Archive for category journal

memes, whatever

The What is Your Spirit Animal Test from OkCupid.

Your spirit animal is: The Wolf

Your spirit animal has a Nobility ranking of 12 out of 18.

Your spirit animal is the wolf. It is a ferocious companion, and a loyal friend. It is both a respectable and noble creature; to have this spirit animal says good things about you, and that you are starting to figure things out. Wolves are rare spirit animals.

How you compared to other people your age and gender:

You scored higher than 99% on Nobility

Ehh, okay. Not very deep, but at least it feels like I got a cool one.

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Random art

I made this up as a doodle, basically (well, for drawing practice, I might better say). Afterward I started to think that the guy’s face looked like Alan Alda, which amused me.

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Click for full-resolution image.

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Summer 2006 photos

Took some pictures on a vacation trip with friends, first in Seattle then in Lincoln City, OR.

And here they are.

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comic page

I haven’t done any pen and ink drawing for six months. It’s good to let the field lie fallow for a time. Anyway, having started to doodle and sketch again lately, I drew this page as a warm-up exercise.

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psiborg_001.gif

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movie reviews

Warning: Major plot spoilers for both.


FIREWALL (2006)

Directed by Richard Loncraine. Starring Harrison Ford, Virginia Madsen, and that blond guy from A Beautiful Mind.

I mainly went to see this movie because of the relaxed way Harrison Ford promoted it on The Daily Show. “It's a pretty good movie,” he said with a half-shrug. “And I hope a few people go to see it.”

Well, I dunno. There's ways in which it's pretty good, and there's ways in which it feels like reheated bits from other movies. It's uneven, it's cliched, it's confusing, you can feel the screenwriter straining to pack everything in, you have characters that don't act anything like normal people, and it kind of takes a long time before getting to the obvious conclusion. The old mano-a-mano fistfight between the good guy and the bad guy, and then the daddy hero saves his wife, daughter, son, and the little dog, too.

One thing is that Harrison Ford is a treat to watch every frame he's onscreen. Whatever it is that movie stars have, he still has. Everything is pretty hokey around him, but he delivers this shit like he means it, and somehow an illusion is sustained only so long as he's around. As soon as we cut to somebody else, questions like “wtf” start floating through our minds, and with good reason.

At some point during the final third of the movie, I started to wonder whether I was judging it too harshly because I was reading it wrong. I formed the theory that if I were around 12 years old, I'd find it very exciting, and none of the stuff that is preposterous or thinly drawn would bother me at all. It's more of a cartoon than a thriller, come to think of it. Maybe the filmmakers were aiming at kids, I think, rather generously. Then Harrison Ford beats a guy to death with a blender, leaving his face a frothy, bloody pulp. Hmm.

The picture has been compacted by the standard Hollywood compression algorithm. It is at times confusing, because they had to keep all of the set-pieces while jettisoning the connective tissue to minimize the length and pump up the pace. “Wait, why did they do that? What? Huh?” I said, more than once. Everyone acts very strange. House full of kidnappers with guns, and Mom is cooking eggs and bacon and Junior is playing with paints while acting very relaxed and friendly with these guys who just last night shoved him to the floor, handcuffed him, and taped his mouth shut. I'd expect a normal kid to retreat into kind of a fetal state of shock, but no, not this kid. Anyway, so there's this calm domestic scene going on, and then the phone rings, and the kid puts down his paints and goes over to the phone and picks it up to say hello. Then suddenly one of the guys tackles him to the floor and beats his head, and another good pulls out his machine gun and points it at the mother, and backhands her across the room, and another gun is pointed at the daughter's head, and it's suddenly bedlam, and I'm thinking there has to be a scene we missed where they warned the family “If anybody answers the phone we will go ape shit”. This is not the most confusing part of the movie, but it's the one that sticks in my mind right now. I was more confused later on when they seemed to be suggesting that the Best Friend character was an inside man on the job, betraying our hero. Not that cliche again! Except it wasn't. What was it? There's some exposition later that tries to explain all of it, but it — I dunno. As long as you're cutting bits out of the movie, maybe you should cut the ones that don't make any sense, instead of cutting ones that help the movie make more sense.

