April 25, 2015

Pop Culture Decluttering: A Simpler Plan

Anyone who moves into a new house knows that feeling. You have the luxury of space that was never possible in a small apartment. It’s amazing, but this bliss is short-lived. Little by little, the stuff
accumulates. The closets and cabinets fill up, and boxes conquer the basement. It only takes a few years to transform a serene haven into a frustrating mess. You aren’t ready to go on Hoarders, but the clutter can increase the stress in your busy lives. There’s an entire industry built on saving us from ourselves. Books and online articles with titles like “10 Creative Ways to Declutter Your Home” draw heaps of attention. It’s a fixable problem, but choosing to make the time and solve it isn’t easy.

We’re currently following this process at our house after living there for seven years. It’s been rewarding to eliminate stuff that has just occupied space for a long time. This process has led me to undertake a similar project with pop culture. When you write a blog about film and TV, it creates a drive to stay on top of everything. You’re essentially fighting a war on multiple fronts. New movies and shows arrive each week, and thousands of worthy titles from the past remain unseen. This push to cover all the bases can lead to amazing discoveries. It’s more likely to create an overwhelming sense of failure, however. The constant noise builds to a dilemma where there aren’t enough hours in the day to even scratch the surface.

The problems I cite are definite first-world problems. The technology that makes all this content available is incredible. Can't we just enjoy the ride? That’s the ultimate goal, but it’s hardly that simple. Maintaining a work/life balance is a major challenge for nearly everyone. For pop-culture obsessives, there’s another layer of obstacles. Even in a mid-size city like St. Louis, interesting cultural events happen nearly every night. When you add those concerts and film screenings to DVR and Netflix backlogs at home, it’s quite a pile. Books, podcasts, and magazines also scream for attention. Intellectual curiosity is a great thing, but it can lead to disappointments.

The library is an amazing resource, but it can almost be too much of a good thing. 
It’s thrilling to discover a lesser-known movie or band that blows you away. I haven’t given up that pursuit but have simplified the approach to getting there. In a similar way to decluttering a house, I’ve developed a more linear approach to pop culture. If I’m watching the fourth season of Game of Thrones, I should finish it before tackling five other shows. I borrow DVDs regularly from the library, and they’re usually available for a week. Taking out five at once makes no sense; it’s a waste of mental and physical energy. Having a stack of unread books waiting on the shelf also just leads to disappointment. This approach has helped me to focus on what really excites me.

Before continuing, I should clarify my positions a bit further. This isn’t a manifesto that everyone should follow; it’s more of a personal mission statement. Some film bloggers watch 400-500 films in a year and write about most of them. I marvel at their dedication and love the idea of their singular passion. It takes resilience for even the most ardent cinephile to follow that schedule. Most are not writing about films as a full-time job, so this quantity is mind-boggling. I’m not criticizing those achievements. What I’m seeking is the right amount of material that fits within my life.

"You know that Shakespearean admonition, 'To thine own self be true'? It's premised on the idea that 'thine own self' is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if 'thine own self' is not so good? What if it's pretty bad? Would it be better, in that case, *not* to be true to thine own self?" - Des McGrath (Chris Eigeman), The Last Days of Disco

Having an obsessive personality makes it even more challenging to lessen the pace. When I'm asked to appear on a podcast or write for another site, my first inclination is to say yes. It's a challenge to recognize my limitations even when the opportunities sound enticing. It's only when I think about all the different obligations that I realize the flaws. Last fall, I decided to try and post every day on this blog. I wrote during lunch breaks and pushed myself to expand the audience. It wasn't a satisfying experience. Writing became less fun, and that frustration showed in the final product.

Life changes, and that's okay.
Another factor is my current place in life. I’m 39, married, and have two amazing daughters (6 and 2). When I was 23, paring down my pop-culture activities would have sounded ludicrous. I gathered heaps of DVDs, CDs, and books to consume down the road. Life changes, and that’s okay. This doesn’t mean that being excited about pop culture is immature. Back in 2012, I wrote a piece on “Appreciation vs. Obsessive Consumption”. I’d been writing this blog for a year and was battling the push to see everything. Three years later, I’m building on that premise with my life. I’m asking “what do I really love doing?” and focusing on those activities. Writing is on the list but not as high as it once was. After sitting in an office all day, spending my nights in front of a screen feels restrictive. Playing tennis, taking a swim, or going for a walk often beats turning on the computer or TV.

