Saturday, March 28, 2009

Just the reaction I'd hoped for

Even though recommending movies is one of my favorite things to do, it does sometimes cause some low-level anxiety.

Namely, if you end up steering the person wrong, your judgment may suffer in his/her eyes.

This is especially a problem for me, because I'm guilty of overselling movies I like. Talking about movies gets me so excited that I tend to exaggerate how good they are, or how bad other ones are. "Exaggerating" is not really the right word, because my feelings are genuine. It's just that I use such breathless terminology to describe them, I'm setting them up to fail.

It's also a problem for me because I want people to trust my recommendations. In fact, my work is predicated on that assumption.

And so it was that I was really pleased when I had my breathless terminology echoed on a recent loaner from my collection, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

First, a bit on the film. I believe this is the last new movie I chose to add to my collection, though there have been gift additions since then. This is significant, because I've been on a trend toward owning fewer movies, just for reasons of frugality. This one crossed that magic "need to own" threshold on the basis of its absolute cinematic uniqueness: It's a film about the sense of smell. I had never heard of such a thing.

The reason there haven't been more films made about smell is that it's hard to visualize the olfactory sense. Or so the conventional wisdom goes. In fact, Stanley Kubrick, who was once considered to direct an adaptation of Patrick Suskind's novel, Das Parfum, called it "unfilmable." He was just one of a dizzying array of directors who have been attached to this project, including Martin Scorsese, Julian Schnabel, Tim Burton, Milos Forman and Ridley Scott.

But Tom Tykwer didn't let that worry him. He used his unique narrative gifts to impart indelible images to the smells in the film, as well as paint a lush picture of 18th century France that's both appropriately grimy (the fish-strewn marketplaces) and appropriately opulent (the palatial mansions). The story's anti-hero is a gifted orphan who develops the world's most finely-tuned sniffer, and spends his life overwhelmed by scents, until it turns him into a murderer bent on cultivating the essence of woman as a perfume. It just plain works, and it's totally captivating. (The film also shows how perfume is made, in what I believe is another cinematic first).

A couple months ago, we had one of my wife's friends over for dinner -- he's my friend too, but I know him through my wife -- and since he's also a big film buff, I sent him on his way with Perfume. It was around this time that I also got another friend to take my copies of a second Tykwer film, Run Lola Run, and Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men. I worried less about these two than I did Perfume, considering them both to be slam dunks, while Perfume got mixed reviews.

Time passed. I waited for feedback. Oh, I did other things in the meantime, but there was always a small percentage of my brain devoted to wondering when I'd hear back from these two guys on how they liked the movies.

This past Saturday night, at a friend's birthday drinks, I finally decided to ask the second friend about Run Lola Run and Children of Men. He had yet to watch either of them, but laughed while he said it -- as though I were trying to foist two turds off on him, and it would be a real chore to watch them. (To be fair, he hadn't requested these films -- he told me he hadn't seen them, so I brought them the next time we got together). What's worse is that since this guy and I have differed on several films in the past, he's got this running joke that my taste in movies is bad. For a guy who writes film reviews for a living, this is a shot to the heart, though I always laugh it off. In order to keep the joke going, he conveniently forgets the movies we've both loved, as well as those we've both hated. He just remembers when we differ.

I tried to "Oh come on" him -- I mean, we're talking about two of the best films of the last ten years (there -- more hyperbole for you). He grudgingly acknowledged that Run Lola Run was probably good, but said he'd heard mixed things about Children of Men. I immediately demanded to know the names of the people who told him this, and their addresses. Okay, I didn't, but I wanted to.

I wouldn't say this exchange really got me down. I mean, I do expect him to eventually watch them, and would honestly be surprised if he didn't enjoy them.

But it was still pretty well-timed when the other friend contacted my wife the next day to tell her how much he liked Perfume. I didn't read what he actually wrote or hear what he actually said (I can't remember what medium he used to contact her), but she conveyed me the message that he "loved it." This put a little smile on my face.

Then he repeated the praise directly to me yesterday. He posted the following on my facebook wall:

"dude - thank you for Perfume. I loved it. Very original and provocative. Only lame thing? Dustin Hoffman's superbad Italian accent."

Yeah, he's got a point there. Dustin Hoffman doesn't belong in a period piece, especially one set in France. And he does take you out of the movie -- just a little. But as you can see from his comment, it doesn't crucially damage a person's overall perspective on the film. (Plus, he's in it for 20 minutes or less).

This may be a lot of words to devote to a simple everyday social transaction -- a person liking or not liking a recommendation -- but hey, welcome to The Audient. More than anything, I hope this post will encourage my readers to check out Perfume, one of the great treasures I've discovered in the last couple years, especially if you like art direction and production design. You might even say I'm "recommending it."

Thereby putting my cinematic reputation at risk once again ...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Casting call for "ugly girl"

When I watch a movie, and see a character who's defined by being ugly, or short, or overweight, or old, I wonder how it affects the psyche of that actor/actress.

Certain people are clearly typecast as certain things, and there's no doubt they wouldn't have the same castability if they lost that distinctive trait. But it probably doesn't make it any easier to always show up when they're casting "ugly girl."

Now, it's not the casting directors who are putting them in this position. It's a reality of making movies that you need certain types of people to play certain roles, and they're forthright about what they want in the ads. You don't want a bunch of models showing up to play "ugly girl," unless you also have a pretty healthy makeup budget. So you're basically telling all potential actors, "Hey, only come if you can 'play ugly', and are willing to be thought of that way by us." You also don't want a bunch of people showing up and getting offended at being pigeonholed, being narrowly defined by that one trait.

Of course, "ugly" has different gradations. There are any number of actors/actresses who clean up well, but can also make themselves look ugly under the right circumstances. I suppose that's what you call "TV ugly, not ugly ugly," to borrow a line from The Simpsons, in reference to poor old Moe Syzlak.

But you're still putting yourself in a position where some casting director might tell you that you were "too ugly." That probably wouldn't happen -- they'd probably dismiss you with the generic "You're not right for the part," which leaves your shortcomings up to your own imagination. I guess in this situation you'd be hoping for "You're not ugly enough," which might be the charitable (if blatantly untrue) rejection line they use if they care about whether you leave the casting office with a spring in your step.

I was trying to think of some good examples of "ugly girl" or "fat guy" or "old guy," but not many come to mind. The problem really is, if you start out as that guy, and have enough success at it to become famous, those traits tend to go into remission. No, you can't make yourself younger, but a personal trainer or plastic surgeon can help with the other two.

Okay, let's take Jennifer Grey as an example. When she was cast in Dirty Dancing, I'm sure they didn't look at her and say "Wow, that chick is ugly." Truth be told, she's not ugly at all, but she did have a rather prominent nose for a Hollywood actress, which probably put her closer to the "ugly" end of the spectrum. She was definitely not supposed to be a sexy young ingenue, but rather, a regular girl looking for her prince, in the form of Patrick Swayze and his swiveling hips.

Grey had a rhinoplasty in the early 1990s which was botched, and followed that with a successful one. It was successful in that she's a lot prettier now. But it was unsuccessful in that she is no longer recognizeable as the star of Dirty Dancing and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. There's no great certainty that an unaltered Grey would have gone on to a great career, but the altered one -- even though she was prettier -- certainly did not. In fact, Grey has publicly called the nose job the worst mistake of her career.

Sometimes, you're better off just being "ugly girl," even if it hurts in the darkest moments of sleepless nights.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Something very unusual is being released on Friday:

A straightforward action movie. With an old-school action hero.

It's a movie called 12 Rounds, and it stars professional wrestler John Cena. This is Cena's second movie, his first being the 2006 actioner The Marine. Everybody's favorite hack, Renny Harlin, is directing.

If you aren't familiar with Mr. Cena, he looks a bit like Dexter's Michael C. Hall, except inflated by a bike pump into a massive hulk.

I actually watched The Marine, and it wasn't even so I could write a quick and dirty review of it; considering the high likelihood of it being total schlock (and it was), I thought it'd be available for me to review, but lo and behold, another staffer claimed it first. No, I watched The Marine because I know a guy who appeared in it. He's in about the first 15 minutes, and he plays the buddy role. Just to show you how inept the screenplay was, he never makes another appearance. That's too bad for an additional reason other than poor plot structure -- my friend was the best part of the movie. The rest felt like a weird anachronism, something that slipped out of time from 1987.

