Saturday, November 28, 2009

Breaking with tradition

In the past six years, I've developed a little Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving tradition that was broken this year.

As a special start to what in some years was a four-day weekend, and some years (like this year) was not, I'd go see a movie after work on Wednesday afternoon. Since I was usually getting dismissed early -- as early as 11:30 at my last job, more like 2 o'clock at this one -- it meant I could see a movie and still have plenty of time to get whatever I needed for the next day organized.

I guess saying it was "broken" this year is somewhat misleading, considering that during that six-year period, I failed to do it twice -- 2005 (reason unknown) and 2007 (leaving that night to fly to Chicago). But every other year I came through: The Station Agent in 2003, Sideways in 2004, The Queen in 2006 and Religulous last year.

I was looking forward to it this year, with Precious as a possible target. But soon after I got in to work on Wednesday, I could tell it wasn't shaping up to be the kind of easy day I'd penciled in. In fact, I didn't even slow down all day, juggling ridiculously timed requests when I wasn't doing short work-related errands around town. I left at the normal time, 3:30, and never even got to figure out if there was a conveniently timed showing of Precious or any other movie.

I figured we'd at least watch a movie at home that night, since my wife and I had both stocked up at the library with the maximum three titles apiece, in addition to the couple other movies we each had sitting around from Netflix and Blockbuster. (Yes, our household has one account of each. Silly, I know.) But my wife wanted to starting clearing stuff off the DVR as early preparation for her three weeks out of the country at Christmastime -- I'll be in Australia, where she grew up, for a week less than that, as she both leaves before me and returns after me. So I acquiesced. I have to admit, it would have been hard for me to summon any sympathy for my movie cause -- I'd seen at least one movie a day for about week running.

But I did hope to outlast her that night and start something after she went to sleep, and I had the perfect candidate in mind: David Lynch's Eraserhead, which I'd never seen, which was one of my three library pickups. I knew my wife had already seen it, so I could watch it solo. And this kind of movie demands to be seen late at night anyway.

But she showed surprising stamina for a person who had slept fitfully the night before -- in fact, according to her, had not fully gotten to sleep until close to 5 a.m. When it was 10:30 and she said she still had another hour-long program in her, I feared I'd see no pre-Thanksgiving movie, either in the theater or at home.

I guess my own stamina was reasonably impressive as well, for a guy who started working at 7 a.m. that day. I did outlast her starting at about 11:30, which was enough to watch the first 30 minutes of Eraserhead. It was a bit of a gamble, as I didn't see any way I was supposed to get through a 100-minute movie starting this late at night. And true enough, as my eyes began closing despite the wild images that were penetrating them, I soon realized I'd either need to call it a night, or try a "nap." I love those "naps" we try to take at 12:15 a.m., somehow sure that we'll be able to close our eyes for just 20 minutes, and then be rejuvenated for two more hours of nighttime activities. But I did really hope to succeed this time out -- I was convinced that Eraserhead couldn't be nearly this eerie with my Thanksgiving morning coffee. The enthrallingly disturbing imagery and sound design just couldn't spook me as much in the bright morning light, could it?

But that's what happened -- I watched the rest of the movie before my wife awoke the following morning. And was still chilled as hell by it. So, another tradition broken: having to watch a creepy movie at night, because I didn't trust it to have the physiological impact I desired in the cold light of morning. Apparently, this shouldn't be a worry. I'm sure it helped that the shades were still drawn in the living room, and there was nothing else going on in the house to distract me or provide a semblance of daytime normalcy.

While we're add it, I guess I broke with another tradition as well: distrusting David Lynch. Ever since I saw Mulholland Drive, which most people liked, I have felt frustrated with the way Lynch doesn't feel obligated to providing catharsis or accountable to making sense. And even though I've seen Inland Empire since then, and inexplicably liked it a lot more even though it is arguably less accessible, I've still held that skeptical view toward Lynch. (I've also seen The Elephant Man since seeing Mulholland Drive, but that's a pretty straightforward movie.)

Eraserhead reminded me that you don't have to make perfect sense, or much sense at all, as long as the way you're not making sense is this visceral and gratifying. And I won't soon forget any of the images of this movie, each twisted and nightmarish metaphors -- the weird alien baby, the clumps of dirt and grass around Henry's apartment, the radiator lady with the jowly cheeks, the weird alien embryos that look like brains with tails, the pencil factory, the attempt to eat a chicken dinner with the in-laws. It's all etched in there, a disturbingly wonderful new part of my brain.

And then I went to slow-cook a bunch of yams for Thanksgiving dinner.

Sometimes, a tweaked tradition is an unexpected blessing.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A dearth of turkey movies

If you're a film fan, chances are you've seen plenty of turkeys. But you probably haven't seen plenty of films about turkeys.

That's because, as holidays go, Thanksgiving is less well represented in Hollywood filmmaking than Flag Day.

As I was thinking of ideas for something to write related to Thanksgiving, I decided on a top 10 list of films in which the Thanksgiving dinner is a central part of the plot. As it turns out, I could only find five that I'd seen.

See, the website I write for has labels for each movie, related to plots and themes, in order to help you find similar movies. So I hopped on the page for Planes, Trains and Automobiles and followed its Thanksgiving label to see what other Thanksgiving films hadn't occurred to me in my initial brainstorm. I found only two that I'd seen beyond the initial three that I'd thought of, and one of them isn't even a movie I remember having anything to do with Thanksgiving.

At first, this Thanksgiving blackout surprised me a bit. After all, Thanksgiving is the second most hyped holiday in the United States, and carries with it the most vacation days as well. Whereas most people get only a single day off for Christmas, most get two for Thanksgiving. (Not me -- I'll be here on Friday, but figure to have plenty of time to update my blog while doing almost zero actual work.)

But then it occurred to me why this is. Thanksgiving's aforementioned big brother, Christmas, is one heckuva bully, and doesn't want to give Thanksgiving any of its own time in the spotlight.

Quite simply, a Thanksgiving-themed movie is not a great commercial bet for a movie studio -- especially if that same studio has already had its Christmas movie out for three weeks. If you're trying to hype up Christmas, hyping up Thanksgiving at the same time doesn't really work. You could release the Thanksgiving movie a few weeks earlier than the Christmas movie if you really wanted. But given that most Christmas movies come out within two weeks after Halloween, you'd have to release the Thanksgiving movie sometime in mid-October. And Thanksgiving just isn't on people's radars at that point. Nor can you rely on Thanksgiving weekend itself as a good time for people to see Thanksgiving movies. Once you've hit the shopping frenzy known as Black Friday, Thanksgiving is forgotten, remembered only in the form of the Tums you're popping to quell your indigestion.

But in case you are interested in seeking out a Thanksgiving movie this year, here are my thoughts on and rankings of the five I've seen:

1) Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987, John Hughes). Release date: November 25, 1987. The best Thanksgiving movie isn't even about the social dynamics at a Thanksgiving table, but rather, about the quest to actually get to that table. Perhaps that explains its release date, just one day before Thanksgiving that year. Whenever I catch a few minutes of this wonderful film on TV, it always reminds me fondly of John Candy. This year that fondness will be doubled, as this is our first Thanksgiving without John Hughes. My guess is that it'll be playing around the clock.

2) Pieces of April (2003, Peter Hedges). Release date: October 17, 2003. This indie features Katie Holmes as a flighty hipster trying to cobble together a Thanksgiving meal for her diverse, dysfunctional family. They went with that mid-October release date here, but since it received only a limited release, commercial factors were probably not a huge consideration. It's a flawed film, but has a lot of heart and some nice touches. This is what #5 on this list was probably going for when it failed so massively.

3) Scent of a Woman (1992, Martin Brest). Release date: December 23, 1992. This is the one I forgot had anything to do with Thanksgiving. Turns out, Chris O'Donnell's character is accompanying Al Pacino's blind colonel as a job over Thanksgiving to pay for his Christmas airfare home, and they travel to the colonel's brother's for Thanksgiving, with awkward and comic results. I liked this film fine at the time, but over the years have come to see it as a bit emotionally manipulative. Not to mention that Pacino's character, with his fondness for saying "Hoo-ah!," has become a cartoonish caricature of a cinematic icon. Seems a shame that this should be the only Oscar win for the formerly excellent Pacino.

