Thursday, March 21, 2013
There is a delicate balance in film between telling a story through visuals and telling a story through plot. Or, to put the criticism in its more derivative form, film strives to dazzle while avoiding the dreaded label of "style over substance."
For every artiste like Terrence Mallick who succeeds at captivating the mind with little or no attention to exposition or dialogue, there's a dozen Avatars, Sucker Punches and The Spirits that sure, offer up some treats for the eyes but fall flat in every other measurable aspect.
Then there's Stoker, the first English-language film from director Chan-wook Park, which yes, suffers from rather wide logical leaps, plot holes and inexplicable character motivations and yet effuses a sense of effortless cool; it's own skittishness becoming part of the eerie narrative, spliced together in a controlled chaos that makes every minute itch with discomfort while drawing the viewer in.
In Stoker, Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Nicole Kidman star as daughter and mother India and Evelyn Stoker. The film begins on the day of India's 18th birthday, which coincides with the day her father Richard (Durmont Mulroney) dies in a car accident. At the ensuing funeral, an uncle that India never knew she had arrives out of the blue and agrees to stay at the family's estate while, we presume, mother Evelyn recovers from her mourning period.
The three family members make up the central drive of the film, and each is their own particular brand of unhinged. Kidman's Evelyn, who can barely drag herself out of bed until noon and harbors a thinly-veiled hostility to her daughter, immediately takes a shine to her late-husband's brother Charlie. Unclear is whether she is reeling from the death of her husband or subject to a mid-life crisis that existed long before the film's first scene, or both.
India, played with waif-ish minimalism by Wasikowska, is a soft-spoken specter, gliding about dazedly and afraid – or so we're told – of human touch. It's clear that her affections were placed disproportionately in her father, but again we are left to assume whether his death has caused her to withdraw further into herself or whether we are simply seeing the status quo.
Then there's Charlie, (Watchmen's Matthew Goode) an enigma hidden behind a boyish smile that straddles the line between innocence and mania.
What follows can't be described, out of respect to the mystery of the film as well as the simple fact that much of what takes place is largely inexplicable. The central question driving Stoker is not what will happen next, but rather what is happening now? Eventually answers are given, and yet viewers looking for the reason or purpose behind those actions – or why what happened, happened – will be left wanting.
But to a certain extent, the holes left unfilled by the screenplay (written by Prison Break's Wentworth Miller) are forgiven, or at the very least granted leniency, out of respect to the atmospheric creation of Chan-wook Park. He achieves the pulse and pervasive disquiet of a thriller while keeping the craft art-house and understated.
Most viewers will likely leave the theater scratching their heads asking "But, what?" or simply "Why?" For some, it will have been 90 minutes enjoyed and well-spent, for others it will not.
Stoker opens in limited release in Utah on March 22
This post is late for a number reasons, among them that I've been extremely busy with work-related writing and, more importantly, the fact that there's just not much to report. After almost three months of this experiment, it's becoming increasingly clear that my life online is quite similar to my life off-line..in that beautiful women want very little to do with me.
As you may recall, back in January I set the goal of going on at least one real-life date with someone I met online per month, beginning in March. As I watched the calendar days slip through my fingertips – and my page hits on Wood's Stock plummet – I felt a chilling mix of both desperation and shame as I realized that I would not meet this goal.
"What will I write about?" I asked myself. "I can't expect people to read a blog about how I'm NOT dating online!"
It's been terrible. One night I got so in my head about it that I nearly sent out a dozen shotgun messages that said simply "Hi! I'm Ben. Lunch on Saturday?"
I resisted that admittedly bad impulse, instead holding out hope that I could buy myself enough time. But alas, here I am at the end of March, head hung in shame, with nothing to report.
Not that I haven't tried. Per my quotas, I have attempted to engage at least one woman in online conversation per week. These are women who share similar interests with me, who I find attractive based on the photos they've posted and who, quite honestly, I could imagine myself getting to know and having a relationship with.
They do not respond. Ever.
In a way it's worse than real life, because IRL she's just a pretty girl who doesn't want to talk to you. Online she's a pretty girl who loves reading, quotes Voltaire, enjoys mountain biking and sipping hot chocolate and is looking for a nice guy who she can hopefully spend the rest of her life with.
And before you're tempted to latch onto that "...who I find attractive bit..." and accuse me of calling the kettle black, I always respond to anyone who takes the time to reach out to me. Remember Lynn? She got a fair shake.
