A Rare Week

Didn’t hit the movies this weekend, first time this year, I think. Certainly since I got the new job. Last week hit How To Train Your Dragon and Breathless (the 50th anniversary). Week before the Shrek 4.

Not a great sign this early in the “summer” movie season to be wanting for films to see, but the ones we’ve seen have all been various degrees of entertaining. Nothing really spectacular though.

Inappropriate Advertising

Far from being intrusive, I’ve actually found that I enjoy Google Mail’s targeted ads. (And yeah, I know they’re evil. A company who’s first motto is “don’t be evil” virtually had to turn out that way, didn’t it?)

I’ve written about the spam, for example, and it’s sort of interesting trying to figure out what the targets in this so-called targeted advertising is. But now Gmail has presented this ad for the Baader-Meinhoff movie with the tag, “The revolution is reborn!” Er, maybe it was “reignited”. (I don’t know what caused Gmail to put that ad up, but it changed and I can’t get it back now.)

Wait, what? Nooooo. I hope the point of that movie was that revolutionaries were dumb thugs using political ideology as an excuse for bad behavior.

I mean, even if you’re an ideological fellow traveler, I would hope this movie served more as an embarrassment than a rallying cry.

“The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” -V.I. Lenin

I tend to agree of late that the very term “Capitalism” is Marx’s socialist framing of what is, in essence, freedom, and that we’re poorer for using the term to describe free markets.

By the way, it was Marx who infected economics—by all rights a hard science with immutable laws—with politics and turned it into the morass it is today.

Jerky jerk-face.

Geek Jobs (bumped and updated)

Back when Computer Gaming World magazine was still in print, you’d occasionally get stories about how some flack was talking about how their new graphics engine was enhanced to give Lara Croft an especially realistic butt jiggle.

As a programmer, it always amazes me that some programmers get paid to, you know, program butt jiggle. Or breast jiggle. And, now: pubic hair.

Regarding this pubic hair, the first thing that occurred to me was: Well, now, actors gain and lose weight all the time, they dye and cut their hair or grow it out, was it really so hard to go without “grooming” for a few weeks to get a more “natural” look?

Then I read the part of the article where it mentions “brazilians” and wondered exactly how close up (and on what body parts) this movie was gonna get.

Then it occurred to me that a computer programmer probably wrote a “pubic hair” routine that’s going to be used.

And it struck me what an odd world we live in.

I was also reminded of something Ralph Bakshi said about when he was animating his adult features. To paraphrase, he said that it was nearly impossible to get animators who could do nudity. They would either be too timid, prudish or giggling—or they’d be heavy breathing and too worked up to draw.

Fortunately, programmers mainly have to type.

Update: See what I mean?

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Miracle Mile

Here’s a kind of obscure movie that wasn’t out long enough for me to see back in the ‘80s. It perfectly captures the Reagan-era atomic annihilation paranoia which, interestingly enough, seemed to peak at the end of the Cold War.

The press reveled in presenting Reagan as an amiable dunce with an itchy trigger finger which, curiously, never took effect. They and their Democratic masters called him the Teflon President. They tried to smear him and were frustrated by their failure. (It is hard to understand, really, the Press spoke with one voice back then that can scarcely be imagined now. But the economy was going gangbusters and that pretty much determines popular success or failure, I think.)

This had two effects. One was, they perhaps bizarrely gave Reagan a kind of credibility with the Communists that scared them into bankrupting themselves. But the more obvious one was that they scared the bejeesus out of the West, giving rise to apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives like at no other time in history. Possibly at a time when they were least like to happen.

So let us look at this 1988—no, really, the wall would come down the next year—nuclear war film, which stars a bunch of TV luminaries, like Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, Denise Crosby and Mykelti Williamson, as well as cult favorites O-lan Jones, John Agar and Jenette Goldstein, to say nothing of a cameo by actor/director Peter Berg.

