SQOG - the Sasquatch Blog

****All the posts below are bigtime SPOILERS if you haven't seen, read, or heard the entertainment I am talking about. Look at the post heading for the day and decide if you want to be spoiled on that topic or not.****

July 2011 posts

 

-Wednesday, August 31st, 2011: REMAKES - Straw Dogs & Footloose

No! Yes?With the tent-pole flicks in mid-summer, we get the expensive sequels and remakes, but once we hit the  end of summer, that’s when we start getting the cheap and really crappy remakes. I wanted to take a second and talk about a couple of these upcoming bombs. OK, first, I have to haul off and ask what the crap were the studios thinking when they came up with the plan to remake STRAW DOGS. The original Sam Peckinpah-directed Dustin Hoffman-starring film is a brutal and controversial piece of work. Dude, just take a look at the casual ugliness of its trailer. It’s about a mild-mannered geek being forced to make a stand. He is married to ridiculously attractive woman who is beginning to wonder why she married such a nerd. One of the controversial parts was its infamous rape scene. When the English locals invade Hoffman’s home, they rape his wife, but the way Peckinpah shoots this scene, it almost appears that the woman is enjoying the sexual assault. Many critics dismiss this scene as a typical man’s view of rape, that it is insulting to even consider that a woman might enjoy rape. But Peckinpah is clearly leaving room for interpretation here, and this scene is still hotly debated today. The uniqueness of the film lies in that controversial possibility and the tension that exists between the mismatched married couple. Another controversial part is the unsparing gory violence that Hoffman’s character unleashes on the home invaders. Even though he is clearly in the right, the level of brutality Hoffman exhibits makes it hard to cheer for him. I wouldn’t think, for even a second, that a major motion picture would release something like the original STRAW DOGS into today’s marketplace. So look at the trailer for the new STRAW DOGS. First off, I hate the idea of time looping in a trailer. Just tell the trailer story ina linear fashion, there is no need to go back to the beginning. It means that the studio doesn’t trust the footage. Second, this movie appears wildly miscast. I can accept Dustin Hoffman as an effete snob, but James Marsden is a hunk. Putting him in glasses does not make him a schlub, not when it is clear he still has washboard abs. Immediately, that eliminates much of the original’s tension; the idea that while the war rages between couple and outsiders, there is still confusion between the couple themselves. I don’t see that here. I also have never seen Kate Bosworth be anything but an icicle. In the original, Hoffman’s wife is a warm-blooded sensual woman, teasing, coy, and flirty. That inviting nature of hers adds more fuel to the rape scene, daring us to ask if the wife was asking for it. Bosworth has never been that type of actress, and from the trailer, I don’t see that earthy sexuality that this role needs for it to be a thought-provoking remake. This just looks to be a by-the-numbers house invasion thriller that is trying to make some extra coin by tagging on the ‘remake’ label of a classic thriller. It’s a crass move meant to lure people in. The director of the remake is Rob Lurie, a guy who made two very good political dramas, THE CONTENDER and NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH. I really liked both of these films, but I’m not sure either one indicates that Lurie can handle a violent thriller. I’m assuming this is a money play for him, I would like to think That Lurie is interested in delving into some sexual politics here, but from the reviews I am starting to see, that doesn’t appear to be the case. I’m not sure if you could call the original STRAW DOGS art, but it certainly elicited emotion and discussion, two things that this remake seems to want to avoid.

Now FOOTLOOSE is an entirely different animal. The original Kevin Bacon film is a beloved, but far from perfect film. It’s all about nostalgia, and that is something I have no problem remaking. It’s light and totally 80s. Will we get anything as hilariously time-dated as the ‘Let’s Hear it for the Boys’ montage? No, but that may not be a bad thing. Here is the trailer for the FOOTLOOSE remake, and I’ve got to say, I’m kind of interested. Yeah, it kind of looks like STEP UP TO THE STREETS: COUNTRY-STYLE, but I really like the energy level here. It crackles and it looks like a good time. The adults in the original FOOTLOOSE were painted as pretty stereotypically ‘wrong’, but I’ve heard that the remake actually depicts the tragedy that caused the town to ban dancing. I think that is a strong move, allowing us to see the parents in a more sympathetic light and understand why they decided to enact this over-the-top rule. I’ll admit that I’m a bit biased here. The director of the remake is Craig Brewer, a talented director who directed HUSTLE & FLOW and one of my absolute favorites, BLACK SNAKE MOAN. This man can depict the sweaty South better than anyone, and I am excited to see how he portrays this troubled Southern community. I like the idea of him taking a frothy cotton candy movie like FOOTLOOSE and giving it a bit of heft while still respecting the fun and exultant joy these kids feel when dancing. Granted, these two remakes are extremely dissimilar, but everything about the STRAW DOGS remake rubs me the wrong way. Everything about it seems disrespectful to the original film. The FOOTLOOSE remake looks like fun, a cheerful update of the Bacon classic, perfect for the waning lazy summer days.

 

 

 

-Tuesday, August 30th, 2011: SONS OF ANARCHY - Season 3 Finale

Jax Teller; The PrinceWhew, I just blew through Season 3, the Irish Mistake, of SONS OF ANARCHY in about a week. So even though do I feel the urge to beat the shit out of someone, Samcro-style, I do have a couple things to say about the big-ass finale for a very troubled season. I do enjoy SOA, but I would never call it a particularly deep or subtle television series. In fact, it seems to work best at the exact opposite of the spectrum; when it is pulpy and violent. I’ve always found its obvious HAMLET-cribbing to be annoying, especially with the endless developing mystery of Jax’s father. After three seasons, I’m pretty sure they will keep bringing up Jax’s dad, but never actually have Jax come to a crisis about his feelings about the club until the series gets an end date. The Sons’ trip to Belfast to find Jax’s son, Abel, was just too drawn out. I feel like this storyline wasn’t strong enough to drive an entire season, and certainly not as compelling as the white supremacist threat last year. I do have to give the storyline credit for, with the introduction of Robin Weigert and Paula Malcomson introducing even more DEADWOOD actors into this show! There was one excellent sequence in Ireland where Jax watched in an shopping center as Abel’s adopted parents showered the baby with love and attention. It was nice to see Jax question his capabilities as father by considering some of the pacifist theories of his own father. The mournful song really sold this lovely and selfless idea that Jax just might let Abel go. When the adopted parents were killed and Abel was kidnapped again, I was confused that this action sent Jax fully back into the violent mindset of the club, especially Jemma and Clay. I would have thought that the murder of the adopted parents would have proved more strongly to Jax that the violent lifestyle that the club encourages is not an appropriate upbringing for Abel. I liked the moment in the mall, but I really thought Jax’s step backwards was awkwardly motivated.

But the finale was everything SOA is good at. The whole crew came back to Charming, there was plenty of violence, and the season wrapped up with a satisfying double-cross of Agent Stahl. I don’t have a lot to say about Agent Stahl. I never really warmed to the bug-eyed acting style of the actress and by the end, Stahl became such a cartoon-evil character that it was easy to let her go. I liked the ritualistic kill of Jimmy, it felt like a very strong end to a despicable character and Opie’s murderous decision was well-played by the actor. But the best part was with the main members of the club in the police wagon. There is a wonderful song that plays throughout this section, ‘Hey hey, my my’ by Battleme, which plays through the whole first part of this clip. This sequence finally reveals that Jax never had any intention of selling out the club, that Clay and the club had been in on every one of Jax’s decisions. As the Prospects start honking outside the wagon to signal that Jimmie and Stahl were dead, the crew let out a long laugh of relief. If you can find the clip, you should. There is a long shot of Jax as he laughs, then slowly looks up, lovingly, at his crew, his family, the brothers he would never betray. Charlie Hunnam sells the hell out of this shot, and it’s beautiful how much tenderness and relief he pours into his bearded face. The next shot, of Jax looking at the Sons across the police wagon, all their heads looking down, is a great subtle forecast of the Sons’ future. Jax is the prince, soon to be king of Samcro once Clay is done, and I love the image of these bikers softly bowing to their future king. It’s about as subtle as SOA gets, but the warmth and honor that fills up the back of that police truck transcends the trappings of the show and becomes something special. Season 3 had a whole lot of problems, but the finale brought the focus back to the family this crew has become. I hope Season 4 can settle down and focus back on the dynamics of the crew.

 

 

 

-Monday, August 29th, 2011: Short Story: A SOUND OF THUNDER - T-Rex!

Dinos oh my!One of my favorite things about the entertainment world is how some flimsy piece of modern entertainment can drive you to learn more about the past history of an idea. For example, how watching SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE can entice a viewer to go rediscover AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER. But of course, my preferred genre is sci-fi and action, so of course, that’s where I am going to ramble. In a month or so, we should finally be getting the premiere of TERRA NOVA, Spielberg’s dinosaur series, about future humans who flee back in time to escape their dying future planet. Something that a lot of critics have been wondering about is how the series will address the ‘butterfly effect’. This is the idea that if you travel back in the past and alter even one tiny thing, the future could be irrevocably altered. This idea is, of course, best shown by the Simpsons. Simpsons clips are vigorously policed on Youtube, but if you can, you should seek out the 6th Season Treehouse of Horror (yes, the SHINING one), and see their hilarious parody of the ‘butterfly effect’ (ok, if you can stand the episode very sped up, check it out here, starting at 3:37). For me, it all culminates when Homer sneezes in the past and every dinosaur instantly keels over dead as he mumbles, “This is gonna cost me…”

Off topic again. I love time travel/paradox/manipulation stories, I love the way they can stretch the boundaries of what I can imagine.  So finally, in preparation for TERRA NOVA, and hopefully a season filled with LOST-like discussions of time travel, I wanted to find out where the idea of the ‘butterfly effect’ came from. And no, it did not come from that shitty Ashton Kutcher movie of the same name that I am ashamed to admit I saw in theaters. The concept came from a short story called A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury in 1952. That’s right, way back in 1952! It’s about a team of hunters who go back in time to hunt dinosaurs but end up altering the future. You can read it here. Go ahead, its only 3 pages. How fascinating that something that explored the concept so thoroughly was written over 50 years ago! Sure, much of the sci-fi possibilities were already covered by Asimov and others way before Bradbury, but Bradbury brings this idea to life in a pulpy and fun fashion that still reads well today. The concept is terrifyingly realized, and I do get a kick out of the cowardly Eckles, but what really sticks in my mind is Bradbury’s terrifying description of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Here’s a peek:

It came on great oiled, resilient, striding legs. It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker's claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior. Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory, and steel mesh. And from the great breathing cage of the upper body those two delicate arms dangled out front, arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys, while the snake neck coiled. And the head itself, a ton of sculptured stone, lifted easily upon the sky. Its mouth gaped, exposing a fence of teeth like daggers. Its eyes rolled, ostrich eggs, empty of all expression save hunger. It closed its mouth in a death grin. It ran, its pelvic bones crushing aside trees and bushes, its taloned feet clawing damp earth, leaving prints six inches deep wherever it settled its weight.

How freaking terrifying does that sound?! Between JURASSIC PARK sequels and CGI, we have seen a great number of T-Rexs onscreen, and familiarity breeds comfort. When I think of a T-Rex now, I think of those hilariously stunted little arms. Bradbury’s description is of a scaly lizard, a beast of scent and meat, a terrifying calculating predator, incapable of mercy or measure. Later, he describes the bugs that live on the T-Rex’s skin, a creepy and effective depiction of jungle eco-systems. I found this short story to be phenomenally creative and a scary depiction of where humanity’s desperation and greed might take us. So I guess I have a yet-to-air TV show to thank for introducing me back to a core sci-fi short story about the ‘butterfly effect’. Whether TERRA NOVA proves to suck or not, I can always thank it for making me curious and inquisitive, something never too hard when exploring the strange and heady ideas that sci-fi has to offer.

 

 

 

-Friday, August 26th, 2011: FIREFLY - Episode #1: Serenity

Go run your little world...Ok, I think I’m finally ready to take a look back at one of my favorite TV series of all-time, the tragically short but wonderful FIREFLY. So, for the next 15 Fridays, I am going to do small-ish capsule reviews of his show and the eventual movie. If you don’t know the episodes, it is very possible you might be left behind! I have certainly talked about FIREFLY here show before, probably many a time. The show was created by Joss Whedon, the man behind BUFFY, ANGEL, DOLLHOUSE, and next year’s AVENGERS. It is a strange sci-fi/Western space action drama that was aired by Fox in the fall of 2002, starring current CASTLE star, Nathan Fillion. FIREFLY is about a small crew of misfits living aboard a spaceship called Serenity, trying to get by in a ruthless universe run by the Alliance. Once Fox produced the episodes, they had no idea how to market this admittedly hard-to-explain show to the public. So they buried it. Fox aired about 10 of the episodes, mostly out of order, and never in the same time/date slots. The show had dismal ratings and was quickly cancelled. But the show lives on. Even with only half a season, FIREFLY inspired legions of die-hard fans called Browncoats. The fans were so noisy that a movie called SERENITY was eventually made to wrap-up some of the plot threads that Joss was forced to leave dangling due to the early cancellation of the show.

I stumbled upon FIREFLY in late 2005 when it came to DVD, just before SERENITY was released. I had just finished BUFFY and ANGEL and I was curious as to what this new project was that Joss had been so passionate about. I was in Minnesota and had just gone through some extensive jaw surgery that would leave me in a good solid month of bed-ridden pain. So there I was, stuck in a basement bedroom, depressed and in pain, squinting at episodes of FIREFLY on a small laptop PC. And it really touched me. Something about this group of people, each tremendously lonely, each slowly discovering how much they cared for one another as a family. Just trying to make their way through the galaxy and scrape a living together. I loved the odd language that they spoke, a strange combination of Chinese and old-style turns of phrase. The ship became its own part of the show, a beaten-up redemptive character that was loved just as much as any of the others. I liked how this world was one of ‘dirty tech’. Yes, it’s the future, but characters still have to kick their dusty computers to get them to work correctly. I especially loved the character of Mal Reynolds, played by the Fillion. He was an angry and bitter man, who was always surprised by how much goodness was still inside of him. I loved the depth of feeling he was capable of, while never losing his rogueish Han Solo-like flair. I laughed and I cried in that basement, but I felt lifted. Goes to show what a good television show can do for the soul and how silly entertainment can enrich a life.

