Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The most unlikely thing every to be applicable from my college education.

My film-school education came to bear the other day as I came across an Entertainment Weekly article that mentioned "vagina dentata." It brought back a rush of unwelcome memories.

"Vagina dentata" appears in the myths of several cultures, notably several North American Indian tribes, and means, literally "toothed vagina" in Latin. Those with a linguistic background among us might have gathered that by now. Actually, pretty much anyone with a vague understanding of how Latin works might have figured it out, too. It speaks of the fear in men of sex, because... well, let's not get into that.

Anyway, I'm not all that comfortable writing about this because the whole subject scares the tar out of me, but here's the story: when we discussed the theory in class, we discussed in terms of movies that are not apparently sexual to the casual observer, but metaphorically, they positively reek of sex. A lot of horror movies are made this way. The movie we chose to use for our discussion this was Ridley Scott's Alien, the movie that essentially moved him up from a promising newcomer into the ranks of one of Hollywood's top directors.

Now, I love Ridley, but Alien has not withstood the test of time well. It came out in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and hasn't had the advantage of having George Lucas go back in 300 times to redo all the special effects. It's a little hokey. But it does still have the general horrifying aspect of an alien attaching itself to your face and laying eggs inside of your stomach that grow up to be a huge alien and explode out of your stomach while you're having dinner with your fellow astronauts. That aspect has certainly not lost its terror - for me, at least. Maybe you're immune to that sort of thing. Sicko.

Anyway, the article in question was not talking about a film like that. The article was talking about this film.

So, I guess, this whole post ended up being an argument against going to film school, huh?

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I'm surprisingly good with fortune cookies.

Have I ever mentioned how good I am at getting excellent fortunes every time I eat Chinese food?

I know that's a strange talent to be proud of, but I'm stunningly lucky at them for someone so generally misbegotten. Most people get things like "life is a hard road, but those who persevere are stronger for it," or "think happier thoughts." I generally get things like "the people around you will come to see your ideas are superior," and "it will be hard for people to not fall in love with you."

Those are both real fortunes I've gotten.

I once bragged about this to a group of my friends, and they laughed and scoffed (I have great friends, you see). "No one's good at getting fortunes," they pointed out. "It's just all chance."

"I really am," I replied. "I know it sounds weird, but I'm lucky at it."

I had the poor judgment to be holding an unopened fortune cookie in my hands while I said this.

"Prove it," they said.

"I'm going to," I said, cracking open the fortune cookie with a bravado that, to this day, I have no idea where it came from. "I'm just very lucky this. I'll show you."

"No way. Nobody's lucky at this."

"I am. I'm just very lucky."

I pulled out the slip of paper and read my fortune aloud: "You are very lucky."

They stared at me open-mouthed. "There's no way that actually happened," one of them whispered.

I bring this story up because a few days ago, I cracked open a fortune cookie and read: "Your ability to find the silly in the serious will take you far." I don't know what that means, exactly, but I am so pumped for this.

In a related note, I'm starting the writing process for my musical adaptation of Hotel Rwanda this week.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Please, before I go.

Three fun things:

1. I've developed a new film-geek game. It's like playing 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon by yourself.

Let's say that you just watched a film... say, Smokin' Aces. If you're like me - obviously, you're not, or you would've come up with this geeky game yourself - you want to go to IMDB and look up to see who's in the film, what other films they've been in, who wrote the film and what else they've written. "Why do I want to know that?" you ask. You just do. It's fun.

You arrive on the IMDB homepage. You could go up to the search field at the top to type in the name of the movie, but that would be cheating. Instead, you have to click a link somewhere on the main page to get started. You look around and there's no link to Smokin' Aces (there actually is, of course, since the movie just opened, but stick with me). So you're going to have to start clicking somewhere else.

What's this over here? There's a link to a story about Peter Jackson not getting to direct The Hobbit? You click on that, and then on Peter Jackson's profile. There it lists all the movies he's directed. You click on The Return of the King, which starred Dominic Monaghan as Merry. You click on Dom's profile. Monaghan is also on "Lost," starring Matthew Fox, who is in, you guessed, Smokin' Aces. There you are.

