Tuesday, September 29, 2009


A confession: Up until a few minutes ago, I thought the "lubber" part of "landlubber" was a derivation of the word "lover." Therefore, a "landlubber" would literally be a "land lover," a person whose fear of the sea is so intense, it can only be described in terms of his love of the sea's opposite.

Not the case:

lubber: a big, clumsy, stupid person; lout.

So using this term to describe diminutive Jesse Eisenberg is even less appropriate than I originally thought. But at least I didn't call this post "Land lover" -- which would have been intended to remind you of "landlubber," even though the two are not related, and "land lover" itself does not actually mean anything.

Enough of all that.

The point is -- and it feels very belabored -- that Jesse Eisenberg seems to love land, if his last two film titles are any indication: Adventureland back in April, and now Zombieland this coming Friday.

If he does indeed hate the ocean, could it be because he's still scarred from watching the central epic battled in The Squid and the Whale?

(Someone give me a rim shot.)

I wasn't a particular "lubber" of Adventureland, but I sure as hell am looking forward to Zombieland. Not only does it look like they got the black comedy tone just right, but it also features Emma Stone, whom I've praised in this blog previously.

This Sunday afternoon, anyone?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

About five years too late

A couple years ago, I was sitting in the theater when a trailer came on featuring a bunch of boisterous young people dancing in one of those loft studios, the kind that always seem to be in New York City. The kids were of different races and genders, and their dialogue was pretty snappy.

And I thought: "Finally, the remake of Fame."

Except it wasn't. It was Step Up 2: The Streets. Yet another pop culture outlet for young people undergoing the rigors and challenges of becoming performers.

I say "yet another" because American society has been inundated with movies and TV shows devoted to the heartwarming stories of unlikely youngsters overcoming the odds to excel at their chosen craft: singing, dancing, acting, playing an instrument, kabuki theater, what have you.

In this sea of product that has been influenced in some way by American Idol, how does a film like today's Fame remake have any chance of standing out?

It seems like a rare failure on Hollywood's part to strike while the iron's hot. While we were all waiting for the Fame remake as the least surprising "idea-that-would-eventually-transpire" of all time, dozens of other movies and TV shows were barraging us with the same material, inevitably blunting the impact an eventual Fame remake could have.

The actual movies riding this country's wave of renewed interest in the performing arts -- such as Save the Last Dance, Step Up, Center Stage, Step Up 2: The Streets, Take the Lead, the High School Musical series, etc. -- pale in comparison to what you can find on TV. In the last half-decade we've been force-fed all manner of performance competition-based reality programming, from the aforementioned American Idol to Dancing With the Stars to So You Think You Can Dance? to America's Got Talent to even a revamped (and short-lived) version of Star Search. And now this fall, a prominent fiction TV show -- Glee -- is also offering up a dance number and show tune every five minutes.

Again, how does Fame compete?

Answer: It probably doesn't.

Even though conventional wisdom might project a successful theatrical run precisely because America is inundated and obsessed with this stuff, I don't think that will happen. Instead, I expect Fame to be lost in the shuffle. Its thoroughly unmemorable advertising campaign -- the above image looks like a reject from an ipod commercial -- won't help.

Prediction: $40 million total box office take, tops. That's not a bad haul, but it's not what the studio expects from a brand with this kind of name recognition.

And it's half of what they probably could have gotten, say, five years ago.

Friday, September 25, 2009

My name, but not my face

Well just lookee what the good old internet can find for you. A five-panel montage of the most common outdoor ads for Surrogates, due out tomorrow.

(And yes, I do recognize the following irony: I vowed last Friday to dig deeper into the meat and potatoes of films, rather than dwell on things like their advertising campaigns, yet three of my four posts since then have been about movie posters. Let's just say that old habits die hard.)

The first billboard I ever saw for Surrogates was the middle one, the blonde lying on her stomach. I considered there to be a couple interesting things about this billboard:

1) I laid my eyes on it about three times before ever realizing it was even an advertisement for a movie. Since it was executed in the abstract style of ads for perfume and clothing, at first I just mistook it for one of those -- a prospect made easier by needing to keep most of my attention on the road while passing at 35 mph. I think the second or third time, I noticed the word "surrogates" and thought that seemed like a strange name for a perfume. I now laugh at myself that it took until the fourth time before I realized the woman's midsection was incomplete, composed only of metal endoskeleton. That would have been more immediately evident if I'd seen either of the top two posters first.

2) Bruce Willis, whose name is on the billboard, does not appear on the billboard. Nor does he appear in any of these other four pictures, though his name appears in each. With the two that feature the guy -- who, like Willis, has a shaved head -- you might for a second think "Damn! Bruce Willis has been working out!"

It was #2 that made me realize that there can be an odd disconnect between wanting to advertise the star of a movie, and wanting to advertise its content.

Now, I'm not saying that the only posters that should bear the names of movie stars are the posters that also bear their faces. That would obviously be quite restrictive. Besides, many of the best movie posters don't have the face of an actor or actress on them at all.

But I do think it's a little weird when there's one name on the poster, and one face on the poster, and they don't match. If you'd added one more star -- um, let's see, Radha Mitchell -- then it might have made a little more sense. But as it was, it struck me as odd.

Yet I really like the concept of the campaign. I'd hardly want to sacrifice that, either. It tells you a lot about what you might be getting -- without telling you much at all. What the hell do I mean by that? It sets a mood. You know this film will be something about the artificial creation of physical beauty. The fact that they appear to be androids makes it all the more intriguing -- it's science fiction, and science fiction always holds the potential to blow your mind. (If you're like me, you forget all the times it massively disappoints you).

Someone must have felt the same sense of uneasiness I did about Willis' name next to the body of a smoking hot cybernetic organism, because after awhile, I started to see these posters appearing:

Okay, that answers one concern: You've got Bruce Willis appearing next to his name.

But what else do you really know about Surrogates from this poster? The blue hue and the circular tunnel both give you an idea that it probably takes place in the future. But you really have to squint if you want to see what else they're trying to offer you, which is a row of, well, surrogates, I guess, along the bottom. And squinting's not that easy to do at 35 mph.

So the posters of the models win. But then, do you take Willis' name off?

Like most of the discussions on this blog, this one is academic. The movie comes out tomorrow, and there will be no new posters made.

And I think I might go. In fact, I think I might go tomorrow. My wife has not shown particular interest in Surrogates, which means it gives me the perfect opportunity for a solo expedition after work. I'm not "opening day pumped" for it -- it just happens that tomorrow is the day I can conveniently see a movie, and it's opening day. After all, it's been a whole nine days since I've seen a movie in the theater. I'm falling behind during this September, which has been a surprisingly fertile one for new releases.

Normally, a sci-fi film released in late September should not inspire a person with much hope, and there's every chance this could be more S1mone than The Terminator. However, there is a chance it could be The Terminator, and here's why: Surrogates is directed by Jonathan Mostow, who also directed the quite passable Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Of even more interest to me is that he directed a little 1997 Kurt Russell thriller called Breakdown, which I happen to love. (As well as U-571, which I did not see).

So ultimately, whether Bruce Willis is in it (not the draw it was ten years ago), or whether there are hot model robots in it (still a draw), is not as important to me as the guy behind the camera.

Where's the Surrogates poster featuring Mostow's mug?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A retraction

In two different posts earlier this year, I cast a skeptical eye on a little Mexican sci-fi film called Sleep Dealer. In the first post, it was a direct attack. In the second, it was indirect, more of a dismissal of it as "the best they could come up with" for the Latino image awards.

Well, I saw the movie last night, and darn it if it wasn't really good.

