Saturday, September 15, 2012

In Between

Every year the Gobelins school has something really wonderful, and this year it's this beautiful short about a girl being tormented by a crocodile. Alice Bissonnet, Aloyse Desoubries Binet, Sandrine Hanji Kuang, Juliette Laurent, and Sophie Markatatos created this student film with a great underlying message: that you can accept and even embrace that shyness is a part of who you are without letting it control you.

80s Revisited: An American Werewolf in London

An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Written and directed by John Landis; produced by George Folsey, Jr.

I saw this was on Netflix and since I'm in the mood for spooky movies, I decided it was pretty ripe for an 80s Revisited post. I've seen it before a couple of times--once in high school, once just after--but I never really "got" it. Hell, the second time I watched it, I fell asleep halfway through. So I figured it was time to really sit and decode this movie that, when I first saw it in 1991, was being sold to me by people I knew as a horror comedy classic.

Turns out that, 20 years later, I still don't get it. But I'm really not sure that John Landis gets it, either.

I hate to be one of these guys, but: is this a horror movie with some funny bits in it or a comedy with an uncomfortable amount of gore? Because it only mildly succeeds at being either one, and neither parts fit comfortably together.

In this movie, David Naughton and Griffin Dunne play two college students backpacking across England who are attacked by a werewolf. Dunne dies, and Naughton survives to fall in love with his nurse (Jenny Agutter, so I don't blame him for a second, because wow do I really dig her). Then Dunne visits him, one of the living dead, cursed to decompose in limbo until the line of the werewolf who killed him is ended forever; he urges Naughton to kill himself before he turns into a wolf and starts slaughtering people. And that's where the drama and suspense are supposed to come from, except the drama doesn't really work and it's not that suspenseful.

I hate to sound like I'm being a dick about this movie, because there were parts of it that I thought worked really well. There were even things that I thought were great, like the makeup (particularly on Griffin Dunne, who is more rotted every time we see him) and some of the werewolf mythology. There are some truly scary dream sequences that seem like they're pulled out of a particularly disturbing issue of Heavy Metal. When it's acting like an old Hammer flick and just enjoying its atmosphere and mood, I'm really into it. When it's a drama about a college kid falling in love with an English nurse, I'm less engaged. Griffin Dunne is really good and engaging in this; David Naughton seems personable, but except for a touching scene where he's planning to commit suicide but first calls and talks to his little sister in America and asks her to tell their parents that he loves them, I just wasn't caught up in his story.

And the combination of humor and gore don't really work here, because a lot of the gore is really sort of hard-edged. It doesn't mesh with the moments of lightness. The upbeat soundtrack seems gimmicky; there's a dramatic scene of poor David Naughton, killed by police fire, freed from the werewolf's curse, and then Landis smash-cuts to the end credits and the Marcels' version of "Blue Moon." It's just not as witty as he thinks it is.

Maybe I'm complaining because he does too good a job in getting me to care about David's well-being and what happens to him, but then expects me to laugh at the irony of juxtaposing the drama of his death with upbeat tunes. It just doesn't work for me, and it kind of makes me feel like John Landis doesn't really care as much about the parts of his film that really work. He's making fun of them instead of committing to them.

Still, the movie inspired a Meco song that's a Halloween staple for me, so that's pretty good.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Moment Romney Lost the Election

I feel now like we'll all be able to look back on the attacks on US Embassies in Libya and Egypt as the moment that Mitt Romney lost the election. He just couldn't wait to turn the whole situation to his political advantage and came out looking bumbling, inexperienced, and ill-prepared at best. He also looked like a monstrous opportunist. This was a severe miscalculation on Romney's part, and I hope there are a lot of people out there looking at this and thinking "That's right, he's not really a politician. He has zero foreign policy experience and apparently doesn't have the aptitude for it. He didn't even mention the troops or the war in Afghanistan when he accepted the nomination."

