Friday, May 28, 2010

John Williams: My Personal First Film Composer

(This is my contribution to the John Williams Blog-a-thon hosted by Ali Arikan and Matt Zoller Seitz over at the blog Edward Copeland on Film.)


EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—For me, when it came to film music, John Williams's was the first that made me aware of the music as music, whether in concert with the film or not.

Of course, when you're pulverized by the kinds of overwhelming brass fanfares of Williams's famous themes for the Star Wars films, the Indiana Jones films, and Jurassic Park (1993), among others, it's perhaps difficult not to take notice. But none of those films were my introduction to the man's film music. For me, it was his more delicate work for Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) that first perked up my ears not only to his music, but to film music in general. From the spooky opening ondes-martenot moans underneath the opening credits to the full-orchestral surge of unabashed sentimentality in its final frames, Williams's music for that film fascinated me almost as much as the film itself moved me as a young kid, with little more than a passing interest in movies, on the verge of teen-hood. (Also, I grew up listening to classical music, so I was probably primed to respond enthusiastically to the kind of grand orchestral sound Williams frequently employed in his scores.)

Older and wiser now (ostensibly), I'm more aware of the composers behind the music in movies, and there are probably a few others I might name either alongside Williams or maybe even above him in stature: Jerry Goldsmith; Bernard Herrmann; Nino Rota; hell, even Carl Stalling, who scored many of those Warner Bros. cartoons. But John Williams is the one who opened the door to a personal awareness of music in the movies—helped in no small measure by the amount of exposure to him I had whenever I watched him conduct the Boston Pops on PBS back in the day.

For that, I salute him.

I will defer further commentary on John Williams's art to others participating in this blog-a-thon; those others would probably have deeper insights into the intricacies of his genius than I do. The blog-a-thon's two hosts already have a fine inaugural post up at Edward Copeland on Film about the subtleties of his approach to scoring George Lucas's Star Wars prequels, a post which a) actually makes me somewhat interested in finally getting around to seeing Episodes II and III, and b) emphasizes that, for all the bombast Williams may be known for as a film composer based on some of his famous themes, the real measure of his brilliance is how selflessly and imaginatively he adopts his approach to the film he's scoring. You may remember the rousing, endlessly catchy music in Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or E.T., but that doesn't make his relatively hands-off approach to, say, Presumed Innocent (1990), Saving Private Ryan (1998), or Munich (2005), among many others, any less impressive.

Sure, great film music deserves to be heard on its own...but I would argue that the full measure of a film score's brilliance can only really be gained in concert with the film it's accompanying. On both counts, John Williams, for lack of a better word, scored high more often than not.

***

In the meantime: I recently got an earful of John Williams when I visited Universal Studios Hollywood during my trip to Los Angeles—Jaws this, E.T. that, and Jurassic Park all over. I'm still working on that video summing up my trip out there, but here's a preview that fits quite nicely with this John Williams blog-a-thon.

Hope this all makes you hungry for my eventual vacation-video main course:

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Jack Bauer, A Modern Sisyphus: A 24 Postmortem

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—


As with much of this last season of the FOX television series 24, I watched only about one-third of Monday night's two-hour series finale, the last third. But as the series ended with Jack Bauer once again faced an uncertain future, literally dissolving from our view as ever-loyal Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) ordered the satellite overheard shut down, I found myself feeling an unexpected emotion: regret upon realization that there would be no more Jack Bauer Power Hours to speak of (at least until that much-discussed big-screen movie materializes).

I honestly didn't think I'd feel anything of the sort as the series—which, after relatively sagging ratings this season, finally and unceremoniously got hit by the cancellation axe—wound down to its final ticks of the clock. Again, I had only watched bits and pieces of this final season, finding myself increasingly indifferent to this latest big-scale terrorist threat—which seemed no different from big-scale terrorist threats of seasons past—and to Jack's inevitably failed attempts to stave off the human beast inside of him. It had all been done before, and this time, not even the New York setting (which, most of the time, barely looked like New York) could bring any inherent freshness to the rote plotting.

But, as the final seconds ticked away...well, while I am glad that the series is finally over, I can't help but think fondly as a whole over the many, many hours of entertainment the show has provided year/day-in, year/day-out. Until the next big zeitgeist-tapping high-octane action series comes along, 24—as morally problematic and silly as it often was—will always have a place in my trigger-happy heart.


No surprise, really, that Jack was not going to go out on a wholly positive note; that would not have been true to the nature of the series as a whole. Over the course of its eight seasons, 24 fashioned a modern-Sisyphus myth about a hero who was always called upon to save his country from disaster, and who kept on going in spite of all the political and personal weight he kept accumulating each season. So of course the series began to repeat itself as it dragged on; for all the political commentary that many critics have read into it, the basic appeal of 24, really, was to see just how deep into the moral and physical muck Jack was willing to go, time and time again, in order to get the dirty but necessary job done.

Perhaps it doesn't really matter, then, that (in this writer's opinion, at least) the series peaked creatively in its second season and afterwards remained content to play out hit-or-miss variations on its usual themes and scenarios. (Its Emmy-winning fifth season was, I suppose, the best of those variations, though I still think its seventh is sorely underrated, if perhaps less immediately memorable that previos years.) The series' repetitive form was, really, just following Jack Bauer's Sisyphean function. Fitting, then, that its series finale ending up feeling less like a culmination and more like a standard cliffhanging season finale. For Jack, the perils will never end; whatever light he finds at the end of his tunnels will always be temporary at best.

There's plenty more to say about 24, but to do that, I will turn it over to film critic Aaron Aradillas and critic/filmmaker Matt Zoller Seitz, both of whom collaborated to produce this thorough, and thoroughly excellent, five-part video-essay series on the show.

