Thursday, December 27, 2012

Weekend Box Office



Thanks to Variety.com for the numbers; curses to the entire film industry for not getting the numbers up sooner

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Weekend Box Office



Thanks to Variety.com! Really thanks. I'd be nothing without you.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Hobbit: The Law of Diminishing Dwarves


My wife has really, really been looking forward to seeing The Hobbit for weeks, ever since she re-read the novel. And I was very curious about seeing what the new HFR 3D (48 frames per second) process looks like. So tonight we went to go check it out at the Cinemark San Mateo-- where we found out after buying tickets that they don't have HFR. Refund in pocket, we drove to Redwood City, where they did.

Basically, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey delivers it's promise: It's a dose of Middle Earth, just as detailed, grand and handsome-looking as any part of the LOTR trilogy. In fact, a lot of the characters from the trilogy show up-- Galathriel, Saruman The White, Frodo Baggins-- even though they aren't in the original book.

There are two basic area to look at with The Hobbit, which despite some harsh reviews had a champion opening weekend ($89 Million)-- the production and the new HFR 3D process:

The Production: I remember when New Line announced they were going to make the Hobbit into a prequel: It was quite exciting news, and a lot of fans were enthused about it. When they announced, not long after the initial news, that it was going to be a two-part epic, people generally shrugged. But when, during pre-production, they said The Hobbit was going to be a trilogy, there was some alarm. The covers of the book it's based on are closer together than any of the other Middle Earth books: that's a small amount of jam to spread on a lot of bread.

Let's look at the arithmetic of screenplay adaptation at work here. The Lord of the Rings trilogy of books totals 1,550 pages. The total running time of all three movies is 558 minutes. The general tally of a standard formatted screenplay is roughly a page a minute, so we can assume the three scripts together total less than 600 pages. This leaves the screenwriters with the standard job of reducing, cutting out characters and plotlines. But The Hobbit is 310 pages long. If they divide it evenly, that's about 103 pages of novel to turn into each movie-- which roughly lines up with where The Unexpected Journey, which is 169 minutes long, ended. There is over an hour of screen time to pad, and it shows.

Peter Jackson has added elements from Tolkien's unpublished memoirs, such as The Quest for Erebor, but you can feel the stretch as the film unwinds. Bilbo Baggins does not leave his hobbit-hole until nearly an hour of screen time has passed. Radagast the Brown Wizard shows up for an extended and fairly pointless sequence. Those LOTR characters ain't just cameos: they have a extended conclave mid-movie as well.

The most interesting, and glaring, change is the addition of an orc villain. Azog, a very minor character in the book, was the Orc king who killed Thror, the father of Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarf company headed to Erebor. In the movie he's now the nemesis of Thorin. He's also a very tall orc with blue skin, and bears an uncanny-- and even suspicious-- resemblance to one of the huge aliens from James Cameron's Avatar.

Thorin Oakenshield. Dwarf or Klingon? You decide.
There is also another issue, something inherent in the original story, which leaves The Hobbit at a disadvantage compared to the precedent films: the lack of charismatic eye-candy. The LOTR trilogy had, up-front and rock-star handsome, Humans and Elves: Aragorn, Legolas, Eomer, Boromir and even his brother Faramir. I remember the spontaneous applause that broke out during the closing credits at the opening-weekend screening of The Return of the King: throaty, manly yells for Frodo and Sam, schoolgirl screams for Aragorn and Legolas. With The Hobbit the heartthrob is (apparently) Thorin, a hair-covered dwarf set against a mob of a dozen-odd undifferentiated, hair-covered Dwarves. He just doesn't have that ineffable "it."

High Frame Rate 3D: I've read a few reviews for The Hobbit and they all make comment on this new process, where the film was shot at double the frame rate, 48 frames per second, and projected at the same speed. I also remember reading about the hooting and brickbats at the last ComicCon when they screened a sequence for fans in HFR 3D. The general consensus is this: it makes the film look like it was shot on video. It gives the film a cheap-looking patina, like "The Teletubbies" or a soap opera.

You know what? It's not that bad. Sure, there are some scenes that look sort of cheesy, especially handheld ones: they look like they were shot on the set with a video camera. And some of the props and costumes aren't quite as convincing as they might look in 24 frame. But generally it looks very good, and the high frame rate is only mildly distracting. The cinematography is lush and the effects blend seamlessly: this is what you notice first.

Still, I'd venture a suggestion: If anyone was going to make a 48 frame per second feature in the future, I'd use it on a real-life feature, like a comedy or a rom-com, something that does not have a lot of effects or makeup or weird costumes. The impact of a film like The Godfather or Dodgeball or Mulholland Drive would have been greatly enhanced with such an startlingly vivid format.

On the other hand, the high frame rate effect is offset, unfortunately, by the 3D. There was nothing wrong with it as executed in the production: it just suffers from having to put those glasses on and the dark, color-muted, washed-out look all 3-D films have.

Still, it's worth seeing. Remember the awful disappointment you felt when you saw Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace? The Hobbit is nowhere near that bad-- It's just a big-screen example of the Law of Diminishing Returns.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Weekend Box Office



Oh thank you, thank you Variety.com!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Weekend Box Office



Thanks to Variety.com for the numbers, which this week you can't see.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Weekend Box Office



Gracias, Variety.com! I'm thankful for you!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Weekend Box Office



Thanks to Variety.com there behind me, for the support!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Weekend Box Office



Thanks to Variety.com for the use of the data!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to Variety.com for data; apologies for the low-res video. No WiFi!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Jar-Jar Binks gets an appropriate home

In news that may or may not have used the cover of Hurricane Sandy to keep it quiet, The Walt Disney Company has acquired Lucasfilm Limited for just over $4 billion.

We're on the verge of a branding mash-up the likes of which has never been seen by media consuming public. Mickey and Goofy, Simba and Aladdin, Fozzie and Kermit, WALL-E and Mr. Incredible, Thor and Iron Man and The Hulk are now allowed (and will likely be required to) cavort with Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Mon Mothma and Count Dooku. The mind reels.

And the topper: A new Star Wars film is in the works. Now that George Lucas has taken his payoff and retired to his private valley, long-time Lucasfilm producer Kathleen Kennedy is starting up a new series, with Star Wars: Episode VII slated to release in 2015.

I can already see the direction Disney is going to take with their new intellectual property: Big, fast and fully integrated. New themes for the theme parks. New kiddie shows for the Disney Channel (Star Wars Babies? has that been done before?). They'll make their $4 billion back in no time.

For old-school fans like me, the ones who saw Star Wars back in 1977 and witnessed the franchise's sad decline, this is either great news-- or the big, final step into oblivion. It's obvious that the rock in the road in terms of the last three Star Wars films has been George Lucas himself-- his feeble kiddie-pandering, his dull political pontificating, and his peculiar and depressing take on morality. His decisions were impediments that prevented the second three films from reaching the heights of the first three.

With Lucas himself out of the way (after having written the treatments to Episodes VII, VIII and IX, which is his right, of course), and if Disney and Kennedy draft writers and directors with vision, the franchise may again achieve excellence.

If they fail to sieze this opportunity, get ready for endless versions of "The Star Wars Holiday Special," from 2015 to the end of time.

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to the folk at Variety.com, providing box office figures to the internet for almost 100 years now.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Weekend Box Office



Thanks to the magnificent folks at Variety.com for not noticing I'm using their copyrighted chart every week!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Weekend Box Office



Muchos gracias to Variety.com - your box office numbers go-to!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Weekend Box Office



Chart courtesy, as always, of Variety.com. Go to them for all your showbiz chart needs!

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Ultimate Recursive Movie

The Cinerama film festival did not actually close October 4th with How the West Was Won: the festival folks had special unannounced treat for the widescreen cinema fans in attendance that night.

