erik lundegaard

Sunday May 31, 2009

Before the Show at the Neptune

Movie: “Up”
Theater: The Neptune
Screen: Just the one
Location: University District, Seattle
Chain: Landmark
Built: In 1921
Operated: By the Landmark chain since 1981. Remodeled in 1994. The Landmark Web site still touts this, talking up the “ultra-comfy seats with cupholders” when, after 15 years, the seats ain’t all that comfy, while bragging about cupholders is like bragging about Dolby Digital. Which they also do.

I used to think: Landmark, which operates several of the better art-house theaters in Seattle, was local, but realized my error sometimes in the late 1990s. It’s based in L.A., and was owned by Texas-based Silver Cinemas International until, after filing for bankruptcy in 2001, the company sold the chain to Texas-based businessman, and Yahoo founder, Mark Cuban in 2003. According to its Web site, Landmark is “a vertically integrated group of media properties co-owned by Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban that also includes theatrical and home entertainment distribution company Magnolia Pictures...” Question: On a site supposedly for moviegoers, why use the compound adjective vertically integrated? Total turnoff. On the plus side, Magnolia Pictures has distributed some of the better foreign films and documentaries in recent years, including “Man on Wire,” “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Let the Right One In” and “Surfwise,” while Wagner/Cuban’s production company, 2929 Productions, helped make “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

Fond memories: When I first moved to Seattle in 1991 I lived two blocks away from the Neptune. Consequently I saw one of my first Seattle movies there (Todd Haynes’ “Poison”), along with probably the best double-feature I’ve ever seen (“Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas”). It’s where I realized that the Hong Kong craze had followed me from Taiwan (a packed house for Jackie Chan’s “Supercop” in 1993), and where I went with friends for the premiere of “Pulp Fiction” in October 1994. The line stretched around the block and we had to sit in the balcony. Fun.

Quirky details: The theater has a water theme, as befits its name, including stained-glass windows of a pagan nature. There's also a pitcher of water and dixie cups in the lobby for patrons. On the other hand: the concession stand is two steps from the box office, which creates a bit of a bottleneck as you’re trying to get in. But then it wouldn’t be Seattle if they didn’t sacrifice waiting needlessly for quirkiness.
Featured in: Cameron Crowe’s “Singles” (1992). Passing shot of the marquee during a montage of the city.

Seated: 4:23, seven minutes before scheduled showtime. No ads, just jazz playing. A rather loud boy keeps running away from his dad (or guardian) to the front row, which is way too close to the screen. I worry he’ll be a distraction during the movie but then think, “Well, it’s his movie more than mine.” Once the previews start I don’t hear a peep out of him.

Previews:

  • “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”: Looks darker than ever, doesn’t it? Same director as the last one (David Yates) and for the first time the sorcerers appear to be entering the world of the muggles (us). That intrigued me. Some of the dialogue didn’t. “You’re the chosen one, Harry.” “Don’t you know who you are?” “Fight back!” Etc. The religious right has a problem with “Harry Potter” but these films, and the many like them, really play into the right’s worldview. There’s uncompromising evil out there. We are the chosen ones. And we have to fight back. It’s all getting a little tiresome. And dangerous.
  • “Ice Age Whatever”: Fox and Blue Sky Studios. Unlike the almost Looney-Tunes-ish short from a few weeks back, which I liked, this trailer gives us the usual pop cultural snippets: “Talk to the trunk,” etc. It’s all getting a little tiresome.
  • “G Force”: Disney and Bruckheimer. Special-agent guinea pigs are let go by the government and wind up in a pet store.
  • “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”: Hapless youthful inventor creates something that makes it rain...food. Hamburgers. Spaghetti and meatballs. Pancakes and syrup.
  • “X Games 3D”: Not a fan of X Games. Not a fan of 3-D. (It makes everything look smaller. It diminishes.) Pass.
  • “Toy Story 3”: June 2010.
Program starts: 4:43.

Ads: Zilch. Merci.
Posted at 01:34 PM on May 31, 2009 in category Movies - Theaters
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Saturday May 30, 2009

Review: “Up” (2009)

WARNING: MYRIAD, COLORFUL, FLOATING SPOILERS

“Have you seen ‘Burden of Dreams’?”

“Herzog?”

About Herzog. About the making of ‘Fitzcarraldo.’ At one point, Herzog, a little mad, directs locals in the Amazon rain forest to move a houseboat from one navigable river, over a mountain, to another navigable river. He didn’t need to do it that way but he did. And it becomes the heavy, physical representation of his dreams—and the price other people pay for them.”

“Your point?”

“I want to do the same with a house.”

“You want to move a house over a mountain?”

“I want a house to represent dreams. And the burden of dreams.”

“I thought we were talking about a cartoon.”

“We are. Initially it’ll be glorious. The house will rise up, powered by a mass of colorful balloons, out of an American city, because the owner of the house, an old man, doesn’t want to sell out to developers and this is his only way to escape.”

“Wait a minute. Old man? I thought we were talking about a cartoon. For kids.”

“He’ll have a stowaway. A kid. A boy scout. And together they’ll float all the way down to South America.”

“Like Herzog.”

“’Like America...but south!’ That’s a line we already have.”

“Good line.”

“They’ll land...but on the wrong side of Paradise Falls. And through a series of misadventures the old man will be tethered to the house, which will float slightly above them. And he’ll have to drag that floating house across this great expanse to Paradise Falls.”

“You want an old man. To drag a house. For hours.”

“Days.”

“Days?”

“Because he wants it in a certain spot. That’s his dream. And that’s the burden of his dreams.”

“I thought we were talking about a cartoon. For kids.”

“But he has to give up a lot to get the house in that spot. And once he does, once he realizes his dreams, he’ll realize his dreams weren’t worth it. That it was the other stuff that mattered more. So he starts throwing shit out of the house to get it light enough to fly again.”

“Please tell me you don’t say ‘shit’ in this movie.”

“Of course not. It’s a cartoon. For kids.”

“What happens in the end?”

“They live happily ever after.”

“I like that part.”

Or so I imagine the pitch for “Up.” Does Pixar even have to pitch anymore? To whom? Disney? Those losers? They’ve got a lousy recent track record, while no one’s recent track record is better than Pixar’s. The director of “Up,” Pete Docter, directed “Monsters, Inc.,” which made $250 million in the U.S. and over $500 million worldwide. The screenwriter of “Up,” Bob Peterson, wrote “Finding Nemo,” which made $339 million in the U.S. and $864 million worldwide. This decade, none of their movies has made less than $200 million in the U.S. and $400 million worldwide. Their movies have the added advantage of being spectacularly good.

“Up” is no different. It begins with a 1930s newsreel, “Movietone News,” focusing on an Errol Flynn-like adventurer named Charles Muntz who extols his young viewers, “Adventure is out there!,” and it ends with the notion that it’s not our adventures but the mundane things in life that matter.

On his way home from the “Movietone” theater, Carl Fredrickson, a young, would-be adventurer, hears a voice talking up the same kind of Charles Muntz-like adventures he’s imagining in his head. It’s a girl, a very talky, very tomboyish, almost Peppermint Patty-like girl named Ellie, and the two of them plan great adventures together, including following Charles Muntz down to Paradise Falls in South America. She has an adventure book, into which she’s pasted a few items; then she’s written STUFF I’M GOING TO DO. The rest of the pages are blank. There’s a life to be lived.

Then we see it lived. Carl and Ellie get married. They buy a house. She works at the zoo and he sells balloons at the zoo. They want kids but can’t have them. Then Ellie dies, and Carl is 79, alone, and living in the house they fixed up together, surrounded by a massive development project to which he refuses to sell out. After he accidentally attacks one of the construction workers, he’s declared a public menace and is scheduled to be put in a home. They come for him the next morning. At which point he releases the balloons, and the house, tearing itself from its moorings, soars away toward South America. It’s a great, glorious scene.

But he’s got a stowaway—a kind of modern update of who he used to be. Russell is a talkative, enthusiastic wilderness explorer in troop 54 who needs only to “assist the elderly” to become a senior-grade wilderness explorer. “The wilderness must be explored!” is his credo. He’s also hapless. Earlier Carl sent him on a snipe hunt, and stowing away was a mistake, and he’s got absentee-father issues. But now he’s along for the ride.

Let me just say that I laughed out loud a lot during this movie. I mean belly laughs. They weren’t cheap laughs, either, but imbedded in the small details of life. The way Russell, seeing pictures of young Carl and Ellie in their aviator/adventure gear, says “Goggles,” like he’s swallowing a laugh midway through. The way, post-storm, he pokes a sleeping Carl, then says, “Whew! I thought you were dead.” The way the rare South American bird, who is named “Kevin” by Russell even though it’s a girl, squawks at Carl.

Most modern cartoon franchises try to be hip. They ape the cheaper aspects of our culture by having animated animals shake their booty, or sing, or party, or try to be famous. It’s as if the entire world, even the animal world, is made up of dopey 14-year-old boys. Which, of course, is the studio executives’ worldview.

Pixar movies focus on cultural moments rather than pop-cultural moments: that early 1960s period when astronauts replaced cowboys as heroes for boys everywhere; the difference, and similarities, between 20th-century “adventurers” and 21st-century “wilderness explorers.” Pixar doesn’t need to point to a pop-cultural phenomenon (that has nothing to do with the film) to get laughs. Two of the moments mentioned above were funny to me simply because they reminded me of my cat: the way she pokes us, incessantly, to wake us up; the way she squawks at me when she doesn’t get her way. It’s funny when she does it and it’s funny when Russell and Kevin do it. The humor is part of life, not apart from it (i.e., on television). Put it this way: In “Up,” there’s a dog, a talking dog named Dug, and he’s more real than most live-action dogs on screen. What makes him funny isn’t that he’s not like a dog—that he stands on his hind legs and sings a rap song, for example, as he might in other animated features—but that he’s exactly like a dog. Pixar finds humor intrinsically within the object.

And drama. And sorrow. At Paradise Falls, Carl, burdened by his house, chooses the house, and what it represents, over Kevin, and Dug, and even Russell, and what they represent. Then he sits in it, alone, his longstanding dream finally realized, and he looks through Ellie’s old adventure book, and the unfulfilled promise of STUFF I’M GOING TO DO. But the pages beyond that page aren’t blank; he’s shocked to find they’re filled with the life he and Ellie lived together. This fact recalls something Russell said earlier about his father: “I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember most.” That’s what Ellie filled her pages with: the boring, everyday stuff we discount but that means the most. On the last page Ellie includes a note to Carl: “Thanks for the adventure. Now go have a new one! Love, Ellie.” And as he does, as her words inspire him to throw out most of the stuff in his house to get it aloft again, to get back into the adventure, I sat there, a 46-year-old, tearing up.

Is it a lie? Pixar tells us an adventure story that tells us it’s not the adventures that matter.

I don’t think it’s a lie. I think they’re getting at one of the more profound things movies can say.

A good movie leaves us with a mood. Last week I left “L’Heure d’ete” feeling that life is sad, and the stuff we accumulate, that seems precious to us, is just a burden to others, even when it’s legitimately, aesthetically precious. Remember the last lines of “American Beauty”? Lester talks about how, now that he’s dead, he’s grateful for every single stupid moment of his life. But that’s not the mood the movie leaves us with. It leaves us with a wish for that feeling.

“Up” actually leaves us with that feeling. I left the theater grateful for every single, stupid, boring moment of my life.

Near the end of the movie, Russell says to Carl: “Sorry about your house, Mr. Fredrickson.”

“It’s just a house,” he responds.

Posted at 12:22 PM on May 30, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009, Pixar
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Friday May 29, 2009

Jim Walsh: For the Graduates

Remember Kurt Vonnegut’s commencement address that made the viral rounds in the late ‘90s (“wear sunscreen”), which turned out to be a well-written column by Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune? Her faux commencement address? Her commencement address if asked to give one?

Here’s one by my friend Jim Walsh, which appeared this week in the
Southwest Journal in, yes Jim, sexy South Minneapolis. Everyone who knows Jim Walsh will never mistake this for anyone but Jim Walsh.

Read it. Love it. Live it. Pass it on. (You can read more of Jim's stuff in Southwest Journal and MinnPost
.)

For The Graduates
By Jim Walsh
Southwest Journal
May 28, 2009

I was in an ambulance for the first time in my life last week. As the morphine entered my system and the trees billowed past the window (Satan had entered my kidney; he hath since exited and I am yet again feeling lucky to be alive), I remembered a few things I’ve been wanting to tell you before I go:

  • Even though the real world can feel overwhelming with all its war, poverty, stupidity, and fallible-to-foolish parents, don’t waste your life in front of a computer screen. Go outside and play.
  • Before he died, singer/songwriter Warren Zevon said, “Enjoy every sandwich.” Meaning, of course, that tomorrow isn’t promised and that life is fragile. I would also say you should enjoy every ant, breath, bud, and magic moment, and, as often as possible, put yourself in situations where your and others’ enjoyment is maximized.
  • When said enjoyment is happening, various wanton killjoys will try to rain on your parade. Don’t let them. Smile your wry smile and move on.
  • The Bible’s most oft-cited mandate is “love the stranger.” Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that you start wrapping your arms around every Sven, Dick, and Lorna you run into, but at least talk to strangers. Here in Minnesota, that will get you plenty of arched whataya-selling? eyebrows, but more often than not it’s worth it.
  • There is no such thing as “too much information.”
  • Love and sex is more intense, interesting, and infinite than they make it look on TV. For the most part.
  • When it comes to the future, heed the wise words of the Waterboys’ Mike Scott (“Dream harder”), and Suicide (“Dream, baby, dream”).
  • When it comes to suicide, heed the wise words of Neil Young from Sleeps With Angels (“Change your mind”) and Dory from Finding Nemo (“Just keep swimming”).
  •  I can’t prove this with any scientific certitude, but it says here that every moment spent at the Mall Of America turns your flesh into polycarbonate plastic and your blood into Liquid Plumber.
  • Unless, of course, you’re shopping at the LoveSac or Apple store. For me.
  • When you’re in a dark place and thinking that you’re all alone, pick up a book. The human experience isn’t all that unique, and chances are better than even that you are not the first one to be going through what you’re going through.
  • If you go through life open-hearted, you will at some point fall in love and very likely get your heart broken. This is not always a bad thing. In fact, this is unavoidable and welcome and normal, unless you are a zombie.
  • If you are a zombie, find another zombie and go make out like only zombies can — under the Washburn water tower.
  • At least once a week go to the Peace Garden and Bird Sanctuary at Lake Harriet and listen to the quiet. Then go to the Rose Gardens and sit on Karl Mueller’s bench and listen to the birds and yourself.
  • When it comes to true love, heed the wise words of Neko Case: “I don’t care if forever never comes, ‘cause I’m holding out for that teenage feeling.”
  • Don’t just type “LOL.” Do it. Hardily. Often. Until energy drink spouts out of your nose like anti-freeze from a spent hose.
  • Disconnect.
  • Reconnect.
  • Repeat.
  • When people ask you what you want to be when you grow up, tell them to get back to you after they’ve listened to the Ramones’ version of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.”
  • When people try to convert you to their religion, tell them to get back to you after they’ve read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning,” the collected works of Joseph Campbell, Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” the Sufi poets Rumi and Rilke, and the new bumpersticker you just came up with: THANKS BUT THE WHO ALREADY FORGAVE ME.
  • Give your mom the occasional unbidden foot massage.
  • Give your dad the occasional unbidden neck rub.
  • Work hard, but realize that competition will only take you so far. Collaboration and cooperation is more fun, more productive, and more heart- and brain-expanding. Keep in mind the wise words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”
  • And President Harry S. Truman: “It’s amazing how much you can accomplish when it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”
  • And President Barack Obama: “Never stop adding to your body of work.”
  • And [your words here].
Posted at 09:59 AM on May 29, 2009 in category General
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Thursday May 28, 2009

Humans from Earth

I was reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker piece on the sixth great extinction, which may be happening now—at the least, it’s happening now with frogs and bats—when I came to the scientific rationale for why not only frogs in the rain forest but frogs in the National Zoo in D.C. are dying en masse. Apparently it’s a fungus, chytrids, which, according to Kolbert, the New Yorker’s environmental writer, has never been known to attack vertebrates. Then I got to this line about how they’re spreading: “Chytrid fungi generate microscopic spores that disperse in water...”

Spores! Of course, being me, I thought of that first-season episode of “Star Trek,” “This Side of Paradise,” in which on yet another of the many “Eden” planets the Enterprise crew encountered, a particular breed of plant shot spores at the crew and turned them all lovey-dovey. Even Spock. Especially Spock. Cue “love theme” music.

Deeper into Kolbert’s article, you realize that the greater problem isn’t spores but, well, us, and the impunity with which we move about the planet. This, too, recalls “Star Trek,” or, at least, my criticism of the recent “Star Trek” movie:
In the original series, particularly its first season, there was a mystery, and a creepiness, to what they might find out there, always augmented by that great background soundtrack of creepiness. ... There are still stories to be told out there, that add to the mystery rather than pave it over, but you’ve got to drop out of warp-drive, and pause, and look around, and reflect, in order to tell them properly.
I apologize for the glibness of this comparison. It just feels like what’s wrong with the new “Star Trek” as a storytelling device is simply a reflection of what’s going wrong here. Microscopically, things are deadlier than we realize. But the deadliest thing of all may be our own sense of impunity.
Posted at 08:51 AM on May 28, 2009 in category Culture
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Wednesday May 27, 2009

“On m’appelle Monsieur Tibbs!”

Watched “In the Heat of the Night” again after reading Mark Harris’ much-recommended book, “Pictures at a Revolution,” about the inspiration, gestation and production of, and subsequent reaction to, the five nominees for best picture at the 1967 Academy Awards.

When I first heard about the book I wondered why Harris chose ’67 and its mix of old Hollywood (“Dr. Doolittle”; “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”) and new (“Bonnie and Clyde”; “The Graduate”), with “In the Heat of the Night” coming down the middle to win. Seemed arbitrary. Seemed too close to the period John Gregory Dunne covers in “The Studio.” Why not pick, say, 1970, where the difference between old Hollywood (“Love Story”; “Airport”), and new (“M*A*S*H”; “Five Easy Pieces”), feels even starker? And with “Patton” still coming down the middle to win?

