Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Noah Baumbach is inside my head

You know a script is good when you find yourself nodding along with most of its observations. I'm not talking about a horror, a thriller or a fantasy film here -- those films tend to be less "idea-oriented" in their dialogue. No, I'm talking about talky relationship dramedies, the specialty of writer-director Noah Baumbach.

I've been a big fan of Baumbach's work in the past. Before his noteworthy films of the 2000s -- The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding -- came along, I was a passionate devotee of Kicking and Screaming, his 1995 debut, which is still my favorite. The only film of his that I didn't think really worked was Mr. Jealousy (1997), though I'm only just discovering now that he had a movie in 2000 called Highball, which I obviously haven't seen.

Anyway, I saw Baumbach's latest, Greenberg, yesterday, and I was nodding along like a mo-fo. I won't go so far as to say it "spoke to me," although that's probably true. The main reason I don't want to say that is that Greenberg, played by Ben Stiller, is a character who just emerged from a brief hospitalization following a nervous breakdown, and he treats people like shit -- not because he's a bad person, but because he's so inwardly focused that he doesn't recognize how his behavior affects other people. So if I said it "spoke" to me, wouldn't that mean I see a lot of Greenberg in myself? (Whether or not I secretly see a lot of Greenberg in myself is another matter.)

So I'll just talk about the parts that I found surprisingly astute, some of which because they described an actual thing I actually did. And I'll try to be as abstract as I can, so it doesn't ruin very much of the movie -- I'm sure many of you haven't seen it yet.

1) There's a terrific exchange between Greenberg and Rhys Ifans' Ivan, in which Ivan says "Youth is wasted on the young." Greenberg rejoins with "I'll go you one further. Life is wasted on ... people." Isn't that the truth? Haven't you ever thought that if only people were better at being people, their lives would be so much more fulfilling, and they'd truly be able to suck the marrow out of whatever was in front of them?

2) Florence -- Greenberg's brother's assistant, played wonderfully by Greta Gerwig -- tells Greenberg that "Hurt people hurt people." If you read the first "hurt" as and adjective and the second as a verb, you'll get the meaning of her saying -- and its brilliant simplicity.

3) At one point in the movie, one character is taking another character to get an abortion, and the first says to the second, "Whatever you want. It's your day." Which is of course a ridiculous sentiment -- usually when something is "your day," it's a birthday or a day of celebration, or something like that. Of course, you can also kind of see what the first character meant. My wife and I laughed because I always tell her she can decide what to watch on TV or what to eat for dinner because "It's your day." The first couple times I said it, I really meant it, and the situation was appropriately celebratory, or she was deserving of a reward. Since then, it's just become an inside joke.

4) Greenberg meets a character who's about to fly to Australia -- which in itself means something for my wife and me, because she's Australian. But the next part of the exchange took it one step further. Greenberg asks, "Isn't that like a 20-hour flight?" "No, it's 14," answers the other character. Greenberg: "Oh, so like seven movies." My jaw nearly dropped. Not only is that the exact thought process I would use to determine how I would pass the time over 14 hours during which I'd be accompanied by my choice of movies, but I did actually do that on my flight home from Australia in January -- I watched exactly seven movies. Read about it here if you're interested.

5) Greenberg and his ex-girlfriend (played by Baumbach's actual wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who developed the story with Baumbach) are having an awkward conversation in a restaurant, and Greenberg tells her, "My dog is sick." She immediately responds with "My mom is sick," and Greenberg doesn't respond to that, but just goes on with his next statement about the dog. Then about 30 seconds later realizes that he's been self-absorbed, and hasn't asked any follow up questions about her mother. He does so lamely, without actually asking any questions: "I'm sorry your mother is sick." Both characters are actually guilty of extreme inward focus in this scenario -- in ways that I know I've been guilty of in past conversations. First there's Jason Leigh's Beth, who engages in an act of conversational one-upsmanship that seems to be very common with Angelenos. It's that thing where something you said reminds me of something in my world, so instead of being a good listener on your thing, I try to tell you about my thing. It's narcissistic and instinctive more than it is premeditated. However, once Beth committed that sin, and a sick mother was on the table, Greenberg should have asked about the sick mother, because human trumps pet in this scenario. But he didn't, he just plowed onward. Of course, there was enough of him that realized the faux pas that he lamely circled back to her sick mother later on. Well played, Baumbach -- very true-to-life.

6) Greenberg and Florence have a conversation about their "imitations of other people." Greenberg tells Florence that he and Ivan call each other "man," not because it's something they'd actually do, but because they're imitating/making fun of people who would actually do that. Then Florence tells a story where she and a friend go to a bar frequented by frat guys, eager to mockingly play the role of slutty floozies, and end up going home with two particularly fratty, cologne-obsessed guys. In both instances, the line is blurred -- are they imitating a different kind of person, or are they actual versions of that person? And even if they definitely started out by imitating, at what point does the imitation become the reality?

I'm sure there were a handful of other little moments that struck me in Greenberg, but let's just pay Baumbach an additional compliment and say that he overstuffed the film -- I couldn't keep track of all the believable details that worked for me.

And besides, I'm doing my best to keep my posts a little shorter. Because this is something I definitely share in common with Mr. Greenberg, if you can read the fine print in the poster above: I've got a lot on my mind.

Monday, March 29, 2010

End of the road

Everywhere I look, there are signs of the old ways being killed off by the new.

First it was Friday, when driving to my company's closest satellite office in Torrance, about a 10-15 minute drive from my office. My route takes me past the Redondo Beach Cinema 3, now the former Redondo Beach Cinema 3.

Granted, I'd never been to this second-run theater. But it served a role in my life nonetheless: I liked noting what was playing as I drove by. That's a favorite game of mine in any theater whose marquee is visible from the street. I always like to imagine a scenario where I'll drive by with precisely one hour and forty minutes to kill, and there'll be a 100-minute movie starting right at that moment. And so I see what movie I'd watch if that theoretical scenario actually came to pass.

This theater in particular interested me, because I always imagined there would be a time when I'd finish my day at our Torrance location, and run on over for a second-run movie that started 15 minutes later. There were occasionally some choices that interested me, but just lately they'd become kind of third-run. The last time I drove by, maybe two weeks ago, they were still playing Twilight: New Moon, and some other choices that may have been even older. A theater slips from second- to third-run when it stops playing movies that came to theaters a month ago, and starts playing movies that came to DVD a month ago.

So all the signs were there that the Redondo Beach Cinema 3 was on the verge of going under, but it sill saddened me when I drove by to a blank marquee on Friday. It wasn't just that they sent their marquee letters in for a cleaning -- the place was officially closed. A look to the right showed me this sign, which confirmed it. Later, I came back and snapped a few photos.

I've written about this before, but there's something tragic to me when a theater closes. I know from talking to a friend of mine, who was considering buying a small theater, that any theater with fewer than four screens is an unsupportable business model. They can stay open, alright, but if they do, it's because the owner is taking a loss. The owner is some rich cinephile who cares more about the ongoing existence of the small American theater than he does about the way that theater puts a dent in his bank account. He can afford to care about that because the dent is so small.

I also can't help but notice the contrast between this and the high-end theaters becoming more high-end, especially with the current craze to make more and more screens capable of playing 3D. Playing 3D at the Redondo Beach Cinema 3 would have been unheard of. That's what happens to dinosaurs, unfortunately -- they die.

Then there was yesterday. I've written about Blockbuster's woes numerous times -- here, here, here and here, to name a few -- but yesterday marked yet another landmark moment in my understanding of just how much trouble the company's in. I've heard the potential bankruptcy rumors, and I've heard the announcement of store closings. But when the one store closed that I talked about here, while the other one equidistant to my house appeared to survive, I figured Blockbuster was just decreasing its geographical density, not noticeably scaling back its presence. You know, like if there are Starbucks on two adjacent blocks, and one closes, you don't really worry too much about the health of the company. It's when they both close that you worry.

