Sunday, May 30, 2010

Old Film Review: Star Trek Generations

I’ve just taken a second look at Star Trek: Generations, that transition film between the original crew of Kirk, Spock and McCoy to “The Next Generation” of Picard and Riker. It blatantly attempts to accomplish two major feats: to bridge the gap between the first series of six films starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy to what would become a new series with a new crew that could take the adventures further into the future; and to kind of one-up the previous films in terms of action sequences and effects.

It succeeds at one of those tasks. It utilizes visual effects (including what I imagine must be a combination of CGI and miniatures) which continue to hold up 16 years later. Barring a handful of obvious blue screen shots involving close-ups of characters, the seams are difficult to spot (at least on my tiny television).

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dennis Hopper Dies

Well, this has been expected for the past few months. Dennis Hopper died today at home in California. He was suffering from metastasized prostate cancer. He turned 74 earlier this month.

He was never one of my favorite actors, but he's always been there. The IMDb lists 202 film and television acting credits for him beginning in 1954. His first two feature film credits were  Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, both starring James Dean. Lots of television work followed over the next decade until he directed and starred in Easy Rider, co-written with his friend, Peter Fonda. That iconic film is often regarded as the beginning of the New Golden Age of Hollywood Cinema that ran through the 70s.

He created some other indelible and iconic roles during his long career. He portrayed Tom Ripley on screen long before Matt Damon in the Wim Wenders directed The American Friend. Then he was the sycophantic photojournalist idolizing Marlon Brando's Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

Perhaps his most famous screen role came in 1986 when he played the nitrous oxide inhaling Frank Booth in David Lynch's Blue Velvet. Who can forget the Candy Colored Clown scene? Or how about "Baby wants to fuck?" (Both clips are very much NSFW).

But for me the most singularly great performance from Mr. Hopper was in True Romance in which he played the father of Christian Slater, who had unwittingly stolen a large amount of cocaine from the mafia. One scene in particular is what I will always remember him for. The scene was made great by the head-to-head acting of Hopper and Christopher Walken and also by the Quentin Tarantino written dialogue.

And of course we shouldn't forget his wonderful villain roles in the classic action films Speed and Waterworld, both of which were the likely result of his accepting every script that came his way during the last 2 decades of his career.

RIP Dennis Hopper (17 May 1936 - 29 May 2010)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

US World Cup Roster Announced

United States National Team Manager Bob Bradley announced his 23-man roster for the upcoming World Cup today.

No big surprises, really, except he left Brian Ching out. I'm fine with that because Ching is a forward who doesn't score goals. But Bradley has relied on him a lot during the last 3 and a half years. It's probably his nagging hamstring injury that kept him off the list. The chosen forwards are Jozy Altidore, probably the biggest threat to score we have. He scored a beauty against Spain the Confederations Cup semi-final last summer, taking a pass just outside the box while holding off the defender behind him with his left arm, he took the ball in a few paces and rocketed it past Iker Casillas.

Unfortunately Charlie Davies, who created a monstrous partnership up front with Altidore, was severely injured in a fatal car accident last October. Although he started training with his French club Sochaux a couple months ago, he still isn't game ready and didn't even make Bradley's 30-man preliminary roster.

The Cooling Trend

There's something a little perversely satisfying about this new revelation in Britain that shows the climate change skeptics are gaining ground.

I've long suspected that the climate change/global warming scaremongering is little more than a fad like just about every other imminent environmental disaster proclaimed over the last 40 years. What ever happened with that hole in the ozone layer that was supposed to fundamentally alter our existence? What about the destruction of rain forests that was going to kill us off? How about the impending ice age that was touted in the 70s?

My climate change skepticism is not about whether the warming effect exists but whether humans are responsible. And even if we are, is it worth scaling back national economies to implement "fixes" that will have very little practical effect on mean global temperatures? Seriously, the United States was the Great Satan for not signing the Kyoto Protocol but China and India weren't even included?

Classic Movie Review: Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy

“The course of true love never did run smooth.” – Lysander in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

And nor does this film.

Woody Allen’s 1982 film A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy is one of the lesser films in the Allen oeuvre. It carries through most of the major themese that have captured his attention throughout his career: marriage; love; infidelity; the inexplicability of attraction and lust. But this time they are manifested in a rather unique approach.

The usual pantheon of Allen characters is represented, to be sure. Allen himself plays Andrew, another version of the nebbish; Mia Farrow (making her first of 11 appearances in a Woody Allen film) is Ariel, the highly desirable woman; Mary Steenburgen is Adrian, the potentially jilted wife; Tony Roberts is Max, the lecherous best friend; Julie Haggerty is Dulcy, the nymphet; and the great José Ferrer is Leopold (such a bold name for a bold part), the pragmatic intellectual. But what’s unique is the setting of a country house in the late 20th century and the adhesion to metaphysics and mystical happenings.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I Am Love (Io sono l'amore) Movie Review: Italian Opera Imagined as 21st Century Drama

*This film made the festival circuit including Toronto in September and Sundance in January. It has opened commercially in several European countries and opens in limited release in the United States on 18 June.

Is there anything Tilda Swinton can’t do as an actress? She has graced the screen for more than two decades now (but with wide recognition only coming in the last ten years) with wonderful performances in roles as varied as an icy queen in The Chronicles of Narnia and a ruthless career lawyer in Michael Clayton for which she won an Oscar. Now she stars as Emma Recchi, a Russian émigré living in Milan, married into a wealthy family in the Italian film I Am Love (Io sono l’amore). But she out-streeps Meryl Streep by donning a Russian accent in a role that is spoken entirely in Italian with a smattering of Russian.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Food Labels for Morons

File this one under "More Unnecessary Government Regulation":

According to a New York Times article, the American Academy of Pediatrics is urging the FDA to require labels on foods that are choking hazards for small children.

I realize that I'm going to come across looking like I'm not interested in protecting kids because what harm could there possibly be in alerting people to potential dangers? If it saves only a handful or even just one child's life, isn't it worth it?

Perhaps not. With the growing list of required food labels we're slowly approaching the point where companies won't have any space on their packaging for their brand. Ingredients listings and nutritional content have been there my whole life and I see the necessity of those two things. But then you throw in the allergy warnings that have to be plastered onto any food that might have been handled by a person who eats nuts because our society has become so ridiculously paranoid about food allergies and you begin to see the absurdity.

