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April 24, 2008

Filed under: movies»commentary»classic

Overstock

When did American movies get to be so long? It's hard to remember the last time I got out of a theater in less than two hours--and not just for elaborate dramas, stuff like Atonement, but even action flicks. Transformers was two hours and 24 minutes! For a flick based around giant robot cars!

Casablanca was 102 minutes. And it's been years since I watched it, but I don't remember it being a particularly speedy film. Citizen Kane has a running time of 119 minutes. The Maltese Falcon also manages 101 minutes. Comedies, of course, were generally far shorter.

Maybe it coincides with color, since when I look at a few movies from the 70's (Three Days of the Condor, The Amityville Horror, Marathon Man) they seem to have standardized into our now-customary two hours (Soylent Green, however, is still only 92 minutes--OF PEOPLE!).

Now, this is just a feeling I've got. I'd love to see a graph of average movie running times per year, just to see if I'm right. But I suspect that I am, and that films have gotten longer, steadily or perhaps in bursts with each generation. Which causes problems for me, honestly, because my attention span has only shrunk--or perhaps more accurately, has restabilized at 1:30, about the time it takes to watch two episodes of hour-long television in the age of DVD and DVR.

To play devil's advocate, maybe longer running time is a product of the more elaborate film vocabulary in use. Films are no longer just stage dramas performed onscreen. They have a complicated relationship and interaction with the camera's viewpoint, and that relationship requires more time and energy to develop than the static shots of many early filmmakers. This is a reasonable point.

And yet, it seems hard to argue that today's longer movies are better due to their length, or that they're telling more complicated stories. They're telling longer stories, no doubt, with more events and more intricate film technique. But do they need to be longer? Are we better off for having those extra 20-30 minutes of running time? Could anyone honestly say that Casablanca needed an extra half-hour? And if you made it today, how long would it be? Chances are, probably longer than I'm comfortably able to watch.

April 17, 2008

Filed under: movies»television»the_office

Office Training Again

Microsoft's spoof video of their own marketing, formatted as "Bruce ServicePack and the Vista Street Band," has been making the rounds, giving people an excuse once again to mock the company (John Gruber: "It epitomizes Microsoft's culture and institutional bad taste") by entirely missing the point. But the best Microsoft internal videos are still these British Office spinoffs, which make Gervais' David Brent a "management consultant" after his disastrous Wernham-Hogg career.

There's two more clips here and here.

March 25, 2008

Filed under: movies»commentary»scifi

Great Names in Direct to Video

"Tinarie Van Wyk-Loots."

That is all.

January 29, 2008

Filed under: movies»commentary»action

iWar

If you watched Live Free or Die Hard (verdict: not bad at all), you might have noticed two things. The first, for DC residents, is how little effort they actually put into making the sets look like DC. The taxis here aren't usually yellow, people. Try to actually visit your locations.

Also, in the opening credits, you might have seen that the movie is based on "A Farewell to Arms," by John Carlin. I remember wondering what was up with that--was it a short story that they'd adapted? A novel?

Nope. It's this 1997 Wired article on information warfare preparation. Which is interesting for a number of reasons, one of which is that almost none of it has (as far as I'm aware) come true. Good news for the rest of us, I guess. Bruce Willis isn't getting any younger.

January 18, 2008

Filed under: movies»reviews»action

Movie Review: Aeon Flux

It's hard to imagine what they were thinking with this one. I watched some of the original animated shorts a while back, just after they released them on DVD. In its original television form, Aeon Flux was bizarre, perversely sexual, and incredibly (almost pointlessly) violent--an utterly-incoherent throwback to Heavy Metal's drugged out wanderings.

So how do you turn that kind of visual candy into a live-action film? Apparently, you don't try. You write a pastiche of future-dystopia, throw in a set of visual non-sequitors, and cast Charlize Theron--who is a fine actress, but simply can't summon the kind of gaunt, sardonic brutality that the role requires. Director Karyn Kusama likewise tries her best, but can't direct an action sequence worth watching. Perhaps this kind of thing is really best done on the cheap nowadays--fans of Equilibrium who watched Kurt Wimmer's disastrous Ultraviolet will note the similar feel of Aeon Flux's panoramic scenery and expansive color palette, which (oddly) rob the gunfights of their impact.

I respect the attempt to turn such a weird little property into something that MTV could license for Burger King soda cups, but let's be honest: it never had a chance of being a good mainstream movie. The only way it could have been great would have been to embrace the genuine weirdness of its inspiration--become something like Naked Lunch with guns and S&M couture outfits. Even then, it probably would have been terrible--the show doesn't honestly hold up well today, particularly in extended viewing sessions--but it would have been a lot more interesting.

January 10, 2008

Filed under: movies»television»the_wire

What other words do you need?

This morning I finished season one of The Wire, HBO's long-running cop show. And if I didn't love it for its pragmatic worldview, its left-leaning sociological outlook, and its flawed protagonists, I would almost certainly love it just for this scene of McNulty and Bunk investigating an old murder scene.

