Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Shut Up Little Man!

Shut Up Little Man!
from John & Sue's DVD collection

Covert surveillance - catching people with their pants down doing silly, embarrassing or incriminating things - is an idea that's both titillating and terrifying, depending on which side of the recording device you're on. As technology has improved over the years, it has become easier and easier to do just that, as millions of YouTube videos will attest to. Is it a morally defensible act, however?

Living in post-9-11 New York, in which surveillance has been taken to great extremes, I try not to think about all the hidden cameras that follow one around almost everywhere these days - and I'm not even talking about for security purposes. Anyone with a cellphone can catch you on the record for whatever reason they like, and you don't even have to be aware of it. Maybe they think you dress funny and wanna make fun of you on their Facebook page. Maybe you got drunk off your ass at a bar last night and someone posted a video of you on YouTube. And these are the relatively benign examples.

It's disturbing, without a doubt. At what point does it stop becoming entertainment and start becoming an invasion of privacy? I have no idea. It's easy to blame technology, but technology is neither good nor evil. It's all in how it's applied. The truth is, we are little children playing with new toys. We have little sense of restraint and we're more concerned with self-gratification than with any notion of boundaries.

I certainly can't deny that videos and pics of this nature are amusing. I don't actively seek them out, but if I see one and it's funny, I'll laugh, secretly grateful it's not me getting punk'd while ROFLing at how stupid and/or gullible some people can be.

Sometimes seeing these images are necessary in order to negotiate behavior. There's a blogger who takes pictures of people eating like pigs on the subway, and after browsing through the site, I've been scared straight enough to practice more restraint (not to mention cleanliness) if I ever eat anything bigger than a candy bar on the subway (which is not even all that often). But do we need such shame-inducing tactics to get us to behave better? The more I see of people, the more convinced I am that the answer, sadly, is yes, because some people are simply without shame. But that's another post.

This brings me to the phenomenon that is Shut Up Little Man. In the 80s, two dudes living in a dirt cheap San Francisco apartment were subjected to the loud, vitriolic ravings and arguments of two old men (and an occasional visitor) living next door to them. Reasoning with them didn't work, so instead they chose to amuse themselves by secretly recording the old men's conversations - which was easy to do, since they were so loud. They made a bunch of cassette tapes and shared them with their friends, who shared them with their friends, and before long, a cult sensation was born. The title comes from a phrase one of the old dudes constantly repeats in his more agitated states.

The documentary Shut Up Little Man! is the story of how this all came to be. I watched it at John & Sue's place last weekend. Part of the reason they own it is that Sue knows one of the people interviewed (though not directly), but it's still the kind of movie they'd own anyway because it's such a bizarre story.

The appeal of the Little Man tapes is in the level of the unrestrained profanity, bigotry and bile unleashed in a completely real and authentic setting. (Apparently there's a name for this sort of sub-sub-genre: audio verite.) These two old men lived together, yet they bickered and fought on an epic scale, one that makes the Odd Couple look like the Get Along Gang.

The Little Man tapes led to a wide variety of spin-offs in other media, including a stage play, comic books (Ghost World's Daniel Clowes is among the interviewees), a puppet show, songs, and more, and Little Man the doc captures it all. The Australian filmmakers even create dramatizations of selections from the Little Man tapes, in which actors play the roles.

There's much more to the story, including what happened when the surviving old men learned of the Little Man phenomenon, the inevitable Hollywood involvement, the gay angle, and the morality question. It's an utterly fascinating tale, and well worth watching.

Why does the Lorax speak for the SUVs?

...Yes, it’s come to this. Theodor Seuss Geisel’s 1971 parable about environmental stewardship is now being used to make people feel less guilty about purchasing Mazda-brand motor vehicles. The Mazda cross-promotion, it turns out, is one of 70 sponsorship deals that Universal has worked out to increase the return on its investment in a feature film version of “The Lorax.” Not pictured in the ad: The Truffula tree forest that was clear-cut to make way for the four-lane highway the Once-ler built to sell more Thneeds. (Today Mazda CX-5 owners use that highway to get to their outrageously wasteful, greenhouse gas-spewing subdivisions.)
I never read The Lorax as a kid, but I did see an animated version of it on TV (I forget who made it), so I have a general idea of what it's about. It's an environmental parable, basically, so to see such a story and such a character be used to sell SUVs, of all things, in a movie-tie-in commercial no less, is pretty much the definition of tacky. I urge you to not take your kids, nephews, nieces, rugrats, what have you, to see The Lorax this weekend, and if this really pisses you off, perhaps you'd like to sign this petition against it.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Oscar 2011: The winners