But you also watched Letters From Iwo Jima this week, did you? Well, you're going to need to click over to there, too. So you click on Jason Bateman's profile. Bateman's starring with Jamie Foxx in the upcoming The Kingdom, and Foxx was once co-starring with Tom Cruise in Collateral, who co-starred with Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai, and Watanabe is the star of Letters From Iwo Jima. You are now free to poke around this page until you decide you want to go to another movie.

I've wasted a full two or three hours of work on this game this weekend, and I just made it up yesterday. Who knows what the coming week will hold?

And yes, I'm prepared to take commental abuse about this game.

2. I bought a Nerf basketball set, and I've created a game in which you have to hit two walls and roll the ball off top of the cabinet before sinking the basket. I've almost killed myself, the 13-year old son of my boss, and come close to destroying my G5 and an $8,000 camera. But I'm getting great at the shot.


Because of some loophole in the Russian copyright system, you can legally download any music you want here for fifteen cents a song. You can buy any album for about $1.50. I'm swearing off iTunes for life.

I'm getting good at this.

I got a call at lunch yesterday saying, "hey, we're doing a video interview in half an hour. I need you back here right now."

I got back to the church and my boss told me, "I need you to set up a camera, find chairs and build a set, set up lighting for the subject, set up a backscreen, set up a lighting pattern for the backscreen, set up microphones and a mixer, and get the studio soundproofed. We're interviewing Billy Graham's daughter in fifteen minutes."

Fifteen minutes later, when Mrs. Graham arrived, not only was everything done, but I was waiting casually by the door to welcome her in.

For the record, and I think it's safe to say that this comes as no surprise, Ruth Graham is a very sweet, friendly, and intelligent person who was a lot of fun to work with. I kind of feel bad for her, because she's a successful woman in, I would say, her mid-fifties, who leads an extensive Ruth Graham And Friends ministry, and yet our pastor continued to refer to her as "Billy Graham's daughter" for the entire length of his sermon both services, the entirety of which she was seated in the front row. I'm going to assume that's not a one-time thing, too.

I found this quite charming, as well, and I really hope nobody reads into this as me making fun of her, because I honestly find this a nice humanizing quirk from someone in a family that's lauded in the Christian community above all others: the motto of Ruth Graham And Friends is "real answers, for real issues, with real hope, from a real God." Mrs. Graham wrote this motto, placed it in bold typeface on her website, has used it in every intro video that she's recorded (she makes one for each individual church that she visits), and says it aloud every time she's called upon to explain what her conference does. She's also quite incapable of remembering exactly what the motto is, each time she does it.

She starts rolling into it, but she often gets the first one wrong, and pauses for a split second as she tries to figure out whether she's going to back up and start over or not. She usually ends up charging through the rest, and it ends up coming out something like this: "Real questions... for real answers... for real issues... from a real God." And then she just keeps on trucking as if nothing happened, so no one ever ends up noticing. She did it a different way in each of this morning's service, and half a dozen different ways on the video intro she recorded.

I thought it was kind of a neat idiosyncrasy. It's like if Steve Jobs announced at a keynote "once you go Mac you... usually, uh... stick with it."

Flags Vs. Letters

I want to throw this out there... I think it's worth debating:

Clint Eastwood released two films about Iwo Jima this year, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. Both received positive reviews across the board, and while both are no-shows at the box office (Flags - $33 million domestic, Letters - $5 million domestic), Letters has received a lot of acclaim from award shows and critics' lists and the Academy, and it's currently up for both Best Picture and Best Directing, while Flags is up for... Best Sound Recording and Best Sound Mixing (Letters is also up for Best Sound Recording but not for Mixing. Somewhere in LA there's a film mixer who is pissed), and nothing else.

Now Flags is an English-language film about the Americans who raised the flag at Iwo Jima, and how the U. S. government shamelessly used them to promote good relations press for the rest of the war. Letters is in Japanese, and is about... well, basically, it's one of "those darn Japanese! They're so crazy!" movies. A lot of soldiers commit suicide rather than retreat to higher ground to keep fighting, except for the Japanese officers who have traveled to America and learned the much more logical American system of only dying when it actually helps that particular war that you're fighting in. These soldiers, lead by a quietly charismatic Ken Watanabe (who I would actually follow into a war with pretty much anyone), hold out against the Americans as long as they can, even though they learn during this battle that Americans are not crazy savages like they've been told, but instead thoughtful, average people with a fondness for Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Except for one American soldier who turns out to be a douche. And in the end, pretty much everyone dies. But you knew that.

