Friday, April 29, 2016

Safety Last!

Safety Last!
TCM viewing

When Tom Cruise scaled the Burj Khalifa in Dubai for a scene in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, it got a whole lot of attention, and rightly so. At 2722 feet off the ground, it's the tallest building in the world, and the fact that Cruise was willing to do the entire stunt himself likely enticed audiences to see the movie in large numbers. It was a rare feat achieved by one of the world's biggest stars who, by many accounts, is a great perfectionist and diligent worker. It was a stunt that was heavily prepared for in advance, and Cruise was protected by a harness and cable. What if, however, the film required him to climb the whole thing from the ground up?

That's not very likely, no matter what kind of movie one was making or who's in it. However, over ninety years ago, a stunt nearly as death-defying, in its own small way, was made by another big Hollywood star for a very different kind of movie - and it looks every bit as miraculous today as it did then.

Safety Last! starred Harold Lloyd as a guy named, by an amazing coincidence, Harold Lloyd, who goes to the big city to become a success so he can marry his small-town girlfriend. When the only job he can get is as a department store clerk, he lies to his girl in order to make himself seem like a big shot. In the climax, he gets his friend to climb the department store building from the ground up, as a promotional stunt, but when said friend runs into cop trouble, Lloyd is forced to do the stunt in his place.

Lloyd is considered one of the comedy giants of the silent era, along with Chaplin and Keaton. This was the first time I'd seen him, and while he wasn't bad, I gotta say I didn't think he was terribly distinctive from either of those two. He seemed to have Chaplin's innocence and playfulness and Keaton's daredevil streak. I suppose I was looking for something a bit different from either of those two, something more cutting edge, perhaps. Maybe if I saw more of his films I'd find what distinguished him from his peers.

So about that building-climbing stunt: while most of what you see in the finished product is Lloyd, what he actually scaled, according to the 1980 documentary Hollywood, was a fake facade built over the rooftop of a different building. The camera was positioned so that the street below could still be in the shot. Lloyd saw co-star Bill Strother climb a building in LA and was inspired to not only do the same for his movie, but to bring Strother on board as well.

Regardless of how it was done, I was fooled completely. It looks quite convincing, and seeing Lloyd do it without benefit of a harness or cable that could be digitally deleted in post looked strenuous enough. And of course, this scene has been copied and paid homage to in many places since. The rest of the movie is okay. There were some genuine laugh-out-loud moments. I liked it, although it ends without a resolution to his dilemma with his girlfriend, who still doesn't know the truth about his job. Poor storytelling there. Definitely worth seeing, though, if you've always wanted to know the context for that scene.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

And the Children Shall Lead: Two Nimoy docs

The death of Leonard Nimoy continues to be felt throughout Trek fandom and the world at large, over a year later. Now, his children have chosen to honor his legacy with two different forthcoming documentaries.

Adam Nimoy, an experienced actor, director and author, is helming For the Love of Spock, a doc that started out as a meditation on the Spock character and his impact on the world, but after Leonard's death, it morphed into a much more personal story about Adam and his relationship with his father. As he told
...The thing I kept coming back to is that a lot of fans and family were supportive of the idea that I delve more deeply into my point of view of the whole [Star Trek] experience. That was kind of the unique element that I could bring to the film, that no other documentarian could really tell. And what I tell is... how Spock affected me, the impact of being a celebrity family, my relationship with my dad.... I was at first resistant, but more and more people responded to the idea of making it more of a personal journey.
I wouldn't say Spock had a huge impact on me. By the time I first saw The Original Series on TV as a kid, I was already well receptive to the idea of funny-looking aliens interacting with humans, thanks to comics and other sci-fi TV shows and films. Spock wasn't necessarily unique to me, although I still thought of him as a cool character. I'd say it was more through the movies that I first began to truly understand his importance: his close friendships with Kirk and McCoy, his value to the crew of the Enterprise, and his importance to the Federation and Starfleet. Once I started reading the novels, I understood it even more.

I think what makes Spock special to me is not just his ability to come up with a solution for the dilemma of the week, but the way he's accepted by the Enterprise crew and Kirk in particular despite how different he is. They learn from him as much as he learns from them.

The second Leonard Nimoy doc is headed by Julie Nimoy and her husband David Knight. It deals with the condition that ultimately took her father's life, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD: Highly Illogical - A Special Tribute to Leonard Nimoy charts the origins of the disease as well as how Leonard used his final months to spread awareness of it. Cigarette smoking is the most common cause of the disease, and Nimoy was a heavy smoker for years. As Julie told the website Blastr:

...Having a famous dad as an example of someone who had COPD greatly helped us to partner with a number of medical organizations. I thin kthe feeling was if someone like "Mr. Spock"/Leonard Nimoy can get diagnosed with COPD then no one is immune to the disease if they've also followed a similar lifestyle path.

