Saturday, September 26, 2009
Sometimes, filmgoers walk out in droves. For Kaufman's latest, SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, his first foray in directing in addition to his screenwriting, I imagine many lost their resolve. One of my patients last year explained that very scenario to me, as she and her husband, big fans of the film's lead actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman, were so bored and perplexed that they left after half an hour. If you've seen any David Lynch films in the theater, you'll experience much the same. My inner snob looooovvvvves when this happens. My sneering film buff persona is filled with narcissistic glee, certain that these fools wouldn't know a good movie if it smacked them headlong. But then, I stop and try to see their point of view. Many people need linearity, logic, cohesion in their art, just like in their work and everyday lives. Many people don't do ambiguity too well. Then I stop again and just feel pity for them, for missing SYNECDOCHE and its beauty and mystery is surely some sort of tragedy.
I won't try to summarize too extensively; such would not be a proper way to review this film. But in a nutshell, Hoffman portrays (I suppose that's a valid term here) theater director Caden Cotard, a 40ish hypochondriac acutely aware of his own decay. Physical manifestations appear daily: pustules on his flesh, pupils that will not dilate properly, bloody gums. Emotionally, he will weather the tempest of a wife who flees to Germany with their 4 year-old daughter, and subsequent attempts at romantic connections that will terminate in, at best, frustration. Then one day, he receives a grant that offers a large sum of money earmarked for the creation of another theatrical landmark (his previous effort: Death of a Salesman, acted by young adults in an attempt to make a statement on the universality of pain). He creates a new landmark, alright: a full-scale replica of NYC within a massive warehouse within NYC. He will populate this set with actors going about the business of life. It will be an original work, a work in progress that has more pages written as Cotard experiences more of his own real life. Tragedies, triumphs (mostly tragedies) will be fodder for his play. It becomes his life, or vice versa. Decades will go by, decay will increase, and there will be no audience. Literally, and depending on your spiritual convictions, theologically as well.
As with any Kaufman puzzle, things get very, very complex. If you've seen his previous films, you think you might know what to expect. However, SYNECDOCHE outdoes the previous works in sheer complexity. More tellingly, also in profundity. Not since Ingmar Bergman's works have I seen a more philosophical, existential work of cinema. The actors in Cotard's play are hired to play people in the director's life, even the director himself. Eventually, there are dopplegangers of each of the characters, further blurring an already murky scenario. It really turns the art imitates life/life imitates art discussion inside out. Cotard acknowledges, like many before him in movies and real life, that Life is merely a stage, filled with actors. You are the lead, others are supporting, some are walk-ons. Some stay in your scenes for a while, others are like extras. I thought to Brian DePalma's little seen HOME MOVIES, where the main character is described as "an extra in his own life."
Sometimes Cotard feels that way, too. Other times, he mourns as his attempts at connection-the only thing that brings any meaning to life in his fractured POV-are failed and/or short-lived. And how long does he have? How many more chapters are in his story? Are are there merely pages left? Paragraphs? Sentences?! One piquant scene shows Cotard reading the latest self-help book authored by his counselor. She happens to be across the aisle from him on an airplane. She hikes her skirt; he rebuffs. When he returns to the book, he reads that a beautiful woman just came on to him, he refused. The End. He finds reams of empty pages. What is Fate? Coincidence? Grand design?
The warehouse within the warehouse becomes a warehouse within a warehouse within a warehouse. A closet becomes a key location near the end of Cotard's life, a small place perhaps symbolizing how old age limits your world quite tangibly. An ear mic is given to him around this time; a stage manager's voice tells him every move he should make. He sees the key people in his life die off. He lives to see an unremittingly bleak future, a future where his very neighborhood, perhaps one of his creation, has gone beyond seed, a disrepair that mirrors his own. But is it merely the stage he created for his opus?
Kaufman fills SYNECDOCHE with all sorts of rich symbolism, allegory. Why does Hazel (Samantha Morton), a love interest of Cotard's, buy a house that is perpetually on fire? She perhaps knows how her life will end, and accepts her fate when she signs the mortgage. Ah, there is so much more, but to discover the enigmas on your own will either frustrate you beyond measure, or intrigue you to multiple viewings, which this film absolutely demands. What a challenging, frightening, despairing, yet (accidentally?) optimistic work of art this is. See it, discuss it, see it again. See it with folks with different beliefs and worldviews. For all the different interpretations brought to the table, I think all who appreciate this film will agree that it is a perversely beautiful tragedy. But the real life tragedy here, in my not so humble opinion, will have been to have missed this film before you take your own last breath.
Friday, September 25, 2009
Not quite, but a game effort from the filmmakers. Wambaugh was a Los Angeles cop who eventually became a best-selling author in the 70s. He had more than enough material, having walked the mean streets, witnessed the corruption for so many years. His novels rang with authenticity. Inevitably, Hollywood began adapting. The horrendous THE CHOIRBOYS from '77 almost precluded Wambaugh from allowing any further filmizations (he took his name off the credits of that turkey, and rightfully so). However, he was able to script (and Becker was able to direct) his next piece free from any studio interference.
A terrible, bleak tale of murder and the labyrinthine elements of the criminal justice system, THE ONION FIELD follows criminals Jimmy Smith (Franklyn Seales) and Greg Powell (James Woods) in 1963 as they scheme and make a very wrong turn, a bad decision that will write the course for the rest of their days. This mistake involves L.A. cops Carl Hettinger (John Savage) and his partner Ian Campbell (Ted Danson). They pull over Smith and Powell after an illegal U-turn. Powell panics and pulls a gun on the cops, eventually deciding that he will force them both to a remote field of the title. Smith reluctantly assists. Powell's plan is to leave the cops there, but then in further panic (and blinding ignorance) he recalls the Lindburgh Law, the one he misinterprets as a capital crime that carries the death penalty for merely the kidnapping (recall the Lindburgh baby case). So, in a flash of confusion and stupidity, he shoots Campbell; Hettigner manages to escape after 4 more slugs are pumped into Campbell's lifeless body. Which of the duo pulled the trigger four more times? Becker frames this in long shot so we're not quite sure. In fact, no one ever was sure and proof was never found either way.