I guess it's not explicitly clear from that scene, but the writing is superb, and usually not composed entirely of profanity.

October 29, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»documentary

The Devil's Playground

Five years after this documentary was released, its topic of concern--the Amish tradition of letting their kids run wild while they decide whether or not to enter the church--has become a staple of lazy writers on primetime dramas. ER and Law and Order, among others, have both featured rumspringa episodes. Typically, these shows use the Amish angle as a big reveal: those kids can't get their parent's permission for an operation, because they've been shunned! (Dun-dun-DUNNNN! cries the dramatic chipmunk from the back of the audience.)

But if memory serves correctly, television writers exploiting this dramatic device rarely allow the religious tendencies to overwhelm the feel-good resolution of their storyline, either because they believe that people couldn't possibly be so terrible or because there's an unspoken prohibition to hinting that radical religious sects really might just be a little crazy. And the Amish kids depicted, as far as I remember, are usually good citizens who have just landed in a tight spot.

What's noteworthy about The Devil's Playground is that it not only inspired these depictions, but that its takeaway message is so far from those heartwarming moments. If there is a subtle way to point out that the Amish are, in some ways, terribly cruel and manipulative of their children in the interest of "religious freedom," Devil's Playground does so, simply by laying out their actions in a dispassionate--even distant--light.

The filmmakers follow a set of Amish youth who, during this traditional ritual, are no longer required to behave according to the dictates of Amish society. So they can own and drive cars, watch TV, drink, and dance, and their parents do little more than register disapproval of this behavior. Unsurprisingly, like the kid you knew in college who was raised a strict Christian and suddenly let free, the Amish kids go completely overboard. One of them, Faron, is even a meth dealer--one that snitches on a couple of other Amish drug dealers to the local police, earning death threats and social ostracism. I never thought I would write the words "Amish drug dealers" except as a joke, but there you go. The police, it must be said, wearily see the Amish teenagers as trouble.

In theory, the Amish say, this period of teenage rebellion is meant to be a taste of the outside world, so that the kids can make a free decision whether or not to go into the church and remove themselves from the wider world. In practice, The Devil's Playground shows a religious culture that stacks the deck against these kids before they can make that choice. Not only are they tossed with little preparation into an exaggeration of normal life, but (one teenager points out) they're forced to stop schooling in the 8th grade, meaning that they would have no real chance of getting a decent job or going to college. They've got no future in anything other than service-industry or manufacturing jobs. What choice do they really have? Is it any wonder that only 10 percent break free?

I always thought of the Amish as cute, bearded people who make chairs and crafts and raise barns for fun. And granted, they're not violent or overtly ill-disposed. But between their regressive sexual politics and this hazing-like parenting ritual, The Devil's Playground presents a picture that's not nearly so adorable. It does so simply and without any malice towards its subjects--I'm sure the Amish who watch it would feel that they're treated fairly--but it's not flattering. And to some extent, it raises the question of what people should be able to excuse with religion. In any other context, when kids are deprived of their education and then abandoned to their own devices to choose between the horns of a dilemma, would we just let it happen?

October 5, 2007

Filed under: movies»reviews»horror

Snakes, Planes, and Automobiles

Look: no-one ever thought Snakes on a Plane was going to be any good. I didn't think so. That's not why I watched it. I watched it because it had Sam Jackson on a plane full of snakes. I expected prominent cursing, scenery-chewing, and completely outlandish reptilian doom.

But instead, I got a movie that's mostly about people building luggage forts and sucking venom out of each other, while Sam Jackson was criminally underused. His most aggressive anti-snake action was a tazer. The man who educated us on the path of the righteous man restricted to non-lethal weaponry? What a copout.

Perhaps worst of all, he wasn't given any real room to build up a real Sam Jackson head of steam, so his triumphant line (in which he expresses his weariness with snakes, planes, and the combination of the two) goes completely to waste. From this point on, all directors casting Mr. Jackson are required to watch Deep Blue Sea:

That's how you do it. Sadly, I can't find a copy of the complete clip (in which Jackson explains that he killed the other survivors of a horrible mountaineering accident), which is a moment of brilliance in an otherwise unexceptional horror-comedy. More like that please. Less like Snakes on a Plane.

October 1, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»macgyver

Robinsonade

I lost my first Leatherman on the way back from France--forgot to pack it in my checked luggage, and didn't realize it until I was almost to the gate. I forget how many times I had flown with that little orange tool while I was on the forensics team at GMU, which made it all the more galling to lose it to airport security.

I bought the Leatherman in the first place to replace the pocketknife I carried. I had a knife because it's a handy thing to have, and because I wanted to be Macgyver when I grew up. But the knife kind of freaked people out--it was a four-inch flick blade, and I enjoyed the snap of the wrist required to open it maybe a bit too much. It made people think I was some sort of psycho cannibal survival fetishist, when in real life I could no more survive in the open wild than I could flap my arms and fly.

The Leatherman was a lot less threatening, since it's basically a pair of pliers mated with a Swiss army knife. No-one is threatened by a Swiss army knife or a pair of pliers. Besides, I was sick of trying to use the pocketknife as an impromptu screwdriver. It's possible, and it feels very resourceful the first time, and then after that you just feel like an idiot.