In the past decade-plus, New York has taken steps to curtail the places where one can smoke in public, but in a city as big as this, it's impossible to avoid entirely. For a long time, I was able to tolerate being around cigarette smoke, but now, not as much. I'm more likely to move somewhere else if someone's smoking near me, not so much for health reasons as for the simple fact that I just don't like it, and I don't want to be around someone who's doing it in front of me. (To all my friends who do smoke: nothing personal.)

I may have mentioned here before that I have a Trekkie friend who absolutely cannot be around smokers for health reasons. She can't even tolerate the smell of nicotine on clothing. I've already told her about this doc. I'm pretty sure she'll be quite appreciative of its message.

It's sad that Leonard Nimoy isn't around to help celebrate Trek's half-century mark. It's comforting, though, to know that he's being remembered in a multitude of ways, and these upcoming films made by his children have to be among the most heartfelt.

Axanar and fan fiction
William Shatner's 'Leonard'

Friday, April 22, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!

Everybody Wants Some!!
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens NY

It just so happens that the main character in my novel is a former baseball player from Texas. I didn't really go into Everybody Wants Some!! expecting to get any further insight into what the life of a Southern college-age jock was like. The machismo, the competitiveness the party lifestyle, and yes, even the subtle homo-eroticism in places, none of it came as much of a surprise, and anyway, we never see my character during his college days in my story. He's a middle-aged man. Still, I was hoping for a little something extra that would further inform my character. I didn't find it, but that's okay. My novel is quite different than this movie.

I like to think that the mirror universe version of me is a jock. My father was an athlete in college, and I've always had a fantasy that I could have been one too, if I hadn't developed an aptitude for art. I was never in little league, but I remember playing a fair amount of softball, in and out of school. I remember thinking that being a left-handed batter must have been some sort of asset.

I had Keith Hernandez' book If at First... and he talked a lot about his batting technique, which I tried to apply to my game. How can you aspire to be a .300 hitter, though, when another lefty player, Darryl Strawberry, is hitting monster home runs left and right? Suffice it to say I was easily swayed.

I think Walter, my character, would've fit in perfectly with the jocks of Richard Linklater's latest movie, at least at the same age. For one thing, he went to college around the same time period, the early 80s. He was just as girl crazy back then, just as much of a hellraiser, and just as committed to winning. Over twenty years later, he's changed considerably, but I think at heart he still sees himself as much the same. In the story, however, he falls for a woman from a higher social class and from a different part of America, and this makes him acutely aware of how different he is, and whether or not he could stand a chance with someone like her. That's just one part of the story, though.

The cast of Everybody includes one black character, which made him stand out rather conspicuously. It made me think that the fictitious Texas college that's the setting for the film probably integrated at a slow pace. Still, he's treated as one of the guys. In the nightclub and party scenes, Linklater didn't feel the need to perpetuate the cliche of automatically pairing him up with the token sister, although not doing so also carries implications, especially in a setting with so few people of color to begin with. Does he prefer white chicks, given a choice? I suppose he could have danced with the token sister as well, but we never see him do so. I really wish I didn't think about stuff like this...

Like its spiritual predecessor, Dazed and Confused, Everybody has a rockin' soundtrack. One almost wonders if movies like these are made just for the nostalgia factor inherent in these soundtracks. As the target audience for movies like this, I almost can't help but respond to scenes like the one where they're singing along to "Rapper's Delight." I mean, the poster for this movie, as you can see at the top, is an image of a mixtape! What I'm saying is that it's catnip for people of my generation. It's almost too easy to get drawn into a movie like this... but I don't care, especially when it's part of a movie as fun as this.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Footlight Parade

Are Ruby and Joanie supposed to be nude
in this poster? Sure looks like it!
Footlight Parade
seen @ Landmark Loew's Jersey Theatre, Jersey City, NJ

A long time ago, when they used to be shown in venues opulent and lavish enough to be worthy of the name "palaces," movies used to be preceded by live stage shows called "prologues." As I understand it, they were the brainchildren of exhibitors, who put them on as a supplement to the movie, a kind of stage-setter, as it were. Imagine seeing Batman v. Superman at Radio City Music Hall, preceded by a wave of Rockettes parading around in capes and masks and flying around on wires, perhaps, singing an original paean to the American superhero, and you'll get some idea of what the experience was like.