The following takes place...right now:












I don't see much to quibble with in these videos; 24 was never consistent in its political commentary, but that didn't make its politics any less interesting to parse, and the writers certainly didn't allow politics to overwhelm the suspense and the emotions. The series may ultimately end up being considered more a relic of our time than a masterpiece for all time, but at its best it was still a fascinating, thrilling, surprisingly soulful and sometimes genuinely troubling ride.

I, for one, will miss it dearly. Over and out...

P.S. By the way, anyone waiting for me to say anything about that other series finale that aired this past Sunday night will have to wait for a long, long while. I haven't watched a single full episode of Lost, and, unlike MSNBC.com film critic Alonso Duralde, I didn't dare tune in without having seen the rest of the series. I will say, though, that, having heard bits and pieces of what transpired in it, and wading through the wildly mixed opinions on it, I do find myself intrigued enough to seriously consider giving the series a spin on DVD in the future. If only I had time to invest even in TV series on DVD these days; I'm barely making any progress on that Twin Peaks box set I blind-bought last year, for instance...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Weekly Musical Discoveries: The Beach Boys' Wild Honey

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—By the time this is posted, the last two hours ever of the TV series 24 will have aired. I have a bit more to say about the series as a whole, but I figured I'd wait 'til it was all over before offering an appreciation/eulogy of sorts for a show that, this finale made me realize, I may miss more than I was expecting after basically tuning in and out this season. Jack Bauer, you will be missed...at least, until that oft-discussed big-screen movie of yours comes along. 

In the meantime...how about a musical discovery for the week?


When, a few weeks before I traveled to Los Angeles, I asked some of my Facebook/Twitter friends if they had any suggestions for music to get me in a California mood, The Beach Boys was one of the first artists mentioned. Though I had heard most of their big hits on the radio many times before, I had never listened to any of their complete albums—not even their seminal 1966 Pet Sounds! So I listened to a bunch of them before going off to Southern California.

Early Beach Boys albums like Surfin' USA (1963), Little Deuce Coupe (1963) and All Summer Long (1964), among others, exulted in a sense of innocence in their embrace of the (for lack of a better adjective) sunnier aspects of SoCal culture: surfing, girls, fast cars, and the like. These early albums were also fairly straightforward pop affairs, with some great singles—"Surfin' Safari," "Surfin' USA," "Fun, Fun, Fun," "I Get Around," and many more—surrounded by a lot of filler (even occasional tracks of Beach Boys members goofing around in a studio). But then, from The Beach Boys Today! (1965) onward, Brian Wilson & co. began to refine their sound and experiment with different recording techniques, peaking with Pet Sounds, their most stylistically and thematically ambitious record to date.

The album—which was greeted with less enthusiasm as far as album sales go than their previous records, but which has come to be considered the group's masterpiece, as well as one of the greatest albums of all time—still holds up quite handsomely even today. But that certainly wasn't the end of The Beach Boys. Even through the difficult times that followed—with Brian Wilson's ambitious Smile project, among other factors, causing rifts among band members—the group still put out albums, even if they lacked the same pathbreaking frisson of Pet Sounds.

Wild Honey dates from that post-Pet Sounds period (1967); in it, Brian Wilson has become less of a driving creative force (it's his first album since Surfin' USA in which he wasn't the sole producer), allowing his brother Carl to emerge as a kind of white soul brother in tracks like "Darlin'," "How She Boogalooed It" and an unexpected remake of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her." It's really, really slight, with 11 brief cuts spanning all of about 24 minutes. The whole thing frankly feels like a bit of a throwaway—but what an infectious throwaway it is! Ramshackle-sounding compared to the more technically immaculate Pet Sounds, yet endlessly charming especially in its integration of R&B elements, Wild Honey is an endlessly catchy blast of The Beach Boys' usual all-American innocence, which must have sounded defiantly retro amid the tumultuous '60s. But an understanding of the historical period surrounding this album isn't necessary for an appreciation of its relatively modest yet unforgettable splendors. (And could its slightness be deliberate? Maybe there's a reason the album ends with an a cappella "Poof!")

On a more personal note: While in Los Angeles, I had a bunch of Beach Boys tunes playing on an endless loop in my head. A couple of them came from Pet Sounds ("Wouldn't It Be Nice," "God Only Knows"); "Surfin' Safari" was fairly prominent as well. Five or six of those tunes, though, came from Wild Honey.

Really. It's a blast. It will make you, yeah, smile.

Here's a clip of The Beach Boys performing "Darlin'" live in 1974, to give you an idea:



(Wild Honey, by the way, is currently available coupled with the group's Smiley Smile—an album that is also a kind of dumping ground of material from those initial aborted Smile sessions—released the same year. Smiley Smile is a decent-enough album in its own right—and hey, it features their big hit "Good Vibrations"...never a bad thing, in my view.)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Film Review Catch-Up: Mysteries and Non-Mysteries in Real and Simulated Worlds

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—I am currently working on a video summing up some of the highlights of my trip to Los Angeles. I'm not in a mad dash to finish it—trying to find time to complete it while handling my daily Wall Street Journal duties obviously makes it difficult to churn out a video as quickly as I might like—but I think it's come along nicely; so far, I've covered a little more than half of what I did over there. Once I'm done with it, of course, I'll post it up and link you all to it.

In the meantime...once again, I find myself with a boatload of movies I've seen yet have not written about here at My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second. So, while people are either exulting or cursing the final two-and-a-half hours of "Lost"—which I have seen not a single episode of—here are a few short takes on some of the stuff I've seen recently.

