Thursday, December 31, 2009


Though this isn't, strictly speaking, a film-based site, I seem to spend as much time writing about them there movin' pictures as anything else, so I guess it must be time for a Best Of The Year list. Later, hopefully, there'll be a Best Of The Decade list, for those of you who subscribe to the notion that the decade began in 2000, and is thus winding down. (This is the kind of thing that could be debated for hours, and frankly, who has the time?)

Anyway--the list. It comes with a couple of caveats. For one thing, I haven't seen every movie released this year, whether due to laziness (I really mean to see Invictus) or simply because they never played in my area (Big Fan). I'm excluding any movie I didn't actually see in a theater, since watching at home is a whole different experience. Also, this list is maybe even more subjective than usual. I didn't go back and look at a list of all films released this year, and gauge my opinion of them, weighing their relative merits. It's just the ones I remember and like the best, in reverse order of preference.

10. Every Little Step.

Any documentary about the making of a Broadway show is probably going to tread somewhat familiar water, but directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern keep their examination of the casting process for the recent (and now long gone) revival of A Chorus Line remarkably clear-eyed, examining the process that turns creative enterprise into a kind of sausage factory, and the effects of that mentality on the poor performers who live and die on the whims of the producers.

9. Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince.

Believe you me, nobody could be more surprised than myself by how much I liked this. I hadn't even seen any previous entries in the Potter series until this year, when I caught up with them all on DVD. And conventional wisdom held: The first two entries, under the uninspired direction of Chris Columbus, were merely workmanlike, more frantic than entertaining, but the series took a noticeable upswing when Alfonso Cuaron was brought in to handle the third picture.

Still, I'd have to say David Yates is the director who really ramped up this franchise. Order Of The Phoenix and especially Half-Blood Prince mark the point where the series went from respectable adaptation of beloved books to something wholly organic. There's a sense of dread in every frame of this picture, and it is the rare blockbuster that lingers in the imagination long after it has ended.

8. In The Loop.

I was going to call Armando Iannucci's film the best comedy of the year, which it is, but although often bracingly funny, it is also a serious, even tragic study of how easily words can be misinterpreted, how minor functionaries are often allowed power they don't deserve, how easily we allow ourselves to be led astray. The peerless Peter Capaldi leads a flawless cast, tearing through one of the best scripts of recent years.

The only flaw that can be found is that Iannucci isn't really a filmmaker--he's a British TV vet, and this is definitely word- and performance-driven. Visually, it ain't much, but most of The Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields look like crap, and they're still some of the best comedies ever. And In The Loop belongs in their company.

7. The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Wes Anderson's foray into the world of stop-motion animation resulted in what may be best described as his most Wes Andersony film: Suddenly his increasingly self-conscious use of framing, music, props and color find their perfect setting, and an ostensible children's film about a family of foxes becomes an emotionally rich study of a group of idealistic dreamers coming face-to face with the limits of their dreams.

6. Inglourious Basterds.

Quentin Tarantino's best film since Jackie Brown is a sprawling mess, but its a mess with a purpose and a surprising moral tone: Tarantino both indulges our bloodlust, and mocks us for it. And while that might seem simplistic coming from a lesser filmmaker, for Tarantino it almost seems like an act of self-criticism, an awareness that maybe he's been too glib for too long, that maybe even the provocations of a popular filmmaker can have real-world repercussions.

That he can do all that while demonstrating a casual mastery of nerve-wracking suspense and giving us the best World War II espionage movie since I don't know when...well, the guy's good.

5. Ponyo.

It's not just that Hayao Miyazaki prefers to work in the now-unfashionable mode of hand-drawn animation, it's that he uses his medium to demonstrate a similarly old-fashioned notion of modesty and restraint. Ponyo is the story of a goldfish who wills herself into a human child, and as bizarre as that sounds, Miyazaki never presents it as anything other than an ordinary occurrence. Magic can happen anytime and anywhere in his world, and is present in everything we do. What a wonderful worldview, and what a wonderful film.

4. The Informant!

Steven Soderbergh's latest is one of the strangest damned things to come along in quite some time: A muck-raking expose that constantly mocks its protagonist, a deadpan comedy with the coiled intensity of a thriller, a lark with a serious purpose, a star vehicle that disguises its star.

I laughed repeatedly during The Informant!--love that exclamation point!--but its story of a corporate whistleblower who tries to make the world over to match what he sees in his head turns sadder and sadder (and, conversely, funnier) as it goes along. Matt Damon, sporting a protruding gut and a goofy moustache, is absolute perfection in the title role, and Soderbergh's typically nutty notion of casting mostly comedians in the supporting roles plays off in aces. Who knew Alan Havey could act?

3/2. Coraline and Up.

