Saturday, July 26, 2008

With All Due Respect to Heath Ledger . . .

Dark Knight was actually right good.

See, you thought I was going to pan it, didn't you? Friend Bartcow was disappointed that I was not scathingly critical while I slumped in my chair watching the credits roll. Next to me, girlfriend Svetx said she felt like she had felt right after Schindler's List. This is not to belittle the holocaust or exalt the exploits of the Joker and Batman. But Knight did weigh us down psychologically. To relate it to another movie, midway through Knight she and I looked at each other as we had during There Will Be Blood, feeling what we felt then. The distasteful sides of humanity portrayed in the movie were making us uneasy, and there was no indication how, or if, the movie would get us out of that state.

Granted, Blood was a far better movie, but Knight is a superhero movie. You judge it on a different scale. Click "Continue" only if you've already seen it, or don't care if it gets spoiled for you.

I'd say it was better than the first two X-Men in terms of characterization, and those were good. The interplay between Commissioner Gorden, Harvey Dent, Bruce Wayne, and Batman was excellent, and the admiration Batman and Gorden have for Dent even after he goes through his trauma and becomes psychotic reminds me of many a rooftop conversation between Gordon and Batman in the comics. They miss the old Harvey deeply.

The feeling of desperation over a large population being threatened by an evil villain was the best I've ever seen it in a superhero movie. It got to a point where I could not tell where the Joker and his henchmen would turn up next. As long as I'm not belittling major real-world tragedies and calamities, I'll go ahead and say the Joker's aggression was like an insurgency, and the police could not deal with it using traditional methods. Actually, the insurgency was within the police force as well -- sound familiar? And here's Batman, the guy who doesn't have to play by the rules, who is interesting because he walks a thin line between justice and barbarism, starting to delve into the barbaric. He gets brutal with the Joker during an interrogation session, and I was disturbed. I don't view this as my hero beating up the bad guys, like I had when I was little. This was a good guy being driven crazy by a crazy guy, thereby granting the crazy guy homefield advantage. The Joker knew how to get under everyone's skin, how to send them into a rage and get battalions of police dispatched to abandoned warehouses and banks and hospitals, only to find that they had been duped, distracted, their resources depleted with little gain.

Sound familiar?

Parallels continue when the Joker's final scheme was foiled in part by an extensive domestic spying endeavor over which Lucius Fox almost resigned.

Batman does use his wits. He makes plans, he thinks and reacts quickly, he does unpredicted things, he gets stymied, he gets mad, he jumps into fights and off of buildings and never gives up. A crime boss says, "You're not scaring me. This is two stories. The fall won't kill me." Batman says, "I'm counting on that," and drops him, breaking his legs. Now that's the Dark Knight of Frank Miller and the good comics! And, the writers, director, and Christian Bale showed a pretty well-rounded Bruce Wayne/Batman that held firm as the centerpiece of the movie. Wayne has to fake his way through daily life while his nighttime antics are the "real life" for him. And he pays the price in relationships. But banal speeches about this state of affairs were kept to a minimum, thank goodness. And a lot of the cliche dialog and gratuitous "heroic" shots that burden superhero movies were not present. Though some were.

Like Schindler's List, it also had some stupid stuff. Did he wreck the Batmobile yet again? Yep. Was there a smaller vehicle inside the Batmobile that afforded him expensive, elaborate escape from the silly wreck? Yep.

Did Batman, in the space of 5 minutes of movie time, decide to divulge his identity and give up crime-fighting, then get re-inspired and decide to continue as Batman? Yep -- although the circumstances that lead to his re-inspiration were not predictable and were well grounded in character.

Did Batman, in one of his high-tech vehicles complete with armor and machine guns, charge at a pistol-wielding Joker in a game of chicken as he had at the end of Burton's 1989 movie? Yep. And while this time the Joker did not shoot, Batman lost the game of chicken by veering, for no good reason, and crashing his vehicle, and being knocked unconscious. Our highly skilled, armored, and technologically advanced hero lost that little face-off with the unarmored cackling clown and had to be rescued by the regular old police. It's like the writers just wanted to pay homage to the 1989 movie.

