Thursday, April 30, 2009

The more I see ...

... the less I'm looking forward to X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

(Except for this poster, which I will always think is awesome.)

Seeing my first sparse footage of it earlier this year, it inspired exactly the kind of bone-deep excitement the trailer's creators were hoping for. It looked intense and hardcore, and seemed mostly to be a standoff between Hugh Jackman's Wolverine and Liev Schreiber's Sabretooth. In fact, I'm not going to go to the tape to check it, but didn't Wolverine say something about ripping Sabretooth's head off? Awesome.

But as more and more footage of this movie has bled out over the ensuing months, my doubts have been building. And it's not even that I'm bummed that I'm seeing more and more of the cool stuff I want to be surprised by, a common complaint people have when the second and third trailers of a blockbuster materialize. Actually, it's that the new footage doesn't look cool enough.

The problems I have, in no particular order:

1) There seems to be quite a bit of stuff involving Wolverine flying through the air with the greatest of ease. But this guy isn't a trapeze artist. He's a brute whom we first met in some kind of underground fighter ring, kicking ass and breaking bones. Now, the guy's doing flips, tumbles and pirouettes through the air. I'm not talking about the scene where he gets propelled off a car toward a helicopter -- that still looks like it might be cool. No, this is the more recent footage where his body hurtles through the air on an arc-shaped path. This isn't the Wolverine I know.

2) How many other X-Men are going to be sharing the screen with him? I liked the idea that this was really about Wolverine himself, a lone wolf yet to be indoctrinated into the relative tameness of the X-Men society. Instead, he's splitting time with Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), John Wraith (, The Blob (Kevin Durand), Bolt (Dominic Monaghan) and Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins). Yeah, hero overload worked fine in the other X-Men movies, but I thought this one would be a little different. But when I really became concerned was when I realized they were cramming Cyclops in there as well. James Marsden's Cyclops is easily the weakest link of the three previous X-Men movies, though Halle Berry's Storm gives him a run for his money. And even though it's a different actor (Tim Pocock) playing Cyclops (a.k.a. Scott Summers) here, it's not a promising sight. With this multiplicity of characters, why even single out Wolverine? Why not call it X-Men Origins: Everybody?

3) I'm a bit concerned that this is going to be plagued by the same thing that plagued the most famous prequel, or series of prequels, prior to this -- the Star Wars prequels. Namely, that the "older" gadgets will seem a lot cooler than the gadgets that exist in the future of that story's timeline. Many a Star Wars fan had a hard time matching up the high-tech battle droids of The Phantom Menace with the low-tech storm troopers that would follow them 40 years later in the original Star Wars. (A week after Wolverine, we'll see if Star Trek succumbs to the same thing). I don't have any specific evidence of this, it's just a feeling I get from the footage I've seen.

So I'm worried that this movie will be overcrowded with high-tech circus acrobats.

Prove me wrong, Wolverine. Prove me wrong.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Creature (in space) double feature

There are certain movies I can tell I'm going to review, just by looking at them. Certain movies that exist at a middle- to low-brow level of appeal, that I've made my bread and butter over the years. I take a certain pleasure in pointing them out to my wife. And six months to a year later, sure enough, there I am, seeing them and dutifully submitting a review a couple days later. Hey, it's work.

Such movies usually bear the following traits: They are not hip enough for the regular staffers to want to review, and they have some humorous quality that I think would be fun to tease and prod in a review. If I haven't told you before, it's much easier to review a movie that's stupid than a movie that's smart. Sometimes, you have a good opening line even before you've popped in the DVD.

Within a month last summer, I twice had this premonition of my own reviewing future, with two very similar seeming movies: Space Chimps and Fly Me to the Moon. I found it odd that two movies with such similar themes, aimed at such similar demographics, would come out just four weeks apart (July 18th, August 15th). Usually they have the decency to avoid each other by at least a couple months (see Deep Impact/Armageddon, Dante's Peak/Volcano, etc.).

So when I was approved to review these movies about three weeks ago, naturally, I decided they would make a perfect double feature. A perfectly ghastly, terrible, torturous double feature.

Well, at least they'd each be under 85 minutes.

Sunday was the day, so I bunkered in for the double feature, with a Red Sox-Yankees game in the middle to cleanse my palate.

Without further ado, a side-by-side comparison of the movie about chimps in space and the movie about flies in space.

Title: Space Chimps sounds like a movie title you'd find in a movie that satirizes the movie industry. You know, kind of like Beverly Hills Chihuahua. (Oh wait, that's real too). Fly Me to the Moon, however, is a clever pun that also allows the playing of a Frank Sinatra classic during the opening credits. (Let's ignore the fact that the title probably inspired the script, and not vice versa). Advantage: Flies.

Celebrity vocal talent: Space Chimps boasts SNL star Andy Samberg, Curb Your Enthusiasm's Cheryl Hines, animation stalwart Patrick Warburton and Jeff Daniels. Fly Me to the Moon settles for over-the-hill Christopher Lloyd, Nicolette Sheridan, Kelly Ripa and Tim Curry. Advantage: Chimps.

Total number of astronauts: Three flies, three chimps. Tie.

Credibility of premise: Even though NASA's paranoia about contamination would make it unlikely, it's feasible that three flies could hitch a ride on Apollo 11. More so than three chimps being sent through a wormhole to a planet on the other side of the universe. Even if such a wormhole existed, and even if NASA could determine that the ship had made it safely through, they'd only need to send one chimp to test whether the trip could be survived by humans. Advantage: Flies.

Credibility highly strained: Assuming you accept that there's a planet populated by pink and purple aliens on the other side of the universe, it's still a bit much to accept that they speak English, or that a communication device in the shape of a banana -- designed by one of the monkeys -- would be enough to send transmissions across the universe. On the other hand, since the flies' decision to catch a ride on Apollo 11 was rash and last-minute, how the hell did they get little fly-sized space suits? Advantage: Flies.

Usage of chimpanzees: Fly Me to the Moon shows "historical footage" of a chimp blasting off, and an older fly trying to sneak inside his helmet before liftoff. Space Chimps ... well, there are chimps throughout. Advantage: Chimps, on sheer volume alone.

Usage of comic fainting: An Indian NASA scientist faints several times in Chimps; in Moon, the mother of the main fly, Nat, faints whenever she hears the newest danger threatening her son. The scientist's glasses fly off when he faints, so that's funnier. Advantage: Chimps.

Inevitable references to 2001: A Space Odyssey: A close-up on the eyes of Ham III, the main chimp, as the ship goes through the wormhole, and a horizon of strange colors rushes toward him. Moon is less subtle and more extended, as the flies do a zero-G dance to the tune of Richard Strauss' Also Spracht Zarathustra. Advantage: Chimps.

Ways it's too babyish: The aliens are too cutesy, especially one voiced by Kristin Chenowith that looks like an actual baby with a large head. Then again, all the fly characters are ridiculously cutesy with their big bulging eyes, which stand out against the photo-realistic backgrounds. Advantage: Chimps.

Ways it's surprisingly un-babyish: In Moon, characters briefly discuss drinking, and a fly refers to a dung ball as "full of crap." In Chimps, one alien has to exit the stomach of another through its anus -- though it's more implied than shown. Advantage: Flies.

Ways it's old: Each movie has a salty old graybeard lending wisdom. In Chimps, it's an old chimp named Houston, who buddied around with Ham's grandfather. In Moon, it's an old fly named, well, Grandpa, who flew across the Atlantic with Amelia Earhart, and prevented her plane from crashing by flying up her nose to startle her awake. Advantage: Flies.

Puns: Ham III says he's a "chimp off the old block." Nat's mother says "Oh my lord of the flies." Both are awful, but at least Chimps has a running gag about the use of chimp-related puns. Advantage: Chimps.

Stupid villains: Chimps has a megalomaniacal alien named Zartog who commandeers a piece of downed NASA equipment and uses its articulated clenching devices to dip his fellow inhabitants in silver goo that freezes but does not kill them. Moon has a team of Russian spy-flies that try to use firecrackers to damage the equipment at Cape Canaveral and prevent a successful return of the Apollo 11 mission. Neither is good, but points to Jeff Daniels for giving his all on Zartog's voice. Advantage: Chimps.