But it makes sense. The inspiration for these five movies began in 1963, or earlier, and the cultural difference between ’63 and ’67 is huge. Particularly in racial matters. Particularly in youth matters. Harris’ period also includes the heady influence of the nouvelle vague (when it was nouvelle) as well as the end of the production code. The influences are too fascinating to ignore.

(On the other hand: 1970 would’ve given you Altman and Nicholson, and an American culture in which the anti-war movie “M*A*S*H” outperformed the war biopic “Patton” at the box office. But still...)

At the moment I’m simply dealing with the difference between 2001 and now. Eight years ago I wrote a little something about “In the Heat of the Night,” and reading it over today, it lacks, let’s say, a largeness of spirit. But it’s not necessarily wrong.

My big problem with "Heat" this viewing? The dance is too extreme.

There’s a murder. Tibbs is pulled in and charged for it. He didn’t do it, and he can prove he didn’t do it, and he’s a homicide detective from Philly who knows more than these crackers ever will about police work. So how do you get him to stay in Mississippi to help, when he’s called “boy” and “nigger” and he’s arrested him for being black at the train station? In Mississippi? Hell, they filmed in Sparta, Illinois because Sidney Poitier didn’t want to set foot in Mississippi—and you can’t blame him. So how do you get Virgil Tibbs to stay there?

Here’s the dance:
1. You must stay! Tibbs is ordered to help by his Philadelphia superiors.
2. No, you must go! Gillespie captures suspect no. 1 (Harvey) and dismisses Tibbs. (Even, briefly, arrests him.)
3. No, you must stay! Colbert’s widow wants Tibbs on the case or she’ll move her factory elsewhere.
4. No, you must go! After Tibbs slaps Endicott (back).
5. Really, you must go! B-grade KKK chases Tibbs and Gillespie captures suspect no. 2 (Sam Wood).
6. Why are you still here? Gillespie and Tibbs learn of Purdy’s pregnancy, which leads to Tibbs solving the case.
Basically you have a two-hour dance between one intent and one reluctant partner. But they keep changing roles. There’s rarely a moment when both are reluctant—because that would end the dance—and, after a time, the lack of stability feels absurd.

I would’ve liked more of Tibbs in the black community, too—which they cut—as well as another scene between Tibbs and Endicott. Not sure what it would entail. “I know you didn’t do this. But I know what you did do. Everyone knows.” Something.

You could actually remake this movie today—without the racial element. Blue state vs. red state. It would work. There’s always a divide in this country. We’re too big not to have a divide.
Posted at 09:38 AM on May 27, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Tuesday May 26, 2009

...And he's only 54

“In every major case since he became the nation’s seventeenth Chief Justice, [John] Roberts has sided with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff. Even more than Scalia, who has embodied judicial conservatism during a generation of service on the Supreme Court, Roberts has served the interests, and reflected the values, of the contemporary Republican Party.”

—Jeffrey Toobin in his New Yorker article “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” Worth reading in its entirety. I was a little perplexed that we got this now, rather than at the end of June when the decisions in the more controversial Supreme Court cases are announced. And the end of the piece is a little weak, particularly for Toobin, who's such a good writer. But worth reading, and considering, as the more vocal part of the conservative nation picks-a-little, talks-a-little about Pres. Obama's recent U.S. Supreme Court nominee.

Posted at 07:40 PM on May 26, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Politics
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Monday May 25, 2009

Before the Show at SIFF

Movie: “L'Heure d'ete”
Theater: SIFF Cinema
Location: Pres de le Space Needle et sous l’Opera de Seattle
Operating: Since March 1, 2007 when the long-standing Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), coming off record attendance, opened a 400-seat theater at McCaw Hall. There’s stadium seating but the place has the air less of a movie theater and more of a lecture hall. Which it is: the Nesholm Family Lecture Hall. It reminded me a bit of the theater at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, but, as befits Seattle, it’s more cramped, more claustrophobic. But I like the long blue curtains that parted before the movie began. That’s a fading (almost completely dead) tradition I’ve always been fond of.
Just who is the Nesholm Family anyway? Current architects and scions of one of the founders of UPS, which was—I just learned—founded in Seattle in 1907.
Arrived: A little before 4:00. Had to wait a very long time in a very short line to get my reserved tickets. Next year I should volunteer.
Ads before scheduled showtime: Slides. A lot of ads for, mostly, local businesses, including Scarecrow Video (“over 100,000 titles and growing”), City Arts Magazine, Vulcan, Zone Perfect, the Space Needle, Don Q Puerto Rican Rum, Pacific Place, and the Wallace Foundation. Some of the ads were so graphic-design-oriented and content-free that it was difficult figuring out what they were advertising.
4:30: Justine, one of the program directors, welcomed us to the second day of the 35th annual film festival and thanked the day’s sponsors, including TV5Monde and the Consulate General of France. Yep. A long way from those awful Nintendo DSI ads.
4:32: Lights go down.

  • An ad for SIFF and its 35th annual festival, using, cleverly, the no. 35: I.e., 35mm film, the average winter low in Seattle, etc. And if we donate $35 to SIFF we can become members of the 35 Club. Didn’t. Desole.
  • A crude animation ad for City Arts Magazine.
  • An ad for TV5 Monde. “...with the latest films, the biggest stars.” Can’t say that for Hollywood films anymore, can we? The latest films from Hollywood tend not to have big stars, just superheroes and robots.
  • “Aide-Toi, le ciel t’aidera” (“Help Yourself and God Will Help You”—although it looks like its English title has been secularized to: “With a Little Help from Myself”). A character study about North Africans living in difficult circumstances in France. But with a lot of joy and hope, too. At least for the trailer.

That’s it? I usually think theaters overdo the trailers but SIFF is at the beginning of a festival, for which, for most moviegoers, it’s hard to sort through all the choices. Trailers would’ve helped here. I've already bought tickets for four films at the fest, but, if a trailer, or trailers, looked good, I would've bought more. Missed opportunity for both of us.

Movie starts: 4:38

Posted at 11:38 AM on May 25, 2009 in category Movies - Theaters
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Sunday May 24, 2009

The Do-Little Academy

"The Academy Awards race was hardly a gentleman's game in the 1960s. If campaigning was less costly and public than in more recent years, it wasn't due to a sense of decorum as much as to the fact that the Academy itself was half the size it is today, much more heavily populated with rank-and-file studio employees, and thus easier to manipulate and control. Oscar prognostication was not yet a blood sport; each year, the movies that would be the subject of campaigns were selected by their studios, and then essentially dictated to selected gossip columnists and writers from Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and the Los Angeles Times, the only major publications that then took much notice of the nominating process."

— from Mark Harris' "Pictures at a Revolution," pg. 385

Posted at 05:41 PM on May 24, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Books, Movies - The Oscars
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Saturday May 23, 2009

Review: “L’Heure d’ete” (2008)

WARNING: BEAUCOUP DE SPOILERS

“L’Heure d’ete,” pluralized to “Summer Hours” in the English translation, would make a good double-feature with “Rachel Getting Married.” Both films depict family tension surrounding a major event: a wedding for “Rachel,” a death for “Summer.” If someone thinks up a good birth movie, we’ve got our triple bill.

The film begins with kids and dogs racing through the woods, and into the backyard of a cottage house, on a treasure hunt. It becomes a story about giving up treasure.

The owner of the cottage house is Helene (Edith Scob), and everyone’s gathered for her 75th birthday. Along with Eloise, the housekeeper, we see five adults eating, drinking and smoking around the backyard table, and can surmise, without explicitly being told, which are Helene’s kids and which are in-laws. Maybe it’s the way Helene’s kids sit, or speak, or speak more, but we understand by merely observing who’s who. There’s Frederic (Charles Bering), the eldest, who has something weary about him; Adrienne (Juliet Binoche), the New Yorker, who has something hard about her; and Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), the youngest, who lives abroad in China, working for les baskets Puma.

Even as Helene enjoys the company, and the chaotic life the kids and grandkids bring, she’s preparing for her own death, and takes Frederic, the only child still living in France, through the house, detailing which precious object should go where. Every family has precious objects but these are truly, prestigiously precious: paintings by Corot,  a Hoffman armoire, vases by Bracquemond, and pieces of a sculpture by Degas, which, sometime in the past, Helene’s kids broke while playing. Her uncle, Paul Berthier, was a great artist (and, we find out later, her lover), and these are the remnants of the family’s artistic past. Helene counsels selling this, giving that to the Musee d’Orsay, but Frederic, who has trouble talking about the death of his mother with his mother, assumes everything will stay the same: the kids will keep the house and the works of art. She assumes otherwise. She counsels otherwise. Why have this weight on you? Start anew.

In cinematic time, her death comes swiftly and without drama. Frederic—a Parisian economist who’s written a book that’s not well-received—goes into an office building where someone expresses their condolences and they pick out a cemetery plot. And that's it. Driving to the cottage house, Frederic stops the car and cries, while Adrienne, with her American boyfriend, sheds a few tears in the hospital, but that’s the extent of the outward emotion. Everything else is inward. And business. And choices.

The mother was right: the kids vote to sell the place. Adrienne is getting married to the American and doesn’t know how often she’ll be back, while Jeremie has agreed to a five-year commitment with Puma in Beijing, and his family plans to summer in Bali. Frederic acquiesces to all of this, sadly, but without much of a struggle. There are no villains here, just life spreading out, going where it goes, and the rest of the movie is disillusion of the cottage and its precious artifacts. At one point, Eloise, the housekeeper, returns for a visit and sees strangers—art dealers, reps from the Musee d’Orsay—removing this painting, taking that exquisite desk. Basically messing up the place she cleaned up for decades. It’s a sad sight. “For the family, it must be sadder,” she adds, but one wonders. Eloise seems to have a deeper connection with the place, and with Helene. She has no kids of her own, just a nephew, a taxi driver who drives her around. He loves her, hugs her, then leaves her at the doorstep of her apartment—the same way Helene, earlier, was left at the steps of her house after the kids and grandkids left.

The grown-up siblings have both familiarity with, and distance from, one other. They assume they know each other but there’s also curiosity. I love you, but who are you again? Or now? When Adrienne rushes into a taxi after a meeting with their lawyer, the two brothers, walking to a cafe, comment on how she’s like their mother:

“She’s running from something,” one says.
(pause)
“Not us, I hope,” the other says, and both laugh.

So no villains here, but writer/director Olivier Assayas, who has made movies about global disconnect before (“demon lover”), seems to be commenting upon some aspect of specifically French dissolution. Two-thirds of Helene’s kids live abroad, the grandkids are “into America,” the artifacts wind up in museums. What aspect of French culture is still part of French daily life? Where and what is the treasure now?

“L’heure d’ete” is suffused with sadness but not nostalgia. Life expands, life contracts, life ends, life goes on. Assayas could’ve ended the film at the Musee d’Orsay, with the desk on display, looking “caged,” according to Frederic, but chose, instead, a more ambiguous end. He takes us back to the cottage house, where Frederic’s kids throw a huge, loud summer party. At first one is appalled that Helene’s place has been taken over in this fashion. But is this better? It's vibrant. It's life. The final shot is of the eldest daughter and her boyfriend, young and unburdened, running away from the camera and toward whatever it is they’ll create, and collect, and leave behind.

Posted at 03:57 PM on May 23, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009, Movies - Foreign
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Auteur, Auteur

"Beatty had tried to plan his entire career by studyng the work of directors he admired, but as Bonnie and Clyde's producer, suddenly he was feeling impatient with auteurism. 'To attribute [movies] wholly to their directors—not to the actors, not to the producer, not [to] the leading lady...well's that's just bullshit!' he fumed. 'Those pictures were made by directors, writers, and sound men and cameramen and actors and so forth, but suddenly it's "Otto Preminger's Hurry Sundown"... It's not healthy."

— from Mark Harris' "Pictures at a Revolution," pg. 247, citing a Beatty quote from The Bonnie and Clyde Book

**

"If [Mike] Nichols felt relaxed as production [on The Graduate] began, the reason was probably that, as he puts it, 'I saw the whole thing—I knew what the movie was.' In that, he was a minority of one."

— from Mark Harris' "Pictures at a Revolution," pg. 312, citing an author interview

 **

"The auteurist critics look for recurring patterns, the incandescent joining of visual style and idea. You can’t find such patterns, or even a consistent visual motif, in [Victor] Fleming’s movies. But you can find a powerful grasp of fable... He didn’t direct the entirety of either of his two classics [The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind], and he wasn’t, by definition, an auteur. But this absence from the list of the blessed suggests a fault in auteur theory and not in Fleming—a prejudice against the generalists, the non-obsessed, the “chameleons,” as Steven Spielberg called them, who re-created themselves for each project and made good movies in many different styles."

— from David Denby's article "The Real Rhett Butler: The forgotten man behind two of Hollywood's most enduring classics," in the latest New Yorker

Posted at 09:56 AM on May 23, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Movies - The Oscars
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Friday May 22, 2009

The Hot Hand: Jean Gabin

Has any actor ever been on a roll like Jean Gabin from 1936 to 1939? He starred in one classic film after another. Boom boom boom:

  • “Les bas-fonds” (1936) with Jean Renoir
  • “Pepe le Moko” (1936) with Julien Duvivier
  • “La grand illusion” (1937) with Jean Renoir
  • “Le quai des brumes” (1938) with Marcel Carne
  • “La bete humaine” (1939) with Jean Renoir
  • “Le jour se leve” (1939) with Marcel Carne

That’s an insane streak. Maybe Bogart in the ‘40s (“High Sierra,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Casablanca,” “To Have and Have Not,” “The Big Sleep,” “Treasure of Sierra Madre,” “Key Largo”) or Jack Nicholson in the early ‘70s (“Five Easy “Pieces,” “King of Marvin Gardens,” “The Last Detail,” “Chinatown,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) had similar runs, but...

I’m sure I’m missing somebody.

Posted at 09:20 AM on May 22, 2009 in category Jean Gabin
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Thursday May 21, 2009

Lyrics of the Day

Taking my time
Working on lines
Fingers in clay
Everyday
Head in the clouds
Moving my mouth
Spreading the grout
That's holding it down

(Do you think it makes a difference?)
I say yes
(Do you think it makes a difference?)
I say yes
(Do you think it makes a difference?)
I say yes
In my life, yes
In my life, yes
In my life, yes

Cuddling up
Declarations of love
Squeeze and a hug
A kiss and a rub
Faces opposed
Eyelids closed
Nuzzling nose
Like eskimos

(Don't'cha' feel silly?)
I say no
(Don't'cha' feel silly?)
I say no
(Don't'cha' feel silly?)
I say no
With my love, no
With my love, no
With my love, no

I never ever thought
I'd ever have a life like this
I never dreamed
I'd be alive
I never considered
Such as these surroundings
Effectually pulling it off

Watching the cops go by
Seeing a falcon fly
Reading a history book
Wetting a tiny hook
Driving fast all night
Bursting into song at first light
Sharing breakfast from one plate
Holding hands over loved ones graves

(Do you think you deserve it?)
I say yes
(Do you think you deserve it?)
I say yes
(Do you think you deserve it?)
I say yes
In my way, yes
In my way, yes
In my way, yes

— Vic Chesnutt, "In My Way, Yes," from the album "Silver Lake" 

Posted at 06:33 PM on May 21, 2009 in category Music
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Wednesday May 20, 2009

-42.8%

Another indication that quality matters a little—even in Hollywood.

“Wolverine” opened in over 4,000 theaters (and who knows how many screens) and made $85 million its opening weekend. But the movie was bad. I know: “bad.” Subjective. How about “a mess”? How about only 37% of the fanboys at Rotten Tomatoes gave it a thumbs up, while only 15% of the top critics did the same? In a way, even 15% seems too much. Shame on you Kenneth Turan, who wrote the following nothing graf as part of his review:

As directed by Gavin Hood from a script by David Benioff and Skip Woods, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" answers all those questions and brings everyone up to speed with a brisk thoroughness. It's a solid, efficient comic book movie that is content to provide comic book satisfactions of the action and violence variety. If it doesn't rise to the heights of Christopher Nolan's "Batman" films, it doesn't stray into "Daredevil" territory either.

Yet despite being “solid” and “efficient” (and it’s neither), the following weekend “Wolverine”’s business fell off by 69%, which, as I’ve written, in unprecedented for a film that opened in more than 4,000 theaters. As of Monday, its b.o. total (domestic) was $152.4 million.

   vs. 

“Star Trek” opened a weekend later in fewer theaters, 3.849, and made less opening weekend, $75 million. But the movie was good. I know: “good.” Actually it deserves those quotes, since I don’t think the movie is all that. The best thing about it is the casting. Otherwise, the story and pacing are derivative of “Star Wars” and none of it really sticks. It’s too busy going to leave anything memorable. But the fanboys at Rotten Tomatoes drooled (95%), and critics did, too (91%), and word-of-mouth is mostly good, and so, its second weekend, it fell off by only 42.8%. As of Monday, its b.o. total (domestic) stood at $151.1 million. Once Tuesday’s numbers are in, it’ll pass the mutant for sure. “Star Trek” is still drawing over $4 million on weekdays, while “Wolverine” is down to around $1 million per day.

In other words, despite the advantage that “Wolverine” had over “Star Trek” in terms of time and theater total, “Star Trek” is already warping past it and will surely be the year’s first $200 million movie. On the strength, I would argue, of its quality.

A question for Trekkies/ers is whether this film, which is already the highest-grossing “Star Trek” film ever, can surpass the original, 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” in adjusted gross. To do so, it’ll have to make over $235 million. I’m not Spock, but I’d calculate the odds of that happening as pretty good.

Posted at 09:57 AM on May 20, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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"The Graduate": Not Starring Robert Redford

[Mike] Nichols, who had championed the idea [of casting Robert Redford as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate], surprised himself by turning the actor down. "We were friends, we had done Barefoot, I was playing pool with him, and I said, 'I'm really sad, but you can't do it. You can't play a loser,'" says Nichols. "He said, 'Of course I can play a loser!' I said, 'You can't! Look at you! How many times have you ever struck out with a woman?' And he said, I swear to you, 'What do you mean?' He didn't even understand the concept. To him, it was like saying, 'How many times have you been to a restaurant and not had a meal?'"

