Revisiting 2001, 50 Years Later

2001:  A Space Odyssey has been one of my favorite movies ever since I first saw it.  The only word that adequately describe the film, in my view, is “awesome.”

2001-space-odyssey-watching-recommendation-videosixteenbyninejumbo1600Awesome in terms of its enormous storytelling sweep, taking us from the discovery of weapons by a bullied group of protohumans to a voyage to Jupiter; awesome in its special effects, which kicked off the rapid development of special effects in films, made “space movies” a new genre, and gave all viewers a new perspective on The Blue Danube; awesome in its anticipation of new technology and artificial intelligence; and especially awesome in its absolute embrace of an inexplicable, entirely weird, jaw-dropping storyline.  Oh, and there’s some funny moments in the film, too, such as when one of the characters has to figure out how to use a zero-gravity toilet, which involves carefully studying a long set of instructions.

It’s one of those favorite movies that I’ll always sit and watch if I stumble across it being shown on TV.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published an interesting article on 2001, its initial critical reception, and its anticipation of technology that is well worth a read, whether you are a fan of the film or not.  It’s fascinating.  And who would have thought that a movie that one highly regarded critic dismissed as “trash masquerading as art” would, 50 years later, be universally regarded as one of the most influential movies ever made?  It just reinforces a valuable lesson:  sometimes — perhaps often times — movie critics can be dead wrong, and paying too much attention to them might cause you to miss seeing a classic on the big screen.

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A Pepper Spray Present

Every year, the nominees for the Oscars get a lavish gift bag with all kinds of special items donated by companies that are looking for a little big of PR.  The bags are not officially sanctioned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but they’ve become a kind of tradition and are loaded with goodies like plane tickets, high-end cosmetics, and new, uber cool gizmos.

So, what’s in this year’s swag bag?

promo343614230Well, among other things there’s a 12-day trip to Tanzania, something called a “24 carat gold facial” — that sounds like it will fit right in with the Hollywood tradition of wretched excess — and a “conflict-free” diamond necklace.  Oh, and multiple kinds of pepper spray, now that the Harvey Weinstein horror story and the exposure of many other producers, directors, agents, and actors have revealed Hollywood to be a place of rampant sexual harassment, gross sexual imposition, and outright rape.

It’s therefore not surprising that this year’s Oscar swag bag has a decided personal safety and security element to it.  It includes at least three different pepper spray options — including a key ring-sized device — two personal body alarms, and a kit that allows you to determine whether your drink has been drugged that no doubt will immediately come in handy at one of those Oscars after-parties.

It tells you something about what it must be like to be a part of the oversexed, overprotected, underinvestigated, and underbrained world of the Hollywood glitterati.  Normally I would object to the idea of Oscar nominees getting thousands of dollars in freebies on “rich get richer” grounds, but this year maybe the swag bags offer some hope and some perspective on what a wretched place Hollywood really is.  Maybe at least one of the nominees will grab their pepper spray and spiked drink kit, don the personal body alarms, sell the “24-karat gold facial” and the “conflict-free” diamond necklace for a little ready cash, jet off to Tanzania for that 12-day holiday — and wisely decide to never come back to the lewd and lecherous land of Oscar.

In Praise Of Bingeing Technology

You can argue about the value of some technological advancements that we have seen in our lifetimes.  Is the invention of Roomba vacuuming robots, for example, really a good thing?  However, the significance of one development is indisputable:

The ability to engage in TV and movie binge-watching during the cold Midwestern winter months is one of the greatest leaps forward for the human species since the ancient Egyptians developed papyrus.

tmp_uirc5w_4f3814e036213fed_harry_potter_photoConsider this week in Columbus, Ohio.  It has been so absurdly cold, with ambient temperatures hovering, with leaden immobility, in the single digits and wind chill factors below zero, that there is absolutely no incentive to go outside voluntarily.  Unless you’ve got to go to work or to an appointment, there is no rational reason whatsoever to venture into the frigidity.  So, you’re stuck inside.  What to do?  Well, you could read a book, of course . . . or, you could be intellectually lazy and binge-watch TV, thanks to options like Netflix and Amazon TV and cable channels that offer premium options.  The last few days Kish and I have curled up on the couch at nights and begun watching the entire Harry Potter movie series — thanks, HBO and AT&T Uverse! — and it’s been a lot of fun.

