Saturday, September 19, 2009

Glee: new TV show--no spoilers review; B+

"Glee" is a new dramedy about lovable losers making it in a typical American high school by banding together in a show choir.

So the show's title should be "Show choir" if accuracy mattered most. But that's not a high concept title, so "Glee" it is.

So--should you give it a whirl?

Yes if you love music--especially pop/rock choral harmony/Broadway stuff. Most of the singing cast--including nearly all the leads--appears to have been chosen for their pipes. Go to YouTube and search on "Don't Stop Believing Glee." If it knocks you out, watch an episode, each of which has several similar numbers. But "Don't Stop Believing" is their best so far, I think, and it should tell you whether you're in the target audience or not. I love Journey's original and their current redo as well, but Glee's version is very strong, and stands in its own right. The performance that goes with it is cute as well.

Moreover, several cast members have lead singer-class voices, while others are good but not so good that it seems out of keeping with their characters. Their teacher is also a very good singer. And so are several of his teacher peers (think of the quartet in "Scrubs" that livens up that show's proceedings frequently).

I should add that the soundtrack for the show is entirely a capella choir-sung. It's fabulous--by far the best of any current show on TV. I actually like "Smallville's" close-to-grand opera sound track, which is the polar opposite of the light-hearted, unique sound of "Glee." Both achieve their goals.

I do have quibbles with some of the numbers--they cover Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" in a way that's appropriate to people who've never needed rehab, so it's right for the story, but in no way captures Winehouse's authenticity. They cover Rihanna's "Give the boy a hand" in a way that I don't think matches the lyrics--and Rihanna's own performance of the song is so nuanced and compelling they needed a boatload of chutzpah just to tackle it. Their version isn't bad, mind you. It didn't make me cringe. But I would have liked it better if I weren't familiar with the original.

And yes if you miss "Pushing Daisies." This isn't a fantasy show, but it partakes of the loopy, broad-yet-touching humor of that show (and "Glee" does have fantasy sequences). Also yes if you love the new Toyota ads with the a capella, wordless sound tracks and the hordes of dancing children dressed as flowers and clouds and rivers with whitecaps.

I know, the plot concept is hackneyed. But as with most everything, execution counts, and this is executed well. It's both uplifting and snarky--a great combo in my book. And the love triangle that's a key plotline is morally complex--none of the three are a "good guy" or a "bad guy." They're like us. That's a breath of fresh air for a Hollywood series. So it's also broad humor and moral complexity.

Also yes if you like to see characters who don't all come out the CW network's gorgeous cookie cutter casting bucket. I love looking at beautiful people--after all, I'm genetically programmed that way, just as you are--but if the character is supposed to be not beautiful, it doesn't cut it to just take someone beautiful and do up their hair in a severe bun and park a set of thick glasses on them, all in preparation for the slo-mo sequence later on when the specs come off and the hair comes out to play in glamorous head-tossed shampoo commercial swirls.

Here the fat black girl is--who knew?--fat and black. The overdetermined female lead singer of the choir has the Broadway look--not pretty enough for the unforgiving lens of a movie camera, but fine seen at a distance on a stage, given great pipes and the ability to project, and that she's got in spades. The cripple isn't a cripple, but that doesn't show, and he's certainly geeky enough. All the adults in the triangle are attractive enough but not in Brad Pitt/Jennifer Aniston territory (nor, as I said, in CW territory).

OTOH, if you don't live for music and find broad comedy exasperating and are a stickler for plot consistency, maybe you won't like it. It's a little over the top, just as show choirs are. And it ain't Shakespeare, nor does it partake of the ashcan school of downbeat realism that produced, for example, "Homcide: Life on the Streets"--which I also loved.

A lot of comedy is about people being publicly humiliated, and a little of that goes a long way for me. This has a touch of that, but it's focused more on people with problems actually trying to solve those problems as best they can. It doesn't solve things magically--there's lots of struggle here. But at least it's not hopeless. I'd call the show big hearted.

I hope this tells you whether you should watch an episode of "Glee." Or at least listen to the YouTube clips. And I also hope this review doesn't spoil any surprises for you, which I think should be a critic's first principle (like Asimov's Laws of Robotics).

Don't stop believing...

Friday, September 18, 2009

2001: a great movie in Cinerama--troubles on TV

The movie "2001" exemplifies the problems with watching on a TV set a movie made to be seen in a movie theater.

Honestly, many if not most movies made today are designed to look good on a TV screen. "District 9" comes to mind.

It's easy to tell if a movie was made to be watched easily on a TV: it's shot in mostly medium and close-up shots. We watched "District 9" in a theater and it felt like half the time I was looking at gigantic 20 foot high heads. I would have preferred it on our widescreen TV at home, in fact.