— from Mark Harris' "Pictures at a Revolution," pg. 237

Posted at 08:17 AM on May 20, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Books, Movies - The Oscars
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Tuesday May 19, 2009

Why DVD Sales are Down 18%

On his “Big Picture” blog, Patrick Goldstein takes a look at DVD sales, which are currently down by 18 percent. It’s a post worth reading—particularly since he enlightens an area that the studios like to keep dark. One bit of news I found heartening: The sales of better DVDs (as judged by exit polls and critics, and exemplified, here, by “Iron Man”) do better than the sales of lamer DVDs (“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”). I.e., Quality matters. What I’ve been saying. What I’ll continue to say. Stay tuned.

As for why the sales of DVDs are down? Goldstein doesn’t know and he says the industry doesn’t know, either:

No one has any real answers about the DVD downturn either. Obviously the country's economic woes have played a role. The DVD business has long ago lost its novelty, so many consumers don't feel the need to stock up on as many new releases. Many consumers have turned to downloading and rentals, with Netflix in particular enjoying a burst of popularity -- a good thing for filmmakers, but not such a good thing for studios, who make a lower profit margin on rentals than sales.

You could also argue that we now live in a cultural moment where people don't want to own things as much as they want to experience them...
Here’s my guess.

A new format—the Blu-Ray DVD—has arrived, but it requires a lot of expensive extras: a Blu-Ray DVD player and, more importantly, an HDTV.

All of these new formats became available, or affordable, just before the fiscal crisis, and most people have yet to buy them. But they will buy them. They’re just putting them on hold.

That means they’re also putting DVD purchases on hold. Why buy the DVD when in a year you’ll buy the better Blu-Ray version?

That’s my guess. The old is dying and the new has yet to be born, and the fiscal crisis has simply lengthened this interregnum.

Another possibility: the Blu-Ray DVD is the final stab at the hearts of some collectivists. After compiling libraries of films on VHS, and then DVD, they’ve grown tired, know that Blu-Ray is only the latest format for their favorite films, which will soon by usurped by something else, and they figure, “What’s the point?”

They’ve just dumped their CD collection (who knows what they’ve done with all of the tapes and LPs), and figure the future of movies is in an MP3-like file stored on computers. So, again, why buy the rapidly outdated DVD?

All of which is to say: the movie industry is lucky DVD sales are down by only 18 percent.

Again, that's my guess. Feel free to pile on.

Posted at 09:00 AM on May 19, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Monday May 18, 2009

Where Have You Gone, Vladimir Visotsky?

Last week I watched a film called "Ivan Vasilevich: menyaet professiyu" (translated, in attention-getting fashion, to "Ivan Vasilevich: Back to the Future"), which I rented from Netflix as much for the description as anything:

When his time machine malfunctions, scatterbrained inventor Shurik (Aleksandr Demyanenko) accidentally transports Ivan the Terrible to 1973 Moscow and simultaneously sends small-time crook and apartment manager Ivan Bunsha -- a ringer for the despot -- to the 16th century. Wackiness ensues as Shurik attempts to set things right in this Soviet sci-fi comedy of errors featuring Yuri Yakovlev in dual roles as Bunsha and the czar.

A wacky Soviet-era comedy? Who would've thought? And it is that, although, in the end, more curiosity than laugh-out-loud comedy. It's one part "Les Visiteurs," one part Bollywood, one part "Benny Hill" without the girls. One imagines if the film had gotten out in 1973 it would've gone a long way toward dispensing the notion of the stoic Soviet empire. Yes, even in the middle of detente. But of course "getting out" was always the problem. 

Halfway through the film, in modern-day (1973-era) Moscow, Ivan the Terrible, who isn't so terrible, turns on a tape recorder, hears music, and smiles. The singer was familiar. I'm pretty sure it was Vladimir Visotsky, whose angry song Baryshnikov danced to in his tennis shoes in "White Nights"— and about which I wrote for an MSN "Top 10 Dance Scenes" piece way back when.

The difference between the time I wrote that piece (2004) and now? It's easy as hell, now, to find footage of the singer. Here he is, for example, on a Soviet-era TV show, singing in his gravelly, impassioned voice. Check it out.

Posted at 06:54 AM on May 18, 2009 in category Movies - Foreign, Music
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Sunday May 17, 2009

SWJM, 27, Looking for Work

“Nonetheless, by the beginning of 1965, [Dustin] Hoffman was twenty-seven, seriously demoralized by his inability to land an acting job, and considerng a change in careers. ... [Susan] Anspach, who met him during that production [of A View from a Bridge], recalls a lunch for the cast and crew of the play at which he told her with bravado, '”You know, if I were older, I'd be playing Bobby's [Duvall] part.“ and I said, ”Sure, right, Dusty.“ And he said, ”What do you mean? I'm fuckin' talented! Ask Bobby! He'll tell you himself!“ I said to Bobby, ”Is he putting me on? He's the sweep-up guy!“ And Bobby said, ”No, it's true, he's the most talented guy among all of us.“'”

— from Mark Harris' “Pictures at a Revolution,” pg. 164

Posted at 03:17 PM on May 17, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Books
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Unfortunate Graph of the Day

"So [John Lennon] embraced the heady freedom New York offered, leaving his mop-top past behind like a new arrival from a small town, eager to become who he wanted to be. New Yorkers, in turn, saw the city anew through his wide, endlessly appreciative eyes. Sadly, such open-heartedness would prove his undoing in a town that proved tougher than he ever imagined it could be."

— Anthony DeCurtis in "His Kind of Shell-Shocked Town" in The New York Times' Week in Review section, about Lennon and NYC in the 1970s.

  1. ...leaving his mop-top past behind. By the time Lennon chose to live in NY in 1971, he'd left his mop-top past behind about 5-6 years earlier.
  2. ...in a town that proved tougher than he ever imagined it could be. Is "tougher" the right word here? How about "more homicidal"?
  3. ...in a town that proved tougher than he ever imagined it could be. Also, "town"? What connection is there between Mark David Chapman and New York? Almost none. Dude was from Texas, lived in Hawaii. He represented tourists, not New Yorkers, and certainly not New York itself. Odd, odd piece. 
Posted at 02:58 PM on May 17, 2009 in category Media
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Before the Show: May 15, 2009

Theater: AMC Loews Uptown 3
Screen: No. 1
Location: Lower Queen Anne
Chain: AMC.
Operating: The Uptown was renovated in the early 1990s but that’s all I have on its history. It’s part of the AMC chain, but it’s an odd link in that chain. It usually plays small, independent films, or mid-range films, but occasionally it’ll show a big feature on opening weekend—as with “Angels & Demons.“ The place never seems crowded. Feels like it's dying. The 4:05, Friday showing of “A&D” had fewer than 16 people in an auditorium built for...300? Which doesn't bode well for either “A&D”’s box office or Uptown Cinema.
Arrived: 3:59 for a 4:05 show.
Ads before scheduled showtime:

  • Something about ncm.com and a “red carpet” somethingorother for “Angels & Demons.” It's sad that this even exists.
  • That Canon ad, quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald, to say that F. Scott Fitzgerald is no longer relevant in a world that has such great Canon cameras.
  • TV ad for the movie “Year One.” Why put TV ads in the AMC Movie Watcher’s Network? Why not just show the “Year One” trailer once the lights go down?
  • The History Channel presents snakes, crocodiles, deadly bugs, desperation. “And that’s just the first nine minutes.” Somewhere this appeals to someone.
  • “Starfleet Recruiting Center”: Not sure what this is an ad for. “Star Trek”? Guy doesn’t want to get beamed down, keeps talking, gets beamed down, faints. It’s supposed to be funny but I bet three “Star Trek” nerds in a basement could come up with something funnier.
  • So “Year One” is a trailer masquerading as an ad; this thing is an ad masquerading as a trailer. Starts out with that familiar logo and the words “This PREVIEW has been approved...” Thus, if you haven’t been paying attention, you pay attention. Oh, previews. An ominous voice intones, “There are some things in life best left forgotten.” Pause. “Your anniversary is not one of them.” Then dude has to rush to get his (incredibly hot) wife an anniversary present before she wakes up. I think it’s about a car but I just remember the wife.
  • ABC’s “Wipeout,” which is apparently back for another season. Didn’t even know it’d been there for a first.
  • A woman pruning her roses. Pricks finger. Looks around. Tastes the blood. Ad for HBO’s “True Blood” on DVD. Not bad.
  • That Sprite ad. They had a good one (last year?) where sweaty guys in an inner city b-ball court dove into the court, which was a pool, to quench themselves. That was clever. This thing is just odd. The setting feels more European, a piazza almost, and here people run and jump into each other and then disappear in a spray that quenches the smiling faces below them. Pretty creepy, really. I can see wanting to jump into a pool. But why would you want to disappear in a spray-like burst of water (or Sprite) that wets your friends below you?

“You have been watching the AMC Movie Watchers Network”

Total: Nine ads in six minutes. And I only had to pay $9.50 for the privilege.Oops, they're not over. There's also the Sprint “chimp” ad, asking us to turn off our cells. Make that 10 ads. And now something about Glen Beck and fathom events. How about unfathomable events? 11 ads.

4:07: Trailers:

  • “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3”: I’m a fan of the original, so this hypercharged version, with cars crashing and malevolent, tattooed villains spouting threats, just makes me feel sad and wish for 1973 New York.
  • “Julie & Julia”: With Meryl Streep as Julia Child. And Amy Adams as, apparently, the “Sex and the City” girl for whom life isn’t opening up, and so she opens up one of Julia Child's cookbooks. I’ll be interested to see how they meld the two stories but right now it looks fantastic. Particularly since I know so little of Julia Child's story. I guess I assumed she was always, well, Julia Child.
  • ”Public Enemies.“ Everyone knows how I feel about Michael Mann so I’m already there. Love the shot of Johnny Depp, as John Dillinger, vaulting over the bank counter, machine gun in hand. Oh, Production Code, how you shudder in your grave.
  • The Proposal”: Again. How many times have I seen this thing anyway?
  • “My Sister’s Keeper”: “Most babies are accidents. Not me.” Interesting. Abigail Breslin plays a girl who was genetically engineered to keep her sister, ridden with leukemia, alive. But at 13 she rebels. She consults a lawyer. She wants a say in what happens to her body, and what parts are taken from her, even if it means her sister’s death. As a result, the family—with parents Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric—is torn apart. We get scenes of them fighting. Then Abigail's voice over again... “But somehow the very things that tore us apart, brought us together—in ways we could never imagine.” And there they are, hugging, etc. Must be tough to do trailers these days. They’re designed to tell us some aspect of the plot of the movie, which is to say its conflict. But if the conflict is perceived to be a downer, as this one is, as the new Adam Sandler movie is, they have to let us know the resolution to that conflict. So, in his movie, Sandler may not be dying, and Breslin’s stand may bring her family closer together. Which leaves us what in the actual movie? What’s left to watch?

“Please don’t spoil the movie by adding your own soundtrack.”

Movie actually begins: Forgot to check the watch. Apologies.

Posted at 12:24 PM on May 17, 2009 in category Movies - Theaters
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Saturday May 16, 2009

Review: “Angels & Demons” (2009)

WARNING: SPOILERS OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS

Once again director Ron Howard, adapting a Dan Brown novel, with Tom Hanks in the lead, tries to split the difference between the two great forces fighting for control of our world:

Movies and literature.

OK, it’s science and religion. But part of the absurdity of “Angels & Demons” is seeing Howard fit a literary mystery, with tons of exposition, into the storytelling technique of modern movies, which demands a rush of narrative in an increasingly short time-frame. Here it’s less than 24 hours. And here his protagonist is the bookish and scholarly Robert Langdon of Harvard. Which means we get a flurry of action and violence, and then... “Back to the library!”

The movie opens with a close-up of a ring, which a young Irish priest (Ewan McGregor), sadly destroys. It’s the ring of the fisherman, which means the Pope has died and we’re entering sede vacante, the time of the empty throne. McGregor, the progressive and beloved Pope’s favorite, is Camerlengo, or “Chamberlain,” and in charge until a new pope is selected.

Ah, but trouble’s brewing. In Sweden. A group of international scientists are trying to create anti-matter, and do, and in the excitement afterwards the lead scientist, looking grim, and aping Robert Oppenheimer, says, “We’re in God’s hands now.” His assistant, Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer, last seen by me in “Munich,” and missed all the while), rushes down to his lab to celebrate, and as we watch her pass through the hallways one thought occurs: “Well, I guess he’s dead.” Otherwise why take the time to show her in the hallways? And he is dead. She enters his locked lab by having her eyes scanned but comes away with blood on her chin. It gets creepier. Inside she finds an eyeball on the floor, and, further in, she finds the scientist, with an empty eye socket, dead on the floor. Which raises the question: Why did the killer need the eyeball? If the scientist was already in the room then the killer must’ve already been in the room, too. And if the scientist had been outside the room, why cut out the eyeball in the first place? Couldn’t the killer have just held the scientist up to the scanner? The crowning touch is that, after all this, Howard’s camera drifts to and then holds on the spot where the anti-matter had been. To show us that it’s empty. To nudge us. I think he thinks we’re not that smart.

So. Prof. Robert Langdon (Hanks) is corralled from Harvard and brought to the Vatican because now trouble’s brewing there. Four cardinals, all preferati (i.e., possible popes), have been kidnapped by a group claiming to be Illuminati, or enlightened ones, the progressive, scientific Catholics of the 18th century who were supposedly brutally suppressed by the Church. Now they’re back for vengies. Plus they have the anti-matter, which, as Vittoria Vetra (also at the Vatican) explains, is known as The God Particle. “It’s what gives all matter mass,” she says. But if it’s allowed to... whatever (defrost?)...it’ll trigger a reaction that will destroy the Vatican. At exactly midnight. Which is like six hours away. Hurry!

Langdon listens to the tape the Illuminati sent and discerns, from an off-hand reference, that they’re alluding to a path the Illuminati created in Rome way back when, and more clues are searched for and found. It’s a treasure hunt! It’s basically “International Treasure.” So, for example, a “503” doesn’t mean 503. Think of it roman-numerically: DIII, or D3, or Book D, volume III of such-and-such a book. And off we go! See the way that Bernini statue is pointing? That’s the direction. And off we go! Earth, Air, Fire, Water: It all makes sense now! Life's a puzzle; you just need to find the pieces.

At the least we get to see Rome. Here’s the Pantheon (my favorite), here’s St. Peter’s Square, here’s the Piazza Navona. The four cardinals, representing the four elements, are to be killed on the hour every hour at one of these sites, until, at midnight, we get the big bang. Or re-bang. We see the killer at work and he seems a professional, which he is. There’s talk that the Illuminati have infiltrated the Vatican and we have, basically, three suspects: the young, progressive, good-looking Irish priest who’s friendly with the protagonist; and two grumpy, old, and old-European dudes who do everything they can to impede the investigation. One thought occurs: “Well, it would be nice if it was one of the obvious guys—i.e., the impeders of the investigation—for a change.” Two hours into the movie...it is! Well, that’s refreshing. Then, when the movie should be ending, Vetra begins poking around the desk of the now-dead head of the Swiss Guard. No, don’t do that. A computer pops up and Langdon has a key. No, don’t do that. And in a flash—and a flashback—everything unravels, and it turns out the culprit was the nice, unobvious one after all. Which, these days, means the obvious one. I didn’t say making movies wasn’t hard.

Alright, out with it. I am so tired of these last-minute reversals. Appearances can be misleading, yes, but usually they’re not. Put it this way: If the Bush administration were a movie, and with the camera continually panning between Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, we would have discovered that the true culprit of the Iraq War was... Colin Powell! But of course! The one man it couldn’t have been!

I like some of the early dialogue. The priest asks Langdon if he believes in God, and, after equivocating a bit, Langdon replies, humbly, “Faith is a gift...I have yet to receive.” That’s nice. In the Vatican library, which Langdon had been petitioning 10 years to get in, he tells Vetra, “A few days of this and I could’ve finished my book...and sold dozens of copies.” That made me laugh out loud. But it’s as if the screenwriters, Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp, ran out of good lines and resorted to clichés. “God answers all prayers,” says one character near the end. “But sometimes the answer is no.” “And when you write of us,” another tells Langdon at the end, “and you will write of us, do so gently.”

I wish I could.

Posted at 09:10 AM on May 16, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Friday May 15, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Building is interesting, because it's ultimately impossible, I suppose, but killing is boring. It's easy to see through something—to show how stupid it is, or how wrong—but that doesn't take very long, and then you're finished. ... Killing doesn't solve the problem of boredom."

—Wendy O'Flaherty, professor at the University of Chicago's Divinity School, in Janet Malcolm's "In the Freud Archives," pg. 155

Overstates the case but it reminds me of the emptiness I feel after writing a movie review. It also reminds me that it's always easier to write a negative review than a positive one—in part because you want to do justice to the good film ("The Soloist") and could give a crap about the bad one ("Wolverine"). Writing a negative review is more freeing; you're not beholden to anything but the truth. The above quote also reminds me of most things on the Internet.

Posted at 08:09 AM on May 15, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Books
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Thursday May 14, 2009

Your 2008 Box Office Quiz—The Answers: Or how "Mamma Mia!" Beat "Dark Knight"

Let's get right to it...

1. According to Box Office Mojo, 605 movies were shown commercially in the U.S. in 2008. “The Dark Knight,” obviously, made the most money: $533 million. Which of the 605 made the least?
The correct answer is A: “Rome & Jewel.” It was distributed by Emerging Pictures, played in one theater for one week, and made $470. “The Rise and Fall of Miss Thang” was a few down the line; it made $581. “OSS 117,” by the way, is a very funny takeoff on the early James Bond films and worth renting. Netflix it. The sequel is already in French theaters.

2. Let’s talk about the films that studios assumed we’d see: the films that opened superwide—in more than 3,000 theaters. Last year there were 52 such films, and almost half of them (24) grossed over $100 million. The film that grossed the least pulled in only $11 million domestically. Name it.
The correct answer is C: “Meet Dave,” starring Eddie Murphy, and distributed by Fox. “Dave” opened the weekend of July 11th in 3,011 theaters and made just $5 million ($1,744 average), then went downhill from there. On the plus side, it brought in $38 million internationally.

