April 27, 2013

Live-Tweeting LOCKOUT Gives Me A Hankering For Snake


"I'm being beaten up by a guy called Rupert?"

John Carpenter's Escape From New York is seven different kinds of awesome.

Escape From L.A. is slightly less so.

While there have been some recent attempts to remake the franchise (the latest idea is beyond dumb), Carpenter used to talk about a potential third film, Escape From Earth.  Apparently Luc Besson heard that title and got tired of waiting around, so he wrote and produced Lockout instead.  The fact that the story is credited to "an original idea by Luc Besson" is an insult to plagiarism, as the plot can be boiled down thusly:

Escape From LAEscape From New York X Outer Space = Lockout

I'm really not embellishing.  Set in the future, the President's daughter is taken hostage when the inmates take over an orbital cryo-prison and only one man WHO'S A LOOSE CANNON can bust in to save her.  Guy Pearce plays Snow, our non-cycloptic Plissken stand in.  He's a little less gruff and a lot more wise-cracking, but he has a monosyllabic name that starts with "SN" so...close enough.

The set design is uninspired, the effects are serviceable at best (awful at worst), and the characters are downright uninspired.  We've got one villain who confuses menace with dullness and another who's basically a cartoon, while the guys monitoring the situation from Earth are all basically paint by numbers.  Peter Stormare does his Stormariest but isn't really given anything worthy of his talents.  The great Lennie James is similarly wasted as a skinnier version of Al Powell from Die Hard, another movie that Lockout borrows from liberally, (But then again who hasn't cribbed Die Hard at this point?) while Maggie Grace slightly classes up a role that, on paper, alternates between flat and annoying.  The only real winner here is Guy Pearce, who looks more alive in a movie than I've seen him in years.  He lands so many great one liners in the first fifteen minutes that I was willing to stick with him for the next seventy five.  That may have been a miscalculation on my part.

In the end, Lockout isn't really bad so much as it is disappointing.  The beginning is genuinely entertaining, yet it somehow pulls off the miracle of getting less fun when it goes into space.  The only thing that somewhat differentiates this from Carpenter's movies is a subplot about Snow's backstory and a government cover-up that slowly goes nowhere.  If Lockout felt like an homage, a tribute to a bygone era, that would be one thing.  Instead it just comes across like Besson wanted to remake Snake Plissken but couldn't get the rights, so he changed the title and the main character's name by three letters and called it a night.  Oh well.

We'll always have New York.

Live-tweet rantings follow below:

Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'm gonna go find me some Plissken...

Title: Lockout
Director: James Mather, Stephen St. Leger
Starring: Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Peter Stormare, Lennie James, Vincent Regan, Joseph Gilgun
Year Of Release: 2012
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)

April 25, 2013

JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI While I Dream Of A Better Path

"The flavor is all that matters."

I'm a recent convert to the joys of sushi.  As a child I was a very picky eater, and the only time I ate fish was in stick form.  (My younger brother takes the picky eater crown though.  He basically ate nothing but cereal and Eggo waffles until high school.)  Over the years I have slowly expanded my culinary horizons to include the likes of escargot, alligator, turtle, goat and even ostrich.*  The lunch place in the lobby of my office has sushi every Wednesday and a sampling of salmon rolls, spicy tuna and BBQ eel have become a weekly custom for me.  Needless to say, Jiro Dreams Of Sushi only amplified my craving.

Jiro Ono runs a small, ten seat restaurant in a Tokyo subway station.  But despite its humble appearances, this is the premiere sushi joint in all of Japan.  Meals start around $300 per person and reservations are required, usually about a month in advance.  In fact, Jiro is the only sushi chef to be awarded three stars by Michelin because, in their own words, "Three stars was the only rating adequate for the restaurant."  We're shown every different component of Jiro's meticulous process; he uses a rice that his supplier refuses to sell to anyone else ("because no one else would know how to cook it properly") and he selects only the very best fish available to him, never settling for a subpar product simply to meet customer demand.  The film is not only a revealing glimpse into one of the most lauded kitchens in the world, it's a beautifully shot love letter to the art of sushi itself.  Each different meal is captured in crisp and vibrant detail.  Even if you don't like sushi, you will absolutely want to reach through the screen and pop each delicate morsel into your salivating mouth. 

However, what's stuck with me since my first viewing isn't just colorful images of delicious treats, but Jiro's entire work/life philosophy.  The man is 85 years old and the ultimate creature of routine.  He almost never closes the restaurant and has no plans to retire.  Jiro will continue to work until he is physically unable to do so because his work is the thing that makes him happiest in all the world.  His approach is terrifically blunt: choose a career that makes you happy, work hard to master your skills, then continue to do that every day for the rest of your life.  It's a simple, down to earth strategy that served our parents and our grandparents extremely well in years past, but I can't help but wonder if such thinking is still relevant in the face of a constantly shifting global economy and a generation with a rapidly decreasing attention span.

There used to be such a thing as job security.  And pensions.  Not so much anymore.  Gone are the days where you get a good job at a decent company and work there for most of your life knowing that your employer would take care of you when it came time for retirement.  In the wake of the baby boomer generation, the lifespan of most jobs and companies has dramatically decreased.  There are simple, mathematical issues of demographics and population growth at work here, but a shift in the moral outlook of American business has also wreaked havoc on the psyche of our workforce.  In an age where small businesses are routinely slain by multinational corporations and a company's profit margin takes precedence over the lives of its employees, there's the pervading feeling that no one is safe.  At any moment you could lose your job to someone younger (and cheaper) who possess a set of technological skills you barely comprehend.  And even if your position is safe, your company may not be.  With disturbing frequency, we're seeing larger corporations willing to outsource jobs and circumvent regulation in the never ending quest to increase their bottom line while simultaneously edging out their competition.  I'm all for capitalism, but I'm also for having a damn conscience, something that becomes difficult to maintain when those that would like us to believe that "corporations are people" show such naked contempt for the actual human beings that keep a corporation running.  It's the assembly line run amok; we're all just cogs in the machinery of profit and everyone is replaceable and/or expendable in the name of success.

At the same time, (or perhaps even directly because of this hostile environment) the younger generations seem uninterested in the concept of hard work over time.  It's easy to see why, as we're living in a age where literally any piece of information can immediately be conjured out of the air and there are a dozen different ways of instantly communicating with friends, family or even strangers across the globe.   There's an inescapable feeling of accessibility to anyone or anything, at anytime, from anywhere.  Unfortunately, because it's not exactly earned, accessibility mistakenly gives way to entitlement.  It's the reason that the music industry was so spectacularly hobbled while film and television have gone to such great lengths to (unsuccessfully) combat piracy: no one wants to work/pay for something when you can get it for free with minimal effort.  That same mentality has crept into so much of our culture.  It's why journalism (and particularly CNN) is such a mess right now, because actual reporters are trying to contend with the bullet-pointed idiocy of Buzzfeed and TMZ.  Why spend ten minutes reading an articulate, well researched article when you can get the gist in a tweet and move on to the next thing?  (Not so coincidentally, the need for news corporations to make a profit also lead folks like CNN to waste digital ink on gossipy bullshit non-news while the people at Fox to simply make shit up to placate their audience.)  It's also why reality TV is so popular, leading to the existence of pond scum like the Kardashians and the cast of Jersey Shore; it's all proof that anyone can become rich and/or famous despite having no discernible skills, talent or work ethic.

Sweet Jeebus, I really am turning into a crochety old man, aren't I?

