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Archive for June, 2011

Trotter, Traitor, Spaceman, Spy.

In the trailer bin of late:

A Light in the Deepest Dark.

‘We think there are only about 100 bright quasars with redshift higher than 7 over the whole sky,’ concludes Daniel Mortlock, the leading author of the paper. ‘Finding this object required a painstaking search, but it was worth the effort to be able to unravel some of the mysteries of the early Universe.’

European astronomers find the farthest quasar yet discovered, 12.9 billion light years away and dating to only 770 million years after the Big Bang. “This brilliant beacon, powered by a black hole with a mass two billion times that of the Sun, is by far the brightest object yet discovered in the early Universe.

Lockout Time Again.

As we slink toward the brink of an NBA lockout — if you have a doomsday clock in the family room, five minutes ’til should do the trick — we ought to look at the latest proposals to get a sort of ‘state of the negotiations.’ And while I’d love to be the one who does that, I simply can’t get over how insane the league’s recent major proposal is. That proposal would cap player salary at $2 billion a year…What the $2 billion cap does is re-route all future growth of the league’s revenue straight to the owners’ pocketbooks.

With an NBA lockout looming tomorrow, SBNation‘s Tom Ziller explains what, exactly, the owners are trying to achieve. (Hint: It’s management’s usual approach to labor.) “There definitely need to be some tweaks, perhaps to contract length…Instead, the league wants to end the reasonable percentage-based split of revenues with players — who are actually the labor and the product in the industry — and ‘guarantee’ $2 billion a year in salary and benefits.

In very related news, as the NBA owners claim large losses (and yet don’t show their books), Deadspin‘s Tommy Cragg dissects how sport teams usually hide profits through a weird tax quirk that defines players as depreciable assets. “Every year, taxpayers hand the plutocrats who own sports franchises a fat pile of money for no other reason than that one of those plutocrats, many years ago, convinced the IRS that his franchise is basically a herd of cattle.

“No Ball Left Unbusted.”

As part of the rollout for Cowboys and Aliens, director (and former Dinner for Five host) Jon Favreau kicks off a series of interviews by sitting down with one of his stars, Harrison Ford. (This is just one section above — click through for the rest of them.) Particularly given how ornery or bored (or worse) Ford usually seems when chatting to the press, this is quite a fun interview, especially for the fanboy/fangirl-inclined. There’s life in the old Corellian yet.

There’s Money in the Memory Hole.

The contrast in fortunes between those on top of the economic heap and those buried in the rubble couldn’t be starker. The 10 biggest banks now control more than three-quarters of the country’s banking assets. Profits have bounced back, while compensation at publicly traded Wall Street firms hit a record $135 billion in 2010. Meanwhile, more than 24 million Americans are out of work or can’t find full-time work, and nearly $9 trillion in household wealth has vanished. There seems to be no correlation between who drove the crisis and who is paying the price.

As Bank of America pays a pittance to other banks for its malfeasance, former chair of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Phil Angelides looks into how the winners are now rewriting the history of the 2008 financial collapse. “So, how do you revise the historical narrative when the evidence of what led to economic catastrophe is so overwhelming and the events at issue so recent? You and your political allies just do it. And you bet on the old axiom that a lie is halfway around the world before the truth can tie its shoes.” Attorney General Schneiderman, our nation turns its lowly eyes to you.

Another Night of Poetry and Poses.

At the Lincoln Center talk, the Coens compared their movie to “Margot at the Wedding” (Noah Baumbach was on stage with them) suggesting that, like that film, their new work will offer natural dialogue and a feeling of being dropped into the middle of a world. They also said they expected the film to contain musical performances.

As breaking over the weekend, the Coens’ next project may well be a look at the sixties folk scene in Greenwich Village, based on the life of Dave Von Ronk — above, with Dylan and Suze Rotolo — and his memoirs, The Mayor of McDougal Street. He shouldn’t overpower the story, but I do hope Jack Rollins get his due.

Raiders of the Close Encounters.