3. Different studios had different kinds of luck with their superwide releases.  Paramount/Dreamworks, for example, opened four films superwide last year and every one made more than $100 million domestically: “Kung Fu Panda,” “Madagascar 2,” “Tropic Thunder” and “Eagle Eye.” So which studio/distributor had the worst ratio of superwide releases (3,000+ theaters) to box-office smashes ($100+ million)?
The correct answer is D: Fox. It opened 11 films superwide and only two (“Horton Hears a Who” and “Marley & Me”) made over $100 million. Here’s the rest of what they piled on our plates:

1. “What Happens in Vegas”: $80m
2. “Jumper”: $80m
3. “The Day the Earth Stood Still”: $79m
4. “27 Dresses”: $76m
5. “Nim’s Island”: $48m
6. “Max Payne”: $40m
7. “Babylon A.D.”: $22m
8. “The X-Files: I Want to Believe”: $20m
9. “Meet Dave”: $11m

Coincidentally or not, all nine films had “rotten” Rotten Tomatoes ratings. Which is not to imply that people necessarily read RT or movie critics. Just that word gets around.

Of the other major distributors, Warner Bros. went 2 for 7, Paramount 2 for 6, Universal 3 for 5, and both Sony and Buena Vista 4 for 6.

4. One last question on the superwide openers. Of those 52 films that the studios assumed we’d see, only 17 garnered “fresh” ratings from the top critics at Rotten Tomatoes. Seven of those 17 are among the top 10 box-office hits of the year (“Dark Knight,” “Iron Man,” etc.). But how many “fresh” films are among the 10 worst-performing superwide releases?  
The correct answer is D: 0. Here are the culprits:

43. “Speed Racer”—WB—$43m—30%
44. “Max Payne”—Fox—$40m—9%
45. “Righteous Kill”—Over.—$40m—12%
46. “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”—WB—$35m—8%
47. “Semi-Pro”—NL—$33m—27%
48. “Drillbit Taylor”—Par.—$32m—25%
49. “The Love Guru”—Par.—$32m—6%
50. “Babylon A.D.”—Fox—$22m—0%
51. “The X-Files: I Want to Believe”—Fox—$20m—26%
52. “Meet Dave”—Fox—$11m—29%

Again, this is not to imply that people read RT or movie critics. Just that word gets around.

5. One 2008 release had, according to Box Office Mojo, the worst opening weekend ever for a wide release (500+ theaters). Name this film that no one went to see.
The correct answer is A: “Proud American,” a patriotic documentary/drama, written and directed by first-timer Fred Ashman, that was plopped into 750 theaters by Slowhand Cinema last September—just in time for Lehman Bros. On the Friday it opened it averaged $45 per theater, then went up to $60 on Saturday, then down to $23 on Sunday. That’s 23 bucks for the entire day. How many people is that—three? Five at the most? And not per showing. For the entire day. Think about this the next time Michael Medved starts yakkin’ about how Hollywood doesn’t make the kinds of patriotic films Americans want to see.

6. Box Office Mojo also tracks the box office of 57 countries/markets besides the U.S. In those 57 international markets, which film was the No. 1 movie in the most countries (11)?
The correct answer is: D: “Mamma Mia!” While “Indiana Jones” made the most money overseas ($469 million), followed closely by “The Dark Knight” ($468m), “Mamma Mia!” wasn’t far behind at no. 3: $458m. It was also the No. 1 movie in more countries (11) than any other 2008 film:

1. Austria ($7 million)
2. Greece ($7 million)
3. Hungary ($4.7 million)
4. Iceland ($1 million)
5. Netherlands ($9.8 million)
6. New Zealand ($5 million)
7. Norway ($16.7 million)
8. Portugal ($5 million)
9. Slovenia ($.8 million)
10. Sweden ($25 million)
11. United Kingdom ($132 million)

“Dark Knight” was the No. 1 movie in eight countries (Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Hong Kong, UAE, Egypt, Bolivia and Lebanon), “Madagascar 2” in five (Germany, Russia, Switzerland, Venezuela and Lithuania), “Quantum of Solace” in three (Finland, Nigeria and East Africa), and “Indiana Jones” in only two (Spain and Bulgaria),

7. In which of the following countries was “Sex and the City” the No. 1 movie of the year?
The answer is A: Croatia and Estonia. Insert your own joke here. I got nothing.

8. While we’re on international box office, which of the following films was not among the top five films in Egypt last year?
The correct answer is: B: “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which finished in 10th place. Which means, yes, “Body of Lies,” the Leonardo DiCaprio/Russell Crowe thriller about CIA activities in the Middle East that died in the U.S. (winding up 72nd for the year), finished, in Egypt, in 5th place for the year.

9. “Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis,” a comedy about a small provincial town in northern France written, directed and starring Danny Boon, was the no. 1 film in France last year. The No. 2 movie, “Astérix aux jeux olympiques,” made US$60m. How much did “Bienvenue” make?
The answer is D: $193 million, obliteraring all comers, and becoming, I believe, the highest-grossing film in French history. But its humor hasn’t traveled well. In this way it’s similar to “Les Visiteurs” in 1993, also a top grosser, whose humor also didn’t travel much beyond Belgium.

10. Box Office Mojo lists 932 total films in its overseas total. Which film, ironically, wound up in 932nd place?
The correct answer is A: the ironically titled “Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot,” a documentary about high school basketball players, which made just 146 bucks overseas. “I.O.U.S.A,” a chilling, worthwhile doc about national debt (and produced and distributed even before Lehman Bros, bailouts, et al.), had the second-lowest total: only 299 bucks. Yes, also ironic.

Apologies, again, for the difficulty of the questions but some of this stuff I found fascinating, particularly the superwides, "Proud American," and the international reign of "Mamma Mia!"

Posted at 08:25 AM on May 14, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Alec, Charlie & Me

I know the difficulty of the Proust Questionnaire, having done my own now, and I think I appreciate good answers more. In the latest, I like the ying-yang of Alec Baldwin's "traits you most deplore in yourself/others" (Insecurity/Overconfidence), but he completely won me over with this one:

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Charlie Brown.

Now why didn't I think of that? Rats.

Posted at 07:57 AM on May 14, 2009 in category Books
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Wednesday May 13, 2009

Your 2008 Box Office Quiz

I always wait a few months to take on the previous year’s box office because money’s still pouring in. By now, though, it’s dribs and drabs, and it’s safe to take a fairly accurate look. Apologies for the toughness of the questions. This is a quiz less about what we know than what we can learn. Or, at least, it’s about what I learned.

1. According to Box Office Mojo, 605 movies were shown commercially in the U.S. in 2008. “The Dark Knight,” obviously, made the most money: $533 million. Which of the 605 made the least?
A. “Rome & Jewel”: A modernization of Shakespeare’s tragic love story “Romeo and Juliet,” set in Los Angeles against a backdrop of inter-racial romance.
B. “The Rise and Fall of Miss Thang”: An irresponsible party girl begins a journey to rediscover her tap-dancing roots.
C. “OSS 117: Le Caire nid d’espions”: Secret agent OSS 117 foils Nazis, beds local beauties, and brings peace to the Middle East in this French comedy.
D. “Frost/Nixon”: A dramatic retelling of the post-Watergate television interviews between British talk-show host David Frost and former president Richard Nixon.

2. Let’s talk about the films that studios assumed we’d see: the films that opened superwide—in more than 3,000 theaters. Last year there were 52 such films, and almost half of them (24) grossed over $100 million. The film that grossed the least pulled in only $11 million domestically. Name it.
A. “Star Wars: The Clone Wars”
B. “The Love Guru”
C. “Meet Dave”
D. “Frost/Nixon”

3. Different studios had different kinds of luck with their superwide releases. Paramount/Dreamworks, for example, opened four films superwide last year and every one made more than $100 million domestically: “Kung Fu Panda,” “Madagascar 2,” “Tropic Thunder” and “Eagle Eye.” So which studio/distributor had the worst ratio of superwide releases (3,000+ theaters) to box-office smashes ($100+ million)?
A. Warner Bros., which released “The Dark Knight.”
B. Universal, which released “The Incredible Hulk.”
C. Paramount, which released “Iron Man.”
D. Fox, which released “Marley & Me”

4. One last question on the superwide openers. Of those 52 films that the studios assumed we’d see, only 17 garnered “fresh” ratings from the top critics at Rotten Tomatoes. Seven of those 17 are among the top 10 box-office hits of the year (“Dark Knight,” “Iron Man,” etc.). But how many “fresh” films are among the 10 worst-performing superwide releases?  
A. 10
B. 7
C. 1
D. 0

5. One 2008 release had, according to Box Office Mojo, the worst opening weekend ever for a wide release (500+ theaters). Name this film that no one went to see.
A. “Proud American”
B. “Vicky Christina Barcelona”
C. “Witless Protection”
D. “Frost/Nixon”

6. Box Office Mojo also tracks the box office of 57 countries/markets besides the U.S. In those 57 international markets, which film was the No. 1 movie in the most countries (11)?
A. “The Dark Knight”
B. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”
C. “Kung Fu Panda”
D. “Mamma Mia!”

7. In which of the following countries was “Sex and the City” the No. 1 movie of the year?
A. Croatia and Estonia
B. Argentina and Brazil
C. Thailand and Taiwan
D. Frost and Nixon

8. While we’re on international box office, which of the following films was not among the top five films in Egypt last year?
A. “The Dark Knight”
B. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”
C. “Hancock”
D. “Body of Lies”

9. “Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis,” a comedy about a small provincial town in northern France written, directed and starring Danny Boon, was the no. 1 film in France last year. The No. 2 movie, “Astérix aux jeux olympiques,” made US$60m. How much did “Bienvenue” make?
A. $60.1m
B. $71m
C. $82m
D. $193m

10. Box Office Mojo lists 932 total films in its overseas total. Which film, ironically, wound up in 932nd place?
A. “Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot”
B. “I.O.U.S.A”
C. “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”
D. “Frost/Nixon”

Feel free to post your guesses in the comment field. I’ll post answers later in the week.

ADDENDUM: ANSWERS

Posted at 08:30 AM on May 13, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Tuesday May 12, 2009

-69%

Last week I wondered how much “Wolverine”’s box office would fall off during its second weekend and suggested north of 60% wouldn’t be good news for the franchise. Well, the numbers are in. It’s 69%.

What does that mean? A 69%, second-weekend drop is the 61st-worst in boxofficemojo’s tracking period (roughly, since 1980), but even this stat is misleading. The worst second-weekend dropoff, for example, is a 2005 film called “Undiscovered,” which fell off 86.4% from its first weekend. But Lions Gate, which pushed it into 1,304 theaters that first weekend, was already pulling out, and left it in only 754 theaters its second weekend. The steep dropoff, in other words, represented more a preemptive studio strike rather than audience disinterest—although there was obviously that, too. “Wolverine,” in comparison, increased its theater total for the second weekend, by three, to 4,102 theaters.

Here’s what’s more telling. "Wolverine"'s is the worst such dropoff for any film that opened in 4,000+ theaters, beating out the May 2007 sequels, “Pirates 3” and “Spider-Man 3,” both of which dropped 61.5% their second weekend.

Expand down to films that opened in 3,000+ theaters? It’s tied, with "Elektra," for sixth-worst:

1.
 Friday the 13th (2009)
 -80.4%
2.
 Doom
 -72.7%
3.
 Hellboy II
 -70.7%
4. Eragon
 -69.9%
5.
 Hulk (2003)
 -69.7%
6.
 Elektra
 -69%
6.
 Wolverine
 -69%

What do the above movies have in common? With the exception of “Hellboy II”  (whose second weekend was “Dark Knight”’s first), and Ang Lee's "Hulk," they all have lousy scores on Rotten Tomatoes. I'm talking less than 20%. In laymen’s terms, they sucked.

In fact you could program a not-bad "Movie Festival in Hell" from the films on the dropoff list. Here's your schedule: Start out with "From Justin to Kelly" at 10 a.m., offer "Captivity" at noon, then, say, "Pluto Nash," “North,” “Miss March,” "Return to the Blue Lagoon" and top it off with "Gigli."

Not exactly the company Wolverine wants to keep. Or any of us.
Posted at 10:17 AM on May 12, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Postcard of the Day

"Heighdy! See how I'm picking up the local jargon? Things going extremely well for us. Found the graves of Clyde and Buck in abandoned cemetery overgrown with weeds. One of the strangest sensations we ever had—standing six feet over Clyde. On Monday we'll see Bonnie's. ... Bob is taking a lot of pictures. Perfect Bonnie and Clyde locations! Quite uncanny to see cities and towns that look like 1932 this year."

— David Newman (with Robert Benton), in East Texas for further research for their script, "Bonnie and Clyde," May 1964. From "Pictures at the Revolution" by Mark Harris, pg. 60

Posted at 07:20 AM on May 12, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Movies - Box Office
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Monday May 11, 2009

Chronology 101

Is this another example of a journalist trying too hard to be objective? Or is it merely poor writing?

Read the entire piece (it’s short) by Janie Lorber, under the headline “Cheney’s Model Republican: More Limbaugh, Less Powell,” in The New York Times. Two observations, both by Lorber, stick  out. Here’s the first:

The [Powell] endorsement, in a carefully timed and deliberate statement after Mr. McCain chose Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate in a move to fire up the party’s conservative base, helped solidify Mr. Obama’s campaign.

Yes, it did help Obama’s campaign but…doesn’t this graf make it sound that the Powelll endorsement came shortly after the Palin selection? But McCain chose Palin on August 30, while Powell endorsed Obama on October 19. That’s more than a month and a half difference. And a month and a half thick with campaigning. How was that “carefully timed and deliberate”? And deliberate? What does that mean anyway? As opposed to carelessly timed and accidental?

Here’s the second:

Mr. Cheney has been a particularly fierce critic of the Obama administration and a defiant defender against critics of the Bush administration, including President Obama. While his remarks have been striking, they are not unusually outspoken by comparison, for example, to former Vice President Al Gore’s condemnations of the Bush administration when it held office.

True. But Al Gore didn’t criticize the Bush administration immediately, the way that Cheney is doing with the Obama administration. After the 2000 election, Gore disappeared, remember? Then returned with a beard that everyone made fun of. Then 9/11 happened and no one criticized the Bush administration. Gore really didn’t criticize Pres. Bush, et al., until the Bush adminstration began gearing up for war with Iraq in the fall of ’02. And, yes, he was one of the first to do so. To his credit.

I guess all I’m saying, with both points, is: chronology matters.

Posted at 01:11 PM on May 11, 2009 in category Politics, Media
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Before the Show: May 8, 2009

Theater: Cinerama
Screen: Just the one
Location: Downtown Seattle
Chain: AMC
Operating: Since January 24, 1963 (four days after I was born) as Seattle’s Martin Cinerama, and retrofitted with 70mm projectors six months later. Big movies went out of style by the end of the decade, and the last of the 70mm films, “Krakatoa, East of Java,” played in 1969. By the mid-1990s there was talk of turning the Cinerama, now a gigantic second-run theater, into a dinner theater or a climbing club, when Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who had fond memories of watching movies there as a kid, bought it for $3.75 million in February 1998, renovated it, and reopened it in March 1999. Ever since, particularly when a blockbuster movie opens, it’s the place to go in Seattle.
Seated: 3:40, 20 minutes before scheduled showtime. No ads. No music. Just people-watching. God, how refreshing.

4:00: The long, light-purple curtains part, the place gets dark, the crowd erupts into cheers and applause.

Coming Soon:
  • “Up”: I hope Pixar shows everyone up again. Looks great, looks funny, looks fun. Several scenes in the trailer made me laugh out loud.
  • “Terminator: Salvation”: It’s taking human prisoners. It’s replicating human tissue. One wonders at what point in the movie Marcus Wright sees that he’s not human. Half an hour in? Forty-five minutes? One wonders at what point he says to John Connor, “I’m the only hope you have.” An hour? More? How much of the movie do we now know because of this trailer?
  • “Angels & Demons”: Again. How many times have I seen this trailer now? I don't even hear the opera music at the end anymore.
  • “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”: First time for this one, and I was immediately turned off by the destruction of the Eiffel Tower at the beginning. When they blew up the White House in “Independence Day” back in ’96, yeah, that worked. Post-9/11? I’m not into it. But wait! A team is being assembled. And look! They walk toward the camera in slow-motion. And listen! One of them says, “When all else fails, we don’t.” God, how awful. No mention of the title until the end, when it provoked laughter from this “Star Trek” crowd.
  • “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”: Wouldn’t “Rise of the Fallen” be cooler? Whatever. Apparently Shia LeBeouf is at college now, and he’s seeing symbols, like a saner John Nash, and they have to mean something, and it all feels a little “National Treasure”-ish. And then Megatron wants... And then Optimus says... Are we really going here, America? Please say no. You know what would make an interesting movie? How does Shia LeBeouf keep Megan Fox as his girlfriend without a bunch of giant machines distracting everyone from the fact that they have nothing in common? I might go see that one.
“Please don’t spoil the movie by adding your own soundtrack.”

Movie starts: 4:12. Not a single ad! Thank you, Paul Allen. You old nerd, you.
Posted at 07:49 AM on May 11, 2009 in category Movies - Theaters
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Sunday May 10, 2009

“Star Trek”/“Star Wars” Parallels

Anyone else notice the parallels between the latest “Star Trek” and the original “Star Wars”? Examples:

  1. Opening battle between a small ship and a GIGANTIC ship, which immediately has us rooting for the small ship—the underdog. Meanwhile, what escapes from the small ship is the key to the eventual destruction of the gigantic ship.
  2. The fatherless, seemingly parentless, farmboy gazing up at the stars, at what he might be.
  3. Star Trek poster, J.J. AbramsThe destruction, a third of the way through the film, of an entire planet and its billions of souls, which affects several main characters greatly.
  4. The discovery of the hooded wise man in the cave, who teaches the young buck the proper way and his proper destiny.
  5. The destruction of the bad guys by the two archetypal characters: in “Star Wars,” innocent and rebel; here, extrovert and introvert, emotion and logic. In both films, these two characters start out enemies but become fast friends.
  6. In the end, the triumphant farmboy is feted at a medal ceremony in front of the entire fleet. 

That's just off the top of my head. More? Anyone?

ADDENDUM: In this construct, Uhura has the Princess Leia role: the feisty girl the farmboy is after and the other guy winds up with. In the original “Star Trek” series, the threeway was between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, with Kirk listening to input from both logic (Spock) and emotion (McCoy) and then deciding on the best course of action. But in this film, Uhura seems to have a bigger part than McCoy. Part of the “Star Wars”izaton of the series? Who knows?

