Saturday, July 31, 2010

Super man

Supergraphics appear to have made their triumphant return to Los Angeles.

Well, at least to an area just south of Los Angeles, which is probably technically Manchester, Inglewood or El Segundo, hence avoiding the LA ban on this giant form of advertising.

Not since Will Smith's prepubescent-looking mug came down after Seven Pounds closed has a face graced the side of this building, which faces northbound traffic on the 405, right around LAX. For reasons I can't quite fathom, Zac Efron has broken the 18-month drought with Charlie St. Cloud, which opens today.

Maybe it's the fact that this super man looks like Superman on the poster.

I only just became aware of Charlie St. Cloud a couple weeks ago, by seeing this poster elsewhere around town. Not knowing anything else about it, I immediately became interested simply because of the ferocity of Efron's blue-eyed stare, one that makes him look almost extraterrestrial or super-heroic. I have since discovered that it seems to be a weepie in the Nicholas Sparks tradition, but I still consider it an incredibly effective poster in terms of raising audience awareness/interest.

And so did Universal, apparently, as the distributors pasted a 10-story-tall image on the side of this building.

Here, why don't I offer a version where you can see it better:

Supergraphics have been a bit of a topic in Los Angeles over the last two years. As I've written about here and here, they've drawn complaints both from businesses housed in the buildings (a decrease in natural light) and motorists down on the street (a hazardous distraction), leading to a temporary moratorium that's on the road to becoming a permanent ban in places like Hollywood.

Well, there could be an increase in accidents among females and gay men driving northbound on the 405, as they stare up at Efron's larger-than-life dreamy visage -- Charlie St. Cloud among the clouds, as it were, even though those clouds are probably more appropriately described as smog.

Me, I'm okay with it. Just as I was kind of mesmerized looking at Smith, I feel similarly mesmerized looking at Efron. Yeah, they are both handsome men, but I think the real issue is that anything that fills your field of vision so boldly and so dramatically is interesting to look at. That's why these advertisements are worth posting in the first place.

What I don't really know is why a modest little movie like Charlie St. Cloud would be the one to return to this spot on the 405, which I assumed had been placed off limits when the furor over supergraphics really erupted last year. Seven Pounds I understood, as Will Smith is one of our biggest box office stars -- probably one of the biggest box office stars of all time. But Efron has yet to prove himself out of High School Musical movies, the first two of which actually premiered on TV.

If anyone does see Charlie St. Cloud, let me know if it's any good.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Ambiguous pronunciations

I don't know how to pronounce the title of the Luc Besson film I reviewed earlier this week.

Before watching it, my default pronunciation had been "Angel A," with "Angel" said exactly as Americans would say it (as opposed to "On-hell," as Spanish speakers would say it), and the "A" rhyming with "bay." You know, like this was Angel A, to be followed shortly by Angel B and Angel C. It's kind of a weird title when spoken as such -- no wonder my wife gave me a skeptical look when I named the movie as a viewing option -- but I had no other cues to suggest another pronunciation.

But the movie's main character is named Angela, and since it's French, the name is said as "On-zhu-luh," not "Anne-juh-luh" as we dumb Americans say it. However, the hyphen tells me I can't say Angel-A like that either. If I just said it as a name, it wouldn't be instantly recognizable to other people as this particular film. (A quick search shows me at least five other features named Angela in film history.) When we talk to other people about film, our goal is to be able to communicate a title to them with as few modifiers as possible. We'd rather say "Have you seen Angel-A?" than "Have you seen the French film directed by Luc Besson called Angel-hyphen-A?"

I could pronounce the whole thing with a French accent, pausing to denote the hyphen, and then finishing with a short "A" (rhymes with "raw"), as they would say it. However, this has two problems: 1) It sound pretentious, and 2) The word "Angel," in French, does not mean anything. I don't mind telling you that the reason the title is constructed as such is that Angela is an angel. But "angel" is an English word, so if I said Angel-A with a French accent, I would just be french-izing an English word. When you come right down to it, the movie should really be called Ange-la, because "ange" is the French word for "angel." I guess it just shows you how dominant American marketing considerations are, that the film doesn't even have a separate French title -- only the one intended to coddle American viewers.

So, how would you say it?

Reminds me a bit of the movie What the #$*! Do We Know?! This half-documentary, half-fiction, half-spiritual, half-scientific consideration of existence -- which has its weak points, but is overall pretty interesting -- could not really be pronounced in spoken language as written out. You could call it What the Fuck Do We Know?!, because that's essentially what it's called -- if they intended it to be called What the Hell Do We Know?!, they would have just called it that, and no other swear words fit into that spot grammatically. But What the Fuck Do We Know?! is quite impolite, so the movie quickly picked up What the Bleep Do We Know?! as an alternate title. That's in fact probably the only way to search it, unless you have memorized the exact sequence of punctuation marks they use in place of the word "fuck."

One of my favorite examples of this outside of the movie world is the band called !!!. That's right, that's the name of the band: "!!!" Three exclamation points. You are supposed to pronounce it as "chik chik chik." But that's just annoying, isn't it? Every time you need to reference it, especially to people who have never heard of the band before (which is probably most people), you have to have this whole semantic discussion about the band's name and how to say it. If you are a fan of the band, it must be a real relief to meet another fan of the band, so you can just say "chik chik chik" and be done with it.

Then there's
Koyaanisqatsi, a movie whose title comes in and out of my life, always disappearing again because I can never remember how to spell it (let alone say it). It's a 1982 documentary scored by Philip Glass and featuring images of nature juxtaposed with images of man's toxic influence on nature, and it's supposed to be great. However, even just to talk about this movie in this piece, I had to dig three pages deep into the status updates of a friend of mine on Facebook, who mentioned it a couple weeks back (hence bringing it to my brain's foreground once again). I guess I would pronounce it "coy-annis-cotsy," if I had to venture a guess. Hey, I just looked it up, and whaddaya know -- that's pretty much it.

Now that I've written about it, I guess I'll always have a place to ascertain the spelling if I ever want to actually schedule a viewing.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is Pixar getting lazy?

Used to be that Pixar was pathologically committed to forging new, original material that never failed to be just the thing the zeitgeist needed. Like clockwork, Pixar would release one film per year that seemed to stretch our collective imaginations in one direction or another, toward things we had never seen before, and get five-star ratings from critics in the process.

Now? I'm concerned about the upcoming period of laurel-resting.

Granted, Pixar's latest, Toy Story 3, is the first sequel the company has made in 11 years (since the brilliant Toy Story 2), and by all standards continues Pixar's unblemished record of excellence. But we're about to enter into a period that might be telling in terms of how Pixar plans to settle down in the coming decade.

Namely, you're about to get a lot more sequels.

With the Toy Story movies, there was never a doubt about the company's direction. I know we're only talking about a small sample size with just one previous sequel, but I don't think anyone thought Toy Story 3 was a sign of encroaching laziness on Pixar's part. Toy Story 2 had set a precedent that sequels were acceptable for Buzz, Woody and pals -- and that these sequels had the chance to be nearly as good as, if not better than, the original.

Now, however, the rest of the Pixar catalogue is being opened up to potential franchising. No longer are the Toy Story movies the exception that proves the rule (I'm never sure if I'm using that notion correctly) -- the rule of forever breaking new ground.

Most of you have probably heard that Pixar's next movie is Cars 2, which is set to open on June 24, 2011. But did you know that the following year, Monsters Inc. 2 is being released as well? Wikipedia has it scheduled for released on November 16, 2012. (We'll already know if Barack Obama won reelection by then.) I'm sharing this now because I just found out myself -- yesterday, while checking Billy Crystal's filmography. (If you remember, I wondered in yesterday's post why he no longer acts.)