Kind of like yesterday.

I left my house to go swap out a mail rental with a new release from the store, so my wife and I would have something to watch last night. (It turned out we didn't need it, since we observed Earth Hour from 8:30 to 9:30, and she went to bed soon afterward.) But when I got to the store, I immediately saw (how could you miss it) the STORE CLOSING banner above. That meant no more rentals, and that most things in the store were at a steep discount. Most depressing in these scenarios? The signs that tell you to talk to a manager if you are interested in buying the fixtures.

For the first time, my Blockbuster life flashed before my eyes. I started to seriously consider the fact that canceling my Blockbuster subscription, which has been my primary source for rentals for the last five years, was both imminent and inevitable. (And many of you have argued that it should have come long ago. If you want to look here, you'll see the benefits I considered it to have over Netflix -- benefits that have all but dissipated now.)

Now, the only Blockbuster that I've ever really frequented in this area was the one in the sleepy downtown El Segundo. That's the one I visit when I go during lunch from work. But it's too inconvenient to visit from my house, and I need a Blockbuster I can visit on the weekends. Plus, I'm really surprised the El Segundo store survived this round of store closures -- any time I go in there, I'm the only one in the store.

A sign on the outside of this Blockbuster referred me to a fully functioning operation at some other address, but I wasn't even familiar with the location. Great -- I'll have to get on mapquest to find the next closest Blockbuster to me.

I went into the store and poked around for a few minutes. At least it was near the beginning of the sell-off. There was plenty of merchandise and plenty of people picking through it. I briefly flipped through some HD DVDs -- we have an HD DVD player, if you can believe it -- that were in blank cases and selling for $1.99. They had The Untouchables, which I really like. But I didn't buy it. Moments later I was out the door. And I don't even remember what the last movie I rented there was.

I shouldn't cry for Blockbuster -- they're a faceless corporation most people root against. But I cry for the changing times. I mourn the fact that the days of physical videos are coming to an end. I guess when you compare the sentimental value of buying a CD with the sentimental value of renting a video, the one that stings more is the end of the CD-buying era. But I liked something about the idea of walking into a video store, browsing the choices quickly and efficiently, being introduced to something you might want to see just by laying eyes on it, and then walking out with it.

At the same time, I'm part of the problem. As it so happens, on Thursday night I took a twirl on my wife's Netflix account, whose password was saved on my computer from when I watched Big Fan back in January. I couldn't believe how many choices were available for instant, random viewing. After flipping through them for awhile, I found a truly random choice that had actually been deep on my Blockbuster queue, a movie I wanted to see for a really strange reason: I remembered seeing it on a movie marquee when I was a kid, back in 1981. For some reason, the title stuck with me: First Monday in October. And so I watched it right then and there. And immediately demonstrated why Netflix is making Blockbuster obsolete.

Like all new ways of doing things, I will come to fully embrace these as well. But as I've written before, it doesn't mean we shouldn't pause to acknowledge the passing of the baton, and quietly weep for the change, even if just for a second or two.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

How (not) to advertise your movie

There will be a lot of people seeing How to Train Your Dragon this weekend. I may even be one of them.

But if I am, it will be because of the first trailer I saw several months ago, that really whetted my appetite. Not because of the spate of advertising that has followed, which has done its damnedest to kill that same appetite.

Shall I count the ways I have been numbed of my desire to see this movie?

1) If you don't live in Los Angeles, you may not have heard this story, but a man was arrested for putting up the so-called "supergraphic" you see above. This kind of advertising is now illegal, so the man was jailed and given an original bail of a staggering $1,000,000. His intention with this graphic? To get it in the background of the hundreds of cameras that would be filming in the vicinity of Hollywood and Highland for the Oscars. And it might have worked, had he waited a little closer to the telecast to put it up. But he was forced to take it down before he had the chance for his moment to materialize -- and he still faces the criminal charges. Is there a Darwin Award out there somewhere for this guy? Such large graphics have been deemed a safety to motorists -- especially when they feature a large mythological creature flying directly at you through a ring of fire.

2) And let's talk a bit more about that ring of fire, which alternately has the rider and dragon flying through it, as above, or has the dragon peaking through innocently. In the six weeks since the How to Train Your Dragon campaign has been in full swing, I have been assaulted by this giant ring of fire in no less than 397 different places around Los Angeles. On billboards. On buses. On bus stops -- both in the stop itself, and on the bench. Painted on the sides of horses. In place of stop signs. Tatooed on the insides of my eyelids. And when you see one image so many thousands of times -- I've passed some of these 397 places more than once -- you never, ever want to see it again. It's probably my duty to mention that many of these billboards also have a an actual plastic dragon walking atop them. If I'm most sick of that ring of fire, I'm second most sick of that dragon.

3) But perhaps the most obnoxious way this film has been advertised has been on television. Some of you have no doubt noticed that they've stopped calling this movie by its actual name in the ads. Instead, it's "Come see Dreamworks' Dragons!" Ugh -- let me pause a moment while I kill myself. There's nothing more insulting than being told you are too stupid to remember the full title of a movie. If they really didn't think we would be able to handle the outrageous grammatical complexity and highfalutin vocabulary of the title How to Train Your Dragon, they should have called it something else. It's not like it's The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain. It's not like it's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. It's not like it's Zack and Miri Make a Porno, which was abbreviated as Zack and Miri, or Zack and Miri Mrfmr Flf Pfrmrm, with the announcer swallowing the rest of the title so tender ears wouldn't be offended. It's a fairly simple, straightforward, inoffensive title, that only needs to be abbreviated because Dreamworks considers its consumers to be moronic monkeys who can only remember one word of anything. "Hmm, I knew there was something I wanted to see this weekend. It had something to do with dragons. Oh yeah! Dreamworks' Dragons! That was it." It disgusts me.

But, I will probably still see this movie. In the theater. In 3D. In IMAX 3D.

Hey, I can't boycott everything.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Just because

I threw in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind last night. Just because.

And "just because" has become an increasingly rare reason for me to watch a movie these days.

As both a working critic and a prolific blogger, I've always got "good reasons" to watch the movies I watch. I watch them because I'm reviewing them. I watch them because they're helping me review a different movie. I watch them because I'm working on some crazy project, like ranking my top 82 films released between 2005 and 2008. I watch them because my wife rented them from Netflix. Even "because I've never seen it before" is a purpose-driven reason to watch a movie.

But sometimes it's nice to watch a movie just because. Just because you own it. Just because you love it and haven't seen it in awhile. Just because it's a Wednesday night.

All three of these reasons applied when I watched Eternal Sunshine. It wasn't a premeditated viewing -- it just happened. Okay, I had been thinking about it all day, but it wasn't something I knew I was going to do yesterday. And with the way we order our rental queues and anticipate theatrical release dates, a movie I didn't know I was going to watch yesterday counts as unpremeditated for me.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was my fifth favorite movie of the 2000s, as ranked here, but I hadn't seen it since 2005 or 2006. (Truth be told, that was my purpose-driven reason to watch it, to determine where it ranked. But I didn't end up watching it back in January, when I was finalizing those rankings.) And I don't know what it was, but some buried instinct drove me to set aside my normally aggressive viewing schedule of purpose-driven movies, in order to watch it. So last night I did.