ADDENDUM: Via a back-and-forth on Facebook, we got this:

Spock: Jim, the statistical likelihood that our plan will succeed is 4.3 percent
Kirk: Spock, it'll work.

Compared with:

C-3PO: Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1!
Han Solo: Never tell me the odds!

ADDENDUM, 8/7: “Star Trek: Confusion”

Posted at 12:54 PM on May 10, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Saturday May 09, 2009

Review: “Star Trek” (2009)

WARNING: MASSIVE SPACE SPOILERS

You knew it wasn’t going to happen, just as, when Sulu’s life was imperiled, you knew he was going to be fine because he’s Sulu. So, yes, the Romulans drilled into Planet Vulcan, and, yes, the Romulans prepared “the red matter,” which, we find out, will cause the planet to collapse upon itself, and this is all supposed to happen in a matter of minutes. But you leaned back and waited for the deus ex machina. Because it’s the Planet Vulcan. That’d be like blowing up Earth. Ain’t gonna happen.

Then it does.

And you think, “Holy crap.” Pause. “Oh, they’re not gonna do one of those cheesey reverse-time things, are they? Where we wind up going back to this moment in order to reverse it? And everything’s the same? And fine?”

Nope.

It’s not until the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is talking about all of this, and Uhura says that these all-powerful Romulans, who are from the future, have created “an alternate reality,” that the other shoe drops.

This “Star Trek” movie isn’t just a reboot—a chance to update popular and still-lucrative characters with young stars and updated special effects. This is an alternate reality. A new reality. The new reality.

In other words, J.J. Abrams and friends have created a rationale for doing whatever the hell they want with these characters—blow up Vulcan, have Spock and Uhura get it on, give Scotty a cute little sidekick—and the hardest-core Trekkie/Trekker can’t really object because it still plays within the rules of the “Star Trek” universe.

Abrams & friends can tell Trekkers: Look, your universe is fine—where the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise meet the salt creature and Mudd’s women and the Gorn and Finnegan and Joan Collins and 1920s Chicago and Wyatt Earp and Abe Lincoln. That’s all still there. But that’s the alternate universe now. Or this one is. And this Capt. Kirk and his crew are on a different path and there’s nothing you can say about it because it plays within the rules Gene Roddenbury originally created. And you can’t go against Roddenbury, now, can you?

And you pause for a moment, balanced in that thought.

And you think: Wow, that’s pretty smart.

As for the film itself? It zips, baby. But it’s not as smart as the above.

They bring back miniskirts and black boots. I’m a fan.

Chris Pine makes a dynamic Kirk. Zachary Quinto makes a spookily accurate Spock. Hell, all the casting by April Webster and Alyssa Weisberg is well-done. Among the second-tier characters, I particularly like Simon Pegg as Scotty, Zoe Saldana as Uhura and Bruce Greenwood as Capt. Pike. At times, Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy seemed a bit much—like he wasn’t doing DeForest Kelly so much as Dave Thomas doing DeForest Kelly on the old “SCTV” show. To trot out my nerd credentials. Not to mention my age.

Here’s the story if you want it: Next-Gen-era Romulans, who have witnessed the destruction of their planet, go through a hole in space, and, with their high-tech weaponry, destroy the U.S.S. Kelvin. But George Kirk, captain for all of 12 minutes, manages to hold them off to allow the rest of the crew—including his pregnant wife, who gives birth to a baby boy en route—to escape. Then these Romulans wait around for 25 years until Amb. Spock, whom they blame for Romulus’ demise, comes through the same hole in space. Apparently no one knows they’re out there. Helluva cloaking device. Helluva lotta patience. Very little imagination.

In the meantime, baby boy Kirk grows up to be a badass. After a barfight with some cadets from Star Fleet Academy, Capt. Christopher Pike gives young Kirk a pretty good speech (“Your father was the captain of a starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives. I dare you to do better”), and the next day Kirk signs up for Starfleet.

He makes passes at Uhura, makes friends with Bones McCoy, makes enemies with Spock. We see Kirk faced with the unwinnable Kobayashi Maru test, which, in this universe, Spock created (rather than, say, Kobayashi Maru), and which Kirk defeats by cheating, and for which he’s almost tossed out of the Academy by Tyler Perry doing the guest-star gig. (Hey, how about Madea as captain of a starship? Or on one?)

Then: lightning storms around Vulcan, Federation ships sent to investigate, blown apart by the Romulans, who are busy getting their revenge. The Enterprise, thanks to Kirk, survives, but Vulcan is blown up and Capt. Pike is captured and one of those slug things that was put in Chekhov’s ear in “Star Trek II” is put in Pike’s mouth here. Num.

Even though we’re in an alternate universe, we still get tons of echoes from the old one. Sulu tells Pike he has extensive combat training experience, and when Kirk asks what kind, Sulu replies, “Fencing.” Spock repeats several of his famous lines, once as Quinto (“When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”), once as Nimoy (“I have been, and always will be, your friend”).

But there are holes in the plot as big as the holes in space that the Romulans went through. Sure, I’ll buy that the Romulans can do whatever they want to Vulcan. One assumes the Vulcans, those peace-loving bastards, don’t have much of a defense system. But Earth? C’mon. We’re way too paranoid not to be defense-ready. And are Spock’s actions really logical throughout the film? I mean, shooting Kirk into space in a pod? Is that standard procedure? Or is it merely a way to get Kirk on that Class-M ice planet, where he’ll run from this alien and that alien and into the arms—almost literally—of the old Amb. Spock? And how about old Spock? Turns out he’s responsible for the destruction of his entire planet. Ouch! Even with the alt-universe thing, I doubt Trekkers will take kindly to that.

I like certain touches. The long-faced alien trapped between Kirk flirting with Uhura at the bar. The sensation of actually being blown out into the deadly silence of space.

And the movie zips. And it’s fun.

Is it too zippy? Too fun? When the movie ends the way we knew it would, with the new crew seeking out new blah blah blahs and new yadda yaddas, I looked at the new, alt-universe Kirk and thought, “But what’s your point?”

In the original series, particularly its first season, there was a mystery, and a creepiness, to what they might find out there, always augmented by that great background soundtrack of creepiness. (I can do four original series background tracks: “Spock’s low bass-guitar blues”; “romance”; “fighting”; and “creepiness.” “Creepiness” is my favorite. Whoever did the music for TOS was genius.)

By “Next Gen,” most of the mystery had been drained away, replaced by a kind of humorless military discipline. But then you got the Borg, and “Best of Both Worlds,” and, wow, that was pretty creepy. “Resistance is futile...Number One.” Great line. More, it was tough defeating the Borg. It took a whole summer, from May to September.

There’s very little mystery or creepiness or difficulty left. Now aliens sit longfaced between us at bars in Iowa, and now we bed Orion animal women like that (even the sex is easier: Sorry, Bill!), and now we warp to Vulcan and warp back again, lickety-split, and defeat the enemy just in time, and get our command at 28 (Pine’s age) as opposed to 35 (Shatner’s age in ‘66). Most of the new crew is in their early 30s but they look so much younger, so less adult, than the original crew, who were in their mid-30s and 40s, that they almost seem like tiny toons versions of same. And it’s all so easy and weightless, as it generally is for tiny toons.

I guess I thought “But what’s your point?” because for most of the movie, the goal of James T. Kirk was to become a starship captain and outdo his father, which he did, by saving the entire frickin’ planet and maybe the entire human species. Nice! But now what? What’s Kirk’s goal now? To seek out new life and new civilizations? That takes work. He seems too breezy and solipsistic for that. As does our film industry.

There are still stories to be told out there, that add to the mystery rather than paving it over, but you’ve got to drop out of warp-drive, and pause, and look around, and reflect, in order to tell them properly. And I doubt Hollywood’s interested in that.

Posted at 11:55 AM on May 09, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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My "Star Trek" Novel: Fuck-Ups of the Federation

Intro.
First section: A Routine Science Expedition.
Second section: Holodeck Baseball.
Third section: Mj'cra souft.
Fourth section: s179276sp

   The small, stoic face of Admiral Brush filled the viewscreen in the Captain's ready room. It was an unremarkable face except for its tendency never to crack a smile (it was once said of him that even Benzites had better senses of humor). Now his face looked more impenetrable than normal. Captain Harrison matched it with a deep frown of his own; the vein in the middle of his forehead began to bulge slightly with the effort.
   "Admiral, we both known that Admiral Spock is on Romulus attempting to bridge the diplomatic gap between the Vulcans and Romulans. The message must have come from him."
   "Coincidence."
   The Captain leaned back in his chair as if to distance himself from this judgment. "How do you figure?"
   "Numbers and letters scattered across a universe," the Admiral replied blandly. "Anything is possible."
   "It's too great a coincidence. A Romulan scout ship destroyed. A dying Romulan's last words about the Borg." Captain Harrison ticked his reasons off on his fingertips. "The upheavals we are sensing from Romulan space. Now this. An old-fashioned Earth S.O.S. that contains the Starfleet service number of an Admiral we both know is on Romulus. It's too..."
   "Coincidental?"
   "Yes! It is too coincidental. That's why it can't be a coincidence!"
   "Captain. Calm your famous temper. This isn't Ligon II, after all."
   "I know this isn't Ligon II, damnit!" The Captain slammed his fist down on his desk. "We're talking about the destruction of a species! We're talking about the possible destruction of our own species unless we act now!"
   "We are acting now," Admiral Brush contended. "We are sending all available starships into that sector to monitor the situation. From there they will make a sound judgment based on the available facts."
   Captain Harrison tugged his tunic down. "Good."
   "But we still want you out of there and mapping Halkan space."
   "But shouldn't we be here? To inform the others of the situation?"
   Admiral Brush nodded calmly. "We have all that information. They have been informed."
   Captain Harrison shook his head. "I don't--"
   "Get your ship out of that sector, Captain! This is a direct order! It is no place for a bunch of..." His mouth curled in disgust, and with a dismissive wave ended the transmission.
   Captain Harrison slumped into his desk chair in deep thought. After Mr. B and Ensign Rodgers entered his ready room, he relayed the conversation to them.
   "What do you think it might be?" he asked his Number One in low tones. "Some kind of conspiracy?"
   "Like what happened on Stardate 41775.5?" Mr. B wondered aloud. "The quill parasites?"
   "An alien takeover of Starfleet? Is it possible? Despite the precautions that have been taken?"
   "What about a Borg takeover?" Mr. B suggested. "The Admiral's actions would seem to favor the Borg more than anything."
   The Captain nodded his head in thought. "It would explain his stoic demeanor. How he's had it in for me from Day One."
   The conversation between the two was interrupted by a Klingon war cry.
   "Glaajin heads!" Ensign Rodgers shouted. "Don't you know? Don't you get it? The Admiral doesn't want us investigating because The Brock is the dung-heap of the Federation! It is where they send their least trustworthy..." He shook his head in frustration. "Think about it! Captain, right before this assignment you had that run-in with Admiral Yamamoto. Commander, you've had a long history of...not seizing command. Me and my drunken battle with Commander Riker. Simon Tarses hiding his Romulan history. A Vulcan more interested in cool than logic. That idiotic Ridlian and his insufferable giggle. An aristocratic doctor who can never concentrate on what matters. Our entire crew is made up of the rejects of other crews! That's why we were sent here! That's why we're on the Brock! Because no one wants us. We don't fit in."
   "The starship of misfit toys," Mr. B mused.
   "The assumption is we'll bungle this. The assumption is we'll add more fuel to the fire. They realize this is such a delicate matter they want seasoned hands in charge."
   "Like Captain Picard," Captain Harrison said, his eyes vacant.
   "Like Captain Picard. He's had experience. He's been with the Borg before. They don't want us near this place. Because they don't' trust us. To them we're the fuck-ups of the Federation."
   Captain Harrison stared off vacantly for several seconds. His insides felt like a star collapsing in on itself. The man who he imagined himself to be was not the man others saw him as; he was used to this, but the disparity between the two visions overwhelmed him now. It all made sense. How come he hadn't realized it before? He was not a rising Starfleet Captain in the mold of a James T. Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard. His position wasn't even as highly-esteemed as that of most Commanders or Lieutenants on other vessels. He had been shunted off. He had been forced onto a dirtier path. He would probably never rise above his current position because those in authority, those who controlled the strings of command, had never liked him, never had faith in him. For one horrific moment he saw himself as they saw him, as a skinny nobody from Nowhere, Arizona, and he shuddered inwardly.
   Then with a galactic force of will he threw off these assumptions and reassumed the stance of who he knew himself to be. In the long run, their opinions didn't matter. In the long run all that mattered was what he did. He forced himself to look up at his First Officer.
   "Mr. B," he began calmly.
   Just then the Brock was rocked by a blast that threw the Captain backwards out of his chair, and tumbled Mr. B and Ensign Rodgers over the desk. The Captain executed a Vulcan barrel-roll and was on his feet and out onto the bridge in a matter of seconds, followed by the cursing Ensign Rodgers and the confused First Officer, holding onto his overly-large head. The whoops of the red-alert siren resounded around the bridge.
   "Status!" the Captain shouted as he took the command chair from Lt. Mann.
   "Attack from a Borg scout ship," Lt. Mann stated. "It decloaked at forty-five degrees portside and then cloaked again. Shields are up and at 72 percent capacity."
   "Tachyon emissions!" the Captain shouted.
   "Spraying tachyon emissions," Lt. Mann stated.
   The ship was attacked again.
   "Fire phasers at the origin of those blasts!" the Captain shouted.
   The phasers fired harmlessly into space.
   "Captain," Lt. Mann warned. "Those shots came from the middle of a heavy concentration of tachyon emissions."
   "Meaning...?"
   "The emissions seem to be doing...nothing. They are not...indicating where the cloaked vessel might be."
   "The Borg have adapted," Mr. B suggested as the Brock was rocked again. "They have figured out a way to hide themselves even from tachyon emissions."
   "Photon torpedoes at point of origin," Captain Harrison shouted. "Now!"
   "Firing," Lt. Mann stated.
   "Nothing," Ensign Ciam said as he stared into the main viewscreen. A small giggle escaped his throat.
   "Shields at fifty-one percent capacity," Lt. Mann warned.
   Another blast; the crewmembers rocked in their seats.
   "Forty-two percent," Lt. Mann stated.
   "We can't just sit here," Ensign Ciam said.
   "Ensign," the Captain commanded. "On my mark, spin the Brock around in a course similar to a gyroscope or a wobbling top. Lieutenant," the Captain leaned back towards Lt. Mann. "On the same mark shoot all phasers in a spray array. Let's see if we can't nick something."
   "A desperate maneuver, Captain," Ensign Siler mentioned.
   "Desperation is sometimes the mother of invention," the Captain replied.
   The ship was rocked again. "Thirty-eight percent," Lt. Mann stated.
   "The motherfucker of invention," Ensign Rodgers concurred.
   "Ready?" the Captain asked. He brought his arm down. "Engage!"
   Ten seconds into the plan a small explosion in space occurred to the aft side of the Brock.
   "Focus all photon torpedoes onto those coordinates, Lieutenant!" the Captain shouted. "Fire! Now!"
   "Firing."
   A large explosion lit up the viewscreen and a cheer was beginning to erupt from the relieved crewmembers of the Brock when three Borg, impassively fierce and heavily armed, materialized at strategic points around the bridge. Lt. Mann kicked the legs out from one and punched it square in the face as it was falling forward. Ensign Rodgers jumped on the back of another and tore out its eyepiece and disconnected its wiring, shouting all the while. The third Borg fired at the Captain; Harrison leapt from his chair just as it was incinerated, seemed to cover the distance to the Borg in nanoseconds, and his punch was so quick and stealthy that it was only observable after the fact: the Captain in a Zaldan qir-lan stance and the Borg's head rolling around on the floor near the turbo-lift. Blood was splattered against the far wall. Seconds later the Borg's headless body collapsed to the ground, leaking.
   "Jesus," Mr. B stated. "Remind me not to be around you when you're mad."
   "Is everyone all right?" the Captain asked.
   Lt. Mann shook his hand; his knuckles were scuffed and bleeding. "Never better.”
   "Ensign?"
   Rodgers kicked at the disconnected Borg at his feet. "Baktag!"
   The Captain himself kicked at the remains of his incinerated chair and sat in the one reserved for the Betazoid. "Status?"
   "Shields at thirty-four percent," Lt. Mann said.
   "Minor damage to the forward hulls and Deck 12," Will Abelsaan said.
   "And," Ensign Siler mentioned, "during the course of the battle we seem to have drifted into the Neutral Zone."
   "Really?" the Captain said, unconcerned.
   "A clear violation of the Treaty of Algeron," Mr. B mentioned.
   "Just what you'd expect from a bunch of screw-ups like us," the Captain said, and glanced over at Ensign Rodgers, who smiled and shook his head. The Captain looked at his communications officer. "Lieutenant. Any word from any other federation starship?"
   "Nothing, sir. The Enterprise is still a day away."
   The Captain scratched the slight scruff on his pointy chin.
   "What do you recommend, Captain?" Ensign Siler asked. "Returning to Federation space?"
   The Captain stood up and sighed. "I'd like to. But unfortunately we can't. Our navigation system has been knocked out. We've lost impulse power. We're just drifting. So much space junk."
   "That's not--" Ensign Siler began.
   "Radio that message to Starfleet," Captain Harrison told Lt. Langley. "In the meantime," he said, staring at the viewscreen, "let's see what's going on out here."

Posted at 11:16 AM on May 09, 2009 in category General
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Friday May 08, 2009

Quote of the Day

""Anvil!" owes much to Penelope Spheeris’ "Decline of Western Civilization, Pt. II: The Metal Years" and “American Movie.” In all three, the rawness of people chasing -- not living -- dreams is uncomfortable to watch, because they’ve bought the concept that what they do isn’t valid unless they become big stars... Anvil plays gigs, makes records, and has a small but avid fan base. But they always want more, they rarely talk about artistry or what they want to do with their music, and whatever success they have is contingent on how others see them."

— Jim Walsh in his MN Post review of "Anvil! The Story of Anvil."

This gets to the heart of it even if Jim, who's a friend, is, I believe, overstating his case. It could be the boys in Anvil feel that what they do isn't valid unless they make a living at it. And they don't. At 50. That's when you begin to wonder if it's all worth it. But in general I concede Jim's point—for Anvil, for our culture, for me—even if I know that, with me anyway, I'll forever be trapped between doing the thing for the thing and needing a little something in response.

