Saturday, October 12, 2013

Brief TV Report

:: I was going to write a whole thing about Saturday Night Live, but do you really need me to tell you it's bad? Two boring, underwritten episodes so far, a bunch of new indistinguishable white dudes in the cast, nothing much to say on anything topical, and Kenan Thompson salvaging some laughs out of the worst sketches. That's pretty much the last several years of the show, so these comments are all pretty generic. I'm gladder than glad that Fred Armisen and Jason Sudeikis are gone, but who are the standouts going to be now? It's up for grabs. That's the only thing interesting going on. That, and I'm interested to see how Cecily Strong is going to do on Update. She can't be worse than Seth Meyers without Amy.

:: I decided to just drop Revenge and Castle. I just wasn't looking forward to them anymore, and I feel impatient, so maybe I'll catch up one day.

:: Still waiting for The Michael J. Fox Show to figure out what its whole deal is. I love the guy, but this might be a wash.

:: Did they actually plan anything they were going to do this season on How I Met Your Mother? Because all of that business on Monday's episode probably would have eaten up about five hours, but they're still 50-some hours from the wedding, and it's going to get obnoxiously stupid real fast. And the character interaction logistics are just too complicately stupid for me to go into. (Seriously, Barney's brother isn't even at the card game? What?) I wonder how much cash Jason Segel is taking home this season. I know he was the one holding out who didn't really want to come back. He seems to have done the smart thing: held out for more money and forced them to write his character in a way where he had more time off and didn't have to go to rehearsals very much. Marshall on the iPad came across as more engaged with the show than Segel's been in years. Probably because he could do the whole thing in an hour sitting in a chair. I miss his presence, but I admire how canny he is, basically saying, Hey, if you want me to do one more season of this thing, I'll do it, but you're gonna pay me and you're gonna accept my terms. Good for him. It's not like the show's doing his career any favors right now.

:: I liked everything on the American Horror Story pilot except for the teen witches and their little witch school. I've been a fan of this show long enough to know that it gets better when the various elements start crossing into one another, but so far it's like disaffected X-Men with okay-I-get-it-already-first-year-in-women's-studies-overt-vagina-magic symbolism. I love everything else, though.

:: Loved loved loved Sam Elliott on Parks and Recreation. In my head there's an alternate version of this show where Rashida Jones is already gone and Sam Elliott and Kristen Bell are on every week.

:: I tried, Hello Ladies, but I guess I just don't care. Have a good run. Without me, though.

Scott Carpenter 1925-2013

"When I reached orbit, the first thing that impressed me was the silence."

It just reached me today that Scott Carpenter, one of the original Mercury astronauts, died on Thursday of complications from a recent stroke. That leaves only John Glenn of the original seven astronauts, the others having preceded him in death. Carpenter was the one who wish Glenn "godspeed" before the launch of the Friendship 7. (He's also reported, unofficially, to have said "Remember, John, this was built by the low bidder.")

Carpenter commanded the Aurora 7, and was the second American to orbit the Earth (and the fourth American in space). He was the subject of some controversy surrounding the problematic reentry of Aurora; after that, he took a leave from NASA to work on the SEALAB project, but he sustained an injury to his left arm in a motorcycle accident and was grounded. He never flew in space again, and resigned from NASA in 1967.

These guys are some of my heroes. I wanted to do what they did for a long time as a kid. I may never have that kind of bravery, but these men continue to inspire me today.

Thank you, Scott, for what you did. Thank all seven of you.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

I WAS BORN, BUT... (1932)
Interesting film by Yasujiro Ozu about two schoolboys who move with their parents to a Tokyo suburb. As they begin school and deal with bullies, their faith in their father is shaken when they see him acting subservient to his boss. They don't understand yet the compromises adults have to make and the roles they sometimes have to play to get by and provide for their families. Ozu made this film without sound, a rare choice in 1932. Deliberately paced, but engrossing. ***1/2

What exactly happened to Spike Lee? When did he get so tone deaf? I guess I've been sort of rediscovering his early work in the past year. Almost a year ago, I watched his third film, Do the Right Thing, for the first time in a couple of decades; what got away from me at age 13 seemed insightful and utterly vital at 36. Back in April, I saw his second film, School Daze, for the first time, and found the film bold, honest, frank and revealing. Now I've watched Lee's first film, She's Gotta Have It, and find myself once again impressed by his voice as a filmmaker and his ability to present multiple viewpoints honestly and frankly. This is a director that I nowadays consider--dismissively, I'll admit--sexist and over-indulgent. When did things change? Maybe I should just keep going through his work to try and pinpoint when it happened. These days, I get either impatient (Miracle at St. Anna) or annoyed (Inside Man) with his films. Sometimes (She Hate Me), I'm openly derisive of them. But his first three films, at least, are utterly engrossing.

