Sunday, June 24, 2007

Big booms and back pain

A blurb and a PDF graphic that charts the "health" of aging action stars Bruce Willis, Jackie Chan, Harrison Ford and Sylvestor Stallone (all are returning to their signature franchises in the next year to try to defibrillate their careers).

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Two modern film scores haunt me, and it's not just because their titles include 'monster'

There's a lot of fast-foody, super-processed filmscoring that froths at the multiplexes these days, but I think the art form has never been better. You have to look past the symphonic stuff (it had its heyday in the '40s, '50s and '60s) toward the smaller, more ambient, acoustic or electronic scoring. Carter Burwell occupies the top spot in this second golden age of film music -- if only for his work on Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and the Coen Bros. movies -- followed swiftly by Clint Mansell, who's found a serious muse in Darren Aronofsky (and blew my mind with the scoring of last year's The Fountain: a little piano goes a long way, and holy crap).

But the fleeting, ambient melodies of two recent films in particular are never quite out of my mind. Monster's Ball and Monster are masterpieces in their own right, but their music pushes the experience of watching (and listening) into the territory of cinematic bliss. Monster's Ball, in particular, has one of the most affecting film cues of all time. It's in the last scene. Leticia (Halle Berry) has just made a discovery that casts her romantic relationship with Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) in a new, frightening light. She has no dialogue. The film speaks for her, and the tension is gorgeous as she appears to decide between confronting Hank or looking forward. When Hank offers her a spoonful of chocolate ice cream on the back steps, the tension resolves musically, and therefore dramatically. It's a beautiful, beautiful moment that would've been impossible without Asche and Spencer's perfect composition. Watch the short making-of below. The moment is examined around 5:50.

BT, a DJ and trance artist, filled in two key moments in Monster. The first is on the ferris wheel. Through his music, you see Aileen (Charlize Theron) fall for Shelby (Christina Ricci). The music here is critical; it grounds Aileen in humanity and wraps her in a kind of wide-eyed innocence. She murders, but she has the capacity for great love and understanding. The second moment comes at the climax in the courtroom, as Aileen nods her head when Shelby incriminates her. The music thumps deeply like a heart and a piano picks up the simple, recurring melody. You can hear Aileen's heart swell with gratitude and loathing: her lover will be saved because she's doing the right thing, even though it means Aileen will face death at the hands of an oppressive society. I couldn't find a way to share the music here, but you can look up the tracks on iTunes (they're called, appropriately enough, Ferris Wheel and Courtroom). It's worth the $2 to download. While you're at it, pick up the Under the Stars track from Monster's Ball.

This post is part of the film music blogathon at Windmills of My Mind.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

This is a test

I re-watched The Dreamers Sunday night on an Aerobed on my veranda, a warm someone next to me, the air thick from the smell of exploding jasmine blossoms.

It was a sensory overload heaped on a weekend of hedonism, so I need to re-set my circuit breakers.

Expect a long, rabbit-holish post about the movie, and my life.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Is it hot in here or is Johnny shirtless again?

A good friend of mine wrote a ditty on Chris Evans, and how he embodies the utter inconsequence of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, whose badness can only be conveyed in grunts and sneezes. Washington Post critic Stephen Hunter comes close to putting it into words in the final line of his review: "All in all, there is no all, there is no there, there is no is."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The women of Indiana Jones

Indiana Jones pursues two things in his movies: an artifact and a woman. Two out of three times, he gets both. But just as the Ark is long forgotten by Temple of Doom, so is Karen Allen. And just as the jewels of the Temple of Doom vanish from Indy's radar by Last Crusade, so does Kate Capshaw. I like to think Indy puts his women in a museum, alongside the artifacts, and visits them from time to time to tap on the glass and wink.

So, for The Film Experience's Action Heroine Blogathon, I'm curating an exhibit on the women of Indiana Jones. It's easy to exclude them in the canon of action heroes because the trilogy does not belong to them. It's very much a masculine affair, though they share much of Indy's screentime. They accompany him on his adventures. They bed him. They smack him. They get taken hostage at inopportune times. They save Indy from certain death on multiple occasions. They get dirty, they kick bad guys, they scream about snakes with Indy, they hang from things and get knocked around.

I revisited each movie in the trilogy to ruminate on these women: to what extent are they heroes? To what extent do they use their womanhood to get the job done? Are they on equal footing with Indy, or are they just a pretty accessory? And how does the female role change throughout the trilogy, and what can we expect of Cate Blanchett, who is poised to inherit the mantle in Indiana Jones 4?

Without further ado, I give you the women of Indiana Jones. Please, don't tap on the glass.

