Film Is Dead. I For One, Welcome Our New Television Overlords.

•July 26, 2014 • Leave a Comment

 

Transformers

It occurred to me the other day that we are living in the midst of one of the worst summers of movies, certainly of my lifetime, possibly in recent human history. I was on a family vacation a few weeks ago in Rockport MA when my family was looking to go to the movies, only to find that there was not one decent film out that even the most liberal spender in the group could justify paying 10 bucks for. It was absurd!

I take it that most are familiar with the seasonal nature of films. If not, the “prestige” films that will likely win awards are released in the fall and early winter, the horrible movies that no one would ever want to see are released in January and February, by the spring it gets a little bit better and then the summer is the time to unload the big-budget, action heavy, usually super-hero themed movies. It’s also a favorite time for comedies. Now, I generally prefer awards season to the summer, but it’s just easier to get out in the summer.

This summer I’ve seen three films:

 

1) 22 Jump Street: A film that literally lives up to one of my favorite Onion articles of all time: Movie Praised for Not Being Bad As It Could Have Been. A terribly lazy, sloppy film that is a carbon copy of 21 Jump Street, itself a remake of an 80’s television show. Now, I know many people were enamored with the film’s self-awareness of how similar the sequel was to its predecessor. But does that really matter?

 

Grade: C

2) Edge of Tomorrow: Literally takes the plot of Groundhog day, only instead of a light comedy it’s a science fiction film. Decent movie, Tom Cruise is somewhat playing against type, but terrible ending and the repetitiveness of certain scenes got a bit trying towards the end. Stands out for being one of the few “original” films out this summer, even though it’s based on a comic book, at least it’s not a remake!

 

Grade: B

3) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A bunch of talking apes continue their quest to take over the world. Remake of the old Charlton Heston films, and (I think) a “reboot” of the franchise after the Mark Wahlberg disaster that came out in 1999. It’s an interesting film, no doubt, but the results of everything are so predetermined it’s hard to care. I mean, the movies not called “Rise of the Planet of the Humans” so I think we can rest assured the monkeys win.

 

Grade: B

Of the other summer movies, the new X-Men film looked alright, but this is, what, the 8th X-Men film in the last 15 years? It’s getting hard to care about these characters. Godzilla I almost saw just because of Bryan Cranston, but never got around to it. From what I’ve heard, it was 2 hours of hushed conversations followed by 15 minutes of action. And again, a remake of Godzilla seems a little besides the point 50 years after the original.

Right now, the only movie that looks like it could even remotely approach greatness is Richard Linklater’s decades spanning Boyhood. The film follows a kid for about 12 years, from childhood to young adult, and is currently getting glowing reviews. But it’s an independent film from a director who is way outside the mainstream of the American zeitgeist, so I doubt it will get much attention.

Put it this way; if one of the most anticipated films of the summer stars Andy from Parks and Recreation leading a crew of animals on some kind of intergalatic mission, well, you know it’s been a long summer.

Let me segue to my next point; television is so much more relevant to the average American right now. To me, there’s one reason for this sea-change; Netflix. Ok, well maybe not just Netflix, but video-streaming services have made the small screen a superior force to film.

Take a look at the way people reacted to Orange is the New Black, a Netflix original series that dumped 13 stellar episodes on the public in May. People couldn’t get enough of it! Twitter, Instagram, Facebook (which I know is passe at this point, but still) and probably Myspace too were abuzz about it. People used to talk about “water cooler shows” and while I doubt there are many people really gathering around the water cooler to talk about how cold-hearted Piper has become, it definitely had the virtual water cooler going crazy.

Or how bout the finale of Breaking Bad? I made the bold decision to wait till the series aired on Netflix so I could binge-watch the entire series, but as a result my forays onto Twitter were like walking through a minefield of spoilers.

