The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Power of Christ compels your hard drive!

Now I know that if you look at it in tasty pie chart form, the overlap between hard core computer users/gamers and Rapture-baiting Evangelicals makes for a pretty slender slice. Still, it ought to be enough to make this latest news interesting, because nothing raises a nasally hue-and-cry from the joystick set like burying spyware in something they want.

Snicker, if you dare, at this report from the front lines of the battle against the Prince of Lies. The makers of the Left Behind book and film series (aka revenge porn for the falsely pious) have released a video game where, post-Uplifting, you can play foot soldier in God's Rockin' Army back on Earth and plug a few non-believers. You know, like Grand Theft Auto, only instead of earning money and guns as a prize for your bloodlust, you get Eternal Communion With the Almighty. That a young Bruce Campbell and Josh Becker (pals of talented heathen Sam Raimi) already took the much more appropriate title Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except is a tragedy, or more likely, Satan's doing.

I especially like the bit about goat-footed demons emerging from UN peacekeeping vehicles. Fight the real enemy!

Of course, is anyone really surprised that the thing is lumped with monitoring software that feeds information about the user back to
Left Behind HQ? With a million copies set to be distributed through mega-churches right alongside the Body and Blood of Christ, it's the threat of Hell itself that will pressure True Believers into exposing their personal computers for inspection and meddling. Seriously, do you want to have to explain to the priest why you haven't killed at least 1,000 atheists this week?

And I'm sure once you've opened a clandestine pipe like that, there's
no way at all some enterprising hacker couldn't tap in and start arranging for a little tithe of their own. The Lord will provide a firewall.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Can't produce plays without checky!

My agent received a check today. This is not earth-shattering by itself – she’s a good agent and has a working stable of clients, so she hardly has to dust any equipment off when it comes time to deduct her ten percent and send a new check out the door to the lucky writer.

It’s just that today, the lucky writer is me.

It’s not the amount I’m over the moon about – once I’ve paid the necessary commissions and set aside a chunk for taxes, the cash in hand I’ll end up with won’t be much more than my last paycheck from that mystery job I haven’t told you about yet. It won’t shatter my debt picture and it won’t get me a fabulous new set of teeth.

But, purely conceptually, this is huge. I haven’t seen a paycheck from writing for the movie industry in something like two years. It’s not like I can go film whiskey ads in Japan when the work is slow. And if this project keeps moving forward – the director has moved mountains so far and looks to keep doing so – there’s bigger checks ahead. We’ll get excited about that later. But today, I got a boot up the ass from a thug named “Affirmation”, and it feels damned good.

It will feel better when the check actually arrives. Onward Postal Service,

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Thursday, June 22, 2006


Full review behind the jump


: John Lasseter, with co-director Joe Ranft
: Story by John Lasseter, Jorgen Klubien, and Joe Ranft, Screenplay by John Lasseter, Jorgen Klubien, Joe Ranft, Don Lake, Phil Lorin & Kiel Murray, and Dan Fogelman, with additional screenplay material by Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson, and Bonnie Hunt
: Darla K. Anderson
Featuring the Vocal Talents of
: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Dan Whitney (aka Larry the Cable Guy), Cheech Marin, Tony Shaloub, Guido Quaroni, Jenifer Lewis, Paul Dooley, Michael Wallis, George Carlin, Katherine Helmond, John Ratzenberger, Michael Keaton, Richard Petty

John Lasseter’s
Cars is an expansive and visually-inspiring love letter to road trips, tourist traps and the highways and natural landscapes of America. And it has the character of a road trip, too, passing through a changing countryside, following surprise tangents, embracing the unusual and unexpected, but never quite staying anywhere long enough to get to know it as well as you’d like. There’s always a new and inviting destination ahead, and always something receding in the rear view mirror you hope to re-visit with greater thoroughness someday.

Set against the unnaturally-high expectations that accompany any release from the animation wizards at Pixar (who know their reputation well enough to tweak it, stay through the end credits), it seems like a relaxed, rambling work, less ambitious in emotion even as it splays across its most broad and beautiful canvas yet. Although full of delights for all ages it tells a story filled with grown-up yearning, and a passionate argument for life at a lower velocity. The urgency of its story is quieter.

It’s lost none of Pixar’s delight in whimsical gags or fascination with how to anthropomorphize the inanimate. But there’s a final layer of detailing and tightening that seemingly was skipped – its characters are a bit simpler, their motives a bit easy and constrained. And the parallels between the human world and the all-automobile world created here are most often surface puns. We don’t get that glimpse into a convincing, organic alternate universe that we’ve come to expect, more often we end up asking what sentient cars would need to plow a field for (even if the tractors are a hilarious creation). These minor flaws are perhaps only noticeable because of Pixar’s unparalleled streak of excellence, and should not steer you away from a warm adventure story that deserves to be seen on the big screen for proper appreciation of its colors and vistas.

Our hero is Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), a race car eager for the life of fame and riches he was designed (bred? manufactured? The movie doesn’t address the tricky subject of automotive reproduction) to pursue. He’s arrogant, shallow, and has driven off his maintenance crew with his egomania, but he’s still on the brink of being the first rookie to ever win the coveted Piston Cup. In the point standings he’s in a dead heat with legendary champion “The King” (Richard Petty) and bitter life-time runner-up Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) – put those two down as characters I was hoping to learn a great deal more about.

But a twist of fate knocks him off course en route to a race in California, and he ends up stranded in the forgotten town of Radiator Springs. Once a rest haven for travelers along Route 66 – the “Cozy Cone” Motel, with rooms shaped like giant orange traffic cones, is a visual kiss blown to the iconic Wigwam Motel in Rialto – it was abandoned to dust and disrepair when the high speed interstate passed it by. Now a straggling band of eccentrics keep things running in the hopes they’ll be wanted again someday.

