Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Five books I read after seeing the movie

I've stated it here before, but when you've got a movie based on a book, I believe it's better to wait until after you see the movie before you read the book. You're less likely to be disappointed by the movie that way. Whenever I do so, often it's because the movie intrigued me enough that I wanted to know more of the story and/or the characters. There's rarely any kind of time frame for this; it could be days after I've seen the movie or months or years. Used book stores are best for this sort of thing. I love them. The first time I walked into a Half Price Books when I lived in Columbus I knew I'd be shopping there often, and I did. And New York, of course, has used book stores all over the place.

This is by no means a complete list, but it'll give you an idea of what kinds of stories I dig.

- American Splendor. I had read one or two American Splendor comics prior to seeing the movie, but at the time I didn't think a great deal of them. I was still relatively new to independent comics, and didn't know (and probably didn't care, to be honest) about the history behind Harvey Pekar's long-running series. Then I saw the movie and loved the hell out of it. So afterwards, I went out and bought an AS collection that was released around the same time, along with his Our Movie Year, which chronicled the making of the movie. Pekar, of course, worked with a wide variety of artists, and the styles ranged from great to decent.

I still think Pekar is an acquired taste. He didn't always write with a theme in mind, or a point to make; he'd just tell a story that he thought was interesting, no matter how esoteric, and lay it out there. He wouldn't try to dress it up with storytelling gimmicks, nor did he have a particularly lively writing style, yet the movie captured the essence of AS and turned it into a fascinating film that never let you forget its source material. So this is one case where I thought the movie exceeded the book.

- High Fidelity. I'm a total Nick Hornby nerd now, but believe it or not I had to be dragged to this movie. The girl I was with wanted to see this and I wanted to see something else and she won, of course. She loved it; I thought it was just alright. Then, years later, I picked up the book out of curiosity and my entire attitude changed. I was gobsmacked at Hornby's writing style: witty, hip, and self-aware, yet with a great sensitivity and tenderness at its heart. It made me look at the movie differently, and before long I came to like the movie as well.

Now I have all of Hornby's novels (picked up Juliet, Naked in paperback a few months ago). I love how they all occupy a shared universe; a character from one book will often make a cameo appearance in another. I think my favorite Hornby novel might be How To Be Good, though if it were to be made into a movie it would require an exceptional screenplay.

- Johnny Got His Gun. Ugh. I found the 1971 film boring - the best bits are all in the Metallica video for "One." (Never saw the 2008 version; I'd like to one of these days.) I picked up the book years later after learning more about author Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood blacklist.

Am I glad I did. I have never read a better book about war, before or since - and frankly, it's better than most war movies! It's absolutely heart-wrenching to read at times, but well worth it, because it exposes the futility of war brilliantly. I realize Trumbo himself directed the 1971 film, but I dunno, for me it didn't have half the impact of the book itself.

- Mystic River. I'd never heard of the name Dennis Lehane prior to the Clint Eastwood-directed movie. Here's a case where I liked the movie a lot and it made me want to get the book as well. The book expanded on certain plot points and characters, naturally, but otherwise much of the story remained intact. I'm normally not a big one for crime novels, but Lehane appealed to me and still does. I've since read Shutter Island (before the movie this time) and Darkness Take My Hand, but not Gone Baby Gone, even though that's also a Kenzie & Gennaro story. I've still got some catching up to do. (And how lucky is Lehane to have three of his books turned into great movies?)

- The Namesake. The trailer looked interesting, so I figured I'd try the movie, and I liked this one too, and based on what I had read about Pulitzer-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri, I thought I'd look at her books as well. I actually bought Interpreter of Maladies first. I was in a Barnes & Noble in Brooklyn and I was struggling to remember Lahiri's name when I asked a clerk there who the author of The Namesake was (this was days after I saw the movie).

He told me, of course, and then pointed to a table displaying books by Brooklyn-based authors, of which Lahiri is one. Namesake wasn't there, but Interpreter was, and when I saw that this was the book that won her the Pulitzer, I figured I'd read it before Namesake. Like the movie, I found both books insightful looks into Indian and Indian-American culture. I also read Unaccustomed Earth; I thought it was okay, but not as good as the first two.


Monday, May 30, 2011

Hello Lonesome

Hello Lonesome
seen @ Cinema Village, New York NY

Hello Lonesome was an unexpected last-minute change to my schedule. Before I get into it, though, let me briefly tell you about my weekend, because I had a good one. I spent Saturday morning biking on Governor's Island, a tourist attraction island located in the East River, southeast of Manhattan. It was the first time I had been there with my bike. I left early, riding to the subway. Normally it would only take two trains to get there, but this being the weekend, construction schedules messed that up completely, so I had to carry my bike up and down more stairs than I had anticipated.

Eventually, I made it to the ferry and from the ferry to the island. It's small, but I got to see parts of it I hadn't seen before. It was really hot, though. I had originally planned to go back home and then come back out, but by the time I got home, which was sometime between four and five, I was far too wiped out to consider going back out. I just plopped on my bed for the rest of the day. It was a good tired, though.

Then yesterday I was with Andrea! She called me on Saturday inviting me to see Hello Lonesome for a specific reason: one of the actors in the film is a friend of hers. I was gonna call her to see if she wanted to hang out on Sunday, but she beat me to it, so that worked out fine. Sunday was another hot one. After so many long weeks of 50 degree weather and rain, this past week has been a pleasant surprise. It finally feels like summer. I wore shorts on Saturday, but not yesterday, and I should have.