Best Picture – The Artist
Best Director –  Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Best Actress –  Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Best Actor –  Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Best Supporting Actress –  Octavia Spencer, The Help
Best Supporting Actor –  Christopher Plummer, Beginners

 My happiness at getting twenty out of 24 correct (which has to be a personal record for me) is mitigated by my disappointment at seeing Viola Davis lose, but then again, there's no real shame in losing to Meryl Streep, is there? Still, the injustice of having only one black woman win a Best Actress Oscar remains, and now that we know the demographics of the Academy, at least we have a better idea of what to expect the next time this happens. And whether she has a little gold man or not, the whole world now knows what kind of actress Davis is.

Sheesh. I went 20-for-24. I would've liked a little surprise at least. I guess Dragon Tattoo winning editing is perhaps the biggest surprise.... maybe? Possibly?

Eh. I'm just glad it's all over.

Oscar 2010: The winners

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The videos of Michael Jackson: Thriller

Michael Jackson made some of the most iconic, visually fascinating music videos of all time. Some of them were more like short films, especially given the level of talent he worked with. For this and every Saturday in February, we'll look at some of his videos as if they were movies and discuss them accordingly.

In watching "Thriller," one gets the impression that director John Landis really tried giving it the hard sell as a legitimate horror movie. Naturally, it invites comparisons with his An American Werewolf in London, a movie that, for all its scary moments, is also balanced with more than its share of dark humor. There's less of that in "Thriller," which is kind of a shame in retrospect. I would've liked to have seen a bit of that kind of sensibility.

Instead, "Thriller" hearkens back to the older, drive-in-era horror B-movies of the 50s, although perhaps that's more fitting, given the tenor of the song itself. The lyrics suggest a supernatural apocalypse of some sort, but in the end it's all a put-on - just another late night creature feature. I mentioned previously how this video came out during a period of parental unrest over alleged satanic messages in rock music, hence Michael Jackson's disclaimer at the beginning that this song is not about devil worship, though it probably would still get a pass today if it was!

This video, of course, has achieved legendary status. It's Jackson at the absolute apex of his popularity. The jacket, the zombie dance, the werewolf transformation (which compares favorably to American Werewolf) - in many ways, this is the video that defined the 80s, defined the MTV generation (ironic, given how long MTV resisted black music). When were videos more popular? When did they ever have more cultural cache? Whether you watched them on MTV or on video music shows (like I did before I got MTV), "Thriller" is emblematic of a time - maybe the last time - when pop music seemed more universal... though that may merely be my nostalgia talking. 

"Smooth Criminal"

Friday, February 24, 2012

WSW @ The LAMB: Oscar preview

So last year I employed my City Mouse character in a new strip for The LAMB's Oscar preview series, and I thought it was fun enough to bring him back for a second go-round this year. A lot of things went wrong in putting this together - I won't bore you with details - but suffice it to say I managed to get it in before the big show this Sunday. This year, my category is Visual Effects, and I think you'll like seeing CM and Collie in a variety of guises from these movies. Have a look.

WSW @ The LAMB,  Oscar style

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Oscar 2011: My predictions

I've decided I'm not gonna bother watching this year but the least I can do is throw out my picks.

Best Picture
The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo

Actor in a Leading Role
Demián Bichir, A Better Life
George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Actress in a Leading Role
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn

Actor in a Supporting Role
Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Actress in a Supporting Role
Bérénice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help

Adapted Screenplay
The Descendants
The Ides of March
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Original Screenplay
The Artist
Margin Call
Midnight in Paris
A Separation

The Artist
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Tree of Life
War Horse

Film Editing
The Artist
The Descendants
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Art Direction
The Artist
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Midnight in Paris
War Horse

Costume Design
The Artist
Jane Eyre

Albert Nobbs
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
The Iron Lady

Original Score
The Adventures of Tintin
The Artist
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
War Horse 

Original Song
“Man or Muppet” from The Muppets
“Real in Rio” from Rio

Visual Effects
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Real Steel
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Sound Editing
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
War Horse

Sound Mixing
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
War Horse

Documentary Feature
Hell and Back Again
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Foreign Language Film
Bullhead, Belgium
Footnote, Israel
In Darkness, Poland
Monsieur Lazhar, Canada
A Separation, Iran

