Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Quentin would have been PISSED

With nothing compelling on TV and a movie pass burning in my wallet, I decided to attend a roadshow screening of The Hateful Eight.

I've sort of fallen out with Tarantino lately, what with his ardent passion for turning junk movies from the past into faux-junk cinema and utter devotion to pointless nihilistic gore and over-the-top vengeance stories. It's all part of his huge movie-geek thing-- but something of substance DID come out of it. The man cares about old-school widescreen cinema: so do I. That's where our Venn diagrams intersect.

He went through an extraordinary amount of trouble to create a roadshow release of The Hateful Eight. The last film I remember seeing in a proper roadshow release was Apocalyse Now, a credits-free 70mm screening with a program provided. The Hateful Eight goes a few steps better, with a musical overture, intermission and a three-hour program length.

At least, that's what I understand is supposed to happen.

The fun part: going out with a big ol' 65mm
camera and shooting cool lens flares.
December 28th's  last screening was supposed to start at eleven at the Daly City 20. I got there early, paid the $3 up-charge and staked out a seat near the screen, pleased they had curtained it for crazy wide 2.76:1 Ultra Panavision. Two young women-- practically the only female-only party in a half-full show-- stopped on the way in and noted the smell. Sure enough-- this was the fourth screening of the day and Quentin's core audience demographic had filled the auditorium with a heavy, funky, manly fragrance.

11:00 became 11:10, then 11:20. No movie. The floor manager appeared, handed out rain checks and promised we'd be up and running in about ten minutes. At 11:40, he came back and cancelled the show. So, in the end I did NOT see The Hateful Eight-- but I got two movie passes and three roadshow programs out of the experience, so not a total loss.

The floor manager and I chatted just before he called the screening off. Apparently the theater got all the hardware for a 70mm screening just before it was supposed to start. The projector was refurbished, and at the end of the roadshow screening they will haul it away and 2K digital shows would take it's place. The problem was the projector was just plain broken: it simply would not pass the wide film, some sort of mechanical failure. This cancelled screening was not the first one they had to axe either. Roadshow screenings have gone dark all across the US and Canada in regular intervals.

Hey: Quentin Tarantino and The Weinstein Company are trying very hard to give the audience a taste of the widescreen glories of the past, and more power to them for it.  The thing is: they're giving audience a taste of not just that, but the entirety of photomechanical projection technology.

For each of The Hateful Eight roadshow venues they had to ship in a 70mm projector, set it up and align it, and station a projectionist exclusively to handle the thing. (I'm sure they had to bring in flatbed film platters in some places as well, but not Daly City: they still had one Christie system left). These projectors are likely vintage Century or Todd-AO machines they bought used and had mechanically refurbished. But without the infrastructure and expertise to maintain these machines, they break. They didn't break as much in the past because they were so common.

DP70 35/70mm projector.
Back in my movie theater management days a surprising number of theaters I managed had 70mm capability. In the 80s United Artists had the presence of mind to buy up and install a lot of DP-70 Todd-AO projectors made by Phillips/Norelco in the Netherlands in 1955 or so. The reasons for buying up these machines was twofold: they were very solidly made and reliable for regular 35mm screenings, and even the dopiest non-union assistant manager could switch them over to 70mm. Even with dopey non-union assistant managers running the shows, there were technicians available for overhaul and spare parts were in abundance in every projection booth (sometimes even spare projectors). This all made the average screening in the film era a reliable thing.

Nonetheless, there were a lot of moving parts and flying film and things went off the rails all the time. I am personally responsible for destroying a $3000 reel of 70mm: I started a screening of Bonfire of the Vanities in 70mm blow-up (why? WHY?) forgetting to engage the feed platter motor. Reel One wrapped around the hub and was torn to shreds. Fortunately we could switch to 35mm until a replacement reel arrived (and Larry Levin finished yelling at me).

Digital projection has as we all know, transformed the moviegoing experience. For the audience the changes have been subtle: the picture is more steady, screenings more reliable, and unfortunately trailers nearly endless. the films still "break," though, but they do it digitally: It was reported that an opening night screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens glitched a few minutes in and skipped to the very end of the film. Digital Cinema's most profound change happened in the booth: no moving parts. Films are loaded via hard drive. The roar of the average film projector (which was terrifyingly loud when running 70mm) has been replaced by the hum of cooling fans.

Like I said, big praise for Tarantino for bringing back Ultra Panavision, but it's a kind of stunt, like wiring theater seats to shock people. My cancelled show was part of this whole retro-technical stunt rather than the continuum of modern Digital Cinema technology, and as such none of the backups were available. There was no 35mm print backup or a spare digital projector. He's giving people a taste of the old film days, but it's so late after the passing of this technology it's definitely a double-edged sword. Part of this is sheer hubris: it's easy and cool on the front end to go out and shoot a film with 65mm Panavision cameras and hand-restored 1.25X anamorphic lenses. On the back end it's not so easy: conforming 100 theaters to a nearly dead film format is a tall order indeed, a stunt not as easily pulled off.

So I'm gonna try again soon to see another roadshow screening, but this time I'm going to a theater that isn't in the sticks (Daly City: I'll bet they installed the less reliable refurbished projectors in the outliers). Sheer law of averages means next time the projector will light up.

Weekend Box Office

Why yes, it WAS merry! Figures by Boxofficemojo.com

Monday, December 21, 2015

Weekend Box Office

It's a little predictable this week, but at least the figures are accurate. Thanks to boxofficemojo.com!

Monday, December 14, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Heart, breathe, body... zeitgeist, no? Many gratitudes to boxofficemojo.com for the lowdown.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Krampus - did pretty good! Watch for "Leg Krampus" next year! And Box Office Mojo.com supplied the figures, so thank them.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Weekend Box Office

I felt grainy, so why not look grainy? Thanks to Box Office Mojo for the chart that I'm looking at. Trust me, it's right there in my hand.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Stay to the end for advice - advice for young filmmakers like yourself! Thanks to Box Office Mojo, home of the adjusted-for-inflation gross chart.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Love the Coopers, won't you? And love BoxOfficeMojo.com.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Brown's the name. Charlie Brown.

Thanks to Box Office Mojo for their eternally helpful chart.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Boo! Thanks to boxofficemojo.com for the figures, and all they do.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Seth Rogen may not know what he's doing, but boxofficemojo.com is golden.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Oooooh, I got Goosebumps. And figures, thanks to BoxOfficeMojo.com

Behind the Curtain

While I'm waiting for the Weekend Box Office Report to upload, here's a peek behind the scenes.

