Monday, July 9, 2012

An Imagined Conversation Among the Cast of American Reunion

Man, the American Pie franchise was one of the biggest hit series of the '90s and '00s. Why didn't our careers take off like they were supposed to?

Well, I'm a total hot mess who's famous for getting the worst tummy tuck of all time.

I made a bunch of public comments revealing that I'm kind of a sexist meathead.

I married my agent, who was, like, 30 years older than me, and I think that might have creeped everyone out. But hang on, I divorced him! Hire me?

Hey, speak for yourselves. I had a recurring cameo in the Harold & Kumar movies, along with the guy from Numb3rs! Top that, Biggs!

Who am I? Was I in these movies? Even I don't remember me.

Ha! I don't care about my career because I'm actually like this in real life! Dude, I'm so wasted!!!

Man, you're all losers. I was in a Woody Allen movie, for chrissake. You know, the one with Christina Ricci???

Um, actually, so was I. The one with Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman. So, yeah.

OK, fine. I guess none of our careers really went anywhere after American Pie.



Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Favorite Movie Music: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

No, it wasn't a very good movie. I'm not even going to try to pretend that it was. It sucked, in fact. Why? Why was 1991's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves such a quiverful of suck? Well, there were a couple of reasons. Kevin Costner's haircut, for one. Funny, I had not been aware they had conditioner and blow-dryers in 11th century England. Costner looks like he should be carrying a surfboard, not a longbow. I mean, seriously. I'm glad we live in an era now when actors in Medieval period films actually have greasy, unwashed hair.

Another reason: Kevin Costner's accent. Please, Hollywood, stop making Americans do that silly, generic, poncy English voice when they're playing British parts. Even the otherwise awesome Peter Dinklage is at times guilty of this in Game of Thrones. The thing about British accents is, they're very specific. Very, very specific, to both the region you're from and the socioeconomic class you were born into. Clipping your vowels and vaguely lilting your voice just doesn't cut it. Give these actors a few weeks of voice coaching, please.

Other crappy things about the movie? It has the great Alan Rickman, camping it up as the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham, and somehow manages to make him neither scary nor funny. This is the first and only movie to accomplish this. Oh yeah, and then there's the character of Marian, played (as gamely as possible, to her credit) by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. The first time Robin Hood encounters her, Marian is dressed as an assassin, for some unexplained reason, and nearly kicks his ass in a brutal bout of hand-to-hand combat, before pulling her hood off, a moment when we're all supposed to go, "Oh wow, it's a woman!!!" But here's the thing: From that point forward, she never displays this apparent mastery of fighting skill again, and nobody ever comments on it. She's just a normal damsel-in-distress type. And how, exactly, did a highborn woman receive such advanced combat training that she's able to beat a hardened veteran soldier from the Crusades to a standstill? It's never explained. They just threw that scene in because they figured it would be awesome. Yeah, awesomely LAME.

All right, enough ranting. It's a terrible movie, if you haven't seen it you're lucky, don't bother, and yeah, OK, Morgan Freeman was pretty good in it — as was Michael Wincott as Nottingham's evil henchman Guy of Gisbourne, who unlike Alan Rickman actually is terrifyingly creepy in this film. My real point, though, is: The theme song is awesome. Really great. (And no, I'm not talking about the cheesy Bryan Adams love song that became a top 40 hit that year.) The score was composed by Michael Kamen, who has a long list of movie music to his credit, and really, he got this one right: It's just everything you want in a theme song for a movie about Robin Hood. Like much of John Williams' work, the music seems to have been written for a better film than it actually got. I'd like to make the picture that deserves this theme song. You get the idea.

Even if you've never seen Prince of Thieves, you may be familiar with the overture: It has been resurrected lately as background music for those "I love movies, in general!" montages that often play at the beginnings of rental DVDs these days: You know, the ones that you can't skip through, that show clips from Casablanca juxtaposed with Lethal Weapon III for no apparent reason.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Edward Gorey Book Covers

I've loved Edward Gorey's cartoons ever since I was a kid, when I used to freak myself out reading my older sisters' copies of his collections Amphigorey and Amphigorey Too. There's some pretty crazy stuff in those books, including a few stories that are probably totally inappropriate for children (poor Millicent Frastley!) but I loved them anyway, and I have no doubt they contributed to my somewhat skewed world view.