It's important to recognize the opportunity cost for any decision. If I decide to play tennis on a weekday evening, that activity replaces another option like watching a movie. Leisure time is a wonderful thing, but there isn't an infinite supply. The amount of hours is the same, and we can't have it all. Pop culture decluttering allows me to recognize the most rewarding use of my time. The wealth of options sometimes makes the process feel like work, particularly for bloggers. Even if we love writing and running our sites, it's easy to start treating them like a painful chore.

This is just a small portion of our collection, but it would take months to watch it all.
While I’m focusing on habits, there is also a physical aspect to these decluttering goals. My DVD and Blu-ray collection isn’t as robust as some film fans, but it does contain unnecessary copies. For example, I’ve seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on the Train multiple times. It’s a great movie, but I don’t have plans to revisit it anytime soon. When I’m ready to re-watch that film, locating it will be easy. I cite this example because it isn’t a bad movie that’s easy to eliminate. It reveals the limits of needing such a large collection. It’s like the Seinfeld question where Jerry asks George about why he keeps so many books. If I’m not planning to watch the movie, is it just a prop to show off to visitors?

This project is going very well; I’m enjoying the experience more and not getting stuck in old patterns. There is a lingering question that hangs over these changes, however. How do I still write a film blog when I’m less absorbed in the medium every day? If I’m not as engaged by writing movie reviews, what do I write about here? It’s possible that this site has run its course, and that’s okay. I started Public Transportation Snob as a writing project and way to dig into unexplored corners of the movie world. My interests don’t seem to fit with that model anymore. I’m still in the midst of my pop culture decluttering, so where I land may determine the site’s future. For the moment, I’ll continue this journey wherever it goes.

April 4, 2015

Blind Spots Series: Poltergeist

Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper and produced by Steven Spieberg

"It's not ancient tribal burial grounds, just... people."

Growing up in the ‘80s, I wasn’t a daring movie watcher. To put it simply, horror movies frightened me. Even PG films like Poltergeist were spooky enough to give me nightmares. We started watching the Tobe Hooper film at a friends’ house on VHS a few years after its 1982 release. I was probably around eight and not ready for it. Once the chairs started moving and the tree came to life, I was out of there. I went home before the real chaos began, and that was definitely a wise move. I’ve seen glimpses of scenes on TV since, including a creepy clown and famous shots of Heather O’Rouke saying “they’re here” as young Carol Anne Freeling. Even so, I’ve never sat down and watched the complete movie. Part of me is still wary after that first experience; childhood fears don’t ever really go away.

Commercials on TV have started airing for the new remake, which hits theaters in May. I’m not thrilled to see it, but the brief glimpses of a clown (again) and other iconic elements are still creepy. On the other hand, I doubt it will leave much of an impression. The trailer offers glimpses at the iconic moments of the original, yet feels strangely distant. It’s possible the genre has changed too much to make this premise click. Sam Rockwell and Rosemary Dewitt should help to sell it. I’m getting off track, however. We’re here to talk about the original, which Hooper directed with considerable input from Producer Steven Spielberg. There have been hints that Spielberg did more than Hooper to really guide the project. Regardless of the real creative source, the movie worked for audiences. It’s time for me to finally put aside the fears that have caused me to avoid Poltergeist for more than 30 years.

The story is set in the type of new house community that was common in the early '80s. In fact, my parents moved us into a similar neighborhood in 1982. Our house was right next to a cemetery; is my reluctance to watch it making more sense? Despite the updated furnishings, the house where the Freelings live is really creepy. An ugly old tree stands just outside the kids' window, and an unfinished pool sits in the backyard. Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) are well-meaning parents trying to raise three kids. They don't deserve to be haunted by ghosts. On the other hand, they're so laid back that the danger barely fazes them. They witness unbelievable sights yet seem okay with spending another night in the house before moving. Carol Anne is abducted and disappears, but her parents (especially Diane) often forget that fact when marveling at the ghosts. Part of the reason is the requirements of the script; if they'd bolted when the chairs started moving, the movie would end. Plus, we'd never get the chance to meet the great Zelda Rubenstein as the ghost expert Tangina!

