August 31, 2009

Underrated MOTM: *batteries not included (1987)

Before there was Up and before there was WALL-E, there was August's Underrated Movie of the Month (UMOTM), *batteries not included. It wasn't until I saw it again recently that I saw how much those two Pixar movies were influenced by it, but even more than that I was reminded why the movie had always existed as a nostalgic favorite in my head.

I thought I'd first seen *batteries not included in the movie theater until I checked its release date. I remember it being summer when I saw it, but according to IMDb it was released on December 18, 1987. Maybe I saw it a discount theater six months later or maybe I just thought it was summer because the movie is set during the summer and the characters sleep with their windows open. In any event, I loved it at first sight, but reading the reviews of it now has made it apparent that was likely because I was seven years old.

Janet Maslin kicked off the criticism in the New York Times: "...everything in the film has been designed in toymaker's terms. That includes the human characters, who are adults only in the way an 8-year-old might imagine them. Children may enjoy this, but their adult escorts will have a harder time....Batteries Not Included isn't the kind of film that prompts questions of any kind...the time for this brand of fantasy may have come and gone." Despite her obsession with marketing motives throughout her review, I never had any *batteries not included toys.

Rita Kempley received the baton in the Washington Post: "Here's my theory: Steven Spielberg was captured by aliens, brainwashed and forced to become their public relations man...Though directed by Matthew Robbins, it is an Amblin Entertainment feature rooted in the Spielbergian credo: Earthlings cannot cope without the little men upstairs...Casting tends to be racist...Perhaps Spielberg and his pawn Robbins want to implant maternal instincts in the collective consciousness...What a strange lesson to teach children -- that they are basically helpless. Batteries is a strange kids' movie, a queer mix of violence and otherworldly benevolence. It might have been a good idea, a story of the vanishing urban neighborhood and gentrification by tycoon. But half-pint aliens to the rescue? It's time E.T. went home." A little tired of Spielberg, eh, Rita?


Even Variety gave it a limp recommendation (with my emphasis in bold): "Batteries Not Included could have used more imaginative juices to distinguish it from other, more enchanting Spielbergian pics where lovable mechanical things solve earthly human dilemmas. Still, it's suitable entertainment for kids...has a good mix of personalities, even if perhaps Elizabeth Pena as an unwed mother may raise some questions in children's minds their parents just as soon would not answer." WOW, how far have we come in 20 years? According to a recent article I read, "a record-breaking 40% of babies born in 2007 had unmarried parents (that's up 25% from 2002)". And you can imagine what that 25% was up from since 1987. But perhaps this is another discussion for another place.

Did any critics praise this movie? Ah yes, trusty Ebert: "Cronyn and Tandy rescue the movie from looking altogether like a retread, and the saucers do their part, too. Designed by Industrial Light & Magic, the visual effects wizards, the saucers swoop and vibrate and blink and purr and even have children...Batteries Not Included is a sweet, cheerful and funny family entertainment. "

Alright, so the consensus is that we'd seen this movie before. After all, in the decade prior to this movie audiences had already enjoyed E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Cocoon, Short Circuit, and Flight of the Navigator,
among other sci-fi and/or benevolent alien movies. But just because *batteries not included wasn't a big creative leap for Spielberg and director Matthew Robbins, it doesn't mean it was any less enjoyable than the others.

Here are three reasons why this movie deserves more credit, despite the criticism that it was an worn out and altogether empty story:

1.) Old people. - Quick, name the last movie you saw starring actors older than age 70? Anything? What, maybe Gran Torino last year? Away from Her a couple years ago? We're much more likely to see young actors and actresses made up to be old these days, evidenced by The Reader, Benjamin Button and Love in the Time of Cholera (alright, in that they didn't look old so much as just dead). If we've forgotten, the 80's were a huge decade for seniors in Hollywood, primarily led by co-stars and spouses Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in Cocoon, *batteries not included and Cocoon: The Return. Tandy was also in Driving Miss Daisy and Fried Green Tomatoes (ok, that was '91 - close enough).

As Faye and Frank Riley in *batteries not included, Tandy and Cronyn are a delight - she playing the senile but surprisingly witty wife, he playing the cantankerous and anxious husband. They delivered terrific performances here near the end of their respective careers, but you never hear about them because you never hear about this movie.

2.) Outstanding visual effects. - I love the look of this movie, with the warm sepia tones at the beginning and the cool sunset and evening shots throughout. It's a pretty enchanting set (filmed on location in the Lower East Side) to begin with, but the arrival of the "fix-its" cranks the visual goodness up to 11. Spielberg and Lucas and the folks at ILM were in familiar territory here with alien spacecraft and mannerisms, but the fix-its are really a stunning achievement in their own right, as good as anything the team had done to that point. Their movements are fluid and with simple changes in sound and "eye" movement, they really develop their own personalities, including the baby fix-its.

Looking back, *batteries not included was terribly overlooked during awards season. Only two films were even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, with Predator losing out to Innerspace. I'd be more upset if I didn't also love Innerspace.

3.) It accepted - or at least didn't reject - its 1980's identity. - *batteries not included could have been set in the future, or something else could have been changed to make its plot more believable, but it wasn't - it was completely at peace taking place in the 80's. The characters' wardrobes could not be from any other era, the shots of Times Square show a seedy and tourist-unfriendly place, and one of the characters, the former boxer Harry, speaks only in 1980's advertising ("We bring good things to life," "Don't leave home without," "Batteries not included," etc.). Also, one of the best lines of the movie, when Mason is trying to convince his girlfriend not to leave him: "This is the '80s! Nobody likes reality any more!," she exasperatingly scolds him as he she walks out the door. The result of these "period pieces" don't make the movie look dated, they just add to the nostalgia.

So there you have it - three reasons to revisit this movie and discover that it should be appreciated for getting a lot of things right, even if it didn't bring anything "new" to the table.


August 27, 2009

300 Words About: Ponyo

As a stand-alone painting this is beautiful, as a feature-length film it's incredible...

I probably should have kept my mouth shut a few months ago when I whined, " I fear we're going to lose the human element to animation". I knew both Ponyo and The Princess and The Frog were still on the way, but
it seemed as if Coraline and Sita Sings the Blues were swift hammer strikes on the nails in the coffin of hand-drawn animation. After recently seeing Ponyo, I glad to have a renewed hope that someone, somewhere will continue to do this kind of work, and hopefully, Hayao Miyazaki will be one of those someones.

Honestly, I didn't really care for the Little Mermaid-inspired story of Ponyo (it seemed a little flat), but the nice thing about animated films, especially those from Miyazaki, is that the story can take a back seat to the storyboards. In this case, more than 100,000 vibrantly colorful, delicately hand-drawn storyboards. The resulting movements are so engrossing that you wish you could watch some sequences in slow-motion, or at the very least display some of the frames in art galleries.

