Wednesday, July 29, 2009

MAD MEN: What You Already Know

What I'm about to tell you, you already know...if you watch MAD MEN. Women are the crux of this show. How do I know this? I just re-watched the very first episode.

In the first ten minutes here's what we know: Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is an ad man and must come up with a pitch for Lucky Strike. After his night at the bar, he knocks on the door of his friend Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED). They chat about his day and her day and he spends the night. Relationship? Check!

Introduced next is rookie secretary Peggy Olson (Fred Armisen's wife, Elisabeth Moss). Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) shows her how to play the office game, with considerable attention paid to Peggy's attire and how she can better herself so as to be more attractive for the office's men.

This pilot episode chronicles two accounts for the ad firm Sterling Cooper. One, the aforementioned Lucky Strike, and another for a department store headed by Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff). The Lucky Strike account is settled, not without some drama, but ultimately settled. The Menken department store account is most certainly not, with confusion over how to market the brand in an already-saturated department store market. The two have obvious chemistry and its not out of the question to see a relationship brew over a cocktail meeting. While the Lucky Strike account settled relatively easily (with men only), the Menken account is anything but.

Peggy is the object of attention in the new office, purely by being "the new girl." Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) apparently likes what he sees and is evidently interested in Peggy sexually, as per his 1950s acceptable language toward her in the office. Oh by the way, Pete has his own wedding to attend this weekend. He knocks on her door (ALL THE WAY IN BROOKLYN!) and invites himself in. And she lets him. (Is this normal for a woman in the 50s?)

Finally, at the end of the episode we see Don arriving at him home in the suburbs. He kisses his wife Betty (January Jones) and says goodnight to his kids. Up until this point there has been no mention of him having a family, especially with his already-established relationship with Midge, and his on-deck relationship with Rachel. The final shot shows Betty standing at the doorway to the kids room watching her husband say goodnight. And in typical MAD MEN fashion, the episode ends with temporally appropriate music.

This final shot could have ended without Betty appearing at the door, but it does. And let's not take this for granted. Men at work is taken for granted. But as the series progresses, it becomes (sometimes painfully) clear that women rule the roost. The men just happen to be living in it.

Monday, July 27, 2009

If PLEASANTVILLE turns out to be nice, why leave?

I had a pleasant evening. Watched the compendium of Pixar Short Films - awesome! Then watched PLEASANTVILLE.

Why doesn't this film get more love? The shots are beautiful. Dialogue is good. Story is good. The acting, especially Joan Allen and Jeff Daniels, is good.

My grammar aside, I wonder if the story is too heavy-handed.

Change is good. Embrace difference. Race relations (in a movie populated by 99.9% whites). And color. Does this movie just hit you over the head with it's message? Are the stylistic choices too predictable? Cinematography too formulaic? Perhaps, but what ever is the problem with a well-crafted movie?

At any rate, I do have one question for any PLEASANTVILLE people out there. Why does Bud/David (Tobey Maguire) leave Pleasantville after he has helped change it, for the better? Why wouldn't he want to stay there? Mary Sue/Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) decides to stay. She likes this new Pleasantville better. Obviously, something calls Bud back to the current world, but what and why? He finally has a girlfriend Margaret (MarleyShelton), something he obviously wants as per the first color scene of the movie; he pretends to be asking out a girl at school. And he wants to leave Margaret and go back to reality?

When Bud does go back to reality as David, he comforts his divorced mother who has relationship problems of her own. This is the last scene before a short montage sequence of Pleasantville. This has to be the reason right? He returns for his mother. Bud was perhaps closest with his mother (Joan Allen) in Pleasantville or maybe they formed a bond throughout his time there and he wanted to share that with his real mother? I don't know.

Anybody have any thoughts on PLEASANTVILLE in general?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Harry Potter and the Raging Hormones

I liked this recent film very much. My Potter-obsessed friends were quick to point out what the movie omitted and how it only cheapened the experience. I get excited about adaptations recisely for this reason. It's interesting to see how filmmakers trim the original narrative into something that works at the cineplex.