The story goes that trombonist Harry (Edwards) and waitress Julie (Winningham) meet each other at the museum, but due to a stray cigarette and some sleepy pills, Anthony ends up missing a late-night date with her. This puts him at his date location at 4:00AM in the heart of the Miracle Mile district.

While waiting outside Johnny’s Diner, the phone rings, but it’s not Julie, it’s some guy in a nuclear silo trying to reach his dad. He’s distraught because, apparently, he’s been ordered to launch.

Now, Anthony has about an hour and fifteen minutes to live, and he ends up trying to convince others in the coffee shop that it’s for real, and they’ve got to get out of the city. But as they’re in progress, he decides he has to get off—he has to go get Julie.

So it’s sort of a surreal love story.

Why the movie works (for me) is the surreality that attends this adventure. The love-at-first-sight-turning-to-boning-on-second-date. The bird that carts off the cigarette. The possums that fall from the tree. The transvestite. The 1988 cell phone. The cop covered in gasoline who shoots her gun. The old couple that refuses to talk to each other till the day they die. The helipad search for vitamins. The eerily lit all-night gym. The rioting. The elevator make-out.

All in an area I had lived in for a couple of years. Not Miracle Mile—I didn’t have that kind of money. But I knew Johnnies. (I didn’t eat there; I was more a Norm’s guy. But I’m pretty sure that they didn’t have the Bob’s Big Boy-style giant dude with twirling hamburgers.) The Fairfax district (where the museum is) still looks basically the same, and I visit the museum and other sights occasionally. So there’s a little of the Volcano-type thing that appeals to me, too.

Some people just think it’s all stupid. I don’t know: None of us really knows how we or anyone else would act in that circumstance. I think a little weirdness is in order, frankly. Some say this movie was originally meant to be part of “The Twilight Zone” movie which, I suppose, wouldn’t have fit any better or worse than John Landis’ entry, though Vic Morrow might still be alive.

If there’s a moral to this week’s entry, it’s that a lot of people, even into 1988, months before the wall came down, thought the end was nigh. In the next few years, nuclear apocalypse movies would take a big hit. (Even though an unstable Russia may have been far more dangerous than a decaying USSR.)

Now, while people still worry about nuclear bombs, they worry a lot less about total nuclear annihilation. Which goes to show you that sometimes it really is darkest before the dawn.

Shrink, Shrank, Shrunk

Some of the synopses of this movie about a psychiatrist who kind of deteriorates into depression and drug abuse make it sound like a sort of wacky, black-ish comedy.

Don’t be fooled. Shrink is a movie about surviving the suicide of someone you love, and in a larger sense, surviving life with is failures and even successes. There are some darkly funny moments, but a whole lot of depression.

Kevin Spacey plays a psychiatrist to the stars: A successful man with successful clients who wallow in neuroses and look to him for excuses for their bad behavior. But he’s increasingly depressed over the loss of his wife, and unable to use the information in his bestselling novels to help himself out of his funk.

I should put in a ROBIN WILLIAMS ALERT for Trooper York: Williams plays–well, I’m guessing a character maybe based on Jack Nicholson?–and he’s actually not very convincing. But he’s not in it much, and he’s not obnoxious.

The main characters are an agent played by Dallas Roberts, who is as powerful as he is neurotic, a screenwriter/tenuous relative to Spacey played by Mark Webber, a troubled urban school kid played by Keke Palmer, and an overly successful strung-out actor played by Jack Huston (yes, of those Hustons).

That’s a lot of main characters. Which gives us the primary failing of this movie.

There’s a writer by the name of Robert Newton Peck who wrote a cute little book on how to write, in which gave various rules about what to do and what not to do. One of the things that stuck with me was “Stay in the phone booth with the gorilla.” In other words, you don’t mention that your main character is in a phone booth (okay, outdated now) with a gorilla, and then go off on 12 tangents while leaving everyone wondering about the character, the gorilla, and the antiquated phone booth.

This doesn’t create suspense, typically. It does create annoyance. And so, while have our main-ist of main characters, played by Spacey, we’re constantly being yanked away from the interesting stories and pulled into another story which isn’t nearly as interesting. Then it gets interesting and we’re pulled away from that into another one.

