Thursday, February 3, 2011

Yeah, rhyming cockney slang IS really cool, huh...

So a few nights ago, I sat down and watched a movie I hadn’t seen in a while: Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey (1999). One from the late nineties hey-day of Steven Soderbergh where he seemed to alternate his relatively larger ventures like Out of Sight (1998) and Erin Brockovich (2000) with smaller, more personal projects that were pretty cool. The Limey is one of these.

Set in Los Angeles, the film follows Terrence Stamp as an aging career criminal who has come to California to investigate the “accidental” death of his daughter and how it connects to a wealthy record mogul. The premise seems pretty cut and dry but what’s really cool, aside from Stamp’s character, is the way it’s pulled off. From the very start of the movie and throughout the bulk of it, quick cuts are made between different time periods during his stay, different conversations with people helping him out, and scenes from his earlier life back in the sixties and seventies. Although these may feel jarring or confusing at first, as you watch, you realize that these cuts aren’t just a random assortment of images being spliced in, but in fact serve a larger purpose.

Really you can think of the whole thing as an exercise in montage. Not Team America montage, mind you, but film school montage where you can give a shot different shades of meaning by putting it next to a shot of something else (Those of you who have actually been to film school may feel free to put me right if I’m using the term incorrectly). As an example, if you have a shot of a guy sitting at a table and then cut to a shot of food, you could surmise the man we previously saw is hungry. There are a number of other basic examples of montage you could come up with, but this is the one that came most readily to my mind.

Essentially, these cuts to different conversations, earlier or later meetings with a certain character, or shots of him simply seated in his plane while flying to or from California help to create additional shades of meaning or give us further information about the characters. It’s a very cool and interesting way to tell a story.

As much as I love this movie though, its form does carry certain drawbacks, mainly for the casual film-watcher. The quick shifts from one time or place to another require the viewer to pay attention to what’s going on, so watching while grading papers or cooking is not on the table. The cuts can also be confusing since it may not always be immediately clear where the viewer is in the plot’s timeline. All things considered, however, if you are the type that has the time to fully focus on a movie like this and don’t mind trying something a little adventurous, then I would highly recommend the movie.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

An Oldie but a Goodie

For my first review since coming back from teaching, I wanted to do something fresh in my mind and since I just finished watching M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002), I thought I’d get back into it by reviewing an oldie but a goodie. Please note the review contains some spoilers.

Although surely not his best work, Signs is what I consider as Shyamalan’s last good movie. While this point may be arguable, I think it even more unlikely that any would consider The Village (2004) to hold this title. Whereas the latter seemed far more wrapped up in its plot twist and “gotcha” moment, the former tells a good story whose payoff is far less invested in a twist and concerns itself more with a good character arc. For those that are unfamiliar with the film, Mel Gibson portrays a former preacher in the Midwest who, along with his children, is trying to adapt to life after the recent death of his wife. To compound their difficulties, strange events begin to take place at their house the most iconic of which is the appearance of massive crop circles in their backyard corn field. As these events begin to grow in magnitude and scope, Gibson’s character must decide what he really believes in as he struggles to keep his family together.

Though the teaser version I’ve just written may not seem terribly exciting, I very much enjoyed the story Shyamalan has created, even if it may not prove satisfying to all. Yes, the idea of a person losing their faith, and then regaining it is nothing new to storytelling (in fact, it may have even made the story a bit predictable). And certainly, there are a few problems with the rules Shyamalan has set up for his narrative (why DID these aliens attack a planet that has more than enough water to kill them all a million times over?). The bottom line, however, is that we have a very enjoyable story that allows for investment in character even if it may not exactly be high art or literature.

In the realm outside of story, one of the reasons Shyamalan garnered respect from me earlier on in his career is the way he views filmmaking. I remember an interview with him around the time Signs came out in which he spoke about his style of cinematography and how he wants every camera placement and movement to have rationale behind it, for it to mean something. This is a sentiment I can’t help but feel thankful for in a time when shots are lined up simply to be “interesting” rather than convey any sort of meaning. Not only that, but I’m a sucker for movies that take time with their shots as Signs does and don’t attempt to cut every half second. While there’s most certainly a time and place for quick edits, it’s refreshing to see a director who isn’t afraid of looking at something for more than two seconds.

