Friday, January 30, 2009

The inherent worthiness of acting


(Note: I know your time is precious, and your desire to keep up with my blog may be overwhelmed if I update it too often. So I'm going to try not to post every day, or at least, I'll keep some of them shorter, like yesterday's. However, today I have no bosses in the office, three hours remaining in my workday, no one needing my help, and no desire to do any work. That spells blogging long-windedness.)

The other day, as I was cruising down Venice Boulevard (doesn't my LA lifestyle sound so glamorous?), I caught a billboard for Disney's Race to Witch Mountain, which is not due out for over a month. I looked up at the giant face of Dwayne Johnson -- otherwise known as "The Rock" -- and thought how proud I was of him.

He's not even using his wrestling name in quotation marks anymore. He's just plain old Dwayne Johnson, the movie star. And he's a pretty good movie star at that. I mean, you want Dwayne Johnson in your movie, don't you? Maybe not if you're making Jane Austen, but for your average popcorn film, Dwayne Johnson is a boon to your box office, and he seems like a pretty cool guy, too.

And that made me realize: I tend to think of acting as just about the most noble pursuit a person can make.

Or let me rephrase that: It's about the most noble pursuit a person who's already famous for another reason can make.

For reasons I can't quite identify, I always feel a small rush of pride when I learn that musicians, athletes, or (in this case) pro wrestlers decide they want to try their hand at acting. It's like I think they've seen the light, and decided to join the right team. And I know it's not just congratulating them on branching out. Because if it were, I wouldn't feel an equal and opposite sense of annoyance whenever an actor wants to become a musician. But I do.

Which, I realize, is patently ridiculous. Why in the world would I consider acting to be more noble than performing music? It could certainly be argued that music serves a much greater benefit to society than movies. While some people can (gasp!) do without watching movies, the love of music is pretty much universal. Have you ever heard a person say "I don't like music"? Nope, of course you haven't. But people who don't care for movies ... there are plenty of them. You probably even know one of these sorry bastards personally.

Another thing that is almost definitely true: Being a musician is harder than being an actor. You can get cast in a movie just by being particularly beautiful. And maybe, if you've watched a lot of movies, you can fake your way through to a decent performance, even if it's just using the cues of some other actor. Then maybe, if they give you enough chances, you'll actually learn enough to become a passable actor. But being a musician? That takes indisputable skill. If you're an actor (or just a normal beautiful person), you can't fake your way to perfecting an instrument or writing a song. You might be able to sing a little bit, but that's probably because you started in musical theater when you were five, like most other actors.

Yet despite all these ways that being a musician is both more challenging and perhaps more socially useful, I still feel somehow vindicated when a musician wants to become an actor. And somewhat betrayed when an actor wants to become a musician. (And yes, I know I started this post talking about Dwayne Johnson, who is not a musician. But considering that not many actors decide to become athletes, which is even that much harder than being a musician, or to become wrestlers, which would just be stupid, it's useful at this point to leave Mr. Johnson behind and concentrate on a larger theory).

For starters, there are a lot more success stories among musicians who have become actors than actors who have become musicians. The list of musicians who have received decent acting reviews is probably too long to tackle, but just off hand: Courtney Love, Tim McGraw, Ludacris, Ice Cube, Ice T, Common, Eminem, Dwight Yoakam, Mos Def, Cher (who actually won an Oscar), Jennifer Hudson (who also won an Oscar), Jon Bon Jovi, Tupac Shakur, Mandy Moore, Queen Latifah and Justin Timberlake ... I'm only stopping because I'm tired of racking my brain, and you get the point. (If you notice a lot of rappers on that list, it's no coincidence, because I believe most rappers have an innate ability to give a legitimate performance. Perhaps this is because they have the life experience to reach those emotional places that evade your average person. This is a longer post for another time.) Of course, I'm just naming modern references here. This tradition goes way back, to when Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley and Sammy Davis Jr. made the transition from crooning to discovering a character's motivation. In a way, you could say that the acting ranks have always received a steady flow of talent from the music world.

Of course, this is not to say that every singer can act. There are famous cases of the singer who wanted so badly to act, but just never did it well enough -- Sting, Madonna, Mick Jagger, Mariah Carey and Britney Spears are just a few.

But if you flip it around and try to chart the success of actors trying to make it as legitimate musicians, the numbers flip as well -- a small number of successes and a large number of laughable failures. For every Jack Black, a genuinely gifted musician, that exists out there, there are a half-dozen others who make us laugh at their pathetic attempts to become rock stars: Keanu Reeves, Jared Leto, Kevin Bacon, Bruce Willis, Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner, to name exactly a half-dozen. To say nothing of the would-be chanteuses: Scarlett Johansson, Lindsey Lohan, Minnie Driver, Hilary Duff, Milla Jovovich and Jennifer Love Hewitt, to name another half-dozen.

So I guess my perspective is: Why even bother? Why not just be happy with acting, rather than making a fool of yourself as a musician? Isn't acting good enough for you?

I remember the actress who first really brought me face to face with my own bias. You may know her better as "J. Lo." In fact, the only reason we all know Jennifer Lopez as "J. Lo" is because she embarked on a singing career. I venture to say she wouldn't have been a tenth as famous if she'd just remained an actress, someone who never knocked our socks off, but could do a nice little job in films like Out of Sight. So in a manner of speaking, J. Lo has been a smashing success as a musician.

The difference is, I no longer like her. I really did like her when she was "just" an actress, plucky and attractive, with a modest share of success that was likely to grow with time. But once she became a full-on diva, and directed all her attentions to grasping for the title of "world's most famous person," and churned out mindless pop albums that were barely even catchy, and started dating Puffy, and began making bad movies with Ben Affleck, she ruined herself. Yes, she was a million times more famous. And a million times less credible. And a million times less likeable.

So I guess it really comes down to the motivation for switching to the other side that makes the difference for me. If you are being cynical, you'd say that the primary motivation is always to become more famous, for both the singer becoming an actor and the actor becoming a singer. Their agents, their families, and everyone who ever advised them has emphasized that they are in the business of promoting their own brand. If you can be both the host and the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, bully for you. (In fact, there was a particularly weird SNL last fall when Tim McGraw hosted and Ludacris was the musical guest. Weird because rapper Ludacris is a more established actor than country singer McGraw, and had in fact done double duty himself as recently as 2006. If anything, you'd think the roles would have been reversed, except maybe the kids today aren't interested in McGraw's music.)

So let's look at secondary motivations, and this is where you'll see my personal biases. For the musician who wants to become an actor, it's about new challenges. It's about committing to grueling work schedules, about trying to develop the perspective of another person. It's about pushing your own limitations -- but in a realistic way in which you might actually succeed.

For the actor who wants to become a musician? It's about becoming a "rock star." It's about boozing and carousing and having a posse. It's about getting "rock star parking." After all, why do you think they call it "rock star parking" rather than "movie star parking"? Because it's the rock star who is worshipped like an icon, a god of cool, a stumbling, no-sense-making person who is allowed to be that way because he might just also be a genius. He might be the next John Lennon ... even if he started out as one of the guys in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.

But then again, that might just be me. And I really enjoy watching the acting of a former pro wrestler, so what do I know?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Early praise for Push


"It's this year's Jumper!"

"Dakota Fanning has never kicked this much ass!"

"It's not being released in January! This is clearly February!"

"When Push comes to shove, it's great!"

"Djimon Hounsou hasn't been this good since Eragon!"

"It's like The Matrix meets The Matrix: Reloaded!"

"Chris Evans, as you've always seen him before!"

"From the director of Lucky Number Slevin!"

"Push is a ... movie!"

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

To buy or not to buy?