The movie had quite a lot of blatant product placement. “Here are our secure servers for our multimillion-dollar bank,” he says, standing in front of a big slick looking movie computer with a silver DELL logo carefully framed behind him. At one point, Ford announces that he needs “my daughter's mp3 player to use as a hard drive” as part of the bank heist plot. (The bad guys are making him do the dirty work for them.) Earlier in the movie, one of the bad guys was seen listening to a portable music player with suspiciously white earphones, but he was holding the player sideways to the camera so that you couldn't actually tell what brand of player it was. Uh huh. So I thought they were going to lengths to suggest that there were iPods in the world of the movie without actually showing one. Except then he wakes his daughter up and says, “Honey, I need your iPod.” Yes, and the bank heist itself, the crux of the plot, is pulled off with the aid of a pink iPod Mini. Hmmm.

The musical score sounds like the producers said, “We can't afford Danny Elfman. Can we get a cheap knockoff guy instead?” That's really the only comment I have about it. I kept thinking I was hearing loops from the score for HULK.

The computers the characters use in the movies actually sport slightly more realistic computer interfaces than the average computer does in a Hollywood thriller. The dialogue about computers is not much better. You can tell A) The filmmakers are hoping the audience is largely computer illiterate and doesn't know the difference if it sounds plausibly jargony and B) They don't know any better, either.

The scheme the bad guys employ is pretty ridiculous. The scheme the screenwriter employs to allow the hero to save the day is even more ridiculous. The bad guy, who has been tailing Ford everywhere and watching him like a hawk and planting bugs on him and never letting him out of his sight decides to stand outside at the crucial moment when Ford is transferring funds, allowing our hero to pull a fast one that will later give him the advantage. It relies on the brutal sociopathic kidnappers taking the family dog along with them to their secure hideout. You know, the dog that pops up in the first scene so they can say “Hey, remember to fit that new GPS collar on Fido” about. HINT HINT. This is the same scene where Junior says “Hey dad, look, my radio controlled car makes every television and computer monitor in the house go fuzzy.” Actually, Dad explains that to Junior, but not before asking his wife what she, a prominent architect and career mom, is going to do that day while he, a prominent bank security expert, goes to the big meeting about the merger that is crucial to the plot. Junior has one of those allergies to peanuts that is life-threatening. The bad guys threaten his life with it. Creeeeak. Rattttchet. Clannkkkk. Creeaakkk.

The movie is stocked with some nice character actors who are pleasant to see. There's Virginia Madsen and Robert Forster, both of whom are now working again in A-List pictures after having their careers revived by attention-getting turns in independent pictures. There's Robert Patrick, whom I'm starting to realize I always enjoy seeing. He's a workhorse, but he does good work. And Alan Arkin! It's always nice to see Alan Arkin. I wish he had more to do, but there's no room. There's also a young actress, Mary Lynn Rajskub, who plays Harrison Ford's secretary. She starts out as a midly comic side character, but grows into a role of more importance as the movie goes on. I was rooting for her as much as for Ford. They have a lot of good scenes together.

She has a slight subplot that kind of gets lost, about a coworker that has a big crush on her. This would-be-suitor's cellphone becomes important to the main plot, and Harrison Ford makes her go get it from him. She bursts in on him while he's playing bass in a Christian rock band, which I found hilarious. Since it's completely incidental where they find this guy, and it's only a 20 second scene, it could have been anything. But no, he's rocking out on his Rickenbacker while a robed chorus shouts Yay Jesus Wheooo! I guess you had to be there. Except if you were there, then you'd be seeing the rest of this movie, which you can tell I'm not necessarily recommending.

GRADE: C+



MATCH POINT (2005)

Written and Directed by Woody Allen. Starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, and Brian Cox.

Roger Ebert says in his review that this is Woody Allen's best film since Crimes and Misdemeanors (1987), which is arguably true; it's also true that it's quite nearly the same movie, which might explain it. Or, half the movie. Crimes and Misdemeanors is one of my favorite Allen films; when Turner Classic Movies was promoting their showing of it a year ago, they said “We consider it his masterpiece”, and I'm inclined to agree. This new film, Match Point, which I've been hearing about for a full eight months, is a re-exploration of the Martin Landau half of the earlier movie, without the leavening of the humorous second half. It recasts the story in a different setting with younger characters, and it spends more time on the build-up to the monstrous act and less time on the consequent guilt, but it's the same story. What to do with the Other Woman when you're tired of the affair but she becomes problematic?

