Monthly Archives: February 2012

John Carter: Dead on Arrival?

As I mentioned in the previous post, my passion for the movies — or at least for going to the movies — has faded somewhat in recent years. I think the biggest problem is simply the reality of a busy semi-grown-up life. My schedule on weekdays makes going out inconvenient, and the weekends tend to get eaten up with all the mundane crap I can’t manage to complete during the week. Basically, it’s just damn hard to carve out a couple of hours to sit in the dark without feeling anxious because I think I ought to be doing something else. In addition, the general theatrical experience has really deteriorated since my multiplex days, largely due to the breakdown of good manners (Text-messaging! Grrr!) as well as various exhibition-industry developments, such as those abysmal pre-show reels of commercials and fluffy “behind-the-scenes” segments that don’t tell you a damn thing except how great everyone was to work with. And then there’s the not-inconsiderable problem that Hollywood just doesn’t seem to be making much I want to see these days; I’ve apparently aged beyond the industry’s target demographic.

The end result of all these converging factors is that I rarely get too excited anymore about upcoming movies. The last one for which I remember feeling much of a build-up was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and even then my eagerness was somewhat tempered compared to other movies in years past. I guess I’m finally beyond the running-countdown-clock, have-to-see-it-on-the-first-day, standing-in-line-for-hours, midnight-screening thing.

But every once in a while, something will grab my interest enough to trigger some vestige of the old anticipation reflex, and in recent months that film has been John Carter, the long-awaited cinematic adaptation of some of the best-loved pulp-adventure fiction of the early 20th century, namely the “Barsoom” novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I dearly loved those books as a boy, and I’ve gone from initially dubious to cautiously optimistic that the film’s director and co-writer, Andrew Stanton of Pixar fame, might have actually made a movie version that’s at least somewhat faithful to the source material. Certainly the look of the film is right, based on what I’ve seen in the trailers, and I’m hoping that the tone will be as well.What I’d like to see is old-fashioned, swashbuckling fun and romance, the sort of thing where the hero has a twinkle in his eye, rather than the self-important Dark ‘n’ Angsty Very-Important-Epic(tm) that every genre film these days aspires to be. That tone was appropriate for The Lord of the Rings, but not for anything created by ERB.

Unfortunately, my own feelings aside, John Carter is not attracting the kind of early buzz the corporate beancounters in Hollywood like to see. Last week, a much-linked article made the rounds of the nerd-o-sphere, predicting that JC is going to be a tremendous flop. The kind of flop that costs people their careers, maybe even the kind of flop that brings down studios. The first line of the article went so far as to compare it to Ishtar, the reviled 1987 Warren Beatty-Dustin Hoffman vehicle that became the poster-child for overblown vanity projects practically overnight.

To put it succinctly, this article pissed me off.


Tweeting the 2012 Oscars

I’ve watched the annual Academy Awards telecast pretty much every year since I was in elementary school. Blame my mother and the TV Guide. See, Mom has always been drawn to the glamour of the Oscars, the clothes and hair and jewelry, the idea that the proceedings offer a glimpse of the celebrities’ real personalities, and that we viewers out there in TV land are being welcomed into their big, happening party. She grew up in the days when Hollywood was still the Dream Factory, and not just a cutthroat business run by corporate bean counters… when movie stars were, well, stars, and not unkempt schlubs who are claiming to be “just like us” while they snort cocaine off supermodels’ behinds using hundred-dollar bills, or whatever it is they do nowadays. (I know, I’m stuck in the ’80s. Sue me.) She loves seeing her favorites, especially the dwindling number of older actors and directors she identifies with, and it gives her genuine joy to see them win. (Of course, it also pisses her off when they don’t; I’ve had a lot of “how could so-and-so have beat such-and-such?” conversations with her over the years.) She always watched the Oscars, and, given that I was a little boy without much influence in these matters, I watched them with her. And in time, as I started to recognize the actors and directors and got caught up in the Hollywood myth myself, I started to enjoy the show as much as she did.I treasure my memories of the two of us sitting on the hearth, a roaring fire at ours backs, with the dashing men and lovely women of cinema gliding across the screen of our gargantuan old console TV.