I'm not going to try to tell you that the action movie is dead, like I once tried to tell you the thriller is dead. But I am going to say that mainstream movies haven't seen an action star like Cena in ages. Guys like Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren may still work, but their movies go straight to video. Arnold Schwarzenegger has retired to the governor's mansion in Sacramento. Sylvester Stallone is still making Rocky and Rambo movies, but they are intentional throwbacks, with a certain winking irony to them. Cena's movies, on the other hand, are basically unironic continuations of a formula that hasn't been truly viable since the mid-1990s.

It's not every day that we consider the transformation of action movies over the decades, but long gone are the days when you would expect to see a movie like Commando get green-lit. Action movies today must be much higher concept, so you almost don't think of them as action movies at all -- The Matrix is a good example. Most of today's action movies are a hybrid of action and some other genre, since an undiluted action movie seems to have a certain stigma attached to it. And even though it's as popular as ever to talk about cinematic violence, no longer are there movies where waves of faceless minions just get machine-gunned down mindlessly. Today's action movie is held to a higher standard of intelligence, relying a lot more on wire work and smartly choreographed fisticuffs than brute force.

Or it could just be a change in the profile of the action hero.

Cena is an imposing behemoth of a man, with a square head and biceps like mailboxes. That's all we wanted in the Ronald Reagan years, as we were proud of the massive hurt we wanted to put on anyone who got in our way. We took relish in our role as Goliath.

Today, things have shifted a little bit left of center. Even during eight suffocating years of George W. Bush, we didn't see old-school action heroes take back control of Hollywood. In their place emerged different types of action heroes, who possessed more street smarts or genuine intellect than bulging muscles. Today, we want the little guy, someone we can identify with, to serve as our hero. Not some steroid-infused giant whom you'd give a wide berth at the gym, on the off chance he'd take you out by grazing you with his shoulder.

The American national psyche has always been an interesting study in contrasts. As much as we purportedly celebrate capitalism and reward the strong -- until lately, anyway -- we also are huge fans of the underdog, most often in sports and in the movies. And even though Arnold Schwarzenegger had to fight dozens if not hundreds of bad guys in order to get Alyssa Milano back in Commando, he didn't really feel like the underdog, did he? Not enough for today's audiences anyway.

So what does the modern action hero look like? I'll tell you.

1) The Scrawny Guy. In the 1980s and 1990s, it would have been unheard of to cast an eccentric and fey post-adolescent like Toby Maguire as Spider-Man, but today, it doesn't even surprise us. That's because most action heroes are like him. Edward Norton as the Hulk -- his rippling muscles in American History X notwithstanding -- is another example. Even Matt Damon as Jason Bourne is basically just a scrawny guy who hit the gym enough to seem like an appropriate ass-kicker.

2) The South London Thug. The busiest action hero in 2009 is almost certainly Jason Statham, as the guy has made three Transporter movies, and his second Crank movie is about to be released. But he's not the only British heavy capable of knocking your teeth in, despite not looking like a pituitary freak. Daniel Craig is basically this guy as well, and if Vinnie Jones still made movies, you could throw him in too. One of Hollywood's biggest stars, Christian Bale, qualifies, especially given some of his recent brutish behavior. Clive Owen would almost qualify except he doesn't really do that much action, and he's a bit more cultured. These guys ruled in the 1960s and 1970s (Michael Caine was one), and they have now made their triumphant return.

3) The Kung Fu Star. With the advent of wire work came the advent of the Hong Kong fighter as action star. This shift in the tides, started by Jackie Chan, has made Jet Li a rich man. It's not like kung fu movies have never been popular before, but they haven't had great commercial viability in the U.S. until the last ten years. At least, not since the days of Bruce Lee. The real shift has been guys like Li starring in Hollywood films that would not otherwise be described as kung fu movies.

4) The Former Thespian. It's amazing how much the definition of an action movie has changed when you consider that Nicolas Cage is widely considered the world's most recognizeable action star. In truth, most of Cage's films are not straight-up action movies, but he has appeared in a number of films produced by one-time action king Jerry Bruckheimer. And while it may be a little bit of a stretch to call Cage a "thespian," he is an Oscar winner who was once highly respected by his peers. With his hangdog, everyman face, he almost fits into the "Scrawny Guy" category, and in keeping with that, he was once considered for the reboot of Superman, when Tim Burton was briefly attached.

5) The Comedian. No, not the guy in Watchmen. There are a growing number of guys who came from a history of making people laugh, and somehow found themselves in action movies, such as Will Smith, Robert Downey Jr., even Owen Wilson -- don't forget Wilson showed up in Behind Enemy Lines. I'm still waiting for the first action movie starring Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell.

6) The Chick Who Kicks Butt. The list of these gals is too long to mention, but I'll try anyway: Milla Jovovich, Kate Beckinsale, Charlize Theron, Halle Berry, Angelina Jolie, Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Garner, Natalie Portman, Geena Davis, Carrie-Anne Moss, Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Biel and Malin Akerman, to name just a few who come readily to mind. Not only has the chick action movie become possible in the last decade, but the chick who kicks butt is one of the most familiar archetypes in modern action movies -- possibly a further extension of our love of the underdog.

7) The Multi-Ethnic Brooder. Vin Diesel is the sole personification of this category, though you could add Dwayne Johnson if he brooded more. Both of these guys have sort of typical action hero credentials -- The Rock more than Diesel -- but something about their mixed ethnicity makes them a more modern, more complex entity, and quite different from the white Europeans with poor English skills who dominated in the past.

8) The Cartoon Character. A prediction more than anything else: After Kung Fu Panda, animals who kick butt are going to be all the rage. As long as it's PG-rated butt.

There may be other categories or sub-categories, but this more or less covers it.

So where does Cena fit in? To whom does he appeal? That remains to be seen. This weekend's box office will tell us something. My prediction is that 12 Rounds will do a lot better than The Marine, which scraped up only $18 million back in 2006. For one, they're putting more money into advertising this one, and I'm guessing it'll put together at least $30-$40 million by the time all is said and done, on increased awareness alone. However, that's still not a great take for an action movie, at least by the old standards.

There's sure to be one demographic to whom Cena will appeal: those same people who voted in Reagan, and gave us the first wave of modern action heroes. Yep, there's something fringe about Cena, and I'm proud to say that "fringe" now equals "Republican." The same rednecks who watch Cena crack heads in the wrestling ring will undoubtedly want to watch him crack heads on film.

Whether they'll be enough to earn a third action film for this throwback star has yet to be determined.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Oh, Slumdog!

The Producers may have seemed like just the latest in a long line of films trying to capitalize on the renewed viability of the movie musical. But it was actually a unique cinematic creation: As far as I'm aware, it was the first story to start out as a film, become adapted as a Broadway musical, and then become re-adapted as a film again. (Others may qualify, but they don't jump to mind -- feel free to set me straight in the comments section). As of last weekend, I've now seen all three incarnations.

Mel Brooks directed the original Producers in 1968, and it was considered by some to be the funniest film ever made. (I disagree, and in fact I prefer Blazing Saddles among Brooks' own work, but everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion). Then in 2001 Brooks had the masterstroke of bringing it to Broadway, and with a bunch of catchy new songs, it became one of Broadway's most popular modern phenomena. When I saw it at LA's Pantages Theater in 2003, it featured Jason Alexander as Max Bialystock and Martin Short as Leo Bloom, and I quite enjoyed it. But when Brooks tapped Susan Stroman to direct a 2005 film adaptation, they got original Broadway cast members Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick back together to reprise their roles. I found this version just a little flat, but certainly enjoyable enough. Uma Thuman is the real standout as Ulla.

A couple years later, Hairspray followed in The Producers' footsteps. John Waters' 1988 film became a popular Broadway musical in 2002, and a film again in 2007, directed by Adam Shankman and featuring John Travolta in drag. In this case I've only seen the first of the three.

So it got me wondering what other properties we might one day see join this fraternity, properties that become different enough with the inclusion of songs that they'd warrant another run at the big screen. Since Broadway has fallen on hard times with the economy, none of these may ever transpire. But this post is more about supposing than actually predicting. If any of these films is already in production, I know nothing about it.