For me, watercolor backgrounds and landscapes provide a nostalgic aura of fantasy and imagination, the sense of a place that that looks fuzzy on the screen but is perceived in your mind to be vividly clear and full of life. The sharp edges and modern flourishes of Pixar films are dazzlingly realistic, to be sure, but it's only in the hand-drawn style of Ponyo and older Disney films that my mind reverts back to childlike wonder. Both are enjoyable experiences, but the hand-drawn style has much more of a comfort food/warm blanket effect on me.

Which is why it will be sad if Ponyo doesn't do well at the box office here (it's already been another smash hit for Miyazaki in Japan), despite the voice talents of Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson and Cate Blanchett. American children are missing out on the experience of seeing something that doesn't resemble a video game; it draws them further into the story and, in my opinion, probably does more to bring out their own artistic interests. After all, all of those Pixar people grew up watching hand-drawn Disney movies.

If you haven't seen a Miyazaki film and you're curious about what to expect, feast your eyes on this:


August 26, 2009

Edina Cinema Celebrates 75 Years

I'm extremely late in highlighting this, but for those who haven't been following along with the local calendar, tomorrow marks the beginning of festivities celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Edina Cinema. I never went to the Edina growing up here, and had it not been acquired by Landmark Theatres in 2003, that would probably still be true. But since moving back, I've have to visit it with some frequency. The new releases definitely lean toward foreign, documentary,and generally more "mature" films (Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg instead of Inglourious Basterds), but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

More to come in a future edition of Local Theater Love, but in the meantime here is a copy of the flyer outlining the weekend events, as well as a history of the theater taken from Cinema Treasures. It was submitted by one Bryan Krefft and in the comments you will find some corrections and links to older photos of the theater. Matt Gamble may have an insider's perspective as well:

"The Edina opened in 1934, seating 1300, and was designed by the firm of Liebenberg & Kaplan in flamboyant Art Deco style. It cost between $80,000 and $100,000 to erect. At the time, it was the largest theater in suburban Minneapolis.

Though initial reaction by the citizens of Edina to a glitzy movie house was mixed at best, especially to a glittering marquee in downtown Edina (which was remedied by switching the design of the marquee from a standard canopy marquee to a tower marquee), it was an almost immediate success.

The Edina boasted all of the most modern technology of the day, including hearing devices for the hard of hearing. However, it also featured enough glamour and luxury to remind patrons of the downtown movie palaces of earlier years, such as a large stage, a 300 seat balcony and seating for 1000 on the orchestra level, air-conditioning, a large fireplace in the lobby for the cold Minnesota winters, murals in the lobby depicting old Edina, stylish Art Deco furniture, and even a nursery for children.

In 1951, during a severe wind storm, the towering marquee was bent in half but soon repaired. However, three decades later, when a twister hit Edina, the theater's marquee was totally destroyed, but was recreated in 1981 and is now a listed historic landmark.

The Edina was twinned and remodeled in 1976, and it was planned that the Edina 2 would now screen art and foreign fare; however, this wouldn't actually come to fruition until much later. In the late 70s, the Edina was triplexed.

In 1988, the theater's then-operator, Cineplex Odeon closed the Edina 3 and all but its Art Deco landmark facade and marquee were torn down. A modern, two level fourplex was built behind the facade, opening in 1989.

Loews Cineplex shuttered the Edina in January of 2003, but in March 2003, the theater was acquired by the Landmark Theatres chain, and finally became the art house that it was originally intended to become in the late 70s."

I plan on attending the world premiere of Into Temptation tomorrow night, and hopefully at least one of the weekend shows. The Edina may not be my first theater of choice in the Cities, but it has history and its own charm, and all things considered it's a pretty impressive achievement to last 75 years in the movie theater industry. So I say, Happy Birthday.

August 24, 2009

REVIEW: The Cove (A)

Before I left San Diego a few years ago, I made an effort to try and visit all of the local attractions that I'd always avoided as tourist traps, such as Sea World. All the times I'd driven to and through Mission Beach, I never stopped at Sea World. Seemed like a cool place since I'm a sucker for zoos, but either the admission price ($65) or the lukewarm endorsement from others put it near the bottom of my list. Ultimately I never went, and after seeing The Cove I'm actually relieved.

Picking up where Free Willy 3: The Rescue (what, you didn't know there was a second?) left off, The Cove is another one of those hip documentaries that tries to convince you that saving the world doesn't have to involve boring activities like signing petitions and holding up signs at rallies. You can free dive after dark. Or wear masks and arrange car decoys and elude the police. Or use military-grade thermal cameras. You can trespass and install cameras hidden in rocks, or you can barge into an international conference and parade around with a flat-screen monitor strapped to your chest. And you can do all of this without having to call your Congressperson once.

I say all of this tongue-in-cheek, because the truth is that activism really does involve being active, and as the daredevils in The Cove tell us, a relatively small group of people acting can accomplish more than a relatively large group of people talking. In fact, the whole reason the film was made was because Ric O'Barry (pictured below) wasn't even allowed to talk at a particular conference sponsored by Sea World. O'Barry contacted photographer/marine life activist Louie Psihoyos (nd why wouldn't he? Psihoyos looks like a guy who can get things done), and together the men set out to Taiji, Japan, where O'Barry had for years tried to pull back the curtain for the world to see that this small fishing hamlet had a very big secret: several thousand dolphins are slaughtered each year as part of the local fishermen's effort to catch young and healthy dolphins to sell (for up to $150,000 each) to aquariums and marine parks all over the globe, including places like Sea World.

Two facts here underscore the effectiveness of this film in earning your sympathy. First, Ric O'Barry is the root of the problem that he's trying to solve. It's true, he not only acted on the hit show "Flipper" that helped popularize dolphin domestication decades ago, but he actually caught all five of the dolphins who played the title character. As he explains it, it was the suicide (yes, suicide) of his favorite of the five dolphins that opened his eyes to the cruelty of domestication. Since that time, nearly forty years ago, he has committed himself to saving these cetaceans.

His confessional and attempt at redemption brings to mind documentaries ranging from The Fog of War to Tyson, the difference being that O'Barry is neither at the end of his life or in the middle of rehab. He's been clear-headed about this cause for half of his life, and you can't help but wince when you see the archival clips of him on the show. The man has paid for his sins and then some.

The second fact of note in The Cove is that the fishermen who are massacring the dolphins in the hidden cove are actually not doing anything wrong, legally speaking. Their trade is legal and their methods are legal. Whether they are ethical is another question, and that's the question O'Barry and his team are seeking to definitively answer. Aside from the violence wrought on the dolphins, and aside from the ironic identity of Taiji (where you can eat dolphin while you watch dolphins perform), they are concerned with the mercury-contaminated dolphin meat sold and served throughout the country, and the public resources Japan and other countries invest to ensure that dolphin hunting remains legal. Above all else, they are outraged by the killing and domestication of a species that is many people consider as sentient and intelligent as humans. Hunting these animals for these purposes may not be against the law, but you're convinced by the end of The Cove that it probably should be.