Just over the last year, from May 2013 to now, there have been at least 5 television shows that have generated a fasinating mix of critical acclaim and fan adoration. Orange is The New Black, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development*, and True Detective. Not far behind are shows like Fargo, Mad Men, Hannibal, The Walking Dead, BoardWalk Empire. When was the last time a movie generated anything near the excitement that these shows drum up on a weekly basis?**

What is my point? Television has never been better, film has never been worse. That logically leads to the question of why is film so bad to begin with, probably beyond the scope of this blog post, but I think Stephen Soderbergh’s critique from about a year ago holds most of the answers: Link. In general, the big budget movies are more and more drawing from foreign markets and as a result they need to make the plots less complex and more universal so people in China can understand what is going on. That results in movies like Transformers 4 or Pacific Rim (which I guess wasn’t even that bad).

I think a lot of the same arguments about why football has trouble attracting fans to the games could be applied to the movie industry as well. 10-15 years ago, the average television looked like shit. Going to the movies guaranteed you that, even if the plot of your movie was asinine, the thing would at least look pretty. That’s disappeared with the advent of HD televisions, Blu-Ray and all the rest. It certainly doesn’t help that theatres have been jacking up the prices, a (somewhat) reasonable reaction to the fact that no one’s showing up, but it still makes going to the movies a risk for people without a ton of money to spend. This further forces filmmaker’s down the rabbit hole of making familiar products with the same actors and visual styles, as it’s easier to convince a 24 year old without a ton of money to go see a sequel, or yet another Michael Bay movie, than it is to convince them to see some film no one’s ever heard of with an unknown cast.

So, can film recover? I think so, but in my opinion it will take a return to the auteur driven days of the 1970’s. Studios appear to have wrested control from the directors, outside of a few guys (Scorcese, Wes Anderson, etc.) which means that the movies are not only bad, but they’re not even good-bad. By that I mean, I’d rather see an ambitious failure (like a Cloud Atlas, for example) than Transformers 7: Return of the Revenge of the Fallen.

Ultimately, it comes down to an analogy that I’ve been making for years, though I’m sure other, smarter people have said the same thing: movies are like short stories, television is like a novel. And who the hell reads short stories anymore?


*Season 4 was not really critically acclaimed.

 

**Probably last year’s Avengers.

 

TV Review: True Detective Season 1

•June 23, 2014 • Leave a Comment

 

Seemingly every person who knows anything about television spent the winter of this year raving about True Detective via social media, while I huddled in the corner of the Twitter universe trying to avoid any and all spoilers. I’m happy to say I emerged unscathed, and ended up buying the show at Barnes and Noble (30% percent off!) last week. Aside from the bits and pieces that had popped up on the internet, I knew very little about this show, excepting Matthew McConaughey’s mustache.

The show, despite being lauded for its originality, is actually a pretty basic story of two detectives who have diametrically opposed views of the world. Woody Harrelson plays Marty Hart, who initially comes across as the sort of do-gooder in a land of corruption you’ve seen a million times, but ends up being, for lack of a better word, an asshole. Marty’s partner is Rustin Cole (McConaughey), a depressed, cynical dude who is probably one of the more interesting characters I have seen on television or in film in quite some time. His drunken, swirling soliloquies and meditations on life are the heart of the show, at least to me.

Anyway, the show has an interesting frame story; it starts in 1995, with the two detectives working a mysterious murder case, while they are simultaneously interviewed in 2012. The story later shifts to 2002 and then finally back to 2012 for the last two episodes. By the way, there are only 8 episodes (1 hour each) so the story comes and goes and doesn’t drag at all to my mind.

What I Liked

The acting from the two leads is incredible stuff, particularly McConaughey. I haven’t seen him in many serious roles, but his career has been experiencing a renaissance of late and it’s obvious why, because he takes the role of Cole and knocks it out of the park. Harrelson does a great job as well in a much less flashy role, but the two work together nicely.

Secondly, the cinematography and the way the show is shot is like nothing I’ve seen on television. It really feels like a long movie, and some of the scenery shots of Southern Louisiana are really breathtaking. There’s also an epic, 6 minute, Children of Men-esque take that I would highly recommend everyone check out.