Anyways, enough of that. The first episode of FIREFLY is a 2-hour premiere confusingly called ‘Serenity’. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, the network balked at the last minute with this episode, claiming it was too dark to be the series kickoff. Joss and his team quickly re-tooled the original second episode, ‘The Train Job’, to be the new lackluster and harried premiere. The ‘Serenity’ episode was then originally aired in pieces later in the season. I think ‘Serenity’ is a fantastic premiere episode to the series. Sure it’s dark. Sure it’s violent. But all the pieces are there and Whedon takes his time introducing this big complicated universe. There are some classic moments and some wonderful character interaction. There are also some weird plot holes that never get explored, but hey, we can’t all be perfect. So let’s get in!

I’m still not sure how well that long battle flashback intro works, it’s loud and confusing. But it does set up the grungy future tech and it gives us our first great Whedon line, adopted by Browncoats everywhere after the show was cancelled:

“We’ve done the impossible and that makes us mighty.”

And I do love the long pullback on Nathan Fillion’s ‘Mal Reynolds’, as his lieutenant is shot down and those great Western strings mournfully play as he watches his world end in the form of Alliance bombers. Looking back, it’s easy to see that this is the moment he never escapes. The minutes that destroy the man he was. It’s just too early in the episode to have this moment, we don’t know enough about what is going on to recognize or appreciate the weight of what happens in Serenity Valley. When we flash to ‘6 Years Later’, we get a whole lot of Whedon goodness. As Mal’s crew scrambles to salvage goods off of a dead transport vessel, we realize that there are no ambient sounds of space on the soundtrack. We are so used to hearing space sounds from STAR WARS and STAR TREK that it is easy to forget that there is no freakin’ sound in space!! In FIREFLY, space engines don’t roar, weapons don’t ping, even though this is a space fantasy, Whedon makes very sure that he gets that specific science right. I love this detail, it feeds into the grungy, lived-in, real-type feel that Whedon is going for. We also get the first instance of space shakey-cam here. Instead of the usual SW or ST epic and stately static space shots, Whedon often uses a loose camera in the space sequences to give the footage a cheaper, almost documentary kick, as if this footage were being recorded from a handheld camera. It’s an effective technique, one that has been stolen in every single space show since (I’m looking your way BSG!). This robbery sequence quickly introduces us to the new main players; Jayne-muscle, Wash-funny pilot, Kaylee-cute engineer, all while enacting a witty getaway. It’s hard for me not to smile when the engines kick in, the music swells, and Serenity blasts off like a lit firefly, its whole crew smiling over the success of the caper. Great sequence here. One other quick note. I love the design of the Alliance spaceship. It feels like the kind of spaceship human beings might actually make. There is no reason for a spaceship to be aerodynamic, it doesn’t make sense. Why not build our ships like big moveable skyscraper cities? I thought that was a very interesting and different design choice for Whedon’s team to make.

I’ve actually never been a huge fan of the title sequence. The song is too chintzy, though I do like the background instruments. But I love love the last image of the titles, with Serenity flying over a herd of running horses. I imagine that this is the image that Whedon got stuck in his head, the image that lead to this entire wonderful series. It is a beautiful depiction of tech and West, love it so.

I had forgotten how fascinating the introduction to Inara is. Apparently in this time period, being a prostitute ‘Companion’ is a respectable job. In this scene, she is shown pleasuring a paying client. I love all the directing flourishes Whedon employs. The kinda cheesy loss of focus when the client climaxes. The small bit where the soundtrack has Inara talking about leaving home but the video shows a non-speaking Inara just staring away. How the romance just suddenly ends, but the guy gets in a small dig at how quickly Inara’s clock runs. Her position is elevated amongst society, but these little flourishes never let us forget how different this is for modern audiences, to see a prostitute as a representative of high society.

Guess we never saw Simon’s glasses again, huh? Prop department lose them?

Like the visual blocking of Mal and Simon when they first meet on the back of the ship, with the huge gulf of space between them.

The character dynamics are established so early. Love that bit when Jayne insults Kaylee and Mal objects. And that could have been it. But when Jayne rebuts, getting too familiar with the captain, you see Mal’s head come up and he snaps ‘Walk away from this table. Right now.” I like how it wasn’t the dirty comment about Kaylee that caused Mal to kick Jayne out, it was that Jayne questioned the captain. Very important distinction.

There is a great shot cut when Book and Inara are speaking in her quarters. Book is talking about Mal and how he is quite a mystery. He asks Inara why she is interested in Mal and she replies, “Because so few men are.” Then we cut right to Mal using toilet. Hilarious editing!

Great tense scene when Dobson pulls the gun on River. Book gets to be badass, and oh, to take out Kaylee, so obviously the innocent, bears on her pants, just immediately hurts and bonds this crew. I especially that small shot of Jayne peeking through the window of the infirmary, so worried about Kaylee.

Damn terrifying introduction to the Reavers. The Reavers are basically cannibals flying around space. When we first see there ship, there is an awesome music cue with great clanking musical score as we fly past their weird ship. And Zoe’s description of them is just about the most terrifying thing ever, “If they find us, they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sow our skin into their clothing. And if we are very very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.” Hol-ly Crap!

Like that scene with Inara, Book and Mal. Inara is saying how the captain is often lost in the woods, but he likes it that way. Mal barges in, saying (in a badly ADR-d line), “No. The difference is, the woods are the only place I can see a clear path.” I find that quote provides a fascinating insight into Mal’s character. He is basically saying that conflict defines him. When pushed to the limit, right at the edge, that is where he feels most alive and whole again. That says so much, and certainly is a quote that rings true throughout the rest of the season.

Oh boy, still not sure that Mal saying “Kaylee’s dead,” to Simon is okay. Wow, bad man. But it is so worth it for that belly  laugh from all the rest of the characters on the bridge. This moment probably played better on paper, tonally, it really doesn’t fit into what we know about this crew yet. But it is nice to see their attempt at some mean-handed levity!

I have talked about some of the uniqueness and frankly, the pioneering work done on the visual effects on this series. All credit really goes to ZOIC Studios, a fledgling company at the time that has gone on to work on some of the biggest network shows around. Everything I have read says that they put so much personal effort into FIREFLY, working un-billed late hours, doing extra renders, and I really think it shows. All the effects in this show still stand up now, almost 10 years later, and that is quite an accomplishment in the fast-moving world of CGI. Look at how seamless all the touchscreen visuals are in this episode. Kaylee using the touchscreen in port. Badger’s moving newspaper. Dobson’s hand-held computer. And I absolutely love what ZOIC did with the Reaver ship. They make it dirty, with dark black exhaust fuming from their nacelles. And I love that backflip the Reaver ship does into the atmosphere, so its heat shields are correctly positioned. That kind of move isn’t necessary, but it adds texture and character to a shot, and I love those little acts of professionalism.

FIREFLY loves to contradict, to upset expectations of genre. We will see this again and again over the next few weeks. One of the first examples of this is Mal’s casual execution of Dobson. We totally expect a big hostage scene, with Dobson negotiating River’s release, but Mal has no time, so he simply shoots the man in the face. This totally reminds me of Indy shooting the swordsman in RAIDERS. Simple, unexpected and totally boss.

The escape from the Reavers is just thrilling; I love all the little moments we spend with the crew. Wash’s quiet throw-down, “Here’s something you can’t do.” Jayne’s fist-pumping exaltation, so happy, he almost stretches out of his boots. Kaylee’s little smile, lovingly touching the ship which is so much a part of her, and murmuring, “That’s my girl.” River’s desperate hug of Simon, just all in, and so tender. Zoe grabbing Wash and seeing he is needed to rip all her clothes off with Wash mock-complaining “Work, work, work.” Though there is a huge error in that scene, Wash is actually miming the control stick. It is very obvious when you look for it. I think they couldn’t fit him in the shot if he was up against the console, so Wash has to fake like he is still holding the control stick, even though he is 2 feet from it.

And finally, that last scene really spoke to me, drugged up in a basement bed. Mal is piloting, smiling, and Simon is confused. Mal says that he had a good day. Simon lists all that went wrong in the day, from Alliance to Reavers to getting shot, but Mal shakes his head,

MAL: But we’re still flying.

SIMON: That’s not much.

MAL: It’s enough.

It’s hard for me to explain, but it just put into words how I wanted to feel about my surgery, about the way I wanted to be looking at the world. I guess I felt inspired, motivated to be more positive about my situation. Yes, it was not a good situation. But in a few months, my jaw would be fixed and I wouldn’t have to have braces anymore. I still had my health, my education, and a supportive family. And when you look at all that, I had more than enough to keep my looking positive. Sometimes life comes down to ‘It’s enough.’ This was big for me. I still have my scratched and worn DVDs that I watched in that basement, and those are something I’ll never let go of. SERENITY is a fantastic opening to FIREFLY, a series that I will always remember for helping and inspiring me through a difficult time in my life.

COOLEST WESTERN MOMENT: Mal's showdown on Whitefall. There is one shot of Mal's side, with the desert taking up 9/10ths of the shot. With a cool swoosh on the soundtrack, Mal moves his jacket aside to reveal his gun and the bar of goods. Classic Whedon misdirection as he grabs the bar instead of the gun. But that shot is all Leone Western awesomeness.

COOLEST DIGITAL EFFECTS SHOT: When Serenity is blasting away from the Reaver ship, up out of the atmosphere, there is an awesome shot with the camera stuck on the ship's hull, looking back down. The flaps on the engine are shaking as the ship strains syward, the flames roaring. It is a tremendous visceral shot that feels like some of those shots taken from the space shuttle. There is even a certain majesty as the blue sky of Whitefall slowly fades to the black of space. So cool.

 

 

 

-Thursday, August 25th, 2011: OUT OF SIGHT - Sexy Editing

SexyCoolWith Steven Soderbergh releasing a new movie soon, I thought I’d go back and take a look at one of his best movies, OUT OF SIGHT, and at one scene in particular that made me want to get into editing. Wow, can you remember when Jennifer Lopez wanted to be an actor? And that for awhile she was actually considered to be a good actress?! All that attention can be traced back to her performance here in OUT OF SIGHT. She is sexy, cool, and tough, a perfect fit for this role. Clooney was still stepping out of his television persona at this point, but he effortlessly nails this role as the suave and suddenly in-love bank robber. Don Cheadle is a legitimate threat here and Isaiah Washington in the ‘tussle’ sequence is downright terrifying. Soderbergh gives this tale lightness, with a groovy score that I just love. The music is mostly upbeat and comforting, but I still like the bluesy moodiness of one of the closing tracks, “No More Timeouts.” There is so much care taken with this script. Even minor characters, like Luis Guzman’s ‘Chino’ are made more personable. Instead of being just a bad-ass murderer, Chino is also seriously interested in Adele’s magic and how they do the lady-in-the-box gag. It could have been a deadly sequence, but instead it becomes something hilarious. Clooney and Lopez have some real heat here; their first scene in the trunk of Clooney’s get-away car is smart, sexy, and just a treat. Elmore Leonard adaptations always live or die by their dialogue, and the filmmakers never hesitate to bring Leonards’ verbal quirks to the screenplay. This is one of my favorite films of all-time, and it is certainly the sexiest film I have ever seen.

Back when I was in college, I knew that I wanted to be in the film industry, but I still didn’t know what aspect of film I wanted to focus on. The hotel bar love scene in OUT OF SIGHT convinced me that one area I wanted to focus on was editing. Hell, I think I even showed this clip in my senior year film class as a great example of modern editing. If you can’t click over to the link, I’ll describe it. Clooney’s bank robber, Jack, surprises Lopez’s cop, Karen, at a hotel bar in Detroit. She is supposed to be in Detroit hunting for Jack, but they both realize that their mutual attraction is far more important. While they talk and flirt, we cut to shots of them later that night, preparing to go to bed together. When their bar conversation ends, we jump fully to the smoldering later love scene and end the scene there. It sounds confusing, but it is not. There is nothing overly demonstrative in this scene, it’s just a good use of editing to add a new twist to the typical boring love scene. It’s aching and melancholic and sexy, with the cool jazz playing and the patter of adult and witty conversation sprinkled throughout. It feels so smart and effortless and that’s how the best sequences in film feel. I read an interview with the editor, Anne Coates, about how she edited this scene. She says:

I think it’s very erotic when you don’t see that much. It was an interesting problem with “Out of Sight”. The way it was written was just one scene in the bar. So I cut where they meet and he sits down and talks to her, and they start flirting. And the scene in the bedroom was shot silently because it was going to have the dialogue from the [bar] scene laid over it anyway. So it didn’t work as a scene. Then we came up with an idea for a nice sort of “betweenness”. To start intercutting. We tried one or two things, and it started to gel. Flashing back. Sometimes we’d flash forward…It was really exciting. And then we did this little thing of stopping the frames. It wasn’t very a long freeze, just a few frames. Just heighten the sexual tension between the two of them. It tells a story, it’s very emotional, it’s very sexual, I think, without showing much."

I’m still not sure about the frame freezes, it feels a little too stylized, but the inter-cutting, the ‘betweeness’ is beautiful. Soderbergh always likes to play with time in his films and this sequence seems to be the epitome of all his timeline dalliances. I love how the time jumps starts, the first time he touches her hand. The music hits just right and as they imagine what going to bed together would be like, through the suggestiveness of their dialogue, we are already seeing what will happen. And then the end of the sequence, when their bar conversation lulls, the music flattens, the sexual tension just peaking. Karen looks over, with a smile on her face, and whispers, “Let’s get out of here.” The music comes back in as we jump forward to the as they fall into bed together, laughing and loving. Just awesome.

