Friday, February 27, 2009

We're Not Down with GOP

Here I am again, blogging early on Friday morning. (Or late on Thursday night, however you prefer to think of it.) Conan's on in the background again - the next to last rerun before he's off the air until he starts on the Tonight Show in June. And in an interesting revelation, announcer Joel Godard apparently won't be going with Conan and the Max Weinberg 7 to LA. He'll be a definite loss to the show, as hilarious as he was. But in an interesting turn, Conan's old sidekick Andy Richter's coming home, taking over Joel's announcer job on the Tonight Show. It makes sense, all things considered - Andy hasn't had much of a career since he left Late Night. (Andy Richter Controls the Universe was great, but Fox didn't give it much of a chance. Quintuplets was pretty awful, he was the only good part of that show. And Andy Barker, P.I. didn't get much of a chance either.) Here's hoping we'll see the return of some classic sidekick days comedy this summer - I'd love to see the return of staring contests and sketches like that.

At any rate, after a month of blogging on love and pop culture, it's time to get political again. The subject this time? The ever-increasing irrelevance of the Republican party as they continue to embarrass themselves in trying to court my generation - the Gen Y crowd the media's caught between lauding and reviling, which tends to be more progressive in thinking. The Republicans, of course, think we're all idiots. (Many of us are, of course - like any generation - but you're not going to make any friends or do anybody any favors by treating an entire generation like a pack of morons.)

It's no secret that a major focus of the party has in recent months been undermining sociopolitical milestones achieved by the Democrats in recent times. Hillary Clinton made it further than any woman running for president to date, and many of her supporters were angry when Obama got the nomination. In swooped the Republicans with Sarah Palin, saying "Sure, she stands for everything Hillary opposed, but you don't care about that! You're angry and stupid, so all you care about is voting for a woman! Why would the actual politics be a factor?" Palin didn't take long to fall from grace, being something of a wreck and a general great example of the kind of person we don't need in high office, poorly vetted as she was in being nothing more than a one-note gimmick attached to the Angry Old Man '08 ticket. As you may recall, I blogged about all the misogyny that entails last fall.

After Palin did her part to lose the Republicans the election and shed even further negative light on their party - which is a challenge unto itself after how terrible George W. Bush and Dick Cheney made them look - they continued down that path with Michael Steele. The Republicans elected him Republican National Committee Chairman shortly after Obama's inauguration as an attempt at: "See? We've got a black leader too! Obama's no big deal!" Of course, politically, Steele's more moderate than most outspoken Republicans these days, which only serves to make him look like little more than a stunt choice to improve the party's image.

hey guys take me srsly plzAnd as of late, Louisana governor Bobby Jindal has been pushed forward as a "rising star" of the Republican party. And why? Because he's much more of a hard-line far-right Republican, and more importantly - he's Indian-American. That's all it takes to be a big deal in the party now - firm belief in terrible, regressive far right politics that're only losing relevance, and not being white. They seem to be completely convinced that that's the key to success in the future - undermining Obama by confusing the American people with a non-white political candidate! (And hoping they don't notice that they'd inevitably be espousing the same old terrible rhetoric that the American people are increasingly turning their back on.) Of course, as Jindal's response to Obama's congressional address (Which was a fairly mixed address - not exactly 100% honest, though it was the kind of optimism we really needed to hear, and beautifully orated.) on Tuesday night made clear, obviously nothing was learned from Bush in how he treated the American people. In his response, Jindal criticized government spending on working to provide emergency economic relief, and made some rather outlandish cross-party statements that simply didn't stack-up about government relief in regards to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina relief in Louisiana. (Which isn't something they can foist blame for onto the Democrats.) He approached his response with an extremely clumsy, outright childish tone, talking down to the American people in a voice not unlike that which we'd found grating all through the Bush years. (On the Daily Show, Jon Stewart likened him to trying to sound like Mr. Rogers.) A firm reminder of everything we've been elated to get away from. If Jindal's a "rising star" of the Republican party, they really don't plan on having much of a future.

Yoinked from the Colbert Nation message boardSteele hasn't been making anything of himself but a novelty at this point either, stating last week that the GOP needs a "hip-hop makeover." Apparently TV, radio, internet, and print ads with a hip-hop theme are going to magically change the way everybody looks at the Republican party. Because it's important to pretend you relate to or represent parts of the country whose interests you've never looked out for - and in fact, outright fucked over on numerous occasions. Steele has, in recent times, also criticized Obama's economic stimulus package as simply being "bling bling." Do you hear that? Yes, that's the sound of America's black populace shaking their heads in embarrassment. (Need I even mention Steele's "slum love" comment?) Steele's basically pandering to incredibly cheesy, tired stereotypes about his own race to appease his political party - which, of course, is openly dominated by the interests of the wealthy and white at the expense of everybody else.

The fact of the matter is, the Republicans don't have a clue how to be relevant to Gen Y, or even in general at this point. These people live in this alternative reality that they personally idealize (Seemingly rooted in the era of Reagan and his 'Reaganomics,' which never worked to begin with.) where nothing will ever change, and we will only continue to run in the same old circles. The Republicans will demonize the Democrats - and everyone else remotely left of far right - and eventually defeat them through accusations of communism and socialism, spending a few years bringing the country down through deregulation and legislation focused on their wealthiest constituents over the general interest and good of the American people. Then the Democrats will get re-elected, clean up their mess, and get torn apart for any and every little misstep, ultimately being harassed until the Republicans either win again or cheat their way through another election. (Even if by a narrow majority, the American people realized who the better choice was in 2000, though it speaks volumes of how easily led people in this country are capable of being when they don't think that Bush did as well as he did, getting the conditions he needed to steal the election.) That we'll somehow continue this cycle without anything changing, ideally, beyond the widespread legislation of morality and consolidation of further power in corporate hands over that of the working populace. (Which also shouldn't be happening in the long run, either, given the widespread movement against these things from younger generations - we're only going to become a more powerful and important political presence as the years pass.)

As the current economic crisis and continual major political shifts we've seen mark American history indicate, the Republicans are dead wrong about making this fantasy world they believe in a reality. Of course, as they've shown continuously in recent months, they think young people are all idiots who can easily be molded into hardcore Republicans with the right faces at the forefront - pushing people like Sarah Palin, Michael Steele, and Bobby Jindal to the forefront as gimmicks more than anything else, saying "Hey, they're not white men! Now you can relate!" Outright insulting to the intelligence of the American people - a consistent trend in their politics as of late as well. They completely miss the point, in their detachment from reality. Their politics are outdated and reprehensible - outright dangerous to the future of this nation. As they made in their recent open praise of Rush Limbaugh in the wake of his announcing that he hoped Obama's efforts to help get the country back on its feet failed, they're more concerned with their disgusting, unsustainable political rhetoric than they are the well being of this nation and its people - let alone the world.

Steele's thinking they can simply give the party a "hip-hop makeover" (When you don't get much less "hip-hop" than Republican) and draw Gen Y voters in droves demonstrates the utter irrelevance of postmodern Republican thinking. George W. Bush helped to sink their party in many regards, having been one of the worst presidents this nation's ever had, and they clearly haven't learned anything from it. It's not their party's image that needs a makeover. It's that their irrelevant, backwards politics need reevaluation and updating - otherwise, the party has no future. And at this point, it'd probably be better for America if the Republican party effectively collapsed. In times like these, what we need is forward-thinking, rather than its reverse. We need leaders willing to be honest with us and respect our intelligence, and politicians not interested in completely screwing over the younger generations in pursuit of their ideals - the politics of the Republican party have hit Gen Y hardest in many capacities, and no "makeover" is going to make us forget that.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Science vs. Romance

Unceremoniously stolen from
Hey, look, another semi-consistent update! (Zany.)

Conan's been over for about three days now, and in the least, they're showing one last week of reruns from last fall before the show goes off the air entirely. (I've got it on in the background at the moment - after the current commercial break, they'll be reairing one of those last Triumph the Insult Comic Dog remotes. The one at Hofstra University, making fun of people at the spin room following the second presidential debate.) As such, I haven't gone into withdrawal yet. (The key term naturally being yet.)

February's winding down already, with the month coming to an end this upcoming weekend. This has been a productive month here at Spiral Reverie, as with this being my 10th post this month, this is easily the most active the blog's ever been. (And I'm hoping to better maintain this level of productivity after how much I slowed down my blogging in the latter half of 2008.) That Conan liveblog managed to bring in an astonishing number of hits for this dusty little corner of the internet (Hey there, Cone Zone fanatics finding this blog through Google!), and I'm quite happy about that too.

Anyway, I'm not sure what all I'll be writing about in the future yet - I've got some rough writing cobbled together for a series of posts on the video game industry, its current issues, and problematic attitudes online that I plan to target at normal people who might be interested in learning about the state of things on that front. (Considering how much the market has exploded in recent years thanks to the Wii and DS appealing to far more people than the usual stereotypical gaming crowd, and the severe lack of writing for people who aren't obsessive 'in the know' gamers arguing back and forth over brandnames and genres.) And I'm hoping to come up with some more interesting subjects for posts between those so that I don't just spend a month or so alienating people with video game rambling, either. (Though you've all been warned thoroughly, I am a huge nerd. Of course, the same may be true of most people who spend their time blogging or reading blogs.)