It'd actually be three sequels in a row for Pixar if not for the fairytale Brave, once titled The Bear and the Bow, which is scheduled to be released on June 15, 2012 -- marking the first time two Pixar films will be released in the same calendar year.

I don't have a problem with the movies they chose to franchise -- I'm a bigger Cars fan than almost anyone I know, and I also really dig Monsters Inc. It's just the quick run of sequels, three out of four films, that seems like a worrisome trend. (And for the record, Brave doesn't sound as promising as other original Pixar material -- it features knights and princesses and other areas that have been done to death by dozens of Pixar knockoffs.)

If these three sequels, why shouldn't we be expecting Finding Nemo Again? Further Up? The Even-More Incredibles? Why not Ratatouille 2, or perhaps, more appropriately, Rata-2-ee?

And then, when they're done with all that, maybe Cars 3 and Monsters Inc. 3? And don't forget Toy Story 4.

I'm not sure if "laziness" is really the correct term, but it seems logical that it's easier -- or at least a safer bet -- to write new adventures for tried-and-true characters, than to produce new characters who may not catch on in the same way (or may not have the same possibilities for merchandising). It's a lot easier if you don't have to reinvent the wheel every time you go to the drawing board. Reinventing the wheel has worked so far, but Pixar must wonder: For how long?

The years 2007 to 2009 may not have been my favorite years for Pixar movies, but there's no doubt that the triumvirate of Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up raised the profile of Pixar from mere purveyors of children's entertainment to the prestigious makers of dramatic art they are today. In some reviews of Toy Story 3, I even sensed the critic struggling with the dilemma of how to address the basic frivolity of a third Toy Story movie, relative to the weighty issues considered in the last three films. But Pixar has gained such a teflon image, there's no way a critic could question the studio, which benefits from an automatic presumption of greatness, a golden touch that never fails. Fortunately, most critics didn't really feel the need to question, because Toy Story 3 ended up being great. The sighs of relief were audible that this revered company had continued its winning streak.

That's why I'll be especially curious to see the reaction to Cars 2. The first Cars, although inordinately popular with small children (my friend watched it literally 30 times with his young son), didn't leave most adults searching for newer and greater accolades. In fact, it's fair to say that some even turned their noses up at it. I'm the exception -- I really loved the film. But there's no doubt that many people consider it Pixar's weakest or second weakest film (A Bug's Life being the other contender).

If people rhapsodize over the sequel to a movie that features cars with googly eyes, it'll serve as proof to me that either a) Pixar really can do no wrong, or b) the brainwash is complete. Part of the reason we love Pixar as much as we do is because we want to love Pixar that much -- we need to love Pixar that much. If critics wax philosophical about Cars 2, we'll know that Pixar's new phase of going back to the well has been accepted, even endorsed.

If not, it could tell us that our love affair with Pixar is contingent on them continuing to expand our minds -- continuing to present us with rats who want to be gourmet chefs, with trash compactors who want to love, and with old men who tether their homes to hot-air balloons.

I guess we have almost a year before we'll find out.

It's no Ishtar

This is the latest in my Double Jeopardy series, in which I give a second look at movies I liked that other people didn't, to see who didn't know what they were talking about. It runs on Tuesdays.

I've never seen the infamous flop Ishtar, but I have a very specific memory of reading a review when it first came out, back in 1987. I was 13 years old and probably just getting into reading film reviews, so this one stuck with me, as such formative experiences often do. I can't remember if it was the Boston Globe critic or someone like Roger Ebert, but it was a two-star capsule review which read, and I may be paraphrasing slightly:

"One star for Dustin Hoffman. One star for Warren Beatty. No stars for anything else."

So when I heard Ivan Reitman's Fathers' Day, which came out a decade later, described as Robin Williams' and Billy Crystal's Ishtar, I was as wary as everyone else who steered clear on the basis of that dour prognosis.

But when I actually did see it, sometime in probably 2001 or 2002, in order to provide the review for the website that employs me, I thought it wasn't half bad. In fact, better than that. I thought it was good.

In the years since then, I've been operating on the assumption that I must have been crazy. Like Bedazzled, which I wrote about in my first Double Jeopardy post, I've owned this movie for over five years, but had yet to re-watch it until yesterday. And like Bedazzled, I didn't actively seek out this movie as part of my collection. In fact, I came into possession of it at a theme party at a friend's house. Her idea was that you brought over crap that you wanted to get rid of, put it on a table, and walked away with someone else's unwanted crap. I can't remember what I purged at this party, but I came home with Fathers' Day. I'd liked it, after all. But I haven't watched it again, and this was so long ago, now, that I'm not even friends with that woman anymore -- haven't been for three or four years.

Well, I'm not crazy. And now I think I probably ought to go watch Ishtar, because if it's anything like this, Ishtar is probably not half bad, either.

The plot basically revolves around a 16-year-old boy who goes missing for two weeks after running away from his heartbroken parents (Nastassja Kinski and Bruce Greenwood). Desperate, Kinski's character visits two of her former lovers, Jack Lawrence (Crystal) and Dale Putley (Williams), who both bedded the woman right around the time her son was conceived. Either could be the father, and she uses this possibility to separately enlist their help in finding young Scott. (In retrospect, it seems like a precursor to Mamma Mia!, as there's actually a third possibility for the boy's male parentage -- Greenwood, who has thought he was the actual father the boy's whole life, and is involved in his own separate search for the boy.) As might be expected, Jack and Dale cross paths and discover each has been told he's the father of the boy. Hijinx ensue.

It's the nature of those hijinx that probably left some viewers and critics displeased. Williams is skittish and eccentric, and when we meet him, he actually has a gun barrel in his mouth, ready to off himself -- in a scene that's played for laughs. Crystal is, well, Crystal -- he's businesslike and sarcastic. Both could do these roles in their sleep, I'm sure, and they're meant to be a zany odd couple.

Well, it works. I'm not a huge Williams fan, and Dale Putley is normally the kind of role in which I like him least. But for some reason, I found him lovable and actually sort of believable here. I like the dynamic that builds up between he and Crystal, whom I've always enjoyed on screen. (And why did he quit acting, anyway?) It's not just a buddy comedy-type situation -- it's almost a bickering lovers-type situation, since Jack so clearly wears the pants in the relationship, and Dale plays the sensitive role that's traditionally ascribed to a woman. As they say in the movie, they really do make a good team in seeking out the wayward boy, and their attempts to navigate the rock 'n roll underground (Scott is following the band Sugar Ray, before they became sellouts) contain some funny fish-out-of-water stuff. (And if you know Sugar Ray only from that song "Fly" that was ubiquitous back in the late 1990s, see this movie -- it reminds you that they were once inaccessible punks, musically speaking.)

And it shouldn't be a huge surprise to us that it works. After all, the film is directed by the reliable Ivan Reitman, he of Ghostbusters and Dave fame. And it was written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who also wrote Splash, City Slickers, A League of Their Own and Parenthood. Throw in producer Joel Silver, and you've got a dream team working on this film.

So why didn't people like it? Ah, who knows. Dale and Jack are likable, Scott gets swept up in a relatable predicament with his feelings for a girl (even if it involves a sort-of unrelatable theft from drug dealers), and even the notably serious actor Bruce Greenwood moonlights successfully into comedy, notably a scene where he gets pushed down a hill in a port-o-potty. If that just sounds silly, listen to Greenwood's hilarious line readings while he's trapped inside the overturned john: "Oh, it's horrible! Get me out of here!" Playing against type in the other direction is Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Jack's wife -- she's probably the most straight-faced person in the whole movie, and apparently, it didn't go over well, as she was nominated for a Razzie as worst supporting actress.

A couple other things to look for: an uncredited cameo by Mel Gibson as a guy with a face full of piercings, and the director's son, Jason, a future director himself, as "wrong kid in alley."

