Friday, October 5, 2012

Thing's I've Read and Things I've Seen

Well, I have been putting this off for far too long, so I'm gonna unload my backlog into one huge dump starting with books (man, I am a slow reader):

Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller (14/25 books)

If you are interested in comedy or
Saturday Night Live, or both, this book tracks the history of the show from the beginning until the early 2000's entirely through interviews with current and former cast members and writers (they still can't get Eddie Murphy to participate though).

Weird Al Yankovic once said that every time a critic talks about his music, that critic's favorite era of his music was when that critic was 12 years old. I feel similarly about
Saturday Night Live.  My 12-year old self thought it was the epitome of adult comedy, and for years I LOVED everything about it.  I even loved trying to stay up late to watch it.

The most fascinating parts of the book are the oral history from the people who were there.
My favorites:

1) Yep, people really hated Chevy Chase. And with good reason.
2) Surprisingly, people did not like Harry Shearer either, and it seems he felt the same.

3) Bob Odenkirk was a SNL writer for a while.

4) Bob Odenkirk and Conan O' Brien actually tried to dissuade Mike Myers from doing the Wayne's World sketch.

The Jaws Log by Carl Gottlieb (15/25 books)

Being a 
Jaws fanatic, I am really surprised that I never read this book from 1975. Growing up we had a copy around the house, but I only looked at the pictures in the middle. What's interesting about that old copy were pictures of the shark from the production that were labeled as if they were real sharks. Also, there was a picture of stuntman Ted Grossman that was also labeled to make one believe, at least to a very impressionable young me, that the person in the photo was actually being eaten by a shark.

Here is some of the
original printing to illustrate this, but unfortunately they don't show the Ted Grossman picture. Sadly those pictures have been replaced with new ones in later printings.  Like the writer from the link says, maybe Gottlieb was just trying to keep things authentic, which now comes off as charmingly old Hollywood, even for the 70's.

That said, I keep reminding myself that this came out in 1975 because Gottlieb kept making proclamations about Hollywood and movie making that just didn't seem true, but of course they're not anymore. Gottlieb is obviously a company man, and his stories are interesting enough, but you get the sense that he went out of his way to hide the fact that there might have been tensions on the set.  He does an adequate job covering the hardships of the making of Jaws, such as the local boat owners going on strike, b
ut it seems to come from an outside perspective.

To a
Jaws fanatic this fills in some of the details, but the later making-of documentaries and the Making-Of book by the people who lived on Martha's Vineyard did a far better job.

Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists by Steven Bach (16/25 Books)

Then there is Steven Bach who is nothing but candid in his book that focuses on the making of the movie
Heaven's Gate and all the mistakes that were made in allowing Michael Cimino, a great man by himself, go nuts and drive a whole movie studio into the ground. It is refreshing to hear an old school producer like Bach, who has since passed way, talk openly about how much of this was his fault, how he tried to stem the bleeding, and how everything got so out of control on location in the middle of nowhere. The guy isn't Stanley Kubrick and he didn't come up with some masterpiece and yet his hubris and insanity ruined a studio (United Artists went bankrupt). This ostensibly marked the end of the 70's auteur era.

Although this book often goes on tangents about other productions and spends too much time with lesser details, it quickly becomes a fascinating read once it becomes more focused on the actual production and the mistakes made. 

(Sidenote: I love old school filmmakers who call movies "pictures.")

The Postmortal by Drew Magary (17/25 books)

Let me get this out of the way: I am a big fan of Drew Magary's writing. I really like him and his personality, and thus I was very excited to read his first published work of fiction where you can see his influences from other post-apocalyptic literature.

The Postmortal is set in the future where doctors have accidentally found what they call "the cure" which gives people eternal life and eternal youth. They can still get killed by disease or, you know, being shot or whatever, but old age and dying are a thing of the past.

It's a clever conceit, and I think some of the best parts are when he builds a future world that the characters live in. It's told as a series of blog entries from a diary that is found in 2093.  He's an estate lawyer who gets the cure and keeps meticulous records of what happens thereafter. It moves at a fast pace and there are a lot of convenient characters that recur throughout decades, but it's never too distracting although the end might be a little too "action movie."


It is so much easier to watch movies than to read books. Eh, I'm just a slow reader. But the movies I have seen have really piled up. Here they are listed from when I saw them starting with one I saw last night:

Looper (2012) 

Easily one of the best movies of the year and one I don't want to tell too much about because it's worth seeing cold. 

movie in which more or less the entire last hour takes place on a farm. That's just one of the ways that Rian Johnson, the director, subverts your expectations. Most of all, Looper asks questions about whether a man’s destiny is locked into place not because the future has already been written, but because of the kind of person he is.
It's a movie of ideas that doesn't skimp on the action with a real emotional heart despite all the whiz-bang flying about. 

On top of the great performances that Rian Johnson gets from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, and Jeff Daniels, he also manages to get an amazing one from a child, Pierce Gagnon, who becomes a central part of the plot. On its surface it might seem ridiculous, but there is such a deep emotional core working here that it ends up working so well, it just depends (taking a cue from the couple that were walking out debating the movie behind us last night) whether or not you just want to go there with the movie or not.  

Two things: did Rian Johnson intentionally find a kid that sounded nearly identical to the one that plays the kid in the Shogun Assasin movie that is sampled on the GZA album Liquid Swords? It was uncanny if not.  I have never seen the movie but have listened to the album many many times. 
I swear he sounds just like this kid:

And, well until Django Unchained is released and MAYBE challenges this, Rian Johnson might have made the movie music find of the year with this song by a duo from the 60's, Chuck & Mac, called Powerful Love which plays over the end credits. Holy crap is it good:

And he seemed to find it by accident! When a I got home I did a little digging and learned Chuck & Mac were from southern Illinois, sort of big regionally but never hit the big time. They made a couple of records that were mostly relegated to compilations over the years. Here is an interview with Johnson that talks about finding this song.

