Category Archives: 2000s

Species III (2004)

*. As the title splashes cheaply across the screen we realize we’re in another world. I don’t mean in terms of the plot (that is, we’re not starting off on Mars here, as we did in Species II), but with regard to the quality of the filmmaking. After Species II tanked at the box office it’s clear that the producers were no longer willing to spend any money on this franchise. So while the first two movies had budgets of around $35 million each and theatrical releases, this one was done for far less (director Brad Turner says “probably an eighth” of what the others had to work with) and premiered on the Sci Fi channel.
*. How many good, or even just watchable, original movies have there been on Syfy (as it’s now called)? Dog Soldiers back in 2002 was OK. Leprechaun Returns was, in my lonely opinion, the best of the Leprechaun films. Aside from that I’ve got nothing. When the Sharknado franchise is your main claim to fame you know where you rank. Still, at least they’re making movies. That’s something.
*. I hope Natasha Henstridge, who showed up for one day of filming, got paid for her cameo at the beginning here, where she gives birth to Sara (the next generation of Species creature). This film is a direct sequel to Species II, picking up in the ambulance where that film left off and even throwing in a montage of clips with some exposition in voiceover from the earlier movies. Though I have to think that if you’d seen those movies you wouldn’t need this refresher, and that if you hadn’t seen them you wouldn’t be likely to be here.
*. While the first two movies were far from classics they did have a kind of quirky charm in their different ways. Species III isn’t nearly as much fun. It feels awkwardly put together (the character of the half-breed Amelia, for example, is introduced far too late) and it wasn’t long before I’d lost all interest in what was going on.
*. Some of the practical effects are OK to watch. The Sil creature is slightly redesigned and made into something simpler. There’s a younger cast to bring the franchise more in line with what was always its natural demographic.
*. I keep coming back, however, to that clunkiness I mentioned. The way obvious plot points keep having to be vocalized. (Example: the scene where Dr. Abbot gives Sara her name from off of a Sara Lee cake box. “You don’t have a name,” he says. Then, looking at the box, “Sara. Yes, Sara.”) The clichés like the chess game by the fireplace for our two attractive young leads to get to know one another a little better. The items that are introduced that we know are just being highlighted for us because they’re going to be used later. This is all clunky as hell.
*. Not a total write-off, at least if you’re not expecting much from the third entry in a series that was never that great to begin with. But really you’d have to be a completist to want to bother.

Next Floor (2008)

*. An early short by Denis Villeneuve, before his career took of with a string of critical hits (Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049). Of his later work only Enemy strikes me as a work of real genius, though I’ll admit he has a unique look, which is something that isn’t easy to achieve in the current environment, especially directing SF-Fantasy fare.
*. The set-up is pure allegory. A table full of society types are stuffing their faces full of exotic dishes. Then, when they grow too heavy, they crash through the floor to the next level of the empty building they’re in, table and all. The maitre d’ calls in “next floor” and the waiters and musicians and other attendants scramble downstairs to set things up again. But the same cartoon descent is repeated over and over.

*. The colours and the appearance of the food recalls nothing so much as the painting “The Gross Clinic” by Thomas Eakins. But while repellent, most of the entrées do look edible. It’s just that they’re grotesquely supersized and the way the diners are eating is made to seem even more disgusting than the sight of people eating normally looks. The assembled guests are an off-putting bunch as well, even before they’re turned into statuary by the accumulating plaster of their violent relocations. Clearly we’re meant to be on the side of the hired help, at least until the final shot.
*. The allegory I mentioned is pretty clear. We’re in Buñuel territory here, with a modern retelling of The Exterminating Angel. The diners are the haute bourgeoisie, or capitalists more generally, and they are literally digging their own graves in the abandoned building. Yes, the system is collapsing due to its own contradictions. The most glaring contradiction being that they are eating themselves out of house and home: consuming to such excess (not just in terms of the volume of the food they’re served, but the endangered species on the menu) that it all becomes a suicidal race to the bottom.

