Sunday, December 20, 2009

Jason watches AVATAR in IMAX 3-D

And let me get this out of the way first. I enjoyed it, and from a technical and asthetic standpoint it vastly exceeds anything that came before. The look is breathtaking and the immersive 3-D is unlike anything you've seen before. More thoughts on the 3-D technology later.

Normally I avoid the opening night crowds, and especially the pre-opening midnight crowds, but I wanted to see it in IMAX and I'm spending the holidays in an IMAX-less world (Bellingham, WA and Anchorage, AK) so it was Midnight Thursday or wait until January. Well, the crowd was annoying as expected up until the opening shot (a POV of flying over a forest) and then everyone shut the hell up. I could swear the whole audience held their collective breath for two and a half hours, afraid to miss a thing. And for taming the multiplex rowdies, I give James Cameron a standing ovation.

Now let's get (unfortunately) to the story. Humans are on the planet searching for an arbitrary plot point mineral called Unobtainium for use as fuel (or for building a drill that can drill to the core of the earth, maybe that's in the sequel). The forests of Pandora are full of danger and 10 foot tall blue humanoids called Navi. The Avatar project is led by a scientist named Grace (Sigourney Weaver). They grow Navi/human hybrids that they can transfer human consciousness to (kinda like virtual reality, but the human body is asleep at the time). A crippled Marine joins the program (his twin brother was on the program but died, so they already have an Avatar that matches his DNA), goes native, and within 3 months becomes the baddest-ass Navi ever (apparently the working title was THE LAST SAMURAI DANCES WITH MEGA-SMURFS). So much of the plot is cliche and telegraphed well in advance. The villain is a cartoon in his militaristic brutality. I could go on...

But let me say again, I really liked it. It's only in the post-viewing analysis that I have to admit the plot sucked. In the moment, I was completely transfixed. And that brings me back to the 3-D technology. Back in my review of UP, I claimed I hadn't seen a movie that must be seen in 3-D. I knew AVATAR was coming when I wrote that, and I knew it might change my mind. And I'll give it pretty close to full marks for that. I'm sure it's much better in 3-D, in no small part because it detracts from the plot flaws, but also because the 3-D is so well done. I also said that the real future of 3-D is in getting rid of the glasses. I still stand by that, but I have some extra, pessimistic predictions about that. I mentioned Philips had worked on 3-D monitors that I've seen in action and are/will be amazing. Others are working on this, too. But here's my fear--they seem to be working on the home theater market, building a cinema screen with that technology is way too much (I might be wrong, I'm not that plugged in to the technology). Well, 3-D might rescue cinemas for a few years, and might be a lasting boon to the filmmaking industry, but within ten years we'll (and by "we" I mean people who have the means to drop a few thousand dollars on a giant HDTV today) will have to option to see the latest 3-D spectacle in the cinema with those annoying glasses or at home without them. And that will kill the cinemas. So thanks a lot, Mr. Cameron.

In the meantime, if this is the future of filmmaking then I'm eagerly awaiting a really good movie made with this technology.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Jason Watches A SERIOUS MAN

I've been to two Jewish film festivals this year, and this is the Jewiest movie I've seen in many years (way Jewier than INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, and that was the face of Jewish vengeance).

The Coen brothers might have made the opposite of every other movie they've made before, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlberg) is physics professor in the Minneapolis suburbs in 1967. His son is a stoner who owes pot money to the school bully. His wife wants a divorce so she can shack up with widower Sy Ableman. His brother is an obnoxious house guest with a gross sebaceous cyst that he's constantly draining. And Larry can't get any useful advice from any rabbi. Meanwhile one of his students is failing and bribes/threatens him for a passing grade (then claims a "cultural misunderstanding" because he's Korean). And here's where it becomes the opposite of a Coen brothers movie. He doesn't take the bribe, he doesn't demand anything from his wife, he's not greedy, he just tries to be an upstanding member of society--a serious man. Coen characters are always done in by greed, but for the first time they built a movie about a man who is done in by his lack of greed, his lack of self-interest.

Don't get me wrong, there's a ton of Coen-isms still in the movie. Odd characters, dark humor, and their new trademark, the abrupt, ambiguous ending. But it's like they self-consciously (and I believe the Coen brothers are two of the most self-conscious filmmakers working today) made a movie that counteracts all their previous anti-greed movies. And I don't know what to make of that. But at least I got to wallow in the delicious Jewiness for a couple of hours.