This film is especially revolutionary in its depiction of an African-American woman's struggle for independence. Valuing her personal freedom more than being in a relationship, she juggles three suitors, loving the best parts of them, impatient with their worst faults, while living life as an artist in Brooklyn. For each of her men, it's frustrating that she won't just make a decision, but she rejects any attempts to own her. It's clearly done on a low budget, but the inexperience of most of the key people involved makes the film feel alive and energetic; it has something to say and it says it with vibrant characters and a sense of humor. It's a black and white film, but there's one color sequence that I found really magical. I also liked that, unlike other independent films of the time, it shows its characters not as starving artists or as living on the fringes of crime, but as upscale urbanites. ****

One thing I like about this film is that it is almost relentlessly positive about sex and porn. I'm not interested in seeing another film that judges women for getting into pornography; the downward spiral thing is played out, and it's actually refreshing to see a movie where porn doesn't ruin a woman. The problem here is that the movie has no other point of view on its subject. Angelina (Ashley Hinshaw) runs away from home with her best friend/mascot/pet (Dev Patel) and then she just sort of ends up in porn and then it ruins most of her relationships (with her friend, her mother, her uninteresting boyfriend played by James Franco--they all let her down with their disapproval), but she still ends up fine, I guess. For the most part, she's so dim and such a blank that she barely seems to notice things happening to her, and that's where it really kind of infuriates me. She reminds me a little of too many women I've bad experiences with--women that demand unquestioning acceptance without compromise and who seem to genuinely believe that things just happen to them and don't really notice other people. But she's also a total blank slate. She only reacts to things instead of engaging even the terms of her own life. Everything she does is motivated by other people in her life, but she doesn't take responsibility for any of the damage she causes. The film itself seems to take the same route, and neither the story nor the non-character at the center of it are interesting. The only story going on here that's really that interesting is the story of one of Angelina's porn directors (played by Heather Graham) who becomes smitten/mildly obsessed with her, and how it affects her relationship with her girlfriend of several years, but even that doesn't have any real emotional weight behind it. Hinshaw is beautiful and ravishing and seems to enjoy being naked, but her performance is so hollow, and she's not given a real character to play, so it all adds up to nothing. It's nice that the film doesn't make her feel bad for doing porn. Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to feel anything about anything. *1/2

ALI (2001)
I don't really care much for Will Smith anymore, but this is one hell of a great performance. I wish it had been in a better film that gave him room to be more nuanced and play more emotions. Smith embodies Muhammad Ali here, and the film focuses on the perfect decade of his life to focus on--gaining the world championship, then a protracted legal battle to stay out of the Army on principle (and the film makes it clear it was a principled decision), and then his regaining of the title at the Rumble in the Jungle--but the film doesn't really stop to give Ali time to enjoy it all. I actually like the way Michael Mann holds scenes for a long time; I like the way the film gives us impressions of a life and half-conversations of dialogue. I like the feel of that, which is a bit unpolished but engrossing. But didn't Ali ever get to just enjoy himself? Did he find amusement in his fame? Ali here is portrayed as driven and determined and principled and brave and iconic, but I would have liked to have seen that balanced out a little more. The movie just wants to focus on the man's career and his boxing and his struggle; it doesn't breathe to allow us more insight into Ali the man. He's too distant to really root for. The best scenes in the film, I think, are between Ali and Howard Cosell (Jon Voight), when we see more of Ali's human side, more of the trash-talking joker Ali could play. Smith looks like he's having fun in those scenes, and he plays them really well. I wish the film had given us more of that guy. Instead, he's mostly reserved when he's not being symbolic. It's pretty good, but I wish it had just been more engaging. ***

Heartfelt film by Kenji Mizoguchi about a woman who works as a telephone operator for a pharmaceutical company in Osaka. She agrees to become the mistress of her company's tyrannical boss in order to help her father clear a debt, then becomes mistress to another executive to help pay her brother's college tuition. Because of these actions, she is ostracized by the very family she tried to aid, as well as her boyfriend and all of society. The film doesn't let viewers off the hook for reinforcing a society that oftentimes puts women in the position where she only has one option available, and then punishes her for taking it. ***1/2