*. Growing social inequality has led to a unsustainable state of affairs, but what happens isn’t revolution. The waiters aren’t rising up against the diners here. Instead they are content to continue playing their part, giving the upper classes enough rope (or food) to hang themselves. That this is deliberate is indicated by the cold eye the maitre d’ casts on the serial catastrophe. He knows what’s going on, and is prepared to let it happen.
*. I’m not sure how political such a message is. Are the lower classes to remain passive and simply allow their social superiors to destroy themselves? This question is made more complicated by the accusatory glare of the maitre d’ that the film ends with. For me this asks “Whose side are you on?” And which side is really worse? Is it better to be an enabler than to be one of the destroyers? Isn’t an enabler a destroyer too? Questions very much for our time.

Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)

*. Since Godzilla first stomped Tokyo back in 1954’s Gojira, 2004 was the legendary monster’s fiftieth anniversary. To the credit of Toho Studios they decided to celebrate by throwing a party: a sort of kaiju celebrity roast with a line-up of all-stars: Gigan, Anguirus, Rodan, Mothra, King Caesar, Zilla (the much-maligned, as he is again here, dinosaur from Hollywood’s 1998 Godzilla), Ebirah, Hedorah (the Smog Monster), King Ghidorah and the giant bugs and spiders whose names I never bothered to learn. In fact pretty much everyone shows up, including the faeries from Infant Island and, as bad guys, the Xiliens.
*. I think the only one who didn’t get an invite was Mechagodzilla, which was fine by me since I was getting tired of him. Even Minilla shows up, and . . . isn’t quite as irritating as I thought he’d be.
*. Providing a brief plot synopsis is impossible. Basically the Xiliens are plotting to take over the Earth so they can feed on our mitochondria. Instead of just wiping us out with their obviously superior technology they figure it would be more fun to destroy civilization first by unleashing the kaiju on various cities (Shanghai, Sydney, Paris, etc.). You-know-who (“the most destructive weapon on Earth”) is our last chance to stop them.
*. That’s not the complicated part. The complicated part has to do with the human story. Or really superhuman story, since our heroes on the Earth Defence Force are mutants with superhuman powers. Their top gun is Ozaki, who can fight on a motorbike like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible II and do all kinds of Matrix-style martial-arts moves when battling the Xilien leader (named, simply, X).

*. I was getting ready to say something snarky and dismissive about Don Frye, a former MMA fighter who I don’t think would make many studio Z-lists, but he’s actually well cast here as a gruff Cap’n Steampunk. Also very good is Kazuki Kitamura as X, who goes into fits every time Godzilla throws down another of his kaiju champions. In such a role you might as well ham it up, and he certainly does.

*. But did we need so much going on? You’d better enjoy seeing Godzilla getting buried in ice (a scene recalling the end of Godzilla Raids Again). It’s going to be a long time — over an hour! — before you see him again. That gives you some idea of how much effort they put into the human/superhuman story here.
*. Whether you approve or not will depend on taste. Director Ryuhei Kitamura wanted this movie to be more a throwback to the Godzilla movies of the ’70s (the Showa Era), with less CGI and more men slogging it out in rubber suits. That part works pretty well, but the human story is more directly derived from The Matrix, especially with Ozaki going full Neo at the end. So this part of the movie flags a bit because there’s no way to do those kind of fight scenes in-camera.
*. Kitamura thought of Final Wars as a kind of “Best of” album and at least that’s how the second half plays. Reviews were mixed. I found it to be mostly noisy, mindless fun. I did appreciate the throwback elements, but thought the human story suffered from effects overload and a not very original or interesting alien plot. In short, it’s a party flick. It also marks the end of the Millennium series, and really the end of Godzilla as we knew him. It would be another ten years before Shin Godzilla would kick things off again, and take things in a new direction. Tradition be damned, CGI here we come!

Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003)

*. Unlike the other Godzilla movies of the Millennium series, Tokyo S.O.S. is a direct sequel to the previous film, Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla. It pretty much picks up where that one left off, with Mechagodzilla in shop getting repairs done so he’ll be able to fight Godzilla when he (inevitably) comes back.
*. Realizing that this isn’t a new plot in any way, things are complicated a bit with the return of the faeries (or Shobijin) from Infant Island. They’re upset that this version of Mechagodzilla was made out of the old Godzilla’s bones. The bones need to be returned to the ocean. If that’s done, then Mothra will fight to defend Japan from Godzilla.
*. This doesn’t make much sense, as Mothra comes to Japan to fight Godzilla anyway, even teaming up with Mechagodzilla. Furthermore, given how these things play out I think Mechagodzilla offers somewhat better odds at taking out Godzilla than Mothra, who only seems capable of dying a tragic death as she dissolves into golden pixie dust. For some reason Mothra’s larvae always seem to do a better job at handling the big guy. Luckily they come to help out too.

