Thursday, June 30, 2011

Getting acquainted with ... Elizabeth Taylor


This is the fifth in a monthly series designed to help me expand my library of older films, in the form of watching three films by a film personality I think I need to get to know better. I should ALERT you now that there may be SPOILERS.

Okay, so I'm a couple months late for the "Liz Taylor Appreciation Piece" on my blog. But that's because when she died, I would have had little to appreciate. In fact, it was reading a piece about her career that caused me to realize I hadn't seen many of her films -- that caused me to line her up as my choice for June. (Besides, I'd been getting acquainted with men for the first four months of this series, and I desperately needed a woman).

I guess you wouldn't exactly call her a prolific actress, and she quit at an age when she would have still been viable for awhile longer. But the fact remains that she was an icon, yet I had still only seen two films in which Elizabeth Taylor appeared: Cleopatra and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Both to honor her and as a legitimate pursuit of cinematic knowledge, I decided I should broaden my number of Taylor films from two to five.

The only problem is, watching three films by a movie personality and then trying to examine overarching themes in a month-end piece is a bit easier to do with a director than an actor or actress. After starting with James Cagney in February, I then proceeded to Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Alejandro Jodorowsky, each directors who had definite interests they kept returning to. I didn't realize this with Cagney, but I did with Taylor -- actors tend to play a more passive role in the process of making films, and it's not always possible to extrapolate similarities between their roles. Sometimes, three separate films are just three separate films.

Such was my experience with Taylor. But that doesn't mean I won't or can't write about her. She was, after all, an icon, undeniably talented in front of the camera, and beautiful even from when she was 12.

National Velvet (1944, Clarence Brown). Watched: Tuesday, June 14th

Which, conveniently, is where we start with Taylor. National Velvet was one of those movie titles I'd always heard, but didn't know anything about until recently. In fact, not until reading that piece after Taylor's death did I even know it was about horses.

I did know it starred Mickey Rooney in addition to Taylor, but I didn't have any idea that I would also meet a young Angela Lansbury in the movie. Her role as the older sister to Taylor's Velvet Brown is brief, but memorable for anyone who got acquainted with Lansbury much later in her career (Murder, She Wrote was about the time she came on my own radar). She seems impossibly tall in this movie.

But let's not let the erstwhile Jessica Fletcher steal the spotlight from Taylor, who truly shines. Taylor was 12 when the movie was released, meaning she was probably 11 or younger during filming. And she certainly does command the screen. As this is considered her star-making performance, it shouldn't be any great surprise that I found her captivating, especially with the benefit of hindsight. What did surprise me a little was how many of the horse-riding stunts she appeared to be doing herself. In fact, falling off a horse in this film contributed to back problems she had later in life.

The film itself is about a young girl's desire to win England's Grand National horse race with her horse, called The Pie, short for Pirate. In this instance, Hollywood doesn't do a great job making us think all these people are British, however. For one, a disconcerting number of the characters have no British accent to speak of. Isn't that the first rule about setting films in England, especially when you shoot them in California?

The greatest impression the film made on me was not Taylor, nor Rooney (who reminded me of Dana Carvey's impressions of him on Saturday Night Live), nor Lansbury, but Anne Revere, who plays Velvet's mother with a mixture of benevolence, wisdom and slyness that I won't soon forget. The characterization ran rather contrary to what I expected of a movie made in 1944, where you'd think the patriarch might receive more of the positive character traits. Instead, he's a bit of a buffoon, and Revere is grace and intelligence incarnate. Something about Revere seems so familiar to me that I have a rather hard time believe I've only seen her in a single other movie, Gentlemen's Agreement. And while I did see that movie for the first time within the past five years, it did not make a particular impression on me.

The other big takeaway from National Velvet is the climactic racing scene, which some critics have called the greatest horse racing scene ever captured on film, and I'd be hard-pressed to disagree. Especially for the time in which it was shot, with its significant technical limitations, the sequence is crackling with tension and life. It also seamlessly incorporates a number of wipeouts that seem like they should have injured either the horse or the rider, but presumably did not. No, it's not Taylor -- whose Velvet disguises herself as a man in order to ride The Pie in the race -- on the horse during these sequences, but the close-ups with her in them are also executed unobtrusively. With its grand scale and complicated staging, this sequence had to have influenced the chariot races in Ben-Hur a full 15 years later.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958, Richard Brooks). Watched: Thursday, June 16th

Fourteen years later brings us to our next Taylor movie, by which point she has matured into a full-fledged ingenue. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was of course also familiar to me, both as a movie and as a Tennessee Williams play, but I'd gotten to this point in my life without seeing any version of it. Time to change that.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof disappointed me a bit out of the gate, for a very simple reason: the title makes its way into the dialogue not ten minutes into the movie. I admit, from having seen clips of the film, that I knew the words "cat on a hot tin roof" were spoken by Taylor in the dialogue -- they would almost have to be, wouldn't they? But I always assumed they would come during some climactic part of the narrative, when we'd sat with the characters for the majority of the play, and the simile (she says she feels like a cat on a hot tin roof, so it's a simile, not a metaphor) would have this kind of cathartic impact on us, make us understand the character in a way we hadn't previously. Coming so soon in the story, there's no way it can have that effect, and I couldn't help but be disheartened by that. Williams should have chosen a line in the third act for the name of his play.

However, I did soon get into the story and the characters, which involve a drunken ex-athlete (Paul Newman), his possibly unfaithful wife (Taylor), his obnoxious brother (Jack Carson) and sister-in-law (Madeleine Sherwood) who continually churn out babies, his "Big Momma" (Judith Anderson) and his "Big Daddy" (Burl Ives), who may or may not be dying of cancer. This big dysfunctional bunch meets in the psychologically close confines of a sprawling Mississippi mansion, where they yell at each other over perceived and real slights over the course of 107 minutes.

That's an oversimplification, and is not actually meant to be a slight to this film. More, I mean it to be that I was surprised at the level of real, visceral anger and barely contained violence that was present in this film. Not that 1958 was such a genteel time for the movies, just that I found Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to be more sexually frank than I was expecting, and more scandalous as well. I guess I have this idea that a Williams play -- since they all seem to deal in some way or another with scandals and betrayals among families in the steamy south -- would be safe for the stage, but might need to be toned down a bit for the movies. The consistent honesty of emotion, the brutal refusal to pull punches (emotionally) but nearly come to blows (physically) ... it left me feeling I was witnessing a truly modern entity, when I might have been inclined to consider the 1950s a time when the movies were just trying to make us happy. (Like I say, this is a vast oversimplification of that era, but I have to be honest when I tell you what impressions I may have carried into the viewing experience.)

One thing I will say is that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof does not serve particularly well as a showcase for Taylor in a month devoted to examining her films. Although she is probably the name most associated with this movie -- she's the centerpiece on the poster -- she is only the third most important character, as Williams' play is really a showdown between Brick Pollitt (Newman) and his Big Daddy (Ives). Taylor's Maggie actually disappears for stretches of the film, as much as one can disappear while still in the same house as the rest of the characters. It's Newman's first really famous film in a movie career that began four years earlier, and he sure announces himself as a heavyweight, surly and quick-tempered and oozing magnetism. Meanwhile, the actual heavyweight, Ives, is an actor I don't think I've ever seen outside of possibly his most famous role in a considerably more benign context -- he of course voices the snowman narrator in the Rankin-Bass TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Having been fully aware of Newman's dramatic capabilities, I was therefore considerably more surprised to see just how much Ives can bring it. He's a gargantuan presence who lives up terrifically to the name Big Daddy and the role of the rich paterfamilias who's full of contempt. The one-on-one scenes between these two actors, which make up the bulk of the film's most memorable moments, are scintillating tutorials on acting.

