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Friday, 24 April 2009
Who Wants to Be a Slumdog Millionaire?
Topic: Cinema
Slumdog Millionaire is is a supremely silly film that makes a preposterous melodrama more engaging than it has rights to be. I found the film both ridiculous and engaging. It was fun in many of the right places, heavy handed in a few other places, and visually arresting. For the cinematography alone I'm glad I (finally) saw it on the big screen rather than on a TV.
Aside from the brutality of the police interrogation scenes at the top, which feels utterly forced and unbelievable, the narrative structure of the film works well. 18 year-old Jamal is being questioned by the police under suspicion of cheating on an improbable live-aired Indian version of Who Want to Be A Millionaire? The police interrogator asks him how he knew the answer to each question on the show, and, in flashback, we are shown, answer for answer, how uneducated "slumdog" Jamal learned each nugget of information: starting with who was India's biggest star in the 70s to which face appears on an American $100 bill, and so on. As such, the film jumps from the interrogation, back to the game-show, and back to Jamal's past. Conveniently enough, the answers were learned in his life in the order the questions are given, so the flashbacks are in chronological order. This is a narrative conceit that works only because it seems as if all of this is fate or destiny.  It's a clever gimmick, and a well done use of flashback to show the sweep of Jamal's life.

Through the flashbacks Jamal's life story is played out, and we're shown how he and his opportunistic brother Salim were raised in a Muslim slum in Mumbai, how they lost their mother, and how they were on their own from a tender age until adulthood, learning to make their way on the mean streets.

It also tells how they met Latika, a girl orphaned as they were, and whom they are separated from. It's Jamal's need to find her again and again that drives his character, it's why he goes on the Millionaire show.

That last bit, unfortunately, is where the film doesn't work for me.

Jamal's need to find Latika feels unmotivated. The film doesn't make us feel they are star crossed lovers, or even that they share a bond. It's the classic tell not show problem. Latika has barely any dialog is the film. Even when they meet as children, and live together for a time, there's nothing portrayed on screen that made me understand why Jamal would become so obsessed with finding her. Oh, I could theorize on the psychology, but the film never made me feel what was driving Jamal.  Latika is beautiful and tragic and she's been through a lot, yes, but she's a cipher, and cipher's aren't engaging. As such, the central love story just didn't hold together. It felt like the thinnest, ill defined thread, and didn't touch me at all. None of the actors of playing these characters over three different ages had any on-screem chemistry, which further undermines the romance.

On the other hand I thought the children playing the young versions of Jamal and Salim were wonderful, and I found them very engaging. They were very natural and charaismatic. I laughed at their more playful antics many times during the film. Sadly, the same can't be said for the adults playing them, who  seemed like entirely different characters. Adult Jamal (Dev Patel) looks blank and shell shocked most of the time, and adult Salim is just boring.

The film's depiction of the squalor of Mumbai is both appalling and superficial. We see poor children racing through the slums, and a few flashes of the inhabitants, but nothing lasting or engaging. The film shows us great vistas of shacks and shanties, and masses of women doing laundry in 3rd world conditions, but it's all at a distance.

Finally, the Bollywood musical ending at the credits felt disingenuous. This is a very western film, despite its Indian trappings, and what with the product-placement like reliance on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? As such, the inclusion of a Bollywood song and dance routine at the finish felt like the film was taking on the mantle of something it's not. It felt obligatory and calculated rather than an actual homage.

So, in summary, I enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire, but there's no way this film deserved all its awards and accolades. It's definitely worth watching, but it's no masterpiece.

Posted by molyneaux at 11:50 PM PDT
Updated: Saturday, 25 April 2009 5:26 PM PDT
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Saturday, 4 April 2009
That Second Coat
Topic: Cinema

When I attended Comicon back in 2004 it was for work, and as such I didn't have much time to really look around. Towards the end of my one day there, though, I managed to stick my nose into some of the film screenings and panels going on, and during that I got to see most of a short film called "A Can of Paint". Something made me think of the film earlier this week, and, via Google, I found it on DVD for $4 and shipping. It arrived today so Jim and I watched it at the tail end of our writing session.

