September 02, 2005
I am not a browncoat. Not even a digital one.
And yet Wednesday night, at a screening of the upcoming movie Serenity, I found myself surrounded by them.
Browncoats are the fans of a science fiction series with an even shorter life than the Star Trek cartoon series: Firefly. The screening was the tail end of an innovative marketing campaign, designed to spread word-of-mouth among fans, and to take advantage of their feedback. Read more about the phenomenon, here.
Judging both by the results, and the enthusiasm of the fans, I'd say they've succeeded. One high-schooler I spoke with claimed to have seen the film four times. "We got to meet some of the actors, too. Dorks. We're just total dorks," he said, as only one confidently bedorked can.
Firefly was canceled after 11 episodes - currently being rerun on the SciFi Channel - but the sharp dialogue and down-to-earn characters earned it the dreaded cult following. The crew members on Captain Malcom Reynolds's Serenity are losers in a solar civil war, reduced to being outlaws to make ends meet. They're also harboring a psychic, trained to be a lethal fighting weapon. (Being a psychic would help in, say, anticipating your adversary's next move.) The winners in the civil war, the Alliance, have dispatched a British-accented assassin to track down and kill the psychic before she can be turned against the Alliance.
Since the producers are smart enough to understand that they'll need to expand their audience beyond the fanbase of a half-season TV series, all of this is explained in a pre-credits 15-minute sequence. All I can say is, watch those transitions.
The film itself follows Serenity as it fights to survive while unraveling a terrible secret about the Alliance. That secret involves yet another party, not a side in the civil war, the "Reevers," monsters who could be Orcs Release 7.0, but who in fact are human.
Serenity works on two levels: as an ensemble piece about Serenity and its insubordinate crew, and about the nature of the perfectability of Man. Like most one-part ensemble pieces, there's not time for more than a facet or two of each character. But since stories about leadership are more interesting than stories about followers, we get to see more of Reynolds's wrinkles than other characters.
While the crew acts as voices for the conflicting values that Reynolds must balance, it's not as though they don't have personalities. They're all likeable, and the Browncoats' affection for them is palpable. The witty, smart dialogue doesn't reduce them all to smart-alecks, but
As for the Perfectability of Man, the Alliance and its assassin seek "a universe without sin," while Reynolds is bored by sermons and embraces human flaws. Those who might mistake the Alliance for a charicature of American religious conservatives should be reminded that traditional conservatism takes man's flaws for granted. The greatest horrors in the name of human perfectability were committed by 20th Century Leftists, and that belief in perfectability still drives much of the modern liberal agenda, although comparisons to Pol Pot and Lenin would be more than a little over-the-top.
The creators have simplified matters considerably by not including aliens. The solar system in question was settled by colonists from earth, and evidently didn't harbor indiginous intelligent life. Good. While some might lament the loss of stand-ins for "diversity," there's not much room for Vulcans in a story about Fallen Man.
As always with space science fiction, the special effects count for a lot. I only found myself shaking my head twice, once when the gas from the ship clearly clumped up as though it were encountering resistance in the vacuum, and another where the Serenity's, er, hard landing, reminded me more of a Dr. Who episode than a big-budget flick.
But these moments stood out only because the crew has gone to lengths to get other details right. The ship's opening sequence for instance, features an atmospheric re-entry that actually remembers there's heat and friction involved.
In fact, the movie's whole look smacks of realism. Whedon and his group have mastered the futuristic-grunge look, the one that started with Blade Runner and seen most recently in Minority Report. The one where dirt and disorder coexist nicely with nifty new technology. In one scene, the captain casually tosses a paper-thin video capture onto his chaotic desk. And believe me, I know chaotic desks.
And that's the real strength of Serenity, the reason that with any justice, it should run for weeks at the top of the box office. It's irreverent without being self-parody. It's serious science fiction that doesn't take itself too seriously, the way The Incredible did for superhero cartoons.
Now, excuse me while I check the listings for the Firefly marathon.
August 16, 2005
Astaire & Rogers
One of the worst mistakes I've made while trying to do work. TCM had a Fred Astaire marathon yesterday, and I spent the evening and wee hours trying to write code in front of the TV. If they were singers, this might have worked. Dancers, though, you have to watch. Perfect if you're an attorney or a guest host. Not so good for a programmer extracting himself from the business.