*. The reappearance of the faeries signals that Tokyo S.O.S. is a throwback to some of the more fanciful Godzilla movies of the Showa period. Mechagodzilla even gives Godzilla a giant judo flip in their big fight. And the end, which has the hero (a mechanic named Chujo) jumping out of Mechagodzilla while his friend ejects from a jet flying below him in order to catch him in his lap, is one of the silliest moments in the entire franchise.
*. The lightness, however, helps make up for the fact that this is very much more of the same. There’s even the exact same plot device of the hero having to enter into the downed Mechagodzilla at the end in order to bring it back to life for a final battle. The exact same thing was done in the previous movie, which is too soon for such repetition.
*. I guess I’d rate this slightly higher than Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla. The fights are a bit more exciting, and there are a few nice touches, albeit very quick. The mines going off in Tokyo Bay, for example, marking Godzilla’s approach. Or the vapour trails that fill the sky when a host of rockets are launched. I really admired that shot, but then had to laugh when so many of the rockets, presumably “locked on target,” go splashing into the water without even hitting Godzilla. I mean, I know he’s indestructible, but you’d think he’d be hard to miss.
*. In any event, this was all marking time waiting for the next entry, which would be a 50th birthday party for our favourite giant lizard. With everyone invited!

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)

*. A Godzilla movie that was generally well received but which I found disappointing.
*. It feels tired. This was, I believe, Mechagodzilla’s fourth outing (after Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, Terror of Mechagodzilla, and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II), though as per usual in the Millennium Godzilla movies it’s a standalone entry that doesn’t take into account any previous movies other than the original Gojira (way back in 1954). What this means is that this Mechagodzilla, named Kiryu, is something a bit different, being a “bio-robot” that is part machine and part clone made out of the bones of the original Godzilla that was killed at the end of Gojira.
*. That’s something sort of new, and the reveal of Godzilla’s bones is the movie’s one good moment. The rest is just all of the usual stuff. Crowds of people running through the streets as Godzilla looms up behind them. Jets and tanks firing rockets at Godzilla that do nothing at all. The jointure of the scientific and military establishments to come up with some way of defeating Godzilla. Hints at a love affair, but nothing more than hints. A cute kid. The long shots showing the monsters squaring off against each other. The giant tussle, with the protagonists slamming through office buildings.
*. Of course you can say that this was Toho’s twenty-sixth Godzilla movie so there wasn’t much chance they’d be doing anything new, even if originality was their aim (which I’m sure it wasn’t). Point taken. But even so, this isn’t even a very interesting Mechagodzilla movie. Once again he’s been kitted out with an array of weapons that are totally useless (rockets, “masers”, etc.). Except for the new Absolute-Zero Gun which fires out of his chest. This puts whatever it hits into a deep freeze that then causes it to shatter into atoms. At least that’s the idea. It works well on buildings. Does it work on Godzilla? Ha!
*. What’s especially awkward is the way Kiryu has to be operated by remote control from a squad of jets that hover just above it. Couldn’t they do this from their home base? That’s where everyone else is. I do like the JXSDF baseball caps though. Better than the G-Grabbers swag from Godzilla vs. Megaguirus.
*. It’s at least a change of tone from the previous movie, Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. That film was more into the supernatural where this one at least throws some fancy scientific talk into the air (like Kyru’s “computer DNA”). Even the idea that Kyru’s racial memory can be triggered by hearing Godzilla’s roar is kind of plausible. I mean, for a Godzilla movie.
*. Godzilla himself (or itself) has slimmed down a bit, and has pupils in his eyes again, but for some reason seems far more static. There are a number of shots where he appears to be a model rather than a man in a suit. Especially when he just stands still, not even moving his arms, as rockets are fired at him. Maybe they did use a model in those scenes. I guess it would have been safer.
*. The ending didn’t make any sense to me, but basically they were setting things up for the next movie, Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S., which would be a direct sequel/rematch. Which I would have thought a bit redundant at this point, but I guess they needed the championship rounds to settle things.

Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)

*. Talk about a mouthful of a title. It’s often abbreviated as GMK, which I think I’ll go with.
*. The Godzilla movies of the Millennium series only accept the original Gojira as pre-existing (though there is a funny dig at Hollywood’s 1998 Godzilla in the opening scene here). Indeed, we’re told that Godzilla’s last rampage was so long ago that even people who were there at the time are apparently having doubts as to whether it actually happened.
*. Given such a blank slate, in this movie Godzilla can be a bad guy, as he was in 1954, while King Ghidorah makes his only appearance in the franchise as a heroic monster. The title promises a line-up of famous names, but it’s only the names that have stayed the same.
*. In addition to being one of Japan’s Guardian Monsters, Ghidorah is also smaller than Godzilla now. But then, everything looks smaller next to what has to be the fattest Godzilla ever. Apparently the intention was to have him move in a more bent-forward position but this was too difficult to achieve. Instead he should have just tried tucking himself into a ball and rolling through Tokyo.
*. Another change in his appearance is the absence of pupils in his eyes. This has the effect of making him seem less cartoonish and more malignant, but it also made me think he might have gone blind in the ocean depths.
*. Then there’s the matter of his back story. No longer the product of atomic testing, and thus erasing even Gojira as a foundational text, we’re told now that Godzilla somehow embodies the “collective will to survive” of the souls of all those who died in the Second World War. Or at least those who died in the Pacific theatre. I wasn’t sure.
*. In his book Godzilla On My Mind William Tsutsui says that this part of the plot is “based on an interpretation of Godzilla long favored by right-wing critics in Japan,” with Godzilla representing “the unquiet souls of the soldiers and sailors who died in the Pacific during World War II, returning to Japan to wreak vengeance, to demand belated acknowledgment, and to rekindle national spirit.”
*. That’s the sense I had at first as well, but then the strange holy man who is explaining this stuff seems to suggest that what Godzilla really represents is not the Japanese war dead but the souls of the victims of Japanese aggression. At least that’s the way I understood it from the subtitles.
*. In any event, what you’ll gather from this is that GMK is a movie with a pronounced supernatural flavour. If Godzilla is some kind of otherworldly avatar of revenge his opponents are three Guardian Monsters (Baragon, reduced to a punching bag without his heat ray, Mothra, and Ghidorah) who are related to ritual statues, as well as to each other in some weird way. They can’t really die but instead they dissolve into gold dust and rise again, reconstituted Phoenix-style.
*. One unfortunate result of all of this supernaturalism is that it’s hard to feel anything much is at stake. You can’t kill these magical monsters as they’ll just keep reforming and coming back. The movie’s bizarre final shot even plays a bit like the end of some ’80s slasher flick, with Godzilla now cousin to one of the immortal killers of that era.
*. The human story has some nice comic touches playing with the reporters for BS Media (“the bargain basement of the airwaves”), but it ends on a schmaltzy note. The effects are poor. The fight scenes are reasonably well done, but uninteresting. Godzilla vs. Baragon is especially pointless. Surprisingly it is the military this time out that administers the coup de grâce, something that I don’t think I’d seen since Godzilla Raids Again. Which just underlines how odd an entry this is in the franchise. And when you go the route of being  odd you have to take the good with the bad.

Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000)

