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Movie: UP

December 27, 2009 Comments off

MrsDoF and I just watched the Pixar animated movie UP.  She asked for the movie for Christmas and I must have dutifully bought it for her, and wrapped it, but then had a “Did I leave the iron on” moment of self doubt over whether I got the right movie.  When she unwrapped it, I was relieved.

The story is about an old man who ties balloons to his house and floats away for an adventure, with a little kid from the neighbourhood.  In the beginning it’s a bit slow (more on that in a moment) and toward the end there’s more dialogue and full-on Indiana Jones levels of action. I wonder if it might even be too intense for young children, but it’s been a while since I watched a movie with young children.

I hope that kids who see it will catch some understanding of the sense of loss that accompanies advancing age; people with AARP cards will certainly catch on.  But the story is also about renewal and finding the good even if your original goal wasn’t accomplished.  Like most movies aimed at kids, it isn’t particularly subtle. 

At the beginning the movie feels like an indy animation project; almost no dialogue and storytelling almost exclusively by pictures.  I’ve seen lots of independent animation projects that used this technique but on big-budget animations only Wall-E and UP.  I hope to see more of this kind of visual storytelling in the future.  Only kids’ response to it will tell.

You may have heard that the movie sets an amazing standard for animation and this is true.  Also amazing is how the cartoon characters fit into a photo-realistic cartoon environment. 

In his book, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud discusses how identifying with characters is easier when the characters are visually abstracted. (Maybe this explains the appeal of XKCD!  Well that and the incredibly original writing)  And sure enough, despite the photorealistic animation, the characters are cartoony enough.

While the visualisation is realistic, the story isn’t on most levels; both toon physics and toon probability applies.  But hey, it’s a cartoon!  Has anyone shown it to their kids?  Did the kids like it?

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Movie review: Predator 2

August 14, 2009 Comments off

I just finished watching Predator 2, with Danny Glover, as part of my “watch movies while doing cardio on the treadmill, so I don’t die of boredom” program. If you like to play “Cop-movie or Science-Fiction Cliche Bingo” (which I do) you’ll find it very enjoyable.

Glover pays a violent, renegade cop who is always in trouble with his boss – essentially the same character as Jack Slater in Last Action Hero.  Only instead of drug lords (they’re getting killed too) he’s being stalked by one of the same species of aliens who went up against Arnold Swarzenegger in Predator.  The baddies come to our planet to hunt for sport, and we’re the prey.  They’re tremendously strong and agile, invisible when they want to be (which makes DARPA strategists drool, including the obnoxious government MIB who wants the alien’s technology), wear lightweight armor, and use sharp-edged but very advanced combat weaponry.

In a brutal, hand-to-hand battle at the end of the movie, Glover kills the alien, only to find himself surrounded by more aliens.  One of the aliens hands him a pistol taken from somebody, according to its engraving, in 1715; they’ve been coming here a long time.  Then he is allowed to leave while they blast off for their next adventure. 

I thought humans couldn’t have been much sport back in the 1700’s; we had no way to see in nonvisible spectrums of light, had no armor to speak of, and only primitive weapons.  So with our technological advances, we would be getting more interesting to the aliens as sport animals.

It also occurred to me that we routinely kill animals that don’t stand a chance against us.  If you hunt deer with a high-powered rifle, I’ll observe that you like to spend time outside in the woods.  When you hunt bears with a sword, I’ll start thinking that physical courage is involved.

Fun movie, but be warned there’s no intellectual content, and no non-cliche characters, but plenty of naughty words and a high body count if you clutch your pearls at that sort of thing. 

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Movie Review: Gran Torino

August 10, 2009 Comments off

There’s one advantage to being the last person on Earth to review a movie: I don’t have to explain the plot.  Or at least, not in much detail.  And I don’t need to worry about spoiling Gran Torino for anyone.

Clint Eastwood plays a retired auto worker.  We gain insight into his character at his wife’s funeral: he’s bitter, cynical, and bitter.  (Did I mention bitter?  He should receive an Oscar just for his facial expression in the first scenes of the movie.)  Soon after the funeral, we learn that his deteriorating neighborhood is being taken over by foreigners, all of whom he detests.