The film is a loose adaptation of a 1944 short story of the same name by A.E. Van Vogt, and a fairly clever science fiction concept. In the film, a man named Kilgour recovers an alien artifact that splatters his hand with one drop of what appears to be bright blue paint. To his horror, he finds that not only can't he scrub it off, the stuff grows: getting no thinner, but rapidly spreading up his arm. He has only hours to figure out how to neutralize this seemingly indestructable alien substance before it reaches his nose, mouth and ears and continue spreading into his interior, suffocating him.

The film is well made, if a little dark, photographically. The only characters are Kilgour and the voice of his computer, and while the actor playing Kilgour acquits himself well enough, his heavy accent might make him a little difficult for some Americans to understand. The sets are well done, as are the visual effects used to realize the paint. The exteriors of the spaceships look a little Playstationy and the lack of motion blur hurts some of them, but they aren't the focus.

It's an ambitious little film of the type I'd like to take a crack at. Definitely worth the $4 DVD price.

Posted by molyneaux at 8:04 PM PDT
Updated: Saturday, 4 April 2009 8:06 PM PDT
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Write On
Mood:  a-ok
Topic: Makin' Movies

It's surprisingly easy to let a project stall, and of late, I'm afraid Jim and I have allowed circumstances to rob some of the momentum from our work on our superhero TV show concept. Part of it's my fault as I've been doing some traveling, and when we got together the other week I suggested we discuss 48 Hour Film Project strategies as opposed to working on the show. But, now, it's back to brass tacks and other cliché phrases about getting on track.

On Wednesday we got together and tried to write the big finish to the episode we've done the most work on, but it was one of those sessions where the more we worked on it, the more stuck we got. The idea is clever, but the mechanics and logistics of the scene were just overwhelming. After struggling with it to no avail, I suggested that when we get stuck like this, we table the troublesome scene and move onto something else. We agreed that next time we'd shift to a different episode and different characters, and come back to the problem scene later with a (hopefully) fresh approach

We also agreed to make a regular weekly Wednesday writing date, and try to slip in a second writing session on a different day if our schedules line up and allow for it. We were both free today, so decided to get lunch and get back to it, and the new episode.

After discovering they now do brunch at Garibaldi's over in Presidio Terrace, then an errand at Office Depot, and a stop at BevMo to get some delicious Cel-Ray soda, we headed back here to my place to sit down and do some writing on a new episode. The story, titled "Unsafe At Many Speeds" is the first time we'll focus on one of our favorite new heroes. After hashing over the main thrust of the plot, I suggest we start with an action cue where we set up this hero, his power, and how to reveal the downside/weakness with it. Jim quickly hits on a gimmick that will allow us to cover these bases, and I suggest we set it at a baseball game, which allows setting up a big problem for the heroes to solve in very little time.  After a few hours we have a five page scene with quite a few jokes in it, and get to feature a ridiculous minor character I've been itching to use. The tricky thing is that it's a superhero comedy, but not a sitcom per se, so we have to make even the action scenes. So, while I'm happy with what we've written, I'm left feeling like the action itself needs something funny that we haven't hit on—

—But, as I'm typing this, I suddenly have an idea!  Pardon me. I have to assault a notebook!


Posted by molyneaux at 7:17 PM PDT
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Saturday, 21 March 2009
The Road Back to Wellness
Topic: Makin' Movies
A week ago I was in Portland at the invitation of Scott Cummins to attend a DVD release party for the cast and crew of the short film "The Road to Wellness" that was done for the 48 Hour Film Project last August. As usual, I wasn't just a guest, I got roped into helping prepare. I gave Scott advice on how to "age" the DVD covers, wrote the text for the back hat describes the film and DVD features in a style that fits with the fictional book cover design of the case, then helped Scott set up the bar, and put out all the food. Why is it I'm always useful and not purely ornamental?

