Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Hobbit: Before the End of All Things

Watching Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a little like seeing what might have been the extended DVD edition of a another movie I wish I had been able to see first. The filmmakers could have shown a little bit of restraint and discipline and trimmed a bit of the fat from The Unexpected Journey. Jackson has never been accused of restraint, but I could have done with half the amount of chin fat on the Goblin King. The eccentric wizard, Radagast, could have had half the amount of bird crap on the side of his face from the birds nesting in his hair.  And the film may have kept more of its equilibrium if half the amount of goblin heads had been lobbed off. But criticizing The Hobbit is a little like giving your friends a hard time of it: I enjoyed it immensely and am likely to see it in the theater at least once more before the end of all things. 

Martin Freeman was an inspired choice to play Bilbo.  I worried through the first hour of the film that he would be only marginally successful, playing to the comical side of Bilbo's character, and settling in for one scene of mock surprise and shot after shot of incredulous double-takes. But by the last hour of the film, we get genuine depth of varying emotions from this character that is put to one kind of test after another.

Gollumn was as rich a captured performance as ever: ranging from haunting menace, comic timing, and childish tantrums. Andy Serkis fills the computer graphics with more versatility and personality than any of the heavily make-upped dwarves can manage.

And that's not to say that the dwarves are completely lacking in emotion. At first they appear only buried by the makeup and hair and warts and all. They are surprisingly vulnerable despite their layers of toughness. All but a few of them carry their own roles well enough.  A few of the younger ones recall the joy and recklessness of Pippin and Merry from the Lord of the Rings.  These dwarves are sure to be a joy to see develop as characters over the next 6 or so hours of Hobbit movie footage we are likely to get before the thing is over.

Gandalf seems to lean a little more heavily on his staff this time around.  He looks and acts a bit more world weary, as if he has already been through this territory before. I couldn't help but hear mellowness in his tone through the kinds of lines that would have run more emotively in the Lord of the Rings films.

Do we really need so many villains?  There is the mysterious Necromancer, who may or may not be the same person as the Nazgul king that appears to "fight" the wizard Radagast. There's two. And an albino orc from Thorin's younger days that haunts the movie, seemingly following the company from the edges of Hobbiton all the way to the edge of a cliff in the superfluous climactic scene of "The Unexpected Journey." That's three. Also, we have the Goblin King: a gruesome hulk of warty flesh that is quite mezmerizing (too bad he meets his end in such a Loony-Tunes manner). That's four bad guys. And there's Gollumn, if you can abide sticking him in the corner with these other baddies. Oh, and you get glimpses of (and from) Smaug, the dragon. You could probably count Saruman in there too, who is obviously already in love with the sound of his own voice, and perhaps currently befriending the dark shadow that is growing in the land. It is probably not fair to include the three iconic trolls in the list of villains.  They are as dangerous as Larry, Moe, and Curly, in that they are more of a danger to themselves and others for their size and clumsiness than they are for their nefarious intent. But the cast of villains reaches to match the number of dwarves we are meant to identify and differentiate. The potency of all this evil is dissipated and even scattered willy-nilly so that a focused narrative is replaced by many threads that weave into a general sense of dread.

Those are my first impressions. There is enough happening in this first installment of The Hobbit that I'm likely to discover and rediscover things in future viewings when more of this massive 9 hour journey brings more perspective to this first third of the whole hobbit she-bang. But more to complain about is more Hobbit screen-time, and I'll take as much of it as Peter Jackson gives us.  There are a lot of swings, which means a lot of misses, but just as many of those swings hit the mark. My guess is that more of the arbitrariness of any given shot or scene will seem more purposeful in the larger mosaic of Jackson's Hobbit tale.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Upcoming films

Several must-see films coming up in 2013.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Snowman

 Don't let David Bowie's narration chase you away from this delightful, deceptively simple, quiet animated short film  based on the book by Raymond Briggs.  This quiet story is a great antidote for a loud, self-conscious Christmas season.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

Wondrous animated short from Marie Haws, editor over at the Ebert Club Newsletter.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

From Roger Ebert's blog:


"My Far-Flung Correspondent Michael Mirasol has set a new record in far-flinging himself. He writes: 'This is a little mashup I wanted to see with Bud Luckey's immortal Sesame Street song meeting Robert Zemeckis's opening scene in CONTACT.'"