When the Hmong neighbor kid (named Thao), tries to steal his classic automobile (guess which model) as part of a gang initiation, he confronts the kid with his Korean-war era rifle, thwarting the theft. He and the would-be thief are forced together by the relentless Hmong women of the neighborhood.  In a tradition similar to a Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program, they send him to Eastwood to work off the dishonor of having tried to steal his car.  Eastwood tries to refuse, but he is told it would be a great insult not to accept. 

Of course he has no problem insulting anyone, but he laments; “Those Hmong women, they’re like badgers!”  That brief soliloquy is delivered to his dog, in whom he confides most of his inner thoughts.  And since we are listening in, we have a doG’s eye view.

In addition to being bitter, Eastwood’s character is about as racist as they come, yet paradoxically he becomes the protector and benefactor to the Hmong family next door.

In a stunning and completely unexpected development, he and Thao become friends.  When both Thao and his sister become victims of gang violence, Eastwood locks Thao in his basement and goes to settle the score with the gang. 

Eastwood is one of the few actors who could deliver the line “Get off my lawn!” in memorable, quotable way.  There’s a funny scene where he’s beating the crap out of a gang member.  The camera looks up into Eastwood’s ancient face, distorted by rage, when he says “If I have to come back here, it’s gonna get f*ing ugly!”  Well you had to be there, I guess.

My favorite parts are where he (figuratively) tortures the local Catholic priest with his cynicism.  You want to perfect your Eastwood imitation to master “Well halle-f*ing-lujah!”.  If you like that sort of thing;  I may have rewound and played it back a couple times just to be sure.  But don’t worry about the priest; he does all right for an “over-educated 27-year old virgin who likes to comfort superstitious old women with talk of the afterlife.”

Eastwood’s musical talents are also on display in the movie, as is his ability to actually think about a story and what it means as a reflection of cultural realities. The movie touches on race, generational conflict, gender roles, even religion.  At the end, Eastwood confesses to the priest, but mercifully it does not appear that he had changed his mind about religion.  Rather, it seems he does it to honor the memory of his religious wife, and because he did have something on his mind that was bothering him.  Something that would have surprised his sons.

Gran Torino is a “mentor movie” in which an aging action hero takes an uncertain youth under his wing, and teaches him how to be a man.  It’s also a movie about how a young person (Thao’s sister) helps the old man make a little bit of final sense of his life.  Think of this as a much-better retelling of Finding Forrester.  (Don’t tell anyone, but I actually enjoyed both movies.)

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Monday Morning Music: “Don’t Like Mondays”

June 22, 2009 Comments off

For my friend DKW, who is an even bigger House fan than I am:

(Actually, being something of a happy idiot, I like Mondays. But it is a very catchy song.) 
Shamelessly stolen from TwoBlueDay.

Categories: music, Reviews

Movie review: Taking Of Pelham One Two Three

June 10, 2009 Comments off

You may be thinking; “But DOF! Taking Of Pelham One Two Three hasn’t been released yet!”  Oh, but it has, back in 1974 and starring Walter Matthau as the cynical NYC transit cop Zachary Garber.  It’s a heist film about a group of criminals who hijack a subway car.

For me that was the original hook: how the heck do you hijack a subway car?  Where would you go?  The story makes it work, though, and it has a lot of humor seamlessly mixed in with the violence and one grisly scene.  It maintains dramatic tension, and respects the audience’s intelligence by not explaining everything in tiresome detail, allowing the viewer to make their own connections.  The final moment of humor is without dialog – a cough and a look.

The villains each have their own personalities – one is the mastermind of the heist, another a disaffected subway car engineer, and a crazy mercenary.  I couldn’t help being amused by the hijackers’ demand for “one million dollars”.  That was a lot of money back in 1974, but the phrase is forever linked to Doctor Evil, now.

Everyone has their own ideas about how to stop the hijacking.  Garber has the difficult task of navigating between the demands of the hijackers and the hotter heads in law enforcement who want to go in guns blazing into a hostage situation. He needs to be very tough to stay on course, not least to assert leadership with saving as many hostages as possible.