Finally, I think the show does a fantastic job telling the story. The murder mystery itself is not really a novel concept, but it’s so well executed that you forget about some of its flaws.

What I Didn’t Like

The big issue people justifiably have with True Detective is that the female characters are not well written. I think this is a legitimate complaint, although I’m sure others will complain about how the PC police have taken over our society. I’m definitely not someone who thinks that every movie or television program needs to complete a checklist of every group of society. However, the female characters that are present are not drawn with nearly the complexity of the leads and mainly exist either to get a guttural reaction from the audience (i.e. everyone recoils at the sight of a dead woman) or as trophies for male characters. That’s about all I’ll say on that though!

My second complaint, which I already alluded to, is that the plot is pretty standard stuff, and this whole obsession with serial killers has started to feel a little stale. Not that it’s a focus of the show, but I just feel like the trope is played out at this point. It’s a credit to everyone involved in the creation of the show that this works as well as it does with such a trite story-line.

Overall

I’m not ready to anoint True Detective as the second coming of The Wire or Breaking Bad, but it is an excellent show. Great performances, great cinematography, and an interesting example of how television can succeed in ways that film cannot. Definitely see this show.

Rating: 9/10

Book Review: The Sports Gene by David Epstein

•May 28, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The Sports Gene Review

David Epstein’s book “The Sports Gene” is one of the more engrossing and intriguing books I’ve read in a long time (fiction or otherwise). The author, a former collegiate track runner at Columbia, sets out to look at the age-old issue of nature vs. nurture in terms of sports. In other words: What is more important to an athlete, good genes or good work ethic?

Epstein’s answer this unanswerable question is basically “It depends” but it’s the way he goes about looking at the angle that had me staying up way past my usual bedtime, bleary-eyed as I read about the Kalenjin tribe’s dominance in distance running or the Iditarod racer/dog breeder who literally bred work ethic into his dogs.

The book covers a wide range of topics across many different sports and continents. The discussion of Kenyan distance dominance has always been a hotly debated topic on message boards and the like, so it was interesting to see that the science is still not sure exactly why this relatively small nation has been able to so thoroughly dominate the sport. What was new was Epstein’s discussion of the “genetic diversity” theory, which states that, since life began in Africa, people from that continent are going to have a greater deal of diversity than, say, people living in Asia, who migrated there eons ago. Thus people in Africa, in theory, are going to have people with great genes for all kinds of things, but they’re also going to have people on the low-end of the spectrum (i.e. the fastest and the slowest runners in the world). Fairly controversial stuff, particularly when discussing Jamaicans, who primarily are from the West Coast of Africa, and the “warrior-slave” theory.

I was also fascinated by Epstein’s discussion of gender and its relation to sports, in a chapter called “Why Do Men Have Nipples?” Epstein points out that, at one time, it was believed that woman would reach a point where they would be be better than men at running events, due to how rapidly women were improving. As it turns out, this was primarily due to drugged up runners from Eastern Bloc countries.

At any rate, this book is pretty complex at times, but in terms of a book about science the author has done a phenomenal job of simplifying some staggeringly complex concepts into terms that even a science-averse philistine like myself can somewhat understand. My one criticism would be that he really does not address the PED situation in anything other than a cursory manner.

Overall, I’d highly recommend this to anyone who is interested in sports at any level. Although it’s decently long and at times complicated, the book never feels like work and is quite an easy read considering the subject matter.

 

Boston Marathon 2014 Race Report

•April 22, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Put together some thoughts about the Boston Marathon that were way too long to post on Facebook. Not sure how much general interest there is in this, but here you go: 

The Training

This was by far the busiest winter of my life and I just had a lot going on between graduate school, work, and coaching, so training was a challenge. Not to mention, this was a brutal winter weather wise with all kinds of storms that made getting out for 20 plus mile long runs a bit of a chore. Nevertheless, I was thrilled with the way everything went, all things considered. I averaged in the 85-90 mpw range from November until April and got in a 20 plus long run almost every week.