Hettinger lives with the horror of the event, and the subsequent guilt of survival, for years to come. He also lives with the disdain and disrespect of his fellow police officers. His home life suffers. After the criminals are apprehended, the policeman harbors hope that the courts will swiftly send them to the gas chamber. Perhaps then he will be able to sleep again. Instead, Powell and Smith continue to dog the system, staying alive for many years on taxpaper subsidy. Hettinger continues to fall apart.
THE ONION FIELD, yes, tells a sad story. It's sad because we witness the senseless killing of a good man. It's sad beacuse we watch another good man suffer, while the perps manipulate the system. Sure, they are incarcerated but Hettinger wants the score settled. Would the deaths of these two really assauge his soul? Wambaugh wonders. His book is a shattering delve into the lawman's psyche, and a very well told piece of journalism, too.
The movie, while admirably born of the author's creative freedom, is too scattered. After the effective opening scenes and the onion field sequence, this movie becomes a real mishmash, with a lot on its plate and a lack of focus as to how to digest it all. If the emphasis had remained on Hettinger, we could have had a real gripping vise of a movie. But every time we get involved in his plight, the film cuts to the antics of Powell and Smith, the former of whom especially transforms from simpleton to alarmingly knowledgeable about the law. And, we also get courtroom scenes that play like outtakes from the same year's ....AND JUSTICE FOR ALL, the legal system satire that starred Al Pacino. Scenes of absurdity involving neurotic attorneys and an almost surrealistic air. The sequences are entertaining, but don't belong here. I got caught up in them and then had to remind myself what this film was about. When we rejoin Hettinger, the earlier drama is sadly diluted.
All that said, the actors are excellent. Danson was just starting out, and in his brief screen time he makes an impression. Seales plays a small-time ex-con who makes a bad association and pays for it with his life; he conveys a sadness that is almost as tragic as the Hettinger's. As that cop, Savage demonstrates quiet pain, a real discomfort and nausea. Woods, of course, is just great as the wily Powell, a very dangerous viper whether he is knowledgeable or not. It is one of his many dynamic early performances. It is written that the real Powell saw this movie and was impressed with Wood's take.
Back to the trailer. I could (and have) watched it a dozen times. It outlines the story in a scary slide show that could play on its own. We are given snippets of visuals, all of which look washed out and unclear, like remnants of a nightmare in our mind's eye as we groggily wake up. Much like what Hettinger probably suffered over and over. See this movie if you like, but download the trailer and read the book for true poetic justice.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
As played by Anne Hathaway in a bravura turn, Kym doesn't necessarily ignite the screen with her outbursts, but rather smolders in a nicely modulated performance. In RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, she does some of her best work. Director Jonathan Demme guides her away from scenery chewing and instead coaxes a very natural, seemingly intuitive performance. Yes, there are multiple emotional powderkegs, what with Kym and her sister, the Rachel who's getting married, sparring almost non-stop when the former returns home for the event. We get intense discourse, real knock down drag outs as family drama rears its head, but neither Hathaway nor Rosemarie DeWitt (the titular bride) overdo it. They're not acting like they're playing to an audience, they're just acting like sisters.
There's a lot of dysfunction in this family. Oh, they're attractive and literate and have great taste, but tainting the pretty Connecticut homestead are the common ills of divorce, death, addictions. Kym has endured a lifetime of substance abuse, so bad it once caused her to drive a car off a bridge with her little brother in tow. He did not survive. Kym also lied to fellow rehabbers about being sexually abused, a regrettable act that comes back to bite her during her weekend visit. A mistake that will set off a chain of unfortuneate events. Inevitable events, perhaps. A fateful encounter with her mother (a perfectly cast Debra Winger) is included in the fallout, and will leave a bittersweet residue throughout the remainder of the weekend.
Still, the cermony goes on. Demme shows us the rehearsal dinner, wedding vows, reception. He lets his hand held cameras catch actors when perhaps they weren't aware they were being framed in a close-up. The actors are so good, so into the flow of things that they are always ready, natural. The director covers the events with a leisurely style that may seem overlong to less patient viewers. The rehearsal dinner alone clocks in at 15 minutes, allowing several family members to salute the soon-to-bes. That's how much of RACHEL GETTING MARRIED plays; voyeuristic, like we're privvy to eavesdrop on a family as they prepare and celebrate. Many other movies have adopted this style. Many Robert Altman films are really just filmed exchanges among large galleries of actors. No wonder Altman gets a "thank you" in the credits! Demme, however, has his own relaxed m.o. that we really feel as if we are in attendance, like we are occupying the same space as these people. Not only the principals, but also the cousins, significant others, musicians. You feel like part of the party, and it's great fun to be there.
All the while Kym works through her demons. She attends support group meetings while in town and is allowed to open up in ways we don't see in front of her own family. Some quietly extraordinary stuff, her speeches. Screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of the great director Sidney) supplies great dialogue to all, never a false note, in my opinion. My only possible complaint is the decision to have Rachel as a doctoral candidate for psychology. While this allows her to provide her own learned diagnosis of Kym's behavior, to say nothing of providing more pointed dialogue, it comes off as being a bit contrived.
Nothing else does, including how matter of fact everything is presented. Demme never orchestrates his camera or soundtrack for big emotional crescendoes (besides, the frequent live background music is more effective anyway). Things are messy, and probably won't be resolved be the film's end. Quiet acceptance and resignation may actually win out over a big loud finale. There will be hugs, but it doesn't necessarily make everything alright.