Karen Allen
as Marion Ravenwood
in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Age at the time of release: 29
Character profile: A hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, freckled, brassy tomboy who knows how to manipulate men because they're always underestimating her.
We first see her as her hand reaches for a shot glass. She's engaged with a burly Nepalese man in a drinking contest, which she wins handily.
Feminine wiles: She punches Indy at 25:53. "I learned to hate you in the last 10 years," she tells him. She's in a dress shirt, with the sleeves rolled up. Masculine. She sucks down cigarettes and does not demur. She blows smoke in a Nazi's face. "Nobody tells me what to do in my place." She saves Indy twice (one time by killing a guy). "I don't need a nurse," Indy protests after a brawl. She dabs him with water, then kisses him where it hurts. He points to his lips. They lock. Her drinking ability serves her multiple times in the movie.
Feminine woes: He needs her, but he also seems to have ruined her life 10 years ago. She's not quite over that. She also plays the hostage several times, gets her skirt torn off to serve as a makeshift torch, and is ogled by a bad guy (and Spielberg's camera) as she disrobes. We get a look up her skirt as she hangs by a rope. She's always shouting "Indy!" and does a lot of screaming, especially when confronted by skeletons.
Denouement: She straddles the paramour/buddy fence right to the end of the movie. "They don't know what they've got there," Indy says. "But I know what I've got here," she replies, smitten, then tough: "C'mon I'll buy you a drink."
Gender study: Marion is more sidekick than love interest, though she does duty as both. There isn't much chemistry between Allen and Ford, so Marion seems very much her own woman and her own hero, despite the deference imposed on her by the film. Of our three women, she is the toughest and most steadfast. Reliable, canny, inventive. A snappy way to start off a trilogy.
Where would Marion be now? At an AA meeting. Or playing softball somewhere.

Kate Capshaw
as Wilhemina "Willie" Scott
in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Age at the time of release: 30
Character profile: A squealy, girly diva. The "famous American female vocalist." The anti-Marion.
We first see her 23 seconds in as she emerges from the mouth of a Chinese dragon, singing "Anything Goes." Soon, we'll all be wishing that the dragon would become real, swallow her back up, and digest her into oblivion. This is a markedly different entrance from Karen Allen's. It's drinking game versus Broadway melody.
Feminine wiles: She's good at being helpless/attractive. She's capable of seducing people.
Feminine woes: She meets Indy and he immediately takes her hostage. This is pretty standard: she's a pawn for most of the movie. She can't hold a gun. "I burnt my fingers and I cracked a nail!" she laments after one particular scrap. She's no good in tough situations like Marion was. "I hate the water and I hate being wet and I hate you!" she screams to Indy at one point. She won't drop her purse to get on an elephant. Her general incompetence draws stares from women of an Indian village. As she rides an elephant backward, she wails, "I'm a singer! Oh I need to call my agent. I hate being outside! I'm a singer!" Blah blah blah. Indy says, "The biggest trouble with her is the noise." Agreed. She is game to visit the maharaja only after she learns that he's loaded, but she faints theatrically when monkey's brains are brought out for dinner.
Denouement: They end up surrounded by the children of the village they helped -- virtual "parents" of a whole generation saved by old-fashioned adventuring and romancing. It's a tad biblical and a tad domestic. It's the weakest of the trilogy, both heroine-wise and movie-wise.
Gender study: "I'm allowing you to tag along so why don't you give your mouth a rest, okay, doll?" Indy says with clear disdain. Even Shortround calls her "doll," and instructs her to call Indy "Dr. Jones." Indy is clearly the man in charge and Willie is clearly the dame. Their first kiss comes at 48:15, and Willie tells him, "I could've been your greatest adventure." Really? Steven Spielberg wanted Allen reprised her role as Marion but he and George Lucas decided that every movie should include a different woman for Indy. They obviously wanted to go to the opposite end of the female spectrum here. The character of Willie and Capshaw's performance combine to make one big shrillfest, and it does nothing favorable for the action heroine archetype.
Where would Willie be now? In Vegas, opening for Cirque du Soleil.

