Saturday, August 28, 2010

A grievous error

We had a son the other day. Wednesday, to be exact. Hence the unexplained two weekdays in a row without a new blog post. We're still at the hospital until tomorrow, but an emergency has come up that makes it necessary that I get a quickie in now.

As much as you weigh the pros and cons of a name before choosing it, there's always a way to screw up in ways you never could have imagined.

Our son is named Jasper. We love the name, everyone else loves the name (or so they say). My mom gave off a surprised laugh when she first heard it, but I think she likes it too.

But a few minutes ago, when we met our umpteenth nurse who will be taking care of us for the length of her shift, and we told her his name, she uttered a dreaded word: "Twilight."

It was early in the morning so I didn't figure out exactly what she'd said, but I immediately pulled out my laptop to check.

Yes indeed, there is a character named Jasper in the Twilight movies. In fact, you're looking at him above.

He's a secondary character, to be sure -- it's not like we named our son Edward or Jacob. (I do have friends who named their son Jake just before the Twilight phenomenon exploded -- though I think that's his full name, not short for Jacob at least.) But he's prominent enough to have his own promotional artwork. And boy does he look milquetoast and "wet," to use a term my wife (an Australian) uses. "Wet" means about the same thing as milquetoast. Yes, he looks the teen heartthrob equivalent of "intense," but doesn't he also look like he might be about to cry?

I only saw the first Twilight, and it was before we were pregnant, and my wife wouldn't touch this series with a ten-foot pole, so I don't know how we would have been expected to know about this. Looking on IMDB, Jasper Whitlock (played by Jackson Rathbone -- funny, Jackson was another name we were considering) is the 13th listed member of the cast of characters. So, not that prominent, all told. In Twilight: New Moon, he's moved up to 11th, and for some reason is now called Jasper Hale. (I guess I would have to see it to understand why.) In Twilight: Eclipse, he's muscled his way up to ninth -- I don't like this trend. And he's the seventh highest listed cast member in the two parts of Twilight: Breaking Dawn, due out in 2011 and 2012.

So what does it all mean, other than the fact that I generally detest anything associated with Twilight?

For one, it means that Jasper will not be nearly as uncommon a name as we expected it to be. And while we chose it for its uniqueness, I suppose there's a benefit to not giving our son the weirdest name anyone's ever heard of.

But I'm also a bit worried that the other Jaspers out there will give our Jasper a bad name. Far be it from me to stereotype, and no offense meant to you, dear reader, if you are a Twilight fan. But if you are a person who's naming your son Jasper specifically because that's the name of a character in Twilight, I'm concerned about the genes you will be passing on to him. I really don't want my Jasper to be confused with a bunch of little goth Jaspers running around, looking like the Jasper you see above.

Oh well. Nothing we can do now.

But we love our little Jasper. And I must say, if I hadn't been posting about this, I might have been posting about the birth of a child being one of life's truly cinematic moments. And it lived up to all my expectations in that regard. I was the supportive husband, soon-to-be-daddy, holding my wife's hand, telling her she could do it, telling her to push, praising the job she was doing. And then, after a surprisingly short amount of pushing, there was my son's head, peeking out, ready to join the outside world. Moments later, his little blue alien body emerged, and I had a video camera in one hand, scissors to cut the umbilical cord in the other, blubbering like an idiot.

And it was wonderful.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Life as a montage

This is the tenth in my Double Jeopardy series, in which I'm revisiting films that got high grades from me, but not from most other people. I want to see who's right and who's wrong. The series runs on Tuesdays.

I have so many entry points for discussing Rob Reiner's The Story of Us that I don't really know where to begin. So, apologies in advance if this becomes a bit disorganized.

Let's start by addressing something obvious, for those of you who read my sidebar features closely. That's not a formatting error you see there -- The Story of Us is, in fact, the last two movies I've most recently revisited. I watched it Sunday afternoon by myself while my wife was taking a nap, and then when she awoke -- perfectly timed to the end credits -- I felt really disappointed that I hadn't made a stronger case to have her watch it with me. So I told her I would watch it again, if she was interested. She was, so we did, about four hours later. She probably figured, if I'm willing to see a movie twice in one day, it's probably worth her seeing it once.

That should take away some of the suspense about whether I still like Reiner's film, a decade after I first saw it. Or was it more like nine years after I second saw it? Only after finishing what turned out to be my third viewing did I realize I had inadvertently broken the rules of my own Double Jeopardy series. This series was supposed to be comprised of films I've seen only once before, but I had forgotten until Sunday afternoon that I had already submitted The Story of Us to a form of double jeopardy, all the way back in 2001. (Which made this a triple jeopardy, and the eventual fourth viewing the first time the movie was being watched purely for pleasure since my first viewing.) The movie came out in 1999, and I probably caught it on video in 2000. I really liked it, but I also knew I was in the minority. So when I got the chance to review The Story of Us in 2001, I made myself watch it again, just to see if I might have been overcome by a temporary inability to judge the quality of films.

Nope. Still liked it. But then I did something I now very much regret -- I wrote a review that was positive, but hedged its bets by being lukewarm and out-and-out critical in a couple spots as well. See, the site I write for had given the film a star rating before anyone wrote a review -- a common practice based on the general critical consensus about a film. That star rating was two out of five. It's always acceptable to diverge from the star rating -- especially if you are writing something that's more positive, since the reviews are syndicated on sites that sell DVDs. But at that time, I was fairly new at this, and thought that I had to make my positive review reflect the critical consensus evident in those two stars. So instead of writing the 3.5-star review I wanted to write, I wrote one that was probably closer to 2.5 stars.

If I wrote a review of The Story of Us today, I might actually give it four stars. And I almost wish I could take back that re-ranking of the movie I did on Flickchart, which I wrote about here. (If you are keeping track, this is my third entry point to discussing the film.) To sum up what I wrote ten days ago, I temporarily lost control of a sequence of duels on Flickchart, and the eventual end result was that The Story of Us jumped all the way up to my 25th favorite film of all time. Wanting to correct the error, I removed it from my seen movies and started re-ranking it from scratch. Needless to say, #25 is still too high for it, but after my two screenings on Sunday, I feel like I would be very comfortable having it in my top several hundred movies.

So why do I like this movie so much more than anyone else? Well, I'll tell you.

The movie was referred to sarcastically at the time as When Harry Broke Up With Sally. It stars Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer as a couple married for 15 years, who are taking advantage of having their son and daughter away at camp for the summer, to try out a separation that may ultimately lead to divorce. The movie begins a few days before the kids leave for camp, and ends when they return. In between, Ben and Katie Jordan do their best to live their lives apart, with the inevitable moments together -- some of which are positive, some of which remind them why they're no longer suited to be together. The movie progresses along during their present tense of that summer, but it also flashes back to the memories they're cataloguing of 15 years of marriage. These memories are triggered by conversations they have with their friends (a well-cast group of Reiner, Rita Wilson, Paul Reiser and Julie Hagerty), as well as mundane things that happen in everyday life.

And here's where the movie impresses me immensely on a technical level. I am a person who applauds when someone really "commits" -- when an artist or a performer gives it his/her all, beyond the call of duty, to produce the desired artistic outcome. And the filmmaking team behind The Story of Us really commit to showing us Ben and Katie's marriage. I wish I had gone back and counted, but to give us as many snippets of their life together as possible, the costume and makeup departments give Willis and Pfeiffer dozens of different hairstyles and wardrobes, and Reiner shoots them in dozens of different locations (including an on-location shoot in Venice, Italy -- something he notably did not do when he hopped continents on green screens for The Bucket List). What I find so impressive about this is that these hairstyles and wardrobes do not usually appear in entire scenes -- they are often quick flashes in montages, seen by the viewer for only a second or two. Most films cannot afford such complicated setups for such little overt narrative payoff. Like, a whole wedding between Ben and Katie, in which Reiner (as the best man) somehow really looks 20 years younger, just for five seconds of screen time? The budgetary math doesn't add up.

