Sunday, April 29, 2007

Back from the Depths

I usually hate it when bloggers take a week or two off from updating, only to come back and write a big long post about how busy they've been. But not when I do it. So buckle up, Wortmaniacs, it's a Report Recap!

My off hours have been primarily occupied by writing associated with checks that just so happen to be made out to me. Check out the Port Chester and Rye Brook editions of The Westmore News. I usually don't shamelessly plug my own work, but I wrote a couple of nifty little stories in there. Check them out online at http://www.westmorenews.com.

As far as Wort Reportings go, there's a lot out there that's been picked up on my radar, and I'll briefly share with you a few of the things that have been occupying the time I haven't been spending feverishly putting words together to make sentences.

As you all know, I'm a Spider-Man fanatic. Not just of the movies, mind you, but of pretty much everything surrounding the character. Peter Parker is just someone any geek can relate to. Is it art imitating life or vice versa?

With Spider-Man 3 just on the horizon, Sony decided to tide over the hardcore fans (and make a buck in the process), by putting out an extended cut of Spider-Man 2, and calling it...wait for it...Spider-Man 2.1.

8 additional minutes of footage? Rock on. New special features? Go for it. But why oh why is this thing called Spider-Man 2.1? It sounds like a software upgrade! Why not call it Spider-Man 2: Special Edition? 2.1 implies that this movie is somewhere in between the second and third films, but is way closer to the end of 2. For example, to me, a movie called Spider-Man 2.1 would consist of showing us just what J. Jonah Jameson did with that caviar that he told the caterer not to open and whether Peter ever got to pay the rent that was long overdue. You know, the stuff not important enough for either 2 or 3. In other words, 2.1 implies some form of continuation, not a new cut of the same movie.

Nevertheless, it rocks. And it's not the major things either. Sure, the fight scenes are longer, but what I really like about this cut are the character moments. Harry Osborne not wanting to ruin Peter's birthday with his "I hate Spider-Man" rant. MJ questioning her marriage. Hell, the new elevator scene with Spidey and Hal Sparks is worth the purchase alone. A men's fragrance called "Thwip?" Great delivery AND a wink at the comic book readers. Well played.

On the gaming end, I've finally dusted off the Xbox 360 for Guitar Hero II. Sure, I may look like an idiot rocking out in my living room to "Monkey Wrench" with a plastic guitar, but damn it, I have a blast doing it. I can't make it through the day without at least one run-through of "Carry on Wayward Son" by Kansas. That's addiction, friends. Not because the game is pretty to look at, but because it's just that fun. Developers take note. Substance trumps style every time.

On the literary side of things, Christopher Tolkien has once again milked J. R. R.'s unpublished notes to release yet another Middle Earth novel, called Children of Hurin. Now I haven't read it, yet I do intend to. I love everything Lord of the Rings...excluding of course The Silmarillion, which reads like a long, drawn out catalog of nothingness. I understand what Chris Tolkien was trying to do, but this material was obviously never meant for publication. Hopefully, he's learned from his mistakes.

I've got an early day tomorrow, but I promise to touch on these subjects further as time allows, and I'll be checking in on any comments you guys might make (if there are any). I'd love to make the Wort Report more interactive, so I encourage feedback.

Next weekend I'll be back with my thoughts on Spider-Man 3. Have a good one, Interwebs.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

TMNT: To Make New Toys

Haha, just kidding. While marketing has always been (and still is) a driving force behind the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle phenomenon, the new movie is far more than just a two-hour toy commercial.

This review has been a long time coming. I've been loving this new wave of Turtle nostalgia. The arcade game is up on Xbox Live, new merchandise has been cluttering stores for months, and kids (young and old alike) are once again debating who their favorite Turtle is. You have to be a kid or have been a kid in the early 90s to "get it," but judging by the box office receipts, a lot of people got it, and we haven't seen the last of the turtles in the multiplex.

You see, I distinctly remember turning on the TV and watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the first time. I was about 4 at the time, and once my mom walked in and caught the name of the show, she immediately picked up the phone and called my dad at work.

"Steve, guess what James is watching? Teenage. Mutant.Ninja.Turtles." Little did she know, those four words would be plastered on pretty much everything I owned, just like every other kid at King Street School. We lived and breathed everything Turtles. From the toys to the cartoon to the movies to the video games, we were transfixed.