And after surviving bullets and beating countless thugs and S.W.A.T. team members to pulp, was our hero staggered by a little tussle with the Joker? Kind of. It wasn't as stupid as the showdown in the 1989 movie, but it was there. But at least, in the end of that battle, Batman did win by his own devices, pun intended, and not just by luck. And in a welcome reversal from the 1989 movie, Batman did knock the Joker over the edge of the building; the Joker did not fall by accident. Then, in a welcome reversal from the barbarism that had been infusing Batman's character throughout the movie, he shoots a grappling hook down, snags the Joker, and prevents his death.

I don't like Batman destroying so much property. In Begins and Knight, he's pretty wanton when he gets in one of his vehicles. I much prefer the time in Batman: Year One when Batman escapes from the cops in a cloud of bats, and later, a mens clothing store is found to have been broken into and robbed -- but payment for damages and the suit was left on the counter.

More on the good aspects: The mystique of Batman as viewed by criminals was well developed. The 1989 movie had a trace of this in the beginning, when one crook asked if his partner has heard what happens to someone else. "I heard the bat got him," he says. This aspect of Batman was lost in the movies until now, when Knight begins with a couple of scenes of crooks and mobsters talking in their usual style about "money" and "the boss" and dropping last names of mob leaders. (Scarecrow shows up in a few of these scenes -- he's gotten loose again! And his tiny amount of screen time in Knight is far better than anything he did as the main criminal in Batman Begins.) But now, the name of Batman crops up too as one of the players in their larger game, an antagonist to them separate from the police but also separate from themselves.

Heath Ledger was great. It's not that he changed his voice. It's not because he has tragically died. Bartcow said it best: Ledger seemed to really be a psychotic serial killer, not a caricature like Nicholson was. He was part of the story, not overblown as if the rest of the movie were just a setting for him. Thank you for this, writers, director, and Ledger!

There was interesting pacing overall in the movie. Lots of filler, transitional stuff, that a lesser movie would have included, was left out. Sometimes, when violence was about to occur, the scene was cut short and the outcome indicated in a later scene. That's cool -- we all need to cut back on violence. Anyway, there was still plenty of it.

The next day, the movie was staying with me. I was dwelling on it. Not as much as I had after There Will Be Blood, but still. This is a superhero movie. I'm not really supposed to dwell on it at all. Some of the movie's haunting nature comes from some pithy lines uttered by the Joker. One is, "Insanity is like gravity. Sometimes all it needs is a little push." For folks who have dealt with mental illness in themselves or others, this is not funny. And, when Harvey Dent is lying in a hospital bed, newly two-faced, Joker tells him, "Chaos is fair."

I agree. Not that this is a comforting thought. We spend a lot of time worried about whether rules and laws and societal structures are fair, and usually they are not. All the Batman stories, when well done, are about breakdowns in a structure, subversion for both good and evil ends. Often a trade-off is necessary. A price is paid somewhere. The only thing that is truly even-handed is absolute random chance.

Continue . . .

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Here We Go Again

Walking out of Tim Burton’s first back in 1989, none of us felt so good. My friend Peter shrugged and said, “Well, that was Batman.” We had been anticipating it for months, and what the movie gave us was basically an exposition of its own title -- a movie’s worth of Batman stuff, imagery, the Batmobile, the Joker, Alfred, and so on. Peter said he had heard that the director had decided on an operatic approach, and this sounded to me like an excuse for a movie consisting merely of characters entering and exiting the stage.

Another friend said that his problem with the movie was that Batman didn’t yell -- he never acted like he wanted something. Some folks blame Michael Keaton, saying he was miscast.

