Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Shake Me Baby

Anyone else feel that earthquake last night? As far as I'm concerned, any quake where the power doesn't go out is pretty small potatoes. I mean, as long as I can sit there and still surf the web and listen to my Velvet Underground, who really cares? Did they feel it up in Sac-town?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Number Four: Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981)

I wanted to be an architect when I grew up. My mother still insists on telling everyone about how I used to build ramshackle cities made of anything with vaguely building-like materials. There were bristle-blocks next to Legos next to cooking utensils. Later I graduated to drawing Tolkeinesque maps and using them to plan out elaborate Dungeons and Dragons adventures. I never actually played with anyone because I had no friends. It's more fun to think up the adventures than to play anyway.

My Medieval dreams were shattered one day when an actual architect, a friend of my parents, asked to look at the plans I had made for a tavern. She said that it looked good but that I would have to redesign it because some of the rooms had no windows. I was taken aback. Surely building regulations were somewhat more relaxed in 10th Century England I said. She nodded but stated again that all taverns, even in those days, would have windows. Confronted with the terrible limitations of reality, I decided that architecture was not for me.

What was left to want to be when I grew up? The answer was obvious-I wanted to be a treasure-hunting, Nazi-killing, whip-wielding Professor of Archeology named Indiana Jones. Say what you will about George Lucas and "Episodes" I-III, the man can create characters better than anyone since Charles Dickens. So what if they're 90% Buck Rogers ripoffs, it's the last 10% that makes a character memorable.

One of the things I like so much about Indiana is that he's an adventurer, not a fighter. Compare him to Bruce Willis in Die Hard or other conventional action movie heroes. Those guys win by brute force, the plots of their movies leading them on inextricably to victory. Indy solves puzzles, goes into weird places, and half the time wins by running away! He falls somewhere in the same category as the Ghostbusters and Marty McFly, heroes so implausible that you identify with them all the more for it. Why ghosts? Why the 50's? Why archeology? If they explained that the movies wouldn't be half as fun. I can't think of any films that fall into this category that weren't released in the 80's. All the other heroes were trying too hard to be cool. Indiana Jones and Peter Venkman just were cool.

I could say more about other aspects of this film, but that other stuff doesn't really matter. Oh sure, Spielberg's directing probably helped-but the truth is I love this movie for one reason, and that's my powerful desire to become a...well I listed all the stuff earlier. So if you see any openings for a Professor of Archeology let me know. The rest will come naturally.

Monday, October 29, 2007

More Sprinkles on the Perfect Sundae

Yesterday has seen the addition of two fine new DVDs to the almost unholy Little Earl collection. Yoggoth has already summarized the appeal of Pickpocket better than I ever could. The Philadelphia Story is a terrifically saucy old Hollywood classic, back when movie stars were movie stars and their names on the poster really meant something. It's the only appearance in my collection so far for either Katherine Hepburn or Cary Grant; Jimmy Stewart, on the other hand, is making his fourth. Maybe he wasn't the greatest actor ever, but it's possible he starred in more great movies than anybody else - at least for his era. The man knew how to pick 'em.

New, restored high-definition digital transfer
Audio commentary by film scholar James Quandt
New video introduction by writer-director Paul Schrader
The Models of "Pickpocket," a 2003 documentary by filmmaker Babette Mangolte, featuring actors from the film
A 1960 interview with Bresson, from the French television program Cinepanorama
Q&A on Pickpocket, with actress Marika Green and filmmakers Paul Vecchiali and Jean-Pierre Ameris fielding questions at a 2000 screening of the film
Footage of sleight-of-hand artist and Pickpocket consultant Kassagi, from a 1962 episode of the French television show La piste aux etoiles
Original theatrical poster
New and improved English subtitle translation
A new essay by novelist and culture critic Gary Indiana

The Philadelphia Story
Disc 1: Digitally Remastered Movie with Commentary by Film Historian Jeannine Basinger
George Cukor Movie Trailer Gallery
Disc 2: Two Documentaries About the Star and Director: Katharine Hepburn: All About Me - A Self-Portrait and The Men Who Made the Movies: George Cukor
Robert Benchley Short: That Inferior Feeling
Cartoon: The Homeless Flea
Audio-Only Bonus: Two Radio Adaptations Featuring the Movie's Three Stars

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Worst Album Cover Ever?

Shotgun Willie sits around in his underwear
Bitin' on a bullet, pullin' out all of his hair
Shotgun Willie got all of his family there

You can't make a record if you ain't got nothin' to say
You can't make a record if you ain't got nothin' to say
You can't play music if you don't know nothin' to play

(Repeat 1st verse)

Well, John T. Fours was a' workin' with the Klu Klux Klan
The six foot five John T was a hell of a man
Made a lot of money sellin' sheets on the family plan

(Repeat 1st verse)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Tom Stoppard on Pink Floyd...sort of

Yoggoth recently called my attention to an article in Vanity Fair by playwright Tom Stoppard about how Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett apparently inspired his latest theatrical effort. I've read the article twice now and I still don't understand what the hell Syd Barrett had to do with his play, but that's neither here nor there. What's interesting (and what Yoggoth knew I would appreciate) is that Tom Stoppard agrees with me that Barrett-era Pink Floyd isn't all that great and he doesn't understand why his friend would call Waters/Gilmour-era Pink Floyd "lugubrious, pretentious." Also, Stoppard's comments about having "no understanding of music, none at all" remind me ever-so-slightly of similarly enthusiastic statements that have come from the mouth of my fellow blogger. Although I've occasionally poked fun at him for his musical naivete, ultimately I agree. Who needs to "understand" music anyway? I say the less understanding the better. Well, maybe it depends. Maybe the best musicians need to find a good balance of understanding and naivete. Actually, that's sort of what Pink Floyd did, come to think of it. Oh yeah!

Monday, October 22, 2007

4. Back To The Future (Zemeckis, 1985) [LE]

That photo scared the shit out of me as a child. No, not the one above, but that one of Marty McFly with his brother and sister, where they gradually start disappearing one by one. God that was freaky. And whenever the scene with Marty's hand disappearing came on TV I would leave the room. Egads.