When documentaries don't have a particular agenda to push they can afford to exist as pure entertainment (see: Man on Wire). But those documentaries that do have agendas, such as An Inconvenient Truth, Chicago 10, Standard Operating Procedure, Darfur Now, Food, Inc., and The Cove (all, not coincidentally, produced by Participant Productions), well, they have to walk a fine line between their style and their statement. I was skeptical going into The Cove that it would be presented as some kind of cinematic thrill ride, where the message about dolphins would be overshadowed by the gnarliness of the dare and chatter about how awesome it was to use thermal cameras and run from the cops.

But this isn't the case - there is no joking around and slapping of hands back in the hotel room and mugging for the cameras, because these people really do care about their cause, and I admire that. I think there could have been a little more exploration at the history behind the practice and the effect that stopping it would have on the local economy, but based on the evidence presented you can't help but be convinced that something is very wrong when ocean water is turned bright cherry red with blood. Although I wasn't moved to tears by the end of The Cove, I certainly had an unsettling feeling about the hunt that's about to begin again this September.
And I was glad I never went to Sea World.

Grade:
Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Social Significance - 5

Total: 28/30= 93% = A

August 20, 2009

300 Words About: In the Loop

The charming face of international diplomacy...

Every time I go to Washington, D.C., I find myself increasingly noticing the ugliness of the place. Of course the city is not physically ugly (I love the National Mall), or culturally ugly (quite the opposite), but I'm picking up more and more on the undercurrent of a competitive, cutthroat, ugly attitude that exists in the federal government and the think tanks and the agencies inside the Beltway. It's all happening In the Loop, as it were, and based on anecdotes from my D.C.-based friends and the razor-sharp satire in this terrific comedy, I'm frankly glad that I'm operating outside of the loop.

Granted, half of In the Loop takes place in London, but things are no better over there, the only difference being the flavor of expletive used in any given conversation. Directed by British TV veteran Armando Ianucci, In the Loop shows us a side of international relations that's just too bizarre to be fake, because really, given the nasty dynamic of the health care debate at the moment, and the 25-hour news cycle, and the sheer size of the circuitous bureaucracy that is our federal government, there's every reason to believe hijinks like this take place with some frequency. After all, the government is comprised of us - "we the people" - and the ratio of good apples to bad apples is the same on Main Street as it is on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Calling Ianucci's directly style "breezy" would be an understatement. Tornadoes of dialogue whoosh through most scenes, and with the number of accents and the number of voices speaking at the same time (e.g., the elevator scene), you're likely to be scratching your head as much as you are laughing. But I like that, because it rewards paying attention and it means that you're laughing at a different joke than your neighbor, simply because they probably didn't catch the one you did. The few moments that don't feature dialogue are filled in by deadpan comedic acting, with so many scowls and smirks that it would appear it's a competition as to who can do the best impression of Dick Cheney/Karl Rove (the winner is David Rasche). Or in the case of the impossibly sarcastic Chad (Zach Woods), who can do the best impression of Kristen Wiig.

If there's one thing I didn't care for in this otherwise wickedly amusing film, it was the use of handheld cameras and quick zooming during completely static scenes (people sitting in cubicles), which at this point is so prevalent in every movie, commercial, and TV show, that I'm left wondering who will be the first director to just have their actors throw the camera back and forth to each other during scenes of casual conversation. Fortunately, there are no scenes of casual conversation in In the Loop, so for the most part the crazy camera work simply enhances the sense of chaos, or at the very least makes the film resemble a documentary. Which it isn't - I hope.

August 18, 2009

REVIEW: District 9 (B)

How it pains me to not be writing a "Taking It Home" review of Neill Blomkamp's District 9, a movie that I fell in love with at first description earlier this year, but became less and less and less excited for as the date neared and I realized that what I thought was going to be about a tale of South Africa was really a bam-pow sci-fi flick about aliens (in South Africa, yes, but about aliens nonetheless).

As clever and "cool" as it was, at the end of the day this movie offered much less meaning and insight than what I originally hoped for, or even what I expected from the brilliant first 15 minutes (or, had I seen it beforehand, what I would have expected from the film's inspiration, Blomkamp's Alive in Joburg).

But still, on a purely cinematic level I'm still tempted to call District 9 one of the most entertaining movies of this so-far lackluster year, and one that I'd much rather watch again over Star Trek (what happened to all of the "Best of 2009" cries for that, by the way?). Yes, District 9 is a well-acted, mostly fast-paced story framed in a unique setting, and the visual effects and use of CGI are the best I've seen since The Golden Compass a couple years ago. Whether that last point means awards are in order, we'll just have to see - but if so they'll be the only awards the movie deserves...

Grabbing you right from the get-go with the currently trendy and rather unnecessary fake documentary/verite style, District 9 introduces us to an alternative Johannesburg in 2010, decades after a mysterious UFO stopped in mid-air over the city. In it were countless weak, starving aliens (heretofore known as "prawns", the derogatory term applied to them), who were initially treated with compassionate care but soon wore out their welcome when it became obvious that they were stranded for good. Like proverbial in-laws.

The prawns were thus forced to live in District 9, a set-aside area of the city cut off from social services and human society. As with the black population only forty years ago, they were treated with hostility and hatred by pubic officials like Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a bureaucrat's bureaucrat heading up a Multi-National United (MNU) prawn relocation unit. He mugs for the camera and shows us District 9 like an excited child would show us his treehouse; his idea of an adrenaline rush is torching a shed full of prawn eggs.

As Wikus leads an effort to relocate the prawns to District 10 (a newly constructed refugee camp far from the city, and the likely location of the guaranteed sequel), an accident causes a DNA transfer in him that will in the course of about a week turn him into a prawn - if he survives at all. The remainder of the movie, then, is the story of Wikus vs. the prawns vs. a nasty bald-headed villain (nasty because he's bald-headed) vs. cannibalistic Nigerian gangsters lording over District 9 vs. the MNU front office vs. the world.

In short, it ends as a brilliantly rendered, eye-poppingly well-designed, visually intense action-packed extravaganza that has maybe something to do with humanity's relation to aliens, but almost nothing to do with apartheid, South Africa, the United Nations ("MNU"), or, let's be honest, reality. This whole thing is a set-up, and I'm not falling for it.

How exactly would a bulletproof vest protect against alien weaponry?