Which is why I'm trying to give this film the ink it deserves now, that it never got then. I appreciate every hair on Pfeiffer's head that you crimped with a crimping iron, every time you applied that long-haired toupee on the bald Willis. And I'm sorry more people didn't. The most affecting montage comes near the climax of the movie, with Mason Williams' "Classical Gas" playing as you see each child born, each child's pet die, each time Ben or Katie says I love you, each time Ben or Katie says I hate you. And everything else in between.

What's great also is how the memories are balanced within the overall plot. I'd almost call this a structurally perfect script. It steps away from the present tense for the perfect amount of time, every time, and supplies the memories we need at just the right moment to contextualize future events in the plot. It's downright masterful -- special props to Jessie Nelson and Alan Zweibel, who share the screenwriting credit.

And speaking of the writing ... one of the most common misconceptions about this film, I assume, is that it's depressing. Yes, there's a lot of squabbling, and yes, it's about a couple considering divorce. But what I was really amazed at was the number of times I laughed at the clever writing. The supporting characters get a lot of the funniest lines, and thank God they're there. Wilson is in fine form, Reiner seems comfortable and affable, and Reiser is wickedly funny. Reiner knows that this movie can't be glum, or else it won't fit into the marketing category of a romantic comedy. The Story of Us gives romantic comedies a good name by being about something a lot more than most of them are about.

Remember when I said things might get disorganized here? That's what happens when you are writing about something you feel really passionate about.

And I think there's an additional reason I felt so passionate about this film this time around. Unlike the first two times I saw it, I am now married with a partner I love, on the precipice of having children. (Literally -- the baby will probably come next week.) What I appreciated in the abstract before was something that I can now appreciate more concretely -- that marriage is a marathon with peaks and valleys, times when you will love the other person and times when you (only temporarily, you hope) will hate them. I am fortunate to say that I've spent 2.5 years of marriage in 95% bliss. But we haven't nearly gotten to the hard part, and movies like The Story of Us make you appreciate what can happen to make otherwise blissful marriages hard. The movie expertly documents Ben and Katie as they grow from feckless twentysomethings to burdened fortysomethings, yet their character traits continue on a throughline that never makes you doubt that these are the same people, just aged 15 years. Willis and Pfeiffer deserve incredible credit for this in terms of their acting -- Pfeiffer has an amazing monologue near the end of this movie that's just heartbreaking -- but it's the whole experience that's been created for us that really makes this movie the complete package. We know the performances are strong, but what these characters are saying is what makes them sing -- topics that are unobtrusively and humorously discussed are as diverse as mortality, fidelity, the influence of in-laws on a marriage, the tension between the need to be responsible and the need to have fun, and whether an ass is really an ass, or just the fatty tops of your legs.

The Story of Us could be the story of anybody, and it's incredibly enriching, whether you're a parent, a child, a husband, a wife, or none of the above. You'll laugh and you might cry ... I don't mind tell you I did.

During both of Sunday's viewings.

And that's really saying something.

Double Jeopardy Verdict, The Story of Us: An unjustly panned film that just gets more observant and more nuanced the older you get and the more life experiences you have.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Catapulted into the future - twice

I am an IT guy by day, but that doesn't mean I'm necessarily into the latest and greatest gadgets. As a matter of fact, part of me hates the latest and greatest, because it means I have to learn something new. As an example of that, I'm still using Windows XP on my work computer. It's the same operating system the users still use, so it has its benefits in that respect, but most of my co-workers have been using Windows Vista for some time, and some have even moved on to Windows 7.

This carries over to my need -- or lack thereof -- to have the latest and greatest in entertainment gadgets. On the Mac/PC spectrum, I'm a PC, so it goes without saying that I've left most of Apple's shiny new toys untouched, save the ipod. But it actually took me two to three years longer than most people to get my first one of those -- I didn't have my first ipod (the one I still use) until Christmas of 2006. You'd think, since I'm a huge movie buff, I would have been faster to snap up a DVD player, but no. By the time I got my first one, in 2003, most of my friends had already had theirs for those same two to three years.

I guess you could blame my Puritanical New England upbringing for this. It's not that I didn't see the value in an ipod or a DVD player -- not that I didn't want one. It's that I felt I didn't really deserve one. What had I done that meant I got to have a shiny new toy so soon after it was available? And so with each, I've waited until the point that I thought most other people already had the thing in question, so my purchase of it wouldn't seem like an extravagance, a luxury that I hadn't earned. (Plus, in most cases, the price goes down once something starts to saturate the marketplace.)

You may have figured out where this is going. That's right, about two or three years after most people got theirs, I now finally have my first BluRay player.

The thing is, the ability to watch BluRays wasn't even our big technological advancement of the weekend. See, even though we had it set up starting at about 7 o'clock on Saturday night, we have yet to watch an actual BluRay in our player.

That's because we got one of those BluRay players that streams Netflix on your TV. And that, my friends, was the big, gasping, forehead-slapping leap forward into a new horizon.

After we got the player set up, we debated a bit about the input cables -- whether we should take the one HDMI cable out of our cable box in order to use it for the BluRay, etc. But this was quickly forgotten as soon as the player detected our home wifi. My wife logged into her Netflix account on the TV screen, and voila -- there was her instant online queue of movies to watch. But that's not all. There were also 15-20 other genre categories of suggested movies -- and terrifically specific genres, too. Action/Adventure. Thriller. Horror. Sci-Fi. Documentaries. Foreign Films. Both Comedy and a category called "Witty Films," though we did not immediately see the distinction. TV. And each of these categories had something like 75 titles up for the offering, immediately accessible to us.

Our first impression, which we shared with each other, was that it was like we were in a hotel, choosing between a massive selection of titles, yet all of them were free. So maybe it was more like those exciting plane trips to Australia, where there's no end to the number of gratis options for your eyeballs to look at.

Just to test the connection speed, to see if there would be service interruptions because we were connected wirelessly, we threw on an episode of the original Aeon Flux series from MTV. I expected it to be about five minutes long, but because it crept up to 14, we only half-watched it as we prepared dinner. But the important thing was that it had passed the test -- no dropped service or other service issues whatsoever.

The first thing we watched completely, again from the TV category, was the pilot of Futurama. We needed something short to watch over dinner, as an amuse-bouche before the movie we planned to watch afterward. Sure, you can find Futurama on a number of different networks at any given time of the day. But when do you ever stumble across the pilot? Because of this new big-screen access to my wife's Netflix account, we could pick and choose which Futurama we watched.

I wish I could say that the movie we chose was a better first feature-length use of the technology. After a number of giddy trips through the various categories -- and it looks so pretty up on the screen, a line of movie posters passing along from left to right, with the current selection enlarged in the center -- we decided on Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms. Even with the limitless possibilities of the new device, I was still in killing two birds with one stone mode. See, I had gotten approved to review Twentynine Palms, and it was in my wife's instant online queue, which means she wanted to see it too. So onward we went. It was only after we'd finished what I consider to be one of the worst movies I've ever seen (which really deserves its own post -- or maybe doesn't deserve it, because that might encourage other people to subject themselves to it) that I realized there was already a review on my site for this movie. Turns out I'd been approved to review Leonardo Ricagni's 29 Palms, from 2002, not Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms, from 2004. Bummer, because I was super excited to rip into this movie. Instead, somebody else got to do it.

We did have a couple short service interruptions this time. To add insult to the injury of watching this particular film, one dropped signal came with less than two minutes remaining, and we almost decided just to shitcan those last two minutes. But we overcame the three minutes of being down and finished the movie. I must say, I was a little concerned about losing our connection two or three times total.

Until Sunday afternoon, when we watched Lance Hammer's excellent debut feature Ballast (also from my wife's instant online queue), and experienced nary a signal drop throughout. Score.

