Thoughts on Popeye and a review of the Bond film “Skyfall”

Saw the latest Bond movie, a really superior popcorn movie with great stunts. Solid performances, creative staging by director Sam Mendes to re-invent the familiar, exotic locations, high quality tech elements and a well written, intelligent script are some of the reasons for this creative success.

It puts one foot in the Bond past (e.g. the Aston Martin gets a big cameo amongst many nods to previous iconic Bond tropes and gadgets), while modernizing technology, attitudes toward woman (a bit) and even “stooping” so screenplay 101 to do a little character development… the only quibble was that the wit was not as pervasive as some previous 007 entries instead replaced with a melancholia about getting old and changing times. “Skyfall” actually threatened to be deep on occasion but fortunately something goofily over-the-top intruded and brought the film back into the realm of escapist fun.

But here’s an odd reaction I had during the opening action scene where civilian health and life are treated in a typically cavalier manner as the British agents chase the bad guy: I kept thinking about Popeye. When I was a kid, I watched Popeye cartoons on TV just because that’s what was on – but I disliked Popeye. I have a distinct memory of Popeye rescuing Olive Oil, who was tied to some train tracks, by punching the train, causing it to crunch into itself. I didn’t say to myself, “Thank god, Olive Oil was rescued.” No, I said, “There were people on that train and Popeye just killed them.” That was how my brain already worked at 5 years old.


review of “ANNA KARENINA”, directed by Joe Wright

I saw “Anna Karenina” last night with a Q&A by the director Joe Wright and D.P. Seamus McGarvey. It’s a directorial and below the line tour de force. That’s not to say that the acting isn’t good to excellent – it is. But the concept (clearly a lemonade out of lemons budgetary decision) involves creating the artifice of the action mostly happening in a theatre. The movie is intensely choreographed, both literally in the dances (and one sex scene is staged as a kind of dance) and in the actors every day – yet stylized – movements, all in relation to an often moving camera. For example, scenes shift locations by moving a few feet and changing a jacket. A simple action used to transform space, which is very much a theatre convention. Thus, the way the action has been staged / filmed captures much of the magic inherent in both mediums. The effect is often surreal and disorienting, then the frame refocuses into more standard film realism and we’re brought back into the comfort of “reality”.

Wright has created an odd amalgam of Brecht and Russian Romanticism as we get pulled out and sucked back in continuously, in its own kind of dance (kudos to the editing). I think if you have a great love of the theatre, you will be fascinated and will overall quite like the film, but if you don’t, then then there’s a greater chance you will be feeling a bit cold and dissatisfied by this film. I quite liked it myself.

But this methodology works because it’s more than a clever trick to avoid the expense of shooting on location in Russia. It thematically underlines the artificiality of the rules the aristocracy lived by and provides enormous contrast to the literal breath of fresh air for the Leven major subplot which is filmed all on location, often in the fields. (The Leven story is essentially Tolstoy’s fictionalized autobiography.)

The breaking of the 4th wall may have given me a different emotional experience than one where I would have been fully enveloped in a suspension of disbelief, but it is a valid emotional experience nonetheless. It takes a bit more work on one as an audience member, but is very rewarding in a rather unique way.

As I have said nothing of the script, I should note that Tom Stoppard had done an excellent adaptation of a rather long novel with a parade of characters with long, unfamiliar names with both a minimum of confusion and a great deal of emotional impact. The writing effectively captures the parameters of the story, the feel of Imperial Russia and the spirit of Tolstoy. Without the grounding of the script and what it gives the actors to work with, this dance of real and artificial that Wright and his team have some impressively created never would have been possible.

Again the acting is quite fine, from leads to minor characters. The score (much of it composed to the script, before filming thus making all of that choreography possible) and all of the technical elements are stunning, but a special mention must go to the sound design which constantly created an impact especially in scenes staged in the “theatre” (p.s. not a real theatre but a theatre facsimile constructed on a sound stage in England which is just one more layer of the artificial here…). No, I take that back, the sound of the scythe cutting wheat was as important as any in the drawing rooms of the aristocracy.


