Saturday, February 28, 2009

MOVIES- Confessions of a Superhero

Let’s say that you’re a young person who wants to be a star. You get out of high school, buy a bus or plane ticket, and head to Hollywood. But you don’t know anybody and you’re surrounded by literally thousands of other young people who have the same dreams and have done the same thing. Perhaps you are attractive, talented, and lucky enough that lightning strikes and you start getting roles. Perhaps you aren’t. Either way, you’ve got to find a way to make a living while things happen. What do you do?

You might find a job as a waiter, or in a McDonalds, or any one of the million other jobs young people do when they are starting out. But that isn’t going to help you. You need to be seen. You want to find some way to act. You want some way to get in front of the public.

Maybe you dress up like Superman, or Batman, or Wonder Woman, or the Hulk and go stand out on the Hollywood walk of fame and have your picture taken with tourists.

CONFESSIONS OF A SUPERHERO is a relatively unknown (OK, I’d never heard of it) documentary about people who dress up like comic book character and hang out on Hollywood Blvd so tourists can take pictures with them for tips. Nobody hires them to do it. They aren’t licensed by the owners of the properties and legally they can’t even ask for money for what they do. They just make a costume and take off. CONFESSIONS shows you a snapshot of the lives of four of these people.

There’s Chris, a Superman who has been doing this for years and may have become a little too obsessed with the role. He does look sort of like Christopher Reeve, if somebody had left him in the oven too long. The film follows him to Metropolis, Illinois for the annual Superman Celebration that’s the little town’s only claim to fame. I don’t want to give too much away, but we get to know a lot about Chris during the movie and some things about him are strangely ambiguous.

Max is a self-professed “George Clooney lookalike” who dresses in a Batman Costume and has anger management issues. Max also has a colorful past, though, like Chris, there are questions about what that past might really be.

Max and Chris are pushing middle age, but Jennifer, who dresses up like Wonder Woman is in her mid-twenties. She came to California from a little town nobody has ever heard of in Tennessee and still has most of her dreams intact. But life is what happens while you make other plans and during the course of the movie she has some life happen.

And Joseph, the most un-Hulklike Hulk you could imagine. His transformation from a slightly built black man to a giant green monster is accomplished with the help of a full head mask and a head-to-toe green muscle suit. Joseph sold his Nintendo to buy the bus ticket that got him to California from the small Southern town he grew up in and landed in town the second day of the Rodney King riots. He’s probably had the hardest time of the four since he hit the coast, but things are looking up.

Sure, these people might be a little odder than most, but if you aren’t you don’t go to the coast and try to be an actor. But, then again, they might not be that different at all. During our 90 minute stay with these folks, director Matthew Ogens shows us one getting married, one divorced, one arrested and one landing a role. My immediate feelings about the strangeness of these people was replaced by understanding and sympathy. The movie is more affecting that I ever thought it would be. I found myself rooting for these strangers who spend their days standing in the California heat dressed up in silly costumes in the hope someone will give them a few dollars to have their picture made with them. And hope to become rich and famous actors someday. Like most superheroes, it’s the people behind the masks that make the story interesting.

The question of whether or not what they do is panhandling comes up a couple of times in the movie, but I don’t see how it could be. They render a service for the money they are given and it’s a far more honest way to make a living than attacking someone’s car at a redlight with a squeegee and a bottle of windex.

Ogen has made a half-dozen documentaries before this one, a couple of them for television, none of them which you’ve probably ever seen either. But perhaps that’s why he seems to have such compassion for these people. Like them, he obviously takes pride in his work and is looking for his big break. The movie is professionally shot and edited and doesn’t suffer from the bad lighting, poor sound, or shaky-cam problems that plague a lot of low budget documentaries. He never lets his direction and camera work get in the way of telling the story of these four people.

CONFESSIONS OF A SUPERHERO is available from Netflix on DVD or through their instant download service and is well worth seeing if you are a fan of superheroes, struggling actors, documentaries, or just getting a glimpse into the lives of four people trying to make a way in the world. It has several surprises and is well worth the time.

Friday, February 27, 2009

MOVIES- The Man with the Initial for a Name

The postman brought me the movie W. from Netflix today. It has to be Oliver Stone’s best film in years. It’s much more a straight biography than I expected. It isn’t a polemic and it isn’t played for laughs. But it isn’t a whitewash either. I’m sure that Bush’s hardcore supporters will find plenty to dislike but as far as being a movie biography it’s an entertaining and engrossing look at one of the most important and divisive presidents in history.

