half-hour of the movie) and the fact that Robert Downey Jr. looked like kind of a dick in the movie. Who he was, how he got there, what he can do and what he actually does–all mysteries to me.

So bear this in mind when I discuss why Iron Man, and its plot, specifically, left me so flustered and unsatisfied. And also bear in mind that I would hardly say this movie is a complete waste of time–though given the fact that I go to the movies like a half-dozen times a year, and that I had the choice to see Street Kings were I so inclined, it probably wasn’t the best choice. But the performance of Robert Downey Jr. alone (in the part he was born to play, but honestly, which of them isn’t?) alone made it worthwhile, plus a couple decent action sequences and YouTube-worthy moments of ridiculousness helped out a little, so I’m not complaining too much. But the reviews and fan reaction of this movie seemed to place it as being on the level of the still-peerless Batman Begins, and to quote the man himself: I respectfully disagree.

Now, the obvious argument against my following points (aside from pointing out all my misrememberances and factual errors, anyway) will be that arguing about a lack of realism in a comic book adaptation is roughly analogous to arguing about a lack of suspense in Andy Warhol’s Sleep. Fair enough, but Iron Man seemed to me an attempt at the mold established by Batman Begins (which, rightfully or no, will be the movie I compare all comic-book adaptations to from now until the unlikely event that a better one comes along), in which a sort of “well…what would it look and sound like what if this ridiculous stuff actually happened in the real world?” attitude replaces the usual alternate-universe vibe of most superhero movies past. And to fit this new ideal, in my eyes at least, maybe you can stretch credulity a little, but you have to be essentially logical. And not too much of this movie felt logical to me.

Most of the problems for me started when Robert Downey Jr. was captured by The Ten Rings, or whoever those dudes were. Before that, it’s just Robert Downey Jr. being an alocohol-guzzling playboy with a flexible conscience and a limitless budget, which could have made up the whole two hours for all I cared, since the man is so compulsively watchable. But let’s break this plot development down for just a few seconds. These guys take out a couple of military Humvees, occupied by soldiers that likely know their stuff, without Stark suffering fatal injuries. So they’re clearly at least fairly competent, decent-planning individuals. And yet, while imprisoning the man:

  • They let Tony canoodle the entire time with an English-speaking sympathist, who also happens to be a brilliant doctor and presumably an OK scientist. What, no second cell in their entire mountain bunker?
  • They put a couple cameras in Tony’s workspace / holding area for peace of mind, and leave it at that, not wanting to waste manhours on in-guard cells. Never mind that they’ve just supposedly given the scientific genius all the tools he needs to create some megasuperweapon, I guess they figure a bit of blind-spot prone surveillance in a room that, given the response time to the first guards Tony and helper kill, is probably about a half-mile away from their hub, ought to do the trick.
  • Clearly the leader dude can speak English, but in the meantime, isn’t there one other guy in all the Ten Rings that he can deputize to hang around negotiations with Tony and helper to make sure that they aren’t plotting in English the entire time right under their nose? I don’t even let my best friends talk in mutually-spoken foreign languages at my house just in case they’re gossiping or plotting a fast one on me or something, but this guy’s willing to let two geniuses chatter the day away unmonitored?
  • The last part, and by far the most ridiculous part–the Ten Rings leader guy (yeah I know I’m sure he’s big, but I don’t remember his name, and I don’t plan on retaining the info long enough for it to be worth learning it) comes into Tony’s cell as he and helper (same deal) are almost done building the proto-Iron Man suit, sees that not only are they obviously not building anything resembling a missile, but in fact are building some sort of metal super-suit (he even finds the blueprints for the fucking thing, jeez). And what does he do? He gives them just one more day. He doesn’t ask about the supersuit, he doesn’t confiscate any of the pieces, and you better believe he doesn’t assign a guard to keep an eye on any new developments. He doesn’t even kick ’em in the nuts or something to show what a fear-worthy badass he is. The cherry on top: He even hits them with one of those “Do you think I’m stupid?” type supervillain brags when explaining how brilliant he was to figure out that gosh darn it, the two probably weren’t trying their hardest to build a supermissile for their captors.

Sorry, I refuse to believe that there are any terrorist cells out there that are quite that amateurish–Commando-era Arnie would’ve quashed the whole thing in about 40 seconds, tops. From there, the movie gets a little smoother–though it’s never as much fun as it is in that first half-hour, and all the bantering with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, who doesn’t do a bad job but isn’t given much but “Oh Robert Downey Jr.” type swoons to do) feels pretty forced most of the time. But just before the movie’s climax, we get to another pair of plot holes that bother me just as much.

OK, so we get to the scene where Gwenyth Paltrow finds out what a badass Obediah Stane (Jeff Bridges, who actually is a pretty rockin’ badass in the movie) is, hacking into his computer on minimal instructions from ol’ Irony (glad to know that hack0rz skillz is on the list of employee requirements for personal assistant positions these days, by the way). Despite like the least smooth playing-it-cool ever from Pepper, the brilliant but apparently extremely psychologically imperceptive Obediah lets her get away from his clutches before realizing that she knows about his badness.