And since I don't have anything further to say, other than the implied message that we should all take the time to revisit movies "just because," I thought I'd comment on a few newly detected observations from my most recent viewing:

1) There was a funny moment early on when I wanted to check if a gaffe had been committed in the dialogue. Joel (Jim Carrey) is just learning from his friends (played by Jane Adams and David Cross) that Clementine (Kate Winslet) has undergone a radical new procedure that will allow her memories of Joel to be erased. When the characters played by Adams and Cross argue over whether it's right to be telling him this, Cross' character says, "It's about Joel, who's an adult, not Mama Carrie's kid." Except what I heard was "Mama Carrey's kid." I immediately searched the internet, including IMDB's listing of continuity errors, to see if this had been some kind of slip-up that no one ever caught. See, Jim Carrey is quite literally "Mama Carrey's kid," if you want to refer to his mother, Mrs. Carrey, as "Mama Carrey." What it turned out to be was that Adams' character is named Carrie, which struck me as possibly more than a coincidence. I thought it might have been another instance of someone referring to a real Carrey/Carrie by name -- you may remember that in Star Wars, after his character returns from blowing up the Death Star, Mark Hamill shouts "Carrie!" to Princess Leia (played by Carrie Fisher). They never caught it and it stayed in the movie.

2) Winslet is rightly considered one of our best actresses, and she received one of her six Oscar nominations for this film. But what I think is so fabulous about this particular performance is that it was the first time we really got to see her playing a modern woman -- someone with her hair dyed a different color in every scene, at that. That she mastered this as easily as all her roles in stuffy period pieces shows not only her talent, but also her range. There are plenty of people out there who have talent but no range, and I was pleased to be reminded that Kate has both.

3) Speaking of good performances, I think the secondary storyline involving Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood and Tom Wilkinson tends to get overlooked in the appreciation of Eternal Sunshine. They all give good performances, but the one that really flummoxes me is Ruffalo. Ruffalo was born in 1967, meaning he was 36 years old when he was filming these scenes. That makes him 14 years older than Wood and 15 years older than Dunst. Yet he somehow "shrunk himself" -- that's the only way I can describe it -- in order to adopt the mannerisms, appearance and physicality of a kid who just graduated college, seeming every bit the contemporary of Wood and Dunst. Go back and watch that performance, and you'll realize that Ruffalo has played full-grown men both before and after Eternal Sunshine -- but transformed himself into an early twentysomething kid here. It's almost creepy.

4) I love the way this movie speaks to anyone who has ever gone through a breakup, especially those who have sought to mend fences and start again. Eternal Sunshine underscores our addiction to our memories, and the necessity that we'll romanticize them, even if it's sometimes hurtful and destructive to us. Then it gives us that happy ending all incurable romantics and wounded souls want, but it comes with an asterisk. Joel and Clementine agree to try again, but they also realize they know where this will go -- if they start as blank slates, as they did when they first met, events will inevitably play themselves out to a point of irreconcilable difference once again, even if the details will be different. The movie tells us that we don't really want this happy ending, and by demonstrating the futility of trying to revisit a doomed relationship, it means to give its heartbroken viewers a different kind of happy ending: the closure they so desperately need, which will help them contextualize their memories, rather than feed off them.

I should watch things "just because" more often, indeed.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A preference for uncut films

I recognize that cutting is a real phenomenon, a real form of self-mutilation that real women really inflict on themselves. And whatever real phenomena are out there, I want to see a movie about them -- the more under-explored, the better.

But there's something about cutting in particular that takes me out a movie.

The most recent example of this was Johan Renck's Downloading Nancy, one of last year's "most controversial films" (or so this poster proclaims, if you read the fine print), which shares some common elements with the other most controversial film of last year, Lars von Trier's Antichrist. In Downloading Nancy, Maria Bello's character, Nancy, is a cutter. She takes a razor blade to available areas on her skin -- most often her arms or her legs -- and gives herself a 1-2 inch slice. Nowhere near enough for her to bleed out, but enough for her to feel the pain -- the kind of physical pain that gives her a release from the much deeper emotional pain that poisons her.

I am quite sympathetic to any real women who cut themselves, and since Downloading Nancy is described as being inspired by true events, I am sympathetic toward the real woman on whom Nancy's character was based. If I learned that a friend of mine was cutting herself, it would tear me apart. I'd want to talk to her about it, if she wanted me to, and be there for her in any way I could.

But when it's a movie character ... I don't know, it's just too much. And I don't mean I can't handle it. I mean I don't buy it.

There I go, sounding unsympathetic again. But let me explain.

It's not necessarily the cutting in and of itself that bothers me -- it's what it represents, from a screenwriting standpoint. To me it seems like a lazy way for a screenwriter to say "THIS CHICK HAS PROBLEMS." Movies are about showing rather than telling, and having a character slice herself with a razor blade is a pretty good method of showing. But to me it seems a little too good. It's a little too simple of a symbol for "FUCKED UP SHIT GOING ON HERE."

I often describe this as the reason I didn't like Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen as much as your average viewer says they liked it. (Notice I said "says they liked it" rather than "liked it"). Like Downloading Nancy, Thirteen is a hard film that you're supposed to appreciate more than you're supposed to feel warm and cuddly about. Believe me, I know the difference. I'm the guy who had "the Romanian abortion drama" (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) in my top 10 of the last decade. I don't require my movies to be uplifting in order to feel utterly devoted to them.

And I was feeling pretty devoted to Thirteen as I was watching it. I was enjoying it in ways I didn't really enjoy Larry Clark's Kids, and I was really going with what Hardwicke was trying to do. But then, fairly late in the movie, when Evan Rachel Wood's character pulled out that razor blade, it was like a switch flipped in me. I said "That's too much, I'm not buying it anymore." And it's not really that I thought there couldn't be a 13-year-old girl out there cutting -- there are probably thousands of them. It was that I felt like this instance of cutting, arriving so late in the movie, and piled on top of all the other things that were happening to this girl, was just the straw that broke the back of the film's credibility. Not that there couldn't be a girl like this -- just that such a perfect storm of travails can be as difficult to believe as a perfect storm of lucky coincidences, when you're talking about fiction filmmaking.

Again, I can't really explain it, and I do sort of apologize for it. Even after using as clear language as possible to explain myself, I still feel like someone who's reading this could mistake my viewpoint for callous insensitivity.

But what can I say. I tell it like it is. Cutting doesn't work for me as a narrative device. It's too on the nose, too topical. Save it for the after school specials, and give me something that doesn't seem like such an obvious place to take a character you want to show is full of psychological scarring and self-loathing.

Interestingly, I think this is a problem some people had with Precious. Gabourey Sidibe's character does not cut herself, but I know of some people who thought the revelation (SPOILER ALERT) that she's HIV positive was just one too many, in the same way I felt the Thirteen cutting was one too many. I didn't have that problem. I guess it just depends on how solidly you've embraced what the movie's given you so far.

As for Downloading Nancy, I decided, during several minutes of reflection after the film, to turn my marginal thumbs down into a marginal thumbs up. Maria Bello is not one of my favorites -- I did not like her in A History of Violence, and my negative feelings toward that film have clung to her in the years since then. But she certainly gives a vanity-free performance as the self-destructive Nancy. I guess if any movie character would ever cut herself, it would be this woman.

Protecting the children? Or the adults?

I was watching an episode of the hilarious Comedy Central show Important Things With Demetri Martin the other night, and in a rare instance of failing to fast-forward through the ads, caught one for She's Out of My League. Of course, I'd seen numerous ads for the film, but this one stood out.

In this ad, the character played by T.J. Miller, dressed in his luggage handler outfit, tells the character played by Jay Baruchel, dressed similarly: "I was really excited for my shift today. So I came early. Does that ever happen to you?" Baruchel, embarrassed, hangs his head and shakes it.

And I thought "Hey! They can't say that."

But why can't they? Clearly, this is a double entendre, meant to tease Baruchel's character for an episode of premature ejaculation. But it doesn't actually say anything about premature ejaculation, so should it really fall under the guidelines of censorship?

The verb "to come," that poor bastard. It's so innocuous. We use it every day, multiple times a day. Yet it's been so vulgarized by its pornographic secondary meaning that many of us can't hear it without registering that secondary meaning, even just for a moment. A simple exchange like "Are you coming?" "Yes, I'm coming!" might make anyone from age 15 to age 50 burst into giggles.

