Saturday, September 17, 2011

London bound again

... for a week-and-change of jaunting and gallivanting with Elizabeth and a friend, taking in some theater, and getting a spot of work done on a writing project (or two). A change of socks, my iPad — there, packing's all done. If any of my London readers care for a meet-up, feel welcome to email me via the address on the image you see here.

Friday, September 16, 2011

"What a desolate place this is"

If the natives of Kepler-16b are irked because we've nicknamed their home planet "Tatooine," I hope they don't point a big space arrow labeled ALDERAAN at us.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Sci in our Fi, no. 3 — "Blind me with science" edition

Here's a timely follow-up to this post, and this one. I just created a new label/tag for this topic.

Regarding Steven Soderbergh's new biomedical thriller Contagion, it's Jovana J. Grbić's view that it lets scientific accuracy drag the plot's momentum. Ordinarily I'd raise a Spockish eyebrow at a movie review from Chemical & Engineering News, but Dr. Grbić is creative director of the Los Angeles-based ScriptPhD, which "specializes in science communication in entertainment, advertising, and media." ScriptPhd is therefore an enterprise I respect and encourage.

As a realistic depiction of a bird flu-type epidemic, "Contagion" attempts to right some of the scientific wrongs of the 1995 film "Outbreak," which played more like a conventional zombie movie than a warning parable about the global reach of modern infectious diseases. The scientific blunders in "Outbreak" include an unauthorized person walking out of a secured government lab with a sample of a deadly virus (without gloves, no less), scientists and civilians walking into a Biosafety Level 4 lab without proper personal protective equipment, and an unrealistic rate of viral spread.

"Contagion" manages to sidestep such scientific inaccuracies. If anything, it is a science film masquerading as a public service announcement to raise awareness about the possibility of such an outbreak and show that widespread panic can be more dangerous than the virus itself. That’s a lofty goal, to be sure, but too many minutes are invested in forcing actors to deliver technical language, along with clunky lines explaining their meaning. The balance between scientific accuracy and storytelling ultimately has to tip toward storytelling—the linchpin of all compelling films.

As regular visitors here know, I'm I big proponent of that last sentence — and you also know that a film that puts extra effort into getting the science (and the scientists) as accurate as possible gets extra appreciation from me. I haven't yet seen Contagion, but knowing that it "manages to sidestep such scientific inaccuracies" increases my likelihood of seeing it sooner rather than later, in a theater rather than weeks from now via Netflix. I wonder if Dr. Grbić is underestimating the tolerance and capacity of the average audience member, and I'm curious to see whether I'll feel that Contagion invests "too many minutes" in grounding the story in reality, or that it stretches my "emotional attention span too thin."

Over at, Ferris Jabr expresses a differing reaction: Contagion's "exhilarating pace never sags, even in scenes that have the potential to bore people out of their minds." He adds that Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns "keep the viewer's attention as they explain statistics like the all-important R0 - the average number of people an infected person infects - and truths about the scientific process...."

Of course, a great deal depends on how well the actors sell the technical language, and we're talking Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Winslet by herself may whisper the CDC's Avian Flu page in my ear any time she chooses.

In any case, I expect to at least applaud the film's refreshing effort toward b.s. avoidance.

ScriptPhD's full article on Contagion expands on the Chemical & Engineering News piece, and includes a Q&A with Natasha K. Griffith, the film's technical biosafety consultant.

I've been itching for a good new Andromeda Strain for years now. Wait, maybe I should phrase that differently.

For your consideration — "Prophets and losses" edition

In which I, yours truly, am apparently a prophet, or something, of the Real Donnie Darko. This guy's relationship with the movie is ... um ...  unique.

Slate: Buy the Citizen Kane Blu-ray — You haven't seen the Orson Welles classic until you've seen this newly restored version. Over at DVD Savant, Glenn Erickson gives this release his own ample approval.

Also at Slate: Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons finally comes to DVD — The original version may be lost to history, but even the compromised studio cut is a masterpiece.

On a related note, The Many Noses of Orson Welles.

indieWIRE: TIFF List 2011: The Complete Toronto Film Festival LineupFall Movie Preview: The 30 Must-See IndiesIW's blogs (a strong, varied bunch)

Total Film: 39 Actors & Directors On Their Best Movies and 30 Greatest Modern Monster Movies, which kicks off with Troll Hunter.

