Archive for March, 2010

Gram

My 9-yr old cousin Mimi sold Girl Scout cookies this past winter, and I went a little crazy. I bought 8 boxes. They were left for me at Gram’s house (that’s what we call my Mom’s mom; it was the way we distinguished the different sets of grand-parents. Now, the two grand-mothers are all that’s left), and since she lives only about five minutes from my work, I went over and spent my lunch hour with her.

Sign me up

Sometimes she’s quiet; it might take her time to get comfortable with conversation, but today, she was set the moment I sat down with her, rifling through my Green- and Blue- and Purple-Boxed cookies. So there I sat, cookies in lap, a glass of orange juice set on a thick paperback about Ronald Reagan, and we talked. At first just about my job and some evening plans for making fettuccine and watching “LOST,” then about Mimi’s visit last weekend for Gram’s birthday. I brought up the “Harry Potter” series, because Mimi’s on “The Order of the Phoenix,” and we’ve made a plan to read “The Deathly Hallows” together. I hope she’s still a slow reader. Gram said she’d thought about reading them, but thought they’d be too daunting, but I convinced her to borrow the first one from me.

Kodiak Moment

Right now she’s 300+ pages into a book about Alaska, and just mentioning it changed her entire countenance. She has trouble standing and often leans far back in her recliner, her voice is usually passive and a little distant. She sat up, picked up her book and started telling me about all the places she used to live that the book talked about; visiting friends from California on little Kodiak island; which led to her fascination with travel and planes, which led to one of my favorite stories she’s ever told me.

When she was much younger, she and her sister Audrey lived in North Hollywood. When their father died back in Montana, their mother moved out to California and the three lived together. She told me how they would drive into Burbank to the airport, sit inside at the restaurant and watch the planes take off. “It was one of the few things that we did just together. Well, we did everything together, but this was just me and my mother. Audrey didn’t come. She didn’t have any interest in it, I don’t know why.”

Going Somewhere?

She told me how she loved planes, loved working for TWA and then later a travel agency. She told me stories of driving my mother and aunt to the Van Nuys airport, just about a mile from where I live now (and right past which I run on sunny days like today), to take a helicopter ride from there. And how neither of her kids seemed as fascinated by the experience as she was. “After we got done, we got back in the car, and your mother got in the backseat and then she threw up all over herself… She didn’t travel well.”

I’ve always meant to bring a recorder with me to capture these stories and I always forget. These are things that need to be preserved, these are memories that deserve to live on. They are those small, perfect little bits of family history that don’t get taxied out enough. Hearing little stories about my mother or about my great-grandmother, who I never met (I don’t think) but was such a vital part of Gram’s life when she was my age.

We talked about grandchildren, how I don’t have any and won’t. How my sister may have them before my brother or me. About high school reunions and their increasing obsolescence. “You go to one or two, but by then everyone has grown up and changed. People change.” My brother’s 10 year reunion is this year. I have no idea if he’s going to it. I have no idea if I’ll go to mine in 2 years. It feels like another lifetime. I still keep in touch with the people I want to be in touch with. More than anything, I think I agree with Gram: “Thinking about it, it just seems so long ago.”

Her stories can’t be told forever. I have to seek them out while I can.

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Let it Go This Too Shall Pass

Sometimes you want an 1100 page novel that bends style and twists narrative and confounds your expectations and engulfs you for 5 months and won’t let you go. But you know, sometimes complexity doesn’t come from questioning and fighting. Sometimes it’s a celebration. I don’t think anyone exemplifies that idea better than OK Go. You saw the treadmill video (if not, click here), but now they’ve got a new single, “This Too Shall Pass” and they have two videos for it I can’t stop watching; two very different ideas, “The Field” and “The Factory” if you will.

THE FIELD:

THE FACTORY:

Don’t those just make you happy? Both single-shot extravaganzas, “The Field” is kindof about the amazing things people can physically do in nature, while “The Factory” is a technical achievement of the mind. I’ve maybe over-thought them just now, but regardless of any of that, they are celebrations of creativity. Along with the song’s lyrics and general mood, both videos aim to soothe and give hope and inspire by showing us something dazzlingly artistic and creative and complex.

“No you can’t keep letting it get you down. No you can’t keep letting it get you down.”

There is a playful spirit in OK Go’s videos that overwhelms me. The song is about moving on and not harboring the past. The videos conquer the past by reaching down and pulling us out of whatever slump we’re in and bringing us into something dynamic and exalting and fun. It’s like being slapped in the face by a bright, loving smile. And it works! These videos make me want to jump up and down like a little kid, I love them so much.

