Thursday, July 30, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

The biggest problem with this movie is how young and hip it’s aware that it is. Being young and hip isn’t a bad thing for a movie to be, but when the movie rolls around in that youth and hipness, strutting and preening and proclaiming loudly that it is, in fact, very young and hip - then the movie vaults itself into the realms of pretension, and that’s where this one finds itself by the time the credits roll. Matters are not helped by the fact that Summer, the theoretically-enthralling center of main character Tom’s attentions, is in fact just as pretentious as the film itself.

Summer is an extrapolation of the fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants fantasy girl who goes against the grain and isn’t into commitment or marriage and says she doesn’t like labels - the kind of girl that most girls probably think that most guys would rather be with than the more traditional kinds of girls who want to get married and have 2.3 kids and move to the suburbs and buy a criminal SUV that they don’t need and will never use for its intended purpose.

She makes her case right up front, and I have no quibble with her announcing to a potential suitor that she is a particular kind of girl who knows exactly what she wants and does not want out of both relationships and plain old ordinary friendships; but what does not work is the way that Summer apparently believes that her disclaimer gives her license to disregard the feelings of the person she is with at the time. In other words, it’s okay to say that you don’t want something serious; it’s not okay to string someone along as things start to get serious, no matter what you’ve said at the outset - and this is especially so when it’s clear that the other person is falling hard. Summer also employs a Clinton-esque vagueness when it comes to her definition of serious, and what winds up happening is that the relationship is played out entirely on her terms, and Tom has to pretty much take whatever she chooses to give, without having any say of his own in the matter.

No big surprise that a relationship with someone like Summer is pretty much doomed from the word go - on the off chance that the title doesn’t make that clear before we even meet Summer; and it doesn’t leave much space for the story to breathe. Faced with the inherent weakness of the story, the filmmakers are forced to use quirky editing techniques to shake up the pace and the rhythm, so that the film will have a fresh, hip feel and appeal to the intended demographic. Oddly enough, this random, hectic editing actually sort of works - but it’s obviously nothing more than a device employed to attempt to breathe something approaching life into a story that isn’t even close to interesting.

Since the outcome is understood, all that is left to show is how the once-promising relationship collapses; and it becomes clear pretty quickly that Tom is in a no-win situation, because the only prize, to be with Summer for the length of time she winds up thinking is right, is no prize at all for a quasi-romantic who thinks of marriage as the ideal finish line for any relationship that even grazes the bounds of seriousness. So actually, now I think about it, the biggest problem with the film might not be its self-righteous hipness; it might really be that its central character is a selfish, manipulative, obsessive cunt.

Deep Thoughts #5

Do conservatives refer to the media as “liberal” so they have a way to recognize things anathema to them like complete sentences and reason?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

New Photos #6

Lest you think that this has turned into just a film blog, here is a link to some pictures of Jackson that we've taken since around the end of May. They're mostly just shots of the little scamp clowning about, upstairs in my above-ground lair, at home on his birthday, at Petite Chou for his birthday brunch, and a few other things (I haven't sorted all the ones after Petite Chou yet). Probably also his birthday party, attending the performance of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra at Ellenberger Park, and maybe some shots from the Middle Eastern festival last weekend.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Two Lovers

I’m not going to spend much time at all on this one, but I do want to mention one thing: I’m not the only one who thought that the only good thing about this movie was when Gwyneth Paltrow gave Joaquin Phoenix a peek at her breast toward the end of the movie. I was actually thinking of mentioning that in the tweet for this movie on the Keystone Playlist, but decided against it; then I pulled up its metacritic page to link to it for the playlist, and I zipped to the bottom, to see what its lowest score was. That low number was 38, from Kyle Smith at the New York Post; and the blurb from his review that metacritic linked to reads, “The only possible interest the movie will inspire in anyone comes when Paltrow flashes a breast toward the end, far too late to pump any excitement into an aggressively boring film that gurgles with self-indulgence.”