Life will continue. Rachel will be married; Kym will tredge uphill in her battle to remain clean. All will mourn the past, but move on, too. I love the final shot of this movie, as Rachel just curls up on a porch chair the morning after her wedding and watches as workers break down the canopies and tables of the reception. She's contented in ways that no narration or firework endings could convey. It's great acting, writing, and direction. If this scene sounds like your cup of tea, you will really appreciate this film from the moment it unfolds.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
I got married. Well, that was May 9th, before the actual beginning of summer (is that officially Memorial Day?), but a fabulous kick-off, I would say. We're coming up on our 5 month anniversary. I love my lady more each day.
Went on an Alaskan cruise. A stunner. Also stopped in Vancouver and Seattle. Scroll back to read all about it.
Started a job as an intraoperative monitorist. Such a position finds the clinician/tech in an operating room, watching evoked potential waveforms during surgeries. It was something I was interested in for awhile, but after 1 month (part of which was a not fun training in lovely Timonium, MD), I decided it was not for me.
Went back to my previous audiology job, part time. My reasons for leaving it in the first place? Let's just say it was financial, never mind the details. I had thought of giving it another full-time go, but it didn't work out.
Got a new job at a large ear, nose, and throat clinic not 4 miles from my house. Great staff, beautiful facility, freedom. I'm on my third week and thoroughly enjoying it.
In between, I saw a few movies, most of which I've documented here, though I see I neglected to review the newest STAR TREK, which was a rousing good time. J.J. Abrams, who I've never been very impressed with, really did an entertaining reimagining. Ingenious even.
We continue to volunteer as greeters at our church, which provides ample opportunity to meet new folks and hopefully offer at least a friendly face to individuals who may not ordinarily see one. Our church is quite awesome, I must say. I also continue to volunteer in the prayer group. I believe it is a useful, vital ministry.
Had several great nights out with old friends. Movies, wings, ale, fine dining. Like the old days, but far better. I'm no longer the backslidden shotgunning beer slob slacker. These days, I'd be more than happy to discuss Galatians, audiology, or Malick over a pint. If I have a few pints, I might even discuss politics or sports!
Looking forward to a fruitful fall!
Sunday, September 20, 2009
In FAST FOOD NATION, a very loose 2006 adaptation of Eric Schlosser's expose, these are the words Don Anderson hears from his superior at the HQ of Mickey's, a fast food conglomerate. It's perhaps only a theory, but Anderson (Greg Kinnear), vice president of marketing and inventor of the "Big One", Mickey's latest gut-busting burger, is sent to Colorado to check out the conditions in a certain slaughterhouse. One that provides much of its product to the chain. Previous research studies suggested the presence of the foreign contaminant; Anderson determines that it is indeed so.
Now we had all heard rumors of what just is in that burger we so gluttonously coveted over the years. Rodent hairs, roach wings, the very meat itself being that of equine. Yet the outlets would continue to sell billions and billions of hamburgers. If you confronted most consumers with these claims, they would shrug and anticipate the next happy meal. I was one of them. Ignorance was bliss. Maybe I actually knew but just put it out of my mind. Alright, so maybe there are foreign ingredients. They cook the meat at high temperatures, so they're no longer of concern. Correct? That's what Harry Rydell (Bruce Willis), a Mickey's corporate shiller, argues as he tears into a Big One while chatting with Anderson. He rejects the concerns Anderson has after the latter learns more about the processing than he would ever care to know. Something's going to kill us! Might as well die happy! Rydell may as well be the voice for many citizens who just can't give up their charred death on a bun, or any other food that is yet another opportunity for a future angioplasty. Again, I point as many fingers at myself as at anyone else. And, as Rydell offers, "We all eat a little shit from time to time."
I also did not want to believe that those dudes in the kitchen were not arbiters of cleanliness. Surely they didn't pick patties up off the floor and then serve them? Didn't spit on my quarter pounder when I sent it back because someone screwed it up? Indeed, when Anderson visits a Mickey's in Cody, CO, one of the apathetic teen workers (Paul Dano) does drop a bit 'o mucous on the burger. What does he care? He and his co-workers spend hours in substandard conditions for peanut wages. They make just enough to subsidize their ten cent lives. Cashier Amber (Ashley Johnson) is blissfully unaware of the chain of events that bring those frozen red patties to the fryer, but she thinks a bit more about things than her peers. Eventually, she will learn about the unhealthy process, reassess her role in all of it. She quits Mickey's and finds her activist voice, raising it louder as she learns not only about the nature of the swill she used to serve, but also the exploitation of the workers who facilitate the process. Those who toil in the slaughterhouse, a place that sparkles in immaculacy as Anderson tours.
But behind the scenes, behind the clockwork precision of the assembly lines and conveyor belts are flesh and blood souls who are co-opted and otherwise abused in more than 57 varieties. Most of the workers are illegals, people who can be exploited every which way and find themselves unable to initiate recourse. It starts when minion Benny (Luis Guzman) rounds up gangs of locals near the American borders in Mexico. He finds them on both sides of the divide, often after they've wandered for days, hoping to reach El Norte, and freedom. They are desparate, willing to be gathered up like the cattle they will eventually slaughter and "clean.", in order to make a few dollars, but far more than they could earn in the homeland. It is an American Dream, to have enough money not only to send back to relatives, but to also engage in the modest pleasure of eating out at a place like Appleby's.
We meet a few of the Mexicans, and their stories are sad. Some will be chambermaids in hotels, the others will end up hosing cow manure off rooftops and sifting through Grade D chuck as it makes it way down the belt (one worker is berated for letting a slab deemed prime sirloin get through). The women at the meat plant will be forced into sexual relations with supervisors, the men will be victims of industrial accidents that cause loss of extremities. Again, there is little fear of liability from the establishment as the workers are undocumented and a breath away from an immigration sweep straight back to the southland. They endure these hardships, resigning their fates, all for a little piece of the pie.