I guess I am a little bitter.  You see, all I've ever wanted is a job that I truly love, the way Jiro loves sushi.  Right now I don't have it, so it was hard to watch this film without instinctively re-evaluating my own career choices.  I've recently come to the realization that I would rather work a low-level job in a field that means something to me than be well paid for something I'm not emotionally invested in.  I never thought I'd say this, but sometimes I feel like I'd rather go back to being a security guard or an agent's assistant because at least then I'm contributing to an industry I really care about.  A big part of why I started this project in the first place was because I felt that there was something missing in my life, a sense of personal fulfillment.  While I'm currently earning the largest paycheck in my employment history (and likely future), I derive no real joy or pleasure from my job.  That's not to say I hate my work so much as it fills me with ambivalence.  I've had jobs that I dreaded and jobs that I looked forward to, and this is neither.  But the money is too good to turn away, my work day is not usually stressful and it affords me the free time to pursue other endeavors like the one you're reading now.  It's not great, it's not terrible...it's good enough.

But is "good enough" really good enough?  I got into acting and movies because, of every subject I've ever studied and every interest I've ever pursued, nothing has ever made me happier than performing or watching films.  But, unlike Jiro's sushi, it's a field in which success is not merely determined by talent, skill and hard work.  There are a number of other factors that are almost entirely out of one's control, and eventually I hit a wall.  I didn't love my chosen field any less, but I realized that it simply wasn't a feasible career for me at that moment.  I never wanted to be a celebrity, I simply wanted to work consistently enough to make a life for myself and provide for my future family.  Alas, I couldn't make it happen.  Instead I've retreated into what amounts to my fallback plan, and the sense of lost opportunity has begun to gnaw away at me.  I have a tendency to grow complacent too easily and I don't want to wake up one day to discover that I'm forty years old and I still don't know what I want to do with my life.

That's the internal struggle in which I currently find myself engaged.  I know I don't want to keep doing what I'm doing, but what's the alternative?  Do I go back to performing, using the last ten years of experience to try and do it better, smarter?  Or do I go in a completely new direction?  To be honest, another reason I started this project was to try a dry run for some kind of writing career.  It's not a terribly lucrative career, but it also feels like a way I can have a voice in this field that I love without living in Los Angeles.  I've also thought about perhaps getting involved with film distribution or exhibition.  I would love to work for a great independent theater or help program festivals in order to share great movies with people who might not otherwise discover them.  I just don't know right now, but I feel like I'm running out of time to figure it out.

Jiro Ono is a fierce proponent of routine and repetition, and the daily grind of an office job is a pretty big stumbling block for me.  Spending years going to the same place every day, seeing the same people and doing the same thing with little variation...the very thought makes me shudder.  In that way, I'm fortunate to be married to a gypsy who can't even stand the idea of living in the same place for five years, let alone working there.  I suppose that's another part of why I wanted to make movies, the opportunity to move from project to project every few months or years without the danger of falling into a rut.  I'm in that rut now, but at least I know it and I'm looking for a way out.  

Whatever path I end up following, I have no doubt that I'll have to work tirelessly to improve both myself and my skills.  But first I need to decide which is the path that makes me truly happy.

I'm not sure which part will be harder.

*I'm on a subtle quest to eat as many different animals as possible.

Title: Jiro Dreams Of Sushi
Director: David Gelb
Starring: Jiro Ono, Yoshikazu Ono, Daisuke Nakazama
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (Laptop)

April 19, 2013

IRON SKY, Because Moon Nazis!

"Remember me?  The moon spook you turned into a snow flake?"
I was getting ready for work this morning when I got an automated call from my office warning me that MBTA service had been suspended.  Moreover, Boston residents were advised to remain in their homes and only open the door for uniformed, identified law enforcement officers.  I immediately checked Twitter and turned on the local news to discover that, after photographs of the two Marathon bombing suspects were released by the FBI yesterday, the two young men shot and killed MIT police officer Sean Collier before stealing a car and fleeing to nearby Watertown.  There they engaged in a shootout with local authorities, firing assault weapons and tossing explosive devices (including another pressure cooker bomb) out into the streets.  Officers shot and killed one suspect, 26 year old Tamerlan Tsarnaev of Chechnya, and there's currently a massive manhunt underway to find the second suspect, Tamerlan's 19 year old brother Dzhokhar.  (Both have been living in Cambridge for a number of years and Dzhokhar became an American citizen last year on Septemeber 11th.)  The entire Boston area is on lockdown at the moment, so Jamie and I have been home watching TV nonstop since 8:30am.  It was going to be a pretty slow day at work, so I had planned to play some pretty serious catch up today.

So much for that idea.

It's been a few hours now and there haven't been many developments.  As the hours pass, it's starting to feel more and more like this thing might drag on through the weekend, which is a fairly daunting prospect.  Watching TV has never been so exhausting.  I've seen some friends start sharing funny videos and livestreams of kittens, looking for some kind of entertaining alternative to the insanity taking place on outside.  So if you're like me and you're starting to suffer from news footage fatigue, allow me to make a suggestion: Switch over to Netflix Instant and throw on Iron Sky.  If you're looking for something fun and maybe a bit silly, this fits the bill pretty perfectly.  Don't believe me?  I have four words for you:


Let me be clear: this is by no means a "good movie."  However, credit where credit is due: they really fucking go for it.  Remember when Snakes On A Plane was a thing?  The premise sounded so good that the internet went rightfully bonkers for it.  Unfortunately the movie itself was pretty disappointing.  In many ways it was reminiscent of a Syfy Original movie starring the likes of Debbie Gibson and Lou Diamond Phillips, something based entirely on a funny title with no actual filmmaking taking place.  But Iron Sky doesn't rest on the laurels of its hilarious premise, that of a group of Nazis who took refuge on the dark side of the moon and are planning an invasion of Earth despite knowing next to nothing about the last seventy years of humanity.  Yes, there's some very self aware humor, particularly everything having to do with black American astronaut James Washington, but it's also got something to say about political propaganda and American foreign policy.  But at the end of the day this thing knows on which side its bread is buttered; the Nazi death ship is powered by cell phones and the story culminates in a completely absurd international space battle.

The movie's tongue is planted firmly in its cheek, but director Timo Vourensola clearly isn't setting out to make a shitty movie.  All things considered, the effects work is actually pretty decent and while the dialogue often leaves something to be desired, the story moves along at a pretty good pace and escalates in a way that really does not disappoint.  Plus you have to be impressed at any movie that somehow manages to turn the Nazis into sympathetic heroes.  Unfortunately, the weakest link here is the cast.  The great Udo Kier, playing Hitler's lunar successor, is surrounded by a group of moderately talented unknowns, and while it's not enough to fully derail the movie, it's pretty hard to ignore.  Julia Dietze and Gotz Otto are serviceable as our lead Nazis and Stephanie Paul does a caricature of Sarah Palin that's on point but feels incredibly dated and ultimately goes nowhere.  The weakest links are definitely Christopher Kirby as astronaut Washington and Peta Sergeant as campaign spinmaster turned military general Vivian Wagner.  They get by far the broadest, most over the top material but tragically they lack the chops to really sell this stuff.  For example, Sergeant gets an incredible costume change in the last half hour, but the whole thing ends up falling pretty flat because she clearly has no idea what to do with herself.  It's a real shame.  With a proper cast and minimal tweaking, Iron Sky could have been something truly special.

In the end, all that really matters is that it's FUN.  It might not be a top notch film, but it's certainly not for lack of trying.  Plenty of movies fall short of their potential, but there are too many mainstream studio releases that just feel straight up lazy.  You have to give these guys points for putting in the effort to make the best Moon Nazi movie possible.  Everyone is working so damn hard that despite the film's obvious flaws, Iron Sky ends up being downright endearing and more than a little bit adorable.  So grab some friends, pour some drinks, and fire up the Netflix.

After a week like this, we could all use a few laughs.