1) Footloose. Herbert Ross' 1984 audience favorite ran on Broadway as a musical between 1998 and 2000. Since it's been nine years and there's no sign of a movie, this probably won't happen, but can't you just see it being remade as a vehicle for Zac Efron?

2) The Full Monty. Peter Cattaneo's 1997 Oscar nominee ran on Broadway from late 2000 for 770 performances. The end of its run is a little fresher in people's minds, but we still probably won't see this movie materialize. If it did, I could see Hugh Jackman starring, especially if the object was to drive the female fans (and, more to the point, the gay male fans) crazy.

3) Legally Blonde. Robert Luketic directed the 2001 film, and it made it to Broadway in the fall of 2007, running for only a year-and-a-half, but then launching a national tour. If Kristen Chenowith is too old to play Elle Woods, maybe someone like Amanda Seyfried could step in, after starring in the film version of Mamma Mia!

Okay, now on to the movies that haven't made it to the stage yet ...

1) Slumdog Millionaire. Last year's best picture winner has got "Broadway musical" written all over it. They'd probably have to write some songs with English lyrics, but some of A.R. Rahmen's score could stay. They could wheel the Millionaire set in and out, and the set designers would have a super fun time creating an Oliver! version of the Mumbai slums. When it inevably becomes a movie again, maybe Kal Penn could star. Okay, he was the only prominent and relatively young Indian actor I could think of.

2) The Pirates of the Caribbean. Pirates have a great tradition in Gilbert & Sullivan, but haven't been seen on the Broadway stage lately. Isn't it about time? You could have ships coming at each other from opposite sides of the stage, kind of like the pirate show outside the Treasure Island casino in Las Vegas, and there'd be plenty of opportunity to sing about the cruelties of fate. Maybe Lion King creator Julie Taymor could supervise the creation of the skeletonized soldiers. Johnny Depp can sing alright, but he's probably got better things to do, so Neil Patrick Harris takes the role of Captain Jack Sparrow in the new film version. I don't know, why not?

3) The House Bunny. Okay, I'm only suggesting this because it has that Legally Blonde feel to it, though it's a lot better than Legally Blonde. But the Playboy mansion aspect of it gives it some of the cheekiness that Broadway audiences love. Besides, you might get a line a mile long of actors wanting to play Hugh Hefner. As for the ousted Playboy bunny herself ... well, I guess whoever doesn't get cast as Elle Woods can take up the role.

That's all I got ... please return to your regularly scheduled Saturday.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The inadequacy of absolutes

Before we start, a little business: Do you like my unwittingly appropriate choice of a movie poster for the first day of spring?

Okay ...

If asked which critics most influence my work, I would probably have to produce a pedestrian answer like Siskel & Ebert. They were certainly the first film critics I was consciously aware of, though I may only be saying that because they endured into my adulthood. And, well, they're the most famous critics in the world (R.I.P., Gene).

But the truth is, it's probably a good answer, because I don't regularly read the work of many other critics. Answers 2 and 3 would be Owen Gleiberman/Lisa Schwartzbaum (the long-standing Entertainment Weekly critics) and in the last few years, Joe Morgenstern (the Wall Street Journal film critic, whose work I hear on NPR).

I can tell you that I've grudgingly adopted Siskel & Ebert's black and white, thumbs up/thumbs down rating system. It comes into play in exactly one place, and it's another one of my lists: the Excel spreadsheet that contains what I believe to be a complete listing of all the films I've ever seen. (Which stands at 2,702 as of this writing.)

Awhile back, I decided it would be an interesting exercise to figure out what percentage of my collection I actually liked. So I went through the whole list and labeled each film "up" or "down," then did the math. I continue to update it ever time I see something new, and the Excel formula adjusts one way or another by a couple hundredths of a percent.

As of this very moment, I've liked 64.17% of the movies I've seen, which I honestly find a little concerning. Since I see a fair amount of crap, I thought it might be lower. Then again, maybe most people are closer to the 80th percentile, since they see only things they think they'll like.

Needless to say, there have been some tough choices. It's a pretty rigid standard, on the order of pass/fail, stop/go and day/night, and Siskel & Ebert regularly admitted that they sometimes felt imprisoned by their own system. There's no room for hemming and hawing. This system is especially hard on such things as noble failures, and well-made movies that are totally uninspired. You have to choose one category or the other.

And so it was that I came face to face with a prototypical example of this struggle earlier this week, when I saw How Green Was My Valley.

If you aren't familiar with this film, that's not entirely surprising, since it came out 68 years ago. But you probably should be, because it won best picture that year. That's right, 1941, the same year Orson Welles made a little film called Citizen Kane. A little film that is widely considered the best film of all time, which wasn't even considered the best of the year it was released. Of course, that's hardly the only evidence that the Academy's judgments are not sacrosanct, but I bet they'd get it right if they had it to do over.

Since I love Citizen Kane as much as the next guy, How Green Was My Valley already had a demerit against it before I even popped in the DVD. Actually, it had two, because an ex-girlfriend of mine once dubbed it How Long Was My Movie. Swish.

I was pleased to discover that it's not terribly long in actual minutes, a reasonable 118. But its undeniable length comes from its turgid storytelling. I found it next to impossible to care about the characters, especially since I couldn't really figure out who the main character was supposed to be. Technically it's the cherubic little moppet who is telling the story as an adult in flashback, but this kid is so blandly cherubic and blandly moppet-like that I just couldn't care about him. The rest of the characters are family members and other townspeople in a Welsh coal-mining town in (I believe) the early 20th century. Walter Pidgeon playing the reverend is probably the film's most famous star, but I didn't care that much about his frustrated would-be romance with bland Maureen O'Hara either. In fact, the only thing I'm really sure I did like was the village where it was shot. Quite picturesque.

So I don't like this film ... right?

For me it's not that simple. This is a movie directed by John Ford, one of the great directors of all time. And it is an Oscar winner.

That doesn't mean I've given every best picture winner a thumbs up -- I'm looking at you, Crash. But it does mean that I feel like I might have to apply a different standard to a film made 68 years ago. I have to recognize that viewing it through a 2009 lens will tell me little about how it affected audiences at the time, how it would have affected me had I been in one of those audiences. I would submit that if you really wanted to know how to contextualize it, you'd have to watch 20 other prominent movies from 1941 and see how it stacks up against them. Then you could grade them on a scale. Because you can't just say "I don't like any films from 1941," especially since one of them was Citizen Kane. Plus, it would mean you "didn't know your history." There's nothing less interesting to me than a film critic whose only references are 1980 onward.

But comparing it with Citizen Kane isn't really fair, either, because Orson Welles was doing things in that movie that nobody had any business doing in 1941. His film had as many advancements in its way as D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation did in 1915. (And speaking of films it's complicated to render a judgment on -- how about one of the most important cinematic advances of all time, in which Klansmen are the heroes of the movie?) Just because How Green Was My Valley didn't break any new technical ground doesn't mean it was a bad movie.

However, just because it was made in 1941 doesn't mean it was a good movie, either. In other words, just because I'm worried I didn't completely "get it," does that mean I am obliged to praise it more than it deserves? One of the things I consistently rail against is when critics over-praise a movie out of fears of intellectual inferiority. Some critics think that if they were confused by a movie, they have to say it was brilliant, so people don't question their ability to intellectually grapple with a challenging film. When really, that film may just be bad.

As usual, I don't really have an answer, I just want to put it out there for your consideration.

And I'd be interested to know, if you will do me the honor of commenting, whether there are prominent examples of this in your own viewing past -- films you knew you were supposed to like, and simply couldn't justify saying were bad, even if you didn't really like them.

For the record, I did give a thumbs up to How Green Was My Valley on my movie list.

Must have been that pretty village.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Numbers must always mean something

Warning: The following post exposes me as a huge nerd, and possibly a person in need of getting his head checked. At least it is meant for whimsical entertainment purposes only.

I'm a numerologist. I should just go ahead and say it. I'm a person who likes numbers and what they may signify, even when they don't signify anything.

This is an apparent contradiction for people who know me, because they know I am primarily, publicly, a man of words. But I did do better on the math portion of my SATs than the verbal, and if you're looking for an explanation for my ability to excel in the world of information technology, then my love of numbers probably has something to do with it.