Are you a cat person or a dog person? Your personality is likely to decide your preference for either of these extraordinary animated films. Sure, with Coraline stop-motion genius Henry Selick explores the emotional landscape of a girl on the cusp of adolescence who discovers a parallel universe which seems to eerily mirror who own twisted psyche, whereas Pete Docter's Up is about an embittered old man who rediscovers a reason to live through an extraordinary adventure and the tireless friendship of a young boy. Selick's emotionally distant effort showcased a garden of visual delights worthy of the great Michael Powell. Docter's gorgeously rendered CGI lanscapes hinted at the strong influence of John Ford. Coraline is intellect, Up is emotion.

But the personality of each movie is best summed up by their respective supporting animal players. Coraline features a cat (unnamed, because as he helpfully points out, cats don't need names) who is elegant, endlessly cool and even somewhat loving, but also contradictory, unknowable and frankly, kind of creepy. (Pretty much like my beloved Delmar!) Up brings us a talking Golden Retriever named Dug, who is the sweetest, most lovable critter seen on screen all year.

Me, I'm a cat person, but I slightly preferred Up. Maybe it's time to rethink my position.

1. A Serious Man.

When people want to knock the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, they accuse them of excessive cruelty towards their characters, of using their considerable filmmaking chops in service of smug condescension. And sometimes maybe that's true: There's no doubt that they're laughing at the rubes somewhat in, say, Fargo, at least at first. But they're not laughing as the film goes along, as the characters deepen, as violence erupts and pain results. Maybe they laugh the same way we all laugh when we first meet someone we don't know who is very different from us, when their quirks are unfamiliar, before we get to know them and realize how much we like them.

And so A Serious Man, which is set in a predominantly-Jewish suburb of Minneapolis in the late sixties, at first encourages us to laugh at the goofy clothes and hairstyles of the era, and to chuckle at our first sight of our protagonist, Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg, first among equals in a uniformly brilliant cast), as he scribbles earnestly on a chalkboard, hunched over, his rear end sticking out in a most unflattering way. And we continue to laugh as Larry comes home from work and finds his wife on the verge of leaving him, his children utterly indifferent and his brother...well, his brother has his own set of problems, which, in typical Coen fashion are initially presented comedically, but quickly deepen to utter despair.

But he's just another addition to the Job-like suffering of Larry, whose life becomes an endless series of miseries. As the Coens, in their God-like status as writers and directors, continue to heap pain on their hero, questions arise. Are the Coens making fun of Larry's suffering? Do they empathize with him? Should we laugh? Or cry? Is this a profound inquiry into the meaning of life? Or is it just a lark by two powerful filmmakers with the ability to make whatever pops into their head? Are they suggesting God is indifferent to the sufferings of man? Or that man is incapable of embracing the mysteries of life? Should we take any of this seriously? Is this movie as really as good as it seemed the first time I saw it? Or should I consider the misgivings I had with a second viewing? Or should I trust the fact that it has stayed with me, and I've come to believe it is one of the best films of the decade?

The answer to all these questions, of course, is Yes.

Monday, December 28, 2009


Movie musicals these days are as rare as Westerns, and with both genres I'll run out to see the latest offering, in the hopes that they'll get it right, or better yet, add something new. Most new Westerns are awful, more along the lines of Young Guns, but occasionally you'll get something as extraordinary as The Proposition. Similarly, it seems very few people in Hollywood or anywhere else know how to make a musical anymore, but once in awhile, there might be a Chicago.

I know a lot of serious critics disdained Rob Marshall's film adaptation of Bob Fosse's stage production Chicago, but I thought it was about as good as could possibly be, considering the tricky nature of the material. In particular, many people hated Marshall's constantly roving camera and quick cutting during the song numbers, but to me it mostly worked--the mobile camera gave a sense of rhythm, the cutting was mostly to emphasize certain movements.

But Marshall's latest, an adaptation of the not particularly well-known Broadway musical Nine, is so bad it makes me wonder if Marshall has any talent whatsoever.

Where to begin? Or more accurately, where to stop? Nine is an almost total disaster, not an entertaining train wreck like Xanadu but dull, oppressive and joyless. And utterly, astoundingly pointless. Who exactly was supposed to enjoy this?

The original stage version of Nine was an adaptation of Federico Fellini's great semi-autobiographical fantasia 8 1/2, and however misguided that may seem, at least on stage its creators were working in a different medium from Fellini, and had to conjure their very own kind of magic. I've never seen the show, and have no idea if it worked, but at least it was its own thing.

But on film it all becomes literal. We see Daniel Day-Lewis wearing black suits and wearing Ray-Bans, stalking through the back lots of Cinecitta, and those of us in the audience with a working knowledge of Fellini will wonder why they bothered, and those without will wonder why the hell they're supposed to care.

And even then, it gets all the details wrong. The most obvious place to start is the casting of Daniel Day-Lewis as an Italian (named Guido, no less!), but he at least gives the best performance he can under the circumstances. But few of the other cast members seem to belong in this particular time or place, and aren't given enough screen time to overcome their miscasting. Nicole Kidman--or, cruelly but accurately, the immobile remains of Nicole Kidman's plastic surgery--seems to be playing a character intended as an amalgamation of Claudia Cardinale and Anita Eckberg, but Kidman's physical presence is all wrong, and her physical presence is all she's given to play.