I shouldn't be discussing this movie without at some point explaining my fascination for the country in which it's set. As I may or may not have shared before, The Power of One is unconditionally and unquestionably my favorite movie of all time. It's the movie that, when I saw it for the first time as a boy, forever changed my view of the world, myself, and movies (which I would not really devote myself to for another decade). Not surprisingly, since then I've been automatically captivated by anything dealing with the extraordinarily rich history and culture of South Africa (fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I still have the heavy-handedness of Clint Eastwood's Invictus to provide my South Africa fix in 2009).

Understanding this will shed some light on why I was disappointed by how quickly District 9 abandoned its fantastically juicy set-up and devolved into an alien action thriller (with an ending and villain identical to Daniel Craig in The Power of One, no less!), leaving all kinds of political and racial themes on the table for another, likely worse movie to examine. As Blomkamp, a white South African who grew up in Johannesburg, admits, "No allegories, no metaphors, nothing. Just science fiction in Joburg...There's no message, per se, that I'm trying to get across with the movie. It's rather that I want to present science fiction, and put it in the environment that affected me."

Ahhh, fair enough, I guess, but it still stings to hear him add in another interview that he backed off on exploring the social issues because it "wouldn't be entertaining on a popcorn level." Come on, man, don't leave me hanging with a tease like that. Just because Peter Jackson got excited about Alive in Joburg and wanted to show off his CGI prowess, it didn't mean you had to abandon all of the meaning. Well, maybe it did since he was footing the bill, but still, the lack of thematic depth in District 9 and the cliche-ridden finale that left us puffed up for a sequel was not what I was expecting following the terrific first 15 minutes.

Why not talk straight about the fact that a white South African anti-hero doesn't learn his lesson about prejudice? Why not talk straight about the fact that the South African blacks are mistreating the prawns in the same way that they themselves were treated for generations? Why not explore the existence of the MNU as the operating arm of a massive, global military-industrial complex? Why not have one of the prawns rise as a Nelson Mandela or Steve Biko-type hero? Wouldn't be "popcorn"-friendly, I suppose, so best to leave all that background stuff securely in the background.

Alive in Joburg - now that would have been a cool movie...


But enough with the whining and moaning, because of all the action-packed summer movies that allow you to shut off your brain for a while, I suppose I should be glad that District 9 is the only one I've seen. I'm guessing, for example, that it features much better acting than Transformers 2, Harry Potter, or G.I. Joe. Sharlto Copley was a real find to play the part of Wikus, and although I won't compare his acting chops to Daniel Day-Lewis, I think he'd be a fine choice to actually play Daniel Day-Lewis.

And so, the acting and the action and the awesomeness allow District 9 to stand out in its genre, even if it never rises above its genre. I think that's where I'd like to end up with all of these schizophrenic thoughts, on the bright side of things. I didn't care for the execution of District 9 but I loved the idea, and I acknowledge that somewhere in there is the potential for meaningful discussion, even if it's tucked away and eventually out of sight behind goo, guns, and gadgets.

Grade:
Writing - 7
Acting - 9
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Social Significance - 4

Total: 42/50= 84% = B


And now...fun with nitpicking, because any movie considered the best ever deserves a closer look:

- District 9 is an original story, alright, but maybe only because no one has successfully combined the following movies using this formula: Star Wars + Children of Men + E.T. + Independence Day + The Power of One + Black Hawk Down + Jerusalema + Flight of the Navigator + War of the Worlds + Contact + Iron Man + Cloverfield

- Is it reasonable to believe that 1 million aliens with superior intelligence, strength, technology and weaponry would not be able to free themselves from their oppressors, or at least establish themselves more forcefully as legitimate immigrants? I don't think so.

- Come on, his name was "Christopher Johnson"? No explanation? From what I know about District Six, people were not given WASPy names as part of their forced relocation, but somebody correct me if I'm wrong.

- Why did it take 20 years for Christopher and his son to find a can of fluid on the ground? What was that, anyway, and how was that the key to their salvation? Way too convenient for my taste and it led to the only eye-rolling moment I had of the movie, when Christopher had to tell Wikus about the rarity of the stuff in the canister.

- Speaking of which, Wikus' ability to fluently communicate with Christopher was about as nonsensical as Luke Skywalker's ability to communicate with R2-D2.

- If the prawns and humans were having inter-species sex for so many years, why would Wikus be the first person to survive a DNA transfer? Is he supposed to represent a "chosen one"? I don't like that idea.

- Regarding the portrayal of Nigerians as cannibalistic savages (otherwise known as the "Armond White issue"), Blomkamp says in that earlier interview: "Sure, I'm totally aware of that. I know those buttons are going to be pushed. Unfortunately, that's the reality of it, and it doesn't matter how politically correct or politically incorrect you are. The bottom line is that there are huge Nigerian crime syndicates in Johannesburg. I wanted the film to feel real, to feel grounded, and I was going to incorporate as much of contemporary South Africa as I wanted to, and that's just how it is." So, wait, you're telling me that Johannesburg is swarming with cannibalistic Nigerians who sell cat food, have no regard for life and generally exist as evil scum in human form? "That's just how it is"? Hope they get things in order before the World Cup...

- I'm not understanding the way in which the carcasses in the MNU laboratory were handled. Sometimes people are wearing masks, sometimes things are in bags, sometimes it's just an open room. Is this place sanitary, and wouldn't there be a host of alien diseases that humans couldn't withstand?

- The prawns are not being exploited or harvested or enslaved by the humans, right? They're a cancer that people want to get rid of and everybody knows it. So why wouldn't everyone - humans and prawns alike - be committed full time to simply finding the fuel that would allow them to return home, no hard feelings on either end? If a guy parks on your front yard after running out of gas, would you both just accept that the guy has to live there for 20 years, and would you both never consider the idea of, hmm, finding more gas?

- In operating the prawn gun/robot/walker thing, did it become an actual extension of Wikus' body? If not, why did bullets hitting the metal exoskeleton disable him so severely? Wouldn't he have been protected in that?


- If the fuel they had left was enough to power the mothership, why waste time trying to get the little pod ship off the ground? Doesn't seem like that pod was very fuel-efficient.

- When Christopher is beaten by the MNU agents upon his arrest, why is his battered head and eye oozing with red blood? I thought everything that came out of them was black? Seems like it was a cheap way for us to see Christopher as a human. In fact, maybe he was a human - yes, he was formerly a human and underwent the same transformation as Wikus, right? It sure seemed like he became much more human (especially on an emotional level) as Wikus became more alien.

- Speaking of which, could these prawns have been any more anatomically similar to humans? Their bone and muscle structure, their vocal communication, their upright, two-legged gait, their digestive systems (urinating), their sexual organs (urinating while standing?), their heads and hands - for all intents and purposes they were simply primates with thick skin. Is that the extent of the diversity of intelligent life in the universe?

