Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Movie review: "This Film is Not Yet Rated"

This 2006 film is not so much a documentary as it is a 90-minute editorial.  Filmmaker Kirby Dick despises the movie rating system run by the Motion Picture Association of America and sets out to show us why.

Kirby Dick
Dick has some legitimate points. He documents the obsessive secrecy that surrounds the ratings system – the names of the people who rate the movies is rigorously kept private – and shows how hard it is for filmmakers to understand how a motion picture gets a PG-13, R or NC-17 rating.

Kirby hires private investigators to find out who the raters are, and it's fun to watch as they spy and stalk around the MPAA headquarters.

"This Film is Not Yet Rated" also does a good job, unintentionally, of illustrating how out of touch Hollywood is with mainstream America. To support his argument, Dick brings out a parade of filmmakers and First Amendment advocates who seem utterly dismayed that someone would suggest that movies featuring profanity, masturbation, three-way sex, and other graphic portrayals of fornication shouldn't be OK for children.

Director John Waters, for example, says that, sure, his film "A Dirty Shame" shows "perverted" sex – but not in a bad way, so why shouldn't it be OK for kids to see? Waters' impeccable logic is that since "all" kids have viewed perverse sex on the Internet and eighth-grade girls "routinely" give blow jobs, it's OK for them to see it in the movies.

Dick and his supporting cast labor hard to portray the MPAA as a looming dark force controlling what Americans see. One moviemaker calls the MPAA a "Fascist" group and another calls it a "powerful censorship organization," but the film acknowledges that the association has no power to stop a film from being released regardless of its content. In one part of "This Film is Not Yet Rated," a director actually laments that the MPAA felt a movie where puppets have sex in multiple ways is inappropriate for kids.

What these filmmakers fail to appreciate is that they have far more freedom today than under the old Hays Code – so much, in fact, that many Americans are now turned off by Hollywood's infatuation with sex, profanity and violence.

One filmmaker wonders why a film with female masturbation got saddled with an R rating when one showing male masturbation got a PG-13 rating. She obviously believes that both should get a PG-13 rating, while I wonder why they both don't get an R.

It would be nice if Dick had an included an interview with someone concerned about media effects on children, but again, his goal wasn't to provide a balanced movie.

One point on which I agree with the movie is that the MPAA needs to give violent films more restrictive ratings than they currently receive.


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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Movie review: "Into the Wild"

Who has not thought at least once of abandoning the expectations and responsibilities of everyday life and escaping to an existence off the grid and off the map?

A self-portrait of Christopher McCandless in his Alaska camp

Christopher McCandless did so in 1990 and his story is told in the thought-provoking and bittersweet movie "Into the Wild."

Upon graduating from college in Georgia, McCandless (Emile Hirsch) abandoned his material things, gave away and burnt his money, and changed his name to Alexander Supertramp. For more than a year, he wandered the American West, hitchhiking, exploring and hanging out with hippies and others on the fringe of society. Eventually, he ended up living, then dying, in an abandoned bus deep in the Alaska wilderness.

In "Into the Wild," we see McCandless explicitly choosing freedom over family and truth over love. No doubt many viewers will envy McCandless in his odyssey, free from obligations and reveling in the beauty of nature.

But the movie makes it clear that as much as McCandless tried to isolate himself, his actions do not take place in isolation. His disappearance grievously hurts his parents and sister, and others he meets on his travels are hurt as well by his habit of leaving just as they are getting close to him. It is only in the end that McCandless longs to share his life with others, but by then it is too late.

There is perhaps more in "Into the Wild" than can be grasped in one viewing. It challenges the viewer to consider our own choices and priorities, and it doesn't necessarily give us easy answers.

The one thing that troubles me most about the movie is determining how much of it is true. The basics of McCandless' travels are true, but the movie has clearly expanded and embellished on what is known.  For example, the diary McCandless left behind in the bus was actually fairly cryptic. Since that's the only record of his life there, much had to be invented to flesh out the story.


