Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Jim and Pam and The Office

Yes, I am one of those people who still watches The Office even though Steve Carell left and the show hasn't been consistently good since season 4. Some habits are hard to break (I somehow made myself watch all of the last season of Dexter and will probably watch at least the first episode of next season and, somehow, I still haven't given up on The Walking Dead even though, this week excepted, I haven't said "that was a good episode" since about the second episode of season 2). It's not enough that I still watch it, though. I have to read the write-ups on the AV Club (probably to silently commiserate with other lost souls). A consistent theme in these write-ups and the comments section is that Jim and Pam have turned into self-serving assholes since getting married and having children. Well, I've got news for you: they've always been assholes.

Back when The Office was still about how dull it is to sell paper for a living, Jim and Pam would pull pranks on Dwight or spend their time flirting at the reception desk to alleviate the boredom (obviously, Tim and Dawn from the original are the models here, but that run was so short that we never got to see them become insufferable). Because Dwight is an easy target and an alienating figure in the office, the coworkers put up with the nonsense, but Jim and Pam have never really been too interested in getting to know anyone else beyond work (except when they feel guilty about something, then they'll do something nice which is just as much about doing the right thing as it is about making them feel like they are good people. Contrast that to Michael Scott who, while childish, legitimately cares for everyone. Except Toby).

It was easy to ignore that Jim and Pam were actually kind of mean because the show wasn't so cartoonish. It really did feel like people were trapped in this office and any respite was needed to maintain sanity. Plus, the early years of the relationship were relatable. Who hasn't had a crush on someone who wasn't available? Who hasn't been stuck in an unfulfilling relationship? The viewers can relate to them and root for them because there's a very obvious connection between Jim and Pam that was never there with any of their other partners (to be fair, there are those who found them insufferable early on). I count myself among those who audibly gasped when Jim finally kissed Pam. It was an exciting moment when the show was at its peak.

The Office eventually started throwing up roadblocks both organic and contrived. Jim going to Stamford was a good move. Pam going to New York was OK, though I suspect she probably would have gone to a smaller program somewhere closer. Pam flirting with a classmate felt like an excuse to make Jim insecure (though she did have a history of flirting with friends while in a relationship). It's around this point that the Jim/Pam courting plot line was getting stale. Finally, they got married and had a child and the show hasn't known what to do with them.
Now, they exist solely to come up with excuses to get out of doing things. In a recent episode, Jim lied about being at jury duty for a week so he could help out at home. Meanwhile, his coworkers had to pick up his slack. The move was pure selfishness to the detriment of his coworkers, but by the end of the episode, they're on his side because they see it's hard to raise two kids. Except several people in the office have had to deal with similar issues (and Meredith is a single mother) and didn't make their coworkers lives harder. Additionally, we're led to believe Pam's mom helps out a lot, so why should we  accept that that wasn't the case when Jim took the week off?

Jim and Pam have always been selfish, but in the past, we had a reason to root for them. They needed an escape. They needed each other. Now that they're together, it's like there's nothing for them to do but feel superior to everyone else. The writers on the show keep trying to set up more Jim and Pam-like scenarios with Andy and Erin or Daryl and Val. Relationships with obstacles to overcome (the obstacles always seem to be that one of the characters is already in a relationship with another person). We don't need another Jim and Pam. Come up with another approach. The Phyllis/Bob Vance union was terrific. The Office seems to think that the only people you meet and love are those you meet in an office.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Paper Moon

This poster doesn't make me want to see the movie.
With so many made before I was born and the fact that I only really started to look back through film history starting ten years later (and that was really mostly the Monty Python/Mel Brooks ouvre), I often struggle with watching older films that deal with what are now very familiar tropes. Paper Moon came out in 1973 and while I'm sure the "precocious child clever beyond her years" and the "antagonistic adult/child road trip" plot devices existed, I seriously doubt they were as ubiquitous as they are now (I couldn't stop thinking about Dutch). As a result, Paper Moon felt intensely familiar and predictable, which is a shame because I love a story about conmen (conpeople?). While that colors my viewing experience, I know rationally that it's not a valid criticism (I once got into a ridiculous and heated argument with my cousin because I said I didn't care for The Last of the Mohicans because I was sick and tired of historical epics. He rightly pointed out that it was released before the crop of films that exhausted me [Braveheart, Gladiator, etc]). It doesn't help that The Simpsons has covered this ground several times, much to my immense enjoyment.

Of course, none of that would matter if Paper Moon was a great film, but it's just good. I never realized that it was a black and white film and after the initial surprise (I really thought it was going to be some kind of homage to three-strip Technicolor, for some reason, and kept waiting for the shift to color like The Wizard of Oz or Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), I eased into the photography and found it to be quite remarkable. If there is one standout in Paper Moon, it's Laszlo Kovacs' photography.

I was also pleased to find that Ryan O'Neal can act and that Stanley Kubrick must have instructed him to be as wooden as possible throughout Barry Lyndon (seriously, I hope that role had little to do with his steady decline in film appearances, but I thought he was just a bad actor until now). Ryan O'Neal was the biggest wild card going in to my viewing and he was quite good. On the flip side of that coin, Tatum O'Neal was just as annoying as I thought she'd be judging by my experiences with this type of character. It's remarkable to me that she won the Academy Award for the performance aside from the fact that there's some heart-string pulling associated with her recently-orphaned character.

As is usually the case with road trip movies, much of the fun comes from seeing who's going to pop up next. While audiences in 1973 probably weren't too familiar with much of the supporting cast, I was very pleased to see three(!) future Blazing Saddles alum pop up. Mel Brooks must have been keeping an eye on Paper Moon for some casting choices. Madeleine Kahn is always nice to see, but it's even better when unexpected people like John Hillerman (who's also in Chinatown) and Burton Gilliam (the outlaw who starts singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in Blazing Saddles) pop up.