Chloe (2009; Dir.: Atom Egoyan)


I think film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum is right when he suggested at his website a couple months ago that the real subject of Atom Egoyan's latest film, an American remake of a 2003 French film starring Emmanuelle Béart, isn't its titular escort played by Amanda Seyfried—Chloe is conceived more as a sensual-then-threatening presence than a fully fleshed-out character—but on Catherine Stewart, the character played by Julianne Moore, a middle-aged woman who suddenly finds herself thrust into a midlife crisis as she become suspicious of her husband's (Liam Neeson) fidelity. Moore's achingly soulful and beautifully detailed performance is the real star of the show here, to the point that it doesn't bother me all that much that the second half of the film veers dangerously close to campy Fatal Attraction-ish territory. Besides, I don't think it ever quite gets to that level—Egoyan's filmmaking is too measured and intelligent, and his empathy for Catherine's emotional confusion too deep, to be easily laughed at however risible some of the later plot twists become. It's no masterpiece—its ending in particular feels a bit too rushed to be as resonant as it clearly wants to be—but it's more intriguing and affecting than you'd expect.

World on a Wire (1973; Dir.: Rainer Werner Fassbinder)


This two-part TV miniseries by the famous (and famously prolific) German director—an adaptation of Daniel F. Galouye's influential novel Simulacron-3—was first broadcast in Germany in 1973 and maybe screened only once in the U.S. until last month, when it played a widely publicized week-long run at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That's where I saw the film—at least, after waiting on a rush line for an hour and hoping and praying I wasn't too far back in the line to be turned away. Boy, am I so glad I was not! What an endlessly inventive and intellectually stimulating film this is: the kind of great science fiction that momentarily makes you wonder about the world around you—what's real, what's a simulacrum, and the like—while not shortchanging visual and human interest.

Perhaps even more fascinating than what Fassbinder puts up on the screen are the influences one can sense in sci-fi films that both preceded and followed World on a Wire: Alphaville (1965), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), The Matrix (1999). But could Wong Kar-Wai, of all directors, have picked up something from Fassbinder too? The proliferation of mirror-reflection shots in World on a Wire, to my mind, greatly recall similar ones in Wong's In the Mood for Love (2001) and 2046 (2005). Fassbinder's sensibility, of course, is far cooler than Wong's superheated romanticism—but maybe they're not so far apart after all: At the conclusion of this majestic sci-fi epic, love wins out in the end, in its own way.

(World on a Wire is not yet available on Region 1 DVD, but it is available from the U.K. on Region 2 DVD, if you're equipped with a region-free DVD player.)

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932; Dir.: Jean Renoir)


It is commonly accepted wisdom by now that French director Jean Renoir was by nature a humanist; Boudu Saved From Drowning—which I saw for the first time, in a less-than-stellar but serviceable print, during Brooklyn Academy of Music's extensive Renoir retrospective—complicates that popular critical wisdom just a bit, so slashing is its attack on societal class divisions. Here, Mr. Lestingois (Charles Granval)—a bookseller who is cheating on his wife (Marcelle Hainia) with the maid (Sévérine Lerczinska)—rescues the extraordinarily rude and unkempt Boudu (Michel Simon) after Boudu attempts to drown himself (in a fit of despair after losing his dog), and he wins acclaim as a good Samaritan for his act of charity. Turns out, though, that Boudu isn't particularly thrilled about being rescued, and he—not intentionally, perhaps, but as a result of his own nature—proceeds to wreak havoc on the already tenuous harmony of his well-meaning host family in anarchic and hilariously wrong ways. Though Renoir doesn't stoop to painting the members of the Lestingois household in broad, stick-figure strokes—that kind of deck-stacking wasn't Renoir's way—it's Michel Simon's uproarious gruffness and the character's utter refusal to conform to middle-class standards of decency that gives the film its potent subversive charge.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Boudu Saved From Drowning is that Renoir dares to suggest that even a resolutely lower-class tramp like Boudu has a certain amount of dignity; all those critics who go out of their way to praise films like Precious that turn poverty into some kind of undignified horror show—could probably stand to rewatch this masterpiece as a refresher.

(Boudu Saved From Drowning is available on Criterion Collection DVD.)

City Island (2009; Dir.: Raymond De Felitta)


Despite the Audience Award it won at Tribeca Film Festival last year, City Island's the alleged charms were lost on me early on with the film's first family-around-the-dining-table scene—a terrible piece of writing that suggested writer-director Raymond De Felitta didn't know how to announce that the Rizzo clan was so majestically dysfunctional unless that dysfunction was dialed all the way past the point of any recognizable human behavior. The film only gets more graceless from there; I didn't expect any movie in the dysfunctional-family-comedy sweepstakes to actually make me think back fondly on Little Miss Sunshine, but that 2006 faux-indie Sundance sensation is a marvel of exquisite subtlety and nuance by comparison, with quirks you could accept and characters you could halfway believe compared to the wearying sitcom antics of City Island.

On the bright side, City Island—a real seaport community in New York—does look like a lovely place to visit; credit cinematographer Vanja Cernjul for some attractive pictorial lensing. And Andy Garcia, playing the patriarch who harbors secret dreams of being an actor, does have one brilliant moment worth witnessing: the scene in which he goes on his first audition and ends up blowing both the judges and himself away with his improvisation. If you can somehow find a way to watch that scene and skip the rest, you'll have seen all you need to see from this dud.

Still to come: the art-house exploitation sensation The Human Centipede (First Sequence), the Argentine Oscar winner The Secret in Their Eyes, the prankish art documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, and more...including, maybe, a whole days' worth of Matthew Barney (if I can make it through that whole days' worth).

Friday, May 21, 2010

California 2010: In Which I Assess How Los Angeles Played Itself

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—As it turns out, my friend and I more or less stuck around in Los Angeles for the weeklong duration of our trip last week. No San Diego, no Sequoia National Park, no Santa Barbara wine country, as I had originally hoped; all will have to wait for my next voyage to the West Coast.

Nevertheless, Los Angeles offered its own considerable fascinations and rewards...and it's such a sprawling city that not even a week was enough to take in all there was to take in. I will surely be back.

For now, though...some rough impressions of Los Angeles:


Obviously, my impression of the town is skewed by the fact that I was a tourist for only a week, not a resident for years/life. But, if I had to boil my experience of the City of Angels down to one phrase..."fascinatingly contradictory" would sum it up, for me.