I'll start with the two biggest departures. The first is the climactic battle at Hogwarts. I remember a bigger battle from the books. Students equipping wands against the more powerful Death Eaters (Voldemort's minions) with Harry (Radcliffe) concentrated on Snape (Rickman). Dispensing with the skirmish, director David Yates only gives us Harry vs. Snape. I'm okay with this. The movie's already long enough (although, I can always have more) and for the sake of trimming, it's perhaps a good move.

The other omission is a little tricky as it concerns the film's subtitle, "the half-blood prince." In the book, Rowling hardly goes a chapter without mentioning it. The film hardly addresses the topic. Yes, it is introduced and the prince is revealed, but with very little in between. In the book, the young trio scavenge and research the prince to death. For a film whose title purports such a large narrative tipping point, very little is made of it.

But this is mostly a quibble and it could be because I know where the story goes. The point of this whole book is to setup the final one. In the previous books and films, Snape plays a supporting role - a teacher that Harry hates, and the feeling is mutual. We need this build up to establish the potential for Snape. Perhaps leaving many questions unanswered was a conscious decision. In the seventh novel, Snape becomes the fulcrum for the entire series. Indeed, a case could be made that he is the crucial character of the series, even more than the eponymous hero.

One final contentious point concerns the ending. It might seem abrupt. The climax occurs within an instant, not very drawn out and the film ends probably within ten minutes. Again, I am okay with this. This is the penultimate novel. Leave the audience with the greatest suspense and that means holding back as much as you can and what is commonly referred to as "getting out early." Leave the narrative as quickly as you can. Now, don't pull a TRANFORMERS 2 type ending which ends in about 5 minutes with a very tacked-on soliliquoy. HALF-BLOOD PRINCE ends where it should, leaving us just a little bit hanging.

I loved the opening shot of the movie, so perfect for how the movie ends. It begins right where ORDER OF THE PHOENIX ended. Dumbledore (Gambon) with his arm around Harry. Such a sign of things to come and where they have been. First shots that suck you in are invaluable. DARK KNIGHT's opening push in on a skyscraper was great.

Finally, the hormones! This is probably why I liked the movie so much - half of it was all teen romance! Ron and Hermione sexual tension. Harry and Ginny sexual tension. Actually, this is a kid's story, so maybe it should be "sensual" tension. This is a very dark movie, especially when you understand how far we've come. Columbus' first two films were rightfully cheery. Columbus did exactly what was needed, no complaint here. PHOENIX started the darkness and it only gets darker in 6. The hormones are a welcome distraction from the chaos.

Wrap up: everyone wants to rank the films. Well, here is my list in descending order.

4 is clunky. 1 and 2 are just what they needed to be, and I really think 2 is very well-done. I really like 2, just to give you an idea of how much I love this series cinematically. 5 was very controlled. 3 and 6 are touch and go. But 6 wins because of the hormones, and I just saw it. Like my good friend at FilmSchoolRejects, CULTURE WARRIOR, a marathon might be in my future.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Appreciation vs Enjoyment

At dinner tonight, my mother and I had a (it wasn't an argument) a debate about movies and music. We were talking again about a recent movie we watched together as a family: West Side Story (1961). She talked about it as a cultural artifact as much about race as about the dancing or the music. I told her that I could not relate to it as much as she could because she grew up in that time and I didn't and I had seen other things, more current things that meant more to me.

I steered the conversation from there. I told her about SOME of my friends in New York and San Antonio who were unwilling to create an all-time Top 10 List, citing excuses such as "films are created in different time periods," "films are created for different cultures and people," or "how do I reconcile differences in genre" etc. In short, I say, "make a decision!" Decide what you like and CHOOSE! Don't hide behind chronology and what or who came first. PICK!