Quality of animation: Both are better than you'd think, with Chimps being more consistent across the board with its generally similar look throughout, and Moon caught between the extremes of its cheap-looking character design and brilliant-looking backgrounds. Advantage: Flies, just for how great everything but the flies looks, and how good I'm sure it would have looked if I'd actually seen it in 3-D.

Final analysis: The biggest shock about watching these movies is that I (gulp) liked both of them. I know, I know, I'm losing my edge. But seriously -- generally good animation, totally harmless, totally inoffensive, and written with a modicum of cleverness. Sometimes maybe you shouldn't write that first sentence in your head before you see the movie.

Slight overall advantage: Space Chimps.

God help me, I'll never be able to show my face at the next film critics' convention.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The embarrassing involuntary spine tingle

A very disappointing thing happened to me at the end of watching a very disappointing movie last night:

My spine tingled.

Damn these involuntary body functions.

The movie was Michael Bay's The Island. I had always wanted to see it, even though I knew it would be terrible. Everyone had told me it was terrible. But I have a thing about movies with high concepts, especially when they are set in dystopian futures. I know that no matter how much they suck shit, I will always find time to see them, eventually.

Well, it was actually worse than I imagined. In a movie that clocks in at over 2:10, only the first half-hour even contains anything interesting. The remaining 1:40 is composed of the stereotypical Bay fetishes: unnecessary chase sequences, cars flipping end over end, large pieces of industrial equipment dropping from great heights, people dangling from those same heights, and low angle shots of people strutting, with helicopters flying over their heads, in slow-mo. And the acting? Ewan McGregor managed to come out okay, but Scarlett Johansson was simply howl-worthy.

Yet when all the imprisoned clones are finally freed at the end -- sorry if I'm ruining anything for you -- I was surprised and disgusted to feel a chill go down my spine.

Now, I knew I hated this movie -- and I'm not going to pull out my shrink's notepad and tell you that on some subconscious level, I liked it, or bonded to the characters. So I chose to chalk it up to what it was: a classic emotional manipulation, successful enough to affect me on a biological level that was totally anathema to how I felt about The Island intellectually.

If you've seen this mess, you remember the scene, and if you haven't, well, stop reading if you don't want The Island to be spoiled. (I'm doing my best to stifle my laughter.)

McGregor's character succeeds in pressing some buttons, and gets a ten-ton gear the size of a skating rink to come crashing to the ground. This somehow allows all the cloned people in white suits to come running out of their prisons and go streaming down the sides of the mammoth dunes that surround the complex. Naturally, the camera whips around vertiginously, Bay's fallback way of emphasizing the scope of the drama. The music swells, McGregor and Johansson kiss, and the credits roll.

Oops. Goosebumps. Darn it.

The reason Michael Bay can still make movies is that most people can't distinguish a cheap chill from genuine catharsis. It goes without saying that no Michael Bay film has ever had a genuine emotional climax, so that means his cheap chills have been pretty effective. Oh, and I guess you can't discount the average American's love for watching stuff blow up.

I'm just glad my mind can tell the difference, even if my body can't. Hey, emotional manipulation works. Ever found yourself tearing up at the end of a movie you thought was stupid? It's the same principle. Even if you know better, you succumb to the director's pernicious agenda. You feel emotions that are totally undeserved, that spring more from the music or the camerawork than the script or the acting.

Oh well. We're only human. Which is more than I can say for Michael Bay's clones -- or Michael Bay himself.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Disparities of laughter

One of the most difficult things about comedy is that humor is inherently subjective. What some people find hilarious may leave others non-plussed, even repulsed.

And so any time you're watching a comedy in a big audience, some people will always be laughing, while other people will always be rolling their eyes. The really successful comedies are the ones that get most of the people on the same page. (Then again, that's also the defining characteristic of the really unsuccessful ones -- but it's the wrong page).

So I don't know if the phenomenon I experienced at I Love You, Man last weekend is actually avoidable, but that didn't make it any less annoying.

And that phenomenon was this: Where I found jokes mildly amusing, the people sitting next to me were laughing their fool heads off.

It almost derailed my ability to enjoy the film. Fortunately, we moved.

Normally, I wouldn't blame people for finding a movie funnier than I do. But in this case, I did, because it was not their only disruptive behavior. These two ladies in their 60s (what is it with eccentric ladies in their 60s?) insisted on talking at nearly regular volumes, and when I finally shushed them, one of them turned and said "Really?" in an incredulous tone of voice, as if daring me to escalate things. I felt a little rush of adrenaline, but I chose not to escalate. Instead, we moved.

And so it was that I considered their unbridled cackling to be a sign of spite and rudeness rather than an involuntary reaction to their enjoyment of the movie.

But let's say these people had not been otherwise rude. The problem would have still existed. My appreciation of the film would have still been unduly biased by their enthusiastic laughter, when I wasn't at their level yet. I would have wondered why I didn't find it funnier, and would have questioned whether it was funny enough, or funny at all. And if I didn't find it funny enough, then I'd start to see these people as idiots, and the more they laughed, the more I'd be sure that this was a movie that could only be appreciated by idiots.

The thing is, I did find it funny, just not as funny as they did -- not until the movie settled in a little more, anyway. But the discrepancy between their laughter and mine could have permanently clouded my judgment if I'd let it.

Fortunately, on the other side of the theater, I was able to extricate myself from their influence, and ended up producing small fits of my own laughter pretty soon afterward. Funny thing is, though I couldn't hear them as well, I could still hear them, and they stopped laughing as hard. I guess I'm glad I don't share the same sense of humor as two eccentric seniors.

So how is a person supposed to avoid letting a laughter disparity ruin an otherwise good movie?

Well, the best strategy is to try to pick your theaters demographically, since this experience proved that it doesn't work to pick a movie according to probable audience demographics. In our diverse society, there are probably very few theaters that are frequented exclusively by certain age groups, but there are certainly theaters that skew one way or another. For some reason, the Landmark Theater in West LA, on Pico, skews old. I guess it's not that surprising -- the neighborhood is reasonably affluent, and this theater is newly refurbished within a couple years, which resulted directly in a hike in ticket prices. We love this theater, so we like to make excuses to go, but we can usually see the same movie for two dollars cheaper and a bit closer to our house. Unfortunately, I Love You, Man was not playing at favorable times at those closer theaters, so we ended up at the Landmark, without needing to have our arms twisted very far.

But you can't just avoid going too high-end -- too low-end is also a problem. We also go to The Bridge at the Howard Hughes Center, which is perhaps the closest theater to our house (although we're dead smack at the nexus of about five equidistant theaters, none more than three miles away -- ain't LA grand?). The Bridge refurbished about five years before the Landmark, meaning the initial shine has worn off a bit, the ideas of "theater fabulousness" seem slightly out of date, and a more middle to lower middle class has become the regular patron. I enjoy most movies fine here too, but certain incidents stick out -- like the time we saw Monster House in 3-D, and people were yelling at the screen. It's a kids' movie, people.

Perhaps a bit easier to control is the time you go to the movies. If you're trying to avoid eccentric old people, that 11:55 p.m. showing will certainly do it. Whether you'll stay awake through the closing credits is another story. I'm 35, and I think my days of going to 11:55 movies are behind me. But the matinee show, although cheaper, is sure to bring in those who eat their dinners at 4:30. Our showing of I Love You, Man started at 12:20.

Maybe the only way you can get a truly pure and unfettered perception of a comedy is in your own living room. With no one else around to either laugh too hard or laugh too little, there's been no baseline set for how funny it is. You laugh at what you find funny, and you don't at what you don't.

But I'd never trade the thrill of seeing a really good comedy with a really good audience. If it works out just right, the joy you feel at the jokes on display is kicked up a notch by the mutual intoxication passing between viewers. Sometimes you'll even look around at each other quickly and share a brief moment of bonding -- you've both discovered something that creates the exquisite release of hard laughter. And after all the laughter is done, and people walk out of the theater, it's with goofy grins on their faces, just a little bit dizzy from the experience. More bonding ensues in the form of knowing glances and the residual high.

Hollywood has been in a pretty good stretch, comedy-wise, but being able to genuinely laugh at a movie is certainly not something we should take for granted. As quickly as it came upon us, it could be gone again, maybe for years.