In The Picture (2012) is a brand-new 30-min film shot in actual 3-strip Cinerama, the first since 1962. David Strohmaier, a film editor with an abiding love of old film formats and one of the organizers of the Cinerama film festival, got hold of a Cinerama camera, had it rebuilt, got Fuji to donate some filmstock, and set out to to make a travelogue.

The results were delightful and quite spectacular. In the Picture closely follows the structure of Cinerama Holiday (1955), which was framed around two couples traveling around and seeing wonders in the US and Europe. But since In The Picture was made on the cheap, it used inexpensively accessed locations around Los Angeles-- Griffith Park Observatory, Angel's Flight, Mullholland Drive, etc.

Shooting In The Picture. Note the three film magazines.
This rig weighs over 200 pounds and required three
car batteries to drive all three mags.
The film features two stars from How The West Was Won: Stanley Livingston (Chip Douglas from "My Three Sons") and a cameo by Debbie Reynolds. It even emulated the stilted dialog style of Cinerama Holiday-- though that might have more to do with working with a vintage Cinerama camera. It was usually placed about two feet from the actors for medium shots and, not being blimped, made an unholy racket.

Recursion is when an element repeats into itself, a potentially endless loop.The recursive thing I was referring to was the ending of In The Picture, and it was uncanny-- and a little spooky, as it occurred on several levels, each more directly recursive than the next:

TOP LEVEL RECURSION - At the end of Cinerama Holiday the two couples go to the Warner Theater in New York, buy tickets to Cinerama Holiday, and see themselves on the big wide screen. In The Picture, faithful to the source, ends the same way, with the four actors buying tickets in the Arclight lobby, going to the Dome and seeing themselves. So far this is a familiar movie trick: I seem to remember Buster Keaton doing it. However:

DEEPER RECURSION - In The Picture was shot just a few months ago. It is very, very strange to see the exact same place Daniel and I were sitting in displayed up on the big screen, especially in outlandishly huge 3-strip Cinerama. The same ushers and ticket-takers we saw in the lobby were extras in this sequence, and the four actors sat down in the same section we were seated in. Not a little unsettling.

A still I took of In The Picture as it was being screened at
the Cinerama Dome. By coincidence, when the actors
see themselves on screen, this is the scene they see.

EVEN DEEPER RECURSION - During this screening, In The Picture's four principal actors were in attendance-- seated all around us, in fact. The movie had already invaded our intrinsic reality: with the actors there it was literally sharing our air. (This is my reaction, of course: I understand that if you live in LA this sort of thing happens all the time.)

DEEPEST RECURSION - The 30-minute short was followed by the screening of 15-minute video documentary called "The Last Days of Cinerama," which was about… The making of In The Picture. Daniel and I fully expected this doc be followed by a 7-minute short about the making of "The Last Days of Cinerama"-- but it was getting late, Dan had to work the next day, so we didn't stick around to find out.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Wide, Wide West

It takes a good reason to get someone to drive 325 miles to see a movie. But if the reason is site-specific AND rare, you gotta make the trip. And so I attended the final days of the 60th Anniversary of Cinerama festival in Hollywood at the Pacific Cinerama Dome, one of only three theaters left in the world equipped to show the process.

The festival closed with a screening of How The West Was Won (1962), a star-studded* epic depicting 50s-era "manifest destiny," the American expansion west. It was one of only two narratives shot in Cinerama, a widescreen visual process that utilizes three strips of film set at angles that give a startling 146° angle of view. It was specifically designed to be shown on a deeply curved screen, which rectifies the wide angle of the collective image in an equally startling way. So when you watch a Cinerama movie the perspective seems amazingly natural, and you follow the action by turning your head, like you would in the real world. Conceptually, it's uncanny.

Practically, however, there are some strange limitations to the process. The seams between the triptych panels are never invisible: the optics of the time (Cinerama cameras were built in the early 1950s) couldn't make the edges blend perfectly. In How The West Was Won the filmmakers took great pains to hide the seams: they would position the actors so they were center in each lens, and often buildings or trees would coincide with the frame edges. One sequence near the end takes place in the interior of a house in Arizona: the wallpaper was a combination of little flowers, grey vertical stripes, and more grey vertical stripes. The frame edges were lost in a sea of stripes: Cinerama wallpaper.

An idea of just how wide the image is-- a frame from
HTWWW, probably a CinemaScope reduction print.
The seams are plainly visible, and you can see that each strip
is actually a tall rectangle.
Ultimately, the Cinerama process is so singular and unusual that it holds the narrative hostage. Since the cameras had only one set of lenses, close-ups were impossible. Medium shots were achieved by having the actors stand less than two feet from the camera, and even then the vastness of the settings dominated the frame. The overarching problem is the style of storytelling employed by the directors (yes, there were four directors): These old Hollywood pros came up in the Academy Format days, and it is obvious they were in their comfort zone with a single focus of action in each scene. An actor will talk: the other actors will look on blankly, as if they thought they were out of frame. So there is a lot of standing around and listening with the cast of this film. Even the wide-screen action sequences tend to have a stubbornly singular core of interest (be it a spectacular train wreck or a spectacular buffalo stampede). This center-of-frame emphasis tends to deaden the compositions, as richly designed as the sets were or amazing the location: They became just so much scenery.

(According to some commie social commentary I've read, regarding nature as "scenery" is a hallmark of bourgeois capitalism, the first step to the commodification of natural resources. That idea fits well here.)

Some folks have released HTWWW in "smilebox" format,
with a curvature added digitally.
This is how a medium shot works in Cinerama.
It took a new generation of filmmakers and a change in visual narrative language to get widescreen cinema to work more naturally. Mise en scene narrative, which uses the entirety of the cinematic canvas, sometimes in multiple centers of action over a widescreen frame, was just being defined at the time HTWWW was released. It would take visionary filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Jaques Tati and Blake Edwards to really open up the widescreen frame to it's unique storytelling potential.

With all of it's faults, HTWWW and Cinerama is still a marvel to behold. This film just does not work on video, HD or not: it does not even work in 'scope on a movie screen. It specifically designed for one and only one projection process, and I consider myself fortunate to have see it in it's proper grandeur.

*I picked out Harry Dean Stanton in an uncredited bit part as one of Eli Wallach's henchmen. How old IS that guy?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Speaking of Terry-Thomas

E=M4w

The weird thing is, I'm usually a minimalist.

Seriously, my inclination in entertainment is to try to acheive as much as possible with the least amount of money. I'm a sucker for Roger Corman movies, and have always been very fond of a story he tells about the day he was shooting a Greek war epic. He had scheduled 100 extras in togas and only 20 showed up. Rather than try to round up more extras he added a line of dialogue about how one Greek has the fighting power of five men.

And this is why it's odd that I've always been such a fan of It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, the Stanley Kramer comedy epic. To me the words "epic" and "comedy" just do not belong together. Still, I grew up watching it on TV (okay, given the Ultra-Panavision aspect ratio of the movie, I watched the middle of it) and loved it.

If you're not familiar, M4W is a kind of caper film. 4 carloads of strangers witness a car crash on a desert road. The driver (Jimmy Durante) tells them of a hidden fortune buried in a park "under a big W" just before he dies. At first the assembled group determines to find the money and split it, but soon it becomes an every-man-for-himself race to get the cash first. The cast is a who's who of comic actors including Sid Ceaser, Milton Berle, Johnathan Winters, Terry Thomas, Mickey Rooney, Ethel Merman and Buddy Hackett. And honest, that's just scratching the surface.

About twenty years ago the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood promised a widescreen presentation of it and I excitedly bought my ticket for it, only to realize that they had failed to secure a widescreen print. In fact, it was a television print from a TV station down the street; not only were the sides cut off for TV, the top and bottom were cut off so it would fit on the theatre screen. I have resented this experience ever since, until Wednesday night.

Because it was then that the Dome finally made good on that promise and presented the film in its original format, 70mm, 7 track AND anamorphically stretched on a screen so curved that reality itself looked weird for a couple of hours afterward. And let me tell you, no matter how many times you've seen this movie on TV, it's an entirely different experience.

