Friday, February 27, 2015

A brief, biological memory

The powerhouse of the cell.

The nearest thing I ever had to a spiritual experience was in high school. I was 14 years old and a reluctant student in a freshman biology course. This particular teacher and I did not exactly get along famously, and I found the subject matter -- i.e. the very mysteries of life itself -- just as deathly dull as anything I'd ever heard. Maybe those two facts are connected somehow. I know the class involved a lot of sitting still and taking notes. Anyway, I would get so bored in class that my soul or spirit would rise up out of my body and float toward the ceiling. I could look down and see myself sitting in class, taking (likely inaccurate, definitely illegible) notes about mitochondria or whatever it was we were supposed to be learning that day. The body stayed in class; the spirit was free to travel. I've never had that experience since then. It was the closest I ever came to believing in the existence of the soul. As for mitochondria, well, I never did figure those out. I know they're "the powerhouse of the cell," but that's as far as my understanding extends.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Joe's annual slog through the Best Picture nominees: Part Two

Conceptual artist Plastic Jesus takes a swipe at the Oscars with this public statue.

Dead 2 Rights will be going dark and staying dark for a while, my lovelies. Not by my choice. Circumstances have forced my hand. Specifically, I'm going to be doing some mandatory overtime at my job, and the Geek Squad have informed me that -- after five weeks of deliberation and analysis -- my laptop is irreparable. I learned both of these unhappy pieces of information on Friday afternoon. (Not a good day, in case you were wondering.) These are gloomy times, dear reader, gloomy times indeed. As the Walker Brothers put it back in '65, "The sun ain't gonna shine anymore. The moon ain't gonna rise in the sky." The days ahead are filled with long, tedious hours of work and very little time or opportunity for creative expression. Getting up earlier. Getting home later. Seeing very little (or no) daylight. I am currently very tired and very discouraged. But you know what? I'm only halfway through my rundown of the 2015 Best Picture nominees, and I figured I might as well finish the job before this blog goes on hiatus.

B o y h o o d

Ellar Coltrane gets older. This movie stays the same age.

Director: Richard Linklater

Cast includes: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, Marco Perella

The gist of it: Quiet, introspective Mason, Jr. (Coltrane) and his more outgoing sister (Linklater) grow up with a stressed-out but caring single mother (Arquette) over the course of 12 somewhat bumpy years in Texas. Mason's father (Hawke), an aspiring musician, initially struggles with being a responsible adult but does what he can to be a consistent presence in his children's life and eventually matures and mellows over time. Meanwhile, Mason's mother gets an education of her own and becomes a professor but makes some poor romantic choices and goes through two painful divorces from alcoholic men. Mason and his sister witness all of this, and it shapes who they become as they leave home and go off to college.

My take: First, an aside. I have joked, on more than one occasion, that the Harry Potter movies already did what Boyhood did, only with the addition of magic powers. At the time I first said that, I hadn't actually seen Boyhood. Well, now I know that same thought must have occurred to writer-director Richard Linklater, too, because there's a strong Harry Potter motif running through Boyhood, with at least two major scenes built around the J.K. Rowling franchise. Linklater's film is, of course, one of the most talked-about of the eight nominated movies and a perceived front-runner in the category. Much of the discussion has centered around the film's extraordinarily protracted production. (Linklater filmed the movie in pieces over twelve years so that star Ellar Coltrane would age naturally on camera.) Support for the film has been vocal, and this has triggered the usual, predictable backlash. I tried to ignore all of this and appreciate Boyhood on its own terms, which turned out to be a good strategy. This is a remarkably gentle film. Anyone waiting for a Big Plot Twist (death, car accident, courtroom trial, disease, unexpected pregnancy, etc.) is bound to be disappointed, as will anyone waiting for a Big Profound Message. Boyhood had neither, which very much separates it from most Oscar-nominated films. I, for one, was grateful. Linklater, who based Boyhood somewhat on his own experiences as a youth, does not try to force any plot complications or easy homilies onto these characters. He just observes them and lets us observe them. That was enough for me. It might not be for you.