Animated Feature Film
A Cat in Paris
Chico & Rita
Kung Fu Panda 2
Puss in Boots

Short Subject Documentary
The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement
God Is the Bigger Elvis
Incident in New Baghdad
Saving Face
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

Live Action Short Film
The Shore
Time Freak
Tuba Atlantic

Animated Short Film
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
La Luna
A Morning Stroll

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Books: Barbara Stanwyck - The Miracle Woman

Ordinarily I'm not much of a biography (or autobiography) reader. While I always see biographies of people I'm interested enough in to read, it's rare that I'll want to go back and re-read them. When it comes to film/TV autobiographies, I think I have a grand total of three: the recent Carol Burnett memoir This Time Together (which I adored), and two Trek ones by William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols (how can I be a Trekkie and not have one or two?). Of course, some people are more into them than others, but I tend to prefer reading about film history in general. Maybe one day I'll do a post about it.

I saw the news about the book Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman while looking at the Museum of the Moving Image's schedule of upcoming movies and seeing their twin bill of The Lady Eve and Forty Guns, which screened last Sunday. Author Dan Callahan was in attendance, signing copies as well as introducing the two films. Prior to this event, however, I read a galley version of the book, downloaded from NetGalley (thanks to Clint Kimberling of the University Press of Mississippi for pointing me in this direction).

Callahan's book goes straight to the heart of Stanwyck's long and distinguished career and analyzes her films in depth, grouping them in specific categories - her noirs, her Westerns, her films with Frank Capra, etc. Some films obviously get more scrutiny than others - an entire chapter is devoted to Stella Dallas, for instance - but in each case Callahan discusses the pros and cons of each film as well as his thoughts about Stanwyck's work in each. His analysis is very thoughtful and insightful. While I naturally know more about her big hits, like Double Indemnity and Ball of Fire and Sorry, Wrong Number, I also gained a deeper insight into her earlier films like Ladies of Leisure and The Bitter Tea of General Yen, which Callahan has high praise for as well.

Stany's personal life is given a minimum of discussion, though certain elements resonate throughout the rest of the book. Apparently she had an abusive first husband, which is so hard to believe when you consider all the tough-talking, no-nonsense dames she played. How could a woman like her let any man mistreat her so? But of course, the image on the screen doesn't always line up with reality. Thankfully she kicked him to the curb.

Still, you have to accept the bad with the good. I knew she was a political conservative prior to reading this book, for instance. I did not know, however, that she had an estranged relationship with her adopted son. Again, Callahan doesn't linger for very long on the personal stuff, but in discussing her roles, he often draws parallels with certain aspects of her life - her poor childhood, for instance - and how the one informed the other, and as a result, one gets a greater appreciation of what went into forming her most memorable characters.

I've admired Stanwyck for years, but now I feel like I have a better understanding of her as a woman, warts and all, so to speak. She worked on stage, screen and television, with some of the greatest actors and directors in Hollywood history, in a variety of genres, for a large chunk of the 20th century. Anyone with a love for classic film history will find much to love and appreciate about this book.

WSW @ Queens World FF 3/1 - 3/4!

So after getting a taste of an actual film festival last fall, I decided I liked it enough to check out others. One of my goals for this blog in 2012 is to visit more fests, beginning with this one. The Queens World Film Festival is only in its second year, but it's local, obviously, and while I don't expect a lineup of celebrity filmmakers and actors, I do expect the films themselves to be worthwhile. My coverage of QWFF will begin with a brief preview on March 1 and continue throughout the entire weekend. Looking forward to it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Lady Eve/Forty Guns

The Lady Eve
Forty Guns
seen @ Museum of the Moving Image, Astoria, Queens, NY

It's been a rather dull holiday weekend for me, at least the first half of it. I've mostly spent it catching up on my art and watching TV. (ironically, I just got rid of an older TV earlier in the week). Most of the time, I try not to get distracted by the boob tube because it's so easy to become addicted to it. I still haven't decided if I'm gonna bother watching the Oscars this year. There's only one race I care about and I can always YouTube the acceptance speech the next day. As for the art, I was up against a deadline, so I really had no excuse to sit enslaved by the idiot box for too long anyway.

The rest of the weekend, though, is different. Later today I'll hang out with Vija and friends. This will be the first time I've seen her this year and I've missed her, and besides, I'll get the opportunity to show her what I've been up to art-wise. She's currently in the midst of a long series of paintings of notable women in world history, and she's been posting them on Facebook. I hope she finds a gallery willing to exhibit them, so I can see them all at once.