You may remember (especially if you just followed the first link above) that my skepticism was primarily based on what I considered to be its theft of the iconography of The Matrix in its billboards. I'm pleased to tell you that writer-director Alex Rivera does not actually owe a debt to the Wachowski brothers -- at least, no more so than any other filmmaker who has been influenced in some way by their landmark film. It's got plenty of its own interesting ideas about the way linking our bodies to machines may one day change our day-to-day existence -- even if those ideas are in fact purely science fiction.

For example, the central idea is very interesting: That one way for the U.S. to outsource its labor would be to have not only its tech support in other countries, but to keep the actual people doing the grunting and lifting there too. Sleep Dealer posits a world where workers slaving away on 12-hour shifts in Tijuana could connect their bodies to machines via cables that enter nodes affixed to their skin. In that way, they could remotely control robots that climb up and down the sides of a San Diego skyscraper under construction, or milk cows in Iowa. The movie sardonically -- though, alas, probably accurately -- suggests that some Americans would love the benefits of Mexican labor, without having to look at or tolerate actual Mexicans.

Oh, and that's only one of the many interesting ideas this movie touches on. You should definitely check it out.

Another complaint I had was that I doubted there would be any way for Sleep Dealer to meet the visual expectations of a viewing public raised on top-notch special effects. Well, having watched it, I feel guilty for having blithely assumed that good visual effects were impossible without Hollywood money. Yeah, you can tell that Industrial Light & Magic wasn't involved, but darn it if those effects don't look plenty good on their own. Good enough, anyway, when the script is as good as Rivera's script is.

I was already planning to pimp Sleep Dealer in my blog today when I noticed over breakfast a newspaper ad for Pandorum, which made me realize I had even more reason to let Sleep Dealer off the hook. I don't think Pandorum has much to do with The Matrix either, but it's no less guilty of trying to remind us of The Matrix with its own poster, as seen above.

And if I'm going to give either movie the benefit of the doubt, it should be the one that really needs the help to get the viewers it deserves, not the one starring Dennis Quaid.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Don't judge the book

Now that 13 years have passed since David O. Russell's Flirting With Disaster was released, I think it's safe to say -- without hyperbole -- that it is one of the funniest comedies of the 1990s.

It may not have the household name recognition of some of the decade's other hits, but most of those who've seen it tend to break out in a grin upon hearing the title. And, frequently, quote some of the great lines from it. "You said mutilated!" "Please."

If you haven't seen this screwball comedy/road trip in which a neurotic adopted New Yorker (Ben Stiller) is driven to find his birth parents before he can name the baby his wife (Patricia Arquette) has just delivered, which turns into an epic multi-city journey involving an ever-growing party of fellow travelers (Tea Leoni, Josh Brolin, Richard Jenkins), then you need to go do that as soon as possible.

But please don't judge the video by its cover.

As we were watching my copy of Flirting With Disaster this past weekend while out of town with friends, I couldn't help but notice how ridiculously cheesy the DVD cover is -- and how poorly it advertises the product you're truly getting here. (See Exhibit A above).

Seeming more like a video cover from the late 1980s than the late 1990s, the Flirting With Disaster DVD cover seems fixated on making this movie primarily about extramarital temptation, when that's only one of the myriad funny things going on here. Other ways this cover is hilariously simplistic: 1) The characters are literally cut out from the space in which they were photographed, then pasted on a white background, while none of the poses they strike here are actually in the movie; 2) Tea Leoni's character is made to appear like some vampish femme fatale, when she's really just a flustered divorcee in over her head, trying to document the reunion between a grown adopted child and his birth parents as part of a study she's conducting. Another thing: I don't have any idea when that picture of Ben Stiller was taken, but it seems at least five years younger than how Stiller actually looks in the movie.

You flip over the DVD and it doesn't get much better. The pictures are better -- they're at least actual scenes from the movie. Stiller tries to get a video camera unhooked from Leoni's dress, revealing stockings and some thigh; Stiller is attacked by one mistaken birth father (David Patrick Kelly); Mary Tyler Moore lifts her shirt to reveal the perkiness of her sixtysomething breasts (concealed by a bra, naturally). But the two pictures featuring female undergarments seem designed primarily to support this ridiculous "critigasm" in the upper quadrant: "A sexy, laugh riot!" - PBS Flicks. Not only do I not think that's a particularly apt way to summarize the movie -- while it's very funny, its sexiness quotient is not as high as advertised -- but I also quibble with the grammar. If you are going to call something a "laugh riot" -- a dubious phrase if there ever was one -- the least you can do is treat it as a compound noun. Therefore, it would be "a sexy laugh riot" rather than "a sexy, laugh riot." You see, "sexy" tells us what kind of laugh riot it is, not what kind of riot it is.


I suppose Flirting With Disaster is not materially different from any number of movies that use advertising to trick you into expecting a different movie than you actually get. I discussed one of the most criminal cases of that here. And I suppose getting a product that's better than advertised is a lot better than getting a product that's worse than advertised.

But there was just something about that cheesy cover that made me have to write about it ...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

No body

The Megan Fox Empire took a major hit this weekend when Jennifer's Body, the heavily marketed high school horror featuring Fox as a demon in the body of a jailbait goddess, stumbled in at a disappointing fifth in the weekend box office, tallying just $6.8 million.

This placed it behind all three of the weekend's other major debuts -- Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs ($30.1), The Informant! ($10.5) and Love Happens ($8.46) -- as well as behind week #2 of I Can Do Bad All By Myself ($10.1). If you consider that most movies make at least twice as much in their first weekend as their second, and the pattern tends to continue downward like that from there, it suggests Jennifer's Body will be lucky to approach $20 million. Fifteen million is more realistic.

Wow, what a definitive judgment on the public's oversaturation with Megan Fox.

Many of us tended to think that Fox herself was a significant driving force in the gargantuan ($401 million to date) box office haul of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. But take out the transformers and Shia LaBeouf, and Fox herself brings in less than $7 million on opening weekend.

It's not like this is Fox's first failure to put asses in the seats. Fox also appeared in last year's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, which (justifiably) amassed a piddly $3 million in ticket sales. But there, she shared the poster with Simon Pegg, Jeff Bridges and Kirsten Dunst. Plus, none of the ads featured her kissing another girl in underwear that tightly hugged her frame.

That's right, with Jennifer's Body, they made Fox as sexual as they could -- as well as making a film in the ever-reliable horror genre -- and still made only $6.8 million on opening weekend.

How could this be?

The only explanation is that anyone who doesn't have posters of Fox on their walls is tired of her relentless overexposure. You can't visit an entertainment site on the web without some story about some innocuous thing she said. Not everything Fox has said is innocuous, mind you -- she tends to put her foot in her mouth, or even intentionally say controversial things just to get more attention. But the point is, she doesn't need it. Even the innocuous things are excuses to put up another startling picture of her in a startling outfit at some premiere.

Because Megan Fox is startling, objectively. There are few starlets who have come along who so clearly represent the heterosexual male's agreed upon definition of female beauty. So much so, in fact, that Fox seems to belong most appropriately in a movie like this Friday's Surrogates, which is full of robots who look like humans. Because Megan Fox is some kind of indomitable robot of hotness, with which you can't reason, isn't she? She doesn't seem human.

But that's also kind of the problem with her as an actress. Seeming human is hugely important to being loved as an actor or actress, and being able to endure in the industry beyond your "flash in the pan" stage. Even if you don't have huge amounts of talent -- which Fox does not -- you can keep going with some talent and plenty of beauty, as long as you are also sympathetic. But Fox is not sympathetic in the least. Even if she could pull off sympathetic -- though none of her roles have really asked her to -- she's too imposingly beautiful to even qualify. No one can feel sorry for a person with such ridiculous physical attributes.