The "Lost" Finale: From Someone Who Doesn't Even Watch the Show

"Lost" lost me about 3 or 4 episodes into the second season. I just didn't have the patience for the ultimate shaggy dog story, following the carrot on the stick forever and ever.

But I've just read some summaries and reviews of the series finale which aired last night and, sorry, but did the show just end on the narrative equivalent of "it was all a dream"?

Seriously? That was the big conclusion? I'm so glad I didn't stick with the show over the years.

But anyway, was there any resolution that would have been satisfactory? Would any explanation for the alternate realities and the time travel have sufficed for die-hard fans?

Oh, to be sure, now the die-hard fans will begin analyzing and dissecting and finding ways to make every detail fit into the larger theme, going all the back to season 1. All of this will be done, mind you, without the understanding that the show's creator and writers most likely had no idea where they were ultimately headed in the first few seasons.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Movie Review: Rachel Weisz Stars in Agora

*Agora opens next Friday in New York with a possible wider release later. It played throughout Europe last year becoming the biggest box office success on the Continent in 2009. It also won 7 Goya Awards (The Spanish equivalent of The Oscars) and was nominated for 6 others.

It’s said that one of the most difficult things to present on screen is the process of writing. Of all the arts it is the least visually kinetic and generally either a bore to watch or otherwise presented unrealistically. Well I can now say with certainty that there is another art form even more boring in its screen presentation: that of the ancient mathematician philosopher.

This is rather unfortunately what Alejandro Amenábar (director of the wonderful assisted suicide drama The Sea Inside and the haunting The Others) has attempted to do with Agora, the story of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz, trying her best to make the most of weak material), a brilliant female mind and university teacher caught in the center of a man’s world and the tumultuous time when the Roman Empire was succumbing to the forces of Christianity.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Movie Review: Peter Jackson's The Frighteners a Big Disappointment from a Big Director

*This 1996 film was released several years ago as a 4 disc DVD set in a shameless attempt to capitalize on Peter Jackson's success with The Lord of the Rings and King Kong. It is hardly deserving of a Director's Cut, Director's Commentary and the special features to fill so many bytes of digital space. If I have time this weekend, I will take a look at some of the special features and post a follow-up.

It’s a wonder that the same directing/writing husband/wife team of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh that gave us the incredible Heavenly Creatures next foisted The Frighteners upon us. One of the earliest films to heavily employ CGI for story-telling purposes (to decent effect for 1996, I must add), it rather unfortunately has no idea what kind of movie it wants to be. What could have been a compelling psychological thriller/mystery about a man who started seeing spirits after the tragic death of his wife turns into a bit of a farce employing gimmicks, schtick, caricature and really bad jokes in a very mildly scary ghost story.

Michael J. Fox plays Frank Bannister, a kind of sham ghostbuster who utilizes the help of two ghosts (a bookish white guy with glasses and an afro-adorned, bellbottoms wearing black guy who practically speaks jive like the two black passengers in Airplane) to haunt the homes of the recently bereaved in order to prey on their vulnerability, swoop in and clear the house of poltergeists, reaping a heavy cash reward in the process.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Movie List: Contemporary Screen Actors Very Much Deserving of an Oscar

Winning an Academy Award takes a kind of perfect storm confluence of events.

It's not just talent that will get you there. Just look at Al Pacino, who suffered 7 losses (including monumental performances in classic films such as The Godfather, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon) before finally taking the prize for Scent of a Woman, the least deserving of all his nominated performances. Many people say the same for Paul Newman who finally won for The Color of Money.

Certainly talent plays a big part, but it's also necessary to have the right role. Most people recognize that certain roles are juicier than others, thus garnering more attention and awards. The key types include biographical characters, preferably heroic in some way (George C. Scott and Ben Kingsley); disabled (mentally or physically) individuals (Tom Hanks and Geoffrey Rush, among many others); going ugly or playing against type (Charlize Theron and Denzel Washington).

It also helps to be a fairly well-established actor to win the award. It is more common for women to win the Oscar for debut or early career performances than for men, but still, the vast majority of winners, particularly in the lead categories, are well-liked Hollywood actors.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Classic Movie Review: The Purple Rose of Cairo

It came time for me to have a second look at a couple of films from Woody Allen’s undervalued 1980s period. It turns out I myself had undervalued The Purple Rose of Cairo, a sweet little love letter to the magic of cinema. It moves along at a quick pace and clocks in at a crisp 75 minutes.

I remembered it as a forgettable little yarn about an unhappily married woman who meets with the ultimate fantasy of a cinephile – a character from one of her favorite films steps off the screen and falls in love with her. The truth is there is a so much more going on than I was capable of recognizing when I first watched it some twelve years ago.

Mia Farrow plays Cecilia, housewife to the unemployed, gambling and abusive Monk (a quintessential Danny Aiello performance) and part time diner waitress in Depression era New Jersey. Cecilia, like so many others in that time, turned to the movie house for escapist entertainment to forget the terrible troubles of the world for 90 minutes or so. And in those days you could spend all day in the cinema on only one ticket.

After one particularly rough encounter with Monk, she spends all afternoon watching The Purple Rose of Cairo (the film within a film shares its title) until one of the characters, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) notices her and comes down off the screen to meet her and spend some time in the real world. In one motion, Allen blends the world of reality with the fantasy we all secretly want to be our reality.

Daniels actually plays a dual role as both Baxter and the actor Gil Shepherd, who plays Baxter in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Confused yet? At the time Daniels was cast he was not a well-known movie star, but he had the looks and the charisma to pull off playing the cocky actor and the humor and light touch to play the naïve Baxter. Seen today, he comes across as an odd casting choice because his career never really took off to bring him the kind of movie star success that this film suggests.

Allen’s writing, which earned him his fifth Original Screenplay Oscar nomination, is in fine form. It’s got some biting Hollywood satire including this brilliant exchange between Cecilia and Gil:
Gil (speaking about Baxter): He’s my character. I created him.
Cecilia: Didn’t the man who wrote the movie do that?
Gil: Yes, technically. But I made him live. I fleshed him out.
There’s also the sheer absurdity of the Hollywood moguls debating how to handle the fact that one of their film’s characters has walked off the screen. They accept the story as true without verification and discuss the matter in terms of potential lawsuits should he do anything wrong.