My argument is this: I think the reason that Letters is receiving so much more adulation is that it's much more a pro-America type movie, which makes its tricky subject matter easier to swallow. Americans don't like movies where the dirty secrets about a much-lauded war effort are revealed. They like movies about honor and glory that make them feel good about sacrifice and being an American.

I don't think that's surprising to anyone. But I think if that's the reason we're all praising a movie, we should say it. Let's not hide our true affections under a rug.*

* And just to clarify, for people who read this post and miss the point completely - I thought Letters From Iwo Jima was an excellent movie, I really did. I'm not into war flicks, but this had beauty and pizazz and glory and explosions and that little "bullets whipping by the camera" zipping noise that makes you tense up in your seat and all those movie tricks that make you feel like you're right there on the battlefront. I don't want to hear people complain about how I bashed on a movie that they like. I didn't bash on any movie in this post. Just shut up.


Quick thoughts on virtually everything that's been crossing my mind, in passing:

- I know very little about politics, and I've done no reading at all about this subject, but this is what I took home from the State of the Union: President Bush has been elected to a second term, and therefore cannot be elected to any more terms past this one. The mid-terms have come and gone, there was a clear sweep leftward, and now he's got two years remaining. His approval rating is down to basically the First Lady, Condi, and sometimes my dad. We have entered a period of time where there's almost no disadvantage to almost any action he takes. And if you'll excuse an overworked phrasing: there's nothing left to lose.

As far as I could tell, the big news from the President's speech was his continued plea for patience in Iraq, and a call for more troops. This was followed by an expected yet quite extended Democratic trashing of these ideas, which every network gleefully carried. So, why go for it? Why not just give little mention of the Iraq conflict, focus more on energy and bipartisan cooperation, and try to boost his poll numbers so as to be able to more of a political help come election time?

I think the President knows that there's a good chance that the next president will be a junior senator from New York or Illinois, and that the likely Republican candidate will be McCain, who's likely going to run as The Republican Democrats Can Vote For. He knows he doesn't need to be popular his last two years.

I think he's trying win this thing - this whole thing, this whole "War On Terror" - all by himself, before anyone else shows up and messes with it. I think he's trying to win it all while he feels there's still a shot to do so. And honestly, he might be right.

- American Idol has launched a number of struggling shows from being on the bubble to being certified hits: The O.C, House, etc. Well, we've finally determined a program that its ratings can't save: The State of the Union on Fox. Heck, more people watched the thing on NBC, and NBC's barely ahead of the Golf Channel these days.

- By the way, has anyone else noticed how well NBC's been handling their low ratings? They're playing their hand beautifully. They make a big fuss about the loss of budget and how everyone's tightening their belts, and are constantly releasing information that makes it sound like a lot of their shows are on the edge, and might get canceled at any minute. While they're doing this, all of their struggling shows are playing the "we're an underdog show on an underdog network" card - making fun of NBC during their shows, doing lots of interviews on Conan and Leno where they talk about working on a tight budget and being worried about being axed at any minute.

It's a smart move because each of these moves rallies their fan base from being casual watchers to being vocal defenders of the show. And it's no coincidence that the shows using these techniques (Studio 60, 30 Rock, The Office, My Name Is Earl, SNL, and even NBC Nightly News) have climbed from becoming bubble shows to People Choice Award winners and iTunes bestsellers.

(Okay, so SNL was never really on the bubble. But it's still following suit and so it counts)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Here comes the Lightning Round.

