Friday, December 31, 2010

Jeff Bridges in duplicate - or is it triplicate?

There may be no greater measure of an actor's heat than that he appears in two of the most anticipated movies of the same holiday season.

For Jeff Bridges, that's Tron: Legacy and True Grit, alphabetized consecutively and released five days apart.

Last night, I saw them both.

Now, I'm not usually big on giving themes to my theatrical double features -- you know, where you pay for the first and sneak into the second. In fact, the more incongruous, the better. On the one hand, these two films are pretty incongruous -- one is futuristic while the other is steeped in the past. (Perhaps the two would meet in Cowboys vs. Aliens, whose trailer I saw before Tron.) However, they do both star Bridges, so that's a theme if I've ever heard one. And since he actually plays two characters in Tron, it was a triple dose of Bridges, rather than a double.

So I thought I'd take you into the experience of watching four straight hours of Jeff Bridges, accompanied by the smattering of atmospheric details you know and love me for (ha ha).

For starters, these were both movies I had expected to see before now. My wife and I had brainstormed a Tron screening for before Christmas, but scrapped the plan when we heard it wasn't great, deciding we'd be better off using our precious babysitting time to get dinner. And I actually went up to a friend's house on the night before our dinner date, expecting to watch True Grit, but was foiled when his screener copy wouldn't play in his player. So I thought I'd take care of both in one fell swoop last night.

It was going to be a tight squeeze. Tron: Legacy in 3D began at 8:10 and was supposed to run for 125 minutes. Exactly 125 minutes later, True Grit would start at 10:15. If Tron started late or had an excessive number of ads and trailers -- which it did -- it would definitely start to cut into True Grit. On the other hand, the less time between films meant the less time to twiddle my thumbs, and the sooner I'd get home to bed, which already figured to be a ways past midnight on a school night. (I'd heard enough bad about Tron that I had resigned myself to not seeing it in 3D, but it was the 3D screening whose times matched up with True Grit.)

My Jeff Bridges double feature got off to an appropriate start when I heard his voice in an ad I saw on TV about 15 minutes before leaving. What is Bridges advertising these days? Hyundai?

Having done a couple shushes of the baby, I started to get myself ready. With double features it's important to stock up on snacks, both to fend off hunger and to help keep you occupied if sleep threatens to overtake you. So I grabbed a fleece with an inner lining perfectly suited for contraband food, and filled that lining with a miniature can of Coke, a Red Bull, a bag of Planters trail mix (with nuts, raisins and M&Ms), and a small box of Toy Story tart candy I'd gotten in my stocking. I had plans for everything -- the Coke with my popcorn during Tron, then the trail mix and Red Bull in True Grit, followed by the Toy Story candy (if necessary) and the box of Altoids I always carry with me (if really necessary). Now the only issue was smuggling them in, a task that usually involves a backpack that the ticket takers never question. Relying only on the fleece, I thought I looked a little lumpy, but no one batted an eye. Which is lucky, because a guy next to me was denied when he tried to openly bring in outside food.

Tron: Legacy did not start until almost 8:30. With each new trailer that started, I became a bit more agitated, a bit more certain that I'd miss a minute or two of True Grit. But when it did start, my agitation turned quickly into exhilaration.

Simply put, the first 45 minutes to an hour of Tron is enthralling. If that's been lost in the negative press about Tron, it shouldn't be. Pretty much the whole "real world" portion that occurs before Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) enters the Grid is fun to watch, and the first introductions to the Grid simply floored me -- first the transports floating back and forth, then the exciting disc matches, then the light cycles. The light cycle sequence kicked in right as my favorite song from the Daft Punk soundtrack kicked in, and let's just say I was in a state of exquisite bliss about the whole experience of Tron -- and loving the fact that I'd decided to go 3D, which I thought was looking damn good (contrary to what I'd heard).

One of the things I thought was so cool about it (at that point) was how violent it was allowed to be, for a Disney movie. Because these were computer programs and not real "humans," they could be smashed, sliced, and obliterated into digital oblivion, without it qualifying as violence in the traditional sense of blood and guts. But they were still viscerally affecting kills, exciting and full of danger -- which seemed like Disney really pushing its own envelope in a surprising way.

Then ... well, then the second half of Tron: Legacy takes over. Convoluted plots. Unclear character motivations. Cheesy dialogue reflective of a highly uneven tone. Every sin of narrative filmmaking you want, you can find in the second half of Tron. The film is an unquestionable visual triumph -- even the digital Clu character, modeled after a young version of Bridges, is a reasonably special effect. But the visuals are not enough to sustain things when they get wacky and unfocused in the second half. Novice director Joseph Kosinski, who has a visual effects background, knows how to create this world, but not how to populate it. His direction of the actors, especially Hedlund, is amateurish to indifferent, and it leaves the movie surprisingly low on stakes. After awhile you just forget who is going where, and why.

So I was pretty eager to beat feet out of there as soon as the first end credit appeared. I'd normally stay through the credits, especially since they were likely to be handled with style in a film like this. But I could just feel True Grit beginning in the theater two doors down, so I made a hasty exit.

I do double features at this theater because you only have to get past one ticket taker, then you're free to roam wherever you want. It was the return of the 3D glasses that I thought might compromise my attempt to see the second film. If I had to go all the way back out to the ticket taker, he'd then expect me to leave. So I thought I'd just leave my 3D glasses on the seat. The watchful eyes of an usher made me think twice about that, so I scooped them back up and figured it was time to improvise. Fortunately, I didn't have to, as a trio of ushers were positioned to take back the glasses directly outside the theater. Once I'd returned mine, they no longer had interest in me, and I barely even needed to slip into the bathroom to throw them off my scent. So I spent about five seconds in the bathroom and quickly scurried into True Grit.

The timing was perfect. Assuming there was no action prior to the credits, I didn't miss a moment.

But then the problem became that I was getting pretty tired, and had already made quite a dent in my supplies. Needing help to keep from falling asleep in Tron's second half, I'd made an early entry into the trail mix and taken a sizeable chunk out of it. (Once I got the taste, it was like opening a bag of irresistible potato chips.) Less than 30 minutes into True Grit I'd finished it, and the Red Bull didn't sustain me as long as I'd hoped it would. The Toy Story candy was probably gone with at least 45 minutes still remaining.

And so predictably, I had a tough time staying awake during True Grit. I'd like to think that if I were really into it, this wouldn't have been an issue. But I wasn't really into it, and I think that's an assessment I could make independent of my current state of exhaustion. I just wasn't very interested by the characters or the plot of True Grit. I didn't know entirely what to expect, having never seen the original, but I figured it would probably be in the same dark territory as the Coens' sort-of western No Country for Old Men. I could have used some of that darkness in True Grit. A lot more scenes than I expected were played for humor, and I wasn't getting the revisionist western vibe of a film like Unforgiven (my favorite western of all time), in which the whole system of revenge and violence is called into question.

To be fair, it was hardest to stay awake during the quiet moments. For example, there was a scene by a campfire in which it seems that Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) and Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) all bear their souls in a way that might have invested me more in their characters. But I was having particular trouble staying awake during that scene, try as I might to slap some vigor into myself. Someone who saw this movie on a full tank, please tell me -- did I miss something? Or is it just not that interesting, all told?

I think the movie did have some of Unforgiven's revisionist tendencies -- for example, we first "meet" Rooster when Mattie introduces herself to him while he's sitting on the can in an outhouse. Then there's the fact that Josh Brolin's character, introduced very late in the film, isn't the menacing personification of evil you're meant to believe he is -- just a regular old good-for-nothing loser. If we were meant to see this as a film in which everything is life-sized and underwhelming, as a very specific critique of Hollywood's method of portraying heroes and villains, it was not clear enough to me that this was the intention. Therefore, it just seemed like a sort of pale version of a Hollywood western. Then again, I am on record having concerns with the Coens in some of their recent films, most notably Burn After Reading.

I was disgorged from the second movie thinking I had lost probably no more than five minutes all told to sleep, but they were five key minutes dispersed at unfortunate times, which kept me from ever getting into True Grit's groove.