But people under age 15 generally won't hear the second meaning, because they haven't been introduced to it yet. Which is why it should be perfectly acceptable to include it in the advertisement of a movie. However, I couldn't help but notice that I saw this ad during a program that comes on Thursdays at 12:30 a.m. That's long after most young viewers are asleep, and a full two-and-a-half hours later than South Park is doing things ten times worse on the same network.

Okay, so the premature ejaculation joke goes over the heads of the kids. They won't even ask their parents about it, because the joke has a completely logical primary meaning, albeit not a very funny one.

But what about the adults who know what it means, and are offended by that? It makes me wonder: Is the role of censorship to protect impressionable minds, or to soothe minds that already have all their impressions solidified?

It could be argued that anyone who understands the double meaning of the word "come" doesn't have anything to lose by being exposed to it again. When we don't want our kids to hear words like "fuck" and "shit," it's because we want to prolong their innocence as long as possible. We want to delay the inevitable learning of those words, on some vague theory that it will keep our children from becoming violent criminals or sexual deviants for just a few days longer.

But the people who already know those words? Who cares if they hear them again? Are we just trying to convince them the world is a slightly more genteel and pure place than it actually is? And if so, isn't that just lying to them?

Of course, it ultimately doesn't matter whether the reaction of offended adults is logical or not. All that matter is whether they threaten to boycott the network that aired that commercial. The world of politics is all about catering to the irrational few who threaten to make their voices heard.

And really, the ad gets through to those it intends to get through to: men between 18-32 who still haven't seen the movie. And if they consider premature ejaculation jokes to be the very definition of cutting-edge, risque humor, it may make them all the more likely to buy a ticket.

At the very least, its risque advertising.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Package deals

Everyone's a critic on the web, especially the blogosphere. But I actually get paid for it. Albeit not very much.

And so it's just a bit more painful when I have to watch two movies to earn one payment.

Granted, I did not have to re-watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid before reviewing its prequel, which came out ten years later. Didn't know there was a prequel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? It's called Butch and Sundance: The Early Days. It was directed by Richard Lester, and came out in 1979. Remember, I can review anything that doesn't currently have a review on the site I write for, which is why I'm reviewing a 31-year-old movie.

But I decided that my review would be more confident if I could revisit the classic characters made famous by Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Especially since one of the review's primary points of interest would be how well Tom Berenger and William Katt -- B-level replacements if ever there were -- stepped into their famous shoes. (As it turns out, not half bad, but the story itself is dull and episodic.)

In this case I don't mind it so much. The original is not only a classic western, it's a classic American film, period, which I'd seen only once. I fell asleep during my second viewing last night, because I started it late and was a tad too comfortable on the couch, but will finish today. It's nice to be reacquainted with a classic.

Not all package deals are this satisfying, though. Try this one on for size:

I haven't seen either of the Daddy Day movies yet. But I've gotten approval to review Daddy Day Camp. So to write the best possible Daddy Day Camp review, I'm going to subject myself to Daddy Day Care first.

You may think I'm crazy. After all, Daddy Day Camp is the perfect example of the sequel you don't have to have seen the original to understand. Surely my time is worth more to me than this?

It may be, but I also think you have a certain duty as a critic. In any sequel you review, one implicit criterion is that you compare and contrast it with the first. I'm sure there are examples of instances where I didn't do that. But maybe I defined my duty as a critic differently back then. And due to that different definition of my duties, Daddy Dare Care -- followed shortly by Daddy Day Camp -- will soon be entering my life. (Love the alliteration with those "d"s.)

My favorite package deal was probably this one:

Now, I review remakes all the time. And I certainly don't always consider it a prerequisite to see the original. However, for some reason, when I reviewed the Dennis Quaid Flight of the Phoenix (2004), I felt I first needed to see the Jimmy Stewart Flight of the Phoenix (1965), which is more properly referred to as The Flight of the Phoenix, with the definite article at the beginning. Sometimes the whim just hits me to be more thorough than I probably need to be, for the money I'm getting.

At least in this case there was an unanticipated benefit. As it happened, the original was not reviewed either, so I saw and reviewed both within the space of two weeks.

And did it really improve my review of the remake to have seen the original? Yes and no. I did make references to the changes -- for example, in the original, the plane crashes in the Sahara, but in the remake, it's the Gobi, a change that matters only in terms of the types of natives who threaten our American heroes. But those were differences I probably could have identified without actually seeing the original. And there were a couple other structural changes I referenced, if only because I could. The fact of the matter is, most potential viewers of Flight of the Phoenix won't really care if the film is similar to or different from the original -- they just want to know if it's good.

Whether or not watching two to review one is really necessary, I'm kind of glad I do it from time to time. It's a reminder that I don't do this for the money. I do it for the love of cinema, and for making sure I get my reviews as thorough, as informative, as correct as I can make them -- irrespective of whether those films actually deserve that based on their merits.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

"So that's how they ..."

Movies can do an excellent job explaining the tabloids.

If you're like me, you see in the tabloids that Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler are dating, and you think, "Huh. Wonder how they met? Was it at a convention for actors who can't buy a hit?"

Then you start seeing advertisements for movies like The Bounty Hunter, and you think, "Ohhhhh, so that's how they started dating."

Sure, if I'd read the actual story in the tabloids -- at least the first one that broke the dating rumors -- it would probably mention "on the set of The Bounty Hunter." Or if I actively sought out news about which projects have just started shooting, in the trades or entertainment websites, I might have known they were working together on a movie. But I waste (shameful use of the word "waste") enough of the rest of my time on movie-related things, so I generally wait to be surprised by all the dumb little romantic comedies coming out, just like the rest of the public.

And The Bounty Hunter isn't my only recent "Ohhhhh" moment. When my wife and I saw Valentine's Day (see here for the circumstances of that shameful viewing), I had the great mystery solved of how the two Taylors started dating. Shoehorned briefly into the movie just to put teenage asses in the seats -- and I mean they have less than no plot in this movie -- Taylor Lautner and Taylor Swift have a couple scenes that involve them making out pretty heavily. Now, actors of all ages seem to fall in love while working on movies together, so it must be even more confusing to pretend kiss for people who are actually still hormone-crazy teenagers.

In both of the examples above, it didn't last. All the principles in question are probably seeing other people by now. Let's just hope it's not too awkward when the natural period of gestation passes between filming and theatrical release, and you have to sit next to these people on press junkets for four to six weeks to promote the film. (Talk about ex-games.) That was the benefit for those of us who struck up romances during the high school musical -- when the show ended, the only way you had to interact with that person was passing them in the hallway.

(Okay, correct that last paragraph. I've read different things in different places about Aniston and Butler, now that I'm actually researching it. In some places, Aniston denies she and Butler are dating, which means they probably are; in others, they were starting a relationship but Butler cheated on her, and now he's banned from her circle of friends. Since this information is so necessarily ever-changing, based almost exclusively on unreliable gossip, and since it's better for the point of this post that they're no longer an item, I'm going with that from here on out.)

Of course, sometimes they do last. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are still going (not so) strong, five years after the completion of Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I don't remember in that instance whether the arrival of the movie explained their relationship, or whether the relationship didn't go public until after the movie. Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas are still married, 15 years after Two Much was not enough for them -- and that movie wouldn't be known by anybody if it hadn't been the place where they fell in love. And then there's Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who were married in February of 1958 after working together on The Long, Hot Summer, and had a 50-year marriage that ended only with his death.

More often, though, they're like Gerard and Jennifer. As unlucky in love as they're unlucky at the movies.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Repossessing ... your movie idea

Miguel Sapochnik's Repo Men, due out tomorrow, may remind many film fans of Alex Cox's Repo Man (1984), and rightly so, given that there's only a one-letter difference in their titles.

