Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to Box Office Mojo for the numbers!

HBO: Rich Weird Men Behaving Badly

Michael Douglas IS Liberace. It was the first time
Douglas ever portrayed a non-fictional character
in a movie-- and he nailed it.

I need to share an insight. Mind you, I'm not the first person to have this insight: it builds on an article by Brian Lowery in Variety.

There is something very unusual going in at HBO. The mysterious Powers That Be seem to have a fixation-- one that pokes right through the films and shows they approve, fund and broadcast like broken glass in a paper bag. I'm going to paint the idée fixe these executives seem to be obsessed with a sweeping, and ridiculously simple, comparison of two of their most recent cable films:

• Behind the Candelabra: A Steven Soderbergh HBO film about a wealthy, powerful white man (Liberace) who made life sheer hell for everyone around him.

• Phil Spector: A David Mamet HBO film about a wealthy, powerful white man (Phil Spector) who makes life sheer hell for everyone around him.

Lowry's article expands on this weird parallelism of these films-- wealthy decadent jaded men who channel their desires onto the lesser people in their orbit and force them, again through their power, to suffer for them as well. (BTW: Candelabra was an amazing movie; Phil Spector is talky and dull.) He concludes that HBO execs actually understand and sympathize with the moral universe these men inhabit. Phil Spector may or may not have shot Lana Clarkson; Liberace may or may not have screwed over Scott Thorson in the palimony settlement. It's not much of a stretch to believe cable execs live in the same world as the troubled men portrayed in these movies, a sympathy that may have tweaked the characterizations a bit.

Enoch "Nucky" Thompson
(Steve Buscemi). What he lacks in
brawn he makes up for in menace.

This is a decent read on these films-- but then there's THIS: What I believe is this theme's long, long tail:

• "Game of Thrones:" An HBO series about wealthy, powerful white men (Joffrey Baratheon, Jaime Lannister, Tywin Lannister, etc.) who make life sheer hell for everyone around them.

• "True Blood:" An HBO series about wealthy, powerful white men (Bill Compton, Eric Northman, various vampire royalty) who make life sheer hell for everyone around them.

• "Boardwalk Empire:" An HBO series about a wealthy, powerful white man (Nucky Thompson) who makes life sheer hell for everyone around him.

• "Deadwood:" An HBO series about a wealthy, powerful white man (Al Swearengen) who makes life sheer hell for everyone around him.

• "Curb Your Enthusiasm:" An HBO series about a wealthy, (sort of) powerful white man (Larry David) who makes life sheer hell for everyone around him.

• Game Change: An HBO film about a wealthy, powerful white man (John McCain) who makes life sheer hell for everyone around him--by selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate. I'm not being partisan here: Much of the film focuses on the very real suffering of the staffers charged with getting Palin ready to campaign.

• The Girl: An HBO movie about a wealthy, powerful white man (Alfred Hitchcock) who makes life sheer hell for Tippi Hedren.

All of these shows are the puzzling evidence that points to a simpler explanation of HBO's thing about powerful white guys screwing over their financial and social inferiors. I believe it all started here:

Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) in his natural
environment: checkered tablecloth, Pellegrini water.
• "The Sopranos:" An HBO series about a wealthy, powerful white man (Anthony Soprano Jr.) who makes life sheer hell for everyone around him.

It is difficult even now to fully illustrate what a profound effect David Chase's epic mob series had on American broadcasting. It redefined HBO from a movie channel to a prestigious destination, appointment television in the days before DVRs and binge-watching. It launched the style of hyper-serial series storytelling that is now the norm on cable and broadcast. "The Sopranos" was also soaked in gore-- bloodletting became an expected dramatic feature, spreading from premium to basic cable and now even to broadcast ("Hannibal" is as bloody a show as I've ever seen, and it's on NBC). It was The Show That Changed Everything.

Most importantly: "The Sopranos" dispensed entirely with a central character viewers could comfortably identify with. Tony Soprano was a cold-blooded mob boss, a man who was defined by his shrink Dr. Melfi as a sociopath. He killed without remorse. He was also affable and he loved those in his circle-- but his actions invariable led to the suffering of those in that circle. It was an absolutely fascinating push-pull with the audience, something David Chase admitted he struggled with: He wanted the audience to love Tony, so he made him charming-- but he made sure this charm was countered by frequent glimpses into his repugnant, immoral soul. Tony Soprano was lovable, chummy, loyal, repellent, unknowable and sick. This push and pull made for irresistible television.
Found this online. Makes my case perfectly.

In short: which executive would NOT want to emulate such success? So as a result we still see David Chase's story and character dynamics all over the airwaves. Tony Soprano's basic character traits can be found in all of the above-outlined shows-- in Dexter Morgan and Walter White and Don Draper as well. Weathy, famous television executives may very well feel sympatico with the wealthy and famous, but their primary concern is attracting eyeballs-- and thus keeping the jobs that made them that way.