Director Richard Linklater co-wrote the screenplay with Schlosser. It is not the expected indictment of the ills of immigration, fast food, and complacency, but it is an effective essay. That's what Linklater does in most of his films, presents characters talking about themselves, big ideas, life, their plight. FAST FOOD NATION ressembles several other of his films in that we have large, very diverse ensembles whose lives may or may not intersect in some concrete way, but certainly thematically. Anderson never actually encounters Sylvia or Raul, two of the main Mexican protagonists, but their lives and their dialogue certainly serve a similiar directive. So does Amber's, even as she spends lots of screen time chatting with her slacker uncle (Ethan Hawke, damned good at playing slackers in Linklater's and other's films). While the book was a nonfiction rip job on cavalier sanitary concerns and corporate chicanery, this movie is another opportunity for the director to have his charcters wax philosophical. The "plot" is really an excuse for lots of fascinating conversations. They make this film worth seeing, but afterward you may wish there was more satiric bite, more venom.
As I relayed, FAST FOOD NATION is not some left-wing manifesto, despite appearances. The movie actually presents opposing points of view in a fair light. Willis' cameo as the cocky Rydell makes many points that even the most liberal viewer may nod along with. Linklater offers no answers, only scenarios and attempts at answers. He does include a very graphic sequence of the actual slaughter of some bovines, scenes that may put you off beef for at least a few days. His film does not, however, work the paranoia like Upton Sinclair before him.
But, there is at least one very telling scene. Amber and her new eco-activist peers attempt to stage the release of a pasture of cattle. After opening the gates, the contented cows refuse to budge. They're well fed, comfortable; why would they budge? Why, indeed.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
As I applied droplets of "Ant Kill" (you know, that nondescript bottle with the stick figure holding a mallet over a defenseless ant) around electrical outlets and the kitchen window sill, I thought back to a curosity I watched last year called PHASE IV. Odd little obscurity; I'll bet you haven't heard of it. Unless, that is, you happened to catch an episode of Mystery Science Theater some years ago, where Servo and co. heckled the life out of it. The movie, while certainly qualifying as a "B", is actually a rather thoughtful, quietly disturbing sci-fi which leaves the viewer more than a bit of food for thought.
A lonely desert lab is populated by two scientists: one a game theorist, James, the other a biologist, Dr. Hubbs, who exhibits a fair amount of possible meglomaniacal tendencies. They study and try to communicate with some super intelligent ants. James explains in voiceover that he believes that some cosmic event has caused the ants to rally and take over the local Arizona drylands. After the insects kill horses and seem to be organized beyond control, the men (and a girl who sorta wandered in) barricade in their sphere and declare war. Hubbs believes that carpet bombing them with some sort of yellow and later blue toxins will annihilate them into oblivion. Hey doc, you realize that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger? More immune? Right. James, all too aware of the score, and far more rational, begins to direct his considerable intellect more towards survival than academia. We are led to an enigmatic and quite uncomfortable finale, one that belongs in some sort of Hall of Fame for downbeat wrap-ups.
1974's PHASE IV is a film one in a few hundred will appreciate. It is more concerned with introspection than pace or action. It is edited with no particular regard for thrills, but rather meditation. Lots of silences. We get gorgeous shots of Arizona sunsets, plus lots of microscopic footage of ant colonies going about their business. One fascinating sequence documents what appears to be an ant funeral following the extermination of many (but of course not all) of the insects by the aforementioned chemical sprays. The ants are not some oversized mutations like we've seen in other movies, but rather normal sized and capable of executive function and decision.
All of this is realized with a minimum of spectacle by director Saul Bass, who was better known as a famed title maker of a great many classics. His style is somewhere between that of one of those old scratched up 8mms you saw in science class and an episode of Outer Limits. The movie suffers from some camp, but is mostly an engrossing battle of wits. The ultimate victor? Let's just say that my fear of collectives was not cured by the outcome of this film.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Do I have a problem with that? No. I believe filmmakers have the right to epouse their points of view through their art. I happen to concur with the spiritual convictions of those responsible for this film, believe as they do. But in terms of my judging the quality of the movie, it would've no more mattered if the writers were Scientologists. Propaganda is propaganda. Again, no problem with that specific point. FIREPROOF, however, does nothing to halt the widely held (and accurate) opinion that Christian films are second rate twaddle.
That's being a bit harsh, but this film, while better than expected, was still rife with low grade acting, mostly ham fisted direction, OK production values, and a Made-For-TV air about it. At times, this film was like a Hallmark Channel flick.
The story: fire chief Caleb Holt (Kirk Cameron) spends his days running headlong into burning houses and generally saving lives. He is well liked and respected. His married life, eh, pretty bad. His wife, Catherine (Erin Bethea), is a medical recruiter, a 9-5er who resents that Caleb, with his 24 hrs on/48 hrs off schedule, doesn't help out around the house more. She's also displeased that he's hoarding thousands in savings for a boat, rather than using some of it for needed home repairs. Understandly, she's also quite dismayed that her husband is addicted to Internet porn. She nags a lot.
Caleb is shown to be an insensitive jerk at every turn. I know there are people like this, but perhaps the writers (Alex & Stephen Kendrick) could've made him a little more complex. Catherine, too. They're both bitter, sour people after 7 years of a listless marriage. I didn't much like either of them, honestly.
Divorce seems imminent, but Caleb's father intervenes, offering a family book called "The Love Dare". With it comes a 40 day challenge, each day proposing Caleb do something selfless for his bride. "It saved your mother and I's marriage," dad confesses. If you've ever attended church, or perused a Christian bookstore, you know how popular these sorts of things are. Seven day, fourteen day, thirty day fasts. Always some specific amount of time to do something. Read the Bible in a year.
The love dare is Caleb's only hope, or so he thinks. The true only hope is the gift of faith he will receive halfway through this test. At first, he rejects all that religious stuff. He thinks Jesus is a crutch. He comes around eventually, and he will certainly need his newfound faith, as Catherine responds with suspicion and anger rather than a melted heart as Caleb sends her flowers and finally does the dishes.
