Popping the “Aeronauts” Balloon

0_Felicity-Jones-and-Eddie-Redmayne-star-in-The-AeronautsAfter I moved to L.A. in 1982 for the singular purpose of writing and selling screenplays (written:20, sold:2) I took a Story Structure class with the well-known script guru Robert McKee. We did in-depth studies of Casablanca and Chinatown, and I fully absorbed most everything he said for those few months. The simplest thing he said, though, may have been this: a successful script is a good story that is well-told.

It isn’t often that a movie fails so badly at storytelling that it inspires me to write about it, but that’s exactly how I feel about The Aeronauts, an Amazon Original currently available on Prime. Starring Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne as a pair of brave balloonists in 1860s England, the trailer looked fascinating, exciting, and well-worth 140 minutes of lap time on my iPad. The filmmakers took some liberties with the true story of English meteorologist James Glaisher (Redmayne) by having him soar into the London sky with spirited, slightly mad Amelia Wren (Jones), a fictional creation based on French balloonist Sophie Blanchard, rather than the man named Henry Tracey Coxwell he actually flew with.

I would have gladly excused this fictional license if the film were as entertaining as the trailer promised, but I’m sorry to report that I couldn’t make it through 45 minutes of this dreck. For some inexplicable reason, the filmmakers made a decision to ditch linear narrative and tell the story of the aeronauts in a series of flashbacks—and it flat-out ruins the movie.

The concept of 1860s balloonists is original and visual and captured this fan of air travel in an instant. Why water down the wonder of it all for no apparent reason? The story of how Glashier gets no support for his weather study ideas from the scientific community or his family until he meets the widowed Wren at a party and asks for her help is powerful enough as is, and certainly strong enough to support a linear plot that would literally soar off the screen when they finally launched into the atmosphere. Instead, the film OPENS with Wren racing to join Glashier for the balloon launch and coming across as a brash, annoying lunatic because we have a) no clue who she even is, b) who Glashier is and why he’s even flying with this woman, and c) what this event even means in the context of the time period.

It’s only after they’re airborne and flashback scenes are wedged into “reflective” moments in the big basket like extra sandbags that we learn Wren’s husband was also an aeronaut who fell from their balloon in a ghastly accident (which largely made her unbalanced), and that Glashier went through circles of hell trying to muster support for his meteorological studies). These flashbacks—which Robert McKee cautioned should never be used in a screenplay unless absolutely necessary—are predictably dead of emotion and practically irrelevant, because we already know the two of them are soon going to be flying together.

All dramatic power is summarily eviscerated from the story, and the likely reason it was written this way doesn’t even hold water. If they wanted a big balloon flight to happen in the first ten minutes of the movie to capture the viewer, they already had one they could have used: the accident involving Wren’s husband! Letting the story then unfold from Wren’s point of view (with cutaway scenes to Glashier’s travails) would have completely worked and made their 1862 launch five times more memorable.

As is, the CGI effects and dangers of the flight are beautifully staged. Once we eventually are allowed to understand Jones’ wacky character, she becomes more likeable, Redmayne is fine, and there’s even a great turn by the legendary Tom Courtenay as Glashier’s senile father. But a story that should have soared was foolishly self-grounded before it even left the earth. The most amazing thing of all about The Aeronauts is that it was ever cut loose in this misconceived condition.

My Take on the National Treasures

Screen Shot 2019-11-04 at 10.50.09 AMI needed a little distance to be able to talk rationally about the World Champion Washington Nationals. Or maybe I just needed to recover from the shock of the miracle they pulled off. Ten games out of first with a 19-31 record on the morning of May 23rd after their arson squad bullpen surrendered six runs to the Mets in the bottom of the 8th the night before, they went 86-43 the rest of the way, including the postseason, for a .667 winning percentage.

No one admits they saw this coming—except me.