For many visitors, one of the great selling points of Los Angeles is the chance to explore the place which has become synonymous with American cinema; I speak, of course, of Hollywood. But "Hollywood" has become not just a section of the city of Los Angeles, but a state of mind, one associated with larger-than-life celebrity, international stardom, glamour, privilege. I imagine most people who visit, or even live in, Los Angeles come, at least in part, to tap into that mindset, both mentally and physically: to bask in that privilege, whether or not you are part of that class, and to walk the same streets as these real and/or imagined icons you've no doubt seen in the movies, in the news, in tabloids, or what have you.

Hollywood also famously carried the nickname "The Dream Factory"...and, at its best, walking along Hollywood Boulevard a couple days last week, as well as touring through Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Bel Air on the Starline Celebrity Homes Tour, the place felt like many of my classical-Hollywood-cinema fantasies flickering to life. (The fact that the sun shone brightly just about endlessly on those days only added to the splendor.)


And yet, as much as Hollywood holds the (unspoken) promise of getting physically closer to a lot of those celebrities you know and love, the town makes as much of an effort to enforce the bridge between a celebrity and his/her adoring public as it does encouraging that public to try to cross that bridge. I mean, why else stage a sumptuous red-carpet premiere for the recent romantic comedy-drama Letters to Juliet in front of the legendary Grauman's Chinese Theatre—out in the open, mind you—and implicitly encouraging a horde of people to gawk at movie stars coming out of stretch limousines...only to deny those adoring fans a particularly good glimpse of the stars they came out to see?


In that way, Hollywood is the equivalent of a parent who wiggles a reward in front of a child, then pulls it away from them with an "Unh unh unh" when that child expresses excitement at seeing that reward. Hollywood The Town teases us in the general public with the hopes of getting close to movie idols, but then it imposes further barriers, maintaining that distance. In that way, it truly is a "dream factory"—because it's all about furthering dreams.

That's probably not such a bad thing. Me, I love to dream; if I didn't, I probably wouldn't love the cinema as much as I do. As much as one may wish to get physically or even emotionally closer to movie stars in Hollywood, enforcing the mystique is perhaps the only way Hollywood can truly thrive. In any case, this contradiction that drives Hollywood The Town and Hollywood The State of Mind tickles me to no end—but only during my travels last week did I fully grasp it.


***

There's one other major contradiction in Los Angeles...though actually, it's more a "division" than a "contradiction," really—a class division.


Film scholar Thom Andersen touches upon this in his 2003 video-essay epic Los Angeles Plays Itself—which, thanks to a VHS rip floating around on torrent sites (the only way to see it short of keeping an eye out for rare theatrical screenings), I watched again on the way to and from L.A., and which gained so much more in resonance after I had spent some time in the city of which he speaks. In its closing stretches, most pertinently, Andersen extols American low-budget "neorealist" films like The Exiles (1961), Killer of Sheep (1977) and Bush Mama (1979) for collectively bringing to public consciousness the less exposed aspects of lower-class life in Los Angeles.


Even without fully refreshing myself on Andersen's insights before embarking on the trip, however...well, if you venture into Los Angeles's famously less-than-wholly-reliable Metro public-transportation system, as my friend and I did on a handful of occasions, you can't help but notice that, for the most part, only certain kinds of people seem to take Metro trains and/or buses: middle- and lower-class folk, college students, tourists and the like. Unlike in New York, you are far less likely to see, say, men in business suits in L.A. Metro subway lines; at least, I don't recall noticing any people of that type during the times I rode those Metro trains.

That, of course, is the side of Los Angeles most people don't really see in the media (and alas, I didn't think of trying to capture that hidden side with my own camera; that photo above is courtesy of the LA Times, not of my own taking)—and that, of course, is one of Andersen's core ideas driving Los Angeles Plays Itself. This side of Los Angeles, it appears, is often literally driven underground.

My visceral awareness of this wide gap between the haves and have-nots as it plays out in Los Angeles increased the more my friend and I spent swimming in wealth above ground: seeing all those luxe celebrity houses, eating overpriced food in chic restaurants, even exploring old-Hollywood stardom at the Max Factor Building-set Hollywood Museum. More often than not, we felt more like outsiders immersing ourselves in a faintly alien environment, feeling awkwardly out of place amidst the glitz.

Fitting, then, that, on the night before we flew back to New Jersey, we decided to have dinner at Noodle Planet, a cheap Asian-food place in the UCLA area. I can't speak for my friend, but I certainly felt more at home there than at, say, Spago or Mr. Chow. The latter, especially, was noteworthy for being an upscale Chinese restaurant that felt far more like a nightclub than any Chinese restaurant I went to in Beijing a couple years ago; they didn't even offer chopsticks as a utensil choice! (The food at both places was still quite excellent, I have to admit, even if way overpriced for the portions served.)

This is not to say that I necessarily felt more comfortable in those subways either; it's a bit disconcerting to see so relatively few people in Los Angeles subway stations compared to New York subway stations. (The fact that L.A. subway lines are essentially free to ride doesn't seem to have made a difference in that regard.) But then, New York's extensive MTA system actively encourages usage, since it extends just about everywhere in New York City that you would think to go. Los Angeles's far more complicated and less extensive Metro system, by contrast, seems to just encourage people to stay above ground and drive wherever they need to go—unless, of course, they're forced to take buses above ground.


No wonder there's that notorious big cloud of pollution hanging overhead!

***

By the way, I say all this not to denigrate the town. I could certainly be mistaken in my impressions; Angelenos, by all means, feel free to correct me if you think I'm presenting an inaccurate view of your city! I still very much enjoyed my week there, and if nothing else I loved the experience of being able to step way outside of my geographical comfort zone and experience, on my own, an unfamiliar part of the world.

I guess that's another way of saying that I've come to love traveling. Maybe all these years of traveling to all sorts of imagined cinematic worlds have instilled a wanderlust in me in the real world.