When I lost the first tool to the Charles de Gaulle security team, I went to Price Club and bought one of their bubble-wrapped packages with one of the original Super Tools. The Super Tool is basically the worst of both worlds between a pocketknife and the smaller Leatherman I'd been using before. It is a hefty chunk of stamped stainless steel, which immediately began tearing holes in the pockets of every pair of pants I own. The knife on it is large enough to scare passersby again, but it's located inside the handle of the pliers, which means that it takes five minutes just to get it (or any of the other blades/files/screwdrivers) out. And then once you have any of the blades/files/screwdrivers out, they're locked into place with a hellishly-resilient leaf-spring release, so it won't close on you (which is nice) but it'll flay the skin off your thumb while you try to put it back.

So I'd finally had enough, and this weekend Amazon shipped me another Leatherman Juice like I'd had before, relegating the larger version to my messenger bag, where I will hopefully never need it again. Some people might wonder if I needed either one in the first place. But I tend to find that the moment I don't have a pocketknife of some kind handy, I tend to need one. Even just here at the office, there's always packages that need to be opened, or equipment that someone would like to have rackmounted, or a tape that's broken and needs to be rewound. Yeah, I'm sure I could find a screwdriver or improvise something eventually, but why bother? Besides, coworkers appreciate having someone handy around.

Also, I still have dreams that I'll be trapped in the hold of a falling airplane, or need to defuse a bomb using only toothpicks and a bag of M&Ms. I never actually watched a lot of Macgyver as a kid, but the idea of it really stuck with me--plus, I was reading a lot of Heinlein at the time, and the creepy libertarianism didn't take but the jack-of-all-trades competency worship did. Nobody likes to be in a situation where they feel helpless. Maybe carrying a Leatherman or a pocketknife is just a psychological tool for maintaining some kind of control. Maybe it's a symbol of wanting to be able to fix things and solve problems. Or maybe I've just gotten used to it after so many years, and it's force of habit.

In any case, if you're like me, you may enjoy Wikipedia's List of Macgyverisms, including icons showing whether a problem was chemical, optical, physical, or explosives-related. I'm not really threatened by violence in the media, but it is nice to read a set of plot synopses for a show that explicitly rejected violence and guns in favor of invention and loosely-sourced scientific knowledge.

September 17, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»dexter

Slice of Life

There's a throwaway joke during the first season of Dexter for the obsessive serial killer fiction audience: the titular character, fearing suspicion by his own police department, sneaks in and removes his alias from a list of controlled-substance purchasers. The name he erases is "Patrick Bateman," also known as the American Psycho.

It's worth a snort, and thankfully the show is smart enough not to dwell on it any longer. But it's interesting in that the two characters could barely be farther apart, except for their shared interest in murder. Bret Easton Ellis's killer yuppie was obsessed with meaningless pop culture and acquisition. The running gag of the novel was that Bateman's homicidal tendencies were barely separable from the greed and narcissism that he shared with his colleagues.

Dexter Morgan, on the other hand, comes across as a reluctant psychopath. Michael C. Hall pulls what menace he can out of the character, but his fangs are basically pulled early--Dexter's an amoral killer, but his foster father trained him to act normal and only kill other murderers, which turns the show's "shocking" twist into something more like a very grisly arrest sequence. We're never really in doubt that the people Dexter kills are anything other than scum, so we're disinclined to feel bad when he offs them. The impulse is really nothing more than the usual cop-drama bad-guy punishment sequence made more explicit (and perhaps, for much of the audience, more darkly gratifying).

This is a little unfortunate. I've come to prize fiction that makes the audience uncomfortable with its protagonist, which a show about an unrepentant serial killer could have certainly accomplished. But it also gives Dexter the opportunity to explore slightly more fertile emotional ground. Even when he's hunting his rival, the Ice Truck Killer, Dexter's real conflict is with himself: he's been pretending to be a normal, caring person for so long that he begins to become that person, although he tries to deny it. He tells us again and again that he's emotionless, but can't stop himself from enjoying the company of the people around him, and becoming upset when they're taken away.

Dexter lacks the vocabulary to express this directly, which is one of the pleasures of Hall's performance. He claims to have chosen his girlfriend for her "damaged" fear of intimacy, but is oddly charmed as she comes out of her shell, and off-handedly refers to her as "enchanting." His worries about his sister are tangible--"If I could have feelings at all, I'd have them for Deb," he says, unaware that he protests a bit too much. The pangs of feeling are still muffled, but the overall progression of the show is to raise their outlines and see how the character reacts.

What's still unclear is whether Dexter's human side is something that always existed in some form, or if his pretense is beginning to take more concrete form. I think the scripts are trying to say that it's the former, but the latter is a lot more fascinating. It's cynical, but also optimistic: it expresses a hope for change, and that a person could reinvent themself into the face that they present to the world. Which is kind of a nice message, for a show about a blood-spatter expert who kills people according to a twisted moral code in his off-hours.

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