There's not a whole lot to say about Cinema Village as a theater: it's tiny, with only three auditoriums and a lobby that can just barely be considered one. It's one of the seminal art house theaters in the city, however, and has been around for many years, and yesterday it had a decent-sized crowd for an early-afternoon show. Writer-director Adam Reid was in attendance all that weekend for after-show Q-and-A's, and I think many of the people at our show were friends and acquaintances of his.

Lonesome is a triptych of stories about people coping with loneliness in different forms: a father estranged from his daughter after his wife leaves him; an old widow who takes up with a much younger man, and a young couple whose relationship is tested when the girl gets cancer. Andrea's friend is Kamel Boutros, who plays a delivery guy who befriends the father. (That's him on the poster, holding the rifle.) He only has a few scenes, but they're good ones. He even gets to show off his singing ability in one. The acting is superb practically across the board in this movie, although the cinematography is not very strong. There are some odd editing choices and poor camera angles that bring the film down in places. It's a decent movie overall; nothing spectacular, but made watchable by the strong acting.

Reid appeared afterwards and he talked about his movie. It was shot in fifteen days for $50,000 and took over a year to complete. It was originally going to star Craig T. Nelson as the father, who works as a voice-over announcer. Reid, a commercials director, ultimately chose to take a chance on an actual VO man, Harry Chase, in what would be his first on-screen role. In 2010 Lonesome hit the festival circuit and won a few awards, and Reid said the film is now available online (I forget whether he said iTunes or not).

Afterwards Andrea and I wandered around the Village. She told me she saw Tree of Life already and was less than impressed with it, and now I'm no longer sure if I wanna see it. (I guess you'll find out in the coming weeks if I change my mind.) There was a street art fair we looked at, but we spent most of the afternoon in Washington Square Park listening to a group of musicians singing oldies songs. At one point, when we were on our own, we tried singing some oldies ourselves, even though neither of us are exactly candidates for American Idol, but we kept forgetting or misremembering the lyrics. (I think we had this problem the last time we tried this too!) Slightly embarrassing, perhaps, but still fun.

I'm just so glad summer-type weather is finally here. It felt like it would never arrive.

So how was your weekend?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Soundtrack Saturday: Tommy

The movie version was a bit of a letdown for me. Maybe I just preferred imagining the story of Tommy through the music alone - which, you gotta admit, can't be beat. (All three videos are clips from the movie.)

Elton John, "Pinball Wizard"

Tina Turner, "Acid Queen"

Eric Clapton, "Eyesight to the Blind"

Friday, May 27, 2011

To Be or Not To Be (1942)

To Be or Not To Be (1942)
seen online via YouTube

I recently read about World War 2 in a biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It's a war that has taken on near-mythological status in American history, and the movies have been major contributors to that. I've rarely given much thought, however, to the movies made during wartime. They're certainly not like the movies made during the undeclared war on Iraq, a conflict that has deeply divided the country along sharp ideological lines. Many of the biggest war-related movies to come out of Hollywood were not terribly successful at the box office, and perhaps the most memorable ones were an election-year documentary that was an indictment of the president responsible for this war, and a low-budget independent film about the soldiers in the war directed by a woman who would go on to make history.

The World War 2 films made during wartime were different because it was a different war. There were obvious bad guys, a catastrophe directly attributable to those bad guys, and a popular president willing to act on behalf of his people (although history shows that things weren't quite as simple as that, but that's another post). Films like Best Picture winner Mrs. Miniver were made as an effort to get America involved in the fighting, and of course so many more were made that depicted Americans in battle.

While watching To Be or Not To Be last night - continuing my Ernst Lubitsch kick - I thought about what it must have been like to watch it during the war. It's set in Poland, which of course was the first country to fall to Germany, though one needs to make a leap of faith to believe that these actors are portraying Germans and Poles. (I liked how in one scene, Carole Lombard, speaking without any type of accent, types a note in German.)

It couldn't have been easy for audiences at the time to watch a comedy that depicted such a recent real-life tragedy as the fall of Poland - or, for that matter, to see Nazis portrayed in a funny light. These days, the very word "Nazi" as an insult is almost taken for granted (unless you're Lars von Trier) and that Hitler video meme is one more example of how the man himself has become a sort of cartoon super-villain. But once upon a time Hitler and the Nazis were no joke - and here's a movie, made during the time when they almost conquered the world, that pokes fun at them. (Of course, Charlie Chaplin did it two years earlier with The Great Dictator, but that too, is another post.) I just think it's remarkable in itself.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Beginners (advance screening)

Beginners is the new Ewan McGregor movie that I was fortunate to have seen in an advance screening last night. One of the many different hats Reid wears is that of an actor; he's a SAG member who has had small appearances in a few films, the last one being Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna. Anyway, as a SAG member, he and a guest were invited to this showing at the Chelsea Clearview in Manhattan (the same place I saw Black Swan). He had spent the entire day at the Book Expo and was burdened with two bags full of books, yet he was determined to see this movie, in part because there would be a Q-and-A with co-star Christopher Plummer afterwards.

There was some question as to whether we'd actually make it in, though. People RSVP'd for the screening in a flash, but seating apparently was based on that and not first-come first-served. Reid RSVP'd late, so he believed that unless someone failed to show at the last minute, we wouldn't get in. Once we got to the box office, there was some confusion as to where we were supposed to wait and for how long (there was a huge line which I was afraid we'd have to get on, but it was for something else), but once Reid established his credentials and confirmed that he did, in fact, RSVP for this show, we got in.

For a multiplex, I have to admit the Chelsea's not bad. It maintains a local feel by showing movies that play to the gay-borhood (such as this one); the seats, while not arranged stadium-style, are very comfortable and roomy; and if you don't want to buy popcorn, there's now a small cafe in the lobby (with WiFi).