It's funny because only just the day before, I was having a discussion with a friend about how our appreciation of movies is very dependent on the circumstances under which we see them. The topic came up in the context of The Fighter, which is what we watched at my friend's house last week when the True Grit screener wouldn't play. We started it at nearly 10, and the pull of sleep was undoubtedly a factor in my underwhelming opinion of that film. So it may be the same with True Grit -- maybe if I saw it under better circumstances I'd feel more fondly toward it. Unfortunately, I may not prioritize that second viewing, and True Grit could just end up being a missed opportunity for me.

Oh well. I had to do it for the Bridges double (triple) feature. And because it's so rare, in the baby era, that I can carve out theater time, getting in two at once not only maximizes my money, but also my time.

And what did I think of Bridges overall? As I said, I thought the Clu character was a pretty advanced creation -- you could tell it wasn't a real human, but they're getting better and better at these things. His vocal work was certainly good in the role. As the human Flynn trapped in the Grid, Bridges was a bit more disinterested -- it was hard to really sympathize with him. Plus, there were times when he seemed to be inexplicably sinister, which didn't really make sense. As Rooster Cogburn, he's fine, doing his drunken pot-shotting and marble-mouthed old-westing. But nothing special. About what I would expect.

Then again, I wasn't much of a fan of Crazy Heart, either -- the role that catapulted Bridges back into the prominence that allowed me to see him twice in the theater last night.

Or, three times.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas BluRay haul

I've done nothing but weigh you down with words over the last couple entries, so I thought I'd give you a break with a different approach today. Who has the time during the holidays to read all these words, many of them self-indulgent?

So instead of discussing at length how literally my family took me when I told them I wanted movies for Christmas (and that I didn't get the one movie I definitely expected to get), today I will post in pictures only. Here are the BluRays I got for Christmas, posted in the order I opened them. Discuss.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Little Fockers with my little focker

When I wrote last week about how much I was not looking forward to Little Fockers, I could never have guessed I'd be seeing it in the theater within a week of its release.

Nor that I would have my son sitting next to me -- my four-month-old son, who is not suited for watching anything, let alone a movie in which a man (Ben Stiller) gives an injection in the erect penis of his father-in-law (Robert DeNiro) after the father-in-law takes a Viagra-type pill called Sustengo.

But when I discovered that there was one theater showing a Mommy Movie on my extra day off after Christmas -- I took a day off on either side of the paid holiday (Friday) and the weekend -- I jumped at the opportunity. Even if the only choice was Little Fockers.

Most cities -- LA being no exception -- have a program designed to help stay-at-home mothers (and fathers) get to the movies. In LA they are called Mommy Movies, though I was misidentifying them as Mommy and Me Movies, because almost everything else involving a mother and her child is described from the child's perspective: "Mommy and Me." The Mommy Movies play Monday mornings at 11 a.m., and they show films intended for adults. I suppose there are certain guidelines of decency -- you're probably not going to see Saw 3D at a Mommy Movie, for example. But a Fockers sequel where most of the "humor" is linguistic, and will go over the head of any children in attendance? That fits the bill fine.

We first researched these Mommy Movies a couple months ago, but not primarily for my wife -- who does in fact stay at home with our son, though she also works out of the house. We researched them for me, so I could see a movie on a Saturday morning with my son, while she enjoyed some much-needed downtime. The only problem was, Mommy Movies don't play on Saturday mornings. They play on Monday mornings, when Daddy is at work. Which I suppose makes a certain sense. If the theater is going to "sacrifice" one screening a week, where everyone has signed off on the sight of dozens of baby carriages and the sound of dozens of crying children, then they better make it the matinee screening on Monday -- when no one else will be there anyway. A Saturday morning doesn't make sense financially -- not only because the regular customers won't want to be there, but also because the Mommies won't want to be there. They'll be spending Daddy's day off either with him, or at the salon while he takes the kids.

So I figured it was pretty unlikely I would ever get to a Mommy Movie with Jasper. However, it occurred to me last week that one of my upcoming days off would be a Monday, and that the planets might actually align. In fact, Little Fockers would probably be a better choice than a movie I actually wanted to see, because I wouldn't be frustrated if my son ended up "ruining" the movie for me. With Little Fockers, there shouldn't be much to ruin.

The Pacific Theaters chain hosts the Mommy Movies in the greater LA area, at four different theaters, one of which is reasonably close to our house. But three of those theaters were not doing a Mommy Movie yesterday, presumably because many of the Daddies were off work for Christmas, reducing the utility of such a Monday morning screening (and potentially cannibalizing the theater's own regular customers). One, however, was -- the theater in Glendale, which was showing Little Fockers. Glendale is the second closest of the four, but it's still a half-hour drive under the best of circumstances.

However, the Monday after Christmas is probably the best of circumstances -- at least, it has considerably less than the regular dose of weekday traffic. Figuring this might be my only opportunity for this kind of life experience -- and thinking it could also make a great blog post -- I put the wheels in motion.

My wife had suggested I leave at 10, because I'd never been to the theater, and it would help to give myself the time to get situated. I thought 10:15 would be fine. Of course, I didn't actually leave until 10:25. And by following the directions of my GPS with unquestioning loyalty, I took a very slow route to get on the 10 freeway, which set me back further. If I had been 100% certain I'd be using the 10 to get there, I would have shaved off at least five minutes with a different route. Live by the GPS, die by the GPS.

But I ended up rolling into the parking garage at about 11:02, making good time after the poor start, and breathing a sigh of relief as I narrowly avoided an accident -- one of those jam-on-the-brakes situations where everyone slows down for an exit more quickly than you're expecting. (The car in front of me actually swerved to avoiding hitting the car in front of him).

Naturally, it was one of those serpentine parking garages that serves the whole mall, and once you drive up several ramps to find your own spot, then you need to figure out the best route to the theater. A sign by the elevator at least told me I was in the right place, advertising the Mommy Movies, but it didn't actually direct me to the theater. I had to ask two other people before I even learned whether I'd be taking the elevator up or down. Down on the street level, I weaved my way through a very charming outdoor mall still dressed for Christmas, getting further encouragement I was heading in the right direction from various passersby, until I finally saw the facade of the theater.

The line to the ticket counter was one of those disorganized affairs that seem to perfectly encapsulate the parenting experience. It was more of a glob of people than a proper line, with each mini glob consisting of a stroller and either one or two parents fussing around the edges of the stroller. Hating to miss the beginning of movies, even movies as frivolous as Little Fockers, I started to feel the agitation of stress building up inside of me -- or, I should say, feel it even more, as stress had been spurring me onward the entire trip. Jasper was unaware of all this, sleeping peacefully in the car seat strapped into the stroller.

From my spot in the back of the slow-moving line, I called out to the woman taking tickets, to ask her if I could buy Mommy Movie tickets at the automated kiosk on the other side of the lobby. She got that apologetic/guilty smile on her face and said she didn't know. But the ticket seller at the front of his line picked up on our exchange and said I could. I guess that was probably obvious, but I didn't know whether there was a special protocol for the Mommy Movie -- whether they had to ascertain not only that I had a child, but a child who bore a resemblance to me, before they would issue me a ticket.

So I hit the kiosk, but of course, the kiosk wasn't recognizing my card as I tried to swipe it. Figures. Meanwhile, I looked over my shoulder, and somehow the impossibly convoluted line I had just been in had dissipated down to almost nothing. Just when I was about to make a second course correction, the swipe registered and my tickets were issued.

The ticket taker apologized for not knowing the protocol, but ensured me that the movie had not started yet. "Whew," I thought, passing a cordoned-off area that was described as "Stroller Parking," and had about a dozen strollers in it. For a moment I wondered if I was allowed to bring the stroller in, or would have to leave it out here. I was relying on that stroller. But there was no one there to tell me otherwise, so I went on in with it, finding numerous others inside as well.

And also finding that the ticket taker had been wrong a second time. The movie had started. In fact, the first images I saw were of Robert DeNiro in the midst of a very slapsticky heart attack, in which he was using some wires from the surveillance equipment in his basement as a makeshift defibrillator.

