Tuesday, November 30, 2010

One of those weird coincidences

Yesterday morning, I wrote my Sunday morning post over a cup of coffee, around 9:30 a.m. It was about winning a bunch of not-so-great movies in a poker game on Friday night, and I'd chosen Dracula: Dead and Loving It as the poster art to accompany the post. In other words, a movie in which Leslie Nielsen plays a vampire, a dead man who is loving life as a dead man.

Just a couple hours later, Leslie Nielsen was a dead man.

In fact, all I know is that one of Nielsen's relatives announced it on a Florida radio station at 5:30 p.m. local time. He could have been dying at any point in the hours preceding that, perhaps even as I was writing my post. He didn't die from a pair of sharp incisors to the neck, but from pneumonia. He was 84.

I'd like to think that the first event didn't have anything to do with the second.

But what a weird coincidence, right? Anyone who glanced at my blog last night would have thought a poster of one of Nielsen's lesser movies (I won't say "worst" because I haven't seen it yet, and because there would be many contenders for that dishonor) was what I'd chosen to eulogize him. They might have been confused by the title "Poker haul," but if they hadn't read any further, they would have assumed it was one of the many Nielsen remembrances that have been appearing on the film blogosphere. This piece being one of them, I guess.

Nope. Just a random decision to choose a 15-year-old movie in which Nielsen is dead -- probably the only movie where he's ever died or been dead, at least after Airplane! turned him into a full-time comedic actor -- as the art to accompany my post. I mean, it wasn't completely random -- the movie came up in the poker game, and that was really the random part, considering how soon he was going to die. But it was random for me to choose that poster out of the 11 movies I came home with that night. It was the first one that landed in the pot during poker, which is why I chose it, but I did think for a moment how American Pie Presents Band Camp or Killer Klowns from Out of Space would have been a more perfect example of the kitsch on display.

Well, it is indeed a sad morning, as Nielsen was one of our great deadpan comics. I'm not going to remember him in the form of listing his top five performances, because probably at least four of those were in Airplane! or Naked Gun movies. Actually, now that I look, he wasn't in Airplane II -- which could be one of the chief reasons we consider it inferior to the original. The truth is, Nielsen was a guy who appeared in a couple great parodies and then about 20 that ranged from mildly amusing to truly awful. He's considered one of our great comedic talents because he was so great in Airplane! and the original Naked Gun, not because he had a particularly brilliant comedy career in total. Most of the time, it was the scripts who let Nielsen down, not Nielsen who let us down.

So instead of writing some kind of cliched remembrance that you can read numerous other places, I'll instead commit to watching Dracula: Dead and Loving It as soon as I can. I'm sure it won't be great, but I'm sure it will make me smile a couple times.

After all, Leslie Nielsen was pretty damn good at making us smile.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Poker haul

I was at a friend's house on Friday night for a poker game. He's been hosting Friday night poker games about once a month since the first one in July. For the purposes of this post, we'll call him "the host."

Even though it was Thanksgiving, the host decided to have a poker game this past Friday because another friend of ours, who used to live here, was in town from Seattle. Only one from the normal poker group had been out of town for Thanksgiving, and the rest were able to make it, plus two others, including the visitor. So we had seven, and it was a fun night. I won $8, but it would have been more like $25 if I'd quit at my peak.

But it's not my financial winnings I'm here to talk about today. In fact, it was at the point that the host started throwing a DVD on the pot at the beginning of each new hand that things really got interesting.

And funny as hell. See, these were not DVDs anyone really wanted. We wanted to win them, because it would be funny later on to tell someone you won _________ in a poker game. But actually wanting to watch them? That was a different story.

The fun started when the host appeared with a perfectly random example of the type of perfectly awful movie someone would throw onto the pot to increase its value by exactly nothing: Mel Brooks' Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Can't remember how the host said he came to own Dracula: Dead and Loving It, but it was still in its packaging. I haven't seen the movie, but it came up recently in conversation and I knew it was something I was probably going to see eventually. Plus, it had a perfect kind of kitschiness to it. So I angled hard for it, but I just didn't have the cards.

Next up was Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. This I've seen, and I actually have limited affection for it. It too had just the right tawdry kitschiness to show up in this environment, as an extension of the host's sense of humor. It too went to someone else.

Then it was time for what seemed like the ironic prize of the evening, at least so far: American Pie Presents Band Camp. Much laughter was had by all, and the deliciously ridiculous synopsis was read off the back of the DVD package. I think this was before there started to be one American Pie straight-to-DVD sequel per year, and I thought it would be funny as hell to win it. But I didn't.

When the fourth movie came up, I finally had the cards. I don't remember what my winning hand was, but I do remember the movie, in all its schlocky glory: Michael Bay's Bad Boys II. I've seen Bad Boys II -- it's one of a handful of sequels I've seen without having seen the original. (I don't think I was confused, ha ha.) But as I was holding it in my hand, still dizzy from the thrill of victory, I looked at the cover and thought "My God, I never want to see this movie again. In fact, I don't even want it as part of my collection." I tried to trade it for Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, but that guy was having none of it.

The fifth and final movie thrown into the pot was perhaps the campiest of all: Killer Klowns from Outer Space. I have not seen it and I did not win it.

But I did come home with it. Because as the game finished up, it became clear that almost no one wanted the booby prizes they'd won over the course of the evening. And so it was that Dracula: Dead and Loving It, American Pie Presents Band Camp and Killer Klowns from Outer Space found their way over to my collection of DVDs, now a pile alongside my piles of chips. The guy who'd won Charlie's Angels wanted to hold onto it I guess.

But that was just the start of my pile. Because then the host came in with another armful of DVDs, this one mostly screeners he'd gotten and watched, or gotten and decided he was never going to watch. Looking for a good opportunity to pare down his excess collection, I guess. And as he started going through them, there was almost nothing I wouldn't take. I say "almost nothing" -- I did reject a few of them. But here are the ones I didn't reject:

Antwone Fisher - Haven't seen it, but liked the other movie Denzel Washington directed, The Great Debaters.

Little Miss Sunshine - Like it but don't love it, and will probably watch it again eventually.

In Good Company - Again, like it but don't love it. Funny, I actually watched this same screener with the host a couple years ago -- it's how I saw the movie the first time.

Seabiscuit - Really liked it at the time, worth an additional viewing I'm sure.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico - Have not seen it, heard it's not very good.

The Manchurian Candidate - Jonathan Demme's remake. Actually liked it pretty well and will probably watch it again, now that I own it.

Notes on a Scandal - Liked it a lot, probably wouldn't have felt the desire to watch it again, but probably will now.

And so it was that my DVD collection increased by 11 movies on Friday night ... maybe three of which I'm actually proud of owning.

But I missed out on some of the best DVDs of the evening, precisely because I was taking all the crap. The guy who held onto his copy of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (I'm saying that as though he's a bad person) got the copy of Minority Report -- having just taken about six DVDs in a row, I didn't think I had the right to assert my interest in it. There was another one that fell into this category, but I don't remember what it was. Then after we'd already moved to the other room, the host came out with Inception, which he'd already received as an early screener this year, though it was vacuum-sealed just like a store-bought copy. Another guy got this one, but almost felt guilty about it, and when I teased him by asking if I could take it, he almost gave it to me. I do actually want to see Inception again, but I wasn't going to deny this guy his one piddly DVD, especially since he hadn't won a single hand of poker all evening.

The biggest prize of the evening, however, is something I'll have to wait for. The host has also already received his screener copy of Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, which doesn't hit theaters until just before Christmas. My eyes really grew big when I saw that one -- it's a movie I'm definitely planning to see in the theater. But his fiancee and he haven't watched it yet, so we will have to bide our time. I love Sofia Coppola's work, so maybe I owe her a theatrical viewing anyway. But it would be fun for my wife and I to watch this together, so the ease of borrowing the screener may win out.

And until I get my hands on it, I've got Dracula, Killer Klowns and horny teenage campers to tide me over.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Documentaries are not entertaining

For years now I've been limited by the maximum three movies at a time you can rent from the library. It's not that I really think I need to watch more than three movies from this one source in the two days you're allowed to have them out, or three or four days if you time it out correctly over a weekend. It's that I have trouble making up my mind. In fact, I'll go through alphabetically, picking up movies as they catch my fancy, and will be struggling to hold them all by the time I start to pick up speed around R or S. In fact, every once in awhile a fellow patron will inform me that I can only take out three, and I'll explain that I pare it down to three after the initial dozen I've chosen as contenders.