But to me it's a lot more closely a ripoff of a movie I was in the minority about loving two years ago: Darren Lynn Bousman's Repo! The Genetic Opera. Whereas Repo Men nearly shares a title with Repo Man, it actually does share subject matter with Repo! The Genetic Opera. Both films involve a future society in which people buy artificial organs on credit, and the repo men come to take these organs back -- quite violently and mercilessly -- if they can't make their payments.

I'm not saying Repo Men actually stole the idea from Repo!, but it certainly could have. You really have to look at the origins of both stories to decide what you think about that. According to wikipedia, Repo Men has actually been in the works since 2003, when screenwriters Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner began collaborating with the film's director on a script, based on a novel Garcia was writing, which was published last year. Since this was all a good five years before Bousman's Repo! hit theaters, that would seem to rule out the possibility of a copycat, wouldn't it? Except that Repo! existed as a rock opera many years before it came to life as a movie. Though I'm having a hard time finding the dates of its stage life on wikipedia, the site traces the origins of the idea all the way back to 1996, when Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich began pooling their ideas for a story that was originally called The Necromancer's Debt. Their eventual Repo! musical must have hit the stage sometime in the next couple years, because a seven-track album of songs from it was released in 2002 -- a year before Garcia "got his idea."

Or it could just be the reality that I struggle with when I think about the cinematic universe -- namely, that different people are very capable of coming up with the same idea. Whenever I briefly toy with the idea of writing a script, I always have a moment when I become paranoid that someone else has already made, and possibly produced, a similar story. And that I'd go to the trouble of spending many hours working on numerous drafts, only to later discover that a movie like this already exists, and they will surely accuse me of plagiarism. If only I'd known everything that was in existence, I could have seen it and saved myself the trouble. It's reasonable to assume that both Eric Garcia and Darren Smith could have come up with an idea for a story in which organs are repossessed, because really, that's not such a hard idea to come up with.

Whatever the truth of the matter is, I hope that the release of Repo Men shines some light on Repo! The Genetic Opera. Yeah, it's true, every reputable critic you've ever read thought it was a piece of garbage, and yeah, it's true, Paris Hilton was not only in it, but she won the Golden Raspberry for worst supporting actress. But who are you going to believe, them or me? :-)

Seriously, though, it's easy to identify Repo! as a potential future cult classic -- those who liked it, and there was a small but vocal minority who did, have already labeled it an "instant cult classic." If the idea of a gothic rock opera, set in a dystopian future in which plastic surgery has gotten way out of control, and a street version of the plastic surgery drug is extracted from rotting corpses, holds any interest for you, do me a favor and check out Repo! Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Anthony Head is excellent in the lead, and Alexa Vega is similarly strong playing his daughter. I think the songs are great, and there's real emotion to the tragedy that unfolds in this twisted future world. And those who can't appreciate it on a literal level will almost certainly be able to view it ironically, since it intentionally embraces its own trashiness in ways as well.

At the very least, you'll probably consider Repo! an interesting failure. Whereas Repo Men just looks like it will be a boring failure.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

My favorite Wax Stamp Movies

I can't believe I've been writing a film blog
for over 14 months, and still haven't told you about Wax Stamp Movies.

Well, if you've waited this long, you can wait another paragraph. First things first.

I had wanted to see The Wolfman on the big screen, and exactly a month and a day after it was released, I finally did. During that time, the movie had been through several near misses -- one time when I got together with a friend, and instead of going to a movie we watched TV, and another time when I had to cancel a plan to see it with a friend the day beforehand. When that second friend and I rescheduled for this past weekend, it appeared we'd waited too long. The Woflman was in a handful of theaters near my house on Thursday, but had almost completely failed to survive Friday's slate of new releases. We ultimately met at a second-run theater that was kind of equidistant from both of us, where neither of us ever goes, and saw it on a screen that was more like a big flat-screen TV than something you'd expect in the cinema. So when I say I wanted to see it on the big screen, I ended up seeing it on the medium-sized screen.

The reason I'd been so eager to see The Wolfman was because I considered it a genuine, certified Wax Stamp Movie. That's a term I came up with myself, so I better define it for you. A Wax Stamp Movie is any movie that either actually features, or is likely to feature, a piece of correspondence sealed up by red wax, with the stamp of the correspondent punched into the hardening bond. When I say "likely to feature," that gives me leeway to include films that don't literally have a wax stamp in them, but have a production design that's consistent with wax stamps. A production design that loves, nearly fetishizes, period details, such as a quill pens writing on parchment.

Some time ago I identified the wax stamp as emblematic of a style of art direction I deeply cherish. This is not just another way of saying I like period pieces. Actually, I've been somewhat down on your standard-issue period piece lately, asking something more than just highfalutin dialogue and romantic betrayals. Most period pieces are pretty capable when it comes to period costumes and sets, but the Wax Stamp Movie is something a bit more than that. It's a form of art direction that is highly detail-oriented, that would care enough to lovingly show that stamp pressing into that drying wax. It's a moment that drives me crazy -- it's just so satisfying.

So what qualifies as a Wax Stamp Movie, in the opinion of me, the inventor of the concept? Well, let me quickly run through what doesn't qualify, so we can eliminate a lot of candidates that might seem logical:

The Straightforward Costume Drama. By this I am speaking of most movies that are in some way a descendant of Masterpiece Theatre or the Merchant-Ivory tradition. And it's not to say that none of these movies qualify; certainly, there would be some art directors assigned to these projects who'd have an eye for this kind of detail. But this is more to say that such movies do not automatically qualify as Wax Stamp Movies, because then the category would just be too big. Besides, many such films are far more interested in performances than the details of the production design. Rules out: Sense and Sensibility, The Wings of the Dove, The Remains of the Day, etc.

The Fantasy Film. There's plenty in, say, the Lord of the Rings trilogy that might ordinarily seem like the kind of art direction I'm talking about. But these movies already belong to the fantasy genre, so the Wax Stamp classification is not appropriate to them. Rules out: The Lord of the Rings movies, The Golden Compass, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, etc.

The Pirate Movie. Ditto the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. They're in the right period of time, but the pirate genre supersedes them. Rules out: The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, etc.

The Animated Film. There are a number of period-appropriate animated films that would totally count if they were live-action, but the wax stamp effect is specifically a comment on actual props used by actual art directors. Rules out: Beauty and the Beast, Disney's A Christmas Carol, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, etc.

Asian Wire Work Films. There are plenty of movies that would also qualify here, but I consider their classification as kung fu/swordplay films to supersede the Wax Stamp classification. Rules out: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The House of Flying Daggers, Hero, etc.

Okay, enough ado! Here are my ten favorite Wax Stamp Movies, ranked not according to how much I like them as movies, but to how well they use the wax stamp-inspired production design.

1) Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992, Francis Ford Coppola). The ultimate Wax Stamp Movie. For anyone who loves this film, the acting of Keanu Reeves has nothing to do with it. It's all about the wax stamps. While there's at least one actual wax stamp in the film, there's also plenty of other good stuff: sugar cubes dipped in Absinthe, people writing letters with quill pens, droplets of blood everywhere you look. This is a wet dream of art direction, and that's why it gets spot #1 on this list.

2) Sleepy Hollow (1999, Tim Burton). Before Tim Burton became evil, he made one of the wax stampiest movies ever in Sleepy Hollow, even though it may not contain an actual wax stamp. Everything else about the production design contains high doses of that mentality: loving close-ups of Ichabod Crane scrawling words with his quill pen is just the start of it. Over the course of this list, you'll see plenty of blood and guts mixed in with the art direction of these films, and Sleepy Hollow certainly qualifies.

3) Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006, Tom Tykwer). Tykwer's many detail shots of perfume being made are what qualify him here. One of my favorite things about Tykwer's movie is his attention to detail, which also includes intimate shots of the sources of the various smells the protagonist experiences with his over-developed olfactory capabilities.

