Saturday, October 31, 2009

Jumping the gun

Up until two days ago, I had never heard of a movie with the ungainly title Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. It's based on the first in a popular series of books by a gentleman named Rick Riordan, and it's directed by a gentleman named Chris Columbus. It also has a lot of well-known names in the cast: Uma Thurman, Pierce Brosnan, Rosario Dawson, Catherine Keener and Steve Coogan.

The fact that I wasn't aware of it isn't so unusual. After all, with everything that exists out there, there's an exact moment when you become aware of it, before which, you were not aware of it.

What's unusual is that it's coming out in February, and that the first place I ever heard of it was from a poster at a bus stop.

That's right -- movies coming out in February are now being advertised at bus stops in October. Coming out on President's Day, to be exact, which is what caught my eye as I was driving by. (Probably not exactly on President's Day, since movies only come out on a Monday if Christmas falls on a Monday, but that's what the poster said.)

That might not strike you as very strange. Trailers play in theaters sometimes as long as a year before a film is released, though we would more appropriately call those teasers rather than trailers. The Super Bowl frequently has ads for movies that aren't due out until August. And you sometimes see billboards hyping a film three, four months in advance. We never bat an eye at any of these. The earlier and more often you can get your product name out there, the better chance you have of raising awareness and lining yourself up for a big opening weekend. (To a point -- you also want to be careful about overkill, which can have the opposite economic effect).

But bus stops? Bus stops have usually been the site for more immediate concerns, for films coming out in the next month. If Percy Jackson were being advertised everywhere else, and also at bus stops, then that would just be a full-on media blitz, and I would understand it better. But I've seen nary a trailer, billboard nor TV ad for this film, and I tend to be more exposed to this stuff than the average person.

The actual location of the ad is not what strikes me as oddest, however, nor the exact number of months ahead of its release. It's which months those are, and how many other films are being released during that time. You've still got four major holidays to get through before then -- Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's. You can also throw in Martin Luther King's birthday if you want another potential three-day weekend, which is when studios think they'll have a better chance at grabbing your disposable income.

Seeing the words "President's Day" on a movie poster right now creates some kind of mental disconnect. "President's Day?" you think. "Is that a mistake?" Or at least, that's what I thought.

Right now, even the Christmas releases don't have that much of an advertising presence. How many ads have you seen for Avatar, for example? The trailer plays in theaters, but there are few billboards up. No, right now, they're concentrating on Thanksgiving, on Old Dogs and Twilight: New Moon. The real Christmas blitz probably won't begin for a week or two.

And then there's also the idea of crossing that magical border into the year 2010. Part of the reason that's strange is that we typically don't think of movies coming out in the first few months of a calendar year as being very hype-worthy. It's true that big-budget releases are now starting to come out year-round, just as the TV networks can no longer really take the summer off. I'm already aware of two movies coming out in January 2010 that seem like they have massive budgets, which in the past would have meant they'd be released closer to the summer: Legion and The Book of Eli.

But making us think of next February, now, has the effect of hurrying us along through all we have to do in the next couple months -- the Halloween costumes we have to make, the Thanksgiving logistics we have to coordinate, the Christmas presents we have to buy, the New Year's plans we have to schedule.

After all that's done, then let us worry about Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief.

I don't know, maybe it's just me.

Friday, October 30, 2009

My first gala premiere

A couple years ago I experienced the twisted joy of getting to review Troy Duffy's The Boondock Saints, a truly wretched piece of filmmaking made all the more so by the circumstances of its origins.

Duffy was a Boston-born bartender/wannabe screenwriter living in Los Angeles -- and thanks, Troy, for giving Bostonians such a vicarious bad name. His script for The Boondock Saints, a crime movie about scripture-spouting Irish vigilante killers on a spree in Boston, found the right audience and won him a huge deal from Harvey Weinstein, who also agreed to help him buy the bar where he worked and become its co-owner. As he also bore ambitions as a musician and was planning to record the film's soundtrack, Duffy quickly became totally impossible to deal with, telling various execs to shove it and making ridiculous demands like "Get me Bob DeNiro!" Before long he had totally torpedoed his own career, and the completed version of The Boondock Saints screened in only five theaters, even though it featured a handful of recognizable names (Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Connolly, Willem Defoe). The whole nasty and protracted implosion was captured in a great documentary called Overnight, which was made by some of Duffy's former friends whose good will Duffy poisoned in the process of becoming a fascist dictator.

That should have been the end of that, but the legend of the film became so great that it developed a cult following on DVD. (Ironically, the film intended to bury Duffy -- Overnight -- probably contributed.) By hook or by crook, somehow, the giant turd Duffy shat out nine years ago was permitted to have a sequel.

Which directly led to my first gala premiere on Wednesday night.

About a week ago my editor asked me if I wanted to attend the Los Angeles premiere of The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, to write a review that would appear on the site's front page this Friday. Of course my answer was yes. Even though these reviews of new releases require a lot more words for the same fee, volume has never been a problem for me (you read my blog, you know), and these are some of the rare times when the company actually gives me an assignment -- the rest of the time I am simply requesting films to review and being approved to review them. Plus, it's kind of fun to go to these screenings, which usually involve small screening rooms in obscure skyscrapers scattered all over the greater Hollywood area.

Not this time. This time, I was being invited to "the Los Angeles premiere," which probably was also pretty close to the world premiere. Duffy probably had a screening in Boston before this, so this would probably be #2. And I wouldn't be surprised if there were no actual critic screening scheduled, since studios sometimes fail to screen movies prior to their release if they fear they have a turkey on their hands. Better no word of mouth on opening weekend than bad word of mouth. Then again, in the case of The Boondock Saints, isn't bad word of mouth part of the appeal? Still, if there had been a screening for critics, that's probably what I would have been invited to.

Instead, it was a red carpet affair at The Arclight in Hollywood, one of LA's most prestigious theaters.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I reluctantly pulled away from the World Series at about 6:20, somewhere in the fourth inning. The screening was scheduled for 7:30, so this should have been plenty of time to get there. And for the first half of the drive it seemed like it was, as I made good time on both freeways. But as I started to get stuck behind the dozens of traffic lights on La Brea Avenue, I was pretty glad I'd left when I did, and no longer expected to have much time to kill. I might sit and listen to a couple more batters on the radio, but that would be it.

Of course, when I made a left turn rather than a right turn on Sunset, that pretty much eliminated any margin I may have had. And a bit of panic set in.

You see, even having written over 1,000 reviews for this website, dating back to the year 2000, I still have a paranoia that any slip-up will cause them to rethink using me as a freelancer -- especially in this economy, when freelance dollars are tight. In fact, only earlier this week, when I was signing a new freelance agreement with the new parent company, it took great courage to summon the will to ask them for a $5 raise per review. My standard thinking on the subject is that if I ask for a raise, not only will they reject me, but they will decide they can do without my future contributions, thank you very much. Fortunately, my editor made an extremely nice comment about my work only a day before that, so I gave it a shot. Predictably, they told me that no raises are possible within a freelance budget that's already been scaled back. But at least they were very nice about it.

So missing a screening -- one of the few times I'm doing specific work that they've requested of me -- is just out of the question. At least that's what the paranoid Vance thinks.

So I come-on-come-on-come-on!'d my way down Sunset in the correct direction this time, figuring I'd lost at least five minutes, maybe more, on the mistake. As Murphy's Law states, the parking garage that serves The Arclight was also packed, forcing me all the way to the roof, where I've had to park only one time before. Plus, the duffers in the cars ahead of me had to stop at each level and ask the parking attendant some inane question, or examine the orange traffic cones blocking certain paths to see if they properly understood what these cones indicated.

When I finally secured a spot, I raced over to the elevator, which disgorged me on a ground level absolutely teeming with activity. If I weren't in my desperate "make the start time or bust" mindset, I would have instantly recognized this activity as stemming from the Boondock Saints premiere. I guess I wrongly assumed the hustle and bustle might have something to do with This Is It, the Michael Jackson documentary that was also opening today. So I pushed through these crowds and into the theater proper, at which point they directed me back outside, of course.

I didn't have much luck at the long table where five staffers were seated, each with placards reading things like A-F and L-O in front of them. Apparently, they were holding tickets only for special invited guests, not press like me. One of the women referred me to another woman named Sarah (I don't actually remember her name, but that was close enough) and pointed in the general direction where she expected Sarah to be. As there were a good 200 people out here, many of them gathered around the red carpet and brightly lit area where photographs were being taken, I laughed at the idea that I might be able to find one individual person named Sarah. So the woman described her as an Asian woman in a long jacket, and I found her on the red carpet itself.

