Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to the people who provide the box office numbers.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Zombie Night Football

It's incredibly easy to find images of
zombie football players on the web.
Just sayin'.
"The Walking Dead" did something not a lot of scripted television shows have done recently: it outdrew an NFL football game in the key 18-to-35 demographic last Sunday. This was the second episode of the season as well, and so far the fourth season has commanded the best ratings yet for the AMC show. Quite a feat: The NFL rarely allows other shows to take it's viewership. It may be a temporary thing, and the NFL will likely go on and continue to squash all other shows again, especially as the end of the football season approaches. It's still almost unheard of.

It leaves a big question:  Why is this happening? I think it is two factors, opposite and in tandem: How the NFL and "The Walking Dead" are remarkably similar-- and how they are almost exactly opposite.


• Basic Rules of Action. People, especially people in the key demographic, watch a football game and "The Walking Dead" for the intense action. As I noted elsewhere, a football scrimmage and a zombie attack are remarkably similar things: The offense swarms in from all directions, intent on tackling and gaining possession-- of a brain or a football (about the same size). A wave of undead and a line of fullbacks both possess a undeniably intimidating quality, and both are going to bring the hurt if not stopped. Stop a zombie attack, and seconds later they're lined up again, ready to re-attack. Stakes are higher with zombies, of course, and there is nobody to a call a roughness or unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

• Unpredictability. Media Critic Neil Postman claimed that sporting events are popular because, unlike scripted television, they offer genuine surprise to the viewer. The most ridiculous mismatched teams can face off, but the final score is far from guaranteed. It's a game of inches, and close one can be nail-bitingly tense.

The extremely clever show runners of "the Walking Dead" know that uncertainty can make for riveting television-- a rule that can be encapsulated by a single principle (one first put forth by, of all people, Joe Bob Briggs): anybody can die at any moment. The show is notorious for killing off key characters: No character shield in effect here, no sir. The way the show's shots are composed and edited is consistently and completely unnerving: long, quiet sequences (to raise viewer tension) with lots of off-center compositions (which make you wonder "what's just off-frame? What's behind that door?" etc.). Finally, there is at least one awful, surprise, pop-up zombie attack per episode. So the visceral thrill for viewers is remarkably similar in both a live football game and scripted zombie drama.

DIFFERENCES: Well, DUH. These two shows could not be any more different. DUH. Okay, but HOW they're different-- and why one is at least temporarily outdrawing the other-- says a lot about American culture and tastes. So yeah, DUH-- but DUH with a pedigree.

• Spectacle vs. Intimacy: To watch an NFL broadcast is to witness nothing less than a massive money bonfire. Millions of dollars of player's salaries clocking up on the field. 50,000 fans who plunked an average of $250 per ticket, wearing $80 replica jerseys. Commercial advertisers paying the most prime ad rates on TV. And the network itself, burning through a billion-dollar broadcast agreement, covering the game with dozens of state-of-the art cameras and the best graphics in the industry. In terms of color, action and sheer spectacle, no other regular broadcast comes even close.

"The Walking Dead," on the other hand, is scripted television playing on a basic cable network. It's produced on location in rural Georgia (the graphic novel was set there-- AND the state offers a sizable tax break for productions) and shot on film-- not even 35mm film: It's shot on economical, if almost antiquated, Super16. This lends the show a grainy, muted look. The episode budgets are surprisingly large ($2.5 million as an average) but it's hard to see it through the resolutely natural feel of it: the money is all in the realistic-looking effects, makeup and props. It's all designed to make the horror intimate-- and real.

• Transience vs. Permanence: The universe of the NFL is based on the temporary nature of everything you see in it. The very game you're watching will be history mere hours after the last play, just a jumble of statistics not even worth a re-run (unless something truly unusual or tragic happened on the field). Every product advertised has several newer versions of it waiting in the wings. Even the player's uniforms are subtly redesigned every year to assure a steady revenue stream. It 's disposable event which reinforces disposable consumerism and disposable consumers.

After the zombie apocalypse, however, the great American machine of consumer goods has completely stopped. The main characters of "The Walking Dead" struggle to survive with whatever worn-out tools and artifacts were left behind. Nothing is disposable. Nothing is wasted. Even bullets to kill zombies are carefully conserved. An interesting detail from last week's show highlights this thrift: Rick's toddler-age daughter contents herself playing with a stack of red plastic party cups, the very icon of disposable culture.