It also helps explain why I love baseball, the most statistics-driven sport, and especially why I love lists. Where an item is ranked on a list means something to me beyond the surface level.

I also love dates. I remember insignificant anniversaries, and I have a subconscious auditor continually running a check for when a friend's birthday is coming up.

And so it is that I get a little geeked for movies like Knowing, which opens tomorrow. It's all about numbers and dates.

Now, I should say I am not geeked for Knowing in particular. In fact, given that Nicolas Cage is the star, I expect it to file right in there with all the other interchangeable high-concept thrillers he's made during the last, oh, 15 years. Next, anyone? And as for this type of movie -- well, The Number 23 should have steered me clear of them for good.

But I did think the release of Knowing provided a good opportunity for letting you in on the latest obsessive list I've been keeping, because it's just the kind of thing that the hero in a good numerology thriller would do. Only, the fate of the world isn't in the balance. But my numerological list is just as ridiculous as theirs, and if you saw The Number 23, you know it can get pretty ridiculous.

As I've mentioned before, I maintain a number of lists related to the movies I've seen. I won't single them out here -- I'm sure they will come up at other times, if they haven't already. But it had been awhile since I'd started keeping a new type of list -- that is, until about two months ago. This latest is probably the most absurd list I keep, but that doesn't make it any less fun to update.

It's a list of the dates I've seen certain movies -- by date. I already had a list of the order of the movies I see, which includes their dates. But I didn't have a list like the following, and let's use today as an example:

March 19: Roger Dodger (2003), The Emperor and the Assassin (2008)

I used the movie order list to help come up with this. It was a little tedious, but it was fun.

You see, I find some inherent interest -- as insane as it undoubtedly sounds -- in whether there are (certainly coincidental) similarities between movies I saw on the same day in different years. The same year doesn't count, because I might have been watching movies according to a theme that day. Or at least you couldn't say it was totally random. If I were counting movies seen on the same day in the same year, you could argue that I skewed the results to be more interesting. And in fact, if you are really skeptical of me, you could say that I will plan viewings in the future to be interesting, now that this list exists. Which is why I'm telling you about it now -- and I promise, never again. (Maybe.)

Now, I should tell you, I've only kept the movie order list since March of 2002. So the similarities I did end up finding -- some of which are really pretty funny, most of which are just stupid -- date back only to 2002.

Without further ado, I will adopt the persona of Walter Sparrow, otherwise known as Fingerling, otherwise known as Jim Carrey's character(s) from The Number 23. You'll get the dates, the movies, and the frantic conspiracy theory on why they're related. Understand the rules? Okay, there's one more: Films seen on that date that don't fit into the "pattern" have been excluded. Believe me, you'll thank me. But not as much as you'll thank me for the warning at the beginning of this piece, which may have allowed some of you with less time on your hands to skip this post altogether.

Okay, let's begin.

January 5: Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (2004), With a Friend Like Harry ... (2008). A man named Harry is coming to kill me!

January 31: Bandits (2004), Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2006). Those Enron guys were bandits alright! (Eh, not so much).

February 8: Lucky Break (2003), Miracle (2004). A higher power is coming to save me!

Feburay 23: The Last Temptation of Christ (2004), The Devil's Rejects (2006). God vs. the Devil!

March 7: Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (2002) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2008). Long titles! Names! Colons!

March 9: The Time Machine (2002), Deja Vu (2007). I know I've seen this somewhere before!

March 23: Jackpot (2002), The Bank Job (2008). Money money money!

April 3: Sin City (2005), 300 (2007). Both movies are from source material by Frank Miller! (I do think this one is genuinely weird.)

April 14: Sorry, Haters (2007), P.S. I Love You (2008). Love vs. Hate!

April 18: Big Trouble (2002), Anger Management (2003), Kill Bill, Volume II (2004). If you don't manage your anger, there will be big trouble, possibly resulting in killing! Of Bill! Volume II!

May 12: Super Size Me (2004), 28 Weeks Later (2007). Morgan Spurlock wanted to see how unhealthy McDonald's would make him 28 days later! And 28 Weeks Later is a sequel to that!

July 7: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), Transformers (2007). Machines are coming to get us!

July 19: Eight Legged Freaks (2002), Freaks (2006). Freaks are coming to get us! (Note: These are the only two films I've ever seen with the world "freaks" in the title. You just blew your own mind.)

August 4: Duplex (2005), Monster House (2006). Giant houses are coming to get us!

August 11: Dead Ringers (2006), The Number 23 (2007). Watch out for evil twins! (Plus, I had to get The Number 23 in there again.)

August 21: Still We Believe: The Boston Red Sox Movie (2004), The Bostonians (2005). Boston is coming to drag me back home! (Note: These are the only two films I've ever seen with the word "Boston" in the title -- and I'm from Boston. Mind blow #2.)

August 29: Hero (2004), World Trade Center (2006). Self-explanatory!

September 4: Stargate (2004), Across the Universe (2008). A stargate helps you get across the universe!

September 30: Thirteen (2003), 21 (2008). What did I tell you -- it's all about NUMBERS!!

November 8: Love's Labour's Lost (2002), How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003). Beware lost love!

November 12: The Doors (2005), Last Holiday (2006), Last Days (2008). Impending death! For Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Queen Latifah's woman with a terminal illness! How long will they "last"?!

November 22: Elf (2003), The Queen (2006). Beware characters in fantasy adventures!

December 26: Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), Fun with Dick and Jane (2005). Beware Jim Carrey!

And Jim Carrey brings us pretty much back to where we started.

I sincerely apologize for wasting so much of your time.

But don't say I didn't warn you, like a good numerological conspiracy theorist should.

Several times.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The artistic cachet of tightie-whities

Let's face it: Most guys you know wear boxers.

I'm not going to say it's a universal thing. If that were true, you wouldn't be able to find those three-packs of briefs in your local Marshalls. There are still those activities that require extra support, like being an athlete, or being in the military.

But there are other colors of briefs that can serve that purpose equally well.

And that's why in the last couple decades, the "tightie-whitie" itself has been virtually purged from the extended wardrobe of most self-respecting men. Not only are they considered gross in the same way that Speedos are considered gross -- they call Speedos "grape smugglers" for a reason -- but their white color makes them especially incapable of disguising the occasional errant stain. I'll just leave it at that.

I'd argue that popular culture is in part to blame for people turning on tightie-whities. Any loser who gets a wedgie on TV or in the movies always has tightie-whities. Any redneck drunk drowning in a pool of his own vomit is always wearing them. Anybody you're supposed to laugh at or mock or ridicule is distinguished by his white underwear.

But popular culture's portrayal of reality has yet to fully reflect the change it helped inspire, and this is because tightie-whities have oodles of artistic cachet.

You wouldn't think so, but just think about it for a minute -- it's that single article of clothing that immediately indicates that someone is a schlub. In fact, such a schlub that he hasn't even switched to boxers yet, like all the other schlubs trying to move up in the world. You might call him an uber-schlub. It's the ultimate in "real," the imagined "real" if not the "real real" -- it has a seeming genuineness, a seeming realness. You might call it uber-real. It's a stripping away of all a person's glitz, all his defenses.

I've pondered this issue before, but it occurred to me again last week as I was revisiting Margot at the Wedding in order to review it. Three different male characters in this movie are shown wearing tightie-whities, and that's not just because Noah Baumbach is obsessed with making it seem like his movies were made in the 1970s.

The first to be spied in the offending undergarment is Jack Black's Malcolm. He's examining himself in the mirror in only tightie-whities, with the back pulled down slightly to reveal half of a butt crack. (I can't remember if he's wearing socks in this scene, but that would complete the image, wouldn't it?) He's obsessing over the fact that his testicles hang lower than the rest of him. The fact that his future wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) shares the room with him suggests that there's no vanity whatsoever in his sartorial choice. Just practicality. In fact, you could almost call it anti-vanity.

The next time the underwear appears is when Nicole Kidman is spying on their redneck neighbors. She's peering through the window and sees the mother and father engaged in some kind of unholy activity involving the carcass of a pig wrapped in a clear plastic sheet. In truth they're only preparing it for a BBQ, but the activity reaches an extra level of unholiness because the man is wearing tightie-whities -- and nothing else. As I'm watching this, I'm starting to develop a theory about Baumbach's perspective here, because carrying the dead weight of a pig carcass should at least involve a pair of pants, and quite possibly a sturdy pair of shoes.