Peter Bogdanovich does a nice job directing, though for some reason, I was disappointed to learn that Orson Welles was giving him and Kovacs tips throughout filming (I think it's because you can't mention Bogdanovich without Welles coming up and I find that unseemly, like the former is a leech). You could do worse than spend almost two hours watching this movie and if you're not tired of the tropes involved, you might get a huge kick out of the flim-flamming.

Paper Moon (Theatrical Trailer) by NakedBrotha2007

Monday, February 27, 2012


Criterion announced its release of Godzilla on Blu ray in October thrusting the movie back into my life. I'm not even 100% sure that I'd seen the entire film, but I knew that it was something I wanted to show my child (also need: Ray Harryhausen films). This feeling was renewed when I went home for Christmas and nieces saw the monster carpets my cousin gave me and while Ruby was slightly off-put, they were both drawn to the creatures. I proceded to show them as many clips from Godzilla as I could find and showed them images of all of the monsters in the world (Josie was particularly transfixed by the Smog Monster, mainly because of the carpet). If there's one fact of life, it's that everyone loves monsters.

After watching the original Godzilla (not the Americanized Godzilla: King of the Monsters), I realized my desire to show my son is slightly more complicated than I'd like. For one, while Godzilla is a terrific film and very interesting, there is a lot of time spent talking about science and how to bring down the monster. I know children are fickle creatures an may check out in the absence of some epic monster madness. When Godzilla is on a rampage, it's a wonder of special effects (especially for 1954 and since Godzilla basically made special effects films viable in Japan) and the miniatures and costume are amazing. When he's not on screen, well, I don't know if kids will care about a pseudo-love triangle.

Also, I would never feel right about showing anyone a dubbed version of the Godzilla and it saddens me that so many hold in their minds the crappy dubbing of the other films in the series. This means I have to wait for the boy to be able to read (unless I want to act out the subtitles for him). How can I possibly wait that long? I plan on starting the Black Christmas tradition this year! He's got to see Godzilla before that. I guess I can just show him the rampaging...

And related to the bad dubbing, as awesome as it is to watch giant monsters clash, in light of the original, it's disappointing to see Godzilla become a defender of Japan (though he's not in all the sequels). He's a monster, dammit! The sequels turn a film about the effects of nuclear testing and the dangers of weapons of mass destruction into somewhat of a joke (though, to be fair, other monsters are created from pollution and such things). Then there's Godzilla's son, Minilla, which really might be the way to intro the series to children but is kind of an embarrassment. But still, men in rubber suits fighting!

Maybe all will go according to plan and the boy will love Godzilla. Aside from the visceral thrills of watching a monster destroy a city, I'm hoping for an early appreciation of Akira Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura who always seems unsung when paired with Toshiro Mifune but owns the screen just as much in a different, restrained way.

Some people may watch Godzilla (and the Harryhausen films) and say they look cheap, silly, or fake, but to me, that's the magic of it all. Seeing the craftsmanship is amazing to me and it makes it look like the film is tangible. Something that can be made. Something that can be made by me or anyone else who has the desire. Films don't have to be perfect representations of reality but they do have to be sincere expressions of their creators. And ultimately, that's the message I hope to pass along.

This is the King of the Monsters trailer. If you want the original (unembeddable) trailer, click here.

Post-script: Not all of my writing will be through the filter of my child. I'm just stoked to show Godzilla to the kid (and my nieces, for that matter [my nephew is still too young to read much of anything])

Post post-script: Godzilla was nominated for Best Picture at the 1954 Japanese Academy Awards but lost to Seven Samurai (also starring Takashi Shimura). My mind is a little blown by how awesome those awards must have been.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Some Under-appreciated Movie Themes

I watched the original Godzilla last night and forgot how amazing the theme is, which made me think of other themes that don't get the publicity of say, Star Wars, Jaws, or the James Bond series (had to throw another composer in there or it would have felt like I was piling on John Williams). Anyway, here's a few movie themes that I love:


Planet of the Apes (Jerry Goldsmith is probably my favorite film composer of all time)

Gremlins (more Goldsmith and probably better known than the others, but this song rules!)

The Incredibles (it's a travesty of mammoth proportions that this score didn't even get nominated for an Academy Award let alone win, as it rightly should have)

A Fistful of Dollars (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly gets all the press, but there's loads of Morricone themes that could easily fit in this place)

Ghostbusters (Elmer Bernstein has done so many amazing scores and I think it's sad that his music for this film gets overshadowed by Ray Parker, Jr. This is the first time we hear this theme in Ghostbusters and it weaves in and out of most of the tracks in the film. The piano always brings a smile to my face)

That's all for now. What themes do you think aren't appreciated enough?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Flirting With Disaster

Controversies aside, I generally like the films of David O. Russell. Well, I like Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees (The Fighter holds no interest for me). On the flip side, I'm not the biggest Ben Stiller fan, but I that has more to do with his film choices than him. Thus, I went into Flirting With Disaster with a degree of trepidation. The promise of the stellar supporting cast put me on the optimistic side, but good actors only get you so far if the script isn't there (plus, who knew how long they would be around for?).

Flirting With Disaster is good. There's little remarkable about it aside from some funny shot compositions and a very distinct sense that it was made in the '90s. There is a section of the film that made me feel bad for the citizens of Michigan since that state is represented in a highly unpleasant light. It's not much of a wonder why midwesterners are touchy about the "flyover" designation and their Hollywood representation.

The biggest issue with Flirting is the same issue I have with Meet the Parents: the comedy comes from ridiculous and unbelievable situations. For many, this isn't a problem, but trying to get laughs from a disingenuous scenario is an automatic humor killer for me. So when Mel Coplin (Stiller) knocks over a previously unseen and unacknowledged shelf of ceramic zodiac ware because he's Indian wrestling an attractive student (Tea Leoni) working on a thesis about the psychologic effect of reuniting adopted children with their birth parents and loses his balance, well, that just reeks of contrivance (and don't get me started on the presence of Leoni's character, whose presence at all is absurd and exists solely as a temptation device and not a real, round person).

