Archive for the 'Movies' Category

R.I.P Ben Gazzara

I’m struck with a tinge of sadness upon hearing that actor Ben Gazzara, terrific in the underrated and largely ignored film “Happiness,” has died. And surprised by this bio nugget:

In 1965, he moved on to TV stardom in “Run for Your Life,” a drama about a workaholic lawyer who, diagnosed with a terminal illness, quits his job and embarks on a globe-trotting attempt to squeeze a lifetime of adventures into the one or two years he has left. He was twice nominated for Emmys during the show’s three-year run.

What a great idea for a show and I’m amazed someone got such a discomforting concept on television in 1965.

Accessory characters

One thing that has always interested me is the fact that movie directors, when pontificating on their work, will often discuss lesser characters, like the main villian’s third henchman, as if a lot of thought went into these characters. A director might say something like, “It was important to understand the motivation for Lightning Soldier Number 3. What was his motivation? I came up with a back story that he had been raised in a southern ghetto without a father figure and his life of crime had come naturally. I think [actor] Thomas Dobswell did and excellent job of bringing this to life in his 4.3 seconds of screen time.”

For a long time I was baffled by this. And, as a fiction writer, I was intimidated. Did I need to be developing a deep sense of character for my accessory players, many of whom come across as rather one dimensional anyway? Lately, I think the answer is no. Movie directors (and writers) are just being pretentious fuckwads on this subject.

War against digital pirates heats up

I’ve mentioned in the past my belief that the advent of digital piracy and its ability to suck profits from almost any creative endeavor — music, film, books — will result in an artless (and subsequently heartless) society which will descend into cannibalistic savagery. At this point in history, I see this argument as irrefutable.

Perhaps we’re beginning to see the dark at the end of the tunnel. The LA Times reports

Film director Penelope Spheeris’ new comedy, “Balls to the Wall,” had barely premiered in Europe when bootleg copies started popping up on the Internet, throwing its U.S. release into jeopardy. A Spheeris assistant sent out as many as 30 cease-and-desist notices a day in a desperate, but failed, attempt to halt the piracy.

That helps explain why Spheeris and other filmmakers are backing tough new legislation making its way through Congress that would give the Justice Department broad powers to shut down websites that host pirated material and would open the door for movie studios, music companies and other copyright holders to seek court injunctions against Internet companies they believe are aiding in copyright theft, which amounts to $58 billion a year.

The fight is curiously nonpartisan, with conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats teamed on both sides of the issue. Some of the split is based on which industry is more dominant in a lawmaker’s region. Many Southern California representatives back Hollywood’s position, and most Northern California members side with the Internet companies. But political philosophy also plays a role, leading anti-big-government conservatives to join with liberal civil libertarians in opposition to giving Washington what they fear would be broad censorship power over websites.

The following quote, illustrates what I’ve always viewed to be the issue.

“It’s the No. 1 issue for us,” said Scott Harbinson, international representative for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which has 113,000 members in the U.S. and Canada. “If people aren’t investing in motion picture production because of piracy, our guys don’t work.”

And why invest in making movies if they’re just going to end up on the Internet for free? And thus you see the clear path towards cannibalistic savagery.

That said, this bill looks troubling to me. Particularly this part…

The pending bills in the House and Senate would give the Justice Department power to seek court orders requiring U.S. search engines and Internet sites to block access to foreign websites hawking pirated material. Private companies such as Paramount Pictures and Sony Music Entertainment would also be able to seek court orders preventing such sites from receiving ads and payments services from the U.S.

That grates against my libertarian tendencies by putting the onus of the crime not on the person who clicks a link to a pirate site, but on the person or company hosting the website or search engine which links to the pirate site.

By the way, Penelope Spheeris was profiled at acid logic here.

We’re running out of munchkins

The New York Daily News reports that one of the last surviving actors to play a munchkin in “The Wizard Of Oz” has died.

The 4-foot-5 Slover died of cardiopulmonary arrest Tuesday afternoon in a central Georgia hospital, said Laurens County Deputy Coroner Nathan Stanley. According to friends, as recently as last weekend, Slover appeared at events in the suburban Chicago area.

Slover was best known for playing the lead trumpeter in the Munchkins’ band but also had roles as a townsman and soldier in the film, said John Fricke, author of “100 Years of Oz” and five other books on the movie and its star, Judy Garland. Slover was one of the tiniest male Munchkins in the movie.

There’s a recent picture of him at the link. He had a remarkable hairline.

When I lived in Los Angeles, I would often hang out at the Culver City Hotel which had a restaurant where the munchkins frequently dined during the making of “The Wizard Of Oz.” John Wayne kept a suite there in his later years.

The Three Investigators Movie!

I’ve mentioned that, as a kid, I was a great fan of the Three Investigators series of young adult detective novels. The trio were kind of an update of the famed Hardy boys, but much more interesting. Whereas the Hardy boys were wholesome all-American douche bags, the Three Investigators had angst. Lead investigator Jupiter Jones was brilliant, but portly. Second investigator Pete Crenshaw was athletic, but of average intelligence. Recordkeeper Bob Andrews was academic, but lacking in nerve. With almost Zen appeal, the three characters’ strengths and flaws fit together as a greater whole.

I’ve also mentioned that for a brief period I was involved in working at a film production company. While there, I once suggested that The Three Investigators might be a good concept for a film but nothing ever came of it.