Finally, in a far more innocent context, Kidman's son Claude (the androgynous Zane Pais) removes his pants while they're staying in a hotel room late in the movie. He's an early teenager, so there's nothing untoward here -- just a boy changing in front of his mother. Here I guess the choice of underpants is meant to remind us how young this boy really is -- something to ponder when you consider the emotional warfare he's witnessed, and been victimized by.

I don't think that Baumbach is making an overt statement by showing three male characters in white grape smugglers, but it would be a mistake to assume his wardrobe choice has no meaning either. Statistically speaking, at least one of them should have been in boxers, most likely the teenager, since teenagers are always conscious of what they need to do to fit in. Jack Black's character is a bit more quirky (he leaves an ironic moustache as a joke after he shaves his beard), and the neighbor is a kook anyway, but you'd think one of them would be boxer friendly as well.

The problem is, you can't communicate angst with boxer shorts.

It's as simple as that. Boxer shorts are way too tidy and socially presentable to express the inner torment of a character's soul.

Think about it. Tightie-whities are used precisely because they make the character more naked than he'd be if he were actually nude. They reveal all his flaws and imperfections. Why do you think neither Homer Simpson nor Peter Griffin has ever donned a single pair of boxers? Tightie-whities are the perfect way to underscore how relentlessly human they are, how much they hang out here, and sag there. To paraphrase Rob Zombie, they make you More Naked Than Naked.

I do find it slightly artificial, I guess. But it's one of those bits of artifice I feel I should accept, like how people don't say goodbye when they hang up the phone, or how they always find a parking spot without any trouble, or how they always have exact change. Each of these are narrative shortcuts to keep things moving. Tightie-whities are a narrative shortcut for saying "Here is a man who is emotionally exposed and possibly a bit sad."

Because the reverse is never true, is it? You never see tightie-whities on a stud in the movies. Studs always wear boxers, or at least briefs of a different color. Just try to imagine Clive Owen or Daniel Craig in a pair of tightie-whities. You can't, can you? You'd say "What's wrong with that guy that he's wearing tightie-whities?" You're a regular consumer of entertainment, so you know what this underwear is meant to signify. And Clive and Daniel ain't it.

Plus, it would be too sexual. Tightie-whities leave as little to the imagination as anything a man can wear, and if the man is really attractive, it confronts the heterosexual men in the audience too directly. This may be a totally subliminal thing, but it's got to be a reason you don't see matinee idols in white underwear. If they're in boxers, they're decent, and heterosexual men don't have to worry. Whereas, the men who do wear the tightie-whities -- say, Jack Black -- don't threaten us because we don't have a latent attraction to them anyway. They are, as described above, schlubs.

Please join me next week when I discuss the psychological symbolism of dressing an actress in granny panties.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Retired chimp actors

Over the weekend, I was listening to a rebroadcast of This American Life on NPR -- the original aired a week earlier -- and one of the final segments was on government-funded retirement homes for chimp actors.

Okay, I'm listening.

In fact, it was what NPR proudly trumpets as a "driveway moment." In other words, even though you've gotten home, you sit in your car listening to the story until it's over.

Now, these retirement homes are not just for chimp actors. They're also for circus performers and lab animals, among other types of domesticated chimpanzees. (I learned they did a lot of testing of AIDS cures on chimps until they learned that chimps can't get the human form of AIDS). But of course on this blog I'm interested in the actors.

It turns out that chimpanzees are really only useful as entertainers for the first three to five years of their lives. After that, they become too competitive and aggressive, and they leave too many banana peels on the sets. But they still have to go somewhere after they retire from acting, to live out the remaining, oh, 60 years of their lives.

The program discussed the interesting reality that as humans, we consider these creatures too close to ourselves to euthanize them -- even though we show no qualms about this with any other species on the planet. But once they become domesticated, they're way too set in their ways to be returned to the wild. They rely on humans to provide them three meals a day, and a lot of them have even become addicted to television -- whether they understand it or not.

And so it is that the government has funded a retirement home for these animals, located somewhere in Alabama or Louisiana. Apparently the accommodations differ from wilder, jungle-like habitats to what they called "Bob Hope retirement homes." And then there are those in between, where they go and swing around the trees during the day, then come in at night for some grub and a little telly, followed by bed in an actual bed.

I say, what a great life. Hang around with Clint Eastwood for a couple years, then go kick it in the chimp retirement home for 60 years? It could be worse.

Don't let SAG hear about this.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Proof of life

I was over at a friend's house the other day, and as we were flipping through channels, The Golden Compass caught our attention. He hadn't seen it, but he doesn't care if he starts watching in the middle of a movie, nor whether we talk over it. I hate coming in in the middle -- a topic for another time -- but since I'd already seen this one, I wasn't worried. Plus, it looked terrific in HD.

I really liked The Golden Compass, not only for the slick visuals, the world it created, and the performance of the actress playing Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards, watch your back Dakota Fanning), but also because Christians tried to organize a ban of it. Philip Pullman, the writer of the His Dark Materials series on which the film is based, is an admitted atheist, and I understand his books are overtly critical of the church. Much of that was toned down for the movie, but one controversial aspect still remained: Each human character is symbiotically joined to an animal incarnation of his/her soul, referred to as a "demon," which follows him/her around -- a monkey, a bird, a cat, a dog, and so forth. "Demon" is one of those words that sends Christians running down to their local megachurch to donate, and any movie that pisses off Christians is fine by me.

As I was watching, I was also reminded of the following:

Man, a lot of people die in this movie.

In fact, you could argue that The Golden Compass may have had one of the highest body counts of any movie in 2007. There's not much actual gore -- after all, the intention was for children to be one of its largest audiences -- but what does happen is that every time a human character is killed, his/her demon disappears in a puff of glimmering pixie dust.

This made some of the battles damn cool to watch. As a human hit the dirt -- or in this case, the snow -- his/her demon went "poof," adding an extra visual dimension to the sometimes-confusing melee of the grand-scale battle sequence. Plus, it provided another thing you don't usually get -- indisputable visual proof that the person was not just injured, but killed.

For most kids, the siginficance of this probably went straight over their heads. But for a discerning audient like me, it made me think long and hard about portrayals of violence and death in movies intended for children. Not because I'm a prude, but just because I like to think about things, in case you hadn't noticed.

Now, violence is an inescapable part of children's programming. Just think back to the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Wile E. Coyote was getting crushed, pancaked, exploded, or dropped a 1/2 mile off a cliff in every scene. However, since he was back in the next scene, no worse for the wear, you didn't have to worry too much about all those traumas that should have killed him.

The other prominent example from my childhood, which I often think back to, is the G.I. Joe cartoons I watched. The very essence of the show was armed combat between a paramilitary unit and the evil minions of Cobra. But whenever a fighter jet would get shot down, they always held the shot long enough to show two parachutes popping safely out of the explosion. And though a huge amount of gunfire -- portrayed as laser blasts so it was easier to see -- was exchanged between the foot soldiers, no one ever got fatally hit. Every battle ended with massive lines of captured Cobra soldiers walking to their imprisonment with their hands on their heads.

You might call all of this "proof of life."

And it's more than a little bit dishonest. How can no one be killed in the entire history of the skirmish between G.I. Joe and Cobra? It just doesn't compute, though it's definitely a lot more cheery.

In the case of proof of life, it's not enough for it to be uncertain death. If a person looks like he or she could have gotten killed, you can't just leave it ambiguous. You actually have to show the person's okay if you want to maintain a certain standard of child-appropriateness.

This happens in TV commercials all the time. Let's say somebody flies a jetpack into electrical wires after drinking the soda being advertised. You might cut away to your product shot, but you better bet the ad won't end without that guy stumbling back toward his friends wearing a goofy expression -- maybe with a blackened face, tattered clothes and electrocuted hair, but always composed enough to show he hasn't lost his good humor.

