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Old Media

September 20, 2013
Has Bond ever been this beautiful?

Has Bond ever been this beautiful?

This is the end
Hold your breath and count to ten
Feel the earth move and then
Hear my heart burst again

There’s still life in the old boy.

The Skyfall Blu Ray disc sat beside the television set for two months, as I was unaware until tonight that it was the best Bond film in decades. Daniel Craig revived the James Bond franchise back in 2006 with a very serious take on Casino Royale, the Ian Fleming novel which got away from Broccoli and was a spoof back before I was potty trained. While it was invigorating to have a more vulnerable and gritty Bond, I found the film’s plot murky and the subsequent Quantum of Solace in 2008 a violent disappointment. So I didn’t make it to the cinema for Skyfall and took my sweet time about watching it on disc. But when I finally popped it in the player, I was in for a treat.

But I struggled with the Blu Ray disc, which wanted to bore me with mandatory previews and, of all things, a ludicrous commercial about Blu Ray disc features. Hey Columbia, disabling the menu and skip commands during previews and other unwanted junk is hardly a selling point for Blu Ray, especially when the disc lacks even rudimentary features like a director’s commentary and behind-the-scenes documentary. I finally had to resort to fast-forwarding through one piece of junk after another to get to the movie.

I was even more annoyed by a disc error which rendered a few minutes of the movie unwatchable. As I wrestled with the technology, I wished Hollywood would stop gouging me and put this film, which premiered almost a year ago, on the streaming services. Even better, throw in an option to stream a commentary and related documentaries. Eventually the physical discs will die out as bandwidth improves and younger viewers refuse to use optical media. But those days are not here yet.

Beautiful backdrop for assassin vs. assassin

Beautiful backdrop for assassin vs. assassin

One reason I still tolerate Blu Ray is the image quality, and thankfully Eon Production’s 23rd Bond film takes full advantage of it. Sam Mendes’ direction was superb and he made the most of a couple of visually stunning nighttime set pieces in Shanghai and an imagined Macao. Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles of Blade Runner has come to life, but 6500 miles to the west.

Blade Runner's Los Angeles has appeared 6500 miles to the west

Blade Runner’s Los Angeles has appeared 6500 miles to the west in Skyfall’s Shangai

Early Bond films had legendary theme songs and titles, and Adele’s entry for Skyfall is top notch, married to a great title sequence which gives nods to some of Mendes’ most beautiful imagery. I hadn’t enjoyed a Bond title sequence so much since Goldeneye back in 1995, with its wonderful imagery of the collapse of Soviet Russia and its iconography.

Even better, the film gave some meaningful back story for Bond and was a great final bow for Judi Dench’s groundbreaking portrayal of M, with excellent supporting work from Ralph Fiennes and the grand old Albert Finney. The villain had some great scenes, and the film was replete with homages to the past 50 years of the franchise without seeming stale or too campy.

But what I enjoyed most was the melancholy air about the film, its bleak portrayal of a Bond whose vices and age are catching up with him. I have been feeling my age this week, having aggravated my problematic lower back, and the film’s references to 50 years of Bond films reminded me that I’ll be 50 myself in a few years. Strangely enough, the rather bleak Skyfall gives me hope: it reminds me that there is still quite a bit of fight left in us both.

“Skyfall”

This is the end
Hold your breath and count to ten
Feel the earth move and then
Hear my heart burst again

For this is the end
I’ve drowned and dreamt this moment
So overdue I owe them
Swept away, I’m stolen

Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall
Face it all together
Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall
Face it all together
At skyfall
That skyfall

Skyfall is where we start
A thousand miles and poles apart
Where worlds collide and days are dark
You may have my number, you can take my name
But you’ll never have my heartLet the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all togetherLet the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together
At skyfall

(Let the sky fall
When it crumbles
We will stand tall)

Where you go I go
What you see I see
I know I’d never be me
Without the security
Of your loving arms
Keeping me from harm
Put your hand in my hand
And we’ll stand

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together

Let the sky fall (let the sky fall)
When it crumbles (when it crumbles)
We will stand tall (we will stand tall)
Face it all together
At skyfall

Let the sky fall
We will stand tall
At skyfall
Oh

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2013 in movie, music, technology, video

 

Watching Hitchcock

December 20, 2012

Hitchcock offers a "slice" of life

Hitchcock offers a “slice” of life

Years ago I met the son of an English greengrocer: a corpulent, droll fellow known for murder and mayhem. I was probably vaguely aware of him through television, although his long-running show was not in reruns in the limited broadcast television markets of my youth. But I first really knew of him because he lent his name (for a fee, naturally) to a monthly mystery magazine and he had bookending cameos in The Three Investigators mysteries. But then, late one night on the television, I saw Psycho. After that I became fascinated, perhaps morbidly so, by Alfred Hitchcock.

