What It Is: 8/30/10

What I’m reading: The Iliad.

What I’m listening to: Sir Lucious Left Foot, The Singular Adventures of the Style Council, Simple Things and Blood Like Lemonade

What I’m watching: Nothing much. We watched 3 hours of Spike Lee’s new New Orleans documentary, but eh.

What I’m drinking: Luchador Tremblor shiraz. I’m out of Q-Tonic, as is one of my hook-ups.

What Rufus & Otis are up to: Sadly, getting diagnosed with mange of some kind. They’ve been scratching like crazy the last few weeks, keeping us up in the middle of the night, so I took them down to the vets’ offices to see what was what, hoping it was just allergies. They figure it’s mange (not sure what variety), so the boys are on antibiotics and Benadryl. Rufus is okay about taking capsules with yogurt or Barney Butter, but Otis is much pickier, so that’s been a bit of a trial. We kept them home from this week’s grey-hike for that reason, not wanting to risk getting the other dogs mangenated.

Where I’m going: Harlem! Amy & I are going to the Apollo tonight to see a performance of Louis. It’s a (new) silent movie, with accompaniment by Wynton Marsalis and a bunch of other jazz musicians. Just watch the trailer and you’ll understand why we’re making the hike out to 125th St. for this one-night show. (The last silent movie I saw was Silent Movie.)

What I’m happy about: Selling off my 2nd generation Kindle for enough money to upgrade to a 3rd gen model pretty cheaply. And since I’ll be reading my print edition of The Iliad (Lattimore’s translation isn’t available as an e-book), that’ll tide me over until the new model arrives. Also, we took a nice hike on Sunday (sans doggies, since I think they contracted this mange by hanging out in the brackish water of Ramapo Lake a month back), which will likely be better in autumn. Oh, and on a little pre-pick-up-Amy-at-the-train-stop shopping expedition on Friday, I was mistaken for a J.Crew employee and had my shoes complimented by young Club Monaco salesman in the span of 10 minutes. I think that’s a little more flattering than last week’s experience at the hiking store.

What I’m sad about: This mange thing makes me look like a crappy dog-father (and my dogs are itchy and irritable/ticklish).

What I’m worried about: Nothing significant. I finished our September issue on time, and my big annual conference is looking pretty good, as far as attendee count and speaker/panelist anxiety goes.

What I’m pondering: How many R-rated movies I saw before I turned 10. I saw at least three in the theater: Caddyshack, History of the World, Part I, and The Jerk. I’m pretty sure I saw Animal House and Blazing Saddles at home (decoder box) before my 10th birthday, too.

Movie Review Tuesday: Misanthropy, My Nic Cage Problem, and Abusing the Audience

Guess who watched some movies last week?

Greenberg: I loved Noah Baumbach’s first flick, Kicking and Screaming (not the Will Ferrell one; the one with Olivia D’Abo wearing a retainer), but haven’t seen any of his subsequent movies. This one reminded me of K&S in parts, esp. in a climactic decision made by Ben Stiller’s titular character. And that character, an emotionally crippled neurotic, could easily have been a pal of one of K&S’ aimless college graduates, still trying to work things out at the age of 40.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about this movie was its sheer naturalness. It’s rare (for me) to see performances where the characters are making decisions, where their silences are as important as (maybe more important than) what they say. Even the pontificating dialogue didn’t feel as though it was written for them. As I mentioned last week, this movie is on my Mount Rushmore of Middle-Aged Misanthropy. Greenberg isn’t “likable,” and his rants aren’t exactly “what we all wish we could say,” but his anxiety, his desperation and his frustration are so familiar to me that I found myself invested in that character far more than I expected. I haven’t felt this close to a Stiller character since Zoolander.

I was also swept up by the soulful, downbeat performance of Rhys Ifans and thought Greta Gerwig did a tremendous job of playing off of Stiller. Her character’s “millennial” (or whatever that 20-something demo is called) uncertainty of who she is and what she wants serves as a corrective for Greenberg’s decades-long unrootedness and inability to connect. Of course, it’s a love story of sorts, but it features one of the most (humorously) uncomfortable sex scenes of all time.