A couple days after half-watching about 1/3 of The Golden Compass, I was watching another action-adventure intended for children: the awkwardly named kid-spy movie Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker. (This one was strictly for work, I'll have you know). And here too I noticed a lot of instances of relatively certain death. The character played by Ewan McGregor shoots a pursuing bad guy on a motorcycle, and all you see in the next shot is the guy's empty boot and crashed cycle. The assassin played by Damian Lewis later plugs a guy driving a forklift, and the sound of his head depressing the horn tells you that guy ain't breathing again. At the very end of the movie -- if you for some reason want to see this movie, you can skip ahead -- the villain played by Mickey Rourke falls off of a building. The fact that Mickey Rourke is in the movie might seem to disqualify it from being targeted at kids, but it is about a 14-year-old secret agent, so I'll let you decide.

It's tempting to assume that this is a recent phenomenon, this increased violence in children's movies. The reactionary stance is, of course, that video game violence has become so prominent, and that kids love that stuff so much, that you have to up the ante in films and TV just to have any hope of holding their attention.

But as I thought harder, I realized it's probably always been this way. The first film I ever saw was an extremely violent movie called Star Wars. Maybe you've heard of it. You don't think of Star Wars as violent, but let's consider some of what happens. (Warning, spoilers to follow -- ha ha).

- The entire planet of Alderaan is destroyed by the Death Star, killing presumably millions if not billions of people
- Darth Vader strangles an inferior officer to death, and kills several others with just the power of the Force
- Aunt Baru and Uncle Owen are massacred by storm troopers, and you see their smoking skeletal remains
- Han Solo remorselessly pops a cap in Greedo's ass
- Walrus Man (yep, that was the name of the action figure) gets his arm sliced off by Ben Kenobi's lightsaber
- Kenobi is killed by a lightsaber strike to his midsection, which causes him to vanish
- Numerous rebel troops and storm troopers are gunned down in laser battles
- Dozens of tie fighters and X-wing fighters explode, killing the pilot
- The Death Star explodes, killing the presumably thousands if not tens of thousands of people on board

Yet I walked out of that theater in 1977, when I was less than four years old, with a grin a mile wide on my face.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Confronting what you once heard

I've been wanting to see Anton Corbijn's Control since 1991. Which is funny, because it didn't actually exist until 2007.

The fall of 1991, my freshman year in college, was when I first learned about Ian Curtis, the lead singer of the British new wave (or is it post-punk?) band Joy Division. Control is his biopic.

I was DJing a radio show with a classmate named Todd. No sooner had he introduced Joy Division to me than I learned that Curtis had hanged himself, on the eve of the band's first North American tour in 1980. But it wasn't just that he'd hanged himself. This is what I remember Todd telling me:

"He glued his hands to the side of his head first. He also rigged up the noose so that it had a blade in it. Therefore, when they found him, he was decapitated with his head in his hands."

I guess I was too young and naive back then to consider the logistical flaws in this way of killing yourself. But that gruesome image definitely imprinted itself in my brain. Especially since Joy Division's music had such melancholy to it. Thinking that the guy who wrote, or at least sang, those songs was suicidal gave the music an extra layer of profundity.

So when I finally saw Control on Monday night, it was with the hope of some kind of resolution to this persistent image I had of the probably-apocryphal way that Ian Curtis died. True enough, it didn't happen that way, and Curtis' story was actually a lot more tragic than I'd thought. Any suicide is a tragedy, but part of me assumed Curtis had some kind of narcissistic idea of being made immortal by the very rock-n-roll act of killing yourself.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only was the man filled with self-loathing for the way he'd toyed with the emotions of two women (one of whom was his wife and the mother of their newborn), but he was also an epileptic whose fits were getting worse. After a failed attempt to get back together with his wife and a particularly violent fit that left him passed out on the floor all night, he got to his feet, eyeballed some kind of apparatus in his kitchen with rope and pulleys, and impulsively hanged himself. Even though it was an unpremeditated act, it was executed effectively enough to kill him. I've given away the ending of the movie, but it's historical record anyway.

The larger idea Control made me think of is how we all harbor ideas and images that came to us through hearsay or rumor, some of which undoubtedly happened the way they were described. Because this is a film blog, I've chosen to explore the larger issues of spooky things that I'd heard about from certain films. Films which I therefore was excited -- and a little scared -- to see, just as I was excited and a little scared to see Control.

The most obvious one that jumps to mind is The Exorcist. I learned about The Exorcist possibly as many as 15 years before I saw it. But it wasn't any kids in the schoolyard who told me about it; it was my mom. That's right, when I was way too young to be hearing these things, I learned about the projectile vomit, the head spinning around a full rotation, and the devil writing the words "HELP ME" in the stomach of poor young Regan MacNeil. In fact, I remember my mother telling a friend and me about it as we were about to go to sleep, me in the upper bunk, he in the lower. I know this makes my mother sound sadistic, but she isn't. Maybe it was just her ill-considered idea of a spooky bedtime story.

Then there was the time Mom told us (it was the same friend again) about Jaws. I imagine the circumstances -- a sleepover at my house -- being the same as well, but maybe I'm just blending the two incidents in my head. I don't remember the details of what she told us the way I remember the Exorcist details, though I'm pretty sure she mentioned a dead body floating in the water. What I do remember is that she told us that the older brother of one of our friends had to leave the theater. She probably just said "leave the theater," but the way I remember it, it was "leave the theater to throw up."

Finally, there was Dario Argento's Suspiria, a movie I became aware of much more recently. I remember the circumstances here as well. I was watching the short-lived game show Beat the Geeks on Comedy Central. One of the geeks on this week's panel was a self-proclaimed expert in horror films, and he was naturally asked what the scariest film of all time was. Without hesitation, he produced the title Suspiria. Either from what he said or sometime later, I learned that the first 15 minutes of Suspiria are supposed to be the scariest ever committed to film. My reverential fear of this film increased in leaps and bounds until I finally saw it in, I think, 2005. I won't tell you what happens. The fact that I knew those 15 minutes were supposed to be so scary, but not how it would happen, intensified my enjoyment manyfold. And if you haven't seen it, it'll do that for you too.

Ultimately, none of these films was quite as twisted as my mind imagined them to be, though all are terrific films. And so I think there is some value to allowing some things to never be confronted, and just to remain as fragmented scary notions in your brain.

And that's why I will try to preserve Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce as the scariest film I have never seen. From what I understand, it's something about space vampires -- I'm sure the synopsis could give me a more accurate description if I bothered to look it up. And this one no one told me anything about. I simply saw the trailer for it, back when I was about 12, and I don't ever remember being so scared of anything as I was by the potential these images carried with them.

I hear it's terrible anyway.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Celebrating 1,000

Those of us who keep lists -- especially lists that accrue over time -- tend to like recognizing milestones on those lists.

And so it is that I proudly announce: Yesterday, I submitted my 1,000th piece to the film website that employs me as a freelancer.

It was a review of Taxi to the Dark Side, the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary examining abuse of suspected terrorists by the U.S. military. It was directed by Alex Gibney, who also directed Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. I don't consider that title to have any metaphorical significance. At least, I hope the other side of 1,000 reviews is not the "dark side" of my career.

I'm a bit numerologically superstitious when it comes to such milestones, so I didn't want to plan for a certain movie to be my 1,000th reviewed. I had hoped to have a big list to choose from, and just review the first film that clamored to the front of my brain on that particular day. (I did specifically select the 2,000th movie I ever saw, deciding to recognize that 2005 milestone by finally seeing Casablanca, the movie I was most embarrassed about never having seen).

But when it came to be yesterday afternoon, and I hadn't received approval on my latest list of requested titles, and I had an itch to write something, Taxi to the Dark Side was one of my only choices among approved titles that I'd seen, but not yet reviewed. So Taxi to the Dark Side it was.

(My intention is not to speak ill of this excellent film -- only to say that I did the math a couple days ago and knew it would probably be the choice, since I was finding a hard time figuring out what I wanted to say, and had been putting it off. Funny, when I actually got going I wrote it rather quickly).

With most milestones, there is also some kind of asterisk. Or two. Or three.

* Not all 1,000 pieces I've written are reviews. To be exact, I've written 948 reviews, 51 plot synopses (which express no opinion on the quality of the film), and 1 DVD review (which focus more on the extras than the film itself). Why only one DVD review? Well, it happened to have been the last piece I wrote for the site in October 2003, before their freelance budget was slashed until the beginning of 2005, when I started back up with them. I'm pretty sure it was just a coincidence, and now they've shifted focus back to regular reviews.