I also managed to string together some great races throughout this training block, with PR’s in the 3k (8:56), the 5k (15:36) and half-marathon (1:10:42). I also ran a solid training run at Stu’s 30k where I averaged 5:50ish pace for around 18 miles. Probably my biggest regret training wise is that I didn’t get in enough workouts at my marathon pace (more on that later).

Another aspect of the training that went surprisingly well is that I managed to emerge at the end of all this without any real injuries. I say it’s surprising because I did a piss-poor job of properly stretching/foam rolling/ice bathing and generally doing the little things that I tell my own athletes a good runner needs to do to stay injury free. This was primarily a by-product of my lack of time, but as I get older it’s going to get more and more difficult to get by without a good stretching routine.

I was visited by this weird knee spasm thing that sprang up in my last marathon training block. On occasion, usually when walking up stairs, I’ll get this little flutter on the inside of my right knee. It doesn’t hurt; it feels like there’s a butterfly trapped inside my leg flapping his wings. Maybe it’s a psychological thing, but I didn’t feel it at all in the race.

The Race

If I’m being honest, I thought much more about the starting line logistics than I was about the actual race. I did the Philadelphia Marathon in 2012, which is a big race, but for that one I was staying at a hotel within walking distance of the starting line. For Boston, there were a lot more steps. Plus, I was without my phone for much of the day, never a good feeling for a technology-addled person like myself.

Thankfully, everything went off without a hitch; I got dropped off in Hopkinton, stood in line for a bathroom for some 20 minutes, got on a bus over to the high school, stood in another bathroom line for some time before abandoning it, and then finally we were “allowed” to head to the starting line. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get in much of a warmup as most of the side streets were blocked off. I ran around the town common for about 5 minutes, then did some dynamics and strides before heading to find a decent place at the starting line.

I had to push my way past a number of people but I finally settled into a spot with a group of guys who were looking to run around 2:30, right around the time I wanted. There were various handshakes and well-wishes (as well as some dudes just straight up peeing on the ground, pretty gross) and then we were off.

I don’t remember too much of the first ten miles or so, I was basically just trying to find a good spot. I went out a tad fast for the 5k (17:31 or so when I wanted to be in the 17:40’s) but nothing disastrous. I wasn’t able to find a solid group and just shut my brain off like I’d wanted to, though; I kept moving from group to group, hanging on to one group of guys for a mile or two then drifting to another.

After going through the “Scream Tunnel” in Wellesley, I had a debacle and managed to get my Power Gel all over my shorts. Long story, but basically I made the foolish decision to put an opened gel back in my pocket so I could grab a cup of water. Then I ended up with one of my pockets being extremely sticky and gross. So that sucked.

I hit the halfway point in 1:14:46, on pace for a sub-2:30. I was feeling pretty good too! By the time I made the turn onto Comm Ave, though, I was starting to feel it. I had been running in the 5:40-5:45 pace pretty comfortably, but I started to slip a bit and by Heartbreak Hill, well, suffice it to say I was having some pretty dark thoughts. I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually contemplated dropping out of the race at one point, but then I thought about how stupid it would be to stop a marathon with  6 miles to go and I trudged on.

Miles 22-24 were definitely the hardest for me, but I was able to (reasonably) pull it together for the last two and finished strong. Overall, finished 136 in the field of roughly 36,000. I thought if I ran really well I’d have a chance to sneak into the top 100, but I’m happy with my time and my race strategy.

 

Image

Photo Cred: My brother. 

16) What is the Most Underrated Video Game of All Time?

•March 8, 2013 • 2 Comments

Q. What is the most underrated video game of all time?

A. Zombies Ate My Neighbors.

Zombies Ate My Neighbors is an absolute gem of a video game, yet sadly few people seem to be aware of its existence. I’ve had numerous conversations that go something like this:

Person A: So what was your favorite video game as a kid?

Me: Zombies Ate My Neighbors! That game was awesome!

Person A: Never heard of it.

Me: Oh…

Zombies came out on Sega and Super Nintendo in 1993. I know what you’re thinking: Zombies? Really? Keep in mind this was 1993, though, long before zombies had run amuck in American pop culture.

