“Force Majeure”: Everything “Wild” Isn’t, and More

December 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Facing the Avalanche in "Force Majeure"/Magnolia Pictures

Facing the Avalanche in “Force Majeure”/Magnolia Pictures

My previous post on “Wild” contained a quote from the film’s location manager that claimed the inaccurate and easily accessible locations were necessary compromises.

Most of the time you just can’t send a movie crew out into some of these places. You need locations that are accessible, cinematic and can serve several purposes so the crew doesn’t have to pack up each day.

Let’s hope she’s had a chance to see “Force Majeure,” Sweden’s entry for Best Foreign Film, because it make a mockery of her claim. Although a psychological drama with comedic elements, “Force Majeure” is a masterpiece of outdoor filmmaking that makes the most of its stunning location, a ski resort in the French Alps. Beyond shots of chair lifts and ski runs, the director, Ruben Ostlund, and his two DPs, Fredrik Wenzel and Fred Arne Wergeland, use beautifully composed long shots to establish the locations and its characters place within them. So along with the medium and close shots of the actors–an attractive young Swedish couple, Tomas and Ebba, and their son and daughter–we see their environment from afar, perched on a plateau surrounded by mountains. We see not only daytime ski runs but the nighttime march of snowcats on the mountainside, and the snow machines at dawn.

It didn’t surprise me to learn later that Ostlund got his start making ski documentaries, since he films every aspect of the resort and the skiers so expertly. When Tomas and his Norwegian friend ski in deep powder in a location that must have been accessed via helicopter, the sequence is not only breathtaking but painstakingly composed. I can only imagine how difficult it was to get the crew and equipment there, and how long it took to shoot.

Johannes Kuhnke in "Force Majeure"/Magnolia Pictures

Johannes Kuhnke in “Force Majeure”/Magnolia Pictures

Of course there’s a fascinating script beyond the perfect cinematography, and great acting. But what stayed with me the most was the way Ostlund, Wenzel and Wergeland matched the film’s visuals with the unfolding drama. It’s rare to come across a perfect film like “Force Majeure.” See it if you can.

The Not-So-Wild “Wild,” and Two Films That Put It to Shame

December 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

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My massive interior paint job, now mercifully completed, has kept me from blogging, but I’m back. In the midst of the upheaval, I managed to get out to some screenings–three in as many nights. One of them was “Wild,” the much-anticipated adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I was aware of Strayed’s colorful back story, but expected, not unreasonably, that the story of a woman’s solitary three-month hike through the wilderness would depict a) solitude and b) wilderness. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

I realized almost immediately that screenwriter Nick Hornby (yes, that Nick Hornby) and director Jean-Marc Vallee had zero interest in depicting either solitude or landscapes, preferring copious chatter (via voiceover during the hike and during the many, many flashbacks) and closeups. Not only are almost no long shots in “Wild,” but none are held long enough to be classified as establishing shots. Instead, we get endless close-ups of Reese’s worried/exasperated/exhausted face, and medium shots of her trudging along the trail. I kept wanting the DP, Yves Belanger, to pull back and show reality–a lone woman hiking through an enormous landscape–but he never did, creating what is surely the most claustrophobic and unnatural film ever made about trekking. Cluttered, chatty and overwrought, “Wild” isn’t worthy of its name. It’s also long and boring, like the hike–but without the vistas.

The baffling lack of establishing shots is partially explained in this NYT travel section article about “Wild,” which appeared 12/5/14. http://nyti.ms/1u0GGhz The reporter, Tim Neville, explains:

In fact, while “Wild” the book has story lines in Minnesota, California and Oregon, all but seven of the movie’s scenes were filmed in Oregon, and only two of them were actually on the Pacific Crest Trail. “This wasn’t ‘Into the Wild,’ where we were ready to backpack into places to get some shots,” said Nancy Haecker, the location manager for “Wild,” who also worked with Sean Penn on the film version of Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild.” “Most of the time you just can’t send a movie crew out into some of these places. You need locations that are accessible, cinematic and can serve several purposes so the crew doesn’t have to pack up each day.”

Hmm. Vallee and Belanger would have done well to watch “Jeremiah Johnson,” the 70’s Robert Redford film whose locations hardly look accessible and are properly shot. As for the character’s solitude, I can recall only one or two lines of dialogue in the entire movie: it’s practically a silent film. Yet strangely “Jeremiah Johnson” is a lot more interesting to watch than “Wild.”

Another film that should have been a model for “Wild” is the Cohen Brother’s “No Country for Old Men.” DP Roger Deakins begins with a series of long shots, each held for 5-6 seconds, that tell us everything we need to know about the setting (Marfa, Texas). These establishing shots, each beautifully composed, take up an astonishing 1 minute, 22 seconds, but there isn’t a wasted nanosecond.

As it happens, there’s a new film that takes place in a mountain setting that is everything “Wild” is not: gorgeously photographed in often difficult settings, beautifully written and acted, and endlessly compelling. I’ll be writing about it in my next post.