Getting back to the main subject of this post, I promised last week that I'd be doing another love and science post, as I wrote a couple of those last year. With February, the love month (Because we needed one of those to balance out the other 11 hate months. There's a precise science to that, too.), coming to a close, it's time to bring my general posts on the subject to an end for now. (Of course, who knows what else I'll blog about later this year?)

While one of those posts last year focused on the science of kissing, this year? Some new follow-up scientific findings have been announced on the matter. The very act of kissing itself apparently releases chemicals that ease stress hormones in both sexes, and encourages bonding in men. (Though not as much in women, interestingly.) So yes, kissing apparently does indeed relieve stress. Science!

According to findings in a Lafayette College study (Led by dean of faculty and neuroscience professor Wendy Hill), saliva chemical compatibility can be a means of assessing a potential mate. (To slip back into the all-important scientific/National Geographic vernacular here.) In the study, pairs of heterosexual college students kissed for 15 minutes while listening to music, during which time they saw chemical shifts in their oxytocin (Which affects pair bonding) and cortisol (Which is related to stress) levels. How did they study this? Through blood and saliva samples, of course. Science!

Cortisol levels dropped in both sexes, while oxytocin levels rose in the men and dropped in the women. A test group only held hands and experienced similar chemical changes. That seems to make it apparent that physical affection between a pair of lovers is good for reducing stress in general.

Beyond the obvious from the empirical evidence to the conclusions about stress reduction from this experiment, there's still much to be learned about what the body and brain go through chemically in love and affection. This particular experiment was conducted in a student health center, and Hill intends to repeat it in a "more romantic" setting. Lovely!

Hill announced these findings at a session on the Science of Kissing, alongside Helen Fisher of Rutgers University (Whose 2008 findings I wrote about in that last post on the science of snogging. The was also on the Colbert Report earlier tonight.) and Donald Lateiner of Ohio Wesleyan University. Fisher noted that 90+% of human societies practice kissing, and she breaks it down to three components: sex drive, romantic love, and attachment. These components can be effectively viewed as phases: you're driven to assess a variety of partners by your sex drive, then you become focused on an individual through romantic love, and ultimately through attachment you're able to tolerate that person for long enough to raise a child. (And then comes phase 4: Divorce!)

Getting more into the chemicals of kissing, Fisher found that men see kissing as a prelude to copulation. (That little thing we call foreplay.) She also noted that we apparently really like "sloppy" kisses as so to pass on chemicals including testosterone to women through our saliva. In turn, testosterone bolsters the male and female sex drive. (This space reserved for a highly inappropriate chemical date rape joke.)

Fisher also pointed out that an enormous part of your brain becomes active when kissing, and that if you kiss the right person, romantic love can last a long time. (There's a little pat on the back for those of you already completely disillusioned after reading this post.)

At the end of the session, it was naturally included that the science of kissing - philematology - is under-researched. (As such, you can no doubt look forward to more blog posts on new findings on the subject in the future. You'll learn so much that you'll begin to find the very concept of kissing reprehensible! Just remember, brain chemistry is love!)

Feeling disheartened enough yet? Don't worry, there's more! At the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, a team of scientists have successfully isolated the brain's "love circuit." This particular region of the brain has been named the ventral tegmental area. (Or VTA, for short. Very Tasty Area, indeed.)

So, how exactly does love work, you ask? (Yes, that's exactly what you're asking as you put your hands over your ears, shut your eyes, and start singing gibberish as loudly as you can to block out what I'm sharing with you here.) Functionally? Love works just like a drug addiction. The love you have for your significant other and the love an addict has for sweet, sweet crack aren't too different, as Helen Fisher pointed out. The VTA manufactures dopamine and disperses it in different brain regions, which people get hooked on pretty easily. (And quite naturally, of course.) Like any drug, love has its highs and lows - times when you feel on top of the world, and times when you want to crawl into a hole and die.

To put a more positive spin on things, though, the addiction that comes with love seems biologically ingrained as so to keep us together - to effectively add a sense of increased value to love itself. Further connections between love and addiction have been made in studies of the brokenhearted as well. The heartbroken deal with cravings not at all unlike a drug addict in withdrawal.

The most recent brain scans in the study were focused on couples who'd been married for roughly 20 years and still acted like a lovey-dovey couple of newlyweds. (Who, of course, are an absolute minority in married couples, considering the ever-increasing numbers who fall out of love and end up being deadened inside by the whole experience of matrimony.) In both the men and women in these couples, two more areas of the brain reacted in addition to the VTA: the ventral pallidum (Which is associated with attachment and stress-decreasing hormones) and raphe nucleus (Which pumps out serotonin, creating a "sense of calm"). These particular areas essentially create a general low-level feeling of happiness, like all is right with the world. (Basically, your brain is lying to you.)

Naturally, there's some controversy around this research. University of Hawaii psychology professor Elaine Hatfield cautions that we shouldn't take too much from these studies on their own, and that they should be meshed with the work of traditional psychologists. But potentially, its findings could be used to produce brain hormone-based pills to help troubled relationships in addition to therapy. ("Don't worry, honey! If we take these happy pills, you'll eventually feel okay with all those times I slept with your best friend! By the way she's coming over tonight so if you don't mind scramming and pretending you know nothing, that's be awesome.") Potentially, this research could lead to advances in understanding and treating social-interaction conditions like autism. Fisher herself is researching the brain chemistry of attraction between individuals, using her findings as of far at, a popular online dating/matchmaking site for which she serves as the scientific adviser.

In facing limitations in researching living humans, brain researchers have turned to the prairie vole, as it's one of the 5% of mammals that basically bond for life. As such, they're an ideal research subject in looking to figure out what makes this lifelong bond possible. In females, the key bonding hormone was found to be oxytocin (Which is also produced in both voles and humans during childbirth). When scientists blocked the female prairie voles' oxytocin receptors, they stopped bonding.

Male prairie voles' key bonding hormone is vasopressin. In putting vasopressin receptors into brains of meadow voles - a cousin of the prairie voles that doesn't bond like the prairie voles do, instead breeding with a variety of partners - and found that they began to bond like prairie voles then. A genetic variation was found in a few non-monogamous prairie voles as well, which they also found in some human males. The men with that variation ranked lower on an emotional bonding scale, had more marital problems, and their wives were more concerned with their attachment. (As reported by Hasse Walum, a biology researcher in Sweden.)

According to Larry Young of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, romantic love can theoretically be simulated with chemicals, now that scientists have found the key chemicals and means of stimulating their production. But if you really want a damaged relationship to recover or to get that "spark" back, you need to engage in behavior that will naturally stimulate the release of these hormones and emotions. (Such as hugging, kissing, and intimate contact, as found in that earlier article.)

Yes, this was the first long one in a while. But hey, it was interesting, wasn't it? (Yes, yes it was.) The science of love is an interesting topic, but if you can, don't let science's way of draining love of its romance get you down too much. Remember, as musician Jenny Lewis has put well, we're not robots in a grid.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Late Night with Conan O'Brien Final Show Liveblog

After 16 years on the air, Late Night with Conan O'Brien comes to a close tonight. Conan will be moving on to California, where he'll be taking over The Tonight Show, as Jay Leno moves on to a new 10:30 PM show. The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien will be premiering in early June. While Jimmy Fallon will be taking over Late Night and starting on March 1st. (I'm not planning on watching that, myself.)

The past two weeks of shows have revolved around build-up to the final show, with lots of fan-requested looks back at popular bits from the past. Popular remotes reaired have included: Conan introducing his 1992 Ford Taurus to America and then trying to sell it at a car show (He eventually sold it to Brad Pitt), a trip to a Napa Valley vineyard from the week of San Francisco shows years ago, a trip out with Mr. T to enjoy the fall foliage, a late night search for viewers in Houston in 1997 (Since the local NBC affiliate there aired Conan at 2:45 AM then), a comedy remote in which Conan tried to form his own boy band called "Dudez A-Plenti," a popular dinner remote shot with an eccentric producer that was popular during the WGA strike last year, a 2005 trip to central park with a group of birdwatchers, a remote in which Conan hung out with Hunter S. Thompson (Shooting guns and drinking hard liquor), the classic 2002 Triumph the Insult Comic Dog remote mocking a theater lineup for Star Wars Episode 2, and Conan's trip to Martha Stewart Living several years back.

In addition to that, they've done montages looking back at the show's on-air screw-ups, assorted classic amusing moments (Including the show's thematic fixation on robots, bears, and Abraham Lincoln.), Conan's 2006 trip to Finland, the fan-favorite Walker: Texas Ranger clip from the Walker: Texas Ranger lever bits, and the best loved fake TV channel comedy bits. Stephen Colbert showed up tuesday night for a String Dance-Off. (Which Colbert ultimately won.) The Masturbating Bear had his potentially final comedy sketch (Depending on whether or not the NBC censors will allow them to bring the character to The Tonight Show an hour earlier.) in which they tried to freeze him in Carbonite (Like Han Solo) and he successfully escaped thanks to intervention by Carrie Fisher. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg showed up on wednesday to sort-of give Conan the key to the city. Martha Stewart made a brief appearance in bringing up her classic Conan remote as well. Nathan Lane serenaded Conan in his interview on wednesday night. The most recent show included a look back at a variety of funny moments, including William Shatner forgetting Captain Kirk's name and Conan taking on a fake crocodile with Steve Irwin, and a stand-up set by Jerry Seinfeld. Over the course of this final week, Conan has also been chopping up the set with an axe and distributing pieces of it to members of the audience. (The most resilient part of the set so far having been Richie "LaBamba" Rosenberg's podium in The Max Weinberg 7's band setup.)