Of course HBO does offer a counterbalance to this hegemony of Caucasian Male One Percenters. Most of their miniseries-- from Band of Brothers to John Adams to Mildred Pierce-- do not share these values at all. No, there's not much of a counterbalance to all that privilege, and it may or may not be the right or even fair sort of answer to this trend. It can be embodied thus:

• "Girls:" An HBO series about penniless, struggling white women who make life sheer hell mostly for themselves.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Weekend Box Office

Thanks for Box Office Mojo both for the numbers, and the rundown about why Star Trek maybe isn't a huge success after all.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Just Seen: Star Trek: Into Darkness

Kirk (Chris Pine) running through the red jungle.
That's motion blur, not lens flare.
Caught this in 2D, no less. It's getting to the point now with effects-heavy summer films that I try to make it a decision: 3D for Pixar and animated films or movies with some sort of innovation to it (The Hobbit, Avatar) or see it in 2D if the story promises to be compelling and I don't want the color and resolution compromised by those dumb glasses.

You definitely get your money's worth with this film. You get to see a lot of amazing stuff (even in 2D) and the action is well-directed and logically mapped out. Yeah, after a while there's too much action, especially at the end, but that's the entire stated purpose of J. J. Abrams and Paramount: to strip out Star Trek and turn it into a summer action-and-effects franchise.

The film kicks off in the thick of action, with Kirk and McCoy running for their lives through a blood-red alien forest. The visuals are amazingly cool, pure sci-fi. They're on a pre-technological planet, and the Prime Directive is about to be violated if they can't get out undetected. This being the new, kick-ass, impulsive Jim Kirk, he can't manage NOT to violate the Prime Directive, having the Enterprise rise out of the sea and fly over the terrified locals.

This part bothered me-- but not because the movie was violating Star Trek precedence: the opening sequence was quite faithful to the feel of how away missions went on The Original Series, and if Roddenberry could afford to show anything like this he would have. What bothered me is the fact the Enterprise was hidden from prying native eyes... under water. I know the technology of Star Trek is a magical thing, dilithium this and tritanium that, but... well.. it seemed crazier than usual.

Planet Express Ship,
flying through a gaseous medium
of 1013 millibars or less.
I was immediately reminded of an episode of “Futurama” where Planet Express Ship is being dragged to the bottom of the Atlantic by a huge fish. The outside water pressure becomes incredible:

Farnsworth: Dear Lord, that's over 150 atmospheres of pressure.
Fry: How many atmospheres can this ship withstand?
Farnsworth: Well it's a spaceship, so I'd say anywhere between zero and one.

After this opening development, Kirk is busted by Starfleet and his command is taken away. The main plot starts up here too-- it involves terrorism, questions about militarizing Starfleet, basically another examination of the post-9/11 world filtered into the Star Trek universe. The main story also references a lot of details from both the series and the previous movies: It's done with a certain reverence, and went a long way (but not all the way) to redeeming J. J. Abrams vision for this universe. It's good enough to compel me NOT to spoil any of the details!

A few notes:

The bad guy, surrounded by redshirts. The incidental
body count in ST:ID is really high: not "destroying
Vulcan" high, but a lot of digital extras get blown up.
• Most of Star Trek: Into Darkness works, and that has a lot to do with how much damn appeal Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the re-cast TOS crew still have. It's really a tribute to Gene Roddenberry: He created characters and a universe so rich and compelling that the smart re-casting for the new series for the most part works perfectly. In fact, I'd fault the film for not spending enough time with the supporting cast: they're all interesting (especially Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy).  

• This new movie continues the franchise tradition of hiring actors with long, rolling names to play villains: Ricardo Montalban (ST-II), Laurence Luckenbill (ST-V) and now Benedict Cumberbatch.

• The J. J. Abrams lens flare thing: Yeah, it's his director's signature, and it's in a lot of ST:ID. But there is not nearly as much of it as there was in the last Star Trek movie. Fact of the matter is, most of the most obvious optical flaring happens in the scenes set on the Enterprise's bridge.

The business end of an anamorphic lens.
A lot of people wonder why Abrams overuses flare so much-- I mean, millions are being spent of actors, sets and effects, and he's shooting a bright light into the lens, blowing out the picture and hiding all that hard work. Back in film school the production core instructors would go bananas when a student screened footage with visible lens flare. Cinematography, they said, was about capturing specular light. (then again, this was in the Super-8 and 8mm Camcorder days, when compound zooms would leave kaleidoscopic strings of artifacts through the center axis of the frame. It usually completely wrecked the shot.)