When she is on screen, which is probably more than I'm giving her credit for, Taylor is certainly a captivating presence as well. I really noted how director Richard Brooks made use of her sexuality, as he lingers on a scene of her removing her stockings early on, bringing her status as a budding sex symbol to the fore. National Velvet didn't require much range from the actress, since she was just an adolescent, but Roof demonstrates the chops we'd see in future performances in which she really dominates, such as Virgina Woolf.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also made me really think about the contrasting narrative possibilities of a play and a movie. Because most plays are limited by the logistics of set design, they involve a lot of talking about events that may have happened elsewhere, rather than showing them. This film in particular seems to be a great example of that, as the event against which most of the characters are defining themselves -- the suicide of Brick's friend Skipper -- is never dramatized, occurring off-screen at an earlier time. If Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had been conceived as a screenplay rather than a play, it's very likely that Skipper would have been played by an actor and there would have been some kind of flashback to the fateful night in which various characters think they made some crucial error that led to him killing himself. Instead, the event is discussed in the dialogue only. Without being much of a Williams scholar myself, I think this might be a common element in his other plays: conflicts deriving from events that have to be told to the audience, rather than shown. While that runs contrary to the main guiding principles of cinema, I found it to be quaint in a way I enjoyed. With only one shooting location for this film, it's stripped of distractions and can focus only on the acting and on the depth of the characters' emotions. Which are two pretty damn good reasons why we go to the movies.

The Taming of the Shrew (1967, Franco Zeffirelli). Watched: Tuesday, June 28th.

The Taming of the Shrew was not my first choice for my third Taylor film. In fact, it was not even my second choice. But Netflix was being a fickle mistress, perhaps in part because other people were also watching Taylor's films in the wake of her death.

My first choice had actually been Butterfield 8, for which Taylor won the first of her two Oscars, only two years after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. However, Netflix listed this film as having a "Very Long Wait." Not a short wait or a long wait, but a "very long wait," meaning way past the end of June. So I shifted my attentions to 1951's A Place in the Sun, which, to remain in chronological order, I would have watched before Roof. Frustratingly, the same length wait was listed for this film as well. I knew of Shrew as Shakespeare's classic more than I knew of it as an Elizabeth Taylor classic, but opted for it as the best of the remaining options I hadn't seen. Besides, I'd never seen Shrew at all, and as a lover of Shakespeare, I felt like that was something I needed to correct.

(Only after Shrew was already on its way did I see the "Very Long Wait" notation disappear from next to Butterfield 8. Shucks. Then again, looking today, I see that it's back, so maybe I only imagined that it disappeared in the first place. Also, I just now noticed she was in Giant. Seeing that would have also allowed me to see the only James Dean movie I haven't seen.)

Anyway, maybe there was a reason I hadn't seen any dramatic performance of The Taming of the Shrew before now. I have always considered myself a lover of Shakespeare, and took a class devoted entirely to his tragedies in college. However, I have always disliked his comedies. It all started when I saw A Midsummer Night's Dream and thought it was ridiculously frivolous. My opinion didn't improve with Much Ado About Nothing, although I find that title incredibly accurate. If I had to choose one Shakespearean comedy as my reluctant favorite, it would probably be Twelfth Night. But I try to avoid them in general.

The Taming of the Shrew reminded me why. Given how sober and somber his tragedies are, I find it endlessly frustrating how much Shakespeare showed himself to be the polar opposite in his comedies, populating them with loud, boorish, drunken fools. In fact, it seems that each comedy has at least one and usually several characters whose role is, literally, The Fool, whether it's Puck in Midsummer or Feste in Twelfth Night. I'm sure there's one in Much Ado About Nothing, but I've only seen that once (as opposed to at least twice for the others), so the characters don't leap immediately to mind.

I found almost everyone to be the fool in Shrew, starting with Richard Burton as Petruchio and continuing on to almost everyone he comes into contact with -- most problematically, Taylor's Katharina. But my first impression of the film was the following: "Hey, this is the plot from 10 Things I Hate About You!" I'm kidding of course, as 10 Things is a modern-day update of Shrew, a fact I knew at the time I saw it. In the intervening decade, I'd forgotten which play 10 Things was updating. But I actually think I might have liked 10 Things better than this film/play -- and I didn't really like it very much at all.

The reason is simple: 10 Things is a battle of the sexes fought with equivalent artillery on both sides, as a movie made with modern gender politics in mind must be. Shrew is not. In fact, Shrew is unforgivably misogynistic. I was aghast at how few times Katharina scores against Petruchio. She's a one-dimensional harpie who is tamed, as the title promises, but a lot more quickly than I imagined she would be. She's subjected to numerous humiliations, most notably when her horse falls into a puddle and Petruchio leaves her to walk back to his castle, some number of miles, through the snow. He then denies her food, drink and warmth, which she direly needs. Through this process she turns into a doting wife who does everything her husband tells her. The end.

Really, it's almost that bad.

I couldn't believe it. I was in shock. I know that Shakespeare's plays are often considered to be sexist in one way or another, but usually, they make up for it with astute observations about the human condition or brilliant turns of phrase that have become some of the classic lines in English literature. Not so here. The Taming of the Shrew has the usual farcical mistaken identity elements that I hate in most of Shakespeare's comedies, which occasionally are clever despite their trying frivolity. But they aren't particularly clever here, and the fault is compounded by a significant lack of smart observations and brilliant language. In fact, The Taming of the Shrew may now be my least favorite of Shakespeare's plays.

I also found it oddly out of balance. As you know if you saw 10 Things I Hate About You, the crux of this play is that a father won't allow his younger daughter Bianca, a beauty who is sought by many suitors, to marry until his older daughter, the shrew, is married off first. This leads to considerable scheming and many of the mistaken identity stuff alluded to above. But I thought I remember the Bianca plot in 10 Things being only slightly less important than the Petruchio-Katharina plot. In the actual version of the play, it's frequently an afterthought, with most of the time being frittered away on the gross dynamics of the relationship between the reprehensible lout and his shrew. (Petruchio actually seems much more shrewish than Katharina -- her main fault seems to be that she likes to throw temper tantrums.) Not only that, but the problem of marrying her off is resolved fairly early in the narrative, leaving a lot more time for the taming process, during which the play becomes unforgivably sexist. The coup de grace is when Katharina ends the play with a speech -- a genuine speech, not a ruse with hidden agenda -- in which she extols the virtues of obedience to one's husband, whom she sees as her lord. Has Petruchio earned this? I think not.

Okay, I don't want to say too much more about this movie/play. However, I will finish with a couple things:

1) I was interested to see that Franco Zeffirelli was the director. Zeffirelli also directed the Mel Gibson Hamlet from 1990, and probably the most famous screen version of Romeo and Juliet (which I haven't seen) from 1968. He was probably cinema's most regular Shakespeare interpreter before Kenneth Branagh came along, so I was interested to see his work in Shrew. I found it generally undistinguished and very broad, although of course that is also dictated by the material.

2) Taylor herself. Thought she deserved a mention. She's pretty feisty at times and is certainly very watchable. She's also pretty sexy as she is required to show plenty of cleavage here and there. However, I found myself thinking that she was already starting to seem a bit matronly in this movie, even in her still-young mid-thirties. Perhaps that's just a relative observation based on seeing her on screen this month in films where she was significantly younger, but it took me by surprise.

3) I read after the fact that Burton and Taylor shot this film when their marriage was already on the rocks, rather publicly. In retrospect, it's interesting to see how that adds extra fire to their on-screen conflict. However, the film may be more interesting as an insight into their personal lives than it is as a work of art in its own right.

Okay, for not thinking I had very much to say about Elizabeth Taylor, I ended up writing quite a lot about these three films.

Next month: Back to directors, and back to films with a very definite theme connecting them.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A loose interpretation of Wednesday


I got an email yesterday from movietickets.com telling me to "be among the first to be transformed."

(I may actually be transformed, but I refuse to be "among the first.")

The email was to tell me that "midnight comes early" at AMC theaters, which are showing Transformers: Dark of the Moon tonight at 9 p.m.

It's become common for theaters to show midnight showings of new releases, even the ones that aren't that big a deal. In fact, I remember when the last Twilight movie came out, there were showings at some theaters starting every five minutes from midnight to 1 a.m. After that I think they did the decent thing and told everyone else to wait until the matinee showing later that afternoon. Though it's not unprecedented for movies to screen throughout the night, which is I think what happened when The Phantom Menace came out 12 years ago.

But the one governing rule used to be that you at least had to wait until the clock struck midnight to start showing the movie, so it was technically the correct release date. Well, not anymore. AMC theaters -- at least in Los Angeles but probably elsewhere -- is getting a three-hour head start on the movie's official June 29th release date. Anticipating the huge rush of fanboys who care a huge amount about the scintillating mythology of Michael Bay's mechanical monstrosities? (Note the sarcasm.)