Well, I just learned that three is not actually the limit. It's the limit for feature films, but not for documentaries.

Or, as the librarian put it, for "entertainment films" but not for documentaries.

Here's what happened on Tuesday night as I was stocking up to get me through to Saturday (the library being closed on both Thursday and Friday). I came up to the checkout counter with a sort of random selection: Donnie Brasco (which I'd already seen), Lost in Space (which I only vaguely sort of wanted to see, and picked up for the purposes of light escapism) and Angels and Demons (which I didn't want to see that much, but which I thought might interest my wife).

As the librarian was scanning the bar codes on my selections, I noticed the documentary Koyaanisqatsi sitting on the counter next to her, recently returned but not yet shelved. It had been on my radar and I'd been wanting to see it. "Can I take this out instead of one of these others?" I asked.

"You can take it out in addition to the others," she responded.

It was then I discovered that the library observes a distinction between fiction films and documentaries. But "fiction films" was not how she described them. She said I could take out up to three "entertainment films" and up to three documentaries.

It may not be worth making this the basis for an entire post, but I chuckled to myself over the implication that documentaries were not "entertainment" -- in fact, that they were diametrically opposed to being entertainment. Surely it was just a slip of the tongue and she really meant fiction films or feature films. Then again, those categories are kind of inexact as well. A "fiction film" can be about a non-fiction event, and a "feature film" can sometimes refer to documentaries -- a "documentary feature" (as opposed to a short subject).


So Koyaanisqatsi was pretty cool. If you're not familiar with it, it's the 1982 film that juxtaposes images of the purity of nature with images of the busy-ness of modern society and technology, and is actually sometimes known as Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. New age musician Philip Glass composed the sometimes haunting, sometimes playful score. There's no narrative, per se, but it's certainly nice to look at, all the time-lapse photography utilized perfectly to make meandering clouds and busy freeways seem downright mesmerizing. And the message is not super in-your-face -- there's an implication that man's influence on the planet has been negative, but it's never spelled out in so many words. It was an interesting decision on my part to start watching it at nearly 1 a.m. last night, and it took a Monster energy drink, two candy bars and some ice cream to get me through. But at least I finished it at night -- it's one of those movies that's cooler if you see it in the middle of the night than the next morning, frantically before you have to return it to the library.

So I'll know in the future to throw in at least one doco every time I'm planning to rent some fiction films. If I'm lucky, I will even be entertained by it.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Jake Gyllenhaal finally does a romantic comedy

Jake Gyllenhaal has made exactly 20 feature films. It feels like more than that, doesn't it?

And because this is his 20th film, I thought it was appropriate that we pause to celebrate this milestone on The Audient. Okay, that's not what I thought -- it was just a happy accident that I wanted to write about his 20th movie today, and that it happened to be his 20th.

When I saw the trailers for Love & Other Drugs, something struck me as odd. It wasn't quite the Gyllenhaal I recognized. Whoever this guy was, he was being playful and flirty, maybe engaging in a pratfall or two. There was cheery music playing. The voiceover guy sounded like he'd just popped some happy medicine, speaking of drugs.

Was Jake Gyllenhaal doing a romantic comedy?

Yes, it appeared that he was. I mean, that he is.

At that moment it struck me just how incongruous this seemed. Up until now in his career, the man has gone from one serious role to the next. There are some movies in which he doesn't crack a single smile the whole time.

Yet I'm sure he's been offered a ton of romantic comedy scripts. He's got matinee idol looks. He's still young, only just ready to turn 30 next month. And from the few times we've seen him be playful, we know he can do it.

It's just that until now, he's been holding out, presumably for artistic reasons. It seems to me that Jake Gyllenhaal doesn't find much value in romantic comedies, at least in terms of him appearing in them.

I suppose if you compared him to some other guys his age, he doesn't seem so unique. For example, the guy he gets compared to most -- Tobey Maguire -- hasn't done a romantic comedy either, to my knowledge. But at least those Spiderman movies had their share of whimsy. Even Heath Ledger, Gyllenhaal's co-star in Brokeback Mountain, who was considered a deathly (bad choice of words) serious actor in his own right, had at least two films that could loosely be characterized as romantic comedies: 10 Things I Hate About You and Casanova.

Let's take a brief look at the roles Gyllenhaal has played, listed chronologically:

1) City Slickers (1991, Ron Underwood). Who knew? He played Billy Crystal's son -- will have to go back and watch that. But even if we could count that, it would be a buddy comedy, not a romantic comedy.

2) A Dangerous Woman (1993, Stephen Gyllenhaal). Presumably a drama in which Debra Winger plays a mentally slow woman accused of theft. Appeared as a kid again, this time alongside sister Maggie, directed by father Stephen. Yep, it was a family affair.

3) Josh and S.A.M. (1993, Billy Weber). Can't find very much information about this, but it seems to be a coming-of-age drama in which he plays a side character. He's still only 13 at this point, not yet at "leading man" status.

4) Homegrown (1998, Stephen Gyllenhaal). Jump forward five years and Gyllenhaal has a tiny role in a forgettable stoner comedy-thriller -- so tiny, in fact, that he does not even appear on the first cast page on IMDB. Father Stephen directs again.

5) October Sky (1999, Joe Johnston). Okay, now we're finally getting to his real career. This is an inspirational movie (though not a very good one) about a coal miner's kid who wants to be an astronaut. It's probably how most of us know Gyllenhaal. Not deathly serious but certainly not a comedy.

6) Bubble Boy (2001, Blair Hayes). The last time Gyllenhaal made anything resembling a comedy. I say "resembling" because even though I haven't seen it, I understand that it only "resembles" humor in a very distant way.

7) Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly). Gyllenhaal plays a depressed teenager who hallucinates rabbits that instruct him to commit vandalism, and worse. One of my favorite films of all time.

8) Lovely & Amazing (2001, Nicole Holofcener). Okay, this is sort of a comedy, but again, Gyllenhaal's role is so small that he doesn't make the first page of credits on IMDB.

9) The Good Girl (2002, Miguel Arteta). If I remember correctly, he plays the teenager Jennifer Aniston is sleeping with. It's interesting that he's matched up with Aniston in one of her only movies that you wouldn't describe as a romantic comedy. Some would call this a black comedy. I would call it a misfire.

10) Highway (2002, James Cox). Another one I hadn't heard of. Involves drugs, mobsters, and a road trip to Seattle in the week before Kurt Cobain's suicide. Sounds like a laugh a minute.

11) Moonlight Mile (2002, Brad Silberling). Plays the grieving guy left behind after his fiancee is killed. I liked this movie pretty well -- I think the fact that they cut the trailer so effectively with Elton John's "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" is still part of the positive feeling I have about it. Ellen Pompeo was introduced to us in this film.

12) The Day After Tomorrow (2004, Roland Emmerich). All the laughter in this movie is unintentional.

13) Brokeback Mountain (2005, Ang Lee). A bromantic drama, not a romantic comedy.

14) Proof (2005, John Madden). Excellent adaptation of a play about a mathematical whiz (Anthony Hopkins) and his equally whizzy daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow). Gyllenhaal plays Paltrow's love interest. As she is going through her father's things after he dies, this is not a comedy.

15) Jarhead (2005, Sam Mendes). Deathly serious (there's that phrase again) war drama. One of those films that's executed well but does nothing for me.

16) Zodiac (2007, David Fincher). Plays an obsessed reporter trying to tie together the loose ends in the Zodiac killer case. Nothing romantic or comedic about this one.

17) Rendition (2007, Gavin Hood). Plays a CIA agent trying to get information from terror suspects. Haunted by lots of demons. Really like this movie.

18) Brothers (2009, Jim Sheridan). Melodramatic drama in which Gyllenhaal's character starts to fall for his brother's widow -- even though his brother was not actually killed in Iraq as assumed. Pretty over-the-top stuff here.

19) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010, Mike Newell). This was a bit of a preview of Love and Other Drugs, in the sense that Gyllenhaal finally succumbed to another kind of Hollywood archetype -- the rakish hero who cracks wise. I haven't seen the movie but it seems like there's a fair amount of that going on. Also his first action movie, if you can believe it. Is Gyllenhaal getting soft in his "old age"?

Which brings us to Love & Other Drugs.

The movie actually received a B+ from Entertainment Weekly, which means maybe it's not as generic as it seems. In Anne Hathaway, Gyllenhaal has a co-star who also usually does "smarter" work than romantic comedies -- in fact, this movie re-matches them from Brokeback Mountain, where they played ill-fated spouses (the dude was gay, after all, and then he died -- that could be the definition of an ill-fated relationship).

But because it's Gyllenhaal's first entry into a world that has sucked in so many of his contemporaries, Love & Other Drugs feels like a bit of a letdown. It doesn't feel like the organic progression of his career -- it feels like slouching toward a paycheck. Like "Okay, I've made enough movies that mean something -- now let's settle down into my schlock period." Coupled with Prince of Persia, the trend seems all the more discouraging.

But maybe it isn't. Gyllenhaal's 21st film seems to be David O. Russell's Nailed, which may or may not be in turnaround -- IMDB gives it a 2010 release date that will obviously not transpire (Russell's The Fighter is actually coming out in a couple weeks), and wikipedia doesn't have anything more to say about it. It's described as a "politically charged romantic comedy," but it also involves Russell, he of the brilliant trifecta of Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings -- and of the terrible disaster known as I Heart Huckabees, in which his reputation for being impossible to work with was magnified after a blowup with Lily Tomlin that developed a life of its own on the internet. Who knows what to expect from this movie, but it doesn't sound very "standard" -- Jessica Biel plays a woman who comes to Washington D.C. to lobby for better health coverage after she gets a nail lodged in her head, and Gyllenhaal plays the senator who ends up falling for her. Could be interesting.

And that's all I want from Gyllenhaal, who has indeed had an interesting career so far. He may not have incredible range, seeming always to play some variation on himself, but at least he's chosen roles in films that have challenged both him and us.

And if he feels the need to squeeze in a romantic comedy here and there, well, I guess we can live with that.

Happy 20th, Jake.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Faith restored

Editor's note: Darn it, I thought of a much better title for yesterday's post: "What a Rapunzeled web we weave." That would have been funny.

I must say, I've lost my way with animated movies in recent years.

For a couple years now, I've been involved in a crisis of faith about whether animated movies still do anything for me. And because the target audience for these movies is children, it's been difficult for me to decide whether it's the child inside me that's dying, or if the movies are just not as good as they used to be.

This is not to say that no animated movies touch my heart or my sense of awesomeness anymore. Instead, it's that they don't touch my heart/awesomeness as much as I feel they should, or as much as they touch other people. Even when ranking the two animated movies I had seen previously this year -- Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon, which both received extensive critical praise -- I felt like I was artificially inflating them because of how much I was supposed to like them, not how much I actually liked them. To be sure, Toy Story 3 is a great film, but I didn't consider it in the same category as Toy Story and Toy Story 2. This seemed to support the idea that it's me that's gotten more jaded, since the movie is not recognizably inferior in any way, shape or form, and may have even touched some viewers like the other two did not. As for How to Train Your Dragon -- well, terrific visuals, but a pretty stale story if you ask me.

Enter Tangled.

I wouldn't usually write about the same movie two days in a row on my blog, but after seeing Tangled, I knew I needed to go about correcting any misconceptions I may have promoted, as soon as humanly possible. I even considered doing something I've never done on this blog -- writing two posts in one day.

That's how I felt after leaving the theater yesterday.

Quite simply, Tangled was one of the best animated movies I've ever seen. "Ever." That's a strong word, but it applies here.

My thoughts are not formed enough to give you a proper review. It's still swimming around in my head as a dizzy soup of images and moments. But let's just say this: It literally has something for everyone. Want a movie about princesses? You got it. Want a movie about a rakish thief? You got that too. Want terrific non-human characters as sidekicks? Pascal the chameleon and Maximus the horse are two of the most fun Disney has ever produced. Want tender moments? You've got them. Want hilarious comedy? There was one line in the middle that left me laughing for 15 seconds, and then a couple bursts of laughter in the ensuing minutes just replaying the line in my head. Want dazzling visuals like none you've ever seen before, with the kind of detail, depth and imagination befitting of a fairytale? Step right this way.

Tangled is so good that it might be better than all but the top few Pixar movies. It's so good that it might be better than all but the top few fairytale movies, including live action and animation. And it's also one of the most vivid 3D experiences I've ever had in the theater.

I don't want to overhype Tangled. But sometimes, excess hype is necessary if you want to overcome someone's doubts. And I think there will be a lot of doubts out there about Tangled. There will be a lot of people who think as I did in yesterday's post, who deride Disney for lacking the courage of its convictions in choosing the title for this film. Well, if the title Tangled gets one more person in the theater than the title Rapunzel would have, it's worth it, because that's one more person who will discover this spectacular romantic adventure.

But the biggest thrill I got from Tangled was that it transported me like an animated movie hasn't done in years. It whisked me away into that world and reminded me that I do have a kid still inside of me. It just takes the right story and script and vision to come and wake him up.

Tangled is the right everything, and it's one of the best movies of the year. On Thanksgiving, I want to give thanks to Disney for getting it just right, and reminding me of the endless possibilities of theatrical animation.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

What a ______ web we weave

If I end up seeing Tangled this afternoon, it'll be either because of this awesome poster, or because there's nothing else whose start time matches up well with the time I get off work.

It won't be because Disney is trying to convince me that Tangled is macho.

But let's back up a step or two.

This year I hope to rekindle a tradition that was interrupted last year, which is going to see a movie after my early dismissal from work the day before Thanksgiving. I've done this most of the years of my working life, and when I miss a year, it just makes me want to come back stronger the next year.

Unfortunately, I don't know how "strong" this year will be. I'm not going to have the problem I had last year, when my boss forgot about the early dismissal until I had already worked almost my whole day. (Meanwhile, the guys who got in after me took that early dismissal and ran with it.) No, this year I made sure to get my departure time on the record -- 1:30, two hours early. Now my only problem is that there isn't that much in the theaters I want to see right now, at least not much that matches up well with that 1:30 departure. Because although I've gotten permission from my wife for one of the "guilt-free movies" she awarded me at my birthday, I would still like to get home to her and my son at a reasonable time, which means seeing something that starts within an hour after I get off.

Let's look at the contenders:

Unstoppable - Though I think it looks better than most Tony Scott films, I don't have a burning desire to see it, and the showtimes at convenient theaters are all either 1 o'clock or 3 o'clock.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 - Now that I've caught up on the last installment and will actually be able to feel oriented within the overall plot, this would be a great candidate if my wife and I weren't already thinking of seeing it together in two weeks, when my sister and her boyfriend are in town to meet our son. So I didn't even look up showtimes for this one.

Megamind - This has a perfectly time 2 p.m. showtime at a reasonably convenient theater, but I may let my friend's negative appraisal of it prevent me from prioritizing a theatrical screening.

The Next Three Days - Another case where I think I like the poster more than I'll like the film, and besides, all the showings are between 1:10 and 1:40.

Fair Game - This has a 2:25 showtime at the one theater near me where it's playing, and I'm somewhat intrigued by it, even if just to see the Bush administration painted in a negative light for old times sake. But running nearly two hours and starting nearly an hour after I get off, it'll get me home more than an hour later than I would on a normal release day. Still, it's a contender.

Love and Other Drugs, Made in Dagenham, Burlesque, Due Date, Faster, For Colored Girls - Nah, no thank you. Not right now, anyway.

Tangled - Maybe. It's got a 2:05 start time at a theater that's in a complex that will also allow me to get something to eat beforehand. Plus it's in 3D. Which will probably look pretty good in an animated movie.

A couple months ago, I would have laughed if you'd told me I'd consider seeing Tangled in the theater, let alone seeing it on opening day. Not because the animation doesn't look good -- it does.

No, I was originally annoyed by this film for two reasons: 1) It looked like a chick flick; 2) Disney was trying really hard to convince me it wasn't a chick flick.

And here's that tangled web I was talking about: If you're making a movie about Rapunzel, why not use the extremely recognizable title Rapunzel for the movie?

