Monday, October 31, 2011

Just Seen: In Time

A nice little work of speculative fiction depicting an alternate universe that some may even find attractive: Everyone has been genetically engineered to stop aging at 25, and has to earn every minute of their lives after that, conveniently counted down on green clocks on their forearms. If you can't get the minutes, you'll die young, but you'll at least leave a good-looking corpse.

Writer-director Andrew Niccol seems to specialize in the Philip K. Dick idiom of sci-fi: high-concept, freighted in some bit of impossible future tech, with an undeniable touch of paranoia. Observations:

• As much as it resembles Niccol's other sci-fi films-- the genetics-is-destiny concept of  Gattaca (1997) or the really, really artificial reality of The Truman Show (1998)-- In Time seems to be a logical expansion of Logan's Run (1976), Where everyone had a little glowing plastic flower on their palms which blinked out at 30, along with their lives. This film was based on a 1967 book by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, which had everyone time out at 21 (which has an undeniable 60s flavor to it). In Time adds the neat trick of turning an arbitrary execution date into a sort of financially-based expiration date.

• The easy-to-carry concept of In Time-- Money now literally equals time, carried on a clock on everyone's forearm: some have a minutes, others have centuries-- is quite timely, despite it's sort of abstract quality. The haves have so much time they seem to move slowly (because they literally have all the time in the world) and live far from the teeming have-nots, who scramble to get enough minutes to last out the day by a system that continually squeezes them by raising prices. This is a situation that, you have to admit, feels quite familiar.

• Even with it's nifty premise, In Time suffers from a familiar flaw in it's sci-fi universe: call it "Arbitrary Totalitarianism." The good-looking, well-dressed folks, rich and poor, go through their well-ordered lives without any contact with each other, with a yawning societal stratification which goes unaddressed by democratic discourse or media of any kind (aside from wanted posters). Authoritarian governments are so common in sci-fi that universes with suffrage or talk radio tend to stand out ("BSG" being a big one). I think this is because depicting a society without the messy debates of democracy plays much stronger on-screen and hangs a huge lantern on the central gimmick. It's not really writer laziness, rather a form of shorthand, like the movie trope of turning on a TV exactly when vital info is being broadcast (which happens several times in In Time).

• This must have been a easy script to pitch to a studio: an alternate reality where everyone is 25 and extremely attractive. Olivia Wilde plays Justin Timberlake's hot 50-year-old mom. The pursuing cop, the indefatigable Javert of the piece, is supposed to be over 70 and is played by smooth-faced Cillian Murphy. I'd read one review that said the movie looks like a 99-minute long credit card ad. Have to agree.

•Just a wee little bit overwritten. Practically all the characters are cutely named after timepieces: Salas, Weis [Weiss], Hamilton, Fortis, Citizen, Raymond [Raymond Weil], etc. Andrew Niccol had the restraint not to name anyone Timex, Swatch or Fossil, so there's that.

• Seen at the Daly City 20, a fine digital projection which showed the amazing photography of Roger Deakins to best effect. At the end, when the director credit came up, some fool in the back bellowed "HOR-RI-BLE!" That got a few chuckles. Since I was by myself and wouldn't embarrass anyone, I loudly intoned back into the dark, "--Then why did you sit through the whole thing?" That got a good laugh.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Weekend Box Office

For the numbers, click here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Spirit of History

In my continuing attempt to document my acting career and fill blog space, I'll tell you what I'm up to this month: I can be found next weekend at the Ghost Tour in Strathern Park.
Strathern House

Essentially it's a "haunted house" with a pro-social purpose. Strathearn Park is located in Simi Valley about three miles north of the Ronald Reagan presidential library, and it's stocked with hisotrical buildings. The one depicted above is the Strathearn house, but many of the other structures have been transplanted to the grounds so you can see what life was like before smartphones.