My grade: A-

T h e   T h e o r y   o f   E v e r y t h i n g

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones share a tender moment in The Theory of Everything

Director: James Marsh

Cast includes: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Harry Lloyd, Alice Orr-Ewing, David Thewlis

The gist of it: A biopic of British physicist Stephen Hawking, following him from his days at Cambridge in the 1960s to the successful publication of his book, A Brief History of Time, in the 1980s. Just as he's starting to make some potentially game-changing discoveries about the nature of black holes and the origin of time, Hawking's body turns traitor on him. A neuromuscular disorder gradually and painfully robs him of the ability to move and speak, leaving him confined to a motorized wheelchair and reliant upon a robotic-sounding, computer-generated voice. Initially given just two years to live, Hawking manages to survive for decades, eventually being recognized as perhaps the most famous and influential thinker of our time. Helping to make all of this possible is his strong-willed, long-suffering wife Jane (Jones), a brilliant woman in her own right who makes incredible sacrifices in order to care for her ailing husband. Part of what motivates Jane is that she truly believes in Stephen's work, though they often clash over religion and the existence or nonexistence of God.

My take: Arguably more famous than anything Stephen Hawking has ever said, done, or written is the image of the man himself: the fragile, motionless frame crumpled up in a motorized wheelchair, feet turned inward, shoulders askew, head lolled to the side, with a tinny, mechanized voice squawking from a speaker next to him. It's a classic tragic image: an extremely active mind held captive in a dungeon of a body. I think, despite our admiration for his accomplishments, we can't help but feel a bit sorry for him, though I doubt he'd want our pity. It's human nature. The Theory of Everything plays a bit like a superhero origin story. Gradually, over the course of its running time, we see Stephen Hawking become the "Stephen Hawking" that we all know from documentaries, acquiring all the trademark accessories one by one. We get to see him as a young man and think, "Oh, he used to be able to ride a bicycle! How sad!" This is a sentimental, heartstring-tugging biopic which, curiously, is not that much interested in science. Sure, we get some moments when Hawking makes breakthroughs, but the movie is much more about his relationship with wife Jane, and how it is affected by various outsiders (a male choir director, a female caregiver). It's almost soapy. None of this really registered with me, but I'm not sure why. It felt like a movie I would have recommended to my mother or grandmother, if either of them were still alive.

My grade: C+

T h e   I m i t a t i o n   G a m e

Benedict Cumberbatch's best friend is a machine in The Imitation Game.

Director: Morton Tyldum

Cast includes: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance

The gist of it: During World War II, brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) -- a computer pioneer later famed for his "Turing test" -- works on a top-secret British military project to decode the Nazis' seemingly-unbreakable Enigma machine, which scrambles messages to outsiders to the point that they are impenetrable. Turing pins his hopes on a self-built machine he dubs "Christopher." Although he and his team, including proto-feminist Joan Clarke (Knightley), do eventually get Christopher to work and defeat Enigma, they realize that their newfound knowledge has to be doled out subtly and discreetly, so as to avoid tipping the Nazis off. Turing's codebreaking skills secure several important Allied victories and shortens the war by years, but the public is never made aware of his great achievements. After the war, in fact, Turing faces legal troubles for his then-illegal homosexuality.

My take: It seems like it would hardly be a Best Picture Showcase if there weren't at least one movie about the plight of African-Americans (slavery and the civil rights movement) and another movie about World War II. Selma, of course, was this year's example of the former category, a slot which has been filled by 12 Years a Slave, Lincoln, and The Help in years past. And it looks like The Imitation Game is this year's designated WW2 flick. This one is sort of a "twofer," since Alan Turing's postwar legal persecution also allows the filmmakers to work in a lesson about the evils of homophobia. Mainly, this movie suggests that perhaps that the war could have been over much sooner if everyone in England weren't such an insufferable prig. The movie presents Turing as a martyr figure who faces prejudice, doubt, and pigheadedness at every stage of his life and career. He has to shield "Christopher" with his body on multiple occasions. I guess the best thing about The Imitation Game is that it gives us a new perspective on the question: how do you win a war? The movie occasionally cuts away to footage of planes and tanks and soldiers, to remind you what's happening in the rest of England while Turing is fussing over his machine. But, as this movie sees it, the war wasn't won on any battlefields. It was won by a bunch of nerds doing calculations in a little hut. That's kind of inspiring, but I'm afraid it doesn't make for the most scintillating cinematic experience, at least not for me. Of course, due to some questionable programming, I had just sat through another movie about British people working out complicated problems on chalkboards. Some "biopic fatigue" had started to set in while I watched this. Still, I don't see myself returning to The Imitation Game later in life.