The Hollywood Sign in Rain, Disappearing and Reappearing

December 3, 2014 § 2 Comments

Los Angeles has been blessed with rain–the first big storm in two years. It started on Monday, picking up force yesterday and weakening today. Through it all I’ve been working in the most distracting room in my house–the one with this view. (My usual workspace, the living room, is off-limits because it’s being repainted.) Yesterday morning at 11:30, the Sign was ghostly-looking through a scrim of mist.

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By 12:30, it had vanished into the rain clouds.

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Today it has been playing peekaboo, and currently looks like this:

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Two Hollywood Signs, Old and New

November 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

The Hollywood Sign As It Looked on August 7, 1978/Both Photos Courtesy Raiden Peterson

The Hollywood Sign As It Looked on August 7, 1978/Both Photos Courtesy Raiden Peterson

The New Hollywood Sign, Circa November 1978

The New Hollywood Sign, Circa November 1978


I’ve been immersed in a weeks-long repainting of my house’s interior, an ordeal I wouldn’t recommend if it weren’t necessary. Tomorrow the final phase begins: the repainting of the woodwork in my living room/office, so today I began the arduous process of clearing out all the cabinets. That’s when I found these two photos which were sent to me by Raiden Peterson, who I interviewed in 2007 my documentary Under the Hollywood Sign . (The documentary is available for sale on DVD at underthehollywoodsign.com and as a download for sale or rent from https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths)

Raiden Peterson supervised the tear-down and reconstruction of the Hollywood Sign for Pacific Outdoor Electric, and documented his work throughout the process. The first photo was taken on August 7, 1978, the day before demolition began. The second was taken soon after the new Sign was completed on October 30, 1978. Thirty-six years later, many–perhaps the majority–of the visitors to the Hollywood Sign have no idea that the current Sign is not the original. These photos tell the story.

Among the Dead at Hollywood Forever

November 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Hollywood Forever Cemetery 11/11/14/All photos Hope Anderson Productions

Hollywood Forever Cemetery 11/11/14/All photos Hope Anderson Productions

Last week I had a visitor from England–Heath Woodward, who I met three years ago because he was writing a musical about Peg Entwistle. Last year I visited Heath’s hometown of Margate, where I saw an early showcase of “Goodnight September” (which recently had its first performances there); this year it was his turn to visit Los Angeles. Because Heath’s previous visit was short and lacking in both a car and a guide, I was determined to show him more of the city, and I think I succeeded. In addition to Hollywood and Beverly Hills, I took him on a tour of downtown that included the Broadway theaters as well as the Belasco, where Peg Entwistle had great success starring in “The Mad Hopes” in 1932.
Johnny Ramone

Johnny Ramone

Hattie McDaniel

Hattie McDaniel

Mickey Rooney's Headstone at the Mausoleum

Mickey Rooney’s Headstone at the Mausoleum

Last Tuesday we went to Hollywood Forever, my favorite cemetery. It was an appropriately overcast day, and as we wandered through the Garden of Legends I realized that–with the exception of a screening of “Chinatown” and a Johnny Marr concert, both held at night–I hadn’t been there in twelve years. (Last time I was showing it to a friend from Hawaii; he said it was his favorite place in LA because he couldn’t hear the sound of traffic.) Although it was late afternoon when Heath and I arrived, we managed to see some of the highlights–the Fairbanks, Tyrone Power, Jr., and DeMille memorials–but not the Valentino crypt, as the mausoleum is being worked on and was locked. But its outside wall featured a new addition–a stone for Mickey Rooney, who died earlier this year. Nearby stood Johnny Ramone’s statue and Hattie McDaniel’s pink oblong stone. One headstone caught our eye simply because it was unlike any memorial we’d ever seen–a sculpture of a man lashed with steel cable to a jagged rock. Staring at the inscription, we were startled to realize that it was Tony Scott’s grave.
Heath Woodward at Tony Scott's grave

Heath Woodward at Tony Scott’s grave

By then it was getting dark, so my efforts to pay respects to John Huston, whose excellent autobiography An Open Book I’m reading, had to be postponed. Along the way we had picked up a couple of fellow travelers–a woman and her live wire four-year-old son. The little boy grabbed my sleeve, showed me his blankie and attached himself to our self-guided tour, saying “We need more people!” Unlike us, he didn’t mean dead ones.

The Fairbanks Memorial, burial place of Douglas Sr. and Jr.

The Fairbanks Memorial, burial place of Douglas Sr. and Jr.

Toto's Memorial Statue

Toto’s Memorial Statue

Visiting Hello Kitty Con and “Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty” at JANM

November 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Live Action and Film Combo at Hello Kitty Con, 10/30/14/All photos Hope Anderson Productions

Live Action and Film Combo at Hello Kitty Con, 10/30/14/All photos Hope Anderson Productions

Though I grew up in her homeland, I came late to the charms of Hello Kitty, a serious lapse of my instincts for pop culture phenomena. How did I miss Kitty’s future ubiquity as Japan’s ambassador of kawaii? Probably because I was jaded by my Tokyo years, which featured a delightful stream of childish novelties: toys, stickers, candies and rice crackers in seasonal shapes (e.g., cherry blossoms, autumn leaves, umbrellas). Japan also celebrated (and still does) three children’s holidays–Children’s Day, Doll Festival, 7-5-3 Day–surely a record unmatched by any other country.
Hello Kitty Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival) Emperor and Empress Dolls, at the Japanese-American National Museum

Hello Kitty Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival) Emperor and Empress Dolls, at the Japanese-American National Museum


Against this backdrop of national cuteness, Hello Kitty’s debut in 1974 was not earthshaking news. In fact, because my family had moved to the United States two years earlier, I didn’t see the pink sensation until my first trip back in 1980. “I don’t think this is going to catch on in America,” I remember saying. I soon knew better. But it wasn’t until early 90s, when I noticed a grown woman in the next car gripping a Hello Kitty steering wheel, that I realized how wrong I’d been.

