Saturday, July 30, 2011


Here we are, on the eve of the eighth month of 2011, well over the halfway point and past the moment where most of us who have a tendency to want to do these sorts of things start the process of looking back and making grand proclamations about the year in movies-- or books, or videogames, or technology, or whatever-- so far. It’s not like there’s much that can be said conclusively about a year that still has five months-plus left in the tank, and in my case, as it happens every year, much of those remaining five months will be spent trying to dole out time to see new releases that will be hugging screens in anticipation of year-end awards, as well as seeking out and hooking up with the stuff I couldn’t manage to see from January through July that will soon be debuting in the more user-friendly (read convenient or lazy, whichever suits your mood) format of home theater.

Speaking of which, any assessment of the year for me has to include my increased exploitation of streaming media and my relatively life-changing introduction, a good 10 or so years after everyone else figured it out, to the DVR. I’m still relatively new to digital video recording—there’s barely any dust collected on the spiffy receiver box supplied to me a couple of weeks ago by DirecTV, and in the cluttered no-Windex zone that is my humble abode that’s really saying something. And I have managed to actually watch a couple of the 10-12 movies I’ve recorded—Jean Negulesco’s Three Strangers (1946) is an interesting melodramatic curio starring that Casablanca/Maltese Falcon tag team of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, spurred on by the delicious Geraldine Fitzgerald (whose psychosis is revealed gradually, tantalizingly) as the titular unfamiliars whose lives take some fatal left turns after making a wish over the statue of a Chinese goddess; and Michael Curtiz’s odd, engaging British Agent (1936), featuring Leslie Howard and Kay Francis in a juicy tale of political intrigue set against the nascent Russian revolution of 1917. (In the ever-growing queue: Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping, Tom Holland’s-- and Don Mancini’s-- Child’s Play, Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, all in HD, plus several others.) And ever since I added Vudu to the menu of choices available through the magic of my Playstation3 hub, I have become much closer to the stay-at-home viewer most coveted by corporate drones and purveyors of the shrinking of the cinematic experience. Needless to say, the recently announced and publicly trounced Netflix rate hike has assured that the at-home model for acquisition of movies will continue to change, at least for those of us unwilling to acquiesce to the mail order gargantuan’s overreaching greed. I’m also inclined to resist the shrinking of the movie image—I’m all for the convenience of a DVD player on my laptop, but seeing movies on a 4G Smartphone, however, still holds no appeal for me.

There is, however, a bigger benefit for me to the whole stream-at-home option, beyond the primary advantage of cutting loose from the drudgery of the Blockbuster experience, or even from the sad queue at my local supermarket in front of those giant red DVD-spewing robots that charge you a buck for a movie, then count on your Netflix-nurtured laissez-faire attitude toward actually watching the movie while an extra buck piles up on your credit card every night you blow off actually watching the film. That advantage is, simply, being able to endlessly scroll through Vudu’s list of brand-new, HD-quality features, as well as their hefty back catalog, or lazily punching up yet another tasty oddity for my personal Netflix queue that seems available only through this service. This brilliant new wrinkle on channel surfing creates a powerful virtual illusion: it duplicates the often exciting experience of thumbing through one’s own vast DVD/Blu-ray library without the disadvantage of actually having bookcases of space-hogging DVDs to actually thumb through or (and this is really important) having to buy the damn thing first. For me, the availability of the Vudu/Netflix channel surfing option has dramatically altered my DVD-buying habits and reduced that familiar desire, like a gnawing hunger in the pit of a cinephile’s belly, to snap up every title that looks tantalizing or otherwise casts some sort of spell that dissipates by a significant degree the minute the shrink wrap has been torn away.

I actually walked into a Barnes and Noble a couple of nights ago completely unaware that their apparently bi-annual 50% sale on Criterion DVD and Blu-rays was under way. I thumbed my way through their selections and noted the ones which I still coveted, but at no time was I seized by a serious desire to pick up four or five of them and start justifying the expense in my head as I headed toward the cashier. I credit this sanding away of my typically sharp impulse to smash-and-grab in this precise situation to the fact that I knew that many of these same titles were available on one or the other of the services I had available to me, and most often in high definition, thereby eliminating the sinister undertow otherwise known as pride of ownership. (It also helped to remember that I still have a stack of actual, physical, as-yet-unwatched DVDs and Blu-rays at home, Criterion or otherwise, that, should I start watching one a night, would last me at least two years.) It seems that in order to get me to seriously consider a DVD or Blu-ray purchase these days the title must be sufficiently niche, perhaps a title previously hard to find, or have a ridiculously low price tag (for Blu-ray, I don’t even raise an eyebrow for anything over $9.99 these days).

Streaming has also increasingly become a viable way of catching up with new releases, as companies like Magnolia, Magnet and others make available acclaimed genre titles like 13 Assassins, Hobo With a Shotgun and Trollhunter that could very well end up in the year-end best-of discussion, at least on some of the more interesting lists. One that I saw in this format, Christopher Smith’s Black Death, will certainly figure in the one I’ll be undertaking here in a few months. This grim historical drama-horror film, whose roots are secured deep in the same ground as that in which inquisitor classics like The Witchfinder General (1968) are planted, plays uncertain fear of the exact nature of the Black Plague—the time is 1348—against an even greater fear of those who would operate outside the bounds of accepted Christian faith and fealty. Sean Bean (Britain’s apparent go-to representative on ambivalent medieval manhood) leads a group of righteous warriors in search of a village rumored to be the only one unaffected by the shroud of death enveloping the countryside, one rumored to be led by genuine necromancers. It becomes clear early on that the villagers operate on their own moral order, under the guidance of village leaders Tim McInnerny and Carice Van Houten and, perhaps, a supernatural influence as well. They recognize the warriors, who claim to be only wandering knights, for what they are--- neither band is long fooled by the other-- and the gruesome delight of Black Death lies partially in discovering just how demented both sides are. The movie is a spectacular display of medieval torture, including the flaying of religious philosophy, and the rich bloodline of horror movie iconography; grim and unrelenting, Smith is a genre director who knows on which side of the blade his heavy scimitar has been caked with mud and blood. Here theistic debate and the historical formalities of the horror genre coexist with gusto; within the construct of this twisted epic, the filmmaker’s nihilism is well earned and well accepted.

Regardless of format, I was lucky enough to see Black Death early on in the year, concurrent with its meager theatrical release, early enough to give me hope that the coming year would be, in the end, as good as the last one ended up being. And I saw the best movie of 2011 (so far) way back in October 2010—Kelly Reichardt’s beautiful, otherworldly Meek’s Cutoff seems not only distanced by how much time has passed since it passed over my eyes and through my head; it seem distanced by its very existence. Reichardt frames her film as if we were looking through a stereopticon at opaque images piped directly from the past. (The movie is shot in the perfectly square 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which underscores its direct relationship to our perceived past, as if it were a tattered photograph glimpsed in a display case of classic Hollywood arcana.) The movie’s images may be opaque, but they are pointedly not sepia-toned—Reichardt’s images, shot by talented cinematographer Chris Blauvelt, are immediate and harshly lovely, attendant to the tactility of the desert, in long-shot long takes as well as lingering close-ups, and sensitive to the tension of the unrelenting sun, as well as that of the creeping nightfall that surrounds these travelers who know not where they’re really going. Meek’s Cutoff tells the story of a group of Oregon Trail pioneers who, at the film’s beginning, are already aimlessly plodding across the parched plains of the West under the guidance of a scout (Bruce Greenwood) with a sketchy past who may be leading them, by design or by incompetence, to their slow-baked doom. The three couples (and the children) under Meek’s watch include Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton), who hired Meek for a job which the others come to suspect he may not be qualified, and Tetherow’s wife Emily (Michelle Williams). Emily’s distrust of Meek leads her to openly question, and then stand up against not only his judgment but his dismissal (and abuse) of an Indian whom they capture and who eventually begins to usurp Meek’s authority over the barren ruthlessness of the landscape. (One of the less-ruthless landscapes of the movie is Williams’ face, yielding yet tough, open yet firm, unassuming yet subtly aggressive. It’s a performance to equal Williams’ best work, which includes her Oscar-nominated turns in Blue Valentine and Brokeback Mountain as well as in Reichardt’s previous film Wendy and Lucy.)