- When the MNU headquarters are blown up from within and the incident is passed off as a "terrorist attack", how does the spokesperson get away with simply saying they've taken care of it, it's no big deal and it's contained? Wouldn't this be the equivalent of the Pentagon being bombed?

- Hey, all you Slumdog Millionaire haters, answer me this: District 9 was filmed on location in the shantytowns of Joburg, and you can bet your self-righteous dollars that many of the people we see in these slums are still mired in abject poverty. Should Neill Blomkamp be chastised for portraying this gritty reality, and furthermore be held responsible for lifting anyone featured in the movie out of poverty? Why not? What's the difference?

August 17, 2009

REVIEW: Heart of Stone (A)

I've been convinced ever since my experience teaching in a low-income neighborhood that as civil servants, public school teachers are among the most underpaid and unappreciated workers in American society. Here are millions of adults providing millions of children with the skills and knowledge to succeed (and not simply survive) in the future, and they're paid beans. After watching Beth Toni Kruvant's Heart of Stone, I was reminded that many school administrators deserve higher pay as well, and, in the case of principals like Ron Stone, maybe also a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Heart of Stone is a riveting, refreshing, heartbreaking but ultimately inspiring documentary that will forever change your impressions of public schools in America. You think you've seen this story before, recently in The Class, or earlier in Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, and even High School High. In fact, with a bald African-American principal trying to clean up a formerly prestigious high school in inner-city New Jersey that's been overrun by gang violence, Heart of Stone would appear to be the documentary version of Lean on Me. But it's not. For starters, Ron Stone is the antithesis of Joe Clark. He's unconventional and a rebel, perhaps, but a warmhearted and compassionate rebel, and someone who understands that walking around with a baseball bat doesn't mean much when students are walking around with loaded Uzis.

Wearing a bullet-proof vest as he patrols the grounds of Weequahic High School, Stone is fearless in his interactions with the Crips and Bloods that make up his student body, visiting them at their homes and bringing them into his office on a regular basis for conversations about life. Stone explains, "The school has to be the parent, it has to be the psychologist, it has to be the police, it has to be all these things that, at one time, were the responsibilities of the family."

Indeed, having served in his position only a few years, Stone (who grew up in Newark) understands the harsh truth that many inner-city educators try to work around: "If I expect you to come in here and learn geometry and you say to me, 'But i don't have anywhere to live', how realistic is that? If you say to me, 'Mr. Stone, I can't carry books home, because I gotta have my hands in my pocket, because my hand is on whatever my protection is gonna be, because I have to cross two turflines to get home, how can I say, 'Yeah, well that's fine, but where's your geometry homework? See, unless I can address these needs that the kids have, I have no credibility with them."

And that's just what he does, examining each student's individual situations and then doggedly addressing every obstacle that prevents them from achieving their true potential.

Heart of Stone packs loads of rich history and insight into its trim, 84-minute running time. Utilizing a refreshingly conventional, interview-heavy documentary filmmaking method that's almost quaint in this age of Michael Moore, Man on Wire, and The Cove, Kruvant focuses her lens on Stone, three gang members, and the Jewish community. You might wonder why so much attention is paid to the community as a whole and the history of the high school - until you learn that Weequahic was once considered one of, if not the, best high schools in the nation. Alumni from the 50's and 60's, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Roth and American Gangster muse Richie Roberts (portrayed in the film by Russell Crowe), describe the school as a place full of promise and potential, from which you could attend any college and achieve any dream.

Following the racial turmoil and riots of the late 1960's, however, Newark - and consequently Weequahic - suffered a slow and unabated decline in socioeconomic status. Eventually gang violence was even spilling onto the school grounds, where a police officer was shot and killed by a gang member several years ago. Despite this tarnished image, Weequahic alumni, many of whom were Jewish and members of the classes of the 50's and 60's, decide to band together and form the Weequahic Alumni Association.

In doing so, and motivated by their self-imposed obligation to give back to the school that paved the way for their future success, these predominantly Jewish alumni committed to helping predominantly African-American students achieve similar dreams at Weequahic, going so far as to raise thousands of dollars in scholarship funds and sponsor trips to Europe (Stone: "It allows a kid to see there's a world out there so vastly different - and I hope that that stimulates something in you that allows you to think, you know, 'I could see doing this again, I want to do this again, how do I make it happen so I can do this again?'.").

On one level, then, Heart of Stone poses an extremely challenging question: What, if anything, do you owe to the public school that educated you, and to what extent should you - and not the state or school district - be responsible for helping its current students succeed? If you believe that any student has the potential to succeed under the right circumstances, as I do, then it's hard not to celebrate the Weequahic Alumni Association's efforts and hope that they encourage other schools and communities to follow suit. It would be nice to have a visionary hero like Ron Stone to manage the school on a day-to-day basis, but Heart of Stone shows that a public school with an alumni association as active and philanthropic as a private school can probably achieve some surprising success on its own.

In addition to focusing on what needs to go on in the community outside of the school to make a difference, Heart of Stone also provides vivid examples of what can happen when the community inside the school is transformed. Establishing fair rules and introducing conflict resolution seminars, Stone turned Weequahic into a non-violent space and became a mentor to several students along the way, including seniors Rayvon and Sharif (18 year-old gang leaders in the Crips and Bloods, respectively), who are, depending on the day, both ashamed and proud of their gang affiliations.

Rayvon is an intelligent, soft-spoken, contemplative young man who was raised in foster homes and joined the Crips if for no other reason than to experience "family" life for the first time. He likes to read and has hopes for leaving Newark, but when he is accepted to Seton Hall University, he is paralyzed by the thought of leaving the familiarity of his surroundings, regardless of how dangerous they may be. Sharif, on the other side of the turf line, is a larger-than-life, charismatic presence with a grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye. He and his brother are both influential leaders in the Bloods, and Sharif understands the value of education, even if he doesn't fully understand the value of life. His helpless mother appears to get some strange pride out her sons' leadership ability, even if it is exercised within one of the deadliest gangs in America.

It's outrageous to consider, but in listening to these young men you begin to develop some respect for them as well, if not at least some sympathy. The more you learn about the community and the more you learn about their families, the more you start to see them like Ron Stone does, not as gang members or problem students, but as confused kids with a lot of potential to do a lot of great things. If you are similarly engaged by this film, I will warn you of a development that literally caused me to gasp aloud, and left my fiancee and I emotionally wrecked for the rest of the night.

Critics of public schools - and there are legion - will throw out the baby with the bathwater here, pointing to the millions of high school dropouts and failed institutions that aren't seen in Heart of Stone. There's no denying this reality, but the message of this film is not that school reform can be achieved by pie-in-the-sky dreams and happy classes. Obviously, it takes a lot of hard work, sacrifice, discipline, gratitude, humility, forgiveness, and determination to turn schools around. But as evidenced by Ron Stone and Weequahic High School, optimism and compassion go a long way as well.