But the film goes much deeper than the clever quips as it tries to get at the heart of why we return time and again to the movies for enjoyment. For one thing there’s the security and the comfort – with rare exceptions we generally know what to expect given the genre and a brief plot summary. Hence another wonderful line delivered by a woman at the cinema where the other characters have been milling about on screen waiting for Baxter’s return: “I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week; otherwise, what's life all about anyway?” This line, with its existential quandary, perhaps best sums up the movie. If we can’t be certain of what’s coming in a movie of all places, what does that say about my existence?

The film has some fascinating comments to make about the nature of fiction writing and character development. Surely there was something at work in Allen’s mind with regard to the common assertion by writers of fiction that their characters come alive within the work, that at a certain point they cease to be the product of the writer’s mind (at least consciously) and begin acting on their own. Allen just drives the point home literally.

SPOILER ALERT: Allen is most interested in the lure of Hollywood and its effect on people. First Cecilia falls in love with Ted Baxter: “I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional but you can't have everything.” She is drawn in by his charm, his childlike naiveté and fascination with the real world. Later she meets Gil Shepherd, the actor. He’s everything Baxter is, only more, because he’s real. He’s the unattainable. Sure, we can have Cary Grant or Tom Cruise whenever we want by popping in a DVD. But you’re only getting a small part of them – the characters they create. With Gil, Cecilia can have it all. She falls for his charms as he promises to whisk her away to Hollywood luxury. And she wants it, as most of us would deep down.

But alas, it’s not to be. Gil used her to get Baxter back on the screen before skipping town, leaving Cecilia stuck with her crummy life and the vicarious pleasures of the movie house. It may seem a sad ending, but at the end of the day we all have to realize that the movies aren’t real. Real life is here in front of us, no matter how much time we spend in the dark, looking at flickering images on the silver screen.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Dogtooth Movie Review: A Sophomoric Attempt at Symbolism and Meaning

When I was in my twelfth grade English class I was fixated on symbolism, loss of innocence metaphors and literature that you could tuck in a neat package. At that time, Hamlet was a play Shakespeare wrote to highlight a cancer metaphor with its “unweeded gardens” and “things rank and gross in nature.” If I had set out at age 17 to write a movie, it probably would have looked something like Giorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou’s screenplay for Dogtooth.

This film has no business existing. Lanthimos, who also directed the film, has two prior directing credits, neither released outside of Greece, according to IMDb. It seems the intent was to explore human nature, psychology and sexuality through a family which lives entirely isolated within a walled environment. The only one who leaves the yard is the father, who leaves daily for his job in a factory. He keeps his three children (all seemingly well into adulthood, but I believe intended to be in their late teens and early twenties) prisoner. He does not accomplish this through use of force, threats, locks or chains, but rather through psychology. These three individuals, consisting of a Son and an Older and Younger Daughter (none of the children have names – one of several pointless exercises), have never been in contact with anyone from outside their small world. Their parents have spun an elaborate story that keeps them fearful and believing that you can only leave once your canine tooth has fallen out. And even then it’s only safe to be in a car.

This odd living situation has fostered an environment in which mother and father have absolute control over their children including their education. They have some strange vocabulary sets: a salt shaker is known as a telephone; keyboard is their word for vagina. To what end they decided to instill this measure is unknown. I can tell you that it’s in the screenplay to demonstrate the kind of power one can have over a human’s development if there is not a single exterior influence on that mind. Sorry, but that’s not a good enough reason.

Why would two parents choose to raise their children under such conditions? The clue comes late in the film when the father beats and berates a woman who has brought terrible knowledge to the family: he wishes children upon her who are exposed to danger and keep her worried. Apparently this is the parents’ motivation – to keep their children safe. I can believe one parent being so insane as to pull this off, but both mother and father? It’s a bit hard to swallow. And the film provides no indication that the mother is subservient to her husband, that he beats her or threatens her. They are both willing participants in this sick experiment.

The woman who brings knowledge to the family is Christina. She is paid to come to the house (blindfolded and driven by the father) regularly to have sex with the son. Christina is not satisfied with just him and so goes to the older daughter for additional pleasure. Here we have the big Loss of Innocence Metaphor. This one’s as old as The Bible itself. We all know Adam and Eve lived in bliss before they discovered their sexuality at which point God banished them. Just to emphasize the point (in case you didn’t get it) guess what color the children are always wearing. If you said white then you can pass a high school literature class.

After the father discovers that Christina has left pornographic videos for the older daughter she is not permitted to return. However, they need a replacement and can’t risk another outsider. So the job falls to one of the two daughters. It’s never clear why the parents find it necessary that the son should achieve periodic sexual release but their daughters not. Herein lies the most absurd conceit of the film: the idea that three people would have reached adulthood or near without having discovered their own sexuality and masturbation. They are all one hundred percent innocent in that regard and don’t even have any sense of shame or embarrassment at nudity or sex. It seems to me that shame and embarrassment, when it comes to men and women naked together is from the anatomical differences. It can’t only be a social phenomenon. The entire family is fully clothed throughout the day. Nudity is reserved for private bedroom antics. Surely there would be some sense of at least curiosity in the naked bodies of members of the opposite sex. The sex depicted is cold and emotionless, even that between the parents who don headphones with music playing during the act.

Lanthimos draws a great deal of inspiration from Michael Haneke with a smattering of David Lynch, as when the son deftly plays a guitar melody while the daughters perform a bizarre and childish dance routine. Haneke’s films also delve deep into human nature, but the stories make sense and are coupled with a superb visual style. Lanthimos thinks you make an art film by having long static shots that aren’t framed well.

Another big problem I have with the human side of this story is the belief that none of the children would have ever become slightly suspicious of the lies told by the parents. That in twenty years or more they never had the curiosity to test what would happen if they went outside the walls. One of the lies involves another one of their children who lives outside the walls and can’t return. The most absurd is the threat of a punishment for their bad behavior: the mother is pregnant with twins and a dog. The twins will have to share a room with one of the existing children unless they are good in which case the twins won’t be born. The dog is coming regardless. Perhaps there was also some inspiration drawn from M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village which was also about a group of people who kept their children confined to a make-believe world by inventing lies. At least Shyamalan understood the curious nature of people.

The one aspect of psychology I think Lanthimos and Filippou get right is the behavior of the children. They are not socialized adults in any way. Although they appear grown up, they behave like children. They have petty arguments and fights with one another the same way young siblings would do.