Posted at 01:27 PM on May 08, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Music
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My "Star Trek" Novel: S179276SP

Intro.
First section: A Routine Science Expedition.
Second section: Holodeck Baseball.
Third section: Mj'cra souft.

   As the Captain entered the bridge, his stiff body language and sour mouth communicated to all hands that he was not to be bothered with trifles; but what Lt. Langley had wasn't a trifle.
   "Captain. Message coming in from Romulan space. Code Two."
   Harrison paused over the shoulder of Ensign Ciam, to whom he was about to give the coordinates for Halkan space. "From Romulan space? Code two?"
   "Yes, sir."
   "But that's been out of use for..."
   "One hundred two years, five months," Mr. B replied.
   The Captain nodded. "Let's hear it."
   "In your ready room, sir?" Lt. Langley asked.
   "Here."
   "Transmitting."
   Captain Harrison squinted upwards as static filled the bridge.
   "Isolate the static," he commanded.
   "Isolating," Lt. Langley responded.
   Without the static, a series of blips were heard; several crewmembers nodded their heads slightly as they tried to make sense of the rhythm.
   "It seems to be repeating itself," Mr. B mentioned.
   "Could it be another code?" Captain Harrison asked.
   "It is a code!" Lt. Langley shouted triumphantly. She blanched when everyone looked her way, and added, more softly, "I mean it is a code. It's an old Earth code for pronunciation symbols and numbers."
   "Can you tell us what it means?"
   "Yes." She closed her eyes. "O...S...S..."
   "An S.O.S.?" Mr. B asked.
   "Garbled?" Ensign Ciam wondered.
   Mr. B shrugged.
   "More to the point," Ensign Siler began, "who on Romulus would be sending an old-fashioned Earth code for--"
   "There's more," Lt. Langley stated firmly. "Numbers. Nine...two...seven..." She shook her head. "I should wait until it begins to repeat itself again. Wait a minute. Here. "S...O...S..."
   Mr. B and Captain Harrison exchanged raised-eyebrow glances.
   "S...One...Seven...Nine...Two...Seven...Six," Lt. Langley read, "...S...P...S...O...S...S...One...Seven... It's repeating now."
   "Is it an S.O.S.?" Mr. B asked.
   "If it is," Captain Harrison wondered aloud, "what might the other numbers be?"
   "Other numbers and letters," Ensign Siler corrected.
   "And why, as Ensign Siler was saying, would anyone..." Harrison's thought hung in the air for several seconds before he pulled it down himself. "An I.D. of some kind?"
   "Maybe," Ensign Ciam nodded.
   The Captain turned to his science officer. "Mr. Abelsaan."
   "Already on it, Captain. Cross-referencing non-S.O.S. numbers and letters in the message with all known Romulan and Federation identifications." He stared at his monitor and sighed deeply. "Let's see. In the country of Hawaii on Earth it is the driver's license number of one Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, while in Washington D.C., it is the patent number for Zamweewee--a kind of child's toy."
   Mr. B brightened. "I used to have a Zamweewee."
   Will Abelsaan continued. "It is also the serial number for a 20th century weapon known as a revolver. In Arizona, it is the registration number of a right-wing organization called the Diamondheads, in England--"
   "How many Earth references are there for this number, Mr. Abelsaan?"
   "Two hundred thirteen, Sir."
   "I see. Romulan references?"
   "Checking." Another deep sigh. "None, sir."
   "What about Federation identification codes that cross reference correctly?"
   Mr. Abelsaan's hands flew over the consul. "One."
   "Yes?"
   "S-one-seven-nine-two-seven-six-S-P is the Starfleet service number for Ambassador..." His eyes widened and he turned to his Captain. "...Spock."
   "My God," Lt. Langley stated.
   "You're kidding," Ensign Ciam said.
   "Spock?" Mr. B wondered aloud. "What would Ambassador Spock be doing on Romulus?" He motioned with his hand towards the consul. "Let's hear some of those other Earth references, Lieutenant."
   But Captain Harrison was already out of his seat and giving orders. "Lieutenant Langley. Send that message along to Star Fleet command. I'll be in my ready room! Mr. B, you have the--" The doors to his ready room swished behind him before he could finish his sentence.

Posted at 08:22 AM on May 08, 2009 in category General
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Thursday May 07, 2009

What's Rotten on RottenTomatoes?

A friend told me that "The Soloist," which I obviously liked, got a mediocre, low 60s rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and I checked it out. Worse than he thought: 56%. At the same time I noticed that "State of Play," which I obviously didn't like, did much better:

"The Soloist": 56%
"State of Play": 85%

These are the ratings for "T-Meter critics" (all critics), which is the default setting on Rotten Tomatoes. Click on the tab for "Top Critics" (or critics from top newspapers) and the fortunes of the two movies reverse:

"The Soloist": 71%
"State of Play": 63%

Meanwhile over at metacritic, which some movieogers supposedly favor, but which feels less crisp than RT, "The Soloist" gets a 61 to "State of Play"'s 64. 

All of which reminds us there are still a few bugs in the quantitative (and possibly qualitative) critical system. It also makes me worry over the state of movie criticism when those top critics at those top newspapers disappear, and we're left with the Wallys from wallysworld.com.

Posted at 09:08 AM on May 07, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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My "Star Trek" Novel — Mj'cra souft

Intro.
First section: A Routine Science Expedition.
Second section: Holodeck Baseball.

   Captain Harrison moved briskly from the turbo-lift to his captain's chair, ousting Lt. Langley; he was followed in by Lt. Mann, Ensigns Ciam and Siler, Jennifer--who sat to the Captain's left--while Mr. B brought up the rear and sat in the recently-installed commander's chair.
   "Position," Harrison demanded.
   "Coordinates R-714 at A-755," Ensign Siler said.
   "Speed?"
   "Impulse."
   "All stop! Damage?"
   "Minor buckling of the ship's outer hull," Lt. Mann said. "Not life-threatening."
   "What caused it?"
   "There are metallic scrapings at the point of impact. The mixture of tartanium, lisolyte, and benzorm would seem to indicate..."
   Captain Harrison nodded. "Romulans!"
   "Shields up!" Mr. B declared.
   "Maintain yellow alert status," Captain Harrison ordered. "We don't know what's out there yet. Counselor?"
   Jennifer leaned forward. "I sense...a kind of muted fear. But whether this is coming from out there or from inside the ship I can't tell."
   "Captain," Lt. Mann said. "Given our speed, and the minor buckle at the point of impact, what we ran into--or what ran into us--couldn't have been very large."
   "A conjecture," Mr. B stated. "Could the Romulans be sending cloaked space debris towards our side of the neutral zone?"
   "For what purpose? I doubt the Romulans would go to so much trouble--and risk breaking the Treaty of Algeron--in order to seem...pesky."
   "At warp speed, cloaked space debris could destroy a ship rather effectively," Lt. Mann reminded the Captain.
   "True. But how would they monitor it? How could they make sure that the debris didn't drift back towards Romulus and Remus?" The Captain shook his head. "No, that doesn't smell right. The Romulans never nickel-and-dime anything." He cupped his hand over his mouth and lifted his face in thought. After weighing the alternatives, he executed a smart half-turn and settled back into his chair.
   "Ensign. Turn the Brock around and retrace our steps. Lieutenant?" He turned towards Don Mann. "I want you to send out tachyon emissions. Let's see if we can uncloak whatever might be cloaked out there. On my mark."
   Just as his pointed finger was raised in the air, the ship's inter-communication system beeped, and the voice of Doctor Failor filled the bridge. "Captain?"
   "What is it, Doctor?"
   "I just thought you'd like to know that G. Nickulls is doing fine. He's fully cognizant--or at least as cognizant as a Nausicaan can be." A light laugh floated through the intercom system. "Hey! My, how rude! I should add that Mr. Nickulls is also restrained and guarded, so further shenanigans from him will be unlikely. By the way, I think that was a wonderful idea of yours to--"
   "Doctor," Captain Harrison interrupted. "We're in a bit of a situation right now."
   "You are? Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realize. I just thought that since your ball game was over, now would be the best time to fill you in on Mr. Nickulls' condition. But if you're busy..."
   "We're busy."
   The Captain inhaled with consternation; his forehead vein became pronounced again.  
   "Ensign? Don?" Harrison's arm came down like he was pitching lackadaisically. "Engage." The Captain then turned toward his first officer. "Isn't the doctor aware of inter-ship protocol during a yellow alert?"
   "I'll remind him, Captain," Mr. B stated, and seemed to be furiously chewing on his moustache at the thought of the future encounter.
   Ten minutes elapsed before the double tactic of backtracking and emitting tachyon rays struck paydirt.
   "Romulan scout ship revealed on the port bow, Captain!" Lt. Mann cried urgently. Confused, he added, "It appears to be drifting."
   "Flood the area, Lieutenant. I want to know as much as possible about this ship before we board her."
   An away-team was assembled of Mr. B and Security Ensign Rodgers. Together they marched into Transporter Room Two and climbed onto the platform, while Transporter Chief Kim stood ready at the controls.
   "Ensign," Mr. B said. "Activate your emergency transporter armband. Mr. Kim. I don't need to tell you what a tricky business it is transporting aboard a cloaked vessel. If there are any fluctuations in our signals, bring us back with all due haste."
   "Aye, Sir."
   Mr. B nodded. "Energize."
   The bright lights, cool temperatures, and hospital odor of Transporter Room Two slowly shimmered away, replaced by the bitter red warmth and claustrophobic tightness of the Romulan scout ship. A haze of old smoke filled the bridge. Rodgers' face grimaced.
   "This place smells of Romulans."
   Mr. B tapped once on his communicator.
   "Captain? The ship apparently holds only two Romulans. Both are slumped over their chairs. One appears to be pressing against something on the control panel. I can't make out what it is..."
   Rodgers leaned over. "It's the cloaking device."
   "You read Romulan?"
   "There's an old Klingon saying: Know your friends well but your enemies better. Romulan--unlike English--is a required language in Klingon schools."
   "Captain," Mr. B continued, "it would appear that one of the Romulans is maintaining the ship's cloak even though..."  Mr. B felt for a pulse. "...even though he is dead. We will now attempt to decloak the vessel."
   "Careful, Number One," the Captain cautioned. "They may have protocols to prevent such an undertaking."
   "Agreed."
   Carefully Mr. B lifted the Romulan's hand from the panel, noting its lightness and shriveled quality, and then lifted the Romulan himself out of the way. Ensign Rodgers sat in the Romulan's place and surveyed the navigational equipment before punching in what he assumed were the appropriate commands.
   From the viewscreen aboard the Brock, the Romulan scout ship wavered into visibility.
   "My God!" Ensign Ciam cried.
   Half of the ship was gone; what remained was pockmarked with burns and laser blasts.
   "Mr. B!" shouted Harrison, rising from the Captain's chair. "Do not instigate a search of the Romulan vessel.  Repeat: do not search the Romulan vessel. You might just walk through a door into space."
   "Affirmative, Captain." To Ensign Rodgers, he ordered, "Look for the ship's logs. Let's see if we can't find out what happened here." He put his hands under the second Romulans arms. "I'll get this--"
   At that instant, the Romulan he was holding reared up, gasping for breath.
   "Yaaah!" Mr. B fell back against the other Romulan and slapped at his communicator. "Captain! One of the Romulans is still alive!"
   "Place your communicator on him, Number One!" Captain Harrison shouted. He stood up and tugged on his tunic.  "Captain Harrison to Doctor Failor! You're about to receive a visitor. We'll beam him directly to Bed Two."
   "G. Nickulls is in Bed Two, Captain. Of course, I could--"
   "Bed Three then! Chief Kim! Lock onto Mr. B's signal and beam it directly to sickbay. Bed Three! Energize!"
   The Romulan was transported away from the Romulan scout ship. Alone, Ensign Rodgers suddenly smiled.
   "So how are you getting back?" he asked the now communicator-less first officer.
   Mr. B looked confused. "I figured I'd hitch a ride on your signal."
   "Uh uh," the Ensign teased, still working the control panel to release the computer log. "I figure this is my way toward promotion. You know: eliminate those above me."
   "Great." Mr. B tossed his hands in the air. "I somehow wound up in the mirror universe."
   "Got it!" Rodgers examined a small, shiny disc in his right hand. "It appears to be--"
   At that moment there was a sensation of intense heat and a feeling of breaking apart, before, startlingly, the two were back on the platform of Transporter Room Two; Rodgers, whose chair had not transported with him, fell onto his back. Their hair was singed and smoke wafted from their bodies but otherwise they appeared unharmed.
   Chief Kim breathed a sigh of relief. "Got them, sir."
   Captain Harrison's voice resounded around the room's bare walls. "Good work, Chief."
   "What happened?" Mr. B asked.
   "The Romulan ship just blew up," Chief Kim responded.
   Five minutes later, Mr. B, Ensign Rodgers, and the Captain rendezvoused in sickbay; they were met by a dour Doctor Failor and a worried-looking Simon Tarses.
   "There was just...too much internal bleeding," the doctor said. "I know so little about Romulan physiology. Mr. Tarses here tried to help, but..."
   "Did he say anything before he died?" the Captain wondered.
   Doctor Failor looked over at his assistant. "He did say one thing..."
   "What was it, Mr. Tarses?" the Captain asked.
   Tarses, seemingly frightened, swallowed once. "He said Mj'cra souft."
   "Molok!" Ensign Rodgers cried.
   The Captain looked from crewmember to crewmember. "What does it mean?"
   "It means..." Simon Tarses began, before his voice caught as if on an exposed nail, and he shook his head wearily.
   Ensign Rodgers finished for him. "It means 'The Borg'!"

Posted at 08:10 AM on May 07, 2009 in category General
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Wednesday May 06, 2009

The Reason They're Called Previews

Listen, no one likes picking on teenagers, but, over at The Big Picture blog, Patrick Goldstein has trotted out his summer posse to take a gander at this year's summer movies. As prognosis, it supposedly worked last year and it may work this year, too. But do they have to open their mouths? Or, if they do, does Goldstein have to quote them? The deadliest excerpt:

Molly Philbin, 15: "I'm a 'Star Trek' fan, so I'm eager to see what the movie is really like. But I wasn't in love with the trailer. It really didn't show very much of a plot or any references to any 'Star Trek' episodes. It seems like it's just about a guy taking his father's position. I wish it told me more."

Basically she encourages what I discourage: knowing too much about a film before you even get a chance to see it. Jasmine, also 15, echoes her thoughts, so maybe this is generational thing. Or maybe it's an L.A./other America thing. Either way, I would've appreciate Goldstein getting a little more involved here. Questions remain. Does the trailer still make you want to see the film? If it does, then it's a success, end of story. So are there trailers that give away too much of a story? If she and Jasmine never think that, at least we know where they stand on the issue.

My fear: It's the L.A. Times blog so industry people will read it, it's teens so they'll pay attention, and our trailers, which already give away too much of the plot, will give away even more. Because of Molly, 15. Thanks, Mr. Goldstein.

In brighter news, almost flowery news, Nathaniel Rogers, over at The Film Experience blog, has followed his April showers theme ("Psycho," "Changeling") with some May flowers, and today he's highlighting everyone's favorite flower girl, Eliza Doolittle. I first saw the film on TV when I was little and fell in love with Audrey's face and Marni's voice—not realizing they weren't the part of the same package—and I'm still in love with her/them. Mostly her. And I agree with Nathan about the slippers—God!—but I'd still have trouble ending the movie before "The Street Where You Live," which is just a beautiful, romantic song. I guess it'd be the little darling I'd have to kill. 

Posted at 10:57 AM on May 06, 2009 in category Movies
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My "Star Trek" Novel — Holodeck Baseball

Intro here. First section here.

In order to become better acquainted with his crew — and in order for the reader to be introduced to them  — Capt. Harrison institutes a baseball game on the holodeck, and the following results. Ensign Siler, a Vulcan, and Ensign Ciam, a Ridlian — a species I believe I made up — are the captains of the two squads. As a side-note: The HOLODECK? No wonder the "Star Trek" universe required a reboot. 