Yes, this movie is well-cast, and very well-written, and we'd all love to have a DeLorean time machine. But I think the underlying power of Back To The Future lies in a theme so obvious it's almost rarely mentioned: the human relationship to time and our desire (and/or failure) to control or understand it.

Ultimately you'd like to think that if you went back in time, you could solve all kinds of problems and fix a lot of unpleasant things and so on and so forth. But what Marty McFly realizes is that by going back in time, you can actually screw everything up and unwittingly erase yourself from existence! What could be worse? Yeah, you thought it would be all cool to travel through time and meet Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon and Socrates and everybody, but really you're just fucking everything up! The irony is that Marty now has to go around and try to make life happen exactly the way it happened in the first place, which isn't really interesting at all. If anything, it's a big fat pain in the ass. Sure everything works out eventually and when Marty goes back to the '80s his family is way better off than it was before he left. But I think if given the chance, Marty would have preferred not to have had to worry about whether or not he was still going to be existing.

Indeed, the movie could be seen as a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of unchecked scientific progress. Doc constantly talks about the "space-time continuum": the idea that the universe has a grand cosmic order and that we must do everything in our power to avoid altering it. If we do, as Marty discovers, we stand to upset the proper order of human events.

Ultimately I don't think the science of Back to the Future holds up to too much scrutiny. Because everything is so interdependent with everything else, if you went back in time and changed one little thing, it would basically change everything. Back to the Future acts as if the only people who will ever be affected by Doc Brown's screwing up the time-space continuum are the members of the McFly family (Part II, of course, explores this idea with more credibility, if not with better dramatic results). Rather, I think the science of the movie works best on a metaphorical level. Just what is man's proper relationship to science? And how much is too much? At what point are we Icarus, flying too close to the sun?

Back To The Future also has another very powerful theme running through it: the lack of humans' ability to put their own lives into perspective. The people from the '50s have all sorts of ideas about the '80s - almost all of them wrong. Indeed, many of the film's best jokes poke fun at how mistaken people are in their assumptions about the future. Some of my favorites:

[1955 Doc is watching a video of 1985 Doc]
Dr. Emmett Brown: What on Earth's this thing I'm wearing?
Marty McFly: Ah, this, this is a radiation suit.
Dr. Emmett Brown: Radiation suit? Of course, because of all the fallout from the atomic wars.

[Dr. Emmett Brown is doubting Marty McFly's story about that he is from the future]
Dr. Emmett Brown: Then tell me, "Future Boy", who's President in the United States in 1985?
Marty McFly: Ronald Reagan.
Dr. Emmett Brown: Ronald Reagan? The actor?
[chuckles in disbelief]
Dr. Emmett Brown: Then who's VICE-President? Jerry Lewis?
[later he rushes outside, down a hill and toward his laboratory]
Dr. Emmett Brown: I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady!
Marty McFly: [following Doc] Whoa! Wait! Doc!
Dr. Emmett Brown: And Jack Benny, the Secretary of the Treasury.

Marty McFly: Wait a minute, Doc, are you trying to tell me that my mother has got the hots for me?
Dr. Emmett Brown: Precisely.
Marty McFly: Whoa, this is heavy.
Dr. Emmett Brown: There's that word again; "heavy". Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the earth's gravitational pull?

Dr. Emmett Brown: I'm sure in 1985 plutonium is available at every corner drugstore, but in 1955 it's a little hard to come by.

Marty McFly: [watching a Honeymooners episode in 1955] Hey, hey, I've seen this one. I've seen this one. This is a classic. This is the one where Ralph dresses up as the man from space.
Milton Baines: What do you mean, you've seen this? It's brand new.
Marty McFly: Yeah, well, I saw it on a...
Marty McFly: ...rerun.
Milton Baines: What's a rerun?
Marty McFly: You'll find out.

Lorraine Baines: Our first television set. Dad just bought it today. Do you have a television set?
Marty McFly: Well, yeah! You know we have... two of them.
Milton Baines: Wow! You must be rich!
Stella Baines: Oh, honey, he's teasing you. Nobody has two television sets.

George McFly: Last night, Darth Vader came down from planet Vulcan and told me that if I didn't take Lorraine out that he'd melt my brain.

The humor of these scenes lies in the audience's knowledge of both the past and the present. We *know* that all Marty did was simply play some Van Halen on his walkman and crib from Star Wars and Star Trek, but we *also* can understand why George would be totally amazed by the experience. We *know* what re-runs are, but we can understand why people in 1955 would have never even thought of such a thing as re-runs. We *know* that there have been no atomic wars, but we also understand that given the climate of the '50s, it's a pretty good guess on Doc's part. The point is, humans are pathetic little creatures left to twist in the wind at the mercy of their perceptive limitations, at least compared to an alien race such as Kurt Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians, who can grasp all of time instantaneously and find most human insight comical.

There are jokes aplenty, but the movie occasionally utilitizes its time-travel conceit to approach moments of profound sadness, such as the scene where Lorraine tries to put the moves on Marty before the dance:

[Lorraine takes a sip from a liquor bottle]
Marty McFly: [grabbing the bottle from Lorraine] Lorraine, Lorraine, What are you doin'?
Lorraine Baines: [starting to laugh] I swiped it from the old lady's liquor cabinet.
Marty McFly: Yeah, well, you shouldn't drink.
Lorraine Baines: Why not?
Marty McFly: Because you - you might regret it later in life.
Lorraine Baines: Marty, don't be such a square. Everybody who's anybody drinks.
[Marty takes a sip from Lorraine's bottle then spit-takes as he notices Lorraine lighting a cigarette]
Marty McFly: [nauseatingly] Geez! You smoke too?
Lorraine Baines: Marty, you're beginning to sound just like my mother!