But times change and film styles certainly evolve. J. J. Abrams is sending a coded message with his little flare signature. If you really know how cinema lenses work, you can tell that Abrams only shows anamorphic lens flares. This is the kind of lens used exclusively for Panavision and CinemaScope cinematography: they are cylindrical, rather than spherical, designed to squeeze the image: they make flares that look like blue horizontal lines and wide counter-reflections. What he is saying: “This is a widescreen motion picture, not digital cinema: it is part of the common heritage of Hollywood spectacles also shot with anamorphic lenses.”

• Because ST:ID is essentially a franchise episode we've now dispensed with the origin story and the characters are now settled into interpersonal relationships much as they were in The Original Series. (except for Lt. Uhura and Spock, of course.). Their banter is looser and as a result this film is surprisingly funny. I saw this film on Sunday afternoon, a half-full auditorium: I have no idea why I was the only person laughing at the jokes.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Armageddon: The Prequel

And.. we're outta here!
WARNING: All sorts of spoilers ahead. then again, it's hard to tell.

For some reason I can't quite explain, over the last two months I managed to catch three very different films from three very different directors, all with an identical gimmick: in all of them, the world is coming to a sudden, complete and final end.

I don't know exactly what social situation or artistic impulse led to this strange little sub-genre over the last couple of years. It might be the logical follow-up to a lot of bigger apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films, such as 2012, The Road, I Am Legend, and any of a huge slew of zombie thrillers. The crucial difference between these earlier films and the "At World's End" sub-genre is (and yeah, I'm either ••• spoiling ••• the endings or simply stating the obvious): post-apocalyptic thrillers concentrate on the survivors and tend to end on a hopeful note, signaling that humanity can and will continue. The three films I'm outlining all end the same way: cut to black.

A peaceful scene: Well-manicured estate gardens,
The End of All Things.
• Melancholia (2011) Is Lars Von Trier's entry in this peculiar sub-genre. He was one of the founders of the Dogme 95 film movement, and there are a few Dogme aesthetic elements to be found in the first half. This is a story about a two sisters (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) from a well-off family and the usual raft of personal, family and professional troubles: a full laundry list of "first world problems" played out within the walls of a fantastically huge family castle. The first half is one long unhappy wedding, and the second half is the same family mostly ignoring the fact that the Earth is about to be destroyed by a baleful blue rogue planet called, appropriately, Melancholia.

This is probably the strangest approach to apocalyptic cinema ever: a family drama disaster film, Deep Impact as directed by Douglas Sirk (it has been described elsewhere on the web as "The Tree of Life for pessimists"). It's remarkably similar to Rachel Getting Married (2008) except the destructive neurotic sister (Anne Hathaway) has been replaced by a destructive planet. In the end, however, Melancholia has a certain raw power: the awful inevitability of oblivion is shown in the humongous planet hanging in the sky. The effects are quite good: Melancholia plows right into the family castle's grounds. Flash white, then cut to black.

Willem Dafoe watching the Dali Lama obliquely
blaming the end of the world on ourselves.
• 4:44: Last Day On Earth (2011) is Abel (Bad Lieutenant) Ferrara's film depiction of…. well, the last day on Earth. It features Willem Dafoe as a downtown creative type, whiling away the final hours in his loft apartment with his artist girlfriend. The earth-killer is somewhat nebulous: at the appointed time (EST) waves of radiation will destroy the ozone layer and kill everything everywhere. So it's like Global Warming, but much much quicker, far quicker than depicted in The Day After Tomorrow, even.

Unfortunately, not much happens in this film. Sad Skype calls are made. Sex occurs repeatedly. The girlfriend continues to paint a huge canvas, ignoring the fact the art market is about to bottom out. Vietnamese food is delivered (it's New York City, after all). The girl runs out and does drugs with friends, but soon returns to Willem Dafoe for more sex. Sure enough, at the end, the screen goes hazy yellow, then cut to black.

The asteroid as depicted in the
promotional artwork does not
appear in this film.

• Seeking A Friend For End Of the World (2011) is the directorial debut for Lorena Scafaria, the scripter for Nick and Nora's Infinite Playbook. This one I liked quite a bit, and not just because of the appealing performance by Steve Carell: It shows how people in a larger world than a family estate or a SoHo loft deal with having three weeks left before asteroid 253 Mathilde hits Earth. I liked it because the film is an honest take on the human condition, far more than the brittle bourgeois fretting of Melancholia or pointless narcissism of 4:44. It says that people are going to react in all the different ways people react to anything, and Scafaria's clever script gives us lots of examples. Some people party, some kill themselves, some stay at their jobs, some stay at their jobs serving up burgers while whacked out on Ecstasy.