This is the way most of Flirting plays out. It's not bad, but it's hardly engaging. After the second wrongfully ID'd possible parent, one might rethink the whole endeavor, but they plow forward and the film actually picks up steam thanks to the introduction of Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins. In fact, Jenkins is easily the highlight of the movie, getting caught as the fifth wheel and accidentally getting dosed with LSD but maintaining just enough coherence to try to do his job as an ATF agent.

Even though Flirting With Disaster tends towards the outlandish, it's saving grace is its mature view of relationships. The film acknowledges various temptations and that nothing in a relationship is as black and white as it may seem (well, nothing dealt with in this film). All of the characters (save Leoni's) wind up in good places and it all feels earned. They've gone on a journey. Some are the same, but some have grown and achieved a better outlook on their life. This was a welcome surprise and makes putting up with the lesser moments of the film a lot easier.

Where My Head's At

Ever since my fiancee (Andrea) and I started telling people we're going to have a baby, one of the first questions (to me, anyway) is "are you ready." When she's still in the first trimester, it's pretty easy to say, "yeah, I think so." While that hasn't changed, it's definitely changed to a, "as ready as I can be." A subtle distinction, but a distinction nonetheless.

Andrea's due date is less than a month away and we're clear for a home birth in just a few days meaning that she really could go into labor any day now. This hadn't really struck me until I was at work selling tickets the other day and she called. Normally, I just ignore my phone in this circumstance since it would be pretty rude to stop a line of people coming to see a movie to take a personal call. But when I looked at the phone later and saw it was my fiancee, I realized that the time is coming for me to take my phone calls more seriously. I need a pin or sign that says something like, "My fiancee could give birth any minute. Your patience is appreciated," for when my phone buzzes (I keep it on vibrate).

Another strange realization I had was that after the baby is born, I'm going to spend a fair amount of time holding him (Oliver Henson). I'm not typically one who cottons to holding babies. There's always a fear that I'm going to get slimed in some way or another. In fact, the only babies that I know I've held without any prodding are my nieces and nephew and I think with my first niece it took some cajoling.
See how awkwardly my hand sits behind the head?
So, as I am wont to do these days, I was daydreaming about life with Oliver. Just sitting around, holding him and at some point I was ready to give him to someone else because it was time to go. Except that I'm now the one people will hand him over to, not the other way around. I can't express what a bizarre revelation this was. He's mine. Not some temporary presence like every other baby in my life has been. And that sliming fear? That's just going to be my life.

This isn't to say that I'm not stoked as hell for Oliver to be born. I spend an equal amount of time wondering if the Red Sox onesies will fit in time for Opening Day and if it really matters if they don't. And looking through some old pictures of my nieces trying to find the above photo made me really excited for all of the weird moments raising a child brings (I've always been a little jealous that I haven't been around to see more of my nieces and nephew's eccentricities and hearing about them from my sister always makes me smile). It's going to be crazy, but I think it will be fun.

(Although, the childbirth classes kind of made childbirth seem way more intense than I already viewed it. Yay knowledge!)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Uncle Boonmee Is Not for Me

Halfway through Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, my attention wained and never returned. I knew it was going to be slow and for the first hour, I was a good, attentive viewer. The red-eyed creature in the woods, the reveal of Boonmee's dead wife at the dinner table, and the entrance of his long-lost son... all solid stuff. But they are brief moments in an often striking but always dull film.

The first moments I felt alienated from Uncle Boonmee was during the first scene with dialogue. I wasn't sure if it was the rhythm of the language or just stilted acting, but everything was still and lifeless. Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul he did this on purpose and I have no reason to doubt him, but there are reasons that I'm not the biggest fan of Ozu's work (whose actors remind me most of the acting style here). It's not interesting to watch people who seem uncomfortable delivering lines speak to each other and knowing I have two hours of it is going to take me out of the experience quickly. The surreal elements mentioned above helped keep me in the film, but that only works so long without involving characters.

Another aspect that confounded me was how disparate the look of Uncle Boonmee is from scene to scene. Sometimes, the shots look like a rank amateur is behind the camera with everything looking flat and dull while other images are composed and stunning (Weerasethakul states that this variation in style is also intentional). Maybe I'd be more interested in exploring the reasons behind the shifts in style, but without anything holding my attention, it's wasted effort (though he regained with the talking catfish and ensuing sex scene between said catfish and a woman).

I freely admit that I don't "get" Uncle Boonmee. I think there's something lost culturally on me and certainly thematically since it's a part of an overarching "Primitive" project by Weerasethakul. Frequently, Uncle Boonmee is beautiful and the way I would appreciate it most is to cut it into still photos and short segments and have those displayed in a gallery. As a narrative, I got very little out of it, but as a series of brief experiences, I think it could be very impressive. 

Uncle Boonmee also features the most insect noise I've heard this side of The Walking Dead.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Making Pretzels

Now that I have a video camera, friends keep telling me to shoot anything and everything just for the practice, so I did. I decided to bring the camera along on my attempt to make hard pretzel sticks. I failed, but I mostly blame my unreliable oven. There are certain shots I missed, but the experience was just for fun and not perfection.

