Thursday, May 23, 2013
I love it when things work out perfectly.
Last Saturday night, my wife, my sister-in-law, my son and I stayed in a hotel in Encinitas, in order to hit Legoland in Carlsbad (about seven miles up the road) the next morning. All three of them had been going to bed pretty early, so I knew Saturday night would be a good opportunity to catch a movie -- a "vacation movie" at that, which is all the better.
Earlier in the day, I'd done some research and discovered that Encinitas boasts a single-screen theater, which was playing The Croods earlier in the day and then The Place Beyond the Pines a single time at 8:15. The Place Beyond the Pines had been one movie I was certain I was going to see in the theater, except it was starting to look like that wasn't going to happen. Then, bam! Along comes this opportunity. And it even started during my preferred window for an evening movie: 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. The 7-8 time slot is often too early, the 9-10 time slot often too late.
However, I still wanted events to play out naturally over the course of the day, rather than broaching the idea of me seeing this movie at 10:30 in the morning. Odds were that my son would be asleep by then and my wife and sister-in-law would be content to part ways with me for the evening, but I didn't want to take that for granted. So imagine how nice it was when we drove by the theater naturally, and they both pointed it out to me before I had the chance to point it out myself. Score.
We wrapped up our Mexican dinner at about 7:45, and I was on my way. I couldn't buy my tickets right away, though. In a perfect sign of small-town quaintness, the box office was empty, with one of those little signs in the window with a clock and adjustable hands, indicating the time the box office would again be occupied by a person. The hands of the clock were set to 8:05.
I returned at about 8:10 and found about five people ahead of me in line -- which is this town's idea of a crowd. I knew I obviously wasn't going to miss anything, but I was excited enough by the opportunity to see this movie under these circumstances that I felt a bit antsy nonetheless.
So it was with some about of impatience and, in fact, incredulity that I listened to the guy ahead of me ask the following question to the woman sitting in the box office:
"Have you seen The Place Beyond the Pines? Is it good?"
You're at the theater, you're in line, you've got your money pulled out ... and now you're not sure you're going to go?
He may have just been making conversation, but come on. You're already here, and now you're going to let someone else's opinion dictate whether you're actually going to plunk down your nine bucks?
First off, this woman is trying to sell you a ticket to see the movie. It's a small-town single-screen theater, so chances are, it loses a ton of money. They need that nine dollars, and they need it bad. So it's not even in her interest to tell the truth.
However, this woman did indeed tell what seemed to be the truth -- that she hadn't seen it, but that her brother had seen it and it was supposed to be great.
The guy bought the ticket.
What I found annoying was that he wasn't only spoiling his own viewing of the movie, but possibly spoiling mine. What happened if this woman had said she didn't really care for it? I'd already decided to buy my ticket, even if he hadn't. I didn't want my own excitement to be tainted by a negative appraisal.
And what if the woman had said she didn't care for it, and he went in anyway? Then he would have proven that this whole exercise was just a waste of everybody's time.
In truth, I did already have some tempered appraisals of the movie under my belt, because I'd already heard the movie discussed on Filmspotting -- meaning I already knew about the movie's unconventional structure. (If you don't know about it, I'll just leave it at that.) However, everyone agrees that at least one part of the movie is incredibly great -- myself included.
One other funny/charming thing about this small theater? The movie started ten minutes late, but then didn't include a single commercial or trailer. Just straight in to the action.
And what action it is: The movie starts with a two- to three-minute unbroken take that ends with what appears to be Ryan Gosling riding a motorcycle inside an enclosed sphere with two other motorcycles, defying death in front of our very eyes.
This shot is reason alone to see The Place Beyond the Pines.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
I'm involved in something kind of funny tonight, which should tell you a thing or two about the kind of person I am.
I'm catching up on four months worth of calendar that I didn't tear off at the time the days passed.
Why am I telling you about this on a movie blog? Well, it's a movie trivia calendar. It's called Film Fanatics. It might be Australian. I'm not sure.
Why am I actually doing this? Because my wife's sister is coming to visit tomorrow, and I want her to think I've been diligently keeping up with the calendar she got me for Christmas.
That's the kind of person I am -- the kind who pays attention to the details that might hurt somebody's feelings. People usually laugh at me when I tell them not to post about a party I had on Facebook, because I don't want the people who weren't invited to see the post. Me, I think I'm going the extra mile to keep someone from having a bad day. (Yes, I flatter myself by thinking that not getting invited to my party could ruin someone's day.)
So, when my sister-in-law walks into our bedroom, I want her to see that I have been actively using the present she got me -- a thoughtful present that's probably one of the biggest gifting successes she's ever had with me.
These calendars where you tear off a page each day are the perfect example of a thing that's better in theory than in practice. Every time I get one of these calendars -- always as a present -- I'm excited, and full of optimism that this is the year I'll finally keep pace. In practice, however, I tear off sheets dutifully until about January 15th, then never again.