I say, any of the Batman actors -- Keaton under Burton’s direction and all the ones since -- could have done a great job in a good script. The problem was, the way the movies have been written, Batman does not really do anything. He shows up like Santa Claus at a Christmas party. He’s there, in costume, but beyond that, mostly the other characters are who affect the outcome of the story, particularly the ending. In the first Burton movie, the Joker had knocked Batman over the edge of the tower and Batman was hanging on for life; then the Joker fell off himself by accident. That’s no way for a superhero to vanquish his opponent. In the second, Catwoman is able to knock Batman around in a fist fight -- she should be elusive and crafty but not able to beat up our trained martial artist hero wearing an armored suit -- and, as best I can recall, she and happenstance have more to do with defeating the Penguin and the Christopher Walken villain than anything Batman does.

I call it the Luke Skywalker complex when the central character is the least interesting. It’s not that I would tone down Nicholson’s Joker, DeVito’s Penguin, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, who were all great. It’s that I would raise Batman to their level of importance. The villians in his world are the most memorable and interesting in mainstream comics. But Batman has got to be the baddest ass in Gotham City. The villians are trying to subvert a society whose people and police are mystified by them; Batman needs to be shown as the guy who can subvert and mystify the criminals. I suggest that he is able to do this because, while both he and the criminals have troubled backgrounds and deal with psychological trauma, Batman has faced his own more deeply and, except in extreme situations, is less governed by them. He is much more in control. As he says to a crooked politician he has cornered in Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, “I know pain. And sometimes I share it with people like you.”

There is one great thing Burton’s movies did, and that was to give him the perfect musical theme. Before, we had only the blues from the TV show, which was great for that. But we did need something sinister, heroic, and distinctive for the movies, and Danny Elfman delivered, starting in a minor key, moving to the six chord, but then letting the melody slink down chromatically to something very unusual, jazzy even, to my ear -- a major triad based on the second note of the original minor scale. I don’t know what you would call this. But here it is, after a short intro.

Superman received an excellent theme from John Williams. But what other superheros in movies have been awarded memorable themes? None of the X-Men. Those movies were rich in opportunity for a composer to create leitmotifs and assemble them in various combinations, as called for by each scene, in a manner similar to Wagner’s. But nooo. That would have been work. Spiderman? His music is in 3/4 time to imply swinging, which is cool. Actually, I kind of dig it, and there is some kind of melody, but it’s nowhere near Batman’s. His music was also written by Elfman, by the way. Ironman? Some electric guitar riff consisting of one note. His was a good movie though, with the best superhero romance because of the importance of Pepper Potts to his life. She is not only the woman in his life, she is also the Alfred, so her role is dual as pit crew and love interest. She and Tony Stark can talk their flirtatious smack a la Han and Leia while repairing his suit together.

When Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down came out, I said to myself while watching it, “This director needs to make a Batman movie.” Michael Douglas’ vigilante seemed sort of like Batman, a guy going beyond the norm to “clean up” his city, his character woven into the hot LA daytime as Batman’s is to the Gotham night. And Robert Duvall’s cop seemed like a commissioner Gordon, the guy inside the department who understands what the vigilante is up to.

Then I learned that Schumacher was slated to make a Batman movie, and I was ecstatic. I think that was the year my housemate spearheaded a Batman party at our house, complete with a bat-signal on the roof. Our activities included watching the campy movie from the Sixties and a guest lecture by an English professor from down the street who had done an extensive analysis of the Batman oevre.

I went to the midnight showing on opening day, and found Schumacher to have played up the camp while keeping Batman as ineffective as ever. One thing I can say for the TV series is that the mannerisms and sincerety of Adam Wests’s character, while part of the camp, were well developed and seemed to speak to a heroic soul that has been missing from every live-action Batman since.

I didn’t bother seeing Schumacher’s second Batman, the one with Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze. But I do recall Idiom writing a review for a website that we both worked for back then saying something like this: that watching that movie was like being strapped into your chair and force-fed jelly beans while having brightly colored sandbags dropped into your lap.