On the negative side, Greenberg uses a sick dog as a way to build tension and sympathy, and that felt kinda cheap. Still, I thought this was a wonderful movie, but maybe that’s just the anxiety-ridden, socially inept loner in me. I like to think we’re all a little Greenberg.

Notting Hill: We only put this on because Rhys Ifans and Gina McKee are in it. I was glad to see that Ms. McKee’s teeth were far better in In The Loop. Also, I think Hugh Grant was better looking in his About A Boy phase, skinnier and without the floppy hair. But, boy, was this a non-movie.

Matchstick Men: I have a Nicolas Cage problem. As a result of him doing such crappy movies for so many years, it’s difficult to watch him in not-necessarily-crap movies, because he carries such crap-baggage. In this case, he looked like he was treading a line between acting and the bullshit parody of himself that he trots out to pay his mammoth tax bills. His character’s OCD issues come off as quirks that they added right before filming, to show him Acting.

I watched this for a few reasons:

  1. It’s another LA-as-a-character movies, and I’m interested in how that works (that was also the case for Greenberg),
  2. It’s directed by Ridley Scott, and I like to see what nausea-inducing camera trick or cinematographic wackiness or color scheme he employs from movie to movie,
  3. It’s got Sam Rockwell in it, and I’ll watch him in just about anything.

Neat movie to look at, but not a good flick. I guess LA was significant, but the landmarks were lost on me. The plot’s long con was pretty obvious midway through the flick, esp. when the long-lost daughter with whom Cage reunites bears a stronger resemblance to Rockwell than to him. On the plus side, Bruce McGill (D-Day from Animal House) was in this, which prompted me to check him out on IMDB. With his TV, movie and video game roles, it’s possible he’s done more work than anyone else from Animal House, with the exception of Donald Sutherland.

Rockwell, of course, is great. One of my pals once told me to note how often the camera lingers on his ass in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and I’ve noticed a fixation on Rockwell’s ass in other flicks since, like Moon (which makes sense). Funnily enough, the only actor to go bare-ass in this one is Nicolas Cage. Actually, there’s nothing funny about that.

District 9: More entertaining than I expected, although the political angle was kinda lost on me. I mean, I get the “it’s Joburg, so the aliens represent apartheid” hammer, but that doesn’t really correlate with, um, apartheid. If the humans moved somewhere and discovered a race of aliens and moved them into slums, that’d make a better parallel. It’s not like the blacks decided to move to South Africa, prompting the whites to enforce a status quo. Maybe it was supposed to be about how South African mentality is subtly oriented to keep Others in slums, but it’s not like there was some way that the aliens could have been assimilated into human society; they were submental, brutally strong, and had no concept of work. They sure had cool weapons, though. What I found most interesting was how the lead actor, Sharlto Copley, started out resembling a lost Monty Python actor, and transformed into Christian Bale’s homelier brother over the course of the flick.

And I had one gigantic problem with this flick: the storytelling model. District 9 spends its first 20 minutes carefully setting up a documentary model. Everything the audience sees is framed by a camera; we’re watching news footage, interviews, security cameras, etc. Then, it’s just dropped. We get a scene of two aliens scavenging through a trash pile, and the point of view is omniscient. The movie haphazardly flips back to documentary / reality TV style, then returns to omniscient mode when it needs to show scenes that couldn’t possibly have been “documented.” Once again: if your storytelling model can’t encompass the entire story, then you need to change either the story or the model. At the very least, the movie should have broken into chapters: this one is documentary style, this one is natural. They could have worked with the tension between the two modes that way, showing how the story changes from a “reality TV” mode to “what’s really happening,” but it’s clear that the documentary style was poorly thought out and just used to make some sort of point that I’m clearly missing. Probably about apartheid.

Movie Review Tuesday: Maneater Edition

I only saw two flicks this week, dear readers. I suppose their unifying theme is man’s inherent loneliness in the world. Also, both of them sorta feature the dead rising from their graves.