And now it also appears that Fox has grossly miscalculated her own staying power in the movie biz. Sure, she has plenty of projects still lined up. But she also turned down what would have probably been her most high-profile project, the title role in the long-gestating big screen version of Wonder Woman. I don't know why she turned it down -- I can't be bothered to look it up -- but there would have been a virtual guarantee that she would have filled theaters on opening weekend, as panting fanboys stumbled over each other to see her in that tight-fitting outfit. My guess is she turned it down for reasons similar to why Vin Diesel turned down some of the roles that would have kept his career from entering a permanent rut -- he thought he was too good for them. Rather, now, it seems like Wonder Woman is too good for Fox. If they want that character to usher in a franchise, they need an actress with a lot more soul. Or, any soul at all.

The latest I've heard about Fox is that she is one of the final contenders for the title role in the remake of Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy. (Along with Angelina Jolie, appropriately). If they want that one to open big, the producers might want to look at what Fox did with Jennifer's Body this weekend.

There's no doubt it will be quite some time before Megan Fox ceases to be ubiquitous. For those who drool over her, that's a good thing.

For the rest of us, well ... it now appears we won't have to wait forever for this flash in the pan to disappear.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Spoilers to follow (in a different post)

I've had my blog for almost nine months now, and I am considering making a change.

Not a radical change, mind you. But as I reflect on the things I've been writing about, I realize that I have not been writing about film as much as I originally thought I would.


I haven't been writing about film? What the hell have I been doing, then?

Well, you may have noticed an inordinate number of posts about things tangential to the films themselves. Titles. Movie posters. Trailers. Patterns in career choices by actors and directors. Granted, if it's a movie I haven't seen yet, that's all I have to go on. And I feel firmly that I want this blog to have the function of discussing upcoming releases. Gives the blog more currency than if I am just telling you about watching Freddy Got Fingered or The Pride of the Yankees.

But another important component of this blog should be discussing the content of films -- especially films most of us have seen. Discussing theories about how characters are similar in a director's body of work. Talking about whether a third act in a certain movie is a cop out. Debating the effectiveness of a particular plot twist.

So why don't I do it?

One word: Spoilers.

You see, as a critic, one of my cardinal guiding principles is to keep from revealing spoilers. In one sense, a film review can be viewed as one giant spoiler -- by saying whether a movie is good or bad, you're helping people decide whether or not to see it. A negative review of a film you're excited to see can be the ultimate way of "spoiling" it. I have friends who don't even want to know whether I like a movie a lot, or just a little, because they don't want their viewing to be biased. Depending on the movie, I sometimes do the same.

But more commonly, we consider spoilers to be information revealed about a movie that prevents it from being viewed from the perspective the filmmaker intended. We all know what a spoiler is -- I don't need to tell you that you'd watch The Crying Game much differently if you knew from the start that the chick was a dude.

And so, as a critic, it's my job to make sure you don't know that. And it can be hard, because sometimes, a twist plays a crucial role in whether a movie is worth recommending or not. Sometimes you have to talk yourself in circles, use abstractions, to kind of half-indicate there is a twist, without saying it out loud. Even the simple fact that there is a twist -- regardless of what that twist may be -- is usually spoiler enough. It causes a viewer to be suspicious of anything that's presented to them in a straightforward way, and renders the eventual reveal of the twist anticlimactic. Far too many critics are careless about how they talk about spoilers -- you don't even have to say what the spoiler is to ruin it.

I've taken this informal critics' code with me to this blog. I've tried to make this blog a safe zone, where you did not have to worry about landmines of unwanted information. Some like-minded publications have taken to issuing warnings, either in the body of the piece (Warning! Spoilers to follow!), or as a banner above the piece (Warning! This piece contains spoilers!). There can be nothing more frustrating than reading a piece that fails to include one of these warnings when it's direly needed. You're reading along, minding your own business, not expecting anything juicy to pop up and bite you, and Wham! You find out Darth Vader was Luke's father.

So why can't I use these warnings in this blog? After all, I am a critic -- it's possible you might like to know what I actually think about the movies I see.

A perfect example came recently when I saw District 9. Whereas numerous critics were rhapsodizing about how it was the most important piece of science fiction filmmaking since Star Wars, I felt quite differently about it. In fact, although I give the film a thumbs up overall, I have a litany of complaints about it that make it a close call. What better place to air these out than my blog?

Except I was worried about spoilers. I was worried about ambushing you, my readers, with commentary/plot reveals that you didn't want. And perhaps, on some level, I was worried about you skipping the piece and forgetting to come back to it once you'd seen District 9. Which is patently ridiculous, when you think about it. The surest way for you not to read a piece of my writing is for me not to write it.

And why should I care if you read all my posts, anyway? If you are reading even some of my posts, you are doing better than 95% of my personal acquaintances. (Hey, blogs just aren't for everybody).

And so begins a new venture:

Actual film criticism appearing on this film critic's blog.

Don't know when the first piece will appear, don't know what it will be about. But the monkey is off my back.

And now it's on yours. Get ready to be spoiled.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A confluence of 9s

I'm trying to figure out if the reason there's so many movies with 9 or nine in the title this year is because it's 2009.

That seems too easy. But could it really just be a coincidence?

I saw Shane Acker's 9 on Tuesday, and it seems pretty clear that Focus Features embraced the year tie-in once they recognized it. After all, the film was released on 09-09-09. But there's no need for the chicken-or-the-egg debate to start, because Acker's film was based on an Oscar-nominated short, also called 9, which he made in 2005. Because 9 is the name of one of the characters, and the film also features characters named 1, 2, 5, 6, 7 and 8, he could have actually changed the title with the times if that had really been his plan. But then the first movie would have been called 5, and that would have just been silly, because 5 is a relatively small character in the film.

Then there's another film this year called Nine, the latest from director Rob Marshall (Chicago), scheduled for release on November 25th. This too doesn't really seem to be specially timed for the current calendar year. In fact, this film has an extremely serpentine history that got it to this point. The original 1982 musical, with book by Arthur Kopit and lyrics by Maury Yeston, was actually based on an Italian play, and that play was inspired by a movie, Federico Fellini's 1963 masterpiece 8 1/2. Not only that, but in 2003, Nine: The Musical won a Tony for best revival, and featured the likes of Antonio Banderas and Jane Krakowski. The film features such heavyweights as Daniel Day-Lewis and Nicole Kidman. In short, with all this behind it, you'd think that its 2009 release was simply felicitous, though it's hard to be sure.

And then of course there's District 9, likely to be the box office champion of all these. Ironically, like 9, District 9 is also based on a 2005 short film by its director, Neill Blomkamp, whose first film was not called District 9, but rather, Alive in Joburg. The film operates as a (not very subtle) metaphor for Apartheid, and the title itself references a real place in Cape Town, South Africa, called District Six, which was declared a "whites only" area in 1966. One would think that the actual choice of the number 9 was somewhat random -- the movie might have just as well been District 8 or District 11.

So, just a coincidence, I guess.

One thing I can tell you: 9 was a short-ass movie. Slightly longer than its forbear, to be sure, 9 still clocked in at a mere 79 minutes. (There's that number 9 again).

"How short was it?"

Well, it was so short, I had to go to the bathroom before it even started, but decided to just hold it. That's right, I'd filled my bladder up with a Coke on the drive up, then a beer at the theater bar (I met five other friends a half-hour beforehand, expressly for this purpose), and I still said "Ah, fuck it" when I walked in to the theater and the trailers were already playing. Instead of alleviating a known need to urinate, I decided that 79 minutes was short enough to hold it.