It’s a top down shooter where the player controls 1 of 2 kids in a suburban neighborhood that has been overrun by zombies, werewolves, chainsaw maniacs, evil dolls, and a host of other horror movie villains and archetypes. Think of it as the last scene of The Cabin in the Woods, the video game version. In every level, it’s the player’s duty to rescue the clueless neighbors from these monsters. Once all the neighbors have been saved, a door opens up and you move on to the next level.

So what is it that makes this game so great? First, there’s an incredible amount of detail in the game. You have a myriad of options for weapons, including a water pistol, soda cans that act as grenades, bazookas, fire extinguishers which freeze enemies, and a variety of other interesting pieces of weaponry. Then you’ve got the secondary weapons: inflatable clowns that distract enemies, speed shoes, and a potion that turns you into a purple, hulk-like beast. Certain weapons are more effective against certain enemies as well; for instance, the werewolf is easily dispatched by knives and forks (silverware), the vampire is destroyed by the cross, etc.

In addition to the stunning amount of detail, the games biggest asset is its sense of humor. The creators clearly took a tongue in cheek approach to the material, which is complemented by a great soundtrack that harkens back to the over-the-top monster movies of years gone by. The level titles are also hysterical odes to classic films or books. Examples include: “Mars Needs Cheerleaders,” “I Was A Chainsaw Maniac,” and “Where the Red Fern Growls.”

Another thing I appreciated about this game was that it was challenging, but it wasn’t so difficult that you found yourself slamming your controller on the ground after being sent back to the opening credits after 2 hours of gameplay.

I have to admit that nostalgia may be causing me to put on the rose-colored glasses in some ways. The game certainly has flaws; notably the password system is annoying because you are starting in a level without the requisite items that allow you to advance beyond that level. But I still think this is one of the more creative, well-done video games of its era and I would encourage anyone reading this to dust off the old Super Nintendo and give this game a whirl. You won’t be disappointed.

Why Everyone Hates Anne Hathaway Right Now

•February 27, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Still on a little bit of an Oscars kick, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about all the Anne Hathaway hate floating around the internet right now. It’s interesting, because ostensibly she seems like someone who the American public would embrace. She’s attractive, talented, and she seems like a decent enough person. She’s been in big budget films like The Dark Knight Rises and smaller, more indie-ish stuff like Rachel Getting Married. And yet, the hate towards her persists.

I was thinking about why that was, and I think oversaturation is definitely a primary factor. I mean, she’s seemingly won about every single award over the past month plus, which means that she’s given 5 or 6 atrociously annoying speeches. Her personality, which is likely fine in small doses, becomes grating after the 4th self-congratulatory speech.

But I think the biggest reason why the hate towards her is (somewhat) justified is this faux-underdog routine she’s adopted. When she began her speech at the Oscars on Sunday, she said something along the lines of ”It came true!” That is obviously a completely ridiculous way to open a speech when

1) She’d won virtually every other award to that point, so clearly her fake surprise was an act.

2) Just about everyone predicted she’d win the award.

People love an underdog, but they hate a fake underdog. A real underdog at the Oscars on Sunday night was Emmanuelle Riva, the 80 year old French actress who starred in Amour. Riva is so far outside the Hollywood establishment that hearing her say something along the lines of “It’s true!” would have come off as charming and genuine.

Hathaway, on the other hand, is an engrained member of the Hollywood system. I mean, this is a woman who hosted the Oscars last year. She’s won all kinds of awards and rave reviews for her performance over the years, so to adopt this attitude of an outsider triumphing over the odds is, at this point, is absurd.

Now, I don’t think this means people should bash the woman mercilessly, but I do think the criticism is somewhat justified.

Why Argo Should Not Have Won Best Picture.

•February 26, 2013 • 1 Comment

(Warning: Spoilers about Argo and Zero Dark Thirty ahead!)

I’m late on this one by a few days, but I wanted to vent about Argo winning Best Picture at the Oscars. Before I get into this, I want to say that I enjoyed Argo. I thought it was an entertaining film that had a great cast and high production values.