Or consider the brief performance by little-loved pop princess Fergie, who appears briefly as a prostitute remembered from Guido's boyhood. She sings Be Italian, the only song from the show I knew before I saw the movie. I knew it because I'd seen a performance of it (on the Jerry Lewis telethon!), and the most memorable aspect of it was that the actress, Kathi Moss, was particularly zaftig, not a scrawny little thing like Fergie. Which was the whole point, of course--she was ample and fleshy and, well, Italian, and far sexier for it. If Marshall is too timid to cast a heavier-built actress in a role that calls for it, why is he even bothering?

Another problem with Marshall's handling of Be Italian: for no apparent reason, he stages it as a tribute (or ripoff, if you prefer) to Bob Fosse's well-known Mein Herr number from Cabaret. Another song, the newly written (and indescribably awful) Cinema Italiano, is choreographed in a manner reminiscent of a number from Fosse's Sweet Charity. Why? Fosse's ghost was bound to haunt Chicago, but why invoke him here? (In the only song Day-Lewis is given to perform, he's suddenly and inexplicably wearing a fedora, and I clenched my teeth, waiting for him to slide it into a rakish, Fosse-esque angle. Instead, it just kind of falls off and is forgotten, a perfect metaphor for everything wrong with this movie.)

Such gestures only remind us that Fosse himself made his own version of 8 1/2, All That Jazz, and that Fosse went even further than Fellini, making a film based not only on his own life but his own eventual death. All That Jazz is infuriating and insanely egotistic, wildly entertaining and profoundly sad, a movie that gets better and better with each subsequent viewing. Every single frame of it is utterly alive, and so it is nothing like Nine.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


For reasons too mundane to explain, none of my original holiday plans worked out, and I found myself dog-sitting Brody, Tabbatha's rat terrier.

Now I'm not somebody who believes in the whole cat person/dog person thing. It's perfectly possible to be both. I loved my German Shepherd Elinore just as much any cats I've ever known. But I acknowledge that here is a difference between the two species. Cats are...well, cats are kind of weird, and their personalities come in a thousand different styles. And they're unpredictable; I've known Delmar his entire life--over seven years--and I still never know how he'll react to any given thing. Will he be cranky and pissy, or unexpectedly sweet, or aloof and unreadable? Who knows?

Dogs...well, they may be different, but usually they have predictable patterns of behavior, especially within their breed. Dogs are great, and can be swell companions, but they're much less interesting than cats.

So when Brody swept in for these past two days, I thought I knew what to expect. But once he got past the furious barking-at-Del stage (I had to shut Del into the spare bedroom for the duration, which sounds harsh, but the whole room is only slightly smaller than my old apartment), he settled down to getting to know me better. Which he did by jumping up on my lap and staring at me intensely. Then he yawned, lowered his head and demanded a hug. Only a few minutes in, and I already adored him.

He was like a wiry little embodiment of everything cute, nut never in a treacly or overbearing way. He'd track any move I made, and whenever I'd turn around, he'd be sitting there, his somewhat beady but unfathomably wise eyes peering right into me. When I'd approach my recliner, he'd jump up and down beside it, and as soon as I sat, he'd be on my lap. When he needed to go to the bathroom, he'd approach the door and do this odd little vertical leap, as straight up and down as an elevator. I'd take him outside, he'd do his business, and then demand a walk. I found myself taking him out constantly--I'd only have to go near his leash to set off a fit of joyous leaping--just for the pleasure of watching him bound through the snow. And there was his righteous fury at every passing snowplow, and the way he'd paw at the blankets until I let him under the covers, and...everything, really.

Maybe, intellectually, I prefer cats. I appreciate how mysterious and unknowable they can be. Yet those very same qualities are the reasons many people don't like cats, and I guess I can understand that. And having Brody here, especially on Christmas day, made me realize why some people prefer dogs. My plans for the day may not have worked out, just as none of my relationships somehow ever work out, but on this particular day, I had all the love anyone could ever want.

It was a Christmas miracle.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Haven't really done a whole lot to mark the holidays around here, have I? There's a ton of backstory to my Christmas this year, which I'll perhaps explicate in another post (hey, it's not like I'll be doing much else tomorrow), but for now, how about a few joyous Christmas tunes?

What says Christmas better than a character sketch about an unrepentant racist? Here's Randy Newman's Christmas In Capetown.

Oh, sure, those guys on Wall Street say the economy is getting better, but tell that to a guy barely eking out a living. Merle Haggard's If We Make It Through December has never seemed so relevant.

Now we get to the stuff I post every year. Don't think of these as repeats. Think of them as beloved holiday traditions! Here's Judy Garland singing one of the finest songs ever written for a motion picture, Vincent Minnelli's incomparable Meet Me In St. Louis.