I wasn't aware that this was how the film was going to go for most of it, then when I realized it was, I wondered whether it was going to do anything different. It didn't, really. In both films, the character waits for punishment from God, for some retribution by fate, something that will give morality to a cold and unethical universe, but no strike comes. Once the character learns to suppress the guilt, he can get on with his seemingly blessed life. In Match Point, this comes down to a sense of “luck”, repeated in metaphorical and literal terms throughout the movie.

I started thinking about all of the Woody Allen movies that have a plot about getting rid of a partner you're tired of. Sometimes you just ditch them by hopping on a plane and leaving them stranded, as in Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Or maybe you actually kill them. There's also Bullets Over Broadway (1994), although that was about killing someone who stood in the way of one's art, but it was about how the artist may or may not have a moral responsibility to protect his art at all costs. There was Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), but that was more about trying to determine if the neighbor next door had a very dark secret. There was the “getting rid of the troublesome, harping mother” in his segment of New York Stories (1989). I guess Allen's movies are mainly about two things, summed up by one of his own titles: LOVE AND DEATH.

If I'd never seen Crimes and Misdemeanors, this film would have been far more intriguing; instead, I started studying it more than getting carried along by it. Here's an artist taking another go at a theme that obviously intrigues him a great deal. Certainly Allen has told stories of interweaving relationships, people trading partners, and people being adulterous many times before; no doubt this reflects something of his own experiences in life. This motif that appears in his movies of deep sixing the troublesome element in one's life haunted my sleep last night. I now like to think that Woody Allen has actually killed somebody and gotten away with it; it's the romantic in me.

GRADE: A-

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movie reviews strike again

More movie reviews. Many spoilers, especially for SPIDER-MAN 2.

TROY
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

The first trailers for TROY came out last December. I remember rolling my eyes and then quipping, “The face that launched a thousand CGI ships.” I then spent the months leading up to the release of it expecting it to be sad and terrible, and intending to ignore it when it came out. Then when it finally did come out, I found myself in the mood to watch something silly (even if unintentionally silly), so I went to see it anyway, not expecting much. I was thoroughly surprised to find, twenty minutes into it, that I was enjoying it. I was even more surprised when I was still enjoying it two hours later when it finally ended. You have to understand that I am not a student of the classics, and I didn't care how much the movie deviated from the epic poem that was its inspiration (the credits do say “inspired by” rather than “based on” The Iliad). I just thought: Okay, filmmakers, show me a movie, tell me a story, and make it fun. It seemed to me that they succeeded.

Most reviews I read (after I saw it) were negative, and sort of confirmed my initial dread, and I guess they make valid points. However, they fail to explain why I liked it. I'm not sure myself, now that it's several months later, but I'm going to try to remember what I liked about it.

The first thing that comes to mind is Eric Bana's performance as Hector. Yet another Australian import, I never heard of him before he appeared as Bruce Banner in HULK last year, giving a pretty good performance. In TROY, he again gives a good performance, and I actually found the role to be well written. Hector had the unusual trait of always talking sense in every scene, in a movie full of characters acting on stupid impulse and superstitious faith. It's a sad story full of good guys getting killed, and if anyone had bothered to listen to Hector at any stage, things would probably have gone a bit better. They don't listen, and events pile up, and eventually Hector is forced into the position of dueling Achilles, the greatest warrior ever, in hand to hand combat, something nobody usually survives for more than five seconds. Even knowing that he tried to stop things from coming to this point, honorable Hector bravely girds himself and tromps out to face his doom eye to eye. The whole movie is simplistic in a comic book way, but I don't mind that. (It's a bit weird to say that TROY is a comic book version of The Iliad when there is now a graphic novel adaptation of The Iliad that is full of richness and depth, but maybe the point still makes sense.)

So then we have Brad Pitt, who buffed himself up to the right proportions to portray a demigod killing machine, and plays the part with an affected accent and a straight face. It's a performance that works, even though I giggled a bit when he would occasionally stare meaningfully at the horizon, contemplating Fate and Destiny. Achilles functions as a force of nature. Once he's set in motion, you've got to brace yourself for the consequences, because reasoning with him isn't going to make any difference. In the opening scenes of the movie, Achilles is trotted to show just what a badass he is, with his flying jump-and-skewer move, which looks a lot like the kind of super attack move you can get out of a Mortal Combat character by hitting the right buttons. When he eventually battles Hector, he refrains from using this move until he finally gets frustrated with Hector's ability to avoid dying. Then he uses his super flying skewer attack, and Hector blocks it. Hooray for Hector! There's some more tussling, and he tries it again, and Hector blocks it again. Achilles finally just has to wear him down the hard way before finishing him off. I guess I mention all this because it was fun to see that the choreography of this battle (which the movie builds up to for quite a long time) had been plotted out as a mini-story with intelligence and some amount of wit.