You may have intuited that practically every episode of the Report is done solely by me, Daniel K.  I put the camera on a tripod and hit the start button, do the report, and then just get up and turn the damn thing off. Also over the summer, you may have noticed that I had focus problems often that I just couldn't (or usually just didn't bother to) correct. Also, I was using the mic on my Nikon D3200 prosumer SLR, and everybody knows those things are nowhere man.

The last month or so, I've stepped up my game in two ways. Number one, I started using my iPhone as a mic. You put it in your shirt pocket and it's pretty good sound, with little ambient background noise. The other one is the focus problem. I'd set the focus before by sitting in the chair and pointing the camera back at the tripod head. Clever but not effective, as you saw. What ruined it, apparently, was that I have weak lights and it resulted in a very, very shallow focal plane.

And that's why THIS became necessary.

It turns out that if you take the box my iMac came in, turn it on its side, and balance an Amazon shipping box on top of it, it's about the height of my head sitting in a chair. The head shot is so the Autofocus has a face to recognize. And no, that's a test headshot, I've never tried to get work with it. I mean, ugh.

So now I focus on this bizarre device, start rolling, push it out of the way and sit down in the chair, and it looks good enough for YouTube anyway. Next up, this week's report! 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Jaws as Socio-Economic Parable

Chief Brody (left) deals with pressure from the
Amity Selectmen and their 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood.
Jaws (1975) was a more than Spielberg’s breakthrough thriller hit, a huge box-office hit, and the film that, with Star Wars, invented the idea of the high-concept summer blockbuster. It is also a parable. The most obvious theme is man versus nature— how humanity can band together to defeat relentless forces of death and chaos. But the parable that is touched on but rarely explored is how Jaws is a study of American social structure- How they fight, and how they cooperate.

America in 1975 was somewhat different than it is today. Wall street was still well-regulated, the top marginal tax rates on income were much higher than they are now, and unions were much stronger. The wealthy were very wealthy, but they still had some common ground with a healthy middle class. It was a time when the middle class was still given substantial incentive to prosper: single-income families were still the norm, and even the poor were considered “lower middle class.” It was before Reagan, union-busting and trickle-down economics, and the long and fantastic post-WWII run of prosperity was still going— it was near the end, but it was still working for most people. Looking back, I think most folks didn’t know how good they had it.

Into this prosperous, fairly harmonious but increasingly cynical post-Watergate world enters a shark, who begins eating people off the shore of the small East Coast resort community of Amity. After a few disastrous mistakes by the local powers-that-be that result in even more death, the right decision is made and a fishing expedition to go kill the shark is financed.

And, oddly, a representative of every level of American society is on-board.

Quint: "Let me feel your hands... They're city hands,
soft from counting money."
Hooper: "hey, I don't need this 'working class hero' crap!"
• Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is the Woods’ Hole Shark expert. He represents the upper class: He is college-educated, well-traveled and pursues his avocation (oceanographer) with expensive equipment he bought himself. His approach to the challenge of the antagonist is initially aesthetic: He thinks sharks are magnificent, beautiful creatures, the pinnacle of piscine evolution.

• Quint (Robert Shaw) owns the Orca: He is a charter fisherman specializing in shark hunting. He represents the working class: a poorly educated, crude rustic with a strong Down East accent. Quint’s motivations are personal: as a survivor of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in World War II, he has dedicated his life to vengeance against creatures who killed his shipmates. Considering the condition of his ship and shore facility it seems Quint has turned his obsession into a marginal sort of living.

"I think we need a bigger boat." Perfect example of
middle-class pragmatism from Chief Brody.
(This classic line was ad-libbed by Roy Scheider.)
• Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is on-board as a sponsor: his efforts financed the expedition. He is ostensibly the protagonist of Jaws— and he is solidly middle class. A former New York City policeman turned town police chief, he is pragmatic, methodical and cautious. A civil servant, Brody is fully enmeshed with the pitfalls and complexity of local government, and spends a good part of the film trying to convince Amity’s selectmen to take the shark threat seriously. His viewpoint on the antagonist is a common one: ignorance and fear. He does not like the ocean, does not go into the water, and is frankly terrified of sharks. However, he displays a common-sense willingness to facilitate, learn and help.

With representative of every social class onboard the Orca pursuing the common goal of ridding the fair town of Amity of a rogue Great White it would seem their goals are unified. But there are tensions between each man as much as there are tensions between classes:

The "moment of greatest settled success" of Jaws:
all levels of society literally harmonizing together
before the shark starts taking the boat apart.
Brody and Hooper vs. Quint: As well-integrated members of mainland society, they see Quint as an unhinged, dangerously obsessed yokel.

Hooper and Quint vs. Brody: As experienced seamen and shark enthusiasts, they see Brody as a useless landlubber who has the potential to get into serious trouble onboard.

Quint and Brody vs. Hooper: Hooper has a tendency to be snippy and is constantly suspected of not sharing the primary goal of the expedition: to kill the shark, not study or admire it.

These squabbles are put aside (mostly) when the shark seems to take an interest in them and begins a personal (and scientifically nonsensical) vendetta against the Orca and the three intrepid class representatives onboard. Sharks don’t take vendettas: in fact, most marine biologists believe Great Whites don’t care for people meat, and most fatalities are “test bites” that have bled out.

"How do you work this thing of yours?" Quint setting aside
his working-class resentments for the sake of survival.
This shark vendetta does not makes sense— unless you cast the story as a parable about class. Then the shark becomes a common enemy to all society, high and low, a threat which requires complete socio-economic cooperation.

Hooper, Quint and Brody all work together to battle the shark, who also busy trying to eliminate all of them in no particular order. The final act of the film can even be seen as a microcosm of how chaos and disaster are typically visited upon the American body politic (from here to the end are solid ••• spoilers ••• but shame on you if you haven’t seen this film!)

Quint, being working class, is eaten by the shark, which fits into the demographic of natural disasters affecting the poor proportionally worse than anyone else. Hooper, having access to expensive gear, is able to swim away from his high-tech shark cage, hide on the seafloor, and survive. The job of dispatching the shark falls on the capable middle-class Brody, who uses a tool left by working-class Quint (M1 rifle) and another tool left by wealthy Hooper (compressed-air scuba tank) to blow up the shark. Thus was the burden of the 20th century American middle class.

Peter Benchley, looking sharp in wide lapels.
The original novel was written by Peter Benchley, the grandson of humorist Robert Benchley. In the novel as well as the movie Brody is the protagonist, but Benchley was in life much more of a Hooper (Phillips Exeter prep school, Harvard University). Interestingly, Hooper was a bit of a rich cad in the book: he had an affair with Chief Brody’s wife. Then again, in the book Hooper did not escape the shark cage and was just plain eaten. He comes off much nicer in the movie, which may or may not be social commentary.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Weekend Box Office

They CALLED it Pan!