He and Ginger made 10 movies together, 9 of them before she went off and decided to become a Serious Actress. All 9 in black and white. You could make an entire highlight reel of the best dancing scenes in Hollywood history just from this pair. As it was, I got to see three of them: the dance on the staircase from Swing Time, the roller-skating dance from Shall We Dance, and that little impromptu dance on the boat from that movie, too.
That last one is just so much fun to watch. You see her looking at his feet, trying to figure out what he's doing so she can follow. Now that's acting. In fact, all the dances tell a story, and you can see her expression change during course of it.
Their dancing was less fluid, though, more staged in a way. Compare any one of their numbers with Astair & Cyd Charisse in Bandwagon. She's practically liquid as she drapes herself over his arm.
Of course, it wasn't so much 9 different films as it was the same film 9 times. Like the first 50 Haydn symphonies or all the Vivaldi quartets. "Let's just set it in London this time instead of Venice! We'll have Porter or Berlin or Gershwin whip up some new songs. They even used the same supporting cast for most of the films, including this guy:
Who's not this guy:
You keep waiting for Edward Everett Horton to ask, "Do you expect me to talk?" And for this meek butler to reply, "No, Mr. Horton, I expect you to die!" as he turns to walk up the staircase.
But of course, he never does.
June 03, 2005
For those of you who've been asleep for the last year, Cinderella Man tells the story of Jim Braddock, a boxer who could have been one of the great ones, struggling to keep his family fed, alive, and together, through the Depression. (Actual starvation, unthinkable in America today and unimaginable for most of us, was a real threat. It's been 70 years since the events the film depicts, but I can promise you I'll never look at food the same way again.) His boxing comeback becomes an inspiration to millions. I remember as a kid listening to some late 1930s radio show where one of the characters makes a crack about Braddock. I can't remember the joke, but at least now I know what he was talking about.
The film opens with a still photo of a boxer's face, grotesquely distorted at the moment of impact by a gloved fist. The face is some unknown fighter. The fist belongs to Jim "Bulldog of Bergen" Braddock, on his way up the ladder to a light heavyweight title fight. Throughout the fight scenes, a particularly hard blow to the head will come with a blinding white light, both from the punch and from the cameras, mixing the brutality of the sport with its entertainment value. Yes, you do believe these men are really fighting, not just putting on some stunt-double ballet to advance the plot.
That night in late , Braddock goes home to his wife, Mae, and his family. The chemistry between them is immediate and real. Zellweger exudes adoration for her husband, although she's obviously not thrilled about his making a living getting hit. They both are willing to buy into the boxer's eternal dream of beating the game, retiring with a title belt, a nest egg, and all his marbles and most of his health intact.
The next scene, all that's over. It's the Depression. Braddock has a broken right hand, he's fighting (literally) with a broken right hand to put food on the table. Braddock had had his chance in 1929, but dropped the light heavyweight championship fight in Yankee Stadium. Between the Depression which swallowed up his winnings, and a series of injuries including a broken right hand, he had pretty much lost everything except his family.
Cinderella Man follows Braddock's comeback, culminating with a championship bout against Max Baer that can only be described as combat.
Not having lived through the 30s, I can't testify to the accuracy of the mood of the time, but it sure seems that way. It conveys that sense of hardness, toughness, desperation, that we associate with 1934. The look of the time is pitched perfectly. There's a scene, maybe a second or two, where Braddock is on the bus riding from New Jersey to Manhattan for the fight with Baer. He looks out the window, and the crowd scene could have been plucked from a 1939 still photo at the World's Fair that Lileks is always going on about.
The one historical objection I have is to the portrayal of Max Baer. Yes, Baer did really kill one man in the ring (not two, as the movie would have it). But Baer never made hay out of it, and in fact he was so shaken by it, it almost ruined his career. He donated a number of purses to the dead man's family, and lost a number of fights after that one, in part from fear of a repeat. The idea of the real Baer taunting Braddock the way he does in the movie is absurd, and the real Braddock's family says as much.
Braddock himself is an immensely appealing hero, perfect for Ron Howard. It's just as well that the movie takes place 70 years ago. Today, in an era when the registered coyote services drop the illegals off at the welfare office, it's hard to imagine a man paying back his public assistance money when he's flush again. Crowe pulls the whole thing off beautifully, though, makes the man both believable and heroic. He's a man, a mensch, for whom taking responsibility isn't even a question. If Tom Hanks is this generation's Jimmy Stewart, Russell Crowe is channeling William Holden.