It was kind of an absurd scene -- Sarah was involved in wrangling actual celebrities (I noticed Norman Reedus, one of the film's protagonists, with a beautiful woman on his arm), and here I was, a guy with wild hair, a slightly untacked dark green L.L. Bean shirt and khakis, trying to get her attention about a ticket held in my name. The funny thing is, I actually did get her attention without much difficulty, and she was actually rather nice. As is usually the case, however, she wasn't the correct person to talk to either, so she referred me back to the table. When I rejoined that they'd referred me to her, she said "Well then, just wait here for a second." When a second turned into a minute and she hadn't returned, I decided to give the long ticket table a second go-around.

This time I was referred to a guy named Paul (also not his name), who was standing much closer and didn't have anything to do with paparazzi or movie stars, at least not at this moment. He was described as the tall guy in the trenchcoat, and he turned out to be a priggish son of a bitch, though he did end up being the one holding the clipboard with my name on it. However, he wasn't going to admit me without some humiliation. "You're just getting here now?" he asked incredulously. "You've missed almost the whole red carpet." "And I'm very sorry about that," I said. "I had some traffic issues." He seemed to retract his judgmental stance toward me somewhat when I explained that I wasn't going to be interviewing anybody, only reviewing the film. But the attitude returned when I asked him if he had a press kit. "No, I don't, since press check-in is closed." Whatever, dude.

By now I knew this movie would not be starting at 7:30 -- it was already 7:32, and the stars were still having their pictures snapped -- but I was still in go-go-go mode, so I hustled into the theater as quickly as I could, leaving behind a scene that probably would have interested me under other circumstances. (Hey, I've been known to gawk from time to time, and Dexter's Julie Benz (Rita) is in this movie.) When they'd torn my ticket, I noticed that there were free sodas and small popcorns set up in rows outside the theater. Which was good, because I was wondering if I would survive the whole night on the boil-in-bag Indian dish I'd scarfed down before leaving the house.

The theater was less than half full, with those standard papers taped to the best seats, reading "Reserved," and in some cases the name of the person for whom they were reserved. I had to empty my bladder, and by this point realized it was something I could probably chance. I nonetheless asked the two female ushers on my way out if they had an estimated time for the start of the show. When they hemmed and hawed, I clarified that I needed to go to the bathroom, and they relaxed and told me I was fine on time.

Though I hate to do this, I brought my drink and popcorn in with me. There was no good waist-high surface on which to rest them, where I could also keep an eye on them, so I rested them on the floor. Ugh. At least the bathroom was immaculate.

Returning to the theater, I decided I had time to grab a couple salt packets for my popcorn. Standing next to me at the salt was legendary porn star Ron Jeremy. How perfect.

Of course it was still a full half-hour before the film actually started. People were milling about like milling about was going out of style. I caught glimpses of a few of the actors I'd been expecting see, including Billy Connolly and Clifton Collins Jr. In fact, I nodded at Clifton Collins Jr. on my way back from the bathroom, when I remembered to go up and get my parking validated. He didn't return the gesture, apparently considering a polite nod to be the early stages of stalking.

I grew bored very quickly and was on my blackberry in no time. Part of me was interested in spotting other celebrities, especially since the people around me were busy pointing them out. I tried really hard to see where Peter Fonda was, for example, but never spotted him, even though the guy behind me had described to his friend what Fonda was wearing. I posted a couple status updates about what was going on, and checked ESPN, glad to see the Phillies leading 4-0 in the 8th.

In fact, I started to get a little agitated by the conversations around me, as each snippet I could hear seemed to be somebody talking about some accomplishment they had made in the film industry. It really made me miss watching movies with normal people. In that moment I felt a real kinship with other critics, actually. Stereotypically, the critic is the slightly awkward shlub dressed in clothing that doesn't quite fit him right, and that's exactly how I felt tonight, two days unshaven (but not in a fashionable way), too-long hair windblown by the Santa Anas, and a wardrobe that wasn't the least bit flashy. Meanwhile, women with too much makeup and cleavage were all around me, not to mention uber-hip guys with perfect bedhead. I felt like I spoke for the common man in all of us, just sitting there in what I'd worn to work that day.

By about 8 o'clock, the master of ceremonies (whoever he may have been) asked everyone to be seated, and handed the microphone over to Troy Duffy himself. Although Duffy kicked into at least ten minutes of thank yous, he was actually not as insufferable as I thought he'd be. He had a friendly crowd of fans and associates -- though I noticed the theater was not actually full -- and they seemed to eat up what he was saying. (Including one line when he thanked his wife, who appeared as just a blur of boobs and makeup from where I was sitting, and told the crowd that yes, he was "hitting that.") And even though he wasn't, as I said, particularly insufferable, I did refuse to applaud each and every cast and crew member he introduced, and sat on my hands especially hard when the audience gave one particular guy (I think it was his producer) a standing O. I do feel a little unusual not clapping along with everyone else -- I usually default to what everyone else is doing -- but I excused myself on the basis of my critical impartiality. Not to mention the fact that I saw The Boondock Saints, I saw Overnight, I know Troy Duffy sucks as both a filmmaker and a human being, and he'd have to do a lot to win me over.

And surprisingly, he sort of did.

Oh, I started with my arms crossed, and shook my head imperceptibly a couple times during the film's opening ten minutes. Those ten minutes were as bad as any ten-minute stretch of the original. But the film found its footing as it went along. I'm not going to say it's, you know, a good film -- it's still a guilty pleasure at best. But I did find myself laughing at some pretty funny lines. And the most encouraging thing was that Duffy didn't take himself so seriously as he had nearly a decade ago when he made The Boondock Saints. There was plenty of winning self-parody embedded into the movie, even while there was also plenty of John Woo gunplay and labored attempts at seeming cool. Still, the movie worked for me.

I told my wife before leaving the house that I hoped it would be bad -- that I was so negatively disposed toward Troy Duffy that I wanted this film to continue his trajectory downward, perhaps with increasing speed. In fact, I hated The Boondock Saints so much, I was appalled that he had somehow transformed it into a success story, something that could spawn a sequel.

Yet I couldn't deny that I liked it. Liked it? Yes, that's an appropriate description to use. I liked The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day. There, I said it. Can't take it back now. In fact, not only did I write the review when I got home -- a necessity of my deadline -- but I also tweaked it for at least an hour after I'd gotten a version that would have worked perfectly fine. A minor miracle, to be sure.

Now, will my newfound tolerance of Troy Duffy cause me to revisit The Boondock Saints?

That's one miracle I wouldn't wait on.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A good alternative to nothing

It was blowy as hell in my neighborhood last night, and we lost power from around 7:30 until the time I went to sleep. It was the second outage in three weeks, the last one coming about 15 minutes earlier in the evening. But that one lasted only a half-hour, and occurred early enough that it didn't endanger any of our scheduled DVR recordings for the evening. Last night was a different story -- good thing Tuesday nights are a pretty light TV night for us.

When it became clear that this was not going to be a momentary power flicker, the next thing that became clear was that I don't know what the hell to do with myself during a power outage.

Like most people would have been doing, I was technologically multi-tasking at the time of the blackout. I had my laptop in my lap and a basketball game on in the background. Actually, the game I cared about -- the opening night matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and my Boston Celtics -- had been over for about ten minutes. But because I was engrossed in my laptop projects, I was willingly subjecting myself to the Lakers being presented their NBA championship trophy. I know, crazy.

When the power cut, and once we'd done the necessary things like finding our flashlights and lighting a dozen candles, I was then so lost for ideas of what to do that I literally lay on the couch staring at the ceiling for five minutes.

Have we fallen this far? Is our dependence on technology so great that we no longer know how to pass an evening without it?

We gave the power about a half-hour to come on before we decided I should forge ahead with making dinner. It was a pretty easy one -- carne asada fried up in a frying pan, one of our standards, and a Greek salad I'd gotten from the salad bar at the fancy Ralphs. I know, carne asada and Greek salad don't go together.

We ate by candlelight -- it was nice -- and then had a whole evening in the dark ahead of us.

We had tossed around the idea of playing Scrabble. Board games were how we passed the time during power outages when I was a kid. But we didn't discuss it too seriously. Now that my wife and I play Lexulous against each other online, we've lost some of our verve for the actual physical version of the game. In fact, I've gotten so much more accustomed to Lexulous than Scrabble that I think I would be confused about having only seven letters rather than eight, and the Q being 10 points instead of 12. Another way technology has defeated our ability (or desire) to do for ourselves.

And so it was that we decided to watch a movie on my portable DVD player.

I should be honest and tell you that this was one of the first ideas that came to me as soon as the lights went out. You know by now that I'm always looking for my next score, and I knew I had a freshly charged battery on my DVD player, a consequence of failing to make it to the gym last Friday afternoon.