4) Dangerous Liaisons (1988, Stephen Frears). Frears' film might just be another costume drama -- albeit an excellent one -- except for the fact that I specifically noted that some of the correspondence that's a central part of the film is conducted on wax-sealed paper. Mmm mmm good.

5) From Hell (2001, Allen & Albert Hughes). And now we're five for five on movies where blood is spilled. I think it was the Hughes' approach to these sprays of arterial blood that caught my attention, plus all the time Johnny Depp spends in the opium den. This Hell is Wax Stamp Heaven.

6) Marie Antoinette (2006, Sofia Coppola). People have argued that Coppola's follow-up to Lost in Translation is nothing but production design. They might be right, but I still love the movie, maybe all the more so for that fact. Coppola's film is gorgeous and decadent. If I had to choose one moment to stand for the rest, which makes it qualify for this category, it's the montage of desserts to the tune of "I Want Candy." Scrumptious.

7) Elizabeth (1998, Shekhar Kapur). I haven't seen this since it was in the theater, so I'm hard-pressed to remember details. But I remember the production design as vibrant and colorful. There had to be a wax stamp in there somewhere.

8) The Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001, Christophe Gans). This was a weird movie -- weird in a good way. It was like a mixture of a costume drama and a wire-work kung fu movie, with a monster thrown in for good measure. Oddly enough, the scene in this film that really made me consider it a Wax Stamp Movie was not one of the costume drama scenes, though that kind of art direction was certainly present in those scenes. It was a scene where the characters practice their marksmanship on pumpkins, and the pumpkins splatter in a wonderfully artful way.

9) Quills (2000, Philip Kaufman). I don't remember Quills very well, but it had the right production design for it.

10) Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994, Kenneth Brangah). This film gets the last spot because, really, it's not a very good movie. But I always considered it kind of like the little brother of Bram Stoker's Dracula, and not only because the author's name was listed as a possessive in the title. If Branagh did anything right in that film, it was give it the Wax Stamp production values I know and love.

Sorry, Wolfman. You don't make the list. The Wolfman does qualify as a Wax Stamp Movie, don't get me wrong. But it ended up being so inept that it just didn't belong among my top ten.

Here are some other titles I considered but did not include, either because I didn't consider them good enough, or could not remember the production design well enough to give it my Wax Stamp of approval, or thought the art direction was close, but not quite Wax Stamp:

Topsy-Turvy (1999, Mike Leigh)
Amadeus (1984, Milos Forman)
The Crucible (1996, Nicholas Hytner)
Gangs of New York (2002, Martin Scorsese)
Les Miserables (1998, Bille August)
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999, Luc Besson)
Moulin Rouge (2001, Baz Luhrmann)
Oliver Twist (2005, Roman Polanski)
The Phantom of the Opera (2004, Joel Schumacher)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007, Tim Burton)
The Red Violin (1999, Francois Girard)
The Prestige (2006, Christopher Nolan)

Movies I might have considered if I'd seen them:

The Count of Monte Cristo (2002, Kevin Reynolds)
The Libertine (2004, Laurence Dunmore)
The Other Boleyn Girl (2008, Justin Chadwick)
Sherlock Holmes (2009, Guy Ritchie)
The Duchess (2008, Saul Dibb)

In my haste to write this relatively quickly, and without re-watching the movies in question, I hope I've communicated some of what I mean by a Wax Stamp Movie.

And if I have, let me know what other Wax Stamp Movies I should be exposed to. Because I take no greater pleasure at the movies than seeing a customized stamp sink its way into a freshly poured puddle of red wax.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ranking the Coens

I've had my differences with Joel and Ethan Coen in recent years. First it was not liking No Country for Old Men as much as most people did, then it was despising Burn After Reading, which was a more common sentiment. Plus, I thought they were total twats when they accepted their two Oscars for No Country.

But as I watched A Serious Man on Saturday afternoon, I realized that overall, my affection for them is still quite high. And it's indisputable that I at least have a high interest level in what they're doing. In this post, I discussed my experiment on Flickchart to determine who my favorite director is, but I didn't consider the following very telling question in making my decision: Which director (or in this case, directing team) has made the most movies, all of which I've seen? And as of Saturday, I've seen all 14 movies the Coens have directed, which puts them easily on top of that group.

The last time I realized I'd seen all of a certain type of movie, outside of your Star Warses and Star Treks, was when Pixar reached the round number of ten features last May with the release of Up. Not surprisingly for a guy who likes to rank things, I decided to rank them, in this post. And though I could wait until the Coens' remake of True Grit comes out this Christmas, which would give them a nice round number of 15 films to rank, well ... I thought of the idea now, so I'm doing it now. I'll think of other things to write about at Christmastime.

Without further ado, my rankings of Joel and Ethan Coen's 14 films:

1) Raising Arizona (1987). Easily the Coen film I've seen the most, Raising Arizona is also my favorite, though it's by a very slim margin over #2 on this list. To lend further legitimacy to its #1 ranking, it is also currently my top-ranked film of all time on Flickchart. And while I don't expect that to stand -- it may simply never have dueled the film that will best it -- the current ranking is certainly telling. The Coens' second film is what established the whimsy we associate with them, as an extremely funny Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter steal one of the quintuplet children of a furniture magnate (an also very funny Trey Wilson). But there's also darkness and melancholy in this film -- it's no mere romp involving funny-talking hicks and two-bit criminals. Also, best prologue for a film ever -- the credits don't roll until a good 15 minutes into the film, after we've already gotten one of the most entertaining back stories you've ever seen committed to film. More proof of its greatness: I actually own two DVD copies of it, one of which is a package deal with #2 on this list and The Full Monty.

2) Fargo (1996). It's extremely difficult to choose Fargo as #2 on this list, because it would also be in my top 20 films of all time, though I currently have it ranked #34 on Flickchart. But, as I said, it's hard to pick against Raising Arizona. Another masterful mixing of comedy and dark criminal behavior, Fargo was many critics' choice for the best film of 1996. The film is buoyed by two incredible performances: Frances McDormand (Joel's wife) as Marge Gunderson, the hilariously pregnant cop whose folksy ways disguise her shrewd investigating skills, and William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard, the skittish car salesman who gets in waaaaay over his head on a scheme to blackmail his father-in-law. (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare are also great as yin and yang kidnappers.) Exceptionally quirky and satisfying, Fargo is basically a perfect film.

3) Miller's Crossing (1990). It's a pretty far drop down to #3 on this list from the hallowed heights of the first two, but Miller's Crossing is also vintage Coens Brothers. I've only seen this film once, but I was struck by their vibrant take on the gangster movie, plus the beautiful camerawork. That scene where the floorboards of that house are getting turned into swiss cheese, while Albert Finney makes an improbable escape to the tune of opera music, is indelible. Considering that this is my third favorite Coen movie, I clearly owe it another viewing.

4) Blood Simple (1984). Another Coen classic that I've seen only once. (In fact, I'll save myself some time by simply saying that all the rest of the films on this list are films I've seen only once.) This is the film to which people were comparing No Country for Old Men, and in fact, some of the stuff in that film is so reminiscent of Blood Simple that you could almost call it a ripoff. But Blood Simple was where they did it first, in their first film. And how could we forget that amazing gun fight through the walls of the two adjacent hotel rooms, and M. Emmet Walsh's insanely creepy villain?

5) The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). This is the first highly controversial ranking on this list. For most people, The Hudsucker Proxy is VMC (Very Minor Coen), but I remember finding it oddball and funny. The standout for me is the performance of Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer, the fast-talking newspaper reporter whose firecracker line deliveries are priceless -- especially since I don't usually find her an appealing actor.