The whole thing reminds me a little bit of the increasingly earlier opening times for retail stores on Black Friday. Back in the day, businesses trying to sell Christmas presents on the day after Thanksgiving used to wow us by opening their doors at 7 a.m., a good two hours before they normally would. Then it became 6 a.m. Then 5 a.m. Then 4 a.m. And then at that point they may have just skipped the really wee hours and jumped all the way back to midnight.

The Wednesday release date is already a head start on Friday, and the midnight show is already a head start on the Wednesday matinee. Now a 9 p.m. show? For Transformers 4, someone will have to push the envelope further and start the show at 8 p.m. (Though it occurs to me that perhaps the 9 p.m. time was chosen because it's technically midnight on the East Coast, though that logic is flimsy at best.) The really funny thing is that the June 29th release date itself seems to be a recent phenomenon, as I couldn't find a single poster on google images that displayed the June 29th release date. The one here, and all others, listed it as July 1st.

Sigh ... yeah, I might be seeing this movie. In the theater. In IMAX. I know, I know.

A friend of mine, with whom I saw Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (also in IMAX), recently treated me to a night at the Hollywood Bowl. My friends and I don't usually treat each other to such extravagant outings, but this was an exception -- when he invited me, I told him I had the interest in going to Star Wars in Concert, but not the money. I thought that would be the end of the discussion, but he called my bluff and offered to pay for my ticket. So I accepted, thinking I'd pay him for at least half of it. When he refused my money, telling me instead I could treat the next time we went to the movies, I hatched the plan to see the third Transformers with him in IMAX -- IMAX being closer in price (if only by a few bucks) to the Hollywood Bowl ticket than a regular movie.

At a recent birthday drinks, however, he hedged, negating that part of him that didn't care about the mass hatred of Michael Bay and just wanted to witness a spectacle. So we may see something different. (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, perhaps.)

You'd think I'd breathe a sigh of relief, that I didn't have to sit through the third Michael Bay suckfest in the theater, but what can I say. They've done a pretty good job with this trailer, and I was secretly happy to have an excuse to see this movie based on the obligation to repay my friend's favor -- which saved me the embarrassment of having to actually choose to see the movie of my own free will.

We'll see what happens. At least I know that I will not be among the first, and certainly not on the day before the movie is actually released.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Super 7 2/3


We parents, we just can't catch a break.

Last night was the first time my wife and I went to the movies together since we saw The Town in October, and it still got screwed up.

I say "it got screwed up" rather than "I screwed it up" because I swear I saw the time as 7:30 for our showing of Super 8 at the theater at the Howard Hughes Center. I swear.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

My dad and his wife are in town to see their grandson, and we knew that would be an opportunity to get out to the movies. In fact, it was during their visit last year that we went to see The Town. Other family members have visited in the meantime, but trips to the theater for my wife and I have not transpired. Maybe we didn't force them, or maybe we just didn't think the particular family members who were visiting would want to selflessly babysit while we took in a major motion picture.

But my dad and his wife specifically expressed an interest in being as helpful as they could be, so we had no qualms sticking them with a sleeping baby (who didn't stir once) last night as we went to Super 8. Besides, they were looking forward to watching our DVD of The Lives of Others -- which they ended up loving.

So we left the house a little after 6:30 for a 7:30 movie. The theater is about an eight-minute drive from our house, but it has a parking structure, so that takes a couple extra minutes. Then it's a couple minutes to walk up to the ticket counter. We were going to buy our tickets first, then partake in one of the many eateries in the Howard Hughes Center for our dinner.

Only when we got in line for the tickets, we saw that despite playing on three screens, none of the showings of Super 8 was starting at 7:30 as expected. There was one that had started about 15 minutes earlier, and one starting at 8:30. The only one we could make was at 7, and on IMAX, meaning a couple extra bucks per ticket.

Starting ten minutes from now.

I couldn't believe it. I remembered thinking that the 7:30 show was at this theater. I knew I'd been right. I even started to go on my blackberry to check, to see if I got it confused with another theater, before realizing that this would be an extremely poor use of time in our current predicament. Either I'd been wrong or they'd changed the times, but either way, we were stuck with the situation we were facing.

Well, there went dinner. Or did it? My wife was starving, having had to deal with my parents all day while I was at work and never having gotten her snack. The options were either to get our dinner at the theater snack bar, or go to a different movie. (I noted that Midnight in Paris was playing at 7:30, and momentarily thought of suggesting it, given that I'd made one failed attempt to see it already and a second attempt that I aborted before it even got to that point.)

But Super 8 had us both pumped, so we made the hasty decision to buy the IMAX tickets and live with what was at the concession stand. We knew they sold personal pizzas at this theater, and even if they were not great personal pizzas, they met the necessary criteria to qualify as dinner.

Except they didn't sell personal pizzas, not anymore. One of several recent improvements at this theater was apparently to improve the pizzas out of existence. Now the only thing that even fit in a food group you would consider for dinner was a hot dog. I eat hot dogs at the ballpark, but not at the theater -- my wife never eats them.

Now it was 6:54, and suddenly we were heading back up the escalator to get slices of pizza at the pizza place across the way. This had disaster written all over it. My heart sank as the $17.25 IMAX tickets weighed heavily in my pocket.

What followed was a master class in food-gathering efficiency. Despite a gaggle of kids and two confused-looking mothers ahead of us in line at the pizza place, we were up pretty quickly and getting our slices cooked in the oven. I was imagining myself wolfing down two slices of pizza in about a minute-and-a-half -- I might not enjoy it but I could do it -- but I didn't see my wife doing the same. But when the woman behind the counter learned of our movie predicament, she asked if we wanted them wrapped in aluminum foil. Suddenly a plan sprouted to smuggle our pizza into the movie theater in my wife's purse. She has a decent-sized purse, but it still sounded a little far-fetched to me. I thought it would be better for me to remove my outer shirt as if I'd grown tired of wearing it, and use that to shroud the slices. But before I could properly voice my idea, I was being assigned to go get us drinks at the movie theater, where she would meet me.

I half-expected not to see her down there, that she might get turned away by the ticket taker either for obvious pizza smuggling or for emanating the smells of pepperoni and cheese, but in no time she was there by my side. We each filled up our drinks at the self-serve stations they'd set up (another recent improvement). It was only 7:03 or 7:04, miraculously, so I even doubled back to pick up a box of candy for us to enjoy later on. Thank goodness the theater was dead on this Thursday night in late June.

So we got to the IMAX theater no later than 7:05 by my watch -- a watch that is a minute or so fast, if anything. I expected we'd be in the second trailer, maybe third at worst.

Nope. Super 8 was already underway.

And this is why I'm calling this post "Super 7 2/3" -- we missed at least a little bit of it. I need you, dear reader who's seen Super 8, to tell me what we missed. Of course, to do that, I need to tell you where we came in. As we filed to our seats, Joe (Joel Courtney) and Charles (Riley Griffiths) are in Charles' room, talking about shooting Charles' movie. Joe has a Super 8 magazine in his hand.

So did we miss a cool opening set piece? A great title sequence? A funny joke? Or just a really great piece of nostalgia?

I hate missing the start of a movie, so please help me out here.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW

As for the 7 2/3 we did see, I was absolutely loving it for about 6 2/3 or 7 of that. It was at this point that I realized a lot of things that had been set up were not going to pay off in satisfying ways.

The biggest problem with the film, as I see it, is this: The fact that they were making a super 8 movie at the time of the train crash -- and captured actual footage of the alien -- ends up having almost no bearing on the plot. My wife and I discussed afterward that if you're going to call the movie Super 8 and devote so much time to the making of their film, the film should really relate to the monster in a tangible way. Like, they had to show their evidence of the monster to get someone to believe them, or their footage made them a special target of the military. In fact, they only become a special target of the military because they break into the science teacher's trailer and start looking at his old films. And yeah, that one kid (the least developed one) does show the deputy (Kyle Chandler) their footage in order to convince him, but the deputy's own belief in the monster ultimately has nothing to do with how the story plays out.