Hollywood producers weren't crazy about prologues, and they did their best to get rid of them by the time sound came to the movies. Why? Money, of course: theaters and performers were getting the moolah that could've been going to the studios through film rentals.

Could prologues work today? I could see them being done in select theaters in New York and L.A., but only in some kind of profit-sharing partnership between the studios and the exhibitors - and certainly not for every movie at every showing. The Force Awakens is a good example of the kind of modern movie a prologue could go well with: a big, mainstream extravaganza aimed at the widest possible audience. Make it part of a Wednesday-night world premiere at places like Radio City or Grauman's TCL Chinese, broadcast it live on YouTube as an hour-long program, complete with backstage interviews before and after the prologue, promote the hell out of it on social media, of course, and you're good to go. I can't see it working any other way in 21st century-Hollywood - but that's okay. Not every idea from the past would work well today.

A prologue would not have felt out of place last Saturday night at the Loew's Jersey, where I saw the movie Footlight Parade, a love letter to the era of prologues, made while they were going into decline (replaced by short subjects like cartoons and newsreels). The Loew's usually precedes their film screenings with a live performance on their Wonder Morton pipe organ, but wouldn't you know it, their usual organist had a gig somewhere else that night. (He did, however, make it to the Loew's in time for the second show, All About Eve. I heard the organ playing as the crowd for that show entered the auditorium.) 

Jimmy Cagney is a developer of prologues who sees the writing on the wall, or perhaps the marquee, when sound comes to the movies. He develops a scheme to keep his business afloat, though it means working his people harder than ever. Are they up to the challenge? Busby Berkeley did the choreography for this one, and as in other films he worked on, like Gold Diggers of 1933, his breathtaking, kaleidoscopic musical numbers are supposed to take place on a simple, ordinary stage within the reality of the movie, although they would have to be arranged in four-dimensional space to even begin to work for a live audience. 

I always find it hilarious whenever I see a movie like this, because no attempt is made to explain it away (and thank Zod for that!); they just cut to the audience in the theater applauding the spectacle they've somehow witnessed the same way we, the movie audience, did. Now that I think about it, though, I think the version we see is perhaps meant to be some kind of "dream" version of the "actual" performance. It's as if the filmmakers said well, filming it exactly as it would appear on a live stage would be boring, so let's jazz it up and make it fit for a movie audience instead. I wouldn't be at all surprised if that was the rationale.

FLP is a pre-code movie, and as such, there are moments that aren't exactly politically correct. Early in the film, Cagney gets an idea for a prologue called "Slaves of Africa" which would involve dancers in blackface in a jungle setting. Thankfully, we never get to see that, but the fact that he seriously considers that kinda made me squirm. Also, he gets inspired by seeing black kids playing in an open fire hydrant, saying something like (and I'm paraphrasing) "a waterfall on beautiful white bodies." Plus, Ruby Keeler in yellowface... I know stuff like this just reflects the era in which it was made, and I shouldn't take it so seriously - and the fact is, I like this picture a lot, despite moments like this - but it still gives me that nails-on-a-chalkboard feeling.

Fortunately, any casual racism in FLP is more than made up for by the joyous presence of Joan Blondell. She plays Cagney's secretary who crushes on him and keeps him on the straight and narrow throughout the story. She totally kicks ass in this film - literally, at one point! She has many of the best lines, and like in Night Nurse, we get to see her undress! In fact, we see lots of ladies dressing and undressing in buses during the climactic third act, when the prologue dancers have to hustle from one theater to another to do three prologues in a single night. (Sure, it's possible. Why not?)

Keeler and Dick Powell made for a cute beta couple, although the whole cliche of Keeler suddenly becoming sexy and desirable once she takes off her glasses was kinda lame. I was willing to buy it though, if it meant seeing her dance with Cagney. And oh yeah, I cannot get enough of seeing Cagney dance. Just can't. What's that you say about a new musical about Cagney...? Also, there was a brief reference in the film to Jersey City, which got a boisterous round of applause from the hometown crowd!

When I wrote about opening credits in movies last month, Le reminded me of credits in films during the pre-code era, some of which would introduce the cast with images of them from the movie. FLP had that, and they did it last in order, after the title card and below-the-line credits, and just before the start of the movie. I have to admit, it was nice. Given the theatrical nature of this movie in particular, it was almost like the cast was coming out on stage to take a curtain call before the movie began.

