Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Here comes a new one
What's gonna happen?
We're gonna make it
Not gonna take it
Make no mistake it's
Last year was a fiasco
A real disaster
So full of sorrow
This year will be a great year
I just can't wait, dear
Forget the old pain
Sing a new refrain
Uncork the champagne
No, it's not too late
We've got a clean slate
The future's our fate
Last year was a fiasco
A real disaster
So full of sorrow
This year will be a great year
I just can't wait, dear
It's after midnight
I'm just a bit tight
Hey, but I'll be all right
The year is brand new
The old one's all through
And it's time to kiss you
--Loudon Wainwright III
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
It's not bad. In fact, The Boy really liked it. The story is that the rather juvenile Scott and Rudd do some rather juvenile things and end up in front of a judge. The sentence is community service, to be filled in a "bigger brother" type organization.
I'm pretty sure--I hope!--this never actually happens, sentencing people who act like idiots to be mentors to children. But, hey, it's a vehicle, and the first part of the movie is really carried by the not-nearly used enough Jane Lynch.
Doing a classic "reformed drug addict, now responsible but compelled to share uncomfortable details at every turn" bit, she rides the boys asses (even when they're being relatively good), much the way she did in 40-Year Old Virgin.
Rudd is paired up with a nerdy LARPer whose parents don't understand him, and in fact demean him even when they're trying not to. Scott is paired up with a sassy black kid, as if Gary Coleman had been raised on hip-hop and porn. Scott is a womanizing frat-party regular--what you might imagine Stiffler to grow up to being, while Rudd is on the verge of losing perennial girlfriend Elizabeth Banks.
Knox will be happy at least that this time Banks is paired up with the reasonably good-looking, clean-cut Rudd instead of the slovenly, unshaven Seth Rogan.
You know how this plays out, right? Our Peter-Pan-esque boys actually get involved and start caring about their wards, only to screw up at the end of the second act and have to fight for honor, even at great personal risk to themselves.
I mean, seriously, how else is it going to play out? They continue their reckless ways and get the kids killed? Come on. What's the matter with you? (OK, just once....)
The movie keeps you chuckling throughout, which may be sufficiently distracting from the parts that don't work that well. Too, there is enough avoidance of some of the obvious subplots to make it not seem fresh, exactly, but at least not completely predictable.
The relationship between Rudd and Banks is really a pointless waste of screen time. Banks is really just a backdrop on which Rudd's growth can occur, but the whole growth thing is pretty minor, and when contrasted with the fact that in the end she, of course, loves his new self, it's particularly unconvincing why she would. (I like Banks a lot, but this is a pretty typical male comedy writer's idea of women, i.e., a cardboard cutout.)
It looked early on like they might go with Scott putting down roots with his little buddy's single mother. Thank God they didn't go there.
LARPing gets an unexpected fair shake. I mean, personally, I've never met a LARPer who wasn't totally insane, but I assume that's just random chance. (They can't all be nuts, can they?) At first, the movie is unsympathetic but then allows that it's really not an unreasonable pursuit.
Rather than teach the foul-mouthed little black kid to behave, Scott teaches him how to score with the ladies. OK, that's different.
As I noted, The Boy liked this a lot more than I did, and he is closer to the target demo than I am, so I guess they did that right. There's a KISS theme running through the movie which is, I suppose aimed at me (and I did find it amusing), but ultimately I was sort of underwhelmed.
This currently has a whopping 7.9 on IMDB. It takes an 8.0 to break in to the all-time top 250. (Score inflation: When I started looking at IMDB 10+ years ago, the #1 movie in the top 250 was The Godfather and it had a 7.9.) I found it trite and sloppy which is something that doesn't necessarily kill a comedy, if the gags are good.
And the gags are pretty good. So, you know, have at it.
Monday, December 29, 2008
With a man who's sensitive?
Have you ever spent the night
With a man that cries?
Well, that's me, I'm sensitive
And I cry, I'm crying right now
In a manly way
Because I know some day
You will be soft-rocked by me
Sunday, December 28, 2008
A lot of people picked that up immediately on seeing American Beauty. I try not to generalize, and I liked the story (hack though it be) because it was well acted and presented.
But now you got your wife Kate together again with Leo doing the same schtick: "Oh, no! We're stuck in suburbia raising children and that was the last thing we wanted to do!"
Get over it, already. And maybe recognize for a moment that those of us who are privileged to share in the Western world's wealth, so much so that we can bitch about how we want something different out of life, maybe shouldn't be bitching about it?
Saturday, December 27, 2008
He seems callow to me, even after all these years.
But I don't dislike the guy, and he has some fine moments in this film about Germans who set out to kill Hitler--and actually more significantly, overthrow the National Socialist government.
I don't buy the rather silly argument that since we know how this turns out, it has no potential to be an interesting movie. We know that the Titanic sank, yet the movie made over a billion dollars. Whatever the Hindenburg's movie's problems were, knowing that it was going to blow up was not one of them.
There are several hundred miles worth of film coming out in the next few weeks all dedicated to WWII, and we know how that event turns out, too.
Silly argument. And, in fact, director Bryan Singer does a great job handling the issue. You do wonder, at more than a few points, whether they're going to be able to pull it off, and while it's in progress, there are times when it seems like they can't fail.
In fact, the plotting and execution of the plot is quite good, but it felt like the movie was waiting to get started up to that point. Stauffenberg is a difficult character to write and play, and the opening character development is sort of hit-and-miss. Obviously, the guy was a bit of a bad-ass, and cool as ice, something Cruise does pretty well. The other side, the more emotional, father, husband, human, is also hit-and-miss, though particularly good during the "let's kill Hitler" and less so during the family scenes.
I found myself, overall, less engaged than I wanted to be. I was distracted by the timeline, for example, since the plot takes place about nine months before the war ended and I kept wondering if it would really help much taking Hitler out when the horse was sorta out of the barn already. (Though a lot of the worst stuff happened at the end of the war.)