But 2001 is the exact opposite. It was made purely to be seen on a Cinerama screen, without no compromises and no thought to future DVD sales.

Imax screens are--traditionally at least--53 feet high by 72 feet wide. Cinerama is 33 feet high by a whopping 89 feet wide, on a screen that curves around you, so if you sit in the right place it occupies 146 degrees of your field of vision.

To get that experience at home you'd have to sit less than two feet from your big screen TV, then break it out of its frame to wrap it around you. And of course you'd have to have at least a six-speaker home theater system to go along with that.

This isn't possible. So what we're left with is watching a film that was magnificent in Cinerama looking like a miniaturized shadow of its former self.

"2001" moves at a stately pace. If you're sitting in a Cinerama theatre, surrounded by the film, you don't notice the passage of time. On a TV screen you're looking at it through a peephole, and what was magnificent can now seem tedious. Without that immersion we wind up looking in vain for the plot (it has one, but it proceeds slowly), unable to fully appreciate the atmospherics.

So if you've tried to watch "2001" on your big screen TV at home and wondered why it was so praised--that's why.

It also violates movie reality with real reality: that is, astronauts in "2001" talk like the highly emotionally stable engineers they are instead of with the emotive theatrics of Actors, as you see even in otherwise excellent films like "Apollo 13." Program managers speak with the kind of administrative CYA doublespeak the real ones use. So viewers accustomed to the more emotionally-charged line delivery of most movies find that it falls flat in "2001."

Current movies also tell you what's happening with the lighting and sound track at all times, then warn you what's about to happen the same way. It's nearly impossible to be actually surprised in a normal Hollywood film because of this. If you heard only the sound track of a standard Hollywood film, you could probably describe what's being seen.

But in "2001" the sound track is part of the movie, not a set of acoustic instructions, bobastically delivered, as to what you're supposed to think and feel at every second. Late in the film whole sections have almost no music, in a setting so quiet you can hear people breathing.

Lastly, in "2001" some visual tropes were introduced that now can seem cliched--a little like watching a Shakespeare play when the actors recite now-well-known lines like "To be or not to be--that is the question." It's hard to imagine the impact such lines had the very first time an audience heard them.

Thus the Stargate is now something found---and often done much better visually--on the cheesiest SyFy channel TV movies. But I saw it in Graumman's Chinese Theater first run, on that gigantic wraparound screen, and I'd never seen anything like it in my life--and I'd seen a lot of films, and it was...stunning. Stunning in a jaw-dropping kind of way I've rarely experienced since then, Michael Bay's hackneyed big-budget efforts notwithstanding.

I'm not saying not to watch "2001" on a big screen TV. I'm just saying you need to take into account what I said here, and try to let you mind make up, as best it can, for what's missing onscreen (and that includes about half of the outboard two of the three screens that comprise a Cinerama "screen").

The screen image included here is a case in point. In Cinerama, in a theater, this spaceship glided across the screen in the dim sunlight found near Jupiter. Kubrick photographed the model in a studio in that level of light--a difficult, time-consuming, costly task. But the result is more like what it would really look like than any movie before or since.

Yet at home, with a few lights on, you can hardly see the ship. It wasn't lit for viewing in a lit room--only in the level of darkness you find in a movie theater. And if you don't have a superb image on your home TV, you'll miss the exquisite detailing of the image.

See why it's so hard to watch this now? At least--if you agree with my analysis--you can understand why you didn't like it anywhere as much as those who'd seen it in Cinerama.

There are a few Cinerama theaters left in the world. You could always Google them, get their schedules, and schedule a vacation there when "2001" is showing.

Well, it's a thought...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tennis: Deep Thoughts on the U.S. Open

In his blog, Jim Fawcette discussed what the tennis players did at the U.S. Open, the last big tournament of the season. You can read it at .

I added this note:

But what about the important stuff--like their costumes?

Who can forget Sharapova's supremely stylish outfit compared to Clijster's utilitarian garb (good thing Clijsters is such a joy to watch playing)?

Curious that the men's final looked like a funeral, with two men in black as the pallbearers--er, players. We need a gay player dressed like a butterfly. Is there any rule against a man wearing a skirt?

But speaking of skirts, Caroline Wozniacki was the girliest of the women, wearing a Stella McCartney outfit that appeared to sport two skirts at once. With her dangly earrings and ponytail, she wouldn't have looked out of place at a high school dance if she'd just swapped her tennies for heels.

