Monday, August 31, 2009

Something special


Okay, after a week of snipes and jabs on my blog, how about we end the week (in a matter of speaking) on a positive note?

We were supposed to go to the drive-in last night. It was something we had been looking forward to for weeks, as we've had a great time the other two times we've gone, even when the movies themselves were not great.

But it's a long drive and a late night, so there were a number of factors that conspired to put the kibosh on it. For one, I've been sick all week, and I was still hacking up enough phlegm that I thought it would interfere with the unfettered enjoyment I hope to get from a drive-in double feature. Secondly, my car was actually in the shop yesterday, as a check engine light resulted in a seemingly inevitable $500+ in repairs, God knows whether they were really necessary. And then there was the little problem of a disappointing slate of films at the theater. The most appealing combo we could find would have been Robert Rodriguez' garish-looking kids film Shorts, and G.I. Joe. I actually want to see G.I. Joe, but I could not get over the idea that Shorts looks like it will be terrible.

So we'll try again next weekend, or maybe two weeks after that. Or maybe next year.

I told my wife I still wanted to do something special last night, so a second plan formed. We'd do the good old "pay for the first, sneak in to the second" double feature at a local multiplex. We even had the films chosen, and they timed up perfectly to have almost no gap in between -- The Goods at 5:25, Julie & Julia at 7:10. But when we got within an hour of showtime, my wife revealed she didn't really want to see either. I realized I was kind of forcing it myself, so that plan dropped off the table.

Still looking for that elusive "something special" -- and apparently unable to conceive of anything special that didn't involve movies -- we even momentarily discussed seeing whatever was playing at the local Landmark theater that has several "couch theaters," where you sit comfortably, two to a couch. Unfortunately, "whatever was playing" didn't seem worth the $14 per ticket.

Well, I ended up getting something special after all. It came in the form of a movie I picked up at the library without knowing anything about it.

The movie was called Henry Poole Is Here. It's the fourth feature from director Mark Pellington, who has made two other films I find interesting: Arlington Road and The Mothman Prophecies.

Henry Poole Is Here was only on my radar at all because I composed a list of films I wanted to review from the available inventory at the library branch nearest my office. I sometimes come up with "hit lists" this way -- see what they have, request it, then know I can pick it up easily when the approval comes through. I saw Luke Wilson, Radha Mitchell, Cheryl Hines and George Lopez on the cover, decided these were all people I liked, and added it to the list.

But I didn't hold any specific hope for it, just as I don't hold specific hope for Norbit, Crossover, Catch and Release, Daddy Day Camp, or several other films I requested to review using this method. In fact, I wasn't even sure whether it had a theatrical release. (It did, briefly, last August). Therefore, I had planned to watch it while I was waiting for my car at the Volkswagen dealer. Instead, I watched Ted Kennedy's memorial service (rest in peace) and wrote yesterday's blog post.

Well, fate was favorable to me. For films I like, I want to see them on a regular screen rather than that of a portable DVD player. And Henry Poole Is Here is a movie I like.

A lot.

A real lot.

In fact, I like this movie so much, I told my wife that I didn't know if I'd seen a movie this good "in years." As I was watching it, I felt a rush of revelatory joy equivalent to seeing Donnie Darko for the first time.

Now, before you take me at my word and push Henry Poole Is Here to the top of your Netflix queue -- but I do thank you for having such faith in my recommendations -- I must tell you that there's a controversial element to this film that I believe was a primary factor in it getting a mere 37% on Rotten Tomatoes and an only slightly better 44% on Metactritic.

Namely, this is a movie about the miraculous appearance of the face of Christ in a water stain on a stucco wall of an Orange County ranch house.

If that sends up immediate warning flares, don't let it. Just because a movie does not take a cynical view of Christianity does not mean it's not worth your time.

When you've got a movie about the face of Christ appearing in an everyday object, you've got two ways you can go with it: 1) Make it a broad satire and mercilessly ridicule those who believe, or 2) Treat it with respect and see where the story takes you.

I'm glad to say Henry Poole Is Here did the latter, and the science vs. faith issues that come to the fore are not only engrossing, but genuinely moving. As I've told you before, I'm an atheist. But there's a difference between being an atheist and being closed-minded, and I never want to be the latter. If a movie with religious overtones is made cleanly, tightly, and with terrific writing, acting and directing -- never mind the dynamite soundtrack -- it still has the power to rock my world.

And rock my world Henry Poole Is Here did.

I don't want to discuss the film too much more -- there are a bevy of wonderful surprises to discover in it -- but I do want to offer one more word for those of you who are skeptical. While this film is about religion, it is not preachy. And it is not a Christian film. It's fully in the mainstream, and it smartly keeps things ambiguous enough to satisfy the non-believers.

When it was time to go to sleep last night, my mind was racing, composing the first few sentences of my review in my head. The more I got down, the more I risked losing if I closed my eyes. Plus, it was still too damn hot to go to sleep. So I got up, hauled my laptop outside to where it was cool, and wrote the damn thing.

In about nine minutes.

In other words, plenty fast for the 18-minute life of my laptop battery.

To give you an idea how unusual this is, I typically struggle with what to say about movies I really like. The enormity of the responsibility of giving a good film the perfect endorsement usually weighs on me. It takes me at least 20 minutes to bang out the first draft of a movie I totally hate -- and such films are always easier to write about.

I did tweak the review today when I got up, but its core structure was the same that flew out of me in a flurry of inspired fertility the night before. I also watched the movie again this morning, to make sure, before I went off all half-cocked recommending this movie to everyone and his grandmother, that it held up. In the cold light of day -- well, that's just a figure of speech during our current heat wave -- I did realize that the movie may be merely excellent, not quite in the rarified air of "great." I'll recommend it to people, but probably not to their grandmothers.

And the thing is, you are free to disagree with me. That's fine. Maybe I'm reading this movie wrong. Maybe I'm being manipulated by some kind of pernicious Christian agenda, which is all the more pernicious for its ability to win over skeptics.

But I don't care. It doesn't change the fact that as I was watching, I felt transported. I felt filled to the brim with superlatives. I commented regularly and insistently that this film was blowing my mind. And isn't that the reason we watch movies in the first place, to get into that head space? To feel that sitting through all the dreck was worth it, for these rare moments of transcendence?

And so it is, to extend the religious metaphor, that Henry Poole Is Here has achieved the holy trinity on my blog. At the time of this writing, it's the first to be at the tops of my lists of Most Recently Seen, Most Recently Revisited, and Most Recently Reviewed movies -- all at the same time.

Something special?

I'll say.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The complexities of badness


I saw my 2800th movie this week.

You won't be surprised to learn that I observe such milestones. This blog has made my love of milestones abundantly clear. Every time I hit the next multiple of 100, I bold the movie title in my running chronological list. On the off chance you care, number 2700 was Role Models.

Of course, I know when I'm about to hit the milestone, so I have the ability to guide what I see to make it more significant. Like when I decided to make Casablanca my 2000th movie. (Finally putting to rest my shame at not having seen it before age 31).

But I like to see how these things turn out randomly, so I usually avoid doing that. The way things were shaping up, #2800 looked like it was going to be The Wages of Fear, the 1953 French classic that is among the favorite all-time movies of one of my friends. Upon his recommendation, I pushed it to the top of my queue, and it was shipped to me sometime in July. It was finally ready to make it onto our viewing schedule this week, but I got sick, and decided that in my weakened condition, I didn't have the stamina for 138 minutes of black and white and subtitles.

So when I finished my workday on Thursday, a day I was allowed to work from home while trying to kick my illness, I was ready for something light and relatively short. And was sitting on 2799. So randomness wasn't going to enter into it -- I would be directly choosing my milestone movie from all the available titles OnDemand. Those that fit my criteria, that is.

What did I choose? The art accompanying this post has removed all suspense.

That's right, I finally watched Freddy Got Fingered.