This scene is funny, but it's also heartbreakingly sad, because Marty knows what his mother doesn't: that she'll grow up to be a pathetic alcoholic housewife. What she thinks of as being so "rebellious" and "cool" Marty sees exactly for what it is - the waste of perfectly good health and potential. He almost wishes he could take her into the future and just show her what the results of her actions are going to be. His comment that she'll "regret it later in life" is one of the most compassionate and insightful moments he has in the whole film.

The way this scene ends, with George punching out Biff, is inspiring. The irony here is that Marty has gone to great lengths to map out some crazy scheme in which George will punch out Marty and win Lorraine's affection, but only when Marty's plans are thwarted does the situation work itself out to a positive conclusion. The filmmakers do a really great job of taking the reins out from under this scene. Frankly, the way it plays out, it appears that Biff is essentially going to rape Lorraine. You can believe that George would be so disgusted/horrified that he would summon up the strength within himself to beat the living shit out of Biff. He knows that if he doesn't act, no one else will. Thus, Marty's parents' relationship is not only saved, but strengthened - and it only could have happened through the presence of real danger, not scripted danger.

Despite all the Freudian melodrama, however, the central relationship of the movie remains the one between Marty and Doc. People forget that right before he goes back in time, Marty witnesses Doc's death. When he meets Doc again in the '50s, the whole experience is coated with Marty's knowledge that the Doc of the future has actually died. That's "heavy." He tries, on several occasions, to somehow prevent Doc from being shot by the Libyans, in the end writing Doc a letter, but Doc quickly tears it up, insisting, "You cannot alter the time-space continuum!"

Marty's brain understands the concept, but his heart does not. At the last minute, he decides to set the time machine back 10 minutes earlier, so that he can prevent Doc from dying. Alas, the DeLorean stalls for good and by the time he gets to the mall, he's too late. As he mourns over the body of Doc, suddenly the eyes of the mad scientist open with the familiar fiery stare. Doc explains that he did, eventually, read the letter. Marty is aghast. "What about all that talk about screwing up future events, the space-time continuum?" Doc's answer is probably the greatest line of dialogue in the film, not just because it's funny, but because it says so much about what makes us human as opposed to machines:

"Well, I figured, what the hell."

Footnote: Marty's mom is smokin' hot. If I were Marty I would have done my mom with no protection and had...myself.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

An Open Letter To Wes Anderson

Dear Wes,

Yoggoth and Little Earl want you to know that they tried their best to see The Darjeeling Limited last night. Well, actually, they did manage to see half of The Darjeeling Limited. But they weren't able to see all of it. You see, the whole episode was really quite Andersonian.

Yoggoth and Little Earl both felt a strong desire to see your new movie, but the problem is, they live in different cities. Little Earl suggested they circumvent this obstacle by agreeing on a convenient halfway point and trying to find a theater somewhere in the vicinity of that halfway point (that also would be playing your movie). After a little research on the web, Little Earl found what he assumed would be the perfect location: Pleasant Hill. There was a theater in Pleasant Hill called CineArts, and it was playing your movie at both 7:10 and 9:30. Not wishing to stay out too late, Yoggoth and Little Earl aimed for the 7:10 showing. After a skillfull navigation of BART by Little Earl, and an expert handling of traffic by Yoggoth, the two managed to meet at the Pleasant Hill BART station. They soon discoved that, contrary to its name, there are no hills anywhere and the general aura of the town is not particularly pleasant.

Driving through a thick, syrupy drizzle, they attempted to locate the CineArts theater (the whole experience heightened by the presence of Nuggets II: Golden Artyfacts From The British Empire and Beyond playing on the stereo). According to Google Maps, the location of the theater was 2314 Monument Dr. At first the two ended up at the Century Theater, which was not playing your movie at all. Then they seemed to find themselves heading in the correct direction on Monument Dr. They passed 1800 Monument Dr., then they suddenly found themselves at 2600 Monument Dr. They re-traced their steps several times over. When the last ditch hope that the theater was in the back of the Costco parking lot failed to prove to their advantage, it was already quite past 7:10. Undaunted, they continued to search for the theatre in hopes of catching the 9:30 showing (after some dinner, perhaps).

Pleasant Hill was proving itself to be the Bermuda Triangle of the East Bay. Yoggoth and Little Earl were never quite sure whether they were heading north or south. They got on the freeway and got off several times. Familiar landmarks would pop up in unfamiliar places. After turning into the parking lot of Bally Fitness Center, they finally found it: CineArts Theater. There was a big marquee in front of the box office; it's just too bad that it didn't happen to be turned on. Immediately next door was a sleazy-looking nightclub with a pair of (possible?) prostitutes standing outside smoking. A fitting location for a Wes Anderson movie.

Terrified of the looming showdown over their choice of dinner eating establishment, they managed to stumble upon a diner named the Capitola Grille, which was apparently still in the throes of its "grand opening." The menu proved quite eclectic and satisfying. Little Earl made his way with a chili bread bowl, while Yoggoth proved more adventurous with a strange pork sandwich concoction. Despite a troublesome credit card slot at the register, The Capitola Grille was the one unqualified success of the evening.

Back at the CineArts, they discovered that the only entrance to the particular screen showing your movie could only be found by following a yellow painted line that swerved around to the back of the building. When the previews started up, the projection faltered once or twice. Then it seemed to find its groove.

Yoggoth and Little Earl try to reserve full judgment of your films until the credits roll. Sadly, they did not get that chance, as about an hour of the way through, the projector finally seemed to falter for good. An usher came out and told the audience that they were working on fixing it and that the movie would resume after ten minutes. After fifteen minutes, a manager came out and told the audience that the projector was beyond repair and that everyone was welcome to ask for a refund. Yoggoth and Little Earl understood; they'd worked in a movie theater before. But they feared that you, Wes Anderson, might not.

So it was simply not to be. But rest assured, they gave it everything they had.