There’s Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), a spirited Porsche who left a fast-paced life in order to find some inner peace. And Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), a gruff vintage sport car with a secret – Newman’s 81-year-old voice indeed sounds like the rumbling of an old but powerful motor. And the buck-toothed tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), whose optimism duels for supremacy with his naïveté.

How does one make a tow truck “buck-toothed”? And what would a semi-truck look like while trying to keep itself awake on a freeway at night? (The answer to that question is: very funny.) Part of Pixar’s consistent charm is how it obsessively plays fair with the details – as if they choose their subject matter by gauging how geeked they are to learn everything about it. Because these autos must emote from forms that are designed to be rigid, the animators cannot go for the kind of down-to-the-smallest-moving-part accuracy that characterized, say, Finding Nemo. But they make up for it in the surroundings – the trees and canyons and towering desert rocks are barely a breath away from photorealistic. That breath is important to avoid clashing with the characters occupying it, I get the impression that the filmmakers now have the technology to go for nearly-indistinguishable authenticity, and must deliberately choose how close to come for maximum aesthetic appeal.

From that standpoint it’s hard to imagine Cars being much better. And as usual, every audience member will find side details to embrace – I was particularly partial to Guido (Guido Quaroni), the enthusiastic little sidekick at the tire store who dreams of performing a great “peet stop”. There’s a faint echo of the plight of the child prodigy in Lightning’s story – he’s got all the equipment he needs to be a champion, except for what he might learn from the normal life that was shed as excess weight. That doesn’t quite have the universal resonance to make for a truly overwhelming emotional experience, but that doesn’t seem to be Cars’s goal, anyway. It’s here to re-create for our appreciation the styles and ethos of a different era – an idealized version of one, sure, but that’s the reverential point of view that comes with age. You can’t pinpoint what was really good about what you had until it’s gone.

P.S. As is traditional with Pixar releases, the feature is preceded by an inventive animated short, in this case, the charming One Man Band, about a duel between gadget-laden street musicians.
It showcases both some rather ingenious instrumental contraptions and a lively score by Michael Giacchino which renders dialogue unnecessary.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - A Prairie Home Companion

Full review behind the jump

A Prairie Home Companion
: Robert Altman
: story by Garrison Keillor and Ken LaZebnik, screenplay by Garrison Keillor, based on his radio program
: Robert Altman, Wren Arthur, Joshua Astrachan, Tony Judge, David Levy
: Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, Lindsay Lohan, Maya Rudolph, Virginia Madsen, Marylouise Burke, L.Q. Jones, Tommy Lee Jones, and Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band

The newest film by Robert Altman – the last of the rebel directors of the 70’s still rebelling against anything – is a very good variety show about a very good variety show. Put less briefly, it depicts a fictional broadcast of
A Prairie Home Companion, the live radio program Garrison Keillor has produced and hosted for most of the past thirty years; which includes songs both funny and spiritual, jokes both opaque and profane, fake commercials for products like Powdermilk Biscuits (as always, to be found in the big blue box with the picture of the biscuit on the cover), reports from Keillor’s fictitious hometown Lake Woebegone and inspirational stories that may not have happened. This movie of A Prairie Home Companion depicts most of the above along with keenly observed character comedy, gentle pathos, pratfalls, regret, a death, fart humor, and an angel.

There’s additional narrative oomph provided – this is to be
Prairie’s final broadcast before its theatre is demolished by a Texas conglomerate. Loyal longtime cast members (real performers from the show are mixed seamlessly in with the actors) feel helpless in the face of this deadline, and hope it will be commemorated. But GK – Keillor plays himself, as no actor would really do – sees no point to it. He soldiers on as if it is just another show, and that next week there will be another.

There’s a willpower represented here, a way of commenting on all other things by focusing feverishly on this single thing. For all the ways it kids itself, and for all the ways Keillor makes himself the butt of the gag, what draws people into the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota is that he seems to be trying to imagine an America better than the one outside. One that embraces our heritage but with a sense of bemusement, that celebrates hard work but keeps a community spirit alive, that takes the best elements of spirituality but has no use for prejudice or intellectual laziness. And if he keeps his head down and keeps doing this funny and strange little show, maybe one day he’ll leave the theatre and find the world has moved towards him just a bit. Not that you’d ever catch him admitting he cares all that much. Trying to pin down his motives would be like trying to get a straight answer out of him about how he got into radio.

The movie – restricting itself to the theater’s environs and the diner across the street, makes the same commentary – it’s cold and frightening outside, but in here it’s cozy, at least until the demolition crew comes. As a bit of ebbing fire from a cinematic hellraiser in his autumn years, it presents an inviting, familial atmosphere even as Altman’s usual subversive muscles are at work below the surface.

We have a tour guide, of sorts: Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), a former private detective who now supervises “security” at the show, but spends most of his time devising new ways to torture metaphors. And we have some stars – the Johnson Sisters (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), a singing act with fewer sisters than it used to have, and the Trail Guides, Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), whose songs come around to lewd by way of cornball. Yolanda Johnson (Streep) has a daughter, Lola (Lindsay Lohan), who probably wishes someone would react more when she tells them she’s writing poems about suicide.