*. There are a pair of charming clichés that go along with the Godzilla movies. The first has to do with the authorities somehow losing Godzilla after every one of his rampages. You’d think they’d be able to track something that big, especially with all our surveillance satellites and other fancy toys, but in this movie again it becomes a plot point that has to be addressed by firing a homing device into Godzilla’s hide and sending drones after him.
*. The other cliché, which is just as much fun, has to do with the way the military duly keep driving out their tanks and rocket launchers, or scrambling jet planes and helicopters, to fire away at Godzilla despite the fact that they’ve been doing this for nearly fifty years and clearly it has no effect on him at all. When this really gets funny, however, is when a bunch of grunts left on the ground try to blast away with small-arms fire and shoulder-launched rockets before getting flattened. Keep trying, guys! One of these days you might even hurt him!
*. This is how Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (or Godzilla x Megaguirus, as the films of the Millennium phase were styled) starts out. After an introductory montage that establishes a break of continuity with any of the previous movies aside from Gojira (which, in turn, is nicely sampled), a team of about a dozen soldiers are exhorted by their leader to go into battle against Godzilla with bazookas. “Don’t forget,” he tells them, “it may be big but it’s still a lizard! Aim at its legs to bring it down!” Wow! Aim at Godzilla’s legs! Why had nobody ever thought of that before? Then imagine the team’s surprise as they fire their rockets at Godzilla’s feet and absolutely nothing happens! Consternation!
*. And these, I might add, aren’t just any soldiers. They’re members of an elite anti-Godzilla unit (or really entire government department) that has been studying how to best take down this giant bugbear for decades. And “aiming at its legs” is the best they’ve come up with!
*. The unit goes by the name of the G-Graspers. I thought something must have been lost in translation here, but it’s part of an English logo that is branded on all of their kit so somebody must have thought it sounded good. Luckily, after the failure of this rocket attack their scientists have come up with a plan to use “plasma-powered energy” (developed as an alternative energy source to keep nuclear out of Japan) to create a miniature black hole that can be fired from a cannon. Its code name is Dimension Tide. Which is at least a better name than the G-Graspers got stuck with.
*. Gozilla vs. Megaguirus isn’t rated very highly among Godzilla fans. At least I don’t see it often cracking the top-10 lists. But I like it. Despite the plot being the exact same formula as ever, at least in the “good Godzilla” movies. Japan wants to rid itself of its giant spirit lizard until something even worse comes along and they need his help; there’s a fight where Godzilla gets the crap kicked out of him, which just makes him angry, etc. I say despite this there’s something about how it plays out that I found enjoyable all the way through.
*. It’s easy enough to be critical. I don’t like the Millennium Godzilla’s appearance. He legs are so bloated they seem deformed (though he isn’t quite the tub of lard he’d turn into in the next movie) and his teeth splay weirdly out from his mouth. I’m also not a fan of Toho’s flying monsters, like Mothra, Rodan and this Megaguirus thing, which is a giant dragonfly. The flying monsters are never very convincing and Megaguirus is even worse than the others, simply hovering in the air without even flapping his wings. The fight scenes are poorly handled, with even a couple of the early Toho silly moments thrown in (like Godzilla doing a giant body splash). Throughout I thought the effects a noticeable step down from Godzilla 2000.
*. That said, I thought the human story was OK, with a couple of women who hold grudges against Godzilla leading the way. The flooding of Tokyo was neat. And the story, as I’ve said, moves along quite nicely. I didn’t care much for the ending, but at least it was quick. This isn’t the Godzilla I grew up with, but if I had I think I would have liked it just as much.

The Omen (2006)

*. Though it did decent box office, or really very good box office for its slight budget, I’d missed this version of The Omen entirely when it came out and so went into it now not expecting much of anything. I’m sure I didn’t have my hopes up, probably figuring it was going to be just another one of the dismal twenty-first century horror resets that didn’t go anywhere (see, for example, my notes on the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and Child’s Play) .
*. The first thing that struck me was David Seltzer’s name appearing in the credits for the screenplay. Seltzer had done the screenplay for The Omen (1976) and I thought it curious he would have come back to do this after not wanting to be involved in the sequel Omen II.
*. Well, actually he wasn’t involved in this at all. The screenwriter who had been working on a new script was denied a credit by the Writers Guild because it was deemed to be too close to Seltzer’s original. Which it certainly is, both for the story and much of the dialogue, which is repeated verbatim. This, in turn, leads to a number of further reflections.
*. In the first place, why bother? This is something a number of critics wondered about at the time. The review by Peter Travers in Rolling Stone may be taken as representative: “Not since Gus Van Sant inexplicably directed a shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho has a thriller been copied with so little point or impact.”
*. I’m just as baffled at what the point was in sticking so closely to the original. On the DVD commentary there’s an exchange at the beginning where director John Moore is asked about the use of news footage of recent human catastrophes like floods, 9/11, and even the Challenger explosion as suggesting the coming of the Antichrist. I found his response very odd. “Oh yeah, that’s mostly the point here, is that the Beast, the Antichrist, will be a man-made entity, and that most of the ills that befall us are man made.” The “point of the remake,” he goes on to say “was to give it [these disasters] context.”,
*. So the heralds of Revelation, the opening of the seven seals, are all human in origin. Things like war and climate change. So why does the devil need Damien? And can the forces of faith fight rising sea waters? Or fix defective O-rings? If this was the “point of the remake” you can colour me confused.