For a moment I was annoyed. I had hoped at least to come in during the opening credits. But then I adopted a new perspective on my lateness, for which I had only my own poor planning to blame: I had gone into Little Fockers knowing that I could be distracted for large portions of it because of my son acting up, or that I might even feel the need to leave the theater altogether if I just couldn't manage to calm him down. Coming in a few minutes late seemed to be very consistent with the kind of distracted viewing I expected to have -- in fact, you could say it guaranteed that this would be the kind of prototypical Mommy Movie viewing experience I was hoping to have. So I just settled in and enjoyed myself.

Finding many of the key aisle seats either to be taken, or to be on a riser that wasn't big enough to accommodate the stroller, I moved straight down to the front row. This was about the best front-row scenario you could ask for, as the rows of seats curve back in an arc, leaving you with a more than decent view if you position yourself near the middle. Being the only person in the front row, I had plenty of room to spread out, and had plenty of room to push the stroller back and forth if Jasper got fussy.

Which he didn't do for the first 20 minutes. In fact, he slept so soundly that I had to give him a little touch on the face just to make sure he was still with me. (It's a parent thing -- we do it all the time.) When he did finally awaken, I took him onto my lap and played with him a little bit. I knew he'd need to feed soon, so I sunk the frozen vial of breast milk into the boiling water I'd been carrying in a travel mug. It had last been boiling an hour ago, so it was merely hot at this point, but it did the job of unfreezing the milk to the point where he could drink it. You ideally want the milk to be a little bit warm before he drinks it, but the best I could do was not-cold/a little bit cold. He drank it anyway, appreciatively.

Having my son with me was not nearly the difficulty I thought it might be. He only got fussy before he had eaten, which was understandable, and once later -- and with the one time later, his fussiness was cured almost immediately with a few times backward and forward in the stroller. The rest of the time, he was simply a joy. It's no secret babies like the moving images of a TV screen, but Jasper was absolutely transfixed by the larger-than-life images of a movie screen. Not only did he stare, as I have seen him do with the TV, but he also smiled. Maybe he just thought Little Fockers was really funny.

And the funny thing is, I found Little Fockers a lot more enjoyable because I had this cute little guy by my side. The movie itself was sloppy -- more on that in a minute -- but I will probably always remember it fondly because Jasper was there watching it with me. We genuinely had fun, and he was one of the best-behaved children there.

Because I was down in the front row, I probably didn't have the immersion in the rest of the scene that I would have had if I'd been back with most of the other mommies (and daddies, of which there were plenty). But I didn't think this would be a complete post about the Mommy Movies if I didn't give you some other atmospheric details.

For one, I was very surprised at how little the other children bothered me. Yeah, there was some crying, but not as much as I expected. Yeah, there was a girl two rows behind me who got her head stuck between two seats, and needed to be extricated by her mother. And yeah, there were mothers walking up and down the aisles, holding children in their arms who wouldn't shush in a stationary position. But I think I actually could have been watching a movie I cared about, and not had that experience significantly diluted by the environment. Maybe all those kids were also transfixed by a 20-foot-tall Ben Stiller.

A couple other funny things: 1) In the final scene, which takes place at Christmastime, a little girl walked to the front of the auditorium and yelled out "Merry Christmas!" which got a sprinkling of laughs; 2) Immediately afterward, about four sets of parents were seen changing their children on changing tables that had been set up between the back section of seats and the front. Since my son was not showing any signs of a dirty diaper, I just hightailed it out of there.

And a couple thoughts on Little Fockers as a movie:

1) Teri Polo has been working regularly since Meet the Fockers in 2004, but she was so underused in this movie, it was like they'd had to bring her out of mothballs to play her part, and only for the sake of continuity from the two previous films. Jessica Alba, as the woman trying to tempt Stiller's Greg Focker into adultery, has twice as much screen time.

2) This movie is barely about little Fockers at all. Yes, there are five-year-old twins, the children of Pam and Greg. But the plots barely involve them at all, focusing more on the shenanigans between Jack (DeNiro) and Greg, and on the potential that Greg and Pam's marriage is threatened.

3) Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand appear so briefly in this movie, if you blinked you'd miss them.

4) Owen Wilson is on-hand as a temptation for Pam, but this too is handled sloppily. He starts out dating a Russian woman named Svetlana. Is it just me, or is every impossibly hot Russian woman in the movies named Svetlana?

Okay, I've taken up enough of your time.

In conclusion: I already know you're a movie fan, since you're reading my blog. If you're also a parent, try the equivalent of Mommy Movies in your city. We go to the movies first and foremost to have fun, and even though Little Fockers wasn't good, it was fun -- thanks to my son.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Haunted by spirits

As recently as Friday I wrote about how our "new" LG BluRay player (we got it in August) has been acting up a bit. In a longer post about other things, I mentioned that it had shown poor fault tolerance when trying to get me through a viewing of a DVD of The Best Years of Our Lives, which I was able to complete without further incident on my laptop.

It's not the first time it has showed that behavior, and the age/history of the disc doesn't seem to be a factor. As a matter of fact, it choked on the last chapter of Gigli a couple weeks ago -- on a brand new disc. How did I have a brand new disc of Gigli in my possession? It was part of a gag gift for a friend, and the gag part required me to open the packaging anyway, so I thought I'd use the opportunity to finally watch this famous turkey. Let's just say I didn't find it to be as much of a turkey as most people, but I did think it was hilarious that even a brand new disc couldn't play through to completion. At the time I took it as a sign of the poor quality of the pressing -- but now I'm not so sure.

So over the last few days we had a couple funny incidents that I thought were worth sharing, involving the movies Disney's A Christmas Carol and Japanese Story. As you see, I have cleverly fit them both under the title "Haunted by spirits" -- A Christmas Carol involves that quite literally, while Japanese culture is steeped in the spirit world. But the real haunting is of my BluRay player, whose quirky behavior is getting harder and harder to pigeonhole.

Don't pause it

As I may have discussed before, I'm a bit of a control freak when it comes to monitoring how closely other people are watching the movies I'm watching. And since my wife is the one I usually see movies with, she's the one who gets under my skin on this issue -- looking down at her food too long while missing visual information, not looking at the screen while there are subtitles to read, etc.

But the one that gets me most is when she gets up from the couch and says "Don't pause it." That's right, she's going to walk away from the movie for some unknown amount of time -- she may know, but I don't -- and she doesn't even want me to pause it. If it's a crappy movie, I don't mind so much, but if it's something I'm enjoying, it disappoints me greatly.

"Don't pause it" took on a different meaning on Friday night, Christmas Eve, when we watched Disney's A Christmas Carol, which I had been raving about since I saw it in the theater last year -- and since she refused to go with me for what would have been my second time. The viewing was a victory overall, because she told me afterward that it might be her favorite film version of Dickens' tale -- and that it would, in fact, have been cool to see it on the big screen in 3D. (Not saying "I told you so," not saying "I told you so.")

But the viewing got off to a rough start when I paused to yell at the neighbor's dogs. Most often, their toxic behavior presents itself in the form of hair-trigger barking, but they're also known for trying "to make their great escape" from the yard. That's how my wife and I refer to it when they rip and tear at the corrugated plastic fence, which sounds a bit like a child's toy going a couple rounds in the garbage disposal. "Knock it off!" I shouted a couple times, with mixed results at best.

The results were decidedly negative for the movie. For some reason, upon coming out of the pause, we were now in "closed captioning for the hearing impaired" mode. Huh?

Thinking it a fluke, we went back to the main menu and reset the settings. Back to normal. But, I made the mistake of pausing a second time, and once again, the movie thought we were deaf. I've seen strange behavior by DVD players in terms of the closed captioning, but never triggered by the pause button.

So we took this opportunity to go to the bathroom, put on another layer, and stock up on whatever food and drink we might possibly need for the rest of the film. Still, I was worried. This was a film I had a lot invested in, and I could easily see her needing to do or get something, and refusing to let me pause it, knowing that the pause would entail yet another trip out to the setup menu.