Title: Iron Sky
Director: Timo Vourensola
Starring: Julia Dietze, Udo Kier, Christopher Kirby, Gotz Otto, Peta Sergeant, Stephanie Paul
Year Of Release: 2012
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)

April 18, 2013

BACHELORETTE Is A Welcome Distraction From The Marathon Aftermath

"I got you to smile...that's something."
As of this writing I'm still about a week back on articles, but in light of recent events I'm going to jump forward to the present and then I'll circle back tomorrow.  It seems silly to ignore the most dramatic attack on my hometown in my lifetime, but it feels even sillier to wait a week to write about it just because I've been busy lately and fallen behind schedule.  Besides, this is my project, I'll make the rules.

Anyone who knows me knows that my Boston heritage is a huge part of my personality.  My mother's family is Italian, my father's family is Irish and almost all of them still live within an hour of the city.  I may not have an accent, but I'm about as Boston as they come, and during my five years in Los Angeles, my hometown roots became a badge of honor.  In fact, that is quite literally true: before moving I got a tattoo (my first) of the Red Sox "B" logo, which I've always felt transcended its baseball context to symbolize the entire city.  L.A. is about as far away as you can get from Boston, but even there I found myself at the center of a wonderful little east coast ex-pat community, filled with high school and college friends who, like me, had gotten their fill of frigid winters and were lured by the promise of constant sunshine.  I had a collection of Sam Adams bottles on the shelf in our living room, a stolen Dunkin Donuts rug at the front door and a Wally The Green Monster doll sitting in a chair next to the TV.  We may have been 3000 miles away, but it still felt like home.

Since moving back east three years ago I've fallen back in love with Boston in many ways.  I've rediscovered the pleasures of actually walking in a downtown setting and riding a bike through the city streets.  L.A. taught me to love good Mexican food, but man is it nice to live in a place with great pizza on every corner.  Yes, the winters still suck and the summers tend to get oppressively hot, but autumn and spring simply cannot be beat.  And since my wife isn't a local, it's been a lot of fun to both introduce her to all of my favorite places and to discover all the great new bars and restaurants that have cropped up since I graduated from college.  I'm sure that we'll move on to another city in a few years and when we do I'll certainly be excited to go.  But, just like when I went to California, I'll also be sad to leave.

I won't try to summarize why Marathon Monday/Patriots Day is such a big deal around here, as plenty of others have already done so at great length.  (Personally, I think that Film Crit Hulk put it best.)  To be honest, my relationship with the holiday has always been a little off kilter; unlike most everyone else in the city, I've almost never had the day off from school or work, so I've never actually gone down to stand along the Marathon route and cheer on the runners.  Even still, the energy around town is as infectious as opening day at Fenway Park.  Everyone just seems...happier.  Even when I was on the west coast, I would lament missing out on Marathon Monday, despite never having had a chance to properly celebrate it in the first place.

It's been three days since twin explosions rang out on Boylston Street and there's still far too much that we don't know.  There have been fluctuating injury counts and death tolls, rumors that the government shut down cell service downtown (they didn't) and that five unexploded devices were discovered spread throughout the city (no such devices exist).  We've seen the best the city has to offer, with doctors and nurses who had already completed the grueling race jumping into action to treat those wounded at the scene while still other racers ran an extra mile and half past the finish line to nearby Mass General Hospital in order to give blood.  Unfortunately, we've also seen far too many surrender to humanity's worst instincts, looting a table of unclaimed marathon jackets and quickly adopting rumors that the perpetrator was a Saudi national.  We still don't know who did this, and yesterday afternoon was extremely frustrating in that regard: over the course of an hour the AP reported that an arrest was imminent, then CNN claimed that a suspect was in custody, only to find out that in reality no arrests had been made and no suspect had been identified.  Don't get me started on the state of modern journalism, but it's extremely frustrating to see the people whose only job is to inform the public casually sacrifice the veracity of fact (I'm looking at you, NY Post) in the rush to break the story first.  You'd think CNN would have learned their lesson from the Obamacare/Supreme Court debacle, but apparently not so much.

Thankfully all of my loved ones are safe and sound.  I had one aunt, a woman to whom I owe so much, who was running in the Marathon, but thankfully she was stopped at mile 21 and I was able to get in touch with her pretty quickly.  Facebook and Twitter became absolutely crucial that day, the easiest way to let friends and family know who was okay.  In fact, my old a cappella group instantly started a thread so that all the current and former members could check in and it became incredibly comforting as the day went on just to see an outpouring of love and care from some of my closest friends.  And that's what's struck me in the days since this horrible travesty shattered what should be a day of pure joy: this city has come together like I've simply never seen before.  I walked down to Copley Square yesterday and found a barricade on Boylston Street at the corner of Berkeley.  While reporters spoke quietly into their cameras, a silent crowd gathered in the street, reverently staring down the usually busy thoroughfare, now eerily empty.  There was a growing collection of flowers, candles and notes at the foot of the barrier, with a few men admirably maintaining the memorial by rearranging items, keeping the candles lit and taping down cards so that they wouldn't fly away.

Last night the Bruins played their first game back in the Garden, and this happened:

For me, it really sunk in Tuesday night.  I hosted my regular pub trivia show at Terry O'Reilly's and I was more than a little nervous.  Surely the desire for beer and whiskey would persist, but did people really want to go out in the world and be social?  I had visions of a mostly empty room, playing host to a few scattered folks who mostly just wanted to drink in peace and had little patience for my silliness.

I could not have been more wrong.

The place was PACKED, the biggest night of trivia we've ever had there.  All of our regular teams were there in full force, as well as dozens of unfamiliar faces in search of a respite.  Everyone was in great spirits, ready to laugh and escape from the nightmare that was still unfolding just few minutes down the road.  Usually I get a few teams that play for a couple of rounds and then go home, but at the end of the night we still had a full house.  Trivia night had become a haven, a safe space for people to gather together and lose themselves in a few pints, obscure pop culture and, most importantly, a sense of community.  After that night I truly felt that this was my trivia family, and in truth I was just as happy to provide a distraction as they were to have one.

Anyway.  Bachelorette...

I left work on Monday to find Jamie home on the couch absorbed in the local news.  She's on vacation this week, so she had basically been frozen there for most of the afternoon.  We watched the press conferences by Governor Deval Patrick, Mayor Tom Menino and President Obama before finally deciding that we needed to change gears.  I was initially thinking of a really dumb action movie, something full of mindless spectacle that would let me unplug my brain for a few hours.  (The top contender was the Total Recall remake with Colin Farrell.)  However, Jamie really wanted to watch something upbeat and funny, so after a quick scan of the Netflix queue we settled on Bachelorette, a female driven hard comedy in the vein of The Hangover.  Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan and Isla Fisher star as three bridesmaids who, after a few too many drinks and lines of coke, accidentally ruin the wedding dress of their old high school friend played by Rebel Wilson's American Accent.  With only a few hours to get the dress fixed before the wedding starts, needless to say that some hijinks ensue.  It's easy to see how this movie got greenlit, but also just as easy to see how it ended up as a primarily VOD release.

The film clocks in at just under 90 minutes and the pacing feels a little all over the map.  I'm curious if there's a longer cut somewhere that flows better, or perhaps has some darker/over the top set pieces that just didn't land.  I don't necessarily think that would make for a better movie, as I actually liked the smaller scale here compared to the batshit crazy antics of The Wolfpack, but even in a landscape full of bloated comedies it's hard to escape the feeling that there's something missing here.  It has the swagger of a raunchier film filled with sheer lunacy, despite being fairly grounded in reality.  The three leads are all great, (even if Isla Fisher's accent tends to drift) and I laughed out loud early and often.  Plus it has James Marsden as a charming asshole, a.k.a. The Best Marsden.  Most importantly though, Adam Scott plays opposite Lizzy Caplan, a pairing that any fan of Party Down can tell you is pure magic.  They have a scene in his childhood bedroom where they simply look at each other and he calls her by the nickname that only he ever used...it's a really beautiful moment, demonstrating the kind of simple human connection that Jamie and I both needed to feel that night.