• Self-Image and Freedom: I think people form a positive relationship with a TV based on how it reflects on their self-image. You watch a police procedural to feel smart, a talent show to feel like a part of the talent discovery process, and a show show like "Here Comes honey Boo-Boo" to convince oneself that things could be much, much worse.

The big pull for the NFL is basically the same one for all professional sports: Rooting for the home team. Given the fact that the only local aspects of any given pro team is the stadium and the owner, this can be called a fading asset. So let's look at these through a very narrow filter: how the NFL and "The Walking Dead" define freedom, a tenet still held as near-sacred for the average American. We like to see ourselves as a free people in a free country: how do these shows interpret this for us?

To watch an NFL game is to be in the massive bear hug of free-market capitalism, meshed into the gears of a finely tuned hype machine. Everything is for sale: Every object is branded: every surface has a logo on it. The exception is the gridiron, which is reserved for NFL branding (for the time being: Premier League Soccer teams have had ads on their kits since the 80s). Filtered down as an expression of our freedoms, about the only aspect on display is the freedom of the wallet. We're free to buy everything we see and we're encouraged to express our relationship with our home teams by buying authorized merchandise. It's a relationship we all understand, but it is the hollowest expression of American liberty there is.

In the universe of "The Walking Dead" government, commerce, and the legal structures of society are gone. Freedom is total. The main characters are free of all but the basic responsibilities-- in fact, the only relevant values are those of collective responsibility: everyone helps everyone else survive. It's a scary world, but every living human has a vital place in it and an important job to do.

I can't help but think that there is some appeal to this simplicity. What sounds more exciting to an 18-to-35 year old demographic unit: watching millionaire NFL players give each other concussions, through a high-tech haze of self-serving hype and branding? Or patrolling the ramparts of an abandoned prison with an M4 rifle, the guardian of the last bastion of humanity?

Why did "The Walking Dead" beat the NFL? Maybe because eventually everyone gets a bit tired of being hustled all the time. Zombies may want to eat your brains, but at least they aren't trying to sell you anything.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Incubus: Malbenita Kulto Klasika

TCM screened a rarity last night-- a genuine cult classic for the rarified cults of indie horror, William Shatner, "The Outer Limits" and constructed languages: Incubus.

This 1966 film is set in an imaginary country and past and tells the story of a demonic cult of hot blondes-- a sort of succubus-in-training farm team-- who lure weak, corrupt men to the sea and drown them to hasten their souls to hell.  One member, Kai (Allyson Ames, the director's wife at the time), is tired of having to deal with douchebags who are already damned: she wants the thrill of ensnaring a clean, virtuous soul. Marc (William Shatner) embodies this goodness: a heroic soldier returning home to live with his sister Arndis (Ann Atmar).

Kia shows up at their house during an eclipse, tempts Marc away to the sea, intent on doing him in. But his goodness stops her (I guess) and they end up in a church, where she freaks out at all the holiness. Terrible things happen to Arndis: she goes blind and mute, she's kidnapped and raped. Eventually things get so out of hand an Incubus is invoked to help with Kia's goal, which she so miserably failed.  The Incubus (played with shirtless greasiness by Milos Milos) eventually gets into a Kirk-versus-Gorn wrestling match with Marc, and by the end everyone is dead or nearly so.

William Shatner and Allyson Ames. At one point in the film
he roughly grabs her by the shoulders and kisses the
heck out of her. That was widely identified as a classic
Captain Kirk move: this proves it was actually a
classic Shatner move.
Writer-director Leslie Stevens (the producer behind "The Outer Limits") manages to give the film a stark, spooky tone-- it reminded me strongly of some other supernatural classics of the era, Carnival of Souls (1962) and The Seventh Seal (1957). He was no doubt aided by one of the best DPs of the era, Conrad Hall, lensing his first feature film. Never a dull moment-- though there a lot of long, long sequences of actors walking through the countryside.

It's worth a look for several interesting reasons:

• The movie-- dialog and credits-- is entirely in Esperanto, an international common language invented by a Russian ophthalmologist in the 1890s. It's a bold experiment, aided by the film's rather simplified universe of dichotomies (man/woman, good/evil, dark/light, etc.) If it's a gimmick, it's a good one: Make an instant Foreign Film!