And not only did I hold it for those 79 minutes, but I didn't even end up going until 25 minutes after the movie ended, after driving back home.

Now that's a short movie.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The 40 Year Old Informant!

Am I the first one to notice a similarity between the posters for The Informant! and The 40 Year Old Virgin? (Shown with one hyphen in the title here, but most often represented without any hyphens.)

Yep, there's something to be said for making us think of doofuses from the late 1970s or early 1980s when advertising a comedy.

I'm not sure what it is, exactly, but when a movie poster mines nostalgia from this era, it really works for me.

However, it's not quite as simple as that. Neither of these movies is actually set in the era its poster invokes. Despite his cheesy mustache, Matt Damon's informant is based on a real person from the early 1990s. And despite his unironic striped polo shirt and neatly parted hairdo, Steve Carell's virgin is straight out of present day. (The present day of 2005, when the movie was released, anyway.)

Likewise, I think a poster that uses signatures from the late 70s/early 80s, for a movie also set during that era, would not stand out to me -- would not have the same impact. In that case, it would just be realism/period appropriateness. In the two cases above, it's pure artifice, deviously designed to rope us in. Instead of feeling manipulated, however, I recognize what it is, and love it all the more.

Put simply, the era in question speaks to us right now. And by "right now," I don't mean September 15, 2009. I mean it speaks to Generation X, the generation expected to add the most to these movies' coffers, even if younger audiences will be heavily represented as well. And it has been speaking to us for some time now, at least as far back as the 2005 poster for Virgin.

Consider another poster I found for Virgin. Would you have been quite so interested in the movie if this is what they'd circulated to advertise it?

I think not. It looks no better than any dumb T&A comedy from the last two decades. You've got a cheeky pun in the tagline (the harder it gets -- heh heh, huh huh), and then you've got the V in Virgin doubling as a zipper on a pair of pants. Plus, a garish and totally unimaginative title font. What a crap-ass poster.

But throw a little 1970s/1980s irony in there, and you're prepared for the movie you'll actually get -- something hilarious yet sublime, something highbrow even in its most lowbrow moments. Who knows how adversely the box office would have been affected by this other poster, or whether the movie would have even reached the audience that has elevated it to among the best comedies of the last ten years.

I can tell you that the poster they did use was a factor in ratcheting up my excitement tenfold for Virgin. It was original and striking.

And I have to admit, even though I've enjoyed the trailers for The Informant!, it was that funny poster with the giant-sized, twice hyphenated "unbelievable," and the cheeky delight in Matt Damon's eyes, that really made me think this could be something special. It's just a poster, of course, but there's something avant-garde about it, something that suggests a whimsical outside-the-box quality to the whole production.

This is "fun Steven Soderbergh" we're getting rather than "serious Steven Soderbergh," so it's hard to know how far outside the box he was allowed to stray during this, his every-other-movie debt to the studios. If you've followed Soderbergh's career at all, you know he follows a "one for me, one for them" system, almost pathologically alternating pet projects (Full Frontal, Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience) with easily accessible, mainstream product that rakes in the dough (Oceans Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen). This is a topic that's worth exploring at length some other time, but let's just say another aspect of the Informant! ad campaign is to leave no doubt about the Soderbergh you're getting here. The trailer trumpets "From the director of Ocean's Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen!" And, probably of equal importance, The Eurythmics' "Would I Lie to You?" plays manically throughout the trailer.

But I'm not saying I want the serious Soderbergh all the time. I just want the guy whose movie poster gave me a nebulous sense of optimism, that same optimism I felt when I first looked up at those billboards and saw an earnest Steve Carell grinning back down at me.

You know, an earnest Carell who would have seemed perfectly at home in, say, 1981.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Okay, this is getting ridiculous

I'm hardly the first person to think or say the following things, but I am the first person to think or say them on this blog. (I'll let that set in a moment ...)

What's up with Jennifer Aniston continuing to make movies whose titles speak directly to her ongoing and very public failure to both find and keep a romantic partner?

The latest is Love Happens, due out this Friday. There are any number of Aniston-related punchlines that could stem from this title. They range from the obvious ("Um, no, it doesn't") to the indirect ("Love happens just like shit happens, and for Aniston, love certainly has proven to be shit.")

We're all familiar with both her romantic history (very public breakups with Brad Pitt, Vince Vaughn, John Mayer, Bradley Cooper, etc.) and her history of movie titles. But it doesn't hurt to list some of these titles here -- when lumped together, they provide all the more evidence of Aniston's uncanny career choices.

How about:

He's Just Not That Into You (2009). Yep, much as she is America's sweetheart, and waves upon waves of regular guys would stumble over each other to date her, Aniston keeps picking guys who just aren't that into her. Even when they are considerably less famous (Cooper) than she is.

The Break-Up (2006). Although this is the movie where she actually started dating Vaughn, now that they're broken up, it just seems like more and more of a perfect symbol of all her failed relationships.

Rumor Has It ... (2005) If the tabloids are any gauge, there's no more rumored about person in America.

Derailed (2005). A good one-word description of her seemingly perfect relationship with Pitt?

Management (2009). A stretch, but doesn't this title speak to how poorly her PR team has managed her love life in the press, especially letting Aniston continue to tell interviewers, less and less convincingly, that she is "over Brad"? Even if it's true, to keep telling people you are over your ex-husband, nearly five years after your marriage ended (which is more like ten years in Hollywood years), is poor image management indeed.

Marley & Me (2008). Men are dogs. Okay, this one's kind of a joke.

And that's not counting the titles from before her love life was a public obsession, such as She's the One (1996) and Picture Perfect (1997).

Looking ahead to the future, the tradition figures to continue.

The Baster (2010). A romantic comedy in which Aniston is artificially inseminated. The irony is that one of the reported reasons for her separation with Pitt is that she refused to place her career on hold to have kids. But then in recent years it's come out that she does want kids, and it's one of the driving forces behind her search for "the one." (It can't help that Pitt and Angelina Jolie have made or adopted about 12 of their own kids since then).

So is Jennifer Aniston some kind of incurable masochist?

I don't think so. What it really comes down to -- and this undercuts my whole argument -- is that many romantic comedies have titles or plots that can be made to have metaphorical significance for a romantically embattled star. For example, how about a list of movies in which Aniston did not star?

As Good As It Gets (1997)
Boys on the Side
Broken Flowers (2005)
The Crying Game (1992)
Desperate Measures (1998)
Domestic Disturbance (2001)
Down With Love (2003)
The End of the Affair (1999)
Enduring Love (2004)
Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
The Ex (2006)
Fools Rush In (1997)
Go Now (1996)
Happily N'Ever After (2007)
He Said, She Said (1991)
Heartbreakers (2001)
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003)
Infamous (2006)
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
I've Loved You So Long (2007)
The Ladykillers (2004)
The Last Kiss (2006)
Life Without Dick (2001)
Love and Other Catastrophes (1996)
Love Stinks (1999)
Love's Labour's Lost (2000)
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
Mr. Wrong (1996)
On the Ropes (1999)
Only the Lonely (1991)
Paparazzi (2004)
Rachel Getting Married (2008) (See what I did there? Her character from Friends?)
Seeing Other People (2004)
Single White Female (1992)
Something to Talk About (1995)
The Story of Us (1999)
Stuck on You (2003)
Trial and Error (1997)
27 Dresses (2008)
Unfaithful (2002)
What Women Want (2000)

See? Much more. And that's only including movies that she could have actually appeared in, because she was a working actress at the time. I had to skip some really good older ones.