Double Jeopardy Verdict, Fathers' Day: It's not going to revolutionize the comedy world, but this is a nice little movie that didn't deserve to be bashed like it was. Fans of Williams and Crystal in particular should give it a shot. These two comedy icons give the fans what they came for, and isn't that one of the primary reasons people make movies?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Warning! This soundtrack listing contains spoilers!

And so does this post, so don't read any further if you don't want to know the ending of Man on Fire.

With every new Tony Scott film I see, the director's relentlessly jittery filmmaking style makes me more and more convinced he's a hack. Man on Fire was no different, and perhaps epitomized his approach as much as any film he's made other than the execrable Domino.

But I was never in it for the filmmaking with Man on Fire. I was in it for the soundtrack.

Specifically, I was geeked to see the movie -- well, geeked enough to see it six years later -- because of the Nine Inch Nails song that played in the trailer: "The Mark Has Been Made," from The Fragile. I already devoted a post to the use of my favorite band in the movies -- you can read it here. I neglected to mention Man on Fire in that post, probably because the rest of the movie did not look good enough to compel an actual screening. But I knew I would eventually see it. This must be the weekend for that, as I said the same thing about Running With Scissors yesterday.

I soon found out that there were at least snippets from a couple other Nine Inch Nails songs in the movie, but it was a different song that compelled me to go to IMDB to check out the soundtrack listing. Namely, there was an ethereal choral song in the first act that sounded to me like it was sung by Lisa Gerrard, an Australian singer whose songs sound kind of like the forlorn hymns I might associate with Ireland. I became aware of Gerrard's talents through another film, Henry Poole Is Here, where she sung a song that moved me so much, I bought it on itunes shortly afterward.

Now, most people would probably wait until the movie was over. But we film buffs are notorious for needing our curiosity to be satisfied immediately. Especially if I'm watching a movie by myself, and movie-watching etiquette doesn't enter into it, I'll pause to look up what other movies a certain character was in, etc. And just so I didn't forget to do it later on, I thought I'd check immediately to see if that was, in fact, Lisa Gerrard's voice.

I did find her name in the soundtrack listing. The name of the song she sings in the movie? "Creasy Dies."

I should probably tell you at this point that John W. Creasy is the character Denzel Washington plays in the movie.

So there I was, about 30 minutes into an interminable 146-minute running time, and I already knew the ending.

Not that this was some great surprise. Everything about the movie was setting it up to be a redemption tale of Creasy's character, for the "sins God would never forgive him for," which he mentions in the beginning (but are never elaborated on in the script). In movies like this, where a Charles Bronson type systematically kills every scumbug who had anything to do with some motivating atrocity, he's going to die smiling in the third act, having achieved some measure of vengeance or accomplished some heroic goal.

But did I really need the soundtrack listing to ruin it for me?

I never would have thought I needed to exercise the same type of caution with soundtrack listings as I do with DVD chapters. If I want to find where I was in the movie, I don't like to use the chapter menu, because often times, the very chapter names they choose will reveal some key plot element. If I'm watching The Crying Game for the first time, and am returning to it after a brief interruption, I really don't want to stumble across a chapter called "Dil's Penis," now do I?

What really gets me about naming that Lisa Gerrard song "Creasy Dies" is that the same song plays like four times in the movie, and only during the last time does the life actually snuff out of Washington's character. So not only is the song title an inexcusable spoiler, but it's too specific for the way the song is actually used in the film.

So yeah, that was the one reason I didn't like Man on Fire. (Please note my sarcasm.)

Before we leave the oh-so-interesting topic of Man on Fire's soundtrack behind, I thought I'd mention a couple other interesting things about it. IMDB lists no fewer than six Nine Inch Nails songs, when in fact I could only identify two. ("The Mark Has Been Made," like "Creasy Dies," was played about four different times.)

Then there was the fact that there seem to have been uncredited thefts from the soundtracks of other movies. IMDB mentions three uncredited songs from Changing Lanes, four uncredited songs from Abandon, and one from Against All Odds, oddly enough.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Drawn to a certain look

My wife and I watched most of the season of Glee this year.

I'll admit it. In part because the way we stopped watching makes a funny story.

It was one of the last couple episodes of the year, and the "dorky kids" in the glee club are trying to become less dorky, or something. So they choreograph some kind of rebellious song-and-dance cover of M.C. Hammer's "U Can't Touch This," which they stage in the school library. At that exact moment, we couldn't take it anymore. We shut off the episode, deleted it from the DVR, deleted the remaining episodes from the DVR, and deleted the series recording. That was that.

But at some point, I was reading up on Glee, and found out that its creator, Ryan Murphy, had also written and directed the big-screen adaptation of Augusten Burroughs' acclaimed memoirs, Running With Scissors. No one thought the movie was so hot, but it was one of those ones I knew I would see, eventually. Last night, "eventually" rolled around, which is why I'm writing this post today. (And for the record, I liked the movie better than the consensus opinion of it.)

At the time I read about Murphy's role in Scissors, I said, "Oh yeah, that makes sense -- the guy who plays the gay kid on Glee also played Augusten Burroughs in Running With Scissors." Ryan Murphy was involved in both, and creative types tend to like to collaborate on multiple projects.

Except that Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt on Glee, was not in Running With Scissors. That was Joseph Cross. Here they are, with Colfer on top, and Cross on the bottom. (And no, that's not a gay joke, even though both actors play gay characters in their respective shows/films. Colfer is actually gay, and I can't tell the status of Cross, though he also played a gay character in Milk.)

Okay, maybe it's not an overwhelming similarity when you look at them side by side. But when we finished watching the movie last night, I told my wife that this was the guy who had created Glee, and she admitted that she'd spent the whole movie thinking that Joseph Cross looked like the kid on Glee. Unprompted from me, mind you.

Murphy is also gay, so it's not a stretch that he sees something about himself in both Augusten Burroughs and Kurt Hummel. No doubt he identifies with Kurt, as he was an openly gay high school student who sang in the choir. And since he also saw a therapist as a younger man, it seems pretty clear he also identifies with the scarred upbringing of Augusten Burroughs, who was legally adopted by his therapist at the promptings of his own mother.

Murphy is certainly not alone in casting similar-type actors over and over, but instead of giving you a thorough compendium of the others who display this tendency, I'll just mention one: Woody Allen. And in his case, it seems to be modeled after his own life, as well.

Everyone knows that Woody Allen became obsessed with Scarlett Johansson in recent years, as she appeared in three of his films between 2005 and 2008 (Match Point, Scoop and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.) It's logical to see his love affair with Soon-Yi Previn mirrored in his obsession with Johansson, though of course Previn and Johannson look nothing alike. However, when it became clear that Allen had to eventually cast another actress in order not to seem fixated on ScarJo to the exclusion of all others, he did cast another young blonde: Evan Rachel Wood, in Whatever Works.

Whatever Works is a useful film to examine in this discussion for other reasons: Woody also cast the next best thing to himself as the star of the film, Larry David. Clearly, David's character is a role Allen would have ordinarily played, and it's not like David is such a spring chicken relative to Allen -- he's only 11 years younger. But maybe Allen was trying to deflect accusations that it was just another wish fulfillment fantasy of a really old man bedding a very young girl -- which is what happens in Whatever Works -- by using David instead of himself.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Their three words, my three words

Them: "Who is Salt?"

Me: "I don't care."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

New discoveries

Oh how I love The Cell.

And one of the great things about coming back to a movie you love for the first time in five or six years is the new discoveries you hadn't yet made during the previous viewing, either because you didn't notice them, or you hadn't yet had the life experiences that would make those discoveries relevant.