This is almost true. Certainly it is the sexiest, prettiest bit of what is otherwise a sour, ugly movie; but it’s not the only point of interest. There is a space of time in the film, toward the end, during which Leonard (Phoenix) makes preparations to go on a trip, in order to make a drastic, impetuous change in his life. In those moments, Phoenix lights up and brings some real energy to his character - the only time there is really any kind of energy at all in the movie - and for a couple of minutes, you think that it has the potential to end reasonably well, in spite of all the horrific missteps that have come in the first seventy to eighty minutes. This does not come to pass, however; in fact, the ending might be the worst one I have ever seen in a movie.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I was talking to Dione about this movie tonight, and she was asking me some questions about scenes that were in the movie and how they related to the book, and about what had been left out and whatnot; and she asked about the scene toward the end when the Death Eaters torch Hagrid’s hut, and whether that was relevant to anything or if it was just gratuitous nonsense. I couldn’t remember for sure, but I told her that the scene when the Death Eaters torched the Burrow was just gratuitous nonsense, and that it didn’t occur in the book.

And then Adam piped up and said that that scene had been added so that there would be an action scene in the middle of the movie - with the theory being, apparently, that an action scene was needed at that point in order to keep people interested. Am I actually supposed to believe that director David Yates thought that the target audience for this picture was going to lose interest at some point? Really? You know the movie is going to sell, and break all kinds of records, so you don’t need the action scene - complete with explosions, don’tcha know? - to get butts in the seats.

Like people were going to walk out, right? Adam chimed in a few minutes later with the fact that the battle between the Death Eaters and the students and teachers of Hogwarts, in the run-up to the scene on the Astronomy Tower, was cut due to budget constraints. (And yes, I’m accepting as truth a lot of hearsay; but a lot of people on my staff are pretty well-informed when it comes to movies. That said, if anyone has a link that can corroborate any of the information I attribute to Adam, feel free to drop it into a comment.)

What a bunch of crap. You undermine the excellent story that Jo Rowling came up with, so that you can appease a bunch of nitwits who judge the quality of a movie on the number of explosions. Not cool. Not defensible, either. See...the next two movies are already in production - it’s not like the success or failure of this one has any bearing on the next two. Also, as idiotic as these explosion-seekers are, they’re not going to foment mass revolution after opening weekend and get people to stop buying tickets if the torching of the Burrow isn’t in the movie. Nobody’s counting explosions to see if the movie is interesting enough.

Of course, the people who would have preferred to see the story respected aren’t going to foment mass revolution after opening weekend, either. In terms of dollars, it doesn’t make a lick of difference whether they have the Burrow-torching or the Battle for Hogwarts. But when you’re talking about how good the movie is, the choice to placate the mouth-breathing explosion lovers makes Half-Blood Prince a weaker film - which is unfortunate, because there are lots of really good moments in the movie.

There are some nice interactions between characters (especially in a scene where Harry comforts Hermione), all of the kids do a great job of playing awkward kids who are starting to discover the things about the opposite sex that make their hearts race, the sets are just amazing to look at (and I can’t resist this, sorry - props to the props people!), and the stripped-down thrust of the narrative - Harry has to coerce Slughorn to reveal a previously-tampered-with memory, so that Harry and Dumbledore can learn critical information about Voldemort - is reasonably effective, especially if you are well read with respect to the novels and can take this story as a transitional sort of episode that paves the way for the things to come in Deathly Hallows.

But the movie, on its own merits, lacks richness and depth. In the novel, you learn much about the back story of Tom Riddle and how his history shaped the man that became Lord Voldemort; you learn much about how Voldemort understood the world around him and how his responses to that world pointed him toward the path that would make him the most dangerous dark wizard of all time; and, best of all, you learn some amazing things about some very dark magic and how the knowledge of that magic helps set the stage for what is to come.

Unfortunately, precious little of this stuff makes it into Movie #6. It makes for robust literature, but not, apparently, robust cinema; and what we’re left with is a movie that gives the strong impression that it is apologizing for its source material. Director David Yates will helm the two-part seventh film, and it can only be hoped that he treats the source material more fairly than he did here - or the conclusion to this bombastic cinematic orgy is going to be awfully disappointing.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


This is the story of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), an employee of Lunar Industries who has spent the last three years on a contracted job supervising the work being done by machines harvesting Helium 3 - a substance that produces clean energy for all of the planet Earth - on the moon. For company - and to help keep him safe - Sam has Gerty, a robot helper (voiced by Kevin Spacey).