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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Movie review: "The Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould"

I'm an interesting test case for this documentary because, before I sat down to watch it, I had never heard of Glenn Gould. (Insert your gasps of incredulity here.) Yep, I had knew nothing about this famous
– I guess – Canadian pianist.

Glenn Gould
So could this film help me understand what made Glenn Gould so special?  Yes, in many ways it did. It offers up samples of his music that are intriguing, inventive and often playful. The filmmakers  assembled an impressive array of his friends, classmates and fellow musicians who illuminate Gould's quirky personality and exuberance for music.

We learn why Gould carried a special chair with him for every concert (he needed one that was particularly low to the ground) and we get hear how Gould gave new personality to familiar works by altering the tempo. The filmmakers do well making the breakthroughs of Gould music clear even to a non-musician like myself.

What this film could not do, however, was hold my interest for its full one hour and 50 minutes.  After about an hour, I felt I knew enough about Gould. Besides, at that point the story seemed to be drifting away from Gould's musical life.

Of course, if you're especially interested in Glenn Gould you might not have quit where I did. For me, an hour was about right.


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Friday, June 17, 2011

Movie review: "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"

This is one INTENSE movie. It's like a CSI-Sweden murder mystery wrapped in several layers of sexual tension and psycho-drama. It is punctuated by scenes of rape and torture that are both difficult to watch and difficult NOT to watch.

Noomi Rapace
The heart and strength of this movie lies in its two main characters, 40-something journalist Mikhael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), and  24-year-old angry computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) – the girl with the dragon tattoo of the title (hmmm, shouldn't it be "The Woman With the Dragon Tattoo?).

They are an odd couple if there ever was one, but they come together to try to solve the 40-year-old disappearance of a 16-year-old girl.

To say that Rapace steals the show is not quite accurate, since Nyqvist holds his own, but her chilling performance is unforgettable. She somehow manages to be scary, sexy and vulnerable all at the same time. 

The movie does run too long – it actually has three endings – and the plot has some minor weaknesses, but the twisting story keeps you guessing and slowly envelops you.

The version of this movie I saw was in Swedish with English subtitles. It says something that while I at first found the subtitles an annoyance, I soon became totally absorbed in the suspense and completely forgot they were speaking Swedish.

This is certainly not a movie for everyone. Besides the jarring rape and torture scenes there are grisly images of dead bodies.While this is rated R, I could easily understand if it got an "NC-17" rating – this is no movie for kids.

As an aside, I must comment on how much I learned about the Swedish criminal system from "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."  At the start of the movie, Blomqvist is convicted of libel and sentenced to prison. In the United States, libel is a civil, not a criminal, matter, so no jail time is possible.

Then, after he's convicted, Blomqvist walks right out of the courtroom and doesn't even have to start his sentence for six months. What the?  Haven't those Swedes watched any U.S. courtroom dramas?  Don't they know the perp is supposed to be hauled away to jail the minute the case ends? 

Finally, when Blomqvist does report to prison, it's not even recognizable as a prison. He has his own room, a computer with Internet access and is free to make out with his girlfriend in the lobby without a burly guard named Bubba breaking them up. Sweet!


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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Review: "Bossypants" by Tina Fey

“Bossypants” is an educational book. In it, Tina Fey explains that the key to becoming a TV comedy star, writer and producer is having a strong father figure and lots of theatrical gay friends as a teenager. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying just a tad, but those things are important, Fey insists.

Fey teaches us other things. To create a successful comedy writing staff, she says, “mix Harvard Nerds with Chicago improvisers and stir.” By the way, she adds, many of the male writers will pee in jars.

Posing for a photo shoot is “the FUNNEST!”, Fey explains.  The “wooooooorst” is when there’s an explosion on your honeymoon cruise and everyone gets quiet as they contemplate going down with the ship. “It’s scary when a group of people all know instinctively not to joke around.” 

The “best worst thing ever”? That would be when Fey pulled an all-nighter at her home with the “30 Rock” writers. “One night I put my daughter to bed, worked with the writers all night, and in the morning when she toddled out, the writers were still there.”