Of course, we grew up, and the Turtles were no longer a part of our daily lives. The Turtles returned to TV in 2003, and while I did catch an episode here or there, it just wasn't the same. The new show was dark and gritty, much like the original comic book on which all of this madness was based. Now we have TMNT which is, above all else, a major throwback to the Turtles my generation grew up with. Sure, they're more grown up (and are twentysomethings now, and never once are referred to as teenagers), but Mikey's still the goofball, Leonardo's the leader, Donatello's the smart one and Raphael is, well, angsty. There's some subtle references to the original cartoon and movies, including Michelangelo's taste for cereal on his pizza, and the relationships between the Turtles are pretty much how we remember them.

Long story short, this film is more about the four brothers reuniting as a team and overcoming their differences than fighting the bad guys. Yeah, there's some business with an ancient warlord trying to capture 13 monsters with the help of four stone generals, yadda yadda yadda, but the central conflict here is between the turtles themselves, particularly Raph and Leo. Their tension comes to a head in a fantastically animated rooftop battle, which completely made me forget I was watching CGI.

There's some recognizable voices, including Sarah Michelle Gellar as April, Chris Evans as Casey Jones, Patrick Stewart as Max Winters and Ziyi Zhang as Karai. Laurence Fishburne narrates while Kevin Smith cameos as a diner owner.

While this film is mostly on its way out of theaters, make it a point to check it out on DVD if you grew up on the Turtles. It's fun, has some great action scenes and it should definitely bring back some fond memories. Your inner six-year-old will thank you.

Gore, Guns, and Girls. Welcome to the Grindhouse


Expectations for Grindhouse were high, and expectedly so. The brainchild of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, this double feature intends to resurrect the long-dead era of low-budget exploitation flicks. It promised to be far more than a couple of films shown back-to-back, but rather a recreation of a nearly forgotten moviegoing experience. But does it deliver? Amazingly so.

It opens up with a fake trailer for Machete, a film about a day-laborer turned hitman. During my screening, half the audience was in hysterics throughout the trailer, while everyone else was left scratching their heads, wondering what the joke was. By the time Rodriguez' Planet Terror began to roll, complete with an apparently damaged film print, everyone seemed to be on the same page. "Bring on the crap! This is gonna be fun."

Surprisingly enough, Planet Terror was actually good. Really good. The plot, which was just an excuse to unleash hordes of zombies (or zombie-like creatures) on the main characters, won't be spoiled here. Needless to say, there's lots of gore, including testicles in a jar, limbs being torn off and exploding heads. Not once did it feel overlong, and by the time Rose McGowan's leg becomes a killing machine, you'll be wishing it went on for another 30 minutes or so.

Ah yes. Rose McGowan. She plays Cherry Darling, a go-go dancer (don't call her a stripper) who aspires to become a stand-up comedian. Not too long after her introduction, standing up becomes a problem for her after her leg is torn off by a group of zombies. El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) is her ex-boyfriend with the perfect solution to her problem: a machine gun prosthetic leg. Ass-kicking ensues.

You know, I've never really noticed Rose McGowan before, but I'm definitely keeping an eye on her from now on. She's hotter than hot. Gun-leg or not.

After Planet Terror, the audience is treated to three more faux trailers: Werewolf Women of the S.S., Don't! and Thanksgiving, directed by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright and Eli Roth respectively. I wasn't much of a fan of Roth after seeing Hostel, but I wouldn't mind it if his trailer became a feature-length horror spoof one of these days. Grindhouse 2 anyone?

Then there's Death Proof. This one is hard to write about, since it's sadly Tarantino's weakest effort. It's not that it's terrible, it just thinks it's way better than it is. while Rodriguez's film used the "grindhouse" format to bring us a schlocky, fun roller-coaster ride, Death Proof seems to be just another "Tarantino Homage" picture.

It's disappointing, since there's lots of great potential with the material Tarantino is working with. You have Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) stalking these young girls before mowing them down with his "death proof" stunt car, complete with some of the coolest car chases you're likely to see anytime soon. But before and in between the good stuff you have a lot of talky dialogue to get through. I love good dialogue, and Tarantino is usually great at it. Here, it's an annoyance. The two groups of girls in Death Proof are never given anything interesting to say, yet they insist on spending 75% of the movie saying it. It's just yammering, and it's unnecessary.