M4W is a movie where plans fail spectacularly. A flat tire doesn't just slow you down - it ends with an entire service station in ruins. Sid Ceaser and his wife get locked in a basement and ultimately the only way out is to use dynamite and escape through a Chinese Laundry. The gags all have BIG payoffs. And in most cases they're a little too big for that box in your living room. The very hugeness of Ultra Panavision is half the payoff for these jokes. It's funny when that gas station is dismantled; but it's HILARIOUS when you're sitting in a theatre and it's as big as an actual gas station.

Oddly, Berle and Ceasar are the comedy superstars who come off as almost straight-men in this movie. My theory is that they were sketch comics - they were at their best displaying their versatility in short bursts, and here they're sustaining a character for over 3 hours. They're really good at it too, but they don't shine like Phil Silvers (playing Bilko again, but in a suit) or Terry Thomas. These are guys who worked a single persona for years into a fine glossy gem.

It's probably the greatest acheivement imagineable when you can take something as delicate an fragile as comedy, throw an impossible amount of money at it, and still get laughs. Usually it doesn't work and you just wind up with an expensive question mark of an experience. Here, it's magical.

Friday, September 28, 2012

How to Make a Feature Film

Scene from Cowgirls n' Angels
Last night I was honored to be in attendance at the Northern California premiere of Cowgirls n' Angels, the feature-film directorial debut of Tim Armstrong, a business associate of mine.

A fine evening and a fine film-- But the coolest part about this whole thing is how it was made, a case study in how to get a feature film made, starting with a vision.

Tim Armstrong's day job is as a director of institutional videos in Glendale. He was (and still is) the go-to for Kantola Productions, Steve Kantola's business training video company in Mill Valley.  Tim directed short films about employee ethics, office conflicts, sexual harassment-- If you had to watch a mandatory video in an office, there's a good chance you have seen his work. I have known Tim professionally for five years: I am just down the production chain from him, taking his finished masters and creating the menus and DVD masters for Kantola.

In 2009 the economy nearly went belly-up, and as the specialty video market dried up Tim found himself with more and more time on his hands. (I know exactly the tough sort of time he went through: in 2009 my company had to move from an office to my garage.)  In this downtime Tim decided to try his hand at a feature. Inspired by some rodeo trick-riding he's seen, he sketched out an outline for Cowgirls n' Angels.

 He took the proposal to Steve Kantola, who invested $50,000 in development money. This allowed Tim to get the screenplay (co-written by Stephan Blinn) finished and to get the project shopped around. It was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films, and given a budget that big enough to land James Cromwell and Jackson (Twilight) Rathbone. It was shot on RED cameras on location in Oklahoma.

Cowgirls n' Angels is a winning little story about Ida (Bailee Madison), a “semi-orphaned” girl in Clinton, Oklahoma who longs to meet her estranged, unknown father. The only clue she has of his existence is an old postcard of a rodeo rider. Her search for him leads her to the world of Midwest small-town rodeos, where she falls under the care of Terence (Cromwell) who runs an all-girl trick-riding outfit called Sweethearts of the Rodeo.

It might be easy for those reading this article, those more in tune with edgier independent cinema, to dismiss Cowgirls n' Angels as programmatic fare, but consider this: It's a PG film that was released in 50 theatres in the midwest. Come October 2nd the DVD and Blu-Ray (distributed by FOX) will be on sale in Walmarts nationwide, and soon after on Netflix and On-Demand. Family films have a tendency to clean up in the post-theatrical markets, and I have no doubt this film will make back it's modest budget.

If the goal of making a feature film is self-expression AND reaching a large audience, Tim Armstrong has done a fair sight better than most filmmakers I know at his level in the business. No film festivals, no Kickstarter: Just somebody with a vision-- and somebody who was willing to invest in that vision. And just as a note to any potential initial investors out there: From what he told the audience in Mill Valley, Steve Kantola has already made all his money back.

And yeah, I would have loved to have gone with this production model on the screenplay John Harden and I wrote (the AFF 2009 winner), but there's a big difference between a PG film about a winsome little cowgirl and a hard R sci-fi women-in-prison movie. Content matters...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Weekend Box Office



Thanks to variety.com for the figures!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Kickstarting Indies To The Curb

This a few days old, but my old writing partner turned a post from Deadline Hollywood, Nikki Finke's website, which was quite an eye-opener. It concerns Kickstarter, a very cool website where people can crowdsource funding for various creative projects.
Charlie Kaufman and his producing partners ― former Community showrunner Dan Harmon and Dino Stamatopoulos ― do not want to deal with Hollywood, and now at least for one project they don’t have to. A stop-motion animation adaptation of the Kaufman-written play Anomalisa raised $406,237 for the film’s production in 60 days via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. “We want to make Anomalisa without the interference of the typical big-studio process,” according to a pitch video that Harmon and Stamatopoulos’ Starburns Industries put up on the project page. The film raised more than double the money the producers were asking from 5,770 Kickstarter backers.
These guys broke the Kickstarter record for film funding. Surprised? Not me. Is this good news? Not really. I was wondering how long something as wonderful as Kickstarter could last.

Kickstarter was specifically designed to give filmmakers outside the industry access to funding. Don't get me wrong: Kaufman and Harmon and Starburns have every right to use Kickstarter. But they shouldn't. Anyone with CAA-level representation and the ability to take meetings at a studio shouldn't. Basically, anyone with recognizable star power shouldn't.

Why not? Because they have an unfair advantage over the vast majority of other projects seeking funding. If I was some starry-eyed fellow with $1000 to give away on a film project, and I had to choose between giving it to an indie project written by John August with Johnny Depp penciled in for a cameo versus a digital feature written by Elmo Nobodyski from Rustbeltville featuring Jane Nobody, guess who gets my money? Which contribution gives me bragging rights, Hollywood cache and a T-Shirt with a star on it? Pretty obvious choice.

Celebrity--  admiration for sports heroes, movie stars, political heavyweights, what have you-- exists because it's a basic component of human social behavior, a deep part of our collective brain wiring. Throughout history and undeniably before it, people have always created hierarchies-- even when they aren't needed. We seek out great men or great women to personify our values and channel our aspirations.

This is why it is risky to invest millions of dollars in a movie with no recognizable stars. (And yeah, Pixar does this all the time, but they're a solid brand, which is a form of non-individual celebrity.) And this is why, even if an indie film on Kickstarter may be a superior idea to one offered by a Hollywood insider, it'll never outdraw it in terms of funding.

Kickstarter is a zero-sum game. There are only so many investors with so much money they're willing to donate. If the trend continues, and any Industry pro with the itch goes to Kickstarter to raise money for pet projects rather than ask a studio or (God forbid) use their own money, the long shadow their celebrity casts will make all the truly independent film projects offered seem that much dimmer.

The thing that makes Kickstarter wonderful is it's basic attitude of altruism. Donations are made to creative efforts of all kinds where the donor expects nothing in return but the satisfaction of giving a leg up to a project they feel is worthy. The presence of celebrity-driven projects debases this altruism: Even if donors get no return on financial investment, they get something back: the intangible return of celebrity association, a very real claim that some of the fame they contributed to rubbed off on them. This weakens Kickstarter's mission of creative altruism-- a plain example of Gresham's Law, bad money driving out good.