Two of the stars of Lord of the Rings are reunited here, Orlando Bloom and Sean Bean. Orlando Bloom plays Paris, who is not only a stupid kid who causes an entire war because he can't keep his sweaty little hands to himself, but who is later revealed to be a coward who crawls away from a fight on his hands and knees, clutching his brother Hector's legs and begging Hector to save him. Bloom is kind of a big matinee idol type star these days, and I admired him for playing a part that required him to be unheroic and snivelling. A lot of actors would have an ego problem about such a scene. Sean Bean plays Ulysses, another character in the movie who tends to talk a lot of common sense. Hector sees everything as too dire to have any sense of humor about it, whereas Ulysses offers his counsel with a bit of sparkle, a suggestion of seen-it-all sarcasm.

Most of the reviews I read, even if they didn't like the movie overall, seemed to like Peter O'Toole as Priam. I agree, his presence does add something. Old pro that he is, he can somehow invest his scenes with emotional straightforwardness and depth while still seeming to preserve the sense that this movie is all just in good fun, and not to be taken too seriously. I'm not quite sure how he does that.

One quibble I had that I couldn't quite erase from my mind was that the movie keeps mentioning explicitly that this war is going to be the greatest war ever fought, and that memories of it and the participants in it will last forever. Then we see it unfold, and somehow the entire Trojan War seems to take only about three and a half days. Well, they do elide over a 12 day truce for Priam to mourn Hector, but that still only makes it a little over two weeks. It doesn't quite feel like the most epic battle ever. On the other hand, I did like all of the battle scenes in the movie. CGI-enhanced though they may have been, they were presented with a clarity that I found helpful. Even with the screen full of crazy montages of noise and blood and sand and sword, I could always tell which army was which, which direction they were headed, who was making and who was losing ground, and so on. This is not an easy thing to do, which is why I admired the accomplishment.

The cinematography suits the movie quite well. The sun always looks baking hot on the beaches, and everything is given just a subtle glossy enhancement that makes it feel like you're watching mythic events rather than real ones. There is one very nice sequence two thirds of the way through the picture, where a battle erupts just before dawn, with the sky black. Then, as it continues to unfold, the sky begins to brighten; the sun is not yet up, and we see the armies in the grey predawn light. The light grows, shot by shot, a little brighter and more colorful each time, until eventually the sun rises and full sunlight spills over the beaches. My mind boggles at the ridiculous amount of planning that is required to achieve this effect, which the average audience member isn't even going to notice. It definitely caught my attention, and I thought it was fantastic.

Anyway, even though I had a good time watching this movie, I am loath to actually recommend it to anyone else. People who do actually remember and admire The Iliad should probably steer clear, because they're just going to hate every difference in story and character, and there are hundreds of differences. For me, though, I thought that the story they ended up using, about a love affair sparking war between a mighty army and a walled city, with heroes and warriors on both sides that you could root for, told with earnestness and good humor and a little bit of (PG-13 rated) nudity and sex, made for a pretty entertaining movie.

VIEWED ON: 05-16-04, 06-01-04


SPIDER-MAN 2
Directed by Sam Raimi

I have been reminded several times recently (by Adam Cadre) of what I said after viewing the first SPIDER-MAN movie two years ago: that I wasn't sure that it was a good movie, but that I thought it was good Spider-Man. I can say without hesitation that SPIDER-MAN 2 is a good movie among good movies, and also that it is good Spider-Man; however, I would like to talk a bit about what I mean when I say good Spider-Man — or, specifically, what I meant the first time.

Adam recently explained why he thought the first movie failed to be good Spider-Man. I noticed that his argument against it was based on the writing, and that my positive reactions were largely based on the visuals, a distinction that readers of ACX might find amusing. His primary argument was that it didn't feature Spider-Man making wisecracks as he fought bad guys. He's right, it is a distinguishing feature of Spidey that he throws as many jokes as punches. I have been trying to picture whether the fight scenes could have accomodated a lot of jokes. They'd have to be cut to a different rhythm. It seems to me that it would have been possible, but I'm not sure that it's a bad compromise to let them slide. I didn't even notice their absence until Adam pointed it out. I am led to wonder whether there was ever a version of the script where Spider-Man kept up an ongoing banter during a fight, or whether they made the decision early on to keep his witticisms to a minimum.