The answer is because Disney was worried that only little girls would go to a movie called Rapunzel. So, Tangled it was.

I'm not saying they're wrong. But there was definitely a time when it wouldn't have mattered. Just think about all the past Disney movies named after the heroine: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas, to name the prominent ones and probably forget about several others. Then there have also been the movies where a female title character was matched up with a non-human male romantic interest, such as Beauty and the Beast and The Princess and the Frog, the latter as recently as last year.

But reading up on it a bit, I'm finding that the title change -- it once was actually Rapunzel Unbraided, and then just Rapunzel -- was the direct result of Disney's disappointment with the performance of the critically acclaimed Princess and the Frog. A worldwide box office take of $270 million was just not what Disney was expecting from that film, and their fear was that the emphasis on princesses had turned off young boys.

And so a new title and advertising campaign were born, and now the ads seem to focus a lot more on the male character, Flynn Rider, than the woman without whom the fairytale would not even exist in the first place. In fact, I remember seeing a trailer for it and thinking "Okay, this must be the long-awaited Rapunzel movie," and I only say "long-awaited" because Rapunzel seems like such an obvious candidate for a Disney movie that I couldn't believe it hadn't already happened. You can imagine my surprise when the name "Rapunzel" was not even uttered in the trailer, and the title Tangled came up. "Lame," I thought, immediately knowing what they were doing, and why.

In fact, even as I see a short promo for it now on moviefone.com, which is helping me compare and contrast potential start times, it says "Meet Flynn - He enjoys waterparks, exercise and bungee jumping," punctuating each of his "likes" with a short bit from the film. There's one for each character, I think, but the Flynn ones seem to emphasize the maleness of his pursuits.

So why might I be rewarding Disney with a decision to see the film, rather than boycotting it? Simple: the animation. It looks really good, and does not seem to owe a direct debt to another movie I can think of it. It's an intentional mix of the new and the old methods, which was part of its animation philosophy. It looks crisp and fun and I bet you it will look really great in 3D.

Oh, and I love the hell out of that poster as well.

Happy Thanksgiving, and if you're joining me in cutting out early and going to a movie today, here's hoping it's not a turkey.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Edge of (cinematic) obsession

No, not Mel Gibson for once, that bigoted, misogynistic asshole.

He may play an obsessed guy in all his films -- in fact, he surprised me by underplaying that role in Edge of Darkness -- but it's my own obsession I'm a bit worried about this morning.

You see, with last night's viewing of Edge of Darkness, I have now reached my record number of previously unseen films seen in a calendar year for the second year in a row. And for the second year in a row, it happened on November 22nd, with 39 days still remaining on the calendar.

The thing is, 211 was the total of new movies I reached on November 22nd last year. This year, it's 242.

Some of you may already think I'm too obsessed because I know the exact number of movies I see in a given year. You have a valid point. I'm a list-keeper, what can I say.

Knowing that I ended up beating my previous personal record by 31 movies last year, and that I might do it again this year, in a year when my first child was born ... well, that'll clinch the obsessive label for the rest of you.

The thing is, it's not just movies I'd never seen before that I've watched. I've also revisited 72 movies that I'd previously seen, almost twice as many as this time last year. That's far and away a record for a given year, made possible by three different projects: 1) Re-watching movies in order to rank my best of the last decade, which constituted nearly 20 revisited movies in January alone; 2) My Second Chances series, in which I re-watched a movie per week that I hadn't liked as much as most people, for ten weeks; and 3) My Double Jeopardy series, in which I re-watched a movie per week that I'd liked more than most people, also for ten weeks.

Some quick math ... that's 314 movies watched on the 326th day of the year. Yikes. Almost one per day.

Last year, I was proud of this milestone, as discussed here.

This year? I worry.

I'm starting to wonder: Do I do anything other than watch movies?

Yes, yes I do. I swear I do. I just can't think of what they are right now.

Actually, I really do. I play basketball and go rollerblading and see friends and listen to music. I attend the occasional museum. I go on the occasional hike. I love making mixes for people, even at age 37, especially now that I've got new high-tech equipment to create seamless transitions between the songs.

But one major thing that has suffered has been reading. After finishing off a book in the first days of January, I started another and read it until June. I've still only read 30 pages of the next book I started. That's probably because I'm having trouble getting into it (but refuse to abandon it), and because I'm a slow reader.

But you can always find excuses if you want to. The fact of the matter is, I've exchanged movie watching for reading almost totally. If I've got 20 minutes of downtime, I won't pick up a book and read a couple chapters. I'll put in a DVD and watch a couple chapters. Never mind the fact that I can't finish it right now. I'll watch this DVD like I'd read a book, in multiple sittings.

For many people, starting a movie with no definite endgame would be sacrilege. It would be a disservice to the filmmaker to break up his or her story by starting and stopping. Is feeding the obsession worth going to these lengths?

The thing is, this movie obsession is a bit like an eating disorder. The thinner anorexic people get, the fatter they think they look. For me, the more movies I see, the more movies I'm reminded I haven't seen. Which just feeds the obsession to seek out more eras, more genres, more directors, more stars.

I guess the real question is, how is this affecting the quality of my life? That's the real measure of the strength of an obsession.

So far, not measurably at all. I'm a good husband and dad, and I see friends as often as those two roles will allow me to. Back in that January in which I was revisiting films to rank the best of the 2000s, I did get into an argument or two with my wife about how much time I was spending watching movies. But that was a finite period of intense project-oriented tunnel vision, and she was in the hormonal early stages of pregnancy. Since then, my movie-watching has factored its way into our mutual schedules in a mostly amicable way. And I can probably trace back my highly productive 2010 in part to the fact that my wife was going to bed by 9 o'clock for most of the spring and summer, leaving me a great opportunity to watch a whole movie after she went to bed.

But it's the covert effects of this obsession that I sometimes worry about. Maybe all these hours glued to the television (we also have a huge number of TV shows we keep up with) are steadily degrading my vision. Maybe I'm getting less healthy as I eat more and drink more soda in order to stay up late enough to finish the movie. Maybe I'm becoming a less interesting person as I find myself more and more inclined toward discussing movies, and less and less inclined toward discussing other things.

I guess all film lovers have moments in their lives when they come to Jesus about things like this. It's the moment you realize that there are sacrifices you're making in order to watch as many movies as you do. It's the moment you realize that your friends who only watch 50 movies a year, rather than 250, are doing other things with those extra hours, things that you might benefit from doing -- reading, making things with their hands, learning career-related skills that will help them advance. Of course, even in this realization, there's the opportunity to make excuses. For example, I like to think those friends fill up the extra time with video games, which does not happen to be a passion of mine, and which I can comfortably say feels objectively less useful than watching movies.

Then again, I am who I am. I'm a person who loves movies, and I've committed myself to that like never before in recent years. One big change from 2009 to 2010 is that I'm making a much bigger effort to read other people's movie blogs, as well as to listen to some podcasts. But reading other blogs just fuels my desire to watch more movies.

The best thing I can do is say that this is not a bad thing. If a materialist's life goals can be summarized as "He who ends up with the most toys, wins," then maybe mine would be "He who sees the most movies, wins." And the thing is, I still won't be a contender. There are others out there far more obsessed than I am, who may average two movies a day rather than "only" one.

So I accept my life for what it is and for what role movies have in it. After all, I am a critic who gets paid for some percentage of the total movies I watch.

But there I go again with excuses and justifications. Why not just say that I love movies, and that I love loving movies? It's who I am: An obsessive guy.

Unlike Mel Gibson, though, I like Jews, blacks and women.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bunnies are awesome

Welcome to the internet, where some people discover a thing one day, and then other people discover a thing three years later, and both of them feel like it's brand new.

That's my little disclaimer that the site I'm recommending today may not be "new." In fact, when I posted a link on Facebook, someone commented that she had stumbled across this site "a couple years ago," which may have been her mild way of telling me my discovery was yesterday's news. However, if you're like me and you haven't discovered it yet, it's new to you, and you're in for a little treat.