4) What's Cooking? (2000, Gurinder Chadha). Release date: November 17, 2000. This is the Indian director's multi-cultural take on an American Thanksgiving (what other kind of Thanksgiving is there?), featuring a black family, a Jewish family, a Latino family and an Asian family. It shows the predictable strain of too many characters and too many plot points, plus hits high levels of melodrama at times, but has some nice moments as well. The film wouldn't have been on my radar at all except that it briefly features an actress I was sort of obsessed with at the time, who resembled my most recent ex-girlfriend.

5) Home for the Holidays (1995, Jodie Foster). Release date: November 3, 1995. With the talent that was gathered -- Foster directing, Holly Hunter and Robert Downey Jr. among the stars -- this should have been a good movie. Then why did I find it to be a train wreck of wacky behavior and dysfunctional cliches? This movie can't be as bad as I remember it being, but I really hated it -- I found it loud, shrill, and consistently unbelievable. Especially surprising given that I figured Foster would have a soft touch, rather than wielding a sledgehammer of tired tropes.

Thanksgiving-themed movies I'm aware of but haven't seen: The Myth of Fingerprints, Four Brothers.

Did I miss any? Let me know.

And have a great Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A busy movie year

It's become clear to me that in 2009, I have committed to my love of cinema more than ever before. Starting this blog is just one example. Others include attending six different critic screenings, and embarking on a major ranking project through the wonderful resource known as Flickchart.

The latest example: As of last night, I have now seen more new movies in the calendar year 2009 than in any previous calendar year.

And it happened on November 22nd, with 39 days still remaining on the calendar.

That's right, A Home at the End of the World, which my wife picked up from the library but which happened to be on my list of films to review, was the 212th previously unseen movie that I've seen in 2009. Couple that with the 37 films I've seen for at least the second time this year, and that's 249 movies on the 326th day of the year. That's an average of .76 movies a day, or just over three-quarters of a movie each day.

The old record for new movies was set on December 31, 2005, when Good Night, and Good Luck. was my 211th and final movie of 2005. I don't know how many repeat viewings I had that year, since I didn't keep track of that at the time, but it probably wasn't more than a dozen. That's another thing about my 2009: I have also made a special effort to revisit films that I've loved, leading to what is probably also a calendar year high for movies revisited.

The next closest year to 2005 was 2006, when I saw 205 movies. In no other year have I broken 200. Wedding planning knocked me out of contention for 2007 and 2008. (I got married in April 2008).

Now, I only started keeping track of my running movie order, which has produced this information, in the spring of 2002. That means there could have been some earlier year when I saw more than 211 movies. But given the way I'd been busy with various schooling (high school, then college 91-95, then grad school 98-99), and other complicating factors in my life (moving, not having my own TV, etc.), the only year that would have had a chance would have been 2001. That year, I was trying to make my living exclusively on being a freelance film critic, so I saw a lot of movies. However, I didn't really get started on that until May, having spent the first four months of the year wrapping up business in New York, then driving out to California over the course of a week. Given that busy schedule, I may not have watched more than a dozen movies in the first quarter of 2001, which pretty much puts that year out of contention.

So what does it all mean? I don't know. What does anything I write about on this blog mean?

But one thing is clear: I am a movie lover through and through, and in a way, 2009 has also helped reconfirm that watching movies can be a purpose in life. Some things that may have defined me in the past have taken a clear back seat in terms of their position in my daily life. I am always looking for my next score, and if I use the language of a drug addict in this metaphor, it's because movies are an addictive drug for me -- happily, one with no side effects.

And for me, this addiction is a positive thing. It drives me onward and fuels me in my pursuit toward greatness. I feel like the more I see, the more I consider, the more I compare and the more I write, the closer I get to a full-time career as a "film scholar," if I dare use such highfalutin language. I don't have to be employed at an institution of higher learning to be a film scholar, though that might be something I'd like to consider at some point. I just need to watch a whole lot of movies, and think intelligently about them.

And damn is that fun.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Movies: The great social lubricant

I was at a housewarming party last night -- a party that happened to be a block away from an unrelated social engagement, a choral concert at a Methodist church in which one of my friends was singing. So that worked out well.

I knew only about seven or eight people at the party, and was pretty anesthetized from the two+ hours of opera singing, so I was looking to get started in an easy conversation. I sat down in a free chair next to the couch where an old friend and her boyfriend were watching Sports Center.

The conversation got going pretty easily with my old friend, but her boyfriend, who had only briefly met me once before, didn't seem interested in becoming involved -- and might have even been mildly perturbed. (Then again, I'm quick to interpret sleepiness -- it was nearly 10:30, which is late for old people like us -- as perturbation.)

I asked what their holiday plans were, and where they might be going. As part of that question I asked him if he were from Los Angeles originally, and he told me he was from Cleveland. "Oh, I just saw a good movie about Cleveland today," I told him.

He perked up a bit. "American Splendor?"

"No, though I have seen that as well. No, it was The Rocker."

He immediately leaned in and began talking excitedly about the movie -- about how it was really filmed there, how you could recognize a lot of the neighborhoods, etc. We both agreed that it was a nice little comedy gem that had been overlooked.

A few minutes later, his girlfriend left to get a drink. He and I continued talking for the next 20 minutes, getting to the deep issues, like where we wanted to live in the world, and what a person's goals should be in making sure they have the life experiences they want to have before they're too old to have them.

What a good guy. A guy who, I thought, gave me the stink eye when I first sat down. A guy who, when I went to refresh my own drink, found me again less than five minutes later.

Thanks, The Rocker. Thanks for being a damn fun movie.

If you, like I, were mildly turned off by the somewhat icky image of Rainn Wilson above, and then turned off further by the abysmal box office performance of the movie, fear not. This is a sweet, genuinely funny, delightfully understated film, regardless of that ostentatious poster. I love fiction films about hair bands -- huge fan of Stephen Herek's Rock Star -- so consider that in my analysis. But don't give my bias too much weight. The Rocker is a joy to watch. It even has the strong endorsement of my wife, who copped to not liking The Wrestler as much as I did because its soundtrack was comprised almost entirely of hair band music.

And how nice to see Rainn Wilson out of The Office, headlining his own film, to use the film's gig terminology. I like Jack Black quite a bit, but this would probably have been a much different -- and much lesser -- film with Black in the lead.

And maybe then I wouldn't have struck up such a nice conversation with such a nice guy at a party.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Nic Cage strips, mewls, pinwheels arms

I saw Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant during college, at home on a break, in my friend's basement. I guess it must have been somewhere in the second half of my sophomore year, because it came out in the fall of 1992. It would have been available on VHS sometime the following spring.

Simply put, we found it laughable. Once we got through that patch when we were trying to go along with it -- fearing that it was a deep movie revealing our shallowness, because we were unable to understand it -- we gave in to mocking it fully. One recurring joke was that every time Harvey Keitel's character would do something bad, one of us would say, "That sure is one bad lieutenant." It's pretty hilarious if you're 19.

My enduring image of that movie, however, is of Keitel standing naked, crying like a wounded animal. In fact, nudity and mewling have become something of a trademark for Keitel, at least as far as my group of high school friends are concerned. He does the same stuff, though not necessarily in the same scene, in The Piano.

But that's a good movie, and this, my friends, is not. And the naked mewling scene stands out as some kind of perfect encapsulation of its ridiculousness. But if he were just naked and crying, that would be one thing. It's the behavior of his body at the time that truly makes a viewer howl. Keitel extends his arms out to the side, Jesus-style, and slowly pinwheels them while making his agitated whimpering. If you didn't see the movie, it looks more or less like this:

Today, a sequel/remake/none-of-the-above is being released, with the ungainly title Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. It stars Nicolas Cage, and is directed by Werner Herzog.

It's the Werner Herzog part that really makes me curious. He's directed such acclaimed (and diverse) films as Grizzly Man and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which I got interrupted watching the other day and have yet to complete. I'm really interested to see what he does with this material, especially now that I hear some good buzz about the film -- particularly in reference to Cage's performance, surprisingly.