A Few Initial Thoughts About Some Very Good (or much more than that, or at the least very worthy) Films

There are so many film that I have missed this past year that seem like they are very worthy of seeing, while concurrently a fair number of the ones I did see (usually because they were a free Industry screening) qualify at best as only momentary entertainment without the resonances that truly make a film great art. (As one of my favorite lines of poetry puts it “Only in the beauty created by others is there consolation.” – Adam Zagajewski). Some like many of the documentaries, like “Pina”, are actually just getting their commercial releases and others, like “Incendies” are available on DVD.

But I make the above point as a qualifier for when I make the statement “one of my favorite films” or “one of the best films” of the year, i.e. I’m not a professional reviewer and have neither the time nor the money to see everything.

First my taste always puts top value on films that depict human beings with the complexity that human beings exhibit in real life, i.e. some combination of positive and negative traits with a mix of consistencies and contradictions within each character’s make-up. Plots are derived from character and flow organically. The engine of the story is the standard propeller in drama: conflict. Someone wants something and somebody/something gets in the way. Complications ensue. I most love stories that are dramas with humor, or comedies with drama.

Except in animation and to some degree also pre-1970’s movies where I’m more forgiving, I’m alienated by sentimentality in a movie. I always define this as “unearned emotion” – cheap, easy ways of pushing an audiences’ emotional levers… fast forwards to an audiences’ subconscious that avoid the messy reality of a character journey in order to get to that emotional place (for both the character, and the audience). A fairly innocuous example of sentimentality, is the frequent shots of cute animals in “We Bought a Zoo”. As the locale is a zoo, there is justification obviously, but these cut aways didn’t always have much to do with the story or character development but rather seem to be inserted for that general “aaaaaahhh” feeling most of us get from puppies and kittens. (Another example, less of sentimentality per se, but an easy manipulation of emotion – in this case fear and anticipation – would be in the same movie, the sudden breaking of the lock to the lion cage right when the zoo is getting inspected by the state… let’s call that one, convenient, and I’d be quite surprised if that actually happened in the memoir the film was based on, and wasn’t manufactured by the screenwriter.)

As points of comparison, some relatively recent films that are favorites are “Sideways”, “The Visitor”, “Sweet Land”, “The Last Station” and “500 Days of Summer”… obviously indie heavy. That said, I utterly enjoy fun, escapist and genre (except horror) films too – “Raiders of the Lost Ark” being one of my all time favorites for instance. I’m also a huge fan of film noir, screwball comedies and other black & white film classics.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that “Win Win” – the indie comedy drama written/directed by Tom McCarthy and starring Paul Giamatti and the ever amazing Amy Ryan – is my absolute, very favorite film of the year. (Note, I haven’t seen “Beginners” yet, which I’m told by friends that I would like quite a bit.)

The surprise to me, at least, is that “The Help” would be on my current top ten list. I resisted seeing this film when it opened. The commercials and trailers screamed, “yuck”, that looks so sentimental.” The major reviews cemented this where they only praised the acting, in particular Viola Davis, and often criticized current flavor of the year Emma Stone (whom, by the way, I had already noticed as standing out in a mediocre comedy called “The Rocker” from 2008).

But as awards season is upon us, I felt I should see the movie that did get various acting and writing major nominations from the guilds: well just as trailers can make a bad movie look good, they can be very reductive concerning character-driven films that have more nuance than is initially apparent. More on this in a future blog post…. (i.e. TO BE CONTINUED)


Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene

WARNING – I will try to be vague but if you’re clever viewer, my response to having seen this “Martha, Marc, May, Marlene” will have spoilers…

I saw MMMM this past Thursday night. I had an immediate, visceral reaction of distaste running through my body at the last frame and as the credits rolled..

In the immediate moment and for a few hours afterward I could be no more articulate than that it made me feel “yucky” inside.

Was it the seemingly ambiguous non-ending? While people all around me seemed to have different interpretations of what was happening or about to happen, I actually thought the ending was quite clear even if the director chose to not show us those horrific images about to come. It was a true horror movie ending … in fact, the whole movie could be characterized as an exploitative, horror movie.

