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Amy Heckerling’s Vamps Movie – What Went Wrong

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It’s easy to tell a bad movie from a good movie, but sometimes it’s interesting to look at a movie that was almost good.

Everyone knows Clueless. Few ever saw Vamps even though it reteams Alicia Silverstone with director Amy Heckerling. Vamps’ elevator pitch was probably Clueless meets Sex in the City.

The setting may be Sex in the City, but the cultural commentary is Clueless. Vamps has a lot in common stylistically with the original Buffy movie which was fun in its own way. Its gags are a lot like the gags in the original Buffy flick, goofy and self-consciously over the top with a plot that has elements of Death Becomes Her.

Vamps is very much a 90s movie even though it was released in 2012. Even its desperate contemporary references, to the Patriot Act and the iPhone, feel barely post-90s. There’s actually a screenshot of Napster at one point. In 2012.

Its version of New York City seems to come from Friends. It exists in that universe in which the city was a guilt-free playground for wacky free spirits who walked around with their own laugh tracks. But Silverstone’s Goody shares Cher’s sweet nature and helpful ways and the movie even has a lot of the same charm as Clueless.

There are good performances here, including a surprisingly understated moving one from Richard Lewis. There’s also an over the top bad one from Sigourney Weaver. The special effects are bad, but there are lovely scenes of Goody seeing flashes of the old New York City across the new one.

This is a movie with gags and meditations about age. It has plenty of funny and touching moments. So what went wrong?

Vamps takes on aging the way that Clueless took on cliques. But not nearly as well. It almost worked. Vamps on one level offers a commentary about the social cost of aging and trying to look young. And on another, it’s a vampire spoof in which a modern Van Helsing uses bureaucracy to pursue vampires.

Both ideas have a lot of promise and they lift up the movie, but they never do the really hard thing, which is come together. Instead Heckerling sharply transitions from Wallace Shawn’s Van Helsing going from being ready to stake Goody to empathizing with her past tragedies. Awkward bridges like that show their stitching.

The funniest stuff in Vamps comes from the supporting cast of vampires, from Malcolm McDowell to Justin Kirk. It comes from Wallace Shawn’s hunt for them. The least funny stuff is at the center of the movie, Alicia Silverstone and Kyrsten Ritter in pink coffins. And so Vamps isn’t a particularly funny movie when they’re on screen.

Vamps could have been a biting commentary on aging and dating in New York City, but Heckerling doesn’t let it get anywhere near biting territory. It’s not just the coffins that are pink. Heckerling avoids sharp writing and conflict and darker emotions. Instead Vamps is a PG movie dressed in more adult clothing.

That leaves Vamps not funny enough to be the Arachnophobia or Buffy (the movie, not the show) that it could have been and not sharp enough to be the dark biting social critique that it could have been.

Unlike Loser, Heckerling doesn’t even manage to convincingly show the sweet good people at the center winning against evil. There may be blood and bodies, but no real evil in Vamps. Vamps has an emptiness at the center of it that it never fills. Neither do its protagonists.

Amy Heckerling brings her own obsessions with the younger man and older woman pairing to create some embarrassing scenes. The entire movie can be seen as a vehicle for letting Krysten Ritter’s 80s girl Stacey have a baby and a younger man. It doesn’t help that Ritter could also stand in for Amy Heckerling.

Clueless talked over teens, but it also talked to them. Vamps is full of rants about cell phones and instant messaging. Alicia Silverstone plays them as sweetly as she can, but it’s hard to disguise how different they are from Cher’s cultural critiques in Clueless. Clueless didn’t hate teens. Vamps sets out to alienate an audience it dislikes.

Retooled, Vamps could have played to teens. But Heckerling didn’t want to speak to them. She was talking to an older audience. An audience that might have been in their teens when it saw Clueless, but isn’t looking to go any deeper, just older. And that might have worked too. But there are other problems.

Amy Heckerling has gotten sloppy. Not a lot, but enough that some scenes don’t flow well and the pacing is off. It’s not punishing, but it weakens the movie and kills gags that might have worked. Heckerling’s brand of comedy depends on characters. The movie is weakest when Silverstone and Ritter can’t carry it.

And it’s Krysten Ritter that’s the problem.

Ritter is a good actress, but she’s not the best choice to play an innocent and naive 80s teen. Maybe she’s the worst choice. Her best moments are darker ones. Matching her with Silverstone’s blithe Goody doesn’t work. The two actresses don’t gel well. Ritter can’t breathe feeling into bland dialogue the way Alicia Silverstone does. It’s the nastier comebacks and scenes where she shines. A smarter movie would have played that in a Single White Female way. Vamps could done that, but then it would have been forced to take away Heckerling’s happy ending in which Ritter walks away with a younger man and a baby.

Amy Heckerling sacrificed Vamps to her idea of the happy ending.

You can read Vamps as a coda to Heckerling’s career. She’s been associated with teen movies and she’s tired of it. At the end, she doesn’t want to try and keep up with teen slang or understand why they text each other instead of talking. She wants her main character to walk away 40, but looking like 20, with a baby and a man half her age.