"And that was not something I was really expecting. That song you use, Chuck and Mac’s “Powerful Love,” is so beautiful and perfect. Isn’t it incredible? It’s such a beautiful song. I literally picked up blind, I think on vinyl on the Twinights [album]. Listening to that song just sticks, then the lyrics somehow attach themselves to the meaning of the whole thing and it ends up jamming in your head and it becomes a really obvious choice, you know? Actually, in pre-production I sent an mp3 of that song to Bruce [Willis] right when he signed on and told him this song is the heart of the movie, and he got really excited about it. I was listening to that song over and over while we were shooting it. That and a lot of Sam Cooke."

V/H/S (2012)

V/H/S is a new anthology horror film in which the stories are tied together by a wraparound story of group of thugs who videotape themselves doing terrible things and break into a man's house to find a certain videotape that an unnamed benefactor will pay a lot of money for. What they find there is a man dead in a lazy boy recliner in front of a bunch of televisions that just have snow showing on them. Like any anthology movie there are ups and downs quality-wise, most of the 5 videos they show have their merits and each plays around differently with the whole found footage idea, an idea which in and of itself can seem pretty played out.  My two favorites were Joe Swanberg's The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Young, which is told in a series of Skype chats between woman who thinks her house is haunted and a concerned (potential?) love interest. And then there is Ti West's Second Honeymoon in which a couple documents their trip out West (when is he going to make another full-length? He has so much talent). Besides the washed out nature of the footage and fore bidding geography, this is actually devoid of what one would call traditional suspense beyond two scary scenes that seemed based on what the Manson family called creepy crawling (i.e. breaking and entering to do weird stuff/possiblly murder) Creepy crawling was the inspiration for 2008's The Strangers, another great horror movie. My one qualm is one I couldn't stop thinking about even though I know I should let it go: all of these seemed to be filmed on digital video but then transferred to VHS videotape? What? Why?

The Master (2012)

Talk about a movie I couldn't stop thinking about days after I saw it, mostly because it was so hard to wrap my head around. Even since I have been going around reading people's views on it and I still have a hard time coming to grips with what Paul Thomas Anderson is trying to do here. Maybe I am just not smart enough. But the easily seen good I can get out of the way: it looks amazing and the performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams are all uniformly good. And if you go into this thinking you are going to see a movie just excoriating scientology (here called "The Cause") you are going to be really disappointed. I don't think that Anderson DOESN'T think Hoffman's "Master" is anything but a charlatan. BUT he does have the chops to show how people would end up following him, even though he can't handle it when he is questioned. The scenes where Phoenix and Hoffman are just talking in one of their sessions are mesmerizing. My problem is I don't feel like it goes anywhere in the end. Phoenix is obviously a broken man, he was broken before World War II, and World War II managed to do even more damage. And for some reason Hoffman is too blind to see what everyone else around him does: Phoenix isn't changing and isn't getting better and would ultimately be a hindrance to whatever Hoffman is trying to do. Maybe that's the point in there, somewhere? I don't know, which is a copout, but I really don't. I will say this: I like Paul Thomas Anderson, and since we live in a world of contests I will say that I did like There Will Be Blood Better. But this confounded me in a wholly different way. A word of warning: if you weren't a fan of Blood, you will definitely not be a fan of The Master.

Battle Royale (2000)

Yeah, I can't believe I hadn't seen this before either. And I knew of it before The Hunger Games became a thing. And I guess I can't discuss one without discussing the other. I mean, there are definitely similarities, but there are also certain similarities between both of these movies/books and Stephen King's The Long Walk. In the future teenagers are forced into a contest to the death, by the government, (actually they weren't really forced in The Long Walk, but you get the idea) as a way, basically, to control people. But I think other than a few basic similarities, like the premise, that's where it ends. The approach, particularly movie wise is much different and I probably enjoyed Battle Royale better than the movie version of The Hunger Games. What was interesting to me, and was probably a revelation in 2000, was the mixture of crazy, bloody violence and teenage drama that seemed basically ripped from a John Hughes movie. It seems like something that shouldn't work but for whatever reason it does here.

Coma (1978)

I've mentioned before that people from the Boston area, me included, get particularly excited about seeing movies filmed in and around the Boston area. And while this is no gritty Friends Of Eddie Coyle-type movie, it is fun to see Boston in the 70's.

How about the movie in and of itself? Well, it's based on a Robin Cook book from the 70's and directed by Michael Crichton of all people. It has the post-Watergate conspiracy feeling of the time, where a hospital in Boston has an unusual amount of patients going in for routine procedures and ending up in comas. (Sidenote: One procedure was an abortion, which seems pretty radical nowadays.) I thought this was a neat little thriller and mystery.

S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003)

Hoo boy. Being that this is a Cambodian movie filmed in Cambodia with Cambodian people, it took me a while to get some bearing on the movie, which focuses on what went on in a certain prison, S21, by reuniting both the former guards and prisoners as they talk openly and explicitly about their experiences. One of the former prisoners (above) is a painter that paints his memories of S21 as a way of catharsis and engages with the former guards asking direct questions about what they did. It is unreal but it is also, as you might imagine, very sad. The filmmakers are even able to get the former guards to reenact how they used to torture and abuse prisoners. I am not even sure it brings about any real catharsis for the guards, because they still uphold the same flimsy excuse that they were following orders and thus are not to blame.

To compare it to my life is trite to the point of being offensive but watching this followed by news of the Embassy bombing in Libya sent me down this spiral of hopelessness for humanity. I am glad I watched S21 because ultimately it is important to learn from the past no matter how difficult it is to endure.


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