But in addition to his own works, Gorey also had a pretty solid career as an illustrator of other people's stuff, including a number of book covers he did for paperback versions of classic novels, mostly for Knopf's Vintage Books line. (My lament for the death of the pocket-sized paperback book is a topic for another post.) Over the years I've managed to score a couple of these gems while rummaging through the shelves at used bookstores — they still have those, right? — and here are a few of my favorites.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Problem of Susan

Don't talk to me about Catnip Evergreen, or whatever. For all my ass-kicking chick-with-bow needs, I'll turn to awesomely named British actress Anna Popplewell as Susan Pevensie in the Chronicles of Narnia films.

Of course, this raises the topic (a sensitive one to all Narnia fans) of the "Problem of Susan," as it's called in a great short story of that title by Neil Gaiman. Alone of all the characters from the books, Susan, as Narnia readers are aware, is left out of the final ascension into Aslan's Country (read: heaven) at the end of The Last Battle, the seventh and final book in the Chronicles. Author C.S. Lewis casts Susan out of the ranks of the saved apparently because, as a young adult, she has become interested in "nylons and lipstick and invitations" -- in other words, because she has grown up.

This has always struck many modern readers of the Chronicles as a little harsh and possibly a bit sexist, and Gaiman's 2004 short story serves as a very thinly disguised critique of Lewis' moralizing toward his own character. In the story, we see how Susan, now middle-aged and (in an amusing touch) a professor of children's literature, has dealt with being the only survivor of the train crash (mentioned in Last Battle) that killed her siblings, as well as her regrets over turning her back on the land of Narnia. The story is collected in an anthology called Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy, Vol. 2, if you're interested.

Great Moments in Caveman Cinema

What I learned from the film Quest for Fire (1981):

1. Most of what passes for conversation could probably be done with three or four expressive grunts and some hand gestures, with no real loss of meaning.

2. It's bad form to laugh at your friends just because you're dating a girl from a more advanced tribe and they're not.

3. One lousy bald guy 80,000 years ago means lots of male-pattern baldness today.

4. Keep your friends close and your cow skull filled with smoldering embers even closer.

5. Missionary position is, apparently, counterintuitive.

6. If you come upon an adorable cave-bear cub, run.

7. Give a man a fire and he'll be warm until the next attack by Homo erectus. Teach a man to make a fire, and he'll probably burn himself.

8. Rocks falling on someone's head has always been funny.

(Pictured: Rae Dawn Chong as Ika in Quest for Fire)

Favorite Movie Music: Star Trek: First Contact

My favorite of the many, many permutations of the Star Trek theme used in the film adaptations has to be the theme from Star Trek: First Contact (1996), composed by Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith is a prolific composer who among other things also did the themes for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), which would later be adapted by Dennis McCarthy for Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987. Goldsmith is also responsible for the sad and haunting Star Trek: Voyager theme, another of my favorites.

The First Contact theme song is a beauty. It is stirring, optimistic, and yet a little bit wistful, as befitting a film that was among the last outings of the popular Next Generation cast, and which concerned the human race at a pivotal point in its history: In the film, set largely in the last decades of our current century, humanity has been devastated by a large-scale nuclear war, the population has been reduced to a few survivalist communities hanging on in fringe areas like the northwest woods of the former United States, and it seems as though the entire human race is on the verge of extinction. Despite this, one dedicated scientist, Zefram Cochrane, has been working on a method to break the light-speed barrier, an act of sheer, stubborn boldness that will eventually bring humanity into contact with the many other alien races in the galaxy and ultimately provide our salvation. Into the middle of this come the terrible Borg, who, facing defeat in a battle with Starfleet two centuries later, have sent a probe back in time to "assimilate" 21st-century earth while its defenses are down, and thus nip the Federation in the bud.