Anyway, the party was a success, with a bartender paid to keep the evening well lubricated, and even Scott's kitty, Gloria, braved the crowd to see what's up, rather than retiring to the bedroom for the evening as Scott had anticipated.

It was good to see the crew and cast...especially Kelly Guimont (who acted as 1st A.D. and also brainstormed story ideas with me), and Kyle Vahan (who played the nameless hitchhiker in the film, but was previously Solar-Man). I was disappointed by two significant no-shows: makeup tech Janet Price and Production Assistant (and Sheila in "Secret Identity Crisis") Jenny Criglar.

When everyone was there Scott screened the revised cleaned up (color corrected and minorly edited) version of the film he'd made for the DVDs, making a big show of his new Riverscape Pictures logo, and getting a laugh by using Erik Braa's joke Movie Trailer Guy voice at the end (not on the DVD).
Since I wasn't in Portland long enough to see the film screened after we completed it, I'd never before seen it with a largish group, and even though this was a lot of people who'd worked on it and their friends, it was still a different experience with 20 than it was with a handful.  I was pleasantly surprised that people laughed at the following exchange:
DESTIN:  You need a jump.
JANE:      How'd ya know?
DESTIN: Your heart is on your sleeve...and your hood is up.
Surprised because the actor who played Monsieur Destin is French,  and I thought his accent and delivery sort of mushed that joke, which was a favorite bit of mine. It was nice to see it still works.

Of the three films I've worked on for 48 HFPs to date I've been involved in the scriptwriting of all of them, and I find this one the hardest to watch. I'm conflicted, because I'm actually proud of what I managed to write overnight. It was a very unusual piece of writing for me in that it was just a series of conversations about where these people were going, and how the woman's car, which never gets her to her destination, represents how she's on the wrong road with her life.  It's not perfect, sure, but it was a good stretch.  But the execution fails the story on some level, and I feel partly to blame for this. Because I so burned myself out on "How the Bunny Got the Bear" I made a deal with Scott where I would sleep in the morning of the shoot, since I'd be up most of the night writing, and then come onto location later.  It was a good idea in terms of making me functional, but it was a bad idea practically speaking.
The pace of a 48 HFP shoot leaves little to no time for reviewing a script. The crew has to just blast through the shoot and get all the scenes done. As such, without the author there it's easy for the crew to miss some of the subtleties of the script. In this case it hurt the film a lot because a lot of things in the script are metaphorical and representational, with lines not necessarily meaning what they said, but addressing the character attitudes and the theme. When under-pressure actors change a line, or drop a word, the meaning can be affected. In the film as shot, this is particularly true of the climactic action, where it was vitally important that the character of Jane hook up the jumper cables wrong, is nearly zapped, and realizes that she has to reverse the connections. Since I wasn't there when they were planning the shots, the crew misread the action I'd described and had the hitchhiker do the incorrect hookup. That tiny change of action guts the ending, because it's Jane who's the screw up, and has to realize she's got to turn it around. By simply putting the cables in the wrong hands, it undermines the point and robs her decision of motivation.

If I'd been there for the whole day, I would have noticed when the crew strayed off key points and could have steered them back, and explained why it was important that this or that be done this or that way. I didn't. I got sleep and failed the project on some level. I learned my lesson there.

Posted by molyneaux at 10:20 PM PDT
Updated: Tuesday, 19 May 2009 10:18 PM PDT
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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Who Watched the Watchmen? I did.
Topic: Cinema
After many years of a mixture of anticipation and dread on my part, a film version of Watchmen has finally been released and I have seen it. What did I think? As the character Rorschach might say, "hrrm".

In general, I liked it. I didn't love it. I haven't quite sorted out if I liked it because it's, by and large, the Watchmen story I know, or if it's the film itself. I suspect it might take a second viewing to sort that out.

