Friday, May 29, 2009

The Beer Cannes Inquisition

So Troy posted a little questionnaire the other day, on the subject of movies. Many of the questions interested me, and I was surprised by some of my own answers when I actually sat down and wrote them out. Here they are...

What is the first film you ever saw?
I don’t recall, either, but there is a story my mom likes to tell about taking me to see The Empire Strikes Back when it was out in theatres. I would have been about four at the time, and my parents snuck in a bag of Cheetos for me to nosh on while I watched the movie. Apparently I just sat there gazing in the awe at the screen for the next couple of hours, periodically sticking my arm into the bag of Cheetos - and by the time the movie was over, most of my arm was orange from foraging around in the bag without looking away from the screen. Or something like that.

What is your favorite movie of all time?
The Usual Suspects. Partly because I watched it the first time without trying to puzzle out the ending, with the result being that the ending pretty much blew me away. But more than that, I loved the pacing and the tight screenplay - which was complicated without being mind-numbing - and the terrific acting by everyone, but especially Kevin Spacey and Pete Postlethwaite. One of the rare mystery-type stories that holds up even after you know what the payoff is going to be. (There’s a lesson there, Shyamalan.)

What is your favorite line in a film?
“Pain don’t hurt.” (Roadhouse)
2nd: "Well I'm a mushroom-cloud-laying motherfucker, motherfucker!" (Pulp Fiction)

What film made you realize that film was an art?
The Silence of the Lambs. It was probably the Hopkins performance that most captivated me when I first saw this movie, but the more I watched it (and I watched it a lot in high school), the more I realized how editing and photography contribute to the overall aesthetic, how music can create tension, and how a very good director can weave all of those elements into a single thing that bears his unique signature. I have seen better movies than The Silence of the Lambs (granted, not many) - but none so richly made and carefully executed. (A distant second place for this question would go to Pulp Fiction.)

What movie do you consider your guilty pleasure?
Rad. Hell yeah, baby. Pre-Full House Lori Loughlin and post-Olympics Bart Conner, plus a BMX obstacle course, and Ray fucking Walston. And you know what? I just may have learned something about the little guy taking on the corporation. Sadly, however - not available on DVD.

Who is your favorite movie character of all time?
John Keating in Dead Poets Society or Crash Davis in Bull Durham. Keating for challenging the status quo in a time when the status quo was not to be challeneged, even by white men. Davis for telling the opposing hitter what pitch was coming, and then telling Nuke that he had told the hitter. But then again...that’s what I’d like to say. I’m not sure it’s the truth, though. I think the truth might actually be Clark W. Griswold.

What is your favorite movie snack food.
I gotta second Troy on this one. Beer. Absolutely. (Hell yeah...yup...yeah, it is...etc.)

Who is your favorite director of all time?
Jonathan Demme. (And this from the one guy on the planet who loved Eyes Wide Shut.) I’ve only seen a handful of Jonathan Demme’s movies: but one of them opened my eyes to everything wonderful that happens in good movies; another confirmed many of the things I had absorbed subconsciously about appreciating film as art; and the third (while a lesser film than the other two) further differentiated the things you see through the eyes of the director versus the things you see through the eyes of the photographer. The first two pictures are The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, with Tak Fujimoto behind the camera; and the third is Rachel Getting Married, with Declan Quinn doing photography.

Who is the most impressive filmmaker working today?
I don’t know that I’m qualified even to have an opinion on this one, but if you’re going to insist, then I think I might say John Lasseter - even if he isn’t the one who directed the really great Pixar movies. He did direct the early ones, and helped establish the baseline of success that has allowed Pixar so freely to make a type of movie that transcends demographics and uses computers in all the right ways. Hacks like Michael Bay and J.J. Abrams could take a lesson from Lasseter and Pixar.

What quality do the best directors share?
An understanding that it’s okay to just let the camera roll. Demme does this, in places. Tarantino did it in Reservoir Dogs. Kelly Reichardt in Wendy and Lucy. Steven Soderbergh in The Limey. Being able to let the camera roll, without using manipulations like editing and negative space, demonstrates that the director knows what he or she wants to say, and that he or she has taken great pains to say that thing as unobtrusively as possible - or to put it another way, they let the thing they want to say speak for itself. Story and character are the most important parts of a film, and if both are good enough, and the director is talented enough, he or she can desist from having to be an auteur and simply be a medium - opening the door at the precise moment to allow the story and characters to speak to the audience.