Twenty thirteen might have been another year just like that, except that when doing some cleaning for my sister-in-law's arrival tonight, I noticed the calendar, still on my nightstand but utterly neglected. I decided to spend 45 minutes to un-neglect it. (Now that I'm writing a post about it, that 45 minutes has turned into about 90.)
The good thing about going through 120 pages of calendar in 45 minutes is that you don't bother agonizing over any answer for too long. If you don't know it after 20-30 seconds, you just peek at the answer and move on.
It's actually a pretty decent source of movie trivia, as these things go. That kind of thing is by no means a sure thing. I've seen movie trivia along the lines of the following:
What's the name of Luke Skywalker's little green friend?
D. Charlie Brown
In fact, that's much more common.
However, just because this one exceeds that low bar, it doesn't mean I can't have a laugh or two at the expense of the 2013 Film Fanatics calendar. See, one of the recurring puzzles is a title scramble, where they give you two familiar words that you have to unscramble into the title of a popular movie. They'll even give you the year.
I'm usually good at word scrambles, but these ones were stumping me. With the first four I came across, I just couldn't see the title in my head. They were the following:
FIERY WELL (1993 movie)
ROMAN POPE (1973 movie)
RUN FLYING (1968 movie)
RAISED RYE (1969 movie)
I'll give you a minute to think on them, if you want.
Free Willy, Paper Moon, Funny Girl, Easy Rider
Lame. I should have gotten at least one. (Even if I've seen only one of them -- Easy Rider -- all the titles were obviously familiar to me.)
Perhaps the calendar sensed I needed to be thrown a bone, because on February 22nd, this was the so-called "Marquee Mix-Up":
INEPT ICON (2010 movie)
If I had been taking a sip of my drink at the time, I would have spat it out.
Hello? You have to do more than move a single letter to qualify as a successful scramble. Literally, the C is moved from after the first N to after the second I. That's it.
I suppose they were trying to stick with the rules of making real words. However, they weren't sticklers for all the rules, because they took a one-word title and made it two.
I mean, would this have been so hard?
Thanks, I thought it was a nice point, too.
Maybe all I needed was a little time to warm up. I easily got the next two:
FLIP UP TONIC (1994 film) and CHOIR SEXTET (1973 film)
And ... time's up:
Pulp Fiction and The Exorcist
However, then Film Fanatics had me again on the April 26th page, as I failed to get WORMY PATENT (1990 film). A shame, because that's a great phrase, WORMY PATENT. Turns out it was, of course, Pretty Woman.
Fittingly, today's page was the last one: LEAF PHOTOS (1998 film). It took a minute -- longer than the 20-30 seconds I had been allowing myself -- but I eventually got Hope Floats.
And now, when my sister-in-law gets off the 14-hour flight from Australia tomorrow, she'll have one more reason to have a nice day.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
The Cannes Film Festival is opening today. Shows how closely I follow Cannes -- I always thought Cannes was in June.
I know about the opening of the festival because I heard a bit on NPR this morning, mentioning that The Great Gatsby (which I saw last night and liked quite a bit) will be opening the festivities, even though it's not in contention.
However, according to the NPR story, films by "Steven Sondebergh" and "Sylvia Coppola" will indeed be in contention for awards.
This despite the fact that the film by "Steven Sondebergh" is actually a TV movie (Beyond the Candelabra). At least "Sylvia Coppola" has a legit movie in The Bling Ring.
I know people make mistakes, but a) an NPR reporter? and b) two in the same story on two very prominent directors?
Okay, just a quickie for this Wednesday. I know I haven't been writing much lately -- that's a combination of me not bursting with interesting thoughts, and not having the time to write about the interesting thoughts I am having. Here's hoping you'll be seeing posts more regularly from me soon.
Friday, May 10, 2013
Peeples is the Tyler Perry movie Tyler Perry wants me to see.
Me, a white guy who is almost 40.
That's the only conclusion I can draw from the utter absence of the man's name from the advertising, especially when Perry's name is usually all over the advertisements for his movies. In fact, normally Peeples would be called Tyler Perry's Peeples, wouldn't it?
Yet here, his name is visible only in the most modest of skinny movie poster fonts above the title, reading "Tyler Perry Presents" -- though only if you squint real hard to read it.
Okay, okay, Perry isn't even the director here. The writer-director is a woman named Tina Gordon Chism. Turns out she also wrote ATL and Drumline, both of which I enjoyed quite a bit.
Usually, though, whatever Perry's involvement was, it would be played up. If he attended a test screening, they would somehow work that into the movie's advertising campaign.
However, this movie is clearly not directed at Perry's usual audience.
Want to know our first indication of that fact?
Now, no one's calling Craig Robinson an Uncle Tom, or less legitimately black than any one else in any way. However, he has made a career thus far of being the token black dude in movies and TV shows starring mostly whites, and aimed at that same audience. He's been conspicuously absent from the African-American ensemble movies that are Perry's bread and butter.
