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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Friday (10/10/14) 2:47am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  What If?
Movies:  Girls in Prison, Redbelt
TV:  <none>

What If? by Randall Munroe
This is the book version of the xkcd cartoonist's "What If?" blog, wherein he answers weird scientific hypotheticals -- the latest question as of this writing is "what would happen to me if I teleported to the surface of the sun for a single nanosecond and then teleported back?" -- with sensible estimations and extrapolations.

This was the book I was reading on my phone for the last couple of weeks, and it was perfect for that "idly killing time for a few minutes" sort of reading.  Mr. Munroe researches his answers surprisingly exhaustively, and his quips and interstitial comic panels keep the tone light and entertaining.  It also helps that the answer to about half the scenarios is "the earth would be destroyed".

I don't think I really learned anything from this book -- certainly not anything useful -- but it was a pleasant sort of scientific junk food for a couple of weeks.  And it *felt* educational, even if I'll never really have much use for knowing what a multi-gigawatt hair dryer might do.

Girls in Prison
This is the 1994 Showtime TV movie about a 1952 women's prison.  I watched it as preparation for Reform School for Wayward Girls.

This movie is bad.

What's interesting to me is that, from this twenty-year remove, I have a pretty good bead on what characterizes "mid-90s-TV-movie" bad.  It's like the DP has just discovered pastel colors, and is OMG EXCITED about them.  So you'll see shot after shot where everything in the frame is lit -- there are no shadows.  Many of the soundstages have large, flat, featureless surfaces (walls, floors, desks, etc.).  So you get shots like this...

... where the screen is just a big bland wash of a single pastel color, and your eyes dart around the frame, desperate to find something to focus on.  Or alternately, the director goes for *multiple* colors, leading to disasters like this...

... where we've clearly overcompensated.  We could just have shadows in the background, but instead the director has thrown in whimsical red and yellow washes that exist for no reason.  These weird lighting choices exist throughout the movie -- for some reason the prison boiler room has recessed yellow and purple lighting.  (Huh?)

It says something about this film that I was idly picking apart mise-en-scène choices in a movie that repeatedly includes boobs.

There are many other awful things about this film.  The acting is bad, and is bad in a variety of interesting ways.  The male actors tend to underplay their parts, to the point of sounding like they're all reciting legal documents that they don't actually understand.  The lead is kind of a nonentity.  The supporting characters are the sort of broad, overacted stereotypes you'd expect.  And somehow, Anne Heche is in this movie, hamming up a villain role and chewing on all the scenery.

The storytelling is clumsy.  They rely heavily on montages and even "spinning newspaper headline" shots to tell-don't-show what happens in the story.  And they've got a weird structure where they spend the first half hour of the movie patiently telling us how each of the major characters wound up in prison -- they'd tell one girl's story of getting arrested, then another's, then another's, and you're left wondering, "Shouldn't the plot have gotten started by now?" 

The dialog has ungainly blobs of exposition -- people telling each other things they both already know.  The soundtrack is full of cheap, cruddy synths.  The "hit song" the lead character has written is about as bad as you'd expect.  And the villain's confession at the end of the movie seems fairly unmotivated -- it's like the screenwriters threw up their hands and said, "Ah, screw it.  Then the villain confesses everything, the good girl wins, end of movie.  Can we get paid now?"

Ah well.  Hopefully in its original release, it did a good job of providing teenage boys with footage of breasts.

Life was hard before the Internet.

This is the 2008 David Mamet movie about a martial-arts teacher who winds up entering a mixed-martial arts contest.  I watched it as preparation for tomorrow's guest appearance with Confidence Men.

Honestly, I felt pretty "meh" about this film.

On the one hand, you can see Mamet's deft handling of plot at play here.  The film takes Chekhov's advice to "only introduce a gun in act one if you're going to fire it in act four" to its logical extreme, so that the props in Redbelt function as a clock: the movie can't end until you've used each of the introduced props in some clever way.  And it's Mamet, so of course some sort of intricate con is involved.  The various double-crosses all seemed to make sense, but it was all just a hair too convoluted for me to follow.

With some re-watching and effort, I could probably sort out what happened.  But honestly, I don't really care.  And I think that's my main problem with Redbelt: I watched the pieces move around the chessboard, I watched Mamet arrange things so that the hero would have to reluctantly enter the ultimate-fighting championship, and it just felt like so many plot moves.  In spite of Chiwetel Ejiofor's considerable charisma, I just didn't care about Mike Terry.  I was just watching a bunch of convoluted things that happened.

And this in turn would be fine if the language were there.  But Mamet isn't writing about guys who love language -- these aren't smooth-pattering con men, and these aren't rapid-fire sales agents.  These are, for the most part, fighters.  Mamet tries to pepper Mike's speech with aphorisms from martial arts, but it just feels like someone has fired up a random quote generator.  When the shady fight promoters -- Ricky Jay and Joe Mantegna and their circle -- enter the story, the script really comes alive with their delicious sentences.  But they stay at the periphery.

And even that would be fine if the fighting were really engaging.  But Mamet doesn't really have the hang of shooting jiu-jitsu in an exciting way.  Instead, it feels choppy, and random, and curiously empty -- it's that "movie fight" problem.  If you ever watched somebody get hit square in the face, your whole body would wince, because that fucking hurts.  But you can see the same thing happen in film and it can come across as harmless choreography, or scoring a few points in a video game.  I watched the fights from that kind of remove.

So, it was neat to watch all the moving pieces, but I sense that there wasn't really any heart to this endeavor, beyond "Mamet had been studying martial arts for a while, and decided he should make a film about it."

For next week: I'm still watching Deadwood.  I'm still watching Sleepy Hollow as my "watch while exercising" show.  I'm now reading the productivity classic Getting Things Done, and have started reading Dataclysm, which is sort of the book form of the okcupid blog.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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