The Telegraph: Ten Films That Changed the World — Much to argue about here, of course (the reader comments express the typical range of additive insight and subtractive sputtering flapdoodle), but still some surprising, interesting choices. Now to get a hold of Repentance.

Wired: Stop Buying Death Stars — Adam Rawnsley reports on Lieutenant Colonel Dan Ward's paper (pdf) using the Death Star as a metaphor for the poor state of DoD acquisition practices:
It’s embarrassing enough that the galaxy’s supposedly most fearsome weapon was felled by crappy duct work. But it was entirely predictable. A project so big and complex, Ward writes, will invariably stretch the oversight capabilities of acquisition staff. In this case, it led to manufacturing delays and prevented the Empire from realizing that one of its thermal exhaust ports was a de-facto self-destruct button. Moreover, for all the expense poured into it – $15.6 septillion and 94 cents, to be precise — the Death Star is destroyed twice and in its two iterations only ever manages to get off a single shot...Star Wars holds lessons about what to buy as well as what not to. Ward contends that the humble droid mechs represent a better acquisition path than Death Stars.
See also The Economics of Death Star Planet Destruction at Overthinking It.

Of course, Robot Chicken got there first.

NPR: Twenty Iconic Male Movie Roles In Which Helen Mirren Would Have Ruled — My suggestion: James T. Kirk.

/Film: 2011 Summer Movie Attendance Was the Lowest Since 1997

Time: Top 10 Worst Fake British Accents — In light of Anne Hathaway's mangling of the Queen's English in One Day, Time pays tribute to those thespians who have struggled through the years to pull off a convincing British accent. (I'm off to London this Saturday, so will practice thoroughly ahead of time. Last time I had my London accent down pat, although returned home over-using "lovely" as an all-purpose expression of agreeability.)

The New Yorker: Sean Penn vs. Terrence Malick — He doesn't like the movie or understand his character's relevance within it. I did like the movie quite a lot, but I gotta say I'm with him on the position of his role. Lost Great Escape tunnel is pinpointed — "Its location at the camp, immortalised in the Hollywood blockbuster The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasance, remained a mystery until experts arrived in August and spent three weeks excavating the relics."

NYT: What Spooks the Masters of Horror?

John Scalzi: What Makes a Scifi Film a Classic?  

Engadget: Samsung cites '2001: A Space Odyssey' in Apple case — Um...

Jim Emerson: Living, breathing movie stills — "CinematoGIFs" by Gusaf Mantel.

blastr: Was Childs THE THING? One fan seeks to prove itGlenn Erickson pointed me to Rob Ager's compelling video analysis (in two parts) of John Carpenter's The Thing. Ager puts plenty of Sherlockian thought into the mystery of who's a Thing and when, with an enlightening interpretation of the final scene. This piece dovetails neatly with Peter Watts' acclaimed 2010 short story, "The Things," which gives us the movie's narrative from the alien's point of view.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Paging Hercule Poirot

According to Google Analytics, since Aug. 29 someone (singular or plural, I don't know) from Leuven, Flemish Brabant, Belgium has returned to my main site-archived Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine story "Mustard Seed" nearly 40 times, sometimes four of five times in a day, each time by Googling the phrase "thank you god for making me an instrument." My curiosity piqued, I've added a note to the story inviting them to drop me an email to say Hello.

Also, since early August there's been a dramatic upswing in people from all over Googling "Calvin and Hobbes" + astronomy/universe/stars/philosophy and thereby landing on my Astronomy page. Is there a C&H meme going around?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Bedazzled (1967) — Giving the devil his due

In a couple of weeks Elizabeth and I will be in London. The circumstances behind the trip caught us by surprise. We weren't planning to go to London until, well, things happened and suddenly we had tickets on British Air. (Portland, New York, and San Francisco are now also on our pleasure/business calendar between now and November. Elizabeth is jetting off to L.A. tomorrow evening. It's a whirlwind, I tell you.)