Next up in the movie backlog: JJ Abrams’ promising but ulitimately hollow Super 8. As former House Next Door host Matt Zoller Seitz (whose video essays I mentioned in my Tree of Life review) aptly summed up this film on Twitter: “SUPER 8 is to [Steven] Spielberg as Todd Haynes’ FAR FROM HEAVEN is to Douglas Sirk.” That’s true up to a point. But, inasmuch as Haynes’ film paid loving homage to Sirkian melodramas of the 1950’s, it was also a meta-comment on them, using their conventions to illustrate what the original movies obscured, and how tastes and mores have changed from then to now. Super 8 on the other hand, is basically just Spielbergian because…well, because it can be.

Abrams — who, FWIW, I run hot and cold on; I disliked Mission: Impossible III and loathed Cloverfield (which he produced), but thought Star Trek was good summer fun — has slavishly mimicked the Beard’s early aesthetic here: the overlapping, naturalistic conversations; the group of young kids on a grand adventure; the missing and/or untrusting parents; the visitor from another world; the ubiquitous Close Encounters-style lens flares; the long, anticipatory build-up of Jaws and Jurassic Park; the suburban milieu and untrustworthy government officials of ET. And it’s all glued together and coated thick with hefty dollops of industrial strength, 80’s grade, early-Spielberg schmaltz.

But, to what effect, really? The wallowing in Spielberg nostalgia is a neat gimmick for awhile, but the longer it drags on, the more it ends up feeling like a film school exercise. And, while the kids at the heart of the story are likable enough — especially Joel Courtney as our young hero and Elle Fanning as his #1 crush — the throwback style just can’t sustain the movie on its own, especially as the story falls apart in the second and third acts. And so by the end Super 8 ends up being a lot like cotton candy: It seems like a good idea at the time, but once you pull away all the wry nods to (and direct lifts from) Spielberg’s oeuvre, there’s no there there, and you’re left with just the lingering, sickly aftertaste of saccharine.

To its credit, Super 8 begins quite promisingly, with one of the more economical introductions I can remember: We see an industrial worker rolling the counter on a workplace safety sign, which reflects the numbers of days since the last fatal accident, back to 1. Clearly, something terrible has happened, and just as clearly, the widower after the accident — police deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights) — thinks a local yokel named Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard) is at fault. Like Lamb’s son Joe (Courtney), we see Lamb summarily escort Dainard out of the wake, cuff him, and throw him in the back of his cruiser, for reasons left unexplained until later in the film.

Cut to six months later, the deputy’s still grieving in his own way — i.e., by being a gruff and distant workaholic — and young Joe’s trying to get on with his life by helping his friends finish their Super 8 zombie movie. So one night, Joe and his friends are filming their Romero homage down by the train station, in order to garner some “production values” (not a phrase one usually associates with George Romero), and they get more than they bargained for. Much more, in fact: An epic (too epic, really — it’s like watching Looney Tunes) train derailment that they soon discover was perpetrated by none other than Mayor Royce their biology teacher. Why would he do such a thing? Therein lies the riddle…

Soon enough, things get stranger: The Air Force shows up and takes over the town, ostensibly to clean up the debris from the train wreck — which seems to consist mostly of strange metal cubes. Power outages become frequent, cars lose their engines, and all the dogs around simultaneously decide to get the heck out of Dodge. Even more frightening, townsfolk start disappearing at night, usually under violent circumstances. And even as the kids try to get to the bottom of it all, they’re hamstrung by the persistent antipathy between Deputy Lamb and Mr. Dainard that we witnessed in the opening moments. Because, when there’s a monster from outer space on the loose, there’s nothing more compelling than watching parents put up arbitrary roadblocks for the characters, for purely petulant reasons.

That may be a bit unfair, but that, unfortunately, is what Super 8 devolves into. The first hour or so of build-up shows quite a bit of promise story-wise, but it ends up being derailed in the middle by Abrams stopping everything to lay on more Spielbergian schmaltz. At one point, one of the kids explains — in reference to their zombie flick — that it’s the characters you should care about in movie-making, not the circumstances. Maybe so, but, as I said of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris back in the day: “‘Look, I know it’s weird to see your dead wife again and all, but there’s an alien intelligence trying to communicate with you outside the ship.Super 8 makes the same mistake — it keeps putting everything on hold so these characters, who are mostly two-dimensional Spielberg composites and not-particularly interesting on their own terms — can work out their family and/or trust issues.