Meek’s Cutoff looks and feels like no other on the movie landscape this year; it presses on, at the pace of its characters, quietly assuming its position at the head of a pack of far more ostentatious claims to our attention, including movies as disparate as Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. They all have vocal supporters and detractors and have already positioned themselves upon the docket for discussion of the year’s most important movies, for wholly different reasons, of course. But Reichardt’s movie (shot in collaboration with screenwriter Jon Raymond) has a unique authority amongst this year’s treasures; it knows the value of what can be communicated by a glance, a gesture, by silence, by absorption into the frame through means more contemplative than cacophonous. It is the movie that disproves the notion that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, unless of course that squeaky wheel is one which roughly rolls a covered wagon over the parched crevices of a withered and parched lake bed, each squeak rhythmically underlining the existential dilemma of the film’s characters like agonized sonic poetry carried along the most arid of desert winds.

The rest of the year has not been so transcendent, which is not to say that it has been without its treasures. But certainly in the realm of what is now referred to as “family entertainment” the pickings have been somewhat slimmer than what we’ve become used to in this supposed renaissance era of animation. By this time last year we already had films of indisputable quality like Despicable Me, How to Train Your Dragon, The Secret of Kells and Toy Story 3 under our belts, with The Illusionist and Tangled still to come. That’s a formidable lineup, and so far only one animated film that I’ve seen this year belongs in that stellar company—Gore Verbinski’s Rango, which is so smart, so strange, so well-acted (I’m sure Johnny Depp will make my top-five list of best performances this year, and Isla Fisher might too) and so tactile that I’ve almost come to think of it not as artificially imagined but instead as a wide-screen transmission from a vaguely recognizable but separate world where lizards and cats and dogs are living with each other and acting out a peyote-buzzed alternate version of human (movie) history. To my mind and eye, even the next-best offerings for the family demographic—the exquisitely realized Kung Fu Panda 2 and the down-and-dirty Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2: Rodrick Rules-- come up woefully short of Rango in every conceivable category.

Other pictures, like Rio and Hop, are mainly distinguishable by being considerably less bad and obnoxious than I expected them to be, and as a dutiful dad accompanying my kids to the drive-in, where we saw every one of the pictures in this category (I’ve since seen Rango twice more indoors), at least I did not fall asleep during either Hop or Rio, which is more than I can say about Cars 2. Pixar’s incredible run was blemished slightly by the first Cars (2006), which was still a terrific movie by most any other animation studios standards. But measured against what Pixar had done up to that point, it seemed a bit of a letdown, conceptually middle of the road, if a driving metaphor must be invoked, and much closer to an advertisement for a future line of toys than any of its far-more-soulful predecessors. But that 2006 model seems downright organic compared to the higher-octane sequel, which to these weary eyes and ears had an air of desperation about it from the very beginning. All the winks and jabs and asides to James Bond and other spy adventures seem welded on to the original’s folksy chassis with little care, and after the requisite pulse-pounding, slam-bang opening, the movie’s first-gear retreat to Radiator Springs to get the machinations of the plot in motion sent me into sweet slumber, like a cranky baby at the beginning of a long road trip. The only other thing I know about Cars 2 is that there seems to be another Rascal Flatts song involved, this one over the end credits, the only other part of the movie for which I remained awake.

In the realm of the standard-issue action movie, sheer volume usually ensures that there will be no sleeping, and that premise certainly held true for Fast Five. This is the fifth and most preposterous of the ludicrously popular and now-apparently numerically infinite FastFurious franchise, most of the fun of which has devolved into guessing what absurd configuration will represent the title of the next installment of the series. (I’m backing FastSixFurious, but gas prices being what they are the more economical FF6 seems the more eco-responsible choice, not to mention being much more text-friendly.) The level of asininity reaches choke-inducing levels in Fast Five, as does the all the macho posturing that takes the place of acting, attitude which by the way is not held in check by mere gender—the women are just as arrogantly stupid, and ultimately action-movie sentimental as the men. That said nothing beats the sight of a bald, oiled-up and hyperinflated Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson puffing chests and trading intimidating glares with the slightly softer, slightly less articulate Vin Diesel. When these two bulletheads finally go at it mano a mano, the concept of a human cockfight is defined and redefined before your very eyes.

Liam Neeson doesn’t fare much better in Unknown, which at least has sleek Euro locales and a coldly metallic blue sheen where Fast Five had only the nitro-injected lust to best Michael Bay at every rubber-laying turn. The problem is that Unknown also has a logically perforated premise—a doctor awakens from a coma to find that everyone he once knew denies that he is who he says he is-- that depends on sleight of hand in order that we may more easily disregard the story’s myriad absurdities, and director Jaume Collett Serra (Orphan) isn’t enough of a magician to pull off the task. The shaggy, cruddy exploitation vibe of Drive Angry is what Unknown, with its classy drapery of Hitchcockian nods, is trying to disavow, but it would have been better off embracing its B-movie lineage. Nicolas Cage, like Neeson, rides alone, and he too picks up a sleek travel partner, but Drive Angry’s shotgun-riding Amber Heard could mop the barroom floor with Neeson’s spunky taxi driver, played by Diane Kruger. Cage is an escapee from Satan’s nightclub, a.k.a. Hell—he’s come back to Earth searching for the dimwitted occultists who killed his daughter and kidnapped his baby granddaughter, and he’s got a deadpan agent of the devil (William Fichtner) on his tail. Drive Angry is merely an excuse for lots of Race with the Devil-style auto action, all souped up with detached wheels and chunks of flaming metal comin’ at ya in 3-D, and if it’s not a patch on last year’s triumphantly trashy Piranha 3-D, well, it all still goes down like a cool summer night in 1977 at the drive-in. Somewhere in his art-exploitation Cineplex in the sky, Paul Bartel is nodding with approval.