Earlier this week, an article in the Boston Globe exposed the practice of theaters with 3D projectors showing under-lit 2D movies. As a result, during the movie I kept looking up at the projection booth for one of the telltale signs of a 3D projector lens: dual light beams. As best as I could tell, I only saw one. We were seated in the center, a little towards the rear, so the view was as good as it could get. (If you haven't read the article, I highly recommend it. It's quite an eye-opener.)

Plummer and McGregor are father and son. When Plummer's wife dies, he reveals that he's been gay all along and decides to live the rest of his life as a gay man. Then he dies, and McGregor's out of sorts for awhile, until he meets Melanie Laurent and things change for him. The movie cuts back and forth through time, from the present to the near past to the distant past, when McGregor's character was a kid. It's inspired by director Mike Mills' father, who also came out late in life. It's got a lot of too-clever-by-half Wes Anderson-like storytelling gimmicks, which I thought was a bit excessive at times, but on the whole I liked it, especially Plummer...

...who, as I said, was in person for a Q-and-A with New York Magazine's David Edelstein. Plummer said his role in Beginners was very liberating for him, especially when he realized he didn't have to worry about playing Mills' actual father. He was told to interpret the role the way he chose, which he loved. (Plus, it was nice to not see him as a bad guy for a change.) He also talked at length about his career, especially his early days in theater, and as you might imagine, shared some funny stories. One could tell this was a crowd of actors because they reacted warmly to the names of old theater actors Plummer referred to, many of whom were unfamiliar to me. Reid tried to record the interview, but security busted him. He said he got enough, though.

A late dinner afterwards and that was it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Heaven Can Wait (1943)
seen online via YouTube

If there is an afterlife, which I doubt, and if I am expected to make some sort of account of my life in order to determine my ultimate fate, I doubt I would come out on top. I suppose I would characterize my life to be not unlike the protagonist of Heaven Can Wait: no crimes, but a lot of misdemeanors. The notion of being able to bargain for one's fate after you die seems like wishful thinking, although I suppose it depends on what belief system you subscribe to. It's just as likely that you'll come back in another life as someone (or something) else.

I'm reminded of the Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life, in which Brooks reaches a secular bureaucracy of an afterlife in which he must negotiate for the right to move on to... wherever it is he's supposed to move on to... based on the things he learns upon reexamining his life. That was a non-denominational, non-religious interpretation of the afterlife, though. Here, as the film's title makes clear, it's all about the Christian hereafter.

That said, would the Devil (if he exists too) be as pleasant and agreeable as he is in this movie? He's supposed to be the bad guy, right? Therefore any appearance of affability and gentlemanly charm should only be an appearance, to mask his true intentions. Of course, it's never explicitly stated that this is the Devil, but who else can it be?

Don Ameche's character Henry, like Will Ferrell's character in Stranger Than Fiction, is willing to entrust his fate to a greater power, and in both cases, they're granted pardons out of pity. While Henry is not as great a scoundrel as he believes himself to be, he's no saint either. I mean, he stole his cousin's fiancee from under his nose and clearly didn't regret it. (Sure, his cousin was a brownnose and a snitch, but still.) But of course, Christian theology, as interpreted in this movie at least, doesn't allow for shades of grey. Henry's going either to heaven or hell. If it were me, I would've sent Henry back to Earth in another life so that he can try again.

Still, this was a pleasant enough movie, with some funny moments. Peter Bogdanovich recently wrote in his blog about director Ernst Lubitsch, which made me want to see it. Prior to this, I think the only other Lubitsch film I had seen was Ninotchka. I plan to watch a few others in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Five more directors for Lars von Trier to obstruct

The creator of Antichrist and the helmer of Taxi Driver will collaborate on their next project. Danish director Lars von Trier and Oscar-winner Martin Scorsese are teaming up for a remake of The Five Obstructions, von Trier's 2003 documentary deconstructing the film making process.

In the original Five Obstructions, von Trier challenged fellow Danish director Jorgen Leth to remake his 1967 short film The Perfect Human five times, each time giving him a set of strict rules, or obstructions, that he had to follow.
So how about that Lars von Trier, huh? Yeah, so, by now the whole story about him putting his foot in his mouth at Cannes this year has been discussed to death, so there's no need for me to get into it. What I wanna talk about is this collaboration of his with Martin Scorsese. I haven't seen the first Five Obstructions film, but the idea behind it - coming up with different ways to make the same movie - does seem like a fun experiment, the sort of thing you might encounter in film school, perhaps. And I think if it could be done with a few other notable directors, it could even be beneficial. So Lars, if you're reading this, maybe you could hook up with these guys after you're done with Scorsese:

- Michael Bay. Get him to remake Transformers with a crew of third-grade schoolchildren providing the visual and sound effects. I can just imagine Shia LaBeouf running from a 7-inch TF action figure held up in front of the camera by a 6-year-old while a bunch of other rugrats are off in the background making "Pweew! Pweew! SCHBLOOOOMMM" sounds to simulate explosions!

- M. Night Shyamalan. He could remake The Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis covered in a white sheet with two eyeholes, forcing him to rely on another way to make the movie interesting besides the shocking twist ending!

- Tyler Perry. He can remake... any one of his films, really, it doesn't matter... with all the female roles played by men in drag. Why should Perry be the only one?

- Tim Burton. Have him redo Alice in Wonderland, only this time have it set in a Madison Avenue office building, with everyone dressed in modern business clothes. See how long it takes before he goes out of his mind!

- George Lucas. He can remake The Phantom Menace on a "black box" stage with only a bare minimum of props. Maybe being within such an environment will encourage him to let his actors act the way we know they can when they're not in one of his films!

