Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

This movie made me feel old. It's not as though I didn't grow up playing video games (I did) but video games have just never been a point of reference for me. So the entire central conceit of this film--that Scott Pilgrim (the meek antihero played by Michael Cera, natch) must battle his new girlfriend Ramona's (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seven evil exes in video game fashion--made almost no sense to me. The heavily referential fight sequences got incredibly tiresome to me, to the point where, at the end of the movie, I was just ready for it to be over with.

There were amusing bits in the film, especially the more grounded scenes involving Scott's band, or Scott's gay roommate (a dry and funny Kieran Culkin), and Mary Elizabeth Winstead looked great as a deadpan enigma with changing hair. But there was no real emotional heft to any of it. In the end I didn't really think that Scott Pilgrim deserved Ramona Flowers.

I read somewhere that the director Edgar Wright wanted to end the film with a glimpse at a newspaper with its headline about a young psychotic man that killed the ex-boyfriends of a girl he was obsessed with. Personally, I think that would have been a perfect ending. A psychotic who thinks he's living in a video game world: now that's a movie I understand.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Poetry Monday

The More Loving One

by W. H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Slam the Big Door (1960)

Nice to read a wholly successful John D. thriller after reading his horrible sci-fi exercise. This wasn't one of his best but there were lots of great things in it. The hero is Mike Rodenska, a widower who is invited down to his old friend's house on the west coast of Florida for a vacation. What he finds is a crooked land deal, lots of potential bed-mates, lots of drinking, bad behavior, and morally suspect characters. The best thing about this novel was that the hero, Mike, was not the typical MacDonald male. He is often described as overweight, balding and out-of-shape. It was a nice touch, and a bit unusual for the books of this period where the main character is usually a tall, handsome lug in the Don Draper mode.

Other notables: not the best book but the final chapter (or epilogue) is great. Also, the penultimate chapter is all about the demise of a certain character, who dies in a head-on collision. Remember that scene in Death Proof, where Tarantino shows about seventy-three different angles of the head-on that kills all of the first half principals. This chapter is the literary equivalent of that, with MacDonald going over exactly what happens to bodies involved in the worst possible type of car crashes. It's explicit and a little unnecessary, but then again it's pulp fiction, right, emphasis on pulp?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The last scene of Saboteur

I saw Saboteur again last night on the big screen at the Brattle in Harvard Square. It's very middling Hitchcock, a film that never completely comes together, in plot or vision. I do, however, love the last scene, the only famous moment in the movie when the hero and villain climb out onto the torch of the Statue of Liberty. One of the things I love about the sequence is how varied the shots are. We don't just get an establishing shot of the statue followed by close-ups of the action, we get this complex series of Matte shots. Here's a few of them below. Maybe next I'll re-watch the first X-Men film and compare their sequence that takes place on top of theStatue of Liberty. I remember the action being great but I don't recall any cuts to a longshot of the statue at all.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Poetry Monday

It Isn't Me

by James Lasdun

It isn’t me, he’d say,
stepping out of a landscape
that offered, he’d thought, the backdrop
to a plausible existence
until he entered it; it’s just not me,
he’d murmur, walking away.

It’s not quite me, he’d explain,
apologetic but firm,
leaving some job they’d found him.
They found him others: he’d go,
smiling his smile, putting
his best foot forward, till again

he’d find himself reluctantly concluding
that this, too, wasn’t him.
He wanted to get married, make a home,
unfold a life among his neighbors’ lives,
branching and blossoming like a tree,
but when it came to it, it isn’t me

was all he seemed to learn
from all his diligent forays outward.
And why it should be so hard
for someone not so different from themselves,
to find what they’d found, barely even seeking;
what gift he’d not been given, what forlorn

charm of his they’d had the luck to lack,
puzzled them—though not unduly:
they lived inside their lives so fully
they couldn’t, in the end, believe in him,
except as some half-legendary figure
destined, or doomed, to carry on his back

the weight of their own all-but-weightless, stray
doubts and discomforts. Only sometimes,
alone in offices or living rooms,
they’d hear that phrase again: it isn’t me,
and wonder, briefly, what they were, and where,
and feel the strangeness of being there.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Princess and the Frog (2010)

I wanted to love this movie. Just the fact that Disney made a hand-drawn animated film again, one that didn't have celebrity voices (well, a few) and one that didn't have contemporary references, and hip jokes for parents. Not to mention that it was a distinctly African American film, set in New Orleans with jazz and Cajun music.

