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Monday, 11 May 2009
Star Trek, What If?
Topic: Cinema
Star Trek
***a few minor spoilers follow***
What a difficult film to review!

With over 42 years of history, sequels, and hundreds of hours of programming behind its various incarnation, there's a hundred ways one could approach the new Star Trek movie. My decision was to walk in and do my damnedest to forget everything that went before. I decided I'd take it on its own terms, and not base my reaction on what Star Trek's been.
Somehow I suspect my opinion may change on subsequent viewings. Either I'll like it more or less.
JJ Abrams' new film Star Trek is the fastest paced science fiction film I've seen in a while. It's got that kind of relentless forward momentum that the better Star Wars films possessed. The story launches into action in the first couple of minutes and it zips along at Indiana Jones pace for its mercifully standard two hour running time. Love it or hate it, it's hard to be bored, because the film is fleet footed and quite the sprinter.

Where it succeeds is in being a fairly smart action film. By smart I don't mean brainy, as this film's chock full of dumb science and riddled with convenient coincidences. However, it's not just about some simple goal like being the first to get the MacGuffin. Rather, it's about how a couple of young men somehow manage to start down the path to becoming the men they're destined to be, even when history itself gets yanked out from under their feet. Oh yeah, and in doing so there's lots of explosions and fist fights.
The plot, in a nutshell, is that vengeful travelers from the future come back in time, and the events surrounding it chain-reacts through the succeeding decades, affecting the lives of the protagonists. Young James T. Kirk's life is hit hardest, and his life goes into a direction of being a layabout jerk. But his potential is known to a respected officer who pushes him to join Starfleet. Meanwhile, on planet Vulcan, young half-human Spock is tormented by his Vulcan peers, and told by his parents he must choose his own path. Never wholly accepted, and treated as if his human heritage is a physical handicap, he rejects a prestigious appointment and also enlists in Starfleet. The two men meet at Starfleet Academy under acrimonious circumstances, and are instantly opposed. But when the travelers from the future reappear to cause further havoc, they're forced into action side by side.

The strongest part of the film is the story of Spock, whose struggle to reconcile his dual nature is thrown an additional monkey wrench by a rather stunning set of plot twists. Without giving away the details, the bottom drops out from under his personal and professional life. Where he ends up isn't exactly what you might expect at first.

The movie tries very hard to be fun. Sometimes it succeeds, sometimes it gets sophomoric doing so. There's a nice running gag with cadet Kirk trying to find out Uhura's first name, which she won't tell him, and a overly slapstick but pretty funny sequence where Dr. McCoy keeps jabbing Kirk with hypos to counteract reactions he's having to other drugs. Young ensign Chekov's accent is so thick even the computer can't understand him. On the other hand, there are some dumb physical comedy bits and eye-roll inducing innuendo.

The cast is mostly good. In some ways Chris Pine as Kirk is the hardest character to like because the story paints young Kirk as something of an arrogant ass. Fortunately, the story forces him to take more responsibility, and he becomes more likable as the plot progresses. Zachary Quinto's Spock is good. He's got that stoic expression down pat, but you can see in his eyes the emotions he's suppressing. He's a young guy struggling to find the balance between logic and emotion, and not always succeeding. Zoe Saldana's Uhura is professional and takes no guff, but I wish she'd been given a bigger role. That said, her part is arguably at least as big as McCoy's, which is saying something.  Karl Urban's McCoy is spot on. He's grumpy and cantankerous, and from the first time we meet him we find out exactly why he'd joined Starfleet. John Cho's Sulu has a nice moment on the bridge when the Enterprise first pulls out of dock, but aside from one big action scene, he's not got much to do. Anton Yelchin's Chekov is rather adorable. Playing a 17 year old mathematical genius, he makes a lot of his small part, and his accent, while fairly authentic, is comically ridiculous. Eric Bana as the bad-guy gets so little to do that he doesn't register much. Simon Pegg's Scotty is a kick. He's so clearly delighted by the Enterprise and its technological gadgets, he's like a big kid in the toy store. Leonard Nimoy has a bigger-than-cameo appearance as you-know-who, and while his part is pivotal to the plot, his character feels strangely just a little out of character at moments. That the writers insist on having him pull out some obvious chestnuts from "Spock's greatest hits" doesn't help matters, particularly when there's clearly other things he should be saying.