Further suggestions are welcome.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Stranger Than Fiction vs. The Truman Show

I used to prefer Will Ferrell in small doses. When he was still doing supporting roles in films like Dick and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, I liked him better. Then he became a big star and made comedies that didn't appeal to me as much. I never hated him; he simply didn't matter to me. When he came out with Stranger Than Fiction, I passed on it because it reminded me too much of a movie I love, The Truman Show, and while I'm cool with Ferrell trying something different, I didn't think this was the answer. Lately, however, I've been given cause to give the film a try after all. I still found myself comparing it to Truman, though, so I'm gonna take a different approach with this post: I'm gonna talk about both movies and see how they match up. I've seen Truman many times, so I can easily talk about it from memory. I watched Fiction last night through Crackle.

Both movies have notable directors - Marc Forster and Peter Weir - who are able to curb Ferrell and Jim Carrey's comedic tendencies without completely eliminating them. I like it this way, which is why I prefer Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam and The Fisher King than in Good Will Hunting and One Hour Photo; the latter two roles, while very good, don't feel as tailored to Williams' specific strengths as the former two roles. Ferrell's Harold seems like a straighter role than Carrey's Truman, but both actors do surprisingly good work.

Both movies take a fantastical premise to sincerely explore the concept of fate. Harold and Truman are likable everymen who become aware of outside elements that appear to direct their lives, and both of them fight for the freedom to choose their own destinies. Truman plays up the religious angle more; Ed Harris' Christof comes across like an aloof demigod, one who even lives in the "sky" above Truman, and in the film's final act, the conflict between Truman and Christof takes on the level of a Biblical confrontation between man and God. Fiction is more grounded in the real world despite its unusual premise. (A movie from earlier this year which treads similar ground, The Adjustment Bureau, falls somewhere in between; the spiritual element is hinted at in places, but isn't as explicit as it is in Truman.)

Both protagonists' lives are fodder for public entertainment. In Truman, we see how the entire world faithfully follows Truman's daily exploits on television. In Fiction, Emma Thompson's Karen is in the process of creating the book of Harold's life (and death), but we're led to believe that this book, once it's completed, will be her masterpiece.

Perhaps the biggest difference between these films is the resolution. In Truman, once Truman discovers the artifice of his world, nothing stops him from breaking down its barriers and escaping. That's the driving force throughout the movie. Christof loses control of the narrative of Truman's life, and fights to regain it, but at every turn he acknowledges that Truman does have free will and that he can write his own ending if he really wants to - which is what he does in the end.

I've often wondered why, if there is a god, he would want to keep humanity subservient to his will and not let us expand our knowledge as far as it can go. Could it be because we're more entertaining that way? If so, then free will can't be anything more than an illusion. Truman, however, proves that theory wrong by fighting for the right to choose - and winning. Does this mean God is fallible after all - or that his creation, humanity, has outgrown the need for him? Children generally outgrow the need for their parents, yet we continue to cling to God, or the idea of God, as stubbornly as ever, at the expense of genuine enlightenment and growth. This past weekend's so-called rapture business is a perfect example of that.

In Fiction, once Harold meets Karen and learns what fate awaits him in her book, he accepts it. The story of his life had been unremarkable until he learned that Karen was controlling it, and upon learning that the death she had planned for him would not only be immortalized in her book, but would be a memorable one, he was okay with that, even though it would mean giving up the taste of life he had recently experienced up to that point: breaking free of his routines, fulfilling childhood fantasies, falling in love.

A major characteristic of the ancient Greek myths is the ability to live one's life fully aware that the gods have plans for you, and that those plans may not always be to your benefit. The Greeks believed that one couldn't fight fate no matter what one does, and their greatest tales bear this out. If God is only interested in us for our entertainment value, then our lives have no intrinsic value to him, yet that doesn't stop millions of people from committing questionable acts at best and horrific ones at worse, in his name. Karen, however, is no god, just a mortal woman who feels tremendous guilt once she faces the fact that her character has a life of his own - one she was about to take so that she could have a best-selling book.

Fiction and Truman are both excellent vehicles for two modern comedic talents to stretch their acting legs, surrounded by strong supporting actors, engaging scripts and sure-handed directors. I still give Truman the edge though. There are parts of Fiction's premise that are fuzzy to me. Was Harold unique among Karen's characters? That is, was he the first one that had a life beyond the confines of a book? Karen seemed to think not, but the movie doesn't say for certain. There's less of a sense of urgency in Fiction. Truman builds and builds towards an incredible climax as the stakes keep getting raised. And while Ferrell's performance is quite good, I believe Carrey's is better.

Anybody else seen both movies?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Soundtrack Friday: This is Spinal Tap

Going out of town this weekend (through earthbound means, NOT celestial ones, I assure you), so I thought I'd move this up a day.

"It's like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black."

"Sex Farm"


"Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight"

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

The first thing we studied in my high school art history class was cave paintings. I don't remember which ones specifically; I suppose it may have been the ones at Lascaux. It didn't leave that big an impression on me, though. Part of the reason why may have been the format of the class itself: while I had a good teacher, she had to cram a whole lot of information into a relatively short amount of time, so information was dispensed rather quickly. Mostly, though, I think it was because we were looking at slides and not the real thing. That wouldn't have been possible, of course, but still, at the time I think I regarded cave paintings as little different from other paintings - they were just a lot older and on a different canvas.

In that sense, I understand why Werner Herzog chose to film Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D. To be able to see these images on the surfaces of the ancient rock, the way primitive man saw them as they were being made, in a format approximating three-dimensionality, makes you more aware of the reality of this work. Whenever I see a painting, especially one with thick amounts of paint, my instinct is to want to touch it. Recently, I was at an outdoor art fair in New Jersey and one of the artists had paintings that he encouraged people to touch. It was a wonderful feeling.