The other performances are magnificent. Zellweger inhabits Mae, as she listens - possibly for the first time - to the 15th round of the Baer fight, we feel her feeling every punch Jim takes. Paul Giamatti makes us care about Joe Gould, Braddock's manager, and Bruce McGill is all business as the boxing promoter with the New Jersey Boxing Commission under his thumb.
Normally during a film, often just before it starts to build towards the climax, there's a point when I realize I'm watching a movie, when I look at the edges of the screen, maybe check the time.
Never happened. This is one for the ages.
May 24, 2005
Revenge of the Sith
Saw it Saturday night. I almost wrote, "finally," because even though it had only been out two days, the movie had been announced 28 years ago. Yes, despite it all, despite Jar-Jar Binks and CGI-Yoda and an Attack of the Clones that had enough storyline to fill a 20-minute short, I'm a fan. Now, I don't go around putting cinnamon buns on my head, but I'm a fan.
I liked it. A lot. Was it Return of the Jedi? No. But Lucas effectively used our nostalgia for the old series (sadly heightened by the flubs of the new one) by leaving us off at a familiar place, 20 years before where we were, 28 years ago. It left me wanting to buy a DVD player so I could watch Episodes IV, V, and VI again.
First, everything you've heard about the dialogue is true. The less said, the better, which should have been applied to the script.
Most of what you've heard about the acting is true. Apparently, the Jedi pharmacy stocks lithium, because that pretty much explains Samuel L. Jackson's performance. And Natalie Portman, who, unlike Carrie Fisher, had the sense to make some films in-between Episodes, is given little to do except lie back and think of the franchise. But Ewan MacGregor brings warmth to Obi-Wan, Hayden Christensen wears the struggle on his face, and Ian MacDiarmid is persuasively, chillingly, oleaginously evil.
But finally, mirabile dictu, the plot works! MacDiarmid confuses Anakin with moral relativism, playing on his personal fears and weaknesses to corrupt and subdue him. At the end, Anakin, now Darth Vader, seems more defeated than triumphant. It explains his Emperor toss at the end of Jedi perfectly.
The politics works reasonably well, too. Palpatine's use of a manufactured war as a means to power predates Casear, and Lucas has said he had Hitler in mind when he concocted the story, several decades before Bush II. (A montage of unsuspecting Jedi getting it in the back all over the galaxy reminded me of The Godfather.) A little more backstory here would have helped, but between the 20wenty, the previews, and 140 minutes of revenge, I understand that length became an issue at some point.
Way too much has been made of the "If you're not with me, you're my enemy," line. It's personal, not political, and if the two merge, it's only to remind us that imaginary fears often hold the greatest power.
There's also been a lot of confusion about Obi-Wan's comment that "only the Sith deal in absolutes." I honestly don't see anything here that should set off conservative alarms. Palpatine is palpably evil, yet he uses moral relativism to confuse Anakin, and open his internal, mental doors. Of course he becomes absolutely evil. Of course, he labels the Jedi as such. But his willingness to accept this is only made possible by the denial of evil in the first place. This is an insight conservatives ought to cheer.
So if Lucas the writer and Lucas the director continue to prove the Peter Principle, Lucas the myth-builder can still bring it. In a perfect world, we'd get to see Episodes VII, VIII, and IX, created by Lucas but written and directed by someone else. Lucas at this point it too much enamored of his own "creative freedom" to let that happen, though.
This movie doesn't redeem Phantom or Atatck - nothng could do that -, but it does make a satisfying closing of the circle. To the extent that it feels incomplete, it's in large part because those two movies were so weak that we really didn't care much about the characters. Episodes I and II were disappointing wasted opportunities. I walked out thinking that it completed the original trilogy better than it completed this one.
May 13, 2005
Kingdom of Heaven
This is why I'll never be an actual reporter - deadlines. This thing was supposed to be written last Friday, but events, my dear boy, events, intervened.
I admit, I've always been a sucker for movies where the fate of empires rests on the shoulders of thousands of extras, so I've been waiting for this film for a long time. Indeed, the final battle scene, the siege of Jerusalem, is probably worth the price of admission all by itself. It's not quite Minas Tirith, but then, Saladin is a lot better than chief Orc, too.
Ridley Scott likes to take on themes of grace under pressure. In this case, it's a knight who tries to live up to the Chivalric Code in a Jerusalem completely bereft of honest leadership. The king, Baldwin IV, is dying of leprosy. His successor, Guy, is spoiling for a fight with Saladin for which both he and his army are completely unprepared. His allies in this venture are the Knights Templar, representatives of the Western Church. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, representative of Eastern Orthodoxy, acts as a stand-in for an Eastern Empire that can't and won't fight for what it no longer believes in.