Mostly though, Bachelorette was simply a welcome diversion, an excuse to smile and laugh in the face of irredeemable horror.  When it was over, we immediately decided that we wanted something inspiring and flat out awesome, a movie that showcases the very best that humanity has to offer.

There was really only one choice.

Because even after that terrible day, I still believe in heroes.

Title: Bachelorette
Director: Leslye Headland
Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, Isla Fisher, Rebel Wilson, Adam Scott, James Marsden, Kyle Bornheimer
Year Of Release: 2012
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)

April 16, 2013

Vampire Weekend! LET THE RIGHT ONE IN vs LET ME IN

"I'm twelve.  But I've been twelve for a long time."
Mike Lerman is one of my best friends from high school.  Ler is a walking repository of all cinema that is insane, awesome and insanely awesome.  As the artistic director of the Philadelphia Film Society and a curator for Fantastic Fest, he's always got the inside track on the whatever badass movie is just over the horizon.  Thing is, he's been like that as long as I've known him.  He used to show up at my apartment in college at one o'clock in the morning with a region-free DVD player and a backpack overflowing with discs,  saying to me, "Yo, you gotta check out this thing I just found.  This shit is AMAZING."  And you haven't lived until you've seen him sing "It's Raining Men" or Michael Jackson's "Man In The Mirror" at a karaoke bar.

Everyone should have a friend like Mike Lerman.*

About six years ago he was staying in my L.A. apartment for a few weeks during a festival (this was a frequent occurrence) and he tried to get me to go a screening of a Swedish child vampire movie called Let The Right One In.  He'd already seen it at a previous festival, totally loved it and wanted to watch it again.  For reasons I no longer remember, I passed on the opportunity.  I should have known better.  When I saw the trailer a few months later, I instantly regretted my decision not to join Ler on that Saturday afternoon at the Arclight.  The film got a very limited release stateside, but I never made it to the theater before it disappeared.  I got close one night when my then-girlfriend Jamie and I had some plans fall through, but she wanted to go see another, sparklier vampire movie instead.  Two roads diverged in a bload-soaked wood and that night I took the road more traveled by angsty tweens.

When the Let The Right One In eventually made it to DVD, a controversy quickly arose over the film's subtitles.  Apparently Magnet/Magnolia used an alternate translation from what had appeared in theaters, a translation which seemed to lack the subtlety and nuance which won over audiences in the first place.  Suddenly I got gun-shy, not wanting to inadvertently ruin my viewing experience with a sub-par version of the film.  Before I got the chance to figure out a solution, Overture Films and Hammer Films snapped up the rights and churned out an American remake called Let Me In, directed by Matt Reeves of Cloverfield fame.  The film was relatively well received, and when I stumbled upon a DVD copy for $5 a few years ago, I tossed it in my cart with a few other titles (I think this was before Amazon Prime eliminated the need to pad your purchases just go get free shipping) and it's been sitting on my shelf unwatched ever since.

I thought it'd be fun to screen both movies in one weekend to get a sense of where and how they differed, so I started with Let The Right One In, currently available on Netflix Instant with the original theatrical subtitles (Magnolia has since released a new version on disc with both English translations available).  It's fucking great.  Set in 1982, the story centers on 12 year old Oskar, a smart and quiet boy who's constantly bullied by a trio of cruel older boys at school.  When Eli moves in next door with her father, the two quickly become friends and Oskar falls for her hard.  She brings out an inner strength in Oskar and she seems to give him more love and attention than either of his emotionally distant parents.  However, Eli isn't like other girls: She doesn't go to school, she only comes out at night and she's constantly barefoot, unaffected by the cold Swedish winter.  What Oskar doesn't know is that Eli is actually a vampire.  The old man with her isn't her father but her caretaker, quietly killing innocents in the dead of night to collect blood for Eli to drink.  When one such collection goes awry, Eli is left to fend for herself and Oskar is soon confronted with the truth about his not-so-young love.

The two leads, played by Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, are simply incredible.  They compliment each other perfectly; Oskar is the quiet and withdrawn child of 80s divorce, yet he has a sort of earnest optimism at heart, while Eli is equal parts killer and romantic, conveying a world weariness in her eyes that belies her childlike appearance.  The vampire stuff is all handled very minimally yet effectively, and the concept of the caretaker, spending his life killing people both to keep Eli's secret hidden and to keep her violent urges in check is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly stale genre.  There's also a group of neighbors who provide some great low-key comic relief, helping to balance out the movie's tone.  When Eli kills one of them after her caretaker's failure, they begin to investigate, and each one of these adults has a sort of visually iconic moment in the film, from the fat guy surrounded by cats to the woman who suffers a memorable fate in a hospital room.  The ending is simply incredible, with a simply staged, visually arresting confrontation that makes everything up till that feel like violent foreplay.  And the very last scene brings the entire story full circle in a beautiful, wordless moment.  Director Tomas Alfredsson simply nails it, and you can see a lot of what works here translated into his follow up, the slow burn British spy flick Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Now, when a studio decides they're going to adapt a book into a movie, I'll generally avoid reading the book beforehand if it sounds like the kind of film that interests me.  As a rule, I accept that the book is almost always better than its adaptation, but I don't want to go into the film knowing what's going to happen in advance.  I want to experience the movie with fresh eyes and judge it on its own merits without constantly comparing it to a source material it almost certainly will not live up to.  Let Me In makes a strong case that I should take the same approach to American remakes of foreign films.

As I mentioned earlier, Let The Right One In hit American theaters the same year as the first Twilight movie.  Considering the instant fever it created at the box office, it's easy to see why a studio would be excited to jump on that bandwagon and produce their own adolescent vampire flick.  And to be fair, Let Me In is worlds better than pretty much all of the Twilight movies**.  It's got a pair of strong leads in Kodi Smit-McPhee (currently filming Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes) as Owen and Chloe Grace Moretz (appearing this year in the Carrie remake as well as reprising her role as Hit Girl in Kick Ass 2) as the vampire Abby.  Both are extremely talented young performers and their interpretations of the characters are reminiscent of their Swedish predecessors, but feel different enough keep you engaged throughout.  That's actually a minor miracle, considering that all of their dialogue is almost a word for word transcription of the original.  There are a few tweaks here are there, but on paper the two children are virtually unchanged.  One the one hand it's a smart choice because that's the heart of the film and there's a feeling of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."  On the other hand, it means that director Matt Reeves spends every other scene trying so hard to justify the movie's existence that he actually achieves the contrary.

There's a prevailing sense that movies like Let The Right One In have to be remade because American audiences not only hate reading subtitles, but they don't fall in for slow, moody character films that don't feature Hollywood stars.  Essentially, if there isn't an explosion or a car chase every 15 minutes, the viewers mentally check out.  So here we get a movie where Abby isn't just a little girl who kills people and drinks their blood, she physically transforms into a demonic creature with dark veiny skin and a deep growling voice.  When she attacks, it's usually with the help of some spotty CG so that she moves unnaturally fast.  Whereas the original caretaker killed people in secluded locations wearing a simple plastic coat to protect from blood spatter, the American caretaker (played by the great Richard Jenkins) hides in the backseats of cars wearing a black trash bag with cutout eye holes over his head like some kind of hokey serial killer.  If the script had actually explored that idea a little bit then it could have been kind of interesting.  But no, the real reason he wears a bag is because he has a large birthmark on his face, for no other reason except to make him easily identifiable when Owen comes across some old photographs.  This allows Reeves to explicitly explain what was quietly implied in the original.  Rather than simply getting caught in the act, Jenkins' caretaker has to get in a huge car accident. Granted it's a well shot sequence, but I could practically hear the studio notes begging Reeves to throw in more action.  Even more perplexing, there are a few simple moments, like a disfigurement and a fire effect, as well as the final confrontation in the pool that are jaw dropping in the original but kind of uninspired here.