Well, maybe Aniston is finally sick of it as well. Word has come out recently that she is taking a break from acting, though the clarification "at least until January" means it doesn't sound all that newsworthy.

Then again, anything Jennifer Aniston does is newsworthy. We can't help it. We love her. Myself included. She's our sweetheart.

I hope one day she finds one as well.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A controversial viewing

I'm a Red Sox fan. And so it was with great difficulty that I finally watched The Pride of the Yankees yesterday afternoon.

It had been on our DVR since July 5th. That's when MLB Network played the film in order to honor the 70th anniversary of Lou Gehrig's "I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth" speech, which he gave upon his retirement from baseball. He was forced to retire in order to fight -- well, to fight Lou Gehrig's Disease, which killed him only two years later. I don't believe they called it that at the time.

Sam Wood's 1942 feature is not really about the Yankees, per se. It's about this man in particular (played by Gary Cooper), and it's an interesting snapshot of baseball in the 1930s, not that they concentrated very seriously on this aspect of the film. One thing I didn't know before watching was that Babe Ruth appears as himself in the film.

But there was something peculiar about watching it, and not just because my eyes were continually drawn to the scrolling baseball scores along the bottom of the screen. I have such a habit of looking for updates in this fashion, my mind didn't grasp the fact that the statistics were two months old. It's kind of like when you have a light bulb out, yet you still keep flipping the switch out of instinct the next 20 times you enter the room.

No, it was peculiar just to be watching a movie called The Pride of the Yankees. It took some amount of physical effort for me to finally do it. It's that same peculiarity a North Carolina fan would feel watching a movie called Duke! Duke! Go Duke! You just can't get behind the idea of having "pride" in your sports world enemy, even though, according to the grammar of the title, it's actually their own pride in their own guy, not our pride in them.

My Red Sox have actually had a leg up on the Yankees the last couple years. The rivalry that burns so intensely has favored the guys from Boston ever since 2004, when the Red Sox turned the tables on the Yankees in the playoffs, stormed to an unprecedented comeback, and won the franchise's first World Series since 1918. The Red Sox won again in 2007, while the Yankees haven't made it out of the first round of the playoffs in their last three appearances, and didn't make the playoffs at all last year.

But this year, things are coming up Yankee again. The team currently holds an 8 1/2 game lead in the standings over the Red Sox, looking to win its first division title since 2006. And while the Red Sox are still positioned to make the playoffs as things stand now, they're being hotly pursued by the Texas Rangers for the wild card spot. It's certainly conceivable that the Yankees could win their first World Series since 2000, and the Red Sox could watch the entire playoffs from home.

So I figured, I better watch The Pride of the Yankees now, before the decision to do so becomes that much more burdensome.

So what did I think? Well, it was made in 1942, which makes it a bit hokey. See some of my previous discussions about adjusting your expectations for films made in such a different era from the one we live in. You kind of have to give it a thumbs up, even if you weren't technically enthralled by it, and gave in to the powerful impulse to nap somewhere in the middle.

And even though I thought Gary Cooper's performance was a bit broad at times, he did make it clear that Lou Gehrig was indeed an incredible athlete, gentleman, and ambassador for his sport. More than being the pride of the Yankees, he was really the pride of baseball. I'd even say the pride of America, if it didn't sound goofy and jingoistic.

And heck, he was the pride of the Yankees too. As it so happens, on the very day I watched the movie, Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter eclipsed Gehrig's record for most hits as a Yankee. A record that had stood, as mentioned above, for 70 years. Seventy years of talented baseball players who wore the Yankee uniform.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the movie never ripped on the Red Sox, or their fans.

Thank heavens for small favors.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Faking the numbers

We're all familiar with the 555 telephone exchange. It may be the most widely used, widely accepted piece of artifice in the movies and TV. The 555 exchange doesn't exist anywhere in the U.S., which is why it's safe to create fake phone numbers using this exchange. Otherwise, the thinking goes, every idiotic yahoo would pester every person in every area code who has that number. It wouldn't just be 867-5309 that needed to be retired.

Don't think it would actually work that way? Don't think people are actually that childish and predictable? Just ask the producers of Bruce Almighty. Famously, in that film, Bruce receives a pager number where he can reach God: 776-2545, sans area code. This number did not exist in 716, the local area code for the film's Buffalo setting, but that did not stop viewers in dozens of other area codes from calling the number and asking for God. It's not clear how many of these calls were jokes, and how many were real, but that hardly matters -- it was a major disruption to the owners of those phone numbers. On DVD and when televised, the number now appears as 555-0123, as generic a number as possible. So much so that it's almost a spit in the face: "See, we could not trust you with something realistic, so you get the most fake number we could come up with." So much for trying to give the human race some credit.

As much as the Bruce Almighty thing backfired, I respect them for trying. Fake phone numbers tend to stand out like sore thumbs. Granted, Bruce Almighty isn't a movie that's exactly going for verisimilitude, so it was probably more than they needed to do. But in an otherwise serious, realistic film, it can be distracting to see one of those 555 numbers flash on the screen. The same way it's distracting to see a character drink a beer called BEER.

What I really like is when a movie or TV show actually buys the number in question in order to use it. It would seem to be a pretty minimal charge, relative to the budget, and they could even use it as a form of marketing, leaving an outgoing message that relates to the plot. I believe the TV show 24 did this. I guess there are still a couple issues: 1) Even if you showed the area code, viewers could call the number in a different area code; 2) You'd have to be committed to that number in perpetuity, since a viewer might watch the TV show/movie at any given time in the future. There are reasonable limitations to how much you can protect people from themselves.

I suppose while I'm on the subject, I should mention one other clever thing that is sometimes done in movies set in the early years of telephones, when people used the letters that corresponded to the digits while giving out their phone number. They'd say, "Operator, please connect me to KL5-7294." That's still 555 -- the K and the L both appear on the 5 key -- but at least it doesn't register falsity in your brain like a 555 number does.

What's this all leading up to, other than a somewhat interesting discussion that doesn't really cover any new ground?

Well, I was watching Julie & Julia this week, and I noticed that they didn't know what the heck to do with the phone numbers in this movie.

Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and her husband Eric (Chris Messina) live above a Queens pizza parlor. There's at least one shot of the outside of the pizza parlor, which shows its phone number. It's the Queens area code (718, I believe) followed by 555 and then who cares which four digits. Pretty standard stuff.

But then they decide to abandon this the next time phone numbers come into the plot. Namely, Julie's blog has blown up, and she has 65 messages (seems a bit excessive) on her answering machine from various magazines/newspapers/websites/publishing outlets that want to interview her/offer her a book/make her rich and famous. (And whose answering machine can even hold 65 messages, anyway?) We hear a snippet of about five or six different messages, which tend to bludgeon us with just how well things are going for our protagonist.

Here's the thing -- they aren't 555 numbers here. Nope, they are the other great way of fabricating a phone number, heretofore undiscussed in this post. They are numbers with a real area code, and then, instead of 555, a three-digit exchange that start with 0 or 1. You know, if these calls were coming from Manhattan, they might be 212-167-4918 or 212-083-3787.

You see, the phone company can't give out numbers like this because they don't work without the area code. If you tried to dial 167-4918, the phone would expect that you were dialing 1-674-918-, and then would still be expecting four more digits. And if you tried 083-3787, you wouldn't get any further than the 0. The operator would be on the line asking what you wanted before you got to the third digit.