Zombieland: From what I gather, there’s been a mini-wave of zom-coms after the success of Shaun of the Dead (one of my favorite movies). This one’s a road trip variant; the characters bond, learn to trust each other, and kill lots of zombies. The gore’s not too severe, though it’s not exactly family friendly. Sadly, this one uses the “fast zombie” model that makes for more action-adventure suspense but sorta defeats the purpose of zombie flicks. (hint: it’s the implacability)

Some sorta virus has infected just about everyone and turned ’em into cannibals. Jesse Eisenberg, whom I last saw sucking all the life out of Adventureland, is a bit better here, trying to channel all the Michael Cera he can. Woody Harrelson does a much better job “playing” batshit-crazy. Emma Stone doesn’t have quite the charm she had in Superbad, but Abigail Breslin’s just amazing to watch. It’s a wonder how self-possessed that kid is in whatever role she plays. ?There’s a celebrity cameo that’s absolutely hysterical, and a neat reveal for Woody Harrelson’s character.

It’s an enjoyable (albeit forgettable) flick, but it also has a big storytelling flaw: Jesse Eisenberg’s character narrates the movie. It’s not that he does a bad job; his voiceover has a jaunty style, relating the various rules that his character has developed to survive the zombie plague. These are accompanied by funny video overlays, one of which becomes an emotional cue at a pivotal moment. Now, I don’t have a problem with voiceover per se, but in this case, his narration is directed at an audience. The problem is, he’s one of the last people on earth! There’s no “viewer” or recipient for his charming narration. Who is he charmingly talking to? It’s like the “worm’s-eye” perspective in that movie Tremors, which missed on the fact that worms don’t have eyes.

Outside of that un-thought-out piece of hackery, it was just fine. I mean, it’s a light flick, with nowhere near the heart of Shaun of the Dead‘s wonderful zombie coming-of-age masterpiece, but what are you gonna do? It’s Hollywood.

A Single Man: This was Tom Ford‘s first feature flick. I have a post about Ford that I need to work on, when I get the time. Ford was the creative director who revitalized the Gucci brand, then jumped to YSL before starting his own brand. He’s a notorious control freak, so I wondered whether film-making, just about the most collaborative artistic endeavor, would be shit. (There was a good interview with him in Fantastic Man a few years ago, but they don’t put any of their contents online, so you’ll have to find it yourself.)

But it wasn’t bad! Sure, there were a couple of heavy-handed techniques, particularly the repeated use of color saturation to show emotional resonance in scenes that were prior shot in muted tones. His slow-mo scenes at times felt like an attempt at stretching the movie out to feature length. And there’s a scene that’s a cross between a CK Obsession ad and a Guess ad. Oh, and, there’s also a shot right at the end where my wife & I both said, “I didn’t know John Woo guest-directed this one!” (one reason why I love her so; another is that she’s willing to spend Saturday night watching a Tom Ford movie.)

But you can let all that go, because Colin Firth was just fantastic. He plays a gay British literature professor living in LA in 1960, a few months after his lover of 16 years has died in a car accident. He was a joy to watch, a man trying to keep himself in check, living in an era where his sex had to be kept secret, and wondering how he could go on living without the love of his life. Ford must’ve had a field day recreating the period fashions, and we’re meant to luxuriate in the clothes and the decor. And in Nicholas Hoult, who’s like Zac Efron with depth.

As I think back on it, the story is slight: a gay man’s partner dies and he plans to kill himself. But the subtly spectacular visual environment, combined with Firth’s bravura performance, brought the world to life. And Julianne Moore’s British accent was much better than the Boston one she sports on 30 Rock.

Movie review Tuesday

Since I’m on a movie-viewing kick for the moment, I figured I’d write about the flicks I watched over the previous week. I’d have included them in yesterday’s What It Is, but it’d get too long and unwieldy, and take attention away from the all-important gin section of the post. So here’s what I saw and what I thought:

(500) Days of Summer: Nice germ of a story, completely wasted by a lack of faith in itself. See, the story’s meant to be out of sequence; we’re shown different days of the 500-day span of when the protagonist knows The Girl. On its own, this could’ve made for an interesting structure for a movie. It’s no Betrayal, that awesome flick by Pinter in which each scene goes back 1 or 2 years from the previous one, so that the opening of the movie is really the end of the relationship that we subsequently see unfold. In the case of (500) Days of Summer, the film-makers decided that, in addition to the “non-linear” sequence, they’d hedge their bets by including

a) an omnipotent voiceover that intrudes at critical points to tell the viewer things that the writing and acting are too shoddy to convey, and

b) flashbacks!