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Google Goggles as not worn by 83-year-old Ursula K. Le Guin

Who wants to hear what Ursula K. Le Guin thinks of Google Goggles?  Ooooh, me!

"The human desire to occasionally, temporarily, replace the actual world with some kind of improvement on it was nourished in its long infancy by the arts, and in its brief teens by movies and TV. Then ever-improving electronic technologies moved in and began to feed, maintain, and incite its appetite, which by now is insatiable. If we can shout on a phone or fill our ears with music instead of listening to the sounds or silence around us, we will. If we can text our Facebook Friends instead of seeing the faces around us, we will. If instead of looking around to find out where we are we can listen to a machine tell us where it thinks we are, we will; and if we can walk into a brick wall while the machine tells us it’s recalculating, we probably will."

Saturday, March 3, 2012

HUGO the Magnificent

Scorcese is a master at whatever he does, and he knows it, but whatever he does seems to be more in service of his subject matter than his own hubris.  You can't help but see the artiface in his art. I don't think this necessarily weakens his work, but his cinematic flourishes often call attention to themselves even as they earn the respect they deserve.

In his latest film, Hugo, grand, sweeping camerawork calls attention to itself as much as it calls attention to the granduer of its subject matter.  A movie that exalts cinema and cinema-makers and even (gulp) the scholarship of cinema takes on an exalted style.

Why Man Creates

A delightful short film by Saul Bass from 1968: Why Man Creates

Part 1

Part 2

Sunday, February 26, 2012


It is impossible to do with words what Wim Wenders is able to do in his recent non-fiction film, Pina.  As Mr. Wenders expressed before an audience last week in Portland, Oregon at Cinema 21, he found the film impossible to make until just recently.  He struggled to envision a way to represent the elegant, subtle expression of Pina Bausch's choreograph on film.  For 20 years the desire to capture the experience of a live production captivated him.  And then he saw a little film 4 or 5 years ago called "U2 3D."  With the advent of 3D technologies in recent years he discovered the missing element that had been eluding him: space. The difficulty of capturing depth of field for a movie audience (rather than merely its suggestion) was the barrier that he felt he could finally overcome with the arrival of more advanced 3D technologies.

And the results are stunning. With Avatar, James Cameron, brought 3D movies into their wide-eyed adolescence.  With Pina, Wim Wenders has finally helped the medium of 3D film to grow into its adulthood.

Wim Wenders uses 3D to deepen and broaden the perspective of his subject.  He uses space in such astounding ways for humor, for surprise, for the pure joy of it.  He chooses settings for short dance pieces to showcase individual dancers from Pina Bausch's studio.  Each piece is like a poem.  And they take you out of the theater and into the wide world.  Outdoor settings in traffic, on rail cars, an underground tunnel, postmodern architectural landscapes.

What this movie does so well is that it creates something other than just a live viewing of a ballet or a live dance performence.  Rather than a stationary viewing from one vantage point in a ballet theater, the camera's eye moves with the dancers and amongst them at well-chosen positions on the stage.  It envelopes you in purposeful ways in the production itself so that it is almost as if the audience in the movie theater joins in with the performers in ways that it would not be able to in a 2D movie-theater experience and in ways that it can't in front of a live performance.

Pina is a masterful work.  A beautiful blending of performance art, film, tribute, and audience participation.  It is one of the most vulnerable, unpretentious films I have ever seen.  The dancers play fearlessness fearlessly and they also play fearfulness fearlessly. Pina's choreography includes dancers moving through several inches of water, several inches of soil, dirt and water flying through the air.  There is no hiding, no safety for these performers.  The movie does more than tantalize.  It envelopes the audience so that the vulnerabilities and confusion and ferocity of the dancers sinks into your skin, or at least it beckons to you to participate. A voyeristic spectacle it is not. In fact, it juggles the subject of voyerism like a cat playing with a ball of yarn.

Perhaps this says more about me than about the movie, but I found myself so caught up in the  immediate forms of physical expressions: emotions and desires, sorrows and joys, longings and anger, anxiety and confidence and tenderness that I found my own body twitching involuntarily along with the motion in the space just in front of my 3D glasses.

