July 05, 2012Movies about the end of the world are a genre unto themselves.
We've got the end of the world by nuclear war, by global warming turned to global quickfreeze, by disease, by alien invader and by zombie.
My favorite, though, is the end of the world by asteroid. That's because it has happened before; it could happen again; and there wouldn't be much we could do about it.
We have our moon because of an absolutely cataclysmic collision. Since then, the meteor impacts have ranged from trivial "shooting stars" to massive extinction events. How could Hollywood overlook the special-effects possibilities?
We all remember unless our memories have mercifully lapsed the Bruce Willis formula movie Armageddon, complete with ticking clock and almost infinite plot idiocy. That one ended with the world being saved by astronauts pretending to be characters.
Then there was the other asteroid movie of that summer, Deep Impact, which had actual characters, moving personal storylines and astronauts who gave their all and only partially succeeded in saving the world. It was tragic and larger than life and it can actually be watched over and over without killing brain cells.
Naturally, it made less money than Armageddon. But it still made a lot of money, because movie-goers don't actually reject movies because they're good they reject them when they're pretentious drivel, and when they're too stupid to be endured.
Otherwise, we're a forgiving lot. We only ask that you care enough not to make us feel embarrassed about going to the movies. Unless "hangover" is in the title.
Until now, I thought Deep Impact was the best of the end-of-the-world movies even better than the old black-and-white On the Beach, where the world ended by nuclear fallout, with Australia dying last.
Now we have a movie that I think is even better, in large part because the end of the world is in the background. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World begins only a short time before Deep Impact ends. The astronauts have all died in an attempt to stop the huge asteroid that's heading for Earth. Complete failure. The world is going to end.
So ... what now?
Writer-director Lorene Scafaria (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) had about $10 million to work with.
Ordinarily, for $10 million you can't shoot a grocery list. The rule of thumb is that it costs a million dollars a day to shoot a serious movie. And you can't shoot a serious movie in 10 days.
Seeking a Friend has a cast that should have used up the entire budget and then some, just to show up for the first day of shooting: Steve Carell (in his best performance ever and that's saying a lot), Keira Knightley (in her best performance), and Martin Sheen in a truly moving role near the end.
Obviously, these actors worked for way, way less than their normal asking price. Why would they do that?
They did it because of the script.
I keep saying that movies are never better than their script (though they are often worse). Well, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is the kind of script that actors pray for.
Not because it will lead to an Oscar I doubt this one will be Oscar bait for anybody, because nobody has that kind of scenery-chewing role.
No, they pray for a script like this because, 10 or 15 years from now, looking back on their career, this is one movie that they won't feel a moment's regret about. A movie they'll be proud to have been part of.
A movie they can watch themselves in, because they are completely absorbed in characters who are human beings that we can believe in, care about, and even, by the end, admire.
Steve Carell plays Dodge, an insurance agent. The bad news is, insurance companies are going to go bankrupt at the end of the world. The good news is that since nobody will be alive by the end of their 30-day grace period, they'll never have to cut a check.
But for Dodge, the bad news is that his wife gets out of their stopped car and runs away. Apparently, he was not the man she wanted to be with at the end of the world.
For a while, Dodge's acquaintances we can hardly call them friends seem to be trying to hold things together. Some of them still show up for work. A lot of others are showing their true colors: Since there's no tomorrow, or at least no three-weeks-from-now, they can do the things that they only refrained from doing because they dreaded the social consequences.
The trouble is, Dodge didn't want to do those things. And so he's more alone than ever, since he doesn't like any of these people, and he doesn't want to spend the last three weeks of the world doing the things they're doing.
Then a much younger woman shows up on the balcony outside his window, a semi-narcoleptic "free spirit" named Penny (Keira Knightley) who seems, at first, to be the kind of selfish free spirit that I have become so weary of in movies from Breakfast at Tiffany's to ... well, to all the others.
I knew a few "free spirits" in college, and they were selfish and boring. But bad movie writers seem to think they bring a breath of fresh air to the lives of dull characters (who always seem to be suspiciously similar to bad movie writers).
But Lorene Scafaria is not a bad writer, and Penny is not a breath of fresh air. She's selfish and oblivious and Dodge does not immediately fall in love with her. But he does know her well enough that when rioters threaten to overrun the building they both live in, he goes in search of her in order to warn her to get out.
They get away from the riot under appalling circumstances, and soon enough things get even more appalling. In fact, by the end of their road trip, we might think we've been watching a screwball comedy. There's a scene in jail that is meant to remind us of a similar situation in Bringing Up Baby.
But the world is ending. And there is business to do. There are people to reconnect with. Dodge is trying to get back to his high school sweetheart; Penny wants to get back to her family.
But along the way everything changes and not in a cheap, Hollywood way. Everything is earned. Most people turn out to be better than they might have been. Whenever a cheap Hollywood cliche turns up, Scafaria turns it on its head, usually letting characters find their humanity.
How would it change us to know the world is ending, irrevocably, for everybody? There are the people who refuse to believe it, who expect to ride it out (a six-month supply of food? Oh, that will work); there are the people who don't want to wait for it; there are the people who just go about their ordinary lives as if nothing bad were about to happen.
Let me just say that both Dodge and Penny get a chance to reconcile with their own lives. To grow up just a little more. To find the best person inside themselves.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is funny though it's dark comedy indeed! and it's also moving. It never goes for the cheap laugh the characters are real at every moment. Nor does the movie ever stop for some pretentious "director moment" when you're slapped in the face with a symbol so the director can feel like an artist.