My wife agreed, and we popped in The Class, a 2008 French film about an ordinary teacher trying to get through to an unruly group of mostly lower class students in a French public school. To continue the discussion I started here, The Class is not its actual French title, which would literally be La Classe. Rather, in France the movie is called Entre les Murs, which my wife translated for me as Between the Walls. Why that couldn't have been its English title, I may never know.

Interesting film -- very French. While I was expecting a French Stand and Deliver with an inspirational ending, instead, the film is very ambiguous, and quite bleak. The protagonist is kind of a dick, and suffice it to say there is no moment when his efforts with the students bear fruit in some obvious way. I'm still processing, but I think I'm going to ultimately say that I really liked the film. It's brave and uncompromising, I'll give it that.

There's also little doubt that it eventually took a toll on me that The Class was 128 minutes, subtitled, deliberately paced, and on a small screen in the dark. I found myself fighting off sleep for the last 30 minutes.

But that's really just as well. It left me without another tough decision of what to spend my time doing without power. Like watching a movie, sleep is definitely also a better alternative to doing nothing.

However, it's pretty telling what my wife's next decision was: to put in another movie. When I got up this morning, I saw the DVD cover for Election sitting out on the coffee table. I'm assuming she watched it until the battery was juiced, at which point, she joined me in the bed as well. And at some point after that, the power finally came back on.

Ah, technology -- our crutch, our drug.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

No such thing as partial credit

As I have become more and more of an obsessive eccentric regarding my film-watching habits, I've also developed some pretty eccentric rules.

One of which is: I don't want to see part of a movie, even if it's a movie I've already seen before.

I didn't use to have a problem with this. In fact, in 2004, when I moved out of an apartment I'd been sharing with a roommate for the first three years I lived in L.A., I used to have parts of movies on in the background at my new place all the time. It was a way to be reminded of what you liked about the movie without committing to giving it your whole attention, or watching the whole thing. I was probably getting some kind of introductory package of all the movie stations on cable at the time as well, which made this little hobby all the easier.

In the five years since then, I've gone completely in the other direction. And the reason is pretty simple: I now keep track not only of the new movies I see, but of the old movies I revisit. You certainly know this, as it's been a feature on the right side of my blog for the entire time I've been writing.

It's all a question of "counting."

For example, if I watch 85 minutes of a 110 minute movie, does it "count" as a viewing? What about 100 of 110 minutes? What about 109 of 110 minutes?

Since I don't like to ask myself these questions, I just try to avoid it altogether.

Which is why, when my wife had on The Sure Thing Saturday night when I returned from the movies, I specifically tuned out. She was about 20 minutes in when I got there. She had already watched the movie, which she got several weeks earlier from Netflix, but was re-watching in order to take notes about what plot developments occurred at what junctures of the script. It was research for a road movie she's working on herself.

Now, this was not easy. I love The Sure Thing. Catching even 15 minutes of it here and there should only improve my affection for it, should show me things I might not have caught on my last viewing, or remind me of the parts that I know and love. And what's the harm in that?

But here's my unusual viewpoint on it, which you'll admit has some merit: The more I watch of it now as a partial viewing, the less inclined I'll be to sit down and watch the whole thing anytime soon. Partial credit now will delay full credit later on.

I experienced this phenomenon with another comedy I truly and dearly love, Dean Parisot's Galaxy Guest. My old roommate and I both loved this movie, and it happened to be on cable all the time in the last year or so I lived with him. We'd catch snippets of it here and snippets of it there. Though I've probably only seen the film from start to finish three times -- two of which were on consecutive days in the theater in 1999 -- I've probably seen enough parts of it for six or seven total viewings. Around that time, I also found the DVD in the store at a good price, but thought, "You know, I've seen this enough lately." And so a movie that I should by rights own, given how much I love it, has never made it into my collection, and I have yet to see it again.

I know this standard is unreasonable. But I've nonetheless lived by it probably since the middle of 2006. That's when I started keeping track of films I revisited, and the date I revisited them. That's when everything started "counting." And maybe this has made my intimacy with the films I love necessarily shallower. Maybe I can't quote lines from movies like I once could, though I'd argue that's because there are fewer quotable lines these days -- a subject for another time. But we eccentrics hold to our rules especially tightly, and this is one of mine.

I do make an exception to this rule now and again. When I find myself over at a friend's house, and the decision of the group is to catch the second half of a movie we love, I'll acquiesce. And in that case, I don't count it as a legitimate revisiting of the movie. It just goes unrecorded altogether, and, you know, that's ... fine. Of course it is, it's ... okay.

However, if it's a movie I haven't seen at all, I will do my best to put the kibosh on that particular partial viewing. Gotta draw the line somewhere.

So on Saturday, I watched about 20 minutes of the movie with my wife. Nowhere near enough time to make me wonder whether it "counted" or not. And besides, part of these 20 minutes included the sing-a-long with Tim Robbins and his wife in the car, and then John Cusack trying to freak out the dirty old man who picks up a hitchhiking Daphne Zuniga. "A guy who would rip your heart out and eat it ... just for pleasure!" Gets me every time.

But then I calmly pulled away from The Sure Thing. I got my ipod headphones, plugged them into my laptop, and listened to first some Azure Ray, then some Coldplay on my itunes until the movie was over. Making sure you don't partially see the movie is only half the battle. The other half is not partially hearing it.

Like all rules a film lover has, these too may be relaxed at some point in the future. But for now, and for me, watching movies is an all-or-nothing experience.

It's just the system I'm "partial" to.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Double feature: converted

It had been since January that I'd done one of my good old-fashioned two-for-one double features. You know, where you buy the first ticket, then take advantage of the lax security/apathy at the theater to see the second for free. So Saturday I decided I was due. Plus, I wanted to give my wife some time alone in the house to work.

I had it all lined up to see a 2:30 showing of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and a 4:30 showing of Couples Retreat. Cloudy is only 81 minutes long, but factor in the trailers and a not unreasonably long amount of down time, and I thought it should work out quite well. Even though I left my magazine in the car, I had my ipod as well as the internet on my cell phone, so I should be fine.

The x factor was whether I could get away with it. You see, I'd never attempted one of these at The Bridge, the theater at the Howard Hughes Center, about a five-minute drive from my house. It has never seemed like an opportune place for this kind of thing, since the theater has an upstairs and a downstairs, each of which contains half of the screens. More importantly, each floor has a ticket-taker at the entrance. And since you can't tell online which movies are playing where, matching up the start times is not enough. There's a decent chance you could be shut out of the half of the theater where you need to be for your second feature.

When there is a chance you won't be able to pull it off, the smart thing to do is line it up so that the movie you have more interest in seeing plays first. It worked out this way on Saturday. I obviously wasn't hugely jazzed to see Cloudy, since it's been in the theater for over a month already. But lately it had been eating away at me that this was the kind of movie where 3-D might be really fun. Meatballs raining out of the sky? Yeah, that's just begging for a 3-D viewing. And though Couples Retreat's Bora Bora setting would also look quite nice on the big screen, it'd look only slightly less nice at home on TV. At home on TV I'd lose Cloudy's 3-D altogether.

But I didn't think there would be a problem pulling it off, and here's why: The last time I saw something at this theater, they seemed to have scaled back their operations. They had only a single ticket-taker at the main entrance. After you passed him or her, you were free to roam the whole building. In fact, that was the primary reason I had even moved this theater into double feature consideration.

No sooner had I purchased my tickets, with about five minutes to go before showtime, than I realized I'd miscalculated. The last time I saw a movie at this theater -- I believe it was Surrogates -- it had been a Friday afternoon right after work. This, however, was a Saturday. I didn't actually slap my forehead, but I realized that of course The Bridge probably staffs differently depending on how busy they expect to be.

I'd still be okay if Couples Retreat happened to be downstairs, where Cloudy was playing. So I scanned the digital readout that tells you whether you're supposed to take the up or down escalator for your movie. Unfortunately, there are a ton of movies playing at The Bridge, and Couples Retreat wasn't displaying on this particular scroll-through of the titles. I knew I couldn't dilly-dally, both because I needed to make a bathroom trip before the movie started, and because the greeter at the entrance was on the verge of coming over to ask if he could help find my movie. Instead of treating that as an opportunity to find out for sure one way or the other, I thought I should get moving to avoid suspicion.

So I passed through the downstairs ticket-ripper, and remembered another peculiar thing about this theater: They don't actually list the movie title at the entrance to each screen. Instead, they list the screening room number on your ticket only. So I wouldn't be able to suss out Couples Retreat even from down here.

But at this point my priority was to the movie I'd actually paid for. Bring on those three-dimensional meatballs.

When Cloudy ended, I busted out my blackberry to try to find what else might be starting at the right time. Couples Retreat might be lost, but that didn't mean I couldn't find something else for that second slot. It couldn't be something I'd already seen (like Zombieland) or something I was planning to see with my wife (like Where the Wild Things Are or Paranormal Activity), but that left plenty of other titles. And it gave me a little thrill, I must admit -- I love having circumstance force me into seeing something I wasn't planning to see. It's how I've ended up seeing such classics as Gothika and Three to Tango.