Nope. We made it all the way to the end. She fell asleep for 15 seconds once or twice, which I guess is the equivalent of leaving on a 15-second errand around the house -- or "not pausing." But her praise for the film meant I could live with that.


The previous story could have been blamed on either the BluRay player or the disc itself, but this next example is a lot less ambiguous.

Wanting to reconnect with her Australian homeland on Christmas Day, my wife asked if we could watch one of the Australian films we had on our Netlix instant queue -- which of course uses our BluRay player to operate. Walkabout was a possibility, but we ultimately went with Japanese Story, a movie directed by a woman named Sue Brooks, starring Toni Collette. It's a bit of a weird movie, but I mean that in a good way. It's about an unexpected love affair between Collette's geologist and the Japanese businessman she's driving around, because his company owns hers. And it takes a definitely unexpected turn around the end of the second act. But I agreed with my wife that in the end, it's quite beautiful in its way.

It was the end of the third act that was the problem. In fact, on the very last shot of the film -- even if she hadn't already seen it, I'd have known it was the last shot because it had that "last shot feel" -- the movie crapped out. At first it just got stuck, like a DVD freezes when it encounters a scratch. But then when I tried to press stop, it hung while trying to process the command to return to the previous menu.

It soon became clear that I wasn't going to have any luck until I shut down the player entirely. But even this was a no-go. Pressing the power button on the remote control was having no effect. So I pressed the power button directly on the player. Still no effect. Just when I thought I was going to have to unplug the damn thing, it finally shut down.

That would have been weird enough, but when it came back on, and we tried to go to Netflix, it asked us if we were subscribers. Upon selecting "Yes," it then asked us to go to our Netflix account on our computer and type in this code. In other words, we needed to be set up for the first time all over again. I immediately wondered what might have been lost in this exchange, like the memory of where we were in certain incomplete viewings -- or even that we'd ever had any viewings at all.

My wife did as requested, and everything was restored. Except for the fact that we had recently viewed Japanese Story -- there was no evidence of it whatsoever. I had to select it from our instant queue again, and fast-forward all the way to the end in order to watch the last 30 seconds of the last shot, and the credits.

So yeah, we may have a cheap BluRay player. I guess we'll just have to see what the future holds in store.

And maybe call an exorcist to banish these ghosts from my machine.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The 1940s: Santa Jesuses, artificial limbs and motormouth reporters

And so we have arrived! The final month of my six-month Decades project, which began back in July.

I've been watching three movies per month from decades that were underrepresented in my collection of movies seen, concentrating on the decades from the 1920s to the 1970s, in a sequence determined by random drawing. Last (but not least) were the 1940s, watched in December. I have usually written these monthly reports at the end of the month, but am going a week early because of another convention I've been following: starting off each post with the poster art for the first movie I watched. I didn't think a Miracle on 34th Street poster topping the blog would be very timely a week from now, so I'm wrapping up early this month (so I can concentrate on a different kind of wrapping -- wrapping presents). Nothing like being a slave to the conditions you yourself have established on your own blog, right?

And because it's Christmas Eve, and I've still got plenty to do, I'll make it a quick one. Shall we get right into it?

Miracle on 34th Street (1947, George Seaton). Watched: Saturday, December 11th

No matter what decade I was going to be watching in December, I decided I'd probably watch a Christmas movie from that decade, just as I watched a scary movie from whatever decade I was on in time for Halloween. (Tod Browning's Dracula, from 1931). Miracle on 34th Street stood out as the most famous Christmas movie I had never seen. In fact, I didn't even know what it was about until we popped in the DVD two weeks ago, within an hour after decorating our tree.

As you already know, but I'll explain it if you don't, the "miracle" in the title of Miracle on 34th Street refers to making a non-believer believe in Santa Claus. (You could say that the miracle is that Santa Claus actually exists and is wandering around New York somewhat aimlessly, agreeing to take a job as a department store Santa even though things should really be ramping up at the North Pole right now -- but I don't think that's how they intended it.) Sure, there are plenty of non-believers around, but the ones the film concentrates on are a business-like Macy's employee (Maureen O'Hara) and the daughter she has taught to be equally skeptical and real-world-oriented (Natalie Wood). That's right -- that's the same Natalie Wood who would later appear in such films as Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story, later to die from drowning under suspicious circumstances off of Catalina, with a drunken Christopher Walken and Robert Wagner within shouting distance. Although I liked the movie on the whole very much -- the perfect post-tree-decorating activity -- it was Wood's performance that absolutely charmed my socks off. Rarely do you see a child actor (Wood would have been 8 or 9 during filming) with such spunk and natural ability, and she was also hilarious. Her character loves to chew gum and blow bubbles, and my favorite part of the film is when she speaks a line through the popped bubble on her face. Such a talent. The miracle is getting her to believe that Santa Claus is real, and my wife pointed out to me that this is basically the same thing that's at stake in a new Christmas classic, Elf.

Another thing I found noteworthy about the film is how intimately it's associated with Macy's. The movie starts with the Macy's Thanksgiving parade, and continues on as the real Santa Claus (subbing for a drunken Claus, and weren't they worried about child viewers learning that all those who dressed up like Santa were not actually Santa?) takes a job greeting kids inside the store. If the movie were being made today, they would probably use a made-up department store.

My experience of Miracle on 34th Street was tainted, slightly, after the fact, upon reading the review that's on the site I write for. The reviewer pointed out that this Santa story is actually a parable for the life of Jesus Christ. In both cases, there is a person who appears on the scene, claiming to be a person of particular importance. Some believe that he is this person, while others do not, and they persecute him. Both men must ultimately stand trial for their claims of "divinity." Spoiler alert: At least Miracle on 34th Street does not end with good old Saint Nick strung up on a cross. Why do they have to take a good old commercialized Christmas story and make it all religious? ;-)

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler). Watched: Sunday, December 19th

The Decades series has been a good opportunity for me to zero in on some previously unseen best picture winners, and that's how I settled on The Best Years of Our Lives. Again, I knew nothing about this -- I thought it might be a literal title, steeped in nostalgia for some period of grand living for the characters involved. Instead, as you probably know, it's a drama about soldiers returning from World War II, one that would provide the template for numerous other films about veterans of foreign wars and their awkward readjustment to civilian life.

The most interesting thing to me was that of the three soldiers the film concentrates on, one (Harold Russell) has hooks for hands. I found this to be an uncommonly confronting detail for 1946, and was surprised to see it. However, I never would have imagined the actor himself actually had no hands. I took it to be an impressive costuming job for much of the movie, until a scene where he removes his artificial limbs leaves no doubt about the actor's physical condition. I later read that Russell was an actual World War II veteran who had actually lost his hands in combat, and that made everything about his performance all the more heartbreaking. In the film, Homer Parrish is sure his infirmity will lose him the love of his life (Cathy O'Donnell), who has been waiting for him throughout the war. But O'Donnell's Wilma is a saint, and she never experiences a moment of hesitation in her commitment to Homer. I just wonder if Russell's real-life experience was quite so rosy. I also learned that Russell was honored with two Oscars for his role -- best supporting actor, and a special Oscar designed to honor his courage, because the Academy did not predict the nominated actor would win based merely on his acting. I have to agree with that -- Russell is good but not great, but considering that he's not a professional actor, the performance itself becomes great.

However, probably because of his status as a non-professional, the story spends a lot more time with the two older soldiers, Fred (Dana Andrews) and Al (Fredric March). Each experiences another variation on what we (by now) have come to think of as the archetypal soldier's return -- Fred's wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) has moved on in a way he was not expecting, taking her own apartment and working at a night club (they continue they're relationship, but you can tell it's doomed), and Al tries to return to familiar routines only to find them foreign, succumbing to a desire to lose himself in the drink. I found the film to be unremittingly truthful, a good balance between the star-driven glamor audiences would have expected at the time, and a cold, hard look at the realities it deals with. I learned that audiences were rejecting World War II movies at that time the same way they generally reject films about the Iraq wars now, but The Best Years of Our Lives reversed that trend quite quickly, making it safe to reflect on the recently completed war once again. One thing that surprised me about it was that it was 2 hours and 50 minutes long, but didn't feel like it had a wasted moment, and actually passed rather quickly.