I felt really bad for Elias Koteas though, as he's saddled with a boring police investigator who is an entirely new creation.  He's the spiritual replacement for the entertaining neighbors from The Right One, who are essentially relegated to background extras here.  I love Koteas (Casey Jones!) but he's stranded here, given nothing interesting to do and no background to keep the audience rooting for him in any way.  It's not only an unfortunate waste of talent, but it's an entirely unnecessary change that reeks of a studio trying to "appeal to American audiences."  Similarly, there's a baffling structural change, starting the movie in middle of the story and then quickly jumping back to the beginning.  Aside from revealing one of the better moments of the film, there's no particularly compelling reason for the temporal shift other than to start the movie on a more exciting note.  But it also presents something of a false narrative, implying a sort of mystery where none really exists.

I know it sounds like I'm putting Let Me In through the ringer here, but I actually think it's a pretty sharp little flick on its own.  I like Cloverfield a lot (although it's been a while since I last saw it) and I think Matt Reeves has got some serious chops.  I can't wait to see what he does with Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, as I've got a sneaking suspicion that he might be the perfect guy to wrangle the particular iteration of the story I think they're going to tell.  If Let Me In had been an original creation, I suspect that I would have been pretty impressed.  It's propulsive, well shot and it's got a top notch cast.  But in direct comparison to the original, there's really no contest.  The Right One manages to do so much more with so much less, and I kind of believe that if I had watched them in reverse order then the original would have felt like even more of an achievement.  But each have their own particular charms and I'm sure I'll find myself revisiting both from time to time, depending on what sort of mood I'm in.

This is hardly the first time a successful foreign film was quickly and less successfully adapted for American audiences and it certainly won't be the last.  And thus I'm left wondering, is this kind of thing really necessary?  Are Americans so averse to reading words on the screen and seeing unfamiliar faces that we have to take great films and churn them through the Hollywood machine just to make them more palatable to the lowest common denominator?  Aren't we essentially taking cinematic filet mignon and turning it into hot dogs?  Yes, original will always exist independently and the discerning viewer can always ignore adaptations in favor of the real thing, but there comes a point when the act itself become insulting to the original art.

Who else out there has seen both films?  Is there anyone who prefers Let Me In to Let The Right One In?  What order did you watch them?  I'm genuinely curious about how other people feel about these flicks, so sound off in the comments below!

*Lerman has agreed to guest curate some screenings for me in the coming weeks.  Needless to say, I'm fucking psyched.

**I actually enjoy certain sequences in both parts of Breaking Dawn.  Bill Condon had an appropriate grasp of just how ridiculous that franchise truly is and he handles stuff like the vampire cesarean and the final head-ripping battle sequence with gusto.

Title: Let The Right One In
Director: Tomas Alfredsson
Starring: Kare Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar, Henrik Dahl
Year Of Release: 2008
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant

Title: Let Me In 
Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Richard Jenkins, Elias Koteas
Year Of Release: 2010
Viewing Method: DVD

April 15, 2013

I Dare You Not To Fall In Love With PETER AND VANDY

"I didn't say it tasted like vagina.  I said, 'This pad thai tastes like poon thai.'"

I love non-linear stories.

Peter And Vandy shows the history of a relationship between two twenty-somethings, but with the scenes all jumbled and out of order.  We'll jump from the couple living together, to the day they first met, to after they've broken up (not a spoiler) and everything in between.  The unique structure actually creates a fun kind of puzzle, as it forces you to watch the movie closely in order to pick up context cues within the scenes in order to figure out what part of their relationship you're seeing and where it falls relative to what you've already witnessed.  It might sound confusing but it's all done with a very light touch and writer/director Jay DiPietro does a great job of playfully toying with the audience's expectations; often times you're sure that you're watching a scene from the beginning of their relationship, only to find out later that you've actually been watching something from much later.

My interest in this movie was driven entirely by the cast.  I'm a big fan of Jason Ritter, son of the late John Ritter.  He popped up in small roles in some big movies before hitting a stretch of cool indie films and eventually finding greater success on TV with shows like The Event and Parenthood.  Jess Weixler made a big splash as the star of Teeth (about a girl with a lethal vagina) but her career never really took off.  But when I first saw the trailer for Peter And Vandy I was working for her agency, so I was very familiar with her name and headshot.  I admit to being something of a hopeless romantic and I'll always take a good indie love story over whatever dreck gets released on Valentine's Day each year.  So I filed this one away as something I'd probably enjoy watching and when it showed up on Netflix Instant I threw it into my queue and more or less forgot about it.

Friday night I was heading up to Vermont after work to visit a friend for the night, so I knew I had a limited viewing window.  As I scanned my Netflix queue for something on the shorter side, Peter and Vandy caught my eye.  In truth, the previous night's "split pea soup" fight with Jamie had yet to really be resolved, so you could say that I was of a mind to see something sweet and romantic, where two people may bicker and argue but they still love each other despite all that drama.  It totally delivered.

What struck me most was the honesty in the portrayal of their relationship.  The non-linear structure allows DePietro to juxtapose moments from different phases of their time together to show how memories can evolve over time.  For example, while trying to decide on a take out restaurant, Vandy points out that Peter once said that the pad thai at a particular Vietnamese restaurant "tastes like vagina."  Her delivery is very terse and dismissive, calling out the immaturity of his joke (in the pull quote above) because she's annoyed at his inability to choose a restaurant.  A few minutes later we see them actually eating there for the first time and discover that not only were they both laughing at the joke, but Vandy was actually the first to coin the term "poon thai."  But when you're mad at your significant other, anything can turn into cannon fodder - even a happy memory or a shared inside joke.  When you've had a bad day, all of a sudden something simple like the way the other person makes a peanut butter sandwich suddenly takes on monumental importance and causes you to let loose unholy hell on the person you love.  DePietro also demonstrates that the simplest acts, like how you carry the groceries, can speak volumes about the state of a relationship.  It would be easy for the audience to lose an emotional connection when the characters' emotional states shift so abruptly from one sequence to the next, but each scene is given plenty of room to breathe and the pacing is wonderful.  Instead of watching their relationship build up over time, there's a lovely ebb and flow to the proceedings that feels true to the spirit of most relationships.

Peter and Vandy is a lovely story anchored by two strong lead performances.  Tracie Thoms and Jesse L. Martin are great as another couple who hilariously snipe at each other, while the always funny Zack Orth scores some laughs in a few scenes as Vandy's brother.  For the most part though, it's all about Ritter and Weixler and the pair has a really sweet chemistry together.  It's a small story, but sharply crafted by DePietro and deftly edited by Geoffrey Richman; this is the kind of movie that definitely rewards repeat viewings.

I say embrace your romantic side tonight.  Grab your special someone, pick up a bottle of wine and fire up the Netflix.  As far as charming date flicks go, this overlooked gem hits all the right notes.

Title: Peter And Vandy
Director: Jay DePietro
Starring: Jason Ritter, Jess Weixler, Jesse L. Martin, Tracie Thoms, Zak Orth
Year Of Release: 2009
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (Laptop)

Wife's Choice: EMPIRE OF THE SUN With A Side Of Angry Split Pea Soup

"It's at the beginning and end of war that we have to watch out.  In between it's like a country club."
I feel like my articles are starting to get a tad dry.  A lot of talking about the films' substance and not so much about the actual experience of watching them.  That will certainly be the case more often than not, but I also want this writing to be personal, to talk about what I'm bringing to the table and how the movie actually affects me, if at all.  I don't want this to become some kind of angst ridden personal journal, but this whole thing is a journey and the details of traveler are just as important as the locations he visits.

