Monday, October 8, 2012

Running on Empty: 9.79*

by Odienator
(click here for all TIFF pieces)

(Odie Note: At the Toronto Film Festival, I saw six documentaries: Bad 25, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, Mea Maxima Culpa, Love, Marilyn, Room 237, and 9.79*. Over the next few posts, I'll cover all of them. I'm starting with 9.79*, which premieres on ESPN October 9, 2012.)

ESPN’s 30 for 30 series is a fantastic array of sports based documentaries by well-known documentarians. The network’s film division is behind 9.79*, Daniel Gordon’s investigation of Ben Johnson’s controversial Olympic gold-medal winning 100-meter race. In 1988, Canadian athlete Johnson ran a record breaking time of 9.79 against his chief rival, American runner Carl Lewis. Barely recovered from a pulled hamstring, Johnson became a symbol of sports toughness and perseverance. A few days later, he became a far more common symbol of sports: He was busted for steroids and had his medal taken away from him. Lewis’ silver medal was replaced by Johnson’s rescinded gold. The asterisk in the film’s title is sports shorthand for an exception. “Not exactly…” those sports asterisks seem to say.

Lewis and Johnson’s rivalry was something like track’s version of Ali-Frazier, with Lewis the more colorful and loquacious of the two. While Lewis was interacting with the public and recording extremely bad R&B singles, Johnson was out of the spotlight practicing in lieu of their 1988 matchup.  Johnson’s besting of the braggadocious Lewis made him an instant hero in Canada, at least until his doping made the maple leaf fall off the flag.  Interviews with Canadian sportswriters and footage from the race (which we see several times in its entirety) provide a larger context for the uninitiated. Additionally, 9.79* raises questions about just how the steroids Johnson was busted for got into his body. It adds some uncertainty to the proceedings, but it doesn’t absolve Johnson’s later steroid use. The trajectory of Johnson's career would be more tragic if 9.79* didn't inform us that he knowingly repeated his mistakes over and over.

Gordon speaks with all 8 runners in the race—in addition to Lewis and Johnson, the participants are Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell, Robson da Silva, Calvin Smith, Ray Stewart and Desai Williams—and their recollections contribute to yet another fine doc by ESPN. Johnson in particular speaks candidly about his steroid use, and how it eventually got him banned from the sport altogether. Gordon also interviews other runners who faced the similar fate of a lifetime ban from the sport. It's impossible to feel sorry for them, and 9.79* doesn't shy away from their deservingly harsh criticism.

Despite the passage of nearly a decade and a half of time, Lewis still seems a little stung by the events. His comments have a tinge of anger, but he should be angrier at Gordon for digging up that clip of his music video from the 80’s. It's almost as bad as NFL legend Deion Sanders' infamous remake of Secret Weapon's Must Be The Music.

I admit that track fans may enjoy this documentary more than the average viewer, but anyone who questions why an athlete thinks he or she will get away with cheating should watch 9.79*. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

To The Wonder, To The Wall

by Odienator
(click here for all TIFF pieces)

I think it was the great director Sidney Lumet who recounted the story of how Marlon Brando tested the directors for whom he worked. On the first day, Brando would give two separate takes that were, on the surface, practically identical. But in one of those takes, Brando would act from within, giving his internal “all”  to the performance. If the director printed this take, Brando gave his soul to the role. If the director chose the other take, Brando would cease giving a shit and do whatever he wanted. Brando’s rationale was “why bare my soul if you can’t recognize me showing it?”

As I watched To the Wonder, I thought of this story. Coming so quickly after Terrence Malick’s last film, To The Wonder aroused my suspicions. Malick is a director who takes his sweet time between features. Between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, Malick’s sweet time lasted 20 years. To The Wonder is being released almost a year and a half after his last film, The Tree of Life. It even uses some footage from that film, as well as a few ideas. As I watched the 7 millionth shot of a woman spinning around and around, or the fifty-thousandth shot of Ben Affleck looking as if his ‘roids were acting up, I asked myself “Is Terrence Malick testing us? Is this his Brando moment? After listening to the Malick maniacs rant and rave of his flawless genius, has Malick decided to toss something sub-par (by his standards) together to see if it evokes the same rapturous response of his greater works?”

Of course, the reclusive Malick doesn’t care what audiences think of his movies. But I imagined my conspiracy because To The Wonder plays like a parody of Malick, much like The Departed plays as a parody of Scorsese. For every moment of sheer, Malickean joy (and there are many), there’s another that feels haphazard. Eventually the haphazards win out. I’m amused by the reviews I’ve read that jump through hoops to turn a **1/2 ruling into a **** review simply because it’s Malick. I won’t do that here: This is a **1/2 movie. Like the booing Venice audience, I am not fooled by Malick’s Brando take. Let the Malick maniacs who have been screaming bloody murder over the boos (and haven’t seen the movie—go figure!) call me names all they want. One critic, whom I won’t put on blast here, threatened on Twitter to beat up anyone who didn’t like this film. It takes true devotion to risk getting fucked up for a director who wouldn’t piss on your critical opinion if it were on fire. Fanboys are fanboys, no matter what the director’s pedigree is. This is some sad shit right here, and I’m way too old for it.

But I digress. Like all Malick, To The Wonder refuses to spell out the director’s true intentions. It exists as a series of images, edits, rhythm and narration. In fact, To the Wonder is mostly narration, some of it simple declarations of the onscreen obvious. (One subtitle “We fight.”) The declarative statements are  new for Malick, whose narration I’ve run hot and cold on; I think Days of Heaven’s is a thing of exquisite beauty and brilliance, but The Thin Red Line is ruined by its offscreen chatter. To the Wonder is narrated primarily by two people, a French woman in a failed relationship and a priest struggling with his loss of faith. The imagery is appropriate for each thread, but together they just don’t mesh. Even at his most abstract, Malick has managed to knit together dissonant visual ideas into a cohesive whole. These two strands clash sloppily, and while a non-linear take on one man’s interaction with something bigger than him is prime Malick territory, the same method is less successful in depicting relationships.

The New World tells a love story, but that love story is both more developed and also placed inside a much bigger wave of ideas both related and unrelated. To The Wonder is on a much smaller scope and even more abstract. It prompted me to ask what universal truths were I to glean from To The Wonder’s relationships, which are merely countless scenes of Ben Affleck looking uncomfortable and inexplicably fighting with a woman? This woman, whom he convinces to move from Paris with her daughter, is the main character of To the Wonder. She bears most of the narration, and I assume we are supposed to be viewing Affleck and the notion of romance through her eyes. Her arc may play better for romantics and people who are attracted to ciphers of men; I tried vainly to remain involved through my frustration. Standing alone outside of the bigger themes Malick usually tackles, one feels nothing for these romantic dissolutions. The French hottie (who is actually a Russian hottie) also spins around enough to turn into Lynda Carter’s incarnation of Wonder Woman 700 times. I keep bringing this up because it really does descend into ZAZ-level parody. “That bitch must be really dizzy,” the evil side of my brain remarked.

Rachel McAdams shows up to say “Hi.” As another woman Affleck falls for, her role registers like a fly on a windshield. Javier Bardem inspired the opposite reaction, as I was most interested in his character. Even when his narration threatened to become The Tree of Life-lite, I was drawn to his sad face and his pleadings with a God in which he is struggling to believe. My good  buddy, Mark Pfeiffer (who loved the film) described To the Wonder as Malick’s take on Hell, which is a very good analogy for this section. My favorite scene in the film is Bardem’s interaction with a Frederick Douglass-looking elderly Black man in front of a stained glass window. It’s a rare piece of straight dialogue in the film, but I loved the emotion and the words the old man uses. They were crazy, philosophical, and stayed in my head for days. Just like most of Malick’s films.