Anyway, here it is. There's no soundtrack since it would have been massively discontinuous and distracting, so throw on whatever you like to listen to. Maybe it'll turn out like a Dark Side of the Moon and the Wizard of Oz.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Everyone Should Watch Justified

My fiancee and I have been systematically watching complete runs of series for a while now (not having cable, a lot of time is spent finding streams that work). We started with The X-Files, which understandably took a while to get through. Using the Vince Gilligan connection, we moved to Breaking Bad, which led to Deadwood (unintentionally) via Anna Gunn. Timothy Olyphant brought us to Justified (you didn't need to know all of that, I'm just really fond of drawing connections), which I'd been hearing a lot of good press about on NPR and the AV Club. We're closing in on the first season finale and it's easily become one of the most entertaining 40 minutes of television I watch. 

To be sure, I need to adjust to the styles of the show. Justified doesn't have a distinctive look like Deadwood or Breaking Bad. It mostly just looks like any number of shows like Burn Notice or Royal Pains, sort of blandly polished. Also, I've gotten so used to heavily serialized shows and have such an aversion to the seemingly millions of police procedurals out there that when it became apparent that Justified was going to feature a different conflict every week while trying to balance an over-arcing story, I instinctively wanted to reject it. However, after a few bumps in the early going, Justified has won me over, full force.

The AV Club makes the point that Justified has cracked the formula for combining serialized and procedural plotting and they are spot on. But what I didn't expect from the procedural elements was how exciting and mysterious it makes the next episode (I never watch the "next week on..." previews for shows because they are always misleading and always give away too much for my tastes). Instead of going into the next episode wondering how the protagonist(s) are going to extricate themselves from whatever problem they are in (and I can't help but think of Breaking Bad right now), Justified makes you wonder what sort of case Olyphant's Raylan Givens is going to have to deal with while he tries to deal with bigger priorities.

Another bonus of the procedural elements is that they allow for a cavalcade of amazing guest stars. The first few I got excited about were Alan Ruck and Tony Hale, but then a trend started to develop. Peter Jason. Ray McKinnon. W. Earl Brown. Sean Bridgers. Every episode was turning into a Deadwood reunion! Con, the reverend, Dan Dority, and Johnny Burns were all back shootin' the shit with Seth Bullock (well... not so much the reverend). Little makes me happier than thinking about the between takes conversations and everyone reliving their Deadwood experiences. Plus, I'm a fan of filmmakers who work with the same people repeatedly because it really gives the sense that everyone likes each other and is having fun making movies and that's the feeling I get when I see these guest stars. I can't wait to see who else is going to pop up.

As it's based on the work of Elmore Leonard, I'd be remiss if I didn't include the amazing and often funny dialogue. Everyone gets to shine, but any time Raylan gets to banter with an adversary, the show is electric. This is probably why the episode with W. Earl Brown is my favorite. The only issue I have with Justified so far is that some of Raylan's colleagues cyphers. They are simply there to follow orders. For a show that creates such memorable one-off characters, it's disappointing that the supporting cast gets such short shrift. Hopefully that will change as the show builds its world. 

Oh, and the theme song sucks. Two issues. Watch Justified!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mission: Impossible III

I never really expected to watch any of the Mission: Impossible series. Action movies don't do too much for me unless they feature some rad car chases (I'm a sucker for those). Also, I have a rather strong distaste for Tom Cruise as an actor and as a person (or more appropriately, how he's represented as a person). A growing appreciation for Brian de Palma in conjunction with a desire to see Brad Bird's entry into the franchise prompted me to catch up and I've been (mostly) pleasantly surprised by the first two. There are massive amounts of ridiculousness in the series, which is what I can't stand about action movies in general, but they are a lot of fun and watching them plan and pull off missions is always exciting.

I'm no J.J. Abrams fanboy, but I like what he seems to be about (don't ask me what that is). If there's one thing the M:I franchise has done well, it's attached interesting directors with their own style. It's a little surprising that Tom Cruise capacity as producer didn't compromise that, but maybe I've always been too hard on Cruise. Sure, John Woo's "operatic" gun fights (read: slow-motion and doves) is excessive, but it's distinctive. in M:I III, Abrams uses lots of colorful lighting and lens flares (or at least saturates the screen with the light), which is unmistakably a staple of his. One can't help but wonder how long some of the scenes took to light.

As for the plot, it's just as convoluted and twisty as one would expect and the surprise turn at the end isn't much of a surprise. Ethan Hunt and his crew are out to catch Owen Davian who is selling weapons and whatnot to terrorist groups. However, an inside operative frees Davian who captures Hunt's wife in order to make Hunt get "the rabbit's foot" for him. The story is pretty interesting and takes the viewer to some fun and impressive locations, but since the film starts out with Hunt captured and his wife tied up with a gun to her head, we know basically where it's headed. Not only do we know that nothing bad can happen to Hunt until he gets to that point, we already know his wife is in danger. Even worse, though, is that we know that what we are seeing at the beginning isn't going to be exactly what it seems. I really hate the device of showing a later event at the beginning of a film because it saps drama and makes the viewer skeptical of what they are seeing. It's the difference between "how do we get there?" and "where are we going?" I find the latter much more exciting.

The other major issue with M:I III is that Philip Seymour Hoffman is so good as Davian that one wishes he was featured more prominently. He's easily the best and most terrifying villain thus far in the series and he's really only featured for about ten to fifteen minutes. He's casual, disinterested menace that's far more intimidating than the generally over-the-top bad guys in action movies. He steals the movie every time he's on screen. I would totally watch a film about his rise to power and affluence. Simon Pegg is another welcome addition to the M:I world, but of course he is. He's Simon Pegg!

There haven't been many regrets in catching up with the M:I films. At their worst, they're still fun ways to spend two hours as long as you don't mind random acts of masterful marksmanship while, say, sliding down the roof of a building but convenient lapses in said aim at other points or the fact that putting on a Philip Seymour Hoffman mask suddenly gives one his gut as well. Those are silly gripes in the face of a franchise that is based around completing impossible missions that are apparently not so impossible.