Also, I had the great pleasure yesterday of returning to MOMI to catch a Barbara Stanwyck twin bill: The Lady Eve and Forty Guns. There's a new biography of Stanwyck coming out which examines her career in great detail. I'll review it tomorrow, but let me just say here that it's always a bit of a letdown to discover your idols are human after all, but reading about her life hasn't diminished my affection for her as a great actress.

Eve, with Henry Fonda, is a Preston Sturges joint about a con artist who falls for her mark. I own this film on DVD. Sturges has always been a favorite director of mine for his witty writing and the great comic performances he got out of his actors, and Stanwyck's is one of his best. Guns, a Western written and directed by Samuel Fuller, was Stanwyck's last film as an A-list movie star before she transitioned to television. I had never seen this one before, but unfortunately, I went to bed really late the previous night and the lack of sleep finally caught up to me while watching this one, so I can't tell you much about it. Stany rides around on a white horse a lot. There's a tornado. People get shot. (It does make an appropriate spiritual predecessor for her TV role in The Big Valley, though.) There's also a singing cowboy-type character who, every time he appeared, I kept wanting John Belushi to come along and smash his guitar against a wall and say "Sorry."

I don't think I've talked about MOMI's main theater. It's really nice - stadium seating facing a screen with a fairly wide stage that includes a podium off to one side. The curtain has an unusual trompe l'oeil pattern of elongated, multi-colored pyramids radiating outwards in all directions from the center. It looks like something you'd see in a modern art museum, which I suppose MOMI is, after all. The walls are a deep cobalt blue, curving upwards to the ceiling, with spotlights on both sides. The ramp leading up to the main door is also back-lit in blue. The aesthetic value of a place like MOMI cannot be underestimated; a lot of thought went into its architecture and it's a big part of its appeal.

At both screenings, there were a lot of people shushing each other in the audience, especially during Eve, which was a bit surprising. One would think that a MOMI crowd would be more respectful of the movie than your average multiplex audience, but maybe this was a fluke. Then again, unruly audience members have been popping up in unlikely places, and more and more people are demanding that theaters do something about it. I didn't think it was out of control yesterday, but this is a general problem that could kill the theater-going experience for good unless it's seriously addressed, and soon.

Books: Barbara Stanwyck - The Miracle Woman

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The videos of Michael Jackson: Bad

Michael Jackson made some of the most iconic, visually fascinating music videos of all time. Some of them were more like short films, especially given the level of talent he worked with. For this and every Saturday in February, we'll look at some of his videos as if they were movies and discuss them accordingly.

He's bad, he's bad, he's really, really bad. Gee, Michael, thanks for the tip. Very enlightening. As I mentioned last week in talking about "Smooth Criminal," whenever Michael Jackson tried to act tough in his videos, it never seemed completely convincing somehow, as if he were trying to convince himself of his masculinity as much as anyone else. In my opinion, anyway.

Bad the album represented a major image change at the time. The young man we knew and grew up with prior to both album and single came across as more innocent, comfortable around ladies but not quite so masculine.

"Bad" the video was different, not only for the black leather outfit and the gritty subway setting, but because of Jackson's facial transformation as well. His skin looked lighter and smoother, his hair was straighter, and his nose was smaller - all of which made him look less identifiably black. (The first time I heard the Kanye West lyric "Got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson/Got a dark-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson" I laughed out loud.) Allegedly there were medical reasons for this, and maybe that was true, but the implications were too big to ignore. Jackson, a "crossover" success story if ever there was one, suddenly seemed to be denying his racial heritage.

I was too young to fully consider these implications at the time Bad came out, however. I was more interested in the video. Directed by none other than Martin Scorsese from a story idea by crime novelist Richard Price, it was set in an actual Brooklyn subway station (shortly after Jackson died, a local politician tried and failed to get the station renamed after him). Scorsese, of course, has always had a great facility for incorporating music into his feature-length films, and his style doesn't feel out of place here, amidst all the dance choreography. Once again, as in "Ghosts," Michael's character is trying to be molded into something that he doesn't want to be and he rebels (IMDB says that this was inspired by a true story), and he magically conjures up a posse to back him up (well, not literally in this case, but they do come out of nowhere).

It's a memorable, iconic video that has stood the test of time (as well as Weird Al parodies). One can't criticize it too much, in the end.

"Smooth Criminal"

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bend of the River

Bend of the River
seen online via YouTube

The notion of redemption is a powerful one. As human beings, we know we're imperfect; we know we mess things up more often than not, but we like to think it's possible that we can make up for that somehow. Christianity, of course, is based on the concept of redemption - a single act of selflessness that cancels out all the wrongs we've ever done. But are all sins created equal? Are there some things that simply can't be forgiven?