Though the Next Generation cast would go on to do two more films (Insurrection in 1998 and Nemesis in 2002) before finally hanging up their uniforms, these were respectable but ultimately minor contributions to the fading Trek canon (which of course got a big boost in 2009 with the release of J.J. Abrams' hit $150-million reboot of the original series). So I prefer to think of First Contact as the final voyage of the Next Generation crew. It's got all the elements of the best of Trek: A solid story (including a return to a past earth, similar to another high point in the film series, 1986's Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home), some good comedic moments, scary villains, interesting character development (especially for perennial audience favorite Commander Data), and some great guest actors, including Alice Krige as the supercreepy Borg Queen, James Cromwell as drunken warp-speed pioneer Zefram Cochrane, and Alfre Woodard as Cochrane's ass-kicking assistant Lily Sloane, not to mention cameos by favorite recurring characters like Lieutenant Barclay (Dwight Schultz) and the holographic Doctor (Robert Picardo) from the Voyager TV series. The film was directed by Jonathan Frakes (Commander Riker himself), who is arguably a better director than actor, and who directed several of the later seasons' best episodes. And of course, it has what will always be a tearjerker moment for me, the titular "first contact" between humans and Vulcans. All in all, maybe the best of the entire Star Trek film run.

Favorite Movie Music: "Princess Leia's Theme"

One of the best things about fantasy and science-fiction films is the awesome soundtracks that go with them. (In fact, too often the soundtrack is the only good thing about certain fantasy and sci-fi films.) As both a fantasy/sci-fi fan and a music fan, movie soundtracks have always represented a geek sweet spot for me. I'm not ashamed to admit that I carry around a playlist of my favorite movie music on my iPod, and listen to it frequently. So during the next few weeks I'm going to be posting about some of the best moments from movie soundtracks over the years.

And of course, the undisputed king of movie soundtracks is John Williams. Even 35 years later, I can remember, as clearly as if it was last week, being a 9-year-old boy sitting in a darkened theater in 1977, shoving a sticky fistful of buttered popcorn into my face, and being almost blown out of my seat by the first, stirring chord of the Star Wars opening theme. (Still, in my opinion, the greatest movie theme song of all time.) How much of the unprecedented crossover success of that film was due to the amazing music? It's impossible to say, but it's equally impossible to imagine Star Wars with any other sound.

One of the reasons John Williams rises above the average film-score composer is his classical approach. Even at their best, most film composers are doing no more than a glorified version of what those olde-tyme pianists used to do in the silent-film moviehouses: Watch what's happening onscreen and come up with some incidental music to go along with it. If it's a love scene, play some sweet, romantic music. If it's a fight, play something with lots of staccato punches. If it's scary, play something tense and suspenseful. And that's it; no greater vision is involved.

Williams, on the other hand, is a real composer, who arranges his soundtracks according to the rules of symphonic structure. His music is meant to tell a story on its own, without needing any reference to what's happening onscreen — which might be why it holds up to repeated listening, for example on a geeky iPod playlist. To a classical music fan, his influences are clear: Beethoven, Mahler, and Holst, in particular. That opening chord of Star Wars is in many ways the spiritual descendant of the one-two punch that opens Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony: For the listener, it's a slap across the face from an entire orchestra that makes you shut up, stop what you're doing, and pay attention.

Every one of Williams' soundtracks, though, also includes moments of tenderness. Everyone knows the main theme from Star Wars, but check out the less well-known "Princess Leia's Theme." It's a perfectly composed romantic melody. Note how Williams introduces a simple, plaintive theme with a single, masculine trumpet (perhaps representing lonely Luke Skywalker, stuck on his farm on Tatooine), then echoes it with a solo, feminine flute, for the Princess. After this intertwining of the two instruments, the theme is taken up by the string section, who give it some added, yearning romance, and finally by the entire orchestra, who turn it into a stirring and tragic love song.

Unfortunately, the love story that Williams was writing for doesn't actually exist in the movie Star Wars (because George Lucas shied away from it, but that's a topic for another blog post). So you can consider "Princess Leia's Theme" as music for the greatest space-opera love story that never was.