So I was delighted to go see the new movie Hitchcock with Sir Anthony Hopkins playing Sir Alfred. While it was modestly entertaining, it was anything but suspenseful. I wouldn’t recommend the movie to folks who are not already fans of Hitch. It would be far more entertaining to see Psycho, or almost any Hitchcock film, on the big screen. I’ve seen all of his films, most of them multiple times, but Psycho does stand out for one reason in particular. I was young enough to approximate the reaction of cinema audiences in 1960 to first seeing Psycho: it shocked me. The slow, mundane, somewhat dreadful pace let me know something was coming, but I was still quite unprepared for what could happen when a truly great director, who was always a masterful manipulator, made a horror film.

Psycho (1960)

Psycho (1960)

Is Psycho my favorite Hitchcock film? Hardly. That honor goes to Vertigo, underappreciated at the time but now ranking at the top of Sight & Sound’s top movies of all time. So allow me to urge you to go rent something great from the Master of Suspense. Here’s my top ten Hitchcock films in reverse chronological order, but I caution you that some linked clips are SPOILERS for the films in question. If you don’t want to spoil some major plot points, watch the entire movies from start to finish!


Frenzy (1972)

Frenzy (1972)

Frenzy (1972)

The most graphically violent Hitchcock film, leavened with British humor. I love the British inspector, tortured by his wife’s cooking. It is a far more modern film than Psycho, although only made a dozen years later.

SPOILERS: Some great moments are the sad withdrawal down the stairs the potato truck sequence, and the splendid conclusion.


The Birds (1963)

The Birds (1963)

The Birds (1963)

While hardly my favorite Hitchcock film (I actually like the Daphne du Maurier short story it was based on better), the ending is properly unsettling, the gas station sequence is great, and the suspense as the crows accumulate on the playground is intense.


Psycho (1960)

Psycho (1960)

Psycho (1960)

Great performances by Tony Perkins and Janet Leigh in this early and influential slasher flick. Hitchcock is masterful in his manipulation of our sentiments and Bernard Herrmann’s score is stunning.SPOILERS: The shower scene is one of the most famous in all of cinema and the cellar scene is also marvelous.


North by Northwest (1959)

North by Northwest (1959)

North by Northwest (1959)

A marvelous script by Ernest Lehman pairs up with Cary Grant to make this the best of Hitchcock’s “innocent man on the run” movies. The later James Bond films were heavily influenced by sequences from North by Northwest. The cropduster sequence is also one of the most famous in all of cinema. What could possibly threaten you in broad daylight on a bleak flat prairie?


Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

Underappreciated in its day, this truly is one of the greatest films of all time. Slow down, take your time, and let this film mesmerize you with its vivid and meaningful colors, its haunting symbolism, and gut-wrenching heartache. James Stewart was in top form and Kim Novak was actually a great choice, despite Hitchcock’s misgivings. Top marks for Saul Bass’s opening titles, the rooftop chase, and (SPOILERS!) the marvelous hotel room scene, and the shattering conclusion. All topped off by Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score.

This film was unavailable for a decade. I first saw it on a big screen at OU’s film series when it became available again in the 1980s. The students stood up and applauded after it ended; something I had never seen them do before for any film.


To Catch a Thief (1955)

To Catch a Thief (1955)

To Catch a Thief (1955)

This is a gorgeous film with gorgeous people. Light fluff for Hitchcock, but wonderfully romantic. Grace Kelly was never more beautiful or flirtatious, and you simply can’t go wrong pairing her with Cary Grant. The fireworks kiss scene is quite wonderful and Grace’s outfits are almost as stunning as she is.


Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window (1954)

Grace Kelly is stunning once again in this much more serious tale; her entrance is amazing. Jimmy Stewart allows us to sympathize with a voyeur, the world outside his window drawing us in. This one has a prime example of why Hitchcock was the Master of Suspense. We are led to adore Grace’s character, and the scene where she is bravely and recklessly searching an apartment across the courtyard is incredibly intense at that point in the movie. I’ve repeatedly seen fellow viewers tense up, yell at the screen, and even stand up in anguish, their hands at their mouth, during this sequence.


Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers on a Train (1951)

Robert Walker turned in this magnificent acting work shortly before his death. The film is chock full of symbolism: pairs/doubles, gazes/eyes, and the homoeroticism slipped right past the censors. There are so many great scenes! Among many outstanding bits are the cocktail party, the tennis match and the lost lighter, the murder at the carnival, and the carousel sequence.


Notorious (1946)

Notorious (1946)

Notorious (1946)

This one features beautiful work by Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in their prime, along with a surprisingly sympathetic villain in Claude Rains. The kissing scenes are well known, but (SPOILER) my favorite segment is when the spies are discovered and Claude and his evil mother plot a slow murder; the abandonment by Grant in Bergman’s greatest hour of need is devastating.


Spellbound (1945)

Spellbound (1945)

Spellbound (1945)

This is a very dated and uneven film, but it has some stunning visuals and Bergman once again pours on the love as she did in Notorious and, of course, Casablanca. Gregory Peck is stiff, but that fits his amnesiac character, and character actor Michael Chekhov is simply lovable. The dream sequence by Salvador Dali is fascinating, and the (SPOILER) final confrontation is both suspenseful and, with its massive point-of-view gun and two red frames of film, visually impressive.


Hitch made over 50 films and there are many more worth your time. My top 20 would add The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, Lifeboat, Shadow of a Doubt, Dial M for Murder, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 version), Marnie, and Family Plot.

If you haven’t indulged in some Hitchcock, please do so! You won’t be disappointed.

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2012 in movie

 

Dunces, Emma and Nora, and The Woman in White

August 3, 2012

July in Joklahoma, and August for that matter, are not conducive to happy hiking. So this isn’t a post about yet another day hike with photos. I’ve been spending my summer break in the air conditioning, reading classics on my Kindle. Or at least I was until I became immersed in promoting a vital new school bond issue, which has left me little time for a relaxing read.

Childhood Friends

Childhood mysteries

Over the course of a year, my reading rate these days is about a book a week, although with all of my hiking since the summer of 2009 much of that “reading” has been in form of listening to audiobooks on the road and on the trail. I’m too distracted in transit for anything deep, so I listen to mysteries or podcasts. As a child I read all of the mystery and adventure series I could find: I owned and read every one of the original 58 Hardy Boys books repeatedly and then about 35 of the Three Investigators books. Careful to only read them in private to avoid mockery, I also raided my aunt’s collection of Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and Dana Girls titles from the 1960s and earlier. The author of the Encylopedia Brown stories passed this summer, but I always found those stories far too short and trite.

Mystery and History for the Road

Old school audiobooks

My good friend Carrie the Librarian, or Media Specialist in these times, kindly introduced me to the Ellis Peters mysteries years ago. I steadily worked my way through all of the Cadfael books, and a few others of Edith Pargeter‘s books which I could find in audiobook form, whenever I was driving on an extended trip. That was back in the audiocassette days and I was borrowing them from the Tulsa Public Library with a paid membership since I live outside that county. Since Ellis Peters’ audiobooks were filed at the library next to those of Elizabeth Peters, I eventually read through all of her Vicky Bliss and Jacqueline Kirby mysteries and her stand-alones, but the one book I read in her Amelia Peabody series was a turn-off.

Christie audiobooks

Then I took on Agatha Christie, who was a far better writer than either of the Peters. Given my rapid burn rate on books when I began the regular day hikes, I was grateful Dame Agatha was so prolific. I bought from Audible, for use on my iPhone, all of the Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple novels and most of the stand-alones, and now have only a couple of Tommy and Tuppence novels left. There are still many Christie short stories I can listen to, but I find the novels more satisfying.

And for podcasts there is nothing I find more entertaining than listening to the incomparable OU historian and classicist J. Rufus Fears. His delightful lectures range from ancient history to great books to democracy. He’s a superb storyteller and listening to him is always a splendid treat.

Another favorite person for me to listen to is polymath author Simon Winchester. I must agree with Linda Hart that his “smooth-as-satin baritone English accent is sublime.” I was lucky enough to hear him in person at one of the University of Tulsa’s Presidential Lectures and he was quite charming.