On the plus side, Watchmen, like Blade Runner and a few other films succeeds in creating an alternate reality that's absolutely dripping with detail. This is a world where costumed adventurers appeared for real in the 1940s, and what follows is a different history. This is brilliantly conveyed in the film's title sequence, which starts by showing the first of these adventurers and their popular impact (the first super heroine appears as nose art on a B-29 in WW II), and continues into cold war times where some of these first heroes suffer nasty fates (killed, gone insane), and a new generation follows, only to be overshadowed when the appearance of the first being with real superpowers changes everything. JFK's assassin is by one of the "heroes", 60s peace marches end like Kent State, America wins the war in Vietnam and gains a 51st state, and Nixon repeals the 22nd amendment. By the time of the film's main story, it's 1986, Nixon's serving 5th term, the Soviets have been pushed into a corner, and the Doomsday Clock stands at six minutes to armageddon. Many's the film that's wielded Dylan's  "The Times They Are A-Changin", but Watchmen means it in spades.

The performances are generally good, with the standouts being Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the vile Comedian, who yet manages to have moments of sympathy, and Jackie Earle Haley as the uncompromising sociopath Rorschach, who gets the best line in the film. Billy Crudup has the unenviable task of playing a being bored with and increasingly disconnected with humanity, a task made even more thankless since he is replaced in every frame by a glowing blue CGI creation, yet he still manages to come through with the most understated performance in the film.

I have to give the filmmakers credit for being uncompromising in their portrayal of the superhuman character of Dr. Manhattan: he of the power to manipulate matter at the atomic level, he who acts as the U.S.'s main means of defense, he who can see events so tiny and so fast as to scarcely have happened, and he who as a result has no human sense of decorum and walks around in full frontal bluedity. This simple lack of modesty, portrayed utterly nonsexually, makes him instantly alien, and the fact that the filmmakers dared do this in a mainstream film is surprising. I half expected them to pull the Austin Powers gag of having his Little Manhattan hidden behind various objects, but nope. There it is.

Where the film doesn't work so well is in its pacing and in  emotional connection. The first hour of the 2:42 film is a bit leaden. There's a lot of exposition, and it's generally handled well, but the director cuts away too fast from things that need a longer look, and spends too much time obsessing over things that don't matter. Did you see that guy with the "The end is nigh" sign? No? He's someone we'll meet later, but you never get that from the film. Did you see the Comedian being assassinated? How could you miss went on and on, when all we really needed was that iconic shot of him being thrown out the window. You can read an audience in a movie, and in the first hour of this film it was mostly silent. Few laughs, few gasps, few audible reactions at all; that in a packed IMAX screening. That's a problem. Even when the actors are nailing their scenes emotionally, the editing cuts away from them too fast. There are moments when you need to linger, and the film just doesn't let it happen when it needs to.

The second half of the film works better. With the bulk of the exposition out of the way the plot gets moving and it becomes more engaging. But there's something not right about the rhythm and the flow.

And there are things I quibble with. For one thing, key plot points get skated past or get insufficient weight, with the result that some events of the story would seem unmotivated if you blinked. A key point of the story is that the heroes are just costumed adventurers without super powers, except for one, and the presence of that all-powerful entity has changed the world in ways major and minor. But the film doesn't make this difference explicit, and the over-the-top action sequences featuring the mortal heroes makes some of them seem superhuman when they're not, which confuses the issue. Furthermore, these costumed adventurers were outlawed in the past, and yet the reason for that is skipped past so much so that it begs the question of why.

I know I'm in the minority, but I'm no big fan of violence, and this film pushes it over the top too many times, sometimes at the expense of the characters.  The cavalier cruelty of the Comedian and the self righteous brutality of the uncompromising Rorschach are valid as story points, but when the action reaches bone-crunching extremes with relatively benign characters like Nite Owl and Silk Specter it renders them less sympathetic: excess for the sake of excess.

So, in the end, I'm left where I was when I saw the original edit of Blade Runner in 1982. I liked Watchmen, but partly in spite of itself. It's visually stunning, the plot is clever, and the performances good, but something about it rings a little hollow.