Last night, as I watched Tarsem Singh's masterful blending of the Silence of the Lambs-style serial killer movie and the Jacob's Ladder-style head trip for about the third time all the way through, I was awash with new discoveries. Such as:

1) I knew I had seen footage from Fantastic Planet before. When I saw Rene Leloux' trippy 1973 animated film about a wondrous planet where humans are the pets of giant blue creatures 20 times their size, something about it struck me as familiar. It turns out, a couple scenes from this film appear on the TV set of Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) when she's relaxing at home after a long day. (And has just smoked a joint, which is appropriate for that film.) It was cool to see this film -- which I saw for the first time two years ago, have now seen twice, and am considering buying -- appear in another visually breathtaking film that I admire terrifically.

2) Dean Norris plays an FBI agent. That's right, the guy who I now know as Hank Schrader from Breaking Bad is one of the team of FBI agents who hunt down Carl Stargher (Vincent D'Onofrio).

3) And so does James Gammon. That's right, the recently deceased cantankerous old coot (that's the role he always played, anyway) appears here on the same team. I loved the guy in Major League, where he played the manager, so it felt ordained somehow that I should be inadvertently paying him tribute, after he died last Friday at age 70.

4) Peter Sarsgaard is in this thing for like a second. It wasn't his first movie, but it was early enough in his career that I never thought twice about the guy who appears very briefly as the fiancee of the missing girl Julia Hickson (Tara Subkoff).

5) The director actually used his first name and last name. As the credits roll over those endless dunes, part of an impressive opening that prepares you for the film's one-of-a-kind art direction, I noticed that the director is listed as "Tarsem Singh," not the single-world moniker "Tarsem," as I'd previously thought, and as he's sometimes credited. I feel a little more comfortable when people have two names -- I argue that's one of the main reasons McG is not taken more seriously -- so this was a pleasant surprise.

6) Jennifer Lopez is lit beautifully. A friend of mine used to laugh at the scene where J-Lo is walking around her kitchen in her underwear, then bends down to feed her cat -- and it does serve as a somewhat obvious attempt to give the audience a little bit of Jen's goods. But one thing I noticed throughout the film is that Lopez is shot like a movie star, shimmering in almost every scene -- the luminescence that comes off her is almost magical. Yet it doesn't undercut the credibility of the film in the slightest.

7) Jennifer Lopez can actually act. J-Lo is not known as an actress of particular range, but I found myself admiring her work in this movie more than I'd remembered. I especially like the scene that's depicted in this poster, when she's had a break with her reality as a therapist entering the dreams of her patient, and entered into a new reality, where she's the idealized slave of an evil tyrant. Staring blankly forward, as if your mind has been erased, does not seem like it should require too much talent, but Lopez really nails the expression here -- and it's creepy as hell.

8) Acting tells stories, not dialogue. Speaking of facial expressions, I absolutely love this moment -- I was actively waiting for it -- where the FBI agent played by Jake Weber answer his cell phone, and the caller on the other end apprises him of a break in the case. Singh holds the shot for about ten seconds without Weber saying anything beyond the initial greeting, and then, right before he cuts, Weber's face changes -- his eyes shift, and gives this perfect little expression that I can only describe as a smirk of recognition. For some reason that moment has always stuck with me as a shining example of cinematic minimalism. But what I discovered on this viewing is that this is a film made up of such minimalism, especially in the expressions. There's also the scene where the endlessly watchable Pruitt Taylor Vince -- you know, the guy with the twitchy eyes, otherwise known as pathologic nystagmus -- is telling Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn) that there are no other options for getting through to the catatonic Carl Stargher. When he digs up a Hail Mary from the recesses of his brain, he doesn't need to say anything -- he just needs to alter his expression ever so slightly to register the "Eureka!" moment. Next shot is of a helicopter landing outside the research center where Catherine works, and that's all you need to know. The other element the script chooses to underplay is the childhood trauma suffered by Novak, which is only hinted at -- and which is all the more effective for that reason.

9) Vincent D'Onofrio makes an incredible villain. This is more something I was reminded of than something I discovered. But how terrifying is D'Onofrio in all his incarnations? Whether it's the real Stargher, sitting naked in a bathtub, humming silently to himself while expectorating small streams of bathwater, or the dream Stargher, with flowing robes that are so long, they cover the walls of his massive throne room, the man is consistently disturbing.

10) Amazing visuals must serve the story, or else they are just masturbation. Singh made another film that came out a few years ago called The Fall, which features many of the grandiose palaces, stark deserts, and ridiculously ornate costumes you see here, as well as a plot that's split between the real world and a fantasy world. But that movie was ultimately disappointing because the story was not interesting. No such complaint about The Cell.

11) And to prove it has a good story ... I actually found myself getting choked up at the end, when (SPOILERS!) Peter finally discovers the location of Carl's final victim, moments before she'll drown in her cell, and saves her from that terrible fate. As she's lying in his arms, crying, it's a catharsis for both of them, and for us.

Two other things I've always loved about the movie, but would like to mention again:

1) That awesome scene where the horse is sliced into sections. This was the moment when I knew The Cell wasn't fucking around, and that I was in for something new, something exciting, something that might push the limits of my personal tolerance for graphic imagery. (For the record, the horse is not killed by this dissection -- its internal organs are all functioning fine, thank you very much.)

2) The cacophonous music. The opening scene reaches a delirious climax as the out-of-tune, Middle Eastern-sounding horns build and build. Then there's a more traditional symphonic cacophony as the FBI storms Stargher's house. Like many other moments in the film, these scenes brought chills of intense anticipation down my spine.

So, what movie do you need to pop in again, to make some new discoveries that'll help you fall in love with it all over again?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The right kind of quirkiness

This is the latest in my Double Jeopardy series, which runs on Tuesdays. I'm watching movies I've seen exactly once, which other people seemed to enjoy a lot less than I did, to see if it was me who was wrong, or them.

I am not your typical Wes Anderson fan.

For starters, my favorite movie is his first, Bottle Rocket, which many Anderson fans haven't even seen. It's sweet and simple and doesn't try to do too much.

At the time I saw it, I thought I loved Rushmore, but have downgraded that to "liked a lot" over the years -- I've yet to actually watch it a second time, which I guess tells you something. I loved Bill Murray in it, but in retropsect, probably did not love Jason Schwartzmann, who I've since decided is one of Hollywood's greatest beneficiaries of nepotism. And I think the warning signs were there that Anderson could be too quirky for his own good.

Like in The Royal Tenenbaums. I'm sure I owe this movie another viewing, because it has just gotten worse and worse in my mind over the years as I've offered various people my take on it. Which is: It left me feeling offbeaten to death. (I'm sure I'm not the first person to come up with that line, but I'd never heard it before and felt kind of proud of it.) It was a thumbs up for me, but just barely.

Let's skip The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou for the moment, because it looked to me like The Royal Tenenbaums times ten. I didn't see it until after seeing ...

... The Darjeeling Limited. I probably owe this movie another viewing as well, because I started it at nearly midnight in a hotel room, and may have snoozed through as much as five to ten minutes of it, even though at the time I thought I saw the whole thing. Anyway, I hated this movie. What I disliked about it was summarized in a scene involving the aforementioned Mr. Schwartzmann, as he maces his brothers (Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson) while they're wrestling on a train. Ridiculous. Also thumbs way down to the scene at the end where they throw away all their luggage (baggage). It's as bad a metaphor as the rat running along the railing in The Departed.

I liked The Fantastic Mr. Fox about the same as most people, if not slightly more.

It was my thoughts on Tenenbaums and Darjeeling that I thought brought me out of sync with other Anderson fans ... and threatened to make me not an Anderson fan at all. They seemed to love the quirks of those movies, while I hated them. But I wanted to be an Anderson completist, so I finally circled back to The Life Aquatic, about eight months after seeing Darjeeling.

And was blown away by how much I loved it.