And finally, this almost overwhelmingly bleak little number from Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. Because year after year, it made Mom cry.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


It's not like I habitually sit around reading USA Today. But if I'm dining alone in some unfamiliar restaurant, and said establishment provides a copy of today's paper for the presumed edification of lonely patrons, I might as well take advantage, right?

Which is how I found myself reading an article by Susan Wloszczyna in which she details all the ways that the new movie Sherlock Holmes has "knocked the stuffiness" out of the title character, starting with the fact that the cap, cape and "that silly pipe" are gone from this movie.

Fine, whatever. Everyone with even a cursory knowledge of the character knows that the cap and cape were utilized mostly in the illustrations that originally accompanied Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, and never an integral part of the author's conception. That "silly" pipe, on the other hand, is central to Conan Doyle's characterization of the great detective--after all, how else can you have a "three pipe problem"?--as a symbol of his vices and as a crutch he'd lean on almost subconsciously, and if the current movie has indeed jettisoned it, one wonders why they even bothered retaining the name.

Two paragraphs later, Wloszczyna trumpets Robert Downey's bold new conception of the character, "as likely to rely on kung-fu skills and swordplay as on his powers of detection."

Uh, Susan? This is nothing new. Conan Doyle repeatedly stressed Holmes' superb physical condition, fencing skills, and yes, even his mastery of martial arts. He doesn't really display any of this in practical use, but these are known aspects of his character. And if we're discussing previous cinematic interpretations, Downey would have to go some way to be a bigger badass than John Neville in A Study In Terror, to name just one example off the top of my head.

But there's more to the new movie than Downey, of course, and Wloszczyna wants us to consider Jude Law, "who gives bumbling Dr. Watson a much-needed shot of virility."

OK, now you're just trying to piss me off. Bumbling? Conan Doyle always stressed Watson's intelligence. Sure, he wasn't as brilliant as Holmes, but who would be? And occasionally, Watson's insights (especially into matters of the human heart, with which Holmes was not always familiar) would provide his partner with the key to the solution. And as far as virility, Watson served in the military, carried a gun and sometimes acted as Holmes' muscle.

That whole "bumbling Watson" trope originated (and pretty much ended) with those Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies from the thirties and forties, but honestly, does anyone even remember them? Or at least, does the average reader of USA Today? If Holmes and Watson are known by the general public at all these days, it is likely due mostly to Conan Doyle's original stories, which have after all remained in print for a century or so.

And though I wouldn't necessarily expect Wloszczyna to sit down and read every single one of them, is it really too much to expect her to do some desultory research before writing her little puff piece? She may be a lowly entertainment journalist (which means she's actually a rung or two lower than sports columnists on the credibility scale), but she's still a professional, and has no business repeating idiotic misconceptions as accepted facts.

Monday, December 21, 2009


The deal is, I sat down with every intention of making fun of the trailer for the deeply unnecessary remake of Clash Of The Titans (specifically, making fun of Liam Neeson's hair and beard), but as happens when a fella spends too much time at YouTube, I got distracted.

In this particular case, I became weirdly obsessed with looking for clips from SCTV, surely one of the greatest comedy shows in the history of all things funny. In particular, I wanted to post a clip featuring my favorite recurring character from the show, Lola Heatherton, the hilariously insecure singer/actress/train wreck perfectly embodied by the incomparable Catherine O'Hara. I couldn't find the specific bit I wanted, but I found this, which also served to remind me that hey, I haven't posted anything specifically Christmas-related around here. So, uh, Merry Christmas, I guess, from Lola and me. (And Juul Haalmeyer, of course.)

Incidentally, should you be naive enough to think that bit was perhaps a bit over the top--TV variety specials were never that bad, were they?--here's Ann-Margret to set you straight. Yes, people actually sat around and watched this sort of thing back in the sixties and seventies, and no, they weren't being ironic.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


I never like turning this space into a memorial for the recently passed, but this one was a personal hero: screenwriter, sometime director and one-time actor Dan O'Bannon, dead at the depressingly early age of 63.

Whatever media is even bothering to note his passing generally cites him as the author of Alien, and that is indeed one impressive credit. O'Bannon was the only officially credited screenwriter on what is still one of the best horror movies ever made, though it's well known that his script passed through many hands on the way to the screen. Still, the most disturbing elements of the story--the chestburster, most notably--are O'Bannon's, and it was he who convinced director Ridley Scott to hire conceptual artist H.R. Giger to design the title creature, one of the most iconic and influential creatures ever seen on screen.

Alien should have been O'Bannon's launching pad to immortality, but his subsequent produced scripts were alarmingly few, most of them heavily-rewritten by less talented hands. (The creepy Dead And Buried is well worth seeking out.) In 1985, he finally got a chance to direct with the alternately hilarious and genuinely disturbing Return Of The Living Dead, which introduced many key concepts into the zombie sub-genre that are still in play today, but again, despite its excellence and wide influence, it failed to open any doors for O'Bannon, who would only direct one subsequent film.