Her semifinal opponent, Yanina Wickmayer, gets my vote for costume of the US Open, though: she was the only woman I saw who didn't wear a skirt over her shorts. Every single woman's player wears shorts, but every single other one adds a skirt. Why? It's an anachronism. Wickmayer's outfit was stylish, color coordinated, sleek looking, avoiding the poles of Clijsters' utilitarianism and Wozniacki's estrogen on parade. Wickmayer looked like an athlete who's a woman instead of a woman who's an athlete. Props to her.

And props to the Gullickson, the hitherto unknown titan of touch who spearheaded her team's win in the mixed doubles finals. She may be too portly for singles, but she's still amazing to watch--and I think the only unseeded ultimate winner in the Open.

Lastly, I appreciated Del Potro's understated humor on the court. Nothing like Djokovic's mockage, but still a nice touch in a match that was even a marathon to watch, much less play. Fed wasn't funny at all, in contrast to his between the legs winner in the semi, which was both amusing and stunning.

The only other humor I saw was Serena joking about her foot fault imbroglio at the MTV Video Music Awards, where she was a presenter Sunday evening.

I'm sure the diminutive Japanese female linesman she'd threatened to assault found Serena's comedy moment a real knee-slapper.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Serena Williams, Kanye West, Joe Wilson--3 of a kind

Back in the day I worked in a juvenile hall for a month. It was a tough job (which I ultimately failed at), because the kids there mostly suffered from a lack of impulse control and a lack of empathy for others.

It's not that these kids were mean, exactly. It wasn't that they were sadistic. It's just that other people were...kind of...shadows for them. Their own needs and feelings occupied, like, 99% of their consciousness.

The pity is that you don't have to go to juvie to run into people like this. You can visit the Congress of the United States while the President is addressing them--you can go to the U.S. Open tennis tournament Womens' Singles semifinal--or the MTV VMAs.

But what I really take away from the VMAs is how classy Beyonce is. Kudos to her for giving up her piece of the limelight to let Taylor Swift finish the acceptance speech Kanye West ruined for her.

And kudos to Taylor Swift. Her stuff isn't deathless, but it's heartfelt, and she's obviously a good kid. Hope she gets a song to write out this. I just wish the linesman terrorized by Serena could do the same.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Vampire Diaries Pilot review--some spoilers but it doesn't matter

Gorgeous actors, gorgeous production values, like all CW shows.
Paint by the numbers plotting. Buffy/Angel had humor, irony, drama, swoony romanticism. This has all of that--except for the humor, irony, and drama.

Now if only someone would base a TV show on the stunning Swedish vampire movie "Let the Right One In." It was made on a smaller budget than the Vampire Diaries' pilot, I'd wager. Yet it will make chills run up your spine...and you'll still be thinking about it a month after seeing it.

Vampire Diaries, by comparison, is product.

Oh, and the magic walk-around-in-daylight ring? What a cheap shot. Talk about eliminating anything that might make the story complicated. And the idea was used in Buffy first anyway, though there it did become complicated. So I guess there's still hope.

But thus far "Vampire Diaries" goes where many have gone before.

I plan to watch a few more episodes, but I don't have a lot of hope. Still, "Dollhouse" got better.

BTW: the crow that keeps appearing in the show, that everyone in the show refers to as a crow? It's a raven. Bigger bird, bigger, heavier beak...raven. Crows are smart, ravens are smarter. More trainable. Fine. Just call it a raven then. Guess they decided "raven" was above the pay grade of the target demographics' vocabulary.

Friday, September 4, 2009

How are actors like roofers

There are three categories of American workers who generally have just a high school education: Unskilled laborers, tradesmen...and actors. I'd include professional athletes, but many do have a college degree--just without the education that's supposed to go with a degree.

So you'll see an actor who's, say, 30 years old, is a multimillionaire, has traveled the world--and knows about the same as the guy who's working on your roof.

Their education is a fly in amber, fixed forever at what we all knew at the age of 18.

That's why their opinions often sound so ludicrous. Not just politically. Everything. They know a huge amount about the craft of acting, and often a lot about the ancillary professions--hairdressing, lighting, camerawork, etc. But otherwise...well, watch the late night talk shows and you'll see what I mean. Oftentimes it's not expressed in politics so much as in weird personal tics--a fear of flying, or obsessions with something or other, ideas they picked up from the 'Net when they lacked the intellectual tools to sort the solid ideas can I put this nicely...chaff.

With exceptions, of course. For example, Natalie Portman has a BA from Harvard. I'm guessing offhand that people with deep educational or life experience run about 10% of the actors you see on TV and movies.

This is not a swipe at actors' generally liberal leanings. Except that if the left tends to be mindless and the right, heartless, it makes sense that an uneducated empath would lean left.