This was troubling. In any discussion I'd had with people about Wes Anderson, The Life Aquatic was their choice for the chink in his armor. They were willing to accept the spirit of my criticisms of Tenenbaums and Darjeeling, but always applied them to a different film -- "That's how I felt about The Life Aquatic," they said.

Not me. I didn't feel that way, not a bit. Let me give you some of the reasons I didn't:

1) The music. Here's a good sign of how effective I found the music: Nearly two years after first seeing it, I remembered the exact song that plays over the DVD menu. It's part of the goofy synthesizer score, with its throwback parallel-dimension 1980s sound -- and now that I look it up, the composer, Sven Libaek, originally wrote the music for a 1974 underwater television series called Inner Space. Then there's the consistently enjoyable decision to have Seu Jorge, playing one of Zissou's crew, sing David Bowie songs in Portuguese throughout the movie, while strumming his guitar. But what really blew me away was the use of the spine-tingling Sigur Ros song "Staralfur" during the film's emotional climax. It got me.

2) The marine life, CGI and otherwise. I loved the moment, after Zissou's disastrous opening for the first part of his most recent film, when Klaus' son presents Zissou with a colorful seahorse in a bag of water. (When the bag springs a leak during a brouhaha, Zissou transfers the creature to an empty champagne flute.) It's the film's first digital effect, and it prepares you for the way modern technology will inform this story, with its antiquated gadgets and out-of-time production design. The CGI creatures, of which there are maybe a half-dozen throughout the film, never call special attention to themselves -- they function as a throwaway detail, and are all the more pleasant for that fact. Also loved the live tracker dolphins who swim alongside the boat. And speaking of the boat ...

3) The boat. The Belafonte, Zissou's boat, is a masterpiece of old-school set design. Anderson built a massive boat set that's open on one side, as though it had been sliced in half lengthwise from bow to stern, so he could film the characters from the side as they walk between rooms, sometimes climbing between levels on ladders. It's an effect we saw in an ad campaign for (I believe) a cell phone company that Anderson shot around that same time, and it really works. Not only is it excellent to see the craftsmanship that went into this, and enables some great uninterrupted takes in which the characters move between rooms that are full of ongoing activity as they do the scene, but the rooms themselves are a triumph of understated quirkiness.

4) The antiquated equipment. As mentioned briefly earlier, I dig all the old computers, rotary phones, and other ancient gadgets that fill the Belafonte.

5) The locations. I love where Anderson chose to shoot. There's the Zissou complex on a tiny island, and the Hennessey complex on a huge island. One of the reasons I love the section where they visit the Ping Islands, torn apart and left uninhabited by a hurricane, is that they serve as a great metaphor for the Zissou we know now. As a young newlywed, Zissou visited this island on his honeymoon, its five-star hotel resplendent and shimmering. The moldering grandeur of that hotel is like Zissou in his current state of disrepair.

6) Bill Murray as Steve Zissou. I was expecting a super-ironic, eyeball-rolling, detached performance from Murray. But what I got was emotional engagement in a way that creeps up on you. Sure, there are some absurd set pieces here, most notably the one where Zissou grabs a gun and single-handedly saves most of his crew from pirates, killing several of them. But his character's emotions are always honest. I felt Zissou becoming a real person as he grapples with the reality that his best days are behind him, and that he had a son he didn't meet until the boy was in his mid- to late-20s. Anderson creates a goofy tone so that all this emotional processing can be light and funny, but that doesn't make it any less true, nor make the moments of real introspection feel any less introspective.

7) The tone. As hinted at in the previous paragraph, Anderson creates a tone that I like to think of as "melancholic jauntiness." Certainly, there is a sadness that permeates this film -- Steve Zissou is close to being washed up, he's already lost a friend to the possibly mythological jaguar shark, and his current mission is a flimsy contraption ready to take on water at any minute. But never once is The Life Aquatic depressing. It tells the story of a man who was once truly great -- he wasn't just a laughingstock, as some films would have had him be. A lesser film would have just made him a self-involved boob with no redeeming qualities, but there's a basic goodness to Steve Zissou, at his core, and he eventually displays a perceptive understanding of every situation, just when you think he might be wandering dangerously close to self-involved boobdom. He's clearly sailing into the sunset, but enough of the things he's done right in his life prevent him from being a total shambles -- and this little bit of lightness and optimism, along with some truly screwball set pieces, keeps the film humming along quite nicely.

8) The cast. There are plenty of familiar players from other Anderson movies -- Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston, and of course Murray himself. But they are assembled here in a way that makes good, quirky sense. I can imagine an international oceanographic film crew being made up of all types -- an Indian cameraman, a German second-in-command, a pilot bastard son from Kentucky, an aloof ex-wife, a pregnant reporter, a half-dozen green interns, a bond company stooge who in his younger years was Harold in Harold & Maude. (The sight of Bud Cort was quite welcome.) The Belafonte is the perfect location for this motley crew to come together as some kind of oddball family unit ... one that's a lot less over-the-top than you'd think.

Double Jeopardy Verdict, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou: I'm happy not being your typical Wes Anderson fan, if it means getting to have a special place in my heart for this film.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Swell evening

I don't usually write about music on my movie blog, but there's always a way to work it into the theme if you're clever.

Actually, last night didn't require too much cleverness. Last night I saw a musical celebration of my love for the movie Once, and, to a (far) lesser extent, my love for the movie Elf.

My wife is into her eighth month of pregnancy, but she's also known for her ambitiousness -- which in some cases comes back to bite her. Fortunately, last night wasn't one of those cases, though it certainly was ambitious: A Sunday night trip to the Hollywood Bowl to see The Swell Season, She & Him and The Bird and the Bee. It was a special surprise for me, a last hurrah before this kind of thing will start requiring a babysitter. We amassed a picnic of pita chips, hummus, feta and sundried tomato spread, port salut cheese and crackers, olives, tangelos and open-face sandwiches of ham and avocado. At the Hollywood Bowl, you can picnic anywhere -- from grassy parks around the perimeter, to parks inside, to picnic tables inside, even at your seats. Usually there's alcohol involved, and they're fine with BYO on that front, too.

With the picnic experience beforehand, sometimes it doesn't really matter who you see -- it's just a fun embrace of the Los Angeles summer. And in many of my previous visits to the Bowl, I've seen a band I was only marginally interested in seeing. If those were cherished experiences even without the band being a perfect fit, just imagine what it's like when you see one that is.

If you aren't familiar with The Swell Season -- and the above picture hasn't jogged your memory -- the band basically consists of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the stars of John Carney's film Once. They had at least six other accompanists last night, but wikipedia tells me they're the only formal members of the band.

Like many of you, I loved Once, and bought the soundtrack only days after first seeing it in the summer of 2007. (In fact, on Wednesday, it will have been exactly three years since I saw the film.) I was entranced by Hansard's soaring, passionate voice, and the comparative softness and delicacy of Irglova's, which complemented his so well. I fell in love with their (almost) love story on screen, and was tickled to learn that they were real-life lovers -- even with the somewhat suspect 18-year age difference, of which I wasn't initially aware. The bittersweet story within the film, and the less ambiguous story outside the film, were both living, blossoming entities in my mind, as I continued to listen to that soundtrack until I'd run it ragged. When they won the Oscar the following March, it was another defining moment in my love of the film.

Since then, my wife and I have both been looking for opportunities to see them perform live, since stories of Hansard's on-stage presence were legendary. They seemed to play locally quite regularly, several times a year, but the ticket prices were always in the vicinity of a hundred bucks, so we never pulled the trigger. I actually had one instance where I was dialing into KCRW, the local NPR affiliate that also has a schedule of terrific music shows, to win tickets, but needless to say, I never got through.