The movie is full of action sequences, most of which are very well realized. The first space battle is a doozy, and it's of a scale and intensity rarely seen in sci-fi movies. When ships fire phasers, it's not a couple of little ray beams, rather, it's like a WWII battleship letting loose with every cannon. When ships are hit, chunks of them blow apart rather than vaporizing or vanishing in a convenient fireball.  When ships go to warp drive, they do so with such force that the camera jolts in their wake. The film neatly conveys the immensity of the vessels without resorting to making them lumber around like Spanish galleons or making them maneuver like fighter jets. Ships never fall prey to all maneuvering on one plane as if on a glass table-top. They enter frame and the camera pivots around so you realize you're initially looking at them upside down or sideways. There's a big action sequence where characters have to do an orbital skydive from a shuttlecraft, and a nail-biting bit where two of our heroes are plummeting towards the surface on a planet as Chekov tries to get a transporter lock on these moving targets before they hit the ground.

All this said, the film's  got flaws. It's loud. It's too focused on forward momentum to do little things like make logical plot progressions, and when the writers do feel the need for exposition, they slam on the brakes too hard and and indulge in overexplaining. The film also comes perilously close to breaking the fourth wall as the characters discuss how these events will have changed their lives from whatever they might have been. There's also the usual sci-fi stupidity of people in the far off future having an affinity for 20th century cars, music, and culture: as if many people today would drive an 18th century carriage or play chamber music.  Kirk is a jerk for the first third of the film, and you want to him fail epically just to wipe the snugness off his face. Too many events occur by coincidence rather than design, and the moment you think about it, you realize that it's far too many coincidences to be believable. It's one of those movies where, when it's over, you go, "wait a minute, why did they _____ when earlier they ______ed?" The plot mechanics don't bear up to scrutiny at all.

Science and believability wise, Star Trek is often as dumb as a box of rocks. Ships zoom from point A to point B in minutes, but then take hours to do the reverse route. The depiction of space sometimes resembles Buck Roger's comic ideas from the 1930s, and at times you'd think the planets are spaced like balls on a pool table in this film's galaxy. The filmmaker's wanted to make the ships feel more real than in most sci-fi films, but their idea of realism sometimes goes in head-scratching directions. The bridge of the Enterprise is a busy high-tech nerve center with touch screen interfaces, vast curved displays and a main viewscreen that's an actual window overlain with a sophisticated Heads-Up-Display. The corridors are tubular and white with glossy black floors. The elevators are blindingly fast, crossing the ship in seconds. The engine room is... well, it looks like a modern factory of some sort. It's full of pipes and vats and valves. I realize the boiler room of the Titanic didn't much resemble the ball room, but really, this smacks of "free location" and is as out of place on a 23rd century spaceship as main sails would be on a 747. In fact, I found out the engine room was shot on location in a brewery...that explains the product placement.

Yes, I said product placement, blatant and in your face: Nokia and Budweiser in the fuuuuuture!  Ugh.

Technically, the film is well made and clearly very expensive, but the action sequences suffer from the action being too fast and the angles too close, leading to quite a bit of blurry "what was that?" when things really get crazy. In fact, JJ Abrams background in TV really jumps out by the number of closeups and extreme closeups he uses. On an IMAX screen, I could pick out every single stubbly whisker on Eric Bana's face.

But that said, it's a fun, fast paced ride that doesn't require you to leave your brain at the door, but probably plays best with critical facualties on Pause.


Ok, that's the film on its own terms. Let's look at it as Star Trek.

This film is like a big Marvel "What If?" version of Star Trek.

As Star Trek, it's most like the original and nothing like the sequels. It's a big fun space opera where the characters clash over what action to take. Tone wise it's on the approximate level of a second season episode of the original series: there's a big problem (like a Doomsday Machine), but there's a lot of humor (a la Tribbles). In other words, the Federation is in danger, but we're going to have fun while saving it.  If William Shatner wanted lots of "running and jumping" in his Star Trek film, he'd have loved to have played a script like this. There are fistfights and in-your face character conflicts, big revelations, epic consequences, and lots of humor...little of which falls into cringe territory. In fact, one kinda wishes a film as big and full of energy as this could have been made the the original cast in their prime...ok, with at least a nod to scientific plausibility.

There are tons of nods to the franchise's past, from the names of planets, the name plaques for admirals, to a tribble. There's Captain Pike, a green Orion girl, some familiar Klingon ships, and cadet Kirk taking some Kobayashi Maru test. Sometimes, they're spot on funny, as when the film pays a sideways homage to Kirk's famous "Khan! KHAAAAN!" by standing that on its head (you'll know it when you hear it), or when Scotty assures Kirk and Spock he's going to beam them into what he's sure is a cargo deck, but ends up being smack in the middle of the enemy bridge. Often the nods are cute, sometimes they're stupid, like assigning the name Delta Vega to a planet within sight of Vulcan.

The story goes to rather absurd lengths to get the familiar characters conveniently in their familiar positions despite the change in history. Somehow, despite Kirk joining the Academy years later than he would have in the original timeline, all these familiar faces end up on the Enterprise even without him as Captain. Did we really need to have EVERYONE on the ship in the first film? Okay, they left non-entities like Chapel and Kyle out, but, as with the Batman films, where they decided they didn't need Robin right away I think they could have focused on Kirk and Spock and added some of the other characters later. No one was going to NOT see the film because Chekov wouldn't be in it.