Having watched Conan fairly religiously since sometime back in 1996 or 1997 (Back when I was in middle school), it's definitely the end of an era of sorts to see the show concluding in these next 24 hours. Of course, with Conan moving to 11:30 this summer, I'll have to rearrange my usual television schedule, watching the later broadcast of the Colbert Report every night starting this summer. I can't say I'm a fan of their choice of replacement Late Night host either. But I'm looking forward to the final show tonight.

And as such, after I post this entry, I'm planning on doing the first Spiral Reverie liveblog (Which only makes sense, considering how few regular readers I have, and how little interest there probably is in a Late Night with Conan O'Brien finale liveblog) - assuming my internet connection's on my side then (It's incredibly slow at the moment for some reason.) - cutting my teeth on the whole liveblogging thing (Having never done it before. I'm usually in bed when interesting things are happening.) - as the final show airs. The White Stripes are the only confirmed guest at this point - a good way to send the show off, given the week they had them on as the musical guest every night - and I'm expecting that amidst the looks back and comedy bits, we'll see Andy Richter show up at some point. I've been surprised they haven't aired any clips from Andy's final show before he left back in 2000 or so as is, having been Conan's sidekick for as long as he had.

Now to enter the Cone Zone for the final time on Late Night:

(12:22 AM) The show starts in 13 minutes. Just going ahead and updating here to indicate that I am indeed going through with this.

(12:37 AM) The show's finally starting here. The same amalgamation of the older openings they've been using this week. The White Stripes are the only guest on the final show, of course, and there's surprise guests coming. Joel's gift to Conan? Flames, beautiful flames.

(12:38) The audience is cheering Conan's name and giving him a standing ovation. An appropriate start for the final show, for sure.

(12:39) 2,725 or so shows total, Conan just said. I probably saw close to 2000 of them.

(12:40) Video greeting from John Mayer, singing "LA's Gonna Eat You Alive."

(12:41) Conan released Abe Vigoda from his cage into the wild. What will he do without his cameos on Conan? Life won't be the same without Abe Vigoda.

(12:43) Conan's favorite remote. 1860's style baseball. This remote? Wonderful. Originally aired a few years ago. Check it out here. That gentleman likes to ply his seed in the other melon patch.

(12:48) If that was any lower, I'd have to dig to Hades to find the apple!

(12:50) Now Conan's hacking more of the set up to give pieces away to the audience. He tore down a column from the side of the stage and promised to break it up during the commercial breaks and distribute it amongst the audience.

(12:54) Back from the first commercial break. The piece of the set was hauled into the hallway to be chopped up for the audience.

(12:55) Will Ferrell just showed up as George W. Bush. He's thanking Cone Bone for his years of "humortastical wonderment." And also called Will Ferrell an asshole, so naturally he didn't have a nickname for Ferrell. Then Ferrell stripped out of his Bush costume into an old "sexy leprechaun" costume from a previous interview to once again humiliate Conan with an unwanted lapdance.

(12:57) Another commercial break.

(1:00) Back from commercial. Conan's talking about his love of practical jokes and mentioned Andy Richter - will he appear?

(1:01) Now they're showing an old prank Conan played on Andy, tricking him into stumbling onto the Today Show set behind Matt Lauer, completely naked. Classic. It's pretty cold in here. ... Katie around?

(1:02) Andy Richter! YES! I told you you'd never last without me!

(1:03) A montage of classic memories from the show: Conan learns bartending (I think I may have still been in high school when that one aired), an interview with Jackie Chan featuring lots of cheesy kung fu movie special effects, Dr. Joyce Brothers prompting Andy to laugh at "sexual dysfunction" (Leading to Conan smacking Andy), an appearance on Rolonda portraying Andy like those "extreme teenagers" on daytime TV shows, a sketch with Ian Roberts (Of Upright Citizens Brigade) involving an attack dog shooting a guy in a suit to protect him from dog attacks, Jim Carrey in "The Conan O'Brien Story," yet another sketch with the "Ginger no!" shooting dog, pimp Conan with a fur-covered car, a clay pigeon shooting sketch that ultimately amounts to Andy getting shot, and a documentary sketch about Conan's childhood. (The other kids liked to call him Stinky.)

(1:07) Commercial break again.

(1:12) Back from commercial. Another highlight reel with Andy. If there's one thing I'm good at, it's watchin' TV! A soap opera parody bit with Conan and Andy, Olympic speed skating, Studio 6A (A parody of the short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), Conan calling Jennifer Garner out on her insisting "snuck" wasn't a word, Conan and former labor secretary Robert Reich's movie trailer, the claymation show, an edit with Harry Connick jr. singing to Conan, a bit of a classic remote at a day spa, and lastly a Rebecca Romijin Stamos (Back when she was still married to John Stamos, I believe) interview (Conan lusted after her as a running joke for years) in which she and Conan effectively kissed by passing a napkin between the fronts of their mouths (Which Conan passed to Andy and Rebecca failed to pass back, kissing Conan, prompting him to freak out on the air).

(1:16) Another commercial break. The White Stripes are out next.

(1:20) Back to the show. Conan's talking about how happy he was to be able to get The White Stripes, since they were his first choice for the final show.

(1:21) The White Stripes are performing now. And Meg isn't on the drums this time, actually doing vocals with Jack. I thought it was familiar - "We're Going to be Friends," by Jack White himself. This song was used as the opening to Napoleon Dynamite.

(1:25) Song finished, and now they're going to commercial again. Only 10 minutes left. Kind of a sad feeling, knowing it's almost over. These Late Night with Jimmy Fallon commercials are pretty depressing, too, with Jane Krakowski and Rachael Ray and all. I'd rather have a few months of Conan reruns and let the new shows start at the same time.

(1:28) Final segment is go, opening with a big photo of the staff. Conan's thanking everyone who helped out on tonight's show. Now he's moved on to giving credit to the whole show's staff and crew for making the show happen, thanking them and encouraging us to watch the end credits.

(1:29) And now he's talking about the Max Weinberg 7 and his good fortune in having such a top quality orchestra on the show, thanking each of the members by name. Thankfully, they'll be going to LA with Conan, so we won't be losing them.

(1:30) Now Conan's talking about Joel Godard too, how he went from being hired as an announcer and how he became one of the strangest and most dada performers in the medium.

(1:31) Time to thank the writers for their brilliance and weirdness. It's impossible not to smile watching all this. Former head writers were mentioned: Robert Smigel, Marsh McCall, Jon Drop(? - I couldn't match this one up with a name on the IMDB), and the current head writer, Mike Sweeney. (The money shot Lincoln himself.)

(1:32) Addressing Lorne Michaels now, thanking him for taking a huge chance in taking a completely unknown television writer with no real performances and bad skin and putting him on television, making his career.

(1:33) A second to acknowledge people at NBC - despite its being in the toilet - Rick Ludwin, Don Olmeyer, Jeff Zucker, and Nick Burnstein.

(Any staff names I screwed up, my apologies to those individuals. I'm going to try to check my spellings online.)

(1:34) A nod to David Letterman now as well and how high he set the bar for his generation with his comedy. Talking about how everything started with Late Night's original host, Letterman, living in whose shadow was both a burden and inspiration to Conan. Thanking Jay Leno for constantly plugging Conan since day one and encouraging his viewers to stay up later to watch Conan.

(1:35) Talking about the warmth and kindness of the city of New York, how good it's been to him - the Mount Olympus of broadcasting - and how shooting there has affected the DNA of the show. Eternal thanks expressed to the people working there and the city of New York. He couldn't believe he got to do the show in that building.

(1:36) Next in the line-o'-thanks is executive producer Jeff Ross, to whom he gives credit for keeping him balanced and getting the show on the air every night. (He wouldn't let the audience give him a standing ovation, of course, haha.)

(1:37) Now he's acknowledging his wife, kids, his parents - who were there tonight - and his brother Neil (Who watched every single show since the beginning and kept cheering him on), his whole family for keeping him sane.

(1:38) Conan says he doesn't know what he did to deserve this opportunity and that he's sure there's others who were much better than him, but that no one's enjoyed it more than he has. He assured us that he's not going to "grow up" now that he's going to 11:30 like critics have called for. The childish weirdness he's known for is who he is, for better or for worse, and that's not going to change. (A relief to hear, as someone who's loved his style of comedy for a significant chunk of his life.) He asked us to continue with him to the next gig, and said we were going to have a really great time.

(1:39) And now it's over. The credits are rolling, and Conan's going out into the audience, hugging fans and shaking their hands, while the staff distributes pieces of the set.