This I like. You know on some level it's a fake number, if you listen closely. But it doesn't stand out like a 555 number. It has a basic plausibility. It goes into your head without immediately setting off warning flares.

Okay, but that still leaves questions about Julie & Julia. If they were going to use this more convincing, more seamless method of fabricating phone numbers in the answering machine sequence, why not for the exterior of the pizza parlor? It's all the stranger because they seem to be patting themselves on the back in the answering machine sequence, going out of their way to list three or four phone numbers in their entirety, when the dialogue simply could have been tweaked so you didn't have to hear the full number in each message.

The only thing I can guess is that it has something to do with how it looks. Maybe 167 or 083 just doesn't look right as a telephone exchange. Maybe they consider that number to appear as more of a distraction than the standard 555, when seen on the exterior of a pizza parlor.

I don't have any conclusions. It's just a way to waste 1,000 words on a Friday morning.

One thousand eighty, to be exact.

See, I'd never give you fake numbers.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Kill the colon

Before I leave behind G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra for good, I did want to mention one more thing about it. It's a perfect example of something I find silly.

Namely, the over-complication of titles for the first movie in a series.

Wouldn't it be better to name the first G.I. Joe movie just, simply, G.I. Joe? I guess this would rule out the possibility of there ever being a Rise of Cobra, because Cobra would have to rise in the first movie.

But it seems to make sense that having a subtitle, for want of a better word (what do they call it in the industry, DGB?), is best suited to the second and third movies of the series.

G.I. Joe need only look to its fellow blockbuster franchise based on Hasbro toys, the Transformers movies. The title philosophy makes perfect sense. Name the first film Transformers, then the second film Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Then the third film, in 2011, can be Transformers: Bigger, Longer and Mercilessly Uncut.

But G.I. Joe is not the only film guilty of a premature colon in its title. Another good example is Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. What would have been so hard about calling the first movie just Pirates of the Caribbean? The way they did it, it just makes for a longer and more unwieldy title.

Now, long and unwieldy titles do have their place. I don't think anyone would have wanted to deny Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan by making it just Borat. (Maybe Bruno would have been more successful if it had been Bruno: In-Your-Face Gay Jokes for Reveal Prejudice of American Public).

Movies based on previously produced material get a pass as well. One of the most unwieldy titles of recent years was The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But everyone knew that book, so no one demanded the title to be shortened. Besides, they were setting up a naming system to keep the whole thing under the Narnia brand. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian was a lot fewer characters, but as the titles in this series get more obscure, they seem a lot less marketable -- nay, downright clunky. Take the next movie in the series: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, due out next year. Who the hell knows what a Dawn Treader is? Walden Media is sure hoping you do.

So colons have their time and their place. Let's review: First movie in the series? Bad. Second and on movie in the series? Good. First movie in the series if the source material is famous? Yes, okay.

And that's all I have to say about that.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Drink paranoia

So we finally got to the drive-in on Saturday, and it was not without supplies.

That's right, we knew we'd be in for a three-movie night if everything went according to plan. This was a new drive-in for us -- the Mission Tiki in Montclair, rather than the Vineland in City of Industry -- so we didn't know how closely they monitored the rules. Theoretically, for the bargain price of $7, you were purchasing admission to a double-feature on one screen. Changing screens between movies, or staying to watch a third film when the first half of each double feature played again at 11:30, could be seen by some establishments as breaking the rules.

So we settled on the double feature of Gamer and A Perfect Getaway, hoping for an 11:30 bonus screening of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra on a different screen. As discussed in a previous post, we didn't have any interest in Joe's partner, Robert Rodriguez' Shorts. Truth be told, our interest in Gamer and A Perfect Getaway was only marginally higher -- and having seen them, now I can say we probably would have been better off with the much-maligned Shorts. But at the time, we decided to fit a square peg into a round hole if we wanted to get to the drive-in this summer. We had to decide on something. So Gamer and A Perfect Getaway it was. (Never mind that the drive-in stays open into the fall, and possibly year-round. In our minds, it's quintessentially a summer thing).

Of course, if we were going to see all three, we'd need plenty to drink. And eat. But mostly drink.

And when I say plenty, I mean plenty.

You see, serious drink paranoia settled in upon leaving the house. This happens to me a lot when I'm gearing up for two+ movies. If it's in the theater, I stuff a backpack with liquid and solid treats, on the theory that I never know what I might want over the course of four hours. (Surprisingly, they don't seem interested in checking your backpack when you go to the theater. I could be trying to bomb the place and no one would be the wiser).

When you're driving your car in, on the other hand, it's a lot easier. You can literally take whatever you want. It doesn't have to fit into a backpack. You can basically recreate the semi-unlimited options of your kitchen in the back seat and trunk of your car.

So we got out the big cooler, and loaded ...

... and loaded ...

... and loaded.

During the break between Gamer and A Perfect Getaway, I decided to take inventory.

The cooler contained:

Four (4) Newcastle Brown beers
Two (2) Mike's hard lemonades
One (1) Lemonade-flavored Vitamin Water
One (1) 20-oz bottle of Sprite
One (1) 1-liter bottle of Ginger Ale (with cups for sharing)
One (1) bottle of Juice Squeeze Mountain Raspberry drink
Three (3) Sweet Leaf ice tea drinks, two (2) mint & honey and one (1) mango (we got four free cases off the back of a truck from some guys marketing the drink, who were too lazy to give them away individually)
One (1) Lizz Blizz (pina colada flavored) Sobe drink
One (1) can of Coke

But were these 15 beverages enough? Oh no, not by a long shot. Not nearly enough caffeine represented there.

So after we stopped at Quizno's to pick up our sandwiches (and an individual bag of salt n vinegar potato chips for me, which will seem all the more ridiculous in just a moment), I made sure to stop at a gas station to stock up some more. (They only sold Pepsi products at Quizno's, and I wanted a Coke. The aforementioned can was purchased specifically for my wife. She likes them in cans, I like them in bottles. Somehow we make it work).

A superfluous stop at the gas station could have been a dangerous move, because we thought we could be running late. Once at the old drive-in, we got caught in a long line of cars outside the theater and had to choose a different movie that started later. This time, it worked out fine, but if it hadn't, my drink paranoia would have been to blame.

So at the gas station I purchased:

One (1) 1-liter bottle of Coke
One (1) 20-oz bottle of Mountain Dew (I wanted Mountain Dew Code Red, but they didn't have it)

Oh, and I also purchased:

One (1) bag of Twizzlers
One (1) bag of peanut M&Ms
One (1) Twix

And why was this so ridiculous?

Because in our possession, for food, we already had:

One (1) half-finished bag of Snap Peas
One (1) unopened bag of orange slices (the gummy candy)
One (1) unopened bag of Parmesan, Garlic & Herb Trader Joe's Pita Chips
One (1) tupperware container containing approximately 15 Trader Joe's dark chocolate mint creams
One (1) half-finished bag of Righteous Rounds chocolate chip cookies
One (1) unopened container of Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Crisps

And of course our sandwiches. I got a large. My wife was smarter and thought smaller.

And don't forget that miniature bag of salt n vinegar chips just to top it all off.

I guess that doesn't quite top it. I was also drinking a mango Sweet Leaf iced tea on the drive out, which I insisted on finishing before getting to anything else.

So did we drink and eat ourselves into a coma?