Who is your favorite actor/actress of all time?
I have a soft spot for Henry Fonda, mostly for 12 Angry Men and The Grapes of Wrath (arguably the greatest novel ever written in English), and I’ll watch just about anything with Parker Posey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tilda Swinton, or Julianne Moore; but if I had to pick just would have to be Laura Linney. Is it okay for me to say that her smile makes me happy? That her work is so nuanced and seemingly effortless that she disappears into every role she plays? That I’m appalled by the fact that Julia Roberts has an Oscar and Laura Linney does not?

Who would you cast in a film about your life?
John Cusack. Or if my life had been at all interesting, possibly the pre-poetry-reading, pre-bleach-blonde Michael Madsen.

Finish these sentences:

If I could remake one movie...
I would not mind seeing a musical version of The Relic.

I never wanna watch a movie with...
Someone sitting next to me who says “yeah, right” at all the improbable parts. Such an instance nearly ruined my movie-going experience when I saw American Psycho at the General Cinema in Greenwood. Actually, it was some cowboy near the top of the auditorium, but there weren't many people watching that show, and it sure as hell sounded like he was sitting right next to me.

The perfect movie is...
One that makes you want to watch it again, immediately.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Ice Storm

I watched the first half of The Ice Storm with the thought a little too close to the front of my mind that practically every review of Lymelife that I have read has described that film as a lesser (to one degree or another) version of the well-liked Ang Lee picture; and it was even fresher in my mind because I read a short review of Lymelife - which connected the two pictures - in the current (but not exactly new) issue of Paste while I was eating dinner a couple of nights ago. I just never got around to watching The Ice Storm until now, and I think that’s going to wind up being an unfortunate thing because it would have been easier to like it if I had not already seen Lymelife; and the slightly funny thing is that I didn’t think Lymelife was a great movie. I thought it was a good movie, and I think that The Ice Storm is a good movie, too; but it’s way more pretentious than Lymelife - and yes, Ang, I get the idea that you want us all to pay attention to the cracking ice and the bowl of keys. Cut and print, already.

I know that part of the problem is that these characters are all emotionally frigid and are meant to look and sound sort of like robots because the word ice is in the title, and it’s probably even a testament to the cast’s acting skills that they manage to come off that way; but I think it’s stretching the credibility of the suspension of disbelief to try to convince me that none of these characters is especially fired up about...well, about anything. An entire community that has ennui, all at once? It’s almost as though someone started a meth lab in Stepford. Is it the tab collars and sideburns? The Formica and Naugahyde? Could it just be that these characters hate the fact that their story takes place in the 1970s? (Replace Joan Allen with the winking Tilda Swinton from Orlando, and this might just be a magical kind of picture - David Lynch meets Woody Allen in the Bizarro version of Pleasantville.)

I also know that I’m getting awfully close to making the same kind of comment about this movie that Troy made about No Country For Old Men (which I thought was a remarkably good movie); to wit, whence such nihilism? Why is it so easy for me to like a movie as bleak as No Country For Old Men, and yet so hard for me to like something equally as bleak in The Ice Storm? Part of it, I’m quite sure, has to do with having read the book. I was practically finished with No Country For Old Men before I saw the movie (and was, in fact, so enamored of the movie that I went back and re-read the novel three more times in the next couple of months); but I have not (yet) read The Ice Storm, and so can’t bring to the movie the knowledge of what’s missing in the spaces between the scenes - which would be especially helpful here because of how much jump-cutting is employed. The effect is almost distracting, going from scene to scene to scene without taking the time to say all that much in any particular one of them; but I guess it’s not without an objective, which seems to be that they want you to get a really good idea of how much time and effort and money they spent on the art direction for this picture.

And it really does warm up in the second half - it’s just that the first half takes so long to get going that you almost want to give up on it. I almost wanted to give up on it, anyway. I noticed the same thing, though to a lesser extent, with Brokeback Mountain - and so am now quite leery of jumping into something like Lust, Caution. I don’t think I really want to imagine how long that one might take to warm up. In the end, though, I liked The Ice Storm - even if I liked it less than I might have if I had seen it closer to when it actually came out. That may not be especially fair, but I don’t get paid to write about movies, so I can’t just run out and see all the new ones at the drop of a hat.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

New Photos #5

The first set of new pictures is just a few shots of Jackson at the playground at Amy’s church, from about six weeks ago. Second set is from earlier this month when I took Jackson to the zoo to meet up with Amy and a group of her students who were taking a field trip that day. It was cool and rainy that day, so all of the pictures are from the indoor Oceans exhibit.