The Hollywood Bowl proved to be the opportunity we were waiting for. Since we sat in the nosebleeds, I'm sure they weren't that expensive, plus we got the picnic in as well.

And Glen and Marketa didn't disappoint. Not only did they play a half-dozen songs from the Once soundtrack -- "Lies," "If You Want Me," "Leave," "When Your Mind's Made Up," "Falling Slowly," and as an encore, a personal favorite, "Say It To Me Now" -- but they killed in their other selections, only one or two of which I was familiar with. That's the brilliance of The Swell Season -- unlike many other bands, you don't have to already know their songs in order to be drawn into them. Hansard's charismatic words to the audience, followed by a performance style that ranges between gentle and intense, makes every song interesting. Rarely have I seen someone wail on an acoustic guitar the way Hansard does, yet there's never any doubt that the songs are deeply melodic and beautifully passionate. The Swell Season also did at least two covers, one of a Bruce Springsteen song I was not familiar with, and one of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic," which is my favorite of his songs. It was an unforgettable version of that song as well -- if you've got Hansard's voice in your head right now, just imagine him during the "I want to rock your gypsy soul" high part of that song.

Did I mention something about the movie Elf?

That's because the band we saw before The Swell Season, She & Him, is a collaboration between actress Zooey Deschanel and musician M. Ward. I actually considered writing about She & Him a couple months ago, as some variation on the wariness I usually feel when actors and actresses try to moonlight as musicians. However, I don't really have any snarkiness reserved for Deschanel on this front. She has a legit voice, and having sat through their set last night, I no longer think she's "just trying to be cool." In fact, I think her band has almost a country western sound to it, her voice sounding like it would have been comfortable on a jukebox jam-packed with Patsy Cline songs. Without having really heard them, I would have assumed they were achingly hip, but I found them to be almost disarmingly cute -- kind of like Deschanel always comes across on screen. This doesn't mean they were exactly my cup of tea, and I did feel the couple beers I'd had starting to make me tired when my mind couldn't attach to a number of songs in a row that didn't seem very distinctive. But I definitely respect what they do, and Deschanel really belted it out on a closing cover of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You."

Oh yeah, Elf. That was the first time I was really aware that Deschanel could sing, as she has that scene where she's singing in the shower ("Baby It's Cold Outside"), and then the closing scene, where she sings "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" in order to elevate the Christmas spirit of the Central Park crowd, enough to power Santa's sleigh. In fact, I cited Elf as the reason I knew what Deschanel's voice sounded like, as my wife and I were making our way up the hill and wondering which act was currently performing. Not that I'd heard a couple of their songs on the radio, but that I remembered her voice from Elf.

So yeah, we missed The Bird and The Bee during our picnicking. But that's okay. I don't have a cinematic reference point for them anyway.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The weekend just got longer

Who says nothing good has come out of California's famous budget crisis?

For me, it means a longer weekend. I'll explain.

One of my biggest sources for getting DVDs is the public library. Every branch in the area has an excellent collection of at least a thousand titles. They'll let you borrow three at a time, and they don't care which branch you return them to. (I really wish Blockbuster would learn this simple little idea.) The only problem with borrowing those three movies is that you have to have them back only two days later.

That is, unless you rent on a Friday. If you rent on a Friday, it's really three days, because the library isn't open on Sunday. It doesn't matter if you watch all three movies, because it didn't cost you anything, but the extra day gives that a more realistic chance of happening.

So for awhile I had a ritual of driving to the branch nearest my work at lunch on Friday to pick out three movies for the weekend. It was always fun not knowing what I might come away with.

But then, in trying to reduce hours for certain free government services -- including closing the DMV an extra day each week -- the city of Los Angeles (facing its own specific budget crisis) limited the library's Friday hours to just four, 1:30 to 5:30. This wasn't so great, as it meant the Friday lunchtime visits weren't really possible -- since my workday runs until only 3:30, I need to be eating lunch a lot earlier than that. And I wasn't that big on visiting the library after work, because then I'd get snarled in Friday night traffic, and tack on an extra 45 minutes to the time I arrived home.

As the budgetary problems have gotten worse -- or at least, not cleared up as quickly as they hoped -- they've tweaked the hours further. Only this time they benefit me, even though the total number of hours are fewer -- in fact, because they are fewer.

Starting this Monday, all branches of the library are now open only five days a week -- those five days being Tuesday through Saturday. So now any movies borrowed on a Friday are not due back until Tuesday -- Tuesday at 8 p.m., at that. Not only that, but the full-day closure on Monday means that Friday can go back to having regular hours. So now when I rent at lunch on a Friday, I'll get the movies for possibly as long as 100 hours, and have it count as just two days on the library calendar.

It's the little things, right?

Well, I can't say that I've made particularly good use of my first four-day library weekend. I returned my previous three movies just before closing on Friday, which means I had to abbreviate my usual sweep through the movie shelves to just a quick two minutes. Trying to fulfill the joint viewing needs of my wife and myself, as well as my own viewing needs, I grabbed The Private Lives of Pippa Lee and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (for us) and Saw VI (for me). I have no idea if any of them will be good, but I have a pretty good idea Saw VI won't be.

Funny thing is, all three probably won't get watched even with the extra day, since I was out last night and will be out again Sunday night. But just having that possibility is a nice feeling.

I feel for the library employees who have seen their hours cut back. They don't deserve to be the victim of years' worth of poor budgetary decisions by the local and state governments.

But the situation does have its benefits.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Savior has arrived

I can't remember a recent movie that's been quite as anticipated as Inception.

Oh, there are movies people get excited about -- your Iron Man 2s, your next Harry Potter movies. But they don't use the kind of language of reverence that's been reserved for Christopher Nolan's latest movie.

Today, we'll all finally get to find out if Inception lives up to our expectations -- even though it doesn't seem like there's any way it possibly could.

We're dealing with a fairly small sample size here, but The Dark Knight seems to have turned its director into commonly being described as a "visionary." I've been on board with seeing Nolan through that lens long before then -- Memento was my second-favorite movie of 2001 at the time (since surpassed by several films I didn't see until later), and I also had above-average affection for The Prestige, ranking that midway through my top ten of 2006. And people sometimes tend to forget there was even a movie called Batman Begins, which laid the groundwork for the worldwide phenomenon that was The Dark Knight (and which I argue was actually a better film, but let's not get into that right now). Just to round out his CV, Following and Insomnia are both interesting movies that don't require special mention here.

Now, with Inception, we're expecting The Matrix meets Dark City meets the best ten other movies you can think of that might have the capacity to blow your mind in a commonly accessible way. And not only are there the expectations we would ordinarily have for the movie, but given the way this summer has unfolded (with a few exceptions, like Toy Story 3), we're also expecting Inception to save the summer of 2010 -- to give us something, at long last, to sink our teeth into.

Because in this small sample size, that seems to be the genius of Christopher Nolan -- he gives us films that exist simultaneously as heavy, thought-provoking art, and popcorn movies that speak to a wide range of people. His Batman movies were superhero movies we didn't need to categorize as guilty pleasures. They didn't need to wink at us and be filled with wisecracks in order to rake in tons of dough. They created a new superhero template that has yet to be repeated successfully, though I argue that Watchmen, a personal favorite, was a pretty damn good attempt.

So now there's Inception. It seems to again be the thinking person's action movie -- incredibly high concept, demanding of some kind of intellectual commitment on the viewer's part, yet not the slightest bit alienating to even the least mentally astute viewer. We'll see if the box office numbers back it up, but it seems to represent proof that all audiences want to have a movie credit them with a certain intelligence level. Even if they would never consciously list that as a factor in why they go to the movies, the excitement for Inception seems to provide ample evidence of it.

