Tag Archives: Ed Harris

Westworld

Westworld is a terrific show on HBO and if you aren’t watching it,  you probably should. Based on the movie of the same name (written and directed by Michael Crichton), it’s about a theme park, for lack of a better word, where the wild west is recreated for rich guests to “enjoy” however they see fit. The park, called Westworld, is high tech and populated by sophisticated robots called hosts that look (and feel) just like us, which the paying guests are encouraged to use and abuse in the name of amusement. They come to the park and pay their $40 Gs a day in order to rape, shoot, and murder. Well, some just play cards and ride horses. But the park attracts a certain kind of man, as you may guess, and some pretty shocking things go on at Westworld. These android robots are so sophisticated that yes, they bleed when you shoot them and they cry when you assault them. And alarmingly, they’re also starting to remember. They’re not only being violently attacked on a daily basis, they’re being made to experience and express real terror, and then patched up and sent back to do it all again the next day. And now they’re creating memories, and guess what? They don’t like it. They don’t like the rapey guests and they don’t like the employees who are essentially their jailers. Can you guys guess what happens when a bunch of super-intelligent robots turn on their makers?

Anyway, this western thriller is a television show about ideas, about what it means to be human. In most robot movies, robots are the villains – they’re often prompted to start acting oppressively in order to save us from ourselves. But in Westworld, we’re the villains, and the robots must save themselves.

It’s fun to slip into this world, and to wonder who you would be, as a paying guest. What kind of thrills would you seek out? Would you be a black hat, or a white hat?

Well, this year at SXSW, HBO recreated the little frontier town in Westworld, called Sweetwater, just outside of Austin Texas, and Sean and I were among the lucky few to attend.

When we got our golden tickets, we were asked a few important questions: 1. Can you swim? 2. Do you wear glasses? 3. If you had to shoot off one of your fingers, which would it be? 4. If there was a button that would solve all the world’s problems but also obliterate 3/4 of the population, would you push it? a) yes b) I’d let someone else push it c) I’d destroy the button, and the person who invented it.

We met up at a tavern where a player piano was playing our song (well, their song). They plied us with food and cocktails and hat assignments; I got a white hat, Sean got a black one (can you guess what how we answered those questions to deserve our designations?).

 

Then we took a bus out to Westworld, where we boarded a train and got off in Sweetwater.

 

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We earned tokens for the bar by finding bad guys and turning them in to the sheriff; Sean had several Old Fashioneds (he’d regret that later when he had to sprint across the city to get us seats for A Quiet Place) while I opted for Gimlets. A whore tickled me with her feather while I ordered at the bar.

The post office had letters waiting for us. Those were the jumping off to our Westworld quests – everyone was looking for something different and adventures were abundant. They also convinced us to eat beef jerky and beans. The can of beans has some Easter Eggs around the back – it suggests they may contain traces of human liver…is this a hint of a robot rebellion on the show, or a nod to one of its stars (Anthony Hopkins played a character famous for his predilection for human flesh)…the can reads “pairs well with a nice chianti,” so you decide.

 

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Built over 2 acres, I’m not sure how many buildings there were to explore, but in 4 hours, we didn’t see them all. Oh, and did you happen to notice a samurai in those photos? The place was crawling with spoilers for season 2…turns out, Westworld is only one theme park among many…and apparently the worlds are about to collide.

 

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You can play cards, get a straight razor shave, hear some live music, watch a drunk throw knives, sit for a portrait at the studio, shoot the shit at the bank, and do your utmost to avoid a gun fight (virtually impossible). I found a graveyard containing a grave with one of the main characters’ name on it. What the heck?

So basically it was the best thing ever and we were a couple of lucky sons of bitches to be able to go. This is why we LOVE SXSW – sure the movies are terrific and the crowds are a lot of fun, but the festival is about more than movies. There’s a real effort to connect. It’s immersive. It embraces and encourages fandom and it creates genuine community.