You don’t have to watch the Harry Potter movies, of course — you could watch The Wire, or Deadwood, or Lost from start to finish, or a whole season of 24, or the John Wayne westerns in sequence, or the Thin Man films from beginning to end, or every movie in the Shirley Temple collection.  With the amount of new content being produced these days, and the amount of old TV shows and movies that remain available for casual viewing, your binge-watching options are virtually infinite.  And whatever you choose, you’re going to be entertained . . . and out of the cold.

I’m not suggesting that binge-watching TV is something that people should do constantly, week-in and week-out — but when the cold fronts plant themselves in your neighborhood and going outside becomes a bleak, frigid experience, binge-watching is a wonderful option to have.  As I said, it’s right up there with papyrus.

Downsizing

Hollywood films frequently employ what’s called the “high concept” approach. That’s when you can describe the gist of the movie in a sentence. For the original Ghostbusters, for example, the high-concept sentence might have been: “A comedy in which geeky paranormal scientists use high-tech gadgets to catch ghosts and save the world from an ancient evil being.” Pretty compelling!

For Downsizing, the high concept pitch probably was something like this: “The world is changed when scientists discover a way to shrink human beings to five-inch size in order to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint and allow the tiny people to live like kings.” That sounds pretty interesting, too, and like Ghostbusters would allow for lots on great special effects, too.

But where Ghostbusters built great ideas and characters, like Mr. Stay-Puft and the controlling EPA twerp, into the plot and made the movie a classic, in Downsizing the premise just sits there, thrashing around in search of an identity. Is it a comedy, or a serious approach to global warming, or a treatment about how humanity is ultimately frivolous, caste-bound, and uncaring? Potentially interesting notions of how the big-people world and the little-world world would interact get raised and then vanish without a trace. Characters come and go, seemingly at random, stereotypes bizarrely intrude into the plot, and by the end of the movie, when a five-inch Matt Damon is beating on a drum on the shores of a Norwegian fjord with a band of hippies who are preparing to go underground to save the human species, you’re scratching your head and wondering what the hell the movie is really supposed to be about.

Downsizing shows that the initial high concept only takes you so far. The special effects are good, and the weird twists and plot holes will give rise to lots of after-movie analysis, but this film is a quickly forgettable dud.

The Last Jedi

Yesterday Russell and I watched The Last Jedi, the latest episode in the Star Wars line of movies.  Spoiler alert:  at 2 hours, 35 minutes in length, coupled with a full 25 minutes of uninspired previews for movies I’ll never be interested in seeing, The Last Jedi will test the bladder of any 60-year-old.  As my mother would say before any family road trip, be sure you use the bathroom before you get in the car.

Other than pathetic gratitude when the movie was finally over and I could use the facilities, my overall reaction to The Last Jedi was . . . shrug.  The Star Wars films have now become so rote and trite, from the scrolling story over the starscape backdrop at the beginning, to the small fighter versus gigantic spacecraft battle scenes, to the powerful, physically disfigured, but ultimately easily fooled bad guy, you can’t help but feel that you’ve seen the movie before.  Add in a few cute creatures that have no apparent purpose other than to be cute creatures, thinly disguised rip-offs of scenes from prior movies in the triple trilogy — this time, a thrilling ride through casino town on goat-horse creatures, rather than a thrilling speedscooter trip through a forest — and a few laughs with Chewie, and you’ve got the movie in the can.

last-jedi-leiaAfterwards, Russell and I tried to talk seriously about the movie, but it wasn’t easy.  True spoiler alert:  So, raspy-voiced General Leia Organa — who I still think of as Princess Leia — can communicate over intergalactic distances with Luke, and use the Force to fly through space besides?  Why hasn’t she used her powers to find Luke beforehand, or used the Force to keep her kid from the Dark Side, or to protect Han Solo from being murdered?  Wouldn’t you think that the spunky, tough Leia of the original trilogy would have spent the intervening period at least trying to develop some mastery of her powers?  It would give her something to do besides just looking with deep concern at hologram projections of battles going bad and sighing heavily as another Rebellion ship gets pulverized.  I think Leia’s character has been wasted.