So do your best to avoid having that experience tainted. You'll thank me for it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Isn't it bromantic?

Okay, so I'm about a month late on my I Love You, Man post. But I only just saw it on Sunday, so give me a break.

The word "bromance" has been thrown around so much lately that we're all pretty much sick of it. I like Entertainment Weekly and similar outlets of pop culture commentary as much as the next guy, but the oh-so-clever writers who toil for them have simply fallen in love with the word. They use it to characterize any two men in popular culture who seem to be bonding, even if they've been lifelong friends. Since when did heterosexual men having things in common and showing mutual affection have to take on these teasing terms, as if it were something to be treated humorously, and be mildly ashamed about?

But the term does have a legitimate meaning, used less commonly, and used to perfection in John Hamburg's I Love You, Man. Especially here, "bromance" is a really appropriate way to describe how making friends with another man can take on the characteristics of dating.

I'm glad to see this movie come along, because one of my strongly held personal beliefs is that there comes a certain point in a person's life when it's easier to meet romantic partners than to meet same-sex friends with whom you want to spend a lot of time. I imagine homosexuals must feel the same about people of the opposite sex -- in other words, companions they would have no interest in pursuing sexually.

Maybe it's different for you, but for me, I can't remember the last time I've become significantly closer to another man. Sure, I have friendships that have made gradual steps toward greater intimacy. But brand spanking new friends, with whom I spend a lot of time? They are few and far between.

There's a good reason for this, at least among people who carry around their share of neuroses. It has everything to do with monogamy vs. polygamy, and fears of rejection.

If you have overdeveloped fears of rejection, it's much easier to "go after" a new romantic partner than a new friend. Why? Quite simply, the threshold of rejection is much lower for a romantic partner.

If you are interested in dating somebody, it doesn't hurt that much if they don't want to date you. Oh, if you're hung up on them, it does. But most people can take the rejection in stride, not take it personally. When it's a monogamous relationship that's on the table, all you have to do is come up short in one or two key areas, and you aren't going to be that person's right match. Not only that, but you may not be objectively deficient in those areas -- you may just be different than what they're looking for. No biggie. You just move on.

With a friend it's entirely different. Most people are willing to add plenty of new people to their stable of friends, as many as they find agreeable. Sure, you have different levels of intimacy with different people, and there can be a disconnect between how friendly you want to be with someone, and how friendly they want to be with you. But if they don't want to be friends with you at all? It means they think that you come up short in so many areas, they don't even want to give you a small percentage of their total capacity for friendship. Even in a polygamous scenario, you don't make the grade.


People say "It's not you, it's me" all the time. When someone doesn't want a romantic relationship, it may be a little you, but it's probably more them.

When they don't want a friendship ... it's you.

I Love You, Man gets that down perfectly. It's there in the torturously awkward phone message Paul Rudd's character leaves for Jason Segel's character shortly after they've met. It's there in Rudd's every attempt to part ways with some hilariously improvised (and poorly executed) dude slang. It's there in his worries about what kind of activity will allow him to come across as casual, rather than clingy or too interested.

These dynamics have certainly been touched on in other films, but it's interesting to see I Love You, Man confront us with them so directly. Rudd's performance feels so familiar to us because we've all been in this position, wanting desperately to become better friends with someone, and nearly blowing it (or sometimes actually blowing it) in the process.

I remember my own most painful example of this. It was in grad school. Let's call the guy "Steve." (Because that was actually his name.) I was pretty good friends with Steve -- we shared a couple classes and had had a couple beers in small groups. We'd talked semi-seriously on a couple occasions. In fact, you might say we were already friends until That Fateful Night.

A friend of mine who didn't go to my school was coming in to the city to visit, and I thought it would be fun to take him out with some friends from school. So I placed a call to Steve, and ended up getting his answering machine. (We didn't have cell phones back then.) I guess I didn't realize that on some level, initiating this outing with Steve felt like a momentous occasion to me, and I was sort of nervous about it. I didn't plan out what I wanted to say, and ended up totally bungling the message. Not only did I sound nervous and stuttery, but I said something about how my friend (who lived outside the city) "didn't know that many people." That's right, not only did I sound like a desperate freak, but I threw my friend under the bus as well, making him sound like a charity case (which he certainly wasn't) who needed someone cool to come along and help him make friends. If I'd kept my peace of mind, I probably could have selected the right option in the menu, and re-recorded my message. I could have made it more intelligible/less disastrous. But I was all rattled and just hung up.

Steve never returned my call, and I can't remember if we ever directly discussed it. I might have made some mention of the message via a slightly more composed attempt at self-deprecation, and he might have let me off the hook by laughing it off. But even if that did happen -- I can't honestly remember -- something definitely changed in our relationship from that point on. Suffice it to say that we did not become better friends, and I haven't been in touch with him since we graduated.

I Love You, Man brought that all back, but in a good way -- it allowed me to contextualize it and give myself a break for my own silliness. It's not like I'd been carrying around that trauma with me all this time, but it is something I shake my head about whenever I think about it. A movie like I Love You, Man makes me realize the universality of what I experienced as a man ten years younger than I am today.

So is the next logical step asking out one of my current friends, someone with whom I wished I were a little closer, on a "man date," without blubbering my way through the message in the ultimate case of the self-fulfilling prophecy?

Baby steps, baby steps. For now, recognizing our common human frailties and neuroses is enough.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Christmas in April

The Christmas movie is a totally unique type of movie. Here are three distinct things you can say about it that you can't say about any other genre:

1) It's the only type of movie you have to wait a whole year to see if you miss it in the theaters. While every other feature film arrives on DVD between three and five months after its theatrical run, the Christmas movie goes into hibernation for 11 to 12 months, since there's zero value in making it available for purchase in March or April.

2) It's the only type of movie you're absolutely guaranteed to find free for rental at any other time of the year, and have a hard time renting at Christmas -- even if it's a terrible movie.

3) It's the only type of movie where watching it outside its designated season of relevance feels bizarre.

This last is what happened with me this past Saturday, when I popped in The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.

That's right, I decided it was finally time to polish off that egg nog we had squirreled away in the back of the fridge, eat the rest of the holiday fruit cake, and take down the tree. Yes, we moved at the beginning of March, but we didn't take down our tree. We just loaded it on the truck and set it up in our new living room.

Actually, you can probably guess why I saw The Santa Clause 3 -- I was reviewing it. I'd requested it back when it was actually Christmastime, but didn't get a chance to watch it. Who can blame me -- I was also reviewing Deck the Halls, Fred Claus and the 1984 TV version of A Christmas Carol starring George C. Scott. I was too Christmas movie'd out to fit The Santa Clause 3 on my viewing itinerary.

But when I get approved to review a movie, I also don't like to just let it sit there and go stale. If I planned to wait until it was Christmasy again before watching it, I'd have to sit on it for another year. It wouldn't be the first time, but it's something I try to avoid. Besides, my editor at the site has been swamped lately, and was slow to approve my recent request list of fresh titles. If I wanted to keep plugging away at my reviewing, I had to push titles like The Santa Clause 3 to the top of my queue. And, my reasoning went, it'd be easier to get them in April than November/December anyway.

And so it was that I pulled up a section of couch on the morning of April 18th, when my wife was still sleeping, and threw myself into the world Tim Allen's Kris Kringle, now a lot less reluctant to be the Big Fella than he once was, and his attempts to save Christmas from the clutches of the evil Jack Frost (Martin Short).

The experience reminded me of a Christmas episode of The Sopranos I once saw. At least one of my faithful readers may remember the season of The Sopranos that was either delayed, or scheduled all along to finish in early summer, even though the arc of the story was playing out in early winter. I remember watching the finale of that season, a particularly quiet finale with Tony and his brood standing around looking at the Christmas tree. Meanwhile, it was something like 115 degrees outside in the San Fernando Valley.

No one asked me to create that kind of disconnect when I watched The Santa Clause 3, but in the case of The Sopranos, it was a decision made by the writers, or possibly the schedulers at HBO who postponed their season.

