July 13th, 2009 by Mike Fulton

iloveyoubethcooper_bigposterI’d call out “spoiler alert” here, but frankly, if you’ve seen this movie’s trailer, you already know the plot. High school valedictorian Denis Cooverman, played by Paul Rust, breaks from the norm in his graduation speech to declare his love for Beth Cooper, played by rising star Hayden Panettiere. She’s the girl he’s sat behind in class after class for four years, and his friend has convinced him that this is his last chance to make any sort of impression on her. And while he doesn’t otherwise name any names, he’s also got words for other classmates as well. After the ceremony ends, he discovers that the object of his affection has a beefy boyfriend who isn’t exactly happy about anything, and especially not happy about the fact that Beth seems to find the whole thing kind of charming. Zany antics ensue.

The movie is directed by Chris Columbus, which is a bit of a surprise since this seems more like the sort of movie that often gets a first-time director, not a successful veteran. It’s basically a small movie that you’d normally see in the spring or fall rather than the first half of the summer. In fact, I have to wonder if maybe screenwriter (and original novel author) Larry Doyle wasn’t in consideration to direct at some early stage, but when they managed to cast Hayden Panettiere as the titular character, the expectations for this movie were raised significantly.

Discounting Hayden Panettiere, the only recognizable stars are Alan Ruck and Cynthia Stevenson as Cooverman’s parents. The casting of the former in particular seemed like a wink and a nudge to the films of the mid to late 80’s like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which co-starred Ruck, and that’s more than fitting since this movie owes more than a little bit to that heritage.

The part of Denis best friend is played by Jack Carpenter and he spends most of the movie either denying the idea raised in Cooverman’s speech that he might be gay, or else cheering on a reluctant Denis to go where the night is taking them. Beth’s entourage slash two best friends, Cammy and Treece, played by Lauren London and Lauren Storm, don’t really have much to do for most of the film except to feed straight lines or provide one-liners in response to the main characters.

The basic premise here is the plot, and the story lies not so much in how the plot develops but rather in how the characters do. There’s plenty of zany comedy action, but this is ultimately a character-driven movie. On the one side you have Denis as the shy and awkward, but not quite lost-cause nerd who spends an evening finding out that this girl he’s put up on a pedestal is in fact altogether different from what he expected.

On the other side, you have Beth, a beautiful young woman who isn’t quite sure what to make of this guy. At first she’s embarrassed, then just a little bit charmed by him. Right at the point where she might have otherwise have said goodbye, she ends up having to essentially rescue him from her cocaine-crazed beefy boyfriend. Beth is more than a little aware of the effect she has on the opposite sex, but like a lot of such young women, hasn’t quite decided what to do about it yet. Sometimes it’s useful, and sometimes it’s just a burden. She’s also painfully aware of the likelihood that her life has already peaked and that the rest of the way will all be downhill.

It’s interesting to note that we don’t really see the same sort of over the top high-school stereotypes here that we might see in other similar movies. For example, in alternate takes on this same idea, Beth Cooper would start out as a total bitch who would be furious about Cooverman’s speech. Her two friends slash henchmen would be cut from the same cloth, and together they’d all be hatching schemes to embarrass and ridicule Cooverman, rather than trying to rescue him Cooverman from her dickwad boyfriend.

Here, we take the more subtle, less-traveled route. Rather than being angry at Cooverman’s speech, Beth is a bit embarrassed and charmed despite herself. Every time you start to think you’ve pegged her, she switches directions. And while it’s not like they have a ton to do, it’s clear early on that Beth’s friends aren’t the usual clones that usually accompany the queen bee in such movies. The girls are not at all alike in personality. In fact, when you get right down to it, Denis Cooverman himself and Beth’s boyfriend Kevin are the biggest stereotypes in the movie.

Nothing here is likely to win any major awards. The acting is OK but not spectacular. In fact, if anything, the acting is a bit better than the script really deserves. It’s surprising for what is essentially a character-driven piece, but I didn’t really feel that the script had a lot of depth for the actors to work with.