This scene was the first step for me in learning just how important editing is in a film. The editor is responsible for the entire rhythm of a film, how to choose the best shot of an actor from dozens of takes, how to build the momentum of a scene or help an action sequence make sense. It is an invisible but massively important job that can lose an audience member with one errant cut. ‘Chemistry’ is a hard thing to define between actors. Even two actors who share no chemistry together can appear to have a connection with a good editor. No matter if two stars have deep, palpable chemistry on set, if the film’s editor is bad or lazy, the audience will never see that connection. I still do editing jobs today, and I’ve learned that it isn’t really a skill that you master; you always just keep on learning. But I hope one day I can create a sequence as moving and effortless as the bar/bed scene in OUT OF SIGHT. This movie was Soderbergh’s big capitulation to big-budget filmmaking. He had directed a few indie films and wanted to move into the bigger budgets and bigger stories of Hollywood. He has made a hell of a lot of fine features, winning awards for movies like TRAFFIC and ERIN BROKOVICH. But I’ll always hold a special place for OUT OF SIGHT. A traditional-ish heist-like film made amazing with the care and passion of a hungry and talented filmmaking team.  There is a mood Soderbergh is playing with here. The possibility that this kind of fiery sexy connection between partners exists in our world. I want to believe that, I yearn for it.

 

 

 

-Wednesday, August 24th, 2011: Book: CLASH OF KINGS - Tyrion Lannister

#2The ImpI’m man enough to admit that I am really struggling to get through these A Song of Fire & Ice books. I’m only halfway through #2, Clash of Kings, and I find myself reluctant to pick it back up. In the meantime, I’ve read three other books, and the half-finished hulking volume just sits there. Mocking me. I was so impressed with HBO’s GAME OF THRONES that I dove into this series, excited to find out what happens next. Apparently, a whole lot of nothing. These gargantuan novels seem overstuffed to me. So far, there is nothing in the first 400 pages of CK that couldn’t have been condensed into 50 pages. And the waiting for the White Walkers to storm the Wall or for Dany to take to the sky at the head of her dragon army is interminable. There is so much possibility, why are we taking so long to get there? The author, George R. R. Martin, is often called ‘The American Tolkien,’ a title much despised by Tolkien fans. So far, I agree with the Tolkien fans. Yes, there is a lot to admire in these books, but there is just so much filler! It leaches the fun right out of it. Yes, The Lord of the Rings was primarily about travel, and how Dwarf A went from City B to Stronghold C. But it was still exciting and gripping in a way that is not present so far in the A Song of Fire & Ice series. It’s possible this could be a premature judgment; maybe I’ll have a different opinion once I plow through another 2,000 pages. I certainly hope so. In the meantime, I am left wondering how the hell HBO is going to film this 2nd book, who knows, maybe it picks up in the last 400 pages or so. So far, the saving grace is the character of the imp, Tyrion Lannister. I look forward to his chapters above all. He is a rogue; impudent and sarcastic, but he is also written with a fair dollop of decency and fairness. Tyrion looks out for other handicapped people, otherwise there is no reason that he should help paralyzed Bran create a saddle that will allow him to ride. Martin saves hs most emotional and evocative passages for Tyrion. In Game of Thrones, Tyrion has a wonderful talk with Stark’s bastard, Jon Snow:

“’All dwarfs may be bastards, yet all bastards need be dwarfs.’ And with that he opened the door, the light from within threw his shadow clear across the yard, and for just a moment Tyrion Lannister stood tall as a king.”

I love that passage, its wistful and grand, showing that there may be mercy in the Lannister line after all. And Peter Dinklage plays the hell out of Tyrion in the television series. I especially love his drinking game story where he so deftly describes the kind of ridicule and anguish brought upon him by his small stature. He does such an excellent job telling that story. Look at the change in Bronn’s face during the story, the way the mirth bleeds from his face, his stone-cold character is actually offended by the wrongs heaped upon Tyrion. I think another part of what I love so much about Dinklage’s performance here is how much this must reflect on his own stories of growing up a dwarf. What is the PC term here anyways: dwarf, midget, small person? I would imagine that if Dinklage is comfortable enough acting on-screen than he has certainly learned to fully accept his short stature. But surely it can’t have always been that way. And by calling so much attention to his abnormality, I think I respect his ability to act that character even more. And his character continues to deepen. In Clash of Kings, Tyrion goes to King’s Landing in order to reign in the terrible reign of his nephew. After understanding how much power he has when he is asked if an enemy’s children should be slaughtered, Tyrion is a little shocked, so while looking for his woman, Shea, he asks his mercenary, Bronn, a question:

“Tyrion was a little drunk, and very tired. ‘Tell me, Bronn. If I told you to kill a babe . . . an infant girl, say, still at her mother’s breast . . . would you do it? Without question?’

‘Without question? No.’ The sellsword rubbed thumb and forefinger together. ‘I’d ask how much.’

And why would I ever need to hire another monster? Tyrion thought. I have a hundred of my own. He wanted to laugh; he wanted to weep; most of all, he wanted Shea.”

I wouldn’t say that Tyrion is a good man, but he is beginning to realize that he is far better than those around him. The sense of justice and decency that he believes in are not shared among the rest of the Lannisters. And while his brother got the good looks and strength, Tyrion was left an imp with too much heart. I am excited to see where his journey at the throne will lead. Will the Iron Throne corrupt what is left of him? Or will he actually succeed in bringing his brand of justice to his sister and nephew? If the rest of the book where about Tyrion, I would be happily gorging myself on the hundreds of pages still left in this saga, alas he is an interestingly complicated man surrounded by characters much more vaguely drawn. How about a side series: The Plucky Adventures of the Imp, his Man, and his Whore. That I would read with no reservations.

Oh, and in an old post on GAME OF THRONES, I wrote about a great clip that, for once, showed the advantages to fighting with armor. Found it!

 

 

 

-Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011: BEST LINE IN FILM HISTORY - There's Something About Mary

HairgelOkay, I’ll admit that I may be a little biased in my opinion. But come on, what self-respecting, native San Franciscan wouldn’t agree with me about this clip? THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY builds Cameron Diaz’s Mary up as the perfect woman and for her to leave Brett freakin’ Favre behind because she is a 49er football fan, well damn, I might have fallen in love a bit. The way she says that kicker line, I mean, there really is nothing sexier than a female football fan! Just a perfect ending for those of us out here in the Bay Area. I think that line especially affected me as I was still living in Minnesota, an 18-year old remembering a sepia-toned childhood of dusty hills and a dry sunny climate. And of course, a childhood filled with the real-life 49er gods; Montana, Rice, Young, Walsh, and Craig winning those Super Bowls. Sitting on our couch in 49er regalia, eating homemade BBQ with friends, watching ‘The Catch’ and all those tight wins vs the Bengals. You can’t beat those memories.

THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY is still a hilarious film, and even 13 years later (that long ago?!), the humor is still sharp and the gross-out gags still kinda shocking. But the sweet and innocent tone that the Farrelly Brothers give the film makes even the nastiest jokes funny instead of crude. It is a technique that has also been well-used by Judd Apatow in his comedies. It’s hard to express how big this movie was when I was 18. MARY just took over the theaters around me. I think it had been awhile since there had been a true mass-public raunchy ‘R’ comedy out there, and this just really hit the humor bone. I remember going with a big group of friends and the theater was just shaking, people could barely breathe they were laughing so hard. It became common to call each other ‘goofy bastards’ and no matter how hard we tried, we could never equal the frustrated perfection of Matt Dillon’s F-bomb. All the beats in the big set pieces just play so well in terms of escalating hilarity. The mounting insanity of the ‘Franks & Beans’ scene capped by the quick and awful close-up of the beans above the frank. The physical comedy of the dog attack scene, so over-the-top with such an obvious puppet, it still works as absurdist humor. Then the ‘pipe-cleaning’ scene, where one shake of Ben Stiller’s head revealed a new horror that every guy never knew he had. But it’s not just the big set pieces, I always loved the dialogue and everyone has their favorite parts. For some reason, I always cried tears of laughter at Matt Dillon’s ridiculous improvised story about how ‘fat’ Mary was a reverse-mail order bride to the Japanese sumo culture, kinda like tuna. Oh man, I always lose it there. The magnificent douchebag-y confidence exuding from Dillon is a thing to behold. And can we all marvel at the fact that ‘Warren’ is played by W. Earl Brown, the same actor who played big dirty ‘Dan Dority’ in DEADWOOD! How does that even makes sense??

No matter what the Farrelly brothers direct, whether it is great (DUMB & DUMBER, ME,MYSELF,&IRENE) or not so great (SHALLOW HAL, STUCK ON YOU), there is always that sweetness. They just seem like regular guys from Rhode Island who somehow got into movies. They have these moments that sometimes completely get me. I was watching SHALLOW HAL, a movie that I think has a great number of problems, but when he goes to the hospital and realizes that the kids he had been playing with earlier were burn victim kids and he hugs that one girl . . . wow, I unexpectedly and completely lost it. I know that scene is as manipulative as film can get, but there is something about the Farrelly earnestness that snuck right past my defenses. Or the end of STUCK ON YOU, with Greg Kinnear’s crazy performance of Summertime with Meryl Streep in the ‘Bonnie & Clyde Musical’, it’s just so much fun. I wish that clip of Kinnear ran longer, because it leads into one of my favorite Farrelly endings. Kinnear points at his separated brother, Matt Damon. Then, as the applause rings, Damon stands and points back at Kinnear. Then we cut to the credits, the applause still ringing out over the credits. It’s such a heartfelt and genuinely happy ending, the love and support these brothers still have for each other, I really love that. The Farrelly brothers are also very good at showing how much they appreciate their crew members, like in the credits of SHALLOW HAL, they put pictures of every single crewmember up on screen. Like most any other endeavor, the real heroes are the little people. The amount of skill and hard work that even the most insignificant PA on set puts into a production is never appreciated, but it really feels like the Farrelly brothers get that. And that is refreshing and something worth appreciating. I’m not sure what their relationship is with handicapped people, but they also populate their films with many different handicapped people. They are sometimes used to humorous ends, but the laughter is never mocking of the disabled, it seems to celebrate their perseverance. It’s a tricky comedic line to tread and I know many critics who have criticized the Brother’s use of handicapped humor in these films. But even if the tone could be mistaken by some people, I never feel any malicious intent and I like that these people can get screen time in a big Hollywood movie. I’ve rambled a bit, as usual, but the Farrelly brothers make personal movies, with heart and love, and I think that deserves a little rambling. And despite being from Rhode Island, they are clearly great guys because they appreciate the mighty awesomeness that was the San Francisco 49ers, immortalizing their fame with the best line in film history.

 

-Monday, August 22nd, 2011: RESCUE ME - Losing it

Over-the-top much?Okay RESCUE ME, it’s time for you to go away. I’m just kind of sick of this show at this point, but after sticking with it for the past 5 years, I feel the need to see it through to the end. This show was really something back in the day. It made the personal pain of 9/11 important, serving as a chronicle of the NYFD and their post-traumatic issues. I liked Denis Leary as the self-important and always self-destructive Tommy Gavin. You could always count on RESCUE ME to do a few great things per season. It would always have some hilarious guy talks; television is rarely funnier than when the RM cameras would just sit with the firemen around their common room as they shot the shit. The show would always do some wildly creative fantasy sequences; from Tommy’s horrific 9/11 hallucinations to Sean’s hilarious dream musical sequence as he goes through cancer treatments. The fire action was always top-notch, horrifying, and real. I especially loved this one-shot music montage from last year set to Duffy’s ‘Syrup & Honey’, creative and beautiful. We could always count on battered, imperfect, but strong-as-hell women, exemplified by Sheila, Janet, and usually Maggie. There were some devastatingly poignant monologues, but they never ground the plot to a halt. Above all, RESCUE ME was great at exploring the nature of grief. It used to remind me of a quote I heard about how the recovery from losing a child is a lot like climbing a mountain. You never reach the top, so you just pray to God that you start to like hiking. So where did all that go?

I thought the show rebounded last year for a string of fantastic episode where they got back to the basics above. Sheila’s monologue about 9/11 was one of the best things she has ever done. It’s honest, poignant, and the most comprehensive expression of survivor grief that I’ve heard on television. Then, in the same episode, there was Tommy’s terrifying dream about suicide bombers running around New York. Even though that sequence was horrifying because it’s something that we imagine in our worst nightmares actually visualized, it was also beautiful, especially those last few shots that hold on Franco’s face in the falling ash. I also love the muffled sounds here, as if the violence and ash have overwhelmed all senses. Finally, there was an episode that had a car crash on the highway and the guys are joking about it, cleaning up, until they see a dead dismembered kid that was thrown clear of the cars, lying off-screen by a tree. They way each guy reacts is tremendously revealing, I especially liked it how they didn’t allow the rookie to look, and that the Lou, the veteran Lieutenant, is the one who was hit hardest. Of course, its battle-scarred, dead-on-the-inside Tommy that volunteered to gather the pieces of the kid in a stunning one-shot. Later, Tommy is the only one who can go into a kid’s cancer ward, put on a happy face, and play with the kids. Of course, it turns out later that he was so unable to deal with the trauma of the earlier incident that he started burning himself with a blowtorch, but that’s beside the point! This is visceral, emotional stuff, and it really felt like RESCUE ME had found its creative footing again halfway through its 5th season.