In the middle is Balian, Defender of Jerusalem. He's got some religious qualms of his own, but also a sort of proto-Enlightenment faith in the people he's sworn to defend.
This history itself is pretty good, with most of the incidents reflecting actual events. The story does write little Baldwin V out of the script, and invents a romance between Balian and Sibylla, Baldwin IV's sister and Guy's wife. The real Balian himself was well aware of his ancestry, son of the Count of Tripoli, and he didn't stay behind in Jerusalem, but survived the debacle at Hattin that set it up. But none of this materially affects the story.
What does affect the story is the need to balance the two sides. And the need to secularize Balian, as though his fealty to the Chivalric Code only counts if he's given up on God. Saladin is just as noble, just as decent, only he's able to keep his lunatics in check, mostly because he wins. Indeed, it looks as though he needs to be prodded to take Jerusalem, although later he celebrates understatedly as he takes the city. It isn't until the city is lost that Balian seems to realize that he's really lost anything.
In any hands other than Scott's, this movie would have come out as disdain for religious belief. In Scott's hands, it merely warns of the need to rely on God, but keep military necessities in mind, too. It's not critical of religious belief as such, or even as the motivation for action. But it does seem to put a little too much of the blame on the Christians: Guy and Reynaud may have lit the match, but the wood had been drying out for a while. And Saladin really did want the city.
To the extent that the film fails in its big ideas, it's in the conflation of tolerance with truce. Historically, both sides were forced by the other to tolerate. (The Third Crusade, usually presented as a failure, did restore the rights of Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem.) But both sides were also willing to kill and die in large numbers to be the tolerators rather than the tolerated.
The acting itself is pretty good. Liam Neeson looks suitably tragic, as Balian's father, and the Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud gives Saladin both strength and depth. Ed Norton does all his acting behind a silver mask, used to hide King Baldwin's leprosy, but still manages to make the King three-dimensional and commanding.
I like Orlando Bloom, but he doesn't really radiate army-leading charisma here. He brings courage but rarely victory. The idea that men would fall in behind him so willingly doesn't really seems believable. And while Eva Green is a gorgeous Sibylla, you get the sense that Elizabeth Taylor wouldn't have settled for asking "what happens to us, now?" with her eye halfway through the film.
For those of you who like Scott's charactistic high-contrast, low-saturation camerawork, there's plenty of it here. As usual, it adds to the dreamlike quality of the film, as do the somewhat disjointed storytelling, slightly confused geography, and completely invented Jerusalem.
On the whole, somehwta less than Gladiator. Maximus was an indestructible hero fighting for Rome the Virtuous Republic. Balian's role as Defender of the People seems just a little thin, matched by a Bloom who seems just a little small.
May 05, 2005
This evening, I'll be at an advance screening of Ridley Scott's latest epic, Kingdom of Heaven, about the fall of Jerusalem in 1187 to Saladin. Review to follow.
While doing a little background reading this morning, I found a few interesting tidbits to chew on. First, from Barbara Tuchman's Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour. In a turn of events disturbing to all conservatives, the fall of Jerusalem catalyzed Europe into launching the Third Crusade, and led to Henry II imposing England's first income tax.
The Saladin Tithe, as it was called, despite its high purpose was regarded, says Roger of Wendover, as "a violent extortion which veiled the vice of rapacity under the name of charity and alarmed the priesthood as well as the people."
The other comes from Norman Cantor's magisterial Medieval History. The Franks of First Crusade took advantage of Muslim disunity (cough) to establish a series of coastal Crusader Kingdoms. (The French have always done better at interleague play.) This brought them into close diplomatic contact with the still-dying Byzantines. While the disembarking Franks didn't exactly say, "Justinian, we have returned," the following should give one pause:
In the face of Byzantine grandeur and culture, the Franks had a strong sense of inferiority, and they compensated for their rusticity and crudeness by condemning the Greeks and effeminate and corrupt. Actually the mannered Greek courtiers rightly found the Frankish prices boors by comparison with themselves. There was merit in each party's criticism of the other, but the Franks were representatives of a still youthful and extremely vital civilization, while Byzantium was sterile and decadents and have to rely on its western enemies for salvation from the more pressing Arab foe.
I guess the Franks have been overcompensating ever since, but the echoes are unmistakable.