Forgiveness, naturally, is a key component in redemption. One of the messages in last year's Kinyarwanda is that forgiveness begins with oneself; acknowledging the wrong done and one's role in committing it. That might be the toughest step. I've written about my own struggles in this area before, and I know how difficult it can be to live with the guilt - as well as how uplifting the feeling of forgiveness can be.

Jimmy Stewart's character in Bend of the River faces a similar dilemma - whether or not the good he does in the present can make up for the bad he's done in the past, though I thought the movie didn't go as deeply into this as they could have. Stewart plays a 19th-century cowpoke leading a wagon train of settlers into Oregon, while contesting with Indians, unscrupulous businessmen, and bad men with hidden agendas of their own. He and a fellow traveler he meets on the way both have pasts they're trying to get away from, but this other guy's past is known and as a result, he's not completely trusted. Stewart's character's past is not known to the settlers, and he wonders what they'd do if they found out.

The movie's a little vague about what exactly Stewart did; the implication is that he was some sort of outlaw who may have done a lot of killing. (Hard to believe of a Jimmy Stewart character, I know!) And like I said, while it's a thread in the tapestry of the story, it's not a big one. Maybe I could've believed he had the capacity to kill if we saw him do it. Early on, we see him about to stab a man to death, but someone stops him. Later, he's hunting down the bad guys, but his actions are mostly implied, which sucks because this is a point where he needs to be a total badass in order to save the day and we don't really get to see it. Maybe it was due to the limitations on violence in Hollywood films back then.

Bend is one of eight films (five of them Westerns) Stewart made with director Anthony Mann, whom I first read about at Peter Bogdanovich's blog. I found it quite entertaining, despite the presence of none other than Stepin Fetchit in a small role. His character is a good guy and is more or less accepted by everyone around him, but that voice of his, and his generally servile attitude, just makes me cringe and feel ashamed. But that's another post.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What was it about that song?

I'm not gonna link to that song. You know what song I'm talking about. In the days since the tragic death of Whitney Houston, chances are you've heard that song somewhere on the radio or TV, repeatedly, by now. You know.

The Bodyguard came out at just the right time for its stars. Kevin Costner was two years removed from Dances With Wolves and couldn't have been any bigger or hotter. Houston was already an established megastar, with a trunkload of Grammys and poised to take Hollywood by storm. Lawrence Kasdan wrote the screenplay (fun fact: it was originally gonna be for Steve McQueen!), and while British director Mick Jackson may not have been a household name, he was just coming off of the delightful Steve Martin comedy LA Story.

The Bodyguard did not fare well with the critics. Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman called it "an outrageous piece of saccharine kitsch" and the New York Times' Janet Maslin called it a "long, sprawling semi-travelogue," but audiences loved it enough to make it the seventh-highest grossing film of 1992. (And good or bad, it deserves props for not making a big deal about the interracial aspect of the romance.)

And then there was that soundtrack. And that song.

Let's run the numbers, shall we: fourteen weeks at number one in the US alone. Number one in sixteen different countries. Quadruple-platinum-certified. Grammy-winner for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. The third-biggest-selling single OF ALL TIME from the biggest-selling soundtrack OF ALL TIME.

And technically, the song's not even hers.

Though she certainly made it hers.

I'm not gonna get into comparisons between the original version and Houston's version. I'm more interested in how The Song in Question got as big as it did. 

Was it simply a matter of timing? I remember Houston at her late-80's-early-90's peak. I have some of her records; in fact, it was my father who bought me her debut LP. They still hold up. Prior to The Bodyguard, it did not seem as if she could get any bigger or more successful. She was everywhere. She, along with Michael Jackson, made MTV safe for black people. Did I mention the trunkload of Grammys? And then The Song in Question just catapulted her into the stratosphere. No, she already was in the stratosphere; it put her in orbit.

It's difficult to talk about The Song objectively, because we have all heard it too many times to be objective about it anymore. It's just become part of our collective unconscious, like The Brady Bunch and Smurfs and Tang: it's not a matter of liking it or hating it anymore. It simply is. In fact, I'd argue that The Song, and the way Houston sung it - the bombastic, hitting-all-the-high-notes, playing-to-the-crowd vocal calisthenics - helped paved the way for the American Idol era of music. I think Houston recorded better songs, but something about that one just drove people wild the way "My Heart Will Go On" drove people wild only five years later.