Alright, here's, I dunno, maybe half a dozen blazing-fast reviews of both things I've been thrilled by and things I've been duped on:

Smokin' Aces: Yeah, I was duped. But who wouldn't've been? A cast that featured literally a dozen name actors (Ben Affleck, Ray Liotta, Jeremy Piven, Jason Bateman, heck, even Matthew Fox), some of whom have about 45 seconds of screen time, some of whom die almost immediately, and some of whom appear and disappear without any real logic to their movements. It's one of those rampantly violent non-stop action movies that slips from crudely enjoyable to "what the hell is going on?" territory almost immediately. That being said, it dances the number it came for better than most low-IQ a-bunch-of-Russian-guys-with-guns-and-explosives-shoot-at-American-guys-with-guns-and-explosives movies. I could break it down for you and mention all the highlights (Alicia Keys and Ryan Reynolds, for instance) amid the lowlights, but instead I'll just quote Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post, who puts it better than anyone: "All in all, another thoroughly enjoyable step on the road to damnation."

By the way, don't think you couldn't fill up a Blockbuster rack with that movie genre I made up back there. I could get it half full just with Ray Liotta movies.

The West Wing: I'm on Season Three now, and the honeymoon is over, it's starting to scrabble a little to make politics still seem interesting. But those first two seasons are absolutely stunning. It's a completely different kind of show from anything else ever to be on television. Except, of course, for Studio 60 or Sports Night.

Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared: I'm cobbling these two together because they're pretty much the same show, since all the writers and actors just switched over to Undeclared after Freaks and Geeks went under. Freaks is the better show, and if you haven't seen it, sit down sometime and watch the first five or six episodes. It takes a little while to get addicted, but it's some of the smartest, most on-the-money writing ever about high school.

You know, if Freaks was released to TV next fall with the same cast and crew, it would be a guaranteed hit. Think about it: it would star two ER vets (Linda Cardellini and Busy Phillips), a bona fide movie star (James Franco), fully recognizable best-friend types (How I Met Your Mother's Jason Segel, plus Seth Rogen from You, Me, and Dupree and The 40-Year Old Virgin), plus consistent appearances from Lizzy Caplan (The Class and Mean Girls), Ben Foster (X-Men 3), and Joanna Garcia (Reba). It's a shame everyone had to wait to get famous until after the show was over.

Plus, the writing/directing crew featured Judd Apatow (producer of Anchorman, the 40-Year Old Virgin, Talledega Nights), Paul Feig (director for Arrested Development, The Office), Mike White (writer of School of Rock, Orange County), Ken Kwapis (director of About A Boy, Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants - which we've covered before), and Jake Kasdan (director of Orange County).

Tell me that's not a dream team today.

Sexual Life: Speaking of Ken Kwapis, I checked this one out because he wrote and directed it and it featured a lot of my favorite actors. It was awful, I mean, it was terribly, terribly boring. I guess I should've figured that from the title - since I could tell that it wasn't going to be a raunchfest from the reviews, I thought that it would be a fun comedy where everyone jokes about sex while hijinks ensue. Instead, the structure of it was this: one person talks about fidelity and commitment with their significant other, and then goes out and sleeps with someone else. That person then talks about fidelity and commitment with their significant other, who then goes out and sleeps with someone else. This cycle continues until (woah woah!) the story comes full circle. It's like the world's slowest slap in the face.

"It's a comedy of manners!" reads the Netflix description.

Yeah, it's not.

Sabrina: I don't know why it took me so long to finally watch this. Featuring William Holden, Humphrey Bogart, and Audrey Hepburn and written and directed by Billy Wilder. It was, unsurprisingly, fantastic. I'm not a classic movie guy, because I'm not convinced that just because something is old and beloved doesn't mean it was ever any good, but I've got to say that it's awfully appealing anyway. And it doesn't have that "we're projecting this image of the highway or the ocean on a sheet behind them" look that most movies of the 1950's that feature driving or sailing have. Even though I'm sure they were projecting the highway and the ocean behind them whenever they featured driving and sailing, it's just you can't really tell. The bottom line is that it just shows an attention to detail other films of the day lacked.

Wait, film projection? What the hell am I talking about? Sabrina features three of the finest actors of our century, and is written and directed by possibly the greatest writer/director of all time. That might have something to do with it's greatness.

Geez, it's been a long time since I've posted. Next time'll be quicker, I guarantee it.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Credit where credit is due

Every now and then I find some random tidbit about an upcoming movie so fascinating that I have to share what I've heard. This is sort of like that, except that - I actually haven't heard anything about this movie, I just find the premise of it fantastic.