I say "finally" because I have been using Freddy Got Fingered as one of my primary examples of cinematic awfulness for years. Any time I need a prototypical example of a terrible movie, I go to that well. In this blog alone, I've already made two references to it, both times placing it on the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum from Citizen Kane. Once, when talking about the 300-word guidelines for my reviews, I said you should be able to stick to that limit whether reviewing Citizen Kane or Freddy Got Fingered. Another time I mentioned receiving an incorrect title from your online rental purveyor, and the fact that you could probably switch out the copy of Citizen Kane they sent you for your own copy of Freddy Got Fingered, and successfully claim it was their mistake.

So, I figured, if I'm going to keep using this film as my whipping boy, at least I owed it a viewing. And, as an extra service to it, why not make it one of my "personal milestones"? Especially since Thursday was the last day it would be available.

It was a calculated risk, because laughing was something I was trying to avoid. Anytime I laughed, it brought on a coughing fit, and those coughing fits usually ended in hiccups. It was a disturbing cycle that had already wearied me.

Then again, I also knew I probably wouldn't be laughing very much during Freddy Got Fingered.

In fact, I think I laughed once. Maybe it was twice.

But Freddy Got Fingered also made me think.

How so, you ask?

Well, it's true that Freddy Got Fingered is, in many ways, a morally reprehensible film, and difficult to endure. There are scenes that are so gross, they violate the sensibilities of even those who don't usually grant filmmakers the power to shock them with cheap stimuli. And certainly, part of what biased most people against the film is that Tom Green was such a shameless fame whore, you didn't want to grant him a smidgen of credit for contributing anything noteworthy to the world. His shtick was so annoying that no one wanted to provide the smallest reward to his avant-garde stunts. If you did, you were essentially saying that doing the most random thing imaginable was some kind of talent.

But I must admit that since finishing the film, I have returned in my mind to various scenes. I do think of Green wearing a suit backwards, and walking toward and away from a mirror, and muttering some ditty about him being the Backwards Man who walks as fast as you can. I do think about him playing some contraption that involves an untuned keyboard and sausages on pullies, singing "Daddy would you like some sausage?" I do think of him wearing a moose carcass on his back, and I do think of him spinning around a newborn infant on the end of an umbilical cord, which he just severed with his own teeth.

But is thinking about them the same as liking them? Or am I just replaying their weirdness in my mind in order to mentally shake my head at them again?

To be clear, I give Freddy Got Fingered a thumbs down. In fact, if I were reviewing it, I would reserve some of my choicest negative language for it.

But I can't deny the fact that it also serves me in a way most movies don't. I am on record as saying I'm interested in any movie that shows me something I've never seen before. That alone certainly doesn't guarantee that I like the film in question, but it does mean that it potentially interests me more than a run-of-the-mill genre film with no distinguishing elements. Even though that film may be ten times more competent than a film like Freddy Got Fingered.

My distinguished colleague who did review the film put it in a very interesting way: "Freddy Got Fingered is in no way a conventionally good film. Nearly unanimous bad reviews found that it was not conventionally well-directed, written, shot, or acted. While this makes the film off-putting for many, it does feel like the movie Tom Green intended to make."

This observation made me realize that there are three reasons we generally hate a movie:

1) The filmmakers failed in their attempt to make a good idea;
2) The filmmakers succeeded in their attempt to make a bad idea;
3) The filmmakers failed in their attempt to make a bad idea.

If #1 is the best and #3 is the worst, Green at least gets credit for being in the middle, for achieving #2. We may dislike his intentions, but no one can say he didn't do exactly what he wanted to do with this film. I bet Tom Green is extremely proud of Freddy Got Fingered. If all he really wanted to do was make us hate his film, it's an unqualified success. If you are really interested in trying to frustrate him, your only choice is to like the film -- but then he's got you there too.

And I'll be honest -- there is something captivating about stuff that is weird just for weird's sake. Green wouldn't be famous at all if there weren't some truth to that. I think the second time I laughed was when he's on a date with his love interest, an amateur rocket scientist confined to a wheelchair, who works in a hospital, loves having her paralyzed legs whacked with a cane, and enjoys giving blow jobs. (Leave it to Green to be subtle). Green's Gord Brody is trying to pretend he's some big-time guy in the finance world, so he plays a phone ringing on a tape recorder, and answers the clunky wireless landline from his dad's kitchen, pretending it's a cellular device. Then screams at some imaginary financial world flunky over some imaginary mistake, ultimately firing him with eyes bulging and spittle flying. Yes, it amused me.

I imagine I will keep processing my feelings toward Freddy Got Fingered for awhile. My distaste for Green's persona still stands. I still think a person should not receive credit for a disjointed story composed of disconnected "shocking" vignettes. I still think a person needs to do more to earn fame.

But, I'm also strangely glad I saw the movie.

So, will I continue to use Freddy Got Fingered as my prototypical terrible movie, in all examples that require such a movie?

Probably.

And I bet Tom Green would be extremely proud of that.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The weekend of problematic horror titles


Scared of the end of summer?

Hollywood is banking on the fact that you are, which is why two studios are releasing high-profile horror sequels this weekend, opposite each other.

What else do these movies have in common? They both have titles that should make you scratch your head, at least for a moment.

First let's take Halloween II. This is supposedly the film that "completes Rob Zombie's vision" for his Halloween remakes, the first of which was released on the same weekend two years ago. (As a personal aside, this is one of only a few movies I returned to the store unwatched. I rented it while my wife was out of town on business, knowing she didn't have much interest. It didn't get watched, and I couldn't be bothered to make the time to watch it after she got back, so I just returned it.)

Now, we all get the idea of rebooting a series, and then naming the new movie the same as the first movie in the original series. Other recent examples include Friday the 13th and The Hills Have Eyes.

But doesn't it get a little conceptually goofy when the sequel in the rebooted franchise has the same name as the sequel in the original series? Halloween II (1981), meet Halloween II (2009).

So in a sense, I guess you could consider this Halloween II ... II.

When the sequel to the new The Hills Have Eyes came out, at least they had the decency to give it a different name than the original sequel. Even if it was only slightly different: The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985) vs. The Hills Have Eyes 2 (2007). (The word Part has fallen out of titular fashion these days, as understood as the missing o in the contract don't).

In theory, it shouldn't be that much harder to digest than having two movies called Halloween. IMDB will list the year in the parentheses, and you'll click on the appropriate link.

So I'm trying to analyze why it isn't sitting with me as well, this Halloween II. And I think it's because we're new enough into the rebooting/remaking game that a lot of series have had the original remade, but not yet the sequel. (The Hills Have Eyes and several other prominent examples not withstanding). We're okay in theory with a classic being updated, even keeping more or less the exact same story, with a few modern details to keep things fresh.

But I don't think we're that interested in seeing an entire series play out the same way. Halloween II calling itself Halloween II makes us think that there could then be a Halloween III, which would essentially be a remake of Halloween III, and then a Halloween IV, which would essentially be a remake of Halloween IV. Even though, as mentioned above, this "completes Rob Zombie's vision," the vision of the studio heads may not feel complete if this weekend's box office is good. Then again, those potential future titles would pretty much have to diverge, because the full title for Halloween III was Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and the full title for Halloween IV (they ditched the Roman numerals at this point) was Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. I doubt we'd be quite so "surprised" by the return of Michael Myers this time around.

Of course, there were two more Halloween movies before we even got to the first attempt to reboot/revisit the series, Halloween: H20, which came out in 1998 on the 20th anniversary of the first. If I see Halloween: H20 II, or Halloween: H40, come out in 2018, I'll be really concerned.

Okay, let's move on to the second movie, about which I have considerably less to say.

It's The Final Destination, the fourth in the Final Destination series, making this series an infant compared to Halloween, which today offered up its (gasp) ninth.

The most obvious problem rests there in that definite article in the title.

We won't worry about confusing search engines, which sometimes drop the word "the," considering it a superfluous term that could get numerous false hits. (Just for fun, I googled the word "the" just now, and it returned 1.2 billion hits -- which suggests to me that's probably the most hits the algorithm can handle). In one sense, this is essentially the same trick that The Fast and the Furious pulled when it rebooted/produced the fourth in its series (the debate is still open) with Fast and Furious early this year. (Check here for a complete discussion).

Except that The actually could have a different function here. It could be a reboot, yeah -- an idea supported by that that they're returning IN 3-D! (Capitalization, italics and excess enthusiasm are mine).