As for the BluRays ... well, we may wait until we get the HDMI cable thing sorted out before we sit down for an entire one. We want it to blow our minds, right? It was excited enough just to make our first two BluRay purchases. I don't know that we're going to amass a huge BluRay collection -- we're trying to be more sensible about such things, and besides, we have a child on the way -- but it was no problem deciding to purchase one BluRay as part of the ceremony of buying the player. We chose that one rather easily -- Where the Wild Things Are -- and paid the $29.99 full price for it gladly. However, I also made an impulsive second purchase when I saw that one of my favorite visual feasts of all time -- Bram Stoker's Dracula -- was on sale at Target for only $9.99. Hell, I would have paid $9.99 for it on DVD. So we bought both.

It was Bram Stoker's Dracula that I tested when we first set up the player, and it was Bram Stoker's Dracula whose opening minute did not look any different than a regular DVD. I am hoping this is just our current cabling setup, not an actual deficit in our BluRay player or our TV. I'm told that HDMI is a must for BluRay, and I'm excited to get that resolved this week.

The future ... it can be scary, and it can seem like you don't deserve it. But once you get here, it feels very, very good.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Location fraud

The Wolfman is off the hook.

Joe Johnston's movie about the lunar lupine tendencies of 19th century Brits was pretty bad, but I didn't think it deserved to stand all year as my least favorite movie of 2010. And now, it doesn't have to.

There are three reasons I wanted to see When in Rome, listed in decreasing order of their importance:

1) It was released in 2010, which means I can use it to flesh out my eventual rankings of the year's movies from best to worst, especially when it's available for free from the library, rather than having to expend a rental on it;

2) It stars Kristen Bell, whom I loved in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and whom I think is absolutely darling in general;

3) It promised to have a lot of pretty pictures of Rome in it.

The film actually satisfied me pretty well on the first two fronts, but almost not at all on the third. And not at all on any other fronts.

When in Rome only spends two ten-minute segments of the movie actually in Rome, each time for a wedding. There's no beforemath or aftermath -- just the weddings themselves, while the rest of the time, it takes place in (ho hum, yawn) New York City.

I don't know about you, but doesn't this seem a bit like location fraud to you?

Before you rule on that, I guess I should give you a little more background. Okay, so the basic idea is that Bell's character (Beth) is a workaholic museum curator whose baby sister is having a surprise wedding in Rome after meeting a dreamy Italian on an airplane two weeks earlier. (Only in the movies.) We know Beth is a workaholic because she has a humorless boss (Anjelica Huston) threatening to fire her for making the trip, and because she spends most of her time in Rome trying to get a cell signal or borrow someone's phone to send an email. We also know she's unlucky in love because of an embarrassing opening scene involving an ex-boyfriend who dumped her (Lee Pace) -- and now that I think of it, huh, this ex-boyfriend never comes back into things after this, begging to have Beth back because he made a mistake. That's strange -- it's the second-most-predictable thing to happen in a movie like this, the last-ditch effort of the ex who spurned her. (The first being that she ends up with the right guy at the end.)

She meets the right guy (Josh Duhamel) pretty early, but misinterprets a drunken kiss the groom's sister plants on him, so she ends up stumbling around in a fountain where the lovelorn make wishes by tossing coins. For reasons that are not entirely clear (except for her drunkenness), she picks out five different coins from the fountain, and five men (who happen to still be within three blocks of this fountain, even though they could have flipped their coins weeks or months earlier) immediately perk to attention and fall in love with her. See, a spell has been cast, magically, by her removal of the coins. But she's none the wiser and returns to New York.

Okay, it's a pretty standard setup for a romantic comedy. You've heard better, you've heard worse.

But here's where a sort-of interesting premise becomes just a foundation to watch a bunch of comic actors work their shtick. As it turns out, each of the five coins she plucks out of the fountain -- as luck would have it -- belong to Americans, or men who are later proven to be Americans. (Will Arnett, in a regrettable decision, plays a painter from New Jersey who is faking being Italian to seem more mysterious). Beyond Arnett, these other four are played by a truly random assortment of individuals: Dax Shepard, playing a narcissistic male model; Napoleon Dynamite's Jon Heder, playing a cheesy magician; Danny DeVito (of all people) as a rich guy; and the film's male lead, Duhamel. (He may or may not actually be the fifth guy, but Beth assumes he is.) Almost immediately, all five are also back in New York along with Beth, stalking her relentlessly, in direct disregard for whether they would actually have the means to figure out who she was or where she lived, or the financial wherewithal/schedule flexibility to get to New York. (Remember, just days earlier, all five were in Rome.) In the most embarrassing example of their fawning, they all show up simultaneously at a restaurant where the theme is that dinner is served in pitch black conditions -- this may be the movie's most ridiculous scene, and it wastes funny actress Kristen Schaal, who plays a hostess.

I realize that I could go on and on talking about how bad When in Rome was, but my original angle was to talk about how this movie fraudulently sold itself as a travelogue film set in Rome. And how much better of a film would it have been if it had stayed there. Not only would it have been an actual return on the promise of the title, but it could have used the Roman settings and some funny cultural differences with Italians or other Europeans to make clever observations about the difference in courtship methods the world over. At least we could have looked at the Roman architecture a bit longer. But no, instead, it moves a bunch of Americans to Rome for five minutes, for no good reason, then just follows them back to New York for a bunch of truly abysmal set pieces. Did I mention that Duhamel's character is also known for having been hit by a bolt of lightning on the field, when he was once a celebrated football player? Why is this important? Answer: It isn't.

I think this post has become a bit disorganized, so I'll wrap it up. But I can't go without telling you about a couple of the movie's other dumb, desperate decisions, and it's all about pointless cameos. First there's Efren Ramirez, who played Pedro in Napoleon Dynamite, and who shows up here to film a couple of the magic tricks performed by Jon Heder's character. It's a measure of how terrible this movie is that instead of being pleased to see Heder and Ramirez reunited, we roll our eyes and question what it all means. Then there's a random bar scene that has no plot function whatsoever, in which Duhamel and an extremely obnoxious Bobby Moynihan (playing his buddy) run into a couple professional athletes, among them former NFL player Lawrence Taylor and Shaquille O'Neal. Why these guys? Why include this scene? Well, because someone somewhere in the crew was friends with them, or their agents were owed favors, or something. It's a complete throwaway scene and should have never happened in the first place.

I should have done as most Romans did, and never seen this movie.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

First in line

I don't usually go to see movies on opening night. But when I do, you'd think it would be a movie I was really jazzed about. You know, like the tweens who had their parents drive them to the theater for the 12:05 a.m. screening of Twilight: Eclipse, or the geeks who camped out for weeks before Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Nope, not really. In fact, last night was just the latest movie I saw on opening day/night despite having only mild interest in it. I should say, I had mild interest going in, and heavy interest coming out. Yeah, Piranha 3D was "super fun," as I said to the friend who saw it with me.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I guess my thinking goes like this: If you go to see almost any movie during the primetime slot of its opening night, it's going to be a clusterfuck. Every movie has some subset of the viewing population that's interested in seeing it, and these are the people who will come out for that primetime Friday night show. That's nice when it means you're surrounded by like-minded individuals who plan to cheer and applaud; it's not so nice when you get stuck in the front row, because you bought unassigned seats earlier in the day, but didn't get there in time to claim something good.

And so I've developed something of a policy toward seeing movies on the day of their release: I'll see only ones I don't really care about.

Here are some recent(-ish), funny examples:

Surrogates (2009, Jonathan Mostow). Released: September 25, 2009.

I didn't even know if I planned to see this in the theater, but I'd written one of my Friday morning pieces about it, and I was hankering for an after-work screening, so I hit whichever one started in the 4 o'clock range. As might be expected, the screening was fairly sparsely attended -- the movie ended up grossing less than $40 million, and I think I may have liked it better than anyone else in the world, except possibly Jonathan Mostow.