Nah. I'm sorry to say that we made a pathetic dent in our supplies. In fact, the sandwich pretty much filled me up, though I dutifully finished the chips as well. In Gamer I drank the bottle of Coke, and was rummaging around trying to find the Twizzlers buried under pillows and blankets in the back seat when the movie mercifully ended. I found and ate the Twizzlers during A Perfect Getaway almost to prove to myself that they were a logical purchase. I also drank one of the four beers, well, because I could I guess. You'd figure I'd really need sustenance for when G.I. Joe started at 11:30, but strangely, I didn't even drink a single beverage during its running time. Though I did bust into the orange slices, because I love those damn things. I did open the Mountain Dew to get me through the hour-long drive home at 1:30, but drank only a couple sips, and eventually finished it over the course of three sittings. My wife's consumption ended up being even more modest than mine, so I won't mention it.

So what did we learn?

Well, nothing, really. I'd say it was a learning experience if some of the stuff had gone bad and we'd had to throw it out. But the sloshing ice in the bottom of the cooler kept everything in good shape. The Twix did get a little melted at some point, but I think that must have happened while sitting on my kitchen table on Sunday. We shared it last night after hardening it up in the freezer a bit. The rest of everything else has rejoined our refrigerator or pantry, none the wiser for its brief role as concession insurance at the drive-in.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The world's most diverse director

With some directors, we scoff at how small their comfort zone is. Each film in his or her ouevre is a clear thematic progenitor to the one that comes after it. Generously, we might call this a signature style, or a set of familiar interests. Not so generously, it's rote repetition, going back to the same well because you can't think of anything new. (Yes, Guy Ritchie, I'm looking at you.)

Then there are those directors who do something absolutely, 100% different every time. Or maybe I should just say "director," singular, because I can think of few other directors quite like Ang Lee.

He's the ultimate chameleon. Ang Lee never wants to make anything that's like anything he's ever made before.

Taking Woodstock is just the latest in that trend. Then again, Lee must have been really disappointed in himself. After all, there are some homosexual themes in Taking Woodstock. Fortunately for Lee in keeping his streak going, there's not a single other thing about the movie that resembles Brokeback Mountain.

So just how diverse is Ang Lee really? Well, let's take a look.

Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994): I'm going to have to conveniently skip over these films in my analysis, because I haven't seen any of them. But let's just assume, since they are from Lee, that they are different from each other. So we can pick up when Lee made his first English-language film.

Sense and Sensibility (1995). For this first film with an English-speaking cast, Ang Lee was already showing his ability to be different. There was no dipping his toe in the water to take things slowly. He launched straight into a beloved Jane Austen novel, and a powerhouse cast to boot. Not only was this film nominated for best picture, it was considered the favorite until Braveheart built up a groundswell of Academy favor. (Get used to disappointments in the best picture category, Ang).

The Ice Storm (1997). It was out of the 19th century and into the 1970s for Lee with The Ice Storm, his look at the deleterious effects of the sexual revolution on one outwardly functional Connecticut family. If you're desperate to find any similarities to Sense and Sensibility, you could say that both address the fickleness of the human heart, but the similarities end there. While Sense has a brightness and lightness of tone -- I feel like almost every scene occurred in daylight -- The Ice Storm is bleak, taking place mostly at night, and mostly on the night of a frigid winter storm that blankets the region in frozen water. Another thing in common with Sense: This film was praised through the roof, and deservedly so.

Ride With the Devil (1999). Lee's first (but not last) film to be tepidly received by critics, Ride With the Devil goes back to the 19th century, but on a different continent with a very different set of concerns. It's a Civil War film, and its only similarity to The Ice Storm is that it features Tobey Maguire. (It also features Jewel in her first and pretty much last dramatic acting role, but that's another story). I haven't seen Ride With the Devil, but just looking at the synopsis I can confidently state its different-ness from the films that came before and after it on Lee's resumé.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Like, say, this one. Lee returned to China to make the highest grossing foreign film ever released in the United States, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Nothing in his directing history would have suggested that he was on the verge of making one of the most ambitious and lavish martial arts epics of all time, one that featured breathtaking wire-work stunts, the likes of which most Western audiences had never seen. (Perhaps just as amazing: He got an incredible performance out of Michelle Yeoh, even though she didn't speak a word of Mandarin and had to learn her lines phonetically). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon earned ten Oscar nominations, winning four statues, and Lee continued to prove his uncommon flexibility as an artist.

The Hulk (2003). Staying with the massive scope of Crouching Tiger, but nothing else, Lee next made The Hulk, a brooding, over-long summer tentpole. While the film was widely considered a failure, prompting another big-budget incarnation of Marvel's famous green menace just five years later, no one could fault Lee for continuing to reinvent himself, to stretch the limits of his capabilities. Lee's second adaptation of wildly popular source material is as different from his first (Sense and Sensibility) as can be, involving the use of special effects and comic book panels, and creating some truly memorable moments in a generally forgettable film.

Brokeback Mountain (2005). Lee returned to universal critical acclaim with yet another tectonic shift in his themes, Brokeback Mountain. The story of two cowboys who discover their love for each other on a variety of "fishing trips" in Wyoming of the 1960s and 1970s, Brokeback Mountain was the most talked about movie of 2005, with good reason. Not only did it contain one of the most prominent central gay relationships ever featured in a mainstream film, but it also boasted gorgeous cinematography and a quartet of indelible performances (Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway). The film was sure to win best picture until Crash, elevated by a suddenly gay-averse silent majority of the Academy, swooped in to unjustly claim the statue.

Lust, Caution (2007). Back to China for Lee, but again in a whole new context. This film, which I did not see, takes place in Japanese-occupied Shanghai before and during World War II, and involves some kind of dramatic society. The film received rave reviews from certain critics, but was not widely seen. Without having seen Lust, Caution I can't venture a guess as to any ways it may be similar to his trio of early films that I also didn't see, but it's certainly different from anything he'd done since coming to Hollywood.

Taking Woodstock (2009). And back to U.S. history again. (In fact, it's starting to seem like the only thing Lee can't do is set a movie in the present day, The Hulk notwithstanding). Lee brings his trademark human sensitivity to what turns out to be an intimate story of personal growth, set within the context of the largest and most famous concert in American history. Again proving his strength with actors -- the bread and butter of the job -- Lee coaxes a totally naturalistic performance out of Demetri Martin, heretofore known primarily as an eccentric standup comedian.

There may be some meeting point -- at least chronologically -- between Taking Woodstock and The Ice Storm, as Woodstock marks the beginning of a liberating sexual awareness, and Ice Storm marks the symbolic end of it. But with Lee, as ever, you really have to stretch if you want to go so far as to label a particular project as similar in any way, except this: Even in such films as The Hulk, Lee cares deeply about the complexities of human relationships. In that film, it may have been to his detriment -- The Hulk's audience just wanted to see the big guy smash things, and didn't want all the touchy-feely relationship stuff between Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly.

But that's the thing that's so interesting about Lee -- his failings are a lot more fascinating than other people's successes. If universal acclaim were all that Lee desired, he could easily take a safer, more predictable path, and be assured he'd always get good notices based on the strength of his craftsmanship alone.

That, however, is not what makes an artist. An artist is someone who continually challenges himself, is never content resting on laurels. An artist is someone unpredictable, impossible to pin down. An artist takes risks and damns consequences. Lee has walked up to the limits of commercial viability and stared over that edge into the abyss. He's been willing to risk the thing that's most important to an artist: a platform for his work. Yet studios have continued giving him money to make the films he wants to make, whatever they may be about.

And like all good and pure lovers of film, Ang Lee is interested in a wide array of different stories.

I can't wait to see which one he makes next.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Celebrating times past

When my wife, a friend and I went to see Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock last night, I didn't realize how many ways it would be a flashback to the days of yore.

That thematic element was obviously present in the movie, but I didn't know until I descended on the single-screen Westwood Crest theater in Westwood how much of a throwback experience that would be as well.