Not surprisingly, my interest in the Oscars peaked during the years I worked at the multiplex movie theater, my early 20s, when I was thoroughly immersed in and preoccupied by cinema. My passion has faded a bit in the two decades since then, partly because I seem to be seeing fewer and fewer new-release movies each year, and partly because the films that get nominated these days are usually not the ones I am bothering to see. Not that I expect Captain America to get a Best Picture nod, but a definite rift has opened in recent years between popular films and those the Academy considers good enough to nominate. It didn’t used to be that way; consider past winners such as The Godfather, Silence of the Lambs, or Dances with Wolves, which managed to be both very popular and also critically respected. Nevertheless, I’m still there every winter, watching the Oscars as much out of ingrained habit as anything else, but still watching.

Which brings me to this year’s telecast. I had only limited interest going in — there didn’t seem to much point, as I’ve seen only one of the films nominated in any of the major categories, specifically The Help — but I quickly got sucked in. And sadly, “sucked” is a word that occurred to me a lot during the show. It really was pretty awful this year, in a myriad of ways. The big, boring production numbers of past years were mostly absent, but those that remained weren’t very effective. (Cirque de Soleil may be fascinating in a live setting but on TV, the cameraman never seems to know where he ought to be aiming, so there’s a sense that you’re missing stuff.) The perennial problem of winners getting cut off or having to rush to get through their acceptance speeches seemed particularly bad this time. The camera kept cutting to the frickin’ band instead of showing what the people on stage were doing. Worst of all, the jokes were terrible this year, all of them, from the stuff the presenters were trying to get through to Billy Crystal’s tired old schtick we’ve seen in eight previous Oscar shows. And Crystal himself — a person I normally feel great sympathy toward — was unexpectedly irritating as he mugged his way through his hosting duties, obviously aware that he was falling on his face and unable to do a damn thing about it. And yet, I hung in there, occasionally bouyed by the genuine emotion of an Octavia Spencer or Jean Dujardin, but generally wondering who in the hell was in charge of this mess and how they keep their jobs.

At some point, I decided I had to do something in order to keep myself interested. And so I turned to an activity which is practically cliche for many Internet users, but still something of a novelty to me (considering I’ve never done it before!): I decided to live-tweet this thing.

Yes, I have a Twitter account. Feel free to follow me if that’s your thing, but be warned that I’ve never figured out quite what to do with the damn thing, so my posting — or tweeting, or whatever you call it — is pretty sporadic.

Anyhow, just for fun, I’m going to repost my Oscar-night tweets here. Many of my Loyal Readers have already seen this stuff, either on Twitter or most likely Facebook, which I’ve got set up to repeat whatever I do on Twitter. However, Facebook seemed to be reposting everything out of order, so you may find it valuable to look at these posts again, in the proper descending order in which I made them. (One of the things I dislike about Twitter is that the new stuff is at the top, so if you’re doing something in a sequence, readers have to scroll backwards to get all the pieces.) Brave New World and all that:

  • Crystal’s timing is rusty, the filmed comedy sketches are unfunny. Jettison this stuff and give the winners more time to speak. #
  • “Hollywood runs on Diet Coke” ad was pretty classy – well-deserved thanks to all the behind-the-scenes folks. #
  • Love how genuinely happy Marty Scorsese seems to be for his tech people when they win. #
  • Wow. Love Downey Jr., but his bit with Gwyneth just died a miserable, lonely death. Who wrote this crap? #
  • Emma Stone and Ben Stiller… another bit goes down in flames. Sigh. #
  • I was hoping Real Steel would pick up the statue for Visual FX. Not a big spectacle, but I really loved that one. #
  • Congrats to Christopher Plummer! His speech was pure Old Hollywood class… and genuinely funny! First thing tonight that was… #
  • I guess John Williams’ day is past when he’s nominated twice and still loses. Ludovic Bource made a classy speech, though. #
  • Will Farrell and Zach G: banging your own cymbals still doesn’t make the joke funny. #
  • Okay, “Man or Muppet” is an awesome song, but were there really only two nomination-worthy original songs this years? #
  • “The Academy accepts on behalf of Woody Allen…” because he’s too big a douchebag to actually show up. #
  • Angelina Jolie is supposedly pregnant, right? Could’ve fooled me. I guess exposing her leg up to the uh-huh worked as distraction. #
  • Short film categories are frustrating… where can we actually see these films?! #
  • Michael Douglas looked healthy. I’m glad. #
  • James Earl Jones, Dick Smith, Oprah… Why not keep the camera on them instead of showing the band?! Lamelamelame. #
  • Dick Smith’s name didn’t ring a bell until they showed the clips. The man’s a genius based on The Exorcist alone. #
  • Oh, and Rick Baker has awesome hair. I envy his silvery ponytail. #
  • Esparanza Spalding singing “What a Wonderful World” — beautiful voice, truly impressive ‘fro. #
  • “In Memoriam” segment – nice to recognize some technical people for a change, but what did they work on? We don’t know their names! #
  • Natalie Portman grew up well. For my money, the most beautiful woman in the room tonight. Red is her color. #
  • Still hate this “butter up the acting nominees” thing. Everyone just looks embarrassed as the presenter gushes scripted praise. #
  • Meryl Streep is a surprise. I honestly thought Viola Davis had it. But Meryl is amazing, classy & beautiful. I’d buy her a drink. #
  • I guess Tom Cruise finally got on the right meds. #
  • And it’s The Artist. No surprise. I need to see that. Except now it will be all trendy and popular… #
  • And it’s over. Billy Crystal looks relieved. Poor bastard. #
  • Dujardin name-checked D. Fairbanks, Hazanavicius thanked Billy Wilder. The French have always had more respect for film history. #
  • Final thought: Where was Jack Nicholson this year? He’s usually right there in front… I knew something was terribly off… #

And there you go, my first live-tweeting experience. Hope it was good for you. It was… amusing… for me, although it’s obviously not a substantive way to communicate.

Oh, before I forget, the TV Guide thing. You see, TV Guide used to print this full-page list of all the nominees in each of the major categories. Throughout the broadcast, Mom kept the Guide close at hand, turned to that page, and she would religiously mark off each winner as it was announced. I don’t know why she did it, and probably neither did she; it just seemed to like something that ought to be done. (I used to do something similar when I listened to Casey Kasem’s or Rick Dees’ weekly top-40 countdown radio shows, writing down each song on the back of an old envelope. Why? Damned if I know.) I kind of wish we’d thought to save those lists. I’m frankly surprised one of us didn’t, given how important it seemed at the time…

(Incidentally, Mark Evanier has a few ideas on how to improve the Oscars, and I think I agree with every single one of them…)



I Don’t Even Know What to Call This One

Does everybody remember that episode of The Simpsons in which Homer and Flanders go to Vegas, get completely devastated, and wake up married to a couple of vulgar, gold-digging floozies? And then Flanders actually tries to live with his new “Vegas wife,” only to have her give up on her find-a-sugar-daddy scheme and run away because she just can’t take any more of his saccharine piousness? (The second part may have been a separate episode… I don’t remember for certain anymore.) As I recall, Flanders’ Vegas wife flees in the middle of the night, Amityville Horror style, yelling back over her shoulder something to effect of, “Just stop being so goody-goody all the time!” Does that ring a bell?

Yeah, that’s how I feel a lot of the time living in Utah. I mean, honestly, is there any other place in the known universe — or at least a place that doesn’t have a minaret in the middle of town — where this outfit would be considered immodest?

The young lady in the photo is Brittany Molina, a 21-year-old student at Brigham Young University, who experienced a moment of Internet fame last week because this unremarkable ensemble of a sweater, dress, leggings, and knee-high boots evidently proved too provocative for the tender sensibilities of some anonymous bluenose. As recounted on the Salt Lake Tribune‘s Movie Cricket blog, Brittany was on the BYU campus, minding her own business, when a young man she didn’t know walked up, handed her a note, and then scuttled off before she could read it. She thought at first it may have been a Valentine from a shy admirer, but it turned out to be something very different. The note read:

“You may want to consider that what you’re wearing has a negative effect
on men (and women) around you. Many people come to this university
because they feel safe, morally as well as physically, here. They expect
others to abide by the Honor Code that we all agreed on. Please
consider your commitment to the Honor Code (which you agreed to) when
dressing each day. Thank you.”