But when I do find that an actor does have a real education I'm always impressed, and I pay extra attention to those. It's not so much that they turn into Republicans, as that the reasons they give for their beliefs make more sense. Ben Affleck, for example, can hold an intelligent discussion about politics. I doubt Barbra Streisand can.

This problem with education is compounded by situational narcissism--skewed thinking resulting from being surrounded by bootlicking sycophants. That plus the gypsy life of movie actors makes it hard for them to pursue formal education--halfway through the semester your agent calls with a chance to work for Woody Allen on a pic that could win an Oscar. What would you do?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

District 9--see it on DVD--no spoilers review

District 9 is a relatively low budget sci fi thriller set in South Africa that's had generally positive reviews by the critics--especially compared with Hollywood's usual crop of conceptually stale by-the-numbers summer action thrillers.

However, my wife found the violence and language too off-putting for her. I didn't mind that, but after seeing it in a theatre and going home and reading a bunch of reviews on the Rottentomatoes website, I was surprised to find that not one of them mentioned that this film was designed to be watched on a big screen TV at home.

To wit: it uses 16:9 big screen TV formatting rather than the normal movie theater widescreen ratio. And it's filled with tight close-ups and medium-range shots, which again optimizes it for TV viewing. Something like "Master and Commander" was great in a theatre, with beautiful, crisp, cinematography and shots that really exploited the movie theatre scale and format.

I'm not complaining about the director's choosing to optimize this film for DVD. Many films are, and that's fine. It's a good format, and I've enjoyed watching many films on our 46" Samsung LCD TV.

I am complaining about all those movie critics missing this fact, which was glaringly obvious in the first 5 minutes. If I'd known this I would have waited for the DVD.

BTW some critics didn't like the performance of Wikus, the central character. I thought he was fine, though, and so did my wife, and both of us are film buffs who love Kurosawa and other high art directors. He plays a doofus who's hamming it up for the documentary crew. But the actor isn't hamming. It's the character who is.

Some of these critics really should be working in a shoe store or something.

As sci fi films go, this isn't as fully realized as, say, "Serenity." OTOH the script is vastly better than anything George Lucas ever "wrote."

Really this is in the old Hollywood B movie tradition, with both that tradition's faults and virtues. It's gritty, downbeat, morally complex (think Todd Browning's "Freaks"), with an efficient plot and some very effective, somewhat grainy (purposely so) visuals. The image of the giant floating spacecraft is iconic.

So I'd say see it on your wide screen at home when it's released on DVD, or if you do go to a theater, sit farther back than you would normally; warn those with queasy eyes and ears to leave the room; and don't expect one of those everything-neatly-tied-with-a-bow endings.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ponyo review: see it--on DVD, in Japanese, with subtitles

Few films even start to get at what my spouse and I experience in the ocean when we're scuba diving. But this does, a little. And the scene of the trawler scraping everything off the seabed should be made into a clip and distributed to every organization trying to save the sea from human depredation.

As for Ponyo--we liked it. Little kids will adore it. It's not as sublime as Spirited Away, but what is? It would make a great companion piece to My Neighbor Totoro, though, which is still pretty great company.

We're glad we saw it.

But--we saw it on our big screen TV, in Japanese, with English subtitles, on what appeared to be a legit DVD from Taiwan (if that's not an oxymoron.

So this is a preview of the DVD that will be shipped to American audiences, no doubt in a few months.

I say wait for the DVD. As other reviewers have noted, dubbing is an abomination in general, and that's true even for an anime where the mouths are rarely drawn closely enough for the different facial movements for different languages show. But still, it's a Japanese film, and even though everyone looks Caucasian, they act Japanese in every way. You really won't see the movie unless you see it in Japanese with English subtitles.

Just wait. I know it's hard if you're a Miyazaki fan, but do it anyway. Vote with your dollars for original language with subtitles.

While you're waiting you can always get the Swedish live action film about a pair of 12 year olds, titled \"Let the Right One In.\" It's out on DVD. (Just kidding--this is so not a film for little kiddies, and it's as dark as \"Ponyo\" is full of light. But I enjoyed both greatly.)


I posted that review on Amazon. It got a critical reply that said Miyazaki wanted us to see his films in theaters (necessarily dubbed, I think), and that we should support filmmakers we like through providing box office receipts. I said:

These are serious objections to what I said. I'll address the dub/subtitle issue, then the theatre/home issue.

1. Dub vs. subtitles: C.Moon urges deference to Miyazaki's desires that we see the film in a theater. But I'm sure Miyazaki also wants us to hear what he put on the sound track (at the price of having subtitles, I acknowledge).