But it could also mean that this is THE final destination -- the ultimate destination, the last in the series. All those other ones were final destinations, sort of -- but this is THE final destination.

Kind of robs the word "final" of some of its prior power, doesn't it?

Of course, it serves the producers of this movie to be ambiguous. Hey, they've got their minds on their summer homes just like the rest of us. (For most of us, on the theoretical summer homes we one day theoretically will have). "Vision" always gives way to the chance to make more money. Ambiguity prevents them from having to commit to this really being the last chapter. Pending this weekend's box office, of course.

So will I be adding to the box office of either this weekend?

Halloween II, possibly; The Final Destination, no, but I will be in a couple weekends.

Halloween II is one of the movies playing at the drive-in this weekend. We may or may not be there tomorrow night, depending on a number of complicating factors, not the least of which are the health of my car and the health of my own person. (I'm still trying to cough out the rest of the residual phlegm). There are eight movies playing, four double features, and we aren't planning to see Zombie's movie, but you never know how things will turn out at the drive-in -- one of its chief thrills.

In a weird kind of preparation for potentially seeing it, actually, I borrowed the original Halloween from the library, which my wife hasn't seen. We may watch it tonight. I figure if we end up seeing the sequel to the movie neither of us has seen, at least we'll both have seen the original, and in that sense will have some basis for understanding what we're seeing. (How much backstory you actually need in a horror movie is, of course, debatable).

As for TFD, I have a date to see it in a couple weekends with the same friend who saw at least the second in the series, and possibly the third, with me. I'm a sucker for that 3-D. (Except when, sometimes, I'm not).

Yeah, I can attack the semantics of these movies' titles with the best of them. But do I back it up by depriving them my money?

Nah.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The paradox of Harold and Kumar


Hey kids! It's Mr. Grouchy Pants again, with his fourth straight negative post! Negativity is fun, kids!

And I'm jumping into the racial politics again. Be forewarned.

My wife has a colleague who just loves Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. This is an intelligent woman, mind you -- a person in the business of writing and vetting scripts herself. If you're a serious person, you get only a couple movies to champion this way, only a couple movies where you say "I know, it looks terrible, but trust me, it's great!" before people start to question your judgment. She allowed the sequel to Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle to enter that elite group of questionable recommendations.

So my wife and I decided to watch it on Sunday night. We were looking for a dumb comedy available OnDemand. It was either that or Rainn Wilson's The Rocker, and to decide which, we played the "which is shorter" game. Harold & Kumar had The Rocker beat by two minutes, 101 to 103.

A hater of the first movie, I should have trusted my instincts. I probably liked Guantanamo Bay slightly better than White Castle -- I'll never get over the scene in White Castle when Harold and Kumar ride on the back of a cheetah -- but the margin was very thin.

There are a million dumb comedies out there, and the two Harold & Kumar movies are hardly the worst offenders. But what seems extra bothersome about them is that they should be a huge victory for liberal sensibilities. Instead, they're a huge setback.

Here you have an extreme rarity in Hollywood: a movie franchise starring an actor of Korean descent and an actor of Indian descent. It's a casting choice that spits in the face of what should conventionally sell to audiences. In fact, actors with their demographics are so hard to find, you'd be hard-pressed to name another young actor of Indian descent other than Kal Penn. And to play the young Hikaru Sulu in this year's Star Trek, they had to use John Cho, a Korean-American, as there was no suitably well-known actor of Japanese descent around the right age. (Which, now that I think about it, may say more about the availability of actors of Japanese descent than actors of Korean descent).

Well, it's almost as though they're intentionally dumbing down the comedy with these guys, rather than matching the evident intelligence of the actors. It's an extra attempt to prove to us that these guys from stereotypically intelligent ethnic backgrounds are the furthest things from boring eggheads -- they can be just as big dipshits as white stoners.

Yeah, these are stoner comedies -- and I guess I feel pretty enlightened by the idea that stoners come in all shapes and colors. But boy are these movies stupidly written. They're knee deep in gross-out jokes and homophobia, and the plots are one inane set piece after another at breakneck speed. To give you a perfect example of all of these, the movie called Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay spends exactly five minutes of screen time in Guantanamo Bay. And four-and-a-half of those five minutes involve the two leads trying to avoid eating a "meat sandwich" from the guards -- which is exactly what you'd think it is.

This might not be racial in any traditional sense -- it could just be a bad movie that happens to star two minorities. But wait! Barack Obama says it's racial! (Sort of).

See, Kal Penn -- born Kalpen Modi, and going by that name again -- has a new job now. He works in Obama's White House Office of Public Liaison, as a liaison to the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities. In other words, he's being made a representative of his race in that arena. Why not here?

Okay, so, Barack Obama doesn't care that his Asian-American good will ambassador is known primarily for his roles as the frat boy Taj (National Lampoon's Van Wilder, National Lampoon's Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj) and the stoner Kumar, so why should I? I'm the last person who would judge someone for enjoying a good time.

But is it too much to ask these movies to be better? At least Cho's Harold is trying to make smart decisions -- he's just the pitiable straight man caught up in Kumar's stupid shenanigans. And those shenanigans? How about Kumar bringing a bong on the plane so he can smoke in the bathroom ... on their way to Amsterdam, where marijuana is legal?

I guess what I really ask for is credibility. I love the fact that you've got an Asian-American and Indian-American stoner -- lord knows there are plenty of them out there -- but I just want them to act like human beings. They could have had great adventures getting to a hamburger joint or evading a mistaken imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay -- both, after all, are great ideas. But what resulted were ten-car-pileups of dumb jokes. And not good dumb, either.

I don't know. I had better ideas of what to say before I got sick this week and tried to complete this post over the course of a couple days.

I just wish I could applaud these movies as examples of cultural diversity, of bravery among the Hollywood green-lighters, and of intelligent filmmaking. And intelligent filmmaking doesn't have to feature intelligence, per se. Dumb can be plenty intelligent if done right.

In this case, two out of three is not good enough.

Maybe A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, due out in 2010, will give me the Harold and Kumar I really want to see.

More likely, Kumar will burn down the Christmas tree while trying to light his bong, and someone will try to make Harold fellate Santa Claus.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Oh brother


There are annoying trends, and then there are really annoying trends.

I bemoaned the overuse of the term "bromance" in this post. But I assumed I only had to be concerned about that breed of entertainment writers who walk that fine line between clever and obnoxious.

Not so. Apparently this term has really gripped our collective subconscious by the lapels, because now the suits at Time Warner Cable have gotten hold of it. In the strangest way: They've turned it into its own distinct genre, which you can search in the menu.

That's right, if you search pay-per-view movies by category on Time Warner, you've got your standard choices: Family, Comedy, Action, Drama, Indies, International Hits ... and Bromance.

I first became aware of this while searching our HBO and Cinemax OnDemand for movies we might want to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon. (We ended up with Ocean's Thirteen). In the little window that plays Time Warner ads on the upper right as you consider your OnDemand options, there was an ad for this new category. I wasn't surprised to see I Love You, Man -- one of the only movies that truly cries out to be labeled a bromance -- as the central feature of this ad campaign.

Only I didn't find I Love You, Man available when I actually checked out the category. Here's what I did find:

17 Again
Fired Up!

Miss March

Super Capers


And, oh yeah:

The Pink Panther 2

Come on, Time Warner.

None of these movies would I actually label a bromance, but to be fair, I haven't seen any of them, either. But I can at least see how they might have shoehorned it in with some of them. Fired Up! involves two football players infiltrating a cheerleading camp, though I have to say, these dudes are probably in it more for the bounty of female booty than strengthening their own bond. In 17 Again, when Matthew Perry's character time-warps within his own personal history to become his 17-year-old self (Zac Efron), he has only adult best friend Thomas Lennon to lean on. Miss March is probably a lot like Fired Up!, where a guy (with the help of some pal, I'm sure) is trying to rekindle things with a high school flame who became a centerfold. And I'd never heard of Super Capers, but a preliminary search tells me it's about wannabe superheroes.

Like I said, none of those are promising building blocks for a new subgenre of movies.