Not the actual premise of the movie. The premise of the casting. I've never seen such gutsy casting choices for any film since I started noticing this sort of thing. Which I'll admit is only a few years ago, but I think my viewpoint here still holds up:

The flick is Factory Girl, an adaptation of a novel about Edie Sedgwick, the girl who Andy Warhol turned from an unknown Holly Golighty-type actress into a massive star in the art world. Here's the cast:

Sienna Miller is playing Edie. If you scope the tabloids, you might be saying to yourself "isn't she that girl that Jude Law cheated on with the nanny, and so she ended their engagment, but then she took him back, and then ended their relationship again a few months later." Yes. That's her.

Now, you might be saying "I didn't know she was an actress - oh, wait, hasn't she been in some small, low-budget independent films?" Correct again, reader. But what you might have missed is that while Miller was in these films, she was never actually required to do any acting. For example, for her role as the love interest in Layer Cake, the gritty English film that launched Daniel Craig from a nobody to the next Bond, she was required to appear in four scenes. In one of these scenes she seduces and almost sleeps with Craig. In one scene she actually opens her mouth and delivers some dialogue. This is not the same scene as the previous scene. I also think she delivers what dialogue she has into a cell phone, in order to keep her from messing up any of the other actors.

There's nothing wrong with just being the pretty face in a movie, and judging from her frequent appearances in FHM's "100 Hottest Females" (where all rising actresses make their mark), everyone feels she's qualified for the job. But I take issue when the early buzz on the movie is that Miller is being considered a "serious Oscar contender" for her performance, because of her willingness to "bare all in certain sex scenes." I'd like to point out to any Academy readers that Hellen Mirren and Meryl Streep will also likely be nominated, for more traditional reasons. Keep that in mind.

Next up is Andy Warhol, played by Guy Pearce. Pearce is that excellent actor who broke out as Memento's forgetful protagonist in 2000, and has yet to have received a single good role since. That's got to sting a little. I bet very few people come up to Pearce and tell him "I loved you in The Time Machine."

Actually, maybe they do. LA is weird like that.

Also, there's Chuck Wein, played by Saturday Night Live alum Jimmy Fallon, whose star shone brightly for a few months following his retirement from SNL. Then both Taxi and Fever Pitch tanked commercially, and Fallon appeared to be poised to dry up and disappear. Just like Norm McDonald. Just like Chris Kattan. Just like dozens of other SNL players who've flamed out in the same way. Heck, it seems he's back on SNL every other week to cameo in some sketch or another, like those college grads who just can't seem to break away.

Now, most people either adore or despise Fallon, and I unabashedly fall into the former category, though with reservations about his complete inability to make it through any scene without starting to giggle and look at the camera (though I admit that, too, is part of his charm). But I've just got a tough time seeing him in this sort of artsy, Oscar-grubbing movie. Though apparently Wein originally met Sedgwick because he was the sort of guy who'd graduated from Cambridge a few years earlier, but was still bumming around town. Touché, casting.

Finally, the stunner. Bob Dylan. Played by Hayden Christensen. Yes, that Hayden Christensen. Our beloved Anakin Skywalker is playing Bob Dylan.

I'm not even going to comment on it. Just think about it. Isn't that weird?

I'm sure some of you are curious by now, so here's a link to the trailer. Trust me, check it out. You'll be amazed. Hayden Christensen. It's really him.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Put a chicken on top of it.

Today we purchased a small candle holder at Marshall's to use in an interview set we were doing. The candle holder resembled an oil rig, or perhaps the Eiffel Tower, but it was very clearly, a candle holder. To make this matter even clearer, we also purchased a candle.

Here's a shot of the candle holder:

And here's a shot of the candle holder in action:

I give you these two images because I want you to understand why it struck me as funny when the checkout lady, a matronly woman in her forties, rang up the candle, grabbed the candle holder, looked at me, and said 'what the heck's this?'

'It's a candle holder. It's for the candle.'
'It looks like an oil rig.'
'Yeah, it does, that's why we like it. We also thought it looked a little like the Eiffel Tower.'
'Or an oil rig.'
'Yeah. Or an oil rig.'

The lady checked it through, handed it back to me, looked me in the eye, and said, 'It's a Texas thing. Put a chicken on top of it.'

I really, really, really don't know what that means.