To the Wonder is certainly not boo-worthy, and there are moments of true beauty and delight. To the Wonder isn’t a bad film, but it’s a sloppy one. It feels lazy. Even when I’ve given a negative review to a Malick film (and for the record, until this film, the tally of negative reviews from me was ONE), it has left me with much to contemplate. Here I just didn’t care because I don’t think I was given enough to truly contemplate. They printed the bad take, and I felt like Marlon Brando.

Big Stars, Bigger Messes at TIFF

by Odienator
(click here for all TIFF pieces) 

Big stars were not immune to big messes here at TIFF. Several major stars appeared on screen and proceeded to make my hair look like Buckwheat’s. (Ed. Note: Odie’s normally nappy head is bald nowadays) Celebrities like Bill Murray and Tom Hanks made TIFF stand for Totally Incompetent Feature Failures. Let’s start with that gopher’s nemesis as the Reagan of the Democrats.

They must have paid Laura Linney beaucoup dollars to say the shit that passes for narration in Hyde Park on Hudson. This year’s My Week With Marilyn makes the same mistake that film did: It allows the least interesting character to control the story. Marilyn’s take would have been more interesting, as would FDR’s take on the visits of his fifth or sixth cousin once removed. When a larger-than-life figure is involved in the story, one should either let them do the talking or allow them to walk off with the picture despite the film’s gaze. Me and Orson Welles does the latter, with Christian McKay looming over the film even when he’s not onscreen. Hyde Park on Hudson has Bill Murray’s FDR, but I would have expected Laura Linney to carry the film on her own. She’s a fine actress and a welcome presence. Instead, Linney fails miserably, and it really isn’t her fault.

The screenplay, by Richard Nelson, reads like a failed writing workshop class project. The structure is clunky, and it has the misfortune to be populated with the same characters as Oscar winner, The King’s Speech. Here, Bertie is no Colin Firth, (though Samuel West gives it a game, respectable try) and this film’s Queen Elizabeth freaks out over a goddamn hot dog. In fact, a major plot point in Hyde Park on Hudson has to do with serving hot dogs at a picnic! There must be 15 minutes of dialogue, most of it arguments, about wieners. The plot itself is also about wieners, with FDR putting his every place except Mrs. Roosevelt cooter. Linney’s character, the appropriately named Margaret Suckley, is just the latest in a long line of trysts FDR conducted practically in plain sight. “Everyone has secrets,” narrates Linney dramatically before pausing for even more goofy effect, “FDR was mine!”

I can’t complain enough about the groan worthy dialogue. Wait’ll you hear the line Linney is forced to utter after, um, giving FDR a hand in the front seat of his car. Even worse, one feels sorry for the actors forced to utter it. Bill Murray, whom I’ve always adored, fares no better when trying to spit out these lumps of coal. He’s just not believable as FDR. Ralph Bellamy’s ghost can sleep easily—hell, Edward Herrman’s warm body can sleep just as easily. Granted, Anthony Hopkins looked nothing like Nixon in Ollie Stone’s biopic, but Hopkins evoked Nixon. Murray is FDR like I am Andrew Jackson. I didn’t buy him for a minute, and Roger Michell’s direction aims for high prestige when it should be aiming far, far lower. After all, this is a movie about a President’s mistress recounting her days fucking the President of the United States. And it’s a drab, hot dog-filled affair. I sure hope no one involved with this movie tackles the Monica Lewinsky story, Diddle In a Blue Dress.

 I don’t want to waste more than 300 words on Cloud Atlas. Easily the worst film I’ve seen at the Festival, Cloud Atlas turns an unfilmable novel into an unwatchable movie. I have not read the novel, so I’ve no idea how closely the cinematic version hews, but I am hoping no one sounds like hated Star Wars characters or has an accent as bad as most of Tom Hanks’ incarnations. Everyone involved plays multiple roles, and perhaps the only fun in Cloud Atlas comes at the end when the credits reveal who was who. Even that is tempered by bad ideas, as it made me a bit itchy seeing Caucasian actors in Asian makeup. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer must have been channeling Charlie Chan serials from the 30’s or Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Hugo Weaving, who must owe the Wachowskis money, even shows up as a Nurse Ratched-style head of an old folks’ home, and his makeup would have gotten him run over by Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

In fact, the makeup is dreadful on everybody, but it’s no match for the plot and the acting. Everybody ranges from passable to outright embarrassing. Cloud Atlas also hops from story to story, and across timelines both past and future. Unlike other films of this ilk, none of the stories is any good. Usually, one can find a tale that holds one’s interest, and bide time until the filmmakers return to it. Here, it’s like watching 6 bad movies at once, each one more agonizing than the former. Since it feels edited with a roulette wheel, one never knows which tale will follow which scene. There’s no real logic to placement until the film’s climax, which is an unmitigated disaster with one bright spot. That spot is in the guise of Keith David, whose 70’s set interactions with Halle Berry provide Cloud Atlas with its rare moment of suspense.

Berry and Jim Broadbent probably fare best in the actor pool, with Berry almost making the absurd Jar-Jar Binks dialogue of her future story work. Paired with Tom Hanks in numerous story lines, she steps up her acting against the veteran. Unfortunately, Hanks steps down—waaaaay down—into the depths of Razzies territory. His acting is as bad as his hair in The Da Vinci Code, and when one of his characters is blown  up by a suitcase, I was happy Hanks was gone. Then I remembered that he was 7 other characters. Doona Bae from The Host seems to exist only to spout the film’s dreadful new-agey mythology, show her tits and play a Mexican who bashes one of Hugo Weaving’s characters' heads in with a pipe. There are also plotlines about slavery, homosexual composers and the world’s worst old folks home. Nothing works.

At 163 minutes, Cloud Atlas is a root canal of a movie, interminable and incredibly painful. I don’t know who directed what, and I really don’t care. I can assume that the Wachowskis directed the scene where Forrest Gump, now reimagined as a George Michael lookalike with the shittiest accent since the Lucky Charms leprechaun tosses a snooty critic off a building. The camera follows the critic down to the street, where he splatters in what passes for this film’s humor. This happens about 10 minutes into Cloud Atlas, earning its R rating. I felt envious of that guy. At least he didn’t have to sit through the other 153 minutes of this garbage. And I spent 593 words on this. Damn you, Cloud Atlas! Damn you to Hell!

Science, Faith and the Will To Survive

by Odienator
(click here for all TIFF pieces) 

Before the world premiere here in Toronto of his film, The Deep (Djúpið), director Baltasar Kormákur explained that he wanted to make a film that asked, and answered, what it meant to be from his home country, Iceland.  His main character, Gulli (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), endures both a harrowing fight for survival and a constant series of  medical tests designed to answer why he survived at all. Shot on location, The Deep chronicles Gulli’s six hour ordeal in the frigid North Atlantic Ocean after his boat capsizes. The ocean is so cold that normal men would fatally succumb to confusion and hypothermia within minutes. Gulli lasts not only six hours, he also makes the correct decisions to ensure his survival. The TIFF guide calls The Deep a “modern-day everyman myth,” but there is truth to it: According to Kormákur, the real-life Gulli  is considered a hero and a freak by his countrymen.

