Saturday, December 26, 2009

Boxing Day box office bonanza

Boxing Day is better known as December 26th in the United States.

In other parts of the world -- namely Australia -- it's more like Christmas + The Fourth of July + the Friday after Thanksgiving. 

Yeah, there's a lot of shopping that goes on on December 26th in Australia, but it's also summer vacation, and pretty much everyone is out of work doing some kind of activity or other. It's a huge day for any number of events to be occurring, namely the famous yacht race from Syndey to Hobart. But there's also a very important cricket match today, and there are plenty of other modest-sized local events you might attend. We've been to the market here in Hobart (Tasmania), one of the best farmer's markets/crafts fairs I've ever attended (as my looted wallet will attest), and plan to go to a BBQ later on.

It's also a day when no less than a dozen major movies are released. Yes, this one day.

I've included the poster for Did You Hear About the Morgans? somewhat randomly, because I could have chosen numerous others. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. The Lovely Bones. Sherlock Holmes. And about ten others whose billboards I saw when we were walking the streets of Sydney earlier this week. Yes, I realize it would be more impressive in making my point if I could actually remember some of the other titles.

The thing that strikes me about this confluence of release dates of major films on a single day is that it demonstrates the opposite conventional wisdom that we see in America. In America, no matter how much confidence you have in your film, you don't want it to open against another strong film because its opening weekend box office will inevitably be siphoned. And it's all about opening weekend box office if you want your film to have legs and become a hit.

Not so in Australia, and probably, not so in most of the world. That's because the U.S. opening weekend does the heavy lifting. My guess is that it also aligns with a foreign mentality of not needing to see the film right when it opens. We didn't see Avatar the first day I arrived -- Sunday -- because it was sold out. But we didn't have too much trouble seeing it on Tuesday, even though "the world's biggest IMAX screen" (or so this proclaimed) wasn't even being saved exclusively for James Cameron's film -- it was also hosting screening of such films as A Christmas Carol and two other IMAX-only films, Under the Sea and something about Islam. We didn't walk right up and buy tickets or anything, but the fact that my wife got them online only two days earlier -- when many people were on vacation for the holidays already, and therefore might have more time in their schedule despite the added shopping -- was telling. It was a 6:15 showing as well.

Trying to write this post somewhat quickly, so I may not finish up with my usual cohesiveness (or so I like to think of it as that). And I'm still annoyed that in my post-nap state I can't remember the 37 other movies that were opening today. (It's December 26th where I sit, regardless of what the North American-centric date on may tell you.) 

But at least now you have a little snapshot of how the movies work here Down Under. Next post, if I have time: the titles we've watched here that you can't get in the U.S., and whether they "count" just like the movies you can. 

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Avatar in Australia

I can't believe I've had this blog for almost a whole year, and I have yet to write an in-depth Avatar post.

Well, this one won't be very in-depth either. Today is my last day in the western hemisphere for two weeks, and I'm tying up a million loose ends before jetting off to Australia tonight. Writing one last blog post before I leave is one of those loose ends.

Yeah, I'm pretty excited for Avatar. Even though my first impression, upon seeing footage, was "Oh, I didn't know this is what Avatar was about." Even though I'm still not a big fan of this poster, with its way-too-earnest blue dude gazing deeply into our eyes. Even though they've done their best to saturate us with footage and remove the thrill from finally getting to see the movie.

So excited, in fact, that I have been -- successfully, it would appear -- campaigning my wife to see the movie while we spend the next three days in Sydney.

Whether we can just walk up and get tickets is another matter, especially on IMAX. I understand many of those shows have been sold out for weeks here in Los Angeles. Australia has a smaller population, but it should hardly matter in the big cities. I do like to think of them as slightly less impressed with big spectacle, in their eagerness to "take the piss" out of blowhards like James Cameron. But they are a film-loving culture that has produced numerous great film icons (as I discussed only a few days ago). Plus, the lead (Sam Worthington) is an Aussie, and I believe some of it was shot (or at least post-produced) in Australia.

So seeing Avatar in Sydney may be a pipe dream. But I really don't want to wait two weeks to get back -- longer than that, actually, since my wife doesn't return until January 5th -- to see the movie. Maybe we'll have a better chance in Hobart, Tasmania, where we will spend the five days after that. Either way, if you read this post, you'll know I'm okay with "wasting" precious travel time on a movie -- in fact, I try to do it once a trip.

I will also try to make at least one Audient post from Australia. After all, won't you want to know which five movies I watched on the 16-hour plane ride?

But if I don't, have a happy holiday season, readers, and I'll see you back here in 2010!

Friday, December 18, 2009

The big kahuna

In addition to Miss March, I also saved watching Citizen Kane until my wife was out of town. See, she almost certainly would not want to sit through what's widely considered the best film of all time, even though she owns the DVD. (Pause for laughter.)

Actually, Citizen Kane had always been planned for one of the movies I was going to watch this week. Originally, I planned to watch a double feature on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights before leaving Friday night for Australia, where I'll spend the last two weeks of the year. The theme: Each double feature would contain one film I'd already seen, and one I hadn't.

But when I got a low-grade stomach flu on Tuesday, I managed only one movie: Ridley Scott's Alien. (Interesting choice of a film to watch when you've got stomach issues.) A true masterpiece that I didn't appreciate enough the first time I saw it. I love the little details that other sci-fi films take for granted, like the fact that landing a spaceship on the surface of a strange planet can itself be a harrowing experience.

A late workday and last-minute shopping killed any possibility of a double feature yesterday, as well, but I decided to stick to my resolve to watch Kane as planned. That's two nights in a row of movies I'd seen previously. Adding to my collection would have to wait. (Actually, it turns out I did "add" to my collection on Tuesday, as I discovered that Alien wasn't on my master list of films I'd seen. Inaccuracies in my list! Gasp! The horror!)

When I was coming of age as a film fan, I watched Citizen Kane at least twice in film classes, and saw it a third time on some other occasion. But it may have been as long as 15 years since my last viewing, so I was overdue.

And Citizen Kane has interested me especially in the past two-and-a-half months, as I've been accruing my Flickchart rankings. I knew it was time to find out the following:

Is Citizen Kane actually my favorite film of all time, or am I just going with the flow?

Few people under the age of 80 have seen Citizen Kane without first knowing it is considered the de facto greatest film of all time. I knew that years before I finally saw it. And that means it's hard to know how you would have reacted to it in a vacuum. Is it really the greatest, or do you just know it's supposed to be greatest?

It's a question I've carried around with me throughout my career as a film fan, and it got re-energized a few weeks ago, when I was listening to a podcast called Flick Fights. This podcast features a handful of film fans participating live in the day-to-day duels that comprise the Flickchart experience, then arguing about their opposing viewpoints. Citizen Kane came up against something clearly inferior, and though they all picked it to win, in the same breath they acknowledged that actually sitting down to watch it seemed like something of a chore.

I nodded imperceptibly. Could it be that this was my own feeling about it, yet the pressure of so much critical love has caused me to artificially inflate it in my own rankings?

I worried what would happen when Citizen Kane came up against some of the titans on my own list: Toy Story, Pulp Fiction and Donnie Darko, which are currently ranked #1 through #3. Any of those titles could be vulnerable. Though I love those three films, the fact that they're ranked the way they are is still only a function of the duels they've randomly participated in. At any old time, Citizen Kane (currently ranked #18) could come in and shake things up.

But should it? Or is it really "something of a chore?" That's what was to be determined last night.

Well, I'm glad to say that Citizen Kane is as good as I remembered it to be. Some of the techniques Orson Welles uses would still strike you as inventive if you saw them being used today, and this was 68 years ago. At the time he used them, they were completely unprecedented.

What's more, it's not a chore -- it's actually fun. In my mind I'd developed the idea that the movie was probably pushing two hours and 30 minutes, but no -- a mere 119 minutes, or just under two. Even those two hours went faster than I thought they would, full of humor and playfulness. The film moves along at a great clip, with great interweaving of time periods. What an interesting structure for a film -- the ten-minute newsreel at the start basically gives you the whole story of Charles Foster Kane, then Welles spends the rest of the time filling in the details of those broad brushstrokes. You watch it not to find out what happens, but how it happens. Oh, and to learn who or what Rosebud was. I won't spoil that for you here, ha ha.

