Saturday, March 06, 2004

Movieblogging: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Another post from the DVD collection... I just realized that I haven't watched the last installment of the Indiana Jones trilogy since getting the DVDs. So without further ado, here's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), #142 on the IMDB Top 250.

First off the bat, I've got to say something cool about the opening sequence with Indy as a Boy Scout (played by the late River Phoenix). The movie came out in the fall of 89, but in the early summer of that year, I was in Washington D.C. for the National Boy Scout Jamboree. The big event that year was that Steven Spielberg (an Eagle Scout and longtime supporter of the Scouts, until very recently with the anti-gay brouhaha) was conducting a class for the newly created Cinematography merit badge. (Just getting in represented something of a lottery. No, I didn't get in.) During the big campfire on the final evening--and when I say campfire, I mean something akin to an outdoor rock concert, with a stage, screens, and laser light show--Spielberg, in full uniform, showed us all the entire 11-minute opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It was amazing--we were all getting to see it months before it came out in theaters, and it was his own personal nod to Scouting. Spielberg used to make little 16mm movies with his fellow Scouts, many of them cheesy adventures. Here's hoping he inspired a few guys in that crowd.

Again, everyone and their brother has seen this movie a dozen times, and the plot is fairly formulaic, so I'll focus on other things. The DVD transfer, like the other two movies, looks utterly gorgeous. Everything is crisp and clear, the colors are beautiful, and an epic of this nature should only be viewed in widescreen. (Almost everything in my collection is in widescreen, except for the TV shows and a few $5 specials that haven't been released in widescreen yet.) Raiders of the Lost Ark is still the best out of the lot in terms of story and general fun, but I think this one is the best from a perspective of cinematography, score, lighting, casting, etc. The special effects are also quite good, though look a little rough in a few places. This was also a big deal when it came out because, if you saw it in a THX-certified theater like I did, you got to see a 70mm print rather than the usual 35mm print. Typically movies are reduced horizontally and then expanded through special lenses because it's cheaper. Watching a projected film without any condensing or expanding results in a much higher quality picture, not to mention sound--70mm film contains six tracks of surround sound. You can read some of the details from Kodak's website or Wikipedia.

There's a bunch of other great trivia about the movie available via IMDB, but one thing I don't see mentioned is about the scene with the rats. Each movie had its big swarm scene--snakes, bugs, then rats. Unfortunately, a bunch of rats put together make almost no noise, so they took recordings of a chicken coop and sped up the sound 200%.

Friday, March 05, 2004

Movieblogging: Best In Show
OK, this post represents the first step in my quest to blog the rest of my DVD collection. I've done this with several movies thus far, but those have all been recent purchases, and I normally watch a movie within a day or two of buying it. However, having recently completed the directory at DVD Aficionado, I've decided that I should probably blog the rest of my collection. So first up is the first on my shelf, Best In Show (2000).

I loved this movie when it came out on DVD, and was lucky enough to pick up a cheap used copy some months later. I particularly love the fact that it makes fun of dog shows. Now, I'll admit that I occasionally watch them on TV, but only to cheer for the working/sporting/big dogs. I don't give a damn about terriers or toy breeds, but I admire dogs that are bred to work for a living. Sadly, few of the dogs that compete in those categories actually do any real work.

As previously stated, I've got two dogs. More specifically, I've got a beloved mutt and The Roommate has a massive yet occasionally lovable Labrador. Frankly, my ideal dog is in the 50-100 pound range. Always remember: at some point the fella's gonna get sick or have to go under anesthesia, and you want a dog that you can haul around comfortably.

This movie was made by and stars most of the same cast from Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind, the latter of which is in my collection and also the subject of a prior movieblogging. They're a great team, and it's amazing to watch them work together. There's very few instances in TV or movies these days of improvised acting, and it's a skill that when done well, deserves watching.

Oddly, one of my favorite movies from this movie is in the deleted scenes, when Christopher Guest talks about the Turtle Woman from the old freak show at the circus.
Movieblogging: Frida
This afternoon I finally got around to seeing Frida (2002), the outstanding biopic about the life and work of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. To be honest, I've never been in love with her art, though I admired the murals created by her husband, Diego Rivera. However, her life story was fascinating, and certainly makes for a gripping movie. Just for a tiny snippet, she was bisexual, shattered her pelvis and right leg in a traffic accident early in her life, had an affair with Leon Trotsky and was later questioned by police after his murder. I won't say anything else, as it would spoil the movie.

Here are some samples of the works of Kahlo and Rivera.

The movie is beautifully filmed, and there are some incredible animated sequences in which Kahlo's paintings come alive or are used as part of the background. (The old surrealists would be proud!) There are also some great cameo performances by major actors, but I hate to give those away right now. All of them play important yet minor characters, and enrich the film without causing distraction.