The actors are called upon to sing and play instruments and to not look out of place next to their professional counterpoints, and at this they are successful and at ease. They are also, in the tradition of Robert Altman films, required to layer dialogue, mix improvisation in and create a general atmosphere of spontaneity – Streep and Tomlin are particularly delightful in this regard, it seems almost unfathomable that this is Streep’s first Altman experience. It’s as if the sisters have spent so long making music together on-stage that they attempt to harmonize in conversation out of habit.

It is the prodigiousness of Streep’s talent, though, that exposes the movie’s chief miscalculation – the inclusion of a romantic subplot that involves Keillor. It requires more of him as an actor than he can provide, and it’s disconcerting to see the emoting of others disappear into him like a black hole. It might be a kind of extra triple-lindy backflip of commentary, pointing out how thoroughly out of his element he is outside his role as MC, but if so that’s one excess gesture I can’t come aboard with.

Like with any Altman smorgasbord there are moments to treasure just as there are moments that will puzzle or infuriate you. In a larger sense this movie is mourning something – maybe it’s saying that the outside world pushes so hard on us now that we can’t even have our little dream inside our little theater. Younger artists wouldn’t have made it this way – they would have looked for that happy surprise that saves the show and keeps this large, ecstatically-dysfunctional brood together. But where the movie chooses to end makes that thesis harder to nail down.

I said there’s a death in the course of the movie – watch how the major characters each make the best of it in their own way. Things end, even lives, but life itself continues. If that’s the message, then what a sweet sentiment from a couple of old rebels.

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

My one-day career as a liar and trespasser*

Full post behind the jump

Those of you keeping up with current events in The Theory of Chaos know that I’ve cast a wide net lately seeking income. This has led to some miraculous surprises, like that treasure of a thumb-up-the-ass gig I wrote about a couple of days ago, as well as some real dignity gut-checks like that web link I clicked through that offered $50 an hour to dance around in a SpongeBob costume at birthday parties. Turns out I value my pride, and my shins, just a little bit more than that.

But I did get offered a freelance job taking pictures for a travel website, which sounds all exciting and right up my alley at first, until the gory details start coming. I won’t identify the site, but they purport to collect reviews of hotels and other travel facilities from “authentic” vacationers. The job profile is – they send me a list of local hotels. I hop in my car with my Google Maps printouts, find them, and take digital pictures of the exterior, the lobby, the pool, the bar, and even a room if I can finagle my way in and want some bonus cash. They pay me and match the pictures with their reviews, wherever
they come from.

The pay is pretty pitiful and they don’t reimburse gas money, which eats up too large a chunk these days for my tastes, but since they didn’t want any higher quality than the kind of point-and-shoot stuff you might see from an average Ma and Pa Minivan, I figured I could string enough together in a close radius to shake out at a decent hourly wage.

I sent them some links to sample pictures of mine and they offered me a list of five hotels. I won’t identify them, either, except to say that all of them are in the area of a certain mouse-infested theme park/tourist dollar black hole.

My contact with the website actually instructed me to not mention my real purpose at all; if challenged, I was to say I was checking the place out for a friend planning a vacation.

Here’s what makes most people bad at lying –
I’m not talking about your true politician or Hollywood producer or sociopath, who can look you in the face and say the sky is pink and full of polka dots and you’re damned if you don’t have to double-check to be sure – I’m talking about ordinary people whose consciences aren’t in a vegetative state. The problem is, if you truly prepare a lie – a good lie with supporting details, little bits of color to make it feel more organic – you can get so nervous that you use too much too fast. People can catch on to the sudden and unnatural thoroughness with which you’re sharing. And that’s when one simple question can crush your whole game, because you’ve committed too much to be able to adjust on the fly. And soon all you can do is pray that they won’t openly call BS on you and you can pretend you escaped with some shred of integrity.

I don’t like lying. Never have. That’s not to say I don’t do it – I’ve made Baby Jesus cry thousands of times, Jimmy – but I hate what’s almost always the weakness that leads me to it, and try my best to use the truth even if it’s going to cost me.

I set out for this job, basically, hoping that I’m going to be lying as little as possible.

The first hotel is a breeze – I get all the angles and even sneak a shot of a room open for housekeeping. All the manager in the lobby asks is that I tell my “friend” they’re remodeling and those wires won’t be exposed for much longer. I was clumsy with my alibi there, but he let it slide.

When I get to the second hotel I think I’m on top of this, I’m a smooth operator. I even find a little back street not 10 minutes’ walk from The Happiest $10 Parking Lot on Earth that has unrestricted free parking all day until 9pm. Definitely worth a mental note.

But when I step into the lobby it all comes apart. The woman behind the counter, cinched tight into a black blazer, is immediately suspicious, and my cover story comes out all mush-mouth. She lays down the law – no lobby pictures, hell, no exterior pictures allowed. I’m not sure by what authority she’s convinced she can bar me from taking photos from the street, so I go back outside and snap away.

This is what I really don’t like – how quickly I’m set into a confrontational relationship with a woman who was essentially right in sniffing out that I was up to shady business. I find myself creeping around the side of the building, remembering “they wanted a shot of the parking area if it was underground!

I get that shot, check a card-locked door to the main elevators, and then head for the exits. As I’m doing so, the door from the lobby opens and there’s the woman again. I blubber something useless about wanting to check the garage for my friend and she just skips the pleasantries and makes with the “Sir, you need to leave NOW.

As she repeats herself, louder each time, I slink away, feeling slimy.

On a pure id level I feel very wronged by this woman, because I meant her and her facility no harm. It takes me only seconds to develop a persecution complex and imagine her raining uniformed men down on me, and I mean, come on, isn’t that just a hell of an overreaction to a guy walking around with his Kodak out?