Today being Valentine's Day, it's worth pointing out the ultra-romantic appeal of The Song as well as the movie - which is ironic, because if you look at the lyrics, you'll see that it's actually a sad song. Funny how that gets overlooked most of the time, isn't it? But there have been other love songs from romantic movies, sung by equally talented singers. What made this one so very different?

Maybe it really does come down to timing. Who can say for certain why a certain song hits with people when it does, whether it's The Song in Question or "Don't Worry Be Happy" or "Hey Jude" or even "Friday"? That Houston had world-class talent is indisputable, though, and like so many other musicians before her, from Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, through Karen Carpenter and Janis Joplin, and on into Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, her struggle with her personal demons consumed her before her time. But the music, as ever, remains.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Innkeepers

The Innkeepers
seen @ Village East Cinemas, New York NY

So once again I found myself watching a movie that I kept seeing written about on other blogs and talked about glowingly. I feel pretty certain in saying that if that hadn't been the case, I would've completely missed out on The Innkeepers, an entertaining and engrossing old-fashioned ghost story. To sum up: a couple of twenty-somethings are working at an old New England (?) inn during its final weekend of operation, one with a reputation for hosting a centuries-old ghost which they're determined to find.

It takes a lot to get me to pay to see a current (American) horror movie these days. It seems like the average horror movie fan's tastes are greatly out of step with my own, but then I'd imagine their tastes are more refined. I enjoy watching a good bloodbath every once in awhile, but these days most horror movies look alike to me, which is one big reason why the horror films I wrote about last Halloween were old ones.

This is why I'm so glad I chose to take a chance on The Innkeepers. I liked the main characters, especially perky Claire, the star, and I cared about what happened to them. The humor feels natural and the scares are definitely earned. Writer-director Ti West takes his time with the story, but when things start happening, they happen in a hurry. It was nice to see Kelly McGillis on the big screen again, even though I totally didn't recognize her. She's aged quite a bit from her Top Gun and The Accused roles back in the 80s, but she still looks good, and she has a plum of a supporting role here.

What impressed me the most about The Innkeepers is how it defied my expectations at every turn. This is a horror movie where everything is taken at face value, and I shouldn't go into any further detail about that because it would mean revealing spoilers. Let's just say that I kept expecting the story to conform to the expected horror movie standards, and it didn't, not out of meta-textual self-awareness, Scream-style, but because everything is presented so straightforwardly. You are led to believe that the danger is real and anything is possible, but even when what happens in the end happens, you still don't quite believe it because you keep waiting for a last-minute reveal or a fake-out of some kind, because that's what we've come to expect from most mainstream horror movies. Not here, though.

It was a busy Saturday night at the Village East. I got there early, and before the movie started, I snuck into a screening of The Artist for a few minutes. I saw the scenes where George and Peppy are rehearsing their dance and Peppy keeps laughing and messing up the take, and then later, when she's alone in George's dressing room and playing with the sleeve of his coat. There are other films I liked better in 2011, but if when this wins Best Picture, I won't be disappointed.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The videos of Michael Jackson: Smooth Criminal

Michael Jackson made some of the most iconic, visually fascinating music videos of all time. Some of them were more like short films, especially given the level of talent he worked with. For this and every Saturday in February, we'll look at some of his videos as if they were movies and discuss them accordingly.

Michael Jackson's anthology movie Moonwalker never got a theatrical release in America, but segments of the film were released as music videos, such as "Man in the Mirror" and "Leave Me Alone." (It's worth checking out for the freaky Transformer sequence alone. Also, Joe Pesci.) Perhaps the best-known segment is that for the song "Smooth Criminal." Looking resplendent in a white suit with a powder blue shirt and a stylish slouch hat to match, Jackson infiltrates a lair of underground gangsters and molls and... um... controls them through the power of, uh... dance? Something like that.

Unlike the "Beat It" video, where he's out to defuse a violent situation, here he seems to be the instigator, which, I suppose, is consistent with the persona he adapts in the song. We never see anyone that answers to the name Annie, though, and as a result we never know for sure if she is, in fact, okay. You'd think the video would've answered that burning question.

As in the video for "Bad" - and Moonwalker came out around the same time as the album Bad - Jackson projects an air of hyper-masculinity and aggressiveness greatly at odds with the gentler, more androgynous image he had in life, and I have to admit, at times it's kind of amusing to see. I mean, only in a setting like a music video could a skinny little dude like Jackson stand up to dudes bigger and tougher than him and defeat, or at the very least intimidate, them. 