Denis Cooverman is supposed to be the one who has the greater voyage of discovery here, but I found Beth Cooper to be the more interesting character. Her go-for-broke wildness is kind of premeditated rather than spontaneous, and behind it there’s a subtle self-awareness and a bit of desperation, like if she doesn’t have as much fun as she possibly can right now, it won’t be long before she’s never going to have the chance again. Maybe this was the script’s one real attempt at depth, but given how shallow the rest of it is, I have to give Hayden Panettiere the credit here for the characterization.

One surprise for me about the script was that while the story generally follows the original book, the ending is greatly simplified in the movie. The book’s ending had quite a bit more going on, and the penultimate scenes seemed exactly like what you’d expect in this sort of story. But the ultimate ending was a bit darker and more cynical, and didn’t really allow for much of a sequel. To be honest, I don’t foresee a sequel happening here, but the movie does leave the possibility open for one. On the other hand, this was probably a fairly cheap movie to make, so even modest success might be enough to spawn a sequel. Stranger things happen in Hollywood daily.

I was once again somewhat disappointed in the quality of the image at the theater. The image lacked crisp sharpness and colors were unsaturated. It just seemed kinda blah. But then again, with the exception of Star Trek on IMAX, I’ve felt that way about nearly every movie I’ve seen in the theatre since I got my current television. I guess the bottom line is that it’s just really really hard for a projected theater image to compare with a good 1080p Hi-Def television these days. As more and more people upgrade their televisions and adopt newer media like Blu-Ray, this is going to be something that the movie studios and theater chains are going to have to address.

Update For DVD/Blu-Ray Release

I just had the chance to check out the new Blu-Ray release of this movie, and prominently featured on the front of the package was a sticker proclaiming an “unreleased alternate ending!”

Since one of my minor annoyances about the movie was the way they’d changed the ending from the book, I anxiously opened the package, put in the disc, and went straight to the Special Features menu to watch the “unreleased alternate ending”. I have to say, I wasn’t really all that surprised to see that it was essentially the original ending from the book, minus the comic-strip “5-years after” epilogue. They must have filmed the original ending, decided they didn’t like it for some reason, and then filmed the one that ended up in the theatrical release.

My original speculation was that the ending was changed in order to shorten the film’s running time a bit, but on film, the original ending is actually not as long as I would have expected, and probably no more than a few minutes longer, so now I’m thinking the issue must have been something else. I’ve no idea what it might be, because I really do the “alternate” ending from the book is a better, less-abrupt ending than what I saw in the theatre. At least now we have the option of seeing it. It’s just a shame that the Blu-Ray doesn’t give you the option to seamlessly jump to the ending of your choice.

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June 30th, 2009 by Mike Fulton

One question kept occurring to me as I watched this movie. Why does the movie industry, for the most part, think the military is run by a bunch of complete morons? There are a few exceptions, but for the most part when the military shows up in a movie, you can count on them to do whatever thing is the worst possible choice for the situation.

And coming along for the ride on that scenario is the idea that government offcials are either idiots or evil villains. At best, government officials in movies might be portrayed as amoral rather than evil, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of movies I’ve seen in recent years where someone in the government was actually the good guy.

Frankly, I don’t even want to debate the question of how realistic this portrayal may or may not be. To be honest that’s besides the point. Ultimately, the real problem is that this portrayal is getting boring. It long since stopped being merely predictable; the average movie viewer can easily foresee what’s coming whenever a government official or military leader has to decide some plot point in a movie.

In The Day The Earth Stood Still, the alien Klatuu comes to Earth to decide the fate of humanity. Is anybody watching surprised when the military shoots him 5 seconds after he walks off the boat, empty-handed at that?

The basic idea in this movie is that Klatuu has come to Earth to figure out if humans are going to manage to get their act together before they completely ruin the Earth’s ecosphere. If he doesn’t think the planet will survive humanity’s influence, he’s going to remove them from the equation. Apparently there’s some sort of galactic civilization out there and they’ve banded together to ensure that viable habitable planets, which are quite rare, are not destroyed by emerging native civilizations.