Ran into Aurora in-between shows. She was there with a friend to see Eve. I might've stayed for it too, but I've seen it at the Loew's before. Aurora was seeing it on the big screen for the fist time and she was mighty excited about it, as any fan of the film would be, I imagine. I'll have to write about that one sooner or later...

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project
IFC viewing

I didn't believe it was real. Not completely. I remember the tremendous hype for it and I remember following it until the release, so I kind of had a pretty good idea that while they were trying to pass The Blair Witch Project off as real, I kinda knew it wasn't. But I wanted it to be real. I remember wanting to believe in it, too, because it was so completely unlike any horror movie - hell, any movie - that had come along. I mean, it made the cover of Time.

I saw it with Jenny on opening day at the Angelika. The line was HUGE. I remember seeing a display in the lobby explaining the extensive "history" of the Blair Witch, and there were people debating whether or not this whole thing was real. By opening day, people still weren't 100 percent sure.

BWP almost made Jenny nauseous with all of the scenes of running with the camera - and she is so not the type to get freaked out by a movie, any movie. But I remember her telling me afterward how uncomfortable she was with all those scenes of them running around in the woods at night. Can't say I blame her. Watching it again for the first time in years, those scenes were still a little unnerving.

BWP came out around the time that reality television was starting to take off, thanks to shows like The Real World and Survivor. At the time, I still thought it was a minor fad that would never really catch on, but in a way, BWP showed why it blew up. Heather, Mike and Josh were convincing because they really were hiking through the woods and filming themselves, but they were also improvising from within a rough outline written by directors Eduardo Sanchez & Daniel Myrick. The film-within-a-film aspect allowed them to make the movie dirt cheap. No doubt network execs found this sort of thing appealing.

And now much of network and cable television is dominated by this aesthetic, in one form or another. During my recent hospital stay, I got re-acquainted with reality TV for awhile - not by choice. The TV in my room had very limited options. I actually found myself drawn to the Animal Planet channel. There was a show about different kinds of dogs and how to distinguish them that wasn't bad. It made me think of my friend Lynn, who owns a service dog (and was actually featured on Animal Planet once).

There was another show that was not unlike BWP: these dudes go hiking not in the woods but in the mountains, in search of some kind of legendary treasure, if memory serves. I forget the title and I'm not sure what it has to do with animals. Anyway, we see footage of them climbing through caves and down rivers and over rock faces and all this stuff, and there are points where they bicker, just like the protagonists of BWP. Like The Real World and Survivor, there are also interview segments, presumably taken, after their little adventure, so we can see them provide commentary to their story. 

Like BWP, reality was manipulated to fit the design of a "storyline." For instance: will Jack and Joe make it to such-and-such a location on the mountain before the storm hits? Footage of their hike is spoon-fed to us a bit at a time and edited just so, in order to fill an hour, complete with commentary from other members of the expedition and a few "experts" for added context. While it was entertaining, to a certain degree, I couldn't help wondering how much manipulation of the actual footage - real people doing things that can't be faked, just like with BWP - was being done, like I do whenever I happen to stare at a reality TV program.

In re-watching BWP, I was aware of Heather's role as camera operator in certain emotionally charged scenes. For instance, when Mike admits to throwing the map away and Josh blames her for getting them lost in the first place, she's furious. She physically charges Josh, trying to attack him, but she's also holding the camera, and you can sort of tell that she's trying to keep him within the frame at the same time. At least, that's how it looked to me. Heather, Mike and Josh are actors within the movie, but they're also their own DPs, and in trying to balance both tasks at the same time, sometimes the "reality" of the story gets compromised.

BWP is a movie that would be difficult to pull off today, in the age of social media giving away every last secret of a movie. Plus, the ubiquity of cell phones makes it harder to get lost (Heather was right about that much when she says it's hard to get lost in America these days) - though who knows if you could get a signal that deep in the woods?

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

28 Days Later

28 Days Later
IFC viewing

Why do we love zombies? They've always been around in one form or another, long before Night of the Living Dead made them cool, but they seem to be on an upswing these days. The Walking Dead, of course, is a big reason why; a show so popular it has spawned a spin-off. I was a big fan of the original comic book for quite awhile, but I had to stop reading because it became painful to see all the crap Rick, the protagonist, goes through. No joke. So what is it about the flesh-eating legions of the undead that keep (most of) us coming back for more?

