Friday, April 30, 2010

10 movie facts about me

I missed the boat on the Facebook "25 Things" meme -- people were already joking about it by the time I composed mine, so I never posted it.

But I did get tagged recently to write "10 Movie Facts About Me" -- thanks to Mike over at You Talking to Me? So I'm sacrificing my "day off" to come up with something, and pretend that my arm is being twisted. Of course, anyone who knows me knows that I love this kind of thing. (And besides, I call it a "day off" only because I'm actually proud of myself when I can go a day without writing something, and I didn't have anything inside me bursting to get out on this particular Thursday, so I was going to take it off.)

So, somewhat arbitrarily, here are mine:

10) I saw my first NC-17 movie, Henry & June, on my 17th birthday. It wasn't like I'd been waiting and waiting for this day to arrive, it just worked out that way. The film was released on October 5, 1990, and I saw it just over two weeks later, on Saturday the 20th. (It may have taken an extra week or two to reach the suburbs around Boston.) As it happened, I really did not like the film.

9) I have seen exactly one film twice in the same day, and it was Wristcutters: A Love Story. I know that sounds like a random choice, but see it -- it's great.

8) I watched these movies repeatedly as a child, because my mom recorded them off cable for me: Time Bandits, The Goonies, Superman II, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Airplane!, Airplane II: The Sequel, The Secret of N.I.M.H., The Jewel of the Nile, Johnny Dangerously, Octopussy, WarGames and The Pirate Movie. I love them all, even The Pirate Movie. I was in love with Kristy McNichol for quite awhile.

7) I have only seen The Godfather Part II once, and I saw it out of sequence. That's right, my wife and I accidentally put the second disc in first, and didn't notice there was anything wrong until the movie was over after 45 minutes. We laughed and laughed.

6) I have been in exactly one movie, but you can't see me. I'm standing behind a wall in one scene of The Man Without a Face, which partially filmed at my college. As part of the film class, I got to vacuum up a bunch of confetti off an outdoor track after the filming of a graduation sequence. I also took a moment to shake Mel Gibson's hand. This is before he was an unrepentant anti-Semite. Or before we knew about it, anyway.

5) The movie I saw the most times in the theater was Pulp Fiction, which I saw four times. I hadn't really been intending to go the fourth time, but it was a sort-of date with a girl I liked, and it was her choice. Not that things would have worked out with her anyway, but I almost blew it by forgetting to go to the bank beforehand. Fortunately, I saved face by borrowing money from a friend before the date began.

4) I hate it when I'm hanging out in a group over at a friend's house, and channel surfing leads us to come in halfway through a movie I haven't seen. For any movie I haven't seen, I want to see it in its entirety, or not at all.

3) Because I have reviewed over 1,000 films during the past decade, and the reviews are syndicated on dozens of websites, I am very likely one of the most published film critics on the web, even though I don't have a particular following that I'm aware of, and I haven't even made enough money during that time for one decent year's salary.

2) I frequently tell people that it's my goal to see every film that's ever been made, and sometimes wish there were a movie equivalent of speed reading.

1) I have a list of all the movies I've ever seen, which I believe to be pretty much complete. I expect to surpass 3,000 titles sometime in mid-May.

I think I'm supposed to tag other bloggers to do this same project, but most of the people I read regularly have already done it in some form or another. Is it bad form if I don't name anyone else?

Thanks for reading ...

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Here a gun, there a gun, everywhere a gun gun

I'm glad The Losers was a box-office loser, with under $10 million in domestic grosses on its opening weekend.

Could that mean that audiences are finally wise to the studios marketing hip shoot-em-up movies to them like they were morons?

It seems hard to believe -- audiences are not usually wise to anything, which is why they are so easily manipulated.

But the makers of The Losers tried extra hard to make sure it would appeal to as many people as possible. They assembled a perfectly ethnically diverse cast. They peppered the trailer with pop culture references. They pictured knockout Zoe Saldana shooting as many weapons as possible, often wearing only her underwear.

Yet it did not appeal to many people at all. If you assume the opening weekend is a film's biggest weekend, and the box office takes giant steps downward from there, The Losers will be lucky to clear $25 million.

The thing is, my guess is that The Losers is not bad. It is probably highly watchable. But there's something about what it is, as epitomized by this poster, that makes it pernicious. It's got too much "cleverness." It's got too much "style." It's an action comedy, and therefore doesn't need to have much substance, but it's as though they didn't even consider for a moment giving it substance. It's just a collection of guns, quips, slow-mo, and PG-13 eroticism. The trailer certainly wouldn't be complete without Saldana leaping into that bathtub in her shape-hugging undies, a pistol in each hand.

And how about those guns? Everyone's shooting something in this poster, though that's not altogether surprising. A gun is probably the most commonly occurring prop in movie posters the world over. But the trailer just kicks it up a notch. An SUV and a motorcycle blow up. Two different people shoot bazookas. There's a crossbow. There's a military grade gun that shoots rounds rapidly from a tripod. There are all caliber of other guns, often one in each hand of the person firing them. There's even a guy who picks off several people with a gun he makes from his fingers -- with the help of a sniper sitting in the building across the way.

Maybe The Losers was the point when this kind of advertising stopped thrilling us and started making us yawn. We've seen it all before. And maybe even your average dumb moviegoer finally had that conversation with him/herself: "You know, this is just a commodity they're trying to sell me, nothing more." Forgive my assumption that the average moviegoer even knows what the word "commodity" means.

Now, if I could only poll those same moviegoers to see why Alice in Wonderland has cleared $320 million ...

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A second chill

This is the fourth in my Second Chances series, which runs every Tuesday. See my Second Chances label on the side for other films I've reconsidered after a second viewing.


The chill is an involuntary physiological reaction we experience while watching a movie, when either the images or the music are particularly eerie or foreboding. It essentially relies on our fear of not knowing what's going to happen, and our imagination that whatever happens will be far worse than we imagine.

It's like the physiological response of laughter, in the sense that it relies on surprise to achieve its greatest power. And, like laughter, it would stand to reason that it's not as effective on the second viewing as it would be on the first, since the element of surprise is no longer present.

Why, then, were those chills sprinting down my spine during my entire second viewing of Alejandro Amenabar's The Others?

It's a good question. I should have remembered that the scary bits in The Others are more what's suggested than what's shown, with one or two notable exceptions. Yet I watched that movie this past Sunday in a state of uncertainty about what disturbing images were about to befall me.

As you've probably guessed by its inclusion in my Second Chances series, The Others didn't really work for me the first time I saw it. At the time it came out in 2001, The Sixth Sense was already two years in the past, and M. Night Shyamalan's influence was evident in every horror/thriller you saw. The (spoilers NOW) idea of people you think are alive actually being dead was not only a Shyamalan-like twist, but it was the same exact concept as in The Sixth Sense, even if the setting was vastly different.

But it wasn't just the big reveal at the end of The Others that bothered me, as I sensed myself not liking it as much as I should before that. I think I was also bothered by the fact that the world of the film felt very small, contained, even claustrophobic, as the action was limited just to the house. Add in the fact that not very much happens in the movie, and you've got a little, claustrophobic movie running around in circles in its own tiny space.

Or so I thought at the time.

During Sunday night's second viewing, my opinion of the film was vastly upgraded. Even if I hadn't known on an intellectual level that I was liking it more, I had to trust my physiological reaction, the aforementioned chills. And even if that was due in part to the shriek of violins in the soundtrack, I can't deny that it had an effect on me, and that I found what I was watching to be quite eerie indeed.

So what changed?