The film ends on an ambiguous note. It may be frustrating to many viewers but ask yourself these two questions: How would you end the film? And after enduring such pretention does it really matter?

**A side note: This film won the top award in the 2009 Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard section which is intended for younger directors exhibiting bold, daring and creative films. It's won several other film festival prizes and has gotten almost unanimous favorable reviews. Critics (and especially film festival juries) love to laud the films that most closely resemble their idea of an “art film”. I’m thankful I have the courage to say that the emperor is standing stark naked this time.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Robin Hood Movie Review: Get Ready for Robin Hood 2

I’m 32 years old now and it’s time for me to put away childish things. One of those is the idea that Ridley Scott, the visionary director of Alien and Blade Runner, will ever return to the kind of inspired filmmaker that started his career. Or will he continue being a Hollywood director-for-hire of genre pictures. Come to think of it, those two early films of his were genre pictures: slasher and science fiction, respectively. Since then he’s made fantasy, road movie, epic, thriller, war and romantic comedy, often with little critical success, but massive box office results which is probably his reason for continuing in this vein.

I liked Robin Hood a lot better when I was 13 years old and it starred Kevin Costner. Not that the newly updated version directed by Scott from a screenplay by Brian Helgeland from a story by Helgeland, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris is all bad. And certainly not to suggest that the previous film was really good. The logical question to ask is, Why another film version of the Robin Hood legend?

The answer is that Hollywood loves returning to the same well again and again. Another possible reason is that this one, though it takes place at the turn of the 14th century, contemporizes the background elements. King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) is returning home from the crusades via France and sacking castles that stand in his way. The man who will later become Robin Hood is a mere archer for hire in his army, known initially as Robin Lonstride and played with typical brooding and smoldering intensity by Russell Crowe.

Unlike previous depictions of Richard I in this legendary tale, this one is more up front about the nature of The Crusades. They do not shy away from Richard’s nature, the fact that he went on an ostensibly religious mission to convert the pagans of The Holy Land to Christianity, impoverishing his own country in the process. Robin, of course, is established early on as morally virtuous, despite his involvement in the wholesale slaughter of Arabs. He relates to the king a moment during a massacre when a woman looked up at him not with fear or hatred, but with pity. Robin has the gall to stand face to face with the King and tell him that his Crusade was wrong. This doesn’t work out so well for Robin.

While I don’t think the screenwriters necessarily intend to draw a parallel between England’s Crusade under Richard I and The United States’ War on Terror, surely the seed for that story development came from contemporary history, all the way to depicting a country full of people who have given over all their tax money to fight an unwinnable war.

Maybe it’s obvious by this point that this is not the Robin Hood we all know from Errol Flynn to Sean Connery and the Disney animation. Sure, there’s Little John (Kevin Durand) and Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes), Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) and Marian (the lovely Cate Blanchett). Robin is not of Loxley, although he later has the chance to pose, for reasons far too complicated to get into, as Robert of Loxley. There’s even a scene in which Robin and his men (sometimes merry, but not yet Merry Men) steal seed grain in order to return it to its rightful owners, but this is not what Robin is about…yet.

An incredibly convoluted plot precludes the possibility of my explaining it effectively here, but I’ll provide the broad strokes. Richard dies in battle in France, but that doesn’t matter because he would have been ambushed and killed by Godfrey, an English double agent played by Mark Strong, who was also the one-dimensional baddie in last year’s Sherlock Holmes. Godfrey wants Prince John to be elevated to the throne and then wreak havoc across the English countryside in the name of King John so the land barons will rise up against him in civil war, thus paving the way for the French army to easily invade and conquer. What’s in it for Godfrey? Well it’s in service to the plot, duh!

Robin and his pals pose as knights to receive safe passage back to England. Incredible coincidence offers Robin a sword with a familiar inscription and then lands him in the home of the blind old Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow, trying very hard to maintain what’s left of his dignity by appearing in a film far beneath his talent) who may know something about Robin’s long lost father. Here he meets Marian, who was married to the man whose identity Robin has borrowed.

Prince John is portrayed by Oscar Isaacs in a performance that bounces from evil maniacal to foolishly naïve and then back. Why is it so difficult for Hollywood screenwriters to paint morally ambiguous villains? Why must we be bombarded with cartoonish venom? Mercifully Eileen Atkins signed on to play the role of John’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, so we have some reserved and professional acting to balance out the bombastic Isaacs. William Hurt is also along for the ride as the King’s Marshal, a trusted confidante of Richard’s summarily dismissed by John upon his ascension.

If you’re going for the action, there’s plenty of it. Although Scott has a good deal of experience directing big action set pieces there is nothing here on the level of Black Hawk Down or even Gladiator. Many of the battle sequences are marred by jarring close-ups that provide no sense of perspective on the action. Some of that blame should probably be placed on film editor Pietro Scalia, despite his great work on the two aforementioned films, even winning the Oscar for the former.

There’s little here to get really excited about. It just about meets expectations for a film of this nature. Do you think there will be a big climactic battle sequence? Do you think Robin and Marian will fall in love, even if the step from admiration to “I love you” is actually a leap? Do you think Tuck, a beekeeper in this incarnation of the story, will use his bees as a weapon at some point? And why the hell are Peter Pan’s Lost Boys running around the forest waiting to become saviors at the end?

Most disappointing of all was the realization at the end that this Robin Hood is nothing more than an origin story, a two hour commercial for the next in the series. Because that’s all they do in Hollywood nowadays: remakes, sequels and prequels. Hey, this one is two of those at the same time.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Moon Movie Review: The Continuing Story of A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner

At some point while watching Moon, I had a very troubling thought (more on that after the spoiler warning). I’m nearly certain this was the intent of Duncan Jones, in his directorial debut, and screenwriter Nathan Parker. The film made the festival circuit in early 2009 and received a limited release in early summer. But in a crowded summer market, there was simply no room for a sci-fi film based principally on ideas rather than action set pieces and CGI special effects.

The film takes place in a not-too-distant future in which the earth’s energy is now supplied by a substance that is harvested on the dark side of the moon. The process is mostly automated, but requires a human being to monitor and fix problems that arise. This unfortunate individual is Sam Bell (played in yet another in a series of great performances by Sam Rockwell), assigned to his post on a three year contract with the only company being a computer named Gerty and voiced by Kevin Spacey.