Which leads me to this parallel.

I didn't really get to like Blade Runner until I saw The Director's Cut (and then the subsequent Final Cut). I suspect my opinion of Watchmen will change, for better or for worse, when I see the inevitable Director's Cut of it: inevitable because I know that Director Zack Snyder's cut is supposedly over three hours, and the film as released is 2:42. And when I watched the film on the theater screen I couldn't help but suspect that some of my complaints about pacing and rhythm are directly related to trying to cram the story down to fit into that 2:42, leaving an additional 8th of it on the cutting room floor. Will this extra material fill in some gaps, add some needed pauses, and give some characters some additional insight, or will it be more action and fury?  Only DVD and Blu-Ray will answer that question.

Finally, the thing I've avoided talking about thus far is how the film compares to the comic book/graphic novel that spawned it. When watching the film I tried to take it for what it was, and to divorce myself from what the comic did. Difficult, since I knew all the subtext, even when it was poorly implied in the film, but I did try.

So, how does it compare to the comic? If there's one thing you can't damn the film for its fidelity to the source material. The director did something even I thought was nigh unlikely: he managed to cram most of the story into one film that isn't as long as any single Lord of the Rings movie, and managed to make it relatively coherent. Many of the scenes are right out of the comic with few changes or abridgements. That fidelity is both a blessing and a curse. The film jumps forward and backward in time for flashbacks from many POVs, just like in the comic, but it doesn't always work here. The narrative interrupts itself. Some speeches are just right for the comic page, but too long for a film.

The one big change was the mechanism of the story's climax, which, while different in detail, allows the plot to resolve in the same way as before. In fact, in many ways it's an improvement on the comic, buttoning off something set up in the first act at the climax in a way that the source material didn't. Bravo for that.

So, as to fidelity, Watchmen is, without a doubt, the most accurate translation from page to screen I've ever seen. It remains to be seen if that decision was for the best.

Posted by molyneaux at 2:29 AM PDT
Updated: Friday, 20 March 2009 1:57 PM PDT
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Thursday, 5 March 2009
Road Tripping via Facebook
Topic: Vacation

Just back from a 12 day road-trip. I posted my status to Facebook pretty much at each major stop. Here are the headlines from Facebook, with additional notes in (parentheticals):

Maurice is about to get lunch and then hit the highway. "On the Road Again"! 12:50pm Feb. 20.

Maurice is most of the way to L.A. I-5's a bore. Podcasts preserving sanity..sorta. 7:36pm Feb. 20.

Maurice is hangin' at Matt Carlstrom's in L.A Ain't ya jealous? 10:17pm Feb. 20.

Maurice just watched part of a bad Turkish film from the 70s...or is that redundant? 2:40am Feb. 22.

(Which is what happens at 1 in the morning when you're having drinks with someone who speaks Turkish!)

Maurice is looking at a gray sky in Palm Springs. Where is Monsieur Soleil?! 11:51am  Feb. 22.

(I stayed two nights with my friend Patrick. His condo is part of what used to be a motel where the Rat Pack hung out.)

  Palm Springs...hence the palm. Feb. 22.

Maurice is bound for Adventure...or Arizona...or something that begins with A. 1:06pm Feb. 23.

Maurice is about to go night night in Tempe after good food, a couple of sips of tequila, and good company. 11:36pm Feb. 23.

(I was stayin with my old friend Jerry and his other half, Jon, and their two very excitable and very tiny doggies.)

Maurice just came back from touring Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin west home in AZ. Ain't ya jealous? 4:26pm Feb. 25.
Maurice is bound for the Grand Canyon today. 9:31am Feb. 26.

Maurice : a) thinks Jerry & Jon are Th_ aw3s0m3; b) waved at Prescott for Dave; c) is having lunch in Flagstaff before pushing on to the Grand Canyon. 2:31pm Feb 25.