I don't speak Japanese, but I know something about linguistics. English is something of a classless language, though to be sure all our dirty words come from the Angles and the Saxons who the French knights ruled over after 1066 AD, while most of our hoity-toity words came from those French masters. But Japanese is a stack of languages, each calibrated to your social class and that of the person you're talking to. For example, "I" in Japanese is watakushi, watak'shi, wata'shi, or boku, each variant successively more informal.

Likewise, while Americans behave differently depending on whether we're carousing in a bar or attending church, our body language doesn't differ as much as the Japanese culture mandates. For example, the angle with which you bow and the associated body language conveys important meaning about what you believe your social status to be relative to the person you're bowing to.

If you're listening to a Japanese movie in Japanese, you can see how their class-conscious spoken language and their class-conscious gestural/facial/body language go together. It goes way beyond lip-synch (which as I said isn't a problem with nearly all animation; not yet at least--someday I expect it will). Also, another review pointed to the care with which Japanese voice actors are cast, and their status in the Japanese arts. They are not an afterthought, and their work is generally serious and nuanced. And after you see a few dozen Japanese movies in Japanese, these nuances will start to come through. You might even consider getting one of those little Lonely Planet pocket guides with a phrasebook etc., or the like. This small investment will pay off handsomely.

Perhaps Disney picked the best American voice actors imaginable (though I get the impression they hire Big Names to goose box office, rather than necessarily the best in the business). But say they did. And also say that subtitles are also challenging to do. They'll never get all the nuances; it's just not possible. So either way you're viewing the movie through a filter that reduces your access to the total movie. You must pick your poison, and I could make an argument either way. It's not anywhere near as clearcut an issue as it with live action films, where I find the dubbing intolerable (except when it's intentionally used for humorous effect, a la Mystery Theater 3000).

I opt for subtitles, and in doing so I hope I'm pushing the distributors and the film makers to take subtitling seriously and do as good a job as possible.

The theater is a great place to take your young children to see Ponyo. I don't have children, however, and for me (except for a few "2001" ish films or ones in 3D) I've found viewing them at home provides a better viewing experience. However, that's only been true since I bought (through Amazon) a 46" 120Hz LCD screen TV coupled with a 6-speaker home theater.

Conversely, you can't see "2001" in a theater, even in a revival, because it requires Cinerama, which doesn't exist any more. And even for other films, the screens have gotten smaller and smaller. And the audience courtesy seems to have diminished correspondingly, with some people chattering with each other throughout the film.

We don't even have Blu-Ray, but the upconversion qualities of a modern DVD player, coupled with a screen this big in a smallish room (we live in a condo), the angle of view subtended by the screen from your eyeball is comparable to a back-row seat at the average cineplex.

And I can control my viewing environment far better than the theater viewer can. I actually find the bright neon EXIT signs somewhat distracting, for example. This TV replaced a 32" Sony Trinitron CRT TV, and I certainly agree that watching movies through that was grossly inferior to seeing a movie in a theater. I've heard, BTW, that the biggest regret big screen TV buyers have is that they didn't buy a big enough one. They went cheap and lived to regret it. I don't believe anything smaller than our 46" unit would be competitive with the theater experience, regardless of room size. Absolute scale matters.

The challenge is teaching the people you're watching it with to take the viewing experience seriously and not treat it as you might, say, like watching a lightweight sitcom.

It also lets fidgety children move around some and go to the bathroom, if they need to, without forcing you to miss 5 minutes of the film.

So though I laud C. Moon's desire to support Miyazaki with theater sales, I'm also supporting Miyazaki with DVD purchases, and with that support I'm also supporting making the DVD product as high quality as possible and not an afterthought. Interestingly, the price for a recent, non-BluRay DVD is pretty comparable compared to tickets for two.Miyazaki's movies deserve to be taken seriously. C. Moon and I agree on this. Where we differ is in what "taking serioiusly" consists of.

C. Moon and I went another round, with him pointing out the the DVD I'd watched was most likely a bootleg, the idea of writing film distributors and asking for a subtitled version for specialty theaters/late night viewings, and more about home vs. theater, with C. Moon alluding to watching films on a 5 ft. projection screen. I said:

Spinoza defined freedom as arranging your chains as comfortably as possible.

I think that's germane to the topic of seeing movies in theaters vs. on DVD. Actually Hollywood did figure out how to get film buffs like me back into theaters: 3D. It won't be possible in homes for years, and probably never on my own $2K investment.

We've seen "Bolt" and "Up" and in both the 3D was sublime--a far cry from "Bwana Devil" of the '50's with it's poke-you-in-the-eye crudity. Now try to imagine a 3D Miyazaki film.