Romney's made a lot of mistakes--Paul Ryan, his repeated lies, his ridiculous attempts to paint himself as one of the common people when he clearly loathes us. But this mistake will go down as the biggest of his long, long, fucking interminable campaign. Hosting an Olympics and hiding money overseas is not foreign policy experience, Mittwit. Neither is hiding in a French castle so you don't have to go fight in Vietnam. Congratulations: you're no longer running against the guy who isn't fixing the economy fast enough. You're running against the guy who captured and killed Osama bin Laden and helped finally take down Gaddafi. You don't know foreign policy. You don't have a clue. And it's your own fault. I love it when idiots and assholes take themselves down with their own stupidity.

Stop talking about foreign relations and stick to what you know best: tax evasion.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Making of The Empire Strikes Back

Well, that took me a while to get.

After reading and loving JW Rinzler's The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film, I was excited to start the second book right away. Turns out my library somehow lost their copy of the book. I was going to get it through inter-library loan, but then they decided to completely change the card catalog program, so I was stuck waiting until that was ready. So now, finally, I was able to sit down and read this book.

I loved it just as much as the first. Again, Rinzler manages to create suspense where, based on what we know historically, none should really exist. I know that The Empire Strikes Back was made and released and was a gigantic success. But Rinzler is a talented writer and there are times in the book when I wonder, jeez, what's going to happen? Is everyone going to get out of this okay? I realized while reading it that, unlike Star Wars, I haven't really read that much in my life about the making of the second film. This one presents a definitive story. And like the film whose making it chronicles, it's both a wonderful book on its own and a nice return to a world that the author has already made us comfortable spending time in.

Some things that struck me about the production of the film:

:: George Lucas had in mind both a lava planet and a city planet, both of which would finally appear in the prequels. He also had, for some time in the story, "tall, thin, white, ethereal aliens" which seem to have become the Kaminoans of Attack of the Clones.

:: The original title Lucas had for a while was Star Wars Chapter II: The Empire Strikes Back. Again, the question remains of how big this saga was meant to be. Early on in the development of the sequel, Lucas is outlining a prologue film, three episodes, and calling Star Wars episode 5 and The Empire Strikes Back episode 6, with one other film and an epilogue to follow. By the end, after the movie's released, he's talking about 9 or 10 movies. And somewhere in the middle, he talks about the entire saga as though it were to be a continuous, ongoing series of films, with himself directing one "in about 20 years."

Sometimes I wonder if there's more we'll never see because he's tired of the way people bitch about everything he does "wrong."

:: Some of the plot elements that are left behind are kind of interesting. There's a whole development about Han Solo's stepfather being a guild master who would be the key to a massive assault if he joined the Rebel Alliance. That would've been a more interesting way to play it out for the third movie, but it kind of cuts the drama in the third act of Empire. Maybe they could have made it work; for most of the third movie, Han Solo doesn't seem to really have a story arc.

I also find it interesting that George Lucas had meant from the beginning for Leia to really love Han and for Luke to move into the more monastic life of a Jedi Knight. One of the major criticisms I hear from the internet "fans" is that the trilogy resolves a complex love triangle with the cliche of Luke and Leia being siblings, but I never felt there was an ounce of complexity in the love triangle or that one even existed. I find it interesting here that in his notes Lucas is already envisioning the possibility of a long-lost sister for Luke who is also learning about the Force. I wonder how long that's been in his back pocket. In the book, they talk about Mark Hamill's car accident and Lucas says if Mark had died he'd have found another Skywalker relative to go with instead of recasting Luke. Was that the inspiration? (Somewhat-related: I always thought it was fairly clever to have Luke get swiped in the face by the Wampa at the beginning of the film to explain why he looks so different, if that's a concern for anyone.)

There are notes, too, about Ben Kenobi and whether he'll appear as a ghost of the Force or Luke will only hear his voice. The original treatment and Leigh Brackett's first draft feature Luke's father as a Force ghost, too, so he's not Vader yet.

:: Speaking of Leigh Brackett, I thought it was pretty classy for George to give her a screen credit, even though he didn't like or use her draft. (I've read it; it's not bad, it's just not in the tone of Star Wars.)