But The Pink Panther 2? There are more problems than I can even list with that one.

First off, aren't bromances supposed to occur between men who are generally young? Steve Martin turned 64 last week.

Secondly, who is he supposed to be having his bromance with? Jean Reno? John Cleese? Andy Garcia? Alfred Molina? Jeremy Irons? These are the other men in this movie.

Thirdly, there are plenty of other categories I'd like to see this movie associated with first: Comedy, Farce, International Intrigue, Lazy Paycheck Movie, Misbegotten Hollywood Garbage. (It does also appear among comedies.)

Here's what they're really trying to do with the bromance category: grab the attention of people (read: guys) who have enjoyed the movies we could legitimately consider bromances. You could consider "bromance" a synonym for "buddy movie" under these broad guidelines. It's basically a play for fans of Judd Apatow, and of movies that remind a person of Judd Apatow.

Miss March? Check. Fired Up!? Check. 17 Again? Getting weaker, but I'll give it to you. Super Capers? Who knows. Who cares.

The Pink Panther 2? A movie whose jokes are all some variation on Steve Martin doing an irritating French accent?

No.

There's marketing to us, and then there's insulting us. Time Warner is doing the latter. In trying to becoming younger and more hip, they're just revealing themselves as hopeless and clueless to those of us who can tell the difference.

And for those who can't ... well, please enjoy that nuanced comedy of twentysomething homoerotic awkwardness, The Pink Panther 2.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Whose definition of appropriate?

Saw District 9 on Friday, and I'm not going to discuss that here, but I did want to mention the trailers I saw beforehand. They were hardcore.

Whether they were "appropriate" or not is another question.

District 9 being an R-rated movie, they were allowed to show us some pretty intense trailers. The first of the ones I want to discuss here was for The Fourth Kind, a movie about a really scary owl, and abductions occurring in Nome, Alaska as a result of said creature. The second was for Legion, a movie about angels sent to earth to exterminate the human race, which looks to be in the Constantine family, and has the inauspicious release date of next January 22nd. The third was for Zombieland, a jokingly violent comedy about a post-apocalyptic earth populated almost entirely by zombies. The last was basically just a teaser for Saw VI.

What I noticed about each of these trailers was the banner beforehand:

THE FOLLOWING PREVIEW HAS BEEN APPROVED FOR APPROPRIATE AUDIENCES BY THE MOTION PICTURE ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA

Maybe it's been awhile since I've seen a good juicy R movie in the theater, but this one was new to me.

It seemed to me that "appropriate audiences" must be the new name for what they used to refer to as "mature audiences." "Mature" is clear. "Appropriate" is ambiguous at best.

So ambiguous, in fact, that I was genuinely confused about what it meant before the Legion trailer came on.

I'd just survived the Fourth Kind trailer, and I was somewhat relieved to see that the next trailer was for "appropriate audiences." (I guess I didn't catch the banner for The Fourth Kind). I must have read that as "appropriate for all audiences," because I thought, "Okay, this will be pretty tame relative to what I just saw." (And what did I just see? It definitely got my scare juices flowing -- a number of subjects from supposedly real video recordings being scared absolutely batshit by this freaky owl that they're all seeing in their dreams. And seeing someone scared batshit can be pretty scary if it's done well. In fact, I searched for the poster for The Fourth Kind to accompany this post, but apparently it doesn't exist yet, even though the movie is coming out on November 9th. Anyway, it wasn't anywhere on the internet).

So the Legion trailer began, and I saw a windmill, a desert fence, a couple other things that could go either way. Then there's a cafe, and an old lady in the cafe. Someone approaches the old lady and asks her a question. Upon which her face morphs into that of a demon, she screams that everyone's going to die, and she scurries up to the ceiling of the diner. Pretty freaky.

Appropriate for all audiences? I don't think so.

Clearly, I realized, I just read it wrong. But what really does "appropriate audiences" mean? Appropriate for what? And what was so wrong with "mature audiences"?

I haven't been able to find an explanation on the internet, but I have been able to find a number of other bloggers curious about the same wording. But these bloggers aren't commenting on the trailers they saw before District 9. One of them was talking about the trailer for New Moon, the sequel to Twilight. Another for the trailers they saw before Harry Potter.

Both of those movies -- the one being advertised, and the one people paid to see -- are suitable for teens. So, wait, what?

But here's where it gets even more interesting. Another blogger talked about seeing this "appropriate audiences" banner before seeing Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. A movie that has a PG rating, as we know from this post.

Okay, so I'm changing my analysis here. "Appropriate audiences" is not a synonym for "mature audiences." Maybe it just means "age-appropriate." But then again, are you going to tell me that a trailer you'll see before Ice Age is not appropriate for the adults in the audience?

It seems to be a bit of a tautology, actually: "This trailer is appropriate for anyone who is already watching it anyway." (Is that a tautology? Upon looking it up to confirm my definition, my answer is "sort of," so I will leave it.)

I guess you could conclude that it's the ultimate example of insider baseball. Whoever makes the decisions about which trailers play before which movies has already determined that the trailers you are going to see are appropriate. They've done the vetting so you don't need to even worry. Just sit back and enjoy.

Hmm.

Good old MPAA. The notoriously secretive ratings body does it again -- comes forth with a system that makes sense only to them.

In the old system, trailers themselves had ratings -- not letter ratings, but wording that told you whether you needed to proceed with caution. While this only gave you about a two-second window to cover your kids' eyes, at least that was something. Plus, if you were finding it on the internet, and you were not of the appropriate age to view it, you could theoretically police yourself and stop watching, if you didn't want to have bad dreams or something. (Yeah, like anyone looking up hardcore trailers on the internet is actually going to do that).

But now? Some kid could be looking up The Fourth Kind -- oblivious to its subject matter, because the title doesn't really tell you anything -- and say "Ah! I see it's approved for appropriate audiences. I guess I qualify . . . ?"

Then ... bam! Some dude sitting straight up in bed, his mouth so far open in a brink-of-insanity scream that his face might peel apart, like the Nazis at the end of Raiders.

And yeah, that theoretical innocent self-policing internet surfer is going to be shit out of luck. Bad dreams aplenty to follow.

I'll be monitoring this thing for you, dear readers. Next time I'm in the theater, I'll be watching those trailers like a hawk. Or a really disturbing owl.

You can count on me. I'll always do what's appropriate.

Because hey, if I'm the one defining what's appropriate, that could be just about anything, right?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Not a great imagen


I was listening to the three-minute local news update this morning on the local NPR affiliate (KCRW) when I heard the following disturbing words:

"Beverly Hills Chihuahua leads all nominees for tonight's 24th annual Imagine Awards ..."

Or something to that effect.

In fact, it's not "Imagine," as the reporter pronounced it. (And what kind of reporter working in L.A. doesn't check out his/her Spanish pronunciations before going on the air?) That's why I had a hard time later when I googled it. It's actually "Imagen," which is Spanish for "image," and pronounced ee-MAH-hen. So the Imagen Awards are not unlike the NAACP's Image Awards -- honoring positive portrayals of Latinos in popular culture, as the Image Awards honor positive portrayals of African-Americans.

And Beverly Hills Chihuahua led the way?

I must start out here by saying that I did not actually see Beverly Hills Chihuahua. I've been content to use it as the butt of jokes -- as the example of some indefinable, terrible trend -- without actually vetting it to see if my perspective had any validity. And the review of the movie on my company's website was particularly generous to it.

But come on. A positive portrayal of Latinos in a movie about talking chihuahuas?

Of course, a movie like this could never be overtly racist. In fact, the likeliest thing would be to bend over backwards to avoid even a momentary appearance of racism. But I can't help but think that there's something inherently insensitive about a bunch of chihuahuas voiced by Latino actors and actresses. The same kind of insensitivity that some of us felt watching the chihuahua pitchdog for Taco Bell, as much as many of us loved that little lug, may he rest in peace.