The Esperanto dialog-- aided by huge, hideous, black-blocked subtitles-- is remarkably easy to follow. The language is a sort of mash-up of Romance, Slavic and Germanic language forms, so it sounds startlingly familiar. Apparently, those with a better ear for Esperanto than I say that Shatner gives his line readings a French accent, which may have something to do with his Montreal upbringing.

Mission San Antonio. It looks just a rough now
as it did in 1966, and probably 1771.
Incubus was filmed in my old backyard: Monterey County. Scenes take place on the coast at Big Sur, Carmel Valley and the back-country around Fort Hunter Liggett. The church in the film is Mission San Antonio de Padua-- a California mission in the middle of nowhere, take my word for it. The rugged beauty of the locations shines through the murky condition of the only remaining print (more below).

• Apparently a wandering hippie, unhappy with the rude way the Incubus film crew treated him, placed a curse on the production. If you are one to believe in such things as Hippie Curses, it was a quite effective-- if wildly uneven-- hex.

The film was released into the international festival circuit to generally positive acclaim. However, within a year: A) Milos Milos killed his wife, then himself; B) Ann Atmar committed suicide; C) Allyson Ames divorced Leslie Stevens; D) The film lab accidentally destroyed the master negative and most of the prints. Stevens, upset from the tragedies surrounding his film, withdrew it from release.

On the upside of this "curse," within the same year: A) William Shatner would land his iconic role as Captain Kirk on "Star Trek;" B) DP Conrad Hall would be nominated for an Academy Award (Morituri), then two more times in a row (The Professionals in 1966, In Cold Blood in 1967) , lens Harper and Cool Hand Luke, and win the Oscar in 1969 (For Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)

Such is the simple dichotomy of Incubus, a cursed/not cursed cult classic.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to Box Office Mojo, boys!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to Box Office Mojo, though frankly I guess I coulda gotten those number anywhere.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gravity: So Good, You'll Never Want To Leave Earth

Who among us has not entertained the idea of being an astronaut? The idea of floating weightless, like a bird or an angel, away from the constant and inevitable downward pull of the earth? Having a job in humanity's final frontier, pushing the limits of human exploration, and even enjoying the mild fame that comes from mentioning at cocktail parties “what do I do? Well, I'm an astronaut.”

I believe they finally made a movie that may disabuse you from this particular career choice.

Don't get me wrong: Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity is an amazing, entertaining, thrilling film. The premise is remarkably simple: two astronauts (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) struggle to survive in open space when their ship is pounded by a cloud of debris traveling at enormous velocity. Even if you care to classify this as a science fiction film (which it is in the most literal sense of the term) you could say the nemesis is Newton's Laws of Motion.

And quite a nemesis it is. Objects in motion remain in motion: Orbital velocities are considerable. There is not even a universal frame of reference, no up or down, outside the distant Earth, which provides a beautiful and startlingly detailed backdrop. The physics, the space hardware, even the sound were all quite accurate (not 100% accurate, though: read Phil Plait's admitted nitpicking here.) No need for slimy aliens, giant robots or Darth Vader-- All the bad guy you need is in a line from the opening credits: “Life in space is impossible.”

The amount of visual detail in Gravity is astounding.
This may look like a doctored-up production still,
but it ain't.
How simple and glorious is Gravity? Before the feature came the trailer for Ender's Game: thousands of spaceships, slimy monsters, space-suited teenagers, stuff blowing up. It looks absolutely ridiculous.

A few notes:

• First of all, I can guarantee you have never seen anything quite like Gravity: it is visually stunning and entirely unique. Still, could find references and tributes in it, from Cuarón's previous effects-heavy films (like Children of Men, particularly the long one-shot sequences), but to a lot of other science fiction films get a nod as well. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Brian DePalma's Mission to Mars and Apollo 13 are the obvious references: The Wall-E call-out is a little on the unexpected side.

• Sandra Bullock? I love Sandra Bullock (From Speed all the way to The Blind Side) but as a reigning rom-com queen she seemed like an odd choice for this sort of film. Then the scene came where she gains shelter in the airlock of the International Space Station and removes her EVA suit. To quote the Australian sages AC/DC, she was knockin' me out with her American thighs. Hey: it's sci-fi, but Warner Bros. is still trying to sell movie tickets here.