I was also distracted by wondering if, at this point, more English-speaking people had played Nazis than there had ever been actual Nazis. The accents are all over the place. Cruise stays American but most of the rest of the cast is English. Except his wife, who is Dutch. Also his secretary. (Both actresses from Black Book.) Some use German accents. All the signs and telexes are in German, though.
Usually this doesn't bug me, but it did, as did a big round of "Hey, who is that?" Bill Nighy, for example, I half-recognized. Like, "That guy looks like Bill Nighy, only thinner. And less funny." Nighy is a great actor, but I'm used to seeing him in silly things like Pirates of the Carribbean. Terence Stamp and Tom Wilkinson are also great, but they're also so very English.
I try to avoid comments like "this would've been better in Japanese" but I have to think this might have been done better with a bunch of no-name German actors.
Or maybe not. The Boy liked it more than I did.
Friday, December 26, 2008
Julie Newmar blows me away every time, though. In this "then and now" photo, the "now" is within the last year. She would be about 75.
Newmar, of course, got her start playing "Stupefyin' Jones" in the bizarre musical adapation of "Li'l Abner". Stupefyin' Jones was so beautiful she turned men to stone. Newmar is entirely plausible in that role.
GEORGE: Hello, Violet. Hey, you look good. That's some dress you got on there.
VIOLET: Oh, this old thing? Why, I only wear it when I don't care how I look.
ERNIE: How would you like . . .
GEORGE (as he enters cab): Yes . . .
ERNIE: Want to come along, Bert? We'll show you the town!
Bert looks at his watch, then takes another look at Violet's retreating figure.
BERT: No, thanks. Think I'll go home and see what the wife's doing.
ERNIE: Family man.
In particular, the scene where George and Mary are on the phone with Sam Wainwright must be one of the greatest in history. They're trying to listen to him, but they're trying harder not to kiss. And failing. But Mary knows full well that her wishes are diametrically opposed to his. (It also reminds me of another great Capra scene: In Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, where Jimmy Stewart is trying to talk to the beautiful socialite, and the camera stays on his hands fumbling with hsi hat.)
Mary isn't selfish, however. Even when she instinctively wants to keep going to the airport, she's also there with the honeymoon money to save the bank. And it's important to note that this scene ends with a great victory--not at all the relentlessly dreary life suggested by Jameson.
Besides misunderstanding this love scene (which is tantamount to misunderstanding the whole film), it's a gross conceit to cast Pottersville as a "resort town". Resort towns are potentially successful at times manufacturing towns are not, but I doubt many people would be tramping to upstate New York for the dime-a-dance, pool and bowling, and seedy nightclubs.
This is a stretch. It also reflects a sort of Potter-ization in the modern world, almost as if Jameson is justifying his selfishness by saying the world would be better with it.
As for George, I like to think that he's learned some valuable lessons by the end of the movie. He is too selfless, not as regard to his dealings, but with regard to the fact that he needs to value his own work enough to make a living for himself and be able to send his own kids to college.
Also, no more letting Billy do the deposits.
And while we're on the subject, I really don't see a communist bent in Capra's work. I see a strong distaste for greed, for sure, but his movies were all about a victory of the good-hearted people over the selfish. I realize that's the narrative Communists use, but it was always people who saved the day, or a heroic person, and the government and its agents were often the enemy.
Q: If Santa Claus makes the presents, why do they have Parker Bros, Milton Bradley or whatever company's logo on them?
A: Outsourcing. Toy manufacturing companies exchange toy designs for use of Santa's massive manufacturing facilities and skilled (but free!) elf laborers.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
"I don't know what day of the month it is," said Scrooge. "I don't know how long I've been among the Spirits. I don't know anything. I'm quite a baby. Never mind. I don't care. I'd rather be a baby. Hallo! Whoop! Hallo here!"
He was checked in his transports by the churches ringing out the lustiest peals he had ever heard. Clash, clang, hammer; ding, dong, bell! Bell, dong, ding; hammer, clang, clash! Oh, glorious, glorious!
Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!
"What's to-day?" cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.
"Eh?" returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.
"What's to-day, my fine fellow?" said Scrooge.
"To-day?" replied the boy. "Why, Christmas Day."
You may recall we had some trouble last year
The robot council had us banished to an asteroid
That hasn't undermined our holiday cheer!
And we know it's almost Christmas
By the marks we make on the wall
That's our favorite time of year!
From Chiron Beta Prime
Where we're working in a mine
For our robot overlords
Did I say overlords?
I meant protectors!
From Chiron Beta Prime
My sister scanned in a bunch of old photos and I can remember the events depicted vividly, complete with the strange emotions of a toddler or even infant. (Really! One of the most profound sense of sadness I've ever had in my life was on losing a balloon as a toddler.)
But I don't spend much time in the past. The present is rather demanding, and what's left of my attention I direct toward the future. There are certain (I hope irrelevant) similarities that I've forgotten, such as my own children resembling my sister and I as children. I've never thought of my mom looking much like my sister, but there is a strong favoring from certain angles.
There's a swing-set, for example, in one of the photos which I remembered as being quite formidable (it was, for my uncoordinated 3-year-old self). There's a photo of our tough ol' alley cat, who survived out in the coyote-ridden hills, only to be killed by a German Shepherd breaking into our yard when we moved into a "safer" area. There are dingy couches, high hair and thin ties. There are uncomfortable suits--or at least uncomfortable kids in suits--cigarettes and booze.
I tend to be focused on my children's growth rather than my own decay, which insists on itself in its own way. I think that's probably a good thing.
There are pictures on the piano
Pictures of the family
Mostly my kids but there's an old
Picture of you and me
You were five and I was six
That was 40 years ago
How can it be true?