One doesn't need to feel a work of art to appreciate it any better, but by doing so, one gets a greater sense of it as a physical object, one made by human hands. This movie comes as close as we'll ever get to evoking that feeling for these cave paintings, because by shooting it in 3D, these images come alive in a way that they wouldn't if it were flat.

This is the first 3D movie I've seen since Avatar. Comparisons may have been inevitable, but ultimately they're fruitless. Avatar was so busy creating this new world that was full of unusual sights and objects; there was always something neat to look at. Cave doesn't have anything unusual outside of the cave paintings themselves, so half of the time you're looking at things like talking-head interviews and offices and beautiful-yet-real-world-based landscapes in 3D as well, and there's nothing particularly breathtaking about that, at least not in comparison with Avatar.

Give Herzog credit for trying something new. It's encouraging that elder statesmen like him continue to find new filmmaking challenges, and he made the most of this, especially given the fact that he and his film crew were being granted exclusive access to Chauvet Cave for a limited period of time. I doubt there was anything in his long career to prepare himself for this. It's becoming cheaper to make 3D movies now, so one can only hope that the bar will continue to be high for 3D movies when they're of this quality.

I saw Cave in Queens, but I had planned on seeing it in Manhattan with Vija. I had told her about it on Facebook, and she seemed excited about it, especially since she hadn't heard about it, so we planned on last Sunday, the 15th, at the IFC Center in the Village. She invited Franz to come along as well. Sunday came and they arrived first at the IFC and got their tickets. I came later, at 2:30, for a 2:55 show, thinking there was still plenty of time, but the 2:55 was sold out!

This was a surprise to all of us. When I got there, they were on a long ticket holders line that Vija said formed pretty quickly. I saw the line, but didn't see them at first; I got the bad news at the box office and came back and found them, so they ended up seeing the movie without me. I had to spend two hours waiting for them in Washington Square Park. As I left, I distinctly heard a couple saying how surprised they were that the show was sold out, since the movie has been out for awhile. I took some comfort in that.

Anyway, afterwards, I caught up with them and we all went to have Chinese for dinner. (Vija treated me.) They told me how much they loved the movie, and I ended up learning bits of information about what to expect - which was fine with me, since I had already read some interviews with Herzog about it, so I wasn't too lost in the discussion.

I still can't help but feel a little embarrassed about the whole thing; normally I'm a stickler for getting to a movie far enough ahead of time that something like this would never happen. In this case, I underestimated the demand for Cave, especially at an art house theater like the IFC on a weekend. At the Kew Gardens it was obviously much different. I walked in five minutes before showtime and got my ticket, no problem.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Streetfilms charts the path towards safer streets

...Mark Gorton, a major donor to T.A. and founder of LimeWire... had started to take an increased interest in transportation and was particularly concerned about how dangerous it was for New Yorkers to cross their streets, ride a bike in traffic, and to find quiet, open spaces to relax in near their homes.

Mark was eager to accelerate the public’s learning curve on transportation issues and realizing the amazing potential of video’s influence he met with Clarence to discuss his advocacy film work. Soon after he hired him to produce shorts about communities' struggles to make their neighborhoods safer from traffic. Much of this initial phase was very critical of government and documented the difficult, on-the-ground conditions for pedestrian life of New Yorkers.

National Bike Month is a time to celebrate the benefits of bicycling. As gas prices continue to rise, and as the search for oil continues to wreck the environment, it has become more imperative than ever to encourage alternate means of transportation that reduces our dependency on oil. In New York and elsewhere, the bicycle has enjoyed a renaissance in popularity as a way to get around, thanks to an investment in infrastructure that makes it easier to do that - primarily, bike lanes.

There have been formidable obstacles, however. Here in New York, the local news media has stirred up anti-bicycling sentiment based on misinformation and speculation, while wealthy individuals with ties to prominent political figures have challenged the authority of the Department of Transportation and local community boards who, at the request of the neighborhoods they represent, have lobbied for and received bike lanes. In addition, the police, undereducated about bike laws in general, have targeted bikers for victimless traffic infractions while cars kill and injure pedestrians on a weekly, almost daily basis.

Counteracting the media's distortions with facts and providing much-needed education about biking and other aspects of the livable streets movement is filmmaker Clarence Eckerson Jr. and the crew of Streetfilms. For close to a decade, Eckerson's short films have documented the progress of biking in New York, interviewing politicians, activists, community leaders, specialists, and of course, bikers from all walks of life. In addition, Streetfilms has covered other aspects of transportation, such as the experimental Bus Rapid Transit program, as well as other changes to city streets, such as the new pedestrian plazas in Times and Herald Squares.

Streetfilms has gone national, covering similar movements in other American cities such as Portland, Seattle and San Francisco; and even international, doing the same in countries such as England, Colombia and Denmark. The goal is always the same: to present the facts that make the case for alternate transportation and safer streets.

Here are five examples of the kind of work Streetfilms does.

Transforming NYC Streets: A Conversation With Janette Sadik-Khan

Cycling Copenhagen, Through North American Eyes

Bike vs. Car vs. Transit

Portland: Celebrating America's Most Livable City

Summer Streets 2008 (NYC)

Any regular bikers out there?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Bicycle Thieves

Bicycle Thieves (AKA Bicycle Thief)
last seen online via YouTube

I never had my bike stolen when I lived in Columbus, though I did have several parts swiped. My night light got swiped twice. After the first time, I bought a smaller one, and after the second time I bought one even smaller than that, both times thinking that it would be less noticeable if it were smaller. That wasn't as weird, though, as having my seat swiped. It happened outside the main library in the downtown area. The library had bike racks in the front, and I'd always park and lock my bike there if there was room. One day I did, like any other day, and when I came out of the library hours later, the seat was gone! Naturally, I was pissed, but I was bewildered as well: why would anyone take only the seat?