But now halfway through the home stretch, the final season, I think it’s lost it. A few episodes ago, there was an insulting scene that took place at the Gavin home. Janet is pregnant and apparently both the daughters and Sheila were all PMS-ing at the same time. So of course, all the women were depicted as shrill, bipolar harpies and Tommy was just the innocent helpful man subject to their mood swings. Ugh, this scene was offensive, like it was just a guy’s fever nightmare of them crazy women and their periods. These women are all strong characters, I don’t know what the point of this scene was. Plus, it also outlined another problem I have, which is that Tommy is now the normal cool famous guy. Whaaa?? Yeah, he has quit drinking, is no longer burning himself, and being a supportive friend and family man. In my opinion, the only way to make Tommy’s bitter/cranky/angry personality sympathetic and interesting is to make him a screwed-up person. Don’t feed his, or Denis Leary’s, raging ego by making him a saint. A rehabilitated Tommy annoys me, because then his 9/11 tirades come off as more of an excuse. And speaking about 9/11, wow, suddenly it feels like they have gone to this well one to many times. In the last episode, Lou had a big long speech to Tommy about how he eats and eats to fill that hole of 9/11 loss within him. Bullshit. Lou was over-weight before 9/11, suddenly blaming it on 9/11 smacks of the worst kind of ret-con tragedy exploitation. The show has also suddenly become a series of long monologues. This strikes me as lazy. Write another long dramatic speech about 9/11 so you don’t have to come up with more plot and witty dialogue. And where are the great guest stars? Last season had a ballsy, hilarious performance from Michael J. Fox as a combative alcoholic who was dating Janet and it injected a huge amount of unhinged energy into the show. And I really don’t need more fake-outs about Tommy’s drinking, commit to it or stop trying to surprise me by showing him drinking, then just reveal that it’s a dream sequence. Though, I will give the show credit, in the last episode, Tommy falls asleep by the construction pit at the World Trade Center and he dreams about bodies falling from the sky. It was a dream sequence of old and a nice silent visual expression of Tommy’s persistent fears. It was a flash of the old brilliance and it’s been long overdue. RESCUE ME only has a handful of episodes before it signs off forever, and the way it’s going, it really needs get off the air. I hope it can still provide a few great moments, but ones that are rooted in emotion, not shock-value, and that the show won’t embarrass itself with clumsy 9/11 tributes, especially when the 10th anniversary of the actual tragedy is only a few weeks away.

 

 

-Friday, August 19th, 2011: COMICS - Astonishing X-Men #4: Unstoppable

Red EyeAnd finally we come to the finale of Joss Whedon’s run on ASTONISHING X-MEN, arc 4, UNSTOPPABLE. When I first got through this arc, receiving the issues one by one, I considered this to be the weakest arc. Most of that opinion had to do with the fact that there were some massive delays in getting all these issues out to the public. I felt like I had to dredge up memories with each new issue just to remember what was going on. All the aliens on the Breakworld looked far too similar to me and I couldn’t keep track of who was doing what. I’m happy to say that when you read the entire 4th arc in one go, it comes off a hell of a lot better, though I would still argue that the Breakworlders look too similar, especially in the finale, when alliances start wildly shifting. This arc is dedicated to the Breakworld, an alien planet that recently uncovered a prophecy that predicts that Peter/Colossus, will destroy their world. In due proportionate response, the Breakworlders have readied a doomsday weapon to destroy Earth. The X-Men are on their way to figure this mess out. I do think this arc goes on a bit too long, but there are 3 scenes that really bring us to new understandings of this team and are just awesome in their own right.

It takes a while for this new arc to build, what with an entire new world to introduce, but I love that Whedon keeps his usual sense of humor, despite the plot pressure. There is a great little bit where Agent Brand asks Peter if he knows anything about this prophecy. Peter responds, straight-faced, “I have been planning to destroy the Breakworld since I was a child.” The crew looks at him astonished, then Peter looks sheepish, admonishing, “This is why I don’t make so many jokes. I never know when is good.” Love it. The first great scene takes place between Wolverine and the newbie kid, Hisako. They just fell through the atmosphere and though Hisako’s armor mutation helped her survive the plunge unscathed, Wolverine is burned and melted beyond recognition. He sits in a corner in shadow and Cassaday does some very subtle things, never showing Wolverine directly, just observing parts of his red revealed muscle and smoke rising from his charred form. It is a jarring reminder of the power of Wolverine’s healing ability. And even in such a state, as he says, “Another half-hour, I should have something resembling a nose. And some tendons. Then we move, he is still able to comfort Hisako’s frayed nerves, gruffly demanding that she live up to her potential. Wolverine is usually best portrayed in action, always the beast. But I found it moving to see this side of him. Here he is patient, almost meditative, a steaming and quietly heroic corpse waiting for his powers to take effect and watching out for the good of his team. This is mature Logan, and it is revelatory to see this side of him.

Continuing the theme from the last arc, this is all about Scott/Cyclops. The way he takes command of the team in this arc, this is big damn hero stuff. And the art helps him out so much. When Scott makes the call to sacrifice himself and informs the crew, Cassaday gives him hooded, grim eyes that express the seriousness of the moment. And those final pages of that issue are stunning, from Beast’s mournful goodbye to Emma following Scott to the brink of death, to Scott’s white visions of Jean as a little girl and Professor X supporting him. Than that lonely shot of his corpse floating out in space. Spine-tingling work here. Of course, the Breakworlders bring him back to life for interrogation, but that is when we see the real scope of Scott’s plan. We go back to Scott’s goodbye scene with the X-Men and hear how the scene really  went down, with Scott talking telepathically with his team. Kitty’s inability to handle both mental and verbal communication (“I object!”) results in one of the funniest bits in this arc, when her acting is so bad that Wolverine almost starts laughing: WOLVERINE: Sh!%, I’m gonna crack up. I’m cracking up! BRAND: Say something cynical. WOLVERINE: Right, right. Hilarious. And then the scene kicks to Scott’s last twist in his interrogation: He still has his powers. Scott smiles, then unleashes holy ruby hell. Blasting the prison around him in a serious of gloriously big and epic panels, with even a quick appreciative word from Wolverine (“Damn, Summers”) as his restraints are shorn away. Seriously, count it out, Cyclops has a 4-page optical blast. All this destruction builds to another kick-ass final issue page; Cyclops, shirtless, beaten and tortured, his foot on a massive fallen Breakworlder, his eyes still smoldering red, looking up at the reader and communing mentally with his team: “To me, my X-men. Let’s finish this.” The hairs on my arm just stood up recounting such a rocking bad-ass moment. I can’t give enough credit to Whedon for conceiving of this arc for such a bland team member. In a few short issues, Scott Summers became a lot of readers’ favorite X-Men character for probably the first time in 40 years. And in the next issue, Wolverine actually defends Scott in front of Brand for probably the first time . . . well, ever. Damn well done.

I thought there was a bit too much fluff in the middle, with the fighting and whatnot, and I just never really cared as much about the Breakworld and Peter’s final choice as I did about Kitty. Though I will admit that I did like Ord saving the day, becoming some kind of perverse Breakworld hero. But everything builds to the finale, that world-cracking bullet headed towards Earth, Kitty on board, all the greatest heroes unable to stop it due to magical protection. Man, I love this ending, the panels get quicker, everyone so desperate. Kitty has another great back-and-forth with Emma, and I really liked her quiet prayer to God before she does the unthinkable, the unbelievable. In a series of huge panels, Kitty phases the entire freakin’ bullet through the Earth. See what Whedon did by bringing Scott into the forefront of the arcs? He pulled the focus off of his original heroine, Kitty Pryde, precisely so that he could reveal her in the end, her heroism and sacrifice that much more devastating when revealed as a surprise.  And those flash panels as Kitty strains are wonderful; Pete in shadow, Professor X in pain, and finally a little bit later, the diamond queen herself, covering her face in shock at the tears rolling down her face. Thank goodness we have a bit of an epilogue, that big of a moment needs some closure. Those moments add so much to the loss of Kitty, with Emma and Scott professing love as he sadly puts his visor back on as he starts to lose control over his power. Beast and Brand in the strangest and most interesting hookup ever. Wolverine drinking in pain, distracted only by Hisako and the promise of battle. And finally poor Peter, standing alone outside, touching his chest like Kitty did way back in arc 1, mourning. Whew, this is such a complete wrap-up to the 4 Whedon arcs, I haven’t read another comic since that has been half as satisfying. I know Whedon is the man, off making millions doing big movies, but I hope he takes another shot at a comic title, because he understands compelling plot, character nuance, and how to mix tones better than any other writer I can think of. It is a hell of a gift and I am just thankful that we have this comic arc and Wheon’s television work to always look back on. ASTONISHING X-MEN is an incredible work and for my money, sits right alongside WATCHMEN as the only examples of comics that can qualify as art.

 

 

 

-Thursday, August 18th, 2011: CRAPPY BOOKS: Conspiracy & Technology

The BLOOP??I wish I could say that I enjoyed pedigreed books of richness and depth. I really do. Every now and then, I can get through a great classic book. And still, Moby Dick is my go-to classic read. It has so much to say about psychology and historical metaphor, but it is also a crackling adventure book about men at sea battling an enormous freakin’ whale! Alas, that is my one intelligent defense. I can look across my room and see the battered frames of so many abandoned books. There is a biography on Lincoln which I tried to get through for 3 months, than gave up in favor of a book called The Breach, about a military-controlled tear in the fabric of space and time. On my nightstand is Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, forgotten for a nonsense book about the President’s vampire. Finally, the ginormous literary granddaddy of them all, Ulysses, sitting in the corner, abandoned for a re-read of Stephen King’s The Stand. Sad. Pathetic even. But these days, my time is limited, my reading is usually done on an airplane, and I want a page-turner that is mysterious, weird, and thrilling. Is that too much to ask?

What really tweaks my interest are the stories that either have a historical supernatural lure, or a fictional book that gives a lot of true information about military technology and tactics. An example of the first would be in this book I am embarrassed to say I enjoyed quite thoroughly called The President’s Vampire. It is the 2nd book in a series, but it is nowhere near as good as the first book, Blood Oath, which has a thrilling finale of zombies attacking the White House. Anyways, this series likes to start each chapter with a little nugget of history that rewrites the truth of the event with supernatural influence. For example, JFK’s assassination and 9/11 are described as failures in the vampire’s sworn protection of the president. At one point, the vampire takes out bin Laden, who was obviously actually a nasty form of human-hybrid called a ‘Snakehead’. Sound silly yet? Anyways, one of the alternative history chapter headings reads like this:

THE BLOOP is a cute and harmless name for what might be the largest sea creature on the planet. In 1997, an ultra-low-frequency and extremely powerful underwater sound was detected by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The sound was several hundred times louder than the call of a blue whale, the largest known creature in existence, and human sources—such as underwater detonations or submarine propulsion—were ruled out. Some have suggested that the location of the sound—50 degrees S 100 degrees W, off the Pacific coast of South America—is near the fabled underwater city f R’lyeh, the home of the massive underwater creature Cthulu in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Of course, Cthulu and R’lyeh are completely fictional. Th true source of the sound remains unknown.

Now this kind of thing just tickles the 9-year old inside of me. Turns out that most of the quotation above is true. Not the Cthulu parts obviously, but there was some massive mysterious sound heard in the depths of the ocean. It fires the imagination, doesn’t it? We know so little about the depths of our oceans. For instance, I found it fascinating to discover that no one has ever witnessed a live giant squid. The only reason we know they exist is that their carcasses occasionally wash up onshore. So we really have no idea how big these creatures can get. What if there was a huge sea monster stuck down in an abyss somewhere, forever trapped in the warm volcanic thermals. How cool is that? I may not have furthered my intellectual knowledge by reading The President’s Vampire, but it certainly got me thinking about some of the mysteries littered through history.

The military tech aspect can best be demonstrated by the ‘Jack Reacher’ series by Lee Child. This is a thriller/mystery series about an ex-military loner, Jack Reacher, who wanders the country solving people’s problems. KUNG FU for the modern Clancy-set. But what I really find interesting is the interesting facts that Child drops in about combat and technology. For instance, Reacher often analyzes an opponent mid-fight, informing the audience of the best way to incapacitate someone. Much like this scene of Sherlock Holmes doing much the same thing. In the same way, I love learning more about military technology. In the 2nd book of the Reacher series, Die Trying, Reacher is forced to participate in a sharp-shooting contest. If he can’t hit a target at 800 yards with 6 shots, he’s a dead man. As Reacher lies down to fire, he explains, “Firing a sniper rifle over a long distance is a confluence of many things. It starts with chemistry. It depends on mechanical engineering. It involves optics and geophysics and meteorology. Governing everything is human biology.” Child then explains each of these influences over the next three pages. We learn that the chemical gunpowder explosion has to be perfect to hurdle a round object down a precisely grooved gun barrel. We learn that over that much distance, gravity and the natural curvature of the earth actually affects the bullet trajectory. You have to account for wind and the slight vibrations of your own heartbeat. All this information is gravy to me. Later, Child mentions that Reacher was intimidated by the AA-12 combat shotgun, “possibly the deadliest shotgun ever made, capable of delivering 300 rounds of 12-gauge ammunition per minute.” So I looked it up, turns out that statement is also true. Check out this ridiculous video of the AA-12 in action. Holy crap, look at the trench that this weapon carves into the earth! This is insane, isn’t just kind of unfair for the enemy at this point?! All this stuff reminds me of being a kid, which is a bit twisted. Running around on Christmas morning firing Nerf guns at my siblings while diving around corners in a perfect slow-mo pose. Creating Erector-set guns with my friend in Minnesota so we could terrorize his younger sister. Buying that enormous Super Soaker that had a water backpack so you could shoot for longer. Like I said, I’m a total 9-year old, and I feel like all boys still have a weapon-fixation that sticks with them. If you can handle it, I am using that childhood fascination and my interest in weird historical fact to explain why I don’t read more classical novels. Is that a little bit of a stretch? Damn straight.

 

 

-Wednesday, August 17th, 2011: FERN GULLY - Toxic Love!