Inception is almost certainly among the most blogged about movies of 2010, so I don't need to contribute any more to that phenomenon than I already have. But I'll finish by saying this: As excited as I have been for July 16th to arrive -- downright impatient at times -- there's also that small part of me that's been worried about the coming of Inception. Because what if it isn't as good as we're all expecting? What then?

Well, then there's always Untitled Batman Project, a.k.a. Batman 3, scheduled to be the savior of a disappointing summer on July 20, 2012.


If the name The Sorcerer's Apprentice sounds familiar to you, well ... it could be for a lot of reasons, I guess. The disambiguation for those three words on wikipedia contains 13 different results.

But Disney's betting it will remind you of the beloved segment in Fantasia, in which Mickey Mouse tries to contain the sudden uprising of broom sticks. Even if the Nicolas Cage vehicle released yesterday has absolutely nothing to do with that. (And if you also get a little whiff of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, all the better.)

It's a fairly typical bait-and-switch, in which you are presented with the promise of one concept and then given something else entirely. Okay, not entirely -- both movies are about magic and about apprentices, though I believe (correct me if I'm wrong) the sorcerer himself never makes an appearance in the Fantasia segment. But it's clear this is not the feature-length adaptation of the Mickey Mouse short that Disney's implying it is. For starters, you couldn't really have Mickey Mouse be the star of a modern movie -- it would seem a bit too 1940s. Secondly, it takes place in modern day. Thirdly, well, it's a Nicolas Cage movie, directed by the same guy (Jon Turteltaub) who directed Cage in two National Treasure movies (with the same producer, Jerry Bruckheimer).

I'm not one of those guys who automatically berates anything that stars Nicolas Cage, and I actually think this looks like it could be fun -- at matinee prices. But it's still an example of something that's fairly widespread in Hollywood, and fairly pernicious -- take the name of a known property and attach it to a movie that's only tangentially related, because you know it will help you sell more tickets.

Some other recent examples? I thought you'd never ask.

Miami Vice seems to be one. Yeah, there was a guy named Crockett, and yeah, there was a guy named Tubbs. And yeah, they dressed kind of stylishly. And yeah, the action was set in Miami. But the spirit of that show never made an appearance in Miami Vice, the movie -- which, granted, could just mean it was a poor adaptation. Well, it was a poor adaptation, but more than that, I think it was just a convenient marriage of an existing property and a different movie altogether. Michael Mann just wanted to make a gritty cop movie, so why not make it the Miami Vice movie? (For the record, I know this film has its fans. For me, all Michael Mann really wanted to do was create a bunch of loving shots of cigarette boats cutting through the Atlantic Ocean, and to his credit, he did that pretty well. But the poor overall quality of this movie is typified in one scene of bad acting by Jamie Foxx. As he and Colin Farrel are walking away from a building, it explodes behind them. But Foxx starts reacting to the explosion before it happens -- just a millisecond, but you definitely notice it. The fact that Mann didn't notice it says a lot about Miami Vice.)

A similar example to that -- and I know I'm breaking the rules of a film blog here -- was the Ed O'Neill vehicle L.A. Dragnet, which ran during the 2003-2004 TV season. O'Neill's character was named Joe Friday, but any other similarity to the original Dragnet was purely coincidental. I expect a similar thing from this fall's Hawaii Five-0, starring Lost's Daniel Dae Kim.

One of the most hilarious examples, which I was discussing with a friend the other week, was a lesser known property, a short story by Stephen King called The Lawnmower Man. That was a true bait-and-switch, in the purest definition of that phrase. King's short story -- not one of his most memorable -- involved an evil satyr and a nude man who eats grass, before turning on the man who hired the mowing service and eating/killing him. Like I said, it was pretty forgettable. The 1992 movie, however, was memorable, for having absolutely nothing to do with lawns or mowing. It was about a scientist (Pierce Brosnan) who uses a retarded man (Jeff Fahey) to conduct experiments in virtual reality. The retarded man becomes intelligent and evil. King apparently sued to have his name removed from the project.

We could sit here all day talking about great bait-and-switch examples, but you get the idea.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Genetically predisposed

I had a bit of deja vu while watching Jon Amiel's Creation the other night.

Is it just me, or is Paul Bettany genetically predisposed to play men who are interested in genetic predispositions?

In Creation, Bettany plays Charles Darwin. The fact that the movie was about Darwin was one of the main reasons I was drawn to it, and Bettany's casting certainly didn't hurt. Darwin is one of the most influential minds in history, yet I don't know much about him -- neither have I read anything in-depth about him, nor seen his life portrayed in a movie. (And let's be honest, with how slow I read relative to how many movies I see, the latter would be a much better bet.) So I was pretty excited to see a movie devoted to him, one that would tackle the implications his research had for the predominant mode of thinking: Christian doctrine. Especially since I thought it would make a good intellectual companion piece to Agora, my favorite film of the year so far, which deals with the clashing of science and Christianity back in 4th century Egypt.

I didn't get quite as much of Darwin theorizing about the survival of fit species as I had hoped. As it turns out, the movie is based on a book called Annie's Box, and therefore, spends significant time on how the Darwins (Charles and devout wife Emma, played by Bettany's actual wife, Jennifer Connelly) are affected by the death of their oldest daughter, Annie.

But I did get that sense of deja vu I mentioned earlier.

See, Bettany also played a scientist interested in the origins of species in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Peter Weir's high-substance high seas adventure, which came out in 2003. There he plays Stephen Maturin, the ship's surgeon, who takes a keen interest in all things scientific, specifically the previously undocumented species of cormorant he discovers on the Galapagos Islands. Maturin's similarity to Darwin occurred to me way back then, years before Creation was cast, since Darwin also spent his formative researching years on board a ship, The HMS Beagle. I have to wonder if Master and Commander was in Amiel's head when he cast Bettany as Darwin.

Here's Bettany looking particularly learned in Master and Commander:

And looking particularly learned in Creation:

I wouldn't swear to it, but he may even be wearing the exact same outfit.

Of course, if we're talking about theories, the theory that Bettany plays predominantly men of science doesn't particularly hold water if you look at The Da Vinci Code, where he plays an albino monk named Silas, who fancies flagellating himself until he's bleeding from every pore in his back:

Perhaps Bettany's greatest predisposition is to play men of antiquity. He played James Steerforth in a 2000 televised version of Dickens' David Copperfield. He played none other than Geoffrey Chaucer in 2001's A Knight's Tale. And in 2009's The Young Victoria he played Lord Melbourne.

Then again, almost every British actor out there cut his teeth in Masterpiece Theatre-type fare. Perhaps that's a genetic predisposition of the species Thespius Anglo Saxonis.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Its own worst enemy

This is the fourth in my series called Double Jeopardy, in which I reexamine movies that I liked more than other people, to see if they hold up. It runs on Tuesdays.

In my first three weeks of the Double Jeopardy series, I ended up feeling about as positively toward the movie in question as I had after my first viewing. That made me wonder if I'd seen them too recently to have had much of a change of heart.

So this week I decided to dig way, way back -- something I hadn't seen since the 1980s. But I may have had to stretch the definition of this series to do it.

See, I thought most people felt kind of positively about Wolfgang Petersen's Enemy Mine, as I did. The website I write for told me otherwise. On the website, I noticed that the movie was assigned only two stars out of a possible five. Later, I discovered that it was one of those instances where the reviewer wrote a review that was out of synch with the star rating -- a consequence of the star rating having been assigned at a different time from when the review was written, and by someone other than the person who ultimately reviewed it. But I didn't read the positive review until later, and added Enemy Mine to my hit list based on that two-star assessment.

As it turns out, it was a good choice for this series. Enemy Mine is a lot cheesier than I remembered it. And it starts out on a very wrong foot.