Now, I should probably explain for some of my Loyal Readers that BYU, which is owned by the Mormon Church, expects its students to follow a rigid set of rules — the aforementioned Honor Code — which regulates everything from attire and grooming to where students are allowed to live (BYU has to approve off-campus housing) to sexual behavior. Especially sexual behavior, which not-too-surprisingly seems to be the pitfall that trips up most Code violators, at least in the cases that come to the public’s attention. So just how strict are these rules? Well, believe it or not, they were a major factor in determining which local college I would attend following high school. Yes, yours truly applied to the Y back in my college-application days. And lest you think that seems, well, odd, I’ll be honest and admit that I was incredibly naive, knew little about the place, and chose to apply there largely because it was close to home and I wasn’t interested in going too far away for school. I even got accepted, on a provisional basis pending submission of a letter from my Mormon bishop or other ecclesiastical leader (this was a bit of a problem for me, given that I’ve been indifferent to religion since I was a small boy; I briefly considered writing my own letter and signing it “Master Yoda of Dagobah”) and, of course, my signature on a document promising I would obey this precious Honor Code of theirs. A handy rule book accompanied the acceptance letter so I could familiarize myself with the Code. I dutifully read through it, becoming more and more convinced with each new line of text that somebody, somewhere, was putting me on. It all seemed so… unnecessary.

Two items stand out in my memory as particularly insufferable: men were required to be clean-shaven (mustaches were allowed, although the Code’s phrasing on this point made it sound like they were grudgingly accepted at best, but beards and stubble were absolutely verboten), and you had to wear socks with your shoes. Leaving aside the fact that this was 1987 and I was still occasionally emulating Don Johnson’s Miami Vice look at the time, I couldn’t understand why a university, an institution of higher learning, a place whose mission is to educate and whose informal role is to help you learn how to be an independent adult, ought to have the slightest concern over whether I was wearing socks. I admittedly have something of a knee-jerk anti-authoritarian streak — I reflexively resent being told what to do, especially when I think I’m being told to do something stupid — but this was nothing short of insane micromanaging, as far as I was concerned. I was utterly repelled. However, I can thank my brush with the Honor Code for one thing, at least. It made a big life decision very simple for me. A week later, I was enrolled at BYU’s crosstown rival (and complete cosmological opposite), the University of Utah.

It’s probably also relevant to note that BYU is located in Provo, Utah, the seat of Utah County, which comprises the geographical area called Utah Valley. (It’s the Utah-iest place in all of Utah! In more ways than one, actually…) Utah Valley lies directly south of the Salt Lake Valley (and Salt Lake County), which is where I live. Things are different down there. Seriously, almost mind-bogglingly different. Non-Utahns tend to think of Salt Lake City as repressed, uptight, and highly conservative, but SLC is practically San Francisco’s Castro District compared to the UC. I actually try to avoid going down there, as my beard and ponytail instantly brand me as an outsider, and I’m not exaggerating when I say people do stare. Honest to god, I sometimes feel so out of place there, I expect a bunch of the locals to surround me and start up with the Body Snatcher scream. Even some of my Mormon friends report feeling less than worthy when they’re visiting Provo.

Anyway, given my complete alienation from the BYU/Provo mindset, I have a hard time grasping what’s so terrible about Ms. Milano’s outfit. The consensus among my friends seems to be that her dress is too short to meet the Honor Code’s standard, as it falls well above her knees, and I suppose that makes sense. But still… this is offensive to someone? Really? I mean, it’s not as if she’s dressed like one of the girls in a ZZ Top video, or like Julia Roberts in the beginning of Pretty Woman (not, just between you and me, that I have a problem with either of those looks; I guess I lack the gene that codes for moral outrage as generated by displays of feminine anatomy).