I didn't have nightmares after watching Poltergeist, but that doesn't mean it isn't scary. One scene with a guy imagining the skin on his face ripped off is grisly. The clever use of make-up brings a different level of creepiness than modern effects. The use of sound also makes an impact when there's little happening on screen. Just hearing Carol Anne's voice from another dimension brings a chill. The pace is fairly slow, but it ratchets up the tension. The quiet before the chaotic finale is quite effective. We know that everything is not okay and keep waiting for something to happen. There's a fine line between scares and silliness, and this movies strikes that balance. A toy clown trying to choke young Robbie (Oliver Robins) is funny; Diane getting attacked by skeletons is more frightening. Most scenes have a little of both. The result is an odd hybrid between mainstream entertainment and horror. The tone shifts by scene and generally works, though the end result is a bit different than you might expect.

This post is the March contribution to the Blind Spots Series. Check out all the entries on this page

March 30, 2015

Elsewhere on the Web...

It’s been pretty quiet lately on this site, but that doesn’t mean the music has stopped. I’m still writing and chatting about movies, theme parks, and Survivor all over the Internet. The challenge is finding enough time to balance all my interests. It’s fantasy baseball draft season, so even my love of movies is taking a back seat this week. In case you’re curious, I’ve included some recent blogs and episodes below from sites that deserve your attention. Thanks should go out to the webmasters and podcast hosts that believed I had something to contribute to their fine establishments.

Back in January, I ranked Michael Mann’s 10 features for Movie Mezzanine at the time of Blackhat’s release. After re-watching Ali and Miami Vice for my latest marathon, I might already change those rankings. Heat is the obvious top choice, but spots 2-6 remain a lot more fluid. It’s been thrilling to revisit Mann’s work this year, and he’s only fallen short once during a long career.

I recently joined up with the guys at Battleship Pretension to write periodic reviews. Tyler and David do great work on their podcast and have a talented group of writers on their site. My first post was about the indie film Growing Up and Other Lies, which started a limited run on March 20. The movie wasn’t very good, but it was still exciting to join up with this excellent site.

Another site that I’ve enjoyed writing for in the past year is Cinema Axis, which covers a diverse selection of new releases and classics. Courtney Small is a very good writer and has recruited smart people to join the fun. Once again, I’ll be writing about several films appearing at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto next month. I also spotlighted lesser-known movies available on Netflix in a regular series. The most recent piece in January was about the documentary Bill Cunningham New York.

Last week, I was the guest on the Forgotten Filmcast with Todd Liebenow. Our topic was the 1967 political satire The President’s Analyst, starring James Coburn. It’s a ridiculous film that’s firmly within its time period, but it mostly works. Catching up with Todd to discuss a movie that I knew nothing about previously was a blast. If you’re interested in finding hidden gems, Todd is your guy.

Jason and Nolahn recently celebrated their 100th episode at the Lair of the Unwanted. They cover some terrible movies but find a way to make the shows entertaining. They’re fun even if you haven’t seen the films, which is common for me. I happened to be on Skype at the right time and made a very brief appearance on their big show, which included a lot of friendly guests.

I’m also a serious theme park fan, and one of the top blogs in covering the parks is Theme Park Insider. Robert Niles keeps the tone light but professional, which is a tricky balance in a world filled with very enthusiastic Disney blogs. He covers both the behemoths and the regional parks and is even-handed by theme park standards. I started writing for his site back in November and contributed three articles following our trip to Disney World in January. The most recent post recounts our experiences with FastPass Plus, Disney’s controversial crowd management system. There are some positives with the new structure, but it also introduces major challenges that don’t enhance the guest experience.

One of my favorite TV shows is still Survivor, which is currently airing its 30th season. That’s an amazing number, and it’s easy to think the show couldn’t sustain itself creatively. Surprisingly, some of the recent seasons (especially Cagayan) have been among the best. I started writing about Survivor for former contestant Rob Cesternino’s awesome spot Rob Has a Website last year and love digging into all the strategy each week. My latest post looks at the reasons for throwing a challenge and how everyone stands going into the merge. Writing thousands of words about a reality show each week may sound ridiculous, but it’s easily one of my favorite hobbies.

March 19, 2015

Investigating Michael Mann: Ali

Will Smith stars as Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali (Will Smith) celebrates after a surprise victory in Michael Mann's incredible film.

There are few straight-up crowd pleasers in Michael Mann’s career, especially in his later films. I’m an serious fan of his movies, but it’s easy to see why reactions to Miami Vice and Public Enemies were divided. The trickier one for me is Ali, his 2001 biopic of the legendary boxer. It’s an intriguing story of a well-known figure and has a huge star in the title role. Despite those benefits, the response from audiences and critics was mixed. It wasn’t a financial disaster but didn’t recoup its sizable budget. Roger Ebert called ita movie that was never properly prepared and mounted, that got away from its makers in the filming, that has been released without being completed.