Now, 1985 was no period of great achievement in special effects. But it was a full two years after Return of the Jedi, so I was expecting a modicum of sophistication in the opening spaceship battle between the humans and the Dracs. Uh uh. Super-imposed two-dimensional cardboard cutouts of spaceships swoop across the screen in perfect arcs, fixed at an equal distance from each other, in a way only possible if they are all part of a single graphic. They shoot light brite laser blasts at each other and erupt in the kind of flames you see grafted onto episodes of South Park (because that type of animation doesn't work for explosions). What's more, you're given only the flimsiest back story to comprehend these events, which can be summarized as "Humans hate Dracs and Dracs hate humans." The hammy yelling of Dennis Quaid makes the scene complete.

I like Dennis Quaid as an actor -- actually, I guess it's more that I think he would be a fun guy to hang out with, so therefore, I like him as an actor as well. But his hammy acting is a constant throughout the movie. When both he and the Drac, whom he calls Jerry, crash land on the planet, most of the story elements start to improve. But Quaid's acting isn't one of them. Quaid's Davidge sneaks up on the Drac crash site, where Jerry is enjoying some food by the fire. When Jerry plunges into the water for a swim, Quaid literally cackles like a maniacal villain, as Davidge gains the upper hand on his enemy. Wouldn't he be a lot more nervous, especially never having seen a Drac in person before, and not knowing what he/she (the Dracs are multi-gendered) might be capable of?

Enemy Mine proceeds as you would expect -- enemies become grudging allies, and then genuine friends, with a couple episodes of lingering mistrust thrown in to spice up the narrative. The developing friendship was what really got me when I was a kid. I was just the right age, with just the right brief history of seeing science fiction movies, to find it revolutionary that a human being would be able to forge a loving bond with an alien so grotesque as a Drac. That idea was certainly seen in numerous previous movies, if not actually, then at least metaphorically. But it was new to me, and I found it profound.

And how grotesque is that Drac? That's the thing I find interesting about Enemy Mine -- as bad as those toy spaceships at the beginning are, the makeup that turns Lou Gossett Jr. into a full-blown alien is that good. Just check out this picture of Jerry. Not only is the reptilian outer skin attached seamlessly, but just for effect, it has moving parts as well. Those small circular patches next to the sides of his mouth, and the veiny oblong shapes where his ears should be, both ebb in and out. Slightly easier, though still effective, is that when Jerry is seen from behind, he's got a partially exposed skull that is similar in appearance to the oblong ear-things. If Jerry had been just a Star Trek villain from the 1960s, basically a humanoid with green or blue skin, we wouldn't feel the sense of repulsion necessary to underscore the difference between humans and Dracs -- nor the sense of revelatory joy when we realize that these surface-level differences can be overcome. It should come as no surprise that Enemy Mine functions as an allegory for race relations on Earth, and an effective one, at that. It's probably no coincidence that Quaid is white and Gossett Jr. is black.

Adding to the effect is the Drac language, which involves a weird guttural trilling of the R sounds, making the species of alien all the more exotic and frightening. Gossett Jr.'s performance is soulful and understated, and it's clearly the best thing about the movie. How touched I was by Jerry was the clearest feeling that lingered with me from Enemy Mine.

Spoilers ahead ...

Once Jerry leaves the movie, the air goes back out of it again. Jerry's offspring, the little Drac named Zammis, is cute and all, but the third act goes to extremely obvious places. Zammis is captured by a bunch of marauding human pirates and made to work as a slave with other Dracs in their mining business. These reprehensible humans are led by Brion James, who played the replicant in the opening scene of Blade Runner, whose real battle with Quaid is to see who can chew the most scenery. The final 15 minutes of this movie contain some of the most perfunctory and poorly staged fight scenes you have ever seen, and involve Quaid running around screaming "Zammis!" repeatedly, looking for his surrogate son. You're still glad for the happy ending, but a little embarrassed about what it took to get there.

Even if it proceeds along somewhat predictable lines, and features certain conflicts that are there purely for the purposes of narrative structure, Enemy Mine has a good enough story that it should be better than it is overall. Unfortunately, the great makeup and the great performance by Lou Gossett Jr. are barely enough to overcome Quaid's acting and the terrible special effects.

Double Jeopardy Verdict, Enemy Mine: I said "barely," which means the movie does overcome its shortcomings. It's still valuable as an allegory, but it may have been better off, to me personally, as a fond memory, rather than something to be held under the microscope a second time.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Cute, or despicable?

I was immediately taken in by the first teaser I saw for Despicable Me, way back in 2009.

I'm sure many of you saw it, or if you didn't, I could link to it. But because I'm a man of words, let me describe it.

It takes place in Egypt, and features a rotund family of American tourists, each more disagreeable than the next, visiting the Pyramids. The precocious little boy climbs up on rickety scaffolding next to one pyramid, eluding the notice of the guards. As he nears the top, the guards finally do notice him, but it's too late -- he's losing his balance, falling a hundred feet toward the unforgiving edges of the pyramid below. It's certain death. But right as he hits the surface of the pyramid, it gives -- and it turns out this is an optical illusion, some kind of billowy tent with a pyramid painted on it, taking the place of the actual structure, which has been stolen right out from under everyone's noses. The boy sinks into it like someone would sink into a trampoline, then is ejected hundreds of feet into the air, landing on his family. In real life, this would also have killed him, and probably them. But not in a cartoon.

At the end of the teaser, there's a sinister laugh and the silhouette of a man with a very large nose. He's the despicable man of the title. And we immediately imagine him as some kind of evil (but probably loveable) genius with an evil fortress and unlimited amounts of money, who goes around stealing landmarks and generally making mayhem, just for mayhem's sake. Maybe he'd be across between the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge.

At least, that's what I thought the movie would be about. Now, I'm pretty sure it's just about a bunch of oblong yellow dudes in overalls.

Yes indeed, the ad campaign for Despicable Me has officially been hijacked by a bunch of preciously cute android worker bees, or whatever these things are. That's all you see of Despicable Me, anywhere you go. Having once rested its laurels on the naughty charm of some kind of dastardly supervillain, Universal has since gone a thousand percent kiddie in one of the most stunning market corrections you will ever see in film advertising.

These stupid little yellow guys -- whose character design I hate, by the way -- are everywhere. On bus stops. On the sides of buses. In poster kiosks in malls. On billboards. On TV. They even star in their own intro bit for Real 3D that has been playing before movies like Toy Story 3 and The Last Airbender. They are simply inescapable.

Oh, and never mind the series of strategically timed posters designed to steadily whet our appetite throughout the spring, which have instead done the exact opposite. In addition to the Mother's Day-themed poster seen above, there was one for Father's Day and one for Easter.

But how much more excited for the movie were you when the poster below was symbolic of how they wanted to advertise it?

For the record, I hear Despicable Me is quite good. Which just makes it all the more unfortunate that the advertising campaign has turned off people like me -- people who were fine with seeing it for free on Wednesday (had my free screening transpired correctly), but are pretty wary about spending money on it, if only because I am so damn sick of those walking grapefruits with googly eyes.

Granted, Despicable Me doesn't make its money on me. It makes its money on the little kids who love those walking grapefruits.

If I wanted to give Universal a break, here's what I'd say: In choosing a movie title that contains a word children don't understand, they had to re-double their efforts to connect with them in another way. Hence the current blitz of grapefruit minions. The more kids see the grapefruit minions, the harder they'll try to pronounce the word "despicable" -- at least well enough for their parents to buy tickets to the correct movie.

Ultimately, wishing that Universal could go with a despicable approach rather than a cute approach is akin to the many other complaints we film buffs have about the film industry, in which we wish it could only be such-and-such a way, and if so, everything would be awesome. But the need to make tons and tons of money almost always prevents it from being such-and-such a way.

In other words, accepting the grapefruit minions brings us one step closer to accepting reality.