This couldn't happen, right? A bunch of Hollywood operators couldn't monopolize something as inherently democratic as Kickstarter, right? If I recall, The Sundance Film Festival was supposed to be a showcase for independent filmmakers. But the Industry discovered it-- and now Park City is not much more than an outlier of the TMZ, so insular that an alternative festival (Slamdance) had to be created to give indie filmmakers any sort of chance. So yeah, it can definitely happen again.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Weekend Box Office



The usual thanks to variety.com for the figures.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Weekend Box Office



Thanks to Variety.com for the data!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Weekend Box Office



Thanks to Variety.com for that cool chart

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Weekend Box Office



Thanks this week to variety.com AND ace choreographer Becky Castells, for hosting this on her YouTube channel by accident.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Weekend Box Office



Shot using an iPhone! And as always, thanks to Variety.com for the data and set design.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Walden: now on X-Box and PS3

A TPN:BOW Repost, showing that I was getting my curmudgeon on 4 whole years ago! --s
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

–Henry David Thoreau, from his book Walden, 1854
Quite honestly, I believed the line “quiet desperation” came from this source below. I still think most average English-speaking people of a certain age do as well:

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time

Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines

Hanging on in quiet desperation in the English way

The time is gone, the song is over

Thought I’d something more to say

–Roger Waters, from “Time,” by Pink Floyd, 1973
Either way, the aphorism doesn’t apply anymore. Here’s why:

[Quite a while ago, apparently], as my bandmates and I tried like hell to load out of a rehearsal space to make room for the next booked band, the conversation took a philosophical turn. Not the best way to turn a conversation when you’re in a hurry, but that’s the way things go.

We were all being somewhat affected by the changes and vicissitudes of the middle years. We were tallying up various minor maladies we were suffering, recounting the ill fortunes that have befallen the friends and family of all the members of late.

Glen, the quiet, reserved rhythm guitarist, asked, perhaps not all that rhetorically, if this is what the future held for all of us—a series of increasingly unhappy tidings, the eventual closing of life’s doors of opportunity until only one remains.

David, the talented lead singer, brought up the “Quiet Desperation” quote. We all agreed.

Then I thought about it for a bit. We had all just finished damaging our hearing for three solid hours with rock.

What do people in America do to inject some distraction and excitement into their empty lives? They do something cacophanous. This is becoming the Age of Noisy.

• Movies are LOUDER than ever. Almost all multiplexes are equipped with three-thousand-watt, DTS-SDDS-Dolby Digital compatible auditoriums. The average IMAX theater is equipped with 10,000 watts of audio power.

• TV is LOUDER than ever. The HDTV broadcast standard includes 5.1 surround sound.

• Video Games are LOUDER than ever. The gentle “beep-boop” of Colecovision has long yielded to game fare like HALO in its fully 5.1 surround sound capable, subwoofer-shredding glory.

• The Internet is LOUDER than ever. Try to enjoy surfing the web sans computer speakers sometime. [actually, the advent of phone apps may have quieted things down in this area a little-- but not much.]

• The friggin’ WORLD is louder than ever. In my neighborhood, there is a 1:1 correlation between people who rent their dwellings and people who own LOUD gas-powered things. (Noticed I said “people who rent:” People in my area who OWN their dwellings are either too busy working to pay mortgages or too old to be into new-fangled whiz-bangs.) Big shiny motorcycles, just like "American Chopper:" They run them up and down the streets most weekends, not really having anywhere useful to go. They also own those little gas-powered razor scooters, hot-rodded cars, gas-powered RC cars, etc. etc. The outstanding neighborhood annoyance is a guy with a LOUD Harley-compatible bike equipped with a fairing—into which he installed a stereo. So the entire block gets to hear him rev his bike, turn up his now drowned-out stereo, rev his bike again, re-adjust his stereo, and so on and so on. It’s the most foolish thing on two wheels I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been to the circus.

How are we, the citizens of consumer-culture Western society, personally reacting when faced with a quiet moment? Do we take stock, accept the silence as an introspective moment of Eternity visited to our hectic existences? Or do we drown that mother out?

Admittedly, some people do accept and even seek out quiet and solitude, and use this stillness to enrich their soul and accept their place in the Universe. But not enough, not nearly enough– and our own technology has made it far too easy to turn to entertainment to fill the void. Could Walden have been written if Thoreau had DirectTV?
The mass of men lead lives of noisy desperation.

–Skot C.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Trek-O-Meter is back!

Hey-- I found a bunch of Podcast episodes backed up on the Internet Archive! Now I can repost some of the better articles-- like this one! --Skot

Jack B. Sowards died on July 8th 2007. His obit mentions he is most notable for having written Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, still considered the finest ST movie made. This brought something back into full recollection, something in need of a fitting send-off as well.

About a dozen years ago, some friends and I cobbled together a handy system for measuring the intensity of a person’s Star Trek fandom with a simple-to-use linear meter. This system of measurement served us very well (”Eddie– Check out the eight in line over there!”) during the incredible glut of franchise content available from the early 90s to just a few years ago. Here it is– and please, feel free to grade yourself:

10.0 - The perfect score was defined in a TV Guide Star Trek Commemorative magazine in 1995. In an article about serious fandom (Klingon language camp, costumed convention-goers, etc.) was a piece about a young man who built a replica of the Enterprise bridge set in his mother’s basement– and would act out his own Star Trek adventures in it. Think about that for a moment. Ponder the sheer force of will behind doing such a thing. Consider the circumstances. This pegs the meter: It cannot be surpassed. Even the people who designed and built the ACTUAL sets for Star Trek cannot meet this score– They were PAID to do their work.

9.0 - People who owned Trek costumes and attended conventions regularly. Fluent in Klingon. Have met Walter Koenig. Bjo Trimble was a 9.

8.0 - People who have seriously followed the shows, did not have any strong criticisms of “Star Trek: Enterprise” and first-nighted the movies. People who knew who Bjo Trimble was.

7.0 - Attended a few conventions, saw all the movies, but could not cite chapter and verse from any series but their favorite. Would not like being called a “Trekkie,” preferring “Trekfan.”

6.0 -Wouldn’t be particularly put out to be called a “Trekkie.”



5.0 - The great median. Knew and appreciated the franchise as a whole, but generally followed the herd.

4.0 - Thought Seven of Nine was hot, but found “Voyager” boring; Thought T’Pol was hot, but found “Enterprise” boring. Liked the effects in the movies. Thought “Live Long and Prosper” was the slogan of a medical group.

3.0 - Thought a “Gorn” was a sort of melon. Often confused “Babylon 5″ with “Deep Space 9.”

2.0 - Watched “Next Generation” as a kid. Saw First Contact on cable a few years back, liked it.

1.0 - Liked Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but that’s just about it.

0.0 -
The bottom peg of the meter was defined by my dear departed dad, who was vaguely aware there was a show on TV called “Star Track” and it had something to do with Dr. Spock.

A few notes: Most normal people would not stick to one point on the meter for any length of time: Some 3s would shoot up into 7 or 8 territory during a ST movie premiere or series season finale. And most significantly, this is a linear scale– it measures x, intensity of fandom. The unmeasured y dimension is sanity. The scale assumes full sanity: Nutcases (Shatner-stalkers and that juror who wore a Starfleet uniform to the Whitewater grand jury in ‘96) can theoretically exceed 10, but they tend to take right turns and fall off the chart entirely. (Special props: Chris, for helping with the chart definitions)

The Star Trek franchise has run its course: the props and costumes are being auctioned off, and there are no serious plans for new content. It still feels a bit strange to live in a world without it. It’s been around in one form or another since 1966, about as long as I have: It was not difficult to assume the portal to the Star Trek universe would remain open forever.

Even the kid with the bridge set in his mom’s basement has probably dismantled it long ago and moved on. I wouldn’t put money on it, mind you, but probably.

And then there's THIS article from 2008! --s

The ol’ Trek-o-Meter, that linear scale used to track the intensity of one’s Star Trek fandom essayed in these pages last July, apparently isn’t quite ready to be retired yet. For one thing, there is finally a new original-series-characters Star Trek movie in production, with Chris Pine (Smokin’ Aces) as Kirk and Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) as Scotty. this film was set to be released in December 2008: the WGA strike bumped it to early Summer 2009.

I’m bringing this up because there are a few new distinctions to add to the Trek-o-Meter, based on some recent real-life encounters that have been reported indirectly to, and later confirmed by, Box Office Weekly.