And this was just one payoff that didn't happen. How about the relationship between the deputy and the drunken no-good (Ron Eldard) who was supposed to be working the shift at the factory where the deputy's wife was killed? They team up to go find their children, but then they just drive up and there they are. They don't have to do anything, they don't have to trust each other during a key moment that requires a leap of faith. And what about the rules of the alien himself? We know he's an empathic being, because the science teacher has communed with him and learned that he just wants to rebuild his ship and go home. So why does he keep wreaking havoc and killing purportedly innocent people after he's been freed? Why does he kill some people straight away and leave others to eat later? And why does one quick interaction with Joe at the end convince him that he's able to complete the rebuilding of his ship at that very moment and lift off toward the heavens?

So even if only 6 1/3 or 6 2/3 of Super 8 were really super, those super parts were pretty super. I loved the period look and details, which certainly did remind me of Goonies first and foremost, E.T. in a more tangential way (then again, I've seen Goonies many more times than E.T.). The camerawork was all exceptional, moving in ways that really brought you into the action. The kids looked terrific, just like kids out of 1980, not like the 21st century pre-teens that they actually are. I also thought the town had a real dynamism, with its hilly landscape that really enveloped you in the time and place.

The acting was generally good as well, but I want to specifically praise Elle Fanning, whose work impresses me more and more all the time. Particularly in that scene where she's watching the old footage of Joe's mother, and tells him her father was too drunk to go to his shift that day, she reminded me of how much better she is than her (currently) more famous sister Dakota. Even as blown away as we all were by Dakota Fanning when she first came on the scene, I now see Dakota's work as more of a "performance," while Elle seems to really be acting -- which is to say that you don't see her acting. She just acts, and she always knocks it out of the park. In fact, her disappearance for a large portion of the latter half of the movie was part of the 1 2/3 that disappointed me. (If you are still following what I'm trying to do with my little number gimmick.)

A definite thumbs up for me -- a fairly enthusiastic thumbs up. But I can't discount the narrative missteps I've listed above, which only scratch the surface -- there are plenty of other things I could pick at. So in summation: acting, effects, feel, nostalgia -- all brilliant. Story? Needs some work on the structure side.

And in case you forgot the question I asked halfway through this post, let me know what we missed in those first one to three minutes when we were filling up our drinks. Maybe that filled all the holes I've mentioned ... probably not, but maybe.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Results you have to live with


In their 2005 book Freakonomics, journalist Stephen J. Dubner and economist Steven Levitt are all about results you might not like, but have to live with, because the statistics support them. Like the theory that the crime rate fell in the early 1990s as a direct result of the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973. See, unwanted and subsequently aborted babies can't commit no crimes. Controversial but probably true.

It's kind of funny, then, that the documentary version of their book ended up containing plenty of results they might not have liked, but had to live with.

As part of the resumption of our Documentary Mondays summer series, which took a one-week hiatus while we were out of town (with possible future hiatuses for a family visit this Monday and 4th of July the following Monday), my wife and I watched the 2010 documentary Freakonomics starting on Monday night and spilling over into Tuesday. It was supposed to be my turn and we were supposed to watch Davis Guggenheim's It Might Get Loud (also from 2010), but Netflix pulled a fast one on us and rescinded its instant availability. We probably have a good 25 other docs in our instant queue, and this one took its place.

The film is supposed to build on the theories discussed in the 2005 book of the same name, which I did not read, but which supposedly includes a number of theories that combine economics and popular culture to try to force its readers into looking outside conventional theories to explain societal trends.

The problem with a movie version is that the topic is so deep and so far-reaching, it becomes a nearly hopeless task to try to encompass it all in a single film -- an 86-minute film at that.

Especially when the film is comprised of essentially four short films directed by four prominent documentarians (or teams of documentarians) with four distinct styles, and little accountability.

Yep, that's right, once these documentarians had been commissioned to make their segment of the overall film, it doesn't seem like there was much of a guiding hand that forced them into sticking to a clear, cohesive message, a message that also boiled Freakonomics down to its essence. So, assuming that Hubner and Levitt were in some way responsible for commissioning the film, they were pretty much forced to live with whatever these documentarians gave them.

And while the film is fairly entertaining throughout, it's so uneven that I had to record it as a thumbs down in my official records. That's pretty controversial in itself, since almost every documentary I've ever seen has received at least a marginal thumbs up from me.

The first segment was directed by agent provocateur Morgan Spurlock, famous for Super Size Me and other experiments in documentary filmmaking that have basically served to build the Morgan Spurlock brand. It's got the already dangerous title "A Roshanda by Any Other Name," and it goes on to explore how and whether the name you're given by your parents affects your prospects for success in life.

On the surface this is an interesting idea, but it's handled with a significant lack of racial or socioeconomic sensitivity. For example, Spurlock gets a number of African Americans to list to the camera a bunch of "made up" African American names that we are supposed to find vaguely ridiculous, the result of adhering too closely to African heritage and certain types of naming conventions that are "uniquely black." (In fact, there's a whole bit on the number of girls named "Unique," and the number of possible spellings of that name.) This gets the piece off to a really icky start. It's as if Spurlock is saying "See, the black people are the ones who are making fun of the names, so it's not racist." Uh huh. Then what about that white guy who says that his friend's drug dealer is named Tyrone, and he assumes the dealer is black?

With only limited basis in either science or economic theory, Spurlock's contribution to Freakonomics seems to exist solely for the purpose of belittling people's reasons for choosing the names they give their children. And it's not only black people he's making fun of. There's a bit where he talks about the five most popular girls' names among upper middle-class white girls and lower middle-class white girls. The fact that two of those names overlap (Ashley, Jessica) leads Spurlock to conclude that that "the Walmart set" is trying to "steal" the names that sound aristocratic, depriving them of their value. (There's actually a line that says, paraphrasing: "Yesterday's Ashley is today's Trashley." Huh?). Then there's his whole bit about how girls named Brandi and Bobbi are more likely to become strippers. Um, what? First off, strippers named Brandi are usually not actually named Brandi. That's their stripper name. Secondly, is Bobbi supposed to be a common stripper name? Not according to any stripper naming conventions I'm aware of. In fact, you'd think it would be pretty unlikely since it sounds like the male name Bobby, and might tap into the customers' dormant (or not so dormant) homophobia.

Without having read the book, it's unclear to me how much of this is Spurlock and how much of it is Dubner and Levitt. But since I have developed a negative bias toward Spurlock in recent years, I'm going to blame him -- if not for the theories, then at least for the carelessness and dismissiveness he displays toward almost everyone he discusses. There's one sort of interesting observation about how a job candidate named Tyrone was getting fewer calls from prospective employers than a job candidate named Greg, despite them having the exact same resume. But do I really need an economist to point this out to me, or is it something I can just assume based on my understanding of centuries worth of oppression of blacks?

While this first piece was riddled with problems, at least I saw how it was trying to relate to the overall theme (such as it is). Not so with the second piece, directed by documentary heavyweight Alex Gibney (Enron, Taxi to the Dark Side).

Gibney's piece is about cheating in sumo wrestling. It's ostensibly about how in the extremely insular world of sumo, there's a secret system of favor-doing that essentially causes some wrestlers to throw matches when it will benefit their opponent to win more than it will hurt them to lose. I suppose this can be tied to some kind of economic theory, but Gibney does not do this ostensibly. (Though I have to say, this is the segment of the film where I had to bail on Monday night -- a beer and child-related sleep deprivation sent me to bed prematurely, and I may not have been fully grasping the film in the few minutes before I went to bed, especially since it contained subtitles for the Japanese interview subjects.)

Instead, Gibney gets into talking about a case where a couple whistle-blowers were murdered for trying to shed light on the cheating scandals that plagued the sport. Details about this case are delved, and there's a pretty extensive discussion of how the principles of sumo dovetail with the principles of Shintoism. What any of this has to do with economic theory becomes quickly clouded.

In the end, Gibney made a short film about match rigging in sumo, probably because that aligned more with his own interests. A shame, because as a standalone film it would be pretty interesting. As is, it just made me scratch my head more about where Freakonomics the movie was going.

It took Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) to get the film going in a direction I could recognize. Jarecki was left with the juicy bit I teased in my opening paragraph -- namely, the idea that at least 50% of the drop in crime in the early 1990s could be blamed on criminals who were legally aborted before they had a chance to become criminals. And although that idea is absolute heresy to pro-lifers -- abortion as a crime-fighting tactic? -- it makes sense as described. And Jarecki's segment goes on to satisfactorily prove why Roe v. Wade may have played a larger role in the reduction of crime than a change in police tactics, an increase in the number of jailed criminals (meaning they aren't on the streets to do the crimes) and tighter gun laws.