When I returned to New York, I made it a point to try and gauge how often bikes got stolen here. I'd ask biker friends, do some reading, that kind of stuff. The conventional wisdom appears to be that having one lock is good, but having two locks is better. Singer and bike activist David Byrne, in his terrific book Bicycle Diaries, advocates having both a U-lock and a chain - the theory being that a potential thief would have a harder time trying to break two completely different locks.

May is National Bike Month, and this week is Bike to Work Week. In Columbus, biking as a form of transportation has slowly but surely made inroads towards acceptability, thanks to a mayor who fully endorses biking and activist groups who work towards making biking easier and safer. New York has made longer, bigger strides: in addition to installing hundreds of miles of bike lanes over the past few years, they've improved the city streets in other ways, such as installing pedestrian plazas in major intersections and creating bus-exclusive lanes. Some people think that all these changes make New York look too much like Europe - as if that was somehow a bad thing.

As I watched Bicycle Thieves last night (Thieves or Thief? I've seen it both ways), I paid close attention to the streets of Rome to see how they compare to the new New York. Of course, I don't know how much Roman streets have changed in 60-something years, but I figured it was worth comparing anyway.

The most remarkable element, of course, is the ubiquity of bike riders on the Roman streets. Ricci, our protagonist, is commonly seen with dozens of bikers mingling with car traffic harmoniously, for the most part. The cars don't appear to travel very fast; indeed, both cars and buses appear to be aware of bikes in the streets, though a couple of pedestrians get some close calls in the movie. In New York, while bikers are more visible than at any time before in the city's history, they still can't hold a candle to the amount of cars. Bikers intermingle with car traffic less thanks to the lanes, the protected lanes in particular.

While we don't see any protected bike lanes in Thieves, they do exist in other European cities such as biking mecca Copenhagen. They're great because they provide bikers of all stripes - male, female, young, old - with a greater sense of safety when they ride. All the bikers in Thieves appeared to be adult males and if not young, then in their prime. Again, it's probably different in present-day Rome.

It's astounding to see that Ricci is not the only one who rides without any kind of lock. There's one scene where a crowd of people are coming from what looks like a sporting event, and as they exit the stadium and pick up their bikes, none of them appear to be locked either. One would imagine that Ricci's situation would be a common one in 1948 Rome. You'd think the police would be a bit more sympathetic.

In NYC there are many more bike racks, some of them sheltered, and most of the time, they're full to bursting with locked bikes. In Columbus, it was easier to find a space on a bike rack, but I also would use a parking meter if one wasn't available.

So while 1948 Rome certainly accommodated bikes in a way that 2011 New York and Columbus haven't quite reached yet - in both cities (especially New York), there's still resistance from influential public figures and regular citizens who aren't ready for bikes to share the streets with cars - it didn't have the modern infrastructure necessary to make biking as safe an activity as it should be, which leads, of course, to Ricci getting his bike ripped off. But of course, if that doesn't happen, there's no story.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Soundtrack Saturday: Love Jones

Underrated romance movie. Lots of spoken word poetry, lots of jazz, and very little of the usual Hollywood rom-com BS. I'll have to write about the movie sometime soon. Meanwhile, enjoy these prime cuts from this terrific soundtrack.

Lauryn Hill, "The Sweetest Thing"

Cassandra Wilson, "You Move Me"

Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, "In a Sentimental Mood"

Friday, May 13, 2011


last seen online via YouTube

The year was 1989. I had just started my senior year in high school. In the summer, as sort of a preparatory step towards college, I had taken a summer art course at Cooper Union, a prominent art school here in New York, and in the fall, the solicitations from art schools and other universities around the country came in. I was starting to get geared up for the long process of deciding which college to go to.

I had never been much for extra-curricular activities, and I didn't think I'd have time for one in my senior year of all times, but there was one in particular which I found I couldn't resist. You could say it was a sci-fi geek club for art majors. Thanks to Batman, it was an especially great time to be a geek, and this club kinda took advantage of the fact. We'd get together and talk about genre movies and TV shows while drawing giant robots and sword-wielding barbarians and cartoon characters. It was mostly made up of Asian kids. It was fun. I made some good friends there.

One day, John, the head of the club, brought in a video tape of an animated movie from Japan called Akira. I had never heard of it. I was marginally aware of Japanese cartoons; I was addicted to Battle of the Planets as a kid, and had watched one or two other similar shows from over there, but that was it. John insisted we had never seen anything like this movie before. I was game, and so was everyone else. He popped the tape in the VCR and we all plopped down in front of the television.

Two hours later, we all felt like our brains had exploded out the backs of our heads. John was absolutely right. I may not have completely understood every aspect of the intricate story, but it had mass destruction, telekinetic powers, fast motorcycles and violent, bloody deaths - what more did a 17-year-old kid need? We hollered and high-fived at the gory and violent parts, laughed at the funny parts, and stared slack-jawed at the deeper parts, and when it was over, we wanted more.

For the next few years or so, anime - Japanese animation - was a interest of mine. I was never the type to go searching through Chinatown for a bargain on a fuzzy bootleg from a backroom dealer, but I was always around friends who had tapes. I watched more anime in high school with my club friends. In college I knew this girl Becky who got me hooked on this kung fu anime we'd watch whenever I was at her place (and for the life of me I can't recall what the name of it was). Eventually I grew out of it. I'll watch an anime today if it's good, but I no longer go out of my way to find them like I once did. And to be honest, no anime I've seen since has given me the same rush, the same feeling of pure holy-shit-is-this-movie-awesome as Akira did the first time I saw it.