The weekend of August 23-25, I watched their entire three-game series at Wrigley Field against the Cubs—who were also a good team embedded in a pennant race. The Nats won all three games, on hostile turf, and made Chicago look like amateurs. Fresh from crushing the Pirates in Pittsburgh by scores of 11-1 and 7-1, they took the first two Wrigley games fairly easily by 9-3 and 7-2 scores, then in the Sunday game, to quote a line Bill James once used about the 1985 champion Royals, they played “like they had pepper in their jockstraps”. They took a 1-0 lead and the Cubs tied the game. They took a 2-1 lead and the Cubs tied the game again. They took a 5-2 lead and the Cubs tied the game again, before they finally scored two in the 11th to win the game in extras. Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto went a combined 7-for-11.

I took to Twitter immediately afterward and predicted that if the Nationals faced the Dodgers in the playoffs, they could beat them. A number of first responders said I was insane, but I had seen what this team could do—on the road against a contender—and more than anything sensed a relentless winning chemistry I had yet to feel from the Dodgers in any of their recent postseasons.

Two Labor Day weekends ago, I sat through a rain-drenched doubleheader at Nats Park with my brother. It was also against the Cubs and they won both games, but it was obvious at the time that much of the crowd and the media were fixated on What Bryce Was Doing, meaning “best player on the team” Bryce Harper, who went off to Philadelphia and a gigunda contract in the off-season. Bryce had amazing talent but also spells of lazy selfishness, and seemed to me to be a distraction in the clubhouse. With him finally leaving, it’s easy to see how the team could come come together in a new atmosphere guided by laid-back new skipper Dave Martinez. And because national baseball broadcasts are obsessed with Red Sox/Yankee, Dodgers/Giants and Cubs/Cards matchups to the detriment of most other teams, it’s easy to see why “nobody knew” how good Rendon and Soto were, keeping the club under the radar and helping them focus on the ultimate prize.

I have also been drawn to the team for personal Expos reasons. The Nats franchise, as most of you know, was born in 1969 north of the border, where I watched them play numerous times in their late ‘70s and early ‘80s heydays. Screwed out of a postseason appearance by the 1994 strike, when baseball play ended on August 11th with the Expos holding a 74-40 record, it was a nice touch of the Nationals to flip the stylish Montreal “M” on their hats upside down to create the Nationals’ “curly W” once the team moved.

But while the Nats’ “upset” of the Dodgers in the National League Division Series wasn’t exactly a shock, their sweep of the Cardinals to win the pennant certainly was, and their all-road defeat of the really good Houston Astros was beyond belief. Don’t be surprised if we never a witness a World Series won entirely by the away teams ever again.

The Nats hit timely home runs and got great pitching, for sure, but especially in the concluding game, they also made contact and stroked opposite field hits to beat shifts—something precious few players know how to do in these days of launch velocity. It was certainly unfortunate that the delirious Washington D.C. fan base, who went completely out of their minds when the Nats got three runs in the 8th to beat Milwaukee in the Wild Card game, didn’t get to enjoy a home victory in the World Series, but I think they more than made up for it on their weekend of parading and partying.

So did their ace hurler Max Scherzer, shown below dancing with fans in a local bar. If nothing else, the 2019 Nationals may be the most likeable, curse-defeating bunch of guys to ever walk our green fields.

My New Twitter Hero

The current presidency is such a daily train wreck that it’s become relatively easy to vent about it. Coming up with posts or tweets about Trump, though, that are compact and consistently hilarious is tough to do, and I’m happy to share a few selections from a devout anti-Trumper who has made his Tweets a virtual art form.

I had never heard of Jeff Tiedrich until the last six months or so, but doing a bit of research discovered he’s publisher of the well-known lefty Smirking Chimp web site, likes to play guitar on occasion, and looks a little like a good friend of mine who also happens to be named Jeff.

But his tweets! At least twice a day he gives me belly laughs and eases my pain over the present state of this country. Ever hear the expression, “Someday when this is over we’ll sit around and have a good laugh.”? Well, while we still can, I’m all for laughing now. Take it away, Mr. Tiedrich! (the Aug. 30th selection is my current favorite)…

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The Unfortunate Story of Us

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 9.44.19 AMOkay. I know I run the risk of being called unhip, out of touch, behind the times, or the worst and most tired insult of all: an old guy on a porch. I don’t care. Jordan Peele’s Us is one of the most overhyped films in recent memory, and in my longtime favorite genre of horror, a stunningly missed opportunity.