As for bootleggery--like you I'm sure, I won't knowingly buy a bootleg DVD, nor allow my own DVDs to be copied for someone else, neither for money nor for free, unless they're out of print.

The Ponyo I saw was brought here by some friends who bought it in Taiwan while they were visiting relatives. They're holy rollers (hence honest I hope), and the packaging looked legitimate to my superficial inspection, but I know what percentage of Asian DVDs are boots (nearly all). It could only be played on a region-free player, however, since it wasn't region 1. So perhaps it is legit, else why do a bootleg with region copyright protection? I hope that's the case.

And the downside was that the friend's player didn't have the upconversion capabilities of my player. So I'll have to see it again when the American DVD is released.

I have a wish for DVD I hadn't mentioned--the hope that miniseries will someday be released straight to DVD, perhaps with TV airings of their pilots. So many shows I've loved have been cancelled (Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, Firefly, Life, to name a few) prematurely. Perhaps if DVDs become more accepted such series can continue on DVD. For example, DVD sales of Firefly were robust enough to justify a feature-length sequel in the theaters (which did a miniscule fraction of the business of a Star Wars film, despite being vastly better by any measure).

As for projection TVs--I think they're terrible. All that I've seen at least. Dim and grainy. My TV has true 1080p resolution and great contrast and saturation. It's really a different ballgame than any projection TV I've seen.

I do understand the argument for an immersive experience. That's why I saw "2001" 13 times in a Cinerama theater in San Francisco--not because the story itself was that great, but because at the time it was best way to experience deep space. I think it was far better than IMAX, which usually feels like sitting in the front row of a theater, even if I'm all the way back. And the form factor--pretty much square--is inferior to Cinerama's. Sigh.

"2001" is the most immersive movie I've ever seen. "Apollo 13" was good, too. "Lawrence of Arabia" of course. Perhaps Kurosawa's "Kagemusha" and "Ran." "Saving Private Ryan"'s first half hour. "Grand Prix."

Actually the most immersive experience most humans can have is scuba diving, which my spouse and I do. That's one reason I liked Ponyo so much, as my review noted. And no, I don't mean it's because you're immersed in ocean. It's the visual universe you experience underwater. Beyond amazing. We go diving in Indonesia pretty much every year, and I recommend it for any Miyazaki fan. His reverence for nature and appreciation of stillness dovetail perfectly with what we've experienced.

OTOH I can't immerse myself in a nice big theater when yahoos are talking around me. You can avoid that to some extent by going to the first matinee, but it's still a crapshoot. In an ideal world I'd have a wall-sized screen in our home or have the wherewithal to book a theater. I saw Jurassic Park that way (one of the computer companies involved had booked the theater and I got invited). That was pretty cool. And we certainly loved seeing "Bolt" and "Up!" in a theater.

Theater vs. home theater--from a viewer's perspective, each is better than the other. Pick your trade-offs.

If you want a truly cool theater experience, I recommend the movie theater in Casino Point in Avalon on Catalina Island, near LA, which is a fully restored Art Deco movie palace; the Stanford Theater here in Palo Alto, also fully restored (only shows old films though); and the Sony Metreon in San Francisco, which has 3D/Imax capabilities, and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, with fab projection facilities and an endless repertoire of art/foreign films. I practically lived there when I lived in Berkeley.

It's only in the last two years that home viewing became competitive with good theater viewing. If you haven't tried a state of the art LCD big screen--it's time. I realize the studios mostly make decisions based on theater box office, but I think this new technology is so good that this will change soon. Especially since with Amazon and whatnot it's possible to have discussions like this about movies--we aren't so dependent on mainstream promotion to decide what to see.

As for subtitles--not for a kid film in a theater, of course. Late night showing is an interesting idea. Reminds of those Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight showings that went on for decades. Would we all go dressed as anthroporphic fish?

BTW subtitles are a must for the hearing-impaired. We have a nearly deaf friend who always needs them even for movies in English. So for her our home theater is 100% preferable to a movie theater.

One last note--films can be immersive in ways other than visual. The French film "Ponette" immerses you in the inner world of 5 year old children--a remarkable achievement. Visually it looked made for TV, but that didn't matter a bit. Or the documentary "Born into Brothels" which will rip your heart out and squish it into little red bits, despite, again, being visually unpreposessing. Or another French film, "Water Lilies," which immerses you in the obsessions that can swamp the mind of a teenager (I wrote a review of in in Amazon--check it out). Or "Groundhog Day" the first Zen Hollywood comedy, which immerses you in time itself as a human dimension, or "Lost in Translation" which immerses you in stillness and unspoken longings. Or the art museum segment of Kurosawa's "Dreams," which immerses you in Van Gogh's head, or, similarly, "Being John Malkovitch"--I'm thinking of the Malkovitch Malkovitch restaurant scene.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Review of the vampire movie "Let the Right One In"

Reviewers like to tell you whether a movie is good or not, and whether they liked it or not.