It's the end of an era, all right. Hard to know how to feel with it over, having watched the show a good 12-13 years of my near-25-year life. But yeah, while not over the top, that was a good final show. Next week's all reruns before Jimmy Fallon's Late Night starts. The three-month wait for the Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien to get going in June will be a long one.

So yeah, there you have it, my first attempt at a liveblog. Instead of using any of the chatroom-like services I've seen for liveblogging (As I was uncertain as to how to best integrate something like that with this blog), I just constantly updated this post. I hope it worked well enough for those of you who stuck around to read it, and if you have any particular feedback about the liveblogging process and how to improve it, believe me, I'd love to hear it, seeing as this has just been an amateur first effort.

Thanks for coming by, at any rate. Let's look forward to the Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien when that starts in June.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Life Sucks, and then You Die. And then it still sucks.

Funny. I intended to slow things down considerably this week, and here I am typing out a second entry, with a third one planned for the end of the week. The wonders of actually having material I feel like blogging about.

This time, I'm actually right back to movie talk. But not just any movie talk. Specifically, Dead Like Me: Life After Death. This isn't the first time I've blogged about the movie, though the last time I did was over a year and a half ago, back in the very early days of activity on this blog in summer '07. Specifically, I had some concerns about the film based on some information they announced during filming back then. Having picked up and watched the film in the past 24 hours - in fact, having finished watching the film and behind the scenes featurette less than an hour ago as of my beginning work on this post - this is going to be a discussion of the film, particularly in addressing the mixed reception it's received. (Some fans love it, some fans hate it - there's a pretty even split, with a scattering of viewers in the middle.) I'm also going to make an effort to keep this post relatively spoiler-free. I'll be talking about major story elements, changes, and the characters, but avoiding any bombshells as best I can. But if you're a fan of the series who hasn't seen the movie yet, you may want to consider holding off on reading this, just in case.

At any rate, Dead Like Me: Life After Death is a direct-to-DVD movie developed by MGM as a follow-up to the brilliant Dead Like Me TV series about the afterlives of grim reapers that ran for two seasons before Showtime before it was axed. (In a very questionable executive decision, to put it kindly, considering the show's strong ratings and high quality writing and concept.) Bryan Fuller's shows (Which also include Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies) are pretty much cursed - wonderful, but cursed. Fans weren't happy, Showtime saw protests (And the guy who canceled the show only ended up producing one quality, lasting show in the wake of his taking over as Showtime head of programming. Said quality show? Weeds, which is also worth your time.), and MGM made it clear that they were aware that fans wanted more, and that they would work to bring the series back in some capacity. We'd more or less lost hope when the movie was announced, and then people started to get concerned when the details in my linked previous post emerged.

Cue the Dissection!

The movie was headed up by John Masius and Stephen Godchaux, who were heavily involved in the show's writing and production following Fuller's departure from the series after the first several episodes. (Fuller himself has basically disowned the show since they took it in a different direction from his vision and didn't follow several plotlines he'd intended to set up. Though that didn't exactly stop the series from still being fantastic overall.) They wrote the film - I'll be addressing the writing in a bit - and got director Stephen Herek (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Mr. Holland's Opus) on board with the project. In regards to the direction, Herek wasn't a bad choice. They discuss his approach to the film in the behind the scenes featurette on the DVD, and his efforts to effectively reimagine Dead Like Me - to give us something both familiar and fresh, that both fans and new viewers could enjoy. And like with Joss Whedon's Serenity a few years back, I could certainly see newcomers getting something out of Life After Death, but similarly, not getting the full experience without having watched the series and familiarized themselves with the characters. (As such, it's highly recommended that you watch the series before the movie.)

On the whole, the tone of the film is both familiar and new - the overall approach to the direction makes it clear that Herek's a fan of the show, and made some effort to carry many of the recurring styles of shots from the series over to Life After Death. But the feeling's definitely different - the more TV-oriented style of humor is downplayed (Though there's still plenty of humor in the film), with a more cinematic balance of the humorous and serious moments. The emotional core of the film - which revolves around George and Reggie, as I'll get to in a bit as well - is more serious in nature than the TV series consistently was. (As it balanced sharp, biting humor with its more poignant moments and bits of seemingly hopeless family drama.) American Beauty in particular was cited in the behind the scenes featurette as an inspiration drawn from in some of the more dramatic and melancholy shots throughout Life After Death. Overall, Herek did a fine job presenting something familiar with a fresh spin. (As in the near five years it's been since the show's cancellation, there was no bringing the exact same universe and show back.) The one complaint I have with his direction is a particular awkward effect he uses a few times: taking a shot originally recorded at normal speeds and blatantly slowing it down for dramatic effect. It's only used a few times, but it can take you out of the film for a few seconds when it's used. Interesting bit of trivia: Herek was initially going to direct the series pilot before he had to back out, back in 2003.

Now let's look at the writing. Masius and Godchaux did a good job, overall. The entire film feels more like an episode of the TV series than a completely separate film, and in the humor, character growth, and overall story development throughout the film, the heart and soul of the TV series are absolutely intact. The magic's still there. That said, they tried to cram a good several episodes' worth of plot into about 90 minutes - that's one of the flaws that stands out more. A ton of story threads are thrown at the viewer, and the characters take and run with them in all directions. Only a few of these threads are actually fully realized, while the others seem woefully underdeveloped. And one of the most important ones suffers a little from some heavier melodrama than the main series itself generally let itself fall into.

At any rate, to fully elaborate, let's take a look at the characters:

George - It wouldn't be Dead Like Me without George, played by the ridiculously talented Ellen Muth. She's uncharacteristically flat and lacking in her usual brilliance in the film's opening recap of the universe and its rules that reapers have to deal with. That was something that could have used rerecording. Beyond that, I have no complaints. She's the all-important lead we grew to know and love in the TV series, a few years older and a few years wiser. The film focuses on showcasing George's growth as a character and does it effectively. She's pretty much the biggest reason to see the film. The most jarring part about her character otherwise was the recasting of UnGeorge/Millie as living human beings see her. That was an element of the series they'd more or less dropped in the second season of the show (Which may explain why they weren't able to get Laura Boddington, who originally played her alter ego, back). They naturally also had to recast the little girl who played George in flashbacks to her childhood for obvious reasons.

Mason - Callum Blue's spot-on as Mason again in the years since the show's cancellation. He brings the same sort of reckless, hedonistic energy to his performance as he did in the TV series. Sadly, beyond a joke character, he's sorely underused in Life After Death, with Mason largely remaining two-dimensional throughout the film. (Beyond a moment nodding back to the tension between the characters of Mason and Daisy that received a great deal of focus back in season 2.) If they're able to revive the series with a third season or another movie as everyone's hoping, one hopes Mason will get a little more screentime and development in the future.

Daisy - Daisy, unfortunately, is not the Daisy we knew and loved in this film. Laura Harris - who'd formerly played the character - was unavailable for the project, and after considering writing Daisy out (As could have been the better way to go), the character was recast. Australian actress Sarah Wynter took on the role as her first comedy performance, and while she shows she has the chops for comedy, you can also tell she's not a seasoned comedic actress either. While you can see hints of the Daisy we knew in her performance, that she's drawing on the same character, she comes off like a clumsy understudy. She's one of the film's weaker links overall, between her woefully underdeveloped subplots - again, they tried to do too much in a 90-minute film to fully realize everything they began - and very mixed performance. One would hope that if the series continues in the future, they'll either get Laura Harris back, or Wynter will have more time to fine-tune her interpretation of the character. She could potentially give us a take on Daisy of a caliber not unlike Harris', but sadly, she doesn't in this film.

Roxy - Jasmine Guy's right at home back in character as Roxy again, like Muth and Blue. The best parts of the movie aside from George's central story are the returning reapers from the original show, easily. Roxy doesn't get the kind of screentime and development in the film that she deserved. (Especially in the wake of the former head reaper in their division's departure (Rube, played by the great Mandy Patinkin back in the show, who sadly declined to join the rest of the cast in Life After Death), and the assumption that she would be taking over upon his departure. Rube's departure in general didn't get the kind of focus it needed, and his loss can be felt throughout the film - it's a different universe without Patinkin. Not bad, but different.) We did, however, get to see a little more of her humanity than we usually did in the series under her rough exterior, as well as her character expressing more femininity than she'd explored in the series.

Cameron Kane - Replacing Rube, they brought in Henry Ian Cusick from ABC's Lost to play a new high powered businessman who'd died jumping out a window on 9/11 as the new head reaper in the characters' external influence division. He's amusing when on-screen, but his character has no real depth and is largely only brought in as a bit of a comical antagonist, getting little screentime.

Reggie - George's younger sister Reggie - played by Britt McKillip, who's grown up a lot since the original series - plays a pivotal role in the movie, as she did in the TV series. McKillip's up to the task, as she was when she was younger, fortunately. Her storyline focuses more on elements of a secret love affair and a reconnection with her deceased sister - the former part of the story felt more melodramatic and somewhat clumsily executed in the plot, but the latter was very well done, and echoed a number of the themes running between their characters in the TV series. So while part of her storyline comes off as wasted potential, the rest more than makes up for that.