Yoggoth and Little Earl

p.s. Yoggoth then managed to scrape the front of his car against the curb. Little Earl was unable to push his seat back because of a gigantic tire that Yoggoth had resting in the back seat for some reason that was left unexplained to Little Earl. Little Earl's BART ride was slowed down by a twenty-minute layover at MacArthur station; apparently his car had to wait for all the other cars before heading back to the city. A group of drunken Friday night revelers found their way into Little Earl's BART car. One of the girls began filming him with her camcorder. She asked him if he was having a good Friday night, but he couldn't hear her because he had his headphones on. He took his headphones off and she asked him again. He paused, and then answered "...Sure." She said, "'Sure'? That's not an answer. Are you having a good night or a bad night?" Little Earl emphatically said, "Yes!" and she said "OK, good." Little Earl was glad that at least someone was pleased.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Number Five: Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) [Y]

I love Harrison Ford movies that don't make me cringe. He's such a likable guy that I sometimes find myself laughing along to movies like Six Days Seven Nights and have to go listen to Unknown Pleasures to balance things out. Blade Runner is the Harrison Ford movie I can watch on a cold, dark, lonely night and still feel depressed about afterwards.

Blade Runner also gets the distinction of having the most attractive cyborgs in cinematic history--'acrobatic sexbot' was the role Daryl Hannah was born to play, although I'm more of a Sean Young kind of guy. Rutger Hauer is the big brother cyborg we never had. The cyborgs are such great villains. My sympathy for them increases as the movie goes on, and by the time Roy is breaking Rick's fingers its Roy I feel sorry for. It's funny that my entire analysis so far has been about likable characters in Blade Runner of all movies. I find it easier to identify with odd, tragic characters. It's okay if there's a happy ending but they better go through a lot of crap to get there.

These attractive cyborgs have a problem. They were built with a failsafe mechanism that will kill them after a predetermined number of years. They come to Earth searching for their designer in hopes that this failsafe can be turned off in some way. Deckard, in the process of searching for the group of replicants ends up falling in love with a different one. There is some debate over whether Deckard himself is a replicant. I'd say he probably is based upon the movie, but it doesn't really matter. The point is that you don't want to know your own fate. The replicants choose suicide over their artificial shutoff date. This may seem paradoxical on the surface but it's understandable. At least they have some control over things that way. Why doesn't Deckard pursue evidence of his own humanity if he isn't a cyborg? Again, it doesn't matter. What matters is that he can maintain the illusion of his own immortality-a necessary illusion for the functioning of society (and perhaps a hint at why the society of Blade Runner is failing). Deckard is even okay with his loved one being damned by an inferior creature's whim-as long as it isn't him. He's saving her so he doesn't have to save himself.

There are few movies that can rely completely on atmosphere with little or no discernible plot and still reach the top 5 of a Yoggoth top 10 list. Blade Runner is one of those movies. You might think that Blade Runner suffers from this defect because it has to cram an entire book onto film. You'd be wrong. I've read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the Phillip K. Dick novel the movie was based on, and if anything it has less plot than Blade Runner. I would actually recommend watching the movie first to help you figure out what the book is even about. Phillip K. Dick is a 60's writer who immediately skipped ahead to the 80's in terms of sentiment and this movie reflects that. Aside from the replicants themselves there is very little futuristic technology in the movie. There are the requisite flying cars but other than that Los Angeles looks pretty much like 1982 Los Angeles, or at least like 1982 Seattle during a solar eclipse, and that's close enough. Garish neon advertisements and new genetic technologies, along with growing ecological concerns, were just as much a part of the 80's as greed and hairstyles. The corporate demagogue gets his comeuppance in Blade Runner but that's only mentioned as an aside. The actual conclusion to the film is less bombastic and more believable than most 80's endings. Deckard is just one man running from the system because he's found love. This ending would be echoed in a later 80s movie...but that's a post for another day.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Interesting Interviews at the Onion A.V. Club

Malcolm Mcdowell seems like a good guy.

"You're telling me to do a love scene, you actually have to have penetration? That's absolutely beyond pathetic. If you can't think of any way of making that exciting, you're in the wrong job."

This one with Wes Anderson is decent. But this one with Uwe Boll is better.

"If you want a career in Germany as a filmmaker, you shoot another fucking movie about "My old uncle tried to kill Hitler." Right? You do Sophie's Choice Part 11, and you get an L.A. agent and make a career in America because you showed you were against Hitler. But in reality, 98 percent of the people were not against Hitler."

5. The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980) [LE]

He's his father? He's his father? Can you believe he's his father?!

Apparently at some point I told Yoggoth that this film was "overrated," and yet funny how it comes in at number five on my list and number six on his. Maybe that's just a testament to my overall low opinion of the '80s. Hell, it's possible that The Empire Strikes Back is actually the best film of the decade, but, as Yoggoth so expertly stated, it's hard to tell, because it's almost impossible to judge the first three Star Wars films as separate entities in and of themselves. Lucas, big bonehead that he is, has made it even more impossible thanks to the whole prequel business.

Part of me wishes that Lucas had just stopped at Star Wars and moved on. Yeah, that's right, even though I will freely admit that, as the conventional wisdom goes, Empire is superior in many ways to Star Wars, still by opening the floodgates for Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks and "Hold me like you held me on Naboo" and all that silliness, he diluted the power of the first film. Spielberg made the right call in leaving the Jaws sequels to someone else; now you can judge Jaws completely on its own as a Spielberg movie and not even think of the sequels as being spun from the same cloth. Lucas took a gamble that seemed to pay off big at first, but increasingly came to look like a mistake. In other words, he really screwed himself by raising the bar too high.

It's like Oasis. Definitely Maybe was a perfect little blast of rock 'n roll euphoria, but everybody figured it was a one-shot deal. Then when they came out with (What's the Story) Morning Glory, everybody thought, "Wow, they're doing ballads and orchestrations and stuff we never even thought they'd be able to do. Maybe they can do anything!" And then Be Here Now was like the bloated regurgitation of everything they'd already done and they had nowhere else to go and they basically laid a big fat fart on everybody's expectations. And now they just keep releasing albums even though the magic is totally gone in every possible way and you just want to scream out to Noel Gallagher "Please, Noel, stop, for the love of God!!"