I think the roots of the answer can be found in 28 Days Later. The template for The Walking Dead can be found here, for starters: the zombies are scary, no doubt, but there's also a strong emphasis on the world around them, the devastation they've wrought and the cost in human spirit, and the capacity of the survivors to maintain a hold on civilization, specifically, which lines they will and won't cross to stay alive. All of that can be found here, in a film that makes George Romero's walking dead look like Teletubbies.

Technically, the "zombies" of 28DL aren't zombies in the traditional sense. One doesn't have to die and be reborn to be infected by the virus which changes humans into twitching, screaming freaks of nature. They only have to be exposed to their blood. The effect is the same, though, and by having them be able to run after their victims instead of lurch dead-eyed and lethargic, it ups the terror factor considerably. I remember how surprised I was at the concept when I first heard about this movie.

There's just something about apocalyptic scenarios that fascinates people. For one thing, it gives us a chance to speculate on how modern (Western) society would do when stripped of its creature comforts and forced to go back to basics like our primitive ancestors. It seems like we're always one step away from such a life anyway; I remember the avian bird flu scare from when I was living in Columbus and how that got people rattled. More recently, there was an ebola scare running around these parts. Whether it's by nature or man-made, epidemics of one sort or another are always threatening us on some level, though none have raised people from the dead (yet).

Zombie movies also let us confront our fears about mortality. Death is usually The End, but in this case it isn't; death means coming back as a monster that preys on the living, and that monster could be your lover, your family member or your best friend. How do you deal with that? How do you stand seeing your loved one suffer and knowing there's nothing you can do to ease their pain except kill them (again)? The challenge of 28DL and TWD is in finding a way to make life meaningful even in the face of utter hopelessness. That's a powerful metaphor.

Director Danny Boyle makes great use of cinematography to show the chaos of a zombie attack: POV shots, low-level camera angles and out-of-control, swirling shots that imply certain murderous acts taking place quickly and suddenly. The effect is disorienting. You wanna see what's happening, but at the same time you don't wanna see as well.

Monday, April 11, 2016

High Sierra/On Dangerous Ground

High Sierra
On Dangerous Ground
TCM viewings

So the common denominator in both High Sierra and On Dangerous Ground is actress-director Ida Lupino. (That, and they both end with dudes falling off of mountains.) TCM devoted a day to her last week and I took advantage of it to watch a couple of her films as an actress. Alas, I wasn't able to check out any of her directorial efforts that day. I'd like to at some point.

I'd seen Sierra before. It still holds up - although in watching it again, something new occurred to me. It seemed odd that Bogey's character is pushing Lupino, who's totally devoted to him and wants to be with him, away on the one hand, talking about how dangerous his life is and how he can't take the chance that she might get hurt and all that, while at the same time he's thinking about settling down and playing house with that younger girl with the club foot. (Was she supposed to be younger than Lupino? She seemed that way.) Maybe it was unrealistic for Bogey to even think about marrying someone so young and innocent. I kinda wish that aspect had been played up a little bit more. As it is, I hadn't thought about it before, so it was nice to find something new in this movie.

That dog was certainly loyal to Bogey, wasn't he? Maybe it's because I never had a pet of my own growing up, but I always find it a bit suspect whenever a dog in a movie does all these amazing things out of loyalty to its master. I might be able to buy the dog following Bogey and Lupino driving down the road, but having it climb up the mountain just to be with Bogey before the police get him seemed a bit much (although apparently that was Bogey's real-life dog). To director Raoul Walsh's credit, however, it's not done in a cutesy way, which I appreciate. And I did like the dog otherwise.

And now, a few fun facts about Mount Whitney, the California mountain from the movie. It stands at a height of 14,505 feet, biggest in the continental US. Sequoia National Park lies at its western slope. I have been to Sequoia, when I was little, and it was pretty awesome, though I don't think we went anywhere near Mount Whitney. The Palute Indians, in their language, called the mountain Tumanguya, or "the very old man." The park rangers won't let you hike up there without a permit because so many people hike it on a regular basis. Walsh gets some terrific shots of Whitney and the surrounding Sierra Nevada area. I liked the car chase through the winding roads leading up to the mountain.

Ground was another movie Paddy recommended, but sad to say, I was not that thrilled with this one. For one thing, Lupino doesn't even appear until almost halfway through the movie, despite getting top billing. The real star is Robert Ryan, who plays a cop on the trail of a killer in the north country. Ryan encounters Lupino, who may or may not be harboring the killer. Ryan's really sick and tired of the violence surrounding his profession, the kind inflicted by himself as well as others, even though he's been a cop for over eleven years and you would think if he was that sensitive, he would've chosen a different career. But let's say the job made him this way.