It's the website for a company called Angry Alien Productions (www.angryalien.com), and their thing is 30-second animated reenactments of popular movies, performed by bunnies. That's right, bunnies. In fact, they've got 68 of them posted on the site, and each one is as much of a joy to watch as the one before, even more so if it's a movie you love. I've excised thumbnails from eight of them above -- a prize for the first person in the comments section to identify all eight movies. And that prize is, you get to feel good about yourself for the rest of the day.

They truly are great, and they are plentiful as well. In fact, there are so many of these short films, that I discovered this late last week (thanks Kim for your original post on Facebook), and I've still only made it halfway through. It's the gift that keeps on giving.

And though that's really all I have to say, I did think it would be interesting to pause for a moment to recognize the significant role bunnies or rabbits (they're the same thing, right?) play in cinema. Sure, bunnies/rabbits (shall we call them babbits?) are inherently cute and fuzzy, with their little twitching noses and lazy little hops across the environment. (I don't mean they're lazy -- I just mean their actual hops have a cute little tentativeness that makes them seem a bit drunk or something). But when used in cinema, they are frequently sinister, aren't they? There's Frank the rabbit in Donnie Darko, the rabbit hallucinated by Ray Winstone's character in Sexy Beast, a macabre bunch of rabbits on a Lynchian sitcom in Inland Empire, and let's not forget the brutally realistic events in the lives of the rabbits in the various cinematic incarnations of Watership Down. Then, in a slightly more whimsical context, is the six-foot rabbit hallucinated by Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart) in Harvey. I'm sure I'm only scratching the surface here.

Well, the Angry Alien Productions bunnies are of the cute and fun variety. Which is probably while they're called by the more playful term "bunnies" rather than the colder and more foreboding "rabbits."

Check them out. If you love movies -- and I think you do -- you owe it to yourself.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Top 20 after B

In a continuing project that means a lot more to me than to my readership at large, I thought I'd update you on where I stand with reloading my movies into Flickchart. It's a fun rabbit hole to lose myself in, for me if not for you. But since you probably don't enjoy gazing at my navel as much as I do, I'll try to keep this post short.

To recap where we stand, I'm doing a test to see which version of my Flickchart self is going to become the primary one -- the one with over 94,000 duels that was built off of random dueling, or the one with just over 3,000 duels that's the result of systematically re-adding all my films, according to the new precision-ranking system that's the centerpiece of the site's recent upgrade. I've been going alphabetically, adding my movies one by one, and watching them duel until they land in the exact spot between a movie that's better and a movie that's worse. This should theoretically produce the most accurate possible rankings a person can have, after which only minor tweaking will be needed.

Why should minor tweaking be needed at all? Well, I've decided that even this supposedly perfect system isn't perfect. Why? Because the transitive property on which it is built might not always be 100% reliable. For example, if you like Movie A better than Movie B, and Movie B better than Movie C, you should always like Movie A better than Movie C, right? Oddly enough, no. And that's because the differences between certain films is so minor, so arbitrary, that you might easily prefer one at 3 o'clock on a Friday afternoon, but another at 4 o'clock. And that's the delicious variable about the whole thing -- how can you quantify the difference between the 1352nd film on your list and the 1353rd? They could easily flip-flop -- and not only could #1353 be #1352, but it might also be capable of being #1252, based purely on your mood at the time. This is a happy realization, because it means that once I have reloaded all 3,100+ movies on my list, I'll still have the need for the random dueling that was the bread and butter of my previous Flickchart existence.

Okay, enough Flickchart theory for now. Let's show you my new top 20 after the Bs have all been loaded -- it was 256 when I started, but 258 now that I've watched Ben-Hur and Blackboard Jungle this week. Note: Until I've made the determination which Flickchart profile will become the dominant one, which is many weeks if not months off, I will continue listing the old profile's top 20 in the column to the right.

Here we go:

1) Back to the Future
2) The Bicycle Thief
3) Bound
4) Big
5) Almost Famous
6) Adaptation
7) Airplane!
8) All About Eve
9) Blade Runner
10) Apocalypse Now
11) Before Sunrise
12) Bonnie and Clyde
13) All the President's Men
14) Agora
15) Apollo 13
16) Beauty and the Beast
17) Bram Stoker's Dracula
18) Annie Hall
19) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
20) Boyz 'N the Hood

So four movies among the Bs beat the best A movie, which makes a certain sense given that I've seen 258 movies starting with the letter B and nearly a hundred fewer (160) starting with A. Back to the Future could be a strong contender for #1 overall even after I've gone through the rest of the letters -- probably not, but it's that good. So it may successfully fight off all the Cs, though there will be some interesting duels with the likes of Children of Men and Citizen Kane.

Other notes:

- The Bicycle Thief is of course wonderful, but it could be one of those films that I am supporting more intellectually because I know how great it is, than passionately based on my own cinematic history. Still, this reminds me that I've only seen it once and need to see it again.

- Bound is the Wachowski brothers' best movie, which I wrote about here. Yes, I know they directed The Matrix.

- Bram Stoker's Dracula could be getting too much love here, but it's still one of my favorite pieces of art direction in any film I've ever seen.

Okay, I'll let you go. I will probably not do this after every new letter, especially because some have very few titles (Q = 11, X = 5).

Then again, I may not be able to help myself. Navel-gazing is fun.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Number soup

It's Harry Potter time again.

I actually haven't seen the last two Potters in the theater, having lost my interest in theatrical screenings after the disappointing Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In fact, I heard a brilliant summation of what's wrong with the Harry Potter movies on a podcast I listened to recently, in which one of the podcasters contended that no one can ever remember what happens in any of these movies. That is 100% true for me, at least with the last few -- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban being the notable exception of a great film within a series of mediocre ones. It should also be said that I'm a 37-year-old guy who only read the first book, so I don't know if I'm the best candidate to determine whether the events of the Harry Potter mythology have significance or not.

However, I became interested again when I saw the poster you see here, which showed up this past spring or summer in movie theaters, and chilled me to the core. I've still managed to avoid learning the ultimate fate of Harry, Hermione, Ron and Voldemort, so seeing Hogwart's in flames was an arresting visual indeed, making me think the series was finally getting serious. I suppose events that have meaning could have already occurred in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince -- in fact, I know of one event in particular that's a pretty big deal, because someone leaked it to me when the book came out -- but I can't say for sure because I haven't seen that yet. We'll finally be watching it this weekend in anticipation of a potential theatrical viewing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, which will probably only transpire if I hear it's really, really good. (Don't forget, the baby elevates my standards considerably for what I will prioritize seeing in the theater.)

If you know me at all, you'll probably know that I'm not here today to discuss the Harry Potter franchise on the whole. Actually, I'm once again inspired to post about an issue of semantics.

When the last Harry Potter movie was released, I wrote about not liking the shift in the advertising philosophy, to start using acronyms to promote the movie. That movie was advertised -- not everywhere, but in a lot of places -- as HP6. The previous film had not been HP5, so calling this one HP6 seemed like not only a shift in strategy, but some kind of insult to our intelligence. I posited at the time that the racially sensitive phrase "half-blood" in the title might have had something to do with it.

I've gotten over this particular complaint to some degree, so that when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is called HP7, I'm not quite so bothered by it. At least now there's a precedent.

What does bother me is that they've chosen to advertise the last two Harry Potter movies as HP7: Part 1 and HP 7: Part 2. That's a few too many numbers for me.

You could argue -- and some people have -- that they should never have broken The Deathly Hallows up into two movies anyway, that the screenwriters needed to make decisions about what to excise in order to wrap the series up with just one movie. But since they did do it, I think you either need to market the movies as HP7 and HP8 or just by their full titles.

Let's think about it logically. By calling the previous movie HP6, you are trying to help the audience keep track of how many movies there have been. (And deemphasizing the phrase "half-blood"). You could argue that there is a too-sensitive word in the new titles as well -- what parent wants to take their kids to a movie with the word "deathly" in the title? Then again, the PG-13 rating means that younger kids should not really be seeing it anyway.

So if your goal is to make a tacit acknowledgement that the number of Harry Potter movies is getting ridiculous -- even though it was always known that there would be at least seven movies -- and to give audiences a way to start numbering them to keep track of them, calling them HP7 and HP8 would make the most sense. These acronyms are, practically speaking, divorcing the movies from their source material anyway, so why worry about whether people understand that the last two movies are adapted from the same (really long) book? The chronology of the whole series is sequential anyway, so does it really matter if audiences understand that the last two movies are "related to each other"? That there is a part 1 and a part 2? I mean, you could easily say that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is part 2 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, couldn't you?