My grade: B-

A m e r i c a n   S n i p e r

Bradley Cooper aims to kill for his country in American Sniper.

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast includes: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller,

The gist of it: Rodeo cowboy Chris Kyle (Cooper), though approaching 30 years of age, feels obligated to join the Navy SEALS in order to combat terrorism and put his fearsome sharpshooting skills to use in defense of his nation. Once in Iraq, he becomes a sniper and quickly earns the nickname "the Legend" for his long list of confirmed kills. His wife, Taya (Miller), suffers greatly as Kyle serves four harrowing tours overseas. She has to raise the couple's two children virtually alone as he risks his life in combat and sees his buddies die around him. Though he denies it, the experience changes him greatly. When he comes back home between tours, he seems to be in a daze. His blood pressure is off the charts, and he experiences bouts of paranoia. After finally coming home for good, Kyle volunteers to help other wounded and mentally-disturbed veterans, partially to help them and partially to cope with his own PTSD and survivor's guilt. This endeavor, unfortunately, has tragic consequences.

My take: I only listed two cast members up there because, frankly, Cooper and Miller are the only two people who made a strong impression on me during American Sniper. There are various supporting characters, mainly military men who exist solely to get killed and provide further angst for the hero, but I had some trouble telling them apart. This is, at heart, the story of a man who struggles with his circumscribed role as a passionless killing machine and the wife who struggles to understand the man she married. This film serves as a blunt rebuttal to The Imitation Game.  How do you win a war? By shooting as many "savages" (the film's term) as you possibly can. American Sniper begins and ends as hero-making propaganda. The opening passages, regarding Kyle's upbringing and eventual entrance into the Navy SEALS, are almost painfully earnest and on-the-nose. The film's closing moments, too, are unambiguously sentimental. If you saw only the beginning and end of this film, you might mistake American Sniper for an updated version of a World War II propaganda picture. But there's a middle section full of protracted, bloody, bullet-ridden violence which may make the viewer question the nature of war and the effects it has on the men who fight. What happens to a man, for instance, when he has to kill a child in the line of duty? Unfortunately, American Sniper ultimately forgets any kind of ambiguity in its closing passages in favor of patriotic boosterism, thus (in my mind) negating much of what it had just accomplished. A shame, since Bradley Cooper labors mightily to make Chris Kyle a fascinating and multi-dimensional character.

My grade: C+

What Will Win: Boyhood
What I Want To Win: Birdman

Friday, February 20, 2015

17 Astonishing and Obscure Facts to Amuse Your Friends and Dazzle Your Enemies

Garfield stands on his hind legs... like a man!

Trivia. Whether you're appearing on a quiz show or just trying to make sparkling conversation at a dinner party, there's nothing like it. And yet, there never seems to be enough trivia around when you need it. Fortunately, Dead 2 Rights is here to help. Below, you will find 17 trivial statements which you are welcome to use in any social or professional situation. Enjoy!

  • If you could drive your car straight upwards, you probably wouldn't want to.
  • George Washington was never President of the United States. The rumor that he held this nation's highest office dogged him to the end of his days.
  • Strictly speaking, berries are not berries, but cabbages are.
  • There is no "i' in "March."
  • If the sun were hollow, we'd all be in a great deal of trouble.
  • Contrary to that old wives' tale, cats do in fact feel pain.
  • "Hullabaloo" isn't Latin for anything in particular.
  • That country between Spain and Germany? Surprise! It's France!
  • The melting point of iron is a mystery which science has yet to solve.
  • The earliest library card dates back to the time of Christ. The first book checked out was Garfield At Large by Jim Davis.
  • Napoleon's last word was "bonkers."
  • Without adjusting for inflation, items today cost much more than they did a hundred years ago.
  • Former astronaut Neil Armstrong sadly wound up a derelict.
  • Saying "celery soup" into a mirror three times is entirely safe and will have no unfortunate consequences. Try it yourself and see!
  • Though famous for his plays, William Shakespeare would rather be remembered for his astonishing sexual prowess.
  • Experts agree that the funniest word in the English language is "belch."
  • Even the strongest ant is no match for a full-grown man.