Tim Curry's evil and sexy HexxusAlmost right off the bat, FERN GULLY: THE LAST RAINFOREST feels like a direct-to-DVD dump. It came out a very strange time, 1992, when Disney was starting its New Wave of animation with quality titles like LITTLE MERMAID, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, and LION KING. Along comes FERN GULLY, this goofy little environmental film from Fox, with a reputable cast and a big honking message that smacks you in the face with its lack of subtlety. Obviously, this cartoon must be Al Gore’s all-time favorite movie and was clearly the film that James Cameron ripped off for AVATAR. It’s silly and light and doesn’t pay any attention to gravity (even as a kid, I wondered why those skirts didn’t fall up when the fairies were upside-down), but there are a couple fantastic elements here that save FERN GULLY from video shelf extinction. See what I did there? Yup, it’s late…

First off, this is Robin Williams’ first foray into voice acting for cartoons. He plays Batty the brain-scrambled bat, and you can hear how much fun he is having, reveling in the vocal freedom allowed in the animation realm. Batty certainly pales next to Williams’ next performance as the Genie in ALADDIN, but as a precursor to that role, he is still pretty damn funny in FG. In fact, I remember being really young and my Dad would still always get me with that “Only fools are positive. Are you sure? I’m positive!” routine. In fact, I am quite sure he used this joke last week.

The second fantastic part of this movie is Tim Curry’s performance of the evil smoke/oil/slime villain, Hexxus, especially his rendition of the catchy original song, Toxic Love. I’ll admit that I have not seen a whole lot of Tim Curry’s films. He is adored like a god for his performance in ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, and I am ashamed to say that I have never seen it. No, I think Tim Curry and I see Pennywise the Clown from IT or the chicken medical officer in HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER or, most embarrassingly, the man with extremely long nipples in SCARY MOVIE 2. This is a lack of knowledge that I need to rectify, because his big baddie ‘Hexxus’ is so damn charming, yet also scary as hell. Listen to that slurpy sexy bad-guy voice as he launches into the song. Then that freaky, lightning-imposed skeleton. I’m not sure this song is appropriate for smaller children, Curry sings it like a sleazy Vegas lounge singer, all sex and charm. Basically, Hexxus is singing about how much this machine, and pollution in general, is turning him on. Come on, at points he is grunting and groaning in near-orgiastic delight! So even though this performance doesn’t fit at all in the FERN GULLY narrative or tone, it is undeniably the most awesomely memorable bit from the whole movie. I love the animation in this sequence; it really recalls the trippy grandness of Disney music numbers like the damn pink elephants in DUMBO or FANTASIA. But the sleazy sexiness of the song would never have made it past old Walt’s Puritan eye. But you can’t tell me that this song didn’t influence Tim Burton with the Oogie-Boogie song from NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS! Curry has a fantastic voice. That bit about the world at 1:45 sounds so confident and saucy. I also love how insane the words are, “…acid rain pouring down like egg chow-mein,” that lyric has been stuck in my head since I was a kid. It’s so much fun going back to these movies I adored when I was younger, and no matter how route and pandering the storyline, I can still remember looking in the mirror and belting out Toxic Love into a hairbrush/microphone. FERN GULLY: THE LAST RAINFOREST may not fit the pantheon of Disney classics, but there was clearly a lot of work and talent that went into the film’s production that resulted in some truly memorable sequences.

 

 

 

-Tuesday, August 16th, 2011: STAR WARS CHANGES - George, noooooooo!

Dear God why?!?So, the STAR WARS Blu-rays are coming out in a month or so and everyone is beyond ecstatic that the classic 3 (and the other crap) will be available in the sharpest format available. But then I hear that Lucas has made even more changes to the original trilogy. This is has become so insulting for the fans, I am speechless that Lucas continues to ram these changes in our faces. I’m no STAR WARS nerd, I love those first three, but haven’t seen them in a good 5 years or so. But I’ve seen a lot of the additions Lucas made and they are really terrible. He’s taken scenes that were filmed without CGI and added CGI into the background. Since these films were made before the CGI movement, when the effect work was done with models and mattes, no matter how good the CGI is, it always looks fake. That silly new party sequence in Jabba’s palace with the alien dancer seems like an effort to place Jar Jar-level annoyingness into the classics.  Did we really need to this scene to be longer? Do we need to see blobby CGI creatures having a party in Jabba’s palace? How about the ultimate travesty, having Greedo shoot first at Han Solo so that Han was killing in self-defense? First off, that shot of Greedo shooting is very poorly done, the blaster shot and Han’s neck jerk look really unnatural. Secondly, it changes Han’s entire character. This was an important introduction to Han, we knew he was willing to kill, to shoot first, in order to save his life. This change actually makes Han look like an idiot. Greedo is clearly implying that he is going to kill Han, he basically says, “I am going to shoot you now.” Why would someone with such finally honed survival instincts allow Greedo to shoot first? What if Greedo had actually been a halfway-competent shot? Ugh, hate this change. I understand that Lucas may be softening this moment for the kids, but come on, it’s not like he needs the extra money, hold fast to your vision dude! Then, why the hell was this scene between Jabba and Han put in! This crappy CGI Jabba takes away the mass and potent power that the physically present Jabba holds when he is finally revealed in the 3rd film. It’s like if Spielberg had shown the shark in the beginning of JAWS, it would have leached out all the tension. There is a solidity and believability to the Jabba puppet that is completely gone in this scene. Plus, as the commentator notes, all this information is redundant, Greedo said basically the same thing a couple scenes ago.

So apparently, there are 2 new changes to the SW Blu-rays that fans are rioting against. The first is the big one. In the last film, there is a pivotal moment when Darth Vader is watching Luke, his son, be tortured with lightning bolts by the Emperor. At the dying pleads of his son, Vader suddenly switches sides, picks up the Emperor and tosses him down to his death. I always thought that the power in this scene lied in the fact that Vader is completely silent. We can see him thinking, see him throwing off the shackle of long-term Empire servitude, and we don’t need flashing signposts explaining Vader’s motivations. No we have this. Vader now issues a long tortured “Nooooooooo!!” as he picks up the Emperor. Come on, why’d you do it Lucas?? Just in case little kids couldn’t figure out what was going on? I think this change, like the Greedo shooting issue, alters the character into a weaker version of himself. The second change is just kind of funny. This is now the sound Ob-Wan makes when he is chasing off the Sand People. I remember his original yell being deep and kinda scary. This now sounds, as an online reviewer put it, like Obi-Wan’s getting a hummer in a back alley of Mos Eisley. Oh man, I couldn’t stop laughing when I read that comment, it totally sounds like that!

I understand the urge to modify your work, even with my short films, I find it really hard to resist the urge to fix shots that now strike me as corny or switch out music now outdated. And I am fine with Lucas making all his changes, no matter how much it pisses people off. This is his property; he should be allowed to do whatever he wants with it. What angers me is that Lucas doesn’t make the original versions of these films available to the fans. Fine, make changes to your heart’s content, but doesn’t he owe it to the fans, the ones who made him a gazillionaire, to also provide them with clean DVD or Blu-ray versions of the original films that the fans fell in love with? Is it too much to ask that the fans be allowed to choose what version they love? I find it hard to believe that releasing his updated SW, plus the original versions would hurt the bottom line. This is haughty behavior that I don’t approve of. Lucas is basically saying that if he doesn’t like the original versions, then he can’t imagine that anyone else would like them either. What a jerk-ass move. Oh well, sad thing is, I will still probably feed the money machine and rent the updated Blu-ray original trilogy anyways, just to see Ford’s epitome-of-all-that-is-man Han Solo in crystal-clear HD and Leia’s legendary metal bikini.

 

-Monday, August 15th, 2011: SUMMER MOVIES - Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Don't make Caesar angry. You wouldn't like him when he's angry...This should not have worked. The 6th sequel to a 70s franchise, now set as a prequel, we are getting dangerously close to ALIEN VS. PREDATOR territory here. I thought this series had reached its peak with the Simpsons Dr. Zaius musical. And I’m right there with you deriding that awful Burton PLANET OF THE APES film, even though Tim Roth did give us a spectacular feral performance. But RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, despite its unwieldy title, is a great summer action film with a hell of a lot of heart. And all that is due to Andy Serkis and the CGI animators that brought to life the titular ape, Caesar. I find myself confused that I liked it so much, because I have a lot of problems with this movie! For starters, Freida Pinto’s character is, bar-none, possibly the most under-written female role I have ever seen. I am not exaggerating, she has one line early on about her love and fear of apes, and then I guess she just sticks around to distract the police at the end so James Franco can chase Caesar across the Golden Gate Bridge. And if I have the timeline accurate, Franco and Pinto’s characters are dating for 8 years, but there is no ring on the finger. Would someone that hot really still be with Franco for that long without some commitment? I think not. In fact, I was confused by the timeline the entire film. At one point there is a title card saying ‘3 years later’. Then after a couple scenes, there is a title card that says ‘5 years later’. So wait, are we now 8 years total from the beginning sequence, or are we 5 years on? Maybe, I’m an idiot, but I couldn’t figure this out. I understand that the filmmakers need those time jumps so Caesar can grow, but it presents a ton of discrepancies in the plot. Why on earth is Franco going to his boss 8(or 5) years later to talk about his at-home development of the Alzheimer’s cure when he was getting results with his dad one week after the film’s opening sequence?? And I don’t believe that the investors that the head lab guy was cultivating would give up so easily on a miraculous Alzheimer’s cure just because a chimp got out of control. Especially when the explanation for the chimp’s rampage (she was protecting her baby) was quickly discovered and very logical. And how on earth could the lab techs have missed the fact that the chimp was pregnant?! They were monitoring her every twitch and bowel movement for weeks, I found it distractingly unbelievable that a pregnant chimp had gone unnoticed by a team of brilliant scientists. And as someone who lives in San Francisco, I appreciate seeing my city on screen, but they got so much wrong it was almost insulting! I know movies play quick with geography, apparently Julie Andrews actually ran something like 20 miles during her song in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, but come on, at least make downtown SF look like downtown SF. I get the sneaky suspicion that even though the movie takes place in SF, not one single physical shot was actually filmed here. Plus there are no redwoods in Muir Woods, plus you can’t see the bridge from Muir Woods! Oh well, native Frisco rant over. I did think it was beyond awesome that the apes used our trademark SF fog as a battle tactic on the Golden Gate Bridge.

But the crazy thing is, none of the problems above matter to me, I still thought this was a great summer film. I guess it’s a good lesson about how strong character development can right so many wrongs in a film. I felt so much empathy for Caesar and was so surprised that I felt that way, that all the wrongs in the script fell aside. I’m not sure whether the beauty of Caesar’s performance has more to do with the acting of mo-cap God, Andy Serkis (who played Gollum and King Kong), or with the CGI team, but they really created something wonderful here. I would have loved to have seen more of the relationship between Caesar and John Lithgow’s Alzheimer-ridden character. At one point, we jump ahead (5 or 8 years, dammit I don’t know!!), and Caesar is older and he looks angry. Pinto and Franco walk him around Muir Woods and Caesar just looks unhappy. Then they all go home and sit at the dinner table with Lithgow’s slowly deteriorating mind. Lithgow grabs a fork upside-down to eat and Caesar gently takes the fork and places it back in Lithgow’s hand, right-side up. It’s a sweet moment, but what sells it, and damn near had me in tears, was the tender and loving look in Caesar’s face. We don’t want to see Caesar get angry and depressed, and right there, he shows us that he is still the moral and caring person we had seen for the last hour or so. And dammit Caesar really is a person in this film! Later on, he becomes wise, economical with his movements, communicating so much with just his eyes and small gestures. Really, I can’t express how incredible this achievement is by the Serkis/CGI hybrid here, they really had me caring more for a CGI creation than any of the flesh-and-blood people in the film.

(spoiler) One more moment I have to mention is when Caesar talks for the first time. It is a very tense scene, when the apes are trying to escape their awful prison and Caesar goes up against Draco Malfoy. He grabs Draco by the shirt and howls “NO!” into his face. People in the theatre laughed at this moment, but I feel that it was more of a release-of-tension laugh, they were amazed at how shocked they were by the moment. I can’t quite figure out why I was so awestruck by that first shouted word. Obviously, the apes are talking in the PLANET OF THE APES films, so we knew Caesar would have to talk before the end of the film. Maybe it’s because we were so drawn in to his life, and even though we empathize with him and see how smart he is getting, we still see him as just a monkey. I can’t really explain it, but I know that it was an incredible visceral moment that had me sitting in the theater with wide eyes, mouth open in a big huge smile. (end spoiler) The escape and fight across the Golden Gate Bridge was pretty spectacular too, it was clear and the apes demonstrated a logical use of tactics that made geographical sense. Very cool and satisfying. So yes, there are tons of problems with this movie, but the main ape, Caesar, is something that needs to be seen. And if the studio can keep this team together, I look forward to the sequel, broadly hinted at by that creepy mid-credit scene. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES showcases the next step in CGI, creating a character hybrid of pixels and man that communicates more emotional depth and intelligence than any previous CGI creation.

 

 

 

-Friday, August 12th, 2011: COMICS - Astonishing X-Men #3: Torn

Percy Dovetonsils: All-time classic X-men cover!And on to TORN, the 3rd arc of 4 in Joss Whedon’s run on ASTONISHING X-MEN. Now, I came very late to this comic series, since I was never that into comics. But a friend informed me that Whedon had done 2 fantastic arcs in the Astonishing series and that I should really get on board if I was a fan of Whedon lit. I read the first two arcs in their collected edition, then finally caught up to the publishing order halfway through TORN. I wasn’t used to the change, reading this series suddenly became more like episodic television, I would read one issue, reach the usual cliffhanger ending, then a month with baited breath to find out what happened next. I think this way of reading really heightened the drama of this arc for me, I remember travelling a lot during this time and eagerly checking random stores in LA to see if they had the latest issue of ASTONISHING. It was exciting, and I really like what Whedon did with this arc. As I mentioned in my last XMEN post, TORN is a bottle show. It never really leaves the mansion, the whole plot revolves around intrigue, character development, and yes, action, in a very set space. Through Emma Frost’s manipulation of their worst fears, we gain a whole new level of understanding for each X-man.