But my blackberry was uncooperative. Or, I should say, the limited version of available on PDAs was uncooperative. I navigated to The Bridge just fine, but when I clicked to see what was showing, the only thing it showed was one of those live theatrical performances that they sometimes show in movie theaters via satellite -- it was called Aria something.

So instead of trying to make the blackberry work for me, I decided I would just take matters into my own hands: I would simply walk into the other theaters in my downstairs wing, and see whether people were gathering for something, or better yet, trailers were already playing.

As soon as I got out I saw that there were a couple employees setting up the secondary snack bar, which was not open yet. The majority of the theater entrances were clustered around them. Oh well, I just had to gamble that they cared as little about their jobs as I guessed they did. It turned out to be a good gamble, but if asked why I was scurrying around suspiciously between theaters, I was prepared to say I was just looking for some friends who had gone into the wrong theater.

The first theater had a few people gathered, but nothing playing on the screen yet. Okay, good start.

The second was Law Abiding Citizen, somewhere in the middle. Just as well. Zero interest.

The third was Where the Wild Things Are, somewhere in the middle. Just as well. Seeing it with the wife some night this week.

The fourth was in the closing credits. Darn it. Would be at least a half-hour before the movie showed again, probably closer to 45 minutes. Too long to wait on an unknown commodity.

The fifth was a totally empty theater. Must have just let out five minutes earlier. Again, too long.

The sixth was another theater where people were gathering for the movie to start. And here I had my best brainstorm of the day: I would simply ask the arriving patrons what movie it was. Nothing fishy about that -- there are plenty of Americans who might have difficulty getting to the correct theater without the name appearing outside. Today, I would be one of them.

"Paranormal Activity," the guy told me with a helpful smile. Darn it. Have that planned for a possible Halloween night screening with my wife.

The seventh theater had a bin for depositing your 3-D glasses outside. That meant it could only be the Toy Story double feature, which I thought was supposed to have closed already by now. Might be worth consideration if I hadn't seen one 3-D animated movie today already -- and if I hadn't already given up my own pair of glasses.

The eighth was the theater where I'd just been sitting for 90 minutes.

So there was only one choice left -- the first theater where people were gathering. Whatever was playing there, I would see.

And even though I'd already committed to this course of action -- unless of course it was one of the off-limits movies -- I still decided to ask a woman sitting in the front row what we were about to see.

"Couples Retreat," she said with a helpful smile.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Here comes the Saw again ...

Falling on my head like a guillotine
Falling on my head like a new contusion
Oooh -- oooh ow!

I want to walk on a broken shin
I want to cook like human stew
I want to dive into your blowtorch
Is it Sawing with you?

So baby butcher me
Like human stew
Chop up me
Like human stew
Crockpot me
Like human stew

(Dental drill solo)

Here comes the Saw again
Sawing in my head like a -- well, like a saw
Tearing me apart like a knife intrusion
Oooh -- oooh ow!

I want to breathe in the poison blend
I want to kiss a vat of acid goo
I want to stretch out on your sawhorse
Is it Sawing with you?

So baby eat through me
Like acid goo
Dissolve my teeth
Like acid goo
Melt my knees
Like acid goo

(Chainsaw solo)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Smoke acting

Character actor Karel Roden can play two emotions:

Angry, and smoking.

It's probably not really fair to be picking on a guy I've seen in only two movies -- John Herzfeld's 15 Minutes (2001), and Wayne Kramer's Running Scared (2006), which I saw the other night. Actually, Roden was also in Hellboy and The Bourne Supremacy, but I don't remember him in either.

When I first saw him appear in Running Scared, though, the first thing that popped into my head was "Oh, that's that guy who was the villain in 15 Minutes, who always seemed to be making love to his cigarette."

Roden subscribes to a school of acting that says that the more ostentatiously you smoke your cigarette, the more interesting you will appear on screen. And true enough, he smokes cigarettes ostentatiously in Running Scared as well.

Holding the cigarette at unusual angles, most regularly backwards and upside down between his thumb and first two fingers. Masticating the end of it. Blowing smoke through every available orifice in his face, eyes and ears included. Grimacing with the effort of sucking the tip. Working the ember through precise and deep drags. Making a slight smacking noise as he releases it. Puffing and blowing and sucking and mumbling his lines through the object clamped between his lips.

The thing is, it is interesting -- until you recognize what he's up to and identify it as the cheap crutch that it is.

If I were being thorough (or fair), I'd run through my mental database to come up with a handful of other prominent smoke actors. But since this is a blog, and thoroughness (not to mention fairness) is purely optional, I'll simply say that Roden is not alone. He just happens to be the latest example I've seen of the actor who thinks that how he fondles or manipulates a cigarette is his key to getting work. He doesn't really need it -- after all, he does that other emotion, anger, pretty menacingly. Yet he seems to believe that smoking the hell out of a cigarette is a special skill worth marketing.

And I don't know, maybe it is. Maybe that's part of the reason so many people smoke -- part of the tobacco industry's huge arm of advertising that they don't have to pay a dime for. Because it is cool, on some level, the way Roden treats a butt as an essential acting accessory, one that he thinks makes his performance all the more full-blooded. And the reason he probably thinks this is because of the long tradition of directors instructing their actors to smoke that cigarette like they both loved it and hated it at the same time.

So I'll let Roden off the hook. I won't hate the player, I'll hate the game. But I don't really hate the game either. Part of the reason we love the movies we love is because they have style. And a pornographic session of tobacco ingestion undoubtedly contributes to that style.

Like I've said in the past, recognizing that someone is selling you artifice is the first step. If you then want to consciously embrace it, be my guest.

Now why am I suddenly in the mood for a Marlboro Red?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Wachowski brothers' best movie

When The Matrix first came out, most people looked at the poster and said, "V.I. Warshawski is directing a movie about Keanu Reeves playing an android? What's this then?"

Me? I said, "Oh, it's the new movie from the guys who made Bound."

That's still how I see The Matrix -- Larry and Andy Wachowskis' sophomore and slightly inferior follow-up to their brilliant neo-noir thriller, Bound.

What's that you say? The Matrix? Inferior? Whaaa?

You read right. One of the most influential and exciting films of the last 20 years is not as good as this film. That's how good Bound is.

I watched Bound again last night for the first time in at least seven or eight years. In fact, during the day, I had a similar moment of inspirational clarity to the one I had on Monday, when I went to pick up The 13th Warrior. Except I knew this time, the film wouldn't let me down. It wouldn't be less good than I remembered. Bound is as solid as they come, through and through, and I knew it would be just the "special" viewing experience I was looking for on my birthday.

(Yesterday was my birthday. Let's all stop and make a big deal out of me turning 36. Then again, let's not. If it gives you some idea what I think of celebrating my birthday in some grandiose fashion, I was looking forward to a quiet night with a movie. Then again, if my wife were in town, I'm sure we would have at least gone out to eat.)

Any serious fan of The Matrix should have already gone back and watched Bound, even though it's a totally different kind of film. It's like going back and checking out the early works of a band you love -- sometimes you find out that the earlier stuff was even better.

But I think the reason more people haven't discovered Bound is that it's easy to dismiss it as some kind of Cinemax erotic thriller. The title itself suggests sadomasochism, and the poster does nothing to discourage that idea. Plus, discovering that the two leads are lesbians (Jennifer Tilly's character is actually bisexual) pushes a person even further toward the conclusion that the film exists primarily to titillate.

The truth of the matter is, there are actual physical binds (ropes) that exist in this movie, but they are not used sexually. Rather, Bound as a title has more to do with the trust that must exist in order to successfully execute a criminal plan -- as well as the fact that people become unwittingly bound to each other as the plan adapts to real-world changes, even though they may enter the plan as adversaries. The title is a one-word summation of the script's dozens of smart ideas about trust, deception, desperation, obligation, the criminal code, and ultimately, love. It could be honor-Bound or duty-Bound or love-Bound. Or simply Bound for trouble.

Oh, and if you are interested in being titillated, there are two hot lesbian sex scenes that are not very graphic, but are quite sexy indeed because of how the Wachowskis set up the camera, the dialogue they use, and the tension they create.

So what is Bound about, exactly? I won't tell you too much, because that would spoil the fun. But it's useful to know that Gina Gershon plays Corky, a lesbian ex-con just released from five years in prison for theft. She's been hired to do a big renovation job in the apartment next door to where Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) live. Violet is the arm candy for Caesar's mafiaso money launderer, but she longs to get out, and sees a path to her freedom in the tatooed handywoman working next door. She knows when there will be $2 million in her apartment that will be ripe for stealing -- as long as they can hatch the perfect plan that will cast suspicion on someone else. But when the money gets drenched in blood from an impulsive whacking, the plan must adapt -- or else they'll be caught. And the mob doesn't look too kindly on those who try to screw them over.