Why flashbacks, of all things? For God’s sake, the only novelty of your movie is that you’re telling the story “out of order,” so why on earth would you then have characters tell stories from the past to fill out the “present” scene? Wouldn’t you be better served actually including a scene from that day, instead of cheating by showing it within another day? You’re conceding that your structure doesn’t stand on its own, so your movie’s one unconventional element is really only a worthless gimmick! But, hey: good thing you have that omnipotent voiceover to tell us when something important is happening. A total failure of storytelling.

Up: Maybe it’s because I was watching this at like 2 a.m., but I found it pretty boring and trite, as far as Pixar flicks go. Was there some point at which the viewer was supposed to think, “This cantankerous old man is going to abandon the little kid, lose the goony-bird to the aged villain, watch the dog get mauled, and not live up to his dead wife’s memory?” Sure, it was gorgeous, there was plenty of action, and the “growing old” sequence at the beginning was deft, but the whole exercise felt formulaic. Maybe it was the best movie of 2009, like some people were saying, but that’s damning with faint praise.

Once In a Lifetime: Impossibly entertaining, but that may be because I was a Cosmos fan as a kid. Still, I think a casual viewer would find the story pretty amazing, in terms of what soccer was like in the U.S. in the early ’70’s, what Pele’s arrival meant on the world stage, and how Giorgio Chinaglia could succeed in New York as an egotistical Italian who spoke English with a Welsh accent.

Inception: It was a mind-blowing visual spectacle, but I’m struggling with what to make of it. With a day’s distance, I find myself bothered by the sheer orderliness of the dreams that the characters invade. Maybe it’s because there’s an “architect” character who creates dream-structures, but they all seemed Escher-like at best, not surreal and identity-shifting, the way we tend to dream (right?). That is, the dreams seemed ordered and logical, which contradicts my (and I assume everybody’s) experience with dreams. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a fantastic flick, but I think “dreams” really means “movies” in Christopher Nolan’s world, and that this was a movie about the layers of imagination that go into our movie-watching experience.

Part of it is that there’s a lot of time spent explaining “the rules” of being in dreams. I used to complain that the Sandman comic book would occasionally pull some dream-rule out of its ass as a deux ex machina. In this flick, you get all The Rules spelled out, but there are a ton of them, and they still seem a bit arbitrary. The most important one, in terms of storytelling mechanics, is the differing experience in time for dreams within dreams. Thus, Nolan’s able to have one event take place in “level one” incredibly slowly while the dream one level deeper is moving more quickly. (This piles up in a fantastic way. It reminded me of the moment in the Rush documentary, when someone talks about the song Spirit of Radio, and marvels over how the song repeatedly changes time signature, and yet manages not to lose the audience.)

Early in the movie, I thought the most apt comparison would be Synecdoche, New York, as the discussion of layers of reality, consciousness and artifice were in the fore. By the end, I realized the closer comparison would be to another Charlie Kaufman-written movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both movies center around an “invasion” of the mind, and have unconventional story structures. Kaufman and Gondry’s flick has all the heart that’s lacking from Nolan’s extravaganza, but that’s no knock; I think Eternal Sunshine is one of the best movies about love in the past 20 years. What Nolan made is a movie less about dreams and memory than about movie-making, and maybe a specific type of blockbuster movie-making. That said, it’s a hell of an experience, and the fight scenes in the hotel, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt battles security goons in a hallway in which the plane of gravity keeps shifting, are worth the price of admission. (However, the visual hat-tips to Keanu Reeves and The Matrix kept reminding me that this was a movie about movies.)

It’s a monstrous achievement, but I’m not sure I’ll be reflecting on it years from now, or even a few months from now.

So that’s last week’s movies (not including American Splendor, which I’ve seen 5 or 6 times already). If I watch anything good this week, I’ll try to pontificate about it for you.