Another film by Ozu, itself somewhat of a remake of I Was Born, But.... This takes place in a similar Tokyo suburb that is becoming very westernized, and focuses on the difficulties of one family. Everyone believes the mother, Mrs. Hayashi, has stolen the monthly dues of the local women's club, but the money was actually misplaced by Mrs. Haraguchi's senile mother. When the Hayashi children decide to go on strike and stop speaking to any adults until their parents agree to buy them a television, Mrs. Haraguchi thinks she's being snubbed and tries to turn the local housewives against the family. This all flows organically, in a quiet, keenly observed film. Ozu is an excellent filmmaker, and I love the way everything in this neighborhood ends up coming together. I've loved a number of Ozu films, but this is my favorite. ****

As a note to that: I watched two Yasujiro Ozu films recorded from TCM this week, and both times the hosts (Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz) insisted that Ozu was kind of Japan's "third genius," insisting that he wasn't as internationally respected or appreciated as Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi. That's the opposite of my experience; I've been reading Roger Ebert since 1988, and he always talked up Ozu, almost always putting Floating Weeds or Tokyo Story on the list of his favorite films. Mizoguchi I'd never heard of until I was a bit older. Interesting how you can have a different perspective from what the popular version is.

Masterful, but obscure film about a German town in the year leading up to World War I, where tension and acts of violence create a sort of encroaching madness that is never really cleared up. The film challenges us to find order in a world that is piling up with disorder, and I think it's a courageous choice to never really tie it off and explain what's happened. It begins with a doctor who has an accident with a trip wire. We never know who placed it there; we will never know who is behind many of the acts of violence that begin to occur with seeming randomness. There is an interesting humanity under the surface; it seems cold and clinical at first, but I found it merely objective. We are being shown key facts, but it never adds up to an ordered whole. Life seldom does, and we've merely got to go on living it. It's the same here. Director Michael Haneke is making some genuine points about our willingness to surrender ourselves and our freedom and even our search for truth in the face of danger. Bad things simply happen just because they happen, and we can only find a balance in it. ****

"I believe if there's any kind of God it wouldn't be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between. If there's any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it's almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt."

That line of dialogue really jumped out at me in this film. It says a lot about how I feel about both life and about what I most look for these days in movies. Here we have two people in their early twenties (Ethan Hawke and the luminous Julie Delpy) returning from separate trips, meet each other on a train in Austria, and decide to get off and spend the next 12 hours together before he has to catch a flight home to America, after which she'll resume her journey to Paris. There's nothing manufactured in the film's story; it's just these two, getting to know each other, falling in love, and then finally separating. But during that brief amount of time, the film creates that magic described above; the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. They are spontaneous and uninhibited, because they're strangers in an unfamiliar place, and when they're detached from the world, they have the freedom to be caught up only in each other. It has the effect of taking them outside of time and place (and even outside of their generation, despite its reputation as a Generation X movie), and peeling back the layers. There's no time for lies or schemes or illusions; it's just two people dropping the artifice and being open to one another and, briefly, the world. It's beautiful. There's one scene where the two of them, realizing their feelings for one another, sit in a listening booth, each trying to look at the other and turning away before the other looks back. The film does more with that series of looks than many films about young people falling in love do in 90 minutes. ****

HALLOWEEN: Peanuts, 1965

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

HALLOWEEN: Yotsuba&!

If you ever get a chance, read this manga. It's one of my favorite things in the world.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Marvels: Tales to Astonish #39

"The Vengeance of the Scarlet Beetle!" by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(January 1963)

In a recent Nerdist interview, Stan Lee said that one of the big problems with the Ant-Man stories is that the artists didn't play up the scale enough. By always depicting Ant-Man as small against something regular-sized, like a styrofoam cup or a coin, the reader would've been given a constant reminder of just how weird Ant-Man's world could be. Instead, by always presenting the action at Ant-Man's level, the artists de-emphasized that element and made him seem like just another superhero performing mundane crimefighting. Without the science fiction, it just came across as ordinary.