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Host of Disappointments

I think I might drop this feature going forward and instead focus on writing longer reviews of the movies I watch. An advantage of this is that I'll be writing right after seeing the movie and not struggling to recall salient points. Also, it will give me more content (and more content means more page views HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!). So, we'll see how that goes...

Mission: Impossible II -- John Woo
I'm not terribly well-versed in the ouvre of John Woo. He's always been kind of a caricature to me what with the dove trademark. In fact, until last year, I'd only seen Broken Arrow yet I'd made loads of jokes about the doves and his ridiculous action. I'm still a bit of a Woo neophyte, but I've seen Hard-boiled and The Killer and if there's one thing I've taken away from watching his movies it's this: John Woo makes absurd movies. That's not a pejorative statement by any means. They are quite a bit of fun, just devoid of anything but the aforementioned ridiculous action. The sense of playfulness of the first film is traded for doves and slow-motion. Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt seems less a human than a vessel for weapons to go off. I expect this to be my least favorite of the series (Simon Pegg is added to the cast in III, so how can that not be more fun?). Also, Ethan Hunt is pretty good at completing these "impossible" missions.

Night Moves -- Arthur Penn
The critical reaction to Night Moves appears to place it in the underrated/cult classification, but I found it to be a disjointed mess of plots, few of which hold much interest. There is no flow to the story, editing, or dialogue. Half the time it feels like people are speaking in riddles and there's a jarring discussion of a chess move that exists solely to be a metaphor (and to give the movie its title) since there's no indication that Gene Hackman's Harry Moseby even likes chess, let alone is a student of it, until that moment. I did find Moseby's acceptance of his wife's infidelity and willingness to work it out with her to be refreshing and unexpected, so it's got that going for it. I also had a good time imagining that this Moseby is the father of How I Met Your Mother's Ted Moseby.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams -- Werner Herzog
This might be one of my biggest disappointments in the last few years of movie watching. I love Herzog's films and I haven't seen a documentary by him that wasn't amazing until now. It's not that Cave is bad, it just starts to feel completely redundant. There's only so much time one can spend looking pans across the cave paintings until one says, "yup... I get it." Maybe I'd feel different had I seen it in 3D, but I felt like I was watching a Discovery Channel documentary, not a Werner Herzog exploration of Ecstatic Truth. I almost feel like he recognized this, which is why he put the albino alligator epilogue in.

Hanna -- Joe Wright
Another disappointment. Hanna starts out pretty great, but the minute Hanna meets the British family, the film grinds to a halt. Maybe it's that the family is filled with one-dimensional cartoons of people or just that the daughter Hanna befriends is one of the more obnoxious characters to appear on screen last year, but the good will I felt toward the film was sapped away by the minute. Fortunately, the action scenes are uniformly bad-ass and Wright does a nice job with the camera, particularly moving through the Grimm's amusement park (upside-down shot aside). My biggest issue with Hanna is that it feels more like a style exercise than a movie with something to say. That doesn't make it bad, just middle-of-the-road. Plus, the lack of subtlety in bookending the movie is glaring and inelegant. 

The Devil and Daniel Johnston -- Jeff Feuerzeig
Daniel Johnston is a fascinating and infuriating person to learn about in this documentary. He as severe mental issues that make it hard to sympathize with him since he treats his friends and family so horribly at times, but he's clearly disturbed and needs your sympathy. It's very strange to see an artist who is so respected live at home with his parents well into his 40s, but such is his life. Johnston is the perfect subject for a documentary. I just wish I cared at all about his music. Not long ago, I downloaded a bunch of his stuff and have been struggling to eradicate it from my iPod since (the labeling of the tracks is occasionally mystifying). He sounds better when playing piano than guitar, but it's a struggle to listen to and I can't help but feel many people appreciate him more for his legend than his music. If you like his music, then you will love this documentary. As it stands for me, it's good and worth seeing.

Silverado -- Lawrence Kasdan
I didn't always like westerns, but after a class and exploring some of the more famous works in the genre, I've grown to quite like them. One of my professors referenced Silverado as a pretty great return to the dormant western form, so it's been on my radar for a while. Now that I've seen it, I have to agree. The landscape and sets are very impressive (and reused) and the cast is pretty great (in addition to being an asset for any "Six Degrees of..." game, the cast doesn't date the film as much as say, the cast of Young Guns, either). I'm very surprised I hadn't sought Silverado out earlier when I was at my peak Monty Python obsession since John Cleese makes an (all too brief) appearance. The film strains credulity in the ways the paths of the heroes diverge and converge, but it's not so glaring nor is it unexpected since we know they can't be gone for long. Silverado is a solid and competent movie with some beautiful shots (though Kasdan falls short in a few shots where he seems to be channeling Leone).

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Deadwood: An Appreciation

There was a time when I rejected westerns completely. No matter how many people recommended the classics to me, I wasn't interested. This mindset continued through my first year of graduate school where I was studying film. During my first year, I had a friend (who is still a friend) expound on the excellence of Deadwood. I dismissed her with a wave of the hand (in my mind, anyway) as westerns offered me nothing. But a funny thing happens as you dive into a subject (in this case, film). You get exposed to a lot of new ideas and new ways of thinking. During my second year, I even took a Ford and Peckinpah class and realized that not only are westerns interesting, many of them are pretty damn awesome.

In the Ford/Peckinpah class, we watched the pilot to Deadwood. At the time, I was wholly unimpressed. It was OK, but amazing like I was led to believe. I felt completely comfortable ignoring its existence and did so for the next four years. Now that I've finally watched the entire series, I'm pissed at myself for not having done so sooner.