The third set is slightly meatier, from last Sunday when we were out and about downtown and walked around Capitol Commons Park, which is on the southwest corner of Washington and Capitol, across Washington Street from the Statehouse and behind the monstrous new Simon headquarters. Most of the shots are of Jackson cavorting about, but there are some shots of the two George Rickey sculptures that are in the park - part of the new ten piece installation downtown that is the latest in the city’s series of outdoor public art exhibits (and about which I blogged earlier this month).

If you live here in town (or are planning to visit anytime between now and September 7th), you should definitely take an hour or so when you get the chance and go downtown to have a look at these sculptures - especially if you can find the time to go on a slightly breezy day. The sculptures contain no motorized parts of any kind - but all of them move, and all of the motion is created by the wind. It’s a pretty compact little walk, too, to see them all; you don’t have to wander all over downtown like you did for the Julian Opie Signs exhibit, or even as far afield as was necessary to see the Chakaia Booker Mass Transit pieces.

Fourth set is from yesterday at the 500 Festival parade downtown. We picked up takeout food from Shapiro’s and set up on the grounds of the Federal building, near Pennsylvania and North, where the parade started. Usually when we go to the parade, we end up just catching the tail end of it, or maybe half - but yesterday we were sitting down and eating lunch before it even got under way. Jackson, however, did not want to sit still, so we didn’t see much of the parade after we were done eating. The two shots of him standing up are from when he was dancing and running around the grounds of the Federal building where we were sitting to watch the parade.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


I should probably preface this by saying that I’m pretty much of a geek for baseball movies. I’ve even watched crap like The Rookie, For Love of the Game, and Major League 2. You don’t, however, see baseball art movies very often, especially (mostly) foreign language ones. And so last night - after five commercials and five coming attractions trailers - we got down to the business of a Dominican kid called Sugar, who wanted more than anything to get that call to come play professional baseball in the United States.

The film opens with Sugar playing for A-ball scouts from the States, and learning how to throw a “spike curve,” a type of curve ball where the knuckle of the index finger is bent, generating a break more akin to a knuckleball in degree and timing, though it’s thrown like a standard curveball. He also spends time comparing notes with his friends about guys they know who have been signed and who have gotten that call to go play in the States. Sugar eventually gets the call, but there’s little suspense surrounding this plot point. The telling part of this early segment of the film is how quickly the Dominican kids get called up - and how quickly they can get sent back home when things don’t work out in the United States.

These kids see getting the call to play ball in the States as the ultimate achievement of their dream, but they are in no way prepared for the vagaries of life as a professional athlete - even at the level of A ball. For a Dominican kid who has practically nothing in the world, it’s a huge step up, of course; but there is no guarantee of permanence, no magical door that they pass through into some enchanted kingdom. It’s more like a revolving door, and some of the kids barely set foot on the other side of the door before they get shoved back into it and sent home.

Seeing this happen to one of his closest friends on the Class A Bridgetown (Iowa) Swing is but one of the many things that Sugar has to figure out - largely on his own - how to deal with once he’s gotten the call to go to the States. He also has to figure out how to speak English, how to communicate with the Higgins family (an ultraconservative elderly couple who are, oddly, forward-thinking enough to host a new foreign player every season in their farmhouse), and how to order breakfast at a restaurant.

The breakfast scene was maybe my favorite scene in the movie (a close second is when Sal waves from the bus window), and even though it was tender and heartfelt, it didn’t come off as corny. Sugar meets up with some Dominican kids he knows when he arrives in the States, and there is a scene at a Denny’s-style restaurant where they all sit there not knowing what to say when the waitress asks what they want to eat - until one of the guys asks for French toast. Then everyone else at the table also asks for French toast - in unison. Later, Sugar returns to the same restaurant and tries to order eggs, but doesn’t understand what the waitress means when she asks how he wants them cooked. She tries to explain, but he still does not understand, and so - with apparent frustration and in a defeated voice - he just orders French toast. After he gets his order, the waitress comes back with a plate of eggs - one each in the scrambled, over easy, and sunny side up style - and uses the visual aid to show Sugar what each means. Then she leaves the eggs for him, telling him they are on the house. Sugar’s English improves throughout the film, but he doesn’t become fluent and has difficulty expressing himself even if there are more and more things he can say. We have to read his expressions in his eyes, and it’s clear in this scene that he is both humbled and appreciative when he thanks the waitress for her kind gesture.

