Tuesday, February 11, 2014

8 favorite movies

This was a hard list to put together. For starters, way more than eight movies could have gone on this list. It was also hard not to get bogged down in selection criteria. Note that this isn’t a list of “the eight best movies ever made” or “eight crucial moments in film history.” I don't consider myself qualified to make judgments like that, and even if I had the credentials I wouldn't have any idea where to begin.

To the extent that I’ve got criteria at all, the movies in this set have in common only that I own well-worn copies of all of them. I’ve watched them over and over again because of a particular way they make me feel. The emotion isn’t always happy, but it is uniformly strong.

Local Hero – Here’s the deal with this movie: as I said in the original review, you either get this picture or you don’t. It isn’t about story or character or special effects or anything most people expect from a movie. The plug on the poster says “A beautiful coastline … A rich oil man wants to develop it. A poor beach bum wants to live on it. An entire town wants to profit by it. And a real-live mermaid wants to save it … Only one of them will get their way.” Grammar and punctuation errors aside, that’s an accurate summary of the plot. But it’s by no means an adequate description of the experience. If you aren't able to sit back, watch, and appreciate it without demanding that it teach you something (or even expecting it to make sense all the time), it’s probably going to be an unpleasant experience for you. But accept it on its own terms, and it’s one of the best times you can have with a movie.

Dr. Strangelove – I don’t have a lot of comedies on this list, at least in part because jokes in general tend not to be as funny once you’ve heard them a time or two. And if that’s the standard, this shouldn’t amuse me at all. I’ve seen it so many times that I can do most of the dialogue along with the movie. Further, it’s a satire mocking a war that ended decades ago. But each time I see it is like the first time. The humor endures, aided in no small part by the quality of Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant visual work.

Blade Runner – I like – but do not love – both science fiction and film noir. However, there’s something about this combination of the two that works for me in a big way. It’s too sentimental by far, but Syd Mead’s design work and Ridley Scott’s skill at putting the visuals to work more than make up for the maudlin plot. I have a slight preference for the cut that doesn’t include the voiceovers, because I think they’re a little too self-consciously hard-boiled. But I’ll watch this picture in whatever form I can get it.

The Mission – Speaking of sentimental, this one’s a real tear-jerker. On the other hand, it’s visually stunning, featuring some of the most beautiful location work I’ve ever seen. I also feel comfortable with the dichotomy of theme. When faced with vile injustice, I find myself conflicted between belief in direct (even violent) resistance and nonviolence. Here the two protagonists approach the problem of slavery from different perspectives. The resolution, however tragic, has a lot to teach us.

The Seven Samurai – In general I’ve got only limited tolerance for subtitles. Though I prefer them to dubbing, I also don’t like to have to “read a movie.” But I was hooked on this one from the first time I saw it. Though I’d like to say that you can love this movie even if you don’t care for martial arts or Japanese feudal society, I can’t say that as an objective analysis. However, there is more to this picture than well-crafted visuals and flying swords of samurai death.

Dawn of the Dead – Several horror movies could have occupied this spot, but I ended up going with this one for several reasons. It’s the ultimate indie movie, proving that you can make a damn fine picture without a gazillion-dollar budget. All you need is a decent script and some talented actors. Even movies with much better special effects, editing, soundtracks and the like (including the 21st-century remake) aren’t anywhere near as good. And better yet, tucked neatly inside the zombie stuff are some valuable messages about class, race and gender.

Do the Right Thing – Speaking of race, here’s a movie that openly confronts social issues that most film-makers either ignore completely or smooth over for the sake of keeping audiences comfortable. Spike Lee’s direction is clever and innovative, expertly blending humor and grim seriousness in just the right doses.

Fargo – The list rounds out with another picture that blends humor and drama, this time from the Coen brothers. Movies packed with kidnapping, murder and other criminal shenanigans tend to be staffed with larger-than-life characters, but not here. Everyone in this picture could be someone you know (provided you live in a “fly-over state”), and it’s hard not to sympathize with them even when they’re being heinous. Like the first movie on this list, this is further proof that movies can be simple, quiet and great.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Google Fiber: initial reactions

Sorry about falling behind in here. It’s the usual start-of-semester craziness.

The big news is that we finally at long last got our Google Fiber hook-up. They installed the outdoor box (above) at the start of the month, and then they came indoors to install the rest of it (below) a couple of weeks ago.

My thoughts so far: obviously it’s a great deal faster than what we used to have. And far more reliable. It’s been interesting to see which sites keep up with the new connection and which ones are slow no matter how good your ISP is.