Space debris hits the ISS. The result: more space debris.
These scenes are terrifyingly well-done.
• The first shot alone is worth the price of admission (which can run nearly $20 if you go for the IMAX 3D deal). This shot lasts about 20 minutes, threading all around the space shuttle and the Hubble Space Telescope and the intrepid space-walkers in smooth, continuous motion. When a cut finally happened I could hear a quarter of the audience gasp, as if they all stopped holding their breath.

• Yes, I went big and saw it in IMAX 3D at the Metreon. This film was so well-made for 3D it nearly defies words. Having said that, I'm sure the 2D version would be good too-- because of what you lose wearing those dumb glasses. No 3D process, even if it is in hyper-sharp IMAX, is perfect: there is always a little fringing and image spill, and the stars, which were displayed accurately in configuration and brightness in Gravity-- were washed out. That bummed me out a little.

• Okay, the plot was a little thin and the backstory clunked a bit. This was all made up for by the fact the film was only an hour and half long. This fact alone sold me on seeing it on opening weekend. I was not being forced to sit through some stupid comic book character's origin story, or watch robots beat up on each other, for the Hollywood-typical three long hours.

Go see!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"Breaking Bad:" Petting the Shark

Courtesy of desperation.com.
Sunday morning, the morning before the much-anticipated finale of "Breaking bad" was to air, my subconscious woke me up early. It often does that, if there is some pressing thing I have to do or some problem I need to address in the coming day. but this time it was a little different. My subconscious gave me a simple message: "In a few hours, 'Breaking Bad' will be over-- and we can finally get it out of your head."

I needed to get Walter White out of my head.

"Breaking Bad" was a monumental work of storytelling, 48-hour-long saga of an average man's slide into a universe of violence and destruction. And that is the power of it's gimmick in a nutshell: the "Mr. Chips turns into Scarface" story that Vince Gilligan imagined.

I have written before about how most of the big-hit cable shows are built around a white man who makes life hell for everyone around him. the difference between the other shows and "Breaking Bad" is Walter White is not initially a powerful man. He begins the show as a helpless victim, a very average person with a simple flaws, a bad temper foremost. His greatest asset is his intelligence and scientific know-how.

And slowly, over the course of five seasons, he applies these assets to become a monster.

If movies are dreams, and television is a mirror, then "Breaking Bad" was a unique sort of funhouse mirror, a reflection with a message: This could be you. Walter White is what any average person would become if life dealt him a few bad hands.

Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) from "Sons of Anarchy,"
a biker-gang retelling of "Hamlet." One of the reasons I find it
compelling is how much of it is set in Stockton, California, my
familial hometown. Take my word for it: The show gets
the details down a little too authentically.

This is a very different state of affairs than most cable crime dramas. Tony Soprano was introduced as a mob boss from a mob family; Dexter was a psychopath from day one; Jax Teller is the son of a biker club crime lord. We pick up their stories when they are at the height of their powers. Heisenberg, on the the other hand, was constructed right in front of our eyes. And because most of "Breaking Bad's" five seasons covered a span of fictional time less than a year long, we got to witness his transformation in slow motion.

Walter White was not a person I wanted in my head, week after week. His rise and downfall was too understandable, too accessible. It didn't help that he was about my age and we both subscribe to Scientific American. He was a weekly reminder of how fragile civil society is at any time.

Never was there such a plain example of comparative morality as seen in every episode of "Breaking Bad." In it's core, the overarching narrative was about how desperate adversity could potentially drive the best of us to abandon common values and embrace a Medieval, family-and-self-first morality. And it underlined the fact that in the special circumstances Walter White found himself in after he decided to cook meth-- Dealing with violent dealers, killing those who would harm him, etc.-- the primitive moral values he had to adapt to, one that renders the lives of those outside the circle of family as expendable, was not only logical but necessary. Chilling.

Remember the old term "Jumping the shark?" Time to coin a new term: "Petting the Shark." We're offered shows with murderous, psychopathic main characters, and asked to dip a hand in the dark waters week after week. Feel the smooth skin and powerful muscles as it glides by, see the white serrated teeth and dead black eyes. Week after week after week.

"Breaking Bad" was a beautifully written, elegantly shot series, and I loved every episode. Nonetheless, by the time the magnificent finale was over the catharsis was profound. I needed to get Walter White out of my head.

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to BoxOfficeMojo for the numbers, and thanks to you for watchin'.