That reaction is surprising because I’d place Ali among Mann’s most convincing films. His confidence in this era shines through from the start. The story doesn’t rush to hit every beat, and that allows for better understanding of the real man behind the persona. Smith plays the big moments well yet also finds the inner strength lurking beneath the bluster. Shots with Ali training in Zaire or riding quietly in a car succeed because we’re able to see the emotions in Smith’s face. Depicting the fights well is impressive; what really sells this film are the scenes around the famous battles.

Sam Cooke performs in Michael Mann's Ali.
A Sam Cooke performance vitalizes a stunning 10-minute sequence to open the movie.

How to Open a Period Piece

The first 10 minutes of Ali are a master class from Mann on how to introduce a place and time. There’s little dialogue or obvious exposition, but he gives so many important details. It’s February 1964, and Ali (still known as Cassius Clay) trains for his first fight with Sonny Liston. His run down a quiet street is intercut with a lively Sam Cooke performance to an adoring crowd. The outdoor shots are grainy and contrast sharply with the bright lights of the concert. We also catch glimpses of Ali’s childhood as he watches his dad painting Jesus and sees a photo of a lynched man in the newspaper. These quick moments reveal hints at what created Ali’s worldview as an adult.

Mann also introduces us to Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), trainer Angelo Dundee (Ron Silver), and mentor Drew Bundini Brown (Jamie Foxx) during this sequence. Ali’s relationship with Malcolm is a key part of his personal life, and the others provide imporant support for the fights. With each new scene, the momentum builds towards Cooke’s final performance of “Bring It on Home to Me”. The incredible part is how seamless the complex introduction feels; there’s no weight to the exposition. Mann shows us the forces around Ali and ramps up the energy towards the Liston fight. The cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman) sets just the right mood and is an early example of remarkable digital cinema. By the time Ali hits the door for the weigh-in, we’re ready to rumble young man rumble.

Will Smith's Ali battles Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title.
The fight sequences in Ali are some of the best ever made, particularly the first Liston fight.

Fighting the Big Ugly Bear

I’ve yet to see more convincing fight scenes than what’s in this film. Mann lets the fights breathe, particularly the two that bookend the story. It feels like a different sport than what’s depicted in the Rocky films. The fighters often miss, and we see the exertion from each round. The punches also make an impact since the actors are actually hitting each other. The first Liston fight is fascinating because the stakes are so high. This is Ali’s shot to take down the champ, and he may not get another. The camera lingers behind the boxers’ shoulders and drops us into the environment. With lights shining everywhere, there’s an otherworldly atmosphere as the camera tilts inside the ring. Mann also incorporates long and medium shots to ensure we aren’t disoriented by the action. The music picks up when the tide shifts to Ali’s side, and it creates a feeling that something amazing is about to happen.

Smith trained for a year to develop the physique and skills for the role, and he never resembles an actor mimicking a boxer. When the camera zooms in on his happy feet, it’s easy to believe those come from the same guy. Smith’s charisma shines at the weigh-in. Joined by Bundini, he announces his presence to the reporters on hand. The contrast with Liston is never sharper than during this moment. Ali uses wit to ridicule Liston, who can only reply with “I’m gonna fuck you up!”. Liston doesn't have the same way with words and is more of a bruiser. The quiet time before the fight reminds us that Ali’s a showman but hardly a fool. He may play the clown for the press, but he’s a smart guy who understands the importance of this opportunity. The thoughtful man who greets Malcolm in the locker room is quieter and reveals a more complex individual.

The fight covers 10 minutes of screen time, but it feels much longer. When Ali claims “I’m the greatest thing that ever happened to boxing!” after winning the title, it's arrogant yet may not be far-fetched. The scenes following the win are more deliberate but equally intriguing. Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall) recognizes an opportunity with the young Cassius and becomes closely involved, and that creates an internal conflict when Malcolm becomes estranged. It’s interesting that Albert Hall is now playing the Elijah Muhammad after portraying his associate in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. He has limited screen time but is convincing. The attention spent on Ali’s relationship to Malcolm and the Nation of Islam reminds us this isn’t just a boxing movie. Shots with U.S. agents tailing Malcolm (especially in the Director’s Cut) hint at a larger story to explore. These brief interludes add depth by looking beyond Ali.

Will Smith gives his best performance in Ali, directed by Michael Mann.
A somber Ali watches the city burn following the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination.