There was at least one scene that I found unintentionally funny and ludicrous, though I understood the intentions behind it. I mentioned Internet porn. We have a scene where Caleb is lazily surfing the Net, gazing at some of the boats for which he's saving up. It is around Day 25 or something of the love dare. All of a sudden, a pop-up for some lurid sex site catches Caleb's eye. He struggles. He gets up. Sits back down. The scene keeps cutting back to that pop-up, featuring a volumptious bimbo and the words "Wanna See?". He eventually grabs the computer and monitor and proceeds to smash the living you-know-what out of it with a baseball bat. Into the garbage it goes. OK, yes, I get it. Sometimes when you struggle with an addiction, you have to get all symbolic and literally destroy something. But presented here, it just seems ridiculous. All I could think of was, What if Catherine needs to use the computer? When she discovers what he did, and the bouquet of roses and card ("I love you more" it reads) on the desk where the computer was, she responds with a divorce summons.
But this was a necessary step for Caleb in his spiritual maturity; I got that. FIREPROOF is an effective said tract, and also a heartfelt love story. I have to admit that by the end I bought into the emotional catharisis. Even non-believers with a heart may find something to be moved by. However, this family-oriented film also fills its time with silly firehouse antics with Caleb's co-workers and some cliched melodramatic (though believable) subplots involving Catherine's ill mother and her crush on a doctor that gets more questionable by the day.
I just kept thinking how I would respond to this movie if I was not a Christian. I've never been one to react well to hard sell sales tactics. Not from genuine salespeople trying to part you from your money, and not from preachers selling Jesus as if He was a commodity from the Ron Popeil storehouse. The Kendricks brothers have strong convictions about their faith and the institution of marriage, and amen to that, so do I. But the problem I have with their film and the subgenres of Christian films and (to a large extent) Christian pop is how in-your-face they are. I say, let Christian artists show the beauty of faith through their work by creating realistic characters and scenarios that show the beauty of belief. Watch AMAZING GRACE for such an example.
It goes back to that phrase, "good intentions and morals does not a good film make." I applaud the message, but have no love for the presentation, in all its slick glory. It continues to baffle me as well that many "religious" people judge if a film is good or bad only by the criteria of whether it has any nipples or swears in it. That's another discussion, though.
As well, many Christian films are always so contrived, so (at best) mediocre. OMEGA CODE, anyone? FIREPROOF is very competently produced, and director Alex actually creates some suspense during the action sequences, but again, nothing here approaches the cinematic. As a stuffy film critic, I can be all over this movie like a cheap suit. And again, I have no problem with its Message. Others of different poles use this medium to get their message across. Ken Loach has spent a career making patently leftist dramas, but they are so well made and artful that you don't have to agree to appreach the passion, the craft, and the message. The day we get a director like Scorsese (heck, even Rick Linklater), a writer like William Goldman, and a marketing team that understands Less is More to make a Christian film, maybe all those lost souls out there may stop laughing and start kneelin'.
Recap: Hyperacusis is described as an abnormal sensitivity to even moderate level sounds, such as that of regular conversational speech. Some patients have specific intolerance to high pitched sounds. Additionally, many patients who have hyperacusis have hearing abilities that are considered to be within normal limits. Some of the conditions and syndromes that may have an association with hyperacusis are Bell's Palsy, Tempromandibular Joint problems (TMJ), Central Nervous System damage, Meniere's Disease, and hypothyroidism.
How to cope? Individuals may alter their environment by:
-wearing earplugs (not advisable unless you are in a very noisy environment)
-disabling telephone ringers
-decreasing the volume of the sound source bothering the individual
Tinnitus, perceptions of noise (ringing, buzzing, pulsing) in the ear, is a condition that often accompanies hyperacusis. It affects about 17% of the world's population, 44 million in the U.S. One source states that 40% of patients with tinnitus also suffer with hyperacusis. Tinnitus will merit its own post at a later date. However, today I will mention the treatments for hyperacusis that are often the same strategies we use for patients with tinnitus.
Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT) is a tool that has been used for some time but was patented by Dr. Pawel Jastreboff, a professor who has served at Emory University in Atlanta. TRT is a treatment that involves intensive directive educational counseling, with frequent follow-up office visits. Often, sound therapy devices are used, recommended to be worn 8 hours daily. The devices are ear-level white noise generators, which emit broadband stimuli.
Listening to white noise at barely audible levels for a prescibed compliance time daily has helped patients with hyperacusis. It is suggested that instead of filtering out sensitive frequencies (by using narrow band stimuli) the patient's ears (and cerebral auditory cortex, perhaps) can be retrained with white noise by promoting a desensitization to all frequencies. Thereby, the patient will eventually become more tolerant to all sounds. Along with the sound therapy, it is advised that the patient gradually increase environmental noise levels and avoid total silence.
However, sometimes narrow band (one frequency) treatment can be successful. In our clinic, a teenage girl reported being so sensitive to everyday sounds she could barely stand to hear her mother speak in a "normal" voice. She stopped attending parties and other social events due to her inability to reconcile even louder sounds. We performed a test which measures Loudness Discomfort Levels (LDLs). The tester plays pure tones that get louder and louder until the patient indicates that the tones are uncomfortably loud. For many people, it takes tones as loud as 90 dB HL and upwards. For this patient, at certain frequencies, she could tolerate no louder than 45 dB HL, which is below everyday speech intensity levels.
During another test which involves the presentation of tones, we noticed that the patient winced when she heard 6000 and 8000 Hz tones. My mentor devised a program in which the patient would listen to a 6000 Hz pure tone on her iPod for prescribed amounts of time. A decreasing tapered dose of listening time would occur over several weeks. Basically, a method to try to desensitize the patient to the offending sound. When the teenager (who was very compliant with the therapy) returned over a month later, she noted that she could now tolerate others' voices. Her LDLs were re-measured: she was able to experience tones of up to 85 and 90 dB HL! A major victory.