The Simi Valley Historical society hires actors to play the ghosts of famous Simi Vally figures. ("Famous" is a term of art; the only figure I'd ever heard of is Crash Corrigan, the silent movie cowboy who isn't even depicted this year) The actors perform 3 minute scenes which serve to explain their place in local history. As it happens, there were enough creepy folk in Simi Valley's past that Halloween is a perfectly appropriate time to mount this little dog and pony show.

Note, there is neither a dog nor a pony in the show.

Here is me and Veronica Scheyving as Finis and Mary Yoakum, who were founders of the Pisgah Grande Colony and mission at the turn of the last century. It was a health cult. As cult leaders go, Yoakum is among the more benign in the area's history.  The least benign is probably Krishna Venta, whose space alien/religion/sex cult went so off the rails in the 1950's that his followers literally blew him up with dynamite.
The interesting thing for an actor in this gig is - well, are - a. they actually give you money to act and b. you get a lot of "stage time." True the scene is only three minutes, but over the course of any evening you will perform it to 13-15 groups of about 20 people each. It's only a three weekend run, but it's still more exposure than a 5 weekend run in a regular play. So it's worth being trapped outside for 4 hours.

If you're in the area next weekend and not interested in checking out a recreation of the Reagan-era Air Force One, swing by.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Headin' Back to Austin

Flying out tomorrow at an ungodly time to Austin, Texas, to attend the 2011 Austin Film Festival and Screenwriting conference. I've got my Producer's Badge, which gets me into almost all the conferences and all the good parties.

I was there two years ago, under very different circumstances: John and I were finalists in the screenwriting competition. We eventually won our category, and to this day the Bronze Typewriter award sits on my mantlepiece (John said he had more than enough awards jamming up his office, and it's true).

After the win came a small avalanche of requests from producers and development shingles to read the winning manuscript, and a few days of pitch meetings in LA. But in the end all I can report has happened with The Sensitivity Program (the winning script) is several revisions and it's current option held by a Bay Area production company.

So as you can imagine, this time out it's not going to be the non-stop demi-celebrity experience we had in 2009 (Ron Howard congratulated us!). John's going to be there, but he's staying in a condo across from the Driskill Hotel (AFF's ground zero) with some buddies he met at The Film School in Seattle so he's sort of doing his own thing. I'm crashing at my bud David's place in South Austin, where I can admire the four Grammy awards on his piano and feel humble.

I was quite excited about the AFF when I got the badge-- last-minute thing that depended on some last-minute money coming in. But now I'm set to go, and I can't help think it's gonna be a big disappointment compared to 2009. When you think about it, how can it not be?

Still, some fun should be be had. I have access to a pick-up truck, which should open up the whole Austin experience considerably. Also, James Franco and Johnny Depp and Mike Judge and a bunch of famous screenwriters and inebriated not-so-famous screenwriters will be there, so how can it not be fun?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Weekend Box Office

Where is he getting these numbers, anyway?

Just Seen: The Tingler

Halloween is closing in again, and on cue the cable nets are loaded up with horror films. Actually, I'll say the spooky season was kicked off quite well by last Sunday's season 2 premiere of "The Walking Dead" on AMC. A very impressive, excruciatingly tense 90 minutes. The only thing that let the air out of a fine evening of zombie action was the increasing tempo of commercial breaks, which started hitting every ten minutes or so in the third half. I guess they had to capitalize on the buzz-- and were rewarded with the best ratings for any AMC show so far.

Up-dial a bit, I got a chance to catch The Tingler (1959) last night on TCM, in finely transferred HD. It was part of William Castle's most successful cycle of gimmick-driven horror films, along with House On Haunted Hill (1959) and 13 Ghosts (1960).

Quite a few years ago, I got to see The Tingler in a revival house in San Francisco in an auditorium wired for "Percepto," the sensory gimmick from the original release. And by gimmick, I mean several buzzers wired into selected seats. When the blackout part hit ("The tingler is loose the the theater! Scream as loud as you can!"), the buzzers were turned on (along with, for added terror, a Van Der Graff generator throwing out blue sparks under the screen) and all the hipsters in the house reliably screamed their heads off.