The Best Films of 2009

The Oscars are over. The awards have gone to whom they have gone, deserved or no. I enjoyed the ceremony quite a lot, especially Neil Patrick Harris’ dance #, which recaptured the elegance and style of the Oscars, but also the fantastic comedy provided by co-hosts Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. The Best Speech of the night was probably Sandra Bullock’s, even though I didn’t like her performance. Michael Giacchino, who won for Best Original Score (“UP”) gave the most heartfelt, about the need as children and young artists to be encouraged to create. Once again, the Best Actor and Best Actress categories involved introductory speeches about each nominee from another entertainer. I love this practice, the Academy should continue it.

And even though 2009 was not history’s best year at the movies, it’s still like every other year. Not everyone who deserves to be recognized will be recognized. Frustratingly decent films are lauded as masterpieces (ahem), but will be forgotten in a few years, when much better films couldn’t even wrangle a nomination.  Some films are too big to be ignored and have found their way onto my list along with nearly everyone else’s. Part of me used to feel guilty and want to apologize for not having discovered 10 unheard-of masterpieces to unleash to the world. Now I’m just content with finding as many great movies every year as I can. I’ve chosen my 10. They may look different than yours. I hope we can still be friends. I’m okay with that if you are. There’s a few big ones missing from my list, and I’ll just cop to them now. I didn’t love “The Hurt Locker” or “Precious” or “Crazy Heart” as much as the rest of the world did. I skipped “Julie and Julia” and “Invictus” even though they’re probably pretty good. I had no interest in seeing “The Blind Side,” went anyway, and was punished accordingly for my $13 sin. Even the popcorn tastes bad when you’re watching that movie. I forgot to see “Nine,” and I’m mostly okay with that.

Here’s my list. See what you think. Prepare to judge and be judged:

#10 - The Informant

10. The Informant! – Directed by Steven Soderbergh (who does about 5 movies a year, usually all great), starring Matt Damon, this is the story of the Vice-President for a major agricultural corporation turned whistle-blower for the FBI regarding international, multi-corporation, industry-wide price fixing during the 1990’s. That’s the simplified version. The film comes at its subject in two ways that make it uniquely enthralling. First, it approaches the material as a comedy. With an overbright retro visual style and a great score by Marvin Hamlisch, Matt Damon’s bumbling Mark Whitacre is the world’s worst secret-agent, if anybody had just realized to look in front of them. The comedy comes from the way powerful people assume both that they are untouchable and that the people around them are as greedy as they are. Which Whitacre is. But he’s also something neither his company, nor the FBI bargained for: a pathological liar. The film places us inside his mind throughout the film, which invites us into the madness. “The Informant” is a painfully funny movie. Which one of those words you think describes it better will tell you a lot about yourself.

#9 - No Impact Man

9. No Impact Man – Do you want to change the world? Colin Beavan thought so too, but he regretted it later. The lone documentary on my list,  this follows Beavan, a writer looking for a book to write and wondering how much difference one person can make for the environment. Those two things mix together and create the thrust for the film, which follows Beavan, his wife and daughter as they seek to literally have a carbon foot-print of ZERO for an entire year. No waste. No electricity. No spending. No luxuries. We see them having their last Starbucks, turning off their electricity, making a compost heap, trying out an old-fashioned refrigeration idea of a “pot in a pot.” Did I mention they live in Manhattan?Filmed with energy efficient methods, the movie engages us in the way the family grows together through the struggle to live this way for a year. The failures and setbacks and annoyances of dis-comfort. The vilification of Beavan and off-handed dismissal of his project from almost every corner of his life. This could have been one of the snobbiest movies ever made. Instead, it’s honest and sweet and kindof funny. What they learn about being energy efficient is fine and well and important, but the real story is what they learn about their family.

#8 - An Education

8. An Education – A smart, independent school-girl falls in love with an older man and learns life-lessons by the end in the most boorish-sounding movie on this list. But it’s not. Written by novelist Nick Hornby, this movie is much smarter and more sly than you’d think. We follow Jenny, who’s one of those beautiful girls we were too afraid to talk to in high school. She’s smart, but she seems to have more important things to do than school. Carey Mulligan plays her perfectly. She’s so sure of herself, and she makes decisions instead of letting others make them for her. She is active in her life, which causes hell for her father (played brilliantly by Alfred Molina) and attracts David (Peter Sarsgaard). Molina inhabits a role that is usually a non-entity in the story, but here is given the screen-time to present an important counter-argument for the attitude his daughter has. She doesn’t understand him, just as much he doesn’t understand her; just as much as she doesn’t really understand all sorts of things she thought she did. Seeing all of those things in young Carey Mulligan’s eyes is as breathtaking as the way the camera observes her. Makes sense it was directed by a woman.