And yes, I know - it’s fiction; but unlike temporal causality loops and transporter beams, this kind of fiction shows us things that could actually take place in the real world. And this scene is a good example of what can happen when people care enough about other people to try to bridge the gaps between cultures - rather than just stare at each other across those gaps while scowling and holding a pistol and talking to their god on a two-way radio.

And we’re still in the baseball section of the film. I sort of hate to say anything more about where the story goes, because the way the story unfolds is one of the more captivating things about this very fine film. All stories need some element of conflict as their motive power; and typically, a series of smaller conflicts leads to the resolution of a larger conflict at the story’s climax, before the falling action ties most or all of the ends up in relatively neat little pieces. Sugar doesn’t quite work that way, and is a better film because of it. Those little conflicts are there, but they never erupt. What we see is Sugar himself struggling with how to deal with those conflicts; and the larger conflict is mostly a silent one - that of the cumulative impact on Sugar of all the little near-conflicts.

Like most of the kids in the Dominican who dream of playing baseball in the bigs, Sugar sees (if not always clearly) a specific trajectory that his life must take if he his to achieve his dream; what he does not - or, more likely, cannot - anticipate are all the little things along that trajectory that, when they take place, wind up pushing him farther and farther away from the original trajectory. What he never loses sight of is what he truly wants to be, and ultimately this is the story of a boy who has the courage and strength to adjust to extraordinary circumstances on his own terms - no small feat for a stranger in a strange land.

In addition to how well the story is presented, the movie also gets the baseball parts right. Major League Baseball is nice and all, but it’s not really what baseball is about. To really get what baseball is about, you have to look at the minor leagues, at the nomadic existence these guys live, all for the glory of getting out there under the lights to play for literally hundreds of fans in the sometimes sweltering midsummer Midwestern heat. It ain’t glamorous, but it’s real. While I was writing this little piece, I came across this article on the website for Minor League Baseball. It talks a bit about the movie, but more about how the filmmakers put in the work to get the baseball parts right. Have a go at the article, and then definitely have a go at Sugar - although I’m terribly sorry to say that you’re probably only going to have the one week to do so.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Stupid People Holding Signs

I saw lots of signs today - some while we were downtown, and others on the news tonight. One said, "Repeal Stimulus Or Retire." Another, shown on the news, said, "Obama = Abortion." I kind of feel bad for people who are so stupid that they believe those kinds of things - but mostly I just shake my head in wonder. I might feel worse for them, but the reason they are stupid is that the education system failed them - and the reason the education system failed them is because Republicans prefer not to fund education. They make it sound all patriotic - Republicans believe in smaller government and lower taxes and yadda yadda yadda - but you know what they're really doing, don't you? They're growing their base. By depressing education, Republicans ensure a steady stream of future voters - and wearers of signs.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


There is no dearth of films excoriating the supposed virtues both of marriage and of middle class life in the suburbs; and while Lymelife attaches its overarching theme to this wagon train of self-medicated quasi-misanthropy, it makes the choice not to drop us into the usual perfectly idyllic suburb. Though set in New York, on Long Island, we find ourselves not in the posh digs of the Hamptons, nor on the gritty streets of Queens - but somewhere in between. The idea of purgatory is perhaps deliberately emphasized here - the principals are two families containing two failing marriages that have almost, but not quite, gone over the edge. What Lymelife does better than most films of its kind is to show how some of the pieces are picked up once Toonces drives that car off the road. And then there’s that ending...and so Lymelife both is and isn’t the kind of movie that it looks like it’s going to be; it doesn’t break any new ground, but neither is it entirely derivative of the previous contestants in its weight category.

The story is of the Barletts and the Braggs, two middle class families living on Long Island and trying to get through the rough years of early middle age and teenage offspring. Melissa Bragg (Cynthia Nixon) is in real estate and is having an affair with her boss Mickey Bartlett (Alec Baldwin) because her husband Charlie (Timothy Hutton) is letting his Lyme disease get the best of him mentally and emotionally. Mickey’s wife Brenda (Jill Hennessy) knows her husband is cheating, but she turns a blind eye - perhaps having naïvely elevated the concept of nuclear family above all else.

Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin) and Adrianna Bragg (Emma Roberts) play witness to all of this while trying to navigate the murky waters of late adolescence and also coming to terms with the fact that they, despite (or, yes, perhaps because of) having known each other all their lives, have developed pretty strong feelings for each other. For the most part, they fly under their parents’ radar and do their own thing; and if Adrianna is perhaps a little more tuned in to what’s going on around her, neither of them actually misses all that much of what’s going on with their families.

There are some by-the-numbers scenes from the Coming-Of-Age Playbook, including: Vanquishing The School Bully, The First Kiss, and Losing Your Virginity; and while none of these things is particularly uncommon, they are handled here (particularly the first and third ones) fairly honestly. The sex scene is about as awkward as it can get, and the scene where Scott turns the tables on the school bully is, if not completely authentic, at least as right as the kid in Scott’s shoes would want it to be

Along with these scenes there are some genuine back and forth dialogue scenes between Scott and his brother Jimmy (Rory Culkin’s real-life brother Kieran) who is home from the Army on leave, between Scott and his dad after things between Scott’s parents have come to a head, and between Mickey and Brenda after Brenda discovers that Scott knows Mickey has been bagging Melissa on the side; and while the dialogue oftens rings true, the film doesn’t quite shake the shadow of melodrama. This could be due to the fact that it contains Alec Baldwin, who is a melodrama unto himself; factor in the real-life drama surrounding the infamous phone conversation he had with his daughter, and you start to get a feeling of self-reflexivity coming from this picture - a picture in which Baldwin plays an overbearing, quasi-abusive father.

The film’s tagline is: “The American dream sucks.” I’m pretty sure they were shooting for a send-up of the trappings of middle-class life in modern America, but I’m less sure that they achieve what they set out to do. In this context, the film feels similar to Sunshine Cleaning, which also tried to toe the line between drama and comedy. Lymelife does a better job of it, though - it stays inside the lines and occasionally changes lane after signalling first. Sunshine Cleaning, by contrast, just sort of swerves all over the road and is a danger to other drivers. The only trouble here is that I think Lymelife wants more to play up how ridiculous it is to so relentlessly pursue the American Dream - an objective that would seem to favor comedy as the means to the end. Ultimately, however, the drama weighs on the film, as it becomes clear that while said relentless pursuit is in fact ridiculous, it is also painful; and the film becomes a little too heavy to really achieve its objective. I think this is somewhere between a minor quibble and a major one; and so the film works, just maybe not as well as it might have done.

Jazz Bass Guitarist Wayman Tisdale Dies

I read on the Interwebs today at work that jazz musician Wayman Tisdale had passed away after a two-year battle with bone cancer. The sadness I felt on learning of his passing had absolutely nothing to do with baskebtall - and everything to do with Wayman’s music. After basketball, he turned to bass guitar and eventually cut a number of jazz albums, and also toured in support of those albums. I blogged, back in November 2007, about a show he was to play at the Madame Walker Theatre downtown. I had to work the day he played the Walker back in 2007, but in the blog post, I said that I was going to get around to seeing him one of these days.

And sadly, that never happened. The Star’s report doesn’t say when he stopped touring - their report is almost all about Wayman Tisdale the basketball player. Those journalistic u-turns at the Star gave exactly one sentence to his music career. The report on ESPN’s website - you know, that sports network - gave three paragraphs to his music career. Not that it's news or anything that the Indianapolis Star sucks out loud.

I don’t know enough about jazz to know if his music was what hardcore jazz people consider good jazz or not, but I know enough about myself to know that I liked what I heard - and yes, that was just one report on NPR, but the news on NPR is so much better than the news you get anywhere else because they really get deep into the stories they report. The memory of that one report, and the music they played, made me look at the coming soon posters in the windows of the Walker every time I drove by the theatre. If he did play there again after the show I missed, then I missed his subsequent appearances, too. Should have done a better job of paying attention to that.

His CDs are available at Best Buy stores around town, and a few of them can be purchased on iTunes.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Wendy And Lucy

If you begin at Star Trek, then turn one hundred eighty degrees and start to march, you will wind up eventually at Wendy And Lucy; and in the process of so doing, you will cover nearly the entire spectrum of the cinematic experience. Other than the concept that both are, in fact, movies, there is practically nothing that the two have in common. I don’t want to spend the whole time comparing and contrasting, though - because enough has been said about Star Trek, while I imagine probably very little has been said about Wendy And Lucy.