What I love so much about Bound is how clean and tight it is. I won't say it's simple -- in fact, some of the chess moves that are Bound's essence rely on thinking three, four, five steps ahead, and truly illustrate the characters' intelligence. However, the twists and turns themselves are simple to follow, always believable, and organic to the action. In fact, so clean is Bound -- taking place almost entirely in the two apartments -- that I could easily see it staged as a play. The only thing you would lose is the Wachowskis' camera work and unobtrusive visual pizzazz, which would become their signature in the Matrix trilogy. Because accolades tend to flow when talking about a movie I love, I'll continue: The dialogue is also sharp and clever, but totally naturalistic. And I'd be remiss in this short capsule review if I didn't point out that this is by far the best work Joe Pantoliano -- a.k.a. Joey Pants -- has ever turned in. Gershon and Tilly are also great, but Pantoliano's Caesar is the far more ostentatious -- and at times, downright hilarious -- role.

One more credit to Bound: The fact that it was a cheap-o press on the DVD didn't affect my enjoyment one bit. The image appeared in the correct aspect ratio, but was boxed on all four sides by blackness, reducing its total size on the screen by a third. That might have been resolved with an adjustment on my DVD player, but let's just say no other DVDs I've popped in have required such an adjustment. I also needed to significantly brighten the image, as contrasts were getting lost in the darkness. ("Fuckin' dark in here!" to quote Caesar early on in the movie.) What's more -- and I found this the most astonishing -- the actual title screen on the DVD was generic. Not even the title of the movie appeared -- just the choices (chapters, setup, etc.) and a generic background used by the company that pressed the DVD.

Gives you some idea just how undiscovered Bound really is. If there's any justice, a Criterion Collection edition will be forthcoming at some point in the future. But just as extra frills can't make a bad movie good, Bound would be a good movie even if you watched it on a 10-inch black and white TV.

There's little doubt that Bound is better than The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions and Speed Racer. The film the Wachowskis wrote (Assassins) and the film they produced and wrote (V for Vendetta) also figure to be losers in this head-to-head duel. And I don't really know about this Ninja Assassin they're producing, which comes out later this fall, but it doesn't seem that original. Plus, it's got a crap title.

But is Bound better than The Matrix?

You know what I think. I challenge you to rent it for yourself and find out ...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Remember your history

I mentioned yesterday that my wife was out of town this past weekend, paving the way for one of my patented movie binges.

What I didn't mention was that I did something slightly different this time around. Instead of just voraciously consuming as many previously unseen movies as I could, I consciously sought out movies that I'd loved, but seen too few times. The perpetual compulsion to add to my collection could wait for one weekend, as I deepened my knowledge of some old favorites.

So I took a trip to the library Friday after work, considering only titles that I'd previously seen. At least that's how I started out. But as I swept through the vast collection at the Venice branch of the Los Angeles Public Library -- a collection that I've only recently discovered, which dwarfs the offerings at other branches -- at least five of the 15 or so DVDs I was having an ever-more difficult time holding were previously unseen. Hey, old habits die hard.

But you can only borrow three at a time, so I had some work to do.

I took the unwieldy stack of DVDs and laid them out on a book shelf that came up to around my midsection. When I emerged after a number of very difficult decisions, I'd settled on three titles that I had seen exactly one other time, just as I'd planned.

Here's what I came up with:

1) The Player (1991, Robert Altman). I couldn't believe I'd seen this great film only once, but my list at home said that this was indeed the case. (And even if the list is not 100% historically accurate, over time it takes on the certainty of historical fact.) I know I saw Altman's next film, Short Cuts, at least two times, but apparently my first viewing of The Player was also the lone viewing. This was the perfect example of a title I hoped to find -- something I'd immediately recognize I needed to see again as soon as possible. So this was also the easiest decision, and I started watching soon after I got home. So many brilliant details, so much good stuff in this film.

2) I Am Legend (2007, Francis Lawrence). I wanted one of the movies to be something big and epic, and actually had Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in my mind for this slot. It's the only Lord of the Rings film I've seen only once. But the vast Venice collection came up short in this respect, so I Am Legend jumped to the top. My wife and I loved this film when we saw it in IMAX two years ago -- plus, I'm always drawn to visions of post-apocalypse where they really care about the details of what a world like this would be like. Times Square overrun by tall grass and deer? Yup, I'm in. I watched it late-night Saturday night.

3) The Big Lebowksi (1998, Joel Coen). This cult favorite is also some people's favorite Coen brothers movie, and was probably singularly responsible for significantly raising the profile of the White Russian. However, I was only vaguely positive on it when I saw it a decade ago, so I thought I should definitely revisit it. Only problem is, I didn't. I had it lined up to watch on Sunday night, and was even prepared to have a White Russian or six while watching. (Though I had no plans to watch it wearing a bathrobe.) But I waited too long to start, and then discovered that the thing is 127 minutes long -- not something I wanted to get myself into after 10:30 on a school night. Since it was due back on Monday, I'd have to let this one go by the boards.

Maybe it was the hole left by The Big Lebowski, but I found myself drawn to the local Blockbuster on Monday to pick up something else for my third film revisited. That third something was:

3) The 13th Warrior (1999, John McTiernan). I ranked it during the day on Flickchart, and thought to myself, "Damn -- for the number of times I've pimped this film to somebody, I can't believe I've only watched it once." Blockbuster didn't let me down -- they could have very easily not stocked it -- and I came home with it, watching it in the late afternoon (I get out at 4 on Mondays). In my review of it I referred to it as a "subtle historical epic," and that's pretty much true. While it doesn't have the epic sweep of a Braveheart or a Lord of the Rings, it's got a really interesting cast of characters, comprised mostly of 10th century Vikings, and the Arab diplomat (Antonio Banderas) who travels with them to their homeland to fight cannibalistic mist creatures. A really interesting film.

And you know what?

I didn't like any of the films as much as I'd remembered. Time has a way of coloring your perception of things. Sure, it had only been two years since I'd seen I Am Legend. But the big screen -- especially an IMAX screen -- can really inflate the value of a good film, making it seem like a great one. I think I Am Legend settles in somewhere around "very good." The biggest dropoff of the three was probably The 13th Warrior, which struck me with its originality when I first saw it ten years ago, but yesterday left me with considerably less of a sense of wonder. The least dropoff was The Player, which is still a great film, just not the world-rocking film I remembered it to be.

But you know what else?

Whether I liked the films as much is hardly the point. The point is that all film fans need to remember to take time out of their busy viewing schedules to go back to the same wells again. Those were good wells -- the water was cold and pure and tasted good. And watching these films again really nourished me.

The reality with most films is that they aren't quite as good as you remembered them when you watch them again. This is of course not always true -- there are some films where the more details you spot, the more you fall in love. But my guess is that a lot more films don't have the impact they first had, simply because you already know what will happen, because you no longer have the thrill of first discovery. And that's okay.

I guess it's worth asking whether it wouldn't be better to stop at one viewing, if this is going to be the case. That may be the only way to preserve the unfettered love you have for the film in question.

But I don't have that kind of foreknowledge, and I'll take the risk. Any film I love needs to stand that test of a second viewing. If it's not as good as I thought it was, that's probably worth knowing.

Especially when I'm, you know, ranking all the films I've ever seen ...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A time for projects

With my wife out of town this weekend, I already knew that I was going to spend most of my time indoors.

Yep, when I've got a block of time in the house alone, I'm one of those men who lets the place get within an inch of a health hazard before washing his first dish. I eat terribly and I watch a lot of movies. Not that I couldn't watch a lot of movies with my wife around -- she's been known to like a movie or two in her day -- but she doesn't have the stamina for a good movie marathon or three. I watched three movies Saturday, two Sunday, and am expecting to end up watching two tonight. It's getting late and I haven't started the second one yet, so we'll see.

But I also spent a lot of time watching baseball, and a smaller amount of time watching football. Neither of these things requires 100% of your attention 100% of the time, so having them on in the background is perfect for ...

... projects.

Yep, projects. And I just love projects. But I'm not talking about your typical husband projects, like drywalling or cleaning out the gutter. No, these are movie projects, pure and simple. New lists. Expansions of current lists. That kind of thing.

I first wrote about Flickchart almost two weeks ago, and I'm going to let you follow the link to read what I wrote then, rather than recapping what Flickchart is here. Although I haven't mentioned it again since then, that's not because it hasn't been dominating my brain. It has. I've been building up my list of movies to rank, and ranking like crazy. I crossed 20,000 rankings at the end of last week, and 2,500 movies earlier tonight.