In the years since, Hello Kitty’s reach has extended around the world and into the air. As part of Sanrio’s 40th anniversary celebration, EVA Airlines is flying to Paris in planes painted with Hello Kitty. Inside, everything is Hello Kitty-shaped or marked: food, soaps, pillows, headrest covers, and toilet paper. Another part of the 40th anniversary celebration was last week’s Hello Kitty Con, which I wouldn’t have missed. Held at the Geffen Contemporary, it was a completely sold-out four-day convention of all things Kitty: exhibits, merchandise, official and unofficial mascots, and even a live show against a filmed backdrop (above).

Next door at the Japanese-American National Museum, I toured a more subdued but even more fascinating show (which runs until April 24th) featuring Sanrio’s artifacts as well as Hello Kitty representations in fine art and fashion.

Hello Kitty Man's Suit at JANM

Hello Kitty Man’s Suit at JANM

Lady Gaga's Hello Kitty dress at JANM

Lady Gaga’s Hello Kitty dress at JANM

Hello Kitty birthday cake sculpture at JANM

Hello Kitty birthday cake sculpture at JANM

Which brings me to the perplexing news that Hello Kitty is not a cat. According to Christine Yano, the author of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific in an interview in the LA Times:

Hello Kitty is not a cat. She’s a cartoon character. She is a little girl. She is a friend. But she is not a cat. She’s never depicted on all fours. She walks and sits like a two-legged creature.”

As if that weren’t enough, Kitty White is a British third-grader who lives with her twin sister, parents and grandparents outside London. She loves Paris–hence the EVA flights.

Nevertheless, Hello Kitty could only have sprung from Japan, the land of kawaii. As the JANM exhibit points out, the word kawaii (cute) is derived from kawaisoo, which means pitiable. It’s the powerful combination of cuteness, pity and the color pink that gives Hello Kitty her universal appeal.
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The Joy of Paper

October 29, 2014 § 1 Comment

In general, I abhor clutter, cleaning out my closets regularly and avoiding buying more than I need. The glaring exception is paper records, which I save by the boxful. Part of this is government-mandated: U.S. taxpayers are supposed to save at least 5 years of Federal and state returns (or is it 7?), along with receipts and other documentation. This is no small matter: careful record-keeping saved me when I was audited in the early 2000’s for a mistake my accountant made in calculating my business deductions. Because I could produce every receipt, the IRS determined that I owed no fines or penalties on the additional taxes I had to pay. But there’s another reason I save paper: as a writer, I need documentary evidence to reconstruct the past.

As a filmmaker, I need climate-controlled storage for my film and video footage, masters and hard drives, and because temperatures in my house fluctuate wildly, I have to rent a storage unit. My paper records also reside there, including all my manuscripts–or so I thought when I went through the boxes recently to try to find an old screenplay that a friend was interested in pitching for television. Although I found an early draft at home, the version I was looking for–updated a few years ago for technological reasons, i.e., cell phones–existed only on a CD. True to form, the CD was damaged, so down to storage I went to find the hard copy. An hour later, I’d opened every box, uncovering not only manuscripts but things I’d entirely forgotten I had kept: the correspondence from a brief long-distance relationship when I was 17; my high school poetry; my first attempt at a screenplay; and my abacus (lessons in which were required at my elementary school in Japan). This excavation provoked considerable grunting and cursing, to the probable consternation of the possibly homeless person who was hanging out with his possessions in the next unit. The only thing it didn’t uncover was the revised screenplay.

Because my father worked for a computer company, I’ve been hearing about the “paperless office” all my life. It’s a laughable concept in light of everything I’ve lost due to technology: short stories stored on floppies; saved mail when I’ve changed computers or servers; a novel when my computer crashed; and now this script. Clearly the answer is to keep hard copies of everything; if worse comes to worst, I can always scan or retype it.

Ironically,my travails coincided with a NYT article about Marie Kondo, a Japanese household organizing expert who, in addition to teaching folding techniques, advocates getting rid of everything that doesn’t “spark joy,” from socks to kitchen utensils. As for papers, she simply throws them all out, on the principle that “they will never spark joy, no matter how carefully you keep them.” My happiness-inspiring report cards, diplomas and awards notwithstanding, Ms. Kondo has apparently never encountered a writer, let alone the IRS, whose MO is the opposite of sparking joy. No matter: in light of the script I’m going to have to re-write again, I’m printing out everything from now on. But I am going to throw out those love letters, and maybe even that abacus.

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