But it does raise an interesting point: Is it legit to show a Christmas episode of a TV show in the month of June? It's hard to know how to work around that issue. Your viewers won't be in that frame of mind at all, and it runs the risk of souring a perfectly good episode, even on a subconscious level the viewer may not be in touch with. (And maybe it was the seasonal disconnect that made me remember the end of that season as flat). But what if you're a TV show that only runs in the spring, year in and year out? Does that mean your characters never get to experience Christmas? It's an interesting question, and I don't think I have an answer.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go move Santa Claus: The Movie, the 1985 "classic" starring Dudley Moore and John Lithgow, to the top of my queue.

If you think I'm kidding, just keep your eyes open for it in my "Most Recently Seen" section. Sometime in June sounds about right.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Have I ever mentioned ...

... that I like a movie poster with a lot of yellow in it?

Well, maybe I didn't realize it until the Crank: High Voltage posters began appearing about six weeks ago. But every time I'm stopped in traffic and one of these posters is in my line of vision, I'm drawn to it, and don't look away until the light turns green.

No, I don't have a man crash on Jason Statham, but there's something captivating about this poster. Its simplicity gives it a throwback feel, which is helpful for a movie franchise so drenched in id that it nearly functions as exploitation.

I'm not sure if I'll make it to this one in the theaters, but I can say that the original Crank was ten times more fun than it had any right to be. Here's hoping the same fate for High Voltage.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Up, up and ... away?

I've had the "Up" series of documentaries on my radar for quite some time. If it's not on your radar, let me explain a little something about it.

In 1963, a director by the name of Paul Almond, as part of a British television show called World in Action, randomly chose 14 British private school children, all age 7, and interviewed them about their lives and backgrounds. This project was known as Seven Up, and it might have amounted to nothing more than a one-off curiosity if it hadn't been for Michael Apted. The young director had been an assistant to Almond on the original project, and seven years later, he decided to revisit these children to see how they were doing at age 14. The resulting 1970 film was called Seven Plus Seven, and a tradition was born. Apted continued visiting these children, soon to be adults, at seven-year intervals throughout their lives and his, resulting in 21 Up (1977), 28 Up (1983), 35 Up (1991), 42 Up (1998) and 49 Up (2005). If you ask me, this most recent entry should have been called Seven Times Seven, as a little shout-out to the earlier history of the series.

I'd been fascinated by this ongoing project for years, since it's been made possible only by the continuing health and willingness of at least most of the participants, as well as the health and artistic viability of the director.

So I finally got it on my Blockbuster queue sometime last year, and a month or two back, I promoted it to the upper end, so it would come up for viewing in the near future. When I received the first installment in the mail, I mentioned its arrival to my wife, who had also always wanted to see it, and was excited to proceed on this journey with me.

Well, that was about a month ago. And it has not made it into our DVD player yet.

Yes, it's been a busy month, but that's not really the reason. You see, I've started to drag my heels on the whole thing. I have a very stupid reason for doing so, but if you know me and my stupid reasons, you also know that for me, it's legit.

Namely: I'm not sure if Seven Up is actually a movie.

(Of course it isn't, it's a soft drink, ha ha.)

It all started when I went back to look in my queue, to see when Seven Plus Seven was scheduled to come up. But I couldn't find it. I looked and I looked, and all I could see was 21 Up and then the rest. I didn't know if I wanted to start on this journey if I couldn't get my hands on Seven Plus Seven.

It was then that I realized I already had my hands on Seven Plus Seven. It had come with Seven Up. They had come together because Seven Up had a scant 30-minute running time.

Seven Plus Seven doubled that up to 60 minutes, but normally, neither a 30-minute program nor a 60-minute program would meet anyone's definition of what constitutes a "movie."

Okay, so, my mind shifted to no longer thinking of this as a conquest of a movie series, something I would be able to include on my many various film lists. That's fine, it's a TV show. A different experience, but no less valuable.

But the most recent five installments in the series are most definitely movies. 21 Up clocks in at 100 minutes, and then the next four are each over 120 minutes. And they all had theatrical releases.

So what exactly is the "Up Series"? I'd love to hear your opinion.

Assuming that I'd treat them all the same way, are none of them a movie ... or all of them? Or should I not treat them all the same way? Should only 21 Up and onward go on my lists, while I categorize the others as TV episodes?

What qualifies for my movie lists is an endless source of consternation for me. Of course it doesn't matter in the strictest sense of the word, but on some level, it does.

For example, if a movie originated on TV, is it really a movie? What if it's a miniseries? I have handled this in different ways over time, partly depending on my whims, partly depending on how I felt at the time, even if it's different from how I feel now. For some reason, I have included both Stephen King miniseries It and The Stand in my movie lists. In the case of The Stand, that may be because I actually reviewed it for the website. That has to make it qualify ... right? Yet I wouldn't have included The Shining miniseries that aired a couple years ago, even out of precedent, because I've changed my own rules since then. (While the others have stayed grandfathered in). The Shining was so terrible that I never finished watching it, so it was a moot point anyway.

HBO movies probably give me my greatest pause nowadays. For some reason, I have decided I should not include them. So when we saw (and loved) Recount, the story of the 2000 presidential election, it never made it on any list.

Yet if I were to review that same movie for my website, I'd have to reconsider my stance. My editor assigned me some "films" to review a few years back that included such titles as Sometimes in April and Lackwanna Blues, both of which premiered on HBO. I first became aware of them in the context of them being assigned to me, and it wasn't until I popped in the DVD and saw the familiar HBO emblem that I realized they premiered on cable. So in those cases, I added them to my movie list.

Well, why them, but not Recount? Because I'd already started to think of them as regular movies, and couldn't turn back, whereas I'd been aware of Recount's cable origins from the get-go?

Then the question is, if a movie does premiere on cable, why does that make it any less of a movie? I don't ask the same qualifying questions of straight-to-DVD movies. If the standard is whether a film had a cinematic release -- an Oscar-qualifying run, as it were -- then both cable movies and straight-to-DVD movies would fail on that account. So that standard is clearly too rigid. Why then should straight-to-DVD count, if a movie made by HBO, which is likely to be better made and far more cinematic in general, does not count?

I don't have the answers. Hey, I don't pretend to understand my own rules, I just try to interpret them.

And I'd love to hear what you think. Please, I really want to return Seven Up and Seven Plus Seven so I can get my next movie. And I'll make sure it's a genuine, no-questions-asked, certified, popcorn-and-darkened-theater movie this time ...

Friday, April 17, 2009

Lame of name

State of Play has not even come out yet, and I've already forgotten it.

Could it have something to do with that title? You tell me.

As far as the ads tell me, State of Play is about murder, political intrigue, cover-ups and journalistic ethics. All the makings of a pretty standard thriller.

And what more does the title itself tell me?


Oh, I shouldn't blame State of Play in particular for having an uninspired title. In fact, it joins a shameful tradition in Hollywood, a tradition of naming films (especially thrillers) with the maximum possible bland interchangeability. Here, I've culled together a list, drawn mostly from movies that I've seen. (Hey, I had to narrow down my search criteria somehow.)

Addicted to Love
Basic Instinct
Before and After

Big Trouble
Body of Evidence
Body of Lies
Chances Are
Color of Night

Courage Under Fire
Crimes of Passion

Desperate Measures
Dream Lover
Endless Love
Enduring Love
Fatal Attraction
Fatal Instinct
The Forgotten
Hide and Seek
House of Games

The Invisible
Laws of Attraction
Lost & Found
Made of Honor

Marked for Death
Nick of Time
One False Move
Out for Justice
Out of Sight
Over the Edge
Point of No Return
Point Break
Primal Fear
Return to Me

The Rules of Attraction

Running on Empty
Secrets and Lies
Separate Lies
The Shape of Things
She's So Lovely
She's the One
Shoot to Kill
Sleeping With the Enemy
Something's Gotta Give

Stand and Deliver
The Sweetest Thing
Taking Care of Business
Til' There Was You
A Time to Kill

To Die For
Trial and Error
True Romance

Under Siege
View from the Top

What Lies Beneath

When a Man Loves a Woman

Wishful Thinking

Without Limits

Wrongfully Accused

How many of those films do you remember?

Okay, it's not as few as I'd have you believe. Some of them are in fact memorable, their titles' best (or worst) efforts notwithstanding. We remember Basic Instinct because Sharon Stone wielded an ice pick and flashed her beaver. We remember Point Break because Keanu Reeves yelled "I am special agent Johnny Utah!" We remember Fatal Attraction because of Glenn Close boiling bunnies.