The last arc ended in a pretty dark place, so it’s nice to see the arc start up with a clever and light scene, Wolverine teaching combat to the kids. I’ve mentioned Whedon and Cassaday’s creative use of paneling before, but they really outdo themselves in TORN. The kids are wondering what the menace will be now that the Danger Room is out of commission. Wolverine just smiles and says, “Lights.” The next panel is black with a sound word of the light going off, CLICK. Then another black panel with a sound word of Wolverine’s trademark SNIKT, the sound his adamantium claws make when they are unsheathed. Who would have thought you could make an audio pun in a purely visual medium?! Another great panel is when Emma is walking down the hall and has to fake tears after lobotomizing Scott. We see her face in Panel 1, serious as stone. In Panel 2, she looks down, her face swathed in shadow. Then she looks up again in Panel 3, her face the same as in Panel 1. In Panel 4, her face is still the same, but she has forced a tear to run down her cheek. Beautiful use of silent visuals to demonstrate Emma’s icy self-control. Then possibly the best page in comic history in my humble opinion. The beautiful manner in which Whedon and Cassaday use a depth of focus visual trick to show that the beer brought back the ferocious Wolverine is just brilliant. How can I say anymore about that page?

But what this arc is really all about is sharing focus between Kitty Pryde and Scott Summers. Who really gives a crap about Cyclops? He is the X-Men leader, but he is possibly the most uninteresting character on the team, entirely defined by his eye beams and his love for Jean. In the movies, his character is treated like a joke, never so mistreated as his contemptible off-screen ‘death’ scene in X3. Which is too bad, because I like James Marsden, but it is just too damn hard for an actor to create a character when the audience can’t see his eyes. And let’s not talk about the pale shade of a character Emma is in FIRST CLASS. Does this even count?? In TORN, Emma just tears Scott down, attacking his jealousy of Wolverine, his shame, and how it was Professor X’s pity that got him the head job. It is a masterful dissection of Scott’s character and I loved that this is where Whedon decided to go. For all the attention Whedon gets about his tendency to write strong women, not enough praise goes to his ability to write damaged men. From Mal Reynold’s scarred psyche to Angel’s tortured soul, Whedon now adds Scott Summers to his roster of complicated men. And he gets the Badass of the Arc Award when he shoots the White Queen in the back and we get that big hero panel of him, still without glasses, sneering “It’s like you said, Emma . . . I don’t have any claws.” I’ll admit that I totally got a bit confused in this arc when Perfection turns out to be the White Queen. In fact, I think I had, word-for-word, the same reaction as Kitty: Yeahbuhwha?? But using Scott as an exposition tool, explaining that all this is Emma projecting, while he is shooting down the Hellfire Club, works just fine for me. And it still holds to Whedon’s distaste for firearms as Scott is just shooting down projections. This is Scott in control as he has never been before, without his glasses, seeing clearly. And I love the turnaround here. Nova and Emma put Kitty through that mental anguish for two different reasons; Nova wanted Kitty to release her, and Emma wanted Kitty to kill her.

There is so much other interesting and hilarious stuff going on here, I feel like I could fill up a page, so I’ll just do quick notes. Loved Kitty and Peter’s arc, the mental fantasy that Emma/Nova subjects Kitty to is just hideous, thank god that Kitty’s fake memories start to fade in the next arc. And poor seething Peter, so stupidly pounding the shit out of Shaw when he really should have know better. Logan’s unique transformation into tea-cup dandy Percy Dovetonsils is hilarious and makes his beer memory all the more perfect. I love the fake-out with the Beast, how we think that he will take the mutant cure to counteract his devolution, but instead we find he had another plan all along. Danger and Ord bumble around, but I love their interaction with Armor’s growing abilities. And still, in addition, some hilarious Whedon-esque lines: EMMA: Well, you know what they say—(Kitty pulls her through a wall) Aaah!! KITTY: Aah?! They say Aah?!? You’re pathetic. Or Brand’s excalamation when she sees the X-Men getting their asses kicked again, “Not that I entirely care…but these guys just cannot catch a break.” OK, I’m done here. It should be quite obvious that this is my favorite arc of the Whedon ASTONISHING run. Without leaving the X-Men mansion, he manages to do some tremendous character work while still incorporating a number of fake-outs, action beats, and brilliant panels. ASTONISHING XMEN: TORN represents Whedon at his best and calls to mind his brilliant writing on BUFFY, ANGEL, and FIREFLY.

 

 

 

-Thursday, August 11th, 2011: SUMMER MOVIES - Crazy Stupid Love

Sexy Summer CounterprogrammingMan, I love it when the summer counter-programming kicks in! It always happens right around July 4th, when all the gigantically expensive action-palooza tent pole films aimed at teenage boys are rolling through, and studios figure that they can sneak in a quiet rom-com to appeal to the ladies and old people. But rarely is the alternative as intelligent and fun as CRAZY STUPID LOVE. It’s not revolutionary, it’s not trying to rewrite the rules of romantic comedies, but the movie adds just enough difference to the formula to feel fresh again. Ryan Gosling continues to flirt with the mainstream, going from big things like THE NOTEBOOK and a ton of his movies coming out this fall to smaller films like BLUE VALENTINE and LARS AND THE REAL GIRL. He is so smooth and charming in this flick, plus he has a tremendous wardrobe. And that DIRTY DANCING move to get the girls would totally work, especially with his non-Photoshopped abs. But the best scene with Gosling is the night he has with Emma Stone where they lay in bed and just talk. Sure, we have seen this scene before, but it feels so good to see this aloof character peeling back layer after layer to this girl. He always thought it would be so hard to open up, but you can see Gosling’s face light up as he realizes that it was never about how hard it was to open up, it was about finding the right girl to make it seem easy. Love that scene.

But I really felt like this was Steve Carrell’s movie. Sure, he has played mature roles before, but this seems like so much of an improvement for him, Carrell just nails this older divorcee. He has two great scene. Half of it is right here, when he is able to be so plainly articulate his feelings with his separated wife. Some of the dialogue at the very end doesn’t work, but I love how open his face is, saying “I’m so mad at you . . . but I should have fought for you.” It’s intense and just beautiful. Later, he has a scene in a bar with Gosling that is equally tremendous. Carrell is livid at Gosling for dating his daughter, but he is enough in control that he can express why. He gives Gosling credit for finding morality and love, but he can’t forgive him for finding it with his daughter. It’s a special scene that we don’t often see; a mature adult expressing a mix of anger and pride at the same time. Understanding anger, I guess. And it shows how fine a dramatic actor Steve Carrell has become. Don’t get me wrong, his performance in 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, but it is so cool to see that he also has a fantastic range. I’ve heard it said in Hollywood that ‘acting is easy, comedy is hard.’ And it seem like every year we see another comedic actor in a star-making dramatic turn, and the saying is proven once again. Carrell seems like a stand-up guy and I hope he continues to mix the drama and comedy as his career continues to expand.

CSL has some cheesy parts to it; the public speech at the end and the convenient reveal about Gosling’s girlfriend is all RomCom 101, but the dialogue is so clever, the acting so heartfelt, that it’s easy to just roll with the conventional. And there was one shot near the end that just made me shiver it was so good. In the setting summer sun, in slow-motion, a teenage girl leans over to kiss the boy on the check in slow-motion. Then she leaves frame and he turns to watch her go, an enormous smile on his face. It’s hard to explain, but the lighting and the action in this shot was breathtakingly beautiful. For me, it just fully captured that moment of graduation when you’re leaving school for the summer, and hoping that the hot girl in class might ask if you could hang out sometime. Summer possibility and excitement, that shot just threw me back to high school in Minnesota. What a great film that allows you to marvel at the twists of rom-com cliché and also engage your memory and emotion with its cinematography. A hell of a great summer date movie. OK though, only one huge leap that I couldn’t take. How on earth would anyone see Kevin Bacon as a geeky accountant?! Sorry, didn’t buy that!

 

 

 

-Wednesday, August 10th, 2011: FRASIER - Silent Disaster

Niles CraneFor the past few years, when I used to work from home, there were certain rules I had to follow in order to motivate myself to have a productive day. With so many relaxing temptations at home, it’s not easy to keep on task. Whether my focus for the day was script-writing, contract review, or script notes, the looming temptation of that big-screen TV was often overwhelming. One rule I had to keep was that whenever I would go over to my work/editing computers, I had to be showered and dressed, usually in slacks and a button-down shirt. For some reason, this allowed me to ignore the internet wandering I would be prone to do if editing or working in sweats and a T-shirt. The feeling of fancy dress and the uncomfortable attire would put me in a ‘work’ mindset. Another rule was that I would make tea in the morning, and while I sat and enjoyed my tea, I would watch one episode of FRASIER, which always happened to be on around 8:30-ish in the morning.

For me, FRASIER, like FRIENDS, is comfort television, easily digestible and something that is nice to have on in the background if I’m doing something else. But FRASIER is a bit more. The writing is so sophisticated and spry, the blend of words and plots so witty, that I always feel smarter and more sophisticated after viewing an episode. Especially if my task for the day is script-writing, it was always inspiring to watch a show that so adeptly weaved character, plot, and nuance into a breezy 22 minute runtime. I would start the day with a dose of class, and it always felt good. And the show is not just witty banter, there are also wonderfully classic moments of farce and no matter how broad the humor became, it never felt base or cheap. It always seemed to be a unique comedy formula; humor based on the differences between class strata. Yes, much humor is mined from the snooty and elitist temperament of Frasier and Niles as they interact with their blue-collar friends, but whereas that type of character might be a supporting character in another show, here they are the stars. At the same time we laugh at their high-class buffoonery, we also empathize with the human truths that the upper crust still deal with daily. I was flipping through channels the other day and caught one of my favorite FRASIER opening sequences. This is pure, almost completely silent, physical comedy, and employs one of my favorite comedy tropes; if you pull on a tiny loose thread, you might unravel the entire outfit. Niles is waiting for a date and he has Frasier’s condo immaculately prepared. Candles, classical music, dinner steaming, with a beautiful woman on the way. But then Niles notices a tiny fold the crease of his pants. Everything starts to unravel, like a Rube Goldberg puzzle, and 5 minutes later, Niles is lying on the floor, pants-less, with a bleeding finger, while the fire alarm is blaring, his couch is on fire, fire hydrant spray is everywhere, and Eddie the dog is gleefully eating the remains of Niles’ sumptuous dinner.

This sequence must have been labored over for hours, but the end result is a logical and easy flow of events that keep escalating the stakes for Niles. Despite the lack of explanatory narrative, it is never confusing, and each obstacle that Niles encounters is perfectly demonstrated through the physical acting of David Hyde Pierce and the brilliant stage directions of the script.  I love the silence, but I also love the little character bits. Niles is a borderline OCD candidate, and it is a great moment when he is running with the scissors, then stops to turn them upside-down and carefully walk the rest of the way across the room. Or how he moves the candles away from the polish remover can after reading the directions. This sequence reminded me of even more of my favorite FRASIER moments. I still try and duplicate that angry uptick cadence of Frasier’s yell in this sequence, perfect sitcom frustration. That fantastic episode where the Crane brothers try to start a restaurant and that amazing moment when Daphne kills the eel at 4:37. Or if you are in the mood for a longer clip, I love how Frasier goes to great lengths to defend his girlfriend’s atrocious behavior to his family, but once she insults his hand towels, it’s over! Then there is that great episode about the radio play which is just so smart and funny, I bleed jealousy at the talent of those writers. Another day, another time, I’ll write about how well the series ended, but for now, I just wanted to share my love for FRASIER, a show that started so many of my days with a touch of class and a yearning to write scenes as effortlessly brilliant.

 

 

 

-Tuesday, August 9th, 2011: SHORTS/TEASERS - Panic Attack & Portal

PortalsssssThis cheap-movie-technology-for-the-masses thing is really starting to work, isn’t it? In the early 2000s, everyone was so excited about the possibilities for film opened by the idea of cheap digital cameras and the shareware editing systems that you could borrow from a friend. “Soon we’ll have a million Spielbergs out there!” people would say. And of course, the same rule applied 5 years ago as it did 20 years before the whole digital cinema pro-sumer wave hit: If you don’t have a good story with interesting characters, you don’t have a movie. It basically means that whether you were shooting a short film about friends in a coffee shop on 16mm in 1995, or filming effects on crappy green screen with a digital HVX in 2002, the only thing that was going to attract any attention from Hollywood was story. And that’s why people make shorts, right? If you aren’t a Hollywood director with tons of money, than short films are calling cards, made to get attention, to get noticed, to become famous. Can we all admit that?

I’m a little worried now though; because I think that old rule-of-thumb for independent filmmaking is finally being rendered obsolete. Instead of story, it’s becoming about hook. A couple years ago, this short film about a robot alien invasion came out of South America. The tech credits on this short are stunning, in most ways it is indistinguishable from the type of cinema aesthetic that we have grown accustomed too. Shaky cam, crisp HD visuals, documentary light flares, and snap zooms. There is a beautiful sense of scope here that I really dig. When this video was released on Youtube, the movie rights were quickly snatched up and the short film director was hired to helm a 30M feature film adaptation of his own short. OK, good for him, but what is that money based on?? Yes, there are great visuals in the short and the bleak, 28 DAYS LATER music is stolen/used to manipulative length, but there is no story! It’s a great hook for a movie, and that is what production companies are buying today. I won’t deny the obvious labor of love this short is, I mean, this guy must have spent months in a CGI editing cave, just look at the raw short without the effects, but is technical craft wizardry really enough to launch these filmmakers? I will give the guy credit though, especially with that short shot of the stroller rolling down the stairs, a shout-out to the bedrock of modern editing, the stair sequence in Eisenstein’s BATTLESHIP POTEMPKIN. I just don’t think it showcases an exciting new filmmaker. I think it is a fantastic demo reel for a digital effects artist.