One aside about the film: It led me to the sad discovery that our BluRay player may not have the fault tolerance one would hope for. Try as I might, I could not get the BluRay player to play chapters 18 through 20 of this movie. That's quite a chunk of the film to miss, and I didn't know what I should do. So I shifted it over to my laptop, and voila -- problem solved. So I just left the disc in my laptop and finished watching it that way. I guess that's an unsurprising consequence of the price of BluRay players plummeting -- they are made much more cheaply now.

His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks). Watched: Thursday, December 23rd

Knowing I wanted to write this post today, I needed to squeeze in one more short movie from the 1940s before Christmas, and found the time yesterday morning (my first of five straight days off, representing two vacation days). I had targeted His Girl Friday the day before, taking a very systematic approach -- I went to the entry "1940 in film" on wikipedia (these "year in film" pieces are invaluable sources of information), found a movie that was on my radar, checked to see if it was available for streaming on Netflix, and checked to see if the running time was relatively brief. The 92-minute His Girl Friday removed any need to move on to "1941 in film."

I knew His Girl Friday was a screwball comedy featuring a battle of the sexes (is that redundant? Don't they all feature battles of the sexes?), but I didn't know it was about the world of newspaper reporting -- a world I'm familiar with, having been a newspaper reporter once myself. I'd thought the movie would be more about a boss-secretary relationship, given that a "girl Friday" essentially amounts to an errand girl -- a girl who would pick up the boss' dry cleaning, that kind of thing. Yes, Rosalind Russell is in some ways a "girl Friday" to Cary Grant in this film, because he sends her scurrying around in covering a breaking story. But their relationship is on much more equally footing: She's his ex-wife, and she actually holds the power because he wants to get back together and she doesn't -- in fact, she's marrying someone else the very next day. The title His Girl Friday seems to reflect the sexism inherent in Hollywood of the time, because even though Russell's character gives as good as she gets, her role in the title is that of an errand girl, suited for no better than picking up laundry. Also -- and I don't know if it qualifies as a spoiler to talk about the ending of a movie that's 70 years old -- she ends up falling back in love with Grant's conniving trickster by movie's end, with only a token gesture on Grant's part to show that he actually has a heart.

Hildy Johnson's return to Grant's Walter Burns is at the expense of her current fiance, Bruce Baldwin, played by Ralph Bellamy. A number of things about Bellamy's character interest me. For one, I immediately recognized Bellamy as one of the two rich men in Trading Places and later in Coming to America. Given that he seemed reasonably old in this film (he was 36), I was somewhat surprised that it could be the same actor, since those other movies were more than 40 years later -- though I guess the timing actually works out. Scanning his CV, I have not actually seen a single other movie he was in between His Girl Friday and Trading Places. However, the man clearly had a prolific career, because the His Girl Friday script actually contains a self-aware joke about Bellamy. When Burns is engaging one of his goons to frame Bruce -- one of a handful of times Bruce is arrested in Burns' attempt to sabotage Hildy's impending marriage -- Burns describes Bruce as "looking like that actor, Ralph Bellamy." I'm wondering if this was one of the first times that was done. Here I thought it was reasonably clever, which is not how I felt when watching Ocean's Twelve, where the character played by Julia Roberts is mistaken for the actual Julia Roberts. Lastly, I wondered if Bellamy was one of cinema's first "Baxters." If you don't know the film The Baxter, it tells a romantic comedy from the perspective of the guy who is left at the altar -- he's invariably a nice guy who just isn't right for the heroine, because the heroine truly loves the hero. Think Bill Pullman in Sleepless in Seattle. Bellamy's Bruce is clearly a Baxter to Grant's Walter Burns, as Bruce instantly likes his rival and his always inclined to give the benefit of the doubt in any situation, whereas Burns' mind is constantly assessing every situation to turn it to his advantage. We would root for Hildy to end up with Bruce except that Bruce is so boring, whereas Burns is excitement personified.

And that's what Hildy is attracted to, having been a newspaperwoman until her divorce from Burns. And this is where the incredibly fast pace of His Girl Friday comes in. Each scene plays out at breakneck speed, as Grant and Russell jockey with lightning fast retorts and one-liners, each spat out so quickly that the next line almost threatens to eclipse the previous one. This is intentional, since the business they're in (reporting) is portrayed as an industry in which every second counts in trying to scoop the competition. And as I was watching Russell jump between conversations on three different phones, amazed at her agility as an actress and the character's agility as a journalist, I was reminded why I myself did not ultimately like the field of journalism. The film basically makes it seem like a journalist will stop at nothing short of murder to get a story, even manipulating the news events to make them better stories -- as the centerpiece example in this film, an escaped man accused of murder spends a large part of the third act hiding inside a desk, where Hildy and Burns have hidden him, all so that they can write a story in which their newspaper is credited with capturing the killer. It reminded me that I never had the type A personality necessary to step on the backs of others, and metaphorically stick microphones in people's faces at their worst moments. A key moment in my professional life was when I realized that I love writing, but I don't love reporting. Films like His Girl Friday, which cast journalism as a depraved rather than a noble profession, confirm for me that I made the right decision to withdraw from reporting and focus on criticism.

And I think that's a good place to end the Decades series. Thanks for reading.

I will be taking the month of January off to focus on watching films from 2010, before my deadline to finalize my year-end list arrives on January 25th. I'll return at the end of the month to announce a new monthly film-watching series, designed to ensure I continue watching movies from decades past on a regular basis.

Because if we don't remember our history, we are doomed to repeat it.

Wait, that doesn't make any sense in this context.

Anyway, happy holidays. I'll be returning with more new posts after I've opened my presents!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

You've had your fun. Now, fock off.

Who would have ever thought a series of movies would get so much "mileage" (notice my skepticism) out of naming a character Gaylord Focker?

The naming of Ben Stiller's character was probably the cheekiest and most unworthy part of the otherwise quite superlative Meet the Parents, which hit theaters more than a decade ago now. The rest of the film was an elaborately constructed series of awkward misunderstandings and cringe-worthy pratfalls that truly left many of us feeling queasy, in the best possible way. At the end of that movie, there was real blood on the canvas. Not only had we witnessed a very funny comedy, but we'd also seen the darker, non-sitcomy side to what happens when parents don't accept the man their daughter has brought home to meet them, and vice versa.

Since then, not so much.

And maybe it was the decision to put the word Fockers in the title of each subsequent movie that leaves me wanting.

Granted, I'm really only making an informed judgment about a single film here -- 2004's Meet the Fockers. I have obviously not yet seen Little Fockers (which releases today). But Meet the Fockers took a giant dive into sitcom-land after the original film, becoming much more broad and much less funny, even though the introduction of Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand as Gaylord/Greg's parents should have been a boon to the production, rather than a hindrance. I don't think it's saying too much to observe that Little Fockers appears to continue in that vein -- more of the broadness and less of the serious underbelly that gave Meet the Parents its edge.

It's funny to think of these movies as family movies, especially since their titles exist primarily to see how much they can "get away with" -- how close they can come to making you think of the word "fuckers." (Pretty close, it would seem.) But the release of Meet the Fockers at Christmastime, which has obviously been repeated with the third movie in the series, seems to have given the whole enterprise a healthy shove into the land of movies that can be appreciated by the whole family. Since this movie is about the kids of Gaylord Focker and his wife Pam (Teri Polo), it figures to continue that family-friendly trend even further.

Don't believe me? Just look at how they've "cuted up" this particular poster, which deemphasizes the cold war between Greg and Pam's father Jack (Robert DeNiro) and gets rid of their "iconic" (there are those quotation marks again) fingers-pointing-to-eyes gesture. Instead, the kids are front and center, and everyone else is listed like you'd list them in a true Christmas ensemble -- like you'd list them in a Nancy Meyers movie (see here for a fuller discussion of that phenomenon). Check it out:

It's just funny to think that this is the logical evolution from a film that grew out of the tradition of such previous Stiller movies as Flirting With Disaster and There's Something About Mary. Movies that are each sweet in their own way, but more than anything are wicked, and definitely adult-oriented.