But I don't need to spend too much time giving you my own analysis of Citizen Kane. Everything I could say has been published ad nauseum in other, more reputable locations.

What I do want to say is that if Citizen Kane ends up being my best film of all time, I'd be okay with it. I'll let Flickchart decide.

I guess it comes down to a distinction between the words "favorite" and "best." And who knows if there's an objective standard for what "favorite" means. The movie I've probably seen the most is National Lampoon's Animal House. But does that mean it's my favorite? Nope. It just means that in my freshman year of college, we watched it every week for three months in a row.

Is Citizen Kane the film I want to watch the most number of times? No. Is it the film I want to curl up with when I'm sick? No. Is it the one film I want to have on a desert island with me? Probably not.

But is it the best?

Yeah, I think it just may be.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Unrated is overrated

I've never bought into the shameless marketing of unrated versions of dumb comedies. I think the idea excited me for about a week-and-a-half back in 2001, or whenever the concept was introduced. And then I remembered I'm an adult, and the internet is full of pornography if I'm so inclined.

So I never, ever watch the unrated version. It's not only because I don't need to be titillated by two extra boob shots per movie. More than anything, it's because I hold the strong belief that there should be one definitive version of every movie out there. In trying to explain this view to those who don't already agree with it, I use the art world as a metaphor. When the Mona Lisa was done, it was done, and no one later decided that she should be holding a walkie talkie instead of a gun, or that Michelangelo's David would shoot first. So I don't like director's cuts of movies, and rarely watch them even as a curiosity. If I don't even want to give the director the chance to show me his/her true vision, it should stand to reason I don't care for the marketing department's true vision -- a vision concocted to goose DVD sales to horny teenagers.

But this blog is about scientific inquiry. So in the name of science, I decided to watch the unrated version of Miss March last night, to see what all the supposed fuss was about.

I had been sort of wanting to see Miss March since I first saw the trailers, and I have a movie called Sex Drive to blame for that. A friend and I went to see Sex Drive last fall, expecting something mindless that might have a few laughs (and, let's be honest, a few boobs). Well, it had more than a few laughs, and we were surprised by how charming it actually was. A worthy modern-day successor to a wide range of influential movies, from The Sure Thing to American Pie. Miss March -- about a high school senior who goes into a four-year coma right as he's about to lose his virginity, and discovers upon waking that his previously abstinent girlfriend has become a Playboy centerfold -- seemed to have that same kind of vibe.

It didn't take long for me to hear that Miss March was terrible, and for it to drop off my short-term radar. Then yesterday, seeing it on the shelf at Blockbuster reminded me of that flicker of interest. Certain that this was not a Mona Lisa whose purity could be tainted by an unrated version, I decided to make Miss March the subject in my experiment.

And just how hard is the marketing department pushing this unrated version? Well, let's look at the cover. Not only is there that band wrapped around the supposedly naked body of actress Raquel Alessi (who never gets naked in the film), but there's the GIANT word "UNRATED" emblazoned across, twice the size of the title, and "FULLY EXPOSED EDITION" in only slightly more modest print underneath. And there's more text -- also capitalized, but I'll spare your eyes: "Do not open near wife, girlfriend, mother, sister, boss, grandparents, babysitter, clergy, etc." (True enough, I did watch it on a night my wife was out of town, but mostly because I knew she wouldn't have any interest in sitting through it.) According to the marketing department, this is the hottest movie you are ever going to see.

I have a different theory. My theory is, the only truth in advertising about the word "UNRATED" is this: They literally did not submit it to the MPAA to be rated. Which is of course true, because the MPAA only rates the version intended for theatrical release. Any secondary version of a film can, therefore, accurately be listed as "unrated" -- in fact, you might almost say it must be listed that way. The makers of Miss March want you to believe that this was the version submitted to the MPAA, but that it would have been slapped with an NC-17, so they had to edit it down to an R if they wanted anybody to see it. There may be one or two movies out there where this is actually the case, but the majority of the time, the unrated version gets conceived after the fact -- or at the very least, footage is shot with full knowledge that it will be saved for the unrated DVD release. By this strict definition of "unrated," the unrated version could theoretically be cleaner than the theatrical version. The only way you would know would be to compare the two.

And the makers of Miss March are banking on the fact that you won't. They believe most consumers lured in by the DVD's promises will watch the unrated version only. Perhaps it's even more self-deprecating than that. Perhaps they realized that the movie is crap, so regardless of which version you watch, it'll be the only one.

Well, not me. I wanted to see exactly which parts they considered too hot to include in the R version -- if any at all. I wanted to hold them accountable to their warnings of "full exposure."

But I didn't want to watch the damn thing twice. Even the pursuit of science has demands that are just too unreasonable.

So I decided I would watch the unrated version, identify scenes I thought might be too hot/vulgar for the theatrical version, then watch the theatrical version on fast forward, slowing down only during the passages under examination. Having just seen the movie, I hoped I'd be able to note any major differences even at five times the speed.

Here's what I came up with, using my notes as title headings (Some spoilers to follow, if you really care):

1) Crackheads. Near the beginning of the movie, the future centerfold (Raquel Alessi) and her pre-comatose boyfriend (Zach Cregger, who also co-directed and co-wrote) are giving a "scared straight" speech to an auditorium full of elementary school kids. Their warped idea of how to promote abstinence involves telling the kids that because so-and-so smoked cigarettes, her baby "came out a crackhead." Except Alessi's mouth is not saying the word "crackhead." That was dubbed in later. I doubted they would go to the trouble of dubbing in crude dialogue just to make the movie more racy, especially since "crackhead" is not the kind of word that gets ratings boards in a tizzy. It wouldn't be worth it to undermine yourself technically -- it's easy to see the lips don't match up, and I was only half watching. But I saw no other explanation for it.

Verdict: The word is dubbed in the theatrical version as well. In fact, all three times she references the crack baby, it's dubbed. I'm no lip reader, but I'm now pretty sure the actual line of dialogue was "her baby came out retarded." An 11th hour save on being politically correct, but do Cregger and his co-writer/co-director/co-star Trevor Moore lose points for filming it the "wrong way" in the first place?

2) Spooge on limo. The limo picking up the two abstinence-lovers for the prom already has three occupants: A budding rapper (played by The Office's Craig Robinson) named Horsedick.mpeg (a sort of funny joke that gets run into the ground), and his two "bitches." As the abstinent couple gets their picture taken by her parents outside the house, one of the "bitches" springs out through the sun roof and spits up what appears to be a mouthful of semen. "Horsedick, you nasty," she says.

Verdict: Also in the theatrical version. Semen hasn't been off limits since There's Something About Mary, though expectorating it on a car roof might have been pushing the envelope. Still, the semen and the accompanying fellatio implications were deemed acceptable for an R.

3) Hospital shit. When Eugene (let's give this guy a name) awakens from his coma -- courtesy of a baseball bat to the head by his brilliant friend Tucker (Moore) -- he falls out of the hospital bed in his confusion. Moments later, while exerting to stand up but not yet having control of his bowels, he releases what can only be described as a "shit bomb" from underneath his hospital gown. The effect is quite good -- the shit looks like a believable mixture of chunks and liquid, and cascades outward in a way resembling a tossed bucket of dirty water. And though gross-out gags are a bit played out, the ick factor really worked for me on this one.

Verdict: You guessed it -- also in the theatrical version. I wasn't surprised that this was okay for an R. In fact, I was hopeful that it wasn't exclusive to the unrated version -- if it had been, it would have been a good visual gag that I would have missed if I'd stuck to my usual viewing philosophy.

4) Straw dick. Given the way sexual braggarts always get their comeuppance in movies like this, we shouldn't be surprised that the suggestively named Horsedick.meg turns out not to have a dick at all. In the big finale outside the Playboy Mansion, he's outed as a guy born without genitalia, who has to "piss through a straw." Several members of his shocked posse then grab him and pull his pants down, at which point we see what looks like balls with two thin straws protruding, about the thickness of the kind you use to stir your coffee. To make matters more gross, some actual urine spurts out the end. (And how's this for a continuity error -- there's no way that girl could have spit out Horsedick's semen in the limo if he didn't have a penis.)