I think I appreciate better now some of Amenabar's intentions. The claustrophobia and the narrative inertia, which I considered to be weaknesses of the film, are both, in fact, strengths. If you are a ghost living in purgatory, you would feel a sense of sameness in everything you do, a sense of repetition due to the fact that you can't make new experiences. And from what we understand of ghosts, they are geographically limited in their travels, which is why Nicole Kidman's character gets lost in a dense fog the one time she tries to leave the house.

I also felt an additional eerieness watching Christopher Eccleston's character returning from World War II. He's dead as well, of course, but the difference is that he knows it. This is why his depression is so great. But he recognizes that his family does not know they're dead, and he can't bring himself to tell them. And the fact that they are dead, that she smothered their children, certainly gives him an even greater emotional burden to carry with him to the next plane of existence.

I argued earlier that the chills you experience while watching a movie should be most effective on first viewing. But a movie like The Others (following in the footsteps of The Sixth Sense) has a special value during a second viewing, because it allows you to see the clues and appreciate how they are used to bring about the twist ending. On my second viewing of The Others, I felt like it was plain as day that Kidman and her children were already dead, but I didn't feel like that detracted from the movie. On the contrary. It allowed me to lose myself in the head space of their dreary world, to see the film as Amenabar's personal vision of purgatory, a beautifully appointed purgatory full of gothic imagery, longing and dread.

Amenabar is quite successful at sustaining tension and fear in this film, making us afraid even of a child's drawing of an old woman, with the number 14 written next to it for the number of times she'd seen that particular "ghost." (I'm actually getting chills just writing these words.) The Others is a brilliant example of that minimalism. However, Amenabar did need to give us something corporeal to fear, even if only to please the studio, and that particular scene is quite effective as well. It's the scene where Kidman sees her daughter drawing on her hands and knees on the floor, only it's not her daughter -- it's the face of an old woman in the child's body. If The Others was hurt at the time for following The Sixth Sense, in my personal estimation, then at least it was ahead of the many films that have depicted scary children who speak in tongues in the decade since then.

Lastly I want to praise the three servants in the mansion, who we discover have been dead for over 50 years. The way they glide across the screen, coming toward a helpless Kidman and family, dark shapes with blank faces, is exquisitely scary. Amenabar got that just right, making us fear them without having to go for some kind of inorganic payoff, where they morph into screaming monsters. Their slack faces alone are scary enough.

Second Chance Verdict, The Others: A chilling nightmare and a unique vision.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Credibility in brotherhood

There's something about hearing that two brothers are making a movie that seems to give it an extra boost of credibility.

I'm not sure why that is -- two heads are better than one?

But the latest example is The Square, a thriller directed by Nash Edgerton, written by and co-starring Joel Edgerton. My wife and I saw it yesterday. And if the quality of the Australian duo's first feature is any indication, perhaps "the Edgerton brothers" is a phrase we're going to have to get used to, just like "the Coen brothers" or "the Wachowski brothers."

What is it about teams of brothers that makes them get into making films together? It seems to be a unique creative partnership born out of the imaginary battles and adventures that played out in the backyards of their youth. I say "unique" because you don't really see other teams of family members making films, do you? There are no father-son partnerships. There are no brother-sister partnerships. There are no sister-sister partnerships. There are no mother-daughter partnerships. There are no uncle-second cousin once removed partnerships. Just brothers.

And there are numerous examples. Forthwith:

1) Joel & Ethan Coen. The most famous set of directing brothers has made 15 films together, most of which received great critical acclaim, and one of which (No Country for Old Men) won best picture. Depending on the film, they were either both credited for directing, or one was credited for directing and one for writing, or one credited for directing and both for writing, etc. (Actually, all the movies were listed as directed by Joel prior to The Ladykillers in 2004). There are obviously parallels between the Edgertons and the Coens, as The Square is a tightly crafted little thriller of downward-spiraling consequences, very much like the Coens' debut, Blood Simple. However, I feel quite certain that the reason many people are comparing The Square to Blood Simple is the fact that a team of brothers made both films. Fun fact: Joel is married to actress Frances McDormand. Best film: Raising Arizona. Worst film: Burn After Reading.

2) Peter & Bobby Farrelly. The Rhode Island comedy-directing duo took the world by storm with Dumb and Dumber in 1994, and have steadily been getting worse since then. They have been inseparable from the standpoint of their credits, each appearing alongside the other for all their writing, directing and producing gigs. Fun fact: They love casting Boston-area sports stars in their movies. Best film: Dumb and Dumber. Worst film: Fever Pitch.

3) Larry & Andy Wachowski. The Matrix made this pair household names; the sequels to The Matrix seriously called into question their narrative instincts. However, there's no doubt that they have a specific cinematic vision, which they've explored through projects they've directed as well as projects they've produced. Always credited alongside one another. Fun fact: Larry now lives as a woman named Lana. For the purposes of this post, I'll still consider him to be a brother rather than a sister. Best film: Bound. Worst film: The Matrix Revolutions.

4) Allen & Albert Hughes. No directing team in this post is as diverse as the Hughes brothers, who have done everything from a documentary about pimps (American Pimp) to a movie about inner-city gang violence (Menace II Society) to a period piece about Jack the Ripper (From Hell) to a post-apocalyptic action movie (The Book of Eli). What's interesting about this pair is that they have not let their status as African-American directors dictate the subject matter they've pursued. They are jointly credited on everything. Fun fact: They're twins. Best film: From Hell. Worst film: Dead Presidents (though I haven't yet seen The Book of Eli, which I understand could be a contender here).

5) Mark & Jay Duplass. These brothers have not yet reached the level of fame of the others on this list, but they are kings of the mumblecore world. Unfamiliar with the term "mumblecore"? It's a movement of films in which non-professional actors improvise their dialogue (for the most part) in search of a kind of hyperrealism, and the films are frequently about generally mundane occurrences. If done well, though, mumblecore films can be totally engrossing. Mark is always listed as a writer, sometimes listed as a director, and usually appears in the films; Jay is always the director, always the writer, but is not an actor. Fun fact: "Non-professional" actor Mark has started turning up in others' projects as well, including Greenberg (which also features mumblecore actress Greta Gerwig) and the TV show The League. Best film: The Puffy Chair. Worst film: Baghead. These are actually their only two films that I've seen. If I had to list the best film influenced by the Duplasses and starring Mark, it would be Lynn Shelton's Humpday.

That's all I can think of, but that's probably enough.

Sure, there are other teams that have worked together despite not being related. Right now, you've got Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who directed the Crank movies (and the unfortunate Gamer). Back in the 40's and 50's, it was Gene Kelly and Stanley Donan, with Singin' in the Rain among others.

But perhaps the brother partnerships have endured and ultimately been more successful for a simple reason: They're cut from the same cloth, and are less likely to have the creative differences that might push them apart. What's more, it's probably easier to share a credit with a family member. It speaks well of your whole clan. Whereas if you're sharing it with just some other dude, perhaps there's more of a competitive drive to prove that you're the one doing all the hard work, that you're the real talent while the other guy is just riding your coattails. Paradoxically, you'd think that impulse might be even stronger among siblings -- but it hasn't worked out that way for the partnerships discussed here.

We'll see what path the Edgertons take. I'm just glad to see Joel Edgerton prove to me he's more than the forgettable wimp who had the lead in the film Kinky Boots. He's plenty memorable here as a petty criminal in over his head, as is his brother Nash, a first-time director who has his head above water just fine, thank you very much.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The quality of a movie vs. the morals of its characters

Upon seeing the trailer for I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, I felt an instant sense of moral superiority over it.

I didn't know who Tucker Max was at the time. Perhaps that sense of moral superiority would have been even greater if I had.

The film looked like a celebration of idiotic frat boys who treat women like objects, and conquests like a form of currency they use to measure themselves against each other. Just look at the poster to the right -- this woman doesn't even get to have a face. (And the shit-eating grin on this guy's face doesn't exactly ingratiate us to him.)