On the surface, it’s a serious psychological drama exploring the damage wrought upon the members of a small cult and specifically the title character and protagonist – played by Elizabeth Olsen – of the film. But that movie is really only about half of the film – the flashback half of the film occurring on the collective farm in upstate New York. This half of the film is already harrowing to watch and filled with a constant sense of dread.

John Hawkes plays the cult leader, Patrick. He’s an amazing actor. Superlative. (In fact, ALL of the performances are very good to excellent in the entire movie…. script however is another story.) If you saw Hawkes in “Winter’s Bone” and thought he was a scary dude in that, he’s downright benign, an angel in “…Bone” compared to the alternately charming, manipulative, cruel and violent monster he plays in MMMM.

There is one thing that rings untrue about the scenes on the farm: there is no scene or image which shows the Hawkes’ characters directives on how to interact with anybody from the outside world.

Such information is vital to know because it would very much inform the audience on Olsen’s character’s interactions with her sister and brother-in-law after running away from the cult. That (whatever it is, SHOULD be the default pattern that she’s fighting to break out of. She’s been thoroughly brainwashed after all.

SPOILER in the next paragraph:

But there are also shorter flashback scenes occurring just off the farm in the nearby town, that takes the psychological terror closer to the realm of the Manson Family. While there is a certain logic that this cult could behave in this manner too, it also puts the movie more into the realm of melodrama and horror. And it isn’t really necessary. There’s already enough figurative and literal violence perpetrated upon the cult members, especially the women, to convey the idea that this is a very bad way to organize a group of people.

But it is really the roughly half of the movie happening in the “present”, at the Connecticut vacation home of the protagonists sister, where the exploitative aspect really comes to the fore. I say exploitative not because there is any violence perpetrated (there isn’t) but because of the way the writer/director exploits the audience.

The Olsen character never reveals to her sister that she was living in a cult. That would put her more in a state of self-awareness and shame, i.e. it is conscious volition that leads her to hide these facts… however, the writer/director wants to play it both ways… first she’s traumatized and disassociated… then she’s behaving with her sister in a hostile, alienated way that one can imagine was their relationship 2 years ago – prior to her joining the cult…. then she’s disintergrating into a paranoid, possibly delusional, mess… then she acts as if she doesn’t know what happened to her. Some of this feels organically true but a lot of it feels like effect to keep the audience off-balance and moreover to keep the sister and the brother-in-law in the dark.

And by the way, there has to be something good in the relationship between the two sisters… something at some point in their lives where they were kind to each other. Yet, I can’t recall a physical touch of concern or a touch of gratitude (the Olsen character is being sheltered and protected after all by her older sister) and not a word of gratitude from the Olsen character. She’s opaque to her sister.

in the next three paragraphs:

Also, it’s illogical that the cult would have let her get away. She’s in a diner. The chief henchman of the cult leader has found her and he inexplicably leaves the diner. This would only make sense if the cult fully expected her to return on her own because of the mind manipulations that had already occurred. And the movie initially shows the cult to be just that – evil but not murderous of human beings. But when that reveal occurs ¾ of the way into the movie, suddenly nothing makes sense.

The Olsen character knows too much. She could tell the police, etc. There’s no way the control freak Hawkes character would allow her to get away. So as I said, all of the Olsen character inconsistencies are necessary to create almost a false tension for the audience, a false mystery (is she or isn’t she crazy, is she or isn’t she seeing things, and so on) but moreover, the older sister and brother-in-law must be kept ignorant for the plot device that they will then be vulnerable to a surprise attack.

And that’s why I said MMMM is a horror film. Horror films are essentially disease films. A disease strikes randomly. It has no moral imperative. A victim of a disease is struck down just by bad luck. Horror personifies the disease into either the hockey mask immortal serial killer or other humanoid or non-humanoid monster. In MMMM, Patrick is the monster aided and abetted by his attendants. So MMMM as well as the innocents with her will be struck down the disease that is Patrick.

The one genre I dislike and almost never see is horror. There’s enough blood and disease in real life… I don’t want to see a more grotesque version of that as entertainment. Art exists to transform the chaos of life. Bad things can still happen to good people, but something about the experience creates meaning and not just random suffering.