6) The Big Lebowski (1998). Okay, time to register your complaints. I have to assume The Big Lebowski is only this low because I've seen it only once, and it was over ten years ago. I remember liking it fine, but thinking it was a bit long, and that ultimately, I was left with the impression that it was only pretty good, rather than great. But considering that The Dude (Jeff Bridges) has become one of cinema's classic cult characters, I definitely have to see this again to make another assessment. I had intended to last fall, renting the movie from the library, but it didn't get watched in the window I had, so I had to return it.

7) A Serious Man (2009). It's worth noting that this is the first film on my list to have been released after the year 2000. Watching this movie was a relief for me, as it showed me the Coens can still do whimsy -- I found there to be nothing whimsical in either No Country for Old Men (there wasn't meant to be) or Burn After Reading (the supposedly whimsical things were mean and stupid). This movie does not conclude in a satisfying way, but before then, it's a bit like Barton Fink in the way Larry Gropnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is beset by both real and imagined enemies, leading to mental dissolution and paranoia. Quite funny in parts, it's the blackest of black comedies.

8) The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). I have to say it's probably all about Roger Deakins' cinematography for me on this one. The black and white is gorgeous, especially all the loving closeups of tonsorial equipment and necks being shaved. If I watched this today I would probably find it quite boring, but I really liked it at the time.

9) Barton Fink (1991). Another controversial ranking. I have to be true to myself and say that I did not like Barton Fink very much at the time I saw it. Looking back now, I realize I was probably not old enough to appreciate it, still just a late teenager. I think I also considered it obtuse and intentionally alienating. But there's no doubt some classic imagery here, especially the raging of John Goodman in the incendiary (quite literally) finale. I definitely have to see this again to see if my own viewpoint would now align with the classic status accorded to this film.

10) Intolerable Cruelty (2003). Controversy again. This is generally considered to be the Coen brothers' worst film, but I don't agree. In fact, in terms of how I actually liked it at the time I saw it, I'd move it a slot higher on this list, but I just couldn't reconcile placing it ahead of Barton Fink. While I think most people thought this was hateful and showcased the worst in human nature -- a charge I think is justified when leveled at Burn After Reading -- I found it sort of charming and funny. Though, I should probably see this again to make sure I wasn't crazy. I loved the multiple layers of deceit practiced on each other by George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who I found to have huge amounts of chemistry.

11) No Country for Old Men (2007). I punish this movie, but the punishment ends here as I finally allow it to be ranked. For me, No Country was all about expectations vs. reality. I had high expectations for this, both before and within the movie, based on the critical buzz I heard beforehand, and the promise of the first and second acts. But I was so disappointed about where No Country went (or didn't go) in the third act that it left me cursing the film on the drive home. People tell me that the weird, unsatisfying resolutions in this film are straight out of Cormac McCarthy's book, but that doesn't really help me. What I saw was the Coens brothers toying with me for their pleasure, which wiped out much of what this film had done right. I give this film a thumbs up, but only barely, which may make this the most controversial ranking on the whole list.

12) O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000). O Brother is another film most people feel more fondly about than I do. I could have slotted it one higher than No Country, but decided to give deference to the best picture winner. For me, it was trying for the easy whimsy of Raising Arizona, but went way over the top in performances that seemed like a mockery of country simpletons, rather than a loving homage to them. George Clooney was the worst offender in this regard. Love the music, love the production design, don't really like the movie as much as I should.

13) The Ladykillers (2004). This had some of the same problems as O Brother, with over-the-top silliness and a lead performance from Tom Hanks that exemplified that trend more than anyone else in the film. I just didn't like the story here, and the humor was puerile, revolving around things like irritable bowel syndrome. Come on, Coens.

14) Burn After Reading (2008). I consider this film hateful, misanthropic (is that the same as hateful?), poorly acted, absurd and pointless. And that's all I want to say about it.

Anyone else seen all 14? If so, come up with some rankings and leave them in my comments section.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Cars're bad, m'kay?

If you're a villain in a movie made for teenage girls, there's no deader giveaway that you're a bitch than the fact that you drive.

Oh, there are plenty of other indicators. You'll make snide comments about the appearance and/or popularity level of the good teenage girls, our heroes. You'll sneer a lot. You'll do mean, back-stabby things. And you'll have two slightly less mean sidekicks, cruelly tittering alongside you, though don't be surprised if at least one of them turns on you by the end of the movie, overcome by the inherent goodness of the heroes.

But there's a better than average chance you'll be doing some, if not all, of these things while in your car, preferably a convertible.

I've seen two movies in the last week -- both to review them -- that featured mean teenage girls who drive cars, while the heroes either ride bikes or get rides from their parents. I saw Sleepover last Saturday night, and Aquamarine this morning with my fruit & yogurt-flavored Special K. Coincidentally, both films feature the actress Sara Paxton, though she's the bitchy villain in the former, the delightful mermaid in the latter.

Both films feature a trio of evil jerks who ride around in cars, while the disadvantaged heroes -- "underdogs" is a better word -- are, by notable contrast, on foot. And fairly humiliated about that fact.

It's one of the only times in film we see the person in a position of power featured lower in the frame than the person in a position of weakness. Anyone who's taken a Film 101 class knows one of the oldest tricks in the book: to position the weak character lower in the frame, and the powerful character higher in the frame. If an actual, physical height difference isn't possible, given the landscape restrictions, then you shoot the powerful person from a low angle, looking up, and the weaker person from a high angle, looking down.

Except convertibles are a game changer in this respect. They're like moving thrones, meant to indicate the regality of the people sitting in them. And they always do that quite well. If there were any doubt about this, Aquamarine's villain, Cecilia (Arielle Kebbel), has a vanity license plate that reads PRINCESS. The logic of these movies is, even though all the characters (and everyone in the audience) wishes they had a car, only rich, absentee parents who confuse spoiling their children with loving them would actually buy their teenage daughter a convertible.

It's also part of the age-old philosophy that the hero must have fewer resources than the villain -- in other words, must prevail despite his/her underdog status. This is actually one of the single most important governing principles in all of cinema. You see it in everything from sports movies (small team of misfits must defeat big, well-oiled machine) to fantasy movies (tiny Hobbit must defeat giant, all-seeing eye) to superhero movies (Iron Man must defeat even bigger, evil Iron Man). Why not girls on bikes defeating girls in cars?

Of course, this is nothing new, nor is it limited to girl-on-girl action. Just think about the epic struggle between Marty McFly on his skateboard and Biff in his convertible full of goons. There, the convertible ended up filled with horse manure -- the ultimate repudiation of both Biff and his goons, and the car itself.

One other quick note about Aquamarine, which I actually found pretty delightful: It was the second movie featuring mermaids that I saw in 24 hours. That's got to be some kind of record. My wife and I watched a terrible indie called Full Grown Men last night, featuring 30 Rock's Judah Friedlander (who was by far its best part), and mermaids made a brief appearance in that film as well, albeit that they were women dressed in mermaid costumes. We seemed to have been destined to watch a mermaid movie last night, as my wife rejected Aquamarine as too teenyboppery -- I would have agreed, having just seen the very teenyboppery Sleepover, but ultimately found it quite sweet. Then the mermaids showed up in Full Grown Men anyway.

Enjoy your Saturday -- whether it involves driving a car or not. And if it does involve driving a car, watch out for people on bikes or on foot. They'll get you in the end, especially if you condescend to them or insult their popularity.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bourne again

Is it just me, or do you also feel like you need a fourth Bourne Identity movie like you need a shard of light bulb in your eye?

Of course, Green Zone, out today, is not technically another Jason Bourne movie. But it stars Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and is directed by the guy who directed the last two Bourne movies (Paul Greengrass), so for all intents and purposes, it is. If Green Zone were these two collaborating on a 19th century costume drama, that would be one thing. (And that would be a pretty funny name for the movie). But it's an action thriller about a Jason Bourne-like character, who's like Jason Bourne if only because he has combat skills and is played by Matt Damon.