Moments like these make a film -- and by extension, its title -- immediately memorable. But most films don't have indelible moments that instantly become part of our cinematic zeitgeist. And without even a memorable title to distinguish them, these films endure no better than half-remembered trailer fragments. Two years after they've left theaters, they're totally gone from even the bear-trap minds of the hardcore cinephiles.

The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain? Now there's a film I can remember. Even if I haven't seen it. (I probably should -- this is one of my favorite titles to bust out during moments of levity at parties).

I'm not saying that every film has to go for maximum eccentricity in its title. If every film title were Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we'd all have a big headache.

But is it too much to ask for your title to have something to do with what's in the movie? That lone ingredient can make an otherwise bland title seem more meaningful. Let's take something superficially generic, like Stuck on You. That movie could be about anything, right? Find out it's about conjoined twins, and voila! Titular relevance.

Okay, so maybe "state of play" actually means something within the context of State of Play. But the problem is, most of us will never find out. Liking Russell Crowe or Ben Affleck may put some asses in the seats, but not as many as in the past. The rest of us will just write it off as the latest forgettable thriller to quietly plop off the assembly line.

The irony is, a title like State of Play is actually chosen specifically for its marketability. It's like an amalgam of thriller buzzwords, jammed together specifically because it reminds your average viewer of other films they half-remember. (Maybe they're trying to get the same crowd that saw Crowe's most recent, Body of Lies). That title has been market-tested to within an inch of its life, and for what? They're not going to get me.

Then again, they were never going to get a viewer like me. If they wanted the Eternal Sunshine crowd, they'd have come at it differently. But they want the "of" crowd. They want the people who are soothed by a title with a well-placed preposition. They want people who will forget about this movie right afterward, because that's all it's supposed to be -- temporary disposable escapism.

As long as the money leaves the pockets that one time, that's the only "state of play" that matters.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


I've seen the large advertisement for Sleep Dealer enough times on my way home from work that I thought it was time I finally wrote something about it.

The little indie first caught my attention because of the rather arresting image you see to the right, which not so subliminally calls to mind a little 1999 film by Larry and Andy Wachowski. There's a sizeable billboard for Sleep Dealer perched about a quarter-of-a-mile from my house, and it's not the only one I've seen around town.

It's one of those movies you look at and can't quite comprehend, because you haven't heard of it, but it also sort of looks like it has a budget. Every time I'd sit at the traffic light contemplating it, I'd tell myself I had to look it up on IMDB when I got home. On about the sixth time I actually remembered to do it.

It turns out Sleep Dealer was at Sundance in 2008, and true to its appearance from the poster, features some kind of future-world big-brother network of computers as one of its main plot elements. I'm always curious about science fiction, since it's such a hard genre to do well. But I was even more curious about this particular movie, because I'd squinted to see the names listed in the billboard credits, and hadn't recognized any of them. In fact, most of them seemed to end in the letter A.

Yep, here was a large billboard in the middle of the city for a movie made in Mexico, by a Mexican, and starring Mexicans. LA's definitely the right city if you're trying to get Mexican viewers, but that's simply not something anyone tries to do here, at least not with movies. TV and radio shows, yes, but not movies. Mexicans aren't seen as a viable market. Maybe the studios just don't think they like movies.

But more generally ... when I thought about it, I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen a billboard for any movie that wasn't one of the two or three studio offerings that come out each week. I have plenty of other ways to be aware of those other movies, to be sure, but it's not because they're advertised. Especially not advertised on billboards.

I don't know the actual costs of these things, but to me, an outdoor campaign usually seems a more expensive advertising endeavor than TV. It seems to be the greater indication that you're fully committed to the movie. So I expected to see a TV campaign for Sleep Dealer accompany its arresting billboard. But the movie comes out on Friday, and I still haven't seen it.

Then I finally got it.

On that billboard, they can make people think they'll be seeing the next Matrix. But if they played moving images ... well, then the jig would be up, wouldn't it?

So Sleep Dealer appears to be the rare movie that benefits more from a single image than a number of them in sequence -- as movies are actually made. Then again, maybe it's not so rare. Every straight-to-video movie in the video store tries to grab you with a false promise of seeming coolness. Why should Sleep Dealer be any different?

Well, because it's actually going to theaters, that's why. That one picture of Matrix-like plugs going into Matrix-like outlets on the Matrix-like back of a Matrix-like guy with a Matrix-like shaved head seems quite a gamble for a movie getting released in theaters, especially one that may not be able to back it up.

To confirm my theory, I just went online to check out the trailer. Yep. I can hardly believe it's getting a theatrical release, and these C-grade images would shut down the core Matrix audience in no time flat.

Hey, I'm not saying it will be bad. I'm just saying that movies like this don't get theatrical releases anymore. They don't even get the chance to be good.

For their sake, let's just hope appropriating the image of Keanu Reeves for their advertising campaign gives them that opportunity.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Z movies

My wife and I stayed at a hotel last night to celebrate our first anniversary, which is today. We ended up watching Zack and Miri Make a Porno.* If there's anything more romantic than that, I don't know what it is.

Actually, we loved it. I'm risking controversy here, but I'd venture to say that it's Kevin Smith's best film. Clerks and Chasing Amy may endure better in the zeitgeist, but this is definitely his most mature achievement as a filmmaker. Which is funny to say about a film where a guy's face gets shit on while filming an extreme close-up of two people having sex.

At the very least, it's a terrific comeback after a string of disappointments like Jersey Girl and Clerks 2 (neither of which I've seen, but I'm going on the general sentiment). It has the perfect balance between vulgarity and sweetness, and is genuinely funny. Plus, I've never noticed Smith using music as well as he does here.

I'd had Zack and Miri recommended to me, but there was another reason I wanted to see it. Namely, it helped add to my very modest collection of movies starting with the letter Z.

Now, the number of movies they've seen starting with a particular letter is not a consideration for most people. Then again, I am not most people. Since I have an Excel spreadsheet of all the movies I've ever seen -- which has made its way up to 2,710 with Zack and Miri -- I'm in a lot better position to statistically analyze my viewing history.

Because it's easy enough to do, I continually update the totals by letter of my film titles. S is in the lead by far, with 293 movies. B is a distant second at 227.

Z? Seven movies, and now eight with Zack and Miri. In fact, there are so few that it's easy enough for me to name them: Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Zathura, Zelig, The Zero Effect, Zodiac, Zombie Strippers, Zoolander and Zorba the Greek. The only one with fewer titles is, as may be expected, X, with just four.

What does it all mean? Absolutely nothing. But it's a fun thing for a movie geek to keep track of. It makes watching the movie feel at least 8% more special.

When I saw Zombie Strippers as one of my final movies before I finalized my 2008 rankings, I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that the decision was partly influenced by seeing a movie that starts with the letter Z. The more important factor was that I thought it could be some good exploitation fun, and about 15 minutes of it actually was. But that Z title played some kind of role.

But most of the time I'd rather not force it. I'd rather watch a Z movie (or an X movie, or a Q movie) only when it crosses my path naturally.

Like Zack and Miri did, for a mere $12.99 charge ($14.06 with tax), on the night celebrating my first wedding anniversary.

* - For those interested in my movie dates post, I saw Zack and Miri on April 11th. On April 11th of 2004, I saw The Girl Next Door, which features Elisha Cuthbert as a porn star. Coincidence? I think so.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Overheard at the theater

I attended a screening of a movie called Lymelife on Thursday night, my third such screening on the heels of seeing Departures early last month. My wife gave me a really good route to get to the theater, so I arrived 15 minutes early. I'd eaten a small dinner, but there was no place within easy walking distance to grab a supplemental snack, and I'd already parked, so I just went in early.

I was trying to read my Entertainment Weekly, but this was one of those screenings where a lot of people knew each other, and I was finding it hard not to be distracted by the other conversations going on around me, as I sometimes am. The one closest to me was particularly hard to ignore, as it featured a British guy sitting in the row in front of me, talking to a guy and a woman sitting next to me. The last two were not British. To follow up on the logic of my last post, I'm racist against British guys, so I thought the fact that he was British was worth mentioning.