One of the year’s best turns of adult-oriented drama so far came from Joe Wright’s beautifully disorienting Hanna, its soul electronically wired to its thrumming, sonically fertile soundtrack (designed by the Chemical Brothers) and patched through a fairy tale sensibility that even Grimm might at times find too grim. Saoirse Rohan is a 16-year-old trained by her father, Eric Bana, in the ways of survival, martial arts, the ascetic life of a perfectly focused assassin, and then sent on a mission to confront the agent (Cate Blanchett) who knows all about her past. It’s an enthralling piece of work, certainly as a formal exercise in the ways that familiar premises can be invigorated by a fresh stylistic approach, but primarily as a showcase for the feral beauty of the choices made by Rohan, an intuitively inquisitive actress who doesn’t seem to be processing her material as much as interpreting it from the inside out. Conversely, Matthew McConaughey has seemed, from his revelatory turn as the benignly predatory Wooderson in Dazed and Confused straight on through to his unofficial reign as King of the Rom-Coms, all sleek and buffed surface charm. But that characteristic veneer of charm and swagger is part of the subject of The Lincoln Lawyer, or at least how that swagger is undermined for McConaughey’s character, a successful defense lawyer named Mick Haller operating on the outskirts of legal procedure in Los Angeles (he works out of the Lincoln Towncar of the film’s title). The actor, whose level of confidence has always been mixed up with a slightly slurred aura he apparently can’t help but exude, at first seems an odd choice for a brash and amoral defense attorney. But the movie, directed by Brad Furman, is as stylish and comfortable as that vehicle, and McConaughey sinks into it as if it was a back seat made of rich Corinthian leather. His good-ol’-boy arrogance is a perfect foundation for the moral crisis in which he finds himself embroiled when he takes on the case of a rich Bel Air trust fund baby accused of a brutal attack on a prostitute. The defendant is played by Ryan Phillippe, another actor whose petulant, entitled good looks are well used here; the entire movie is well cast, with worthy roles for everyone from William Macy and Marisa Tomei to Josh Lucas, Michael Pena, and even Laurence Mason in the not-quite-stock role of McConaughey’s driver. The movie flirts with a bit too much attention-diverting camerawork at times, but it’s a solidly conceived, completely satisfying thriller, the kind that used to be a John Grisham-inspired Hollywood cottage industry 15 years ago, the difference being that, with the exception of Joel Schumacher’s The Client none of them were much good. Nowadays movies like The Lincoln Lawyer, if they get made, have no such world-conquering expectations laid on them. A friend of mine recently speculated that the modest returns on this picture were enough to make it a hit, but that it’s basically considered arthouse fare, “too small to be a proper studio movie.” Hopefully the adults who make up the demographic most likely to be interested in a well-made movie like this one won’t have their will to march out to the movies beaten out of them by the next round of Hollywood blockbusters by the next time the next Mick Haller picture arrives.

Of all the familiar types of movie genres I’ve indulged in this year, perhaps it’s the comedies that have delivered the most, in terms of wear, tear and soreness on the diaphragm muscles, for my precious and few entertainment dollars. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s fanboy paean Paul was a delight, even affording the nitpicking. Why, for example, would such obvious candidates for believing have such an initially hard time accepting the discovery of an alien life-form, their greatest fantasy come true? And enough with the fervent worship at the altar of the Cult of George Lucas, please. The movie’s insistent referencing of the usual sacred source material makes for the laying of an occasional rotten egg—the Star Wars cantina theme is playing when our boys drop into a local diner. Funny, right??!! Fortunately, Pegg and Frost are brilliant, as usual, together, and they get stellar (get it?) support from Seth Rogan as the voice of the titular spaceman and Kristen Wiig as a one-eyed preacher’s daughter who hooks up with the trio and gets her faith shaken, then stirred by the existence of Paul.

Rogen also co-wrote and starred in The Green Hornet, which I think is a lot funnier and more entertaining than its hideous reputation would ever allow. It’s a lark, and undoubtedly an expensive one, but it has an infectious spirit and a terrific cameo by a recent Oscar show host that’s among his zippiest minutes on screen. And Wiig, of course, made a mark for herself and for comedies focusing on women (you remember those, the ones studio executives have claimed for years no one wants to see) when Bridesmaids took over the early summer box office tallies. Wiig is heartbreakingly funny as a woman who finds her number-one status being usurped during the planning of her BFF’s wedding. But Bridesmaids surprised me not only in its level of Apatow-style gross-out humor (which is very funny), but also in its depth of feeling, and its access of that feeling sans mawkishness. Wiig is also surrounded by comic performers who turn out to be every bit her match, including Maya Rudolph (the BFF), Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey (please, someone get this woman her own movie) and Rose Byrne. For those who may have forgotten her hilarious turn in Get Him to the Greek, the revelation of Byrne as a swift and subtle comic performer may turn out to be the year’s happiest movie surprise.

Also surprising was the level of dismissal afforded Bad Teacher, a mildly transgressive comedy in the Bad Santa mold which provides a showcase for the comic fizz of another female star, Cameron Diaz (who has much more going on here than in her perfunctory role in The Green Hornet.) Diaz plays a narcissistic junior high school teacher who dumps her job and then gets in turn dumped by her rich boyfriend. She’s forced back to work in order to finance her dream of the ultimate boob job, which she figures will be her ticket to fame and fortune, if not simply leaving her checkered past in the education system far behind her. The movie is slickly, cynically hilarious, but general audiences (even the one I saw it with) did not get behind its rude worldview. My theory is that audiences will make room for a drunken, besotted Santa Claus, but a coke-snorting gold-digger at the center of a movie that suggests our educational system is insular, out of touch and populated with conservative snobs and dolts who haven’t a clue how to reach out and actually engage students—well, what’s funny about that?

The laff machine I’ve liked most so far in 2011 is one that’s gotten the worst reviews, probably even worse than Bad Teacher. (Remember, I loved Land of the Lost and Year One.) You would think that, for audiences of a certain age and a certain bent, Your Highness, with its gleeful perforation of the kinds of indulgent medieval epics that were de rigueur in the ‘80s, interspersed with anachronistic foul language and drug use, to say nothing of a minotaur with a mythologically imposing hard-on, would be an instant classic. And in places where midnight movies still mean what they did when I was in college (do these places still exist?) it may one day achieve that status. Danny McBride and James Franco are hilarious together as mismatched sons of an arrogant but benign king who set out on a quest to retrieve Zooey Deschanel, Franco’s moony would-be bride, from the clutches of a spectacularly lecherous wizard, played by Justin Thereoux. Along the way they stumble upon Natalie Portman, she of the awesome bod and the recent Oscar, who is brilliantly, pointedly awful as a vengeful warrior (mm-hmm) with her own agenda. (“I must surprise a band of thieves and burn them alive in a symphony of shrieks,” she flatly intones at one point, causing me to go temporarily mad with glee.) The movie is crude and obnoxious, of course, and it doesn’t have the subversive wit of its obvious model, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But when it is on, Your Highness delivers that special high piped straight from comedy heaven in larger doses than any other picture I’ve seen this year.

More adult-oriented comedies have fared pretty well too. The best comedy I’ve seen so far this year is Win Win, the latest wry missive from the heart of writer-director Tom McCarthy, who last directed The Visitor and whose wonderful film The Station Agent provided an excellent first-film blueprint for emotionally acute comedy which McCarthy seems to be fulfilling right on schedule. McCarthy’s lead is the impeccable Paul Giamatti, who seems to be carving out quite a career for himself as the poster boy for curdled hopes and dreams. Here Giamatti plays a small-town lawyer whose economically depressed business leads him to assign himself as conservator of the estate of an Alzheimer’s-afflicted client (Burt Young) so he can “borrow” the money to keep his practice alive. Giamatti also moonlights as a high school wrestling coach, and when Young’s grandson, abandoned by his drug-addict mother, comes to visit and is revealed to be a talented wrestler himself, Giamatti takes him under his wing without disclosing to the boy, or to his wife (Amy Ryan, a force of nature), how he’s been manipulating the old man’s money. The director closest to McCarthy’s sensibility is, at this point, Bill Forsyth, who knew how to weave “quirky” into the fabric of his stories without ever betraying the audience’s trust, and Win Win is a master class of rich character touches that are similarly turn-your-head funny and believably, achingly human. McCarthy’s touch is unforced and realistic, leavened with a slight dusting of whimsy, and his cast, including the aforementioned along with Jeffrey Tambor, Margo Martindale, Bobby Cannavale and Melanie Lynskey, are confident without a hint of smugness, as if they intuitively knew what good, kind hands they were in. The boy, played by Alex Shaffer, has raw presence too. He may not be turn out to be an actor in a class with his other cast mates, but his performance here has real power, anger and the sting of betrayed innocence. A side note: Win Win, like The Station Agent and some of the wistful films in Forsyth’s filmography, has the wisdom to know just how and when to end, and that ending, like those of the other films, comes on an unexpected beat. It feels like grace.