There are echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining (sort of) here, but Moon borrows only tangentially from the earlier pictures; and when Sam has an accident with his “car” early in the film, we get echoes of a third movie as director Duncan Jones begins to unspool his story. Unfortunately, telling you what that third movie is would spoil some of the plot and diminish the effectiveness of a reveal scene toward the end of the first act.

And even though you’ll probably puzzle out most of the mysteries in the story, it should be noted that Jones does a very good job of managing its progression in such a way that the reveals work like slow poison and come across as both inevitable and unexpected - no small achievement for a guy making his big-screen feature directorial debut.

One of the things I thought Moon did particularly well was hit certain plot points head on, rather than use overly-complex sleight of hand or outright obfuscation; it’s not a mystery, and it does not fall into the sci-fi trap of thinking that it’s supposed to be. It’s okay to have a straighforward story out in space, and this is especially refreshing with respect to Gerty, the robot that is there to help Sam - and what’s refreshing is that this turns out to be true. Gerty really is there to help Sam, not just to serve the corporate masters - his honesty is a page straight out of Asimov, even if Gerty isn’t exactly forthcoming on his own. But once Sam comes to understand a few things about his situation, he is able to put Gerty to use with little trouble.

I also thought the music was excellent. I’ve read that the mark of a good film score is that you don’t notice it while you’re watching the movie - the implication being that a noticeable score is an obtrusive one. I disagree. A good score augments a film in subtle ways, without being bombastic; articulates mood and tone in ways that spoken lines and human actors cannot; and, most obviously, heightens suspense. I think a better analogy would be to comic books - a good score does much the same thing that a good inker does: filling out and completing the elements your eye is drawn to, in a subtle way. The score in Moon tends to be light and playful, lending a feeling of levity to a film that needs to be serious without taking itself too seriously.

Unfortunately, they seem to have spent so much effort getting the little things right through most of the body of the film that they ran out of steam at the end, which takes on a sort of hot-pursuit urgency that feels incongruous set against the rest of the film to that point. It’s also unfortunate that they tease us at the end with fading dialogue that gives an indication of what happens next - a philosophical debate something along the lines of what was seen in Contact or Minority Report. Moon is somewhere between the two - not as good as Contact, which was a nearly-perfect film; but much better than Minority Report, which was way too stylized and spent way too much time pretending to be Blade Runner (or else PKD stories are all the same).

Next: Catching up on every single movie we have ever played

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Another Free Sticker from MoveOn

Nothing major, just a little sticker showing wind turbines, in anticipation of the days when renewables are as ubiquitous as coal and oil are now. Now that the White House is occupied by a competent person, the timeline on the ubiquity of renewables might be a little shorter. Also, fuck T. Boone Pickens. Self-serving, lying, hypocritical asshole. (Weird that he's a Republican, isn't it?)

Click the image to get your sticker today!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Deep Thoughts #4

I plan to watch every movie we have ever played and then post a blog about every single one of them in exactly one hundred forty characters.


As a writer - and particularly as a frustrated writer - I got more out of Capote than most other people probably did; but it’s still an awfully good, if somewhat plodding, movie whether you’re a writer or not. And yes...Philip Seymour Hoffman probably deserved the Oscar he won for it. He doesn’t look much like Truman Capote, though; and that’s not his fault, of course, and should not really take anything away from his performance...but he doesn’t look much like Truman Capote. I wonder how David Hyde Pierce would have done in the role.

Anyway...the film follows Truman Capote’s life through the dark years during which he wrote his most famous book, In Cold Blood, the fictional/non-fictional story of four brutal murders in a Kansas farmhouse in 1959. There are some sidebars during the film - notably, the publication and subsequent success of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, penned by Capote’s friend Harper Lee - but the thrust of the film is the idea that In Cold Blood was to Truman Capote what the monster was to Dr. Frankenstein. This is a scary - and yet, oddly, sort of compelling - way to think about writing, especially for those of us who have been at work on one particular thing for a long time with, as Capote says in the film, “no end in sight.”