1. A fellow of tertiary acquaintance was found to have not one, but several Star Trek tattoos on his body. Fandom-based body modification needs to be quantified for the Meter (and remember: zero is ‘completely unaware’ and 10 is ‘Enterprise set in mom’s basement’):

Anyone with one Star Trek tattoo: automatic 7.5.

Anyone with several Star Trek tattoos: automatic 8.5.

Anyone with tattooed inscriptions in Klingon script which needs to be translated for curious witnesses: automatic 9.5.

Subtraction: I once met a drummer with a punk band who had the Star Trek emblem tattooed on his chest. His nickname was “Trek,” and he performed shirtless. He gets a point taken off for the irony and coolness factors.

2. A good friend of mine (who is fairly indifferent to Star Trek: I’d call her a 3.0) once had a date (a real date, a dinner-and-a-movie type date) with a young man who wore a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” uniform shirt for the occasion. Complete with communicator badge. And he would, once in awhile, talk into the communicator badge.

That’s right: he wore a Starfleet uniform on a first date. Needless to say, there wasn’t a second date. (My friend said he “had a lot of other issues… Weird issues.”)

This is a good example of someone hitting that hard-to-attain perfect 10.0, but the “other issues” mentioned are telling. He was obviously right in the middle of making that hard right turn, departing from the quantifiable plain of intrinsic reality.

Live Long and Prosper.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Weekend Box Office

I recall seeing Total Recall, totally

Colin Farrell, getting his
vacation on.
Got a chance to see the new Total Recall at a late screening. Positive I was the only paying attendee: the few other patrons wandered in after start time, a sure indicator they crept in from other auditoriums.

The reboot of Total Recall made $26M opening weekend, less than the third weekend of The Dark Knight Rises. Considering the film's $125M budget, that's bad news. Many interesting theories as to why this happened, the best being the idea that few moviegoers can be convinced to pay for a film they have already seen. Personally, I see the dark, tentacled hand of The Martian Curse at play. The original is one of the few films set on the Red Planet to see huge success: The remake, scrupulous to avoid this pitfall, is entirely set on earth. Now it seems obvious the Martian Curse was not avoided in 1990: It was merely delayed 22 years.

A wonderfully badass John Cho (Harold and Kumar)
is the Rekall operator in the remake. His part was played by
Ray Baker (one of my favorite character actors)
in the original.
What struck me watching this new version was how absolutely strange both these films are from a moral and political level. The premise (and I'm ••• spoiling ••• here for the 45 people out there who have never seen the original) is this: in a vaguely totalitarian future a man, dissatisfied with his mundane life, purchases a virtual vacation that is indistinguishable from reality. In this fantasy, his loving wife becomes a deadly enemy: his goal, the destruction of the government. Imagine taking a Sandals-style immersion vacation where the big draw is shooting your spouse and killing the President of the United States.

I thought it would be fun to compare the original and the remake point-to-point:

DIRECTORIAL STYLE
1990 – Paul Verhoeven had skills which made TR 1990 memorable: clean, obvious (maybe too obvious) storytelling skills; a delight in weird, gory effects; strong colors and and a sense of ironic fun. Verhoeven played with ideas of what was true and what was fictional in all his previous American films (especially Starship Troopers, a propaganda film from a fascist future, an ironic twist which flew over the heads of most).

2012 – Fremont's own Len Wiseman must have been Columbia's perfect choice for this property: He knows how to work with effects, has a dark, fast-action, dynamic style, and showed he can helm a tentpole picture with Live Free or Die Hard (2007). But the underwhelming box office for this film indicates Mr. Wiseman was probably not the sole author of that film's success: Live Free had a tight story (it took nearly a decade to write) and a star (Bruce Willis) with three to four times the charisma than Colin Farrell.

(I am going to ding Mr. Wiseman for a very annoying tic he uses in Total Recall, one he blatantly stole from J. J. Abrams: At every opportunity he shines light into the lens, smearing lens flares like 4th of July fireworks. Making audiences squint until teary-eyed is not good cinematography, Len.)

PLOT DETAILS
1990 – Verhoeven had a superior script by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett (Alien) to work with. Action and exposition were well-balanced throughout.

2012 – It's mostly indicative of how films are scripted these days: at about midpoint the action and effects-filled chase goes nonstop. It gets a bit deadening after a while.

Sharon Stone in the 1990 version, offering to help
her husband forget his Rekall-induced delusion
with some light bondage.
LEAD ACTOR
1990 – Arnold Schwarzenegger was a marvelous fit for a Paul Verhoeven film: he was big, obvious, faintly silly, and had a knack for delivering great punchlines (“Consider this a divorce!”). Hell, he WAS a punchline: He played a normal schmoe who dreamed of a life of an action hero. The audience was definitely in on that joke.

2012 – Colin Farrell does a much better job than Arnold was capable of in conveying the subtleties of Doug Quade: the confusion and lost and recovered memories, the terror of being hunted. But there's that low charisma thing: He starred in Fright Night, another 80s revival film last year that failed to capture big audiences. Let's just call Colin Farrell the Irish Matthew McConaughey, another actor they keep shoving into lead roles, hoping he'll spark.

LEAD WOMEN
1990 – Rachel Tocotin was Melina, Quade's object of desire. Nice idea, but she never ignited. Sharon Stone, however, was amazing as Lori, Quade's wife/minder assassin: she slinked and hissed and gave the world a preview of what she was capable of in Basic Instinct (1992).
Jessica Biel, in a typical pose, showing a large expanse
of bare wrist and a hint of forearm.

2012 – Len Wiseman's wife Kate Beckinsale is Lori, switching from nice wife to dead-eyed murder machine. In other words, she's Selena from the Underworld series minus the kinky wardrobe. Jessica Biel (and her killer cheekbones) is Melina. What's odd is the two are indistinct at a distance: two willowy brunettes. When they fight it almost looks like a special effect. Also (and this is a guy-film complaint) the 2012 version is about a hundredth as sexy as the 1990 version, despite the extremely attractive leads. Jessica Biel in particular is buttoned up to the chin in bulky clothing the entire film, which is almost a crime.

(Paul Verhoeven, in contrast, had no problem bringing on the sexy-- which was ultimately his downfall (Showgirls).)

Cohaagen, the villain of both films, was well-realized in both film: Ronny Cox played him in the original, oozing contempt and corporate privilege. Bryan Cranston plays him in the new film: It's perhaps another indication of how TV is surpassing film in depth these days to say that Walter White, Cranston's character from AMC's “Breaking Bad,” is a hundred times scarier.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Weekend Box Office

Figures and nice background graphics courtesy Variety.com.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Just Seen: The Dark Knight Rises

Batman (Christian Bale), contemplating
the end of his franchise.

If all comic book movies were as good as The Dark Knight Rises, I would forever swear off making fun of them.

Consider the faintly silly premise: A billionaire who wears a disguise and fights crime with his bare hands and cool gadgets in his spare time. It's a crazy thing, and there are movies who laugh at the whole superhero idea: Kick-Ass (2010) and Super (2010). But there is nobody more serious about comic-book movies than Christopher Nolan. He understands something about how audiences connect to this genre that few other directors in the genre do.

This is the key: There are no superheros in Christopher Nolan's superhero movies.

Bruce Wayne is just a rich guy with great toys who is often in over his head. The Batman may be the titular center of this trilogy, but there is also a cast of perfectly regular people who take up probably as much screen time as he does. Some are rich, some are brilliant, but for the most part most can be summed up in the character of Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) A regular, hard-working person whose only superior aspect is the amount of decency he embodies.

Nolan went through the cast of comic-book characters and remade them as relatable people: Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, but is never called that in The Dark Knight Rises) is a thief about to be overwhelmed by her past. Alfred (Michael Caine), is tormented by the reckless choices Bruce Wayne makes in his pursuit of justice-- A performance I guarantee will choke you up. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt plays Blake, a perfectly normal, if exceedingly decent, cop who somehow knows Batman's true identity. Even Bane (Tom Hardy, according to the credits), the villain of the piece, is given a backstory near the end that is more tragic than ominous.