A couple of people have pointed out that it doesn’t matter whether I, personally, see anything wrong with her outfit or not, she was in violation of the rules she agreed to follow. I suppose there’s no arguing that. Brittany presumably got a chance to read the rule book same as I did, and she had her chance to make a run for it, the same way I did. But instead she willingly entered into a contract with the Y to follow their wretched Code, and she’s got to face the consequences if she doesn’t live up to her obligation. And really I know this whole story is just a tempest in a teapot, probably already forgotten by everyone who read about it last week. Nevertheless, it sticks in my craw because, regardless of whether she actually did anything wrong under whatever standard you want to apply, this incident encapsulates so much of what I really, truly hate about my home state. The pervasive, heavy-handed moralizing; the sanctimony and intolerance for anyone who strays too far off program; the nosy preoccupation with what your neighbors are doing and how “cleanly” they’re living, along with the misguided belief that you have the right to say anything about it; the casual misogyny that blames a young woman’s clothing for a young man’s sinful feelings; and, of course, the passive-aggressive behavior. Good lord, this place must surely be the passive-aggressive capital of the world. People who grow up here have it pounded into their heads from an early age to always be polite and agreeable, so few willingly engage in a direct confrontation if they can avoid it. (I’ll admit I’m guilty of it, too, for what that’s worth.) Instead, they find other, less direct — and less honorable, in my opinion — ways to attack: sarcastic jibes that are excused as good-natured humor, or intense competitiveness in sports and other social activities, or talking about people behind their backs. Or handing someone an anonymous note and running away before they can read it. Frickin’ coward. I have to say Ms. Molina apparently handled this situation with far more aplomb than I could’ve managed. I would’ve chased the punk down, pinned him to a wall, and told him that if he’s got a problem, he’d better tell me to my face. And then I would’ve impressed upon him how much better it would be for him to mind his own damn business…

(Ed. Note: For the record, I am not accusing every Utahn, or even every Utah Mormon, of behaving like this. Nor do I want to hear the usual defense made whenever a non-Mormon starts griping about how things are here, i.e., “if you don’t like it, leave.” This is my home, too, guys, and I have no intention of moving away. Nevertheless, there some aspects of life here that are… difficult… if you don’t happen to belong to the majority faith. And Provo is just plain weird, no matter how you slice it; it’s the world as designed by Ned Flanders, and that’s no bull. If I had to live down there, I think I probably would end up fleeing in the middle of the night, Amityville Horror style.)


Just Say No to Anti-Freeze, Kids

So, my dad (who, you will recall, recently had gall bladder surgery, a little detail which will shortly become immensely important to our story) is in the habit of walking up to my place with his cup of coffee in the mornings and chatting for a few minutes before I leave for work. It’s a pleasant little ritual we’ve developed over the last couple of years, a low-key means of connection for a father and his grown son who’ve never been terribly close. We rarely talk about anything more meaningful than whatever funny thing our respective cats did the night before, but these conversations matter anyway.

The other morning was a strange one for these desert climes. It had rained just before sunrise, so everything outside was wet and glistening, and there was a hazy, golden quality to air. It was far more reminiscent of what I remembered of England than Utah, cool and crisp but not truly cold, and Dad and I were both enjoying it. We felt cozy enough inside our coats. The concrete apron around Dad’s shop, which stands behind the old house where I live, was dotted with shallow puddles. As we stood there chatting, I noticed one of my cats lapping at the ground directly in front of a battered old Chevy pickup. Dad’s work truck. The one that leaks numerous fluids cats ought not be ingesting.

“Hey,” I said, “You don’t suppose there’s any anti-freeze in that, do you?”

Dad shrugged, shooed kitty away from the puddle, and then bent down, dipped a finger into the potentially toxic liquid, and stuck it in his mouth.

A little jolt of alarm zipped through my stomach. “Dad…!”

“Ah, it’s fine,” he said, wiping his finger on his pants and then taking a mouth-cleansing sip from the mug in his other hand. “Just rainwater.”

Seeing the expression on my face, he continued in a nonchalant tone. “I used to dip my finger into radiators all the time. It was an easy way of telling whether the mix was strong enough or if you needed to add some more anti-freeze.”

“One of those old-fashioned backyard mechanic things?” I ventured.

“Yeah. ‘Course, nobody told us it’d make your gall bladder go rotten after about 30 years.”

He said it was a deadpan face that would’ve made Buster Keaton proud. Then I caught the twinkle in his eye, and I laughed out loud, and my father, a man who once seemed to me the most terrifyingly humorless creature on Earth, actually cracked a smile himself.

I cherish these mornings.