Then again, the Fockers series is about life's various steps forward -- about growing up. And maybe that's the evolution we're really witnessing with these movies. Whereas first, there was genuine tension between the titular parents (DeNiro and Blythe Danner) and their prospective son-in-law, the kind that might threaten to end Greg and Pam's relationship, now it's the little tensions, the absurdities of an essentially happy family life. As family-by-marriage get to know each other better and grow to accept each other, not everything has to be the cat peeing on grandma's ashes, or has to be the thing that will destroy the whole enterprise where it stands. In essentially happy marriages, sometimes the kids saying the darnedest things is as controversial as it gets.

Still, it's my choice whether I have to like it or not, and still I say: Fockers, please fock off.

But they probably won't. This movie will probably make decent money. See you back here in five years for Teenage Fockers?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The dog ate my homework

My friend Phil was kind enough to have a couple of us over last night to watch one of his 2010 screeners. Phil (not his real name) is in the Writer's Guild, and each year he gets a dozen or so screeners that are likely to get award buzz for their scripts. Because he's a sharing guy, he shared one with us last night, as he does every year -- even though it's probably against the rules.

Of course, he shared one with his dog first, before we arrived.

I just had to get a picture of this. He'd told me in a phone call the previous day that their dog, a new arrival in their home within the past year, had gone through a stack of screeners that had been piled on their table, and literally left some of them in shreds. It's clear no one is going to be watching I Love You Phillip Morris anytime soon. They actually already watched it, meaning I might have been able to borrow it -- but the dog removed any question of that. The dog also ate one of the ones they hadn't seen, Get Low, but no physical evidence of this was offered.

We had been scheduled to watch True Grit, which Phil and his fiancee had also already watched just two nights earlier. The reason given for their immediate repeat viewing is that they liked it very much, but had not been able to understand half of what Jeff Bridges (whom my friend calls "Old Marble Mouth") was saying. Okay, got it -- good movie, need to pay close attention.

But it never got to that. Much to his dismay, Phil's Playstation would not fire up True Grit a second time. It just wasn't recognizing the disc. Which is strange, because it played successfully on Saturday, and would play in his laptop right now. And other discs would play in the Playstation. Just not True Grit. Jokes were immediately made about the disc having orders to self-destruct after its first viewing. They're serious about screeners being watched only by the Guild members, who are actually asked to destroy these discs after viewing. But they haven't figured out the self-destruction yet. Good thing Phil's dog is available to lend a helping hand. Or, a helping tooth.

Phil tried his damnedest, but eventually had to give up. To salvage something to watch, we watched The Fighter, even though it was probably against various better judgments to start watching a 116-minute movie at ten of 10. Shorter movies were discussed, for example, The Company Men (104 minutes) and Please Give (90 minutes, and I'd already seen Please Give). Somewhere was not discussed, as it did not receive a second after I firsted it. But The Fighter was ultimately chosen, just barely, despite the fact that the consensus seemed to be moving irrevocably toward not watching any screener at all. But we made it through, and it actually seemed to be shorter than 116 minutes. Good performances all around.

That's the screener report for 2010 ... I'm Vance Tastic.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Filling up on junk food

Christmas is the time of year most of us add at least five pounds to our waistlines. We eat whatever's in front of us -- and there's a lot in front of us -- because we know it's just a finite period of indulgence. And besides, what would a weight-loss New Year's resolution be, if you didn't have a couple extra pounds to work off at the gym?

But while it's the time of year for dietary gluttony, it should also be the time of year for nutritional value at the movies -- at least for me, if not for you. Let me explain.

I've got 38 more days to watch all the movies in 2010 I still want to watch. I know that seems like a strange thing to say. I mean, I could still be watching 2010 movies in 2060, couldn't I? Yes, but the difference is, I won't be able to rank them as part of my year-end list. And that has a kind of out-sized importance to me.

You see, a couple friends and I (really just two of us these days -- I'm looking at you, Don) have been ranking our favorite movies released in a given calendar year, for upwards of a decade now. Actually, next year will be 15 years for me. If you don't do it yourself, I recommend it. It's a heck of a lot of fun.

The key to this kind of activity, however, is that you have to have a cut-off date, a date when you can present your results to other people without further tweaks and modifications. You'll still see movies from that year after the cut-off date, they just won't be included in the "official rankings." And traditionally, for us, the cut-off date has been the morning the Oscar nominations are announced -- this year, January 25th. That gives us a couple extra weeks after the end of the year to see the stragglers that didn't get released until late December -- or even early January, depending on your part of the country.

And so, this time of year is when the cramming begins. When we try to stuff our faces with as many movies from the previous year as possible.

However, it's not fattening, because this is the time of year when we're watching the good stuff -- the stuff that was important to see from the previous year, important to rank with its peers. And to keep better track of the nutritional movies I'm targeting this year, I'm keeping an ever-growing list of these titles on my blackberry. Would you like to see it? I thought you would. It's displayed in the order it was written, not in the order of the movies' importance to me.


Winter's Bone
I'm Still Here

Easy A

Tron: Legacy
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
Tiny Furniture
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

The A-Team
The Other Guys

Blue Valentine
The Company Men
Knight & Day
The Tempest
Waiting for "Superman"
Get Low
The Switch

Mother and Child
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
The Fighter

That's 24 movies in 38 days. I'm going to be busy.

Are they all really "good for me"? Heck no. No one would ever call The A-Team "nutritional." However, it makes the list as a "film goal" of mine -- which therefore loosely gives it "nutritional value" -- because it meets the standard of being a notable movie released this year that I think deserves to be ranked. When you think about it, the goal is to see a representative sample of the movies released during the year in question -- and in a way, the rankings at the bottom of the list are as enriching as those at the top, in terms of being part of one's overall personal assessment of cinema in 2010.

The problem is, I haven't been filling up on nutritional films. I've been filling up on junk food. Which is where The Expendables and Unstoppable come in.

In fact, three of the last four 2010 films I've seen are not on this list, and never were. Add Centurion to the above movies, and you find me in the midst of a spate of unremarkable action movies that are substituting for the life-giving protein I should be consuming.

How did this happen? How am I endangering the better films on this list by watching schlock whose best hope is to be good schlock?

Well, I'll tell you. I bet that surprises you.

1) Centurion - I decided I wanted to start watching a movie at nearly midnight (!) last Friday night, and I thought at the very least I should be watching something from this year. Scanning the list of 2010 titles I'd put on my Netflix instant queue, I thought Centurion seemed like a suitable option. However, there was never much chance I was going to finish it before I went to sleep, and true enough, I watched only about 30 minutes. Determined (as I always am) to finish, I had to plod through it the next day, with numerous breaks, in the midst of all the other priorities of a typical Saturday. Finishing Centurion -- which looked good, but wasn't much on story, and was silly-bloody -- ended up crippling my day so much, I never even got in a trip to go present shopping, which was a top priority at the time.

2) The Expendables - My wife was going out for her company's board meeting on Wednesday night, so when I was out earlier running errands with my son, I impulsively stopped by a Redbox kiosk and picked up The Expendables. (Fitting in perfectly with my philosophy of what movies to rent from Redbox.) I would never have been at that Ralph's supermarket in the first place if I didn't feel compelled to extend my errands so my wife could get a longer nap. (If that sounds like I'm blaming her for renting The Expendables, I'm certainly not -- I'm just illustrating the role of circumstance in the movies we choose to watch.) Strangely, I actually passed up at least one movie on this list -- Prince of Persia -- in order to choose one that wasn't.

The problem was, when my son wouldn't eat the rare bottle of formula I tried to feed him that night, and when the penultimate episode of this season of Survivor was on, I didn't start watching the movie until a half-hour before she got home. Because it was due back by 9 o'clock the next night, I watched another 20 minutes at the end of the night, then another 20 minutes (ridiculously) at 5:30 a.m. the next morning, before finally finishing while wrapping presents the next afternoon. I really don't know why this movie got such generally favorable reviews -- I thought it was tedious and brainless (though not in a good way), and as I wrote in my status update, it's really saying something when you find Dolph Lundgren the most charismatic actor in a movie.