For me, though, O'Bannon will always be Sgt. Pinback, the character he played so memorably in Dark Star, the ultra low budget space epic he and John Carpenter expanded from a student film they'd made at the University of Southern California. With its dark, airless visuals and spare electronic score, Dark Star is easily recognizable as a Carpenter film (and he'd revisit its theme of working class men under pressure many times, most notably in The Thing), but I've always felt the dominant voice in the film was O'Bannon's. He scripted, designed the sets and supervised the ambitious visual effects. And its deadpan humor, stoner philosophizing and overall sense of melancholy are its own--there's no movie quite like it, and it had a deep personal impact on me the first time I saw it. It's a movie I'll always treasure, and consider a part of me, and Dan O'Bannon will always be a name that means a lot.

Here he is as Pinback--or is it Bill Frug?--in a memorable scene from Dark Star.

Friday, December 18, 2009


A few brief words in celebration of Roy Edward Disney, who died Wednesday at the age of 79.

His name, of course, was legend. He was Walt Disney's nephew, the son of Walt's brother and business manager, and in his life, he combined his father's practical business sense with his uncle's love for the medium of animation. For much of his life he abandoned the studio that was his birthright, and earned a fortune as a financier, but his knowledge of how to mount a hostile takeover came in handy in the early eighties, when he almost single-handedly forced out the management team that had run Walt Disney Productions for two decades, turning out stagnant crap like The Boatniks and Condorman, and worse, misusing the company's legendary animation department to crank out the deeply uninteresting likes of Robin Hood.

When Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg took over the studio in 1984, one of the conditions was that Roy Disney be allowed to revive the animation department. Animated features were a creative dead end in the eighties. Disney's recent efforts had been tired, and though Ralph Bakshi had tried to show the way back in the seventies with more personal, adult efforts like Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, no one would follow his lead. There was only Don Bluth, a former Disney animator, cranking out the insipid likes of An American Tail and The Land Before Time.

So the team Roy Disney assembled--principally directors John Musker and Ron Clements, but also a squad of brilliant young animators eager to prove their worth, lyricist and structural genius Howard Ashman and a company named Pixar, on hand to provide technical support--in the creation of 1989's The Little Mermaid would literally change the face of animation forever. It was a wonderful movie and a critical favorite, but more importantly, it was a box-office smash, a favorite not just of children and families but adults as well. It led to even bigger successes at Disney, Aladdin and The Lion King, and when Beauty And The Beast was nominated for an Oscar in 1992, it offered all the proof anyone needed that the industry was willing to take animation seriously.

It's no exaggeration to say that Roy Disney's gamble with The Little Mermaid has had an impact on every animated feature made since. Without its success, we would never have had The Nightmare Before Christmas or Toy Story or The Incredibles or Coraline or The Fantastic Mr. Fox. But more than that, it created an explosion of interest in animation among the general public, and helped make people more receptive to images that were drawn, allowed them to realize that animation could express emotions more directly than live action. So no, I don't necessarily think that, for instance, Nina Paley's indie feature Sita Sings The Blues was inspired or influenced by Disney, but the fact that it played to such large and appreciative audiences--well, yeah, I imagine more than one person in those audiences came to appreciate animation through a childhood viewing of The Little Mermaid or Beauty And The Beast.

And for that alone, Roy Disney lived a most worthwhile life.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


It's a measure of how little religious upbringing I had that when I heard that TV evangelist extraordinaire Oral Roberts died at the age of 91, all I could think of was The California Kid.

As a kid, I had no concept of Roberts, what he did, what he stood for. I had no concept of organized religion whatsoever, and though I knew vaguely of God, I'd never even heard of Jesus Christ until I half-watched a TV showing of Ben-Hur with my brother. (During the crucifixion scene, I muttered something like, "Who's this guy?" and my brother said, "He's the reason we have Christmas." Look, I was six or so, and we never went to church. How was I supposed to know these things?)

So even though the local ABC affiliate would broadcast an Oral Roberts crusade every week, it wasn't like we ever watched the things. The problem was, they'd show them in prime time, bumping whatever was on the network, which was usually The ABC Movie Of The Week, original films made for TV, usually starring the likes of Karen Valentine or Robert Reed in dull-sounding comedies or lightweight dramas.

But whatever the movie was, it was always heralded by full-page ads in TV Guide, which inevitably gave even the dopiest picture (Anyone remember Paul Sorvino in It Couldn't Happen To A Nicer Guy?) a certain cachet--these weren't just lame TV movies, these were Events! Mostly I didn't care when the Pentecostal stylings of Oral Roberts filled in for these things, but once in awhile ABC would show something I simply had to see. Something like The California Kid, with Martin Sheen as a greaser drag racer squaring off against redneck lawman Vic Morrow. Or so I surmised from the print ad, which made it look like the coolest thing in the world.

I wish I could say something really dramatic happened at this point, like I watched a Roberts crusade for the first time during what I was certain would be the one-and-only airing of The California Kid, and that either I found God or cursed Him, thus dooming myself to a lifetime of Job-like misery. Instead, all that happened was...nothing. Since I couldn't watch the movie, I went outside and played, then did my homework and went to bed.