But when things get going, they get going. Zoƫ Bell (playing herself) is a stunt goddess. I won't spoil the scene for those who haven't seen the film, but I applaud her work toward the end of the film. It's cheer-inducing.

Despite these gripes, Grindhouse is a consistent good time. While I must say that Planet Terror is far more satisfying than Death Proof, a fan of B-movies would be well-advised to check them both out in theaters while you still can.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Talking Tarantino

One would be hard-pressed to flip through a magazine, open a newspaper or turn on a television without seeing director Quentin Tarantino's mug, typically accompanied these days by talk of the just-released Grindhouse, his collaboration with Robert Rodriguez (Sin City). A schlocky tribute to the exploitation flicks of the 60s and 70s, Grindhouse may have started a trend: cinematic throwbacks to a lesser-yet-greater time in film history. When guns were louder, breasts were larger and plot was nonexistent. This time, however, what was once considered trash will be held up, for better or worse, as high art. All it takes is a knowing wink of self-conscious tone.

Soon-to-be-nauseating fads aside, Grindhouse has opened up a lot of talk about Tarantino, a director that has been largely under the radar since his two-part samurai homage Kill Bill left theaters in 2004.

Wait a minute. He's been doing homages all this time? As Jules might say, "Correctamundo."

Tarantino burst onto the scene as a brash young up-start with Reservoir Dogs in 1992. It had a simple plot involving a heist and a color-coded team of robbers. The heist goes wrong, they fall back to an old warehouse and we take it from there. As far as a narrative, that's pretty much it. What got people talking was, well, the talking. The movie, told out of sequence, is dialogue-heavy, but it succeeds in making you want to hear everything these characters have to say. It even opens with all of the main characters discussing "Like a Virgin" by Madonna before debating as to whether tipping waitstaff makes any sense at all. It should be boring, but Tarantino makes it work.

As a film, it's the one that's most evocative of Tarantino's style. Why you might ask? Because every one of his later projects is an homage. Adapting the filmmaking style he established in Dogs to familiar genres, Tarantino has become the most original unoriginal guy in Hollywood, if that makes any sense. And no, that's not an insult.

Pulp Fiction hit two years later, earning a well-deserved Oscar nod and a considerable fanbase. Everything about it was a throwback to, well, pulp fiction. In other words, the film was a reference to inexpensive magazines published from the 20s to about the 50s. They typically contained lurid subject matter, making it the ideal stomping ground for Tarantino. An all-star cast, great dialogue and interweaving story segments make the film a modern classic and Tarantino's best work to date.

Then came Jackie Brown in 1997, Tarantino's first homage to a specific film genre. This time, he chose the blacksploitation films of the 70s, choosing, appropriately enough, genre star Pam Grier. An all-star cast, including Robert DeNiro, Samuel L. Jackson and the aformentioned Grier make the film watchable, but it just doesn't have the same bite as Dogs or Fiction.

Tarantino then took a long break to perfect his martial arts epic Kill Bill starring Uma Thurman as The Bride, a character Tarantino and Thurman had concocted during the filming of Fiction years earlier. It was split into two parts, with Part 1 opening in 2003 and Part 2 opening the following Spring. The film is clearly paying reference to the samurai films of the 70s, starring martial artists such as Sonny Chiba and Bruce Lee. Yet, this prototypical samurai revenge film is given a post-modern twist, particularly in the second half. It could use some editing, as some of the dialogue tends to drag, but the film(s) turned out to be a return to form for Tarantino and had everyone frothing at the mouth for his next feature: a World War II film entitled Inglorious Bastards.

We're still waiting for that film, unfortunately, as Grindhouse has been occupying a great deal of Tarantino's time. Looking back at his body of work and finding mostly films referencing earlier genres has many thinking: what would a modern Tarantino come up with? He's a great director, and he seems to enjoy turning genres he fell in love with on their heads and injecting them with a pop culture sensibility, but isn't Tarantino the type of director who could easily forge ahead and come up with something truly original in idea-starved Hollywood?