Feel free to add your own in the comments section. Feel just as free not to add your own in the comments section.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 56: 'Howl of the Werewolf' (1973)

A werewolf looms over a Daisy Duke-wearing maiden in this vintage artwork for "Howl of the Werewolf."

"And above all, never forget that the pen is mightier than the plow-share. By this I mean that writing, all in all, is a hell of a lot more fun than farming. For one thing, writers seldom, if ever, have to get up at five o'clock in the morning and shovel manure. As far as I'm concerned, that gives them the edge right there."
-Michael O'Donoghue, "How to Write Good"
Hunter S. Thompson
A commonly-repeated anecdote about the late gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson is that, while working for Time magazine in the 1950s, he used to retype pages from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) verbatim, just so he would know what it felt like to write a great novel. While I have never gone to quite such lengths, I have wondered what it would be like to inhabit Ed Wood's skin -- or at least his apartment -- for an afternoon or so. What must it been like, for instance, in those desperate, whiskey-drenched days of the early 1970s when Eddie would drag himself back to his trusty typewriter in order to bang out yet another short story for one of Bernie Bloom's pornographic magazines? I'd like to think that, despite his ever-worsening circumstances, Ed was able to will himself into an inspired artistic trance when he wrote these stories. The muse inhabited his ruined body and guided his ten furiously-typing fingers. Though he needed quick cash to keep his landlady at bay and settle his tab at Pla-Boy Liquor, conveniently located just down the street from his profoundly-sketchy flat at the corner of Yucca and Cahuenga, Ed Wood was never wholly a mercenary. It just wasn't in his DNA. Whatever you may think of him, Eddie was an artist. Even when he was writing pornography, he made it his own. That's why I've kept such careful records of the themes and motifs which dominate his work. Eddie may have assayed a half-dozen different genres in his novels and stories, but the only writer he could really imitate was himself, just like Hunter S. Thompson ended up developing his own unique writing style, even though he apprenticed for his trade by literally imitating F. Scott Fitzgerald. Everything Hunter wrote came out sounding like Hunter, not Fitzgerald, and everything Ed Wood wrote came out sounding like Ed Wood. 

How much for the sweater?
I do not and cannot write like Eddie did. That's neither a boast nor an admission of failure, just a fact. I've spent many hours with Ed Wood's work over the last couple of years, but I can't really channel the man. Lots of people have tried -- look at the tribute films I've covered in this series -- but Eddie has proven stubbornly inimitable. If you'll remember, one week of this project was actually given over to an original short story, written by me and inspired by Plan 9 from Outer Space, but there's nothing particularly Wood-ian about it in terms of structure or vocabulary. For better or worse, that story is me, not Ed. But that doesn't mean I've given up trying to invoke or evoke the spirit of Edward Davis Wood, Jr. This will sound ridiculous, but I have actually gone so far as to price angora sweaters, just so I can wrap one around me when I write. Similarly, I don't drink, but I've considered taking up the habit, just so I can feel closer to Eddie whenever I need to. I mean, alcoholism was one of the central facts of his life. It affected so much of what he wrote, including this week's story. How can I possibly hope to understand that "glow" Eddie claimed to get from booze, unless I sample a little of it myself now and again?

For the time being, I am not going to become a drunk or an angora fetishist in the name of research. Instead, what I have done this week is to faithfully transcribe a complete short story from the early 1970s by Edward D. Wood, Jr., right down to the idiosyncrasies in punctuation and grammar. When Eddie conjugates the past tense of "sink" as both "sank" and "sunk," for instance, I have let it stand. In actuality, typing up this story did fleetingly make me feel a little like the man whose life and career I've been faithfully overanalyzing the last few months. I liked the feel of these words emerging from my fingertips. Ed wrote with a lot of verve and energy, and I felt a little of that vicariously. This is an erotic werewolf story -- and, yeah, I know how that sounds -- from the same era of Eddie's career as the short stories in Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr., the anthology which I reviewed at length and in detail late last year. "Howl" was not one of the stories in that invaluable omnibus, but it would have been right at home there. Many of the classic Wood-ian motifs are present in this tale. Sex and death are intertwined in the most literal way possible. (You'll soon find out what I mean.) Mention is made of full moons, graves, snakes, dildos, and negligees. Breasts are again fetishized. The animal instinct lurking within man is once more given free reign. Yet another one of Wood's frustrated career gals -- in this case, a restless secretary -- seeks solace in nature, only to learn too late that salvation is impossible in this fallen world. And, naturally, our heroine's drinking habits are much-discussed. (Wood's potent potable of choice, whiskey, is a key prop in this story.) As for a deeper meaning, I'm stumped. Is this a puritanical story about a female libertine paying for her "sinful" lifestyle? Is it a cautionary tale for young women, warning them to be on the lookout for predatory males? Or is it perhaps a quasi-feminist work, presenting a sympathetic female character who just wants to be taken seriously without sacrificing her own pleasure? Maybe it's all of the above. Read on and decide for yourself.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Good night, Lesley