Okay, so yesterday I talked about making it my personal ambition to revisit more of the films I love. Done and done. I've got two more coming to me through the mail today or tomorrow: Wes Anderson's debut feature, Bottle Rocket (still his best film), and John Landis' frat house classic National Lampoon's Animal House, which I watched about 13 times my freshman year in college (and probably about once since then). Both were requested by my wife, and I was more than happy to oblige.

But any time I rent a movie I've seen before, especially one I really like, I'm hit with a familiar question:

"Should I be buying this?"

Today's question is mostly academic, because this economy has put the kibosh on expanding the collection of films I own, at least for the time being. I don't have a very easy time making cuts in other areas, but adding to my personal DVD collection -- an exercise in vanity as much as anything else -- is certainly one area I can be sensible.

And I'm really glad I came to that decision, because I really do struggle with this whenever I think about coming back to a movie I love. Before that second viewing, you have to decide how you're going to view it -- by renting it, or by buying it.

If you're not sure it's something you ultimately want to own, a rental is safe. But if you do think you might want to own it, wouldn't you rather start getting the value of that purchase now, rather than renting it and then buying it later?

For those of us who subscribe to unlimited rental programs like Netflix or Blockbuster Online, the cost of a rental is somewhat abstract these days. But there is still a cost. By renting something, it means you aren't able to rent something else, and the time you have it out is time you are not able to have out other things. It's a small cost, but it's there.

And that's why the decision to buy can be so agonizing. What's more -- if you decide to rent now, how much will that delay your eventual purchase of the film? You won't want to go out and buy it right away, because you just saw it. Granted, it's not like you always watch a movie right after you buy it. I'm sure everyone reading this has purchased movies that, to this day, they still haven't watched, even if that purchase was years ago. But when you buy a movie, you at least need to have the momentum of a potential viewing to spur you onward. It's hard to buy a movie if you flat out know that you will not watch it for two years.

And so this period between an initial viewing and a second viewing is even more fraught with peril. It could be the difference between whether you ever end up owning the movie or not.

I'm being dramatic here for rhetorical purposes, but it is interesting to consider the rationale that goes into whether to buy a film or not. Even if you are a person of few material possessions -- you always prefer to rent movies, just as you always prefer to read books from the library -- true movie fans still do own a small collection of films. You're saying something by the films you own, even if you never watch them.

I'll be honest: Part of the reason I don't buy as many films as I used to is that my apartment is not currently set up to display them. My wife and I have our DVDs buried on a bottom shelf of our TV cabinet, behind not only a variety of tchotchkes that have nowhere else to live in our apartment, but also the smoked glass windows of the cabinet, which are usually closed. If I could display my collection in proud rows on a prominent shelf -- as I once did (but would never do again) with my CDs -- there might be more impetus to keep adding to that collection. When it comes to films, is it really a collection if no one sees it? Let's ask that tree in the woods.

It may seem like I just want people to be impressed by what movies I own, but really, that's not true. If that were the case, I probably wouldn't own movies like The Girl Next Door (which I still insist is a great update of Risky Business, speaking of Risky Business) and would probably not publicly admit on my blog to watching movies like Over Her Dead Body.

And so that brings me to the real reason I like owning certain movies, and also why I'd want guests to see them: the ability to loan them to other people. "You've never seen that? You're taking it home with you right now." Just be sure to keep track of who you loaned them to. Or else you really won't have a collection before too long.

Because when you come right down to it, isn't that what all true film fans want to do? Share their great cinematic discoveries with a willing recipient?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Quality vs. quantity


As you may know if you've been reading my blog, I'm taking a little break from the steady grind of adding new notches to my movie-watching belt. I usually do this each year for about a week after finalizing my year-end rankings, exhausted from that arduous final sprint. Deadline day just came and went on Thursday. Just to prove to myself my own seriousness, I used my last two free rentals on TV series: Californication and The Wire, season 1 disc 1 for both. Haven't watched an episode of either yet, but the intention is there.

But I have also watched a couple movies since Thursday. They've just been movies I've already seen. And this is something I don't do nearly often enough.

You know I keep lists, so it's probably no surprise to learn that I know how many movies I've seen multiple times. In many cases, I've seen these movies exactly two times, but in the case of a smattering of really great films (and a few really guilty pleasures), I might have seen them anywhere from five to 15 times. (I don't think there's any movie I've seen as many as 20 times, though I could be wrong).

As of this writing, I've seen 335 movies more than once. I don't know if that seems like a lot to you, but it's only a fraction of the 2680 movies I've seen in total. Some simple math, then, and I've only revisited 12.5 percent of the movies I've seen. Granted, some of them simply should not ever be revisited. Let's say I like 65 percent of the movies I see, which would be 1742 of 2680 movies. Three hundred thirty-five is only 19 percent of 1742, meaning I've revisited less than 20 percent of the movies that might be worth revisiting. Which doesn't seem high enough, does it?

It raises an interesting question about how a person becomes a better film fan. Is it by seeing more films, or by achieving a greater intimacy with the ones worth seeing?

It's not as simple as that weighted question makes it sound. No matter how many movies you see, there are always going to be very good movies you aren't seeing. So even if you never watched a movie twice, you still couldn't see all the good movies there are to see. Therefore, it's not like re-watching good movies necessarily increases the overall quality of the movies you watch.

So the question still remains: Is it ultimately the breadth of your knowledge that makes you a better film fan, or the depth?

For me, it's never going to be possible to see only films I'm pretty sure are good. In order to keep writing reviews, I've got to see the shitty ones as well -- the ones no one else wants to review. But there's something more to this quest for me, something that tends to de-emphasize the absolute value of a film. Some people collect coins, some people collect stamps, some people collect rare action figures still in their packages. Me? I collect films. I want to expand my collection whenever possible, sometimes for no loftier purpose than that itself.

But then I have those moments like this past weekend. I rented Risky Business because my wife said she hadn't seen it in ages. I realized I hadn't either. In fact, according to my own records, I'd seen Risky Business only once. Yeah, I've probably caught five minutes of it here and there over the years, and I've definitely seen the image of Tom Cruise sliding into the living room in his skivvies more times than I can count. (And by the way, Kobe Bryant does an hilarious spoof of that in a recent ad for Guitar Hero 4). But only once in my lifetime did I actually sit down with the express intention of watching Risky Business, an indisputable classic of the 1980s, from start to finish.

As we watched it Saturday night, I was overcome by the little details that make Risky Business great -- details that I shouldn't have forgotten, but did. I won't enumerate them here. You've probably been better about your repeat viewings, and watched it more recently than I have, so you know what I'm talking about. Yeah, there's definitely something a little dated about it, especially if you focus on things that are inescapably married to the time period, like the design of the opening credits. However, there are also things you'd think would seem dated -- like Tangerine Dream's soundtrack -- that actually still have the moody effect they had in 1983. I always considered Risky Business to be more moody than funny, perhaps because at the time I saw it, I thought the idea of prostitutes was very scandalous and dangerous. (Unlike now, when I hang out with prostitutes all the time). However, the movie is also pretty damn funny.

I think this blog will help force me to become more committed to revisiting the films I love, thereby increasing my ability to reference them extemporaneously in conversations with other film geeks. Because isn't that our currency as film geeks, our ability to instantly call to mind our impressions of films and speak intelligently about them?

So how will the blog help? Because, as you may have noticed, I have a little feature off to the right -- blogger.com refers to them as "gadgets" -- that tells you which film I've revisted most recently. I don't want this gadget to go stale, as it did recently when Bee Movie occupied that spot for a good three weeks. I had a legitimate reason for re-watching Bee Movie, as I was preparing to review it -- and I'm sure glad I did, as I liked it a lot less the second time around. I should be revisiting movies a lot more consequential than Bee Movie, and hope to do that a lot more in 2009.