*. Another point that I questioned with regard to sticking to the original script is that it was far from flawless in the first place. If you’re free to make changes, why not? Why not fix the character of Father Brennan, who can’t keep his act together for just the couple of minutes he needs to try and convince Thorn of what’s going on? He finally gets access to this powerful figure and he has to lead off with cries for him to drink the blood of his saviour and find Jesus?
*. OK, he’s a kook. One of the good guys, but still a kook. But here’s another point in Seltzer’s script that should have been reworked. It comes when Thorn has finally been convinced that Damien is a demonic force, responsible for his wife’s death (and indirectly the death of two of his unborn children). He’s just finished listening to all of Bugenhagen’s spiel (which he accepts as true), when . . . he suddenly develops scruples. Damien is just a child, Thorn can’t go through with it, and he even throws the daggers of Megiddo away. I didn’t think that made any sense in the original and it’s a problem they did nothing to fix here.
*. They also made no attempt to fix a stupid factual error in the original: a single line where Jennings says that the place name Megiddo is derived from Armageddon, when it’s the other way around. Talk about an easy fix! Did nobody care that this was wrong? Did nobody know?
*. Perhaps we’re just getting stupider. In the original when Thorn digs up the grave of Damien’s mother and finds the skeleton of a jackal he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to because it was assumed the audience would have followed along. Here he has to explain what it means to Jennings, and to us. It’s no longer a safe assumption that audiences will keep up or be paying attention.
*. As a final point on the question of why they would want to keep the remake so close to the original there is the fact that all of the signature scenes from thirty years earlier are just repeated here, without finding any way to improve on them. Damien’s freakout in the car going to church is just done through rapid editing. The trip to the zoo is more a trip the mall with some apes improbably in glass cages. Except for one gorilla they don’t seem too upset. Father Brennan is speared again with a falling lightning rod, the only difference being that the rod smashes through some stained glass first.
*. Then there’s the decapitation scene, which by the time it comes was about the only thing that had me still interested. I guess it’s neatly done, in a sort of Rube Goldberg-Final Destination sort of way. But still not up to the original.
*. I wouldn’t suggest it as a general rule, but still: anytime a horror movie indulges this much thunder and lightning you start to think it’s in trouble, trying to give itself any extra support it can get.
*. A good cast. I was wondering what happened to Julia Stiles. I hadn’t seen her in anything since all the Shakespeare adaptations she’d been in a few years earlier. Liev Schreiber does his best. Mia Farrow, the devil’s mother, is back as the devil’s nanny. Ha-ha. She’s good, but I’d still give the nod to Billie Whitelaw. David Thewlis is still getting hyped on the number of the beast. I wonder if they considered having him do the same routine he did in Naked. Would that have been too obvious? Pete Postlethwaite steals every scene as Father Brennan. Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick not saying much but looking more consciously evil than Harvey Stephens (who shows up here in a cameo as a reporter).
*. I wouldn’t call this movie a disaster, though at the same time I can’t think of a single thing it does better than the original, which was, in turn, only a happy bit of a trash. Well, maybe the way Miss Baylock kills Damien’s mom in the hospital. That’s properly sickening. But as far as sequels go this was, along with most of the other horror resets coming out at the same time, stillborn. Surely there’s a message here that we may not have needed any of these franchise offspring. It did, however, make a lot of money so I suppose we haven’t seen the last of this devil yet.

Team America: World Police (2004)

*. Team America: World Police is a product of the same partnership that gave us the television series South Park: director Trey Parker and writers Parker, Matt Stone, and Pam Brady. And in both cases the comic hook is the same: cartoons or puppets doing “adult” things like swearing a lot and having sex. There’s some political satire and observational humour on American culture, but that shocking incongruity is what provides the foundation.
*. I’m not a big fan of South Park, and don’t watch it except by accident, but I have seen some funny episodes. Funnier, at least, than anything in Team America: World Police. This isn’t a bad movie — the puppetry, or Supermarionation as its known as in the business — is actually quite good and the effects are well produced and fun in their obviously fake way. I especially liked the giant black panthers. But as comedy it’s crudely written and not funny at all.
*. To begin with the shock factor I mentioned, here you’ll see puppets dropping loads of bombs and f-bombs, vomiting copiously, having their heads blown into pulpy messes, and fucking in every different kind of position (in the uncut DVD version anyway), including peeing and shitting on each other. Is any of that funny? I guess it depends on how old you are or how easily you shock. I wasn’t offended by any of it, but I wasn’t laughing.