Monday, May 17, 2010

California 2010: Drumming at the Edge of The United States

LOS ANGELES—My week in the City of Angels has come to an end; later today, I will be flying back to the East Coast after an interesting and sometimes eye-opening week here. A fuller round-up of the trip will be forthcoming here at My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second.

In the meantime, here's a brief blast of sublimity I experienced yesterday while my friend and I wandered along Venice Beach.



I was walking along Venice Beach when I saw a large crowd arranged in a circle and heard a lot of loud drumming coming out of that circle. Naturally curious, I walked closer to the action and found myself in the midst of a gathering of the Venice Beach Drum Circle—not an official musical group, but a kind of subculture that embraces anyone willing to participate in drumming and dancing for hours on end. The experience of simply watching them in action was simply enthralling. As I witnessed this intoxicating spectacle of rhythmic splendor and passionate movement, I realized that no photo, however imaginatively framed, could really capture the essence of the moment—so I turned on the video-capturing option on my Canon Powershot SD400 and shot the little snippet above.

Consider this my return gift for you all: an infectious dose of positive energy. Because we could always use more of that, can we not? Enjoy! Feel free to get up and dance in your own room as you watch this, if you'd like!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

California 2010: Images To Whet Your Appetite

LOS ANGELES—Once I return to East Brunswick, N.J., I'll try to put out a few posts summing up my experience of Los Angeles this week—because there is much to say about this city, for well and ill.

For now, though...a few images from the trip so far to whet your appetite:

Along Hollywood Boulevard

Humphrey Bogart's very personal tribute to Sid Grauman, he of Grauman's Chinese Theatre

Even the big outdoor mall along Hollywood Boulevard exudes cinematic extravagance, here in a tribute to D.W. Griffith's 1916 epic Intolerance

One of the stops on the Starline celebrity-homes tour: the house in which Michael Jackson died

The Beverly Hills of my movie-inspired dreams

In which I contemplate George Clooney's wax likeness at Madame Tussauds

 As in much of Hollywood, a clash between old and new

 The Getty Center, wonderful from its eye-opening exhibits to its intoxicating modern architecture

I both toured through Universal Studios and indulged in my long-dormant kiddie side via its rides (none of which I had been on before)

One particularly explosive moment on Universal Studios' studio tour

In awe of the view of Los Angeles

Runyon Canyon

Thursday, May 13, 2010

California 2010: Hollywood Beginning

LOS ANGELES—Greetings from L.A.!

I apologize for not being able to squeeze in much time for blogging about my first-ever trip out to the East Coast, but my friend and I have been so busy with sightseeing, touring and social engagements in the past couple of days that I always find myself ready to collapse with exhaustion by the end of each day.

Somehow, though, I've summoned up the energy to dash off this quick update about how things are going on this trip. Well, so far, it's been going pretty awesomely, if tiringly. I'm finding myself genuinely intrigued by Hollywood, although not so much in the "ooh, I can spot a lot of celebrities here" kind of way (though don't get wrong, that is certainly one of its big draws, and I'm certainly not immune to that). It's the nature of celebrity in this town—of how much Hollywood tries to enforce that celebrity by keeping a certain distance between a star and his/her adoring public—that fascinates me.

Sorry if that sounds somewhat cryptic; I hope to delve more deeply into what I mean by that in a later post, and also to set out some other reasons why I'm enjoying my time here so far. For now, though, a photo, to tide all you readers over; you can call this a teaser of sorts:


Oh, and did I mention the weather has been beautiful here so far? Bright and sunny, but not too humid? That's certainly a plus, compared to the weather reports I've been getting over in New Jersey/New York. Guess I picked a lucky week to go traveling.

Monday, May 10, 2010

"California! California! Here We Come!"

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—By the time you all read this, most likely I will be (picture me wincing while I say this) up in the air, on my way to California for a week around the SoCal area—Los Angeles, principally, but perhaps other areas like San Diego.

I would like to try to update this blog during my venture, in order to give you all a reasonably live peek into what I'm doing/observing over there on a regular basis. We'll see if that pans out.

In the meantime, as a parting gift to you all...how about a clip from Metropolis?



On Saturday, I went to Film Forum in New York to see the new, near-complete restoration of Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi epic, and at the very least, it proved to be a thrilling and necessary palate cleanser after sitting through Iron Man 2 the night before. To be fair, Lang's vision of a futuristic society strictly divided into workers and planners is perhaps not much more nuanced than a comic book, in some ways—but man, what obsessive invention and visionary freedom Lang brings to this world compared to Jon Favreau's dull, uninspired image-making! And while some may find Lang's "hand and brain must have the heart as mediator" message to be somewhat cheesy in retrospect, the nutty conviction and sincerity he brings to the material easily outclasses the breezy, if admittedly often funny, snark of Iron Man 2. Metropolis was always a mad, passionate, glorious spectacle; now, thanks to 16mm. footage discovered at the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, there is more of it to savor (at least, amidst the heavy wear and tear of the new footage). 

See it, if this new version is playing in a theater near you, and remind yourself of what real cinematic daring, unencumbered by Hollywood box-office dictates, looks like.

In the meantime, I'm off to have my own potentially daring adventure on the other side of the States. I'll try to stay out of trouble, I promise!

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Opening Shots: Colossal Youth

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—For this blog post, I'm reviving something blogger Jim Emerson started a few years ago on his indispensable Scanners blog.

As he wrote in June 2006 to kick off his "Opening Shots Project":

Any good movie -- heck, even the occasional bad one -- teaches you how to watch it. And that lesson usually starts with the very first image. I'm not talking necessarily about titles or opening sequences (they're worth discussing, too -- but that's another article); I'm talking about opening shots. As those who have been reading Scanners (and my Editor's Notes on RogerEbert.com) know, two of my cardinal rules for movie-watching are:

1) The movie is about what happens to you while you watch it. So, pay attention -- to both the movie and your response. If you have reactions to, or questions about, what you're seeing, chances are they'll tell you something about what the movie is doing. Be aware of your questions, emotions, apprehensions, expectations.