But that’s the damned thing – she was right. By the immediacy of her answer it was clear she’d been in this situation before, and for whatever reason, her superiors have given her Instructions on How to Deal With the Likes of Me.

At the third hotel I refine my approach. I save the lobby for last, and meander innocently around the grounds without being challenged. I always hesitate at the pool, because it’s hot out and people are enjoying it, and they didn’t volunteer to have their faces on the web. Or their white and round bellies, for that matter. I try to time my pictures so as many heads are obscured or turned away as possible.

This time I follow up on a bit of inspiration I had while trying to bamboozle the last woman. I keep my camera packed when I enter the lobby, and just peruse the place, looking at brochures. When the desk clerk finally asks if I need help, I ask if there’s a brochure specifically for this hotel – you know, with a phone number and a web address and everything? And then, as I take it and gratefully page through it, I conversationally share the broad strokes of my little yarn about an old friend bringing her family out to go to The Park. The one I don’t have to name, because its mascot is in giant statue form right there next to the front door. Only then do I ask, as non-threateningly as possible, if they’re comfortable with me snapping the lobby – just so I can show my friend I checked the place out personally, you see.

None of them sees a problem with this. Score. Three tries and I’m a fully-evolved lying machine.

The fourth hotel is just as easy – I even get a shot of the breakfast room and the two young female desk clerks titter proudly when I tell them what an adorable little establishment this is. Truth be told it’s on the garish side, but you know…flies…honey…that whole bit.

By the last one I’ve become so comfortably tentative in my reach for the camera that it inspires a whole conversation. Why, these folks wonder, would a hotel have a problem with people taking pictures? It’s not like they don’t already have pictures on-line, after all! And suddenly, by means of responding, I share the edited-to-protect-the-alibi version of my encounter with the woman in the black blazer. And my new friends sigh in sympathy, because what horrible thing could anyone think a poor boy like me would do?

I think that was the moment that burned my gut worst of all.

So even though the job was fast, and not really that hard even with my one strikeout, I decided I’m hanging up my professional lens. I can’t even stalkerazzi buildings without feeling like a heel. I’m seeking something in the coming days, an opportunity to make a little Karmic Debt Payment. I don’t know that it has to be much, because this website really doesn’t pay that well.

(*If anyone thinks there’s something to prosecute me over anywhere in this…then…um…I made it all up. And you’ll never take me alive.)

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MOVIE REVIEW - The Proposition

Full review behind the jump

The Proposition
: John Hillcoat
: Nick Cave
: Chris Brown, Chiara Menage, Jackie O’Sullivan, Cat Villiers
: Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Richard Wilson, Emily Watson, David Wenham, John Hurt, Robert Morgan

The older brother (Danny Huston) loves his younger brothers, and is murderously insane. The youngest brother (Richard Wilson) loves his older brothers, and is too simple to cope with the world away from their protection. The middle brother (Guy Pearce) loves them both, and may have to choose which of them lives or dies. That’s the fiendish dilemma at the heart of
The Proposition, a bleak, bloody and captivating film that transports the trappings and themes of the Spaghetti Western Epic to the Australian Outback of the 19th Century.

Like Peter Weir’s
Picnic at Hanging Rock, it recognizes something awesome in the wild landscapes of the Outback. It sees the stones and trees as having a menacing wisdom, a memory of an Earth born not from love but from fire. The pulsing echo of that memory, it seems, can sink under the skin of men, and push them beyond their feeble constraints. When Police Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) insists “I will civilize this place!”, his words seem more wretched and hollow when he repeats them, and we feel sorrier for him.

Australian-born rocker Nick Cave of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds provides both the screenplay and the soundtrack, and the two are nihilistic peas in a pod. Under the direction of John Hillcoat the film achieves a kind of riveting despair, propelling itself towards hell on horseback.

The story goes that spaghetti Western filmmaking master Sergio Leone said the following about plucking Clint Eastwood from B-movie obscurity and making him a star: “Michelangelo saw a block of marble and said, ‘That's my David!'; I saw Clint and said, ‘That's my block of marble!’” In The Proposition it falls to Guy Pearce to be the block of marble, a cipher who nonetheless can hold the center of the screen with the threat of his violence. He’s no Clint Eastwood, but he’s good enough. We know little about this Charlie Burns, except that he is smarter than his younger brother Mike, and saner than his older brother Arthur. The three rode together with a gang until things got out of control and a frontier family was slaughtered – the pregnant wife raped before she died.

Charlie and Mike split from Arthur, but the townspeople still want blood, so in an attempt to keep the peace, it is Captain Stanley who proposes the titular bargain. He captures the two younger brothers and holds Mike, promising to hang him by Christmas unless Charlie rides into the Outback and brings back Arthur, whom Stanley has correctly identified as the true threat.

Arthur, given the right blend of charisma and sociopath cruelty by Huston, lives up in the hills with the remnants of his gang – the Aborigines say he has turned into a dog. He squats and stares at the horizon with a mix of expectation and wonder, as if he came to the world’s end in the hope that someone will meet him here from the other side. Charlie sets out on his road to find him, and like any good road to damnation it’s got a bar along the way with John Hurt in it.

Hurt is a treasure among eccentric supporting actors. Every year the lines seem to cross his face in more impossible zigs and zags, and his voice wheezes like a hundred-year-old steam engine. The more I tell you about his brief but unforgettable character is the more you don’t get to discover and delight in on your own, so I will end my description.