As I mentioned here, on our itinerary is the current production of Dr. Faustus at Shakespeare's Globe. Of course, me being the guy I am, that guaranteed that I'd reach to the DVD shelves to pull out another British take on the Faust legend: Bedazzled from 1967. This cheeky comedy infused the centuries-old story with the spirit of Swinging London plus impudent pokes at religion, politics, and pop culture itself.

Any conversation about the so-called British Invasion of the 1960s tends to focus on the new pop and rock music that tsunamied over American popular culture mid-decade. But riding that wave also came new styles of envelope-pushing comedy.

This brash, cocksure postwar generation of young Oxbridge-educated comics modernized the British tradition of satire with sharp verbal wit, straight-faced or absurdist approaches to outrageous material, and gimlet-eyed sarcasm toward the previous generation's institutions. Political figures, religion, the upper classes, "high" and "low" culture/society/art — all were now open targets for unapologetic lampooning.

In the early '60s, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, with Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett, led this New Wave satire movement in Beyond the Fringe, a stage revue that began at the Edinburgh Festival and then went on to acclaim in London and on Broadway. Cook and Moore furthered their comedy partnership — "Pete and Dud" — on British television, most notably in their hit BBC series Not Only...But Also.

With this success in their pockets, they pitched a film to Twentieth Century Fox, a mod spin on the Faust legend, with Moore as the woebegon schmuck who sells his soul to Peter Cook's dry, wry horned one.

As luck would have it, they already had an enthusiastic fan in director Stanley Donen, whose creds included Charade and Two for the Road, as well as top-drawer movie musicals in the 1950s: On the Town, Funny Face, and Singin' in the Rain. Donen asked to work with Cook and Moore, and in 1967 — the year of Sgt. Pepper and The Who smashing their kit at Monterey — the duo's best film, Bedazzled, opened their distinctive brand of humor to new audiences, with hopes toward going really big in the huge new U.S. market.

As timid, tongue-tied Wimpy's short-order cook Stanley Moon (a role that leaves me aching that he never co-starred with Rowan Atkinson), Moore pines for an aloof waitress, Margaret Spencer, played by veteran comic actor Eleanor Bron. So unrequited is his love and so deep his anguish that this hapless hash-slinger opts to hang himself from his tiny flat's water pipe. His goodbye note leaves Margaret his collection of moths.

He fails at that too, of course, although he does attract the attention of Mr. George Spiggot (Cook), a dapper swell who knows more about Stanley than anyone else cares to. Spiggot reveals himself to be none other than the Unholy One, evil incarnate himself.
Stanley: "I thought you were called Lucifer."
George: "I know. 'The Bringer of the Light' it used to be. Sounded a bit poofy to me."

It turns out that rather than sitting on a throne of skulls in his fiery infernal kingdom, the devil makes his God-appointed, workaday living as the proprietor of a grubby London nightclub and business office staffed by the Seven Deadly Sins. "What terrible sins I have working for me," he says of the riffraff Anger, Sloth, etc. "I suppose it's the wages."

He offers Stanley seven wishes in exchange for the miserable little soul that, he says, is no more useful than Stanley's appendix. The appeal is irresistible to desperate Stanley: a chance to remake himself in any way imaginable to win Margaret's heart (as well as, naturally, her other bits).

Thus begins, with the magic incantation "Julie Andrews!", an episodic series of altered-reality shaggy-god scenarios that place Stanley in situations of his choosing — as an intellectual aesthete, a millionaire already married to "highly physical" Margaret, a pop star with Margaret among the hoard of groupies, a fly on the wall (endearingly cartooned), and so on.

The Devil, though, can't resist the opportunities to insert himself into Stanley's wishes and screw them up. After all, it's in his job description. It's the old "Be careful what you wish for" angle, with the wording of Stanley's wishes interpreted with all the fiendish legal exactitude of an iTunes Terms & Conditions form.

Cook's deadpan skewering of fleeting pop-idol vanities will never lose its currency. "I'm callous … I'm dull … You bore me ... You fill me with inertia," he monotones as Drimble Wedge & the Vegetations, upstaging and out-groupie-ing Moore's Tom Jones–esque soul-cry, "Love Me!"

The silliest/funniest sequence arrives when exasperated Stanley wishes to be with Margaret in a place of peace and spiritual purity: there he and Margaret find love as nuns in the cloistered Order of the Leaping Berylians, whose rituals require their sacred trampolines. (This bit originated with a sketch on Pete and Dud's Not Only...But Also.)