Joy - George and Reggie's mother (Played by Cynthia Stevenson) doesn't get much screentime in Life After Death. But from what of her we see, she's easily one of the characters who's grown the most since the original series, and brings a pleasant dynamic to the film with her relationship with Reggie. Definitely refreshing, after how much of the series came down to Joy and Reggie going in circles and seeming hopelessly broken as a family in the wake of George's death at the beginning of the series.

Happy Time - Christine Willes reprises her role as Delores Herbig, who runs the Happy Time temp agency where George has been working since the original series. They had to build a completely new set, which in no way resembles the original, but it works. (Much of the film is this way. Der Waffle Haus is gone, since the original set had been taken apart, and the entire film was shot in Montreal, though the TV series had been shot in Vancouver, and the fact that the show and movie were filmed in completely different places is very noticeable, and contributes to the overall feeling of hte film being different.) Delores has a fairly sizable subplot throughout the film, which manages to be entertaining and continue an element of her character from the original series. Crystal Dahl also reprises her role as the Happy Time secretary, Crystal, though she's mostly just there as a nod to the fans.

There's a lot for the fans to be happy about in the writing, but overall, the film's a definite mixed bag on that front between the changed tone - with its humor less sharp and biting, though the language was thankfully still as over the top as in the series (They're quite fond of the word "fuck." You might say they used it quite e-fucking-ffectively.) - and the fact that they just tried to do too much in an hour and a half to fully realize the potential of the film. But in many regards, fans have had such polarized reactions no doubt as a result of expectations they'd built up for the film without knowing what exactly they were getting into. Life After Death isn't intended to tie up all the loose ends and give the fans the fuller closure they've been asking for to end the series completely - it's intended to give the fans the characters again and showcase their growth, while working to relaunch the series rather than end it. Though if Life After Death is all we end up getting in the end, it does end on a perfect note (Not unlike how season 2 had) with which to conclude the series. Métisse fans will also be happy with the end credits.

After reading a mix of reviews from all perspectives, I popped the DVD into my player a few hours ago now, going in with no expectations beyond that I would be entertained and enjoy seeing the characters again. And having finished it and watching the behind the scenes featurette, I have to say, I'm not one of the fans clinging to one extreme or the other about the film. It's a very mixed bag - neither stellar nor terrible cinema, and certainly not bad for a series canceled nearly half a decade ago finally getting a DVD movie follow-up. It's not brilliant, but it's still a fresh and fun take on the Dead Like Me universe that retains the heart and soul of the series and should give fans hope. It shows that the cast can still play these characters as effectively as they once had. An additional movie or relaunched show could potentially open the door to bringing back Mandy Patinkin (If only for a guest stint to fully flesh out Rube's departure) and Laura Harris, or at least giving Sarah Wynter time to get better at playing Daisy. If we can get another series, they've shown us that they can bring back the kind of magic we knew and loved in the original series. (And fortunately, they managed to retain the series' visual effects guy for Life After Death, allowing the mischievous gravelings to remain visually identical.) It's a fun movie, and it's well worth buying to support efforts to bring Dead Like Me back. It never should've been canceled, and the kind of brilliance the series embodied is in no way something they can't bring back. Like Life After Death, it wouldn't be exactly the same, but it could still be fantastic, and with more time to pace their writing, another season would be far more ideal than another movie.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Because I Love You I Must Remove Your Eyes

Ganked from
Yet another post? Why!?

Because I can.

Just another little post-Valentine's post this time. I commented on scientific studies a couple of times around this time last year. People seemed to enjoy those. So why not do that again this year, too? (At least, now that I've found a couple of interesting studies to comment on in the past few days, the second of which I'll talk about either later this week or early next week.)

Scientific American recently reported on research that found individuals married or in a serious monogamous relationship had developed an aversion to attractive members of the opposite sex. The idea here, of course, being that there could potentially actually be something of substance to the tired romantic cliche of people claiming to "only have eyes" for one another.

The test reported on in particular involved having subjects choose between quickly displayed attractive and average faces, then proceeding to stimulate their thought processes (And in turn, stir up some chemicals in that mass of gray matter in their skulls - there's no more romantic way to put that. Brains are love. Or at least, technically speaking, as much as we love to romanticize it, love's all about brain chemistry. Dopamine and serotonin are your friends.) and had them take the test again. Half of the subjects were asked to write about their feelings for their partner, while the other half were simply asked to write about a happy experience. Those who wrote about the happy experience continued to be drawn to the attractive faces, while those who wrote about their partner found themselves unconsciously turning their focus away from the attractive faces.

The Florida State University Psychologist who conducted this research - Jon Maner - suggested that this unconscious trend in attentional bias could be a reaction evolved to help men and women maintain monogamous relationships. Of course, this is also an evolutionary psychology study - a field frequently criticized as being largely speculative, given the exceptional difficulty of pinpointing the line between learned behaviors as a result of cultural practice in human beings and what comes naturally to the species. (As well as exactly where certain behaviors effectively evolved into our unconscious behavioral processes.)

But even while it's a largely speculative science, they raise some interesting points here. The evolutionary spin's more or less an interesting possibility by which to frame the study's empirical findings. Their findings aren't exactly unbelievable, though it seems like something that could use some more research in general. (As the science of love tends to.) Unsurprisingly though, the comments on that story are loaded with disbelief of the results, given the increasingly popular cynical viewpoint on the internet that monogamy is unnatural. (Though for all the praise polyamory gets as a lifestyle from an outspoken internet minority, you'll find more horror stories than success stories on that front, running counter to the lovely arguments in favor of polyamory, looking at themselves as "more evolved" for attempting a multi-pronged relationship. Personally, I think these people are completely insane. Human relationships - deep, meaningful ones in particular - are extremely difficult to find and maintain with so much as a single human being. Polyamory generally smacks of naivete and people trying to idealistically have their cake and eat it too, so to speak.)

Don't you just love putting love under the microscope?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Film for Lovers: Last Life in the Universe

Well, I've killed all of you with an overdose of my blogging. Good going, me! See what happens when you get too much of a good thing? Good thing it's so easy to reanimate people into zombies incapable of cognition beyond reading this blog. It's all about the right concoction (or "secret blend") of herbs and spices and a little detachment from that inconvenient "reality" thing.

So here we are at long last, at the tail end of my five-part daily series on notable movies with love as a central theme. (To reiterate one last time, the rest of the series consists of Paris, Je T'aime, The Baxter, Before Sunrise, and Before Sunset.) Valentine's Day is over - personally, I mostly spent it trying to sleep and failing, and then played some Animal Crossing. (Not only romantic, but productive, too!) It's not too late for this one last hurrah, of course, so here we are. Maybe I'll find some more subjects to blog on more regularly soon.

Either way, to conclude this series? The fantastic 2003 Thai film by Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Last Life in the Universe. (The original Thai language title is Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan, which can be interpreted in English as "Love Story of Noi and Nid, a Lot" or "A Small/Little Love Story That is a Lot.") The film itself is a collaboration between Ratanaruang, cult Japanese director Takashi Miike, and actor Tadanobu Asano. (Miike and Asano have worked closely together before, most famously on Ichi the Killer.) Ratanaruang having studied in the United States, the film's also a self-conscious work of art house cinema.

Co-written by Ratanaruang and author Prabda Yoon, Last Life in the Universe tells the story of two deeply-suffering individuals united by tragedy. Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) is a librarian at the Japan Foundation in Bangkok living in apparent self-imposed exile in Thailand for reasons unknown. He lives an obsessively tidy, precise life in an apartment resembling a library, constantly flirting with suicide from the very beginning of the film for reasons even he can't completely articulate beyond wanting to depart from his present life. While Kenji wouldn't exactly be an anomaly in Japan as an introvert, he faces some alienation within his own culture as a result of his allergy to fish - an important staple in the Japanese diet.

Kenji's brother - a member of a yakuza group - abruptly shows up in Bangkok, interrupting Kenji's latest suicide attempt, and imposes on him by moving in. We learn from a fellow yakuza member at a hostess bar with him that he's on the run from their group's leader for raping his daughter. It's at this bar where we're introduced to one of the hostesses, Nid (Famous Thai actress Laila Boonyasak, the character's name literally meaning "small"), and her older sister, Noi (Laila's real life older sister Sinitta Boonyasak, her character's name literally meaning "few" or "less."). The sisters quarrel over Nid having recently slept with Noi's boyfriend.

Back at Kenji's apartment, the other yakuza kills Kenji's brother for their boss and prepares to kill Kenji, who recently came into possession of a gun himself. A lucky shot or two later, Kenji has a real problem on his hands. He considers jumping off a bridge into the river below. Noi and Nid's fight continues on the same bridge, and Noi has Nid get out of the car. She notices Kenji about to jump to his death, and finds her own life instead abruptly lost to a speeding motorist.

The shared experience of this tragedy brings Kenji and Noi together. Two people who'd suffered strained relationships with their siblings up until their sudden deaths. Unable to continue living in his apartment with two dead bodies stashed there, Kenji returns home with Noi to the Thai countryside - much further from Bangkok - and rejects her offers to drive him home. Kenji, being an obsessively clean person - unlike Noi, who'd allowed her house to fall into relative ruin - begins to sort through her ramshackle environs and organize things again, overstaying his welcome. After a fight over Kenji's snooping a little too much, the characters naturally begin to develop a closer bond, sharing a bowl of noodles for lunch - passing it back and forth between them, each demonstrating the extent of their knowledge of the other's language. (Making little jokes throughout.) This is the heart of the film: Two interesting personalities coming together - diametrically opposed yet complementary - to tell a subtle love story between two very damaged people.