A lot of what I was keying on was that the comic book visuals were right: all of his leggy, acrobatic poses; compositions cribbed directly from Ditko and Romita, and so forth. However, I don't think Adam was ignoring the visuals; he, like other reviewers, probably didn't think very much of Spidey suddenly becoming fakey looking CGI whenever he sprang into action. This didn't bother me so much; I wasn't looking for perfection, just that they were doing they best they could with the technology while stretching him into authentic poses. I also wasn't completely ignoring the writing, either, although I was thinking more broadly: the origin story was intact instead of being rewritten (including the wrestling match, which I did not expect), and Spider-Man was placed into predicaments that could only have crappy outcomes no matter what he tried to do. I remember particularly liking the Green Goblin shouting, “CHOOSE!” and simultaneously dropping Mary Jane and a carload of innocent people. (I also remember particularly disliking the notion that the Green Goblin was capable of holding up the cable car with one hand, but oh well.)

On to the sequel. Large promotional posters for SPIDER-MAN 2 appeared a few weeks before its release, one of which was emblazoned with the tagline, “THE STORY CONTINUES.” That kind of promotion gives me a bad feeling, because it usually is hype leading to a big let-down. How gratifying, therefore, that in this case it wasn't a load of b.s. SPIDER-MAN 2 unfolds as the meaty second part of a larger story about the troubled life of a young man who had greatness thrust upon him.

Spider-Man may be a hero, but Peter Parker is unfortunately a bit of a loser, with a Charlie Brown-like ability to always come up short. When the movie starts, he's got a crappy pizza delivery job that even his ability to swing through the city unencumbered by traffic doesn't allow him to keep. He's behind on rent for his ratty apartment, he's already spent the advance on his Daily Bugle paycheck, he's falling behind in his college studies, and he can't manage to keep the simplest of promises to people. Being Spider-Man doesn't help any of this, and in most cases, makes them worse. His best friend has a vendetta against Spider-Man, and the woman he loves has given up on him because of his unexplained absences. That's basically the set-up. Then his life really gets bad.

The CGI is a little better this time, and I must admit I found it particularly thrilling to see Spidey fighting Doctor Octopus on the big screen, watching static images from my childhood suddenly alive and in motion. I did have a little problem with Doc Ock shrugging off punches to his face, given that Spidey can put his fists through bricks. I suppose you could argue that he was pulling his punches because he didn't want to kill the guy, but you'd think when his life and Aunt May's are both at stake, he'd kind of at least incapacitate the bad guy.

I was particularly pleased with the sequence where Octavius puts on the octopus arms and fires up his machine, only to have everything go blooey. It's an incredibly dense sequence, full of exciting visuals and some impressive sound work. (In a theater with a good set of subwoofers, the machine makes some tingle-your-spine rumbles of the kind that I have always wished I could get in my movie, THE KRONE EXPERIMENT — which, incidentally, also has to do with a mad scientist using a giant machine with superfocused lasers to stimulate the creation of a dangerously powerful source of energy. Go figure.) I really like the extreme close up shot of Octavius's goggled eyes, one dark and one flaring with reflected light, as we hear him say, “The power of the sun — in the palm of my hand!” We don't see his mouth, so it functions as interior monologue, something that's standard in comics but trickier to do in a movie. (The line itself is also classic Stan Lee-type writing.) Immediately following this is a scene in a hospital that's done in classic horror movie style, all shadows reflections and movement, quick clips of screams and violence happening more in your mind than onscreen, making it all somehow scarier.

This scene unfortunately culminates in something so cliched I want to tear my own head off in despair. I would appreciate it if, never again in any motion picture or television show, even done ironically or for parodic value, will a character throw his head back and shout “Nooooooooo!!!” This is partly redeemed a minute later when Octavius uses his arms to toss aside a taxicab that's barreling straight at him. Throughout the movie, I loved Alfred Molina's body language, which really sold the idea that these mechanical arms were part of him.

Other problems I had with the movie, before going back to things I liked: The ridiculously rough treatment Doc Ock gives Peter Parker, that he would never survive if he weren't Spider-Man. Doc Ock needs to find Spider-Man, something only Parker can help with, so what does he do? He throws a car at Peter Parker. Then, after telling Parker to find Spider-Man in a couple of hours or else, Doc Ock throws him so hard against a wall that it collapses, burying him in rubble. Not a very smart course of action. This bothered me more the second time than the first, but it's going to bother me on all future viewings.