My ultimate conclusion is that to be the best film fan you can be, you have to have a healthy balance between your quantity and your quality. But that's difficult when you're trying to keep up a healthy balance in your actual life. I mean, there's also plenty of TV to watch. Not to mention life's pleasures that -- gasp -- don't involve staring passively at a screen full of moving images.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A genre unto himself

The movie Inkheart hit theaters yesterday.

Even if his mongoloid eyes and alien good looks weren't front and center on the poster, I could still tell you who the star of Inkheart was:

Brendan Fraser.

That, my friends, is because Brendan Fraser has become his own genre.

Brendan Fraser is far more likely to star in a Brendan Fraser Movie than anyone else, and he stars in several Brendan Fraser Movies a year. Last year alone he starred in two of them: Journey to the Center of the Earth (in 3D!) and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.

I think most of you are with me. But if you aren't, well, what makes a Brendan Fraser movie a Brendan Fraser Movie?

The way I'm defining it here, a Brendan Fraser Movie is a second-tier blockbuster set in the fantasy/adventure realm, one that always makes its money but doesn't usually over-perform, one that has a few PG-13 moments but is usually pretty good with a regular old PG rating. You know, a Brendan Fraser Movie. It's not total vanilla, but no one's ever going to feel threatened by it either. This modern incarnation of the Brendan Fraser Movie is an offshoot of the old style of Brendan Fraser Movie: the big-screen version of a classic cartoon.

How many Brendan Fraser Movies has Brendan Fraser made? A lot. ("How many dicks is that?")

Forthwith, the top 10 Brendan Fraser Movies, in terms of their Brendan Fraser-ishness:

10. Bedazzled (2000). The least Brendan Fraser-ish of Brendan Fraser's Brendan Fraser Period. He plays a regular guy who sells his soul to the devil and keeps getting transformed into different versions of himself as the devil messes with his mind. High concept scenario involving cartoonish hijinx? Check.

9. Dudley Do-Right (1999). Plays the Canadian mountie from the famous cartoon series. The fantasy elements appear to be underplayed, at least as far as a person who's never seen the movie can tell.

8. Monkeybone (2001). Another movie I have not seen. But if the animated monkey and the brightly colored crazy world it lives in are any indication, this is pretty Beetlejuice-y, and therefore, pretty Fraser.

7. The Mummy (1999). This may seem like the most Brendan Frasery of all Brendan Fraser Movies. But it's a trick. The sequels are far more Brendan Frasery, because the Brendan Fraser Movie was a far more well-established phenomenon by then, and the act of appearing in a sequel itself is a good indication of Brendan Fraser-ishness, even if this phenomenon has not been demonstrated repeatedly.

6. George of the Jungle (1997). Exceptionally more Brendan Frasery than some of the other Brendan Fraser Movie on this list, because it's the only movie on the list to really acknowledge Fraser's simian characteristics and use them as an active plot point. (Note: See Honorable Mentions section for the other prominent example).

5. Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003). Fraser has been cartoon characters and has acted alongside cartoon characters. This film seemed to bring all his prior interests together in one place. Another astute observation from the man who has not seen this film.

4. Inkheart (2009). I have not seen this film. But it looks very Brendan Frasery.

3. The Mummy Returns (2001). In this terrible sequel, Fraser gets to do what Mel Gibson does in the Lethal Weapon movies and what Bruce Willis does in the Die Hard movies -- deliver several dozen lines that can basically be summarized as "I been through this shit before." Very Brendan Fraser.

2. Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008). A remake of Jules Verne's famous middle-earth fantasy, featuring plenty of monsters, Fraser acting like another archeologist/geologist type, and 3-D! "Get me Brendan Fraser!"

1. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008). That title alone is enough to take the prize of Ultimate Brendan Fraser Movie.

Honorable Mentions: Encino Man, Blast from the Past

And now, the top 10 Brendan Fraser Movies that do not feature Brendan Fraser:

10. Congo
9. Jurassic Park III
8. King Solomon's Mines
7. National Treasure
6. National Treasure: Book of Secrets
5. Jumanji
4. Night at the Museum
3. The Librarian: Quest for the Spear
2. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
1. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Honorable Mentions: Mighty Joe Young, Stardust, Sahara, Around the World in 80 Days

What's your favorite Brendan Fraser Movie not starring Brendan Fraser? That's why I have a comments section.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Goodbye, 2008


I don't ever want to see another 2008 movie as long as I live.

Okay, at least until sometime next week.

It's been an unusually busy stretch run for me as I've worked to finalize my 2008 list of film rankings, which by tradition closes the morning the Oscar nominations are announced. (That happened about ten minutes ago.) Exactly a month ago today, I had seen 54 films released in 2008. This morning, it's 87. Not only does that best my previous highest pre-nominations total by five, but it means more than one a day during the last 30 days. That can take its toll even on a hardcore cinephile like me. My eyes need a serious vacation. Or maybe a good book.

(In case you're curious about the wild last few hours, after work yesterday I managed to see Zombie Strippers, Taxi to the Dark Side and Repo! The Genetic Opera -- how's that for a random assortment of titles -- and still somehow fit in the first two hours of the season of Lost. I don't expect it to be a very productive day at work.)

Before I reveal my list of titles below, let me give the standard disclaimer that this whole thing is somewhat imprecise. Why is film #56 better than #57? To what degree? It's hard to say. Some decisions are easier than others. I spent much of 2008 thinking it was a bad year for movies, but I've changed my tune just a bit. One thing I do want to emphasize: Just because I rank a film higher than another film, it doesn't necessarily mean that I think it is, objectively, a "better" film. (Especially since rankings like these are, by definition, subjective.) This is an especially hard argument to make when I rank extremely frivolous comedies (Sex Drive, The House Bunny) above extremely serious-minded best picture nominees (The Reader, about an illiterate Nazi war criminal who likes sleeping with teenagers). However, it does mean that in some essential way, I think Sex Drive and The House Bunny are slightly better at being the best version of themselves than The Reader was at being the best version of itself. That said, I liked all three movies quite a bit.

A fun game if you've never played it: Try to figure out the dividing line between which movie I gave a slight thumbs up and which one I gave a slight thumbs down. It's in there somewhere. And as usual, I'd love to hear any other comments you may have. In fact, tear me a new one if you feel like it.

Without any more ado than I've already caused ...

1. The Wrestler
2. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
3. Slumdog Millionaire
4. Let the Right One In
5. Towelhead
6. Man on Wire
7. Cloverfield
8. Step Brothers
9. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
10. In Bruges
11. Frost/Nixon
12. Taxi to the Dark Side
13. Teeth
14. The Band's Visit
15. The Dark Knight
16. Milk
17. Tropic Thunder
18. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
19. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
20. Doubt
21. Wall-E
22. Sex Drive
23. The House Bunny
24. Quarantine
25. Religulous
26. The Visitor
27. The Reader
28. When Did You Last See Your Father?
29. The Ruins
30. Chicago 10
31. Mamma Mia!
32. Wendy and Lucy
33. Paranoid Park
34. The Edge of Heaven
35. Australia
36. Definitely, Maybe
37. The Spiderwick Chronicles
38. The Fall
39. Kung Fu Panda
40. Bottle Shock
41. Changeling
42. Revolutionary Road
43. American Teen
44. Shine a Light
45. W.
46. Pineapple Express
47. Iron Man
48. Ghost Town
49. The Bank Job
50. The Incredible Hulk
51. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2
52. Repo! The Genetic Opera
53. Semi-Pro
54. Choke
55. Charlie Bartlett
56. Speed Racer
57. The Wackness
58. Diary of the Dead
59. Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?
60. Married Life
61. Midnight Movie
62. 21
63. Yes Man
64. Hamlet 2
65. Star Wars: The Clone Wars
66. Over Her Dead Body
67. Funny Games
68. Jumper
69. Journey to the Center of the Earth
70. The Promotion
71. Cassandra's Dream
72. Four Christmases
73. Hancock
74. Wanted
75. Run Fat Boy Run
76. Smart People
77. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
78. Be Kind Rewind
79. Baby Mama
80. Zombie Strippers
81. The Happening
82. Chapter 27
83. Get Smart
84. Burn After Reading
85. One Missed Call
86. 10,000 B.C.
87. An American Carol

Most regret not seeing before the cutoff: Rachel Getting Married, Happy Go Lucky, The Strangers, I've Loved You So Long, Gran Torino, Role Models

Okay. Today's my late morning, so if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go get another two hours of sleep.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Give or take an S


Or, "How to tell if a theater is on its last legs."