The first half of Ground is a rollicking crime thriller, with Ryan going all Dirty Harry on dudes. I liked the idea of him being uncomfortable with violence even though he has to use it himself, and I would've liked to have seen this angle pushed a lot harder. But then they get to Lupino's house, and the action slows down considerably. Ryan tries to get her to tell him where the killer is and she won't say one way or another and they talk and talk about loneliness and stuff like that and did I mention that Lupino's character is blind? Ground felt like two different movies, and I preferred the first half.

Director Nicholas Ray does have some good cinematography. In addition to the location shots of the snowy terrain, there's some Gun Crazy-type shots from the back seat of a car on actual city streets and country roads, and even a tiny bit of hand-held action for a fleeting moment! Also, there are a few blurry, half-lit images meant to represent Lupino's perspective which don't do anything for the story, but were a nice bit of experimentation nonetheless - for 1951, anyway. According to IMDB, Lupino stepped into the director's chair for a few days when Ray was sick. One wonders which images are hers...

Friday, April 8, 2016

About a Boy

The Beyond the Cover Blogathon is an event devoted to films adapted from novels, hosted by Speakeasy and Now Voyaging. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

About a Boy
seen online via YouTube

Okay, so you probably know by now that Nick Hornby is one of my absolute favorite authors. Why do I like him? His style of writing, for one thing: he has a really sharp sense of humor that shows through in his work, and even when he makes references to something British that I may not know or understand, I can usually figure it out. More than that, though, he has a strong understanding of people and relationships. The people in his stories may be in strange or funny situations, but the underlying emotional states that brought them to those places feel authentic, and relatable. 

I think it's great that he's getting big as a Hollywood screenwriter now. Brooklyn was an amazing movie. Unfortunately, I haven't seen Wild or An Education yet. He seems to be gravitating towards stories about young women, and that's cool. His screenplays have so far all been adaptations of other people's material, so they don't quite have his signature style, but knowing he wrote them still satisfies me.

As for adaptations of his own work: you know how I felt about High Fidelity. Missed Fever Pitch (though I'm curious as to how a non-fiction book about love of soccer gets translated into a fictional movie about love of baseball) and I don't even think A Long Way Down was released here in the US? I know it bombed in the UK. I liked the book, but a comedy movie about suicide was probably gonna be a tough sell to begin with. 

I bought the book About a Boy long after the movie came out. I had already seen the movie High Fidelity, though I wasn't crazy about it at first. I had bought the book out of curiosity years later and was completely turned around. It gave me a new appreciation of the movie, which I saw again and liked the second time, and that's when I started getting into his books. I bought Boy at a bookshop in Brooklyn. It was the movie-tie-in re-release, so it has Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult on the cover.

The plot in a nutshell: Grant's character, Will, is the son of a music writer who wrote a Christmas ditty years ago and now Will just lives off the royalties and doesn't do much of anything else. He pretends to be a single father to seduce single mothers, and that's how he meets Marcus, a tween kid who's a total square, and his mother Fiona, who suffers severely from depression. When Fiona tries to kill herself one day, Marcus aspires to hook Will up with his mom to get her to feel better, which leads to an odd-couple-type relationship between Marcus and Will where each kinda learns from the other, though not in an Afterschool Special kind of way because this is a Nick Hornby story.

While the movie version was okay, I think too much of an effort was made to try and preserve Hornby's narrative style by having voice-over narration from both Grant and Hoult, and that bothered me. Both Will and Marcus narrate the book, through alternating chapters, and that was fine - in the book. In the film, the way they go back and forth felt like a tennis match, and there's a LOT of narration. It was distracting at first, and it took me awhile to adjust.

And then the ending was changed. In the book, there's a second-half subplot in which Marcus meets this teen rebel girl named Ellie and tries to, if not hook up with her exactly (because he's a square and knows nothing about girls), at least get her to notice him. Their relationship gets short shrift in the movie; she's barely a character at all, but this was an odd situation where screenwriters Peter Hedges and co-directors Chris & Paul Weitz didn't have much of a choice. 

See, in the book, Ellie's a big Nirvana fan, and Kurt Cobain's death is part of the story and factors heavily into what happens in the third act with Ellie and Marcus. So unless the film was gonna be a period piece, they had to write a new climax. I understand, but it still irked me a bit because the new version felt kinda dorky by comparison. (It also reminded me of the climax to Little Miss Sunshine, even though this movie predates that one.)