(Arrived at the Grand Canyon just in time to watch the sunset from the South rim, then went out into the night to look at the stars in the blackest sky I think I've ever seen) 

Maurice just watched the sunrise from the rim of the Grand Canyon. Epic! But his toes are still cold. 6:55am Feb 26.

(The pic is from a few hours after sunrise when I hiked around a bit of the south rim, after a shower and breakfast.)

Maurice left the majesty of the Grand Canyon many hours of driving behind, and tonight has a view of the Stratosphere from his hotel window. What a step down! 6:19pm Feb 27.

(My route to Vegas was via Davis Dam, Bullhead City, and Searchlight, places I'd not been since the early 70s. Sadly, you can't drive over the dam any more.)

The view from my hotel window. Is Vegas flipping me off? Feb 27.

(Since the Stratosphere was so close, I strolled over and paid the $13 to take in the view from the top.)

Maurice has left sin city for The Middle of Nowhere. Google map 89415 if you want to know where The Middle of Nowhere is located. 5:19pm  March 1.

(Here I stayed at the El Cap Lodge, saw my sister a few times, and our mutual friend Georgana took us on a tour of the Old Courthouse, which has been closed for as long as I can remember. At one point something like 2000 pigeons were living in the place.  Ick!)

Maurice had ribs for dinner. Mmmm yummy. For some reason now he wants decaf. Is this what rural life is like? He's forgotten. 1:12am March 1.'

(This was at the home of my friend Vince and his family.)

My late mama's headstone, gone a year and a half but not forgotten. Hawthorne, NV. March 2.

Maurice is bound for nieces. 2:09pm March 2.

(In Fallon, NV, where I visited with them and my great niece, and they brought along their boyfriends and other friends...I'm left wondering if they're inadvertantly starting a commune.)

Maurice is at Sherri & Art's in Carson City. Tuesday: Reno...not Janet. 12:36am March 3.

Maurice thinks he's going to need to buy a set of tire chains to get back home. 2:21pm March 3.

(I drove to Reno and met up with former Hawthorne residents Liz and the Allen family. Evelyn and Dean Allen offered to let me stay at their place to avoid driving back to Carson City in the snow...and I was left wondering if the passes would get so much snow it would be difficult to get home!)

Maurice just found out that a friend of his from long ago passed away a while back, but he hadn't heard til now. :(. 10:53pm March 4.
(I learned this from my friend Cody...we toasted the deceased when we went out for a drink after he got off work.)

Maurice is on the downhill side of Donner pass and only hours from home! Thanks Evelyn & Dean! 3:20pm March 4.

Maurice made it back to SF just in time to park his car and run out into Market St. and join a march to City Hall. Wow, it's a big crowd! 7:13pm March 4.

Here's the route:



Posted by molyneaux at 11:11 AM PST
Updated: Friday, 6 March 2009 12:01 PM PST
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Sunday, 28 December 2008
Flashback to the 48 Hour Film Project
Topic: Makin' Movies

I had two entries written about last July's 48 Hour Film Project in San Francisco that I never got around to posting.  Below are links to them:

Click for: Day 3 of the 48 HFP: Sunday

Click for: The Public Screening 

Posted by molyneaux at 2:33 AM PST
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Saturday, 1 November 2008
(He) Who Framed Roger Rabbitt
Topic: Cinema

When  I speak to my sister on the phone, the moment I mention something I'm thinking about doing she jokes, "I don't want to hear about it!", impressing again and again all the options I have here in the Bay Area compared to where she lives.

Well, she's right about that. Last night I opened one of the emails I receive regularly from the Cartoon Art Museum. Usually I glance at what's coming up in the exhibits and that's it. This time I opened the email and did a Tex Avery-esque jaw drop when I saw that Richard Williams was doing a presentation. I think my eyes then performed a cartoon "take" when I saw that this was to be hold Sunday Nov. 2nd at the Balboa Theater. The Balboa is only a few blocks away, in my neighborhood. I could walk to see Richard Williams!