Back to the good stuff. Shortly after this, there's another battle that culminates in a terrific setpiece in which Spider-Man has to stop a runaway elevated train. They contrive to have him remove his mask for this sequence, but I endorse the idea, because it's the agony on Tobey Maguire's face that makes the scene especially work for me. It actually reminds me of my all-time favorite piece of Spider-Man writing, not from a comic book but from a Spider-Man novel written by Marv Wolfman. I don't remember anything else from this book except this one scene, but it really etched itself into my memory. A bad guy (probably also Doctor Octopus) has collapsed a building onto him. Buried alive under a mountain of bricks, he nearly gives up. Then his will to survive sparks anew, and there is an incredible description of the sheer fight and strain he makes to push himself up out of those suffocating tons of rubble. It's the willpower more than the spider-power that frees him. This movie really reminded me of that. There's a scene before this train sequence where Aunt May (who, in a departure from the comics, is a tough, experienced and resourceful lady instead of a feeble, naive, and weak-hearted one) tells Peter that a hero is someone who just hangs on one second longer. In a lesser movie, you'd get a flashback to Aunt May saying this as he's trying to stop the train, but of course it isn't needed. We remember it, he remembers it; he holds on, he saves everybody on the train. I love this scene.

Then after that, the scene continues in a way that's wonderful and surprising and that almost makes me want to cry. Exhausted by the effort, he collapses, only to have the people on the train gently, gently catch him and bear him up, and lay his nearly broken body down, and gaze tenderly at him, silently appreciating what he has just done for them. He still doesn't have his mask on, but nobody cares, nobody's going to call the Daily Bugle to get a reward; they just want to know that he's okay. Gosh, what a scene.

I feel like I've only described half the things that I found stimulating about this movie, but I guess I'll probably leave it at that. I caught one of these dodgy new VH-1 shows recently, the one where people pretend to be nostalgic about things that happened a month ago, and there was a segment exploring the inexplicable Summer 2004 phenomenon of “Sequels that don't suck.” One guy put it like this: “Shrek 2? Didn't suck. The Bourne Identity didn't suck. Spider-Man 2 *totally* didn't suck.”

I'd agree with that. This movie totally did not suck. Amazing.

VIEWED ON: 07-02-04, 07-05-04, 08-08-04


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more movies

Two more movie reviews. The second contains a number of spoilers, because I propose a theory about the movie and cite evidence in support of it.

LOCAL HERO (1983)
Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth

During a conversation about movies the other day, mentioned that his favorite is LOCAL HERO. It prompted me to think hard about why I had always given it a miss. I had many chances to see it on cable during the 1980s — I think it must have been a favorite of someone who worked at Cinemax, because I seem to recall them giving it lots of promotion as a special pick, or as part of their sleeper series, or something like that. It was also on in fairly heavy rotation for a while there, and I would catch bits of it here and there, but the pace of it seemed too slow, and I never managed to get into it. It was like having a book recommended to you, but every time you pick it up you read the same few pages over again and find yourself putting it down.

However, it occurred to me that I would probably enjoy it if I watched it now, with some more years in me and a broader appreciation of slower paced movies and quirky comedies. So, I rented it, and sure enough, I found it to be charming and funny.

The story is about a guy (Peter Riegert) who works at a Houston oil company that wants to turn a few miles of land on the coast of Scotland into the site of a refinery. Riegert is dispatched to the small village to work out a deal to buy the land from the locals for a handsome sum. The locals play it sly and cool, but secretly they're all ecstatic that they're going to become millionaires overnight.

Overall, LOCAL HERO reminds me a lot of other tiny-UK-village-with-eccentric- locals comedies I've seen (and enjoyed) through the years, like WAKING NED DIVINE and THE ENGLISHMAN WHO WENT UP A HILL AND CAME DOWN A MOUNTAIN, and so forth. This movie has the added mix of eccentric Americans (both Riegert and his astronomy-obsessed boss, played by Burt Lancaster), and strange bits of magical realism (hm, that's probably not the right term): sights in the skies at night, and a truly beautiful young woman who may or may not be a mermaid.

It's a small town, so everyone works various different jobs. The proprietor of the hotel and the owner of the bar is also the accountant who is the spokesman for the town in the negotiations with the oil company. I kept thinking the actor playing this guy looked familiar, and I had to slap myself in the forehead when I saw in the credits that he was good old Dennis Lawson, "Wedge" from the Star Wars movies (and Ewan MacGregor's uncle, incidentally).