Just remember: you don't have to be an art fan to enjoy this movie.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

John Kerry: Conspiracy Nut
The New Republic is an odd duck; they endorsed Joe Lieberman in the primaries, and even had a short-lived blog called "Deanophobe" that sought to tear down Dean. So far I've seen some gentle sniping at Kerry, who's to the left of their editorial position (I think they were warming to Edwards before his departure).

In a posting from Noam Scheiber's TNR blog &c comes a post about Kerry and conspiracies. This sentence near the bottom caught my attention:
(During his 1996 reelection campaign, Kerry even called for an investigation into whether the CIA had introduced drugs into poor black communities.)
...and this excerpt from the closing paragraph was particularly damning:
If Kerry can't focus the critique a little more narrowly, I worry that sooner or later he's going to start sounding like the kind of conspiratorial Vietnam vet who became disillusioned with the U.S. government in the 1970s and just never got over it. Maybe that's who Kerry really is. But I don't think it's who most Americans want as their president.
Going back to the CIA/drugs thing, I was familiar with the rumor, but didn't know that Kerry had fallen for it. (It looks like he has a long history of battling the CIA.) Hearings led by Kerry were held in 1996 about the issue, but nothing substantial came of them. These should not be confused with the Kerry-led hearings from 1986-1987 that produced an 1,100 page report detailing ties between the CIA and drug trafficking.

What really launched the modern interest in the rumor was a series of newspaper articles known as "Dark Alliance", written by Gary Webb for the San Jose Mercury News and later developed into a book after the paper distanced itself from the story and Webb.

Here's a really long article on the subject. I'm not familiar with The World and I, but the article appears to be somewhat sympathetic to the belief in the conspiracy while at the same time pointing out how the investigation fell apart. (I try not to provide unfamiliar sources, but this one looks fairly legitimate.)

Daniel Pipes covers the end of the investigation in some depth:
In addition to reviews by the CIA, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the Los Angeles sheriff that found no evidence to support Webb's conspiracy theory, several investigative articles found his evidence lacking. The Washington Post determined that "available information does not support the conclusion that the CIA-backed contras - or Nicaraguans in general - played a major role in the emergence of crack as a narcotic in widespread use across the United States." The Los Angeles Times stated flatly that "The crack epidemic in Los Angeles followed no blueprint or master plan. It was not orchestrated by the Contras or the CIA or any single drug ring." The New York Times found "scant proof" to support the allegations. These and other debunkings did force the Mercury News to backtrack somewhat; the editor insisted that "Dark Alliance" had only stated that individuals associated with the CIA sold cocaine that ended up on the streets of Los Angeles, not that the CIA approved of the sales. In addition, the CIA insignia disappeared from the World Wide Web site.
There does seem to be some evidence that at various points the CIA has been indirectly involved in drug trafficking overseas, but none of that shows any proof that there was some sort of evil plot to dump it in the inner cities. Hell, we openly protected the Kosovar Albanians in the Balkans recently, and they're responsible for most of the heroin traffic going into Europe from Central Asia. But obviously the papers listed above have no interest in protecting the CIA or the government; none of their investigations turned up any evidence to support "Dark Alliance", yet we now have a presidential candidate who gave it credence out of his hatred for the agency. Hmmm...

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Guidance for Godly Blogging
This isn't a joke, and it's not written by fundamentalists either. A concise article on the ways to blog in a Godly fashion. I'm probably most guilty of the listed sin of criticizing others, but what else does the internet exist for today than to anonymously vent against people that will never hear you?

I do try to avoid ad hominem attacks as well as other obvious fallacies, but I'm certainly not perfect in this regard. Do I want to "crush my enemies, to see them driven before me, to hear the lamentations of their women"? Yes, but I don't think I've singled out any one person or group of people on this blog. I think that argument--sometimes for its own sake--is a useful exercise in critical thinking as well as helping to develop a better understanding of logic. In this regard I suppose I side more with the Talmudic scholars than the New Testament folks.

It's still a great article, though, and definitely worth reading. Particularly for teenagers--it's a good thing that this thing called blog wasn't really around back then. I was threatened with psychiatric evaluation on several occasions; a digital paper trail of my thoughts at the time probably would have landed me in solitary confinement for a few years. I love this final paragraph:
Blogging also has effect on our friendships. For many young reformed folks who go to small churches where there is not a lot of peer fellowship, blogging provides virtual community. They can float their ideas into the void, and have folks anywhere chime in and comment. Naturally, friendships develop. If left strictly as internet friendships, they take on a Gnostic air, with no touch, smell, sight, or sound?just words prancing across the screen. Obviously this will never replace laughter over pizza and Guinness.
Where's this guy's church? Pizza and Guinness? I'll stay awake through the sermon for that!
Narnia Movie
It looks like Disney is about to begin shooting a movie adaptation of C.S. Lewis' best-known work, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first book of the Chronicles of Narnia series. Actually Disney's just the distributor; Walden Media is the production company. That gives me a bit more hope.