Verdict: Last but not least, this was also in the theatrical version. If a movie like Miss March doesn't have jokes like this, what does it have?

So all four potentially sketchy scenes I identified were in both versions of the film. For a moment I was delighted by the outrageous possibility that the unrated version and the theatrical version might be exactly the same. What better validation of my skepticism could there be?

Yet when I compared the running times, the unrated version was a full three-and-a-half minutes longer: 93:26 compared to 89:53. Just where were those extra 213 seconds?

I couldn't find them all, but I did account for the difference in some ways:

1) Grotto. Having made it to his personal Shangri-La, Tucker stumbles across the grotto at the Playboy Mansion. In the theatrical version, it's basically just a wide shot where you see a nude woman diving into the water from far away. In the unrated version, the difference is exactly those two boob shots that I mentioned at the start -- just two quick cutaways of topless women. Yawn.

2) Lesbian scene. The least surprising thing in Miss March is that a hitchhiking Eugene and Tucker get picked up by a pair of attractive European lesbians who can't stop pawing each other. In fact, they ask the two guys to drive so they can go at it in the backseat. This scene is pretty chaste in both versions, in terms of actual nudity -- there's a nipple quickly flashed here and there -- but in the unrated version, there's the introduction of a bottle into their love-making. I didn't really consider this very risque -- all she does is hold up a bottle and then lower it out of view -- so I didn't write it down the first time. But on fast forward I thought it might have been missing from the theatrical version. Then again, maybe not. I couldn't be bothered to slow down enough to examine it closely.

3) A different ending. And here is where my big fear of alternate versions really comes into play. See, I liked the ending they chose for the unrated version better. In the unrated version, after reuniting with his lost love, Eugene unwittingly gets drunk again, with Tucker as his personal bartender, right before going to finally consummate his relationship. It was this drunkenness after the prom that caused him to fall down the stairs and land in a four-year coma, so history looks like it will repeat itself. In the unrated version, we then see him upstairs in a bedroom with Cindi (let's give her a name), pounding away at high speed as only a drunk rookie might do. It's a little crass but it is otherwise pretty chaste -- the sheets cover them up. As he is approaching climax, Cindi warns him not to over-exert himself, but it's too late -- we hear a juicy release of feces, and the credits roll. That's gross as hell, but it works -- gives literal meaning to the colorful metaphor "he shat the bed." Besides, it brings back a recurring joke -- it's Eugene's fourth involuntary shit of the movie -- and that's always a smart move in the closing scene of a comedy.

In the theatrical version, however, they shied away from the bed-shitting joke. Could that really have been too gross for the MPAA? You don't see the shit, you only hear it. So instead, the movie ends with Tucker and Eugene each slamming down a shot glass on the kitchen counter. In other words, it doesn't even end with a joke. No wonder no one liked this movie.

In the final analysis, I didn't like it much either -- regardless of the version. But it's not the worst piece of shit I've ever seen, either.

I can say that Hugh Hefner, who makes an extended cameo here, chose a better product tie-in movie with last year's The House Bunny. Not only was that movie both funnier and sweeter, but it has only one version, which happens to be rated PG-13 -- meaning it can be plenty winning without torrents of feces and semen.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Australians never play Australians

It turns out, Australian actors can do really good Australian accents.

You wouldn't know it, because they are almost never called upon to use their regular speaking voice in Hollywood films. But it's true.

And it's darn fun to see sometimes.

That's one of the reasons I enjoyed the otherwise meandering final hour of Funny People, which we watched on Saturday night. Right around the time most comedies would be wrapping up, Aussie Eric Bana enters the story for the stretch run of the film's gargantuan 2-hour-and-26-minute running time. He plays the philandering Australian husband of Leslie Mann's character, who is trying not to fall back in love with her ex-boyfriend, the successful comic actor played by Adam Sandler as a version of himself.

I don't recall Bana being cast often, if ever, in comedies, but he was funny as hell -- in part because he was probably also playing a version of himself. Not to suggest that Eric Bana is a cheat, or particularly aggro -- though the fact that both of those characteristics describe what I understand to be the stereotypical Australian male certain doesn't hurt the chances. I loved the performance on face value, but was also judging it based on how much my wife was giggling next to me on the couch. Being an Australian and all, my wife was in a pretty good position to judge the truth of his performance -- and she founded it to be quite true indeed. The quintessentially Australian phrases -- "Are you taking the piss [out of me]?", for example -- and the quintessentially Australian male interests -- Australian rules football, or "footy," for example -- were all there. The charming braggadocio, the quickness to be convivial, the eagerness to tell stories, yet the readiness to fly into jealous rages at any moment -- Australian through and through. And Eric Bana through and through as well, probably.

Yet we never see it. In fact, hearing "Australian" coming out of his mouth was a strange sensation indeed.

Let's consider. If you were a consumer of world cinema, you might have known Eric Bana from the 2000 film Chopper, which I've always considered to be his Romper Stomper. Romper Stomper is one of the films that brought fellow countryman Russell Crowe to the attention of Hollywood, and besides, they've got similar titles and similar heavily violent subject matter. That's really all I can compare them on, actually, because I haven't seen Chopper yet. I know, some Australian-by-marriage I am.

But if you just started charting Bana when he broke into Hollywood movies, the only way you would have known (prior to Funny People) that he's Australian was reading a story about him. Black Hawk Down? Played an American soldier. The Hulk? Played an American scientist turned into an American superhero/mutated freak. Troy? Played a Trojan prince. Munich? Played an Istraeli intelligence agent. Lucky You? Played an American poker professional. The Other Boleyn Girl? Played the king of England. Star Trek? Played a Romulan supervillain -- which is funny, because he also appeared as a character named Romulus in an Australian film called Romulus, My Father. The Time Traveler's Wife? Played a librarian from Chicago.

So as you can see, only some of Bana's Hollywood roles have been Americans -- or even earthlings. None, until Funny People, had been Australians.

And this gets at a funny disconnect about Australians and Hollywood. Australia might be a huge mass of land, but its population is quite small relative to that, organized mostly around the big cities. Yet Australia has given us a number of iconic actors that's vastly disproportionate to its population. Of course, we have a huge number of Brits in Hollywood as well, but the difference there is that Brits sometimes play actual British people. (And England has a much larger population, 51 million to 22 million). There are a lot more British characters in Hollywood scripts than there are Australian characters, and because of that, we get to hear their regular speaking voices now and again. Not really so with Australians.

So let's take a look at some of the big Hollywood names we have Australia to thank for -- and how often we hear them "speaking Australian." Keep in mind that I have not seen all the films by these actors, so there could be examples of them appearing as Australians that I'm missing.

Mel Gibson. And I guess I'm starting off with the exception here. Gibson's an exception for a couple reasons: 1) The Mad Max movies, which made him famous, were popular Australian exports; 2) Gibson was born in New York and moved to Australia when he was 12, so while he does have something of an Australian accent, it's not the kind a native would have. Bad way to structure your argument, Vance -- let's move on to some better examples.

Russell Crowe. After he crossed over to the U.S., we've really only seen Crowe as an Australian in Proof of Life, in which his Australian-ness is not an essential plot detail, but a choice, perhaps made simply to let Crowe use his own voice for once. Of course, Crowe being who he is, we've heard his real voice in acceptance speeches and other moments of aggro self-embarrassment.

Nicole Kidman. Phillip Noyce's Dead Calm was popular enough over here that some people heard Kidman's real voice as long ago as 1989, but she wasn't NICOLE KIDMAN yet then. And despite a massive body of work, she hasn't played an Australian since. Ironically, when she appeared in last year's Australia, which would have seemed the perfect time, she played a Brit living in Australia. Which brings us naturally to ...

Hugh Jackman. Jackman did get to play an Australian in Australia, but that's his only such prominent work as an Australian since coming on our radar in X-Men. Wait, was Van Helsing Australian?