One other side note, this is one of the most beautiful films, from an image point of view, that I’ve seen this year. The cinematography is just stunning. But once again, this is a deceitful pleasure. I assume the Writer/Director is making a point about the evil that can lurk beneath a pretty surface. Or hopefully that’s his point. So, that the pretty pictures are not part of the mind f-ck, there just to lull the audience…


Registering a work with the Copyright Office vs. the WGA

Unlike my previous posts which have had more personal content, this is just a pragmatic, public service post … of interest only to other writers, but if it helps one person, then I’ve done a mitzvah: I was relatively recently at a Dramatists Guild all day seminar on various business aspects of writing. I was rather surprised to hear a question – echoed by a friend of mine sitting next to me – asking which was better, registering a work with the U.S. Registrar of Copyrights or the Writers’ Guild.

I hadn’t realized that the WGA was now registering non-screenplays as well. I like the WGA, and even more, the Writers Guild Foundation. BUT Writers Guild registration is NOT a substitute for registering one’s work with the U.S. Registrar of Copyrights. The latter’s website is fairly easy to use now.

I know this not only from taking Law and the Arts taught by an attorney at Yale, but I’ve had day jobs working for and with lawyers, including intellectual property rights ones, for over 10 years. Finally, I’ve worked for 20th Century Fox Film Corp. in the legal and business affairs departments where dealing with screenwriters’ credits is a common issue – so I have direct and theoretical experience here.

Copyright exists the moment expression (not ideas, but the expression of that idea… likewise titles of a work are not copyrightable) is put into a fixed form, i.e. typically ink on paper. However, to enforce one’s copyright, i.e. bring suit for infringement, one has to have registered that work first with the Copyright Office.

Registering with the WGA is only necessary for screenplays, particularly in terms of determining film credit in WGA arbitrations, and otherwise should only be seen as a supplement to Copyright registration for both screenplays or anything else. It could be useful for instance as supporting what specifically is the date of creation in a more official way than mailing a script to oneself. But if you want to save money, yet do what’s absolutely necessary, just register with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Never submit a work until you’ve done that first.

Also, film companies typically require a clear chain of title, which includes U.S. Copyright Registration.

As far as re-registering after substantial changes have been made, that’s more of a gray zone decision. The
suggestion I’ve heard is to so again upon publication or that first production. There is a section on the form where you can specify that this is a previously registered work, and what changes have occurred since then.

By the way, the Dramatists Guild business affairs person was even more dismissive of a non-screenwriter doing anything other than registering with the Copyright Office, but I thought that was being too black and white myself.


Elderly Background Actors

I work on the Fox Lot and the way to my office in the Old Executive Building takes me past the sound stage where the TV show “How I Met Your Mother” is shot.

I’ve only seen one of the leads once, but I often see the extras. Typically these people are young men in suits and/or hot women in short dresses or evening attire. Particularly lots of these attractive women.

But this morning was different. A coffee station had been set up, which I’ve never seen, and all of the extras were clearly over 65, all in evening attire, i.e. except for 3 young men who clearly were cast as waiters. It’s the first time on the Lot I’ve ever seen so many older actors in one place being called in for a shoot… at least a dozen of them.

It’s hard to say if these older people did background work as a hobby in their retirement, or were actually working actors who had had a long career. I imagine the latter only because of the grimness or sadness on the faces of so many of them… as if their expressions said, “I was once a leading lady and now I’m being relegated to a background visual punchline.”

I had such an overwhelming sense of sadness… seeing them sitting out in their chairs throughout the day, as I passed the Commissary Lawn… just waiting to be called in. Perhaps of course, this is purely my own anxiety about my own tumbling years. Thus I could be imagining their angst and frustration, and they were just having a grand old time on those folding chairs. After all, at least the grips had put up fabric to give them shade.


Rhino Resurrected

I saw the premiere of “Rhino Resurrected” on Saturday Aug.20… as the movie’s producers don’t have a distribution deal, I can only urge you, if you see another screening listed, to GO if you’re a music geek especially, and secondarily if you’re interested in LA cultural history.

The story of a record store and it’s off shoot record label (before Warner Brothers ate it) would seem to be a super obscure subject but think a real life version of “High Fidelity” and obnoxious record store employee Jack Black. The two hours fly by and it’s mostly like being in the company of a funny, smart, sometimes annoying bunch of music fanatics.