In my defense, it makes sense that I wasn't enamored after the first episode. Deadwood is a deliberate show that plays its cards close to the chest. There's not a real sense of what the show will be until the first season is almost over. The cast of characters is massive (and constantly dying off while new people come to town) so it takes a while to establish who is who and what their position is in Deadwood. Clearly, Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen are going to be major players, but others take into the second and third season for their roles to be fully revealed. It's almost impossible to judge the show without seeing it through to the end (and how sad that the end came so abruptly for the viewers who watched it while it was on the air). Probably my favorite aspect of Deadwood is that once the characters and motivations are established, the show bends over backwards to not only put people at odds with each other, but with what we believe of the character. Alliances between enemies are frequent because in the end, everyone wants what's best for the town.

Swearengen is easily one of the best, most complex characters I've ever seen in any entertainment. Ian McShane got a lot of press for his performance (it's remarkable the role only got him one Golden Globe and no other awards) and I was prepared to dismiss it going in, but damned if he doesn't own every minute he's on screen. Swearengen is a man who is always thinking ahead and how he can play things to best benefit him. He's not above setting aside his differences and even respects Bullock most of the time even if he thinks Bullock is crazy and a tad irrational (maybe the fact that Swearengen is so rational is why I find him appealing).

But the real reason I love Deadwood and that I'm mad at myself for not watching sooner is the vibrancy of the town. Creator David Milch and his crew created something amazing in that town. It would take more words than I would like to type to detail every character in the town who makes an impression, but it's a lively community and even the smallest parts (well, maybe not the extras) are well-realized and leave an impression. The town of Deadwood is the star of the show. The reality is like nothing I've ever seen. The action is amazingly choreographed and you really get a sense that you're watching the town from a balcony like Swearengen (or Tolliver or Hearst) with all the pieces moving around via an unseen hand.

I can't help but feel like I've inadequately represented Deadwood here, but it's really difficult to describe the way it sucks you in. The closest parallel I can make is the way Deadwood makes me feel about the community is the way The Tree of Life makes me feel about childhood. Sure, there are times during the show that I don't understand a word being said even though they are speaking plain English, but that's no matter. Just means I'll have to rewatch. Because I may not ever want to go to Deadwood, but I never want to leave, either.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Innkeepers and Ti West

This write-up will contain spoilers for both The Innkeepers and The House of the Devil and since I don't know that many people who have seen one or both, I might be writing to the ether. Be that as it may, I remain undaunted.

Ti West is going to make a legitimately great movie one of these years. He's got amazing sensibilities. In a world of fast-cuts and hand-held cameras he is steady, deliberate, composed, and competent. The House of the Devil got plaudits for being a throwback to the pacing and aesthetic of horror films from the '70s and '80s and this patience continues with The Innkeepers. It's not just that the films are deliberate, the timing is immaculate. West's sense of rhythm does much of the heavy lifting for the mood and tension. Yet, I can't say that any of his films are any more than good (and I think he'd agree with me regarding Cabin Fever 2).

Bad-ass poster
The House of the Devil spends its run-time building up to a bloody finale and revealing our hero (Samantha) is the victim of a demonic plot (not unlike Rosemary's Baby). However, with the exception of one amazing and shocking moment in the middle of the movie, House of the Devil struggles to stick the landing. So much effort is spent recreating a genre long past that it feels like fortifying the script was lost in the shuffle. I remember being disappointed in the end that Samantha doesn't die after shooting herself in the the head. It seemed like a copout that existed just so she'd live with the knowledge that she is carrying demon spawn, but I can think of any number of ways to have her dead (which only feels right for the movie) AND have the evil threat live on.

The Innkeepers is no different. There is an amazing sense of place and watching in an old theater with its own history heightens the sense of isolation and mystery. One definitely doesn't want to be alone in their after hours after watching The Innkeepers, which is a highly effective horror movie in spite of its shortcomings. Throughout the screening, I kept thinking it would be a fun practical joke to play on the audience to ratchet up all this tension only to reveal in the end that there is no haunting and I almost got that. I firmly believe that much of what we see in the movie is in the head of Claire, one of the two remaining workers at The Yankee Pedlar Inn. True, the inn may be haunted, but what Claire is experiencing is separate from the actual hauntings. One of my viewing buddies brought up a point that I'd have to rewatch the film to confirm, but I believe to be correct, that an early scare is reused during the climax that seriously points to the conclusion I made above. I respect the decision to treat the haunted house subgenre this way as it really gets to the heart of how we scare ourselves irrationally, but it may also be completely justified.

File:The Innkeepers Poster.jpg
What hurts The Innkeepers almost irreparably is that so much of the action is completely contrived. It doesn't feel like that because the characters are uninteresting (they are totally enjoyable), but because the script again feels half-baked. Someone needs to do something and instead of it being an organic process, the script just makes it happen. Sure, Claire is scared shitless, but she's totally fine being left alone. "You just saw a dead body and wants to leave immediately? Well, sit here in the lobby while I go look for that last customer instead of waiting outside and across the street. Or hey, why don't we go together?" It's enough to drive one mad.

The worst offense, though, is that West kills Claire off in the end! We spend the whole time getting to know and care about her (and she is eminently likable, especially in a moment when she takes a trash bag to the dumpster [even though it presents it like it's the first time she's ever done the job, which makes it feel like an excusable contrivance since it's amusing]) only to kill her off in the end. It just doesn't fit with the rest of the film. I wish I could switch the ending of The Innkeepers with the ending of The House of the Devil. It would work perfectly if not for the demon fetus. It feels like West was writing these movies simultaneously and mixed up the endings.

Even with the shortcomings, I find myself looking back fondly on each of these films (and I've only had a day to think The Innkeepers over. Imagine what three months will do to it). As I said, Ti West is going to make a great movie some day and I hope he sticks with the horror genre. There needs to be more people making scary movies without feeling the need to wink at the audience. West's films are going to hold up and I will continue to look forward to his movies (though his next one is apparently starring Liv Tyler, so I might be speaking too soon).