Let's look at how most of us first became aware of him: The Office. He's played Darryl Philbin -- or really just "Darryl," because they use his last name so rarely that I had to look it up on IMDB just now to figure out what it was. He was originally a surly member of the warehouse staff before being promoted to the white collar (note that) area of the building to give the show more color. He's a valued member of the ensemble and one of the show's best characters, not merely an instance of tokenism. However, you can't escape the fact that he's being offered to us as a touch of soul that legitimizes all the white folks.
His relationship with the Judd Apatow posse has kept getting him roles that more or less recreate that dynamic. He appeared in Knocked Up. He appeared in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. He appeared in Pineapple Express and Zach and Miri Make a Porno. He's also the only black guy in this summer's This is the End. If Seth Rogen or Paul Rudd or John C. Reilly has made a movie, he's been in it.
So my first reaction upon seeing him in a movie with two other black leads (David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington) was "Craig Robinson's in ... a black movie?"
Then again, Grier and Washington also have plenty of crossover appeal. Sure, Grier became known to us as a member of a primarily black comedic troupe (In Living Color), but he's skewed a bit more white in his choices ever since then. He even appeared in one of the most conservative-leaning films of the last five years in An American Carol, which relentlessly skewered Michael Moore and liberalism. Washington has a more diverse career -- she's worked with Perry previously (For Colored Girls), as well as Spike Lee (She Hate Me) and Chris Rock (I Think I Love My Wife) -- but she may be most famous to us as having appeared in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. (Though I guess Quentin does have a fair amount of soul for a white guy.)
This post is by no means intended as a test for these people to "prove how black they are," but I do think these were probably conscious casting choices, so the movie would not appear to be designed exclusively for its black audiences.
Will we see that small box office uptick this weekend, the result of a few extra white viewers?
That's hard to say. The Great Gatsby is also opening, and with a glamorized vision of the 1920s and Leonardo DiCaprio -- not to mention 3D -- it's right in white people's wheelhouses. (Including this white guy, who's been waiting for this movie for over a year and will surely try to schedule it for early next week.)
Sunday, May 5, 2013
So we had gone out for some errands on Ventura Blvd. yesterday afternoon, and had finished it off with lattes at a cafe we'd been meaning to check out called Crave. I also got a warm peanut butter cookie, but because of the peanut butter, I couldn't share any of it with my son. (We still don't know whether he's allergic.) However, that didn't stop me from sharing my whipped cream, and in fact, he got most of it. I even got him to say please for each additional mini-scoop, and he obliged in the cutest way imaginable.
Not only did he get the whipped cream, but he also got the spoon from my latte, which we had been using to deliver him the cream. But we didn't notice this until we were back at the car, putting the stroller away.
We could have just gone home with one of Crave's spoons, and the world would have gone on just fine. But we decided to swing by and drop it off. We have enough spoons.
I pulled up next to the curb and my wife jumped out. Just in front of us, unloading something from a shiny black pickup truck, was a thin man in a white t-shirt with sunglasses and a very large number of days of scruff. As my wife walked by him, he tried to give her something for free. She shrugged away as if he'd been thrusting a hot poker at her.
It was Shia LaBeouf.
I was certain of it. When she got back to the car, I said "Why didn't you take that thing? That's Shia LaBeouf!"
We couldn't be sure, because of the sunglasses, but I'd heard a snippet of dialogue from him as he continued unloading with a friend, and I was pretty sure that was Shia.
It was a comic book. The man had told my wife "Happy holidays! Would you like a free comic book?"
I was planning to google "Shia LaBeouf" and "comic books" when I got home, to ascertain whether this could have actually been him, but forgot.
However, fate intervened to confirm. A friend had just posted on Facebook that he had gotten a free comic book from Shia LaBeouf. This inexplicable transaction was quickly explicated: Saturday was Free Comic Book Day.
And it turns out, Shia LaBeouf wrote this comic book. As far as I can tell, it's either something called I Am
And we could have had one, which would have been fun.
My wife is hopeless about identifying people, but was kicking herself last night.
Me, I'm alright. It had been ages since I'd seen someone famous, which feels kind of like a cruel joke for a cinephile living in Los Angeles.
Besides, I got a blog post out of it.
Saturday, May 4, 2013
So as I mentioned yesterday, I did indeed see Pain & Gain on Thursday night.
As I also mentioned, I liked it.
There's some, though not as much as you would expect, of Bay's usual bombast, and there's some, though not as much as you would expect, of Bay's cheesy musical cues.
There's about as much slow-mo as you would expect.
Overall, it's probably best described as Bay's attempt to make his own version of Goodfellas. Or really, any other of the many crime movies that feature unintended escalating consequences and regular doses of humor, though a couple key decisions remind a person of Goodfellas specifically. (The heavy reliance on voiceover being one.)