Kormákur and his co-screenwriter Jón Atli Jónasson weave both subtle and blatant metaphor into their narrative. Gulli’s tale is one of resilience applied to a country that has survived economic collapse and a year-long volcanic eruption on one of its islands. The weather and the environment are depicted as exceptionally harsh, yet commonplace to Icelanders. Against this backdrop, people go about their days drinking, working and raising families. Religion is also part of daily life, with numerous prayers offered up to de Lawd. God is interwoven into the fabric of The Deep, with His presence felt most in a scene that cross-cuts between the prayers of the doomed sailors and those of their families at home.

The Deep introduces these doomed sailors, and the one who lives, at the local bar. Gulli is a fisherman who sails on the North Atlantic in treacherous conditions in order to make a living. In this bar, he meets his fishing boat’s new cook, with whom he gets into a quick bout of female trouble. (That is, there’s a fight over a woman.) These early scenes show the ruggedness of the location and its inhabitants. After the crew shoves off for the vastness of the North Atlantic and its daily catch, The Deep becomes Gulli’s tale of survival against nature. The sea is a harsh mistress, but as we’ll discover, land isn’t so forgiving either.

Kormákur told the TIFF audience that his film was done without CGI, which makes the entire ocean sequence truly harrowing. The actors are really out there being thrashed around by the cruel surf. Ólafsson is really in the North Atlantic for take after take. A wide shot of Gulli floating alone with nothing around him seemingly for miles evoked Lean’s shots of Lawrence of Arabia standing in the desert. That overhead shot in the water haunted me for days, as I drowned once and am horribly afraid of open water. Once the barefoot Gulli swims to land, he has to not only climb slippery rocks while being battered by the ocean, he also has to walk two miles on jagged volcanic rock. The ordeal ruined the real Gulli’s feet. This too gave me nightmares. Ólafsson and Kormákur turn the simple act of knocking on a door into something cathartic; when Gulli finally reaches a human being who can help him—and that human is on Gulli’s home island—I finally let go of my seat.

From here, The Deep explores science vs. faith. Why did Gulli fight so long in that ocean? Unlike his colleagues, he had no wife and kids to inspire his need to survive. Ólafsson, who is exceptionally good, has a fine monologue while floating at sea, intercut with descriptive footage, where he explains what he'd do if God grants him one more day. He is willing to accept death after this one extra day, a take I didn’t expect. In return, he is granted several more days—years even—but the earliest of those days is filled with doctors and scientists poking and prodding him looking for answers. The heavy-set Ólafsson looks miserable in these passages, and you do feel for him. He just wants to move on, yet he has to keep reliving his ordeal to satiate others’ thirst for answers. “He has seal fat,” one doctor explains after a test. Gulli’s mother represents the other side of the science-faith equation: “How does one explain a miracle?”

The Deep’s last scene is its most compelling commentary on the nature of Icelandic life. Gulli’s last official act before the closing credits isn’t meant to be heroic by any means. It’s just business as usual, representing a stoicism inherent in anyone who traverses the more dangerous paths in life. Kormákur never answers the questions of how and why. His footage of the real Gulli during the closing credits is enough to satisfy my curiosity.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Duo of Quartets

by Odienator
(click here for all TIFF pieces)

Monday at the Toronto Film Festival bore witness to the duel of the Quartet films. The similarities between this duo of Quartets was bound to cause some confusion. Both films have major stars in the titular roles, deal with classical music and feature past and present transgressions surfacing just before an important performance by the group. The first of the two, Quartet, is the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman. Benjamin Braddock brings the Brit heavy hitters Dame Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and the divinely randy Scotsman, Billy Connelly. The second film in this duet, A Late Quartet, stars Catherine Keener, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mark Ivanir and Christopher Walken as members of a rapidly dissolving string quartet. One film is good, and the other is very good.

Let’s start with the good one. Dustin Hoffman’s comedy Quartet is based on a play by Ronald Harwood (who also adapted). Set in a British old folks home that caters to former classical musicians, Quartet deals with the secret arrival of the most famous member of a group known for its performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto Quartet. The arrival of Jean (Maggie Smith) yields a varying degree of response from the other three members already present at the home. The dotty Cissy (Pauline Collins), whose mind is quickly deteriorating, is happy to see her fellow female singer. Wilf (Billy Connolly) is too busy playing the dirty old man to register much of an opinion, but he’s worried about his pal, Reginald (Tom Courtenay). Reginald and Jean have a history so painful that Reginald freaks out when he learns of her arrival.

Meanwhile, the annual Beecham House fundraiser is underway. Celebrating Verdi’s birthday, the denizens put on a show for money. Hoffman surrounds his non-singing actors with a plethora of actual classical musicians and singers, each of whom had a major career in Britain when they were younger. Under the direction of Michael Gambon’s hilariously cranky musical director, these performers are granted a few moments for onscreen performances of their still formidable talents. But Quartet’s main interest is in whether the four original members will put aside their differences to perform the Rigoletto Quartet one more time. With the return of Jean, the most famous of the bunch, this will raise an ungodly sum of money and keep Beecham House open.

We’re dealing with a bunch of hams here, and I enjoyed watching them in this familiar story. Smith is in fine form—no one delivers a mean glance or a devastating putdown like she can. Connolly gets the brunt of the one-liners, all delivered in his gorgeously raunchy Scottish accent. Courtenay, no stranger to Harwood’s work (he got an Oscar nod for The Dresser), carries most of the dramatic scenes, lashing out in anger at Jean, his true love who cheated on him 9 hours after they were married. And Pauline Collins brings a comic realism to Cissy, whose moments of lucidity are becoming farther apart as time passes.

Though he allows the real musicians to shine, Hoffman wisely does NOT show us any of the actors doing Marni Nixon impressions; we know damn well they can’t sing opera. The newbie director pitches Quartet at a quick pace so we’ve little time to register and critique its clichés until long after it is over. The cin-tog by John de Borman is a standout, and while Quartet is no gem, it’s cute and diverting. I had  fun watching the actors go at it, especially Michael Gambon who, in one scene, is dressed eerily like Albus Dumbledore.

Covering similar ground in terms of relationship dynamics, A Late Quartet is far more dramatic than Quartet, though not without the former’s sense of humor at times. The pedigree of actors involved was enough to raise interest, so I was surprised at how many empty seats I saw at the theater during the film’s world premiere here in Toronto. Director and co-screenwriter Yaron Zilberman guides his cast through a number of issues en route to their potential last performance together, and his actors respond with consistently good work. Though each of the four leads are memorable, Christopher Walken rises above his colleagues; his performance is fantastic and the best one I’ve seen at the festival thus far. Like his character, Walken is the glue that holds this quartet together. Achingly vulnerable yet still the Walken we know and love, he delivers masterfully. His last scene is heartbreaking yet hopeful, and the actor is in full control of the situation.

Walken’s Peter Mitchell is the oldest member of the a string quartet about to celebrate its 25th anniversary together. The other members are two former students, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Daniel (Mark Ivanir) and the woman Peter and his wife took in and nurtured, Juliette. Juliette and Robert are married with one daughter, Alexandra, a violinist being taught by Daniel. Juliette plays the viola and Peter plays cello. Robert, the more passionate musician, is second violin; Daniel, the perfectionist, is first violin. For years, Robert has coveted the first violin chair but has remained silent for the good of the group. Daniel has coveted Alexandra, but has also kept his desires in check for the sake of the quartet.