My wife and I finally saw Baz Luhrmann's Australia last night. She's Australian, so this was long overdue. In fact, we made a thwarted attempt a few days before Christmas, but failed to check the showtime on the actual day, and by that time they'd changed it. We had heard it was bad, but for my wife, seeing the movie was part of the duty of being an Australian ... or something to that effect. Me, I just like big spectacles.

We waited long enough that now it's only playing in the second-run theaters, which is how we found ourselves at one particular second-run theater in downtown Culver City last night. It's actually probably the closest theater to our home, but there are a number of reasons we usually don't go -- many of which were confirmed last night.

I ended up liking the film fine -- or in any case, I could find no reason to get all up in arms about its poor quality. It was a giant throwback Hollywood epic, some very cheesy stuff happened, and it looked really good. What else were you expecting?

But maybe I liked it because I actually saw Autralia, minus the S. That's what it said on my ticket: Autralia. When I noticed this, I shared a story with my wife about having come here last Memorial Day weekend, which I chose to kick off via an after-work movie on Friday. The movie I saw then? Baby's Mama. That's right, Baby's Mama. While I commended them on what would ordinarily be a correct usage of grammar, that was not, in fact, the title of the movie. Then my wife came up with a real zinger: The S wasn't available for Autralia because it had already been expended superfluously on Baby's Mama. It really wouldn't surprise me if this theater actually did have a finite supply of the letter S. And don't think it was just that they didn't have enough characters to fit the whole title on the ticket. Baby's Mama is two characters longer than even the complete word Australia, counting the apostrophe and the space.

The funny thing is, I've seen one other film at this theater since it became a full-on second-run joint sometime in 2007. That film was Religulous, and in that case -- when the word was entirely made up -- they spelled it correctly.

Other ways we can tell they've basically given up at this theater ...

1) The men's bathroom has no mirrors. Oh, it's not like there isn't any space for them -- it's that they were actually removed. You can see the little splotches of putty where they used to adhere to the wall. Either the mirrors broke and they were just too cheap to replace them, or they actually feared that the mirrors would be vulnerable to vandalism, so removed them as a preemptive strike. Either way, I'd bet some guys on dates are pretty bummed not to be able to primp themselves in the bathroom. Then again, maybe they don't care that much if they were taking their date to a second-run theater in the first place.

2) There are only six other people in the theater, no matter what movie you see. Maybe it's the fate of a second-run theater that you never get big crowds, but it's really unnerving to be in a theater that only has a smattering of people in the lobby at any given time, and then even fewer at your particular movie. I guess I don't usually go on Friday nights, but I feel like I can make an educated guess about this. The silence is deafening.

3) And speaking of silence ... They don't play music or even a rotating slideshow in the theaters before the movie starts. Yeah, those trivia questions are brainlessly easy -- but at least it's something to look at. The silence, of course, is much worse than the lack of visuals. I've been at times when everyone there was seeing the movie by him/herself, which means there wasn't even an undercurrent of chatter -- just thick, soporific silence. And if you do have someone with you, talking is difficult anyway because your every word is picked up by everyone else in the theater. Unnerving.

4) They've let the place go. Not only were there things just stacked randomly and left in full view of the public, but the actual screen on which we watched Autralia was in dire need of repair. There was a worn-through patch to the lower right of the center of the screen, and whenever the film stock was bright, that flaw was really distracting. I did get used to it -- eventually.

5) Moviefone can't even get their listings right. Granted, it's a little confusing, because there's a first-run theater just a couple blocks away. But when I went to see Religulous the day before Thanksgiving, I had actually been intending to see Role Models. And I swear I read the moviefone.com page correctly. Nonetheless, Role Models was not playing at this theater -- and I probably should have known, considering that it was released only 2-3 weeks before that. But who am I to question what I see online? And I was extra cautious to make sure I was right, because when I went to see Baby's Mama, I had actually been intending to see Forgetting Sarah Marshall -- and it too was playing at the nearby first-run theater. I think in that case it might have been my fault, but it did have the effect of making me extra cautious on my next attempt -- as it turned out, to no avail. I did eventually see Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but have yet to see Role Models.

I think I've taken up enough of your time for today. Tune in bright and early tomorrow morning to see my top ... however many it will be ... of 2008.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Seeing double

(Note: For today's posting, I tried to figure out something equal to the "arc of history" we experienced today, and have been experiencing ever since President Barack Obama began running for the nation's highest office. But I couldn't figure anything out, and I just wrote a posting pegged off the news yesterday, so I decided just to go for the weekend's leftovers -- which happens to be something very frivolous indeed.)

I mentioned that I had seen four movies on Saturday, but I didn't tell you how I did it. ("Duh. You did it with your eyes, Vancetastic. You loaded DVDs in the player and you pressed play and you sat on your ass. Big deal.")

Actually, you can't watch four movies in a day if you're sitting at home for all of them. Well, you can, but you'll feel like a turd imprinted on the couch cushions, no matter how many times you shower. So if you're planning to do this, you need to see at least one movie in the theater, just to switch things up. As it happens, I saw two movies in the theater on Saturday -- back to back, on the price of a single admission.

That's right, I saw one, and then snuck into the second. I'm not ashamed to admit it. How else is a person who has to see a lot of movies supposed to keep the costs down? I will admit that I was a little ashamed in this case, because of the theater's tremendously low matinee price: $5. And this isn't just for second-run stuff: my self-customized double feature actually consisted of the critically acclaimed pairing of Let the Right One In and Wendy and Lucy.

However, you could almost argue that I didn't know it wasn't a double feature. Not only were the two movies playing on the same screen, with a half-hour gap in between, but the poster next to the screening room doors had been custom framed so that both of the movies appeared in it, as though it were a fully authorized double feature.

I was a little worried that I'd be busted in this scenario, since I had to clear out between movies in order for them to clean the theater. Normally, when I'm doing this in a big multiplex, I just go straight for the other theater and no one is the wiser. Turns out, all you have to do is go sit on the toilet reading a magazine for 15-20 minutes. Yeah, you should probably pull your pants down to fool the other bathroom patrons, but you don't actually have to poop.

Where was I?

I've done enough of these over the years that it would not surprise you -- at least, those of you who know me -- to learn that I have been keeping a list of all the illegal double features I've ever seen. It probably also would not surprise you that I like to examine this list for its greater significance -- or at least, to find funny reasons to revisit these random pairings of movies in a blog posting. Because they are random, aren't they? Not only did they have to be in the same theater at the same time, but the second one had to have a reasonably convenient starting time relative to the end of the first. More than a half-hour of downtime and it just kills the value of it.

So without further ado, a selection of some of my most memorable combinations of movies seen as double features ...

First illegal double feature seen: Total Recall, Betsy's Wedding (August 1990). (Thanks, Don.)