So yes, I did just mention Goodfellas and Pain & Gain in the same sentence. Of course, Goodfellas is a five-star movie and Pain & Gain is a three. I did momentarily consider giving it a three-and-a-half.
The thing I want to talk about, though, is Dwayne Johnson's unused skateboard.
At several times early on in Pain & Gain, Paul Doyle (Johnson) is shown carrying a skateboard. Never riding the skateboard, mind you; only carrying it. There's no explanation given about this skateboard.
One of these skateboard-carrying scenes is the one you see above, which is an iconic shot of Johnson, Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie strutting along, looking on top of the world. The fact that Johnson is carrying his unused skateboard at the time makes the shot slightly absurd. Here, I've taken the liberty of cropping out the other two dudes and pointing it out to you with a handy little yellow arrow. You can see the black and blue end of the board and the green wheel.
Now, Doyle is a recovering cocaine addict who spent time in prison, so it could be surmised that the skateboard is his mode of transportation because he no longer has a driver's license. A key scene later in the movie involves him driving a car, but enough criminal behavior has transpired by then that not having a license is probably the least of his worries. Still, without some mention if it, it sticks out.
While I won't go so far as to call this unexplained skateboard a distraction or an actual flaw in the film, it is the kind of thing that draws attention to the parts of Pain & Gain that were left on the cutting room floor. You figure there must have once been a scene that showed Doyle skateboarding, or at least a scene explaining why he's got one.
To go back to Goodfellas, it would be like just saying he's called Jimmy Two Times, without the "I'm gonna go get the papers, get the papers."
Friday, May 3, 2013
Yes, you are supposed to be thinking of that Paula Cole song right now.
The following may be about the most obvious and unoriginal criticism that has been levied against Iron Man 3, but I came to it independently (some months ago), so I figured I might as well wheel it out here on the day the third Iron Man movie opens. It'll definitely be a lot more stale by the time Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: Winter Soldier come out, I can tell you that, so today's the day.
One of the biggest problems about splintering the Avengers back off into their own movies, after they came together in last summer's phenomenally successful The Avengers, is that it creates an immediate need to explain where all the rest of them are.
If Tony Stark is going to be facing a crisis that could result in the end of the world -- and he damn well better be, or the stakes for this movie won't be as high as this type of movie demands -- then why aren't all his Avengers buddies helping him out on that?
I've heard the argument from comic book fans, whose hair-trigger defensiveness knows no bounds, that they are all "off doing their own things." That sounds like comic book rationale if I've ever heard it.
So what, we're supposed to believe we live in a world where not only is there one impending threat to our way of living, but as many as five or six -- at one time?
Even if Captain America or the Hulk or even frigging Black Widow have other things they're dealing with at the same time that Tony Stark is fighting off the Mandarin, what are the chances that those other things are reaching a crisis point at the exact same time Tony's issue is reaching a crisis point? Even if Captain A. is fighting off the so-called Winter Soldier -- and I have no idea if that character is actually that movie's villain -- then couldn't he put one of his interns on the issue for maybe 12 hours while he goes off and tries to prevent Tony's Malibu house from falling into the ocean?
It's one of those areas where we are supposed to suspend disbelief, and that's fine. I'm sure that whatever criticisms people ultimately have about Iron Man 3, the absence of Hawkeye and Thor won't be one of them. I've cast the comic book nerds as the ones who err on the side of forgiveness in matters like this, anyway. You'd be right to ask me who the comic book nerd is now if I do the blog equivalent of pushing my glasses up higher on the bridge of my nose and asking William Shatner about the physics of Star Trek's beaming technology.
But I do think there should be some cake/eat it too backlash on Marvel for its relentless ambition about squeezing as many movies as possible out of these characters. We are bound to be scratching our heads over it eventually. Because it's not just Tony Stark who will be left to fend for himself in Iron Man 3. As I've mentioned earlier, in movies that will both hit theaters by next summer, Thor and Captain America are also going to be left by their lonesome to face equally apocalyptic challenges.
And then there's going to be the challenge of bringing them all back together again in The Avengers 2. "Okay, so all your previous end-of-the-world crises weren't really that bad ... but this end-of-the-world crisis? Let's get the band back together again."
Marvel also finds itself limited by the all-or-nothing approach. Like, let's say that only the Hulk were available. After all, what could the Hulk be doing? Every movie about the Hulk has been about his origins, not about his "ongoing projects." The very nature of the Hulk means he is not advising any national security councils or trying to ferret out terrorists from holes in the ground. He's a volcano trapped in a human shell. Can't the Hulk just come and help Tony? Maybe he could stop and get Nick Fury on the way.
So it's one of those situations where "movie reality" doesn't align with "reality reality." And really, that's probably okay.
I actually had an opportunity to see Iron Man 3 last night -- I mean, of course I had an opportunity, since it midnight-screened everywhere from here to East Bumchunk, Iowa. So I should say I had an easy opportunity to see Iron Man 3, one that didn't require me to stay up until 2:30 a.m.