Splice (2010, Vincenzo Natali). Released: June 4, 2010.

I had gone through a bit of a rollercoaster in my feelings toward this movie, at first thinking it would be an exciting genre buster, then thinking it would be a completely interchangeable startle-scare horror film. I ended up going Friday afternoon because my boss had failed to comp me the afternoon on the previous Friday, before Memorial Day weekend, as he usually does, but had forgotten to this time. So I got out around 1 o'clock that day and took myself over to the theater. I don't know that the movie actually busts its genre, but it is unforgettable in a number of other ways -- some good, some I'm not so sure about.

The Last Airbender (2010, M. Night Shyamalan). Released: July 1, 2010.

This one doesn't quite count, because I actually saw it on July 2nd. The whole time leading up to it, however, I thought they were releasing it that Friday. Then for some reason they moved it up one day to Thursday. This was a similar situation to what was supposed to happen with my Friday-before-Memorial-Day early release, except on the Friday before July 4th, it did actually happen. This screening was also sparsely attended -- maybe everyone already knew that the movie had been ripped to shreds. Me, I thought it started out abysmally and then improved enough in the last 45 minutes or so that I thought it was fine. But because my failure to hate The Last Airbender is not what I came to talk about today, I'm not going to say any more about that.

Piranha 3D (2010, Alexandre Aja). Released: August 20, 2010.

And then there was last night. A friend and I had been trying to find some common ground on a movie -- a movie my wife didn't have any interest in seeing, at that -- and Piranha was what we came up with. We were trying to jam it in before my wife goes into labor (could happen anytime in the next 10 days to two weeks) and before he goes to Burning Man (next weekend). Plus, yesterday was his last day of work on a gig that was located down near where I live. So he got off work, we met for dinner, then went to the movie. In fact, we dilly-dallied enough that I thought we'd shot ourselves in the foot, getting to the theater only 15 minutes before the show was scheduled to start. But instead of having to crane our necks at the 3D from the front row, we hadn't actually needed to buy tickets in advance at all. Strangely, the theater was only half sold -- and this was a prime location on the Santa Monica Promenade, albeit a theater that probably hasn't been renovated in 20 years.

That could have been some kind of forewarning about the quality of this movie, but it wasn't -- at least not for me. My friend wasn't as enthusiastic about it as I was, but I was enthusiastic enough for the two of us. It was a rollicking good time -- exactly what I wanted it to be. Awesome piranha carnage and lots of hilarious gore -- stuff that made our audience howl, squirm and grimace. Some of the gore was truly horrifying -- I can't get that image out of my head of the woman being scalped by the outboard motor, pulling her face right off -- but Aja's tone was such that it was "all in good fun." Besides, the idiotic spring breakers who had come to the fictitious Lake Victoria were portrayed as so vapid and so obnoxious, it all really seemed like their just desserts.

A movie like Piranha 3D really argues for that opening Friday night showing. Even though we were only half full, we were the ones who were really excited for that bloody mayhem up on the screen -- and we probably enjoyed it a lot more than we would have during that 1:35 showing next Thursday afternoon.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The titles that didn't stand a chance

Two movies are coming out today that once had different titles -- either working titles, or actual titles that were being used in the original country of origin.

Neither title stood a chance. At least, not here in the U.S.

The first -- um, because I'm choosing to discuss it first -- is The Baster. Never heard of The Baster? That's because the title was switched (ha ha) to The Switch. The movie has been getting a decent amount of advertising play. And here's one Jennifer Aniston movie that might actually work. Doesn't Jason Bateman make anything he's in better? A blending of Aniston's usual audiences and Bateman's usual audiences could actually make this thing a hit.

But it could never have been with that original title.

When I first heard that Jennifer Aniston was working on a movie about artificial insemination called The Baster, I groaned. Yep, that's a baster as in a turkey baster. As in something you might jam up your coochie in order to impregnate yourself with the semen of a man (not present).

This image of Aniston and this title wouldn't have worked for a number of reasons:

1) It's just gross, in general;

2) It's gross specifically for Aniston, who is our girl next door -- lovable, sweet, and untainted by turkey basters working overtime;

3) It's sad specifically for Aniston, who has had such trouble finding a man she really likes, and might actually have to resort to the equivalent of jamming a turkey baster up her coochie if she ever wants to have a child;

4) The word "baster" itself is gross -- it shares too many letters in common with "masturbate," and it just feels kind of dirty to say.

So yeah, they were never actually going to use that title. I'm surprised they even show the part in the ad where Juliette Lewis playfully slaps Bateman's face and cheeks with the baster in question.

The second movie I'm going to discuss today is Nanny McPhee & The Big Bang. Haven't heard of Nanny McPhee & The Big Bang? That's because in the United States (and Canada), it's been neutered down to the more generic Nanny McPhee Returns.

And I have to think that has to do either with the stupidity of Americans or the prejudices of Americans.

I don't really know what the second Nanny McPhee movie is about, but I have to assume that its British title illuminates some essential part of the plot. But probably not something so essential that the words The Big Bang can't be excised from the title.

And why on earth would you need/want to do that?

Let's start with the less controversial of the two perspectives:

1) American audiences are dumb. Extra words in titles confuse us. Plus, there's a bit of a disconnect in this particular title. We know the original Nanny McPhee was about a warty and hook-nosed nanny who uses magic to shape up a brood of unruly kids, and that this probably took place sometime in the late 19th century or early 20th century. So what does that have to do with the theory of how the universe began? Either it's way too early (the big bang theory didn't come into existence as such until after World War II) or way too late (the actual big bang is supposed to have occurred "billyuns and billyuns of years ago," to quote Carl Sagan -- about 13.9 billion years ago, to be more precise).

2) American audiences are religious and prejudiced against any modes of thought that go against their religion. Given the great debates that go on this country between teaching evolution and teaching creationism, the distributors of Nanny McPhee & The Big Bang could not be blamed for realizing that their movie title contained a hot-button phrase that was likely to turn away "millyuns and millyuns" of viewers. Religious righters no sooner acknowledge the big bang theory than they acknowledge married gay people or Mexican immigrants. In fact, according to many of them, the earth is literally 6,000 years old. (Wrap your head around that for a moment.) Not wanting to shoot their potential box office in the foot, the distributors gave us the simpler and less controversial Nanny McPhee Returns.

I just recently saw the original Nanny McPhee and absolutely adored it. Early word is that this one is just as good, and that a third movie is already planned. News of the World, a British tabloid, apparently encouraged them to "roll on with Nanny McThree."

And if they can keep that clever title, I'll be really impressed.

Friday, August 20, 2010

How important is going to the theater?

Entertainment Weekly just put out its Fall Movie Preview double issue last Friday. This is the one that always whets my appetite for what is traditionally the strongest season of the year -- for films with aspirations toward actual quality, that is. Most of the Oscar nominees come from the fall season, as well as most of the cool indies from indie directors who have received broad acclaim, but still make cool movies.

And I think this fall will be a good one. Just look at some of the movies we've got in store:

Machete - The expanded version of a funny trailer from Grindhouse, directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis (September 3rd)

Never Let Me Go - That interesting looking trailer you've seen starring Carey Mulligan, which looks halfway between a period piece and science fiction (September 15th)

Easy A - Teen comedic parody (or sorts) of The Scarlet Letter, starring one of my favorite teen actors (Emma Stone) (September 17th)

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps - Oliver Stone's sequel to Wall Street, which should have plenty to say about the new circumstances Wall Street finds itself in (September 24th)

Buried - Ryan Reynolds in a coffin for an entire movie (September 24th)

The Social Network - David Fincher's Facebook movie, starring Jesse Eisenberg (October 1st)

Let Me In - One Hollywood remake I'm looking forward to, of the brilliant Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In, directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) and starring Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass) (October 1st)

And that just takes us through the first release date in October. The movie whose poster is featured above -- Somewhere, directed by Sofia Coppola, whom I love -- is not coming out until December 22nd. And there will be dozens of other interesting movies coming out in between those two dates.