A brother needs a sister
To watch what he can do
To protect and to torture
To boss around, it's true
But a brother will defend her
For a sister's love is pure
Because she thinks he's
Wonderful when he is not so sure
Ever notice how, if there's a news show or documentary about '69, there's all this hippie crap and "it was a time of upheaval" and blah-blah-blah?
You never see that in our family photos. There's no indication of anything upheaving anywhere. This attractive young woman does not look like she's about to build a bomb or set the student center on fire. Ask my parents about the events of the '60s and they'll say "I was busy." And they were.
My mother was (and is) a curiosity: Catholic school girl who went on to get a math degree (but hated math) and to have a computer career (and hated computers?) way ahead of her time. She was a career woman, but she made a lot of my clothes for the first 5-6 years of my life. I never had a piece of store bought bread till about then, too, since she baked, cooked, cleaned, washed, etc.
Though she would consider herself a feminist in the '70s (down to the whole fish/bicycle thing), she'd have been the first to warn any woman who wanted to "have it all". She had it all, and it was a lot of work. And a lot of it worked out in a less than optimal fashion.
Still, I've come to be impressed by my parents ability to raise children that survived at all. My mother was an only child (with a mysterious backstory that includes adoption) and my father had a younger brother he didn't associate with much, and they were both part of that nuclear family culture which assumed that big, close-knit families could be replaced with books by experts.
Of course, my generation was even worse, with the extended family being a distant memory of the previous generation. But we, at least, have the advantage of knowing that the experts are full of it.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
But we don't let the kids know it
We're parents, we're grown-ups
There's a line, we have to toe it
But we're all part of a conspiracy
About this bearded big-fat guy
Who isn't real, who never lived
Who's old but doesn't die
We took them to the department store
We went out on that limb
We told the kids it was you-know who
We said that bum was him
Then we set them on his knee
(To me the knee seemed bony)
Happily they sat there though
Chatting to that phony
Told the kids we could provide proof
(Deceit! Oh how I hate it)
Put out the milk and cookies
I confess I drank and ate it
Then there's that fib about the North Pole
As if any elves could live there
We helped write and send that letter
Knowing full well it went nowhere
You-know-who comes down the chimney
How could such a fat man fit?
The whole thing is preposterous
Yet we get children to buy it
We have no shame, the lies pile up
You think at least we'd balk
When singing about red-nose reindeer
And snowman that can dance and talk
Well, it's just a harmless tale
A bit of Christmas fun
Sort of like that other tale
The one about God's son?
Where angels speak to shepherds
And wise-men troop after a star
And a virgin has a baby!
That's fetched pretty far
But we adults buy that conspiracy
We toe and swallow that old line
Disappearing milk and cookies?
How about that bread and wine?
It's enough to make you wonder
It's enough to give you pause
Maybe it's just as important
Kids believe in...
--Loudon Wainright III
Monday, December 22, 2008
Die Hard is a Christmas movie! What better captures the spirit of the season than "Ho, ho, ho! Now I have a machine gun, too"?
We used to watch It's a Wonderful Life when it was on constantly, before they re-secured the copyright on it. And it's still one of my favorites. There's an NYT article up now about it where the writer takes a somewhat contrary view. Apparently, people are outraged by this opinion piece.
Which I guess goes to show that outrage is the new mistletoe.
It's actually not a bad article. There are a few points worth refuting, though. Maybe some people actually do think of IWL as a "cheery Christmas tale", but I don't know any. It's a feel-good movie, sure, but not a "cheery" one. In some ways, it's just this side of Job for cheeriness.
Then there's the claim that Pottersville is better than Bedford Falls: More exciting, more economically vibrant, etc. I think I've read that before, from a strictly economic viewpoint. The author supports his point by citing other resort towns that have thrived where manufacturing has failed.
Those who find merit in this just demonstrate how much closer we are today, as a society, to Mr. Potter than the Baileys.
Pottersville is a slave state: Nobody owns anything but Potter, and nobody does anything without his permission. It produces nothing but wasted lives. It's probably not even a nice place to visit but you definitely don't want to live there.
Then the author talks about George's criminal liability for the loss. This occurred to me, too, since it's the action that's criminal whether not the money is replaced. But does a scene with the Inspector agreeing to look the other way--as is implicit during the singing of "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing"--actually improve the movie?
It's like that alternate ending as seen on SNL (which I can't find, so here's another version).
Then there's a reference to George humiliating Mary (when she's unclothed in the bushes), and later to him treating her cruelly right before they first kiss. The former characterization is just heavy-handed. The latter shows a fundamental lack of understanding about George and Mary's relationship.
She, of course, is Bedford Falls to him and George must overcome his attraction to her in order to do what he wants. But when fate intervenes, and he's given the choice between doing what's right and doing what he wants, it's only her that makes doing the right thing bearable.
Also, the article characterizes the townspeople as bitter and small-minded which I think is that "inner Potter" talking again. At the same time, referring to brother Harry as being a slick self-obsessed jerk seems uncharitable, given that he does offer to take over the S&L. And I think he would've done it. It's George who feels he can't let him do it.
OK, "emasculated" by being kept out of WWII? Really? Would anyone have seen it that way at the time? This was a war when the home efforts kept the war machine going!
The article wraps up with the economic prospects of Pottersville versus Bedford Falls and concludes that P-ville had the brighter future.
Au contraire: Potter did indeed win (and bigger and bigger Potters against more and more Bailey's), yet given the current econominc situation--in these difficult economic times, if you will--the Potters of the world are busy trashing things while the Bailys of the world are doing fine.
The Bedford Falls are doing all right, too, unlike the Pottersvilles.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Then I figured, why not list every celebrity you've encountered over the years and get it all out of the way. Besides, it would make an interesting/funny post.
But I got up to about 30 and it stopped seeming funny and started seeming sort of tasteless. (In a bad way!)
This whole "active lifestyle" thing is starting to take shape. A lot of people don't like exercise, but I do. I just get into bad habits and chained to my computers. For me the discipline isn't the working out, but the stopping working.