Anyway, two dowdy women in their mid- to late-60s came up to this British guy to ask him if he wouldn't mind moving over, because they needed two seats. A fairly ordinary request, you will agree.

Except that there were already two seats open next to the guy. As well as two seats in the row in front of him, which was still a perfectly optimal distance from the screen.

Unwilling to be bullied by the strange whims of two eccentric ladies, he pointed this fact out. He did indeed have another open seat on the other side, but rightly, he didn't see the logic behind relocating.

One woman, the less bizarre of the pair, seemed perfectly happy to occupy the seats adjacent to the British fellow. But the first woman stood firm. "I was just thinking about your left eye, how you have trouble seeing out of it," she told her compatriot.

"I'll be happy to move if you just tell me why I need to move," said the British guy, who by this point was looking quizzically around him, and for confirmation of the weirdness of this situation from his friends in the row behind. When the ladies' attention was turned elsewhere, the British guy asked his friends, "Am I being punk'd?"

I'm no physicist, but I can find no way that these women's viewing angles would be significantly altered by the guy sitting directly next to them, or with a buffer in between, regardless of the condition of anyone's left eye. The request simply didn't make sense, unless they had some issue about being seated next to this particular guy. He did have a bit of an air of danger about him, his hair closely cropped almost to the point of being totally shaved, and his outfit a bit London punkish. But if that was their concern, they could have just sat in the row in front of him.

They ultimately accepted the seats next to him without further argument.

I will never understand the peculiarities and inexplicable deficits of the human brain.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Racial police

I don't want to harsh everyone's buzz here on a Thursday with the weekend looming and all, but I do want to get a little serious here for a minute.

Now, I'm not going to sit here and say that Baby Mama is a racist movie. But I am going to say it could have worked harder to avoid appearing that way.

I had the displeasure of catching the last 20 minutes of Baby Mama Tuesday night as my wife watched it for the first time. It had been one of my least favorite comedies of 2008, and in fact, one of my least favorite films of 2008 period. Not that I want to pigeonhole actors and actresses, but Tina Fey is as far removed from a sarcastic Liz Lemon type as you can get in this movie, and what's worse, neither she nor anything else in the film is funny. The best words I can use to describe the script are "conventional," "straightforward" and "lame." If Steve Martin is the funniest part of your movie, and it's the year 2008, then that's saying something.

Oh, and then there's that uncomfortable racism.

What racism, you ask? You're saying maybe you watched Baby Mama but didn't notice it?

I'm not so much worried about the title, which is basically an unflattering, grammatically incorrect social construct lifted straight from the African American community, inviting us to laugh at the frequent occurrence of children being conceived out of wedlock. I'm also not that worried about the performance of Romany Malco as a doorman in the erstwhile Liz Lemon's building, even though Malco has better avoided slumming into "stereotypical behavior" in his other films.

No, what really concerns me is one throwaway moment near the end, during what I'll call the "gloomy montage." You're familiar with the "gloomy montage" -- it's the moment late in a film when all the characters are bummed about their current relationship to each other and the world, and they are all shown glumly pursuing their various daily activities, to the tune of some mildly soppy theme music.

At one moment in this particular "gloomy montage," the character played by Greg Kinnear, a lawyer-turned-juice purveyor, is watching in disinterest as his new employee tries to blend a juice for a customer. The employee starts up the blender, and the contents splatter all over the place. The employee recoils in horror, all bug-eyed and open-mouthed, and stays fixed in that pose for about five seconds of screen time while Kinnear absently picks the blender lid off the counter and encloses it, so it will no longer splatter. The employee isn't let off the hook by getting to smack his forehead and say "Duh, I forgot the top." Nope, he just stares in shock and confusion, like he's never even considered the concept of a splatter-proof enclosing mechanism.

Did I mention this new employee is burly and black, and has corn rows?

So what are you saying, Baby Mama -- black guy don't know how to work a blender?

What was almost certainly just a case of unfortunate casting and lazy writing ends up conveying a whole lot of bigotry on the part of this film, even if it was unintentional and unreflective of the filmmakers' feelings.

First off, it's a pretty dumb idea for a scene. Any person who has ever used a blender in his or her life -- or even seen a blender used -- knows that safely affixing the lid is a prerequisite to hitting the "blend" button. Having a blender spew fruit innards is a pretty visual way to dramatize the work-related malaise of Kinnear's character, but it just has no basis in plausibility.

Then to randomly decide to cast the character as African-American ... surely something had to go into that decision, right? I would argue that the easiest way to cast an extra whose identity is essentially unimportant is to cast as bland-looking a white person as you can find. Make them any ethnicity, and it's as though you thought about it before you did it, as though you did it for a specific reason.

Considering both of these factors, Baby Mama's "black dude who can't operate one of the kitchen's most simple appliances" looks pretty darn bad.

I grant you that this is an extremely politically correct perspective to adopt. Someone who disagrees with my point might argue, "See, this is the problem with you liberals. So what, you're saying a movie can never feature a black character who doesn't know how to use a blender?"

Well, maybe not. Maybe not if he's then shown the correct way by a white man dripping with disdain about the simplicity of the task the black guy just screwed up. Maybe not if the director tells the black actor to just stare in horror at his mistake.

But my real point is that someone needs to think about these things before committing them to film. Someone needs to review the content of a film with a fine-toothed comb, to avoid appearances of bias that aren't intended. Surely no one would consider the director's artistic vision to be shackled if the role was simply recast as a slacker with a goattee trying to operate the blender, rather than this black kid. Better yet, just write the scene in a more believable way.

The point is not whether I should be getting this impression from the film -- it's the reality of the fact that I do, and that it would have been easy to fix.

Television advertisers are innately aware of these types of racial politics. They don't need to be told, don't need to mess up and have their mistake pointed out to them. Or more accurately, they benefit from other advertisers' past mistakes, and take pains not to repeat them. Why do you think that the black guy will be the smart one and the white guy will be the dumb one any time they're paired on screen, and have a difference of opinion about the product in question? It's not because there couldn't be a scenario where a black guy and a white guy are friends, and the white guy happens to be smarter. It's that the opposite dynamic sticks out, makes us notice it, and makes us question the bedrock moral principles of the company that created the product being advertised.

I'm not saying Baby Mama should have been called Surrogate Mother or even Baby's Mama. But I do think that if you call your movie Baby Mama, you should make sure all of its black extras know how to operate blenders.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Baseball vs. movies

It's baseball's opening day. This is a wonderful thing.

But it does mean that my movie watching, which has taken a noticeable dip from "frequent" to "infrequent" in the month since I moved, is about to take another dip.

I most frequently watch movies socially, with my wife or with friends, on a weekend night or occasional weeknight. But to keep up with my ambitious viewing schedule, I've got to fit them in at other times, and my next most likely time slot is the afternoon, after I get home from work. Three days a week, I can be back to my house by about 4:20-4:25, and since my wife usually works until 7:30 or later, that gives me plenty of time to tick a flick off my list.

Well, not anymore. Now that time is devoted to baseball. If it's not on TV, I'm happy enough to follow it online. And with the arrival of the MLB Network -- which as far as I can tell is free, and plans to show plenty of games -- there'll be more televised baseball to appreciate than ever before.

Bye bye, movies.

It's a sickness born of playing fantasy baseball. Since the two championships won by the Red Sox this decade have lessened some of my rooting intensity for my home team, my two different fantasy baseball leagues, one of which I run, are happy to fill that void. And especially at the beginning, when the mere return of the sport makes a fan like me giddy, and anything is possible, I'll just sit there online, messing around on facebook, and waiting to see when my next hitter is coming up to bat.

It's an enjoyable sickness, but it's a sickness for sure.

Of course, movies will not totally fall by the wayside. I'm just too passionate about them for that to happen. But my greatest dueling passion is now upon us, and will be for the next six months. Lord help me.

Here's what'll really happen. I'll still watch movies in the afternoons, only slightly less often than I do the rest of the year. But I'll watch them with my laptop on my lap, or not far away. And I'll pause the movie 17 times for little check-ins on the day's baseball happenings. So a 90-minute movie will take the full three-plus hours from when I get home, to when my wife calls it a day, and would like to kick back with some TV watching of her own, which usually does not involve either baseball or the movie I'm half-heartedly plodding through.