Highest quality of both films: Flirting With Disaster, Fargo (March 1996).

Lowest quality of both films: Date Movie, Final Destination 3 (February 2006).

Viewing alphabetically: Lilo & Stitch, Like Mike (July 2002). I have a list of all 2676 movies I've ever seen -- a much longer topic for another time -- and there still hasn't been a movie to come between the consecutive alphabetical pairing of these two.

Most different from each other: Gosford Park, Kung Pow: Enter the Fist (January 2002). Honorable mention: The Limey, Three to Tango (October 1999).

Most similar to each other: Fun With Dick and Jane, The Ringer (December 2005). They were both retarded, ha ha.

Sounds like something a tribal chief would say: Big Fish, Cold Mountain (January 2004).

Most creatures per capita: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Star Trek: Nemesis (January 2003).

Most similar titles: The 25th Hour, The Hours (January 2003).

Most cartoonish fighting: Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Kung Fu Panda (July 2008).

Most future best picture nominees: Million Dollar Baby, Finding Neverland (January 2005).

Fewest future best picture nominees: The Aristocrats, The Dukes of Hazzard (August 2005).

Thanks for indulging me. I hope it gave you a laugh. Hey, I told you it would be frivolous.

Oh, and if this is your first introduction to the fact that I'm a freak, well, I'm sorry for the shock you must be feeling.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Are some legends unfilmable?


When Spike Lee released the brilliant Malcolm X in 1992, my first thought was, "Wow, I can't wait to see what he does with the life of Martin Luther King."

I'm still waiting.

We live in an era when Hollywood never leaves a hot idea untapped for long, and as proof of its devotion to certain ideas, reboots them before the corpse of the original is even cold. (The Incredible Hulk and this year's upcoming Fast & Furious are great examples and probably worthy of another post). But the same is most definitely not true for biopics. In fact, it seems like some of the truly deserving characters in the history of our nation -- indeed, the history of the world -- have yet to find a home in the cineplexes.

The conversation starts with Martin Luther King Jr., though it certainly doesn't end there. But while we're on MLK -- it being his birthday and all -- let's figure out what's behind his particular case. I do have some guesses.

1) He is such a beloved figure that no one wants to get his story wrong. I mean, the guy has his own holiday. The reverence reserved for him borders on the religious, and I certainly have no desire to dispute that. Any serious film about Martin Luther King would have to delve into unsavory aspects of his life -- such as his purported dalliances with women who weren't his wife -- and it may just be perceived that no good can come from that, in the public sphere.

2) Many inferior tellings of his story have already saturated the marketplace. While there has yet to be a truly authoritative prestige picture in the mold of Malcolm X, the man's story has been filmed numerous times. A large number of documentaries and a smattering of features about this man already exist. Perhaps because the features have generally been done quickly and had a TV-movie sheen to them, there's a sense that a theatrical feature would be stigmatized by being associated with its forbears.

3) It's more interesting for a filmmaker to tell the story of a flawed person. I'm not saying Martin Luther King wasn't flawed, but compared to Malcolm X, he was a frigging saint. If you're going to devote 205 minutes to the telling of a man's story, as Lee did with Malcolm X, you can't devote only 20 minutes to bad behavior. Generally speaking, I think filmmakers are drawn to characters who are not only tragic because they were killed, but tragic because of choices they made and ways they could not see themselves clearly. King's just about the best behavioral model you can think of, outside of someone like ... Barack Obama. (And I'm really interested to see what Lee -- or whoever he hands the baton to -- will do with Obama's story sometime in the 2020's).

My guess is that it's this last that really stops filmmakers in their tracks. Let's take someone like John F. Kennedy. "But wait," you say. "What about Oliver Stone's JFK?" Lest you forget, that wasn't the story of his life -- it was the story of his assassination. And sure, Kennedy has appeared as a character in many films, such as Thirteen Days. (Not by any means the most important example, just the one I could think of right now). But there hasn't been a prominent film about the man and his life yet. You could say the same thing about guys like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Sure, they've both been filmed numerous times, but it was usually either something done for television, or as a character in a movie with a broader scope.

When filmmakers focus their lens on someone famous, they want it to be someone a little unexpected, like HBO recently did with its series John Adams. Those who flocked to John Adams almost certainly did it for one of three reasons: 1) The acting (Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney); 2) The fact that it's on HBO; or 3) "Hey, I know he was a president -- but shit, I don't know anything else about him." Exactly. These filmmakers can make the definitive John Adams movie, and not worry about other cinematic interpretations that have come before. Lee could pretty much say the same thing about Malcolm X. Even as famous as he was, Lee basically "introduced" him to the world by virtue of the fact that he hadn't already been under the lens, in half-assed ways, a hundred times.

I guess when you come right down to it, X is more interesting than King in the same way that Richard Nixon is more interesting than Jimmy Carter -- and George W. Bush is more interesting than his dad. I mean, why do you think it is that Oliver Stone made Nixon and W., but never even considered making Carter and H.W.? According to Stone, the story of George W. Bush demanded to be made so much, we shouldn't even wait until the guy left office.

So will we ever see Spike Lee's Martin Luther King, or maybe just King? I guess I don't rightly know. But maybe now that Obama is in the White House, we can finally dig below the surface and paint a portrait of the real, flawed man that he was. Maybe now, the black man will achieve cinema's measure of the equality his race has always been seeking:

A biopic of a genuine human being, warts and all.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Zombies vs. vampires


I saw four movies yesterday.

As far as I'm aware, this ties a modern personal record. (I say "modern" because when I was a toddler, I regularly watched six, seven movies a day. This was before MTV killed my attention span.) I can see myself having watched five movies in a day once, but I don't recall those particular circumstances, so I won't swear to it.

I also feel pretty confident saying this is the first time I've watched movies featuring zombies (Diary of the Dead) and vampires (Let the Right One In) in the same day. Diary of the Dead -- or, George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead, depending on your level of formality -- follows the recent Cloverfield/Quarantine model of crazy events spiraling out of control, being captured by someone who'd been filming something else entirely. Let the Right One In is the 2008 Swedish chiller that's already being hailed as one of the best vampire movies of all time -- enough that they are remaking it this year as an inevitably horrible Hollywood film. (Though the director of Cloverfield is directing, so I have some hope.)

But I'm not here today to talk about the merits of these films, only their thematic similarities. As I watched them yesterday, it got me thinking how much vampires and zombies actually have in common. They are both undead creatures. They both spread their infection through the bite. They both feed off humans, though vampires are clearly only in it for the blood, while zombies like chomping whatever flesh and bone they can get their hands on. (And don't think I consider this some great revelation that no one else has ever identified.)

Of course, vampires and zombies differ in many important ways as well -- vampires are sexy and usually have personalities, while zombies are vacant and erratic.

But one of the biggest differences between them -- and this is where I think I've struck an original thought -- is what the people in their worlds know about them. And I realized something very funny about vampire movies and zombie movies:

In vampire movies, all the characters know what a vampire is.

In zombie movies, none of the characters have ever heard of a zombie.

To make this a little more explicit, vampire movies almost always contain the word "vampire"; zombie movies rarely contain the word "zombie." It's almost as though the word "vampire" refers to a known creature in the mythozoological universe, whereas the word "zombie" refers to a genre of film, meaning that using the word stigmatizes and demystifies the actual zombies in the film.

Yesterday's films were a perfect example of this phenomenon. In Diary of the Dead, the word "zombie" is never uttered. The characters refer to the happenings in generic, descriptive ways, like "People who are dying are not staying dead" or "He's become one of them." In Let the Right One In (and this is not giving much away), the little boy starts to get suspicious of the behavior of the 12-year-old girl next door, and asks her directly, "Are you a vampire?"