Although Signs may have its issues in terms of visual effects and may not exactly be reinventing the wheel when it comes to story, taken all at once the film is very enjoyable, engaging, and easy on the eyes, too. It’s also fun to see pre-celebrity-meltdown versions of Mel Gibson AND Joaquin Phoenix on screen as well as a very young and frickin’ adorable Abigail Breslin.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

This American Life - Enemy Camp 2010

This is where the “and more” part of the tagline at the top of the page comes from. For my second entry I’ve decided to review a work from a medium that’s grown on me this past year and a half. While it’s true that podcasts are nothing new to the media landscape, I got hooked during the long-distance relationship my fiancée (girlfriend at the time) and I had last year. During that time I would drive from the San Francisco Bay Area down to Orange County about twice a month, and it was during those first few rides that I started listening to National Public Radio podcasts. I started listening to NPR in 2008 thanks to my soon to be father-in-law and became hooked almost instantly. Admittedly, part of the attraction comes from the fact that the organization shares my left leaning politics, but most of it comes from their solid programming which always seems to make my drives feel shorter. Aside from the usual news-based and call-in programs (the call-ins are often my least favorite), shows like Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, Fresh Air, and A Prairie Home Companion help to round things out with some humor and cool non-fiction programming, many of which can be found in podcast form.

Today’s entry revolves around an episode of one such show airing weekends on NPR called This American Life. The show started in 1995 in Chicago and, since then, has branched out into other areas such as television (the This American Life series ran from 2006-2008 on Showtime), and, of course, podcasts. As the show’s host Ira Glass reminds us at the beginning of each episode, each week the This American Life team selects a theme for the show and brings us documentaries, interviews, short fiction, found tapes, and found writing on that theme, the result of which are some incredible, humorous, and/or touching stories.

This past weekend’s episode entitled Enemy Camp 2010, was a bit of a mixed bag for me. The way the series generally works is that you get, on average, two to four different stories each episode, and one of the real cool things about this show the different angles from which they explore this theme. I often find myself surprised at the nuanced manner in which these stories connect up with their themes, though I have to admit that every so often I run into a story whose connection to the theme in question is a stretch, especially if I was expecting one kind of story and didn’t get it. This week’s theme is one of those that is not very literal-minded at all. As Ira explains at the beginning, the four stories have to do with people sent into an enemy camp, spending some time there, and, eventually, starting to empathize with those they were sent in to spy on. The first story, having to do with a “fixer” Catholic priest was an interesting, and relatively even-handed look at a priest’s experience with the impact of abuse on different congregations. The second, and third took on the topic of parasites (literal, not figurative), and the fourth, the lone fiction entry, dealt with a new relationship and the crass interloper the main character ends up falling for.

As I mentioned before, the first story is not only the longest, but probably the most interesting, especially given how topical it is. The second is also quite fascinating in its own right and if you’ve seen the Discovery Channel series Planet Earth (2006), you’ll be able to quickly recognize one of the parasites identified in the story.

Story three, however, is where things started to go off the rails for me, though not because of the content. This story, about one man’s experience with the healing properties of parasites, was actually not done by the This American Life team, but by another group called Radio Lab, and although This American Life only just started broadcasting this group’s work, I’m still undecided on whether or not I really like it. Radio Lab’s stories are very interesting, but the manner in which they edit them, with narrators coming in and out frequently as if in a conversational way with the subjects, ended up distracting me rather than allowing me to sink into the story. Though I eventually got used to the style, and ended up enjoying the story, things did not look up once the final segment began.

Story number four is one of those stories that has to stretch to grab the theme of the episode. Although the story is fictional, after dealing with some heavier, more reality-based subjects during the previous 45 minutes of the episode, it was the fantastical nature of this story’s premise that I failed to connect with. Even though the story concluded rather sweetly, I have my reservations as to whether or not this story really belonged with the other three. Perhaps the team had an extra 13 or 14 minutes to fill and just couldn’t figure out what to put in there. Although the majority of this episode is great, this last story is certainly passable.