So now they're talking about making an Americanized live-action version, possibly with Keanu Reeves - which, on a personal level, is ironic, because the first time I saw The Matrix, I thought afterwards that this was the first time I had seen a live-action version of an anime. (Yes, I know that there are plenty of live-action Japanese films that look like anime as well - now. I didn't know then, though.)

And so far it looks like they can't be bothered to come up with any Asian actors in the cast, either, which has gotten fans riled up. Well, let it be known that as much as I'd love to see a live-action Akira, I won't see it either if they go this route. In this blog, I try not to dwell too much on the whiteness of many current Hollywood films - I'd much rather focus on the positive rather than the negative (for example, look at this nice story about the debut film from a Latina director) - but you have to wonder how long it'll take for Hollywood to grow some balls on this front. I mean, one of the year's biggest moneymakers so far has an ethnically diverse cast (no accounting for quality, but still). Something's gotta give, and I'm hoping it'll be sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

First of all, I should say that POM is expensive as hell. Yes, I actually went out and bought a bottle of POM after watching POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, just so I could fully experience this movie the way Morgan Spurlock intended (presumably). Seeing him chugging this stuff, it looked like it couldn't have been more than 12-16 ounces, so I figured it wouldn't be more than a couple of bucks. Wrong. $4.49 for a 16-ounce bottle at my local Key Food supermarket. So the price alone guarantees that I will never drink this stuff on a regular basis. Plus it didn't even have Spurlock's face on it.

I remember seeing ads for POM in the subway. Didn't think too much more of it than most of the other ads I see in the subway all the time. Pomegranates sounded like something out of the Bible, like something Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden maybe. Dictionary.com defines it as "a chambered, many-seeded, globose fruit." Maybe that explains the bottle shape. It tastes alright; sweeter than I expected.

Living in New York, one can't help but be inundated with ads everywhere you look. I remember when the subways went from having a bunch of different ads on both sides of each car to one or two ads dominating the entire car. At first it was overwhelming, and a bit intimidating, as if they want you to buy this one product so badly they're willing to pummel you with ads everywhere you look within the subway car. If it's a creative ad, something that's funny, it's not so bad, but of course the downside is that once you've seen the entire ad, there's nothing else to look at but the other passengers (which is why I always carry a book with me). Now it seems like every square inch of the subway cars and stations are for sale - and given the fact that the city transit system is broke, it's hardly surprising.

Movie ads get me excited, as you might imagine. I missed seeing them when I lived in Columbus. Who can forget the
Godzilla ads from 1998: taking up huge billboards and entire sides of buildings, with legends such as "His foot is bigger than this sign," or something like that. And I have to admit, they got me so excited for the movie I went to a Tuesday night preview (it was due to officially open on a Wednesday). After enduring the suckitude of the movie, I felt like a total chump for falling for the hype.

Greatest Movie
, like Spurlock's previous film Super Size Me, ultimately felt like another excuse for Spurlock to pull one of his wacky stunts, but because h
e comes across as so likeable and down to earth, you're willing to follow along. I wish the focus of his movie had been on Sao Paolo, the city without outdoor advertising. He did spend a good amount of time on that, though.

Another thing he touched upon was how everyday people sell themselves as a brand, to a certain degree, to get what they want. Think of personals ads, or resumes, or portfolios. What are they but ad campaigns meant to sell the other person on you? Of course, most of us don't have to see these things everywhere we go. I'm reminded of the old Judy Holliday movie
It Should Happen to You, where her character tries to sell herself as a brand. In fact, that movie and this would make for an interesting double bill, to see how much - and how little - advertising has changed in fifty years.

Any thoughts on modern advertising?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

AFFRM's DuVernay: POCs are part of indie film too

...what color is indie [film]? I mean, what does it take to be of color and truly considered authentic American indie? To have done something seen as meaningful to the circle of the American independent film establishment, both artistically and as a business model. Like, if I don’t participate in what a good pal calls “white people festivals”… am I indie enough? Do you take my film as seriously because I chose to world premiere at Urbanworld in NY instead of submitting to Tribeca? If I don’t run my film through the labs or diversity initiatives of a recognized institution… do I not have that cool indie cred you need to see my movie with its beautiful black cast? I wonder.
Admittedly, I've never been to a film festival of any kind, nor am I that savvy about the state of independent cinema, but I had to share this piece from Ava DuVernay of AFFRM because of its obvious importance. I Will Follow's success is surely one of the most important film stories of the year, and it needs to be emphasized that it was accomplished completely outside the mainstream Hollywood system, relying instead on a network of black film festivals and good-old-fashioned word of mouth. If the established (read: white) gatekeepers of indie film in America aren't interested in taking advantage of this new distribution model, well, what does that say about their priorities? A lot can be learned from DuVernay and AFFRM, and it's about time more people in the industry took notice.

Have any of you seen I Will Follow?

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Beaver

The Beaver
seen at City Cinemas 123, New York NY

At the risk of repeating myself from last week, I have a friend who has been diagnosed with clinical depression. She has had a difficult life, to say the least. She has made a few reckless choices in her life, some involving men, and she's almost always angry about something. She has been on medication, and while I've been fortunate not to have seen her at her worst, she's definitely had her moments of pain and confusion.

What I admire greatly about her, however, is that she has survived the chaos of her life and hasn't let the bastards get her down. She often channels her anger towards creative activities that keep her focused and active - and it should be said that much of her anger is directed towards the problems of the world; she's not the self-absorbed type. She definitely knows how to have a good time. And to top it all off, she recently got married, something I honestly never expected from her, but she seems totally happy with this guy.