It may only be me, actually, because the vast majority of people I know seem to feel quite strongly about The Bourne Identity and its ever-more-ridiculously-named sequels. Me, I got off on the wrong foot with them.

It all started when I went to go see The Bourne Identity with a friend back in 2002. My office was in the same building as the local multiplex, and I got off work at 4. He wasn't working predictable hours at the time, so he met me soon after I quit for the day, and we probably went to see a 4:30 show. It wasn't the only time I'd gone to a movie right after work, not hardly. But on this particular day, I must have been tired, because I yawned throughout the whole thing. Whether or not I should blame that on The Bourne Identity (directed by Doug Liman, before Greengrass got involved in the franchise) is debatable, but I do anyway. To make a second reference to that theoretical 19th century costume drama, I'd be able to understand yawning through something like that, with its necessarily slower pace. But a spy movie full of fisticuffs and gunplay? I shouldn't have been checking my watch. So I did blame The Bourne Identity, for making me yawn a lot more than the other movies I'd watched immediately after work had made me yawn.

Needless to say, I wasn't that excited for the theatrical release of The Bourne Supremacy in 2004. But there had been a change in directors, to some guy named Paul Greengrass with whom I was not really familiar. So I retained some hope that I'd like the second movie better. This hope was still not enough to prioritize a viewing -- until I saw Greengrass' United 93 in 2006, that is. The gritty realism of that movie impressed me and moved me hugely -- it was my third-favorite film of the year. Friends told me to expect the same kind of gritty realism from The Bourne Supremacy, which was supposed to look like one of those European spy movies from the 1970s. (I don't know exactly which movies I'm referring to here, but I imagine you get what I'm going for.) Well, upon finally renting it, I ended up being just as disappointed with The Bourne Supremacy as I was with The Bourne Identity, if not more so. Maybe I just don't buy Matt Damon as an action hero. Or maybe I just don't care that much about movies involving spies and international intrigue. Or maybe I just think amnesia is a dumb and lazy screenwriting gimmick. Maybe it was just a perfect storm of all of these, with my own maturation as a viewer and the particular ingredients of these films combining to leave me underwhelmed. However you slice it, I was simply not a fan of the Jason Bourne movies. Trying to make myself one was just an exercise in futility.

Which is why I skipped The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) entirely. What was the ultimatum? I may never know. Just how I never figured out what the "supremacy" was. Maybe it was "Get your memory back once and for all, or I'm leaving you." I guess I associate ultimatums with women telling their boyfriends they need a ring by such-and-such date, or we're through. That's probably not what The Bourne Ultimatum was about.

At least an actual fourth Bourne movie does not appear to be on the verge of materializing. In 2008, production was ramping up with screenwriter George Nolfi working on a script, and Damon and Greengrass both attached. This despite the fact that Damon had previously said they'd "ridden this horse as far as they can ride it," and that Greengrass had jokingly titled the fourth movie The Bourne Redundancy. However, the movie went into turnaround, and Damon recently described it as "at least five years away." What's more, Greengrass would no longer be attached to this theoretical project, with Doug Liman listed as a candidate to replace him, bringing the franchise right back to where it started. But all of this seems pretty speculative at this point, as does the potential existence of a Bourne prequel that would not involve either Damon or Greengrass.

But Green Zone seems like it will function pretty well as a fourth Bourne, doesn't it? Okay, Damon isn't a spy here, but he is a CIA officer, in search of weapons of mass destruction in post-Saddam Iraq. I'm sure there are not nearly so many fisticuffs or gunplay, but I do remember seeing at least one explosion in the ad. Maybe this will resemble a Syriana more than it will resemble a Bourne movie, but it's still Greengrass and Damon, two guys I like plenty well individually, but not so well in concert.

And as long as they don't become the next Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, maybe I'll continue to like them plenty well individually.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Trying to capitalize

This post is only tangentially about the Oscars.

The official nationwide release date of Jason Reitman's Up in the Air was December 23, 2009. In other words, exactly 76 days before it was released yesterday on DVD. That's barely two-and-a-half months. On www.moviefone.com, it's still listed in a pull-down menu of current theatrical releases categorized as "Popular Movies," and in fact, it's still playing at two theaters near my house, only one of which is a second-run theater. It doesn't even open in Japan until a week from Saturday, though that's hardly the most relevant piece of information I'm presenting, given the delays we sometimes see in the international release of Hollywood films.

The point is: Why the quick trigger on getting Up in the Air out on DVD and BluRay?

Well, the answer occurred to me pretty quickly: They wanted to release it the Tuesday after the Oscars, at the moment of its greatest possible relevance to prospective renters and buyers. Optimistically, they hoped people would rush out to rent/buy the best picture winner, which it looked like Up in the Air might just be when critics started buzzing about it last fall. Instead, Up in the Air quickly went from hero to zero, picking up none of the six Oscars for which it was nominated. Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire used a similar strategy, hitting the shelves on Tuesday as well. But its wide release was November 20th, more than a month before Up in the Air, so this didn't strike me as strange. (And, it should be mentioned, things worked a bit better for Precious at the Oscars, as it picked up two statues.)

But the real point in me mentioning the DVD release of Up in the Air this morning is that it made me realize there is no objective standard for the gestation period between theatrical release and video release of a particular movie. We tend to think of it as three to four months after the movie was released, but it's not as simple as that. It's really a matter of what's the right time for that movie.

First and foremost, you don't want to cannibalize a movie's potential box office by releasing it on DVD too early -- and since Up in the Air is still probably playing in a hundred theaters around the country, there was that potential. It's the reason we probably won't see Avatar on DVD until at least July or August. The movie had its wide release five days before Up in the Air, but it only just started making under $10 million at the box office this past weekend, and will probably play in some theaters into April. Then a July or August DVD release won't seem so strange.

An extreme example of it being the right time for a particular movie is Christmas movies. Releasing a Christmas movie three or four months after it was in theaters doesn't make a bit of sense, because no one wants to watch a Christmas movie in April. So if you miss a Christmas movie, you have to wait until the following November to see it. That is, with one prominent exception that I love to reference. The disaster known as Surviving Christmas, which starred Ben Affleck and James Gandolfini, was released so early in 2004's "Christmas season" (on October 22nd), and performed so poorly at the box office ($11.1 million), that they released it on DVD in time for the very same Christmas, desperate to recoup any of their investment. Hey, it was the right time for that movie.

And then there are the examples of the films that take a weirdly long time to come out on DVD. My favorite film of 2009, Duncan Jones' Moon, had its limited release on June 12, 2009 (limited is as wide as the release got). I saw it in the theater in early July, but my wife didn't. Needless to say, I was eager to show it to her, and expected to be able to do so by October, November at the latest. It finally became available on January 12th of this year, exactly seven months after it was released. What made that more agonizing is that I visited a Blockbuster sometime in late October/early November, and Moon was listed with a mid-November release date on that board of upcoming releases behind the checkout stand. When I went back later and had the January 12th date quoted to me, I figured I must have imagined seeing the title up there. Only in researching it now do I realize someone must have made a mistake -- that November 16th date was when it was released on DVD in England, the director's home country.

I guess the fact that some movies come out on DVD only 76 days after they're released in theaters gives me some hope. I'm making a conscious effort to save money this year, and part of that effort will be not to see so many films in the theater that will leave me wishing I'd paid rental prices. If any of the first batch of 2010 films gets that quick of a release, I'll only need to wait another two weeks for them to come out.

Like Daybreakers, for example. I wanted to see Daybreakers in the theater, and in fact wrote about that back in January. But not so fast, Vance. I now see Daybreakers has been given a June 1st release on DVD. That's 144 days after it was released in theaters, and about 120 days after it left them.

Like I said, you never can tell.