For the most part this hasn't had any negative effects. I'm getting more agile. The recurring problem I have is that once I get on the treadmill it's easy to overdo. I wasn't home for most of today, yet I still ended up doing about three-and-a-half hours. I probably should have stopped an hour sooner.
I've been doing more of the Wii Fit, too. Although it works the legs heavily, it does so in an entirely different way, with subtle controlled movements. It reminds me of Callanetics. It does matter, though, if I do a long day on the treadmill. It's harder to do those subtle, controlled movements after seven hours on a treadmill.
The Boy and I are starting weightlifting this week, too. I've heard that's very good for blood sugar.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
In the '90s, after the relative successes of Universal Soldier and Stargate writer/director/producer combo Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich were hot properties. (Unlike a lot of people who apparently went to see Stargate with really low expecations, I saw it years later with high expectations and was quite disappointed.)
The two caught my eye because of their interest in the disaster genre. The '70s disaster genre. Actually, to get really specific, they were interested in the Irwin Allen disaster genre. (A genre that my cousin, who actually co-owns all or most of the Irwin Allen properties and is remaking them doesn't seem to be that interested in.)
This is not a genre that produced great movies, even if you'll sometimes see Earthquake and Towering Inferno given four-stars in the movie listings. (Earthquake isn't Irwin Allen but I'd guess most people from the '70s would be surprised by that, since it was a direct mirror of the Allen formula.) They weren't good, but they were successful.
The original Poseidon Adventure grossed 85,000,000 (1972) dollars on a 5,000,000 budget. According to Box Office Mojo, it was the 36th highest box office film (adjusting for inflation) in 1982. Currently it stands as the 74th highest domestic grossing film (adjusting for inflation).
Or, just to put it another way, my cousin's $160M remake would have needed to make 2.72 billion dollars in box office to get the same return that $5M did 35 years earlier. And the remake is an utter disaster. (Now, my cousin is a bright and talented guy who got where he was by working at it from the time he was eleven, so I fully expect him to hit one out of the park pretty soon.)
But when the remake was coming out the Fox Movie Channel did a marathon of the original. And as bad as it is, it's not quite as bad as it was, if that makes sense. The original is a melodrama--or series of melodramas--that happens against the backdrop of a disaster (the ship sinking). This was the Irwin Allen formula, put a bunch of people with issues together in a burning building, and also throw people from different social strata together, and get them to where they resolve the issues with each other through the disaster.
As a formula, it's positively ludicrous. But it's also kinda fun. That's what surprised me about watching the original: How much fun it was. (I mentioned to Knox in the Patriot thread linked at the top here that it's not always the great movies that are re-watchable.) Ernest Borgnine as the cop married to hooker Stella Stevens (with Stevens being almost completely gone from the original TV cuts of the movie, and slowly re-emerging to find a new fan base over the years). Shelly Winters as the fat former swim champ.
And of course, Gene Hackman as the priest who's mad at God. Talk about ham-handed! The parallels between Hackman and Jesus are not subtle. Toward the end of the movie, he's actually yelling at God!
It's easy to see why the remake of Poseidon fails: It lacks any of the fun. It's super-"realistic". The characters are more carefully, and less broadly, drawn and consequently completely forgettable. The effects are spectacular enough but I'm pretty numb to CGI effects these days. (For me, CGI effects peaked in '94 with the original Jurassic Park.)
What's more interesting, though, is to look at the Emmerich/Devlin films that were in the same mold and ask why don't they work? They did four movies in the Irwin Allen style: Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot and The Day After Tomorrow. (You can, at least, give them credit for applying that style to the sci-fi invasion, rubber monster suit and historical drama genres!)
ID4 and Patriot get a lot of oomph out of the actors: Will Smith has made himself a career out of carrying fairly mediocre movies into realm of the watchable. The weaker movies (Godzilla and Day) have less star power. (Recall that in the '70s, disaster movies had Steve McQueen, William Holden, Paul Newman, Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, Ava Gardener, etc.) But even so, do you remember who Will Smith was in ID4? I don't. I think he had to have been military--but he's so unmilitary it's hard to imagine that's true.
Jeff Goldblum was a nerdy scientist, I think, but isn't he almost always a nerdy scientist? In Day one of the Bills (Pullman? Paxton? No, wait, it was Dennis Quaid!) plays the scientist with foreknowledge and Jake Gyllenhall is his rebellious (I think) son.
In other words, maybe the weaknesses have to do with characterization. I can remember Charlton Heston scowling about building codes--and Paul Newman scowling about building codes--in Earthquake and Towering Inferno respectively. But I can't place Quaid's face at the meeting where he tells the President about the perils of global warming. I mean, I can, but I can just as easily put one of the Bills there. (Wait, maybe I'm thinking about The Core. Din't that have a Bill in it? No, that was Aaron Eckhart. Huh.)
I think it goes back to a common theme here on the 'strom: Inability to perform without irony. I mean, can you imagine it today: A cop married to a hooker and the two of them in constant battles, raking each other over the coals over it? It's positively "Honeymooners"!
Of course, the priest who hates God but is a heroic figure--very '70s. Now the priest would have to be a pedophile and personally involved in sinking the boat. The young girl coming of age and finding herself attracted to the priest (and the priest being the balding Gene Hackman, heh)? Hackman is actually mad because God allows evil to exist in the world. Is there a more trite, hackneyed character? But, man, Hackman sells it like he's never even heard of Job.
I might be wrong, but I think those movies worked to the extent that they did because the makers were willing to sell them hard. And, of course, audiences didn't need things to be hyper-"realistic". (They don't now but they think they do.) But over time, perspectives on what is realistic change, and the "realistic" movies get less watchable while those that knowingly (and successfully) affect a particular theatrical style--like every movie Hitchcock ever made--become more watchable.