See, the midnight screening time is really only a restriction on the east coast. Out here in California, they can start showing that movie as early as 9 p.m., since 9 p.m. is midnight in New York. And so it was that I came out of a 7:35 showing of Pain & Gain (liked it) and had the chance to choose IM3 as the second movie in my double feature rather than Oblivion (wish I had). In fact, IM3 was playing in the theater directly across from Pain & Gain -- the theater where Oblivion had been showing all day. Since I had to leave P & G as soon as the credits started just to be sure I'd make it to the start of Oblivion, I had no time for dilly-dallying, and when Oblivion wasn't there, I could have just seated myself for Iron Man. There were only a half-dozen other people in the theater.
Instead, I ventured into the theater's other wing and found the spot where Oblivion had been moved to accommodate the "midnight" screening.
And it probably was some amount of anti-Iron Man bias that caused me to pass up this easy opportunity. I liked but didn't love the first movie, and I guess I'm pretty much alone there. I didn't really like the second movie, though in that case I have more company.
And now three with these missing Avengers?
I'm not saying I might wait until DVD, but ... I might wait until DVD.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
It's very rare that I give a movie a half-star rating on Letterboxd. Very rare.
So rare that of the 2867 movies I have entered on the site -- a good 800+ shy of the actual total I've seen -- only 17 have a half-star rating.
It was 16 until last night.
Yes, the day finally came when I saw John Waters' Pink Flamingos. It has indeed been a long time coming. In fact, I felt like I reached a critical mass on my need to see it back in September of 2009, when I was out of town with friends and we were talking about it. I knew of course about the famous scene in which Divine eats dog poop, and I knew it was supposed to be repulsive in many other ways. However, that was something I embraced, since I'm always interested in seeing things in movies that I've never seen before. Like a horror movie that you know is supposed to be so disturbing that you have nightmares for weeks, I was geeked to see just how much Pink Flamingos would gross me out.
Well, it turns out, quite a lot.
In fact, the movie was so irredeemably gross and so utterly without point that I felt inclined to give the movie my lowest star rating possible.
How irredeemably gross and utterly without point?
Let's start with the utterly without point part. The entire plot of this movie is about how two "families" -- Divine's bizarre extended family and a husband and wife who are their rivals -- both want to be known as the filthiest people alive. This is, indeed, their only goal. Divine already has the title, and this other couple -- the Marbles -- want to wrest it from her.
And now the irredeemably gross part. If you want the grossness of Pink Flamingos to be withheld from you, or simply don't want to read this while you are eating lunch, please look away now until the numbered section ends.
Here are some of the things that happen in Pink Flamingos:
1) A man and a woman have sex while at least one live chicken is sandwiched between their writhing naked bodies. The chicken is killed during the intercourse and its blood spatters on their skin.
2) A man flashes women while a length of salami is attached to the end of his penis.
3) A shemale flashes this man back.
4) A man takes off his clothes and dilates his asshole by moving only his sphincter.
5) A man masturbates into his hand and injects his semen into an unconscious woman using a syringe.
6) Divine gives an actual blow job, seen on screen (but at least not to fruition), to the character who is supposed to play her son.
7) A man's penis is cut off.
8) Divine eats the dog shit, and you know it's real because you see the feces come out of the dog's rear and get scooped directly into Divine's mouth. It's something of a relief to realize that Divine is human enough to actually gag on the shit, though she does her best to hold the smile.
That's enough, don't you think?
So yeah, at the end of this movie, I felt utterly repulsed. I tried to analyze my sense of revulsion and decide if I was just too much of a prude, but no, I decided that it was genuine revulsion, and I didn't have to pretend I found it anything other than revolting just to appear open to what Waters was trying to do.
But then something kind of frustrating happened. John Waters himself came on in an segment that was recorded in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the film. He hosted a number of outtakes as well as the trailer that New Line showed when trying to advertise this consummately unmarketable movie.
For one, the droll cheekiness of Waters is just too much to resist. I just like the man and enjoy his outre perspective on the world. It was hard to stay mad at his movie when he was basically saying to us "You're right, this is disgusting, and it was out of a pure sense of anarchy that I even subjected you to it in the first place."
But what really got me was the theatrical trailer for Pink Flamingos. Waters starts by telling us that not a single moving image from the movie was shown, which is certainly understandable given the content of those moving images.
So what they do show is a bunch of Greenwich Village hipsters, hippies, artists and latter-day beatniks coming out of the movie with goofy grins on their faces and talking about how it was "magnificent." How it was "hilarious." How they had already seen it three times. The mere transgressiveness of it was something they obviously respected.
Am I a square for not feeling the same way about Pink Flamingos?
Obviously, those were different times. Forty years ago, no one had ever seen anything like this. Okay, even 40 years later, I hadn't seen anything like it either. But not ever having seen anything like it was an act of social disobedience, the purest expression of the counterculture that these Village twentysomethings so embraced, with Waters as the agent for that expression. It felt invigorating to them just to see something that would turn standard conventions upside down, that would essentially laugh in the face of The Man.