You can hear the dancers' movements.  You can hear them breathing. You can see their doubts and fears and confidences written in their physical expressions.  Perhaps it is impossible to do with words what this movie does with sights and sounds and movements through 3-dimensional space. But this movie does with 3D technology what a live performance and a 2-dimensional film cannot do by themselves.


Guardian Interview:


Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Muppets

Have you been half asleep
and have you heard voices?
I've heard them calling my name.

The muppets ask their timeless questions and stumble and fumble their way to fresh answers in their new film, simply titled: The Muppets. 

The spirit of the muppets has been half asleep for some years now, barely strung along by a handful of paint-by-numbers films and TV specials. The puppets showed up, but the hands that moved them were (pardon me) going through the motions. Perhaps this was partly due to the oversaturation of Jim Henson projects in the 1980s. The ubiquitous Muppets, Muppet Babies, Fraggles, and Seseame Street shows may have spread the muppet magic a bit too thin. And now, a couple of decades later, after the Movie industry's headlong dive into computer animation and perfectly pixeled displays that leave nothing to hide, low-tech puppets might be just what we need to wake us up to what we've been missing on screens big and small.

The film starts with young-at-heart muppet fans, growing up with (and never quite growing out of) the Muppets, and it ends with the muppets opening their arms and inviting old and new fans to join in a celebration of something much richer than mere celebrity or stardom. The show doesn't serve the stars (except maybe for a certain pig).

The muppets have to have some context in which to play, and this time, they are trying to save the old, rundown muppet studios from an oil baron who wants to tear it down and start drilling.  But the loss of the studio is only an occasion for rebuilding and polishing off old friendships that have drifted or suffered over the years. It is a context in which to rediscover the joy and sadness and courage of trying to make something work. Trying to hold chaos at bay by dancing in its presence.

The muppets pause briefly to acknowledge loss, sorrow, longing, and brokenness, but they never let each other wallow in it.  Their spirit is one of celebration in the face of loss. It is a much-needed spirit of longing and joy for a generation skimming over the surface of quick video-sound-bites and screen tapping. These puppets have been around the block a few times. And they are more honest and humble and vulnerable and broken and fearful than ever. More human than human. They've tried things that haven't worked. They know the risks of trying to create something in hope that their dreams will come alive and somehow serve their audience at the same time.  Yes, I'm talking about a long-running puppet show here.

Even Animal, that wild, drum-beating ball of adrenaline grows as a character (tongue halfway in my cheek, here).  Kermit and the gang reunite with Animal in an outdoor anger management class where he has been learning to supress his wilder tendencies. "Iiiiin controooooool!" you can year him growling throughout the film (until somebody hands him a set of drumsticks).

Control for its own sake is part of the Muppets' problem in this latest movie. The impulse toward control is both a problem and a solution. And yet the wackier and more creative the solution, the more successful the Kermit and the gang are. Being out of control is often where the fun begins. Or maybe rather than struggling between control and abandonment the Muppets are growing even more this time around toward being purposeful with passion.

The Muppets' flavor of frivolity can get under your skin if you can yeild to a suspension of all your disbelief. And the Muppets are pretty good at helping you with that too. If you let them, these inanimate felt objects can awaken in you what you didn't even realize has been half-asleep. Can you hear their voices?  I hear them calling your name.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Top-Ten albums of 2011

It dawned on me that I've bought a lot of albums this year to support me during a long commute to work. Since I bought more than 10 records, I'll try for a top-ten list. Here are some of my favorite albums from 2011 and some other thoughts on the music of the year.

Top 10 albums of 2011

1. Wilco - The Whole Love - NPR promoted the heck out of this album, which probably helped to shape my love of this album more than anything else. Wilco brings back some barely controlled chaos and layered textures and misfit electronic sounds that surprise and blend at the same time. The songs on this album are well ballanced and a joy to hear after many listens.

2. Paul Simon - So Beautiful, So What - Listening to Paul Simon always seems to lighten the spirit - even moments sorrow somehow teem with love and grace on this latest album from the poet-and-one-man-band.

3. Bon Iver - Bon Iver - This "band" (fronted by Justin Vernon) is getting more and more of the attention they deserve (They'll be on SNL in early 2012). It's been a few years since the last heartbreaking, acoustic, falsetto, climbing-out-of-sorrow-fest from Bon Iver (From Emma, Long Ago). And they are soaring out of the swamp with plenty of mud (and maybe whisky) still on their wings. Horns, guitar, and drums are more prominent on this latest album, as is the influence of 1980s Casio pensiveness. Oh...just go listen to it.