It's total throwback charm to see such a crudely stop-motion animated movie in these times of CGI galore. Wes Anderson has taken an interesting turn with this story of a fox (voiced by George Clooney) who through his cunning and guile steals from three of the meanest farmers who ever lived. And there's a pretty simple message there about being true to your animal nature--even if you've agreed to give up stealing to raise a family. Even if your antics result in the whole forest being threatened. Even if you're little and not very athletic. We're all different, and there's something really fantastic about that.

Wes Anderson has had an annoying habit of cobbling together a bunch of interesting scenes that don't make up a whole movie (worst offender, THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU). He suffers a little bit from that here, although I think using Roald Dahl's source material keeps him in check (confession, I haven't read the book so I don't know how faithfully he sticks to it). FANTASTIC MR FOX is probably close to the level of narrative focus in RUSHMORE or THE DARJEELING LIMITED, i.e., as focused as Wes Anderson ever gets.

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for a Laurel and Hardy Sunday

And even Santa Claus was there! Although...he looked and felt a lot like me in a Santa Suit and white hair paint. But enough about that, on to the movies.

LAUGHING GRAVY (1931): Laurel and Hardy are tenants in a run down apartment, along with their beloved dog Laughing Gravy. Too bad the landlord doesn't allow dogs. Hilarity ensues.

MAMA'S LITTLE PIRATES (1934): Our Gang finds pirate treasure, guarded by a Giant! Pretty funny adventure, and includes a female Buckwheat (apparently this was from a time when Hal Roach was messing with the audience by changing Buckwheat's gender and generating headlines).

Then an intermission, and the feature:

BABES IN TOYLAND (1934): Laurel and Hardy's Christmastime classic, which I confess I'd never seen before (even though it included a cameo by mean Santa Claus). Anyway, Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee live with their mother, the old lady who lives in the shoe, and their (I assume?) sister little Bo Peep. The three little pigs are their neighbors, etc. There's a glorious sense of silly, innocent fun in seeing all the nursery rhymes coming to life (including the cradle in the treetop, which always struck me as bizarre and a little sick). Little Bo Peep loves Tom-Tom the Piper's Son. Unfortunately, evil Silas Barnaby has his eye on Bo Peep, too, and he holds the mortgage to the Shoe. Evil hijinx ensue, and Stan and Ollie have to save the day multiple times. Lots of fun.

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum for some early Universal City

Just got back from a business trip to Germany last Friday. I was still badly jet-lagged, but I put in a full afternoon volunteering at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and then came back in the evening for this program.

Big thanks to Bob Birchard for presenting this program, who also did a brief slide show and book signing in the afternoon.

First up was BEHIND THE SCENES (1915): As it suggests, a behind-the-scenes look at work in Universal City. Includes scenes with a crowd that was there for the "official" opening of Universal Studios (it was actually something like the 4th opening, but the one that Universal still claims to this day).

HE MARRIED HER ANYHOW (1914): Okay, so I mentioned I was jet-lagged. Well, I slept through this one. Sucks, because apparently this was long-lost and only discovered recently. But I have no idea what happened in it.

Then an intermission and the feature presenation:

THE GOOSE WOMAN (1925): Louise Dresser stars as Marie de Nardi aka Mary Holmes aka The Goose Woman. In her youth, she was a famous and beloved opera singer. However, when her son was born she lost her voice. Missing the spotlight, she drowns her sorrows in alcohol, which makes her a pretty terrible mother to her now grown son (that and she doesn't hide the fact that she blames him for destroying her fame). But she sees an opportunity to get back in the spotlight when a murder occurs near her home and the police and the news converge on the neighborhood. She decides to become an important witness, but it turns out her story ends up implicating her son. Eventually (finally) maternal instincts do take over. A pretty wild melodrama.

And that was last Saturday in Niles.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum and sees The Great Nickelodeon Show

And it was such a packed event that I, as a volunteer at the Niles Film Museum, did not get my customary front row seat but in fact crowded onto the stairs in the back. And still, it was absolutely awesome!