Why, then, have a blog post about why it shouldn’t have won? There are a few reasons. The first is that the plot veers so far from the truth that claiming it’s “based on a true story” rubs me the wrong way. Let’s make a list of things in the movie that are true:

1) There was an Iranian revolution in 1979.

2) The Iranians did take a number of hostages from the American embassy.

3) There were a group of workers that escaped the embassy and spent time in a Canadian ambassador’s house.

4) Those 8 people were smuggled out of the country. Their cover story was that they were location scouting for a Star Wars-esque science fiction film.

Those are the only true aspects of the story. The fact of the matter is that the CIA actually had very little to do with the operation. According to then-President Jimmy Carter, the CIA’s value to this operation was about 10%, with Canada providing the other 90%. In other words, Canada did most of the work, yet they were reduced to little more than a footnote in the movie.

Then, you’ve got all the absurd Hollywood twists thrown in to build suspense. This is stuff like the embassy workers being against the movie-crew cover story. Or them nearly getting massacred in a lynch mob in Iran. Or the Iranian soldiers shooting at their plane as it was taking off.

The thing that bothers me most about this movie is the political implications. Salon.com writer Andrew O’Hehir points out in an excellent piece about Argo that the Iranian revolutionaries are vilified throughout the film for doing exactly what the United States did in 1776!

Obviously there were a lot of negative aspects about the Iranian Revolution and I’m sure many tragedies occurred during this tumultuous period. But let’s not forget that one of the primary reasons the Iranian Revolution happened in the first place was that the CIA overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh because he wanted to nationalize the oil industry!

So here’s the chain of events:

1) Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh attempts to nationalize oil industry in Iran.

2) CIA is upset because this means oil prices will go up.

3) CIA and British intelligence agencies stage a coup d’etat, overthrow Mosaddegh.

4) CIA installs Mohammad Reza Shah as leader of Iran.

5) Iranians revolt because of the Shah’s repressive policies and because they’re pissed off at Western involvement in their country (and who could blame them?)

6) Iran becomes a theocracy where the majority of citizens are vehemently anti-US (because of the coup).

7) 30 years later, Hollywood makes a movie celebrating the bravery and ingenuity of the CIA, when they were the same people who created the conditions for the Iranian Revolution!

So in other words, the CIA is being praised for getting American citizens out of a revolution…that was created by the CIA! That’s like praising a guy who set his own house on fire and pulled his son out of the burning building as some type of hero. It’s maddening.

And the thing that really annoys me about the whole situation is that these issues are completely glossed over in the film. Sure, there’s some brief mention at the beginning of the film about how the CIA’s involvement may have led to the revolution. But that obviously doesn’t get brought up ever again, especially as the film descends into a standard Hollywood action movie.

Contrast this with a film like Zero Dark Thirty, which brings up some very controversial issues and then tackles them head on. Now, some (including Senator and former Presidential candidate John McCain) have accused ZDT of bending the truth in the same manner of Argo, particularly on the issue of torture and whether or not the use of “extreme interrogation techniques” led directly to the capture of Osama Bin Laden.

To that I would say that, regardless of how useful it was, torture happened quite often during the zenith of the “War on Terror.” To me though, what’s important is that the film forces the view to confront this ugly issue. In a way, the film implicates the viewer in the widespread use of this ugly technique. There’s a key scene in ZDT where the CIA is having a meeting about how they may have to curtail their interrogation techniques because of the change in administration. “You don’t want to be the last one holding a doggie collar” one agent tells another. On the television in the background, Barack Obama is giving a speech about the inhumanity of torture and how it’s not what the United States stands for.

I think that scene illustrates the key difference between Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Argo is a propaganda film that paints a sterling portrait of the CIA and shows Iran as a brutal place. It justifies the United States position of superiority by painting the Iranians as barbaric and uncivilized. Zero Dark Thirty is not afraid to show that, when it comes to these difficult situations, there are no good guys.

 
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