4. Coldplay - Mylo Xyloto - I'm a reluctant sap-sucker for this gushy pop-group. Truth be told, I listened to this album as much as I did the new Wilco one.

5. Tom Waits - Bad As Me - A Tom Waits album always arrives like a bolt of lightening. This one finds Tom belting out more tough-guy solipsistics, those great red herrings line after line which usually call attention to the tenderest, fragile crevasses of a battered male heart.  Tom croons and soothes and barks and broods and delivers jabs of wisdom, like the grandest of gestures in the fragilest of packages: "I fight off the snow/ I fight off the hail/ Nothing makes me go/ I’m like some vestigial tail/ I’ll be here through eternity/ If you want to know how long/ If they cut down this tree/ I’ll show up in a song/ I’m the last leaf on the tree/ The autumn took the rest but they won’t take me/ I’m the last leaf on the tree."

6. Kele Goodwin - Hymns - OK, this album actually came out at the end of 2010, but I got it in 2011 and loved it for the whole year.  I kept coming back to it. Kele's website says that his music comes straight from the bone marrow.  It is like that. These are stripped down folk songs, intensely personal and emotional. Timeless music that has strayed miles away from whatever folk bandwagon it might have come from. And Laura Gibson lends her delicate bird-like voice on it so I was there. It had me with the album title.

7. The Decemberists - The King is Dead - Yay! An album of self-contained songs from the mighty Portland band, The Decemberists. This may be their last. Great music to wash the dishes by. These songs will be covered by hip bands and "folk smartists" for many centuries to come.

8. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues - These guys put out my favorite song of 2011. Lots of folky bands out there with 10-part vocal harmonies. These guys are the real thing. Mature hearts on sleeves.

9. The Strokes - Angles - The reincarnated Velvet Underground does it again. They are good at what they do. There are trippy 80s-style variations of the norm here and a little bit of exploration technically, but mostly the jang-jang-jang guitar is still what brings me to it and gets me bopping my head.

10. Radiohead - King of Limbs - Radiohead is as focused and precise and confident as ever. Lyrics that capture deterioration, moodiness, zeitgeist, and European dubstep trends. Is rock and roll dead? The question is dead. Radiohead moved on like a river moves on: gravity pulling it across a landscape over and under and through whatever is in the way, shaped and shaping, fluent and fluid, deep and wide.

Other favorites:

R.E.M. - Collapse into Now
Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest
P.J. Harvey - Let England Shake

  One particular disappointment:

Panda Bear - Panda Bear - While his first album Person Pitch was delightful, energetic and cinematic, Panda Bear's new self-titled album drones along in a sparse landscape with few variations, changeups, or surprises. Only a couple of tracks stand out above the rest.

Some 2011 Releases I'd like to hear:

  • Tune Yards - Who Kill : I wasn't drawn in on the first listen.  I'll have to give it another try.
  • Girls - Father Son and Holy Ghost - I thought this was just some kind of poppy emo band, but maybe there's more depth there than I thought.
  • St. Vincent - Strange Mercy  - Maybe I should listen to more than just the first 10 seconds of every song on Amazon.
  • Metallica and Lou Reed - Lulu - I'll put this on hold at the library out of a sense of duty and maybe be as surprised that it isn't stinky poo-poo as I was when it I heard that it existed.
  • Eddie Vedder - Ukelele Songs 
  • Sufjan Stevens - Oh that's right, he didn't have an album last year.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

My Favorite Films in 2011

My favorite films of 2011
1. Tree of Life
2. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
3. The Muppets
4. Rango
5. 13 Assassins
6. Win, Win
7. Buck
8. Senna
9. The Adjustment Bureau
10. Of Gods and Men
11. X-Men: First Class
12. Source Code
13. Meek's Cutoff
14. Winnie the Pooh
15. Captain America: The First Avenger

Not as bad as I thought they would be
The films below were not well-reviewed, but I watched them anyway, and liked them better than I expected to:
1. Super 8
2. Transformers 3
3. Cars 2
4. Conan O'Brien Can't Stop
5. Sanctum
6. Everything Must Go
7. Sherlock Holmes 2

For various reasons, I had my hopes up for these three films and they ended up grating on me:
1. Hanna
2. Cowboys and Aliens
3. Battle: Los Angeles

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In the Morning

Since breaking my neck, and working from home, I've been more susceptible to the slow pace of light on things. Just before the coffee is ready, the morning glow fills things with a life of its own: filling, hiding, and revealing. Annie Dillard: "a taste for the profound is a taste like any other." Developing a love for light takes time, submission, practice, openness to different ways of seeing. Sometimes for me, it takes a broken neck.