Jarecki smartly uses footage from It's a Wonderful Life as a counterpoint to his ideas, since the theory is the same -- how life would be if you had never been born (in that case, George Bailey; in this case, a future carjacker). There's a possible racial element to this segment as well, but Jarecki skirts it in part by using a black narrator -- in fact, a narrator who also sounds very old. Something about this choice works, as the cracking ancient voice lends a certain gravitas to all the facts and figures being discussed. Among those is the idea that the advent of abortion did not prevent birth, but delayed it. A woman who was young and in dire circumstances would have previously had a child who grew up in a potentially poor and unloving home. By aborting and then delaying until the conditions were right, the mother would bring a child into the world who's better loved and better cared for. Meaning a child from the same parent might have a better chance of avoiding a life of crime.

This segment really worked for me, so I don't have much more to say about it.

The last segment was by the directors of Jesus Camp, whom I didn't remember by name: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Having examined the motivations of teenagers (and younger) in Jesus Camp -- if you haven't seen it, the weeping 10-year-old "true believers" in that film are downright horrifying -- they were the perfect directors to take on the segment of the film dealing with incentivizing teenagers to do better in school.

Their segment essentially follows the program implemented by the University of Chicago in a local Chicago high school, to pay students $50 per grade period if they kept their grades as C's or higher, and make the qualified students eligible for a lottery with a $500 payout. The goal was to give the kids incentive to study, obviously -- and remove the incentive of teachers to cheat on students' behalves to raise their standard test scores, which has positive consequences for the school.

Ewing and Grady follow two kids -- a white teen named Kevin and a black teen named Urail (who, my wife and I noted, would have made a good participant in Spurlock's segment about names). Both have mostly failing grades, and both want to improve in order to get paid. In the end (spoiler alert), Urail gets better and Kevin gets worse. A nice counterpoint to some of the unfortunate racial politics earlier in the film.

I found this segment pretty interesting, but ultimately did not really know what it was supposed to show us. There's an economic theory at work here, for sure, but the results are positive for one test subject and negative -- not just neutral, but actually negative -- for the other. What are we supposed to take from that? More than anything, the segment seemed to function as an opportunity to show the bold application of economic theory -- not whether it actually worked or not.

Okay, that's a bit more detail about Freakonomics than I intended to get into. See what happens when you piss me off, Morgan Spurlock?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sound the alarm


At a certain point, a phenomenon becomes so widespread that you just have to comment on it on your blog.

When I saw the trailer for Rise of the Planet of the Apes yesterday, that moment arrived.

The phenomenon I'm speaking of is the use of the "biohazard alarm" in trailers for action/effects blockbusters. And there's a reason it's getting used all the time -- it's damn effective. If you weren't already psyched for the movie, the biohazard alarm triggers an immediate sense of the movie's prospective awesomeness.

If you don't know what I'm talking about when I refer to the "biohazard alarm," watch this trailer and you should immediately get it. You won't need me to tell you this, but the sound I'm talking about kicks in at 1:15.



Where else have I seen it? How about here:



Or here:



And here as well. (It's at 1:02, since this one is a bit longer.)



And I'm sure there were others. These were just the ones I could think of off the top of my head. I think I also heard it in ... yep, I think I heard it in the Something Borrowed trailer as well. The biohazard alarm is officially everywhere.

Ordinarily, my stance on any technique that gets used repeatedly in cinema would be to chastise it, to accuse those people who repeatedly use it of laziness. But not here. See, the biohazard alarm never wears out its welcome. It never ceases to be chilling. As far as noises are concerned, it's the be-all, end-all indication that shit is already beyond fucked up.

And because it's not exactly the same biohazard alarm every time, it's newly arresting every time. Sometimes it's more like the game show buzzer they used in Family Feud (Apes), but sometimes it's more of a whooping sound, like a fire alarm (Transformers). But in all instances, the biohazard alarm is recognizable as such because its eerie sounds come at the same interval, and are about the same length. And in all instances it's used for the same purpose: Get out now. "EMERGENCY. EMERGENCY. CONDITION NO LONGER NORMAL."

And in all instances elicits this response from the viewer: "Ho-lee shit."

Mission more than accomplished.

And I can say it was certainly accomplished in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. When I first heard there was going to be another Planet of the Apes movie this summer, I thought "Really? They're resuscitating that franchise again?" But having seen the trailer, I've entirely changed my tune. Not only am I digging the CG apes, but they're totally badass and have major destruction on their minds. Since we know what happens later on in this chronology, we know that these apes will stop at nothing until they've vanquished the human race. Sign me up.

And yeah, I think it may have been just about 1:15 into that trailer when my mind shifted from "Maybe ..." to "YES!!"

Bring on the contamination. Bring on the hurt.

I'm ready. Sound the alarm.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Hassles attached


I watched my first movie on my new ipod touch this past week.

It was No Strings Attached, the Ivan Reitman-directed romantic comedy from earlier this year starring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman. (I've used the French poster here, because for some reason I've got this funny rule not to use the same poster twice as the sole art for one of my posts. I already used the standard poster for my post on the movie back in January, and there's no alternate English-language poster for it, apparently.)

I did not like it. I consider this strange, because almost every bit of feedback I'd heard about it was that it was better than you'd expect it to be. In fact, I thought it was far worse than I expected. I almost titled this post "How I hate 'the friend,'" and made it a rant about how sick I am of all the secondary characters who exist in romantic comedies only as friends to the romantic leads, their primary purpose being to make the romantic leads seem both popular and ethnically diverse in their choice of social acquaintances. But then I decided to adopt the ipod angle instead.

On the one hand, it was sort of fun to watch a crisp image of a movie playing on the smallest device on which I'd ever watched a movie. So small that it rested in the palm of my hand.

Ah, but that was also one of the problems. I'll name them here, starting with that one:

1) I didn't know what to do with ipod. Holding it worked for short stretches of time, but then my hand got tired, trying to position it so I'd have the best possible viewing angle. I tried to lean it against things, but since I was watching it on the plane, my choices were limited. It would always slide down and end up lying flat. I understand this is why other devices, such as the ipad, come with a "kickstand," for want of a better term.

2) The rental period was too strict. When I rented the movie from itunes, I learned that I had 30 days to watch it. That sounded fine. But then I also learned that once I started watching it, I had to finish within 24 hours. This was a problem, especially since, in the fatherhood era, it sometimes takes watching a movie in spurts over several days to finally finish it. It was especially a problem on vacation, which is where I thought it would be most handy to have a movie available to watch on my ipod. (When I'm not on vacation I have plenty of other options that make an ipod viewing less necessary.) I didn't dare start watching it on the plane ride to Maryland, because that was occurring during the day, and my son was not sleepy. If I started and had to stop 15 minutes later, who knew when I'd get to watch the other 90 minutes? I finally dared to watch it on the ride home, when he was sleeping and when it looked like I'd certainly be able to get in at least an hour of watching. That's about what I got in, but since I forgot to bring the ipod to work with me the next day, meaning I couldn't watch some more during lunch, it was somewhat of a race to finish it by 8:15 that night before the rental expired.

3) The rental was too expensive. I don't know about you, but I never spend $4.99 on a movie rental these days. I either get them from Redbox for $1, or they come as part of my Netflix subscription, where the cost is nebulous. In fact, the only time in recent memory I can recall spending around that amount of money on a rental was when I was desperate to find a BluRay copy of Disney's A Christmas Carol in time to watch it on Christmas Eve. I found one at Blockbuster, but I'd canceled my online subscription, so I couldn't trade an online rental for it -- I had to pay the regular new release price. I didn't care, though, because this was going to be a special Christmas Eve event and I knew it was going to look great on our TV, since I'd already seen it. On the other hand, I knew it was not going to be a particularly dynamic viewing experience to watch the movie on an ipod, so that ruled out movies with cool visuals and left an undemanding romantic comedy like No Strings Attached as the only viewing experience I was willing to have with these tiny dimensions. So I spent $4.99 on a movie I thought I might like, but never expected to like a huge amount, on a really small screen. In the end, I ended up liking it a lot less than that.