Grade:
Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 4
Social Significance - 5

Total: 29/30= 97% = A

Heart of Stone is currently playing in limited theatrical release. Visit the official website for screening information.


August 15, 2009

Only in the Movies: Browsing Through Vinyl

When was the last time you did this? 1996?

Let me lead off by saying this: I love music, and I believe that finding a person who loves the same music as you can make a good relationship great. It's true, my fiancee and I bonded over music as much as anything else in the early years of our relationship. I made her mix CDs and we reminisced about the music we listened to growing up. Music is as important to us now as it was before when we first started dating five years ago.

But not once during this period have we ever strolled through a record store and browsed through vinyl. In fact, I don't even think we've browsed through the CD section of any store. We find music online, we acquire music online, and we listen to music online. I'm probably the furthest thing from an iTunes loyalist, but the pay-per-song model was one of the biggest-ever shifts in the music industry, leading to declining album "sales" and increasing song "downloads" (which increased by 30% in 2008, according to this year-end report by the Recording Industry Association of America). This begs the question:

Who still browses through vinyl in record stores anymore?

Assuming most people are, like us, primarily users of online music services, why are movies still stuck in the 80's and 90's? The "browsing through records on a first date" scene is one of the oldest and most used movie cliches of the last few decades (most recently in (500) Days of Summer), and I'm not buying it anymore. About as many people browse through record stores as Blockbuster stores these days, and in this age of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and iTunes, that's a dwindling group.

If you agree with me you'll be surprised by the following fact, and if you disagree with me you'll be standing on solid evidence: Last year, vinyl records sold at their highest level since 1990, more than doubling in sales from 2007. What gives? I can't explain it, and while it threatens to blow a gaping hole in my argument, I stand by my claim that people don't flirt across record store aisles anymore, and romantic connections through music are much more likely to happen online, or maybe at a live show, but that's about it.

I also don't accept the reality of Garden State and (500) Days of Summer, where lovers unite when one hears the music come from the other's massive, noise-canceling earmuff headphones. If both characters are big audiophiles, wouldn't they both be listening to music, and even then, don't most people use earbuds?

As with answering machines and free cabs, this is where you end up when you spend way too much time thinking about movie details.

Your thoughts?

August 13, 2009

Perfect Song, Perfect Scene #7

Napoleon's Dance, Napoleon Dynamite (2004): "Canned Heat" by Jamiroquai


August 12, 2009

Fall 2009 Lineup at the Trylon microcinema

Considering that all 12 screenings in the better-than-advertised Buster Keaton series at the new Trylon microcinema completely sold out, you'd be wise to get tickets well in advance for the next slate of films. Barry Kryshka is following through with his pledge to bring weekly repertory programming back to the Twin Cities in his terrific new space, and the recently released fall lineup boasts a few can't-miss opportunities.

The first three months each feature a different theme, and many of us will be seeing some movies for the first time in the theater. For example, as I was intent on rushing a viewing of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three in before Tony Scott's disastrous remake, I was forced to stream it online on my tiny laptop screen one night. Little did I know that Take-Up Productions would be showing the original in all of its refreshingly imperfect 35mm glory, sure to be sweet relief for all those who are still reeling from this summer's version (speaking of Tony Scott - see The Warriors here before Scott ruins that, too).

Below is the confirmed fall schedule for the Trylon (note that Take-Up is also programming Audrey, an Audrey Hepburn series, at the Heights for six Monday nights beginning Sept. 14). All descriptions are taken directly from Take-Up Productions:

SEPTEMBER - "Crime Spree"
New York Crime - The New Classics

September 4 and 5
The Warriors (1979) in 35mm @ 7:00 & 9:00 PM
dir Walter Will, starring Michael Beck and David Patrick Kelly
*As color-coded gangs gather in the thousands in the Bronx, charismatic leader Cyrus is assassinated and the finger points, mistakenly, at the Warriors - now it’s one long train ride back to Coney. A stylized violence-packed update of Xenophon's Anabasis. See it now, before Tony Scott "re-imagines" this film the way he did with...

September 11 and 12
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) in 35mm @ 7:00 and 9:05 PM
dir Joseph Sargent, starring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw
*"Screw the goddamn passengers! What do they want for their thirty-five cents? To live forever?"
Wisecracks and bullets fly as Robert Shaw, Hector Elizondo and Martin Balsam hijack a southbound No. 6 train, the ransom-carrying cop car jackknifes in Astor Place, and TA cop Walter Matthau negotiates via subway squawkbox.
(Read my thoughts on the original and this summer's remake.)

September 18 and 19
Dog Day Afternoon (1975) in BD @ 7:00 & 9:25 PM
dir Sidney Lumet, starring Al Pacino and John Cazale
*The robbery should have taken 10 minutes. 4 hours later, the bank was like a circus sideshow. 8 hours later, it was the hottest thing on live TV. 12 hours later, it was all history. And it's all true.
(Revisit a classic scene from Dog Day Afternoon.)

September 25 and 26
Inside Man (2006) in BD @ 7:00 & 9:00 PM
dir Spike Lee, starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster
*It looked like the perfect bank robbery. But you can't judge a crime by it's cover. This is Spike Lee's pitch perfect tribute to the NYC crime films of the 70s. Spot on casting includes Christopher Plummer, Willem Dafoe, Chiwetel Ejiofor and James Ransone (who you may know from his role in HBO's Generation Kill).

OCTOBER - "Cronenberg"
The Films of David Cronenberg

Oct 9 and 10
Videodrome (1983) in 35mm @ 7:00 & 8:50 PM
starring James Woods
*First it controlled her mind, then it destroyed her body...Long live the new flesh!

Oct 16 and 17
Scanners (1981) in 35mm @ 7:00 & 9:10 PM
starring Stephen Lack and Michael Ironside
*There are 4 billion people on earth. 237 are Scanners. They have the most terrifying powers ever created...and they are winning. 35mm

Oct 23 and 24
The Brood (1979) in 35mm @ 7:00 & 9:00 PM
starring Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar
*The Ultimate Experience Of Inner Terror!

Oct 30 and 31
The Fly (1986) in 35mm & BD @ 7:00 & 9:00 PM
starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis
*Something went wrong in the lab today. Very wrong.
(Take your pick, on Friday we run film at 7, digital at 9, on Saturday we run digital at 7, film at 9.)

NOVEMBER - "Capra"
The Films of Frank Capra

Nov 6 and 7
American Madness (1932) in 35mm @ 7:00 & 8:35 PM
starring Walter Huston, Pat O'Brien and Kay Johnson
*Bank president Walter Huston insists on lending on "character" collateral, despite an almost cheating wife, embezzling cashier, and spectacular bank run.