Then I looked up Tucker Max on wikipedia. It turns out he's a blogger and book author who talks about his sexual exploits with frequently drunken women, who has been sued and picketed for "promoting a culture of rape."


But darn it if Max doesn't take himself to task for these very things in I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, a movie that I seem to have liked a lot more than most critics.

See, I think most of them carried in with them the same impression of the movie I did, then failed to give the movie a chance to shed that impression.

There are reasons to dislike the movie, I'm sure, but its apparent misogyny is not one of them. That's because director Bob Gosse and writers Max and Nils Parker take pains to show the consequences of any instances of woman-hating.

Okay, let's get it out of the way -- of the three main male characters, two of them appear to hate women. There's Tucker (Matt Czuchry), who frequently proclaims that he loves women when people accuse him of hating them. But there's every reason to believe that he doth protest too much. Then there's Drew (Jesse Bradford), who is on a rather exaggerated woman-hating jag because he just caught his fiancee felating an up-and-coming hip hop star. These two characters speak much of the film's anti-female dialogue, but in Drew's case, it's a bit more excusable as a period of acting out, the direct result of having his heart broken. Tucker is the real asshole, whose belittling of woman is part of a life philosophy.

The third character, Dan (Geoff Stults), the bachelor who has inspired the bachelor party that's the focal point of the film's first half, does not hate women. In fact, he loves his fiancee quite a bit, and rightly so -- she's an absolute peach. In many movies where guys go off on a bachelor party that threatens the wedding in some undefinable way, the bride back home is portrayed as a harpy -- last year's universally loved The Hangover being a prime example. But not here, and that was one of my first indicators that this movie wasn't going to be quite what I thought it was. Dan's fiancee, Kristy (Keri Lynn Pratt), is a three-dimensional sweetheart. She's concerned when Tucker involves her fiancee in a lie, and hurt because Dan chose to go along with it. But she's disarmingly tender toward Dan when he returns after his obligatory night in jail (isn't it always the bachelor who gets it worst in these movies? See again The Hangover). And when she later tells Tucker that he's not welcome at their wedding, it's not her idea -- she's conveying Dan's frustration with his supposed best friend. In fact, she is calm and dispassionate with Tucker, expressing the disappointment of a hurt mother more than anger.

Kristy is one of two women we get to know well in I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and the other one is also a peach. True, she's also a whore with a heart of gold, and that may carry its own separate problems from a gender politics standpoint. She's actually a stripper, rather than a whore, and she has a cute little son. And she gives as good as she gets. She's assigned the task of going toe-to-toe with Drew as he spouts whatever female-related nastiness comes to his mind, and she's more than equal to it. In fact, as she steadily melts Drew's hard exterior, their relationship evolves into a competition over XBox 360 at her house, and Drew bonding with her son. It becomes clear that Drew doesn't hate women, not in the slightest -- he just hates the one that dicked him over, who we never actually meet. She's just a symbol the potential of human beings to be insensitive, not a developed character.

I'm not saying this is stuff we haven't seen before. I am saying, however, that it's representative of conventional Hollywood gender politics, not something aberrant and hateful. Max may like to shock us with the words that come out of his character's mouths, but he also understands what we the audience will applaud, and what we'll find deplorable.

Okay, so let's look at the character based on and named after Tucker Max himself. We open on Tucker having sex with a deaf girl, and the police breaking into his house because her animal cries are mistaken for rape. Tucker, of course, is having sex with the girl because it's an exotic conquest he can check off his list. Drew and Dan are both appalled by his behavior, which goes further to indicate that Tucker is representative of Tucker, not of the world the movie is establishing. Tucker proceeds to hit on everything that moves, his confidence serving him well at times. Emphasis on "at times." It's not like the goal of this movie is to demonstrate how its subject always goes home with his target. He may be able to shock some women into the bedroom, but more often than not, he just shocks them into leaving. He single-handedly drives away a bachelorette party by taking his comments too far. He pisses off one woman by insulting her cat. He calls another woman fat, and this leads directly to his glorious karmic comeuppance, a scene so gross and so funny that I won't spoil it here. Suffice it to say that Tucker Max did not make this movie to show you how great Tucker Max is. He's in it for the story, and for some level of truth -- even if both of those go against him. The only other person we actually see him have sex with in the movie is another that fits into the "exotic conquest" category -- I won't spoil that here, either.

We may think that frat boys are awful. But it doesn't mean they aren't intriguing characters who can sometimes yield interesting insights about the human condition. Just because a movie is about frat boys -- or really, one in particular, who is like the king of all fraternity archetypes -- doesn't mean it is automatically going to be bad. Especially if the film's mission seems to be to demonstrate just how shortsighted their world view really is.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Kick-A** was bad-a** after all

It's obviously perilous to predict your opinion about an upcoming movie, as I do every Friday, and as I did eight days ago with Kick-Ass. There's a good chance you'll be wrong, and you'll have to write a crow-eating blog post like this one.

Contrary to what I wrote last Friday, Kick-Ass was, most assuredly, bad-ass.

In fact, waaaaay too bad-ass for the South. I saw it in Savannah, Georgia on Thursday night.

About 12 hours before I saw it, I heard a morning DJ on the local radio station talking about a woman who had watched the entire movie with her kids, then demanded her money back. They likened it to eating the whole steak dinner, then asking for a refund. If there's one thing I'll fault Kick-Ass with -- and there may be only one thing -- it's failing to indicate the film's true level of brutality in the ad campaign. Apparently, the risque title wasn't enough for parents to keep their kids away. Parents needed to know that a 13-year-old girl kills several dozen people and utters the dirtiest word in the English language -- so dirty I'm not even going to write it here. (It's that one that feels like a kick in the stomach when someone calls you it, especially if you're a woman.)

And speaking of that title, when I got to the theater, I laughed at the lengths to which they'd gone, to protect us from the title of the very movie we were seeing. I understand censoring the poster -- it was a version of the one above, but with (if I remember correctly) ASS spelled A#$. (Wish I could find that online -- it was priceless.) I also understand censoring the name on the marquee, which read a very chaste "KICK A." Both of those iterations of the title are in the public domain, and anyone could be offended by them.

But my ticket stub was the coup de grace. Even on the stub it was censored: It read Kick-A**. Which is ridiculous, if you are merely trying to shield the general public. Wouldn't it stand to reason that the only people reading the name on the stub would be the people who had actually purchased the stub? Yeah, someone might see an errant stub on the ground, but the writing would be so small that they'd have to pick it up in order to register their shock.

This bums me out, because years from now, when I look at this stub, I sure hope I can remember what movie it was that I saw. Was it Kick-Arm? Kick-All? Kick-Ant? How about Kick-Axe? (Actually, that last one is a pretty good title -- it's like a mixture of "pick-axe" and "kick-ass.")

Ah, the South. So religious.

But instead of making this entire post about whether "ass" should really be considered a dirty word anymore, I thought I should devote at least a little time to ... praising this movie through the roof.

I don't want to give away too much -- for those of you who haven't seen it, you've got some wonderful surprises in store, which I don't want to ruin. But I should at least start by saying that this movie is absolutely not super cutesy and jokey like I worried it would be. And there's that advertising campaign again.

Like that angry parent described above, I was tricked by the ad campaign into thinking Kick-Ass would be not only a comedy, but a comedy appropriate for kids. No one is more glad than I am that it's not. In fact, this movie is raw, dirty, gross, shockingly violent, and yes indeed, both funny and sweet at times. But the humor is incidental. There are no bits that were designed for a big comedic payoff, and the actor I thought gave the greatest indication of the film's potential for silliness -- Christopher Mintz-Plasse from Superbad -- is in fact not comic relief here, not in the slightest. There's a scene in the ad where his character, Red Mist, is driving a tricked-out car and delivers one of those misleading lines: "That's right, we're superheroes. Love us." It's about the most whimsical his character gets in the whole movie.

And let's say a thing or two about Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), the aforementioned foul-mouth tween. I haven't been this excited to see a tiny warrior flash some crazy moves since Yoda busted out his light saber in Attack of the Clones. I don't want to mislead you into thinking Kick-Ass warrants comparisons to Episode II in any way other than that -- this film is much, much better. And Moretz is one of its keys, as much the film's emotional center as the title character is. One of my favorite moments (small spoiler alert) that perfectly encapsulates the film's tone, a mixture of jauntiness and hardcore violence, is when Hit Girl and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) have just finished compacting a car, with a nasty lowlife still inside of it. The guy is scrambling and screaming, and then he pops into a spray of blood inside the car. The compactor spits out the car in a nice cube that comes clanging to the ground. Hit Girl looks at the cube, shakes her head, and says "What a douche."

And when I laughed, it wasn't because the film was cutesy or silly. It was because it was wrong in all the right ways.

Or, to put it another way, it was bad-ass.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The back-up career

I've noticed that I tend to be pretty snarky during my weekly new-release Friday post.

Not today. And I'm going to praise an unlikely person: Jennifer Lopez.

It's become the default position for many entertainment writers to discuss J-Lo in dismissive terms. She's certainly had her career lows, there's no doubt about that.

But like her former flame Ben Affleck, she seems to have disappeared from the spotlight for a couple years, and emerged more confident and likable. So likable, in fact, that I find myself sort of wanting to see The Back-up Plan.

I've always had a little soft spot for Lopez, but it's not for the reason you might think -- she's attractive, yes, but her famous derriere didn't contribute to this feeling about her. I guess I've tended to find her sort of charming and natural in her acting. She hasn't always given great performances -- far from it. But I feel like she has good instincts as an actor and can be really likable when she gets the right script.

It was her decision to become a diva that turned me against her.

I discussed this in one of my earliest posts, which you can find here, but I get kind of annoyed when actors who are having perfectly nice acting careers decide that they have to go for broke by becoming singers/rock stars. What, acting alone isn't good enough? It makes me think they're asking for too much. Just be satisfied with what you've got, which is already a lot more than most people have. The fact that she actively sought to make acting her back-up career curdled my affection for her.

True, J-Lo would have been just a mid-level ingenue, and not one of the most famous people in the world, if she had never embarked on a singing career. But from where I stand, I'd trade huge fame for mid-level fame and artistic credibility, any day.

I have to admit, the fact that I found her music pretty uninteresting certainly made it harder to applaud the decision. Even the catchy songs didn't really get my toes tapping.

Plus there's the fact that the beginning of her divahood was also the beginning of her decline. Perhaps that's a bit counterintuitive, because it was also the beginning of her ascent. But would any of us have been so quick to become annoyed with her if we weren't seeing her everywhere? As "just" an actress, we wouldn't have been seeing her everywhere.

But I think the key to my realization that I may want to give Jennifer Lopez a second chance was her appearance on Saturday Night Live back in February. I still wasn't thrilled with her song performances, but I thought the skits were excellent through and through. And it was Lopez' deft comic timing that I considered to be the key. Not only was she funny and natural, seeming to rely very little on her cue cards, but she played a variety of different roles, each of them well.

So, The Back-Up Plan. It's just a conventional romantic comedy/chick flick that tries to get a little edge by including poop jokes. I've read one review and heard another on the radio that confirmed as much.

But I will probably see it on video eventually anyway, because I think J-Lo may just bring a little of that SNL magic to this movie. And maybe, just maybe, it's the start of her rediscovering that acting, rather than singing, is her true calling.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

James Cameron, environmentalist

I'm not the first person to write a blog post about the fact that James Cameron considers himself some great environmental crusader.

But what better day than Earth Day, the day Avatar comes out on DVD, to laugh at him about it all over again?

Just as Friday is the day that new theatrical releases typically come out, Tuesday is the day that new DVDs usually hit the shelves. But not Avatar. No, James Cameron's outsized idea of this film's importance caused him to release it on a Thursday, because this year, Earth Day is on a Thursday. (And let's not pretend it wasn't Cameron's idea, even though the director is the last person who would usually have a role in choosing a DVD release date.)

Why Earth Day? Because, you know, Avatar is the greatest single-source champion of environmentalism that the world has ever known.

I'm not going to dispute the fact that this film has an environmental message. What I am disputing is that there's anything remotely special about that. Quite the opposite. In fact, if you wanted to make a Hollywood film that takes a stance opposing environmentalism, it wouldn't make it out of the studio's board rooms.

What stuns me is the extent to which Cameron has embraced the idea that he's some kind of spokesperson for the trees. Of all the reasons there were to make Avatar, the fact that it would draw attention to the plight of our environment probably ranked somewhere around 53rd. And that's even with "making a buttload of money" taking up only a single slot in the rankings.

Come on, James. Let's be real. What you made was a conventional Hollywood story with a high probability of being embraced by audiences. What you made was a movie that you, quite correctly, predicted would make a kajillion dollars. The fact that it takes the oh-so-controversial position that giant helicopters shouldn't shoot missiles into trees was just gravy.

A real environmentalist would take a personal stance. A real environmentalist would donate his own time, money and energy to making a difference with a non-profit that seeks to make our world greener. A real environmentalist would not retroactively recognize the PR potential of a movie, and use that to champion the same cause that Al Gore has been tirelessly pursuing for over 20 years. (And let me just say I'm only assuming Cameron hasn't done any of these things, based on my impression of the man -- remember that I'm on a business trip, with only limited time available for fact checking.)

So if you're going to buy Avatar on DVD, don't do it today. Wait one day, at least. If you're going to do something to recognize Earth Day, plant a tree. And try not to think about the fact that this tree may one day be razed to print the money that will stuff James Cameron's wallet.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

All the perks of international travel

Okay, not all the perks -- I would have had to pay for alcohol, had I been so inclined.

Other than that, though, Delta's new Australia fleet is pretty sweet for a simple old domestic flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta. And Alec Baldwin's look of post-coital satisfaction to the right summarized how I felt pretty well, sans the coitus.

My first real business trip in over two years -- one that requires air travel and an overnight stay -- kicked off Tuesday morning. But it was Monday night, upon checking my flight status, that I realized I'd be flying in the same big plane that I rode to Sydney back in December. See, my flight to Atlanta was delayed from 7:50 to 9 a.m., because the flight left late from Sydney.

But the movie-viewing possibilities didn't strike me until I actually boarded. I knew that this plane carried over a hundred movies, to provide maximum variety for a captive audience stuck in the same seat for 14 hours. But what about me, joining the flight for its final four-hour leg to Atlanta?

I thought at worst, I'd have the movies available to me, but would have to swipe a credit card and pay $5 to watch my choice. There was a credit card slot along the bottom of the screen for just that purpose.

But when the plane lifted off and the seat-back TV screens never powered on, I worried that instead of providing us domestic peons access to all those choices, they'd simply give us nothing and tell us to like it.

About 20 minutes in, however, I noticed that the next section had their screens working. Soon after that, the pilot announced that they'd need to reset the whole entertainment system to fix the problem with the back section of the plane.

And ten minutes after that, voila -- all the latest and greatest in movies that fall into that window between their theatrical release and their DVD release. Plus a heckuva lot of older releases.

All for free.

As you can tell from the poster above, I chose Nancy Meyers' It's Complicated, a movie starring three great comic talents (Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin), which held almost enough interest for me to consider seeing it in the theater.

And though I ended up really enjoying it -- more than I thought I would -- I almost wished I'd selected something shorter than its two-hour running time. All those choices send a movie fan like me into fits, and if I'd picked a 90-minute movie, maybe I could have squeezed in a second one.

Also, for free.

At a time when the airline industry is going through one of the worst periods in its history, and certain dubious airlines have begun charging passengers for carry-on luggage, it's worth a shout-out when airlines pass up obvious moneymaking opportunities, just for the sake of customer service.

And since I'm patting Delta on the back, I'll also thank them for the two sodas, the coffee, and the three small packages of peanuts, not to mention a package of pretzels for good measure, that they provided me.

And though I couldn't watch seven movies like I did back in January, this trip had the benefit of being about ten hours shorter. Oh, and I had a whole row to stretch out, which would be unheard of flying to Australia.

You know, it's the little things.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Re-testing a theory

This is the third in my Second Chances series, which runs on Tuesdays. I'm revisiting films I didn't like as much as the average person liked them, to see if I mellow my negative stance upon second viewing.

My wife and I may have been in the minority with our distaste for A History of Violence. But at least we were in synch with each other.

As a matter of fact, our experience watching David Cronenberg's film helped me establish a personal filmgoing theory that I believe in pretty strongly.

You see, when my wife and I went to see A History of Violence, it was back in the days when we still tried to get to popular movies during prime screening times on their opening weekend. And so it was that for the only time in our moviegoing history together, we had to sit separately in the packed theater. When we met up at the end, we both had nothing but negative things to say about the film we'd just sat through. And that's when I knew we were soul mates.

Okay, not really, but it did make me realize something: When two people sit next to each other in a theater, it's very likely that their impression of the film will rub off on each other. Even if they don't emit a series of audible sighs, bursts of derisive laughter or snorts of disgust, their body language (restlessness, crossed arms, etc.) can indicate to the person next to them how they're feeling about the film. And even if the other person doesn't intend to be influenced by these cues, he or she probably can't help it. It's going on on a subconscious level, and it does have its effect. The effect is similar with a positive reaction -- laughter and other sounds of satisfaction can make your viewing partner view the film in a more positive light than he/she otherwise would.

A History of Violence proved that theory by proving its inverse, if that's not too convoluted. Since we were half a theater apart, we had no ability to influence each other's perception. (I should also point out that there were no distracting environmental factors, like ringing cell phones or yakking idiots.) And since we reached the same conclusion independently, the movie had to be bad, right?

Maybe. Or maybe we were just annoyed that we couldn't sit next to each other.

When I gave A History of Violence a second go on Saturday night, I did like it better. Maybe not a whole lot better, but definitely better. In fact, I think the only reason I didn't turn my thumbs down into a thumbs up in my official records was that I wasn't prepared to be viewing this film in a new light yet. My dislike of A History of Violence has been something I've actually enjoyed, and I'm not quite ready to give it up yet.

But the truth is the truth, and this is exactly why I'm doing this project: A History of Violence is better than I've been giving it credit for. Which you know already.

I'll outline my original complaints in no particular order, so you get a sense why I didn't like this film in the first place.

1) Viggo Mortensen. Although I like him well enough as an actor, I found his performance vacant and without affect in this particular film. I guess now I consider that part of the point. His Tom Stall is supposed to be sort of a blank slate, a guy who had to specifically repress the fiery aspects of Joey Cusick in order to evolve into a new identity. You'd expect a little blankness in that scenario. I guess I still find it a little problematic on a basic dramatic level, but I'm okay with it.

2) William Hurt. Hurt's third-act appearance as Richie Cusick was what I considered the most laughable part of A History of Violence. I thought it was an utterly ridiculous example of scenery chewing. Again, I was not as bothered this time. I sat through the movie waiting to burst into hysterics at the horrible acting of this great actor, but it never came. But again I retain a shade of my initial disapproval. I would have interpreted that role differently.

3) The opening scene. I was always a bit bothered by Cronenberg's choice to start on the two criminals that Tom/Joey blows away in his diner about 20 minutes into the movie. It's this wanky single-take shot following Steven McHattie and Greg Bryk as they roll along in a car alongside the motel they've just shot up, and it ends with the revelation of two dead bodies in the manager's office, with Bryk taking a third life (a little girl) right as the action cuts to the Stalls. I didn't really find this necessary -- it concentrates energy on two essentially minor characters, with the purported goal of showing that they deserve to be killed later on by Stall. But I prefer not knowing anything about them -- it's a better proof of Stall's amoral killing instincts. Showing us the bad behavior of the people he kills is an unnecessary -- and possibly counterproductive -- attempt to make the film's morals more black and white.

4) The staircase sex. I almost always find scenes in which two people who are arguing end up having angry, brutal sex in some unconventional location to be melodramatic and stagy. The staircase sex between Stall and his wife (Maria Bello) was no exception, full of histrionics and wild tears. Still bothered me this time, but since I was doing better with the movie overall, I took it in stride.

5) The narrative structure. A History of Violence is only 96 minutes long, so it necessarily has a brisk pace. I appreciated that better this time than I did last time. Last time, I thought the structure felt a bit off, with certain important incidents occurring at unusual junctures of the film, and other incidents not paying off the way they would in a more conventional script. I guess I still think a little character development is lost in the way this story is told, and maybe that's inevitable given the choice to have Ed Harris be the antagonist for the first chunk of the movie, then switch it up to a new character in the final scene. It's a similar problem to what I have with Sexy Beast -- it feels like it's all first act and third act, with no second act. (And stay tuned for my Second Chance viewing of Sexy Beast.)

This viewing also reminded me of the strengths I appreciated during the first go-around, drowned out by my complaints though they may have been. There's something interesting about the idea of a gangster who went straight for so long that he didn't think there was any chance he'd be pulled back in -- a proof of the idea that violent men have long memories. I also liked the brutality with which Cronenberg showed some of the violence, in a way that totally deglamorized it -- specifically, McHattie taking gurgling breaths of his own blood after he's been shot through the head in the diner, and the guy whose nose Stall breaks, seizing on the ground with what looks like a bloody pig's snout.

Second Chance Verdict, A History of Violence: That thumbs up may, reluctantly, be coming soon. Even if it means I have to sell out both my wife and my theory about proximal film viewings.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Just be happy with what they've got

If the Los Angeles Public Library is one of my greatest resources for renting DVDs, then its Venice branch is the mother lode.

It's no exaggeration to say that they have 2,000 DVDs available for borrowing at this branch -- and that may, in fact, be an understatement.

And so the incident I witnessed yesterday was even stranger. I only saw the tail end of it, but I figured out how the rest of it must have gone.

I was checking out my three movies for the weekend (that's the limit) when a little girl walked up next to me holding a DVD whose artwork contained at least one digital chipmunk.

"Did you find it?" the woman checking out my DVDs asked her.

"No, only the first one," said the girl.

"Ask the reference librarian. She may be be to help you."

The girl wandered off in kind of a half daze.

So apparently, this is what had happened: The girl had walked in and asked this woman if they had Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. Which, for the record, was just released on DVD March 30th, a little over two weeks ago. The woman at the front desk had either said she thought they did, and the girl should go look, or she didn't know, and the girl should go look. When the girl did go look and found only the original Alvin and the Chipmunks, she thought the logical thing to do was bring back that movie to show this woman that it was the only one she could find.

I'm usually never in favor of a clerk at a store saying "Everything we have is out on the shelves," or something similarly dismissive, because I always think there's the possibility that my size of shoes is hiding out somewhere "in the back." But in this case, I think that kind of statement would be fully warranted. The movies are alphabetized -- if it's not there, it's not there. There's no back room, and if it's not among the last dozen titles that were returned but not yet re-shelved, you have to move on to Plan B.

Okay, I've gotta fess up here: This girl was probably only 10.

But the fact that I found it so peculiar speaks to an essential truth I think about movies at the library: You should just be thankful they even have them in the first place. You should be thankful that the library receives donations of movies, and in some cases even buys them, so you can use it as an alternative to renting from a video store. There's no part of the mission statement of a library that says they need to help children rot their brains with Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, yet they do it anyway, just to be nice.

I'm so grateful for this resource that I have never, ever thought I had the right to demand that a particular prominent movie be in stock, as I might if it were a novel of equal prominence I was looking for. Yes, they do have these movies logged in in the catalog -- you can even look online to see if they're available before coming in. But I've always thought it was a crapshoot, and I never go to the library expecting to be able to find something -- or to even have the right to expect to find something. I feel guilty enough as it is that I take out only movies from the library, never books. I'll take what I can get. Sure, there are times when I've hoped to find a particular movie because I've seen it there before, so I know they have it. But I would never try to hold some librarian accountable if I couldn't find it.

I guess that's the primary difference between me and a 10-year-old girl.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

I wanted Kick-Ass to be bad-ass

My first awareness of the existence of a movie called Kick-Ass was this poster you see to your right.

I came across it at the local multiplex, and was drawn in by its gravitational pull.

There was something so promising about it. Some dude in a green jumpsuit, who looks like he might be a younger version of Green Day's Billy Jo Armstrong, seems like he just emerged from a nasty brawl in which he was both the provider and the recipient of some serious ass-kicking.

The minimalism of this poster encouraged me to dream myself away into what this movie might be. With that cut on his face, and that vacant stare like he might be a little insane, the protagonist seemed like a real anti-hero, someone antisocial and unstable and possibly in the need of being institutionalized. He'd have to be somewhat likable, but likable in the way Christian Bale is likable in the Batman movies -- he's not completely there and is definitely a bit off. In fact, it was easy for me to imagine Kick-Ass as a superhero movie Christopher Nolan might make, with a total absence of laughs and warm fuzzies, and a surfeit of brutal truth. Plus, I liked the title for being just naughty enough to push the status quo.

O poster, why must you toy with me so?

I went a couple weeks before I saw the trailer, and the trailer corrected any misplaced hopes I may have had. It immediately became clear that the titular hero was some cheery teenager with wide eyes and plucky ambition, not some broken soul stumbling out of the night to bash someone's teeth in. Less than ten seconds into the trailer, my hopes were dashed. Next to appear was Christopher Mintz-Plasse from Superbad, who is dangerously close to becoming overexposed -- a strange thing to say about a guy who does not conform to anyone's idea of a matinee idol. He and his slacker jokes about being dangerous superheros just pushed the film even further into spasmodic nerd territory, away from the brooding vigilante territory I wanted. I was a bit intrigued by the idea of Chloe Grace Moretz as one of this ragtag pack of superheros, as the actress literally just turned 13 two months ago. But her presence also had the reverse effect of reminding me that this movie might be for kids, not for 36-year-olds.

I have since learned that it might be more bad-ass than I think. The movie got an R rating, after all, and both the violence and the language are supposed to be pretty hardcore. In fact, I understand that Moretz swears like a trucker throughout.

But that doesn't change the fact that this movie is in the action-comedy genre -- not something I was expecting from that poster. Maybe I should have recognized that from the admittedly whimsical title, plus the tagline "I can't fly but I can kick your ass." But I didn't. I've heard some people say it does for the superhero movie what Zombieland did for the zombie movie -- that is, be both a joyous example of the genre in question, while at the same time lovingly lampooning it. Still, I didn't want this movie to be starring a bunch of kids whose voices crack like the pimply teenager who rips ticket stubs on The Simpsons.

Since Kick-Ass won't fulfill my desire for a movie about an alienated loner who beats people up so he can feel something, maybe I'll go for a true comedy this weekend. After all, I still haven't seen Hot Tub Time Machine.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Perhaps a change of color will help

As I mentioned on Monday, it's been two years since I got married. My wife and I had a terrific honeymoon, but it wasn't without its low points. I'm having trouble deciding the lowest low point, though. Maybe you can help me.

Was it

a) when the airline lost my wife's luggage on the second leg of our trip, leaving her without most of her clothes for the last ten days of our honeymoon, or

b) when we watched Death at a Funeral on my portable DVD player?

That's a joke, but not necessarily for the reason you think -- we also watched The Brothers Solomon, which I may have disliked even more than Death at a Funeral.

But I really did hate this British farce (directed by American Frank Oz). I found it busy, over-the-top and mean-spirited. And worst of all, not funny. This was the movie that made me realize how played out it is to have a character get accidentally dosed on psychadelic drugs, strip off all his clothes and climb up on the roof. I concluded my review thus: "Back in the day of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Frank Oz knew how to make total bastards hilarious. Now, he's making characters who should be sympathetic into total bastards."

But I guess Death at a Funeral was popular enough with people other than me, because tomorrow, Screen Gems has seen it fit to release a remake that's totally American this time. Totally African American, in fact.

Okay, not totally African American -- it's directed by a white guy (Neil Labute) and also features the likes of James Marsden and Luke Wilson. Plus, Peter Dinklage reprises his role as the blackmailing homosexual dwarf from the original. I guess Tony Cox, the African American dwarf from Bad Santa, wasn't available.

Is there reason to hope this version will be any better? Yes, some. The problem is, most of the people involved could go either way.

Let's take Chris Rock. He's probably one of the most beloved comics in the country today -- I can't think of a single person who would say they don't think he's funny. But his abilities have not yet translated to film. He's aces doing stand-up or hosting the Oscars, but he strikes out at the movies: Down to Earth, Head of State, Bad Company, I Think I Love My Wife ... need I go on? No one deserves a cinematic hit more than Rock, and some of the clips I've seen suggest that this could be it. But it's just as likely to continue his inexplicable trend of cinematic failure.

Then there's Tracy Morgan. Similar situation to Rock -- great on TV, not great at the movies. Cop Out was on the business end of some of this year's most intense critical lambasting.

Martin Lawrence gives me a little more hope. Ever since he's switched to family-friendly mode, Lawrence has become a likable presence in film and has been scoring some modest hits. Perhaps that will continue here.

And Zoe Saldana appears here, too. There may be no black actress headed to the stratosphere more quickly than Saldana -- literally, as she was in both Star Trek and Avatar last year. She's got another movie opening next week in The Losers, as well.

But shifting back to the pessimistic, some of the performers just seem past their prime. I'm looking at you, Luke Wilson and Danny Glover. Wilson has deservedly become a bit of a punching bag since he took on the role of AT&T pitchman -- the universal response to this decision seems to be that it's career suicide. Funny, because I didn't even realize he was having career problems until he started these terribly unfunny AT&T ads. Then there's Glover. Granted, the man is over 60, but he's definitely losing his skills. He's spent the last decade being pretty anonymous, though I suppose I should mention a small career resurgence when he turned up as the president (quite credibly) in 2012.

Perhaps my greatest source of pessimism is this film's director. No one is on a bigger losing streak, in my opinion, than Neil Labute. His lacerating debut, In the Company of Men, seems much longer than 13 years ago. Consider his string of failures since then: Your Friends & Neighbors, Possession, The Shape of Things, The Wicker Man, Lakeview Terrace. I have not seen the last in that series, but from what I heard, it was terrible too. In fact, Labute's only good film since In the Company of Men was Nurse Betty, and that was ten years ago.

But let me finish on an optimistic note. And the following comment is going to be strange, considering that I spent yesterday's post praising a mean-spirited British farce. But I think a black American cast may be able to make this subject matter more funny than a white British cast.

It's difficult to make this assertion without seeming in some way insensitive, or like I'm making a value judgment about what different races can bring to the table. But I think it comes down to what we expect from this kind of movie. If you're watching a British farce, you're expecting a good helping of sophisticated, urbane humor. If you're watching an African American farce, you're expecting it to be a bit broader and more untamed. I don't necessarily think one is better than other -- it's just a matter of what mood you're in. And perhaps that was what I didn't like about the original Death at a Funeral -- I was expecting sophisticated and urbane, and I got broad and untamed. For the same reason, I'd probably be dissatisfied if I went to Labute's Death at a Funeral, and everyone was trying to make jokes about parliament and Oscar Wilde.

The thing is, this is a raucous, outrageous story, where all sorts of wrong corpses are in the wrong caskets, and accidental drug ingestion is the norm. So let's hope those interpreting it this time will be better choices to bring what could be a funny idea to the screen.

If I'm looking for a precedent for the possible success of this Death at a Funeral, I'd rather skip the original and consider a different ensemble comedy/drama in which a large black family pays tribute to a deceased patriarch: Doug McHenry's Kingdom Come (2001), which starred LL Cool J, Cedric the Entertainer, Jada Pinkett Smith and Vivica A. Fox. I reviewed this one too, and here was my final line:

"In its best moments, Kingdom Come even approaches a version of The Big Chill, with the funeral serving not only as a catalyst for confrontations among a dysfunctional clan, but a clear window into a character."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

An Oscar for a jester

Oscars are so rarely given out for flat-out comedic performances. On Monday night, I was glad to be reminded of at least one exception to that rule.

My wife and I were in need of a good comfort movie from our collection, one that would make us laugh. As I observed to her at the time, it's rare that you can laugh wholeheartedly at a movie from your own collection -- especially one you've seen as many as ten times, which is about how many times I've seen A Fish Called Wanda. You watch these movies not because you really expect to laugh out loud again at them -- one of the keys of laughter is surprise, and you aren't going to be surprised by something you've seen more than a half-dozen times. Instead, you watch them to be reminded of the gales of laughter you produced upon first viewing, with the best possible outcome being broad smiles and perhaps a few snickers.

That is, unless it's A Fish Called Wanda, featuring one of the best comedic performances I've ever seen -- so good they had to recognize it during awards season.

Kevin Kline won the 1988 best supporting actor Oscar for his work as weapons expert and pseudo intellectual Otto, a role so gut-bustingly funny that it overcame the Academy's usual preference for honoring dramatic work with its precious Oscar statues. There have certainly been actors who've won an Oscar for being funny before and since -- Jack Palance for City Slickers and Cuba Gooding Jr. for Jerry Maguire come to mind. But Kline's Oscar is the only one I can think of that was given just for being funny. In those other examples, the actors had moments of both levity and seriousness. Not Kline. He's just a clown from start to finish, an ostentatious ass that you love despite the fact that he's totally disagreeable.

And I couldn't believe how much I was actually laughing out loud at Kline's creation. Maybe not having seen it for seven or eight years restored some of its surprises, even though I feel like I can quote half the movie. Or maybe it's just so funny that it defies my theory of how many times you can laugh out loud at the same thing.

To be sure, A Fish Called Wanda owes a debt to the other three leads -- John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Palin -- and a considerable debt to its script, co-written by Cleese and director Charles Crichton. In fact, on this viewing I marveled at how tight the script is. But Kline gets far more than his share of the laughs, and it's amazing to me how fully he develops Otto into a collection of consistent tics and mannerisms -- which is also a credit to Cleese and Crichton. Let's look at what we learn about Otto over the course of the movie:

1) He doesn't like to be called stupid;
2) He reads philosophy, but doesn't understand it;
3) He drives an American car (where did he get it?) on the streets of England, and repeatedly yells "Asshole!" after side-swiping other drivers on the wrong side of the road;
4) He can speak Italian -- or at least, produce a fair number of random Italian words -- and uses it as foreplay;
5) He has trouble with lists of options, and frequently asks people to repeat them;
6) He loves America and will defend it until the ends of the earth;
7) He hates all non-Americans, particularly the British;
8) He's incredibly jealous and has a bad habit of letting his jealousy spoil an otherwise smart plan;
9) He doesn't like animals, particularly fish;
10) He inhales deeply of his arm pits in times of crisis and/or insecurity;
11) He likes taunting people with disabilities, particularly, stutterers;
12) And, perhaps most surprising, he's an absolutely whiz with guns, knives, crossbows, and other weapons.

Can you think of another character whose quirks are so clearly and unobtrusively established?

This script is excellent with repetition, one of the keys to comedy. We get multiple instances of each of Otto's quirks, as well as such repeated gags as Palin's Ken repeatedly killing the dogs of the woman he's supposed to be bumping off.

Kline also makes almost all his dialogue quotable. Some examples:

"I love watching your ass when you walk! Don't go near him, he's mine! A pound says you won't kill her!"

"K-k-k-Ken is c-c-c-coming to k-k-k-kill me!"

"Avoid the green ones. They're not ripe yet." (mocking laughter)

"I'm so very very sssss ... FUUUUCK YOU!"

"Don't touch his dick!"

"Wake up limey fish!"

"I'm Harvey Man-fren-gin-son-fred." (Seen that spelled a couple different ways online.)

And my favorite exchange between him and Cleese:

"You pompous, stuck-up, snot-nosed, English, giant, twerp, scumbag, fuck-face, dickhead, asshole!"
Archie: "How very interesting. You're a true vulgarian, aren't you?"
Otto: "You're the vulgarian you fuck!"

In fact, I had a funny realization while watching -- one of Kline's lines from this film is something I say every time I watch House. In that moment about 51 minutes into the hour, when House's eyes go all far away and he considers some diagnostic angle that had previously eluded him, I say "Wait a moment!" in a British accent, and my wife always laughs. I always thought I was imitating some imaginary British inspector discovering a breakthrough in the case, but really, I'm just quoting Kline from this movie: "What do the English usually eat with chips to make them more interesting?" And continuing in a British accent: "Wait a moment! It's fish!"

Okay, so I don't mean for this post to turn into a rote recitation of what makes A Fish Called Wanda so great. Its fans, of which I hope most of you are, already know all this stuff, and there's only so much nodding along you can do.

So back to my original point: An Oscar for straight comedy. I applaud it. Obviously Kline is genius here, but what makes this performance different from all the other genius comedic performances that have never even been considered for nomination? I don't have the answer to that, and will just have to be thankful that the stars aligned to make it so.

It's hard for us to recognize what comic actors do as acting, per se. You might say "Kevin Kline was hilarious in that," or "Kevin Kline was great in that." But you wouldn't be very likely to say "What great acting by Kevin Kline," would you? We think of "acting," in the strictest sense, as using a different accent, or playing someone with a disability. We define it by the very difficulty of it, by the way it requires the actor to be in some way different from his/her true self. Whereas it's very easy to imagine Kevin Kline being some variation on this jester in real life, albeit probably less insecure and douchey.

Like most discussion points about films, it's an open-ended question. I'm just glad the Oscar voters got it right 22 years ago. I guess it wasn't a deep year for supporting actor performances -- one of the other nominations was also for a comedic performance (Dean Stockwell in Married to the Mob), while the other three were for movies that didn't exactly capture the zeitgeist (Alec Guinness for Little Dorrit, Martin Landau for Tucker: The Man and His Dream and River Phoenix for Running on Empty, which I actually love).

But I'll take it however I can get it. Any other perspective on it would be ... well, stupid.

And I don't like to be called stupid any more than Otto does.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hoosiers is not racist

This is the second in a series in which I revisit films that I didn't like as much as most people did, and see if I need to reconsider my position. It runs on Tuesdays. For previous entries in the series, see my Second Chances label in the column to the right.

I am part of the most privileged ethnic group in the United States, the white male.

Yet, as those of you who have read me for awhile know, I go through these periods where I think everything I see in popular culture is racist. In fact, of the five previous posts I've written that have the label "racial politics," I wrote four of them in the space of two months between mid-August and mid-October last year. Since then I guess I've cooled off a bit.

I'm not the victim of this racism, of course. I'm fighting battles on others' behalves, or at least I think I am. They may not care if I'm fighting these battles or not.

And I must have been going through one of these periods back in late 1991 or early 1992, when I first saw David Anspaugh's Hoosiers.

It was my freshman year in college, and one of my two roommates was watching Hoosiers in our common room. I was working on something on my computer, but was paying enough attention to the movie that I gave myself credit for having seen it. But the fact that I wasn't paying 100% attention certainly contributed to the following belief, which I've held for almost two decades:

In asking us to cheer for the white basketball players instead of the black basketball players, Hoosiers was being racist.

Or if not out-and-out racist, then at least racially insensitive.

Before you start drafting your outraged retort in my comments section, you'll be glad to know that last night's viewing of the movie corrected my misguided impression. And I have my friend "Steve" (that may or may not be his name) to thank for this.

Steve is a huge college basketball fan, whose allegiances rest with the North Carolina Tar Heels. I've known him for eight years, three-and-a-half of which were spent working one cubicle apart from each other. He considers Hoosiers one of his favorite movies of all time, so my divergent opinion was likely to come up eventually.

To his credit, Steve never got all apoplectic when I told him I thought the movie was racially problematic. Perhaps that's because he's acutely aware of the politics of race as well. But he did encourage me to give the movie a second viewing. He understood how I might have read racial undertones into the movie's final game, in which a team of just seven players from Hickory, Indiana upsets a bigger, stronger, deeper team from South Bend, Indiana to win the state championship. After all, all seven of the Hickory players are white, while most of the South Bend players are black. But he said I should give it a second chance.

Back in college, I formed a strong opinion based on weak evidence, seeing the colors of those two teams and proceeding to jump on my high horse. All I could see was that the movie celebrated a victory for the historically privileged race of players, while the historically underprivileged race could not even find a salve for its centuries of wounds with one simple state basketball championship.

But Steve convinced me that it was more a story of a small, underfunded, undermanned team doing battle against a big team with lots of resources. As I watched last night, I realized the truth in this assertion. I also realized that there were white players on South Bend as well. My mind remembered that they were all black seven-footers, the ultimate basketball Goliath.

Another thing that lets Hoosiers off the hook, if it needed any more letting off the hook, is that it's loosely based on an actual team from Milan, Indiana, which won the state championship in 1954 (Hoosiers was set in 1951-1952). Milan's opponent was the well-funded Muncie Bearcats, which had won four state championships. Presumably, there are more black families living in Muncie than in Milan.

What's more, all the other teams Hickory beats on its improbable run to the state championship are white. And some of those teams are portrayed as thuggish brawlers. The film is notable for choosing not to portray South Bend that way, which it might have done if there really were any negative racial elements in play here. Instead, the final game is a good, clean matchup between two talented teams.

Okay, so the movie isn't racist. But how much did I like it?

Well, enough to turn my thumbs down into a thumbs up. But I should come clean here and say there's a limit to how much affection I can have for any sports movie. It's a topic that deserves a longer post at another time, but I don't really like sports movies very much, despite the fact that I'm a huge sports fan. There are many exceptions to this rule, sports movies I love, but generally speaking, I prefer my feats of athletic derring-do to be real: that's the only way I can believe they really happened. If a screenwriter writes a last-minute shot, I find it incredible. The only way I believe it is if I see it happen in real life. (Of course, the last-second shot in Hoosiers is based on something that really happened, as are the last-second shots in many sports movies. For some reason, by the very virtue of appearing in a sports movie, it still rings false to me.)

As sports movies go, though, Hoosiers is definitely solid. Good acting by Gene Hackman as the coach and Dennis Hopper as the town drunk, who's also a brilliant basketball mind and the father of one of the players -- Hopper received an Oscar nomination for his work. And though I always find basketball choreography to be stagy, consisting of far more easy layups than I ever see in real basketball games because they are easy to film, I was impressed by one scene in particular on that front. Hackman's Norman Dale is trying to reach out to the town's basketball prodigy, Jimmy Chitwood (Marius Valainis), who stopped playing after the death of the old coach, a father figure to him. Jimmy's shooting on a makeshift court in his backyard, using a ball that has almost no bounce to it. Yet in a single camera take, while Dale talks at the silent Jimmy, Jimmy sinks around six or seven 18-footers in a row. It made me wonder how many times they had to shoot that scene before Valainis hit every shot he was supposed to hit.

Second Chance Verdict, Hoosiers: Not the most original film I've ever seen, but it successfully follows a tried-and-true formula for sports movies, and has a lot of heart.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Homophones, not synonyms

I thought we were done using "too" as a synonym for "two" after Teen Wolf Too and Look Who's Talking Too.

But Tyler Perry has continued Hollywood's "everything old is new again" trend, dusting off this sequel-naming convention for Why Did I Get Married Too?

My friends and I used to laugh and laugh at Teen Wolf Too when it came out in 1987. Not only did it look like a terrible sequel to a movie that was not very good in the first place, and not only was Jason Bateman, at that time, as desirable a replacement for Michael J. Fox as Kirk Cameron or Ricky Schroeder would have been, but that title ... oh, that title! So silly. Okay, I get it -- "too" sounds like "two." And it works semantically as well: "The guy in the first movie was a teen wolf. Now this guy is a teen wolf, too!"

But then the Look Who's Talking series kind of legitimized it by also opting for "too" in the title of its second movie. And though it was still stupid, it was slightly less so, and made slightly more semantic sense: "The baby in the first movie talked. Now this baby talks, too!" (Though, to be fair, the babies don't actually "talk" -- we just hear their thoughts.)

Why Did I Get Married Too? is a little harder to parse. Granted, that could be because I didn't see Why Did I Get Married?, so I don't really know who it was that was regretting his/her nuptials. (I have in fact considering seeing it, but I shy away from it for the same reason I shy away from Chris Rock's I Think I Love My Wife. Now that I'm married, what would my wife think? In fact, I'm wondering if the box office of these movies has been hurt by their titles. If people who might ordinarily suggest these movies on date night are scared away by the title, worried their spouse will wonder why they want to see it so much.)

The thing that makes this one harder to understand, grammatically, is that for it to make any sense, the "I" in the two titles must refer to two separate people, one for each movie. Presumably, someone in the first movie was questioning his/her decision to commit. But "I" can't refer to this same person this time around, because then the word "too" would be totally superfluous -- the original question would still be in play, and would not need to be modified by the word "too." But if it's a different "I," it almost needs to be emphasized, like Why Did *I* Get Married, Too? But italics don't work in movie titles.

Obviously, it doesn't really matter. It's just fun to talk about. And the movie has made $48.5 million to date, so it appears that at least some husbands and wives have braved these symbolically dangerous waters together.

I suppose a piece about "two"/"too" as homophones would not be complete without mentioning another famously silly example, where the words were reversed. Instead of calling the 1995 Antonio Banderas-Melanie Griffith comedy Too Much, they called it Two Much, because Banderas' character is pulling a scam where he pretends he has a twin brother. One can only assume Banderas and Griffith haven't questioned why they got married after working together on that project, because they're still together, 15 years later.

By the way, this was not intentional, but today also happens to be my second wedding anniversary. Fortunately, I've got a terrific wife, so why I got married is never a question I ask myself.

If you're reading this, happy anniversary, C.