July 27, 2010

The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T

Theodore Geisel, more commonly known as Dr. Seuss, created words and images that seemed like a great fit for the silver screen. Yet strangely, the full cinematic potential of his work was rarely explored, and almost all of his adaptations were for TV. There are three theatrical features adapted from his books: How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000, live action), The Cat in the Hat (2003, live action), and Horton Hears a Who! (2008, animated). The latter two were critical failures and caused Audrey Geisel, Seuss' widow and current holder of licensing rights, to forbid any future live-action adaptations of her husband's work. It's a shame, because there is a lot of great stuff in those books and the films ruined them with overacting and shoddy CGI. But there remains another, much more obscure film in Seuss' filmic canon...

In fact, it's not based on a book at all, but rather an original screenplay (his first and only) by Seuss. It's The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) and it's just as wonderfully demented as it sounds. The plot is more or less that young Bart has to thwart his nefarious piano teacher from imprisoning 500 boys (x 10 fingers each = 5000 fingers) to play a giant piano in unison for all eternity. While the film is definitely uneven, it's certainly worth a watch to revisit your childhood days when every unlikable authority figure was an evil supervillain. But an even more compelling reason is that the imagery is incredible - it's what a Seuss film should look and move like. Instead of digitally grafting comedians' faces onto CG renderings, we get charmingly organic sets and costumes shot in the brightest, most glorious Technicolor. This is how Seuss' world moves in (non-animated) three dimensions. Oh and did I mention that it's also a musical with lyrics by the Doctor himself? I've included images below to whet your appetite for this wacky masterpiece...

There aren't a ton of stills from this online...so just watch it! (For as much as it sounds like a lost treasure, it's actually on a Region 1 DVD and available from Netflix and Amazon VOD. So you have no excuse!)

July 20, 2010

The Office: a show for our times

I know I don't usually write about TV - in fact, I'm not sure I ever have - but, um, there's a first time for everything!

Obviously "The Office" is in the off-season right now, but it's been on people's minds lately because Steve Carrell has announced that this upcoming season will be his last. Many are calling for his exit to signal an end to the show, but they'll probably just beat it into the ground unless enough key castmembers leave. The general consensus is that it jumped the shark long ago, and has been limping towards death ever since. I agree to an extent, but that doesn't mean I'm not emotionally invested in the characters and still chuckle a fair amount during each episode. I'm seeing this thing through to the finish. But with the end ostensibly in sight, I don't think it's too early to start eulogizing, analyzing what the show has meant and represented. And honestly, the more I think about it, this show has been goddamn revolutionary - not really in content or style, but message. And the message is this: the world doesn't give a shit about you and doesn't owe you anything.

What is this crazy lady talking about? It's just a funny show where Steve Carrell acts silly, right? Well, let me explain.

Every scripted television show I can ever think of has had it one of two ways: the show itself cared about its characters, or it just made them caricatures and didn't (and in both cases, it makes the audience agree). The former category covers all dramas and almost any sitcom made before the 90s - when something bad happens to the characters, either the other characters come to their aid or the music swells and the God of that show's universe seems to say, "I may not be able to help you right now, but I feel your pain." The latter category is much more rare, but a good example would be something like "Arrested Development" or even "30 Rock" at times, where the tone is just sheer absurdism and "feelings" don't really factor into the equation. "The Office," however, does have it both ways - the show doesn't care about the characters, but the audience does. What results from this is a veritable manual for coping in the modern age, a guide to finding values and priorities in a mediocre life.

When I say that a show doesn't care about its characters, I mean that the characters have misfortunes that are presented in a fairly serious light, but not resolved. A good example of this is Michael's loneliness and sense of failure in his personal life. In the Season 2 episode "Take your Daughter to Work Day," Michael excitedly shows the employees' kids a video of when he was on a children's show as a boy. On the show, young Michael says he wants to "get married and have 100 kids, so I can have 100 friends, and no one can say 'no' to being my friend." This clearly never happened in real life, and Michael is visibly upset. This becomes a theme that runs through the seasons, and while he will almost certainly be granted a happy ending, he's been miserable trying to get there.

The the real emotional hooks of the show, however, are Jim and Pam, and their evolution is closer to the average American life than anything else right now, on TV or beyond. It's unglamorous, painfully realistic, and has been teaching the audience to focus on what's important. Let's take a look at the two key episodes here. Even if you've seen them already, it might be worth a refresher, and these synopses aren't exhaustive but hit the major points for my argument.