I also love Herzog's reaction to hearing that Abel Ferrara was annoyed that they were branding this as a remake of his original film. Herzog said he didn't even know who Abel Ferrara was, which I found hilarious, because obviously he's being disingenuous just to diss Ferrara, and I've considered Ferrara a fool ever since seeing Bad Lieutenant. Herzog went on to say that the only similarity to Ferrara's movie (which he claims not to have seen) is that there's a morally corrupt lieutenant as the protagonist -- it's not the same character or the same setting. In fact, he said that he objected to the title, having been required to accept it by outside forces, and that the title is "probably a mistake." But just so you don't think Herzog is completely uncharitable, he is also later quoted as saying he'd like to meet Abel Ferrara and was sure they could work out any of Ferrara's concerns over a bottle of whiskey.

I don't think I'm going to go so far as to prioritize a cinematic screening, but consider me a lot more intrigued than I was when I first saw the trailer a week ago, and was getting all prepared to laugh at a Bad Lieutenant film for the second time in my moviegoing career.

I am kind of hoping that there is at least one more similarity to Bad Lieutenant. I think it would be hilarious, as a shout-out to the other movie, if Nicolas Cage has a scene where he is naked, mewling, and pinwheeling his arms. As if that is the trademark move of bad lieutenants the world over.

It reminds me of the joke my friend Mike made that I thought was absolutely hilarious, though again, that was probably the 19-year-old version of ourselves, and it won't translate. I had seen the execrable La Femme Nikita remake Point of No Return, but not yet seen La Femme Nikita. The signature moment from Point of No Return that had been repeated ad nauseum in ads was when Bridget Fonda's character says (to Gabriel Byrne, I think) "I'm through, I'm out!" So I asked Mike what the similarities were between Point of No Return and La Femme Nikita, and he said it's basically the same, except in La Femme Nikita she says "Je suis through, je suis out!" Gold, Jerry, gold.

Anyway, I hope Bad Lieutenant 2 has a big weekend and cuts into the box office of that other sequel being released this weekend, which shall remain nameless.

Friday, November 20, 2009

No, the breakfast cereal

This past weekend, I saw the trailer for Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus for the second or third time. It looks exquisitely colorful and genuinely inventive. Looks like the good Gilliam rather than the bad Gilliam, who shows up much more often these days. Still not sure exactly how they will integrate Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell with the character Heath Ledger was playing when he died, but then again, even if they can't, that will make it only the fourth most confusing film Gilliam has directed.

For the first time I noticed the website listed at the end:

Yeah, that's one heckuva URL.

What I immediately thought was: "The title is already an unwieldy 31 letters long" -- I didn't count at that exact moment -- "and they already spell out the word 'doctor' instead of abbreviating it.

"Why also add the word 'movie' at the end??"

I mean, it's not like you're going to confuse it for some other Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus that's not a movie. They really needed to clarify, because otherwise you might end up at


or maybe

or even

(wait for it)

I understand if it's a movie like Push, or Cars, or the Eddie Murphy-Martin Lawrence classic Life. You can't just tell people to go to, because that takes them to Life magazine's website. But throw in the word "movie," and presto -- you're at a website that's kind of hard to believe still exists, or ever existed, for that ten-year-old movie directed by the late Ted Demme.

But The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus? There's nothing that can be confused with.

What strikes me as especially funny is that Sony Pictures does not actually own the URL without the word "movie" in it. That's what's so stupid about including the word "movie" in the first place -- you are going to buy up all the related website names anyway, and have them redirect to your main site, so you can capture the crowd that's just guessing at what the main URL might be.

But when you go to, a cheery message greets you with is for sale!

If you are interested in buying please contact William [at] dawgcms [dot] com

Which means that either Sony wanted to buy the URL but had it held for ransom by this William character, or they never cared anyway and he took it to make mischief. Nothing (except Sony's lawyers) to stop William from turning it into a page of dominatrixes defecating on monkeys.

So let's see what happens on some similar URLs: (no "the"): "This portion of the requested page has been blocked. Click here for details." (no "the," "doctor" abbreviated): A "support site" for the movie -- in other words, a fan page. ("the" included, "doctor" still abbreviated): This calls itself "The official Dr. Parnassus webpage," but really all it is is a Quicktime movie of the "UK trailer," with a link to Twitter at the bottom Same as the one immediately above, though this time the banner says that it is "Coming Soon" Redirects to Toys R Us. Ha! Redirects to ZenHQ, "Film Production and Producer Services in Cape Town, South Africa" Server not found Server not found Server not found ("doctor" abbreviated only): Redirects to Sony's site. Whew!

I guess I shouldn't find it so strange. After all, there's precedent. Sony is only following the example set by www.theenglishmanwhowentupahillbutcamedowna and

And why not?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Michael Bay vs. Roland Emmerich

Michael Bay gets a bad rap.

At least, compared to Roland Emmerich.

You would agree that Bay and Emmerich, throughout their careers, have indulged in essentially the same brand of disaster porn, to borrow a phrase I heard on the radio last night. Both love explosions. Both love end-of-the-world scenarios. And both love to cram as much high melodrama as possible into those exploding end-of-the-world scenarios.

Yet Roland Emmerich enjoys relative anonymity among average filmgoers, while Michael Bay is so stigmatized by the movies he's made that he's become a household name. In fact, I'd argue that even dumb people see Michael Bay movies in spite of themselves -- that's how far the cultural besmirching of Bay's name, encouraged by snarky entertainment writers like myself, has extended.

I'm not saying it's not deserved.

But it's just as deserved for Emmerich, if not more so. In fact, since Emmerich's films have been just as high-profile, and just as poorly received, as Bay's, I'd argue that the main reason he is not widely perceived as the same kind of poster child for crap is that his name is all foreign, and therefore, harder to remember. (Emmerich was born in West Germany; Bay, appropriately, in L.A.)

The thing is, I don't actually know myself which one is worse. I have my suspicions, but I can't say for certain. And so it is that I've devised a little system to determine who is worse -- for me, anyway. I can't speak for you.

See, I noticed recently that Bay and Emmerich have very similar careers. Not just their subject matter, but the period they've been working as well. Both directors are 44 years old, Emmerich just having celebrated that birthday a week ago today. Emmerich got started in his career earlier, but he didn't direct a true blockbuster until 1994, when Stargate came out. (He'd directed the largely unseen Universal Soldier two years earlier, and then a couple totally unseen projects before that.) Bay got started a year after Stargate with Bad Boys. Each has been steadily contributing their unique brand of schlock since then.

And I realized something else: After 2012, which I saw last night, I have seen exactly seven films by each director. The last seven films, in fact, as I never saw the original Bad Boys (though I did see the sequel), and I've seen every Emmerich film since Stargate (Stargate included). Pity me, dear reader.

Could this comparison line up any more perfectly?

So here's what I will do -- and I use the future tense, as I have not actually done it as I type these words. I will rank Bay's and Emmerich's films from 1 through 14, "best" to worst. And then I will add up their personal rankings within those rankings. Lowest score wins.

I will tell you this, hence revealing my bias -- Emmerich would have fared a lot worse in this duel before I saw 2012 last night. But more on that in a moment.

Now please excuse me for a moment or three as I go off and make my rankings. To you, it will seem instantaneous.