3) Unstoppable - I had to cram in The Expendables in part because I was due to see my friend perform at a comedy show on Thursday night. Since I was already going to be out for the evening, I figured it wouldn't saddle my wife with any extra burden if I just stayed out longer and went to a movie. She agreed, so, tipsy from three (small and free) beers at the show, I made it just in time for a 9:55 show of Unstoppable. That's right, the movie I predicted I wouldn't like because I don't like its director, Tony Scott. However, a couple critics I respect (including Joe Morgenstern) rhapsodized over it, and it's not coming to video before January 25th, so I knew I'd need to see it in the theater if I wanted to include it for 2010.

This may have been my biggest gaffe from the three movies listed above, because a) it ended up not really doing it for me, and b) I passed up a couple other movies on this list that I'd also need to see in the theater -- and could have seen on Thursday night. Part of the reason I opted for Unstoppable was that I figured I'd need something tense to keep my adrenaline pumping, given the beers in my system and the late start time. Unstoppable's biggest failure was that it didn't keep me from falling asleep. In fact, I was fighting sleep from the moment I finished my popcorn. The movie ended up being more inert than a movie about an out-of-control locomotive, directed by this ADD director, should have ever been.

What am I trying to gain by telling you all this?

Well, maybe it'll be a message to myself to start watching healthier. Yeah, watching movies is often a function of opportunity, and each of these movies represented a particular opportunity to see something in a particular window of time. But in each instance I had other, better options available, which I inexplicably ignored.

No more. This weekend I've got to cleanse my pallet with a good documentary (Restrepo) or indie drama (Winter's Bone).

I can go back to eating the junk food after January 25th. How's that for a reverse resolution?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The dreaded R word

Like many of you, I've spent the second half of 2010 in full-on anticipation mode for Tron: Legacy.

In fact, I first saw the "new" trailer -- the one that expanded on the teasers we saw nearly a year ago -- on an IMAX screen before Inception. The timing worked out perfectly -- I had spent the first half of the year anticipating Inception, and Tron: Legacy immediately filled the anticipation vacuum. In fact, I remember exactly the shot in the trailer that sent me over the top -- a rear-view of a light cycle, with Daft Punk's "The Game Has Changed" (for those of you who, like me, bought the soundtrack last week off for $3.99) playing thunderously and spine-tinglingly in the background.

But if Tron: Legacy is not all we're cracking it up to be, I can't say I'll be surprised. See, my last three weeks have represented the tempered expectations of a dirty little word starting with the letter R:


Not the reshoots you read around this summer, in which Brad Bird and a couple others were brought in to flesh out the "characters, emotion and theme," leading to what director Joseph Kosinski referred to as six new minutes of footage in the film's first 20 minutes.

No, these are reshoots that may or may not have occurred over Thanksgiving. That's right, just three weeks before the movie was set to come out.

Uh oh.

The "may not" part of that equation is key. I have no verifiable source for this information -- at least not yet. If there were such 11th hour reshoots, it'll probably come out in the postmortem, if reasons for the film's failure need to be discovered. For now, I've only got a friend of mine to go on. Let's call him Paul.

I spent Thanksgiving with Paul, and when Paul and I get together, we always do a quick and dirty recap of what we've seen, what we have yet to see, and what we're excited to see. Tron: Legacy inevitably came up during that last part. However, Paul had information that I didn't -- he said that the movie was in reshoots. As in, right now. As in, Jeff Bridges and Garrett Hedlund were, at that very moment, acting against a green screen somewhere in greater Los Angeles.

I'd been saving up that tidbit to write about on the blog today, but thought I needed to be able to back up my claims. I'm not what you would call a journalist anymore, but I'm also not a blatant spreader of lies. So when I saw Paul again last night, I asked him what his source was for this information. At which point he told me he had been at a car dealer -- to buy, or to get repairs on his vehicle, I'm not sure -- and heard another customer talking. Clearly I'm not a journalist anymore, because I don't remember the details of a story that was told to me last night -- I can't remember whether Paul was talking to the guy himself, or heard this guy talking to an employee at the car dealership, or heard this guy talking on his cell. Whatever the case was, this guy had said something about "starting reshoots for Tron on Monday." As in Monday November 29th, 18 days before Tron: Legacy was scheduled to take theaters by storm.

Uh oh.

It's pretty obvious that reshoots are never a good sign. But when they occur months before the film is going to be released, like this summer's reshoots occurred, it's much easier to spin that as something positive, or at least non-negative. Interviewed this summer, Kosinski said "Being able to go in surgically and touch little things just helped bring the movie to the next level." And the fanboy commentators were all on board for that positive spin, especially given the fine pedigree of Pixar vet Brad Bird.

These new theoretical reshoots, which I am neither confirming nor denying, would clearly be an act of desperation, prompted by the sub-par response from test audiences. They have the potential to improve the movie, but they also have the potential to make it seem a lot choppier, especially if the actors have undergone noticeable physical changes since principal photography. Much has been made about how there is a digitally created younger version of Jeff Bridges in this movie, but with only a couple weeks between these theoretical reshoots and the film's debut, no digital touching up would seem possible.

All this really means is that like so many other event movies, Tron: Legacy is not going to rewrite everything we understand about the movies. It'll probably be cool in parts, and it'll probably suck in parts. All we can really hope is that it's cool in more parts than it sucks.

And if it sucks in more parts, well, we should hardly be surprised about that either. It's just the nature of the beast with big Hollywood popcorn movies -- the high probability of suckitude. Lots of big-budget movies before Tron: Legacy have sucked, and lots will suck afterward. And life will go on.

Looks like my wife and I are already downgrading it from "must see together" status. We've secured someone to watch our son on either Monday or Tuesday night, but we now think that a better use of that date night would be to go out for dinner and a drink, and enjoy each other's company. It's not a paid babysitter situation, so we don't have to worry about whether Tron is good enough to justify the cost of a sitter. We just have to worry if it's a better use of our time than spending quality adult time away from the baby, enjoying each other's company like we once did, while getting a little tipsy and indulging in some yummy food.

Not matter how good Tron: Legacy is, I'm going to say "Probably not" on that one.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Santa Monica Place, brought to you by Yogi Bear!

I once dated a girl who worked for a public relations company that specialized in the touring versions of big Broadway shows. I'm sure what they did is more complicated than that, but that's basically what it boiled down to.

A thing I learned from her is that when it comes to advertising on radio, it's an absolute no-no to have the same ad run twice in the same "pod" -- the same break between content. Advertisers sign contracts that stipulate the circumstances under which they want their advertisements to run, and they pay different amounts depending on the desirability of the time slot or the radio show. Sometimes, however, these get screwed up. And as a "make-good" that will air the ad the number of times specified in the contract, on rare occasions the radio station will air it twice in the same pod.

However, this is something for which the radio station should be severely punished, if the advertiser is monitoring the airing of their ads (and the advertiser is always monitoring the airing of their ads). See, it's overkill -- no prospective customer wants to have the same thing pitched to him over and over in the same small window of time. It negatively incentivizes the product in question.

Which is why I don't understand why a movie (like Yogi Bear) wants to wallpaper a mall (like the newly remodeled Santa Monica Place) with its posters. It seems to me the very definition of overkill.

I noticed the Yogi Bear advertising blitz when I was shopping there with my wife and son a couple weekends ago. Needless to say, I tucked it away for further discussion on the blog, when Yogi Bear was on the verge of its release.

Posters and/or banners and/or billboards for Yogi Bear hang everywhere. You've seen the one that greets you at the doors of all the mall's elevators -- it's at the top of this post. But how about this one?

Or this one?

Or this one?

Or this one?

Creating awareness is one thing. Bludgeoning us is quite another.

I first noticed this "strategy" at another nearby mall earlier this fall. It was the Fox Hills Mall in Culver City, and the entertainment property that had taken this mall by storm was the CW cheerleading show (which I did not for the longest time realize was about cheerleading) Hellcats. Wish I'd taken a picture of that -- you could literally look down the long open space in the middle of the mall and see a dozen different giant posters for the show. I wasn't going to watch it anyway, but after this embarrassing display, I wasn't going to watch it even more.