The elliptical and emotional Beginners sings roundelays around the great subject of sadness and loss in telling the story of a commercial artist (Ewan McGregor) who finds out in fairly quick succession, upon the death of his mother, that his father (a marvelous and sly Christopher Plummer) is gay and soon after that that the man is dying of cancer. McGregor also strikes up a relationship with an actress (Melanie Laurent) whose presence in his life seems as fleeting as everything else he holds dear. But the movie is practically miraculous in the way it avoids the melodramatic pitfalls usually associated with the accounting of parental reckoning and passing we usually see in American movies. (This ain’t no Tribute or Tuesdays with Morrie.) Credit for that has to go to writer-director Mike Mills, drawing on his experience with little see-me-feel-me pleading and plenty of agility in making connections between thoughts, glances and entire scenes that bump into each other throughout this movie in unexpected ways.

And unexpected is certainly one of the primary words I would use in describing Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. It’s easily the director’s best movie since Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), and audiences have made it (adjusting for inflation and all that, of course) his biggest hit ever, at $46 million and counting surpassing even Annie Hall, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters. What was most joyous to me about Midnight in Paris, apart from the initial conceit of the movie, is the way Allen’s usually detached style, full of long takes and frames full of people entering and leaving at random, seems invigorated. He’s using the camera here with passion, alternating close-ups and sweeping postcard imagery of the city with movement and depth of field that suggest he’s engaged by the material for the first time in a long while. Whatever Works felt like a movie made by a man who was throwing his hands up in defeat, but Midnight in Paris feels, for all its flaws (and it is an imperfect gem) like a movie Allen had to make, a consideration of how we ruminate upon and process the past. For Allen in particular this is a fertile subject, given that so much of his oeuvre has been devoted—at least in part—to bemoaning or belittling the current fascinations of pop culture in favor of the achievements of his pantheon of musical, philosophical, cinematic and literary heroes, all of which have been previously sealed and preserved in Allen’s nostalgic amber. Here the amber melts, allowing the director to consider the past as if it were present, with melancholy results. Some have found the very substance of Allen’s fantasia to be a bit too spot on, as if one could actually roam the streets of Paris in the ‘20s and bump into F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, all of whom would be talking about famous incidents of their creative and personal lives for all the tourists to hear, and all in one night. I had no trouble buying into that fantasy and its attendant jokes because though the concept is pure fantasy it reaches beyond simply trotting out a gallery of literary and society luminaries to something more real, an understanding of the longing behind nostalgia and what nostalgia we can’t understand might mean to someone else.

My problem with Midnight in Paris, such as it is, is that for all the rich imagination poured into his Paris of the ‘20s, Allen still relies on typically lazy caricatures when it comes to the modern world. Owen Wilson, this year’s Allen stand-in, is a hack Hollywood screenwriter with bigger things on his mind, and he’s surrounded by enough shrieking, ugly-spirited Los Angelenos to make anyone want to retreat, either to a glowing, romanticized past or to the nearest dank saloon. His fiancĂ©e, Rachel McAdams, is a towering bitch, the entitled daughter of a pair of rich, materialistic Republican retirees who look with disdain upon any professional calling for Wilson that doesn’t guarantee the most abundant lifestyle for their daughter. McAdams is impatient with her soon-to-be hubby, choosing to tour Paris with a boring intellectual know-it-all (Michael Sheen) and his wife while Wilson sleeps all day, after having taken a time-altering coach ride 70 years in reverse and dancing the Charleston with his new famous friends all the previous night. Allen misses the opportunity to enrich the drama of Wilson’s dilemma by giving us not even a sliver of indication as to why Wilson would hesitate for a second to dump the petulant McAdams for the love of his past life, Marion Cotillard. (Cotillard, as it turns out, is a muse who has designs of her own on a time even further past.) And the writer-director makes it too easy on Wilson, and on us, when it is revealed that McAdams has slept with Sheen, thereby excusing any guilt Wilson should probably be harboring over his own not-quite-extramarital designs on Cotillard. Ultimately, Midnight in Paris makes clear that Allen’s imagination is the furthest thing from empathetic—he long ago stopped writing characters, settling instead not even for archetypes but just simple types, easily defined in a few broad strokes, and those who differ from him politically and culturally usually don’t come off too well. These are road bumps, to be sure, and they don’t scuttle the many pleasures Midnight in Paris has to offer. But they are familiar creative flaws to those who have followed Allen’s long career closely, and I think maybe the fact that they smudge even a jewel as radiant as this one might speak to the fact that they are, at this late date, as inseparable from Allen as his wit or his Bergman fixation.

Or perhaps as inseparable as Hollywood is from the budget-busting blockbuster effects movie, many of which have broken out of the summer corral and made their omnipresence felt during the other three seasons as well. I somehow escaped taking in Zach Synder’s latest Sucker Punch, and though I think Ryan Reynolds is perfectly keen, I have so far managed to avoid the sickly emerald radioactivity of The Green Lantern. This very weekend the ostensibly sure-fire generics of Cowboys and Aliens seems to be opening to derision from fanboys and critics, which is not to say that it won’t have one of those “Quick, let’s brag about it while we can!” opening weekends that Hollywood executives are so keen on before the inevitable 70% drop-off the following week as the conventional wisdom begins to solidify. But hey, now, I hark from a fanboy-oriented past, and though I have largely thrown off the Big Red Cape of Self-Seriousness that often characterizes the Comic Con-conversant modern breed of this rich cultural stereotype, I am still mightily willing to indulge in a good superhero yarn or other chapter in a fantastical Hollywood blockbuster franchise well told. Thor, for example, sports a hallucinatory design and good humor that seems quite an improvement upon Jon Favreau’s blandly overstuffed Iron Man 2 from last year; and no one was more floored than I was that I would find Transformers: Dark of the Moon tolerable in the least.

I think David Edelstein is absolutely right—this is visionary filmmaking. But eventually it did weigh on me, as it didn’t on him, that the vision was one of giant corporate-endorsed toys smashing everything in sight—Andrew O’Hehir called it a magnificent “performance art act of juvenile Id-fulfillment”-- and intoning dialogue corny enough to embarrass even William Shatner. (It’s Leonard Nimoy’s voice however, heard coming out of that mean ol’ Sentinel Prime.) I enjoyed the first Transformers (on DVD) and passed on the second one, so this is the first one I’ve seen in, shall we say, full bloom, projected in 3D, and elements of it are astonishing. The sheer aggressive force of the last hour, in which Chicago is laid waste by the evil Decepticons, is something like awesome (and exhausting) to behold. In addition to the usual clunky-but-way-limber metalloid bad guys, there’s a subterranean multi-tentacled robot that burrows through Michigan Avenue like it was made of butter; this creature is one of the scariest monsters I’ve ever seen and might even give the notoriously anti-CGI Ray Harryhausen fits of envy. Director Michael Bay justifies his own loopy gigantism with his use of 3D here to not just create things what pop out at ya, but also a vertiginous depth of field that lends stomach-churning realism to the movie, particularly to a sequence involving a ragtag group of commandos paragliding into the city, plummeting down into and amongst the crumbling, smoking skyscrapers. And speaking of skyscrapers, the outrageous sequence of a multi-story office building being scissored in half while our heroes are still inside plays like the greatest Irwin Allen movie never made. My only complaint is that Shia LeBouf manages to make it out alive. Otherwise, it’s the humans, man. Transformers, DOTM manages to get plenty of juice from Bay’s near-self-parodic tone, especially in the first half, courtesy of actors like Frances McDormand, John Turturro (resplendently weird), John Malkovich (giving Turturro a run for his money in the weird department), and even the close-to-overexposed Ken Jeong, who seems always ready to wrest away Most Specious Racial Stereotyping honors away from the estimable Geddy Watanabe, here getting loads of crass laffs as a paranoid scientist who assaults LaBouf in a men’s room. Yes, I enjoyed Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but it made me want to see a season of Yazujiro Ozu movies as penance, as necessary therapy.