The difference between this fall and the ones that have come before, however, is that this fall, I will have a child. That child is due right around the time Machete comes out. So, I may wait for video on that one.

But waiting for video does not seem like an option with all the movies listed above, let alone all the other great movies that will come out in October, November and December. It's especially difficult because I'll need to see these movies in the theater in order to be able to rank them on my year-end list, which I finalize in late January or early February.

Everyone who's become a new parent, even the hardcore film buffs, will tell you that their theatrical screenings inevitably dwindle a bit after the birth of their child. Of all the lifestyle changes that will accompany becoming a parent, this is the one I fear the most.

But it's not necessarily because I don't think I'll have the time. Both my wife and I will need/seek out breaks from the child, and each of us will certainly be capable of covering for a few hours in the other's absence. In fact, I am sort of looking forward to these periods when I'm the one at home. As long as the baby doesn't immediately need me, I can throw in a quick 90-minute movie without worrying whether it's something my wife wants to see or not.

No, the big problem is that almost everything I want to see is something my wife also wants to see.

Having such movie compatibility is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I always have a movie buddy for almost any movie I want to see, not to mention a person always willing to discuss film in general. On the other hand, with almost every movie I want to see, it makes sense to wait until my wife can also see it. Every time I want to take a solo trip to the movies, I have to make sure it's something suitably crappy -- either that, or my wife just has to give me permission and let that particular title go.

So I imagine there will be a bunch of solo trips to the movies this fall, where we each see the same movie, by ourselves, a week apart. However, I also imagine that I'll be a lot more motivated to make these trips than she'll be. And that a pressure will start to build -- a pressure for me to just wait until we can both watch them on video, together.

This is what I really want to talk about today. Namely, how do you decide which movies you need to see in the theater, and which can wait?

It's pretty obvious that there are certain movies that demand a theatrical viewing. Let's take two examples from the past year: Avatar and Inception. Neither would be quite the same movie viewed at home, right? Even with our increasingly sophisticated home theater setups?

But there's no Avatar or Inception in the movies I've listed above. The fall is generally a time for smaller, more intimate movies, and that describes most of the movies I've listed above. (How much smaller can you get than being confined inside a coffin for 90 minutes?) I certainly don't need to see Buried on the big screen, and it's coming out early enough in the fall that it will probably be available on DVD by the time I finalize my 2010 film rankings.

But that's where the intangibles come in. The window between theatrical release and DVD release becomes smaller all the time, so if you skip a movie in the theater, the gratification does not have to be delayed very long. Yet there are certain movies you feel like you just need to see on the big screen -- partly because you want to remain current in film discussions at parties, partly because you want to help support the kind of risk they're taking by rewarding it at the box office (Buried being one example), partly just because it seems like the right thing to do.

Let's take Somewhere, the movie I am possibly most excited for this fall. It's just a small movie about a movie star (Stephen Dorff) whose partying lifestyle is curbed by the arrival on the scene of his estranged 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning). I love Coppola's Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette -- the way she uses music and composes shots is absolutely dreamy. Yet I have to be honest with myself and acknowledge that I didn't see Marie Antoinette for the first time until DVD. (I have since seen it a second time.) Seeing it on the small screen did not, however, prevent me from becoming passionate about it. My favorite film of 2008 (The Wrestler) was also something I saw for the first time on the small screen (through an awards screener, which is how I saw it in time to count it for my year-end rankings), as was my favorite film of the 2000s -- Donnie Darko.

Yet I feel like if I waited until video for Somewhere, it would be some kind of cosmic insult to the cinematic universe. (Never mind the fact that I wouldn't get to rank it for 2010, since it comes out so late in the year.) It would mean some essential part of the movie fan I am had been broken, betrayed. Some movies need to be seen in the theater just because ... well, because it's how it's supposed to be. Because seeing movies in the theater is our way of differentiating between what we're choosing to see, choosing to call our own, and what we're just passively consuming when it becomes available on DVD, when it doesn't represent such a conscious decision.

So how do you decide which ones you can wait for, and which ones you must see straightaway? Is it just a matter of the way the scope of the film will be enhanced by seeing it on a big screen? Or do you feel the same intangible factors I feel?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fast and loose with the quickie divorces

This is the latest in my Double Jeopardy series, in which I reconsider movies that I may have supported too strongly on my first viewing. This is their "second trial" of sorts. The series runs on Tuesdays.

A couple weeks ago, I hoped to spark a debate by singing the praises of what's widely considered the worst movie (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) by a very popular director (Wes Anderson). Having failed in that regard, I'm going to try the same approach again with Intolerable Cruelty and the Coen brothers -- although this time, my supportive adjectives are far more muted.

But I didn't know that before watching it again last Friday night. Then again, that's exactly why I'm doing this exercise.

When I first watched Intolerable Cruelty, I didn't get what all the negative fuss was about. Yeah, a couple of the courtroom scenes were a little broad, with defendants choking witnesses and judges saying "I'm going to allow it." But some of our favorite Coen films have been filled with such quirky broadness. To name one example I loved, Raising Arizona; to name another example I didn't love but liked okay, O Brother Where Art Thou?

What I saw in Intolerable Cruelty was the modernization of a classic screwball comedy, starring two of the most beautiful people in Hollywood -- timeless movie stars, as such a movie would have starred back in the 1930s and 1940s. The best screwball comedies -- your Bringing Up Babys, your Adam's Ribs -- involved a great battle between the sexes, and you certainly have one here between elegant gold digger Marilyn Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and debonair divorce attorney Miles Massey (George Clooney). (I now see Adam's Rib is classified as a "sophisticated comedy" rather than a screwball comedy on the website I write for, but its battle-of-the-sexes courtroom themes make it a relevant film to discuss here, so "I'm going to allow it.")

And all the quirky Coen touches are there. In one great example of this, you see Clooney's brilliantly white teeth two different times -- at a dentist's office, exposed by implements that have drawn back his lips, and shining through the windshield of his car -- before you ever see the rest of his face. It's a great introduction to a character who obsesses over manipulating appearances (and juries) for the benefit of his clients, and by extension, himself. The film also has a really funny opening scene in which Donovan Donnelly (Geoffrey Rush) walks in on his wife having sex with the pool guy, even though they don't have a pool. It's got that delightful Coen zip, and features both a handgun and a daytime emmy award used as weapons, with the latter's pointy tip getting stabbed in Donovan's buttock.

(Donovan Donnelly is also the name my friends gave their son who was born two weeks ago -- when I heard the name, which I already considered memorably alliterative, appear in this movie, I immediately notified them via email and Facebook. Their failure to respond suggests that they didn't find this as funny/interesting as I did -- maybe they are already taking flak for the name.)

What follows is a pretty clever story that involves an escalating game of legal one-upsmanship between Marilyn and Miles -- who can bend this letter of the law to circumvent that prenuptial agreement, and so forth. On the most basic level, it's a clever story with clever players moving their chess pieces, thinking several moves ahead and surprising us with their ability to manipulate each other. This is what I took from the movie the first time.

The second time, I decided that the delectable details of the story were convenient from a narrative perspective but extremely suspect from a legal perspective. When you break it down to its basics, the world of Intolerable Cruelty is one in which the primary factor in divorce settlements is how cleverly one party tricked the other into marrying him/her.

It doesn't start out that way. Miles and Marilyn cross paths because Marilyn has caught (on video) her husband of five years, Rex Rexroth (Edward Hermann -- and my how the Coens love their funny names), cheating on her. She "nailed his ass," as she likes to say -- and as the private eye who videos her philandering husband (Cedric the Entertainer) repeats as he's filming. We find out it's a premeditated ploy to take half of his assets, and it certainly sounds legitimately earned in terms of appearances -- Marilyn invested five years in the marriage just for this payday.