But the Imagen Awards stumbled over themselves raining accolades on this movie. Just check out this list:

Best Feature
Best Actor in a Feature Film, Andy Garcia
Best Actor in a Feature Film, George Lopez
Best Actor in a Feature Film, Edward James Olmos
Best Supporting Actor in a Feature Film, Manolo Cardona
Best Supporting Actor in a Feature Film, Paul Rodriguez
Best Supporting Actor in a Feature Film, Cheech Marin

Please note that the best actress and supporting actress categories are curiously absent from the nominee list I saw, though they did appear for the television categories. Please also note that the only reason director Raja Gosnell was probably not nominated is because he is American, and has no apparent Latino heritage.

Please note, as well, that all of these acting nominations were for providing voices. To dogs.

Okay, okay, I know you've accused me of excessive sensitivity to racial issues before. So let me take a different tack.

Let's say Beverly Hills Chihuahua is not the slightest bit racist. I'm an optimistic guy, so it's easy for me to believe it really is quiet charitable to people of Latin descent. The fact that the movie received seven nominations -- and all the available nominations in the supporting actor category -- still indicates one or both of two things:

1) There are not many options for charitable representations of Latinos in the movies;

2) There are not many representations of Latinos in the movies, period.

Want proof? Let's look at some of the other nominees and their relative levels of obscurity. Let's start with Best Feature. Nothing Like the Holidays? Think I heard of it, but I may also be confusing it with last year's The Perfect Holiday -- a film with an all-African-American cast. Don't Let Me Drown? Sounds vaguely familiar, but only vaguely. Sleep Dealer? Heard of it, but only because I was captivated by its outdoor advertising campaign, which was far out of scale with the profile of the movie.

You go to the directing category, and it gets even more obscure, because the director him/herself has to be Latino. They are: Kenneth Castillo for The Drive-by Chronicles: Sidewayz, Georgina Riedel for How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer (Riedel must be her married name), Carlitos Ruiz for Maldeamores, and Alex Rivera for Sleep Dealer. (I guess we happened to perfectly hit a period of inactivity for Guilermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, Rodrigo Garcia and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu).

And come to think of it, what criteria do they use to determine a film is sufficiently Latino to even qualify? When it comes to Beverly Hills Chihuahua, the director is American, the top-billed star (Drew Barrymore) is decidedly American, the producers are all American ... only the screenwriting duties fall to a Latina, Analisa LaBianco, though she has to split them with the decidedly American Jeff Bushell, who also gets the screen story credit.

Oh yeah, and a lot of Latinos appear in it. As talking chihuahuas.

I fully admit I may be half-cocked here. Hair-trigger racism bothers me as much as it does you, though the current post probably provides evidence to the contrary. And I certainly don't want to call into question either the methods or motives of a well-meaning award-giving body, which works tirelessly to strike down the stereotypes that keep us all shackled.

So maybe this is just forlorn head-shaking. Just disappointment on my part -- disappointment in how far this body has to reach to find what it considers a positive portrayal of Latinos in popular filmmaking. Or even unpopular filmmaking.

If Beverly Hills Chihuahua is the pinnacle of positivity, I'd like to see the negative portrayals.

Then again, maybe I wouldn't.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Faymiss Miss Pellingz


Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series of frivolous observations about Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. In fact, this editor's note is by far the least frivolous thing in either posting.

Copy editors around the country were doubtless driven cross-eyed by Quentin Tarantino's chosen misspelling of the title of his latest movie. Accustomed to correcting misspellings, they had to shift gears and make sure the words were spelled incorrectly every time the title appeared in print. What might have been called Inglorious Bastards was instead named Inglourious Basterds, perhaps creating lifelong learned mistakes among the youngest in our viewing population. (Never mind the fact that they're too young to be seeing this film anyway).

Tarantino's reasoning is clear: The film was inspired in part by a 1978 Italian film called The Inglorious Bastards, directed by Enzo Catellari. Tarantino has stressed that it's not a remake of that film -- the plot is quite different -- so misspelling the title was intended both to pay homage to that film, and to differentiate his film from it.

So it got me thinking about what other titles have been famously misspelled in the past, and the reasons behind them. Hey, in my world, that's enough for a posting.

Because it's hard to research this kind of thing from all the titles in the world, I've used my own movie list to help me narrow down my choices. Besides, that way I can also give a reason for the misspelling, having seen the movie. I'm sure this approach will mean I'm missing a couple big ones. If you think of something good I missed, I'd love to hear about it in the comments section.

Alphabetically ...

Title: American Dreamz (2006, Paul Weitz)
Reason for misspelling: It's the name of the American Idol-style singing competition parodied in the movie, which is hosted by the Simon Cowell-like Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant). The Z in the show's name is probably intended to indicate "radness."

Title: Antz (1998, Eric Darnell, Tim Johnson)
Reason for misspelling: The protagonist ant, played by Woody Allen, is named Z. Plus, the aforementioned "radness" probably played a role.

Title: Baadasssss! (2003, Mario Van Peebles)
Reason for misspelling: An homage to Mario Van Peebles' father Melvin's film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), the making of which is the focus of this excellent biopic. That movie could go on this list too, but I haven't seen it, and no movie I haven't seen could possibly have any value. Oh, and if you're googling this, be sure to include that fifth S, or you will never find it.

Title: Boyz N the Hood (1991, John Singleton)
Reason for misspelling: This is the classic in the misspelling department, with far-reaching cultural implications. Not only did it really take the Z ending mainstream -- though here "radness" is not the goal -- but it also paved the way for other inner-city themed films with loose grammatical/typographical titles, such as Menace II Society. (Ebonics-themed titles is a slightly more controversial way of describing it).

Title: The Edukators (2004, Hans Weingartner)
Reason for misspelling: Not entirely clear. There would be a temptation to say it is the German translation of "educator," but it's not -- that is actually "der erzieher." Besides, the actual German title of this film about anarchists who break into the homes of the rich and rearrange their furniture is Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei, which translates to "the fat years are over" or "your days of plenty are numbered."

Title: eXistenZ (1999, David Cronenberg)
Reason for misspelling: It's the name of a virtual reality game in the movie. I can't tell you anything more because I'm cheating here -- I haven't seen it, though I probably should. It's the one movie I thought of without consulting my list.

Title: I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988, Keenen Ivory Wayans)
Reason for misspelling: This hilarious send-up of blaxploitation movies, an early high for the eventually bottom-feeding Wayans, is like a precursor to Boyz N the Hood in terms of words appearing in titles with spellings accented for the street. Plus it also has one of Chris Rock's first appearances on film.

Title: Pet Sematary (1989, Mary Lambert)
Reason for misspelling: The word was misspelled on the handwritten sign for the pet cemetery depicted in Stephen King's novel.

Title: The Pursuit of Happyness (2006, Gabriele Muccino)
Reason for misspelling: Wikipedia sums this one up pretty well: "The title is intentionally misspelled, as it also appears as graffiti in a scene in the film. The misspelled phrase is actually taken from an essay written in 1776 that argued that whites and blacks were created equal. The essay, which was written by Lemuel Haynes, a biracial man living in New England during the Revolution, quoted Thomas Jefferson's well-known sentence from the United States Declaration of Independence, but spelled the last word of the sentence with a y. The sentence, as it appears in Lemuel's essay, is as follows: "We hold these truths to be self-Evident, that all men are created Equal, that they are Endowed By their Creator with Ceartain [sic] unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happyness."

There. I hope this post left you feeling enlightened.

If it did, that would make one of us.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Coen brothers' latest film


Welcome to the first of two posts timed for the release of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.

Few would argue that Quentin Tarantino is one of the most influential filmmakers of the last 20 years. Even though his own work is highly influenced by others -- a fact this one-time video store clerk and devout hero worshipper would immediately acknowledge -- there's little doubt that Tarantino's approach to filmmaking engendered a whole generation of imitators, some good, some terrible.

So it's a bit of a surprise, when I watch the trailers for Inglourious Basterds, that I see two of his contemporaries in this footage: the Coen brothers, and Steven Soderbergh.

It's probably Brad Pitt's fault. In fact, for a moment I considered titling this post "The chicken or the Pitt?" Darn it, maybe that would have been more clever.