When I first set out on this adventure, I mentioned the importance of context.  The circumstances surrounding a screening as well as the emotional state of the viewer can often influence the viewing experience for better or for worse.  For example, while I recognize and understand that The Butterfly Effect starring Ashton Kutcher is not a good movie, I still have a soft spot for it.  Why?  Well first of all, I love movies that have a science fiction premise or backdrop but are really focused on simple human drama.  (Better examples of that concept would include Donnie Darko, Safety Not Guaranteed and Another Earth.)  More importantly, the theatrical cut ends with the hero sending himself back in time to prevent him from ever becoming friends with the girl he loves, because he knows it will mean a better life for her in the end*.  The first time I saw it was with the girl I'd been dating all through college and it was at a moment in time when we both knew that life was taking us in different directions.  The way we felt about each other hadn't changed, but it would soon become logistically impossible to for us to stay together.  This mediocre (at best) movie suddenly made me wonder if it wouldn't be better to just break up sooner rather than later.  Was it really worth staying together for another six months knowing that our relationship had an expiration date?  It led to a long conversation that night, and we eventually broke up and got back together (twice I think) before we finally split up for good.  The movie itself and the end of that particular relationship are now inextricably linked in my head; whenever I think about The Butterfly Effect, I think of that night with her.

It's within that context that I have to discuss Empire Of The Sun, Jamie's selection for this week's Wife's Choice.  Usually I watch her picks on Wednesday night while she's off at French class, but this week I had a friend in town for one night, so I delayed Empire until Thursday night when we'd both be home.  Jamie's a second grade teacher and we were coming up on the end of the quarter as well as spring break, meaning that she had a mountain of grading to complete and her students were getting antsy.  Suffice it to say, she was a little stressed.  The night started off innocently enough, as we caught up on some stuff from the DVR and munched on some cheese, crackers and soppressata, a popular snack in our home.  I'm not going to go into the details of what happened next except to say that we ended up getting in a big fight about dishes, cooking, listening and time management, among other subtexts.  I don't mean to make this sound like we got in some kind of a serious knock-down drag-out; it was basically your typical domestic argument, the kind of fight that, after a few days you forget what you were even arguing about.  (Literally, it's been a week since then and when I showed this to Jamie she'd forgotten that we'd even had a fight.)  It all ended with Jamie slamming the bedroom door and me reheating a pot of split pea soup that would eventually go uneaten. All this when I was about seven minutes into the film.

Most people probably wouldn't want to sit down and watch a movie after all of that, certainly not a two and a half hour war story about POWs living in terrible conditions next to a Japanese military base. Then again, when it comes to cinema, I'm not most people.  I often find movies to be very centering, a good way to focus my energy and attention when I'm stressed out, angry or depressed.  I once got in a fight with an ex-girlfriend, stormed out of a restaurant, and immediately walked into the theater next door just to calm myself down before going home.  (Thus Dopamine is another marginal film that has left an indelible mark ala The Butterfly Effect.)

Once I finished with the destined-to-be-neglected soup (the smell of peas makes me vomit) I settled back onto the couch and got back into Spielberg's WWII epic.  I'm not gonna lie, the beginning is pretty slow and, in the emotional state I was in, I found it a little hard to engage.  Granted it's not a setup that the majority of audiences is super familiar with, that of many western Europeans living in China on the eve of Japanese occupation, so I understand the desire to take time properly setting the scene.  But still, it seems to take forever just to get into gear.  Once John Malkovich and Joey Pants show up things get a little better, but it's not until they arrive at the Soochow prison camp (and the film literally jumps forward a few years) that it really takes off.  Malkovich and his crew of American prisoners (including a very young Ben Stiller) are simply great, and it's easy to see why Christian Bale's Jim would worship them the way he does.

Oh yeah.  I haven't mentioned it yet but the main character, Jim, is played by an 11 year old Christian Bale in his first big starring role.  He plays a young boy who gets separated from his parents and ends up with a Fagin-like drifter in a Japanese prison camp.  The kid is a survivor and despite his posh upbringing he's soon got the run of the camp, knowing exactly how to play everyone to keep himself and those he cares about living comfortably, relatively speaking.  Unsurprisingly, Bale's amazing.  He gives one of the most riveting performances I've ever seen and he hadn't even hit puberty yet.  Seriously, the guy's talent is just unreal.  I basically walked into this movie completely cold, not realizing who was in it, what it was about, or even that it was directed by Spielberg.  Having 25 years of hindsight, it's easy to see why these guys are still enjoying phenomenal success.

Anyway, like I said at the top, I didn't want to spend a lot of time analyzing the film itself.  It's very good, but I wouldn't call it great.  Much like Titanic, I think you could cut about 30 minutes from the first half to make a much tighter story.  Spielberg can shoot the hell out of a movie (no shit) and Empire Of The Sun was his followup to The Color Purple, marking the beginning of his shift towards grand scale, awards-bait films.  However, the stuff in Soochow still retains a lot of Spielberg's trademark pulpy adventure sensibility and there are certainly a few lines and images that will stay with me in the future.

Only time will tell if the memory of split pea soup fades away.**

*The director's cut, which is bonkers, ends with Ashton Kutcher sending himself back to the womb to strangle himself with his own umbilical cord.  Seriously.

**To be clear, I'm not implying that Jamie and our fight "ruined the movie" for me.  But I'm fascinated by the way that movies can trigger specific memories, instantly transporting us back to a time and place that may have been long forgotten.  Right now I can't think of Empire without thinking of that fight.  I'm sure that months from now that will change, if only because the fight itself didn't carry tremendous weight or long-term implications.  Memory is weird that way.

Title: Empire Of The Sun
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Joe Pantoliano, Leslie Phillips, Miranda Richardson, Ben Stiller
Year Of Release: 1987
Viewing Method: DVD

April 10, 2013

Someone Should Take A Flamethrower To THE THING Prequel/Remake

"So I'm gonna die because I floss?"
What a waste.

John Carpenter's The Thing is one of my absolute favorite movies of all time, although I admit that I was pretty late to that particular party.  It's simply wonderful in every single regard.  The Antarctic setting is at once expansive and claustrophobic and the story is twisted in such a way that keeps you guessing till the very last moment.  The cast is top notch: a great collection of familiar faces like David Clennon, Donald Moffat, Richard Masur and T.K. Carter, one of the all time great Kurt Russell performances, Keith David at his most badass, and WILFORD FUCKING BRIMLEY.  Plus, being a devout worshiper at the altar of 80s cinema, I have an undying love for great practical creature work, the gooier the better.  The Thing itself is simply astonishing, the true stuff of nightmares.  To be clear, I'm not a digital effects hater, but I've yet to see a digital werewolf transformation that's nearly so compelling as An American Werewolf In London and that shit's over 30 years old.

The idea of revisiting The Thing seemed to fall somewhere between unnecessary and foolhardy.  Prequels in general suffer from a critical flaw inherent to the very concept: we already know how the story has to end, so that automatically diminishes all the stakes.  That means that, unless you're going to leave us with something that alters our perception of what we thought we knew from the original, you've got to have either a story or a hero that is INCREDIBLY compelling to make it worth our while.  Otherwise there's simply no point.  You could do a straight remake, but with a film as iconic and borderline perfect as The Thing, why on Earth would you want to?  It's not like you're going to improve on what came before.