:: And speaking of Luke's father, it was smart of George to not tell anyone about that development until they shot the scene. I was amused a bit by how he had David Prowse say different lines on the set because Prowse had rather loose lips when it came to plot leaks. (Prowse, for his part, was annoyed because he'd have played the scene differently had he known.)

:: It's interesting to see, too, how the story was more or less there right away; the drafts of Star Wars were all wildly different from one another, but The Empire Strikes Back stayed more or less constant.

:: The book does gloss over the horrible Star Wars Holiday Special. Let's have a book about the making of that awful thing. I'm just fascinated by what kind of thinking went into such a miscalculation. (Though I'm sure it was mostly along the lines of "Need money to finish movie.")

:: I was fascinated by the discussion of the growth of Lucasfilm as a corporate entity because the business aspect of filmmaking is always kind of fascinating to me, but I thought it was sad watching the close-knit community atmosphere of this group of people slowly and inevitably turn into a corporate culture. One of the necessary evils of achieving filmmaking independence, I suppose.

:: Boy, George Lucas really put himself on the line with this one. How many filmmakers do you ever see who have such a belief in their vision that they put themselves on the hook for literally millions and millions of dollars? In the late 70s, sequels never did as well as their original counterparts--and Empire didn't; it was phenomenally successful, but still didn't equal the success of Star Wars--and if the movie had failed, he'd probably still be paying back the money he borrowed. He would have been financially ruined. Big risk, but what a reward.

His success allowed him to talk at the time about wanting to change the nature of the filmmaking process itself--he points out rightly that film photography is a 19th century technology and that he'd like to update it and make it more accessible. He was talking in 1980 about doing things that have only become possible in the last 15 or so years. That's a big part of the reason why these films are so important in the history of entertainment; they changed the way films are physically made. You can draw a line from Industrial Light & Magic to kids who can make and edit movies with a laptop, an internet connection, and a Flip camera.

:: The biggest triumph of The Empire Strikes Back is Yoda, and I was especially interested to see how that developed. I didn't realized they'd saved his scenes for the end, mainly because they couldn't figure out how to make him work for so long. (There are some amusing pictures of a monkey wearing a mask in the book, one of many failed attempts to find a way to realize Yoda.)

I also find it interesting that they tried to get Frank Oz an Oscar nomination. There was some talk from the time of whether or not Darth Vader or See Threepio could be nominated as actors. They don't mention it here, but I remember reading once where James Earl Jones had asked to be uncredited on Star Wars because of similar talk about who should have been nominated for playing Regan in The Exorcist.

:: I was so young in the interim between Empire and Return of the Jedi that I had forgotten that there was a debate over whether or not Darth Vader was lying when he claimed to be Luke's father.

:: For me, the heroes of the film's production are really Irvin Kershner and Mark Hamill.

Kershner comes across in a really fascinating way. I know he could be slow-paced (he needed a stronger producer than Gary Kurtz, I think), but his sort of holistic approach to filmmaking is utterly fascinating to me. The way he keeps talking about zen, for example, or the way he kept trying to direct Yoda as a person instead of directing Frank Oz... I just found it all really interesting. I think he's one of the major reasons that the film is so believable; he led that from the set. There's also a long sequence in the book where he, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Billy Dee Williams discuss the scene where Han and Leia say goodbye. It's transcribed from a behind-the-scenes recording, and it's completely fascinating. You can see the frayed nerves and bruised egos and frazzled tension that come with being on a project of this magnitude for so long, but the insight into the creative process and the amount of thought being given to each scene and each line are powerful to read.

Mark Hamill, for his part, was the real workhorse of the cast. No one worked as much or as long as he did, sometimes through injuries and sickness and his wife giving birth while they were shooting. The blizzard conditions in Norway alone would have tired me right out, but he really kept going, sometimes putting his life in danger on those sets. I always loved the guy, but I really have a new respect for him as a professional after reading this book.

Just as I felt after reading the first, I feel like the least I can do is watch the movie today. They went to a lot of effort for a film that I've enjoyed as often as possible ever since.

Man, I can't wait for the next book to come out.