It’s a very straightforward story about a woman called Wendy who is making her way across the country from Muncie, Indiana, to the west coast, with designs on getting up to Alaska, where she has heard there is good work to be found at a cannery (and if you think that this seems vaguely to echo The Grapes Of Wrath, I agree with you). She has brought with her on the trip a very few belongings, a few hundred dollars she has socked away, and her dog, Lucy; and when her aging Honda breaks down somewhere in Oregon, you don’t exactly get the idea that she was expecting smooth sailing from beginning to end on this trip.

And now I’m conflicted about where to go with this. If I give too much away, or tell you so much about the plot that you decide you don’t want to see the movie, what purpose will I have served? This review should really be just two sentences long, with the first sentence expressing that idea that I liked Wendy And Lucy so much that I have to go back and re-evaluate my 2008 top ten list to account for it; and the second sentence should simply be an imperative directing you, the reader, to Netflix Wendy And Lucy immediately. that I’ve said that, read on only if you want to find out nearly everything that happens. See, the thing is that not a whole lot happens in this movie; but most of the things that do happen have impact - as opposed, say, to Spock and Uhura in the turbolift, which is vaguely amusing but serves no real purpose - and to say that Michelle Williams did a tremendous job with this role without also saying a little bit about how she did such a good job with the role is just unfair.

After the car breaks down, the Walgreen’s security guard tells Wendy that she has to move the car off of the drug store lot - and then he helps her push it to a parking spot on the street and tells her where she can find a nearby grocery store. Williams does it all with her eyes, making no attempt to disguise her weariness at yet another thing that has gone wrong. In one of the few clumsy scenes in the film, she is detained for shoplifting at the grocery store and subsequently arrested. When she finally returns to the grocery store, her beloved dog, which Wendy had tied to a bike rack (“Do you know what the penalty for animal cruelty is in this state?” “No sir, I don’t.” “’s probably pretty stiff.”), has vanished.

Lucy is pretty much the only thing going right for Wendy, the only positive constant in her life at this point - and so the clumsiness in this scene is derived from how seemingly easily Lucy is lost. Is it possible that this could play out the way it’s depicted? Sure it is...but when you consider how carefully Wendy pays attention to all of the other little details, you have to wonder that she could slip so dreadfully on this biggest detail. That said, though, the story turns on Lucy’s being lost, so it had to be accomplished in some fashion - and it’s certainly less obtrusive a contrivance than, say, arbitrarily creating a time-travel loop in order to relieve yourself of the burden of having to pay attention to the continuity in one previous television series and six previous films.

Wendy spends the rest of the film accomplishing two things - getting her car to a repair shop and finding her dog. And you know what? Now that we get down to it...I don’t have the heart to tell you what happens. It’s so simple...but so just have to watch it for yourself. Besides, Ryan and Troy already know what happened, and how many of the rest of you are actually going to watch this picture? (I hope, of course, that all of you will, and that you will tell others about it.)
What’s really great about this movie is that director Kelly Reichardt basically just lets the camera roll, steps aside, and lets us watch what happens to Wendy, lets us see how Wendy observes the world and interacts with it and with the people that she meets along the way. Reichardt doesn’t really employ either foreshadowing or misdirection, but that final scene with Wendy and Lucy still manages to sneak up on you and sort of take your breath away. For all of its bells and whistles, all of the things it manages to do right while going against the grain of the crappy type of movie that it is, Star Trek doesn’t even come to close to evoking the kind of emotional response that you get at the end of Wendy And Lucy.

Go from here, reader, and Netflix Wendy And Lucy immediately. And, if you’re interested, you can read an article about Wiliams and this picture, from a several-months-ago issue of Newsweek, here.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trek

This movie actually works, and I’m a little bit flabbergasted by that fact. It’s possible that most of the young, hip people expected this. I don’t know. They might have known as soon as J.J. Abrams signed up, but I’ve never watched Lost, and I thought Alias sucked. I also think Heroes sucks, so seeing that that show’s bad guy was going to play Spock didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. And the trailer made it clear that this was going to be one of those movies just chock full of explosions and special effects, which are feeble quasi-cinematic devices designed to appeal to the kinds of people who think that John Grisham writes great literature and that the puzzles on Wheel Of Fortune are too hard.

And yet...the movie works. The effects are just effects - there’s nothing special about them. They make you feel sort of like you’re on a safe roller coaster ride. I still don’t know enough about Abrams to say that his direction turned the trick here - and so much of the movie is digital that calling what he did “direction” sort of feels like it cheats all the men and women out there who actually direct movies and don’t just string together a series of Flash animations inside Final Cut Pro while incorrectly believing that what they are doing is creating art.