Friday, February 10, 2012

How I Could've Been Interested in The Human Centipede Films

I haven't seen The Human Centipede and don't think I know anyone who has. The reasons for this, I feel, are pretty obvious:

The same goes for the sequel, which goes the Blair Witch 2 route and features a man obsessed with the movie:

It all looks like stupid, hollow horror.

However, watching the trailer for The Debt, it didn't seem like such a stretch to make that the sequel to The Human Centipede. And were that the case, I would be onboard 100%.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

No One Can Say I Wasted My Time

I just spent about two hours and fifteen minutes waiting to buy a poster online. There was a limited run of 320 and the posters, sold through Mondo Tees, typically sell out in a matter of minutes. The posters go on sale at a random time during a specified day. Most of the time, I sleep through it or forget to check in the morning. Today, I forced myself to wake up, and, of course, it didn't go on sale until long after I would've been up and active.

I've been having trouble with my wireless router (it might be on its last legs) and at one point, it failed on me. Panic ensued. I scrambled around the room to unplug (and replug) the router and rushed back to my computer. Crisis averted. No drop. But would it happen again?

An our or so later, after much refreshing and minor efforts to occupy my time (but not too occupied), the drop came. Panic really ensued. I refreshed the Mondo homepage repeatedly to know avail. Turns out, I should have been refreshing the "Shop" page. I clicked the Twitter link repeatedly and got nothing but the Pinwheel of Death. My computer and my anxiety were out to foil me. Three separate pages for the "Shop" page were trying to load. I eliminated all but one.

The page finally loaded and I was able to click "Add to cart," but the page was taking forever. Even though I know that traffic to the site at that moment was brutal, I still anxiously pressed "Add to cart" in an effort to speed things along. Finally, it was in my cart! But I didn't know if that meant it was reserved for me or if I finished checking out it would tell me the poster sold out. Fortunately, all of my information was in from a prior purchase, so the only thing I had to fill in was my credit card info. I was so close and terrified of making an error. Forgetting a required field. Typing my credit card number in wrong. Pure adrenaline was coursing through my veins. I hit submit...

It's mine.

Lonesome Ghosts is one of my favorite Disney shorts ever (if not the favorite) and this poster (hell, all of Tom Whalen's work) is amazing. Knowing how hard it can be to get poster's from Mondo, I'm lucky to have this one. It sold out in six minutes.

It's a little sad that my most exciting moment in terms of pure adrenaline in recent memory happened as a result of trying to buy a poster, but I earned it, dammit! I feel like a champion.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Hot 'n' Fresh Out the Kitchen: Home-made Bagels

Having tried my hand at making donuts (and struggling due to not having a fryer with a temperature gauge), I wanted to try to make my own bagels. Thanks to a timely post at Eating for the Rest of Us, the task was upon me, because damn, those bagels look awesome. I left raisins out of some of the bagels because my fiancee isn't a fan of that particular dried fruit. While he details the process, I'm just going to show you the end result with a few notes.

-- It is possible for your house to be too cool for the instant yeast to activate.
-- While this recipe is by no means difficult, having a mixer and a hook attachment would have been nice.
-- My oven sucks, so I ended up undercooking the bagels slightly for fear of burning them. The good news is that they're still delicious if a little chewy.

Monday, February 6, 2012

IMDB Recommendations

I guess IMDB picked these recommendations from stuff that I've searched, but I still can't figure out how it arrived at this distribution of films. Once of these things is not like the others:
It's almost as bad as the Netfix suggestions.

Friday, February 3, 2012

(Mostly) Catching Up With 2011

I had quite a few thoughts on Scream 4, Moneyball, and Attack the Block after watching them and not a lot of time to write posts about them, so I fear they'll be getting short shrift (or this will be a really long piece [I don't think I've ever written "shrift" before]).

If... -- Lindsay Anderson
My reaction to If... is basically summed up by the ellipses in the title. It was good. Nothing about it arrested my attention for more than a few minutes at a time (the first time it switches from color to black and white then back to color caught my eye). It's a world I'm not too familiar with made all the worse by my exposure to the world of Harry Potter. Private schools and the lives within will forevermore recall Hogwarts. Of Anderson's films, I've only seen this and This Sporting Life which garnered a similar reaction. Still, kudos to the movie that brought Malcolm McDowell to the attention of Stanley Kubrick.

Scream 4 -- Wes Craven
Scream 4 didn't get the best reviews on its release and I've learned since talking to people about it that the Scream series isn't viewed to highly by many (I'm very surprised by how many hate the second Scream as I remember critics claiming it's better than the first at the time of its release). I classify as a full-fledged fan of the series. It hits the right marks between comedy and horror and it wholly justifies it's existence as a series (which I speak of in this post from a few years ago). Plus, I'm a big fan of who-done-its and that's exactly what the Scream movies are so I was optimistic about the experience.

And it's fun. Exactly what one would expect from a Scream movie. The opening scene playfully mocks the opening scare M.O. of endless horror films (including this series) and there's tons of other meta stuff to play around with including references to Courtney Cox and David Arquette's real life marriage and divorce and Hayden Panettiere saying that she might have super-powers. It's also a lot of fun that while there have been no more Scream movies, they are up to seven Stab movies within Scream. I like that the series went from being based directly on Sidney to jumping off into ridiculousness (if the brief descriptions are to be believed) while Sidney lives a safe life. Sure, the meta-ness gets a little too cute at times and sure, there are more red herrings than imaginable, and yes, how long has Ghostface been waiting in that closet for this exact scenario to happen so the kill can be most effective and have the proper audience, but it's all still a good time. It's well made and tense, though it's hard to believe I ever found the series as scary as I did. There's also a great line about messing with the original that I wish was the last of the movie.