When the film opens, Sam is two weeks away from the end of his contract and the arrival of his replacement. As you can imagine, he is quite anxious to get home to his wife and young daughter, from whom he receives the occasional video message and is able to send messages in return. Unfortunately, the satellite link isn’t working, making live communication impossible.

There are obvious comparisons to be made with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in the tone of the film. Its pacing is quite deliberate and the story is focused on the nature of science, exploration, developments, but without the high-minded philosophical rambling. It’s even got a ubiquitous computer that controls the majority of the operations and is capable of doing most anything. The difference is that Gerty, unlike Hal, adheres more closely to Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics – which turns out to be the crucial difference in how the relationship between man and machine plays out.

After having spent so much time in solitude, Sam has begun having glitches in perception which may or may not be hallucinations. One of these episodes leads to the crash of a lunar rover he uses to check the status of the harvesting machines. Left injured, unconscious and stranded after the accident he eventually wakes up in the infirmary being cared for by Gerty. He is told about a crash, but he has no memory of anything. When he gets up from the gurney he can barely stand, his legs almost debilitated.

Jones has got a promising future as a director of thoughtful films as long as he doesn’t get pulled in by the lure of genre and action pictures. The mystery that unfolds from the moments after the crash is revealed to both Sam and the audience simultaneously, expertly controlled by Parker’s screenplay and Jones’s direction. I also have to point out that the film would hardly be what it is without Clint Mansell’s musical score which provides a continually subdued sense of suspense and tension.

If you’ve read a plot synopsis or seen the trailer then you’ll have some idea what’s going on from this point. I do have some criticisms of the film, but I can’t really get into the specifics without issuing a SPOILER WARNING: When Sam wakes up after his crash, he is forbidden from leaving the base despite a stalled harvester (the one he crashed into) that needs fixing. After tricking Gerty, he takes another rover to the crash site and discovers an unconscious body inside. Bringing the body back to the base he realizes it’s himself. We slowly discover together that at least one of them is a clone.

Here is one of the flaws, albeit a minor one, of the screenplay, which fails to provide a sufficient explanation for why Sam is compelled to ignore orders and go to the disabled harvester. We assume at first that he is driven to return to the site of his crash that he has no memory of. But in light of the revelation that the Sam who returns to the crash site is a different Sam who could have no knowledge of the crash or the existence of another Sam, there is little reason for his previous actions.

Okay, so we allow a bit of contrivance to move the plot along. It turns out the first Sam is not simply suffering from hallucinations, but a complete breakdown of his physical body. Everything is failing at once until he is nearly a shell of a man. What is the explanation for this? And why is there a clone ready to take over his duties at a moment’s notice? I ask these questions from Sam’s perspective, not as a critic or audience member.

Now I return to this terrible thought I had. I began to think of at least one of these Sams as a clone, not as a human being. I had this instinct that a clone is little more than a robot, a tool we can call forth to use and dispose of at will. This is exactly how clones are used by the mining company in Moon. This is somehow the logical progression of the literary creations of Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick beginning with Hal in 2001, a complex machine with human qualities that exhibits more emotion in his death scene than in the whole of that film: “Stop Dave. Will you stop, Dave? My mind is going. I can feel it. I’m afraid, Dave. I’m afraid.” The next step was the replicants of Blade Runner that desire to know their expiration date and prefer life over death. There’s also Rachel in that film, a replicant with memory implants that have led her to believe she is a young woman who grew up from childhood to where she is now. She is devastated to learn it’s all been falsified. Then there were the clones harvested for vital organs in The Island.

Jones and Parker are interested in humanity’s attitude toward cloning and want to warn us of where that road could lead. Consider the Clone Wars discussed and depicted in the Star Wars films. Did you ever consider the clones to be people? I never really internalized that feeling. It doesn’t help that those clones were clad in robotic looking suits. Will human cloning eventually become a reality? Almost certainly. Will it be used for nefarious purposes, with the intention of creating a class of laborers to be exploited? We should hope not.

The biggest fault of Moon is its failure to consider or give an explanation for how the real Sam Bell and his wife came to give their consent for this project. I can come up with theories and “just so” stories to explain it, but it’s a big enough hole I shouldn’t have to fill on my own.

But don’t let the few faults deter you from seeing what is a substantially original production, both in its use of effects, which is natural looking and tasteful, and its use of scientific ideas and morals. It’s a rare occasion to find an independent movie this good with such big ideas. These films are always worth seeking out in spite of their occasional warts.

Update 15 May 2010 (12:50AM): I've just learned in reading more about this movie and its director, Duncan Jones, that he is the son of David Bowie. Just an interesting side fact.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Son of the Bride Movie Review: Hollywood Visits Argentina

Watching Juan José Campanella’s El hijo de la novia (Son of the Bride) it’s clear that he received a significant arts education at the Tisch School in New York. Nominated for the 2001 Academy Award for Foreign Language Film (from Argentina), it is structured like a standard Hollywood film. It’s unusual to recognize such formulaic tropes in foreign cinema. That’s an observation much more than it is a criticism.

Ricardo Darín stars as Rafael, the owner of a restaurant started by his father, who spends most of his time on his cell phone talking to purveyors and corporate reps who want to buy his family-owned business. He has little time to slow down and pay attention to those who should be most important to him – namely his girlfriend, his young daughter from a failed marriage and his mother who resides in a care facility suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s. When his father, Nino, comes to take Rafa to visit Norma it has already been a year since his last visit.

Already you can see the makings of a typical Hollywood morality tale and predictably two events occur which make him reevaluate his priorities. The first is the sudden arrival of Juan Carlos, an old childhood friend long absent. The second is a heart attack that lands him in intensive care for a considerably short stay. It is this second event which is the obvious catalyst for change. But when Juan Carlos reveals that he was married with a daughter until both died and then begins to insinuate himself into Rafa’s life, building a relationship with his girlfriend and daughter, there is a deeper revelation in Rafa of the need to make profound changes.

The title of the film refers to the new wedding that Nino wants to have with Norma. After more than 40 years of marriage, he wants to give her the gift he never gave her from the beginning which is to get married in a church. This plot development takes shape late in the film and provides the overly sentimental elements that may leave softer audience members a bit teary-eyed.

The sentimental plot isn’t the only aspect with Hollywood fingerprints on it. Juan Carlos serves as a kind of sad clown. Nearly every scene with him in it is played as comic relief, culminating in the wedding at the end in which, for reasons too complicated to get into, he plays the part of the officiating priest, giving a sermon that begins, “On the first day God created the Heavens and the Earth…” Surely it’s no coincidence that Eduardo Blanco, the actor portraying Juan Carlos, bears a striking resemblance to Roberto Benigni, the Italian actor who has made a successful career out of playing the clown.