Without further ado, and with short explanations for each:

1. 2012 (2009, Roland Emmerich). Yes, Emmerich's newest film is the best of the bunch. Really. More on that in a moment.
2. The Rock (1996, Michael Bay). Yes, Bay's oldest film is the second best of the bunch. I guess he hadn't learned his terrible tendency toward bombast yet. Followed by ...
3. Stargate (1994, Roland Emmerich). ... Emmerich's oldest film (that I've seen). I don't remember much about it, but when it comes to these two directors, that probably means it was decent.
4. Transformers (2007, Michael Bay). Controversial ranking. It worked for me.
5. Pearl Harbor (2001, Michael Bay). Again, controversial. I found myself defending this movie upon leaving the theater. It has not held up in my mind, but I can't forget that I did that. So sue me.
6. Independence Day (1996, Roland Emmerich). I really think this film is bad, but not compared to the others lower on this list.
7. The Day After Tomorrow (2004, Roland Emmerich). Again, bad. But the pickings are getting slim.
8. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009, Michael Bay). Held my attention for a surprisingly long time, before it didn't.
9. Godzilla (1998, Roland Emmerich). Good destruction, bad everything else.
10. Bad Boys II (2003, Michael Bay). Not good. Watchable in parts.
11. The Patriot (2000, Roland Emmerich). I think I disliked this film more than most people. I really, really disliked it. Fewest explosions in any Emmerich movie, except maybe Stargate.
12. Armageddon (1998, Michael Bay). Not only did it suffer terribly in comparison to 1998's other asteroid movie, Deep Impact, but it's also Bay's most shamelessly jingoistic film. Blecch.
13. The Island (2005, Michael Bay). Bay's worst film. In part because it had such an interesting beginning, and then became 100% ridiculous.
14. 10,000 B.C. (2008, Roland Emmerich). Emmerich's worst film, and the worst of the bunch. Just awful. I can't even bring myself to say any more about it.

Michael Bay: 2 + 4 + 5 + 8 + 10 + 12 + 13 = 54
Roland Emmerich: 1 + 3 + 6 + 7 + 9 + 11 + 14 = 51

Well well well. Roland Emmerich wins. I have to say, I was not expecting that.

In fact, I will admit to you now: This post was envisioned to show you that Roland Emmerich is actually worse than Michael Bay, or at least just as bad. (Originally conceived title: "Just as bad as Bay?") But I thought I should give each a chance to have that assessment "scientifically" tested. And it turns out, Emmerich is not quite as bad.

And he has 2012 to thank. If 2012 had been half the train wreck many were expecting it to be, Bay certainly would have won this duel. But it isn't. You can argue until the cows come home about the tastelessness of all this orgiastic destruction in a post-9/11 America ... but then again, you could have argued the same thing about The Day After Tomorrow. The fact is, the destruction sequences in this film are hypnotic; Emmerich somehow manages yet new ways to envision the end of the world even after already doing that twice in Tomorrow and Independence Day.

But what really makes 2012 better than any Emmerich film -- any film by either director -- is the writing. I understand that this is a frankly shocking statement. However, the dialogue was good, the film moved a long at a good pace (it was actually a brisk 158 minutes), and there were few scenes that did not clearly contribute to the trajectory of the story. Plus, there were some really smartly timed reveals of previously unknown information. And Emmerich himself actually deserves the credit for this, having co-written the script with Harald Kloser. Just one quibble about the script: the repetition. Not only do planes take off three different times just prior to being engulfed by the earth, but the writers flog the joke where somebody says "I think we've seen the worst of it" right before another giant fissure opens up.

The biggest surprise, however, is that the acting is not hammy. John Cusack probably sets that tone, and a handful of talented actors -- Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Woody Harrelson, Amanda Peet, and yes, in this case, Danny Glover -- manage to maintain it. What do they all have in common? Roland Emmerich was directing them. Good on ya, Roland. You're learning.

A couple other random thoughts from watching 2012:

1) If you're planning to watch a 158-minute movie, it's a good idea to pee twice before it starts, if you can. That's right, I peed twice last night at the theater -- once about ten minutes before screening time, and once during the commercials that precede the trailers. I got little more than dribbles the second time, but it helped me hold out.

2) If you're planning to watch a 158-minute movie, Reese's Pieces make a great choice to sustain you through the movie. Long after your popcorn -- which sometimes runs out during the trailers -- is gone, you'll still have plenty of the no less than 492 individual pieces in that surprisingly large bag. In fact, I ate my last few with less than ten minutes left in the movie. And yes, I did feel sort of sick from all that peanut butter. But I got the sustained regular eating experience I desired, without having to consciously monitor my intake.

3) If the world does indeed end on December 21, 2012, I might just be okay with it. Sound crazy? Here's my thinking. If the Mayans were in fact able to predict the end of the world thousands of years ago, it means somewhat definitively that our world can't be explained by science alone. This also means that maybe, just maybe, there is an actual afterlife where we will all go after that apocalyptic 24-hour period. It'll be pretty crowded, but hey -- the consciousness will live on. If science can't explain the Mayans' prediction -- they couldn't have been that good at astronomy, nor fully comprehended the deadly consequences of planetary alignments -- then who's to say that all the other stuff with no scientific proof, like religion, can't be true? And that's about as religious as I get.

An appropriately weighty way to end a post about two guys who specialize in ridiculous spectacle, don't you think?

Also, how do you rank these directors' films? I'd be surprised if many -- any -- of you had the displeasure of seeing all 14 films I discussed above. But let me know how you weigh in on the ones you did deign to see.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Weak memories, strong memories

As I was revisiting Scott Frank's excellent crime thriller The Lookout last night, it occurred to me how strange our memory can be about movies we've seen. Liking a movie does not necessarily mean you remember it, and hating a movie does not necessarily mean you forget it -- even if you tell everyone you're doing your best to repress the memory. In fact, the opposite can be true more often. Hate can be a much stronger emotion than love, depending on the circumstances.

But it's especially strange with this movie, because this movie is about a guy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who gets into a serious car accident that causes brain damage and memory loss. He functions pretty well as a regular person, holding down a janitorial job. He's even allowed to drive a car, though my wife thought that seemed unlikely -- if he weren't prohibited because of his mental impairment, then he'd definitely be for having caused an accident with two fatalities, in which he turned off the headlights as a game. But he has terrible problems sequencing ordinary events, he can't figure out how to open a can of soup without instructions, he confuses lemons for tomatoes, and has a bit of a memory problem. He remembers everything from before the accident, but the stuff that's happened since is a bit jumbled, such that he has to keep track of things in his notepad in order to remember them.

This is strange because I, too, had memory problems when it came to The Lookout.

I saw the movie on March 3, 2008. Just 20 months ago. I was over at my friend Dave's house. I remember really liking it. He did too.

But only a few months, maybe even a few weeks, later, I could remember almost nothing about what had happened in that movie. It's as though it made almost no impression on me, other than the fact that I would enthusiastically recommend it to a friend.

I wouldn't have dwelled on the issue except that the movie was available for review on my website. I like to put in for any movie I've seen that isn't reviewed, and The Lookout was no exception. Except I didn't do it right away. I held off as a result of my selective Alzheimer's about The Lookout. (As a tie-in with the film's subject matter, I like to imagine that a beam shot out of the screen and wiped my memory, like the "flashy thing" in Men in Black.) And if I didn't remember the movie, I couldn't review it. The Lookout became just like any movie I hadn't seen that's unreviewed: I'd have to see it before I could review it. So it ceased to be a priority.

But I guess it kind of gnawed away at me, this inability to remember. I had to figure out what it was that was causing the memory blockage. I didn't think it was just the overload of watching as many movies as I do. I didn't think it was the equivalent, in computer terms, of reaching the last few kilobytes of available space on a hard drive, then losing what you're working on because something needs to be deleted, or the system needs to be rebooted, before you can continue.

There are plenty of movies I've seen whose details are this fuzzy, but not things I've seen within the last couple years. Should I be worried about an actual diminished capacity of my memory? I expect this kind of thing from a movie that is lame and genuinely unmemorable, but a movie as good as The Lookout? It didn't make sense. I had to see it again, and besides, I wanted to show it to my wife, who loves films in the thriller genre.

So I finally got approved to review it, and this weekend, we watched it. It didn't feel like I was watching it for the first time, but I was surprised at how much I'd forgotten. For example, I didn't remember that Gordon-Levitt's character has a blind roommate played by Jeff Daniels. I didn't remember that Isla Fisher plays his love interest. And I didn't remember what happens in acts two or three, though it also didn't strike me as virgin footage to my eyes. It was just temporarily misplaced in my head. In fact, you could almost say that I remembered nothing after the car accident, which takes place in the film's first five minutes and is a pretty jarring start to the action. I'm like the film's protagonist, in that way.

Coincidence? I think so.

(Wait a minute ...)