But then the movie shifts gears in the interest of having its plot points play out (mostly) in the present tense. See, you lose momentum in a film if you have to have everything occur at five-year intervals.

(Spoilers ahead, for the rest of the piece!)

So before the ink is even dry on her first divorce -- which Miles spoils for her through good legal detective work -- she's introducing Miles to a Texas oil tycoon she's going to marry, Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton), and insisting on a prenuptial agreement as a way of showing him how much she's marrying for love. This is, of course, a ploy designed to make Doyle think it's his own idea to tear up the prenup. Barely a week later, it seems, their own wedding is getting thrown, followed promptly by Marilyn filing for another divorce.

This turns out not to be exactly what it seems, either, but the problematic idea here is that Marilyn only needs Howard to sign on the dotted line, then she immediately has him over a barrel. Clearly, if a woman married a Texas oil tycoon, then filed for divorce only a couple months later, nearly any jury out there would recognize this as a transparent case of gold digging, and would not find in her favor. Yet the movie treats these realistic obstacles as though they did not exist. Merely entering into the contract of marriage means she can exit it at her leisure, with as much of her ex-husband's assets as she pleases.

We later find out that Billy Bob's character was just a soap opera actor hired to play an oil tycoon, and that Marilyn was never actually married to him. (Or if so, it was just a business relationship and was immediately annulled.) It turns out the entire wedding was a sham to make Miles think that Marilyn has become rich -- so when Miles, who has fallen for Marilyn, gets the idea to marry her, it's again she who is being magnanimous when she tears up the prenup. See, she's the richer party -- or so he thinks. But since she actually isn't rich, she can take half of Miles' money when they divorce. Not only is this an attempt to fulfill her original gold-digging aspirations that Miles foiled, but it's also revenge against Miles for foiling those aspirations. Two birds with one stone.

Again, though, this is highly problematic. Even if a jury wouldn't have sided for Marilyn in her theoretical case against the oil tycoon, the movie tells us that Miles believes the jury would have. And that, just six months later, she could already be swimming in Doyle's wealth. The movie is founded on the idea that Miles is extremely smart and legally savvy, so how could he think both a) that Marilyn already won a huge settlement from Doyle, and b) that she would enter into a hasty Vegas marriage with him, without having other tricks up her sleeve? You're supposed to believe that she's so beautiful and entrancing that Miles has lost his legal bearings, but I'm not really buying it.

But then, even this shouldn't matter, because Marilyn shouldn't have any right to half of Miles' fortunes just a single day after marrying him. No matter what her attorney might tell a jury to paint Miles in a negative light, a single day of marriage wouldn't warrant that kind of settlement, especially in light of the previous revelations about Marilyn's motivations for marrying her first husband -- i.e. gold-digging, pure and simple.

Yet the marriage contract is considered such an iron-clad agreement that it leads to the movie's most misguided passage, in which Miles hires someone to kill Marilyn, who then tries to turn the assassin back on Miles. This is dark quirky Coens rather than light quirky Coens. But this movie should be light quirky Coens all the way through.

I get that you aren't supposed to take a screwball comedy very literally -- there's a winking understanding, I'm sure, that a lot of this stuff exists for the purposes of plot mechanics, and doesn't hold up to the slightest scrutiny, legal or otherwise. And you probably aren't even supposed to take Miles' and Marilyn's attempts to kill each other very seriously.

But let's just say that I saw other people's concerns about Intolerable Cruelty a lot better the second time around.

Double Jeopardy Verdict, Intolerable Cruelty: Still tolerable, but a lot more narrative cruelty than I'd remembered. Appropriate that the initial verdict should have been at least partially overturned in a movie about legal wranglings, eh?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Even the couches couldn't save it

One of the reasons my wife and I love going to the Landmark on Pico is that occasionally, you get one of the couch theaters. That's right, of the approximately 12 screening rooms, two of them are equipped with couches. These screening rooms seat about 25-30 people total, in couches that accommodate anywhere from one to three people. Whether or not you can rightly call it a couch when it seats only one person, the single-person "couches" have the same leather-cushion stylings that make it a more comfortable viewing experience than we're usually used to, so the term seems to fit. (Oh, and the seats are assigned, which prevents someone from getting there early and stretching his/her entire body across a three-seat couch.)

We never specifically plan to see a movie just because it'll be in a couch theater. On the times that we've actually tried to do that -- "Let's go see a movie in the couch theater tonight" -- it's either something we've already seen, or something we don't want to see. After all, for them to screen a movie where the maximum possible seating per screening is 30 people, the movie either has to be fringe to begin with, or on its way out after running for several weeks. So the times we've ended up in a couch theater have always happened by surprise.

In fact, the very first time we went to this theater, right after it had been renovated, was to see Timur Bekmambetov's Day Watch, the sequel to Night Watch, in the summer of 2007. Already in love with the beautiful renovations to the lobby/snack bar/etc., we experienced the coup de grace upon walking into the theater and seeing a cozy room full of couches. We were disappointed with the movie, but enthralled by the viewing experience. I saw Once in such a couch theater about six weeks later. It was one of my favorite films of the year, and the couches made it even better.

Then it took more than two years for me to return. Somehow, the movies just never lined up correctly. Our triumphant return to the couch theater was last November, when we saw The Men Who Stare at Goats. Loved that movie, loved that viewing experience as well.

And so it was with some amount of excitement that we realized our 2:20 showing of Dinner for Schmucks yesterday afternoon would be in one of these screening rooms. The movie had been out for two weeks and its viewership was certainly on the wane, so the couch theater was an appropriate home for it.

But never before have those couches felt so uncomfortable.

Simply put, we should have trusted our initial instincts about the movie. When I heard that a remake of Francis Veber's The Dinner Game was coming out this summer as a vehicle for Steve Carell, I was instantly turned off by the idea. It wasn't because I was protecting the integrity of the original -- my wife and I saw it and liked it, but it's one of those movies I remember almost nothing about. No, it's because I've been down on Steve Carell for quite awhile now. I skipped his first two movies of the year (Date Night and Despicable Me) in part because he was in them, though I hear each movie has its merits.

But then the trailers changed both of our minds, and Dinner for Schmucks quickly became a priority. We almost saw it on opening weekend, and then had a busy weekend last weekend with our baby shower. So we scheduled it for our next available opening, yesterday. Which could be, depending on a variety of factors, our last theatrical screening together before our first child is born. At which point, everything changes, and a movie night will become a real rarity indeed, involving a babysitter, and possibly leaving your phone on vibrate in case something goes wrong. (The baby's due date is September 5th, but we are kind of expecting it will come before the end of August.)

Well, suffice it to say that the movie is all over the map. Its most obviously problem is structural. They don't even get to the titular dinner until the third act. Before that, it's a bunch of silly set pieces that involve a bunch of Three's Company-style misunderstandings involving Paul Rudd's character, his girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak), his stalker (Lucy Punch), and the artist whose show his girlfriend is curating (Jemaine Clement). Carell's character is the special ingredient that causes each incident to be misconstrued. Let me just say that it's exhausting spending more than an hour waiting for this dinner to arrive, and having to endure the branching off of numerous subplots -- Carell's character also has an ex-wife he's pining after and a rivalry with an IRS agent played by the newly overexposed Zach Galifianakis, who has the power of mind control. The dinner only arrives after the end-of-the-second-act crises, at which point, you've had it up to here.

Oh, and did I mention that it's really not very funny? I only chuckled a few times, and they were mostly in the promising first 15 minutes.