Audiences can swallow vampires, but some fantasies are too hard to accept.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the New Dark Knight

Remember how every comic book movie was going to turn into The Dark Knight? I think it’s officially happened. Whatever you were expecting from Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot, it wasn’t super-serious lines about the world needing heroes.

Maybe this doesn’t reflect what the movie actually is. Maybe the decision was that people don’t really care about seeing ninja turtles and just want to look at Megan Fox while getting some kind of backstory. Genetically engineering turtles in a lab in order to create heroes is a really terrible idea, but at least Michael Bay isn’t doing the aliens thing anymore. That’s a step up.

TMNT is supposed to be fun though. It’s not supposed to be The Dark Knight. It’s not supposed to be desaturated shots of a hopeless New York City being blown up because the police can’t do their job and the only Batman four mutant turtles can stop the killing.

Stop Bashing Bloomberg’s Micro-Apartment Idea

Yes Bloomberg is an out-of-touch billionaire. Yes he wouldn’t showed in a bathroom the size of the apartments he’s proposing. Yes he’s a really easy target for proposing that people live in tiny apartments. But… he’s also right.

Here’s a reality. Manhattan apartments haven’t been affordable in a while. Residents are paying huge amounts of rent for one room Mayor Bloombergthat may be twice the size of the micro-apartments that Bloomberg is proposing.

Bloomberg can either try to regulate housing prices or deregulate minimum apartment sizes. Putting a price cap on the amount of monthly rent that can be charged for an apartment in Manhattan might be legal, but it would also be stupid in a bad economy with a troubled housing market. A lot of developments are already frozen and scrambling for funds.

Capping Manhattan rents at 750 per room would be a proposal that the Village Voice would love, but would leave hundreds of unfinished buildings standing around the city, it would bankrupt a lot of companies who have taken out loans based on projected returns and it would hit people who bought apartments to rent out and are suddenly dealing with a mortgage that they can never pay back.

The rents are outrageous, but trying to artificially cap them would be a serious blow to the economy, would put thousands out of work and would kill a lot of future development in Manhattan. So there would be some affordable apartments, but the only new apartments after that would be in housing projects.

So Bloomberg deregged apartment sizes. No one is being forced to live in these small apartments, but they will make it possible for people who can’t afford to live in Manhattan, but need to, to live in Manhattan. And that’s a good thing.

Mini-apartments cuts through the insane price situation by creating apartments that people can afford to live in. And I know people who would love a shot at a tiny but affordable place in Manhattan. A place that isn’t an illegal tiny apartment in Chinatown that puts residents at risk, but is completely legal, safe and inspected.

Laws limiting how small an apartment could be were there to prevent tenement crowding, but the people who want small places for less in Manhattan are mostly young and single. This won’t be a case of eight people crammed into 300 square feet. Though there will have to be oversight to make sure this doesn’t take off in Chinatown.

No one is supposed to live in these places for 30 years. They’re places you move into in your twenties while trying to make it in advertising, publishing or on Broadway.

Bloomberg boasted in a news conference that his first New York City flat was roughly 600 sq ft and cost between $120 and $140 each month. “I would have taken a smaller one, if I could possibly have found it,” he said.

Lots of others would too.

The question is will the rents actually be affordable?

Re: Cloverfield, 5 Memos for the US Military on Fighting off a Monster Invasion in a Major City

Cloverfield film posterWith Cloverfield once again some mysterious monster from some mysterious place, call it S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse mutant space bats, menaces a major American city and once again the US military finds itself completely shorthanded in dealing with the threat.

Let’s break down the positives. Rapid deployment, in Cloverfield the US military appears to be able to deploy fairly rapidly inside New York City. It’s not quite clear if we’re seeing National Guard units or not, but it’s still very rapid deployment considering that something less than under an hour seems to pass before army units are inside the city and trying to combat the situation. This is a major plus and presumably a consequence of 9/11.

The army also appears to successfully split down its tasks between trying to kill the monster and contain it with evacuating the civilian population. Plenty of movies would just show the soldiers killing everyone in their path, surprisingly to Hollywood this is not what the US military actually does in emergencies.

Meanwhile the negatives, using tanks in urban areas is a tactic that should have gone out with Grozny and those were just raggedy ass Islamic terrorists, not a giant monster. Not only do tanks block city streets and not only are many Manhattan streets too narrow to accommodate tanks, but in an emergency the sheer press of abandoned traffic would make many streets unnavigable for armored vehicles.

Tanks in a monster attack could only be useful as an artillery platform and there are better and more destructive ways to deploy artillery against a monster than that. Leave the tanks at the base.

Setting up an open base camp in view of the monster is also probably a bad idea. So is launching evacuation helicopters in sight of the attacking monster. This is all very poor strategy, especially when they’re launched without any covering fire.

Finally if you do try to take out the monster, focus less on chemical explosives and more on armor piercing weapons. Dumping chemical explosives all around makes for lots of explosions but doesn’t really kill monsters. Take a good look at harpoons instead, they’re actually designed to penetrate the thick skin of beasties.