Moments before our friend arrived, I snapped this shot on my blackberry. The quality isn't great, but it gives you some idea what this theater is about. It has a full marquee, which includes both the movie title and a recreation of the poster art. It's got plenty of neon and flashing light bulbs lining the various architectural features. What's more, it's got a beautiful spire launching up into the night above.

But just wait until you get inside.

This is the art I'd really like to show you -- but even if I could find it online, I'd hold it back out of respect to the owner of the theater. It's worth the price of admission just to see the walls inside this lovely reminder of how moviegoing used to be. And lord knows, owners of any single-screen theaters still out there need your $11 like you wouldn't believe.

Simply put, the inside of this theater contains one of the most beautiful -- and beautifully luminescent -- cityscape murals I've ever seen. It wraps around the back and both side walls, and it's chockablock with Hollywood landmarks: famous buildings, the Hollywood hills, miniature recreations of quintessential boulevards, and plenty of those famous dueling searchlights that used to herald great events in old Hollywood.

Something like this could be really cheesy, but the Westwood Crest is just the opposite. The art is an amazing feat in a number of ways. Not only does it have clear layers and dimension, actually creating a vivid 3-D effect, but the paint glows ever so faintly while the movie plays. So even if you decide what you're watching is a turkey, you could spend those 100 minutes just losing yourself in the fine details of the interior design.

It's no secret that the single-screen theater has fallen on hard times. Westwood, the area near UCLA, is known for its historic single-screen theaters, which used to be some of the crown jewels for watching films in Hollywood's early days. Two of them have recently closed, and if the 25 or so people scattered throughout the available seats last night, for the 7:30 show just six days into this film's run, are any indication, the Westwood Crest might not be far behind.

In talking with my friend, I was relieved to learn that the Westwood Crest is not indeed living on borrowed time, at least not as of now. He knows the owner, and assured me that the owner's got most of his eggs in other baskets. Even though he's losing money on the Crest, he keeps it going out of a sheer love of cinema. That's what all small-theater owners need -- an ability to absorb losses without blinking an eye. It's the only way some of these old theaters will stay afloat in today's world, where my friend informs me that any theater with fewer than four screens is bound to be a financial loser.

Me, I vow to see as many films as I can here, to support this man as much as I can, even if he doesn't need my $11 to put food on the table for his family. It's not a far drive from my house, and even if the movie stinks, I'll always value the opportunity to soak in more of the lovingly detailed walls that take me back to the Hollywood of yore.

Oh, and did I mention the simulated stars on the ceiling, which twinkle and reflect the movie stars on the screen below?

Taking Woodstock was not all I hoped it would be, but it did achieve certain moments of transcendence, moments that made me indulge in a strong wistfulness for times I never experienced.

I'm pretty sure I have the Westwood Crest to thank for putting me in that mindset.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Perfectly suited to television

Normally, describing an actor as "perfectly suited to television" might seem like a slap in the face. It's alright to be on television, and in fact, it's increasingly respectable in its own right. But being "perfectly suited" to television? That sounds harsh.

Read on.

Ever since The Sopranos hit the air ten years ago -- and possibly before then, though that seems like a good benchmark -- cable television has been giving both the networks and the movies a run for their money. Hour-long television shows on HBO and Showtime are uniquely positioned to provide audiences the best of both worlds. Take the uncensored sex, language and violence of the movies, and TV's ability to develop characters and storylines over multiple seasons, and voila! True Must See TV, NBC be damned.

One of the kings of this form has been actor Michael C. Hall. First making a splash in our consciousness as David Fisher, the uptight homosexual baby brother in Six Feet Under's clan of funeral home directors, Hall quickly proved that this character was going to be a lot deeper and more complicated than some of his initial whiny antics suggested. When that show ended after five seasons (and what a final episode), Hall might have been perfectly content saying "I've had a good run," and slipping into supporting work. No one would have blamed him. Yet instead he became an even more indelible character, Dexter Morgan on Showtime's Dexter, now entering its fourth season. As a serial killer who follows a moral code of murdering only bad people, Hall's blood spatter specialist always has an exquisitely flimsy grasp on his secrets, which threaten to spill out and stain him, like so much blood.

So why would this talented actor, who has excelled so marvelously in his current arena, want to branch out into the movies?

That was my first thought when I saw a trailer for Gamer, due out on Friday. It's an action movie with a social message, as it seems to parody the gaming culture that has possessed our youth. Gerard Butler plays some kind of soldier of fortune trapped in some kind of game, only his decisions are not his own. Some kid on the outside world is actually "playing" him, and whether the soldier lives or dies is based entirely on the kid's dexterity with a joystick.

At least, that's what I can gather from a trailer I saw two months ago.

Michael C. Hall appears to play some kind of villain. Smart casting, to be sure, as Hall's Dexter can be plenty terrifying when he wants to be. (When he isn't being a good surrogate dad or bringing donuts to his fellow police officers, that is).

I should say, it's smart casting for the producers of Gamer, but I don't know if it's smart casting for Hall.

See, movies involving fights-to-the-death as reality shows/public entertainment have never exactly been critical darlings. Looking back on the undistinguished list of The Running Man, The Condemned and Death Race, one can pretty much predict Gamer's future. It'll open to a respectable $15 million in its first weekend, but word of mouth won't carry it. It'll have left all theaters within a month, with little more than $30 million in total earnings. Such is the fate of movies released on September 4th -- that's why they were scheduled for that date in the first place.

But will Gamer help us predict Hall's future? Is he going to go from extremely smart decisions on TV to extremely dumb ones in the movies?

Maybe not. There's an actual website that can "predict" Hall's future: IMDB. It shows two more movies on the horizon for Hall, Peep World and East Fifth Bliss. Both are comedies. Well, at least he isn't interested in becoming some kind of typecast big screen villain/killer.

But what roles he'd play in the movies is not really the point, is it? The point is, we like our David/Dexter on the small screen. We like him as a character about whom we learn more and more as the seasons of his shows unfold. We like his ability to surprise us, but not because he can show up in Gamer. We like to be surprised by the risks he takes within those roles, not because he's popping up in the damnedest of places on the big screen.

Unfortunately, few actors are satisfied with "just" being television stars. Even when he was an indisputable TV icon, Ted Danson wanted to try his luck on the big screen, without much success. Same can be said for guys like Kelsey Grammer, David Caruso and David Schwimmer. TV was so good to them, there was little chance that movies could do the same.

And so I worry it is with Michael C. Hall. But I really don't want to think of Michael C. Hall as a David Caruso or a David Schwimmer. It sounds strange to be saying this on a movie blog, but I want him to be bigger than the movies. I want him to be that rare actor who realizes his perfect calling -- and never allows the seductive lure of the cinema to spoil that, to make him seem "less than," to make him seem like he struck out.

But I suppose that if it's rare that lightning strikes twice -- as it has for Hall -- that thrice is even less likely. And I also suppose that Dexter Morgan can't go on narrowly escaping getting caught killing people for ten seasons. The movies will beckon. They always do.

Well, maybe after this weekend, when we're lined up to see Gamer for our second attempt to hit the drive-in, I'll think of Michael C. Hall as David, as Dexter ... and as the surprisingly awesome villain in the surprisingly awesome movie about dystopian fight-to-the-death reality video games.

Because as much as I like Hall's TV shows, I also want the guy to be happy. If marrying the shrill actress who plays his sister on Dexter (Jennifer Carpenter) makes him happy, so be it. And if the movies make him happy, so be it.

He's given me enough over the years to deserve it.