Film Week

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

Fun little scene of Agent Coulson kicking ass between Iron Man 2 and Thor. Cute. I'm one of the people hoping they find some way of bringing Coulson back. ***

COMRADES (1911) **
THE MANICURE LADY (1911) **1/2
WITH A KODAK (1912) **
THE WATER NYMPH (1912) ***
Some Mack Sennett films (TCM is showing a great many of them this month). A lot of the comedy is pretty obvious and silly, par for the course with these silent shorts (though it's worth pointing out that a lot of these old saws had never been captured on film before), but some of them have decent set-ups. The Curtain Pole in particular has some fun with the medium itself, doing what amounts to early special effects and camera tricks. A Dash Through the Clouds has some great shots of small planes taking off and landing, as well as Mabel Normand, who is also very funny in The Water Nymph.

Bizarre, stilted film about a young woman (Candace Hilligoss) who survives a car accident. Her life after that becomes a David Lynch movie, with strange men in white make-up appearing and sleazy guys hitting on her. Only one of these may be because there's something wrong with her; the other is just unfortunate. It's not exactly a well-made movie, but there are some great moments that are worth the amateurishness, and a day later I find that there's a haunting feeling that won't go away when I think about it. ***

Just no. *

Vincent Price as a horror actor trying to make a comeback years after a terrible trauma. Pretty decent mystery and atmosphere, but the real reason to watch is Price's excellent performance. ***


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

MasterChef Observations

So Christine wins. I called that back in June. Freaking June? Okay, I know I keep harping on this, but this show is on way too long. If you desperately want to show 20 episodes of this thing, next time start it the second week of July and let it go four nights a week for five weeks. Momentum is key, and by last night, the drama was long over and my heart just wasn't it. The only time I felt anything at all was when I was irritated by the judges discussing each course. It was extremely annoying to me that Gordon and Graham were talking about Josh's undercooked lobster as though professional presentation and ambition were somehow substitutes for having food that was cooked all the way. Seriously? Jeez, guys, have you ever heard that phrase about polishing a turd? Yeah, because if I'm going to buy a cookbook, the first thing I worry about is whether the food is presented well and ambitious. Actual taste is a tertiary concern at best. Flavor? Bah, don't be so pedantic!

Anyway, the winner seemed pretty predetermined, and good for Christine, even though I never totally warmed up to her. Joe's been obsessed with her blindness since day one, and last night I felt like he was stopping just short of asking her if she ever could sense when the lights were off and how she actually managed to handle herself in bathrooms. It was hard to get to know her as a person and as a talented chef when the show kept reinforcing that we weren't watching a person, we were watching a blind person who was a symbol of overcoming a handicap. I got so sick of MasterChef insisting on what Christine symbolized. I would've liked to have gotten to relate to her as a person with talent, not a blind person with talent which is amazing because she's also blind.

Anyway, I'll have forgotten all about this show in a couple of weeks, except for my pleasant memories of Monti Carlo, and then we'll just do it again next year and it'll go on far too long again.

:: I think the right person won Hell's Kitchen, I guess. I didn't really care about Christina winning so much as I just didn't want Justin to win because his whole "Fight for me because I deserve to win" attitude was very grating. And hey, we got to see Royce in action again. Royce never seems to know where he is or what's going on; he's like a seagull with a head injury, wandering around in a daze and making the occasional squawky noise. Rehab, dude.

Only observation that mattered for me last night: Christina's partner is extremely hot.

Until next year, I guess.

If that all seemed like afterthoughts, well, so did both finales. Seriously, it's almost Halloween, who gives a shit anymore? You've worn out your welcomes.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Song of the Week: "Ronan"

Remember when I said I didn't like Taylor Swift's new song at all but hoped I'd like the next one? I sure do. This is when she's at her best: effortlessly but devastatingly emotional. It's one of the saddest country songs I've ever heard, and I'm a Dolly Parton fan. It's about childhood cancer, and even though she's not the woman in the song, she can sell the emotions believably. More like this, please. But not exactly like this, because it made me cry my eyes out. It reminded me a lot of losing Ellen. Proceed with caution. (Incidentally, I should thank Sam for making sure I heard this, because I really do love it; I find this kind of thing can be very cathartic.)