What the filmmakers did, smartly, I think, was to realize there was just too much past baggage in the franchise, making it difficult to do new stories or go in a different direction, hence the plot involving travelers from the future changing history, thus allowing them to chart new events without concern for what happened before. This film takes the infamous "reset button" used to restore history at the end of a world-changing episode and throws that damned button out the window. The events that change history in the opening scene and subsequent cataclysms of the film are fait accompli: nothing is undoing them. The Captain Kirk of this film has a different history than that of the original series, as do, presumably, other characters. As such, all bets are off concerning events that happened in oh so-familiar series and movies. The world is different, the Enterprise is different, and how Kirk ends up in command is different. Heck, maybe in this new universe there'll never be a Next Generation or DS9 or wretched Voyager. I suppose one can hope... If anything, I think they bent over backwards too much to justify the change, as if assuring the fans that the shows they knew are "still there" in a parallel if anything could erase hundreds of hours of episodes and features.

In tone, the film is clearly much more Star Wars like than any Trek that's gone before it. There's big action, big stunts, and big effects sequences. In that sense, it's not Star Trek as we've seen it, but it's not utterly at odds with some of what's gone before.  In the end, it's a fun movie, and I'll admit I liked it more than almost anything I've seen with the "Trek" label on it since high school. I'm not sad to see the old stuff go. The adventurous Star Trek I loved as a kid had passed on a long time ago, replaced with joyless, sanctimonious, technobabble laden tripe that pretended it was relevant but was less innovative than most modern TV dramas. Except for reruns of the original, I never cared to see another Star Trek film or TV show. As such, the fact that this new movie grabs the property and yanks it in a whole different direction doesn't bother me at all. This new Star Trek, flawed as it is, goes for the fun factor the original series could display in spades.
One can only hope they can make a sequel that's just as exciting but with more brains. Maybe then Star Trek will be worth watching again.

Posted by molyneaux at 9:04 AM PDT
Updated: Monday, 11 May 2009 9:35 PM PDT
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Monday, 4 May 2009
Topic: Cinema
Just in from seeing "Moon" at its west coast premier at the San Francisco International Film Festival Sunday night.
Click for the trailer
It's a good film albeit not perfect or a classic. This is really an actor's film, and it's ably carried almost entirely by Sam Rockwell's performance. I loathed him in the awful Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy film, but he's in fine form here, and manages to play much of this film wholly against himself, or his faceless robot assistant. The film is something of a throwback to the kinds of sci-fi movies of the 70s, ruminating the effects of space isolation on humans, and a little about what it means to be human at all. The pace is slow but deliberate. Maybe it's tad too slow in places, but it's never boring. That said, it's a character drama, so don't expect any big actions set pieces.

The script is good, but it's not perfect. It's got a few logical lapses and a few bits are unfortunately predictable. I won't go into detail, as they're spoiler territory, but none are serious enough to detract from the film.

The production is heavily influenced by sci-fi films of the 70s and 80s, and there's a definite Ron Cobb aesthetic to the sets (right down to some doorway shapes and aping his "semiotic standard" icons from Alien), so it all feels familiar and mostly practical.

The use of miniatures for much of the effects work gives the film a nice solid quality so lacking in CGI heavy films. Sure, not every effect looks 100% convincing, but the batting average is at least on par with most CGI. The play of real light over real objects is wonderful. The filmmakers make smart decisions regarding mixing minitures with digital set extensions, etc.

Director Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie) was on-hand for the screening and did a nice Q&A with the audience after the show. He said that the film's budget was 5 million dollars, but it certainly looks more expensive than that. I got a chance to talk to him at the end of the screening, and then ran into him again at a bar a few doors down later. Nice chap!

Posted by molyneaux at 2:04 AM PDT
Updated: Monday, 4 May 2009 7:03 PM PDT
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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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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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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, 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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Sunday, 27 July 2008
Who Watches the Watchmen?
Topic: Cinema

Click this or the image below to view the trailer for Watchmen...go full screen if your computer can do it! 

Dr. Manhattan x3 in the trailer for 2009's Watchmen film

I read Watchmen back in the late 80s, and it simultaneously vivisected and redefined superhero comics all at once. If you don't know the story, the trailer probably doesn't make much sense. but suffice to say it was the first sophisticated take on costumed adventurers, and remains probably the most adult such vision yet. Furthermore, it used the comics medium to dissect itself. What would a world be like if superheroes actually existed?  If superheroes were real, what's in the comic books? Would kids of said adventurers be pushed into like careers by their parents? Would a man whose identity is tied up in a heroic alter ego be able to function without it? Can a population tolerate a state where costumed vigilantes operate outside the law? Would the police stand for it? What happens to a masked vigilante who routinely faces the most horrible crimes, and can such a person maintain their sanity in the aftermath of such experiences? Would a man with godlike superhuman abilities be able to relate to human beings, and would he care what happened to them? And when the world is on the brink of nuclear Armageddon, and the major deterrant is the aforementioned superhuman being who doesn't seem to care any more, what can be done to stop humanity from destroying itself?