Now, granted, this is still early for the Ant-Man, and there have been stories (like "The Challenge of Comrade X!") where the size scale was played up in a way that made the story seem more ridiculous, but Stan Lee also has a point. Only a five issues in now, and we're already pretty used to Ant-Man's view of the world. When Ant-Man goes into an insect hole, as he does here, and mixes in among the bugs, it already seems like old hat. There's no wonder to it, no weirdness. It's become routine.

More attention to scale would have paid off in this story, I think, in which Ant-Man finds himself facing a radioactive, superintelligent beetle who wants to lead an insect rebellion against humanity. The Scarlet Beetle has gained sentience as a result of exposure to radioactivity, and his first step--after whipping up every nearby insect into a revolutionary frenzy--is to strip Ant-Man of his helmet (so he can't communicate with his ants) and his enlarging gas. He becomes gigantic and leaves Henry Pym to die in a hole underground while he destroys civilization.

The ants, however, remain loyal friends to Ant-Man, and bring him his helmet. They fight wave after wave of insect battalions, but the final showdown is between Pym and the human-sized Scarlet Beetle in a toy store, where Pym hits him with the reducing gas, traps him in a balloon, and then removes the radioactive element in his lab, turning the Scarlet Beetle back into a regular old beetle. This being 1963, there's no ethical question about removing a being's newly-developed sentience. It's not Star Trek.

It's breezy and moves fast, and it's got more action than you usually get from Ant-Man stories, but I wish it had been even weirder. You've got hordes of insects killing each other in a bid to overthrow humankind, but instead it's just treated as a weird aberration. When the attacks stop, people just shrug it off as unusual, but easy to ignore.

Where are the stakes, man?

Next: the Fantastic Four spend some time answering your letters.

Kristen Bell Mondays


Sunday, October 06, 2013

Song of the Week: "No Myth"

I remember when this song came out in 1989. At that time, I was pretty unhappy (parents divorcing, the least popular kid in school), and spending a lot of time by myself or running out to see Batman over and over again. Back then, VH1 was still pretty new, and they were supposed to be the more-adult-contemporary version of MTV. I liked a lot of the music, though--MTV was all house music at that point--and this was probably my favorite song that year. It was on the VH1 countdown for months. And this song, I don't know, it just made me feel okay. And it still does. I love this thing.

I actually didn't know until today that Michael Penn was Sean Penn's brother. Go figure.

Marvels: Strange Tales #104

"The Human Torch Meets Paste-Pot Pete!" by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(January 1963)

In one afternoon, Johnny Storm gets repeatedly outsmarted by possibly the most jaw-droppingly lame villain we've seen so far in Marvel Comics. (But stay tuned, Ant-Man fans, because eventually the Porcupine is coming.)

This guy is Paste-Pot Pete. He shoots glue at things. That's it. I mean, he's also a thief, but the glue thing is his shtick. He carries around a rather cumbersome pot filled with paste, which fuels that glue gun he's got there. It's like a flamethrower, but for paste. Paste. And he also dresses like a painter's assistant in the Renaissance. This is like a Danish fairy tale gone wrong.

So, he robs a bank--I think the same bank that the Wizard robbed while disguised as the Human Torch back in Strange Tales #102--and escapes because he can glue people to walls or glue a cop's hand to his sidearm holster or glue police car doors shut or glue peoples' feet to the ground. Apparently this miracle glue hardens pretty quickly.

So, let me just posit this: you've somehow (we don't know how) made a miracle, fast-acting adhesive that is, we see later, strong enough to pull a rocket out of the air and drag it, and your first thought is crime spree? Because my first thought is patent it and license the shit out of it. Think of the industries that can use this thing! And hell, why not the military! Every scientist in the Marvel Universe is working on inventions for the military, why not be the next one? You're going to make more money selling this thing than you ever would robbing banks and committing treason. I mean, he actually comes across as a smart guy--smart enough to outsmart the Human Torch, anyway, which granted is a small victory considering the guy actually once forgot there wasn't any oxygen in outer space. But come on, dude. Don't be a chump like Spider-Man and spend decades scrambling for any job you can while ignoring that you've invented something that would make you a fortune!

What would you rather do? Retire a rich man, or walk around dressed like Hans Holbein's mentally challenged cousin and shoot jizz at cops for a short term payday of probably-marked bills?

(I promise, that's my last off-color joke in a story just begging for them, what with its paste guns and rockets and other brazen symbols.)