And this brings me to a PORTAL short I found the other day. PORTAL is a fantastic HALF-LIFEish video game that uses one piece of cool technology to create an endlessly amusing puzzle-solving game. There is no reason the game should be as entertaining as it is, but PORTAL is fantastic. A sequel to the game was just released and even though I haven’t played it yet, I have heard fantastic things and am looking forward to it. Wow, does this short look beautiful, crisp and dark visuals, and absolutely flawless special effects work on the portal gun and its effects. And holy crap is that girl ripped! Now, I haven’t heard about any offers to the filmmakers, the short is more just being presented out there to show the feasibility of a PORTAL movie. But again, there is no freakin’ story! We know nothing about this character, and waking up with a character and finding out things is the laziest story start you can come up with. Again, this is an awesome hook for a film, and a great showcase for effects. I especially loved the way the filmmaker employs subtle angle cheats so that he doesn’t have to spend too much money on doubling effects. Look at that first moment of escape. She fires the portal gun above the guard, then fires to the side and pushes the bed through. We figure it out, the bed falls on the guard, but we don’t need to explicitly see it, her actions and the off-screen noises sell what happens. And I love that double whammy at the end when we see some of the awesome potential of the portal gun, then see the visually cool truth about her prison. Very neat, but I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that this isn’t a short film. You can’t call it that. Let’s call these clips what they really are: teasers. I think I just find it a bit insulting to the writers who spend so much time writing stories that are satisfying complete plots that can fit in a few minutes. I don’t watch too many shorts, but I know when I see a great one, when I experience a full-world and a satisfying story in a compact package. I love these effects teasers for what they are, and I’m concerned that production companies can fool themselves, imagining more talent than there actually is.

 

 

 

-Monday, August 8th, 2011: SUMMER MOVIES - Cowboys/Aliens/Harrison Ford

Big Damn HeroesDamn, I try to convince myself that I wasn’t expecting a lot out of COWBOY & ALIENS, but I totally was. The title alone just tickled the giddy 12-year old inside of me, then add in a bad-ass Harrison Ford, Bond himself, plus a naked Olivia Wilde, all given to us by IRON MAN’s John Favreau, and I really wanted something genre-bendingly awesome. What I got was a great western diminished by a pedestrian alien invasion movie. Back a few years ago, I made a short western film about a man who wakes up in the desert with no memory of who he is. It was cool to see a big-time summer movie use the same hook. I liked the intensity on Craig and still think the coolest shot of the summer is in the trailer, at :33, when Craig fires that shotgun and it realistically recoils into his hip. Just a big summer ‘man’ moment. But this whole movie should be playing right to me. I love both of these genres, but the mash-up just felt too by-the-numbers. I was disappointed by how little was made of Craig’s back-story. It was actually a very simple memory, but I think there was a whole interesting way the screenwriters could have handled the amnesia that was completely ignored. How much more fascinating would Craig’s character be if he was disgusted by the man he used to be, and that had to wrestle with that feeling once his memories came back. Does memory make us who we are or is it something deeper? I know this is a silly summer blockbuster, but I would have liked a hint of something deeper.

A lot of critics have been writing about how the aliens in summer blockbusters are starting to look alike. I completely agree with this. From ID4 to CLOVERFIELD to WAR OF THE WORLDS to FALLING SKIES to DISTRICT 9 to SUPER 8 to this film, I am seeing a lot of the big-jawed, insect-like, bad-ALIENS clone type of hostile alien life form. Are the same animators working on all these films? Is this another type of studio blandness, as if they are thinking that they shouldn’t mess with a creature design that already works? Give us something new! I want to see that ballsy alien invasion movie where a race of violent Downey laundry detergent teddy bears descends on the planet. Or how about an alien that poses a threat in a way other than having large teeth and big claws. I always liked the idea of the Tribble from STAR TREK. These guys eat everything in sight and multiply exponentially. Tribbles could completely destroy the food supply of a world and smother every living thing with the pure mass of their fluffy bodies. There you have a new type of terror and also make a neat statement about population control. I’m only half-kidding here!

What C&A really has going for it is a resurgent Harrison Ford. Why on earth has this man not been in a western before?! His crustiness is so perfect for the character he plays, though I wish that the animosity between Ford and Craig had remained a bit longer through the film. And when he tells the story of his knife to the boy, I was reminded how good Ford can be. It’s hard to argue that one of the biggest movie stars of all time is underrated, but I do think that his acting skills are often overlooked. He has been nominated only once for an Oscar, for his fantastic role as Detective Book in WITNESS over 20 years ago. Seriously, go see that movie now. He is fantastic. I always think of that moment when some hooligans are harassing the Amish, but due to their beliefs, the Amish don’t fight back. When Ford gets out of that cart, the old Amish guy grabs his arm and says, “Book, this is not our way.” Ford growls out, “No, but it’s my way.” And his final scene with the bad guys is ferocious and passionate. I would argue that STAR WARS or INDIANA JONES would not be nearly as great they are if it wasn’t for Ford’s inimitable roguish charm. That cocky smile, his perfect response to Leia’s declaration of love, saying “I know,” all just so legendary. Or the hilarious boiling frustration he has with his dad (at 2:20 and 3:45) in LAST CRUSADE, just another facet of his characters. But he is also a talented silent actor. Look at THE FUGITIVE. He barely says 20 words in the entire movie, but all of his confusion, rage, and deduction is written on his face. My favorite bit was when Ford is looking over medical reports when he (and the audience) figures out that his doctor friend framed him for his wife’s murder. He looks up a bit, his brow furrows into this look of sadness and determination and the audience is just able to see, beat for beat, the emotions running through him. And couched in a pretty terrible movie, AIR FORCE ONE, Ford does some of the most emotive work of his career. I was always struck by that strong man very simply admitting that he would let down his country to save his family, as if it were never really a decision in the first place. I know Ford can get crotchety, especially when talking about his past movies. But come one, how could you not love the man for participating in this skit on Kimmel the other week or for enduring this awfulness in the name of Lucas? I really hope Ford has another great film in him; he is one of our best. COWBOYS AND ALIENS is fun, escapist entertainment, but I thought that with the pedigree of talent working on this film, it should have been a whole hell of a lot better.

 

 

 

-Friday, August 5th, 2011: COMICS - Astonishing X-Men #2: Dangerous

XMoving on to the 2nd section of Joss Whedon’s run on ASTONISHING X-MEN, this storyline is called DANGEROUS. Of all 4 story arcs that Whedon wrote, DANGEROUS is almost unanimously considered to be the worst. I don’t agree with that at all, I feel like there are more problems with this arc than there are with GIFTED, but there are still some fantastic character beats, some hilarious lines, and some spine-tingling cool panels. This storyline deals with the sudden sentience of the X-Men’s Danger Room and how the team deals with the emergence of this new enemy. All the storylines from the past arc are carried through here which adds a lot of depth to the continuing story. Kitty is still the focus here, though she takes a bit more of a backseat to the team in these issues. Peter is still recovering from his captivity under Ord and the team is still having a hard time gelling together. My guess is that how you react to this storyline depends on how much you like the Sentinels. For those not in the know, Sentinels are gigantic mutant-hunting robots, specially fitted with mutant-power resisting protocols. Personally, I love these behemoths, they are so humongous and overwhelming, they really add a sense of scale to the comic and need to be put into future X movies. The first awesome moment of this arc deals with the X-Men’s response to an injured Sentinel that attacks the mansion during the night. The X-Men aren’t doing too well when Cyclops gets pissed. He says he wants this thing off his lawn and takes off his protective eyeband. The next panel is awesome, just the tiny black outlines of the X-Men against a pure red background of power. Next panel, we see the devastated Sentinel and the shorn countryside from above as Wolverine says in awe, “Every now and then, Summers, I remember why you’re still in charge.” Love that moment. When Wolverine is impressed, especially with Cyclops, that means something truly incredible happened. And this short scene is a bit of a hint of things to come with Cyclops, but that’s something I’ll get into more in the next two weeks.

Things get a bit too slow when Danger is endlessly talking with Kitty, explaining it’s sentience while terrorizing the students and destroying the mansion. Again. Though I do really like the long fight sequences where Danger is able to predict the team’s actions because she has already fought them a bajillion times before. It forces the team to improvise and I especially love when Peter tosses Emma into Danger because it is ‘unexpected.’ And I know that Whedon has an easy out because the mansion has healers, but it is still shocking to see Kitty and Peter skewered through with a gigantic spike. And I do love the reveal of Professor X, trying to talk to Danger, warning Danger that it has never fought him before. For some reason I wasn’t clear on, Professor X is in bombed-out Genosha, apparently just hanging out. He and Danger go into some mental games and this is where I kinda got lost. There is some secret about the Professor that only Danger knows and the X-Men are pissed off at X for some reason that I think was explained in previous comics, but I wasn’t clear on here. I think Whedon could have done a better job of explaining all this with X, Danger, and the team, I was a little confused. Everything gets better when the X-Men show up and a ginormous Sentinel flies in and release ab all-encompassing laser beam down on the team. The smoke clear and we see Kitty, holding on to everyone, having phased them all through the destruction. She is tired, sweaty, but she looks up at the Sentinel and cracks a Wolverine phrase, “That all you got . . . bub?” Hells yea, that’s a stand up and cheer moment, well done, Kitty!

Then there is a hilarious panel as Emma just wanders off the battlefield and Scott sticks his head into the frame from far right, saying, “Emma? Honey…? War?” Whedon even get little bits of character work in here too. In the last arc, Beast was considering taking that mutant cure because he was afraid that he was devolving, and seeing him crouched over the Danger bird-form growling out “MINE!!”, he might be right. Of course it can’t all be a happy ending, I like that the team turns on Professor X, upholding a moral standard that X couldn’t maintain. He knew that Danger was sentient, yet still enslaved her to his whims, an idea that infuriates the just-released Peter and the rest of the team. They stalk off the battlefield and we get one last reveal for the next arc, voices in Emma’s mind, “Nothing last forever. . . Hellfire does” then see the Hellfire Club watching, just off the field. Very cool. Even me, a relative X-Men newbie knows that Hellfire Club was one of the original enemies of the X-Men and I was totally pumped to see them back in business. Their traditional leader, Sebastian Shaw, was the bad guy in the most recent X-Men movie, FIRST CLASS. You know, I guess I do agree with the critics, this really is the weakest arc in the Whedon series. I still think there are fantastic moments and that Whedon’s bad is still better than most people’s good, but I get the criticism. On to the next chapter, a fascinating X-Men bottle-show, TORN.

 

 

 

-Thursday, August 4th, 2011: Book: WORLD WAR Z - Movie plot

Hamlet of Zombie booksWow, I’ve never seen such a strong negative fan reaction to a simple plot synopsis before, and I completely agree with the anger. All the controversy is about the movie adaptation of the Max Brooks’ zombie apocalypse book, World War Z. I read this book a while back, and I really enjoy what it accomplishes. The book is a collection of interviews with survivors of the zombie war, collected by an agent of the UN’s Postwar Commission. What is amazing to me is that this book is completely straight-faced; the collected stories are serious, tragic, horrifying, and heroic. This reads like an actual historical document, as if this were interviews about World War 2. I remember being so impressed with how well Brooks thought out the zombie war. He tells stories from all over the world, from small tales about individual survival to interviews with country leaders about the fateful decisions they made. There are tales about the goodness of humanity and ones about the base evilness that can overcome us. Above all, this book reads like something that could actually happen. I don’t mean the zombie part, but the world’s reaction to a global plague. There is panic, misinformation, greed, mistakes made, and finally, perseverance; all facets of human nature in a crisis.

As usual, my favorite parts of this type of fantastical apocalyptic novel is the practical response to the threat. Like, when you see a horror movie and you think, “Why is he running into the dark garage, I would have run out the front door!” There are two great interviews with a soldier in the Z War about the tactics the American army needed to learn to fight zombies. The first tale is about the Battle of Yonkers, a total disaster that decimated the American troops. The point is made that our military might  is based on the idea of fear. Injure the enemy so they will be carted home in pieces to lower morale in their home countries. Create a huge shock-and-awe campaign to cower the enemy into retreat. The Battle of Yonkers failed because the military was using expensive and complicated bombs and ordinance against zombies when zombies feel no fear and can still operate as long as their head is intact. They’ll just keep coming. A kid with a rifle going for headshots could hold off an army of zombies, but the Yonkers attack went wrong because of the hubris of the military leaders. There was a great line about how “armies perfect the art of fighting the last war just in time for the next one.” Great little commentary on Vietnam there, how America, convinced it knew everything about warfare from WW2, had no clue how to fight a guerilla war. The second interview with this soldier tells how the military got it right a few years later. They fought a zombie swarm on an open plain with just 2 lines of soldiers with rifles and a crapload of ammo. No one moves, they just fire single head shots all day long. When they run out of ammo, the 2nd line replaces them. Just keep firing calmly until the zombies run out. Not sexy and bold, just pure common sense. I love seeing that learning process and watching how America worked through that process to arrive at a solution. There are hints in the book about so many untold stories that I would love to hear more about. There are brief mentions about the fall of Buenos Aires, how a famous singer got on a radio and sang a lullaby to the world as his city was consumed. So many more stories that just inspire the imagination.

Anyways, back to the point. The movie adaptation of World War Z  is being produced by Brad Pitt’s company and is supposed to be directed by Marc Foster, the competent director of FINDING NEVERLAND, but also the man responsible for the atrocious QUANTUM OF SOLACE. This plot description of the movie was released the other day:

"The story revolves around United Nations employee Gerry Lane (Pitt), who traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments and threatening to decimate humanity itself.  Enos plays Gerry’s wife Karen Lane; Kertesz is his comrade in arms, Segen."