And this is coming from someone who found Peele’s Get Out original, funny, scary and hugely entertaining. Peele poured his heart and soul into that Oscar-winner, and the result was a cleverly conceived comment on race relations and brilliantly executed story that pays off even more with each viewing. With Us, Peele seemingly wanted to do a horror film that was more profound, on a larger scale, with metaphorical threads running throughout, with no easy answers to plenty of baffling questions. He may have succeeded in doing that, but along the way forgot to include the entertainment factor.

I found the movie to be an absolute mess, a ghoulash of influences and conceits from so many classic horror movies that they overwhelm everything you’re watching and leave the viewer artistically and emotionally detached.

For the first half hour, I was engaged with the movie big time, but as soon as the “shadow family” showed up in the Wilsons’ remote country driveway to launch a non-stop home invasion torture party, I was bored in a matter of minutes. By the time a second shadow family was breaking into the house of the Wilsons’ good friends and murdering them, I was ready to exit the theater. Without any kind of setup for the horrific “turning point”, without any explanation or even hint of what might be going on, I did not find myself caring enough about the Wilsons or to even be scared for them.

By the time the movie finally ends—at least a half hour too late—we’re subjected to some far-fetched “solution” involving an underworld of shadow figures, hundreds of rabbits, fire, and Hands Across America. Dude, this is supposed to be a horror movie; why are you obligated to give us Stanley Kubrick on a bad day? What’s sad is that Get Out’s script worked so damn well; the only excuse I can think of for this travesty was that Peele was rushed to produce another big hit on the quick and shoved the screenplay into production without running it by someone who could have suggested a few useful revisions.

I’ve always found that the best horror stories are often the simplest. An unforgettable one from last year that not enough people saw, A Quiet Place, starred Emily Blunt and real-life husband John Krasinksi in a story about a family hiding in a country house, unable to make any noise that would attract a race of killer aliens that hunt by sound. Even though we never learned why the aliens were even there, the movie was claustrophobic and gripping from start to finish.

Or take my favorite ghost story, the original version of The Haunting made by Robert Wise in 1963 and based on the Shirley Jackson novel. The first five minutes of the film show and tell you why the huge, isolated house in upper New England is haunted. Then we meet the characters, particularly emotionally vulnerable Eleanor (Julie Harris), and as she begins to have a nervous breakdown while investigating the house with her team, we find ourselves slowly drowning in her fears.

Peele should have taken a lesson from these other films rather than just borrowing elements from them—or even from Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, in which the entire narrative is seen through the eyes of the main character so you’re wondering throughout if the horrors are real or a product of the protagonist’s mind. If he had stripped the story of Us down to Lupita Nyong’o’s traumatic childhood memory where she thought she saw her doppelganger on a Santa Cruz boardwalk and kept the entire story from her point of view with only her evil, “tethered” other showing up at the house, it may have been less broad a concept but the final twist would have still worked, and it would have been a far more scary and powerful movie.

There are so few great horror films now—this might be the first “serious” one since The Exorcist to earn a Best Picture nomination—that one with even a shred of originality is lauded like it’s the second demonic coming. Other than its fine directing and acting, I found Us to be a disjointed, sluggish disappointment, with stunningly poor execution of a good creepy idea that did not need to become a half-baked metaphorical statement.

The Kiosk

mcdonalds-kioskSometimes when I’m rushing to get to work and haven’t had time for a proper breakfast at home, I’ll stop at a fast food place near the office to nab a small, improper one. But the other day I walked in a McDonald’s that had apparently been recently remodeled, and found myself staring at an “ordering kiosk”.

I instantly rebelled.

It isn’t that I’m averse to using new technologies to make my life easier. (Remember fast-forwarding to a movie scene on a VHS tape? Standing in line for fifteen minutes at a bank on your lunch hour to deposit a check?) But one of the joys of stopping at a McDonald’s at 7:45 in the morning has been ducking inside to avoid the nine cars in the drive-thru line, then purchasing and getting my to-go order in less than two minutes.

Per usual, there was practically no one waiting to order inside this particular McDonald’s—just me and a sketchy, possibly homeless guy in front of me wanting a coffee. The young woman working the register, in an attempt to share the wonders of modern push-button kiosk use with Sketchy Guy, had to come out from behind the counter, walk him through the dizzying amount of steps he had to go through to buy his coffee on the kiosk board, then return to her place at the register. It was absurd.