The first blow to the quartet’s survival is Peter’s Parkinson’s disease diagnosis. This will eventually rob him of his cello-playing skills, a symptom that’s already starting to manifest, so Peter tells the group they need to find a replacement. If he’s well enough to do the 25th anniversary concert, he’ll do so and then announce his retirement. Sensing this as a moment of change, Robert suggests he and Daniel alternate on first and second chair. This registers as the second blow to the quartet’s survival. Toss in marital problems, mother-daughter relationship anguish and Alexandra’s realization that Daniel has a thing for her, and all hell breaks loose.

The cast avoids the more melodramatic pitfalls of this material (though melodrama is not a bad thing by my standards). Ivanir credibly balances his rigid compulsions with his sudden leap into the spontaneity of his doomed relationship with Alexandra. Keener is cold yet sympathetic as a wife whose marriage may or may not be one of convenience. Hoffman is the quartet’s id, proving the Biblical quote about pride going before destruction. (Check your Bible, it’s “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before the fall.”) And Walken’s elder statesman conveys strength despite the double whammy of his prognosis and his opera singer wife Miriam’s recent demise. It’s almost comical that, for all the shit he’s going through, he still has to be the grown-up as the rest of his team crashes and burns. “Get out of my house!” he tells them at the height of their tumult, and Walken’s exasperation puts the viewer squarely in his corner.

Of the two, A Late Quartet is the better film. I was glad to have seen both on the same day, as they’d make a good double feature. On that day, I also saw Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, which I’ll talk about next time.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Affleck's Argo Is Shockingly Good

by Odienator
(click here all TIFF reviews)

Argo, Ben Affleck’s third feature film as director tells the now-declassified tale of the CIA’s successful attempt to save the six US Embassy workers not taken hostage in the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979. These six people managed to escape just as the embassy was stormed by angry protestors demanding the return of the Shah of Iran. Hiding out in the Canadian ambassador’s house, they run the risk of discovery and capture daily. The danger increases as the fugitives’ identities are being pieced together from shredded documents retrieved from the Embassy after it was compromised. The CIA mission, led by Tony Mendez (Affleck) conjures up a tale stranger than fiction: The six will claim to be scouting locations for a movie called Argo and, with Mendez’s help, will secure the necessary papers to fly out of Iran.

Argo immediately evokes a 70’s movie feel, with the Warner Bros. logo reverting to its old white W on black circle. Affleck, both as performer and helmer, coasts on that vibe, using cin-togger Rodrigo Prieto, editor William Goldenberg and costume designer Jacqueline West as effective co-conspirators. Affleck’s Mendez has the Serpico look, and the film’s construction and design aim for the films of Alan J. Pakula. Affleck is no Pakula, but Argo is easily his best work both behind and in front of the camera. He successfully juggles the back and forth intercutting of events in Iran and Virginia, and the escape sequence is a superbly rendered example of near-excruciating suspense. To pull that off when the audience already knows the outcome takes skill, and Affleck deserves credit and praise for it.

Also worthy of praise are a bevy of actors relishing the dialogue assigned them by screenwriter Chris Terrio. Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Bryan Cranston snatch the picture from their director whenever they’re onscreen. Argo casts Goodman and Arkin as the Hollywood players responsible for creating the ruse that brings credibility to Mendez’s plan. Mendez enlists producer Lester Siegel (Arkin) and Planet of the Apes makeup man John Chambers (Goodman) to dupe Hollywood into thinking the Argo film is a real production. They select Argo’s screenplay because it’s science fiction and therefore requires a landscape that mimics a distant planet. Iran fits the bill perfectly. “If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be a fake hit,” Siegel tells Mendez, and thanks to Star Wars, everybody and their mother is making a knock-off of Lucas’ film.

At CIA headquarters, Cranston’s Jack O’Donnell brings a scary intensity and genuine comic timing to his role as Mendez’s boss. The roundtable meeting where the agents discuss potential plans of action (all of which Mendez casually shoots down) would be less hilarious if it weren’t so damn plausible. As crazy as the Argo plan is, it’s the best idea anyone can come up with in a short period of time. Cranston, looking like Walter White’s dad in his 70's get-up, is perfectly cast; he’s even able to sell the tired old cliché of pulling the agent off the job when something goes wrong.

The fugitives are not as memorable as the movie makers and the government shakers, but Argo gives them enough screen time to fully invest the audience in their plight. Each of the actors (Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Tate Donovan, Rory Cochrane, Kerry Bishé and Scoot McNairy) craft identities and have at least one very good scene of worry, woe or heroics. Victor Garber plays the Canadian ambassador who hides them and, after the mission is complete, reaps the benefit of all the praise for its success. The TIFF audience cheered when O’Donnell tells Mendez that, for the safety of the other hostages, Canada will receive full credit for the rescue. “If we wanted applause,” O’Donnell tells him, “we would have joined the circus.” “I thought this was the circus,” Mendez retorts.

The hostage crisis lasted 444 days, all of which I remember from my youth. Argo provides the requisite end-of-movie credits details about the outcome, as well as some words from former President Jimmy Carter. Argo also provides a great entertainment, one that should be a hit with regular audiences and quite possibly the Academy. I can see this winning the Audience award here, though I have never been successful at picking the correct movie. The third time’s the charm for director Affleck—this is a damn good movie.

(Ben Affleck was present at the screening, and gave his best film a very funny introduction.)

A Canadian Festival In King Odie's Court

by Odienator

Greetings from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival!

Over the next several days, I’ll be chiming in with reviews of the movies I’ll be seeing here. I’ll post each one to this list, and on each review, I’ll have a link back here so you can browse the entries from one location.

This is my third Toronto Film Festival since my first visit in 2000, and I’ve always enjoyed the feeling that I’m watching movies with more than just the usual festival film snobs. The general public occupies a fair amount of seats at the regular screenings, and I’ve spoken to both diehard cinephiles and the occasional moviegoer curious enough to sample the festival’s wares.

Check back here every day for whatever deviltry I’m up to here in Ontario, eh?


Quartet and A Late Quartet
The Deep (Djúpið)
Hyde Park on Hudson and Cloud Atlas
To The Wonder 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Big Media Vandalism's Top 50 Sight and Sound List

by Odienator

Sorry I haven't been out here on this blog, but I have been busy over at our sister blog, Big Media Vandalism, tossing together our own Sight and Sound Top 50 list. I'm sure it'll cause trouble, so check it out!

Black History Mumf Sight and Sound List (50-41)
Black History Mumf Sight and Sound List (40-31)
Black History Mumf Sight and Sound List (30-21)
Black History Mumf Sight and Sound List (20-11)
Black History Mumf Sight and Sound List (10-1) 

I'll be back this weekend to start my coverage from the Toronto Film Festival.

Friday, July 6, 2012

A Quarter Century of Coding

by Odienator

Today is my 25th anniversary as a programmer. This was an arranged marriage, and as such I grew to love it though my passions were truly elsewhere. The dreamer in me wanted to write about film. He was deterred by obstacles, some insurmountable, some not. Unless you sold a million copies, writers didn’t make a lot of money. I grew up broke and with no intention of being grown and broke. That was the surmountable obstacle. I just needed to be a success which, to a 17 year old, seemed simple enough.  But there were also no Black film critics at the time, or so I thought, and I didn’t think I’d be able to get a job. I couldn’t scrub off my Blackness with Brillo, making this an insurmountable obstacle. This was also the deciding factor in allowing myself to be betrothed to Bill Gates and Sun Microsystems.

 "Odie, you is mah woman now!"

