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September 28, 2011

Roger Ebert at the NY Times

Roger Ebert at the NY Times

I've been watching and reading Roger Ebert's movie reviews for just about as long as I've been able to watch and read, so seeing him at the NY Times last night was one of the most exciting movie-related experiences I could have. A big reason I'm so into movies is that when I was growing up, I watched Siskel & Ebert talk about movies every week on TV. Because those two smart, thoughtful, funny guys were excited about movies, they got me excited about them, too. I don't always agree with Ebert, but he still writes about movies more compellingly than just about anyone, and I'm always interested in what he has to say.

Since Ebert got cancer and lost the ability to talk about 5 years ago, he stopped appearing on TV, but he's become unbelievably prolific in his writing. He reviews a bunch of movies every week (A.O. Scott, who interviewed him last night, said Ebert reviews at least twice as many movies each week than any one else he knows), writes a blog, an excellent Twitter feed (500,000 followers!), plus he has a new memoir out and, my personal favorite, a cookbook for rice cookers. He'll probably never speak again, but the man still has a lot to say.

A couple of things about the interview, which Ebert conducted by typing into a talking laptop:

  • He got into movie reviewing entirely by accident. The former movie critic at the Sun-Times retired, and Ebert got assigned to take over because, he claims, he was the youngest journalist and had the longest hair.
  • A.O. Scott talked about 3D and Ebert's well-publicized, unwavering contempt for it, and said that Ebert was on the record saying he thought 3D was a "disaster". Ebert immediately corrected him, via talking computer. "Abomination," he said. Preach it, Roger!
  • He told a story about the legendarily tough critic Gene Siskel about a time Siskel took his young daughters to see a movie. When they were leaving the theater, he asked his younger daughter what she thought of it. "Daddy," she said, "I didn't like it." "I've never been more proud!," he told Roger.
  • A.O. Scott asked Ebert for a few of those movies, among the hundreds of thousands he's watched, that are most special and meaningful to him. He named four, which I thought were surprisingly arty and relatively obscure, considering he's probably the best known mainstream movie critic ever:

    Ikiru, by Kurosawa. I think I watched this for a class on Japanese film when I was 20 years old, and almost definitely fell asleep. Ebert says it's a wise film about mortality and death, topics that probably don't resonate with a junior in college who still thinks Goldschlager is a very nice drink in the same way they would with someone who's survived cancer.

    Floating Weeds, by Ozu. I haven't seen it. Actually, I still haven't seen any of Ozu's movies, probably because I've heard they're lengthy, quiet studies of Japanese family life, and I always end up picking something less lengthy and quiet instead.

    2001: A Space Odyssey, by Kubrick, which Ebert said "knocked his socks off". Maybe sometime he could explain to me what happens in the last 20 minutes.

    Gates of Heaven, by Errol Morris. This is the one about pet cemeteries, definitely one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. As A.O. Scott pointed out, it's impossible to tell if Morris has compassion and respect for the people in the doc who select these cemeteries as the final resting places for their beloved pets, or if he thinks they're a bunch of lunatics that make good punchlines. Maybe both?

One other thing about Siskel & Ebert and their lasting legacy. I was out at karaoke last week, and someone performed Bloodhound Gang's "The Bad Touch", a song that's very popular at karaoke despite it being almost impossible to get through. When the line "Yes I'm Siskel, yes I'm Ebert, and you're getting two thumbs up" line came along, the lyrics displayed on the screen read: "Yes I'm Sisco, yes I'm Evil, and you're getting two thumbs up." An unintentionally surrealist lyrical reworking, there.

Whoever transcribed that line perhaps doesn't speak English as their first language, but still, it made me wonder if young people don't actually know what "Siskel & Ebert" means anymore.

Many old "Siskel & Ebert" reviews are archived, so you can watch them argue about, for example, The Big Lebowski. It's still fun to watch the two of them.