Thanks to boxofficemojo.com for the figures.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to Box Office Mojo - this week you can ALMOST SEE the figures page!

My New Favorite Martian

Ridley Scott’s The Martian is a nice reversal of the bloat that is becoming epidemic in most big-budget films— especially in Ridley Scott movies. Prometheus was a hyperactive terrier of a movie, bouncing all over the place, rabidly exploring scifi/horror ideas and abandoning them with equal speed. Exodus was The Bible by way of Lord of the Rings— a dark, heavy, over-art-directed movie that had big CG monsters in it. The Martian is simple and exhilarating— it sticks with a handful of characters and confines itself within the realm of believable science and physics. This last part makes this film sublime: for sci-fi geeks, seeing a film that does NOT invoke some magical frammis to get out of the 3rd act is… well, magical in itself.

Not much to say about the plot you haven’t heard: an expedition to Mars gets hit by a storm which forces them to depart to orbit— leaving one of the crew behind, presumed dead. He isn’t, and now Mark Watney (Matt Damon) has to figure out how to survive alone until he is rescued. How he does it is never less than fascinating.

What makes the film work— aside from the clean direction and terrific casting— is the dialog. The screenplay is by Drew Goddard, a veteran of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and “Lost.” Those shows, especially “Buffy,” were known for their witty, fast-paced dialog. The dialog in The Martian isn’t fast-paced (you really need at least two people for proper dialog to happen) but Matt Damon’s naturally self-deprecating manner makes the witty asides Watney tells himself work very well. Humor relieves tension, and pacing out moments of wry exasperation and existential terror in turn makes the experience feel richer and more realistic.

A few notes:

A relatively bulky form factor with
mechanical limitations and limited dynamic range.
The Martian Curse is being met head-on with this film— and so far The Martian seems to be beating it! It took $55 million domestic ($100 million worldwide) opening weekend against a $108 million budget. Just a note about budget here: for a film that displays all the sweep and grandeur of a big sci-fi movie, $108 mil is PEANUTS. Just comparing it to recent victims of the Martian Curse: Mars Needs Moms (2011) cost $150 million to make, and John Carter [of Mars] (2013) cost a mind-bending $264 million or more. And do you know why Ridley Scott’s Mars movie was so (relatively) cheap? It was mostly made in Hungary! The Martian exteriors were shot in Jordan— which, while grand and otherworldly, also looked just a bit familiar. Squint really hard you can see Peter O'Toole’s trailer from Lawrence of Arabia half-buried in a sand dune.

That's right-- everything from Rush's self-titled 1974
 premiere album to 2012's Clockwork Angels, all
on this tiny deal. (Nose not shown.)
• The diagetic soundtrack of The Martian features no song newer than 1979. Apparently the only music left behind on Mars belonged to Mission Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), a 1970’s Disco enthusiast. Though this makes for many amusing scenes of Watney being musically tormented (“No, I will not turn the beat around!”) frankly I found this rather unbelievable and a bit of a pander. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) did the same thing (albeit with a more ecumenical selection of 70s pop) and it’s fair to say that if “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” was not part of that movie it would have been far less fun. They are trying for the same light, easy-to-relate-to musical touch with The Martian— but it doesn’t compute for several reasons: 1. The film set in the mid-2030’s: Disco will be 60 years old by then. Disco is music Lewis’ great-grandparents were into. 2. Digital audio files should NOT be this scarce-- even if they were accidentally left behind on Mars. My friend John received for his birthday the complete collected works of Rush. It was on a USB flash drive that was so small he could literally stuff it up his nose.

Although I did not include it in the article on
The Martian Curse. Robinson Crusoe on Mars did
poorly at the box-office as well. I also forgot
to mention the feature version of My Favorite
(1999), which also bombed (and
featured Jeff Daniels, who is also in
The Martian!).
The Martian is a Robinson Crusoe story, set on Mars— not the 1964 movie, the 1719 novel by Daniel Dafoe. It explores the application of what is called “Robinson Crusoe Economics,” where the protagonist is in a unique economy where he is the only producer and consumer. To survive he needs to maximize both his personal profits and expand his productivity with very limited resources. Dafoe’s novel was written at the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, when scientific and rational political thought became paramount. Crusoe was the embodiment of Enlightenment thought: To survive (profit), inventories are made, output calculated and problems are solved, mathematically and dispassionately. As this film is an absolute love letter to Science, nothing could be more appropriate.

• Donald Glover has a small role as Rich Purnell, a JPL astrodynamic physicist who figures in a key plot point. He plays it like a slovenly genius savant: minimal eye contact, poor social skills, the whole deal. Still, as he was both Troy Barnes in “Community” and comic rap artist Childish Gambino, when he showed up on-screen I expected comedy that never actually materialized. Strange.

• Seen in 3D at a late show. I was the only one laughing at the punchy dialog. The 3D is very good, feels natural and the image is unusually bright. See it that way.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Wonders Of (YouTube) Space

Glamorous Italian Laura
Fantuzzi and I enjoying
free cappuccino in the free
photo booth 
I have been to paradise; it is known as YouTube Space LA in Playa Del Rey.

This weekend as the result of my involvement with a web series called The Noir Bizarre, I got to spend the day in one of the studios that YouTube provides for some of their members. Specifically, members who have over 10,000 followers. To encourage these people, Google provides them with a free studio, and free use of lights, cameras, and editing equipment. Also not insignificantly, cappuccino. You just walk out to the lobby and ask. You could get a latte instead but let's face it, if it's free you may as well get the cap.

It's not easy to find, hidden away like many good things. There is a whole community being built around there right now and somehow Google maps hasn't been completely informed about all the closed roads. Still, once you get there parking is free. This is my way to telling the rest of the cast why I was late. Sorry guys!

The studio we were in was little more than an air-conditioned box with a green screen, fortunate for us because we decided to set the scene on Mars. I won't dwell on the details of the shoot because it was plenty boring but know that if we were a maybe not all that prepared, the place accommodated us just fine. Had we storyboarded everything in advance, I'm sure it would be the same. It's kind of like everything on YouTube yourself... you think of something, look it up, and there it is, for free. Unless someone files a copywrite takedown notice, selfish bastards. Sorry, tangent.

The place was bustling with eager young indie filmmakers, having discussions in the lobby, liking each other on Facebook, drinking cappuccinos and taking selfies in front of any handy logo. There are plenty, believe me.

It would have been fun to stick around and edit there (on Apple's Final Cut pro, surprisingly) but the Noir Bizarre folk have their own stuff at home thanks. I got to see the bays though and it looks like you could complete a mighty fine feature film in that place.

