Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving Special - Alice's Restaurant

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend, everybody! I hope that those of you who observe Thanksgiving had a wonderful holiday. I got back today from visiting my hometown, and look forward to one more day off.

I'm Thankful right now that I actually get the opportunity to pan something. Since I can usually find something in a movie to at least talk about, I worry that I come across as liking everything I see. I don't, of course, like all movies, but rarely do I dislike anything as much as I do Alice's Restaurant, which I saw for the first time Wednesday Night.

I actually love the song, which is based on real events. Arlo Guthrie's “anti-Massacree” message is a Thanksgiving tradition, especially in war years such as these. However, if it is homemade apple sauce--organic and fresh and perfectly cinnamon-spiced--then the movie is cranberry sauce, sloughing from the can with a sickening noise, jiggling and ridged.

The conventions of cinematic pacing were a little different when Restaurant was made back in 1969. Perhaps I am being biased in saying that I like it better now. Because of the pace of the action, it is hard to summarize what happen, because it feels like it wasn't much. An unreasonably beautiful and young Arlo Guthrie gets kicked out of college for following the sound of his own keyboardist. Undeterred, he climbs in his VW microbus (no, really) and takes up with his friends Ray and Alice, who have bought a deconsecrated church in which to live. Alice opens a restaurant nearby as well, the church becomes a shelter for a number of their counterculture friends

Romantic strife between the couple causes Ray to invite scores of their friends to Thanksgiving, so that Alice has to come back and cook. The dinner becomes an ill-fated trip to the dump the same day, and the rest is history. In the end, Arlo experiences losses in both his chosen and blood families. The movie concludes with a bittersweet (okay, mostly bitter) wedding for Ray and Alice.

If there was one thing I found interesting about the movie, it was a glimpse into the past. Arlo and his friends could be described as hippies, but there was also a healthy dose of “folkie”. Perhaps it's even vice-versa, but as we saw in the movie, the distinction was lost on the mainstream culture. Police power could be used to enforce social norms, and sticking someone on a bus out of town was considered a legitimate police activity. The group I watched with included some modern-day, self-described hippies my age; along with me, they cringed at how much was thrown away after the feast. We prefer to compost and recycle as much as possible.

The end of the movie left me so confused that I had to ask my host to explain it. She said that the community depicted was a dystopia...nothing ever changed, and none of their grand plans would ever manifest because no one had their personal shit together. Bleak, huh? No wonder people call this flick depressing.

My favorite part of the movie was my favorite part of the song...with the Army shrink. Ah, you know know what? Just listen for yourself. Arlo tells it better, anyway.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Okay, so it is all said and done, including the shouting. I have seen Twilight, and I enjoyed it more than I expected to.

A brief synopsis for the uninitiated: Loner high-school student Bella Swan is sent to live with her father, who she barely knows, in the rainy town of Forks, Washington. She involuntarily collects a few friends, but her true interest, and her true connection, is with Edward Cullen, the son of a mysterious local family. She soon parses out that the family are vampires. She and Edward bond, even though he considers himself a constant danger to her. They soon find themselves in over their heads when a trio of less ethical vampires swings through town.

As in the book, Bella and Edward's love tends toward the obsessive; but the script manages to make him less controlling. Bella's parents and friends are more prominent, in my opinion, than the were in the book, and this represents an improvement. I can't give Robert Pattison credit for any extraordinary acting here, but Kristen Stewart brings an unexpected gravitas to the role of Bella.

The Cullens as a whole are a treat. The casting and cinematography underscore the creepy way that everyone (except Edward) is paired off, as well as the youthful appearance of the parents. Peter Facinelli seems to be channeling Tom Cruise's Lestat as Carlisle Cullen, which was off-putting at first. He grew on me, though, and I went away regretting the omission of his story. If the movie could have used more of anything, it's Alice Cullen.