It’s easy enough to see why Son of the Bride was so well received in the United States and how it was nominated for the Oscar. It reaffirms everything we want to believe about the world: that generally unpleasant people have the capacity to change; that human tragedy (in both a wife and mother with Alzheimer’s and a young man who lost his wife and child) can have its lighter moments and lead to better times; and that generally things always work out in the end even though it may not be exactly as planned. As pleasing an entertainment though it may be, I’m certainly pleased that Campanella went on to direct the far superior The Secret in Their Eyes.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Protests and the Power of Propaganda

I saw a nice propagandizing poster while I was out this morning.

It was advertising a protest against Jews...sorry...Irael for the encroachment on Palestinian territory. The poster showed 4 maps each of which had two colors: one representing Palestinian land and the other representing Jewish land.

The first was dated 1946 and basically all of modern Israel was shaded as Palestinian land with a few smatterings of invaders...sorry again...Jewish land.

Next was the UN partition plan which, when compared with the 1946 map is a drastic difference in the proportional allotment of land to Palestinians and Jews.

Next comes 1948-1967 showing a shrinking of Palestinian land without any reference to the 2 defensive wars Israel fought in that time in which they acquired that land.

The final map was Today. This was the best one because nearly all of the West Bank was now shaded with the cloven hoof...dammit!...Jewish color. I suppose this was meant to represent Israeli (Jewish in the minds of the protesters, to be sure) settlements in the West Bank. Although I find it hard to believe that the shadings provided on this map were anything close to accurate. But of course, the final map completely fails to take into account the fact that the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected offers of a two-state solution in which they would have the whole of the West Bank.

I'm so tempted to go to this protest on Saturday with posters of my own declaring that they're peddling propaganda and they know nothing of the history they're so vehemently protesting. I'd like to see how long it takes for someone to make an anti-Semitic remark toward me. As I'm still in the process of sorting my legal status here I think I'll leave it all for now.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

25 Years Ago This Month: May 1985

I'm now at that age where I have memories of things that happened 25 years ago. And to realize that those things were 25 (!) years ago is sometimes startling.

Events not connected with movies are at the end.

2010 Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan (An Education) turns 25 this month.

Deaths of 25 years ago include actress Margaret Hamilton - best known as The Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz - at age 82.

Also Disney animator and director Wolfgang Reitherman at age 75. He was one of Walt Disney's "Nine Old Men" (original core group of animators). He worked as an animator for Disney starting in 1934, eventually directing 6 animated features from One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) to The Rescuers (1977).

The 37th Cannes Film Festival was held with Milos Forman serving as President of the Jury. Amir Kuristica's When Father Was Away on Business won the Palme d'Or. Alan Parker's Birdy won the Grand Prix while William Hurt took Best Actor for Kiss of the Spider Woman (he would later win the Oscar for the same role) and Cher won Best Actress (in a tie) for her role in Mask.

May 1985, the month I turned 7, saw the U.S. release of Gotcha! starring a very young Linda Fiorentino and Anthony Edwards. This would have been Fiorentino's film debut had it not been for February's release of Vision Quest starring Matthew Modine. Fiorentino would have a hell of a debut year with a role in Martin Scorsese's After Hours released in October. She would make little impression for the next 9 years until her starring role in the neo-noir The Last Seduction. Edwards was hot off the success of 1984's Revenge of the Nerds. And wouldn't you know it, this movie about a college student and champion of a campus paintball assassination game who gets caught up with a strange Czech woman and some East German Cold War intrigue is having its DVD debut next month! It made a paltry $8.9 million at the domestic box office.

Also released in May that year was Rambo: First Blood Part II which provided an unnecessary sequel to a fairly decent parable on the social exclusion of the Vietnam veteran. Rambo II is little more than a revisionist history tale in which the lone American soldier goes back to single-handedly win the Vietnam War and bring home his lost comrades. It was the number two box office draw of the year raking in $150 million.

These were two movies I recall watching fairly often when they played on what I imagine was HBO because I don't think we had any other pay cable station back then.

Roger Moore's final turn as 007 in A View to a Kill opened in May, eventually taking in a middling $50 million to place it at 13 on that year's box office list, just behind...

Chevy Chase's comedy, ahem, classic Fletch. Admittedly I've never seen this oft-quoted film. Along with Caddyshack it's one of my comedy classic holes. Somehow I don't think I'm likely to find either very funny at this stage in my life. Surely high school is when you have to see Fletch and, for better or worse, I'm well beyond that era.

The John Candy/Richard Pryor comedy Brewster's Millions (also unseen by me) was released in May 1985, as well ($41 million and number 20 on the list).

So was Chuck Norris's Missing in Action follow-up Code of Silence, ranked 44 on the box office list with $20 million.


-Michael Jordan was named the NBA Rookie of the Year.
-Israel trades 1150 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners for 3 Israeli soldiers yet continues to be responsible for all the ills in that region.
-Britain agreed to return Hong Kong to China in 1997.
-Madonna had her second #1 hit in "Crazy for You" from the soundtrack of the aforementioned Vision Quest.
-Olympic gold medal figure skater Sarah Hughes was born
-Juventus defeated Liverpool 1-0 in the European Cup Final but not before a wall in Heysel Stadium in Brussels collapsed, killing 39 and injuring 600. They felt that not playing the match after the tragedy would create more problems, so they went ahead with a bit of footy anyway.

Matador Movie Review: Pedro Almodóvar with a Light Touch

When Ángel (a very young, pre-Hollywood Antonio Banderas) grabs his beautiful neighbor, Eva, on the street in an attempt to rape her it’s the kind of scene that should be brutal and horrifying. In fact it is at first. That is until his attempted rape turns out to be feeble: he fumbles with a pocket knife with which to threaten the girl; reaches orgasm before penetration; and after seeing Eva bleeding from a small cut after falling to the pavement, he passes out. In the end it’s a comical scene, a boldly staged experiment in Matador, an early Pedro Almodóvar film released in Spain in 1986 and two years later in the United States.

