Wednesday, January 30, 2013

2012 Yearly Wrap

 The Film Directors issue, including John Huston, Scott # 4671

The Pixar issue, including Finding Nemo, Scott # 4679.  Aquarium stamp is # 2866.

Jose Ferrer, Scott # 4666, here with Humphrey Bogart, Scott # 3152

 Choreographers issue, including Bob Fosse, Scott # 4701

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Scott # 4702

Earthscapes issue, including Highway Interchange, Scott # 4710o

Baseball All-Stars issue, including Joe Dimaggio, Scott # 4697, here with Marilyn Monroe, # 2967

Sunday, January 20, 2013

My Oscar Ballot

Picture: Amour
Actor: Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Actress: Naomi Watts, The Impossible
Supporting Actor: Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Supporting Actress: Amy Adams, The Master
Director: Michael Haneke, Amour
Original Screenplay: Moonrise Kingdom
Adapted Screenplay: Lincoln
Cinematography: Skyfall
Art Direction: Life of Pi
Editing: Life of Pi
Costume Design: Mirror Mirror
Score: Life of Pi
Song: “Skyfall”, Skyfall
Sound Mixing: Life of Pi
Sound Editing: Life of Pi
Visual Effects: Life of Pi
Make-Up: Hitchcock
Foreign Language Film: Amour
Documentary Feature: Searching for Sugar Man
Documentary Short: Inocente
Animated Feature: Frankenweenie
Animated Short: Head Over Heels
Live Action Short: Asad

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Dr. No Thanks

I really, really wish I liked James Bond movies.  With each one, I go in with high hopes and disbelief gladly suspended.  And each time, I usually come out with something to latch onto that I can say I liked or enjoyed.  But time and time again, a larger disappointment looms because they just come across as a little…desperate.  Too eager to please, to impress, to titillate (chastely), to push the envelope but never really get out of our comfort zones.

They certainly show up on TV enough that I give them a second chance, but quickly get bored or frustrated by the effort.  Maybe because long before Bond and Bond, I knew Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan as The Saint and Remington Steele—the former still self-amused but less long in the tooth, the latter a suave and charming movie addict surrounded by mystery and not epic stupidity.  And as great as he is, most of the Connery films have fared quite badly over the years; even “classics” like Goldfinger only serve to remind you that more often than not, his Bond was actually a pretty incompetent spy.

And now we have Skyfall.  The raves were inescapable, and Daniel Craig was a more rough-and-tumble incarnation, which I preferred (I consumed the Ian Fleming novels in my youth), so I had my hopes up.  Certainly, Casino Royale was above average and had some terrific setpieces, but still took too long to get to the point.  Quantum of Solace made little sense from start to end.  And while there’s a lot to like in Skyfall—its believable stuntwork, its sense of franchise continuity, its earnestness in burrowing into Bond’s psyche—for me, like most Bonds, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

There’s only one Bond film I really, really like: From Russia with Love (Young, 1963).  Maybe it’s because its villains are scary without being cartoonish (by comparison, Javier Bardem’s baddie practically plagiarizes Batman’s Joker’s rictus grin).  Maybe it’s because the stakes (a Cold War decoding machine) are proportionate to the proceedings; once world domination because the redundant goal in these films, everything had to be bigger, but rarely better.  In Russia, there are no crazy gadgets, and some Turkish flavor but little gratuitous globe-hopping.  Plus, there is a genuinely gorgeous woman (Daniela Bianchi) who doesn’t strain credulity by doubling as a brilliant scientist and sexual pushover.  The film as a whole is lean, gritty, exciting, but never overplays its hand.

For someone allegedly good at cards, Bond usually overplays his hand.  And Skyfall almost does, too. For as ably executed and well-cast as it is, there is only one thing genuinely special about it, but it’s a doozy.  Roger Deakins is the cinematographer this time and his contribution is nothing short of miraculous—perhaps the best below-the-line asset any Bond film has had since John Barry’s Russia score and Shirley Bassey’s brassy pipes (though Adele holds her own here, too).

The Bond films have always indulged in location photography, but it always played as mere travelogue porn (including my own Bay Area home here in San Francisco), settling for getting landmarks in frame and exploiting local “exoticism”.  But Deakins captures the exquisite details of lights, reflections, colors, and compositions.  Bond has always been about sex (literally or metaphorically), but this film brings something new to the series—visual sensuality.  It is glorious to gaze upon and elevates the film to something far more promising.  That the content (from story motivation to final resolution) doesn’t quite deliver the goods isn’t Deakins’s fault.  His work is masterful, and makes this Bond one that stands out.  