There were two good things about the movie: 1) Jemaine Clement. His out-there artist, who produces these gothic paintings of himself in which he wears antlers and hooves, is consistently a hoot. You wish he had been part of a better movie. 2) Carell's much-heralded "mouseterpieces." They deserve to be heralded, but they also point at one of the reasons this is a dumb movie. The thing that's supposed to be ridiculous about Carell's character is that he makes these dioramas featuring stuffed mice, posing in famous paintings or other scenes out of his imagination. The thing is, they're really good -- most people would be proud to have the talent Carell's character has. But the dead mice playing dress-up are supposed to be the main source of mockery and derision surrounding him.

So as I was watching, and as the movie was sinking down into the mire of irredeemability, I found myself shifting my position dozens of times -- I couldn't get comfortable in the most comfortable seating accommodations you can find. Which goes to show you that comfort is truly a matter of perspective. If you're watching a great film, you can sit in a hard wooden seat with nails poking out of it, and not notice.

If you're watching Dinner for Schmucks, even the world's most comfortable barcalounger would feel like a torture device.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


I went from February until July without writing about Flickchart on my blog -- and now I'm doing it for the third time in the space of two weeks. Sometimes things just go that way.

And because I know the Flickchart creators sometimes look in on my blog, I want to start by telling them that I don't blame the site itself in the least for the following story -- I blame my computer, pure and simple.

Okay, so I'm very anal about making sure all my Flickchart duels have the correct winner. If you choose poorly or hastily between the two choices in front of you, the site has a handy-dandy Undo button, which I have availed myself of on numerous occasions. I don't want to let a single poor decision creep through and muck up my whole list.

Yesterday, my computer acted up in a way that took the ability to go back and correct right out of my hands.

I'd just gotten home from work and hauled my computer onto my lap for a couple minutes of random dueling. I love these little Flickchart breaks, which are usually finite in duration according to little parameters I put in place. I'll say "I'll duel until I get one lower film to beat a higher film," or, "I'll duel until I get one duel featuring one of my top 20 movies." Because I've done over 83,000 duels, either of these can take a little while -- anywhere from one to five minutes. And then I'll go do something else.

But because of some state the computer was in, where the inner circuits were telling it that the mouse click mechanism was depressed, or because of some way my palm was brushing over the mouse pad in between my two thumbs, I suddenly made a flurry of unknown duel choices. The posters rapidly changed, and I noticed that results were being recorded -- this film held its position, that film jumped forward 700 spots. I was aghast by the 700-spot jump, but it wasn't the end of the world -- it was the original Friday the 13th jumping from a spot that was probably too low (in the 2700s, out of 2950) to a spot that was slightly too high (in the early 2100s). Because Flickchart sometimes freaks out a little bit in situations like this, where a flurry of unexpected stimuli registers actions on the site, the Undo button was not available as an option. But having Friday the 13th ranked in this position didn't seem fatal to the integrity of the list.

I thought I was past this temporary trauma, but then it happened again, this time faster and with more dire results.

The little flurry ended with Inside Man jumping 800 spots, from around 1000 to #220. Looking at my live list of rankings just now, that means it beat Total Recall. Sure, there are plenty of people who might rank Inside Man above Total Recall, but I am not one of them. However, again I decided I could live with it. Inside Man would eventually make its way back to the appropriate spot through the random dueling process. I could live with it being ranked higher for six months or a year before finding its rightful place again. But just to make sure there was not a third session of random ranking, I closed my web browser and reopened it.

There were no recurrences of the problem, but it was only a few minutes later that I discovered one of the consequences of this uncontrolled period of blind ranking.

I got a duel between The Story of Us and Mission: Impossible III, and I gave the win to The Story of Us. You can imagine my surprise when Flickchart proceeded to jump The Story of Us from #1300-something in the standings ... all the way up to #25.

This is when I slapped my forehead and knew that my Flickchart rankings had been irrevocably tainted.

What apparently happened was that Mission: Impossible III had won a blind duel that had jumped it all the way up to #25. So when The Story of Us beat it, it assumed the #25 spot, pushing the Cruise flick down to #26. Consulting my rankings again, it appears that M:I III had won a blind duel against ... wait for it ... Fargo. The horror.

I sat for a moment and wondered what I would do. I actually like The Story of Us quite a bit -- it's a candidate to be reconsidered in my Double Jeopardy feature that runs on Tuesdays, since most people (those who have seen it, anyway) do not share my high opinion of it. But #25? I couldn't handle it. I could see it belonging around 800, but no higher than that.

And it wasn't just one interloper, but two. The fault really lay with the elevated ranking for Mission Impossible, but the problem had already started to multiply. Now, in order to force those two movies downward to their correct spots, I would need other films to beat them -- which shouldn't be a problem. But then I'd have to deal with the separate problem of those films being ranked too highly. Before long, my top 100 films would become unrecongizable.

I realized there was only one thing I could do: I had to remove the offending films and start ranking them again from scratch.

For an ordinary Flickcharter, this might not be such a big deal. But for an anal retentive bastard like me, I felt the pain. You see, Flickchart keeps a stats page of how your films have performed over time -- how many times you've ranked each film, and what percentage of duels it's won. An anal retentive bastard like me believes that those stats have some kind of intrinsic value -- they mean something in the imaginary "record books" that no one but me (and others like me) probably cares about. So my pain wasn't so much a result of the fact that I'd have to begin the process anew of getting these movies to their appropriate spots in the rankings, but that I'd be wiping out this history -- this history that means something intangible yet powerful to me.

But I had to do it.

I first went to the page for The Story of Us. I'd ranked it 56 times and it had won 59% of its duels. I clicked Remove From My Flickchart. I clicked Add to My Flickchart. When you add a new movie, it subjects it to three random duels to get an initial ranking. It won two of those duels. Its new stats? Three times dueled, 66.67% won.

It was harder when I moved on to the next two. Both Mission: Impossible III and Inside Man were part of the initial 300-400 movies they give you automatically when you first join Flickchart, movies that are considered the most popular. (They do this so that new Flickcharters aren't immediately confronted with My Dinner With Andre and The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain.) So these two movies had been dueled a lot more -- as it happened, 99 times each. Oy. Pretty soon, they too were back down to three duels apiece. And the integrity of my list had been restored.

Oh, I decided to just leave Friday the 13th where it was.

All in all, not a big deal. So why am I writing about it today? In fact, why am I writing so many words about it that the sensible ones among you have already stopped reading?

Well, it's just another insight into the passion I feel both for movies and for lists. And now you get why I have such passion for Flickchart, 'cause it's got both. If you haven't started yet, what are you waiting for?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Demographics for dummies

The usual goal, with any film that gets released, is to reach as many different types of viewer as possible. That's the way you make the most money. And that's also why you sometimes see several different TV campaigns that are distinctly different in tone -- one that might push the romantic side of a movie, one that might emphasize its funny parts, one that might make it look like a thriller. It's all just a matter of cleverly editing the available footage.

Considering this, can you remember a weekend that was more packed with new releases that didn't give a damn about appealing to anyone outside their target demographic?

The three major new releases this week -- Eat Pray Love, The Expendables, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World -- are each basically the prototypical example of the type of movie they are. Eat Pray Love -- adapted from a self-help book, starring Julia Roberts, and featuring dozens of exotic locations -- is squarely aimed at women age 18 to 49. The Expendables -- a testosterone-laden gathering of everyone who's ever starred in an action movie since 1984, and directed by the king of that group, Sylvester Stallone -- is intended purely for the men in that same age range. And Scott Pilgrim vs. the World -- starring teen icon Michael Cera and based on a graphic novel -- is for everyone under 18, of both genders.

So, pretty much everyone will have something to see this weekend. Those over 49 will probably go see Eat Pray Love. Which I'm predicting will be the weekend's box office winner. Hey, it's Julia, after all.

However, it will be interesting to monitor the performances of the other two, as they are each something of a test of the viability of a certain type of movie.