   The venue chosen was Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, circa 1990. It had taken the two ensigns a week to sign up the necessary amount of teammates, but there was enough enthusiasm that the grandstands were filled not only with holographic images but real-life crewmembers who, while declining to play, still wished to watch. The two teams, dressed as the 1939 Kansas City Monarchs (Siler's) and the 2024 London Kings (Ciam's), shaped up like this:

The Kansas City Monarchs
The London Kings
 Jennifer (2B)
 Allman Karen (CF)
 Simon Tarses (LF)
 Young Kim (RF)
 Jason Lamb (CF)  Jeff Rodgers (3B)
 Don Mann (SS)
 G. Nickulls (1B)
 Will Abelsaan (1B)
 Dave Saunders (LF)
 Jim Bourg (3B)
 Rich Svetlik (SS)
 Gaiai (C)
 Mary Singer (C)
 Mr. Siler (RF)
 Ciam (2B)
 Brenda Biernat (P)
 Mr. B (P)

   Although the majority of the participants were humans from earth, it was still one of the most diverse group of ballplayers ever assembled. Jennifer, for example, was Betazoid, and a protest was lodged when she led off the first with a single; Ensign Ciam claimed she was using her telepathic powers to figure out the pitch before it was thrown. She claimed innocence, yelling from first that Mr. B “threw shit.” Simon Tarses, a doctor's assistant with Romulan blood in him, sacrificed Jennifer over to second and into scoring position.
   "Logical move!" Ensign Ciam yelled good-naturedly from second base.
   "I am not...Vulcan," Simon Tarses answered confusedly, trotting toward the dugout.
   "Yeah, yeah," Jeff Rodgers shouted from third. "We know all about you, ya Romulan bastard!" Rodgers, while human, had grown up on Qo'noS and had adopted many of the more confrontational Klingon ways. Simon Tarses' head visibly shrank into his shoulders at the insult.
   "Ignore him," Mr. Siler comforted the young Romulan in the dugout. "His insults show no cool."
   The Monarch dugout had the last laugh when a sharp grounder from Jason Lamb bounced off Rodger's glove and into left field. Sensing the error, the Betazoid Jennifer scored from second. Don Mann was then called out on strikes (Umpire Harrison, in keeping with the Japanese tradition, widened the strike zone for the stocky slugger), but the Bolian Bill Abelsaan kept the rally going with a sharply-turned double that scored Lamb. Unfortunately, the unfortunately-named Jim Bourg, a human from earth, quickly went to an 0-2 count ("Resistance is futile!" Rodgers shouted down from third) before popping out to second base, ending the half-inning.
   The first batter for the Kings was Allman Karen, a Bajoran lesbian, who promptly grounded out to short.
   "Don't hit it there!" Rodgers cried from the dugout.  "Mann's got the area covered like stink on a Romulan!"  
   Young Kim, a human of Korean extraction, strode to the plate; he strode back three pitches later.
   "She's got a wicked low fastball," he said, shaking his head in the dugout and eyeing Biernat on the mound.
   The inning was kept alive by the foul-mouthed Rodgers, who looped a single to center; but G. Nickulls, the first Nausicaan to serve aboard a Star Fleet vessel, struck out looking, and lived up to the short-fused reputation of his species by trying to brain the umpire with his bat.
   "Captain!" Jennifer cried from second base.
   Everyone froze as the tall, bearded creature raised the bat high in the air; everyone, that is, except Captain Harrison, who covered the distance to the Nausicaan with one quick step, spun to his left, and swiped the bat from the big man's hand.
   "Clubbing your commanding officer is a mutinous offense, Ensign," Captain Harrison mentioned matter-of-factly, tossing the bat towards the on-deck circle, "even during a pick-up baseball game."
   "Hurgh?" Nickulls' eyes narrowed, and his rage grew. 
   "Watch out, Captain!" Jennifer cried.  "He's going to--"
   The Nausicaan charged: all 340 pounds of him at the 110-pound Captain. At the last instant, the Captain executed a deft side-step to his left, and then, gently, swept his right arm over the back of the Nausicaan as it roared past. The Nausicaan's steps slowed, and, without looking around, it suddenly, heavily, crumpled to the ground.
   "What did you do to him?" Rodgers wondered from first base.
   Gaiai, a green-skinned Orion animal woman (and the catcher at the time), lifted her face mask and said admiringly, "He incapacitated him."
   "Yeah," Mr. B echoed, looking around slyly, "and he knocked him out, too."
   "Aren't they the same thing?" Mr. Siler wondered, looking down at Mr. B.
   "It was a joke," Mr. B admitted. He held out his hands. "Incapacitated? Knocked him out? Hah? Hah?" Several nearby people dismissed the first officer with a wave of the hand. "Aw, come on!"
   The Captain removed his umpire's mask, and, under his breath, muttered something about the idiocy of attacking a fully-protected adversary, and what kind of training were they giving these new recruits anyway, and maybe he should have conducted a martial arts seminar rather than a baseball game. With his shirtsleeve he wiped sweat from his brow, and then tilted his head up toward what appeared to be blue sky. "Harrison to Doctor Failor."
   The only response came from the fans, who, although theoretically neutral, were in a rage over the sudden loss of the home-team clean-up slugger. In true New York tradition, they voiced their concern in an increasingly vituperative manner. Umpire Harrison's vision was questioned; his mother was insulted; his lineage was considered dubious.
   "What exactly is...vaseline?" Harrison asked his first officer.
   "A 20th century emulsifier made from water and chemicals. It was used to soften skin."
   "The ump takes it up the ass? No vaseline?"
   Mr. B turned to the holographic fans chanting this phrase. "I am confused, too. I think they are implying that you prefer same-sex activities."
   "Which would be...?"
   "Pejorative in this time period, yes."
   "Barbarity," the Captain muttered, and then, louder, and again at the sky (as if he were Job pleading with an absent God), "Captain Harrison calling Doctor Failor."
   The voice that answered was a mixture of the long, drawn-out vowels of the upper classes, and the skittishness of the frequently mistaken. "Failor here, Captain. Did you call earlier? I'm sorry if I didn't answer but I'm in the middle of a fascinating text on Lord Bumperfield and lost complete track of time. Is there a problem?"
   "We have a fallen Nausicaan on our hands."
   "Oh my. Is it G. Nickulls by any chance?"
   "Yes, Doctor."
   "Then I would suggest beaming him to sickbay right away. Unless of course you want me to come there. Are you on Holodeck One? Yes, that's right, the day of the big game. I'm sorry I couldn't attend, but I did want to get to Lord Bumperfield. I'm at that moment during the British Class Wars of 2063 when he dressed as one of his servants in order to--"
   "Doctor. The Nausicaan?"
   "Oh," Dr. Failor replied, bothered. "Beam him to me in sickbay, I suppose. Can you do that?"
   The Captain raised a sarcastic eyebrow towards Mr. B, who shook his head in commiseration. "I think I can manage, Doctor."
   "Fine. That would be the best plan of action, I think. By the way, what's the matter with him?"
   "He struck out."
   "Pardon?"
   The Captain smiled. "He was felled by a Grj'albuut."
   "That's equally incomprehensible, I'm afraid."
   "A Tellarite maneuver."
   "Well. That doesn't sound very nice. I hope the rapscallion who did this to him has been locked up in the brig, as it were."
   The Captain nodded. "He will be dealt with appropriately."
   "That's good. Well then, over and out, I suppose."
   "Over and out, Doctor."
   Harrison called over his security chief. "Put a man on Nickulls. I don't trust him with the good doctor."
   "Want me to go?" Lt. Mann asked.
   "Are you kidding?" the Captain answered with mock-surprise. "Your team needs you."
   "Not with the strike zone you're giving me," Mann muttered.
   Meanwhile several players had gathered around the fallen Nickulls.
   "So much for the great Nausicaan experiment," Jim Bourg lamented.
   "One incident between two disparate personalities does not necessarily extinguish decades of diplomacy," Mr. Siler commented.
   "Is he conscious?" Young Kim wondered, laying his hand close to the Nausicaan's back.
   "I feel he's in stasis," Jennifer answered. "Neither conscious nor unconscious."
   "That clears things up," Jason Lamb commented.
   "What about the game?"  Jeff Rodgers pounded his fist into his glove. "We're a man short. We lost our clean-up hitter! Kahless!"   
By this time, the New York crowd, angered over the loss of Nickulls, and even moreso by the delay, began tossing items at the players: scorecards shaped like airplanes, popcorn, ice cubes, hot dogs, beer. When a small battery whizzed by Jennifer's head, the Captain shouted, "Computer: freeze program!" A vein, roughly in the shape of the coastline of California, throbbed in the middle of the Captain's forehead. It was a sure sign, Mr. B knew, that he was about to blow his top.
   "Who constructed this program?"
   Ensign Siler stepped forward. "I'm afraid that would be my fault, Captain. I didn't know much about baseball during this period. I simply assumed that one of the more famous ballparks would be an appropriate site for this grudge-match."
   "That's fine, that's fine," the Captain said. "That's good. But couldn't you have programmed in, if not a more docile crowd, then at least one less inclined towards interference?"
   "This is the most docile New York crowd the computer would allow," Mr. Siler admitted.
   "Really?"
   Lt. Mann, who grew up in New York City, gazed around the stands. "About right," he said.

  ...

   The Monarchs lengthened their lead in the sixth on a 2-run homerun by Don Mann; but in the bottom of the ninth, leading 4-1, Brenda Biernat began to tire. Mary Singer led off with an opposite-field single, and when Ciam walked, the crowd, long since unfrozen, but tempered by an extra contingent of holographic police officers, went crazy.
   "Uh...can't we re-program this?" Jason Lamb called futilely from center field, as hot dog wrappers and paper airplanes rained down on the field.
   "Time!" Ensign Siler jogged in from right field; he was met at the mound by the catcher, Gaiai, and Will Abelsaan, the Bolian first baseman.
   "How's your arm?" Siler asked.
   "Fine." Biernat was big-eyed and tight-lipped.
   "Is there any chance you have three more outs in it?"
   She nodded; but in her tight-lipped worry one could sense the game slipping away.
   "I have a plan," Gaiai mentioned cheerfully. 
   "Nothing illegal, I hope," Ensign Siler said.
   She turned a flirtatious shoulder towards her manager. "It wouldn't be me if I didn't at least skirt the edges of illegality."
   Ensign Siler put a hand on her shoulder. "Just don't hurt anybody."
   The meeting was broken up and everyone made their way back to their respective positions. Gaiai, however, did not walk back to homeplate so much as sashay, her hips swinging like a bell in full motion. The public address system, to taunt Biernat for her recently-surrendered base-on-balls (her first of the game), was playing the 20th century rock 'n roll classic, "Wild Thing" by the Troggs, and the green-skinned catcher began to move her body to this beat. Ten feet from homeplate she tossed her glove at the next batter, Mr. B, who caught it, bobbled it, and then secured it tightly to his chest by dropping his bat. She smiled with a mixture of sympathy and lasciviousness as her hands slowly, languorously, traveled upward from the middle of her waist and disappeared behind her neck; her head kicked back, and, as her baseball cap flew off, a profusion of orangish-green hair spilled forth. She bent her body backward and then rolled forward again, eagerness flashing in her eyes. The crowd, suddenly quieted, followed these motions as if they were dazed ship-board passengers swaying to the motions of the sea. Her rhythm led her in an ever-shrinking, teasing circle around the batter, until she dropped to her knees, and, with her hands suggesting a whisper of a touch, slowly rose up the length of his body, past his moustache drenched in sweat, and placed her lips ticklingly close to the reddening, fleshy lobe of his ear. "You ready?" she whispered.
   Mr. B struck out on three pitches.
   Ensign Ciam, as if waking from a trance, objected from the dugout. "Hey! What's that? You can't do that!"
   Gaiai tossed the ball back to Biernat and raised her hands innocently in the air. "Captain, I'm just doing what comes naturally to me. Do you deny the Vulcans their logic? The Ridlians their laughter? So how could you deny from me what I do best?" 
   The Captain exhaled slowly. "I'm sorry," he said, "but the rules of inter-gender baseball, circa 2021, specifically state that flirting in order to gain strategic advantage is strictly prohibited."
   "But Captain," she pouted. "You're interfering with who I am. What about the Prime Directive?"
   "The Prime Directive is all well and fine," the Captain stated firmly, "but this is baseball." He fit his umpire's mask snugly over his face and pointed at his first officer. "Mr. B, you're out. Gaiai, no more sexual shenanigans. Everyone else: play ball!"
   Allman Karen, perhaps equally distracted by Gaiai's dance routine, popped out to short; but with two outs Young Kim lifted a short fly ball that fell in-between Simon Tarses and Don Mann, and with Singer and Ciam running with the pitch, both managed to score. Kim stood proudly on second, representing the tying run. The fans stomped up and down in their seats, hooting and hollering, and clapping their hands in rhythm; Jason Lamb was almost lost in a blizzard of paper.
   Another conference was held on the mound; Rodgers stared sternly from the on-deck circle, taking practice swings.
   "That Orion animal woman shit ain't gonna work on me!" he shouted.
   "Yes," Ensign Siler responded, "I hear you prefer targs."
   With Barry Busick on-deck, Mr. Siler determined it would not make sense to pitch around Rodgers, and, after asking for advice, tossed the ball into Brenda Biernat's glove. "High heat," he said.
   The first two pitches were indeed high and fast, and Rodgers grew increasingly frustrated trying to keep up. With a quick 0-2 count, Biernat wasted two pitches before coming back with another high, hard one that Rodgers managed to lay off of. Now the count was full. The crowd was on its feet.  The infielders were on their toes. Rodgers rocked back and forth in the batter's box as Biernat nodded, wound up, and delivered. Another fastball. Right down the heart of the plate. Rodgers swung and there was a loud crack and the ball soared in a high arc toward dead-center field. Jason Lamb raced back. At the warning track he leaped...and the entire stadium suddenly rocked sideways, sending fans and players alike sprawling. For a moment the stadium flickered, revealing the exo-skeleton design of the holodeck. Several virtual fans in the first row of the upper-deck bleachers fell over the railing.
   "What happened?" Ciam shouted.
   "Get our crewmembers out of the stands!" Captain Harrison instructed Lt. Mann, who corralled Saunders and Abelsaan to help him. Captain Harrison then contacted the bridge.
   "Report, Lieutenant."
   Lt. Langley's voice filled the stadium like an old-time P.A. announcer. "We appear to have run into something, Captain. Or something has run into us."
   "Explain."
   "There is damage to the forward hull as if we just collided with a large object; yet sensors do not reveal anything in our immediate vicinity."
   "I'll be right there. Go to yellow alert. Harrison out." The Captain waved his arms to gather his crew together. "It would appear that our game has been...postponed."
   "That ball was gone!" Jeff Rodgers shouted. "So we win."
   "I don't think this is the--" Captain Harrison began.
   He was silenced by Jason Lamb, who raised his glove, revealing a small white ball tucked firmly in the webbing.
   The Kansas City Monarchs cheered and patted their center fielder on the back, while, above this sound, louder even than the noise of the holographic fans fleeing for safety, Klingon curses rang through the stadium. 

Posted at 08:40 AM on May 06, 2009 in category General
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Tuesday May 05, 2009

Freudian Quote of the Day

   "Denise is echt California," Masson said fondly. "When I first met her, you couldn't get more than six words out of her, and they were generally 'like,' 'you know,' 'I mean, like.' She spoke in half sentences. There is something so echt California about that."
   "It has nothing to do with California," Denise said.
   "But you have a basic mistrust of speech, right?"
   "It's just not fast enough," Denise said. "It doesn't say what I mean."

-- from Janet Malcolm's "In the Freud Archives."

Posted at 07:19 PM on May 05, 2009 in category Quote of the Day, Books
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My "Star Trek" Novel - A Routine Science Expedition

Read the intro here, or, you know, below.

   First Officer Michael Busick of the re-fit Excelsior-class U.S.S. Brock didn't believe in routine science expeditions, because, invariably, there wasn't anything routine about them. He could cite thousands of examples from Star Fleet records about disasters that resulted when starships were sent to study this or that space anomaly or map such and such a star cluster.
   "It's a fact," he informed his newly-appointed captain. "38.9% of starships sent out on routine science expeditions never complete their designated assignments. It's like the red-shirt phenomenon a century back. Remember? When beaming down to an unknown planet, a red-shirted security guard was 99.4% more likely to be killed than his captain or first officer. It got to the point where, in at least one known incident, the security guards demanded the yellow shirts of command or the blue shirts of science before beaming down. Apparently they thought the problem might lie with the color of their attire: red attracting trouble, as it were; inviting blood and death. But even in blue and yellow, these men bought it. Similarly, in this century, starships seem to have a difficult time completing routine science expeditions. Heading out on one seems to invite disaster. Calling it 'routine' seems to anger the space gods, who decide to make the expedition as far from routine as possible."
   Captain Tim Harrison raised an eyebrow as expertly as a Vulcan. "Space gods, Mr. B?  Don't tell me that after all these years you still believe in space gods?"
   "My term for...karma. Mojo. Kridloh in Klingon."
   "Besides, don't you think you're being a bit pessimistic?"
   "What do you mean?"
   "If 38.9% of starships never complete their designated assignments then 61.1% do."
   Mr. B smiled. He was of average height and build, with a tendency towards rotundity, but his most obvious physical attribute was his head, which was almost perfectly round, and bigger by a half than the standard. His thin, reddish hair was clipped long in back with bangs in front, and he was the only officer aboard ship to sport a moustache, also reddish, which hid all aspects of his mouth except for a puffy, wet underlip. Only two weeks aboard the Brock he was already famous for his slow, leisurely pace. This was especially noticeable next to the usual go-getters and career-crashers of Star Fleet, and it occasionally got him into trouble. During Academy days one of his gym instructors was so fed up with Busick's--quote--lackadaisical attitude--unquote--that he blew up at him. "Busick!" he shouted. "You move so slowly you make me feel like a goddamned Scalosian!" Mr. B, rarely at a loss for a quip of his own, replied good-naturedly, "I wondered what all that buzzing was around here" and then gestured as if shooing away flies. He failed the class, of course, but managed to graduate from the Academy anyway; his wit had seen him through. It was this wit that he now turned on his captain.
   "By such optimistic accounting even my record with women would look good." He bounced on his toes, hands behind his back.
   Captain Harrison folded his hands across his stomach and said matter-of-factly, "Your record with women does look good, Mr. B. How's that woman of yours. Miss her?"
   "Oh, nothing that a few trips to the holodeck couldn't cure," Mr. B replied in the same jocular tone.
   Captain Harrison smiled and stared out his window at the familiar stars of Sector 001. He liked his first officer, but at times it was difficult getting past the jokester. Yet it was this very jocularity that Harrison desired in his Number One. In ranking first officers, other captains tended to prize Vulcans for their unimpeachable logic, Klingons for their strength, Betazoids for their empathic abilities, and Trills for their wisdom; but nothing was ever said about the tactical advantage a sense of humor might bring. Captain Harrison felt it just might throw off and confuse combatants in the middle of negotiations, and he was willing to test his theories with Mr. B.  
   He slapped his hands on the desk of his ready room and stood up. "Anyway. I'll be sure to include your objections in my report, but I don't think it will mean much to the biguns at Star Fleet. The fact that we might run into something more interesting than a star cluster is why we're out here, after all." He smiled again and patted his first officer on the shoulder. "If you're not careful, my friend, pretty soon they'll be calling you Mr. C."
   "C?"
   "Caution."
   "Could be worse. Coward. Cardassian."
   Captain Harrison smiled and moved from his ready room and, acquiring a stiffer gate, onto the bridge of the U.S.S. Brock.
   "Ensign Ciam, we have our first assignment. Are all hands on deck?"
   "Yes sir."
   "Then take this ship to coordinates 3701 at Warp 5 on my mark."
   Puzzled, the helmsman turned in his chair. "That would put us awfully close to the neutral zone, Captain."
   "Thank you for the geography lesson, Ensign." Then, less harshly: "Even star clusters near the neutral zone need to be mapped. Are you ready?"
   Ensign Ciam punched in the proper numbers. "Coordinates 3701 at Warp 5 on your mark, sir."
   It was the moment that every youngster dreams of, every freshman at the Academy hopes for, every low-grade officer plays over and over in his mind: the moment when you take your first starship out on its first mission. The Brock, admittedly, was not every plebe's dream. Seventy-odd years ago it was the fastest ship in the fleet, but since then it had been surpassed by the many Ambassador-class and Galaxy-class starships that Star Fleet had seen fit to turn out. In fact when Mr. B had first seen the ship, two weeks earlier, he half-joked, "I just hope we don't run into any Pakleds." But Captain Harrison quieted him. The Brock had just been overhauled and re-fitted with a new, state-of-the-art warp drive engine which made it, in theory anyway, the fastest starship in the Federation. It just didn't have the power of Galaxy class starships. Besides, it was his ship. For the first time he was to command a starship with 572 crewmembers. Thus it was with a submerged but electric thrill that Captain Harrison walked with hands behind his back around the bridge, sat in his command chair, crossed his legs, and prepared to give the signal that would send over 12,000 tons of metal and machinery zipping through space at faster than light speed. He watched with raised pointed finger as, on the viewscreen, the Brock inched past Pluto, and then Pluto's moon, Charon. This was the moment. He brought his finger down.
   "Energize!"
   Once again Ensign Ciam turned his puzzled face to the captain. "Sir?"
   Harrison shook his head. "Sorry. Too many years leading away missions. I meant 'Engage'." He brought his finger down authoritatively. "Engage!"
   "Yes sir."  
   The stars on the viewscreen, pinpoints of light, suddenly elongated into straight lines, and with no more than a mild lurch the Brock had left the earth far, far behind.