It was her party. Lesley Gore (1946-2015)

"Can you relate to Lesley Gore's music?"
-dialogue from John Waters' Hairspray (1988)

I feel I should say something about Lesley Gore, who passed away today from lung cancer at the age of only 68. It's not a topic to which I have given a great deal of thought, but I suppose it's fair to say that I've been a fan of Ms. Gore for most of my life, from the time when I first started hearing her songs on the radio until today. Due to laziness on my part, I don't claim to be familiar with much of the music she wrote or recorded after that initial burst of hits in the 1960s, but those hit records from the JFK/LBJ era still resonate with me. Everyone remembers "It's My Party," of course, and its soundalike sequel, "Judy's Turn to Cry." But don't forget "Maybe I Know," which was covered decades later by They Might Be Giants, the chilly and dramatic "You Don't Own Me," which turned up in John Waters' Hairspray (1988),  and the ridiculously cheerful "Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows," which was used to hilarious effect on The Simpsons once and which I semi-jokingly, semi-sincerely named as my "recovery anthem" when I was hospitalized for depression in 2012. I actually listened to that song dozens of times back then. Yes, I could relate to Lesley Gore's music. She had a clean, strong, solid voice and sounded like she really meant everything she said. When she told her boyfriend he didn't "own" her, brother, she wasn't kidding! I like emotional directness in music, and Lesley had it to spare.

If you want to remember Lesley Gore today, please watch her (typically stellar) set from the best concert film ever made, 1965's The T.A.M.I. Show. Study it, and see how female pop singers used to be able to comport themselves. Fifty years later, Lesley's still a great role model. Johnny wasn't good enough for you, honey.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Joe's annual slog through the Best Picture nominees: Part One

Four of the films up for the top prize at this year's Oscars.

I'd like to thank the Academy... for nominating only eight movies for Best Picture this year. The number of candidates for this award varies from year to year. Back when they started handing these cockamamie things out in 1928, there just weren't that many movies to go around, so there were only three nominees total. (It was so easy to get caught up back then!) In the 1930s, however, the quantity and quality of feature films increased exponentially, as did the roster of potential Best Picture candidates. The number of nominees hovered around nine or ten in the late '30s and early '40s. In 1944, the Academy dialed it back to just five per year, and it stayed that way for decades. Slumdog Millionaire from 2008 was the last movie to win under the classic "five nominees" system. Then, apparently, the Academy got nostalgic for the '30s, and the number of nominees again shot up to about nine or ten a year. This year, they've settled on a lean, mean eight titles. Good for them. That's plenty.

Why should I care how many flicks are up for the top Oscar? Well, because every year since 2009, I've been attending the AMC Theatre chain's annual Best Picture Showcase, a marathon of all the nominated films. This is my seventh time through the process. I've seen over 50 films this way. Why do I do this? Well, it's a little complicated. I call myself a movie fan, but I really don't go to movie theaters very often. I don't generally enjoy the ritual of "going to the movies," mainly because ticket prices have become astronomically expensive and audience members have become incredibly rude. Even when I like or love the film I'm seeing, I inevitably return home feeling like I've been cheated and a little abused. But, as I've explained before, being a self-proclaimed "movie geek" and never going to movie theaters is like claiming you're a Catholic and skipping every single mass. If film is a religion, theaters are the churches. The Best Picture Showcase, then, is like a holy day of obligation for me. Holy days, actually. It now takes two consecutive Saturdays. The first of those Saturdays was yesterday. Here's what went down.

T h e   G r a n d   B u d a p e s t   H o t e l

Tony Revolori and Ralph Fiennes have some transit troubles in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast includes: Ralph Fiennes, newcomer Tony Revolori, and an all-star cast including F. Murray Abraham, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Jude Law, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Tom Wilkinson, and Harvey Keitel.

The gist of it: The glory days and sad, decades-long decline of a plush luxury hotel are recounted during a dinner conversation between the place's melancholy owner (Abraham) and an inquisitive author (Law). At the heart of the hotel owner's story are the improbable exploits of its original concierge, M. Gustave (Fiennes), a suave and resourceful gigolo with exacting personal standards and an appreciation of the finer things in life. After inheriting a valuable painting from one of his aged paramours (Swinton), M. Gustave becomes the victim of a complicated and deadly conspiracy perpetrated by a disgruntled would-be inheritor (Brody) and his sinister sidekick (Dafoe). Prison escapes, ski chases, and several murders ensue. Complicating all of this is the beginning of World War II and the rise to power of the Third Reich.

My take: Movies are no longer the center of the pop cultural universe. They're no longer driving our national discussions the way they once did. In a sense, perhaps, movies are becoming obsolete. Most of what they used to do for us -- emotionally, aesthetically, and intellectually -- television and the Internet now do, often much better than the cinema. Certainly more efficiently. And the idea of going to a special, designated place (a cineplex) to actually sit still and view lengthy, non-interactive motion pictures in relative silence is, I'm sorry to say, a relic of an earlier, more naive, less jaded time. Downloading and streaming have leveled the playing field considerably. Movies are just more content to watch on your phone or your iPad. They've lost their cachet. In a sense, then, the crumbling hotel in this movie, which we see in both its glittering 1930s prime and decrepit 1960s dotage, is a perfect metaphor for motion pictures. And The Grand Budapest Hotel offers a pretty compelling argument for why we still need movies. It shows us what movies can offer us which no other medium can. This is a sensual experience, something to be savored. It's not realistic, but it's better than reality somehow, forged in the dreamy tradition of Walt Disney. It looks the way I sometimes wished the world looked. Plus, it's a cracking good adventure tale and maybe Anderson's most poignant meditation yet on how glory fades and why we should feel bad about that (even though there's not much we can do about it). Sic transit gloria mundi. Does it ever!

My grade: A-

W h i p l a s h

J.K. Simmons has some personalized instruction for Miles Teller in Whiplash.

Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast includes: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang.

The gist of it: An ambitious young drummer (Teller) enters a prestigious New York music school and soon attracts the attention of a demanding, rigorous, and sadistic instructor (Simmons), who possibly goes too far in his efforts to drive his students toward attaining musical perfection. Despite the protestations of his worried father (Reiser) and neglected girlfriend (Benoist), the young man falls under the sway of the formidable, imposing professor and goes to insane, self-destructive lengths to please this impossible-to-please man. After one particularly disastrous competition, the student realizes that his very life may be in danger if he continues along this path, but he's still determined to become one of the greatest jazz drummers who ever lived. It all leads to a climactic showdown between teacher and student in an extremely high-pressure public performance.

My take: This was, hands down, the movie which went over the best with the audience at yesterday's Showcase. I have to admit, this one captured my attention immediately and held it for the entire running time, right up to and including a climactic nine-minute drum solo. That's right. A nine-minute drum solo was one of the most dramatic scenes I saw all day yesterday. Some of my involvement with this material came from being a musician myself for the last three-fourths of my life. While watching the poor schmuck in this movie pound away at the drums until his fingers bled, I actually felt a little guilty about practicing so little. I've never been through anything close to this kind of hell, and today I play strictly for fun, but I know a little something about tricky time signatures, fanatical band teachers, and those dreaded and dreadful music competitions where your whole life seems to be on the line. But, in truth, you don't have to know anything about music in order to enjoy and fully understand Whiplash. If you can understand someone wanting to be the best and being willing to destroy himself to do so, then you can understand this movie. In a way, it was a bold move on the part of the writer-director to let his protagonist be a whiny, entitled crybaby jerk who doesn't always engage the audience's sympathies. J.K. Simmons, of course, has the fun part here as the teacher. He gets to be a combination of Pai Mei from Kill Bill 2, John Houseman from The Paper Chase, Mickey from Rocky, Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, and pretty much every movie drill sergeant ever, but especially R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket. There is one minor supporting character, a sad-sack trombonist, who is here specifically to be his "Private Pyle." In retrospect, Whiplash is a little predictable and a lot manipulative, but I'll be damned if it doesn't work.