Much of the credit goes to the cast. Josh Brolin is simply spot-on in the lead role. So much so that while looking away from the screen during one of the documentaries included in the supplemental materials I was surprised to look back and find it was actual film of President Bush rather than a scene from the movie that I was hearing. Richard Dreyfuss is the second immediate standout as Cheney. He underplays, as does most of the cast. It’s a good choice. The public personas of most of these people are so cartoonish that had they been played as broadly as they appear on Meet the Press the movie would have quickly devolved into caricature. Dreyfuss is arguably a more believable Cheney than Cheney is. I never got the idea that Dreyfuss was auditioning for the role of the Penguin in the next Batman movie, while I always got that feeling from the actual vice-president. Toby Jones, who is fast becoming one of the finest character actors working today, is somehow sympathetic as Karl Rove. Thandie Newton might brush more closely against that cartoon boundry, but again, the actual Condoleezza Rice is such a cartoon that to do anything less might have rendered the character unrecognizable. As it is, I defy you to recognize her from other things you might have seen her in- INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK, CRASH, or MISSION IMPOSSIBLE II. If you saw JEFFERSON IN PARIS you might recognize her as Sally Hemmings but here she disappears into the role. Scott Glenn as Rumsfeld, Jeffery Wright as Colin Powell, Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush, and Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush, all are simply wonderful. Even the small roles stand out. Ioan Gruffudd, Colin Hanks (son of Tom Hanks), and even Daily Show alumni Rob Corddry never hit a wrong note in their brief time on screen. The only gripe I might have is with the portrayal of President George H. W. Bush by James Cromwell, who normally I find inimitably watchable. It’s not that Cromwell does a bad job as an actor, it’s just that every other person makes it a point to at least attempt to vanish into their well known roles and Cromwell doesn’t seem to even bother to try.

If the movie has an agenda, it only presents in subtle ways. I don’t for a minute think that Stone isn’t aware of these little digs but considering his reputation for bombast I’m still amazed at the restraint. The way Bush eats by stuffing his cheeks full and chewing with his mouth open, or cuts down a tree by sawing the chain saw back and forth (a good way to get your leg cut off), or considers confidence superior to ability. Especially revealing is the portrayal of Barbara Bush. Whitewashed and airbrushed the way the public personas of all the Bush family were, most people still think of mother Bush as being some sort of kindly grandmother. Only if you have done extensive reading do you start to realize what a vindictive, mean, aristocratic old bitch the portly matron actually was. Here you get just a hint but even that is such a rare glimpse into her real character that it is very telling.

All in all, the movie is one of the best of the last year. It keeps you watching, it tells you something you may not know, and it doesn’t stray too far from what seems to be objective (as far as such things go in the public forum) truth. Veracity is paramount if you’re going to make a biographical movie about a sitting president. Everybody knows how these people look and sound. Likewise, being careful not to take liberties with rumor or innuendo is very important. It could easily have been a hatchet job. The movie is anything but that. Instead it seems to give real insight into a man who changed the presidency and the country, who presided in a time of American crisis unknown in recent history.

“Faith frees me. From my past, myself, from the expectorations of others.”

Saturday, February 21, 2009

MOVIES- In Defence of Oscar (reprint)

I’ve never reprinted a column before. But Sunday night is Oscar night and last year I said pretty much everything I had to say about why any movie fan should make it a point to see the show.

From February 24, 2008

Well, it’s Oscar night tonight. And with the annual Oscars comes the annual Oscar criticism. That the ceremony is boring and goes on far too long every year. That it’s a monument to vanity, where the uber-spoiled uber-rich strut and preen for the cameras and each other. That the voting is more about marketing and the Hollywood elite making statements rather than actually awarding excellence in cinema. That often the best in film never win. That it’s all politics anyway.

And all that is probably true. But that’s not why I watch the Oscars every year. I watch the Oscars for one reason and one reason only. The Oscars are the only time you may ever get to see these people be genuine.