Cloverfield movie review

Cloverfield film posterEven long before Cloverfield was released the obvious comparisons were being made to The Blair Witch Project. Like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield was built on viral promotion and its narrative depends the fiction that its shaky camera is actually documenting reality, sacrificing storytelling for the immediacy of shock created when the filter that tells us that what we are watching on the screen isn’t real is subverted. But where The Blair Witch Project was film student gimmickry, by 2008 cameras have become a ubiquitous way for millions of teens and twenty somethings to document their lives. What in the late 90’s might have been a futuristic cautionary tale, in the 00’s is just life.

If The Blair Witch Project was a haunted mansion filled with occasional spooks, Cloverfield is an all out amusement park thrill ride filled with explosions and monsters; but what both have in common is their hollowness. Both movies connect with audiences by stripping away the disconnect between what you are seeing and what you believe is happening. Like an amusement park ride it makes for a giddy experience but doesn’t leave behind anything worthwhile. There is no more point in rewatching Cloverfield than there was in rewatching The Blair Witch Project, the experience of each fulfills its purpose just once. With both movies there is no message, only the medium.

Cloverfield begins by subjecting us to 15 minutes with the movie’s characters going around New York City and a going away party for Rob and those 15 minutes are more horrifying than anything else in the movie because each character competes to be the most vapid and forgettable twenty something on the screen. Imagine the cast of Real World minus anyone interesting on screen for 15 minutes dealing with the city geting attacked and ravaged by monsters and you have a pretty good of what Cloverfield is.

Once the explosions begin and the absurdly undersized head of Lady Liberty catapults into the street, Cloverfield morphs into an unpleasant replay of 9/11 crowd scenes, more shaky camera running and panic substituting for suspense. There’s little here that hasn’t already been seen in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds but this time it’s shot in shakycam and involves whiny twenty somethings. But then Cloverfield is adept at mixing genres. The omnipresent news footage shows soldiers blowing away what look like undersized refugees from Starship Troopers while a WB quality love story goes on in the foreground and buildings topple in the background.

I Am Legend movie review

i am legend posterThere are movies that are bad from start to finish and movies that suddenly go wrong half the way or a third of the way through. But the downsizing of the movie has resulted in 90 minute movies that work fine until they’re suddenly compressed or cut off until they feel like the Sopranos series finale. That is I Am Legend’s problem.

I Am Legend is a movie with two great first acts and no third act to speak of. A 90 minute movie, I Am Legend puts 78 of those minutes to great use in a slow and methodical examination of Will Smith as Neville’s life in New York City after a cure for cancer created a virus that wiped out most of the human race and turned the remainder into monsters intent on killing and devouring the few immune survivors. As far as Neville is concerned, he is the last man on earth. Much as with Castaway there is very little dialogue here, just Neville’s daily routine and the dreadful loneliness of an abandoned, overgrown and haunted city. Indeed New York City has never looked as desolate and ominous as it does here.

In the first act, Neville is living his routine accompanied by flashbacks of the evacuation of New York City as he does his best to get his family out. In the second act someone has set a wicked trap for Neville, he is being stalked and slowly beginning to fall apart and lose his mind. And then comes the third act, the place where the movie should begin but actually ends. If you have read the Richard Matheson novel,. I Am Legend, when Neville meets a woman and child who claims be another survivor, you would assume that there is more to the story. There isn’t. The third act of I Am Legend is a clumsy mixture of bad pop culture references and an ending so trite that really isn’t even worth spoiling. If you can imagine the lowest common denominator play on I Am Legend, you’ve got it there.

I Am Legend has a solid performance from Will Smith as a man on the edge of sanity and good work from Director Liu who makes watching Smith’s routine into a revelation. I Am Legend however has no script. Most of the movie is all but dialogue free and it should run about 10 script pages. This works fine for as long as Smith is alone but for Sam, his dog, and wandering a silent deserted New York City. Once new characters are introduced, the movie completely falls apart. We have a scene of Will Smith doing a bad imitation of Shrek with the whole bit intended to position Neville as a Shrek figure. No I’m not kidding. Then there’s a 5 minute speech about Bob Marley. The new woman delivers an insane speech about being inspired by God to turn on the radio and hear his voice, that as it turns was actually meant to be taken at face value.

And finally there are the vampires. They’re not so much vampires as zombies and the virus has apparently and unaccountably given them not only funny looking faces and skin, but the ability to crawl on callings, jump three stories and smash through steel and tempered glass. They’re supposed to be nothing more than animals, yet as it turns out they track Neville and construct a rather complicated trap to catch him while mockingly using the store dummies he talks to to bait the trap and a puddle of oil to conceal it. It’s senseless, dumbed down and absurd.

Where I Am Legend the novel took a twist, I Am Legend the movie is exactly what it seems. There is no turn or twist. There is simply nothing except a violent showdown and a tearjerking ending. As it turns out, I Am Legend is more of a remake of The Omega Man, minus the downbeat ending, the political parables or any of the content. As it turns out the last man on earth is not the last man on earth. But he probably should have been.

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