Luke’s character has been wasted, too.  He apparently has spent years on some rugged, faraway planet, poring over ancient Jedi texts, a la Obi-Wan Kenobi cooling his heels on Tatooine after Darth Vader’s emergence.  But then Luke learns from a ghostly Yoda that the sacred texts really aren’t that important, so phantom Yoda sets them and the sacred tree on fire, freeing Luke to confront and defeat Kylo Ren long distance, before vanishing and — also like Obi-Wan — leaving only crumpled clothing behind.  Luke seems a bit dense, doesn’t he?  But if I were Luke, I’d be irritated with Master Yoda.  Why don’t these ghost Jedi show up in more timely fashion and provide some prompt guidance so people like Luke can get back into the fight?  I guess Luke had to suffer, reading the useless old books in some dank tree trunk, until Rae showed up and he could yell at her and treat her three easily taught lessons.

And, now that the old characters have been addressed, let’s talk about the new ones.  Yawn.  Nah, let’s not.  Rae is good at having tears run down her cheeks and being amazingly gifted at just about anything, and Finn is pretty much one-dimensional, and Po Damron would be cashiered from any military force he was part of, and Kylo Ren is thoroughly confused and conflicted and doesn’t seem to know what he really wants.  Why did Kylo Ren kill Han Solo?  Beats me!  Maybe I would have cared more about all of this if I wasn’t feeling the urgent call of nature at the end of this very, very, very, very long epic.

Annual Singing

When it comes to singing, I subscribe to the Buddy the Elf approach:  “The best way to spread Christmas Cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”

maxresdefaultSo, yesterday I donned a Santa cap and, with about two dozen other lawyers at the firm, engaged in our annual holiday singalong.  We remember and honor two of our departed partners who loved the singalong, perform for a roomful of absurdly supportive colleagues and friends, and belt out favorites like The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late) and I’m Getting Nuttin’ For Christmas, as well as new parody songs with lyrics deftly penned by one of our talented partners.

When you only sing out loud once a year, it takes a while to really hit your stride . . . if you even have a stride.  There’s a musical concept called a key — I think that’s the right word — that you have to figure out, and it takes some searching and a few songs to find the right range.  I usually realize I’m singing in the wrong key when the high notes come out like more of a high-pitched screech; then I overcompensate and end up in a key where the low notes come out with an earthquake-like rumble.  This is why no one who has any kind of singing talent wants to stand next to me at these annual performances.

Our little singing group will never be mistaken for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but we make up for our overall lack of talent with enthusiasm and sheer volume.  And Buddy is right:  It’s fun and it always puts me in a good holiday mood.

Cecil’s Lost City

I saw a report on a sphinx head being uncovered in the California desert and wondered for a moment whether there had been some tremendous discovery of a previously unknown ancient civilization.  Not quite!  It turns out that it was a lost city — but one dating from 1923, not the time of the pharaohs.

pay-sphinx-uncovered-from-under-californian-sand-dunesThe lost city was constructed for the filming of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent movie The Ten Commandments.  DeMille, who was legendary for filming extravagant, big-budget epics with colossal sets and enormous casts of extras, had plaster sphinxes and other Egyptian artifacts constructed for use in the film, at huge expense, to make the film look more realistic.  Then, when the filming was over, and it was too expensive to relocate the set, DeMille decreed that rather than risk it being used by rival filmmakers, it all should be buried under the sands of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes, where the sphinxes and other materials have remained for nearly a century.  The Ten Commandments then went on to receive critical acclaim for its sweeping and realistic scenes.

DeMille’s decision to entombed the set beneath the desert sands became the stuff of Hollywood legend, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that people began talking about actually trying to find the buried set pieces.  Recently, archaeologists have begun to unearth the pieces and some of the other debris cast off by the film crew.  One of the uncovered items is a perfectly preserved sphinx head.

These days, it’s hard to imagine the ludicrous extravagance that routinely occurred during the early days of Hollywood — but what better evidence of that extravagance than dazzling set pieces, carefully constructed by craftsman at significant expense, simply being buried in desert sands and then abandoned?  And it’s even harder to imagine that modern environmental authorities would allow entire sets and film crew trash to simply be buried beneath natural sand dunes.

The world was a different place 100 years ago.