See, Pitt has appeared prominently in films by each director and/or creative partnership: Burn After Reading for the Coens, Ocean's 11, 12 and 13 for Soderbergh. And it just so happens that all of these films, including Basterds, involve boatloads of quippy dialogue, slapstick criminal activity, winking humor, and a generally buoyant comic sensibility.

When Pitt talks about "killin' Nat-zees" or answers Hitler's "Nein nein nein nein!" with "Yes yes yes yes!," it screams Coens. When he's drinking a flute of champagne in a white tuxedo, and is tackled by a half-dozen guards, it's something straight out of Ocean's 11.

The part where one basterd uses a baseball bat to bash in the head of a defiant Nazi? Well, that one's all Tarantino.

But it does make me think about how actors, and specifically the way they're directed, call to mind the works of other directors. Because this is Pitt being cheeky, and we've seen Pitt being cheeky for the Coens and for Soderbergh, I think of their oeuvres when I see this trailer. However, what if it weren't Brad Pitt, but, say, Clive Owen? Owen hasn't worked for either the Coens or Soderbergh. Would I still see the similarity?

Then there's another question. Is the fact that the movie reminds me of the Coens and Soderbergh a good thing, or a bad thing? I've had my issues with both over the years, though I certainly say that on the whole, I love their work. The same is true for Tarantino. There's something to be said for having a distinct look that is recognizeable as one's own, and there are some directors that clearly have that, for better or worse: Martin Scorsese, M. Night Shyamalan and Woody Allen, to name a couple that come to mind. And when I first saw the trailers for the Kill Bill movies, Tarantino oozed out of every frame.

But maybe it's a good thing when you can't immediately identify a movie as belonging to a particular director. That's kind of why I want Tim Burton to surprise us eventually, instead of doing the most obvious thing in the world by making his own version of Alice in Wonderland (even as long-overdue for a cinematic update as that story is). And kind of why I am constantly impressed by a guy like Ang Lee, whose Taking Woodstock (out next week) will be as dissimilar to all this other films as every other film he's directed.

And so maybe this is growth for Tarantino, even though calling something derivative, as I basically have, generally tends to constitute negative commentary. After all, it's his first real period piece. It's also his first movie not set primarily in the United States. Thirdly, it's his first movie in which a person who really existed (Hitler) appears. Maybe these firsts will force him to switch up the musical stylings that have also been his trademark. We'll see how he mines kitsch from period-appropriate 40s music, rather than Kool and the Gang and Stealers Wheel.

And if in the end, it does remind us of the Coens and Soderbergh, well ... there are worse people to be compared to.

Tune in tomorrow for Inglourious Basterds, Post II.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Check one off the list


In a post I wrote earlier this year about confronting our cinematic fears, I wrote that I still cherished a primal fear I felt when watching the trailer to Lifeforce back in 1985. I was able to cherish that fear primarily because I still had not seen the movie. Watching it would, of course, reveal it to be some cheesy movie from the 1980s with as little power to scare me as Teen Wolf.

Yup.

In fact, this alternate poster I found for Lifeforce is about the scariest thing in the movie. There are some decent animatronic effects (considering it was 1985), and there are more than a couple decent shots and camera angles. A couple of the shots of one creature sucking the titular "substance" out of another were a tad spooky. But overall, for being a movie about vampires from space, it was pretty boring. If I had watched in 1985, however, I would have absolutely loved the high boob quotient. (Not that I don't still like boobs, just that I don't watch movie solely to see them.)

It was a perilous decision to push it to the top of my queue. After all, its potential to be scary was always more powerful than how scary it could ever really be. In fact, there's often a certain disappointment to watching movies that we think will scare us. If they don't, not only is that a disappointment in and of itself, but it also diminishes by one the number of potentially scary movies we haven't seen. And yes, I do see that as two separate things.

When my guests and I got through watching on Saturday night, it was late, and we were all losing the battle against our droopy eyelids. But I decided to stay up long enough afterward to watch the trailer, one of the DVD extras. Consider it one last attempt to recreate that indescribable horror I'd felt as a child.

Nope. Not only was the trailer itself not very scary, but it couldn't have been the one I saw, since the main naked vampire woman (Mathilda May) proudly displayed her naked vampire boobs. I'm pretty sure I saw the trailer on TV, and even if I hadn't, I think I would have remembered seeing boobs in a trailer. And then that's what I would have associated this trailer with, not with fear. Plus, the voiceover of the square announcer further removes it from the realm of something that could have scared me.

Oh well.

Where shall I turn now? What film I haven't seen will fill that quotient for potential terror?

Well, I still haven't seen Gorky Park. That's another trailer I remember having quite an effect on me, for some unknown reason. When I watched it at the drive-in in Cali, Colombia, where I was visiting a Colombian family who had returned home after a couple years living in my hometown, I remember being chilled -- quite literally -- by the dead bodies in the Russian snow. And that the title was pronounced something like "Gerk-way Park-way" in Spanish.

But looking it up now, I discover that it isn't even a horror -- rather, a detective movie.

Time to dig a little deeper ...

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Weathering the blackout

I'm in another blackout period.

And by that I mean, I have all the desire in the world to write a review, but I've already reviewed all the movies that I've seen from my latest approved list.

This happens about every six weeks. I'll request my new list of titles that I want to review, and then I'll wait. Sometimes for as long as a month, which usually includes nagging my editor exactly one time. (That's enough to remind him, but not so many times that I seem like a nuisance). I'll usually still have a list of about 20 movies to work from, which I've already been approved to review, but haven't watched yet. But I'm shit out of luck until I actually make the time to watch one.

And it's kind of a bummer.

Here's what happens. Every time I get approved for a new list, it leaves me flush with new options, because it usually contains six or seven titles that I've already seen. See, I request movies for two different reasons: Either I watched it in the natural course of my movie-watching existence, then requested it because I discovered it wasn't yet reviewed, or I scouted it out as something I might like/tolerate sitting through/enjoy making fun of, then requested it. These last are better, in a way, because I can literally sit down and write the review as soon as I finish, leaving me with the freshest impression. The reviews of the movies with the longer gestation period don't usually suffer too much -- I'll still usually review them within a month or two of seeing them. But the less impression the movie made on me, the more I worry about too much time passing before I review it.

Anyway, with the combination of the movies I've already seen, plus those on the list I got impatient and watched in anticipation of approval, I've got a handful of choices. And those six or seven titles usually set off a frenzy of reviewing. I can't control myself and space them out to make them last. I go through these intensely prolific periods where I have to work to limit myself to only one a day. And I also try to keep seeing the movies I haven't seen, so the list of available titles diminishes more slowly.

But by about two weeks after the last approval, I'm starting to scrape the bottom again. And I feel like it's too soon to submit another list, which I cultivate on an ongoing basis. After all, the guy just approved the last list two weeks earlier. Could I really have already gone through another 25 titles and be ready for more?

The thing is, I really do need to submit that next request list, because he's not going to approve it right away. And I'm going to suffer during that down period. But propriety always shackles me. I've got this idea that the more frequently I burden him with this odious responsibility of approving the titles -- he has to check each title to make sure it hasn't been promised to another writer -- the more it will give him reason to become fed up and eventually cut me loose. That's not the reality -- he's assured me several times that my position is so secure, I'd be the last freelancer they'd stop offering work. But the paranoid fear is strong nonetheless, so propriety rules the day. And I wait as patiently as I can.

But it's difficult. I was really ready to submit my last list around July 7th, but made myself wait an extra two weeks and submitted it on the 21st. Then I made myself wait another three weeks and two days before finally asking him about it yesterday. Another 24 hours have passed since then, and I've heard nothing from him.

D'oh.

And so this is how it's gone with the last five movies I've reviewed:

The Four Feathers
Watched: 7/26/09
Reviewed: 7/28/09

21 Up
Watched: 7/25/09
Reviewed: 7/28/09

Talk to Me
Watched: 7/30/09
Reviewed: 7/31/09

August Rush
Watched: 8/3/09
Reviewed: 8/6/09

The Foot Fist Way
Watched: 8/12/09
Reviewed: 8/13/09

Reviewing them promptly after watching them is the ideal way to do it, of course. But it also helps to have some movies that are hanging around, waiting for a rainy day. You never want to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

So how have I passed the time? How have I kept the juices flowing in expressing my love of cinema through words? This blog has helped. Deconstructing the strengths and weaknesses of movies in emails helps too.