I saw the original movie when I was a kid, but the main thing that has stuck with me over the years is the scene near the beginning where the spaceship has just landed and Gort has come out to defend Klatuu. So I don’t really remember if that version had anything like the same basic idea behind the alien’s motivations.

Jennifer Connelly plays a scientist who is called in by the government when they figure out that an alien spaceship is headed their way. The government is assembling a team of experts in various fields to help analyze and deal with the situation. Consequentally, she’s at the front of the line when the ship lands and Klatuu emerges.

Klatuu is played by Keanu Reeves. Basically, he’s an alien whose conciousness has been moved into a more-or-less human body for the purpose of interacting with the people of Earth. Presumably the idea here is to avoid freaking out the natives, as if the arrival of a huge spaceship in New York’s Central Park hasn’t already taken care of that.

From the moment that Klatuu emerges from his ship, the movie largely takes a turn towards the cliché. First we have the spooked soldier who fires his gun at an unarmed Klatuu after he comes out of his ship, despite orders to the contrary. Then we have the government representative who actually thinks he’s the one driving this situation and who wants to take the alien into custody and treat him like they’d just caught Osama Bin Ladin. And of course, we have the spunky scientist who rescues the alien, followed by the big chase where the government tries to get them back. That’s about as much information as you’d get from watching a trailer or TV commercial, so I’ll stop before giving anything away.

Maybe these characters and plot conventions weren’t so cliché when the first version of this movie came out in the 50’s, but they certainly are now, and modern special effects and a more environmentally aware outlook doesn’t change that. And neither does adding in references to modern scientific concepts like nanotechnology. However, if your primary concern about a movie is originality, you’re probably not watching a remake in the first place.

I do like the basic idea that the galactics’ basic motivation is to preserve the earth’s habitat, but I have some questions. First, if habitable planets are that rare, then new sentient species must be even that much more rare. Why don’t the galatics have the same protective nature towards them? If the galactics are going to protect the planet from the humans, why can’t they protect the humans from themselves as part of the bargain? Certainly they must realize that the fact of their arrival on Earth would have a huge change on the overall psychology of humanity.

Some of the other reviews I’ve seen about this movie have said things like Jennifer Connolly was “unbelievable” as a super-scientist, but since the movie never really depicts her doing anything especially scientific, I can only imagine that what they really meant was “she’s way to pretty to be smart” and all I have to say about that is, shame on you other reviewer! She does a fine job. Better, really, than the movie really deserves.

Likewise, other reviews I’ve seen have refererred to Keanu Reeves’ performance as “shallow” or “wooden” and I even saw one that said “lacks humanity”. Well the obvious response to that last is “duh”. Supposedly, after being brought into the project, Reeves worked with the screenwriters to improve the character. I don’t know if that helped, or hurt, or if they just didn’t take it far enough. I think the real issue is the character moreso than the actor. Ultimately, the character of Klatuu is like a building or fire inspector. He’s been sent here to do an inspection and write up a report. Some interaction with the natives is inevitable, but mainly he just wants to look around and take his notes without people bugging him.

The video and audio quality of the Blu-Ray disc was excellent and I would imagine that the DVD version is as good as you could expect. The “special features” were somewhat lacking, unfortunately, and if anything only served to illustrate that the filmmakers took themselves way too seriously. One of my favorite “special features” for any movie is the gag reel, a collection of outtakes and flubbed scenes. It seems like you only see these for comedic movies, and that’s just wrong. I think it should be a standard “special” feature for any movie.