Naomi Watts. Like Kidman, she also appeared as a Brit in a movie set in Australia: Ned Kelly. Otherwise, most of us haven't seen her Australian speaking voice at all. She did play an Australian in a little movie called Ellie Parker, which is semi-autobiographical -- Watts plays a young Australian actress trying to make it in Hollywood. But as this was seen only by me, my wife and about 78 other people, it doesn't count. Which brings us to ...

Heath Ledger. Ledger was also in Ned Kelly, as the title character. Pretty much nothing Australian on his CV (to use an Australian term) after that.

Cate Blanchett. After breaking in as Queen Elizabeth, the luminous Blanchett has only been an Australian once -- and she had to play herself to do it. In fact, Blanchett plays both herself and her envious black-sheep cousin in a memorable scene in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes.

In the interest of trying to be a bit more concise, I'm going to halt the list there. But you see where it's going. Those are seven powerhouse names, and five of them can do whatever they want in Hollywood -- Ledger is, as you know, deceased, and Gibson's still picking up the pieces after his infamous anti-Semitic rant. Before then, he was obviously one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

It's as unclear what it is about being an Australian that makes a person a good actor, as it is unclear why more random Australian characters aren't written into more movies. Maybe Australians just have better teeth and bone structures than Brits, which is why these Australians have made it bigger than their similarly talented British counterparts. As to why there aren't more Australian characters written ... well, that's a mystery. Americans seem endlessly fascinated with Australia as a place, and the accents are fun to imitate.

Maybe Paul Hogan just ruined it for all of them.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Avoiding O(e)de(n)ki(e)rks

Bob Odenkirk and Steve Oedekerk are not related.

Of course they're not -- they don't have the same last name.

But one thing they do have in common: They direct dumb comedies.

And their dumb comedies suck.

Yesterday, as I threw in Let's Go to Prison as one of my reviewing chores, I thought to myself, as the opening credits were rolling: "I think this is directed by someone I know."

And then, as the last credit rolled: "Oh yeah. Bob Odenkirk."


Bob Odenkirk gets big credibility points for having been the co-creator and co-star of HBO's beloved cult sketch comedy show, Mr. Show. That experience has continued to get him work as a bit player in some decent movies. But the movies he's directed? Forget about them.

Steve Oedekerk has a little less cult cache, but he does have something: a friendship with Jim Carrey that began when they were working on In Living Color together. He's also responsible, quite dubiously, for those skits where thumbs have faces (like Thumb Wars, which is Star Wars with thumbs). He's written some comedies that at least did pretty well, including Patch Adams, Bruce Almighty and Nutty Professor II: The Klumps. But if he's listed as director, stay away.

Just so we know what we're dealing with here, this is Bob:

And this is Steve:

Over the years I've come to confuse them, which shouldn't be a great surprise given their names. And their directing histories.

Let's discuss their movies that I've seen, in the order I've seen them. As it works out, Hollywood has been relatively kind to us, limiting our exposure to them somewhat. But the ones that do exist leaving a lasting impression. I should note also that I haven't seen two of Steve's movies, Nothing to Lose (starring Martin Lawrence and Tim Robbins) and the animated feature Barnyard. But can we just assume those both suck as well and move on?

Without further ado:

Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995, Steve Oedekerk). As much as I loved Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, that's how much I hated Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Which did better at the box office, giving us yet another reminder of how dumb American moviegoers can be. I've blocked much of this movie out, but let's just say all the stuff I thought would annoy me about Jim Carrey in the original actually did annoy me in the sequel. The zaniness of Pet Detective seems downright earthbound when compared to that of When Nature Calls, and I couldn't turn this off quickly enough after the end credits rolled.

Kung Pow! Enter the Fist (2002, Steve Oedekerk). If you didn't recognize the photo of Oedekerk above, now you have your answer. Kung Pow is Oedekerk's attempt at his own What's Up Tiger Lily?, with completely unfunny lines crudely dubbed over the 1976 martial arts film Savage Killers, and Oedekerk inserted into that film using a blue screen. And with completely unfunny results. A line from my review: "Kung Pow! Enter the Fist would be no less clever if an irritating 12-year-old boy were improvising its dialogue, rather than an experienced Hollywood writer." That said, to be fair, I should tell you that "completely unfunny" is inaccurate -- I remember spitting out a few bursts of surprised laughter, after which I felt deep shame.

The Brothers Solomon (2007, Bob Odenkirk). This nearly ruined my honeymoon. Okay, that's an exaggeration. But we did bring it along on the honeymoon, mostly because my wife and I really like Will Forte, and we thought it would be fun to watch on my portable DVD player on a night when we weren't doing anything else. Suffice it to say, it was not fun. I'm still trying to figure out which was worse -- this, or Death at a Funeral, which we also brought. (We watched Funeral in the jungles of Belize, and Solomon at the beach in Mexico.) A line from my review: "The Brothers Solomon was [Will Forte's] brainchild, though it's irresponsible to suggest that anything about this film is brainy."

Let's Go to Prison (2006, Bob Odenkirk). And here's where my Odenkirk/Oedekerk theory breaks down just a little bit. I have to admit that there was something -- I don't know what, but something -- I sort of liked about Let's Go to Prison. Maybe it was the funny supporting performances by Chi McBride and Michael Shannon. Anyway, it's still not a great movie, not by any stretch. But did I laugh? Yes. Did I think it was basically a decent story and basically well executed? Yes again. Will I recommend it to people? No, but I'll tell them they won't hate it, either.

So the best of the four is a movie you won't hate. That's something for at least Bob to hang his hat on. Steve, well ... I just saw on IMDB that Kung Pow 2: Tongue of Fury is coming out in 2010.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The great unwatched

I've been trying to get my wife to watch Dangerous Liaisons for some time now.

Yesterday, I returned it to Blockbuster unwatched.

And, pursuant to what we were discussing on Tuesday, that's ... okay.

You see, not only had I been dominating the direction of our theatrical viewing experiences, but apparently, our home viewing as well.

And in this arena, I don't blame myself as much. It's the queue's fault. It's relentless, and it must always be fed.

For those of us who use an online rental company -- Netflix and Blockbuster are, of course, the industry leaders -- a fun little way to pass the time is to reorganize our queue of movies we have lined up to see.

It might surprise you to know that I am a somewhat absentee proprietor of my queue. Of the 74 titles I currently have in there, 50 have been in there for as long as two years. Those lingering titles were films I sort of wanted to see at some point, and they have been leapfrogged countless times by more urgent titles. I guess I am using my queue as a warehouse to store these titles, as a reminder that I may someday want to see them.

There's a part of me that wishes the titles would just come up randomly -- that it would be a surprise which title I'm receiving next, all part of the random pastiche that comprises a person's day-to-day movie watching experience. But I do have to control it, and I use three basic methods of determining which titles I move to the top: 1) movies that I need to review, and specifically, movies that are crappy that I need to review, so I can watch them at the gym; 2) movies that I have recently discussed watching with my wife; 3) movies that I haven't recently discussed watching with my wife, but which I have decided to promote to the top of the queue for some reason or the other.

It's that third category that gets me in trouble.

See, once a movie is sent to me, it means that it (by necessity) needs to get prioritized for a viewing sometime in the next week or two. Yet if my wife didn't specifically ask me to get something, it stands to reason that she shouldn't be forced to agree to that timeframe.

And it certainly won't surprise you to know that I get agitated the longer a movie sits around unwatched. The more days a movie sits at home, the less value I am getting from my monthly payment to Blockbuster. And if I have two movies that just can't make it to a viewing -- I get three at any one time -- then the problem compounds. Earlier this year, I held on to The Wages of Fear and Aguirre, the Wrath of God for almost two months each, because we just couldn't find the time to watch them. My wife was more interested in her second viewing of the first than her first viewing of the second, so I eventually watched the second by myself and returned it with a sigh of relief.