To exit a fantasy, all Stanley has to do is blow a raspberry (a fitting response to worldly inadequacies, I think), whereupon he returns to wherever George happens to be awaiting the next attempt.

But the best of the many funny moments here aren't necessarily Stanley's fantasy sequences, which sometimes drag. They're the in-between bits with Moore and Cook in their well-honed dialogue mode.

In their chats about theology, morality, organized religion, and the nature of evil, Stanley learns that old Beelzebub is just another put-upon civil servant following orders. He may be the Prince of Darkness, but Spiggot's 24/7 job is chiefly urbane sarcasms and petty pranks such as expiring the time on parking meters, scratching LP records, melting ice lollies, gouging "ventilation" holes in oil tankers, targeting pigeons' bombardier runs, and phoning Mrs. Fitch ("Abercrombie here, I work with your husband") to tell her that Mr. Fitch has just checked into the Cheeseborough Hotel Brighton with his secretary.

It's a mundane, dreary job for God's favorite fallen angel who aspires only to earn his way back into Heaven now that mankind can do his work well enough without him. So naturally he's suffering from burn-out and a lack of that driving inspirational spark:
"There was a time when I used to get lots of ideas. I thought up the Seven Deadly Sins in one afternoon. The only thing I've come up with recently is advertising."
Honestly, who among us can't identify with him? Stanley tells Margaret that although George is the Devil, "he's not so bad once you get to know his problems." Meanwhile, George shows signs of affection for the sad-sack little twerp, and together the pair form, however temporarily, a convivial mutual-support rapport.

Bedazzled stitches its sketch-comedy scenes together with winning banter and collegiate theological spoofery: Mussolini barely slipped through George's grasp ("all that work, then right at the end with his last breath he says, 'Scusi, mille regretti,' and up he goes!"), God is English and "very upper class," the Garden of Eden was "a boggy swamp just south of Croydon; you can see it over there."

Squeezably sexy Raquel Welch, clad in Frederick's of the Underworld lingerie, steals her scene as Lust, an American Southern hothouse flower, in a bedroom cameo/typecasting. The promo imagery, from the film's original advertising (e.g., the posters at the top and bottom of this page) to the current DVD box art, oversells her brief presence, but it's an understandable marketing ploy from her peak pinup years between One Million Years B.C., Fantastic Voyage, and The Magic Christian. Cook had suggested titling their film Raquel Welch so the posters could read "Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in Raquel Welch." Oddly, that didn't fly.

And that's Barry Humphries ("Dame Edna Everage") appearing as Envy.

The old sporting rivalry between George and God dates back at least to Job (who, George says, "was what you'd technically describe as a loony)." But a game of equals it isn't. Eons ago God may be have challenged George to a round of metaphysical chess, then provided him with little more than a Snakes and Ladders board, giggling behind His hand while fucking with earnest George. 

It's no spoiler to note that due to a technicality in the contract Stanley gets to keep his soul. Still, George makes sure that he gets in the last word:
 [to God] "All right, you great git, you've asked for it. I'll cover the world in Tastee-Freez and Wimpy Burgers. I'll fill it with concrete runways, motorways, aircraft, television, automobiles, advertising, plastic flowers, frozen food and supersonic bangs. I'll make it so noisy and disgusting that even you'll be ashamed of yourself! No wonder you've so few friends; you're unbelievable!"
Looking around at the state of things over the intervening 44 years, especially now with a U.S. election cycle revving up with its new class of crackpot evangelical politicos who've signed their own regrettable contracts with George, we can only admire George for being so thorough at his underpaid, tedious job.

All the same, the fade-out makes it clear that it's God, as usual, who has the last belly laugh. It's good to know the "great git" still has a wicked sense of humor.

On the down side, after a while the film doesn't quite generate the energy needed to sustain its momentum. The narrative doesn't so much "arc" as stretch out as straight as a block of sidewalk slabs. Each slab is funny to its degree, though occasionally we're ready to move on to the next one before it's ready to let us go.