But when I’m not in transit and can actually sit down by the window in my favorite recliner and read, I want something different than a typical mystery or lecture. I want science fiction or history or a great novel from another genre.

A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces

My summer reading began with the Pulitzer-prize winning A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The contrast between the hilarity to be found in its chapters and the tortuous journey of the book into print, along with the author’s tragic end, is quite poignant. David Foster Wallace also did himself in, but Toole is a far more entertaining companion than the too-clever Wallace, although Wallace’s essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is a classic.

Toole had a great ear for New Orleans patois and a true gift for great characters. The protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly is declared in the foreward to be a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” Well, I tried to read the renowned Don Quixote awhile back, and gave up out of boredom about 1/6 of the way in, but Ignatius J. Reilly never bored me a bit. I was so amused at his reactions while he was watching the Doris Day flick That Touch of Mink at the cinema that I rented the movie on Netflix to see what he was blubbering on about.

Doris Day plays an out-of-work office worker who is lured by a wealthy businessman, played by Cary Grant, to Bermuda to embark on an affair. Ignatius, watching this in the cinema and to the consternation of fellow movie watchers, erupts:

“Filth!” Ignatius shouted, spewing wet popcorn over several rows. “How dare she pretend to be a virgin. Look at her degenerate face.” . . . “They’re photographing them through several thicknesses of cheesecloth,” he spluttered. “Oh, my God. Who can imagine how wrinkled and loathsome those two really are? I think I’m getting nauseated. Can’t someone in the projection booth turn off the electricity? Please!”

. . .

Good grief. Is this smut supposed to be comedy?” Ignatius demanded in the darkness. “I have not laughed once. My eyes can hardly believe this highly discolored garbage. That woman must be lashed until she drops. She is undermining our civilization. She is a Chinese communist agent sent over to destroy us. Please! Someone with some decency get to the fuse box. Hundreds of people in this theater are being demoralized. If we’re all lucky, the Orpheum may have forgotten to pay its electrical bill.”

Ah, the days before VCRs, DVDs, and streaming movies.

Emma

Paltrow was perfect as Emma

Last summer I examined several lists of great novels and took on Lolita and Under the Volcano. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the Pulitzer Prize winner I started off with this summer and felt brave enough to finally try some Jane Austen, emboldened by how often adaptations and mentions of her books crop up. I had really liked the movie version of Emma when I stumbled across it some years back, so I decided to try that novel. One nice thing: Aunt Jane is out of copyright, so her work is free for the asking.

These days, with my aging eyesight, I truly prefer to read my e-ink Kindle over a paper book, but I was reminded of one drawback of that format as I slowly made my way through Emma. I found myself wondering just how long the darn book was!

Granted, I was taking my time in the book. The prose reads as stilted to my modern ear, showing, or perhaps I should say shewing, its age since the book dates back to 1815. It is hard to imagine people talking as they do in Emma, especially after years of listening to Agatha Christie, who had a marvelous ear for dialogue, brought to life in the audiobooks. English has changed noticeably over that time, something I’ve thoroughly explored in fun lectures by John McWhorter, with an obvious example from Emma being how nice has changed its meaning over time. I was also pausing to read the SparkNotes after every three chapters, mostly to savor what I’d read since it was all pretty clear despite my lack of familiarity with the life of an aristocratic young woman in England in the early nineteenth century. Emma was a breeze compared to the embedded humor in Lolita or, lord have mercy, the complexities of Under the Volcano.

Anyhow, I really started to wonder how long this glacially paced story was going to be. Later at a Barnes & Noble bookstore I used the time-honored method of gauging the thickness of different Austen books which had similar formatting. Sure enough, Emma was much thicker than the rest. Online I find Emma is about 158,000 words, with only Mansfield Park coming in higher at 160,000. Sense and Sensibility has 119,000 while Pride and Prejudice is svelte at 83,000 words, and I suspect that its length assists the latters’ popularity.

I finally finished Emma and don’t regret that I read it, but I’m not inclined to sit and read through more of dear old Aunt Jane, although I might watch some of the recommended movie adaptations of her work.