A few other comments about the series:
-- I really like that it's one of, if not the only, horror series that has maintained three of its leads and that the expectation that one of them is definitely going to die keeps getting subverted. At least until now...
-- It's really cool that the series is able to just replace the killer(s) under the costume for each new movie. This prevents them from having to figure out how to resurrect the iconic monster while maintaining said monster. Even though there's a lot of suspension of disbelief in the Scream series, it still basically takes place in a real world.

Moneyball -- Bennett Miller
Fire Joe Morgan changed the way I watch and think about baseball (who knew a comedy writer could do that?). Much of their writing dealt with Joe Morgan and his absolute rejection of Moneyball and mocking him for thinking that Billy Beane actually wrote the book (I wonder if Joe Morgan thinks Billy Beane directed Moneyball). I'm not sure if the movie will do the same for anyone, but I hope it at least directs them to the book which is a lot better (an age-old refrain).

It's not that Moneyball (the movie) is bad; it just focuses on some of the wrong things. I know that a Hollywood movie has to try to "humanize" characters and appeal to many demographics, but the stuff with his ex-wife and daughter is treacly nonsense. It's there for narrative purpose only. Why does he go back to the stadium? His daughter tells him to. Why doesn't he take the Boston job? His family daughter isn't there. The only good thing about that plot is that Spike Jonze pops up as his wife's new man. Since I've been catching up with The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret where Jonze plays a similar character, I've crafted an alternate universe where it is the same guy. The idea amuses me greatly.

The film is at its best when we're learning about the new system and how much adversity they face trying to implement it. Getting a look at how trades are made and a team is built. The book didn't become a best seller. It became a best seller because it's about how to operate a successful business against incredible odds. There is no need to add a family because the story is inherently relatable and dramatic. It's not about baseball. It's about adversity and that dogma isn't always truth. The saddest thing is that Beane never got to win a World Series and now nearly every team is playing Moneyball which puts him right back where he started.

Attack the Block -- Joe Cornish
It's a brave move to have the characters you're going to spend the entire movie with rob someone at knife-point in the first scene. Everyone talks about the importance of having "likable" characters and this sets them off on the wrong foot (I've only seen one bolder attempt at this ever). They don't even show any remorse. It's unrepentant. But, being a movie, they are forced into interacting with their victim in dire circumstances where everything can get worked out. That sounds sappy, but the portrayal of the Sam (the victim) encountering the gang is solid and believable. It's an extreme situation and some threats are bigger than others.

I was nervous about Attack the Block because I really hate British thug life (really, thug life). It's just a bunch of people acting like assholes for no reason (though, as AtB attests, there are multitudes of reasons). Fortunately, the action starts fast, so our time with the obnoxious version of these characters is short. The rest of the film flies by and is remarkably effective. It's very tense with some good scares and a lot less humor than I was expecting, which isn't a bad thing (though it's not unfunny). There's a lot that suggests what a small world these characters live in which really helps create a sense of reality in this unreal scenario. Speaking of which, the aliens are amazing creations. They practically devour light save for their glowing teeth which, in an awesome design move, look like eyes when their mouths are closed. 

My only real issue with Attack the Block is the chanting at the end. I seriously doubt that most of the people chanting know anything about why they are doing so (unless it's a commentary on mob mentality, which I doubt). It's overly sentimental ending for a movie that takes very little time for sentiment. 

King Corn -- Aaron Woolf
King Corn makes the mistake of thinking that it's "protagonists" are the most interesting part of the documentary. Any time Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis are on screen, the movie reeks of contrivance. The shots are all set up and they're pondering aimlessly, or "discovering" something (except the camera is already inside so we know that they've already had a look around), or playing whiffle ball. Even the idea of going to Iowa to plant an acre of corn is contrived (and I can't stand that they talk about the "work" they were doing when it was all someone else driving machinery over their acre. They paid for the seed and the lot. That's about it). Infinitely more interesting is when they actually getting around to discussing the corn culture of our country. The uses, the subsidies, the volume. There is something clearly very wrong. But they put themselves at the center of it all. And guess what: they're not that interesting. King Corn is almost good despite itself. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Is God Divorced?

You know how churches like to put "cute" (I can't keep that word out of quotes today) sayings on their little word boxes (I don't feel right calling it a marquee) in their front yard? I saw one while on a bike ride today that struck me as particularly odd. It read:
"God wants full custody, not just weekend visits."
The point is obvious. Sundays shouldn't be your only day of worship, yada yada yada. But, as usual, I've been over-thinking this metaphor. So here we go,

First of all, this quote implies that God is divorced. Some infallible, omniscient being, huh?

Not only is he divorced, he doesn't have (or is struggling to get) full custody.

And if we continue the God just wanting his kids back, we have to consider that God has doled out his share of abuse and may not deserve full custody of his children.

I can already here the more devout amongst you muttering that it's all part of God's plan and that he loves us all and he has a reason for meting out tragedy seemingly at random. But doesn't that sound just a little like the father defending himself? "I'm doing this because I love you." "I know what's best." "This hurts me more than it hurts you." "It builds character."

In the context of the metaphor this particular church supplied, it seems to me that God is lucky that he has weekend visits. Perhaps the church needs to rethink this particular message.

Obligatory Cat Post

I have a complex relationship with cats (complex meaning I don't like them). While I was out taking pictures for Backboard Jungle, I walked by a yard with a cat sitting in it. We made eye contact (I like to stare down cats as I pass them) and since I am all things to all animals, it approached me and started rolling around on its back in the driveway near my feet. However, since there were no basketball hoops around, I had no reason to stop and left it behind. Two or three houses down, though, there was a hoop which I proceeded to photography (as you'll recall, this was the point of my excursion). My concentration focused through the viewfinder, I felt something around my ankle. The cat had left the security of its front yard to be with me. I took a picture of it being "cute:"

I put cute in quotes because I know that if I had motioned to pet the cat, it very easily could have decided that petting is its least favorite thing and mauled my hand beyond usage. Cats are devious like that.