So, last night, I was looking through the downloadable movies on my cable service and came across an entry titled “The Three Investigators and the Secret of Skeleton Island.”

As you can imagine, I just about flipped my wig! Never in a million years did I think anyone would actually make a Three Investigators movie. I immediately looked it up online. It turned out the movie had been made by a German company because, apparently, The Three Investigators are huge in Germany. The reviews weren’t kind; this quite amusing blogger called it the second worst thing Germans have ever done. Nonetheless, I watched it. And, frankly, it wasn’t bad. It was definitely an updated take on my childhood heroes, but true enough to the spirit of the books. Not the sort of thing I would recommend you watch if you’re not already a fan of the books, but you could do worse.

The movie, it turns out, was actually made in 2007. And, a sequel was made. If I get a chance to see it I will.

March away from The Ides of March!

I caught the new George Clooney film, “The Ides of March” last night. It seemed like it might be an intriguing political thriller.

How was it? Well the first third them across as very predictable and uninteresting. Then the second third had some great twists and turns and really caught my attention. Then the film ended. That’s right, it’s one of those movies where you’re thinking, “This is great, I can’t wait to see what happens next!” and it turns out the movie is over. It’s like Star Wars ending after Ben Kenobi gets killed and the Millennium Falcon flees the Death Star. There’s no payoff.

It’s a bit ironic, because there’s a scene in “The Ides of March” where a male character is making love to woman, but is so caught up watching the political news on television, that he loses his erection. In a way, this character is a perfect metaphor for the movie. He stands before us sheepishly and apologetically looking at his flaccid shriveled penis. He flashes a buffoonish grin in an attempt to explain his inability to complete the task at hand. Can you see him? Does he appear before you? Yes, yes he does.

Hey, wait a second, you’re just standing in front of a mirror!

Into the Wild

Even though he’s a political blowhard, I’ve always been impressed with the movies that Sean Penn has directed. His film “The Pledge” from a couple years ago may still be my favorite movie.

A couple of nights ago, I finally caught his most recent effort: “Into the Wild.” You’re probably familiar with the basic plot (based on a true story): young man, disgusted with society (and his parents) decides to retreat deeper and deeper into the natural world. Ultimately, nature consumes him.

The movie could’ve used a bit of editing, but overall, I really enjoyed it. And again, Sean Penn the director appears to be a completely different person from Sean Penn the guy who punches people in the face and writes screaming political diatribes. “Into the Wild” is a pretty nuanced film which manages to simultaneously catalogue some of the ills of society while conceding that society has something to offer (like telling you which berries are safe to eat.)

So, if you’re looking for a way to wile away 2 1/2 hours of your pointless existence, you could do worse.

Shut up Little Man lives!

Anyone with an ounce of culture in them is aware of the classic “Shut up Little Man” audio recordings. These recordings featured the screaming pitched battles of two old men who lived in a decrepit apartment in San Francisco during the late 80s, and were recorded by their neighbors. The recordings were an underground sensation and at one point a film project was in development based on the tapes.

Well, it looks like there will finally be a Shut up Little Man film. It’s a documentary covering the initial surreptitious recordings and their metamorphosis into a cultural explosion. Details and trailer can be found here.

By the way, I wrote an article about the Shut up Little Man phenomenon several years ago.

The word name game

Today I was ruminating on a theory discussed by neuroscientist VS Ramachandran about the nature of words. His not particularly original theory is that objects or concepts are labeled with words whose sound matches their character. For example, “kill” has a harsh “kay” sound, and it is a harsh action. “Snooze” has a pleasant, soft sound, and is a pleasant act.

You see this kind of relationship quite often in the naming of alien races in science fiction stories. Who are the harsh, fascist villains in Star Trek? The Klingons, and “Klingon” has that harsh “kay” sound again. The Vulcans, however, are less threatening and thus have a softer “Vee” sound.

This got me thinking about the fuzzy, likable Ewoks from the Star Wars movies. Their name would seem to be in violation of this rule, because “wok” is kind of jarring. But then again, it’s actually in character with Ewok nature — they are fuzzy, but also tribal and warriors. I would argue the “e” sound and the “w” sound in their name denotes their plush furryness, whereas the final “k” speaks to their warlike nature.

This is the kind of thing I think about all day.

Computer-generated movie scores

It strikes me that an interesting piece of software would be some kind of fully automated movie soundtrack generator. This would be a program which could compose a movie score simply by “watching” the movie.

How would this work? Well, first of all the software would need the ability to compose music. As I’ve mentioned in the past, there are currently software programs writing award-winning music. Basically, the software just needs to know all the “rules” of music — the various available chord progressions, what chord does this chord usually go to, how do you establish tonality etc.

By analyzing the motion on the screen, I think software could then compose appropriate music. A scene with a lot of movement and fast cutaways would obviously need fast, jarring music. A scene of two idiots in love, walking along a river would need serene, calm music.

There’s still a few problems. For example, you could have a scene of two people walking along the river and in one case the guy is breaking up with the chick because she’s too needy and boring in bed, but you could also have a very similar scene where the guy is expressing his undying devotion to this woman. Obviously these two scenes would require different kinds of scores. I would put forth the idea that the software could perform some language analysis to design these scores correctly. If you hear a lot of stuff like, “I love you,” “not as much as I love you!” you know a happy score is appropriate.

Obviously this sort of thing is a long way off, but if anybody ever does design it, I clearly deserve 10% of all royalties because I took the time to write this blog post.