Even when he whips out a machine gun and appears to shoot at the cops lurking outside, there's something about it that feels like a put-on. He's never as tough as he comes across in his videos; his well-known public persona made it impossible to take scenes like this completely seriously. (His character in "Ghosts" seems to be a middle ground between the two extremes.)

There's also a strange middle section where the music stops, the lights are dimmed, and Jackson and the others engage in a slow orgy-like groove that makes no damn sense. I don't know what that's supposed to signify, and frankly, I don't wanna think too much about it either.

And once again, lurking on the periphery are little kids who are easily awed at Jackson's antics. Gaining the approval of children was a thing for him. What it means depends, I suppose, on whether you believe Jackson had a weakness for kids. We'll never know the truth one way or another.

I should also mention the Moonwalker video game based on the "Smooth Criminal" video. I remember playing the arcade version. It wasn't bad, although I didn't play it that often. I do remember it being quite popular for a time.


Friday, February 10, 2012

The Contender

The Contender
seen @ Sunshine Cinema, New York NY

So Gary Oldman finally got that Best Actor Oscar nomination after all. How about that? Even though he's not likely to win in a field with heavyweights George Clooney and Brad Pitt, plus the star of the likely Best Picture winner, a lot of people are still rooting for him, and not without reason. Though I personally wasn't that crazy about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he was certainly very good in it, and he's taken advantage of all the goodwill generated by his Oscar nomination by doing interviews and keeping himself visible. Here in New York, he recently made two appearances as part of retrospectives on his long career: one at the Walter Reade Theater and another at the Sunshine Cinema, where they not only had a Q-and-A with him, but played a bunch of his best films and gave away free tickets online. I couldn't make it to the Q-and-A, but I did go to one of the films the Sunshine screened, the political drama The Contender.

The film stars Joan Allen as a senator picked by the president to become his vice-president after the incumbent dies. Oldman plays the head of the committee holding hearings to determine her fitness to hold the office. When a scandalous secret from her past comes to light, Oldman really comes after her with both barrels, but she steadfastly refuses to publicly address the issue or even its veracity. Allen, like Oldman, has had a career of mostly supporting roles, and Contender, like Tinker for Oldman, was a rare opportunity for her to shine as the lead, and shine she does (though I don't like her as a blonde).

Oldman, with his scraggly, balding pate, looks a little like Paul Giamatti in this one, and with his flawless American accent, you'd never mistake him for the same guy who plays Tinker's George Smiley. As I've talked about before, though, his ability to disappear inside each role he plays is one of, if not his greatest, strengths. He probably won't win Best Actor, but it is nice to see him getting celebrated for his work.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Freeze Frame: The WSW roundtable take 5

We're back once again for another round of film discussion. This time out there's quite a bit to discuss, too. Once again our panelists for this month are:

Rachel from Rachel's Reel Reviews
Courtney from Big Thoughts From a Small Mind
Jess from Insight Into Entertainment
Tom from Movie Reviews by Tom Clift

And here are the questions:

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Separation

A Separation
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

My father maintained his faculties throughout the final years of his life, so I never got to know what it would be like to see him deteriorate mentally as well as physically. While I wouldn't necessarily call him an intellectual, he always kept his mind engaged and sharp for as long as I knew him, therefore I could never imagine him suffering the way the protagonist's father in A Separation does: afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, spending his life in a haze of lost memory, punctuated by brief moments of lucidity.

We had a number of different home attendants taking care of my father during the day, some of whom I liked, some I didn't. Still, they knew their job, and they knew their responsibilities, and they carried them out professionally. My father always did his best to be friendly with these women. He was a natural conversationalist, and he seemed to genuinely enjoy learning about their lives. He probably also knew that he could set them at ease this way, too - after all, it can't be easy attending to the physical needs of a stranger unable to do so on his own.

This is all a build-up to my point: I know exactly how I'd feel if I seriously thought that any of these women physically endangered my father in any way. None of them did, but when you bring a stranger into your home to take care off someone you love, that's the risk you take. You have to trust that this person will do their job properly, because the alternative is too frightening to contemplate. So when the home attendant in the story makes a grave error in judgment, I was on the protagonist's side completely - but then another twist in the story brings his honesty into question as well, and things get even crazier. 