So when Empire Strikes Back came out and it was better than Star Wars, I think all the fans just assumed that Lucas would be like the Beatles and that every movie would be better than the last. Hey if you can do it once, you can do it again, right? He he. I remember my father coming out of the theater after seeing Return of the Jedi. "Another death star? They went back to Tatooine? God what a letdown." But Lucas had been asking for it by making Empire so rewarding. And I'm partially of the mind that if an artist can't deliver on the whole story, then he shouldn't even bother to expand it.

And yet, and yet...Empire is so good. Yoda lifting the X-wing fighter out of the swamp, whispering to Luke "That is why you fail"; Vader kneeling before the Emperor, discussing a potential new ally; Obi-Wan's ghost suggesting "There is another"; Leia telling Han "I love you" before Han is frozen in carbonite, and Han responding "I know." Imperial walkers. Cloud City. "I am your father." Come on, buddy, was it really that hard to come up with this stuff?

Apaprently so. But just because Lucas never delivered on the promise of The Empire Strikes Back, can you really hold that against the movie itself?

Probably not.

Monday, October 15, 2007

More Conspiratorial than JFK

Just when I start feeling like I understand governments, bureaucrats, and general human nature, a story like this comes along. The article tells the story of how the US was responsible for nuclear proliferation in N. Korea and Iran by way of Pakistan. Apparently a CIA analyst tried to prevent this but was thrown out of the government for his efforts. Oliver Stone eat your heart out.

Number Six: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980) [Y]

I was talking to Little Earl about this movie a while back and I remember him saying that it was overrated. To provide some background I should say that it's usually LE arguing for the critical consensus position in film--if only because he knows more about it. So I was surprised to hear him contradict so many appraisals by picking Star Wars as his favorite Star Wars film (sorry, not using your stupid episode numbering George).

Now that I've had time to think about it, I agree. Or, to be more precise, I don't think any of the movies after Star Wars could stand on their own in the way that the first movie does. All the dark stuff that happens in Empire is so neat because it adds to our understanding of Star Wars. Heck, the other five movies in the series are really just a glossary to the first--and The Empire Strikes Back is the most important part of that glossary.

The conflict in Empire comes from Luke's inability to choose which father figure to trust. Up till his showdown with Vader, Luke's life was rough but straightforward. When Vader makes his famous paternity claim, and then offers Luke the galaxy, things get a bit more complex. Luke's sphere of moral responsibility is radically expanded and he has to come to terms with several other difficult realities as well. Good people do bad things. You don't always get the girl. Sometimes your dad cuts your hand off.

Return of the Jedi is something of a disappointment after Empire because it leaves a lot of unanswered questions. I love the confrontation between Vader, the Emperor, and Luke, but everything else is a bit of a let down. Still, that confrontation is so good that the series as a whole feels like it comes to a good conclusion. What else could Return of the Jedi have addressed? Well, for one, there seems to be a problem when the only alternatives your moral system allows are complete abandonment of morality and monastic life based off of supernatural powers. Should we all go live in the desert like Obi-Wan? Should we fall in love with Natalie Portman knowing it will lead to our ruin? Should we sequester ourselves in a ranch somewhere and dedicate our efforts to the advancement of special effects techniques above all else? Then again, it wouldn't be the 80's if it could answer those questions.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Wes Anderson Week at the AV Club

Wes Anderson Interview - AV Club

16 Films Without Which Wes Anderson Wouldn't Have Happened - AV Club

10 Films That Couldn't Have Happened Without Wes Anderson - AV Club

There seems to be a pretty complicated little subculture developing over at the Onion AV Club lately. This week the AV Club had the "crazy" idea of writing a bunch of pieces about Wes Anderson (given that there's a new Wes Anderson film coming out - not that shocking, folks). Apparently several different factions have formed on the AV Club message boards in response to this editorial decision. First of all, there's the people who like Wes Anderson and think he's worthy of the attention the AV Club is giving him. Secondly, there are the "Anti-Wes Anderson" people, who seem to think he's an overrated, self-indulgent bore, and even suggest that the AV Club has been paid by the movie studio to promote Anderson's new movie in their publication. But thirdly, and most interestingly of all, there are the "Anti-anti-Wes Anderson" people, whose stance roughly amounts to, "Yeah, maybe he's not that great, but he's still a really interesting director and I'd rather read articles about him than most other directors, so would these other people please just shut up already."

I've thought about making some comments on the AV Club message boards, but ultimately I just haven't felt like screaming my opinions like a madman only to be drowned out by the suffocating din of the insane and intolerant masses. It makes me appreciate the relative civility and maturity of the comments on my own blog. Seriously. I don't know how they put up with it over there.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

6. The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese, 1988) [LE]

I do not come from a Christian background. Apparently, if I did, I would have a big fat problem with this movie. But I don't. Come from a Christian background, that is. Or have a problem with this movie. Apparently I'm supposed to have a problem with this movie, but I'm not entirely sure why. Frankly, the Jesus of this movie is way more interesting than the Jesus in most movies. If this Jesus is bad, then maybe I'm just not a Jesus kind of guy.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm sure I've got a messiah complex just as much as the next fellow, but honestly, I'm watching this and I'm thinking, "Yeah, that's how I feel half the time. You know, J.C., buddy, you're" In this film, Jesus asks himself the same kinds of questions I ask myself: What kind of life is the right one for me? What if I make a mistake? What if I'm meant to do one thing and I do something else instead, and I've made the completely wrong decision? Or, in the words of Whitney Houston, "How will I know?"

We all feel that it's important to be right about that sort of thing. But how are we supposed to get it right with such piecemeal guidance? Jesus is like, "God, please, what you want, bro?" I mean talk about guessing games. "Am I the messiah, am I not the messiah, should I just hang out and do the carpenter thing or get busy with the thorns?" God's a real pain in the ass, that's no news to us. But apparently he's just as much of a pain in the ass to Jesus as he is to the rest of us.