To me, today, in a world where we have 2 Girls 1 Cup, I guess I'm just not that impressed. So when it is just disgusting for disgusting's sake, I don't feel the boundaries of good taste being gleefully shattered. I just fixate on the low budget, the sloppy production values, the non-existent story and the hateful and malicious characters.
If that's what it is to be a square, I don't want to be hip.
Friday, April 26, 2013
It must have pained Michael Bay to make a movie with so much ... potential.
So much apparent originality. So much (intentional) humor.
So much ... pizzazz.
Could this really be the Michael Bay we know and hate?
I'll believe it when I see it, and I may actually see Pain & Gain. Why not? Even if there weren't some dream casting here (Dawyne Johnson, Mark Wahlberg, Tony Shalhoub, Ed Harris), movies about gonzo Floridians always have a special verve about them. (I'm still thinking about Spring Breakers more than you'd think I'd be thinking about a movie I saw three-and-a-half weeks ago.)
Could I secretly, maybe, want Michael Bay to prove he's worth something? I don't know, out of some unlikely affection for the original Transformers movie and The Rock?
I won't go that far. But I may go as far as to plunk down my money at the box office of a local multiplex, to watch a movie about clueless steroid freaks who get in over their heads and pull off capers that will certainly result in numerous absurdly comical deaths.
Somehow I've managed to see the trailer only once, too, which means the best parts haven't really been ruined for me through sheer saturation.
I guess there are benefits to only getting out to the theater a half-dozen times so far in 2013.
Thursday, April 25, 2013
This is the second in a monthly series in which I subject myself to famously bad movies, and see if they're as famously bad as I think they'll be.
In the wake of Roger Ebert's death, I've heard a lot of people discussing how personal the job of film critic was to him. They've talked about how Ebert made himself a part of his reviews, how he fearlessly championed movies because they were in his wheelhouse, while pillorying movies that he was never likely to appreciate in the first place.
It may seem strange to start a discussion of the flop Atlas Shrugged: Part I with a fond remembrance of Roger Ebert, but hang with me for a minute.
Although I cherished the man, I do take a slightly different approach to film criticism than he did. I take film criticism personally in the sense that I argue passionately for the merits and against the weaknesses of the films I discuss, but I do also believe that I need to remove my "self" from the proceedings as much as I can. One example of that: When I was reviewing movies for All Movie Guide, I often sought out movies where I was not part of the intended demographic, such as movies aimed at African-Americans. I thought these movies deserved to be given fair and earnest reviews, reviews that were not inevitably crippled by the fact that I was not African-American. I don't know what Ebert's approach was to reviewing such movies, but according to the philosophy of his approach, he would have been justified in reviewing these movies negatively simply because they were not aimed at him. (And let's be honest, movies aimed at black audiences don't necessarily attract the top-money talent in the industry.)
That brings us, finally, to Paul Johansson's 2011 film Atlas Shrugged: Part I. It's the first in a series that's supposed to eventually have three parts, the final installment of which will complete the adaptation of Ayn Rand's famous novel. Part 2 came out last year, and was dismissed with just as many critical guffaws as was Part 1.
The thing is, part of what most critics seemed to hate about this movie has something to do with taking the Ebert approach to how it offended their personal sensibilities. I'm not saying I liked Atlas Shrugged: Part I, but neither was I ready to laugh it out of the building.
Perhaps it's time to give some explanation why Ebert and others would not have liked this movie.
If you're not familiar with Ayn Rand, she was basically a conservative ideologue. She believed in the exceptionalism of the individual, which sounds good in the abstract. But what the idea boils down to is that greatness is derived from self-actualized human beings striving for their own rational self-interest, who will logically, as part of this pursuit, create the great inventions and ideas of our age. She believed that a society founded on the good of the community tended to be the enemy of these great specimens of humanity. Simply put, she was a hardcore capitalist who despised socialism. However, she disguised much of this through a philosophy called Objectivism, which enabled her to put more of an intellectual spin on her essential elitism.
Now, movies that have strongly conservative agendas tend to do very poorly with critics. The reasons for this are fairly simple: 1) Most critics come from the world of journalism, and most journalists tend to be liberal; 2) Most filmmakers also tend to be liberal, which means that movies made by conservatives tend to be weaker aesthetically. There's a third reason: Since movies with strongly conservative agendas are very rare, they tend to leave a person feeling "weirded out" in a way they can't entirely pinpoint. That "I just walked into the wrong lecture" feeling.
All of this is to say that Atlas Shrugged: Part I is not as bad of a film as it was made out to be. Though it did definitely leave me feeling "weirded out" from time to time.
The story, such as I'm able to explain it, involves several captains of industry as its protagonists -- the first tip-off that it's not your usual story. In most stories, the hero would be the little guy, but the heroes here are the big guys. The villains are the ones who want to regulate them. But this may not even be weirdest part.
