Secret Pop

Jul 7, 2005

The War to End All Tom Cruise/Steven Spielberg Collaborations

Spoiler alert: This movie is no good.

I saw War of the Worlds for the second time last night. Don't think that means I liked it. I didn't. I hated it the first time I saw it, but I wondered if it might just be that seeing it in a theater in Burbank where the common folk were so audibly annoying might have slanted my take. But alas, no. Last night, I confirmed my first impression. Incontrovertibly.

It's sad that this is true, but Steven Spielberg, whom I used to consider to be fairly deft at playing at the human melodrama -- is apparently just as out of touch with the reality of human interaction as George Lucas. Beyond the admittedly very good visual effects, this movie just proves that some writers and some directors really have no idea at all how people behave or how they talk to each other or -- and this is the most unbearable part -- what children do and say. If you ask me, Dakota Fanning is what's wrong with children in film and television. I mean, maybe it isn't her fault. She's a little kid who can play an emotion and memorize a line and hit her marks. And that's all right. But if you've ever seen her interviewed, it's just the scariest thing imaginable. She spends one portion of the chat showing you that she's about to lose a baby tooth and the rest going on and on about how a-MAZ-ing it was to work with so-and-so and how BRILL-iant this such-and-such is, and all in the emphatic, cocktail-party elocution of a queeny creative type in the heyday of Truman Capote. She's not just too old for her age. I would find this kind of person insufferable as an adult, too. Seeing it in a child is just too much. Maybe Spielberg was trying to recapture the charm he found in a young Drew Barrymore or that Heather whatshername who died. He does seem to have a penchant for casting pale little girls with stringy blonde hair. But Dakota Fanning has none of the naivete of a young Drew Barrymore. And god help us if she grows up to be any worse an actress than an adult Drew Barrymore.

I was listening to Paul Feig on Fresh Air with Terry Gross last week, and I just caught the very end of his interview, when he was being asked about what shows he liked growing up, what shows influenced him. And he made such a good point about how shows like Leave It to Beaver and The Brady Bunch were good because they featured children speaking the way children actually speak. Whereas shows today constantly portray children speaking in the way that their adult writers wish perhaps they could have spoken in their own tortured childhoods. The Jonathan Taylor-Thomas syndrome, in my mind. One of the trailers I saw before my first screening of War of the Worlds was for this new remake of The Bad News Bears. And it isn't just because I love Walter Matthau or because I hate Billy Bob Thornton or because I hate Billy Bob Thornton's embarrassing hair plugs that I despise the very idea of this film. There is a clip where a girl shows the taunting boys that she can pitch, and one little four-eyes says, "I think I just entered puberty." And I just wanted to crush something in my angry fists.

One of the things that rubbed me the wrong way when I was in the Burbank theater was how, to much of America, everything is apparently a comedy these days. This happened when I went to see Revenge of the Sith, too. Now, I'll grant you that Yoda is kind of funny-looking, and maybe seeing him wielding a light saber with angry resolve is a little ridiculous, but not if you are allowing yourself to believe that he is in fact a Jedi master and that some serious shit is going down, and I'm assuming you're allowing yourself to do that, as you just paid twelve dollars to see a movie called Star Wars. And yet every time Yoda was on screen, I heard swells of laughter. The same was true in War of the Worlds. Even in cases of graphic carnage or (intended) gravitas. People kept laughing. And I kept wondering what was wrong with them. Maybe it's because of movies like Blade 3, where the seriousness and humorlessness of the Blade character is inexplicably "spruced up" by the addition of Ryan Reynolds' wise-cracking, steroid-pumped, shit-talking sidekick. The Joe Pesci in Lethal Weapon 2 syndrome, if you will. To be fair, so many of the moments of high drama in War of the Worlds are so implausible and ridiculous that it makes sense that you might laugh at them. But not for amusement's sake. But I don't think this was wry laughter. This was the same disappointing laughter I heard when Kevin James dances in the trailer for Hitch. Shame on you, America. But then, maybe it isn't America's fault. Maybe America has just seen so many of these insufferable mood-lighteners and assumes that every uncomfortable moment is intended to tickle a little bit. Maybe it's the result of generation after generation of cinematic "bad touch." Maybe we're all going to end up strippers.

Oh, I have so many issues with this movie. The first fifteen minutes? Totally unnecessary. That sandwich shuffling scene? Waste of time. Morgan Freeman's opening and closing narratives? Largely uninformative. What did those aliens envy so much? What did they want with our planet? What was the value of the blood? And if it was so valuable, why vaporize so many people instead of sucking them dry? And while we're on that topic, the annihilation methods employed by these guys were hardly the portrait of good process flow. We have droves of more effective tools for mass murder. And certainly they could look to the Nazis for some lessons on efficiency in this area. Which brings me to another point, Schindler's List was only one of the many of his own films I saw Spielberg cribbing from this time around. Also on the list were Minority Report, E.T., Poltergeist, and -- if only in the sense that Robbie looked so much like Karen Allen -- Raiders of the Lost Ark. On the list of other people's films he cribbed from are Titanic, The Abyss, and Signs. And I should further note that I wrote the following in my notebook when I was about an hour into my first viewing: "Worse than Signs." If that is even possible.

This movie is a pastiche of convenient exit strategies in scenarios that have been painted to be impossible. It is also a multiple offender of a rule I learned in improv: If you introduce something, it had better pay off. If Tom Cruise picks up a piece of freezing cold asphalt and puts it in his pocket, that has to pay off later. Did it? No. If Dakota Fanning is shown to be a claustrophobic, that has to come into play at some point. Did it? No. Even when she was in a number of cramped spaces, including a basket filled with strangers freaking out and being sucked one by one into a big red rectum. She screams for no reason many times throughout the movie. She screams. Then stops. Then screams some more. There is no halo to the panic. It is both succinct and distinct. And therefore unnatural. But when she's actually in a small, suffocating area -- utter silence.