Other than that, though, the Weitz' adaptation was very faithful. Hoult as Marcus was a little more deadpan than I expected, but I thought he definitely had Marcus' spirit. Toni Collette as Fiona was marvelous, as usual, though I wish she had a bigger part. As for Hugh Grant, well, I've never been a big fan of his, but I liked him here. He gets to be a cad and a layabout, with more of an edge than his usual rom-com roles. Boy is one where I'd recommend seeing the movie before reading the book, because as usual, there are changes, and if you read the book first, those changes are gonna affect how you see the movie.

Other movies adapted from Nick Hornby:
High Fidelity

Five books I read after seeing the movie

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

This is Spinal Tap

This is Spinal Tap
from my DVD collection
...Let's face it: a lot of music being heard on the radio waves today does suck, particularly pop music. I know because I was forced to listen to it in work a few weeks ago. My work station is currently the front reception desk until our expanded office space is ready to use (we don't actually have a receptionist, but it was one of the few available places for me.) 

In the front reception area is a speaker. I have no idea who turned it on one afternoon, but all of a sudden it started playing one pop song after another. Since most people work in their own areas and offices I was really the only one that was going to get any benefit from it. "OK," I said to myself. "I can deal with this. I haven't listened to any of those pop stations in an awfully long time. I'll be open minded. Let's see what the young 'uns are digging these days." 

Within an hour I wanted to shove bananas in my ears. After two hours I wanted to scream.
I was leaning towards re-watching This is Spinal Tap for the blog, but reading Pam's latest piece pushed me firmly in that direction. I stopped listening to the radio long ago when I realized that the only thing on it for me was music from my childhood - and before! So I'm in total agreement that modern music played on the radio does absolutely nothing for me outside of the occasional earworm or two that you can't help but like. Pam mentioned "Uptown Funk"; that's a good example. Songs like these I think of as "Aisle 6 songs": you may not hear them in the rest of your daily life, but you do hear them in supermarkets and drugstores and boutiques and other public places when they have the radio on - and that's how you learn about them.

The video embedded in Pam's article expands upon a belief I've seen expressed before, that modern music is soulless and interchangeable by design; that the powers that be in the music industry like it that way, and that most people couldn't care less. I gotta say, this doesn't surprise me at all. It's easy to be lulled by whatever's playing on the radio if all you wanna hear is mindless drivel while you're in front of your computer at work or jogging or cooking or doing any activity that requires minimal brain power, and I can see how people can come to accept music when it's as simple and unobtrusive as a few electronic beats and a milquetoast vocalist.

So it was great to re-watch a movie about a band in which their stupidity is part of the joke... only Spinal Tap doesn't seem quite as stupid anymore, do they? Not in a world with Kanye West and Justin Bieber and the Kardashian sisters (they're not musicians, but then again, neither are Kanye and Bieber). No one can accuse Tap of being soulless, that's for sure - and credit to Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer for being terrific musicians who know how to rock!

In the movie, Tap is portrayed as a band that constantly rides trends, from their roots as a Beatles/Stones knock-off to a peace-and-love psychedelic hippie band to a Zeppelin-esque power rock combo. (One wonders what the grunge and electronic incarnations of Tap would have looked like.) But how do trends in pop music start? The same way they start anywhere else: when an innovator - a Woody Guthrie, a Bob Dylan, a Stevie Wonder - catches lightning in a bottle, makes a mark that lasts, and others try to duplicate that success. I realize musicians like that come once a generation, but if there are any out there today who aspire to such heights, you won't hear them on the radio anymore - and that's a shame. Not that Tap are musical geniuses by any stretch. But that's the point.

Monday, April 4, 2016

One fandom to rule them all?

So when I was at LunaCon last month, I went to several panel discussions. A couple of them were Star Trek related, and during the talks, there were tangents that led off to brief mentions of other SF/F properties, like Babylon 5, Firefly, Harry Potter, and so forth. As always, whenever this sort of thing happens, my eyes tend to glaze over and my mind wanders off in another direction until the discussion returns to its original topic.

Maybe it was always thus, but it seems like these days, to be a fan of one sci-fi/fantasy world means being a fan of many. It's as if you're not a TruFan® unless you're able to hold your own in conversations about X-Men, The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings and The Walking Dead and have Opinions about them all. Well, what if you don't care about every single aspect of geekery? What if what you like is a relatively small amount by comparison and you have no interest in these other universes?

Understand, I have never actually felt ostracized by anybody at any time for not having a theory on the ending of Lost or anything like that. It's just this feeling I get whenever I'm around nerds in general - that because I don't have an active interest in multiple properties all at once (for reasons I've attempted to articulate here), I'm not really part of the club. Most of the time, I don't care. Every now and then, though, it bugs me - like last month.