My grade: B+

B i r d m a n

Michael Keaton is haunted by his superhero past in Birdman.

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Cast includes: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton (again), Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Lindsay Duncan, Amy Ryan

The gist of it: An aging actor, Riggan (Keaton), best known for playing a costumed superhero named Birdman in a trilogy of '90s Hollywood blockbusters, is now trying to establish himself as a serious actor by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on the writings of Raymond Carver. The production is plagued by problems, many of which are caused by a talented but egomaniacal and unpredictable younger actor (Norton) who has joined the cast at the last minute. But since the writer-director-star has all his own money tied up in this play, the show very much must go on, even when it attracts the scorn of a vengeful critic (Duncan) who resents this Hollywood pretender showing up on her precious Broadway turf. Riggan's own personal life is a shambles, too, with a daughter (Stone) fresh out of rehab and an ex-wife (Ryan) who wavers between concern and contempt for a man she once loved and trusted. With all this stress in his life, it's no wonder that Riggan frequently escapes into fantasy and often has the growly, throaty voice of the Birdman character echoing in his head and giving him possibly-dubious career and life advice.

My take: Of all the movies I saw on Day 1, Birdman (whose subtitle is The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the closest in spirit to the kind of movie I would want to make myself if I had a cast, crew, equipment, and several million dollars to spend. Maybe as I age and get closer to Sad Old Bastardom myself, I have greater and greater affinity for movies about sad old bastards like Riggan, guys who are just barely hanging on by their fingernails. I may also be losing my appetite for cinema-verite-type realism in the cinema in favor of surrealism, parody, and exaggeration. But don't call it escapism! No, I've found that the real truths of life can, paradoxically, be revealed more fully in fantasy. Lies, artfully told, somehow bring out the truth. And Birdman is full of absolutely impossible, magic-realism-type stuff. Hell, it starts with Michael Keaton clad only in his tighty-whities floating three feet off the ground as he meditates in the lotus position. And don't think that just because his character, Riggan, has retired from his superhero days that we're denied any comic book-inspired action scenes. This may not have been the most stylized movie of the day, since Grand Budapest is practically a living cartoon, but it may be the most stylistically-bold of the four films, with the majority of the film shot and edited in a way which makes it seem like it's composed of long, uninterrupted takes, a la Hitchcock's Rope. And Inarritu is daring in his use of the camera, swooping and soaring (like a bird, get it?) over his actors and letting us sneak all around the corridors at the theater so we can snoop on people's arguments and meltdowns. This is my idea of a fun time at the movies.

My grade: A

S e l m a

David Oyelowo prepares to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in Selma.

Director: Ava DuVernay

Cast includes: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson (again), Tim Roth, Giovanni Ribisi, Martin Sheen, Wendell Pierce, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Stephen Root

The gist of it: A biopic of civil rights leader Martin Luther King (Oyelowo), focusing especially on his famous 1965 protest march from Selma to Montgomery in the racially-divided state of Alabama. Having won the Nobel Peace Prize, King hopes to use his prestige to get President Lyndon Johnson (Wilkinson) to enact legislation which will ensure that Southern blacks are allowed to freely register to vote without such impediments as poll taxes and voting vouchers. Afraid of damaging his own political career, however, Johnson begs off on this issue and tells King to "wait." Since African Americans are being killed by whites without legal consequence in de-facto-segregated states like Alabama, Dr. King cannot wait any longer. Until they are allowed to vote, he argues, blacks have no say in their own destinies. The march, of course, meets with violent opposition from white law enforcement officials, thanks to Alabama governor George Wallace (Roth). It is even controversial within the civil rights movement itself, which is plagued by schisms and fierce philosophical and tactical disagreements. The clergyman's marriage to Coretta Scott King (Ejogo) also suffers during this time. But King presses on anyway, certain that he's doing what's right for the cause he holds dear.