#7 - Where the Wild Things Are

7. Where the Wild Things Are – Few movies make me feel like a kid again, but this one did. I was enamored from the very first frame with the spirit of young Max. He is ferocious and rough and completely alive. Co-writer, director Spike Jonze is all those things too, and the sensibility saturates the screen. For once in a kid’s film, you can feel the danger, when Max travels to a remote land, encounters large beasts, Wild Things, and becomes their king for a while. He’ll have to go home, of course, but you know that already. The movie has a powerful range of emotions that mix and clash and become symbols of Max’s personal life in ways that are always clear but never simple. Some parents didn’t think their kids could handle the movie. If your child has ever thrown a tantrum so bad you wanted to bury them alive, they’re old enough to see this movie. For the rest of us, we can see visualized on screen what it felt like to be a kid. For me, it was an overwhelming, magical experience.

#6 - The White Ribbon

6. The White Ribbon – In a small German town just before World War I, strange things are happening. A wire is mysteriously placed between two trees, making the doctor’s horse fall and seriously injuring the man. A woman falls down a shaft at the mill. A young boy is kidnapped. Crops are destroyed. Who is doing these things? Is it a group of kids? Is it angry workers, raging against the few pillars of the community?  Michael Haneke’s film is as much about the physical acts as their emotional, psychological motivations and consequences. How do you assign blame to an entire community? What is most impressive is the way Haneke sidesteps simple answers and easy targets. Almost everyone in the town has secrets, but this doesn’t make them completely evil. When we don’t have all the facts, how do we know what was an intentional act and what was a random accident? It’s easy to assume the work of an evil, plotting mastermind. It’s more comfortable to us. And Germany certainly had one around that time. Yes, but what were the people doing all the while? Haneke is often criticized for the bleakness of his films, and while it’s not exactly a jaunty film, there is a measure of hope that Haneke instills into the proceedings. Even if hope cannot thrive, it still lives in the spaces between things.

#5 - AVATAR

5. Avatar – Yes, that “Avatar.” Lookit, if you (I, rather) want complex political material, just look at #4. If you (I, once again) want a sweeping melodrama with a simple story but powerful, moving imagery than surpasses any need for brilliant dialogue and ushers in an entirely new cinematic movement and makes you (me) for the first time ever in your (my) life say the words “You HAVE to see it in IMAX 3-D,” then this is your movie. My movie. It is, hands-down, my favorite experience of going to the movies this year. I was enamored with the visual brilliance, I cared about the characters, I loved watching them fall in love. Anyone not watching this movie for the classic love story and amazing visuals has no business sitting in the theater. There is a reason James Cameron is a brilliant director and absolutely deserving of his nomination. It’s because somehow he just knows what an audience will respond to. He is a great story-teller with an eye for mind-blowing innovation. When Jake Sully flies on that big damn bird for the first time, it took my breath away. Sometimes the movies by-pass all your defenses and just get to you. “Avatar” got to me. And when people complain about it, I tell them to wait until the next “Transformers” debacle comes out, then go back and see “Avatar” again. I think you’ll realize that some movies do it right (“Avatar,” “Star Trek”) and some movies are terrible (“Transformers,” “Wolverine,” the list goes on). And that’s that.

#4 - In the Loop

4. In the Loop – Based on the British TV series, “The Thick of It,” this is hands-down the funniest movie of the year. And maybe the smartest. It’s the first few years of our new century. Peter Capaldi and Tom Hollander work for the British government, and when Hollander’s character states publicly that war in the middle-east is “unforeseeable,” it sets everyone off, including the Americans, who are working with Parliament at what could maybe unofficially be the exact opposite purposes. The film becomes a international farce as a cast of at least a dozen major players connives, deceives and finagles (look it up, bitches) every other character through bloody gums, secret committees, and a sea of the funniest profanity you’ve ever heard. David Mamet, the torch can now be passed with confidence. There is nothing better than biting, satirical bureaucratic humor. And there’s no greater bureaucracy than the United States government. For the best example of what I mean and my favorite scene in the movie, check out James Gandolfini as a US General, using a child’s talking calculator to explain how many troops we’d need for an invasion. It will make you cry with laughter.

#3 - UP

3. Up – It’s the end of the year, it must be time for me to remind everyone how great Pixar is and how it deserves to win Best Animated Feature as well as Best Original Screenplay (not that that would EVER be allowed, but still). There is an extended sequence early on in “Up” that wordlessly takes us through the entire life of a couple. It caught me so by surprise. I cry every time I see it. It’s my favorite part of the film, not because anything after it isn’t completely brilliant itself, but because that sequence moved me like few sequences ever have. It is perfect. It shows a deep, truly loving marriage sustained not by flawless circumstances or the achievement of every dream, but by a commitment to another that is eternal. Without that sequence, there isn’t much cause, really, for Carl’s adventure. It’s the weight of the thing he lost that compels him. It’s his grief that has made him lose sight of the truth. The rest of the movie is delightful and moving and exciting and the ending – oh the ending is really perfect, don’t you think?