Other than the occasionally plodding pace, the only thing that really bothered me about the movie was how much practically every scene seemed to focus on Hoffman speaking in Capote’s famously high-pitched, reedy voice. There were some obligatory crying scenes, too, particularly near the end; but I’m not sure that’s quite enough to raise this performance above Heath Ledger’s towering Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain. Both are minor quibbles, though; this is a very good movie.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Whatever Works

I’m going to go back to the Entertainment Weekly quote in their review of Chuck Klosterman’s first novel to sort of sum up my feelings on the new Woody Allen movie, Whatever Works: The best thing about Woody Allen is that he makes Woody Allen movies, and the worst thing about Woody that he makes Woody Allen movies. I was hoping for ninety or so minutes of lighthearted complaining and cheap shots taken at the expense of the chicken-fried southerners who go all in for religion, and there was plenty of that, to be sure; but there was also a thread of existential philosophy that took the form of quasi-drama when it reared its head, and that was actually sort of effective, too.

The trouble is that the curmudgeonly comedy and the philosophical drama don’t really play very well together; the film is going along reasonably well playing as satire - albeit pretty didactic satire - and then all of a sudden Larry David stops yelling and starts to use his indoor voice, and these are moments of emotion and empathy that feel genuine despite being a sudden and complete U-turn for David’s character (Boris Yellnikoff - a taller, balder - and aptly surnamed - version of the character Woody Allen usually plays in this kind of movie). On the one hand it works, because you sort of want to hope that this grumpy old man has a soul somewhere deep down inside (think the Grinch and the scene that describes the size of his heart); but on the other hand, it’s jarring to the point of making you wonder what this side of this character is doing in a comedy.

And then there’s the self-reflexivity and the breaking of the fourth wall - which is more along the lines of “Hulk smash!” than the wink and a nod in Orlando or the amusing commentary by Ferris Bueller. The movie opens with an extended scene of Boris walking away from where he was sitting with his friends at sidewalk café table and talking to the camera - making the “argument” that sort of sets the story up like one of the Canterbury tales - and it’s funny at first, but it probably goes on for a bit too long, just like most of the shtick Boris spouts throughout the movie.

Then again, I don’t know...I wasn’t sure I liked this one at first, but the more I think about it, the more that I think it works. The notion is a conceit, of course - that the city of New York (and more specifically, the island of Manhattan) can cure the ultra-religious of their delusions; and while the idea is more open-ended than that, it’s difficult to separate Woody Allen’s immodest reverence for New York City from the core of the idea, and the result is that his theme (reach out and grab whatever it is that makes you happy, whatever it is that makes you feel good - “whatever works”) is at least partially subverted by a secondary layer of meaning (but you’ll only really be happy if the “whatever works” that you find is in New York) that smacks of East Coast elitism.

But there’s a kernel of truth in there, too. Quite frankly, just about all of us could benefit from really taking the time, now and then, to consider and appreciate the fact that there is more to the world than what we know; but I don’t think that everyone who wields a Patronus shaped like a Bible would benefit from baptizing themselves in the fires of New York City - which is what happens to the three members of the Celestine family in this movie. Melodie St. Ann (Evan Rachel Wood), Marietta (Patricia Clarkson - the most underrated actress working today?), and John (Ed Begley, Jr.) come to New York as runaway, frantic mother looking for her daughter, and unfaithful husband looking for redemption.

Allen immerses them first in New York literally, so that their eyes are opened to all of the things they have never seen, and second in New York figuratively, so that they can accept their new selves and achieve a happiness they could not have achieved earlier in their lives when they were operating with a different set of beliefs and a different world view. It is the evangelical Christian moment of being born again, turned on its head and viewed from a secular humanist perspective, and then filtered through the lens of the city that never sleeps, just for good measure.

It’s sort of like being preached to, except that in this case the preacher actually wants the sheep of the flock to use their brains and think for themselves; and I know that I may be thinking way too hard about this and possibly imbuing the picture with more meaning than it actually contains or remotely deserves - but like I said, Allen slipped that string of existential philosophy in there, and he kept returning to it throughout the movie, and I’m just not completely convinced that it works. I think it’s pretty close, though. Woody Allen originally wrote this picture for a different actor to play Boris - back in 1977; and I can’t help wondering if the task of updating the script might have caused something to get lost in translation.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Deep Thoughts #3

I saw the most unusual thing today walking past the Pacers Home Court gift shop inside the Circle Centre Mall; they actually had a customer!