Help is available for hyperacusis. Talk to your audiologist, or write me if you need assistance.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Places like Baltimore's 70 year-old The Senator are very unusual these days, some 30 odd years after the multiplex first appeared. Not just the single screen, but the family run, for the love of it m.o. that make them special. These places are not viewed as cash cows, but rather venues where the thrill of seeing THE THIRD MAN or PERSONA on the big screen drives enthusiasm. Comparatively though, how many patrons out there are really interested? For the millions eager to spend ten bucks for G.I. JOE, there may be a few hundred, at best.
The Carefree, a local W.P.B. theater (originally built in the 1930s) that began unspooling art house in the mid-80s, demonstrated this for years. A handful of fans would come out for indies, foreign films, quieter fare. Especially memorable was a particular Monday night when a friend and I were informed that they would not show whatever we were trying to see unless there were at least 10 people in attendance. My friend and I actually went outside the theater and tried to convince passersby to come in and see the movie. It would illustrate the reality of the economic plight of such theaters outside major cities. The Carefree would eventually close over a decade later, after a hurricane destroyed the roof and repairs proved cost prohibitive. The place is boarded up, the poster for its final film, CAPOTE, still in the glass case. Philip Seymour Hoffman's languid expression seems appropriate enough as it gazes out over Dixie Highway. I have lots of Carefree memories I'll share in another entry.
Another local one screen, The Theater, seemed promising. It opened in the early summer of 2007. For months, lists of current indie films ran in this building that had once been an Episocopal church. Oddly enough, this building is right across the street from my old junior high school. Musical artists also graced The Theater stage. I had my one and only experience there in December of that year, viewing CONTROL, a look back at the band Joy Division's formation and beyond. I was one of 10 mere souls out for a bleakly beautiful two hours. The theater's owners had JD's Substance playing before the showing, a nice touch. Even better-a seat in the very middle of the auditorium was sectioned off with yellow "crime scene" tape. Attached to the seat cushion was a photo of the film's subject, the words at the bottom reading "Reserved for the Ghost of Ian Curtis." Not sure if he showed up that day; not too many others did, apparently. The Theater has not been open for a movie or live show since then. It just sits there. A shame.
When I visit big cities especially, I make a point to catch a film at a classic uniplex. New York? Gotta go to the Ziegfeld on W. 54th, a real gem of a place. L.A.? The NuArt in Santa Monica is nice, as is the El Capitan on Hollywood Blvd. When I was there in '99, I just had to visit the famous Cinerama Dome on Sunset Blvd. No matter that I had to suffer through WILD WILD WEST; it was still a sublime theater going experience. Incredible acoustics, 86' wide concave screen. Magnificent. These theaters are are also bastions of classic decor, right down to those golden fan wall lights to the glass ticket booths. Sometimes I wish I had been born a few decades earlier to enjoy the heyday of such things!
I was invited to the Senator to see a screening of Kurosawa's RASHOMON, a film so uniquely powerful, so classic. I leapt at the opportunity. When we arrived, I looked down to find a sidewalk comprised of chalked/painted documents of various premieres over the decades. Locals like Barry Levinson and Edward Norton had more than one film represented. For my money, this spectacle of tiles held its own with Mann's Chinese Theater's famous walkway. Old school, thick glass doors awaited as we entered the lobby, an appropriately dim, muted space, posters everywhere. Terrazzo floor. I also enjoyed seeing a replica of Han Solo frozen in carbonite in the Men's Room ( Han was directly across from a gigantic 3-D cutout for INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL by the urinals). It was like Mr. Ford was on both sides, watching me relieve myself (at least Han's eyes were closed!). The audiotorium was large and also reeked of cinema's past. Literally; I love the smell of old theaters (when they don't pump that "Environmental Air" crap). A great golden curtain made way reveal our feature presentation. No trailers, of course. In all, The Senator is a true Art Deco landmark, through and through. I imagine Baltimore locals have many tales to tell.
The timing of this visit was also interesting, as the future of the Senator was and is uncertain. The day I visited, the theater was auctioned off, back to the mortgage holder, the city of Baltimore. So, for now, The Senator will live on. I hope for years to come. I was encouraged that night to see many younger folk, and to hear them debate Kurosawa on their way out. It's nice to be exposed to this after the many other times I have had to listen to galleries of pinheads and their idiotic commentary at the multiplexes.
What was also nice that night was to learn that some of these younger ones were regulars, while others also verbalized their admiration for the increasingly rare venues that one really has to search for anymore.
Monday, September 7, 2009
Writer and director Mike Judge is a purveyor of the human condition. A very astute observer. Thing is, the bulk of his observations reveal that most of us (all of the time) and all of us (much of the time) act purely out of our own sloth, happily treading down the path of least resistence.
Private Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) is such a specimen. He happily idles the hours away in a basement library, overseeing very little, and getting paid to do it. A slacker's dream come true. In other words, a perfect candidate for a secret government trial known as the "Human Hibernation Project." Spearheaded by Officer Collins, an Army chief of rulebook geekiness (Michael McCafferty), the experiment will involve the hibernation of the "perfectly average" Bauers and the only willing female, a local prostitute, Rita (Maya Randolph) for one year. This cryogenic test will make science fiction reality! Really exceptional soldiers and other exemplary types can be stored indefinitely should this pilot test be a success! However, the not unrelated factors of Rita's profession and Collins' eventual arrest and military discharge cause the project to be shelved and forgotten, though after the two have begun their "sleep." As Collins and only a few others were even aware of the experiment, our subjects remain undisturbed for a lot longer than intended. Five hundred years pass.