2) The opening shot (or opening sequence) is the most important part of the movie... at least until you get to the final shot. (And in good movies, the two are often related.)

The opening shot can tell us a lot about how to interpret what follows. It can even be the whole movie in miniature.

The project, then, was all about picking apart a given film's opening shot and what it suggested about the rest of the film that followed.

Apparently, it's an ongoing project, although the last contribution to it was posted on Scanners in August of last year (if I'm not mistaken). Well, then, allow me to pick up the slack here on my blog, with the opening shot of Pedro Costa's beautiful Colossal Youth (2006):


I've only recently gotten myself acquainted the work of this Portuguese auteur, thanks to The Criterion Collection's recent "Letters from Fontainhas" box set featuring his three films—Ossos (1997), In Vanda's Room (2000) and Colossal Youth—set in Fontainhas, a deteriorating slum community in Lisbon, Portugal. Despite the acclaim for Costa in art-cinema circles, until I finally got around to seeing Colossal Youth on DVD yesterday morning, I can't say I was bowled over by my first two acquaintances with his fiercely personal style. Ossos struck me as little more than a better-shot example of pieces of condescending indie miserablism like, say, Ballast (2008), Frozen River (2008) or Fish Tank (2009); and In Vanda's Room, though less determinist and more formally exploratory, still felt too long and too detached for me to embrace, at least on an initial viewing.

But in Colossal Youth, Costa had me right from its opening shot, a still of which is shown above. It's a wide shot of a run-down apartment building in Fontainhas at night—and the way Costa (credited as cinematographer with Leonardo Simões) captures the building in that shot, the building takes on an exquisitely eerie, spectral, haunting quality.

One source of that quality may be technological: as he did in In Vanda's Room, Costa shot Colossal Youth in digital video, and he doesn't try to hide the video noise any more than David Lynch hid it in his 2006 DV epic Inland Empire. Oddly enough, however, the noise adds a certain dreamlike quality to his images that clearer HD video might not have been able to reproduce, at least inherently.

But perhaps the real source of the beauty of this opening shot is in its chiaroscuro lighting, which, by emphasizing pitch-black shadows and limiting the amount of light in the image, imparts a sense of hushed mystery to the setting—a sense of tranquility that is brutally rattled by the sounds of objects hitting the ground from a second-floor apartment window:


On a literal level, the opening shot sets up the film's "plot," such as it is. In the next shot, we discover the identity of the woman throwing furniture out of the window: Clotilde, the wife of the film's protagonist, Ventura. After trashing their apartment, Clotilde leaves Ventura, setting up his aimless but strangely mesmerizing quest to catch up with a past that even he himself is trying to piece together.

But this opening shot foretells much about the film's style as well. Pitch-black shadows and limited light sources become a regular feature in Costa's images, to the point where, as film critic Ryland Walker Knight has noted, light itself becomes a character in its own right, whether bright...


...or barely lit at all:


And Costa's selection of a fairly lengthy wide shot to kick off the film announces the aesthetic of literal and emotional distance that he will explore throughout the film's 155-minute running time.

I will leave the rest of the film's splendors for you all to discover, because that opening shot is just the tip of a very deep iceberg. For now, all I'll say is that, for all the distance Costa's august and ruminative style imposes on the material, Colossal Youth is a deeply moving motion picture, haunted and haunting in its vivid depiction of one man's attempt to reconnect with the past even as the present moves onward and the future looks bleak. But its pained humanity and near-surreal beauty offers its own measure of hopefulness amidst all the spiritual and literal dark.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Trying to Have It Both Ways

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—After yesterday, when the U.S. stock market, for a brief period of time, looked to be disintegrating right before our very eyes—with the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling nearly 1,000 points in the early afternoon before eventually rallying to close at a comparably less horrific 347.80 loss—today we at least have a big-budget Hollywood superhero flick to take our minds away from real-world drudgeries...

...or not.

As someone who didn't see what big deal was about the original 2008 Iron Man—other than its irreverent tone and Robert Downey Jr.'s breeziness, it was a pure box-office mechanism through and through, with barely anything worth remembering about it afterward—I'm not exactly foaming at the mouth with excitement over Iron Man 2. Nevertheless, I'm seeing it tonight with friends and will report back...eventually... (For anyone who wants to see an instant response, you can all track my Twitter feed, of course, to tide you over before I eventually tackle the film in depth on this blog.)

In the meantime, let's revisit a couple more films in my growing review queue, one of them a more-interesting-than-usual, if ultimately unsuccessful, recent slice of the superhero pie.

Kick-Ass (2010; Dir.: Matthew Vaughn)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009; Dir.: Niels Arden Oplev)

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

These two films don't have much to do with each other, except that they both embody the dangers of trying to, as the popular saying goes, have it both way.


In the case of Kick-Ass, that means a movie that wants to be both a superhero genre flick and a thorough deconstruction of the superhero genre, but which ends up fulfilling its latter goal and never fully realizing its former.

The film's director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn—adapting a graphic novel by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.—shows a lot of affection for its genre, evidenced by the attention he pays to visual detail: the cinematography (by Ben Davis) and art direction (by Joe Howard, Sarah Stuart and John King) bathe the screen in vivid comic-book colors that nevertheless manage to stay grounded in something approaching a palpable reality (this certainly isn't the hyper-stylized palette of, say, Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy). And he has a welcome empathy for his main characters: Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), whose desire to break out of his high-school angst leads him to put on a costume and become the titular hero; Mindy Macready (Chloë Grace Moretz), who has been raised since birth by her revenge-driven father (Nicolas Cage) to be the wildly ferocious Hit Girl; and Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the lonely son who yearns for some parental affection from his crime-boss father Frank (Mark Strong).