Fans of the book were understandably furious about this description, because this isn’t the book at all. The power of Brooks’ book lies in the historical nature of the Z War. It already happened. The battles, the death, its all in the past, and the narrator is just collecting memories. There is a tragic poetry about that, and turning the book into a ‘race-against-time’ thriller is such a huge change, they shouldn’t be calling this WORLD WAR Z anymore. I don’t know why they are doing this. There is so much creativity in the book; there are stories about the canine zombie sniffers, zombies attacking a submarine, one pilot’s fight after a crash landing in an infected zone, the point of view of an astronaut on the ISS during the war, celebrities and their stupid reactions, filmmaking during the war, the terrible battles, the ghastly extremes reached by some countries in their darkest times, etc. I loved the political commentary, especially in one interview with a politician about the necessity of having a government lie to its people. There is so much heart in this book; there was one terrifying interview with the radio operators who got out accurate zombie information to the masses. They talked about one of their departments called ‘Information Reception.’ These people were the ones who had to listen to all the radio signals out there and only pay attention to the ones that had useful information. They had to ignore the civilian bands, all the messages pleading for help. This department basically listened to the world die. By the end of the war, every single operator in that department had committed suicide. Just a small tragic note about humanity’s tolerance for human suffering. There was a great line about Americans, how they are always “reaching for the stars with their asses still stuck in the mud,” that stuck with me. That line talks about our drive, that even when we are still recovering from tragedy, we are already looking to the glorious promised future. Love that. So, with this wealth of story and idea, why the hell are the filmmakers throwing that out the window and going with another plotline? Why cut out that beautiful idea of history? Why buy the rights to the book if you aren’t going to film the freakin’ book? It smacks of studio notes and worry: That audiences won’t want to sit through an anthology of scenes without any overriding threat. Bullshit. Give an audience creativity and awesome ideas and they won’t care. Make the story a redemption thing about the narrator, maybe he’s burned out and rediscovers hope in the world through these stories. You can tell awesome short stories on an epic scale, like the great suburban escape scene in DAWN OF THE DEAD, or the creativity shown in that ZOMBIELAND intro (warning: bloody!! But seriously, let’s explore how zombification affects the stripper/Mob industry!). People will come!

 

 

-Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011: BANK AD - So close

Present & PastI was sent this link the other day to this advertising video for a Taiwanese bank, and even though I have some PR colleagues that think this is amazing, I think this is a perfect example of a video trying to moving, but just missing the mark. Or maybe I am a soulless entertainment consumer who is just dead inside. Because really, I know some girls who were tearing up at this. Either way, just when I started to be moved by this ad, there would be some amateur move that would undercut the emotion of a certain clip. First off, I think the opening sequence is wonderful. I don’t think the voiceover is necessary, but I love the man looking mournfully at the picture of his wife or the cancer prognosis for another man, all playing over a mournful sustained note. Very good mood setting. But it starts to go wrong with that guy going, “HUH!?” at :30 in. What the hell was that? The very first titles say this is based on a true story, so is this the real guy badly recreating his own emotional pain? Is this an actor overacting? Hard to tell, but in order to have the audience going with the story, you can’t have strange moments like that one. I enjoyed the light tone trying to seep in with the men sitting morosely at the table, but then the ad starts to go off the rails.

I’m not trying to be stereotypical here, but it is easy to see that there is a very large cultural divide between Eastern and Western television aesthetics. When you watch commercials on Chinese or Japanese TV, the advertisements seem to all be very energetic, silly, cheesy, and overblown. I’m sure there are commercials in the East that don’t follow this pattern, but from most of what I see, they just look at television ads very different than we do in America. This bank video starts to fall into that pattern. So far, it had been telling a muted story, but suddenly we have a guy slamming a picture down in the table with an exaggerated THUD! screaming about motorcycles. Then we see this cheesy golden-light shot of a guy lovingly looking at his motorbike. This all plays like a parody, just so on the nose obvious, that at least in my case, you lose all emotional interest.

But then at 1:15, it gets better. Any time they flash back to that old beach picture, it brings up wonderful feelings of nostalgia, regret, and empathy. The unbearable synth orchestra tones down in favor of a lone guitar and the ad starts to work again. That lasts for 15 seconds, then we are back into a bad ROCKY homage. Or a Taiwanese remake of OLD DOGS. And then, it almost starts working again once the music builds up and we flash to the old guys in misery, or way back to when they were on that beach and happy. Quiet is truly an advertisement’s best friend. That slow pan on the faces near the end, the man clutching the picture of his dead wife, the ghost of the woman missing, and the final tagline, that is the heart of this clip. Not the goofy cheesy stuff, and the silly zoom-ins, but the emotion. Instead of boring voiceover, would it have killed to hear one of the guys talk about what this trip meant to him? Why couldn’t we get the story about the one woman who was with the group in the old picture? Honestly, if they’d give me 1 day with this footage, I’ll put a new song in and it would increase the emotion 10-fold. I do think it’s hilarious that this commercial is for a bank. How on earth does this story promote a bank?! It could just as easily be an advertisement for motorcycles! I just thought it was interesting that this moved a few people I know, when I just got frustrated because it came so close to moving me.

 

 

 

-Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011: STUNTS - Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid

Studs: Newman/RedfordMovie and television stunts have always fascinated me. Even when I was a kid, I knew that it was mostly trickery, but I was totally caught up in the process behind making action stunts work. When I finally made my way onto some studio films, the allure of the stuntmen and their craft still never got old. I remember when I was working on MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA and we were filming what seems to be a fairly minor stunt, at 4:53 in this clip. But for this little fall, we hired a full-on stunt guy by the name of Doug Coleman, who has done stunts for what seems like every single action movie in Hollywood. He is a grizzled, barrel-chested dude who strode onto the stage with his crew after coordinating Mercedes car crashes for FUN WITH DICK AND JANE earlier in the morning. I was in awe of this guy and followed him like a puppy, begging for crazy testosterone-filled stuntman stories from HEAT or SPIDERMAN or any of the million movies he has been in. Once on set, it took an hour for Doug and his team to map out and rehearsed all the moves with Rob, the director, and we shot the next day. Everything needed to be worked out; how heavy the wagon was, how many birds were there, and the stability of the counter the guy smashes his head into. In these days of instantaneous liability, I can understand why these kinds of precautions are taken. I mean, there is barely a year that goes by that doesn’t have at least one stuntman death on set, and I am sure that the accidental decapitation of a lead actor during the filming of THE TWILIGHT ZONE a few decades back pervades the nightmares of all stuntmen. I read this New Yorker article(page 115, email: tksagan@yahoo.com, password: KC]x):@[ ) a few years back and it really gets across how much precaution is taken to map out stunts. The entire article is about a car chase/boat crash from THE PUNISHER that, to be honest, I don’t really remember. I caught this movie again the other day and I was disappointed because that car/boat scene doesn’t come across as that big. All that preparation, work, and money, just to get me to have a half-shrugged ‘meh’ reaction. Like the art of film editing/music, where a small change can alter the entire meaning of a scene, it is hard for the regular viewing audience to comprehend the amount of skill, time, and expertise that is poured into the art of stunt creation in films. I'm still young enough to switch careers to movie stunts, right??

One of my all-time most beloved and watched movies is BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID (right up there with INDIANA JONES & THE LAST CRUSADE, HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, and STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT). There is just so much to love about the easy sexy camaraderie and pure brilliant star-wattage of young Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and Katharine Ross. These were the dudes of their time and it’s hard to find anyone in this modern film age that has as much charisma as the two lead men. Plus, this movie has one of my favorite bits of dialogue ever: SUNDANCE:You just keep thinkin' Butch. That's what you're good at. BUTCH: Boy, I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals. When I got older and started to understand a bit more about how films are made, I kept coming back to one particular stunt in this film, and even now, I’m still not sure how the hell no one died during the filming of this stunt. And no, I am not talking about the cliff jump scene. That was an easy splice between a medium shot of the actual actors jumping onto a mattress and a long shot of two stuntmen jumping from a crane (hidden by a matte cliff in post) into a river. Nope, I’m talking about the train explosion. Look at that short shot at :25. How the hell did they do that?! If you look closely, the stunt actors react to the explosion ballooning into their faces and the wood shards of the train, so there is no way that they were replaced by stunt dummies. Since this is an old movie, we know there is no way this was faked or CGI’d. And look at the wide shot of the explosion a couple seconds later, with the horses scrambling and the camera shaking. At this point in film history, directors never shook the camera like that. In modern cinema, it is routine for a director to shake the camera with an explosion to give the audience a sense of impact. The only reason I can think for the camera to move during this scene is that the explosion was so much bigger than expected that the shock wave jolted the camera or freaked out the cameraman. Now, I read somewhere that the train fragments were made of balsa wood so that the stuntmen wouldn’t get injured, but it is still hard for me to believe that those two guys (or even the cameraman) weren’t seriously burned or injured. Man, I love BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, it’s so full of humor and pathos and charm. And even though it has a tragic ending, the audience ends the movie smiling and appreciating the pure love of life these characters exhibited as they bummed around the West. And even though it is over 40 years old, I still can’t figure out how they did a basic stunt explosion scene. Now that is a film that just keeps on giving!

 

 

 

-Monday, August 1st, 2011: T:SCC - Johnny Cash

Lena Headey as Linda HamiltonDespite the fact that this show was cancelled only three years ago, TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES is a TV show that has pretty much completely disappeared from the media memory. Which is too bad, because especially in its second and final season, TSCC made some really bold plot and stylistic choices. The show had Lena Headey, the girl from 300 and GAME OF THRONES, as a cold and badass Sarah Connor and FIREFLY’s Summer Glau as the awesome Terminator. The less said about whiny, emo, Wesley Crusher-bad ‘John Connor’ though, the better. Some critiqued the show for being too slow and for getting way too philosophical in its final season. I agree that the show went to some strange places late in its run, but I found the rabbit holes the show disappeared down to be fascinating. Suddenly, the show started spending entire episodes talking about what makes us human, or if a killer robot is capable of feeling empathy. Sarah Connor started writing these dense existential texts that were often read as voiceover to terminator violence. Spirituality was a theme often explored. The show also started to question the effectiveness of warfare; even it was fought for survival. It was weird stuff to see in a network action show, but certainly a different, more thoughtful look at the Terminator franchise. They also had great reveals, like that shocker when it was shown what kind of terminator the Shirley Manson character actually was. And that final episode, whoa, they must have known they were cancelled so they just went balls to the wall. They killed off one of their main characters in a bit of shockingly random violence, then had this crazy-ass ending where John went to the future, met his dad, and saw Summer Glau’s terminator in her human form. Like ‘V’ earlier this season, TSCC boldly went out on a huge cliffhanger, as if their goal were to shame the studio for cancelling them in the first place. I enjoyed the strange journey of TSCC, and they certainly accomplished their goal with that final episode. I wanted more.

But my favorite bit from this show has got to be the season 1 finale, when they depicted a terminator vs. FBI massacre to the strumming of Johnny Cash’s ‘When the Man Comes Around’. I mean, this scene is out there. Cash’s words are dark, but the beat is light and it creates such a strange emotional contrast in the viewer. To be honest, I’m still not sure this sequence works with that song. But around 1:40, when they depict the massacre from the bottom of the motel pool, the bullets and screams muffled by the water, it all turns genius. What a fantastically artistic depiction of off-screen violence. I am sure that this creative choice was born out of a desperation to keep the show under budget, but some of the best filmmakers in the world have admitted that they often find their best artistic inspiration when they are filming under budgetary restrictions. And as Hitchcock and the great directors have always taught us, your imagination can always conjure up things that are more terrifying than anything revealed on-screen. We don’t need to see the expensive stunt men being broken in half by the terminator in precisely choreographer moves, or see pricey blood bags splattering across the screen. When we see the aftermath of the slaughter, our brain fills in all the gory details. Let’s be honest, to film that pool scene, the director probably only had to pay for costumes, a bit of blood, and a couple trampolines. And it doesn’t feel cheap to me. I remember a particularly bad scene in HEROES, a show I mostly despised, where a character watches an awesome fight through a keyhole. We focus on the character’s eye the whole time when we would so much rather be watching the damn fight! Obviously, this was done for budget reasons, but at least give us some kind of artistic excuse on skipping a big-ass cathartic fight scene. Or make it about the character who is locked out of the fight, make the scene about his impotence, his cowardice. TSCC tells us that the finale is going to be a montage-ish type sequence by starting with the Johnny Cash. Then they give us that artistic pool shot and I never once felt cheated. The show also gives a weight to the bloody aftermath that makes the audience glad that they didn’t see all that violence. Surrounded by his dead teammates, shaking as he tries to load another clip in his gun, the horror on the FBI head’s face looks real and the way he closes his eyes when the terminator aims a gun at his face is genuinely moving. I love this scene, and am saddened it had to appear in such an underappreciated show.

There was also another great scene in that first season finale that could only work in a time-travel fantasy show. I love time travel paradoxes, I really do. It explains why I am such a big fan of that book, The Time Traveler’s Wife. In this scene, Derek Reese, back from the future, takes John Connor out to a park for his birthday. There are these two random kids playing in the field. Derek talks for a bit and John gradually begins to realize that the two boys playing the field are the Reese brothers. A younger version of Derek and John’s own father as a child, Kyle Reese. It’s a beautiful realization, that for a second, John gets to see his father. These kinds of emotional scenes that are only possible in sci-fi shows are what keep drawing me back to the genre. I love that combination of heart and possibility, a scene that can make me cry while simultaneously, my mind is racing to comprehend the concept of what I am seeing. Hell of a great scene. It makes me want to track down the show runners of TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES and make sure that I watch the next show they bring to the screen.