By contrast, my wife has a lesser Netflix plan that allows her only one DVD at a time. So my three Blockbuster DVDs gang up on her one Netflix DVD, and bully their way into our DVD player. You might consider that a metaphor for what Blockbuster is trying to do to the (presumably less well-funded) Netflix, which pioneered the concept of DVDs through the mail.

Of course, I make matters worse by also trading in watched DVDs for new releases from the store, which is one of the prime advantages I consider Blockbuster to have over Netflix. Those films take on the online rental terms, which means I don't have to return them by any specific date. But Blockbuster will hold the next film in my queue until I return that movie to the store. So I am motivated to do that as quickly as possible.

One more complicating factor: I double my list of three titles by getting out three movies from the library every couple weeks. We know those won't all get watched, because they are due back two days later. But we usually try to watch at least one of every batch.

The best solution would be if I were to keep my wife apprised of which titles are coming up near the top of my Blockbuster queue. That way, she could tell me which films she had a likelihood of wanting to see relatively soon, and which I should just push lower because she doesn't want to prioritize them. But that seems a little ridiculous, doesn't it? "Warning, honey -- Dangerous Liaisons has risen to third in my queue."

So the other solution is just to return them unwatched, as I did yesterday. Recognize the miscalculation and just cut your losses.

But I have to say, this does kill me a little bit every I do it. "A bird in the hand" becomes my guiding principle with these movies. I wish it could just be "Well, whatever the decision was that caused this movie to get sent to us, it's in the past. The movie is here now, so let's prioritize watching it."

My wife doesn't work that way, and that's fine. In fact, it's probably normal, while my way is probably weird. She has to be in the mood to watch a particular movie, whereas I'm more likely to sacrifice that if it means keeping the titles moving back and forth. As I've discussed other times, we have particular movie nights that we think are suited more appropriately or less appropriately to certain types of movies, as most people probably do. Circumstances and the vicissitudes of life could easily cause a movie to miss its ideal viewing night for several weeks in a row.

And so it's okay to return a movie like Dangerous Liaisons sometimes. It doesn't mean we'll never watch it. It doesn't mean we are disqualified from ever renting it again. It just means we won't watch it right now, and that's ... okay.

I've done it before. I returned (and still have never seen) The Mission in early 2008, when I realized I simply didn't have time before our wedding to give it the kind of viewing it deserved. And earlier this year, I even used my queue with the specific intention of watching a certain movie under a certain set of circumstances only. I rented Step Brothers, which I love and had already seen twice, in order to bring it for a weekend away with friends, in case they hadn't seen it. When it turned out they had seen it, I didn't feel the need to watch it a third time by myself, just to get my "money's worth." I just dropped it back in the mail and got the next movie.

Our queues. We should own them rather than them owning us, right?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

We're going to take turns

Last Sunday, as I discussed in this post, we narrowly avoided seeing Disney's A Christmas Carol when my wife confessed that she would only be seeing it to placate me. And since I'd already seen it once, that hardly seemed like a good reason to go.

This past Sunday, I discovered that I've been strong-arming other parts of our film agenda as well. In fact, most parts.

As we were driving out of the parking garage after seeing Up in the Air, my wife turned to me and said "So next weekend we'll see Invictus?"

I hesitated. "I guess so."

This completely took the wind out of her sails. At first I was confused as to why, but let's be honest -- "I guess so" is basically the same as "I really don't want to."

And it's true -- I don't want to see Invictus that much. Clint Eastwood has been pretty spotty for me lately, and I've never been a big fan of sports movies. (Since I'm a big sports fan, that's a paradox that's worth discussing at length another time.) I've also developed an informal bias against movies, any movies, where a character says "This is our destiny!" And yes, Matt Damon's character utters those words in the trailer.

But what I didn't realize when giving that lukewarm reaction was, there's a time and a place to be truthful about your excitement for a particular film. See, as a brazenly, unapologetically honest film fan, I feel like the time to be truthful is always, and the place to be truthful is everywhere. But I realize now the value of a little harmless feigned enthusiasm.

See, for most couples, feigned enthusiasm about seeing movies would be par for the course. It's an old chestnut of gender politics that the woman supposedly drags her husband to romantic comedies he has no interest in seeing, and it's his job to pretend he wants to, or at least, not put up much of a fight. Meanwhile, she makes the sacrifice and goes to see action movies with him. Or, perhaps less charitably to the woman, she doesn't make that sacrifice, but also doesn't stand in the way if he wants to go see the explosions and car chases with his guy friends.

But my wife and I don't have that relationship. We're both huge film nerds. In fact, I am much more likely to have a tolerance for something frivolous, something that is otherwise unworthy of our time. Whereas she loves sports movies. That's right -- she hates most sports but loves inspirational sports movies, where I am the exact opposite. Go figure.

The bottom line is, we both want to see most of the critically acclaimed movies that are coming out, and neither of us expects to see chick flicks. I've got myself quite a good partner here.

So what's the problem? The problem is that I want to see most of these movies in the theater, whereas she is often just as content to see them on DVD. For her, the ideal number of trips to the theater per month would be two or three -- for me, it would be twice that. In fact, even though Up in the Air is a probable Oscar frontrunner, she surprised me on Sunday by saying she would have been just as happy to wait and see it at home.

This is no judgment against her. In fact, it's a judgment against me for not recognizing it earlier. My agenda is to see as many films as I can before I close off my personal rankings of the year's best films in late January. She has no such agenda, so I should understand that she might rather spend that $13 per ticket on something else, and see the movie three months later on DVD.

So the dynamic that's developed is that I have been driving her to the theater to see things that she did indeed want to see -- just not as soon as I wanted to see them. She might even want to see some of them in the theater, just not until the crowds had thinned out a bit. Up in the Air was a shining example of the toxic possibilities of a full house, as we were each profoundly disturbed by the person sitting next to us. If we'd seen Up in the Air three weeks from now, we might have had not only a buffer of several seats, but several rows as well.

So when I had been setting my personal theatrical outlook, knowing that these were films she wanted to see, I thought her desire to see them was enough information to act on. And because she's sweet and loath to make conflict, she's been acquiescing without me even knowing it. She's essentially been placating me for weeks, maybe months, maybe years now.

The difficulty really arises in the fact that going to the movies is considered by most people to be an essentially social experience. It's fair to say that there are many, many people who are not comfortable going to the movies by themselves, any more than they would be comfortable going to an expensive restaurant and eating by themselves.

Neither my wife nor I share this feeling. I do enjoy going with her to the movies more than going by myself, but I'm perfectly happy to go alone, and she is only slightly less so. So my thinking has been, "I want to go to this movie, now. If you come with me, it'll save some logistical awkwardness later on, when you have to watch it by yourself at home on DVD. Plus, I enjoy your company. But if you don't want to come with me, at least let me see it on my own schedule."

While I have constructed these semantics to make it seem like I am being fair and logical, really what I am saying is "I am going to see this movie this weekend regardless of whether you come with me or not." I'm flexible to the extent that I will delay the viewing if I can get her to commit to a later date, like the next weekend. We struggled through this with Paranormal Activity, and in fact, I think the reason she went at all was that I expressed such dismay at having to wait something like three weeks before finally seeing it.

But however you slice it, I am basically getting what I want in this scenario. I want to see the movie. And, come hell or high water, I will see it.

But marriage is about compromise, about not always getting what you want. And just because being a film critic gives me an extra excuse to be pushy, the fact of the matter is, I'm not seeing most of these movies for work. I'm seeing them so I can get as close as possible to a definitive representation of movies released in 2009, so I can rank them from 1 to whatever. And when you come right down to it, this is a personal project that is really useful only to myself. I post it on my blog and I'm sure my readers have a passing interest in my rankings, but I'm the only person who really cares whether I saw 79 or 89 movies that came out in 2009.

So as we discussed all this stuff on the drive home, I came up with a solution. We will alternate being the driving force behind each theatrical screening. I will still be able to sneak off by myself to movies she isn't interested in, but for the ones we're both interested in, we will take turns deciding which title that is. She loved that idea.