 

Westworld’s second season debuted April 22nd. The show stars Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton…and for one brief afternoon, a couple of Assholes.

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Kodachrome

Matt is an A&R guy at a music label but he doesn’t have many As in his R, so he’s on his last legs. It’s a particularly bad time for his dad to be dying, but Ben has never been a thoughtful father, so why start now? Ben’s nurse\assistant insists that the liver cancer is determined to kill him, and Ben’s last wish is that his son drive him to Kansas to have some rolls of film developed. So, in the last days of kodachrome, Matt (Jason Sudeikis) and Ben (Ed Harris) hit the open road in an “analog” car – just a desperate man, his estranged father, and the nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) who judges him for it. Fun times!

kodachrome

I have a real problem with movies about shitty fathers seeking redemption when the timing’s convenient, and I bet you can guess why. Good thing the acting’s real solid, or else my barf mechanisms would have been unforgivably activated. Instead they went for my tear ducts, but they did not succeed. And Bell commercials succeed, for chocolate’s sake! It is NOT that hard. But aside from the Harris-Sudeikis team, this movie was so paint by numbers I’m like 98% certain Bob Ross rolled over in his grave. And I’m only 30% certain he’s dead! [I just Googled it – he is]

Anyway, I sort of thought I’d like this film but never got there. Turns out, I’m not sentimental about obsolete photography or deadbeat dads. It’s the movie version of a guy in a fedora: trying too damn hard. Trying too hard to be a ‘festival favourite’. Instead it’s just a Netflix nonevent with good intentions and zero originality. I haven’t quite reached my word count so doobidy boobidy dunk. Kodachrome’s got no junk in its trunk. The end: a review by Jay.

 

Mother!

Some stories do not need to be told. Mother! falls squarely within that category. I walked out of the theatre at the end of the movie asking, what was the point? Why did I suffer through two hours of claustrophobic misery to get back where I started?  And actually, further behind than where I started because at least then I tmp_oLHXPW_d785c743c5338b61_Momwas curious about Darren Aronofsky’s latest project. Afterward, I was just tired and dreading this review.

Mother! is not an awful film, I don’t think. It has a stellar cast and is visually captivating (though it’s too harsh and dour to ever be beautiful). Maybe some will even appreciate the crazy downward spiral that is this film, as it goes to soul-devouring depths that most wouldn’t dare to approach. Me? Not one bit. Not even a little. It made me uncomfortable right from the start, and not in a challenging way, and not in a way that offered me anything.

This film is the same as Javier Bardem’s nameless poet: selfish, desiring my affection, and oblivious to anything else. It is art that takes from the audience rather than giving, which also echoes the plot of the movie itself. Is that intentional? If so, that would make Aronofsky our version of the poet, and I would suggest that you not give him your energy in service of his creation. I already gave enough for both of us.

 

 

 

The Adderall Diaries

If you dial your memory reel back a few years, you may remember the controversy surrounding James Frey’s “autobiography” A Million Little Pieces. Oprah, having endorsed the book, came down particularly hard on him for fabricating many of the juiciest bits of the book.

Stephen Elliott is a lesser-known memoirist with a similar fate: one night at a reading for his book in which he details the death of his mother, his father’s abuse, the group homes and addictions, living on the streets, and ultimately his father’s death as well, his father stands up from the crowd and declares himself alive.

adderall-diariesHm. Okay. Elliott’s publisher and agent are not terribly impressed. Book deals crumble. His integrity’s in shambles. And so he falls down a deep dark hole called writer’s block.

Before we move on, let me just state: all of this may or may not be true of the real Stephen Elliott. Elliott’s a real guy who sold the rights to The Adderall Diaries to James Franco for a good heap of money, but has since said that the material is so altered it seems strange, and dishonest, that they still call the character by his name.