Best in class honors for the blockbuster superhero genre thus far would go to two other Marvel creations—the splendid prequel X-Men: First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) and Joe Johnston’s visually sublime Captain America: The First Avenger. The X-Men prequel jettisons hoary old Patrick Stewart (Mr. X) and Ian McKellan (Magneto) for supercharged younger versions in the personage of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively, and the trade-in is a good one. Both actors suggest the reserve of pain, anger and dignity brought to the parts by their predecessors, as well as the fire and energy to keep the franchise alive over two or three more episodes. The element that makes that a tantalizing prospect is the way XMFC cheekily injects its heroes and their nascent band of mutant followers (including recent Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence as Raven, the girl who will grow up to become Rebecca Romijn’s Mystique) not only into the history of Nazi atrocities in World War II, but also as unlikely players in the Cuban Missile Crisis. One can imagine the fun Vaughn, with fellow screenwriters Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman, might have plundering the history books to find more sticky real-world situations in which to figure this philosophically opposed band of mutant heroes, hopefully with as much Bondian panache as X-Men: First Class manages to muster.

Captain America, on the other hand, is a rousing, straight-arrow adventure and a showcase for the classical filmmaking strengths of director Joe Johnston. Like his previous outing in period superhero adventure, The Rocketeer, Johnston makes the most of the gleaming retro-futuristic set design (what forward thinkers in the 1940s might have imagined for Things to Come), and he has a penchant for pacing and editing this kind of movie that might make him come across as slightly doddering to audiences expecting more cuts per minute and fewer stop-downs for actual conversation. This kind of approach seeps into the sensibilities of the actors too, not a wink or a nudge to be found among them. Chris Evans, who might have been expected to wear some snark on his sleeve, occupies Steve Rogers (especially his shrunken, slight-framed pre-transformation incarnation) with admirable sincerity (though I will concede he, or the screenplay, doesn’t do as much with his adjustment to those rippling pecs as one might hope). Crisp and lovely Hayley Atwell provides both romantic and moral interest as a British intelligence officer, while Dominic Cooper (as Tony Stark’s dad, Howard) and Tommy Lee Jones as the army colonel who questions whether Rogers has the stuff to be Captain America, provide our hero’s military support. And as Colonel Johann Schmidt, aka Red Skull, Hugo Weaving demonstrates once again, relishing each villainous bon mot as if it were filet mignon, why all future bad guy roles should automatically go to him. (I also loved Toby Jones as his brilliant henchman, a scientist who cannot hold back the dawning horror of what his boss is really up to from flashing across his face.) Ultimately, the movie manages to demonstrate the dollars spent on its surely enormous budget while at the same time seeming considerably down-scale in its urge to bowl us over with giant set piece after giant set piece. Johnston knows the value of restraint, of delayed gratification, and in Captain America he demonstrates the principles with gleeful ease. In the process he’s crafted a modern superhero movie that, like its titular character, looks entirely capable of standing the test of time.

As for those wizard kids, turns out everything’s going to be all right. After last year’s lugubrious Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, which seemed like agreeable filler at best (absent the addictive ritual of the seasonal Hogwarts arrival and all the attendant fun), it was a great relief to see everything wrapped up so expertly, so emotionally, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. I was indifferent to the series all the way up through the release of The Half-Blood Prince (part 6), having seen part one on DVD months after the fact, and only parts 2 and 3 theatrically. But part 6 was so good that I was compelled to go back and watch the series in its entirety, excellent prep as it turned out for the emotional grandeur of the finale. Everyone has their great moment here, including Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham Carter, Daniel Radcliffe, Ralph Fiennes and, I think most importantly, Alan Richman whose Severus Snape becomes, with this closing chapter, one of the great misunderstood villains of all. (An Oscar nomination for him here would be the right thing to do.)

Just as anticipated (certainly by the girls in my family) as Harry’s Last Stand, was Super 8. The movie stands primarily as a heartfelt valentine not so much to a more innocent time of childhood, but specifically a heartfelt valentine to childhood as seen through the prism of Steven Spielberg, whose own films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-terrestrial documented a version of childhood for a generation of movie-fed kids, like Spielberg himself and Super 8 director J.J. Abrams. What’s genuinely wonderful about Super 8 is the way it captures the knockabout obsessive creativity of kids making their own movie (the title refers to the consumer-grade film stock on which most of those movies in the late ‘70s were made) as they careen about in a universe made up almost entirely of Spielbergian tropes, situations and camera moves. The kids witness and accidentally film the Train Accident to End All Train Accidents while shooting a nighttime scene at a railroad station. The shooting of that scene reveals as much, if not more, about kids’ fragile relationships than the Spielberg pictures it has in its rear-view mirror ever did. (Elle Fanning as the lone female in the group has a moment rehearsing her part in the movie-within-the-movie as the detective’s put-upon wife that is as revelatory as Naomi Watts’ shocking audition in Mulholland Dr.)

What was actually on the train is a mystery the kids, and the movie, begin to focus on, but unfortunately Super 8 never makes the kids and their moviemaking an integral, organic part of solving that mystery, even when it turns out that the camera has been left running and has captured what looks like an alien leg emerging from an overturned train car. Had writer-director Abrams ever been able to figure out a way to make their movie genuinely important to his movie, as something other than a nostalgic nod to his own creative past, Super 8 might have been genuinely great, and it might have figured out a way to avoid the slightly generic feeling that begins to settle in as the movie makes the rush toward its overly familiar conclusion. That said, there’s so much on a human scale to be excited about in Super 8 that its flaws, its overt genuflecting in the direction of Spielberg, becomes almost endearing, or at least an emblem of its good intentions. I saw it in two low-tech situations—a drive in, and then a nondescript cracker-box four-plex in Big Bear, both of which greatly resembled the venues in which I saw the original Spielberg films being referenced here, so there was an added extra layer of meta-nostalgia in Super 8 for me. My oldest daughter, on the other hand, loved the movie so much that she stood up at the drive-in and excitedly proclaimed that “This is the best movie I’ve ever seen!” And that was only at the midway point. The most wonderful thing is that now, inspired by Super 8 and by seeing some of my own old super 8 movies, she and her friends have embarked on the adventure of writing a script and making their own movie this summer. Now, that’s a filmmaking tradition worth celebrating.

