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January 26, 2004

Pop Did, Has, Is, and Will Eat Itself
The iTunes antics continue, with each excursion stirring up old favorite tracks that I’d either forgotten or missed. For example, VAST’s romantic alternative-goth would-be single “Touched” and Pop Will Eat Itself’s “Ich Bin Ein Auslander,” which is kicking ass even as I type this.

Likewise, I’ve seen a couple of movies lately that I hadn’t seen in a while. Why isn’t important, but here’s the gist of the experiences.

True Lies
James Cameron’s creepiest film to date. The weird spousal play in this movie still makes me uncomfortable. How are we supposed to feel when Schwarzenegger’s interrogating his wife in a concrete room? Are we supposed to think the striptease he extorts from his wife is romantic? Are we to have utterly forgotten about the international terrorists with stolen nukes?

Whatever. The film is in many ways stranger today than it was back then. At the same time, it’s somehow become a reminder of a simpler time, when terrorists and hijacked nuclear warheads were funny. I guess.

Truth is, the movie’s funny and exciting, in that order. Schwarzenegger’s got better comic chops than I’ve been giving him credit for, though just remembering that brings to mind Twins and Kindergarten Cop, both of which are the sorts of comedies I can get distracted by when they surface on TNT. Of particular note in True Lies is how understated some of his material is; he gets great mileage from lethal glares and little eyebrow cues (“What can I say? I’m a spy.”). His truth serum-induced explanation of his escape plan is a great bit of spy spoofing. Tom Arnold even turns in a remarkably funny and human role as a sidekick who’s both funny and intelligent. We’re allowed to believe that he’s of value in the espionage outfit where he works and we’re allowed to side with him when Arnold’s husband-hero goes crazy for forty minutes of screen time.

That’s the real treat in True Lies, I guess. It’s got a wacky situation comedy with wacky characters and potentially horrific subject matter, a bizarre broken method of plotting with a series of disjointed action set pieces, and somehow it works out in the end. Still, King of the World Cameron demonstrates that he’s an over-budgeted, over-indulgant fanboy when he drops $100 million to make pee jokes, rack his villain in the nuts, and blow up a Florida bridge for his zany comedy picture. What a bizarre movie.

Pitch Black
Quite by chance I happened to sit down with the so-called star-making sci-fi suspense picture Pitch Black after reading about the forthcoming Riddick videogame and its big-budget brother Chronicles of Riddick, both of which debut this summer (when this sentence is scheduled to end). Suffice to say that Pitch Black is better than I remembered, and I remembered liking it rather a lot. It’s strong where it counts, with characters more interesting than the enjoyable sci-fi tropes they wear, and slips cleverly past it’s trouble spots, usually by eluding at realism rather than really worrying about it.

A strong, thrilling opening gives us effects and some set-up in a nicely realized sequence. The first act is patient and immersive, happily blending over-the-top music video cinematography with exposition and dialogue. The second act delivers the monster-related suspense we bought tickets for without pretending that we’ll be surprised when second-tier characters get the axe. Even better, it’s not so easy to predict the order in which the characters will get eaten. Finally, we get character-driven action that deals with questions brought up throughout the film, rather than just repeating punchlines or making token references to theme. Characters slowly switch from making choices based on strategy and intelligence to making gut decisions and following their instincts. Satisfying.

I see no reason, based on Pitch Black, why Chronicles of Riddick can’t be a fine sci-fi action picture. If it contains its need for an epic scale and keeps some focus on the characters, I’ll be happy. There’s a certain serial adventure quality to the Riddick character (maybe it’s seeing him chained up Frazetta-style in Pitch Black) that could handle a trilogy just fine. If they don’t reach beyond their grasp this summer.

Noise: The Crystal Method, “Name of the Game”

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