Zachary Quinto, on the other hand, makes up in one fell swoop for all of the suckage that is Heroes. His Spock is precise and (largely) controlled, and does a tremendous job of toeing the line between Vulcan and human - between repressing emotion and allowing emotion to show. The original television series - and the opening scenes of this new picture - establish that Spock is a character of tremendous ability. What is less emphasized is Spock’s physical power, which Quinto demonstrates with wonderful aplomb in this new film.

The cast, to a person, is pretty solid, even if Karl Urban isn’t quite world-weary enough to be completely convincing as Dr. McCoy; it’s more than made up for in Simon Pegg’s boyish enthusiasm as Scotty, Anton Yelchin’s frenetically cool-headed Chekov - and even in Chris Pine’s smoothly arrogant Kirk. But for all of the ensemble’s excellence, this is Quinto’s - and, by extension, Spock’s - film, and he takes the lead and runs with it. Just to judge by the silly trailer, this might well have been nothing more than an effects-laden indulgence in geeky excess - a prequel made for the sake of making a prequel - but Quinto does an admirable (and dare I say...award-worthy?) job of injecting into this fanboy orgy an element of character-driven acting that elevates this summer popcorn production - if only slightly - above the other films of its ilk.

I don’t think there’s much point in talking about the story - a massive contrivance involving pissed-off Romulans, wormholes, black holes, Red Matter, and time travel in order to create an alternate reality where these versions of the original show’s characters can exist - because there’s no value in trying to make sense of its twists and turns, insofar as the story only exists as a catalyst to get the explosions and witty bon mots underway. (The entire concept of story and plot as the MacGuffin - how’s that for a damning indictment of the typical movie Hollywood churns out between Easter and Labor Day?)

The core of the story is the development of the professional relationship and eventual friendship between Kirk and Spock, which puts the lion’s share of the responsibility for the film’s success on the shoulders of Pine and Quinto; and while I think that Quinto is more than equal to the task, I’m less convinced that Pine succeeds with his task of getting into Kirk’s skin. In his defense, though, it’s a tougher job than Quinto’s getting into Spock’s skin. The original Star Trek series was Kirk’s show, with Spock as the amusing alien sidekick; here, even after Kirk assumes the captaincy of the Enterprise, that hierarchy is subverted - Spock begins the journey as captain of the Federation’s new flagship. And trying to fill the space left by William Shatner’s ego is surely no small feat; and perhaps no one could have done it in such a way that we really get the sense of the TV Kirk - but Pine gets full marks for giving it the old college try.

That leaves just the Shatner Issue to be touched on before closing this little discussion of the new Star Trek film - and I haven’t read enough of the behind-the-scenes stuff to know what the current rumors are concerning why Abrams and company left Shatner out of this film, but I do have a couple of ideas that I will float. The first concerns the story, which is complicated enough to begin with that figuring out how to fit the Kirk from the original reality into the new reality while maintaining any kind of reasonable continuity would surely have brought about insurrection (heh...get it?) during the film’s writing phase.

But that’s pretty geekified. I think the real reason is much simpler - namely, that Shatner’s ego would have doomed the picture. Shatner would have forced his presence on too much of the creative development and would have pushed too hard to make the movie more about Kirk than it is (or ought to be). This film is being billed as a “re-boot” of the Star Trek franchise, a franchise whose specific culture emanates - rightly or wrongly - from Kirk; but to give the franchise a fresh start would require putting the focus on a character other than Kirk. In that case, the...erm, logical...choice would be Spock. Including Shatner would have ruined what they set out to do, and would almost certainly have resulted in a truly horrible movie.

Instead, what they have crafted is summer popcorn fare that is just smart enough to be taken seriously, while also being explosion-y enough to satisfy the nitwits who think that that sort of thing is high art. I don’t think this is a great movie by any stretch of the imagination; but it is much, much better than I thought it was going to be - and much, much better than movies of its kind usually are.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Debunking More World Net Daily Bullshit

E-mail etiquette dictates that you rig messages you send to hide the "to" addresses so that the only address a single recipient sees is his or her own; and while this is generally a sound practice, it can be, from time to time, irksome not to be able to send a blanket reply to all recipients of a particular e-mail. This is especially useful when a blanket e-mail contains false information that should be immediately debunked.