This familiarity/unfamiliarity extends to knowing the rules that govern both types of creatures. In Diary, they have to learn as they go. "Shoot it in the head! That's the only way it will stay down!" We've seen characters figure out the whole "shoot it in the head" thing in dozens of zombie movies. No one knows it instinctively. In Let the Right One In, the actual title refers to one of the known rules about vampires -- that they have to be invited in to a person's home. When vampires appear in vampire movies, no one needs to tell a person what they have to do to protect themselves. In under five minutes flat, they're wearing a necklace of garlic and sharpening a stake in the shape of a cross.

Now, I may be playing dumb here a little bit. There may be a very simple explanation for all this. After all, the concept of vampires, in all cultures, has been around for millenia, and the Oxford English Dictionary records the first usage of the actual term in the year 1734. Conversely, the zombie has its history in Afro-Caribbean culture, and the word itself did not enter English usage until 1871. But does the relative newness of zombies excuse the fact that no one seems to know about them?

Let's take it one step further. In movies where there are aliens, everyone knows what an alien is. If they see something they can't identify walk out of a space ship, of course it's an alien. They don't have to learn the concept of "alien." But people are always having to learn the concept of "zombie." If people know aliens from the alien stories in our collective subconscious, and people know vampires from the vampire stories in our collective subconscious, how come none of these movies posits a world where there are zombie stories in our collective subconscious? The world of Diary of the Dead does not have a single zombie movie in it?

(I should pause here to acknowledge that there are, in fact, plenty of zombie movies where they use the word zombie -- but these tend to be the ones that are tongue-in-cheek, better categorized as "zom coms" than horrors.)

This is something for a much longer discussion, but every film, regardless of genre, must first ask itself: "What exists in our world?" You could drive yourself crazy with this question. In the world of Spider-Man, does the Superman comic book exist? Or is this crazy spider dude the person who is actually introducing the characters to the concept of a superhero? If they're aware of the concept of a superhero, which superheroes do exist? I'll be interested to see how they tackle that when the Marvel characters start to appear in each other's movies, namely, the Hulk and Iron Man. If Iron Man was like nothing they'd ever seen, and the Hulk was like nothing they'd ever seen, but they both exist in the same world, which phenomenon appeared first? Let's say it was the Hulk. When Iron Man came along, why didn't somebody say, "Ah yes, this guy is kind of like the Hulk. He's an unusually strong creature who has the ability to fight bad people in a way that's beyond heroic -- almost super-heroic."

You can even extend it to real people. If Mel Gibson is playing a character in a movie, does the actual Mel Gibson exist in that world? What if Mel Gibson's character has a reason in the story to refer to Danny Glover, the real actor? Was that version of Danny Glover ever the star of a movie called Lethal Weapon? This can be dangerous territory, as Steven Soderbergh found in Ocean's 12, where Julia Roberts (playing a character named Tess) is conveniently mistaken for the actual Julia Roberts -- and it's one of the main plot points.

Sometimes these debates are better left rhetorical.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Republican roll call


You know when you fall asleep watching Saturday Night Live, and you wake up all befuddled, and Showtime at the Apollo is on? And you have this moment where you think "Wow, this program really isn't intended for me?" (Forgive me, my readers of color -- I'm working a bit about white people here.)

That's how it is for a liberal to watch David Zucker's disasterpiece An American Carol.

It's really rare to see fringe ideology -- let's face it, neo-con thinking is pretty fringe in Hollywood -- appear in a mainstream product that gets a theatrical release. And so as you watch An American Carol -- a jingoistic, mean-spirited screed against liberals, their documentaries, and Michael Moore -- there's a weird sensation of watching a piece of Republican propaganda break past all the invisible barriers Hollywood usually constructs against it. It's not that this movie shouldn't have the right to exist -- it's that this movie is just so downright different that it calls attention to itself.

It's kind of like liberal and conservative media. The liberal media is only liberally biased -- it's a totally subtextual thing, else it would really would be unavoidably scandalous. But to counteract that bias, conservative media has to be openly, blatantaly, unquestionably conservative. The way the public debate has been couched, that's an acceptable response to even a hint of liberal bias.

And so it is with movies. While movies with a liberal agenda are usually as subliminal as they can be about it (with the notable exception of Moore's movies themselves), movies with a conservative agenda are ... well ... An American Carol. And to think this man, David Zucker, once directed the first really great spoof -- Airplane! Someone who's dead from that movie rolls over in his/her grave.

The only thing that's fun about watching An American Carol (because it sure as hell ain't the least bit funny) is the conversation you get to have with yourself while watching it. And that conversation basically boils down to looking at the participants in this movie and thinking:

"Is he a crazy Republican, or is he just doing this for the money?"

So to save you the trouble -- and believe me, you don't want this kind of trouble -- I'm going to run down the cast for you:

Kelsey Grammer (as General Patton): Kook. Says he got screwed on an attempt to donate money to the Democrats years ago, and is now a card-carrying Republican. Ah Fraser, I thought people who spoke like Brits were supposed to be enlightened.

Kevin Farley (as Micheal Malone): Paycheck. Although Farley has supposedly told people he's been a life-long conservative, my guess is that he's trying to play along. He looked kind of like Michael Moore, and this was his chance for the "leading man" role once occupied so regularly by his brother Chris. So let's call it Paycheck combined with Stepping Out of Sibling's Shadow.

James Woods (as Agent Grosslight): Kook. He gets to tell Farley's Malone "Save it for your crazies" with a dismissive wave of his hand, and he means it. Besides, Woods is the guy who claimed he saw some of the 9/11 terrorists on a flight a month earlier and notified a flight attendant about them. Racial profiling to the rescue once again!

Robert Davi (as Aziz): Kook. That's right, the key Islamist extremists are all played by Americans. I was tempted to put Paycheck there just because Davi's career has been so bad, but he's supposedly pretty outspoken. (You're going to notice a pattern here.)

Jon Voight (as George Washington): Kook. Yep, Voight's politics differ significantly from those of daughter Angelina. Hey, he accused Barack Obama of "sowing socialist seeds in young people." What more do you need?

David Alan Grier (as Rastus Malone): Paycheck. This was before his surprisingly funny talk show on Comedy Central, Chocolate News, had proved to be as surprisingly funny as it is. If that show weren't enough to indicate Grier's political alliances, we have Zucker's comment about the very brief appearance (brief enough not to really know what the movie was about?) by the comic: "I'm sure David Alan Grier was appalled."

Trace Adkins (as the Angel of Death): Kook. Trace Adkins is a country singer. Nuff said. (The Dixie Chicks notwithstanding.)

Bill O'Reilly (as Bill O'Reilly): Total Kook. Dead giveaway of what kind of movie this is, if you ever had a doubt.

Dennis Hopper (as Judge): And this is the really sad one ... Kook. Dennis, what happened to the drug-loving hippie we used to know? Perhaps most dispiritingly, Hopper plays a gun-loving judge who starts blowing away zombified versions of ACLU lawyers. And there's no irony.

Leslie Nielsen (as Osama bin Nielsen/Grandpa): Paycheck. Favor to Zucker, and vice versa.

Notably absent: Patricia Heaton, Jim Caviezel, Clint Eastwood, the corpse of Charlton Heston, God

If you have a healthy skepticism, you're probably thinking I hate this movie because of its politics, not because it's mind-numbingly unfunny. But just to show you that's not the case -- or not totally the case -- I think there's a very funny idea somewhere hidden beneath the American flags and hateful jabs at Rosie O'Donnell. A guy -- and why not have him be based on the flawed liberal icon Michael Moore -- who wants to abolish the 4th of July is a funny idea. But what they do with it ... garbage. Absolute garbage.