The Edison Theatre at the Niles Film Museum (one of the rare theatres that plays silent films every week) was originally built in 1913 (and restored to a theater in 2004/2005), and last Saturday was a time machine back to those days. The films were hand-crankes (by our historian/projectionist David Kiehn, whose book makes a great Christmas present) and the whole affair was wrapped into an interactive Vaudeville show packed full of sing-alongs.

The first of those sing-alongs was the opening find-a-seat-and-park-it song, Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly (Kelly From The Emerald Isle. 1909). A recorded piece with accompanying pictures (all songs had accompanying pictures).

Once we were settled in with that, we were ready for Windsor McCay (Greg Tiede) and his fabulous "interactiv" cartoons LITTLE NEMO (thre king of dreamland) and GERTIE THE DINOSAUR. Simple line drawing animation, but made to be paired with a live Vaudeville patter, and Mr. Tiede did a great job, particularly with whipping Gertie into shape.

Then we saw the gorgeously hand-tinted print of THE GOLDEN BEETLE (1907): A magician creates a brightly colored flying man-bug who takes control.

And then WINTER STRAW RIDE (1906): A groups of ladies go on a ride through the snow, but are pelted by the boys with snowballs. Once their sleigh is stopped, they get out, join in, and get a touch of revenge.

Then some more singing while our projectionist took a break and prepared for his next act. "Hello, Hello New York Town" (1912) is a song about an aviator and his best girl who go all around the world but can't find anyplace better than NYC. Performed by Sean Sharp.

Then in "Oh, You Spearmint Kiddo With The Wrigley Eyes" Mr. Sharp was joined by Lori Leigh Gieleghem to sing about a girl who loved chewing gum. And then they passed out gum to the whole audience.

More movies: THE DANCING PIG (1907): a girl and her giant pig (man in a pig suit) did a few dances and freaked me the hell out.

THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903): The seminal movie, the first "story" film, and the big break that started our patron saint G M Anderson on his filmmaking career. Awesome!

Another song, "Take Me Out For A Joyride" (1909) sung by Miss Lori Leigh Giegelhem, about a girl who likes to go riding, no matter the risks.

Then the amazing, magnificent Sebastian Boswell III (Mr. Reed Kirk Rahlman) astounded, amazed, and shocked us all by hammering a four inch spike into his head! Sure enough, it went up his nose with a hammer, and back out with pliers, and a great patter and performance all along.

Then another film, SUSPENSE (1913): A man calls his wife to let her know he'll be home late. Meanwhile, the help quits leaving her defenseless and a prowler tries to break in. So she calls her husband, who has to steal a car and outrace the cops to save her. Whew!

And one last song, "At The Rag Time Ball": a husband and wife (Mr. Sharp and Miss Gieleghem) sing about how they'll wow 'em all at the Rag Time Ball.

And the grand finale, Georges Melies' classic A TRIP TO THE MOON played the way it was originally seen, with live narration. That narration was provided by the Barbary Coast Thespians (Miss Gieleghem, Mr. Rahlmann, Mr. Sharp, and Mr. Tiede), and was a mix of funny and informative (with a dig at conservatives). Lots of fun, but I was left wondering a bit how close it was to the original period narration.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Jason goes to Bad Movie Night and sees THE WIZARD OF OZ

Wait, what? Bad movie night?! Right, they did a month of "blasphemy," playing good movies while drunkenly ragging on them. And for Thanksgiving weekend they played the Thanksgiving classic WIZARD OF OZ.

It's the story of a stupid little girl who goes skipping through a magical land with a bunch of idiotic queers. We took a vote and determined that the Cowardly Lion is, in fact, the gayest (narrowly beating out the Tin Man). The moral is that you shouldn't seek adventure but learn to be happy in your gray, colorless, Kansas life (presumably marrying the boy next door and having a bunch of kids while never leaving town). Incidentally, that's the exact opposite of the series of books, where eventually Dorothy moves to Oz with her Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. Also, have you ever noticed when approaching the Wicked Witch's castle, the Scarecrow is holding a gun? (FYI, Speilberg has bought the rights to the movie so he can digitally replace it with a walkie-talkie).

Oh yeah, and what sort of retarded city planner builds a road that ends in a fucking spiral? What the hell, this movie does suck!