“Hey, do I have to use that thing?” I asked the woman, “Because I really prefer to talk to people.” She gave it some thought, maybe afraid of being reprimanded by her boss or an invisible but all-seeing McDonald’s board of directors, then quickly shook her head. “THANK you,” I told her, and placed my order at the register. “There’s just too much of this automated stuff in the world already.”

I mean, there really is. I tried to place a take-out order at a local Thai joint the other day on the phone, something I’d done with them numerous times, and instead was transferred to some kind of multi-eatery food ordering call center. Whenever I call a customer service number and get a friendly robot (which is basically all the time now), I hit the “O” button for an operator as quick as possible in search of human contact. While I’m waiting to talk to a living being, the robot will still try to steer me to a web site rather than keep me on hold, but many times the question or matter I have really needs to be discussed, not reduced to a handful of keyword responses. Social media has succeeded in making us less conversant than ever, and I’d rather not contribute to speeding the decline.

McDonald’s is saying that their new kiosks will “speed up” the ordering process, but I saw no evidence of this the other morning with just two of us in line. What if there were twenty people and half of them were kids or simply kiosk-challenged? Wouldn’t it become something like the cluster of confusion in front of many mass transit ticket machines that have caused me to occasionally miss trains?

No, the only benefit to McDonald’s I can see with these kiosks is finding a new way for the company to eliminate human employees. For that reason alone, I intend to fight them until they drag me away from the cold, dead counter.

The White Album, Juggled

Beatles

Back in 1968, I had a friend who was a Beatles lunatic. He owned six copies of Sgt. Pepper, three of which he never opened. And the day the Beatles’ White Album hit Springfield, Mass we were taking the bus downtown to stand outside the door of Kresge’s Department Store and purchase the very first copies.

We played the thing over and over again in his bedroom the entire weekend. Any new Beatles album at that time was a gift from above, but this double creation was so bizarre and unique and filled with tunes you couldn’t get out of your head that it seemed like a work that was beyond art.

Fifty years later, I find myself strangely unimpressed with the White Album. My current best friend who is older than me recently called it “complete shit.” I wouldn’t go that far, but in my mind it doesn’t come close to Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road, Rubber Soul, or Revolver. As a collection of great individual songs showcasing each Beatle’s talents, it totally works. But there’s an erratic, meandering quality to the thing that gives it a show-offy quality, as if they were saying, “Concept album? Who needs a concept? Here we are just being our brilliant selves and aping every musical genre imaginable!” Even the stark, minimalist cover, though innovative, smelled of arrogance.

But I’m here to tell you I’ve now solved my biggest issue with the White Album: the order of its songs. Going from surf rock to a breathy ballad to hard blues to music hall ditty to acoustic fluff to Ringo’s whatever makes for a very disjointed and directionless experience. So I recently took the tracks and re-ordered them by tempo and intensity, going from soft and quiet to wild and deafening, and the result is an album that builds and builds and elevates your senses along with it.

Honestly, try this at home:

1. Long, Long, Long
2. Julia
3. Blackbird
4. I’m So tired
5. Mother Nature’s Soon
6. Dear Prudence
7. I Will
8. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
9. Cry Baby Cry
10. Piggies
11. Martha My Dear
12. Yer Blues
13. Honey Pie
14. Happiness is a Warm Gun
15. Rocky Raccoon
16. Revolution 1
17. Don’t Pass Me By
18. Glass Onion
19. Buffalo Bill
20. Sexy Sadie
21. Savoy Truffle
22. Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
23. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide
24. Birthday
25. Back in the U.S.S.R.
26. Helter Skelter
27. Good Night

I nuked Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? and Revolution 9 because they’re complete shit, and left Good Night at the end because it’s still a perfect coda. Not sure how you’ll feel about the songs in this order, but I have found it makes the White Album ten times better.

Hell, if I could message George Martin about this I would.

A Perfect Movie Organism

alien1979theatricalreleNext year marks the 40th anniversary of the greatest sci-fi film ever. Or at least, the greatest one in my book.