To be sure, it’s just an internet connection. My life hasn’t been miraculously transformed. I’m not instantly smarter or wealthier or thinner than I was when I had bad ’net service. However, I could seriously get used to not crossing my fingers every time I try uploading a web page. And I could seriously and profoundly get used to Netflix, Amazon Prime and Youtube videos that download in seconds, don’t screech to a halt in the middle and display in the best available image quality.

I’ll keep you posted with further reactions.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

What is a Hoffman Lens?

Last week we had some dead folks to honor, but now that duty’s done it’s time to introduce this blog more properly.

The Hoffman Lens was originally a column on the 8sails web site. The column was designed to skewer obnoxious trends in mass media and popular culture. And we’ll continue on in that tradition here. I opted to make the move to a Blogger blog because they’re easier to manage than separate web pages. I’d rather focus on being mean to celebrities and leave the HTML to folks who love it more than I do.

So what exactly is a “Hoffman Lens”?

In They Live, a movie by famed horror-meister John Carpenter, evil space aliens have taken over the planet and are systematically using the Earth as a giant third-world economy. Trouble is, nobody knows what’s going on. The dastardly villains have managed to disguise themselves, hide their presence and keep earthlings in line via an elaborate barrage of brain-numbing broadcasts and subliminal print messages. The only way to see the bad guys in their true, less-than-attractive shape is by wearing sunglasses that have been treated with some kind of special, hypno-filtering chemical. In one scene these glasses are identified as Hoffman lenses. Hence the name.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Starting at the end

Seems odd and yet at the same time fitting to say hello on this blog by saying goodbye to 2013’s parade of dead folks. At the start of last year I’d intended to stop doing this. But some of the people who passed in the last 12 months really can’t go without some recognition.

Richard Matheson – Many times I’ve found myself watching something random only to discover that Matheson wrote the screenplay. Or the production was based on one of his novels or short stories. Sometimes the discovery wasn’t much of a surprise (several takes on post-apocalyptic survivalism have been blamed fairly or not on I Am Legend). But on a few occasions it’s been a total “wow, he wrote that?” experience. Check his credits on IMDb and you’ll see what I mean. How fair is it that we lost him barely a year after Ray Bradbury passed?

Jean Stapleton – Edith Bunker was my grandma to my grandpa’s Archie: unflappably kind and optimistic in the face of often less than ideal circumstances. Quite a coincidence that Stapleton and Grandma died less than two months apart. They were both liberal Democrats and fond of the theatre (though Grandma spent more time in the audience than onstage).

Roger Ebert – Critics are easy to hate. Spend just a few minutes digging through the staff reviews on 8sails and I’m sure you’ll find plenty of opinions with which you don’t agree. Indeed, if you agree with everything I write then you’re probably me, in which case you need to quit goofing around on the internet and get back to work on the proposal that’s due Monday. Without doubt I differed with Ebert many times. But I respected his obvious love of movies. Such affection can be hard to come by in the 21st century.

Jonathan Winters – Along with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, Winters’s comedy albums were a big influence on my childhood development of a sense of humor. I particularly liked his willingness to explore the strange and nonsensical.

Hal Needham – For better or worse, here’s the guy who made Burt Reynolds what he is today. Needham intrigues me because he’s one of the few people who escaped the realm of the support staff – in his case the stuntman pool – and achieved success in movie management.

Eileen Brennan – Brennan appears in all three of my favorite detective movie parodies: The Cheap Detective, Murder by Death and Clue. That’s partially coincidence, but it’s also partially a testament to one hard working actor. Here’s another IMDb listing that’s bound to impress.

Lou Reed – Reed’s New York tour remains one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen, only appropriate considering that the New York album remains one of my favorite records. He was an intriguing performer, sometimes humorless in his music (especially some of the more self-indulgent stuff from later in his career) and yet willing to play a villain (One Trick Pony) or laugh at rock stars (Get Crazy) onscreen. After he stopped doing really brilliant work, I lost a lot of my interest in music.

Ray Harryhausen – Thus passes not just the career of a special effects genius but the end of an entire special effects era. Harryhausen’s Dynamation process was downright clunky by sophisticated CGI standards. Certainly none of his animation would ever be mistaken for the “real thing.” But his work had an artistry almost entirely absent from the fancy stuff technicians churn out now. His clunky characters had real personality, making otherwise dreadful movies worth watching. I don’t have a lot of movie-related stuff in my office, but reproductions of three of his creations adorn the tops of my shelves.