Most importantly, though, he grasps that superhero movies, at their best, can have a mass appeal as exaggerated expressions of innermost desires and deep-seated traumas. In Kick-Ass, the superhero genre is mostly just a clothesline for Vaughn to craft a subtext-rich tale about young people searching for someone to look up to, whether in parental figures or in themselves. In effect, they're looking for roles to play in their own lives—surely a universal desire among teenagers tickled by the possibilities of adulthood.

If Vaughn had played all of this entirely straight, he might have at least come up with a reasonably clver and enjoyable genre piece. But at the same time that he works to deliver the standard pleasures of superhero/teenage movies, Vaughn also wants to poke postmodern fun at the genre, to make us all aware of the superhero fantasies these characters prize as fleetingly exciting but ultimately empty wish-fulfillment that could actually get you seriously injured or even killed if reenacted in real life. On that score, Kick-Ass falls disappointingly short.

To be fair, the film comes within striking distance of realizing its deconstructive intentions. Kick-Ass develops a genuine sense of horror as Dave moves forward with what he intends to be his last job as Kick-Ass, and finds himself knee-deep in even worse circumstances than he could have ever imagined—to the point where he is put in front of a video camera and physically tortured over streaming online video by Frank D'Amico's goons. Dave even taunts us naïve audience members to wake up if we think that he's going to actually get out of this alive, as usually happens in most Hollywood movies.

Well, guess what? He does get out alive! Turns out, for all its attempts at subversion, Vaughn is only willing to go so far; to go any further would be to risk turning off its core audience of comic-book fanboys, which simply would not be kosher for a big-budget Hollywood production like this one. And Kick-Ass never recovers from this failure of nerve as the film proceeds; its most egregious failure later on comes in the reduction of arguably the film's most complicated protagonist—Chris D'Amico, who finds himself torn between his loyalty to his new friend Dave and to his murderous father—to a one-dimensional villain by its predictably noisy, ultraviolent climax. The fact that Chris lives while his father dies is presumably meant to provide a jolt of moral ambivalence, as he will presumably seek revenge against his father's killers in the future—but the wholly insincere final shot he's given musters up the emotional weight of a wannabe superhero franchise setting up for a sequel, nothing more.

Even before the compromised climax, though, the film has shown signs of not putting its money where its mouth is. Take its treatment of Dave's dream girl, Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca): Here, she's imagined as nothing more than a pining geek's sex fantasy. Of course, in a movie as divided in its intentions as Kick-Ass is, that pining geek eventually does get the girl, though not after he spends much of the time pretending he's gay ('cause hey, she assumed he was in the first place) in order to reap the rewards without any of the stress. But even after he comes clean with her (to the strains of faux-Tangerine Dream/Risky Business synthesizers, no less), she remains little more than the usual supportive/worried girlfriend, without a personality to call her own.

For this viewer, the fundamental flaw in Kick-Ass comes down to this: For a movie that wants, among other things, to show how comic-book fantasies jibe with reality, Matthew Vaughn & co. show a detailed understanding of comic-book fantasies and not nearly enough of an understanding of anyting resembling reality. Or, more precisely, it can only communicate that understanding in broad comic-book terms—in black-and-white heroes & villains and snazzy visual form. (In that sense, it's almost like a superhero-movie equivalent of the equally disingenuous An Education, except with far more bracing taboo-busting gusto.) Instead, like the way its hero acts around his dream girl, Kick-Ass wants to reap the rewards of being considered cutting-edge, media-savvy and dangerously hip without actually being any of these. For all its chutzpah, it's just not as smart as it thinks it is.

I will say this in its favor, though: that Hit Girl is quite a character, potty mouth and all. Her heartfelt interactions with her misguided but caring father provide the only real moments of soul in this film (with Nicolas Cage giving a far better performance here than with his overrated showboating in The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans). Above all, though, her character is by far the most colorful and fascinating of the leads: the kind of hero one would like to cheer if the implications of her sheer existence didn't disturb on some level. She's the closest Kick-Ass comes to true subversion.


The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Niels Arden Oplev's adaptation of late Swedish author Steig Larsson's first book in his Millennium Trilogy (the others are The Girl Who Played With Fire and the upcoming The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), tries for some subversion of its own, of the feminist variety—but it, too, ends up being full of hot air.

Its most intriguing character, of course, is Lisbeth Salander, the goth hacker lesbian chick who aids Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a journalist who is facing jail time for a crime he didn't commit, in an investigation of the mysterious disappearance of a rich CEO's niece 40 years ago. But Lisbeth herself is a mystery in her own right; as conceived by Larsson in the novel and as played with magnetic fury by Noomi Rapace in the film, she keeps her emotional guard up around men much of the time—a chip on her shoulder that seems to have been borne out of traumatic childhood experiences. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, nothing about Lisbeth is fully explained (though I assume more about her will be revealed in the other two films, both of which have already been released in Sweden and will no doubt get theatrical runs in the U.S.), but the suggestiveness of her behavior tantalizes us throughout the picture even when the detective-procedural plot mechanically grinds on.

Alas, there's no mystery about the way that, honorable Mikael Blomkvist excepted, the film ruthlessly stacks the deck in order to contrive Lisbeth into some sort of feminist icon while trying to give the audience its money's worth in sordid titillation. Pretty much every man here is a mustache-twirling chauvinist pig of some sort. In the beginning, there is Lisbeth's latest guardian—replacing an earlier guardian who has suffered a brain hemorrhage—who demands blowjobs before granting her wishes for new hacker equipment. There isn't any particular reason that I can see for this guardian to be as monstrously corrupt as he is except for Oplev & co. to have an opportunity to thrust a graphic rape scene on us, and then present us with the salacious details of her supposedly savory revenge, complete with a gruesome inscription on his stomach branding him as a rapist for all time. Huzzah!