- "Niagara." This is the episode where Jim and Pam get married. She is already pregnant, a fact she is trying to conceal from her conservative grandmother. Her grandmother eventually finds out and we actually never see them reconcile - for all we know, she doesn't attend the wedding at all. The night before, Andy tears his scrotum (!) and Pam is the only one sober enough to take him to the hospital. Right before the ceremony, Pam rips her veil and starts crying because her wedding isn't anything like she thought it would be. Jim cuts his tie in a show of solidarity; cue my tears. They realize that all these people they wanted at their wedding are just ruining it with their selfishness, so they run off and get married on a ferry that goes through Niagara Falls (and then return to the church to get married again in front of everyone). The newlyweds can't even get a moment's peace on their honeymoon - in the next episode, they have to deal with Kevin accidentally canceling Jim's credit card.

- "The Delivery." Three guesses as to what this one's about...Pam goes into labor but tries to postpone her admittance to the hospital until after midnight so their insurance plan gives them an extra day. Her contractions get closer together and she and Jim start fighting about what's best for her. Suddenly the contractions are very close together and she has no choice but to go. After the delivery, the staff is extremely terse with her - after all, she's just another patient to them. She has trouble getting the baby to breastfeed, so she requests a coach, who turns out to be male, causing great discomfort with Jim. It still doesn't work, and the two have a restless night. They are promptly kicked out the next day, and Pam finally gets the baby to breastfeed.

Here's the revelation: "The Office" dismantles the myth that anyone on earth other than you gives a damn about the most important moments in your life. Now, perhaps that's being a bit harsh, as surely close friends and family share your joy. But you are surrounded by others, from caterers to nurses, for whom this is just another day. The world doesn't stop for them. Compare Pam's delivery with the baby-having episode of "Friends" (which I guess I caught in syndication, even though I never watched the show otherwise), where the entire hospital appears to be at our heroes' disposal. Rachel has some trouble getting the baby to nurse, but this is quickly resolved and the whole scenario is played out mostly for Joey's humorous reactions. Really, having a baby just seems like a goofy good time and Rachel is still the center of the universe. On "Sex and the City," Charlotte's wedding to Harry is a disaster, but throughout it they just kind of chuckle and shrug and it never appears to be a real tragedy. Compared to these and other shows, the treatment of these milestones on "The Office" is pretty bleak.

The real message here, however, is just that you have to distill these moments in your life to what really matters. Will your remember your wedding day because of the perfect floral arrangements and bridesmaids' meticulously identical outfits? No, you'll remember being in love and being happy, and that's what Pam and Jim realize on the ferry even when everything else is falling apart. Is the birth of your first child supposed to be a thoroughly radiant experience from start to finish? No, nothing is guaranteed and every small accomplishment is a huge success (like when Pam finally gets her baby to nurse at the end). In this time of economic failure and an uncertain future, many people are readjusting their priorities - letting go of superficial things and learning to just be thankful for their loved ones and basic necessities.

For those of you whose response to this is "duh," well, good for you - but some people still don't get it. I remember reading an article (which, unfortunately, I can no longer find) about a family of four who couldn't afford to buy a house due the recession. It had the potential to be tragic, but I read on and discovered that they were not consequently homeless or even jammed into a tiny apartment. They were renting a large apartment (or maybe even a small house) and both parents had jobs, but they still considered themselves victims that were simply annihilated by the recession. The article even quoted the oft-repeated mournful cry of their young daughter: "Mommy, when can we buy a house?!" These people are still fixated on home ownership as some God-given right, completely ignoring the fact that their own neighbors might be facing eviction or poverty. These are people who need to hear what "The Office" is preaching.

I read an article last year that called the show "the most depressing on television," and while the author makes good points I disagree that you have to interpret the data negatively. She says it's depressing that Jim and Pam will never escape their dead-end jobs which they're not even that good at, and that they don't have any friends. Well, there are plenty of people like that - perfectly nice people with mundane lives and small social circles. Hell, I count myself among them. So what should those people do, jump off a bridge? Can't it instead be heartening to show that they can still find happiness with each other? Homer and Marge Simpson have been doing it for decades, and I don't see anyone complaining about that.