So as a public service, I am providing a link to an article on Snopes that debunks an e-mail going around about supposedly imminent terrorist attacks on the United States. I'm on the fence about Snopes, but more often than not think of them as reliable - largely because the information they provide is sourced, and can therefore be checked for accuracy.

In the Snopes article is a link to a story on World Net Daily - which is absolutely not credible in any way, shape, or form - that tells about the predictions of these imminent terrorist attacks. The problem: the article was posted on World Net Daily in 2005.

I just checked a calendar, and 2005 was four years ago. These terrorist attacks were imminent four years ago - but haven't happened yet. That does not qualify as either imminent or accurate. It does qualify as fear-mongering ultra-conservative right-wing bullshit.

Google the search string "Juval Aviv e-mail," and the Snopes article is the first thing you get. The link to the World Net Daily article is at the bottom of the Snopes page. It takes all of about a minute to debunk this kind of nonsense - practically no effort at all. The debunking was posted on Snopes in January 2009 - which means that five months later there are still people who believe this nonsense enough to pass it on.

Paging Lee Greenwood.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

George Rickey: An Evolution

The latest in the city’s ongoing series of public art projects opens officially on Tuesday. George Rickey: An Evolution features ten large pieces sculpted out of stainless steel, installed at various locations arouns the heart of downtown. I don’t recall the extent of the first public art exhibit, the sculptures by Tom Otterness, but of the most recent three, this George Rickey exhibit is easily the most compact, with seven of the ten sculptures in an area bordered by Ohio, Delaware, Washington and Meridian Streets. #8 is just west of Meridian Street on Washington, and the other two are on Maryland, just west of Capitol.

Installation has been ongoing over the last week or so, and I just noticed yesterday that signs had been put up near some of the pieces that have already been installed. A brochure with a map is available at the Artsgarden (and probably elsewhere, but I don’t know for sure - the Central Library?), and further information can be culled from the exhibit’s web site, part of the larger Public Art Indianapolis web site.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Big List #13

How I Believe In God

This is a recent post from Roger Ebert’s Journal, the blog where the venerable film critic holds forth on topics both film-related and non-film-related. This one is non-film-related, and is one of the best pieces I have ever read on the nuances of religion and spirituality. Reading Ayn Rand’s philosophy brings one to some of the same questions. Both are refreshing. And given how pervasive religion is in this world, both need to be read by way more people than have actually read them - so support secularization, and pass ‘em on!

Spirituality, Not Religion, Makes Kids Happy

(From a previous Big List that got started but not finished, an article from LiveScience that was posted (long ago) on MSNBC.) Boy, this is just asking for trouble, isn’t it? A scientific study that tries to say something about religion and spirtuality. We need more items like this and less items about religious extremists flying planes into buildings. So, once secularization, and pass it on!

Transgendered Mayor May Get Reality Show

Silverton, Oregon, mayor Stu Rasmussen, who is transgendered, may be getting his own reality show. For the most part, reality shows are a pox on television - itself largely a pox on humanity - and need to die immediately; but a reality show that documents (what a novel idea for a non-fictional teleplay!) how a small town in the Pacific Northwest is able to accept that a transgendered person is their mayor might actually be worth watching. The American people need to be more open-minded about nearly everything, and if they must watch television, they should be watching better television.

Your Tax Dollars At Work!

Federal stimulus money will enable the state of Indiana to hire two thousand young people to work for the Young Hoosiers Conservation Corps this summer. These new state employees will be working with the DNR to beautify our state parks and other recreation areas. DNR has suffered from reduced funding for a long time now, with the result being that fees at parks are going up, while services are going away. The jobs created by these Federal stimulus dollars just might help to stem some of that tide. (Note to George W. Bush: This is what helping people - other than the criminals employed by Halliburton and Blackwater - actually looks like.)

Finally, for a bit of a laugh...

Bradley Whitford Says..."Waterboard Dick!"

Who? Bradley Whitford. Probably best known for playing Josh Lyman on The West Wing, but he was also in Revenge Of The Nerds 2: Nerds In Paradise. He’s also pretty astute in noting that we should waterboard Darth Cheney to get the information he claims to have about how waterboarding worked on high-value detainees. I think it would be fun to go even further than that - and I’m borrowing from George Carlin here, so I promise never to run for Vice President - and dip that fucker in brown gravy and then lock him in a small room with a wolverine who’s high on angel dust.