The Thrill is Gone

The tone of the second act is much different from the joy when Ali gained the title. He splits with Malcolm out of loyalty to the Nation of Islam and is shattered by the assassination. The expressionless look on Ali’s face betrays no emotion, but it’s clear that he’s dying inside. When he takes down Liston in the first round of their rematch, the excitement is nonexistent. Ali’s angry about Malcolm’s death, issues with his wife (Jada Pinkett Smith), and a racist world. He’s all business and has no time for boxing. Questions remain on whether Liston threw the fight, but that wouldn’t fit within this narrative. A later fight with Ernie Terrell was even nastier after the opponent called Ali “Clay” before the contest. Ali toys with the guy and institutes a vicious beating. Smith effectively conveys the anger boiling up inside Ali that comes out with serious ferocity towards the helpless Terrell.

The focus during the middle hour is Ali’s refusal of the induction order into the U.S. military. Instead of making a compromise and taking the safe route, he steps up and nearly loses everything. Smith doesn’t overplay these moments, especially the famous line “A’int no Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” The stunned expression from his photographer Howard Bingham (Jeffrey Wright) says it all. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Ali watches a city burn and rides a train in silence. The forces that want to maintain the status quo are strong; what chance does he have? When Ali finally returns to the ring, he isn’t the same guy and has lost years off his prime. He doesn’t have that edge to take down a force like Joe Frazier. Even a superstar like Ali has limits, and Smith reveals that vulnerability.

Jon Voight's work as Howard Cosell earned an Oscar nomination.
The Ali/Cosell relationship stands out because of the chemistry between Smith and Voight.

Ali and Cosell

The most convincing relationship is between Ali and Howard Cosell, played with fitting quirkiness by Jon Voight. The make-up to help him resemble Cosell is remarkable, but it’s Voight that makes the character spring to life. During Ali’s lowest points, it’s conversations with Cosell that energize him. We catch shades of the outgoing younger guy as he describes a fantasy of defeating Joe Frazier. What lifts this relationship beyond the public sparring is the warmth behind the scenes. There’s no BS from Cosell when he’s talking to his friend off camera. Ali talks to the broadcaster like a mentor and respects his opinion. That’s rare for a guy who’s been taught not to trust people, even those close to him. Cosell’s phone call to Ali from the studio giving him the news of his win at the Supreme Court seems fitting given their connection.

Less engaging are depictions of Ali’s relationships with three women during the film’s 10-year time period. Each actress brings something interesting to the part, but they receive limited attention in the script. The introductions are fun, especially the dance scene with Sonji (Jada Pinkett Smith). Their relationship goes downhill quickly and gives her little to do after the first scene. More impactful is Belinda (Nona Gaye), but even that marriage eventually grows sour. Ali’s infidelity is addressed but not dwelled on, and it isn’t clear why he can’t be a good husband. It’s clear that he wants to run the show, and Belinda’s concerns about the Nation of Islam and Don King (both correct) don’t sit well. Veronica Porsche (Michael Michele) arrives during the final act and sets up an unseen chapter after the credits. It’s difficult to fit everything in a biopic, and it’s unfortunate that the women receive less attention.

Ali trains in Zaire before the Rumble in the Jungle fight in Ali.
Ali jogs on the edge of the frame while the Zaire people ardently support him.

The Rumble in the Jungle

The definitive chronicle of Ali’s fight with George Foreman in Zaire is Leon Gast’s Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings. Mann can't match it. What he does instead is build an emotional climax following the somber middle act. Even before the fight, Ali’s left speechless by the feverish support from the African people. Arriving to the famous chant of “Ali bomaye!” (Ali kill him!), he once again becomes the people’s champ far away from home. There are lengthy shots of Ali running through the streets with crowds following him everywhere. This sequence might feel tedious in lesser hands, but it brings resonance to the closing fight beyond the professional stakes.

Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy is famous; Stallone even copied it in Rocky III. What keeps the fight interesting is the danger that emanates from Foreman. Few believe that Ali can win, even some in his inner circle. Charles Shufford’s quiet and imposing work as the massive Foreman keeps the fight intriguing even when the final outcome is known. Following Ali’s victory, the look on Smith’s face as he celebrates before the crowd hits just the right notes. He’s faced possible death and achieved the impossible, and the victory feels earned after all the struggle. This isn’t the last act of Ali’s life, but it’s the right place to close this epic film. By narrowing the scope, Mann provides more depth and a real sense of what drove the man. Ali transcends the normal biopic and is captivating right to the end.