The movie has a sweet, light tone, and is full of funny bits that build up over time, and some that become more apparent on repeat viewings. There is a bittersweet coda, but I thought it was a really terrific way to end the movie. We follow Riegert all the way home to his apartment in muggy old Houston. By now he's been thoroughly enchanted by his short stay in Scotland, has unrequitedly fallen in love with the hostess at the hotel, and has filled his pockets with shells lovingly collected from tidepools. Having now been on a few trips to wonderful places in the world and returned to a home I wasn't sure I liked as much any more, I thought this quiet ending was very effective. There's one more thing after this that caps it all off with a wink, but if you haven't seen it, I'll let you watch it for yourself.

LOCAL HERO is a movie where you can feel affection for every single character in it, and there are really no bad guys, and there's a happy ending but not for everybody, because life is a little more complicated than that. It's a bad place to be a rabbit with ambitions, anyway.

My only quibble: the unconvincing Texas accent by a disk jockey during the opening credits, which is more of a Southern twang than a Texas drawl. Nobody else would notice this or care.

Anybody who says that this is their favorite movie has very good taste. Recommended for everybody.

Viewed on: 08-02-04


THE TERMINAL (2004)
Directed by Steven Spielberg

The scenario: a man (Tom Hanks) arrives at JFK airport and is unable to leave, either by stepping foot onto U.S. soil or by boarding a plane back to the Eastern European country where he came from, for a year or so. This is vaguely based on a real-life incident, but mostly the facts are jettisoned in favor of inventive set-pieces that mine the premise for comedy (and a little pathos).

The first time I saw this sweet movie confection, I mainly just let it carry me along without stopping to analyze it too much. As I often am these days, I was delighted just to witness Spielberg's total fluency as a filmmaker, someone who knows cinema backwards and forwards, and can pull off ridiculously complicated things that general audiences wouldn't stop to find remarkable. He's my favorite director, and I always tended to regard him as having an innate talent and voice for filmmaking the way Mozart had with music. He was a young prodigy, but now he's well into middle age, still developing and going through changes. The strong stylistic tendencies of his early work have softened, and in this movie, like his last (CATCH ME IF YOU CAN), we can watch him having fun with lighthearted material.

Anyway, that was my general reaction the first time I watched it. I had a few problems with the way the movie ended; after a lot of build up, a lot of things happened a little too fast, and a main subplot seemed to kind of pizzle away. I wasn't sure what to make of that.

I waited several weeks and then went to see it again. This time, it was enormously more entertaining than it was the first time, because a few minutes into the movie I had a sudden and dramatic idea about what Spielberg and Hanks were up to. It was subtle enough that I missed it the first time, but once I started watching with this in mind, winking evidence to back it up piled so high that I was rather beside myself at having figured it out, because it made every scene more fun.

The idea came to me while I was watching the scene where Hanks is exploring the airport terminal for the first time, and catches a news broadcast about the upheaval in his home country — the source of his being stuck, since it invalidates his passport. For a moment I wondered why Hanks seemed to be almost overplaying the emotion of it. He races from television to television, unable to understand English well enough to make out what is going on, unable to speak English well enough to get anyone to help him. He looks stricken, nearly in tears, just so absolutely fraught that I wondered about the acting choice to play it up so melodramatically. There was a moment when it reminded me of silent film acting — which, owing to the language barrier, it basically was.

Then for fun, I pictured Hanks as having a little mustache and a derby, and it was like all of the tumblers clicked into place and the vault door sprang open. The movie was a Charlie Chaplin homage. Not, like I said, an overt one. If they'd put a mustache on him, it would have been obvious (or more obvious). And it doesn't cover the whole movie — the last 45 minutes or so don't really fit this theory so much. However, the first hour of the movie seemed rife with evidence that Spielberg and Hanks had decided together to make a Chaplin homage, Hanks with his acting, and Spielberg with his directing, and that they would do this very quietly, for their own amusement.

Once upon a time, Charlie Chaplin made a movie called THE IMMIGRANT, which was about immigrants coming to the U.S. and having run-ins with the immigration authority. And now we have THE TERMINAL (the title of the movie now seemed more appropriate, too, what with Chaplin having made dozens of movies titled “The [something]”), which has a different plot but a similar-enough premise.