And back in town, the Captain tries to balance the bloodlust of his underlings and neighbors – even his wife (Emily Watson) burns with grief over the death of her friend –with the growing sense that he’s got the most innocent of the Burns brothers in his jail cell. The movie is clever in that it first presents him to us as the antagonist holding Damocles’ Sword over Charlie’s head, but then as it pulls back to show us the town he’s charged to protect, we see his own head is not so safe and he knows it.

Something in this mix will have to give, and leave bodies littered on the stage. The movie is a veritable buffet of violent acts – some fast and brutal, some slow, some odd and delivered with a suddenness that’s almost precious. There’s flies everywhere, swarming dead and live characters alike. With doom so ready in a land like this, I suppose there’s little reason for the insects to distinguish.

The Proposition does what the great spaghetti Westerns did – it digs into the dust and offal and the lurid behavior of larger-than-life scoundrels and finds tragic poetry. And even as its final confrontation approaches with breakneck energy it finds the space to be languid, and let the land overwhelm us.

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Monday, June 12, 2006

How to move a state to a different time zone.

I’ve mentioned before the family project whose story idea I concocted and brought to my friend Scott to write. The project has been humming along in the background of my life and is moving towards what looks like a genuine shot at financing and production, thanks in most part to the connections of our director.

My own screenplay is still mired in fundraising limbo, so, as is so often the case in the movie business, I’m toiling away with only the most tenuous connection to the idea of actually bringing anything creative into being, much less getting it in front of an audience.

But this family script looks more and more like it has a genuine chance of being filmed – if not this fall then the following spring, depending on the availability of a couple of actors whose identities I won’t even hint at, so terrified am I of jinxing their interest.

In order to provide potential investors with a little more eye candy, Scott took a road trip a couple of days ago, striking up the coast from his home in Northern California to explore Southern Oregon. The script takes place primarily in Maine, but Oregon provides a number of financial incentives designed to lure in productions, its proximity to Southern California would save travel expenses, and the director has both experience shooting in the state and some investment sources that will only commit if the project is shot there.

All of those reasons put us in the rather quirky position of having to find locations in Oregon that look like Maine, then filming all morning scenes in the evening and vice-versa, lest the sun’s position over the ocean give away the whole game. Location shenanigans like these are not all that uncommon in moviemaking.

Scott traveled with a location expert provided by the Oregon Film Office, and the two explored the area around Coos Bay and Charleston, seeking architecture and trees that could be fudged in a New England-ish direction.

But this is just the scrap of nourishment we writers can feed on – the excitement of imagining a scene set at a high school, then going out into the world with a camera, and suddenly there’s a real high school all ready to play host to your story. And it’s got more color and character than you ever had time to sketch in to your thin screenplay.

Here’s the album of photos from Scott’s trip. Along the top of each he’s posted a relevant line from the script. Obviously none of these are official or final locations, more an exploration to demonstrate that it’s within the means of a low-budget film to fake it. But even that can get me a bit giddy.

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Friday, June 09, 2006

They call it “recycled materials” – I call it a bench

There’s a gallery in downtown Los Angeles where, if you’re not careful, you can end up sitting on the art. Paintings hang on the wall and bronze sculptures bathe in loving pools of light, but there’s also couches, tables and mod lamps which have been designed to Say Something, perhaps about The Human Condition. They also have Hefty Price Tags.

Kudos to the artist who named his seating device “Johnny Bench”.

But that’s not why we were there last night – Nowacki, newly-arrived in LA with her pet dork boyfriend, and I. I was answering an invite from Mischievous Mimi – who is usually cryptic when she announces the latest happening, but I find that far more often than not, something cool follows. The fact that we needed a password to get in was most promising.In the basement of this gallery is a genuine speakeasy – lift the up staircase in a back room and you discover a hidden down staircase used during Prohibition. They still open for the occasional event.

It’s dark wood and low ceilings, make-out couches and Christmas lights, faded murals and the smell of marijuana. It is Los Angeles’ interpretation of the state of ultimate chill. When you order a vodka cranberry at the bar, you don’t get enough cranberry to color the whole glass.

The hipsters are here, and the art crowd, and the women who dress like they’re 13 and on the soccer team and not 32. Mischievous Mimi seems to know them all – they’re practically partitioned by room – friends from childhood in Cleveland in this chamber, college mates from Boston there, general LA musicians in the back.

After awhile a kid takes the stage – skinny, Hispanic, with a long lone sprout of black hair pouring out of his forehead and faint fuzzy mutton chop sideburns. He starts stroking an easy blues out of his electric guitar and sings the old standard Lazybones. And soon the room shuts up and turns to see this quiet little kid in the long skater shorts who has suddenly become mesmerizing. Nowacki and I look at each other and we’re both thinking that this song’s the last thing we expected out of this kid’s mouth.

He goes by Xela (pronounced ZAY-luh), which sounds exotic enough until you realize it’s just his name backwards. He has a strong soulful tenor which, if you close your eyes, seems like it can switch gender in mid-phrase. He flutters a little in the way that Adam Levin from Maroon 5 has been making popular lately. He sings I Heard it Through the Grapevine and doesn’t miss a note.

Eventually a trio joins him – a deft bass player, a chain smoker with a set of steel drums, and a bongo player with a ride cymbal. The sound locks in – still blues, but almost sunny and playful. If you can see the kid’s face he’s mugging up a storm. He whistles, makes mock trumpet noises, he uses scat-bop gibberish to impersonate a factory outside Cleveland. Right here and right now there’s not a thing you’d change about it – it’s the absolute confluence of atmosphere and mood and rhythm and a hell of a way to get your mellow on.

There’s a woman selling his home-burned CD’s. While I’m near her she leans to a friend and says of the band – they’ve only been playing together for two days.