Anyway, Pete escapes from the cops and the Torch, then heads right over to a military base where they're test-firing a new rocket, which Pete manages to pluck out of the air with his paste gun and drive off with, determined to sell it to the Russians. When the Torch chases after him, Paste-Pot Pete's reflexes are so "lightning-fast" that he manages to drive this unwieldy semi-truck--which looks like the kind you haul lumber with--so well that he dodges every single one of the Torch's flame spears. So, not only can he make this amazing paste, he can also drive a semi like a stuntman. You are wasting your time on this crime nonsense, pal.

I'll be honest, too: the story dynamics here get away from Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby a bit on this one. So, Pete has fled the military base, and he's got a stolen rocket in his truck, and we even see him take the time to use his glue to pull some lumber over and cross a ditch the Human Torch has burned in his path. The art has made this look like Pete's well out on the open highway by now, but apparently he's somehow still on the military base, even though no one else is trying to stop him. He must still be at the base, though, because when Johnny's flame starts to run out, he starts to fall to the ground, only to have Pete use his paste gun to attach Johnny to another rocket, which then just takes off with Johnny glued to it.

I like that the Human Torch has this weakness: that he can only use his flame for so long before he has to stop and rest. That seems kind of realistic to me, in my dilettantish knows-nothing-about-science way. It seems, I dunno, scientifish.

And there is some genuine suspense with Johnny glued to the rocket; he can barely muster his flame at this point, but he needs to use what little he can to get through the glue without igniting the warhead. When he does free himself, though, I feel like he gets back to Pete and that truck awfully fast. I mean, that rocket went so high you could see the curve of the Earth. They shoot those things almost into space, right?

Melting the truck around Pete (Johnny's really pissed off now), he destroys the paste pot and creates a flaming wall around Pete. He's got him now, right? Nope. Pete uses his last shot to snag a passing jet and gets pulled away. That's right. He can snag onto a plane from the freaking ground, and this guy's wasting this stuff on a crime spree. An unsuccessful crime spree. And then Pete just gets away. He actually has a boat waiting for him. A freaking boat.

So, on the one hand, the guy's kind of a genius. On the other, he's a huge dope.

(Also, was that private jet flying through military airspace? Where they're testing rockets? Come on, Larry, pay attention to what's going on.)

Fun story, though, baffling as it is. Silly in a Scooby Doo sort of way, but entertaining. What I enjoy about these solo Human Torch stories right now is just their gleeful silliness. I mean, they're not intentionally silly, but they also aren't serious or totally dull. They're like a little brother to the Fantastic Four stories--not as ambitious or emotional, not as grand, and they're kind of dumb in an endearing way. I dig them a lot more than, say, Ant-Man.

Speaking of...

Next up: Ant-Man faces a giant, superintelligent beetle.

HALLOWEEN: Der Erlkönig

This'll be in addition to the Song of the Week this week. I just woke up this morning and, checking in on the AV Club's "What's On Tonight?" entry, I saw that tonight's episode of Boardwalk Empire is titled "Erlkönig," and I immediately had to hear this music. I haven't made a Halloween mix this year, but on the years I do make it, I always like to put this Franz Schubert piece on there. I thought I'd play it and post it while it's still gloomy and dark this morning (it's actually supposed to be pretty sunny today).

I don't post a lot of art music on here, but this is one of my all-time favorites. It's a Lied by Franz Schubert; the lyrics are text from a poem by Goethe with the same title based on the German legend of the Erlking, a supernatural being (sometimes called the Elf-King, but Alder-King is more literal and somehow darker) The Erlking haunts forests and carries off travelers. The poem is about a boy being carried home by his father on horseback at night. The boy begins to see the Erlking approaching, but the father cannot see him and tries to reassure his son that it's merely fog, or willows in the dark, or rustling leaves. But the boy is attacked by an assailant the father cannot see, and tries to rush home faster, but when he makes it home, the boy is dead.

The hoofbeats of the horse are represented by the song's only accompaniment: the rapid triplet beats of the piano. Their shifting speed represents not just the literal horse, but also the emotional state of the characters: the narrator, the father, the son, and the Erlking. All four are sung by one baritone in different registers and with different rhythmic nuances. It's a challenging piece for both singer and piano player.

I don't know anything about this performance, other than the name of the baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. I literally typed "erlkonig" into YouTube, and this was the first thing that came up. Looking him up on Wikipedia, I see he died last year at the age of 86 and had an impressive career. He was held in high regard. Makes me feel like a jerk for this paragraph. His performance here is tremendous.