No Percepto last night (though I did watch it a little buzzed) so I got to dig into the film's plot. It was written (along with the other two) by Robb White-- and it's obvious the poor guy had William Castle hovering over his typewriter the whole time. a few super-weird plot motifs popped out in this screening:

• Strange family relationships. Vincent Price (in his skinny-moustached prime) plays Warren Chapin, a pathologist. As the story opens he is conducting an autopsy on an executed criminal. Ollie, the executed guy's next of kin, plays a pivotal role in the story that follows. Dr. Chapin is married to Isabel, a gold-lamé-wearing trollop. She's an heiress who refuses to share her wealth with her good-hearted younger sister Lucy, who also lives with them. Lucy is going steady with David, who is played by Darryl "Dobie Gillis" Hickman and who Dr. Chapin considers a son to him. Everything that happens not directly Tingler-related involves the baroque, complex and hateful dynamics of this family unit.

• Weird plot holes. Dr. Chapin's trollop wife Isabel, a fairly important character, vanishes from the film at about the two-thirds point-- no real reason given. Vincent Price greets this development with a shrug, and the film continues.

• Time wasters. Aside for the long scream-filled blackouts at three points in the film (which are cheap to shoot!) We're also treated to an extended sequence in the silent-film theater (before the Tingler gets loose in it) of Tol'able David (1921). This was a wheezy melodrama featuring Richard Bartholomess about a mistreated bumpkin who gets his big shot a manhood when he gets to deliver a mailbag. For the most part, films-within-films usually make some sort of thematic commentary to the overarching narrative. Not this time. It was probably a way William Castle could add four minutes or so of length to his movie (which was shot in two weeks) and he didn't give a damn if it informed the plot or killed it dead.

Even with it's manifold faults, The Tingler is a genuinely creepy film, with a clever bit of color in the scariest part. There is an almost Lynchian despair and strangeness to the thing, an effect that lingers well after the last 50's teenager screams. it doesn't hold up well, but it holds up.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The End of Film

Sometime in 2009, the last professional 35mm motion picture camera was assembled.

The three major camera companies-- Panavision, Aaton and ARRI-- have since been devoted to designing and improving their digital cameras. The 35mm cameras that made them famous are still out there, and they still service them, but to quote Deborah Kaufman on Creative Cow, "someone, somewhere in the world, is now holding the last film camera ever to roll off the line."

Meanwhile, the number of movie theaters screens set up for digital projection surpassed fifty percent of all screens, and they're installing over seven hundred new projectors every month. This is a net gain, I think: the days of scratched prints and out-of-frame shows may be history. But with the exception of IMAX (a 65mm process that grows in popularity every year) film print delivery will eventually become rare, then a sort of historical curiosity. I can see a time not far off when you will have to visit a subsidized rep and revival theatre (a museum screening room, LA's Cinematheque, or the Packard-supported Guild in Palo Alto, for example) to see what a projected 35mm print looks like.

It should surprise nobody that film has been virtually dead in television production for years, but what's weird is how the tipping point came: during the near-shutdown of Hollywood due to the SAG labor dust-up in 2008. TV's move to AFTRA contract players, who had a deal with TV producers so long as the film were made digitally, made film use in TV production vanish overnight.

As far as movies go, we're living in strange times. Sure, the major films shot digitally look a lot like their 35mm predecessors. But the shallow focus and squeezed bokeh of Panavision, the red circles of film halation on point-source lights, the organic grain density of the photochemical process: these are 20th century artifacts, remnants of the analog world.

We're well into the 21st century now, and the precise, pure color of digital cinema is steadily becoming the norm. For filmmakers, this may well be a good thing: 35mm film stock is, and always has been, phenomenally expensive stuff. For the cost of 20 reels of color negative and processing for same, you can go out and buy a RED ONE 4K Digital Cinema camera and capture an unlimited amount of footage at the same resolution.