Blake (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt),
a regular guy kneeling over
a regular storm drain.
Nolan's passion for getting the outsized down to a relatable level even extends to how he stages his amazing action sequences. Sure, some are digitally constructed-- you can't blow up a bridge or a football stadium for a movie, though Nolan did blow up a hospital for the last movie-- but only when digital is the only practical solution. His car chases are real, and the amazing mid-air kidnapping that starts the film was real too. I wrote a while ago about It's a Mad, Mad Mad, Mad World (1963) and the impact it still retains through it's stunning number of spectacular, absolutely real stunts. Nolan understands the power of showing what is real: real human-scaled characters, real stunts. Showing what is real resonates with audiences.

Is there a correlation between relying on virtual effects and synthetic heroes, 3D movies and flat characters? Joss Whedon has been dealt a hatful of heroes in Marvel's The Avengers but I defy you to really care about any of them (except for Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner/The Hulk, who was quite soulful). The Amazing Spider-Man, that contractual obligation comic-book movie which opened a few weeks ago, drew huge ho-hums (it did quite decently, though it hasn't covered it's $230M budget quite yet).

The Dark Knight Rises
is not just the best comic-book movie this summer: It's a superior motion picture, one that delivers everything it promises, makes you care, and leaves you wanting more at the end.

A few loose notes:

Bane. You'll be seeing a lot more
of him come October 31st.
• As much as I liked everything about this film, I think they way they decided to portray Bane (a Batman graphic-novel villain from the 90s) was a serious misstep. I had no problem with his character: He introduces himself to Gotham as a super-determined revolutionary, the scourge of the One Percent, before he unveils his chilling true mission. But he looks kinda, I dunno, cheap: like a baddie someone slapped together with costume pieces from a Spirit Halloween Superstore. He has a wheezy, hard-to understand voice: like a combination of The Humongous (from The Road Warrior) and Lane Pryce from “Mad Men."

• It's impossible to ignore the horrific events in Aurora, Colorado when watching The Dark Knight Rises. It's an itch of a thought, popping up unexpectedly during the quiet moments and the most violent ones. It's a remarkably bloodless movie (It's PG-13, and Warner Bros. Knows their core audience well) but the nihilism that is the driving force of the villains cannot help but make one reflect on the senselessness of Aurora.

The dark tone of the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy stands as a reflection of the damage to our collective psyche caused by the 9/11 attack. That catastrophic attack tore a hole in America's sense of self that we're still trying to fill, an awful puzzle we're still trying to solve. It was the ultimate expression of deliberate, compassionless mass murder, done for a purpose we still do not fully understand. This collective dread of inexplicable violence is written into every scene of The Dark Night Rises (and even more so in The Dark Night). This movie, a work of escapist entertainment depicting a world full of nihilistic villains, will now be intimately and forever bound to an actual act of a nihilistic villain.

• Seen at the Century Tanforan in the XD auditorium (bigger screen, cushier seats, still not IMAX), a venue I used to dread because of the high proportion of jerky kids usually in attendance. But there has been a slow but profound change in both kids and public behavior in general over the last few years. I looked around when the lights came up and-- Yup, everyone was staring raptly at the blue glow of their phones, stroking them tenderly bottom-to-top to see all the status updates they missed over the last three hours. It's annoying and a little depressing-- but it sure is quiet.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Weekend Box Office

Numbers courtesy of variety.com

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Weekly Box Office

Chart courtesy Variety.com

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Kitsch From 20,000 Fathoms

One of the things I did yesterday to pass the time on my day off was watch an episode of Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea on Hulu. As American as anything else, I thought. The show bears a second look through the prism of adulthood, because it's f***in' nuts.

I chose The Phantom Strikes, an episode from the 2nd season because it featured Alfred Ryder, a favorite 60's character actor, and sported this synopsis: The crew of the Seaview is haunted by a phantom U-Boat and her ghostly captain. More specifically, the ghostly Captain Krueger (died 1917) wants to commandeer the body of Captain Crane (David Hedison) and keeps appearing to Admiral Nelson (Richard Basehart) demanding that he kill his second in command, with a pistol, so the body will be available. The ghost arbitrarily tells Nelson that he must complete the task before the Seaview crosses the 49th parallel, or he will destroy Crane, Nelson and the entire crew. Nelson keeps this conversations a secret, and almost shoots Crane, but changes his mind at the last minute. The ghost comes back to destroy the ship but realizes that his plan is pointless because he'd never get the hang of all the new technology that the Seaview uses, and he walks off into the sunset. Through the hull on the observation deck.

Not from the episode we're talking about, but close enough.
Basehart overacts the hell out of this scenario, to the point that it's uncomfortably easy to think the whole "ghost told me to kill you" thing takes place in his head. Usually Basehart's Admiral Nelson is a portrait of a man who is this close to cracking under the pressure of command. He is all barely suppressed feelings, versus Hedison's no feelings whatsoever portrayal. In fact, that lack of emotion makes the central implausibility of this episode work; a guy pulls a gun on you without explaining why at first, but you remain good friends. Sure! Makes no less sense than the rest of the scenario. I'm a little freaked out about the near murder, but I've seen worse from the Admiral!

Also I gotta say if I were forcing you to get me a body to inhabit, I'd specify that it not have a gaping chest wound. I mean, especially if I were going to try to keep the whole thing on the DL.

This was actually one of the less outlandish episodes of the series. Like a lot of Irwin Allen productions it started out fairly reasonable and got crazy stupid with each successive season. And according to Wikipedia, it somehow managed to snag 4 Emmys. I bet they all went to the flying sub, but whatever. My favorite episode to date is from season 1 and it features a young Robert Duvall as an alien (tall, robed, pale, bald, no ears) that they find in a canister on the sea floor, who wants the ship so he can revive his alien brethren to take over the Earth. Sheer magic. A rule of thumb is whenever they bring someone aboard the Seaview without an appointment, it's going to be trouble.





Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Weekend Box Office

This week we're Youtube-fee! Events are conspiring to keep me from broadband today, so as you read this, imagine it in a silky, high-ish voice.

So my friends at Variety.com tell me that the number one movie the weekend of June29-July 1 was about a Teddy bear who sounds like the dog on Family Guy. Yes, it's Seth McFarlane's Ted,  which pulled down $54 million. Also new and surprisingly popular, Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike, starring Channing Tatum (his stripper name, I bet) as a stripper. It made $39 million, which is great considering what it must have cost. Now Soderbergh can make another dozen Cosmopolis movies.

Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection was pretty muscular under that dress, making $25 million. Madea is money in the bank!

 Now imaging me getting up and turning off the camera.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Weekend Box Office

This time, chart and numbers from Daily Variety!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Ugliest Dog Pageant Goes International

This just in! Via AP:


The winner of this year's World's Ugliest Dog contest is a dog named Mugly, an 8-year-old Chinese Crested from the United Kingdom.
Competing for fame, $1,000 and a year's worth of dog cookies at the annual event held at Marin-Sonoma Fairgrounds in Petaluma, Mugly was named the world's ugliest dog Friday night, beating out 28 other ugly dogs from around the world.
Yeah yeah, that's just words man. Let's see Mugly!
That's right, another Chinese Crested. That breed has a lock on the contest.  Of course Mugly is pretty unattractive but he don't beat the all-time champ, Sam. Sam had the added features of blindness and even worse teeth.

Pleasant dreams, dog lovers!

Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2012/06/22/4583371/dog-named-mugly-wins-worlds-ugliest.html#storylink=cpy

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Just Seen: Prometheus in 2D

I had read that the 3D was quite good on this show, but it seemed like a distraction. The Alien films (the bland-looking Alien3 being a possible exception) are about stellar art direction and cool sci-fi gadgetry, and 3D seemed like an unneeded distraction. Saw it at the Alameda theatre, a wonderful old movie palace converted into a multiplex (by adding screens next door on both sides, leaving the grand main auditorium intact).

This Alien series prequel is designed to work on several levels: Sci-fi versus horror, spiritual versus scientific exploration, corporate needs versus spiritual needs. These multi-layered conflicts are all explored, to varying levels of completion and coherence.

But the REAL lesson of Prometheus indeed works on two levels, but ones I don't think Ridley Scott intended. The scientists and crew of the good ship Prometheus (unfortunate name choice, IMO) travel to a harsh planet light-years away seeking the answer to the ultimate truth: to find the creators of the human race and the purpose of our existence. I'm definitely not spoiling things to say that what they discover is something of a disappointment-- and a bloodthirsty one at that. As a filmgoer, I was seeking that same sort of old-school, slam-bang, wait-in-line catharsis: the amazing hype for Prometheus got many people I know panting like it was 1979 again ("please don't suck, please don't suck…" is a refrain I saw on more than one Facebook status). Ultimately, It ended up being just another sci-fi film-- better, more mature and original than average, but weighed down by a disconnected, overly busy plot.

Our Dad.
The film begins on a magnificent note: shots of desolate mountains and fjords (shot in Iceland) that culminate with a gigantic bone-white alien-- heroically proportioned and featured, looking like he stepped off an Art Deco mural-- standing at a thundering waterfall. He drinks a catalyst which causes him to disintegrate, his DNA seeding the bleak world, becoming our common genetic ancestor.

There are many awe-inspiring scenes like this in Prometheus, and the last 40 or so minutes is tremendously exciting. but in-between there are dead ends, questions asked and left unanswered, and strangely motivated, "things characters do in a horror film to get themselves killed" action. Noomi Rapace was amazing, ready to take over the series from Sigourney Weaver because A) she has an amazing action-film presence, and B) she looks great in her underwear (Sorry, it's a requirement). Charlize Theron, as the expedition's corporate supervisor, rounds out her "I'm an Awful Human Being" (Young Adult, Snow White and The Huntsman) trilogy. Michael Fassbender steals every scene he's in as David, the ship's android, basically HAL 9000 with a nice haircut.

Don't get me wrong, though-- for all my quibbling, I was still very entertained by Prometheus. It may not be as amazing as Alien was, but it's definitely worth seeing!

Perhaps the most interesting reaction to Prometheus was observed at dinner with our movie companions after the late-afternoon screening. Conversation turned to cocktails, and the fact that beer is rarely used as a mixer. I pointed out that one of the ways you could get a beer in traditional bars is with an egg in it. This drew horrified reactions from those present-- which prompted my wife to point out that egg in your beer drew a stronger reaction than the most extended, graphic, and gory scene (no spoilers!) we had just witnessed on the big screen. Like I said, it works on several levels.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hatfields & McCoys in Libertarian Paradise

Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton) and Devil Anse Hatfield
(Kevin Costner), the magnificently scruffy-looking
patriarchs of their respective clans.
This 6-hour, 3-part miniseries just finished on the History Channel. It was gol-durned good, and it done good too. According to The Hollywood Reporter,
Even during its premiere on ratings-unfriendly Memorial Day, the first outing of the three-night miniseries Hatfields & McCoys pulled in a record-breaking 13.9 million viewers during its inaugural telecast at 9 p.m. That number marks a new nonsports high for ad-supported cable networks.
For those who need a brush-up on American History, the series chronicles-- with a bit of fictionalized gloss-- a decades-long feud between two extended families in the Kentucky-West Virginia border in the late 1800s. And feuding was done the old-fashioned way back then, with Henry and Winchester rifles, summary executions and a pitched open battle or two.

The whole series was directed by Kevin Reynolds and essentially produced by Kevin Costner, so it seems that Waterworld was not a source of lingering bitterness between the two. A few notes:

• Care was taken not to choose sides in scripting the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, but at the same time the families were shown to be very different. Randall McCoy (Bill Paxton), the patriarch of his family, is a deeply religious man of difficult means who nonetheless carries seething resentment towards Devil Anse Hatfield (Costner), an Atheist and logging entrepreneur. So, even though the fight began through a series of trivial slights, differences in religion and wealth fueled it. I think everyone who had a casual acquaintance with the history of the feud thought it was a scrap between two undifferentiated clans of inbred hillbillies: the miniseries effectively dispelled that ignorant notion.

Two McCoy girls. Just showing they weren't
all a bunch of scruffy hillbillies.
• The production was quite handsome, shot in sylvan woods seemingly untrammeled by humanity. Still, the overall art direction was seriously uneven. The costumes and weapons were quite authentic-looking-- However, the town set was frankly silly-looking, a collection of Wild West storefronts complete with saloon with swinging doors and flocked red wallpaper. The production suffered from poor typography (“Oh God, another typography discussion!”): newspapers and signage showed the too-clean look of having been printed from Adobe Illustrator, and the “engravings” on the wanted posters were so egregious I could easily figure out what filter effects were used to make 'em.

The credits provided the answer to this uneven look: the whole show was shot in Romania. Unspoiled forests, cheap labor for building log cabins, and equally cheap but inexperienced art department staff.

• There is an important, timely message in Hatfields & McCoys, an abject lesson in the proper role government should take in our lives. The hilly, rural borderlands of Appalachia in the 1870s-1890s were under no real jurisdiction, and the rule of law was unenforced. This is a situation many libertarian and far-right politicians are positively avowed to return us to: one where citizen's rights are untrammeled by any form of government, our property rights and livelihoods entirely the responsibility of the individual. It's Libertarian, Tea Party paradise.

But the lesson of Hatfields & McCoys is showing the bloody anarchy of libertarian realpolitik, a real historical example of how disputes tend to resolve in areas of weak central government where the rule of law is either unavailable or ignored. Accusations concerning a stolen pig or an offhand comment about having sex with a dog (both are shown as catalysts of the feud) quickly escalate to bloodshed. Courts are shown as biased to one side or another, and both families have no respect for them in any case. Most of the young men in both clans are seen as being constantly drunk, armed to the teeth, reflexively belligerent and, abetted by their elders, unafraid of any legal repercussions for their violence.

The tragedy of the Hatfield-McCoy feud is no doubt playing out today between unknown families in countless lawless places in the world: Somalia, rural Pakistan, Congo, probably even Romania. You don't have to be a cynic to have an idea of what awaits us in Libertarian Paradise.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to boxofficemojo.com for the chart on the monitor behind me.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Eurovision: The Grail Within Reach

Almost 12 noon: I woke up this morning, put together a little low-cholesterol breakfast and fired up my new Roku 2 TV box. I had plans today to drive out to Malibu if the weather was nice - order lunch, take a few pictures, walk the beach. But it slowly dawned on me that all signs pointed to the airing, at 8:00pm GMT, of the Eurovision song contest. Screw the outdoors.

Eurovision 101, for Americans who aren't familiar: once a year most of the European countries select a song and act to represent them, and they compete live in a televised competition. This year it's coming from Azerbaijan. It's just started there, and it's already after midnight.

12:10pm I'm getting a live feed via Roku2, but it's spotty, pausing to rebuffer every minute. This is frustrating and at the same time, it may keep me from going insane.

12:15pm A little explanation about that last remark. Pop music is a delicate thing and it seems that it works best when there are as few hands on the ladle as possible. Imagine then, a process where the entire country is weighing in on the song. Now imagine a song so bland, so homogenized, that an entire continent can approve of it. That song will be the winner of tonight's competition.

The most famous Eurovision winner is Abba's Waterloo. Just sayin'.

Jedward - twins in both blood and hairstyle
12:20pm Last years British entry was Jedward, who they just teased will be performing tonight. Probably out of competition because they opened with the British* song, a lugubrious slow entry performed by Englebert Humperdinck. The anti-Jedward, if you will.