Then Hollywood started Batman over with Batman Begins. The camp was gone, and the director Christopher Nolan seemed to really want to portray a dark and effectively functioning Batman. But this movie merely went down the list of things Batman needs to have. Martial arts training? Check. Batmobile? Got one just collecting dust in storage. Suit? Got one of those too, bulletproof in fact, right here in a drawer. The finale took place on a train, and we had had a train sequence in the previous summer’s Spiderman II. And at the end, Bruce Wayne blew up Wayne Manor, something that had already been done, actually, in Frank Miller’s Batman comic The Dark Knight Returns. But in Milller’s tale, Batman was changing his whole life. He had been in retirement, then had come out to fight crime again, and now was going underground with his new army of fanatic teenagers to fight crime in an entirely different way. Batman can’t be blowing up Wayne Manor when he’s just beginning. And the demolition didn’t contribute to the story anyway.

What’s with Batman’s stuff being destroyed for no good reason in these movies? In Burton’s first, Batman’s plane was shot down with one bullet from the Joker’s comical pistol. In Burton’s second, Batman intentionally broke his car apart to form the Bat-missile simply to allow Batman to escape down a narrow alley. One gets the idea that this can happen only one time and the car is destroyed. You can’t tell me Batman does this everytime he needs to go down a narrow alley. And later in that movie, Batman goes to visit the Penguin in some vehicle that seems designed for going through sewers, and Batman crashes it like a spoiled teenager in his new Ferrari upon arrival at the Penguin’s lair.

I know Batman is supposed to be rich, but this is going too far, like an over-extravagant wedding. At this rate he’s gonna burn his money off and have nothing left, hardly the responsible thing to do.

I say Batman needs to be sustainable. Keep it simple with a fancy car, the suit, the cave, the mansion, maybe a bat-like hang glider or something, but no freaking airplane, no flying suit. Batman has to rely on his skills. The intrigue of his character is that he needs to use his wits to create the impression of being supernatural without actually being so. It’s cheating to essentially give him supernatural powers under the guise of technological achievements.

I want to see him moving, leaping, hiding, lurking. Show him doing his own detective work and piecing clues together. Show him spying, hanging out on building ledges, planting microphones for eavesdropping. Show his psychological effect on crooks. The thing about Batman Begins was, everytime a crook went around a dark corner, Batman was there to sock him. A better movie would have Batman not always being there, but still keeping the criminals on edge. Batman should fool the audience too. Have him do unexpected things, strange things that make him seem a little crazy, but then show these actions to be a result of his being a step ahead of everyone else.

Batman Begins had unimaginative sound design, in my recollection. Every punch had the same exact bass “thud.” It got old quickly, but it was unrelenting. Also, Scarecrow was not the slightest bit scary. And the musical theme has been lost since Burton gave up the franchise. Go on youtube and listen to the music from Batman begins. Sing me the Batman theme. Sounds to me like it’s one note. But go see for yourself and correct me if I’m wrong.

Previewers are saying this new Batman is darker and more psychologically deep than any of the previous movies. We’ll see about that. Tim Burton’s movies were dark, and some people equate that with “psychologically deep,” but Burton didn’t understand or do anything with the character. And Christopher Nolan’s first was dark, but one-dimensional and extremely predictable.

And folks are raving about Ledger’s Joker. This raises red flags. I fear Batman is taking a supporting role in his own movie again. Friend Bartcow has even dared to suggest that folks are raving about Ledger because he has tragically committed suicide.

So we’ll see. If this movie is what it is cracked up to be, it will mean Nolan has undergone some serious changes in his storytelling practice. But hey, Tiger Woods, already famous, still made some deep adjustments that improved his golf swing, right?

I leave you with Elfman's wonderful Richard Straussian finale, the likes of which we surely won't hear in the new Nolan movie.

Continue . . .