Note, clear it with them first, just as a courtesy.

I'll happily go back when the chance arises though I don't know if I PERSONALLY have 10k followers on the horizon. Cross your fingers.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Weekend Box Office

September! It finally pays off! Thanks to Box Office Mojo for their usual good compiling work, numbers wise.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Nice week! Not notable. Thanks to Box Office Mojo, as usual.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Okay, I did a video, I hate it, and I'm not posting. Don't watch it. Here are the figures.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Love-- Don't Fear-- The Walking Dead

 “Fear the Walking Dead,” the companion series of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” premiered a few weeks ago to huge ratings. It is set in East Los Angeles during the very beginning of the same zombie apocalypse as the first series, but if the pace of the first three episodes is any indication a major part of this series is going to be eyewitness to the collapse of civilization. This was skipped in the original series (and the graphic novel): The protagonist wakes up in an abandoned hospital, the gap between normality and post civilization left to the imagination of the viewer.

FTWD has been subject to mixed reviews: some think it is an excellent thriller with some amazing potential, others think the premier episodes was slow and many of the core characters are unlikable. These are both fair observations. I think it is excellent television, and you should definitely check it out! Also, I believe there is a reason why this show was structured this way:

• The core of the cast are Travis (Cliff Curtis) and Maddie (Kim Dickens), both with children from previous marriages. two adults struggling to merge into a new family unit as the story begins. And as much as I like this show so far, I have to admit that all three of their kids are remarkably awful. Maddie’s son Nick (Frank Dillane, a dead ringer for a young Johnny Depp) is a hopeless junkie who sees his first zombie when he comes to in a squat in an abandoned church: so far he has been resolutely concentrating on scoring more opiates, little else. Maddie’s daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) is a high-schooler who was ready to bolt from family and safety to be with her infected, dying boyfriend. Travis’ son Chris (Lorenzo Henrie) is your basic never-respond-to-parents-calls, clueless kid. Much parental energy has been spent in these first three episodes just rounding the kids up in one place, leaving precious little time to cope with the collapse of technological civilization.

Travis, trying to call his dumb kid.
I think there is a reason we are saddled with so many addled kids in this series— and I know the primary reason is likely trying to capture a young viewer demographic. But “The Walking Dead” is the most popular series on television, and so far has disproven the need to cast with the 18-to-25 “ABC Family” audience in mind. This has more to do with showing true, ground-up character construction. These kids are truly clueless (except for flashes from the otherwise drug-addicted Nick, who is the very first character to identify the ”infected” not as sick people but animated dead). We will get to see them develop survival skills from essentially nothing as the show develops. Contemporary young adults are stereotyped as coddled, tech-addicted and incapable of self-support: it should be interesting to see how they harden into zombie killers.

• Added to this core family are Daniel Salazar (Ruben Blades), his wife and daughter. They are from El Salvador, and bring some very interesting developing-nation values into this story. From their first meeting Daniel strikes bargains with Travis and his family: Every favor is matched with obligation. He is not shy about blowing away a zombie with a shotgun. He also sees Travis’s aversion to guns as a sign of weakness— and says (in Spanish) “Good people will be the first to die.” El Salvador was (and well may still be) a messed-up country controlled by autocrats, with a weak government and no rule of law. He is the Greek Chorus of this series, knowing all the upcoming events are going to be bad and are getting worse.

• One of the reasons I think audience are more critical of “Fear the Walking Dead” has something to do with the diminishing returns of any spin-off. The first series introduced the zombie apocalypse, right around Halloween 2010 in fact: it was bleak, thrilling, terrifying and unlike any horror show seen before. Viewers of “Fear the Walking Dead” know this universe well: they are drumming their fingers impatiently, waiting for those hordes of shuffling undead to show up, the expected Grand Guignol of gore, the descent into amoral kill-or-be-killed survival.  But the emphasis on this series is quite different: as I’ve said before here, the collapse of civilization is just as terrifying as animated cannibal corpses. The lights go out; food runs out; basic services are gone. Eventually the emergency services (the California National Guard, apparently) will break down as well, as they are either eaten or abandon their posts and run for the desert. This is going to be playing out in detail, and will be the standout feature of "FTWD."

Look at those lovely anamorphic flares!
• As is the standard for this franchise, a sizable percentage of the cast playing Southern Californians are from the Commonwealth (England, New Zealand and Australia). I’m not gonna get all Donald Trump here, but this casting fetish still strikes me as odd.

• One of the most pleasing things about FTWD is how they’re shooting it. When AMC was financing their first dramatic series it was a big risk, and to keep costs down they shot “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” in Super16. When “Breaking Bad” started to take off they upgraded the budget and shot in 35mm, but “Walking Dead” stayed with 16mm: It looks gritty, grainy, a little washed out, which perfectly suits the bleak, zombie-infested wastelands of the South. But for "FTWD" they chose to shoot in 2K digital with Hawk Vintage ’74 anamorphic lenses. This gives the show a clean, expansive look, with the same flares, bokeh and shallow focus of a theatrical release in ‘scope. Visually it is as about as far as you can get from the original series. It's still in full-frame 16x9, but I'm hoping the BluRay release will be in 2.35:1.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Turns out, God IS bigger than Dre! Thanks to Box Office Mojo for the figures

Monday, August 31, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Mercifully I seem to have fixed my worst cinematography problem! Now the only problem is the content itself. Thanks to Box Office Mojo for a steady supply of data.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Best viewed in as small a window as possible. thanks to Boxofficemojo.com for figures!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Arguably my worst cinematography ever, but at least the numbers by Box Office Mojo are good.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Fantastic? Not so much. BoxOfficeMojo.com, who publishes the figures, now THEY'RE fantastic.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to Box Office Mojo for figures, and Bruce Geller for Mission: Impossible.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Pixels! Okay, that's all the excitement I can generate for that. Thanks to Box Office Mojo for the numbers.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to box office mojo as usual. Google them.

And thanks to Google.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Minions! And a weird background, though I admit I've framed these things better. Thanks to boxofficemojo.com for the figures, as usual.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Inside/Out is up! BoxOfficeMojo.com is even upper!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Dinosaurs are running show business (like THAT'S novel) and there's less interest in salty teddy bears than expected. Thanks to Box Office Mojo for the figures!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Weekend Box Office

No egregious errors this week, except possibly the shirt. Thanks to Box Office Mojo for the figures themselves!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to BoxOfficeMojo.com -- ZOMG IS THAT A TRICERETOPS

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Zardoz was Exactly 42 Years Ahead Of It's Time

The Big Floating Guy himself.
Perhaps taking my friend Chris’s lead I recently re-watched Zardoz, John Boorman’s very singular science fiction film from 1973. It’s a simple story: In a post-apocalyptic 2293, it’s the story about Zed (Sean Connery), an “exterminator” who manages to escape the wasteland into a “Vortex.” Behind the force fields of the vortex live the “Eternals,” who guard and catalog the remnants of civilization, all under the protection of The Tabernacle, an artificial intelligence. The mere presence of Zed creates conflict and eventually leads to the destruction of their unnatural order.