But I didn't rank much this weekend, because I had a different project in mind: To start tracking my rankings over time.

See, I want to know when I've got a list that actually looks like the right rankings. A list where Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn't as high as #985, and Eight Men Out isn't as low as #1,597. With Flickchart, the movies you duel are random -- though there are some funny thematic similarities in certain duels that can't be coincidental -- so it's hard to know how long it will take before Eight Men Out will come up against some worthy opponents, or enough movies will leapfrog Crystal Skull and force it downward to where it belongs. It'll happen over the course of time, but only by recording the changes in the rankings will I actually know when I'm getting close.

So here was the idea: Take a snapshot at 20,000, then another at 30,000. Then compare. And then again at 40,000. And so on.

Problem was, I didn't actually think of this idea until I was already past 20,000. So I stopped myself at 21,400, and will hit the others every 10,000 on the dot.

So how to do this? Flickchart unfortunately does not provide an easy-to-export listing of your movies, one per line, as many as you want per screen. Rather, you have to plod through, page by page, with each page holding 50 titles and some of their relevant stats, taking up a good 1-2 inches in height on the screen. That meant to record all these rankings, I'd have to go through 50 such pages.

(Another reason I wanted to do this: In case Flickchart craps out and loses all my data, I don't want all of this ranking to have been for naught. The site has a lot to handle and it frequently times out, so I need to make backups).

So I made up an Excel spreadsheet with four columns: ranking, title, year, director. This forethought would allow me to explore later on which years are the best quality, which directors make my favorite movies, etc. etc. Not strictly necessary, but I'll thank myself for it later on.

And went through, page by page, painstakingly recording all 2,484 titles. All the while getting more feverish, because I would soon find out which film actually ranks last of all the movies I've seen.

I first started by going slowly, moving the cursor down just enough to see the title, then seeing if I could guess the director and the year. At about 200 titles this got tedious, and I sped up. I'd do 50 at a time, then break -- and then when the Yankees-Angels game went into the 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th innings, I just went as quickly as I could without stopping. I got through about 1,300 on the first day, and managed to get to #2,484 a little after midnight last night. With breaks in between to watch movies and stuff.

What I hope to do with this data, when I get to 30,000, is see which movies have moved up, which moved down, and which held. (Very few of them will probably hold the exact ranking). Then I will compare to the previous ranking, and include a new column, which shows the total positions jumped or the total positions dropped. Though I'm curious about whether it's up or down, I'm more curious about accuracy. So it's an absolute value of that number, the number off from the previous 10,000. The theory is, when I add all those up, I'll have a base number of total position changes. Then at 40,000, I'll have another number, which will hopefully be smaller. As I go onward, the number will get smaller and smaller until the films are more or less where they should be.

Did you get exhausted just reading about it? Well, I won't have to do as much work next time. Next time, I'll at least already have all the titles in, so I won't have to write those again. (I'm also keeping track separately of the new titles I've added, so I can just group those in). I will have to do a lot of clicking to find the new ranking, but hopefully that will take less time. And if it doesn't ... well, this process is a work in progress.

And tonight the project continued. Not only have I been allowed to start ranking again after my pause to take the snapshot, but I've also gone through my big daddy of all lists, the Excel spreadsheet that contains all the movies I've ever seen. I checked off all the movies I was already ranking, and looked to see how many others I was still missing. Finished that, too, so now all the movies I've seen, that are available to rank on Flickchart, are in there.

And one great thing about Flickchart: you can add movies yourself for the site's editors to consider. You fill in the details -- director, stars, year, etc. -- and they check your work before going to find poster art for each movie. The four I added today are now listed as in pending status, which means hopefully I'll be able to rank them soon. If I want another project -- which I most certainly do -- I can go through and add all 300-some titles that I've seen that they don't have. And then we'll really be in business.

Sound crazy? Ah, but isn't that the essence of all hobbies?

Oh, so you want to know what #2,484 was? You've probably figured it out already: David Cronenberg's A History of Violence. Which, in a way, shows how far this project still has to go. No, I don't like A History of Violence, though I will stop short of saying I hate it. And because I stop short of saying that, there's no way it could truly be last in my rankings. But I can see why Flickchart would see it that way -- reviewing my personal stats for the film, I saw that I had ranked it 53 times, and it had only won a single solitary duel. Just bad luck, I guess -- it had yet to come up against any of the 300-400 films it would certainly beat. (I felt a little better about things when it did come up against such a film today, and jumped up to #2,044).

You've got your projects. I've got mine. Don't judge.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The unattainables

One of the things about being the kind of movie fan I am is that you want to see everything. I have told people, only half jokingly, that my goal is to see every movie that has ever been made.

The good ones. The bad ones. The extremely foreign ones, and the extremely local ones. High budget and low budget alike. All the movies.

I truly hope this never happens. If it did, it would probably mean that I would live in some kind of post-apocalyptic world where they stopped making movies, and where I was probably the only person still alive. The power would be out, so I'd walk the world smashing the windows of Best Buys to use up the battery power of all their portable DVD players, and one by one watch all the movies that I had never seen. It would take a very, very long time, mostly because of my power restrictions, but mostly because there have probably been over 100,000 movies made in the history of mankind (and that's a conservative estimate), less than 3,000 of which I've seen. But if there was no one else around, I'd try to tackle it. It might be like that episode of The Twilight Zone where the last man on earth gets to read all of earth's books (until he breaks his glasses), or maybe like I Am Legend, which I watched again last night, or maybe like Zombieland, which I watched on Friday night.

The point is not really whether I will succeed -- but how it affects my day-to-day approach to seeing movies. There are certain films I want to see just because they exist, and The Brown Bunny has been one of those movies.

If you're a regular at this blog, my guess is you have also heard of The Brown Bunny. But if you haven't, here's the famous thing about it: It contains a scene in which Chloe Sevigny gives writer-cinematographer-editor-director-star-costumer-key grip-crafts services guy Vincent Gallo a blow job. I'm not talking about her head bobbing suggestively in Gallo's lap -- I'm talking about his actual erect shaft and her actual mouth moving up and down the length of that shaft.

This scene has given the movie far more notoriety than it deserves. The movie itself is a pretentious piece of experimental art in which basically nothing happens except Gallo driving across the country and having pointless interactions with various people he encounters. Gallo's Buffalo '66 was also essentially pretentious and artsy, but at least that film worked for me. This one is a true waste of celluloid, and it deserves to be hated, but it does not deserve to be well known. Enter the blow job scene, which instantly turned it into a bizarre little curiosity that someone like me wants to see. And it's not because I'm some debased lover of porn, but simply, because there's something essentially fascinating about seeing a well-known actress give actual fellatio in a "legitimate" film. Not to mention that I'm always interested to see something I've never seen before, period.

The problem thus far about seeing The Brown Bunny: Where the hell am I supposed to get it?

Even though nothing remotely disturbing happens in the rest of the film, except one other short scene -- there's barely even any bad language -- this one scene was enough to keep the film from receiving an MPAA rating (or else they just never submitted it to be rated). It's also obviously enough to keep "respectable institutions" away from the movie. My two sources for watching films on video have been Blockbuster and the public library -- two institutions that want nothing to do with The Brown Bunny. The funny thing is, it would be terribly easy to release a version of this film that might even be PG-13, let alone R. Then again, without "the scene," there's really no point to see it, so perhaps Gallo just saved us some time by steadfastly refusing to cut a clean version.

So for a couple years now, since I've been aware of The Brown Bunny, I've stopped to wonder now and then how I could get it. My most obvious answer was that I had to get a membership at some cult little video store staffed by hipsters, kind of like Kim's Video in Greenwich Village. However, I live 3,000 miles away from Greenwich Village, and am not aware of its Los Angeles equivalent. Not that it would be particularly hard to figure it out -- just that The Brown Bunny hasn't been important enough to me to actually bother. Besides, as institutions like Kim's Video become less and less viable while losing ground to the dueling giants of Netflix and Blockbuster, I also imagine that their inventory has dwindled. Why carry The Brown Bunny if it takes up precious shelf space?

But as I was looking for something else on my desk the other day, I found my old rental card from Odyssey Video, which had what I considered a great deal when I used to live in the San Fernando Valley. If you rented on a Tuesday or a Thursday, any movie in the store was only 99 cents. Of course, there was a catch -- you had to return it by closing the next day. So a person might wonder whether it was really worth a 10-15 minute drive to their North Hollywood location on consecutive days, whether that didn't sap the value of the savings. But when I was sustaining myself by being a freelance film critic my first year in Los Angeles, I'd rent three on a Tuesday and watch them all by the next night at midnight, so I maximized the value. I remember racing to finish movies by at least 11:42 to make sure I'd get there in time.