There have been other adventures at the movies as well. My hopes for Monte Hellman’s return to filmmaking with The Road to Nowhere were dashed pretty quickly. The movie, a meta-concoction mixing murder on the set of a Hollywood thriller with the mind games of The Stunt Man, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and a hundred other similarly-themed indie features over the past 20 years, collapses under the weight of its flimsy, self-conscious conceits. It’s a sadly misconceived hall-of-mirrors puzzle play done in by indifferent acting and an ugly DIY mise-en-scene. A better time was had when my girls and I went spelunking with Werner Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the director’s mesmerizing 3D document of the Chauvet caves of Southern France, in which reside the oldest known man-made drawings. The kids were at turns riveted and bored by Herzog’s methodical approach, but two wonderful things emerged from the experience, both courtesy of my eight-year-old. She has now developed a hilarious Herzog impersonation in which she quotes the director’s narration about a group of albino crocodiles in a nearby biosphere, adopting her very best Teutonic drawl: “"They had lots of room in which to thrive... and man, did they thrive!" And after the movie, she asked me, in reference to one of Herzog’s claims in the movie that the drawings represent man’s very first toying with the idea of representing movement in pictures, “Daddy, what is proto-zinneeema?” Worth the price of admission for those two moments alone, not to mention the sundry other marvels Herzog’s terrific documentary lays out for us.

Finally, after much hemming and hawing and distraction and excuse-making, I made time to see Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life last night and, frankly, as someone who has admired Malick's past movies, I was curiously underwhelmed. Maybe it was because the director felt compelled to go after the big statement, to try to sum up all of the ways of looking at the world that have been encompassed by his other movies. And maybe it was because he’s hitched his cosmic point of view to a series of moments stitched together from memories of growing up in rural Texas in the ‘50s. The problem for me is, that summation seems unnecessary; he’s already dealt with issues of nature, the origins of life and the nature of nature compellingly in Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World, only without eschewing the possibility of dramatic involvement, which is the lifeline that gets cast away here pretty quickly. Visually the movie is full of poetic, sometimes unexpected imagery (including the way those images attach to one another in Malick’s intuitive, weirdly-wired editing). And I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie more intoxicated with the magic hour. It’s as if the entirety of Malick’s memory of childhood were composed of idyllic shots of his idealized mother (Jessica Chastain, who does little else but worry and glow) twirling in the backyard, or a preoccupied dad (Brad Pitt) shouldering the weight of existence in between playful squirts of Eden’s garden hose, while their three boys wander aimlessly, happily through a rural paradise, all lit by a setting sun as they await the arrival of the serpent. There is also an astonishing sequence in which the oldest boy’s growing up amongst his two younger siblings is compressed into a beautiful visual essay about the way a child might see the surrounding world. It is with this gaze that Malick most clearly relates.

But I don't know, if this movie were the only evidence, that I'd say Malick is a visually brilliant filmmaker. To me that phrase is meant to describe someone who knows how to marshal the power of images, not just as individual creations, but as pieces of a whole, or as a philosophy of design or, most important, the curiously undeniable urge to tell a story. It's when the images add up to something other than a director's microscopic, fleeting attention to the minutiae of the world around him that I start to sit up and pay attention. In my mind this standard can apply to directors as disparate as Don Siegel, Jean Renoir and Vicente Minnelli, to name just a couple off the top of my head, but not, at least in the first 24 hours after having seen it, to the Malick of The Tree of Life. I've been trying to figure out how to deal with my reaction to the movie, which obviously many others loved, without betraying my own disappointment and pretending to be more impressed, or throwing everyone I respect who holds it in high esteem under the pretentiousness bus. I wrote earlier this year that I would distrust anyone’s instant proclamation of The Tree of Life as an unqualified masterpiece (and there have been many of those claims, right straight out of the movie's Palme D’Or –winning showing at Cannes) as much as I would anyone who insisted upon rejecting it out of hand. Mine is certainly an amorphous, immediate reaction too; maybe in three months my memories of it will coalesce into a movie I can’t wait to see again. Stranger things have happened. But right now I’m dealing with a vaguely depressed feeling, and I can’t decide if that’s due to a sense that I’m missing out on something, or if it’s simply a disappointed feeling for a filmmaker who has this time out, in my view, shot way wide of his intended cosmic target.

The halftime show is over. Onward to the second half.


G.D. SPRADLIN: 1920 - 2011

It never really occurred to me, until his death last week at the age of 90 in San Luis Obispo, that I never knew, nor did I ever feel compelled to look up, what the initials in G.D. Spradlin’s name stood for. I guess it seemed to me that a man who could simultaneously project rectitude, disgust, corruption and a sense that he could size you up with one withering glance deserved a little mystery. And the letters' slight nod toward blasphemy seemed right too. Spradlin was independently wealthy, perhaps another source for that strident authority he accessed so well on screen; he got rich during the oil boom of the 1950s and became involved in politics, running for mayor of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1965, and serving as John F. Kennedy’s Oklahoma campaign adviser during the lead-up to the 1960 election. Legend has it that upon delivering his daughter to a casting session for a play he was cast himself, thus launching a second act as a soon-to-be-renowned character actor. Spradlin toiled in television, appearing on everything from The Iron Horse (1966) to Gomer Pyle USMC, The Big Valley, The Cimarron Strip, Mannix, Dragnet, The Virginian, Bonanza, Alias Smith and Jones, Kung Fu and Adam-12, and he didn’t make a movie until director Tom Gries hired him for a small role in Will Penny. Not unlike Roberts Blossom, another signature face from the movies of the ‘70s who passed away recently, Spradlin’s power as a presence was such that it seemed like he was everywhere, in everything, when in fact he only made something like 25 appearances in feature films, and many more TV appearances than that, before he retired in 1999. But also like Blossom, the movies that he did show up in tended to be the ones that made an indelible impression on audiences, no matter how big his actual role.

As Senator Pat Geary, who wildly overestimates his political cleverness and connections when initially playing hardball with Michael Corleone at the beginning of The Godfather Part II, Spradlin oozed the kind of oily patrician condescension that could only assure that he would end up dangling on the family’s puppet strings, if he was lucky. His contempt for the “Eye-talians” he ends paying tribute to at Anthony Corleone’s confirmation, after having just handed Michael his ass (or so his advisors would have him think), is a petite marvel of unctuous political corruption funneled through the movie’s ambivalent Watergate-fueled gaze. (How perfectly fitting then that Spradlin would end his career portraying Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post who headed up the Watergate investigation, in Andrew Fleming’s crackpot comedy Dick.) Spradlin’s other appearance for Coppola was just as indelible—as the army officer who details Martin Sheen’s mission during the opening minutes of Apocalypse Now, Spradlin seems mired in the malaise of Vietnam (as it is reinforced by Coppola and Vittorio Storaro’s razor-thin depth of field), his disgust for Kurtz barely held at bay, fighting for face time with a slight sense that he wishes he were anywhere, even on the boat with Willard, rather than trapped in this humid hell behind a desk.

Around the same time Spradlin appeared as Robby Benson’s martinet basketball coach in One on One, a movie I thought was decent at the time, though I remember nothing about it, not even Spradlin, except for how lovely Annette O’Toole was in it. But One on One provided Spradlin with a nice warm-up exercise for what I think is his finest hour on screen, standing in for Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry in the movie adaptation of Peter Gent’s rollicking football expose North Dallas Forty (1979). In this profanely funny picture Spradlin’s initials undoubtedly would have stood for the kind of blaspheme his Bible-quoting head coach would certainly have eschewed. His character, however, adopts another set of intimidating initials; here he’s known as B.A. Strothers (Bad-Ass?), a coach prone to homilies and platitudes, as well as the occasional fiery jeremiad when one of his players gets really out of line. (The real yelling is left up to assistant coach Charles Durning, whose vocal cords, to say nothing of his blood vessels, are in constant danger of exploding.) This is the quintessential G.D. Spradlin performance in that it nails the patriarchal aloofness and condescension he was so good at delineating, the moral righteousness in which that condescension (or was it really contempt?) was cloaked, and the pinched disgust landing on his face like a death mask when sour defeat is finally tasted. I will never ever forget the look on his face, like the look of a severely dejected and disappointed father, when a kicker misses a crucial field goal that prevents the North Dallas Bulls a shot at the championship. If G.D. Spradlin never made another movie, this performance would be justification enough.