I’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey a number of times, often under the influence of assorted imbibements. George Pal’s 1960 version of The Time Machine was my favorite movie growing up, and the Star Wars franchise has provided a lot of funtertainment. But the film I keep returning to again and again for aesthetic and psychological reasons that are so primal and deep they’re difficult to grasp—is Ridley Scott’s original Alien.

I recorded the slightly longer Director’s Cut version of the 1979 film on my DVR recently, and weirdly, have watched it a half dozen times in the last two months. Needless to say, it gets better with every viewing. But what is its pull? On the surface, it’s a bare bones concept that barely qualifies as science fiction: space mining crew investigates signal on distant planet, accidentally allows monstrous alien creature to board their ship and kill nearly everyone. Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett had a scary B-picture in mind when they sold their script to producers Walter Hill, David Giler, and Gordon Carroll at Fox. But with Ridley Scott’s masterful direction entwined with the late H. R. Giger’s creepy-beyond-belief concept art, a haunting, gorgeous score from Jerry Goldsmith and one of the best casting jobs ever, the film is a gripping, endlessly fascinating nightmare that puts its sinewy arms around you and won’t let go. Still more frightening than any space film ever made, it’s also UNLIKE any space film ever made.

The tag line the Fox publicists finally settled on was an instant classic: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” In its womb-like art direction and quiet, measured approach, the sense of isolation in space permeates every moment—beginning with this dialogue-free introduction to the towing ship Nostromo:

The seven crew members emerge from their cryogenic cocoons to enjoy a communal breakfast before learning they’re not even close to Earth, and it’s in this scene where the true genius of Alien is on display. These are not the zombied astronauts from 2001, the cartoony heroes from Star Wars, or even the obnoxious jarheads from subsequent Alien sequels. These are genuine blue collar people who happen to be working their daily jobs in outer space. Watch this clip and check out the concerns and attitudes of Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto. They could just as easily be on a graveyard shift at a Monsanto plant.

Stanton later said that Scott wrote out a biographical sketch for his character that ran five to six pages, including how many missions he’d been on, how he got along with his parents, etc. None of that info was used in the film, of course, but it gave Stanton embedded feelings that infused his smart-alecky character. Sigourney Weaver, in a later interview, praised Scott’s vision, which is that “space is a real place: filthy, greasy, and grimy.” Hardly the cold, antiseptic environments present in many a science fiction film. In the first ten minutes, we feel like we know every one of these characters, and like spending time with virtually all of them. Which makes the subsequent horrors all the more affecting.

The now-famous scene of the alien creature birth-bursting out of John Hurt’s stomach while at dinner is not just a thoroughly shocking moment that caused audience members at a Dallas preview to flee to the lobby and bathrooms to vomit, but a simple, dynamic plot point that sends the entire story smashing into a wall. Oddly, while it’s the absolute definition of the “first turning point” in dramaturgy terms that normally occurs a half hour in, this one falls dead center in the middle of the film. The second half basically becomes a “ticking clock”, as the crew tries to find and eliminate the creature while it’s gradually hunting them. Scott’s decision to show as little of the alien creature as possible adds to the characters’ terror and sense of isolation, and makes the experience very scary for us. What little we do see of the alien is so ghastly it lets our darkest imaginations run wild. And as the tension mounts, as they are throughout the film, the performances are pitch perfect:

After a brilliant plot twist that reveals Ian Holm’s Ash character to be a company-embedded robot with a hidden agenda to bring the alien home at all costs, the final third of the movie goes into complete overdrive, a breathless hide-and-seek game between Weaver’s Ripley character and the beast, with the imminent self-destruction of the ship providing a second ticking clock. Add to that sped-up camera work, shooting steam machines and strobe lights, and the finale comes as close to a mix of terror and sexuality as you’re likely to experience. After the climax and post-climax, we’re left with heroine Ripley back in her cryo-chamber, drifting back to sleep with her cat, the audience finally safe again.

On every single level, Alien works, even with models and miniatures employed instead of CGI, even with computer interfaces no more advanced than early Commodores. As Ash’s robot head utters before it’s blow-torched, the alien is a “perfect organism…I admire its purity.” I’ll say the same for this incredible, timeless film.