Although I never truly identified why the details slipped through my mental fingers, I'm really glad I watched The Lookout again, because this is a fantastic movie -- well-acted, tightly scripted, clever, and extremely gratifying. And also, because it helped redeem Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

And here's where the "strong memories" part of this post comes in.

I saw Rian Johnson's Brick on September 24, 2006, about 18 months before seeing The Lookout. And hated it so much, that not only do I remember the details clearly, but have allowed the film to permanently stigmatize Joseph Gordon-Levitt, its star.

I guess I've never been the biggest fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He was always a bit of a curiosity to me. He appeared in Third Rock from the Sun, then suddenly graduated from "little kid on annoying sitcom" status to "leading man on the big screen" status. There was no time in between for me to mentally integrate Joseph Gordon-Levitt into this community of serious adult actors. What's more, perhaps because of a physical similarity, he seemed like he was trying to become the next Heath Ledger. And I didn't like that, even when Ledger was alive, but especially now.

But Brick was what really turned me against Gordon-Levitt, even though that film's failure probably had little to do with him.

Now, if you don't know Brick, I will do it the courtesy of telling you that a lot of people seem to like it. Those of us who hate it, though, hate it something good.

It's a stylized detective-noir film that occurs in and around a suburban high school and the town where its students live. It features almost exclusively teenagers, or more realistically, 28-year-old actors playing teenagers.

This could have been a really great idea, but we'll never know, because the way Johnson decided to execute it was insipid, obnoxious, self-important and self-indulgent. The actors' stylized way of speaking is supposed to be a throwback to the gumshoe movies of the 1930s and 1940s, but it hit my ear as incredibly false and misguided. This kind of thing can be successful if it's done smartly, but a real failure if it's done too smartly -- as in, overwritten to the point of linguistic strangulation. That's the case here. Maybe I just can't accept conceits like this -- I consider the massive failure of Joss Whedon's Serenity to be largely the result of a similar problem with the dialogue.

Okay, so the dialogue is bad, and the idea feels really dumb as a result. It's neither funny, which it's sort of trying to be, nor clever, which it's desperately trying to be -- making matters worse. But worst of all is how much pretension there is in the characters, how much of a strained effort to be as cool as humanly possible. And this is where Gordon-Levitt really comes in. Sure, this is how he was directed by Johnson -- the actor proves in The Lookout, among other places, that he's just as happy to play shy and uncertain. But by being the main character, who spoke more of that terrible dialogue, and struck more of those poseur postures, than anyone, Gordon-Levitt became the personification of what I hated about Brick.

And I carried that hate around with me. Hate has a long memory.

I hated Shadowboxer, and thought it probably had something to do with Joseph Gordon-Levitt having a small role. His presence made me less excited to see (500) Days of Summer, and true enough, I liked it about a third as much as it was hyped. And though his face was obscured for much of the time, and his role was relatively small anyway, Gordon-Levitt as Cobra Commander had to have something to do with why G.I. Joe sucked so much, right?

But seeing The Lookout again reminds me that the actor is only doing the bidding of his director. He's essentially clay, waiting to be molded. There's good clay and bad clay, to be sure. But Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not bad clay. Rian Johnson is just a bad molder, whereas Scott Frank is a good one.

That's something I'm sure to remember this time around.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Double feature: solid, then threatened, then converted

Another quick double feature story. I'll actually keep it quick this time.

I'm feeling a frenzy rising inside me about all the movies I want to see, need to see, so I decided it was a good idea to take in two yesterday. You know, with the second one conveniently timed to be free.

But as it usually is, this was a solo mission, and I was trying to complete a delicate task: see two movies that my wife didn't have much interest in seeing with me. I came across a good, thematically appropriate double feature that almost accomplished this. My wife didn't care at all about The Box, having thrown her hands up in the air on Richard Kelly after Southland Tales. However, she did really want to see The Fourth Kind. But she acknowledged that it was her decision to spend her day of rest at home, rather than hitting the cinema, and she didn't want to hold me back.

The trouble was, the only theater where these two were timed up conveniently was a theater I'd never staked out before. It was in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles, a predominantly black neighborhood. Since I'm not in that area very much, the way I stumbled across it was by going three pages deep on Moviefone's list of theaters in my area. But since it had a good dozen screens, I thought there was a decent chance that they'd rip your ticket at the entrance and then let you run free. And it was only 5-6 miles from my house.

The first thing that struck me about the theater, other than being one of only two white people on the premises (the other being a dude in his 60s), was that there was an actual line for tickets. I don't know what it is about the theaters I usually go to, but there's almost never a line. Then again, we tend to avoid going to the movies on weekend nights. But this was a 2:35 showing (followed by a 4:35 showing), so it was a surprise indeed. For a moment I worried about actually making the show, but they opened up another lane and I was in. (The other worry was whether they'd let me bring in my backpack, which carried three mini cans of Coke, a bag of gummy worms and a bag of Snap Peas. I thought that the black theaters might actually racially profile their own kind, and prevent people from entering with bags where they could conceal weapons. And maybe they do, but maybe they sized me up and assumed I wouldn't be up to any trouble.)

Once I was in, I saw I was home free. There were two long hallways of screens with the snack bar (where I picked up a popcorn) dividing them in the middle. Once your ticket was ripped, you could go in either direction. Mine was to the right, and I saw that digital readouts outside each theater announced the movie title and next show. Easy as pie.

But midway through The Fourth Kind, right at a part when it had actually started to get scary, a large security guy in his 50s -- but looking like he could kick the ass of a person half his age -- lumbered down the aisle and started to hassle the people in front of me. I didn't hear what he said to them, but the result was that they produced their tickets. They didn't seem like anyone who was up to anything -- just a young guy and a young girl on an afternoon date. Seeming satisfied by their proof, he then looked around gloweringly at the rest of us. I was supremely annoyed by this, as it was right at the part from the ads where that guy sits bolt upright in bed and starts to levitate. The security guard ruined that moment. A few moments later I noticed he'd walked down the other aisle, and did the same kind of annoyed surveillance of the sparse crowd.

Once he'd left, I started to reconsider my second feature. What if this guy gets a head count for how many tickets were sold for each show, then walks the theaters to make sure the correct number of people are actually sitting in the movie? It seemed ridiculous, but I could think of no other explanation. And since there were less than a dozen of us there, it would be easy to count. I didn't expect the numbers to be much different for The Box.

So I had basically decided I wasn't going to complete the double feature. I would abort to avoid any trouble. But that's not all I would do. I planned to go find some manager or concierge or the like and complain about the fact that this man had rudely bothered two viewers in front of me at the scariest part of the movie. I might even ask if that's a common practice, to ensure the legitimacy of everyone at the theater. By this I might accomplish two things: 1) I might be offered my money back, or a free pass to another screening; 2) I might be able to figure out whether to expect him during The Box, and use that information to decide whether or not to go, if I didn't consider my cover blown by this incident with the manager.

In the end I decided not to go to the manager ... but also not to give up on the double feature. When the disappointing Fourth Kind let out, I hit the bathroom and then began scanning for The Box. This is when I discovered that not all the digital readouts were working -- and the vast majority of those that were seemed to be for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (which I also desperately want to see). In fact, by a quick count, it must have been playing on at least five screens. I guess they think they know their own clientele pretty well at this theater.

Naturally, The Box was playing on one of the screens with a non-functioning readout. So I was back to the kind of fumbling around from my last double feature. But I remained determined.

After walking into a showing of 2012 at a part when nothing was blowing up, I found The Box on my second try, almost directly across from where The Fourth Kind had been. Again, I had to ask some of the sparse gathered crowd in order to get a confirmation.

I chose a seat in the middle of the third row, thinking that the middle was the safest. If I were sitting on the edge, the security guard would have no qualms about bothering me -- he'd already proven that. But if he had to wade four seats in to confront me? I decided I had a good shot. Even if he was willing to go this extra step, I could make a big stink of finding my ticket in the darkness and could complain that I couldn't find it, and that he was disturbing everybody. (Though I probably wouldn't be able to go to the manager on this one, having no stub to validate my non-existent purchase.) Still, I started out with my body scrunched as low in the seat as possible, hoping that my head would not peek above the top. That way, he might not see me from a quick glance at the entrance. As the movie moved along, I abandoned that posture.