Even the music was evocative of Schindler's List in places. Especially when you're seeing a mass exodus of sad, trudging, hope-bereft people who have lost everything and have nowhere to run. But it was in one of those scenes that I wrote in my notebook, "No one would have minded if they were only here to kill the Jews."

Lord, do I have issues with this movie. Why did that marine decide to save Tom Cruise when he was getting sucked up into the thing and not the other guy that got sucked up into it only moments earlier? How did Tom Cruise know that there would be a grenade belt in that overturned vehicle? How did the pins for the grenade get into his mouth when he was hanging onto that marine the whole time? Why did that soldier at the end provide the narrative exposition about the erratic behavior of one of the tripods before hustling Tom and Dakota along as if he didn't have time to explain everything to a pair of meaningless strangers? Why did everything stop working when the electromagnetic pulse hit -- everything except digital cameras and camcorders? Why would an adolescent boy with a huge chip on his shoulder be able to convince his father to abandon him to certain doom by quietly insisting, "I need to see this. You have to let me go?" Why did everyone suddenly want to be on that ferry when the tripods showed up? What was so much safer about being corraled on a slow-moving boat than being on the shore? How many times did Tom Cruise escape death by mere millimeters? How did he get all that man ash off his leather jacket? Was that soldier at the end really able to say "Clear!" with any conviction when that alien's gelatinous hand went limp? Is he a space doctor all of a sudden? Was that TV news crew in the van even human? Come on.

Another thing that REALLY got on my nerves was the number of times characters in the film would speak to someone who would not respond, requiring them to just say the same thing over and over again. It was almost as infuriating as watching Tom Cruise say Matt Lauer's name to him over and over again in that ridiculous interview. "Dad. Dad. Dad." "Mike. Mike. Mike." "Robbie. Robbie. Robbie." "Ray. Ray. Ray." "Get in the car. Get in the car. Get in the car." "Get out of the car. Get out of the car. Get out of the car." Are these lines actually in the screenplay? Could it have been an accidental cut-and-paste glitch?

Oh, and that scene with the tripods scouring the scurrying masses with their searchlights could just as easily have been a Moonlight Madness event at Best Buy.

Speaking of the tripods, I know it's from the book and all, but these are as lamely unwieldy as the AT-ATs in Empire. You'd think they'd have vehicles that could or something.

I am so tired of the sameness of everything that is being churned out today. The few beacons of hope on the horizon are so very few as to be lost in the gaping black maw of everything else. Batman Begins was great, for instance (although I should write about that under separate cover and explain why it solidifies my misogynistic feelings toward nearly every ingenue in the superhero/action-adventure genre). But when trying to pick something to see last night, there were just so few titles out that were not guaranteed to actually hurt. I was left nearly no other option but to see this movie again. That's an algorithm the box office trackers probably don't factor in. Come on. Rebound? I'd rather be bitten by snakes. So I ended up seeing this movie twice. And no one is sorrier for it than I am. Although I have to say there is a certain sweet vindication in knowing that my first takeaway was not wrong. To my friends whose opinions I respect and who told me this movie was badass -- especially to the one among you who saw it twice and announced that it "holds up" -- I just have to shake my head, knowing that you and I probably want different things from a film. We can still be friends. And we can still play video games together and drink booze and stuff. But I can't really allow you to bandy your film recommendations so recklessly. Let's just get high and watch movies we already know are going to be bad. It's better for the friendship.

P.S. I think I like Christian Bale better emaciated. There is something wrong with me.

Trailer Watch

Stealth. Boo. I have managed to see this trailer on the big screen at least three times now, and it never ceases to cause me to make that face. First of all, are we really meant to believe that the three top pilots in America are a white dude, a black dude, and a chick? At least Top Gun was a little more honest about this. Face it. It would be three white dudes. Three white dudes with haircuts and ego trips and a tendency towards gum-chewing. Why do we have to be so beholden to diversity in our storytelling? If this was a movie where the world's top basketball players had to stop an unmanned fighter jet that had "gone rogue," they would be three black dudes. Period. Maybe one white dude. But really, probably not. I just love the way trailers these days give you every single important beat in the story right up front. We see the plane get hit by lightning. We hear them pronounce it sentient. We see that girl's ass. The only reason to go watch this movie would be to see if Jamie Foxx and that white guy accidentally touch each other's naughty parts in the mandatory three-way scene.

Narnia. I was excited at first. But it's already all wrong. What a shame. Every book from my childhood will be plundered before the end of it all. Who's slated to make the film version of Ferdinand the Bull? Probably Michael Bay. Fuck.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This may be the worst trailer in film history. It totally makes me not want to see the movie. It's possible the movie won't be horrible (although I'm leaning in the opposite direction), but the trailer is just this halting string of close-ups of Johnny Depp where the music cuts out just in time for him to utter an unamusing one-liner. And I don't think it's playing to his strengths to have him look so much like a girl.

Bad News Bears. I already aired my laundry on this one.

King Kong. The people on the island look like those freaks in The Thirteenth Warrior. And, although I want to see this movie, again I wonder at the logic of having the trailer expose every single plot point. Maybe Hollywood is just too used to promoting remakes. It's custom now to take it for granted that the audience might not know how the story goes. If The Crying Game were being promoted today, I'm sure the trailer would show Jaye Davidson peeing standing up. Not that that scene ever occurs in the movie. And, by the way, I hope I didn't just ruin the big surprise for you.

Elizabethtown. Cameron Crowe movies are really just soundtracks at this point.

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