Cleansing the Palate: Nora Ephron and SciFi

Nora and her neck

After the close and confined world of Emma, both geographically and culturally, I was ready for a change. Nora Ephron, the writer of one of my favorite movies, When Harry Met Sally, had just died. Obituaries mentioned one of her recent books, I Feel Bad About My Neck. I sampled it on my Kindle and enjoyed it enough to buy the thin volume, although who can really tell on an e-Reader? The essays were quick and funny, a relief after the slow pace of Emma.

An Honored Classic

I decided to advance further in time by returning to Isaac Asimov’s crystal clear galactic prose. I’d re-read the original Foundation trilogy at the start of the summer, so now I re-read the two sequels. I remember being astonished to see Foundation’s Edge in the old Henry Higgins bookstore at the Windor Hills shopping center when I was in high school. After over 30 years, Asimov was taking up the Foundation saga again? Oh boy!

I still liked Foundation’s Edge, although it is weaker than the original trilogy, and the later Foundation & Earth was always too contrived for me and still annoys with its endless revisiting of the question over whether or not the choice of a Galactic Gaia over a Second Empire was the right one. After those books, I was not at all tempted to re-read the weak very late Asimov Foundation prequels nor those by Benford, Bear, and Brin.

Old-Fashioned Asimov

Instead, I chose to re-read, for the first time in decades, Asimov’s very early Empire novel The Stars, Like Dust. It was fun to see echoes of the pulpy bombast one finds in E.E. “Doc” Smith‘s now very dated tales popping up in that early Asimov work. And I will point out that even though I own all of the Asimov science fiction novels as paperback or hardback books, I downloaded and read them on the Kindle because I like its portability and font size control so much.

The book is NOT atrocious

After soaking in old Asimov tales for awhile I was ready for something new. I saw reviewer praise for Charles Stross’s new The Apocalypse Codex, and I had loved Saturn’s Children, his tribute to Heinlein’s late career novel Friday, and also enjoyed his Eschaton novels. But Codex is the fourth novel in his Laundry Files series, so I started at the beginning with The Atrocity Archives, which is a novel and novella in one volume. That was a wild ride, one which I could enjoy the better since this year I’ve read for the first time many of H.P. Lovecraft’s tales. The Laundry Files books mix science fiction and horror, being set in a world where mathematics and the many-worlds model in quantum theory lead to phenomena commonly misinterpreted as witchcraft and demonology. I thoroughly enjoyed the first volume and will read the rest, but for me a little bit of horror goes a long way.

The Woman in White

This isn’t Dickens

I was ready to shift genres and read something old that would be new to me. I came across a couple of mentions of The Woman in White by Charles Dickens’ friend Wilkie Collins, as an example of an early fine mystery and “sensation novel”, so I downloaded and read it next; another freebie out of copyright!

I generally don’t like epistolary novels, but The Woman in White uses many different unreliable narrators, which made it far more interesting. The main villain is a memorable character, vividly brought to life, and there is a fairly strong female character who contrasts well to her milquetoast companions. I think the protagonist was foolish to not pursue her over her sister, but who can explain love?

I liked this passage:

So the ghostly figure which has haunted these pages, as it haunted my life, goes down into the impenetrable gloom. Like a shadow she first came to me in the loneliness of the night. Like a shadow she passes away in the loneliness of the dead.

Which brought to my mind the epitaph of the great astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler. We know what he wrote, although his grave was lost in war:

Mensus eram coelos, nunc terrae metior umbras: mens coelestis erat, corporis umbra jacet.

“I measured the skies, now I measure the shadows; sky-bound was the mind, earth-bound the body rests.”

I enjoyed the book enough that I’ll put Collins’s The Moonstone on my reading list, but I think I’ll head back to the future for my next read.

 
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Posted by on August 3, 2012 in books, movie

 

Titillating Titles

When I was an undergraduate at OU in the 1980s I sought out the campus film series so I could see some of the greatest films ever made. This was before DVDs, and VCRs were still expensive and the selection of VHS tapes at the local video stores was sketchy. Even when I found a good tape, I’d be watching it on my 19″ CRT television at an effective resolution of 333×480. So watching a pristine 16mm or 35mm print on a huge screen in one of the big lecture halls was a real treat.

It was in that setting that I saw for the first time what critics laud as two of the greatest films ever made: Welles’ Citizen Kane and Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Both feature music by Bernard Herrmann and Vertigo has a Saul Bass title sequence to die for. Be sure to watch it in full screen at the highest resolution available.