I know most people with a knowledge of film have some easily portable ideas about this film, sort of meta-positions. Yes, Sean Connery runs around wearing a silly red diaper. Yes, “Zardoz” is a take on “The Wizard of Oz.” Yes, it’s a parable about how nature abhors a vacuum— and will find a way re-establish itself whenever denied. But Zardoz, like Zed himself, is a very clever creation, far more clever than such superficial observations. This film was a breakthrough in several areas— and even has a remarkable solution to a problem that plagues the current state of portable computing.

Burned-out Municipal Centre.
1. Zardoz was the first film to portray what is now a common science-fiction trope: a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The world of this film has been destroyed: civilization has fallen, starving survivors wander blasted hillsides and destroyed cities— preyed on by Exterminators, horsemen chosen by the god Zardoz to check the population of these “Brutals.” The last film to portray people living in an ad-hoc post-apocalyptic society was Alexander Korda’s Things to Come (1940). Sure, the Cold War created plenty of films where the End has Come, but it’s usually a tidy place of empty streets— The World, The Flesh and the Devil (1959), On The Beach (also 1959), Five (1951), etc. In Boorman’s 2293 everything outside the Vortex is wrecked and moldy and haunted by The Brutals: grungy, skinny people wearing threadbare clothes. Boorman’s vision no doubt influenced everything in this genre that came after, from A Boy and His Dog (1975) to Mad Max 2 (1983) right up to The Road (2009) and the Terminator series.

Some Eternals enjoying the garden, unconcerned
about the Brutals on the other side of the shield.
2. The immortal inhabitants of the Vortex, the Eternals, live apart from the dying world behind impenetrable periphery shields. The Eternals took it upon themselves to become the custodians of the past— and in doing so completely detached themselves from Humanity itself. It’s a remarkable criticism of Objectivism— Ayn Rand’s philosophy that great people should be left alone to do great things, and compassion and mercy are really a signs of weakness. Avalow, one of the Eternals, explains to Zed how the Vortex came to be— and perfectly defines it as Galt Gulch:

“We took all that was good and made an oasis here. We few— the rich, the powerful, the clever— cut ourselves off to guard the knowledge and treasures of civilization as the world plunged into a dark age. To do this we had to harden our hearts against suffering outside.”

Boorman exposes this sort of exceptional elitism as nothing more than hubris, unnatural folly that can only fail in the end.

Zed utilizes a Wearable to interface with the Mainframe.
3. The Vortex owes it’s (admittedly doomed) existence to The Tabernacle— an artificial intelligence intimately linked to every Eternal that runs and protects the place. The physical presence of The Tabernacle is revealed in the end of the film as (mild spoiler) a crystal the size of a paperweight. But this is not the part I found intriguing. The interface units the Eternals use to communicate are white metal rings topped with a large square crystal. These rings operate for all intents and purposes like perfected smartphones: They can be used to call people, take notes, scan and diagnose, retrieve and display data, and allow Siri-like verbal communication with Tabernacle.

Consuela (Charlotte Rampling) takes notes.
Damn. The form factor is almost perfect!

Ring displays data. Note that in 2293 the Eternals
have adopted a form of Hip-Hop English.
The long and on-going problem we have with iPhones and Androids in the present day is all in the form factor: to use these devices, you have to walk around with it in your hand and stare at it. Situational awareness suffers for this. Smartphones have managed to make a whole generation of people look detached and unsociable. Even a wearable in the form of a watch is an imperfect solution. Humans were simply not designed to be constantly interacting with a lump of plastic in our hands.

May (Sarah Kestelman) performs a retinal scan with her ring.
A RING, however: stroke of genius! you can talk to it and it answers. it can take pictures and interact with the environment. It can project data and displays. and best of all, you can do all these things without being physically impeded by the device. If we all had tidy little rings rather than clunky phones we’d certainly be in a much better place. Our hands would be free! No more distracted walking or driving-- and we’d see the return of quaint notions such as conversational eye contact. I’m sure a ring that was a portable computer looked like speculative science fiction in 1973, but in 2015 they look like they’re about 5 years away from market reality.

Well-written speculative science fiction is a tricky thing: it does not always reveal itself when first presented, but after a measure of time the world catches up with the creator’s vision.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to BoxOfficeMojo.com for the chart and for all the fine work they do there.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Whatever you may think about this report, it's amazing that I stay in focus the whole time. Thanks to Boxofficemojo.com for the chart, depicted here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Tomorrowland - the tentpole that doesn't make it all the way to the tent. Thanks for the figures, Box Office Mojo!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Weekend Box Office

It's BANKS! BANKS! And thanks to Box Office Mojo for the numbers.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Weekend Box Office

memo to myself - a man who is his own cinematographer has a fool for a subject. And thanks to Box Office Mojo for the figures.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Age of Ultron and a Genre That's Far From Done

The Avengers (including a few new recruits on the left), against a background
of the hundreds of robots they're about to shred.
Look: if a movie makes nearly $200 million domestic on opening weekend and nearly $400 million worldwide, you kinda have to see what the fuss is about.

Right off the bat, I can tell you that Avengers: Age of Ultron is a worthy and entertaining addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Having absorbed (mostly via osmosis and basic cable) all TEN previous movies in this continuity, I can tell it's a neat new adventure. In terms of sheer spectacle it's worth the cost of a ticket (though I did not pop for 3D glasses: I'm here for the story, baby). The effects are seamless and perfectly designed and so well-integrated that about halfway in I stopped thinking about the sheer hours of VFX design and rendering that went into every damn frame and just let it wash over me.

HAL 9000. Often imitated,
never surpassed, he still has
much to teach us.
The plot: The Avengers, fresh from saving the world from Loki in the last movie, need to locate and dispose of Loki's scepter, a source of mystical power and all other sorts of mayhem. But Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) wants to use it one last time to get his pet project working: a cybernetic creation that will protect all of Earth. But, as the film 2001: a Space Odyssey taught us, it is very difficult to explain the concept of security to a computer without them misconstruing the intent and trying to kill all of us. Which is what the newly animated Ultron (voiced with Tony Stark insouciance by fellow former Brat Pack member James Spader) immediately tries to do. So the threat this time was internally created-- and it's going to take the entire Avengers team to fix it and save the whole planet. Again.