Now, obviously "The Office" isn't the first show to tackle serious facts of life. "Scrubs" is a good example of a funny show (not necessarily a sitcom, though) that masterfully deals with topics like ethics and dying. But what other show has really confronted mediocrity head-on? "The Office" shows viewers that if even people in a sitcom can't lead an easy life, then you sure as hell can't. Jim and Pam work a crappy job with a crazy boss, live in an ugly house, are exhausted from raising their baby, and have probably never shared a single Kodak moment. That sucks, and they know it and convey it. But they also have a happy family, and they celebrate their small victories. And in the end, that's what it's all about.

What do you think? Am I over-analyzing, or does "The Office" tap into a raw and critical part of the zeitgeist?

July 10, 2010

Fun with Miis!

A few months ago, my boyfriend purchased a Wii. I'm not really into video games myself, but something we agreed on was that it provided lots of fun in terms of creating Miis. For those who don't know, a Mii is an avatar you design for playing certain games, and they're highly customizable. We first made ourselves, of course (mine is my Blogger avatar), but then being film geeks, we moved on to creating notable figures in the world of cinema, both real and fictional. I've provided some of our creations below, with hints to see if you can guess who they are. If you can't figure some out, don't worry - I'm sure that has more to do with either the limits of Mii creation or our own incompetence. You can peep part deux over on my boyfriend's blog.

Both a gangster and a song-and-dance man

French actress who's played everything from a prostitute to a matriarch

Just add hat and cane

Wanna flip a coin?

Famous, among other things, for her insistence on always wearing pants

With a Z

Her face has graced tacky merchandise first, movies second

Spaniard whose career is finally getting respectable

"Don't point that gun at him, he's an unpaid intern!"

Star of autobiographical show

Neurotic Jew

July 6, 2010

The problem of "trailer bingo"

I see a lot of movies in theaters - typically at least 2-3 per week, depending on the time of year (i.e. Oscar season pileups). As a result, I see a lot of trailers. Or, to be more precise, I see a moderate amount of trailers many, many times over (even considering that I watch DVRed shows so I can skip commercials and I rarely watch trailers online). Aside from just being repetitive and rather irksome, this especially affects me because I seem to have a disproportionately receptive and sticky brain for trailers (and all the images, lines, and musical cues therein). I only have to see a trailer once to have it lightly etched into my memory, and by the third or so time every frame of it is burned there forever. Thus, when I actually see the movie in question, a phenomenon occurs where I am actively anticipating every microscopic fragment of the trailer. I call this "trailer bingo."

It truly makes me crazy. Symptoms range from noticing that a character is wearing the same outfit as a clip from the trailer and thus waiting for a certain line to come up, to realizing that the movie can't be over yet because a particular moment has not yet occurred. Even for movies whose trailers are mostly visual, such as A Single Man and Micmacs, I kept waiting for every single two-second closeup to appear.

For the most part, I can manage. The one truly unbearable studio, however, is Fox Searchlight. They mercilessly beat you over the head with their trailers (never more than one for the same film, either) for months. My boyfriend and I could fully recite and act out the trailers for The Wrestler, (500) Days of Summer, Crazy Heart and most recently, Cyrus. (He's not as badly afflicted as I am, though.)

I generally have a low threshold for repetition - even for things I like - so perhaps that explains it. I'm not sure what to do about it other than sit in the lobby like a sulking toddler for the entirety of the previews, which isn't a very appealing notion. Guess I'm destined to suffer forever...

Does this affect you too, or am I just completely insane?

July 2, 2010

Five solid female characters in Apatow (or Apatow-esque) movies

You might have heard that Judd Apatow's upcoming projects (at least as producer) mark a departure from his typical bro-centric fare. He's producing Business Trip, which stars his wife Leslie Mann and is described as a female version of The Hangover, and Bridesmaids, which is supposed to be kind of like Bride Wars but actually funny. I give kudos to Apatow for branching out. He and his contemporaries (aka his peers working in similar styles) are not known for their favorable depictions of women. And while I get that not every female character has to have Meryl Streep levels of depth and complexity, and I'm totally fine with goofy flat characters in an otherwise pleasing comedy, many of these films are downright Freudian in their widespread castration anxiety. In films like The Hangover and Knocked Up, we see women who more or less ban their significant others from having any fun. These shrill, naggy women are sometimes "traded" for more awesome, easygoing women (in the case of The Hangover, it's a stripper). And the men never take any responsibility, oh no. In Hot Tub Time Machine, Craig Robinson's character Nick was somehow coerced into hyphenating his last name when he gets married. This is portrayed as an act of God that Nick was powerless to prevent, whereas in reality if this was a healthy relationship they would sit down and discuss it like adults, and Nick wouldn't have to do it if he didn't feel comfortable with it. But by just smiling and nodding and then secretly feeling emasculated, men enable these behaviors in women. Even when it doesn't go that far, the women are often just unbearable shrews, as in Knocked Up.