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May 18th, 2009 by Mike Fulton

True Blood is HBO’s new series based on the Southern Vampire mystery series by popular author Charlaine Harris, also known as the Sookie Stackhouse novels.  The main character, Sookie, is a young woman who has the ability to read minds.  Rather than being a blessing, however, this is more of a curse, as it’s alienated most of the people who’ve found out about it over the years, and it’s made people treat her as a weirdo because of the way she’s always reacting to things that other people cannot perceive.  When the new vampire in town, Bill Compton, walks into the bar where she works one night, she discovers that she cannot read his thoughts like she can with everybody else.  This fascinates and attracts her and she becomes drawn into the world of vampires and other supernatural beings.

I had started reading the books several months before they announced the TV show, and had read all but the most recent volume when the TV show came out.

It’s an interesting conceit of TV producers that no matter how much they tell you they love a particular book (or series), they’ll still change things quite drastically when adapting them for the screen.  Of course, some amount of change is pretty much inevitable when you convert a book into an episodic format.  The pacing of the storyline gets changed… some things get removed, others get expanded, and in most cases, new content is added.  That last point is usually the main place where things go wrong.  Sometimes the new content fits in seamlessly and other times it’s just bolted on and just doesn’t work.

With True Blood, what we are getting is about half of the author’s original story mixed in with producer Alan Ball‘s notion of how to improve that story, and how to make it more suitable for television.   The main difference from the original books is how the supporting cast fits in. The books focus much more tightly on Sookie Stackhouse, but the TV show brings several characters from the background of the books into co-star status and gives them a couple of new secondary storylines to keep them busy.

In the book, Sookie didn’t really have a best friend, but apparently that’s not allowed on TV.  To fill this void, the producers have elevated the role of Tara from a brief cameo all the way to co-star status.  Tara is basically a completely new and different character from the Tara who appears in the books.  In fact, they could bring in the original Tara at some point without any conflict other than having multiple characters with the same name.

Sookie’s brother Jason is a mid-level character in the book but is also promoted to co-star status for TV.  Partway through the season, he also gains a regular girlfriend, a new character named Amy Burley.

Other characters are tweaked around a bit here and there, but for the most part remain similar to the original versions.

My guess would be that the producers are afraid to focus a TV show on a single character the way that the books do. If a show focuses on one character, and a viewer doesn’t like that character, they won’t watch the show. But making the supporting cast more prominent gives viewers more choices to find a character they will keep watching. Or at least, I guess that’s the theory.

Anna Paquin, known lately as Rogue in the X-Men movies, is Sookie.  She’s a good actress (Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Piano in 1993), but she occasionally trips over the Louisiana accent.  She was born in Canada but raised in New Zealand and normally speaks with a light Kiwi accent.

Paquin is undeniably quite attractive, but doesn’t quite fit the book’s description for the character.  The book describes Sookie as a bit taller and more buxom, while Paquin is a bit more girl-next-door.  This is significant insofar as part of the drama with her mind reading ability is the way she’s always hearing men’s thoughts when they look at her.  The fact that vampire Bill doesn’t project such thoughts is a major part of the attraction she has for him.

Plotwise, the first season of True Blood is a combination of the first book of the series with a pair of new storylines that feature the newly prominent supporting cast.  The first of these new storylines is basically “Tara’s Life” and it’s not so much a story line as a series of unfolding events that tell us all about Tara, and her mother, and her cousin, and establishes a link into Voodoo stuff.

The other new story line is Jason Stackhouse’s addiction to “V”, or vampire blood, and his relationship with fellow addict Amy Burley.  The concept of “V” was introduced in the beginning of the first book, but Jason’s addiction is new, and “V” in general never played such a major role in the storyline there.

Overall, I really liked this show, but I liked it best when they stuck to adapting the original story.  I could have done without the new storylines. They’re really just filler and do nothing to advance the main plot. In fact, I think I would have rather watched half-hour episodes that just focused on the original storyline.

Season 2 will undoubtedly follow the second book of the series, and undoubedly there will be more changes.  In particular, since the book takes place in Dallas, we can expect more fiddling around with the original story in addition to whatever new storylines are introduced for the secondary characters.

Season 1 of True Blood is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.  The season 2 debut is June 14.

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