From a purely filmmaking standpoint, the movie is well-edited with very few dead spots. It is a mix of archival footage (stills, band performances, a few interviews) with more extensive present day interviews. The organizing device was the “resurrection” of Rhino with a temporary pop-up store last year. Overall this device works well structurally, but there a few too many shots of getting the temporary store ready for the public which slows down the movie. In general all tech. elements are solid. But this is a movie where content is everything, not how good or not good the cinematography is. And the content, as I said, was surprisingly interesting and often amusing.

As I’m originally an East Coaster, my first exposure to Rhino was through its superlative compilations of garage rock and soul.

But backing up, I was, and am, a huge Patti Smith fan. Indirectly because of her I discovered 1960’s garage rock. (It should be noted that because of my brothers’ record collections, I was already a fan of Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, the Airplane, Hendrix, Cream and all of the other well known 60’s greats etc.) Patti’s long time collaborator and guitarist, Lenny Kaye, had selected and produced the ground breaking Nuggets compilation of forgotten garage rock and psychedelic rock hits, semi-hits and rarities back in 1972 and then re-issued in 1976 on Sire. I would discover it in 1980 or so. Wanting to go deeper, and using those songs on Kaye’s compilation as the jumping off point, I was led, more often than not, to Rhino Records.

Rhino’s compilations would usually have the best sound quality, the best selection for the money and the most interesting liner notes. My visceral history of rock music was profoundly, though not in any sense exclusively, influenced by the tastes and quirks behind Rhino. My favorite Christmas CD to this day is Cool Yule with an incredible bunch of up tempo soul, r&b, rockabilly and rock X-mas originals or vastly altered traditional songs (e.g. a bouncy, danceable, truly joyous “Silent Night”).

So, when I came out to LA in 2000, I was a little surprised to realize that there were two brick and mortar Rhino Records stores: one in the Westwood section near UCLA and another on the LA county border in the college town of Claremont. The former, original store, had already lost the ethos that is so wonderfully chronicled in the documentary but I can still say I bought a few CD’s there.

I actually bought far more in the Claremont store because my first LA girlfriend (and more than that, eventually) lived in that town. I didn’t know then that the original owner Richard Foos had sold that store a long time ago – a fact I learned only at the Q&A after the documentary. Nonetheless that Claremont store still carried some of that vibe of community and quirkiness.

(Another tangential fact about me – over my life, the majority of my disposable income has gone into books and record/cd’s with movies a close third after that. Fancy cars, clothes, etc. have never held much appeal to me for while in a sense I could easily be accused of being a collector, it is only of things that produce an experience that truly matter to me; I am decidedly NOT a materialist.)

But what the documentary really captures that is so universal is the experience of going into your neighborhood record store, pawing through the record jackets… that sense of tactility of holding a record album in one’s hand… seeing the art work… reading the liner notes…chatting a little or maybe even a lot with the record store clerk… it was place where geeks could feel cool and sometimes even a community could exist.

The original Rhino Records seems to have been a particular special, maddening, annoying, enlightening. entertaining version of the above. But having been to many a record store first in my home town and then in the East and West Villages in NYC, I still recognized my own variants. I’m sure music geeks in Cleveland, Chicago, Boston, etc. etc. will too.

So, there was sadness and poignancy of something lost (both an era and a community). After all, we now more than likely sit at our computers listening to sound samples on Amazon, etc. or i-tunes and either download the music immediately or have a CD delivered to our door. In Los Angeles, there remains only one last Nessie – Amoeba Records… a hybrid of the old neighborhood indie record store and the Tower Records / Virgin Records corporate type store. You can still get recommendations there from fairly knowledgeable clerks and discover tons of obscure music. Not quite an intimate experience but still one I have to limit or otherwise I spend far too much money there. But once again, it’s the last of its kind. Fortunately, we still have live music so community is in no danger of completely disappearing.

Furthermore, all of the participants in the Rhino comedy drama have survived and found someway to keep doing something of value, so it’s not a depressing documentary but a poignant celebration.