Not that I would/should expect subtlety from a 3D movie about two CGI bears stealing pic-a-nic baskets. But I just think they're shooting themselves in the foot, at least in this one location -- a location that is shiny and new and visited by a lot of people, especially during the holiday shopping season. What may have seemed to them like smart positioning of their product in an attempt to help it subliminally sink in, has instead come across to at least one prospective customer (me) as the kind of oversaturation to laugh and blog about. Then again, I probably wasn't going to be seeing Yogi Bear anyway, even if the guy who wrote it is a friend of a friend.

It's the kind of advertising campaign that is not smarter than any bear, and would never be tolerated on the radio.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

This year's Nancy Meyers Movie

Ah, Christmas -- the time of year when it's safe for romantic comedies aimed at adults over 50.

Otherwise known as "Nancy Meyers Movies."

Nancy Meyers does not have to be involved in any way, shape or form with a Nancy Meyers movie. Take James L. Brooks' How Do You Know, due out this Friday. It's a classic Nancy Meyers Movie, but Meyers had nothing to do with it.

So what makes a Nancy Meyers Movie a Nancy Meyers Movie?

For starters, it has to have at least one old person. Or in some cases, an older person. The old person in How Do You Know is Jack Nicholson, and it's his inclusion almost entirely that thrusts this movie into the unmistakable realm of a Nancy Meyers Movie. Without Nicholson, you might look at the cast (Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon) and mistake it for a Judd Apatow movie. But Nicholson's presence clinches its status.

Secondly, it's usually an ensemble piece, either involving multiple narratives, or a lot of well-known actors involved in the same "complicated" narrative (look for that word "complicated" to reappear later). How Do You Know certainly qualifies in that regard.

Thirdly, it's a comedy, usually with at least one ribald scene that plays prominently in the trailers.

Lastly, it comes out at Christmastime. Sure, there are films that fit this description released at other times of the year, but they are never as comfortable nor as successful as they are at Christmas.

After a distinguished screenwriting career (Private Benjamin, Baby Boom, both Father of the Bride movies), Nancy Meyers began directing films in 1998, but her first film was The Parent Trap, featuring Lindsay Lohan as twins. This is most certainly not a Nancy Meyers Movie, so in considering the history of the Nancy Meyers Movie, let's jump forward to her sophomore effort, and go forward from there.

Year: 2000
Movie: What Women Want
Release date: December 15th
Director: Nancy Meyers
What makes it a Nancy Meyers Movie:
Well, it's directed by Nancy Meyers. But the archetype hasn't totally taken shape yet, as this movie about a man who can hear the thoughts of women is both more broad and more high concept than the movies Meyers would direct later on. However, Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt were both long enough in the tooth that you'd have to say the movie was aimed at people at least their age (late 30s for her, early 40s for him).

Year: 2001
Movie: Kate & Leopold
Release date: December 25th
Director: James Mangold
What makes it a Nancy Meyers Movie: It's not, really. But it's the best the fall of 2001 has to offer. And I think at this point in Meg Ryan's career, you can say that anything she appeared in had an older audience in mind. Not the same for Hugh Jackman, then just a year removed from the first X-Men. Then again, he does play a duke who travels in time from 1876 to present-day New York, so that definitely has old person appeal.

Year: 2002
Movie: Two Weeks Notice
Release date: December 20th
Director: Marc Lawrence
What makes it a Nancy Meyers Movie: Another poor fit. This is more of a screwball comedy, starring Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant, and a bad one at that. So let's just move on. I promise things get better from here.

Year: 2003
Movie: Something's Gotta Give
Release date: December 12th
Director: Nancy Meyers
What makes it a Nancy Meyers Movie: Nancy Meyers to the rescue! This may be where the Nancy Meyers Movie really established itself as a genre, it being the mother of all Nancy Meyers Movies in a way. It's got the old people (Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton) and it's got the ribald comedy (Nicholson injures his neck while looking away from Keaton's naked body, which he accidentally sees while both are walking in the hallway for a midnight snack). However, it also has another unfortunate thing Meyers is known for after What Women Want -- gender politics that appear like feminism on the surface, but are ultimately a more conventional case of the woman needing to be saved by her prince, flawed though he may be.

Year: 2004
Movie: Spanglish
Release date: December 17th
Director: James L. Brooks
What makes it a Nancy Meyers Movie: We may view it more as a Meyers Movie in retrospect, knowing that it was directed by Brooks, who directed the seminal Meyers Movie How Do You Know. (I'm laughing at myself for that line because How Do You Know has not even come out yet.) This is not a great fit and it is definitely not a great movie, but there's no denying that this more or less fits into the niche, despite the absence of any senior citizens in the cast.

Year: 2005
Movie: The Family Stone
Release date: December 10th
Director: Thomas Bezucha
What makes it a Nancy Meyers Movie: Diane Keaton, to a lesser extent Craig T. Nelson, and an array of darling younger actors (Rachel McAdams, Luke Wilson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Clare Danes) to appeal to the younger viewers. The only movie on this list that is definitely also intended as a Christmas movie, and I think it's a winner.

Year: 2005
Movie: Rumor Has It ...
Release date: December 22nd
Director: Rob Reiner
What makes it a Nancy Meyers Movie: The year 2005 actually gave us two Nancy Meyers Movies. This one qualifies almost exclusively on the basis of Kevin Costner and Shirley MacLaine. As a pseudo-sequel to The Graduate, it's sort of in a category of its own. And it's kind of a weird movie.

Year: 2006
Movie: The Holiday
Release date: December 8th
Director: Nancy Meyers
What makes it a Nancy Meyers Movie: Nancy's back, in what is proving to be a reliable "every three years" release schedule. She ditches the older cast members this time around, as this ensemble stars Jack Black, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Cameron Diaz. However, it's pretty square in its approach, so older viewers were almost certainly sucked in by it.

Year: 2007
Movie: The Bucket List
Release date: December 25th
Director: Rob Reiner
What makes it a Nancy Meyers Movie: And Rob Reiner has his second film on the list. Old people? Check. Jack Nicholson (that's Nicholson's third mention in this piece) and Morgan Freeman were each 70 years old when the movie was released. The only thing that's missing is the "romantic" part of the "romantic comedy." Oh, and the ensemble part. Okay, maybe it's not a Nancy Meyers Movie. Maybe it's just a movie about old people.

Year: 2008
Movie: Last Chance Harvey
Release date: December 25th
Director: Joel Hopkins
What makes it a Nancy Meyers Movie: Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. Hoffman was over 70 and Thompson just a few months from turning 50. However, it's really a two-character film, and it's a bit too sentimental for your typical Meyers Movie.

Year: 2009
Movie: It's Complicated
Release date: December 25th
Director: Nancy Meyers
What makes it a Nancy Meyers Movie: This is the second most prototypical Nancy Meyers Movie, starring the triumvirate of Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. Baldwin is the baby of the group at 52 -- can you believe Streep is nine years older than he is? Plenty of characters and the requisite number of young people (John Krasinski and Lake Bell) to round things out for the tykes. Plus, there's that bit where Baldwin ends up naked on a web cam, displaying his goods for Martin to see.

Year: 2009
Movie: Everybody's Fine
Release date: December 4th
Director: Kirk Jones
What makes it a Nancy Meyers Movie: It isn't, really, but it sure was advertised as one. This is not a comedy, but when they advertised it, they tried to make it look like a dysfunctional family comedy in which crazy stuff happens. Robert DeNiro holds down the old person role while Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore and Kate Beckinsale all smile warmly on the poster, to welcome you into the movie. But this movie is mopey as hell.

Conclusion: For all that I've tried to theorize otherwise, only Nancy Meyers can truly make the perfect Nancy Meyers Movie. Which could mean we'll have to wait until 2012 for the next one, if her schedule of releasing a film every three years continues. IMDB doesn't show anything announced for her, but that doesn't always mean anything.

However, it looks to me like How Do You Know will come pretty close. If you bother to see it, let me know how Nancy Meyers it truly is.