He did make other movies, and lots of TV too, including portrayals of two presidents—Andrew Jackson and Lyndon Johnson. He matched perfectly Hollywood’s way of looking back on this country’s authoritarian figures with a mixture of salutary respect and mistrust. And I always remember him as the befuddled minister presiding over the baptism of a gaggle of Hollywood fringe folk in Tim Burton’s sublime Ed Wood. As for those initials, seems they stood for Gervase Duan. Gervase Duan Spradlin. Might be easy to imagine a schoolyard full of punks who’d think a name like that was worthy of some jeering and physical abuse. But somehow, if the man G.D. Spradlin projected through his characters was anything like the real person, I might also imagine that he was able to take care of himself well enough to dissuade a whole lot of name-calling. He could be Gervase Duan at home with his family; he is survived by his second wife, Frances Hendrickson, his daughters, Tamara Kelly and Wendy Spradlin, and five grandchildren. But to us G.D. is goddamn good enough, the letters themselves lending credence to his ability to access the tough, laconic, partially hidden men he so excelled at portraying.


Saturday, July 23, 2011


In the previous post I took a look at a terrific new Web series from creator Claire-Dee Lim called The Power Object, which chronicles the adventures of three young female professionals who stumble upon a magical vibrator with wish-granting capabilities. I got a chance to sit down and speak with Lim about her series, how it came about, why she decided to stage the entire thing with dolls, and lots of other interesting stuff about the ways of Hollywood. What follows is our conversation, two live-action adults talking about the power and the objectivity of dealing with low-tech puppetry. All wine glasses and other utensils employed during this interview were full-size and to scale.


DC: So you must be feeling pretty good about The Power Object right about now.

CDL: Out of everything I’ve done in the last few years, The Power Object is the thing I feel best about. I didn’t feel like I had to compromise. I had an idea about what I wanted to do, and the best part was that no one told me I couldn’t do it. It’s been a relief in that regard, and the way that people are responding, I couldn’t be more thrilled that somebody noticed.

DC: It’s really fun and it announces itself in a unique way, even the tag: “Finally, a Web series about vibrators.” Hard to resist, or at least resist the temptation to check it out and satisfy your curiosity.

CDL: It’s a wish fulfillment story, and those are interesting to me, because when we’re making wishes we never cover all the bases. Ever.

DC: And as a viewer you don’t want the bases covered. You want to see where the chips fall. It’s a version of “The Monkey’s Paw,” only this monkey’s paw has batteries. How did the series come about?

CDL: The Web series is an interesting format. I started on The Power Object years ago, during the Writers Guild strike. I was getting a sense that this was not going to turn out well for the majority of writers in the middle of the pack.

DC: So the project originated because you were trying to create opportunities for yourself rather than wait for them to come to you.

CDL: Yes. Absolutely. That particular script was written way before Firehouse Dog. Mike Werb and Mike Colleary were producers on this, and we’d known each other from way back. They approached me and said, “We wanna work together. Come up with something you want to write and we’ll move forward and see if we can set it up.” So I wrote the screenplay on which the eventual Web series was based and got a lot of meetings on it, but no one wanted to pull the trigger on it.

DC: Was the screenplay conceived as something done with dolls, or was it written as more conventional live action?

CDL: It was live action, and at the time there was no Bridesmaids to lead the way. Movies that had come out around the time the script went out and started circulating in the system were movies like The Sweetest Thing with Cameron Diaz and Selma Blair, and The Sweetest Thing didn’t do very well at all. Now, with Bridesmaids and with Bad Teacher, everybody’s going, “Yay! Girl comedies! Men and women are going to see it!” But at the time women doing raunchy was still kind of unproven as an audience draw. I did get the Firehouse Dog job out of it, though. New Regency responded well to the screenplay, but I think the vibrator scared them! (Laughs) I had so many meetings where the reaction was, “Can’t you get rid of the vibrator?” Fast-forward to the strike, and the whole atmosphere there was, “Create your own stuff for TV! Writers have to be creators, blah, blah, blah.” And it was inspiring, in that I wanted to try to figure out what the script really was.

DC: Has doing it in this Web series format, with dolls instead of live actors, freed up your creativity in any way or made you more open to taking chances?

CDL: Well, once you say yes to puppets, you say yes to everything else. (Laughs) And even before landing on the concept of dolls, The Power Object was conceived as a flash cartoon. In 2000, I had made a very rudimentary flash cartoon called Game Girl, about a girl gamer. I had four episodes, and it’s still online—I won’t tell you where. So I was initially going to do The Power Object as a flash cartoon, but a little more polished, a little more animation, but the drawings just weren’t up to the task. So I thought, where could we go from there? I met with this really talented artist, Jean Kang, and she worked over the scripts. I had 45 minutes of material and it was nine episodes, and she said “This is gonna take forever to finish this thing.” So we started spitballing and I thought of that MTV series The Sifl and Olly Show-- sock puppets! So from there I said, “What if we just do puppets?” Or what if it was this, or what if it was that? All of which led to the idea of dolls. This was all just in the last year.

DC: The whole design of the show tickles me. As a kid, one of the things you do—or at least what I did—was restage my favorite TV shows using dolls and other toys or, when high tech really came to town, doing radio play versions on my keen new cassette tape recorder. And your series reminds me a lot of that kind of approach. The absurdity is heightened, yet what’s notable about what you’ve done is in hanging onto a kind of seriousness in regard to the aspirations these three characters have for themselves.

CDL: Another friend of mine says, “At a certain point I forget they’re dolls.” That’s what I want to have happen, for you to get into the story.

DC: I actually felt bad for Jessie when her date with Rollo goes so badly.

CDL: You get the emotions, which border on the realistic, or at least the recognizable, and then you get plastic hamburgers and rubber sushi.

DC: One of the funniest ongoing gags is the mixture of props that are the proper scale for the dolls with full-sized found objects, like the martini glass the rocker is sleeping in, or a pair of gigantic nail clippers that Glenda uses on herself. And in one of the episodes we even get a Power Object-world close-up look at pubic lice which, thank God, is the furthest thing from realistic!

CDL: (Laughing) One thing that Firehouse Dog was really criticized for was all the fart jokes. And those were my fart jokes. I wrote most of them. And Hannah’s troll babies do some farting. Again, it’s probably seen as inappropriate to some degree.

DC: But seriously, if you’re watching the first Web series about a vibrator, are you really looking for decorum? Probably not.

CDL: You won’t get it from me! (Laughing)

DC: Jean Kang designed the dolls. How did you and she settle on what you wanted to do with them?

CDL: We found the most generic dolls we could get from the L.A. toy district. All of the dolls were then chemically stripped and Jean painted the faces. She modeled Jessie on Halle Berry, Glenda was Reese Witherspoon and Hannah was Lucy Liu. But the thing is, with real actors this series would play completely differently. Because somebody’s head stuck in a gigantic wine glass is funny. The physical comedy that we’ve got now just wouldn’t translate. We’d have to be much more literal, and all that physical stuff would be completely missing. And there’s the budget issue too. With Web series you can’t compete with television. Television has lots of money to devote to making things look a certain way and actors to be a certain way. Take away the shoestring that I’m working with, and I think you take away a certain creative impetus.