But you want to know whether you'd like it...or not. Why should you care what I think, unless you know our tastes are the same? And you certainly don't want all the surprises in the film ruined for you.

So I'll try to help you decide whether to see this or not, without spoiling anything.

"Let the Right One In" is, above all, a serious movie. The concept, the plotting, the cinematography, the casting...everything serves a serious purpose--something like a meditation on what it means to have to take others' lives to keep your own...and what it means to know someone in this position. Of course none of us are, or know, vampires, but at the deepest level we have all taken advantage of others to help ourselves in some way at some time. Except my spouse, who's a saint, of course, just in case she reads this!

There's also the moral complexity that comes with the fact that many people who do great wrong to others often have a tender side. The family man who's a serial killer, the concentration camp commander who's a great father to his own children, the poet/dictator. Others are just monsters 24x7, but most have some redeeming traits. And such people are far more interesting than the Leatherfaces of the world. Even Saddam Hussein wrote poetry and doted on this children.

There is enough violence in "Let the Right One In" to justify an R rating, but none is gratuitous, and much is off-screen, in the manner of a good Hitchcock suspense movie, rather than some gorefest. The blood you see is there for good reasons, not just to shock you or titillate you.

It was done on a low budget by Hollywood standards. The sparse special effects are good enough to advance the plot but they aren't going to wow you by themselves. The actors are not Hollywood-beautiful, though I think the casting is perfect.

The main characters are children--more or less--but it's not a film for children (unless they're unusually deep children, if you know what I mean).

It's also not a film for those whose moviegoing expectations are entirely based on big-budget Hollywood movies.
I'm not criticizing such movies--I've seen many & loved many--but this ain't that.

In particular, many moviegoers want everything explained. This film doesn't do that. It explains nothing, actually. Not because the director wanted to keep you in the dark...but because a lot in life goes unexplained. Someone cuts you off on the freeway, nearly killing you, then vanishes into the night. You never know why he did that, and you'll never learn why. There were reasons, but you're not privy to them.

That's what this film delivers. Mostly you see things through the perspective of a 12 year old boy, and rarely know more than he knows. And the children in the film don't deliver long speeches explaining what they're up to, why they're the way they are, yada yada.

One reviewer hated this film because nothing is explained. He couldn't accept the fact that not all kids are highly self-aware extroverted, eloquent chatterboxes. "Where did you go?" "Out." "What did you do?" "Nothin'."

These kids are average kids in non-average circumstances. So are the adults and other kids around them.

You might also be disappointed if you're looking for a hero to a admire and a villain to boo. This film has neither.

I loved the TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel." Those have heroes, and their stories are the stories of the hero's journey. Their central characters are physically beautiful, their dialog is witty and knowledgable and often poetic. And the production values (after Buffy's first two seasons, which were shot in grainy 16mm) are great for late '90s TV. However, "Let the Right one in" is really, really different from these shows, and I'm sure it's equally different from Twilight.

Actually, it's a gritty, realistic vampire film, oxymoronic as that may sound. The closest equivalent to it that I can recall is the underrated Jude Law film "The wisdom of crocodiles." Or, more distantly, the Japanese TV anime show "Vampire Princess Miyu."

Finally, a word about the casting. The 12 year old boy is the whitest white boy I've ever seen this side of an albino. He perfectly embodies the quirky loner he portrays. The girl is also perfect, and while she's not Hollywood-pretty by any stretch, she has huge, hypnotic eyes--almost like the kids in those wretched Keane paintings you see at tourist art galleries, next to the clowns and seascapes. I couldn't think of any child actor today or earlier who could play this crucial part better. She's as well suited to this part as Peta Wilson was to playing La Femme Nikita in the eponymous TV series.

The working-class Swedes around them look the part perfectly as well.

The film isn't set in any beautiful urban setting, like you'd find in downtown Oslo or Gothenburg. It's set in a sea of utilitarian apartment blocks in a nondescript town, with the action taking place entirely in a Swedish winter. It's the beauty of bleak.

I loved this film myself, but I don't want you to get it or watch it unless what I've said here suits you. If you do buy it, please manage the expectations of those you see it with. The pace is generally slow by Hollywood terms--necessary to generate the needed atmospherics. However, the story is linear, and ultimately not obscure at all except for not explaining how the people you see got there in the first place. So it's not hard to follow at least.