*. Then there is the satire. This aims to be “fair and balanced” by attacking both rah-rah American patriotism (the team’s theme music is “America, fuck yeah!”) and left-wing Hollywood celebrities. But I thought all of this was overplayed. I mean, I get the jokes, but how funny are they? Look at the gung-ho Americans destroying the world in order to save it! Look at the precious actors — who are all members of the Film Actors Guild. That’s F.A.G. They even spell it out for you. Get it? Again: I’m not offended by any of this. But is it funny?
*. My sense is that sending up Hollywood might have been funny but it all seems tired now, and the puppets don’t look or sound at all like their models (not that surprising, as they’re all voiced by Parker). Without their being identified I doubt I could have recognized one of them.
*. Then there is the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. An obvious comic butt with his huge glasses and silly jumpsuits, he also turns his l’s into r’s in stereotypical Asian speech. I wanted to laugh at this guy. But what good lines does he have? The song where he complains about being “ronery”?
*. So I get it. I don’t think I’m missing anything here. I think it would be hard in a film this broad to miss anything. But maybe it’s just not my thing. It’s an “adult” movie in a way that has to use the quotation marks, but it’s not for grown-ups.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

*. I understand the love for Wes Anderson. That such a young director could make movies so polished, assured, and informed by such a knowledge of the entire history of film is remarkable. There is nothing in The Royal Tenenbaums, or his previous film Rushmore (1998) for that matter, that feels out of place. On repeated viewings you will see more and more at work, at least in the visuals.
*. Having said all that, as quickly as possible, I’ll now say I’m not a fan. I like Anderson’s movies but I don’t love them. This is at least in part because they seem so consciously designed to be liked.

*. What do I mean? Well, by accident I was rewatching this movie the same week I watched Left Behind (the one starring Nicolas Cage). The two films have probably never been associated in anyone’s head, but I was struck by how similar they felt. What I said about Left Behind (and it’s an observation others made) is that it has not just the look but the emotional weight of a Hallmark Theater production. Turning to The Royal Tenenbaums just a couple of days later I was struck by how similar it was in this respect. It is polished, yes, but to a point where everything seems artificial, while carrying a weightless, feel-good message about family, love, and then through love finding redemption.
*. The Tenenbaums are a dysfunctional family, with a penchant (inherited from patriarch Royal) for flaming out. But there is no drama. Perhaps taking their lead from Bill Murray, by now an icon of deadpan, the cast take dryness to Murray-esque extremes. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a zombie, and apparently isn’t even on drugs. The Wilson brothers both seem lobotomized. Danny Glover, dressed up in a Kofi Annan uniform, bears a truly unfortunate resemblance to a racist lawn ornament, and has the same stiff impassivity. Etheline (Anjelica Huston) appears to be surprised by feeling. Only Royal (Gene Hackman) and Chas (Ben Stiller) show any humanity at all.

*. This is an ironic twist. We are used to family drama being dramatic. We revel in the bitchiness of family reunions, from The Lion in Winter to Ordinary People. Or we like to watch the fireworks in family comedies like Meet the Parents. But the Tenenbaum clan turns this on its head. They’re eccentrics, but they’re narcotized. There are no fireworks when they get together. They don’t seem to love or hate one another but instead only engage in half-hearted manipulative games.
*. What I thought most lacking was the pain. The Tenenbaum kids are supposed to be damaged, but they don’t feel like survivors of anything. They’re just zeroes. I found it interesting to read that both Hackman and Huston initially turned down their roles unless more material was written for them because they thought their characters lacked depth. I can only imagine how thin they were originally.
*. This thinness is what I find characterizes Anderson’s work. It’s what makes him so popular, and it’s what I don’t like. The Royal Tenenbaums is a very well made movie but it’s also a silly piece of fluff. I began by saying how, on repeated viewings, one can appreciate more and more in its visual texture, its art and design. At the same time, I find less and less actually going on.