It only gets trashier from there, as Mikael and Lisbeth gradually discover that the billionaire's niece's disappearance had something to do with what she had discovered about a family member's sadistic, and deadly, sexual predilections. But the resolution of its central mystery is only a set-up for its final plot twist, which involves Lisbeth secretly stealing money from a corrupt government official—one that Mikael, as a journalist, was trying to bring down before being sent to prison—and ending up on a tropical island; the final shots of the film are of her dressed up as a high-class hooker stepping out of a limousine and walking away from the camera, seemingly untroubled and theoretically triumphant.

This just makes no sense to me in context of the behavior we've witnessed from her over the course of the film. It's not like the official has done anything particularly misogynistic in his transgressions to incur her wrath (unless I'm forgetting something); and it surely doesn't jibe with the "I can take care of myself" vibe that makes the character such a compelling screen presence. As far as I can tell, this last twist is just another excuse—as if being a lesbian dressed in goth wear wasn't enough of a male fantasy—to provide the audience with one last blast of sexual delectation. Worse, with the way those last two shots are framed and lighted—with glossy magazine-cover ambience—would it be too much of a stretch to conclude that the filmmakers really, truly believe that money is the real path to happiness?

Readers, don't be fooled. Despite occasional gestures toward moral intelligence and depth, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is little more than a slick piece of exploitation trash with delusions of being an ode to "female empowerment." Hit Girl—not to mention her spiritual precursor, Beatrix Kiddo of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies—would spit in this pandering, dishonest film's eye.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Video for the Day: "Do You Ever Yearn?"

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Last week, I found myself in an especially daydream-y mood (I attribute it to reading a slew of updates/watching a slew of videos from the recently concluded Ebertfest and suddenly finding myself regretting not making a point of trying to go this year), and I suddenly flashed back onto this precious moment from a fourth-season episode of Seinfeld:



In context, of course, this is a bleakly, pitilessly hilarious moment, with Kramer just about demolishing George Costanza's conception of "living," and George—the neurotic's neurotic—unwilling to budge when Kramer tries to persuade him to go an adventure to California. But, in some ways, the moment also sums up where I'm currently at in my own life: wanting—indeed, yearning—to break out of a feeling of seemingly neverending stasis, itching to go on some kind of adventure, whether mental or literal. Like Kramer, I sit and yearn rather often—except that, unlike Kramer, I often do it at a day job...or at the movies (though that could inspire a whole other, longer post)!

Also like Kramer, I'm jaunting off to California for a stretch of time. So there's another point of connection there!

Yes, even the gleefully misanthropic Seinfeld—still a brilliant show after all these years, says I, despite those unfortunate final two seasons—was capable of moments of a hard, cold, defiantly unsentimental poignancy.

Monday, May 03, 2010

California 2010: Some Initial Plans

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—


In about a week, I will be on a plane whisking myself away to the West Coast!

...or, at least, one part of the West Coast.

Alas, as much as I really, really wanted to, I don't think I will be able to make the 6-hour (so I've been told) drive to San Francisco. I could do it, of course...but even if I was able to find a place to stay overnight, I would have already wasted half a day driving, and would then have to waste another half a day driving all the way back, leaving my friend and I with not even a day to explore there. With all of that in mind, I reluctantly concluded that a visit to San Francisco was just not going to happen this time around.

To be honest, this does take a bit of the original luster off this trip, if nothing else because I really had my heart set on exploring the physical landscape Alfred Hitchcock explored so memorably in Vertigo (a film which has a nice, comfy spot among my Top 5 of all time). Also, most people also tell me that San Francisco is a far nicer city than Los Angeles (less polluted air, for one); shame I won't be able to confirm or deny that this time around.

Nevertheless, my trip will go ahead as scheduled...and I hope, in the week ahead before the trip commences, I will have a more definite handle on what I aim to explore day-by-day. My friend has more or less commissioned me to be the one to come up with some kind of daily itinerary, and frankly, I've been overwhelmed by a) the sheer amount of choice and b) the desire to hit as many of the tourist hot spots as possible, and the fear of missing a major one. (There's also the issue of trying my best to accommodate the wishes and preferences of my friend, but I won't get too much into that here.)

Here are some of the things I'd like to do:
  • Do a tour at a Hollywood movie studio. I'm still not sure if I want to go the Universal Studios route and ride some theme-park rollercoasters as well (I'm really not much for theme parks, as my mostly miserable experience at Busch Gardens Williamsburg during a high-school trip proved) or do a more formal studio tour at, say, Warner Bros. studios. But I'd like to tour one studio, if not more than one.
  • Go to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
  • Take a ride along the Pacific Coast Highway and go to a bunch of beaches.
  • Visit San Diego, mostly on the recommendations of a few friends/acquaintances on Facebook and Twitter. But what's in San Diego worth exploring? SeaWorld? The San Diego Zoo? I know the Hotel del Coronado is there, and that would be nice to see, if nothing else, just for its connection to Some Like It Hot (that's the hotel at which much of the action in the film's second half is set).
  • Spend some time in nature at a national park. Since Yosemite National Park is too far away, Sequoia National Park seems like a closer alternative, and hopefully a just-as-worthy one.
  • Perhaps try to re-enact parts of Sideways and do some wine-tasting in Santa Barbara Wine Country. (Will we meet a Virginia Madsen/Sandra Oh pair to make the parallels complete?)
  • Possibly take in a film at one of Los Angeles's reputable repertory cinema houses.
  • Drive around Mulholland Drive at night and see if I can somehow tap into David Lynch's twisted inspiration there.
  • And finally, visit some people living in these areas, whether old friends from my East Brunswick schooling years, or new friends made through Twitter.
I'm still open to suggestions in order to put some meat on these barebones California plans, but that's what I have so far. And of course, I'm open to meeting up with any readers of this blog who live in the area and would like to meet up with me...because I'm all about bridging the digital divide.

What say you all, then: good plans, bad plans, could-be-better plans?