It has now been several days since I saw this with my brother, who had the same feelings about it as I did. The film has stuck with me. You know how some films you see then forget the instant the screen goes dark? This isn't one of those. It's haunting. I didn't actually figure out the true nature of the two central characters' relationship until the next day, after the film had percolated through my brain for a while. I won't say what that is, since I promised no spoilers. But it will send chills up your spine.

And here's one moment to look for. You know how vampires can't enter your home unless you invite them in? (hence the title of this movie BTW) Watch what happens in this movie when that rule is tested. You'll remember this scene for the rest of your life, and I'm not talking about gore.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The new real problem with TV

The new real problem with TV is as follows:

1. Shows live or die by ratings.
2. Viewers who watch shows on their DVRs aren't counted in the ratings.
3. The smartest viewers looking for the smartest shows mainly watch them via DVR now.
4. So there's now a dynamic pushing down the collective IQ of successful shows.

This won't go away. Yes, there are smart shows with great ratings, such as "House." But many other critically acclaimed shows--especially in genres such as science fiction or fantasy--die before their time. Consider "Pushing Daisies" and "Dead like me."

We need a way for the interested parties to make a profit from showing good shows that don't attract non-DVR types.

Some possibilities:

1. Pay channels like HBO. This is already happening, and certainly HBO has been successful. However, I don't see it doing much scifi.

2. Miniseries released directly to DVD, possibly backed by a free digital channel that airs pilots to the series. It has become vastly more cost-effective to produce TV shows with satisfying production values. Miniseries could beget more if they're successful, as is true for novel series like the Horatio Hornblower books.

3. TV channels need a piece of the action in DVD sales of shows they air. Many TV shows are successful on TV but not on DVD--those are the kind that DVR owners tend not to watch. OTOH Buffy was never that successful on TV, yet its DVD sales continue strongly, six years after the show wrapped. TV channels will be more inclined to make longer-term investments if they can profit from it.

Otherwise we'll just get sitcoms, routine police procedurals/hospital shows, and tarted-up evening soaps.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Terminator Sarah Connor Chronicles + Dollhouse

The April 10th installments of these series (Terminator's was the season finale) both delivered satisfying complexity. Terminator has gotten more interesting than the movies were--and I liked T1 & T2 a lot. Dollhouse is finally achieving what Whedon and Dushku both promised in interviews: that from the 6th episode on things would get interesting. They have, and it is. In both series we're getting fascinating plot arcs.

This means new viewers are going to get lost. So get the first seasons of both on DVD and watch them before tackling what's going on now. It'll be worth your while.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

"Parks & Recreation" review

"Parks & Recreation" isn't a remake of "The Office"--it's a remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1951 classic drama "Ikiru." I don't have inside knowledge--I've just seen most of the classic movies. "Ikiru" wasn't a comedy--in it, the midlevel bureaucrat Amy Poehler plays discovers he has 6 months to live--but the plot of trying to build a little park against all odds, in general and in detail--that comes straight from "Ikiru." I'm a little dismayed none of the reviewers thus far have noticed this. It's not like "Ikiru" is an obscure film to film buffs, many of whom consider Kurosawa to be the greatest movie director of all time.

Doesn't mean "Parks & Recreation" is destined for greatness. Depends on execution. And a lot of the humor is pretty broad. But it may get there. Steal from the best, I say.

Actor to look for while Amy Poehler is cheerfully mugging her way through her scenes is her smarter sidekick, played by Rashida Jones, the anti-Jim Carrey of comedy. Understated, subtle. Great work.

Monday, April 6, 2009

3D is dragging me back to the cineplex

For years I've gotten more and more disenchanted with going to the movies. Pushing me away from the theater: the rudeness and piggishness of many patrons, the shrinking screens (anyone remember Cinerama? It put Imax to shame), the tickets costing the same as a recent DVD (if two people go).

Pulling me toward home: our 46" Samsung 120Hz HD TV, plugged it into our home theater, with an upscaling DVD player (still waiting for Blu-Ray prices to come down).

Plus the fact that the best TV shows have something no movie, no matter how sublime, can match: as many as 200 hours or so to tell your story in. Comparing that to a movie is like comparing a haiku to Tolstoy.

Back in the 50's, movie theaters lured people from their new TVs with big screen extravaganzas, and that still can work, but many movies are made for TV viewing--just look at how much of the movie is done in medium and close-up shots. I see no reason to slog to a theater for that.

Enter 3D. We saw "Bolt," which I thought would be just OK. It was actually quite good--and the 3D was superb. Rich and deep. And our TV apparently can't support any of the home 3D technology in the works. Nor, probably, will most TV sets.

So it's back to the theater--for the best 3D movies at least.