In any case, now we also have a clearer idea of who the enemy is. Kelsey, Jon, James, even you Dennis ... watch your backs.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Matching up the songs


Make way for my second straight post inspired by a film's closing credits ...

As I was watching American Teen last night, I heard a song I liked over the closing credits -- a song I liked well enough to investigate an itunes purchase. (You know, I'd only investigate. Don't want that 99 cents to go to waste in this economy.)

But when it came time to credit the songs they'd used in the film, I couldn't for the life of me match it up. Often times the songs will be listed in the order they appeared in the film, so if you want to know what's playing right now, you just need to wait until the last song listed. Except that doesn't always work either. What if the credits had two songs? Or more?

You might have a little luck if you think you're hearing a certain band, and the credits can either confirm or deny it. But what if you've never heard the band before?

American Teen was particularly difficult, as there were clips of varying lengths of at least 78 different songs in that movie. (I didn't count.)

Here's what I'd like to see: a DVD released with a special feature that allows you to watch the movie in the format perfected by the seminal 1990s VH1 creation, Pop Up Video. If you selected this feature from the features menu, a little graphic would come up on the screen anytime a song was playing, telling you what it is and who's responsible. Instead of the director's commentary, it would be the musician's commentary. Of sorts.

Yeah it would get a little annoying sometimes. "Duh, I know this is 'The Happy Birthday Song' by Unknown." But like any marginally useful feature, it would have its time and place.

If you know what that song was that was playing at the beginning of the credits of American Teen, let me know. It's probably something I will be embarrassed I thought I liked, on second hearing. But why don't you let me be the judge of that.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The ultimate collaborative medium


One benefit of watching bad movies: You find inspiration in the darnedest of places.

Monday, as I lay dying with coughs that were trying to rip apart my rib cage, I watched Over Her Dead Body (quite appropriate) in the dead afternoon heat of a Los Angeles indian summer. Because I'm a person of good manners, I usually watch as much of a film's credits as I can stand, and that was true in this case as well.

But the thing I'm about to discuss came right at the beginning of this particular film's credits. As the words started to crawl up the screen in the style we're all accustomed to, I noticed the word "A film by" floating all by itself. Normally you'd see the name of the director underneath those words, but in this case, there were only a few blank spaces and then the word "Cast," followed by the listing of actors. "Oh great," I thought. "This film is incompetent enough that it even forgot to include the director's name. Either that or Alan Smithee directed it."

But then a curious thing happened: The words "A film by" came to rest and stayed put, while the rest of the collaborators continued to scroll by underneath them. So instead of incompetence, it was the ultimate in magnanimity. The director, Jeff Lowell, had presumably withdrawn his right to have it read "A film by Jeff Lowell" in deference to all the other people who had worked on the project with him. (Or, more cynically, he wanted to pull an Alan Smithee and blame the movie on someone other than himself.)

It got me thinking about something I constantly wrestle with when writing about films: how to assign authorship to them. One writer writes a book. One painter paints a picture. One songwriter writes a song -- and if it's Billy Corgan, then he can also sing and play all the instruments. But a film? It requires hundreds, or in the case of Lord of the Rings, thousands of people.

But when you're writing about a movie, it's extremely helpful to have either a single person to congratulate, or a single person to blame. When a person thinks that The Departed is brilliant, he or she tends to give Martin Scorsese a lot more credit than he probably deserves -- especially in that case, where it was actually a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs. Same is true of The Happening -- everything ridiculous about that movie had to be the fault of M. Night Shyamalan.

And this is why there's something called the auteur theory, which I'll let wikipedia explain better than I can if you want to follow the link. While true cineastes would argue that this is subtle and specific notion that applies only to a select few directors, and had a very specific historical place, I'm going to summarize it fairly simply here: It lets us off the hook by saying that for the purposes of criticism, the director is the single author of the films he or she directs.

There's something very funny about this, which is that unless he or she is also the screenwriter, the director usually doesn't do anything that the word "author" would imply he (or she) does. What's really funny is that when you go back to the director's stage origins, his (it was always a "he" back then) primary role was to tell the actors they were saying their lines wrong, and try to convince them of their "motivation" in each scene.

Directors still do that, but we don't think of them that way at all, do we? Yet that's the most basic requirement of the director: literally, to direct the actors.

Except when it comes to Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, Oliver Stone, David Lynch -- anyone you can think of who you consider a modern master -- we are much more likely to ascribe them a more abstract role. Namely, we consider them to be the overseers of all the film's content, from its look, to the themes it explores, to its camera angles, and even to its script. In fact, the script is the most easy thing to extricate out and credit to someone else, namely, the screenwriter. But we still say "What Martin Scorsese is trying to say in this scene ..." Really, it's William Monahan, who wrote The Departed, who's saying it. But who even knows who William Monahan is? I may, but that's because I'm a film geek.

It may seem that I am poking holes in the auteur theory, but really, it serves me very well. I'm not sure if it's mere laziness in trying to figure out who I should really credit or blame, or just the constraints of a 300-word review, but I am very comfortable assigning one person with the making or breaking of a film. I'll often mention the screenwriters -- though some films can have upwards of six, and I'd steer clear of those -- and when really relevant, folks like the cinematographer, the makeup artist or the set designer. But even on these occasions, it can be hard to definitively credit the right person. If a shot looks really good, can I be sure I should credit the DP (director of photography), or should I be crediting the director for telling him to shoot from that angle? If the sets look really nice, is it the vision of the set designer, or is the set designer merely interpreting the director's vision?

I don't have a simple answer to this mess. I will say that my favorite films to review are the ones where the director was also the screenwriter -- and if the producer as well, then even better. Then I become a hell of a lot more confident when I point that finger. (Besides, if you wrote, directed and produced a movie, and it's a massive failure, you have only yourself to blame for not instituting some checks and balances.)

There's one thing that's really interesting about all this. The one time I'm not likely to credit the director for doing something is what he's actually there to do: direct the actors. When Mickey Rourke blows me away in The Wrestler, a hell of a lot of credit should be going to Darren Aronofsky, shouldn't it? I mean, even if Rourke's instincts allowed him to play that part to perfection, it was Aronofsky who picked him out of career obscurity and coaxed out of him a performance that should win him an Oscar. Right? Yet I don't feel confident in crediting Aronofsky there. Maybe that's because I can never tell what percentage of a performance is something that the actor would know to give himself -- and what percentage is because his director told him what his motivation was.

I guess there's no real answer. I will say this -- as long as I've given it my best shot at selecting the right person to credit, I hope the recipients of my praise (or the objects of my scorn) will know enough to share.

Just like Jeff Lowell did.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Random exposure


Question: What one thing do the vast majority of movie fans have in common?

Answer: They see almost exclusively movies they think they have a good chance of liking.

But if you get paid to see movies, it's a little different. Full-time working critics get their movies assigned to them, which means an equal likelihood of seeing crap as seeing something good. This is what gives them credibility when they submit lists of the year's best movies -- or, more to the point, the year's worst. If you're a super serious critic, you also make your best effort to see the movies you weren't assigned -- though of course that's also a function of to what extent your eyeballs are fried. (On a related note, if I had one question to ask Roger Ebert, I'd ask him the most prominent film he hasn't seen. I'd be really curious about the answer.)

I am not a full-time working critic, but I am working on my year-end list, which I will finalize on January 22nd, the morning the Oscar nominations are announced. More often than not, the movies I see in a given year are, in fact, movies I really want to see. That's in part because I usually won't pay movie theater prices to see crap, and by the time my self-imposed deadline rolls around in January, only the films that were released in September or earlier have made it to video.