If your only exposure to Walter Matthau is Grumpy Old Men you should treat yourself to some of his dramatic movies.  He played a brilliant but frightening nuclear war strategist in Fail Safe (parodied, I think, in Doctor Strangelove of the same year).  In Kotch he played a grandfather at loose ends trying to help a pregnant teenager.  In the hard-to-find black comedy A New Leaf, a destitute trust-fund loser trying to marry a rich woman – and murder her.

I’ve seen the ads for the new movie, starring John Travolta, and it looks like it might be very good except for one thing: I hate knowing about the personal lives of actors.  I can’t look at Travolta anymore without seeing the private-jet-owning global-warming hypocrite Scientologist whacko. It just ruins the story for me.  When people start discussing actors’ lives, I try to steer clear. I’d rather not know anymore!  Maybe it’s a conditioned response from years of respecting Jimmy Stewart.

Which reminds me: if you’ve never seen Stewart in the 1965 Flight Of the Phoenix, it’s an awesome classic ‘guy’ movie.  You won’t be sorry.

What movie was I reviewing again?  Oh right – the original Taking Of Pelham One Two Three.  If you don’t mind seeing polyester suit jackets, check it out.

NOTES:

Categories: Movies, Reviews

WKRP In Cincinnati

May 30, 2009 Comments off

While I’m recovering from surgery, a kindly neighbor loaned me a DVD set of the first season of WKRP In Cincinnati, the 1970’s era MTM sitcom about a little AM rock radio station.  I remember loving the show when it was broadcast, and it’s a real pleasure to revisit.

One episode makes for 25 minutes on the treadmill, which is just about right because I wear out very easily.  A session now is 25 minutes at 1.4 mph, instead of 50 minutes at 3.6 mph.  I’m also doing 5-minute sessions every hour, so it still adds up to about an hour per day, only slower.  Much, much slower.

Anyway, my neighbor described the episodes as “dated” but on watching them again I can see why that show won so many awards.  It doesn’t try to dazzle the viewer with cleverness – they’re just small human stories, often very touching.  Each episode is like a little stage play, in fact.  A few end with hilarious zingers (“As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!”) but many episodes end with a moment of wry introspection and no dialog.

I’m also realizing how much I enjoyed listening to the radio back in the ‘70’s.  For those who don’t remember, it wasn’t dominated by syndicated conservative blowhards or self-help phonies. There were actual disk jockeys, who played records, cracked jokes, and took requests. That’s an actual human person who kept a microphone live whenever there wasn’t an ad running or a record playing.  They’d even bring in local musicians to talk and jam. The news was often local and immediate, too.  I guess those days are gone forever.

Categories: Media, Reviews

Movie review: “Milk”

April 26, 2009 Comments off

I may be prejudiced against gay films, from not having seen very many.  The few snippets of Brokeback Mountain (see MrsDoF’s review) that I’ve seen were, to say the least, not impressive. A gay documentary I saw recently was so poorly done that I refrained from reviewing it. Bits and pieces of other gay films I’ve seen on YouTube failed to attract me to the genre. I’ve long felt that in Hollywood, even home movies could win an Oscar as long as they were gay home movies. 

(To be an equal-opportunity grouch, I’m not much on any movies that have mushy scenes in ‘em.  And since most movies are bad, and there aren’t very many gay movies, it stands to reason that there aren’t very many good gay movies.)

So I wasn’t expecting much from Milk, the 2008 biopic of gay politician Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and his assassin, Dan White (Josh Brolin).  And when, five minutes into the film, Penn is making out with a guy he just met in a stairwell, it seemed on track to be pretty trite/boring/preachy/etc.  But popcorn and a large box of dark-chocolate raisins kept me in my seat long enough to be pleasantly surprised; the film is actually a good docu-drama of a time in US history when gay rights began to show up on the national radar.

Maybe that’s a good reason to hit the concession stand.  At least at the historic Normal Theater, where popcorn is only a buck and theater-sized candy is two bucks.