This event only exacerbates the emasculation Ángel was attempting to deny after having his sexuality questioned by his bullfighting instructor, Diego, himself a famous torero. To be a bullfighter in Spain is one of the greatest professions and demonstrations of masculinity. Few professionals are more revered historically than the great toreros. If you believe Ernest Hemingway’s take on the sport in Death in the Afternoon, it is the ultimate test of bravery, masculinity, artistry and skill. So for Angel, a young man who, despite having reached the age of about 21 and having impossibly good looks has never been with a woman, sees bullfighting as his entrance into Spanish manhood.

Incidentally, Eva is Diego’s girlfriend, although Ángel was unaware of this at the time of the assault. Diego himself is a somewhat emasculated figure as well. A formerly great bullfighter now retired after a devastating goring, he can only achieve sexual climax through images and representations of death. And, we learn quite early, through actual death. The film opens with Diego masturbating to a Mario Bava film of pornographic violence against women – one of Bava’s specialties as the antecedent to the American slasher films of the late 70s and 80s.

In an early and somewhat disconnected scene we see María take a man to bed only to stick a hat pin into the back of his neck, killing him, during her own climax. This, not incidentally, is the manner in which a torero kills the bull in the ring – with a single clean motion of the sword between the shoulder blades to pierce the lungs and heart. This murder, in addition to being an obvious inspiration for Basic Instinct, is a mirror of Diego’s own sexual perversion and it’s only a matter of time before these two individuals discover each other as soul mates.

Ángel was raised in an Opus Dei family, a very strict sect of Catholicism, and his tremendous guilt forces him to the police to make a full confession. As Eva refuses to press charges, Ángel then confesses to the unsolved murders of two men committed by María and to those of two young women murdered by Diego and buried on the grounds of his estate. Ángel knows of the dead men because they were well-publicized, but the source of his knowledge of the women and their burial location reveals itself as a plot device as the film (along with Diego and María) reaches its climax – he’s got second sight and is able to follow Diego’s actions. María, an attorney, presents herself to defend Ángel and through this connection meets Diego.

Almodóvar is being ever so playful in this film. He’s channeling Hitchcock (as he is wont to do) via Brian De Palma, but with much lighter tones including the ubiquitous bright red and blue color palette. More than that Almodóvar is also playing with Spanish archetypes through the previously mentioned bullfighter, but also in the investigating police officer. Here is another quintessential masculine figure, but here he is depicted as possibly homosexual, or at least enamored with the nether regions of young men training as bullfighters. He also walks with an unexplained limp quite similar to Diego’s.

Probably the most outwardly comic moment in the film, and one of its best scenes, takes place at a fashion show (Eva works as a model) where the director (played by Almodóvar himself) gets upset with two models shooting heroin in the dressing room rather than the bathroom.

Part of what makes the film work is that the actors allow themselves performances that take the ludicrous plot developments seriously. This undercuts the tongue-in-cheek nature of the story, which itself feels very much like a stunted artist finally breaking free from the clutches of a fascist regime (the film was released in Spain only 11 years after the death of Franco and 8 years after the adoption of the Constitution). Keeping the historical perspective in mind, this is a remarkable effort of a developing artist who would later become one of the world’s most important film makers.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Sorry for the Interruption

I've been on a brief hiatus unintentionally.

I have about 4 new reviews on the back burner stewing in my head. I'm hoping to get them all written this week and then continue posting regularly.

If there's anyone reading who cares.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Bill Maher on Freedom of Speech and Islamic Extremists

I'm not really a big fan of Bill Maher. I think he's a bit of a self-righteous blowhard. But his recent closing rant on free speech in response to Comedy Central's censorship of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's "South Park" episode depicting Mohammed and the resulting death threat had some choice lines worth quoting:

"[U]nlike the Qur'an, no one hear seriously considers following The Bible literally. Guys don't look over their fence on Sunday morning and see a neighbor mowing the lawn and think, 'I really should kill him.' Now Christianity of course went through a period like that, where religion had too much influence. It was called the Dark Ages."

And referring to the desire of the majority of Muslims in America and Europe to be assimilated better:

"The western world needs to make it clear that some things about our culture are not negotiable and can't change. And one of them is freedom of speech. Separation of church and state is another - not negotiable."

That last point he may want to direct at the Christian right as well.

Vanessa Redgrave Has Had a Very Tough 14 Months

Legendary stage and screen actress Vanessa Redgrave has just lost younger sister Lynn, 67, to breast cancer. This comes on the heels of the death of older brother Corin on 6 April and just over a year after the tragic death of daughter Natasha Richardson in a skiing accident in March 2009.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Unfortunate Movement of 3D Cinema

When is the last time you watched a movie and thought to yourself, “I really like this movie, but it looks too two-dimensional and it fails to capture the world as I perceive it?” My guess is you’ve never had that thought about a conventional 2D film. Yet Hollywood is trying to convince you now that your cinema experience has been lacking that third dimension for the last 115 years.

First, for those of you who have yet to experience one of the new generation of 3D movies it’s important to realize that this isn’t the same level as your Jaws 3D or Friday the 13th Part 3D or the Michael Jackson Captain Eo at Epcot Center, Disney World, during which you wear cheap paper glasses with red and cyan filters to enjoy objects poking and flying out of the screen toward you. Anyway, the real entertainment in that was watching the idiots in the cinema trying to grab the objects. No, this new technology works on the same principle, but has advanced far beyond anything previously experienced. Granted, some films are still employing the silly gimmick of flying debris and pokey objects, but the general idea now is to create a deeper and richer cinema experience by adding the further illusion of a third dimension.

I have serious misgivings about the movement toward 3D films (full disclosure: the only modern 3D film I’ve seen is Avatar so my experience is admittedly limited). Roger Ebert has written in opposition to 3D for some time now and has just recently published a piece in Newsweek outlining his arguments against it. For my part, the best argument he makes (and this points to my opening question above) is that 3D doesn’t actually add anything substantial to a movie.

The world we experience is obviously three-dimensional. But we perceive it as such because of physiological processes between the eyes and the brain. There are physiological disorders that affect one's ability to perceive depth in the world, but of course this doesn't indicate an absence of depth. When we watch a movie or look at a photograph or painting (all two-dimensional artistic representations of the world) our minds perceive depth as a result of the same physiological process that allows us to perceive it in the world. Great artists have an almost innate understanding of the characteristics (depth of focus; diminishing scale; contrast; viewing angle) that appeal to our depth perception and are able to manipulate their art to create varying levels of realistic images. Can you really look at this Cezanne painting, unrealistic though it may seem, and tell me that it fails to capture a third dimension? How about still frames from Citizen Kane such as this one or this? What about chalk sidewalk drawings like this? Likewise as Ebert points out in his Newsweek article, when we see T.E. Lawrence appear on the desert horizon and slowly move toward the camera we have no trouble perceiving that he is moving closer to us. A 3D effect is created in a 2D medium without the use of stereophonic glasses.

