Sunday, May 30, 2010

Watching and seeing

I was planning to take the long weekend off from blogging, but the problem with a long weekend is that it usually means I see a lot of movies. And the more movies I see, the more ideas I get for blog posts. It's a curse, I tell you.

I found myself with a full cup of coffee and a writing itch this morning, so here it is, another of Vancetastic's Lessons in Semantics.

My wife and I watched Nicole Holofcener's Walking and Talking last night, which I'd already seen -- I thought twice, but my records indicated that it had only been once. (I remembered it pretty well for only one viewing, especially since not a whole lot happens in this movie.) We recently saw Please Give, at which point we determined that my wife had never seen Holofcener's first movie. She promptly added it to her Netflix queue.

This post is not so much about that movie as it's about something the movie made me think about. Namely, there's a scene near the end when Amelia (Catherine Keener) rents a couple porn movies for Andrew (Liev Schreiber). When she hands him the video cassettes (a sign of the age of the movie, along with the terrible jean shorts Keener wears), he says, "I've already seen these."

It struck me as strange, because people never use the word "see" when talking about porn movies. You'd be much more likely to say you had already "watched" a porn movie.

Which naturally got me thinking about the different ways we use the words "watch" and "see" when it comes to talking about film. In this context, to "see" means to view a movie from beginning to end, with the intent of following the plot and appreciating the technique (such as it is). To "watch" would be to view it in short segments as the "need" arose, without caring or possibly even knowing what the plot was -- which is the way most people consume pornography, rather than from start to finish. And it's certainly how admitted porn addict Andrew is viewing these movies, which is why the line stuck out.

But let's take it out of the realm of pornography and talk about how we use these terms with regular movies. Watching and seeing have subtly different meanings here as well, don't they? If I said "Do you want to watch a movie?", you'd assume I was suggesting that we rent something or view something from one of our collections, at either your house or mine. However, if I said "Do you want to see a movie?", it would be immediately evident I was talking about going to the theater, even if I didn't add the word "go" ("do you want to go see a movie") in there. Why is that? I have no idea, but it's an informal rule we've all come to accept.

Okay, maybe I have some idea -- "seeing" is something you do in the theater, "watching" is something you do on a television. The difference becomes more clear when you look at television shows specifically. You don't say "Do you see Breaking Bad?" -- that sounds ridiculous. You say "Do you watch Breaking Bad?" "Watching" here implies some kind of ongoing commitment to a serial entity that can't be consumed in one sitting. It even holds up when you rephrase it so the semantics aren't off. If I said "Have you ever seen Breaking Bad?", you would assume I was talking about a movie, wouldn't you? Especially if you didn't already know that Breaking Bad was a TV show. And if you did know it was a show, you'd feel weirded out by my subtle failure to observe the normal rules of verb use.

But then there are also other subtle differences that tip a person off. If said to you "I saw Walking and Talking last night," that too would seem weird, wouldn't it? You'd wonder if an obscure 14-year-old independent film had made a return appearance in theaters. If I instead said "I watched Walking and Talking last night," that would make more sense to you, and you'd know I was talking about a home viewing on my TV.

But then the word "seeing" actually can refer to home viewings as well, once it's clear you are talking in the abstract about a movie, without regard for where the movie was originally seen. If I ask you "Have you ever seen Walking and Talking?," it means I only want to know if a viewing has ever occurred, either on a television or in the theater. If I said "Have you ever watched Walking and Talking?", now you'd think I was talking about a television show.

Unless Walking and Talking were a porn movie, in which case, the title would probably consist of two very different gerunds.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

[Insert Prince of Persia post here]

I don't have much to say about Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

So instead I thought it would be funny to tease myself about my enslavement to commenting on new releases every Friday, even though I obviously haven't seen them yet. It's become an unofficial secondary feature on my blog, in addition to my Second Chances series.

In fact, the last time I didn't write about a new release on a Friday was December. I excuse myself Christmas Day and New Year's Day, not only because they were holidays, but also, because I was in Australia. But two weeks before that I failed to talk about any of the December 11th releases, opting instead to discuss the difference between Steve Oedekerk and Bob Odenkirk (fascinating stuff).

I don't know, I can't help myself. It keeps me current, even if I don't plan to see many of these movies in the theater. And what better time than a film's release to write a "think piece" about the issues it raises/cinematic trends it exemplifies, even if this will necessarily be abstract and require certain assumptions about it? Besides, it's your last opportunity to theorize about whether a film will be good or not. After that, the critical consensus on it is a matter of public record.

But I figured I'd at least include a couple random, disconnected thoughts about Prince of Persia -- as opposed to my usual brilliant theses -- just so this post has some kind of meat to it:

1) When I first heard about Prince of Persia last year, I was pretty excited for it. That's a part of the world and a time in history that we don't see portrayed too often on film -- in fact, maybe not since Aladdin, and that was animated. I was really looking forward to the ornate production design, and indeed, that looks to be one of the film's primary selling points.

2) When I learned it was based on a video game, I lost some of that enthusiasm.

3) I am a heterosexual male, happily married, with a child on the way. But dammit if Jake Gyllenhaal doesn't look exceptionally hot in this film. (And as a side note, even though I spelled Gyllenhaal correctly on the first try, I still have to look it up every time to be sure.)

4) A dagger that turns back time?

5) It's Memorial Day weekend, and I have yet to see a single one of the big summer releases. (Of which I consider there to be approximately four: Iron Man 2, Robin Hood, Shrek 4 and MacGruber.) Prince of Persia might be the film to pop my cherry on this particular summer, even though it will probably be stupid. In fact, I thought there was a decent chance I'd go after work today. We are often let out early on the day before a holiday weekend, and I have a sporadically observed tradition of kicking off three-day weekends with a movie after work. But it probably won't happen, because a) my boss tends to be absent-minded about remembering to let us go early, and none of us wants to bring it up, and b) I can't risk encroaching on Game 6 between my Boston Celtics and the Orlando Magic, which starts at 5:30 my time.

Have a great first weekend of summer, everyone. Have a hamburger and a beer (or six). And enjoy Prince of Persia if you end up going.

Friday, May 28, 2010

When Bigger might actually be better

Although I watched the last few seasons of Sex and the City, and only started to get fed up with it near the end, I didn't see the movie until a couple weeks ago, almost two years after its release.

I might have seen it sooner had I not been daunted by the 145-minute running time. But I was also daunted by expecting it to suck.

And suck it did -- at least I thought so. Or maybe more accurately, it was protracted and boring, and I found the characters unsympathetic. It's funny, because the rules are different for a movie and a TV show. On a TV show, the characters' tunnel-vision materialism can seem charming. But in a movie, they have the burden of being Protagonists with a capital P, so their motivations need to be deeper, their actions more magnanimous, than the ongoing pursuit of the perfect pair of Gucci high heels. (For the purposes of this argument, I am going to assume Gucci makes shoes, though I really have no idea).

Sex and the City
, the movie, actually went for magnanimity in a way that I found laughable, insulting and almost racist. Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) hires a black assistant, Louise, played by Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson. When we meet Louise, she has a designer handbag that she's renting because she can't afford it. So even though she's sophisticated enough to assist fashion maven Carrie Bradshaw, she's ghetto enough to put her bag on the equivalent of layaway? Carrie's decision to hire Louise is supposed to make her look super enlightened, like she either doesn't see race or believes firmly in affirmative action. But the power dynamics in their relationship are pretty gross -- and when Louise returns home to St. Louis to pursue love, Carrie gifts her a real Dolce & Gabbana handbag, which creates this unfortunate "Oh thank you massa!" moment between them.

But I didn't mean to write about race today. No, the real problem with the Sex and the City movie is that it played like an entire season crammed into one 2 hour and 20 minute movie. Each character followed the kind of plot arc that they would normally follow during a typical season of the show, and given that agenda, you could say it was a miracle they fit it into 145 minutes. But that also left the movie feeling very small and workaday, with only one plot point (Carrie and Mr. Big potentially getting married) to raise it above the level of mere TV show.

And this is where Sex and the City 2, which comes out today, may actually have the chance to be better than the original, by being bigger.

A couple weeks ago I shared my concern about the potential for bombastic excess in Iron Man 2, cautioning against the bigger-is-better approach to sequels. But I guess it depends what kind of bigger you're going for. By making this movie bigger than TV, the Sex and the City girls could have me interested again.

In this case, "bigger" means "taking a trip to Morocco."

What may seem like a gimmick is actually a stroke of genius -- take the sex out of the city. That's what a movie version of a TV show should be all about -- expanding the universe of the show and giving us things we haven't seen before. Creating new stimuli to bring out the essential prissiness in Charlotte, the essential sarcasm in Miranda, the essential romanticism in Carrie, and the essential horniness in Samantha.

I haven't read a plot synopsis for Sex and the City 2 -- maybe because I worried it would damage the thesis of this post -- but if the entire movie, give or take a few establishing scenes, takes place in Morocco, I can think of nothing better for the potential fortunes of this potential franchise. Of course, it gives me pause that Sarah Jessica Parker famously sniped that they should never have made a second movie, and I doubt there will be a third. But if they do in fact stick to the Morocco setting, at least the second movie will be a respectable way to go out.

The ideal way I envision it is that it's a week-long trip to Morocco (this much I've gathered from the ads), and that each character's plot arc is something that can be resolved in Morocco itself, even if it may involve phone calls to loved ones back in New York. Make the whole movie one giant travelogue, set in the always-epic cinematic location of the desert, and give each character something Moroccan to keep them occupied for two hours (at least they've shaved 25 minutes off the running time). It will feel both big and appropriately cinematic, which are probably one in the same thing, and it will feel nothing like a TV season on fast forward.

My worry, of course, is that they will spend about as much time in Morocco as they spent in Mexico for Carrie's abortive honeymoon in the first film -- about 15 minutes of screen time. And that will mean they've learned nothing from the criticisms directed at the original.

There's a second way that I hope Sex and the City 2 will be Bigger. You probably noticed that I capitalized the B in Bigger in my title for this post, and, knowing that I'm not someone prone to random capitalizations, you probably assumed I meant something by it. Indeed I did.

Simply put, I hope to see more of Mr. Big (Chris Noth) in this movie. Although he plays a crucial role in the first film's plot, he also disappears for huge stretches of time. And what can I say -- I just find this man extremely debonair. He's clearly a supporting character in the Sex and the City universe, but a viewer -- especially a guy like me -- needs a little diversion from all the talk of shoes and adoptions and pregnancies and orgasms.

However, I've heard some scuttlebutt that Aidan (John Corbett) is the only male character who makes it to Morocco, which means either one or the other of my hopes for the movie will be dashed: Either not very long in Morocco, or not very much Mr. Big, especially since Aidan is Mr. Big's rival for Carrie's affections.

Oh well. What can I expect from a brand name that long ago crossed over from charming me to irritating me?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

GPS, don't fail me now

As a freelancer, I don't like to turn down work. I have this feeling that I need to be available for every project offered me, lest they start to think of me as a secondary option, someone they can't rely on to complete the task at hand.

And so it was with great difficulty that I turned down the chance to attend a screening of Loss of a Teardrop Diamond last December in order to review it. It was about the seventh screening my employers had asked me to attend (I usually review films available on video), and I'd reworked my schedule (if necessary) to attend the previous six. But this case was different. I was leaving for Australia the next night, which meant packing to do and Christmas presents to wrap and ship. Plus, I'd have to either write the review after I got home that night, or squeeze it into my last workday for two weeks, when I was trying to wrap up a ton of other things.

When I told them I couldn't make it, I got a standard "no problem" as a response, and I really believed it was no problem. But as the months rolled along and I didn't get invited to a single other screening, I started to wonder if maybe I had burned a bridge, at least on that one small aspect of my professional relationship with them.

Until last week, when I was invited to a Monday night screening of Agora, Alejandro Amenabar's new epic about the rise of Christianity in 4th century Egypt, and how it impacted the pursuit of scientific knowledge. I did a small mental fist pump and quickly responded that I could make it. Needless to say, I didn't worry about potential conflicts, like Game 4 of the Celtics-Magic series -- I would just record whatever part I didn't see, and watch it on the DVR when I got home. I considered this to be a test of sorts, even though I doubt they consciously considered it that. If I missed two in a row, that would really undermine my credibility.

I left my house with about an hour to go before the 7:30 showtime, during which I also planned to pick up something at McDonald's. It was plenty of time, really -- the theater was only about seven miles from my house, and rush-hour traffic was already starting to dissipate. I got my dinner, ate it quickly enough, and was back on the road with a full half-hour to travel about four miles. No problem.

Until my GPS started acting up.

Now, I know it's unwise to rely exclusively on GPS when you simply have to be somewhere on time. You're just asking for trouble. The things are notoriously quirky, and there are times when they'll try to get you to drive across a lake or through a building. I guess I was just hoping this wasn't one of those times. But I wasn't worried enough to print out a backup copy of the directions. I feel like if you have to go to the trouble of making a backup, what value is there in having the GPS in the first place?

I have myself to blame for the opening act of defiance, in which I refused to get on the freeway as the GPS instructed. It's easy enough to get to Wilshire Blvd. by surface streets, and that's what I intended to do. And the GPS seemed to correctly recalculate for my intentions.

When I got to Wilshire, though, it asked me to do something screwy that I couldn't interpret properly. It said (in its nice Australian accent) to "Turn left on Wilshire, then drive on ramp." Ramp? The only ramp I was aware of was the ramp leading onto the northbound 405 freeway. If I'd avoided that freeway earlier, why would I choose it now, when I was basically at my destination?

So I proceeded onto the part of Wilshire that curves a bit upward, toward the straight commercial stretch that takes you into Santa Monica. (I later decided that this portion of the road was probably considered to be a "ramp" by the GPS, or else it was an actual ramp that was leading off of this area -- it's a confusing area.) However, now that I figured something was wrong with the directions, I tried to back out a couple steps to make it recalculate.

And this is where I made a fatal flaw. I've only had the GPS for about six months, and I'm kind of a dumb user of it -- sometimes I just press the screen until it gets back out to an area I'm familiar with. And in doing that this time, I appear to have chosen a different address as my new destination. Because after I turned around, it led me to an address on Sepulveda Blvd. that looked like a sorting center for the U.S. postal service. It was coming up on 7:20 now, and I felt my first twinges of panic.

So I tried to follow the same route again, in hopes that it would give me the same directions about the ramp, now that I felt I knew what it meant. But it didn't pipe up with anything. I realized it thought I had already reached my destination (the sorting center), and was no longer chirping me directions of any kind. So I did basically the same thing again, and again accidentally picked out a new destination through an errant screen poke on the map. But of course didn't realize it at the time.

Suffice it to say that for the next frenzied three minutes or so, I found myself driving around the private grounds of some old building owned by some old institution. You know, the kind of place where the roads are only wide enough for one car -- they're really more like glorified walking paths -- and the GPS goes nuts because it doesn't understand what's happening. I felt the scream of panic rising up inside me as it got closer to 7:25. I mean, once I got there, I didn't know if I'd have trouble parking, etc. But that was hardly the most pressing concern.

I finally extricated myself from the private grounds and back into public traffic, but I saw that the GPS was now pointing me back toward the sorting center again. So I finally shut the GPS off and back on, at which point I was able to scan my list of recent destinations. The theater address was now third on the list, with two others ahead of it. I needed to be heading right, but found myself stuck in a left turning lane. Even though I now knew I could get the best of this situation, the time I'd wasted and the slowness of the light were starting to make me panic more. But I weaved into openings and bended a few traffic laws and finally saw that I was within half a mile of my destination. Whew.

Except, not.

As I got on that curvy, rampy part of Wilshire again, I finally spotted my destination -- set way back off the road, on the other side of the road. And not accessible from either side of the road. Yep, the building had an address for a road that it was not actually on. The Wadsworth Theater was tucked into the rolling grounds of a complex of buildings that were tangential to Wilshire, but had their own entrance point from some other location.

It's 7:29. I'm not going to make it. I'm going to have to tell them that I missed the movie and can't write the review.

Screaming at traffic lights and honking at other motorists, I found myself turning left onto Sepulveda, north of where I'd been previously. It was the direction I needed to be heading. But Sepulveda runs alongside the 405, and I needed to get through the 405 to the other side to get where I was going. And the openings to cut through were not regular.

The next thing the GPS told me to do was take a right onto a road that leads into a military cemetery. I didn't know what this was going to do for me, but I had no choice but to believe the GPS. My turn only allowed me to go 20 feet before a gate stopped me. Making matters more complicated was that another car had also turned right, just before me. So while that woman was staring dumbly at the gate, wondering what to do, I had to make a three-point turn without hitting her car. I wondered if she were going to the same theater, and her GPS had sent her on the same wild goose chase.

I finally decided to ignore the GPS' recommendations and follow this road, but in the other direction, under the freeway. Logically, this would be where I needed to go. But it also looked like it might dead-end. Nonetheless, I had to try.

This finally paid off. I did some more weaving on back roads, this time with increasing confidence, and pulled up in front of the theater, which thankfully had its own parking.

Rushing up to the front, I asked two official-looking people standing outside, "Is this the Agora screening?" They told me that it was, and not to worry -- the movie had only started five minutes earlier. Plus, that everyone else had had GPS problems as well.

I hate missing any part of a movie, but I picked up what was going on pretty quickly.

And am glad I did. I could have given up in those panicked minutes of screaming "Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck!", but I persevered. I didn't want to tell my editor that I had blown it, for the second time in a row. And I didn't have to.

But that's not the main reason I'm glad I made it. Rather, it's because Agora blew me away like a movie hasn't blown me away in a long time. It's essentially an intellectual sword-and-sandal epic, taking place on a huge, beautiful set erected in Malta, which doubled for Alexandria, Egypt of the 4th century A.D. The primary conflict is between the emerging Christian movement and the prevailing Greco-Roman pagan way of thinking, which prized scientific inquiry, study of astronomy, etc. The film documents the years of upheaval in which the Christians took over and forced the pagans to convert ... or else. Rachel Weisz plays the philosopher Hypatia, steadfast in her unwillingness to accept God.

The film will probably be considered highly controversial, but I do hope people will see it, especially those people in New York and Los Angeles, where the film will open this week and next. If they come out in droves to see it, it will expand to other cities. Agora was the highest grossing film in Spain in 2009, but most Europeans are much more liberal thinkers when it comes to Christianity under attack. It's hard to know how this country will respond to seeing the early Christians portrayed as villainously as they are here. But I'm sure hoping that it reaches a wide audience, as this is quite simply some of the most vibrant and exciting filmmaking I've seen in a long time. Detail-oriented and meticulous, brash and large-scale ... a $70 million budget for essentially an arthouse film. I think it could easily be considered Amenabar's masterpiece, which is telling, considering that he has such good films as Abre Los Ojos, The Sea Inside and The Others to his credit.

One of the things I really loved about the film was how Amenabar shoots from on high -- sometimes, a hundred feet above the rioting crowds below, and other times, from on really high, when he duplicates the perspective of a satellite looking down on earth. That's simply not something you expect from a movie set in 4 A.D., which is just one of the things that makes it so great.

And as I was watching it, I thought about how it was also the perspective of my GPS satellite, looking down at me on earth, trying to get me to Agora. It did its best, given the less-than-ideal circumstances of an ambiguously addressed destination.

And through a team effort, we made it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

And why didn't I like this movie again?

This is the latest in my Second Chances series, in which I'm re-watching certain movies to figure out why I didn't like them as much as most people did. It runs every Tuesday.

When I was making up my list of movies to re-watch for this series, many of the titles jumped to their place on the list, without me giving them a second thought. Thank You For Smoking was one of them.

But as I was re-watching Jason Reitman's directorial debut with my wife on Saturday -- she was seeing it for the first time -- I could not for the life of me figure out why I had viewed it in such a negative light.

Okay, two things jumped to mind, but they were both pretty minor. And one of them was a complete misinterpretation.

The two things I told people, when they asked me what I didn't like about Thank You For Smoking, were:

1) I couldn't believe that for a film about smoking, there was not a single shot of a single person smoking during the entire movie;

2) I didn't like the Merchant of Death characters.

Let's take the first one first. Duh, Vance. It's an anti-smoking movie. Sure, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckchart) is the protagonist, and sure, we're supposed to sort of like him, and sure, he's a lobbyist for big tobacco. But it doesn't mean he's supposed to be successful at what he does, at least not as far as we the viewers are concerned. In fact, one major plot point is that Nick is trying to get tobacco use back into movies, to make it sexier. He wants the movie's heroes, not just its RAVs (Russians, Arabs and Villains), to smoke. There's a whole proposal to have Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones engage in a post-coital smoke in outer space in their upcoming movie, with a steep price tag for each. Any instance of cigarette smoking in Thank You For Smoking could, accidentally, have the same effect on us, making it look either sexy or cool.

At the time I first saw it, though, I thought this was a gaping hole in Reitman's execution. I thought that he had "forgotten" to show people smoking, or something. I now realize that it was, of course, quite intentional. Even the characters you know smoke -- Nick among them -- are never seen smoking. The most you ever see him do is eyeball an empty pack of his own cigarettes.

This is, of course, counter-intuitively brilliant. So counter-intuitive that it left me flummoxed for the four years since I'd first seen the movie. I mean, what would Fast Food Nation be without showing some gross-looking hamburger patties? What would Traffic be without showing someone's life go off the rails from using drugs? Yet Thank You For Smoking works differently. Not only is it a comedy, for starters, but the negative impacts of cigarette smoking are harder to dramatize, unless you're going to start hauling out a lot of scenes of people dying of cancer in hospitals. And that just doesn't work in a comedy. No, images of cigarettes end up seeming cool, in spite of the message you are actually trying to send about them. It's one of their great paradoxes -- the industry keeps its customers, and gains new ones, with poison labels on the packages, and in other countries, even pictures of diseased lungs, etc. Which is why Reitman's only choice was to show no one smoking at all in his movie about smoking.

Okay, on to the second issue.

The Merchants of Death. Every week, Nick meets with two other high-powered lobbyists, one for the alcohol industry (Polly Bailey, played by Maria Bello) and one for the firearm industry (Bobby Jay Bliss, played by David Koechner). They drink and tell war stories and laugh about the fact that they promote industries which kill people.

I didn't really buy these characters, and still don't. It's a bit of a narrative convenience that Nick is friends with exactly two other lobbyists from the two other industries that would fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. I think we are meant to see these characters as metaphors, but the rest of the film is told with a decent amount of zany realism, so it forces us to accept these characters as real characters, too.

And I just didn't buy them. I didn't buy that they would get together and talk shop about the noxious things they did for their jobs. I didn't buy that they would honestly brag about which industry kills the most people each year (though to be fair, I think it's less a sadistic impulse and more a gauge of how well they succeed at something so disagreeable). But what I really didn't buy was that they would take such an interest in each other's lives. At their core, these characters should be like Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) from Reitman's Up in the Air. All they should care about is what they do and how well they do it. They shouldn't, for example, reach out to and need other human beings. And they certainly shouldn't/wouldn't be in the audience for their friend's son's debate competition, as Polly and Bobby Jay are shown doing near the end of the movie.

But as the other two Merchants of Death make up only a fairly small part of the movie, it's hardly a major criticism.

As for the rest of the film ... well, I found it daring, smart and funny. I also realized this time that if I find the protagonist problematic and unlikable, that's not because the movie hasn't done its job -- it's because it has. Nick Naylor does redeem himself over the course of the narrative, but you're not supposed to like him that much at the beginning, when he excuses his work as a means of paying the mortgage. And when you feel like he's trying to sell you something, you're supposed to feel defensive and irritated by his attempt, especially if it sort of works.

As if to confirm I was wrong all along, my wife liked the movie a lot. And, I guess, I did too.

But was I wrong all along? Funny thing is, when I checked my spreadsheet of movies afterward, to turn my "thumbs down" assessment on Thank You For Smoking into a "thumbs up," I saw that it already was. I had liked Thank You For Smoking when I originally saw it -- more than I'd disliked it, anyway. It was at some point in the interim that I'd decided it was no good, going against even myself to reach that conclusion.

Some things may always remain a mystery.

Second Chance Verdict, Thank You For Smoking: Apparently, I did like it, and I still do.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


I feel like I should be writing something about the Lost finale this morning, considering that it's dominating my brain, and it prevented me from having anything close to a decent night's sleep. However, this is a movie blog, not a TV or pop culture blog, and besides, I don't want to send myself down the rabbit hole of theorizing about what it all meant. (For the record, though, I was very satisfied with it.)

Instead, I'll write about something as opposite from Lost as any piece of "art" can be -- a good old boy action comedy starring a popular country singer who's also an icon of American patriotism and/or hatred of foreigners.

Which doesn't mean, unfortunately, that I didn't like it.

I've discussed before that I'll review almost any movie that doesn't currently have a review on my site, and I'll choose it with all the more gusto if I predict that I'll hate it. Hatred is a very easy perspective to take in a film review, and it can lead to a person's funniest, most colorful writing.

Beer For My Horses, then, seemed like a movie that would be off the charts in terms of my hatred of it. Not only did it figure to be stupid -- I mean, just look at that poster -- but it also figured to be racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and every other negative thing I attribute to the worst conservatives out there. After all, it stars Toby Keith.

In case you need a refresher on the events of 2001, a bunch of Muslim extremists hijacked four airplanes, flying two of them into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon, while the fourth, which may have been headed for the White House, was crashed into a Pennsylvania field by its passengers.

Not long afterward, Keith wrote a song called "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue," which immediately became a lightning rod for controversy. With good reason. Want a couple sample lyrics?

Soon as we could see clearly
Through our big black eye
Man, we lit up your world
Like the 4th of July

A reference to the retaliatory attacks on Afghanistan by the U.S. military.

And then:

When you hear mother freedom
Start ringing her bell
And it feels like the whole wide world is rainin' down on you
Brought to you courtesy of the red, white & blue


Justice will be served
And the battle will rage
This big dog will fight
When you rattle his cage
And you'll be sorry you messed with
The U.S. of A.
'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass
It's the American way

Okay. So I'm all ready to watch Beer For My Horses, then tear into Toby Keith for 300 words or so.

Didn't happen like that.

Oh, this movie is macho and American alright. It concerns a team of Oklahoma police officers who stake out a spot where there have been reports of fertilizer theft, and cross paths with a Mexican drug ring specializing in the production and sale of crystal meth. And the movie is damn near a product placement for Ford trucks. Keith actually shills for Ford, if not officially, then at least unofficially. There's a segment on the DVD, before the movie starts, in which Ford trucks are overtly praised -- the F-150, specifically.

But every time I thought the movie was going to reveal, and revel in, its patriotism/jingoism/xenophobia, it didn't go that way. The conflict with the Mexicans, for example, seemed like a perfect opportunity for a line of dialogue to the effect of "They should go back to where they came from." But no such line of dialogue ever materializes, and the closest you'd get to an overt disrespect for the Mexicans, as such, is Keith ending a line of dialogue with "Comprende?" That's the age-old convention for "I mean the shit I am saying to you, person who speaks Spanish."

If this were a conventional Hollywood film, rather than a film financed by CMT (Country Music Television), they would probably have to have at least one Mexican character who was as angelically good as the drug dealers are bad. But I don't attribute the lack of that character to be an actual negative commentary by the filmmakers.

What's more, I was surprised to see a line of dialogue that actually made fun of Barbara Bush. They're talking about the Quaker oats man, and Keith says, "You mean that guy who looks like Barbara Bush?" If the movie's intention were merely to push forward a conservative agenda, surely they would not tease a sacred cow like that, totally unprovoked.

And so yeah, I found the film to be light and affable. Did I like it like it? It's hard to say. It is eminently competent, and plenty likable at times. Plus there's a really funny turn by Ted Nugent as a crazy cop who has a hunting knife, a crossbow and a machine gun for each hand in his arsenal. I found myself inclined to laugh whenever Nugent was on screen.

What's more, the film had a pretty legit supporting cast. I had never heard of co-star Rodney Carrington, who is Keith's comic relief -- I have to assume he comes from the Redneck Comedy Tour (or whatever it's called) or some such origins. But the rest of the cast was pretty well known: Claire Forlani, Tom Skerritt, Barry Corbin, Gina Gershon. In other words, people I don't necessarily associate with staunch conservative politics (especially Gershon).

And Keith himself? More than capable. Pretty easygoing, and can deliver his lines effectively.

I feel like I should really hate myself for the fact that I am not going to write a scathing review of Beer For My Horses, but in researching Keith I found out a couple more things about him that may place this film in a context it's easier to understand. For example, although he's a patriot, he has never actually classified himself as a Republican. That's right, he called himself a "conservative Democrat who is sometimes embarrassed for his party" in 2004. He did get into a public spat with noted Democrats the Dixie Chicks over his infamous song, and he did support Bush for reelection in 2004. But in a 2007 interview he said he "never did" support the Iraq War. He supposedly has a close personal relationship with New Mexico governor Bill Richardson (a Democratic Latino). And in August 2008, after previously praising Obama's speaking and potential leadership skills, he described Obama as "the best candidate we've had since Bill Clinton." The usage of the term "we" was fairly short-lived, as he soon re-registered as an independent and said he would probably vote for the Republican ticket because of his admiration for Sarah Palin. (Points lost there.) However, about a year ago, he also said he supported Obama and was taking a wait-and-see approach. (And that's the last wikipedia has about his political views.)

So I guess Toby Keith is a good example of the nuances we would like to think we're all capable of having -- the way our beliefs can shift and adjust within a predictable overall framework. He's more complicated than I ever would have given him credit for.

Complicated, kind of like the limited affection I feel for his movie.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Boldly committed, or just short-sighted?

As you are probably aware, the advertising surrounding Shrek Forever After has been all about how it's going to be the final Shrek movie.

In fact, for awhile, I thought they had actually changed the name of the movie to Shrek: The Final Chapter, as this poster would indicate.

There have been various other posters/ads with slogans like "It ain't ogre 'til it's ogre" and "the fairy tale is ogre." (I was really hoping to find one that didn't include the word "ogre," but they seem to have lost their pun thesaurus that day.)

It's as though they're trying to do everything possible to go on record about the finality of this movie, to remove every temptation they may feel about making a fifth one.

Well, I'll believe it when I see it. Or, don't see it.

When Shrek Forever After makes another $350 million this summer, will it really be so easy to walk away? How can you just leave money like that lying on the table? Given the franchise's history of box office bravura -- Shrek 2 slayed to the tune of $437 million in the U.S., which is the fifth highest of all time, while Shrek the Third is only 17 spots behind on that list at $320 million -- I fully expect the fourth Shrek movie to outgross all other movies released in 2010. (The bar is currently set at $331 million by Alice in Wonderland). In fact, I put my money where my mouth was -- okay, there was no money involved -- and picked Shrek Forever After as my top-grossing film in the March Madness box office game being run by Fletch at The Large Association of Movie Blogs (LAMB). (And looking at it now, I see I'm the only one -- which could mean I'm either crazy or brilliant.)

Most movie execs don't have the sense to walk away from a franchise until they have bled it dry, until the public appetite for that franchise has clearly started to go on the wane. Certain franchises might go dormant for awhile -- in the case of Indiana Jones, it was 19 years -- but we should all know enough by now to never say never. Until the audience has told you in no uncertain terms that they will no longer pay for this crap, it makes sense to keep making it.

Which is why the makers of the Shrek movies are either boldly committed ... or naive and short-sighted.

Retiring athletes always think they're certain about retiring. But when it's staring Michael Jordan, Brett Favre and Roger Clemens in the face that they will never shoot, pass or pitch again, they change their tune. At that point, all we can really hope is that they have only one false retirement, not multiple. Usually, that hope is dashed.

And it could be the same with Shrek. It could be that when Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy realize they'll only do the Shrek and Donkey voices again at parties, a fifth movie won't sound so bad. But who are we kidding? The impetus for the fifth film would probably have to come from somewhere else in Dreamworks. I don't know if Myers, Murphy and Cameron Diaz have gone on record saying they don't want to play these roles anymore, but any or all of them would probably be replaceable, and the movie would still make $150 to $200 million.

Besides, why wouldn't they want to come back for a fifth? It's not like any of them are master thespians who are turning down serious dramatic roles in order to make more Shrek movies. They wouldn't have to, anyway, because animation is an easy payday. You just sit in a studio and do line readings as you watch the characters move on screen. What could be easier?

If the Shrek movies do truly stop at four, it will give me a respect for the franchise I haven't had previously. I've actually only seen one Shrek movie, Shrek. I liked it fine at the time I saw it. But a dislike crept in pretty quickly. I decided that the essential message at the heart of the film was suspect -- I developed the impression that instead of celebrating difference and loving yourself despite your physical appearance, the movie was actually doing the opposite, in a covert, pernicious way. I'd have to watch it again for examples, but frankly, I don't really want to. But perhaps the thing that annoyed me most, as I saw bits and pieces of Shrek here and there again (and watched most of it again on a plane), was Murphy's Donkey character. Not only was he sort of offensive, he was also irritating. Does that conversation he and Shrek have about whether onions have layers take up 15 minutes of that movie, or 20?

But I'm prepared to take them at their word, for now. If only because I've heard there's a possibility they will keep the franchise going in a matter of speaking, by spinning off to concentrate on Antonio Banderas' Puss in Boots character. A character I am only familiar with by reputation, having seen neither the second nor the third Shrek movie. In fact, now that I look on wikipedia, I see that this spin-off has not only a title, but a release date: Puss in Boots: Story of an Ogre Killer, scheduled to come out next year already. (Who knows when that was written -- IMDB has it merely in "announced" status.)

So Dreamworks will be hedging their bets either way.

Before I leave off my discussion of Shrek Forever After, I wanted to include an aside about the movie's advertising campaign that has bothered me a little bit, but wasn't enough for an entire post.

If you've seen any of the recent ads, it's as though there's a campaign underway to make a cult figure out of a bratty little kid who tells Shrek (a celebrity in his world) to "Do the roar!" The roar, I guess, being what Shrek is famous for. This spoiled little kid has a voice that puts him halfway between Eric Cartman and the midgets (little people) in Tod Browning's Freaks. The "Do the roar!" demand is repeated a couple times, and then you see the kid say "I love you, daddy," from which we are supposed to understand that his father paid a huge amount of money to get him in to see the famed ogre.

I admit that this kid has a good weirdness going for him, and that voice is odd indeed. But what got me a little annoyed was when I saw a digital ad for Shrek Forever After on Venice Blvd. in which "DO THE ROAR!" was being put forth as the big catchphrase from the movie.

I resent the idea that the movie is trying to tell us what lines we will love, before we've even seen it. Aren't quotable lines supposed to develop organically out of the zeitgeist? Aren't we supposed to anoint them as classic dialogue through word-of-mouth? Yet it seems like more and more, the marketing departments behind films are trying to determine our quotable lines for us. Sort of the same thing happened with Inglourious Basterds, when a number of posters/billboards featured the line "That's a bingo!" Then again, those may have been posters for the DVD release, when we had already theoretically decided, as a society, that we found "That's a bingo!" to be a memorable line from Tarantino's film. (I may not have been present for that meeting).

And why wouldn't marketing departments do this, if it works? If it increases awareness/buzz about their film, even ever so slightly? Whether it works for this particular film remains to be seen.

So here's hoping that the Shrek Forever After advertising campaign succeeds in terms of being honest about there never being a Shrek Drinks a Fifth, but fails in terms of forcing a catchphrase on us.

My concern is that it will probably be just the opposite.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Something in Common?

It's the NBA playoffs, and after my Celtics went up 2-0 on the Magic last night, I'm itching to get a little basketball into my movie blog.

Fortunately, Fox Searchlight did me a favor by releasing Just Wright last Friday, just in time for the beginning of the Eastern and Western Conference Finals. (Though surprisingly, I haven't seen as much cross-promotional material as you would expect -- the more prominent tie-ins have been between basketball and The Prince of Persia, which makes a ton of sense.)

I haven't seen Just Wright, so I couldn't swear to any similarities between the movie and real life, in terms of the plot. But I sure can tell you a vibe I'm getting from this movie:

Is it just me, or is this The Jason Kidd Story?

For those of you unfamiliar with Jason Kidd, he's a point guard with above-average scoring ability, who has been considered one of the best players of his generation, even though he's now getting a bit long in the tooth at age 37. Kidd was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks in 1994, and has since played for the Phoenix Suns and the New Jersey Nets before returning to Dallas two years ago.

What concerns me today is where he made his longest stop, New Jersey, from 2001 to 2008. Because not only is Just Wright about a superstar who plays for the New Jersey Nets, but Common, who plays that superstar, actually looks a lot like Kidd.

Don't believe me? I submit this for your consideration, with Common on the left and Kidd on the right:

And how about this, with Common on top and Kidd on the bottom?

Look, I'm not saying they're identical twins. But the similarity is worth pointing out, especially since both the character and the real person play(ed) for the Nets. Kidd would have still been playing for the Nets at the time the script was developed, as well.

So I just took my first opportunity to google the terms "Jason Kidd" and "Just Wright," and I see that others have reached the same conclusion I have. Well, I came to that conclusion independently, so I'm not stealing anyone else's idea.

The actual details of the story don't seem to have anything to do with Kidd. Kidd has never sustained a career-threatening injury, for example. Common's Scott McKnight sustains such an injury in Just Wright, which is how he meets Queen Latifah's character, a physical therapist. (Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the player's last name is not Wright. Now I guess I'll have to see the movie to figure out what the title means.)

Well, without interviewing Just Wright screenwriter (or would that be screenwrighter?) Michael Elliot, I may never know.

But never knowing is half the battle.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Overrated for all the right reasons

The following is part of my Second Chances series, which involves revisiting acclaimed movies that I didn't love as much as most people did. It runs on Tuesdays.

I had a very peculiar perspective on last year's Oscar race. The film I wanted to win was Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire. But it was pretty clear that wasn't going to happen. So I had to pick a horse that was actually in the race, and it was really a two-horse race between Avatar and The Hurt Locker.

Strangely, I picked the film I liked less.

That's right, I wanted The Hurt Locker to win, even though I had it ranked a full 31 slots behind Avatar on my 2009 year-end rankings (#37 vs. #68).

You'd think that kind of thing would be cut-and-dried, but of course it isn't. I may have thought Avatar was a better version of what it was trying to be than The Hurt Locker was of what it was trying to be, but I was also hugely sick of James Cameron by that point. Avatar had horrified me by becoming the highest grossing film of all time with a sub-par story, and I was feeling more and more warmly about the story of Kathryn Bigelow being recognized for her years in the industry, which produced at least one truly great film (Strange Days). Besides, there were plenty of other films I ranked ahead of The Hurt Locker that I wouldn't have thought should beat it in a (theoretical) best picture race -- I won't name them here, because some of them are too embarrassing. It's just the nature of the kind of year-end list in which you reward romantic comedies that were much better than you expected them to be, and punish, relatively speaking, war movies that didn't quite live up to the hype.

I actually saw The Hurt Locker very early in its hype cycle -- in fact, I think I saw it before anyone else I knew saw it. So when I came out of the theater disappointed -- thumbs up, but still disappointed -- it was based purely on the success of what I saw before me, not on knowing it was one of the most critically acclaimed films of the last couple years.

Two things in particular bothered me about The Hurt Locker: 1) its episodic nature, 2) its main character. Let's start with the slightly easier one.

Few films are structured as generally unrelated episodes, and there's a reason for that. We the audience crave the traditional three-act narrative. We want to have a conflict set up in the beginning, and watch as it evolves toward a conclusion, one that springs logically from what has come before. This doesn't mean we want movies to be cookie cutter versions of each other, but that's the beauty of the three-act structure -- there are plenty of things you can tweak and change, and still stick to that basic structure in a way that will satisfy even the most particular film fans.

You could argue that The Hurt Locker has a general three-act structure within its series of episodes. You do, actually, follow the emotional journey of three main characters -- more on that in a minute. But the actual action that takes place is almost completely episodic. None of the incidents portrayed in The Hurt Locker relate to any of the other incidents, except tangentially, and more problematically, they don't build in intensity over the course of the narrative.

If screenwriter Mark Boal had at least given us episodes that were exclusively related to the defusing of bombs, The Hurt Locker would work a little bit more for me, almost like a series of half-hour TV shows, in which hot shot bomb technician Will James (Jeremy Renner) must sort out a different crisis with a different improvised explosive device each week. But one of the film's most interesting interludes is actually one of its most detrimental to the cohesiveness of the whole. I really enjoy the scene where James, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) happen across a team of British soldiers with car trouble, and come under the attack of an insurgent sniper. It's long and drawn out, and involves a lot of counterintuitive philosophy about what's needed to flush out an unseen assailant. But what does it have to do with preventing bombs from exploding? Not a whole lot. It's just another incident in these characters' lives, which is fine -- but which means it's probably superfluous. In the world and timeline of any movie you see, there are events that befall the characters that are not dramatized, precisely because they don't advance the narrative nor tell you more about the characters in question.

I remember feeling especially disappointed during the scene where James tries to disarm the innocent man who has the bomb locked to his body -- the film's final set piece. I could tell by the film's pacing and the amount of time that had passed that this was probably the last scene, but nothing else about that scene made it seem like it had greater stakes than any other scene. Sure, it ends with James unable to defuse a bomb for the first time, but that's because it's the only bomb he encounters with a timer. In a traditionally structured film, James' failure in this scene would serve as a wake-up call, a reminder that he's not invincible and that his cocksure methods don't always yield results. Instead, the man blows up simply because there are too many locks for James to cut in the allotted time. James puts himself in harm's way to try to save the man, but that's not really any different than he's been doing the whole movie. Boal and Bigelow try to get us for a moment by suggesting that James might have been killed in the blast, but it's only a moment. Then his body twitches and he's fine.

James' motivations seem like a pretty good way to segue into my other main problem in the film, which comes down to his character. Is his character the main character? Or is this the story of Sanborn and Eldridge?

Again that question comes down to structure. Sanborn and Eldridge are in the narrative from the start. They're alongside Thompson (Guy Pearce) when he's killed in the opening scene. (And as an aside, I'm not really sure why Thompson dies in this scene -- he seems reasonably far away from the blast, but maybe that's just how they had to film it. I guess he's supposed to have gotten hit in the back of the head with shrapnel, because his face spurts blood.) Anyway, it's not until the second scene, maybe 15 minutes in, that James appears. He appears as the unpredictable "other" that our protagonists -- at least you'd think they were the protagonists -- have to deal with. He's like a bit of a ticking time bomb himself, distant and unknowable. And like true protagonists, Sanborn and Eldridge go on to have emotional journeys. Sanborn, once saying he's not ready for fatherhood, ends the film weeping and talking about his desire to have a son. Eldridge, afraid of dying, ends up leaving Iraq safe, but with a leg full of friendly fire. We know they are both trying to live out a clock of dwindling days, shown on the screen from time to time, before the end of their tour. Fortunately for them, both do.

And then somewhere in the second act, the ticking time bomb becomes the protagonist. We still don't know Will James, but suddenly, it's his story, he who appears in all the scenes while Sanborn and Eldridge fade into a clearly secondary role. Another way to tell: When Renner got nominated for an Oscar, it was in the best actor category, not best supporting actor. Either of those other two surely would have been nominated as supporting actors, if the Academy had deemed their performances worthy.

So first James is this hot shot who disregards protocol but gets the desired results -- a maddening combination for anyone who works with him. You can't quibble with the outcome, but the means to that end are extremely frustrating. James has the attitude of a disinterested professional brought in to solve the simple problem of disarming a bomb, without attaching any moral judgments to the scenario. He just has a job to do, and that's it. The trickier it is, the more he likes it.

But somewhere along the line, he takes a real position against the Iraqis. They are no longer just an abstract stimulus for his work, but an actual enemy, one that boils his blood. This transition is not handled particularly effectively. The incident that seems to push James from disinterested to interested is finding the rigged body of the boy he believes is the same boy who has been trying to sell him DVDs, with whom he has bonded in a very superficial way. (Of course, it's not actually that boy, which we don't discover until later -- and it's not clear entirely what message we're supposed to take from this -- all hodgies look the same?) It's this incident that directly inspires him to take another merchant hostage in his truck and go off the reservation, which is by far the film's weakest scene. The scene is sort of in keeping with his character, in the sense that he's a risk taker who doesn't follow rules. But it's out of character in that it involves a loss of cool, a bubbling up of emotions we didn't previously think he was capable of.

This scene is a cousin of the scene later in the film, when James forces Sanborn and Eldridge to pursue the ghosts of insurgents he imagines are watching after a successful bomb blast where his team wasn't present. You'd think James would have a dispassionate perspective -- I won last round, they won this round, that kind of thing -- but instead he takes it personally, and like a paranoid, runs off after unseen bombers, getting Eldridge wounded in action. Eldridge later accuses him of seeking an adrenaline fix, and that may be all it is, but it seems like James is finally taking a position in this war, and really cares about beating the enemy. The problem is, this emotional change does not seem earned -- it just gets introduced because it needs to be. Afterward, he goes back and turns the shower on his head to cool himself off, without removing his uniform. The "come to Jesus" moment in the shower is an iconic cinematic scene, but it doesn't really feel earned here.

It's supposed to feel ominous at the end when James returns for another tour, and we learn that he has 365 days remaining. But it's hard to feel that way. Sanborn and Eldridge were the ones who wanted to get out -- James never did. If James doesn't care whether he lives or dies, why should we?

As you can probably tell, my perspective on The Hurt Locker has not changed radically after seeing it a second time. I still have the same basic criticisms. I always thought it was an extremely solidly crafted war movie with some intense moments, but I never thought the moments were as intense as other people did -- simply put, I never really thought there was a moment when Will James might die.

I do, however, insist that The Hurt Locker is overrated for the right reasons. It's a modestly budgeted war movie with a minimum of melodrama. It's a macho movie directed by a woman whose career is easy to cheer. The cinematography is excellent and the performances are first rate. It's the ultimate David that beat the ultimate Goliath (Avatar). I just wish Boal hadn't been awarded an Oscar for his script, because that is and always has been my primary complaint about the movie. Unfortunately, it's a pretty big one.

Second Chance Verdict, The Hurt Locker: A movie it's easy to cheer, even if it's not my favorite movie. And a more deserving Oscar winner than He's Just Not That Into You, The Proposal, and some other movies I ranked ahead of it. (Shit, I just named them, even though I said it was too embarrassing. I hope it shows guts that I'm willing to live with the judgments I entered into the official record).

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Generic zany productivity music

Today will be my first experience embedding video into my blog. I don't plan to make it a regular occurrence -- the core of my blog is writing, and always will be. But sometimes, I'll need an audio visual reference to a point I'm making, and today is the first example of that.

However, I should warn you -- the video here is pretty crappy. You'll see what I'm talking about in a minute. I chose to film it on my blackberry after my wife was already asleep last night, so I couldn't turn the volume on the source material up very high. (In fact, I wanted to use just audio, because that's all I'll really need. However, I couldn't figure out how to embed just audio. Hey, I'm 36 years old, I'm not one of you twentysomethings who knows how to do everything. Just ignore the fact that I work in IT, so I have no excuse for playing the role of a technophobe.)

Anyway, to the topic at hand. I've been watching a lot of family-oriented zany comedies lately, some to review them (Daddy Day Camp, Are We Done Yet?) and some to give me background for a review (Daddy Day Care). There may have been a couple others, but it's kind of a blur right now.

These three have one obvious thing in common -- they all star African-Americans. But I don't believe that has anything to do with my point today, or if it does, it's a very strained connection.

No, the other thing they all have in common is the music that plays while the DVD menu is up. It's not the exact same song on these three movies, but it is the same kind of generic zany productivity music. Take a listen. (You may have to turn up your volume a little bit.)

I guess you could also call it Old West music. It sounds a bit like it should be in a Western, and maybe that's appropriate for a movie about a day camp. Sort of.

But it also seems to me to indicate a certain grandiose buffoonery to what the actors are doing. In each of the movies I mentioned above, there's someone engaged in some sort of buffoonish activity related to children. But I also call it "productivity music" because it sounds like a grand venture is being undertaken.

Since I've sort of realized I don't have a very interesting point here, I'm going to cut my losses and use this post primarily as a test of my embedding skills. (As much as being able to embed a video into a blog post can be described as a "skill").

Don't hold it against me, and tune in tomorrow for the next installment of Second Chances.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Did Russell Crowe ruin Ridley Scott?

Ridley Scott sucks anymore.

Forgive the questionable grammar/semantics -- it is 100% intentional. My friend Greg from college introduced me to this terrific phrasing, which is essentially a more effective combination of "So-and-so sucks these days" and "So-and-so is not good anymore." It gets you to the point faster and makes perfect sense to anyone who hears it.

So I repeat: Ridley Scott sucks anymore.

Personally, I blame his muse, Russell Crowe. And am just glad Crowe doesn't read my blog, or at the very least, doesn't know who I am, because I hear he has something of a temper.

So Robin Hood has gotten universally negative reviews. What a surprise! Who didn't see that coming?

I think I've seen it coming since Gladiator.

Before we get any further, let's make one thing perfectly clear: At one point in his career, Ridley Scott was a great director, someone to be envied by all his peers. He made two of the best science fiction films of all time (Alien and Blade Runner), and in Thelma & Louise, one of the best of all time of two different categories: the road movie and the female empowerment movie. He wasn't always a hit-maker -- G.I. Jane, anyone? How about White Squall? But those three movies bought him a career's worth of leeway.

It was when he received mainstream recognition of his efforts in the form of an Oscar that Scott started to become significantly less interesting, and not coincidentally, significantly more prolific. Perhaps also not coincidentally, Gladiator was his first film with Russell Crowe, another creative talent who was previously excellent, and has not been so excellent since. So perhaps the destruction was mutual.

Then again, he hasn't even shown a Burtonian level of commitment to his own version of Johnny Depp -- since starting to work with Crowe, he's made as many films that did not feature Crowe (four) as those that have (four). But Crowe has appeared in his last four, and I think that's when Scott's suckitude has really started to pick up steam.

Let's consider them in order:

1) Gladiator (2000). I liked Gladiator fine, but never in a million years thought it was best picture material. It was an impressively shot action movie that looked gorgeous, featuring Scott's trademark partial slow-mo technique. I am describing this terribly, and if anyone reading this can help me out, I'd appreciate it, but it's a technique he uses regularly that seems to allow him to linger on details without actually slowing down the film speed. For example, clumps of dirt that flew through the air in the Colosseum would be clearly visible in relief against the background, almost like they were hanging there a moment longer than they actually were. (In my colleague's review of Robin Hood, I see this correctly attributed to DP John Mathieson and described as a "high-frame-rate action style." That's as good a description as any.) Anyway, it was a breakthrough technique, and I think that this is Gladiator's real contribution to cinematic history. Everyone knows Crowe should have actually won his Oscar for The Insider the year before, and that Scott should have won his Oscar for 1492: Conquest of Paradise. (Ha.)

2) Hannibal (2001). The technique I described above was present again in this film (and will continue to be, so I'll stop pointing it out), and there was a certain grandiose, international quality to this film, but otherwise, it was considered a failure as a much-anticipated follow-up to Silence of the Lambs. Perhaps we needed Jodie Foster instead of Julianne Moore. This film is bizarre and gross, though paradoxically, its best part is its most bizarre and gross part: the horribly disfigured Lecter victim played by an uncredited Gary Oldman.

3) Black Hawk Down (2001). And this is where Scott starts to establish the persona he retains to this day: technically masterful yet devoid of emotional content. A movie about soldiers killed in a skirmish in Mogadishu should have been moving in some small way, but the characters end up faceless and interchangeable in this film. There's impressive filmmaking going on, for sure, but I remember leaving the theater thinking that I wanted to like it more than I actually liked it.

4) Matchstick Men (2003). Scott's attempt at a grifter movie with Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell is weirdly forgettable. It seems like an especially strange choice for a director who had been working on such a large canvas. Although I guess the fact that Cage's character has OCD gives it one additional layer.

5) Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Aside from Robin Hood, this is the only Scott film since Gladiator that I have not seen, despite the best efforts of my mom's boyfriend. (My sister and I joke about the time he wanted me to watch this giant epic about the Crusades on his iPhone.) It's a logical movie for me to have seen, but I think part of the reason I didn't is that I had seen one too many movies lately where the main character speechifies in some trite way: "Today! Is the day! Of all days! Of our destiny! Of our freedom!" And then two armies run at each other for an epic skirmish. In fact, when I was at one point going to focus only on the fact that this type of material seems incongruous for a Robin Hood movie, I was going to call this Scott's crutch, and point out that it also appears in Gladiator. I was going to call the post "Braveheart's sloppy seconds." I mean, aren't you kind of sick of that shit also?

6) A Good Year (2006). It seems strange, in retrospect, that the first film to reunite Scott and Crowe after Gladiator was a movie so unlike what either of them had ever made before. Normally I would applaud such diversity in an artist, but A Good Year is so slight and so frivolous that a person has to genuinely ask why either of them really wanted to make a movie about an English businessman with a hard shell who inherits a French vineyard. Maybe just as a chance to catch their breath after all the epics? It's not terrible, but it's also not consequential in the slightest.

7) American Gangster (2007). And here's where I really start to hate Ridley Scott. This is an over-long and pointless film that rips off many better gangster movies, and ends in one of the most peculiar ways you can imagine. I won't give too much away here, but you can't spend an entire movie making us view a character one way, then ask us to change how we view him in the last ten minutes of the movie. (It's Denzel Washington's character I'm talking about, not Crowe's). Although this film certainly has its fans, I consider it an utter waste of celluloid.

8) Body of Lies (2008). I actually watched Body of Lies last night, giving it the opportunity to provide Scott a stay of execution on this post. And actually, it sort of did -- until I woke up this morning and decided I wanted to write something with my morning coffee. Body of Lies is highly watchable and genuinely entertaining, but it's not something you will ever think about again afterward. Not every movie needs to be something more than it is, and here is a reasonably clear espionage thriller involving modern Islamic terrorism, set in numerous locations throughout the Middle East. Leonardo Di Caprio and Crowe are both good. However, I can't help but see this as another symptom of Scott treading water artistically, even though I enjoyed it.

9) Robin Hood (2010). Haven't seen it, don't really plan to, at least not in the theater. Crowe looks like he's playing Maximus again, and it's just shoehorned into the Robin Hood story. In this way it seems like it might be purely lazy, more than any of the other films on this list. Familiarity can breed contempt.

To take any ten-year period of a director's career and say that it's not as good as some other ten-year period is not really fair. Especially since Ridley Scott is not a young man -- he'll be 73 this year.

But I don't get the sense that Scott is winding down -- in fact, quite the opposite. Although IMDB is notoriously inclusive in terms of rumored future projects, it lists 18 such projects for Scott, at least three of which he's supposed to direct: two Alien prequels (this is the first I've heard of this) and a film called The Kind One. So far, none of Scott's future projects seem to be the same as Crowe's future projects. Maybe they had a dust-up on the set of Robin Hood. I could see Crowe punching out a man 25 years older than him.

And because Scott is still so active, I think it's fair to hold him accountable for his choices, and to expect more from him. This is a man whose films once had soul; now they do not. Whether his partnership with Russell Crowe has anything to do with that or not is left up to the speculation of bloggers like me.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Epistolary typecasting

Iron Man 2 may have come out last Friday, but we all know that the summer movie season doesn't really start until today, with the release of Letters to Juliet.


Epistolary? That's a pretty big word for a Friday, Vance.

Okay, let me throw you a bone:

epistolary (adjective)

1. in or carried on by letters: an epistolary friendship.
2. of, pertaining to, or consisting of letters. consisting of letters.

And Amanda Seyfried seems like she's starting to get typecast in movies that are of, pertaining to, or consisting of letters.

Okay, I only have two examples, but they're kind of funny examples, aren't they? First there was Dear John, which came out in February, and invokes the language of letters in its title. The plot involves a long-distance relationship Seyfried's character carries on with a guy serving in Iraq. Then there's Letters to Juliet, another letter-related movie. It's set in Verona, Italy, where Romeo & Juliet was set. Seyfried's character answers love letters that are left by the lovelorn on a particular wall, kind of like coins flipped into a fountain as wishes. (That setting, actually, reminds me a little bit in spirit of another Seyfried film involving romantic escapism: Mamma Mia!)

I don't have anything more profound to say about Seyfried making two movies in three months that revolve around the writing of letters. In fact, I'd like to use this post to show you that I can, actually, write something short now and again.

So yeah -- consider it noted that Amanda Seyfried has been the (willing) victim of epistolary typecasting, and let's move on.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Mr. 3000

Stan Ross, the fictional retired baseball player played by Bernie Mac in Mr. 3000, is famous for having collected exactly 3,000 hits in his major league career.

I'm not as well known as his character is supposed to be, but I'm now locally "famous" for a different reason -- I have seen exactly 3,000 movies.

That's right, I pulled that gimmick. I saved Mr. 3000 as the 3,000th movie I've ever seen, a milestone I reached last night.

Like it should be to collect 3,000 hits in a major league career -- only 27 major leaguers have ever done it -- it was a struggle for me to notch my 3,000th movie. I paused it several times to take short naps during the third act, not because the movie was bad (I actually quite liked it), but because it was after 11 p.m., and I start work at 7 a.m. every day.

But I did it. And I stand proud before you this morning.

The parallel with major league baseball extends further. Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader, was just about a month past his 37th birthday when he collected his 3,000th hit. Me, I'm about five months shy of my 37th. Granted, Rose was collecting his hits in a much more condensed period of time than I was watching my movies. But it also didn't take him two hours to collect a hit -- in fact, he might collect three hits in two hours.

It seems like only yesterday that I was planning out which movie would be my 2,000th. In fact, it was September 16, 2005, nearly five years ago. At the time, the movie I was most embarrassed about never having seen was Casablanca. So I chose Casablanca as my 2,000th movie. (And am ashamed to say I didn't see what all the fuss was about. How can I call myself a real film fan?)

The fact that I have now reached 3,000, less than five years later, means that I've been averaging more than 200 movies a year in the time in between. My 1,000th movie? I think it was Payback, starring Mel Gibson. Needless to say, I just let that one happen organically.

Three thousand movies may not seem like a lot to you, especially if you are also a film blogger, and you watch as many movies as I do. But consider this: If you say the average movie has a running time of 1 hour and 42 minutes (a guesstimate that comes from nowhere), that means I've spent 30,600 minutes watching movies. Divide that by 60 and you get 5100 hours. Divide that by 24 and you get 212.5 days. That's right, nearly two-thirds of a year of my life spent watching movies. (Okay, it's closer to 58% of a year, if I'm being all specific with my numbers.) And that's counting all the movies I've seen only one time. You might throw in an extra week or two for second, third, fourth and 12th viewings of my favorite movies.

A couple other stats that may interest you, but probably only interest me: Of those 3,000 movies, I gave 1,946 a thumbs up and 1,054 a thumbs down. I also saw 2,070 for the first time on video, and 930 for the first time in the theater.

How do I even know this was number 3,000?

That's a different story. Since the early 1990s, when I must have been in the 300-400 range of total movies seen, I've been keeping a running list of all the movies I've ever seen. In the years since then, I've had plenty of time to add titles I may have missed, and adjust the totals accordingly. So the current list is as accurate as it can be.

But that doesn't mean it's 100% accurate, and in fact, what films I've included on the list -- or excluded -- are purely a function of my own definition of what constitutes a movie. Some of the movies that I added way back when, I wouldn't have added today, but they're grandfathered in as a a permanent part of the list. As just one example, I include Luis Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou on my list, even though it's only 20 minutes long, significantly under feature length. Would I include it today? I don't know.

In Mr. 3000, Mac's Stan Ross retired with exactly 3,000 hits -- in the middle of a pennant race, no less. So when a computational error in the statistics turns up nine years after he retired, meaning he was given credit for three hits he never actually got, Ross chooses to come out of retirement at age 47, to strap 'em on again and try to prove he can get three more hits.

I'm never going to be subjected to the film equivalent. Even if I did include some movies I wouldn't have included today, and even if I did forget to add some over the years, and even if I did make an adding mistake somewhere along the way, Mr. 3000 will stay in the record books as my 3,000th movie. Even if it was actually my 2,997th or my 3,004th.

And I can certainly live with that.

What will number 4,000 be? Stay tuned ...