It is very difficult to break new ground in vampire lore, but Stephenie Meyer's vampires do so in a few ways, and the movie address them. The evil vampires are hardly original, but they are compelling. The baseball game scene is a lot of fun, and made more sense to me here than it did in the book.

At the same time, there are moments which will cause unintentional laughter. The wire-work gets a little silly. In the early science-class scenes, Edward looks more nauseated than love-struck...although arguably, this is true to the book. My best friend and I laughed particularly hard at one scene, where someone gives the new couple a pop-eyed look of disapproval.

There were scenes that were changed or added from the book, and I don't remember it well enough to say whether this movie will please or anger the purists. I can say, though, that this movie is worth your long as you don't take it too seriously. There is a certain amount of cheesiness inherent in vampire stories...after all, sex and death are at once the most serious and the most funny things to humans. Add teenage romance to the mix, and your own personal riff-track is inevitable.

Twilight at least offers some genuine terror and suspense along the way. There is also a theme of self-sacrifice, which both makes Bella seem healthier and helps the movie's tone.

I now want to read the rest of the books, and see the rest of the movies. The characters of Jacob Black and his father are also well-cast, and with what I know about them, I look forward to seeing their story unfold.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

In which I question my committment to sparkle motion

It's Twilight time! Thousands of fans have already seen the highly anticipated film this weekend, including my niece, a high school freshman; and my turn comes in a few hours.

First, two confessions, in the interest of full disclosure. When I read
Twilight, it was before giving that copy to my niece (who had already read it). I have also not read the rest of the series.

I think that Stephenie Meyer is a good writer. I especially appreciate her ability to paint a scene. However, there was something about the gender dynamics in her book that made me twitch. I felt that Edward treated Bella like a possession, and ordered her around. I have a friend who has read and enjoyed the whole series, but says that that trend continues, not only with Edward but with Jacob and Bella's father. There is also something juvenile about Edward and Bella's is strictly physical, even if the sense of budding sexuality is well-written. All of us who are past that age have probably been there, and I know that I run the risk of belittling young love. However, it is distressing to see Bella consider making potentially eternal decisions, turning her back on her family and everything she knows, at such a tender age.

I was fascinated by vampires when I was my niece's age, and much of that interest still remains. I remember reading the Vampire Diaries Series by L.J. Smith when I was in high school.
The Silver Kiss, by Anette Curtis Klause, is still one of my favorite books. However, there is a plethora of what I call “vamporn” available today, and while Meyer is probably among it's best writers, I don't tend to read any of it.

I truly enjoyed
The Host, also by Meyer. It is billed as her first book for adults, but I personally don't find it any more r-rated than Twilight. It is about Wanderer, a member of an alien race who inhabit the bodies of other species and take over their minds. Her species, the Souls, seem to have subdued the earth. However, when Wanderer is assigned to a human host, Melanie, she finds that Melanie's mind refuses to fade away.

There are some troubling gender dynamics here, too, as Melanie leads Wanderer in search of her little brother and her true love. (I gagged when wanderer concluded that Melanie's body didn't belong to her or to Melanie, but to Jared.) At the same time, I liked the way that Meyers writes here about the strength of human emotion, and the idea that emotional memory resides in the body. There is also a touching and believable story arc about the nature of family bonds, blood and chosen. I felt that she accurately portrayed the moral complexity of her world: everyone is faced with imperfect choices, and even the Souls, in the end, are sympathetic figures. To top it all off, Meyer's pulls a happy but cliché-free conclusion out of her a--I mean thin air.

In other words, I would recommend
The Host to almost anyone. I also really hope to see it made into a movie one day...I even did some preliminary casting in my head.

So have a good weekend, whether you head to the multiplex at twilight or just host a good book in your home. If you are more Twihater than Twilighter, or if you can stand a little fun at your fandom's espense, check out the following links.

The Most Poular Book in the Whole World!

Occupation: Girl
(Cleolinda is one of the greatest pop culture voices on the web, and also the one to whom I owe the "Sparkle Motion" thing.)