But a reviewer reviews, and it can be agonizing to go too long without that option.

This may already be ten times more words than you were interested in reading about my process. But hey, as I said, I'm trying to fill that writing hole.

And I have a confession to make as well: I wrote the second half of this post just to complete what I'd started. Yep, just like going to the bathroom at a restaurant guarantees that your food will arrive, starting this post sent a psychic beam of causation out into the universe, prompting my editor to finally approve my list. I flipped over to email, and there it was -- the latest approved list in my inbox.

It's a relief, in multiple ways. Not only can I start writing again, but it also means I can keep writing. Every new approval provides fresh reassurance that the economy hasn't torpedoed their freelancer budget.

Of the 25 I requested, 22 were approved. Eight of which I've already seen.

Now please excuse me while I go write four reviews, and start the process all over again.

Then again, maybe I'll just give it a rest until Monday.

Have a good weekend everyone.

Friday, August 14, 2009

One thousand bad movies


Most people spend the majority of their movie-watching lives trying to avoid seeing bad movies.

So it is, then, that there are very few people out there who've seen at least 1,000 movies they didn't like.

As of last night, you can include me in that small group.

It's a little different for film critics -- seeing bad movies is one of the job's primary hazards. But still, 1,000 bad movies is quite a lot. If you consider the average movie to have a length of one hour and forty minutes, that's 1,667 hours -- or nearly 70 days -- that I've lost to movies that were ultimately not worth my time.

Number 1,000 was Jody Hill's The Foot Fist Way, starring Danny McBride. It's basically the story of how McBride's Fred Simmons, a tae kwon do instructor, is a blowhard idiot and an insecure jerk. That point is made ad nauseum until you're ready to turn off the TV. No wonder more than two years passed between when it played festivals and when it received a perfunctory release last year. Without researching it too much, my guess is that the eventual release was prompted by McBride's rising star -- and little else.

How do I know I've seen exactly 1,000 bad movies?

Well, if you're one of my regular readers, you know I keep a list of all the movies I've ever seen in a handy-dandy Excel spreadsheet. This allows me to keep a lot of other information about the movies in a corresponding cell, including whether I liked them or not. Then I keep a running total at the bottom of how many movies I like, and how many I dislike.

Going into yesterday, I'd liked 1792 movies. And disliked 999.

The Foot Fist Way makes 1,000.

Now, not all of these yeas and nays have been easy to come by. I've agonized. I've flip-flopped. I've ranked generally bad movies as good because they were so much better than I thought they'd be, and generally good movies as bad because they were so much worse. So I can't unilaterally say that all of those 1,000 are bad -- but I did give them a thumbs down. You start at Absolute Power and finish at Zombie Strippers, and there are 998 others in between.

I don't need to belabor the point. But I did think you might like to know there's someone out there who's wasted his life more than you have.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Guidance always suggested


My wife and I were talking about movies last night, as we often do, and it came up that PG seemed like an endangered rating. It seemed to us that very few movies would fall into that categorization these days. Any animated feature or other movie geared toward kids would obviously get a G rating, and anything with even a flicker of violence, sexual material or bad language would jump straight to PG-13.

It struck me that this would be an interesting idea for a post. After all, PG is one of the bedrock ratings. It's existed since 1972, when it replaced its mirror image (GP), which itself replaced the rating known as M (for "mature") just two years earlier. That last one makes me laugh, since "mature" and "parental guidance suggested" would hardly be synonyms today -- just look at the system for rating video games.

So I searched today to see if I could find how many 2009 releases had been rated PG. After striking out on a handful of search strings, I finally got on the right track. And was a little surprised by what I found.

This handy website showed 2009 box office totals grouped by their MPAA rating. PG showed the top 20 results and then stopped, as did PG-13 and R.

G?

Four movies.

See, it's not PG that's nearly extinct after all. It's G.

That's right, among all 2009 theatrical releases, only Hannah Montana: The Movie, Earth, Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience and Under the Sea 3D were rated G by the Motion Picture Association of America. Two of those are teenybopper concert movies, and the other two are nature documentaries.

Wow.

If you're doing math, that means that not a single animated movie that's been released this year has been rated G.

Among those films that earned a surprise PG rating: Up, Monsters vs. Aliens, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, G-Force and Hotel for Dogs.

The thing that's extra weird is that none of the G-rated movies are actually movies intended for children. Two are aimed at teenyboppers, and two are for people who loved the documentary TV series Planet Earth, originally made for the BBC but aired here on Discovery.

So is there any movie parents can take their kids to without first heeding the MPAA's recommendation of "guidance"? Is there any movie that parents can just judge by its poster, without worrying that their child's mind is going to be poisoned in some undefinable way?

At first glance, the answer would seem to be "no." The days when feature-length Winnie the Pooh movies got theatrical releases are long gone. Every kids movie has a bit of an edge to it today, perhaps to keep step with a generation exposed to more mature language and themes at a younger age.

At first I wondered why a movie like Up would be PG, but then I remembered (spoilers ahead!!!) that the villain actually falls to his death at the end of the movie. (Well, I suppose he could have survived falling from a dirigible a mile off the ground, but it seems unlikely). That may be a step into more mature territory for Pixar, but it's an old-school trick in Disney movies. Villains were always dying at the end of Disney movies, on up through Gaston in Beauty and the Beast and Mr. Clayton the gorilla hunter in Tarzan. Yet you didn't see those movies slapped with a PG.

I'm guessing the PG ratings for Ice Age, G-Force and Hotel for Dogs are for excessive fart humor. For G-Force, the dang letter rating is right there in the title, yet it can't even score one. (Then again, I guess I wouldn't expect a movie called G-String to get a G rating either).

You could argue that the PG rating is "sexier" to a child than the G rating -- it makes him or her feel grown-up, which is what every child above age three wants. But that argument would only hold water if the studios and their marketing departments were the ones determining the ratings.

No, it's the MPAA, the subject of Kirby Dick's wicked 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, which I suggest you watch for a good laugh. Not only does that film provide ample proof that this body is far more concerned with nudity than violence, but it also suggests that the highly anonymous membership is composed largely of moral majority types whom you crossed at your peril.

So is the MPAA getting even more squeamish about fart jokes and animals bonking each other on the head? Or are those fart jokes and head bonks just much more brusque than they used to be, to keep pace with faster times?

In the end I don't think it matters. Because the practical upshot is that most studios probably don't even desire a G rating anymore. They do control the rating in the sense that they can add just enough raunch to trigger the MPAA's heightened sensitivity to such things. If they want the more marketing-friendly PG, they can get it.

And who wouldn't want it? It's abundantly clear that the PG rating is not in the least affecting the box office for children's movies. Three of the top five highest-grossing PG movies this year are animated films, alongside more traditional PG fare such as Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithosonian and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In fact, our certainty that the latest Harry Potter had finally graduated to PG-13 was what prompted our discussion in the first place.

Sure, maybe there are some religious wackos who are actually observing a distinction between G and PG in their willingness to let their children see movies. But they are an extremely small segment of the moviegoing public. Besides, they have no leg to stand on, as it was some of those same people who took their children to the R-rated The Passion of the Christ. They thought seeing Jim Caviezel beaten within an inch of his life would help their children understand why/how Christ died for our sins -- long sinewy ropes of blood be damned.

If anything, a PG rating actually encourages a parent that the movie might be slightly more tolerable for them to sit through. There's a special kind of boredom associated with a movie that is not only directed at children, but also neutered into a lame vanilla stew of inoffensiveness.

So what's the future of general admission? Will G be like X before it? Will both extremes disappear from the cinematic landscape as we all search for a middle ground?

Time will tell. In the meantime, I'm going to go watch some digital guinea pigs.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

August releases - bonus track


So I write a post detailing how excited I am about the slate of films scheduled for release in August, specifying nine different titles, and wouldn't you know it? The first new release I see this month isn't even on the list.

That's because I was not aware of Cold Souls until I saw a trailer for it before (500) Days of Summer last Sunday -- the day after my August preview posted.