Language, communication, and its intercultural successes and failures despite lack of a common fluent language act as one of the film's central themes. Something mainstream cinema generally doesn't explore, lacking an audience interested in such things. Where Kenji's relatively monotone, reserved, and constantly apologetic in his speech, Noi's much more extroverted and vocal with her emotions, speaking in much more forceful and expressive tones.

Intercultural communication and miscommunication is presented far more realistically than in most films featuring individual cultural exchange as a central theme, with the two leads speaking little of one another's languages, and communicating through the lingua franca of clumsy English (Making this a rare fully trilingual film), neither of them fluent in that either. As you'd expect, there's a whole lot of "What?" in the dialogue where communication fails, like in real life miscommunication.

Like the recently reviewed Linklater love stories, Last Life in the Universe also features an element of time constraint. The entire story takes place over only a handful of days, with a deadline in Noi being set to move to Kyoto a few days after taking Kenji in, with the question of what would become of him once she left. And like the Linklater films, the heart of the story lies in the love story between the two main characters and their getting to know one another, despite both of them being relative closed books as people. (Unlike the leads in Linklater's films.) The characters begin to noticeably grow as a result of their time together, their unbalanced personalities beginning to find a bit more of a balance towards the end.

Surrealist elements set the film apart from many others stylistically in how its narrative unfolds, as well. These elements include the movement of inanimate objects as though possessed by ghosts, and visual character displacement - elements of characters combining at one point, and the actors for two primary characters briefly switching without any narrative clarification occurring in those scenes. Last Life in the Universe is a complicated, multilayered narrative with a great deal of depth both within the script and visual direction of the film itself, warranting many viewings to fully enjoy all the ways the film can be interpreted.

A key underlying focus of the narrative is the decisions people make and the changes that can happen in their lives throughout the film. In its dreamy, surreal atmosphere, it's difficult to determine for certain how much of the story actually occurs, and how much amounts to imagined possibilities. That less concrete approach to the narrative is an interesting thing to watch. And personally, I think there isn't enough being done with fluid, abstract narratives these days.

As the film winds down, Noi gets ready to depart and Kenji faces some unexpected challenges in a rush back to his apartment, the audience wondering if the two will manage to safely end up together. How it ends, of course, I won't say. Only that you should absolutely see the film for yourself.

In many ways, Last Life in the Universe can be compared - both in some of its themes and the sort of atmosphere the film sets - to Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, which was made in the same year. While Coppola's film is certainly very good in its own right, it pales in comparison to what Last Life in the Universe accomplishes. Ratanaruang's film sets its sights even higher - telling a similar, but far darker and more elaborate story with far more compelling characters - and scores on all fronts.

Film is primarily a visual medium, and Last Life in the Universe is an absolute labor of love in that regard too. The brilliant Christopher Doyle (Who directed one of the short films in Paris, Je T'aime) served as the cinematographer in this project as well, finding beauty in even the most desolate bits of Thai scenery. Tense and slow-paced, the entire film is beautifully shot, without a single moment or scene that isn't perfectly framed by the camera lens. There's a quiet seductiveness and element of sexuality bubbling underneath the characters' cautious interactions and gradually developing intimacy throughout the film. The camera brings these things alive.

Hualampong Riddim and Small Room provide the film with an absolutely haunting original score (Which I've had the fortune of importing from Thailand myself.) that enables the film to further give the viewer goosebumps from the incredible atmosphere all these elements come together to build. An absolutely expert, top of the line work of cinema. Last Life in the Universe is easily the darkest of the films I've focused on in this series, but also one of the best, telling its tale of a subtle love between damaged people in the wake of personal tragedy.

Well, that's it for this five-part series on notable non-mainstream movies on love. Next up, I'm thinking of doing a couple more love-themed entries - though with slightly longer breaks between them (Hopefully not as long as usual) - to round out my February entries with a couple of love-related scientific studies I've seen in the news recently. Intriguing stuff.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Film for Lovers: Before Sunset

It's past midnight and I'm back at the keyboard again, so you know what that means. That's right! Time to blind you with science- I mean another Valentine's season movie review post. Tonight's post is the fourth and next-to-last of the series, preceded by: Paris, Je T'aime, The Baxter, and Before Sunrise, for the sake of providing links back for any who come across these posts via linking from elsewhere or search engines. (You know you're dying to read all of them. Quite literally, this entire blog is coated with a powerful toxin taken in through the eyes that can only be neutralized by reading everything. You can't say you haven't been warned.)

In following Before Sunrise last time, this time around, we take a look at its sequel, Before Sunset. This time, Linklater wrote the screenplay with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, in a rare case of the lead actors having even more of a direct hand in the development and writing of the characters they play. (Delpy has since had a round in the director's chair herself, writing and directing 2 Days in Paris, a very Woody Allen-esque relationship comedy in which she co-starred with Adam Goldberg.) The 2004 film is set 9 years after the events of the original film, following the exact time lapse since the release of Before Sunrise.

Taking that in mind, should you be disinterested in spoiling the ending of the first film and wondering what becomes of the two characters before seeing Before Sunset, you may want to skip this post. That said, in my discussion of the film itself, I'm going to avoid spoiling anything too much - as I try to in general - as so to further encourage you, dear readers, to give this one a look as well.

In taking inspiration from his night in Vienna with Céline, Jesse writes a somewhat successful novel and finds the last stop of his European book tour in a small corner of Paris. As he speaks with local journalists about the project, we flash back to his night with Céline, connecting the narratives. Three of the journalists represent the viewer's way of interpreting the end of Before Sunrise: a romantic who believes the characters must meet again, a cynic who believes they don't, and one caught in between, who wants to believe in the characters' love but allows realism to hold them back. In this way, the film slyly breaks the fourth wall early on in addressing the first film's fans directly. Céline appears in Jesse's audience at the bookstore, and upon completing his discussion with the journalists and readers, the two are finally reunited.

With a few hours free before Jesse's plane ferries him back to America, he and Céline choose to spend that time catching up. From there, the film returns to the stylistic approach of the original, with the couple separating from "normal" time and entering a world all their own, centered around their wonderful stream-of-consciousness style conversation consuming the rest of the film. Of course, this time they have much less time to spend together than they did in Vienna. In facing those time constraints, their conversation becomes much more personal far more quickly than in Vienna.

The two of them now in their mid-thirties, we first learn again about their politics and work, and see how they've grown and changed in the near-decade since their last encounter. As the afternoon progresses and they confront their impending second heartbreaking parting, they grapple with their feelings for one another and the disillusionment they'd experienced with love in growing older after all the youthful idealism they'd shared together that night in Vienna. That night proved to be a pivotal one in both their lives. At the end of the afternoon, they face difficult decisions with the question of whether or not they'll ever see one another again, regretting never having exchanged contact information in their youthful foolishness.

Where Before Sunrise represented the best of '90s art house filmmaking, Before Sunset does the same for 2000s art house cinema. Between the writing, cinematography, and atmosphere of the films, each retains the distinct feel of the times they were made. Progressing technology certainly made a notable impact as well, with the cameras used in Before Sunset capturing and bringing to life a gorgeous Paris mid-afternoon in ways that couldn't be done quite as effectively a decade prior. The use of natural lighting - the entire film having been shot over 15 days - only helps to accentuate the visuals, as Paris is just as generous a backdrop as Vienna had been, absolutely vibrant and alive. Music plays even more of a role this time around as well, Nina Simone serving as a wonderful subject of conversation late in the film, and the soundtrack sporting three songs by Julie Delpy. (All of which complement the film extremely well and enhance the atmosphere with their addictive French folk charm.)

Ethan Hawke himself has commented on the film's existence, and acknowledged that there was never really any demand for a sequel. They'd simply decided to make one because they felt like it, and wanted to revisit the characters. Frankly, the reasons one could have for making a sequel don't get much better than that - especially if the film's a labor of love as so to avoid falling into the pitfalls many unnecessary sequels do. (And Before Sunset avoids those pitfalls handily.) It's clear from the writing - and the number of elements from their own personal lives invested in their characters - that Hawke and Delpy have poured a lot into these characters. If there're any roles that really define their careers as actors, these characters are undoubtedly those roles. Hawke has also suggested in interviews that there may be a third movie about Jesse and Céline yet.

Before Sunset is another film that fits into my personal categorization system as one that I cannot recommend enough. For personal reasons, I was certainly able to connect to the whole idea of reaching out to somebody through a book, as Jesse did to Céline. And if there's any drawback to the whole film, it's that it's a good forty-ish minutes shorter than Before Sunrise. The pacing and writing are even tighter as a result, the viewer being able to really feel how much less time these characters have together than last time, but it definitely leaves you wanting more. And so I conclude my discussion of these two intertwined films by simply saying that you should absolutely see both of them. They'll leave you blissed out.