Special Valentine’s Day Video Entry

So, the Girlfriend and I returned from Hawaii early Sunday morning, and what with a brutal case of jetlag and the disconcerting effects of re-entering the humdrum after 10 days in Fantasyland, well… we both kinda forgot about Valentine’s Day this year. And you know, I’m fine with that. Not that I have anything against Valentine’s per se — the idea of a holiday to celebrate love and romance is fine, in principle — but in practical fact, it’s really just another one of those consumption-oriented holidays on which you feel pressured to spend money you don’t have (especially just after returning from 10 days in the most expensive state in the union!) on stuff you don’t need. Seriously, I have a banker’s box down the Archive filled with little plushy critters that are holding hearts and wearing red t-shirts with endearing messages on them, and they’re all adorable and were much appreciated when I first received them, but now they live in the dark shadows of a box in the basement, no doubt dreaming of the long-ago day when they were plucked from the shelves of the Hallmark store and how everything used to be happy and bright but now that’s all gone, and how sad is that? How can I possibly sentence more innocent plush toys to that Phantom Zone existence? What kind of monster would I be?

Cough. Ahem. Wow. Not sure where that came from. Anyhow, I may be content with not doing much of the traditional V-Day thing today, but I also don’t want to come across as a total curmudgeon on the subject, because I don’t feel all that curmudgeonly about it. So in the spirit of acknowledging the day without really engaging too deeply with it, I’ve got a video I’d like to dedicate to my eternally patient traveling companion (and new roomie!), as well as to all you lovers out there in InternetLand. This is most romantic song I could think of today… well, okay, actually it’s the first song I thought of, but whatever, I think the sentiment still applies… Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!


Aloha and All That Stuff

A word of advice, kids: don’t ever schedule a major vacation within three days of a life-changing event like having someone move in with you. Anne and I are leaving in the morning for a Hawaiian cruise with her parents, and we’re both completely frazzled. I always end up packing in the wee hours the night before any departure, but this time I’m feeling downright panicky because there just hasn’t been any time to do the things I like to do to prepare for a trip. I’ve been too focused on the move.

In any event, I won’t be posting here for at least the ten days we’ll be on the cruise, and it’ll probably be more like two weeks before I get back into the blogging frame of mind. Just so you know. Talk quietly amongst yourselves… and we’ll see you on the other side.


So How Much Has VW Paid Uncle George Anyhow?

Another Super Bowl commercial has slipped onto the Internet, this one being VW’s follow-up to last year’s wonderful “Vader Kid” spot, as well as to the “Bark Side” teaser that was released a couple weeks ago. The Star Wars connection isn’t immediately obvious, but when it comes, it’s a real pay-off:

Once again, it feels a little strange to realize how directly this is pitched at my specific demographic, how coldly calculated this ad must have been to so precisely push the buttons of we 40-something Gen-Xers. But whatever… it’s fun.


Another Grail Found!

Happy news today from Jahnke’s Electric Theater over on Facebook: it seems that one of my personal “holy grail movies,” i.e., the handful of films I’d like to own but which have been long been unavailable on DVD or any other home-video format, is finally on the way. In this case, it’s High Road to China, a 1983 adventure flick starring Tom Selleck. Although High Road is often dismissed as a knock-off of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s actually a fun little B-movie romp on its own terms, and not really that much like an Indiana Jones movie. High Road is being released on both DVD and Blu-Ray by Hen’s Tooth Video on April 17. Here’s a peek at the sales sheet:

High Road to China sell sheet

With this release, my list of MIAs is down to only three (well, okay, technically six) items: another early-80s Selleck vehicle called Lassiter; FM, which was sort of a forerunner to the WKRP in Cincinnati series; and, of course, decent-quality anamorphic transfers of the pre-1997 Star Wars trilogy, my perennial hobbyhorse.

It’s funny… the movie industry obviously feels the DVD is on its way into the landfill of history, and it seems to me that Blu-Ray really hasn’t caught on the way everyone hoped. The future, we are constantly hearing, is going to be all streaming and clouds. Maybe so… and yet it’s only now, supposedly at the end of the medium’s life cycle, that a lot of obscure titles are finally finding their way onto shiny silver discs. I almost wonder if the attention being given to streaming is making it possible… maybe because nobody expects big DVD sales anymore, niche titles are free to move in modest numbers without being considered a failure. Maybe… it’s just an idea I had…