Not a terribly interesting memory, perhaps, but one I've retained for over thirty years, and my only concrete relationship to anything Oral Roberts ever did.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I saw The Princess And The Frog this weekend, loved it, and hope to write more about it soon. For now, what I want to say is how refreshing it was to see actual hand-drawn animation on the big screen, artwork that obviously came from a human hand.

If you're thinking, "Ah geez, he's going to go off on another anti-CGI screed," you're not wrong. But let me say, I have nothing against CGI, in theory or in use. I revere almost everything Pixar has ever produced. If I ever get around to compiling a Ten Best Films Of The Year list, rest assured Up will most certainly have a place there. (If I do a Best Of The Decade list--and I probably will-- it may turn up there as well, along with at least one other Pixar film which is a near lock for first place.)

The problem with so many computer animated films is that they are so visually dreary, so dedicated to reproducing reality (simulated sunlight, water and flesh, even digitally-created lens flares and shaky camera moves) that they forget that the key to great animation is often simplicity. Bill Tytla, perhaps the greatest animator who ever lived, could make audiences weep with nothing more than lines he'd scrawled on paper. Yes, those lines were transferred to celluloid, painted and laid over backgrounds--but the drawing remained Tytla's. Walt Disney had a huge effects animation department he'd deploy for all his features, which specialized in depicting sunlight and water and shadow, but he knew when not to deploy such effects, when to simply let Tytla or Frank Thomas or Ward Kimball strut their stuff.

As too many animated features try to simulate reality, live action features are becoming more and more cartoonish, as CGI is inexplicably rolled out to depict not only such pointless spectacle as giant fighting robots, but everyday occurrences like car wrecks and...well, almost everything. Filmmakers these days are wacky on the junk, breaking down the world to a series of 0s and 1s, rendering everything digitally simply because they can. So we have computer-rendered jets flying over character's heads as they talk, or protagonists wandering through digitally-created crowds, a series of pointless distractions that intrude on whatever reality is meant to be conjured.

And even when depicting the patently unreal, why does CGI have to be the go-to method? Part of my weekend was spent viewing my all-time favorite Christmas movie, Joe Dante's wonderful Gremlins, released in 1984, when computer effects were in their infancy. The title menaces were nothing more than elaborate puppets. But they were superbly designed (by Chris Walas) and properly threatening.

Consider this sequence:

First of all, there's no denying this scene works. It wouldn't have been improved with CGI. In fact, it probably would have lessened its impact. In a way, Dante had to work around the limits of the technology; the puppets could only move so far. But that pushed him to think on his feet, to come up with fresh, different camera angles that would hide the wires and technicians, to creatively edit around what he couldn't show.

The other thing about that sequence is that actress Frances Lee McCain clearly had something to react to. The gremlins were really there, live on set, but so was the green goo pouring out of the blender. And again, the fact that her movements were dictated by the puppeteers and effects guys on the set probably added to her discomfort, a discomfort that registers on screen as a reaction to the scaly invaders in her kitchen, a reaction that isn't possible when an actor is reacting to things that won't be added until post-production.

I had another point to make, but this is getting long, and you get the idea.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


For reasons I don't fully understand, I've taken to watching reruns of All In The Family. It wouldn't exactly be true to say this is a show that holds up well, but it has its own unique pleasures, but mostly not for reasons its creators may have intended.

In the seventies, there were basically two schools of sitcoms: The Norman Lear style and the MTM style. MTM was a production entity originally set up to produce The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and following its success, continued to turn out more sophisticated, character-based programs: The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP In Cincinatti. Norman Lear was the king of broadly-played, vaguely "relevant" shows. He hit it big with All In The Family, and from it sprang any number of spin-offs and off-shoots: Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times. Not every comedy in this decade was a creation of one of these companies, but they all seemed to creatively pledge their allegiance to one of the two families: MASH, by taking its characters and situations seriously, could almost have been an MTM creation, whereas Welcome Back, Kotter, a loud, boisterous assemblage of cartoonish ethnic types, was obviously in the Lear mold.

The biggest differences between the two schools wasn't in their approaches to writing or characterization so much as the production techniques. Mary Tyler Moore and All In The Family were both recorded in front of live audiences, but ace MTM director Jay Sandrich geared his staging and performances mostly for the camera. Yeah, occasionally the actors have to hold a line to wait for audience laughter, but otherwise you wouldn't know you weren't watching a single-camera show. The MTM model favored varying camera angles, and larger casts, so they could always cut to a reaction shot. Following Sandrich's lead, MTM was the proving ground for director James Burrows, who co-created Cheers and has had a hand in seemingly every other sitcom for the last twenty years. To put it another way, only the clothes and settings date The Mary Tyler Moore Show when viewed today.