Willem Dafoe gives the performance of his career as the Nazareth Cat. Harvey Keitel offers an infamously Brooklynesque twist on Judas, a casting choice that bothers a lot of people but hasn't really bothered me. Even stranger, at least on paper, is David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, but he's quite effective and almost unnoticable. In fact, the only questionable decision on Scorsese's part is the World Beat score by Peter Gabriel. I mean, I'm sitting there watching Jesus buckle under the weight of the cross as he's forced to carry it up the hill where he'll be crucified, and it's really powerful and agonizing, and then suddenly all these Senegalise people start singing. Senegalise? We're in the Middle East. Yeah, I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, but, whoa, man. Did Phil Collins not have any room in his schedule or something?

Finally, one last note on the controversy. It's all misplaced, because of the big disclaimer at the opening: "This film is not based upon the Gospels but upon this fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict [Nikos Kazantzakis' novel] ." So there you go. "We are departing from Christianity here." "It's a metaphor." "We are not saying that Jesus was actually like this." Therefore, even if you feel that the depiction of Jesus here is blasphemous (which I don't), the film isn't going for accuracy anyway. What's blasphemous, I guess, is simply toying around with the Jesus story at all. Well if Jesus was some pristine figure of certainty who never had a doubt in his entire life, then I can't relate. But if Jesus had doubts and fears and questions and temptations, and overcame them, then I can understand what that would have meant, and I am much more moved and inspired by his story.

It's just too bad I already knew the ending.

Best of Wikipedia

I enjoyed the Ultimate fate of the universe page and its various links. Especially interesting were the 1 E19 s and more page and the Final Anthropic Principle page.

The final anthropic principle deals with something that has concerned me since I was about 12. Namely, how can moral values exist in a universe which may lack intelligent life at some future point, and may lack physical evidence of prior moral conflict should intelligent life subsequently arise? In other words, if you are a great person throughout your entire life, at some point no one may know between you and Stalin. Possible responses are that you will know and, perhaps most importantly, those you treat morally will know. If their valuation, or your own valuation, is unimportant what is the basis of any moral obligation in the first place. The anthropic principle seems to beg the question rather than answer it, but it's still interesting to think about. (Compare the anthropic principle to one explanation for the universe's existence: the world exists with these particular properties because otherwise you wouldn't be here to ask why the world exists. Somehow unconvincing, eh?)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Number Seven: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988, Gilliam) [Y]

My father rented The Adventures of Baron Munchausen for my family to watch when I was younger. I think it may have been the first weird movie I'd ever seen, outside of some kid's movies (the aforementioned Dumbo and a hallucinatory fever-ridden viewing of Robin Hood come to mind). The movie starts out slightly odd but when you get to the moon and a headless Robin Williams is dancing around things get really fun.

The movie is partly just a series of crazy stories, but death stalks the Baron at every turn, literally. I remember thinking that death was kind of hokey as a kid because it's just a tattered black angel, but that's kinda the point with Gilliam movies. A powerful innate suspension of disbelief is required for admittance. (A tattered black angel is preferable to most 80's special effects regardless.)

The movie starts in a playhouse, with viewers watching a production of the same feats that the Baron will later live through on screen. The baron then comes under bombardment from unseen cannon. The viewer doesn't know which war this is supposed to be or who is fighting whom. None of this matters because it's the story the Baron is telling/living that's real and we quickly leave war-torn Europe behind to journey through fairy tales and myths, riding in a balloon made of knickers. I bet some of you haven't seen this so I won't go into more detail. Go watch this if you haven't!

The film came in way over-budget and didn't get a proper release, prompting Terry Gilliam to refer to it as a fiasco. But half of all the movies Gilliam's made have been fiascos in one way or another and it hasn't stopped him so far. I can see some feeling that Baron Munchausen is just Gilliam weirdness for its own sake. For me the fear of death and the ecstatic power of wacky imagination are enough to raise this movie above standard 80's fare.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

7. Crimes and Misdemeanors (Allen, 1989) [LE]

I'm fond of saying that Annie Hall is Woody Allen's "perfect" movie, meaning all the movies that came before it are funny but too lightweight, and all the movies that came after it are interesting but too self-consciously "arty." I'll give him Crimes and Misdemeanors, however. Here he manages to ape some of the pet themes of his favorite European directors (Bergman, Fellini) without sacrificing the qualities that make him uniquely, unmistakeably Woody. If anything, his "funny" persona helps make it easier for the poison to go down, because this movie gets heavy. And by the time it gets heavy you're so caught up in the "funny" that you barely even notice.

The film interweaves two stories with opposite trajectories. In one, an ophthamologist named Judah (Martin Landau) decides to deal with a messy affair by bumping off his mistress. He is continually unable to repress flashbacks of his deceased rabbi father admonishing him as a child that "the eyes of God are upon you"; Judah attempts to put his father's theology to the test. In the other story, a failed documentary filmmaker named Cliff (Woody) attempts to woo PBS producer Halley (Mia Farrow) while administering his pithy Allenisms onto the obnoxious Lester (Alan Alda), who, to Cliff's surprise, becomes his romantic competition. To make a long story short, one character ends up feeling good and the other character ends up feeling bad.

But what does it mean to feel "good" and feel "bad," anyway? Here's where the film begins to hit you with the big questions, or mainly the big question, the question, perhaps the great riddle of human existence: why do bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people? How can some people get away with horrible things and feel great, while other people strive to be good their whole lives and get screwed? Why do we live in a universe with no moral logic?

At first, I thought Woody's answer in this film was "I know, it sucks." But when I watched the film with a friend, and when we argued about it after it was over, he felt that Woody's answer was less pessimistic: that even though sometimes "bad" things seem to happen to "good" people, and vice versa, there is still a moral logic to the universe.