You really can’t grasp the power of this any more. Even the Blu-Ray version on a big HD television won’t give you the sensation I had watching that for the first time on a wall-sized screen in a huge auditorium. That sucker swallowed scores of people around me. We drowned in its depths.

Bass had seen Lissajous figures in a math book years before and he realized that putting those spirals into motion could symbolize the vertigo of the protagonist and the abyss awaiting him. I’d seen such figures animated before, not on a movie screen, but on an oscilloscope. Back in 1958 John Whitney devised a sine wave pendulum to etch such figures into glass and collaborated with Bass to produce the mechanical animations for Vertigo. After seeing the movie I went home and began programming trig functions in BASIC, eager to try to produce similar animations on my Tandy 2000 home computer.

Saul Bass is probably the most famous title designer of all, having worked repeatedly for some of the best directors, such as Hitchock, Preminger, and Scorsese. Here’s a neat quick look at many of his efforts. Be sure you click the options for HD and fullscreen.

And here’s a neat student animation project about Bass with Kraftwerk’s great early song “Ruckzuck” from the album they refuse to acknowledge these days.

When you think of memorable title sequences, I’m sure you think of James Bond films, most of them the work of Maurice Binder. It is hard to pick out my favorite, and some of them look rather dated, such as the neon make-up and laser images in A View to a Kill. But when I was a prepubescent boy I found those sequences terribly provocative. My eyes opened wide…and then hurriedly scanned the room to make sure my parents didn’t know what I was watching.

A movie many people disliked but which I found enjoyably disturbing was Frankenheimer’s 1996 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau with Marlon Brando at his most weird. I remember being drawn in by Thomas Cobb’s powerful title sequence. Again, you really need to see this on a big screen in full res.

Yes, that’s the same guy who did the scary titles for Se7en.

Title sequences can go awry, of course. I remember Mr. Jennings, my 7th grade math teacher, complaining to my class about the very long title sequence in 1978’s Superman with the big swooping letters. Well, at least you have John Williams’ score pounding away to relieve some of the monotony.

I had fun browsing through this list of great title sequences. As I peruse the list, I’d say their last pick is one of my first: the huge lips and great geeky song by Richard O’Brien from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

It’s simple, cheap, and memorable, focusing your attention on the song…once you get over the fear of being bitten!

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2011 in movie, video

 

A Bit of Darkness Brightens My Day

The 1960s were the Golden Age of children’s movie musicals with the likes of Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. All three were choreographed by Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood, who got their break into film when Dick Van Dyke, who had never trained as a dancer but had worked with them on an Andy Williams TV special, recommended them to Walt Disney for Mary Poppins.

Besides the choreographers and Van Dyke, Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang also have in common music and lyrics by brothers Robert and Richard Sherman. All three of these common elements are on full display in the justly famous Step in Time from Mary Poppins and the similar Me Old Bamboo from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

But my focus here is how a bit of darkness and melancholy makes the happy parts of a musical that much brighter. I love how Bert foreshadows the arrival of Mary Poppins:

Although not used in the Scary Mary parody, it would work there. And the bit about “what’s to happen all happened before” echoes the first line in Disney’s Peter Pan, “All this has happened before. And all this will happen again.” That line had a far more ominous meaning in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, something made clear, if only by the title, in this ominous video mashup.

Walt Disney’s favorite song from Poppins was the melancholy Feed the Birds, and he insisted on bringing character actress Jane Darwell, who had played Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, in from the old folks home to play the bird lady in what would be her final film role.

Think how much brighter Let’s Go Fly a Kite is because it is preceded by Feed the Birds. The sad song, based on one of the disparate tales in the original Mary Poppins books, provided Walt Disney and the Sherman brothers with the story arc needed to make the film not only successful but meaningful: Mary had come to teach not only the children, but also the parents, about the importance of family and charity.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has the cloying Hushabye Mountain to provide its melancholy note:

But this later film lacks the character development and meaningful story arc which makes Mary Poppins more successful and treasured. Its zany adventures don’t allow the characters to grow, and need I point out how the relationship between Potts and Scrumptious is pathetic when compared to the powerful love story of Captain Von Trapp and Maria in The Sound of Music?

Rodgers and Hammerstein knew the importance of melancholy, of course, and equipped The Sound of Music with Edelweiss:

But even cloyingly sad songs have power. Listen to Hushabye Mountain removed from its context as performed by jazz singer Stacey Kent:

Can you see how a bit of darkness brightens my day?