September 23, 2011

Community and the autism spectrum


I haven't seen last night's season premiere of Community yet (you can watch the episode online.) But based on what I saw last season, and a fantastic profile in Wired on the show's creator, Dan Harmon, I'm prepared to say that, even if not every episode quite delivers, it's the funniest show on network TV. (Sorry, 30 Rock! That joke about the gas leak wasn't even funny the first time.)

It's definitely the strangest. As evidenced by the My Dinner With Andre-themed episode from last season, which is just the kind of abstruse extended joke that I can't believe made it onto a mainstream show, but turns up on this show all the time.

Until I read the Dan Harmon profile, I had no idea what kind of mad genius was behind this show (Wired says: "even its 'normal' episodes have a deeply weird velocity") but key passages shed a lot of light on where this stuff comes from. Such as this anecdote, about Harmon in the writers' room working on a scene featuring new cast member John Goodman:

Harmon begins pacing the room, slowly launching into a discourse that’s part Socratic inquiry, part one-man improv show. He lists examples of anything in the culture that might show how powerful men treat the weak: Goodfellas, Neil LaBute films, Freudian theory, even the actorly essence of John Goodman himself. The whole spiel is immensely entertaining—like hearing a version of Billy Joel’s "We Didn't Start the Fire" that’s been rewritten by a semiotics-obsessed video-store clerk—and it concludes with Harmon reenacting Ned Beatty’s famous monologue in Network.

No wonder I love this show.

Over his lifetime, Harmon developed a highly structured algorithm that he uses for every scene, episode, and season of Community, and says he searches every TV show and movie he watches for his algorithm underlying its structure. How some of the show's plot devices, like a magical secret trampoline, fit in is a mystery, possibly explained by his practice of drinking vodka at work.

Another thing that explains some of the psychologically unusual characters: Harmon innocently started taking online tests for Asperger's syndrome to see if his character Abed (above) really did fit the profile as fans have suggested. And guess what? Dan Harmon has Asperger's! Doctors say he's on the part of the autism spectrum where people have both empathy and inappropriate emotional reactions. And also think about life in terms of episodes of Taxi.

Not really a surprise, but the ratings are pretty awful. If NBC keeps putting up with its roster of weird shows that nobody watches, hopefully it'll survive the season.

September 20, 2011

Who's Older?™ Birthday boys

Hugh Grant and James Gandolfini: Who's Older?

Two celebrities had birthdays recently, and the two men chose to celebrity their special days in ways that show what matters most to them.

Hugh Grant has been loudly protesting the British police and Conservative government's failure to stop News Corp's media outlets from hacking people's phones, which now looks like wasn't simple failure but some kind of evil right-wing parliamentary corporate collusion. Speaking to the press shortly after his birthday, he said he was glad British politicians had finally "grown balls" over this issue, which he hopes they'll keep. He's heading to Scotland soon, where he'll shoot Cloud Atlas with the Wachowskis. I bet he'll be playing Adam Ewing out on that South Pacific island.

James Gandolfini spent his birthday partying at a restaurant in Soho with friends, which he reportedly departed by hoisting himself onto the seat of Mario Batali's Vespa, which was also supporting Mario Batali, and lumbering off into the night like a half a ton of beef cheeks balanced on a gravy boat. "We thought they were going to die," said one partygoer, who I'm pretty sure was not joking.

Now let's think about how many candles were on each man's formidable birthday cake. It's time to play Who's Older?™!

To play, pick which one you think is older, then click on their names to see if you are right.

Who's Older?™

Hugh Grant or James Gandolfini?

One note about Hugh Grant: I'll admit that I loved his sensitive romantic-lead style when I was in high school and he played a wispy Chopin in Impromptu, but since Woody Allen cast him as a scheming double-crosser in Small Time Crooks, he's had a string of great movies where he's gotten to do some excellent work playing selfish jerks. He's gotten crinklier since the early 90's, but he's finally found the delicious kind of role he's best in, which has nothing to do with floppy haircuts and stammering.