I once asked my Pops what constituted a career. He thought a moment, then said “at least 25 years.” He told me if I were able to secure a job and hold it for a quarter of a century, it would achieve the status of “a career.” This was in an era where the concept of the company man was not quite dead. There was still a notion that doing a good job meant you’d retire from that job. I thought it odd that society would consider me an adult after 18 years, but my work would require twenty-five for a similar status. No matter. I am a compulsive, and I desire a logical order in all things. Twenty-five years made a comforting amount of sense to me.

When I started looking for serious employment, I was a sophomore in college. I needed money to pay for my schooling, so a part-time job wouldn’t do. I wound up with a part-time job anyway, but I worked a full 8 hours learning the first of many systems with which I would do battle during my tenure. Since I needed to commit to a major that semester, and I had a job that could potentially go full-time after I graduated, I chose to major in computer science. I’d taken two CS classes already, so there was no transition from my freshman year. But it was not what I wanted to do; it was the logical thing to do. The compulsive in me was happy. The dreamer in me felt defeated. To bridge the gap, I imposed a timeline and I chose the area of information technology best described as creation through writing. If I could find a job writing programs, and I kept it for 25 years, I could return to the scene of this decision and readdress it. Unlike Robert Frost, I was going to return to that fork in the road and consider taking the road not taken.

If my mother had gotten her way, I’d be a lawyer right now. I would have been the first lawyer in a family still deprived of Johnnie Cochrans. With my personality, I would not only be chasing ambulances, I’d be driving the ones I couldn’t catch. I envision a 3 AM TV commercial where I ascend from a fiery hole in the ground, dressed to the nines and looking sympathetically at the camera. “Have you ever been in an accident?” I would ask. “Call the law firm of Henderson & Henderson now at 1-800-ODIE-LAW! Odienators are standing by!”

There was just one problem: I hate lawyers. Couple that with a teenager’s rebellious need to defy his parents, and things looked grim for Odienator, Esq. I stated unequivocally that I’d be a bum on the street before I joined Dewey, Screwum and Howe. To Mom’s generation, the vocations of prestige and privilege were medicine and the law. Mom chose the law because she knew her eldest boy was not mechanically inclined. I am clumsy and lack the most basic male instincts of construction without instructions. Odienator The Ambulance Chaser would get rich off the handiwork of Dr. Odie.

My refusal to succumb to the Devil’s Profession was not without consequence. Since we couldn’t agree on my major, I was offered the unlikely successful option of deciding what a 16-year old freshman wished to pursue. When I told Mom I wanted to pursue journalism, she said “writing is a frivolous pursuit.” This was a dagger in my heart because writing was my way of self-definition and identification. I was a writer before I was Black, before I was a boy, before I was human. It was—dare I use this word again?—a compulsion over which I had no control. And my reason for drawing breath was rejected as “frivolous pursuit.” Mom believes that to this day, and the reservoir of guilt I carry deep within me rises a foot with every written piece I submit. This may bring enough rain for an extra two feet of guilt.

So follow this sad, warped, yet acceptable to both sides of me logic: Programming is writing, except you’re not telling a dramatic story, you’re writing a how-to book. Your story gets deployed (kind of like being published) and run by users (kind of like reading it). It does what your written lines told it to do. I convinced my writer’s heart that becoming a programmer was not a betrayal, just another way of telling a story. “But,” I added, “in 25 years, let’s have this conversation again.”

There’s an easy answer to the question forming in your mind, and that answer is time. I couldn’t have both a writing career and a programming career because the latter is incredibly demanding. I’ve been writing on the side somewhat consistently since 2006, and it’s hard for someone with my coding experience. It would have been impossible in my less mature and disciplined days. Plus, I type all day, staring at a piece of simulated “paper” filled with whatever programming language I am using. After the aggravation of that, sometimes the last thing I want to do is MORE typing on this fucking machine. I can’t enjoy the computer at home if the one at work is crabby and unreasonable. I didn’t become a gynecologist for this same reason.

So here we are, 25 years to the day when I started my first computer job, and in my reflection I must firmly state JE NE REGRETTE RIEN. I’ve never looked back to say “what if” because I knew I’d be saying “what now?” today. This is how my inner psychology works—when it comes to life decisions I’m Mr. Deadline. If I mark it on the calendar, it becomes real and tangible to me. I can put it out of my head until the deadline begins approaching. If I could explain it better, I would.

I regret nothing, because like the Cuban baseball player Garrett Morris played on Saturday Night Live always said: programming has been “berry, berry good to me.” I’ve travelled the world, spending time in Europe, Asia, Australia and North America. I’ve written software that has been used by hundreds, if not thousands of customers. I know 19 programming languages and have honed my craft to a level of which I am proud. The money’s not that bad either. I’ve been able to live the lifestyle to which I’ve become accustomed.

My timing was also perfect: I’ve watched and participated in the evolution of technology from huge, clunky mainframes and minicomputers to the iPhone that’s currently giving you brain cancer. For a technogeek like me, these changes have been most exciting. When I started, I worked on an IBM 370, the DEC VAX and the DG MV/2000 mini-computer. I wrote some of my college papers on an IBM AT, a desktop computer far bigger than the one on which I’m writing this piece. The AT, if I recall correctly, was a whopping 6 Mhz with a Pentium 286 chip in it. It had a 2400 baud modem in it, and a maximum 16 MB of memory. Compared to today’s machinery, this is like 2 tin cans and a string vs. an Android phone. Hell, it’s one tin can, no string.

Today, I reflect on years of syntax errors, programming bugs, programs that blow up during demos and other nuisances of my profession. Anyone who has spent time navigating the choppy seas of computer logic will tell you that “code” is a four-letter word, both in the literal and figurative senses. If my old keyboards could talk, they’d reveal how much profanity I’ve spewed while banging furiously on them. They’ll also tell you how much coffee I’ve accidentally spilled into them, for coffee and sugar are the programmer’s sustenance. 

Programming for 25 years had one byproduct I did not anticipate: book potential! I’ve been writing a book about my life as a programmer (a chapter appeared on this blog), and before you dismiss it as boring, let’s remind you with whom you are dealing. You know goddamn well I can’t have a normal experience. I’ve been hit by clients, hit on by clients, cussed out, accused of more than one crime—including crimes against nature, and have been mistaken for the wrong color AND gender.

I once had the unpleasant discovery that the desk I’d been using not only for work but also to eat lunch was being used by my boss to nail his secretary. I walked in on them, and immediately remembered that I’d once dropped a tomato slice on my desk, picked it up and eaten it. The only words I could muster so they’d know I was there was “THAT’S NOT SANITARY!!”

So don’t expect a boring book, nor one rated PG-13 either.

Lest I forget, the most important feature of being a programmer is this: When the machines take over, they’ll still need somebody to write code for them. You guys will be shoved into some robot’s ass as a battery, and I’ll be sitting in a little floating cube writing code for our new Evil Overlords. If you tell our new masters you used to read this blog, I’ll make sure I get you a cushy robotic booty.

"Hey! Get into my ass!"

As I stand here once again evaluating the roads before me, I feel a certain agony. I really can’t make up my mind. Neither way would be objectionable, though I confess to being tired of writing code. One way would be exciting and new, the other dependable and familiar. I really can’t make up my mind, so I've decided to do something completely irresponsible. I am going to let fate make the decision for me. That’s right, folks, I’m going to flip a coin. A quarter no less! 25 years, 25 cents! 