Paul Thomas Anderson has gotten away with this, arguably, with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, except that he lets the scene finish before switching to a new scene. Not completely resolve, but finish as a reasonably self-contained unit. The exception being when the stories overlap in a suspenseful way and are about meet up.

This movie just sprawls, sort of fecklessly unsure of where it’s going, but reasonably sure about the quality of the material it has in its characters. Who, when you break them down sound pretty cliché: the psych who can’t help himself, the troubled urban kid, the desperate screenwriter, the self-absorbed agent, the star who self-destructs because he’s not producing quality “art”, the starlet trying to sleep her way to the top, the aging actress who can’t get good roles….

Geez, I may have talked myself into thinking this is a worse movie than I thought before I started this review. The characters don’t come off horribly hacky, though. The movie is really buoyed by the relationships of the main characters with the supporting characters, like the titular character with his drug dealer Jesus (Jesse Plemmons). Although this is sort of hacky, too, since, fercryinoutloud, his name is Jesus. Not hay-soos–he’s a ginger named “Jesus”.

Well, at least they don’t put any words of wisdom in his mouth, exactly.

Another bright spot is Pell James as Daisy, pregnant assistant to the high-powered agent, who gives us a reason to like both the agent and the screenwriter. Robert Loggia brings some nice gravitas to his short role. And Saffron Burrows as the aging actress (she’s 36 or 37!) is delightful.

Ultimately, though, the movie founders: It’s too unfocused, even remote from its own characters. We don’t get enough time with them to appreciate their changes, and the movie doesn’t sell their flawed selves well enough to allows us appreciate their transformations. They’re actually not really in conflict with each other most of the time.

The whole thing comes off a little boring, a little listless. Marijuana plays a big part; maybe there’s a connection there. Heh.

The Boy was not thrilled. He thought it could’ve been funnier and overall less drab. I tend to agree.

Second movie in a row we saw that took place in L.A., though. (Previous one: Funny People).

Manic Monday Apocalypso: The Charleton Heston Three

Although he became a right-wing icon, it’s hard to think of the guy who uttered such cynical and dark anti-human sentiments in three iconic apocalyptic films of that cinematic cesspool known as the late ‘60s/early ’70s as being conservative.

Well, okay, it’s hard to imagine Ronald Reagan saying those things. We don’t have to imagine Heston saying these things, because he did.

In the first, and by far the best, movie of the pseudo-trilogy is Planet of the Apes. Heston wanders around a sort-of 19th century desert world where non-human primates struggle with Enlightenment ideas and a hugely restrictive religion that’s bent on covering up a dark past. It’s a grossly cynical movie that works because it’s also a great action film, a Twilight-Zone-esque mystery, and for all its cynicism, does not come across as a nihilistic film.

I should read Pierre Boulle’s novel. If I understand correctly, his story took place in a world more like the world of the 1960s, and I think was more meant as an indictment of consumerism and social satire. Tim Burton’s remake sort of touches on that idea–but that movie is haunted by the greatness of the original and contorts itself into absurdity trying to surprise.

The second film in the trilogy is The Omega Man. This is the second adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller I Am Legend. I’ve talked about it in the link there, so I won’t rehash it much. This movie is the most wildly uneven of the three: The high points–the horror and action setup–are as high as the low points–the whole hippie-as-vampire thing–are low.

I mean, I’ve been impressed by how good parts are, and also how much other parts make me positively wince.

So, I suppose, it’s fair to argue that Soylent Green is a better movie. Meh. It’s so steeped in the sort of thing that our current science czar believes that I find it too hard to take seriously. And it was meant to be taken seriously–and people did.

Omega didn’t really leave any culturally legacies. Soylent left one really prominent one (and a few lesser known ones). And of course Apes is almost up there with Wizard of Oz as far as iconic screen moments and bits of dialogue go.