February 27, 2005
Sporadic Oscar Bloggng
January 12, 2005
In Good Company
I don't normally do movie reviews. I see plenty of them, to be sure, but I usually walk in wanting to like the film I'm plunking down good money to see, so unless the plot's completely incomprehensible or thoroughly unbelievable, I'll at least shrug and say, "you know, that was pretty good." Still, when the producers of In Good Company started advertising free tickets to bloggers who promised to review the film, I figured it was worth a shot.
The working title of this movie, according to IMDB, was "Synergy." It should have been "The Good, the Bad, and the Lazy." It probably would be a lot more fun to write a review where the highlight was Jared and I giving each other the thumbs-up during (we thought) a planned assassination of the UN Secretary General in a preview, but in fact, the film was pretty enjoyable, as long as you concentrated on the characters and allowed the plot to be so much scenery.
Dennis Quaid plays a 51-year-old director of sales for a high-flying sports magazine, Dan Foreman. When the conglomerate who owns the title sells it to another conglomerate, Topher Grace's Carter Duryea follows his boss over to replace Quaid, who settles for a demotion back to wingman.
That's the business end. On the personal front, Grace's character finds himself deserted by, and then divorced from, his wife of 7 months. Quaid's wife is unexpectedly pregnant. And when the dispirited Quaid mock-invites the desperately lonely Grace back for a family dinner, Grace accepts, and then meets and starts dating Quaid's college-age daughter Alex, played by Scarlett Johanssen.
The Good is the main characters and the performances. I've liked Quaid since The Right Stuff and lately, The Rookie. His face has real character, and he plays the everyman role as well as anyone. He's not brashly heroic, and should probably stay away from those roles. But as Willie Loman with a chance, he's terrific. Scarlett Johansson handles the not-yet-serious about life Alex perfectly. And Grace makes you forget within 5 minutes that he ought to be dating some redhead named Donna.
The Bad is the language. When a film that so freely tosses around four-letter exclamations has a salesman explain that "PFG" means "Pretty Friggin' Good," all it does is emphasize how unnecessary the other profanity is. I'm not a prude, and I enjoy a good cursing as much as anyone, but if it weren't for that, and a very brief shot of Mr. Quaid living out Randy Moss's recent ambitions, it could have been an ABC after-school special, only with depth. A scene leading up to, um, dating between Carter and Alex ends with the leading-up-to, and that's all we need to see.
Unfortunately, even in a character-driven movie, the characters need to have some reason for being, usually called a plot. The Lazy.
Hollywood seems incapable of portraying a company as anything other than evil, layoffs as anything other than unnecessary. But it's ok to have an evil company if it makes sense. I've seen companies that move people around like checkers, and they're not the big ones, they're the little ones run by guys Grace's age who haven't learned anything about people. And the first thing you learn - in 6th grade - is to buy low and sell high. So tell me how Tycoon Teddy K made his mint by buying high, running the property into the ground, and then selling it.
Jonathan Last pointed out in a Weekly Standard article once that Hollywood has an impossibly long timeline for movies. That must explain why Carter's answer to ad revenue targets is "synergy," something that AOL-Time Warner has turned into a bad joke. And the only way I can explain the presence of a "360" in its incarnation here is sheer trend-happy laziness.
The Plot rests on the secondary characters, Foreman's wife Ann, an older salesman Morty played by David Paymer, Carter's go-getter butt-busting win-at-all-costs-even-when-it-doesn't-matter boss, Steckle, and a cameo by Malcolm McDowell as the Titan of Industry. Steckle and Morty are just taken from central casting. The extra skin from Marg Helgenberger's forehead has been used to patch up burn victims. And during the climactic speech by Quaid, you half-expect McDowell to pull out a bowler and reprise his role from Clockwork Orange.
The problem here is the temptation to take all this too seriously. Everyone wants companies to be from Norma Rae or Broadcast News, and they're not. It also says something about contemporary America that a 26-year-old really doesn't know what he wants to do with his life, and we buy it. Forty years ago it would have been Jack Lemmon as Carter, the Grace would have been Kelly, not Topher, and the boss could have been Spence or Rex Harrison or Fred MacMurray. It would have been about people acting their own age and passing judgment on those who didn't, and they would have called it The Apartment. If I take the movie's charicature of business seriously, I'm only doing so on its own terms.
But it's not The Apartment, or even High Society. It is what it is. And as long as you can avoid dwelling on the scenery and look at the characters, it's pretty satisfying.
UPDATE: Jared's much better review is up. I have to concur about the dinner scene. It's very funny. And no, the main point of the film - which redeems a lot - wasn't lost on me.