Coming up: holodeck baseball, Romulans, the Borg, and Planet Scott!

Posted at 09:33 AM on May 05, 2009 in category General
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My "Star Trek" Novel - Intro

Every blogger probably has a novel in his drawer. Maybe even a “Star Trek” novel.

Mine isn’t about Kirk and Spock, or Picard and Data, or any of the other characters from the Gene Roddenbury universe that, as it expanded (into other shows), contracted (my interest). No, I wrote about a friend, Tim, a huge “Star Trek” fan (his interest never contracted), and it resulted from hubris. In the mid-1990s, at one of his birthday parties, someone gave him a homemade, five-page “Star Trek” short story as a present. My thought: “I can do better.”

Three years, over 100 pages, and a dog-eared “Star Trek” encyclopedia later, the present,  expanded to include Mike, or Mr. B, who would play first officer to Tim’s Captain, was finally delivered.

I think I had the main plot in mind from the start. In fact—more hubris—I still think my plot should’ve been the plot of the first “Star Trek—Next Generation” movie: a Borg attack on the Romulus empire and the inevitable Federation response. Not only would it have been epic in scope but would’ve allowed an appearance by Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock, last seen on Romulus, and thus incorporated, in a natural way, both “Next Gen” and “Original Series” characters. I doubt I had a resolution to this plot—a way to defeat the ever-adaptive Borg—but, reading over it now, I like the solution I came up with. It’s both humorous—particularly if you know Mr. B—and, to borrow a loaded word, logical.

The parallel, character-driven plot about the U.S.S. Brock being filled with the fuck-ups of the Federation is strictly autobiographical. At the time we were all working at University Book Store in Seattle, and the book became, in essence, less “'Wagon Train' to the stars” (Roddenbury’s original conception) than “bookstore to the stars.” It was us, fuck-ups all, trying to make do with what we had. It was my complaint at the time. Other employees became characters, some memorably (hello Brett, Jeff and Mark). Others are no longer with us. (See "My Address Book" here.)

This week, as a lead-in to the new J.J. Abrams-led “Star Trek” movie, or reboot, I’ll include excerpts from the novel. It’s me at my most “Star Trek”-y. Please be kind.
Posted at 09:07 AM on May 05, 2009 in category General
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Monday May 04, 2009

Logan's Run: $85 Million

I was surprised but not shocked that "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" did so well this weekend, bringing in $87 million, which, unadjusted, is the 18th-best opening weekend ever. It's a superhero movie, after all, and a popular character, and it opened in over 4,000 theaters (the 14th-most ever) and, according to Brandon Gray, on 8,300 screens (which is the Xth-most ever? Someone?). The biggest surprise, from Michael Cieply over at the Times, is the make-up of the audience: nearly 50 percent female. Although, in retrospect, it certainly makes sense, Hugh being Hugh...

No, the number to look for is how much it falls off next weekend. That's when the bad reviews (37% on RT, 44 on metacritic), and so-so word of mouth (assuming), might be felt. A drop-off of more than 60 percent (as with "Watchmen," "X-Men 3" and "Spider-Man 3") will definitely mean something in terms of what people really think of this thing.

ADDENDUM: The actuals are in and it's $85 million, which is good for 19th-best opening weekend. The movie it dropped behind? "X2: X-Men United." Any guesses as to "Wolverine"'s dropoff next weekend?

Posted at 09:18 AM on May 04, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office
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Sunday Times

Yesterday was one of those Loudon Wainwright III mornings when I could’ve read the Sunday Times until Tuesday and still not finished. So much interesting stuff. They had a front-page article on Obama as constitutional law school professor and how that might impact his Souter decision; a great Q&A with Pres. Obama on just about every topic under the sun; a review, by Thomas Mallon, of Christopher Buckley’s book on his parents, which feels like my take on it from the excerpt in the magazine last Sunday; an article on life in Holland (“Going Dutch”) that I haven't even gotten to yet; and then some movie goodies.  

There’s a summer movie preview (more and more meaningless these days); a Q&A with Cannes-bound Quentin Tarantino in which, among other things, the director talks up “Superman Returns” (I so want to read that piece he’s writing, and I'd love to link the Q&A, but, via their site, I can't find it); a great, fun photo-shoot between QT and new femme star Diane Kruger (right, the face that launched a thousand CGI ships in “Troy”); and, most interesting of all, “Memos to Hollywood,” which includes some quick e-mail notes from Times heavyweight critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis to the heavyweights of Hollywood. Some of the memos, yes, feel easy pickings, some I disagree with (“kill the Oscars”), while Ms. Dargis can be a bit of a scold. But most of the time I felt like Mrs. Bloom: Yes, yes, yes!

  • A.O. Scott on animated movies: “Enough with the winking, tiresome pop-culture allusions... Try telling a simple story with conviction. The merchandising tie-ins will take care of themselves.”
  • Manohla Dargis on digitial filmmaking: When it was first introduced, the process seemed as if it might expand the cinematographers’ toolbox. But because of their ease of use, those same tools are being usurped by studio executives, producers, directors and even actors who all want a say in how to digitally “fix” the image.
  • A.O. Scott: You all keep trying to make Rock Hudson-Doris Day-style romantic comedies with the golden guys and gals of the moment, and the results are sexless, subtextless, bland career-girl-in-search-of-Mr.-Right retreads...
  • Manhola Dargis: Audiences complain that there’s nothing to watch, and that may be true if you live near a multiplex that plays only the latest in schlock entertainment. But if you live in a city like New York or Los Angeles, you have no business whining. New York in particular is a cinephile’s dream, and there’s almost always something shaking up the screen at Film Forum, the IFC Center, the Walter Reade Theater, Anthology Film Archives and BAMcinématek...

Read it all. Me, I’m going back to “Going Dutch”...

Posted at 08:59 AM on May 04, 2009 in category Movies, Media
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Sunday May 03, 2009

Before the Show: 5-1-09

Theater: Meridian 16
Screen: No. 13 (third floor)
Location: Downtown Seattle
Chain: Regal Entertainment Group, which, according to their Web site, operates “6,773 screens in 549 theatres in 39 states and the District of Columbia as of April 2, 2009.” That’s a helluva screen-to-theater ratio. REG’s corporate offices are in Knoxville, Tennessee, on their own street: 7132 Regal Lane.
Operating: The Meridian? Since December 4, 1996. But when it switched hands from Cineplex Odeon to Regal, I have no idea.
Arrived: 3:49, six minutes before scheduled showtime.

Before the scheduled showtime:
Unlike AMC theaters, which offers moviegoers (or demands moviegoers watch) “The AMC Movie Watchers Network” before scheduled showtimes, Regal Cinemas, at least at the Meridian, offers (or demands) music and slideshow. The music is generally slow hip-hop and pop (what a nice man Nat King Cole is to keep singing songs with his daughter!), while the slideshow includes overt ads (a fizzing Coke with the line “Thinkin’ About It?”) and subtle ads (How the makers of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” worked with Levi Strauss Co. to get the right vintage clothes). There are ads to advertise during the slideshow, ads to rent the theater, ads for Regal Gift Cards, and “Know Your Ratings” promos. The movie-related quizzes (“Who said...?”) are often nothing quotes from movies that haven’t opened yet. (I.e., ads.) Yesterday we got “Live long and prosper,” which, while it’s from a movie that hasn’t opened yet (“Star Trek”), at least has the advantage of being famous.

3:55: Slideshow ends, video ads begin.

  • Nintendo DSI ad with the elephant man/teenager. A sad commentary on what we think is funny.
  • Canon HD Camcorder using a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night” to demonstrate how images have now surpassed words. A sad commentary on what we think of words.
  • “Year One,” the TV ad
  • “Expedition Africa” on the History Channel
  • “Wipeout” on ABC
  • Sprite ad
  • Sprint chimp ad
4:00: Lights go down. The following preview has been approved...
  • “Ice Age”: An extended, funny scene that gives away nothing of the plot and kind of makes me want to see the movie. It has a Road Runner/Wiley E. Coyote vibe to it. It’s also less trailer than cartoon short. Appreciated.
  • “District 9”: The most interesting trailer of the bunch — for the audience reaction if nothing else. It begins documentary-style with people complaining about new immigrants: “Why do they have to live here?” You get shots of slums. It feels like an independent film, all liberal and shit, and you can almost feel the audience slumping in their chairs. Then we see the immigrants. They’re extraterrestrials. Boom! To a man, everyone sits up straighter and shuts up.
  • “Funny People”: I want to see this new Judd Apatow movie but I hope they haven’t given away too much here. From the trailer we know: It’s about a friendship between two comedians, one rising (Rogen) one established and a movie star (Sandler). But wait: the established comedian is dying. But wait: he might be beating it. And from the experience he realizes how precious life is. And there’s a girl he loves. OK... so how much of the story is left?
  • “Terminator: Salvation”: Wake me when it’s over. The whole thing. This whole franchise.
  • “Night at the Museum” sequel: He's at the Smithsonian now, which allows more mingling of high and low culture: Amelia Earhart and Darth Vader. We also get miniature Albert Einsteins looking like the California Raisins and singing K.C. and the Sunshine Band songs. We want our geniuses funky in this country. Or the butt of jokes. Or both. Like here.
Movie actually starts: 4:12 — 17 minutes after scheduled showtime.
Posted at 11:59 AM on May 03, 2009 in category Movies - Theaters
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Saturday May 02, 2009

Review: “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009)

WARNING: SPOILERS

You like overhead shots of the protagonist kneeling by the body of a loved one and screaming up at the heavens?

You like scenes when a superhero has to choose between killing a villain and letting him live? A dilemma that reveals his “true” nature?

You like dialogue such as “We didn’t sign up for this,” and “If man were meant to fly he’d grow wings,” and — after a would-be-partner shows up just in time to save the hero — “You miss me”?

Then “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” is your movie. Bonus: You get two of those overheads shots of the hero screaming up at the heavens. Three if you count a flashback.

Admittedly, the filmmakers were hampered from the start. “Wolverine” is a prequel, which means they had to end it with the title character in a vaguely similar place to where he was at the beginning of “X-Men” (2000), which is to say: alive, with an adamantium skeleton, and with no real memory of who he is. That’s tough: to have your ending before your story even begins.

Even so.

The movie opens in 1845 in the northwest territories of Canada, where the boy who will become Wolverine, then called Jimmy, is sick in bed, watched over by his scowling brother (half-brother?) named Victor, the boy who will become Sabre Tooth, as well as his father, who, in a flash, is killed in the foyer downstairs. The trauma awakens Jimmy’s “berserker rage,” and his claws — skeletal at this point — are unleashed, and he kills the killer, who, it turns out, was his real father. Oops. Victor and Jimmy then flee. “Keep on running,” Victor says. “Don’t look back.” And they don’t. Through the entire credit sequence, in which you see them fighting in 1) the U.S. Civil War, 2) WWI, 3), WWII, and, 4) Vietnam. Questions immediately arise. Did they skip the Spanish-American War? And what did they do between wars? And why are they fighting for the U.S. anyway? Aren’t they Canadian? Actually the most important question is: Do they ever worry over the increasing might of military technology? Let’s face it, in 1845, or at least by the time they reach adulthood in 1860, nothing on earth — on earth! — was as powerful as they were; but during their lifetime they witnessed the introduction of the repeat-action rifle, the machine gun, the airplane, the missile, and the atom bomb. Don’t they ever think, “Wow, these humans are becoming more powerful than we are!”? Don’t they ever think? What have they learned in 120 years? Anything?

The story picks up — that is, the credits end — after the brothers have been shot by a firing squad for killing their own during Vietnam. They live, of course, and are recruited by Maj. William Stryker (Danny Huston), the man who will become Brian Cox. “I’m putting together a special team,” he says. For whatever reason, these mutants, including Victor and Jimmy, now called Logan, follow this human. Because they like killing? I don’t understand. Can’t they kill on their own? A few scenes later, Logan draws the line and tells his brother, “I’m done.” His brother responds, threateningly, “We can’t let you just walk away.” Then he and five other mutants stand around and watch him walk away. Smart.

Six years later, Logan’s in a 1973 made-for-TV movie. He’s a lumberjack in the Canadian Rockies, he’s got a pretty, long-haired girlfriend who’s a schoolteacher, and everyone knows they’re doomed. They kiss. Seventies music tinkles in the background. The audience gets restless.

Thank God Stryker shows up. “Your country needs you,” he tells Logan. Canada needs him? Oh, right, the U.S. Logan refuses but later tells his girlfriend the reason they want him is because “I’m the best at what I do. But what I do isn’t very nice.” It’s a famous Wolverine line, penned in the 1980s, but it doesn’t work here — particularly after Victor/Sabre Tooth kills the girlfriend and then defeats Logan. Apparently our boy isn’t the best at what he does.

Worse: Stryker convinces Logan to get all adamantiumed-up to get revenge on Victor. “I can give you the tools to defeat him,” Stryker says. Logan becomes Wolverine, in other words, because he’s a lousy fighter. Who knew? Almost feels cowardly. You’d think he’d try a martial arts class before getting his skeletal structure replaced.

I could go on. Every little element in this movie is just plain dumb. During the adamantium transfer, for example, Logan’s heartrate increases exponentially, then falters, and everyone’s urging him on: “Live, damnit!” When he flatlines, people turn away. And we wait... And we wait... As if there’s any suspense. He’s Wolverine! He lives! We know! Get on with it!

He goes to Three Mile Island, where he’s heard they’re holding mutants for experiments, to get revenge on Stryker and Victor; but when he discovers his girlfriend lives, that she fooled him, he walks away. Uh...dude. The imprisoned mutants? That are still being experimented on? Of course he returns and eventually frees them, and they leave, about 20 of them, scared and huddled together and hiding from the soldiers with their guns. Aren’t we sick of this yet? Why are they acting like malnourished boat people rather than, I don’t know, the most powerful people on the planet?

There’s a moment when we’re in the office of John Wraith, who runs a boxing gym in Vegas, and, in the background, there's a matchcard with upcoming bouts featuring ‘70s-era fighters. And I thought about the care that went into that small detail, and in the creation of the office, and Hugh Jackman’s insane workout regimen to turn his perfect body even more perfect. I thought of the inspired casting of Danny Huston and Liev Schreiber, and I thought, “It’s all for shit if you don’t have a story.” And this one’s for shit.

Admittedly, the filmmakers were hampered from the start. We begin knowing basically where we’ll end. But that’s a reason to open up your imagination, not close it off.

Posted at 09:16 AM on May 02, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Friday May 01, 2009

And Now...The Wolverine!

I collected Marvel Comics in the 1970s, and The Incredible Hulk was a regular buy, so I first came across Wolverine in the first place possible: Hulk #181. Well, if you want to get technical (and Lord know comic-book nerds want to get technical), it was Hulk #180, last panel. And no, I didn’t remember that. I had to look it up.

I wasn’t impressed. I had a weak boy’s respect for the Hulk as the strongest character in the Marvel universe — Thor Schmor — and this guy in yellow spandex with the whiskers hardly seemed in the same league. And he was Canadian? That was the point of Wolverine, initially. On the cover of #181, Marvel didn’t trumpet him as a badass. They wrote: “HE’S HERE! THE WORLD’S  FIRST AND GREATEST CANADIAN SUPER HERO!” It’s been a while since I collected comics, and more than 25 years since I looked at that cover, but it strikes me now that the introduction of a “first” kind of makes the secondary claim of being  “greatest” rather pointless, doesn’t it? Almost patronizing.

A few years later, a friend started talking up X-Men, which for my entire collecting history had been nothing but lame, smeary reprints. Now they had all new stories but I wasn’t biting:
EL: I’m not into those characters.
PL: No, they’re all new characters.
EL: Like who?
PL: Well, they still have Cyclops and Professor X...
EL: Professor X? I just don’t get him.
PL: ...plus a bunch of new guys like Nightcrawler and Colossus. Oh, and Wolverine!
Me: The Canadian? You’re kidding. How is that dude even a mutant?
Turns out Wolverine was the most popular new character. He was the brooding badass — the guy who was such an outcast he didn’t fit in among a group of outcasts. Now that I think about it — again — there’s a Ben Grimm vibe there, isn’t there? The cigar-chomping dude who didn’t want to be part of the super group but never let his partners down. Wouldn’t be surprised if this wasn’t intentional.

I collected the new X-Men for a few years then stopped collecting comics altogether around 1979, but I’ve obviously warmed to the character in his Hollywood incarnation. He was in two of the top 10 superhero scenes I wrote about in 2007 and among the top 5 superhero casting decisions written about last year — although his (or Hugh Jackman’s) no. 3 spot might now be taken by Robert Downey, Jr. At the same time I don’t love Wolverine nearly as much as others do. To some, he’s the greatest comic book character ever created.
 
I’ll post a review of the film tomorrow — the buzz, thus far, isn’t good — but I wanted to add this thought: As much time has passed between now and the introduction of Wolverine (35 years) as between the introduction of Wolverine and the introduction of.... Superman (36 years). Seems impossible. Makes you wonder where the time has gone.
Posted at 08:49 AM on May 01, 2009 in category Superheroes
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