Watchmen is a milestone: the only graphic novel to win a Hugo, and is also the only graphic novel to appear on Time Magazine's 2005 list of "the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present." That's a lot to live up to.

This will either be the most amazing superhero film yet...or one if its biggest disasters. I suspect there won't be much in between.

Posted by molyneaux at 9:54 PM PDT
Updated: Sunday, 27 July 2008 10:45 PM PDT
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Saturday, 12 April 2008
If it's silent, why is there so much music?
Topic: Cinema

Gorgeous day in the City by the Bay... balmy, shorts and tee shirt weather!

So what do I do? I go into a darkened movie theater (with Becky and Dana)!

Okay, admittedly, not for long. Becky and I always try to catch shows put on by the, and today, as part of the JAZZ + SILENT FILM FESTIVAL, the Castro Theatre screened Buster Keaton's 1924 comedy, Sherlock Jr. (click for details on the film), one of Time Magazine’s “All-Time 100 Best Films”.

Sherlock is a hilarious tale which features a hapless projectionist who dreams of being a detective. After being falsely framed of stealing a watch, he dreams himself and the people he knows into the film he's projecting, wherein he assumes the role of the the dashing detective of the film's title.

This movie is nothing short of phenomenal, with visual gags that are so good that you're left wondering how they did them even as you're laughing. In one scene, Keaton dives INTO a suitcase full of disguises being held up by an accomplice—disguised as a woman—who instantly snaps the case shut and walks off, all in one take.

The movie is fairly short (45 minutes), but it was preceded by a vintage Felix the Cat silent cartoon: "Felix Woos Whoopee"

What made this show extra special was the music. The Silent Film Festival always has live music with its films: usually a small quintet or grand piano or the Mighty Wurlizter house organ. This show was accompanied live by the Clubfoot Orchestra, performing their original scores for both films. No quaint old fashioned piano here, this was fun, up tempo jazz music that really brought the films to life.  Felix the Cat never seemed funnier, and the score of Sherlock Jr. was great, featuring a bass guitar doing a James Bondian riff during a chase scene.

(It appears that the film with the score is HERE on Google Video).

Afterwards we went to a bar to have a cocktail, and upon learning Becky's trip to Hawaii had been cancelled because of the Aloha Airlines shutdown, Dana decided that we must have tropical cocktails, and proceeded to program the jukebox with every tropical theme song he could find.

A nice dinner and then a pot of tea on an outdoor patio at twilight brought the day to a close.


Posted by molyneaux at 12:01 AM PDT
Updated: Tuesday, 15 April 2008 11:16 PM PDT
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Saturday, 8 March 2008
Nyeh, What's Up Doc?
Topic: Cinema

Today I’d thought to take Dana to Point Reyes to watch whales migrating, but I decided to put that off two weeks when I saw a chart that indicated the migratory peak would be then.

With that postponed, Dana suggested that we go see the 1972 film “What’s Up, Doc?” as part of the Peter Bogdanovich retrospective going on at the Castro Theater. Friday night Dana saw “The Last Picture Show” and both Bogdanovich and Cybil Shepherd appeared on stage to talk about it.

So, we go to the theater, and take what are becoming our regular seats in the second to the last row—because those seats are on a riser and no matter who sits in front of you, you can always see the screen. Before the movie, Bogdanovich appears on stage and tells some stories about making it. Afterwards, the lights go down and they start running trailers of other Bogdanovich films.

And then, Mr., Director takes his seat—in the back row—directly behind us! Literally, he was in the seat right behind Dana. It’s funny to watch a movie and know the director is breathing down your neck. Fortunately, it’s a great, funny, charming movie, so there was plenty to laugh at. And, heck, it was funny to hear which parts the director himself laughed at.

If you’ve never seen the film, rent it. It’s a terrific homage to screwball comedies of the 30s, with sharp writing, spot-on acting (including the Hollywood debut of Madeline Kahn, who steals the show out from under Barbra Streisand’s...nose), and an amazing and hilarious chase scene that’s an homage old silent film comedies. Imagine big Harold Lloyd stunts done amongst San Francisco’s get the idea.

Oh, and it ends with Bugs Bunny. How can you go wrong?

Posted by molyneaux at 12:01 AM PST
Updated: Monday, 10 March 2008 1:42 AM PST
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