Still, it’s hard not to look back at those days and think, “Thank God, they’re over!” At least for me, from a cinematic standpoint, anyway. The ’80s would set its own post-Apocalyptic tone with the highly entertaining Mad Max series. Then the point became not “here’s how the world ends” but more “well, now that the world’s ended, let’s party!”

Out of Touch?

Amazon has a sale on “kids and family” DVDs. I’m busily digitizing the massive collection I already have (minus a huge stack of my favorites that was stolen) so I’m not in the market for any more at the moment.

But I browse.

Victor/Victoria? OK, I guess so. It’s sort of harmless in its decadence. Grumpier Older Men? Didn’t they reprise the whole “driving the pigskin bus to tuna town” bit from the first one in that? I really wouldn’t want to have to explain that to The Flower. Pleasantville? I love that movie! But there’s a whole lot about sex in that movie. I mean, Joan Allen masturbates in the tub, very conspicuously.

It’s not like there wasn’t sex in movies when I was a kid. In fact, there was pretty much sex in all of them (unless they were G-rated, and even Ken Berry and Karen Valentine were mackin’ in those Disney flicks). But they were sort of extensions of the usual “mushy parts”. People kissed, then they got nakedish, then they rubbed up against each other aaaand–cut to the next scene that actually advanced the story.

I’ve often said that people who claim there’s more sex in PG movies now just don’t remember the ‘70s (and early ’80s, since the sex scene requirement seems to have stopped with Top Gun). But there is a difference today. There’s a lot of detail in the sex scenes, even when they’re not shown.

I wouldn’t argue that this is a bad thing, by itself. The ’70s and ’80s approach to sex scenes was sort of juvenille. Fleeting emotion, no communication, no protection and no consequences (except for the early ’80s spate of abortion movies). Everyone was supposed to know about sex but nobody was ever supposed to talk about it.

But the sex scenes of the era (at least in retrospect) seem sort of innocent, easier to see as that extension of the kissing then the messy (if more realistic) approach of today. Less appropriate for children, I would say.

But maybe I’m out of touch. Maybe parents would show their k–

Wait.

Caddyshack? Really?

OK, it’s Amazon, not me.

That Kind Of Year?

The Transformers sequel has just broken the top 100 of all-time Box Office receipts holders (for adjusted dollars). I’m not sure what that says about this year. Nothing good, I expect.

Last year, the only movie to crack the list was The Dark Knight, which made it all the way to #27. The year before that, Spiderman 3. The year before that Pirates 2. You have to go back to 2004 and Mel Gibson’s curiously uninfluential (in terms of Hollywood productions) Passion of the Christ to find a non-sequel.

If you ever wondered why studios make so many sequels, that’d be why. I’m sort of impressed that there are movies in the top 100 that don’t have sequels. But I guess that’s problematic in some cases.

I mean, what’re you gonna do? The Eleventh Commandment? Titanic 2: The Lusitania?

I should shut up. I’m probably giving somebody ideas.

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe!

My parents were of the Saturday matinee generation, where a nickel (or was it a dime?) would get you into the movies at the crack of dawn and entertain you till dusk. (And, oh, where to begin with the analysis of cultural shifts in that slice of Americana?)

My mom was a big fan of Buster Crabbe, though she surely must have seen the reruns of the serials since she was too young (or not born) for the originals. And when I was young, we had a UHF channel that would show a variety of old, old, really old or unpopular stuff like the late ‘50s black and white “Felix the Cat” cartoons (compared to the bigger stations’ WB and MGM ‘toons), the “Life of Riley” (versus “I Love Lucy”), silent movies (I watched Nosferatu and Metropolis this way) and serials like “Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe”.

I loved this show. Even as part of the Star Wars generation–or perhaps especially because–I loved the rockets on strings, with sparklers in the back, the cheesy composed shots with giant geckos sorta-kinda chasing tiny humans, the guys with the vampire fangs or gorilla suits.

I have this box set of the serial, though if you dig around at Archive.org, I’m sure you can find it. (And feel free to notice that the #1 staff pick is an anti-Bush film by MoveOn.Org. There’s no escaping this crap, is there.) I should say that I’m referring here to the original Flash Gordon serial, not really “Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe”.