I was riveted throughout this whole film. Even though I didn't completely understand some of the aspects of Iranian culture and law, I understood just enough to follow along. (Most of what I know about Iran I learned through reading Persepolis.) This movie has the total package - directing, writing and acting. While it's not explicitly political, which one might think given the recent events in Iran (and how certain filmmakers have been treated as a result), it certainly says a lot about Iranian jurisprudence and how it ties to the Islamic religion.

And religion plays a huge factor in the story. I don't pretend to know everything about Islam as it's practiced in Iran, and I don't wanna sit in judgment on it (at least not here), but I did like how it provides obstacles for the characters that could not be easily overcome. It influences the law and how it's applied in this particular story. For some of the characters, they live their lives by it - and for one in particular, their faith ends up being used against them.

A Separation is a tough drama to sit through, but well worth it.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The videos of Michael Jackson: Ghosts

Michael Jackson made some of the most iconic, visually fascinating music videos of all time. Some of them were more like short films, especially given the level of talent he worked with. For this and every Saturday in February, we'll look at some of his videos as if they were movies and discuss them accordingly.

Whether intentionally or not, "Ghosts" is surprisingly metatextual. Michael Jackson must have known how very different his life was from the rest of the world, but in this video, he seems to embrace his quirks even as he questions them. By portraying both the strange, mysterious outsider on the fringe of society and the straight-laced, conservative leader of the mob that tries to run him out of town, it's as if he's trying to reconcile dual aspects of his nature: the fun-loving free spirit who lives by his own rules versus the normal guy who just wants to fit into a normal life. We'll never know if this was something he really struggled with, but it's hard not to read such messages into this video.

Make-up whiz Stan Winston directed this video, based on a story idea by Jackson and Stephen King. If you recall, at the very beginning of "Thriller," there's a disclaimer by Jackson stating that the video doesn't endorse demonic beliefs. No such statement appears in "Ghosts," which ramps up the level of demonic and supernatural imagery to eleven - but then, "Thriller" was made during a time when parents were all upset about hidden Satanic messages in rock records. And the make-up work in "Ghosts" is remarkable. In addition to the mob leader, whom I didn't even recognize as Jackson until he starts dancing, there are all sorts of Gothic ghost dancers and Jackson himself, who gets twisted and contorted and reshaped different ways, in different guises. (Scariest moment for me? Near the end, seeing that plastic-surgery-altered face literally crumble.)

As in "Bad," there's a group of people trying to conform Jackson into a certain ideal, but he can only be had on his own terms, and one has to wonder, given how his childhood career was molded by his father, is this him acting out a revenge fantasy on some level? He wants to be free to indulge his idiosyncrasies - he makes a point of saying how he enjoys scaring people - but there's always an adult authority figure who wants to control him. And in this case, that authority figure is him.

But the children are the ones who understand the best, and given how Jackson spent the final years of his life defending himself from charges of pedophilia, one can't help but notice this as well. He always had that Peter Pan aspect to him, an image he consciously cultivated, whether to make up for his lost childhood or something else, we'll never know.

"Ghosts" the song isn't that great, I thought, and both song and video do feel derivative of older material - and did it really need to go on for almost 40 minutes? Still, it's so worth watching just to examine the many layers of subtext on display.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Movie of My Life Blogathon: The posts

Well, I guess I overestimated the amount of interest in this idea, because the turnout for this was way smaller than I expected. Still, I wanna thank those who did put something together; I appreciate it. Take a look:

Vain Minutia
The Great Movie Project
The Smoking Pen

My Hometown Blogathon: The posts

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Wizard of Oz (Pink Floyd version)

The Wizard of Oz (Pink Floyd version)
seen @ "Brew & View Movie Mondays" @ Hiro Ballroom, Maritime Hotel, New York NY

My first exposure to Pink Floyd, as I'm sure was the case for many people, was the song "Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)." I remember there was a day camp I went to as a child in which some kids sung a version that mocked one of the head counselors. In high school, I got heavily into classic rock and naturally, Floyd was among the many bands I got deeply immersed into, though some of my friends were more into them than others. Of course, I saw the film The Wall during this period, and it freaked the hell out of me like it does for many people who see it for the first time. I'm not sure, but in college I think I went to one of those laser light shows that they used to do at the Planetarium, set to Floyd or other classic rock bands.

If I had to explain Floyd's initial appeal to me, I'd say that for one thing, their music was so unlike anything on the radio (and I grew up as a total Top 40 junkie): atmospheric, moody, and bleak, yet emotional and edgy, with virtuoso guitar riffs and haunting melodies. It's not always the kind of music one can rock out to, but it's artistic and highly refined, and attempts to say things about the human condition.