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2011 in movie, music

 

Old school scifi fans needs to see MOON

If you’re like me and loved 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, Space: 1999 and other old-school scifi, you need to see Moon. Take a break from the brainless popcorn films in the movieplexes and watch this homage to classic science fiction of the past.  Great plot and acting, superb visual design, and an interesting mix of old-style models with CGI, all done on a very low budget of $5 million – and every penny is there on the screen.  And its 89% on the Tomatometer tells me I’m not alone in this recommendation.  I didn’t know they made movies like this any more…and I’m so very glad they do!

At this writing you can catch Moon on the Netflix streaming service, Amazon Video on Demand, or rent the DVD or Blu-ray.

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2010 in movie

 

Not Your Father’s Star Trek

The new Star Trek movie seems to be a hit

The new Star Trek movie seems to be a hit

J.J. Abrams’ take on Star Trek appears to be a hit, easily outperforming all of the previous Trek features in opening weekend box office.  However, these days movies have a short life in theaters and rely heavily on foreign markets and rental sales.  We shall see how it fares overall later.  Paramount finally ponied up some real money for this film, and it appears to have been a wise investment.

I enjoyed the film quite a bit, although it had the frenetic pace, camerawork, and lens flare syndrome that makes for a better Bourne flick than meaningful scifi. The reimagined Battlestar Galactica had a shaky documentary style that worked well for it, but I wouldn’t want to see them go too far down that road for Star Trek.

(Caution – spoilers ahead.)

The standout actors for me were Bruce Greenwood as Pike, Karl Urban as McCoy, Anton Yelchin as Chekov, and Zoe Saldana as Uhura.  But Zachary Quinto as Spock and Chris Pine as Kirk also did admirably in roles made very difficult by the quite distinctive acting of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner.  I was less impressed by how they scripted Scotty and his odd sidekick, although Simon Pegg was enjoyable as an actor.  The villain, a vengeful Romulan miner played by Eric Bana, was weakened by a plot struggling to introduce so many characters and back stories and to explain away inconsistencies with over 40 years of previous Star Trek episodes.  I do fully embrace the approach of having an alternate timeline – I can think of no better way to resolve the canon issues that were stultifying the franchise after hundreds of episodes and ten films spread across four decades.

Regarding the Enterprise, they should have just used the outlines of the ship from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, since the minor design changes in the new film only detract slightly rather than enhance it.  The engine nacelles seem a bit silly in proportion and attachment to the hull.  But it is close enough to get a pass and clearly Abrams wanted a noticeably larger ship.  It is ironic, however, that the larger scale of the new Enterprise is dwarfed by the villain’s immense vessel.

The new engine room may be a better approximation of the realities of fusion reactors, but seemed more like a brewery redress than a starship interior.  The more industrial look is fine, but the rooms were too cavernous and my impression of the floors was they seemed more like concrete slabs than deck plates.  But I very much like the redesign of the secondary hull with its many more utilitarian shuttles – that is a design change that is long overdue.

Science-wise, the early explosion of the USS Kelvin with silence after someone was blown out of the hull was a nice bit of seldom-observed accuracy for Star Trek, as were the bumpy shuttle rides.  And I loved how the ship seemed to be far less able to “scan ahead” while in warp drive, better reflecting the problems of faster-than-light travel – more like a hyperspace jump than the “fast cruise” of previous outings.  The ship’s multiple weapons and faster firing pace is also more realistic, but oddly less satisfying than the old slower long-duration phasers and torpedoes.  Battlestar Galactica had a great take on weaponry that appears to have affected the Trek aesthetic, even though they haven’t given up on beam weapons.

I certainly think this reboot was a success, and look forward to more outings with this cast.  Abrams is on board to produce the next film, although he has not committed to directing it.

UPDATE:

Don’t miss the concept art Ryan Church created in his work on this film.

2/2011 UPDATE:

The film’s production designer Scott Chambliss later acknowledged the problems with the engine room, saying budget and time issues led them to use the brewery redress. However, I was amused that the set he disliked the most was the bar, which he found too stereotypical yet worked for this teetotaler just fine.

You can see a WONDERFUL series of presentations and interviews with a half-century of Star Trek production designers at the Art Directors Guild website, which hosted Star Trek: 45 Years of Designing the Future.

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2009 in movie

 
 
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