Like many semantic arguments, this one probably gets a little circular the more you pick at it, and threatens to collapse in on itself. So, HP7: Part 1 and HP7: Part 2 it is.

One thing I will say as a positive for the people at Warner Brothers is that they really played it right on the decision not to retrofit Part 1 for 3D. They started doing it -- in fact, the original trailers advertised that both parts would be in 3D -- but they scrapped the plan when they weren't happy with the results. It might be just smart business, after seeing the lambasting that films like Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender received upon hurrying out shoddy 3D conversions. But I'd like to think that they had the best interests of the viewer at heart as well.

And I guess if they credit us with knowing the difference between good and shitty 3D, they probably also credit us with being able to deal with the number soup of HP7: Part 1 and HP7: Part 2.

In truth, probably the only people objecting to it are semantic pedants like me, looking for a blog topic on a gray Friday in November.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A realization about Rob Reiner

My friend Don, who was visiting for the weekend from Chicago, and I were leaving Amoeba Music in Hollywood on Sunday night when the conversation turned to Rob Reiner. It had actually started on Ron Howard, because I had just picked up a nice-looking (albeit used) collector's edition DVD of Apollo 13 for $5.99. (It was a space-themed evening -- I also finally bought Dean Parisot's Galaxy Quest.) For his part, Don bought Bram Stoker's Dracula on BluRay and some music.

The apparent similarities between Howard and Reiner -- both former TV stars who had gone on to careers as highly respected directors -- was what caused us to wander into Reiner territory. Our initial thesis was that Howard might be the greater director. After all, he'd won an Oscar, and he continues to release prestige films. Whereas Reiner's last decade has been kind of the opposite, composed of moderate misfires (Rumor Has It ...), major misfires (Alex & Emma) and popular schlock (The Bucket List).

But it was when we started to review Reiner's older work that it hit us like a smack in the forehead:

Rob Reiner may have had the greatest decade for any director of any era. And he did most of it in five years.

If you start with his directorial debut in 1984 -- This Is Spinal Tap, which could be one of the best first movies ever -- and go forward, Reiner was absolutely on fire for the next five to ten years. Not only that, but every movie he made could be described as one of the best versions of that movie ever made -- even still today.

Shall we take a look?

This Is Spinal Tap (1984) might be the best mockumentary ever made.

Argument: Hardcore film lovers may cite a dozen examples to the contrary, but you could even say that Rob Reiner invented the mockumentary. What's certainly true is that Christopher Guest's participation in this film inspired him to reshape his whole career as a series of increasingly less brilliant mockumentaries. Nothing is less than 100% brilliant in This Is Spinal Tap. In fact, it's so great that I don't need to go into an in-depth description of why it's so great, because you already know. But I will mention Don's interesting perspective on its greatness, which is that you can see the characters thinking. When Nigel Tufnel (Guest) makes one of his inane comments, he's not just reading his lines (in part because a bunch of this stuff was improvised). You can actually see the wheels turning in his head as he answers each question, and that's part of what makes it such a fully realized, spot-on satire.

The Sure Thing (1985) might be the best road movie ever made.

Argument: Or it might not. In fact, I'm pretty sure it isn't. But the rest of the movies after this fit the format, so go with me on this. The Sure Thing is definitely a really good road movie, and as a result of the age I was when I saw it (about 13 or 14), it sticks out to me as one of the first films I think of when you talk about road movies. It's full of classic scenes involving the various modes of transport John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga use to cross the country, like Cusack freaking out the pervert who picks up Zuniga hitchhiking, and Cusack clashing with the pair of show-tune singers (one of whom is Tim Robbins). It's especially nice as it had the function of serving as Cusack's breakout role.

Stand by Me (1986) might be the best coming-of-age movie ever made.

Argument: Who in my generation doesn't think of Stand by Me when they think of coming-of-age movies? I'd like to think that this extends outward to other generations, but I'd probably be wrong about that. After all, today's teens probably see Twilight as a coming-of-age movie. But in terms of purity of form, Stand by Me takes the cake. Few films deal so intensely with the transition between childhood and adulthood, as Gordie, Chris, Teddy and Vern are caught between the innocence of childhood play and the seriousness of death, which confronts them in the form of a corpse, older bullies who fight with knives, and a train that may flatten them like pancakes. It might also be one of the best period pieces ever made, with its great 50s soundtrack.

The Princess Bride (1987) might be the best storybook romance ever made.

Argument: Or should it be called a romantic fantasy? A fantasy comedy? A romantic storybook comedy? However you choose to categorize it, The Princess Bride hits every note perfectly. It introduced a slew of iconic characters, a boatload of quotable lines, and one of the most delightful forms of "damsel in distress" escapism you are likely to find on film. Do you remember how you felt after you first saw The Princess Bride? There you go. I'll leave it at that because there just isn't much more to say.

When Harry Met Sally ... (1989) might be the best romantic comedy ever made.

Argument: And here is the really big one. All the other genres I've discussed have relatively few entries compared to the number of movies that could be described as romantic comedies. And yet this movie could still be considered the best romantic comedy of all time -- I'm not even sure what the other top contenders would be, since there are few romantic comedies that everyone can agree are as perfect as this. Granted, this is again showing the bias of the era in which I came of age, which may be inescapable -- there are certainly classic romantic comedies by the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy that older viewers would probably consider their favorites. But When Harry Met Sally is almost certainly the king of modern romantic comedies, and you might even say its stamp is evident on many if not most of the romantic comedies that followed. Again, I don't need to tell you why.

Misery (1990) might be the best Stephen King adaptation ever made.

Argument: Okay, now I know I'm wrong -- especially since Reiner himself has made a better Stephen King adaptation (Stand by Me). However, the best film adaptations of King's novels tend to be either non-horrors (both Stand by Me and one of my favorite films of all time, The Shawshank Redemption) or horror adaptations in which the writer or director took liberties with King's work (The Shining). But could Misery be the best faithful adaptation of a horror by Stephen King? Perhaps.

A Few Good Men (1992) might be the best movie in which Jack Nicholson shouts "You can't handle the truth!" ever made.

Argument: Okay, now I'm kidding.

But this is a good place to leave off, because Reiner's next film was the infamous bomb North. He did follow that with the excellent The American President (best movie ever about the president? Nah) and the pretty-good Ghosts of Mississippi, but that's the last time Reiner has met with pretty much universal critical acclaim. (I absolutely love The Story of Us, but I know I'm in the minority.)

What's amazing about this period of 1984 to 1990 is not only how prolific he was during it, and not only how successful each film was, but how comfortably he shifted between genres. As is evident in the way I've structured this piece, talking about genres, Reiner never repeated himself during this period -- in fact, I don't know that you could say any two of the films are even somewhat similar to each other.

It's an interesting realization especially when compared and contrasted to yesterday's discussion of Danny Boyle, who is also constantly reinventing himself. If you lined up 20 film bloggers and asked them which one is the better director, Boyle or Reiner, you'd probably get 18 for Boyle and two for Reiner.

But I might be one of the two. I mean, just look at those titles. Granted, Reiner's films from the 1980s have had more of a chance to endure in the zeitgeist and stake their claims as classics, and his films are all accessible in a way that Boyle's films aren't even trying to be. But it's being uncharitable and just plain wrong to dismiss Reiner as simply a populist director. Making films for the masses that are also as smart as Reiner's films is a true challenge indeed. In a way, you could say that "anyone" can make an arsty film with a potentially narrow target audience -- and Boyle may be among the best at that, considering that his artistically credible films have also managed to find a pretty big audience. But making films that please both the studios and almost any film fans you ask, from the least discriminating to the most? That's a special talent. Because most of the time you are going to piss off serious fans by pandering to the masses. However, I don't think there are many serious film fans who would find fault with This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally or Misery. And This Is Spinal Tap, in its own way, might be more subversive than anything even Boyle has ever made.

I just think it's important not to let a "what have you done for me lately?" mentality cause us to forget or discount the kind of greatness that Rob Reiner demonstrated during those incredible 6+ years. Any director would be proud to have six titles as good as those on his CV. I'm not even sure if the best six films of Steven Spielberg of Martin Scorsese are as universally well-liked as those six films. Of course, I could also be getting carried away.