This method has its problems, too. I have to figure out how to dis-own certain movies I want to see so that she gets credit for "choosing" them. And since I want to see quite a lot of movies -- and want to discuss my interest in seeing them with my wife -- this will be hard indeed. I think the worst outcome of this would be if I started editing myself in my film discussions with my wife. Then it would become a quality of life issue in a different way.

But I also think that just having had this discussion will help -- letting her know that I get where she's coming from. The system won't be, can't be, perfect. But when she realizes I am no longer playing the role of film dictator, she won't feel quite so oppressed, either.

And I think I've been able to smooth over the Invictus issue somewhat. Originally it appeared that my negative prognosis on Invictus had spoiled it as a possibility for a movie date. She no more wanted to drag me to see Invictus than I wanted to drag her to see A Christmas Carol.

But I've come up with plenty of good reasons why I actually, truthfully, want to see Invictus. Sure, it's a sports movie where people's destinies are being discussed. But it's also a movie about Nelson Mandela, starring Morgan Freeman. I haven't seen a Mandela movie before, and I love Freeman. And while we're at it, I've never seen a rugby movie either. I'm always interested in things I've never seen before.

For good measure, I've also told her I've relented somewhat in my negative stance toward Sherlock Holmes. So she'll get credit when we see that one, too.

And so what if I see a movie in the theater and she sees it later on DVD. That kind of thing happens, too. When I saw The Road the day we were supposed to see A Christmas Carol, she was perfectly understanding. She really wants to see it, too, but she understood that she "didn't want to hold me back." She had made her bed by deciding not to come, and she would lie in it. But just so you know I'm not simply the villain here, I tried to save The Road for her. I only went because Bad Lieutenant was sold out, and had to make a snap decision, with the The Road about to start that very minute.

Give and take. Compromise. It's what marriages -- and, apparently, movies -- are all about.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Didn't anyone else see the trailer?

George Clooney: "You know that moment when you look into somebody's eyes, and you can feel them staring into your soul, and the whole world goes quiet?"

Anna Kendrick: "Yes!!"

George Clooney: "Right, well I don't."

I'd seen/heard this joke about 12 times, which matched the number of times I'd seen the trailer for Up in the Air. Yesterday was the 13th time, when I actually saw the movie. (And aren't you jealous of those of us who live in Los Angeles, who get things a week earlier than you do?)

Needless to say, I don't usually laugh at a joke I've heard 13 times. Even if it's the best joke in the world, you still don't laugh after 13 times. Our repeat viewings of funny movies are not so we can necessarily laugh anew -- it's so we can smile at the cleverness and be reminded of how much we laughed the first time.

At its core, laughter is an expression of surprise. You can only really be surprised by a joke the first time you hear it. If you laugh the second and third time, it's not usually as hard as the first, and usually benefits from hearing it alongside someone else, someone who hasn't heard it before.

This is not a point that needs belaboring. But I am trying to analyze why the audience with whom I watched Up in the Air laughed so hard at the joke above, or at a couple other jokes the trailers have beaten into us.

Didn't anyone else see the same trailer I saw?

I have to think they did. As much as knowing George Clooney is in it can sell a movie, and as much as good buzz can sell a movie, most people who see a movie on opening weekend have seen the trailer at least once. In this day and age of easy access on the internet, it's probably more than once. And it was especially the case with this movie, whose trailer was/is ubiquitous.

So why did they laugh so hard at that joke?

I guess whether you laugh at a joke from the trailer has something to do with how well the movie has caught you in its spell. If you're really loving it, that means you're just waiting for that moment to arrive, so you can expel your giddiness through a hearty guffaw. I even wonder if there's a little subconscious politicking going on here. You laugh because you want to sell the others in the audience on a movie you've already decided is great. You are doing the movie's PR campaign for it so everyone else can realize what it's taken you only a couple minutes to realize: You love this movie.

Because I didn't laugh, does that mean I didn't love Up in the Air?

I won't answer that question directly, but I will say this: Usually when I've seen a trailer too many times, I get burned out on the movie in question. I'm very wary of that happening with Avatar, for example. But I think because the Up in the Air trailer is so charming, I didn't consciously get burned out on it. Instead, I felt a near anxiety developing about needing to see it -- and now I wonder if that was so I didn't have to see the trailer yet one more time beforehand. Perhaps the reason I saw the movie two days after it was released (and five days before it's released in most of the country) is that I was anxious about that burnout, and wanted to head it off at the pass.

Now, with any movie I see, I'm not expecting to laugh at jokes from the trailers. I'm expecting there to be enough other good jokes for me to laugh at. I'm expecting to smile at those jokes and check them off my mental checklist of moments from the trailer -- maybe you keep one of those checklists too. But those jokes played their intended role -- they made me laugh at the trailer and made me want to see the movie.

Okay, so I'm not expecting to laugh again. But I did find my inability to laugh at those jokes more problematic yesterday, in part because the rest of the audience was laughing so much. This isn't the first time I've blogged about laughter disparities, but it's the first time I've tied the phenomenon to my expectations of how much we should be laughing based on trailer burnout.

It's the double-edged sword of trailers, which we all discuss: We want to see some footage of the film, in order to get excited about it, but we want there to be plenty of surprises remaining for the actual theatrical viewing. For a current example of a film whose entire plot, and probably its only funny jokes, appear in the trailer, check out the trailer for Did You Hear About the Morgans? (You won't have to go out of your way -- that one's pretty ubiquitous, too.)

Of course, it's difficult to find a balance. You have to include some funny jokes in the trailer, or else how will people know if the movie looks funny?

I don't know why I was so tired of these Up in the Air jokes, and the other people were not. Maybe just because I was tired, period -- I was recovering from a late Christmas party the night before, as well as a hard session of basketball that morning. Or maybe I'm just smarter than they are. Yeah, that's it.

But it distracted me to no end how much the girl on my right was laughing. She covered her mouth with both hands several times during the movie, in fits of hysterics, and several other times said things like "Oh my God!" and "Oh gosh!" My wife and I each had to suffer through a terrible neighbor yesterday -- the woman to her left was crinkling food wrappers for almost the entire movie.

Up in the Air won the National Board of Review's honor as best film of the year last week. The last two Oscar winners, Slumdog Millionaire and No Country for Old Men, were also honored by that board. So Up in the Air is going to be seen by a lot of people in the coming weeks.

Therefore, I won't spoil anything by giving you my review. All I'll say is that it is not my #1 of the year -- you'll get a look at which film takes that honor this January after the Oscar nominations are released, per my annual tradition.

In the meantime, I'll just prepare you to laugh -- or not laugh, as the case may be.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The gift of silence

Mum's the word in our house.

And mum's the music, the car crashes, the gun shots, the explosions.

So when I watch a movie like Keeping Mum -- which has no car crashes, gun shots or explosions -- the first thing in the morning on a Saturday, when my wife is still asleep, the only one who hears it is me.

You see, when we moved into our new apartment in March, one of the first differences we recognized from our old place was that the room configuration would leave a lot less separation between the optimal location for the television and our bedroom. In fact, the TV is on the other side of a relatively thin wall, whereas previously, it was not only down the hallway, but you could close doors on each side of that hallway to drown out the sound. Since my wife stays up later than I do, and (logically) I get up earlier than she does, and we both like our television, we needed a solution so we wouldn't keep each other awake/wake each other up.

So my wife made a purchase that I originally thought was a luxury. But it ended up being one of those "luxury" items that gives you a better ROI (return on investment) than almost anything you own. We use it almost every day, so I thought that it was time -- especially with the gift-giving season fully upon us -- to pimp this purchase to you guys, since some of you may have this same configuration in your house.

It's a set of wireless headphones from Radio Shack. I'm sure there are many other makers of wireless headphones, and many other vendors who sell them, but since these are the ones we have, I thought they deserved special recognition. For a mere $60, they've revolutionized the TV and movie watching in our house, so they deserve special recognition indeed.

All you do is plug a cable from the headphones' charging base into your headphone port on the TV, put on the headphones, and presto -- you're listening to the television from anywhere in your house. In fact, far beyond your house if you want. On a nice day, I've actually watched television from the garden through the window. I've even walked all the way out to the car, parked along the street several driveways up, with them on, without losing the signal. Perfect for not missing an at-bat in a baseball game while you run to the bathroom, as well.