The schmaltziness is really the movie-killer here: To wedge in growth moments for its boring characters, the film starts taking some odd turns that don’t make much sense in terms of the story. (Why does the deputy hook up with his nemesis to find the kids? Why not, say, the director’s parents?) And this problem is complicated by the fact that Super 8 can’t seem to decide which Spielberg movie it wants to rip off the most, so it ends up going with all of them. At various points the monster acts like Jaws (the first hour), the Jurassic Park T-Rex (for which a random bus attack is shoehorned in) and ET (the end.)

Once it becomes abundantly clear this last personality will take hold at some point — for me, it was right when the creature steals Elle Fanning — the movie loses all sense of dramatic urgency, and is revealed for what it mostly is: A well-made but uninspired tribute reel to the Spielbergiana of old. In effect, Super 8 is exactly like the movie shown during the final credits (one of the best scenes in the film), except with higher production values, much more manipulative savvy, and, sadly, much less in the way of real heart.

The fields are under lock and key.

After enactment of House Bill 87, a law designed to drive illegal immigrants out of Georgia, state officials appear shocked to discover that HB 87 is, well, driving a lot of illegal immigrants out of Georgia…The resulting manpower shortage has forced state farmers to leave millions of dollars’ worth of blueberries, onions and other crops unharvested and rotting in the fields. It has also put state officials into something of a panic at the damage they’ve done to Georgia’s largest industry.

As the AJC’s Jay Bookman puts it, “it might almost be funny if it wasn’t so sad.” In Georgia, indulging in xenophobia has backfired mightily for Nathan Deal, the state’s Republican governor, who is now desperately trying to get probationers to fill the agricultural labor gap his draconian anti-immigrant bill has created.

The pain this is causing is real. People are going to lose their crops, and in some cases their farms. The small-town businesses that supply those farms with goods and services are going to suffer as well. For economically embattled rural Georgia, this could be a major blow.” And sadly, when it comes to deep, self-inflicted, and totally unnecessary economic wounds wrought by Republican idiocy, the Peach State here is just the canary in the coalmine.

From Sigmund to Kermit.

In the trailer bin of late:

  • Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, a.k.a. Aragorn and Magneto, look to make Keira Knightley right again in this first look at David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, also with Vincent Cassel. Looks a bit more staid and Merchant-Ivory than I would’ve hoped, and it’s still unclear to me whether Knightley can act. Still, Viggo v. Fassbender should be fun.

  • Pizza-boy Jesse Eisenberg runs afoul of would-be bank robbers Danny McBride and Nick Swardson in the first trailer for Ruben Fleischer’s 30 Minutes or Less, also with Michael Pena, Fred Ward, and SCGSSM‘s most esteemed graduate, Aziz Ansari. (Class of ’00, I think — I didn’t know him.) Eh, I wasn’t a big fan of Fleischer’s Zombieland, but maybe.

  • Dennis Quaid don’t brook no dancin’ in his town, least of all from some Boston prettyboy like Kenny Wormald, in this look at the highly vapid-seeming Footloose remake, also with Jennifer Hough of (I’m informed) Dancing with the Stars. Um, no. Also, Kenny Loggins or go home.

  • Jason Statham goes all Chuck Norris (as usual) to rescue Robert DeNiro from the clutches of Clive Owen in this look at Gary McKendry’s Killer Elite. Been a long time since DeNiro was a mark of quality, but Statham tends to be fun, and it seems like Owen’s been laying low lately.

  • After several different parody trailers, Jason Segal and Amy Adams finally play it straight in this trailer for Nick Stoller’s reboot of The Muppets, also with Chris Cooper and a host of cameos. I have a feeling this might be pretty good…but I don’t get that feeling from this trailer. Still, fingers crossed.

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