Heads—stay a programmer, Tails—get out and, if I fail, have to sell my ass on the street corner. I’m gonna flip it right here, right now, and whatever the coin says, I shall abide by its decision. Let’s just hope I can catch this bitch as it falls through the air. 

Are we ready? I’m flipping it now!


OK, coin--I'll do it!

Happy 25th Anniversary to you, Programming Career!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Happy Birthday, Prince!

by Odienator

 His Purple Badness turns 54 today, and before you think “Damn, Prince is OLD!!!” keep in mind that, if you’ve followed his career from the beginning, your ass is old too. I’ve been listening to Prince since I was in the 6th grade, when he came out with I Wanna Be Your Lover. Girls in my class were singing it all day, and with its high falsetto, I actually thought a woman sang it. Imagine my surprise when I first got a glimpse of Prince on TV! I said “whoa, this chick has a mustache!”

I was no fan of Prince’s music back then, but every girl I knew was crazy for him. I just couldn’t understand it. He looked terrifying to me, running out on stage in a trench coat and what looked like panties, wearing heels so high they’d give even the toughest hooker a nosebleed. But there were girls in both my grammar and high school who were OBSESSED with him. The Black girls dug Prince, the Latinas were loco for Menudo, and the White girls liked anything that had a lot of hair and a guitar. I couldn’t figure this shit out to save my life.

But that was stupid, naïve, inexperienced Odie.

When I figured out Prince could get me laid, I changed my entire outlook on the man and his music. I suddenly saw him for the brilliant musical talent he is. Playing practically every instrument, Prince showed up on records and sweat hot liquid sex and passion. He did something to women that got them out of their panties faster than if a mouse had crawled into them. His music also brought out the freak in these women, and in me too. He was the musical version of the Kama Sutra.

The best X-rated night of my adolescent life came after a Prince concert, my first of the three Prince  concerts I'd attend. It was the Sign O’ The Times tour, and my soon-to-be-wife and I sat in the third row. Prince was so close to us he could have leaped into the audience and landed on my girl. She would not have minded, either. But she didn’t get Prince at the end of the evening. What she DID do was imagine Prince’s head on my body. We’re about the same height (OK, I’m taller but not by much). “Dig if you will the picture,” sang Prince, and she did. Mentally casting me as Prince, homegirl went berserk! She put some Prince on the stereo, slammed me against  the wall and went off. She was crawling on the floor like a cat, doing backflips and tossing me around as if I weighed 10 pounds. Sparks were flying out of places I dare not mention.

OK, OK, I’m exaggerating. No sparks shot out of anywhere. But I had to crawl home because I was beyond exhausted. As Ice T famously sang, this girl tried to kill me.

I’ve been a diehard Prince fan ever since. Drippy ass candles and all!

So, in honor of both my conversion and Prince’s birthday, here are 10 Great Prince Bonin’ Jams, songs to put on to make the panties evaporate. There are obviously more than 10, so I’m sure I’ve missed your favorites. These aren’t necessarily “the best”; these are the ones out of which I got the most mileage. Your mileage may vary, as they say.

10. I Can’t Make You Love Me- I would have thought Bonnie Raitt had wrung out every last ounce of mournful vulnerability in this song, but Prince finds a few more layers below to explore. While not my favorite Prince cover (that belongs to his take on the Delfonics’ “La La Means I Love You”), it’s sad enough to make you cling even harder to your object d’amour, especially if you’re living the song’s lyrics.

9.  Eye Hate U- A track off Prince’s underrated “The Gold Experience” explores the other side of the equation; In #10, the singer loves but his lover does not. In this song, the lover still does not love Prince, but now he can’t stand her either. Yet in both cases, he’s drawn to the danger and can’t stop thinking about Miss Thing. “I hate you like a day without sunshine,” he sings in falsetto, and you feel the anger right in your whooziwatzit. A good angry sex song if there ever was one.

8. Under the Cherry Moon- I have to throw this on here because it was one of the Great Love of My Life’s favorite songs. It was on her personal bonin’ jams cassette tape (Jesus Christ, I am old!!) and I got to hear it a lot. There’s nothing wrong with this slow jam, except that it conjures up memories of the hideous spectacle of a film that bears its name. I won’t hold that against it. It’s slow, dreamy, and wildly effective. “Lovers like us dear were born to die,” Prince sings, and I immediately think of the Elizabethan definition of “to die.”

7. The Beautiful Ones- The third song on Purple Rain is yet another ode to loving the wrong person, in this case, one of the titular objects. “The Beautiful Ones, they hurt you every time,” sings His Purple Badness, a few lyrics before delivering the most anguished line in the entire Prince canon: “You make me so (pause…) con-fuuuuu-uuuu-oooo-ooosed!”  What sweet agony I feel every time I hear this song. Famous for the 3 minutes of screamed lyrics that end the song, an orgasmic howl of fury to match your own while you’re in the moment this song has helped you achieve.

 6. International Lover- Sex can be silly as hell. So can Prince. Using an airline as his metaphor, Prince tosses out all manner of innuendo, creating his own mile high club. In the hilariously sexy spoken rap part of the song, he coos “If for any reason there’s a loss in cabin pressure, I will drop down  to apply more.” Can you imagine being on a plane and Prince drops out of the damn ceiling? “In the event there is over-excitement,” he continues, “your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device.” Now, that’s just nasty. Think about it for a minute. See?

5. Slow Love- Considering how far it got me, I couldn’t leave off at least one song from Prince’s two-CD Sign O’ The Times album. This is the lovemaking doozy of the first disc, with its sexy, inviting horns, hip-guiding percussion and syrupy, yet effective lyrics. Prince uses his normal and falsetto voices like an erotic weapon here, especially when he sings the title in the line “Slow love, so much better when we take it easy!” What he does to the word “slow” in that lyric rivals Aretha at her word-extending best.

4. Adore- The lovemaking doozy on Sign O’ The Times’ second disc is a slick ode to the everlasting adoration Prince feels for this song’s subject. She can burn up his clothes and smash up his ride (“well, maybe not the ride,” he says) but that won’t stop him from adoring her until the end of time. Like “Slow Love,” the horns in this song practically spell out screwing. So hypnotic is this record that radio DJ’s always forgot to bleep out its radio-unfriendly profanity. I had a friend who used this as her wedding song. I couldn’t fault her, but I had to ask “are you really gonna play this shit IN CHURCH?!!”

3. Insatiable- Some chick named Martha (or “Marfa” as Prince calls her) has our royal hero’s nose open in this one. “My body, baby, you  truly do.” he tells her. “Insatiable’s my name when it comes to you.” Marfa must have the ill nana! This one gets a li’l freaky on us, because it’s about making a sex tape. “Press the red button and I belong to you,” says Prince. Shouldn’t the woman be saying that to him, though?

2. Shhh!- When I first thought up this list, I left this song off. That was a glaring oversight corrected by Sam C. Mac on Twitter. I know why I forgot it—whenever I think of it, I think of the creepy Tevin Campbell version. That does not work at all, unless you’re a pedophile. Prince’s version, on The Gold Experience is another story altogether. This may be Prince’s most erotic record. It demands that you stop whatever it is you are doing and start gettin’ bizzy. But do it quietly, because “this love is a private affair.” The opening minute of this song is enough to raise beads of sweat from even the most pious forehead. This should be number one, but I got the most mileage out of the song that follows this.