Twilight trailer spoof
("I see you brought a snack...")

Monday, November 10, 2008

Your diet needs more iron, man!

First, there was the brilliance that was Mystery Science Theater 3000. It's brain trusts parted ways to create two spin-offs: Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax!. This past weekend, I got to watch the...riff track (?)... to Iron Man.

For the most part, I enjoyed it. The technology seemed easy to use...the track only slipped out of synch once, and not by much. Most of the riffs were as dryly witty as MST3K veterans have come to expect.

There were two things, however, that I could have done without.

The first were frequent quips--mostly at the beginning--about Robert Downey Jr.'s former drug use. This is low-hanging fruit as humor goes, and in my opinion, there's nothing funny about it. I have friends in recovery, and it seem like he should get some credit for having been sober for several years now. Then again, it's hard to say, but it's possible that he would actually find these jokes funny. He seems to have a healthy sense of humor about himself.

The other thing that bothered me were the cracks implying that the character of Pepper Potts was stupid. This just doesn't jive with that character at all, or with what I know of Gwyneth Paltrow.

My favorite moment involved the quote in the title of this post. Another was when a "Sherlock Holmes deerslayer cap" was mentioned among the silly-looking hats that Tony Stark might wear.

On the one hand, RiffTrax! is taking on harder targets than MST3K ever did, just by riffing on good movies that people actually like. This can lead to trying too hard, where the badness of a B movie often speaks for itself. On the other hand, all movies require a certain suspension of disbelief, and we have probably all riffed on even our favorite films in this way.

Either way, we are lucky to still have the wise-asses of Deep 13 sitting in the back of the theater with us.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa

2008 is almost over, and it has turned out to be a fairly dismal year for movie audiences and critics. This summer's Marvel Vs. DC showoff was between two of only a few exceptions. There are some promising films on the horizon for the holiday season and as Oscar bait. This weekend, however, Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa is your best bet, at least for something light-hearted and family-oriented.

I wasn't sure what to expect going in. I have not seen the first movie. That doesn't actually present a problem, as it turns out, because the movie does a great job of catching the viewer up. A lion cub named Alex escapes hunters and survives an ocean voyage to Manhattan Island, where he becomes a local celebrity and grows up with a giraffe, a hippo and a zebra. The previous film saw them fall in among the creatures of Madagascar after a plane crash. This time, early in the plot, they hatch a scheme to return to New York, in a comically cobbled-together plane, with an equally comic crew. They make it as far as Africa, and find themselves, for the first time, among their own kinds.

At the beginning, the references, quips, and quirk-establishment all comes so fast and furious that it's dizzying. Once the action turns to Africa, however, the tone and the pace of the story even out. There are some jokes that are possibly less than family-friendly, but they are so subtle as to slide under kiddie radar.

There is a lot here that we have seen before: an animal with a unique talent, which creates tension with his parents (Alex would rather dance than fight); an evil lion plotting against the king of the pack and his cub; Eddie Murphy's voice on four feet; funny penguins and monkeys; and a dialogue-free sub-plot involving a chase with a small creature. There is even, arguably, an extended shout-out to Joe vs. the Volcano. However, all of it has enough of a fresh spin to be enjoyable.

The story of Marty the zebra addresses something which I don't think I've seen addressed in kids movie's before; that is the idea that it is okay not to be unique...and that yet, at the same time, you're always more unique than you think you are. Gloria the Hippo finds herself in a classic movie dilemma, one part Walt Disney and one part John Hughes. She is torn between the popular male who only likes her for her for her looks, and a more awkward one who loves her for who she is. (As a fascinating side-note in our weight-obsessed society, the hippos have a “bigger is better” mentality.)

David Schwimmer's Melman was probably my favorite character, and the denouement of an extended shark attack was the thing that made me laugh the hardest. Madagascar 2 was a pleasure, and I look forward both to the first and future installments.