I don't have a neat answer for this one. It could, after all, be sheer differences in movie-making skill. After all, it is the very ham-handed parts of The Patriot that detract from it, while the ham-handed parts of the early disaster movies are what make them watchable today.
I found myself increasingly irritated by the portrayal of the British. While it was a war and atrocities abounded, I found it hard to believe that the guys who wouldn't sully themselves to, you know, take cover while shooting, would do anything like the horrific things depicted in the movie.
I remember the controversy at the time and went to look up the Wikipedia entry for the movie; Wikipedia usually carries a "historical inaccuracies" section for every historical movie and I was pretty sure I had read an article on it there (or somehwere). When I went to look, however, there was no entry for inaccuracies.
Then I noticed that there was some controversy, and flipped over to the talk page, where a battle has been raging about the British conduct during the Revolutionary War.
And from a casual reading, the atrocities win out! Some point to this book:
Partisans and Redcoats details the war in the South which was apparently a long list of atrocities (rebels included) and documents Cornwallis' bad behavior. What's interesting to me is that the author makes the point that traditional histories just sort of ignore the South completely and don't talk about Cornwallis until the events leading to his surrender are imminent.
In fact, the author (Walter Edgar) makes a point very similar to the one made in The Patriot: That English atrocities were a big factor in unifying the South against the British. (The ties between them being strong well into the Civil War.)
How about them apples?
I think that makes Mel Gibson 2, Haters 1. (Braveheart, his best historical movie, is also the least accurate.)
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
We watched The French Connection the other night.
Five time Oscar-winning French Connection.
It registered a big "meh".
Now, if there's a period of time in the movies that registers a big "meh" from me, it's the late '60s to the late '70s. Say 1966-1975. Movies from this era tend to have certain elements in common:
1. A mustard yellow/avocado green color scheme. These were popular kitchen colors but the whole decade seems drab and--well, sort of like the '50s-future gone totally degenerate. One thing TFC had over similar cop dramas is that it wasn't all this way. There were some very nice shots and some good blocking, some things that presaged The Exorcist.
2. A gawdawful, ugly, brass-heavy score. That's why John Williams was such a phenomenon with Jaws and especially Star Wars. He brought back the full orchestra and aesthetic music. TFC is slightly different if only in that it relies on some really ugly piano work.
3. An attitude of cynicism and nihilism this generation wishes they could touch. So, in TFC, we have incompetent cops chasing incompetent crooks with a bunch of innocent people getting killed, and the bad guys getting away or getting light sentences because the system is broken, man.
There are probably a lot of other things that I object to, too, but I just plain avoid movies from this era. Even good ones tend to be ruined by one or more of these issues.
The Godfather movies, of course, are both remarkably (and uncharacteristically) beautiful with lovely scores, but the "heroes" are mobsters who are slightly less evil than other mobsters. The Wild Bunch makes sociopaths out of the guys who had been cutting heroic figures in the preceding 50 years of cinema. Serpico has an honest cop lead--but he's the only honest cop in the world, apparently. Even the Dirty Harry movies suggest that Harry's the only honest and competent cop around.
The musical dies during this period, with Cabaret putting the nail in that coffin. I love Cabaret, don't get me wrong, but it cemented the notion that we couldn't accept the musical as a serious art form. Post-Cabaret musicals would either be fantasies, kiddie pix or the music would have to come from an "organic" source. No more random people breaking out into song and dance.
This was the time of Heston's Post-Apocalyptic trilogy: Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and Omega Man. The death of the pro-American war movie with The Green Berets. The death, probably coincidentally, of the big-budget animated feature and Walt Disney. The time of despairing features like They Shoot Horses Don't They and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Not coincidentally, this is both a time critics are often nostalgic for, and a time when box office receipts were phenomenally low.
If not for the (basically) pre-Boomer Spielberg and Lucas, and Roger Corman's influence, movie theaters would probably be oddities today.
Getting back to TFC: It's slow--the vast bulk of the movie is people following other people around! The acting is good, of course. It all feels pointless though, and probably that was the point. Between the nihilism and the super-duper chase scene (which has aged like an episode of "Barnaby Jones"), you had a copy story that you could avoid enjoying for the normal reasons, and could "enjoy" for what it said about The Man.
A Big Meh. For giggles, TFC beat the following movies at the 1971 Oscars:
Films not nominated that year include Harold and Maude and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
His boss is a long-time friend of mine, so a day of work would've been as a favor to me. But my pal has had him come back three days and wants him for the rest of the week, which means that he's doing good work. The Boy actually went to bed early tonight to be rested for another full day tomorrow.
He'll have to scramble a bit to make up the time on his history. He's doing the '60s and '70s this month, and he has till the end of the month to get it done, but with work and Christmas, this'll be challenging.
Dayamn. When I was 13? I was all about plot. Plot and boobies. (OK, I threw that in for Troop.)
Anyway, this is the wrong title for the movie. The Dutch title is Aanrijding in Moscow, which means "Collision In Moscow", I think. That's a better title but stupid Americans would think it was a Russian movie, I suppose. Not a Belgian movie. In Dutch.
I don't know why I'm fixated on that. I guess because I was listening to it and thinking, "That sounds Germanic more than Frankish," which is the sort of thing that bugs me. The last Belgian movie I saw (the fine Memory of a Killer) was in Frisian.
This is the story of 43-year-old Matty, whose husband Werner has wandered off to have an affair with a younger woman but who won't divorce her and sort of hints about coming back (for six months!) and has made her miserable, raising her three kids alone except for the alternate weekend.
The story begins when frazzled Matty gets into an accident with 29-year-old truck driver Johnny and is taken aback by the fact that Johnny is strongly attracted to her. This is interesting because she's a complete shrew to him.
In fact, she's rather unpleasant throughout the beginning of the movie. On top of anger, sarcasm, bitterness, they also do the "no makeup and hair" thing so she looks a haggard 43 indeed.