But I'm no less interested in my list being a fair representation of what was in theaters that year -- good and bad. So I want to see as many of these bad movies as I can. I want it to mean something when I've selected a film as the worst of the year. With some people, their worst movie of the year is really more like the 12th best movie they saw. But when you see over 80 new releases each year, the worst really means something.

Question is ... how do you build up the requisite enthusiasm to actually rent such movies? Well, I'll be honest -- if there's a reasonable chance I'll get to review one of them, it really helps.

But there's also the random exposure, and that's what I want to talk about today. (Especially because I was randomly exposed to two movies today, hence the inspiration for this post.) I'm defining a "random film exposure" to be any film a person sees without consciously selecting that film to see -- or, selecting it from a list of equally unlikely choices. The extreme example is the thing that I always imagine will happen to me sometime, in my fantasy world: I'm holed up in a cabin in the woods with only a single DVD available to watch, and so it's either that or ... read. (Ha. I do sometimes read. Really I do.) My favorite example occurred when my wife and I were staying in a hotel last New Year's Eve, and we wanted to watch something. Except the buttons on the remote were broken. So after we pushed them blindly and repeatedly, all the sudden it said, "One moment please, your film is starting." That's how we ended up seeing Balls of Fury -- and I must say, we were pleasantly surprised by it.

Before I let tangents get the better of me once again, let me discuss some other common avenues for random film exposure, and the 2008 films I saw because of them.

Home sick, and this is what's available On Demand. When I decided to call in sick today, I thought it'd be a perfect opportunity to watch a couple more 2008 movies as I speed toward finalizing my list. The thing is, I hadn't recently replenished at the video store, so I decided to let On Demand dictate it for me. There were four films I found with 2008 release dates: Over Her Dead Body, Diary of the Dead, Doomsday, and Definitely, Maybe. Many of you would have gone right for George Romero, but let's just say that in my weakened condition, I preferred the rom-coms. I hit the first and the fourth from that list. Over Her Dead Body was flat, but Definitely, Maybe had a definite spark of originality.

Watch what they're showing on the airplane. There are pretty much only two reasons I won't watch an airplane movie: 1) I've already seen it, or 2) It's a red eye and I really should get some sleep. But nowhere are you more a captive audience than on a plane, so I always take these as a great opportunity to catch up on things I didn't see in the theater -- usually because they're bad romantic comedies. Neither of the ones I saw on my Christmas trip home fell into that category, though: Bottle Shock (liked it) and Journey to the Center of the Earth (didn't like it, might have liked it more if they'd provided the 3D glasses).

You have a surprise couple hours free, and have to see whatever's on. In early December I was unexpectedly given a couple hours off in the middle of the day, so I could work that weekend without going into overtime. (I know, great company I work for.) I have a friend who sees movies on his lunch break with some regularity, and this always intrigued me. So I went to the closest movie that was playing at a convenient time and had a short enough running time: Four Christmases. And yes, it turned out to be a bad decision. But as a "random exposure," it was just the ticket.

You miss the movie you were supposed to see, so you have to choose something else. A few days before Christmas, my wife and I decided to subject ourselves to Australia, even though we'd heard terrible things about it. (She's Australian, which explains our interest.) However, sometime after I'd checked two days earlier, they'd moved forward its start time by one hour. She was having a stressful day and just went home. Me, I decided to see Yes Man. Jim Carrey, that Red Bull bit might have been funny in 2002. (This also happened with Religulous -- I was supposed to see Role Models but somehow got the wrong theater -- but I had been planning to see Religulous anyway.)

Let someone else choose the movie. I definitely would not have prioritized Sex Drive, but a friend of mine and I wanted to go out to the movies on a Friday night, and he was a fan of the film's writers. Result? One of the funniest comedies I saw in a year jam-packed with good comedies.

Borrow screeners from a friend. Though most of what I borrowed was stuff I would have otherwise seen, that's not the case with Changeling. And though I find Clint Eastwood hit and miss, and Angelina Jolie mostly miss, I thought this was three-quarters of a really good movie -- followed by 30 minutes that should just never have been there.

Attend free screenings. Like the one above, probably easier to do if you live in Los Angeles. My wife responded to invitations to two screenings of movies that came and went: Towelhead (which was excellent) and Choke (which had its moments but was overstuffed with quirks).

You can probably think of countless others. But here's one everyone can do: Rent movies from the library. It's free, and hey, you're just choosing the best of whatever's there. You never know what you might discover.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Not so Golden

While many of my film geek friends are gearing up for the Golden Globes -- or perhaps already watching -- I am sitting here writing this blog posting. I'll likely spend my evening catching up on network TV or possibly watching my third movie of the day.

Why no love for the Golden Globes? Well, countless others have said it better than I. Outside of a handful of members of the Hollywood Foreign Press, there isn't a person who actually likes these awards better than the Oscars. Even with how many totally legitimate complaints there are about the Oscars.

But you'd think that a professional film critic would have enough interest to at least tune in to the second-most-important film awards show, wouldn't you? We're not talking getting together with friends, filling out pool sheets or making a bunch of hors d'oeuvres -- just at least tuning in and giving it 30 percent of my attention?

Nope.

I can't really explain why I've been such an Oscar loyalist all my life. I mean, many times I've disagreed with the Oscar verdict -- sharply enough that you'd think it would embitter me. One prominent example came three years ago, when the Golden Globes got it right, honoring Brokeback Mountain, where Oscar somehow flaked out and picked Crash. Can anyone remember a best picture winner that has soured in our collective mouths so quickly after its selection as Crash? Talk to anybody these days, and almost no one is willing to support that movie. The Golden Globes also smartly picked The Aviator over Million Dollar Baby, and even though I would have given it to There Will Be Blood last year, at least their pick of Atonement sat better with me than Oscar's selection of the vastly overrated No Country for Old Men.

Yet I've continued to stick with the Oscars even through such travesties.

Why? Well, let's examine some of my concerns about the Globes:

1) The nominations come out too early. This obviously needs to be the case in order to meet a January 11 air date, but I feel like it's a very abrupt push into awards season to learn who's being nominated for the year's best pictures when half the movies haven't even had their theatrical release yet. It's like being told what the zeitgeist will be, rather than letting the zeitgeist wash over you like the zeitgeist always does.

2) There are too many categories. And I'm not talking about the fact that TV is included in these awards as well, though that undoubtedly waters down the focus. No, it's that we've got two genres of movie nominees: Drama and Musical/Comedy, which divides up not only the best picture nominees, but also the best actor/actress nominees. There are some benefits to it -- two great war-themed movies that many people feel were robbed for best picture, Born on the Fourth of July and Saving Private Ryan, were recognized by the Globes as best drama because the movies that beat them for the Oscar, Driving Miss Daisy and Shakespeare in Love, were busy winning best musical/comedy. I also take great pleasure in knowing that my favorite movie of 2003, Lost in Translation, was feted by the Globes as best musical/comedy (even if it seriously stretches that categorization). But just as often this results in total goofiness, like the much-reviled Sweeney Todd winning last year's best musical/comedy award. I haven't seen it, but I don't know anyone who even likes it, lets alone considers it the best of anything from 2007.

3) Who decides this stuff? The Hollywood Foreign Press, that's who. There has been much written about the nebulous identity of this group, who have much more power than any group that hazily defined every should. And while there was some quibbling about their judgments in the previous paragraph, I'll include a little more here: Emilio Estevez' ridiculous would-be epic Bobby getting nominated for best drama two years ago? And what's up with them randomly boosting the number of nominees in a given category? Last year, seven films were nominated for best drama -- and this is with five more nominated in the musical/comedy category, lest you forget.

I could go on, but you know this stuff. I just figured I should chime in to let you know I agree with it.

Now, excuse me while I go watch this week's Kath & Kim. (And yes, that was an intentional parting shot.)