Just because something came first doesn't necessarily make it better. If it is indeed better, then okay, but not just because of temporal precedence. Part of this comes from my tendency toward an aesthetic film history and generally being able to take a film at face value. Film history books mention a deficiency with this approach's inability to take into account a grander, wider-reaching film history.

To this accusation, I say, take a look at my previous two posts regarding my own personal state of the union. My concern is with contemporary American cinema. But let me say this. Does this mean, I do not like old things. No. I like Hitchcock movies because I think they are the best at what they do. But as I have said, I want to know what is moving the current culture. I'd rather read The Da Vinci Code because its popular now, than engage with THE GODFATHER because it was popular way back when.

Perhaps I need to change the title of this blog yet again - The Barstool Academic. That's what I like, the barstool conversation and maybe this is where my true passion lies. A what-kind-of-movies-do-you-like-conversation. But not without some discussion. Tell me why (just like a Backstreet Boys song!)! Just don't try and tell me why I should like something. Don't try and convince me of the genius of The Beatles. Yes, I know I SHOULD like them because they influenced a lot of things. I say screw that! With the exception of Yellow Submarine (hardly the bastion of Beatles grandeur, I gather), I enjoy every cover of their songs more than the original. Good writers? Maybe. Good performers. Not in my book. Everybody else just sounds better.

Does it still boil down to entertainment value for me? Yea, I think that's it. Entertain me dammit! If you can't keep me watching, then historical, technical or any other value be damned, I can't count you among my favorites.

Come on, come up with a list. There HAVE to be 10 films/artists that you like more than any other. No such thing as a guilty pleasure. In the end, I just want you to make YOUR picks. And I do want you to make them. Make a decision!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

How many people have actually seen Citizen Kane?

It's comforting to know that when I write something there are some people who actually read it! Even better that they want to talk about it. It's the most rewarding thing. I don't really care if it's criticism or general agreement with my thoughts - the interaction is the important thing.

And so that is where this specific post begins. After I posted my State of Union, a friend of mine - who I shall call the V Machine - challenged one of my assertions. The gist of my assertion was that I felt marginalized at NYU because of my love for the big movies, the ones the public see, the ones they want to see. V Machine felt the opposite. What little movies we did watch were the canonical texts with no attempt made to broaden the filmic scope.

I am not sure we actually came to common ground because neither of us really wanted to budge from our intellectual bunkers. For a minute, we got stuck on what might almost qualify as a cliche in the halls of academia - "gaps of knowledge." When did we finally get to see the Excorcist? How long before we could actually sit through the Godfather without getting bored? Perhaps it might be helpful is to talk of "gaps of WANTED knowledge." I am perfectly comfortable in my American movie bunker. Yes, it might be most talked about, but certainly not exhausted. V Machine (I think) wanted more international cinema in her schooling. I guess she is the better person because its not like she has no interest in American, just another interest. Me, I have no interest in the international movie scene.

For the most part, I stand by my assertion but I will make one addendum - a qualifier for my knowledge. I am interested in what people in my general social circle (United States) are watching NOW. My one qualifier is the CONTEMPORARY component. Some may see my position as a limiting one and perhaps even an ignorant one, but my two reasons are simple.

The first and most important, I want to talk with people about movies. And I don't mean the cinephile. I want a simple but engaging conversation about a movie. The easiest way to do that is with my family and friends and the movies they see. I want to see the film playing on 6 screens at the local multiplex. It's easier to talk about TRANSFORMERS 2 than say, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN.

Secondly, to borrow from Bordwell and Thompson title, film is art - ALL OF IT. I care about narrative heterogeneity, cinematography, editing, color, and voice-over. When I say, ALL OF IT, I mean the films. Even the worst films have redeeming moments or something you can learn. I believe this is why I am a forgiving critic - that and I am generally a positive person.

Perhaps if I say it this way: All of the movies I wrote about for final papers were big Hollywood releases within the last 15 years (BRAVEHEART, SYRIANA/BABEL, TOY STORY, SIN CITY, MINORITY REPORT, 300, and THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING). For some reason I feel this to be against the norm. Does this help with my sentiments?