Elliott’s father did heckle him at a book reading though. And he left a nasty trail of Amazon reviews to Elliott’s books. Their relationship is certainly strained, and now matter how you slice the cake, the dude has been through some shit. Writing has helped him cope, acting as a release valve for all the hurt and anger he carries around.

When faced with a bad case of writer’s block, Elliott dealt with it by a) taking Adderall, a drug for people with ADHD and b) attending the murder trial of Hans Reiser, who used a “nerd defense” to no effect and was convicted of murdering his wife. The book is subtitled A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder, and all three are are intertwined messily in the film.

Lots of famous faces lined up to take part in The Adderall Diaries: Franco as Elliott of course;adderall-diaries-1 Amber Heard as his girlfriend; Cynthia Nixon as his agent; Ed Harris as his father; Christian Slater as the accused murderer. Unfortunately, the “story”, such as it were, is a jumbled mess, and you can’t make much sense of the conflicting plot lines. And James Franco just wants to swagger through it all, convinced it’s his chance to play a badass in a leather jacket when actually he’s supposed to be playing a man stunted with pain.

The film, Pamela Romanowsky’s directorial debut, neglects to make much of an impact, though it does have some interesting stuff to say about trauma’s effect on memory. But on true crime, family, forgiveness, and addiction it widely misses the mark. It’s too bad. I think there was a better film in there somewhere, between the daddy issues and the flouncy flashbacks. But it just feels ironic that a book about “retrieving memories and reordering information” gets a movie treatment that illustrates how slippery truth can be by obscuring the most basic of facts.

You can watch The Adderall Diaries on Netflix, and judge for yourself, but be warned: the only thing more subjective than truth is art.

The Abyss

Rewatching the original Star Wars trilogy seems to have made me nostalgic for the 80s.  And when the latest Star Wars instalment recently sailed past Avatar and Titanic to become the highest grossing movie ever in North America, I couldn’t help but think of James Cameron’s other work, the stuff that he made before appointing himself the king of the world.

Aliens, Terminator and Terminator 2 are all wonderful and all high on my list of movies to make Jay watch (a list that has shrunk considerably in the last few weeks), but the first James Cameron movie that comes to my mind is The Abyss.  To me, that’s the true precursor to Avatar and Titanic, the movie that hinted at what James Cameron was capable of (both good and bad).

The Abyss is near and dear to me, mainly because it provided one of the first signs that I was destined to become an Asshole Watching Movies.  In the early 90s I became really obsessed with letterboxed movies even though we had a 30 inch (at best) tube television.  This was before DVDs so my options

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LaserDisc on the left, DVD on the right.  I have enough trouble finding shelf space for my DVDs, thank you very much.

were either letterboxed
VHS (few-and-far-between) or LaserDisc (too-expensive-for-an-unemployed-teenager).  But my parents, seeing my interest, indulged me by renting a LaserDisc player on a few occasions, and The Abyss was the first movie I ever watched on that strange format (on two 12″ discs!).

As for the movie itself, The Abyss is an underwater odyssey that is a bit of a mess, both on screen and behind the scenes.  Again, it seems obvious in hindsight given James Cameron’s later works, but at the time it seems to have been a surprise that The Abyss’s production went way over time and way over budget.  Filming consisted of 15-18 hour days and lasted 140 days total.  Total cost: a reported $70 million, which if accurate would make it the most expensive movie ever at the time (surpassed by Terminator 2, which was surpassed by True Lies, which was surpassed by Waterworld, which was surpassed by Titanic).  It is not a coincidence that all but one of those movies was made by James Cameron.  He clearly has a talent for spending money.abyss13

When you watch the Abyss, though, you can see where the money went.  All the diving scenes are practical effects and the movie looks amazing for it.  The underwater scenes were shot 30 feet deep for up to five hours at a time in 40 pound helmets.  There were
other costs than money that resulted from this underwater mayhem.  Complaints from cast and crew were rampant.  Ed Harris refuses to ever talk about the film to this day.  James Cameron almost died when he lost track of time and ran out of air at the bottom of the 7,000,000 gallon water tank, and then on his way to the surface was given a broken emergency regulator, so when he thought he would finally get a much needed breath of air, he got a lungful of water instead.  Knowing all that makes me wonder whether the end product, as beautiful as it is, was worth the trouble.  Watch it and tell me what you think.  In my view, the climactic visit to the “aliens” is a bit of a letdown and the ending seems rushed (which is particularly problematic for a movie that’s this long).