Art Director Jean Kang paints a doll's face (top), while creator-writer-director Claire-Dee Lim tends to hairdressing duties.

DC: It’s almost as if your very lack of resources causes you to find creative, sometimes odd solutions, and inspires a spirit of comedy that would be harder to access with a more visually conventional style. It’ll be interesting to see, when the script begins to emerge as a live-action project again, how the making of The Power Object as we know it now will affect the project as it is reconceived for flesh-and-blood actors moving about in real space. It’d certainly be an interesting creative process for you.

CDL: I would welcome that. I’m sure I’d find myself saying, why can’t we just have two-story-high wine bottles, and add this whole other surreal element to it? But what the full script has is 45 more minutes of various subplots that got knocked out. And we’d be able to dig deeper into the characters and work with strong actresses who have all that great comedic timing that would be necessary.

DC: Is the series completely produced now and being released in chapters now, or are you still working on it?

CDL: I am all done, and part of the reason for doing it that way is that just the releasing it and the working the Internet and the social networking, and the real networking— going out and doing various things for the project-- that’s another job. So it was my goal to just get it all done, because I don’t know how I could have done the creative work and the promotion of it at the same time.

DC: Do you see this as the end project, or will you try to use the Web series as a sort of springboard to get the live-action script going again?

CDL: To take the script further, that would be fantastic. You wouldn’t have to read the screenplay. You could just watch the show! I have ideas for sequels and further development of these characters, and the dolls are camera-ready. So at this point it’s about gauging the reception of the series itself, and taking a longer look at where I think Web series in general are going to go. I’ve noticed that in the last year audiences are having a hard time finding them. It couldn’t be a more convenient format for audiences, but there’s not exactly a TV Guide out there for the kind of choices you have on the Internet. The doing of it has to be, to some degree, its own reward. One of my friends told me, “I’m getting a window into your brain, and it scares me.” The fact that my friends like it and are laughing, to me that’s it.


Thursday, July 21, 2011


Claire-Dee Lim, creator-writer-director of The Power Object, and her stars-- from left, Glenda, Hannah and Jessie

Over the course of six seasons (lots of Emmys) and two movies (lots of money, um, no awards to speak of), Sex and the City tapped the zeitgeist by following the exploits of a quartet of post-feminist, moneyed, Manhattan-based, me-first ladies, and not just the female audience found the raucous comedy, not to mention the self-indulgent fantasy, extremely appealing. But by the time the movies rolled around—and for some of us even earlier than that— many began to wonder at what point Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda had jumped the shark from recognizable social types to cartoon representations of that indulgent fantasy, to the exclusion of almost everything else that had once grounded the show’s appeal. Of course, by the time the second movie arrived the real world had left this gang and their materialistic agenda of entitlement in its rearview mirror, not that anyone who had a hand in creating the movie seemed to notice. What was left behind was a grotesque spectacle where once resided at least a kernel of potent social observation regarding how these women viewed sex and relationships, and an awareness of the gulf between that worldview and that of its viewers.

The wit of Claire-Dee Lim’s The Power Object, a nine-episode Web series based on an original screenplay of the same name (written in collaboration with Mike Werb and Mike Colleary-- the three of them scripted the underrated family comedy Firehouse Dog), is that it makes that jump into fantastical representation and accesses a similar kind of satiric spirit regarding the bonds of female friendship while roasting the beating heart of the Sex and the City archetype like a holiday chestnut. But no one is likely to mistake The Power Object as mere homage, and that’s because Lim has recognized the essential fantasy at the heart of SATC-- girls dressing up and acting out—and realized it in its most potent distillation: it’s a comedy acted out in front of absurdly out-of-scale cut-out backdrops of varying detail by a charming cast of character-customized Barbie dolls. (The wildly creative work on the dolls is credited to art director Jean Kang.) The Power Object has been described as SATC crossed with Team America: World Police, and that’s apt as far as the allusion to puppetry is concerned—Parker and Stone’s absurdist political fantasia was grounded in a similarly spectacular low-tech mise-en-scene, but its thematic ambitions have little to do with what Lim is up to here. A more apt nutshell description of The Power Object might be Sex and the City meets “The Monkey’s Paw” as seen through the darker prism of something like Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.

Haynes’ use of Barbie dolls was a politically pointed way of accessing the disturbing reality of the way Karen Carpenter was forced to look at the world. It made us realize that rich and honest character could be accessed through such a stylized and detached approach, but though his efforts were sincere Haynes was mistaken in some circles for being callous and coldly ironic. Lim’s intent is far breezier and more irreverent than was Haynes’, but the point is still made that using dolls to represent an essential truth about characters—in this case, all things being on the surface, their shallowness, duplicity and skewed self-images—can be an effective way of dealing with the subject of the way young urban professional women move about in the world, dodging one absurd crisis after another while dodging one absurd advance by the male population after another as well.

The Power Object tells the serialized story (each episode runs about six minutes) of three women—Glenda, age 30, who aspires to become an investigative journalist for one of the major TV networks but who is currently mired in a low-level research job for a crass local morning show; Jessie, an A&R music executive whose dream of producing albums is constantly stunted by the reality of her role as baby-sitter for an ongoing series of spoiled, reckless rock stars; and Hannah, a sculptress who specializes in dildoes and vibrators for a social set far wilder than the one in which she travels. Each woman has secret longings, and those longings are soon exposed when the trio stumbles upon a super vibrator with magical powers-- the totem of modern female sexual independence imbued with wish-granting capabilities which Glenda, acting on behalf of them all, takes advantage of, with predictably unexpected results.

What is unpredictable about The Power Object (the title makes a keen play on the traditional way these women might be viewed, as well as their real desires) is how addicting it becomes over the course of its run, and how frequently hilarious it is. Lim has posted seven of the nine episodes so far, and each one has successfully built on the series’ recurring stable of characters—my favorites include Jessie’s psychotically possessive hockey player boyfriend Rollo, who by episode six is attempting to shift his status from stalker to full-fledged groom, with no encouragement from his ostensible girlfriend, and Glenda’s ineffectual boss Mr. Hamel, who is, riotously, about two-thirds the size of his staff of employees. Even the pop culture references are a bit sharper than one might expect—the girls share a bong they have dubbed Mudshark, which ought to give you a clue as to Lim’s taste in music as well as her sense of humor. But perhaps my favorite element of The Power Object is its sense of the absurd in the prop department. Full-sized cell phones are often seen glued to the heads of the characters as they speak; Jessie massages the shoulders of one of her hopelessly inebriated clients, whose head is stuck inside a full-sized martini glass; a vanity mirror in which Glenda stares at herself is a ladies’ compact flipped open , mirror up, make-up pad fully exposed. The way Lim surrounds these women (after seven episodes it seems rude and reductionist to think of them simply as dolls) with the objects of their daily lives inspires lots of comedic mileage, but the juxtaposition has a second function. It serves to skewer how the material world tends to overwhelm, by volume and here by sheer size, the thinking, the movement and even the passions of professional ladder climbers like Glenda, Jessie and Hannah, and of course, by extension, Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda.

The Power Object is pure proof that social satire and good comedy need not come packaged in multimillion-dollar budgets or long-term cable TV contracts. Episode #7, titled “This Chick’s a Psycho,” is online now-- episode 8 will be unveiled next Monday, July 25, with the finale scheduled for August 1. There’s plenty of time for you to strap on The Power Object and get up to speed. The lead-up has been tingling good; no reason not to expect a shattering, and hilarious, climax.

Next: An interview with The Power Object’s creator, Claire-Dee Lim.