“Bossypants” is not really an autobiography, but more of a selection of essays drawn from Fey’s life. It’s funny, light, glib, and sarcastic. Fey shows she can find humor in anything, including pap smears and a scary job at an urban YMCA.

Much of the book is aimed at women, with a chapter on fashion and beauty, jokes about breast pumps, discussions of the role of women in the workplace, and observations on the difficulties of being a working mom. Since I have a penis, some of these jokes missed with me.  Also, she casually throws out a lot of pop culture references, not all of which I got. Who’s Michelle Duggar?  (Never mind, I just looked it up.)

Still, I liked knowing the background – and politics – behind Fey’s appearances as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. And I liked seeing the messy, sometimes chaotic, way that “30 Rock” is made.

“While we are grateful for the affection ’30 Rock’ has received from critics and hipsters, we were actually trying to make a hit show,” Fey writes. “We weren’t trying to make a low-rate critical darling that snarled in the face of conventionality. We were trying to make ‘Home Improvement’ and we did it wrong. You know those scientists who were developing a blood-pressure medicine and they accidentally invented Viagra? We were trying to make Viagra And we ended up with blood-pressure medicine.”


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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The curious case of the Los Altos YMCA of Long Beach

You tend to think of the YMCA as an organization supportive of schools and education. So why is the Los Altos YMCA of Long Beach (California) sponsoring an event that will cause about 100 kids to miss school?

The YMCA Adventure Guides' trip to Camp Fox on Catalina Island kicks off when the boat leaves at noon on Friday. The kids will need to be at the dock at 11 a.m., so they'll miss a whole day of school or close to it.  In case you're wondering: This is not a school-authorized trip.

Why not just leave after school gets out? Good question.


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Friday, June 3, 2011

Save money by exploring rental car options

I messed up on our vacation planning this year, but perhaps others can learn from my mistake. The key lesson: Check rental car costs early. They can vary widely, and they may offer more opportunity to save (or waste) money then air fares.

I put together what I thought was a clever three-leg vacation trip for my family this year. First, we will fly from Long Beach to Seattle to visit family for four days. Then we will fly to Bozeman, Montana, rent a car, and visit Yellowstone for four days. After that, we'll head to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills. Rather than making a long drive back to Bozeman to fly out, or taking an expensive flight from nearby Rapid City, South Dakota, I booked a cheaper flight home from Denver. Yes, that will require a six-hour drive from the Black Hills, but saving money on air fares seemed to make it worth it.

For each flight, I carefully shopped for low fares. But I failed to figure the rental car into the equation.

While I knew that a nine-day car rental, starting in Bozeman and ending in Denver, wasn't going to be cheap, I was shocked when I checked Carrentals.com and found the least expensive intermediate-class car available for our trip to be $1,089!  That's over $100 a day and about twice what I had expected.

Of course, veteran travelers know that one-way car rentals are more expensive than roundtrip rentals. Had I been returning the car to Bozeman, the price (on the day I checked) would have been only $664. But then I discovered a surprise: If we were to return the car to Billings, Montana, it would be just $472.  That's right in at least one case, a one-way rental was cheaper than a roundtrip rental.

I started checking the prices for different dropoff cities (always picking up the car in Bozeman) and found a huge variation in rates:

Billings: $472
Bozeman: $664
Casper, Wyoming: $1,088
Denver: $1,089
Rapid City: $1,201
Cheyenne, Wyoming: $1,277
Bismarck, N.D.: $2,300

Clearly, smart choices can save you many hundreds of dollars.

In our case, flying out of Billings would cost more than flying from Denver, but the rental car savings would more than compensate and we'd save $400 in the end. One problem: I'd already booked our flights from Denver and the tickets were nonrefundable. 

Another point: There's little reason to hesitate to make car rental reservations because they usually don't require a payment upfront, and can easily be cancelled.

Learn from my mistakes.


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