But there's hope - there have been a few femme bright spots in Apatow and company's oeuvre, and I've singled out five below. Granted, the following are no Katharine Hepburns, but they bring a welcome and refreshing touch to the world of chubby man-children. It might even seem like these cool gals actually outnumber the shrews. But even if that's the case, there is much more attention paid when filmmakers get it wrong then when they get it right. Or more accurately, audiences and critics are either praising the profound Streep types or slinging mud at Apatow's creations. I wrote this post, then, to highlight the modest achievements of this filmmaking group which I feel have been overlooked or negated in discussing their work. Here we go...

Catherine Keener as Trish in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
There was actually a great female character at the dawn of the Apatow era, played by the consistently great Keener. In fact, the richness of the character probably stems from the fact that Keener never lets herself play a flimsy part, because it certainly had nothing to do with Apatow himself. In an early draft, Trish was a bored waitress who didn't seem to have a lot going on in her life or her head. In the finished film, she's sexy, messy, complicated, and extremely likable. She loves her children but gets flustered dealing with them, she's sexually aggressive but also insecure, she runs her own business but dreams of making it something more. In short, she's totally real.

Emma Stone as Jules in Superbad (2007)
Even more rare than finding a worthwhile female character in a male-driven comedy is finding a high school age worthwhile female character in a male-driven comedy. Enter Jules. In comparison to a lot of other vacuous sex objects in similar films (including, arguably, the same film's lovable floozy Becca), Jules is confident, non-slutty, doesn't even drink, and doesn't have to settle for a guy vastly inferior to her in the looks department (Jonah Hill) just because the script calls for it. (She can also hold her own opposite the rambunctious Hill.) She seems to be popular because she's actually a cool person, not because she has the inexplicable draw of an attractive bitch.

Elizabeth Banks as Miri in Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)
In male comedies, even where there are solid female characters, they are never the men's equal. They have less screen time, they don't get funny lines, and they're generally subjected to lighter lifting. Not when Kevin Smith teams up with Elizabeth Banks, however. Zack and Miri are best friends and roommates who support each other through thick and thin. They can casually discuss everything from masturbation to porno titles, and Banks is never put on a pedestal - she has a fair share of humiliation, like finding out her high school crush is gay or that a video of her in granny panties went viral. She also seems to have a healthy sexuality that's neither promiscuous or prudish, another onscreen rarity.

Rashida Jones as Zooey in I Love You, Man (2009)
So maybe Zooey's a little bland, but may all bland female characters strive to be like her! She's fun, easygoing, and understanding - she accompanies her fiancee Peter to a Rush concert without ever having heard of them and even has a good time (until Peter starts getting kind of weird with his new friend Sydney). When she gets mad at him, it's for completely reasonable things, and she keeps encouraging him to have his own life and friends. The only area where I'd dock points is that her best friends are bitchy caricatures, but they're comic relief so it's not a huge deal.

Elisabeth Moss as Daphne in Get Him to the Greek (2010)
A film about a hard-partying rock star's journey with a timid record label employee doesn't seem like the place where you'd find someone like Daphne, but there she is. Cute without being unreasonably attractive, she does fall into the typical trap of preferring reruns of "Gossip Girl" to sex and going out, but she has the completely legitimate excuse of working insane shifts at a hospital. Aaron (Jonah Hill) and Daphne's relationship is under stress because of her job, but they still seem playful and happy together. Most surprising, however, is when she takes control of her sexuality in an extreme and hilarious way near the end of the film as revenge for some of Aaron's wrongs. Where most girls would just scream and cry, she plows ahead and...well, I won't spoil it!

Have I missed anyone? Do you still believe that this generation of filmmakers are all just chauvinist pigs? Sound off in the comments!