Xela sweats through a ninety minute set and seems ready to keep going, but consents to taking a break. Nowacki, the boyfriend and I slip out, there’s a late-night restaurant on the Sunset Strip I want to introduce them to.

Sometimes I think I’m not experiencing enough of the nightlife in LA. Then I look back on nights like this and think I must be doing something right.

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Sunday, June 04, 2006

June 2-4: I didn't get the memo. What do we call them: Vinceifer? Jence? Vaughniston?

Full top 10 analysis behind the cut

The movie studio forgets the wide tastes of the audience at its grave peril. So much money and effort is spent courting the same sugar-shocked 14-year-olds with violence and boobs and spandex – all delivered just this side of the PG-13 rating, of course, until the “Unrated” DVD comes out – that it’s easy to overlook the masses out there who
just don’t want to see those movies. That’s why every year a distributor needs to balance out its plate with some cinematic roughage – the family movie, the grown-up “indie” film, the movie the church people will come out for, and the romantic comedy. It’s why, when you’re trying to push multiplex crack on the female demographic, you can almost never go wrong with a movie that has the word “Wedding” in the title; and it’s why if you can clear a space on the calendar to be the only movie out there where a woman has really fabulous hair and makes a cute guy look foolish, you can usually sneak into profitability while those action behemoths are listing under the weight of their own above-the-line costs.

Such was the case this weekend, as clean and simple concept met two stars who’ve logged a lot of miles cultivating their likeability, and knocked those Uncanny
X-Men right off their box office perch.

1. The Break-Up

Weekend Take
: $38.1M
Current Domestic Total
: $38.1M

The advantage of comedy is that, more often than not, it’s cheaper than other typical summer movies. Special effects are limited if they’re there at all, the setting is usually contemporary, and as a genre it doesn’t attract dollar-burning tyrant baby auteurs like you might see in the worlds of action or fantasy/sci-fi. Witness
The Break-Up, whose budget is the tentpole equivalent of Lean Cuisine: pegs it at $52M. This $38.1M first frame all but guarantees the movie will outgross Poseidon at a third of the price. It should have this audience relatively sewn up for the next couple of weeks, as well, so if word-of-mouth is strong it will have a healthy June indeed. Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Aniston, and director Peyton Reed should frame this opening number and hang it over their fireplaces – it’s going to mean good things for all of them.

2. X-Men: The Last Stand

Weekend Take
: $34.4M
Current Domestic Total
: $175.7M

What looks, by straight numerical examination, to be one of the more terrifying second weekend drops in recent years is inflated by the holiday weekend stampede that preceded it. X-Men: The Last Stand should level off at least somewhat. But how much? Enough that surpassing the $214.9M gross of X-Men United is a safe bet. Although given the gargantuan budget increase ($210M compared with its predecessor’s $110M), it will barely be profitable. Barely profitable at $220M+ domestic – welcome to modern Hollywood.

3. Over the Hedge
Weekend Take: $20.6M
Current Domestic Total: $112.4M

In its third weekend at the multiplex, Over the Hedge only shed 100 screens from its previous week. That’s an important sign – the standard exhibition deal locks in screens for the first two weekends, with the distributors taking the lion’s share of the revenue. From the third weekend on the theatre chains keep a larger share of the ticket sales, and get to decide whether they want to keep playing the title, or whether they think they can make more money with something else. Clearly they can see like anyone else that this movie is holding on to its audience with surprising ferocity. This is the kind of self-reinforcing success that could end up boosting its final tally, because audiences will not have to look far to find it.

4. The Da Vinci Code
Weekend Take: $19.3M
Current Domestic Total: $172.7M

It’s easy to say now that this picture has performed below expectations, so the studio bosses will retreat from ego to the more fundamental question – is it below profitability? On those terms, Da Vinci is going to slurp in enough dollars. It should even clear the $200M barrier that generates all those nice self-congratulatory ads in Variety. Ron Howard and Tom Hanks have done their bit to keep their studio quote intact. With this hopefully accomplished, I look forward to something better from them next time.

5. Mission: Impossible III
Weekend Take: $4.7M
Current Domestic Total: $122.7M

M:I III has shown a bit of a second life after its lowball opening and dizzying drop. I think news of its quality has penetrated and swayed a few who had considered staying home in order to discourage future weirdness from Mr. Cruise. J.J. Abrams will certainly emerge unscathed and with next projects lined up. The financial performance is disappointing, but, and this is crucial, it will no longer be counted a failure or a flop.

6. Poseidon
Weekend Take: 3.4M
Current Domestic Total: 51.7M

When you spend $160M on a movie and find yourself praying it breaches $60M domestic, somebody should get fired. Ideally a lot of people. The amazing thing is that producers – since very few people know what they actually do – manage to have so many flops and are still trusted to steer ill-conceived projects into the iceberg-filled box-office waters.

7. RV
Weekend Take: $3.3M
Current Domestic Total: $61.8M

The above talk about comedy being cheaper is also the secret to RV’s achievement. It may have pushed the upper limits of what you spend on a story like this – IMDB has it at $65M, unless there’s content in it I’m not aware of I don’t see why you couldn’t bring it in for $40M. But by playing to their strengths and sticking to their guns the filmmakers have got a quality investment on their hands.

8. See No Evil
Weekend Take: $2.0M
Current Domestic Total: $12.4M

Set this one on auto-pilot – with its budget already made up and the slasher crowd to itself for the time being, See No Evil doesn’t need to sell one more ticket to have succeeded on its own terms. But here in its third weekend the exhibitors didn’t kick it off one single screen. It rolls on to collect more – you won’t hear it talked about on the list of blockbusters performers this year, but in its own way it’s a hit.