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Israeli Algae Presentation uses Wagner Soundtrack

Seambiotic earns a place in my algae watchlist (see left-side menu column) with its production of algae using emissions from a coal burning power plant. The algae turns the CO2 into vegetable oil which can be refined into fossil fuels for transportation and other purposes.

In an earlier post, we saw how Greenfuels is growing algae in emissions from a gas burning power plant. Greenfuels uses closed tubes to grow the algae while Seambiotic, at this plant, is using open-air ponds. Unchewable Center commented that the Greenfuels operation is using a lot of water in the Arizona desert, a process that may not be feasible on a large scale. Seambiotic is using water from the Mediterranean.

CORRECTION: I had stated, earlier today in this post, that algae was separated from oil in this process using a centrifuge. This is not the case, as Unchewable Center pointed out in the first comment. The centrifuge is used to separate algae from water when the algae is to be used as food supplement. They don't say how they separate oil from algae for use as fuel. This stage is not described in any description of any algae oil production process that I know of, so it remains a mystery to me.

Continue . . .

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Be Nice 'Cause Without Us, You'd be Nobody

I was told on the phone, “Watch out for the mom. She’s very persnickety. She won’t let you put things on a table or on a chair. She may snap at you. Don’t take it personally.”

The current producer says he’s glad to have only just started the show. It’s harder for the crewmembers who have been on this show from the beginning and seen the family go from being average overtaxed bickerers praying on the jumbotron to spoiled celebrities who have flexed their control-freak powers and gotten someone fired already.

I’m coming in just now, so I don’t know all the stories, but they’ve told me bits and pieces.

Apparently, the behavior of the parents got crazy and drove some producers to the point of tears, or shouting anger, but just between themselves, not in front of the family.

One normally even-tempered producer took herself off the show because of how she was being spoken to by the mom. Her replacement, whom I’m working for, had to lie to the family for a while to cover for his predecessor’s absence.

There was a conference call with the family where it all got worked out. The family aired its complaints. “We don’t like it when someone other than the cameraman picks up the camera,” they said.

Huh? Sometimes the PA’s use the camera to shoot stuff. It’s just a bullshit complaint. But it was noted to keep everyone happy.

It was thought to be all cool then, but then the mom was heard griping on the phone to someone about the crew while she was wearing a microphone. Bad move there, persnickety Mom.

One PA, let’s call him Dale, says that the Mom keeps looking at him like he doesn’t know what it’s like to have “eight crumbcrunchers come out of his nook,” to use his words.

“You’re damn right,” he said to us crew today in the car. “I thank the Lord every day I have a cock. Women just have too much shit to figure out, comparing their skin color to swatches every day, trying to find out what’s going on. ‘Am I dying, or am I just eating too much cabbage?’”

Apparently some church paid for the beach house.The family makes trips to churches and talks about their experiences. The other PA, let’s call him Steve, says they think they are closer to God or something. The mom doesn’t like people to cuss, and she makes us take our shoes off when we go into the house.

So when the phone rang today, on the way to the location, and PA Steve answered while driving and said “Shit,” I presumed it wasn’t the mom.

It was. He later told us what she had said.

Mom to Steve, first thing out of her mouth: “I love you.”

Steve, first thing out of his mouth: “Shit. I mean, shoot. Sorry. What do you need?” He knew, from her first words, that she wanted something.

Mom: “Organic broccoli.”

Steve controlled his tone, knowing the mom was pushing him and the production to do something for her. He had to say, “Sure.” But he goes on. “Well, I don’t know if I can get organic on the island. But I can get broccoli. Anything else?”

Mom: “No, that’s all. Do you need anything from me?”

Steve: “A good performance.”

By now I know he’s talking to the mom, and I’m thinking he’s going to get fired for cussing at her. But Steve’s been on the show for 4 years now. He can cuss, excuse himself but not really mean it, and life goes on. And apparently, the producers of the show are not so anxious that they feel they need to change crew around to find the right personnel to create the least friction with the family. Unlike the producers on some jobs. As a new guy coming in on this show, I appreciate that they didn’t tell me how to act. They presumed I’m not going to cause trouble, and they let me and the others do our jobs, and deal with the friction as it arises. I mean, the mom has to deal with us just as we’re dealing with her. She’s getting paid, she can deal.