But there was one more obstacle to overcome. The sound was all garbled in the trailers. I thought it might just be the first trailer, but then it continued in the second. So after committing to the second film, I thought I might have to abort nonetheless for technical reasons. But instead of just sitting there and hoping, I left my seat and flagged down some passing employees in the hallway. About two trailers later they finally got it under control, but not before stopping the whole thing for about 30 seconds. Who knew if they'd recover from that issue, or whether it might be fatal -- in which case someone might offer us a refund with our proof of purchase, and I'd quietly scoot away without taking them up on the offer. But they did, and there were no more incidents worth mentioning. The security guard never materialized, or at least never came down to the front.

After all that, it might have been just as well if I'd missed The Box after all. Since I love Donnie Darko, also directed by Richard Kelly, I knew I was going to see this eventually, regardless of how terrible it might be. And it turned out to be about that terrible. It's never as howlingly bad as the worst parts of Southland Tales, but its best parts are also not as good as the best (trying not to laugh) parts of Southland Tales. So overall I found it to be an even less effective film -- terribly acted, confusingly plotted, and showing almost no accountability to making sense.

Did I say quick? Damn.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

This guy sucks

I'm the first person to admit I'm an old fart.

I don't get most things related to youth culture. It all seems so ridiculously frivolous. I'm only 36, but I make no real effort to understand people any younger than 28. My admissions in this post notwithstanding.

So I don't expect myself to be the best judge of things aimed at teens. Really, I'm just the wrong demographic.

But even still: Doesn't this guy suck?

Every time I'm in a grocery store, and I see this guy on the front of a tabloid, I think, "This guy sucks."

And when the TV happens to be on an entertainment show or entertainment network, and I see this guy show up, I think, "This guy sucks."

And when I'm at the Barnes & Noble, and there's a huge display advertising this guy's upcoming movie, and this guy is featured prominently, I think, "This guy sucks."

And when my Entertainment Weekly arrives this week, and this guy is one of the three obnoxious faces staring back at me from the cover, I think, "This guy sucks."

I mean just look at him. He's a stupid little whelp, with his whelpish hair and whelpish little face. Yet while I've called him little twice now, most of his features seem too big for his face.

There's something wrong about this guy, like he's half-born or something. Yeah, he looks like Spock during one of his stages of rapid growth in Star Trek III. He should be covered with some kind of intergalactic embryonic fluid.

Yet teens love this guy. And it makes me wonder if teens would love any guy playing this guy's role, or if it's this guy in particular. It's the same thing I wonder about the other guy who's in this guy's movie, though I do get the other guy's appeal a little more.

This guy. Who needs him?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A powerful responsibility

I don't read other people's reviews very often. I think I may have mentioned this before.

It seems like an odd thing for a person involved in a creative endeavor to say. Novelists get better by reading other novelists, filmmakers get better by watching other filmmakers.

But there are several reasons I abstain from reading the work of other critics: 1) If I one day review this film, I don't want to be subconsciously influenced by their perspective; 2) I don't want them to give away things about the film before I've seen it (most critics are good about not revealing spoilers, but not all); 3) I don't want to have my excitement about seeing a particular film destroyed by a negative review.

However, once I do see the film, and I know I'm not going to be reviewing it, then I'm really eager to hear what other critics have to say. That's when I learn from other writers and apply it to my own work. I have a post-viewing ritual of always reading the review on the website I write for, and I also try to go back and find the issue of Entertainment Weekly that carried that particular review, since I have a subscription. There are other critics I read, but not as regularly.

One thing I haven't been able to wean myself off of, though, is checking EW to see the letter grades given out each week. In fact, I have a ritual each Friday of opening directly to the reviews, and scanning the single-letter summations either Owen Gleiberman or Lisa Schwarzbaum has given, with a + or - sometimes affixed for good measure. This saves me from the first two issues listed above, but not the third. A bad letter grade could still cause me to drop a film from my list of weekend priorities.

Case in point: The Men Who Stare at Goats. The second-most surprising letter grade in last week's EW, after the A grade given to Disney's A Christmas Carol, was the grade Owen Gleiberman gave The Men Who Stare at Goats:


That's right, F. F as in Failure. F as in Fuggedaboutit. F as in worst Fucking movie you've ever seen.

Needless to say, this left me slightly less enthused for the military satire starring George Clooney and Ewan McGregor, directed by Clooney's good buddy, Grant Heslov.

But the choice was taken out of my hands by circumstance. My wife's sister and mother have been in town for the past week, and it had always been the plan to kill an evening with them at the movies. My wife decided that The Men Who Stare at Goats represented the best compromise between a film we wanted to see, a film she thought they would enjoy, and a film that would be light and fun. So we scheduled it for last night. And I prepared myself for a little experiment: To boldly go to the theater, even though one of my most frequently read critics reserved the worst rating in his arsenal for this movie.

As I was watching, I kept waiting for that F to materialize. Even realizing I was enjoying it quite a bit, I figured the other shoe was about to drop. Something big would have to happen to turn this movie into a train wreck. To give something an F, a critic should walk away feeling actually offended by the movie in question. At the very least it should be shoddily made and almost totally without merit. And even as we had made it through 80 of the 90 minutes in good shape, I was half expecting someone to drop their pants and defecate on a corpse in the final scene.

Simply put, the F never materialized. I laughed many times and found the film incredibly entertaining. I currently have it ranked 11th out of the 54 movies I've seen this year. The others in my party felt as positively as I did, if not more so.


It's a flabbergasting indictment. I was eager to read Gleiberman's vitriol the moment I got home, but had left the issue on my desk at work. So I read it first thing this morning when I got in. And even though he quite obviously did not like the film, it did not read like an F review.

Granted, different people may define an F rating in different ways. My wife thinks that it has to be the worst movie you've ever seen. My guess is, the critics at EW don't want to give out only a handful of Fs in their entire professional careers, so to them, an F rating is not quite that extreme. But it does mean that you should not, under any circumstances, even to save your life, see this movie.

And it's not the first time that Gleiberman has written an F review with which we completed disagreed. In fact, any time I apprise my wife of a letter grade given in EW, and she disagrees with it even slightly, she cites the example of Timur Bekmambetov's Night Watch. We loved this film; Owen Gleiberman did not. To my wife, his F review of Night Watch, by itself, undermines the very credibility of Entertainment Weekly.

Which gets at the larger issue that goes well beyond The Men Who Stare at Goats and Night Watch, the one I teased in the title for this post, and am finally getting to now: Just how much power a prominent critic can wield. Damning or praising a film is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. Just think of how many people did not see The Men Who Stare at Goats as a result of Gleiberman's excoriation of it. The film made $12.7 million in the U.S. last weekend. But with even a C from Gleiberman, could that have ticked up as high as $14 million?

The answer is, probably not. The answer is, most viewers probably care a lot more about the stars and the snippets they see in ads (Clooney makes that goat fall over -- with his mind!!) than they do about what over-educated film snobs have to say about it. (We're not all film snobs -- but most of us are probably over-educated). But I clearly can't believe that reviews hold no sway at all, otherwise, what am I even doing here?

The old saying is that there's no accounting for taste, and it's true, any one person can hate a film that any other person loves. The difference between critics and other people is that we have been trusted with the sacred task of being correct. What we say is supposed to have actual validity, and not be unduly influenced by an idiosyncratic world view. It's implied in the very job description that we should be able to put ourselves in the shoes of the average viewer, to help that viewer make practical determinations about what they will actually like and actually not like.

In fact, I sometimes wonder whether I have excelled as a film critic merely because I am a good writer (if I do say so myself), or because I am uniquely qualified to decide whether a film is good or not. It's a gray area to be sure. Let's just say I take the responsibility seriously, and if I guess that my own opinion of a film may diverge from the mainstream, I will be careful in what I write. I will really only let loose on a film if I am pretty sure most other people agree with me, which is why I wonder how I would have reviewed a film like Burn After Reading, which I hated, but which is directed by the Coen brothers, and which many people loved. It would have killed me to say anything nice about that film, so I'm glad I never had to make the choice.