The Expendables is the one I'm most interested in -- not in terms of wanting to see it the most, but in terms of how it will fly with audiences. As I wrote last year when 12 Rounds came out (check out the post here), the "action hero" as such is something that doesn't really exist anymore, like he did in the 1980s -- except in this movie. In fact, this movie is giving some seriously out-of-work actors (Dolph Lundgren, anyone?) another chance at glory -- which may be either a brilliant move or an extremely stupid one. There's a reason guys like Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal don't appear in movies you've ever heard of anymore -- the audience simply stopped wanting to see them. At least Stallone didn't go that far down the list to Van Damme and Seagal, and smartly hedged his bets with some guys who have current box office appeal, such as Mickey Rourke, Jason Statham and Jet Li. But even Stallone himself is a total relic these days -- the man is 64 years old -- so it will be really interesting to see if audiences buy a movie in which he is basically the star, and basically playing the 1982 version of himself.

As for Scott Pilgrim, that's the one of these three that I would probably see, but only because I'm still trying to hang on to that 18-year-old version of myself. Actually, I know it could be really good, but I also have my doubts, in part because of my well-documented case of being over Michael Cera. (There's something about the earnest way he's rocking out on the guitar in this poster that just rubs me the wrong way.) But I did discuss the possibility of seeing it a couple weeks ago with a friend, so that may transpire. In terms of being an observer of the film industry, I'm interested to see just how much box office clout Cera actually has. His roles have been steadily increasing in profile in recent years, as he's been breaking out of ensembles and starting to really carry movies himself. This is the first summer release he's had since last year's Year One, in which Jack Black did at least as much if not more of the heavy lifting in terms of trying to bring in audiences. This time out, he has no co-headliner, so it will really serve as some kind of gauge of Cera's ability to sink or swim. Let's hope having Edgar Wright as director can only help.

Eat Pray Love? I will see it on an airplane sometime.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Multiple reincarnations

The truly iconic characters in our collective cultural history have a way of continuing to pop up over and over again. You can't keep them down. We seem to have an insatiable appetite to revisit them every couple years, to look at them in a new way.

Superman. Robin Hood. James Bond.

La Femme Nikita?

Sure seems like that. The character created by Luc Besson for his 1990 film La Femme Nikita -- a junkie convict made over as an elegant government assassin -- is about to get reincarnated for the third time. Those four incarnations include twice at the movies, and now, with this fall's Nikita set to premiere September 9th on the CW, twice on TV.

The arresting billboards of Maggie Q in a slinky red dress (not pictured), lying on her left side next to a sniper's rifle that runs almost the length of her body, have started to multiply in the last week or two, and they've certainly caught my attention. At first I thought "That's a smart idea, to make a weekly hour-long drama based on La Femme Nikita." And then I thought, "Wait, they've already made a weekly hour-long drama based on La Femme Nikita."

Who would have guessed that this Nikita character had such ongoing perceived relevance in the zeitgeist?

She first appeared, of course, in Nikita (released in the U.S. as La Femme Nikita, and most commonly known that way), the film that put Luc Besson on the map. Anne Parillaud originated the character, and French treasure Tcheky Karyo co-starred as her handler. The film was an international hit, and though it was not Besson's first feature, it definitely seems like a key to the direction his career took after that. Besson went on to make several prominent films with tough female characters, such as Leon (a.k.a. The Professional), The Fifth Element and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.

Even back then, it was perhaps inevitable that La Femme Nikita would get remade in Hollywood. That remake materialized in 1993 and starred Bridget Fonda, dropping the word "Nikita" from the marketing in favor of the highly generic title Point of No Return. Opposite Fonda was Gabriel Byrne. Simply put, I hated this film. I'll never sit through it again to rediscover what I found so objectionable about it, but let's just say the hatred was palpable. In fact, it's the only review I've ever written for my website that they've taken down and not replaced with another writer's work. I never found out why this happened, preferring to chalk it up to an anomaly, but I suspect that the extreme vitriol in my review had something to do with it.

Nikita was back for a third round in the form of her first television incarnation, which restored the original French title -- or, I should say, the American adjustment of the original French title -- in 1997. La Femme Nikita starred Peta Wilson, with Roy Dupuis stepping into the handler role. It's hard to believe, but this show ran on USA Network for parts of five seasons -- this was back when fringe networks could stick with their programming forever because they had so few viewers, relative to the other networks. I only saw one part of one episode, but it was enough to solidify in my mind the idea that Wilson was smoking hot.

The 2010 version of La Femme Nikita, called just Nikita, makes the character a non-white for the first time -- or not totally white, anyway. (Maggie Q was born in Hawaii to a father of Polish, French Canadian and Irish descent, and a mother of Vietnamese descent.) I guess that's a good sign of our ethnically diverse times. As another sign of our times, it's chronologically separate enough from the first three incarnations -- which were all more or less in the 1990s (Wilson's show went off the air in 2001) -- that it qualifies as sort of a reboot. It would appear that she'll have her most youthful mentor yet in the form of Shane West, who is only 32. Gotta get those kids interested.

As I said earlier, I'm captivated by the posters -- they tap into some deep-seated idea of our primal notions of sex and death. But will I watch the show? Heck no.

The big difference between now and 20 years ago was that the idea that chicks can kick ass was actually something of a new notion in 1990. Yeah, there had been Wonder Woman and Charlie's Angels and a couple other instances of women in pop culture beating the crap out of people (or aliens, thanks to Sigourney Weaver), but many of those instances were steeped in camp.

Now? We see a chick who can kick ass every five minutes in the movies or on TV. And while I think that's an excellent step forward in feminism, I also think it's a little boring -- especially because they're still presenting it as though it's a highly fascinating, highly clever "twist" on a male-dominated paradigm.

Need some examples? How much time have you got?

Let's see, in no particular order ... there was Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman in Batman Returns, Halle Berry's Catwoman in Catwoman, Jennifer Garner's Sydney Bristow on Alias, Carrie Anne Moss' Trinity in the Matrix movies, Angelina Jolie's Lara Craft in the Tomb Raider movies, Charlize Theron's Aeon Flux in Aeon Flux, Kate Beckinsale's Selene in the Underworld movies, Milla Jovovich's Alice in the Resident Evil movies (and one more still to come), Michelle Ryan's Jaime Sommers on The Bionic Woman, Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Lena Headey's Sarah Connor on The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Yvonne Starhovski's Sarah Walker on Chuck, Sarah Michelle Gellar's Buffy on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jennifer Garner again as Elektra in Daredevil and Elektra, Milla Jovovich again as Violet in Ultraviolet, Angelina Jolie again as Mrs. Smith in Mr. & Mrs. Smith (and as Evelyn Salt in Salt, and as Fox in Wanted), Halle Berry again as Storm in the X-Men movies, Jessica Alba as Sue Storm (slight difference) in The Fantastic Four movies, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in Iron Man 2, Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre II in Watchmen, Uma Thurman as The Bride in the Kill Bill movies, the trio of women in the two Charlie's Angels movies, Jessica Biel as Abigail Whistler in Blade: Trinity, Chloe Grace Moretz as Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass, Sigourney Weaver twice more as Ripley in two more Alien sequels, the heroines of the three Besson movies mentioned above, and eventually, a long-awaited big screen version of Wonder Woman, starring TBA. (I could go on, but when I asked how much time you had, I should have mentioned that my time is finite as well.)

Like I said, I'm all for the gender equality. But what it means is that just trying to hook us with the idea of a female assassin isn't really going to get you anywhere in 2010 ... even one as sultry looking as Maggie Q looks in the promotions.

But should they try? Sure, why not? We all know how far name recognition gets you. I just find it interesting to realize that "Nikita" is now a name that has such recognition. She's not Cinderella, nor Cleopatra, nor Snow White, nor Rapunzel, nor Joan of Arc, nor some other famous female in either the non-fiction or fiction universe, who has been familiar to us for centuries. She's an anarchy-loving punk in a modest little French film, who got arrested for shooting a cop in the face, then was made over into a sophisticated woman and lethal weapon. And she's now in her fourth pop culture incarnation.

More power to her.