I never knew depression was a condition one could be diagnosed with until I met her. I can't imagine what that feels like. While we've all had moments of gloom, how many of us can say that those moments have kept us down for long periods of time? I would speculate that, like alcoholism, coping with depression is probably a one-day-at-a-time proposition; moving forward and back until one finds a semblance of an equilibrium.

My friend probably will not see The Beaver. I suspect she believes, like many people, that Mel Gibson is an irredeemable racist and sexist, and she could be right. There's no doubt that the shadow of his real-life antics over the past several years follows him around in this movie, and while he may say that they're no reflection on who he really is, the truth, for me at least, is that it's difficult to buy that.

That's why he is so fortunate to have someone like Jodie Foster as a director and a friend. As a director and co-star, she helped Gibson bring out the tragedy of his character, a toy company executive suffering from severe depression, who attempts to use a beaver hand puppet to make himself over into a better person. There's a great scene about halfway into the film where the two of them are at dinner and Foster (playing his wife) tries to engage him in conversation without the puppet. She shows him photos from earlier in their marriage, including pictures of his two sons, and instead of bringing him closer to her it drives him further away. We see him beginning to fall to pieces, struggling with whatever demons are eating away at him, until he whips out the puppet and says (through the puppet, of course) something like, "That man is gone. He's not coming back. This is who I am now."

I think Foster found the right balance between comedy and tragedy. There are moments where you laugh even though the moment shouldn't be funny. The situation seems absurd on the face of it, and I think those moments need to be there for the audience to have a release of some sort, because the script goes into some dark territory. The trailer did make it seem like the story would go a certain way, but it doesn't.

The producers initially had hoped this could be an Oscar contender last year. Could Gibson get nominated this year? He'll need some serious help; the early numbers for the movie, both financially and critically, are not encouraging, even for a limited release. I suspect he won't make it, but I hope I'm wrong. The talent is clearly still there, and he makes the most of it in this movie.

A few words about City Cinemas: it's a small East side theater in Manhattan that has been around for a long time, and even in the face of modern multiplexes in Times Square and the West side, it still remains. The auditorium I saw The Beaver in was on the second floor, where you can look out over Third Avenue in the lobby. The last movie I saw here was No Country For Old Men, on a rainy opening night with the line stretched around the corner. Sadly, there were no such crowds on this Saturday afternoon. It looked like maybe 10-20 people were in the house.

I spent much of the day on the East side. The past couple of weeks have been rough on me because allergy season is in full force and I've been having trouble sleeping, in addition to the usual hay fever symptoms. It finally feels like spring around here after a cold and wet April, but as usual, I can't enjoy it as much as everyone else because I'm sniffling and sneezing all over the place. Just gotta muddle through, I guess.

Friday, May 6, 2011


This is Monster Mommies Week! All this week we'll spotlight some of the cruelest, meanest, and scariest cinematic mothers.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

first seen at Pavillion Park Slope, Park Slope, Brooklyn NY

I have a close friend who had an abusive mother. I'm fairly certain it wasn't physical abuse, though; it was much more the verbal kind. My basic understanding is that her mom was the severely disapproving type. It wrecked her self-esteem for a long time, and though she's doing alright today, every now and then the scars peek through. Still, she's happily married to a man who not only shares her interests, but is remarkably supportive despite the issues she still grapples with, some a result of her childhood, some not. They don't have kids of their own. She says she could never imagine herself as a parent, in large part because of what her mom put her through, and they're both perfectly fine with this choice.

I have no desire to be a parent either. Taking responsibility for a life, from the moment of its conception onward, seems more like a burden than a blessing to me because of all the things that can go wrong. The temptation to mold this life into one's own image, even with the best of intentions, would be great - and if it doesn't happen, the urge to blame the child would be equally great. Plus - and this is another reason my aforementioned friend chooses not to have kids - there are far too many children being made to begin with, by too many people who should not be parents under any circumstances.

I used to work in an office with a large number of young single mothers. These women would've had to have had their children in their early 20s or even their teens, and while it's admirable that they were working to support their kids, I always wondered whether they received the guidance necessary to prevent them from having kids at so young an age. I did my best not to judge, however; I don't know the temptations and pressures they may have faced.

Which brings me to Precious. Like you and the rest of the world, I was shocked to discover that Mo'nique could actually act. Give director Lee Daniels credit for taking chances on people not known for their dramatic chops and making them watchable at minimum (Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz) and genuinely good at best - that, of course, includes Gabby Sidibe as well as Mo'nique.

Much has been written of Mo'nique's performance as Mary, perhaps the most frightening cinematic mother since Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. Her desperate attempt to justify her actions towards the movie's end, while undeniably moving on a certain level, struck me at the time I saw it as being as over the top as the rest of the movie. It almost seemed as if the film's misery was as much a selling point as this story of a young woman's coming of age - and while I know the book was the same way (I didn't read it, but I know from interviews by Daniels and others), I felt at the time that too much was being made of the abuse angle and not enough of Precious' struggle to escape that abuse. Ultimately, I thought the whole thing tawdry, tedious, and beyond melodramatic...

...but it clearly struck a chord in a lot of people, whether they could relate to Precious or not. Still, though, the emotional buttons that the movie pushes are easy ones. Who wouldn't feel sympathy for Precious? Who wouldn't root for her to get away from Mary and take control of her own life? Mary's confession raises difficult questions, yes, but they come too late in the story and as a result, it seems like an attempt to let her off the hook instead of introducing a deeper layer of character.

As for Mo'nique, I'd like to see her take on other challenging roles like this, but Hollywood hasn't actually beaten a path to her door, from what I can see - big surprise. Perhaps she's content to stick with her TV show and raising her own kids, but man, it would be a shame if she never got another chance to build on this performance.


Previously on Monster Mommies Week:
The Brood
The Baby

Dead Alive