All In The Family, on the other hand, almost looks like it came from another world. Norman Lear's shows were always shot on what seemed to be the cheapest videotape imaginable, on brightly-lit, brazenly artificial sets. Presumably he thought this would give the shows a sense of immediacy, a live-wire quality that the more carefully-honed MTM product couldn't match. Mostly, it just gave his shows a hideously ugly physical appearance which, combined with Lear's penchant for small casts and loud, obnoxious characters, make almost everything he did unwatchable today. Go ahead: Try sitting through an episode of Good Times or One Day At A Time without developing a piercing headache.

But with All In The Family, Lear's crude physical production really does give the show a palpable live quality. It helped, of course, that his leads were two exemplary actors, Carroll O'Connor and especially Jean Stapleton, stage vets who could play to the cheap seats without sacrificing quality of performance. Their work, along with that of sometime regulars Betty Garrett and Vincent Gardenia and old-pro guest stars like Barnard Hughes, make watching the show kind of like watching a live theatrical performance.

Not a good theatrical performance, mind you--more like a touring production of a Neil Simon play. The writing has a Simonesque tendency to resort to cheap one-liners to defuse tension, and the settings have a surface realism that lets you buy into the premise at least temporarily, but without ever making you forget you're watching actors on a set, actors who say their lines and wait for their co-stars to say theirs before responding. (The wide camera angles favored by the show frequently capture the cast members not actively involved in a scene simply standing there, waiting for a cue.) The whole thing is so blatantly artificial--and artificial in the name of "realism"--it at times achieves a near-Brechtian quality.

And we'll almost certainly never see anything like it again. The only sitcom in the last twenty years to even attempt something like the Norman Lear house style, Roseanne, emulated its ugly shot-on-video look and vaguely humanist concerns, but at its best, utterly transcended them, thanks to incisive writing and superb acting of a caliber Lear might not have allowed. (Two of its leads, John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf, were stage vets, but honed in more raw, less theatrical technique than O'Connor and Stapleton.) Otherwise, there's nothing like it on TV now--even a stale laugh machine like Two And A Half Men has a visual sophistication worthy of an MTM product, and the best comedies on TV today--Community, Parks And Recreation--are shot one camera style, each episode essentially a mini-movie. Even the recent high-profile failure of a Broadway revival of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs suggests that the "well-made play" model used by Lear is out of favor forever.

The reruns will always exist, though, a reminder that this is what the whole country once gathered around and watched, enjoying it and embracing it without a hint of irony. Odd that a show intended by its creators to be explosive and even divisive has instead ended up as video comfort food.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


Lots of people, no doubt, are spending today writing about this. Hell, they probably even feature this clip, which is, unbelievably, how so many people heard the news.

Me, I heard about it on the radio, playing low, the words barely penetrating my consciousness as I drifted to sleep. No warning, just the news, delivered with a devastating bluntness. The dream was, indeed, over.

I don't have any dazzling, original thoughts for today. (Yeah, I know--there's nothing you can sing that can't be sung.) But it's an annual tradition here to pay homage, because however many personal heroes I may have, this site only has one patron saint.

And only one theme song, which even that awful like-named movie from a year or two ago could not ruin.

Monday, December 07, 2009


If you're not from the Des Moines area, you're almost certainly unaware of the local rag known as Juice, a free weekly put out by the junior minions of the Gannett corporation, current owners of the once-esteemed, now-reviled Des Moines Register. Juice aims to be a stylish guide to all that is hip and happening in the metro area, and falls as laughably short as you'd expect. (Hey, a local bar is having something called Tacky Sweater Night! What a perfect excuse to run photos of the staff wearing--get ready for it!--tacky sweaters! Isn't that wacky? Isn't it? For God's sake, say it is!)

Anyway, this thing has inexplicably stayed afloat for a few years now--Gannett is bleeding The Register dry, but for some reason, they keep pumping money into Juice--and I pick it up maybe twice a year to see if it's gotten any better or worse. (It always gets worse.) And in the latest issue I found a profile of--well, no use singling her out by name, but she's president of a local Young Professionals group. At first I misunderstood, and assumed Young Professionals was the name of a conservative rock band, but no, it's a social networking thing, or something. Honestly, I'd rather be living my life than "networking," but, fine, different strokes and all.

The thing that pissed me off about the profile of this woman was her description of her job. To quote: "I work in group event management for [insert goofy company name here], a performance marketing company in West Des Moines that helps clients motivate, engage and empower their employees to perform better. My department assists their clients with planning and executing their business meetings, product launches and sales incentive trips to places all over the world. I travel on some of the larger programs to assist our clients and travel team."

OK, based on this description, I have no idea what the fuck this woman does for a living, and I suspect that's the point. A performance marketing company? That helps clients plan business meetings? And sales incentive trips? Sounds like the kind of bullshit obfuscation you pull in a bar when you're trying to disguise just how soul-deadening your job really is, but you hope you can make it sound impressive enough to at least get you laid.