A lot happens in 500 years. The ominous narrator of IDIOCRACY informs us, during a brilliantly funny opening sequence, that natural selection, as of the early 21st century, began to favor traits other than physical strength and especially intellect. Due to the number of individuals procreating who are, less than intelligent, a proliferation of well, likewise offspring began to be prevalent, edging out in sheer number those who are gifted. "Evolution does not necessarily reward intelligence," he drones. "With no natural predators to thin the herd, it began to simply reward those who reproduced the most, and left the intelligent to become an endangered species."
In other words, all those dimwits who couldn't keep it in their pants (primarily trailer dwellers, football scholarship recipients, etc.) made exponential advancements with their fatherhood while more thoughtful, careful types (educated, ineffectual) did not. You do the math.
Indeed, as our heroes are eventually awakened, in the year 2505, Joe and Rita discover the town, perhaps the entire world is populated with morons. I mean, really stupid people. Not just ignorant, or even misinformed. Just plain dumb. Not a wit among the populace to know how to dispose of garbage, hold a skyscraper together, or even grow crops (they irrigate the land with Brawndo, an energy sports drink). English has further degenerated into a series of half-mumbles and monosyllables. Everyone goes to college at Costco. The burger chain Fuddruckers is now called, um, something I'd rather not print. Corporations own everything (hmmm). There's a cable network called The Violence Channel, and a show featuring unfortunates kicked in the groin is popular. People go to the movies to watch something called ASS, which is just that-90 minutes of someone's backside, and nothing else. The film, the narrator informs us, won 8 Oscars, including Best Screenplay.
IDIOCRACY did not win any Oscars, or any respect at the box office. Fox gave this a desultory non-release in 2006, dumping it into only a handful of theaters across the U.S. The film deserved better, as it is one of the most astute (and frightening) satires I've seen. The central theme is pushed to amusing extremes, especially when showing what happens to health care, government, public utilities. The President and his Cabinet, awesomely inept. Yes, even moreso than recent times have shown. After Joe takes a mandatory standardized exam, he scores so highly (the highest in history) that the President (a professional wrestler) sends for him to solve all the country's problems. In a riotously funny sequence, we hear the Cabinet explain why Brawndo is used to try to (unsuccessfully) grow the aforementioned crops. "...it's got electrolytes.." When Joe suggests water, well, why would something you use to flush the toilet be used to grow plants?!
Over the top, but the germ of these ideas, yes, already exists. Have you sat and listened people conversing lately? Have you had conversations with people at credit card companies, the DMV? Have you observed how people don't read any more, or their alarming inability to focus on anything for more than a few minutes? Judge certainly has. While I might sound like an elitist, just watch the trends. You need not read heady journals to see that society is becoming, for all its alleged progress, increasingly lazy and infantile in nature. A society like the one depicted in IDIOCRACY is not that hard to figure.
The ideas explored in this movie make for a potential bitter classic, but that does not happen, exactly. Judge, creator of Beavis & Butthead, King of the Hill, and OFFICE SPACE, has an acid pen but still loves to revel in bad taste, the crudest possible joke. He wants to have it both ways, but in doing so, you run the risk of being the very thing you are spoofing. NATURAL BORN KILLERS tried to offer commentary on media violence and flash, but ended up being as vile as anything it cited. Judge, with each work, provides blistering commentary on lower middle class American life, but also enjoys the earthy pleasures of a fart joke. Well, Shakespeare did offer low humor too, in Twelfth Night was it? Involving urination, to contrast with the more highbrow wit. Judge, however, allows IDIOCRACY to become, primarily, merely a silly comedy, a series of crude gags.
And it is hilarious. Painfully funny (in every sense). My favorite bits: pretty much any scene involving Frito, an attorney Joe eventually allies with; the greeting everyone gets at Costco; the map Frito gives to Joe. Many of the gags here are golden, as in OFFICE SPACE (who could forget the GOODFELLAS inspired copier scene?). It's just that Judge, after playing his wicked hand early, seems contented with a parade of vulgarity, easy humor. That doesn't preclude me from recommending IDIOCRACY. Everyone should see this, then go and read a damned book, already.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
The youth of Lamab High are being offed one by one, the victims all caught in the act of, how you say, intimate relations? "Sex kills" cries Malbert the Janitor, one of several potential suspects. Our heroine, Toby, is also a suspect, especially since everyone knows she's a virgin. She's also perceived as being envious of all the popular types who are getting killed. Her only real friend is a nerdy guy who, after she has an appointment with the school shrink, hopes aloud that she doesn't end up like Nicholson in CUCKOO'S NEST.
It all sounds familiar? STUDENT BODIES has the plotline of any number of forgettables that littered (and still litter) theater screens. It is pretty obvious, however, that the filmmakers are attempting a spoof. I say attempt because for all of the amusing ideas, this movie doesn't really come off. This despite the fact that it was written and directed by a one-time collaborator of Woody Allen (in the "early, funny years"), Mickey Rose. It begins well, aptly making digs at WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, but falls apart very quickly afterward.
The ideas ARE amusing. The Breather does just that, an exaggerated wheeze while explaining to viewers that he really would rather kill the kid with the gum after he steps in a pile of it. After each victim is dispatched, a body count number flashes on the screen. In the film's original ad campaign, it was announced that there are 13 and 1/2 murders. The 1/2? A fly. Yes. Also, in what is probably the only scene of its kind in film history, the movie stops and a guy behind a desk explains that R-rated films earn more money at the box office, and since STUDENT BODIES doesn't have the usual explicit sex or violence (like slasher films tend to), he proceeds to ensure that this film gets its R.
I know. Sounds lame. It most certainly is, but that's part of its bargain basement charm. There's something about this movie that has had me returning to it over the years, though it was unavailable for some time (finally released on DVD last year). After my initial disappointment that this wasn't some sort of satiric classic, I began to see that even a movie with half-realized ideas and a not very favorable hit and miss ratio for gags has its own appeal. The time period I cited also saw a spate of killer-on-the-loose parodies like SATURDAY THE 14th and WACKO, neither of which were any better than this.