There are actually two women who are currently engaging me in conversation. I would've Hail Mary'd them to squeeze a date in before the end of the month – and still might – but they both live in Layton. That's a long drive for a cup of tea with someone who doesn't particularly interest me, all for the sake of feeding the ravenous whims of the internet.
The other obnoxious thing is that ever since I started this project, everyone has felt inclined to brag to me about their online successes. This ranges from the innocent and sweet "My husband and I met online" to the sub-textually insulting "Online dating is soooooo much fun. I meet sooooooo many great guys through online dating."
Granted, we're still in the early stages and I remain an online-dating amateur. Understanding that, and accepting that my online footprint will likely require several rounds of revision before I find myself sifting through beaucoup de rendez vous, I solicited some advice from the most relevant sources: women who had scorned me.
"Hi!" I wrote. I felt the exclamation point would help convey tone. "I messaged you a little bit ago and I take it you're not interested in getting to know me (not a problem, I respect that) but I was wondering if you'd be willing to give me some feedback on my profile."
"I'm relatively new to the online dating game and would love some constructive criticism. Is there anything I should change or do differently? (I'm asking with 100% sincerity)." I added that last parenthetical to try to make this come across as genuine and not the ramblings of a deranged killer. I doubt it worked.
"Thanks!" Again, tone. "Have a great day."
I sent out six of those. And wouldn't you know it, I got one back.
"Hi!" See, it's not just me. "Thanks for the message. As far as I can tell there's nothing wrong with your profile." I found this encouraging, since "your profile" is basically just code for "you."
"It's very cool that you're in journalism and you have some good pictures. The only suggestion I'd have is maybe include a little more detail. Maybe some more about your interests or life goals or something." Knitting, I live to knit.
"One thing I definitely would suggest is don't put what you're looking for in a girl. Girls looking at your profile don't want to be told how they should be. They want to know what you're like, your basic personality, your interests, etc."
"Having said that, I am also terrible at online dating. I got my profile about two weeks ago and am actually planning on deleting it relatively soon. I've actually ignored pretty much every message I've gotten on here since I joined." I'll take the fact that I broke through the wall as a "win," I also get the impression that half of the people on online dating websites hate being on online dating websites.
"But in any case, you seem like a really nice guy and I wish you the best of luck!" Read: you don't seem like you want to make a suit of my skin.
So that's the lesson for March. In the online world, much like the off-line world, you just gotta keep on keeping on. I've added a few photos to my profile and am currently in the process of trying to expand my self-description, which is by far the most uncomfortable aspect of online dating. (Do I really "love" Thai food? That's seems like such a strong word but I clearly don't just "like" Thai food).
And hopefully by next month, we'll really have something to talk about.
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
There's a lot of concepts swirling through my head right now, so forgive me if this post comes off as a little disjointed. This post is mainly predicated by Netflix's House of Cards, the first season of which I just finished viewing. But before we get into all of that, let's talk a little bit about television.
As you may have heard, NBC recently came in fifth place for the month of February among the Big-Four networks. Yes, you read that right. There are four major American TV networks – NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox – and NBC managed to rank in fifth place behind the Spanish-language channel Univision.
Just how bad were NBC's ratings? To paint another picture, TV prognosticators were all but besides themselves with glee reporting that the Feb 10 episode of AMC's Talking Dead – an after-hours talk show dedicated to vivisecting AMC's The Walking Dead, which immediately precedes it – had posted a higher rating in the coveted 18-49 demographic than ANYTHING aired by NBC during the ENTIRE month of February. I apologize for using all-caps like some twitterpated teenager but I just want to emphasize, a cable-network by-product bested everything aired on America's oldest broadcast network for an entire month.
Strange times indeed.
So, you may ask, what does this have to do with House of Cards? For several years, Netflix has been toying with the idea of original programming and on February 1 it unleashed the first of its planned army to the world. But not content to merely challenge mainstream television on a creative level, Netflix decided to throw a wrench into the entire way that we view serial programming by releasing all 13 episodes of the first season at once, allowing intrigued viewers to feast upon its creation to their heart's content.
Many people "binge-viewed" House of Cards in a single sitting. Others, like myself, attempted to ration out the series over a period of time only to become hooked and wrap the whole affair up in a week or so. Others still have yet to see it, the series bobbing somewhere in their instant queue between season 3 of The Wire and old episodes of Yo Gabba Gabba.