But her job is almost certainly not soul-deadening, because that implies you have a soul in the first place. And once you've made the leap to using the word "empower" in relationship to your job without putting it in ironic quote marks, you've pretty much kissed any trace of a soul goodbye. This is the type of person who probably voted for Obama--because hey, that's what the young people agreed they were doing, what with their social networking and all--without realizing she's already a perfect little Republican tool.

If I sound unusually bitter, well, I find it infuriating that this person even has a job--sorry, is empowered to have a job--when so many good people are out of work, and when necessary, worthwhile positions are being eliminated left and right. The more interesting story about life in Des Moines that Juice wouldn't dream of examining is that our libraries and municipal offices are forced to shut down for several days as the city simply can't afford to pay its employees. Culture is sidelined, and even the most basic functions of government screech to a halt, but there's always room to pay somebody to do something that isn't worth doing in the first place.

And the good folks at Gannett will be there to celebrate their every non-achievement.

Friday, December 04, 2009


See, the thing is, I haven't been at work for the last two days. Yesterday was my regularly-scheduled day off (I work this weekend), but today was a day I'd somewhat capriciously chosen, mostly because several of my co-workers have had days off and I figured, hey, I was entitled. And one of the things I specifically wanted to do with all that time was sit down and write.

Well, yesterday turned out to be unexpectedly busy--I had chores to run and a visit to the doctor's office. (Parenthetical aside about that last one: I had to cram several potential health concerns into one visit because my already lousy benefits package at work will become even lousier after the first of the year, as our insurance providers have blessed us with a plan designed to discourage regular doctor visits by making us pay more for them. The HR guy actually phrased it that way when he presented us with the plan. Anyway, good news from the doc: I'm in better shape than I have any right to be.) Hell, I barely got home in time to pop open a Sam Adams Winter Lager (a shocking admission for me, as I've long maintained nothing good has ever come out of Boston, excepting of course the novels of George V. Higgins) and enjoy NBC's exemplary Thursday night comedy lineup.

But today was wide open, just made for me to sit down and offer some pithy insights into...whatever the hell I might've written about. (I actually had some ideas, which I won't go into in case I ever, you know, get around to writing again.) But, well, I had some meds to pick up, and then lunch at a grungy-but-inexpensive Chinese restaurant, and there were all these DVDs unearthed during my recent move, so I figured, why not watch some movies? (The Seven Faces Of Dr. Lao and my umpteenth viewing of The Pirate were on the menu today.) And then it was time for dinner, and hey, better start thinking about bed, because I work tomorrow, and...

So I'm sorry, is what I'm saying. But Shatner, at least.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


My coat still hanging in the closet, an old bar of soap and a nearly-empty bottle of Barbasol on the rim of the tub, a flier for a local restaurant still stuck on the fridge--these were the only things left for me to grab out of my apartment, the only reminders that I had lived here at all.

I grabbed all these things quickly and hurriedly before I headed for work, early in the morning, nobody around, no neighbors, nobody who knew me. After grabbing what I needed, I knocked on the door of the lady who lived next to me, to say goodbye and give her my new address, in case we wanted to stay in touch. She didn't answer. I shrugged, headed down the same old stairway one last time, and walked out the door. After dropping my keys in the slot in the landlord's office next door, I drove away. Simple as that.

That was Monday. This is Thursday. I haven't thought about the place since, not until just now, when I inexplicably started wondering whether the maintenance guy had set out the sad little Christmas tree that decorated the lobby every year. Every year I lived there...Good Lord...How many years could that be? Longer than the duration of my marriage-- How did that happen?

It's not like I sat there passively the whole time I lived there. I did try, and occasionally succeed, to reengage with the world. But it became so easy to stay there, even as my thirties slipped away, even as love slipped through my fingers, even as the anchor of my family was taken away.

So I must have had some affection for the place. So why, then, when I finally decided to move, was it so easy? Why are there no regrets, no sad-eyed glances backwards, no tears, not even fleeting moments of...something?

Still, there was that fleeting thought about the Christmas tree, and how my mom would chuckle over it every time she'd come to visit ("Did Charlie Brown do the decorating here?"), and how those visits dwindled later on because it was difficult for her even to climb up the front stoop, and--oh, here they come: All those memories I'd kept hidden away. Time to let them wash over me, to lead me where they will, and, hopefully, gain some wisdom from them.

And then emerge, clear-eyed, in the here and now.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Fortunately I overslept, or I would've had a much longer post discussing Obama's speech to the nation last night, in which he half-heartedly attempted to justify a prolonged, pointless war. His rhetoric became downright Bushian at times, when he assured us our allies would join the fight (a Coalition Of The Willing, you might say) or when he promised there'd be a definite though hazily-defined drawdown date (in other words, we'll step down when the Afghanis step up).

But that would have been depressing, and who needs that? Espedcially when we have a trailer for an Angie Dickinson movie to look at!

Incidentally, that's Joe Dante mainstay Dick Miller narrating, and for those of you who care about such things, this movie offers a glimpse of Shatner's naked backside. And yes, even his butt overacts.