The Thing (2011) ends up trying to do a little bit of both, and all of it's just plain bad.  The fact that it has the same title only led to confusion among audiences as to exactly what kind of story they were trying to tell.  Watching the movie probably didn't help.  Ostensibly this new film is pitched as a prequel, detailing the story of the Norwegian outpost that first discovered the Thing frozen out there in the ice and there's certainly some potential in that concept.  We could learn more about the Thing itself and its ancient ship.  Perhaps the Norwegians had some nefarious intent, looking to control the creature like the Weyland-Yutani corporation from Aliens.  Hell, even if we got a character that's at least half as awesome as R.J. MacReady, at least that would guarantee some fun.

Unfortunately we get none of that.  Instead it's essentially the same story told again, except this time everyone's Norwegian.  All of the incredible creature work is replaced with some pretty half-baked digital effects (the final Thing at the end is particularly bad) which is pretty unforgivable.  Rick Bottin's grotesque original puppetry puts these digital farts to shame; whereas before I could spend all day staring at those monstrosities, their modern CG equivalents only made me cringe.  While the Thing is racking up the body count, the other big villain of the original film is paranoia.  Watching everyone second guess each other, trying to figure out who's human and who's not is half the fun.  Here there's almost no sense of dread, partially because the Thing itself makes almost no attempt to hide itself, transforming and attacking people right out in the open and often in the stupidest situation possible, like a helicopter in mid-air.  It doesn't help that most of the characters are forgettable non-entities, making me not really care who lives and who dies.  Mr. Eko from Lost plays Diet Keith David, while the great Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton are both wasted as half of a watered down version of MacReady.

There are some poor attempts to further our knowledge of the creature, like the revelation that it can't replicate inorganic matter.  Sadly it's a pretty dull devlopment, leading to an almost comical recreation of the infamous blood test scene from the original where Mary Elizabeth Winstead's character shines a flashlight in everyone's mouth looking for fillings.  It's indicative of an unfortunate tendency of most prequels, where they feel the need to revisit every single detail of how things got to be they way you remember them.  For example, at one point Joel Edgerton goes after the Thing with an axe and it gets stuck in the wall.  When he tries to pull it out, Winstead tells him to leave it, and you can practically hear the script screaming, "YOU HAVE TO LEAVE IT SO THAT MACREADY CAN FIND IT LATER!"  Hell, the movie closes with an in-credits sequence (after a truly disappointing finale) detailing how the last two guys ended up chasing the dog to the American camp in the helicopter.  And yet, when the Thing first emerges from its icy sleep, instead of leaving a mostly intact ice-coffin like MacReady discovers, the ice block shatters into a thousand pieces, seemingly for no other reason than "it'll look cool."  Also, let's not forget that this is a movie set in the early 80s.  While the original featured all sorts of great once-futuristic-now-vintage tech like the chess playing computer that MacReady douses with scotch, there's almost no attempt by its lame successor to show off its period setting.  That could have been a lot of fun, but instead it's just another opportunity wasted.

Don't watch this movie.  Seriously, just don't.  The original is streaming on Netflix right now.  Go watch that instead.  It's just like the remaquel (premake?) except that instead of sucking, it's fucking great.

Title: The Thing (2011)
Director: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Eric Christian Olsen, Adewale Akinnouye Agbaje, Ulrich Thomsen
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: HBO HD

April 08, 2013

MAN ON A MISSION Chronicles A Nerd's Journey To The Stars

"Everyone's advice has been, 'Wear a diaper, prepare to use it.' "
I have always always ALWAYS wanted to go to outer space.  Considering the current state of our space program, I guess it's a good thing that I never decided to become a NASA astronaut.  (Don't get me started on this topic.  If it was up to me, I would give NASA all of the dollars!)  My wife may want to explore the far corners of the globe, but for me space is the place.  If I had the means, there's virtually no price I wouldn't pay.

Price tags are less of an obstacle for Richard Garriott, an uber-geek who made a fortune as one of the biggest and earliest success stories in the world of computer games.  This is a guy who was creating text-based and even early graphic-based games on his Apple II, selling them in Ziploc bags and making hundreds of thousands of dollars as a high schooler.  He went on to create the wildly popular Ultima series (before my time) and invested his money with one ultimate goal: Richard Garriott wanted to go to space.  He wanted to go to space so badly that he got laser eye surgery years before they became common practice, because you can't wear glasses in orbit.  He invested in companies like Space Adventures and in commercial space efforts like the X Prize, planning to be the first in line when spaceliner tickets became available.  He actually lost out on the chance to be first when the dot-com bubble burst in the late nineties, but in 2008 he paid the hefty sum of $30 million to become a passenger on the Russian Soyuz shuttle for a 12 day trip to the International Space Station.

Garriott really is a nerd's nerd.  The computer games which founded his fortune were mostly medieval adventure games featuring a heroic knight named Lord British.  Garriott eventually came to inhabit that character, dressing in chain mail and multicolored tunics.  He learned metalwork and made himself a chain that he never removes featuring Lord British's insignia, a crudely drawn snake.  He even grew two very long, thin braids, similar to the Padawan braids from the Star Wars prequels.  And yes, they look ridiculous attached to a 47 year old man with grey, thinning hair.  He even lives in a damn castle in Austin called Britannia Manor.  The man has money to burn, but he burns it in fantastic ways.  (For example, he's got an old Sputnik satellite sitting on a shelf in his house.)  Man On A Mission is very self aware of its protagonist's eccentricities and it's great listening to interviews with his family as well as some of his peers/rivals, all of whom talk about Richard with a peculiar mix of awe and bemusement.  (His brother Robert half jokes that he's been trying to cut Richard's braids for years.  I say keep at it.)

While he's travelled to the depths of the ocean and the heart of the jungle, space was always Lord British's ultimate destination.  Richard was understandably inspired at a young age by his father Owen, a NASA astronaut who spent time on the Spacelab station back in the 1980s.  There are lots of great vintage clips of the elder Garriott doing educational videos for NASA and describing some of the experiments he conducted on the floating laboratory.  Owen even helps Richard to revisit one such experiment involving crystal growth in zero gravity.  It's a lovely bond between father and son, cementing Richard as America's first second-generation astronaut.

From a cinematic standpoint, Man On A Mission is nothing to write home about.  There's a fairly trumped up subplot centering on some fears as to the effectiveness of the Russian landing system after the last few passengers reported a turbulent re-entry.  That's not to suggest the danger isn't real, but you never once believe that this thing is gonna end with a lethal crash landing.  Richard spends most of a year living on a compound in Russia to prepare for his flight, learning complicated maneuvers and emergency procedures, as well as basic stuff - you know, like how to speak Russian.   You get the sense that a lot of his training was closed to the cameras, but it's cool to see them preparing for some of the contingencies you might not normally consider.  For example, upon return the cosmonauts land not in the ocean, but in the remote desert.  In fact, a water landing is pretty much considered a worst case scenario, forcing the three men to engage in a highly-coordinated ballet of sorts simply in order to get on water gear in the tight confines of the space craft.  The crew must learn basic wilderness survival techniques in case their ship lands far off course and the support crew is not able to reach them for a few days.  (It's totally great to see astronauts learning how to start fires and build shelter, the way you imagine they would do on some hostile alien planet.)  The crew also engages in a few interesting rituals, like laying flowers at the grave of legendary cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.  There's an appropriate amount of reverence for Russia's great history of space exploration, laid out in a fun little timeline demonstrating how the Soviets were the first to achieve almost every important milestone except the one that everyone remembers - getting to the moon.