Usually when you see an actor (or even a director or writer) they have been primped and polished to perfection. Every hair in place (even when it doesn’t look like it), makeup and clothing and lighting and background all orchestrated to make that person look and sound as good as they possibly can. Even during interviews, everything they say is scripted and rehearsed. Often these are people that you see more than some of the members of your own family, people you feel you know and often even feel that you like. You know about their marriages and divorces, their children, their hobbies, their problems. Our celebrity culture makes sure that even if you have no interest in movies or television, you probably know more about the intricacies or their lives than you do about your neighbors. But in reality you don’t know anything about them. What you know it what you’ve been told and what you’ve been shown.

And that’s why I love the Oscars. It’s the one night a year when you see these people in a real life situation. A situation that is not dissimilar to one you or I might find ourselves in- being at a party to honor excellence in our own profession. And it really means something to them. To be a lasting part of the history of what they love so much. Often the stress of wining an Oscar gives you real insight into the personality of the person on the podium. Whether it’s Sally Field’s insecurity in shouting “you like me, you really like me”; or David Niven’s genuine class and wit when, confronted with a streaker he simply made a joke about the man’s “shortcomings”, or even James Cameron’s hubris at saying he was “the king of the world”. (The last was unfortunately misunderstood as people forgot he was quoting the movie he won for.) Oscar night is a chance to see people who make their living pretending to be someone else be themselves for a change.

It’s also a chance to see just how many people stand behind the folks we all recognize. The ones who do the primping and polishing. The costumers, set designers, writers, artists, composers, and many others who work behind the scenes and make the stars look and sound so good. It’s a night for all the people who work to entertain us to put aside some of the artifice and be who they really are.

And who can resist seeing that?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

MOVIES- Pineapple Express

I was surprised that I liked PINEAPPLE EXPRESS as much as I did. Yes, it’s another Judd Apatow production with Seth Rogen. Yes, it concerns a bunch of twenty-something stoners hanging out. Yes, it has the same sort of Kevin Smith dialog you’ve come to expect. We’ve seen all of that before, several times in the last couple of years actually. But what makes this movie different is that it is the rebirth of an almost lost form of comedy.


I haven’t seen anybody do good slapstick since The Three Stooges. Television has had a couple of series that tried to do it in the 70s- LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY and that last Lucille Ball series where I spent every episode afraid that Lucy and Ethel were going to break a hip- but it wasn’t very funny. But the biggest laughs in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS are the parts where somebody gets stabbed with a fork, or hit in the head with a thrown ashtray, or run over with a car.

The Blu-ray is sharp with strong color. A lot of the scenes are lit with bright sunlight and the night scenes make no pretense at ambient lighting so there’s none of the grain that HD can sometimes have in dark scenes. OTOH, while the movie might not really require the picture quality of HD, the joy of having it is seeing the superb direction and photography of David Gordon Green and his DP, Tim Orr (who in the old tradition is also the cameraman). Like the picture quality of the Blu-ray, the compositions, staging and photography are far better than the movie requires but subtly add to the production.

The other place where the disk revives a lost art form is in the supplemental materials. Many recent disks haven’t had director’s commentaries and, in spite of the extra capacity of BD, supplemental materials have gotten rather scarce. PINEAPPLE EXPRESS has the quantity of supplemental materials that you would expect on a disk of CITIZEN KANE or GONE WITH THE WIND. There are deleted scenes, extended scenes, alternate line readings (with the most bizarre directors prompts you would ever imagine happening on set), a documentary about the stunts, a documentary on the making of the movie, an excerpt from their panel at ComicCon, and a commentary track that includes almost everyone who worked on the movie,

Now, there’s certainly a case to be made that the 734th Judd Apatow comedy made in the last 24 months really doesn’t deserve so much supplemental content, but it would be hard to make a case for anybody that loved the movie enough to buy a copy that less additional stuff on the disk is worse than more.

I put PINEAPPLE EXPRESS near the top of the Apatow heap with FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL and WALK HARD. He and his cohorts have had an astounding string of movies that were both successful at the box office and critically praised. But the success is deserved. As I’ve said before, the state of the art in comedy for the last several years has been either Ben Stiller playing a grown Charlie Brown without the jokes or intelligence of the comic strip, Will Farrell playing a variety of cartoon characters using screaming as his biggest comedic ploy, or Adam Sandler in a recurrent role as a 45 year old mentally challenged child. The FREEKS AND GEEKS alumni don’t have a very high bar to clear, but they continue to do it consistently and by a wide margin.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Happy Presidents Day

To commemorate Presidents Day from our old friend Jonathan Coulton.

(This was written in 2005 so there's no verse about the current resident of the White House.)