For film enthusiasts, this progress is sort of a mixed bag. In the days of film, the cost of stock set the lower bar for film production. Film production needed high-level financing, and financing requires return on investment, which requires things like actors, competent lighting, coherent scripts and decent post-production standards. A few years ago the opening up of film markets to zero-budget films spawned the "mumble-core" movement and The Room (D. Tommy Wiseau, 2003). There are thousands of kids out there, energized with all sorts of personal cinematic epiphanies, running their hands over their DSLRs, ready to roll-- and the image resolution at their command rivals any professional camera. Watch out.

On the other hand, It's important to remember that Hollywood is a system: It's stock in trade is slickly made, big-budget creations populated with familiar faces, available to be seen in a darkened auditorium or on a major network near you. This system was created because of the needs of film: To tell a story using the low-sensitivity nitrate stocks of the time, you needed a studio to shine a lot of lights on actors, sets on stages where scenes could be repeated reliably, and access to development labs for workprints. The film studios remain, though the film itself is gone.

Then again: if we can have cars without gas engines and computers without keyboards, we can have film studios without film.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Skippy The Bush Kangaroo As Embodiment Of National Character

Skippy, The Bush Kangaroo (pictured center)
 As I mentioned last week, one of the cultural artifacts my girlfriend Leanne brought back with her from Switzerland was a DVD of some episodes of Skippy, The Bush Kangaroo, enigmatically dubbed into French. To be more specific the episodes are from the 1991 revival series, The Adventures of Skippy. Still the situation is the same - unmarried Austrailian game warden and his two children, sharing adventure with the unusually smart and helpful titular Kangaroo. Pretty obviously male Kangaroo in this case. Don't ask me to give details.

Skippy has captured my imagination.  Even though I don't speak enough French to understand the dialog, it's clear that the show is not dialog driven. It's an action show. Which is why I keep thinking that it must have been unbelievely frustrating for Australians to write it.

Skippy is the main character - you can kind of think of him as a superhero but his chief superpower is indication. "What is it Skippy? What are you pointing at? Oh no, it's a toxic waste spill! Who could have done that?" Skippy's function on the show is to notice the thing that sets the plot in motion, and then accompany the game warden or children as they investigate and solve the problem. If possible, Skippy will notice and indicate something else over the course of the episode.  Perhaps he'll hop off and the little girl will follow him to discover a leaky pipe. But other than that, Skippy ain't nothin'.

Can you imagine the poor staff writers trying to crank out a script every week? "He can't speak, he can't drive a bloody car, he can't hold a gun - crikey, how the hell am I supposed to use this thing? He doesn't even have a bloody pouch." To make matters worse, the characters Skippy deals with most are children, who are similarly limited protagonists. Ultimately the real engine of the show is the game warden, who just does what Skippy and the kids tell him to.

Australians are famously simple men of action, and this show is the most passive/agressive situation imaginable.

Backhanded Compliment Of The Week

"But Allen is a perfect fit for a multicamera sitcom, and despite the predictability of the jokes, he sells them well. As bad as Last Man is, it would be a trillion times worse without him."
- Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman, reviewing new Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Weekend Box Office

The numbers show no matter what month it is, it's still September.

That's right, 4 new movies in the top then and they underperform old movies that weren't doing great to begin with. For starters, premiering at the #4 position, Courageous. It blazed into our consciousness with $9 million. Woo hoo. Next, 50/50, a comedy about a guy who has incurable cancer somehow managed to  make that premise palatable and only made $8.6 million. Below that at #6, Dream House pulls in $8.1 million and finally, at #8, What's Your Number? Its number, it turns out, is $5.4 million.

Make of this what you will - a couple of months ago, a raging pro-Sarah Palin documentary called The Undefeated opened to a sad $65k. This weekend, raging anti-Palin documentary Sarah Palin: You Betcha opened to a far sadder 7K. In either event, it looks like people aren't jumping at the chance to watch movies about Sarah Palin.