As the title of this entry gives away, Richard Williams was the animation director on the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit (no ? symbol), and while that's what he is best known for, his is an impressive body of work: winner of three Oscars, maker ofover 2,500 commercials, as well as arguably the two best title sequences for Pink Panther movies (The Return of the Pink Panther and The Pink Panther Strikes Again), and title sequences for the original Casino Royale, What's New Pussycat, and titles for and animated interstitials for The Charge of the Light Brigade.

The presentation included Q&A and a half dozen examples from Mr. Williams massive 16 DVD "master class" on animation: The Animator's Survival Kit — Animated. Mr. Williams is a charming and gracious man, and comes across as just a genuinely nice human being.

After the presentation, he sat in the lobby and autographed books and DVDs and took time to talk to and answer anyone's questions. Before comign to show I'd decided I didn't want anything from the man, not even an autograph. But I wanted to give something back, so I waited until most of the people had finished with him, then I walked up, dropped down to eye level next to his table, and said, "Mr. Williams, I've been following your work since before Roger Rabbit came out, and I remember dying for that film to come out. I've read probably 50 interviews with you and have many in my archive, and I just wanted to say how much I appreciate you work." He looked sweetly embarrassed, and his wife asked me my name; I replied, I shook his hand, and I left. To say more would be to gush, but I just wanted to express that to him and not gush.

Click these links to see Williams' work (do it, it's great stuff):


Posted by molyneaux at 11:01 PM PDT
Updated: Tuesday, 19 May 2009 10:22 PM PDT
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Friday, 10 October 2008
"The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made"
Topic: Books

I just finished reading David Hughes' updated edition of "The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made", which documents the historis of film projects that either never got made, or eventually got made in very different form than what they started as (the umpteen attempts to make "Dune", for example).

Upon finishing this book I found myself surprised by how glad I was that many of these projects didn't get made. While it's difficult to judge the potential merits of a script on the cursory summaries herein, many of the projects described—in the words of their own creators—come across as terrible and wrong and often rote repeats of expected norms (action beats every ten minutes, etc.).

If anything, the book is most illuminating in regards to how the system works with regards to how projects are pitched, developed, revised, put into turnaround—wash, rinse, spin, repeat—and how changes in studio management can turn a "go" into a "no" right before the production is to start, and how directors take on a project not because they want to make the script in question, but because they want to make a mainstream movie or a big paycheck or just to work with certain people, and immediately demand that a greenlighted script get rewritten to their tastes.

The book's got a handful of factual errors as well, which isn't surprising given the number of subjects and contradictory sources. Finally, a couple of the chapters felt really thin, where the author had an interesting film project to talk about, but clearly didn't have enough information tofill out a chapter. This is most noticeable in the chapter about Star Trek films that never were, as most of the chapterdescribes how the films that were made got made, and gives short shrift to the more interesting topics of those that didn't: notably Philip Kaufman's 1977 "Planet of the Titans" (which got as far as pre-production) and Harve Bennett's "Starfleet Academy".

Overall an interesting read, but one that makes you wonder why anyone wants to deal with the Hollywood system.

Posted by molyneaux at 3:33 PM PDT
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Friday, 3 October 2008
Reviewing "Sordid Lives"
Topic: Cinema

At the Frameline LGBT film festival last June I was introduced to the world of Sordid Lives, a TV series that was then shortly to appear on the Logo cable network, based upon the film and play for the same name. I'd never seen the film, not to my recollection even heard of it, but the audience that came to see the first two episodes, screned at the festival, seemed to know it and love it.

I've watched the series through the first nine of its 12 episodes, and I find it sometimes cute but unremarkable.

Sick at home with a bad cold, I've spent most of my non-sleeping time in recent days curled up the sofa. After watching the entirety of Heroes Season 1, I decided to watch Sordid Lives, the movie. I found it a tough watch. Had I stumbled into it without having seen the series and knowing the characters, I'd have gone back to watching extras on the Heroes DVDs.