9. An Inconvenient Truth
Weekend Take: $1.3M
Current Domestic Total: $1.9M

Talk about your outliers – there was just no predicting how America was going to respond to what’s basically a 100-minute egghead PowerPoint presentation, albeit one that, according to reviews, is at once alarming and strangely exhilarating. It went over gangbusters in its initial four screen release last weekend and now, on only 77 screens, it’s breached the top 10. X-Men: The Last Stand, by comparison, is on 3,714 screens. It was a cagey move to platform release this movie, allowing word-of-mouth to spread and create the kind of want-to-see-it-so-I’m-not-the-one-who-hasn’t atmosphere that multi-million dollar ad campaigns often try to foist artificially on us. If the houses stay packed as it expands further, it should achieve exactly what Al Gore hoped – the generation of a dialogue on a scale his three decades speaking on this issue never could have achieved before.

10. Just My Luck
Weekend Take: $.8M
Current Domestic Total: $15.6M

It’s a fond farewell to the top 10 for Just My Luck, and the slow road to the DVD bargain bin begins. I wonder whether Lindsay Lohan was too successful by half – she’s now perceived of as more of a celebrity than she is an actress, and so her fans don’t particularly care if she’s acting or not. They can sit at home with their CD’s and their copies of Teen People and they’ve got all they want from her. Rehabilitation of her acting image begins with Prairie Home Companion.

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Friday, June 02, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - District B13

Full review behind the jump

Banlieue 13 (aka District B13)
: Pierre Morel
Writers: Luc Besson and Bibi Naceri
: Luc Besson
: Cyril Raffaelli, David Belle, Tony D’Amario, Bibi Naceri, Dany Verissimo, François Chattot

Those who reach the end credits of District B13, the French action thriller released overseas in November of 2004 and just now reaching our shores, will be treated to what will be, for many, a novelty: gangsta rap in French. One of the distinctions of this feisty stunt-laden B-movie is that it demonstrates just how far around the world bling culture has traveled. Of course, when you’re talking about movies sprung from the fevered imagination of Luc Besson (The Professional, The Fifth Element), you can’t always be too sure just how much of the world he’s splashing on screen is really tethered to reality. You can be sure you’re about to see something which is at least energetic and appealingly different.

The dressings of the movie are a speculative near-future where France has permanently walled off its most dangerous ghettos and abandoned the residents within to fend for themselves. When the action-packed prologue spills into the last police station in the area, we see the cops packing boxes and getting ready to leave. But you don’t come here for the keen examination of a society so frightened by its underbelly that it would cut it off rather than face it (and perhaps do more), it’s wallpaper for a muscular blend of martial arts techniques, and an attempt to wrench the action genre away from the wire-fu rut it’s been settling into for the last few years. The results are satisfying from that standpoint, if flat emotionally and even goofy in some of its gestures.

The most distinctive addition to the thrill menu is the use of parkour – a sort of freestyle urban acrobatics that uses improvisation and what must be titanium ankles and knees to traverse building walls, rooftops and other normally-inhospitable man-made edifices. One of the original developers of this underground sport, David Belle, co-stars as Leïto, a young man trying to use his wit and courage to carve out one clean corner of his ghetto. When the minions of drug kingpin Taha (Bibi Naceri) fail to capture him after he steals and destroys their product, they explain to their boss in chastened dismay: “He’s a bar of soap”.

Or perhaps some combination of stray cat and ping pong ball – it’s bracing to watch Belle, without wires or computer gimmickery, go careening off banisters and down poles, through tiny windows, leaping from building to building without ever seeming to lose speed. Video gamers who’ve played the new generation of Prince of Persia titles should see something familiar in the mixture of power, grace and dizzying falls. It’s more compelling for Belle to be doing that than acting – he knows only lifeless and histrionic and no feelings in between. Whatever his dynamic real-life skills, he lacks essential screen charisma.

Faring better is star/choreographer Cyril Raffaelli, who plays the idealistic and very flexible undercover detective Damien. He brings a little more grace to the action compared to Belle’s slick efficiency, and he’s able to carry us with only a little awkwardness through some rudimentary emotional moments. After a successful bust his superiors summon him and spin a rather fantastic tale – that an experimental neutron bomb capable of vaporizing several city blocks’ worth of human life has been hijacked by Taha’s men. And when they opened it, it triggered a 24-hour timer. Preposterous and foolish as that sounds, it leaves the cops very little time to infiltrate B13 and defuse it. Damien is assigned to bust Leïto out of prison, gain his trust, and use his knowledge to get to Taha and the bomb.

Leïto’s got a reason of his own to break back in: Taha took his little sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) prisoner and made her his slave by getting her hooked on heroin. Actually, she never shows any of the signs of addiction, so perhaps he just got her hooked on heroin chic, making her tragically partial to torn black tights and heavy eye shadow.

It’s enough motivation to propel our leaping and flipping heroes through 85 minutes or so. The fights are snappy and come with a fair share of concussive moments. The editing is on the daft side, often cutting quickly to wildly disparate angles in the middle of a single stunt and making it more difficult to appreciate the geography involved. Pierre Morel is making his directing debut here after serving as director of photography on several other of Besson’s house productions – he doesn’t hurt the project but he doesn’t do much to help it, either. Besson’s penchant for colorful, almost florid, villains is on display – one gripes about how hard it is to get good goons these days, and muses that they should start recruiting college graduates, since many of them don’t know what to do with themselves.