It's how any of us would react-- if nothing we did mattered anymore. A very funny exchange underscores this notion: Dodge's (Carell's) friend Warren (Rob Corddry) is throwing a party: Warren's sullen teenage son stomps out of the house, snarling to him " You ruined my life, dad!" Warren instantly replies: "Go fuck yourself!" Why not? It's not like he has to raise him anymore. As Warren's wife says (after she tries to seduce Dodge), "Nobody is anybody's anything anymore."

The very first scene of Seeking a Friend defines exactly the parameters of this odd "At World's End" sub-genre. Dodge and his wife (Carell's real-life wife Nancy Carrell, in fact) are in a car, listening to a radio report of how the valiant shuttle mission to deflect the 60-mile-long asteroid failed. So now we know what this film is NOT going to be about: survival, plucky resourceful folks who are going to prevail and rebuild the human race. The very next thing that happens: without a word uttered, Dodge's wife opens the door and runs away, shoeless, into the night, never to return.

It's not a perfect film: it suffers for having Keira Knightly as Dodge's love interest, yet another "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" with boy-like interests and no visible means of income. It was the same problem I found in David O. Russell's predictable, Oscar-bait Silver Linings Playbook, which I saw two weeks after this. But strangely enough, of the two movies the one that ends in utter oblivion was far more surprising and had a stronger emotional pull.

Cut to black.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to (briefly depicted herein) for the figures!

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Witches Of Southwest

Through no conscious effort of my own, I found myself in the thrall of public domain witches last night.

It was very hot in the San Fernando Valley this weekend, and my best time-killing option was staying home, in shorts, with the AC on watching Roku. In fact, once I got Tender Mercies out of the way (great movie but kind of a homework assignment for a show I'm doing next month) I narrowed down to Pub-D-Hub, a Roku channel which features things for which the copyright has expired. I like PDB because I'm a nostalgia hound and because they only ask a dollar a year for subscription fees, which is reasonable considering that they aren't paying for content.

Anyway the first title that caught my eye: The Naked Witch. Now and then a favorite DJ of mine plays the lurid radio commercial for this movie. They had me at "naked"! It was shot in 1960 as the very first feature of  Larry Buchanan, which means it lacks the sophistication and polish and Buchanan later applied to Zontar: Thing From Venus and Mars Needs Women. It is the story of a grad student who travels to a small Texas town to study witch legends for his thesis. He finds the grave of a famous local witch who was buried a hundred years before, digs her up (with his hands!) and removes a stake from the heart of the corpse. The naked witch rises, walks away, and starts a campaign of killing the descendants of the man who had her staked. There are only 3, because the whole movie is less than an hour. The student manages to re-stake her, and she is buried again.

A bad movie fan needs, as the best arrow in his quiver, patience. It's how I can say this is entertaining even though it's literally 20 minutes of story, shoehorned into 59 minutes of movie. Really, the first 20 minutes is a lecture on witchcraft, shots of a convertible driving the empty highway, and "fascinating" local color explaining why there are little Germanic towns in Texas. For a witch, she isn't particularly supernatural. She's more like a zombie serial killer. I recall she kills one guy with a knife, and other with a rock. On the other hand you actually get a few glimpses of  actual sexy witch nudity, which could explain why Larry Buchanan kept working steadily.

After that hour, and as a way of avoiding Columbo reruns, I dug around a little and found an NBC Matinee Theatre kinescope of Dark Of The Moon. The hook for me was the leads, Tom Tryon and Gloria Talbott. They had also both starred in my favorite underrated 50's alien gem,  I Married A Monster From Outer Space and both are eerily, unnaturally good-looking. As I watched, some of the dialog seemed familiar to me and I realized we had put the play on in High School.

The Golden Age of Television
Told in an extremely thick Appalachian patois, Dark Of the Moon is the story of a Witch Boy (Tryon) who wishes to be made human so he can marry Gloria Talbott. The head crone (?) grants his wish, but only if Talbott can remain faithful (and not even kiss someone else) for a full year. Meanwhile, Witch-Boy is tormented by appearances of his cackling witch colleagues, who taunt him and say he's doomed to failure. Eventually the townfolk realize he'all is on o' them witches! and forcibly kiss Talbott, forcing him to return to his hellish lair.

It was just a very weirdly staged hour of TV. Weird music, weird overacting all around, punctuated with random screeching eagle noises. Still a unique experience. I can't call this bad. I'd say good AND off-putting. Still Talbott looked better in the movie. She deserved good lenses.Tom Tryon went on to become a best-selling novelist, which is surprising. It'd be like if Arnold Schwarzenegger had become governor of California.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these two movies is that neither one of them, in any way, prefigured the TV series Bewitched. I can only shrug.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Weekend Box Office

Low-res thanks to the fine folk at, who give me the numbers I throw at you.