The larger issue is not the credibility of the critic, but the credibility of the institution that employs the critic. If Owen Gleiberman (or myself, or any other critic) were just a blogger, he would not have to feel accountable to anybody but himself. He could hate The Men Who Stare at Goats all he wanted without worrying about how it reflected on anyone but him. And I'm sure he and Lisa do have that agreement with Entertainment Weekly. If they had to worry about censoring themselves toward the mainstream, they'd probably quit, and I'd certainly support that decision. The only reason I censor myself even slightly is that I am still paranoid that someone will finally decide that I suck, and cut me off. And also because my reviews have a slightly different purpose, which is somewhere between my own views of a film and the critical consensus on it. When you review a film that came out several years ago, you know what you're up against with the rest of the critical community.

But that raises another interesting point. Because they are reviewing these films without the benefit of any other reviews, letter grades or star ratings currently in existence, critics who write real-time reviews really have no idea how the film will be received. Maybe Gleiberman did indeed think that most other critics would consider The Men Who Stare at Goats an utter piece of crap, and that his hatred of it would seem all the more enlightened. Instead, he backed the wrong horse -- most other critics have been charmed by it. That's why critics, like second-guessed athletes, must stop worrying what other people think. Unless, that is, you start to find yourself consistently out of step with the mainstream, which can be a warning sign for any critic, regardless of how much autonomy he or she has.

But back to that little matter of the credibility of the institution. Gleiberman's F review for Night Watch caused my wife to cast a permanent skeptical eye toward Entertainment Weekly, and his review of Goats is sure to compound that further. For all the staffers at EW who liked Goats, it's got to be hard to stomach the fact that Gleiberman's F grade is the magazine's official stance on the film. That F grade won't die when all the subscribers throw out their physical copies of that issue. No, it'll be preserved for eternity on the web, available to any future surfer who searches the title. After all, that's how I confirmed that it was, indeed, Owen who wrote the Night Watch F review.

And that's where a writer's full body of work comes in. Owen Gleiberman has been working at Entertainment Weekly for decades, and the lion's share of the time, what he says about a film is spot-on. Quibbling over one F grade is not going to be worth it, as each new week features an onslaught of six or more new titles. Onward and upward. In Owen We Trust.

Because it is all about trust. You have to trust a critic to speak for you, to mold your official opinions about pop culture, official opinions that could/will be shared with the entire world. You have to trust this person to wield the F grade only when necessary, even if you disagree with his/her usage of it. You have to trust this person with his/her influence over box office, over the careers of stars and directors, over the future of studios.

Quite a powerful responsibility indeed.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Breaking up the pair

Quentin Tarantino just can't seem to keep things simple when it comes to whether his movies are parts, or wholes.

First it was Kill Bill. He wrote such a long script and had so much good material -- at least, according to him -- that he had to divide the movie in two. Kill Bill Vol 1. came out in October of 2003, then Kill Bill Vol. 2 followed six months later.

While this was a little ungainly, it was manageable. The films had two distinct release dates and were quite clearly two different movies. Even the tone was markedly different between the two volumes. Steven Soderbergh used the same trick again last year with Che.

But then Grindhouse came along to really muck things up. Grindhouse was always completely up front about the fact that Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez each directed one half of the material in this intentionally z-grade celebration of exploitation movies, while providing secondary input on each other's work. It was a double feature, to be sure. In fact, fake movie trailers, directed by some of the directors' disciples/colleagues, provided a buffer in the middle. But unlike most double features, it wasn't possible to see one movie by itself, at least not in American theaters. For a single admission price you got both movies, plus all the fake trailers, at least one of which actually proceeded the first feature. Together they made one "film" called Grindhouse.

I was very comfortable with this, and I enjoyed the "movie" overall. I vastly preferred Planet Terror, the Rodriguez zombie movie that kicked things off, to Tarantino's Death Proof, a car fetishist's fantasy about a murderous stunt man. Planet Terror put Death Proof on its back and carried it, translating to a fun three hours at the theater.

But things got a little fuzzy when the Siamese twins were surgically separated. For both the international and DVD releases of Grindhouse, one "film" became two, and Grindhouse itself sort of ceased to exist. I understand this was done for a number of reasons: 1) Most foreign countries don't understand the "grindhouse" concept (as if most regular Americans do); 2) Most foreign countries don't have the double feature tradition (this I didn't know); 3) The three-hour-plus running time was considered a box office deterrent and would further hamper sales on DVD; 4) Tarantino wanted his film to qualify for international film festivals as an independent entity (though I can no longer find verification of this rumor I heard at the time). Tarantino's film also received an additional 27 minutes of footage. I think Planet Terror was largely unchanged.

For most everyone, this amicable divorce was probably well and dandy. But for a person like me, who likes things in neat little boxes and doesn't know how to cope with changes to the very classification of a piece of art, it was troubling. I ranked Grindhouse as one movie on all my lists, and I have since refused to adjust that ranking on any of them. And I'd have liked that to be the end of it.

Except it has come up again, which is why I'm writing about it today, in case you're wondering.

When I first started with Flickchart, it classified Grindhouse as one film, the way it was originally released, the way I preferred it to be classified. In fact, I remember getting a little thrill that they had endorsed my perspective on the subject.

But a few days ago, I first noticed Death Proof come up for a separate ranking. Then Planet Terror. The administrators of the Flickchart website must have reevaluated their own stance on the issue. Instead of ranking a film I did not acknowledge to be a film, I exited the program and went back in.

The strange thing is that when these films come up for duels, I am in the midst of ranking only films that Flickchart knows I've seen. Surely, I've seen both of these "films," but never did I officially accept either of them onto the list. They just started coming up. Which leads me to believe that the site's programmers have determined that Death Proof and Planet Terror should be included in this category by default, since anyone who has seen Grindhouse has necessarily also seen Death Proof and Planet Terror.

I might have been forced to accept this new classification if they had just removed Grindhouse from the list. But they didn't. I can still find Grindhouse as a "film" in their database. In fact, for me, it's been in 63 separate duels, 55.56% of which it has won. Meanwhile, both Planet Terror and Death Proof are still officially listed as unseen films -- even though they are coming up for duel. When you go to their home pages, the link that says "Add to my Flickchart" is live.

So now I'm confronted with a situation where instead of one film, instead of two films, Grindhouse actually constitutes three separate films that I have supposedly seen. I can't say for sure that Grindhouse is still coming up randomly for further duels, but I believe it is.

Quite simply, I don't know what to do.

Death Proof came up again today, and I liked the other film better. Without thinking about it too much, I dropped my objection to ranking Death Proof and impulsively gave the win to the other film. This meant now that Death Proof had officially been added to my rankings, that it had been ranked exactly one time. Not knowing what to do, I removed it. But I feel like it will come up again. I feel like this issue needs to have some kind of resolution I can live with.

So what would you do, dear readers? Would you remove Grindhouse and banish it from existence, so you could rank the two films separately going forward? And if so, what about all those duels Grindhouse has already won/lost? What happens to them, to those rankings?

Or would you continue to work around having to rank Planet Terror and Death Proof? Continue to quit the program -- or really, just click to some other part of the site -- every time it comes up?

Or would you leave all three of them, on the theory that they really are three distinct viewing experiences with three distinct qualities? Keeping in mind that this could result in duels between them, where I would have to choose Planet Terror over Grindhouse because the inclusion of Death Proof hurts Grindhouse, or choose Grindhouse over Death Proof because the inclusion of Planet Terror helps Grindhouse?

I depend on you to help me see things clearly, dear reader. No pressure. Just keep in mind that my lists -- even my very understanding of how to classify my world -- hang on your response.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cocoon is not my 20th favorite film

You may have noticed a couple weeks ago that I added a feature to the column on the right side of the page: My top 20 films of all time, according to the rankings I continue to tweak in Flickchart ( The feature was intended to keep you up to date on my endless project of ranking and re-ranking all the films I've ever seen, as described here and here.

I've committed to updating this top 20 every Monday, as I gradually move toward an ever-more-perfect and ever-more-precise list of not only the upper echelon, but all 2,541 films (and counting) I've seen that are in Flickchart's database.