The film did a good job of portraying the destructive side of gay promiscuity in the Castro district, and also the tragic motivation behind political activism and how even straight people began to realize the humanity in ‘queers’.  If relationships are forbidden, what’s left but furtive encounters?  One thing I liked about it was clips of news footage from the time.  I remember Walter Cronkite talking about gay rights’ initiatives in various states, and I remember Anita Bryant’s disingenuous expressions of “love” toward the gay community she was trying to push back into the closet. 

(A side note: it was actually Anita Bryant, and not any gay activists, who first got me thinking that maybe there was something to the idea of gay rights, after all.)

Milk stands up even as a political film.  As initiatives go down in flames, but then a vital one passes, the sense of dispair and triumph is as palpable as film is ever likely to make it.  So chalk up one good gay movie.

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Book Review: Watchmen

March 21, 2009 3 comments

The new movie Watchmen sounded interesting, but it will have to wait for video because I just can’t pull 3 hours in a theater (or any other kind of chair) without serious painkillers.  So I got the book for ten bucks from Amazon.

The danger of hype is that it can interfere with actual enjoyment.  Watchmen is one of Time magazine’s “100 best novels”,  and the co-creator of the TV series Lost calls it “The greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced.”  Several of my friends have told me that it is just… “wall-to-wall awesomeness”.  Some of that is well-deserved.

The story is about a group of super-heroes and their complicated lives.  You have to know that putting on a funny suit and beating up criminals requires a… certain kind of mind, and a certain kind of surrounding society.  Authors Moore and Gibbons do a great job of exploring on a human scale just what that might be like.  It’s a grown-up story not only because of the violent and sexual themes and language, but also because it does a very good job of exploring how relationships blow up and become painful (or pleasant) memories, and how that affects the present and the future.  This is something adults know from experience; insignificant moments we treasure in our mind, scars that we hide or deny.

On reflection you might not expect superheroes – or super villians either – to be virtuous people, and you’d be right.  In Watchmen, most of them are violent, internally conflicted, living out the compulsive results of twisted childhoods.  They get old, they grow fat, they die of cancer.  Politically they range in all directions.  An attempt to get them to join forces fails utterly, which becomes a major plot point. 

The novel does a good job of explaining connections and background, though it is a staggeringly complex story.  This is not; “alien threatens city, Superman beats up alien.”  But I was able to follow it easily enough.  Complex stories may be a unique asset of graphic novels: plot points become associated with images, and flipping through the book at high speed allows the reader to return to the relevant portion in seconds to refresh their memory. 

The novel begins with the brutal murder of one superhero, and as the story continues (moving forward and backward in time, developing the lives of all the characters) we aren’t really sorry to have seen him go.  Yet in his brutally amoral way, he was a mentor to even more powerful and intelligent characters. 

Only one character really even has super-human powers, and his biggest challenge is that he is so powerful, humanity seems remote to him.  How involved should he be?  Should he interfere at all?

It ends with a moral conundrum; an act of mass murder rivalling anything in human history, which has the effect of saving humanity.  At least, it will have that effect, provided the few people who unwillingly know about it know about it agree to remain silent.  One person does not agree, the terrifyingly uncompromising vigilante named “Rorshach”. So what ought to happen to him?

Some people don’t like the term; “graphic novel”, opining that “it’s just a fancy term for comic book”.  Well sure, and “Great Expectations” is just a soap-opera series collected into one cover.  Fact is, I’ve seen some truly great stories put together that way: Maus, The Crow, Batman: Year One, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns to name a few.  There’s no question in my mind that it deserves a place in the pantheon of literary types alongside text novels and story anthologies.

One point where Watchmen falters, artistically, is that the color pallate could use refinement.  It was an annoying distraction in an otherwise great work of the imagination. 

There are thematic similarities between Watchmen and other stories.  For instance, The Incredibles also posit a future in which costumed superheroes are not really welcome, and someone is methodically killing off the ones who retired from the business.

I won’t try to go into more detail – it would require a post as long as (and far less interesting than) the novel itself.  You can check out Wikipedia’s Watchmen article or better yet, just read the novel.  I look forward to seeing the movie.  Frankly it strains my imagination how it could be committed to cinema and still make sense.