September 14, 2011

Drive and the 80's

Drive movie poster

I went to see the new arty action movie Drive last night, which I think is this year's 28th movie starring Ryan Gosling. I liked it for its unabashedly stylized approach to action movie standards like car chases and people getting shot in the head, and especially for all the 80's design. As much as I liked this stuff, I don't understand it at all.

Take a look at that movie poster, with the inexplicable anachronistic hot pink cursive font. What's that about? Some people have drawn comparisons to classic 80's movie posters, like the one for Heathers, but I see some other inspirations. Like this:

Risky Business poster

And a little bit of this:

Purple Rain

And let's not forget:

Tiffany album cover

The director, Nicolas Winding Refn, stopped by for a little Q&A after the movie, and he came right out and said he ripped off the Risky Business poster. He explained that, as a Danish director coming to America, he found LA to be a city stylistically trapped in the 80's. I'm not sure I totally get what he means, but I'll admit there do seem to be an awful lot of restaurants that incorporate glass bricks and walls unironically painted turquoise out there.

Then there's the music. The soundtrack (by Cliff Martinez, Steven Soderbergh's main man) is hyper-self-conscious 80's pop synth. The theme songs sound a lot like OMD's "Souvenir" or Q Lazzarus's "Goodbye Horses", which is featured in both Married to the Mob and Silence of the Lambs.

What all this 80's stuff is doing in a contemporary action movie is beyond me, especially one with scene after scene of gruesome, brutal violence that seems to explode out of nowhere. The killings in this movie are so graphic and violent that audience members started laughing in disbelief.

Then there's the acting. It's the opposite of the horrific violence and the synth soundtrack. It's terse. Minimal. Dialogue is sparse, stylized, and often sort of weird. Ryan Gosling is, as one reviewer says, a closed book. But, wait, then there's also Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks, playing smaller roles with funny, snappy dialogue, plenty of warmth, and a dollop of sinister fiendishness.

The director explained that he used the lush, warm, synthy music to balance out the harsh violence and the (sometimes) cold acting style. But watching the movie, I wasn't sensing "balanced" so much as "mentally ill". The word that describes the feeling I got from the collective tones and styles of this movie is crazy. Specifically, either Nicolas Wearing Refn is crazy, or I am.

The poster font, the soundtrack, acting that's all over the place, Albert Brooks saying lines like "I used to make movies in the 80's. Action films, sexy stuff--one critic called them European." People getting stabbed in the eye with a fork. It's like if you took Michael Mann's Thief, Collateral, and the first season of "Miami Vice", then went nuts, then remade them into one crazy Scando-American movie. And it's good!

I was curious about Refn's next project, which will be a movie called Only God Forgives, also starring Ryan Gosling. Here's the description: "A Bangkok police lieutenant and a gangster settle their differences in a Thai-boxing match."

So maybe it's not just me.

September 13, 2011

Lana Wachowski

Wachowskis and Arianna Huffington

Some articles floating around today about Hugh Grant joining the cast of the movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas highlight an interesting bit of Hollywood gender confusion: what to call Larry Wachowski, erstwhile Wachowski Brother, now that he's become Lana Wachowski. On IMDb and everything.

That's Lana up there on the right with the adorably cartoonish fake pink dreads, next to her brother and, for some reason, Arianna Huffington. A lot of articles, including one by the trans-insensitive AP, refer to the directors of Cloud Atlas as "The Wachowski Brothers", the name they've used in credits of their other movies like The Matrix. Hollywood Reporter is one of the few publications I've seen today that just calls them Andy and Lana Wachowski.

Back in January of this year, the Wikipedia entry for "Wachowski Brothers" was redirected to "The Wachowskis" after what looks like several years of passionate, politically-charged debate over what to call them and how to refer to Larry/Lana. I'm glad we settled on that rather than the clunky Wachowski Siblings.

If Cloud Atlas is twice as good as Speed Racer, I'll gladly call them anything they want. German director Tom Tykwer is co-directing with the Wachowskis. If Cloud Atlas is half as good as Run Lola Run, I might start remembering his name, too.

