Monday, December 17, 2007

So what are the great film renditions of Empty Manhattan? I can think of the following:

The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Anti-racism inversion of a deeply bigoted Victorian novel starring Harry Belafonte. Pretty damned good, and the Manhattan offered is stark, and modernist, and sleek, and utterly inhuman. The machine grinding on after its care-takers have left, still well-greased, oiled, and precise in the absence of any purpose.

The Devil's Advocate. It's a late-period New York-as-Babylon apocalypse, Gordon -Gecko-taken-to-the-fantastic-extreme film. A horror movie that uses surreality to emphasize alienation and grotesqueries, the empty-streets-of-Manhattan scenes are used to establish the end of the Masquerade, and the beginning of the End-of-Days. So, this movie's empty-streets-of-Gotham are intended to evoke anxiety - ye olde fear-and-trembling.

I'm having trouble thinking of other dead-Manhattan or empty-Manhattan movies. Anyone have anything to add?
Wow, the new "Viridian Collection" edition boxsets from Funimation are spectacularly cheap. Cardboard sleeves cheap. The Tenchi Muyo GXP set just showed up in the mail, and if I hadn't paid roughly $1.15 an episode, I'd be feeling a bit gypped right about now. Hope the discs don't come out of the sleeves auto-scratched, which I seem to remember was a problem with the similarly-packaged early PAL Buffy season 2 sets back in the early days of DVD. Those PAL Buffy collections weren't nearly as sleazy-cheap as this GXP set is. Mind you, I paid twice as much for the PAL Buffy set... which reminds me, would anyone want some decade-old Buffy PAL dvds? I've got the first three seasons sitting around gathering dust on a back shelf. Got an aging APEX DVD player chip-modded to play PAL discs, too.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

I just read the novella "I Am Legend". The title makes a lot more sense for *that* story than for the movie. I'm not quite clear why they bothered hanging the title on the new movie - the movie's story had more in common with 28 Days Later and other modern-day zombie flicks than Matheson's story. I suppose there's the bacteriological explanation of the scourge, the madness of the characters, their inclination towards mad science, and their essential isolation. In the end, the novella is an ironic late-modern version of Lovecraft's "the Outsider", about the loneliness of becoming the monster. The Neville of the movie never explicitly becomes the scourge and monster that the Neville of the novella has already become on the first page. His monstrousness is less explicit, less textual, left to interpretation, and subverted by Smith's essential decency as a film presence.
I Am Legend isn't nearly as bad as the critics made it sound. It's actually pretty good - sort of like Castaway with monsters. Castaway's another movie that had an excellent first two-thirds, followed by a shaky final act. But to be honest, I didn't hate the ending of I Am Legend. I could have done without the nearly ten minute excerpt of Shrek - even Steven Spielberg shouldn't be allowed to get away with that kind of stuff any more - but in general I was able to suspend disbelief and go with the internal logic of the ending.

There's a lot of talk about how inherently likeable and amiable Will Smith is as an actor, but one of the marvels of the story was how aged and morally damaged his Robert Neville is by what he's seen and done. The usual moral calculus of zombie movies is inverted by the establishment of this Neville as a scientist and virologist. Despite some idiot claims by some reviewers, Smith's Neville doesn't start the movie hunting or slaughtering the monsters. Rather, he seems to be avoiding them as much as possible, and when he captures one, it's to test out a promising cure on the slavering thing which used to be a girl. Later, we see photographic records of each monster which he's captured and killed in the process of testing his serums. It's an unsettling moment, as you suddenly look again at your protagonist and see a mad scientist and borderline serial-killer in the place of a heroic castaway. It's all means to an end, but you can see that he's operating by habit and routine - that he's going through the motions of a plan, the soundness and righteousness of which he has mostly forgotten.

Smith's Neville lives so much on the surfaces of things because the depths have monsters. He moves from light to light, sealing himself up and locking down as the light goes away. He populates his locales with manikins, and carries on conversations, and has lost his way among them to such an extent that when one is moved out of its place, he becomes confused, violent, and makes a terrible mistake.

Smith's Neville is a man so morally fractured by his failures and successes that he's more a mosaic of partial personalities than a whole man. Inside his townhouse, he's a loving family man - to a family consisting solely of his dog. Inside his lab, he's a rigorous scientist. In his open-air office at the end of a dockside pier, he's a parody of a bureaucrat, waiting for other survivors, of whom he's given up all other hope except for those few designated hours by the river. When the shutters close, he hides with his dog in the darkness. The only thing holding his parts together is the only other person in his life - his dog Sam. Sam is the one thing holding his life together, and when she dies, then Neville goes smash.

The movie goes smash a bit as well, although not so much that I wasn't able to enjoy everything that followed. The CGI was terrible, not in that it was technically bad - although it didn't impress me all that much - but rather that it is a terrible temptation to cinematographers and directors. CGI is a cheat, a shortcut. It requires no discipline on the part of artists, and thus it relieves the pressure on decision-makers to make choices, to commit to one action at a time. CGI allows blazingly-fast action sequences, and the faster they go, the cheaper the cost, because all of that blur can hide all sorts of shortcuts and cheats and render-tricks. Instead of showing one single clash, with a small and well-defined set of actors or objects in motion, CGI allows and almost seems to demand a blur of mobs in motion. Blur isn't interesting, and mobs multiplied by cut-and-paste are basically expensive wallpaper, and about as threatening.

There are honestly cool things in the last third of I Am Legend. Every single one of them would have been better with at least half of the CGI animation cuts excised. I don't know why they thought they needed spectacle beyond the scenes of Empty Manhattan. Those were far, far more powerful than any of the swirling killer-zombie cuts of the last third. The head monster was most alarming when he was *still*. Whenever he moved, he became an effect, and then action wallpaper.

Too bad. American movies aren't going to get better until they fire half the animators, and send the directors off to make films with real-world special effects. Real explosive squibs and stuntmen teach a certain respect for the craft which isn't much different from fear. But fear teaches. Ask John Landis.

Monday, December 10, 2007

So I ended up buying a Chevy this weekend. I walked up to the dealership at the mall, and they happened to have a brand-new metallic-tangerine-orange Aveo five-door on the backlot still wrapped up with the shipping tape they use to keep it from getting banged up in the shipping racks. I got what I think was a fairly good deal; after I took it out for a test-drive, I tried to get out the door in enough time to catch the 11:08 bus from the mall into town, go check out some other dealerships on North Atherton. He pulled the usual "what can I do to get you in this car" routine, and I said, wildly, "$1000 off the sale price" in an attempt to get away without offense. They coughed up, mostly, and it was a good enough price to make up for not being a Honda or Toyota. To be honest, most of my reasons for getting a car from the latter was tied up in maintenance and quality concerns, and multiple thousands of dollars less than I would have been paying otherwise tends to make up for the difference.

So, Aveo. My mother called it "cute" when she looked it up online while I was talking to her on the phone, and I can't deny it. I was greatly amused by the color, as my father has a golf cart in that exact color, which is supposedly the same color as the Charger he owned when my parents met. It's a small car, but remarkably high off the ground - the driver's seat is higher off the pavement than any previous car I've owned. We'll see how good it is in ice and slush; Saturday wasn't nearly foul enough to provide ideal crap-weather driving conditions for the test drive, and no tractor-trailers appeared conveniently on the stretch of I-99 we took for the highway test-drive, so we'll see just how much buffeting this little hatchback can take from the big trucks moving fast. I've never been much of a leadfoot, anyways, so it seems like enough car under the hood to get me where I need to go.

It's an automatic; sorry, Jessica. ^_^