** Before the hiatus that began in 2003, I wrote 20-30 short biographies of actors and directors, which paid by the word rather than by the submission. Those are not included here. While I enjoyed those to some degree, they had the problem of never really working as enduring pieces, because you had to keep on updating them with new projects to stay current. I don't really know how they handle that part of the site nowadays, nor do I really worry about it. I should say I've also written three feature-length commentaries that appeared on the front page of the site. That was nice just to switch things up.

*** Approximately 30 of my reviews are not currently on the site. In most of these cases, it's because one of the staffers didn't agree with my viewpoint, or really burned with their own desire to review this particular film. Two reviews I submitted a good eight months ago have never appeared; I've asked about it multiple times, but they are still lost in the ether. I've even volunteered to resubmit them, to no avail. And then there's one film -- John Badham's Point of No Return (1991) -- where the review just disappeared, but was never replaced with another writer's work. My theory is that my review was so negative that they decided just to pull it altogether, though it's hardly the most negative review I've ever written.

But otherwise, yeah! It's 1,000.

I had the forethought to start keeping this list when I began writing for them back in December of 2000. Number one on that list was Michael Winterbottom's Go Now (1995), starring Robert Carlyle as a Scottish ruffian with multiple sclerosis. Now, approximately eight years and three months later -- with a 16-month gap in the middle -- I've hit #1,000. Rounding off to a solid seven years of writing, that averages out to about 143 pieces a year. (Though that average is inflated by the something like 400 reviews I wrote in the year 2001, when I was trying to make this my exclusive source of income).

With the help of diligent backups of my data, this Microsoft Word document has never been compromised either, surviving several computer upgrades in the interim.

The reason I'm so proud of this milestone is that it reminds me again that I actually did it -- I actually became a film critic. No matter what the thrust of the rest of my professional career is, no one can tell me I didn't have a career as a working critic.

And it's important to remember this, just as it's important for all of us to be proud of the achievements we sometimes take for granted. Just because you're doing one thing for your primary job, that doesn't mean it defines you. All these years when I was waiting and wondering, trying to figure out if film reviewing would ever be my full-time job, here I was, carving out quite a nice little body of work. Which I can now legitimately say is a big body of work.

And they've been paying me, so I don't even have to delude myself. I can shout it out loud:

I'm a real critic!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Hollywood's least creative thinker

One of the least surprising things I learned in the past year was that Tim Burton is filming his own adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Starring -- you guessed it -- Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.

Of course he is.

You see, Mr. Burton may once have been considered one of Hollywood's most creative talents. But now he has to be considered one of its laziest, not to mention one of its most predictable.

Watching Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street on Saturday night was a pretty good reminder of that.

Disagree? Well, let's consider the man's career on the whole if we want to follow his dispiriting trend downward. Not only has nothing in his recent films sprung from his own mind, as he's gotten himself involved in an alarming number of adaptations of famous works originated by other people, but even when his source material is not directly apparent, he's busy alluding to his own previous works.

Without further comment, I shall begin.

Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985). So much for my whole "Tim Burton used to originate his own ideas" theory. His feature debut was the big-screen version of the beloved TV show starring a pre-scandal Paul Reubens. And though I probably saw this for the first time too recently (2005) to have "gotten it," it's among the favorite movies of some people whose opinions I respect.

Beetlejuice (1988). This is what I will always consider the consummate Tim Burton film -- that is, if I'm speaking nicely about the man. If I'm speaking ill, that honor might go to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and represent something entirely different about him. Anyway, this film established the "Tim Burton style" that would become our template for what to expect from him -- and ultimately, a creative crutch that would keep him from testing his own boundaries.

Batman (1989). All hail Tim Burton! Everyone loved the man when he brought the caped crusader to life in a way utterly free from the camp that had characterized his previous screen incarnations. (Unless you consider Jack Nicholson's glorious vamping to be "camp"). His dark and twisted Gotham City was what we wanted from Gotham City, and who knew the jesterly sprite from Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) could be so pensive and brooding?

Edward Scissorhands (1990). Another home run. This is what I consider Burton's best film. His first of an increasingly ridiculous number of collaborations with Depp was a deeply sensitive consideration of "otherness" in a pastel alternate-1950s universe full of sameness. Also, who knew Anthony Michael Hall could play a buff jerk? A masterpiece that manages to be whimsical and downbeat at the same time. What may be most impressive in terms of total responsibility for the creative vision was that Burton also served as a screenwriter on this film, the only such time he has done that, despite a few "screen story" credits, which is not the same thing.

Batman Returns (1992). Some considered this to be even better than the original Batman -- not me, but some. (I guess I was the only one who thought Michelle Pfeiffer was over the top in this, and not in a good way, like Nicholson was). It proved that Burton still had it, finding new life in familiar territory (which can be hard, but which has become his pattern), and it was the rare sequel that was pretty much as well received as the first movie. What's more, Burton had the good sense to get out of this series and let Joel Schumacher destroy it. Today's Tim Burton probably would not have done that.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). While Burton only produced this film, leaving the directing to Coraline director Henry Selick, this was as Tim Burton-y as any Tim Burton film out there (and definitely hearkens back to Beetlejuice). He also got credited for the screen story and the production design. While I don't love this film the way some devoted fans do, I recognize its singular creative vision. I found it a little too dark for children in spots -- Santa Claus on a torture rack? -- but I don't for a moment doubt its supreme historical significance.

Ed Wood (1994). This might be characterized as his most ambitious/mature film to date, as it dealt with a real historical figure who could not be totally molded to fictional whims. I don't have a real distinct memory of Ed Wood, but I remember it being a triumph, and of course it earned Martin Landau an Oscar.

James and the Giant Peach (1996). Producer for Selick again. I thought this movie was a mess, but I thought I should mention it because I mentioned The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Mars Attacks! (1996). Burton's first genuine love-it-or-hate-it film. I guess I can say I loved it, though I recognize this movie is majorly flawed. Still, those Martians were a wonderful creation -- ack ack ack ack! -- and the film was much more gruesomely violent (in a good, sometimes even chilling way) than I thought it would be. A gloriously tactile spoof of 1950s alien movies. But since it's a large, expensive, special effects-laden satire, it was never going to be everybody's cup of tea.

Sleepy Hollow (1999). Burton's starting to lose some people at this point, but not me. Like Bram Stoker's Dracula, this movie was all about the production design for me. I loved the powdered wigs, the quill pens, the sprays of arterial blood as heads were chopped off, and the entire look of the village of Sleepy Hollow. The story was a bit goofy, but I didn't care. You might say this was a preview of future failings in terms of story.

Planet of the Apes (2001). And Burton drops off a cliff. Okay, it wasn't that bad. But it was pretty bad. However, you could say that Burton kind of went outside his comfort zone with this one. Yeah, it's still Burton-y material, but there's a serious lack of gothic stylings on a planet of apes -- no moldering mansions, no obvious visual components to accompany perpetual collaborator Danny Elfman's score, no characters with the skin color of white pancake makeup. Maybe it was the inclusion of Mark Wahlberg that made it feel so little like the Burton we'd seen before, which at this point was still a quality we desired from his films. Another disturbing note is that this is his second straight update of previously created material. I see a trend forming.

Big Fish (2003). And the good Burton is back again. Though I willingly acknowledge that it could just have been me hanging on with him longer than I should have. While I had a very good first impression of this film -- and will admit to getting teary at the end -- I have a sense looking back on it that it probably emotionally manipulated me. I'm not immune to emotional manipulation. Still, who better to interpret the tall tales of the world's most embellishing storyteller -- or is he? -- than Burton? You are free to disagree on this one.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Isn't it amazing how quickly someone becomes a total hack? I recognize there are disagreements out there. But this was now Burton's third remake in his last four films, and what a garish, ugly and dispiriting remake it was. During the first 20 minutes, when we were introduced to yet another moldering city, I at least thought it was a handsome enough moldering city, and I had high hopes. But once foot was set inside the chocolate factory, this movie went completely off the rails. Everything that was good about the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was forcibly driven out and beaten into some kind of twisted obscenity. Depp is terrible as the freakish, purple-suited Wonka, not the gleeful (but still mildly twisted) Gene Wilder, but some kind of inscrutable mental patient divorced from space and time. If you like this film, you might argue that Burton was intent on extracting the true darkness that's always been present in this story. But if you are attracted to the lightness and charm of the original tale, you will find it nowhere here. And the songs ... such woeful replacements for the originals we know and love.