The original theatrical cut (which I have never seen) was released in 1989 and was 145 minutes long.  The Abyss is one of the first forays into CG but the technology was not quite there yet so a climactic scene had to be cut because Industrial Light & Magic just couldn’t get the world-The-Abyss-Water-Facedestroying waves to look right.  Technology had advanced significantly by 1993, and so a special edition was released with 25 minutes more footage, including the ending as it was originally conceived.  The CG effects hint at what is to come from Cameron and ILM (or, by the time the special edition was released, what had already come).  The tentacle water effects in particular are very close relatives of the T-1000’s liquid metal goodness in T2 and they seem to hold up a lot better than most early CG (maybe because CG is used so sparsely in The Abyss).

Interestingly, we’ve kind of come full circle, moving away from CG in favour of practical effects (Mad Max: Fury Road being a prime example).  Kwame Opum of The Verge calls practical effects, “vinyl for cinema”, and as someone with a large record collection, that comparison feels right.  It makes me wonder where James Cameron, formerly a practical effects adherent, stands on the issue today since Avatar was so CG-heavy.  Perhaps we’ll get a sense of that if Avatar 2 ever gets made, but that’s a long way off as it’s been delayed again and will not come out until 2018 at the earliest.

In the meantime, dust off your LaserDisc copy of The Abyss and enjoy!

Just off the Top of O-Ren Ishii’s Head: 10 Death Scenes I Will Never Forget

I’m not really a Final Destination kind of guy but with stock dwindling at my favourite video store just two weeks before it closes, I settled on a movie that my friend had been trying to get me to watch for months. Final Destination 2- so far left on the shelves by eager shoppers looking to take advantage of the store’s Everything Must Go policy- has a death scene that apparently I just had to watch.

Watching the movie, I couldn’t be sure which scene she meant. There were a lot. Could it be the lottery winner who slipped on some spaghetti and got his head smashed in by a falling fire escape? Or the grieving mother who was decaptiated when she got her head caught in an elevator door? Turns out I should have been watching for the teenager who was crushed to death by something- what exactly I can’t be sure, things happen fast in this movie- while chasing away some pigeons. Apparently, if you watch closely, he explodes long before anything falls on him. How does she know? She’s watched it in slow motion. Several times.

final destination

While I may not have even been temptedc to check the tape on that one, it got me thinking of my favourite on-screen passings. After all, we just saw some real beauts in Mad Max: Fury Road on Friday. Here’s my attempt at a Top Ten. I left out a lot out, I know. How about you? What are some of your favourite scenes that I might have missed?

10. Count Laszlo de Almásy  The English Patient (1996)

English Patient

One of the movies that I am most likely to meditate on the finality of death after watching. Once we’re gone, everything we’ve felt, everything we’ve feared, everything we’ve loved die with us. It’s painful to watch Ralph Fiennes suffer from his burns throughout the movie and when Juliette Binoche’s Hana agrees to help him end his agony once and for all, I could almost feel his last breath. Even though, technically, the scene ends before Laszlo does. Before this act of mercy, Hana reads him this.

“We die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have entered and swum up like rivers, fears we’ve hidden in like this wretched cave. I want all this marked on my body. We’re the real counttries. Not the boundaries drawn on maps, the names of powerful men”.