Essentially, movies already provide us with a 3D illusion. Adding a stereophonic 3D illusion is pointless and distracting. That was my main reaction to Avatar. I was constantly aware that I was watching a movie. The fourth wall was always broken. I found the effect generally worked for the animated sections of the film, but anytime there were live-action characters on screen the illusion was lost on me. It presents a completely unnatural way of seeing the world. When I look at the world I don't think to myself, "Wow! Look at that third dimension!" But watching Avatar gave me that thought almost every minute.

Keep in mind that Avatar was built from the ground up, completely conceived as a 3D movie. James Cameron is a wizard of technology with a history of making films with groundbreaking effects as far back as Aliens, which brilliantly expanded on a classic film, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (with visual effects that still hold up today) and the mesmerizing Titanic. Don't confuse this kind of pioneering filmmaking with the 3D retrofitting of Clash of the Titans and Alice in Wonderland, both of which were filmed in 2D and then altered after the money earned by Cameron's film. By all accounts, the 3D in those two films was awful.

Like I said, I think the effect works well enough (although unnecessarily) for animation. I've seen a 3D demo of the Monsters vs. Aliens Blu-Ray disc and it looked okay. Ebert allows for this kind of sporadic use but objects to 3D becoming a way of life for Hollywood movies. I have to agree. The 3D effect as used in live action looks completely unnatural. The goal of most narrative film is to recreate reality on screen. An artificial 3D illusion destroys that goal. I can see it being put to good use in live-action films where the story calls for it. But then also only if it's possible to employ the technology during certain scenes or sequences. The Matrix trilogy comes to mind as a film that could use 3D on live action to good effect because that's a story that establishes a computer generated unreal world. Christopher Nolan's upcoming Inception may be another (although from the trailers it looks damn good without it), which is apparently meant to take place in a kind of dreamscape. As far as I know this is not possible without removing and putting on the glasses during the film.

This article tries to refute Ebert's arguments. One of his points is that 3D is a natural progression the same way sound, color, surround sound and widescreen were. Notwithstanding his mis-identification of Singin' in the Rain as the 'first' talking picture (he meant The Jazz Singer while Singin' in the Rain is about the change from silent to sound), Coldeway's understanding of cinematic development is lacking. If narrative film's primary goal is (often) to replicate reality on screen then synchronized sound and color were not gimmicks, but natural developments. Surround sound and widescreen formats were gimmicks which allowed greater freedom and creativity for frame composition in the latter and a richer experience (albeit unnecessary, but not distracting) in the former. I don't currently see 3D falling into this category.

As I've already said, I'm willing to allow for the possibility that a live action film could employ 3D technology to great effect. However, there is still a great obstacle to be overcome as described in this article from last year and this one from January this year. As good as 3D may look with an animated film and may look with some future film, there is still the problem of unnatural movement and focus exerted on your eyes. This is the cause of all those complaints about headaches, eyestrain and nausea during 3D movies. I myself had to periodically remove the glasses during most of Avatar and watch without them for several seconds to give my eyes a rest. Of course, the interlaced images and unnatural brightness make it impossible to watch a 3D projection without the glasses. The additional brightness in Avatar is because the glasses cause a 15-20% light reduction. Hence another reason why you'll want to avoid any film that is retrofitted with 3D - they'll be way too dark.

Unfortunately I don't predict this technology will disappear and go the way of old-school 3D, Cinerama or Smell-o-vision. It's consistently bringing in more and more money for Hollywood studios and theater chains who tack on an additional surcharge for the premium experience of seeing a sub-par product and the privilege of wearing distractingly uncomfortable glasses. My guess is that within 5 years the majority of special effects event films coming out of the major studios (whether live action or animated) will be shot in 3D. More and more cinemas will be buying 3D projectors, thus closing out the market for 2D films. Although I'm sure some directors will begin making films like Up in the Air and Precious in 3D I seriously doubt it will catch on for those types of films.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

When Will I Learn?

Something I'll never get used to living in Spain is the fact that shops are closed on holidays, even when those holidays fall on weekends.

Many times in my 4 years here I've been thwarted by a failure to remember/realize that it was a holiday. In the beginning Sundays used to catch me out. I would think, "Tomorrow I'm going to go out and buy those things I've needed for the last month," only to discover it was Sunday and nothing was open.

Then the holidays started to catch me. The same thing - I would go a few weeks in need of something or thinking about buying something and then finally I had a day with nothing to do (Of course I had nothing to do! It was a holiday!) to find everything closed.

Occasionally I've even been caught thinking I was going to get something taken care of to find that that shop is closed today because of reason X or the person who does that isn't here today. This is typical.

More than four years in and it's happened to me again. I bought my wedding suit a couple of weeks ago and it was scheduled to be ready on 28 April. All week I figured I would go pick it up on Saturday. Saturday (today) arrived and as I went out to buy bread I thought it curious that the corner shop was not open. It's a small family place and I thought they just decided not open today. So I went out for breakfast and on my way saw that the fruit and vegetable market was closed. "How stange," I thought. Until I realized today is 1 May. It's Labor Day.

In the US it's simply understood that shops are open on basic holidays. After all, those are the days when people are free to, you know, shop. Capitalism is the driving force in America, which certainly has its downside. But here in Spain there just isn't that same desire to earn money or improve your business and increase your profits.

Granted, as far as I know there are laws forbidding certain businesses from opening on Sundays and holiday. These laws existed once upon a time in the US and the UK. In the early days of the law the reason was tied to religion. I suppose later those laws remained on the books to foster fair business practices where smaller family-owned shops are concerned. Big chains can open much easier on a Sunday because they have a bigger employee pool to choose from, they are backed by a corporation to help offset the extra holiday or Sunday pay they might have to provide their staff. Family owned shops would be less likely to take advantage of opening those days, although eventually they'd be forced to in order to compete with the mega-stores. So there is some efficacy to having those laws on the books.

Still, I find it really difficult to get used to.