Nov 13 and 14
It Happened One Night (1934) in 35mm @ 7:00 & 9:05 PM
starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert
*Following a memorable Greyhound bus ride, only the "walls of Jericho" separate story-hungry newshound Clark Gable from bratty runaway heiress Claudette Colbert. The apotheosis of the screwball comedy swept the Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and (for Robert Riskin) Best Screenplay.

Nov 20 and 21
Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1936) in 35mm @ 7:00 & 9:15 PM
starring Garry Cooper and Jean Arthur
*"Mr. Deeds is Capra's finest film, and that means it is a comedy quite unmatched on the screen." -Graham Greene, 1936

Nov 27 and 28
Lost Horizon (1937) in 35mm @ 7:00 & 9:35 PM
starring Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt and Edward Everett Horton
*Millions to make it!...Two years in production!...The best seller that sets a new style in romance floods the screen with splendor and drama.

*The Trylon projects from 35mm film or 1080p high definition video. "35mm" denotes a program projected from film, "BD" is a digital screening.


The Trylon microcinema (612.424.5468) is located at 3258 Minnehaha Avenue S (click for a map and for my profile of the Trylon prior to its grand opening last month). All tickets at the Trylon are $8, but discount cards can be purchased for $25 (5 admissions, good for up to two per screening).

Purchase tickets EARLY (they will sell out) at www.trylon.org.

August 11, 2009

Unlucky in Love - or Maybe Just Unaware?

Come on, Tom, get real...

An excerpt from the official synopsis for (500) Days of Summer:
  • "Tom, the boy, still believes, even in this cynical modern world, in the notion of a transforming, cosmically destined, lightning-strikes-once kind of love. Summer, the girl, doesn’t. Not at all. But that doesn’t stop Tom from going after her, again and again, like a modern Don Quixote, with all his might and courage. Suddenly, Tom is in love not just with a lovely, witty, intelligent woman – not that he minds any of that -- but with the very idea of Summer, the very idea of a love that still has the power to shock the heart and stop the world."
An excerpt from the official synopsis for Paper Heart:
  • "Charlyne Yi does not believe in love. Or so she says. Well, at the very least, she doesn’t believe in fairy-tale love or the Hollywood mythology of love, and her own experiences have turned her into yet another modern-day skeptic. Paper Heart follows Charlyne as she embarks on a quest across America to make a documentary about the one subject she doesn’t fully understand. As she and her good friend (and director) Nicholas search for answers and advice about love, Charlyne talks with friends and strangers, scientists, bikers, romance novelists, and children. They each offer diverse views on modern romance, as well as various answers to the age-old question: does true love really exist?"
Really? Are people still asking this age-old question? Yawn.

It's common knowledge that nearly every song ever written is, at its roots, about love in some way, shape, or form. Listen to the next song you hear, and chances are high you can tie love into it without thinking too hard. But as much as all of these songs are saying the same things about the same thing, you wouldn't necessarily call all songs the same, right? Neither would I.

Increasingly, however, I'm finding it difficult to apply the same logic to romantic comedies. Last year I opined that the genre was all but dead in the water (leading to the downfall of several careers, including Meg Ryan's). That was probably a bad generalization and wasn't entirely fair, since I really liked several 2008 films that could loosely be considered romantic comedies, including The Grocer's Son, Priceless, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

I can't quite put my finger on it, but maybe it was the lack of pretense in those movies that allowed me to fully enjoy them, and maybe it's the lack of maturity in Paper Heart and (500) Days of Summer that prevented me from fully enjoying them. They splashed new style onto the genre's canvas, but ultimately they're just like any of the other passable but meaningless romantic comedies that have come out in the last 30 years. To be more blunt, both Paper Heart and (500) Days of Summer are much more concerned with style and soundtracks than sentiment and substance.

Is it unfair to fault them for not adding literally anything new to the discussion about love? Maybe not, but on the same token I'd say it's unfair to disproportionately praise their effort when they both fail at making any significant statement about life's greatest mystery. Yi stated the obvious in a recent interview (remember that the thesis of her film is to find out if "true love really exists"): "I don’t think I have any more of an idea of what it is or how to define it than I did before I went on the road."

Ya think?

I'm not an expert on love or relationships, and neither is anyone else, but I couldn't resist the temptation to tell these characters to just grow up. Maybe it's because I just got back from a good friend's wedding, or because I'm recently engaged myself, or maybe it's because I'm as befuddled by the mysteries of love as everyone else. Whatever the case, it's just not as fun at this stage in my life to continuing watching movies featuring such juvenile characters (a descriptor for any age - see Elegy) fumble around looking for love in all the wrong places. If there is a difference between (500) Days of Summer and Paper Heart and any CW or MTV show (reality or scripted) starring and targeted toward college freshman, I'm not seeing it.

From my personal experience, the only absolute certainty about "true love" is that it can only exist in the space created when you swallow your selfish pride and fill the gaping hole with genuine humility. It also helps to possess a sense of self-awareness: the ability - and also desire - to see yourself as others do and, more importantly, see the dynamics of your relationship in the same way as the other person.

In the case of Tom in (500) Days of Summer, that might mean actually understanding, not just passively accepting, that Summer has no interest in a future with you. In the case of Charlyne in Paper Heart, that might mean watching the footage of yourself talking with children on a playground and asking yourself why your interactions with them are so natural and comfortable, and how that might spell doom for your future relationships with people who are trying to act like adults.

But these issues are glossed over in these two movies because there are other agendas at stake. (500) Days of Summer is desperately, yet failingly, attempting to escape its identity as just another enjoyably quirky romantic comedy that will come and go as quickly as Garden State did. Paper Heart, meanwhile, seems much more interested in creating a new "documentary" film genre (fake acting, real interviews) than actually having its characters develop in any meaningful way.

Maybe I've gone a little overboard whining about two movies that are enjoyably harmless, but despite their flair, both of them settled with me as simply sophomoric on the subject of love.

August 10, 2009

8th Annual Square Lake Film & Music Festival

Before summer officially comes to a close in Minnesota, there's one last outdoor film gathering worth drawing your attention to. This Saturday, Aug. 15, the 8th Annual Square Lake Film & Music Festival will take place in Square Lake County Park, near Stillwater. This outdoor arts event celebrates local music and experimental film from the always dynamic Twin Cities arts community.

This year, more than 40 locally made short films will be featured in between live music acts by local performers including The Bad Plus, Roma di Luna, Charlie Parr, Zebulon Pike, and Aby Wolf. The films are screened in competition, and are will be judged by a jury comprised of Shawn Otto (screenwriter of House of Sand and Fog), Jeff Stonehouse and Trace Beaulieu of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Gayle Knutson (local doc director) and Tom Schroeder, animation professor at MCAD. The films will be
shown in an indoor theater during the 30-minute stage transition times between musical performances on the outdoor stage. Once it is dark the films will be shown outdoors on a 16' x 27' screen, and a specially commissioned film score for The Adventures of Prince Achmed will be unveiled in a live performance by the International Novelty Gamelan ensemble.