After wonderfully reliable work for Scorsese, Sayles, Mendes, and the Coens (among others), there’s something perversely irresistible at the thought he might win a long overdue Oscar for a Bond film.  But I hope he does.  For truly, nobody does it better.

The Chinese Year of the Tiger stamp is Scott #3895c.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year's Eve on Naboo

Although I’ve had some memorable New Year’s Eves in my life (seeing Jason Marsalis perform in New Orleans, “burning the old man” traditions in my homeland of Ecuador), I’d have to say my favorite was six years ago, when my boss--George Lucas--was named the Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade and a handful of Lucasfilm employees were conscripted to help decorate the two floats that the company was sponsoring.  I didn’t know anything about the specific designs that had been created, but watching the parade was an annual ritual in my home growing up and I even spent the night in a lawn chair on Colorado Blvd in Pasadena once to see the parade in person the next day.  That was in high school with some of my friends and whatever limited basketball skills I have can be attributed to spending hours trying to throw marshmallows into the open sunroofs of passing limousines that night.

So we showed up bright and early on 12/31/06 to a large hangar that had four floats in it—two of ours and the two floats of the college teams playing in the Rose Bowl that day (Michigan and USC).  Our shift was the second-to-last, which meant that all the final mounting of foliage & greenery, herb gluing, veggie application, and other texturing and ornamentation would take place.  The shift after ours (the final, late night/early morning shift) only had one job: applying all the actual flowers. 

The work crews were a motley mix of my colleagues, elderly alumni from those rival universities, and volunteers from some of the local SoCal high schools.  Our floats were of two Star Wars environments: the Endor forest moon and the Queen's palace on Naboo, essentially bookending the saga with locations from Episodes 1 & 6.  Endor was mostly finished but there was still lots of detailing to be done on Amidala’s royal grounds, particularly on the towers which loomed above us, requiring a scaffold two-and-a-half stories high to reach them.

Since I’m not really afraid of heights, I clambered up this steel and wood frame and spent the next few hours adhering one bean after another (both red and white) into elaborate pre-stenciled patterns at the top of these towers.  Then later, pinning branches and ivy to the walls.  Or using seeds on the coats of some exotic Ewok pack-animals.  Or finally patching up any bald spots with additional spices. In the meantime, my (now ex-)wife had coordinated all the volunteers into efficient assembly lines, because in addition to all these last-minute touch-ups on the floats, our shift had to stage all the flowers that the final crew would be installing.

This meant prepping thousands of these tiny conical vials, each with enough water for a single stem, which you’d then place a flower in.  The flowers came bundled in huge floral boxes and so putting them in these vials quickly was critical so they didn’t start to wilt or fade before the final crew was ready to put them on the floats themselves.  It was a pretty phenomenal enterprise, and because I was high above the ground, I had an eagles-eye view of the whole proceedings.  It boggled the mind to think how many other hangers and workers and flowers were being strategically employed at the exact same time.  But It was also honestly some of the most fun I’d ever had. 

After our 8-hour shift was over, I picked up my Mom from the airport since we were all going to have bleacher seats to watch the parade the next morning.  Not quite as much fun as my lawn chair, but still a good view—though because we had to get up so early to get to our reserved parking and seats, my favorite New Year’s Eve didn’t even include staying up until midnight.  And then after the parade was over, we went to where the floats were publicly parked to get up close and look at the craftsmanship of all the remarkable creations.  Because the floats remain stationary, any animated elements or moving parts are static, but it’s still a wonderful way to look at the floats and their intricate details and creative use of fruit or flowers without dealing with the crowds on the street.  Check it out if you’re ever in the area on January 1.

Here's a picture of the Naboo float that year.  All the USPS stamps are from the Star Wars issue from 2007: Queen Amidala (Scott #4143h), stormtroopers (#4143o), the Emperor (#4143c) and X-wing fighter (#4143m).  The Yoda stamps were from a separate Yoda issue that occurred the same year—the winner of a fan poll.  That’s Scott #4205. The St. Vincent and the Grenadines stamp was part of an officially sanctioned Star Wars foreign release from 1996.