In the original serial, the planet Mongo is flying through the universe and headed on a collision course with the earth, which it will apparently destroy at no significant harm to itself. Burning meteors are dropping from the sky (at alarmingly slow speeds) and this causes the plane that champion polo player and Yale man (really!) Flash is on with Dale Arden to, uh, be in danger somehow.

Fortunately, they all have parachutes except Flash who hangs on to Dale on the way down. (Pleasure to meet you, ma’am!)

They happen to land on the lawn of crazed scientist Zarkov who has built a spaceship that he’s going to use to land on the renegade planet and try to talk some sense into the driver.

At the helm of said planet is Fu Manchu’s twin brother, Ming the Merciless, who very practically decides to put Zarkov to work in his labs (and in a space-onesie!), give Dale the “fate worse than death” and kill Flash. (Can’t use you, man! Got enough dumb thugs in security as it is.) The princess, Aura, has other ideas and rescues the hunk of man from various fates worse than–no, that actually are death.

From there on, Flash meets the other colorful members of Ming’s empire. And, I don’t want to give anything away, but he does get out of a lot of tight spots.

I think what entertains me the most about the serial is probably the Art Deco influence. Just like the original “Star Trek”, where everything is all hippied out in post-modern (?) style, and the ’80s series features oodles of big hair and, well, very ’80s-looking design. I don’t know if it’s just the lapsed time between Art Deco and now, or if it’s that Art Deco is just that much cooler than all the intervening styles.

I mean, seriously, the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s styles have their moments, but there’s a lot of ugly in them, at least to my eyes. And my opnion hasn’t changed much over the decades. ’70s style, of course, was both uniquely ugly at the time and still ugly today. I am painting with broad strokes, of course, as there are always good things around, but to my eye the Art Deco style of the serial–the curved ships, the rays coming off Ming’s throne, etc.–give it a flair that outshines the cheapness of the sets. (And is completely missing from the ’50s version, to its detriment.)

I actually liked the 1980 remake, which was surprisingly faithful to the original. It’s campy, of course, but intermittently so. Sometimes it is genuine in its earnestness. It also captures the strangely small feeling of space in the series, and eschews realism for a more colorful, interesting “space”.

Of course, these days, most people remember Freddy Mercury’s song more than anything, and probably with good reason. Mercury could sell it.

Well, until next time, mutants, stay radiated!

Brunat

Last week at the movies, there was an ad for Michael Moore’s latest thing. I used to be a fan of Moore’s, actually. Roger and Me is a brilliant bit of propaganda as, I suppose, most of Moore’s work is.

What turned me against Moore wasn’t really politics. It was his show “TV Nation”. On an episode of that show, he did a story about a hospital where uninsured people who had received services were allowed to pay off their debt by working for the hospital. The people involved were happy with the program, patients, doctors, administrators alike.

Moore ingratiated himself to these people to get his interviews, and then turned around and opened up a slave trade across the street. You see, paying a debt you’ve incurred is morally equivalent to slavery.

I didn’t get the logic. But I’ll never forget the looks on these people’s faces as Moore hounded them for their thoughts about his little circus. Utter betrayal. Confusion. Hurt. He had no concept of his betrayal or empathy for those who had suffered it; people who had after all neither meant (nor committed) any evil–other than, of course, to possibly hold a different point-of-view from Moore. (That really wasn’t clear. The hospital solution was just one possible way to handle the situation. That people were happy with it doesn’t mean they might not have preferred a different route.)

This guy claims that Moore is a narcissist. And builds a good case. I don’t know. I do know he treats people poorly in pursuit of getting what he wants.

As the preview rolled, I realized that this is why I avoid Sacha Baron Cohen. I saw his “Ali G” show for a couple of episodes, but then avoided the rest and his movies. And not because he lacked talent. But because I feel a similar sort of deception going on.

But then Candid Camera used to strike me as kind of creepy, too.