 1. Scandalous- The best thing to come from Tim Burton’s Batman is the music Prince wrote for it. He called it “Scandalous” for a reason, and the synth-y organ music that forms the base of the song is more sinful than anything an organ’s been used for in church. This song is why you have to go to church on Sunday. “Come (pause…) closer,” Prince beckons. “Feel what you’ve been dying for.” You know you want it, and when Prince sings an ever deeper volley of the word “baby” three-quarters of the way through the song, you’ll be just as deep as his last “baby.” Worth every last panted breath and sigh of reckless abandon.

So, honor the man! Grab these songs and get your swerve on! Tell yo’ lover the Odienator sent you. Prince can’t be as nasty as he used to be anymore, but I can. Get out of here and celebrate Prince’s birthday the right way! 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Flippin' The Birds With Hitch

by Odienator

My introduction to Alfred Hitchcock came courtesy of two PIX’s: The Pix Theater in Jersey City and WPIX-11 on my VHF dial. The Pix Theater is where I saw the only Hitchcock movie I saw in first run, Family Plot. WPIX is where I saw my favorite Hitchcock movie for the first time, and a few of his more respectable ones as well. Both events occurred around age 6. Since then, Hitchcock has been a part of my life. My obsession with the Master of Suspense led me to view every available film of his, his television show (both incarnations), and to read the superb book-long interview with François Truffaut. The For The Love Of Film Blog-a-Thon, for which I am writing this piece, is looking to raise money so that I may continue my obsession with Hitch—the monies donated will allow streaming of the first known film Hitchcock was associated with, Graham Cutts’ The White Shadow.

Now I truly hate when bloggers ask for money, but I’m coming to you today with my hat out, begging like Mr. Wendal from that Arrested Development song. Look a bruva out and click at the bottom of this entry. Or click here. Toss a few bucks. Do it for Hitch. Don’t make me have to star in a real-life To Catch A Thief so I can get my fix.

 Speaking of thieves, Family Plot is about one played by William Devane. The only thing I remember from my first viewing was a car chase. It would take a viewing on WPIX years later to fill in the blanks. By this time, my cinematic education allowed me to make a connection between my second favorite director’s last movie, and an earlier one by my favorite director: Hitchcock’s kidnapper demands the ransom be hidden in the same location Billy Wilder’s drunk hid his booze. I have NYC television to thank for allowing these connections, and for my introduction to so much of the old cinema I love. I had so fewer channels at that age than a kid nowadays, yet my cinematic horizons were broadened exponentially more than any contemporary viewer. All they have is Turner Classic Movies; every independent channel in NYC was Turner Classic Movies to us.

But I digress. Lesser Hitchcock or not, Family Plot is a good movie, one I enjoyed and would like to revisit. However, it had little effect on me as a six year old. Plot’s lead, Barbara Harris, would be far more effective that same year when she switched personalities with Jodie Foster in Disney’s Freaky Friday. A different Hitchcock actress would penetrate my Afro and embed her film into my memory. All she had to do was get half-eaten by a bunch of flying shithouses.

When asked for my favorite Hitchcock, I usually say Vertigo. This is a lie. Vertigo is Hitchcock’s best movie, to be sure, but it is not my favorite. Vertigo is the “critically correct” thing for me to say, but let’s face it: I grew to love Vertigo the way I grew to love jazz. No such evolution of my maturity was required to love The Birds. It bypassed adult-level explanation and went straight for the eyes.  WPIX played it a million times in my youth, and it never ceased to scare the everlasting gobstopper shit out of my younger incarnation whenever he watched it. I can attribute that fear to one shot in the picture—a broken pair of glasses.

I was weaned on horror movies. Both my parents love them, as do my siblings. At the time I encountered The Birds, however, a few things were still sacred in my horror viewing experience. For example, horror movies never went after kids. Not even the badass kids like Bill Mumy on The Twilight Zone. The giant ants in Them! didn’t eat kids. Neither did The Blob. And though pig-tailed, murderous wench Patty McCormack got struck by lightning, she had it coming, so I was fine with that. The Birds was the first time I saw helpless little kids attacked by forces beyond their control. Watching the scene now, I’m surprised how scared I was by it; its build up is far more terrifying than its execution. But as a kid, I thought Hitchcock played dirty. I was disturbed by shots of crows nibbling on tender, exposed kiddie flesh not unlike my own, but when that shot of the broken glasses appeared, I became almost inconsolably terrified.

Because I wore glasses.

I got a 30 year respite from glasses wearing when I switched to contacts at age 11, but I am now permanently re-enslaved by my Transitions. I see fairly well without them nowadays—the loss of an eye seems to have sharpened my vision—but as a kid, I was blind as a bat without them. It was bad enough to be rendered practically helpless because I couldn’t outrun a flying instrument of destruction. Without the gift of sight, I would have been rendered completely helpless. Those birds would have eaten my blind ass up, then Tippi Hedren would have spat on my carcass for all the bad reviews I wrote about her daughter’s movies.

Poor Veronica Cartwright! She’s been through bird attacks, aliens bursting out of ribcages, and demonic possession by cherry pit or whatever the fuck it was she threw up in The Witches of Eastwick. As the owner of the shattered spectacles in The Birds, she endures all manner of horrors. Closer to my age than anyone else in the main cast, I identified with her. As I grew older, I found myself identifying with Tippi Hedren, the outsider whose presence the close-minded Bodega Bay townsfolk (correctly) believe has brought about the avian Apocalypse. No matter where I go, I feel like an outsider and wacko things happen. If I put on a green dress, I am sure birds would take over the world.

Regardless of what age I’ve watched The Birds, Hitchcock’s masterful setup of the kid-attack sequence never ceases to amaze me. It deserves mention in the same breath as Psycho’s shower or North By Northwest’s crop duster. The Birds is famously cited for having no musical score, but there is a musical number of sorts. As Hedren’s Melanie sits outside smoking a cigarette, the schoolchildren in Suzanne Pleshette’s class sing some childhood ditty a capella. I was always lulled into paying attention to what they were singing—the lack of music makes it creepy—and therefore was distracted  by Hitchcock as Melanie is. The scene seems to go on longer than comfortably necessary, which makes Hitch’s pan to the shitload of birds on the playground bars all the more shocking. To this day, that shot is more of a spine-tingler for me than even Mrs. Bates pulling back that shower curtain.

When I first visited Sonoma County in 2004, my host took me up to Bodega Bay, the town depicted in The Birds. I admit I did not want to be there, and as luck would have it, this was a day my contacts were not cooperating. So I wore my glasses. I kid you not, without warning, some crazy ass bird flew so close to my head I had to duck. “What the hell was that?!!” my host yelled. I couldn’t answer him; I was running like Jesse Owens on crack, holding my glasses and swatting the air. Somewhere in the great beyond, Hitchcock was standing, birds in hand, laughing maniacally. 

"Which one of you wants to eat Odie for not liking Rear Window?"

Folks, don't forget! Please donate to our cause! As an added incentive, here's the piece I wrote on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Demander Sings of EbertFest: Post Five

by Odienator

Unless you’re a VIP like yours truly, you’ll have to stand on a line outside the Virginia Theater to gain entry to an EbertFest screening. The line is intimidating—long enough to stretch around the corner and back again. But in the fourteen year history of the festival, the Virginia Theater has never turned down one patron on that line. Unlike the balcony on the old Siskel and Ebert show, her balcony is open, ready to accept those ambitious enough to climb the stairs to visit. Last year, I sat in the balcony for a few films. This year, we VIPers had our own aisle. But the balcony never forgets, and my favorite picture of me was taken from her heights by Columbus, Ohio’s own Mark Pfeiffer. I met him last year at EbertFest, yet another friend I can attribute to the Virginia. See if you can find me and my festival buddy, Michal, in this picture. Here’s a hint: Look for my hero.