However, I think Reiner deserves a little excess enthusiasm. In recent years, the man has turned into something of a figure of ridicule, and not just because he's been on a losing streak in the director's chair. His most prominent recent appearance in pop culture may have been on South Park, where Trey Parker and Matt Stone eviscerated him, making him out to be a self-righteous liberal ideologue stuffing his face with food in every shot.

Well, that self-righteous liberal ideologue stuffing his face with food may just be one of the most influential directors of all time.

Or at the very least, a guy with an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ranking Danny Boyle

I saw 127 Hours this past weekend.

I know you probably did not. I'm having a hard time figuring out on IMDB when it gets a wider release, but I have to assume this is one of those situations where I benefit by living in Los Angeles. Whereas it may be playing on a single screen, if that, in your city, I've got five choices in LA, two that are within ten miles of my house.

Considering that, I don't want to tell you too much about my new favorite movie of the year. Except this: GO.

Okay, I'm going to tell you a little more than that. But within the format of looking at the entire body of work of the film's director, Danny Boyle.

So welcome to the latest in my informal "ranking" series, in which I take a particular type of film of which I have seen all of the qualifying films, and rank them in order of preference, briefly discussing each. I did it with Pixar, the Coen brothers and Star Trek, so now it's time for Danny Boyle and his nine feature films to go under the microscope.

Without any further ado ...

1) 127 Hours (2010). Yes, it's that great. Boyle is a highly respected director, even auteur, who has had a hugely varied career in terms of the subject matter of his movies. Yet this is his greatest, and I'm not even sure it's that much of a debate. Playing Aron Rolston, James Franco gives the kind of performance that should quiet all talk of the Oscar going to anyone else. (Keep quiet over there, Colin Firth with your King's Speech.) But even getting himself into the many different head spaces and stages of panic and disorientation this film requires, Franco may only give the second-best performance in this film. The best performance may be Boyle's, as he's equal to the challenges this film poses, requiring as it does an outside-the-box storyteller and narrative stylist. There are so many creative choices made with spacing, camera setups, fantasy sequences, flashback, music, sound, editing and color that I wouldn't even know where to begin describing them. What's even more amazing is that everyone knows how this story ends -- it's not a spoiler to tell you that the guy had to amputate his own arm -- yet the journey to that outcome is no less suspenseful and downright tense. At one point in the film -- okay, it was during THE scene -- I looked down and noticed that I was gripping my box of Altoids as though I wanted to choke the life out of it. An absolutely visceral cinematic experience, a surefire best picture nominee, and (I hope) a frontrunner to win the award, even only two years after Boyle last won for Slumdog Millionaire.

2) Trainspotting (1996). If 127 Hours eventually earns (or has already earned) the reputation of being Boyle's hardest film to watch, then this is certainly his second hardest. Boyle took Irvine Welsh's novel and turned hardcore drug use and the reckless lives of Edinburgh punks into a dizzy, dreamy soup of sex, music and fury, and it introduced us to a stylist with a unique vision, in a way that was only hinted at in Shallow Grave. I regret that I've only seen this film once, 14 years ago, and have probably been tempted to let some of his other films surpass Trainspotting on the Boyle Greatness Scale, because I have yet to check back in with it. But that's overdue, so I'll try to get to it soon. Trainspotting also introduced us to no less than Ewan McGregor (not his first film, but his breakout), Robert Carlyle (ditto), and to a lesser extent Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Kelly MacDonald.

3) Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Poor Slumdog Millionaire. Only two years after we were all thrilled by it, we've subjected it to an almost Titanic-style backlash. Slumdog's former fans are now made up of scores of revisionist historians, who pretend they had issues with it all along -- they talk about its cheesy ending, its narrative shortcomings (why was the order of the questions the same chronological order as the events in his life that gave him the answers?) and its Bollywood dance sequence over the closing credits. (Which was pure fantasy, mind you, just a shout-out to the glorious history of Indian cinema.) But if you remember how you first felt when you saw Slumdog, especially if you saw it on the big screen, this ranking is appropriate. The film has life pulsing through it, another electric fusion of visuals and music that sends a tingling sensation down your spine. Just think of that scene where Boyle and his camera crew ran through the Mumbai slums following that foot chase, and you will remember how great Slumdog really is.

4) 28 Days Later (2002). Do you think we'd have nearly so many movies/TV shows/other properties involving zombies right now if it weren't for 28 Days Later? It wasn't George Romero who revitalized the zombie movie, it was Danny Boyle. 28 Days Later has its detractors -- I know one guy who hates it, even though the thing everybody knows about him is that he loves zombie movies -- but they're far outnumbered by its supporters. In another introduction to the world of a new talent, Cillian Murphy wakes up in a hospital bed and stumbles out into a completely abandoned London -- or so it would first appear. The eerie stillness of those early scenes provide an excellent contrast to the fury that comes later on, and what happens next is consistently crazy and surprising. I loved the grungy despair of the London created by Boyle, and remember being completely caught up in its spell when I first watched it. I've only seen it that one time (I'll end the suspense and reveal that I've seen all of Boyle's movies only once), but it deserves another, and soon.

5) Millions (2005). And here's where there's a pretty decent-sized dropoff from Boyle's first four masterpieces. Arguably Boyle's most insignificant film, Millions earns my affections for its liveliness and the great performances of its child actors. (In fact, you could say that Boyle's success with the children here would preview his work with them in Slumdog.) However, I must say that one of my enduring impressions of it is that it's a little too colorful, that it's maybe in my face the same way Robert Rodriguez' children's movies are in your face and garish. I remember there also being some kind of music-box soundtrack that's a bit jarring in its volume and emphasis. Still, Millions is an excellent display of technique and more or less just a "fun" movie, which is not how you could describe any of the first four on this list. It also has some themes that echo his first film, Shallow Grave, particularly the idea of an evil lurking in the attic.

6) Shallow Grave (1994). And speaking of Shallow Grave, I bet you were wondering when it was going to show up. I differ with most Boyle fans on how good Shallow Grave is. In fact, I'm sure that had something to do with how it was hyped to me by some of my friends who are passionately devoted to it. I may be holding it to too high a standard, especially since it's a first film, but it just didn't do for me what it did for my friends. I know I'm supposed to be creeped out by the way the relationship between these flatmates develops, particularly Christopher Eccleston holing himself up in the attic and basically attacking the people below. But I didn't consider it good weird, I considered it weird weird. I bet I'd have a more favorable impression of it if I watched it again.

7) Sunshine (2007). Ah, Sunshine. What an excellent film you could have been. Some people are willing to forgive the disastrous third act of this film in deference to the many things Boyle does right in the first two. I was totally with this film, and in its first half-hour was thinking it could be up there with 2001 and Alien as one of the great films about crazy shit happening in outer space. Until the shit got too crazy in a way-too-formulaic way, and basically devolved into a variation on the tried and tired "serial killer in space" format. I should note that the circumstances under which I saw this movie were highly strange. I started watching the movie in Melbourne, Australia, at an advanced screening attended by the director himself. But projection issues, featuring reels out of order and played backwards, with an hour break in the middle trying (in vain) to fix the problems, meant that I didn't finish watching it until it was released six months later in the United States. So it took me six months to realize how terribly the film ends. But, I did enjoy hearing Boyle speak to us, even if we hadn't actually "seen" the film he was speaking about.

8) The Beach (2000). That makes two Boyle films in a row with promising beginnings and very bad endings. I haven't read Alex Garland's beloved book on which The Beach was based, but if it ends the same way as the movie ends, I don't imagine I'd like it. However, the first two acts (particularly the first act) are highly enjoyable, and for me constitute some kind of archetypal encapsulation of the free-spirited traveler seeking pleasure and adventure in Southeast Asia. I love the early scenes of Leonardo DiCaprio hunting down his island paradise among shady hostel tenants and similarly feckless backpackers, not to mention an exotic French beauty -- even thinking about it now I am awash in the escapism of it. However, I can't forget how quickly and fatally the movie goes south.