So even though I now have the capability, it doesn't look like I'll be watching movies on my ipod all that often.

Oh well, there's always music.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Green Lantern poll

Question: Which of the following aliens makes you not want to see Green Lantern the most?

Is it ...

A) This guy?


B) This guy?

or

C) This guy?


I don't know, aliens? I like sci-fi as much as the next guy, and I'm sure this is in keeping with the origins story of the character, but I just find it so ... alienating.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Travel-related sleep deprivation? Check.


If you were wondering why it's been over a week since I posted on The Audient -- which I think may be the longest drought in the history of the blog -- it's because I've been out of town. My friend got married in Annapolis, MD this past Saturday, and to take full advantage of visiting a region of the country my wife had never visited (Washington D.C. in particular), we tacked on two days before and three days afterward.

So that meant that our baby had lots of time to be on the wrong schedule and deprive us (and himself) of sleep.

Actually, he was on the right schedule but in the wrong part of the country. Whereas he'd usually got to sleep around 6:30 in LA, he wasn't tired until 9:30 or 10 in Maryland. Makes sense, but it made for two difficult babysitting nights for my mom (who drove down from Massachusetts) on the night of the wedding and the night before. And yeah, he couldn't really stay asleep for long in the unfamiliar setting of our hotel, meaning we had him in bed with us much earlier in the night than usual, and there were a lot of awakenings. Let's just say everybody spent a lot of the time feeling bleary-eyed.

Which made Lost in Translation the perfect movie to watch on the trip.

I'd seen it before, of course. In fact, I'd guess that this was my fourth viewing. But the first three all came within two years of its release, and it had been almost six years since I'd seen it, though it doesn't feel like that long.

We watched it on our last night, sitting in the chairs on the other side of the sliding door from our room, in the little courtyard that makes up the center portion of the Courtyard by Marriott in Annapolis. My portable DVD player came in handy on the trip, as it was used twice by us and twice by mom, another movie buff.

The movie is of course about that weird half-awake state of jet lag -- not entirely, but its first 30 minutes are devoted to that in one way or another. My favorite sequence in a film that I dearly love may be the very beginning, when Bill Murray's Bob Harris, riding in his taxi from the Tokyo airport, rubs his eyes and looks out at a glittering, marvelously foreign cityscape, really for the first time. The look in his eyes is equal parts awe, confusion and sleepiness. We've all been there. (Plus, Sofia Coppola picked a perfect song to accompany this moment on the soundtrack -- "Girls" by Death in Vegas. So ethereal.)

However, as is often the case when you revisit a movie you love, you discover things about it you hadn't considered previously ... maybe not all of which you love. Here were my new discoveries on this viewing of Lost in Translation:

1) The timeline is kind of goofy. I may have noticed this previously, and was reminded of it all the more this time. Namely, Bob Harris seems to be in Tokyo a lot more days than he needs to be, especially since it's a lot more days than he wants to be. From previous viewings of the film, I had this idea that he met Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) on something like his second night in town, and started hanging with her soon after that. Really, it's only on his fourth night or so that he finally has a real conversation with her. I actually wanted to go back and re-watch the movie on fast forward to count the number of nights, but it's been busy since I've gotten home and I want to get this post up. But during the movie itself I decided that I would consider their first night hanging out, the karaoke night, to be Wednesday night, relative to what I knew would eventually become a Sunday departure. This turns out to be the case, as they start out at the strip club on Thursday night, and Bob sleeps with the lounge singer on Friday night, leading to their awkward lunch on Saturday before Bob's eventual departure on Sunday. The thing that doesn't seem to make sense is that he was originally supposed to leave on Thursday, but agrees to extend his visit -- in order to spend more time with Charlotte, but ostensibly so he can go on that goofy talk show on Friday. However, by my calculation he actually agrees to extend the visit after he was supposed to have left. Oh well, it's hardly something worth holding Coppola responsible for. I guess we won't quibble too much with the fact that Bob arrived on Saturday for two photo shoots that take place within the first two days, and was still supposed to be there until Thursday.

2) Bob's personal details are kind of goofy. Bob says he's been married for 25 years. That detail alone does not entirely seem to go with him, with a movie star of his stature -- that kind of thing is pretty rare. But then his wife, just from her voice, sounds a lot younger than him, and it's clear that their kids seem to be younger than 10. So he was married to his wife for 15 years before finally having children? It just doesn't quite add up.

3) The literal meaning of the title. All these years I have kind of thought that the words "lost in translation" related to Charlotte's observations of Japanese culture -- the giant digital dinosaur that walks along the side of a building, the people who shoot laser BBs from toy guns, the guy in the arcade who interfaces with the video game via an electric guitar (remember, this was before Guitar Hero came into our lives). Many of these things only make sense in a Japanese context, and Charlotte observes them with a wonder born of not quite understanding. However, this time through I recognized that the title has a very literal meaning, specifically related to the Japanese director trying to communicate with Bob on the Santori whiskey shoot. He spouts 60 seconds worth of words in Japanese, and Bob's translator gives him about ten seconds worth of English translation. Bob is understandably confused by this, assuming that some of the subtlety of what the director is saying is literally lost in the translation. I prefer my original interpretation of the title over this literal one, but it doesn't damage my appreciation of the film in any way.

4) This isn't a made connection - it's a missed one. My wife had the same impression I did from previous viewings, which is that Bob and Charlotte have a really profound soul connection and share a montage worth of cute moments together. Really, that's not true. They basically have one really great night, and flail in their attempt to recreate it. The movie's centerpiece in terms of their relationship is of course the night they go to a party, meet Charlotte's friends, are chased out of the party by guys with BB guns that shoot lasers, end up back at someone's apartment and then ultimately finish by singing karaoke until dawn in a private room at a karaoke club.

This is the equivalent of those great nights we've all had where we went into an evening, with no idea about where it was going to go, and emerged feeling satisfied well beyond our own ability to describe it by all the things we saw and people we met. The truth about every night like this is that when you try to recreate it, it's not even in the same ballpark. Coppola hits us with this reality straight away. The next night, Bob meets Charlotte out at some kind of avant-garde strip club, where all the Japanese hipsters who seemed so enlightened the night before are lost in lap dances. They leave, but have no other real activity planned. We only see them crossing a busy street and later returning to the hotel. During the night they meet again to talk and watch Japanese TV over room service, which is where they start to get into talking about personal lives and life philosophies. In a different way, this becomes a second really great night, different from the first but still very meaningful. They come as close as they get to a sexual interaction here, as Charlotte's feet are lightly touching Bob's side, and he rests his hand on them. That's it.

The next day, Bob agrees to stay in Japan through the weekend, goes on this weird-ass talk show, then ultimately sleeps with the lounge singer. It's so much more common that we don't do the right things at the right times than that we do, and I think this sequence of events and its aftermath really captures that. At Bob's door the next morning, Charlotte hears the lounge singer in Bob's room, leaves in a huff, and shares an awkward lunch with him later on. Them seeing each other in the middle of the night after the fire alarm goes off is that perfect surreal realization that everything has gotten screwed up. It's not enough not to see this person again, with whom you almost connected. No, you have to see them at 1 a.m. after the fire alarm went off, in bathrobes with mussed-up hair, in this confusing tease of a situation that cruelly reminds you of what could have happened.

Of course, Bob and Charlotte get a redemption of sorts by having a less-awkward farewell, then the amazing scene where he spots her from the cab and runs up to kiss her and whisper in her ear. (I understand you can use modern technology to amplify the volume and hear what he says, but I don't want to, nor do I want to google it.) This sort of unlikely denouement (how did she get out into the crowds of Tokyo only moments after seeing him back at the hotel?) gives us the emotional payoff we need, but we shouldn't be confused that they had some great almost-romance. It was a missed connection more than a made connection, which is why it takes so long to get going (I actually felt myself getting stressed out, wanting for them to finally connect) and is over pretty much as quickly as it began.

Lest you be confused, however, this is not a criticism of the film. I actually think the more melancholy it is, the more unsatisfying it is in terms of a traditional Hollywood romantic arc, the more it speaks to me -- the more real it is.

And that's all the realism I have time for today. Still trying to catch up with all the emails people sent me while I was gone, even after a full day back at work.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

You're not too late!