Alison Doody
as Dr. Elsa Schneider
in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Age at the time of release: 22
Character profile: An exotic, cold, somewhat forbidding Aryan goddess with a brain that rivals her beauty.
We first see her at 25:46, standing in front of choppy Viennese port in the sunshine. Very Kim Novakish. Indy was expecting to be met by a male doctor. Instead, we have Elsa, golden-haired and Austrian-voiced. The flirting starts immediately ("You have your fathers eyes." "And my mother's ears. The rest belongs to you.")
Feminine wiles: She has the thrill of the hunt in her eyes, and is as hungry for treasure as Indy. At last a formidable foil? She's knowledgeable. A scholar. We get the first hint of her duplicity at minute 32, when she gives Indy the look a predator might give its prey -- a simple, subtle flare of the eyelids as she realizes he's going to do the dirty work for her by breaking down a wall in the catacombs...
Feminine woes: ...but she doesn't like rats, and womanly yelps abound before Indy picks her up like a sack of potatoes. At 36:19, she's trapped under a coffin with a bunch of squealing rodentia as Indy finds a way out. To boot: she's in a wet white blouse. And as you'll see, she gets a little hysterical as the film wears on, her psyche unraveling like yarn.
Gender studies: Elsa is, of course, a villainous Nazi (always an object of Indy's hate) in addition to being the woman of the movie (always an object of Indy's lust). At the height of an argument, Indy kisses her. She acts indignant. "I don't like fast women," he says. "And I hate arrogant men," she replies as she bites his ear. Neither, of course, is true. Later, she shows Indy how Austrians say goodbye: bye biting your lower lip. The attraction between the two is aggressive and animalistic -- the flip side of their everyday intellectual mentalities. There's serious chemistry between the two. It's perhaps the most convincing matchup of the trilogy, from a sexual standpoint. Maybe this is because they are really hero and villainess, not hero and heroine.

There is much to say about her. Elsa starts out as a very strong, conniving character, but by 1:08, she is crying at the bookburning. Why? Because she feels terrible about betraying Indy, or because she hates to see books burned? The answer's the key to her character. What do you think?

Other points in the movie are equally curious. At 1:41, in the grail cavern, she says to Indy, "I never expected to see you again." What an ambiguous reading. Was that restrained joy, or just fatigue? She's distraught again when the villain shoots Jones Sr. She's remorseful, shaking her head as if to say, "I'm not a part of this." Her elation is restrained when Indy gets through the Breath of God. She loves him. It's a nasty, rotten love, just like her love for the grail. At 1:55, she goes into her batshit-tantalized-hungry mode again. "It's ours Indy--yours and mine!" she squeals, holding the grail, but she screws up and crosses the seal. She chases the grail into the crevass. She wants both life and Indy and eternal life. Her lips are blood-red, her teeth bared, her hair wild -- she reaches for the grail like a vampire, refuses the help of our hero, and falls through the fog to death.
Where would Elsa be now? In hell...? Or at least at the bottom of a very deep pit.

Concluding remarks

In the arc of Indiana Jones' women, we go from hard-drinking jock to squealing waif to a woman who is a bit of both, but smarter and more of a femme fatale. Regardless of the type of woman, Indy is all about letting them "tag along." He says something to this effect in each movie. Here's the exchange in Last Crusade:

ELSA: You didn't trust me.
INDY: I didn't know you. At least I let you tag along.
ELSA: Oh yes. Give them a flower, and they'll follow you anywhere.

Precisely. These women are along for Indy's ride. It's just that the last time around, it's a little more interesting. Elsa is a complex character -- more dimensional than butch Marion and dainty Willie -- whose character flaws send her not into Indy's beefy arms, but into a chasm of insanity. It's kind of refreshing.

At the end of the trilogy, though, Indy rides into the sunset as a gleeful bachelor, free to have more adventures and acquire/discard women as he see fits.

Despite starring alongside Harrison Ford in a highly successful action trilogy, none of these actresses have had notable careers. Doody has made just eight appearances on film or TV since 1989, though she's done some work this past year on the UK series Waking the Dead (she's 40 years old now). Capshaw married her director, did SpaceCamp, produced The Love Letter and hasn't worked since 2002 (she's 53 now). Allen did Starman and Scrooged, was memorable as the mom in The Sandlot, and is now rumored to be in the fourth Indiana Jones movie, according to IMDb (she is now 55 years old; Ford is 64). Which brings us to:

Cate Blanchett
as Shira Brookingstone, Esq.
in Indiana Jones and the Unfiled Tax Return

Ho ho. Ha ha. It's important to note that Blanchett (at age 38) will be the first Indiana Jones woman who is a movie star in her own right. Expect her to break the mold and give Ford a run for his money. And if Karen Allen does appear in the movie, keep your fingers crossed for a cat fight. Although, between the two of them, there'd be nothing catty about it. They could kick my ass and drink me under the table.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

I say this every year:

The Tonys are so much better than the Oscars.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

I would've loved to go head-to-head with him in a trivia match

Vocations can get very specific. Take Patrick Stockstill, who only ever wanted to be the official historian of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Stockstill died last week, but not before serving 25 years as the world's biggest Oscar know-it-all. The L.A. times reports that at 14, Stockstill started keeping track of Oscar winners on index cards, and had 10,000 by the time he realized his dream of working for AMPAS. I admit to doing the same thing at 14, albeit with a computer. Though I could never take AMPAS seriously enough to work for it, I have a strange respect for Stockstill, who knew exactly what he wanted to do and did it.