The problem, if it can be called that, is that once you've watched House of Cards you can't really talk about it simply because you don't know who has seen it and if so, how much. I'm not the first person to make this observation. Smarter writers than me at considerably more reputable websites like Vulture or The New York Times have already weighed in on the frustration you can feel by holding an opinion of House of Cards in your hand but not being able to share it with anyone.
Compare that to mainstream television that unfolds in real time week-by-week over twitter and Facebook, as viewers across the nation weigh in and pick apart every aspect of what they've just seen. Even for the lazy who pick up last week's ep on DVR or Hulu are still aware that a new episode has dropped into the pop culture landscape and that they had best be careful navigating the internet where spoilers and analysis abound.
Whether you choose to view an episode live or postpone it indefinitely, you – and national conversation – are still subject to the scheduling structure of the weekly broadcast format.
An example? Pick a number between one and thirteen and google "Girls episode X" and you will find a veritable host of results where layman and critic alike argue, mere minutes after airtime, whether that particular hour of television was the worst or greatest thing ever produced for the small screen. In comparison, if you try to find an analysis of House of Cards' Chapter 12 you'll likely get little more than the episode's IMDB listing and a few posts like this about how annoying it is to not find anything online about House of Cards and critics wondering what they can and can not spoil. I know, I tried.
This is neither a good or bad thing, but it represents a momentous shift in the way a TV show interacts with and delivers itself to an audience. There are a score of examples where show-runners have switched plot course midstream in response to viewer reaction – think Nicki and Paulo from Lost, in which a due were so despised by fans that their characters were mercilessly buried alive to appease the angry gods of viewer contempt.
Had we been watching House of Cards along the course of production, chiming in with our bits and bobs for any given week, is it possible that [Spoiler Alert] one of the most enjoyable characters in the show would have been spared his fate in episode 11? I don't know. I'd like to think so, because I really wish he was still around. [/End Spoiler Alert]
On the other hand, you could argue that insulating yourself from viewer opinion is a boon to the show-runner's creative intent. Instead of cow-towing to the demands of an admittedly unreliable marketplace, a creative team under the Netflix model can tell the story they want to tell and make it available as-is, viewer's opinions be damned! It's a refreshing notion that I would argue lends itself to a higher caliber of creative quality. America, after all, loves crap, which is why the cookie-cutter crime procedurals on CBS live forever while Community will likely never reach the syndication-friendly threshold of 100 episodes.
So what does all of this mean for the future of TV? It's hard to say. Netflix, so far, has played coy about releasing concrete viewership numbers for House of Cards and even if they did, the viewing format is not based on advertising like other delivery models. You can't point to the show and say "House of Cards resulted in X number of new Netlix subscriptions" so how can we measure if the model was truly a success? Or a failure?
But we can observe the national discussion. As internet-based services like Hulu, digital-recording programs like DVR, at-home DVD viewing, and the repeat scheduling of cable pay-chanells erode the notion of "appointment television" and make traditional Nielsen ratings near-obsolete in gauging what people are actually watching, it is not hard to imagine a world where TV shows skip the TV altogether, and are instead made available in one form or another to be devoured and enjoyed at an individual's leisure. If that is the future, then Netflix and House of Cards may be patient zero in the epidemic that consumes broadcast television once and for all.
As for the actual quality of House of Cards, it's undeniably superior to the majority of option currently on television. I personally found the at-camera exposition engaging, adding valuable insight of character while also snapping you back into attention without becoming cloying or contrite. The performances are electric, all of them really, but particularly Spacey, Wright and the under-rated rising star Corey Stoll.
I honestly can't say enough about Stoll, if you're not familiar with him yet watch this clip immediately, but forgive the poor audio quality. Better yet would be to simply go out right now and get a copy of Midnight in Paris.
But I digress. House of Cards starts splendidly, peaks in the middle and then diminishes somewhat toward the end. After 13 hours of crisp, biting political intrigue and machinations, the cliffhanger ending feels somewhat anti-climactic and almost deceptive of your patience. That said, I remain as hooked as I ever was and look forward to picking right back up where it left of when the next 13 chapters drop out of the Netflix sky.
Monday, March 11, 2013
I know, this post is more than a month late but the Utah Legislative session began the freaking day after Sundance ended so cut me some slack. I already posted my Sundance wrap up post so I'll try to keep the redundancies to a minimum but there are just some things that deserve more than a camera phone.