Here are the pertinent details...

WEBSITE: http://www.squarelakefestival.com

LOCATION:
The Square Lake Festival is held just a short distance away from Square Lake County Park, boasting "the finest beach in the metro area". The address of the festival is 13359 Partridge Rd. No, Stillwater, MN 55082, and NOT inside of Square Lake Park. The festival is near to (.5 mile), but not inside the county park.


SCHEDULE:
10:00 AM Festival bike ride departs from HUB bike COOP and Sibley Bike Depot.
1:30 PM Festival gate opens
2:00-2:45 PM Aby Wolf
2:45-3:15 PM Local Film Showcase
3:15-4:00 PM Orange Mighty Trio
4:00-4:30 PM 48 HR Film Project Showcase
4:30-5:15 PM Charlie Parr
5:15-5:45 PM Local films
5:45-6:30 PM Zebulon Pike
6:30-7:00 PM Local films
7:00-7:45 PM Roma di Luna
7:45-8:15 PM Local films
8:15-9:00 PM The Bad Plus Set I
9:00-9:15 PM Set Break/Films
9:15-10:00 PM The Bad Plus Set II
10:00-10:30 PM Local Film Showcase
10:30-11:15 PM International Novelty Gamelan film score
11:30- whenever Night Owl films

TICKETS:
As of last week, only about 100 of the 400 tickets remained. Online tickets can still be purchased here through Thursday for $20, and any remaining tickets can be bought at the door for $30. Also, festival director Paul Creager is rewarding people who bike to the festival with $5 tickets.

This is a great local arts endeavor and if you're looking for something unique to do this weekend it could be well worth your time to head out to Square Lake...

August 5, 2009

Short Cuts: "Then We'll Have to Look After Ourselves"

Lord of the Flies (1963). Directed by Peter Brook; written by Peter Brook, adapted from the novel by William Golding; starring James Aubrey, Tom Chapin, Hugh Edwards, Roger Elwin, and Tom Gaman.


August 3, 2009

Taking It Home: Julie & Julia

("Taking It Home" is an alternative review style in which I share my thoughts on a movie's themes and how they may relate to my life, while focusing less on the acting, writing, technical aspects, or even plot of the film. It's a collection of the ideas I took home, "because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theater".)

“...the first Hollywood movie to have sprung from a blog, which in some sense makes it part of blogging history." - NYT

Julie & Julia, the surprisingly enjoyable new movie that's sure to end up one of 2009's biggest hits among women, is about blogging. Yes, blogging. And cooking, to be fair, but mostly blogging. More on that in a second.

Prior to this movie I knew little about Julia Child and even less (read: zero) about Julie Powell, the New York cubicle rat turned amateur cook turned blogger turned author. I didn't know, for example, that Julia Child didn't start cooking until well into adulthood, or that it took her years to gain any respect in the cooking world, or even that she was American (hearing her kooky voice all these years I guess I just assumed she was British). To dunces like me, Julie & Julia will provide an amusing and entertaining introduction to Julia Child. To her devotees, it will be a delight; Meryl Streep predictably, effortlessly succeeds in yet another outstanding performance that will no doubt send women of all ages whooping and hooting on the way out of theaters. Incidentally, they'll be headed directly to the nearest restaurant with everybody else, if not straight home to their kitchens.

As enjoyable as the movie may be due to copious shots of food with flair, there's a flavor in Julie & Julia that you can't fully taste unless you've had the opportunity to acquire it: the sometimes bitter swill of blogging frustration. I can't describe how differently I would have seen this film had it come out two summers ago, before I began spewing forth at Getafilm. Seeing it now, however, I found it hilariously encouraging to watch Julie Powell (Amy Adams) experience the joys of blogging alongside The Joy of Cooking, from her decision to start a blog to the excitement of receiving her first comments, from the pressure of posting regularly to the difficult decisions around disclosing personal information. It was a great deal of peculiar fun to see that experience on film, maybe doubly so since my blog happens to focus on film. I have to think other bloggers would agree, and for that aspect of Julie & Julia alone I would be anxious to recommend it.

But there's another side to the movie, and to blogging, that deserves to be seen on a massive multiplex screen: the harsh reality that "making it" (however you define "it") through blogging can be more difficult than deboning a duck. Like most people, Powell began her blog, The Julie/Julia Project, as a simple hobby, a way to keep herself accountable to a real-world challenge while connecting with others interested in that challenge. What was interesting about her blog, and what probably separates it from most (including mine), is that she had a clearly defined project that was only meant to "last" a year - the 365 days in which she would complete 524 recipes. She attracted readers quickly (surprisingly quickly, I might add), and eventually gained several thousand regulars who would comment and encourage her along the way. It was all innocent, self-fulfilling fun, but the real catalyst was this New York Times article that was published near the end of her project
(it being 2003, the term "Web log" was still necessary), which would change her life forever...or at least for a while.


Amy Adams as Julie Powell...

I'm not giving anything away, of course, since the movie itself could not exist without Powell's subsequent book, "Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen". She is releasing a second book, "Cleaving: a Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession", upon the release of Julie & Julia, and it's safe to assume she's receiving some royalties from selling the rights to her story to Columbia Pictures. But what's next? How long can you ride a wave of popularity based on a moment-in-time phenomenon? For another example, consider the case of Christian Lander, who turned "Stuff White People Like" into a book worth a few hundred thousand dollars, and who is now the host of an online TV show (is that an oxymoron?...anyway, it's some kind of new media phenomenon).

In light of Powell's success, then, Julie & Julia can be seen as not just the first movie created by a blog, and not just the first movie about blogging, but the most inspirational movie about blogging as well, since m
illions of bloggers (and there are millions of us) will no doubt leave the theater thinking, "What if...?".

But unless you start blogging with the sole intent of turning it into a business, or unless you have an amazing stroke of PR luck (Powell), or unless you have some great idea that will catch the wave of pop culture at just the right time (Lander), or unless you are willing and able to devote 40+ hours a week to your blog, well there's really no way to know where your blog will end up, and even then how long it will take. I remember reading a NYT article a few weeks ago, "When the Thrill of Blogging is Gone", which cited a 2008 Technorati survey as follows: "...only 7.4 million out of the 133 million blogs the company tracks had been updated in the past 120 days. That translates to 95 percent of blogs being essentially abandoned, left to lie fallow on the Web, where they become public remnants of a dream — or at least an ambition — unfulfilled."

Depending on your goals, that's a reality check that can leave you with some serious indigestion. See Julie & Julia and call me in the morning.

What did you take home?
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