12:23 The woman performing right now, an Albanian, has a hairstyle and dress straight out of The Fifth Element.


12:26: 4 songs in a row, all sad. 3 ballads and one emo-rock piece. Austerity has its fingers in everything!

12:29 Now a song from Bosnia & Herzegovina. Another slow ballad performed at the piano by a woman who looks uncomfortably like Tom Petty in drag.

12:32 I was right, the buffering is exactly what I needed. I'm getting just enough of these songs to see them without having to sit through the whole things. It's like a live, automatic, highlight reel.

12:34 It's the Russian Grannies! This is the weirdo gimmick that everyone is expecting to take the prize: six old Russian ladies who look like potatoes in dresses, singing a little neo-folk ditty. Part of the staging is they're clustered around an oven where they bake biscuits.

Yes, the crowd loved them.

12:38 Iceland is on. I can't accept anything from that country that isn't Bjork.

Out for a minute while I mix up a batch of pesto

12:52 Now that's a coincidence! I come back and the Italians are performing. I hear they sat out of the contest for 14 years... apparently they were honing that song during the time.

12:58 A little electronica from Norway. Meh.

1:02 Per Jedward expert Graham Linehan: "Hearing reports from stadium that every time a song ends, the applause dies down, someone can be heard begging for their life"

1:08 Song from Romania features a bagpipe hook. GYPSY THIEVES!

1:12 From Denmark - The Captain AND Tenille, rolled into one.

1:17 Greece: I think it's an ode to Levitra. Maybe?

1:19 Shout out to the staging of this thing. They have these huge, screen filling numbers every 3 minutes, with about a minute in between during which they show picture-postcard footage of Azerbaijan. It can't be easy to make this show work. And most people agree, it doesn't. But that's not the producer's fault. Like most international incidents, no one is to blame and everyone is.

1:26 Hat off to you Turkey! it takes genius to try to evoke nostalgia for things that no one ever liked in the first place.

1:35 Okay, I'm calling time of death at 21:35 GMT.

The contest is half over but this liveblog is done.... I can't go on. Thanks everybody! I'm makin' lunch.

3:27 Okay, one more thing. Re the * above: Jedward represents Ireland! Ireland is a whole different animal than England and they competed with Humperdinck. Go figure.

I'm throwing in a few links from the parts of the show that I did see. I decided that I couldn't bear the burden all by myself.

Star Wars 35: A Cautionary Tale

GL among his pre-digital models. I got a chance to run
my hands over a lot of these things at a Lucasfilm
exhibit at the Marin County Fair. After I left, I saw
the sign saying "Do Not Touch." Oh well.
So it's the 35th anniversary of the opening of Star Wars. That's a lot of Wookies under the bridge.

It's hard to express how exciting and unique a film it was when it came out, how much a part of my life it became-- and, as the years passed, how the franchise (and my admiration for it) stumbled and fell, becoming something emblematic of a primal fear, one that all of us share.

Sure I remember when Star Wars opened up. I was totally primed for it, for three reasons: 1) a totally inaccurate but exciting article about the upcoming "The Star Wars" in Cinefantastique magazine; 2) that amazing, amazing trailer-- They showed it on "Creature Features" in spring '77 and it got such a strong response Bob Wilkins had to show it several more times; 3) I was fourteen.

The Saturday after Star Wars opened (roadshow movies opened on Wednesdays) me and my Soquel High Sci-Fi Club buddies rocketed over the hill to San Jose and took in an afternoon screening at the Century 21 Theatre. Back then, big tentpole movies were platform-released: They would open up in a few dozen major markets in 70mm, then break wide a few weeks later. We waited in the long, long line, took our seats under the apex of the dome, watched the giant gold curtain roll out unveiling the deeply curved screen and the 20th Century Fox fanfare (no trailers whatsoever!)

It totally blew us away. It's difficult to think of a film since that so exceeded my expectations for transcendence. I was the right kind of kid at the right age in the right place in history, and the cultural phenomenon that was Star Wars entered me like an X-Ray. I lived Star Wars. I memorized Star Wars (It's all still in there). I wanted to meet George Lucas*: he was my personal God, and promised to be a font of endless creativity and magic.

I managed to see the it at least two dozen more times that long summer. When Empire came out three years later, we made it to opening day at the Century 21. Same with Jedi-- though, due to a ticketing mixup we saw that one in Pleasant Hill, but it was still in 70mm.

Fast-forward to 1999: Jeffrey Sargent and I are seeing Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace at the AMC in San Francisco at the very first midnight screening. It had been sold out for weeks: Jeff did some major wheeling and dealing to secure us tickets. But the world had changed, cinema had changed and we had changed in the 16 years since Jedi's stirring ending (to the Ewok's "Yub-Yub Song," which George Lucas has since expunged from his improved version). I'm not sure Jeff coined it, but the next day he emailed our basic summary: "George Lucas Pissed In My Eyes."

From that moment on, the Star Wars universe appeared to a rapidly shrinking one, a galaxy under accelerating compromise. It may have started with the regrettable "Star Wars Holiday Special" from 1978, but that was sheer contractual obligation. No, it was the little changes and the little peeks into the Lucasfilm decision process that showed the Ozymandian artifice of the whole thing: the Special Editions, which both blunted the canon and disrespected the core audience. The little, sometimes condescending choices he made in the last three films, Jar Jar Binks and Annie Skywalker, the stilted dialog and the joyless, confusing plots. The final Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith, was so devoid of surprise it was like watching a movie run backwards, characters and elements being assembled for their bow in a film then 28 years old. By that point, everything that had made me a rabid Star Wars fan back in 1977 had been systematically wrung out of me by George Lucas himself.

But it wasn't all him: I also managed to grow up (a bit) since 1977. I went to college, saw The Hidden Fortress, read Joseph Campbell and E. E. “Doc” Smith's Lensman novels. Seeing where Star Wars came from-- and how closely it was derived-- was inevitable, but instructive. One of the biggest jolts to my Star Wars fandom was reading sci-fi author David Brin's famous and devastating takedown of the ethics of Star Wars. One tiny bit:
George Lucas's version of romanticism is obsessed with nostalgia, feudalism, pyramid-shaped social orders, elitism, a hatred of science and the concept that only genetically advanced demigods matter. He openly avows to never having researched what real heroes do. He also expressed open contempt for this democratic civilization, telling the New York Times that he prefers a 'benign dictatorship.'
And now it's 2012: George Lucas recently re-released Episode I in painstakingly rendered 3D-- and the box-office response was startlingly indifferent. When I read the reviews for it I came to a realization: Star Wars was not the best thing George Lucas ever dreamed up: it was the ONLY thing he ever dreamed up.

God, I wanted to be just like George Lucas when I was a kid. Now he means something else to me. He's a cautionary tale: the embodiment of the frightening notion that we're only entitled to one really good, creative idea per lifetime.

---
Mmmmm... Ribs.
*In 1992, I got my wish: I met George Lucas. My wife and I were sitting down to dinner at Tony Roma's in Corte Madera (long gone) and he sat down next to us. Alone. It was just a week after the Academy Awards, and he had received the Irving G. Thalberg Award. Yet there he was, all by himself, George Lucas and a good-sized pile of beef ribs. I mentally collected myself enough to squeak out something to say to him (and I DO mean squeak: in my head, I sounded like my 14-year-old self in full conniption mode):

“Mr. Lucas?” (squeak, squeak.)

“Mm-hm?” (I think he was actually had a mouthful of ribs at the time.)

“Uh, Congratulations on getting the Thalberg Award!” Of all the f***king things I could have said to the guy, of all the thousands and thousands of things I fantasized saying to George when I was a kid, it all fled from my consciousness, and that was what I said. Yikes.

“Mmm.. thanks.”

“Alright, I'll leave you be.” Argh.