How thoroughly are you really absorbing a movie if you pause it 17 times and have one eye on a computer simulation of a baseball game? Not very thoroughly. Fortunately for me, a lot of the movies I tick off my list during these afternoon windows are movies a person doesn't need to watch very thoroughly to review. Just don't tell anyone, okay?

It does trouble me a little, but today I won't worry about it. At least for today, the first day of the baseball season, I will bask in the ceremonial start of spring, and in the return of my second great non-human love.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Lean & Mean

Here, let me publicize a question we've all asked each other at one point or another in the last couple months:

Does dropping two instances of the definite article really constitute a new title?

Oh but wait, they also turned that ungainly "and" into an ampersand. Which is much longer to type out as a word, but two characters shorter as a symbol.

Fast & Furious is, of course, a sequel/reboot/reimagining/reheating of The Fast and the Furious, which came out in 2001. In between there has been 2 Fast 2 Furious (one of my favorite titles of all time) and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

The latest title invites some jokes, but we shouldn't be surprised. Here you are seeing brand recognition at its finest. Whether it really is a sequel or a reboot doesn't matter. The tagline is purposefully ambiguous about the answer to that question: "New Model. Original Parts." What matters is that this lean and mean new title allows you to imagine it as either. Subconsciously, it tells you that the product is back to some pure, undiluted version of itself.

You see, the third title in this series is what studios are trying to fight these days. Having a colon in your title was all the rage a couple years ago, but nowadays, it gives people a bad case of sequelitis. "Wait, so this third movie is now set in Tokyo? And there are none of the same characters? How far have we moved away from our original concept?" It's no surprise that Tokyo Drift earned only $62 million domestically, less than half of the $127 million made by its predecessor. Meanwhile, 2 Fast 2 Furious dropped only $17 million from the $144 million taken in by the original. Maybe it was that awesome title.

So with Fast & Furious, Universal is telling us, "Hey, this is the closest you're going to get to that first movie you loved." (Which wasn't really all that great, let's be honest.) Having Vin Diesel reappear for the first time certainly helps, but the title is what really drives it home. It says, "Let's get back to the basics. Only, a bit more rad."

Reboots have done this for a number of years now. Just think of last year's Rambo. Not surprisingly, it is the shortest title in the series, though Rambo III misses that by a mere three lean and mean roman numerals. (Nowadays, we would never see a movie called Rambo: First Blood Part II). Rambo basically says to you, "Forget all you think you know about John Rambo. This is the essential John Rambo, as that brief and memorable five-letter title will tell you." Sylvester Stallone seems to like that stuff. Rocky Balboa followed a similar idea, with the addition of the last name adding an authenticity that told you you were getting the real deal with this one. (Though I'm kind of shooting my point in the foot here, since the title Rocky Balboa actually has more letters than any other title in the series).

Star Trek is on board for this too. Even the original movie wasn't called Star Trek, it was Star Trek: The Motion Picture. (Talk about something you'll never seen again in a title). This Star Trek is making a conscious play for non-Trekkies, who get confused by concepts like "Wrath" and "Khan" and "The Undiscovered Country" in titles. It says, "Forget all that static, that Search for Spock, that Insurrection, that Nemesis. This is all you need to know and will ever need to know about Star Trek." We'll just have to see how they title the inevitable sequel.

The other thing the leanness and meanness of Fast & Furious does is it makes the title more vulgar, more pedestrian, more mainstream. If you think about it, the original title was highly poetic for a commercial action movie, almost literary. Or at the very least, it calls to mind other things entirely. It was very close to the title The Filth and the Fury, a 2000 documentary about the Sex Pistols. Other titles coming to mind: The Quick and the Dead, The Falcon and the Snowman (okay, that's different) and The Slow and the Dim-Witted (okay, I just made that up). Anyway, the point is, there's a certain high-brow quality, a certain intellect, to titles patterned The Blank and the Blank. The very phrasing is an embrace of abstractions. There are many things a movie about drag racing wants to be, but intellectual is not one of them.

But even if it were the exact same title, that's hardly something we should be surprised about either. Reboots go by the exact same title all the time, just as remakes do. The goal is not to make it easier to find in IMDB. They give you the year in parentheses if you want to do that. No, the goal is to put asses in the seats. And I can guarantee you Friday the 13th sold a lot more tickets with that title than it would have if it had been called Friday the 13th Part XII: Jason Joins Facebook.

The question is, will I see it? Nah. If I didn't even see 2 Fast 2 Furious, it's clear that no title is enough in itself to put my ass in that seat.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Translation vs. transliteration

I was re-watching Julian Schnabel's absolutely wonderful The Diving Bell and the Butterfly the other day, and it reminded me once again of the true function of subtitles.

They aren't to give us the exact translation of the words, as some choppy (and hilarious) Engrish subtitles from Japanese movies would have it. Rather, they're there to tell us what the characters meant. And more than anything, not to trip over themselves in adherence to the literal.

Even if you've never taken a single French class, you'll probably realize there's something wrong with the subtitles in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. But we'll get to that in a minute.

The true story concerns Jean-Dominique Bauby, a former editor of the magazine Elle. After suffering a stroke, Bauby (or Jean-Do, as his friends call him) develops an extremely rare disorder called "locked-in syndrome." The syndrome paralyzes everything in Jean-Do's body except his eyes, leaving blinking as his only method of communication. As if that weren't bad enough, the doctors must sew up his right eye in order to prevent it from becoming septic. A fully functioning brain, and only a single eye as its outlet of expression.

In order to maximize the potential of that fully functioning brain, a speech therapist develops a system to help Jean-Do "speak," as it were. She reorganizes the letters in the alphabet according to their frequency of use in the French language, and then reads the letters off to him. When she reaches the first letter of the first word Jean-Do wants to say, he will blink. Then she'll start over again with the second letter of the first word, until it's obvious what word it is. Then on to the next word. And so on.

Well, Schnabel et al encountered a slight problem with this on the translation side. Namely, do you maintain absolute fidelity to the dialogue, and translate the letters that are actually being spoken, or do you fudge the translation in order to spell out the English word in the subtitles?

They opted for the latter. I think it's the right decision, but it still leaves the viewer in the unusual position of watching Jean-Do blink over the letter M, and have the letter D appear in the subtitles. Then on to the letter O, and have the letter E appear. Then on to R, and have an A appear. Jean-Do is spelling the word "mort." But we're seeing the English word "death."

Did they have an alternative? Well, not a good one. The only other thing to do would be to spell "mort" as it's being spoken, then maybe include the English translation in parentheses. It'd look something like "mort (death)." But that would tend to blunt the impact, wouldn't it?

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly also called to mind a second issue I have with subtitles as they are used generally. And on this one, I'm not sure I agree with the approach.

Namely: How come songs sung in foreign languages seem to also rhyme in the English translation?

Jean-Do's children sing him a song to lift his spirits, and I noticed that the words were sounding right in French, and looking right in English. But most words that sound the same as other words in French aren't the same words that sound the same as the same other words in English. The probabilities are just not favorable. (I tried to find the nursery rhyme sung by Jean-Do's children on the internet, to truly test my theory, but I had no luck).

Yet there's some perception by the subtitlers that we English audiences would consider that song less pretty, less song-like, if its words did not appear to have a rhyming English translation. Even though logic tells us that it would be impossible to rhyme in two languages at once and still keep your meaning, thereby forgiving the failure to rhyme in the translation.

Well, the conclusion seems obvious: Instead of the actual words of the song being sung, words that mean a similar enough thing are what we're seeing in the subtitles. At least, let's hope the words have a similar meaning. If the meaning is not very similar, aren't you subtly changing what's being communicated by that song? Sure, a lot of the time, the exact meaning of a nursery rhyme is unimportant. But sometimes, it sure the hell is.

I don't know, I like to think I'm mature enough as a viewer to get that the song rhymes in some language, even if it's not the one I speak.

I hardly think The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the only film guilty of this, which is why I'm just meaning to discuss a phenomenon in general rather than point an angry finger at this terrific film.

And it is terrific -- no matter what your native language. In fact, it's such a unique story, so uniquely told, that even people who hate reading when they're watching movies will love how it communicates the act of communication.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Blockbuster loses ground to Netflix

As of tomorrow, I will have lived in my new house for exactly one month. I love everything about it. Everything, that is, except its poor proximity to a public mailbox. And since our mailman seems unwilling to take our outgoing mail, public mailboxes it is.