Bedazzled is bedeviled by what appears to be a directorial ambivalence, or a creative arrow that lands a couple rings off the bull's eye. Old-school Donen directed with an eye toward modish stylings. As a result we view much of Bedazzled through the murk of soft focus or on-set filters. He's Stanley Donen, so he knows how to fill a screen well, but there's no question that Welch is all but wasted when viewed through filmy bedcurtains. And that's not to mention the flare of stage lights projected straight into the camera. Now, director of photography Austin Dempster may shoulder the lion's share of this. His IMDb profile lists Bedazzled as his first promotion to DP after years (since 1941) as a "camera operator" and the occasional second-unit photographer.

Either way, Donen seems too timid to fully unfurl his New Wave freak flag, alternately shooting Moore and Cook straight up without augmenting their established dialogue-heavy partnership. That's all to the good verbally although I still see the pair straining against the 35mm frame surrounding them.

I wonder if the Donen of Charade and Arabesque was too restrained, too generationally inhibited to really make the most of his two leads. Richard Lester might have been a better fit. I can imagine the director A Hard Day's Night, The Knack, and Petulia adding his own contemporary backspin that allowed Cook and Moore to send the material into orbit with the riffing spontaneity of their stage and British TV work. Donen's other film from '67, the British comedy Two for the Road (also with Bron), feels more comfortable with its "experimental" side, in that case a fractured-time narrative structure reminiscent of Lester's Petulia. (Lester did direct Cook and Moore two years later in the post-apocalyptic farce The Bed-Sitting Room.)

Nonetheless, Bedazzled supports itself amiably on the heads of its two stars. Besides carrying the lead roles, Cook wrote the screenplay and Moore crafted the score, which he performed with his jazz trio.

The film didn't make the hoped-for splash in the States, so any potential Pete-and-Dud wave over here never rose above a ripple. It opened in '67 on December 10, the same month that also saw the release of The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and Valley of the Dolls, numbers 2, 4, and 6 of the top-grossing films that year. So it's not a big leap to suggest that such a comparatively small film got lost in the Klieg lights of the unarguably greater titles around it.

Bedazzled did mark a turning point in the career trajectories of Cook and Moore. By all accounts Cook was the more productive and inventive writer-comedian of the two, and was handily the lead dog in the pack in the U.K., with Moore at ease as Cook's natural second banana. But Cook the anti-establishment satirist's dry, acerbic, erudite wit and absurdist approach to comedy didn't catch fire in the U.S. He was a transformative influence on comedians that came after him both in the U.K. and the U.S., and even this long after his death in 1995 there's no denying an ongoing legacy in the shape and form comedy has taken since his active years. (In 1999 the main-belt asteroid 20468 Petercook was named after him, so there's some more posterity for you.) He was a gifted groundbreaking comic that simply didn't translate well to a broader medium.

On the other hand, "Cuddly Dudley" came across as more likeable and identifiable, more agreeably mainstream. After more years in a few subpar British films — including a terrible comic interpretation of The Hound of the Baskervilles as Watson to Cook's Sherlock Holmes — Moore's post-Bedazzled career eventually spun up to a house in Malibu and Hollywood hits such as 10 (1979) and Arthur (1981). While both actors bounced between London and L.A. into the '80s, only Moore achieved household-name status in the U.S.

They remained close after the break-up of their long partnership, and reunited by performing on stage together at benefits such as Comic Relief for the homeless in the U.S. and The Secret Policeman's Balls for Amnesty International in the U.K.

Japanese poster
Bedazzled has attained the status of a modest comedy classic, and remains an essential splash in the sea change in British and American comedy that preordained, among others, Monty Python's Flying Circus.

The few vintage extras on the DVD are welcome even if they're not substantial. In an amusing off-the-cuff promo, "Peter and Dud: Interview with the Devil," filmed on-set. Moore appears as a TV interviewer collaring George Spiggot, Esq., a.k.a the Devil. A five-minute clip gives us Cook and Moore discussing their shared history on L.A.'s "Paul Ryan Show" in 1979 when Moore was just about to hit stardom in Blake Edwards' 10.

Finally, a newer piece is a six-minute interview with Harold Ramis, director of the 2000 remake starring Elizabeth Hurley and Brendan Fraser, lauding the original. Also here are the American trailer and a click-through image gallery of 20 behind-the-scenes stills.

Music: Betty Carter
Near at hand: sandals off