Cold Souls is a strange August movie indeed. It's got both the existentialism and the wintry climate of a late fall release, as Paul Giamatti -- playing himself -- places his soul in cold storage in order to help him get through a mental block performing Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. He's learned that temporarily unburdening yourself of the soul is supposed to make things seem clearer, so he goes to an agency that specializes in soul extraction, run by a gentleman with vaguely mad scientist hair, played by David Strathairn. I won't give away too much more, but let's just say that Russian hats are involved, contributing to the movie's anti-August frostiness.

I have a few complaints, but generally I'd say I really enjoyed it. It reminded me at different times of both Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That is most certainly a good thing.

And it's been a pretty hot August -- we were sweltering at Venice Beach the day before -- so it was nice to have a little chill on our souls in the air-conditioned theater.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Darko-centric


In honor of my friend Don (and his lovely wife and 10-month-old son) visiting this week, I thought I'd write a post about Don's and my bonding over a particular movie.

See, we have a Darko-centric relationship.

To describe our friendship in these simple terms is intentionally misleading on my part. We've known each other for over 30 years, so we obviously have tons of shared history, and then a boatload of common interests as well.

But for about the last six years, ever since he first introduced me to Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko, we seem to keep coming back to it in uncanny ways. And that makes tonight's planned viewing of S. Darko -- the sort-of-unauthorized, straight-to-video sequel -- all the more appropriate.

Don first showed me Donnie Darko on a February 2003 visit. I knew nothing about it at the time, other than that I'd seen the billboards, and I thought it looked vaguely pretentious. I was aware that Jake Gyllenhaal was the star, and I think I also knew that Drew Barrymore and Noah Wyle were in it. Other than that, it was just another movie.

All it took was one viewing for me to rank Donnie Darko among my favorite films of all time. I won't go into an extended praise session now. I will ask what the hell you're waiting for, if you haven't seen it yet.

Since then, I've watched it about five more times. And it's continued to pop up in my relationship with Don over the years. (In case you were wondering, it doesn't have anything to do with his name being Don -- that's only his blogger identity anyway. Nor does his choice of blogger identity have anything to do with the movie).

Within that first year, I made Don a de facto Donnie Darko soundtrack. We both loved Kelly's choice of music -- which he changed at his peril in the director's cut -- and lamented the fact that no soundtrack was ever pressed. So I downloaded the songs that work so well in that movie -- Echo & the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon," Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart," Gary Jules' "Mad World," even "Notorious" by Duran Duran -- and burned a CD. Then I adorned it with images from the movie, many of them involving the mysterious giant rabbit named Frank. I believe it was somewhere around this time that he sent me my own DVD copy of the movie.

It was the next year, 2004, when I was visiting Don in Chicago, that Kelly's director's cut happened to be in the theaters. Naturally, Don and I went. As I hinted above, we were disappointed with this cut, particularly the substitution of INXS' "Never Tears Us Apart" for "The Killing Moon" in the dynamite opening bike-riding sequence. And though some of Kelly's other additions were mild to modest failures as well, it was a bit like watching the deleted scenes from DVDs you love. You have to see the extra footage just because it exists and is worth examining.

I believe it was a November 2005 visit to Los Angeles when Don and I attended an art walk, and he picked up a lapel pin that bore an artist's rendition of Frank. Or maybe I picked it up. Or maybe we both did. Anyway, the Darko theme continued.

I can't remember if anything particularly Darko-centric occurred in 2006, but in November of 2007, it was my turn to visit Chicago again. Lo and behold, Kelly's follow-up to Donnie Darko, the incomprehensible Southland Tales, was in theaters. Don and I were all excited to go see this monstrosity together. The early feedback, especially from an incredulous crowd at Cannes, told us that this would be no worthy successor to Darko, but we were determined to expose ourselves to it anyway. Unfortunately, our best intentions were defeated by our better halves, as his wife and my fiancee conspired to poo-poo the plan, leaving Don and I to eventually endure it separately.

Sometime since last fall, Don picked up his first BluRay player, so what was the logical gift for him for his birthday this February? That's right, the newly-released BluRay version of Donnie Darko. My timing was perfect -- Don had actually been monitoring its potential release on BluRay, but I managed to jump right into that window of time between the last time he checked on it and its actual release. So he didn't even know it was out yet, and was pleased as punch to get it.

So it couldn't have been too big of a surprise to him when, a few weeks back, I told him to hold off on watching S. Darko until he got out here. Released straight to video in May, it was third on his Netflix queue at the time, but he bumped it down in anticipation of watching it together.

So what exactly is S. Darko, and why is it "unauthorized"? Well, without giving too much away, Donnie Darko is not exactly the kind of movie you make a sequel to. Richard Kelly surely knew as much, which is why he had nothing to do with this. But I can see how the world created in Donnie Darko would be something its fans would want to visit again, myself included. So even though I doubted the adventures of Samantha Darko, Donnie's sister -- the S. of the title -- would be much to write home about, I knew I'd have to see it. Lending some sense of credibility: At least they got the same actress, Daveigh Chase, to play Samantha, even if none of the rest of the cast returned.

S. Darko graduated to the top of my own queue, and arrived on Tuesday, one day ahead of Don and his family. The plan, as I said, is to watch it tonight.

Where will Don's and my Darko-centric relationship go from here? It's hard to say. It does seem like we're unlikely to be in the same place when Richard Kelly's next movie, The Box, comes out on November 9th. But if the above examples tell us anything, you never know.

And if not ... well, I guess we'll just have to fall back on our 30 years of other experiences.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Month-appropriate


We have oodles of ways of watching movies these days: the theater, renting from a video store, borrowing from the library, watching OnDemand ... the list goes on.

It seems that one not-very-good method -- for me, anyway -- is recording a movie on the DVR. It makes sure that I'll have it until I'm ready to watch, rather than running the risk of missing it OnDemand.

But it sure doesn't incentivize me to watch it very quickly. I recorded August Rush, a movie I'm reviewing, off of Cinemax way back on May 25th. I only just watched it last night.

Part of that delay certainly has to do with the fact that it's summer, and there isn't much other programming cramping the space on our DVR. Then there's also the fact that the DVR recording forces me to watch it on our living room TV, and my wife (rightly) had no interest in sitting through it with me.

But maybe I just wanted to wait until August, giving the title an extra appropriateness. I guess that means I'll have to wait another year to watch my DVR recording of Pride of the Yankees. After all, Lou Gehrig's famous "luckiest man on the face of the earth" speech came on July 4th. (Or it could just be that I can't summon the motivation to see a movie about my most hated team in sports).

A couple thoughts on August Rush, which was directed by Jim Sheridan's daughter, Kirsten:

1) One of the initial reasons I requested this movie was because I thought it had one of the weirdest casts I'd ever seen assembled. The five best-known actors in it are Freddie Highmore, Keri Russell, Robin Williams, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Terrence Howard. Ran-dom. I'm even having trouble deciding which two of those actors would be most likely to appear in a movie together.

2) I'm not quite sure if I understand why the basic structure of Oliver Twist continues to interest people so much. Highmore plays the Oliver character here, and Robin Williams is Fagan. Yawn.

3) Although I found the film mostly twee and precious, I did enjoy some of the sequences involving how young Evan perceives symphonies of music in everyday street sounds.

4) I noticed that whoever writes the informational blurbs for Time Warner Cable had the same internal fight about whether this movie was good or not that I discussed here. The first thing they show you after listing the two top-billed cast members is the star rating. August Rush received two -- out of four or five, I'm not sure. But then it was followed by this rather breathless synopsis: "Wonderfully rewarding urban fairy tale about a 12-year-old prodigy
(the marvelous Freddie Highmore) who heads to New York City to find and reunite with the musician parents who abandoned him as a baby." Call me crazy, but if you have only 33 words for the synopsis, and someone else says the movie sucks by way of giving it two stars, you should probably skip such rhapsodic sentiments as "wonderfully rewarding" and "marvelous" and just stick to summarizing the plot.

My site also gives it two stars. I'll probably give it a two-and-a-half star review.

Anyway.