Next up? I figure out which film I'm going to write about for the 5th and final post in this series. What could it be? Stay tuned! (This thing's hits seem to have been rising daily as of late, so it seems the whole "blogging more regularly" thing can indeed be good for traffic. Who'd've thunk it?)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Film for Lovers: Before Sunrise

Egad, a third daily entry in a row. How is this even possible? Science, my friends, it's only science. (And also magic, but keep that on the down-low.)

Tonight, we've arrived at part three of my five-part series of posts on noteworthy generally non-mainstream love-themed films for the Valentine's season. Because why should you even consider spending the holiday conversing and deepening your relationship when you could be spending it sedentary, letting good movies do all the romantic work for you? Actual human interaction's for chumps - perhaps in this postmodern society, that goes without saying.

After spending the past couple of entries looking at Paris, Je T'aime and The Baxter, this time we take a look at Before Sunrise, an all-time personal favorite film. (Which might sound sappy coming from someone as cynical as myself - especially so in regards to love - but you'd have to be completely dead inside not to fall in love with this movie.) A story minimalist, naturalistic, and stream-of-consciousness in its conception and execution, Before Sunrise is a love story of a variety rarely seen in cinema: one that's truly believable.

Written by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly, Fast Food Nation, Waking Life (Which also features a brief appearance by Before Sunrise's leads.)) and Kim Krizan and directed by Linklater himself, Before Sunrise is a 1995 film in which the characters themselves are the story. Like all love stories, we have two central characters. Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American, is on his way to Vienna to catch a flight back to the United States. Céline (Julie Delpy), a young French woman, is returning to school in Paris after a trip to her grandmother's in Budapest. The two of them meet on the train, and after some convincing from Jesse - suggesting that a decade or two down the line, she might not be satisfied with her marriage and wondering what could have been had she picked up with another guy, and that he was just another boring, unmotivated guy like the rest - Céline agrees to disembark with him in Vienna.

The two of them spend the rest of the day and night exploring the city on foot, the entirety of the film playing out as a thoroughly enjoyable, naturalistic day-long conversation between the two characters as they talk about life, love, and everything else around Vienna. Enjoyable dialogue and character development are Before Sunrise's meat and potatoes. As the film progresses, a very organic romantic chemistry develops between the characters, Hawke and Delpy's performances being of a caliber that allows the viewer to forget you're watching performances and instead feel more as though you're spying on two ordinary people falling in love. Night falls, and the couple has to figure out how to spend it, lacking the cash to get a room anywhere. When morning arrives, they're faced with all sorts of complications in having agreed to never see each other again after spending that one day together.

Conceptually, Before Sunrise undoubtedly isn't for everybody - certainly here in America, you'd be hard-pressed to find a mainstream audience interested in watching a film that amounts to essentially eavesdropping on a two-hour conversation between two people. But it's that unpretentious, unglamorous take on a love story unfolding between two people that lends the film its realistic atmosphere. (With a touch of magic, of course, as there is in all natural connections.) The central themes of self-fulfillment and self-discovery through interaction with a lover is one not explored anywhere nearly as well - and often not even addressed - in mainstream romantic cinema. (Which frequently doesn't seem to have a clue how this whole love thing works.) The film's supporting cast consists of mostly small name to no-name European actors (And undoubtedly in some cases, ordinary Viennese), and the soundtrack complements the film well, between use of a fair amount of classical music and a notable scene featuring Kath Bloom's "Come Here." The cinematography itself gives us a beautiful street-level view of Vienna, the city acting as a silent third character alongside the leads, a perfect backdrop for their romance.

While all these things are wonderful and only contribute to the brilliance of Before Sunrise, the real stars, of course, are the script and leads. You'd never see a Hollywood romance with a script quite like this, largely because by Hollywood standards, a naturalistic, believable love story isn't generally considered to be very interesting or marketable. Before Sunrise is absolute proof to the contrary. All you need is the right leads, an excellent script, and someone behind the camera who knows how to direct with the right amount of subtlety and sensitivity that mainstream and Hollywood cinema by and large lack in their focus on flourish and grandiose story arcs. That sort of cinema is all about the big stories - but those aren't the stories most true to life. Life's all about the small, beautiful stories. And Before Sunrise is all about life. Together, Céline and Jesse embrace and experience life to its fullest in getting to know and understand one another, and through that, themselves as well. It's a heartfelt celebration, cinematic love at its finest.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Film for Lovers: The Baxter

What's this? A new Spiral Reverie entry less than 24 hours later? What happened to the usual 2+ week gap!? I haven't had enough time to prepare! Believe me, I'm as surprised as you are.

Of course, now we're in the midst of a series of posts on good Valentine's season movies. (While I'm effectively proving here that if I felt like it, I could update this thing much more frequently. I might be able to retain more regular readers if I did that. I just can't guarantee a consistency of quality if I post too often. That's my excuse for the moment, anyway.) In particular, focused on highlighting films that don't get that much - or nearly enough - attention in the mainstream. Obviously, I began with Paris, Je T'aime last time. Tonight? We take a few minutes to look at an independent romantic comedy that'll make you laugh instead of rotting your teeth.

The film in question is, of course, none other than The Baxter, a film by Michael Showalter of the absurdist Stella comedy trio. (An off-shoot of the '90s MTV sketch comedy series, The State, which in turn spawned Viva Variety, Reno 911!, and short-lived Stella TV series on Comedy Central. Michael Ian Black and Ken Marino (Who also had a recurring role on Veronica Mars) of The State also had regular roles in the second half of the first season of Reaper. Other movies by The State have included: David Wain's Wet Hot American Summer, The Ten, and Role Models, along with Ken Marino's New England clam-digging drama, Diggers, and Robert Ben Garant's Reno 911!: Miami.) The Baxter is considerably less crass than Wet Hot American Summer's '80s summer camp movie parody humor.

Selling itself as "a romantic comedy for anybody who's ever been dumped," The Baxter tells the story of Elliot Sherman (Michael Showalter himself), a "Baxter," as defined by the film: the dull, nice guy who always gets dumped for the far more exciting protagonist as a standard romantic comedy trope. (See: A whole lotta John Cusack films from the '80s.) The dull guy women settle for when they can't be with who they actually love. As we're introduced to the character, we look back through his life and see him being dumped by girlfriends time and time again for more exciting guys who put it all on the line for her.

Elliot meets the film's two heroines through his accounting work - woman of his dreams magazine editor Caroline Swann (Elizabeth Banks, who's appeared in other Stella and The State works) and similarly geeky office temp Cecil Mills (Michelle Williams). And ultimately, Elliot ends up engaged to Caroline, only to have things start going wrong during the wedding planning between the numerous compatibility issues the couple faced and the appearance of the love of Bradley Lake (Justin Theroux), love of Caroline's life. With a break-up seeming imminent, it's up to Cecil to help Elliot learn to take risks in order to become the assertive leading man type he needed to become in order to take control of his life and escape the Baxter curse.

A gentle, enjoyable film that I've no doubt men and women could enjoy equally as much, The Baxter features a lot of small laughs in its offbeat script. The film's a pleasure to look at, with colorful cinematography and plenty of breathtaking shots of New York. The sentimental piano soundtrack complements the film well and helps to build its atmosphere. And in addition to the aforementioned cast members, the film sports a strong supporting cast, including: Showalter's fellow Stella members Michael Ian Black and David Wain, Peter Dinklage, Paul Rudd, Zak Orth, Catherine Lloyd Burns, A.D. Miles, Joe Lo Truglio, and Ken Marino.

Adorable and intelligently clever in its writing, The Baxter's a fresh take on a genre defined by being safe and inoffensive, and possesses an infectious rewatchability in the simple pleasantness of the experience. It may not initially seem like much on the surface (As that's the genre), but it's both an expertly crafted tribute to the genre (Particularly taking after an older style of genre writing) and an effective subversion of the genre at its most tired and trite. A very light film, this one will leave you smiling.

Film for Lovers: Paris Je T'aime

So yeah, as I said last week, I was planning on doing a series of posts on love-themed cinema for Valentine's Day this year. Of course, V-Day's in only three days now, so I'm a little late in getting to that. (I've been keeping myself distracted with Spaced on DVD at night lately anyway, because Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright are fantastic. As is Jessica Hynes.) At any rate, I'm kicking off these posts (I'm hoping to get 3 or 4 done for this series in total, with the last one perhaps being posted late on the 14th - likely technically in the early morning on the 15th.) with a look at the veritable platter of love-themed cinematic hors d'oeuvres that is Paris, Je T'aime.

The 2006 film consists of 18 short films (Or arrondissements) by 22 different directors spanning roughly two hours, each between four and seven minutes. Within these few minutes, each director tells an intimate and quirky little bite-size tale of love between a couple of characters in different locations throughout Paris - and this isn't your Hollywood's Paris, either. Each of these directors pouring their artistic passions into these personal love letters to both the city of love and love itself, you get very different perspectives on the tiny slices of the city you see from film to film as the movie plays out.

The film opens with Montmartre, a short by writer/director Bruno Podalydès and even starring Podalydès himself as a bitter man who parks his car on a Montmartre street and comes to the aid of a passing woman (Florence Muller) who faints nearby. Montmartre opens the film with a short tale of hope and connection for a bitter man in a gentle and pleasant start to Paris Je T'aime as a whole.