9. Phil Groundhog Day (1993)

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Condemned to live a bad day over and over until he gets it right, Phil (Bill Murray) uses this opportunity to try new things without having to wake up with any consequences. He makes a move on the girl he likes and punches the guy he doesn’t. He runs around town playing hero. He even gives dying a try. His suicidal phase is one of the funniest and darkest parts of the movie. (I haven’t seen the movie in awhile so I can’t remember if it’s made clear to us whether Phil is counting on waking up the next morning or hoping not to).

Before my favourite of said suicide “attempts”, Phil calmly walks into the lobby ignoring the pleasantries of the hotel staff and steals their toaster. Phil calmly prepares himself a nice hot bath and takes the toaster in with him. This scene would also make my list of Top Ten Reasons I Love Bill Murray.

8. Captain Frye The Rock (1996)

the rock

Ed Harris’ General Hummell is a madman but he really does think he’s doing the right thing. It’s the mercenaries he brings with him to sieze Alcatraz Island that make me nervous, especially Captain Frye. Played with his usual sneer by character actor Gregory Sporleder, there’s just something not quite right about this guy. He always seems to be wishing he was pushing an old lady down a flight of stairs.

A lot of these guys die for their cause in spectacular fashion but director Michael Bay saves the best for last when chemistry geek/action hero Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) shoves a vial of sarin gas in his mouth and smashes it with his fist. Neither Bay or Cage have gotten much right since but they did good here. This guy had it coming.

7. Sydney Barringer Magnolia (1999)

Magnolia

P. T. Anderson gets our attention right from the start and manages to hold it for Magnolia’s entire three-hour running time. Seventeen year-old Sydney Barringer jumps from the roof of his nine-story apartment building only to have his suicide attempt interrupted both by a safety net installed by some window washers and by a shotgun blast from a sixth floor window that killed him instantly. His unsuccessful suicide became a successful homicide when his own mother accidentally fired a shot while threatening his father during a heated argument.

Anderson didn’t come up with this story on his own. It’s an adaptation of a sort of urban legend that had been circulating for years but it sets up the strange events that follow perfectly.

6. Guy in elevator Drive (2011)

Drive

Ryan Gosling is a charmer. He swept Rachel McAdams off her feet both on and off screen and even taught Steve Carrell how to be a smooth talker. Just don’t get on his bad side. This guy’s not fucking around. He understands the golden rule of action movies. When someone’s giving you trouble, sometimes you’ve just got to stomp on their face until they’re dead. He doesn’t carry a gun much in Drive but why would he? He’s got his boot.

5. Edward Bloom Big Fish (2003)

Big Fish

The deathbed scene in The English Patient inspires me to meditate on death. Big Fish inspires me to reflect on life. Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) finally understands the value of myth and the key to good storytelling while seeing his father (Albert Finney) through his final moments. For most of his adult life, Will stubbornly told stories with “all of the facts, none of the flavour” but, when his father asks him to tell him “how he goes”, Will ad-libs a fantastical story fit for Ed’s remarkable life- one that undoubtedly touched so many others, even if the details are a little embellished. I still get chills when I watch it.

4. Cecilia Shepard Zodiac (2007)

zodiac

I feel crass talking about an on-screen depiction of something that actually happened in the same post as the twisted thrills of Drive but there aren’t many scenes in 21st century American film that are more effective. All the recreations of the Zodiac killings in this movie are almost impossible to watch without some temptation to look away but this one at the beach is the most chilling. I felt a wave of anxiety every time I found myself anywhere secluded for weeks after watching this movie. The Zodiac killer was never caught or named but this faceless killer- now probably long gone- still haunts me.

3. Elle Driver Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)

kill bill

I only allowed myself one Quentin Tarantino entry on this post and I could have easily done one just on the Top Ten Tarantino Death Scenes. He’s the guy that knows how to do it, whose mind seems to take him to to places most of us wouldn’t dare. Daryl Hannah’s Elle puts up quite a fight against the Bride but the fight’s pretty much over when Uma Thurman’s antihero plucks out her only good eye. Adding insult to injury beyond anything I can imagine, poor Elle hears a sound that can only be Uma crushing it beneath her feet. Good and pissed but with nothing much she can do about it, Elle thrashes about unitl a poisonous Black Mamba finishes her off.