Only problem is, there hasn't been much movement in the top 20 recently. In order for a contending film to make its way to these hallowed heights, it must randomly come up against one of the films already in the top 20, and be better than it. With 2,541 films to rank, films like Run Lola Run and Raising Arizona don't always come up against the heavy hitters, which is why they currently stand at #116 and #165, respectively. On average, they should come up slightly less than ten times in every 10,000 duels (which comprises 20,000 titles). And when they do come up, they're just as likely to come up against Freddy Got Fingered (to use a favorite punching bag) or White Chicks as they are against ...

... well, against Cocoon.

There's nothing wrong with Cocoon. In fact, it would stand to reason that I consider Cocoon to be a very good film. Otherwise, it could never have landed in 20th place, reaching as high as 19th, in the first place.

But I don't want Cocoon to speak as loudly for my tastes as I am making it do now by listing my top 20 films. As much as it provided a sense of wonder and was truly touching to the early teenage version of Vance, there's probably something a bit cheesy about it as well, making it seem like a bit of a punchline. I mean, Steve Guttenberg was the star, after all.

But the brilliant thing about Flickchart, as I've described before, is that you aren't consciously shaping one giant list. You are making your decisions based on thousands and thousands (and thousands) of individual duels. And I remember exactly how Cocoon got where it was. It came up against Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket, a film I like very very much. But Bottle Rocket is ultimately a slight and inconsequential film -- many Anderson fans probably haven't even seen it. And in that moment when I was pressed for a decision, I decided that Cocoon had had more of an impact on me than Bottle Rocket. Done and done.

What I didn't expect was that Cocoon would follow me around for the next three weeks, pesky and unwilling to drop out of the top 20. I found myself second-guessing the duel, based on this telling little reality: I felt comfortable with Bottle Rocket in my top 20, but did not feel comfortable with Cocoon there. Isn't that some kind of proof positive that I like Bottle Rocket better?

Could be, or it could be that I am more comfortable publicly admitting that I like Bottle Rocket better. After all, Bottle Rocket is the first film by a guy who has turned into one of our most hip filmmakers, and I still think this is his best film. I believe this was also the first time I became aware of Owen and Luke Wilson, Owen having written the script with Anderson. And Cocoon? It's directed by Ron Howard, who has come to symbolize the mainstream (despite making some undeniably great films), and it stars a bunch of old people who leave in a spaceship at the end. There's plenty of opportunity to make fun of me for liking it.

But I think that this also gets at one of the best truths about Flickchart: It should be used as a tool for you, for the way you really feel. If you like White Chicks better than Citizen Kane, Flickchart should be your confessional, where all your secrets are between you and whatever almighty power you may or may not believe in. I may have to de-friend you if I ever find out, but at least I will respect you for having the courage to use the tool as designed.

I have these dilemmas a lot when I rank films on Flickchart. Namely, "I know Film A is a better film than Film B. But for whatever reason, I enjoy Film B better." And that's ... okay (imagine me doing a Stuart Smalley voice). If you think about it, there's no point to Flickchart at all if it's not personal to you. If you are simply trying to recreate AFI's top 100 films of all time, what value is there in that?

So for now, Cocoon stays. It's in the top 20 until something I genuinely like more can defeat it in battle. Or, until something I like better than one of the 19 movies ahead of it can indirectly nudge it out of the top 20. It has earned this position, and far be it from me to begrudge Cocoon what it has earned. (Especially now that I've undermined it with this convenient little disclaimer.)

And it's kind of exciting, on the whole, that things are no longer as fluid as they were when I first got started. I'm excited for the idea that ranking my movies is a long-term project, one that will occupy me for years to come ... or until their servers get permanently overloaded.

If that means a film I like a lot, but don't love, lands in the top 20 and takes root, so be it. It'll be all the more exciting when the correct film really does, one day, displace it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I'm all out of love for "ogs" movies

I've made no secret of the fact that I enjoyed Wild Hogs.

You know, last year's mega-hit featuring John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence and William H. Macy as middle-aged dudes trying to recapture their sense of adventure on a cross-country motorcycle trip? The one we all turned our nose up at, assuming only a moron could like it? The one whose trailer seemed to disqualify it from the very possibility of being liked?

Yep, that one. I liked it. I make no bones about it.

The fact that I even saw it in the first place was/is somewhat shocking to me, since I was not actually reviewing it. In fact, I brought it home from the library as a joke. My wife was trying to watch road movies as part of research for a road movie she's writing, and I told her I would look for some at the library. I thought bringing home Wild Hogs would get enough of a laugh to justify taking up a third of my allotted rental spots. (I also brought home The Motorcycle Diaries, which we had both already seen, and one other.) And then, lo and behold, we actually watched it.

What can I say, it was funny. Sure, it was also dumb in spots, but its overarching vibe was a good one. The closing credits themselves are worth the price of admission. One strident principle I have as a film critic is not to be ashamed of what movies worked for you. Just hold your head up high, give them their due, and move on.

The first thing most people said when they saw the poster for Old Dogs was "What is that, a sequel to Wild Hogs?"

It isn't, but it certainly could be. Not only does John Travolta reappear, but Old Dogs is also directed by Walt Becker, who directed Wild Hogs. This is no mere marketing accident. The producers of Old Dogs are certainly relying on the same crowds who helped that movie rake in a staggering $168 million. If the titles sound similar and the movie has one of the same stars, all the better.

Except this time, I really, truly, indubitably, absolutely CAN NOT imagine the movie being good.

You'd think I'd have learned from my Wild Hogs experience not to indict any movie -- ANY movie -- prematurely. It's the shining example of how you can't always judge a book by its cover.

But let me say this right now: If Old Dogs is good, I will eat my shoes.

Seeing the original poster for it was one thing. Wild Hogs may have made me judge Travolta less harshly, but I remain as skeptical as ever of Robin Williams -- even if I did enjoy him in Bobcat Goldthwait's World's Greatest Dad earlier this year.

But seeing the trailer? Oh, God. I didn't actually claw my eyes out, but it took some restraint.

The trailer is moronic from the first moment to the last, but the last is easily the most moronic. Seth Green -- seen earlier getting hit in the balls with a golf ball -- has gone into a gorilla enclosure at a zoo to help find Williams' kid. Naturally, he ends up being cradled by a gorilla, singing Air Supply's "All Out of Love." I say "naturally" because I have seen some variation of this joke in countless other movies, and it wasn't funny in any of them, either.

In fact, part of the reason I was inspired to write about this movie now, rather than waiting two weeks for the eve of its release, was that they just started using this image from the trailer as a new movie poster. I so desperately wanted to use this poster with this post that I had to go with the only one I could find online: the Russian version, written in Cyrllic. Suffice it to say that the one appearing on bus stops around town has the title in English.

So let's get this straight ... not only is the gorilla cradling Green the stupidest image from the trailer, but it got enough yuks from enough morons that they actually added it to the poster, just to remind the morons of the yuks they produced when they saw the trailer? (Ordinarily, I would have found an alternative to the word "moron" after the fourth or fifth reference, but no other word works nearly so well.)

To recap any of the other moronic details from the Old Dogs trailer would just make me want to claw my eyes out again. And really, I need them to see. I like seeing.

Is there a possibility that I could like Old Dogs? Yes, there is.

And since I don't want to actually eat my shoes, as I promised to do earlier, I guess my only choice is never to see Old Dogs. If I never see it, in my mind, it will always be terrible.

But I don't want to live my life any differently. Another policy I live by is to be willing to see any movie that has ever been made. If Old Dogs were playing on a plane, and I hadn't see it, and it wasn't a red-eye where I desperately needed some sleep, I would ordinarily watch it. Now I'll have to abstain.

The thing is, when you think about, only good things can come out of watching Old Dogs. If I hate it, well then, it gets the adrenaline of my hate juices flowing, and confirms my every suspicion about it. I get to feel superior and hold it up as an example of the decline of western civilization.

And if I like it ... well then, I'd be just as happy to have seen it as I'm happy to have seen Wild Hogs.

Here's hoping I'm not scheduled for any plane trips approximately three months after its release.