Joss Whedon's style and humor is far more muted here than in his last Avengers movie, but his sense of cinematic action is still there and even improved a bit over his last outing. the opening battle is one long Alejandro González Iñárritu-style tracking shot. In several parts he slows the action down, which allowed some moments of quiet awe. He also gives some great acting turns for the more human members of the Avengers gang. Hawkeye (Modesto's own Jeremy Renner) has some moments of quiet vulnerability. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) also gets some nice little moments. A few notes:

• The widespread criticism about Black Widow's character is absolutely true, unfortunately. I feel the giant three-fingered gloved hand of Disney here, holding back Whedon's organic feminism. Natasha is turned from a complex character with a morally questionable past to a sort of kick-ass den mother with a love story (you know, for the chicks). The chilling "red on my ledger" backstory between her and Loki from the last movie is completely absent. Disappointing.

Paul Rudd IS Ant-Man! As far as I could tell from the
trailers this isn't going to be a Romantic Comedy and
Judd Apatow is nowhere to be seen.
• Contrary to some social observers and film critics we have not reached "Peak Comic Book Movie." Not even close. There is a huge stack of Superhero movies waiting in the wings from Marvel and DC: Ant-Man and the Superman-Batman deal and Wonder Woman (I think) and the Fantastic 4 reboot (huh?) and the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel and many, many more. So far these movies still manage to be inventive and fresh, and the dead hand of Mannerism has yet to appear in the genre. Still…

• ...Though Avengers: Age of Ultron is a fun watch and a neat action story, you can see in it how this genre is going to play out: Death by Character Shield. "Character Shield" is one of the screenwriting phrases which explains why lead characters in series and franchise entertainment tend to survive anything you can throw at them: they HAVE to. The appeal of the leads is what makes a series or franchise work, so whatever hairy death-defying situations the writers put them through they HAVE to make it out the other side. They can be emotionally changed, evolve or what have you, but you can't kill 'em.

Superheroes were tailor-made for action franchises: They're tough, very strong, often superhuman beings who can participate in huge violent battles and generally come out with naught but cosmetic scratches. Which is great, because there are usually a string of movies yet to be made featuring them stretching on into the distant future. Furthermore, these superheroes are generally assigned to quests that invariably have them saving the entire world (the Avengers have done this twice now), which is great because it increases your audience base.  But-- quoting another writer on this subject-- if everything is at stake, then nothing is at stake. They're always going to save the world and they're always going to survive. The character shield now encompasses the whole world and everything in it, and the only things you can battle are aliens (the last Avengers) or robots (this one). There is hope for complexity and consequences in the lesser Marvel movies (Captain America: The Winter Solder was a surprisingly complex political thriller) but the forces of monolithic Narrative Stasis are starting to show. With Stasis comes Mannerism, and then audience boredom, and then we move on to the next thing.

The super-secret hangar under Washington where SHIELD has
created a fleet of equally super-secret helicarriers. (scene from
Captain America: The Winter Soldier.) Your unaccounted
off-budget tax dollars at work!
• The product placement for Audi has evolved from ubiquitous to absurd.  Fine new Audis show up everywhere-- in frenetic chase scenes in Seoul, English universities, sitting out in the open in dirt-poor Eastern European countries with the keys in the ignition. At one point in the film Tony Stark activates an offscreen car with a remote. Guess what make of car, driverless, rolls into frame?

• Considering the large number of people in the United States who identify with right-wing causes, I am always surprised how a movie like this is widely liked and accepted despite the blatant presence in it of World Government-- and by that I mean exactly what Tea Party crazies are talking about: shadowy militarized organizations operating internationally with absolute impunity and with overwhelming destructive power. In Age of Ultron The SHIELD agency has collapsed (due to events in The Winter Soldier) but Nick Fury's organization fits the description perfectly: a UN-level secret military that operates stealthily everywhere in the world, has awe-inspiring weapons of mass destruction and respects no borders. The Avengers themselves have the same basic mission as SHIELD-- but as they are just a handful of superheroes they don't seem quite as-- well, quite as obvious-- as a fleet of flying aircraft carriers. Perhaps those of the Fox News persuasion identify more with the direct, um, "problem solving" methods of the Avengers and SHIELD (i.e. awe-inspiring carnage) than ever consider that they are basically seeing UN Black Helicopters: The Movie.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Weekend Box Office


This may not really be considered news.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Okay, maybe The Age of Adeline isn't a "small independent" feature after all. Details!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Ex Machina: Tech Bro Frankenstein

In the 1985 John Hughes comedy Weird Science two high-school-age geeks combine their technological talents to the only end they find logical: to create a perfect woman. Being 1985 and all, the preferred medium of creation is a personal computer and scanner. The result was Lisa, a magical sexy Mary Poppins who, though she may not have made all of her creator's dreams come true, leaves them far more popular in high school.

Films reflect the times they are created in, and the mid-80s there was a streak of optimism in science fiction.* Maybe it was that fact tech was still on the edge of larger society. We had cool home computers, IBM PC-ATs, Apple Macintoshes and and the occasional Amiga 1000, but no real internet to speak of. We were in full control. Fast-forward exactly 30 years…
"So, what would you little maniacs like to do first?"
It's so charming and innocent in retrospect that
a woman who just materialized out of a computer
would have to even ask that question.

Ex Machina, currently out in limited release and will be available for download June 1st, is the Millennial generation's answer to Weird Science. Caleb (Domhall Gleeson, who played the protag in Frank), a gifted coder in a very large tech firm, wins a contest to spend a week with the firm's CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac, Llewyn Davis himself) in his private underground lab in an isolated corner of what seems to be Iceland. Caleb finds out he is supposed to deliver the "Turing Test" for indisputable cybernetic self-awareness to Ava (Alicia Vikander), an android of Nathan's creation. Ava is a stunningly good combination of seamless VFX and perfectly executed, full-body acting by Ms. Vikander, by far the best part of the film. Caleb quickly falls for Ava, who is confined to a glassed-in room. Tension soon develops when, during a power cut when Nathan's cameras are knocked out, Ava says that Nathan cannot be trusted. A strange power struggle develops between the secretive Nathan, the inquisitive (and smitten) Caleb, and Ava, who may well be manipulating him to prevent her erasure and gain her freedom.