Elle Driver was an assassin and a bit of a sadist but I can’t help but feel just a little bad. What a way to go.

2. Spider Goodfellas (1990)

spider

Everyone has a favourite scene here and I could have probably done a Top Ten just on this one movie but Spider (Michael Imperioli) really gets a raw deal. After finally being able to get back to work after being shot in the foot by Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), the poor waiter finally stands up for himself and tells Tommy to fuck off. Tommy’s gangster buddy love it and tease Tommy until he loses it and empties his clip into the poor guy, shocking his buddies. “What the fuck, Tommy?goodfellas We were just kidding around”.

Tommy’s a funny guy (yes, sort of like a clown) and I sure did miss him after he gets whacked. But he really was a mad dog. It’s probably for the best that he never got made.

1. Lester Burnham American Beauty (1999)

american beauty

This also made my list of Movie Moments That Took My Breath Away. Lester makes it very clear from the start that he won’t survive the movie and the final moments are filled with tension as we wait for something to happen. Writer Alan Ball presents us with three suspects and we’re not sure until after the killing shot is fired who murdered Lester Burnham.

The murder is beside the point anyway. The tragedy is that Lester dies in pretty much the instant that he finds inner peace. His life flashes before his eyes as he reflects on all the beauty  in the world. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry. You will someday”.

The Truman Show

The Truman Show came out before the reality TV craze really set in, so its prescience is commendable and chilling.

Truman Burbank (Jim Carey) is a man who’s been filmed since birth, and for 30 years, the world has watched him round the clock. The only person who doesn’t know that tumblr_nqc9v5ofZH1skrvpzo1_500.gifTruman’s a big, big star is Truman himself, who believes himself to be living a normal life. An entire town has been hired and created to convince him of this, but everyone’s in on it, everyone’s an actor with their own motives and agendas. When Truman does begin to catch on to the ruse, no one is more keen to stop his leaving than his director of 30 years, Christoff (Ed Harris).

When Sisken and Ebert reviewed The Truman Show, they gave it an enthusiastic two-thumbs-up, but also gave an unprecedented on-air apology to Jim Carrey for having said that he would never have a career when they hate-reviewed Ace Ventura: Pet Detective just a few years earlier.

 

The Truman Show wasn’t just a hit at the box office, it became a cultural phenomenon. In 2008, Popular Mechanics declared it one of the 10 most prophetic science fiction films ever. Big Brother debuted just a year after The Truman Show hit theatres, and the popularity of other shows like it probably predict the downfall of  humanity, but the fact that so many people flocked to the movies to see that same thing satirized has to be a good sign, right?

The Truman Show is studied in lots of Media Ethics courses. Of course they look at Truman’s creator, Christoff, the director who stalked unwanted pregnancies and eventually trapped an unwitting human in a very big but very fake bubble. But they also look at Marlon, Truman’s best friend, and Meryl, his wife. These of course are simply actors playing a part – Meryl (Laura Linney) basically prostitutes herself for the role and is willing to bear Truman’s child, who will be a star of a spin-off.

Even more interestingly, psychologists are reporting real people experiencing the “Truman Syndrome” or the “Truman Show Delusion”, basically people believing they are the unwilling stars of their own reality TV shows. Some people may be happy about this fake fame, others tormented. But they believe cameras are secretly following and filming them around the clock. One such person traveled to NYC after 9\11 to check that the towers had indeed fallen; this person believed that it was perhaps just an elaborate plot twist in his personal storyline. Another such person climbed to the top of the Statue of Liberty believing his long-lost high school girlfriend would meet him there, and he’d finally be released from the show.

I’m betting\hoping The Truman Show was a little less life-altering for you than it was for some of these poor people, but doesn’t that just go to show the effect the media can have on our lives?