From there, we're taken to a tale of young people connecting with a cross-cultural undertone in Quais de Seine, a film by the married team of American screenwriter Paul Mayeda Berges and Indian-British director Gurinder Chadha. The short focuses on a young man (Cyril Descours) harassing passing women by the Seine river who ends up drawn to and connecting with a clumsy, charming Muslim girl (Leïla Bekhti) irritated by his friends' behavior. The short has a sort of "this could be the start of something beautiful" feel to it, in its charming leads and the sort of cross-cultural connection never seen in mainstream cinema.

The matter of cross-culturalism comes up again in the third short, American director Gus Van Sant's Le Marais. This film focuses on a young man (Gaspard Ulliel) drawn to another (Elias McConnell) working in a print shop, and his efforts to explain the intense feeling he was getting that the other young man was his soulmate. All while unaware, of course, that the other young man didn't speak much French. A charming short film of unaware miscommunication of strong feelings, and Paris Je T'aime's inclusion of a same-sex romantic connection as well, as love is naturally limited to no one sexual orientation.

The Coen brothers made the fourth short, Tuileries, a more physical and comical film. An American tourist (Steve Buscemi) waits for the Paris Metro to arrive at the Tuileries station and makes the mistake of making eye contact with a turbulent couple making out on a bench across the station. A short with the kind of comical execution that perhaps only Steve Buscemi could have pulled off as well as he did. Short and simple as the film is, it's quite enjoyable, and helped to raise my opinion of the Coens again after how disappointed I was by their recent Burn After Reading, which simply failed to satisfy as a farce or entertaining piece of cinema in general.

The fifth film, Loin du 16e, focused solely on a young mother (Catalina Sandino Moreno, whose performance in Maria Full of Grace I've been meaning to see.) singing a Spanish lullaby to her baby before leaving it in a daycare center. We watch her daily commute through Paris before she arrives at her wealthy employers' and sings the same lullaby to their infant. A simple story, but beautiful to watch unfold.

And the six, Porte de Choisy, was directed by Australian director and brilliant cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and written by Doyle himself along with Gabrielle Keng and Kathy Li. This comical short focuses on a beauty product salesman (Barbet Schroeder) making a sales call on a Chinatown salon run by an imposing and difficult woman (Li Xin). This one's definitely gotten some mixed reactions online due to the surreal, non-linear approach to the narrative, focusing more on strange and mesmerizing Chinese imagery (No doubt influenced by Doyle's long track record of phenomenal cinematography in noteworthy Asian films, including work with directors like Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-Wai, and Pen-ek Ratanaruang.) than telling an overly cohesive story. What I recommend with this one is letting go of your senses and and simply letting the atmosphere of the film and its visuals draw you into its world. It's a strange, short trip, and certainly a memorable one.

Bastille, the short by Spanish writer-director Isabel Coixet, feels much like the quintessential European art art house film crammed into a few minutes. She approaches the story through a detached, cerebral third person omniscient narrator who tells the story we watch unfold of a man (Sergio Castellitto) preparing to leave his wife (Miranda Richardson) for a younger woman when she reveals that she is dying of a terminal illness. Immediately sympathetic, the man breaks things off with his lover and stays with his life, rediscovering his love for her after some effort. A very bittersweet and touching little story.

Japanese writer-director Nobuhiro Suwa takes Paris, Je T'aime someplace even more melancholy with Place des Victoires. A mother (Juliette Binoche) grieves the death of her young son (Martin Combes) and finds herself walking into a sort of fantasy vision of her little boy playing in a nearby city square, where they meet a cowboy (Willem Dafoe) who arrives to comfort them and escort the boy to the beyond. It all boils down to a simple, but emotionally gripping naturalistic fantasy sequence carried by the emotional weight in Juliette Binoche's performance. Place des Victoires adds much to the emotional range of the film project.

The emotional heft of the previous two films is balanced out by Tour Eiffel, a humorous and visually gripping piece by French animator Sylvain Chomet. Though performed in live action, the entire short feels much like a children's cartoon as a young boy tells the tale of his parents - both mimes - met in prison and fell in love. This one will undoubtedly put a smile on your face. (Unless you hate mimes, in which case it might just give you the willies. (Which is also a turn of phrase people should use more often.))

Mexican writer-director Alfonso Cuaron (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) made the next short, Parc Monceau. The entirety of this film's story is told in a single continuous shot as an older man (Nick Nolte) and a younger woman (Ludivine Sagnier) meet and walk down a sidewalk in Parc Monceau while discussing a third person - a Gaspard - who would likely have a problem with their meeting. Throughout the short, you're left trying to figure out the relationship between these two characters and identity of Gaspard, but I won't reveal that here, simply because it's worth seeing for yourself to find out in how well done the script was. Another enjoyable little look at a different variety of love.

French writer-director Olivier Assayas' Quartier des Enfants Rouges tells the story of an American actress (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who buys some hashish from a dealer (Lionel Dray), who becomes enamored with her. Like the others, there's a very naturalistic chemistry between the characters in this short that only elevates the short, and there's a fantasy costume element that adds a degree of surreality to the unfolding narrative.

German writer-director Oliver Schmitz's Place des fêtestakes the film back to darker territory again. The story focuses on a dying Nigerian man (Seydou Boro) attended to by a paramedic (Aïssa Maïga) whom he'd met and fallen in love with at first sight before. In a surreal, jolting fashion, we walk back through his memories in a manner reminiscent of Michel Gondry's directorial approach to the lucid memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind and jump back to the present as his mental condition deteriorates. An absolutely heartbreaking little film.

The next short, Pigalle, by American writer-director Richard LaGravenese, has a bit more of a classical American cinema feel to it. The story focuses on an elderly couple (Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant) acting out a fantasy argument in front of a prostitute in Paris in order to keep the spark alive in their marriage. Just the sort of thing you could see Americans doing. Overall, I actually think this is one of the weaker links in the film - largely because the premise feels slightly contrived to me - but it's still not bad, either.

Canadian writer-director Vincenzo Natali takes things back into lovely and strange territory after our brief American interlude with Quartier de la Madeleine. One of the most visually stylized shorts in Paris Je T'aime, the film comes off as a fun tribute to early cinema - in particular, Nosferatu, which birthed the vampire genre. A backpacker tourist (Elijah Wood) witnesses a killing by a vampire (Olga Kurylenko) and enchanted, offers himself to her. Stunned, she resists, but after slipping on the previous victim's blood and falling down the concrete stairs he'd recently ascended, an unconventional and vicious romance began between the two. There's a definite quirky sweetness beneath the spooky and slightly gruesome filming to the film. I'd take this kind of vampire love story over adolescent garbage like Twilight any day.

American writer-director Wes Craven departs from his usual horror offerings with Père-Lachaise. The film focuses on a young English couple (Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell) visiting Père Lachaise Cemetery. After the woman leaves her fiance over being fed up with his humorlessness, he hits his head on a tombstone and receives advice from Oscar Wilde (director Alexander Payne) that allows him to redeem himself. A short and sweet little film, different from anything I was expecting to see from Wes Craven, certainly. Payne's cameo's amusing, and Emily Mortimer's charm carries the short.

German writer-director Tom Tykwer - a personal favorite - made the next short, Faubourg Saint-Denis. The short is both ambitious in scope and execution, essentially being told in the sort of hyperkinetic flashback montage Tykwer's mastered in his films. A young blind man (Melchior Beslon, who was also in the excellent The Princess and the Warrior) reflects in flashback on the development and decline of his relationship with his girlfriend (Natalie Portman) after it seems she's broken up with him over the phone. Visually arresting and enthralling the whole way through, this is easily one of my favorites in the entirety of Paris Je T'aime, and that's saying something considering how much there is to love in this movie.

Quartier Latin, the next-to-last short, was written by American actress Gena Rowlands and co-directed by Gérard Depardieu and Frédéric Auburtin. This one feels similar to what the Hoskins/Ardant film was going for, but more on-target. It tells the story of an old couple (Ben Gazzara and Rowlands herself) meeting at a bar (Run by Depardieu) for one last drink before divorcing. A film that simply reminds that even in old age, love doesn't necessarily last, and it can spring forth anew for other people. There's no shortage of life in Gazzara and Rowlands' characters, and in general, this is a spirited way to wind down the overall film.

14e arrondissement by American writer-director Alexander Payne (Sideways) brings things to a close with a mail carrier named Carol from Denver telling her French class in broken/very-American French about her first trip to Europe, and in particular, what she loved in Paris. It's very funny and very American, but at the same time very sympathetic and human too. A resonant, goofy, touristy way to end things as Feist's performance of "We're All in a Dance" plays - with lyrics in both English and French - as the end credits roll.

All in all, Paris Je T'aime is a perfect film for the Valentine's Day season, celebrating love in the city of love as well as it does in so many ways. A film for lovers of Europe and romance, of mirth and the joy of being alive.

Earlier this month, the producers of Paris Je T'aime released a follow-up short film project in New York, I Love You - more of the same sort of thing, now in New York. I'm looking forward to eventually seeing that (Undoubtedly when it hits DVD) and writing about it here as well.