Since I don’t want to end this entry on such a downer, especially on one of my favorite shows, if you’re curious about This American Life, and how to find it, the best place to start would be their website at Here you’ll be able to find their radio and T.V. archive, access to their podcasts, and their store, as well as which local radio station carries them. There’s even an iPhone app for those that would like access to their entire radio archive for $2.99. For those that don’t really feel like diving right on in, the episode I just reviewed will be available for the remainder of this week until Sunday when the NEW free one will come out. After that this episode will be available for download, but for $.99. I know I sound like the NPR pitch-man here, but honestly, check out a few of the episodes. You won’t regret it.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The First Post and NBC's The Office

(It should be noted that I wrote this first post on March 21, 2010. I didn't immediately post it because it was more of a test run and I got very busy soon after writing it. The episode I review is relatively old, but the sentiments are still relevant. Enjoy.)

It was my fiancée that first encouraged me to write this blog. Actually I shouldn’t say she encouraged me to write this blog in its current incarnation. More accurately, she encouraged me to write something. The seed of this blog was a conversation we had while grocery shopping a month or two ago before I started teaching. Her concern was that, in the hours I was not working, I was consuming a great deal of media (T.V., movies, books, video games, etc.) but not giving back. It was, actually, eerily similar to a conversation from the movie High Fidelity (2000) between the protagonist and his girlfriend (I do realize it was a novel before becoming a movie, I’m just not certain the same conversation took place in the book as well). In a nutshell, protagonist’s girlfriend urges her cranky, snobby, music-store-owning boyfriend that he should start a record label to put something out there rather than just sitting back and being a critic. Granted, I’m certainly not cranky, snobby, nor a music store owner, but after considering my fiancée’s words, taking the past month or two to mull it over, and reading the blogs of some good friends, I decided to start what you have before you. It is true that I'm not exactly putting something new out into the world (there's a city filled with people far more talented at that than I am not 100 miles away), but honestly, I just really like talking about this stuff.

So, for my first review of the first entry of my first blog, I’ve decided to go with a good standby: NBC’s The Office. This episode, entitled New Leads, deals with more of the changes brought about by Dunder Mifflin’s purchase by Sabre with the main story revolving around the elevated position of importance the sales staff has moved into since the acquisition, and their subsequent fall from grace in the eyes of their officemates when they start getting too big for their britches.

While certainly not a brilliant episode, seeing such beta personalities as Phyllis, Stanley, and Andy start pushing around the other people in the office is pretty entertaining. Even Jim seems to be letting things go to his head as he also pushes Michael for the new sales leads Sabre corporate is supposed to be sending them. With all this setup, it’s equally entertaining to see Michael’s creative solution to the problem. Since I want to keep this blog a spoiler-free zone (at least relatively), suffice it to say it is fitting. My only issue with the episode, which really functions as a microcosm of the series itself, is how quickly the office dynamic regains its sense of normalcy. Or at least what passes for normalcy in this particular office.

Over the past year, I’ve come to feel that a show should really strive to change its stakes periodically. While this can be a risky move for any show, simply pushing things along as they are indefinitely is not only a sure-fire way to make people lose interest, but it’s also a lost opportunity to tell some really great stories. In the case of the Office, the merger with Sabre (really more of a buyout) was handled both well and not so well. Good in that it preserved the core dynamic of the show (Michael = bumbling, yet endearing; Jim and Pam’s romance; off-the-wall antics from the wonderful side characters, etc.) which probably makes the NBC suits sleep very well at night, and in that it introduced some interesting new characters and possible situations. Bad in that the changes were either cosmetic (new corporate bosses, but really how different are they?), or they brought things back to the way they were before (Jim is no longer co-manager).

While the series is still quite enjoyable (as was this episode), I can’t help but wonder if perhaps the show should be nearing its end sometime in the foreseeable future. If the show’s writers are really having that much trouble making changes that stick to the show’s dynamic, then perhaps it may be better to end the show sooner rather than dragging it out beyond its relevancy. My guess is that kind of decision is still a few years out for The Office seeing as how Michael, Dwight, and Andy haven’t yet paired off and settled down with worthy female counterparts (speaking of which, any chance of getting Amy Ryan back on the show?). Until then, I don’t doubt the show has enough stories to keep it going at a level of quality at least meeting that of other television sitcoms, if not exceeding it. What remains to be seen is how long the show can keep going at such quality levels without making those big changes. For now, though, I'll be content to keep tuning in, and enjoying.