Now, at this point, it would be safe to assume that the next destination of each would be to pay Tony a visit–Pepper wanting to warn him about Obediah’s nefarious deeds and Obediah wanting to kill him before Pepper can warn him, and before he can suit up and take down Obediah on his own. But first, Obediah goes back to his lab to check on his super-extremo-Iron-Man project and go into a hissy fit at his assistants for not having figured out the secret to making the suit run yet. And yet, despite this detour–which depending on traffic, could’ve taken hours–he STILL beats Pepper to the punch, who must have taken forever debriefing the SHIELD dudes before remembering “oh shit, this might mean Tony is in danger too” and giving him a panicked phonecall to make sure he’s OK, by which point Obediah has settled up next to the Ironist with his nifty but far too short-term paralysis dealie. And this woman still has a job at the end of the movie??!?! Unbelievable.

I don’t mean to give the movie too much shit–it does do some things right, has the correct spirit a lot of the time and paves the groundwork for what could possibly be some superior sequels. But the movie’s real problem, of course, is that the action isn’t good enough, and Downey doesn’t stay charming enough, for me to turn my brain off to all this shit. By the time the movie got to its exceedingly predictable four-word concluding statement, and its accompanying titular soundtrack, I was already thinking ahead to how much better The Dark Knight was probably going to be. The sight of a beyond-the-grave Heath Ledger giving it the business in creepily appropriate The Crow makeup should go a long way towards covering for any potential plot gaps in that one anyway.

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Take Five / The Good Dr.’s Reasons Why Not: The 2007 WGA Strike

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 12, 2007

Watching The Power of One: Now immoral, as well as stupid

So back in 1988, a bunch of screenwriters made some short-sighted business figurings, and consequently, we’re gonna run out of TV pretty soon. The late night talk shows already stopped production last week, and now it’s just a matter of time until your favorite primetime show ceases to air new episodes. Meanwhile, shows like 24 and LOSTmight not get to air this year, and who knows if shows like Moonlight or Cane will ever get to air again at all. But somewhere along the line, when I almost certainly should have started panicking and hoarding my BitTorrent cue like so many acorns, a thought occured to me:

I don’t care.

Not really. Not too much, anyway. Here I am, a veritable TV Guy, saying that the prospect of going weeks, months, even seasons without new TV barely frightens me at all. Without getting too much into the politics of the situation–I don’t pretend to know who’s right or anything, though obviously I’m assuming the writers have at least a couple legit grievances–here’s why this concept concerns me little:

  • It’s Not Like I’m Ever Really Home for These Shows. I mean, maybe sometimes on Mondays or Wednesdays, but even on the latter I can usually satisfy myself watching Sopranos re-runs on A&E. Otherwise, I generally either have classes or a pretense at a social life, and I actually usually end up spending most of Monday playing catch-up on the shows that I missed the week before. Sometimes it feels more like a chore than anything else (though, admittedly, not usually).
  • What Was So Great About This TV Season Anyway? Seriously. I’ve already gone over how nothing I consider this year’s new batch to be, and the returning champs haven’t been faring too much better. Of the literally dozens of shows I started watching at the beginning of this TV season, only two would actually upset me if they disappeared from my life completely–Dexter and Friday Night Lights. The former’s season is already almost over, and FNL already has up to episode 15 in the can. Plus, who knows if it was going to last any longer than that anyway?
  • ESPN and VH1-Classic Remain Unaffected. Getting into sports was really the most brilliant decision I could’ve accidentally made in preperation for this strike. Before folowing the playoffs this year, I had completely forgotten what a time commitment it was to follow sports regularly, but between the various college and pro sports currently in season, there’s something to watch pretty much every night (as well as clip shows recounting their highlights all day). And to fill in the gaps for when there isn’t, there’s always VH1 Classic, reliable and unthreatening. Hell, when there isn’t even that, there’s usually at least some combination of reruns on SOAP Net (The O.C., Dallas, 90210), Sleuth TV (Miami Vice, Magnum P.I., Homicide) and FX (King of the Hill, Nip/Tuck, Malcolm in the Middle) to tide me over.
  • More Time to Catch Up on Older Stuff. There’s a whole world of classic TV out there. Who knows what gaps in my archival TV knowledge I’ll fill in next? The Shield? The Young Ones? McMillan and Wife? Fuck, if I want to, I can just spend the time rewatching my newly acquired DVD sets of My So-Called Life and The Wire. It’s a world of possibilities out there, truly.
  • I Dunno, Exercise Maybe? Human Interaction? Unprotected Sex? I was having a conversation with someone about the WGA strike and they said something to the effect of how the music and video game businesses were going to experience a boom without people having movies or TV to turn to. “I dunno,” I said to him. “Maybe people’ll actually, y’know…go outside?” We had a good chuckle at that.

Oh yeah, speaking of which, I guess the film industry is kind of affected by this as well. The fact that I hadn’t even considered this until now should demonstrate what a priority I consider this to be. Oh, and sorry about doing the Creating Suspense in the First Paragraph and Relieving it With a One-Sentence Italicized Punchline thing again at the top. I promise to do it no more than 68 times in my next 221 articles.

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