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (2005). And here vanity takes over a bit. Couldn't it have just been called Corpse Bride? There are things to like in this film, the third stop-motion animation movie he's had a hand in. For one, I was glad to see him embrace the stylings of an artist who has clearly inspired him throughout his career -- Edward Gorey. But at its core, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride is like a warmed-over mix tape (forgive the mixed metaphor) of all his previous works, most notably Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. It probably succeeds on some basic level, but it's as forgettable as Elfman's unhummable songs. It seems strange to level such a charge against a film that obviously required so much work by so many people, but this film is downright lazy.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). Drudgery. Pure drudgery. So far has Burton retreated inside his world of gloom that there's only one sequence of pure daylight in this entire film. Whereas the sets might have stood out in one of his previous efforts, here they are so poorly differentiated from each other that they blend into the murky grayness of the background. It's Burton embracing his R side again with buckets of blood and an intentional atmosphere of pervasive sorrow. But is it anything other than that? The plot is utterly without interesting developments, and the motivations of key characters are nothing short of bizarre. What's worse, the best songs from Stephen Sondheim's original musical were not even included. I'm not one to quibble with the way an adaptation differs from its source, but I guess I did have high expectations for this based on having seen a filmed version of the Broadway musical, which featured Angela Lansbury in the role of Mrs. Lovett, here played by none other than wife and constant collaborator Helena Bonham Carter. Those expectations were utterly dashed. It's better than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that's about all I can say for it.

Alice in Wonderland (2010). It's anybody's guess. But really, do you have high hopes?

You might argue that my analysis of Burton's body of work is mostly complimentary, and only on a few films did I really unleash my vitriol. And you'd be right. After all, I felt enthusiastically about a film of his that was released only six years ago. Could it be just a losing streak? Could it be possible that Tim Burton still has a soul?

I don't think so. Yet I have seen every single film he's directed. Aren't many directors I can say that about, but I can say it about him. I keep going. It's like I have the same problem with him that I have with M. Night Shyamalan. I know it won't be good, but I still keep going.

Yet I suspect that my opinion of Mr. Burton is not shared by the general public, or by his peers. After all, wasn't Johnny Depp nominated for an Oscar for Sweeney Todd? And didn't Sweeney Todd actually win the Oscar for best art direction? I could argue that it was the worst art direction in any Burton film. The damn thing actually won the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy, I now see. Eighty-six percent of critics supposedly gave it a favorable review, according to Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe it just means I don't know what I'm talking about.

But I think there are those of you out there who share my pain. Who see a guy who once really captured our imaginations, and now just captures our $12 based on his name recognition.

I'm a guy who loves versatility. One of the reasons I was so blown away by The Wrestler was that it was so different from Darren Aronofsky's previous film, the impenetrable and utterly fantastical The Fountain. You might say Aronofsky couldn't have done more of a 180 in terms of subject matter and fidelity to realism. That's the making of an interesting artist. That's an oeuvre I want to watch.

But why should Burton change his ways if we -- the royal we -- keep throwing awards his way?

For many years, Burton created monsters. And now we've created one in him.

I know I've already taken up altogether too much of your time, but just for fun ...

The Top Ten Films Tim Burton Should Have Directed, But Didn't:

10. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)
9. Frankenstein (1994)
8. The Crow (1994)
7. Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)
6. Interview with the Vampire (1994)
5. Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
4. The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
3. Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
2. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
1. From Hell (2001)

It occurs to me -- how could he never have directed a vampire movie?

I can't wait for Tim Burton's Rocky Horror Picture Show in 2012.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Avoiding information

I went to great lengths this weekend to avoid learning anything about Watchmen.

My usual Friday ritual involves flipping directly to the movie section of my Entertainment Weekly and seeing what grades the new releases have been given. I don't usually read the reviews, because I don't want to inadvertently steal someone's perspective if I review this movie someday. But I am curious to get a general sense of how EW critics Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum have judged a film.

This week, however, I was afraid to even open the magazine. I was on high alert against accidentally finding out what I was trying so hard to avoid learning -- that the movie might stink. Maybe they chose this week to shift the movie reviews from the back of the book to page 5. Or maybe I'd suffer a momentary failure of finger dexterity and end up there through an errant flip. I just had to last until Sunday night.

Having bought my tickets online Friday morning could have had something to do with trying to avoid having my enthusiasm crushed. You might say it should actually matter less under those conditions. I'd be seeing it no matter what, and it would theoretically be better to avoid getting the bad news were I still on the fence about buying tickets. But I couldn't afford to be on the fence. Those IMAX tickets went quickly. By Friday morning, my desired 3:15 show had already sold out, and I had to settle for the third row of the 6:30 screening if I wanted to go on Sunday at all.

So I was locked in anyway, and a bad review could only mean I'd have the chance to be pleasantly surprised, right? I'm a big fan of the pleasant surprise, and I'm also a big believer in the idea of the possibility of a pleasant surprise. Lots of people let their moviegoing desires get curdled by a single bad review. For me, it's a setback, but it doesn't ultimately stop me.

Still, I wanted to go in totally fresh to Watchmen.

I mostly succeeded. I managed not to get sucked in by any unexpected headlines on any of my websites. I wasn't in the presence of anybody discussing it. And that part of the Entertainment Weekly stayed safely closed until after my viewing, though I did venture into the early parts of the issue by Saturday morning.

What actually got me was facebook. I'd had the distant notion that somebody's facebook status might ruin the movie for me, but I perused my status updates anyway. (Addictions are, by definition, hard to break). I actually read two Watchmen-related status updates, but one of them was a joke, where my friend said he "was confused. He thought Watchmen was about clockmakers in the '60s." Good one. It gets across the point that you saw the movie, without spoiling anything.

But then another friend got me by sneaking it in at the end, as a non sequitor: "James is on the porch, lesson planning and thinking about how AWFUL The Watchmen (sic) was."

I grimaced.

Well, fear not, friends. For now, I will extend to you the same courtesy of information avoidance -- though if you've read this far, you've probably dared to learn my thoughts on the film already. Until more of you have seen it, I will just say that my friend James does not speak for everybody.

But as usual, Watchmen is just an entry point into what I want to talk about. I wrote a post early on about what lengths you have to go to if you want to avoid spilling the beans about a certain movie. Well, here's the flip side: In our information-saturated culture, how can you avoid learning what you don't want to learn?

Instead of pontificating on that for awhile -- I mention some of my own strategies above if you're interested -- I'd rather declare my amazement. I'm not amazed at how easily information seeps through to unwilling minds, but rather, how some of the information you think you'd be likeliest to hear can remain hidden, through no essential effort.

Case in point: I still do not know what happens at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

When you consider how many people I know who have read that book, how many people in society at large who have read that book, and how many cultural commentators are getting faster and looser with what constitutes common knowledge, I think it is a downright miracle that I still don't know the fate of Harry, Hermione, Ron et al.

What does this have to do with the movies, you ask?

Well, it means that when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II finally becomes the eighth movie in the series in 2011, the ending may actually still be a surprise to me.

Now I should say, I wouldn't really care that much if I did find out. I read only the first novel in the series, and have allowed key secrets to be divulged to me over the years. I watch those movies not so much to be surprised at what happens, but mostly because they're big event movies and I want to see if they're any good. (Speaking of which, I saw an IMAX-sized trailer for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince before Watchmen, and it looks like some crazy shit is going to be happening in it). Truth be told, I tend to forget what happened in the last movie, and I've really only thought one of them was truly great, Alfonso Cuaron's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

This is not an invitation for you to go spoiling it for me in the comments section. Because this is quite a thing I've got going on here, and I want to see how long it lasts. I want to see if I really can walk into a theater sometime in 2011 without knowing whether Harry Potter lives or dies.

If I do, it'll be pretty certain proof that the world is not composed only of ruiners and TMZ-bred gossip mongers. Maybe, just maybe, there's a silent majority of people who like staying silent.