All in all, it is a fascinating movie which asks some rather important questions about our current relationship with artificial intelligence, a popular cinematic subject these days (Autómata, The Machine, Chappie, etc.). However, in the late second act the limits of writer-director Alex Garland's vision become apparent. You never quite get ahead the central plot of the film, but you realize there is only one outcome for this story and that is the one that happens. Afterwards you are left with a large series of "what ifs" and "what the hells" similar to the questions audiences had after screening Prometheus: Not nearly as much or as bad (Prometheus squandered a lot of the goodwill of the fans of the Alien film series) but a realization that this film could have been much more if a few more rewrites could have been knocked out. Notes:

We just got our second-round VC funding, bro!
• The world of Ex Machina is both abstract and almost depressingly familiar. From my vantage point here in the Bay Area this stylized science-fiction world looked like something I see every day here. The interiors of Nathan's lab-- clean concrete walls, glass doors, hidden LED lighting-- looks like the inside of every tech start-up I have ever seen (with less stuffed animals and ironic wall art, maybe). Nathan and Caleb are absolutely spot-on Silicon Valley techies: overachieving expert coders with limited social skills. They wear skinny jeans, sweats and hoodies in neutral tones, drink expensive-looking beer and vodka, and eat sushi. They are engaged in the ultimate code geek endeavor: creating the perfect girlfriend.

• Sexy female robots have been around since at least the 1920s (Maria from Metropolis). Ava is clearly a part of this continuum, which explores the fetishization of technology. This is the fist film I can remember where a robot's sexuality is held up as a question: Caleb asks Nathan why he would muddy the waters of a Turing Test by introducing something as distracting as giving the subject AI a female body. Nathan's answer was, amazingly, ten minutes of hanging a lantern on this subject: all lifeforms come gender-specific, sex makes life fun, it makes the Turing Test more interesting, and shut up that's why.

The answer to the encroachment of AI and the
inevitability of both the Singularity and the
eventual extinction of the human race: Drink up, bro!
It was odd to waste so much time on the Fembot question because it has been answered long ago: YES, quite a few men find the idea of female robots sexy. Ask anyone from Japan. Hell, Svedka Vodka is betting their whole ad campaign on it. When you get right down to it,  Ex Machina could be a long mediation on the problems that would arise if the Svedka robot babe was actually created. The tech bro main characters drink enough to qualify as their key demographic.

• Seen at the Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco, up in the balcony of Theater 1. This is their biggest screen and back when the Kabuki was an AMC theater I saw some amazing stuff there: Jurassic Park, Fargo and the industry screening of Starship Troopers. The balcony is amazing now: there are tables between seat pairs and you can order booze from the 3rd floor bar. I spent half the screening a little ticked off that I wasn't drinking an IPA with my popcorn.

So ultimately I'd recommend Ex Machina-- but you may be happier about it if you wait for the download.

* Doing the research for this piece I have to say the biggest surprise was what a banner year 1985 was for science fiction films. Aside from Weird Science, Back to the Future, Brazil, Cocoon, Enemy Mine, Re-Animator, Legend, Lifeforce and Return of the Living Dead all came out that year. The only franchise installments of note were Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, both rather good films.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Correction: I'm just getting word that the subtitle of FURIOUS 7 is not STILL FURIOUS; STILL FAST. Also, thanks to Box Office Mojo for the numbers.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Weekend Box Office

thanks to Box Office Mojo, and possibly Claritin if this doesn't clear up soon

Monday, April 6, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to BoxOffice Mojo for the info. And so long, Paul!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Not an April Fools Joke! Thanks to Box Office Mojo as usual.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

My First Short In Almost Twenty Years

A tale of desperate measures taken in desperate circumstances. Share with everyone so that Mignonne gets work.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to Box Office Mojo and Mignonne Camara, film student and camera operator.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to Box Office Mojo for driving out all the snakes

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to Box Office Mojo for the figures! And to you for listening to 'em.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to Box Office Mojo and James Wong Howe.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Weekend Box Office Report

thanks to Box Office Mojo, congratulations to Birdman.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to Box Office Mojo for the figures. Like the tie?

Monday, February 9, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Gracias, BoxOfficeMojo. And hats.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015


I don't usually do extra work. I don't even peruse the listings. However, a couple of weeks ago one slipped into the speaking roles section of Actors Access and it caught my eye.

It described the Coen Brothers comedy Hail, Ceasar! about a studio head in 1950's Hollywood who is struggling to get through a day as his job and life crumbles around him. Josh Brolin plays the executive and it also features George Clooney, Scarlett Johansen, Tilda Swinton (as twins!) and others, but they had me at '50's Hollywood. Plus they needed Roman slaves. Among my favorite movies are The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, and Spartacus. I love that nonsense.

So I submitted my headshot. And a few days later they called me and asked if I could send some selfies, looking weary an put-upon. I did, and included a shot that a friend of mine had recently talked me into. Landed the gig!

Yesterday I learned my call time would be 5am at the Big Sky Ranch in Simi Valley "but I should shoot for 4:45 because the shuttle." The Big Sky Ranch is enormous. It's the Ponderosa without all those troublesome pines. And it's vaguely familiar, which means it probably was the Ponderosa now and then. I arrived and they immediately routed me into body makeup where I stripped to briefs and they filthied me up. "Dance you mud turtles, dance!" they chortled. (No they didn't). From there to wardrobe where I was issued a tattered burlap schmatte and sandals and as a final touch this curly wig. 

We ate a little breakfast and then caught another shuttle to the set, a very long road studded  with monuments. It was about a quarter to seven by then but I can't be sure because I didn't bring my phone. I only had the burlap on my back and a lightweight blanket. The guy standing next to me only had a loincloth and body makeup to keep him warm. And it's cold in Simi Valley before sunrise!

I was looking around for clues to how the Coens were going to portray this genre and though I can't show you the set (again, no phone) it seems they're right in that Robe/Demetrius and the Gladiators groove. I spent the better part of the day as part of a slave team dragging a battering ram with a golden ram's head at the tip. I was whipped by gladiators who had those big red brushes on their helmets. In other words cliched and inauthentic in a very precise, controlled way. 

I wasn't expecting to see any Coens but they were both there. Ethan dresses like a rock star; Joel wore a t-shirt from a crane rental company called Ichabod Cranes. Neither one seemed to be having fun, but dear God those two are efficient. There were probably 300 extras trudging along that road at any given time and they still managed to get about a dozen shots in the can. A few of them will be for "tiling", the practice of cloning the extras to increase their numbers. I expect to be in the same shot three times, all unrecognizable from the distance.

When you see the movie, look for me as the guy pulling the battering ram rope on the right.

During a break in the shadow of a fiberglass obelisk (it went from uncomfortably cold to uncomfortably hot in no time) this guy asked me, "hey, what color are your eyes?" I'm not used to dudes asking that but I said, Hazel. "Mine too." He turned to another guy and asked again. Hazel. WE ALL HAD HAZEL EYES. Most of the slaves did. We figure that's why they picked us.