I can't help but compare Seeking a Friend with last year's Tree of Life. Tree of Life was arty and difficult because the writer/director was trying to communicate that which could not be communicated. I loved it, but it wasn't for most people, at least not people with a normal metabolic rate.
But Seeking a Friend covers an astonishing amount of the same kind of material, and does it within a clear narrative that is entertaining from beginning to end. Not child-entertaining, not teenager-entertaining. Grownup-entertaining. How many movies in that category are made per decade?
Not everybody will love this movie. It has some rough language, though there's no nudity. There are some disturbing moments, but most of what makes it wrong for young viewers is the fact that the movie never gives us a moment's hope that the world might not end.
So does the movie but it ends having convinced us that even at the end of the world, life is worth living, and joy is worth giving and discovering.
When you think about it, the only difference between this movie and real life is that the world ends for us one at a time, by and large, instead of all at once, and it takes us by surprise, instead of following a published schedule.
So the question, "Whom do you want to be with at the end of the world?" is one that we all have to answer in our own way, in our own lives.
This is a movie that instantly makes it into my top 50 movies (and at 60 years of age, that's a pretty exclusive list). I may find that it eventually moves up into the top 20. I'll have to watch it again. And again.
So if you're a grownup, and you don't mind movies that deal with the most fundamental human issues in the midst of more-or-less realistic comedy and adventure, take a break from this summer's comic-book movies and give your eyes and ears to Seeking a Friend at the End of the World. It might also earn a place in your mind and heart.
It might be the kind of movie that would be worth watching one more time in the last three weeks of the world.
American Idol has had some very good singers, and lots of pretty good singers, and some good albums have come from the show's alumni.
But I think my favorite contestant in the whole run of the show was Casey Abrams, the bass-playing jazzman with the bushy red hair and the sense of perpetual delight.
He doesn't have the glorious voice of Adam Lambert. He doesn't have the pop sensibility of a lot of singers who will surely sell more albums.
But Casey Abrams' first album, entitled Casey Abrams, is wonderful.
Now, I love cover albums that's why I raved about Rita Wilson's first album last week. Wilson had only one new song, "Faithless Love," which I assume was written by J.D. Souther, because they made a live-performance, mostly-off-key video of it together, which you should avoid in favor of the beautiful recording.
So if Casey Abrams had sung only existing songs, but with his unique, playful, beautiful jazz treatment, I would have been content.
He wasn't content with that. There's only one cover, as far as I can tell "Hit the Road Jack," with Haley Reinhart, the fellow contestant who was so productively paired with him on the show.
The rest is new. And I am delighted to tell you that the songs are quite different from each other, and they are all good ranging from interesting-good to beautiful-good to makes-me-grin good.
And while you're contemplating the first album by a wonderful new singer-songwriter, you might want to pick up a new album by an old, old favorite. Willie Nelson's new album, Heroes, shows that Nelson is still a great singer with a deceptively simple style.
In a way, Willie Nelson has always sung like an old man not much range, a bit of wandering on the pitch, a wide and sagging vibrato. You can't really tell that he's any older than he was 30 years ago.
Some of the tracks are deliberately silly "Roll Me Up" reminds me of nothing more than Rolf Harris' "Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport." Especially the verse that begins, "Tan me hide when I'm dead, Fred."
But it's not all silly. Nelson sings the spiritual "Come On Up to the House," which I first heard performed on Tom Waits' classic Mule Variations CD. Joined by Sheryl Crow and Lukas Nelson, Willie Nelson gives it a performance every bit as good.
And Willie Nelson's country roots are still vigorous, with "Cold War with You" and "Home in San Antone" and "My Window Faces the South."
You'll see what I mean, because if you know Willie Nelson's music you're already planning to buy the album or you're already listening to it.
So let me just say that even though I'm not a fan of music that takes Jesus lightly and I'm no particular fan of John Wayne movies, I have to admit that the song I came away singing was "Come On Back Jesus (and Pick Up John Wayne on the Way)."
I stopped in at the Savory Spice Shop in Friendly Center, because there it was, right next to Red Mango on our weekly smoothie stop. I was planning a barbecue that week, and they had a whole array of really cool-sounding rubs.
I picked the ones that seemed like they might go well with fish I barbecue salmon and tuna because even people with no brain can do it successfully, and my brain is going and tried them.
Now, I've never used a rub before. I think I put on too much of the spices. The result was that they overpowered the fish a little.
They were still delicious. But if you're going to spring for wild salmon specifically because it actually tastes like salmon, it's not smart to overpower it with spices.
Next time, I'll use them more sparingly.
But the rubs were delicious in their own right, and if I had been cooking a less flavorful whitefish or something as dull as chicken or steak, every one of the Savory Spice Shop rubs would have made them stand up and sing.
In other words, even in the hands of a fairly inept griller like me, they're still delicious.
In the aftermath of the Fourth of July festivities in downtown Greensboro, it occurs to me to wonder: Why does our illustrious and all-wise city government sell a monopoly to one ice cream store especially one not owned by someone who actually lives in Greensboro when they could just as easily have sold a location to every single ice cream store in Greensboro so that customers could sample any or all of them?
It just seems to me that people who haven't tried Gnam Gnam or Bruster's or any of the other ice cream and yogurt places in town might have enjoyed having a choice.
And if Greensboro's leadership doesn't think it's important to promote an open market and to give locally-owned businesses a chance to find new customers at a city celebration, then what exactly are we paying them for?
Next year, no monopolies, please. Ben and Jerry's is good ice cream. But it's not the only ice cream. Let more businesses especially local businesses through that door, folks. That would be a much better use of our tax money.