Thanks to Roger Ebert for sharing a link to this short film by Krishna Shenoi

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

I can't recommend enough The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary by Werner Herzog about a cave full of paintings from the Paleolithic period discovered recently in France. These paintings are the oldest found cave paintings, and the film offers the great gift of letting you feel like you are among the privileged few to witness them in all their grandeur. The film was only recently in theaters, displayed in 3D. Last week, it became available for streaming on Netflix.

The film is wonderful, quiet, and profound.  Given the gravity of his subject, Herzog is able to dive deeply into profound questions without becoming pretentious or pedantic. He is able to explore paradoxes without seeming slight or evasive. It is surprising how much we can know about these paintings, and it is also surprising how vastly mysterious they remain given all that we can know. The cave, and its paintings are a powerful, grave time capsule of communication from tens of thousands of years ago, and yet they are are in a geologically fragile state of deterioration now that they have been opened ever so slightly to the outside air.

For the scientists and artists that enter these caves, it is an honor and a rapturous wonder to enter these caves, and yet each person confesses to a sense of relief at being able to finally exit back out into the light. They are pulled into the dark and find that they need time away to gain perspective. This sense of wonder and awe and holy fear is contagious.  This movie draws you in so that you can feel the presence of the cave in your breathing and in your gut. How often do we get the chance to be so humbled by a place that you can only respond with silent submission?

Paintings in this cave exist side-by-side, communicating with one another, and yet it has been determined that some of them were made thousands of years apart. The contents of the cave are as fascinating as the techniques the artists and scientists use to try and comprehend them many thousands of years later. And even this film--this is a work of art-- is no small part of the conversation that is tens of thousands of years in the running.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Howl's Moving Castle

Another beautiful cartoon from Hayao Miyazaki streaming on Netflix.  I found this one to be more nuanced than his other work, layered with deeper stuff about youth, age, vanity, love, and sacrifice. Each character in the film is trapped in some way, often by illusive magic spells that seem to have lives of their own. They are trapped, but unrushed in their search for freedom, too busy interacting with each other, reaching beyond themselves in new ways:

A witch becomes an unexpected good friend.

A small faerie creature must keep itself aflame in a large fireplace inside Howl's moving castle to stay alive, to keep itself, Howl, and the castle from falling apart.

A young woman turned into an older woman learns to seek out others instead of hiding behind her insecurities.

A prince must learn to love and to serve the humblest creatures around him.

And Howl himself must learn to take up power on behalf of others rather than for himself.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


Paul Giamatti signs the Magna Carta, and all hell breaks loose.

In this movie, a haphazard crew of fighters (a baron, a Knight Templar, a squire, and several ignoble ruffians) team up to defend an essential strategic castle from King John and his Danish mercenaries. Full of grit and blood and a bit of medieval lust, this is a nicely paced film - waves of attacks broken by moments of contemplative calm, heavy-hearted questioning, and one regrettably silly romance.

The knight, played by the scruffy James Purefoy (who spends a surprising amount of battle time unconscious) is passable as a medieval warrior-monk, a hunk in a knight costume who at least looks cool swinging a sword. Paul Giamatti is often stunning as King John, and wins the award for the most authoritative screaming voice of the cast. Brian Cox is fiercely noble, a powerful screen presence. Derek Jacobi sadly doesn't get to chew on any lines that are worth his Shakespearean chops and he seems to sense the screenplay's worst hammy lines approaching in the final minutes of the film and carefully makes his exit.

The climax wasn't nearly as satisfying as the rest of the film and the writers couldn't seem to decide what bad line to end on, so they used them all: "blah blah the noble dream that was Magna Carta;" "Is killing a noble thing?  A life fought for others is a life worth living. That is a noble thing;" "We held!" But the bulk of the film was fairly thrilling, one raw battle after another, a determined movie about determination.