I want to know what is driving the culture. If The Da Vinci Code becomes a worldwide phenomenon, I want to read it because of that reason. Yes, I've read Twilight and plan to read the second one. It's water cooler conversation but I love it! This is not an indictment of my fellow MAs at NYU. We had and still have water cooler conversation. However, it seemed that when it came time to write a paper, the expectation was to jump into the deep end of the cinema pool, because that is where the robust material resides.

Perhaps it boils down to my never-ending quest against the disparaging of something simply because it's popular. "I used to like them, but ever since they started playing them on the radio, I don't like them anymore" makes no sense to me. Either you like or you don't.

The last thing I want to say is very important. My post sounds like I didn't enjoy my time at NYU. Far from the truth, I enjoyed it. It is a place where no idea is too stupid. Nothing is unquestionable. Debate is encouraged. Some cynics may disagree with me, but that's okay. I am a positive person.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Media Slathered State of the Union Plus Some Michael Mann Musing

It's time for an update on how my media intake changed since moving back to my hometown, Los Angeles.

For about three years, I watched movies. That was my intake. I watched them for class and for fun - and if both happened at the same time, I was happy. I graduated with a degree in communication from a wonderful little institution in San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University. Very late in my college career, I found that path of study and been giddy ever since. Wow, I can watch television and movies and get a rather large diploma! This is great!

Against all odds, I got into a grad school, getting a master's degree in Cinema Studies from NYU - the only school that would accept me. And I kept watching movies. I was introduced to avante-garde and films floating in obscure film history purgatory. Most people seem to enjoy these films and want to talk about them and in effect, shine a brighter light on obscure pieces. I run the other way. I want to bring the mainstream movies to the academic circle. Let's float a barstool argument here: in final papers, who wrote about films that grossed the most money? I might be in the running for highest grossing papers (Braveheart, Syriana/Babel, Toy Story, Sin City, Minority Report, 300, and The Fellowship of the Ring).

I don't think I am cut out for the PhD, but maybe. I don't think it would be in film exclusively. It would be in a fuller media discussion, including television, video games, and social networking. I like films and I like them a lot, but I am interested in so many other things. I LOVE teen television. I love watching the progression of video games moving closer to an interactive social networking experience. Oh and by the way, I like sports. And its easy to let it in my life - it happens all the time.

Basically, I need structure. Let me list what I like again. (Movies, Television, Sports, Video Games, and Fiction Lit.) By my count, that's five things, right? How do I take care of all my interests? I think I need a spreadsheet - which sounds a lot like my dad (genes right?).

I feel disconnected right now. I have not watched a TV show that wasn't on DVD for at least a month now. Been to a few movies. TRANSFORMERS 2 was actually pretty funny and then it turns into a large special effect (which last time I checked still wins an Academy Award). No one is better than Michael Bay when delivering a special effect. Incomprehensible, maybe. But I wonder if that's not the point. PUBLIC ENEMIES was great! I loved it. Michael Mann's violence is heavy, intense yet restrained. Women are a problem because as heterosexual men, we love them, but they get us into trouble.

But color is so very important to Mann and completely based on the film's setting. Think of HEAT, everything is blue and grey because that's LA - the streets, the sky, the uniform. COLLATERAL is mostly dark, but filled with many colors because that's what an LA freeway looks like - a cornucopia of visual onslaught. Everything is blue in MIAMI VICE because the water is blue. PUBLIC ENEMIES uses a warmer color pallette, mostly brown. The shootout happens in the woods, the cars are brown and the roads are still dirty, not completely paved.

I have too many interests. As Colin Cowherd, host of The HERD on ESPN radio: simplify your life. "If I haven't worn a shirt in the past three months, I get rid of it." I need to pare down my media life to the important things. But I can't live in a hole either. Geez, Charley, want some cheese with that w(h)ine? I think I might take up running.