Categories: Books, Reviews

Swing Kids, the movie

March 15, 2009 Comments off

History teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure. – Thurgood Marshall

I finished watching the movie; Swing Kids, starring among other famous names, Robert Sean Leonard and Christian Bale.  It was, as I mentioned earlier, a truly scary movie about a bunch of kids who liked Swing music, which did not endear them to the Nazi regime.

A lot of recognizable names in the movie (some not even credited), including music by James Horner, and it shows.  I am especially fond of Robert Sean Leonard, who now plays opposite Hugh Laurie in House and is an extraordinary actor.  Would you have thought that a person could convey a tortured agony of the soul while dancing alone to Swing music?  Me either. 

There isn’t a lot of graphic violence onscreen.  For example there’s torture but we don’t see it; we see the victim’s son realizing later what it all meant. We don’t see gas chambers, we see a cold, brutal delivery in a nice inlaid box.  We see kids soon to be caught in the thuggish maw of history. 

This is another one of those little historical tidbits I never knew about, but apparently there really were Swing Kids in Nazi Germany.  They didn’t single-handedly bring down the Reich or anything, and many of them paid for their lives for the desire to enjoy an art form that wasn’t approved by Himmler.  They started out, apolitical; they just wanted to dance and enjoy their subculture.  The film is an impassioned answer to the question; “Why not just go along?  What does it matter if we sing one song for the Fatherland?”

If we think we regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must regulate all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to man.
- John Milton

I guess totalitarian regimes need to control the artists.  At one end you have Steve Martin paying for the production of a play he wrote that got banned from a high school, then the school authorities that banned it, and then Tipper Gore trying to keep smut and violence away from kids.  Somewhere to the right-of-center you have Nazis insisting that all art glorify the Fatherland, and at the far extreme you have the Taliban destroying all the musical instruments they can find.  They are the answer to the question: “What would it be like, a society without art?”

I don’t read a whole lot of fiction but when i do, the fact that it IS fiction allows me to enjoy it as a pastime.  It is a dramatization, not a documentary, but it recounts a real time and real situations.  In the not-so-distant past, our kind actually went there.  Standing between us and a repeat performance is the poet, the playwright, the musician, the dreamer, the intellectuals and artists.  You know, the ones who misshape the human spirit to fit in a totalitarian box.

UPDATES:

Categories: Movies, Reviews

2009 Oscar Shorts

March 1, 2009 Comments off

MrsDoF and I saw the 2009 Oscar Shorts last evening at the Historic Normal Theater.  These are short films that you pretty much never see except at film festivals.  Which is a pity, because there’s something about having to tell a story in five to thirty minutes that concentrates the creator’s mind wonderfully.

Among the animated stories my favorite was ‘Lavatory Lovestory’, a charming Russian piece about a lonely middle-aged woman working as a lavatory attendant, and her secret admirer.  The film was drawn in the style of a New Yorker cartoon, with simple lines.  Other animated shorts featured gloomy Japanese expressionism, and over-the-top CGI 3D that didn’t do much for the stories. They were (mostly) entertaining but not memorable.

Among the four live-action shorts, I most enjoyed;

  • “Toyland”, a Dutch film about trying to shield children from awful truths in Nazi Germany
  • “The Pig”, a Dutch film about religious freedom versus freedom of speech
  • “New Boy”, an Irish film about an African immigrant boy trying to adjust ato an Irish grade school
  • My favorite was “Auf Der Strecke” (On The Line), about a lonely Swiss department-store security guard in love with one of the clerks.  He makes one, awful momentary decision, and finds himself tangled in intractable guilt, along with the grief of the woman he loves.  This is an incredible piece of storytelling.

The fifth live-action film was “Manon On Asphalt”, about a pretty girl dying on the pavement after a bicycle accident, and her thoughts as life ebbs away.  It was a little heavy-handed on the “live every day as your last” moral lesson.  That death comes at random times, and that a person’s totality matters more than the last sentence out of their mouths, is something I think most people understand about others, but not so much about ourselves.

I’ve noticed the European films seem less obsessed with tying up every loose end in a story.  Sometimes you don’t learn how it turned out.

Short films can be tremendously powerful.  Find “Auf Der Strecke” if you can.

Categories: Movies, Reviews