I came to agree with my friend. Although Woody doesn't say so explicitly, I believe the lesson of Crimes and Misdemeanors is that even though while some people think they are "getting away" with immoral behavior, in truth they're really getting away with nothing, because the point of life is not to preserve your social standing, or your self image, but to live for the happiness of others. And no, "God" may not punish you, but you will punish yourself, by misunderstanding your own path to happiness. And maybe that's not enough for some people, but that's enough for me.

Yankees Lose

Oh baby. Feel the Schadenfreude. Feel it.

Roger Clemens back in May: "I'm going to sign with the team that's got the best chance of winning a championship."


Yankees front office: "Hey, yeah, let's sign Clemens for $28 million to bail us out of all our pitching problems, sure, no sweat."

Sunday night's game: Clemens pitches 2 1/3 innings, pulls hamstring, gives Yankees a 3-0 deficit.

Oh yeah.

"Yankees choke in the first round three years in a row."

Can you feel it? Can you feeeeeeel it?

Hmmm. Taste that chokage. Taste it nice and sweet. Yeah, that's it. Oh baby. Harder. Mmmm.

"Yankees in shambles." "Firing this guy." "Firing that guy." Yes. Collapse. Crumble. Crack into a thousand crumbs under the weight of your unbearable shame.

Here's the coffin. Here's the nail. Oh - it's going - going in - into the coffin - oh god - piercing - its rusty way - into the heart - of Derek Jeter - oh please no - it's - Over.

Let's give it up to the Indians. My pop's home town. Cleveland in the hoooouuuuuse. "Yankees won all six games against the Indians in the regular season." Yeah, uh, too bad the regular season ain't the playoffs.

Indians vs. Red Sox. This one should be good. Hey, does anybody see the Yankees anywhere? Where'd they go? Weren't they just right over there? I swear I could have seen them a minute ago. Oh wait.

Hope they've got a TV.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Number Eight: The Princess Bride (Reiner, 1987) [Y]

Fantasy is supposed to be fun. Unfortunately, a legion of overly-long Tolkien ripoffs (including the LOTR movies themselves) dominates the genre. The Princess Bride has everything those other movies are lacking in storytelling and it's funny to boot!

No single performance stands out, but Rob Reiner did a wonderful job assembling actors who perfectly fit their role, physically as well as mentally. Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin, and Andre the Giant form a triumvirate of traditional evil (the conniving intellectual, the sneak-thief, and the brute). Each of these actors was amusingly overqualified in his own way, Andre being a wrestling star, Patinkin a Tony-winning tenor, and Shawn a well known playwright. Indeed, almost everyone in the film had some sort of classical training in acting. Even Cary Elwes turned down an offer to join the Royal Shakespeare Company, somehow sensing that Saw would come along and justify his decision twenty years later. Interestingly, Reiner took the opposite approach of George Lucas, who famously cast amateurs in Star Wars. I think The Princess Bride is better for it. The movie may be silly, but it's a silliness with weight. For instance, we all know and laugh at Patinkin's Inigo Montoya speech, but by god it wouldn't be nearly so memorable if it didn't seem like he really meant it.

The one character that disappoints is Princess Buttercup. She does seem exactly like the woman a teenage Fred Savage would think up and the character may be designed to emulate the shallow heroines of pulp stories. Still, if I were a woman watching The Princess Bride I might feel a little let down. It doesn't help that Robin Wright isn't nearly as talented as some of the other people involved. Carol Kane, however, picks up some of her slack, helping to move Billy Crystal from annoying to hilarious.

The Princess Bride is largely sui generis, but there are a few themes that seem particularly of-their-time. The main villain turns out to be the scheming prince who is fostering nationalism to further his own pecuniary interests. Prince Humperdink is a medieval Gordon Gekko, choosing money over true love. This love is shown in all its silly hackneyed fairy tale glory, but as Fred Savage's grandfather explains to him in the awkward but endearing framing scenes, sometimes that silliness can be the most valuable thing we've got.

Pitchfork Amusement

So Pitchfork gives the new Springsteen album a 6.8. Perhaps they are not aware of the hilarious Pitchfork spoof that appeared in the Onion last month, in which Pitchfork allegedly gives "music" a 6.8? At any rate, since when did Bruce Springsteen become "the indie ideal"? Is that why so much indie rock is generic and overwrought these days? Honestly, Springsteen's place in the rock canon is just a tad bit inflated, don't you think? Besides, has he really done anything interesting since Tunnel of Love? Granted, I have not heard this album. But given the kind of slick production he's employed for the last 20 years, my guess is that it's probably not on par with "Badlands." Pitchfork laments the poor production choices ("Springsteen should sound more like Tom Waits, less like 3 Doors Down") and yet still reviews the album quite favorably. But honestly, the lame production and bland title (Magic? What is this, an Olivia Newton-John album?) pretty much kill it for me.

Meanwhile, a new Bob Dylan boxed set gets a 1.3. Pitchfork doesn't seem to be able to grasp the concept of the "target audience." Just because they are not the target audience of a compilation doesn't mean that said compilation is terrible.

Finally, Rolling Stone gives the new Springsteen album - surprise, surprise - 5 stars.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

8. The Right Stuff (Kaufman, 1983) [LE]

Long before Homer Simpson rescued a space mission by munching on a bag of free-floating potato chips, long before the New Kids on the Block sang an irrepressible ditty, there was The Right Stuff.

Could you imagine the temptation Hollywood must have felt to dumb down the story of the space race? To smooth out all the uncouth edges of history and make a much more conventionally appealing picture? Fortunately (and apparently, not without some screenwriting conflict) they resisted that temptation, and as a result, The Right Stuff has ended up a refreshingly candid blast of high atmospheric oxygen.

This isn't a cold, distant history lesson. This is a "take off your gloves and reach into the muck of history and scrunch it around in between your fingers" lesson. No patriotic, apple pie cows are left sacred here. The unflappably pure and heroic notion of the Mercury 7 is revealed to have been essentially a masterpiece of public relations - aside from John Glenn, that is, portrayed by Ed Harris as an Eagle Scout from a Norman Rockwell painting.