The plot of Sordid Lives goes like this. In rural Texas the Ingram clan matriarch Peggy Ingram is dead, having hit her head on the bathroom porcelain in a seedy motel after tripping over the wooden legs of her married lover G.W. Nethercott (Beau Bridges). It's just before the funeral and her family is in a tizzy. Her sister Sissie is trying to quit smoking while trying to be a good neighbor to estranged the wife of G.W.: Noelta (Delta Burke). She simultaneously forced into playing peacemaker between Peggy's daughters, the wild LaVonda and the prissy Latrelle (Bonnie Bedelia). Meanwhile, the two men of the clan, Brother Boy (Leslie Jordan) and Ty won't be making it to the funeral for reasons that are both related and unrelated. Both men are gay, and Ty hates pretending to be what he's not whenever he goes home to Texas, whereas Brother Boy's been locked up in an asylum for 23 years and spends his days in drag acting like country singer Tammy Wynette. As the story unfolds, it's about family shame and acceptance. Shenanigans abound as Brother Boy's female doctor tries to "de-homosexualize" him, and Noleta and LaVonda get revenge by humiliating the men that screwed with their lives.

Unfortunately, Sordid Lives is like many films that have attained "cult" status in that it's an awkward, ungainly production whose devotees embrace it for the very elements that mainstream audiences might consider flaws, or just choose to ignore those flaws because they like the one-liners.

The story is simple and straightforward, and the characters are potentially interesting, but they mostly seem two-dimensional. Beau Bridges is utterly wasted as a drunk buffoon who's never really funny or given much to do. Bonnie Bedelia fares better as the prissy Latrelle because she chooses to play the part straight instead of broad. Even when she's being ridiculous, she's far more real than most of the cast, who, while energetic, are often not likable and frequently cartoonish. I suspect this is more about the script and the direction than the actors.

The gay subplot of the film is handled with a surprisingly heavy hand, and while Leslie Jordan's Brother Boy is played with a certain level of dignity, the part as written is more stereotypical and broad than you'd think. Brother Boy lives vicariously as Loretta Lynn, but it's never clear if he's adopted his country music queen persona as a mechanism for distancing himself from the horrible world he inhabits, if he has gone slightly nuts from his years locked up, or both. The story takes a cheap way out by having him confronted by a psychologist who's clearly the biggest nut in the booby hatch. The character of Ty, who narrates backstory from his therapist's office, is bland, and for every story he tells that feels real and touches a nerve, there's something else that feels worn and retreaded. Ty never seems to be connected to the world he describes.

There's fun and funny stuff here, but the morals are heavy handed, and the story tries too hard to be outrageous, often resulting in forced comedy.

That this film is adapted from a play is readily apparent and all too obvious. I've not seen the play, but its fingerprint are all over the film: the staging and the dialogue and the fact that the whole story plays out in essentially four locations (house, mental hospital, bar and church) all point out this origin in really obvious ways. Effectively there are only four scenes, and while intercut, it's still obviously four scenes. Those scenes would have been better off subdivided into smaller scenes and played in different locations.

Worst of all the technical execution is terrible. Apparently being one of the first indies shot on high def video, the film has a weird flat quality that isn't helped by amateurish lighting schemes where actors actually step into key lights of their fellow performers, casting them in shadows. The camera work itself is shaky and the setup and angles are often clumsy. The deleted scenes on the DVD demonstrate how bad this work can be, as some of the deleted material is so poorly photographed that one suspects it was dropped for its lack of visual quality as opposed to its narrative effectiveness. 

Heck, evenwhen the film apes a classic moment from Thelma & Louise it botches it. The women snap a Polaroid of themselves, which gets represented by a freeze-frame of the shot of them holding the Polaroid and not from the the POV of the prop camera. I realize this is low budget, but not that low.

In a way, the TV series spawned from it is better than the film itself, because it's written in bite-size scenes suited to television and film.

Cute idea, poorly executed.

Posted by molyneaux at 7:25 PM PDT
Updated: Tuesday, 30 December 2008 1:17 PM PST
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