Some of the more eccentric flourishes are worth laughs, as are some questionable grammar choices in the subtitles. The whole project has a kind of eager roughness around the edges, which ends up being more appealing than not. Despite the layer of social commentary in it you’d never convict it of being too self-serious. In trying to show a distinct and different blend of fighting, District B13 makes a worthwhile run. Don’t expect inspiration or catharsis, but part of me does feel obligated to encourage some people to buy a ticket. You’ll see some impressive feats of athleticism, and you’ll help the stars be able to afford the new hips they’ll be needing later in life.

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Thursday, June 01, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - X-Men: The Last Stand

Full review behind the jump

X-Men: The Last Stand
: Brett Ratner
Writers: Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn, based on the Marvel comic book
Producers: Avi Arad, Lauren Shuler Donner, Ralph Winter
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin, Kelsey Grammer, James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Vinnie Jones, Ben Foster, Dania Ramirez, Ellen Page, Cameron Bright

The postures are there but not the pain in X-Men: The Last Stand, which brings the trilogy about Marvel’s team of battling mutants to a close in anticipation of spin-offs spotlighting the major characters. And it’s a rather audacious and moving close when we actually get there – where the battlefield is clear and two characters, set in opposition by fate and carrying the heavy burden of their connection to each other, realize what is now tragically inevitable.

But the more I considered this, and weighed it against the flaws of this third episode, which sorely misses director Bryan Singer’s imagination and empathy, I concluded that anything I was feeling came from the hours I’d already spent with these characters. The reflected glories of the first two X-Men movies, so alchemically blending pop with social seriousness, enjoy a last glimmer on this lesser movie, when it’s good enough to catch it. The rest of the time you have a run-of-the-mill special effects show that spreads itself too thin and too flat in trying to keep up with all of its characters.

It would be perilously easy to take this entire review listing and describing the various mutants and their powers – suffice to say that most of the featured players from previous episodes (save Alan Cumming’s poignantly abused circus performer Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner) are back. Logan aka “Wolverine” (Hugh Jackman) is still most prominent among them, but by now he’s simply re-enacting lesser versions of his old conflict – loner or team player? Not all of the big names will be in their familiar forms, or even alive, by the end – trilogies are unforgiving that way. And other mutants have been drafted into action from the fat back catalog of the comic book, including bulky, blue-furred intellectual Dr. Hank “Beast” McCoy (Kelsey Grammer) and the behemoth Cain “Juggernaut” Marko (Vinnie Jones). McCoy’s plight has the most juice to it, he’s a friend and confidant of the President (Josef Sommer), and serves as Secretary for the Department of Mutant Affairs. He clings to a belief that his intellect and manners matter more than his fearsome appearance, and thus must face the realization that one man’s attempt to assimilate is not enough to overcome such deeply-ingrained biases.

It is that hope for integration and cooperation which provides resonance to the X-Men franchise, and it’s the guiding principle of Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who attracts young mutants to his private school in upstate New York in the hopes of teaching them discipline over and responsibility with the use of their powers. His most powerful, most challenging, student was Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who struggled with her almost limitless strengths and was last seen sacrificing herself to save her friends in X-Men United. Janssen, a deeply-underrated actress who can fill larger-than-life roles like this, makes a welcome return, although in what capacity I’ll leave you to discover.

But it is that return, and the invention by human scientists of a “cure” that will permanently suppress the effects of mutated genes, which convinces Eric “Magneto” Lensherr (Ian McKellen) that he finally has the means and the moral authority to achieve his goal – not the equality his old friend Xavier still believes in, but safety for his people through dominion of all others. In his view, as long as humans feel threatened by mutants, no “cure” will remain “voluntary” forever.

The devil of it is, although his tactics have too high a body count, which he gets too much pleasure from, you’re not sure his paranoia is entirely wrong. And although you want to agree with the mutants that even calling it a “cure” is repellent, you understand why a mutant like Marie, aka Rogue (Anna Paquin), might be compelled by the prospect of being able to touch her boyfriend without killing him.

That’s where you need filmmakers who can capitalize on these conflicts. The first two editions always keenly felt the agony of being different, and how it manifested itself in relationships, families, societies at large. Director Brett Ratner’s only apparent talent is to hire the best designers and then, if he can restrain himself, stay out of their way, which means at best he can achieve a polished mediocrity. He’s blissfully ignorant of what these wounds might actually feel like, and can only gaze at them from the outside. When you want heartbreak, he’s looking for one-liners – Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn’s script is peppered with lead balloons, like when the grieving Scott “Cyclops” Summers upbraids Logan with “Some of us don’t heal as fast as you”. And the dignified Professor should never have to lead with something as cutesy-poo as “You don’t have to be a psychic to know…

In essence, X-Men: The Last Stand has been hijacked by people with misplaced priorities. When we met the mutants, we could discover their powers in the context of ongoing intrigue and excitement, now we stop the movie for verbal re-capping – for such a pricey project there’s an awful lot of sitting around talking about things the audience already knows. When you first see a high-tech genetic laboratory situated on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, you don’t waste a minute asking yourself if it makes sense to build one there, you just wait for the inevitable action sequence. Mutants with new powers are like so many Bond gadgets, introduced, used once at a contrived moment, then discarded. There’s something stomach-churningly callous about the way a whole population of mutants is introduced then treated as cannon fodder, it doesn’t seem organic even to Magneto’s extremist beliefs.

It’s perhaps unfair for me to hinge so much of my response on comparisons to the other episodes and their director. But without them, it wouldn’t be possible to fully appreciate those times when this movie rises to the occasion. If it’s going to capitalize on past successes, it must also take responsibility for failing to live up to them.

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