On the phone, Steve went on with his statement about the mom’s performance, as if he were the director. “I mean, happiness. I just want you to be happy.”

When he brought the broccoli later, he wrote on its bag, “Super Delicious Amazing Organic Broccoli.” The mom told him she didn’t appreciate that, but he said he thought he could tell she thought it was funny.

The other sound guy, Mitchell, who has also been working on this show for four years, told me that when he mics the mom, she usually takes it from him and tapes it somewhere in her shirt without care. She may turn and walk away from him before he’s put the transmitter on her, and he may have to walk behind her trying to clip it to her belt. And when the shooting is over, she’ll rip it out against the tape, the $300.00 tiny cable and mic which, though sturdy, can only be yanked so many times. They’ve told her its cost, and she rips it anyway. She hands the mic and transmitter back to Mitchell with the transmitter dangling from the mic cable.

It makes you wary of buying your own equipment. You spend $300 on a body mic, and they rip it out like it’s part of some striptease act, a sudden shedding of something to be tossed to an audience. I had a doctor do that back on those superbowl ads. I had to take the mic off another person, and the doctor marched into the makeup room and ripped the mic out of her labcoat before I could get to her. Often, the tape is stubborn, and they look at it as if surprised that it resists their ripping, and they rip harder. Excuse me folks, the tape I use is very sticky. It stays on you. Did you notice how it stayed all day and I didn’t have to keep hassling you to retape it? You can’t just rip it out like that. Not to mention, I don’t rip your stethoscope off of you. I don’t rip catheters out of your patients, or those brainwave pad things off their shaved heads. I bet all that costs $300.00. Why is it okay then when it comes to my mic?

With any luck, I won’t have to mic the mom on this show. I’ll be more in the background booming the kids as they either stand speechless with fingers in their mouths, or scream.

Today I was told that since I was sending wireless audio to camera, I would not need to go into the surf. But I wore my Keens anyway, and sure enough, when Dad took the kids by the hands and lead them into the water, the camera man went in front of them to shoot their faces, and I went to get their audio. The surf could break about our knees, and that was okay. Any higher, and it could splash into the equipment zone on my body where the audio bag was suspended around my belly.

Once you get out there with the camera and audio running, and you’re watching the cameraman’s frame and watching for surf coming in and for your boom shadow and where the kids are standing so you don’t step on them and trying to stay on axis to the dialog of the dad and the kids, you forget about the politics and you have fun. You’re glad for your Keens -- that is something that worked out right. Let the soothing salt water flow through them, then wear them home and hose them off. It’s just what they’re for.

Tonight, back at the crew house, the producer passed around a hash pipe. “It’s what makes you a good producer,” PA Dale said. I declined. I don’t think a working trip is the time to try pot for the first time. Everyone else took a hit though, and they were drinking too. I would have loved a beer, but I’ve had to give it up since going on the pill.

After two beers and a few hits off the pipe, the main cameraman got up to try out the underwater camera rig. The producer carried its 48 pounds to the edge of he pool for him. The cameraman jumped in and took the underwater rig and together they bobbed like two apples. He would turn the camera, and his own body would turn in counter-motion.

“This is hard after two beers and two hits,” he said. “Maybe they are right. Maybe we are unprofessional and slack.”

PA Dale did awful water ballet for him while he shot him, and then we all looked at the footage.

“I’m fat,” said Dale.

“I like the above/below water split,” someone said.

PA Steve joked that, after those pipe hits, the camera man would be playing with the underwater rig in the bathtub tonight, checking out his own penis on the above/below water split.

Lord, I hope I don't have to mic the mom tomorrow.

Continue . . .