The weirdest part is that the primary indicator of the health or illness of the U.S. economy in the not-too-distant future (2016 to be exact) is the rail industry. That's right, the economy seems to live or die on which trains are doing well and which aren't. One of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged is Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling), a bigwig at the heretofore massively profitable Taggart Transcontinental. Another hero of Atlas Shrugged is Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler), the CEO of Rearden Steel, which is manufacturing a new steel amalgam that will allow the fastest transcontinental travel ever. Everyone else in the movie -- and I mean everyone -- is fixated on the success or failure of their partnership.
The villains are those who support unionized workers, try to stifle companies that want to become monopolies, and generally want to end the fun that the rich people enjoy so much. One of the key developments in the plot is the passage of a bill that disallows any person from owning more than one company. Yes, the movie is asking you to root for the big guy against the little guy.
But this is what Rand's book is about. It's not set in 2016, but otherwise, the book sounds very similar. It presents her political perspective, which we may think is kooky, but which was responsible for a best-selling novel.
If Johansson presented Rand's ideas ineptly, then we'd be right to rake him over the coals. But to be honest, much of this movie is decently executed. Sure, it has that kind of weird feeling of promoting fringe ideas, and the corresponding weird feeling of no one famous appearing in any of the key roles -- smaller parts essayed by the likes of Jon Polito and Michael Lerner is about as close to the A list as this movie gets. (Schilling would later appear in a movie opposite Zac Efron.) Part of this, of course, is because the movie is low budget. But it doesn't look low budget, so that's a feather in Johansson's cap as well.
The worst thing about the movie is probably its lack of action. There's a lot -- a lot -- of discussion about business strategies, about schemes to increase profitability and drive one's competitors out of business. After awhile you start to think "Have they really just been talking about trains for the past hour?" The answer is yes, yes they have.
So this is not my kind of movie. The protagonists are fundamentally difficult to root for, even if they are indeed exceptional by Rand's standards. There's not a lot of action. And the politics are something with which I essentially disagree.
But is this a halfway decent adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, as far as I can tell? Yes, it is, it's halfway decent.
Perhaps I was predisposed not to hate Atlas Shrugged because I really loved the 1949 adaptation of her other most famous novel, The Fountainhead. King Vidor's film is about an exceptional architect, played by Gary Cooper, whose main struggle is with an architectural community that wants to change him or reel him in. I didn't know anything about Rand and her politics when I saw it, and this is what I wrote in my review:
"Rand's talky philosophies, which dominate the film for better or worse, invite endless contemplation about what it means to be a trendsetter and to protect the purity of one's artistic endeavors, especially in a world eager to quash those who challenge the status quo."
In other words, divorced from a liberal's bias against Rand, I found these ideas fascinating, even powerful.
I do think it's fair to meet a movie like Atlas Shrugged: Part I on its own terms -- just as I did when I saw 2016: Obama's America and decided that it was a reasonably competent expression of a case against Obama. I think the theories in that documentary are crackpot theories, but the evidence is presented in a way that makes me understand why the people who hold those opinions hold them. So, thumbs down, but not the most ridiculous movie I've ever seen.
Because of some of the ways it's slow and a bit too dense for its own good, Atlas Shrugged: Part I is definitely also a thumbs down for me. But it's not a laughable thumbs down.
And yeah, sure, all these oblique references to an unseen character named John Galt are a little ponderous, especially since there's no resolution to them. But loose threads are expected in a film that's supposed to be the first of three.
I'm even kind of curious to see how the next two parts turn out.
Okay, looking ahead to May ... the Olivia Newton John bomb Xanadu. At least it'll be plenty cheeky.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
I've become an old softie of late.
By "old" I mean I just started the six-month countdown to turning 40. And by "softie" I mean that I feel like a jerk if I give any movie less than three stars.
This is where Danny Boyle's Trance comes in. But more on that in a minute.
Star ratings were something I never used to worry about at all. I made no habit of generating them on my own. The only way I really officially recorded some kind of quantifiable reaction to the movies I saw was giving them either a thumbs up or a thumbs down, a judgment I recorded in a column on the Excel spreadsheet where I track all the movies I've ever seen. There were certainly some movies that caused me to agonize over this choice, but at least it was only a 50/50 decision.
Since starting to use Letterboxd a little over a year ago, though, I've been thinking of movies in terms of star ratings a lot more. I was primarily drawn to the site because it would allow me to easily record the dates of the movies I saw, making this effectively a "cloud backup" of all the other documents I keep related to the movies I watch. (I can reconstruct all my other lists as long as I have a way of determining which movies I've seen since my last successful backup, and this gives me that.)