Okay, so many of you may have ignored this post. I can't blame you. It's my fault. I abstractly promoted something that was more than a month away from beginning, with no follow-up when the series actually began. (Shame, shame on me.)

But you're not too late!

The seventh transmission of The Apocalypse Diaries (www.theapocalypsediaries.com) will go live at 5 p.m. PST this afternoon. That gives you the rest of the day to catch up on the chilling details you've already missed. (Hint, they include these two fellows in blue hazmat suits -- one of whom is me. I'm the one with the right arm. I guess that would make me Hazmat Guy #2. I tell you, I really go to great lengths to remain anonymous on this blog.)

The web series is the brainchild of my wife. It has to do with a mysterious disturbing incident in Los Angeles, and the woman who's trying to survive it with just her web cam and her dwindling supply of drinking water. I hope I don't need to tell you any more. Each episode is less than three minutes, and only the first is longer than two minutes. Get watching!

Both my wife and I would love to hear some feedback -- her, on the brilliance of her writing and direction, and me, on the brilliance of my technique in dragging a screaming woman with a bag over her head.

Seriously, it's well done, and since my only contribution is dragging a screaming woman with a bag over her head, I can say that without it being a case of patting myself on the back.

Thanks everyone. Start with transmission #1 and work your way up. And if you're so inclined, like AD on Facebook and follow it on Twitter. If you're a blogger, you know how exciting it is to have a new follower. This is like that.

Look for more in the weeks to follow, debuting every Wednesday at 5 p.m. PST.

And be prepared to get the willies.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Documentary Mondays


I've established previously that Monday night is the most serious night of the week for movies. Now, my wife and I have chosen to watch documentaries on Monday nights as a special summer series. (Not that documentaries have to be serious, but on average I'd say they probably are.)

Our first was last night. I don't know if I'll write about them each week, but I'll write about the first one at least.

It was her choice: Grey Gardens. Not the HBO movie starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange -- see, that wouldn't be a documentary. Rather, this is the film that brought Edith Beale and her daughter Edie into our lives for the first time, way back in 1975, directed by the Maysles brothers, who also directed Gimme Shelter.

If you've heard about either the old or new incarnation of Grey Gardens but don't know anything further, let me catch you up. It's essentially the story (this is a strong word for it, as we'll see in a moment) of the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier, otherwise known as Jackie Kennedy, otherwise known as Jackie Onassis. Edith Beale (a.k.a. Big Edie) and Edith Beale (a.k.a. Little Edie, or just Edie) were once both singers of some sort and have come from wealth, but have aged into eccentrics living in a decrepit mansion in Long Island full of cats and raccoons. They could have been the inspiration for the television show Hoarders. At the time of filming, Big Edie is pushing 80 and her daughter is 56. You may remember her daughter for the head wraps she always wore, or perhaps I just remember her for that because Barrymore was always wearing head wraps in the ads for the HBO movie.

As I hinted earlier, there isn't much of a story. Albert and David Maysles (and two other credited directors) just turn on their cameras and basically let the two batty old women go at it. What follows is an hour and 34 minutes of free associations about their lives, their acquaintances, their aspirations, their likes, their dislikes. The only real guidepost the Maysleses provide is newspaper clippings at the beginning, which establish their relationship to the former first family, and include the detail that the women were nearly evicted from the mansion for health code violations. It's kind of hard to believe that the version of the mansion seen in this film is the clean version.

A couple things I want to say about this film. First off it reminded me how unusual it is for me to watch old documentaries. I'd say that 85% of the documentaries I've seen were made since the year 2000. Then it would probably be 10% from the 1990s and the remainder from before that. In fact, off-hand I can only name a couple documentaries I've seen that were from before 1990: Barbara Kopple's American Dream, Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, and the first several installations of the Up series. There are probably others, but these are the only ones that come to mind.

And so I was reminded how different the documentary form was back then. My wife, knowing a bit more about this film and these directors than I did, explained that the Maysles' fly-on-the-wall approach was intended to try to remove their own perspective from the process as much as possible. She said a film like Grey Gardens, without a narrative spine and with very few things that qualify as editorial decisions, was intended as a reaction to the slanted documentaries where the directors chose which talking heads to include and which not to include, thereby cementing their bias.

It's an honorable approach to documentary filmmaking, even if the thinking is somewhat flawed. Maybe not flawed, but a tad idealized. A director's very choice to make a film about a particular subject means that he or she has already taken a position. Once you turn on the camera, you are introducing artifice to the scenario, and not getting a perfect distillation of "real" life. However, I'd say that the unfiltered blathering of Edith and Edie is as close to their real selves as anyone could hope to get. By choosing to focus on grandiose personalities who are given to talking about themselves in open and shocking ways, you reduce the amount of difference between their real selves and their film selves. They aren't by nature inclined to keep anything hidden.

But back to my original point about how different this film was from something we would see today. Rarely would a modern documentary filmmaker essentially just leave his/her audience at sea the way the Maysles brothers do here. That's not a complaint about their style, it's just an observation about the difference between the attention spans of modern audiences and audiences from 35 years ago. I mean, it's not like you need to absorb every little nugget of what the Beales are saying -- I don't think you could, even if you wanted to. But today, most documentarians would assume we need a crutch to get us through, plenty of exposition and narrative structure so we can swallow that presumably tough documentary pill.

And I'm a bit embarrassed to admit I needed that crutch last night as well. While on the one hand it was a relief to know that there was not really any possibility I would get "lost" and miss a key detail, on the other, the free-form nature of the film made it hard for me to stay awake. I can't blame Grey Gardens entirely for this -- it's my son who deserves the blame, since he's pretty much awake starting at 5:30 these days. Even starting the film at 8 o'clock was too late for this tired father. I used a couple stimulants to try to get me through, but the remainder of the 5-hour energy drink I started here was again a disappointment. What really gave me the kick to endure through the movie? A couple shots of tabasco sauce, the first of which gave me a bad case of the hiccups. At least when you're hiccuping you're not falling asleep.

But as I said, there was a certain comfort to knowing that if I did fall asleep, it wouldn't ruin my enjoyment of the film. About halfway through, we acknowledged that we had learned as much about these women as we needed to. Not that they were starting to bore us -- by their very nature they are the opposite of boring -- but that nothing further we would see would make us understand them any more or any less. They were both talkative agoraphobes and paranoids, who paradoxically tolerated the invasion of movie cameras when they spent the rest of their lives worried about people creeping on to their property and trying to get them. Edith Beale may just have been old, but Edie Beale's behavior was clearly a function of some kind of personality disorder. Despite their questionable mental health, however, these are not women you'd describe as depressed. They seem to derive a perverse enjoyment from living in their squalor and essentially feeding each other's delusions, and therefore, we as an audience are charmed by them as well.

Next up it's my choice, and I'm fast-forwarding back to the present day. After taking next Monday off for our trip back to Maryland for my friend's wedding, we'll be resuming with Davis Guggenheim's It Might Get Loud, featuring Jack White, Jimmy Page and The Edge. So, some slightly different musical geniuses than the mother and daughter in Grey Gardens.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Those movies really weren't very good


When it comes to the Star Wars prequels, I tend to buck the trend.

It's one of the most popular sentiments on both the film blogosphere and the geek blogosphere that Star Wars: Episodes I, II and III were basically a travesty. I don't hate on them like that. I really enjoy individual sequences and ideas in these films, and I still remember the rush of being with a cheering opening night audience when we saw Yoda bust out his lightsaber for the first time. The comments a friend of mine made after The Phantom Menace probably sum it up best: "That was more Star Wars than I ever thought I'd see again."

Last night, however, I found myself regressing to the statistical mean.

A friend invited me to go with him to Star Wars in Concert at the Hollywood Bowl, an event featuring the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra playing John Williams' score, as well as a large screen playing clips from all six films. Throw in a modest laser light show, an expansion of the screen to fill the outer edges of the famous bowl structure for which the venue is named, and none other than Anthony Daniels himself hosting and doing some of C3PO's classic lines, and you've got the makings of a fine evening.

That is, except for all the Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith that crept into the proceedings.