Anyway, Odyssey Video has several locations in Los Angeles, the closest of which is only five minutes from where I currently live. I checked it out a couple times, but they no longer have the Tuesday-Thursday deal, and besides, it feels strange to actually pay for renting a movie. Of course I pay Blockbuster for their online program, but as it is a single payment on my credit card each month, it feels different. Besides, the main reason I even have Blockbuster is that I need their extensive access to whatever titles I want -- and because I have beefs with Neflix, which I've described on this blog before. So making a real-time payment to not even know if I'm going to find the movie I'm looking for in their inventory? It no longer met my needs.

But finding the card on my desk happened to coincide with another reminder of my back-burner interest in seeing The Brown Bunny. Odyssey Video also has a full-fledged adult section, so they certainly aren't going to shrink away from The Brown Bunny on moral grounds. The main question would be if they bothered to carry it, if it ever rented. Remember what I said earlier about a dwindled inventory?

So I decided to check it out yesterday. I'd been looking through the B section of drama for less than ten seconds when I found it. (They're very anal with their alphabetization at this Odyssey, something that really pleases an anal list-maker like me). A little thrill rushed through me when I saw the title. And I promise you, it wasn't because it meant I could actually see Chloe Sevigny go down on Vincent Gallo, because I'm sure I could find that on the internet if I wanted. It was just the strangeness of it that struck me. Here was The Brown Bunny, verboten in all reputable establishments, right at my fingertips. It was like the moment of disbelief that accompanies finding the exact rare gift or other object you've been fruitlessly seeking for years.

No sooner had I found The Brown Bunny than I decided to test how good this Odyssey really was. I wandered over to S and almost immediately found Shortbus. Shortbus is a far more respectable effort in terms of cinema that should actually exist, as far as I understand it. It's directed by Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell, and explores modern sexuality among straights, gays and bisexuals. It just happens to explore them fairly graphically. However, there doesn't seem to be anything prurient about it, as there is in The Brown Bunny. My guess is that the more graphic stuff is probably gay, which in itself makes it seem more artistically justified than that Brown Bunny hummer.

I decided to go for #3 with Caligula. Caligula is the repellent and pornographic 1979 big-budget telling of the story of the third Roman emperor, which features such big names as Malcolm McDowell, Peter O'Toole, Sir John Gielgud and Helen Mirren. (Who gets naked.) I have had a life-long interest in seeing Caligula, but not for the reason you think. When I was younger -- maybe, junior high -- I had a big compilation of Roger Ebert's film reviews in a book he released annually, and I just loved reading the reviews for the movies he gave zero stars. (A reason I also have I Spit on Your Grave and Mother's Day (1980) on my radar). Caligula was one of those, and quite simply, Ebert reserved the most hateful language he could possible conjure for this film. I could extract quotes from it, but it's all so delicious that I ought to just tell you to check it out here.

Like I said, I'd always wanted to see it -- the absolute worst example of something can be almost as fascinating as the absolute best -- and was all the more enthused for that prospect when I saw that there was no review of it on my website. So I got approved to review it, then sent away for it -- from Blockbuster, bad choice -- almost three years ago. In fact, I watched it on Halloween of 2006 -- it was a day off for me, since I was starting my current job the next day. (And never mind the debates about whether this is a good way to spend part of a rare day off -- I know, I know).

But as I was going along, I realized this was the truncated version -- in fact, reading up on it, I then realized there were no less than a half-dozen versions of the film, some re-cut for length (it was two-and-a-half hours in original form), some re-cut for decency in the vain hope of trying to attain some kind of cultural respectability. The version I saw gave me an idea of how unremittingly awful it was, but it still did not give me what I considered to be the true Caligula, the one Roger Ebert walked out of back in 1979. So I held off on the review, and have been holding off until this day, waiting to find that elusive original print.

Odyssey Video did not have Caligula, but that's just as well. In looking it up online, I now see that my approval to review the movie must have expired, or slipped through the cracks. Another critic has submitted the review, and that's actually fine. Save me the worry.

Although I have stated that I'm impressed with Odyssey Video for carrying these two titles, I probably shouldn't be surprised. If there is any way for them to compete with Blockbuster and Netflix, it's by carrying titles those places don't. That sounds kind of ridiculous, on the face of it, since there are only a couple dozen films that exist that would be prominent enough to be worth carrying, but not carried by the two giants, and those movies would probably not rent very often. But Odyssey already gets a majority of its business, I'm guessing, through its porn section, another thing that the giants obviously don't offer. This is just an extension of that philosophy.

Oh, so to finish up the story, I rented The Brown Bunny (but not Shortbus) and watched it yesterday. Vincent Gallo drives across the country and then Chloe Sevigny gives him a blow job. The end. And yes, it did feel as surreal to watch the blow job as I was expecting. Save yourself the trouble and watch that scene online if you must, and leave the obsessive duty of watching the whole movie to a person like me.

I'm probably not going to see all the movies that have ever been made, but at least it's nice to know that there are fewer I can't see because I can't find them. There's something definitely exotic about an unattainable movie, kind of like Indiana Jones searching for the headpiece to the staff of Ra.

Except the erstwhile Henry Jones has to travel to a local drinking establishment in the harsh winter of Nepal, while I now just have to make a five-minute drive to the video store.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Acceptable pandering

The closest mall to our house has undergone a massive overhaul in the past year. We thought the nation's economic woes might scrap some of those plans, but lo and behold, the grand re-opening came about a week ago, the same October 2009 date that had always been promised on signs outside, that always seemed so far in the future.

This is not a particularly important event in our lives, because a) my wife and I aren't really mall people -- in fact, aren't at all; b) even if we were mall people, we might not choose this one as our regular mall.

Quite simply, this mall has made no bones about being geared toward African-Americans.

And because we are such racists, we would never want to go where such people reside.

Of course that's not true -- if you knew me better, you'd know I make jokes like this to make fun of a person who would actually say such things in earnest, even though I know that's a dangerous line to walk, appropriate for the right company only. Naturally, I consider a website open to the entire world to be "the right company." Then again, I haven't revealed my identity, plus, I'm taking great pains to explain the semantics of my own joke, so you don't misinterpret what I'm saying.

But really, I shouldn't say we don't ever go to this mall, because I've probably been about a dozen times in the three-and-a-half years I've lived within shouting distance. I usually make at least one stop there each Christmas shopping season, which is the one time of year malls become somewhat useful to me. I've also gone there to get my watch band fixed, and to get a quick bite to eat. I'm no stranger.

In fact, I've been just enough times to be really dispirited by the place. Not because it's not a generally dynamic space with generally useful stores, and definitely not because I'm in the minority among a sizeable number of blacks and a smaller number of Latinos.

No, the real reason it dispirits me is because many of the stores go to great lengths to pander to those black customers.

More jewelry stores per capita than most malls. More places to buy pro sports jerseys per capita than most malls. More stores selling the latest and greatest in basketball shoes. And only one small bookstore, not even a full-fledged Borders, but a Borders Express. This is why I might not want to make this my regular mall. By shopping there, I'm essentially saying this kind of "racial profiling," as it were, is not off-putting.

You might say this mall is just a reflection of what the market will bear. Maybe this isn't the best mall to have, say, a tanning salon. And maybe there was a more diverse representation of stores in the past, but some of those places went out of business because they weren't getting enough sales. Most of the people who go there aren't offended by it, so I probably shouldn't be either.

But you know me -- either white guilt or liberal guilt or whatever I have causes me to become offended in situations where I think racial minorities are being abused. There are probably worse afflictions I could have.

And so it is that I probably should feel a little strange that the area of new construction in this mall -- which includes a Target, a Best Buy, a Gold's Gym, and a BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse -- also has a 100-foot-tall advertisement for Disney's The Princess and the Frog plastered on the prime outer wall facing the 405 freeway.

It seems to be saying, in no uncertain terms, "Even though we've made a lot of expensive changes (i.e. changes directed toward white customers) at this mall, we still want your business, black folks."

Well, after all this build-up, I'm going to surprise you:

I'm okay with it.

I noticed it -- that's why I'm writing about it, of course -- but I'm okay with it.

You see, as much as I tend to be disappointed by the way products are marketed to black people -- especially when malls in black areas stock only those products -- I'm even more disappointed by overt attempts at gentrification. Perhaps I am totally cynical, but I have to imagine that the only way such large sums of money would be budgeted to overhaul this mall were if its owners wanted to branch out to whites. After all, it's not like the neighborhood where the mall resides is all black. It's almost as close to Marina del Rey as it is to Inglewood, so it should be a nice, harmonious mix of all ethnicities. A mall where the United Colors of Benneton store actually spills out into the food court and onto the escalators.

But the reality of the situation is, it's a black mall. A black mall whose very viability appears to have been called into question, hence resulting in these massive changes. (Which my wife and I haven't even seen yet. We were going to go last Saturday, but then the day got away from us.)