In Sight It Must Be As Addictive As Crack

Gurrrrl, have I got some gossip for you about those Far Flung Correspondents! They’re all addicts! You know what their drug of choice is? Steak ‘n Shake. You wanna find an FFC? Look no further than the restaurant whose slogan is “In Sight It Must Be Right.” Maybe it’s because Steak ‘n Shake is unavailable in most of the corners from whence Roger draws the FFC’s. So when they’re here, they fill up like camels on it, going 100 times during the Festival. They didn’t have them in my neck of the woods either, at least not until recently when Steak ‘n Shake’s second biggest fan, David Letterman, opened one next to his theater in New York City. Since it’s the only one for about 250 miles, I’m sure the line stretches from Seventh Avenue to Peoria, Illinois.

My introduction to Steak ‘n Shake came in the worst place in the universe, Cincinnati, Ohio. My best friend Chris took me and I got hooked on their patty melts. Being somewhat lactose intolerant, their shakes are a bad idea I can only get halfway through, but what sweet pain it is! Every time I eat there, however, I’m reminded of Cincinnati, so I’m far less inclined to go there with the frequency of an FFC. This is why Roger made me a Demander, I am sure. This Demander did, however, make his first EbertFest 2012 trip to Steak ‘n Shake courtesy of the boxcar the EbertFest Hobo was riding in on Saturday. Host Joey Klein drove the Hobo and Klein’s regular rider to Steak ‘n Shake Saturday at lunchtime, where I had my usual and I bought my festival buddy his first. Before his own team could introduce Michal to Steak ‘n Shake ecstasy, a Demander got there first! I trump thee, FFC’s! 

In Sight It Must Be Right.

Little did I know Steak ‘n Shake was going to trump me in an even larger fashion on Sunday! They catered our EbertFest VIP Brunch. Shockingly, this was the first year Steak ‘n Shake was a sponsor of the Festival. I say shockingly because we all know who Steak ‘n Shake’s number one fan is.

Roger and Me, or Big Media Vandalism Comes To EbertFest

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert are the reasons I wanted to write about film. I watched them on PBS as long as they ran on my local WNET affiliate, and I watched them on WPIX after that. I started reading Roger when he was syndicated in New York City papers. If memory serves, he was in the NY Post (Pew, Roger!), the newspaper that proves its founder, Alexander Hamilton, deserved to be shot by Aaron Burr. I bought all his review compilation books and interacted with him back in his CompuServe days. I still have the first correspondence I had with Roger. It was about "Airport 1975" and what a Pulitzer Prize winner gets. Roger told me a Pulitzer winner gets “$1,000…and when you die, your obit will say ‘Pulitzer Prize winning writer Odie Henderson died today.’” I think Roger meant to say “Razzie-award winning writer Odie Henderson.”

No matter. Last year, I had the pleasure and honor to meet Roger at the Ebert Club Meet and Greet. I  packed my copy of “Questions From the Movie Answer Man” for him to sign. I’m in that book—I even have an INDEX ENTRY—but I forgot to bring it to the Meet and Greet. The same fate would befall me this year. I packed the book but completely forgot to bring it to Roger.  But I brought something even better to the Steak ‘n Shake sponsored Sunday Brunch, my benefactor, Steven Boone.

So here I am with two of my biggest influences, a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me to record for posterity the reason why I started writing about film and why I continue. Boone may be one-half of our Poitier-Cosby team (he’s Bill, for the record), but he’s also a major influence for which I am eternally grateful. I couldn’t ask for a better partner in crime. In fact, if I can be really fucking mushy for a second, I am grateful to be part of the fine group of writers who make up both our teams. I tease the FFC’s, but I really do have undying respect for them, and for my fellow Demanders (and even more for my Demander-in-Chief!).

So how did I show my gratitude to Roger, for not only his festival, but for the great opportunity he created for me?

I fell asleep during Roger’s DVD commentary of "Citizen Kane," the last film at EbertFest.

Odie Finally Gets Some Sleep

It was only for a few minutes, but still, I was incredibly embarrassed by it. I own the "Citizen Kane" DVD and have listened to Roger’s commentary numerous times. My dozing was not a result of the film nor Roger’s wonderful voice. I could have been watching Explody McExplosion: The Loudest Movie Ever Made (dir. Michael Bay) and I still would have passed out. I think I got 5 hours of sleep during the entire festival, and I spent most of my post-fight Saturday night doing something I assure you I had no business doing (and enjoying every minute of it).  So I conked out.

Making matters worse, I snored. At least according to our youngest FFC, Krishna, who was sitting next to me. I believe him—I have sleep apnea. I wanted to hit him with my EbertFest magazine and ask “why didn’t you wake me up?” but I remembered that earlier (sorry, Krishna), Mr. Shenoi fell asleep at a different screening and I didn’t wake him up. So this was his revenge! 

 FFC Wael Khairy stands between sleepyheads Krishna and Odie

It was a sheer joy to hear Roger's voice resonating through the Virginia Theater. For those of us who grew up with both Citizen Kane (it was run constantly on Million Dollar Movie when I was a kid) and Roger Ebert, the merging of the two on a big screen made for a memorable event. If you haven't heard Roger's award-winning commentary, you owe it to yourself to seek it out. I admit I dozed off a few times, but I managed to wake up in time to discover that Rosebud was (SPOILER ALERT!) a bottle of Paul Masson wine.

Nuclear Warheads Make Great Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

There was one other thing I needed to do before the Festival was over. Being a VIP gives you a busy schedule, so I hadn’t an opportunity to spend much time with some of the friends I met last year. To rectify that, I met up with Twitter’s own TheAngryMick, Donny Carder and the aforementioned Mark Pfeiffer for a last lunch in Champaign. The EbertFest Hobo finally got out of other cars and drove his own. To atone for my car-hopping sins, after lunch I drove my festival buddy to the train station. He and many of the FFC’s and Demanders were Amtraking back to Chicago that evening.

During the lunch, Donny and I filled our Polish buddy’s brain with talk of the most indestructible substance on Earth, gov’ment cheese. “You  can hit gov’ment cheese with a nuclear warhead and it won’t melt,” I said. “You know those wire cheese cutters?” asked Donny. “They didn’t exist before gov’ment cheese! You’d go through about 2 of them per brick.” Mark looked at us like we were crazy, but this conversation truly belonged in context with the rest of the film festival. Gov’ment cheese is the perfect metaphor for my love of cinema. It’s free, it’s indestructible, and it will last forever.

The End of the Festival

Standing in a train station, saying goodbye to so many friends old and new, was the perfect way to end my time at EbertFest 2012. I was reminded of the end of an old, romantic movie, where the guy runs after the train, waving goodbye to his lady love as she leaves the station. As the train speeds up, so does our hero, just in time to see the handkerchief drifting down from his lady’s window. He picks it up and holds it to his face, remembering the time he spent enjoying her company. The bittersweet sound of the train echoes in the distance as the camera glances once more upon our hero, still absorbing his memories. For him, the return of his sweetheart is uncertain and improbable. For me, I know I’ll get to live through the experience again in 12 months at EbertFest 2013.

Fade out.

The Set I'm Claiming: Jana Monji, Roger, Jim Emerson, Steven Boone, Odie "Odienator" Henderson, Donald Liebenson. (Not pictured, but in spirit, Jeff Shannon and Kevin B. Lee)