So here's Hanks in his little brown suit, with his rather funny waddling walk. I didn't even notice how odd his gait was the first time, but now I was seeing that it was definitely not a normal looking walk. It's not the Tramp's walk, but it suggests it. There are shots in the movie of Hanks's feet, showing him standing with his feet splayed sideways — but I suspect I might be reading too much into that. However, there is the outright slapstick of full-bodied pratfalls, the kind you don't see anymore. where both feet fly out from under you and you land on your back. (Both Hanks's and Catherine Zeta-Jones's characters make these pratfalls.)

Significantly, Hanks shows himself adapting to circumstance by being enormously resourceful, a definite Little Tramp trait. In fact, speaking of that, what really had me believing that I was reading this movie correctly was that the first big challenge that Hanks's character overcomes is that he's hungry but has no money. Hunger is pretty much an archetypal Chaplin problem. Hanks doesn't eat his shoes, but he does show some ingenuity in fashioning sandwiches from free condiments. Then he hits on a means of earning money, a quarter at a time, by returning luggage trolleys to their holding rack, and soon he's feasting to his heart's content.

This trait of adaptability plays out in other ways. For Hanks, like Chaplin's Tramp, home is wherever you are, as long as you pretend it is. He begins to change an under-construction wing of the terminal into living quarters, fashioning a bed from terminal seating, a refrigerator from a vending machine, and so on.

More gags that reminded me of Chaplin: on his first night in his makeshift bed, Hanks is startled awake by a furious noise and the hot blare of spotlights behind him. His arms shoot into the air in a gesture of surrender. It turns out to be just an airplane taxiing away from the gate outside, a classic silent comedy visual gag. While collecting racks to earn change, he unceremoniously dumps onto the floor a couple of kids who are riding around in a cart. I laughed at that the first time, but the second time it reminded me of how children were not delicate creatures in slapstick comedies. They were tough little things to be thrown around, getting laughs just because of our inverted expectations about manhandling them. (When I mentioned this theory to a friend of mine, he pointed out that it was surprising to him to see children being treated so roughly in a Spielberg movie, so he was amused that I had a theory to explain the discrepancy.)

After a while, I started even hearing John Williams's tumpty-tumpty musical score as being reminiscent of the music Chaplin composed for his own films. At the very least, the score is not an argument against this theory. I am also reminded that the movie was shot, not in a real airport, but in an enormous set built specifically for the movie, with several stories connected by working escalators. There's a wonderful documentary about Chaplin (THE UNKNOWN CHAPLIN, narrated by James Mason) that delves into Chaplin's methods of working. At a certain point in his career, he wielded so much power and had access to so much money and resources, that he could make up his movies from scratch, trying things, throwing them away, trying other variations, going back to earlier ideas but in a refined way. At each of these stages, a construction crew would build full sets (including working escalators, if Chaplin wanted to play around with one), only to tear them down and build something else, only to rebuild what they had before when he changed his mind again. I don't think anyone since has had this kind of ability to order things to be built just to play around with, but the construction of this vast airport set just because Spielberg wanted to make this movie reminded me of that.

There is one joke near the end of the movie that is more of a Buster Keaton gag. A guy brandishing a mop runs out onto the tarmac, and appears to stop a jumbo jet in its tracks by swatting at its front wheel. Keaton had a gag he liked to pull (I don't think it's in any of his movies, I saw it in a documentary about him) where he appeared to stop a freight train by yanking gently on the end of the caboose, then set it in motion again, backwards, with a second tug. He did this by having experience with the timing of trains coming to a stop and backing up, and it was just in the timing. Even though this joke with the jet plane seems like the kind of thing they'd do with computer graphics, I can bet you that, in fact, we are watching an undoctored take of an actor with a mop and a real plane, and just the perfect timing of a swat at the wheel with the plane coming to rest. There's really no reason for this action to be in the movie except that Spielberg wanted to do it for fun. However, it's the kind of movie that allows for little bits of random fun.

When I got home from the movie this second time, I immediately did a Google search on “Spielberg The Terminal Chaplin,” and found a quote from Spielberg where he said that this movie was fun because it gave Tom Hanks an opportunity to do Charlie Chaplin stuff. I win!

If you go see THE TERMINAL, you might keep this in mind, but remember what I said about how it doesn't really hold up for the entire movie. I do think I'm right that it works as a quiet homage.

Viewed on: 06-18-04, 07-12-04

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