But with his persistence, we start to see Matty change and get a glimpse in to what's made her so angry. (We also later get a full-on view of her body in a mirror which I think most even 20-something women would kill for.) And when she gives in (sort of), she has to take a hard look at what her husband has done and how she's let it affect her.
There's a curious element to this movie in that none of the characters are portrayed as victims. The cheap shot--the Hollywood formula--would be to have Werner be a jerk and Johnny be a saint, but Werner digs up dirt on Johnny and we find out he's far from a saint. And then, just to make things a little more complicated, the movie shows us Johnny being a jerk. Meanwhile, Werner brings back a lot of the old memories that made Matty attracted to him in the first place.
Werner is especially jerky, I guess, since he seems to not want to let go of either Matty or the girlfriend.
There's no "happily ever after" but this movie is hopeful--optimistic, even. We know the characters may be happy, but it won't necessarily be perfect or easy. And there's the subtext, or at least one subtext: Easy isn't always better.
There's another interesting bit of tension: Werner is an art professor; Johnny is a truck-driver. I somehow thought the enlightened peoples of Europe were beyond class wars as snobbery, but this movie brings the bigotry to the forefront. And it shows the prejudice going both ways as Werner turns out to be an insufferable snob--as does Johnny in his own way.
Ultimately, The Boy is right: While this movie is positively prosaic in its subject matter, ultimately you care about the characters, and so it works.
If you see only one Dutch-language Belgian film this year, make it this one.
What does help, though, is getting a girlfriend. Sure, she's a little strange looking, sometimes very pale, and the windows on her apartment are papered over, and people start mysteriously vanishing from the neighborhood, but hey--a girlfriend's a girlfriend.
And here we have the crux of this Swedish vampire tale, which plays very cleverly on the vampire legend and, in particular, the notion of a vampire not being able to enter a person's home without permission. (Something I've always considered metaphorical.) Whom do you let into your life?
This movie felt really Swedish. Somewhat slow, dark (literally and metaphorically), brooding and snow-covered, the bursts of violence is especially shocking given the quiet, bourgeois surroundings.
It also works by avoiding, on the one hand, the pitfalls of glamorizing vampires, and on the other by making the vampire victims largely sympathetic. There's really only one truly evil character, and it doesn't seem to be the vampire.
It's a good movie, and there's really only one thing that doesn't work. But if I say what that is, and you watch it, you'll be thinking about that thing through the whole movie, and it's really unnecessary to the film (but is a vestigial remnant of the backstory in the book).
Suffice to say, there's one aspect of the story you may wonder about, and it has to do with a very short shot (in the USA version) where we see the vampire naked from the waist down. (This is simulated; no actual naked twelve-year-olds were shown, I'm told.) I totally misinterpreted what I was seeing.
The Boy liked it and we think it was probably way better than the teeny-bopper Twilight.
And if you don't like subtitles, give 'em a year and you'll see this movie remade in English. (But it probably won't be as good.)
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
So I owe you two. Consider the following in the meantime however.
Because showing feature films (since about 1950) on a 4:3 TV would leave bands of the TV black along the top and bottom (and a very small resultant picture in many cases), the whole technology of "pan-and-scan" was developed, where a 16:9 (or other) film was reframed as 4:3, roughly along the center but panning to the right and left "as needed" to convey certain film elements. (I swear Blake Edwards used to deliberately frame dialogs with the two characters at the extreme ends of the frame deliberately to mess with that.)
So this butchery was allowed to continue, and few even commented on it until the '80s. As a result, pan-and-scan is still the dominant way films are shown on TV.
But wait, the widescreen TV is pretty standard these days! Does that mean they're showing the films as originally shot and framed? In a few cases, yes.
In most cases, however, the pan-and-scan version is being shown and then blown up to fill the edges of the widescreen TV.
So, you're seeing a butchered version of a film, where everyone looks short 'n' fat to boot. And while you can override this in some cases, I've seen a few situations where the cable overrides the TV controls, locks in the stretch, and seems to refuse to allow the picture to at least be put in the 4:3 frame for which it was designed.
Reminds me of the fact that lines in text files are still largely delimited by carriage-return followed by a line feed, from the time when they were printed out on teletypes, and the print head was on a carriage that had to be moved all the way to the left, and then the paper scrolled, in order to keep the line of text on the page and not overlapping.
Technology's funny, isn't it? Butchered movies with short fatties--not so much.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Now, I like Dana Delaney. I think Dana Delaney is delicious. I watched "China Beach" until I got tired of watching her sulk all the time. It took several seasons. Except for her performance in the otherwise flawless Tombstone, I have nothing bad to say about her.
But if we're talking Irish lasses, Delaney had a co-star on that show, a young lady who had also appeared on "Hill Street Blues", and whom I've always preferred. So, take this, Trooper York:
Megan Gallagher! She also had a chance to strut her soulful-stuff on the short-lived series Millennium. Someone needs to put these Irish women in things where they're actually allowed to smile....
Friday, December 12, 2008
Physicists may have the events right, but they're always making the universe older, too. But archaeologists have to ignore things like super-accurate pre-Columbian maps of South America, chemical batteries found in the ancient world, etc. Our view of the world is still dominated by an old Judeo-Christian model (that Judeo-Christians probably seldom subscribed to).
This is one of those things that's tough to ignore.
10,000 years ago--long before Western civilization crawled out of the muck--an empire on the Indian subcontinent ruled the world.
And yet it's all but forgotten.
I remember reading Durant's Story of Civilization, "Our Ancient Chinese Heritage" and being amused at a paragraph spent on an empire that ruled the ancient world for 200 years--that we know virtually nothing about, other than it existed and dominated.
We know a lot less than we don't know.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
The word we're looking for is "Dickensian". That's right, Dickensian.
We see religious riots, beggar factories, gangsters, and strange sorts of enterprise (lightly to heavily criminal) as Jamal and his brother Salim survive and diverge on their paths through life.