Perhaps this doesn't seem revolutionary to you -- in fact, perhaps you would assume something like this existed, but just never considered buying one. Well, I'm here telling you to buy one. I've probably watched 10-15 more movies than I would have otherwise this year, just because of these headphones.

All I can speak for is this model, but as I said, its range is good, and the charge lasts for quite some time. My wife even leaves them on the table overnight sometimes, rather than in their charging station, and I've still been able to use them for an hour or two in the morning without a new charge. You can even adjust the volume in two different places -- on the headphones, or on the TV. Or both.

You can get a lot more sophisticated ones that cost in the hundreds of dollars, but I guess it really depends on what kind of quality you're looking for in your sound. For us, we don't mean for the headphones to take the place of a theatrical viewing experience, or even the experience of watching out loud on our home stereo. We just want to keep watching, or start watching, while our spouse is asleep, and the $60 ones work well enough for us.

So if you want to watch a Michael Bay movie at 3 in the morning -- or if you just want to watch something as relatively quiet as Keeping Mum -- you won't bother your wife, your husband, or perhaps most importantly, your sleeping child.

Sound like a good gift to you?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Matt Dillon's armored truck fetish

Did anyone else see the trailer for Armored, and then later see the trailer for Takers, or vice versa, and think they were same movie, but didn't quite, because you remembered enough about the trailers to think there was something different between them?

And did you think they were the same movie because both movies are about an armored truck heist, and both movies star Matt Dillon?

I had recently decided that Takers never existed, and it was always Armored. After all, some number of months ago, I saw a trailer for a generic action thriller about the plan to rob an armored truck, and then, here came Armored, a generic action thriller about the plan to rob an armored truck. There was nothing more to think about.

Yet when I was at the theater on Wednesday night to see Precious, I saw the Takers trailer again, and realized that was definitely the trailer I saw several months ago. And I thought "Ahhh, these really are two different movies." As the first handful of actors who were introduced -- Idris Elba, T.I., Chris Brown, Michael Ealy -- were all black, I figured Takers was the urban version of Armored. As Paul Walker and Hayden Christensen (wearing a silly hat) were introduced, I started to reconsider.

And as Matt Dillon was introduced, I started to laugh.

We're no strangers to movies with the same subject matter coming out within a couple months of each other -- from asteroid movies to volcano movies to Mars movies to movies about runner Steve Prefontaine. Although it's not yet certain whether Armored and Takers will be prominent enough to take their place alongside these others as famous dueling concept movies, the release dates do line up correctly -- Armored, today; Takers, February 26th.

But the same actor appearing in both films? It's absurd, and quite possibly, unprecedented. I'm going to think about the possibility of a precedent as I write this, and will get back to you a couple paragraphs from now.

Dillon even seems to play the same character in both films. Of course, I haven't read the scripts, nor have I analyzed the trailers side by side. But from what I've gleaned, he may very well play the nefarious inside man in both movies -- the guy who gets the legitimate job working in or around the armored truck in order to case it for its weaknesses.

You have to wonder what went through Matt Dillon's head. Actors accept acting gigs for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is money. But didn't he have to think, at least for a second, "If I do this, they're going to think of me as the 'armored truck guy'?"

Of course, when you broaden the phenomenon outwards, the precedent gets much larger. The very notion of typecasting is based on the idea that certain actors play certain roles very well, so those are the roles they're repeatedly offered.

But typecasting is generally something that occurs over the course of a career, or at least, a several-year period, after which the actor may choose to go in the opposite direction, to prove he or she shouldn't be typecast. Playing basically the same role in two versions of basically the same movie that are released within three months of each other? Well, that's a new one on me.

Okay, so it's a couple paragraphs later, and I didn't think of another example yet. But maybe you did. And if you did, let me know, because not only would I love to hear it, I'm sure Matt Dillon would too. It'd take a little of the heat off him.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Reconsidering Lee Daniels

I didn't know much about Lee Daniels at the time I reviewed his directorial debut, Shadowboxer, in early 2007. But I thought I knew enough to lob a couple merciless barbs in his direction.

You see, Shadowboxer -- a film in which Dame Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. appear as contract killers in an interracial, inter-generational relationship -- was produced by Lee Daniels Entertainment, and written and directed by Lee Daniels.

Uh oh.

So here was one of the lines from my review: "Shadowboxer exists as the perfect example of why checks and balances exist in the film business -- the only way this gets made is with a lot of yes men enabling one deluded egomaniac."

You see, in the interest of reviewing this one little film and moving on, I had formed something of a snap judgment in my head about Lee Daniels. I figured, if the guy was the owner of the production company, and the writer, and the director, then he had to be some kind of clueless rich guy who didn't want anything like money to be an obstacle in bringing his untranslatable vision to the screen. To put it another way, he didn't want anyone to tell him "No." And that's as dangerous a desire when making a film as it would be in running a government. In our government, we have three branches that hold each others' powers in check. On Shadowboxer, however, Daniels was all three branches himself. The only thing more he could have added would have been to appear in the movie and to set up the craft services table. (Oops, I see he did appear in Shadowboxer as "Man in Steam Room.")

The result? A movie that is not what you would describe as incompetent, but is also far from what you would call good.

In this hasty profile I conjured of Daniels, I had him as a white guy in his mid-50s. You know, maybe a guy who had spent his life as a film lover, but didn't have the talent to break into the business in the conventional ways. But what he did have was money, and money will allow you to do anything you want -- within reason, of course. Money will allow you to make a movie that no one but you thinks is a good idea. In this mental framework I'd developed, convincing actors like Mirren, Gooding, Mo'Nique, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Stephen Dorff to appear in Shadowboxer was probably just a coup, unlikely to be repeated.

But then Lee Daniels made a little film called Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, which I saw last night. And now, there's a lot more information available about Lee Daniels. Oh, it was "available" then, but I would have had to dig a lot deeper. And given the quality of Shadowboxer, the unlikelihood that I would ever need to know anything else about Daniels because he would probably never make another film, and the need not to dwell on any particular assignment, I didn't think digging deeper was necessary. I do regret not doing enough shallow digging to realize he was a producer on Monster's Ball, for which Halle Berry won best actress, which would have validated his credibility a bit more.

Turns out, Lee Daniels is not in his mid-50s -- in fact, he'll be 50 on Christmas Eve -- and he is certainly not a white guy. Daniels grew up in Philadelphia and attended Lindenwood College in Missouri. He spent his early years as a production assistant, casting director and manager. He formed his own agency at 21 -- more on personal pluck, it would seem, than financial wherewithal -- and later sold it for $2 million. So it appears he is at least somewhat rich.

But he didn't create Lee Daniels Entertainment with the express purpose of making Shadowboxer, which is what I sort of assumed at the time. In fact, not only did Lee Daniels Entertainment produce Monster's Ball prior to Shadowboxer, but Daniels' company also produced The Woodsman, the drama where Kevin Bacon plays a pedophile struggling to reform, which I quite liked. In fact, it now seems that not only is Shadowboxer not typical of the product turned out by Lee Daniels Entertainment, it's quite the exception. The other three films, including Precious, are gritty, realistic and uncompromising, while Shadowboxer is a genre film with a sort of fantastical premise, though I guess it was somewhat gritty in its own right. In fact, it goes to show you how little I pay attention to producing credits -- which, the joke is, are handed out like candy -- when I review films, because I reviewed both Monster's Ball and The Woodsman, but wasn't aware of a person named Lee Daniels until his directing credit came up on Shadowboxer.

So as you have probably guessed, the reason for this extended mea culpa regarding Daniels is that I absolutely loved Precious. It's as harrowing, searing and devastating as you've heard, but it also contains some wonderful fantasy sequences and some definite sprinkles of optimism. And it's important to note that it shouldn't divide audiences. After all, one person's "harrowing, searing and devastating" is another person's emotional manipulation. And though I certainly do not speak for everyone, from where I sit, Precious does not contain an ounce of emotional manipulation.