#2 - Inglourious Basterds

2. Inglourious Basterds – It was in this way that the movies themselves saved the world. That’s essentially the heart of the matter for Quentin Tarantino. In another life, he’d have been a great playwright, and that knowledge sneaks into his writing so that we are given a small number of long, intricate scenes with people who have objectives and goals and desires and beliefs and must discuss something with or find out something from someone else right now, and in that way his films feel like real life. Do I think the movie short-changed us on actual awesome action? Yes I do. That’s why it’s number 2. That’s its punishment. But the creation of Hans Landa, as played by one Christoph Waltz, will go down as one of the most important, exciting characters in cinema history. And, in the movie, world history. Again we have an opening scene that is the best thing in the film. Truly marvelous. And the way Tarantino connects his three story-lines for the climax, makes them matter for each group of people, makes each central figure – Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine, Melanie Laurant’s Shoshanna, and Waltz’s Landa – a focused, driven basterd in their own right, well, it’s really compelling stuff. But seriously, what is f***in’ BJ Novak doing on my screen at the end?

#1 - Up in the Air

1. Up in the Air – Writer/director Jason Reitman is the filmmaker I’m most excited about. He has a very accessible sensibility that also maintains an artistic angle to his stories. Here he finds three actors who all hit for the cycle and create characters with very different points of view who aren’t simply on-screen to argue with each other. Every character affects the way the others view things. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, another of his efficient, capable men whose self-worth is tied solely to his vocation. Here, he fires people for a living. His company makes him take on Natalie (my future wife [pipe dreams, people, pipe dreams], Anna Kendrick). She’s young and wants to fire people via, essentially iChat. Vera Farmiga (can I have two future wives?) is the career-woman Bingham falls for. The interactions between the characters take center stage, and it is rare to see a movie this smart and adult and moving be so entertainingly re-watchable.

Reitman also manages to make a movie that is about our times without getting trapped in them. His film is about every single person on screen. Researching for the film, he found real people willing to discuss losing their jobs. They are seen in a few different segments throughout the film, and what struck me was how the movie allowed me to care about every one of them, a dozen or so people, even though they were only on screen a few brief moments. That empathy and human truth drives the film, and I love its ambiguous ending. We’ve seen Clooney’s character have to rethink his personal philosophy. That’s the easy part. Now what does he do?

For these and so many other reasons, “Up in the Air” is the best film of the year.

Coffee and Creativity

Creativity's Best Friend

Last week for the first time in far too long, Adam and I went to IHOP, sat down with pancakes, coffee, and our open notebooks, and workshopped ideas for our joint projects. Take this as a truism – there is no setting so inherently conducive to creativity as a diner. It’s some mixture of dingy atmosphere and abundant menu, and really probably also proximity to cheap, refillable-coffee. Bathrooms are in the top five – perhaps cosmically-propelled to be so by Archimedes and his Displacement – but they lack the correct kind of overheard community.

Adam and I are putting together a press kit for “Trailer: The Movie.” It took us a while to get our minds away from gags like including fake cocaine from “Huff” and a hospital ID-wristlet with the Killer’s name from “COMA.” Instead, I think we’ve got a pretty sleek, interesting design idea. It’s kindof a classic example of how we work. The concept was created in tandem. From there, my job is to write all the prose for each section, while Adam realizes the design. We’ll give each other notes here and there, but for the most part we’ll work alone for a collective product.

God Gets a Little Too Excited For Bath-Time

Aside from that, we finalized the three separate storylines for our next short film, as well as a framing device that will add a great layer to it. The film will be about 3 couples, all at different places in their relationship, during one key moment. If it sounds too simple and straight-forward, that’s mostly the point. My personal writing mainframe these days defaults to the satiric and endlessly complex. Of the five finished films I’ve got and the one I’m rehearsing right now – which rehearsals are going extremely well – the emotional moments are few and far and all that, sortof like a dash of it sprinkled into a batter of nearly solely intellectual humor. I need to make sure I can drop all of that and just let two people talk to each other and express things and still be okay. And if I can’t, then that’s what I need to work on.

It’s worth mentioning that sometime around the 5th cup of coffee (also, LA, come on, Kansas City kicks your ass where all things IHOP are concerned), I came upon a final moment between two characters that is at once hopeful and basically unabashedly romantic and but also could, if done wrong or maybe even just viewed wrong, call any and all chance of happiness into question. Adam told me it was sabotage; that it was my Default’s way of asserting itself and ruining the project. I can’t be sure. We’ve run the idea across a few friends so far, and they’ve been almost totally on my side, which shocks me most of all. The last thing I want to engage in is emotional sabotage; as if I haven’t been accused of that enough.

Has This Man Emotionally Sabotaged You? Join Class-Action Lawsuit


It Has Come to This

March 2010
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