Jamal is an exceedingly good character. It's not that he doesn't swindle and steal--he has to, to survive--but given an opportunity to live honestly, he will. His driving force in life is to be united with his true love, Latika.
His brother Salim is jealous of Jamal's affection toward Latika, and this causes innumerable problems. Salim more fully internalizes the horror of the world that he comes from and, in a turn reminiscent of those old '30s Bogie movies, as Jamal walks the straight and narrow and Salim falls in with the neighborhood gangsters.
It's almost old-fashioned except for director Danny Boyle's flair. Boyle seems to be enjoying an artistic peak with his last four films (28 Days Later, Millions and last year's under-rated Sunshine).
The acting is top-notch but you're not likely to have heard of them. Jamal is played by Dev Patel (and a more generic Indian name there isn't), whose only previous credit is the British show "Skins". Madhur Mittal plays Salim, and his only other credit is a minor role the Indian film Say Salaam India (which I think actually played at our local Laemmele, though without subtitles). And "the most beautiful woman in the world" is played by model Freida Pinto in her first role.
"Freida Pinto" sounds Mexican, doesn't it? But she's a Mumbai native! She is, plausibly, the most beautiful woman in the world, too.
The only actor I recognized was the great Irfan Khan, who has also appeared in The Darjeeling Limited, and whose performance in The Namesake was simply unforgettable.
The great thing about Boyle, IMO, is that he's never boring. This is a movie of great depth and art that doesn't seem to belabor the point. The religious riot scene is heavy, but appropriately so. And the whole thing moves along lightly even though it's awash in the desperate poverty and corruption of India. There's a curious optimism there, a buoyancy provided by Jamal who manages to wade through the muck without being spoiled by it.
In the process, he becomes a hero to thousands of impoverished India who see "Millionaire" as a note of hope.
The Boy was a little under the weather and so became fixated on the economics of the two brothers living on the street. He liked it but was sort of unmoved as a result.
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
There's a lot of talk these days about how some amount of inflation is good. Good cases are made for this. You can read the link and see some economists who obviously cleave to that notion.
I don't honestly know if the theory is true or not. And there's one guy there (Burton Folsom) who talks about how the US prospered during the deflation that followed the Civil War.
But what I've been thinking about for a while is the unidirectionality of the pro-inflation types. I'm suspicious of it. Economic systems seem to need to flow in both directions. Markets need to expand, but they also need to contract. You just want them to end up a little bigger than before.
Money is essentially a commodity (with certain special properties, to be sure) and it seems to me that it needs to be able to become more or less valuable along with everything else. There's something odd about being pro-inflation as well, given the pride that countries have in the value of their money. The British have loved lording their pound over the American dollar, and the Euro-promoters loved it when the Euro towered over the dollar.
On the other hand, when money gets expensive, it's harder to export stuff. So, why all the bitching when money gets cheap?
Sometimes I think economics is just an excuse to complain about whatever.
It's been crazy around here. The Barbarienne got sick, the Flower's in a parade or stage show every weekend, The Boy is sick...
On top of that, the powers that be at work decided Christmas was a good season for relocation. People, computers, whatever.
I'll put up a review of Danny Boyle's newest (Slumdog Millionaire) and Oscar season is well upon us, so there'll be lots of reviews in the upcoming weeks. Plus January is the third "After Dark" which means eight horror movies in three days! (Erk.)
Saturday, December 6, 2008
I remember when the Wii was announced. A great many of the commenters predicted its failure. "It's hardly more powerful than the GameCube!" they complained. But I had a feeling it would be a success.
Because I wanted one.
Now, I'm a gamer. Whether or not I qualify for hardcore anymore is certainly debatable. I don't game as much as I used to, and I'm less willing to invest in the big games any more because I know it'll be a challenge (at least) to get past the learning curve to where I'm actually reasonably good at the game. (And I don't mean good in some Internet competition way, but just good enough to actually enjoy the process. Which is the point, after all.)
But I've been playing with computers since back when they were shared and billing was done by the millisecond. And I played on the first Pong machines. Certainly, I played computer games when doing so meant you had to type in the code yourself. And that was where I left off with video games (as distinct from computer games): When I could program my own.
The last console I owned, therefore (and one of two or three in toto) was the Channel F. I didn't like the action on the Atari 2600 (or the graphics), though the Atari 800 was a cool computer. By the time the NES rolled around in 1983, I had long abandoned the arcades and really couldn't much relate to the kinds of games that ran thereupon. (I was playing strategy, PC-style RPGs which are entirely different from the Japanese style ones.)
I wasn't real thrilled to live through the late '90s and the constant calls of "PC gaming is dying!" For one thing, PC gaming is the wild west of development: Anyone can write a game and try to sell it. There are no licensing fees. I'm not a Microsoft fan but they're smart enough to realize that making their development platform available for free benefits them tremendously. (Of course, they struggle with the other side, which is artificially restricting games from the PC platform to boost their XBox cred.)
What I realized about PC gaming, though, is that I played it when since before it was worthy of the word "niche", through the years where entire stores were devoted to PC games, and now, as their relative market shrinks. So why wouldn't I keep on playing when it goes back to being a niche again?
Which brings us to the Wii. Since I missed out on the NES and all subsequent iterations of consoles (though I bought an N64 and a PS2 for The Boy at various times), I really, really, really hate the controllers. One thing I've never been fond of, gaming-wise, is the tendency of some games to require artificially complex control sequences to do stuff. (Yeah, what I like about fighters is offset by annoyance over having to do these 7-8 sequence combos.)
So, somewhat ironically, consoles are to me, a closed world. I can't bring myself to memorize random codes. I'll do a little finger training for a strategy game, for example, but the basics mechanics have been standardized on those for years. To me, the control interface is a barrier that we should strive to eliminate. (This is one reason I always look at what Molyneux is doing; I know he feels the same way and it's interesting to me how he manifests this drive.)