I hope it's better than the horrid BBC productions from the 70s, and while I haven't seen the supposedly better adaptations they made in the late 80s, I just don't know how well the story translates to the screen, particularly for a kids' movie. Now, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader would be incredible, as it would allow lots of action and adventure amid multiple fantastic landscapes, but that one can't be fully appreciated without a knowledge of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, the two books preceding it. (Damn those who have shoved The Magician's Nephew to the front of the series! It is a prequel, but the first novel really needs to be read first. The Magician's Nephew, while a decent book, isn't the strongest of the series, and isn't going to be as good of a hook to keep kids going through the next six books, particularly after they've gotten used to the quick pace and rapid events of the Harry Potter books.)

I reckon that CGI is good enough at this point for halfway decent talking animals and the other fantastic creatures like the satyrs... Of course, the other big question on everyone's mind is whether or not the religious allegory is going to be whitewashed out. I don't know if it's a big enough controversy to get Christians out in force; those who usually get worked up about such things aren't really fond of letting their kids see fantasy movies, regardless of the origin. You're probably more likely to hear bellows from old Englishmen, sci-fi/fantasy geeks irritated about the changes more than the religion, and howls of protest from the half dozen people in America that actively participate in the Christian RPG scene. History has shown us that Hollywood doesn't give a damn about any of those groups.

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Movieblogging: Kangaroo Jack
Next on our special Oscar night lineup, we've got Kangaroo Jack (2003). I suppose this fits in well with the previous movie. This is one of those movies that I was mildly curious about, but I felt I had too much self-respect to see it in the theater or even rent it.

This one is pretty well known from the endless hype leading up to it, but I don't know anyone who actually saw it. Mainly I'm watching it because some part of me desperately wants Jerry O'Connell to get acting jobs, and the rest of me is willing to watch just about anything with Christopher Walken in it. Estella Warren and Dyan Cannon represent decent eye-candy, though of vastly different generations. (Dyan Cannon was born in 1937? Sweet God...)

Anthony Anderson's a halfway decent comic actor, but he's not exactly a household name yet. I was glad to see a small role played by Bill Hunter. He's perhaps best known to American audiences as the father from Muriel's Wedding and the kindly truck driver from The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, though a generation of children will unconsciously know him as the voice of the dentist in Finding Nemo.

The CGI on the kangaroo is OK, but in several places it reminds me a lot of the god-awful CGI version of Scooby-Doo in the recent live action adaptation.
Movieblogging: Going Ape!
In honor of tonight's Academy Awards presentation, I'm watching some high-quality examples of the filmmaker's art. First up is Going Ape! (1981). How can you resist a Tony Danza/Danny DeVito vehicle that features three orangutans? I don't understand how so many ape movies got made in the 70s and 80s, but apparently they were pretty popular with audiences.

Orangutans are interesting primates. Pongo pygmaeus is perhaps the least understood and most endangered of the great apes, the group that includes chimpanzees, gorillas, gibbons, and siamangs. People that keep primates as pets are pretty misguided, and most aren't willing to repeat the experience. Almost anytime you see a primate (particularly an ape) on TV, in the circus, or in any sort of performance role, it's going to be a juvenile female. After puberty, they get big, ugly, and mean. Chimpanzees faces turn black as they reach maturity, and you'll never see them on a greeting card. Read into that what you will. Male orangutans grow enormous cheek flaps and dewlaps that give their face a really bizarre and non-cute appearance.

(Note on spelling: The word orangutan is taken from a loose translation of the Malay "wild man of the forest". It's spelled and pronounced several ways, including orangoutang. It's also hyphenated sometimes, broken into two separate words, or simply shortened to orang. Unfortunately, the creature was named during a period of conflicting ideas about transliterating non-Western languages into the Roman alphabet. I've seen stuff you wouldn't believe--an early spelling of chimpanzee was a Scrabble player's dream come true: qimpanzi. I last saw it in a natural history book written in the early 19th century. The general consensus among the anthropology/biology crowd seems to rest with orangutan for the red ape, so that's what I tend to use.)

Everyone knows Jane Goodall and her work with chimps, a lot of people know about Dian Fossey and her work with gorillas, but few people have ever heard of the third female researcher recruited by the great anthropologist Louis Leakey, Birute Galdikas, who studied orangutans in Borneo. Like the solitary, mysterious apes she studies, Galdikas has avoided the publicity and pop-science fame of the others.

Back to the movie, it's everything you'd expect from the era. This falls into that example that a bad 70s movie could be made in the first few years of the 80s. The costumes, haircuts, music, and writing are all solidly 70s. Even the low-grade, grainy film seems to put it in an earlier decade. Danza's performance is a standard Danza performance: the same good natured New Yorker goofball schtick has served him well over the decades. DeVito is actually the only thing in this movie worth watching--he plays a swarthy Hungarian who serves as a sort of sidekick to Danza and helps take care of the orangutans. In his posture and appearance, he fits in pretty well with the apes. (He looks sort of like he did in the Norm McDonald flop Screwed.) There's not really anyone else recognizable in the movie, except for Jessica Walter, who played the uptight, bitchy dean in PCU.

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