So if the giant Princess and the Frog poster is really saying "Hey guys, this is still your mall," then hell yeah, I'm okay with it.

Even more optimistically: Maybe the changes to this mall were not white-driven. Maybe the Westfield Group, which owns this and a number of other malls in Los Angeles, is not making a particular play for a new kind of customer. Maybe, like Disney, which this fall is releasing its first film with an African-American main character, Westfield just recognizes the changing face of America, where whites will be a minority inside a couple decades, and purchasing power is (somewhat) equally in the hands of blacks and Latinos as it is in the hands of whites. Maybe Westfield sees a post-Obama America, where presumptions are not made about people's shopping habits based on the color of their skin. After all, they're an Australian company, so they've already got the benefit of the doubt in our household.

So instead of doing the Stephen Colbert finger wag at Westfield for what they may have done in the past, I'm going to give them the temporary thumbs up for what they may be doing in the future. Same to Disney.

Until I actually see the new mall myself, at which point I'm sure I'll find something to carp about.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Conflict of interest

I am on the verge of writing my first film review in which I have a potential conflict of interest.

First, a little background.

Among my wife's friends in Australia are a couple filmmakers who may be on the verge of making it big. They're a married couple -- a director (let's call him Mark) and a composer (let's call her Beatrice) -- who both had a good list of credits in Australian television, but had also collaborated on several shorts and (I believe) one feature. In 2006 they were hard at work on a second feature, called Noise, which Mark wrote and directed, and for which Beatrice composed the music. Noise is about a Melbourne police officer who has tinnitus, the ailment that causes a permanent ringing in one's ears, and the ways in which he becomes involved with two high-profile (and possibly linked) murder cases, while he is also grappling with his hearing becoming further and further degraded.

Noise was accepted at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, where it was well received. Some of the people receiving it well were my wife and I, who traveled to Park City, Utah just for the purpose of seeing it -- and for the rare opportunity to see Mark and Beatrice, of course. In fact, we slept in the extra double bed in their hotel room. The producing team was angling for a release in the U.S., but sadly, it never transpired -- even though, after emerging from the theater, I eagerly proclaimed that such a release would be a foregone conclusion. (And no, I do not think I jinxed the film.)

As is my custom, I put in to review Noise right after returning from Sundance -- almost three years ago now. Since the film did not have a fixed release date, my editor suggested that I just write the synopsis for the movie now, and wait until it was released to write the review. I also pitched the idea of interviewing Mark for a feature on the website, but not with much enthusiasm -- since he was unknown in the U.S., an interview with him wouldn't be a very exciting draw for most readers, so my access to him was not a very useful selling point.

So I wrote the Noise synopsis, and waited for its U.S. theatrical release. (It was released in the theaters in Australia and got great reviews.) That U.S. release eventually came on DVD, at which point, I was eligible to review it. In most cases, I don't feel the need to revisit a movie before reviewing it, even if a year or more has elapsed. In fact, when I first started writing for this website, I routinely submitted reviews for films I had not seen in ten years, though you can understand if I was a little vague on specifics. At that point, they just needed content, and I was there to provide it.

However, since I know Mark and Beatrice, I wanted to give Noise a second viewing before I wrote the review. I knew my review would be glowing, but I also wanted to be sure I could latch on to specifics, to make it the best possible review it could be. After all, it's not every day that you know for certain that the person who directed the film will be reading your review.

As sometimes happens, though -- and perhaps it was this subconscious pressure of writing the perfect review -- my second viewing of Noise made its way to the back burner. I got approved to review it some time ago, but it just didn't make it to the top of my online queue until late summer. (And the filmmakers should be pleased to know that you can get Noise through Blockbuster, thank you very much.) Since late summer, my wife and I have both been very busy, and I knew this was a movie she wanted to see again with me. After all, they're her friends -- my friends my proxy, though I'm quite fond of them as well. Plus, the subject matter of Noise is quite heavy, so it never felt like the soothing balm of dumb escapism we usually needed to relax from our busy schedule. We were trying to wait for the perfect time and place for our second viewing.

Not that we're any less busy, but we finally found that time this past Sunday. (Ironically, it was about two-and-a-half weeks after the director himself was in town for meetings with Hollywood types, during which we had dinner with him, and I told him that I was about to review the movie.) Not that there was any doubt, but the second viewing confirmed that Noise is a very good film.

Knowing various members of the crew as we did -- at Sundance, we met and hung out with the producer, the DP, and several actors -- we decided we should definitely check out the DVD extras to see what was there. Lo and behold, there was a making-of doco (to use the Australian slang for documentary) shot mostly by Mark himself. I say "mostly," because as it turns out, my wife shot some of the footage as well. That's right, it was with surprise and delight that we were suddenly looking at familiar footage from our Sundance weekend, where my wife did some videoing and actually asked Mark a few questions. So her voice is in the film as well. I was even on the lookout for whether I might find myself in the background of one of the shots, but I never did. The doco also contained an extended interview with the film's editor (let's call him Greg), who is also one of my wife's friends, and has become my friend through our mutual obsessive love of films -- though I've met him in person only once, briefly. In fact, before the doco, I'd forgotten that Greg was even the editor of Noise -- hence my failure to include him in this piece before now.

As I was taking all this in, I thought, "Wow, I may really have a genuine conflict of interest on this film."

But what is a conflict of interest when it comes to reviewing films, really? Are you supposed to recuse yourself when you know some of the participants? If so, how does someone like Roger Ebert handle that situation? In a 30+ year career, he has certainly met hundreds if not thousands of actors, writers, directors and producers, and presumably developed a friendly relationship with some of them. Does he question his own ability to submit an impartial review when these people appear in a film, or behind the camera?

The thing is, I'm probably one of the only ones -- though I can now include you, dear readers, in that group -- who knows that I have some sort of personal stake in this film. There's little chance that my editor remembers that I know the director (and composer, and editor) of Noise, a film that is probably not even on his radar. So the question is not really one of professional ethics, or at least not in terms of ethics where I have a chance of getting caught and paying some kind of price for my actions. Even if my editor knew I knew the director, I'm sure he wouldn't care. In fact, at the time my editor delayed my initial request to review the film, he certainly knew of my friendship with the filmmakers, and didn't discourage me from being the one who ultimately submits the review. Hey, it's just a website visited by film lovers. It's not going for a Pulitzer or anything.

But there's also the issue of what to say. I'm really lucky that Noise is a good film, because my job should be easy. In fact, if it sucked, I probably would have just gone easy on myself and left the money on the table to leave it unreviewed. As Noise wasn't assigned to me, but rather, a film I requested, there would have been no point to piss off my wife's friends -- people I was only just getting to know -- to prove some kind of principal of journalistic integrity.

The thing is, though Noise is a very good film, it's not a perfect film. That's not some kind of indictment, it's just a simple fact that is true of most movies, and with which Mark, Beatrice and Greg would no doubt agree. One thing the second viewing of Noise gave me -- which an initial viewing that included the intoxication of attending my first Sundance couldn't give me -- was a couple logistical questions. Why did this happen this way? Why did that happen that way? How was this thread of the plot resolved?

Most of these questions are ultimately not that important, because Noise is a film that is purposefully unresolved in certain ways -- which is one of its towering strengths. It is also more about mood and character than it is about point A to point B to point C plot development, another shrewd attribute. So any minor complaints I have would be too insignificant to prioritize in a 300-word review.

The only question is -- would I consider them more significant if I approached Noise knowing nothing about it? Knowing no one who made it?

Like most questions on this blog, that one's pretty academic. I loved Noise, and was blown away that people I know personally could make such a strong film. That's what will, should, come out in my review. Ha ha -- the fact that it was made by people I know won't come out in the review -- that would indeed be a problem. But the sensation one gets from being impressed by a piece of art, regardless of who made it, and then having that sensation enhanced by knowing the artist -- that's what will come out in my review.

And there's one other unspoken undercurrent of this whole discussion, a truth I can't deny: It probably doesn't matter all that much what I write. Since this is a retroactive review, it doesn't have the ability to help get the film released in the U.S., or change the nature of the DVD distribution agreement. In fact, if I'd been approved to review it when originally requested, there was some chance, however small, that my review could have done this. But now, the film is already filed in its place in cinematic history, and all I'm doing is helping shape the historical perspective on it.

Then again, I am doing something else as well. Sure, I'm clapping my friends on the back, giving them one more chance to feel the love for Noise. But I may also be helping add it to the online rental queues of the people who will read my review. I may just be helping bring the movie to a wider audience, in fact. And when you come right down to it, setting aside the potential monetary gain, prestige, and respect among colleagues, that's what a good filmmaker really wants: for his or her film to simply be seen.

Now all I have to do is write it.