I love the book, and I'm glad to see the adaptation is looking pretty great, and a little unconventional. The rest of the cast includes Susan Sarandon, Ben Wishaw, Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, and other people like Academy Award Winners Tom Hanks and Halle Berry who I guess will be OK. According to Ben Wishaw, the actors playing the main character in each of the 6 storylines that make up the book will also appear in smaller unexpected roles in the other storylines. For example, Wishaw plays three characters: a 1930's era pianist, an American woman in the '70's, and an extra in a nursing home in the 2000's.

About the movie's casting, Wishaw says, "Everybody's swapping race and gender, so it's very ambitious and quite fun. I'll really love playing a woman!"

Any guesses on whose idea that was?

September 12, 2011

Contagion, social distancing, and lots of dead bodies

Jude Law's biohazard suit in Contagion

Watching the Contagion trailer, I thought this was the movie Steven Soderbergh was born to make. Is there a single genre or sub-genre he can't do? He's done a political crime thriller (Traffic) and a sexy crime thriller (Out of Sight) better than just about anyone, so it's time he got around to a virus thriller. Chilly scientists, dogged scaremongers, aversion to human contact, and total, panicky desperation--this is the stuff Soderbergh eats up. Plus, Elliott Gould! I was all over this one.

The rest of the country was ready for a big deadly disease movie, too--Contagion was easily the #1 movie this week. I'm not sure exactly what our country has learned over the last decade, but the 10th anniversary of 9/11 seems like a good time to indulge in some old-fashioned social paranoia.

The movie is a terrifically good time, tense and fast-paced and almost relentlessly pessimistic. It reminded me of that incredible moment in Traffic when a well-dressed, very pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones says "Get out of the car and shoot him in the head!" into a cellphone. One reason it's so good is that it never stops long enough for you to think about why the disease is happening or what it means, or if it represents some ethical or political message. It doesn't. It's just a great big disaster movie with some of the planet's most famous and beautiful people getting sick and dying horribly right in front of our eyes, and it's a blast. As Soderbergh once said about his style, "It's harder to be pretentious when you're moving really fast."

My favorite part of disaster movies like this is the moment when things go from bad to total catastrophe, social order breaks down, and all the rules we normally live by go out the window. Soderbergh has a scene outside an ill-fated FEMA truck that could be a case study in a seminar on Breakdown of Social Order in Disaster Movies. He's got a few scenes of every-man-for-himself mayhem that, along with sequences of people unwittingly handling contaminated touchscreens, water glasses, and cellphones, make you realize how screwed we would be if an epidemic like this ever happened. We're so sloppy about germs and cleanliness we might as well be rubbing each other's snot all over our faces.

The cast is great. Soderbergh gets excellent, understated performances out of Matt Damon, and he's great in this as a bereaved man who's going through emotional hell, but keeps his head down and holds it together to keep his daughter healthy. You know who else is really good? Gwyneth Paltrow! She's surprisingly believable as an average married Midwestern corporate manager who maybe likes to have a little too much fun on business trips. I haven't seen a lot of Jude Law lately, but I loved his morally ambiguous, possibly deranged, self-promoting blogger/prophet with his homemade biohazard suit (above).

As in every Soderbergh movie, the music is fantastic, with his usual collaborator and former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez keeping things moving with a cool, bass-heavy electronic soundtrack.

Thanks to Matt Damon (who Soderbergh said is "as discreet as a 14 year-old girl") we know that Soderbergh isn't retiring right away. He's still got Haywire (the one with the mixed martial arts champ and former American Gladiator Gina Carano), Magic Mike (the one about male strippers with Channing Tatum and (yes!) Matthew McConaughey), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. remake, and Liberace (with Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his boyfriend.) But I guess the planned 3D rock-opera about Cleopatra with music by Guided By Voices, Cleo, was too crazy be true.

About September 2011

This page contains all entries posted to Amy's Robot in September 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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