I wish there had been a camera in the shuttle as the rocket blasts off into space, but alas we are denied that pleasure.  I'm sure it was some kind of engineering restriction, but it's a real shame as that's the part I most wanted to see.  Instead we spend the whole launch with the crew's family members watching from nearby bleachers.  It's emotional for them to be sure, but damn it would be cool to actually get a first-person perspective of what it's like to achieve escape velocity and exit the atmosphere.  We do get to see their re-entry (which goes off without a hitch) and while it's certainly exciting, it just made me all the more confused why they could get a camera in there on the way down but not on the way up.  You also get to see the design differences between the different sections of the ISS that were supplied by different countries, as well as some of the technology utilized, both old and new.  Richard and his father even have a touching conversation over ham radio, which they also did when Owen was the one in orbit.  While we glimpse the leisure time activities of Richard and his fellow crew members (including Russia's first second-generation cosmonaut, another threshold Russia crossed before America), it's a shame that there's nary a mention of Apogee Of Fear, the first science-fiction film actually shot in space.  (They do use some of the Apogee footage though.)  It's a pretty terrible little short, but it is chock full of geeky references and it's kind of marvelous in its awfulness.  Give it a quick look below.

The film ends with a rallying cry, a call to arms for all those champions of stellar exploration.  In a world where orbital photography is commonplace and anyone can have a conversation with an astronaut via Twitter (@Cmdr_Hadfield!) it's easy to get jaded on space travel.  It always reminds me of that line from Apollo 13, where NASA's PR flunky tells Marion Lovell that the crew's TV broadcast made going to the moon about as much fun as a trip to Pittsburgh.  It doesn't help that it no longer feels like we're stretching to break down barriers and cross new frontiers.  Neil DeGrasse Tyson has spoken eloquently in the past on the need for NASA as a tool for innovation and inspiration and I couldn't agree more.  These are incredible people doing incredible things, often times bringing our literal dreams to life.  Space will never stop being flat out amazing to me, and I'll continue to hope that some day I too will be able to journey out into the dark expanse and touch the stars.

Hopefully by then, the tickets won't be quite so expensive.

Title: Man On A Mission: Richard Garriott's Road To The Stars
Director: Mike Woolf
Starring: Richard Garriott, Owen Garriott, Mike Fincke
Year Of Release: 2010
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (Laptop)

April 04, 2013

THE THIN MAN Is Still Funny After All These Years

"Can you tell us anything about the case?"
"Yeah, it's really getting in the way of my drinking."

I've previously discussed the lopsided nature of my movie watching experience.  Generally speaking, if it was made in my lifetime then I at least have a passing familiarity with it.  But that leaves decades of classic films which I've never seen and know little about.  I really want to make an effort to experience some of these old gems, and the biggest hurdle is usually the feeling that watching stuff from before 1960 is the cinematic equivalent of eating my vegetables.  (Something I was never very good at...just ask my mom.)  I guess an easy entry point for a lot of this older material is anything that's been thrown into the modern Hollywood remake machine, as it usually indicates that there's something at the core of the story that translates across generational lines.  That's how I ended up seeing the original Ocean's Eleven, a movie that largely feels like Sinatra and friends let a camera crew film them hanging out in Vegas for the weekend.

About a year ago, director Rob Marshall was set to remake MGM's classic series The Thin Man based on the books by Dashell Hammett, with Johnny Depp lined up to play Nick Charles and a few different actresses in the running for his wife Nora, including Emily Blunt, Amy Adams, and Emma Stone.  I've got no love for Rob Marshall and, to be honest, it's getting harder and harder to stay interested in Johnny Depp.  That being said, after I read this article by one of my favorite film writers, Drew McWeeny, I was really curious to check out the original films, and it seemed there was a definite chance I'd end up liking the classic version more than whatever Marshall managed to cobble together.  (That film seems to have since turned to vapor.)  It's been sitting in my Netflix queue for a year now, so when I felt like I needed to vary up my screenings a bit, The Thin Man was my first choice.

Nick and Nora Charles are the ultimate good time couple.  Nick was a keen eyed detective until he fell in love with the wealthy Nora.  She's able to match him wit for wit, as well as drink for drink, and while Nick certainly enjoys living the more comfortable lifestyle, it's clear that he's not just using Nora for her money.  They have perfect chemistry, and whenever the two are together, there's an energy that absolutely crackles between them.  William Powell and Myrna Loy fill the lead roles, two actors who I was familiar with in name only.  In fact, for a number of years I worked on the Sony Pictures lot (which used to be the MGM lot), so when I think of the names Loy and Powell, I think of the buildings bearing their names.  While Powell gets the lion's share (MGM pun intended) of the attention here, both are an absolute joy to watch.

The story itself is a bit all over the place.  An eccentric inventor, the titular "thin man," goes missing and a number of dead bodies start popping up in his wake.  The police and his family suspect that the guy's gone on some kind of killing spree, but something doesn't quite add up for Nick.  When he inventor's family asks him to investigate, but he'd rather stay out of it, content to spend his days having a boozy good time with his beautiful wife.  Nora's got other plans however, tickled at the idea of seeing Nick in action and solving a real crime.  She practically dares to get involved and before long Nick is fending off gunmen and skulking around warehouses with a flashlight and their trusty dog Asta.  By the end he's got a suspect list of about a dozen people and literally any of them could be the culprit, but the audience isn't actually interested in learning the killer's identity so much as they are in watching Nick play detective.  Just to reinforce that fact, Nick solves the case by sitting everyone down at the dinner table and essentially bullshitting them until the villain ultimately reveals himself.

In my discussion of My Week With Marilyn, I talked about the rise of "The Method" and how it forever changed the face of cinema.  The Thin Man is a movie that really exemplifies the pre-method style, which is another reason I've always had trouble getting into much older cinema.  The whole thing is very theatrical, as if there's a prescenium arch just out of frame somewhere.  The power of the camera to show rather than tell seems to elude director W.S. Van Dyke, especially a poorly constructed bit where Nick discovers a crucial clue in the form of a dead body buried in the inventor's workshop.  I'm sure it's mostly just a sign of the time the film was made, namely that you didn't show a dead body on camera in 1934.  But the scene is staged with very little energy or suspense and until Nick gets on the phone and actually says out loud that he found a body, his discovery and its importance are very unclear.  Many of the scenes feel like they were ripped straight from the pages of an off-Broadway play.  In fact, it often seems as if we're just watching the recording of a stage show with the occasional close-up, particularly the final dinner scene.  There's even a running gag where Nora will rattle off some zinger causing Nick to do an exaggerated double take and it feels like Powell is still trying to play to the back row.  When compared to our modern aesthetic, the whole thing can sometimes feel very unnatural.

That said, The Thin Man is funny as all hell, and I think it's a testament to the timeless nature of the humor that every joke still lands nearly 80 years later.  The clever one-liners come fast and furious, inspiring more laughs per minute than most of today's sitcoms.  (Seriously, look at the IMDb quote page.  It's a mile long and it doesn't even include some of my favorites.)  It definitely helps that most of the cast are playing serious characters trapped in a typical murder mystery, leaving almost all the comedy to Nick and Nora.  That includes a stone faced young Caesar Romero, who would later go on to play The Joker to Adam West's Batman.

The Thin Man is proof positive that comedy can be truly timeless, the polar opposite of something like the Shrek films where the jokes feel dated before the movies even make it onto home video.  The only complaint I have is that there isn't nearly enough Myrna Loy.  She's great but totally underutilized, often disappearing when it comes time for the investigating.  I'm hoping that in the later films Nora gets to play a more active role in Nick's detective work.

I'm definitely going to find out.

PS - Watch this trailer below.  It's conceptually amazing, especially for 1934.

Title: The Thin Man
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan, Porter Hall, Minna Gombell
Year Of Release: 1934
Viewing Method: DVD - Netflix