Even if I did go through the trouble--what is essentially meta-game effort--when it's all done, I'm clicking buttons. If part of the fun of playing a computer game is doing something you can't really do otherwise (slaying a dragon, fighting a god, etc.) then the fact that you're doing it just by pressing buttons removes some of the elemental joy. (A good place to start with any game is to find some action that's pleasurable, and that you can find a pleasurable form of feedback for.)
The action/feedback cycle is the key element of electronic gameplay. There are some games that are little more than that. There are some games which have all the elements of gameplay but miss on that, and they're virtually unplayable. But once you're oriented within a game, there's another element to the cycle:
You mean to do something, you take the steps needed to accomplish that, and the game gives you feedback. The complex key-sequence is an artificial barrier introduced into the action sequence and the learning curve for any game is what it takes to unite intention with action.
The Wii changes that by using your native action to power the game action. So you don't have to train much, and the training you do parallels what you would actually do in real life. It's a weak parallel, of course, a shadow of what's necessary, and in some ways completely wrong from a technical standpoint. (Think Guitar Hero which, while not a Wii game, is the exact same principle.)
Anyway, the introduction of the whole body into the game is an element of immersion completely lacking from traditional gaming, and it's simultaneously both powerful and intuitive.
So I'm not surprised that the Wii sales figures are comparable to those of the PS3 and Xbox 360 combined. And I'm not surprised that the Wii Fit was the #1 selling game on Black Friday. The games are absolutely trivial: On the Wii Fit, there's a game where you hit soccer balls thrown at you with your head by leaning left and right (and returning to center as needed). This is a two button game, or three button at the most, and you'd be bored of it nigh instantly.
Add the body factor, though, and you've got something.
Ski jumping? That's practically a one-button game. But make the actions leaning and flexing like an actual jump, and there you are.
I suppose it's good for you in some ways, but that misses the point. It's the feedback. Eventually, of course, you'll get so good at the the controls that you'll need something subtler and more challenging, which isn't something we've seen a lot of yet.
But this is promising. Hell, the Wii Fit board is fun, but why not have, alternatively, ankle controllers? Cap or ear piece for head motion?
Think not? Well, consider that one of the prime laws of gaming has been that you couldn't get people to buy peripherals. You always had to make your game for the lowest common equipment denominator. What changed that?
Dance Dance Revolution.
Now, the Wii Fit. And what do they all have in common? A level of physicality that hardcore gamers eschew. Even Guitar Hero: You can just click the buttons, but isn't what makes it attractive that you can ham it up as a guitar god? Hell, I play guitar--but I don't play anything like the archetypal rock star. It doesn't appeal to me much, but I can see the appeal--and it doesn't surprise me that various real-life rock bands play it.
The Wii itself may be a fad. And it may be supplanted by additions to the Xbox and the Playstation, or by another console altogether. (Although Nintendo certainly seems to be using its brand well.)
But the physicality? I think that's here to stay.
Friday, December 5, 2008
So, a couple hours later and a $117 (!) poorer, I'm now back in business.
As a side note, we've been doing a lot the Wii Fit around here, too, and it's interesting to me how little the walking helps as far as doing Wii Fit games and exercises. If anything, I'm weaker after doing 4-8 hours of walking. Presumably that will change. (Or I'll just continue deteriorating unto my untimely death.)
I think Jack LaLanne said that exercising was supposed to be a pain in the ass. He also says you're supposed to exercise them all, every day, but there's no agreement on how many there are, apparently--estimates range from the 600s to the 800s--so I don't know how you're supposed to do that. It's darkly amusing that you could miss exercising the 798th muscle and end up plummeting to your death or having a fatal fibrulomantosis because you missed one tiny muscle.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
But I'm reminded of this classic USS Clueless post by Steven Den Beste. (It haunts him, people love this post so much. Also check out his takedown of other alternatives.)
From what I can see, there's an actual physics question to be gotten around. Namely, just not enough energy hits a particular point on earth to generate adequate amounts of electricity, even at 100% efficiency. (Den Beste uses a 2,300 square kilometer coverage figure, assuming 100% efficiency, that would generate enough energy to cover California's 1990s gas usage.)
My only real issue was this is that he seems to posit it as some grand engineering feat, where I see another possibility in the form of dividing that 2,300 sq km up into, say, ten million pieces. That works out to about 2500 square feet per portion, and you have some efficiency in generating the electricity where it's used.
That is to say, if you can paper over people's roofs or parts of their yards, the engineering, financial and distribution questions are less humongous. (The environmental issues would go away until the green-types started bitching about how the solar collectors were disposed of, and until they discovered a photosensitive microbe adversely impacted by these new devices.) A local approach could even give us implementations for transport and storage, which I think would benefit us as a whole. (Some people would doubtless end up with lemons.)
That's assuming that we could get to the point where solar really was that efficient and cheap. Anyway, I end up amused by stories like this. Every month (at least), a new story. When does it--when does any of it--come to market?
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Since it's free, the movies have commercials. I haven't watched enough to know the pattern yet. I think the HD movies are commercial free (I imagine the cable companies are thirsty for HD stuff) but the SD movie we just watched had a commercial about 20 minutes into it. And that was that.
That's not great, especially for a horror movie. Horror movies are hard to watch at home with others around, possibly trying to sleep, since they rely on the big dynamic volume changes. And you need a good atmosphere to build.
Worse though is, besides the bug in the lower right (which is bearable, if needlessly large), is that they put commercials during the movie in the lower band of the screen. Now, I sort of think this is inevitable for commercial television of any sort, since fast-forwarding and commercial removal tend to reduce the value of advertising being spearate from programming.
But it's bad during a horror movie.
And none of us are really Navy material anyway. (Well, the Barbarienne swears like a sailor but I'm hoping she'll grow out of it.)