Just check out this cast: Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Lance Henriksen, Barbara Hershey, etc., etc. The most surprising revelation at the time, so I hear, was playwright Sam Shepard, appearing as fearless test pilot Chuck Yeager. The revelation: He was a studly lookin' dude. "So not only is he a brilliant playwright," people apparently said to themselves, "he's also ridiculously handsome? Why don't we just kill ourselves now and get it over with?"

Finally, The Right Stuff is one of the only '80s movies where the top-notch special effects are in the service of a completely realistic story. We could have used a few more instances of that kind of story/technology interplay in that decade.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Number Nine: Grave of the Fireflies (Takahata, 1988) [Y]

Most of the distinctions between American and Japanese animation are bogus. You might prefer big scooped eyes and pale faces to strange anthropomorphic animals, but in the end it's about the interplay between the artistry of the drawing and the emotional weight of the story. Sorry post-Toy Story Pixar, 3 hours of second rate Seinfeld jokes do not a classic make. Likewise about throwing vixens with 12-year-old bodies at your atrophied protagonist who happens to have some magical weapon or know ninjitsu.

Grave of the Fireflies tells the story of two children left orphaned by World War II, their mother killed in an American fire-bombing. The American fire-bombings are depicted as the horrific slaughterhouses that they were, and in current debates over the effectiveness of nation building it would serve us well to acknowledge just what went into the remaking, as morally justifiable as it was, of Germany and Japan. The movie also depicts the callous actions of Japanese civilians who failed to help the children who were obviously in need. The children briefly live with their aunt before becoming homeless. In a particularly heart-wrenching scene the older brother finds his sister eating rocks near the cave they live in, deliriously thinking that she has found food. A child's imagination mixes in the animated panels with the audience's forbidding anticipation of despair and death. As Rilke said, "beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us."

The director, Isao Takahata, has stated that the older brother is not intended to be a sympathetic character because his prideful actions contribute to his sister's death. This is true; however, his pride is the result of his youthful assumption of traditional cultural values. The extension of blame to society at large is inescapable. A bowl of rice for a child will cost significantly less than even the most nutritious trickled-down effluvia from on high.

Although the situation in Japan wasn't quite the same as it was in America, the harrowing opening scene showing a child dying alone in a public train station offers a stark indictment of the type of greed-induced emotional vacuum that came to be associated with the 80's. Sure, I hummed along to 'Under the Sea' as much as the next kid, but Grave of the Fireflies has an emotional weight unequaled in American animation since Dumbo's weird sense of cosmic dread.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

9. Do The Right Thing (Lee, 1989) [LE]

I saw this really great movie a long time ago, but the only thing is, I can't remember the name of the guy who directed it. It was like Spank, or Spunky, or Skanky or something. Anyone know whatever happened to that guy? I mean, it was just about perfect, but the only thing was it didn't really have any distinguishing characteristics that made you think, "Wow, this could only be a 'so-and-so' movie." I mean, as good as it was, I thought the guy really needed to find his own personal style.

Despite this alarmingly anonymous quality, however, I felt the movie really kicked the ass of all these other so-called "issues" movies, simply because all it did was present me with a troubling situation and didn't pretend to have any answer to it. Usually an "issues" movie tries to tell me what the problem is, and then tries to tell me how to fix it. Do The Right Thing simply dropped me in on the problem, let it explode into a million pieces, and then left me in the dust to figure out what the hell went wrong, or went right, or even went just plain unsurprisingly. The "answer" to the situation, in this case, I think, was simply to just be aware of it.

Like its oddly absent director, Do The Right Thing is sort of a social Rorschach test, as the mystery man himself has pointed out: "With 'Do the Right Thing,' the majority of white people told me Sal was the most sympathetic character, but black people didn't necessarily see Sal the same way. They saw him as a racist exploiting people in Bed-Stuy. They identified more with Mookie." Likewise, many viewers have asked our faceless auteur if Mookie does indeed "do the right thing" at the film's climactic moment, but he adds, "Not one person of color has ever asked me that question.'' So there you have it: an open slate from a blank slate director.

Ah, now I remember. Sparky McPhee. That was the guy's name.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Number Ten: Back To The Future (Zemeckis, 1985) [Y]

Yeah, that's what I chose. No hiding it with that picture above my post and why should I try? I thought of putting Platoon here for respectability but I don't even remember what happens in Platoon. Plus it has Charlie Sheen in it. How can you watch it the same way after Hot Shots Part Deux?

What's so good about Back to the Future? First, it's got great performances by Christopher Loyd and Crispin Glover, two actors who rival Christopher Walken and Ben Affleck in their penchant for suicidal career moves. Before he became a full time corporate huckster, before he longed for the halcyon days of Addams Family sequels, Christopher Loyd was the weird old professor friend we all wanted to have. His workshop featured automatic pet feeders, giant speakers, and weird metal helmet things. Now that's the kind of professor I wish I'd had in college! (Doc is only equaled by another amazing professor from this decade. '80s the decade of cool professors? Russell Crowe's got nothing on these guys.)

Crispin Glover, on the other hand, was the dad that none of us wanted to have--because he was too much like us! In the course of the movie Michael J. Fox comes to terms with the fact that his father is just a grown-up kid who went through the same crap he's going through as an adolescent. But, through the miracle of Lucassified special effects he's able to achieve inner knowledge and peace AND change history to give himself what he wants. This smacks a little bit of me-decade thinking, but the Marty McFly who ends the movie seems to have genuinely grown as a person.

One other thing that Back to the Future has going for it is the relative plainness of the actors involved. Marty's mom is attractive but no supermodel. Christopher Loyd and Crispin Glover wouldn't win any beauty contests. And most important of all--Michael J. Fox was short, and obviously so! Would this movie work with Jim Carrey or Zack Braff acting opposite Scarlet Johansson? Well maybe Zack Braff, I kinda like Scrubs I have to admit. Now back to the 80s...