Now that I'm sitting in Starbucks, exhausted with every muscle aching because of all that walking in ill-fitting sandals, it occurs to me that extra work is at least a little like slavery. I mean, you do what they tell you, you don't talk back or there are terrible consequences. We could have escaped on foot but we were two tram rides away from our cars and besides they had all our street clothes. Of course, I wasn't subjugated and they let me go after 12 hours (11, but I'm including trip time) still, there are similarities. I'm just sayin'. And hell yes I'd do it again. Sadly, I hear they're wrapping this week. Attn Coens! When you need extras again, I'm your man! Especially if it's a scene in a nice quiet restaurant where older men are romancing beautiful women. In overstuffed chairs. 

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to Box Office Mojo for the figures and Joel and Ethan Cohen for the special makeup effects

Monday, January 26, 2015

Weekend Box Office

This week in Noir-o-Vision! Thanks to the stand-up guys at Box Office Mojo for figures.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Weekend Box Office Report

Thanks to Box Office Mojo for the numbers, and the El Gringo Laundromat parking lot for local color

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Inherent Vice: Pynchon 101

This poster, aside from tweaking Leonardo DaVinci, gives an idea
of the many wonderful cameos in Inherent Vice. Martin Short
(far right) is particularly funny and strange.
After dinner last Friday, the wife and I stopped by the Redwood City 20 to see what was playing. We spontaneously decided to see Inherent Vice. I love that sort of thing-- we went in unprepared for Paul Thomas Anderson's newest film-- and it ended up being a total delight.

It's the story of "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) a hippie P.I. who is hired to find a missing girl who also happens to be his ex. thus begins Doc's strange journey through 1970 Los Angeles-- both helped and hindered by Detective "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a flat-topped, hippie-hating, brutal/delusional LA cop who also carries a SAG card (we see him as an extra in "Adam-12," in fact). On the long, winding path of investigation Doc encounters all sorts of odd and historically appropriate types: Nazi bikers, cultists, a Laurel Canyon mansion full of hippies, a hidden cabal of dentists and drugs. Lots and lots and lots of drugs. River Phoenix does an amazing job, in fact, of conveying an amazing range of stoned: mellow high, totally baked, buzzed, flying' and everything in-between.

"Doc" Sportello (River Phoenix), doing what he does
dozens of times in the film.
Compared to any other sort of film, I'd say it was not unlike The Big Lebowski- but it's a LOT more like Kiss Me Deadly, a film noir saturated in the light of Los Angeles and the darkness cast by the greedy and evil.

This is the first Thomas Pynchon book ever committed to film, and the script was apparently personally approved by Pynchon as well. Thomas Pynchon and Paul Thomas Anderson were made for each other-- their mutual approach to storytelling is spacey and convoluted yet brimming with insight. Inherent Vice perfectly embodies a lot of Pynchon's favorite motifs: Los Angeles, complex whodunits, subtle mysticism and conspiracies by shadowy, powerful organizations. The 2009 book was considered considered "Pynchon Lite," one of his most accessible novels. If this is so, than the movie version is an even better introduction to his distinctive literary style. Pynchon 101.

Thomas Pynchon, as seen on "The Simpsons." According
to Josh Brolin, the reclusive author has a cameo in
Inherent Vice. Forget it: we'll never figure it out.
Paul Thomas Anderson has developed an elliptical and indirect narrative style, especially in his later films: Inherent Vice could be described as being comprised of a series of close-ups and medium shots of Joaquin Phoenix interacting and reacting. He is an example of a filmmaker whose core relationship with cinematic storytelling has clearly evolved: his beginnings as a teller of Tarantino-like multiple-storyline widescreen films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia to a focus on nuance and dialog, as in The Master and Inherent Vice. This refocusing gives these later films a rambling feel as the plot slowly snakes from one scene to another. It take a little getting used to, but when it all clicks together it's exhilarating.

Inherent Vice is also very funny-- which is sort of unusual. P.T. Anderson doesn't really do funny: There was some situational comedy in Boogie Nights, and Punch Drunk Love was supposed to be funny (it wasn't), but this is the first time he stretches out for some Coen Brothers-style sardonic humor.

Check it out, you'll enjoy it. See it high, and you might enjoy it even more.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Weekend Box Office

Thanks to Box Office Mojo for the figures, thanks to up and coming intern Nassou Camera for... uh, camera work.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


My descent into the desert of 70's televised sci-fi continues. When last I wrote, I had just discovered Canadian apprenticepiece THE STARLOST, isolated onto its own Roku channel to keep it from infecting other shows. I have made it through the whole 16 episodes, a journey as aimless as the voyage of the misbegotten Ark itself. Counted two attempts at spinoff series among them, by the way, both featuring interesting protagonists! A strategy they should have gone for up front, if you ask me.

But a few years before that, the folks pulling the strings behind THUNDERBIRDS and SUPERCAR took the plunge into "live action" with a show called UFO. It's streaming on Hulu and I advise a look. Seriously, look. Just turn down the sound, because it ruins everything.

UFO is about the efforts of a top secret international organization called SHADO (Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defence Organisation) to protect us from the surprisingly frequent attacks of alien craft on Earth. It takes place in 1980, which the show's futurists envision as a golden age of hair color choices. For reasons best left unexplained (and they certainly are) Shado's headquarters are hidden a mile below a British film studio. Both are run by Commander Edward Straker (Ed Bishop), an unnaturally blond American.

Straker coordinates the efforts of a base on the Moon, a battle submarine with a detachable flying nose, and a tank and... honestly, who cares? It's just like Thunderbirds only when you aren't looking at great model vehicles you're looking a puppets, only in this case they happen to be actors.

The show took a lot of flack at the time for the expressionless acting style, but I think I'll be generous and just say that they were encouraged to underplay a little.

Anyway, it hardly matters what the people are doing here, because it's uncompelling nonsense. The reason to watch the show is it's a visual assault. The art direction, considering the whole thing only took place ten years later, assumed an awful lot. It assumed computers wouldn't change so very much but military spacewear would.

On the other hand, navel outfits would go more for a netting theme:

(That picture is entitled "sub crew" and it's hard to not imagine that there must be a Dom crew nearby)

Anyway, you get the idea - the future was going to be improbably sexy. Oh and the aliens look like us, only greyed.

I only have seen the pilot so far but it looks like fun, if exhausting, viewing. Maybe it gets better, but that's not what I've heard. You read stories about this show but I don't think it played in my area, probably because it was hard to convince American TV buyers to field the angry letters about men's nipples.

Eventually Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, producers, calmed down a little and brought us Space: 1999, which assumed we'd have a little functioning city on the Moon by the end of the century. Wrong again you guys! I don't even have a Supercar yet! The Andersons have a lot to answer for.