9) A Life Less Ordinary (1997). Even though I am choosing to rank A Life Less Ordinary last, I actually have decent affection for this film. Since many critics considered it a turkey, I came in with low expectations, and found myself intermittently charmed by the gonzo romance between Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz. In fact, in some ways, I think it is a more consistently realized effort than either Sunshine or The Beach, but I am rewarding both of those films for very strong beginnings that really stick with me despite their eventual failures. I don't have a very distinct memory of A Life Less Ordinary, and it would probably not really be worth a second viewing. However, I do remember its visual pizzazz -- I remember feeling like Boyle really went for it, and I admired him shooting for the stars with such gusto.

And that's really something you can always say about Danny Boyle -- he always shoots for the stars, sometimes literally (Sunshine). And what an interesting career he's had. A bit like Ang Lee, he never makes the same movie twice. Going chronologically, he made a psychological thriller, a drug movie, a crime comedy, a travelogue thriller, a zombie movie, a coming-of-age movie, a space movie, a coming-of-age love story and a survival movie. Even as I was typing out those generic descriptions of Boyle's nine films, however, I realized how few of them fit neatly into the genre I assigned them to. That's the mark of a great artist -- someone who is always expanding the boundaries and definitions of the medium in which he works.

So how would you rank Boyle's films?

Keeping in mind, of course, that many of you will probably have to wait some number of weeks before 127 Hours will be at a theater near you.

Los Angeles has its smog, but it also has its benefits.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A verdict on the January apocalypse movies

Three movies were released on consecutive Fridays last January that had a couple things in common: 1) they all dealt in some way with an apocalypse, either imminent or in the distant past; 2) none of them seemed like a movie that would usually be released in January, the month when the schlockiest films on the calendar are typically unleashed on the world.

And so it was that I came to consider Daybreakers (January 8th), The Book of Eli (January 15th) and Legion (January 22nd) to be an informal triumvirate of end-of-the-world movies with ass-end-of-the-schedule release dates. (It's technically the beginning of the schedule, but it's the ass end in terms of desirability).

As of Thursday night, I have now seen all three.

I wrote about two of them -- Daybreakers and Legion -- before I ever saw them, so I thought it was definitely time to double back and reconsider them after a viewing of them and their brother Eli.

And even though this will be a very brief set of rankings, why not rank them?

1) Daybreakers (2010, Peter and Michael Spierig). Not only is this the best finished film of the three, but it has the best high-concept conceit also. I can't believe no one had previously made a film that followed the logical progression of infection that is always the threat in zombie movies -- if a vampire epidemic took over, eventually the whole world would become vampires. The nice advantage a vampire has over a zombie is that it can be intelligent, refined and seductive, and so the world presented in Daybreakers is a lot like ours -- only your average citizens rely on blood rather than food for sustenance, and their eyes have a yellow tinge to them. (Plus that whole "avoiding sunlight" thing.) But what happens when humans are hunted to extinction, and none of their blood remains?

It's a delicious idea, and the Spierig brothers -- whose Undead I now want to see -- realize it to perfection. The details of their vampiric world are exquisite, and the story arcs they've chosen to follow are satisfying and in some cases tragic. To say that the concept is executed perfectly is not the same thing as saying it's a perfect movie. There may be some questionable choices in the third act, and it's possible it drags a little bit in the middle. However, I enjoyed all the performances (especially Sam Neill's) and I thought it was a wonderful creation of a specific world. To give an indication of how much I enjoyed it, I did a thing that's rare for me -- I watched an entire "making of" bonus feature on the DVD that was nearly as long as the film. This showed the Australian directors' ingenuity in making the most of relatively modest resources, and I got a lot of out of it.

Glad to see the Spierigs recognized for this film (and Undead), even if it was not a huge box office champ and is only thought of middlingly by most critics -- they're directing the next Dark Crystal movie and a remake of Captain Blood.

2) The Book of Eli (2010, Allen and Albert Hughes). Didn't recognize until now another thing two of these movies have in common -- they're directed by a pair of brothers. The Hughes brothers have been around a lot longer, but I was shocked to see that it had been nine years since their last feature, From Hell. But I knew that if they brought some of that film's outside-the-box quality to this one, it would at the very least be an interesting watch with some good technique.

I actually felt slightly more strongly about The Book of Eli than that, even though it too was pretty much dismissed by critics. In fact, its critical dismissal led us to have it out from Netflix for a good three weeks before it finally got watched, and it only finally got watched because my wife decided she didn't need to see it and I should just watch it by myself. The Hughes brothers' apocalypse is farthest in the past -- in fact, the film takes place in the desolate wastelands of America, 30 years after an apocalyptic war that left only Mad Max-style marauders roaming the countryside. The filter they use gives everything a gray, washed-out look that is also crisp enough to jump off the screen, if that's not a contradiction in terms. I knew Denzel Washington played a loner on some kind of mission, though I didn't know what it was -- it turns out he's trying to deliver the only known bible in existence into safe hands, even though most people don't believe there's actually still an enclave of higher learning that exists out there, trying to rebuild the human race.

I thought the fight scenes were pretty good -- shot in silhouette with a minimum of frenetic cuts -- and as with Daybreakers, I enjoyed the little details of the world they created. The film actually reminded me of Children of Men in a couple of thematic ways, even though Alfonso Cuaron's masterpiece is leagues better than this film. But this film ain't half bad, and I saw those outside-the-box decisions that made From Hell so interesting in terms of camera setups, etc. There was one scene that stuck out in particular in this regard, in which the "camera" (I assume it was done digitally) follows bullets back out through the holes they left in a wall, out to the gatling gun that's firing the rounds about 50 feet away, and then swinging back around to look at the house that's rapidly becoming Swiss cheese. Good stuff. There's something of a "twist" at the end that some viewers may find hard to swallow, but it worked well enough for me, especially as a thematic extension of the purpose of Eli's mission.

3) Legion (2010, Scott Stewart). Legion is ranked third in these rankings, but that's only because there aren't more movies to rank. If there were seven pre- or post-apocalyptic films released this January, Legion would probably rank seventh on that list. It's that bad.

And since I already gave some ink to how bad I thought it was here, I'll give it less ink now. Simply put, this is one of those movies where the only interesting images are the ones they put front and center in the trailers, and literally everything else is a boring talking scene that slows the pacing to downright turgid. I thought the idea was somewhat interesting -- an extermination of the human race conducted by angels, repurposed into killing machines by God after he becomes displeased with humanity (think Noah's Ark). But it was handled in the most stupid and haphazard way possible, with humans inexplicably turned into demonic zombies and descending on what may or may not be our last outpost of human survivors, holed up in a diner/gas station in the middle of nowhere. The reason this is the place everyone's interested in is because some thoroughly unlikable waitress in the diner is carrying humanity's savior in her stomach. Why this baby is the key to everything is never revealed. My thinking is that this movie was a collection of what they thought would be interested set pieces -- a grandmother going crazy, biting people and climbing on the ceiling of the diner -- fashioned into some kind of undercooked story. In fact, the story is so undercooked that it would give you salmonella if you tried to take a bite out of it.

What really interests me about these three films is that in many years, they would be positioned for a summer release, either because they have big stars (Denzel Washington), big ideas (all three) and big special effects (all three to varying degrees). Or if not summer, at least in March sometime, when the studios are trying to whet your appetite for the upcoming summer season. The fact that they came in January, which is usually considered to be the dumping grounds for misfires, indicates how the old release rules just don't apply as much as they once did. Even if they thought these movies would be tough sells, or that they did not turn out quite as originally envisioned, they're each juicy enough to potentially earn someone's summer moviegoing dollars. And even though I haven't seen many of the potential tentpole movies that were released this summer, such as The A-Team or Prince of Persia, I have to think that Daybreakers and Eli are better than they are. Maybe it just goes to show: Just as the TV networks are no longer content to take a season off, neither are the studios, and a movie ticket costs the same whether you buy it in January or June. If you can lead a weekend in January when there's no other competition, it's a lot better than trying to fight off June's high-profile releases.

Well, now that I know that two-thirds of the apocalypse movies dumped in January 2010 were pretty good, it gives me some hope for January 2011, when the next film from Michel Gondry (The Green Hornet) is being "dumped" on January 14th. Then again, if the last film from Michel Gondry (Be Kind Rewind) is any indication, maybe that's where The Green Hornet will truly belong.