At my old place, the proximity was perfect. There was one right on the corner. Up until a couple months ago, at least, at which point it was mysteriously uprooted. I guess even the post office is going through a recession. Strange, too, because it was on a main road. Still, I had a conveniently located mailbox for most of the time I lived there.

At my new place, on the other hand, the closest mailbox is one loooong block thisaway, followed by one loooong block thataway. My wife tells me that it's not that bad, and really, it isn't. But it's more than just a walk across the street. If you're getting there on foot, it'll be a five-minute round trip. You can't just swing by on your way to the car, especially if you're running late, which I always am.

Normally it would not bother me that I didn't have an easily accessible mailbox, because like most people, I don't send as much mail as I used to. Unfortunately, I am sending a lot more mail than I did just a month ago.

That's because Blockbuster has made a significant change in its rental policy. One that shrinks the size of its advantage over Netflix, and has me seriously questioning my choice of online rental purveyor.

First, a little history.

I get endless amounts of guff for having an account with Blockbuster rather than Netflix. Most people who share my larger world view think that Blockbuster is the WalMart of video rental companies, while Netflix is the friendlier Target. In a vacuum, I'd agree. But I can't ignore the real-world differences that give Blockbuster a leg up. In fact, the reasons for my preference are manyfold, and until recently, I never had much trouble making the argument for Blockbuster.

Let's start with the negatives about Netflix. I used to have a Netflix account, and I liked it just fine. But when I took an involuntary hiatus from reviewing movies from late 2003 to early 2005, I decided my Netflix account was a luxury I could no longer afford. When I tried to come back, and take advantage of some special deal that Netflix was offering, they rudely told me that the deal was intended for new customers only, not returning customers. This pissed me off, and I joined Blockbuster on principle. Don't want my business? Fine, I'll give it to your main competition.

Plus there was the whole class action lawsuit against Netflix. If you don't remember, Netflix was sued for a practice called "throttling." According to the lawsuit -- and since Netflix settled, we should assume the allegations had merit -- the company had a practice of delaying shipment of movies to people who watched too quickly. A returned rental should immediately jar loose the next in the queue, but Nextel decided that certain customers were taking too much advantage of the system by watching and returning the movies as soon as they got them. It was a totally legitimate way to utilize the service, but Netflix came to regret the leniency of their own rules. So they simply slowed the whole process down by inserting a buffer of several days when they felt a customer was getting too good a deal. They relied on the built-in variability of the postal delivery speed as a form of plausible deniability -- though it didn't keep them from getting caught. Meanwhile, customers who turned their movies around less quickly, and therefore brought Netflix a higher return, always received their next movie immediately, keeping them completely satisfied. If the high-volume renters complained, Netflix basically didn't care. Those renters could take their business elsewhere, and Netflix would only lose its least valuable customers.

This, of course, is illegal. Shame on you, Netflix.

But Blockbuster was not merely my only other alternative. Their business model had a ton going for it as well.

First off, Blockbuster has the distinct advantage of actual brick-and-mortar buildings. This means spontaneous access to the most popular new releases (which frequently read "short wait" or even "long wait" in the online queue), as well as a decent selection of older releases. If you wanted more obscure titles, you still had to go online, but that's fine, because most avid viewers like to watch a mixture of the obscure and the mainstream, the old and the new. Blockbuster still sent you a maximum of three movies at a time through the mail, and complemented that with a couple coupons a month for free in-store rentals. Netflix had no answer to this.

But wait, it got better. Blockbuster then decided that any movie you would normally return through the mail would now serve as the equivalent of an in-store coupon. You sealed the return envelope and brought it to the counter when you were ready to check out your next in-store movie. They'd mail it back for you, and you'd walk away with something new without any charge. They did cut back on the number of coupons that you printed online -- now there was only one a month. But that didn't matter, because you could always find something to return in exchange for something new. And the act of returning it still dislodged the next available movie in your queue. If you timed it all right, you could theoretically have six of Blockbuster's movies in your possession at any one time -- actually, seven, if you used your monthly free coupon.

It was like movie heaven. I was drowning in movies. It got so that I'd only drop a movie in the mail if I were heading out of town, and therefore didn't expect to get the immediate utility out of the in-store rental. I felt like I were getting away with something.

Unfortuantely, Blockbuster felt the same thing. And like all good things, this too had to come to an end.

And so it was that a couple Thursdays ago, I walked into the Blockbuster in El Segundo and saw a new sign up on the wall. The sign was excited to inform me that there would no longer be any due dates for in-store rentals, at least for those of us who had the online account. This didn't knock my socks off, because I'm not the kind of guy who normally has trouble meeting return deadlines. Even if I were, Blockbuster only penalizes you once 10 days have passed since the day you rented -- and that's only with new releases. For older releases, you get closer to 16 days.

Of course, I should have realized that the recession would cause Blockbuster to reexamine a business model that had given us way too much for way too long. Yeah, you could now keep new releases from the store for six months if you wanted. But here was the difference: You wouldn't get another new movie through the mail until you returned it. No longer could you theoretically have six Blockbuster movies at once. The new maximum would be three, or four if you added the monthly coupon you print out from the website.

I had already been having a bad day when I discovered this, and so it was with an extra sense of glumness that I brought Role Models up to the front counter. I asked the woman for clarification to make sure I understood the policy change correctly. Unfortunately, I did.

I'm convinced this had something to do with why I didn't like Role Models as much as I thought I should.

This may seem like a lot of background and explanation for what amounts to a relatively small policy change. But the small change has made a big difference in my movie watching habits. I now have to weigh the new release against the online (obscure) rental. Blockbuster used to let me have both -- now it's forced me into an either/or. And now I don't really know how much difference there is between Blockbuster and those impudent throttlers at Netflix.

[Is this post boring you to death yet? Me too. I'll try to hurry it along.]

Maybe I should explain the distinction I observe between my two rental methods. My online queue is filled almost exclusively with titles I doubt I will ever find in the store, and movies I've been approved to review usually creep up to the top of the queue. I need to have a steady flow of these coming in, in order to stay on top of my reviewing work. But since I can't just watch movies for work, I need to complement this flow with new releases, things I can pick up on a whim for a Friday night. These two channels kept my renting world in harmony.

Oh, I hustled Role Models back to the store the following Monday and got my new movie soon enough. But in the past I wouldn't have prioritized returning it, at least not until I was on the verge of having to pay a fee. I might have returned it sooner if it were convenient, but I wouldn't have been worried, because my new movie would be arriving in the mail anyway. It afforded me the chance to wait until I had to run errands near the Blockbuster -- not make a special trip.

Since Role Models, I've watched four Blockbuster movies I received through the mail. I haven't returned a single one of them for an in-store rental. And this has meant memorizing the locations of all convenient mailboxes on my regular driving routes, like I might memorize ATM locations, or the locations of my favorite gas station chain. Dropping my Blockbuster movies in the mail has become a special errand unto itself. And while I can still spontaneously return one for a new release, it's at the expense of my secondary source of income.

So I'm wondering ... do I let Blockbuster go? Do I forgive Netflix and go with the sentimental favorite in this clash of the titans? The one who actually blazed the trail in the whole movies-through-the-mail concept? After all, my wife has a Netflix account. It would be easy enough to expand her two-per-month program into something we can both share. (The fact that we even have separate accounts is ridiculous, but let's just say we each have our own viewing priorities, and each like to be masters of our own queues). Lately I've even had to acknowledge the potential superiority of the Netflix catalogue. With certain titles I'd been assigned to review, but couldn't find on Blockbuster, my wife saved the day by adding them to her Netflix queue. For which I am grudgingly grateful.

It may all be moot soon anyway. The future of both Netflix and Blockbuster seems to be downloads, movies you can watch without involving the postman at all. Without involving inconveniently located public mailboxes, or drives to the video store. I've been as slow to give myself over to that as I've been slow to stop recognizing CDs as the primary method of delivering me new music. But it's certainly an approaching reality.

I don't send my letters through snail mail anymore. Maybe it's time to stop sending and receiving my movies that way as well.