This ties into another topic I've been meaning to bring up here: whether or not we, as fans, are spoiled these days by having too much of a good thing. It seems like everywhere you look, there's genre material dominating television and the movies, as well as the best-seller lists of novels, when not that long ago, geek culture was still on the fringes. 

Now, it's relatively easy to find it wherever you go, but does easy access to multiple properties automatically mean equal interest in them? Yes, the quality looks like it's better these days, and they work so hard at trying to entice the geek market, but I dunno, man, I can't get excited about every little SF book or superhero comic or fantasy movie that comes down the pike. It seems like maintaining an interest in so many different properties is almost akin to a full-time job. Yet lots of fans do it - or at least that what it looks like. 

Well, I can't. More to the point, I don't want to. I've never really felt connected to Fandom Assembled anyway, for various reasons, and at this point I'm too old to try and change. So I guess this is me accepting my fate as being less than a TruFan®. Fine. I can live with it. I doubt I'm missing that much anyway.

Is pop culture reaching a critical mass?
What was responsible for the geek renaissance?
"Nothing ever ends."

Friday, April 1, 2016

Jungle links

So where did I go this year instead of the Queens World Film Festival? Well, my pals Bibi and Eric invited me to someplace I had never been to before: a science fiction convention. Although I have a vague memory of having been to one as a kid, I'm not very certain about this memory; it could've very easily been a comic convention that my mind turned into a sci-fi con over time. The point is, it's a very suspect memory, which is why I'm saying last month was the first time I've been to one.

The show was called LunaCon, one of, if not the oldest, sci-fi cons in America, held in Westchester County. For someone like me, used to comic cons, this was kinda different. There were only three major guests (plus a musical guest - more on that in a second); two sci-fi writers and a genre artist, and it was much smaller than most comic cons these days (though I can remember when comic cons were small indeed). There were a ton of panel discussions on topics that ranged far beyond typical genre topics, such as "Currency of the Future," "The Future of Warfare" and "When Will Our Consciousness Grow?" And that was just from Saturday.

There were also gatherings devoted to "filk" singers. My understanding of filk is that it's a kind of music rooted in genre fandom and born of folk music (somebody misspelled "folk" with an "i" one day and the typo stuck). I thought it was sci-fi and science-themed parodies, but the songs I heard encompassed more than that. The musical guests, a filk duo called Murder Ballads, performed Saturday night during the costume contest. If I had to describe them, they struck me as a cross between The Swell Season and They Might Be Giants. Also, they were relatively young (around my age, perhaps) compared to the other filk singers I heard, who were all old-timers. I found the whole thing amusing but very, very odd.

The show on the whole, though, wasn't bad. Bibi and Eric had been coming to LunaCon for years, though this was their first time back in awhile. The admission was steep - fifty bucks! - but I like to think I got my money's worth. I went to two Star Trek panels and a writing panel; I bought a book from the dealer's room (John Scalzi's Redshirts); there was an art room with a bunch of genre-related art; and there was the aforementioned costume contest, which was good, but maybe a notch below what you'd see at the New York or San Diego Comic-Cons.

LunaCon was an interesting look at a segment of Fandom Assembled I don't normally see in this light. I never got that deep into prose SF as a youth; I read SF novels from time to time (not counting Trek novels) but they never got a hold on me like comics did. Traditional SF fandom - the kind born of pulp magazines and novelists like Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke - has an identity similar to modern, mainstream fandom - the kind associated with genre movies and TV shows and comics - but slightly different, and it was worth the high door price to take a glimpse at it, especially with a pair of close friends. Not sure if I'd do it again, though.

Thanks for the turnout for the Athletes in Film Blogathon. I knew I wasn't gonna get a list of contributors as big as last year, but that's okay. I'm grateful for what we got. Aurora and I have had to compete for attention with an unusually high number of blogathons this year, and there was a little concern as to how much we'd stick out, but it didn't appear to be a concern at all. Still plenty of time if you wanna join; it's not until June.

Just a few links this month:

Did you know my blogathon partner Aurora is co-hosting a web TV show about classic movies?

Kristina has zombie movies on the brain.

Jennifer talks about Southern accents in the movies.

This is really cool: an old folks' home for retired movie industry professionals. (Hat tip to Paddy; I got this from her Facebook page)

In appreciation of the TCM Classic Film Festival. (Also stolen from Paddy's FB page)