My take: Once someone's birthday has become a national holiday and his name has become synonymous with heroic or virtuous, how do you turn him into a human being again? How do you find the man behind the legend when the legend is 100 feet tall and chiseled out of marble? That was the problem facing Lincoln a few years ago, and it's the one facing Selma now. Martin Luther King lived and walked and breathed not that long ago really. Literally billions now living were around when he was assassinated in 1968. And yet, he seems no closer to our time than Abraham Lincoln. Both appear to have graduated from mere humanity and become something more evolved. How can they be made into flesh and blood after that? Maybe comedy is the answer. Louis CK starred as the tortured 16th President in SNL's brilliant Lincoln parody a few seasons back, and the Adult Swim animated series The Boondocks hilariously brought Martin Luther King into our time for its "Return of the King" episode in 2006. But Selma mainly belongs to the tradition of stately, respectful, tasteful, and eminently serious biopics. There is some effort to introduce domestic turmoil, as in a tense scene in which Martin and Coretta discuss the former's infidelity. But the real order of the day here is solemn speeches (often, eulogies), punctuated by scenes of horrific, slow-motion violence. This is all very well-done, though, and there are some tremendously effective scenes, as when Dr. King pays a late night visit to a coroner's office in order to comfort an old man whose son has been gunned down by racist cops. But, ultimately, Selma is the kind of movie which feels like the cinematic equivalent of a homework assignment. I respect it, but I wasn't sorry when it ended.

My grade: B+

NEXT WEEK: Boyhood, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, and American Sniper

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Here's a newly-minted trailer for 'Ed Wood: The Musical!'

Tor, Dolores, Vampira, Bela, and Ed sing their hearts out in Rick Tell's Ed Wood: The Musical.

I am truly sorry to have abandoned you this last week, my dears. It was not by choice, believe me. Work has been very heavy lately, so I've had precious little free time to devote to Dead 2 Rights recently. The real culprit, however, is technology. My poor computer, my beloved Gateway laptop, is still in the clutches of the Geek Squad. The original time frame they gave me for its repair was "two to three weeks." Well, that was three weeks ago today, and as of now, it looks like I won't have my computer back for another week and a half at least. Can you imagine? Five weeks in the shop for what I feel was a very minor issue! (The power cord would occasionally come loose, so the machine wouldn't charge properly.) So now I am in technological Siberia. All because I decided -- stubbornly and and not a little foolishly -- to have my computer repaired rather than replaced! They're punishing me, the bastards! This is punitive.

Anyway, in the meantime, I am forced to work on my all-contingency emergency backup computer: an obsolete Sony Vaio first purchased during the days of George W. Bush. Like Mr. Bush's cerebral cortex, this computer is slow and unreliable and freezes up often. Working on it is a stone drag. I simply cannot do the kind of pieces I like to do for Dead 2 Rights on this machine. It would take a lifetime! Doing that last Ed Wood Wednesdays piece about Jesse Berger's Glen or the Bride nearly killed me! I only did it because I loved the film and wanted to write about it. But working on this machine is just no fun, and I want blogging to be fun. It shouldn't feel like a chore, right? So that's why there's been no new content for a while here. Again, I'm sorry. I really hope to have the blog up and running at full capacity soon.

In the meantime, please please please enjoy Rick Tell's new trailer for Ed Wood: The Musical! This is a wonderful little three-minute highlight reel of songs from the show, accompanied by historically-appropriate film clips and pictures from Ed Wood's career. I know Rick has put a lot of work into this trailer, and it definitely deserves to be seen. So see it already!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Here's a short radio play I wrote a few years ago. Wanna read it?

Here's some good advice for us... and for the characters in my dumb play.

The things you find sometimes, huh? I was searching through the files saved to this old computer and happened upon a script for a radio play I wrote a few years ago called A Spot of Tea. Please don't get the impression that this thing was ever, even once, performed on the radio. Oh, no. Never that. This was written for some Chicago-area creative writing contest. I have no remembrance now who exactly was running this contest, but they were asking for people to send in original short radio plays with a horror theme. I'd never written anything like that -- and didn't even know how to format the script for a radio play -- but I thought I'd give it a go. I wrote this up, printed it (on paper and everything!), mailed it in, and... heard nothing. No acknowledgement whatsoever. Maybe a year later, an online acquaintance of mine was trying to set up a website for short fiction and was looking for submissions, so I took this play and slightly reformatted it as a short story. I may post that, too. But for now, here is my one and only attempt at a radio play. At the time, I had probably just started drinking tea. I'm a regular addict now. It's also somewhat inspired by my real-life cousin, who actually did break into people's houses (and did considerable time in prison for his troubles). Do enjoy it, won't you?