What's even more impressive is how Lee Daniels has matured in terms of his core function as a director: to mold the performances of his actors. And as actors go, Daniels is working with the rawest of raw materials. How raw? The lead, Gabourey Sidibe (people are going to butcher this name throughout awards season), has no formal acting training. Yet her performance is absolutely, astonishingly real. But it may not even be the film's best performance. You've probably heard how crazy good Mo'Nique is -- her monologue near the end is one of the most fully realized five minutes of acting I have ever seen -- and Mo'Nique's primary job to this point has been stand-up comedienne. But that may not even be the film's most impressive transformation. In a relatively small role, Mariah Carey is, quite simply, unlike anything you ever thought you knew about Mariah Carey, whose most famous previous role as an actress was the disastrous star vehicle known as Glitter. Not only is she totally deglamorized for this role -- she even has the faint outline of a mustache on her upper lip -- but she is 100% convincing as a Harlem-based social worker. For good measure, you can throw in what amounts to a cameo by another singer, Lenny Kravitz, who is never anything less than totally true in the role of a male nurse. In fact, the only real professional in this film is Paula Patton, who has had only supporting roles in films like Deja Vu, Swing Vote, Idlewild and Hitch. Among all these other great performances, it was a line by her that delivered me over the threshold from incredibly moved to actual tears.

So back to the core point. Was I wrong in calling Lee Daniels a "deluded egomaniac"? Did I besmirch his good name, and that of his family? Did I owe Lee Daniels more than that?

Yes and no. I stand by a critic's right to be witty and lacerating. Witty laceration is fun to read, and if it's not your defining characteristic as a critic, but rather, used only at the appropriate time and place, it appeals to your readers and gains positive attention with your editors. But should I have gotten a more well-rounded picture of Daniels based on his available credits? Absolutely I should have.

And this gets at an essential limitation of the art of film criticism. Because of the amount of content we churn out -- and the relative pittance we are paid -- we can't afford to linger on any particular film, especially one as unworthy as Shadowboxer. We don't have the time, nor often should we even spare that time if we had it, to research the background of the director, the writer, the cinematographer, the gaffer. (Especially if we aren't receiving a press kit that would have this all typed up together in a handy place.) Those of us who consume the film industry like a giant buffet, and therefore know a lot more about random things than the next guy, are always going to write reviews that are more informed than our peers. But the film industry is a big place, and there are always going to be people you're hearing of for the first time. Ultimately, we have to assess a film -- and its writer, and its director, and its stars -- by the final product that appears on screen.

One thing that's for sure: If this awards season plays out like it's looking like it will, and Precious receives Oscar nominations both for best picture and best director, and Sibide and Mo'Nique also get their justly deserved nominations (I would almost argue you could include Carey and Patton as well), it will not just be a matter of me -- of all of us -- having reassessed Lee Daniels.

If Daniels evolves from a clueless shadowboxer to a potential Oscar-winning director in three years' time, it will be more a matter of him blossoming into a fully realized artist.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

"Hey, I know that place!"

I usually wouldn't go four days after adding a movie like Paul Blart: Mall Cop to my Most Recently Seen list without hurriedly writing an explanation of why I watched it.

Then again, I'm the only one who knows I'm not scheduled to review it. And besides, I once mentioned that I might have to see it eventually, simply because it had made a staggering $146 million at the box office, so there would be a certain currency for a film critic in having it as a reference point.

Well, I moved up that eventual viewing for a different reason: It was filmed at the local mall where I grew up.

As it turned out, that wasn't nearly enough reason to endure this utter waste of 93 minutes of my life. I guess I haven't been to the Burlington Mall in Massachusetts for quite some time, because it was barely recognizable to me, though the end credits did confirm the location. Part of the reason it seemed foreign is that they must have used two different malls. Some exterior and interior shots were definitely familiar, but some shots were decidedly unfamiliar, leading me to believe they simply couldn't be the Burlington Mall. Like I said, it's been awhile, but I feel pretty sure they don't have a video arcade at the Burlington Mall. For some reason, I feel like I would have learned this had happened -- I always wanted there to be one when I was a kid. I'd be tempted to say that mall schizophrenia was the cause of the film's exceedingly poor quality, but I don't want to let Paul Blart off the hook that easily.

But it got me thinking about other movies I had seen simply because I knew the location where they were shot. And some of them were time-wasters indeed.

The Man Without a Face (1993, Mel Gibson). This is probably my fondest example. A number of scenes in Gibson's directorial debut were filmed at Bowdoin College in Maine, where I was an undergrad. In fact, not only that, but I was actually "in" the movie. I'll explain. My film class was invited to help out on the shoot in very menial ways -- for example, after a graduation scene shot on the outdoor track, I vacuumed up a bunch of confetti. I remember it taking quite a long time. But there was one instance that felt a bit more important, where I was keeping people out of the shot, which meant I was standing behind an arched brick entrance to the track. When I saw the movie later on, I saw that brick wall and started telling people -- not many people, but some -- that I was "in the movie, but you just can't see me." Don't worry, I was only trying to be funny. That same day, I also summoned the courage to approach Gibson and shake his hand, after which he made a funny gesture to the other people around, like my grip was either too strong, or my hand too sweaty. They laughed -- in fact, he had people laughing pretty regularly. Remember, this was long before he was unveiled as a drunken anti-Semite. But, the movie is actually good.

Live Free or Die Hard (2007, Louis Letterier). I probably would have seen the fourth Die Hard regardless, but I was slightly more jazzed because some of it was filmed outside my office. In fact, it was filming on the thoroughfare that leads to my parking lot during my first week on the job. While I never saw Bruce Willis or anything, it was quite inconvenient to get to work. In the movie, they made the road seem about fifty times longer than it actually is -- it's that ridiculous climactic sequence where Willis ends up on the wing of a harrier jet. Terrible True Lies flashbacks. As you know, the movie was sub par.

Breakin' All the Rules (2004, Daniel Taplitz). This highly forgettable Jamie Foxx vehicle was another film shot outside my office -- but it was my old office, and the scenes were shot in the courtyard of the outdoor mall where the office was located. (Malls and offices are a theme here.) I actually did see Foxx and Peter MacNicol, which is the only way I knew what film it was when it came out the following year. Fortunately, I got to review this one, otherwise it would have been an even bigger waste of time than it already was.

The Weight of Water (2000, Kathryn Bigelow). Slightly different circumstance here. The movie was based on a novel about some famous murders that occurred in the 18th century on Smuttynose Island, which is across the harbor from Star Island, where I worked for five summers during and after college. Both islands are part of the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire. I was hoping for a glimpse of Star Island, but all I got was a quick look at it on a map the characters are holding in one scene. I should have known better -- the movie was shot off of Baja California. And again it was not very memorable.

Ghost Rider (2007, Mark Steven Johnson). Our stated motivation for seeing this movie was that we had friends visiting from out of town, and it would be fun to see whatever was playing in the Dome at the Arclight in Hollywood. But my wife and I secretly wanted to see it anyway, since it was filmed in Melbourne, where my wife grew up, and where I would be visiting for the first time several weeks later. (It's also Nicolas Cage's preferred place to shoot, as he later shot Knowing there.) This is a bit of a stretch, since I actually hadn't seen the Yarra River and other famous Melbourne landmarks in person, but I had sort of an "aha!" moment when I actually did see them later on. Common theme: Not a very good movie.

Amistad (1997, Steven Spielberg). As I start to stretch further, I wrote a number of articles about Amistad when I worked for a weekly newspaper in Rhode Island, since it was shooting in nearby Newport, Providence and Pawtucket. More importantly to my readership, citizens from Barrington, Rhode Island seemed to be getting all sorts of minor roles in the film. I don't remember the locations per se, though I was definitely looking for familiar faces. I don't think Amistad is all that great, but it's the second best I've mentioned so far.

Matchstick Men (2003, Ridley Scott). They shut down my ex-girlfriend's office for an afternoon to shoot there. I'd been to the office, so I was curious. Verdict: Meh.

I'm sure there are many more, but I'm running out of steam here.

So now it's your turn, my readers. Audience participation time. What films have you seen because of the familiar surroundings?