Too bad that the movie was not very good. The biggest problem was that the whole middle section, when the heroes of the film are frogs, was poorly paced and uninteresting. The character design was weak. I didn't like either the trumpet-playing crocodile or the Cajun firefly, both of whom were supposed to lend humor and emotion to the story. The romance didn't work out, since the characters were mainly frogs, and not very expressive or dynamic. The best character was the villain, the shadow man, a voodoo practitioner with a shadow that lives its own life. Unfortunately I never truly understood his motivations.

Another problem: the music. I'm just not a fan of Randy Newman. He worked okay for the Toy Story films, where his music was more in the background. But for a movie like this, the music really needs to drive the film, and it didn't. The catchiest song in the film was probably the Ne-Yo song that played over the end credits.

The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything (1962)

I'd been looking forward to reading this book for years. It's one of John D.'s few forays into science fiction, about a gold watch with the ability to stop time for everyone but the person who is holding it. This is also one of John D.'s few books that was turned into a movie, in this case a TV movie starring Pam Dawber which, based on the Youtube clips I saw, looked godawful.

About the book, it's pretty terrible, and maybe the only MacDonald novel that I just couldn't finish (I sped-read through to the end). It has a kind of joking, comedic tone that doesn't work at all, and the central conceit, the watch that stops time, gets very boring after a while. This would have made a much better novella or even short story.

The other big problem with this book is that it's laughably prurient. A huge set-piece early on involves the main character's girlfriend pulling off the bathing suits of all the woman on the beach while time is stopped, and then restarting the world with predictably wacky results. It made me think of Patrick Stewart's cameo on Extras and his "screenplay."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Step Up 3D (2010)

This is a special guest-post from film critic/dance aficionado Jon Steinback, who caught Step Up 3D at midnight in Manhattan on opening night.

An enthusiastic 90-minute dance extravaganza, driven by the charm of Adam Sevani ("Moose") and the audience's reaction to the increasingly improbable chain of events. To delve into the plot would give the writers too much credit. Suffice to say that dance crews battle with menacing villains (the Samurai!), led by the chiseled cheekbones of their trust-fund-double-crossing-gambling-addicted-dance-battle-thrower leader, all while idealistic young dancers struggle to pay off their dance mecca's mortgage. The 3d seemed tacked on in non-dance moments (as did the acting and plot), but, during the choreographed numbers, this movie truly shines. It's pleasing to see a big-budget dance lovefest handled with such gravity. Jon M. Chu, the director of this and Step Up 2: The Streets (and the equally serious The LXD on Hulu), is in his groove. The opening-night audience loved it, even with the improbable escape for the two protagonists (finding a better life by hopping on a train from NY to LA).

The dance battle that followed, in the hallway of our theatre, summed the mood perfectly:

Film Frames Friday

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Pale Horse (1961)

This is the sort of book that Agatha Christie absolutely excels at. It's starting point is an absolutely over-the-top murder method designed to be perfect, and it combines a popular-at-the-time hint of the supernatural. What's great about this book is that at several points the reader has absolutely no idea how she is going to pull it all together and come up with a rational solution. And then she does, of course, because she is simply the best plotter in the mystery canon.

So who's in it? It doesn't matter, of course. Some young attractive people, a wily Inspector, and Ariadne Oliver, the mystery writer who shows up in a few of Christie's books. The Pale Horse is an old pub, now inhabited by three witch-like ladies. Local rumor has it that they can kill from a distance. A lot of fun, and I'm sure it would make a terrible movie.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Rolling Thunder (1977)

A nice little revenge flick from the 1970s with William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones as POWs returning home from Vietnam. Devane comes back to a distant wife, and a son who is a stranger to him, and then has to deal with a vicious home invasion. Through it all he remains placid and steely and you know that by the end of the film he is going to wreak some serious havoc. This was written by Paul Schrader and it makes a nice bookend with Taxi Driver, a very similar picture, although almost an inverse. William Devane's character is incredibly sane. Going on a killing spree with a hook for a hand is a natural response to the insanity around him. He's basically a trustworthy Travis Bickle. As pulpy as this film sounds, and it's pretty pulpy, it's also a well-made drama and a bleak character portrait of returning soldiers.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Date Night (2010)

I thought this was an entertaining, well-paced film even though it wasn't actually that funny. Part of the problem is that Steve Carell and Tina Fey are arguably the two funniest people on television right now, in two of the juiciest sit-com roles--Michael Scott and Liz Lemon. So it's kind of underwhelming to see them in less than stellar material. Still, they were likable and the film had some decent scenes, and some nice cameo roles, including Mark Wahlberg as a perpetually shirtless black ops security expert.