I clearly should have expected this, but to give you some idea how much I knew about it going in, I actually asked my friend (prefacing it with the admission that this was a dumb question) whether we might just be seeing the movie Star Wars with live orchestra accompaniment -- you know, like an organist used to play during silent films. As it turns out, the event is (there's another one tonight) a re-telling of the whole saga, more or less proceeding chronologically, comprised of video packages with their own headings, such as "The Dark Side Conspires" and "A Hero Falls." Each video package is introduced by Daniels in that familiar voice and that familiar eloquence you would expect from the retired protocol droid, and plays out over three or four minutes, accompanied by a song from the score. (Daniels looked great by the way -- he's younger than I thought, only 65.) There were packages devoted to the droids, to the relationship between Luke and Leia, to the Millennium Falcon, to the Mos Eisley Spaceport, to the battle on Endor ...

... only the battle on Endor sequence, entitled "Sanctuary Moon," was not just on Endor. This being a tribute to all six movies, accepting George Lucas' party line that they are all of presumably equal value (even Greedo shooting first made an appearance), the first three episodes had to creep in like a virus, even when they weren't wanted. Here I was, watching Ewoks take out Imperial walkers on Endor ... and suddenly they would edit in footage of Jar Jar Binks running away from battle droids like a damn fool on that planet that looked like a giant lawn. What this had to do with a "Sanctuary Moon," I didn't know. I did know, however, that my eyes became sad every time some of this goofy final battle from Phantom Menace came on screen.

And in fact you could say that about all the footage from the prequels. As I said earlier, I have a limited fondness for those movies, enough that I saw both The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones twice in the theater -- though oddly, I am on record as saying I like Revenge of the Sith the best. I had even been thinking recently that I'd like to see them again, for the first time on DVD. Maybe make a weekend of it.

Last night cured me of that desire. Not only did I get to see most of what was good about those movies -- the long stretches of deadening dialogue being absent from this format -- but I was also reminded that even some of the stuff I thought was good was probably not so good. Yes, there's a basic excitement generated by the CGI images (especially the pod race on Tatooine), but they don't really have weight, do they? I had kind of an epiphany last night about what made those first three movies so dubious, seeing all those clips from their endless battle scenes. It's not like I'm the first person to say this, but it's almost impossible to remember what the stakes were in any of those battles, isn't it? Whereas in the original three movies, you know what the stakes are for everybody, all the time. Sure, the fact that they're trying to blow up a Death Star in not one, but two of the original movies tends to focus everybody's objectives pretty well. And sure, I've seen each of those movies a lot more than these, so their plots have been seared into my brain. But the prequels still seem to have battles only because a battle is what's required to showcase the new digital possibilities available to Lucas. And here's a completely unoriginal observation: Lucas was in it only for the digital possibilities, not for the story, as evidenced by the ways he also "fixed" the first three movies digitally.

So last night was very much a schizophrenic experience. I found myself tossed like a rag doll between my desire to cheer and my urge to wince. The entire time before intermission was consumed with prequel stuff, because that's how the chronology proceeds. But even after they moved on to the second half of the chronology, the prequels kept invading and trying to assert their relevance -- that's how the video packages were designed, to explore themes rather than just related story elements. If I thought the prequel stuff looked bad by itself in the first half, imagine how much worse it looks in the second when contrasted directly with Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. My mind was literally shifting back and forth between "Good Star Wars, yay!" and "Bad Star Wars, boo!" at warp speed. During the final package that celebrated the victory of good over evil, in a miscalculation that was perhaps impossible to avoid, the producers expected me to feel an equivalent sense of overwhelming pride about Jar Jar vanquishing a bunch of battle droids as Luke and Leia celebrating the destruction of the Death Star. All Star Wars are not created equal, and last night proved that.

A couple other quick observations:

1) Did I really have to see Qui-Gon Jinn get a lightsaber through the stomach not once, but twice? I mean, there were kids in attendance. At least they didn't show the halves of Darth Maul's body falling down that air duct or Count Dooku being beheaded. Man, those movies were more violent than I remembered.

2) It was a heckuva fun time seeing all the people who were there in costume -- not only the amateurs, but the professionals in Darth Vader, stormtrooper and jedi costumes. (No one dressed as Leia in Jabba slave outfit, though -- darn.) I wished I'd had a stitch of Star Wars clothing in my closet that I could have worn.

3) Speaking of stitches of clothing, there was this great t-shirt I wanted to buy. It had Darth Vader's face comprised of orchestral instruments, and it looked cool as hell. However, its purple color should have been a tip-off -- it was available as a girlie tee only. Just as well that I saved myself the $35.

So I'm not going to go over to the hater camp. I'm not going to start indulging in the played-out ranting about the evils of George Lucas and Jar Jar Binks. I'll still credit the prequels with giving me more Star Wars than I ever thought I'd see again, and occasionally dazzling my eyes -- if not my mind or my heart.

But let's just say I'm good with waiting another ten years to watch them again.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

How many X-Men movies do they think we want?


I don't know about you, but the X-Men were not considered to be first-tier superheroes when I was growing up.

There were a lot of superheroes I heard about, from Superman to Batman to Spider-Man to Wonder Woman to Aquaman to Captain America to Green Lantern to the Incredible Hulk, but it wasn't until much later that I heard about the X-Men. This is just my own personal experience, but I'm sure some of you had the same one.

Yet as a movie franchise, X-Men seems determined to outpace all of these. I mean, classics like Aquaman and Wonder Woman are permanently mired in development hell, with an Aquaman movie likely being set back by the existence of a parody version on Entourage, and Wonder Woman receiving its latest blow when NBC refused to pick up the pilot for its fall TV schedule -- even though the blogosphere had been alive with chatter about the woman picked to play the lead (Adrianne Palicki) and what her costume would look like. Movies of Green Lantern and Captain America are only just now coming out this summer. (Notice I'm conveniently ignoring the crappy Captain America movie that came out in 1990).

But with today's release of X-Men: First Class, the X-Men will trail only Batman in terms of modern-day movie incarnations. That's right, this is the fifth X-Men movie, meaning it's tied with Superman (four with Christopher Reeve, one with Brandon Routh, with another due out next year), two ahead of Spider-Man (with another due out next year) and three ahead of the Hulk (one with Eric Bana, one with Edward Norton, and none more on the horizon, I hope). (Notice I'm conveniently ignoring all the incarnations of Superman that came before my own lifetime.)

So it makes me wonder: How many X-Men movies do they think we want?

I have to pause here to acknowledge the reality that nothing gets made in Hollywood unless there is a perceived demand for it. Obviously, if we keep watching X-Men movies, they'll keep making them. Even the last X-Men movie, 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which was critically panned, grossed $180 million in the U.S. That translates to the studios as "Yes, we want more X-Men movies." And after the predicted big opening weekend for X-Men: First Class, the verdict will seem even louder.

But where does it end? There have been five movies, and I see no reason why there won't be five more. If a hot young cast featuring Michael Fassbender, James MacAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence is a hit, as expected, they should be good for at least another two or three films. And don't forget that they're still working on a sequel to X-Men Origins: Wolverine, called The Wolverine, even though Darren Aronofsky is no longer associated with the project. Other films that may or may not be in the works, according to wikipedia, include a Magneto origins story, a Deadpool origins story (who the heck is Deadpool? I can't even remember) and a fourth installment of the original X-Men timeline, which last left off with 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand.

Whew.

I mean in one sense, the reasons for this are obvious. With most of the other comic book heroes mentioned above, there's just one protagonist, or in the case of Batman, 1 and 1A (don't forget Robin, though Christopher Nolan obviously has). With the X-Men, there are a huge number of characters that you can keep developing and spinning off. They may not all be interesting enough to support their own origins stories, but some of them are, and the rest can be lumped together in a variety of sequels and prequels. There's no shortage of ways for the X-Men to continue breeding like a virus, as long as the box office dollars keep coming in.

But at what point do we have to be saved from ourselves? At what point does simple decorum suggest that the X-Men need to be packed away for a decade and rebooted sometime in the 2020s?

As with many commerce vs. art discussions, it all comes down to box office. I mean, the only reason they stopped making Saw movies (for now) was that those movies began making demonstrably less money. If X-Men: First Class clears $200 million in the U.S., which it seems certain to do, there's not going to be any financially demonstrable decrease in our desires -- not anytime soon, at least.

So, we do want this, apparently.

I just hope this movie is good. We'll worry about the others later.