Things like, Main Street's Egyptian Theater.
As a member of the press, I'm mostly relegated to the Holiday Village Cinemas during the festival but I always try to see at least one movie in the old Egyptian at the top of Main. This theater, along with its sister in Ogden, are hands down my two favorite cinemas in all of Utah (now that the Cinedome is closed, sigh). They have that amazing feel of nostalgia for Hollywood's Golden Age, before HD television when going to the theater for a talkie was an experience. For some of us it still is, and theaters like the Egyptians reward us for our cinephilia.
My screening at the Egyptian this years was Austenland, directed by Jerusha Hess, wife to and co-writer of Napolean Dynomite. Besides a week of amazing independent film and the ability to see the year's best movies before anyone else, the true magic of Sundance is the post-screening Q&A's that the filmmakers and cast hold with the audience. Sadly, Hess' Q&A was hijacked by a bunch of twi-hards who wanted to know what it was like working with Stephanie Meyer (who produced the film), but Hess nonetheless seemed very charming.
Speaking of charm, there's no topping Sundance-regular, wunderkind and all-that-is-man Joseph Gordon-Levitt. His film, Don Jon's Addiction, made its worldwide premiere at Sundance and the versatile writer-director-actor stopped by to chat with the audience about feminism, sexism in Hollywood and how to carefully trim pornographic clips to technically not exceed the bounds of an MPAA "R" rating. Don Jon's will be hitting theaters soon, it will be interesting to see if they pulled it off.
This here is Stu Zicherman, who directed and co-wrote A.C.O.D., which stands for Adult Children of Divorce and was quite possibly my favorite film of the festival (I can't make up my mind. Too Much Good!) After I gave the movie an A rating on Wood's Stock they were nice enough to retweet my blog post. Hashtags people, get on that train.
As always I can't choose between color and B&W. I love the balance of the big red screen but I also love how Stu comes out of the dark in the BW picture, almost like a giant Ying Yang. Thoughts?
This is the team behind "Breathe In," including the film's director Drake Doremus (the man with the microphone). Drake is the writer-director of Like Crazy, one of the best movies I've ever seen at Sundance and one of the best films of 2011. I had the chance to briefly meet Drake during Film Church of Sundance 2011. I wouldn't expect him to remember, I just felt like mentioning that. Most people brag about getting a high five from Justin Bieber, I get star struck by indie filmmakers.
The Breathe In Q&A was interesting because a man called the film predictable and then got booed by the crowd. I wouldn't call it predictable as much as I would call it familiar or natural, but either way it is a beautifully-captured story.
And, as always, between movies there's the chance to catch some amazing music. Like The Head and The Heart (above) who closed out the festival at the ASCAP music cafe. THATH, if you haven't discovered them yet, is (are?) amazing but if you like Justin Bieber then just do us all a favor and stay away. The last thing I need is to see Down In The Valley covered on Glee. After losing fun. I'm not sure my heart could take it.
When I took this shot I was cursing that yellow ball hanging from the ceiling. Now that I see the picture though, I kind of love it. I wish it was brighter.
I was also able to catch a bar-set by my cousin's band Van Lady Love. My cousin has two bands (The other being Lady And Gent, a folkier outfit). I'd like to tell you where to go to find them but I'm not entirely sure. Google it, that usually works.
And then, there's always Main Street. People often ask me "Ben, I'm heading to Sundance, what should I do?" and more often than not they haven't exactly planned ahead to buy screening tickets, aren't willing to wait list and buy screening tickets and, frankly, have no interest in attending a screening. That, admittedly, limits your choices.
But Main Street, especially on opening weekend, is buzzing: art galleries, live music, restaurants and great people watching. I'm always struck by the dedication of the club-going crowd. The fact that women will brave strapless mini-dresses in the dead of Utah winter is nothing short of heroic. Also, if you're lucky, you might see a star or two, if you're in to that sort of thing. To be honest, you probably won't see anyone, or at least anyone you recognize. I brushed shoulders with the girl from The Mob Doctor and it took me more than an hour to figure out why she looked so familiar, then again, it is The Mob Doctor.
And how awesome are these windows? I'm a sucker for silhouette (and empty benches, but that's not important right now) so I stood across the street from the Kimball Arts Center for about 30 minutes just snapping people walking by.