Another irresistible element of the site is giving the movies star ratings. It's not that I don't resist this element on other sites, like IMDB and Netflix, but that something about the Letterboxd interface encourages me to use it here. So use it I do. And unfortunately, a side effect of that is that as I'm watching a movie, I keep a running dialogue with myself about what its star rating should be. It's a distraction I wish I didn't have, though I suspect this afflicts anyone who reviews movies professionally to a greater or lesser extent.
Another side effect is that I've had to sync the two judgments I'm making, the thumbs up/thumbs down and the star rating. That means I need to choose an objective standard for the lowest star rating that can earn a thumbs up from me.
This is the hard part. Letterboxd uses a scale of .5 stars to 5 stars -- I suppose you could give a movie zero stars, but it would look like you simply forget to enter the star rating at all. So I've chosen three stars as that logical midpoint. Three stars out of five is a movie I like somewhat, whereas 2.5 and lower is something I dislike more than I like.
The system seemed to make a certain amount of sense. It gave an equal number of star ratings to "good" movies (3, 3.5, 4, 4.5 and 5) as to "bad" movies (.5, 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5). Seems fair, right?
Except the thumbs up/thumbs down part of it is screwing with my head. Can I really give a thumbs down to a movie that does some things right? I'm comfortable giving that movie a 2.5 stars, but I'm not that comfortable giving it a thumbs down. It seems too harsh, too absolute. Yet I do fundamentally believe in the determinations I've made about which star ratings should go to which movies. Three is my minimum for a movie that earns more praise from me than scorn.
Now it's just a matter of recognizing when I'm scorning a movie more than praising it.
When I walked out of the theater after watching Danny Boyle's Trance last night, I had decided it was worth three stars and a very mild thumbs up. When my viewing companion asked me what I thought of it, I said that I liked it more than I didn't like it. "Really?" he said. "It was alright ..." He trailed off, indicating the "but."
And yes, what about that "but"?
The next 15 minutes were spent discussing things we didn't like about Trance. I will spare you those discussions, since you probably haven't seen it.
The point is, when you get out of a movie and your first instinct is to pick apart the things that didn't work, how is that a "thumbs up"?
It occurs to me my problem is this: If I can't give a movie my recommendation, it feels the same as saying it's worthless. Which is ridiculous. Ever heard of a noble failure? I apparently haven't.
Trance is the definition of a noble failure. It means to be a jumble, but it's more of a jumble than it means to be. It means to contain surprises, but some of the surprises just don't work. It means to have a distinctive visual scheme, but sometimes that scheme gave me a headache.
So yeah, a noble failure.
A 2.5-star noble failure.
What I need to get over is the idea that I am somehow damning these filmmakers to hell if I give them anything less than three stars. Even if they worked really hard and made a lot of interesting narrative choices, it can still not work. And if a movie doesn't work, the best it can be is 2.5 stars ... right?
My "good try" approach to star ratings has left me with an unfortunate imbalance on Letterboxd. I've got tons and tons of movies with 3 or 3.5 stars, and because I'm giving those out too freely, that lowers the standard for 4 or 4.5, because I want to distinguish those movies from the 3-star dreck. The imbalance leaves very few movies with 2.5 stars and lower. Especially neglected are the .5, 1 and 1.5 star ratings. Give out those, and you're basically saying the filmmaker is not only an untalented hack, but a bad person.
So, how to restore balance?
The first step is to stop awarding participation ribbons to people who made unsuccessful movies. Just because Danny Boyle is coming off two genuinely great films (Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours), it doesn't mean he's incapable of failure. And just as I would call a spade a spade, I need to start calling a failure a failure.
The generosity ends ... now.
Monday, April 22, 2013
After bitching and moaning about not wanting to pay full price for Cars several times on this blog, I finally manned up and did it this past Tuesday.
Even for just the DVD (not the BluRay), and even at Target (not some top-dollar place), it was still $19.99. That was about twice what I wanted to pay for it, especially since you can get many DVDs (especially at Target) for a quarter of that price. And not just the sucky ones.
But that twenty bucks has already bought me four hours of relative quiet this past Saturday and Sunday mornings. The movie is 116 minutes long, making it an absolute beast by normal length standards for children's entertainment. But my son watched it through to the end both mornings, only taking about five minutes to run around the house and create havoc during each viewing. Each time, I was able to get him back on task, and he watched the home stretch of his own volition.
During those two two-hour blocks, I wrote a press release for work on Saturday (that's something I'm doing these days), and Sunday's Audient post on Sunday.
If you're a parent, you know you can't put a price on getting some time to yourself -- even if you have to do it by letting a Pixar movie babysit your child. At least my son has already been watching Toy Story and Up, so it's not like I'm crossing some new line.
My only complaint now is that the video has a strange glitch that affects only one part of the movie, but it affects that part every time through. When the Disney logo comes up, and that star makes an arcing motion over the top of the Magic Kingdom, the star pauses in its path, three quarters of the way through the arc. If you want it to move onward, you have to fast-forward it. However, after that, the DVD plays normally all the way through the end of the credits.
Probably another small price to pay for my sanity.