STUDENT BODIES bombed at the box office but found a sizable following due to home video and cable. The latter is where I first discovered it, and though I knew even then that it was pretty bad, I knew I found something I'd be quoting for years. And so it came to pass, but finding another STUDENT BODIES quoter/fan is rare. Seems every other late-Boomer/early Gen X-er quotes CADDYSHACK at the drop of a hat. I mean how many people, even film geeks, have you heard reciting, "Who was Hamlet?" "His dog." "His dog?" "Wasn't he a great Dane?"
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
DISTRICT 9 indeed punches everything across. "Bludgeons" would be apt. This is a whiz-bang 21st century entertainment, complete with many of the hallmarks of contemporary filmmaking. The pace, the editing, the effects-all intense. Necessarily so. Writer/director Neill Blomkamp was commissioned by Peter (LORD OF THE RINGS) Jackson for the comparatively low sum of 30 mil to realize his stark visions of alienation. OK, bad pun, and clumsy ref to an earlier film. But that's accurate; that's the essential theme. Isolation. On the outside looking in.
The story: 20 years ago a massively large alien spacecraft appeared over downtown Johannesburg, South Africa. After a while, govt. agents braved an invasion of the ship, finding a race of sickly extraterrestrials inside. They are rounded up and brought down to earth. At first, humanitarian efforts win out. Soon, earthlings rebel-why should all these funds be allocated to helping aliens? We have very real problems among our own kind! The mob mentality grows, protestors hoist signs crying "down with disease carrying outsiders" and such. District 9, a collection of unstable shacks amid a desert wasteland outside the city, becomes the aliens' forced abode. It is a militarized zone, to boot. A group of Nigerian gangsters also settles there, exploiting the inhabitants in numerous ways. Namely, extorting their unique weaponry (which cannot be fired humans) in exchange for food (cat food, actually, one of the film's sly bits of humor).
Many of the aliens are quite clever, somehow over the years learning to understand and read (if not speak) English. One of them, dubbed "Christopher Johnson" by the military, is secretly planning to get back to the mother ship and homeward bound. Assisting is his young son, "Little C.J.", as adorable as a CGI alien could possibly be. Mostly though, the alien culture is characterized by the basest behaviors, perhaps understandable in this ghetto into which they've been forced.
The circumstances eventually become uncontrollable, and soon a new living area is erected, District 10, complete with supposedly better living conditions, designed for the disposessed ETs. In charge of the non-violent eviction of the aliens from District 9 is one Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley, a first-timer). He's an Everyman, a pencil pushing pacifist who finds himself in a most disturbing situation after accidentally exposing himself to a mysterious black liquid during one of the eviction sweeps. He gets sick, coughs up black stuff. Then, his left hand suddenly transforms into something that looks alarmingly similar to an alien appendage. Needless to say, his life turns inside out and he finds himself a fugitive. An alliance with Christopher provides much of the drama. That black fluid is quite integral in the proceedings.
Blomkamp does not eat up valuable time with exposition. Rather, he gives us all the information we need via a documentary-style conceit, where sociologists, scientists, and govt. types all recall the sad story. As we listen, it is immediately clear that Wikus will not (necessarily) escape his predicament unscathed. The writer/director plunges us into his dark tale also with breathless editing among b & w surveilance video, infared, you name it. Everything used services the story; nothing is utilized for its own sake. As the story gels, a more conventional narrative emerges, but the pace never slacks, and the jabs never soften. Blomkamp grew up in South Africa, and it is not possible to separate the horrible memories of apartheid from this scenario. Trenchant points about immigration are also made, and I also thought back to a mere few years ago to the fallout of Hurricane Katrina, where suddenly thousands of homeless American citizens were now "refugees", reduced to living in govt. shacks.
DISTRICT 9 reminded me of many earlier films. As Wikus' anatomy changes, I thought on THE FLY (80s version), especially as the poor soul laments the effects of this on his marriage. Late in the film, a rather efficient piece of hardware seemed directly inspired by ROBOCOP (also quite the social commentary). But Blomkamp has otherwise fashioned an original entertainment that is an absolute must for genre fans. I would say it's also pretty necessary for lovers of film, in general. That is, if you're not bothered by a lot of icky effects and liberal use of profanity. Under the circumstances in this film, neither seems gratuitous.
Stories like this only confirm my desire to support local eateries/businesses. Especially ones that pride themselves on providing the finest products and services. It is not always about saving $$$. I have always been more than happy to spend extra for better quality. This notion is increasingly rare in a culture where Wal-Mart looms large, but don't get me started.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
2001: OCEAN'S 11. OK, an indulgent remake, fun cast. I'll give him a pass on this one.
2002: FULL FRONTAL. The nadir, a bottom-of-the-barrel embarrassment. A home movie that should've never seen the light of day.
2002: SOLARIS. Not a bad remake of Tarkovsky's seminal 1972 film. Beautiful production design, more than ably directed, but still a bit meh. Ultimately qualifies as a remake and a stunt, imo.
2004: OCEAN'S TWELVE. Um, gratitutous sequel to a gratuitous remake. Marginal.
2005: BUBBLE. Major stunt; a low budget experimental film with non-actors. Interesting, but still just a stunt. Soderbergh seems to enjoy one-offs like this-see also SCHIZOPOLIS and KAFKA.
2006: THE GOOD GERMAN. Bland attempt at a B & W genre pic from yesteryear. Major stunt, executed with mediocrity.
2007: OCEAN'S THIRTEEN. Really? REALLY?
2008: CHE. So, maybe someday we'll actually get to see what seems to be a rather ambitious bio, and quite possibly that Next Film I await. But for now.....
2009 has two Soderberghs-THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE (smells like a stunt) and THE INFORMANT!, which looks like a bona-fide original! Maybe what I've sought? Watch the trailer in the meantime and see what you think: