Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The documentary ceiling

As it turns out, I've seen exactly 100 documentaries in my life.

You'd think it would be more. I certainly thought it would be more. But when I counted through my list last week upon getting the idea for this post (after seeing Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work), I found myself at exactly 99 -- which includes stand-up comedy movies, for the purposes of this exercise. So I decided I'd just delay the post until I watched my 100th (Protocols of Zion) last night.

I watch as many documentaries as anyone I know (with one exception), yet they account for just 3% of all the 3,035 movies I've seen. I guess that shows you the prevalence and general name recognition of documentaries relative to fiction films, when even a buff who consumes films like a hoover has only just gotten into triple digits in his 37th year of life.

Of those 100 documentaries, you know how many I gave a thumbs up?


To put it another way, I've only ever disliked six documentaries, and two of those were the aforementioned stand-up comedy films (I'm looking at you, Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat). I won't even mention by name the four conventional documentaries at which I turned up my nose, so I don't have to start any arguments, but let's just say at least one was an utter waste of time, and a fairly loose interpretation of the term "documentary" (I'm looking at you, The Real Cancun).

If there's going to be a 94% chance of enjoyment each time I pop in a nonfiction film, you'd think I'd be clambering to get my hands on as many as possible. But here's why I don't: While I find almost all of them to be good, and a few of them to be great, I find almost none of them to be transporting. And here's where we hit what I'm calling "the documentary ceiling."

I've seen documentaries about everything you can imagine: the preparation of food, the mistreatment of animals, the use of the word fuck, the use of the n-word, the abuse of steroids, wrongful imprisonment, Anti-Semitism (just last night), insects, a French tightrope walker, video game geeks, penguins, global warming, electric cars, Trekkies, fundamentalist Christians, a crazy bear enthusiast and every Michael Moore documentary except his last one. What they all have in common is that they can't touch me the way the best fiction films out there can.

The reason for this seems relatively simple: I seek emotional truth in fiction, not in reality.

If you tear it down to its basics, anyone can put a camera in front of a grieving mother or a burning building or a protesting crowd, and produce an emotional reaction in the viewer. All you have to be is at the right place at the right time. But when you create those emotions "artificially," so to speak, it's a more impressive feat to me. When a line of dialogue identifies something universal and powerful in our world, even though it's the fabrication of a screenwriter, it's more true, in a way, than actual "truth."

Of course, I'm oversimplifying the purpose and value of a documentary. In fact, I'm worried I'm coming dangerously close to being anti-documentary, by identifying this tendency in the way I read films. The last thing I want to be is anti-documentary, because that's the same position held by the conservative hawks I detest, who seek to keep hidden the corruption that documentaries tend to expose.

But I can't escape the unfortunate reality that whenever I start to watch a documentary, I have slightly muted expectations. It was that feeling, before sitting down to Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, that inspired me to write about documentaries today. (In fact, I would have used that poster art with this post, except that I didn't really want Rivers' large botoxed-face up at the top of my blog for 24 hours, and the image from the Protocols of Zion poster kind of went with the title of the post.) When I'm seeing a documentary, I never think that I might be seeing the best movie of the year. It feels like there's a certain ceiling for how good it could possibly be.

Maybe part of what's tripping me up is that the purpose of most documentaries is not the same as the purpose of most fiction films. Again oversimplifying, the purpose of most fiction films is probably to entertain first and foremost, and then sometimes to educate, depending on the film. With documentaries, it's often the other way around. Which is why you will meet documentary enthusiasts from time to time who don't particularly care for fiction films. They're in it for the education only, the same way they read only nonfiction, and watch only the History Channel. I don't necessarily call these people film fans -- I call them fans of learning. The documentary is just one of many media available to allow them to learn, and they may view those media somewhat interchangeably.

It's perhaps no surprise, then, that some of the documentaries I've found most effective have been about frivolous things. In those cases, there's more of a balance between entertaining and educating. These films also tend to allow themselves to be slightly more "cinematic," in that they might have fewer talking-head interviews and follow more of a readily identifiable story. I basically want the documentaries I love to resemble the fiction films I love as much as they can, without crossing over into the realm of actual fabrication. Which ultimately is a failure to appreciate documentaries for what they actually are.

This is a very rich topic and I'm sure I could go on for hundreds if not thousands more words. But instead I wanted to close by telling you my ten favorite documentaries of all time, and seeing if I can figure out why they managed to transport me almost as much as a quality fiction film. (And good news already -- I tried to pick just five, but couldn't whittle it down, so I chose ten. And even that was hard.)

10. Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991, Alek Keshishian). I loved the way this film brought me into the world of one of the most fascinating people in the world, at least at that time. Keshishian used different film stocks and expertly combined concert footage with behind-the-scenes footage, and with other Madonna-related hoopla.

9. Religulous (2008, Larry Charles). Bill Maher is quite the agent provocateur in this screed against religion, but I really connected it with it because I was the choir and it preached to me. Maher underscores why I find organized religion so scary in the wrong hands, in a very powerful way at times -- and a very funny way at others.

8. Super Size Me (2004, Morgan Spurlock). Morgan Spurlock would eventually wear out his welcome by trying too many other social experiments, and becoming somewhat egocentric. But the first social experiment I saw, where he ate nothing but McDonald's for 30 days, was a funny and convincing indictment of the American fast food industry, and earned points for outside-the-box thinking.

7. Man on Wire (2008, James Marsh). One of the most thrilling documentaries I've ever seen, where the attempt to cross between the buildings of the World Trade Center on a tightrope is staged like a spy thriller. Loved the eccentric French acrobat at the center of the action, and was particularly impressed that the movie never indulged in any post-9/11 sentimentality -- or even mentioned 9/11 at all.

6. American Movie (1999, Chris Smith). Rarely has the new American dream -- to make a movie -- been expressed so poignantly through the plight and lives of such ordinary Americans. Mark Borschardt, Mike Schank and the metaphorical inertia of a Wisconsin winter are absolutely riveting topics, eccentric to no end.

5. Sicko (2006, Michael Moore). I debated about whether this list really deserved more than one Michael Moore movie, as Bowling for Columbine is also great. But this movie's climax may be the most affected, emotionally, I've ever been by a documentary -- and whether that was Michael Moore manipulating me or not, it still reminded me of what I sometimes take away from moving fiction films. So Sicko takes the spot.

4. Microcosmos (1996, Claude Nuridsany & Marie Perennou). Still the most mind-blowing nature movie I've ever seen, though to be fair, I categorize this as a true documentary, whereas some impressive nature documentaries have actually been a part of a larger television series. The vignettes are constructed as many little conflict-filled narratives, causing you to become fully invested in a scarab beetle struggling with a ball of dung.

3. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008, Sacha Gervasi). The best of the many music documentaries I've seen, probably because it resembles one of my favorite mockumentaries of all time: This Is Spinal Tap. With a little distance from it, I've decided that this movie probably contains one of the biggest no-no's in the making of documentary films: A scene or two that was at least somewhat staged. But I loved these goofball Canadian rockers so much, and they seemed so earnest, that I just didn't care.

2. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007, Seth Gordon). I don't know why, exactly, but this showdown of two Donkey Kong experts was one of the most thrilling documentary experiences I've ever had, an epic battle between two personalities who were probably not hugely different from each other, but were constructed in such a way where you were eager to cheer one and boo the other.

1. Looking for Richard (1996, Al Pacino). Al Pacino's love letter to Shakespeare, his role in our world and the challenges of performing his work takes the number 1 spot because it's the only documentary that I've ever ranked as my favorite film in a given calendar year. That year, 1996, was actually the first year I formally ranked my movies. And though I haven't seen it a second time -- I definitely should -- I remember being so blown away by the craft and care that went into this film, which contained parts of a performance of Richard III within the confines of the documentary structure. A brilliant way to address Shakespeare from all his many-splendored angles.

Honorable mentions: Bigger Stronger Faster*, Bowling for Columbine, The Cruise, Dig!, Dogtown and Z-Boys, Jesus Camp

Agree? Disagree? Well, you don't know which documentaries I've seen and which I haven't, so there. :-)

But I'd love to hear some of the ones you were impressed by for their potential fiction film qualities -- or otherwise -- if you'd like to talk about them in the comments section.

Capra Madison

This is the second in my Double Jeopardy series, in which I revisit films I may have liked too much, to see if they hold up. It runs on Tuesdays.

I know what you're thinking -- Was this whole Double Jeopardy series just so Vance could write about high-concept comedies, in which a fantastical plot device allows the protagonist to change his life in ways that at first seem desirable, but are ultimately undesirable? Last week Bedazzled, this week Click?

I promise, it's just a coincidence -- I won't make a habit of it.

Adam Sandler's production company is called Happy Madison. The name is a hybrid of Sandler's first two big-screen successes: Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. It seems a bit infantile to be so openly proud of those two movies, but then again, they're probably his two funniest movies, so have at it, Adam.

Every "Adam Sandler movie" that has been made since 1999 is a Happy Madison movie -- Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds, 50 First Dates, Anger Management, etc. Adam Sandler doesn't necessarily have to be in the movie for it to be an "Adam Sandler movie," as movies like The Hot Chick, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star and Paul Blart: Mall Cop also fall under the Happy Madison label. Similarly, Sandler appears in movies that are not "Adam Sandler movies," and not produced by Happy Madison, such as Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People. The movie I crapped on (sight unseen) last Friday, Grown Ups, is the consummate Happy Madison movie, as it features not only Sandler, but the stars of The Hot Chick, Dickie Roberts and Paul Blart as well.

If Happy Madison is a hybrid of Sandler's two formative successes, then Click is a different kind of hybrid. It's a mixture of a Happy Madison movie and, surprisingly, a Frank Capra movie. Hence, Capra Madison.

And like Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds and 50 First Dates, none of which I've seen, I probably would not have seen Click if I hadn't made it the second half of a "sneak into the second" double feature. Around the time the movie came out, four years ago, I was working in the IT department of a restaurant company, and was sent out to a site about an hour east of Los Angeles, to fix a cash register or something. The site is right next to a multiplex, so I decided to extend my workday by four hours, since I always love seeing movies in unfamiliar locations. First I saw the Keanu Reeves-Sandra Bullock weepie The Lake House, then I stayed for Click.

I don't know which one I was expecting to like more, but Click was the clear winner.

In the review I wrote at the time, I commented that the idea of a remote control that controls real life had taken a particularly long time to come to the screen -- and that Click was a thoroughly satisfying realization of the concept. But it doesn't start out that way. In fact, the first 20-30 minutes represent some of the worst instincts of the worst Happy Madison movies. Rob Schneider, disguised under heavy makeup, plays a wet t-shirt-loving Middle Eastern prince named Habeeboo, whose name everyone constantly mispronounces. Sandler's Michael Newman screams at a bunch of teenagers playing with fireworks and jumps a fence to try to beat them up. And a recurring joke is that the family dog loves humping a duck stuffed animal that's the same size as he is.

During this interminable lead-in to the good stuff, I could feel the uncertainty mounting in my wife, on the couch next to me. I wondered if the film's second and third acts could possibly redeem the first.

Once again, they did.

At a certain point in the movie, the remote control starts following Michael's past preferences. Michael once told the remote to fast forward to his next promotion, which he expected to be just a couple months off. Now, the remote wants to fast forward to his subsequent promotion -- however far off that may be. Ditto for the times Michael wanted to fast forward through sex and through being sick -- just that one time in both instances, but the remote programs it as a preference that supersedes all else.

So it's at this point that the movie moves away from boob jokes and fart jokes -- Sandler hitting slow-mo to watch the bouncing boobs of a jogger, and hitting pause to fart in his boss' face -- and becomes a sublime examination of the risk of sleeping through our lives, and missing the details that make it worth living. This is where the Frank Capra part kicks in -- most literally, It's a Wonderful Life. With assistance from a guardian angel figure, played by Christopher Walken (more on him in a minute), Michael gets to see his future life if he continues on his current trajectory. But he's not just witnessing it -- he's living it. And it's moving forward at a speed he can't control.

Sure, there's some shtick here too -- at one point, Michael's weight doubles, the end result of his steady junk food diet. To director Frank Coraci's credit, though, this scene does not get milked for laughs and is relatively short. This scene also highlights the technical reasons for seeing the film -- it was nominated for an Oscar for its makeup effects, which are sometimes quite astonishing.

Maybe I'm just a sucker for movies where characters age into imperfect futures that are passing through their fingers like running water, because the second half of Click really gets me. Fast-forwarding into Michael's future surprised me, because the ads had just shown the bouncing jogger boobs, and Michael slapping the paused face of his boss (a hammy David Hasselhoff). This should be no surprise, because the ads were trying to win the Happy Madison crowd only. But Click has so much more to offer than mere Happy Madison shtick. Some of the events of Michael's future are as touching and as delicately handled as anything you would want to see in a sensitive drama. And if I wasn't sure I was right about this the first time, I knew it the second -- especially when I heard my wife sniffling back some tears. I did her the courtesy of not embarrassing her by drawing attention to an emotional moment that surely caught her by surprise.

The reason more people probably did not like Click was that there was too much Capra for the Happy Madison crowd, and too much Happy Madison for the Capra crowd. As hybrids go, Click is probably more diametrically divided than most you will see -- but its good parts really do elevate the bad ones, rather than the bad parts dragging the good ones down to their level.

I said I'd get back to Christopher Walken. Walken is a full-on comedic performer at this point in his career, and Click is one of the funniest performances he's given. As the inventor of the remote control, who guides Michael through his journey -- an employee of the "Beyond" department at Bed, Bath & Beyond -- Walken's Morty is simply hilarious, his line deliveries always worthy of a good chuckle, no matter what he's saying. He may be what pushes Click over the top, saving it from its weaker comic instincts with a gonzo performance that's in a category all its own. But to continue the hybrid metaphor, Morty also has a dark side, which serves that part of the story well -- to chilling effect, at certain points.

Double Jeopardy Verdict, Click: If only half of a movie is going to be good, you're always better off with it being the second half -- and because it's usually the other way around, the movie leaves a better impression than many of the scores of films that have strong beginnings and weak finishes. The second and third acts elevate this film into a recommended high-concept escapist dramedy, one that's actually touching, and not as funny as you might think it's trying to be.

Whether that last comment qualifies as a selling point or a detractor depends on what side of the Capra/Madison divide you find yourself.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Underachievers: The Terminal

Since I just introduced the idea for posts highlighting over- and underachievers on Saturday, it seems only fitting that I should now be inspired to write my first Underachievers post, to go hand-in-hand with the first Overachievers post.

Before watching The Terminal last night, I would have thought that anything with Steven Spielberg's name on it would rise to a certain minimum level of quality. But The Terminal reminded me that Spielberg has his Hooks, his Lost Worlds and his Crystal Skulls, just like anyone else out there.

Simply put, The Terminal was ridiculous. Almost everything that happened in it was unbelievable, even if it was based on something that really happened, as my wife told me halfway through. I looked it up just now, and apparently, an Iranian refugee lived in Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris for a whopping 18 years -- my wife had thought it was half that -- from 1988 until 2006, and it was only a hospitalization that eventually forced him out. It goes to show you just how poorly The Terminal was made, that a story of a Krakozhian refugee living in JFK for less than a year seems like a completely unfathomable prospect.

(Spoilers to follow.)

Let's start with the worst part of the film: Its villain. Stanley Tucci plays an airport security bureaucrat who is in line to become a bigger airport security bureaucrat, who basically comes to think of Victor Navorsky (Tom Hanks) as his biggest nemesis. Everything Tucci's Frank Dixon does in the entire movie is mean and unmotivated. He's cornered by a loophole in Navorsky's legal status, in which he can't be deported to his home country (whose government was overthrown in a coup) but he also can't be allowed into the United States, because the U.S. is no longer recognizing passports issued by the fictitious Krakozhia. By all measures, the nice bumbling man has a very even-tempered adjustment to being forced to live in an airport, without any long-term means of sustaining himself. Yet Dixon views his very attempts to survive and thrive as a defiant act of needling him. This is a blatantly false attempt to create a straw man villain for the audience to root against, and it relies on a bunch of bullshit contrivances to escalate the supposed rivalry between the two men. For example, at one point, Navorsky is hired by a construction crew to work on a new wing of the airport, and Dixon learns that Navorsky is being paid $19/hour under the table -- "Which is more than I make," says Dixon. So this guy is one of the top officials at JFK International Airport, and he makes less than $39,520 per year? We're talking 2004 dollars, but still -- total B.S. The rest of the artificial conflict between Dixon and Navorsky is so artificial, I won't even get into it.

Then let's go to some of the stuff Navorksy spends this year doing at JFK. One subplot is that he's helping a Latino guy involved in making the meals given out on the planes, played by Diego Luna. Luna's Enrique Cruz is in love with Dolores Torres, played by future hot commodity Zoe Saldana. Torres is a lower-level bureaucrat who sits at a desk with a big red stamp, denying Navorsky's various attempts to submit paperwork for a visa. But Dolores doesn't even know who Enrique is. So Enrique enlists Navorsky to ask her questions about herself, in his highly broken English, each time he tries anew to submit paperwork. And Enrique feeds him much-needed airline dinners each night, to find out what Dolores has said about herself each day. Not only is this an extremely roundabout way for Enrique to find out information -- don't they have some other mutual acquaintance at the airport? -- but it culminates in the most ridiculous way you could imagine. One day, Navorsky presents a diamond engagement ring to Dolores, on behalf of Enrique. But here's the thing -- they've never even spoken to each other. Because this is a bogus Hollywood contraption, Dolores accepts the proposal, and the next scene is them leaving the airport chapel, a married couple. Huh?

I could go on. Navorsky's love interest is a pathetic airline stewardess played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is constantly waiting for pages from the married man she's having an affair with. To give her character supposed depth, she's always reciting details about historical figures she's read about in books. Then there's the ridiculous janitor character, played by Kumar Pallana, who I loved so much in Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket. He starts out as another unmotivated rival of Navorsky -- he hates Navorsky for apparently one reason, which is that Navorsky tried to get his meal vouchers out of the trash after the janitor had already collected it up. But of course, he ends up becoming a close friend, one of the many blue collar airport workers who put Navorsky on a pedestal as some kind of champion of the little guy. His character arc resolves in a ridiculous scene in which he runs out on the tarmac with his mop, in front of the wheels of an arriving airplane, in order to delay its eventual departure. Yes, it's as unintentionally absurd as it sounds.

All this nonsense might be worth it if Navorksy had a good reason for wanting to get into New York. But for the longest time, we aren't given a clue what the reason is. We know Navorsky has a container of Planters peanuts that he cherishes, and once plants a kiss on -- we assume his reason for coming to New York has something to do with that. My wife and I were predicting that maybe the ashes of his father, or wife, or someone like that, were in the can, and he needed to dump them in New York as part of a promise. When Navorsky's purpose is finally revealed, it can't help but seem pretty arbitrary -- he's trying to get the signature of a jazz great to complete a collection for his deceased father. His father loved jazz and had written numerous jazz greats who appeared in a newspaper photo, asking them all for their autographs. Navorsky has come to America to get the signature of the last person who never responded to his father's request. Really? Really?

The one thing I will say is that Tom Hanks is by far the best part of this movie -- and perhaps the only tolerable part. He's as likable as usual, and gives a performance that is far more interesting than the film deserves. However, Hanks is totally failed by the script, which doesn't give his character much to do -- he's a protagonist whose goals are not fully articulated, and who is the passive recipient of most of the things that end up happening to him. The movie conveniently allows his character to learn English, when he knows next to nothing in the first scene -- so that makes his apparent disconnect from the audience and from the events around him a little smaller. But it shouldn't be a surprise that in a movie where almost everything is unbelievable, even an Oscar winner and a generally beloved performer can't help more than just a little bit.

The Terminal is terminally flawed.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Overachievers: Walk Hard

It's not often that I'm prompted to run straight to the computer after watching a movie. But with no post up yet today -- I never exceed one per day -- I have a clean slate to do that tonight.

The movie that prompted this was Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Not only did it prompt me to go straight to my computer, but it also prompted me to create a new recurring-as-needed series on my blog: Overachievers.

Overachievers -- and its inverse, Underachievers -- will be series that allow me to spotlight films based on how they compared to my expectations for them/what I had heard about them. If a movie is much better than I thought it would be, Overachievers makes a nice way to spread the word. However, if it's been unjustly hyped, Underachievers can save my readers from it. (To the extent that people allow themselves to be biased one way or another by what I write.)

And tonight's overachiever is Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

I guess I only really discussed this movie with one other person who saw it, but that discussion left such an overwhelmingly negative impression of it that I'd kept a wide berth from it since then. I did form negative impressions of it myself -- a trailer that looked too broad by half; too much infantile dick humor in the title. But without that conversation, I probably would have seen it two years ago. After all, I consider myself a patron of Judd Apatow's many-splendored buffet. If Apatow's name is on it, I'll see it sooner rather than later.

Apatow has minor misses -- but my conversation with this friend led me to expect a major whiff. So I passed up a couple decent chances to see it. Until just recently, when my wife decided that she wants to watch basically nothing but simple -- preferably funny -- cinematic fare until she gives birth in two months. I lap up dumb comedies with the best of them, and now I didn't need to feel guilty anymore. So Walk Hard was one of three movies that came home with me from the library on Friday. It had to be good for at least a laugh or two.

Was it ever.

I think it's fair to say that I was laughing from the very first minute of the movie, and did not stop for more than a minute the rest of the way.

Quite simply, this is one of the funniest parodies I've ever seen. It takes all the well-known cliches of rock n' roll biopics and drives them just 10% into the absurd. Okay, maybe 20%. But with a few obvious exceptions, almost everything that happens in Dewey Cox could happen to a real music icon. It's not the Airplane! school of parody, where everything is a sight gag and few of them are logical. It's not the _____ Movie school of parody, where everything is just a really obvious parody of a really popular person or movie, regardless of whether it actually relates to movie's theme. No, Dewey Cox is the blessed result of a director and star pulling back on the reins -- and being all the more uproarious for how seriously they're devoted to being just plain funny.

I am in such a dizzy post-Dewey state right now that I can't even give you a laundry list of specifics, though believe me, I want to. I will say that not only is John C. Reilly brilliant in the lead role -- playing himself from, hilariously, age 14 onward -- but he's supported by a terrific and frankly huge cast of funny people, most notably his two leading ladies (Kristen Wiig playing Wife #1, Jenna Fischer playing Wife #2, in following the Johnny Cash template). Special props to Tim Meadows as his lifelong friend and the guy who gets him into every new kind of increasingly serious drug. The scene where Meadows tells him "you don't want this shit!" regarding marijuana, then proceeds to explain all the ways it's great as if they're negatives ("It's not habit-forming!"), is absolutely brilliant.

What's even better is that the music is totally legit. There had to be 15 new songs written specifically for this movie -- sung by Reilly, I'm pretty sure -- and they all sound like they could have been played by a real musician of the era in question. Only the lyrics are slightly goofier, but even the goofiness is underplayed -- most songs are more absurd than the most obvious interpretation of their lyrics, because of things a 21st century post-ironic audience would recognize, but they wouldn't have recognized at the time.

One final proof of how unexpectedly pleased I am with Walk Hard: During the entire time I've been writing this post, the DVD title menu has been replaying the title theme on permanent repeat. I believe this is the 32nd iteration. Or is the 34th?

Anyway, way to overachieve, Dewey.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Comedians Who Wouldn't Go Away

If you're like me, you thought June 25th would never arrive.

But here it finally is. Which means they can finally stop promoting the fuck out of Grown Ups.

It's not the number of television commercials, billboards, or advertisements plastered on the sides of buses that have been excessive. That's been about in line with industry standards.

No, it's that you can't go anywhere without seeing Kevin James, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider and David Spade, in some combination, but most often all five together.

They've been at baby christenings. They've been smashing bottles of champagne against the hulls of ships. They've been cutting the ribbons outside of malls. They've been offering their expertise on how to solve the BP crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.

It's enough to drive a person crazy.

They say the more something is relentlessly promoted, the less good it probably is, so watch out for this one. In light of recent discussions we've had on this blog, I'm trying to withhold judgment on films I haven't seen yet. But it doesn't mean I can't talk about some bad indicators, and the indicators are all bad for Grown Ups right now.

The fivesome you see here literally started promoting this movie back in February. I didn't witness it myself, but I heard on sports talk radio a few weeks back that they were hanging around the Super Bowl in their inseparable group of five funnymen, at various stages of career decay, getting out the word about their big summer movie in the dead of winter. You usually start seeing ads for summer movies around then -- in fact, the Super Bowl is renowned for being a showcase for such ads. But it's usually still months before the distributor sends its stars out on a publicity campaign. In the case of Grown Ups, the media blitz started then and hasn't let up.

I suppose NBA fans, like myself, were subjected to an extra large dose of the Grown Ups. Not only was the movie one of the sponsors for the TV coverage of the basketball playoffs, but almost all of these guys seem to have been Lakers fans with courtside seats, independent of any promotional tie-in. Of course, in the actual tie-ins -- there was one they played constantly, where the five guys sat around talking about great championship teams -- Sandler wore his Knicks jersey, and they didn't betray any specific biases for any current playoff teams. But whether they were biased toward any particular team or not, they were still ubiquitous.

Another reason why it seems so sad, that they've been working so hard for this movie, is that it really does seem like a lazy project in which three successful comic actors are trying to lift up two unsuccessful ones. It's no secret that Rock, Sandler, Schneider and Spade were all friends from their Saturday Night Live days -- in fact, I've read that Kevin James felt like quite the fifth wheel, with no SNL war stories to tell. But two of those guys seem to be slumming in order to help out the other two. It shouldn't be too hard to figure out who's who in this scenario. As for James, well, I guess this is about in line with the other movies he's been making. But he definitely has more going on in general than Schneider and Spade (oops, I mentioned their names).

Anyway, hopefully, today it all ends. Or at least tones down a bit. You often continue to see ads for movies for a week or two after they've hit theaters. But at least these five will probably no longer be weighing in on Stanley McChrystal or discussing their picks for the World Cup.

And just so I don't have to leave Grown Ups on a totally destitute note, I will say that I absolutely love the poster for this movie. Not only is it perfectly composed, showing all five stars with their varying levels of importance (though I might argue that Rock and James should change places based on their current career fortunes), but it also tells you what the movie's about in one perfect image: Five guys who haven't grown up. I also like it for its originality, as it may just be the first movie poster ever to feature guys on a waterslide.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hedging their bets on Cruise

Tom Cruise is in the midst of a comeback.

It's as close to indisputable fact as you can get. His last drama (Valkyrie) was a critical and commercial success. His last -- first? -- comedy (Tropic Thunder) was a critical and commercial success, demonstrating a shrewd knack for the kind of stunt casting that might jump-start his career. But the best indication of a return to business as usual is that Cruise has been inked to appear in Mission Impossible 4 -- which once itself seemed like an impossible mission, given that Paramount dumped him shortly after the release of Mission Impossible III in 2006.

And of course, Knight and Day, in which he co-stars with Cameron Diaz, hits theaters today. However, 20th Century Fox doesn't seem to have gotten the memo that it's okay to get behind Cruise again.

The PR campaign for Knight and Day is a study in half measures. There have been plenty of TV ads, and quite naturally, Cruise has been front and center in them. But one look at that poster above -- kind of a hybrid of a James Bond opening credits sequence, and the ipod campaign circa 2008 -- and you can tell something's amiss.

Where are the faces of the actors?

It's only natural, when you're promoting a movie with such big stars as Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, that you would want the public to see their faces on the poster. But not here. Their names are ginormous -- as big as the title, and the title is pretty big -- but their faces are conspicuously absent. The result is a bland poster that neither says anything specific about the movie, nor features the stars that are going to attract audiences. Because let's be honest -- there's nothing high-concept about Knight and Day. It's a star-driven movie, pure and simple.

It's as if Fox is saying, "We want to remind you that Cruise is in it -- but not too much." It's as if seeing his name will affect you only on an abstract, indirect level -- whereas seeing his face gives you too intimate a reminder why you stopped liking him.

In fact, with all the ways they've shot the advertising in the foot -- including a terrible title -- I'm surprised that I actually sort of want to see this movie. Why? Well, because of Tom Cruise.

Watching the trailers for Knight and Day -- which are certainly the best facet of its ad campaign -- I've realized that I welcome the return of Cruise in a cheeky action movie. There's been a void in my soul since the last one, four long years ago with Mission Impossible III. And that one wasn't even very cheeky. Maybe Cruise has never made an action movie this cheeky, and maybe that's why I'm sort of excited for it. He's charismatic, he's got a ready smile, and maybe the fact that he isn't taking himself too seriously looks good on him. That was one of the biggest benefits of the Cruise we saw in Tropic Thunder -- he was willing to tear down his own image (wearing a bald cap and an extra 70 pounds around the waistline) to build it back up. And though that could just be a hardcore strategic ploy, I'll be charitable to him and say that it was just a case of having fun with himself and hoping it reflected well on him. It did.

Whether 20th Century Fox was right to be skeptical about Cruise's influence on their movie will play itself out over the course of the five-day weekend, which they've given this movie by releasing it on a Wednesday. And you can read either positive or negative things into that as well. Usually, a studio releases a movie on Wednesday when it feels very confident in it, and wants to extend the opening weekend by a few days to make the Sunday night total look more impressive. However, that could also be viewed as a defense mechanism -- give it a few extra days so that the people who aren't analyzing things very closely will think it stacked up well against the movies that were released on Friday. But which careless box office analysts, who just fell off the turnip truck yesterday, would that be?

Like almost every other typical summer release that has come out so far this year, I probably won't catch it in the theater. That way, I'll have a bunch of stupid popcorn movies to watch this fall, when I have a crying baby and can't make it out to the theater anyway.

The many faces of Brendan Fraser

Welcome to the first installment of my new summer series, Double Jeopardy.

It's the opposite of what I was doing this spring, when I reconsidered critically acclaimed movies that I hadn't loved, to see if a second viewing improved my opinion of them. That series was called Second Chances. Now, I'll spend my Tuesdays reconsidering movies that I may have liked too much. They'll have to prove that my initial affection for them was justified.

To be clear, this is not just a guilty pleasures series. I genuinely don't know how I'll feel about these movies the second time. For that reason, I'm reconsidering only movies that I've seen exactly once -- much as I did for the Second Chances series. If I still liked a movie other people didn't like, even after two viewings, there's no need to go back for a third. It gets a pass.

And I thought the best place to start was with a movie I've owned for over five years, but had yet to re-watch until last Friday night.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I lived with a roommate for three years, from 2001 to 2004. It wasn't always the best living situation for either of us, but after I moved out, our friendship quickly recovered to where it was before we lived together. We did have some great times in the apartment, and one of our greater bonding moments was over the Brendan Fraser vehicle Bedazzled, directed by Harold Ramis. We tuned into it randomly on cable, expecting little from it, and ended up laughing our fool heads off. In fact, we enjoyed it so much, he gave it to me on DVD as a present, probably only half as a joke.

The shrink wrap did not even come off that DVD until this past Friday night, probably five to six years after the gift was presented. Suffice it to say that over the years, I've come to assume that we were fools, when we were laughing our fool heads off at that movie. Fraser has made more interchangeable broad comedies than any actor I can think of (see here for a consideration of that topic) -- why, in retrospect, did I have any reason to think Bedazzled was any different? I think I even tried to sell the DVD at one point, but they were only going to give me $2 for it, so I decided just to keep it.

I was initially hesitant to even suggest it as junk food viewing on a Friday night, after a long day in which my wife had two different exhausting doctor's appointments. That's how much my mind had mentally re-written my perspective on it, that I was embarrassed to even endorse it in a situation calling for mindless fun.

But I'm glad I did. It turned out to be just the right thing for my wife -- so much, in fact, that she repeated the sentiment the next morning.

Brief plot synopsis, if Bedazzled is inseparable in your mind from Fraser's other work (and why shouldn't it be): Fraser plays a dorky schlub whose co-workers can't stand him and who pines after an office beauty (Frances O'Connor) who never gives him a second thought. One night out at a bar, he meets a bombshell in a red dress (Elizabeth Hurley) who promises to give him all the happiness that has eluded him, if only he'll sign his soul over to her. (She's the devil, you see.) The loss of his soul seems like only a very distant threat, however, because first he'll get seven chances to wish his life into exactly what he wants it to be. Tellingly, she gives him a little red device with a keypad, where he'll type 6-6-6 if the wish isn't working out like he wanted it to. Needless to say, that's what happens -- again and again and again -- as the devil twists the semantics of his requests in ways where the actual phrasing of the wish is honored, but the spirit of the wish is not. Hijinx ensue.

I didn't see the original film on which Bedazzled was based, a 1968 movie of the same name directed by Stanley Donan and starring Dudley Moore. The devil is male in that one, but the film has plenty of sex appeal nonetheless in the person of Raquel Welch. Now I feel like I probably should see it, since I've seen the remake twice.

I did find it a bit slow at the beginning. It seemed like it was taking forever to get Fraser into his first wish, and the minutes passed extra slowly as I wondered if my wife's patience was being tried. But I felt pretty satisfied when the movie finally gets there and starts to take off. "Take off" is a bit of an exaggeration -- I don't want to oversell it. But it does give Fraser the opportunity to strut his stuff as he steps into a variety of different alternate lives that are in some way an interpretation of one of his wishes. Check out a quick display of them here:

I don't tend to think of Fraser as someone with range -- he's just generically wacky in every film. But this film, at least, gives him the chance to show the range of his wackiness. As a Columbian drug dealer, he does the whole five- to ten-minute scene in energetic Spanish. As the world's most sensitive person, he's blubbery and earnest. As a basketball player, he's macho, dumb, huge and peroxide blond. Each of these scenes (and the few other personalities that follow) showcase not only acting talent, but a smart production design, as Fraser looks radically different in each one. (In fact, special props to the visual effects department in making his basketball player look gargantuan compared to the other actors.)

Fraser gets good support from O'Connor and Hurley, particularly Hurley, who has playful fun with the devil role. She also gets to make exactly 18 costume changes in the movie, including pretty much every hot-girl Halloween costume in the store: sexy nurse, sexy meter maid, sexy attorney, sexy cop, sexy school teacher and sexy angel. When she's not a specific one of those, well, I guess she's just sexy model. Anyway, she shows good confidence and is more than just a pretty face.

The other supporting actors -- Orlando Jones, Paul Adelstein, Tobby Huss and Miriam Shor -- also get off some good lines as they appear in each one of Fraser's new alternate lives. Huss and Jones are particularly funny in their scene as basketball announcers. There's even an unobtrusive "be careful what you wish for" message mixed in there for good measure.

I picked the wrong day to debut this feature, because now I've gotten really busy, and had to write this in multiple sittings. So before it gets any more disjointed, let me just close it off and turn my attention to my other duties.

Double Jeopardy verdict, Bedazzled: A light and enjoyable way to spend a Friday night, even if you haven't been sitting in doctor's offices all day.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Too Shebulba

It was exactly five weeks between when I received Youth Without Youth in the mail and when we finally watched it on Saturday.

My wife and I both knew the critics had railed against Francis Ford Coppola's movie. But the reason I originally moved it to the top of my queue was that she had expressed some interest in seeing it. Since that made two of us, I knew it would get watched, eventually. Had I had my way, we would have watched it weeks ago -- I like to keep my mail rentals moving back and forth. She, on the other hand, was daunted not only by the expectation of poor quality, but by the running time. It was only just over two hours, but she had it in her head that it was pushing three.

It may just as well have been. When the credits started rolling, I turned to her and said, "You know, that film kind of reminded me of--"

"Shebulba?" she finished.

There's a reason we're married.

"Shebulba" is our nickname for Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. In The Fountain, Hugh Jackman's character is floating through space on a crop of land enclosed in a bubble, which is dominated by a giant tree. We're never told quite what to make of this tree, but we know Jackman's character is immortal, because we see him as a conquistador, as a doctor fighting to cure his sick wife (Rachel Weisz) in present day, and presumably in the future, when it's possible that the only parts of Earth that remain are him and this tree, floating through space for eternity. At several points, he looks up at the tree, or outer space, or something, and reverentially whispers the following word: "Shebulba." Who or what Shebulba is, we also don't know.

Youth Without Youth was definitely a little too Shebulba.

(Some minor spoilers ahead.)

There's no immortal man or immortal tree, but a 70-year-old Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) does rejuvenate into a man half his age after being struck by a bolt of lightning that basically incinerates his body. Instead of dying, he's suddenly younger, he grows a new set of teeth, and he has the ability to absorb all the knowledge of a book just by passing his hand over it. This is to say nothing of his new ability with languages and his unexplained telekinetic powers. Oh, and did we mention that he now has a doppleganger who may or may not be imaginary? But the comparison with The Fountain really kicks into gear when Dominic's decades-spanning soulmate is introduced. We learn at the start that he loves someone named Laura, and later he meets her -- though she's now known as Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara) -- just before she's about to be struck by lightning herself. The lightning doesn't have the same effect on her -- instead, it makes her think she's someone living in ancient India, who can speak only Sanskrit. She eventually shakes herself free of the split personality, but only temporarily. Each night she awakens speaking a more and more ancient language. It's an epic love story, these lightning strike victims with their very different powers.

If that last paragraph left you wondering what the hell Coppola was thinking, you're not the only one. (He didn't actually make up the story -- the movie was adapted from a story by Romanian author Mircea Eliade.) I actually found this one more watchable than The Fountain, but not by much.

So it got me thinking which other films are way too Shebulba for their own good. Without any further ado:

1) Solaris (2002, Stephen Soderbergh). Ponderous existential sci-fi movie in which characters may or may not actually be there, and people may or may not actually be having the experiences they may or may not actually be having. You heard me right. I don't know if Andrei Trakovsky's 1972 original was any more clear, nor whether it was even supposed to be. I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who worship Solaris, but I'm not one of them.

2) Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch). I'm not sure if it's fair to call David Lynch's films "Shebulba," exactly -- he's got a whole brand of weirdness going on that's unique to himself. But Mulholland Drive deserves the designation if any of his films do, though I may be saying that primarily because the whispered word "Shebulba" reminds me of the whispered word "Silencio" that factors into the ponderous third act of Mulholland Drive. I understand The Lost Highway is pretty Shebulba, but I haven't seen it so I can't attest to that personally.

3) The Tree of Life (2010, Terrence Malick). Okay, I'm cheating a little here. This movie has not even come out yet, so I can't possibly know what kind of movie it is. However, it does involve an actual Shebulba in the title -- a life-giving tree, an immortal tree, something like that. And having seen a couple Malick films and written quite a bit about Malick recently, I'm convinced that he's got a Shebulba in him, even if his films so far have had the kind of surface-level realism that should logically remove them from the Shebulba realm.

4) Lady in the Water (2006, M. Night Shyamalan). There are no time jumps or alternate layers of reality in this movie, but all the discussion of narfs and scrunts and other mythological creatures takes this movie into the same la-la-land of inscrutable ambitiousness as Shebulba. Plus, I like any opportunity I get to dump on this movie, which I consider one of the worst I've ever seen.

A couple films I love despite their potential Shebulbosity: The Cell, Donnie Darko

I'm sure there are more, but all this thinking about Shebulba makes my head hurt too much for a Monday morning. I'd love to hear of any Shebulba films you might like to add.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Third World's the charm

It may have taken me 23 days, but I've finally finished watching Terrence Malick's The New World, one of the most beloved films on the film blogosphere.

At the time it came out in 2005, I dismissed it as just another hyper-poetic exercise by one of cinema's true hermits. The man took 20 years between films from 1978 to 1998, and when he returned, it was in the form of The Thin Red Line -- which I considered pretentious claptrap up until a few weeks ago, when I revisited and found it to be slightly less pretentious claptrap.

But then I saw a couple different best of the 2000's lists on the blogosphere that had The New World listed at or near the top of the entire decade, so I knew I had to prioritize a viewing. It worked out quite well to watch it in conjunction with my revisitation of The Thin Red Line, to put me in that special Malick mood.

Except it didn't quite. About an hour into the movie, the DVD started acting up. Sometimes it would freeze, sometimes it would digitize away into little blocks. You could push through these problem patches by using the fast forward button ... except when you couldn't. I'd get stuck and try to move a whole chapter ahead, but that wasn't working either. I wiped the disc off, but found that it had a million little scratches that weren't going to come out through a buffing. It was a compromised product.

So I returned The New World to the library and placed it near the top of my Blockbuster queue, in order to continue my viewing. When that disc came, it took me a couple more days to finally insert it into the DVD player, at which point, the player wasn't even recognizing there was a disc in there. When I removed the disc, I saw that the thing was damn near cracked in half, completely unplayable. I reported the damaged condition of the DVD to Blockbuster, who apologized for the error and notified me that another New World disc -- which would be my third in total -- was on its way. You could imagine at this point I was doubtful I'd ever actually see the movie.

But the third New World disc was pristine, and I put it in the player on Friday night. Unfortunately, the film's beautiful, soothing imagery has a tendency to put you to sleep if you're watching it too late at night, which once again I was. (I'd had a couple short naps during my first attempted viewing, where I'd pause, sleep for 20 minutes, then start again.) And given that I was three weeks gone from the start of the movie at this point, I had to refresh myself a little bit on where I'd left off. After my refresher, the clock had passed midnight, so I probably gained only about 20-30 minutes of new ground on it before I was once again claimed by sleep.

Tonight, with only one more short nap, I finished.

My thoughts?

Well, I don't think Terrence Malick will ever be 100% my cup of tea, but I do see what the other film bloggers admire about this film. In terms of pure physical beauty in the cinematography and the period recreation, it's up there with any film I've seen. But I must admit that the character voiceovers do verge on the excessive for me, as they do in The Thin Red Line. Unlike that film, The New World stays on the right side of the thin line between artsy and fartsy.

And now, to nap for the rest of the night.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A continuum of similar girls

Is it just me, or is it nearly impossible to tell these three actresses apart?

If you can't, let me help you.

The first one should not be that hard. It's Kristen Stewart, the erstwhile Bella Swan from the Twilight series. She's been around awhile. You would have seen her as long ago as Panic Room, her second feature in 2002, and then in such other places as Into the Wild, Adventureland and The Runaways.

The second is Amber Heard, who I thought was Kristen Stewart when I first saw her. She hasn't been around as long, but she does go as far back as Friday Night Lights in 2004. You may be more familiar with her as Seth Rogen's teenage girlfriend in Pineapple Express or Jesse Eisenberg's zombified neighbor in Zombieland. She was also in this year's The Joneses.

The third is Teresa Palmer, who I thought was Amber Heard when I first saw her. In fact, I thought she was Amber Heard until about 15 minutes ago. I'd seen an ad for The Sorcerer's Apprentice, in which she appears, and I was sure it was Heard. Nope. You may not remember Palmer from anything, though she was also in December Boys, The Grudge 2 and Bedtime Stories.

For my money, they all look a little bit like Avril Lavigne as well:

But not as much as they look like each other. Besides, Lavigne has only been in one movie: Fast Food Nation.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Toys, Duplasses: Make me smile

I'm pretty glum today.

You probably know by now that I've been heavily invested in the basketball playoffs, and last night, that heavy investment ended in heartache: My Boston Celtics lost a 13-point third quarter lead, and the NBA Finals, to the hated Los Angeles Lakers. Who, unfortunately, reside in the same city as I do, meaning their fans are all around me. At least my neighborhood last night was relatively quiet -- just a few fireworks. No cars were burned or newsstands upended.

Strangely, I slept better after last night's Game 7 than I did after Game 6. I guess the brain has no choice but to reach some state of resolution after the series is over. No unknowns left to fear, anyway -- no worst possible outcomes still lying ahead. The only unknowns now are which players and coaches will be back, but that won't take shape for another couple weeks, at which point I'll have some much-needed distance from it.

So yeah, I'm glum. Even though I went with my wife to her doctor's appointment, and got a really cute picture of my 28-week-old baby in her stomach, I'm still a bit glum. It'll take some time.

So, Toy Story 3 and Cyrus couldn't come along soon enough. I need to laugh this weekend.

Everyone knows that Toy Story 3 is coming out today. The only reason we probably haven't seen more ads on TV is this: Not only is it Pixar, but it's a Toy Story movie. For both reasons, it sells itself.

But Cyrus is the one we will probably actually see this weekend. It won't be as laugh-out-loud funny as Toy Story 3 has the potential to be, though I should say, you go to a Toy Story movie more to smile than to laugh. Or maybe what I really should say is, Cyrus could be laugh-out-loud funny, but the laughter will be laced with bitterness, and almost certainly at someone's expense. Light, kid-friendly laughter seems like it would be more healing than awkward, cringe-worthy, you're-banging-my-mother laughter.

Then again, I'll take either in a pinch.

For those of you who haven't heard of Cyrus, it's the latest and most mainstream film from writer-directors Mark and Jay Duplass, the former of whom is also an actor, appearing in such films as Humpday and Greenberg. They're two of the biggest names in the mumblecore movement, known for such films as The Puffy Chair and Baghead. What's mumblecore? It's a movement of films using mostly non-professional actors and heavily improvised scripts, which has almost a documentary-style sense of heightened realism. (If those non-professional actors can act worth a damn, that is -- and they usually can.) The movement is starting to encroach into the mainstream more and more, as both Mark Duplass and Baghead's Greta Gerwig appeared in Greenberg. I'm excited to see what Mark and Jay can do with a Judd Apatow-style comedy with four major stars: John C. Reilly as a divorced man still pining after his ex; Catherine Keener as that ex; Marisa Tomei as the new woman he meets; and Jonah Hill as that woman's grown, overprotective son. The naturalism the Duplasses aspire to seems on display in the ads, and though I'm sure there promises to be plenty of broad comedy, I bet it will arise organically from the circumstances.

As for Toy Story 3 ... well, what can I say that hasn't been said? The first two movies are among my top 50 movies of all time, so Toy Story 3 has some pretty big shoes to fill. At first I was unsure if it could do so. The first images I saw of the movie gave me a "more of the same" vibe, the kind of vibe I might get a lot sooner if I saw another movie starring Wall-E or the rat from Ratatouille. But as time has gone on and I've admired the larger-than life outdoor advertisements they've been hanging around town (such as the one you see above), I feel more and more sure that any time spent with the Toy Story gang will be a good time.

And there you have it. The corner of my mouth went up a little bit just thinking about it.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The one that I wanted?

About the last thing I wanted to do yesterday was finish my day with a Grease sing-along.

To fully appreciate that, you'd have to get a sense for the 24 hours that led up to it.

At about 7:30 on the previous night, my Celtics were busy laying an egg in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. They scored only 31 points in the first half against the LA Lakers, and the second half wasn't much better: 36 points. That gave them the second-lowest total ever in an NBA Finals game, and gave the Lakers a huge amount of momentum going into Game 7. I endure an uneasy peace with Laker fans in this city, especially when the Celtics face the Lakers in the finals. It appeared the Laker fans I loathe -- I like them in other respects, but loathe them in terms of their Laker fandom -- were about to get bragging rights for the next year, and possibly, in humbling fashion. I was watching the game with a friend, and we were really hoping to be able to celebrate a Celtics championship together. Instead, he'll be on a plane to Amsterdam for Game 7, and I'll be watching through the gaps in my fingers as I cover my eyes. 89-67, Lakers, and it shouldn't have even been that close.

I'd had three beers over the course of the evening -- first trying to start the celebration early, then trying to drown my sorrows -- so getting to sleep wasn't difficult. But I awoke around 1:30, and that's when the trouble began. I couldn't get back to sleep for over an hour, and when I did, it was fitful at best. I was tormented by bad dreams that ranged from the highly logical (Game 7 was already over and my team had lost) to the highly symbolic (I was drowning in a space station that was filling up with water).

The good news was that I got to sleep in -- I didn't have to be at work until 9:30, as I was covering the late shift for a co-worker on vacation. The bad news about that: I'd have to soldier through until 6, rather than my usual 3:30, before I could relieve my exhaustion.

Of course, I also had to have the worst workday on record, just to spice things up.

VIPs needed their phones swapped to new units under tight deadlines. An agenda needed to be prepared for our weekly staff meeting. And three hours of the day were lost on a frustrating problem where our accounts receivable person couldn't scan checks into our Bank of America account, because the USB check scanner was no longer being recognized by her computer. Three different tech support people at Bank of America were spoken to, to no avail. I didn't eat lunch until after 2:30, and it was a puny bowl of Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs from the break room.

Around lunchtime, I got an email from my editor at the website, who asked me if I wanted to go to a free screening of the re-release of Grease in sing-along format. In other words, the lyrics appeared on the screen in colorful design schemes, so you could karaoke along with Olivia Newton John and John Travolta, even if you didn't know the words.

Initially I thought the invite was for Thursday night, which would have been out of the question -- that's Game 7. But when I noticed it was Wednesday, my perspective changed slightly. I still didn't want to go -- no way did I want to go. But I also don't like to turn down work, as described here. So I checked with the wife and ultimately committed to the 7:30 show, even though I'd basically have to drive across town directly from work, and would not end this long and miserable day until after 10 p.m.

What's worse, I was not actually going to be writing a review of the film per se. I was going to be writing a color piece in which I described what it was like to attend a sing-along screening. This meant taking note of environmental details and being sure I came away with some tangible perspective on what to write about. And it meant bringing in a notebook for the first time since I first started reviewing films for a weekly paper in Rhode Island back in the late 1990s, when I didn't trust myself to remember the details I wanted to write about. Taking notes makes it one step harder than the reviews I write now, where I basically just immerse myself in a passive watching experience, since I'm usually writing only 300 words on the movie and don't have to discuss particulars.

By the time 6 o'clock mercifully rolled around, I questioned my own sanity in accepting this assignment.

But an hour and fifteen minutes later (with a brief stop for dinner), I found myself walking into the Arclight Theater in Hollywood, just late enough so that I couldn't take advantage of the free drinks being offered prior to the show. I don't know that they would have helped me or put me to sleep, but either way, I missed them.

I soon figured out why the free drinks were being offered. Video cameras flanked either side of the front of the theater, as well as one along the back. As it turned out, this was the first screening of Grease sing-along to any audience, anywhere, and they wanted to tape the audience dancing, to show on TV in the accompanying ad campaign. In fact, a guy from Paramount explained at the beginning that they would be turning on the lights for "Greased Lightning," and wanted us to all get up and mimic the actors' dance moves. (This also explained all the signs outside, warning us that by attending we were giving Paramount the right to use our likeness in whatever way they saw fit.) So naturally, they figured they'd get better dance moves and more reckless enthusiasm from the audience if they plied us with free alcohol. Fortunately, my relatively late arrival got me a seat in the back row, meaning I could sit that number out without feeling like I was ruining the shot.

Needless to say, I wasn't in the mood for either singing or dancing. I'd only seen Grease once, years ago. So with a few exceptions, these are not songs I could easily sing along with anyway. But I was holding out a distant hope that a cheery musical and a lively crowd would lift some of the weight from my shoulders.

One special treat, of sorts: Randal Kleiser, the director of the movie, was in attendance, and spoke to the crowd beforehand. Then we got going.

As it turned out, I'd forgotten more about Grease than I'd remembered. The only time I ever saw it was probably in the early 1980s, and what I remember about it now was feeling sad that Sandy and Danny could never get it together. This was a very enduring memory: I very much wanted Sandy and Danny to be together, but they had to spend the whole movie apart. I must have been really wooed by the film's first 2-3 minutes, when Sandy and Danny have a carefree romance on the beach. In fact, that may have been one of my first cinematic experiences of romantic love. And so I must have been really frustrated when Danny is then mean to Sandy, and Sandy is then aloof to Danny, and Danny is then mean to Sandy again. Watching Grease again now, I realize there are much larger portions of the movie where they're together than I had thought all these years. But since none of those scenes rivaled the beach scenes -- until the very end, that is -- I had this idea that the whole movie was very bittersweet, until they finally get to fly off into the sunset in Danny's convertible.

A couple other thoughts about Grease, that everyone else probably had decades ago:

1) This movie has a really weak narrative structure. Major plot points are resolved with throwaway lines of dialogue ("False alarm! I'm not pregnant!"), and the film's middle is very flabby, with the whole National Bandstand dance scene and a song I could swear never existed called "Hand Jive." I guess it just doesn't really have much of an act structure. The only real conflict that needs to be resolved between Danny and Sandy is that she needs to start seeming less prudish ... and when she does this, they live happily ever after? What kind of crazy-ass message is that?

2) Is Betty Rizzo any relation to Ratso Rizzo?

3) I had forgotten that Olivia Newton John (or Livy, as my wife and her fellow countrymen/women call her) plays an actual Australian in the film. Is that how the play was originally written, or was it tailored to Newton John? And was that because she couldn't suppress her Aussie accent?

4) I had forgotten how many songs I actually know from Grease.

5) I was surprised to see certain actors I forgot were in the movie, like Sid Caesar, Alice Ghostly, Dody Goodman (who I had known primarily as the secretary struck by lightning in Splash) and Eddie Deezen (who I had known primarily as the nerdy computer hacker in WarGames).

So what did it do for my mood overall?

Well, I can tell you that I was standing by the end. This may have been more out of necessity -- I wanted to see Livy and Johnny dance to "You're the One That I Want," which is the movie's best song, and I couldn't with the people standing in front of me. But I shouldn't have had the energy to be on my feet at all at this point, and I clearly did. I also decided to ditch the Scrooge act and sing along on the aforementioned song. I didn't let myself go or anything, but there was sound coming out of my mouth for sure. And oh yeah, the vibrant lyrics and other little graphics were pretty fun.

On the way to the parking lot, I noticed a spring in my step. It could have just been my desire to get to my car and end this challenging 24 hours, but I'm happy to attribute it to the movie. It's a better story that way.

The sing-along Grease -- which hits theaters July 8th -- isn't necessarily the one that I wanted, at the start of the day. But maybe it was the one that I needed.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Second Chances is on summer break!

Sorry, those of you who were hoping I'd spend today reassessing my thoughts on the John Candy classic Summer Rental. It's just poster art to accompany the following announcement ...

I'm taking a summer break from the Second Chances series that has been running in this space on Tuesdays for the last ten weeks. Ten seemed like a nice round number, after which I needed to pause my DVD player for a little while.

I've actually enjoyed doing this series immensely, and it's gotten some of the best feedback I've had since I started writing my blog. In fact, I probably have it to thank for catching the attention of some new readers who seem to have come back for more. I thank you very much for reading.

But a couple weeks ago, when I found myself planning out my viewing schedule for another week, and trying to work in re-watching yet another movie that I hadn't liked that much in the first place, it occurred to me: It's exhausting when you have to watch one movie per week that you're not very excited about. Actually, it's more than that for me, since I'm reviewing a lot of really bad movies that I'm seeing for the first time, as well. So between reconsidering those movies I was down on, and watching my ordinary complement of bad movies, the stuff I really wanted to see was getting squeezed out, and the whole thing felt a little too much like work. (Plus, almost every movie I've reconsidered in Second Chances seems to run between two and two-and-a-half hours.)

So I thought, what better time than summer to take a little break from all this "work"?

I should pause to acknowledge what a success the project has been so far. Of the ten movies I re-watched -- Gangs of New York, Hoosiers, A History of Violence, The Others, No Country for Old Men, Brick, The Hurt Locker, Thank You for Smoking, The Thin Red Line and American Gangster -- only the first on that list was a movie I ended up liking about the same or worse. Every other film improved with a second viewing, in some cases significantly.

Which is actually both good news and bad news. On the one hand, the point of watching movies is to like them. The more you like, the better you will enjoy the time you spend watching them. It's especially nice when you can move toward the majority opinion on movies, so when you're discussing them with people, they don't think you're crazy.

On the other hand, I cherish not liking certain films -- it's part of my identity as a film fan. Before this project, I cherished the fact that I didn't like Brick, the fact that I didn't like American Gangster. I had a rant ready to go on both films, and would bust it out whenever the opportunity was right. So now that I like both films better, it feels like some part of me has died -- some little part, to be sure, but something that has a tangible quality to me. Even if I'm now "right" whereas I was once "wrong." And that's another concern this project has brought to light: What does it say about your critical faculties, if you find yourself revising your initial assessment on 90% of a random sample of films you re-watch? Okay, they aren't really random -- they're films that were generally considered good, which means there was a greater likelihood I'd feel better about them, divorced from whatever specific circumstances may have caused me not to like them in the first place. Still, I can't say that this project hasn't made me doubt and question myself a little bit.

But that's the brilliance of being a film fan. Our relationships with these films are living entities, which grow and evolve over time. It would be quite boring if you were too stubborn to ever revisit the judgments you make about films. There's nothing worse than being entrenched in an opinion, just because you think you'll look weak if you reverse yourself.

So that's what I'm going to keep doing, except I'm going to switch it up. Next Tuesday and for the rest of the summer, I'm introducing a new series called Double Jeopardy. That's right, it'll be just the opposite -- I'm going to re-watch films where my affection for them was what went against the grain. I'm going to see if I was crazy for liking Film X or Film Y, when the rest of the world thought they were absolute crap. It'll be "double jeopardy" for those films -- they were found innocent during their first trial, but I'm going to retry them in The Court of Vancetastic, and see if they still look as innocent on the second time through. I figure, at the very least, I'm spending the carefree summer hours re-watching movies that I actually liked. Then again, I guess you could argue that expecting to like something better is a nicer way to spend your summer than expecting to like something worse.

Here's hoping Double Jeopardy yields as interesting results, and prompts as interesting discussions as Second Chances has. Most of all, I hope you the reader find it interesting.

And when it's time to go "back to school," as it were, in September, Second Chances will be back with a whole new batch of films.

See you next Tuesday for the premiere of Double Jeopardy. Or before then, if you care about reading my other stuff. :-)

Spinoff city

There was a time when spinning off a character to his/her own unique entertainment property was considered a sign of desperation, or the worst kind of creative malaise. Can't quite let go of Friends? Move Joey to Los Angeles and give him his own show. Needless to say, it didn't work out in that case.

But sticking with television, there are also the examples where that kind of decision is genius, and creates television that rivaled the original program in terms of popularity and/or critical acclaim. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but I'd bet Fraser won more Emmys than Cheers.

Movies are similarly strewn with successes and failures. I probably don't need to list them here. You know your Beauty Shops from your Evan Almightys. (In case it's not obvious, Beauty Shop is good -- really! -- and Evan Almighty is bad.)

Today I'd like to talk about two other recent examples of the trend -- one of which is already available for your viewing pleasure, one of which has just been announced. Both are based on two of the funniest movies of 2008.

Needless to say from the poster art above, the first is Get Him to the Greek, which I saw on Saturday night. Get Him to the Greek follows the character of Aldous Snow, played by Russell Brand, from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, one of the funniest and best written comedies in years. Snow's the lanky and stylish British rocker who's sleeping with Sarah Marshall (Kristin Bell), recently broken up from our hero, Peter (Jason Segel). In a lesser film, Aldous would have been a nasty prat who didn't have an ounce of humanity. In this film, he's charming, funny, and basically a good guy, except that he likes to sleep with everything that moves and is a little full of himself. He was the film's breakout character, which is saying a lot, considering how good all four of the main characters are.

Why spinning off his character worked: In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, we only got to see Aldous Snow in the context of a brief Hawaiian resort vacation -- in other words, about the least likely place for an urban partier like him to be. (Okay, reformed partier -- he's sober.) Get Him to the Greek promised not only to show us the more usual environment for Aldous Snow, but also what he's like when he's off the wagon. That gave the spinoff a purely plot-driven reason for existing. But more importantly, Brand's portrayal of the character -- the rocker as a funny and complicated human being, not as merely a symbol of excess and entitlement -- gave the spinoff its potential emotional core. Because we like Aldous Snow, we want to see what makes him human outside of just being a good sport when his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend crashes his vacation. We want to see what he's like with his on-again off-again soulmate (played terrifically in Greek by Rose Byrne as a similarly soulful-vapid pop star) and his seven-year-old son.

The second spinoff I'd like to discuss is a breakout character of similar magnitude to Aldous Snow, and possibly more hilarious. But I don't really expect this one to work.

If you watched the MTV Movie Awards (I didn't), you were treated to the reappearance of Les Grossman, Tom Cruise's despicable studio exec from Tropic Thunder. The fact that Cruise was even in the movie was supposed to be a surprise, especially since he's nearly unrecognizable under all that makeup and wearing that bald cap. But now that it's been almost two years since the movie was released, I'll have to assume it doesn't qualify as a spoiler to talk about him here.

Simply put, Cruise was uproarious in Tropic Thunder. His Les Grossman was a profane, revolting, and possibly only slightly exaggerated example of the type of bottom-line studio exec you could imagine having a closet (or not so closet) affection for the bling-blingy stylings of hip hop. His scenes dancing to Ludacris (he danced to the same song on MTV, with an assist from J-Lo) were perhaps the funniest of the whole movie. Second may have been him screaming spittle and threatening to not only fire, but basically kill, anyone who gets in his way. A couple days after the MTV Movie Awards, Ben Stiller announced that Grossman would be getting his own movie.

However ...

Why spinning off his character probably won't work: It's hard to watch an entire movie where you're supposed to hate the main character, even if you love to hate him. Aldous Snow presented a problem for the protagonist in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but he was ultimately very likable on his own terms, complicated enough to be human. Grossman, on the other hand, is basically a caricature -- in fact, you could say that his defining characteristic is his inability to have anything resembling a human emotion. Not only that, but unlike with Snow, we've seen him in his primary arena of operation. What surprises could a Les Grossman feature yield, that we haven't already seen in Tropic Thunder? It could be argued that we've already seen exactly as much of Les Grossman as we were ever meant to see.

What could work: Spin off Robert Downey Jr.'s character, Kirk Lazarus, and have Grossman appear as a supporting character in the Lazarus film. That's Grossman's perfect role, as comic relief for a main character who can carry a film.

Not that any of the characters in Tropic Thunder were particularly three-dimensional. That's what separates it from a character-driven comedy like Forgetting Sarah Marshall -- it's more scenario-driven, an absurdist satire. It's really a matter of preference which one you like better, but the character-driven comedy may be a better launching point for a spinoff than the satire.

Or not. I guess we'll find out next year, or whenever Les Grossman: The Movie hits theaters.